Time’s Fell Hand part 2 by LJ Maas

Chapter 12: The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls…

Blood had a not altogether unpleasant smell. It was a sweet odor, not the sort of sweetness that reminded me of flowers on a spring day, but the sickeningly sweet odor of rotting and dying flesh. The viscous red fluid was all around me, coating my hands, blade, and clothes. It coated the ground and spattered every soldier around me. Tenorio had begun to slip and lose his footing as we twirled around, severing heads and limbs.

I leapt into the air, flipping forward over Tenorio’s head, and landing in the midst of a small number of Persians. I pulled a second blade from my belt and dispatched the four of them with an enviable economy of movement. I slapped Tenorio sharply on the rump and the large beast trampled men and women in his haste to separate from the bloody arena. He sped off and galloped up the hillside. I was able to spare him a look and watched as he stopped a short distance from the battle. He would wait until it was all over, or at least until this wave had finished. He would wait patiently until someone retrieved him and rewarded the stallion for a job well done.

I was in the thick of the main fighting mass, now. On the fringes I had heard sounds, mostly screams that belonged to humans as well as animals, metal crashing against metal, the sound of bones breaking and the wounded praying to the Gods they served. Here, within the stifling center of the battle I could barely hear a sound. I didn’t understand it at the time, but a vision of sinking under the surface of the water came before my mind’s eye. A filter of some sort muffled the sounds here as though I was listening from deep underwater.

The beast had me now; of that, there was no doubt. I try to recall, upon the writing of these parchments, exactly how I felt, precisely what took place around me, but in all honesty, that would be nearly impossible. The darkness that overcame me in these times was not only beyond my control, but I had named it a beast for good reasons. Like any animal, the beast within me had senses and abilities that went far beyond that of any human. In the midst of battle, my body adjusted to the world around me in a most intense fashion. I could hear drops of blood as they hit the scarlet covered ground, smell the fear as it came off the soldiers in rolling, overpowering waves. My eyes, too, expanded their vision until I could see everything on the battlefield at once. However, at what a price these Godly abilities came.

The beast knew only of its own capacity for survival and its keen attention to the physical world surrounding it. This animal cared nothing for feelings and emotions. It dealt only in the concrete, not in the abstract. It was no hound to be reined in by its master. No slave to be whipped into submission. Neither was the beast inside of me any ordinary animal, wild or not. I can only compare my darkness to one thing…a rabid beast. It was as if the beast enjoyed the violence.

It was an animal with a sickness about it. It was a rogue, a non-pack animal. It snapped and gnashed its teeth at any human brave, or fool, enough to step within striking distance. Its memory was short, if it had one at all. Rather it ran on instinct alone. It hadn’t the ability to remember humans; its mind simply didn’t function that way. Thus, when the beast was upon me I knew only what it knew, saw only through its eyes.

I cannot say how exact my telling of the rest of this day is, but I believe it to be fairly accurate, since Atrius and others have read and corroborated the tale on this parchment. I had wondered, before the battle, how the darkness would treat me on this occasion. Actually, I remembered more from this battle, being under the influence of the beast, than I had from my previous experiences in its grasp. I initially considered this quite odd until I considered the woman the beast tried to control.

The darkness had consumed me before on the battlefield, but I was a different person then, different on the inside. This time it seemed…how shall I put it? I felt as if I was sharing my body with this beast. It wasn’t as though I had control, but in the past, I was lost to my bouts with the darkness. I knew nothing from the time the ever-hungry beast broke past its restraints until I could force it back into captivity. Had I ever really forced it back, or had it simply had its fill? This time was different, however, and I could do little more than hang on for the spirited ride, strangely aware of everything the beast did.

One thing the beast excelled at was the fight. I heard myself shouting commands, moving this unit here, patching up a broken flank there. All the while, I dispatched Persian after Persian with blade and hand. There were so many of them. The enemy just kept coming and we kept killing them. I could barely move without wading through bodies.

