The Unconquered Sun – An Interlude
A continuation of Aftermath: The Tree Of Life
Chapter One: The Request
Gabrielle stood on the balcony, looking out over the practice fields. Helios was sinking below the mountains, his fiery chariot staining the sky red. His departure left the air cool against the Queen’s skin and she shivered.
“You should have a wrap on,” the Conqueror said from behind her, startling her. The tall ruler stepped up behind Gabrielle and pulled the smaller woman back against her. She settled her cape around the Amazon Queen, Xena’s cloak and skin providing needed warmth.
“The days are so short.”
“True.” The Conqueror watched as the night sky began to overtake the day. “But, soon, they will lengthen. Spring is only a couple moons away.”
Gabrielle sighed. “Spring will be one full cycle from when we met.” Left unsaid was the fact that one full cycle had just passed since the Conqueror had ordered Gabrielle, then a rebel dissident, to be crucified with her legs broken. Her legs were stronger and much straighter than they were before. The healers were pleased with her progress, but there was still residual pain from her prior injuries.
“Then I look forward to spring. We’ll have to do something special together.”
Gabrielle began tracing patterns on the Conqueror’s muscular forearms. “I miss the festival season,” she whispered. Hearing Xena’s consenting murmur, she continued. “I know, because of the consolidation -” as Gabrielle had begun to call Xena’s conquest of Greece – “there hasn’t been any real opportunity to celebrate. But … now …”
Gathering up her courage, she finished. “Can we celebrate the festival season? What could be more appropriate for your reign than to celebrate the Festival of the Unconquered Sun?”
The Conqueror was silent for long heartbeats. Her mind took her back to Amphipolis, in the days of her youth. Lyceus, her younger brother, had also loved festival season. Competitions, parties, drinking, dining, gifts had all delighted the boy who was as light as she was dark. Gabrielle was a living reminder of his spirit. “I haven’t celebrated since I was young. Before Cortese came to Thrace.”
Gabrielle knew better than to show the compassion she felt for the girl the Conqueror had been who had been faced with a terrible choice. Instead, she sank deeper into Xena’s embrace. “I think the people would be glad to observe the festivals. They have much to be grateful for.”
“The people need public celebrations to bind them together, that is true,” the Conqueror replied. “Affirmation of national identity, prosperity and peace wouldn’t be a bad thing. Especially with the current wind of politics.”
Since returning from Babylon, Greece had claimed sovereignty over Ephesus. This had angered Rome and resulted in no less than a dozen missives from the Triumvirate protesting the Conqueror’s actions and, ineffectually, threatening harm. Xena had ignored each of them; though, her plan of sending the last messenger back in several pieces had been thwarted by Gabrielle. The Amazon Queen had argued for mercy for the officer merely doing his duty to Rome, knowing that the Conqueror’s sense of honor would lead her to the right decision.
Rome was powerless to thwart the Conqueror’s actions. Faced with an intensified conflict in Gaul which was draining men, money and resources, the fate of Ephesus was a secondary concern. The death of Lord Allemane in Babylon had given heat to the fire of resistance in the land of occupation. Caesar, himself, had been forced to go there to lead several legions. Pompey had been unable to do so, as he was still recovering from the wounds inflicted upon him by the Conqueror.
The Conqueror’s acquisition of Ephesus had gone smoothly. The Amazons, who outnumbered the Roman garrison posted there, had helped in the transition. In exchange for this, Xena had placed the day-to-day administration of the province in their hands. This had served the purposes of another bloodied nose to Rome for the Conqueror, and the strengthening of Gabrielle’s reign over the women warriors.
The other countries of the Near East had not protested the Conqueror’s actions. Syria, now led by Queen Farza’s eldest son, was engaged in a border skirmish with Babylon. Thus, all of his resources were concentrated to the south and not the west. In any case, the young king was disinclined to begin any conflict with the Destroyer of Nations. It seemed best to him to fight with another young and inexperienced king, and King Vedtrilan fit that description well. So the two young rulers cut their teeth in battle, nipping at each other’s heels, trying to command their armies from the safety of their palaces.
Persia was too far east to have any concern over the province. With the death of King Kulam, the country had been thrown into a bitter civil war as the king’s two sons each vied for the right of succession. The outcome of the struggle was very much in doubt as each son had been courting officials and members of the army for quite some time
Assured that there would be no harm in indulging her oracle, the Conqueror stroked Gabrielle’s stomach lazily. “It sounds like a good idea.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I think it would bind the people closer to you, Xena. They must have good times to remember when following you in the coming troubles.”
The dark ruler chuckled. “Do you know something I don’t?” You certainly do know how to reason with me.
“Well, I am your oracle,” Gabrielle replied, humor coloring her voice. “But you know what I mean. All good things come to an end. Rome will not be content to watch Greece thrive forever. The Huns are gnawing at the border. Let’s enjoy this interlude.”
“All right, Gabrielle. We shall celebrate the festival season. Greece will never see a more majestic honoring of the unconquered sun.” The dark ruler laughed as she was nearly crushed in the resulting hug from her fair-haired lover.
With less than a half moon to prepare, Greece went into a frenzy to be ready for the seven days of feasting. Messengers had been sent through the territories to proclaim the festival, surprising and delighting the citizens. As was traditional, during the quarter moon of celebration, all public commerce would stop. Except for the standing army, all government workers would be free to join in the festivities. No recording of births or deaths would take place until the end; the only marriages that would take place would be on the fourth day of the festival during the Feast of Dionysus.
Gabrielle threw herself headlong into the preparations within the palace, overseeing the staff’s plans. The holidays had always been an important part of her family life growing up. Her father, Herodotus, had been a bull of a man, broad-shouldered and thick-chested, who excelled in the competitions. Her mother, Hecuba, lived for the celebrations of the Muses, and had instilled her love of art, poetry and drama in her eldest daughter. Lila had favored the day of chaos, reveling in the disorder. Gabrielle had loved it all. Every moment of every day had been magical to her.
Gabrielle was sad that she could no longer share the festival with them. Her parents had been murdered by the raiders who kidnapped her, her sister, and all the other young girls of the village. She had no news of Lila. Despite the Conqueror’s attempt to locate her on Gabrielle’s behalf, her younger sister had not been found. This led to the inevitable conclusion that Lila was dead. She hoped that Hades treated her family more kindly than the Fates had.
Nestor, the Royal Secretary of the court, listened as Gabrielle finished dictating her desires for the Feast of Demeter, which would begin the festival. Closing his parchment, he stood and bowed. “I shall see to the arrangements immediately, Queen Gabrielle.” He exited, moving quickly as Pei-cha closed on his heels, rumbling loudly.
“Pei-cha, be good!” Gabrielle commanded, trying to keep the amusement out of her voice. “Come here, you bully.”
The large snow leopard cocked his head to the side and considered the request of his mistress. His near colorless blue eyes swept over her small frame, settling on her eyes ultimately.
“You don’t intimidate me,” she chided. “And you better start being nice to Nestor. He gets nervous around you.”
A low rumble met her words.
“Yes, he does. And, don’t think I didn’t notice the hair you deposited on Xena’s robes this morning.”
An outraged growl was her reply.
Gabrielle shook her finger at the leopard. “Remember how she wouldn’t let you into our suite for an entire moon? Remember how unhappy you were all alone? So, you need to start being the good boy I know you can be.”
Pei-cha came over and laid his head in Gabrielle’s lap, his long tail reaching around his torso to wrap around her leg.
“Uh huh, I see through you, you rogue.” The sting was taken out of her words though as she bent over and kissed his furry head. “Fortunately, I happen to have a thing for rogues.”
Chapter Two: Feast of Demeter
Xena awoke to an unusual sight: Gabrielle awake and peering at her. A glance at the window confirmed her suspicion that Selene had not yet left the night sky. Her young lover never was awake this early, except for today, the start of the festival. “Yes?” she asked, chuckling.
“Good morning.” Gabrielle folded her hands across the Conqueror’s breastbone, resting her chin there.
“Morning is a relative term, I think.” Xena brought her arms up and hugged the oracle close to her body. Gabrielle’s skin was warm and soft and molded perfectly against hers. “Why are you awake?”
Gabrielle blushed, embarrassed. “I couldn’t sleep any longer.”
“Are you sick?” Xena asked, even though she suspected the answer.
A shy smile. “No.”
“Excited about the holiday?”
“I don’t know why, Xena, but yes. I feel like I’m a little girl all over again. All I want is to decorate the palace and get the dinner prepared and …” She stopped and shook her head. “I’m silly, I know. And, truth be told, I’m excited because it’s our first holiday together.”
“Whatever happens, Gabrielle, never change.” She leaned forward and kissed the small nose in front of her. “I guess it’s time to get up. I need to go give the Guard something to be grateful for.” She began moving out of the cozy spot they had settled in.
“You’re going to drill them until they drop, aren’t you?”
The Conqueror snorted. “They need to be in better shape.” Quickly sobering, she continued, “I am glad to have the holiday, but I can never afford to take one, nor can my men. There are too many who wish to harm Greece. Caesar may be in Gaul, but his ambitions remain close by. I have come too far, fought too many battles, lost too much to go soft and weak. I can never stand idly by. Greece depends on me.” And, perhaps most importantly, you depend on me. Strange how Greece and you are so intertwined in my thoughts these days. You have become the country to me.
“Then Greece is fortunate. Go on, but be sure to have something to eat first.” Gabrielle rolled off the dark ruler and sprawled on her back, the linen sheets pooling at her waist.
Xena stopped her movement off the bed at the sight. Her eyes wandered to the window once more, confirming that light had not yet touched the land. “It’s still early,” she protested.
“All the better to get started.” Gabrielle fought to keep the laughter out of her voice. She did, however, prop herself up on her elbows, maintaining the Conqueror’s interest.
“It is a feast day,” Xena tried again.
“You don’t celebrate holidays, remember?”
