Tale Two: The Petal of the Rose by LJ Maas

petal by lj

Tale Two: The Petal of the Rose
by LJ Maas

# 2 in the Conqueror Series

Prologue

She stops my wandering hands, feigns jumping up from my lap, then halfheartedly slaps my hands away, telling me I promised to write this evening. With an exasperated sigh, I give up trying to bed her. I was hoping she had forgotten the promise I made only last night.

It is the eve before my wedding. Gods above, I have existed in this mortal realm for forty-five summers and am to be married for the first time in my life, tomorrow at sunset. Talk about a spinster! I have promised her that I will accept the tradition surrounding a royal marriage, meaning that we will spend tonight apart and will not see one another until the ceremony in the Great Hall tomorrow evening. Given the fact that my more carnal nature makes an appearance whenever she is near, I couldn’t help but make an attempt at seducing her when she kissed me goodnight.

Alas, my future Queen is a strong woman with an equally strong will. Frankly, she makes my stubborn, pigheaded nature look tame in comparison. It’s just that my lovely lady is more subtle about it. And so I sit here, quill in hand, to continue on with the promise I gave her several moons back, that I would reveal something of myself for posterity.

I admit, I thought the idea rather inane at first. I am neither bard nor poet. I am far from a masterful historian, having a tendency to remember things in a rather biased manner, mostly how they revolved around me. I do love to read, preferring histories and war stratagems to the flowery writings of Pindar and Ibycus. Philosophers are my favorite. Socrates and Pythagoras could entertain me for days, but it was Plato’s Dialogues, which captured my mind. His knowledge of reality fascinated me. Perhaps that is why I spared his life.

Ironic, how things that happened when I was quite young, appear fresh in my mind so many years later. It was right after I conquered Athens, destroying a majority of the city, mostly because of what Pericles did to my homelands during the Peloponnesian War. I was so foolish in those days, killing to make a point that might have impressed just as strongly without the bloodshed.

Critias and Charmides were the only two I was after that day. They were extremists who I couldn’t afford to let live after I took Athens. It was unfortunate that Socrates was so closely involved with them. I had to execute all three. I remember when they brought Plato, Socrates disciple, before me. I was rather impressed with the young man, and believe me, you had to be quite extraordinary to do that in those days. He was from a good family, even served in the Cavalry for his military service. I found his views on life in general to be refreshing and inventive. Perhaps it was the mere fact that he shared his bed with men and not women that caused us to get along so well. There was no sexual tension between the two of us and I think that, and the man’s uncommonly quick wit, were what saved his neck that day. He started an academy after Athens was rebuilt. I have often received invitations to visit him, but I have never gone. It hurts too much to go back to that place where I destroyed so much. Perhaps she would wish to go. Gods, I know she would be in Elysium to enter that academy and speak with one of the greatest philosophers Greece has ever known. I’ll keep that in mind, since there are so many places I wish to show her.

Well, I’ve let my memories of the past carry me away, but that is what she had in mind when she thrust the quill in my hand for very first time. I sit here and smile when I think of the engaging way she had of coercing me into doing something I would have done for her anyway.

“Xena?”

“Mmm?”

“Xena?” Gabrielle’s voice came at me louder this time.

I knew she was waiting for me to raise my eyes from the scroll I was reading. She detested talking to the top of my head, bent over a scroll as I was during our morning meal. Usually this time of the day I gave to my Consort, but I had a full day of hearings to preside over and I was trying to stay caught up.

“I can read and listen at the same time, little one,” I responded, finally lifting my face to gaze into the intelligent green eyes across from me.

“I know,” she smiled, “but I like looking into your beautiful face.”

I feel the beginnings of a blush creeping up my neck and offer her a crooked smile in return. Her forward comment flusters me. She knows what it does to me when she says things like that. Of course, I think that’s why she says them half the time. I set my scrolls aside and take her hand in mine from across the table.

“All right, my love, now that you have my beautiful attention, what may I do for you?”

“When you say it like that I think you might do anything for me,” she replied coyly. I didn’t yet realize the danger I was in.

“I would,” I answered without hesitation.

“I’d like for you to write down your thoughts, a sort of a history of your life,” she said softly in halting tones.

“No,” I still smiled.

“But you just said–”

“I lied, pick something else. Some new gowns…”

“Xena…”

“Some new scrolls, perhaps a case to carry them in…”

“Xena…” she said softer, in more of a whispering tone.

“Maybe a horse of your very own…you wanted to learn to ride…” I trailed off, looking into eyes that appeared as if they might cry at any moment. Gods, she’s good!

She sat there, her delicate hand within my own, a small, childlike expression on her face. She didn’t have to say another word, we both knew who was going to win this argument.

“Oh, okay,” I relented.

So, as a fearsome battle, it was slightly on the tame side, but it is an example of what I see for my future as a married woman. She has the ability to cause me to feel so much, a sensation that is new for me. Whether in our bed or a seated beside me at a formal dinner, she instills feelings of love and desire, family and home. I find that I had been looking for her all my life and never even knew it, and now that I have her beside me, I won’t ever take a chance on losing her.

I have said it before, but the words were never truer than at this moment. The story of the Conqueror does not begin until she steps into the tale. For, the tale of the Conqueror cannot accurately be told without the telling of Gabrielle.
Chapter 1: “Where I Left Off, Let Me Again Begin”

“Xena…are you all right, love?”

Gabrielle found me in the outer room, peering out the window, down into the garden.

“Yes, love,” I answered distractedly.

She slipped her arm around my waist and I realized my head was elsewhere. “I’m sorry, my brain is fixed on something else this morning.”

“I can see that by the frown,” Gabrielle answered, reaching up on her toes to place a kiss on my cheek.

I admit, that did make me feel better and my smile told her so.

“Why are you frowning and why so early?”

“It has nothing to do with us, my love.” I kissed her forehead and pulled her against me tighter. “We have a visitor.” I pulled back the tapestry to reveal a young man pacing in the garden below.

He walked back and forth, sat on a bench for a few heartbeats, and then bounced up again as if by simply sitting still he could not possibly contain so much energy. He was tall, with a slim waist, and broad shoulders. His long dark hair fell down into his eyes and when he tossed his head back, he revealed sparkling blue eyes. Most would guess him to be nineteen or twenty, but I knew that he was twenty-three summers; in fact, I remembered the day he was born with startling clarity.

Gabrielle looked at the man, then back at me, and I knew she was wondering.

“Xena…do you know that young man?” she finally asked.

I smiled down at her, letting the tapestry fall to cover the window once again.

“Yes,” I answered. “He’s my son.”

“I wondered as much,” she replied. “The resemblance is amazing.”

I had to continue smiling; nothing ever appeared to affect my lover. I should be smiling simply because this is very nearly the first time that I’ve thought of Gabrielle as my lover, my future Queen, as opposed to referring to her as my slave. Even in my thoughts, she was always a slave, but no longer.

I felt her hand on my forearm, rousing me from my introspection.

“Xena, I wasn’t aware that you had a son.”

“That was the plan,” I answered cryptically. I turned away from the window and back to Gabrielle. “I’m sorry, love, I don’t mean to hide this from you, but I’m rather taken back at this turn of events myself. I never expected for him to show up on my doorstep.”

“I know, you’ll tell me when you’re ready,” Gabrielle responded patiently.

I smiled and brought her hand to my lips, kissing her upturned palm. “I’m going to go down and meet with him. Why don’t you dress and come down when you’re ready? I promise, later when we’re alone, I’ll explain everything to you.”

Gabrielle nodded and I moved toward the door. Turning to face her once again, I left her with one last thought, thinking at the time that it was rather unfair of me.

“Gabrielle, one more thing. Solan doesn’t know he’s my son and I am honor bound to keep it that way.” I turned and walked through the doorway before Gabrielle’s confused expression forced me to stay and explain.

* * * * * * * * * *

The rose garden seemed a much too cheery place to meet with someone, even when that someone was my only child. I had no earthly idea why Solan would appear unannounced. Was it personal or perhaps an official request from Kaleipus? Centaurs! Men are men; no matter how many legs they have, showing up unexpectedly. I hadn’t been to the Centaur Nation in nearly fifteen summers. Oh, I’d been in the area on one campaign or another, but there was one thing that always held me back from visiting…I was afraid.

The spring that Solan turned eight, a messenger arrived in Corinth, bearing a letter from Kaleipus. He spoke of many things, but first and foremost, he told me of my son. Up to that point, I was determined to act as if I never had a child. Some days it worked, others it didn’t. The days turned into seasons and since conquering the Known World consumed most of my time, pushing it from my mind became considerably easier. Kaleipus explained in that letter that it was time for the two of us to give up our feud. At that time, I had the power I desired and had given up looking for stones and icons that witches and sorceresses promised would bring me the world. By then, I was well on my way to possessing it.

Still, the things Kaleipus said brought me up short. Even though I was the Lord Conqueror, the centaur once promised that should I ever attempt to come for Solan, the entire Centaur Nation would rise up against me. Now, Kaleipus was telling me it might be good for me to get to know the boy. I never had a thought to try taking my son, not because I feared a good battle, but because I knew the truth. Solan would never grow up into a fine and honorable young man raised as my son. If I could protect him from my enemies, and he lived long enough, he would grow to be me. I wouldn’t pronounce that sentence on my most hated enemy, let alone my own son.

Therefore, I returned Kaleipus’s letter, acknowledging his generosity, but declining the offer. We exchanged many letters that season until I finally relented, agreeing to a trip to their Village near the border of the Amazon Territory, another of my least favorite places. I consented only to the trip and, I admit, my own curiosity as to what Solan was like. I believe Kaleipus was willing at that time to tell Solan the truth, although it pained him. He had raised the boy as his own son, and even though he tried to conceal it, I could see the anguish in his face. I gained a newfound respect for the centaur that day.

If I had let myself that day, I would have taken Solan in my arms and never let go, but the time for that had already passed. He was intelligent, good looking and athletic, all the things I was at his age. In addition, he was just as angry as I. He lived with a perpetual chip on his soldier, just as I had. He had been told all his life that Borias, his father, was a friend and a hero to the centaurs. The whispers he came to know, as he grew older, informed him that the Conqueror had killed his parents. In truth, I did. I killed Borias that night as surely as if I had beaten him and plunged the blade into his back myself. I put to death Solan’s mother on the night I handed my baby over to Kaleipus, to raise as his own. Needless to say, any affection that might have existed between the boy and I during that meeting was entirely one sided.

I at least saw him, and from that point on, I sent monies and gifts to Kaleipus for the boy. I should have just moved on and forgotten the child I bore, yet gave up claim to, but something inside me wouldn’t allow me. Solan became our common ground. The creature I considered an enemy, soon became an ally, if not actually a friend. Kaleipus and I spoke often throughout the seasons, but I never returned to the Centaur Village, nor ever saw Solan again. He grew up, and while still holding some enmity towards me for the rumors he had been told, Kaleipus explained that he finally convinced the young man that I was a friend to his parents, not the monster imagined.

The sound of one of my palace guards clearing his throat broke me free from my musings of the past. Seated on the comfortable chair that served as my throne, I deliberately refused to rise as the guard led Solan into the Great Hall. Since I didn’t know the nature of his visit, I elected to receive him as the Conqueror, not as his father’s friend.

“Lord Conqueror,” Solan bowed awkwardly.

I acknowledged him with a nod of my head, noting the stiffness of his posture. My observant nature led me to learn so much more about my enemy than they knew of me. I enjoyed watching people and at an early age, I realized it was almost uncanny, the way I could predict a man’s future actions by watching him so intently in the present. What I discovered when I watched Solan was that he wasn’t a man who bowed often, nor liked doing it. I watched the way he held himself in my presence, his stance, his eyes, what he did with his hands. All the gestures and subtle movements told me what kind of a man my son had grown to be, all without him yet uttering a word. It was unfortunate that I was usually right because it appeared that the boy had become an arrogant little prig.

“My name is So–”

“I know who you are,” I interrupted. “Now tell me something I don’t know.”

I decided to play the game, realizing with more glee than was probably necessary that I had the opportunity to take this young pup down a peg. He handed me a scroll, sealed with the familiar ring of cedar bark that Kaleipus always used.

“I come as an emissary of the Centaur Nation,” he said, offering the parchment in his outstretched hand.

Ahh, the psychology of power, I grinned from ear to ear inside my own mind. It had been far too long since I’d had anyone to enjoy a good bit of one-upsmanship with in this palace. I don’t count Gabrielle; she does it to me on too much of a regular basis. I think I was actually becoming excited at the prospect.

Solan held out the parchment, just far enough away where I would have to either rise or at least lean out of my seat to grab for it. I did neither, sitting there with my elbows on the arm of the chair, my hands coming together until just the fingertips touched. I arched one single eyebrow at the young man and the fixed smile on his face slipped a tad. He moved quickly to close the distance between us, seeing to it that the scroll was placed directly within my hands. I suspect he didn’t expect to be caught in his little sport, and so blanched slightly at the thought that I knew his game and what he was up to. Hades! How could I not know what he was up to…the boy was I at his age!

I ignored him as I tore open the seal, reading the letter from Kaleipus. I admired the way he stood there, waiting rather patiently. He had more diplomacy than I had, but when I was twenty-three, the world was a different place.

I thought I’d lost my mind as I read Kaleipus’s words; either that or the centaur had lost command of his own faculties. Oh, Kaleipus…no, no, no… I read on, trying to avoid letting my growing fear and agitation seep through to my face as any kind of an expression Solan might decipher.

Greetings, Lord Conqueror.

Xena, my friend, for after all this time I feel that you are a friend indeed, the time has come for me to ask of you what you asked of me so long ago. Solan has come to a point in his life where he has learned all that I might teach him. To rule the Centaur Nation is certainly within his right as my adopted heir, but as always, that hinges somewhat on your decisions in regards to the boy.

Xena, Solan is your son, and, try as we both will, nothing can change that. He becomes more and more like you everyday. This, in part, fuels my decision. As to whether you ever decide to tell Solan that you are his mother, I will leave it in your hands. Know only that I will support any decision that you make. Your heart has always erred toward the side of good where Solan was involved. My concern is that he has turned into a young man who commands, never asks. He expects, where he should receive gratefully. I have no explanation for his behavior and wonder if it isn’t something inherent. Between you and I, old friend, he has become an arrogant prig!

I ask that you allow Solan to live with you for a time, learning what he can from someone I consider to be, not only the greatest warrior I have ever fought alongside, but also a ruler who can be proud of what she has accomplished for her homeland.

You have changed much over these last few seasons, Xena, all for the better. I think Solan could do much worse than to emulate you. My wish is that you might sometime reveal your true identity to him, but that is for you to decide. I would ask only that you teach him by example, show him that people can change.

Your friend & warrior always,

Kaleipus
“Do you know what the scroll contains?” I looked up and asked.

“I was not privy to it, no, Lord Conqueror.”

“But, you have an inkling. You must have been told something regarding your trip here.”

“Kaleipus told me of his desire for me to learn how to become a better ruler,” he smirked. “I took that to mean he thought I might be able to learn a few things from you.”

“I take it you feel you need no instruction in this area,” I commented.

He shrugged his shoulders. “No disrespect intended, Conqueror, but if you are placed in charge, the people are forced to obey you.”

“And you see no problem with this?”

“None that can’t be put down at the end of a sword,” he responded.

Gods, Kaleipus what have you done to me!

“Perhaps I see what Kaleipus wishes that you learn. Solan, there are two kinds of complicity in regards to a ruler’s subjects. They will obey out of fear or they will obey out of respect.”

I rose and walked across the room, turning my back on the young man, knowing I just made the decision I probably should have discussed with Gabrielle first. I continued to gaze out the window into the sunny courtyard, smiling at the children who no longer felt fearful about playing in front of the castle.

“Make no mistake about it, people who are forced to comply with a ruler’s wishes and demands, at the point of a soldier’s blade, do not respect you. Their obedience is simply a fearful acknowledgement that your strength is greater than theirs is. Trust me, I learned that lesson the hard way.” I finished, speaking almost to myself.

“I do agree with Kaleipus, however,” Solan admitted. “I welcome the chance to study under your tutelage, Lord Conqueror.”

“Is that so?” I turned and arched an eyebrow in his direction.

“Absolutely. If nothing else, I welcome the opportunity to test my fighting ability against the greatest warrior the Greek Empire has ever known.”

His hand unconsciously rested upon the hilt of his sword. I believe he sought to flatter me, but he couldn’t hide the presumptuous tone from his voice. His intent was clear. He wished to test himself against my ability, not learn from me. His words told me he thought he was already as good as I. I guarantee you, my son; your eyes haven’t seen what mine have.

“And you think you’re up to that challenge, do you?” I asked, my smile indicating it was a rhetorical question.

His eyes glanced quickly down to the sword on my hip. The morning sun shone through the open-air windows and gleamed brightly off the ornately fashioned Lion’s head on the hilt. His glance was quick, but I saw the envy in his eyes before he had time to draw his gaze away again. Now I had only to figure out if he was willing to back up that coveting look with hard work. Many men looked at my symbol, the Lion of Amphipolis, and wished it for their own. Most possessed only envy. I wondered if Solan was willing to make the crucial sacrifices, mainly the effort necessary, to attain it.

“Very well then, young pup,” I said aloud, much to Solan’s displeasure. “I shall send a letter to Kaleipus and explain that you will be staying here in Corinth, but make no mistake, I am a hard mentor. I will expect you to do exactly what I say, when I say it. You are not to interfere or voice your opinions unless asked for. You are simply to listen, watch, and obey. Agreed?”

It was obvious he was warring with himself over the answer. I silently applauded as his desire to learn from the woman known to him only as the Conqueror, took precedence over his proud and unbending nature.

“Agreed,” he said between clenched teeth.

I chuckled and turned away from him. “Try not to make it sound as if you’re being condemned.” I at least got a little smile out of him this time.

“Gabrielle will be here shortly, I’d like you to meet the lady of the castle,” I said, unsure of how much detail to go into upon their first meeting.

“Ahh, yes,” he answered. “I heard that you have a concubine sharing your bed. And most talented in that arena I heard, too,” he grinned.

I turned to face him and I could tell by the way he swallowed and his faced paled slightly that he noticed the expression on my face. It was apparent he was just realizing he’s made some dreadful mistake, and he had. I walked up to him slowly and to his credit, he only backed up a half a step.

“I will say this once, Solan, and only once, and if you forget it, I’m sure your mind can imagine what I will do to a man if I have to say it a second time. Gabrielle is a lady, free born. She is my Consort and, after our marriage, will be Queen of the Greek Empire. She is to be treated with the utmost respect. She possesses a dignity and grace, something she has managed to keep after all she has suffered, that the likes of you and I shall never realize. Have I made myself clear?”

He nodded for a few heartbeats, until he could find his voice, I’m sure. The matter proved that I had a long road ahead of me, for my first instinct was to loose the beast I felt clawing at my belly, and beat the stuffing out of the insolent boy. The voice I heard next, however, suddenly caused the monster in me to dissipate into nothingness.

“My Lord?”

I turned to find Gabrielle, looking lovely, as I knew she would. She was nervous and afraid of this meeting, and I could see it in her eyes. She held herself like the Queen she would soon be, however. I smiled at her, a natural reaction when she came into view, and I saw some of the tension leave her body. I took a deep breath, walked over to her, and kissed her lightly on the cheek.

“Gabrielle,” I took her hand, but stood where we were. “May I introduce, Solan, an emissary from the Centaur Nation. He will be staying in our home for a time, with your permission, of course.”

I turned and bowed my head slightly to her, a smile on my face. Gabrielle looked as flustered as Solan, but for a different reason. She fielded my query with her customary grace and returned the teasing smile.

“Of course,” she repeated.

Gabrielle tried to move her body forward to greet the young man, who, in truth, was two summers older than she was, but I held her in place with an unseen squeeze of her hand. Solan quickly realized what was expected and nearly tripped over himself in order to step up to the small woman. He not only bowed this time, but also took the hand Gabrielle offered and raised it to his lips for a well-mannered kiss.

“Lady Gabrielle,” he said.

“It would be a pleasure to have you stay with us, Solan.”

I could see the two of them, examining one another while trying to appear as though they were not. It was like looking into a mirror, watching Solan, and I wondered how many other traits, beyond the physical, could be inherent. Gabrielle…well, I simply knew what she was thinking most of the time because it was as if she had become an extension of myself. I can explain it no better than that. What I couldn’t ascertain was what they were thinking about one another. My best guess was that Gabrielle was naturally curious about the young man I called my son. I wondered if she saw the similarities between the boy and I as readily as I did.

Solan was another matter. Although I was an excellent student of human nature and the behavior of men, I had no way of knowing what he was thinking at that moment. I did remember, however, the condescending, almost leering, tone in his voice when he initially called Gabrielle my concubine. I wondered again, how many of my appetites the boy acquired through blood alone. Unfortunately, my impression of Solan was that he thought himself superior to those around him.

I listened as he and Gabrielle exchanged a few pleasantries. It was obvious to me that he looked down on her and I simply hoped that Gabrielle didn’t pick up the same feeling. Part of me didn’t want to see the woman I love suffer any hurt, physical or emotional. There was a part of me that was humiliated. I spent so much time trying to protect Gabrielle from the person I used to be, thanking Athena daily for waiting until this point in my life to bring Gabrielle into it. After all that, here was my child, using the same callous and unfeeling manners that I used to possess.

“Perhaps a special dinner, in honor of Solan? Xena?”

“Yes…yes, a very good idea,” I squeezed Gabrielle’s hand. I just now realized I had been holding on to it all this time. Perhaps I needed strength just as she did. “I think Delia would love the excuse to prepare us a feast.”

“Shall I arrange it, then?” she asked.

I smiled broadly. My future bride was quite an actress, but then again, the life she led before we met required it. This was the first time Gabrielle and I really worked as a team, welcoming someone. I’m sure she was still wondering what she was supposed to do, as the Lady of this palace, and what would be considered overstepping her sudden and newfound authority.

“Absolutely,” I answered. “If you will speak to Delia, I’ll give Solan a small tour of the palace and arrange for his rooms.”

Just like that, our first meeting was over and none of us keeled over in death. It may have been strained, but not altogether unpleasant. Gabrielle gained a bit of confidence, I kept my temper from controlling me, and Solan, well, Solan was a young man with a lot of habits and ways I had every intention of removing, if I could. There was something more in his eyes, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It was the way in which he looked at me. There was more there, lying just beneath the surface, but it could have been my own unease at looking into eyes the color of my own. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Solan harbored a secret of his own.
Chapter 2: “Whether by Accident or Destiny”
I stood silently in the corridor remembering the last time I had been looking for Gabrielle here. It was the very first day she arrived in my palace and I had to go searching for her myself. I shook my head, the emotions I was feeling on that day coming back to me. Thinking my then slave had let herself be wooed by another, my anger stole my reason. I remember thinking that I would kill Gabrielle if I found her in the arms of another. Gods, it’s been only a matter of moons, yet it feels as if that day were ages past. Have I really fallen in love and made something different of myself in this short a time? Am I the person who beat, killed, and maimed for sport? Xena the Conqueror…was that woman truly I?

As it turned out, today I found Gabrielle seated in much the same place as when I found her back then, beside a fireplace in Delia’s kitchen. She looked even younger than her years, sitting on a stool, her hands placed idly in her lap. Her golden hair hung loose about her shoulders and her green eyes looked like bits of molten amber as they reflected the flames from the fire before her.

I knew it was wrong, to eavesdrop in such a way. Well, it seems I have not become the perfect woman overnight, for I couldn’t resist. Gabrielle and I spoke, but forthrightness was something we both would need to work at. I was always careful of revealing too much and, like Gabrielle, simply didn’t know how. That is to say, living the life of a slave for the last ten summers caused speechlessness to become habit for my young lover. My excuse was a little more complicated, well, perhaps not complicated at all. It was rather simple after all. I was terrified, that is the only reason for it.

I remember a day when all I feared was that someone stronger than myself might someday come along and take what was mine. Now, especially now that I have Gabrielle, I fear so much. My terrors, should I name them all, would be greater in number than the stars in the night sky. Therefore, I say all this in a completely pathetic attempt at justifying my next actions. I slipped behind a wall of barrels full of honeyed mead and proceeded to watch and listen to all that my future wife and cook said.

“Are you sure it’s no imposition, Delia?” Gabrielle asked.

“Of course not, child. There is nothing I like better than planning a good party!” the older woman exclaimed with a wink. “So, tell me, why all the fuss for this young man?”

“Because he’s–” Gabrielle stopped abruptly. “Well, because he is a dignitary from the Centaur Nation.”

Gabrielle lowered her head quickly, so quickly, in fact, that she missed the tiny smile that pulled at the corners of the older woman’s lips. I could tell that Delia knew Gabrielle well enough to see the young woman was hiding something about the boy’s identity. I wondered, with a smile, how long it would take my lover to admit the truth. I would honestly harbor no ill will toward Gabrielle for giving the information up to Delia. This old woman knew more about me than even my Captain, Atrius did. Besides, Delia was smarter than most, I didn’t think it would take her long to catch on. I had no fear that those who knew me for a woman and a person, might come to the conclusion that Solan was indeed my son, but also that those who knew me simply as the Conqueror would never guess this rumor to be fact.

“Admit it, Gabrielle, he’s more than that. Isn’t he?” Delia prodded.

Gabrielle looked up at the cook, concerned written across her face. “I can’t say, Delia. Please don’t ask me again.”

That comment surprised me. I began to see at that moment that although appearing quite honest and innocent, Gabrielle was in truth a young woman capable of stilling her tongue when necessary. A feeling not unlike pride came over me, thinking of a future with a partner in whom I could well and truly trust.

Delia looked at Gabrielle intently for a moment, I’m sure catching the serious expression on Gabrielle’s features and the pleading tone in her voice.

“All right, dear. He’s rather good looking, though. I saw him in the courtyard this morning. Tall, strong, piercing blue eyes…why of I didn’t know better I might be tempted to say he was–”

Gods that woman is good! I watched as Delia and Gabrielle both raised their heads to stare at one another. Some unspoken communication must have been passed, for by the time I blinked, they each turned their heads, lost in their own thoughts. I swear by Hades, it must have been one of those woman things. Perhaps it was the kind of odd telepathy that women seem to have the ability to share, but in which I have always been lacking. Too much of the warrior in me I suspect.

“I see…how very…intriguing,” Delia said, obviously caught by her own lack of response. She stood there, pensive and seemingly lost in thought for a few heartbeats before returning to her chopping table. “It fits, I must say. It rather seems like something she would do,” Delia finished saying with a confident nod of her head.

Gabrielle said nothing during my friend’s apparently private musing. The young blonde turned in her seat toward the table, which, as fortune would have it, faced in my direction. Gabrielle pulled a bowl closer to her and absently began shelling peas.

“So, what do you think of this young man?” Delia asked.

“Oh, Delia, he’s a selfish, spoiled brat!” Gabrielle blurted out.

I practically had to put a hand over my mouth to prevent a burst of sudden laughter from escaping my lips. My young lover was extremely perceptive and I was glad to see that her discernment of people hadn’t waned any in the time she’d been with me. Delia laughed loudly, covering any noise I may have made.

“Well, he certainly seems to be his mother’s child then, doesn’t he?”

“But she changed…” Gabrielle’s face instantly turned serious.

Delia smiled at the young woman. “You love her very much, don’t you, Gabrielle?”

If I live to be a thousand, I think I shall never forget the look on her face at that moment. The look of complete and utter love and devotion that shone forth from Gabrielle’s eyes caused my heart to constrict tightly within my chest.

“Yes, I do. I never would have thought it possible to feel this way, that I could feel this way about anyone, let alone the Conqueror of the Known World.”

“I’m sure Xena feels the same sense of awe that you’re feeling.”

“Do you really think so, Delia?” Gabrielle turned her head quickly to look at the older woman.

“Do you have any doubt?” Delia sounded rather incredulous.

“Well…I…no, but…”

“From the sounds than emanate from your rooms at all times of the day and night, I should think not!” Delia replied flippantly.

Gabrielle quickly lowered her head to stare at the table, her cheeks turning pink. As I have done on other occasions, I watched as the delicate flush to her cheeks spread. I am always dumbfounded that a woman who has spent half her life pleasing men and women with her body could blush at the mere mention of what she and I do in our bedchamber. I suppose, it is simply one of the many charms that endears Gabrielle to me.

“But…what we do…the physical pleasure…that’s not really all there is to love,” Gabrielle stammered.

“No, it’s not.” Delia answered. “Then again, it’s not the only reason you love her, is it?”

Gabrielle’s smile returned. “No,” she shook her head. “It’s so much more, I can hardly contain it all, yet I can barely explain it.”

“I know for a fact that she feels the same.”

“Are you certain of it?” Gabrielle asked again.

I felt a certain amount of sadness at Gabrielle’s response. Through deeds or words, had I allowed Gabrielle to think that my love for her was simply for that of a talented lover? Doesn’t she realize yet what she truly means to me, what this relationship means? This was all so knew for me. I was still unsure of how to reveal much of what I felt, still fearful of the slightest rejection. I needed to find a way to express to Gabrielle, some way to show her all that I felt for her in my heart.

“Gabrielle, have you never voiced these concerns to Xena?” Delia asked.

“No,” Gabrielle answered softly. “She would think I was being childish, or too insecure, or she would think–”

Delia interrupted, tilting the young woman’s chin up to see her. “She would think that you love her enough to want to ensure that the two of you have a happy life together.”

“I’m acting foolish, aren’t I?” Gabrielle asked with an embarrassed grin.

“Let’s just say you’re acting as if you were in love, I think that encompasses it all. Now go on with you, if I’m to arrange a banquet by tomorrow evening, I need time to prepare. You may be the future Queen, but today you’re simply a young woman in my kitchen!” Delia waved a giggling Gabrielle from the room.

I stood there for a while longer, my back against the wall, enjoying the last lingering echoes of Gabrielle’s laughter. The girl was a treasure to be sure and I wanted to do my best to ease any lasting doubts she still had that I would love her forever.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was late afternoon by the time I returned to our private rooms. I needed to think, and I did that best from the saddle of a horse. I let Tenorio make free with the bit and the large, black stallion enjoyed every moment of his freedom. We were pounding through the surf of the gulf in no time at all and I was not at all certain which one of us truly enjoyed the romp more. Now, covered as I was in salt, sweat, and mud, smelling of the stables, Gabrielle had only to take one look at me to know of my whereabouts.

“I wondered where you where,” she said as she walked toward me.

Reaching up on her toes, she kissed me. I wrapped one arm around her waist, pressing her body against mine and deepening the kiss. “Mmmm,” I said, finally pulling away for air. “If I’d know this was going to be my reception I would have hurried home much sooner.”

“You need a bath, my Conqueror,” Gabrielle replied, wrinkling her nose as she grinned.

“Funny,” I said, pushing her at arm’s length. The front of her dress was covered in the mud from my own clothes. “But you do too.”

“Hmmm, that worked well for you, didn’t it?” Green eyes sparkled.

“Yes, but now I’m wondering who planned it this way. You or I?”

“That, dear Conqueror, is a question you will have to answer for yourself.”

Gabrielle broke away, but not before kissing me teasingly. She headed for the bathing chamber, quickly going to a state of undress as I watched her shapely backside disappear into the other room. I laughed and began to rapidly toss off my own garments. I had a feeling that with this woman around that was one question I was never going to be able to answer.

* * * * * * * * * *

After a hot bath, which was equal parts washing and playful splashing, and a warm meal, Gabrielle and I were quite content to lie about for the rest of the evening. Dressed only in our robes, we kept ourselves warm by stretching out atop a pile of soft furs placed before the fireplace. The fire, a small amount of wine, and Gabrielle’s body were enough to lull me into a dreamy state of relaxation.

I lay with my head in Gabrielle’s lap, her fingers slowly massaging the back of my neck, slipping through my dark hair, the fingertips coming to rest gently along my temple. She repeated the procedure until I felt my body, as well as my mind, as if it were floating on a cloud of pleasure. My mind never stopped working during this time and the easy state my body was in encouraged me to speak up to Gabrielle. Her earlier, overheard conversation with Delia was still running through my mind. I must not have been the only one with heavy thoughts on my mind, for I heard Gabrielle’s voice in unison with mine.

“Gabrielle?”

“Xena?”

We both chuckled and, of course, insisted the other begin.

“Please, you first,” I managed to persuade her.

“I…I just…tell me about Solan?” Gabrielle stammered out the question.

Her halting manner caused me to wonder if that was truly the question, she was preparing to ask. I had promised her, however, so I continued to lie in her arms, a place I felt most secure by the way, and began to tell her of my life at that time.

I told Gabrielle of Xena, the Warlord, and of my quest for power. I know she read most of the scrolls in my office, some many times over, but I also knew that the writings about my life told nothing of me, only my actions. They neither described what I felt at the time or my motivations for all that occurred. In fact, Gabrielle was to be the first person to learn what made a Conqueror. Not from the outside, by writing down my every move, but by writing the words that best described all that I thought and felt in those early years.

I told her that my search for power led me toward a witch named Alti and how she used me for her own gain, yet saw in her visions my destiny. It was Alti who foretold that I would become the Destroyer of Nations and for a price, she promised she could bring that future about. When I told Gabrielle that Alti had only one price, I am quite certain that my young lover never expected me to say, blood. So much blood, and from so many.

I explained that I still had a conscience back then. Oh, I still did what the witch asked, even demanded, but at night, I began to have nightmares. The Amazons…especially the Amazons, but I didn’t tell Gabrielle about them. To this day, I couldn’t bear to say the words aloud. I destroyed, and I killed, and I took…everything. Anyone or anything that stood in my path, between my manifest destiny, and me, I crushed beneath my feet.

I spoke of the battle at Corinth between the armies under my command and the Centaurs. I needed to possess the Ixion stone, a treasured icon, to complete Alti’s prophecy. I explained about Borias and how I found myself pregnant with Solan. It was at this point in my story that I could feel my heart growing heavier. I often wondered what would have happened on that day had I given up my quest just a day sooner, what my life would have been like if Borias had lived. It was not to have been and speculation was pointless.

I felt Gabrielle’s body grow tense and paused in my tale. I closed my eyes and waited. How would I feel if Gabrielle was telling me the tale of her life with another lover? I took a deep breath and felt the same jealousy course through me, as she must be experiencing now. She had the right to ask and I waited to give her that opportunity.

“Were you in love with him?” Gabrielle asked.

I patiently explained that I never loved Borias and upon closer inspection and a little hindsight, his feelings for me were just as misguided. What kind of a man could have loved me back then? I was a ruthless, possessed, murderer. If Borias truly did love something about that woman, he wasn’t seeing the real me. She was in there, but it would take many more seasons for her to emerge.

I continued my story, telling of my dealings with the Centaurs, what I knew at the time regarding the death of Borias, and finally of Solan.

“I remember walking into that clearing as if it happened this morning, Kaleipus standing there, ready to cut me down at the slightest provocation. I remember thinking in the back of my mind; I wonder if he’ll kill me and if he does, if he’ll kill my child too? I still had a lot of bleeding and cramps despite the santra flower that Satrina gave me, so I was a little wobbly on my feet, plus I’d just finished feeding Solan and my breasts were sore and ached when the cloth of my tunic rubbed across my chest.”

Suddenly I realized that tears were streaming from my eyes as I held my head in Gabrielle’s lap. Her hands wiped the tears away and brushed back the hair that fell across my face. My lover’s soothing and tender touch simply bid the tears come that much harder. I choked on the words as I finished telling her what happened in that clearing.

Stop there, Xena!

You got my message. I just want to talk to you.

As you did before when you tried to kill me? It doesn’t matter; you won’t get the Ixion Stone. Borias, the friend of the Centaurs, has told us everything. We found his body in your camp, but his legend will live forever with our people.

Take this child. He’s my son…the son of Borias. If he stays with me, he’ll become a target for all those who hate me…he’ll learn things that a child shouldn’t know. He’ll become like…me. Please…

The son of Borias shall be raised as my own…
“I hadn’t cried in seasons…not since I was a child, but I cried when I walked away from that clearing. I cried for something that I would have ruined or gotten killed in no time at all. I found that so unsettling. The oddest thing was, when I left, I could feel the pulling sensation at my breast, as if he were still feeding. I suppose you think that’s such a stupid thing to say,” I choked completely on those last words and felt Gabrielle’s hold on me tighten. It was then that my body decided to revolt and I began to cry in earnest, unable to stop the sobs that wracked my body.

I felt like I cried for days, when in truth perhaps two candlemarks passed. I felt empty in a way, but surprisingly better. This was perhaps the most ridiculous question I would ever ask Gabrielle, but I had to risk looking like a fool to ask her why that was. She kissed me and held me tighter and I sank back into her deceivingly strong embrace.

“Xena, you’ve been carrying that inside of you, never telling a soul, at least not in the way you just told me, for over twenty seasons. Saying the words aloud is a form of letting go, crying for our past is a way to release it.”

I turned in her arms and looked up into forest green eyes. Gabrielle kissed my forehead and pushed the sweat-dampened hair from my face.

“People think that it’s so much easier to stay quiet about things, that they’re being strong in their silence. They don’t realize that it takes so much more strength to let go of their pain than it does to hold on to it. You’ve harbored that pain within you so long that it almost seemed normal, or natural, to live with it. Now that the pain is free, your heart is remembering what it felt like to be without it. It’s remembering that it felt much better.

I reached up to stroke her cheek with my fingertips. “How did you become so wise, so loving after all you’ve been through?”

She offered up a bittersweet smile through her tears. “Athena never gave me more than I could bear at one time. She sprinkled the seasons with people who actually cared about me, people who offered friendship. Why are you crying again, love?” Gabrielle asked as a renewed flood of tears spilled onto my cheeks.

“You’ve had so little in your life…”

“But I have so much right now,” she smiled back at me, which I admit, caused me to smile in return.

“Do you, Gabrielle? All of this,” I darted my eyes around the room, “is this what you want, am I what you want?”

“Oh, Xena,” Gabrielle took my face in both her hands and kissed me deeply. “You’re not just what I want, you’re what I’ve dreamed of.”

She took hold of my hands in her own and squeezed tightly. “Am I who you want, Xena…to truly love forever? I know that you’ve loved so many times before me…”

Without looking up, I took hold of one of Gabrielle’s small hands and brought it to my lips. I gently kissed the palm and held her fingers against my cheek. I felt as much adrenaline pumping through my veins as if I were preparing for battle. I swallowed and took a deep breath. “You are all that I will ever want. I never knew how to love anyone before you came into my life, Gabrielle.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“You’re so quiet now. Are you sure you feel better?” Gabrielle asked.

How could I tell her that I felt a fool? Would she think less of me for being human and not the Conqueror? I had to start getting better at this; I simply had to. I mentally gritted my teeth and waded in.

“I feel the fool,” I admitted.

Gabrielle looked genuinely surprised. “You feel foolish for revealing your feelings to me?”

“Well…I…it makes me feel weak,” I muttered inaudibly.

“What?”

“Weak,” I answered loudly. “It makes me feel…weak.”

“Xena,” Gabrielle said moving to sit upright. “You are the strongest woman the world has ever known.”

“Yes, but they don’t see me as you do. I don’t let them see me…vulnerable.”

“But you let me see you that way. From the very first you did.”