Our lines had become haphazardly uneven. Our lighter, more rapidly moving Corinthian soldiers pushed forward faster than the heavily laden hoplite infantry could. I saw that our line had become a bottleneck. The Persians had slowed their onslaught, but I couldn’t tell if we were pushing them back or if it simply took them that much longer to wade through the dead and wounded.

I, or should I say the beast within, decided to try a tack that Darius would never have expected from me. I ordered a cautious pull back. The half a dozen generals at the front line understood exactly what I was doing. I called for a cautious pull back, instead of a retreat, in order to see what the Persians would do. With the state I was in, I fully expected the Persians to take full advantage of the ploy and rush the front lines.

Suddenly Militiades appeared at my side. Even as trapped within the beast’s clutches as I was, Militiades sly treachery was transparent.

“Conqueror, why do we pull back? We should push–”

“Fool! Look around you,” I growled.

Indeed, the Persians’ superior numbers should have dictated that they take advantage, but they, quite frankly, amazed me. Their army took our actions to indicate a break in the fighting, a common practice in battle, but not as conventional as breaking for the night. There were times when this technique backfired, but not now. I wasn’t the only one to stand there with a rather dumfounded expression on my face.

Atrius met my eyes and I noticed something more than simple shock at the Persians’ behavior in his expression.

“Conqueror?” he questioned.

“What?” I hissed in return.

“I–Are you yourself?”

I knew what he asked and why. I’d never been able to act like a halfway conscious being when the darkness took me. In this instance, I had turned into something more tolerable than the usual murdering, bloodthirsty warrior. The beast still controlled me, but I was there. I was aware and with a voice. I still had the urge to separate the first man who touched me from his reproductive organs, however.

“No!” I hissed vehemently. Atrius was one of the few who I never spoke harshly to, but I knew it was important that he see I was only holding on to myself by an extremely tenuous grasp.

“Are you…injured?”

I fully looked at him now, realizing that if I looked anything such as he it was no wonder he asked me such a question. Covered nearly from tip to tail in blood, dirt, and the assorted tiny bits of the enemy’s skin and bone, he looked a fright. Looking down at myself I saw that I did indeed look much the same.

“No.” I shook my head slowly while I examined my red-tinged hands.

Snapping my head up and quickly coming to myself, I began to issue orders to prepare us for the next wave of the assault. I planned to be the first to begin fighting again, a psychological advantage for our smaller fighting force.

Moments later, I stood with my generals and other officers to finalize our last battle strategy. I knew that this battle would last more than a day. We had neither the men, nor the resources, for an extended attack. I guessed that three or four days would be to our advantage.

“Wounded…dead?” I asked no on in particular.

“A dozen soldiers dead, Lord Conqueror, about twice that wounded.”

“Altogether?” I asked in disbelief.

“Aye, Conqueror.”

I looked around for Atrius to see him nod. “Their dead are four deep out there, Conqueror. We’ve barely been touched.”

“Pray that Athena keeps it that way,” I said to them all.

“Does everyone understand what they’re to do? If you have questions you damn well better ask them now.” I looked at their silent faces. “Master Yu Pan, do your men know the signal?”

“I have made them quite aware that they are to look for the yellow smoke only, Lord Conqueror. We shall not fail you,” Yu Pan replied.

I nodded my head, knowing that this man was a warrior at heart. He would carry out his end, of that I was certain.

“Lord Conqueror, I must speak,” Militiades began.

I could hear the growl as it started in my own chest. I fought to keep from lashing out. “And?”

“With all respect, I feel as though I should lead one of the flanks, I would be much more useful–”

“Doing what I tell you,” I spat. I took a deep breath, the beast longing to plunge a blade in the traitor’s middle. I needed to keep the man from seeing my plan for him too soon, however. I added a few words that I hoped he would take as flattery.