“But I don’t want to cause the men to be disgruntled. It is early yet and I don’t want any of them to be injured in the darkness and -”
“Xena, come back to bed.”
With a leap, the Conqueror complied. “Happy holidays, Gabrielle,” she husked and then silenced her oracle’s reply.
The Feast of Demeter was the traditional start of the festival season. Demeter, goddess of the crops, was honored in a series of events beginning with a blessing by her priest in the city square and culminating in a feast in every citizen’s home.
Citing her need to drill her soldiers no matter what the day, Xena finally did make it to the practice field, missing the religious observance as was her plan. Mounted atop Argo, she motioned Palaemon closer on his steed. “I want to see close quarter drills, four on four.”
“Yes, my liege,” the Captain replied then trotted off to convey the orders.
The Huns were becoming too aggressive on the northern border, too assured of the Conqueror’s disinterest in them. Given the mobility of her enemy, who preferred using their cavalry for swift, brutal strikes, Xena intended to assure herself that her army was able to meet their challenge.
She sat back in the saddle and watched as Palaemon efficiently grouped her guard and began putting them through the drill. It consisted of a series of exercises for both the rider and the horse. First pass was merely riding through the opposing line. Second pass was to ride through and strike once with the sword. Third pass was to exchange three blows with the sword. The fourth was to fully engage their opponent.
The Conqueror watched her soldiers carefully. Her first concern was their horsemanship. It would do her no good to breed and train the horses if her men couldn’t ride them properly. Her second concern was their ability to handle their swords on horseback. It took an entirely different set of skills to fight while seated on a living beast than it did to stand on one’s two legs and do battle. Finally, she was looking for the natural cavalry officer. More than a combination of equestrian and soldier, this was the one who could become a seamless unit with his mount. Even though she had been glad to rid Greece of the aberration, she had admired the Centaurs for that one reason. However, it had not been enough to save them from her in the end. Xena hoped for better treatment of her soldiers by the Fates.
Near twilight, from the vantage point of their balcony, Gabrielle watched the activity still taking place. While she and the other inhabitants of the city had attended the priest’s blessing and worked on the decoration of their houses, Xena and her men had continued their combat exercises. The Queen wondered how much longer they would continue.
In one hand Gabrielle held a garland of greenery. The Feast of Demeter, the goddess of soil fertility, demanded that the celebrants be surrounded by evidence of her bounty. Any evergreen plant was appropriate for use in decorating the household. In addition, Nestor had seen to the placement of numerous small, potted trees throughout the palace. They would remain there during the entire festival season and would be decorated with red candles on the Feast of the Unconquered Sun.
The palace smelled of the forest as it was filled up. Gabrielle smiled to herself as she thought of the garland she had personally wound around the posts of her and Xena’s bed. While it was to symbolize fertility and help young couples conceive, she doubted it would work on their behalf. However, she was not averse to testing the theory.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Kelryn who approached and inclined her head. “My Queen, I am to inform you that dinner is almost prepared.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “I take it someone wants me to see if the Conqueror plans on joining us.”
As if sensing she was the subject of their discussion, Xena looked up at the balcony and locked eyes with her oracle. Nudging Argo’s side, she crossed over to stop beneath the palace outcropping. “How goes the festival?” she called up.
Gabrielle leaned over the railing. “You missed a very nice service by the priest.” She could tell Xena was not convinced; Xena was not one to worship any God except Ares. She worshipped him only reluctantly. “The palace is beautiful.”
“Of course it is,” the Conqueror countered. You’re in it, was left unsaid in the presence of her men. “We’re almost done here. Is dinner ready?” She shifted in the saddle, stretching her legs as best she could.
“It will be by the time you get cleaned up.”
Xena replied with a smirk and an exaggerated sniff of her tunic. “Soon then.”
A candlemark later, a freshly bathed Conqueror entered her private dining room. Adjacent to her suite of rooms in the palace, to dine with her here was a sign of good favor and high esteem. She had begun using it more once Gabrielle was with her, having preferred the dining area in her personal suite before. Xena took a moment to admire the decorations in the room. Garlands were hung freely over the fireplace mantle and draped over tables, several evergreen trees sat in large containers in the corners of the room, and various fall fruits and vegetables were piled on a serving table to show the abundance of the land.
Gabrielle, dressed in a forest green dress made of silk, came over to the Conqueror. She handed Xena a chalice of wine, taking a sip of it first to show it was not poisoned. Gabrielle knew that the Conqueror would never suspect her, but Xena was extremely cautious in the palace, knowing that more rulers were killed by internal foes than external. Their food tasters, as Xena had insisted that Gabrielle now also have one, sat in the corner of the room waiting for their next, and possibly last, tastes.
The dining table was set for eight and, with Xena’s arrival, all were present in the room. Standing in the middle were Palaemon, Novan and Eponin, the three top soldiers of Greece and the Amazons. They were sharing battle stories, as their big hand gestures and expressions would suggest.
Toward the side were Kelryn and Minon, the two youngest soldiers of both nations. Minon, the nearly beardless boy who had served Xena well in Ephesus, had just returned from his most recent tour of duty. When she left for Babylon, the Conqueror had sent him north to Athens to act as her eyes and ears. The Athenians still harbored ideas of a democratically elected government. Therefore, they were the citizens Xena watched most closely for signs of rebellion. Especially when she traveled out of the country, the Conqueror knew she had to populate Athens with many who supported her. She also needed a few she could trust to relay back what was being said by the influential few. Minon had served her well there, his boyish looks conveying no hint of threat to the intellectual elite. They had told him everything. He was recalled to Corinth with the names of several who would rebel. Each met an unfortunate accident soon thereafter.
Wynn stood in the corner, observing, as always. Her red hair was longer now, reaching just below her shoulders. The Amazon wore it down, to symbolize her freedom after so many winters in the Babylonian court. To Xena, Wynn still seemed as a woman without a country – she was neither truly Amazon, nor Greek, nor Babylonian. She was her own, and communicated it clearly to all. Well, all except for Eponin, who spent no small amount of time trying to court the artist. Xena wondered why the Commander still bothered. She certainly wouldn’t continue after countless rejections from the same woman. Of course, Xena chuckled, no one would reject her.
That thought didn’t matter as Gabrielle laid a hand on her forearm and leaned close, the scent of her perfume drifting up to the Conqueror. “How was practice?”
“Good; I’ll be ready to send a squadron to the Northern Territory soon.”
“Dokov’s death didn’t seem to affect them as Allemane’s did the Gauls,” Gabrielle observed, referring to the Hun Chieftain who had been murdered in Babylon several moons prior.
“They’re barbarians, Gabrielle. What’s one more death, more or less?” She took a long sip of the wine, admiring its slight nutty taste. “Is dinner ready?”
“As soon as you give the command to serve it.”
“By all means then.”
Soon they were seated around the table, Gabrielle and Xena at opposite ends. Xena disliked not having her oracle’s company close to her, but knew Gabrielle deserved the other end seat as a head of state. Because of this annoying protocol the Conqueror preferred having meals in the privacy of their own suite where such rules did not apply.
With a nod from the Conqueror, the palace staff began serving the traditional harvest meal which consisted of a young stag, stuffed potatoes, boiled squash and baked apples. The diners looked at the meal appreciatively. The aroma of the various dishes made the oracle’s stomach rumble in anticipation. After the meal tasters took a portion of each dish and backed away still alive, the meal of celebration began.
Chapter Three: Feast of Hebe
Standing in the city stadium, Xena folded her arms over her chest. The morning sun warmed her skin and those of the contestants on the grounds in front of her. This was one of her favorite days of the festival, the Feast of Hebe. Hebe was the goddess of youth. As such, on her feast day, there were a series of contests for the coming of age of young men and women warriors.
Any freeborn man or woman between the ages of sixteen and twenty winters was allowed to compete. Prior to the Conqueror’s reign, only young males had been welcome in the games. However, given the nature of the Greek ruler herself, it was impossible to deny women’s prowess in all things related to combat. One concession Xena did make was that while any male could simply sign up and participate, any female had to be approved for the contest by Novan. This was to ensure that no girl whose head was filled with romantic ideas could put herself in danger. Novan would run a couple of light drills with any woman who wanted to compete and then decide on her eligibility. Another change Xena made to the event was that the participants would be dressed while competing. In the past all events were conducted in the nude. Clothing was minimal however, consisting of a loin cloth, and in the case of a female participant, a strip of cloth wound around her breasts.
The winner would be awarded the victor’s garland, twenty gold coins – more than enough to last the average citizen a year -, and a position in the army.
The contest consisted of seven events, each becoming more physically demanding as the day wore on. For this reason, women citizens had also been traditionally barred from observing the contest. It was feared that one of them might try to interfere with the sport, perhaps endangering herself. It was also to avoid the high-pitched screams which could be distracting to the participants. The Conqueror’s compromise was to allow any woman warrior into the general seating area, and to cordon off a section for any other women who wanted to watch. If any of the women became distracting to the contestants or to herself, she would simply have the area cleared.
The contestants stood to the side and were being looked over by the judges. The Conqueror, of course, was the ultimate judge of any event, but she had appointed Palaemon and Eponin her deputies in the matter. They each had a bowl of ink in their hand and, after approving a person for participation, wrote a number on the person’s back for identification. The contest was beginning with twenty-eight athletes, of whom nine were women.
Once all was ready, Xena strode out into the center of the stadium, and looked at the participants. “Greetings to the best of Corinth! Today we will find out which of you is the best of our youth, and who will become a true soldier. The first event is chariot racing. You will each complete four laps of the field, turning twice at the posts opposite –” she pointed to the seven posts erected at the opposite end of the stadium – “and crossing the finish line. The first one across it, wins. Anyone who does not cross the finish line is disqualified from all other events.” Having finished her speech, Xena strode back to her observation point in the stadium and deftly leapt up to it, ignoring the stairs. The audience applauded heartily.