“I know, and I still don’t know why. Except that I felt from the very beginning that you would never use it against me, never hurt me. Others…people will use what they know of you, Gabrielle. They’ll use your words or your secrets to hurt or destroy you. I suppose that’s why secrecy is so second nature with me.”

Gabrielle leaned in again as I sat beside her and kissed my cheek. “You don’t have to keep secrets any more, Xena. I promise I’ll never let anyone hurt you.”

She looked so sincere, even dedicated in her goal that I couldn’t help but smile. Those few spoken words and suddenly my worry disappeared and the ache in my heart was gone. This small girl was going to protect the Conqueror of the known world. It amused me, yet touched me deeply.

“You will protect me, eh?” I grinned at her.

She looked at me with a sheepish expression, realizing now how her statement sounded. It didn’t detract from her intent however, especially to my heart.

“I’ll remember to stand behind you next time, little one.” I grinned.

“I could protect you if you showed me how to use a weapon,” she blurted out next.

“If I what?” I said quite a bit louder.

“Well, I just thought that–”

“And what sort of a weapon would you learn, were I so inclined to instruct you?” I interrupted.

It suddenly occurred to me that Gabrielle was changing in just as many ways as I was and being a strong woman myself, I had no desire for my future mate to be the kind of a person who was helpless in the face of danger. I don’t know why this thought struck me the way it did, but there you have it.

“I–I don’t know. Xena, what kinds of weapons are there?” Gabrielle asked in earnest.

I laughed long and loud, wrapping my arms around the small woman. “I am not laughing at you, little one. I’m laughing at myself. You remind me that I have taken myself much too seriously for too long now. I truly believe,” I leaned in, nipping playfully at her neck, “that I have certainly met my match in you, Gabrielle.”

She laughed and returned my playful kisses until I could no longer keep my hands from her body. I scooped her into my arms and moved toward the bedroom.

“Wait, Xena. What about Solan?”

“Let him get his own girl,” I murmured against the soft skin of her breast.

“Oh, Xena, that feels…I mean, shouldn’t you make sure he’s comfortable or settled?”

I stopped suddenly, closing the heavy wooden door to our bedchamber with my foot. “Gabrielle, do you really think a young man Solan’s age, visiting Corinth for the first time, is ready to be tucked into bed at this hour?”

“Oh,” Gabrielle answered.

“Besides, I told Atrius to keep an eye on him. Now, my love…where was I?”

* * * * * * * * * *

Sharing her verbal responses to pleasure may still have been new to Gabrielle, but her knowledge of the physical was beyond what most lovers could hope for. Her wisdom of all things sensual, combined with my passions for her, gave her the ability to bring my body to the pinnacle of ecstasy in no time at all. For the longest time, I wondered if Gabrielle knew of her power over me in this area of our lives. Now, I have to smile at my arrogance. Gods, of course she knows. It’s what she did, what she was trained to do, and as good a warrior as I am, that’s how talented a lover my Gabrielle is.

Does she know of her power? Seeing her now as she pushes my back flat against the bed and scoots farther away from me, commanding me to watch her, you have to know that she is quite aware. The young woman who blushes in public at the slightest mention of the physical pleasure we share in our private moments, takes command as if she were on stage. She grows confident in her ability when we are alone and this actress, playing the role of my seducer, mesmerizes me.

She slides the robe from my body, then moves back to one corner of the large bed, and shrugs her own dressing gown off. She settles herself into a mound of pillows there and I wonder now if she put them there earlier, planning such an evening for the two of us. I move to touch her, but it’s made clear to me that we won’t be playing the game my way tonight.

“No touching, my love, only watching…”

“Am I being punished then?” I purred. I stretched my long body out, leaning upon a bent elbow, and resting my head in the palm of my hand.

“I think you’d enjoy that too much,” Gabrielle said under her breath. “Perhaps we’ll save that for another time.”

I swallowed hard at her bold response, not doubting her for a moment.

“You did spend all afternoon away from me, Conqueror,” she chided softly.

I smiled, not at her admonishment, rather at her use of my title. Gabrielle tends to use the word as an endearment of sorts when we are alone and she is in a particularly playful mood.

“You seem very pleased with yourself. Perhaps you enjoy your horse’s company to mine?”

“Well, he is a very talented mount.” This time we both smiled and I was glad to see that she caught my double entendre.

Gabrielle’s eyes went a deep green and I noticed that she kept her legs pressed together, careful not to reveal too much to my roving eyes. She positioned herself so that she was reclining against the cushions behind her, leaning slightly to one side. She mirrored my pose, resting her head in her hand. She slid her other hand up along the length of her leg, bringing it to rest on her stomach. Her thumb continued to brush the skin there in a back and forth motion, her fingers playing lightly along her mound’s hairline.

I watched with an amused smile as my young lover tried to entice me with carefully placed caresses to her own body. I admit, the heat within my own body was rising to a rather warm level watching Gabrielle tease herself, but I have never been a slave to my desires and was nowhere near to losing my customary control.

Never one to admit defeat and knowing my libido better than I, Gabrielle continued her hand’s actions, never releasing my gaze. I had no idea how close I was to defeat, but I should have suspected by the mischievous look that sparkled within the green eyes across from me.

Gabrielle brought her index finger to her mouth, running the end along her bottom lip. I watched as the tip disappeared within her mouth, to reappear a moment later, glistening wet. I gave up contact with her eyes to follow that finger as it made its way slowly down her chest to circle a pale pink nipple, the flesh pebbling under her touch. I admit that my breath picked up as I focused all my attention of her finger, drawing its lazy circles around the ever-hardening nub of flesh. Bringing her thumb into motion, she began to stroke the elongating tip. Rolling the nipple between her thumb and index finger, Gabriele firmly grasped the hard tip, pulling outward at the same time. She tilted her head back slightly and moaned.

Gods, what she is doing to me, and all without touching me. Gabrielle had trained herself for half her life to neither take pleasure from the actions she performed on her illegal masters nor make a sound during her task. Therefore, to hear my young lover was an exquisite pleasure, of which I would never tire. If I believed that I would be in control for much longer, I was soon to be proved a fool. Gabrielle continued the sensual exploration of her breasts, moving from one to the other, her tongue occasionally reaching out to glide along her top lip, knowing my eyes were fixed on her alone. Her small moans and whimpers caused me to squirm uncomfortably, attempting to find a position in which I could hide the obvious excitement coating the inside of my thighs.

“Xena, you don’t know how excited it gets me…you watching me touch myself.”

I could only stare as her hand moved lower, her fingers twirling themselves within the golden curls between her legs. I was silent, my attention completely fixated upon her hand.

“You like it too, don’t you, Xena?”

I tried to speak, to nod my head, to respond with an intelligible sign in some form she would take as encouragement to continue. Gods above, I swear that I did open my mouth to speak, but no sound issued forth.

That was my undoing.

Gabrielle smiled then and I recognized the expression for I had used the feral grin on more than one occasion. That smile came from the belief that no matter what actions one took next, losing was not a possibility. Now, I lie here; while my most talented lover is smiling that smile at me, planning Gods know what, as terms for my surrender.

“I like thinking about you when I touch myself like this,” she drawled. “Do you know what I imagine you’re doing to me?”

I watched her fingers move further between the legs that she’d not yet parted.

“Xena?” Gabrielle spoke louder, bringing my eyes up to hers at last. “Do you know what I think about when I’m teasing myself like this?”

My mute condition persisted. Finding myself unable to verbally express my answer, I simply shook my head back and forth in answer.

She smiled again.

“I think about you and that incredible tongue of yours. I always think about the last release that you brought me to, how your tongue felt on my skin, teasing my clit…deep inside me. I get so wet with you watching me. You do too, don’t you Xena? Are you wet for me, Xena?”

I groaned rather loudly and nodded my head. Yes, my breathing became rather audible at this point, and it’s true that my chest was rising and falling much faster than before, but in defense of my lack of control, Gabrielle was beginning to do a bit of rapid inhaling and exhaling of her own.

“Let me see, Xena…let me see how wet you are for me,” she commanded.

I believe I heard another series of small whimpers, embarrassed at the fact that the sounds came from me. Being ordered about by my small lover, it was oddly fascinating and somewhat humiliating, but mostly it was extremely exciting. I could do no more than comply with her wishes and I parted my legs, opening myself up to her wanton gaze. I knew what she would see there, I could feel the moisture as it flowed from my aroused sex, feel it dampening the dark curls and slicking my thighs. Gabrielle saw it too and my only satisfaction was from her sharp intake of breath.

Gabrielle mirrored my actions. She turned a bit until her back was flat against the cushions, freeing both hands. She pressed the palms of both hands on her breasts, kneading them firmly, pressing the mounds of flesh together. The hands ran along her body, coming together at the apex of her thighs. Using her hands, she finally spread her own thighs apart, allowing her palms to gently hold her legs open to my passionate scrutiny.

“This is what you do to me, Xena.”

Gods, what her voice can make me feel. I feel as if I am spinning around, out of control, becoming lightheaded from the sound, the sight, the scent of her. I watched as she slipped the fingers of both hands into that abundant wetness, and I moaned in empathy at the pleasure she experienced as the fingers of one hand grazed across her swollen clit. Her hips involuntarily bucked forward and I suddenly had to look down at my own hand, stroking the flesh between my legs without completely being aware of doing so. It wasn’t a conscious effort to bring myself to release, more of a slow stroking of the flesh, just enough to tease my own body.

Gabrielle bid me watch, as she spread herself open with one hand, spreading her legs further apart. She opened herself to me and I watched in rapt fascination. It reminded me of a delicate flower, spreading its petals open to the morning sun, the edges of the blossom wet with the morning dew. More soft moans emanated from us both as my gaze stayed upon Gabrielle’s fingers. She kept herself spread open so that I might see all that she was doing. She verbally expressed herself so that I might hear all that she was feeling. Part of my arousal, my satisfaction, came from the fact that she can now allow herself to let go of the sounds that she spent so long carefully controlling. The other part of my pleasure is due to the knowledge that she feels this for me…because of me. That awareness drives me higher.

Her fingers continued to spread her wetness up and over the rapidly swelling flesh at the top of her cleft, brushing her fingers across it more rapidly now. She continued the motion, obviously unwilling to give up the pleasure. She used the hand she held herself open with and pressed two fingers deep inside, pausing for a moment to lean her head back. A low guttural sound of satisfaction escaped her lips and I forgot all about touching myself. I was using both hands to clench handfuls of the blankets, inflamed beyond my wildest expectations by simply watching and listening to her. I could feel my hips rotating against the touch that is no longer there. Gabrielle’s actions causing me to feel the phantom sensation as my lover pleasures herself.

My arms are shaking from which emotion I am unsure. Is it because I am straining to hold back from merely reaching out and taking the woman? Am I laboring toward or holding back from my own release? Whichever it is, I hold on for another heartbeat until I hear Gabrielle’s breathless voice call out to me

“Oh, Gods…please, Xena…now!”

I don’t even remember moving, but suddenly I am lying on top of her and she is pulling her fingers away from her body.

“No,” I entreat her. “Stay inside.”

She looked up at me and her eyes were almost black from the dilation of her pupils.

“I…Xena, I don’t want my release for you…I want it because of you,” she panted.

My fingers found their way into her golden locks and I pulled her head back, exposing her throat to my lips. I kissed and sucked on the flesh there, my hand slipping easily within her drenched folds as she eased hers out, mine taking their place. She cried out at the sensation and I knew it was pleasure, not pain she was experiencing. I groaned loudly myself as I rubbed myself along her thigh, my hips coming into their own, focused on only one task.

I started out slowly, easing my fingers in and out in a steady rhythm as I used my mouth on every portion of Gabrielle’s body that I could reach. My teeth and tongue teased her nipples until I rose up to take her mouth in a deep kiss, just as her body arched into mine. Her muscles contracted and then fluttered around my fingers buried inside her. I swallowed her cries of release, letting myself go, rather unbelieving that an orgasm this intense would not permanently damage me in some way.

We held one another, both requiring some extra time to recover from the pleasurable experience. Some time later, before sleep claimed either of us, I kissed the top of her head and whispered.

“If that’s what you consider punishment, then I can’t wait to see what you give as a reward.”

Gabrielle giggled at my humor and snuggled closer to me. “Thank you,” she murmured just before she fell sound asleep.

I chuckled aloud, but my future Queen was already asleep and unaware of me from her place in Morpheus’s realm.

She, is thanking me?

Athena, I know that I since I met Gabrielle I have prayed for longevity…I would like to amend that previous prayer and add strength to it. Because surely I will widow my young Queen, while in the throes of passion, here in our own bed!
Chapter 3: To Be A Lion Both In Word And Deed
Gabrielle was nervous and it was apparent in the anxious smile she offered me from across the table. It had been ages since the long wooden banquet table or the festively decorated room it sat in had seen such an occasion. Delia outdid herself in preparing the sumptuous feast. I was rather impressed that she had arranged for more than the roasted lambs and peacocks. There was also a massive selection of grain and vegetable dishes, obviously prepared knowing that Solan, being an ambassador to the Centaur Nation, was a vegetarian. I didn’t know for a fact if he was or not, but having been raised by them, I would assume it to be so. I was even able to entice Delia into joining us for dinner.

I leaned back in my chair, took another drink of port, and bestowed a smile to my lover. I watched as some of the tension left her features. Gabrielle was trying very hard for my sake to be something she wasn’t accustomed to being, but no more than I was on this evening. Rather ironic, I think to myself, Xena the Conqueror attempting to be charming. I look up again to find emerald green eyes glancing my way with a sparkle of amusement. Gods, how does she know what I’m thinking? All right, I admit to myself under Gabrielle’s reproachful scrutiny, perhaps not charming. Let’s say civil, but even that is a major step for me.

We were a rather eclectic group, sitting around the long table that was easily sixty hands in length. I wanted Gabrielle placed closer to me, but Delia, who arranged the seating as well as the menu, said it would make my future Queen appear weak. I saw the truth in Delia’s words, but that didn’t mean I had to enjoy it as well. Delia was always there, however, for me as well as Gabrielle. The older woman made it clear, that like it or not, Gabrielle needed to convince the people that she was no longer a slave. It didn’t matter that the young woman had been born a free citizen, kidnapped, and illegally enslaved for half of her life. The only thing that the people would see at first would be a young girl who was once the Conqueror’s body slave. Delia smiled when she told me that it would be up to Gabrielle to prove them wrong. I think she smiled because somehow, I believe she and I both knew that Gabrielle could to it.

Therefore, I trusted in Delia’s word that she would orchestrate the seating, at the reception in Solan’s honor, to show Gabrielle in her best light. I fretted more over the young woman than I suppose was necessary, especially since Gabrielle’s disarming manner, considerable intelligence, and quick wit caused those around her to become quickly enamored of her. She was quiet, as was her habit, but when she spoke it was always after having taken the time to think about her words. She smiled a great deal, and was taking my advice regarding looking people square in the eye. It helped considerably that Delia surrounded Gabrielle with those we already considered friends. Besides Delia herself, I asked the Captain of my Guard, Atrius and his betrothed, Anya. My advisors, some of who had wives, but mostly a bunch of confirmed bachelors. The rest of the guests were either political figures of the village or friends of the Court.

Antillius, the youngest advisor on my staff seemed quite taken with Gabrielle. After some time of watching him, I felt myself shift uncomfortably in my chair. A feeling passed through me, rather quickly, but it loitered long enough for me to recognize it as jealousy. In the past, I had a reputation for becoming jealous of my possessions, which included women. The jealousy often turned to rage, which usually led to violence. I was fond of Antillius, as his father was a trusted advisor before his son came to my court, but seeing the way he hung on Gabrielle’s every word like a puppy dog caused a tightening in my belly. I remembered some of my more violent outbursts and the men who had died or been maimed by my hand, all because of my suspicions where my lovers were concerned. The air around me became heavy and I felt the beast within me searching for a path to freedom. I swallowed and closed my eyes for a moment, willing the past to disappear from before my mind’s eye, attempting to push the monster that was my temper back down.

I had no idea how long I’d been sitting there that way before I felt the gentle touch of a hand wrap around my upper arm. I opened my eyes with a start to see Gabrielle standing beside my chair. Her smiling face and easy manner belied the look of concern radiating from her verdant gaze. She must have crossed to the serving table because she had a fresh flagon of wine in her hands.

“More wine, My Lord?” she asked.

I quickly turned my face away, unwilling for her to see the darkness I was sure my eyes would reveal. I could feel it persisting, just below the surface.

I felt soft fingers pull my chin back then I felt silky lips on my cheek, all this as Gabrielle poured more wine into the goblet, which sat on the table in front of me. It took no more than that gentle, caring action to push the beast back down, my unreasonable ire swiftly melting away. I couldn’t help but smile at the sudden reaction to Gabrielle’s actions. I took the flagon from her hand and slipped an arm around her waist, pulling her to me just slightly. The conversation around us never dwindled, but I could tell that the two of us were being watched.

“I was going by My Lord’s seat, on my way to freshen up, when I noticed someone had been lax in filling your cup.” Gabrielle explained in a clear voice so those around us would hear.

I hoped that my expression was conveying all the love and gratitude I felt at that moment for this small woman. She was no longer my body slave and yet her complete concern appeared focused on me, for me. I had a strange feeling that this woman might just save me from myself.

I smiled at her again, squeezing her hand tenderly. “It’s okay. I’m all right now,” I reassured her.

Gabrielle leaned down and took me completely by surprise. Expressing my devotion for my future Queen was one thing, but public displays of affection were something that I had not experienced in many seasons. Gabrielle’s lips pressed softly against my own and at that moment I realized that there was a difference between the affectionate pose Gabrielle and I were now sharing and the shameful exhibitions that I took part in as a younger woman. I was surprised and instantly aroused at her boldness. The best part was that there was nothing shameful about our actions. We were two people in love, and for one of the first times in my life, I thought it acceptable for the people to see the Conqueror in such a way.

I watched with an amused grin as she pulled away from me and made her way from the banquet room. When I turned my eyes back toward the table I ran directly into Solan’s angry glare. It momentarily shocked me to see the vehement stare coming from my son, but by the time I blinked my eyes, he returned his attentions to a conversation with Terillus, one of my senior advisors. I literally shook my head wondering if I hadn’t imagined the entire exchange. Solan turned back toward me once more, but this time his gaze was merely impassive and somewhat glassy from the amount of alcohol he consumed. A faint sensation of trepidation ran through me as I thought about the look, which I could have possibly imagined. I wondered what could cause Solan to look at me that way, unaware as he was, as to my true identity. I discounted any subterfuge as paranoia on my part and turned to listen to the musicians, and the rather amusing anecdotes the village constable was relating.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
She graciously gives up the Quill to me as I think it is important to interject at this point in her story. It’s true, I have kept my own set of journals, since almost the very first day I met Xena. I feel that if her histories are to be complete and accurate then adding these additional parchments will explain more of the events that happened at the time.

I do this to her occasionally. I go back and pull a scroll from its case, reliving as it were the experiences that have shaped our lives. When I encounter an area that I think bears more in-depth explanation, I begin my side of the story on a separate parchment. Then, Xena seals the ends of the two scrolls together with a bit of warm wax and the large ring bearing her crest.

The ring is too large and heavy for me to wear and even Xena wears it only when traveling or on official business. I remember the time she put it on my hand, thinking that her own death was near…but I suppose that is a story for another time.

She interrupts me with the drumming of her fingers upon the wooden desk. I am suddenly contrite because I know she has the uncanny ability to read upside down and has been reading what I’ve been writing. She asks if she should simply let me finish all of her tales, telling me that the reader will not have arrived at that part in this story yet and if I talk of the ring that I shall be giving it all away. I can’t help but smile; she can be such a petulant child at times; pout and all. Another impatient gesture and I know I need to continue. My beautiful Lord suffers me my impertinences, but even her control has its limitations.

These are my recollections of the events surrounding the evening of Solan’s reception. I know that should I be accused of bearing false witness, my personal Guard, Commander Atrius, will swear to the truth of my testament.

I saw the darkness fill her eyes and was scarcely prepared for it. One moment she was sipping her port and reassuring me with her beautiful smile. The next moment, I looked up and just like a sudden summer storm, the light disappeared and the monster that she refers to as the beast tried to make its way past her defenses. I quickly followed the line of her sight hoping to intervene in the unfortunate soul’s behalf that had unwittingly sparked Xena’s ire. My breath caught when I realized that she was looking at me, but not only me; her gaze kept flickering between Antillius and me.

I know that Xena has changed much from her former self, but the fear I felt as she leveled that pained gaze in my direction reminded me of that evening when the woman known only as the Conqueror, stood before me choosing me as her own. When she closed her eyes, I understood that this would not be the last time that I would have to challenge this alternate side of her personality. I took a deep breath and moved toward the woman I loved.

* * * * * * * * * *

After splashing my face with cool water from the marble basin, I stood and examined my reflection in the looking glass. I smiled at the image looking back at me. I was happy and confident, the latter being something that I felt a little more of each day. On this night, I turned the tables on the demon that resided within my lover. I fought the beast, not with a blade, but with compassion and love. It seemed so natural to reach out to Xena in that way. She goes about pretending that she has no emotions, that she is heartless, when it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

To hear her tell it, she has no heart and never has. On the contrary, I believe she feels too much. I think she feels so many things, and being incapable of expressing all these emotions, she strikes out. Her rage and her anger are very real indeed. I’ve been on the receiving end of the physical side of Xena’s temper. It may seem odd to some, but I have always understood her inability to express this side of herself. Someday perhaps I will be able to impress upon her that there are few times when I feel I must absolutely hear her say the words. Her eyes, in her eyes I always see the truth that is written upon her heart. In those eyes, I can actually hear the words that she truly believes; yet, her voice cannot utter.

I feel better, more refreshed, if only for the fact that I was able to escape the attentions of all the eyes that had been trained on me all evening, questioning, waiting for me to make a mistake. Xena and Delia both explained that this would be the case. Xena looked uncomfortable at having to put me in such a position and on this night, I feel confident that if I asked her to give up her Empire to keep me from having to take on a Queen’s life, Xena would seriously consider doing so. I chuckle silently to myself. Tomorrow, of course, I will feel differently. Tomorrow I will again be Gabrielle and the fears and insecurities that have been ingrained in me for the last ten seasons will be apart of me once again. Tonight, however, I am floating along confidently. It is a feeling much like the mood I have seen Opium produce in some of the men who owned me in the past. It was a euphoric feeling that gave them a certain amount of confidence, which in reality they didn’t truly possess. My own musings were perhaps the reason why I was taken unaware while walking down the darkened corridor back to the banquet hall.

“If it isn’t Lady, Gabrielle.”

Solan stood there, leaning against the stone wall, I was sure so as to assist him in standing. He’d consumed a great deal of wine, but that wasn’t the reason for his temperament. I stopped and stood there, arching an eyebrow in his direction. I was not about to bow my head for this boy. Even in the way he said my name, I could hear the mocking intonation. It’s true that Xena leaves much to be desired in the way of social skills, but I do believe that if she had raised the boy, he would not have turned into such a spoiled brat. He was a season or two older than I was, but his manner was so much that of an ill-tempered child that I simply couldn’t think of him as a young man.

He made me angry and peevish, but when I glimpsed the look in his eye, I felt fearful. Surely, he was aware that an action like this could cost him his life. I had no doubt that given Xena’s possessive nature, should Solan harm me in some way, he would pay mightily for his actions. Perhaps it was what he wanted. Could he be arrogant enough, foolish enough to even consider besting Xena in a Challenge? I watched as he approached me and I realized that neither of the above applied. Solan was merely so drunk that his better judgment had left him completely.

“So, the Conqueror’s whore…oh, excuse me, I mean, betrothed,” he grinned.

He held an arm out to the wall in order steady himself. He was close enough for me to smell the alcohol that clung to his skin and clothes. I shook off the visions from my past that the smell induced. I’d been in this position too many times before, drunken men who felt powerful by taking the one thing that a woman called her own.

Solan reached for me and I easily slapped his hands away. I thought of the approval, permission, even command that Xena gave me at one time to protect myself from another’s touch. When he reached out again, one hand grabbed me tightly around one arm, his other hand roughly grasping at my breast, I slapped him hard enough to cause him to release his hold on me, backing up a step. He looked shocked for a moment, but then he grinned, and a smile like that usually meant that he was used to his women putting up a fight. That thought frightened me.

“Solan, think about what you’re doing,” I attempted to reason with him.

“Oh, I have thought about it,” he leered. “I heard you were the best and by the sounds I heard when I passed by the Conqueror’s rooms last night, I’ll wager that’s true.”

He lunged toward me suddenly, moving so quickly that I didn’t have time to defend myself. One moment he appeared barely able to stand, and then the next moment he caught me in his strong grasp, one that I had foolishly considered him too inebriated to muster. I thought at that moment, that one good scream would bring Xena. I was not that far from the banquet hall and I believe I amazed myself, considering that course of action was the first thing to pop into my brain. In the past, fear, anger, and anxiety all combined to freeze me into place and merely accept my fate as one of the weaker ones in life that the strong had their way with.

I took a deep breath, filling my lungs for the sound that would never come. I felt my body pushed forward even as I felt Solan’s body jerked backward. I turned quickly, fully expecting to see Xena as my savior. Feeling my sudden freedom, I instantly thought that perhaps I should restrain Xena from an action she might regret later. As much as I detested Solan, he was my lover’s son. I turned just in time to see a very large fist connect with the side of Solan’s head. He crumpled to the floor after the one punch to the temple and I was rather shocked to come face to face with Atrius, the Captain of Xena’s troops.

“Are you all right?” he asked and I nodded my head.

Atrius touched my shoulder with a gentle hand and the action moved me. For a warrior, he was an incredibly sensitive man. The woman Atrius was to marry was Anya, my best friend. She often confided in me, telling me the stories of horror and anguish that Atrius had seen over the years, as a warrior at the Conqueror’s side. Anya said that despair could change a man. She was happy that it changed hers for the better.

Now I looked up into the kind eyes of the man who acted so much as I imagined my own father or even a brother would.

“Well, Centaur boy here won’t be grabbing anymore young women after the Conqueror gets through with him!” he hissed.

“You can’t tell Xena!” I exclaimed.

I recognized the sound of fear in my own voice, just as I am sure Atrius did. He looked at me for a moment before speaking again.

“Has this boy put a spell on you, Gabrielle? Do you know, do you have any idea what the Conqueror will do to the both of us if she finds outs what happened here, and we don’t tell her about it?”

“I intend to tell her, Atrius. I swear, but in the morning. You and I both know what she’s like after an evening’s worth of port in her belly. You know her temper better than I do, and I fear she may kill Solan if we tell her tonight. However, in the morning she may offer some leniency.”

“If you think she’s got the disposition of a harpy when she’s drinking, then just wait till the morning when she’s nursing an aching head,” Atrius said, almost as if to himself. He turned to look at the fallen boy, crumpled in the corner, surprising me with his next question. “Gabrielle, is there any reason I should fear a tryst between you and this boy?”

“Certainly not!” I answered with as much indignation as I could muster.

“There is something, though, isn’t there? Something more you’re not telling me?”

I didn’t want to lie to the man who had protected me from harm countless times since we’d known one another, but I refused to betray Xena’s confidence by revealing the true nature of her relationship to Solan. I looked up, directly into his eyes. “Yes, there is, but please, don’t ask me for the answer because I can’t give it to you.”

“And you would be protecting the Conqueror with this secret?”

I nodded again. Atrius looked at Solan and then back at me, and suddenly I wondered if he knew, if after all the seasons he rode with Xena, if he ever suspected.

“But, you’ll tell her in the morning?” he asked, appearing unsure.

“I promise.”

“Well, you’ve kept more than one secret for Anya and myself. I suppose we can keep one for you, especially if it is only ’till morning.”

“Guard!” Atrius yelled out, but not so loud as to draw the attention of the soldiers standing in front of the entrance to the banquet hall.

I realized then, rather foolishly, I might add, that there were guards all about this first floor of the palace. A good shout would have brought dozens of them to my aid. I looked on as the Captain directed a young man to get someone to help him, then to deposit the unconscious Solan safely in his quarters.

“Where is your lieutenant?” Atrius growled at the second young soldier who came along to assist his comrade.

“He’s…uhm, he’s in the foyer around the corner from the banquet hall, C-Captain,” he stammered. The young man’s gaze flickered between Atrius and myself and I thought it obvious he was nervous about more than the fact that the Captain of the troops was standing before him.

“Please come with me, Lady,” Atrius said before turning and walking briskly in the direction the soldier indicated.

I wasn’t completely aware of the storm that seemed to be brewing behind the Captain’s demeanor. Although he was his usual courteous self to me, I could tell by the way he clenched his jaw that he was angry at something. Perhaps a few seasons down the road I may have had the confidence to stop and demand to know what this was about and where we were going, but it has not been too long since I led the life of a slave. I followed the older man dutifully along the dim corridor, walking rather quickly to keep up with his long strides.

We rounded a corner, just past the banquet hall, to a torch lit foyer. A group of soldiers, some kneeling down on the stone floor, were laughing, and joking. One man was preparing to toss a set of dice from the leather cup in his hand when he raised his head and glanced up at the two of us. His mouth hung open and when the others in the group turned to look in our direction, all sound and motion stopped.

“Who’s in charge here?!”

“I am, Captain. Lieutenant Geras, sir.”

I watched as the soldier, certainly not much older than me, straightened himself up and grasped the hilt of his own sword in salute to the older man. Atrius may have been twice the young soldier’s age, but he was certainly quick. He reached out, grabbing the Lieutenant by the neck, and dragging him closer to where I stood.

“Do you know who this is?” Atrius forced the young man to look in my direction.

“Y-Yes, Captain. She’s the Conqueror’s…”

He paused then, appearing unsure as to what to say. It struck me just then that it would be a long while, if ever, before the people here would look at me as more than the Conqueror’s slave. The officer was no line soldier, however. He achieved the rank of a Lieutenant in the Conqueror’s Army with skill and education. He swallowed hard a couple of times and regrouped.

“She is the Lord Conqueror’s lady,” he answered.

“That’s right,” Atrius hissed, loosening his hold on the soldier’s tunic. “She is Lady Gabrielle to you. Now, my question is what is the future Queen of the Greek Empire doing in the halls without an escort?”

“I–well, I–” The young man continued to stammer looking up into Atrius’ unforgiving gaze. “I saw her leave, but–I–”

Finally, the young soldier straightened himself and stood at attention. It was apparent from his expression that he saw me leave the hall, but had seen me come and go through the castle many times before. All of the soldiers knew me, who I was, and who I belonged to. I didn’t feel any enmity from the young officer, only a certain lack of awareness on his part.

“It was my fault, Captain. I accept any punishment you see fit for this dereliction on my part.”

I was impressed, as I am sure Atrius was. He left the Lieutenant standing there, moving in on the other men. He snatched the dice cup and tossed it away, cursing them out for leaving their posts when the Conqueror was attending a function. He impressed upon them, in the most colorful language, that a few seasons ago the Conqueror would have had them beheaded for such a thing. By the time he was through berating them, their knees were shaking as hard as their hands. They scrambled off, returning to their posts, leaving only their Lieutenant still standing at attention.

“You can escort the Lady back to the party, and if the Conqueror wants to know what kept the Lady, you be sure and tell her just what happened.”

Again, the young officer swallowed down the lump that had formed in his throat. Taking a moment to fasten the topmost button on his tunic, he held out a somewhat shaky arm to me. Atrius kept pace a few strides behind us and I caught the young man’s eye as it continually attempted to ascertain whether the Captain was indeed still behind us. I patted the officer’s arm and smiled up at him.

“What did you say your name was?”

“Geras, my Lady.”

“Geras, don’t fret too much. While it’s true, the Captain’s bite is every bit as harsh as his bark, he rarely uses either unless called for.” I hoped my smile and my words would put the young man at ease. His nervous smile told me I had achieved my goal.

Walking into the banquet hall, Geras escorted me directly to Xena’s side. Blue eyes looked up questioningly as Atrius walked in behind us and took his chair beside Anya. Xena reached for me hand, but I could see the uncertainty in her gaze.

“I see someone found you,” Xena commented. “I thought perhaps the party had come to be too much for you. What happened?”

The officer looked at Atrius, who glared right back at him. The Lieutenant opened his mouth to speak, but I jumped right in.

“My Lord, this is Lieutenant Geras. He was kind enough to escort me back to the hall.”

Xena smiled just then and pulled me to her until I was sitting on her knee. A very uncharacteristic move for her in front of so many.

“Good man, Geras,” she commended the officer. I noticed Geras made quick business about leaving the banquet hall after that.

Most of the guests were laughing and talking, paying no attention to the two of us. I suppose that was why Xena reached over and kissed me as she did.

“You were gone for some time…I was worried about you,” she admitted the latter with a concern that was unexpected. “But you look pretty,” she noticed the fresh blouse I wore. “And you smell nice,” she whispered, nuzzling my neck. It felt wonderful and I was hesitant to stop her actions, but I also knew that if she was acting this amorous in public, it meant that she’d consumed more than her share of port this evening.

“You even taste good,” she whispered against the skin of my neck. “Do you taste this good everywhere?”

I laughed lightly, rather enjoying the antics of a romantic, somewhat inebriated Conqueror. For an instant, the thought of Solan flashed across my mind, and I remembered what I would have to tell Xena in the morning. Perhaps if I could entice her away to bed at a reasonable hour, she wouldn’t suffer from too heavy a head in the morning.

I leaned closer until my lips gently brushed across Xena’s ear. I let the tip of my tongue reach out and quickly skim the flesh, enjoying the resulting shiver the action brought about. “Absolutely everywhere,” I whispered back. “And I’m anxious for you to taste every bit.”

The throaty, sensuous chuckle that I was rewarded with pushed all thoughts of Solan from my mind. We had to thank each of our guests in turn, but it took no time at all for us to offer our appreciation to our friends as well as Delia. We were the first to leave the banquet, and I’m sure I heard a few teasing responses about that fact, but this time the jokes were meant to tease two lovers, not to hurt. We left and walked to our rooms. In the dimly lit corridor before our door, Xena turned to me and said the words that I believe I will cherish forever.

“You have made me very proud tonight, Gabrielle.”
Chapter 4: For Mercy Is A Greater Thing Than Right
The musicians and the bards were entertaining enough, but I found my attention constantly pulled back to the main doors of the banquet hall, awaiting Gabrielle’s return. It seemed as if quite some time had passed since she left to freshen up, yet I don’t know why I worried. Many of the ladies left the festivities, to return wearing a fresh gown or skirt. Many people came and went, which was why it came as no surprise to find that Solan had left the hall, perhaps in hopes of acquiring the favors of one of the prostitutes who lingered outside the palace walls on evenings such as this.

I finished another two cups of port and was generally feeling my wine by this time. I motioned to Atrius, requesting that my Captain check to see if perhaps the evening had simply been too much for Gabrielle. I so wanted to leave myself, picturing in my mind my Gabrielle in tears over something someone had said or done. This was all very new to her, and although she handled herself with a fair amount of grace and dignity, I still worried. When I worried, I drank. By the time my lover re-entered the room, on the arm of one of my soldiers who looked about ready to pass out from fright, I was rather drunk. Now, I’ve consumed much more alcohol than the amount I drank this evening, and still possessed the ability to cut a man down with my blade. Tonight was different. It was as if I’d given myself permission to let go just a small bit. For the very first time in this palace, I felt at ease. Tonight, friends surrounded us, and so, when I saw Gabrielle, I did something she never expected.

Even as I pulled Gabrielle into my lap, a fleeting thought crossed my mind regarding my dignity and the way it might appear, the Conqueror and her lover necking at the head of the table. It had been my goal all along to make certain that my future bride always be shown the proper respect, as befitting a woman of her rank and station in the Empire. Gabrielle’s nearness, the smile on her face, even the unmistakable sigh that passed her lips when I kissed her neck, they succeeded in reducing my behavior to that of a lovesick schoolboy. When Gabrielle whispered seductively in my ear, it took nearly every bit of the control I had left, not to carry her to our rooms right then and there. I made a mental note to myself to explain to Gabrielle that this was a very special occasion. Rather like a private party in our own home. When strangers visited, of which I don’t know why I didn’t count Solan as one, I would still show my devotion to my wife, but I would have to become much stronger than this at curbing my, sometimes wanton, displays of affection.

I tried to be as dignified as possible, offering thanks and a merry evening to all who helped to make it a success. I wasn’t so drunk that I was suffering from many outward symptoms, but my inhibitions had certainly been lowered to the point where Gabrielle and I left the hall hand in hand. I heard a few comments and caught a few winks exchanged between my guests. The old Xena would have drawn her sword and immediately confronted the jokesters. I was feeling something very different this evening. The laughter was not raucous, nor the jokes ribald, at the expense of the honor of the woman I was about to bed. Rather the looks were of envy. The snatches of conversation I overheard during the evening, proclaiming a fresh new wind blowing through the Empire. A number of men, as well as a few women, exclaiming their jealousy as well as delight in the beautiful young woman the Conqueror had won.

I left the room in a euphoric state. Not only had Gabrielle charmed the nobility of my court, but for the first time in a very long time, I felt as if I were doing what was good and right. The words of envy I heard sprinkled through the hall did not comment on how the Conqueror killed or stole for the woman at her side. They did not hint that I had seduced another man’s wife away, simply to use her for a night’s pleasure. I didn’t hear the words whore or slave when they referred to my conquest. No, they did me the honor of recognizing my victory in winning Gabrielle’s heart. No one in that room would ever know how deeply that simple acceptance affected me, and I alone would always know that it was not a thing I could have accomplished without the small blonde pressed against me now.

I leaned heavily against the wooden door at my back, Gabrielle using her surprising strength and my lack of sobriety to press her advantage. She took my lips in a kiss that made my body wish the feeling would go on forever, even if it should mean forgoing fresh air into my lungs. I fumbled, quite literally, for the door latch, eventually pushing open the main door to our private chambers. I stumbled backward until the ache between my legs wouldn’t allow me to be teased any longer. I picked up the beautiful blonde and made my way into our bedchamber.

Making love with Gabrielle was like some new experience every time we came together. Her newfound assertiveness affected her passions as well, and I found myself on the receiving end of some rather aggressive sexual play. It wasn’t something I regretted for one moment, either. I think what I enjoyed the most was Gabrielle’s discovery of her own pleasure. Gods, I will never be able to describe how or why my excitement reaches such an incredible peak, merely listening to the sounds of Gabrielle’s desire. To hear her ask, command, even beg for the pleasure she desires can be more than my physical body can stand on some occasions.

I simply told her how proud I was of her, and I meant every syllable I uttered with all my heart. Mere words from me inflamed her to the point where she is roughly pulling at my clothes, and me catching her wrists in my grasp and teasing her, my strength keeping her from what she desires. She growls in passion and frustration…Gods, growls at me! I give the rough treatment back to her, holding both her wrists in one of my hands, to slip my other hand under her skirt, past the linen slip until my fingers are teasing the undergarments that stand as a barrier between my attentions and her skin. My palm presses upward and the undergarment is soaking wet, a testament to Gabrielle’s need. I continue to kiss her, removing my hand from underneath her clothing and causing whimpers of disappointment to escape her throat.

I release her hands and they are about my neck pulling me against her even tighter. I pull the shoulder of her blouse down and my mouth finds the smooth skin of her neck, sucking and pulling hard at the flesh there in order to mark her, to draw attention to the fact that she is mine. It is not so much that old habits are hard to ignore. In an odd way, I feel just as elated to display the marks on my own body, produced by Gabrielle’s passionate attentions. I finally learned that this sign of ownership, of belonging to another, was not demanded, but given, freely and in love.