“Look, you’re one of the best warriors I have. When it comes to a fight with Darius, I want you beside me.”

He inclined his head slightly and held his tongue. I had said the right words to praise him. Perhaps I was so convincing because the words I chose were not a lie, I simply meant them in a completely different way than the polemarchos suspected.

****

I stood naked in the small wooden tub. It had actually been a cask used for honeyed mead at one time. Someone had sawed the cask in half in order to use it as a tub of sorts. I could still smell the sweet odor of the drink once the water had dampened the wood.

I poured another bucket of cold water over my head, rinsing the last of the day’s bloody fight from my body. On this, the second evening of battle, a cold bucket of water was more of a bath than most of the soldiers would get. They would have plenty of hot food and a dry place to sleep, but little else. The battle would start at first light and we would begin all over again.

My body hurt in places I couldn’t remember it hurting for some time. It had been a great many seasons since I’d been this bruised and tired, exhausted down deep into my body. I stepped from the tub; its water now tinged a ruby red from the blood of Persians. I toweled my body dry and put on clean clothing. I was about to fall into my makeshift bed, but it wouldn’t do to be caught by a surprise attack in the middle of the night wearing nothing but an angry look.

I gulped down nearly half a mug of wine just as Atrius requested permission to enter. He came each night, I suspect to make sure I was all right. He walked in and I fell onto the bed, heedless of how it would look. He is probably the only man alive that I would do such a thing before.

“Have you eaten?” He indicated the untouched food on the table.

“Too tired,” I mumbled as I threw one arm over my eyes. “Go ahead if you’re hungry.”

Thank you, Conqueror, but I don’t think I could lift it to my lips.”

“I hear you, my friend,” I answered.

“Atrius,” I called to him just before he left the tent. “I want every soldier ready to fight one candlemark before dawn tomorrow. I want to see all the officers two candlemarks before.”

“Aye, Conqueror. So you think tomorrow will end it?”

“It will if I have anything to say about it. I want to go right at them just as the sky gives us enough light to see by. I have an idea, now that we’ve cut the Hades out of their number.”

“I’ll give the word. Good night, Conqueror.”

I barely heard that last phrase. I know I was asleep by the time he turned because I never heard him leave the tent.

****
“Here and here.” I pointed out the placement to Yu Pan.

We stared down at a map of the valley and the old man nodded silently. The oil lamps sputtered from the breeze that swept through the command tent. As sweltering as the summer days had been, that was how cold the night had grown. The flickering light cast eerie copper shadows upon the canvas walls of the men and women standing around the map table.

“The catapults won’t launch the black powder packages far enough, but Atrius said that you seem you have a way to launch the missiles over our heads and into the midst of the Persians.” I looked to Yu Pan for an answer.

“It is true, Tong zhi zhe. You may be assured that my technique will be most effective.”

“I trust in your abilities, Master Yu Pan,” I said in acknowledgement of the man’s hidden talents and powers that were far superior to my own.

“Let me explain once again what I want from all of you. You all know what your individual tribes must do to make our plan work. At first light, I plan to hit Darius’s front line. We hit him hard this time, with everything we have. The battle must end today.”

“And today is most important for what reason, Lord Conqueror? After all, we have the resources of all Athens less than a day away,” General Stesilaus remarked.

“I know you all feel that this is the case, but I received some news last evening that made that a moot point. Late last night our spies confirmed that the Persians are loading their cavalry onto their ships. I suspect that by midday they’ll be ready to set sail.”

“They’re returning to Persia?” Themistocles asked; his brow knit in confusion.

“They’re heading for Athens,” I answered. “Darius is preparing to attack Athens while we’re still fighting here.”

“Surely, they will band together and fight. Even though the force we left in the city was meager they–”

“They’ll be dispatched as easily as if they were old women. I’m certain Darius has infiltrated the city with a small, but extremely well trained group of soldiers or mercenaries. I’m even more certain that there are those living within the city that are helping Darius and these men.”