Gabrielle smiled at her as she took her seat on the throne. “Show off,” she whispered so no one else could hear.
“They expect me to do it, Gabrielle,” Xena countered, a smile crossing her lips briefly.
The horses and chariots were brought out and the contestants took their places. The chariot race was always an exciting start to the day. As there would be no barrier between chariots moving in opposite directions, crashes between the chariots were likely. It was a quick way of weeding out participants from later events, as anyone involved in a chariot crash was unable to continue.
At the drop of a flag at the opposite end of the field, the event began. The sound of twenty-eight horses and chariots going at full speed was overwhelming. The crowd began cheering, calling for their favorite, adding to the noise. Three chariots had pulled away significantly from their competitors and were nearing the first turn. Xena knew that it was unlikely any of those three would win the event. The strategy in chariot racing was to hold your horse back as much as possible, to stay with the pack during the first three lengths, never to make yourself an obvious target. Then, in the last length, to let the beast run wild.
True to her prediction, the first two chariots that made the turn collided spectacularly with opponents approaching them. The sound of wood, metal and horseflesh meeting was painful even to the observers. One of the contestants was thrown from the chariot and had to quickly scramble to move out of the path of a charging horse.
Beside her, Gabrielle flinched.
By the end of the second length, the field was down to twenty participants; the others being cleared off, as best they could be, while the second turn took place. The chariots raced downfield for their third lap. One of the riders seemed to simply lose his balance in the chariot, slip and knock himself out when his chin struck the wood on his way down. The crowd roared with laughter.
Nineteen chariots made the turn safely and entered into the home stretch. One chariot swerved, its chassis breaking from the strain. The driver held on fast to the reins, however, and was dragged along the ground before the pain of holding on was too great.
Eighteen chariots remained and crossed the finish line.
Palaemon pointed to the one he believed crossed first and Xena nodded in agreement. “The winner is number Twelve!” After conferring with Eponin and confirming their decisions with the Conqueror, he continued. “Points are also given to number Three and number Twenty-four!”
The crowd cheered the winner and runners-up, each of whom came out into centerfield for acknowledgement. Twelve was a male, tall and thin, with close cropped black hair. Three was a female, also tall but more muscular than Twelve, her blonde hair tied back from her face. Twenty-four was another male, short and stocky, a coat of red hair covering his entire body. Gabrielle giggled at the sight of him.
The last of the chariot remains were removed from the field. Xena was pleased that none of the horses involved in crashes would have to be put down. From the report of the healers on the field, of the eleven disqualified by the first event, seven had suffered broken bones. The other four were badly shaken up, one still unconscious.
Xena stood up to address the crowd. “The next event will be running. All contestants will wear helmets and greaves and run the length of the stadium and back.”
“Why helmets and greaves?” Gabrielle asked, unfamiliar with this custom.
“It’s to simulate being in battle. Seeing how one of them will win a position in my army, I want to know he or she is capable of that.”
The contestants stood at the starting line and watched while the flag at the opposite end was waved, signaling their start. They took off, the weight of their armor keeping the race to one of endurance and strength rather than mere speed. It was an inelegant looking race, as each of the youths ran with mostly unfamiliar equipment. One tripped when his helmet slipped, obscuring his vision. The crowd laughed at his misfortune.
Contestants Twelve and Three were in the front of the pack as they made the turn. It looked as if one of them would win but number Eighteen found a burst of energy and soon pulled alongside them. The three contestants dug in hard, but in the end, the newcomer found a bit more strength to carry the day.
“The winner is number Eighteen! Points are also awarded to number Twelve and number Three!”
The crowd cheered again as the three stepped forward to be acknowledged.
“The next event is the discus toss. Each contestant will be have one toss.”
Spread out on a table were the objects each contestant was to throw. The contestants hurried over to select one for themselves, knowing that they were of slightly different weights and forms. A brief struggle broke out at the table as two participants reached for the same discus. Palaemon intervened and awarded it to neither of them. Once everyone had one, the seventeen contestants were lined up.
The object of the contest was simple: to throw the bronze item as far as possible. Each contestant had one opportunity to do so. Each would stand in a circle, hold the discus in one hand, and toss it. All participants were allowed one spin to build up momentum. Any discus that went outside the marked area was disqualified, as was anyone who stepped on the lines of the circle. Whoever threw it the farthest, won.
The first toss was pitiful and earned the scorn of the crowd. The next ten were decent, but unremarkable, and all landed within a few handwidths of one another. It was when number Three entered the circle that the contest became interesting. The muscular woman rolled her shoulders, loosening them up. Then she turned and pointed to a spot far further than where the other disks lay on the ground. The crowd roared their approval of her confidence. Smiling, she cocked her hand, spun around, and sent the discus a bodylength further than she had indicated.
The next contestant stood nervously in the circle, trying to decide whether to toss with his right or left hand. Finally, he chose his left, and spun. When he released, the discus sailed directly into the nearby crowd, causing the observers to duck as it flew at them. One was not fast enough and the bronze piece impacted him in the chest, knocking him over.
Once again, the crowd laughed. Indignant, the injured man stood and cursed his seatmates. Then he ran down the steps, leapt onto the field, and took off after the contestant. The crowd found this even funnier and cheered him on as he sought revenge for his injured body and more injured pride.
After the excitement, the remaining contestants tossed, but no one else approached number Three’s mark.
“The winner is number Three! Points are also awarded to Twenty-four and Six!”
“There’s your boy,” the Conqueror teased as the red-haired bear took his bow.
Gabrielle laughed. “I think not. And Twelve looks a bit annoyed at not placing in this round.”
The disks were removed from the field, and the contestants moved over to the jump pit. “The next event is the Long Jump. Each contestant has one jump, whoever jumps the farthest wins. Anyone who takes more than three steps in the marked area, or who steps on the line, is disqualified.”
Number Twelve shoved his way to the front of the line for the event. The other athletes groused a bit, but allowed him to go first.
The crowd gasped as they watched Twelve glide through the air nearly effortlessly. They began applauding vigorously when Palaemon paced out almost four bodylengths’ distance.
None of the others came close to his jump. The leading woman, number Three, landed a bit over three bodylengths, earning her second place in the event.
“The winner is Twelve! Points to Three and Eighteen!” Palaemon announced.
Twelve swaggered to the middle of the field and soaked in the applause. Standing to the side, Three watched his demeanor and shook her head.
“Do you think Twelve will win?” Gabrielle asked. “Because I sure hope he doesn’t.”
Xena chuckled; it was unusual to hear Gabrielle not like someone. “No, he won’t. He’s too cocky and not smart enough to know it. Just watch, after the midday break, he won’t do so well.”
The last event before the break was the javelin toss. Each contestant was given a javelin about as tall as a man and as thick as a man’s thumb. A metal point was attached to its tip. The object was simple: throw the javelin as far as possible. Each contestant was given one opportunity.
The throws were unimpressive until number Twenty-four, the red-haired bear, made his throw. It sailed easily past the other marks of the prior throws. He walked back to the other contestants and smiled, taking special care to linger in front of Twelve who had not thrown yet.
Gabrielle giggled. “Oh, that was mean.”
Twelve glowered and then marched to the starting point. Twenty-four’s intimidation tactic worked, however, and Twelve stepped over the line, disqualifying his throw. He turned from the line and sprinted back toward Twenty-four, intent on injuring him.
He stopped when he saw Eponin’s drawn sword.
“I didn’t even see her move.” Gabrielle was impressed by her Commander’s swiftness.
The Conqueror nodded. “Eponin is quick on her feet, which is why she is fit to serve you.”
The last contestant, number Three, approached and made her throw. Instantly the crowd erupted into applause, her javelin impacting past where Twenty-four had thrown his. She turned, faced the redhead, and shrugged.
Good-naturedly, he joined in the applause.
“The winner is Three! Points awarded to Twenty-four and Six!” Palaemon announced. “We will now take a candlemark break for midday.”
Palaemon showed the remaining contestants to the shaded area of the arena where there were pitchers of water set out for them, as well as platters of food. He and Eponin stayed with them during the break, making sure that no one had anything except what was on the table. Eponin carefully positioned herself between Twelve and Twenty-four, so that no further altercation could take place.
Up on the observation deck, the Conqueror and Gabrielle ate a small meal while debating who would win the contest – the tall woman or the red-haired bear. The candlemark passed quickly, and soon the athletes were filing back onto the field.
“The next contest is wrestling. Each contestant will draw a stone from the sack. The stones have a symbol on them; those with matching symbols will wrestle one another. The first contestant to score three falls over his or her opponent will win the match. Remember, no biting, slapping or hitting.”
Each of the participants came forward and drew a stone. The nine pairings were soon obvious and the opponents lined up against one another in the circles drawn.
Twenty-four looked over his much smaller opponent and smiled. He licked his lips, tasting victory. With the fall of the flag, Twenty-four advanced over to him, wrapped his thick arms around him and tossed him out of the circle, instantly winning his first match.
Other matches lasted a bit longer, with the predictable wins based on size and build taking place. Advancing to the second round were the favored two of the Conqueror and the Queen, as well as the hot-headed Twelve.
Another round of stones were drawn and four new matches took place, with Twenty-four given a pass due to his overwhelming victory in the first round. During the middle of the second round, one of the participants cried out in pain and clutched his ear. Palaemon was there immediately and it was upon his boot that part of the man’s ear was spat.
The crowd began chanting, “Disqualify him! Disqualify him!”
Xena stood up and motioned for Palaemon to bring the offender forward. “You have chosen poorly,” she said to the disqualified athlete. To Palaemon she ordered, “Turn him over to one of the guards. He will be given twenty lashes and fined fifty dinars.”
“Conqueror!” the man protested, his lips coated with his opponent’s blood. “I don’t have that kind of money!”
The Conqueror shrugged. “Then you will work for me until you’ve earned it. Take him to the servants’ quarters after the lashing. Have the other one taken to the healers and give him twenty dinars for his pain.”