I ran my hand along her ribs, roughly kneading her breast through the fabric of her blouse, which is more off her than on at this point. I switch hands, pressing my weight on top of her slightly more and I grab her other breast, squeezing the flesh in my hand.

Gabrielle whimpers sharply into the kiss and I feel her trying to pull her body back from my hand at her breast. I lean further on my side to glimpse her face and she cries out when I press against her arm.

“Gabrielle,” I ask in concern. I instantly move my body off her completely to lie beside her. Her hand goes to her breast and it’s obvious she’s in pain.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing, just tender.”

“Let me see,” I say as I push her fingers aside and unbutton the blouse the rest of the way. Pushing aside the material, I freeze as all the passion flees my body at once.

Quickly rising bruises that will look even worse by morning now mar the creamy white skin of her breast. I look at the arm I leaned so heavily upon, and I find the same marks, angry welts that will soon be ugly looking bruises.

“Gabrielle, I’m so sorry. My love, I didn’t mean to hurt you…I’m sorry,” was all I could keep saying. I raised eyes that I knew would fill with tears in a few short minutes, to look into her emerald green gaze.

“I’m so sorry…” I repeated once again, stunned at what I’d done. I hung my head in shame.

“Xena…it’s all right, love.”

She pulled my face up to look into her eyes and I could see that she was at war with herself. She wanted to say more, her mouth opening and closing as if trying to find a way to begin. She decided at last and when I heard the words, I had to ask her to repeat them.

“What?”

“You didn’t do this,” she answered, lowering her gaze away from me this time.

Perhaps the alcohol was making my brain so slow to respond, although at this moment, I no longer felt its effects. Just as the passion had quickly departed from my body, so did my intoxication. I felt the coldness of sobriety make itself known, along with another sensation that I was quite familiar with.

The beast within began to pace back and forth, looking for an avenue of escape. Like a longtime companion, it was the dark entity that saw the truth before my own mind did.

“Someone…someone else did this to you?” I asked in a tightly controlled voice.

“Yes.”

“Tonight?”

Gabrielle nodded. I could see fear in her eyes, but not fear for her own person. It appeared as if it were fear for another.

“With your permission? You allowed someone to touch you like this?” Again, I only seemed capable of speaking in short, clipped phrases.

“No, Xena…never again. I would never allow another to touch me.”

I could hear my own rapid breathing and I knew that I was past any point where I could call back my anger, beyond any rational thought. My eyes darted back and forth and I could feel the tremors begin in my arms.

“Please, Xena…listen to me.”

I heard Gabrielle’s voice, but it was soft, sounding faint and far away. There was nothing that could be heard over this rush of blood keeping time with my rapidly beating pulse. It was anger. It felt like a fury so intense that there was nothing else, nothing else existed for me but this rising ball of infuriating fire in my belly, swirling, capturing me and attempting to control me, control my thoughts, my will. I wanted the dominance back, I never gave it up willingly, but this time I needed it back, fearing what I would do, and to whom I would do it if the beast had free reign.

“Who?” I hissed the question, teeth tightly clenched together.

“Xena, please…”

“Who?” Louder this time.

“Solan.”

I hesitated only once.

“Don’t let it rule you. Fight it, Xena!”

I heard the words, and somewhere inside I knew why I should, but they were meaningless words, and to the beast that rose to free itself from the prison of my will, the words meant nothing.

I jumped up from the bed and methodically tucked in my shirt, tying off the laces to my trousers, all the while hearing something soft and gentle trying to reach out to me through a thick fog. I lifted the heavy lid of the chest at the foot of my bed, retrieving my sword. I fixed the blade into its scabbard and belted the weapon to my hip. Again, the softness and I shook my head, the beast laughing now at my attempts to take back some authority. There it was again, a peaceful sound like rain falling lightly against the roof of a tent. I moved toward the door and something held me back. The darkness rose up and tried to sweep the obstacle away, but there was a tiny piece of me, deep inside, that could not lash out at the barrier between my revenge and me.

I could hear the growl that rumbled deep within my own chest. An impediment stood before me, holding me back. I felt the physical restraint on my arms, and I wondered why I was suddenly loath to simply shrug the hindrance off. I was in front of the door; there was freedom. Just another step and I would fling the door wide, releasing the beast to exact swift punishment for the harm done to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle?

“Please, Xena…don’t do this! You are stronger than it is, fight it, Xena!”

“Xena!”

I felt a sharp slap across my cheek and it was so unexpected that it even loosened the hold the darkness had upon me. I could see it…almost, it was right in front of me. Again, the stinging vibration across my jaw and I pushed the beast back simply to reach the cause of my pain. Yes, right there! I took hold of the annoyance before me and held it against the door. Something caused me to search the room for something … someone. I turned, looking for Gabrielle.

Gabrielle?

I released the burden in front of me to immediately feel pounding fists against my chest and another biting slap to my face. I pushed inside my mind with all my might, propelling the beast in my head away from my quarry. I drew my sword, surprised that the sound of metal blade against oily inner scabbard should cause me to see the outside world with sudden clarity.

I stood there, blade in hand, panting like a wild animal. I squinted, blinking sweat from my eyes. Then there was a sound. A soft sound reminding me of when I was a child, safely tucked in bed during the middle of a thunderstorm.

“And will you use that blade on me if I try to stop you?”

The sound was a voice. It was like a bright lantern; its muted yellow glow holding back the darkness, keeping a child’s fears at bay until the morning sun took over. It reminded me of…Gabrielle.

Gabrielle?

I brought my eyes to focus on the small woman before me, her clothes in disarray, tears streaming down her cheeks. I then looked at the blade I held in my hand and back to the woman who either bravely or foolishly stood up to the Beast.

“Gabrielle?” My voice sounded strange to my ears and my throat felt burned and raw.

I had no idea how much time passed with me standing there, looking down at the sword in my grasp. I don’t even have a clear recollection of giving the weapon up to hands so small it took two of them on the hilt to lift it. I remember shivering and feeling cold. Being led to the fire, my clothes removed by those same small hands, warm flesh pressing against my own under a fur robe.

It seemed an eternity before I could speak again without tears, listening the entire time to Gabrielle relating nonsensical tales of love and humor. I finally smiled at Gabrielle’s admonition to hit me again if I didn’t stop asking for her forgiveness.

“I’ve never been that far gone and returned before,” I said at last. “Not without hurting . . . killing.”

Gabrielle kissed my cheek and it was my turn to wince. “You really hit me hard,” I said, bringing my fingers up to rub the tender flesh.

I meant the comment to be in jest, but for a moment, I saw real fear in Gabrielle’s eyes. I quickly leaned forward and lightly brushed my lips against the softness of Gabrielle’s. When I pulled back, I gently stroked her cheek, reaching in again to kiss the tip of her nose.

“There are few men and even fewer women who would have faced down the Conqueror in such a manner. I don’t know whether you’re an extremely brave woman or a very foolish girl, but it doesn’t matter. I love you either way, Gabrielle.”

“I–I’m sorry, Xena,” tears welled up in the dark green eyes. “I–I just couldn’t–I couldn’t let it beat you…”

She broke down then, crying, as I’d never seen Gabrielle do previously. The sight broke my heart, but more so because I was the cause of her sadness and pain. I wanted to wrap my arms around her, tell her how sorry I was to be the source of her pain. Those words…I’m sorry. They were still new for me. Once again, I found myself wanting so much, to offer more, and yet I found myself physically unable to carry out those desires. Perhaps it was true; perhaps love and commitment would never be mine. Quite possibly, they were things not meant for the Conqueror.

My ineffectualness as a lover and partner overwhelmed me in a way. I froze there, not even offering the smallest amount of comfort to Gabrielle. I’m uncertain as to why, but suddenly Gabrielle seemed to remember herself. I watched as she took a deep breath, swallowing down any more sobs. When she looked up again, she appeared much more in control. The expression on her face shocked me; it was the look of Gabrielle, the slave, impassive, even defeated. My pain increased as I realized that this would not be the first time that I would hurt her so badly that she would retreat into that shell. I rolled away from her, lying on my back. I lifted my arm to cover my eyes, unwilling for her to see how much I hurt, disinclined to share these childish emotions.

“You should go, Gabrielle,” I answered in a weak voice. “Leave this place, this castle…me. I can’t promise that I won’t ever hurt you again. It will always be like this and you don’t deserve a life such as this.”

The silence was quite deafening and at one point, I wondered if I missed the girl fleeing from where she lay beside me. I was too afraid to uncover my eyes, reluctant to see the truth and agreement in Gabrielle’s gaze. It wasn’t long before I felt her warmth alongside me, soft skin pressing against my own. Gentle fingers wrapped themselves around my forearm and I found myself unable to resist the tender touch. She moved my arm away from my face, and I refused to meet her eyes at first, but the continued softness of such a gentle hand did something extraordinary. It was almost as if Gabrielle were using her voice to call to me. It was a language that only my heart could hear and I felt myself respond. I eventually opened my eyes to her. I saw none of the harshness I expected, no judgmental glare. I was genuinely surprised that I should find myself looking up into a face, fairly glowing with adoration, overflowing with love.

“Xena, look at me,” Gabrielle said. If it was a command, it was the softest spoken order I’d ever received.

“Really look at me,” she said once she captured my attention. “I am no longer your slave. I am a woman who makes her own decisions, about who she will be with and whom she chooses to love. I belong to myself, My Lord, and no other. And, because my heart belongs to no one but me, it means something to me. It has a place inside of me and I’ll let no one take what is mine. What of you, Xena? Do you know what place you have in here?” she gestured, placing her hand over her chest.

I remembered these words. They were my own, the words I used when trying to convince Gabrielle of her own self worth. I knew the answer she was looking for and scant moments ago I could not have answered her. Now, however, looking into eyes the color of a lush green forest, I felt a warm, penetrating sensation deep in my chest. It started small at first, but in no time at all, the small kernel spread in an outward direction until I could feel its warmth all the way to my fingertips. I realized the welcoming sensation was hope. I felt the smallest beginnings of a smile and I answered Gabrielle’s query.

“I belong to you?” I responded and the tentative tone in my voice sounded strange to my ears.

“That’s right, Xena,” Gabrielle smiled at last. She leaned against me, her facing drawing so close to my own that I could feel her sweet breath upon my lips. She closed the remaining distance and kissed me. “You belong to me.” She kissed me again, this time slipping her hand around my neck, pulling me to her in order to deepen the kiss. “Remember this, Conqueror…you belong to me, and I’ll let no one take what is mine, not even a beast who is so much a coward that it will not meet my challenge face to face.”

Gabrielle moved her hand forward to cup my cheek and I was lost in the air of self-confidence the girl suddenly exuded.

“Xena, whether this be the only encounter, or we have to face down your demons a thousand more times, I promise, I’ll stand my ground and challenge any man or beast that tries to take you from me.”

Her voice caught, choking with emotion and the tears that welled up in her eyes, matched my own. I knew that I had finally come to love and care for Gabrielle. I even came to a place where I could admit as much, to myself as well as others. However, I honestly don’t think I truly believed that Gabrielle loved me the same way until this moment. She may have been repeating my own words to me, but this young woman, who has seen so much of life in her limited years, used them with such conviction and purpose that I indeed felt their power. Gabrielle loved me and yet some unknown fear inside of me wouldn’t allow me to accept it completely.

The emotional world held so much fear for me. In the physical realm, I could touch and taste. If I could see it before me it became easier to believe, but these affairs of the heart…they left me in a state of confusion that wreaked havoc with my brain. How could I entirely accept what I wasn’t sure I could give in return? What I not only didn’t feel worthy of, but what I could not see?

Gabrielle moved her body over me and I immediately spread my legs, allowing her to position herself between them. I groaned as she slid her body along the length of my own, hovering just above me, letting her nipples rub against mine. The sensation caused my hips to jerk upward and I reached behind her to grab her backside and pull her tightly against me. Gabrielle’s kisses were sultry and soft, her tongue dancing with my own, me allowing her to lead wherever she had a mind to take me.

“I love you, Xena,” Gabrielle whispered. She lowered her head running her tongue along the corded muscles of my neck, down to the uppermost swell of my breast.

“I love you too, little one,” I responded breathlessly.

She continued to use her lips and her tongue until she reached a hardened nipple. She tenderly kissed the darkened flesh around the elongated nub. Her caresses so gentle as to be infuriating. I was panting quite heavily by this time, but it was her gentleness that aroused me above all else. Her warm lips enveloped a hard nipple, but the sucking motion was light and easy. She worked the area over with her tongue, looking for all the world as if she were making a feast out of my body, savoring every bite, each caress.

I swear it was candlemarks later by the time Gabrielle was kissing her way down my belly, her chin resting atop the silky, black curls. She looked up at me and I honestly wondered how she knew all that I thought, my fears, as well as my passions.

“Let me, Xena,” she murmured against my skin. “Let me love you.”

Gods, did she know that was what I’d been thinking or was it an innocent comment about pleasuring me? Did she realize how frightened I was at allowing anyone to truly love me, knowing she would ultimately demand the same from me? I looked on as she rubbed her cheek against the triangle of dark curls, me lifting my hips slightly to prolong the contact. I groaned again and opened my eyes wide, taking in the site of her kissing my parted thighs, looking up at me in delight.

“May I, Xena?” she pleaded. I could do no more than nod my acceptance at such an offer, trepidation filling my soul at the implication of my surrender.

Her head dipped low and just as I felt her warm breath blow against the very wet flesh between my legs, I stopped her with a hand to the top of her head.

“Please, baby…I need to see you,” I pleaded.

Always waiting for her to think me a pervert in some way, I wasn’t prepared when she rose quickly and brought back an armful of soft cushions from our bed. She piled them in a heap beside me and patted the mound of pillows with one hand, a delightful smile on her lips.

“Sit here,” she commanded and I moved over.

She pushed a few more pillows behind my back and used her hands to again open my thighs. She used her tongue along the insides of each leg, stopping just when she reached the tender flesh between thigh and labia. Then she ran her tongue along the path of that juncture.

I raised myself up, leaning on one arm to see her.

“I want to watch you,” I said hoarsely. “I want to see everything…everything you do,” I insisted.

I believe the thought excited her and I watched as those green eyes darkened with desire, then twinkled up at me in a combination of seduction and mischievousness.

“Your wish is my command, my Conqueror.”

Gabrielle used her fingers to gently spread my sex open to her feasting eyes, and soon to be, tongue. She brought the fingers of one hand to her lips and licked my own essence from each digit, never taking her eyes off mine. Returning her fingers to my sex, she parted the slick folds, holding them open so that I might see all she would do. She lowered her head and dipped her tongue in to taste the overflowing wetness that I offered.

It was otherworldly, the amazing sensation of seeing that pink tongue slide along the length of my sex, watching as the nerve endings in my cunt fired repeatedly from Gabrielle’s lapping at my center. I was mesmerized, lost in a haze of physical pleasure as I watched her swirl her tongue around and over the hard nub of flesh, now swollen and aching for her touch. She let her tongue run softly along each fold, only to speed up her movement, rougher and faster each time she arrived at my clit. The tip of her tongue gently spread inner folds apart and she lovingly explored each crease and crevice. All the while, I watched what she was doing to my body; my breath coming in short, audible exhales. I observed while her tongue’s strokes became shorter, harder, the muscles in my belly twitching and jumping.

I leaned back on one hand, my other hand pressed atop the golden head between my thighs. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around my legs and pressed herself deeper. Her tongue found its way to a very sensitive clit. She simply pressed the flat of her tongue against the tender bundle of nerves and I could feel my orgasm begin. I spread trembling thighs wider and Gabrielle took the nub of flesh between her lips and sucked hard, releasing it to let it slide against her tongue.

“Sweet Athena! Please…unh, please, Gabrielle…don’t stop.” I begged without shame as Gabrielle began to concentrate on the tight nub of flesh where my whole world concentrated at this moment.

The pleasure washing over me was far from enough, even after the intense climax. Gabrielle must have sensed it, or read it in the way my hips continued their slow grind against her face. She moved her attentions away from the pulsating bit of flesh. She continued her tongue’s well-placed caresses until I could hear myself whimpering, the sounds quickly changing to throaty moans, and my hips beginning to thrust against the tongue that she slipped inside of me.

I writhed and drove my hips to the rhythm of the strokes from Gabrielle’s tongue; faster and deeper I could feel the muscle fill me until I couldn’t prolong the pleasure any longer. The penetration brought me to the verge of another release. I could feel my body, as well as my soul, giving in to the absolute surrender Gabrielle demanded of me.

“Oh, Gods, yes! Gabrielle…Gabrielle!” I cried out.

I continued to stare, hypnotized at the combination of sensory delights, watching as well as feeling. I could see Gabrielle pull back, then move forward, me, leaning back on both hands now to thrust my hips forward, to impale myself further as she plunged her tongue deeply inside of me.

“Don’t stop,” I begged hoarsely, even as I fell back into the cushions, my hips still working to draw every last bit of the pleasure into and around me. Convulsive spasms took my body as they rolled throughout my frame like a never-ending wave. I finally cried out, as I exploded in orgasm, my whole body tensing, then releasing in jerks and shudders.

Gabrielle ran her tongue tenderly around the still quivering flesh, gathering the juices my climax produced. It was so soft and soothing, not meant to arouse, but to gentle. She was working her magic on me, but I was in no position to resist. A part of me still wanted to reciprocate the pleasure, but my desire to make love to Gabrielle was overwhelmed by a flood of post release emotions.

I felt her move to lie beside me, suddenly my head on her shoulder, my lips nuzzling her neck. He arms, always so delicate, held me in a strong embrace. I found I could do no more than release additional tears, so overcome with it all. Thankfully, Gabrielle either knew why I cried, or had the good sense not to ask. There were so many reasons, I wasn’t sure I knew them all myself. I certainly knew I wasn’t in any shape to explain them. As always, Gabrielle said the exact words my heart needed to hear.

“It’s all right, my love. I’m not going anywhere. I’m still here, Xena,” she whispered, placing a gentle kiss against my temple. “I’m still here, my love, and I always will be.”

She ran her fingers through my hair. “Do you love me, Xena?” she asked.

I pulled my head back to look up into her face. She wiped my tears away with her fingertips, and I knew I looked so vulnerable like this. There was no one in the known world, however, that I was willing to look more exposed or defenseless for than Gabrielle.

“I never thought I could let someone love me like that because it meant that I would have to return it the same way. I’ve never felt myself capable of feeling that way . . . that much . . . until you. I do love you, Gabrielle, with all that I am.”

Her tears matched my own just then, but her smile told me it was happiness. I reached up to lightly brush my lips against her own.

She hugged me tightly and I heard her whisper in my ear, “No man, or woman, could possibly need more.”

She settled against me then, lying on the cushions before the fire, the heavy fur robe draped over us. She seemed content to drift off, while I continued to struggle to keep myself awake.

“Gabrielle . . . little one, we still need to talk about this evening . . . what happened with Solan.” I felt the bile rise in my throat when I thought of it, but the sound of Gabrielle’s voice eased my ire.

“I have an idea, if you’ll permit me, but tomorrow…I’m so sleepy just now.” She snuggled against me and we repositioned ourselves so that now my small lover felt herself cradled within my embrace.

“I hope your idea involves me kicking his scrawny ass at some point,” I murmured.

She chuckled and I felt her smile against my skin. “If you wish,” she yawned. ” My idea does involve you stretching your muscles against him. I think if Solan wants to act like a child, he should be treated like one. Good night, Xena.”

I waited for more information, but the next sounds I heard were the tiny, gentle snores that indicated my lover was fast asleep. “Sweet dreams, my love.”

I smiled to myself, placing a kiss on top of her head. I wondered what Gabrielle had in mind. Just before Morpheus claimed me, I thought about the fact that Atrius had walked back with Gabrielle to the banquet hall, then proceeded to scowl the rest of the time. I wondered what his part was in Gabrielle’s attempt to conceal what had happened to her. I made a mental note to speak with my Captain first thing upon rising. It wouldn’t do for my most loyal man to withhold information from me. Again, I smiled to myself. However, if Atrius would lie to me, simply for Gabrielle’s honor, then I had a position within this palace such a man could fill.

I think I chuckled lightly just before I fell asleep.
Chapter 5: A Lion Fighting-Mad With Rage
If I had to point out one thing about myself that has changed the most, as I have grown older, it is that facing the morning is so much more difficult now. In days past, I could have gone on a three-day binge, drinking, whoring, and satisfying my more hedonistic nature. When I would awake, after the three days were over, I wouldn’t have a thought about what I done. I would no more have thought about repercussions to my actions than I would have asked a slave to share in my wealth. Oh, the things that change, once you develop a conscience.

The sky was just entering its pre-dawn, gray stage when my eyes, feeling gritty and dry, blinked open. I was not one of those to awake incoherently, needing to shake off the last vestiges of Morpheus’s spell before I could think. The moment I opened my eyes, I was alert. Whether it was something I inherited from my parent’s blood or some gift the Gods blessed me with, along with my other attributes and skills, I do not know. I simply know that the moment I opened my eyes, I was assailed by guilt over my actions last night. Even more, I was damned angry, secretly plotting the ways I would make young Solan pay for his attack on Gabrielle.

The warm body I held rather tightly against me caused me to become aware of my actions of the previous evening, but the smile on Gabrielle’s face, even as she slept, reminded me also of the happiness that came to me last evening. I was in love, and I loved. The thought brought a ridiculous grin to my face. I switched emotions quickly, my anger dissolving. I felt that I had been in love with Gabrielle from the very first. Well, after I figured out what love was. Her manner, heart, and beauty; the better question might have been, how could one not have fallen in love with her? Something changed last night, however. I was unsure as to whether it was Gabrielle or myself who had been transformed, but an intelligent guess said that it was, perhaps, a little of both of us.

Gabrielle stood up to, not only my physical self, but also the entity, the darkness, within me. She was willing to suffer pain, even death, so that I might not lose myself. I remember thinking in the banquet hall that Gabrielle might be the one, the one to save me from myself. Truer words were never uttered. Last night, if I had gone through with my course of action, I surely would have killed Solan. I’m not sure if I could live with the death of one more of my family hanging over me, especially a killing that I would have committed with my own hands. The young man with no regard for others had no idea how close he came to meeting Hades in person.

I know for a fact that part of the change is from within me. I had been able to tell Gabrielle I loved her, showed her, even given up much of my infamous control. I’d never had the thought that I couldn’t live without someone, though. I remember looking into Gabrielle’s eyes last evening, just before she made love to me. I knew right then that I would never be able to go on without her. I would have no inclination to take another breath without her love surrounding me. I was willing to do anything, give anything, in order to love her. I finally realized that true love meant giving all that you are to someone else. Letting them see the dark as well as the light that existed in your soul, accepting, and trusting that they would handle anything they saw hiding in the recesses of your battered soul. I finally understood this truth and gave all of myself to Gabrielle.

I quiet murmur pulled me from my musing and brought my attention to the woman still sleeping in my arms. I must admit, a certain warmth washed over me to watch Gabrielle sleep. When she first came to be with me, her sleep was often interrupted my nightmares, some of which never even woke her. Her cries of pain and abandonment kept me up through the night on more than one occasion. I held her through the hours of darkness, afraid to let go of the girl lest her nighttime terrors return. Now, as I looked down on the smiling face, I found myself grinning in return. The small blonde was the only person I’d ever heard laugh in their dreams. In the last fortnight or so, Gabrielle chuckled softly in her dreams. I only hoped it was a good sign. I know it certainly lightened my heart.

Try as I might, I could lie there no longer, and I didn’t wish to disturb Gabrielle’s rest. I slipped from the bed as gently as I could, but even then, my consort made a noise in her sleep at the loss of my body next to hers. I pushed a pillow against her and saw that familiar smile as she wrapped her arms around the cushion where my scent still lingered. I washed and dressed; a frown crossed my face when I realized what Gabrielle might think when she awoke. Would she worry, thinking that I might still have revenge on my mind in regards to young Solan? Would she be hurt after having made love to me, then finding me gone at first light?

The day brightened just as I thought of the perfect item to leave my lover in my stead. I hurried downstairs and outside the castle to my private gardens. In the garden closest to the castle, were my roses. I could see the garden from the windows of my private chambers. The roses bloomed nearly all year in this area nestled against the palace wall. I walked across the stone paved path directly to my favorite flower. It was a deep red color, the hue so concentrated as to be almost black. Its petals felt like velvet against my skin. It came up from the ground as an accident, a cross between two other blooms. Accident or not, it had a striking beauty all its own.

I was laughed at and teased quite often in my younger days for this rose garden. Well, that is until men realized what I did to people who laughed at me. No matter how cruel, and bloodthirsty a warrior I was, back then, I always had an eye for beauty. Whether it was a woman, a fine horse, or a talented artisan, I appreciated the skills that set these people apart. I pulled my dagger from my belt, preparing to cut a perfect bloom from the plant before me. I had to pause as I remembered again that first moment, the moment in time when a child of all people, first brought the beauty of the rose to me.

I moved a step off the path and sat down on a stone bench, staring at the rose bush in front of me, but in my mind, I was leagues away. I guessed that I was nearly 30 summers in age, but I couldn’t remember exactly. I was always at war, on some campaign or another, and time, along with birthdays, had a way of passing without much notice. It was before I captured Athens. I had been traveling through the region of Chalcidice. After Potidaea revolted against the Athenian-controlled Delian League, its neighboring city, Olynthus became a major stronghold against an Athenian attack. They formed their own federation, known as the Chalcidic League. When forced to swear allegiance to either Athens or me, the inhabitants chose to fight. In one of my more shameful displays of temper and force, I razed Olynthus to the ground. In a final fit of anger, I got drunk, then ordered that all the city’s inhabitants be sold as slaves. As I said, it was one of my more shameful moments. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of what I destroyed on that day.

We left the area, traveling through farmland on our way south to the shore. When we reached the harbors at Potidaea, I took a fleet of ships south, meeting up with my armies in Pagasae. From there, we moved on to Athens and the rest is in the history archives of the palace. It was what happened in a field, some five leagues from the coast, which brought the beauty of the rose to me.
We were taking a midday break from the heat, and as usual, I immediately moved away from the camp. The noise of the men had come to distress me, their laughter, and the gods awful smells that a camp full of dirty soldiers could hold. I enjoyed a leisurely walk and before I knew it, I had followed the stream to a quiet glade of tall green grass. I found a log and sat back, removing my armor, and enjoying the breeze. A rustle in the grass to my left brought my hand to my blade, but I smiled when I saw a tiny head poke through the high grass.

“Hullo.” The child’s voice said.

“Hello, right back young lady,” I responded.

“Are you hiding too?” she asked. She looked to be no more than four or five summers old. Her hair was bleached nearly white from the sun, a healthy glow to her tanned skin.

“I guess so,” I admitted.

“I ken ony be here and talk for a little bit. Mama sez its time for a baf.”

I chuckled at her serious expression. She came and stood beside me reaching out and touching my hand. Suddenly she backed away and looked up at me.

“Why is you so sad?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but heard a woman calling something in the distance.

“Don’t go away!” The youngster ordered and ran off.

When she returned a short time later, she held something behind her back.

“Dis is for you . . . so you won’t be so sad no more.”

She held out a flower, a rose. It was a beautiful pink bloom and I was in awe at the child’s compassion. The simplicity of such a gift, such a perfect symbol of beauty, it captured me from that first moment. The young girl ran toward home I expect, but I continued to sit there until night had fallen simply looking at the rose.

I never learned her name, but one of the first things I did when I situated my home in Corinth was to send for the landscapers to build me a rose garden.

I shook my head to bring myself back to the present. The sun was not yet up, so I hurried from the garden, back through the halls of the palace to leave Gabrielle my present. I thought there might be a chance she would awaken before I had a chance to return, but I considered that unlikely. Given the choice between waking before dawn and an extra candlemark of sleep, Gabrielle would choose sleep.

I strolled through the halls of the palace, which were quite deserted at this hour. I must have presented an odd, if not ludicrous picture to anyone who may have been up at this hour. I felt that my step contained a little bounce, and was that me making those sounds? I fear I lost myself in my newfound happiness because I rounded a corner and nearly knocked Delia flat.

“God’s above! I never would have thought that was you coming around the corner!” she responded. “That was you I heard, wasn’t it?”

“What?” I asked.

“It was you! Xena,” she lowered her voice when she used my given name. “You were whistling!”

“I was doing no such thing.” I could feel the heat creeping into my cheeks. Damn! I knew it was me making those sounds. Have I ever whistled before?

“You were so, and what have you got there?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I lied. I tried to maneuver the flower behind my back, but it was too late, she’d already caught a glimpse of what I was carrying. “Oh, all right,” I brought it out in full view. “Are you happy now? If I catch you telling anyone about this I’ll string you up with the chickens to be plucked.”

Delia laughed aloud making me feel like I was ten again. “Why, Lord Conqueror, with a charming manner such as that, it’s no wonder the women can’t resist you.”

She squeezed my arm as she walked past me, still laughing aloud. I shook my head, unable to keep the grin off my face. Delia had the ability to make me feel like a child, but I saw something in her eyes when she looked at me lately. It was something that made feel better than I had a right to. What I saw in her eyes was pride. It was an expression every child hopes to see directed at them from their parent, especially between mother and daughter. I knew there was a woman, still alive, in a small coastal town in Thrace who I would give my very life to see focus that look at me. I tossed away the notion as soon as it appeared. That would never be and there was no sense in wishing for the impossible. But then again, just a few moons ago, I thought it impossible for the Conqueror to fall in love, to have someone love her in return. It seemed as if my life was changing in so many ways, I could think on absolutely nothing as completely impossible anymore.

* * * * * * * * * *

I arranged the flower beside the pillow that Gabrielle held to her chest. I kissed her forehead and went off to my study. On the way, I met a guard who I ordered to deliver a message to Captain Atrius. I commanded the Captain to my study, where I now sat. Last night as Gabrielle and I laid together, in between our whisperings and making love, Gabrielle admitted that not only had Atrius saved her from Solan’s attack, but also the fatherly soldier promised to keep it a secret until my future bride could tell me herself. She promised him she would tell me of the incident in the morning after my head had cleared a bit.

Atrius was more than just a soldier in my army. He was a warrior I respected and trusted. He was one of the few people alive whom I called friend. He was, however, a soldier in my army, and I, still his commander. I never doubted Atrius’s loyalty, but warriors must ultimately remain true to one person, their superior. While I could not exactly condemn Atrius for his allegiance to Gabrielle, I needed to make my friend aware that keeping me in the dark about things was not a habit I wanted him to get into.

There really was no right or wrong answer for this scenario. I understood why Gabrielle chose to keep Solan’s attack on her from me. I was drinking, and I am not altogether the sanest of women when I’m beleaguered by strong drink. Nor have I ever been thought of as logical, once caught in the grasp of my raging temper. I could envision Gabrielle realizing the self-condemnation I would put myself through had I gone ahead with my course of action last night. Thanks to Athena, that my young consort was able to keep me from carrying out the retribution that the beast inside me hungered for. Our relationship might have never endured the guilt in both our hearts over such a tragedy.

Atrius’s part in all of this struck me as logical also. He surely was thinking of me, fearing reprisals by the Centaur Nation should any harm befall their emissary. I am sure both of them feared what I may have done to Solan had I learned of the event. Blood or no, I could very well have seen myself killing my son for his actions.

In the end, however, there was one undeniable fact. I was the ruler in this realm and as such, incidents were to be reported to me, and not hidden from my eyes. No matter how justified, I found myself in an awkward position. How does one get a point across, impress upon the players the need for only one to be making these decisions? Right or wrong, no matter what their reasons, no matter that I agreed completely with their resolution, there could be only one at the top, and that one was I.

A knock on the door resounded throughout the room in the quiet of the morning.

“Enter,” I said.

Atrius entered the room, inclining his head slightly. “Lord Conqueror,” he acknowledged my presence.

“Atrius, my friend, please sit.” I beckoned him with one hand.

I noticed that he looked somewhat leery. I was absolutely certain he was wondering if Gabrielle had told me yet.

“Are you well, Conqueror?” Atrius asked in a hesitant tone.

“Well, I admit to having a bit of a head this morning, but all things considered, yes, I am well. And you?”

“Uh, yes, yes. Quite well. I think I may have indulged in a bit too much port myself,” he answered. “And, Lady Gabrielle . . . is she well?” he asked uneasily.

“Still sound asleep.” I smiled back at the man seated on the other side of my desk. He adjusted his body in the seat making himself more comfortable. I believe he was quite confident at this point that I didn’t know yet.

“I’ve been thinking this morning, Atrius, actually, assessing the status of our soldiers. Who would you say is our best warrior?”

“Well, uhm . . .” He appeared confused at my change in subject. I could see him trying to switch minds to focus onto this new topic. He chuckled slightly. “Well, I would say you are, Conqueror.”

I laughed a bit myself, knowing he would answer thus. “Let’s just say that’s a given.” I answered. “Then?”

“I guess, even though I’m getting a little long in the tooth for it, that I am.”

“Yes,” I said, feigning distraction. “And after you?”

“Well,” he considered the matter, “Lieutenant Garamon. He may be a bit young, some things he’ll learn only with experience, but he’s nearly as good as I am with a number of weapons.”

“I’ve been thinking of Gabrielle’s safety. Now that it’s known she will be Queen, I want her to be as protected as I would be. Whether she is here inside the castle, or out in the village, I want her safe from harm.”

“Aye, Lord Conqueror. I think it a superb idea. I agree. The young lady needs the best your army has to offer.”

“I’m glad you concur. Can you take care of this, Atrius?”

“Of course, Lord Conqueror, I’ll instruct Garamon right away in–”

“But didn’t you just say that you were the best?” I quickly interjected, leaning forward in my chair.

Atrius stopped; his mouth still hung open, momentarily frozen as his brain quickly raced to keep up with our conversation. “Oh, but surely, my Lord–”

“Perhaps you don’t think Gabrielle deserves the best, after all.” I said evenly.

“I . . . uh . . . ” He was caught and the expression in his eye admitted the truth of it. If he said yes, he was offending Gabrielle, and he knew where that road would lead him. If he said no, he was committing himself to something most soldiers only looked forward to when they where very young or very old. A true warrior, of whom Atrius was one, would never wish to waste his battlefield skills playing bodyguard.

“So, you were saying, my friend?” I could barely contain my mirth at this point. Oh yes, I had every intention of carrying this through, but unbeknownst to my unfortunate friend, I would only wish this duty on him for a fortnight or so.

A look of complete and utter resignation crossed Atrius’s face. It was apparent that he noticed the sparkle in my eye and the amused look. He finally realized that I knew of his part in keeping Gabrielle’s secret.

“Of course, I would be honored to serve as Lady Gabrielle’s personal guard, Lord Conqueror,” he said through clenched teeth.

* * * * * * * * * *

Atrius and I walked into my private chambers thinking to enjoy a hot mug of tea and discuss the particulars of creating a detachment of guards to be at the future Queen’s call. As we entered the outer room, Sylla was just finishing setting up our early morning meal.

“Rather early, isn’t it?” I asked her.

“The lady asked that breakfast be brought up early, Lord Conqueror.

I knew that Sylla referred to Gabrielle even before the beautiful blonde opened the bedchamber door and appeared before us. My personal maid seemed to enjoy Gabrielle’s newfound position. Perhaps it gave hope to all women of her station. Perhaps she was merely happy for a friend. Whatever the reason, Sylla treated Gabrielle with the utmost respect, and Gabrielle, with her genuinely loving nature, treated Sylla with the same.

I stood back a bit, amused at the interaction that was about to take place between Gabrielle and Atrius. Gabrielle was adjusting the cuff on the sleeve of her blouse as she walked through the door. I almost laughed aloud when she stopped in the middle of the room, taking all of us in. We looked like frozen statues, Gabrielle looking at Atrius, then myself, Atrius using a mock glare on Gabrielle, myself watching the both of them and Sylla completely confused.

“Will there be anything else, Lord Conqueror?” Sylla asked.

I thanked her, and then dismissed her. She curtsied slightly and left the room, but not before she leveled a questioning gaze at Gabrielle, shrugging her shoulders in some silent communication.

“My Lord.” Gabrielle said as she crossed the room, reached up on her toes, and placed a chaste kiss upon my cheek. I watched as she crossed the room to where Atrius stood.

“Captain Atrius,” she said in a slow halting tone.

“She already knows, doesn’t she?” he muttered.

“What?” Gabrielle whispered through clenched teeth.

I laughed loudly. “He’s asking you if you told me already!”

I continued to chuckle at the expressions on their faces. I sat down at the table, pouring each of us a mug of tea from the pot that Sylla had left steeping. I pushed the jar of honey closest to Gabrielle’s customary seat. She couldn’t tolerate the strong drink without a small bit of the honeycomb dropped into the mug. When I again looked up, they were still staring at me open-mouthed.

“Close your mouths and sit.” I said with an arched eyebrow. “We have much to talk about, the three of us.”

They each sat down to the table, Gabrielle beside me and Atrius across from us. I took a sip of my tea and watched as they each did likewise.

“Gabrielle, I would like you to meet the Captain of your personal guard.”

Gabrielle turned her head and looked over at me, then across the table at the grimace on Atrius’s face. He looked at her with a ‘why me’ expression, followed by a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders. It was apparent that he was not only trying to make Gabrielle feel better, but that he also would do the same all over again if need be. That is exactly the reason why I wanted this man at Gabrielle’s side. It even pained me somewhat that I hadn’t thought of it before necessity forced my hand.

“Oh, but Xena, I–”

I held a finger up to my lips and Gabrielle instantly fell silent. I stood up and walked to the window. Sylla had pulled back the tapestries to let in the morning sun and the cool breeze felt good on my somewhat heated skin. I stood there, hands clasped together behind my back, facing the window instead of the two that sat at the table.

“You must understand, Gabrielle, as Atrius does. There can only be one commander, one ruler, and whether by fate or fortune, that one is I. I understand the reasoning behind your actions, yours, as well as Atrius’s. I’ve never,” I nervously cleared my throat at this point. I was about to do something rare, and decided to forge on ahead before I had time to think about it. If I thought too long, or too hard, I was sure I would back down.

“I’ve never really had any one to care about me . . . so my reactions might not be what either of you hoped for. This is a rather new feeling for me and I’m trying to . . . well, trying to . . . understand it all. As I said, I understand the reasoning behind your actions, but a ruler must be kept aware of all things. Only one can rule.”

I turned from the open window, back to them. “Do either of you care to rule this Empire?”

They both looked a little dazed, and I went from being emotionally terrified on the inside to trying to keep a straight face. Two set of eyes stared back at me as if to say, ‘who are you and where have you hid Xena’s body?’ Their stares were a little wide, mouths hanging open just a tad. Finally, very nearly in perfect synchronization, they each shook their heads back and forth.

“Then, right or wrong, for good or ill, I will be the one to decide what happens, and when. I will choose who suffers my wrath and who escapes judgment. Are we agreed?”

“Yes, Xena”

“Aye, Conqueror.”

They both said in unison. If I learned one thing over the years, it was that rewarding the faithful was not done strictly to ensure loyalty. The strongest and wisest rulers I had ever known were the most charitable of themselves and their emotions. I decided to go that extra step, not for myself but for the two people before me. They each had their reasons for doing what they had, and I gratefully acknowledged that their thoughts were of my welfare.