A loud grumbling rose up from all around the table, with the exception of a select few that already knew of these developments. I had to eventually order their silence. “There’s no sense in offering up righteous indignation at this point. The only way we can stop it all is to beat them here today. We can’t allow those ships to set sail for Athens.”

There was silence after my words. They were a group of people who just realized that there was a traitor among them. Perhaps not here, in this room, but where they lived, where they worked. The traitors might even be people who had lived near and befriended any of these men. I wondered what all these generals would think if I pointed out Militiades to them. I knew exactly what they’d do, which is why I held my tongue. I needed Militiades fighting abilities for a while longer yet. Besides, the beast was nearly salivating at the ways in which it would make our old friend pay for his treason.

I took in the sight of the officers around me, watched as their faces hardened, and their jaws clenched. It was a battle for pride now and that’s what I wanted, what I needed of them.

“To keep from being outflanked and charged in at the rear, we’re putting the Hoplites at the front. The lightweight infantry will start down the hill at a run in front of the hoplites, along with the cavalry we have left. Once they hit flat ground, they’ll split and set up position at the right and left flank. We’ll extend the front line the entire length of the plain by weakening the center. The Persians will push through and we’ll come around and outflank them. It’s rather basic, but with the way they’ve been pushing more men in, crawling over their own dead, I think it will work.”

The silence that hung in the air felt like something tangible as if I could have sliced it in two with my dagger.

“My blade is yours, Lord Conqueror,” Atrius said.

“And mine, Conqueror.” One by one, every man and woman in the tent repeated the phrase. It may have been the quietest battle frenzy I’d ever stirred, but no less inspirational.

“Then let us prepare ourselves for battle, and may Athena be with us,” I said.

As I said the words, I truly hoped that Athena would do a little something to protect my Gabrielle, as well. Deep down, my wife was all I could think about. I felt a certain unease, but couldn’t possibly have known what it was attributed to. On the surface, though, I wouldn’t be able to spare another thought for Gabrielle until much, much later.

****
Tenorio’s muscles twitched uneasily. The stallion shifted his footing and I adjusted myself to remain steady in the saddle. Tenorio wasn’t nervous; rather he itched to get back into the thick of it. He’d been bred to do exactly this and he was good at it. I knew his actions because the beast within me was already acting in much the same manner. Craving the fight and knowing it was only an instant away.

I rode up and down the hoplite line inspecting the soldiers who looked as ready for the fray as Tenorio and me. Daylight was still moments from now, but shortly the sun would rise over the mountains along the gulf. The brilliant glare would be at our back and in our enemy’s eyes.

The Persian army outnumbered us, probably still two to one, but I had faith in my battle plan. Five of the generals wanted to immediately rush back and defend the walls of Athens. The other five, ironically led by Militiades, eventually convinced the others that attack would be the only sure way to put an end to the Persian threat for good.

I hadn’t really planned on any rousing speech today, but even if I had, a young hoplite beat me to it. Since I had obviously overlooked the matter, the young man stepped forward. His voice was that of an orator as he encouraged the soldiers around him. I smiled to myself when I realized that it was Gabrielle’s young friend, Aeschylus. I wondered if anyone would remember the young man for his words.

“On, sons of Greeks! Strike for freedom of your country! Strike for freedom of your children and your wives, for the shrines of your fathers’ Gods, and for the sepulchers of your sires. All are now staked upon the strife.”

Athena herself couldn’t have timed it better. Just as the rousing cheers went up from the many lines of soldiers, the sunlight peeked over the cliffs. It hit the backs of our bronze armor and the army glowed as though the Goddess herself had enchanted us.

I gave the order, and thousands of cheering men and women rushed down the hillside toward what appeared to be an army of quite terrified Persians. It may have been due to the golden glow surrounding our army or maybe even the blood curling screams that the men let loose. They had seen us preparing, so we hadn’t caught them completely unaware, but I believe our charge at first light was something they hadn’t seen coming. Whatever the cause, the Persians were in a chaotic state by the time we reached them.