The three victors of the second round and number Twenty-four drew stones once more to determine their pairing. Twenty-four and Ten were paired together, as were Three and Twelve.
“Well, this should be interesting.”
Twenty-four and Ten faced one another, sizing each other up. Ten was a handsome youth and he carried himself in a manner to suggest he knew it. When the flag dropped, Twenty-four lumbered toward him, arms outstretched. Ten quickly ducked under the widespread arms and grabbed Twenty-four around the back and shoulders. The red-haired bear smiled and fell backwards, instantly trapping Ten underneath him and earning his first fall.
“That was sneaky,” Gabrielle chuckled, pleased with her favorite contestant.
“It was. I like it,” Xena agreed, knowing she would offer him a position in her army no matter what the outcome of the contest.
Ten was a bit slow getting to his feet and paid for it when Twenty-four picked him up, rolled him over and scored his second fall. Twenty-four waited until Ten could climb to his knees before he scored his third fall and won the match.
In the other circle, Twelve was ahead by one fall. He and Three stood facing one another, arms linked around each other’s shoulders, trying to get the leverage needed to throw the other to the ground. Suddenly, one of Twelve’s hands dropped and wrapped around Three’s right breast, twisting hard. She yelped in pain and fell to her knees, surprised by the action.
“That’s not fair!” Gabrielle yelled, joining the crowd in their boos.
The Conqueror shook her head at Palaemon. Unfortunately, there was nothing in the rules that forbade that sort of contact; breasts had not been an anticipated target.
The pain and indignation, however, were exactly what Three needed. She grabbed Twelve behind his knees and pulled hard, sending him sprawling. She climbed over his body and pressed him down to the ground, earning a fall. Three then sat up and rolled him over, forcing his face down hard into the dirt of the arena.
“Two!” the crowd shouted, clearly behind her.
She then reached under his body and used his genitals as a handle by which to roll him over and score her third fall.
She pushed herself up, wiped her hand in the dirt, and stood, acknowledging her victory. Twelve began to protest but was silenced by a look at the Conqueror.
“The winner is Twenty-four! Points to Three and Ten!” Palaemon shouted.
“The final event is boxing!” the Conqueror announced. “The top two scorers of the day will fight one another until one is unable or unwilling to continue.” She conferred with her scorecard. “The match will be between Twenty-four and Three.”
The crowd cheered, pleased that their two favorites had advanced to the final contest.
On the sidelines, Three and Twenty-four both wrapped a strip of leather around their knuckles to protect them during the fight. Three also tightened the binding around her breasts, to protect them a bit more. Palaemon and Eponin inspected the leather to make sure it wasn’t thick enough to cut their opponent. Once assured, they brought the two contestants into the arena.
There was no set area for the bout. The contestants were free to move about as desired, but never to run away from one another. Palaemon and Eponin both held a staff to use to keep the opponents together. There would be no breaks in the contest. The fight would last as long as the athletes did.
The flag dropped and the two approached one another. They circled for a few moments, looking for the best opening. Three found it first and sent a left jab at Twenty-four’s jaw. His head snapped back and a trickle of blood appeared in the corner of his mouth. Three smiled at having drawn first blood.
He countered with a right to her gut, causing an explosion of breath that could be heard even in the stands.
She straightened up quickly, however, and landed a three punch combo to his head, staggering him back. She shook out one of her hands scattering droplets of blood on the dirt, while keeping the other up in a defensive position.
They circled each other again, looking for an opening. A quick uppercut snaked through her defenses snapping her jaw shut and bursting open her lip. But she swiftly countered with several body blows and ducked under a left hook to her head. A right jab to Twenty-four’s eye blackened it and caused it to swell.
The crowd cheered. Gabrielle was studying the wood on the observation platform.
“Gabrielle, you need to watch the fight,” Xena warned.
“I don’t like it. It’s too bloody.”
A quick glance down at the match confirmed that it was becoming increasingly bloody. The cut on Three’s hand was bleeding copiously, as was her lip. It coated her throat and chest in crimson, making it look worse than it was. Twenty-four’s left eye had swollen shut and his lip was bleeding as well. They continued to trade blows, bruising exposed flesh.
“You lead a nation of women warriors, Gabrielle. Your Commander is on the field, and many of your guard are in the stands watching the fight and watching you. If you cannot watch this contest, you will lose their respect. I guarantee you.”
The Queen nodded tightly and looked up, deliberately keeping her eyes unfocused on the event. It was better that way.
Xena reached over and rested her hand atop Gabrielle’s in silent support.
A series of blows caused Twenty-four to stagger back, surprised at the strength in the tall woman. He bumped into Palaemon’s staff, unable to retreat any further. The contact seemingly invigorated him, however, and he approached Three with a new determination. He threw a right hook and opened a cut below her left eye. This was followed by a left jab to the chest, knocking her off balance. A swift uppercut sent her sprawling to the ground.
The crowd cheered.
Three lay on the ground for a long moment, catching her breath and wiping at the blood on her face with the back of her forearm.
Eponin leaned over her. “Can you continue?”
Three smiled, her mouth stained red. “I could. But I think it’d be smarter not to. I plan on serving in the Conqueror’s army for a long time to come. I’d like to have all my teeth still.”
“Good choice,” Eponin agreed and walked over to Twenty-four to hold his arm up in victory.
Twenty-four basked in the applause for a long moment. He then offered his arm to Three and hoisted her to her feet.
The crowd cheered once more.
“So who won the contest overall?” Gabrielle asked, relieved that the fight was over.
“They tied,” Xena replied. “And they seem to know it.” She watched as the two celebrated on the field. One of the things she demanded from her army was a camaraderie that extended beyond the ordinary. She demanded that they be competitive, but also willing to share in the victory with one another. These two would make fine additions to her army.
Palaemon and Eponin led the two contestants over to where the Conqueror and Queen awaited. Three and Twenty-four bowed deeply before their ruler.
“Congratulations and well done,” the Conqueror praised. “What are your names?”
“I am Menacles,” Twenty-four replied.
“I am Filia.”
“The winners are Menacles and Filia!” Xena announced to the grandstand. “They shall both be awarded the victor’s garland, the gold and a position in my army. Well done!”
The crowd expressed its approval once more before beginning to disperse. Palaemon and Eponin escorted the two victors to the healers.
“You did well, Gabrielle. I’m proud of you.”
The fair haired woman sighed and leaned back in her chair, glad that the Feast of Hebe was almost done. “Well, just for that, I’m going to make you sit through an entire play tomorrow.” Her lips curled up in a smile, knowing her threat was idle unless the Conqueror conceded.
“Ah, yes, the Feast of the Muses, my favorite.” With an aggrieved sigh, the dark haired ruler rolled her eyes.
Chapter Four: Feast of the Muses
Where the Feast of Hebe was designed as a coming of age for the young men of Greece, the Feast of the Muses was for the young women. The nine sisters responsible for poetry, music, drama and dance – and their variations – were each celebrated on this feast day. Young women would compose their own arts to entice their lovers, or their intended, as the case might be.
The city square had been transformed into a theatre showcase. Numerous merchants, performing troupes and religious devotees had set up booths celebrating their favored muse. The Conqueror reluctantly followed Gabrielle through the maze of people, their guards struggling to stay close. Every place where poetry was being recited, Gabrielle stopped, tilted her head to one side, closed her eyes and listened.
“It is his mind which knows all things, which never touches falsehood, which no one or god or mortal can outwit. He sees, whether the deed is done, or only planned.”
Xena snorted and shook her head. “Seems Apollo has his publicity troops out today.”
Gabrielle opened one eye to regard the ruler. “Not a fan of his?”
“Not a fan of any the Olympians. As far as I can tell, the world has never prospered due to them.”
“Come on, then,” Gabrielle urged, taking hold of the Conqueror’s hand. “Let’s see if we can find someone reciting love poetry instead.”
“Oh, that’s so much better.”
Gabrielle tugged on the long arm of the ruler. “Would you prefer to watch the worshippers of Polyhymnia?”
“I absolutely refuse to do that, Gabrielle. Even for you. In fact, I wouldn’t mind feeding a couple of them to Pei-cha.” The big cat looked up at the mention of his name. “I wonder,” the dark ruler said to the leopard, “if they would make a sound when you ate them.”
The fair-haired woman burst out laughing at the question, so unexpected from the serious Conqueror. “I don’t think today is the day to find out, Xena, not with all the citizens enjoying the festival so much.”
Xena looked around at the crowds. “It is going well, isn’t it?”
“It is. Greece prospers under your leadership.”
The Conqueror absorbed the compliment slowly, knowing it to be truthful from her oracle. It was pleasant to be respected and not feared by the one who knew her best. “Thank you. I hear there’s a contest held in Thalia’s honor. I think you should enter.”
“Me? Do comedy?”
“Remember that story about the arrows you told me so long ago?”
Gabrielle’s mind took her to the campfire on the way to Ephesus, when she was still afraid for her life every day, but determined to speak truth no matter what the consequences. It had been a fun evening, trading tales with the Conqueror’s men. “I do.”
“Tell something like that. I haven’t heard you tell a story in a long time.”
A shy smile graced Gabrielle’s lips. “You like them?”
“So much that I placed a small wager on you. So, we need to hurry to the competition before it is forfeit.”
The gathering at the competition grew quickly in size with the presence of the Conqueror and the Amazon Queen. The entire deployment of Amazons in the city ringed the small outdoor theatre, anxious to cheer on their Queen.
Gabrielle would be the third to tell a story in the contest. The judges were three priestesses of the Muses, each readily identifiable by her makeup and costume. The priestess of Melpomene wore dark face paint with trails of tears visible on her cheeks, along with somber robes. The priestess of Thalia was the exact opposite, with white face paint and an almost garish smile painted on her lips. Finally, there was the priestess of Erato, whose costume and makeup were mostly left to the imagination.