“I wish to add my thanks,” I added, looking at them each in turn. “There are few people in this world whom I love, even less who care for me. I will strive to become . . . well, the kind of person that you feel you can confide in when things go awry.”

I was staring at my boots by this time, quite petrified to look up and see the amusement in their eyes. The silence seemed to go on forever until Gabrielle spoke, she, always seeming to know how to assuage my fears.

“Come, finish your tea, Xena,” she said as she poured some more of the steaming brew into my mug.

I straddled the bench beside her, accepting the mug, and leaning in to lightly kiss her ear. She smiled without looking at me as she began to place portions of meat, fruit, and cheese on three separate plates. I handed Atrius a plate of food and he accepted it with a customary nod of his head. He grinned just a small bit and muttered, almost as if to himself.

“Yes, you two are good for one another.”

* * * * * * * * * *

We sat and discussed the events of the past few weeks as we ate our morning meal. Then we talked of the men and women who would become a part of Gabrielle’s guard. Atrius already knew the soldiers he would select, telling us both what he knew of them, their strengths, and weaknesses. He approached this as if it were a battle plan, and I could hear the excitement in his voice when he talked of the details, and how many soldiers he would need. I gave him free reign, knowing that Gabrielle’s security was in more than capable hands.

I pushed my plate away, feeling full for the first time that I could ever remember. I never really ate much, just picked at everything. This morning, I actually ate, talked, and laughed. It was an enjoyable sensation, sitting with friends, speaking to one another as equals and not as a ruler and her subjects. The only time I’d ever sat around talking over a meal was during a social dinner when one made trivial comments, and thought about how quickly you could leave. There were meals around the campfires with warriors, of course, but those were in the days when I was either very tolerant or too young to care what filthy pigs most of the men in my army were. Once I found how easy it was to lose one’s appetite when sitting downwind from a soldier, who hadn’t seen a cake of soap since the formation of the Homeric Kingdoms, I began dining alone in my tent.

“Shall we speak of Solan, then?” I asked when we hit a lull in the conversation.

“Xena, I’ve been thinking,” Gabrielle started, looking down at her hands. “Perhaps you should just have a talk with him.”

She didn’t look up again, only stared down at her hands clasped loosely together. I understood, in an instant, what plagued the young woman. I moved once again to straddle the bench we sat on, and laid my hand gently on her shoulder. The action brought her eyes up to meet my own.

“Gabrielle, are you saying this because you truly think that a man who accosts young women in my palace, aside from the fact that you are the future Queen of this Empire, should be shown leniency? Or, are you saying this because of who Solan is to me, personally?”

Gabrielle bowed her head slightly. I knew she wouldn’t reveal my secret in front of Atrius, but today seemed to be full of all kinds of firsts for me. Because of that, I plunged right into the icy water. I took a deep breath.

“Solan is my son, Atrius.”

When I looked over at my friend he had his head lowered, seemingly engrossed in some defect in workmanship that he’d found in the table. He picked at the spot on the wood, and I could tell that he was embarrassed by the sudden intimacy we were sharing. I could tell because I felt my own ears turning as red with warmth as Atrius’s were. I’m not sure whether his next words surprised me, however.

“Aye, Conqueror, I already knew that.” He looked up finally and I saw what appeared to be a small smile. “It’s hard to live and fight, side by side, with someone for so many seasons, and not learn at least a few of their secrets.”

I could do no more than thank him in a strangled whisper, my throat tight with emotion. All these seasons, watching me at my best on the battlefield, and at my worst in debauchery, he kept my secret. I owed this man much more than I could ever repay. I could bestow upon him wealth or luxury, but to be honest, it would be an insult. I knew, as well as he, that the gift of his silence was given freely, without thought of repayment. To present him such now would lessen the offering. Atrius was a being, molded from the same clay as I. We were warriors and soldiers, always having done what we thought best at the time. If I had lived my life as honorable as he had, I would have been the most magnificent leader the world had ever known.

Clearing my throat was becoming habitual. I turned back to Gabrielle. “You told me last night that you had a plan, little one. I’d still like to hear it.” I prodded.

She smiled in relief. Gods, how could she be so transparent one day, and then so full of complexity the next? This time, I instantly saw through her charade. Again, she protects me.

“Well, my original plan sought to treat Solan in a way he would understand. Forgive me, Xena, but he is arrogant and proud. The only way he will respect someone is if he cannot best them. I’ve known a great many young men such as Solan and they only learn their lesson–”

“…At the point of a sword.” Atrius and I said in unison.

“Exactly.” Gabrielle agreed.

“So, is this the part where I get to knock the boy senseless?” I asked with a wry grin. I think we were all making rather light of the situation knowing that if we didn’t, our tempers might get the better of us. If any of us succumbed to our anger over the situation, Solan could end up dead.

“Actually,” Gabrielle began. She had that nervous expression on her face again. “I think that perhaps Atrius should do the necessary knocking.”

“What?” I heard myself say.

“Xena, it wasn’t as if Solan attacked me because of who I am, I think he was too drunk for that. I could have been any young woman in that hallway.”

“The Lady does have a point, Conqueror,” Atrius added.

“Oh she does, does she?! Gabrielle, the point is you aren’t just any woman, not anymore.” I said, rising from my seat.

“Xena, how will it look? Every time there’s trouble, you come rushing in to take care of me”

“It will look as thought you are well cherished,” I returned.

“It may look to others as if she were simply weak,” Atrius said.

“Whose side are you on here?” I threw back at him.

“Forgive me, Lord Conqueror, but I wasn’t aware that there were sides.” Atrius answered.

Atrius’s infernal patience was beginning to wear on my nerves.

“Xena, it makes sense, truly it does. To learn any kind of lesson at all, Solan needs to be bested by someone he deems as an unsuitable adversary for him, someone he sees as lower in rank and station.”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to take that side now, Conqueror. If you beat the boy in a challenge, well, most men would suffer defeat by your hand. There would be no shame involved. Now, if he were to be bested by a common soldier . . . a mere body guard to the Lady here, that would be another matter entirely.”

All right, this was the point where I knew I was acting the part of the petulant child, but I couldn’t stop myself. I was overcome by the desire, however, to remind Gabrielle that she promised me I could fight. I could find no way in my head to phrase that to avoid looking like a complete idiot. Therefore, I crossed the room and stood there, arms folded tightly across my chest, glaring at the two of them. Gabrielle caught on the quickest, and although I usually appreciate when she knows what I’m thinking, this time I was anything but grateful. I felt rather foolish and humiliated, but again, I simply couldn’t stop myself. As redeemed as I was, there would always be Xena within me, brash, angry, volatile, and sometimes foolish, Xena.

Gabrielle stood and crossed the room to stand before me. Her actions shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, wasn’t this the same woman who faced down the beast within me just last evening? She laid a gentle hand on my forearm, tilting her head to try to make contact with my downcast eyes.

“Xena?”

It wasn’t the tone of her voice, or even the words that she said, which hurt me. No, what hurt the most, wounded my pride actually, was the fact that Gabrielle was trying her damndest not to smile. Smile! At me!

“Xena?”

“What?” I pouted. Ah yes, the world’s oldest living child.

“You’re not really angry at me, are you?”

“No.”

“You’re acting this way because you don’t get to pummel someone. True?” She was on to me.

“Maybe.” I evaded the question. “Oh, all right, yes, it’s true! You did promise, you know.” I added as an afterthought.

“Would it help if I said that the next time this happens, you can do the pummeling?”

She smiled sweetly and some days, I think she knows exactly what that smile does to me. I found myself smiling back. “I get to knock the stuffing out of the next two.” I bargained.

She laughed at me and held out her hand, attempting to look serious. “Deal,” she said, and held her hand out to me.

I grasped her hand and pulled her to me, kissing her soundly. It made no difference to me that Atrius was in the room. In fact, I wore a huge grin, looking across the room at my friend. Atrius had once again found something, other than Gabrielle and I, utterly fascinating. This time it was at the bottom of his mug.

* * * * * * * * * *

Seated beside me in the Great Hall, Gabrielle and I watched as Solan strode into view. Flanked by a pair of guards, he appeared tired and hung over. He also had a nasty looking bruise around his left eye and to the side of his face. I assumed the contusion was caused by the contact from Atrius’s fist. Fatigued such as he was, it was more difficult for the boy to hide his demeanor with charm. He looked up at me with a brooding, sullen expression that was like staring into a looking glass.

“Lord Conqueror,” he began. “I assume the circumstances are dire for you to rouse me at this hour?”

I heard Atrius growl, then watched as he stepped forward. “It’s not your place to question the Conqueror, pup!”

Solan flashed an angry glare at the older man and I saw the truth in Gabrielle’s words. Yes, it would have quite an impact on the boy if he were to be vanquished by Atrius in a challenge.

“Forgive me, Lord Conqueror if I–”

“Enough,” I responded coldly, cutting off the rest of Solan’s statement. “I understand you had a bit of trouble in the palace last evening.”

“As a matter of fact, Conqueror, I did. I was assaulted,” he gingerly raised his fingers to the discolored area around his eye. “I was talking to a woman when I was hit from behind.”

“The way I heard the story, you were doing more than merely talking.”

“Well,” his lips raised into a lascivious grin. “I do admit, she feigned unwillingness, but she would have come around. Sometimes they just don’t know what they want.”

“Some of them have to be convinced.” I pretended to agree.

I added a mock, conspiratorial grin since he seemed to think this behavior perfectly acceptable. The world belongs to those who are strong enough to take it. The sentiment echoed in my head. Those were my words when I was Solan’s age, and, at this moment, I felt burning shame knowing that my own son had acquired the very worst of my attributes.

His grin grew larger.

“And you consider this behavior acceptable?” I asked, losing my smile completely.

He paused, his expression telling me that he realized that he’d lost me as his ally. “I’ve never had any complaints before.”

“You do now. First,” I had to force myself to stay in my seat. I always went off on someone much better while pacing back and forth. ” In my realm any man who accosts women, or anyone else simply because they’re weaker, will suffer a swift punishment. Secondly, the woman you assaulted was the Lady Gabrielle.”

I expected more, to tell you the truth. I expected a hushed silence, and then perhaps for fear to fill his countenance. Neither happened. His features appeared to tighten a bit and he tilted his head slightly.

“I had no idea,” was his answer.

Now, I trust Gabrielle’s judgment, especially of people, but I was thinking just then that her perception of Solan’s true intent was a tad skewed. A smart man would have already been pleading his case, offering everything he had in exchange for my forgiveness. Even a coward would have been on his knees begging and whimpering for forgiveness, his life, or both. Solan surprised me.

He stood before me and said nothing. He simply acknowledged the fact that he had no idea it was Gabrielle. I saw the truth in his eyes, however. I believed at that moment that Gabrielle was wrong. This foolish, arrogant young man was calling me out, but in a most subtle manner. He was waiting to see what I would do. I had news for this boy; he had no idea what I could do.

The touch of Gabrielle’s hand on my sleeve suddenly interrupted my thoughts. She leaned over to whisper in my ear, and I met her halfway.

“I was wrong, Xena. It is about you.”

I looked across at her, once we had both leaned back into our chairs. She had a worried expression on her face that I did my best to dispel with a winning smile meant for her alone.

“Antillius, come forward,” I commanded.

The young scribe and advisor came forward carrying his parchment and quill, the latter freshly loaded with ink. “At your command, Lord Conqueror.”

“Antillius, take a letter to my old friend Kaleipus, ruler of the Centaur Nation.”

“Yes, My Lord.”

“Tell him that his emissary and adopted son, Solan, has admitted his guilt in assaulting my lover and future Queen of the Greek Empire. Tell him that, as a matter of honor, I have challenged the young man to meet me on the field of battle. Have you got all that?” I asked finally, waiting as the young man finished writing.

“Yes, My Lord.”

“Add this, then. Tell Kaleipus that I send my heartfelt sympathy and regret at the youthful demise of his son, however he should send a new emissary upon receiving his son’s body. Sign it as usual.” I added with a casual wave of my hand.

I rose from my chair to glance at a number of stunned people. “You’ve gotten your wish, Solan. I’ll give you three days to prepare, and then I expect to either receive a sincere pleading for forgiveness, or see you on the training field. Atrius,” I turned to the Captain. “Please see to it that the Emissary is restricted to his rooms with the exception of the practice facilities.”

“Aye, Conqueror,” Atrius replied.

I could see that even Atrius was now aware of Solan’s true intentions. Solan said nothing during the entire exchange. As I offered a hand to Gabrielle, and we silently left the room, I wondered why this young man, whom I had barely had any contact with through his entire life, would want to defeat me in battle me so badly. I thought he’d put all those old stories to rest. Was he in such a hurry to die?
Chapter 6: He Felt the Stroke of Death Upon His Heart
“Don’t look so worried, little one.” I stroked Gabrielle’s cheek with the backs of my fingers. “I already promised you that I wouldn’t hurt him too terribly bad, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did.” She gave me a nervous smile.

It was midmorning and the three days I gave Solan passed quickly. We stood in the outer chamber of our rooms. I felt very strongly that Solon would not be apologizing, and so I intended to show up in full battle gear to meet my challenger. Gabrielle helped me dress. I wore my customary leather trousers and silk shirt. My boots were of thick, black leather. The front of the boots had the plated shin guards already sewn in. The tops of each boot ended just below my knee, with protectors attached there also. I had thick leather and metal studded gauntlets, but the only armor I wore was a breastplate of pounded bronze that connected to a back piece.

I belted my sword, adjusting it on my hip. I looked down at Gabrielle, who still watched me through an apprehensive gaze. “Then what is it, my love?”

She hesitated, shifting uneasily from foot to foot. “You are still a very good warrior, aren’t you, Xena?”

She asked the question in such earnest that I hadn’t the heart to berate or humiliate her. I should have known what caused that worried frown. Gabrielle had never seen me fight. Oh, I’d allowed her onto the practice field to watch me spar on occasion, but she’d never seen me involved in a true scrap. She’s read more of my battlefield exploits than any mortal alive has, and I’m sure she thought most of the events embellished tremendously. It was odd, however. The moment that I held the heavy sword in my hand, I was twenty again. Failure simply wasn’t an option.

“Yes, little one,” I answered gently. “I am still a very good warrior.”

Gabrielle brightened considerably, but I could still sense something not right in her manner. I stepped back and sat down on the heavy wooden chest in the middle of the room. Moving my weapon to one side, I took both her hands in my own and pulled her closer to me. Looking up at her this way, I could see what amounted to fear in her emerald eyes.

“What’s this all about, Gabrielle?”

“I had a dream last night,” she answered promptly.

“What did you see, love?” Gabrielle’s dreams were something of an enigma to us. She would often get glimpses of the future, but so little or so disjointed as to be confusing. On occasion, she could foretell disaster through the visions her dreams brought to her. Once or twice, we were even able to change the way the fates spun our lives, but today seemed different. Gabrielle had never acted fearful like this before.

“He drew a dagger from his boot.”

“Who did? Solan?”

Yes. It was hidden and I–”

“I know that, little one. He has it tucked inside his left boot.”

“How did you–”

“That’s why I’m a good warrior, Gabrielle,” I smiled. “I make a habit of watching people very closely. That’s not all, though, is it?”

She shook her head back and forth. “You’re going to kill Solan.”

“What?” I laughed. “Gabrielle, I already told you that I–”

“I know what you said, Xena, but in my dream I saw Solan lying on the ground and you kneeling above him. You had brought your sword down into his head. I saw him lying there, your blade still quivering after you plunged it into him, and then the ground.”

“Gabrielle.” I pulled her trembling figure down onto my lap. “I promise you, unless something extreme, or unavoidable happens, I will not kill the boy. We’ve changed the outcome of your dreams before. Don’t worry, little one, please. Trust me?”

A tearful nod, and then a kiss to my cheek was my reward. “I’ll try. You will take care, though, right?”

“Right.” I playfully kissed her neck. “And at the end of the day, what will I get for my reward, after having been so good?”

“Hhmm, a sweet treasure. You get me,” she giggled. I was happy that I’d been able to assuage her fears.

“Yes, but I already possess you,” I countered.

“Then tonight, I will possess you.” She replied in a seductive tone that caused the muscles in my belly to flutter.

My eyes closed as a wave of intense desire rushed through me. I reached in and kissed her hard, reluctantly pulling away from the sweet lips. “We will continue this tonight, my love, but if we don’t get up right this moment, I am stripping every stitch of clothing from both our bodies and taking you to bed.”

Gabrielle laughed. Gods, how I love that sound. She was unable to do it for so long, it gladdens my heart that I am the cause of it now.

“And that would be a bad thing, how?” she teased.

I abruptly stood, still holding on to her, her feet barely touching the floor. “Come on with you. Are you ready to play your part?”

She nodded and I adjusted my armor again. “Then school is in session. Shall we?” I offered my hand and we left for the training field.

* * * * * * * * * *

I have to admit, if only to myself, I made a rather impressive image as I walked down to the courtyard. The sun was high in the sky and every bit of metal on me, from my breastplate to the Lion’s hilt of my sword, reflected the brilliant light. At least Solan had the decency to swallow hard at the sight, even if he did cover it right away with that snotty air he had about him.

“Lord Conqueror,” he said as I passed by him, walking up to Atrius.

I ignored the boy and I could already see his inexperience showing. He grew angry and a childish temper is something you simply can’t afford on the battlefield. I exchanged a few words with Atrius and he reacquainted me with a young officer by the name of Garamon. The lieutenant was the first to take a shift as Gabrielle’s personal guard, and I instantly liked the boy. I realized who he was once I saw his face.

“I see it healed up nicely.” I pointed to his chin where a scar ran across his dark skin.

“I’m surprised you remembered doing that to me, Lord Conqueror, especially after the pathetic attempt I made that day.”

I gave a wry smile at the soldier’s genuine humility. “I never forget a scar, or anyone who fights against me well enough to earn one and walk away.” I was remembering that day on the training field just a short time ago. Atrius and I flexed our aging muscles against the newest cadets and the young man that fought the hardest turned out to receive Atrius’s highest recommendation.

I was quite proud of Gabrielle. As worried as she was, she was playing her part well. We all agreed that even though Solan was probably quite capable of using the weapon he carried, I would be the victor today. I explained to my lover that psychology was an enormous part of battle. To humiliate Solan, we would have to act as if this were all just a stroll through the woods. Gabrielle was doing very well at affecting a casual air of indifference to the proceedings, as was Atrius. I was used to it, and it gave my naturally overconfident nature a chance to come out.

“If you’re ready Conqueror?” Solan said impatiently, indicating the training field with a sweep of his arm.

Atrius stood next to me with his arms folded against his chest. “What, in a hurry to meet Hades, young pup?”

That remark earned the Captain a glare from the young man, but I had to laugh. “I’ve met him,” I said turning to face Solan. “Trust me, he’s not much on conversation.”

We all had a good laugh, all of us except Solan, who was getting more frustrated by the heartbeat.

We were all acting out our roles, even though Gabrielle said she didn’t think she could actually watch the fight and not show any emotion. We agreed that she would leave before the fight actually began. Of course, she said she would leave with a great deal of style and dignity, whatever that meant. I was soon to find out.

“I’ll leave you to your play then,” Gabrielle said. She walked up to me a squeezed my hand a little tighter than usual, but the expression on her face remained carefree.

“Where are you off to, while I’m having fun?” I teased right back.

“I’m off to have a bath, and then a fitting for new dresses. Will you be long?”

Gabrielle asked this last after she had walked back up the first two stairs that led from the courtyard. She turned toward us, as if nonchalantly awaiting my answer, and it struck me. For the first time, I was seeing one of the reasons why Gabrielle stayed alive so long as a slave. She even had me believing in her lack of concern regarding the upcoming challenge.

“Will I be long?” I answered, reiterating her question. I turned my head toward Solan and looked him up and down. “I hardly think so. I’ll join you in that bath.” I grinned.

“Very well,” Gabrielle answered, climbing the stairs once more. “Try not to get so much blood on your trousers this time.”

“I don’t see why you should complain. It’s not like it was my blood.”

“But, Sylla had a fiendish time trying to remove it.” Gabrielle quipped. She stopped one last time and looked at Solan dead on . “It was very nice knowing you, Solan.”

She didn’t wait for an answer before she turned and left, and it was all I could do not to laugh at the expression on his face. Now, the playing was over. It was time for the fighting to begin.

“Are you ready, young pup?” I asked.

Solan appeared to be taking a true hatred of the nickname that Atrius and I had grown quite fond of using.

“I’ll try to take it easy on you, Conqueror. After all, I’ve heard tell that you’ve grown soft.”

We walked to the training field, a squared off arena set up for sparring use. I didn’t stop walking, but turned to him. “You better pray to whatever Gods an insolent boy such as you prays to. I’ll show you how soft I’ve become.”

“I should warn you Conqueror, I learned my swordplay from Kaleipus, the greatest warrior centaur in Greece.”

I stopped and laughed heartily this time. I simply couldn’t resist. I gave him my best feral smile and leaned in close. “I was trained by Ares, the God of War.” I continued walking on to the field, but Atrius told me later that I missed the most priceless of expressions on the boy’s stunned face.

* * * * * * * * * *

The sound of metal against metal is still like so much music to my ears. The love of a good fight must be in the blood. The boy was good; I’ll have to give Kaleipus his due. His inexperience showed, however, and had I been less forgiving, or a good deal angrier, he could have been dead a few times over. His downfall was his inexperience, but what kept him in the fray was his youth. I was in good shape. It would be some time before I actually tired, but my muscles certainly felt the difference between a practice spar, and the heavy hitting they were doing now.

I knocked Solan to the ground for the second time, and good naturedly allowed him to regain his feet. Perhaps I should not have chuckled, or added that little sneer as I waited for him to rise. His face was flush with anger and embarrassment and he lashed out as a child would, with words meant to cripple and hurt. I didn’t answer any of his little attempts to bait me until our blades met and we came face to face. Each of us had both hands on the hilts of our swords, using nothing but the strength in our arms to push against one another.

“I met Gabrielle, before, you know.”

I ignored him and hoped he wasn’t about to say what I thought he was. I feigned indifference.

He grinned, sweat trickling down the side of his face, dirt smeared across one cheek. “She was a slave to a rich privateer that I met in Thrace. He brought her on deck for the crew’s enjoyment. I fucked her till she bled.”

He whispered that last, and the boy never even realized what he’d done with those malicious words. Whether they were truth or falsehood, it mattered not. It only took one quick exhale and the beast was free.

I brought my knee up hard into his unprotected groin and heard the breath as it strangled in his throat. His muscles instantly relaxed and I pulled my blade from his, bringing my hilt down hard on the top of his sword hand. He cried out and I heard the bones break. I believe the beast that now controlled me laughed aloud at the sound.

I threw the point of my blade into the soft dirt at our feet, and hit his midsection, to the right and to the left. He must have tried to defend himself because I felt something hit me in the jaw. I tasted blood in my mouth and swiped my hand across my lips. The sight and the taste caused the monster inside to nearly howl in delight. I spit the blood back at him, advancing as he backed away. I believe I might have heard my name called, but it was too late now. Xena didn’t exist. She was only a shell for a madness that lived only for blood lust.

I drew back and put all I had into one punch to his jaw. The force lifted him from his feet and once again, there was the satisfying crunch of breaking bones. The beast pounced on the fallen boy, holding him by his collar with one hand, while the other smashed into his face. The feel of warm blood on my hands only pushed me further. The beast raged and screamed out one word.

Death.

I jumped to my feet, still straddling the boy. I reached out for my sword, it still quivering, impaled in the ground. As I twirled the blade in my hand, I heard a scream full of rage in my ears and wondered if it was my own voice or the beast inside that made the incensed sound. I could hear my name, it was as if in a dream. My movements slowed as my brain tried to make sense of my actions. I could always hear their voices outside of me, but this time there was no going back. The darkness had spread to far, taken far too much control to give it up now. I raised my sword as high as my arms could reach, and then quickly brought the point of the blade down straight into the young man’s face.

At the last heartbeat, my blade met with metal that slipped in front of my victim’s face. The maneuver sent my sword veering into the ground next to his head. The razor sharp blade came so close, it sliced a gash across his cheek, but he was already too unconscious to care.

I heard my name again as I stood there, both hands still holding onto my sword. I could feel my heart pounding against my chest until it ached. Then, there was a scream. The woman’s scream frightened the beast into submission. It cowered and curled in on itself until I was left standing there, exhausted and weak. Then the scream again, except it was closer this time. I turned toward the source of the sound just in time to see Gabrielle, wearing only her bathing robe, crumple to the ground near the low wall that ran around the training field.

I took one look at my bloody hands still holding my blade down into the ground, and Atrius beside me. We all seemed frozen in place. Atrius had his sword buried in the dirt under mine, his quick action sparing Solan’s life. I looked down at the bloody mess that I’d made of my son and moved away from him toward Gabrielle.

“Call the healer.” I rasped and Atrius nodded, relief flooding his features.

I knelt beside Gabrielle and someone shoved a rag before me. I wiped my hands of their red stickiness and scooped the small blonde into my arms. I looked up again, just as Kuros, my healer, and two of his apprentices ran out to the field. I silently prayed to Athena as I cradled Gabrielle against me. I asked the Goddess to spare my son’s life, unsure as to what extent I had injured the boy.

As I watched Kuros, who nodded his head that the boy was alive, I looked on the sight that met Gabrielle as she came across the field. It did indeed look like her vision. From this angle, my sword looked as though it were imbedded in Solan’s head, while it was really fixed in the ground beside him. The oddness of fate struck me just then. I had to wonder, was this Gabrielle’s vision, her unable to see the whole picture from her angle, or was I indeed fated to kill my own son before Atrius stepped in and changed the course of events.

Gabrielle stirred and I touched her cheek, attempting to rouse her further. One of the maids who had apparently rushed outside with Gabrielle handed me a cup of water.

“Gabrielle?”

“Xena?” She opened confused eyes, then they widened with the knowledge of her vision. “Oh, Xena I–”

“No, little one, it’s all right. Solan is still alive, but no thanks to me. He owes his continued mortality to Atrius and you this time.”

By now, Kuros had already made his way inside with Solan’s unconscious form on a stretcher.

“He’s inside already. Kuros is seeing to him. Are you able to stand?”

She nodded and we slowly made our way inside, stopping first, on her insistence, at Solan’s quarters. Kuros was washing his hands when we came into the bedchamber. The healer’s assistants were cleaning and bandaging the boy up, but he still looked as though he were lifeless.

“He has not regained consciousness, Lord Conqueror,” Kuros said upon seeing us.

I wasn’t sure what I felt, looking down on the boy who was my only child. Moments ago I wanted him dead, but now, he looked rather pitiful lying there all swollen and broken. I know I should have had more compassion in me for my son, but some anger at his words still lingered within me. I knew it would be a long time, if ever, before I was able to resolve this event in my head.

“The extent of his injuries?” I asked.

Kuros sighed and I knew that could not be good. “The good news is his wounds are all broken bones and contusions.”

“That’s good?” Gabrielle asked incredulously.

“Actually, my Lady, it is. Bones mend, bruises heal. The body is a very good curative machine when given the proper environment. Cuts, stab wounds, those take a chance at introducing infection into the body. The young Emissary will heal in good time. He has a number of broken ribs; his jaw, nose, and his left wrist are broken too. Everything else is simply bruised. I’m most worried about his right hand however. The bones in that have been broken, but at least two of the fingers appear crushed.”

I know I winced visibly as Kuros went on with his list of Solan’s injuries. This was what the beast could do in a matter of heartbeats. Gabrielle and I exchanged a look and she slipped a hand around my waist.

“I fear, as talented a healer as I consider myself, my abilities may not be enough to restore full motion to the young man’s hand.”

“I’m sure you’ll do your best, Kuros, and I thank you.” I said softly.

“Kuros, would you allow another healer to examine this broken hand?” Gabrielle asked.

“Of course, Lady. I have no pride in that arena. Do you have someone in mind?”

“If My Lord has no objections, I know a healer who has very knowledgeable ways in ancient healing arts. He came from the land of Chin, but I last heard that he now resides on the coast in Epidamnus. His name is Yu Pan.”

“You know the healer, Yu Pan?” Kuros asked.

The startled look in Kuros’s eyes caused me to wonder. Was this was the same healer who taught Gabrielle her inventive massage techniques?

“He and I served in the same household at one time,” Gabrielle answered.

“His reputation is quite well known, My Lord,” Kuros addressed my apparent concern. “If the Lady can persuade him to visit, I think the Emissary will be in excellent hands.”

Gabrielle looked up at me as if for approval and I quickly nodded my head. “Of course. We will send a messenger out at once.”

I broke away from the two of them to stand at the foot of Solan’s bed. My hands on my hips, I watched tight-lipped as the young men wrapped Solan’s wounds in clean bandages, and then bound the broken bones in rigid splints made of woven willow bark. I had meant to teach the young man a lesson, not take his life from him. I still wasn’t sure what I should be feeling. I only know that I had an ache in my chest that had little to do with the exertion I had so recently displayed.

“Let us know if his condition changes at all, or if he asks for . . . anything.” I said, turning away from the young man’s bed.

“Of course, My Lord.” Kuros said in an understanding tone.

* * * * * * * * * *

Gabrielle casually tossed a towel over the small washtub of water where our bloodied clothes were soaking. I had been staring at the bloody water from my reclining position in the tub. I felt Gabrielle’s fingers massaging the tightness from my neck and shoulders. Eventually, her fingers and the warm water worked their magic, and I relaxed as she washed my hair.

I sat beside the fireplace, on the very cushions that had been placed here only days ago by my lovely consort. Gabrielle rested up against me, slightly behind, working a comb through my dark hair. I stared into the flames, knowing that the small blonde behind me had been patiently waiting all these candlemarks for me to yet utter more than one word at a time.

I was in a better humor since the dinner meal when Kuros announced that Solan had indeed awakened. The young man did his best, even in pain, to be as insolent as possible to those around him. The healer laughed at our relieved smiles, saying he was sure the beating had taken no toll on the young man’s psyche. Kuros assured us that he would make Solan’s recovery as painless as possible, but much depended on the boy’s desire to heal himself. I agreed. I’d come back from some debilitating injuries in the past, but not without a great deal of hard work.

After we received these encouraging words, Gabrielle set about writing a letter to her old friend Yu Pan. She explained to me of the kindness the old man showed her, and how she often hid in his workrooms, watching or assisting in the healer’s medicinal arts. She sent a messenger on his way to Epidamnus, and asked that the healer journey to Corinth at the first possible chance. I hoped that the miraculous stories Gabrielle told me of this man’s ability were not just those of a young girl’s imagination. I had seen a great deal, however, during my life in Chin. I had seen healing take place that was nothing short of magical, and so I again prayed to Athena that the old healer was still alive.

“Would you like to talk about it?” Gabrielle’s voice brought me back to the present.

“No,” I turned with a wry smile. “But that wouldn’t be very fair to you.” She continued to comb my hair, and I admit; the action was as soothing as a massage. “What in the world were you doing down there anyway, and in your dressing gown?” I asked.

“I was determined to trust in you,” she answered. “I did enter the bath, and I believe I dozed off. I slept about as well as you did last night.”

She paused then. It was nerves and worry, but I spent a good portion of the night tossing about, unable to get comfortable. Gabrielle was so still that I never realized she suffered from the same malady.

“I know I fell asleep because I saw the vision again. It seemed so clear, Xena, and it frightened me so. Just before you put your sword into him, Solan looked . . . well, he looked as if he’d tricked you in some way, almost triumphant. I had to warn you, but when I drew near, I thought I was seeing it all again. It was a little overwhelming. I don’t usually make a habit of fainting.”

“From your vantage point, it did indeed look as though my blade had entered the boy’s skull,” I mused thoughtfully. “Solan would be dead right now if it hadn’t been for Atrius. I would have killed my own son, and I would have barely remembered how it happened.”

“The darkness?” she asked.

I nodded, amazed that Gabrielle had a way of making this horrible monster sound so slight, so as to merely be thought of as a minor character flaw.

“Monster, you mean.”

“Xena, you make it sound as if a beast lives within you.”

“And so it does, Gabrielle. It thrives on the hateful, evil side of my nature. When it sees an opportunity to strike, it does so. To stop it after a certain point would be like trying to wrest a hound from its prey.”

“If it truly is the beast you say it is, Xena, then it can be treated like any other living thing. If it’s a creature as you say, then it may be tamed, controlled, or even killed.” Gabrielle stated logically.

“I only wish that could be so, little one. The blackness that comes over me in times of anger, or battle, this curse as I know it now hasn’t always been this way. I knew it as a treasure at one time, a cherished part of myself. I can neither destroy it nor control it. I asked for it a long time ago, when I was still a young girl, and it was granted me. It was a gift freely given and accepted,” I said mournfully.

“A gift? Xena, who would do such a thing to a young girl?”

“My patron.”

“Athena?” Gabrielle looked stunned and I turned slightly, realizing she hadn’t put it together yet.

“No, little one. It happened when I was a young woman, living in Amphipolis. It was before Cortese came through our village. Before my brother . . . Athena wasn’t my patron until the evening before I invaded Athens.”

For the first time in many, many seasons, I spared a thought for my dead brothers. Lyceus had been just a boy when Cortese’s army swept through Amphipolis. I convinced the young men to stay and fight for what was ours. We were victorious in battle, but the wounds that were suffered on that day shaped the pattern of my life, and the lives of those around me. Lyceus fell in battle, still a boy, a full head shorter than myself, but determined to fight as a man. Toris ran off. Branded a coward, he never returned to his village. Cyrene, her youngest child dead, her oldest never to be heard from again, held her only daughter responsible for the fate of the other two.

I remember it so clearly, standing beside Lyceus’s body, watching as my mother came in and saw her baby’s body for the first time. I tried to explain, to tell her what happened, how I failed to protect him, to explain in some way, but she slapped me hard across the face. I stood there for a few more moments, frozen in shock and grief. I watched as Cyrene threw her body across her dead son and sobbed. That night I packed together what few belongings I had, and set out on my own. Some ten seasons later, I heard that Toris found Cortese and his men.

My older brother tried to infiltrate the Warlord’s band and was found out. He died the kind of a death that I would not have wanted to describe to my mother, had we even been speaking at the time. Toris justified himself in my eyes with his death, but my priorities were so skewed back then. I look to the past and think how much more valuable he would have been alive. I could have used an older brother; God knows Cyrene could have used a son. After having seen what forty-five seasons of life has had to show me, I would have taken a live coward for a brother, over a dead hero any day.

My meager bit of satisfaction was that I crucified Cortese when I finally caught up to him. It didn’t take him long to die considering nearly every bone in his body was broken before I had him strung up. I never saw my mother again after that. I heard she used to tell people that all her children died on the day of Cortese’s raid.

Xena?

“What?” I asked, suddenly back from visiting my own demons.

“Who was your patron before you served Athena?” Gabrielle asked.

“Ares,” I said flatly.

“The dark one?” she asked, almost in a whisper.

I nodded.

“You served Ares . . . did his bidding?”

Again, the slight nod of my head. “It was actually worse than that. I was his mistress,” I said, and felt my cheeks grow hot with shame.

“Did you love him?” Gabrielle asked.

I turned to look at her fully. It took most of my control not to laugh at the young woman. Gabrielle had such a narrow focus where I was concerned. It touched my heart that the expression on her face was dreadfully serious. I took her hands in mine and kissed each one.

“Are you jealous, little one?” I returned, just as seriously.

“He is a god, after all, Xena. How can one not be jealous? I’m sure he makes my abilities look lowly in comparison.”

I didn’t want her pain to go on, but her words flattered and touched me at once. I became aware for the first time of a rather well hidden jealous streak that Gabrielle possessed when it came to me. This time I couldn’t help but smile, so overwhelmed as I was by the feelings directed toward me from this small slip of a girl. I could see the green coloring of her eyes grow just a tad deeper, and her right eyebrow had a natural arch to it that seemed to spike up a bit when she displayed this possessive side of herself.

I reached out and stroked her cheek, bringing her eyes up to meet mine. “Gabrielle, don’t you know that you possess every quality in a mate that I have ever prayed to Athena for?”

I know she saw the truth of it in my eyes. I watched as her features returned to normal, that beautiful pink tinge of embarrassment, that I loved so, returning to her cheeks. I am always amazed every time I see it. For a young woman to have lived the life that Gabrielle has, and to still have the ability for the flush of innocence to flower upon her face at the least little compliment from me, that will always bring joy to my heart.

“Now, are you going to finish combing my hair, or not?” I turned my back to her to hide my smile. She again began to comb the dark locks, still slightly damp, but drying quickly from the heat of the fire. A comfortable silence hung in the air. I was not a verbal person by nature, and so it was a comfort that Gabrielle could take my continuous attacks of speechlessness. I could feel the question in the air, however. It hung there, suspended aloft in both our minds. It had to do with Solan’s taunt to me, no, actually his boast as we fought. I wanted to know if it was true, and Gabrielle was dying to ask what he’d done to trick me. I could feel her query come at the slight intake of breath as she prepared to speak.

“Xena?”

“Yes, little one?”

“What did he do? Solan. What did he do to cause your darkness to emerge?”

I licked my lips, my mouth suddenly dry. I didn’t want to be the one to cause her pain. Hadn’t she had enough humiliation for one lifetime? But, how could I lie to her, she who could see into my heart so well?

“He said something,” I answered.

“That doesn’t sound like you, Xena, allowing him to bait yo–” She stopped abruptly. I suppose my silence only confirmed the suspicion she had. “It was about me?” she questioned, but we both knew that she was already aware of the answer. “What did he say?”

“What does it matter.” I impatiently rose and crossed the room; pulling back the heavy tapestry to look out onto the village, smoke curling lazily from the chimneys of the newly built cottages.

I felt her rise and step up behind me. She circled my waist with her arms, pressing her cheek against my back. I covered her small hands with my own, enjoying the feel of her pressed against me.

“I always thought this might happen,” she said. “I’m surprised that it never occurred to you.”

She was right. I never even thought about it. What if a dignitary from another land visited the palace? What if he’d had Gabrielle that way . . . even owned her at one time? I bit my lower lip at the thought.

“What did Solan say to you, Xena?” she asked again.

I sighed and closed my eyes. “That . . . he said that . . . he’d been with you . . . had you. He said it was a ship, probably the pirates. You were . . .” I paused a breathed deeply. “You were the entertainment.”

She held me tighter and I wondered just who was comforting who. “It’s possible, I suppose. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it may not be the last time we hear it.”

“Do you remember?”

I could feel her shaking her head against me. “No, but it happened a great deal.”

“You’re right,” I hugged her to me tighter. “It’s not what I wanted to hear,” I answered in a strangled voice.

“I don’t remember places, or their faces. I always hid inside of myself until they were finished with me, until it seemed safe to come out again.”

I felt her pull away from me and turned, catching her in my strong grasp, pulling her face back to meet mine. She had tears in her eyes and I wanted to shed my own in empathy.

“I don’t want to be a disappointment to you, Xena. The Conqueror needs a Queen that–”

“Is exactly like you,” I finished for her. I brushed away the wisps of golden hair that head fallen across her eyes, letting my hand run along the line of her cheek to her jaw. “I choose you, and I accept all the consequences that choosing implies. I believe we can do this, Gabrielle, as long as we do it together. It won’t always be easy love, but nothing worthy of a Queen ever is.”