I charged down the hill leading the rest of our small cavalry force. It was roughly a league from our starting point to where the enemy waited. Without their cavalry, they were immediately on the defensive. We barreled into the infantry line and they seemed so confused that they didn’t put up nearly the fight that we’d experienced from them over the last couple of days.

As soon as our charging infantry hit flat ground, they split into two sections. The Athenian infantry moved to the right under General Callimachus, while the Plataeans split to the left under General Aristides. The cavalry slipped in behind the infantry to take their place, a tactic I used to hold the Persians until the hoplites crossed the distance that separated our two armies.

The Persian’s light infantry was down to the dregs of its soldiers, meaning that their best and brightest had already sacrificed themselves in the previous two days. I should take this opportunity to explain some details about the force we were fighting. The Persians made a living on the slave trade. Not only did slaves serve in their homes and work places, but in their armies, as well. Black archers from the land of the eternal sands, swordsmen from the banks of the Indus, Euphrates, and the Nile comprised the ranks of the Persian army. They had little training, no uniformity of language, and they’d all had different military systems in their homelands. Add to these disadvantages the fact that their shields were made of wicker, they wore no body armor, and their scimitars were ineffective against our long swords. It was no wonder the men died handily at the end of our blades. The Persians’ advantage lay in their sheer numbers, however. As soon as I dispatched one man, another took his place before me. This was where Yu Pan came in.

When I heard the high-pitched whistling noise above me, I had no idea what it could be, for I couldn’t spare a look. Something literally shrieked into the air as it flew past. A sudden explosion behind the enemy’s line rocked the men on the ground and I silently cheered for Yu Pan. He told me that he had devised a plan for the black powder ammunition he created. I had my doubts when I saw it this morning, but I did trust in the old man’s knowledge. I had seen something similar during my time spent in Chin. The decorative explosions that the people of Chin sent flying into the air during religious holidays looked very much like Yu Pan’s black powder explosives, except that his were far more deadly.

He sealed the black powder into a tightly rolled parchment tube, something like a scroll case. A fuse ran into the tube and Yu Pan lightly attached the whole object to a large stake that he stuck into the ground. When Yu Pan lit the fuse, the object took off into the sky, leaving the wooden stake behind. It made a wide arc over our heads, shrieking like a banshee. It landed perfectly amidst the Persians. It was simply one more thing threw the Persian soldiers’ lines into disarray.

Eventually, the Persians began to back up. Their spearmen stood firm, but that was their undoing. The hoplite’s eight-foot spears were longer than the six-foot variety the Persians used. I gave the word and our flanking infantry units moved inward, just as the hoplites had done on our first day of fighting. With that pincer-like move, we all but destroyed the Persian spearmen.

I could feel it begin then, the idea that victory might not be as far away as I had previously thought. Suddenly, victory was not merely a possibility. It was inevitable. The Persian soldiers on the front lines, the ones who weren’t dead already, took flight. That’s when I began to feel that pressure in my head and chest. It was a pain that felt as if the beast was trying to claw its way out of my body. In reality, it didn’t wish to go anywhere. The beast only wanted control. Surrounded as I was by the screams of the wounded and the dying, the blood that covered my hands, saddle, and Tenorio’s neck, how could the darkness not have wanted a part of that?

It wasn’t a gradual process, the beast stealing my psyche, not this time. I jumped from Tenorio’s back and slapped his rump. The battle completely overwhelmed my senses once I was down there in the midst of it all. I knew I was no longer myself when the next man I sliced open caused me to feel good…too good. Just like that, it happened. The beast was in control and I had to fight for my survival.