Upon being called up to the stage, Gabrielle rose gracefully and took her place. Looking out at the large mass of people, she willed her heart to slow. She fixed her eyes on the last row of the crowd and began speaking to them.
“There once lived a ruler who enjoyed contests of all kinds: riddle contests, joke contests, juggling contests, singing contests, dancing contests, whistling contests, running contests. If you could think of something and do it, he would make a contest of it.
“One day, the ruler overheard his advisors talking amongst themselves, arguing over which one had the most influence over him. Angered that they were wasting their time this way, the king interrupted them.
“’All right,’ he said, ‘we’ll have a contest to decide who shall be my chief advisor.’ The men groaned for they were tired of the endless contests. Nevertheless, they listened as the king told them the rules. ‘Whoever can make me say, “That’s a lie!” will become my chief advisor.’
“Well, the men were thrilled, for each thought he would win the contest. For, as you know, advisors to rulers are often skillful liars to begin with.”
The crowd laughed, knowing this to be true. Gabrielle, the winner of the contest of truth, shared a knowing smile with the Conqueror.
“The day of the contest came and each of the advisors approached the ruler with an outrageous tale. However, the king did not call any of them liar. Instead, he replied with an even more outrageous response. Since none of his advisors won, the king opened the contest to the rest of the kingdom.
“Three brothers came to compete. The first was an artist. He came to the ruler and said: ‘I can draw a circle so big it will reach up into the sky around the moon. Then I can pull the moon where I want it so there will always be light in the night sky.’
“The ruler replied, ‘Really? Well, I can hold a torch so large that whenever I want to light it, I turn it toward the sun and set it aflame there.’
“The second brother, a tailor, said, ‘Yesterday there was a terrible storm. The thunder and lightning were so violent that the sky was torn to shreds. So, I took my needle and thread and patched the sky.’
“The ruler replied, ‘Well, you made such large holes with your needle that the rain poured through the whole night.’
“The third brother, a fool, came before the ruler carrying a large pot. The ruler was intrigued and asked, ‘Why are you carrying that?’
“The man said, ‘I brought the empty pot so you can fill it up with the thousand gold pieces you owe me.’
“The ruler sprang to his feet and shouted, ‘That’s a lie!’
“And so, the fool became the ruler’s chief advisor. But, it is always that way, is it not?”
Gabrielle stood for a moment, enjoying the laughter of the crowd, then took her bow. She was relieved to see Xena smiling.
Chapter Five: Feast of Dionysus
The late morning found the Conqueror in the practice field which was, for the moment, transformed into a public arena. In front of her were dozens of couples who had come for the honor of having the ruler of all Greece officiate at their union. Dressed in a black uniform, her matching cape swirling about her body in the morning breeze, she gazed down at the young and hopeful faces populating the field. Most of the brides could not be more than thirteen or fourteen winters old, the grooms only barely older. Yet they were there to be recognized as a legal union, capable of owning property, signing contracts, inheriting property, and owning businesses.
Xena was aware of Gabrielle’s presence near the platform. The Amazon Queen did not join her on the temporary stage as the Amazon Nation did not celebrate the same type of union as Greece. The dark ruler shook her head at the sight of Pei-cha bedecked in a blue ribbon collar in honor of the public celebration taking place.
“Greece honors order,” the Conqueror began, her voice loud and easily carrying to the outer participants, “order in public life. During my reign, peace and stability have come back to Greece. No longer are we plagued by petty warlords, bandits and those who seek to harm the people. Trade has grown. Our crops are allowed to be sown and harvested without fear. Our people are clothed and fed and protected. And order shall prevail, especially against the threat of Rome. One day, we shall impose order on our enemies and they will respect our power. It is because of our discipline and our hard work that we flourish.
“Greece honors order in private life as well. Marriage being an institution of order: two people, one commitment, recognition by the State. I expect each of you to live up to the promise you make here today to live together, to work together, to bear children together, and to die together. Greece has no tolerance for fools. Fools who make promises in haste regret them at length.
“At this time, there are affirmations to be made prior to the marriage contract. First, has the bride’s price been paid by all the grooms present here?”
She paused as all the couples answered in the affirmative. She watched carefully for any sign of duress or hesitation by any of the brides.
“Second, are any of the men here actors or any of the women prostitutes?”
Greek law prevented both classes of people from marrying. Silence greeted her question.
“Do each of the grooms have a ring to present to the bride as a symbol of the marriage contract they will sign today?”
A round of affirmations greeted her. Palaemon and her other guards confirmed the presence of a ring with each of the couples.
“Take the hand of your chosen at this time.” She watched as the couples faced one another and reached out, entangling hands. “Do you promise to join together from this day forward with each other and no other? To provide for your children? To honor one another’s contracts and debts? To not separate unless by death or dishonor? If so, the gift of the ring should now be exchanged.”
The couples on the field did so and then gazed at their ruler expectantly.
“After you sign the marriage contract, Greece recognizes you as legally wed. See to it that you uphold the order of the relationship you have entered into. Each of you are now free to celebrate the Feast of Dionysus with your new families.”
The families of the wedding participants cheered from outside the field and began pelting the newlyweds with nuts, in keeping with tradition.
The Conqueror descended from the platform and called Palaemon over to herself. “Get this field cleared as soon as possible. We have many drills to accomplish today. I don’t want the soldiers to have time to get drunk, this feast is always an opportunity for hoodlums to do mischief. The Guard must be prepared at all times. Am I understood?”
Palaemon nodded. “Yes, my liege. Your will shall be carried out immediately.”
Xena turned her attention to Gabrielle. “What are your plans for today?”
The oracle smiled widely. “I understand the Amazons have arranged a celebration that I am to preside over.”
The dark ruler did not smile. Her eyes drained of color and she fixed her stare on Eponin, conveying clearly what she thought of this idea.
“Xena, what’s wrong?” Gabrielle asked softly before her lover could harm her commander.
“Just what type of activities will you be presiding over, Gabrielle?” The question was asked coldly, with a trace of malice in her tone.
The Amazon Queen glanced at her surrounding officers and waved them away. She then took hold of the Conqueror’s hand and led her over to the side of the platform, away from prying eyes and ears. Frustrated by their height difference, Gabrielle placed herself on a step, so she could meet the Conqueror’s gaze. “I am yours, Xena. I am only the Amazon Queen by accident, not by choice. But I chose to come to you that day because I wanted to know you, to speak to you, to be near you. Say the word and I will pass on the rite of caste, Xena. I swear, I will.”
The Conqueror looked slightly mollified.
“Remember, I promised that I will never lie to you?” Upon receiving an affirmative nod, Gabrielle continued. “I may lead a nation of Amazons, but I will not engage in all of their practices. I will certainly not entertain a new lover. Nor would I want to.” She grabbed the edges of Xena’s cloak and leaned against the strong body. “However, I am sure I will be looking forward to seeing you later.”
Xena cupped Gabrielle’s cheek and brought her closer. “Good,” she husked before kissing her oracle. “I have instructed that we will be enjoying the Feast of Dionysus in our suite … alone.”
The Conqueror visited her throne room after finishing the day close combat drilling with her Royal Guard. She was pleased with her two new additions, Menacles and Filia, who were showing natural ability and enthusiasm. She had designated Minon to conduct their initial training, with Novan supervising his efforts.
Settling down on her throne, she called Nestor over to her side. “Report.”
Her Secretary handed her several scrolls to review. “The festival continues, my liege,” he sniffed. “There are scattered reports of brawling and public drunkenness. All of which the City Guard has been able to put down without any trouble, Conqueror.”
“They had better,” Xena muttered. “Bring me a chalice of wine, Nestor.”
The Secretary hurried over to the serving table and poured a large amount in a cup. He brought it over to the food taster and handed it to him. After being assured the wine had not been poisoned, Nestor gave it to the Conqueror.
She drank it down readily, enjoying the hint of blackberries in its flavor. She wondered how it would taste on Gabrielle’s lips. “Anything I need to be aware of, Nestor?” Xena crossed her legs impatiently.
“No, my liege. All is well.”
“Where is Queen Gabrielle?”
Nestor bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling. It had been interesting this past cycle to watch the Destroyer of Nations become more and more solicitous of the petite oracle. “She is in your suite, my liege, waiting for you.”
Xena rose from the throne and grabbed the pitcher of wine she had been served from. After being assured that the remainder was fine by the taster, she began heading toward the rooms she shared with Gabrielle. As she left, she gave Nestor a final instruction. “Only you or Palaemon are to disturb us. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my liege. You will not be disturbed.”
Xena smiled. “Exactly.”
Xena’s steps became faster as she neared her suite. Ever since Gabrielle told her she would be with the Amazons during the Feast of Dionysus, she had thought of nothing else. While she believed her oracle, she did not trust the Amazons. She knew their nature all too well. Their prior queen, Cyane, had been willing to do anything to attempt to dissuade Xena from destroying their Nation. While the Conqueror had enjoyed the distraction, it had not altered her plans.
Now she shared a bed with another Amazon Queen, one who was no mere distraction, and who could cause her to alter almost any plan with a touch or a word. Including, she sighed, allowing the hated snow leopard into their rooms when Xena had sworn she would never.
Pei-cha met her at the door. He was there every time she returned, placing his large frame in the way, attempting to block her entry. Each time, the Conqueror kicked him in the haunches with the toe of her boot earning an outraged glare and low snarl. “Move, rug, I have no use for you.”
“I told you to stop that, Pei-cha!” Gabrielle scolded from across the room.
Xena’s eyes followed the sound of the voice, and widened considerably upon seeing her oracle. “Were you too warm?” Her voice held equal measures of amusement and desire.
Gabrielle shrugged. She looked down the length of her body which was clad in a nearly translucent silk gown. “You don’t approve?”
“I didn’t say that,” the Conqueror replied taking a few steps forward, setting the wine pitcher down on a table as she did so.