I know she wanted to say something, but she held her tongue, nodding, and then lowering her head. I lifted her chin with two fingers. “You have done nothing to feel shame over, little one. If anything, the disgrace belongs to those who would have hurt you in such a way. I can’t promise that I will never feel anger or even jealousy at the fact, but I do promise I will never direct those emotions at you. Gabrielle, you’ve read my scrolls. You know what kind of a woman I was.”

I paused. She was smart enough to know that I referred to my sexual proclivities. I used and I took. I know a few special scrolls I owned contained bards taking artistic license with some of my more private moments. Why anyone would want to read about an orgy was beyond me, but the stories amused me at one time. Now, they only filled me with embarrassment.

Gabrielle nodded.

“Then why would you think that you have more to be shameful for?”

“I’m not sure. It just seems that I do.”

I leaned forward and tenderly kissed her forehead, she, leaning into the loving gesture. “That is because you look at me through love’s eyes, little one. I thanks the Gods for it, and I pray that it never ends,” I whispered. “And because I look at you in exactly the same way, perhaps that is why we will never see our relationship in the same way as outsiders do. I will never appear evil in your eyes, and you will never be anything but beautiful and innocent in mine.”

I wrapped my arms around her and we stayed that way for some time. Finally, I looked down and grinned at her. “Didn’t you say something about ‘possessing me’ tonight?”

Again, that lovely blush.

“I did,” she said softly, nuzzling the skin at my neck. “But, if you don’t mind too much, I’m in a different mood tonight.”

“Oh, and what kind of mood would that be, love?”

“A snuggling mood,” she answered as she burrowed into my body further.

“A snuggling mood?” I repeated. I could feel a ridiculous grin beginning. Gods how I do love this woman, if for no other reason than simply because she taught me how to feel.

She nodded her head up and down.

“A snuggling mood,” I repeate thoughtfully. “Well, I suppose it would be a different experience. Are you a good snuggler? After all, I am the Conqueror, and I do believe I deserve the best.”

“I am a very good snuggler, My Lord.” She whispered, kissing my collarbone.

I leaned down and scooped her up into my arms, thoroughly enjoying the bright smile on her face. “Then your wish is my command, My Queen.”

I carried her into our bedchamber and kicked the door closed with my foot. We didn’t make love that evening, although earlier, I certainly had the battle lust for it. Instead, we took turns holding one another throughout the night. I’m still not certain I want that little tidbit of information to be made common knowledge. I’d like to keep some semblance of my dignity intact. However, between myself, and the scroll I write upon, it was the most beautiful and peaceful night’s rest I have ever experienced.
Chapter 7: Fettered In Prison And Without Relief.

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea

“Xena?” I called out her name, quite concerned by this time. The way the corners of her mouth appeared, upturned as if smiling in her sleep, took some of the worry from me.

“Xena?” I called out again, sitting on the bed beside her prone figure.

Her smile turned into a frown and she pulled a pillow over, covering her face.

“Xena, it’s rather late in the morning for such an early riser, are you ill?”

I saw the pillow shake back and forth and I smiled. This was the Xena that I knew. She could be child-like and innocent with a very playful dimension to her personality. I fear, however, that there are those who would think me quite ill in the head if I told them so.

“Are you going to get out of bed?”

“Don’t wanna!” came her muffled reply. She tossed the pillow aside, and grasped my hands, pulling me toward her. “Come back to bed, love. I think I need more practice with this snuggling thing.”

I slipped my hands from her grip and laughed aloud at her ploy. “I think when it comes to snuggling, you’re quite an adept student. I don’t believe further tutelage is necessary. Besides, I am bathed and dressed for the day.”

“Mmm, and you look quite beautiful too,” she answered in that charming way she has about her. She leaned up on one elbow and smiled, flashing me a glimpse of those Prussian blue bedroom eyes she can put on so easily. “That dress is very pretty on you . . . I bet it would look even better off of you.” She finished as she made a quick move to reach out for me once again.

I moved to the end of the bed, and cajoled her from there. She tossed the sheet aside and grinned. Moving to her hands and knees, she crawled, panther-like, toward me. I could feel the heated flush rise to my cheeks as it did whenever I saw her body like this. Gods, she is so incredibly beautiful. I can’t even believe that she is mine. I had to physically shake my head to break the spell that she apparently used to control me. I jumped up and waggled a playful finger in her direction.

“Oh, no, don’t you dare.”

That adorable pout that she swears she doesn’t have pulls at her mouth. I couldn’t take it. If I didn’t do something quick, I swear that I was going to burst into laughter at any moment.

“Remember, my love, Conquerors who laze about in bed all day don’t get their dessert after dinner.”

Her grin returned. Those blue eyes sparkled as she quickly grasped the double meaning of my statement. “Oh, all right, I’ll be good.”

I heard her say those words as I poured her a mug of tea from the pot that Sylla had recently brought. When I spun around again to face her, my breath very nearly stopped. Stretched out on her side along the length of the bed, she held her head in the palm of her hand. She was stunning, lying there wearing nothing but an amused smile.

“What?” she asked, the picture of innocence.

“I–I just . . . ”

“Hhmm?” she ran long fingers through her sleep tousled hair.

“I can’t think straight when you lie there like that.” I blurted out.

Her throaty laughter affected me almost as much as the sight of her nude figure. She reached over and pulled the sheet around her, sitting up and accepting the tea I offered.

“It’s simply good to know that I can affect you in that way,” she said with a smile.

She brushed her hand against mine as she took the mug from my grasp, and I paused.

“More than you know, my love, more than you know.” I answered her, raising that same hand to lightly touch her cheek.

“So, you saw that even Conquerors like to occasionally sleep in,” she began. “Where is your day taking you in such a hurry, little one?”

“I’m going to check on Solan, to see if he needs anything,” I answered.

“Alone?”

I stood there, thinking about my answer for a moment. Xena was an incredibly complex woman, but at the same time, she seemed to suffer certain insecurities. I knew that I was, and always would be, one of her greatest areas of concern. I sat back down beside her on the bed. I wasn’t sure how to begin, how to tell her of the thoughts I had rolling around in my brain. Frankly, I wasn’t altogether certain about what I was doing myself. I only know that this course of action felt as though it was the right thing to do.

“I’m uncertain how to explain this to you. It seems that Solan’s wounds go much deeper than a simple beating and some broken bones. I’m honestly undecided that this is even the right thing to do,” I said, brushing my bangs away from my eyes in a frustrated gesture. “I just have this feeling, Xena, this feeling that Solan is asking for help with the things he does, and the way he acts. I think he needs people around him right now who won’t be shocked or offended by his behavior. I’m sure he was raised in an honorable fashion, but it seems as if people have turned a blind eye to his ways because of who he is. From all that I’ve read that’s not the way the centaurs expect their leaders to act. It’s not right, Xena. He is a young man who may inherit the Centaur Nation someday. Even if he were recognized as the son of the Conqueror, it still wouldn’t be right. I think we have a duty to him,” I added, my head bowed, not raising my eyes to her. “I’m not sure why…it just feels as though we do,” I finished.

I waited then. I could hear her breathing. We sat so close I could feel the heat coming from her body, and with my eyes closed like this, I swear I could hear the cadence of her heart. I heard a deep sigh and I knew the storm was coming. She would fight against displaying any anger at me, for she loved me, but I envisioned her temper getting the best of her in this instance.

“You are magnificent, do you know that?” I heard her voice finally say.

My head snapped up and I saw her eyes narrow, their hue turning that deep blue as they do when she is trying to hold back her emotions. She once told me that I am an enigma to her, and on this day, at this very moment, she is that for me. She looks small and vulnerable sitting on our bed, only a sheet casually draped about her. One or two slightly gray hairs at her temple are the only indication of her age. I’m sure I am opened-mouthed because I suddenly find her smiling shyly at me.

“You expected me to shout, didn’t you?”

“Well, I . . . I guess I did expect a rather different reaction,” I answered.

She chuckled softly at my response. “Well, I suppose I still have a few unpredictable moments left in me then. Gabrielle, I know my pride doesn’t let me show it very often, but I trust in your feelings and your insight. You have gifts that can’t be easily explained, but that doesn’t mean we should discount them. I have seen too much in my lifetime not to believe in the unbelievable.”

She placed her mug of tea upon the low-lying table beside the bed, and then moved to face me fully.

“Much as every instinct in me tells me to patch that boy up and get him as far from our lives as possible, I’m willing to defer to the feeling that you have. To tell the truth, somewhere deep down, I want to be able to be able to help him, Gabrielle. I want to be able to help him like I wished someone would have helped me at his age.”

She hung her head for a moment and I knew she was back there once more. Her life was so full of regrets and personal shame that if she were a weaker woman; she might never have stepped back into the light. I imagined that she was replaying the times when she had not been there for her son. Perhaps she even reminisced on the times when she wished her own mother had been in her life when she was Solan’s age.

“He has so much anger, so much hate and blackness fills his heart. I see myself in him and I fear for him, Gabrielle. He doesn’t have the one thing that I have, the one thing that could lead him away from all that darkness.”

“What, Xena? What is it he doesn’t have?”

“He doesn’t have you,” she stated simply.

I was speechless. I honestly hadn’t realized the esteem Xena placed upon me, how much credit she gave me in a battle that she’d begun seasons before she met me. I felt that Xena the Conqueror, the Destroyer of Nations had died long before I came to be here. For some reason, however, Xena’s thoughts of redemption for herself revolved around me. I knew the truth, but if her love for me gave her one added stone’s weight of will against the beast that hid within her, then I would gladly accept the responsibility.

“He has both of us,” I answered.

“I want you to know that you don’t have to go, Gabrielle–”

I stopped her with a gentle hand. “He is in no position to physically hurt me, Xena, and he can’t wound me with his words. I’ve come through too much, my love, to let a spoiled, selfish young man take away my dignity. I’ve held on to that one last thing through everything. I may have lost a great deal of respect and self esteem along the way, but the only thing I was ever able to keep with me, no matter what my circumstances, was some tatter of dignity. I won’t let Solan take that away.”

Xena looked at me as if I had just told her I was a man. She shook off the stunned expression and smiled broadly. “You constantly amaze me, little one, for you have left me nearly speechless. Who are you, and what have you done with that tiny blonde who used to cower at my feet?”

“Do you want her back?” I asked.

“Absolutely not! I love the woman you’ve become, Gabrielle, very much. So, you’ll take your guard with you?”

“Yes, love. How could I possible hide from Atrius? He is taking his duties quite seriously, I might add. He’s been outside our doors since sun up.”

Xena chuckled and I knew it amused her to tease the Captain in such a fashion. I will never understand warriors and their sense of humor. She told me of her plans to release the Captain after a fortnight as my personal guard. Until then, she seemed content to watch as Atrius proved his allegiance to the Conqueror by succumbing to her will.

“Perhaps it would be best if we met with him separately, at least at first. That way he can’t play us against each other, and I won’t black his other eye for disrespecting you. Tell me, little one, when shall I see you again today, eh? Now that you are the lady of the castle, have you no time for me?” she asked with a smile.

I noticed she let the sheet covering her slip from her shoulders; her bedroom eyes back in place. Two can play at this game of torturous seduction, my Conqueror.

I may not see you until the evening meal, but I promise to give my full attention to you then.” I smiled back at her, standing up and smoothing my skirt.

“Ah, this evening is so far away. Do I get nothing to cling to until then?” She leaned back on both hands allowing the sheet to fall the rest of the way.

I believe I surprised her with the speed of my actions. I pressed one hand against her chest, pushing her to lie flat against the bed, her long legs dangling over the edge. I leaned over her, hovering just above her skin. My index finger tenderly played with the hardening skin surrounding her nipple, my tongue teasing her lips. I kissed her, gently at first, then roughly. My tongue entered her mouth, and she sucked firmly, finally allowing me this little dominance over her. Oh, she had no idea what I would demand of her later. I was in a strange mood today.

I moved my kisses along her jaw, then upwards, using my tongue to tease her ear. Using my finger and thumb, I massaged her nipple, hearing her breathing pick up. Without warning, I pinched the hardened nub of flesh sharply, delighting in the strangled moan that escaped her lips.

“Listen to my words, my love.” I whispered in her ear. “Let these sensations be your companions today as you think constantly on the attentions I plan to pay you this evening. I promise you three things, my Conqueror. Tonight, you will do my bidding,” I squeezed the flesh at my fingers again, listening to her sharp intake of breath. “Tonight, you will belong to me,” I tugged as I pinched he nipple and I was met with a ragged groan. “And, Tonight, Xena . . . you will scream my name.”

I kissed her hard on the mouth, kneading each of her breasts in my hands. I was nearly undone myself by the whimpers of pleasure that vibrated against my lips. I abruptly pulled away, leaning down for one quick peck to her cheek, and then I quickly left our rooms.

I’m sure Atrius was curious as to the smile on my face. It grew even broader when I heard Xena’s voice from inside our bedchamber.

“Oh, Gods!” She let out in a groan of frustration.

* * * * * * * * * *

Atrius seemed surprised at my destination, but he answered with his customary grace.

“As you wish, Lady.”

Kuros was just leaving and I noticed the healer was soaking wet. He had an exasperated expression on his face, and he rolled his eyes at my non-verbal question at his appearance.

“He is feeling stronger today. He kicked the bowl of water at me that I was using to clean his head laceration.”

We talked for a bit and Kuros admitted he was unsuccessful in his bid to provide Solan either medicine or food. He told me that the young man was in a frightful humor, and refused to listen to reason. His broken jaw pained him, and he wouldn’t allow anyone near him. He couldn’t open his mouth enough to get the food, or the medicine inside.

We talked for some time, as I listened intently to the healer’s diagnosis and proposed treatment of Solan. We walked back to Kuros’s cottage, a small place still inside the walls of the palace, but far enough from the castle to afford the healer some privacy. I noted the look of astonishment on his face as I continued to ask questions and discuss Solan’s injuries. My limited knowledge regarding the healing arts came from what Yu Pan had taught me, and I was always interested in learning more. Once I gathered all the information that I believed would be of use to me in assisting Solan, I thanked Kuros for his time.

“We must go to the village and do some shopping, Atrius. Would that be all right?” I said and I wasn’t surprised to see him wince at the mere idea.

“Whatever you wish, Lady.”

I laughed at his pained expression. “Please, Atrius. You look as though I’m torturing you. Oh, wait. I have no dinars. Perhaps I should ask Delia.” At the last moment, I remembered that I had no money, thinking I might have to ask Xena how to handle this sort of situation.

“I believe, Gabrielle, that you will find your credit is good at the shops in the village.”

“Oh,” I answered, feeling a little foolish. “Okay, shall we then?” I laughed. Atrius reminded me of Xena in so many ways. I felt comfortable with him, and not at all embarrassed, even when caught in an awkward spot.

“As you wish, Lady.”

I noticed he smiled that time, though.

* * * * * * * * * *

I knocked before entering the room, but I wasn’t surprised when there was no reply. The room was a mess, the bedclothes in the same state. Solan’s penetrating gaze followed me as I walked into the room, followed by Atrius. I deposited my sack of supplies on a table, attempting to shrug off the feeling of unease. It was an odd sensation, someone glaring at me with hatred burning bright in eyes that were the mirror images of my lover’s.

“I see you brought a bodyguard with you this time.” Solan mumbled between tightly clenched teeth. He winced in pain at the effort.

Atrius took a step toward the young man’s bed, but I stilled him with my hand. “Atrius, please wait outside.”

He looked at me as if considering that an unwise request.

“I promise I’ll call out if I need help.” I reassured him.

He shot a venomous look in Solan’s direction and walked from the room, closing it gently behind him. Gods, no wonder Xena likes him, the man has the forbearance of a Hestian Priestess.

I mostly ignored Solan for the first candlemark I was there. I threw open the heavy curtains covering the main section of open windows. Even though the air was chill, the room needed the freshness. I asked Atrius to send for Sylla, and she and I tidied the room in short order. I asked her to fetch a clean pitcher of water and a bowl of slightly warm broth, and then I went about unpacking my supplies.

I could see that every breath, every slight movement caused Solan pain, but it was his own refusal to take Kuros’s medication that caused the continued ache. I laid out the items that I brought with me, sitting at the table and mixing the powders Kuros provided me with, along with a mix for a poultice of my own making. I stirred the painkillers and sleeping herb in a swallow or two of spring water, and then brought the wooden bowl to sit beside Solan’s bed. In my free hand, I held an expensive flute, which I purchased in the village.

“You’re going to serenade me to death?” Solan hissed between gritted teeth.

His jaw and cheeks were so swollen that I did feel for him, quite against my will, actually. I took the lightweight flute in one hand and raised it in the air, bringing it down sharply upon the back of a chair. The ivory cracked nicely on the outside, and I repeated the action until the fracture ran the length of the instrument.

“Do you have a dagger?” I asked, searching the room with my eyes.

He did no more than scowl at me. “Gods, Solan, if I meant to kill you I’d simply poison you, not slit your throat,” I growled.

“There.” He indicated the large dresser with his eyes.

I had to stand on my toes, but I felt the dagger’s hilt and used it to pry the cracked veneer of ivory from the inner piece to the flute. Forgive me Terpsichore, I thought in regards to the destruction of the instrument. I finally succeeded in freeing the inner reed, as thin and hollow as any pond-growing reed. Indeed, it was most probably gathered from some pond or lake when still pliable and green. Dried and smoothed, it became the inner workings for one of the more costly types of musical flutes made in Greece.

I carefully eyed the chamber of the thin reed and smiled in triumph. Solan still glared. I sighed deeply.

“Didn’t you ever play make believe when you were a child?” I asked his uncomprehending gaze. “We used to hide under the water from our friends, breathing through the reed that stuck out above the water’s surface.”

I saw the light of comprehension dawn, but he wasn’t about to give in so easily.

“I’ve mixed together a pain killer for you, Solan. It will make it much easier to bear your injuries and allow you to rest.”

“I can’t drink. Hurts too much,” he mumbled.

“That’s what the reed is for.” I picked up the bowl and swirled the liquid around, demonstrating to him how to put the straw into the liquid. “You suck on this end, and you won’t have to open your mouth hardly at all.”

“Hurts!” He hissed again.

“Good Gods, are you an infant or a man. Of course it will hurt a little, but someone your size ought to be able to endure a little pain.” I spoke to him sharply, hoping to humiliate him into complying. It worked.

I held the reed up to his lips and he carefully covered the tip with his mouth. I could see tears come to his eyes at the strain the sucking motion put on his jaw muscle, but he was as close to civil as I’d seen him yet. I realized that he was probably dying of thirst. I poured clear water into a mug and held it up before him.

“Yes,” he whispered.

It was painful, but his thirst won out and he emptied the mug, drinking through the hollow reed. He drank half of another and settled back against the feather pillows stacked around him. Each of his bandaged and splinted arms rested on a cushion beside him, but his bed was a mess. I was determined to take care of that once the herbs put him to sleep. He tried to suck back a yawn, but he opened his mouth a bit, so I knew the medicine was beginning to work.

I cleaned around the room, preparing my supplies for my next bit of work, yet Solan and I exchanged no more conversation. I felt the weight of his stare as his eyes constantly followed my movements. On one glance from out of the corner of my eye, he appeared sullen and very angry. A few heartbeats later, his expression was one of sadness, even longing. He said not a word, however.

I placed the saturated poultice and binding cloths beside him on the bed. “I have something to help your broken ribs. It will bind them up, and hurt like Hades putting it on, but I can’t do it when you’re asleep. I need to make sure it’s tight, but not so that you can’t breathe.”

He grunted something unintelligible, and his expression seemed to indicate it was agreement. I knew he couldn’t strike me. Not that he wouldn’t, simply that with both arms splinted, and as adverse as he was to suffering, I didn’t think he’d willingly endure the pain involved.

He looked on as I pulled the sheet back. I soon discovered he wore nothing underneath the sheet, probably because he wouldn’t let anyone get close enough to even put a clean nightshirt on him. I folded the sheet back to his waist and frowned at the sight of his injuries. The entire left side of his torso was a mass of angry looking bruises. Bluish-purple coloring mottled his skin, raised red areas indicating the worst of the damage.

“I’m going to place the poultice over the area, then use these cloth strip to bind your chest up. It will be more difficult to breathe, but the pain, and swelling will lessen considerable by morning. With the binding cloths you should find it easier to move about.”

He simply stared and I wondered if brooding and speechlessness was passed down in the blood. He drew in some sharp breaths as I worked, but the painkiller was working its magic, for he was sound asleep as I tied off the last cloth. I hadn’t the heart to wait until he woke again to do it.

I sent for Sylla once more and the two of us were able to change the bedding while Solan was asleep. Due to the medicine, he never woke during the process. Kuros came, also, and was able to do a more thorough examination on Solan. He complimented me on the ingenious reed and the way I bound Solan’s ribs. We sat and relaxed as the young man slept, enjoying the much-needed repast of fruit and cheese that Delia sent to the room.

I explained the poultice that I used, one, which Yu Pan taught me to apply, and Kuros was amazed when I told him of its curative properties. We spoke of healing, and medicines. He enjoyed literature, both of us having a fondness for the farcical works of Aristophanes.

I believe that Kuros looked upon me differently after the candlemarks we spent together. When he left Solan’s room, the healer bowed a little deeper. I must say that it pleased me greatly that I had been able to converse intelligently with a man of such acumen.

Not long after Kuros left, I asked one of the young boys from the kitchen to start a fire to combat the damp chill. I lit the candles and the lamps, and pulled the tapestries back over the windows. Just as I took a sip of warm tea, which Delia so graciously delivered to me, I heard Solan stir. He moaned when he moved around the bed and I quickly mixed another dose of the painkiller.

“Drink some more of this,” I commanded him, and he did as I bid, a sleepy expression still on his face. “You can have this four times during the day, but no more than that. It will make you drowsy, but the best thing for your body right now is rest.”

“Water?” He phrased it as a request from behind his tightly held jaw, and that rather surprised me.

He used the reed to drink another mug of water and thankfully one of Kuros’s young apprentices showed up. I left the room momentarily while the young man helped a somewhat humiliated Solan to use the chamber pot. I asked the young man to see that there was a male attendant to see to Solan’s needs at all times. He nodded and promised to speak to Kuros and the house staff immediately.

I gave Solan another drink of water. “It’s important that you drink a great deal of water, even if you do find it embarrassing to relieve yourself with that.” I indicated the pot and its lid beside the bed. “The medicine will make your thirst even worst and you can become ill if you don’t have enough fluid.”

He drank again and nodded his head, indicating he was finished. When I finally heard his voice again, I nearly jumped, it surprised me so.

“Where . . . where did you learn the reed?” he asked in a halting manner, his teeth clenched together.

I stoked the fire and added another blanket to his bed as I spoke. “It was a healer in Persia where I spent my youth.”

“As a slave?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “I contracted an illness when I was very young. They seemed very familiar with it. My cheeks and jaw became so swollen that it was excruciating to open my mouth, and chewing was simply out of the question. I had quite a fever and it was necessary for me to drink a great deal of liquids. The healer came up with the idea.

Many seasons later when one of the youngsters in the household I served in contracted the same illness, I thought of the reed. I discovered that artisans place a hollow reed inside the flutes they make of bone or ivory. They air dry the reeds and sand them down until they’re smooth.”

“You know . . . this isn’t going to work,” he suddenly muttered.

“Excuse me?”

“Being nice to me. What do you . . .” he swallowed carefully. ” . . . Hope to get from it?”

“Does that have to be the only reason I’m here? If I want something from you?”

“Then why?” he asked.

I paused then. How was I supposed to answer? “I honestly don’t know.”

“It won’t make me like you,” he stated simply.

“Be that as it may, you are in this house, and you have become a sort of responsibility. Until you are healed enough to travel on your own, or until your father comes for you, you shall see me everyday, like it or not. Between you and I, Solan, I am one of the few people willing to be nice to you, so I wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

I moved the pitcher of water to his bed table and mixed another dose of painkiller, leaving it on the table for later.

“Even a dog knows better than . . . to keep coming back . . . to the hand that beats them.”

“Why is it you hate me so, Solan?” I asked without warning.

“I have my reasons,” he muttered sullenly, turning his face away.

“Perhaps you don’t think a former slave good enough to be the wife of the Conqueror,” I boldly added.

He turned wounded eyes upon me then and whispered in a tight voice. “You don’t know what she’s really like. She’ll hurt you . . . then leave you. She’ll leave you on . . . on your own, Gabrielle.”

It was the first time I remembered Solan ever using my name. His statement was certainly odd, but by the time I’d processed his vocalizations, he was fast asleep. I left the room with a strange sense that perhaps it wasn’t simply Solan’s anger at Xena that drove his behavior. I wondered if perhaps I had unwittingly become a player in this sad tragedy.
Chapter 8: After The Battle On The Field Of Rout
“What?” I was, quite abruptly, wrenched from my fantasy concerning a certain golden-haired woman.

“Are we finished for the day, Lord Conqueror?” Antillius asked me.

I had been hearing petitions for the better part of the afternoon. My mind was easily distracted today and I blamed it completely on the state Gabrielle left me in this morning. She has become my equal in every way, whether she realized it or not. In the bedroom, well, let’s simply say that I have no fears that she will ever disappoint me there.

This physical need was something I had never thought to feel again. I am, after all, the Conqueror. In the past, I had only to command, and I could have any woman I desired before me on her knees. Now, I not only have no desire for anyone other than Gabrielle, but she has reduced me to that of any ordinary lover. I must wait patiently for her to bestow her favors on me. No more can I simply take. Now, I must plead and wait. Gods! Didn’t she realize it would be torture for me today? Especially after the condition she aroused me to this morning, only to disappear from the room before my eyes were even opened.

I thought again of her words, the reason my mind had wandered so often today. Was she serious? She can be commanding in the bedroom, it seems it brings out all of her own power, but her words this morning smacked of control and authority. Could I even begin to go there? I smiled to myself at the thought of being dominated by the small woman. I swallowed hard as I realized that if Gabrielle wished it, she most certainly could control me in that arena. My need for her, physically and mentally, grew with each passing day. The idea of such pleasure secretly thrilled me, but I wasn’t at all sure if I’d come that far yet, or ever would.

“So, shall I tell them to return tomorrow, Lord Conqueror?” Antillius asked again.

“What? Oh, uhm, yes . . . let’s start fresh in the morning.” I answered.

It was late afternoon and our private rooms were empty. I assumed Gabrielle was still with Solan. I made my way to the young man’s rooms, but I stood at the door for the longest time. I wasn’t sure if I should knock, or walk right in. I compromised by knocking, then walking in.

The candles and oil lamps brightened the otherwise cheerless room. Gabrielle was nowhere in sight, and Solan lay sleeping in his bed. The room had Gabrielle’s distinctive mark upon it. Everything looked clean and fresh, even down to the cut flowers in a vase upon the table.

I went to stand at Solan’s bedside, noticing the thin reed sticking out from a mug of water. I smiled at the ingenuity, and simply knew that Gabrielle was the one responsible. I probably should have left then, but something held me there. I pulled up a chair and sat, crossing my legs and leaning back. I looked at his face as he slept, swollen and battered from a beating he’d taken at the hands of his own mother.

I found my fingers weaving their way into my hair. I leaned forward in my chair, elbows on my knees. The last time I saw Solan he looked much the same way. I bloodied his lip back then too, I thought ironically. He was only eight, but I was a younger, more insolent version of the Conqueror then, much more full of myself. Most of all, I was much less tolerant of people in general.

* * * * * * * * * *

I had just dismounted, and a lad came at me with a small dagger. I remember waving off my guards and even the centaurs, amused that the fellow had the jewels to come after me. I easily plucked the blade from his grasp and backhanded him across the mouth. I had no idea it was my son, the boy Kaleipus invited me there to meet. This dark haired boy with his mane in a wild mop, dirt streaked across his chin, I never took him for my own until he looked up at me.

Sky blue eyes stared back at me, and as I was wont to do in those days, I pushed him into the dirt. I did so to try to hide my own emotions, dangerously close to the surface, seeing my child for the first time since I held him as a baby.

“He’s the adopted son of Kaleipus.” One of my Lieutenants pointed out to me.

The boy raced back up to me and I caught him by the neck of his shirt, lifting him off his feet to face me. He kicked his feet, but with my long arms, I held him away from me, dangling in mid air.

“You killed my father!” he screamed.

My expression changed, and I quieted the boy with a stony glare. “Who told you that?” I hissed.

I could see the fear in his eyes now.

“Some people said it.” He squirmed. “They said the Destroyer of Nations killed Borias, my father, in the war with the centaurs.

“Things happen during a war, boy. Don’t believe everything a drunken centaur tells you.”

“I hate you!”

I brought his face closer to my own and answered him in an intimidating tone. “You hate me do you?I guess that makes me your enemy. You best remember, boy, don’t ever lose your head in front of the enemy . . . or you just might lose your head to the enemy.” I sat him on the ground, turned away, and remounted my horse.

“They said you killed my mother, too!” He shouted up at me.

That certainly caught my attention. I remember wanting to climb inside a hole and die right then and there. No matter what I did from this point on, Solan would grow up thinking of me as the Conqueror, the woman who killed his mother and father. Although I wasn’t the one who struck the fatal blow to Borias that night, I did kill Solan’s mother. Somewhere, long before Solan was born, I killed Xena of Amphipolis. I killed her just as surely as if I’d taken her life at the end of my blade. I made a deal with the Dark God of War, and Xena was no more. In her place existed the Conqueror.

I looked down at the angry young boy and left him with words that I hadn’t even remembered until this moment. “No one stays around forever, boy. Get used to it.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“Did you come to gloat or to sleep?” I heard Solan’s voice mumble hoarsely.

I quickly raised my head to see sleepy eyes staring at me. I hadn’t even realized I nodded off.

“You talk in your sleep, Conqueror,” Solan accused.

I feared that I repeated some of what my dream encompassed, but instead of Solan’s usually angry glare, there was confusion in his expression. I was uncertain as to how to read him.

“I’m sure it was of no importance,” I answered.

“Perhaps not to most,” he returned quickly, if not somewhat cryptically.

“Uhm, how are you feeling? All things considered, that is.”

“Considering you tried to kill me, you mean?”

“Thirsty?” I asked, motioning toward the pitcher of water, ignoring his reply. I wasn’t certain whether he was being facetious or abrasive.

He nodded and winced. “She left some medicine . . . uh, can I have that first?”

I noticed the forced tone to his voice. He was only being civil to get what he wanted. I wasn’t about to fool myself into thinking that one day with Gabrielle, and Solan suddenly developed a conscience, or manners. I wanted to laugh at myself . . . that was how it was when I met Gabrielle, though, wasn’t it? After one night with her, I wanted to be more. Actually, Gabrielle made me want to be a better woman. I noticed, too, when he said she left the medicine. It was as if Solan couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak Gabrielle’s name.

I stirred the liquid in the bowl and held the thin reed up to his bruised lips. Once I returned the bowl to the table, I offered the mug of water until he drank his fill.

“Have you eased your conscience yet?” Solan asked.

I knew instantly that he referred to the fact that I was there. Gods, the boy loved pushing me!

“There are a good many things that still gnaw away at my conscience, Solan, but I have to say that whipping your ass on that field is not one of them,” I lied. “You look warm,” I noticed the sweat on his brow.

“Actually, I’m kind of cold,” he answered.

I crossed the room to add a couple of logs to the fire; a warm, orange glow then lit the room. It seemed to warm my soul as well as my body.

When I turned around to look at him, I enjoyed the surprised expression he wore due to my words. Our uncomfortable silence was broken by a knock, then one of the kitchen maids entering the room. She brought a tray with instructions from Delia. It seems my friend, and personal cook, had made Solan’s nutritional needs her own special mission.

“Shall I assist you, my Lord?” The young woman asked Solan. She appeared hesitant, as if Solan had cuffed her about in the last day or so. Either that, or she had heard how ill tempered he could be.

“What is your name?” I asked. It amazed me that I had so many people working in this palace, and I knew so few of their names.

“Lydia, Lord Conqueror.”

“I’ll assist him, Lydia. Thank you for bringing the food and thank Delia for me also.”

“Yes, my Lord.” She fairly ran from the room, and I don’t know if it was me, Solan, or all she’d heard about the two of us, which caused her to take flight so quickly.

The boy made short work of the food. It seemed to go smoothly enough even though I tipped the bowl too far, and some of it ended on the napkin covering his chest.

“At least she managed to get it in my mouth, and not bathe me in it.” Again, his offhanded reference to Gabrielle.

“I’m a ruler, not a maid,” I answered. I was beginning to grow short-tempered by his constant, sniping remarks. I was allowing him to get to me, even though I told myself that was exactly what he wanted.

He asked for a drink of water again, and I, like an idiot, fell right into his game. His skin appeared rather flushed and he was sweating a bit, so in my own defense, it made sense. It had been nearly the sixth or seventh time he asked for a drink, taking one sip each time. I could swear he was actually grinning this last time. He was baiting, and even though I knew it, I couldn’t stop the inevitable. One the eighth request, I blew.

“Ares balls, man! You’re going to float away with the sea of water you’re drinking!”

“She said I should. She said the medicine would make me thirsty.” He answered casually, patronizing me as if I were a child, which as this moment I was doing a wonderful job of imitating.

“Oh, she did, did she? Well, then I suppose it must be true, since you’re making everything that came out of her damn mouth sound like it came from Almighty Zeus himself!”

He chuckled then and I froze. Good Gods…he’s worse than Gabrielle, I thought as I realized he didn’t even have to lead me to that proverbial water to drink . . . I ran there myself, and dove right in. The next thought I had was how delightful the sound of his genuine laughter was, even if it was at my expense.

I could do no more than what I always did when Gabrielle showed me up for being so obtuse. I smiled and shook my head.

“You are such an ass,” I said. By now, I was chuckling at my own actions.

“You’re easier to bait than her, though. She pretends she can’t hear half the things I say, but you know she does. You, though, you’re pretty classic, Conqueror. Your temper’s about as short as a blade of grass.”

My face grew serious at that. “Perhaps if I’d spent half my life being abused, instead of being the abuser, I might have the same qualities that Gabrielle seems to possess.”

My words took the smile from his face. It must have been the medicine because I heard him sigh loudly. Just when I was about to feel compassion for the boy, he stepped into it all over again.

“I’ll tell you the same thing I told her. This won’t work, what you’re doing. I’m not an idiot Conqueror. There isn’t a leopard in the jungle that can truly change its spots,” he hissed. “Oh, it can hide, camouflage its markings, but it can never truly change.”

“What in Hades are you talking about?” I asked. One moment we were sharing a somewhat laughable, awkward moment, the next instant, Solan’s suspicious nature came into play.

“Being nice to me won’t help . . . not now, Conqueror. It’s too late.”

He turned his head from me, and although he was a man, I thought I glimpsed a hurt little boy, before his eyes looked the other way.

“It changes nothing,” he hissed.

I was thoroughly confused at, not only this turn of events, but also the very words he spoke. They seemed to make no sense, and I truly wondered if the boy was talking to himself or me. Perhaps the medicine was causing him to hallucinate, or perhaps it was reacting badly within his body. I’d seen instances of men who became raging lunatics while on herbal medications. The instant the herbs where cleansed from the body, however, the individuals returned to their right minds.

“Changes nothing! You and she . . . I can see what’s happening. You can’t make up for it now . . . you may think you can with a pat on the head, and a ‘good boy,’ but this won’t change things. It won’t change anything.”

Did I say suspicious nature? I’m sure I meant rampant paranoia. I crossed the room and poured myself a large goblet of wine from the flagon on the table. I downed about half of it in the first swallow. “What won’t change things?” I asked. My back still faced the boy.

“You being my mother.”

He spoke the words so matter of factly that I was stunned, my feet frozen to the floor. I thought that maybe, just maybe, I heard him wrong. I thought that perhaps what I heard came from my head, and not Solan’s tongue. This was ludicrous, wasn’t it? The boy was ranting, hallucinating . . . perhaps too much painkiller. I was still too afraid to turn around. If I faced him, confronted him with his words, then I would have to deal with them, wouldn’t I? Am I ready for this? Was he ready for this?

“You were never meant to discover that, Solan. Who told you this?” I asked. At last, I turned to look him in the eye.

“You did,” he said slowly from his clenched, swollen jaw. “Just now. I thought . . .” he blinked sweat from his eyes, and his face now held a feverish cast to it. He licked his bruised lips. “I thought it absurd . . . impossibly implausible . . . so, it’s true. You gave me away like so much rubbish because you didn’t want me.”

He suddenly appeared rather vulnerable.

“That’s not true!” I cried out, moving closer to the bed. “Whoever told you that lied. What I did that day was the hardest thing I’d ever done! I agonized over that decision!”

“For how long?” he whispered. “Heartbeats?”

“Don’t you understand what your life would have been like with me, provided you had lived past your first birthday? You would have been a target for everyone that wanted to get to me!” I hissed.

“So you got rid of me just like you got rid of my father. Borias was–”

“Borias was a fool!” I paced the room, my hands pushing back the hair that fell into my face. How had this meeting gone so wrong, so fast? “Look, I don’t like to say it that way, but he was.”

What happened to my life so suddenly? This was happening much too quickly. Why didn’t I simply shut up? Why didn’t I say it was all a lie so we could go back to our mutual tolerance and dislike for one another. Why was I allowing this to happen?

The answer came to me as soon as it echoed through my brain. Somewhere, deep inside, I truly wanted Solan to know that I was his mother. I can’t really say why I desired this, but I can say that I think I wanted it to be so. I didn’t want to keep it a secret any longer. I wanted this one piece of my past brought out from under the dark cloak I’d wrapped around it for the last twenty-three seasons.

“Do you think it was easy?” My tongue forged ahead, while my brain told me to just quit talking and deny it all. “Do you think you would have lived any longer with your father than you would have with me? Borias was a fool because he grew idealistic. He thought he could just quit the life we led. You don’t just walk away from being a Warlord! People aren’t going to just let you walk away from a thing like that, not when you spent the previous ten seasons killing them.”

“So, you killed him?” Solan’s voice was hoarse. I thought it was from emotion, but I realized his eyes had a glazed, faraway look in them.

“No, but I was responsible. I didn’t have the kinds of feelings I should have for the man, those were my failings, Solan, not yours. I was sorry he died . . . afterward, but at the time . . . well, I have to admit that I would have fought him myself if I thought he stood between me and my goals.”

I stood by the bed now, attempting to look anywhere but at Solan.

“I don’t understand,” he said

When I looked up, I could tell by his expression that he didn’t understand. He had built all this up for so long, really only half expecting it to be true. It probably became convenient to believe in it, convenient to blame any, and all, failings in life on it. Perhaps it was the reason why he’d never taken responsibility for his own actions. It might have become second nature to blame me for everything. Now that he was faced with the truth of it, he looked as though he’d been kicked in the gut.

Why?” Solan asked softly.

“Because it’s what I did best. I was an evil, sadistic bitch. I did everything for only one reason, and that was for how it would profit me. I was as hateful, ruthless, and as power hungry as I could get away with being. I did what I wanted because I was strong, and others were weak.”

I had to stop just then. I would not allow myself any tears before this boy, but my throat constricted with emotion, and I had to swallow down the feelings that threatened to make themselves known.