The Persian rear flanks had been keeping up a steady volley of arrows until Yu Pan’s explosives started to thin their ranks considerably. The black powder bombs left huge, gaping holes in the earth, a scorched ring encircling their perimeter. They made convenient graves for the Persians who were unfortunate enough to be standing there. Now, the Persian archers lay dead in great piles within the concave fissures.

Darius’s tactics surprised me. He seemed determined to send more and more soldiers to their death. Our right and left flanks continued to move in, squeezing their troops in at the middle and cutting off their front lines from any assistance. Darius continued to send men into the bottleneck, ten and twelve at a time with no success. At last, the Persians literally turned and fled.

It was the worst thing they could have done. We slaughtered the enemy as they turned and ran for the shore. In a haphazard fashion, we chased them down. It was a mass of running bodies, screams, and slippery footing due to the blood. We chased them all the way into the sea. Unfortunately, for us, that was when we discovered that Darius had already set sail with his cavalry. Many of the ships were just sailing away from land as we approached.

I quickly ordered Yu Pan and our surviving archers to bombard the closest ships with fire and explosives. It was here that the remaining soldiers, obviously seeing that Darius had abandoned them, made one last stand. It was a fierce one.

Both of my swords were in constant motion. The remaining Persians came at us as though their lives were over, which was rather close to the truth. They no longer even had the advantage of numbers. I noticed with some distress that General Callimachus fell beneath half a dozen enemy soldiers. It was nearly over, but this last wave hit us the hardest and I watched a number of my officers fall to the desperate Persians. I had no time to mourn them, however, since the enemy surrounded me in great numbers.

I didn’t even try to fight the beast as it cried out in a sound like glee, using all it’s inhuman strength to butcher the enemy before me. This time, the beast may not have been within my control, but I freely gave in to its bondage, knowing that it meant the difference in my living or dying. I never expected to lose my footing.

I went down in a tangled mass of limbs belonging to both the dead and the living. I had honestly never fought in a battle where the dead piled up so high. It was nearly impossible to return to my feet. I slashed out with my sword as I kicked at anything that moved or came near me. In all that confusion, how was I to know that Militiades had fought his way closer and now stood over me.

I could see by the look in his eye that he was caught in the same battle haze as I, the sort of spell that a warrior sinks into when in the midst of battle. Suddenly, the tall man was standing over me and I wondered how my plans to dispatch this traitor had gone so far awry. Wouldn’t this be the perfect spot for him to do away with me? I was in a vulnerable position, and with all the chaos, chances were that no one would even notice who he was killing. The next thing I knew, Militiades had raised his sword.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for this, Conqueror.”

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

“Gabrielle…Gabrielle?”

I heard someone calling my name from what seemed like a great distance. Either that or I was still under the water, which I had dreamed I fell into as consciousness left me. My body still felt as though I was crawling through mud or quicksand. Everything seemed to be moving slower than usual. I believe I lost consciousness again because I then felt as though I was dreaming. Scenes passed by my mind’s eye quickly, leaving me confused and longing to see my wife.

“What’s your name again?”

“Gabrielle, My Lord.”

************************

“I want you to try to remember something…look at me, Gabrielle. As long as I have food on my table, little one, you will not go hungry.”

************************
“Another smile for me, Gabrielle? I am indeed a fortunate Conqueror.”

************************

“Do you…feel something…something more…for me?”

“Yes, Gabrielle.”

“What? What do you feel?”

“I don’t know…just…more.”

************************

“This is my promise, Gabrielle. All that I have I share with you, except my heart, and that I give to you completely.” I said softly.

“I don’t think I deserve to be a Queen, Xena.”

“You do, my love, and I plan on spending the rest of my life showing you just how much I believe that.”

************************

“I’m so happy that I’m married to you Xena!”

“You’ve made me quite a happy woman as well, little one. Will I make a good wife, do you think?

“I think you will make a splendid wife, my Conqueror.”
“Xena!”