“Aren’t you too warm in that?” The petite woman waved a finger at the heavy clothing the Conqueror had worn for her day’s activities.
Xena fingered the clasp on her cape. “Come to think of it, yes.” The offending layer fell to the floor. “Much better.” She smiled and picked up a cup from the table. “Wine?”
“Well, it is the Feast of Dionysus.”
“Very true.” Xena poured enough for the both of them in the single cup. As she approached Gabrielle, she studied the lithe body discreetly on display for her. “I was wondering earlier how this would taste in your mouth.”
“Let’s find out.” Taking the proffered cup, Gabrielle drank some of the rich, sweet wine, saving some in her mouth. The smaller woman leaned up and pressed her lips to the dark ruler’s, her mouth instantly yielding at the request of Xena’s tongue, sharing the wine with her lover.
Xena hummed with pleasure as she tasted the intoxicating flavor of Gabrielle mingled with the wine. It was a heady mixture, weakening her knees. “Nice,” she whispered, pulling away at last. She swirled her finger in the liquid, coating her finger crimson, then brought it up and painted Gabrielle’s lips. “I like the blend.”
Gabrielle licked the finger touching her mouth. “So do I.”
Two fingers dipped into the wine and now trailed a path down Gabrielle’s cheek and neck, followed by incessant lips and tongue. When the Conqueror wet her fingers once again, the oracle sighed with pleasure as her shoulders were painted and cleansed.
“My gown,” Gabrielle whispered, finding her breath. “It’ll be stained.”
Deft fingers pushed the straps off delicate shoulders causing the silk to pool at Gabrielle’s feet. “Now it won’t.” Pulling Gabrielle into her arms, Xena kicked the silk out of the way. Freed of any constraint, Xena tilted the cup and poured a small stream of wine onto the exposed skin. Hungry eyes followed the path of the dark liquid.
Gabrielle gasped at the sensation of the cool wine on her increasingly overheated skin. Xena’s gaze burned another line of fire, igniting an answering blaze within her. When a warm. wet mouth closed over her breast, lapping at the liquid there, she moaned and tangled her fingers in dark hair.
Xena’s arms closed tightly around her, lifting her up easily. Somehow the Greek ruler managed to navigate a path from the great room to the bedroom without losing either her hold on the oracle or the wine. She gently laid Gabrielle down on the large feather mattress, watching as the fair-haired woman stretched luxuriously. The wine was placed on a table, to be consumed after her thirst for the oracle was sated.
In the great room, Pei-cha sniffed at the silk gown discarded by his mistress. Sighing, he lay down, nuzzling the garment and closing his eyes.
Chapter Six: The Feast of Fortuna
The Conqueror stood in the stable and stared.
Beside her, Palaemon shuffled nervously, fearful of her impending reaction. He had been the first to see what had happened to Argo during the night. It had caused him enough distress to interrupt the ruler’s breakfast with Queen Gabrielle and bring her here.
“What have they done to you, girl?” Xena whispered, stepping into the stall and approaching the golden colored mare.
Argo snorted and stamped her foot on the hay strewn ground. Shaking her head and twitching her tail, the large war horse attempted to remove the offense she had suffered: someone had woven her mane and tail in braids, liberally interspersing wildflowers in the design.
“I hate the feast of Fortuna,” Xena muttered. She began plucking the flowers out of the design, crushing them with the heel of her boot when they hit the floor.
The Feast of Fortuna, however, was always a favorite among the people. It was the day of misrule, full of contradictions and practical jokes. Fortuna was the goddess of chance, forever allotted to wear a blindfold so that her influence would be unpredictable. To some, she dispensed blessing upon blessing, to others hardship upon hardship, to still more a mixture of the two.
“Have you seen the archers yet, my liege?” Palaemon asked warily. He sometimes hated being Captain of the Royal Guard, especially on days like this one.
Blue eyes narrowed in response to the question. “No. Should I have?”
The Captain smiled weakly. “They look quite lovely, my liege.”
Picking up a comb, Xena brushed out the rest of Argo’s mane. “Is that your way of telling me they are wearing women’s clothing, Palaemon?”
Scrubbing his sword hand through his hair, lest any flowers had been accidentally strewn in his short locks, the soldier winced. “Yes, my liege. The entire archers guild decided to dress alike today.”
Moving down Argo’s flank, the Conqueror began clearing her horse’s tail of debris. Argo twisted around to watch her mistress at work. “Go tell them if a babe cannot suckle at their nipples, they had best dress like men. Or I will see to it that no woman allows them to suckle at her nipples again.”
“As you desire, Conqueror.” Palaemon bowed and hurried off to convey the order. While cross-dressing was a popular feature of the feast of Fortuna, he had assumed Xena would not want her troops participating in that aspect of the day. Soldiers should always wear clothes they were trained to fight in.
“I wish you could speak, girl, so you could tell me who did this to you.”
Argo snorted and bobbed her head.
Gabrielle and her escort wandered down to the market area. All her life she had never been able to get over how strange the day was. Everything was turned on its head: some people were walking backwards, others wore their clothing inside out or upside down, many spoke in opposites. It was as if every rule of the nature was suspended for this day. Gabrielle could well understand why the Conqueror valued order.
Spying a stand of baked goods, Gabrielle made her way over to the merchant. Holding up a loaf of nutbread, she smiled at the stout man who was dressed in, she assumed, his wife’s clothing. “How much?”
“Pretty lady, I’ll give it to you for the price of a riddle.” He returned her smile and wiped a large hand through his hair, causing it to be even more disorderly. Eponin, Kelryn and Pei-cha gathered closer to the Amazon Queen. None liked the flirting tone in the man’s voice.
“All right. I’m game to try.”
The man squinted and began deciding which riddle to ask the pretty blonde with the attentive friends. His features moved in time to his thoughts, reflecting his indecision for long moments, before seeming to settle on one. “Here we go. At night they come without being fetched, and by day they are lost without being stolen.”
The oracle considered her answer for only a short time. “The stars, of course.”
“Ah, of course,” he echoed. Then before anyone could intercept him, he took hold of Gabrielle’s hand and kissed the back of it. “Please, enjoy,” he said, handing her the loaf.
Gabrielle scratched the top of Pei-cha’s head to distract him from biting the man, as he was poised to do. “Thank you.” She broke off a bit of the bread and popped it in her mouth, enjoying its distinctive flavor, and began wandering toward the other merchant stands.
Eponin lingered behind for a moment, folding her arms across her chest and flexing her biceps. “I have a riddle for you, too.”
The merchant took an unconscious step backward. “Yes?”
“What runs over fields and woods all day but sits under the bed at night not alone?”
“A shoe?” came the tremulous reply.
The Commander nodded. “Make use of yours, old man.” With that, the Amazon stalked off after her charge.
The Conqueror leaned back in her chair and watched the members of her Royal Guard. She and Gabrielle were dining with the officers in their dining room, as custom dictated on the Feast of Fortuna. The room was narrow but long, capable of seating the hundred elite officers and soldiers of the Guard. The Conqueror and Queen Gabrielle were seated at the head table along with the top two warriors, Palaemon and Novan.
The room was noisy. The deep voices of the men bounced off the stone walls in a harsh manner, making it difficult to be heard unless one raised their voice and added to the din. Gabrielle found it hard to concentrate on any one particular conversation since snippets of others interrupted her train of thought, so she finally decided to observe more than she participated.
She found it interesting to watch Xena among her troops. With the general populace, the Conqueror was aloof and more than a little intimidating. With her men, she laughed readily, and worked her way easily through the room, calling every officer by his or her name. The soldiers seemed eager to interact with her, but always respectful. They all clearly knew her prowess on the field of combat.
Here Xena was in her element. It occurred to Gabrielle that in this room no one dared to question her ability and worthiness to rule. These soldiers understood she was the best of them all. They gave her respect and were eager to follow her. It was so different from in the throne room where every advisor, every government minister, every foreign dignitary, every citizen seemed ready to contest her reign. No wonder she prefers their company throughout the day.
Since it was the feast of Fortuna, dessert was served first, a practice which Gabrielle heartily approved. Leaning against the Conqueror, she whispered, “Think we can start with dessert every meal?”
Xena smiled in response. “If it pleases you, we can.”
“It pleases me, but not my waistline. If we did, I think you’d be rolling me around the palace in no time.”
“That would be no good at all,” Xena replied, letting her eyes wander over the supple body of her oracle. “We must be sure that never happens.” When Gabrielle lifted her fork to take her first bite of the dessert, Xena moved the plate out of reach.
“Hey! Stop that!” Gabrielle slapped the offending hand playfully.
The room went silent. Every eye focused on the dark ruler and the Amazon Queen, waiting to see how the Conqueror would respond to the provocation.
Xena let a smile spread across her features slowly. She picked up the dessert and ate it in front of Gabrielle, save for the last bite, which she fed to her oracle. She then licked the tips of her fingers clean of the remaining crumbs. With her damp fingertips, she reached over and gently patted the oracle’s cheek and kissed her. “Mine,” she declared. Everyone in the room understood she meant both the dessert and the oracle.
Next to them, Novan reached over and stole Palaemon’s dessert, and proffered her cheek to him. The room erupted in laughter, as did the two officers.
The remainder of the courses were served in random order and were full of teasing between the tables. The ale flowed freely and the noise level continued to increase. Late in the evening, Novan stood up and went over to the stone wall. The lieutenant stared at the seams, tracing their pattern with her fingertip.
“What are you doing, Loo?” one of the soldiers called out, his speech a bit slurred.
“Looking,” she replied, continuing to trace.
The soldier shuffled over and sat on a bench. He squinted and tried to see what she found so intriguing on the wall. Two others came over to join him.
“I can do it,” Novan muttered to herself. She held up her ale mug next to one of the seams and stared at it, then at seam, and back and forth.
“Do what, Loo?”
“This,” she replied, shaking her mug, spilling a little of the ale while doing so. “To there.” She pointed to the stone wall.