“When I had you, suddenly all the old rules didn’t seem to apply. One thing your father said did get through to me, though. He said that you would never be able to live a normal life as long as you were around me. I wasn’t afraid of his warning that you might be used as a pawn to get to me. I worried that you would become like me. I took, Solan, from everyone. From the moment I left my mother’s home, I never gave anyone anything, until the moment I gave birth to you. Giving you to Kaleipus was the first decent thing I’d done in a long time.”

I looked down at the boy, lying there suffering from injuries that I had caused. “I’m sorry, Solan.” I used the words that only Gabrielle ever heard from me.

He turned sullen eyes away from me and I pretended that it didn’t hurt. What had I expected? Did I think that once he found out, things would suddenly change? I really never allowed myself to look that far ahead. I had found, in my life, that unfulfilled expectations could cause more of a hurt, than had they never been wished for in the first place. Well, it was out in the open now. I had no idea how to proceed, where to take things from here.

“How would you like to treat this news?” I asked. What an inane question, but one that had to be asked.

“It doesn’t really change things,” he responded. He was quieter now, the edgy ramblings abated. “Do you want anyone to know?”

He asked the one question that I had no answer for. I simply wasn’t sure. I decided to be honest with him. I owed him at least that much.

“I’m not sure,” I answered. I decided to try a little levity. I should have known better. Comedy is not my forte. “Of course, I don’t want anyone knowing as long as you continue to be an arrogant ass.” Even my smile was lost on him.

“It’s just the way I am,” he replied. “It’s too late to change now.”

“It’s never too late to change, Solan. Please, remember that. If my life teaches you only one thing, let it be that.”

“I think . . . we should just keep it to ourselves . . . for now.”

I admit to myself that those words hurt. I hadn’t expected them to, but they did all the same. Again, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do; I only know how I felt. His quiet change in manner encouraged me, along with his last couple of words . . .for now. It gave me hope that my son and I could somehow come to a truce of sorts. I knew one thing; his manner would have to improve a hundredfold before I would take any pride in calling him my son.

I awkwardly reached out to simply touch my hand to his face. He didn’t pull away completely, but he certainly didn’t acknowledge the gesture. I passed the act off as though I was checking his temperature.

“You’re a bit feverish. I’ll call Kuros.”

I called out for the attendant, and bid him to send for the healer.

“So, does this mean I have to put up with her everyday? I suppose she already knows our little secret. Is that why she’s trying to be nice to me?”

“Gods, boy! You’re more paranoid than even I am. Maybe she’s taking care of you because she’s a wonderfully compassionate woman. Maybe it’s because she sees something more in you than the insolent little child you’ve shown everyone so far. Maybe she’s just doing it for me, because she knows I can’t . . . or won’t.”

“I don’t need her trying to win me over.”

“Let me inform you, Solan. I am marrying Gabrielle, and she will be the Queen of this Empire. Now, whatever distaste you find in my consort being a woman, or whatever problem you may have with her because she was illegally held as a slave, you have two options. If you want to get along in this castle, you can get over it, or keep it to your self. I have neither the time, nor the inclination to deal with anyone that treats her with disrespect, least of all my son.”

He rather flinched as I said, my son. It was the very first time either of us said the words aloud, and it sounded oddly foreign.

His shoulders slumped a bit, and I recognized the appearance of defeat in his body language. He was more boy than man, emotionally, and so I thought, just maybe, his confusion was genuine. He was caught, in a way. He was an abundantly proud young man, caught in the position of having to rely on others to care for him. He was smart enough to recognize the fact that he needed us right now, but he was just temperamental enough to hate himself for having to rely on someone else. Gods, how well I knew what he was going through.

“So, what am I supposed to do while she mothers me all day?” he asked. I did notice that the tone of his voice didn’t hold that harsh edge to it any longer. It would again, of that I was sure. My young son was too much like his mother to let go of a grudge that easily. I suspected that his physical condition had pulled a bit of the fight from him.

“Do you play King’s Men?” I asked, attempting to keep the laughter from my voice.

“Of course,” he answered.

“You might engage her in a game. She’s quite good.”

He smirked, and Gods! It was like watching my own expressions. “I’ve been taught war strategy and theory all my life, and you want me to play a game of strategy with a woman who probably doesn’t even see the need for war?”

I smiled, knowing what the outcome of a game between the two of them would be. “Trust me, Solan. Warriors come in all shapes and sizes, genders, and philosophical backgrounds. The truly great warriors are the ones who usually don’t even know it until the time is at hand. Play the game . . . I think you’ll be surprised.”

Kuros’s young apprentice came into the room and bowed deeply. “Lord Kuros is in the village, Lord Conqueror, but he is coming straight away. He bid me to begin mixing a medicine to reduce the Emissary’s fever.”

I nodded and thanked the young man, allowing him to carry on with his task. He went into the next room and sat at a table, using a stone carved mortar and pestle to grind some herbs that he removed from small leather pouches. Solan felt warm, but not burning with the fever. I didn’t worry, knowing capable hands were delivering his care.

“I should leave you to your medicine and some rest,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said. His voice was sardonic, but I could see his lips were trying not to turn up in a smile. I hated feeling ill, but worse than that, I hated medicine. Kuros was sworn to secrecy, but on the rare occasions when I developed a fever, a huge gulp of honey was the only way I could tolerate the healer’s usually foul tasting potions.

“Tell Kuros you want a spoonful of honey after. It will take the bitterness away,” I suggested.

I moved toward the door to leave, but had to ask. “Solan, what you said . . . about Gabrielle the other day. Was it true?” I asked, facing the door.

There was a long pause before he answered and I wondered if he would try to drive the dagger in my heart, or if he would throw me a bone.

“No,” he answered softly. “I . . . it was just to get to you.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. I would never be completely sure that Solan was telling me the truth with this profession, but what touched my heart was his admission. If the event actually happened, my son was showing the first bit of compassion that he’d most probably ever exhibited to anyone. If he was telling the truth, then his consideration for how that knowledge would affect me was nothing short of amazing. Either way, it was a first step.

“Thank you, Solan.” I answered before bidding him a good evening and leaving the room.

* * * * * * * * * *

I’m not sure how I looked, but my body language must have been enough for Gabrielle to immediately pour me a cup of wine. I slumped down onto the loveseat beside the fire.

“Well, no new cuts or bruises, so it couldn’t have gone too badly,” she teased.

She handed me my wine, and I took a large swallow before speaking. “It was very . . . different, almost confusing.”

“How so?” she asked, taking a seat beside me.

I couldn’t help but enjoy the sweet, clean scent of her, and the way her silk robe fell off one shoulder. It was apparent that she wore nothing underneath the robe, and once that thought was in my brain, all I could think about were her promises from earlier that morning.

I admit; I must be a pathetic mother, or just a sexual deviant. As soon as I thought about Gabrielle’s promise to make me scream, I felt myself become wet with desire. I promised myself I would tell her about Solan in the morning.

“Xena, are you all right?”

“Hhmm?” I asked, while leaning toward her. I reached down and kissed her exposed shoulder. She chuckled slightly at my behavior.

“You’re very cute when you’re confused,” she whispered, kissing the side of my neck.

“Please, Gabrielle.” I tried to put on an affronted expression. I placed my cup on the floor, and pulled her slight body closer to me. “I’m a warrior. Cute is not really the look I’m going for.”

She quickly moved to straddle my lap, continuing her affections to my neck and jaw. “But you do get that cute little puppy dog expression when you’re confused about something.”

I slid my hands along the tops of her thighs, grabbing her backside, and pulling her against me tighter. I teased myself by imagining the feel of her skin against my fingers. I anticipated that it would feel as soft as the silk of her robe.

“It’s a very sexy look for you, Conqueror . . . being vulnerable.”

“Oh,” I half moaned. “Is that how you want me . . . helpless?”

“It’s the way I want you tonight.” She breathed in my ear. “Do you love me, Xena?”

“Completely,” I answered in between kisses.

“Trust me?”

“Absolutely.”

“Would you do anything to please me?” she asked.

“You know I would, little one.” Gods, I was so whipped. I prayed none of my enemies ever found out. Ah, to Hades with them, I bet they aren’t getting laid tonight.

“I want you tonight, Xena.”

“You have me, love. Body and soul.”

“I mean I want you. I want to take you.”

My eyes opened in the middle of our kiss, and I pulled away just slightly. “What, like when I proved I was a rotten slave?” I grinned in nervous confusion.

“Even more.” She responded in a low, husky tone. “I want all of you.”

She placed both hands along the sides of my neck, massaging the area. She slid them into my hair, her nails raking along the base of my scalp. I’m not sure what it was about this little move of hers, obviously some sort of pressure point that I never learned. My scalp tingled deliciously where she ran her fingers, and I felt small sparks intermittently ignite in the area between my legs.

My eyes closed at this arousing pleasure, and I tilted my head back, listening to her words, and allowing her to mark my neck with her rough kisses. “I want to be your whole world, the only source of your gratification. I want to know that you belong to me. Tonight, I want to own you, Xena.”

I can’t say I was exactly certain of what she had in mind, but I knew two things. One, whatever she had planned, the satisfaction would be mind numbing. Two, when she used words like own and belong, we were talking about, as yet, uncharted area between us. I opened my eyes and swallowed hard at the intensity in those passionate emerald eyes.

I watched as she extricated her body from mine and stood. “I’ll understand if you can’t, Xena, but I want you to know, it would please me greatly if you could.”

I could hear the plea in her gentle voice; see the desire in her gaze. In an instant, I thought of a hundred reasons why, in the past, I was unenthusiastic about submitting to another’s will. I could think of only one, however, to accept Gabrielle’s request.

I was quite unwilling to refuse this woman anything.

I took a deep breath and turned toward the door that led to the castle hallway. I pulled the heavy bolt over the latch. Whatever my lovely consort had in mind, I didn’t want to be caught in a compromising position by an overzealous guard, especially if Gabrielle made good on her promise to make me scream.

I went to stand before her. “What do you want me to do?” I asked.

She smiled at that, and I know that no matter what, I would do anything to keep the light in that smile. She held out her hand saying, “Come make love with me.”

I smiled broadly. “I can do that,” I replied.

* * * * * * * * * *

She kept her own robe on as she undressed me. It was a good thing, too. Having her stand naked before me would have been just too much temptation to resist.

“Sit down.” She indicated the edge of the bed.

I sat there, nervously watching as she opened the standing cabinet on the other side of the room. She brought a bundle over, and laid it on the bed beside me. I didn’t know what it contained, but I was certainly no stranger to hedonistic delights. I assumed what the cloth covering contained. Gods, I was actually nervous. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel safe with Gabrielle, it was the not knowing what we would be doing, what exactly she desired of me. It was a fear of the unknown that began to attack me.

She stood in front of me, and let her robe slip off her shoulders, soundlessly falling to the floor. She stood there, just like that, for long moments. I allowed my eyes to take in every inch of her. When I saw what she reached for first, it became clear why she permitted me to take in the sight of her. She held out a long black cloth, and then stood between my parted legs.

I wasn’t at all thrilled with being unable to see. It was ironic, though; that the last sight I would see, before she covered my eyes with the soft cloth, was the golden curls covering her sex. It was the intoxicating scent of Gabrielle’s arousal, which convinced me to comply with her unspoken demand.

She tied the cloth lightly, but sufficiently to block any trace of shadow.

“Lie back,” she said, and helped me to position my body in the middle of the large bed.

I felt the heat coming off her as she straddled my belly. When she rested her body against mine I could feel her wetness, and I began to wonder just whose pleasure this seduction was for. I felt her body lean against me as I tried to imagine what she might be doing. When her breasts touched mine, I couldn’t contain myself, running my hands up her back.

She chuckled at my lack of restraint, taking my hands and bringing them over my head. I have to give the girl credit. She tried to gentle me every step of the way, and it led me to believe that she’d done this before. I could be so thick some of the time. My future wife had lived half her life as a body slave, yet I always got a mental picture of Gabrielle as rather an innocent. I think that notion was about to be dispelled in a big way.

She brought my hands up until they nearly touched the large headboard. She opened my hand with her fingers and placed something in my palm. I should have known what it was right off, I mean, I’d used them myself once or twice in my lifetime, although I’d never been on this end of the situation.

I tugged on the straps. They were a soft leather, but thick and strong. Once I had my wrists strapped into these, there would be no escaping. I could feel my breathing deepen. It was an involuntary response, as if there were not quite as much air in the room as before. I was going to say something in the way of a refusal, but suddenly Gabrielle’s upper body was lying pressed against mine, and her mouth covered my own. Her tongue began to do some amazing things that I honestly felt all the way to my toes. My heart rate escalated a bit more, but now it was from desire. Her fingernails gently ran up the sides of my torso, continuing along the length of my raised arms. What saved me was my absolutely, one-track mind where this woman was concerned. I figured as long as she kept touching, and kissing me this way, I would barely notice I was tied down.

When she tightened the last strap, an odd feeling passed through me. My flesh no longer felt heated. On the contrary, a cold, clamminess settled on me. A light sheen of sweat covered my skin that had little to do with arousal or anticipation. I recognized the sensation as fear.

Images flitted back and forth across my mind’s eye. I tugged on the straps that bound my wrists, realizing that I would be hard pressed, even in an emergency, to escape from my confined state. Suddenly I was thinking the most outlandish thoughts. In this position, someone could do anything they wanted to me. Gabrielle was in a position to hurt me, if not kill me. I couldn’t see, couldn’t move. I was well on my way to an anxiety attack.

All at once Gabrielle was there, her body pressed against my skin, her lips meeting mine. She kissed her way around to my jaw, and then up to my ear, her hands rubbing my arms.

“I’m right here, Xena. It’s just the two of us, love.”

Her kisses moved along the corded line of my neck.

“This is only about love and gratification, Xena,” she said softly. “I won’t do anything you don’t want me to, and I’ll stop anytime you ask me to, no questions asked. I won’t cause you any pain other than what you find pleasurable, and I won’t ever humiliate you.”

I think I might have asked her to stop right then and there, if at the moment her words ended, a warm mouth hadn’t enclosed the nipple of my right breast.

“Gods!” I cried out sharply. The combination of adrenalin coursing through my body, and nervous tension simply accentuated the satisfaction of the sucking motion. When her tongue got in on the action, my whole body was flooded with warmth.

She slid down the length of my body, and I quickly parted my legs for her. I felt her tongue on my belly, making little swirling patterns on my skin. In my mind, I could see every move she made. I felt that same tongue licking its way along the edge, tracing the outline of the black triangle of curls.

“Xena, I’m going to do something, and if you don’t like the sensation, tell me, and I’ll stop.” She kissed her way along my inner thigh, placing a gentle kiss on the heated, very wet flesh between my legs.

“Ohhh,” I moaned at the sudden loss when she pulled away.

I felt two or three fingers feeling their way slowly along the line of flesh where thigh met labia. Almost as if she found the spot she was searching for, Gabrielle pressed inward quickly, and I felt a sort of popping sensation there.

“Sweet Athena!”

“Should I stop, Xena?” Gabrielle’s voice held a tinge of concern, but I was rather lost to it.

“By the Gods, don’t you dare!”

If she had asked me to beg, I most certainly would have. My entire sex throbbed, that was the only word that came to mind. It was as if my clit was being subjected to a delicate massage, but Gabrielle wasn’t the cause, not directly anyway.

“Gods, baby . . . what . . . what is that you’re doing?” I stammered.

I felt her smile against the skin on the inside of my thigh. “A pressure point.”

“I know of no pressure point . . . that will do that.”

“That’s because you weren’t trained as a concubine. Warriors learn the skills they need, and body slaves learn different skills altogether.”

“The feeling, Gods it’s . . . ohhh . . .” she swiped her tongue along the body part in question and I suddenly felt as if I were floating on a cloud of pure delight.

“It’s meant to prolong the sensations,” she murmured, her fingers beginning to run feather light touches everywhere on my body. “It will cause pleasure, but not release. I can keep you suspended in this state of excitement for candlemarks, but beware, Conqueror. The longer you wish to continue its effects, the more powerful your climax will be.”

She slid along the length of my body, stopping to use her teeth and tongue along the way, until she whispered in my ear.

“I wouldn’t want you to simply explode, my Conqueror.”

I reached for her, to feel her skin, and the way she moved against me, but was stopped by the leather restraints. I groaned in frustration, even as her tongue was tracing the outline of my lips. My groans turned into languid moans when she ground her hips against mine, enhancing the pressure point’s stimulation.

It was some time later, however when I learned the truth of her warning regarding the use of the pressure point. I was hovering between intense arousal and ecstasy, but no matter how hard I willed my body, I simply couldn’t achieve a release. By the time Gabrielle removed her own particular version of the pinch, my orgasm very nearly stopped my heart. Now, candlemarks later, I lost count of the times she set the pressure point, then eventually released me.

What I was experiencing was unimaginable. I must have looked a mess. My muscles quivered in exhaustion. Sweat and my own juices drenched the sheet below me. The rather pathetic part was that I continued to beg for more.

I must have blacked out after the last climax because when I woke, I didn’t feel Gabrielle. I heard noises beside the bed, however, and that feeling of anxiety rose a notch.

“Gabrielle?” I rasped. My throat was raw. Gabrielle was right . . . I screamed her name out to the heavens . . . more than once.

“I’m sorry, love,” she was there in an instant. She lifted a cup of water to my lips, and I drank deeply. I felt a cool cloth begin its journey across my body, and I couldn’t keep from moaning at this simple pleasure. She laid her body down along mine, stroking the flesh gently. She touched me everywhere, but wouldn’t allow me to feel her pressed against me. She teased the, now saturated, dark curls covering my sex, and I could feel my desire beginning to smolder once again. My hips moved unconsciously toward her hand.

“Please,” I whimpered.

I don’t ever remember begging this much. In fact, I don’t ever remember begging anyone before Gabrielle, for anything. Certainly not sex. She explained that the pleasure points, as she called them, could be addictive, and needed to be used in moderation. I begged and cajoled, promising her everything for one final release. In truth, I’m sure it would be final, because my body was showing some definite signs of wear. I’d never experienced anything remotely similar to this evening. All I could say was that Gabrielle was certainly putting me through my paces, and I was barely able to keep up.

Gabrielle moved her body over mine, and my breath caught in my throat when she initiated the pressure point once again. She ran the flat of her hands up along my rib cage, still not allowing her body contact with mine. She stopped at my breasts, gently stroking the overheated flesh in small, circular motions. Continuing her upward journey, she stopped at a point just below each armpit. I felt that same, quick jab press into my flesh, and that’s when the heat began.

It first started as a sort of tingling sensation, followed by the feeling of pins jabbing at me. In another few heartbeats, my nipples felt like they were on fire. I pulled harder against my bonds over this than at any other time during the evening. It wasn’t painful; it was arousing as all Hades. The sensation bordered between a desire to scratch an itch you couldn’t reach, to wishing I could put out the inferno. When Gabrielle’s tongue took long, slow strokes to cool the area down, I think I cried real tears. I shamelessly arched my back, thrusting my chest outward in hopes that she would take more pity on me.

The throbbing between my legs continued, too, and I wasn’t sure which area needed greater attention. Finally, Gabrielle pressed her body against me, and what I felt between my legs made me cry out in relief.

“Is this what you want, Xena?”

Her own voice was rough and shaky, and I realized that she’d denied herself any release during all this time. She pressed the phallus into my wet folds to get it lubricated, using long strokes without any penetration. It had been quite some time since I’d used one of these toys on myself, and longer still since I’d been with a man. Just the thought of the penetration caused a new flood of wetness that made Gabrielle groan in satisfaction.

“Yesss, baby. Gods, please . . . do it, please, Gabrielle,” I pleaded.

I was literally aching with need when Gabrielle pressed full into me in one long stroke. I had wondered if she held the toy in her hand, but I felt her pressed between my legs, and the straps around her thighs rubbed against my skin. Both her hands were on my hips, the phallus thrusting into me, and the pressure point massaging my clit, all at the same time.

The sensation was incredible. As she fucked me with the dildo, her mouth reached down to cover a fiery nipple.

“Harder, please . . . harder.” I moaned, as I strained against the leather restraints.

“Harder here?” She thrust into me and my smile grew larger. “Or here?” She sucked the flesh harder, nipping at the tip of the flesh with her teeth as she pulled away.

“Dear Gods! Yes! Everywhere, harder everywhere!” I begged.

That’s exactly what Gabrielle gave me, too. I could hear her breathing pick up, and listened her own moans of pleasure. I knew she was close herself

“Please baby, now. Let me come now.” I asked weakly.

The moment the pleasure points were released, I could feel myself soaring higher. I was caught in that perfect spot, where it feels as though you’re outside your body watching everything that is happening to you. I remember freezing, becoming completely motionless. I was barely breathing, but I could feel the heartbeats passing as if they were candlemarks. Then, all the feelings, and sensations, swirled, melding into one. They focused all their energy and direction back into my body. I could hear Gabrielle, crying out, and arching her body forward, determined not to lose contact with my body. I came with a scream of my lover’s name, just as Gabrielle had predicted, again.

I didn’t pass out this time, but it was sheer will alone which caused me to stay coherent. I couldn’t even lift my arms. My muscles were shaky and uncooperative, so I lay there, patient and unmoving as Gabrielle released me from my bonds. She offered me more water and I downed the entire cup. Finally, we curled up around one another and fell into an instant slumber.

I believe that for all my fear and nervousness regarding the evening, I managed to fall asleep with a massive smile on my face.
Chapter 9: Woman or Goddess, which is she?
I opened my eyes and slammed them shut immediately. “Gods!” I groaned aloud.

Rarely had my body felt so completely lacking in physical vitality as it did at this moment. I was alone in the large bed with the sun filtering through the open-air windows. By the amount of light in the room, I judged it midmorning. Gods, I was clearly getting old.

I raised my head, searching the room for Gabrielle. I rolled myself off the bed, but had to reach out and steady my shaking knees as I stood. My legs felt like so much warm liquid, and not the sturdy bones meant to hold my body upright. I stumbled to the pitcher of water on the table, and drank right from the carafe. Water spilled along the sides of my mouth, thin rivulets running down the front of my body. I felt as if I’d been pummeled on the field of battle and not made love to all night.

I stumbled into the bathing room, intent on dunking my head in cool water, but someone had beaten me to the use of the large tub. I halted my progress, leaning heavily on the wooden doorframe for support. The sight before me was certainly enough to cause the weakest of lovers to fall to their knees.

Gabrielle lay reclining in the tub, her head lying back against the copper rim. Her eyes were closed, and I smiled, knowing that she often dozed off in the warm water. Her golden hair was piled high atop her head, and she looked so pleasantly relaxed that I hated to disturb her. After all, last night she earned every bit of sleep she was catching up on now.

“I’m not sleeping,” her voice spoke, although her eyes remained closed. When she opened them and focused in on me, I was touched at the concern visible there.

“You look as though you’re as weak as a day old colt,” she commented.

“Well, this newborn colt feels like an old warhorse this morning. A very old warhorse,” I added.

She smiled and laughed softly, holding her hand out to me. “Come in here and let the warm water relax you.”

I didn’t have to be asked twice. I sunk into the tub behind Gabrielle and immediately pulled her back against me, just to feel the softness of her skin. She relaxed and settled against my chest easily. There was a long pause while I sorted out my thoughts. One question lingered in my mind after such an incredible night’s pleasure. Up to this point in my life, I thought that I’d experienced everything sexual, at least those proclivities I was interested in trying. Gabrielle’s expertise, however, caused me to feel like a babe in the woods. I’m sure it was simply my more jealous nature, but I wanted to know where, or from whom, Gabrielle acquired her considerable skills. We hadn’t spoken of it before. We never actually discussed much of Gabrielle’s life spent as a slave. I had always thought she would rather not be reminded of the time when she had no choices in her life. Now, however, I wondered if her silence persisted because she was afraid of how it would affect me.

I reached in and kissed her ear, tightening my hold around her waist. Her hand came to rest on mine, and she idly stroked the skin there with her fingers.

“Last night was,” I paused realizing I didn’t have words to effectively express it. “Well, I don’t know what it was, but it was damn wonderful,” I said with a chuckle.

“Did you enjoy it then?” she asked. Her voice held the slightest bit of apprehension.

“I think the word enjoy is completely inadequate to express how magnificent it was. I admit; I wasn’t sure I could do it, but it was because of you, little one. You know that don’t you? I’ve never given anyone control over me like that, never given anyone that kind of faith. I felt completely safe, Gabrielle. For the first time, in as long as I can remember, I trusted someone else to take care of me. It felt very right being protected by you.”

I felt her hand squeeze mine, and her voice sounded thick with emotion. “Thank you, Xena. For all that you give to me.”

“I’m only afraid my skills will look ordinary in comparison.”

She turned her head toward me then, and I was able to see the love shining from her emerald eyes. “You need have no fear, my love,” she settled back against me. “Your skills are more than enough,” she finished.

“You want to know how I know such things, don’t you, Xena?” she asked.

Gods! Is she truly a Goddess, to know what I’m thinking all the time?

“No,” I lied.

“It’s all right, love. You’ve made me feel safe enough not to fear thinking of the past. It’s a gift more precious than all the wealth in your Empire, Xena. You’ve taken away my shame. Now, I can say that this happened to me, but I had no choice. I did what I had to do to stay alive.”

“And I’m so glad you did, my little one.”

I meant it too. Had I ever wished that I had met Gabrielle under different, more ordinary circumstances? Of course, I will not lie, even to myself. If the choices were to have Gabrielle as the woman I found her, or never to have met her at all, then I would choose what I have right now. I would choose this way time and time again. There is nothing more precious in this life than love, and I curse my heart for realizing the fact so late in my life. At the same time, I bless Athena. She was the one who kept that small part of me safe, just waiting for the day when Gabrielle would walk into my life.

“Do you want to know?” she asked me again.

“Yes,” I answered truthfully this time.

“The summer I turned twelve, I knew I would have to leave Persia. I was more than a body slave; I was Greek. Female foreigners are only allowed to serve as house slaves and laborers after their first bleed. It was a part of their culture, and so I was prepared to be brought back to my homeland, to be placed on the auction block.”

I listened to her explanation, already knowing the rather bizarre ideas and customs the Persians had regarding their sexual inclinations. They used children to pleasure them, but they treated them like royalty. The children were schooled alongside the nobleman’s children, sometimes being treated better than a man’s own child. I had always found the practice completely distasteful, even in my Warlord years when I was known to bed just about anyone to get what I wanted.

“I was surprised when I was given as a gift to a visiting Warlord from the Far East. He lived in Chin, and came up from a place they called the wild reaches. He was very wealthy, but he seemed to accept me much as you did the first time. He acted as though he really didn’t want me, but it was a matter of protocol that he take me.

It was a full season before we found our way to his homeland. It seemed as though he was traveling through the lands, meeting with allies. He appeared to be raising funds for a war he was waging with a man some said was his brother, I never knew for certain. I was surprised, though, at the size of his palace. I would never have taken him for a man of wealth.

I found my time there very odd because I was a body slave to the master of the house, but he was rarely there. I was treated quite well since he had no wives. I was allowed to learn the language, and read, but they never let me write. I was told some time later that they always feared spies, and so they could never take a chance that messages might leave the palace.

One day an army swept through the palace and all the women were rounded up and brought before a new Warlord. It seems my master lost his war and this was to be our new master. He was very methodical about the way he met with each of us, inventorying his new property. It was apparent he would have no need of me either. I finally learned from one of the female cooks that to these men, honor was everything. Women had no say in their world, but they were treated better than many of the lands I had been in. This new master had one wife, and I was told it would be dishonorable for me to be in the palace. I just assumed that meant he would sell me to someone new, but he told one of his officers to take me to the Mi Tou province.

I had no idea where I was going, or why I was to be taken to this new land, but I did as I was told, and followed along. When we drew near the base of a steep mountain range, the officer indicated a spot high up. It was a castle carved from the very rocks. It took us another fortnight to reach it. When we arrived, I was given a warm bath, hot tea, and a meal. I was led to a large room where the officer that brought me there was still standing. They had offered him nothing to eat or drink, but he looked most uncomfortable, and in a hurry to be on his way.

A very elegant woman came into the room and he bowed deeply. I had learned much of the language and I was able to understand the few words he spoke before he left the castle.

A gift from your brother…
I thought I was to be a body slave to this woman, or perhaps her husband or son, but that was not to be. She introduced herself as the Madame Li Tzo, and she said that she was the last in a long line knowledgeable in the secret ways of women. She told me I was to be an initiate, and that some day a person of great wealth would travel across the immense distance that separated Mi Tou from the rest of the world, just to purchase me for the talents I would learn there.

And so, I became initiated into the ways of the chinzho.”

“The Order of the Rose,” I whispered. They were the first words I’d spoken since Gabrielle began her account. As always, she was mesmerizing when she spoke, as if she were telling a tale, and not relating the events of her life.

Gabrielle turned slowly to look into my face. “You know of the place?”

“I lived in Chin for quite a while, but I always thought Mi Tou was imaginary, something soldiers made up to keep their spirits up on cold nights,” I replied. “I’m rather amazed that it’s real, and that you served there.”

“I didn’t serve there. I was taught there. It was the only time during my servitude that I was treated as the owner and not the slave.”

“It was never on any map. I truly thought it was a fantasy.” I murmured to myself. “So, this is where you learned those pressure points?”

“Yes, and much more. I lived and learned for three seasons with Madame Li. We were expected to learn every waking moment, with no time for ourselves. The first rule is that you exist for another’s pleasure, not your own. It was more than what to do in bed. It was every aspect of life. We were trained to be intelligent and well informed, well read, and well rounded; the perfect companions in the bed chamber or at the dinner table.

She was right. A man of considerable wealth did travel across the known world to purchase me from Madame Li. She honored me with the symbol of her lineage before I left the castle.”

Gabrielle lifted herself from against my chest, leaning forward slightly. Pushing aside the stray strands of hair that fell across her neck, she parted the locks at the base of her skull. I looked at the spot she indicated, and there, weaving its way upward onto her skull, hidden by her golden hair, was the tattoo of one perfect rose.

“Gods! Didn’t it hurt?” I questioned, examining the coloring. Some warrior, right? To tell the truth, I’ve had my limbs nearly hacked from my body, I had both legs crushed by Caesar’s men while hanging from one of his crosses, but the thought of being jabbed at with the needle-like quills filled with ink, terrified even me. Yes, I know . . . not very Conqueror-like.

“The marking didn’t hurt nearly as bad as waiting for my hair to grow back,” she smiled.

“That’s how you came back to Greece?”

“Yes,” she sighed. She turned back around and leaned against me once more. “At least I was able to return to my homeland, and I did meet Yu Pan, that should be worth something. The same nobleman who bought me purchased him. Yu Pan’s entire family was killed when Barbarians from the wild reaches destroyed his village in the Ming Te province. I will always remember Madame Li. She treated me very nice,” Gabrielle finished.

“And the wealthy man who brought you back to Greece?”

After a moment’s silence, Gabrielle took a deep breath and said, “He was not so nice.”

I could feel the way her body tensed against me, and I knew that not all her memories were ones she wanted to relive, or recollect.

“Hey, the water is getting cold, do you want to have something to eat?”

Gabrielle nodded her head, and we left the bathing room. I only hoped that little by little, Gabrielle could find a way to cleanse her mind of all the painful memories harbored there. Then I wished for some tolerance on my part. Knowing my future bride possessed the skills of Aphrodite in the bedroom was joyous and disconcerting at the same time. I knew, after all, I would be the one to reap the benefits of such a situation, but there was one niggling image that kept after me . . . those who benefited from her talents before me.

* * * * * * * * * *

I was just preparing to strap my sword around my hip, when that image popped into my head again. I know I had been unusually quiet during the midday meal we shared, and I tried to talk myself out of my self-imposed moodiness. I was afraid that Gabrielle would think twice about opening up her emotions to me, especially if I acted so juvenile afterwards.

“Does it bother you, Xena? That I was trained as chinzho?” Gabrielle asked.

“Should it?” I replied.

“No.” She slowly nodded her head.

I was jealous, that much was apparent. Stupidly, insanely jealous about the fact that anyone had ever touched Gabrielle in the same way as I. I felt foolish for feeling such ridiculous emotions, but all the same, I felt them. I began to wonder how inadequate I might be, compared to the others Gabrielle bedded. Now I know how she felt when she heard about Ares and I. I suppose I should have kept my mouth closed, but like every other time in my life, I went ahead and neglected to listen to that small voice of reason.

“I was just wondering,” I nervously fingered the buckle of my sword belt, preparing to fasten it. “Did everyone become this enamored of your considerable skills, or am I the only one to feel this way?” I wasn’t trying to make her feel bad, I was just curious how big of an ass I was in comparison to the others.

Gabrielle crossed the room to stand before me, and I fully expected her to slap me across the face for that remark. It came out nothing as I intended it. Instead, she replaced my fumbling fingers with her own as she fastened the buckle on my belt.

When she looked up into my eyes she was smiling. It was that beguiling smile, the one that says she knows a Hades of a lot more than she’s telling. Equal parts seductiveness and mystery, that smile never failed to work on me. I felt my stomach turn over slightly at the pleasure I knew could be hidden behind that smile.

“Some more, some less,” she answered. “Now, do you want to know how I felt?”

“Yes,” I replied as honestly as I could.

“Before you touched me, Xena, I couldn’t feel. It was like walking around in a protective shell. I used to wonder what other women felt when their lovers touched them, but for me it was always the same. Eventually, I thanked the Gods that they made me that way. I never thought that I would ever see a day when I would be able to feel so much as I do when I’m with you. I couldn’t feel pleasure, and I couldn’t love. The first time you touched me, it terrified me. I never knew anything could feel so perfect, Xena.”

She tightened my sword belt in place and stood on her toes to place a kiss on my jaw, the one that was very nearly touching the floor right about now.

“In a strange way, my love, you have been my first lover, and I don’t think I shall ever have a need for another. Do you?” She asked this last with a mischievous twinkle in her green eyes.

I growled as I swept her into my arms, followed by a fierce kiss, leaving no room for misunderstanding in my answer. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”

“Careful, my Conqueror,” she broke away from the kiss, and straightened her blouse. “Another kiss like that and I’ll never let you leave this room.” She smiled.

“Mmmm, don’t tempt me,” I replied, kissing her neck.

She laughed; that wonderful lilting sound she makes when she is well and truly happy. It causes my own happiness, knowing my petty jealousy hasn’t hurt her in any way.

“You are unquenchable, my dear Conqueror,” she laughed.

“Didn’t I tell you my nickname was insatiable?” I teased.

“That’s not what you said when we first met.”

“Yes . . . well . . . I was a different woman then,” I quipped.

She looked at me in a most serious way, and I realized just what I’d said. Suddenly, she smiled, and the entire room seemed to light up from the brilliance of that smile.

“So you were, my love. So you were.” She said, cupping my cheek with one hand.

Suddenly embarrassed at the attention being directed at me, I cleared my throat and took a step backward. “Uh, yes, well . . . what does your day hold?”

“I’m going to see how Solan is first.”

“Ares Balls!” I cried out.

“What?” Gabrielle asked in alarm.

I just realized that I never had my intended conversation with Gabrielle about Solan. Actually, he had been the furthest thing from my mind up until now.

“I forgot to tell you about my conversation with Solan. He knows. He confronted me with the fact that I was his mother.”

“By the Gods, Xena, what did you say?”

“What could I say? I admitted it in a roundabout sort of way.”

“I can’t believe you forgot to tell me this,” she said.

“Well, when I got here last evening you were wearing nothing but your robe, and well, I became rather preoccupied after that.” I teased her with a leering expression. Her smile told me I was forgiven.

I related the events of last evening’s meeting with Solan, especially the parts where I thought he was being uncommonly considerate.

“What do you make of it?” Gabrielle pondered, asking the question aloud. “Do you think this is why he came, was hurting you part of his plan?”

“I’m not sure what to make of it, love. It took me so by surprise. Someone obviously filled his head with a number of false notions, not the least of which was my killing his father. I know Kaleipus would never have stood for that, so my guess is that I have more than a few centaurs that wish me ill.”

“How did he . . . seem, knowing that his suspicions were correct?”

“It was strange, Gabrielle. I know of no better way to put it. On one hand, I received the impression that he might be pleased to finally know the truth. On the other hand, he looked rather as if I’d just beaten him up all over again. He acted downright civil when I left, though. I suppose that was the oddest part of all.”

“Well,” she looked up at me, preparing to leave to begin her day. “It proves to be a rather interesting beginning, doesn’t it? I suppose I’ll just make my way to Solan’s rooms, and see what that son of yours has in store for me today.”

She kissed me and smiled before she left the room. I loved this woman more than life itself. Although I was experiencing some rather new matriarchal feelings after my confrontation with Solan, I silently swore to myself that if the young man hurt her . . . in any way . . . I would systematically break every bone in his body.

* * * * * * * * * *

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
“Don’t you ever give up? Leave me alone.”

Solan was his typical self, and I had a difficult time seeing the young man that Xena described to me just a short time ago. This was his response the moment I walked through the door. As always, I attempted to ignore his more obnoxious behavior.

“Good day to you too,” I answered.

“So, where’ve you been?” He said sullenly. “Yesterday you said you’d be here in the morning.”

I turned from the table where I’d been mixing up a new bowl of pain medication. I stared at him, and noticed that the swelling around his jaw looked even worse today, but apparently his fever had abated. When I brought the bowl over to his bedside, I sat it on the low table there, and stood back from the bed, my arms folded across my chest.

“First you tell me to go, then you want to know why I wasn’t here earlier. Which shall it be?” I asked.

He looked genuinely surprised at my gentle rebuke, but I thought I saw a hint of kindness cross his features. “Well,” he muttered, “might as well stay now that you’re here.”

It took all the restraint I had not to smile. Gods, like mother like son! His behavior reminded me so much of Xena’s own mannerisms, too proud to reveal that they might actually have feelings.

“Have you had anything for the pain this morning?” I asked. I noticed the bowl had been emptied and cleaned, waiting on the table in the main room for me.

He nodded his head in the affirmative. “I took the last of it early this morning.”

“How did you manage it?”

“That girl who brings food. She held it up for me, and then gave me some broth. She took off as if the hounds of Hades were after her, though. Guess she was too afraid to be in here with me. I’m going batty with no one to talk to but myself all day. No one wants to stick around for more than a few heartbeats.”

As he spoke, I could hear a small boy inside, too proud and arrogant to ask for help. It must have taken a huge effort to rely on a kitchen maid to assist him. I also noticed that he clenched his teeth together more, due probably to the pain when he opened his mouth. I didn’t know how to tell him that it would most likely be a fortnight before he would be able to chew even soft foods.

“Well, first things first. It’s past midday and I’ll send for some food, I’ll see if I can come up with something besides soup. Here, take a drink of this.” I told him, holding the bowl and the straw up to his lips.

As he was taking his medicine, and then the mug of water I held up, I answered his previous complaint. “You know, people might come to visit you, for more than simply errands, if you treated them kindly.”

I wiped his mouth with a clean cloth, and returned the items in my hand to the table. I wondered if he would respond to me defensively or not.

“I wasn’t mean to that girl from this morning!”

“Solan, there is a great deal of difference between treating someone unkindly, and treating them with respect. My point is, did you command her to help you, or did you ask her if she would?”

“She’s a servant, it’s her job. You don’t thank people for what they’re supposed to do,” he replied.

I give him credit. Even though his rational was askew, he was explaining himself in a rather civil manner.