I woke myself by bolting upright into a seated position. I feared for Xena in a way that I never had before. The visions that passed by my unconscious mind’s eye were all of Xena and some of our most precious moments together. I had no earthly idea why those scenes had returned to visit me in association with such a fearful premonition of Xena. I struggled to discern what the visions meant as I awoke more fully. That’s when I realized that my head hurt like Hades.

“It’s all right. You’re safe now.”

“Safe?” I rubbed the knot at the back of my head and tried to make my eyes focus on my surroundings.

“I–I mean you’re all right…here.”

“Okay. Now tell me where in the Tartarus here is.” I didn’t like to swear, and I rarely felt the need to, but my head ached something fierce, putting me in a bad humor.

The voice above me sounded familiar, but I couldn’t easily place it. I shook my head to remove the cobwebs lingering there, which only made it ache that much more. I rubbed at my temples and could barely believe my eyes.

“Periander?” I asked in disbelief.

The large man who ran the Athens library towered over me. He appeared both fearsome and comical at the same time. Periander was easily a full hand taller than Xena and built quite solidly. He was dressed in traveling clothes; rather different from the customary robes he usually wore around the library. He and I had become rather good friends in the time since Xena and I had come to Athens, but he was honestly the last person I expected to see before me. His physical appearance was intimidating to those who didn’t know him, but his mannerisms were so effeminate and gentle that the older man appeared a complete contradiction.

“Periander, what in the known world are you doing here?”

“Well…I live here,” he answered in apparent confusion.

“I mean,” I glanced around at my unfamiliar surroundings. “What am I doing here?”

“Well, I couldn’t just leave you lying in the alley outside that theater.”

“Leave me–you? Okay, maybe I’m still a bit woozy, but I think you’re going to have to explain this from the beginning because I have no idea what we’re talking about.”

“Forgive me, your Highness. I told the Conqueror I would be bad at this.” He sat beside the pallet I was on and wrung his hands, one after the other.

“You spoke with Xena about this…today?” I was so much more confused than when the conversation had started.

“Oh, heavens, no. It’s been a matter of days.”

“You mean a few days ago, Xena told you I would be accosted?”

“Now, how would she have known that?” He looked so oddly sincere that I hadn’t the heart to scream at him, which is what I wanted to do out of mere frustration.

“Periander,” I asked as I rubbed my pounding head. “Do you have any willow bark that you can make a tea from?”

“Oh, forgive my manners. Of course, I bet your head hurts something fierce. You hit the ground like a sack of clay bricks. I’ll be back in just a few heartbeats.”

True to his word, hardly any time at all had passed before Periander brought me a steaming mug of the relatively bitter tea. He had also been kind enough to drop a few chunks of fresh honeycomb into the hot brew. The wax melted and floated atop the brown liquid. The drink worked like a magical elixir and I could finally think without my brain balking at the attempt.

“Feeling any better?” He asked.

“Much, thank you. Now, shall we try this again? What in Zeus’s name happened today? Gods, is it still today?” I at least answered the last question myself. Looking out the window above me, I could see that not much time had really passed at all. The sun had not yet dipped below the buildings surrounding us.

“Actually, you’ve been asleep quite some time,” Periander answered. “If you hadn’t been talking in your sleep on occasion, I would have finally gone for a doctor.”

“Asleep for how long?”

“It’s been a full day, your Highness.”

“Seriously? Oh no.”

“I’m afraid so. I brought you here yesterday at this time.”

“So, tell me what happened.”

“I’m not at all sure where to start,” Periander said.

“How about when you spoke with Xena,” I prompted. I was most interested in what Xena and Periander had spoken of, and what had prompted their conversation.

The quiet, yet physically daunting man had become a dear friend to me over the past fortnight or so. We talked mostly about scrolls, bards, and writings of one sort or another. I had learned that Periander had been a soldier many summers past, but his constitution for such unpleasantness had changed, therefore, his position within the city’s library.