The men laughed. “Loo, it’s stone. You’ve had too much to drink.”
“I can do it,” Novan protested. “Get me a nail.”
The men scrambled about to find a nail and a hammer for the lieutenant, looking forward to making sport of her. One retrieved the items from the stable and brought them to the officer. “There you go, Loo. Let’s see it.”
“All right, I will.” She reached out for the nail, but missed it on her first attempt.
The soldiers laughed again, enjoying the rare display of lack of coordination in their third-in-command.
On the second try, she grasped the small iron nail and held it up against the wooden mug and began trying to find the exact, best place to hang it on the wall. “Right there,” she announced.
“Let’s see it, Loo,” the most vocal one goaded her on.
“Will do.” She fingered the nail again to align it properly, but it slipped out of her fingers, falling to the ground below her. “Damn.” She stared at it, then glanced at the men. “Can one of you grab that for me? I don’t want to lose my spot here.”
“Sure, sure,” the most obnoxious one agreed, stepping forward and bending down beneath Novan and her mug.
Which she immediately dumped on him.
Having watched the entire scene unfold, the Conqueror shook her head ruefully. “I can’t believe he fell for that.” Tapping Palaemon on the arm, she indicated the soaked man. “Be sure to give him extra drills tomorrow.”
Chapter Seven: Feast of Kronos
Kronos was the Titan father of all the gods. He had fathered the Olympians Zeus, Poseidon, Hera and Hades, as well as the other Titans Prometheus and Atlas, to name but a few of his progeny. He was the beginning of time and would last until the end of it. For, despite Zeus’ overthrow of his rule and destruction of most of the Titans, Kronos still was father over time.
On the shortest day of the year, it was customary for the people to gather to celebrate the victory of light over darkness. That brief day represented the greatest extent to which night could rule over day, and yet, was still not able to defeat it. Xena always appreciated the symbolism of the celebration. At the very moment when it appeared defeat was at hand, victory was claimed instead. She knew many of her battles appeared that way to the uninformed observer.
While there was a true need to put forth the appearance of her power, especially in light of the hostile nations surrounding Greece, Xena was always careful to not give a full display of it. Just as even Gabrielle was not aware of the extent of her wealth, Caesar was not aware of the extent of her fighting capabilities. It was enough for her to know she had ample to satisfy both, though the young oracle had never indicated she cared in the slightest about money.
This was the great day of the festival. The other days were designed more for entertainment, this was to be one of worship and reflection. All citizens were required to go to the temple and light a red candle, which symbolized the burning of the sun, and to give thanks to Kronos for his protection. It was the one act of worship that Xena could not excuse herself from, despite her desire to do so.
The people were expected to attend one of the services earlier in the day, with the last service at sunset being for the Conqueror and those she invited. Protocol required that she bring her head officers and chief servants. She had invited them, as well as a council of twelve leading men and women of Corinth chosen by the people. It was another way of establishing her uncontested rule of Greece. People are reluctant to rebel, or incite rebellion, against those who do them favors.
As the head of state, and thus the one closest in stature to Kronos, Xena was required to wear red clothing, to symbolize the unconquered sun. The rest of the worshippers would wear white, representing the utter defeat of the darkness. The Conqueror stood before the polished metal and stared at her reflection. She had chosen to wear a red silk gown sent to her by Lao Ma several winters before. It was simple in both design and ornamentation, having only a subtle pattern of a sunburst stitched in gold wrapping around her torso.
“Gods, you’re beautiful,” Gabrielle said, entering their bedroom.
Xena turned and smiled, enjoying the compliment. “Occasionally, I can look like something other than a blood-thirsty barbarian.”
“You look like that every day to me,” the oracle countered. It was true. Gabrielle understood the Conqueror better with each passing day. Violence was still a natural inclination for the dark-haired ruler; her life had been so full of it from the days of Cortese onward. Yet, Gabrielle also knew firsthand of the Conqueror’s ability to be gentle, even tender. Gabrielle found that in situations where the ruler was intent on inflicting harm, if she could discern the underlying rationale, she could talk Xena into another, less brutal, course of action. Gabrielle gestured to her own simple white dress. “I feel a bit underdressed now.”
“Well, that’s the whole point, I suppose. The sun bursts forth and conquers all, or some other such symbolism. I’m sure the priest will bore us with it endlessly during the ceremony.” She blew out a deep breath, but then allowed herself a small smile. “However, I did ask Palaemon to pass along one rumor that I hope will make the time a bit more bearable.”
“What rumor was that?”
“Apparently, the reason why we haven’t had a festival season before is I killed the last long-winded priest I had to listen to.”
Gabrielle burst out laughing. “I’m sure we’ll enjoy the shortest ceremony ever.”
“That’s the whole point. My reputation has to be good for something, right?”
The procession to the temple was a spectacle for the people of Corinth to witness. The officers of the Royal Guard, in full dress uniforms, marched along the route with their swords raised and gleaming, reflecting the last rays of the waning sun. The Conqueror was seated upon a white stallion in their midst, rising above them, basking in the reflected glory of her counterpart in the sky.
As they went through the streets, the people bowed, then rose to applaud her after she had passed. The noise was like the swell of thunder traveling through the Corinthian avenues, vibrating deep within each citizen. The Conqueror seemed to soak it all in, filling with the pride of her people so that by the end of the route, she resembled the sun in radiated power.
She climbed up the stairs to the temple, lit a red candle, and took her place at the front of the worship area, seated on a raised platform for all the citizens to behold. The priest entered, dressed in a brilliant gold robe. He bowed deeply before the Conqueror and then started the ceremony.
He ignited a stick of incense and began waving it about his head. The pungent aroma dispersed quickly to the far corners of the building. All the while, he chanted an ancient hymn in praise of the sun:
Fire of the sky
His acolytes joined in the chant giving it strength as the melody swelled. They moved about the building, setting up pieces of polished metal in the four corners so they could reflect the image of the Conqueror. Once the mirrors were in place, they began lighting the multitude of torches which lined the walls. Even as the sun set outside the temple walls, the temple’s interior grew brighter still. Throughout this longest night of the year, the building would a focal point, a reminder of the dawn that would come and end the darkness.
The priest intoned, “Hail the sun, unconquered even by the darkness, giver of life and light! Hail the Conqueror, the embodiment of the sun in our midst, may her reign be like that of the sun, never-ending!”
Awash in light, the ceremony ended, surprising everyone by its brevity. All save the Conqueror and her oracle who knew the effectiveness of Palaemon’s rumor. Xena rose from her throne and began greeting those in attendance, starting with Queen Gabrielle.
“Can I have Palaemon start a rumor about me before the next Amazon council meeting?” Gabrielle whispered. “Those things last longer than the monthly cycle everyone seems to have during them.”
Xena shook her head. “That’s why I’m glad you lead the Amazons, Gabrielle. I’d surely not have the patience for it.” The Conqueror gave the smaller woman’s hand a gentle squeeze and then she left to speak with the other attendees.
Gabrielle wandered through the crowd, being sure to compliment the priest on his excellent and brief service. The older, bald man seemed quite relieved, knowing that if Gabrielle were happy with him, the Conqueror would be as well; the oracle’s influence on the ruler was a well-known fact in Corinth. Mopping his brow, he bowed and excused himself for the rest of the evening, secure in the knowledge he would see the unconquered sun in the morning.
Palaemon came over to Gabrielle and inclined his head. “Queen Gabrielle,” he said in greeting. “I wish you the best of all things in the coming season.”
“Thank you, Palaemon, and to you, as well.”
The Captain hoped he didn’t blush, despite the heat he felt rising to his cheeks. It was hopeless, he knew, and foolish beyond all measure, for him to still be infatuated with the Amazon Queen. Four seasons had now passed in her company and his rational mind told him he should be less attracted to her, rather than more. To love her was dangerous. He must never give the Conqueror cause for jealousy, he knew, or she would kill him without hesitation, despite his winters of faithful service. Yet it was far more dangerous to his heart. For he knew that Gabrielle was utterly devoted to the dark ruler. “Thank you, Queen Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle gently clasped his upper arm. “We must find you someone, Captain,” she whispered as if reading his thoughts. “It is time for you to be pampered a bit.”
“The Conqueror does not approve of pampered soldiers, Queen Gabrielle.”
She shook her head. “Not pampered here,” she squeezed his arm for emphasis, “but here.” She moved her hand to lay it over his heart. Feeling the increase in his heartbeat, she took away her hand, but kept her kind expression in place. “I shall make it a priority.”
“Thank you, Queen Gabrielle. Excuse me, please.” And with a nod, Palaemon made his escape.
Gabrielle turned and found herself face-to-face with her past. One of the citizens selected to attend the ceremony was Arrol, the man who had saved her from the cross one winter before. She had heard he was doing well, but she had never sought him out after joining the Conqueror’s household. She had not wanted to draw attention to him for he had hated the Conqueror bitterly when she knew him last. She was certain he had not approved of her decision to participate in the contest of truth.
“Things have changed since we last spoke,” he stated, gesturing with his head toward Palaemon. “I never knew you had such regard for the killers who do the bitch’s bidding.”
Gabrielle felt herself go still, knowing that she must be extremely careful in her response for there were many paying attention to them. “Arrol,” she said his name gently, hoping to remind him of pleasanter times, “you must not speak of the Conqueror or her Guard in such a manner. To do so is treason.” And even I can’t save you if you do that.
“There was a time when you did not disagree with me.” He advanced a step toward her, coming close enough to speak softly and not be overheard. “What has she done to you? Besides break your legs and take you to her bed?”
Gabrielle absorbed the insult quietly. “I know her now. I know what she is trying to do for Greece.”
“Overwhelm it? Pollute it with her ambition?” he spat out.
“No, unite it, care for it, protect it from its enemies.”