“There is nothing that any human responds better to than kindness. Whether they serve you willingly, are indentured, or even in forced servitude, they are people, not animals. Solan, if you hold one hand out with a bit of honeyed water in the palm, and in your other hand you cup a bit of dirty water. Into which hand do you think the butterfly will light?”

He looked at me as if he’d never heard anyone tell him anything remotely similar.

“You were a slave. Did people treat you good?”

“Sometimes they did, yes. Sometimes they treated me as if I were no better than the dogs that lay at their feet. I never forgot the people who treated me decently.”

“I thought they always treated their whores good.”

I just looked at him for a moment, wondering what his intentions where with a remark like that. I swore to myself that if I saw an attempt to hurt me with words, I would walk out of the room immediately. I saw the truth in his eyes, like his mother they expressed more than his words. I realized that this was the way he spoke. He didn’t think about hurting anyone’s feelings with his words. He never thought about anyone else at all.

I turned from the bed toward the partially draped window. I parted the tapestry, pulling it back to the hook that would hold it open. I took a deep breath, realizing that my next words might set the tone for any type of relationship I was to have with Solan.

I shook away any lingering shame from his words. Was I not to be the Queen of the Greek Empire? I no longer needed to hide within Gabrielle, frightened, and ashamed. Xena has given me permission, even commanded that I stand up for myself. That admonition of hers is as true now that I am a free woman, as when I was her slave. I spun back around and I wondered if I looked different to Solan. I certainly felt different. I felt . . . strong.

“I served as a personal attendant, or what you would call a body slave, not a whore. There is a difference. I had no choice in what I did, or I didn’t do. Wait, I take that back. I did have one choice, to serve or die. Perhaps it was cowardice, I’m not certain, but I chose to live.

Whores on the other hand, do have a choice. They are paid for what they do, and quite handsomely, from what I understand. They can belong to you for a candlemark or the night, but they always have the luxury of leaving you and going on their way. They may even refuse you altogether.”

I walked across the room as I spoke, slowly and with a quiet authority. Gods, I’d been watching Xena too much. This is exactly what she did as she spoke, pacing the room, her hands clasped behind her back.

“Oh, I’ve heard some of them say they have no choice but to hire their bodies out, that they have no other way to put food on their tables.” I moved closer to Solan’s bed, keeping my eyes trained on his. “When you are thrown into a dark cell, and given no food or water for days on end, simply for raising your eyes from the floor, that is having no choice. That is the difference between a slave and a whore.”

I don’t know if he was being compassionate, or if he was afraid of me at that moment, but it seemed as if the power of speech had left him.

“Oh,” he muttered quietly.

He looked away from me, and I felt a thrill go through my whole being. I stood up for myself, and I won. For the first time I really understood Xena’s words when she told me that people would not always show me respect, but that it was up to me as to whether I would respect myself or not.

I sat down at the large table and scribbled some words on a piece of parchment. “Torava?” I called out.

The young woman that immediately entered the room was one of my new personal guards. Torava was not quite as tall as Xena, but she made an impressive figure all the same. Lean, with broad shoulders, and muscled arms, she stood to attention when she realized that I was not in harm’s way.

“Torava, I know you’re not here to run errands for me, but would you please find one of the attendants out in the hall and have him bring this to Delia in the kitchens? I’m sure she’ll be there at this time of the day. Tell him to ask Delia if she can comply with my request, and then have one of the young girls bring it up.”

“Yes, Lady Gabrielle, right away.”

Torava was all business, and appeared a little nonplussed by the smile I offered. Gods! Were all warriors the same?

By the time the tray arrived, Solan was in a better humor after the pain medication took the edge off his soreness. He was polite to me when I asked him about his home, and where he’d grown up. Well, polite may be giving him too much credit. Let’s simply say that he wasn’t overtly rude. He was making an attempt to be civil, for that much I was grateful. I didn’t expect him to change his colors this quickly, but then again he was in a corner. He was rather a captive here in the palace, being too injured to travel, or to even do for himself. He was forced to depend on me. I seemed to be the only one with the time or the inclination to visit with him. He was probably desperate for company, and even I would do.

I brought the tray of food to him, adjusting things so I could sit on the side of the bed. Delia had prepared everything just as I asked.

“Are you ready to give something other than broth a try?” I asked.

He looked down at the tray, and I should have foreseen what was to come. “Baby food? You want me to eat food all mashed up like you give a baby?!”

“They mash up food for babies because they can’t chew, and unfortunately that seems to be the case with you. Fine,” I pulled away and started to rise, “if you don’t want this then I’ll get some broth–”

“Wait!”

I looked at him, knowing what his decision would be. Well, I knew what mine would be anyway.

“It’s gotta be better than lukewarm soup.”

I rearranged the napkin across his chest once more and offered him a spoonful of the mango, which Delia had mashed into a smooth consistency. Just before he opened his mouth a small way to take a bite, he looked at me rather sheepishly.

I wasn’t sure what the expression meant, but I think I mistook it for reticence to eat from my hand. “Sweet Athena! I’m only trying to feed you, not kill you!”

“Yea, well how am I supposed to know that?” He shot back.

I laughed at how ridiculously paranoid we were both being. “Because, Solan, if I’d wanted you that way, you’d already be dead.” I said it in an overly sweet voice, but his eyes widened a bit all the same.

“Just don’t tell anybody I’m eating baby food, okay?”

His concern over his machismo was genuine, and so I hadn’t the heart to laugh at him again. “I promise,” I replied.

He took the food and swallowed slowly, then his head fell back against the pillow and he made a sound of absolute pleasure. It was the closest I’d come yet to seeing a pleasant and sincere smile on his face.

“Gods, that tastes good.” He had to practically screw up his face to say it, but he took his eyes away from mine and hurriedly muttered, “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” I replied. I didn’t want to tease him or make a great deal of fuss over the simple courtesy he was extending me. I simply hoped that if I treated his good progress matter of factly, it might become second nature to him.

“Kuros says that your body will heal in no time at all. The worst is the first fortnight until all the swelling goes down. Actually, it’s the swelling underneath your skin, which causes most of your pain. The medicine will help with that.” I tried to make some pleasant conversation to keep his agreeable mood up.

“He says I might not be able to hold a sword again.” It seemed to pain him to say it.

“I have every confidence that you will, Solan,” I answered quickly. “I have a friend that I have asked to travel from Northern Greece. His name is Yu Pan and he is a healer of considerable skills.”

He swallowed his food and looked down at the hand, wrapped in bandages and splinted with willow branches. It was so swollen it was hardly recognizable as a hand.

“I’m not sure it will ever be the same.”

I expected his tone to be harsh or bitter, but what I heard was something different. His expression, as he examined his once whole hand, seemed partly that of regret over having fought in the first place. I thought I also caught a glimpse of awe; perhaps wonder at the strength that could have crushed the bones in his hand like mere blades of grass.

“Can he fix crushed bones?”

“He can if you believe he can,” I answered him.

“So, all I have to do is think about getting better and I will, eh?” he asked. I noted the hint of sarcasm.

“It’s an ancient healing art, practiced by too few these days. Although, in the lands to the far east, they think us uncivilized for our healing techniques. I’ve seen the healing arts performed in many different lands, Solan, and not all of the ways that are different from our own are to be ridiculed. They’re merely different.”

What lands?” He seemed suddenly interested in what I had to say.

“I’m sorry?”

“That you’ve visited. What lands?”

“Oh,” I smiled at his eagerness to listen now. “Well, I lived in Persia when I was a child. I spent a number of years in Chin, Egypt, and Gaul.”

“You’ve been to Gaul? Are the hills as green as they say? In Egypt, do the kings really have monuments that reach to the heavens? Did you ever see the black powder they use in Chin?”

He appeared to be as excited as a child would be, and I realized that in many ways, he was a child. I’m sure his adopted father tried to raise him right, and I was positive it had little to do with the fact that they were centaurs, or even male. I’ve known some men who were more capable of nurturing children than some mothers. I believe it was because they were a race of warriors. The warriors of the world keep us safe, and our lands protected, but most of them are not equipped with the abilities to be nurturers and caregivers to youngsters. I laughed, not in making fun, but at his sheer enthusiasm.

“It’s just . . . well, I’ve never been away from Greece.” He seemed embarrassed at the admission.

“I probably would have always stayed here myself if I hadn’t been captured by slavers. To answer your question, though, yes, the grass is as green in Gaul as they say. The hills roll along endlessly, bitter cold in the winter season, though. They actually cut up chunks of grass and earth, dry them, and burn them later for heat.

Egypt was beautiful. The Nile River would flood in the spring, leaving all the silt and soil on the banks as the water receded. By the time the season came for planting, the land along the river was full of all the nutrients the flooding left behind. The kings there are called Pharaohs, and yes, some of the monuments they created in honor of their dead truly reach high into the sky. I never saw so many slaves in all my life. Their stone monuments are, quite literally, cemented together with the blood from tens of thousands of slaves who become trapped underneath the limestone as it’s set it in place.

I did indeed see the black powder in Chin. I never saw it used in battle, but on many occasions, I saw it used for entertainment. They called it yanhuo, or smoke and fire. I never learned how they wrapped them together, but it seemed a particularly dangerous, yet artistic craft. They mixed the black powder and wrapped it tightly in parchment, allowing room for a fuse. Then, they would tie the rolled parchments to a bamboo stick and stick it in the ground. When they lit the fuse, the package would shoot off into the sky, exploding into a burst of color. During the day, they only used yanhuo that made loud noises, but at night, the display was spectacular. When they would explode, it looked as if you shot an arrow into the sky, and when the arrow hit a star, a million tiny sparkles would fall to the ground.”

I realized I was reminiscing inside my head, but when I came to my present surroundings again, Solan was listening intently to my every word.

“Well, anyway, I’m sure you will travel to all the places you desire.”

“You think this friend of yours can really heal my hand?”

“As I said before, I know he can, but you have to believe he can,” I answered.

“How does he do it? Is it just a trick?” He asked, still somewhat skeptical.

“I suppose it depends on what you consider a trick to be. It isn’t a joke, or a deception. He heals through a person’s Qi [pronounced ch’i]. We all have an energy inside of us, but most of us don’t recognize that inner energy. As humans, we all have four parts to our self. We are comprised of mind, body, thought, and ch’i.”

“Aren’t thoughts the same as your mind?” He asked a serious question, and I admit that it surprised me.

“The mind exists for everyone, but our thoughts live inside our mind. Just as this mug holds water,” I pointed to the cup on the table. “The cup is your mind and the water represents your thoughts. To be whole all four parts of our self must be well. If your mind is bothered by something, then healing your body alone won’t make you healthy.”

“And you think this works?”

“I know it does. All I ask is that you give Yu Pan a chance,” I answered.

“Sure, what’ve I got to lose? I won’t be dancing anytime soon, so my social calendar’s pretty open.”

I laughed at his dry humor. Yes, like mother like son, indeed. “What would you like to do now? Would you like to sleep for a bit?”

“Gods, no! I feel like I’m sleeping my life away. My mo–the Conqueror says you can play King’s Men.”

I caught the slip he made, and I was convinced he was about to use the words, my mother. My eyebrow arched as I thought about why Xena would tell him that.

“Yes, I do play.”

“Well, then, let’s get a board in here,” he said, much too enthusiastically. “The Conqueror says you’re pretty good.”

“Oh, she did, did she?” I had the uncanny feeling that Xena thought Solan might play the game in exactly the same manner as his mother. I had to smile, for it was true. Warriors all played the game the same way.

“Very well,” I answered. I went into the other room and rummaged through the standing cabinet. I returned carrying a lightweight board and wooden box of pieces back to his bedside.

“I want to warn you right off, I’m pretty good at this game. I just don’t want to hurt your feelings too bad,” he smirked.

“I’ll try to keep up,” I replied, setting the pieces in place. I was planning the ways in which I would make my lover pay for this.

End Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript from Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
* * * * * * * * * *

I spent the rest of the afternoon dealing with the local ruling officers of the village. It was a busy, yet tedious day. What with the few candlemarks of sleep I gathered last night, I nearly fell asleep once or twice. I heard that Gabrielle had spent the entire afternoon with Solan. It was a testament to either Solan’s ability to behave decently, or simply Gabrielle’s superb forbearance.

I knocked on Solan’s door before entering, but when I opened the door, what met my eyes did not make me happy. Solan lay in bed with a scowl on his face and simply glared at me as I entered. Gabrielle knelt beside the bed picking up pieces of a King’s Men game board, which looked as though they’d been tossed about.

“What have we here?” I asked, mustering up as innocent an expression as I knew how. If looks could kill, or even maim, I’d be writhing in agony on the floor with the daggers Gabrielle was shooting at me.

We both looked up at Solan at the same time, and I couldn’t help but see the guilt written across his features.

“She cheats!” He blurted out.

I knew I shouldn’t have, but I just had to. I laughed. In fact, I laughed so hard I had to lean against the doorframe just to keep myself upright. Gabrielle smiled and continued picking up the game pieces, shaking her head back and forth. Solan just kept glaring at me, but still I laughed. Mostly I laughed because for the very first time, I was seeing myself, as Gabrielle must occasionally view me . . . as a spoiled, pouting, petulant child.

Oh, Gods, I thought as I wiped the tears from my eyes. Some days it’s good to be the Conqueror.
Chapter 10: He Had Reflected, Having Time to Pause

“Mmmm, this feels so nice.” Gabrielle murmured.

The day was beautiful. I’m sure Persephone was having one last fling before leaving Demeter, and heading down to the realm of Hades, her husband. The air was warm, and the sky was sunny. Gabrielle and I decided that the Empire would have to exist without us for at least half the day. Delia packed us a basket, and I had Tenorio saddled for the two of us. Well, that wasn’t counting the half dozen Royal guards who strategically placed themselves around us. They were discreet, but it could still be disconcerting, never allowed to be alone.

“I’m glad you think so, love.” I leaned back against a well-placed tree, content to hold Gabrielle in my embrace.

It had been a fortnight since Solan’s injuries and Gabrielle’s days were filled with overseeing the young man’s recovery. His broken bones mended, his bruises faded, and as unbelievable as it was, his manner improved, albeit it only slightly. Make no mistake; frankly, he treated the servants in the castle better than he did either Gabrielle or me. It wasn’t that he treated either one of us terribly. He regarded us with a certain civility, a tolerance. He accepted our help and companionship, but it was as if he held himself back. There were times when he and I spent time discussing points of philosophy, or war stratagems, when I would find myself genuinely enjoying his company. He could be intelligent and amusing, as well as dark and brooding. Nevertheless, it was with Gabrielle that he seemed to share the most intimate talks, while at the same time keeping a carefully placed chasm between them.

I would watch them walking in the rose garden below the window of my private study. Actually, Gabrielle walked; Solan limped behind with a crutch Kuros fashioned for him. The young man refused any assistance from Gabrielle, and she quickly learned to allow him his way in such obstinate behavior. I would catch glimpses of the young man, watching from the window above him. There were instances when I would discover him looking at Gabrielle, when she was unaware of the fact, and he would look as though he were about to cry. On other occasions, he would gaze upon the small blonde with, what could only be described as, rage.

Some of the revelations I shared with Gabrielle, but a few I kept to myself. I couldn’t explain Solan’s behavior, and that bothered me. I’d spent many seasons as a student of human nature, yet still I couldn’t ascertain the motives behind his actions. There had to be more, though. Perhaps it was simply the paranoia, which I passed down to my son, but I was unable to believe that there wasn’t more to Solan than met the eye. I was quite convinced, as a matter of fact, that whether the boy knew it or not, there were deeper emotions ruling his thoughts.

“If I get any more comfortable, I won’t want to ever leave this spot,” Gabrielle said.

“And that would be a bad thing, how?” I returned.

She laughed at my teasing. Gods, how wonderful to hear. When I listen to the sound of Gabrielle’s laughter, I wonder why I denied myself this simple pleasure for all these seasons.

“Why don’t we go to the temple together, Xena?” she asked me.

I knew that Gabrielle made a visit to Athena’s temple each and every day. While I prayed, every candlemark some days, I hadn’t been inside the temple since its dedication many seasons before. Quite frankly, I was halfway afraid that the walls would come crashing down on me should I cross the threshold. Of course, this was Gabrielle asking me, and the Gods know, she asked me for precious few things.

“All right,” I answered. “Shall we walk or shall we ride?” I asked, rising and helping her to her feet.

She glanced high up at Tenorio’s back, then back at me. She brushed the grass from her skirt. Although I was slowly teaching Gabrielle to ride, and she was becoming quite good, her concern over heights, still made her preferred mode of transportation her own feet.

“Walk,” she said decisively, holding out her hand to me.

It wasn’t far, and in half a candlemark, we were at the entrance to Athena’s temple. Gabrielle had gathered an armful of flowers on our walk, and she moved to the altar. She placed her offering on the brightly polished obsidian. Many Gods would have been offended at such an offering, but Gabrielle brought such a gift every day. Now, I happened to know that Athena had a penchant for fresh cut flowers, but few were the mortals who knew of the Goddesses weakness. I often wondered how Gabrielle discovered the fact, but I never asked her. It simply seemed rather personal.

Gabrielle turned to me, as if waiting to see what I would do next. It suddenly felt rather close within the small temple, and I inconspicuously looked around me, nervously debating the solidity of the structure. I decided to simply take the Minotaur by the horns, and stepped forward. Hearing neither the creaking of the walls, nor the cracking of the ceiling, I presumed it safe enough to continue. I reached for the leather pouch tied to my belt. Tugging it free, I tossed the full bag of talants onto the stone slab. Gabrielle stood there beside me, looking up at a marble statue, carved in an amazing likeness of Athena.

“Has she ever come to you, little one?” I asked.

“No,” she answered, turning toward me with a wistful smile. “Some day she will.”

I returned the smile, simply enjoying Gabrielle’s complete faith in her God of choice. Gabrielle stared at me and as the moments passed, I began to realize that something more was expected of me. She motioned toward the altar with her eyes, and it finally came to me.

“Ohhh! You want to . . . uhm . . . be alone to . . . say a few . . .” I trailed off in embarrassment. “I’ll just be over here.” I said as I backed into the foyer.

I turned the corner, but not before I saw Gabrielle sit down on the steps that lead up to the altar. When I turned away, to afford her some privacy, I nearly ran down the Goddess herself.

“Hera’s tits! Do you have to pop in like that? Couldn’t you be a little more gradual about it?” I exclaimed.

“Xena! I’m surprised you still recognize me.” She said in that patient tone of voice she always had.

I felt properly rebuked, so offered up one of my more charming smiles. “You don’t exactly have a very forgettable face,” I answered, but I’m afraid my eyes strayed slightly lower than her face.

“Xena, are you flirting with me? Have you already forgotten who you came her with…your little one?”

At my pet name for Gabrielle, I was suddenly flustered and embarrassed. “Uh, no . . . no,” I protested, backing up.

She chuckled in that same soft voice. “You’ve changed, Xena.”

“I hope you consider that a good thing,” I answered.

“You tell me,” she parried.

I grinned and thought of Gabrielle, knowing full well the Goddess could, and would, read my mind. “Yes,” I answered. “Yes, I think it’s a very good thing. I must have the favor of Olympus, Athena, to have found one such as her.”

“My dear friend, you mortals forget so quickly. Xena, did you really think your life was your own once you asked me for my patronage?”

I could feel my features tightening slightly. “I accept the inclusion of you in my life, Athena. I willingly went to you, and asked for your benefaction, it’s true. For some reason, however, the Olympian Gods have felt free to interfere in my life since the day I was born. I don’t know why, and at my age, I don’t think I want to know. Realize this, however. I won’t allow anyone, mortal or God, to harm Gabrielle.”

“Easy, now, my friend. Xena, I once promised you that I would make you the greatest ruler the world has ever known. In doing so, I put measures in place, manipulating not only the happenstances in your own life, but in many of the lives that surrounded you. The people you lived with, even those who have grown to love you, as unlovable as you always thought yourself.”

I listened to her words, at first touched by the measure of concern this Goddess seemed to have had for my own welfare. Her final sentence, however, caused my anger to flare.

“You?” I asked. “You had Gabrielle’s fate in your hands also?”

“I did,” she answered more slowly, almost painfully.

“Then, it was you who allowed her life to take the turn it did?” I accused from between clenched teeth. I could feel my fury rising.

“Your anger is justified, Xena, but misplaced. I have done everything in my power to protect that girl. Her entire life, up to this point, has been a mystery, even to me. Each and every time I sought to put her life back on the path the fates foretold for her, a force would come along to undo all that I had done. Unfortunately for Gabrielle, I’ve been playing catch up with her for most of her life. Someone, or some thing, always seemed to be one step ahead of me.”

“Another God?” I asked, incredulous at Athena’s tale so far.

“I don’t see how. Things aren’t as wild on Olympus as they were in the days of your youth, Xena. My siblings are more content to watch humans than to interfere.”

“She deserved better than the fate she was dealt.” I pointed out.

“I agree. Gabrielle is more than even she knows. At one time, we all fought to be her patron. Apollo sought to teach her his healing arts, Hades, the art of discernment. Ares wanted to teach her the art of war–”

“Gabrielle . . . a warrior?” I asked in amazement.

“You know Ares . . . he thinks he sees his next warrior queen in every mortal female alive. He only got worse once you left him.”

“How pathetic,” I said.

“Like I said,” she replied with a wry smile, “you know Ares.”

“And so you won?”

“Believe it or not, the girl chose me,” Athena responded. “Although Artemis made some sort of deal with our father in regards to Gabrielle. I’ve never found out what they discussed, but Artemis assured me that it would never interfere with the path I envisioned for the girl. There were quite a few discussions and cries of foul over that one, I assure you. It was finally decided that Gabrielle’s decision over her patron be her own, but those on Olympus who thought so highly of the girl’s future, chose to bestow a few gifts upon her at birth.”

“Ahh.” The Goddess’s direction suddenly became clear. “So, Gabrielle’s abilities are not all learned. Her unusual talents in the healing arts . . . her compassion . . . wisdom?”

“All natural aptitudes. It’s a rare event when the Gods choose one mortal to bestow so many talents. You of all people should know that, Xena.”

“I long suspected that my skills were perhaps more than inherited traits,” I answered. “But, where did her gift from Ares disappear to? The girl certainly isn’t much of a fighter.”

Athena graced me with a mysterious smile. “As I said, there is more to Gabrielle than even she knows. I’d like to try to make sure the girl’s fate remains as prophesied from here on in. She is, after all, one of my more faithful.”

“Yet, Gabrielle says you’ve never shown yourself to her.”

“It’s not like the old days, Xena. Mortals may pray to us, and depend upon us, but they get more than a little nervous when their deities start popping up in their bedrooms.”

“It never kept any of you out of my bedroom.” I answered with a good deal of sarcasm.

“It’s amazing, really,” she continued on, almost as if she hadn’t heard me. She cocked her head to the right as if she were straining to hear something. “Do you know, that after all the girl has been through, all the indignities her tender soul has suffered, not a day goes by when she doesn’t pray to me? Although, these days, you fill up many of her requests.”

Athena graced me with that knowing smile that always made me feel uncomfortable.

“So, are you ready to be a parent again, Conqueror?” Her smile grew larger.

I could feel the warm blush as it spread across my face. I knew what Gabrielle prayed for each day. “I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready, but she is.”

“And how fares your first attempt at parenthood?”

I understood that she meant Solan. “Let’s just say it’s slow going,” I answered. “We’re making progress, though.” I didn’t know what more to add, realizing the Goddess could see my thoughts.

“I must go, Gabrielle is finished,” she suddenly said, turning away. Then, as an afterthought she spun back to face me.

“Keep your son close to you, Xena. There will come a time when he will be all that stands between you, and a lifetime of heartache.”

Then she was gone.

“Damn, you think these Gods could get any more cryptic?” I asked myself.

“Xena, who are you talking to?” Gabrielle’s voice sounded near my ear.

“Uhm . . . Athena?”

“You mean to tell me that I’m in there praying to the Goddess and she’s out here, talking to you?”

“Well . . . if it helps any, she looked very distracted,” I answered sheepishly. “I think she was mostly listening to you.”

Gabrielle laughed aloud. “I guess that counts for something.” She said, slipping an arm around my waist. “But, from here on in, I think maybe I should come to the temple alone.”

We both enjoyed the easy laughter, and left the temple as we had arrived, hand in hand. I departed the sanctuary, however, with a niggling sensation of unease. I had a feeling that I would lose more than a few moments of sleep during the coming nights, ruminating over Athena’s mysterious message regarding Solan.

* * * * * * * * * *

We rode into the palace courtyard, Gabrielle seated sidesaddle in front of me. She said she felt safer there than behind me, and riding along with Gabrielle’s head on my chest, who was I to complain. The moment we dismounted, and I handed the reigns off to a stable hand, Gabrielle made the young man stop. She removed a small apple from the food basket we brought with us, and held it out to me.

I smiled and quickly drew my dagger, slicing the fruit into a few sizable chunks. She held out both her hands, and I deposited the pieces in her palms. She held both outstretched hands just under the stallion’s head. He caught the scent of his favorite treat, and I watched as Gabrielle smiled when Tenorio’s muzzle tickled her palms.

She was careful to keep her thumbs tucked tightly against her hand. Even I had gotten a stray finger caught between the animal’s teeth when he couldn’t discern where the treat ended, and my fingers started. As always, the girl astounded me. As much as she would prefer not to ride upon the huge beast’s back, it was the distance from the ground that she feared, and not the animal himself. There seemed a bond between the two of them, one every bit as special as the one that existed between myself, and the warhorse.

An extremely colorful wagon was pulled off to one side near the main entrance to the castle. It was an open wagon, but upon the side facing us, someone had painted a beautiful red and gold dragon. It ran the entire length of the vehicle. As soon as Gabrielle saw it, her eyes opened wide in surprise, and she rushed forward.

“Yu Pan!” she exclaimed.

Now, for some reason, after hearing all of Gabrielle’s stories of the extraordinary healer, I expected . . . well, I’m not sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t the tiny old man that stood beside the wagon. He was thin and frail looking, barely as tall as Gabrielle herself was. His features appeared kindly, yet thoughtful, I can express my first impression no better than that. His hair was shoulder length, and was as white as the long, thin mustache, which blended into the beard that grew only from the end of his slender chin. Dressed in blue and gray silk, Yu Pan wore the traditional dress of his own people, a ch’ang-p’ao, or a long robe.

Gabrielle hugged the old man. He looked at her with twinkling eyes and a smile on his face. He seemed genuinely surprised at the young woman who stood before him. I could only wonder what Gabrielle was like when the old man had last seen her.

“Nihao, Gabrielle, haojiu bu jian.” He said with a calm smile and a slight bow.

Gabrielle straightened herself, inclining her head at the old man. “Huanyíng, liángyou.” She answered with her own greeting to an old friend.

“You remember well, nuér,” Yu Pan responded proudly. I was surprised at the term of affection, daughter.

I hung back, allowing Gabrielle her time with the man whom she credited with saving her sanity when she came back to Greece as a slave. She didn’t give me any particulars, but then again, she didn’t have to. I had owned slaves, and I was among the cruelest of masters. My imagination came up with numerous scenarios regarding Gabrielle’s mistreatment by the man who purchased her from the Order of the Rose. Finally, Gabrielle turned to find me, holding out her hand in my direction.

“My Lord, this is an old friend of whom I spoke. Yu Pan, may I introduce the Lord Conqueror.”

Gabrielle introduced the two of us as befitting each of our stations in life. The young woman was as diplomatic as any of my advisors could have been. I decided to take the initiative, not wishing to embarrass or disappoint Gabrielle.

“Huanyíng, Yu Pan,” I welcomed the old man in the native tongue of many of the provinces of Chin. He acted neither surprised, nor impressed with my knowledge. However, with a deep bow, both of his hands tucked deep within the large sleeves of his long robe, he greeted me with only one word.

“Tong zhi zhe,” he said almost reverently.

It had been many, many seasons since I’d heard that title. It wasn’t exactly my name, but in a way, it meant, ruler of the world. It was the closest thing the Chin’s could find to my title, and there was a period in my life when I was known as nothing else. 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 inhabitants 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 Jíbài swept through many of the provinces of Chin.

“Shall we?” I asked, indicating the entrance with a sweeping gesture of my hand.

Gabrielle smiled at me, and took the arm I offered her as we walked along. She appeared in high spirits and extremely proud, two things relatively new for the young woman. If having this old friend of hers nearby caused her so much happiness, then I knew that I would do anything to see that he stay as long as possible. Feeling Gabrielle’s infectious joy, it was almost possible to forget the true nature of the old man’s visit. I admit, even though I could take little credit for it, I was pleased at the sidelong glimpses that Yu Pan stole in Gabrielle’s direction. I understood the old healer’s quandary. He was probably thinking that this confidant and beautiful woman bore little resemblance to the fearful, timid slave he once knew. Athena’s words stole through my brain.

There is more to her than you know…
* * * * * * * * * *

“Are the rooms satisfactory?” I asked Gabrielle as soon as she walked into the outer chamber of our private rooms.

“He seems very pleased,” Gabrielle answered.

I had been sitting in my study reviewing the plans for the local games and chariot races. Every season, just after the harvest, but before it grew colder, all of Corinth celebrated. It was never my intention to compete with the Olympic games. It began as a local celebration, eventually growing into the sort of event that literally stopped the entire city. Because I was the founder of the festival, the games involved were more of the type that highlighted a warrior’s prowess. Competitions ranged from spear throwing to skill on horseback.

The three days of celebration culminated at the massive open-air stadium, where the chariot races took center stage. Single steed, as well as six-mount team races proved wildly popular. What always interested me were the women who either raced themselves, or hired men to race for them. At one time, women weren’t even allowed to watch the games in Athens. Those days are officially over, but traditions die hard with some of the men of Greece. Women do enter, and win, some of the physical competitions, but it has always been the chariots where women were always accepted, even in old Athens. The only requirement was that the woman had to own the horse. She could either ride herself, or hire someone to ride. Either way, she kept the winning prize.

My fellow Corinthians had an excellent reputation for good horseflesh. While not as skilled as the men of Thessaly in breeding the best animals, we still prized a fast, strong mount. Therefore, the races quickly became the highlight of the three-day celebration.

The budget for the festival became larger with each passing season, but it wasn’t as if the Empire couldn’t afford it. My private coffers alone held many times over the amount of talants it would take to pay for the event. I detested going over budgets such as this, so when Gabrielle entered the room, I was glad for the excuse to end my tedious activity.

I pushed myself away from the desk, and Gabrielle sat in my lap, leaning her head back against my shoulder. It was easily apparent that she was quite happy at seeing her old friend. I was simply glad that it caused her such joy.

“He says that I’m much changed,” Gabrielle reflected.

“And so you are,” I answered. “He did mean for the better, I hope.”

“Yes.” She chuckled. “He said that I have become the woman I was meant to be. He was also quite impressed with you, my Conqueror.” She finished by brashly placing her arms around my neck.

“I can’t possibly imagine why. We only spoke for a matter of heartbeats.”

“He said you impressed him with the way you treated me,” she responded.

“I like that,” I mused aloud.

“Hhmmm?” Gabrielle questioned.

“The fact that it’s apparent that I adore you.” I lightly kissed her lips, which spread into a smile. “It’s the one weakness that I don’t mind disclosing, little one; my love for you.”

“Xena, you’re becoming a romantic. You do realize that, don’t you?” she responded.

“You’re going to ruin my reputation with talk like that.” I grinned at her.

“That is the point, my love.”

Gabrielle returned my earlier kiss, and gave me a glimpse into one of her many ulterior motives within our relationship. I never would have thought that she had it in her mind to change people’s perceptions of me, and the woman I had been. The knowledge both flattered and frightened me. I wasn’t sure how to answer her.

“You’re in for an uphill battle then,” I commented.

“I think I’m up for the challenge.” She answered in a confident tone. It was the manner in which she spoke, that caused me to believe in her. It was a trust I’d put in very few individuals during my lifetime.

“Gabrielle,” I cupped her cheek within my hand. “If anyone in the known world could possibly make people forget the woman I was, I have every confidence that it would be you.”

The moment of silence that existed between the two of us just then spoke more than all the conversation in the world. Our eyes never broke contact, and I don’t think I could have turned from her if I had wanted to. The connection that bonded us together at that moment was so tangible, I felt as if I could have reached out and touched it. I find it odd the things a person chooses to remember of certain life altering incidents. I will never forget the green of Gabrielle’s eyes, or the tiny flecks of gold sprinkled within that emerald color. I remember, with startling clarity, the light lavender color of her blouse, the smoky smell of the fire, and the sound of the late afternoon birds singing in the trees outside our window. I think that I will remember the space of those heartbeats for all my life.

We came together and shared a single kiss. Suddenly embarrassed at the depth of emotion I was expressing, I tried to speak, to cover what we both knew could not be hidden between us. I stammered a few times, finally giving up. Gabrielle smiled before allowing me to envelop her in my embrace. Hers was a knowing smile, as she always knew my heart better than even I did.

“Gabrielle, why don’t you go take the evening meal with Yu Pan. I’m sure you two have much to catch up on, and you don’t need my ears there to hinder the conversation. Hhmm?” I suggested. “Eat your dinner, and spend a pleasant evening in talk.”

“But, Xena, what will you do? I don’t want–”

“I’ll get along just fine, little one. I owe Solan some time. I want you and your friend to enjoy yourselves. All right?”

“Thank you, Xena. I love you,” she responded.

“And I love you, as well. Off with you, now.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“How fares the conquering business?” Solan asked me.

“Deadly dull of late.” I answered,

We were playing a round of King’s Men, both of us realizing that competing against one another was safer than playing against Gabrielle. Neither Solan, nor myself were willing to admit that the young woman’s skill at the game was superior to our own. It was a silent agreement of sorts, of which my future bride was more than happy to accommodate.

“I heard this famous healer of hers arrived.” Solan mentioned with a note of sarcasm in his voice. I noted that more often than not, Solan either could not, or would not, mention Gabrielle by name.

“His name is Yu Pan,” I responded. I moved one of my archer pieces diagonally across the playing board. “I would ask you a favor in regards to this man, Solan.”

I waited, appearing to concentrate on the game board. My expression was as stony and impassive as always. Inside, however, I agonized over the words. I was not yet in the habit of asking for help, leastways from the young man who seemed to fight me at every turn.

“And, the favor would be?” He asked cautiously. It seemed as if the playing field was rather even at this point. Solan was as unused to someone requesting his assistance as I was in asking for it.

“Whether you believe in Yu Pan’s ways or not, I ask that you treat this man with the respect that his years, and his wisdom dictate. His reputation as a healer is considerable, but more important to me; he is a cherished friend of Gabrielle’s.”

I saw his eyes narrow slightly. “Is he any good?”

“Well,” I began, breathing a sigh of relief. “To hear Gabrielle tell the tale, he can perform miracles.”

“That doesn’t say much. I mean, she does tend to look at life in a rather optimistic sort of way,” he answered with a smirk.

I grinned in reply. I was prepared for a less humorous reply. Solan’s comment regarding Gabrielle’s nature didn’t have the scathing quality that I expected. It actually had a ring of fondness attached to it.

“In all honesty, I don’t know the man, or his abilities. I do know that Kuros considers him a healer of some significant skill. Kuros has been with me quite some time, and I trust in his judgment.”

“Do you believe in this kind of healing, this . . . magic?” He asked seriously.

“I do indeed.”

I wondered how much to divulge. To what extent should I open myself up to the boy? I didn’t yet feel that complete trust existed between the two of us, but, at this point, could revealing my past hurt me? One thought came to me as I ruminated over the questions inside of my head. How would Gabrielle handle this predicament? I decided that open honesty would be a novel change, and so I told Solan of the first time I traveled to the land of Chin.

I spoke first of Caesar’s attempt to crucify me, leaving me crippled and full of hate. Then I spoke to him of his father, Borias. He listened eagerly to the tale of my alliance in Chin with Borias, and of our attempts to raise money in order to return to Greece, in hopes of fulfilling the prophecy that the witch, Alti, gave me. I spoke of kidnapping the boy, Ming Tien, and then finally, I told him of the woman, Lao Ma.

“She was able to heal you because you loved her?” He asked skeptically.

“She was able to heal me because I believed that she could,” I answered.

“That’s what she said. That if I believed, it would happen.”

Solan’s words, and his tone of skepticism, belied the fact that I could hear the faintest hint of some underlying emotion. In other words, I believe what I was hearing was a desire to believe. Against everything he knew to be practical and true, Solan wanted to believe this healing could happen.

“And so it shall,” I responded.

Our eyes locked briefly, but Solan suddenly pulled his eyes from mine, shaking his head back and forth. “It can’t be that easy.”

“Easy? Is that what you think? Solan, to place absolute faith and trust in another human being is the hardest thing in the world. If you can allow your heart this chance, it will leave its mark on you. You will forever be changed, and you’ll never look at life the same way again.”

He rose from the chair with some difficulty, but I knew better than to assist him. I watched as he looked out the window. His bruises had slowly been fading, yet his limbs remained splinted. It would be a very long time yet before his body would return to normal. I looked on the young man and whispered the only words that I could under such circumstances.

“I’m sorry, Solan.”
Chapter 11: I Long Have Known Myself What Love Can Do

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
We took tea, and then an evening meal in Yu Pan’s rooms. A sense of pride filled my heart when he looked around the quarters in surprise, even more so when he smiled and nodded his head in approval at my accomplishment. With Delia’s help, I had transformed the rooms to resemble those that I remembered belonged to my friend when we both served in the home of the nobleman, Galataeus.

Back then, because of the healer’s remarkable skills, the master allowed Yu Pan a room to himself, to have time to practice his craft. I remembered the large pillows he used as chairs, and the table upon which he ate his dinner. The table had no chairs, and was very close to the ground. When we took tea, or when Yu Pan would make dumplings for me, we sat upon the floor. I had actually grown accustomed to many of these traditions and ways of Chin from my time with Madame Li.

I waited in silence as Yu Pan prepared the tea, whispering words known only to a learned few over the steaming pot. Even after we had begun to sip the hot drink, the quiet lingered. It had been many seasons, but I was quite familiar with the old man’s silence. For a time, when I was in Yu Pan’s care, it served to both unnerve, and calm me. Perhaps that was why Xena’s occasional bouts with speechlessness did not bother me. The healer taught me that as much can be communicated from a person’s stillness, as with their words. Out of respect, I would wait until he was ready to speak, which was not to be much longer.

“It seems that we have come full circle, nuér.” Yu Pan said at last.

“Yes, it appears to be so,” I answered. “I’m so glad you came, Yu Pan, for Solan as well as myself.”

“Gabrielle,” he reached across the table a placed his hand atop my own. His was as worn and gnarled as a twisted oak branch. “I have heard stories, some fanciful, some too unbelievable to mention. All the stories are of the young woman who will soon be Queen of the Greek Empire. Tell me, how did you come to be here?”

Therefore, I began a tale, one that took us quite late into the evening. I left no detail out of the telling, all the good and the bad I revealed to my old friend. It would do no good to alter the truth, for Yu Pan could surely see into my heart. I was convinced he possessed that gift from the Gods. If he didn’t, then I was the fool, for I believed in the man’s power completely.

“This, then, nuér, this is what you would have for your life’s path?” He asked.

I smiled, knowing that he asked about more than simply the life I was leading. He was thinking that which he did not put into words.

“She is who I have dreamed of for most of my life,” I answered simply. “You believe that people can change, don’t you?”

“We can change anything about ourselves, with the proper motivation, of course. I see that the two of you exist for one another. It is not often that I am given the privilege to see such an example of the yin, and the yang.”

“The light and the dark?” I asked, feeling I was about to receive a lesson from my old teacher.

“It is not only about light and dark, but what the light and the dark represent, what they symbolize. The yin and the yang represent balance and harmony. They are two halves of a whole. Where there is one, there must exist the other. One half does not change of its own accord. It is the way it is because of it’s other side.

I can see that in you, nuér, and the Lord Conqueror. I have heard much of her, some tales recent, some set down on parchment before you were born. I only witnessed but a moment of your interaction with one another, but I can feel this bond between you. It seems as though she has had much to do with you becoming the woman I see before me today. On the other side of that coin, I believe that you have had an equal amount of influence over the woman that now rules as Conqueror. You exist for one another.”

“I agree, Yu Pan. It feels as if we balance one another. Where one of us is strong, the other is lacking. Where one is in need, the other excels.”

“Now, tell me what the others do not see.” He said and smiled at me. “Tell me of this woman called Xena.”

I watched as he lit a long stem pipe, the smell of the tobacco taking me back to a time when I would sit in his room in our master’s home, listening to Yu Pan recite an epic poem, or tale. He had the power to mesmerize me with his stories. They were usually about his people, or the Gods and Spirits in whom the people of Chin believed. His tales usually had a personal message or moral for the listener. Many times, he used a story to assist him in the healing of a patient. I have enjoyed stories all my life, but I truly fell in love with the art of storytelling when I met Yu Pan.

“Yu Pan, you already know more than I about the Conqueror,” I answered.

He chuckled at my response. He held out his pipe, to which I declined with a shake of my head. I noted it was the same pipe, which he owned many years before. The bowl was intricately carved from a solid piece of ivory.

“Very true, my nuér. I know much about the Lord Conqueror. What I ask is for you to tell me who the woman you have fallen in love with is. Tell me not of the reputation, nor the title. Tell me of the woman.”

“Ahh, the woman,” I nodded, leaning back upon the cushions, and tucking my bare feet underneath me. “She is a paradox.” I stated easily. I was unprepared for this question, but suddenly I found that the words to describe Xena fell easily onto my tongue.

“She is strength and weakness, darkness and light. She can be harsh, yet loving, meager, and giving. She seeks a path of redemption for her past, yet she will never allow herself the forgiveness that might be offered. She is nothing that I can explain; yet, I could speak for days about her.”

I stretched out upon the cushions, and clasped my hands behind my head. I felt very relaxed, here in the sanctuary of my old friend’s rooms. It felt strange, too. For the first time, I was speaking my feelings aloud, and there was a certain contentment at the freedom to do so.

“She loves me with all her heart, Yu Pan. I only recently came to truly believe that. I believe she would give her life for my own, of which I would gladly do the same. She is intensely loyal and true. I don’t believe that Xena would ever be unfaithful to me. She is intelligent, humorous, and when she wants to be, very charming. She loves to read, she has a natural fondness for animals, and a good eye for horseflesh. She loves children, although they terrify her somewhat. Last of all, I don’t think she’s ever been second best at anything in her entire life.”

Yu Pan’s silence worried me, and I rose from my reclining position to lean up on one elbow. He was smiling, more so than I could ever remember before.

“What?” I asked him. I could feel the flush beginning to heat my face.

“Love suits you, my child.” He responded. It was a cryptic reply, but coming from Yu Pan, it was a compliment of the highest degree.

“You approve then?” I asked him, I’m still uncertain why I asked him that.

“Do you need my approval?”

“No, but I seek it all the same. I’m not sure why,” I answered.

“If I told you that you and she were not suited for one another, that your alliance is ill timed, what would you say to me then?”

“I would say you were wrong.” I answered adamantly, unsure if this was a test or not.

“And, you are so sure of this love of yours, that the bond that exists between the two of you will flourish?” Yu Pan asked.

“I would wager my freedom against the odds.” I countered, my ire starting to rise at his insistent questioning along this line.

He laughed aloud then, something he seldom did in all the time that I knew him. I must have looked confused. Actually, I only just realized that he had been testing me all along.

My nuér, it is only necessary that the two of you believe in your love. For, if you believe, others will see and respect. If you desire a blessing from an old friend, then I can do no more than follow my intuition. My mind says that you have as much chance as being hurt in love as the next woman. My heart, however . . . it feels, Gabrielle, that you have at last come home.”

I smiled in relief at my friend’s words. To many, what an old man felt in his heart might mean very little. Knowing this healer, and teacher, the way I did, I knew that when Yu Pan spoke from within, the words held great truth.

“Thank you,” I answered.

“Now,” Yu Pan began again. He drew a long breath from his pipe, and released the smoke in an easy exhale above our heads. “Tell me of the young man.”

“His name is Solan–”

“First,” Yu Pan interrupted by raising one hand in the air. “Tell me what you see, then tell me what you feel.”

His manner of retrieving information didn’t surprise me. I had been his student at one time, and it was how I learned to express myself under his tutelage. When a patient spoke to him, he listened, and processed the information in two ways. First, he took their words at face value. He used his physical senses to learn about the person, how they spoke, and acted, their outward appearance. At the same time, he used his inner senses to learn even more. We all have the inner sense, as Yu Pan described it. The healer had honed his into an incredibly intuitive talent. He felt a person, the ideas they hid from the world, the face they displayed only to themselves in a looking glass.

Yu Pan taught me the basics of using my inner sense, but our time together was cut short when Galataeus lost me in a game of chance. Over the seasons, I became accustomed to being treated like so much chattel. The pirate who won me, however, was in many ways, kinder than Galataeus.

I never became as adept as my old friend did at this particular skill, but I never forgot the principles, either. I thought briefly about the reason I had stayed with Yu Pan. It seemed so long ago. I shuddered at the memory of the pain. It had become an all but a forgotten part of my past; a portion that I hadn’t yet even shared with Xena. Actually, I could barely remember the night I had been delivered to Yu Pan’s doorstep. The healer had been given orders simply to work his magic on valuable property. He had certainly done that. Barely a mark was left on my flesh to ever indicate that my body was once left as crushed and broken as Solan’s was.

“It was a long time ago, my nuér.” Yu Pan interrupted my painful reminiscing with his gentle voice. As he always could, he seemed to look straight into my heart, aware of where my thoughts had taken me.

I nodded and smiled slightly, glad that he pulled me from the unpleasant memories.

“Now, what do you see in this Solan?” he asked.

I took a deep breath and thought about the young man. “He is Xena’s son,” I began. “That’s confidential, of course,” I added. I paused briefly to explain to my friend the situation between mother and son. “Solan is arrogant, opinionated, selfish, and downright mean at times. He seems–”

“Ah, ah, ah.” Yu Pan broke in. “Is this what you see or is it what you think?”

I chuckled and nodded at being caught. I had become too close to Solan to completely separate what I actually saw in him, from my feelings about him.”

“What I see,” I enunciated the word for effect, but it was lost on Yu Pan. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back, intent on my words. “Is a young man who acts in an ill-tempered, spoiled, and selfish manner. He has fits of thoughtfulness, however, and reacts to kindness shown to him in a like manner. Meaning, the kinder he is treated, the better his own behavior has become. There is still some small part of him that refuses to behave, however.”

“And now, Gabrielle, your feelings. Stop and listen for a moment, and tell me about those.” Yu Pan directed.

I knew I was being given a great deal of credit by my friend, and one-time teacher. He seemed willing to listen to my own insight regarding Solan, and that was unusual.

“I feel pain and resentment from Solan. Not simply directed at me, although there is something I can’t quite grasp being directed toward me personally. It would be easy to assume that his anger comes from being denied his birthright, but I feel there is more. My feelings about Solan tell me that there is a great deal more to him than what he allows people to see. I feel sensitivity there that he either denies, or that he himself doesn’t even know exists. I feel a man who denies a large part of who he is out of fear. I feel he is unhappy in his life, but too proud, and afraid to change the path he walks.”

“Well done, nuér.” Yu Pan complimented me.

“You surprise me, Yu Pan.” I added.

“Why is that?” He answered in a distracted manner, but I was aware that the expression was merely a ruse meant for those who didn’t know him as well as I.

“Why would you want to taint your own evaluation of Solan with my impressions? Won’t you be meeting him with preconceived notions in mind, now?”

“Not if you continue on, and tell me now what you have kept hidden from even yourself.”

“What?” I answered in surprise.

“Tell me now, Gabrielle, why you are jealous and resentful of the man.”

Yu Pan asked me this in such a calm manner, that I was stunned into silence. I wanted to laugh his accusation off, but it would do no good. If he already felt this to be true, no amount of argument from me would convince him otherwise. I thought I had successfully buried these petty emotions of mine, but obviously it hadn’t been deep enough. Now I would be forced to confront them, and in doing so, admit the validity of them.

“It is a foolish student who hopes to outwit her learned master.” I responded with what I hoped was the proper amount of humiliation.

“To show human emotions is a most pardonable transgression.” Yu Pan answered. “Open your heart to me, Gabrielle.”

I ran my fingers through my hair, almost in frustration. “He is Xena’s son.” I stated simply. ” No matter what happens between them, good or ill, they will always share that bond. No matter that Xena should marry me, that the Gods should intervene and I might carry her child, I will still only be her mate. She and I will never share such an unalterable bond.”

“You believe that the union which you and Xena have between you is less than the one shared between she and her son?”

“Theirs is a blood bond!”

“This is not your true worry, is it, Gabrielle? Somewhere in your mind you have convinced yourself that the closer Xena becomes to Solan, the farther apart she and you will grow. You have let fear alter what you know in your heart to be true. If you look into your very soul, you will see that the bond that you and Xena share transcends all others. It is more than love, more than blood. It goes beyond what we can define with any man’s language. It defies language and explanation.

Gabrielle . . . nuér, what have I always taught you about fear?” Yu Pan asked gently, but I could already feel the tears running down my cheeks. I had forgotten the first lesson in Yu Pan’s Shao Lin teachings. He caught me giving in to a concept that I thought I’d grown beyond, at least in some part.

“If you fear, you can do nothing. The basic principle is to overcome the fear within you.” I answered.

Yu Pan reached over, and his weathered hands wiped the tears from my face, as he offered a tender smile. I instantly felt better. My heart was at ease, knowing that no problem truly existed. It simply took a gentle reminder from an old friend to show me that my worries had been created in my head, and had no basis in reality. Fright and panic were like that, and I of all people, should have remembered that fear is merely the substance of man’s own inadequacies.

“You weren’t supposed to come here to heal me.” I said in a hoarse whisper, wiping my face.

He said something that confused me then. It was unexpected and cryptic all at once.

“You asked me to come and heal a young man. It wasn’t until this very moment that I realized that his Qi is inexorably tied to your own.”

* * * * * * * * * *

It was late, nearly early morning when I finally returned to our own rooms. I expected to find Xena sound asleep by this time, but as I slipped into our bedchamber, I could tell she was awake. Her breathing was not the deep, rhythmic sound she usually made when asleep. I slipped between the silk sheets and curled myself against her muscular back.

“Why aren’t you sleeping, love?” I whispered.

“Couldn’t get comfortable,” she answered. Her voice held that tone she uses when she is tired and grumpy.

“Am I making it worse?” I asked her, pulling away from her body a slight bit.

She turned, facing toward me, and pulled me against her. In the small amount of light from the oil lamp on her side of the bed, I was able to see the frown that creased her brow. I gently kissed her lips, and pressed my body against her tighter. The smile that lit up her features transformed her entire face. Where there was a dark, brooding woman, now lay a beautiful, smiling lover.

“I found out that I can’t sleep without you in my bed, Gabrielle.” Xena whispered to me.

I kissed her again and she responded more fervently this time. “Then I’ll have to be sure never to stay awake this late again.” I smiled.

She chuckled, her good humor having returned. “I’ll hold you to that, my love.” Then she rolled the two of us over, hovering over me and teasing me with her playful kisses.

“Did you have a pleasant evening with Yu Pan?” she asked.

“I had an interesting one leastways.” I answered, wondering how much I should tell her. It took only a matter of heartbeats for me to decide to be completely honest.

Xena adjusted to rest on her side again, and leaned up on one elbow. “What went on this evening, love? You look unhappy.”

I didn’t mean to, but suddenly I found myself with tears forming in my eyes. I was lying beside the woman I loved more than my own life, yet I had to tell her that I wasn’t the compassionate lover she thought I was. I needed to confess the hidden emotions I had toward her son, and I worried what her reaction would be. Therefore, the tears came unbidden.

“Gabrielle,” Xena with concern. She cradled my face in both her hands, and kissed my tears away. “What’s wrong, little one? What happened?”

I enjoyed being comforted by her, but I knew that in only a matter of moments her concern would turn to anger at the thought of someone hurting me.

“Talk to me, little one.”

I told her all that I had discussed with Yu Pan. I told her of my assessment of Solan, and that I had given the information to Yu Pan. Finally, I explained, as well as I could, my fears where she and I where concerned with her son.

I sniffed and wiped my eyes one last time. When I eventually had the courage to look up and meet her gaze, I should have trusted that this would be the sight I would meet. Her blue eyes had warmed to a deep hue, and her thumb caressed my cheek as her hand was cupped there, brushing any remaining tears away. Her expression, and her actions, displayed such love; I never would have known that I was sharing my bed with the Conqueror of the known world.

“Gabrielle,” she leaned in close against me, one arm around me, and the other hand still caressing my face. “Baby, don’t you know by now that that there is nothing, there is no one that I would ever let come between the two of us. The thing, or the person simply doesn’t exist that could drive in a wedge to separate you and I. Nothing, little one.” She kissed me again. “No one.”

With one last kiss, she had befuddled my mind enough to cause me to forget my fears and confusion. Suddenly all I could think about was her. I think she took that as a good sign, especially when I couldn’t hold back the moan that she swallowed up with an intensely, hungry kiss.

I pulled her close to me once more and we kissed. Just before our lips touched, she ran the tip of her tongue along my bottom lip. Perfect, white teeth teased me by nipping gently at the skin on my neck.

“Let me make love to you.” She requested sweetly.

“Yesss.” I drawled out.

I closed my eyes and took pleasure in the feel of her naked skin pressed against mine, our legs entwined together. We did no more than kiss, and caress one another for a long time. Our kisses were slow and deep, more of an exploration, as our tongues met, neither warring to be the dominant player.

I felt myself floating along on a wave of pure pleasure, sensations washing over me in a torrent of passion. Xena’s mouth pressed harder; became more insistent, more demanding. My body betrayed me. I already felt the wetness trickling away from my sex, gentle moans filled the air, and I was quite surprised that it was the sound of my own voice.

She moved her attentions to my breasts, using her lips and tongue to stroke the tender flesh into submission. Her mouth wrapped around a pale pink nipple, and she was soon sucking the pebbled flesh hard between her lips and teeth.

“Oh, yesss, Xena…just like that,” I moaned in ecstasy.

She slid down my body to settle between my legs. I allowed her to spread my thighs farther apart with strong hands, and move in closer. I groaned at the feel of her breath against my sensitive sex. She kissed the blonde triangle of hair and I felt her pause. She had a habit of pausing ever so slightly before tasting me. She breathed in deeply. A long guttural moan passed her own lips, at what I knew was the pleasure she derived from using her own tongue to bring me pleasure. She took one long, languid stroke against my sex and immediately I whimpered at the tenderness of the caress. I lifted my hips higher toward the source of the exquisite pleasure. I felt the warm wetness of her tongue, her breath, and the vibration against my skin as she moaned aloud at this first taste.

This is where I became completely, and utterly, trapped within the spell of seduction that Xena wove. In all the time that men and women handled me . . . used my body, no one ever touched me with tenderness and compassion, until Xena. Her, sometimes hesitant, caress, the way she asked for permission before entering me, and her slow insistence that I be allowed to control my own pleasure, they all combined to create the most passionate love making that I have ever experienced.

Her tongue slipped within every fold, stroking me again, and again with infinite patience, until I gasped as the muscle slipped slowly inside of me. My body shuddered at her deliberate actions and I tried to revel in it, letting my flesh simply experience the pleasure of it all. So soft, so gentle, Gods, she knows exactly what I need . . . precisely what I desire!

My hips rose and fell to keep up a steady motion against the rhythm of the strokes from Xena’s tongue. I know the sounds that I made were probably waking up the whole castle, but I was powerless to stop. My legs began to tremble; I spread them wider in silent invitation for her to continue. I wanted to beg her not to stop, but I found myself without the ability to speak.

I felt her tongue and teeth rake across the hooded bundle of nerves and my hips bucked toward her at the exquisite contact. Finally, I found my voice.

“Gods, yesss, Xena. Please . . . right . . . there . . . oh, Gods!”

I exploded from within before I could even finish my thought. It didn’t matter because she knew exactly what I wanted and she did exactly what I meant. I felt my body as it slowly rose once again, ready for another release as Xena lapped at the fluid between my legs, careful not to lose a drop.

I felt her hand slide up my thigh, and she paused, as she always did waiting for my permission.

“Yes, please,” I begged.

I felt her fingers enter me, and then she returned her tongue to its circular, caressing motion against my clit. It wasn’t long before I came again, my body still convulsing from remembered pleasure, even as Xena moved up and wrapped me in a tight embrace.

I felt so sleepy and weak, so completely sated; I could do no more than smile dreamily at the light kiss to my forehead. Just before I drifted off into the arms of Morpheus, I felt the silk coverlet pulled around me, and heard Xena’s voice in my ear.

“There is no one, my love, that could ever come between us.”

End Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript from Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
Chapter 12: For Many a Fellow is so Hard of Heart
Gabrielle led the way, followed by myself, and Yu Pan, into Solan’s rooms. He was seated in his favorite chair by the portico that led to the open-air balcony. We were having a warm spell, and he was taking advantage of the early morning, southern breeze. So like his mother in this respect. I loved the out of doors so much that I only tolerated the moments when a roof was over my head. Many were the days when Gabrielle would find me seated before the window in our rooms. I would sit there, watching a sunrise, or a sunset. Looking down upon the rose garden that I loved so well, or simply watching the smoke rise from the chimneys of the homes in the village.

Solan and I hadn’t experienced any animosity, arguments, or even unpleasantness in quite some time. Gabrielle seemed to think that we were all getting along fairly well, actually. Now, she prefers to think of the world as half good instead of half bad, as I view it. When it came to Solan, I always seemed to be waiting for him to explode. I don’t know why I felt this way, especially considering he was making great strides at civility. Perhaps because he was so much like me.

The beast inside of me was part of the reason for my unsettled tension. The darkness could lie dormant within me for months, then a word, even a look, could entice it from its lair. I hated the monster inside, but I also acknowledged that it was as much a part of me as my very blood. If Solan inherited some of his mannerisms and his looks from his mother, could not I have passed on more to the young man than met the eye? It was my own paranoia, to be sure, but it was a bothersome fear that resided in the back of my mind at all times. It was hard to try to remember that I wasn’t born with this misfortune. Ares had offered, and I had accepted.

I told Gabrielle about the agreeable evening I spent with Solan, just last night. I explained that we spoke of many things, including some of my past. I admit; that surprised her. There were few episodes in my life, which I felt willing to speak of to others. She appeared proud of the attempt that I made to converse with my son. We really spoke to one another last night, instead of simply parrying back and forth, as we usually did.

“Solan,” Gabrielle paused waiting for his attention. “This is the healer that I spoke to you about. His name is Yu Pan. This is Solan,” She turned her head to Yu Pan. “Solan is visiting us as an Emissary from the Centaur Nation.”

“Hello,” Solan responded. He had agreed not to be quarrelsome to the old man, and I almost think I agreed to come along today to make certain that didn’t happen.

“Good morning, young friend.” Yu Pan bowed slightly.

I noticed something odd just then. An expression stole across Yu Pan’s features, one of almost surprise. He looked suspiciously as if he recognized Solan’s face. I shook the feeling away when I saw that Solan gave no similar expression of recognition to the healer.

Yu Pan sat in the chair beside Solan, ignoring Gabrielle and I, as if we were no longer standing there. Being so dismissed, we moved away. We sat down at the table in the next room, but still within earshot of the two men.

“Yours is the wagon with the big monster painted on it.” Solan inquired.

“That is my wagon, correct. The monster is actually a lóng, or what you would call a dragon.”

Gabrielle looked at me and smiled. That expression told me that she knew something was afoot. She whispered that Yu Pan was going into storyteller mode. I took her words to mean that the old man was already treating Solan in the way of a story. We both looked somewhat relieved that Solan was being civil, and not using the belligerent attitude with which he seemed to enjoy shocking people.

“I thought dragons were supposed to be fearsome beasts. I find it odd that a healer would have such a creature as his moniker,” Solan responded.

“If you will allow me to undress your splints, I will tell you the true story of the Chin lóng,” Yu Pan asked.

“Sure,” Solan answered gruffly. “I mean, I guess that’s why we’re here, huh?”

Neither Gabrielle nor I said a word during this exchange. Truth be told, we were both eavesdropping on their conversation. Wrong I suppose, but Solan hadn’t yet earned our complete trust. I intended to stay to ensure Yu Pan’s safety, but when I saw the old man move about, something told me that he just might be able to take care of himself. I watched as he moved and I realized that looks could be quite deceptive where this healer was concerned. Frankly, he looked as old as the stones we walked upon, but he held himself in great physical control. The way he walked, spoke, even inclined his head, spoke of a highly trained warrior. I made a note to myself to make the opportunity to learn more about this old friend of Gabrielle’s. I suddenly felt the desire to speak with the healer alone, just the two of us.

I could just see from the corner of my eye as Yu Pan moved a low-lying stool, and sat down in front of Solan. The healer removed the splint, first from one hand, and then the other. I could see the silent pain etched on the young man’s face as Yu Pan manipulated the fingers on each hand. It was easily understood why Solan’s grimace grew fierce when Yu Pan examined the crushed hand.

As he worked over Solan and examined his, now healed, ribs, he spoke to the young man. His voice took on the same tone as Gabrielle’s did when she began to tell a tale. I smiled with the thought of it, as I realized where she learned the technique. Gabrielle arched a questioning eyebrow in my direction.

“I’ll tell you later,” I whispered.

“The men I met from Gaul said the dragon is a fearsome animal, a beast that breathes fire, lays waste to the countryside, devours the populace, and kidnaps fair maidens.” Solan explained to the old man.
“The Chin dragon, unlike the creature that you know from the men of Gaul, is considered a benevolent creature, the custodian of rain, river and lakes, and a harbinger of good fortune. In Chin mythology, the dragon is described as having the body of a snake, the face of a horse, antlers of the deer, and claws of the eagle. The dragon also has the beard of a goat and the scales of a fish, but between you and I,” Yu Pan confided with a smile, “I have never seen such a beast, although records of dragons in Chin culture go back to the beginning of time.

One explanation of how the dragon came to be lies with the warring tribes who were my ancestors. Early societies had as their tribal mascot an animal; for example a horse or a camel or a fish. This is in fact something we observe even today here in the western portion of the Greek Empire. The Conqueror uses the symbol of the Lion, the Romans, before they were vanquished, used the Eagle. These symbols were used both for religious as well as military purposes, and rather as the Conqueror would march with the Lion as her standard, these emblems were used as military insignia.

The theory goes that as a tribe went to battle and conquered another, it would incorporate some form of the conquered tribe’s insignia. In this way, it is believed the Xia clan, who had a snake as its emblem annexed states such as the Shang; an eagle. Thus, to the snake’s body was added the claws of the eagle. Soon the scales of fish, antlers of the deer, face of the horse and the beard of the goat all came to be incorporated, and thereby the Chin dragon came into being.

So powerful has the emblem of the dragon become that every Chin governor, who rules under the auspices of the Conqueror, has adopted it as the Imperial emblem. Dragon King Temple’s were built where the people could pray for blessings and a good harvest; all in the hands of the dragons, as they controlled the rain.”

Yu Pan sat back down on the stool once his tale was finished.

“So?” Solan asked. “Can you fix it?”

“What did you think of my story?” Yu Pan asked, ignoring Solan’s initial question.

“Oh, yeah. It was interesting. Kind of gave me a different look at the beast.”

Yu Pan smiled. “To my fellow Chin, the dragon is an auspicious animal that regulates rainfall and thus controls the yield of the land. Indeed, the dragon is divine, the manifestation of heaven’s will and symbol of the Emperor, the Son of Heaven.” He finally added. “So you see, simply because a being looks and acts a certain way, it does not mean that they have to give in to people’s perceptions of them. The dragon looks evil, yet he offer succor to people in need. A man is much the same. Too often men feel that they must either be hero or coward, and that nothing in between exists. Wouldn’t you agree, Solan?”

My curiosity got the better of me, and I glanced quickly at the two men. Solan had just pulled his hand from within the healer’s grasp. I will not soon forget the expression upon the young man’s face. Solan appeared fearful, as if Yu Pan had touched a nerve that was now exposed in a way Solan didn’t wish for.

“Well, my hand?” Solan began again impatiently. “Do you believe you can help?”

“The question is, my young friend, do you believe I can help?”

“Well, I wouldn’t have let you poke and prod me if I didn’t,” Solan countered.

Yu Pan chuckled slightly. “I admit; there is truth to that. Tell me, how did you come to be injured?”

I didn’t look up, but I could hear the uncomfortable strain in Solan’s voice.

“The Conqueror and I had a disagreement, of sorts,” he answered.

“Ahh, on the field of battle. Well, I feel it’s a good thing that the two of you show no animosity after your battle. So, which was it . . . power, or a woman?”

“What?”

“I have found that most altercations take place over one of two things; a fight for dominance or a woman.”

“Oh. I guess it was power,” Solan answered.

“You don’t sound completely convinced.” Yu Pan continued his prodding.

“Maybe . . . maybe a little of both.” Solan responded, but his voice lowered so that we barely heard him.

“Elaborate, please, my young friend.” Yu Pan continued, ignoring Solan’s apparent discomfort at the turn the conversation was taking.

“Look it’s over and done with, is this really necessary?” Solan snapped.

“You feel shame over your actions?” Yu Pan countered.

“No.” There was a short pause before Solan answered again. “Yes,” he whispered.

“Do you feel that your actions were dishonorable?” Yu Pan asked.

I was looking into the other room when Solan raised his head, and his eyes met mine. I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the young man.

“Yes, they were dishonorable.” Solan answered in a soft voice.

His eyes continued to look into mine, and I realized that this was as close to an apology as he’d come so far. I nodded my head in acceptance, and turned my face away to give the two men the illusion of their privacy. Gabrielle reached over the table and took both my hands in her own. She didn’t look up, but I felt her action spoke of her acknowledgement of Solan’s words as an apology also.

“Shall we begin then?” Yu Pan asked. He once more took his seat before Solan, never even waiting for the young man’s answer to his question.

I heard Solan cry out a few times. When I looked into the other room, I could see Yu Pan slowly manipulating the fingers in Solan’s hand, the one that wasn’t injured nearly as bad as the crushed hand. The healer had two long needles that he occasionally inserted into Solan’s skin. Most of the time the healer sat with his eyes closed, his head kept at a slight tilt, and his fingers appearing to massage the skin under his fingers. I remembered the intense feelings from when my own crippled leg was healed in this fashion, a sort of paradoxical collection of impressions. I remember feeling an incredible pain, acute pleasure, along with a sensation of absolutely nothing at all.

Another sharp cry of pain and I watched as Yu Pan pulled away from Solan and sat back down in the chair. “It cannot be.” He muttered in an exasperated tone.

Gabrielle seemed to take that as some sort of cue and rose to her feet. I quickly followed her, and watched as Yu Pan rose and stretched his body. His fingers slowly massaged his temples. He looked at the both of us, and then addressed Gabrielle.

“He can’t let go.” Yu pan said in a puzzling sentence that somehow Gabrielle alone seemed to understand. “Unless he can let go of it here,” he pointed to his head, “and here,” he placed his hand over his heart, “it will not work. I need to relax, now. In this case, my nuér, your wisdom may help the most.”

Yu Pan ended the cryptic statement by leaving the room without even glancing at Solan or me. Gabrielle turned to gaze at me briefly before moving to the window. She faced away from the two of us, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this whole scenario. I was fairly certain, however, that Yu Pan’s words to Gabrielle meant something quite profound. Even now, I could tell by the way she positioned her body that she was at war within herself. Solan’s impatient words brought me out of my reverie.

“Is someone going to tell me what’s going on?” Solan said to no one in particular.

“Gabrielle?” I called to her gently, unsure myself of what had just happened.

“She said if I believed he could do it, he’d do it. Well, I believed–”

“It’s your Qi.” Gabrielle stated simply, still looking out the window.

“My Ch’i? That mind-body thing, I remember. What’s wrong with it?” Solan asked.

His question surprised me. I hadn’t realized that he and Gabrielle had discussed the healing methods using inner energy. Gabrielle finally turned and she crossed the room, pulling me away from Solan so that her words could not be overheard.

“Xena, I need . . . I need to explain to Solan, but I fear the story I ought to use will anger you. It was from a time when someone hurt me. I thought . . . well, maybe you wouldn’t want to stay.” Gabrielle said, lowering her eyes from mine.

“Little one,” I answered, lifting her chin with my hand. “If you are brave enough to face the demons of your past for my son, should I be less courageous?”

She smiled nervously, then squeezed my hand. She turned back to Solan and I tucked myself away in the corner, trying to make myself as little of a hindrance as possible. I also knew that if Gabrielle warned me, then this tale would not be a pretty one. I could already feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickling at the mere thought of anyone harming this woman.

“Solan, Yu Pan is trying to say that you do believe in the power. In your head, you believe. I told you before that this healing with our inner energy takes more than the physical, but the spiritual, too; mind as well as body. You’re holding on to some powerful emotions, and they’re keeping you from listening to your heart, to your inner self.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” Solan answered sullenly, but a tiny awareness dawned within his expression and I think he did indeed understand at least a little about what Gabrielle was accusing him of.

“Solan, it was said by a learned man that, He who knows much about others may be learned, but he who understands himself is the more intelligent.”

Gabrielle moved to sit down on the stool in front of Solan.

“I’m not saying that you’re lying. I’m simply saying that perhaps you’re not even aware of these emotions. Sometimes feelings like these lie deep within us, and our conscious minds are unaware that they exist.”

“So, how can I fix something if I don’t even know about it?” Solan asked.

Gabrielle smiled at the intelligent question. “By using a form of meditation called one-with-nature. It will enable you to calm your mind and relax your body at the same time. It will bring your thoughts and ch’i in alignment with nature’s thought, and nature’s ch’i. It’s a process of looking inward at ourselves.

Let me tell you a tale that I learned from a philosophy teacher in Chin. A young student went with his learned master to visit the Temple of the Three Monkeys. The master asked, Who are the three monkeys?

The student looked at the statues before him and replied, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil.

The master said, Close your eyes and look again.

The student was puzzled at first, but it didn’t take long for him to respond, Yes, I see another monkey.

The master asked, Who is that monkey?

A thought suddenly came into the student’s mind. He answered, Think No Evil.

The student showed us the process of being one-with-nature. First, he asked himself a question, and second, he saw the solution inside of his mind. With his eyes closed, he couldn’t rely on anything but his own heart for the answer,” Gabrielle finished.

For the next two candlemarks, I watched as Gabrielle taught Solan some meditative techniques that were not unlike the ones I had learned from my many seasons spent in Chin. Gabrielle showed infinite patience with the young man, but at one point Solan gave up.

“Look, I don’t understand what you want from me here! I can’t see any hidden feelings that would keep me from having this healed!” He held up his mangled hand in front of Gabrielle.

Gabrielle took a deep breath and I could see that she was tired. I could also see that she now realized that she would tell the story that she had held back until now.

“Solan, we all have positive and negative energy within us. In its simplest terms, positive energy is love and acceptance. Negative energy is hate and anger, and all of the emotions surrounding those feelings. It is the negative Qi that I can see holds you back, even though you can’t see it within yourself.”

“Oh, yea? And what makes you such an Oracle?”

“Because I felt it, too. I felt hate, anger, loathing, and disgust. I was hurt once, so badly that even Yu Pan wasn’t sure I would live.”

“I don’t need to hear about this,” Solan said quickly.

“No, I would like to share it with you,” Gabrielle responded. “I was raped, you see. Not an altogether uncommon occurrence for a female slave, but it was the vicious manner in which my attackers used me, as if for sport. I wasn’t simply violated, sexually, but I was beaten, my bones were broken, and I was tossed aside and left for dead. Somehow, I ended up back with Yu Pan, and he attempted to heal my body, but it wasn’t until he taught me how to heal my own soul that I was able to truly benefit from his miraculous physical healing.”

Gabrielle had captured both of us in the magical spell she wove as a storyteller, and I wondered if she did this to calm the fury that would have raced though me otherwise. Even Solan appeared to have lost his earlier expression of discomfort.

“I was still holding on to those powerful emotions, that negative energy that prevented me from feeling the benefits of Yu Pan’s healing. My own hate held me back. It was hate for the animals that committed the crimes. I spent long hours wishing them dead, plotting, in my mind, the many ways I would take my revenge. I envisioned how much better I would feel if they were made to pay, if they had to suffer for the things they did to me. My emotions may have been righteous, but they were, negative. It took all the power within me just to keep them fed. Until one day, Yu Pan finally convinced me of the harm of such emotions. He showed me how to release them.”

“You forgave the monsters that did that?” Solan asked incredulously.

“There is a difference between forgiving someone to help yourself, and doing it to offer them some sort of absolution. Just as there is a difference between apologizing, and admitting wrongdoing in a matter. Just because one says they’re sorry, doesn’t mean they are weak or are admitting wrongdoing.”

“So, you seem to have all the answers, tonight. Who do I have all this negative energy directed against?”

He asked the question in a highly sarcastic tone, but I could tell that he wanted to hear the answer. Either he wanted confirmation of what he truly felt, or he was merely testing Gabrielle.

“I believe what holds you back from the healing is a certain unresolved anger at your mother.”

Just like that she said it. Hades, didn’t I know that already? Didn’t we all know it? The truth of her answer lay in Solan’s unwavering reply.

“I have other issues,” he answered. “You would never understand.”

“I understand that your hate is over things past, things that you could not possibly undo with all the talants in the Greek Empire. It’s time to let go of that anger, Solan, and embrace the future, for your own sake, if for no one else’s. The only person you hurt with your hate is yourself.

Xena will go on being Xena until the end of her days. She will be the Conqueror, and she will continue to make judgment calls such as the one she made at your birth. She will continue to make these decisions, for good or ill. She will forever make choices in her life; some that may possibly even affect you. She will do so, continuing to make the best decisions she can, given the information she has at the time.

One thing will always remain constant, however. That is the fact that she will make these decisions without your opinion or assistance, and somehow, some way, you will have to find a way to live with them. You are holding a grudge, Solan, and although you think to hurt your mother with your ways, you hurt yourself far more.”

Solan didn’t even try to deny any of it. He just sat there, he and Gabrielle staring at one another.

“I’ve been holding on to it for an awfully long time,” he half choked. “It’s hard to change who I am.”

“But who are you, really, Solan?” Gabrielle asked quickly. “I had another teacher called, Chang Chou Tze. He told a story.

Once Chang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chang Chou in the dream. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakably, Chang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chang Chou.”

Gabrielle stilled, letting the insightful words, and their underlying teachings wash over the young man. “Solan,” she reached out and touched his hand. “A man is what he thinks, it’s just that simple.”

“Nothing is that simple,” he hissed. He jerked his hand away from Gabrielle’s and we both looked at him in surprise.

“You don’t get it. I can’t be healed . . . I can never be healed! There’s too much–” he choked, and Gabrielle and I looked at one another. Neither one of us were aware of what had spurred the boy on to such hysterics.

“Solan, it’s easier than you think to soften your heart. Forgiveness can be so easy–”

“Don’t you hear me?” He shouted back at her. “How can I be healed? Forgiveness? How can I forgive anyone when I can’t even forgive myself?”

He seemed quite hysterical now, and Gabrielle moved from where she sat to stand beside me. Tears streamed down his face, and his body shook with the force of his cries.

“Calm down, boy, what’s got into you?” was all I could ask in my own confusion. “Solan, take it easy. I know you and I have things to deal with but I’m sure we can–”

“It was my fault.” Solan said suddenly.

The sound of his voice stopped all thought of conversation in the room. His crying had stopped, and his voice held such intent. It was a deadly calm tone.

“On that ship . . . that night. Gabrielle, I let them do that to you.” Solan finally said.

I could feel Gabrielle’s whole body tense beside me.

“You were there that night.” Gabrielle said in confirmation.

Her voice sounded small and frightened, quite a bit as it did when she first came to live with me. I was somewhat lost myself. I could only look between the two of them, Solan, shaking and crying, Gabrielle, listening, but uncomprehending.

It only took a few more heartbeats for me to gather the pictures in my mind, of what Gabrielle must have looked like after they’d beaten and abused her, the helplessness she felt, and surely feeling her life was at an end. I could feel my own hands begin to shake as I saw the face of my son along with the others on board the ship that night. I didn’t even hear it, but I felt the reverberation of the growl within my chest as I took a step toward Solan.

“I didn’t do anything!” He shouted, as he held one hand up to protect himself. He must have remembered this look on my face, the expression that told him his days as a living being were over. I stopped abruptly, watching as the young man tortured himself more than I could have.

“Don’t you see?” he shouted as he slammed his injured hand against the arm of the chair. He cried out at the pain. “That’s the point!” His tear-filled voice lowered to a whisper. “I didn’t do anything. I never helped them, but I didn’t stop them either. I just let it happen.”

Solan slipped from the chair, sobbing. I felt Gabrielle’s hand pull away from mine and watched as she disappeared from the room. I wanted, needed to run after her, to assure myself that she was all right. After all the compassion and friendship, she’d shown Solan, to be dealt this blow must be too much for her. I looked toward the door she’d just exited, then down to the heap on the floor that was my son. For the first time in my life, I did what Gabrielle would have done.

“Solan,” my strained voice said as I knelt beside him on the floor.

He was sobbing like a five-year-old child, and so I did what one is supposed to do in such cases. I put my arm around him and held him, completely unsure of what to say. What does one say to someone who confesses his guilt, especially when that person is well and truly guilty? I was warring with my own conflicting emotions at the moment. Should I be comforting the man who just admitted to this crime?

It felt awkward, at first, me holding on to my grown son as he cried tears for more than this one past incident. I don’t know how I knew, but somehow I felt as if Solan was releasing a lot of the past, not merely this one occurrence. He was a grown man, yet his body felt so small and frail against mine.

Here we were, a mother who was more warrior than anything else, comforting her child who was no longer a child. It may have seemed odd, but then again, wasn’t this what every child thought of their mother. When a youngster fell and skinned his knees, didn’t he run to his mother? Didn’t he run to her for more than comfort, but for protection also? Deep inside, didn’t all children believe their mothers were warriors?

I sat there and stroked his hair, thinking of nothing to say that could make any of us feel better. I could do no more than hold him against me and offer consolation as he purged himself of his past hurts and memories. I was simply amazed that he turned to me for this reassurance. Me, the Conqueror who was more warrior than mother, and Solan, the son who was more boy than man.

Continued in Chapter 13

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