He screwed up his face in anger. “It has enemies because of what she has done! Her presence here incites Rome against us. It is because of her quarrel with Caesar that we live under the constant threat of war. If she were dead,” he paused meaningfully, “then we would be safe. As we both used to dream.”
“Never,” Gabrielle answered the unspoken request.
“Don’t be too hasty in judgment, Gabrielle. There are those who will remember the sides chosen when this is done.”
“Then put me squarely on her side, Arrol, and make sure your scorekeepers are not confused. Because I know I’m not.” She shook her head in disbelief. “How can you be against her? Look at how Greece, and yourself, prosper! Since her victory at Ephesus, things have been very different. Or haven’t you noticed that?” Left implied was her influence on the Conqueror in making those changes.
“The gods, you say! What has happened to you? Or don’t the screams of those crucified reach the palace walls?”
“There have been no crucifixions for three seasons, Arrol.” Not since the Conqueror asked my forgiveness for having crucified me.
“No, there haven’t,” he conceded. “But they will start up when she tires of you. And she will eventually. Although, I wouldn’t know how long your charms last a person.”
So now we get to down to it. All this bitterness is because I refused to sleep with you. I didn’t fall in love with you in gratitude for your taking me down from the cross, as you had planned. “No, you wouldn’t.”
“Perhaps we should see how long it takes her to get over you.” With that, he drew a dagger from the fold of his tunic and pressed it into the hollow of her throat. “Too bad you won’t be around to see our new order.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes, not wanting the hate in Arrol’s to be the last thing she saw in this life. She gave up a silent prayer to Artemis and waited to feel the metal cut into her.
After a long moment without the anticipated pain, she reopened her eyes, curiosity getting the better of her. Instead of Arrol, she found Xena standing before her, the merchant’s dead body tossed aside, eviscerated. “Xena!” she cried, the fear finally coming after the crisis was over, and she flung herself into the strong arms of her lover.
The Conqueror held her tightly, in part to calm her own racing heart. She had looked across the room just when Arrol advanced on Gabrielle. She knew immediately his ultimate intentions and began forcing her way through the crowd to her oracle’s side. She had drawn her dagger as Arrol did. Xena was simply faster.
“I promised I would never allow anyone to hurt you,” the Conqueror whispered. Gabrielle nodded against her shoulder, Gabrielle’s tears staining her gown a deeper red. “Including myself.”
Chapter Eight: Feast of Hestia
Gabrielle awoke alone in the large bed she shared with the Conqueror. It was not unusual. Often, the ruler was up well before dawn and overseeing matters of state. Xena detested the minutiae of her reign, but understood all too well she could not entrust it to another. Ministers of state all grew weary of their subordinate role, preferring to try to hijack a kingdom instead of forming their own. She would allow no such opportunity.
Yet what was unusual was that Xena had not awakened her while leaving. It had become their habit for Xena to rouse the sleepy oracle before she left their bed. They would spend a half candlemark or so discussing the upcoming day. Gabrielle would frequently seek advice on how to handle her Amazons. Another favorite topic was battle plans and weaponry. While the oracle hated all things pertaining to death, she knew she needed to understand the language of war in order to lead a nation of warriors. Her mission was to teach them the language of peace and forgiveness. Of course, another favorite morning activity was enjoying one another’s bodies. This particularly seemed to energize the Conqueror while allowing Gabrielle to slip back into a contented sleep once again.
Pei-cha peeked over the side of the bed and nuzzled her, sensing she was awake. Gabrielle allowed the licks of his scratchy tongue on her throat and cheek, giggling while he did so. She rubbed behind his pointed ears in return.
“Good morning, sweetness. How is my big boy today?” Pei-cha pulled back and regarded her, seemingly indignant at her endearments. “Do you know where Xena went? Did she tell you? Or did she just threaten to bite you?”
“I did no such thing,” a deep voice replied from across from the room.
For a moment Gabrielle wondered if Pei-cha had finally spoken, as she had long assumed the cat was capable of doing. Finally, she looked over and saw Xena standing in the doorway with a tray in hand.
“I don’t want to get fleas,” the ruler continued.
Pei-cha growled in reply to the insult.
“There, there, Pei-cha,” Gabrielle soothed, stroking his high forehead. “Good morning, Xena.” Gabrielle pushed herself up on the bed and smiled sleepily. “I missed you when I woke up.”
It was always the little castaway comments made by the oracle which warmed Xena’s heart, convincing her of Gabrielle’s sincerity. “I had to make some arrangements for today and I didn’t want to disturb you. Did you sleep well?” She placed the tray on the table beside the bed and sat down next to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle had awakened in the middle of the night crying out in fear. The nightmare reliving of Arrol’s attempt on her life had caused the young queen to thrash about, striking the Conqueror in her sleep. It had taken all of Xena’s self-restraint not to retaliate against the attack, as her body had first interpreted it. Her conscious mind, however, quickly informed her reflexes that the source of the blow was Gabrielle. Thus, Xena was able to stop her initial, natural response and, instead, gathered the young woman in her arms and spoke softly to her. The Conqueror wasn’t sure if the fair-haired woman had ever been fully awake last night.
“I always do with you nearby.” Smaller fingers traced a path on the Conqueror’s thigh.
Pei-cha looked between the two women and sulked out of the bedroom, his tail twitching behind him.
“So what are your plans for this last feast day? What type of drills do you make the Guard do in celebrating the goddess of the hearth and home?” Somehow Gabrielle didn’t think that competitive basket weaving would be on their agenda.
“I don’t know,” Xena replied. “I was just telling Palaemon that the men are his today. I am unavailable.”
“Are you sick?” Instantly, Gabrielle’s hand moved to Xena’s forehead, feeling it for fever. “What’s wrong?” The Conqueror never missed a day’s workout with her men for any reason. For her to give Palaemon the command was almost incomprehensible. Gabrielle leaned forward and placed her ear against Xena’s chest, listening for whether the ruler was having trouble breathing. There had been a terrible illness sweeping through the outer cities involving coughing up blood which very few had survived so far. To even think that Xena might be similarly afflicted caused the oracle’s heart to beat wildly.
Xena removed the hand and, kissing the palm, returned it to her thigh. She gently pulled Gabrielle away from her and met her eyes steadily. “I am quite fine, Gabrielle. Don’t worry about me.”
“Then why give Palaemon the men today?” Gabrielle’s voice was still unsure, full of worry.
The dark-haired ruler gently stroked Gabrielle’s cheek, tilting her jaw so that Gabrielle’s mist green eyes rose up to meet hers. Memories of Amphipolis filled her. She saw the reflection of the fields she and her younger brother used to play in, and could swear she heard his laughter nearby. “Because today is a celebration of family. And I wanted to be with mine.”
Gabrielle had no idea how to respond. Words seemed insignificant, incapable of communicating all she felt at the moment. In her winter with the Conqueror, she had come to understand how important family had been to Xena. It had been concern for her family that had caused her to make her initial stand against Cortese. It was her guilt over the loss of the most beloved part of her family, Lyceus, that had set her on the path she took.
“You are my home, Xena,” she finally whispered and met the Conqueror’s lips with her own. Her last thought as Xena’s lean body pressed her back into the bed was wondering if the garland wound around the bed posts would do them any good. Families were meant to grow.
Thanks to everyone for reading this little interlude between the Conqueror and her oracle. I wanted to address a few issues that were outstanding from the last two stories – Arrol and the outcome of the various kingdoms – and show some of the growing impact of Gabrielle on Xena, and vice-versa.
For those interested, I liberally adapted actual winter solstice customs from that area of the world for this little story.
The feast of Demeter – was a Greek custom and our use of evergreen during the holiday season can be partially traced back to this event. The Egyptians also decorated their homes with greenery (palm trees) and celebrated for 12 days. Of course, there is also a large Celtic component in our celebrations today.
The feast of Hebe – was really a Roman custom and did celebrate the coming of age of the young men. I just used the backdrop of the early Olympic games for fun. The events in the games were from the ancient Olympics and I tried to retain their rules as much as possible. Yes, that was a reference to Mike Tyson’s ear biting in the wrestling scene. <G>
The feast of the Muses – is entirely contrived. Polyhymnia is the muse of mime. I figured Gabrielle might enjoy such a day and I wanted to show off her story-telling skills. The story Gabrielle used in the competition is adapted from an old Jewish folktale.
The feast of Dionysus – was another Greek custom I adapted. The actual event celebrated his death and resurrection with wild revelry (apparently the Titans killed him but Zeus took him to Mount Olympus and restored him) and lasted 12 days. I decided to make use of it in order to justify a sex scene. <G> The marriage requirements – no actors or prostitutes – were actual Roman laws. In ancient Greece there was no actual wedding ceremony, a couple would simply move into together and hold themselves out as a married couple.
The feast of Fortuna – was an actual Greek custom but not called by that name (it was also practiced in Babylon and Persia). Around the winter solstice, for one day, the social order was overturned. People spoke backwards, cross-dressed, and switched roles. Often masters would serve their slaves for the day and a new “ruler” was chosen by lottery. However, I knew there was no way Xena would allow for such events to take place, so I went more the practical joke and chaos idea. The joke Eponin plays on the soldiers is a good joke to try at a drinking party. Just use a paper cup and a straight pin for your attempt. And run after you dump the beer on your unsuspecting victim.
The feast of Kronos – was another actual Greek custom. It was practiced in ancient Rome as well and called Saturnalia. During that time, the people celebrated, decorated their homes with greenery, gave gifts, sang carols, and government closed down for the holiday. The red candles symbolized the fire and heat of the returning sun as the days once more began to lengthen. Just like modern New Year’s Eve celebrations, the celebrants would often stay up all night dancing and having fun. Xena and Gabrielle’s plans to do so were interrupted by Arrol.
The feast of Hestia – is a feast I inserted. There was a day of blessing for the new crops of the next year, but there was no actual ritual other than that associated with the day.
I hope that this information was interesting to you. And my personal best wishes for a Happy Holidays!