“I was most surprised myself,” he began. “The Conqueror showed up at the library one midday. Now, in all the years that I’ve known the Conqueror, she and I have exchanged no more than a few words. To tell the truth, before you came along, Xena the Conqueror frightened me each time I had to pass her by. Acasia always told me to–”

“Acasia? The man who works for Xena?”

I found it highly improbable that Periander even knew such a man, let alone spoke to him. I had seen him on a rare occasion and I knew that his work for Xena was of the more unpleasant variety. Xena trusted him, which spoke highly of his character, but I knew for a fact that he must have been an assassin at least part of the time.

“Yes, that’s the man. You see he told me–”

“Acasia? How do you know him, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Oh, not at all. We share a home here in Athens.”

“Are we speaking of the same man? You mean the assass–I uh…I mean…” I stopped, my face red hot in embarrassment.

“It’s all right. He gets that a lot.”

“Have you two been…friends long?” How else was I to put that? Knowing Periander the way I did, I suspected his friendship with Xena’s trusted man was something more than platonic. I simply couldn’t imagine Acasia as Periander’s lover, however.

My friend smiled wistfully and nodded. “We’ve been friends since we were young men in the Spartan infantry together. Our lives were very different back then. Being Spartan meant something very different. I don’t know how familiar you are with the Spartan community, your Highness, but it was a common practice for an older soldier to mentor a younger man. More often than not, that included becoming lovers. Spartan society was for men. We were taught from birth that desiring to be in the company of men was the natural way of things.”

“I honestly had no idea,” I answered. “I knew the Spartans lived a military sort of life, but I didn’t realize all this.”

“To Spartan men, women were only there to give birth to a strong line of sons. There was no love or emotion in the unions. Men didn’t even live with their wives. The men of their unit, their brothers, and lovers were usually more preferable company.

“I was older than Acasia, so I became his mentor, his lover. We drifted apart, fighting in one war or another over the years. After he lost his arm in battle, it took a great deal to bring him to a spot where he wanted to live again. I was there for him and we’ve been together ever since.”

“How absolutely wonderful. Periander, I had no idea your life had been so varied.” I thought about how happy my friend seemed with his unlikely lover. The seemingly mismatched pair caused me to think of Xena, and I suddenly remembered the urgency of my task.

“Gods above! I almost forgot what I was doing here. Periander, were you there when I came out into that alley? What happened to the soldiers?”

“To tell the truth, your Highness, I had been following you since you left your home, on the Conqueror’s orders, of course.”

“Xena told you to follow me? But, how did she know–”

“I suspect the two of you know each other better than you know yourselves.” He smiled gently in my direction. “Let me explain. The day that the Conqueror came to visit me at the library, she requested a favor. She had no one in Athens that she trusted completely, yet she needed just that. She knew how fond you and I had become and how much I respected you. She asked if, should anything happen in the way of a revolt within Athens, I would see you safely from the city. I wouldn’t be cross with her in any way. I believe it took a great deal for her to ask for help. It was obvious to me that she cares for you greatly.”

“And she told you I would sneak away from the house?” I was still rather dumbfounded that Xena had so easily read my mind, amazed that she had actually anticipated what I would feel it necessary to do.

“What she actually said was that the situation might never come to be, but that I should watch the road near the bottom of the hillside at your home. She told me quite plainly that there was a chance you might feel the need to take the situation into your hands. She entrusted your safety to me, so I did as she requested. I followed you into the city. My skills certainly aren’t what they used to be, though. You caught me in the market.”

“So, it was you following me all along.”

“Aye, your Highness. If I had any idea who had been in that theater, I never would have allowed you go inside. Once I slipped in to follow you I knew that the revolt the Conqueror had hinted at was very much a reality. I’m sorry that I couldn’t help you until you came out. I’m afraid I reacted a bit too enthusiastically in shoving you out of the way. How is your head, by the way?”

“Reeling,” I answered, rubbing the still tender spot on the back of my head. “But not because of my fall. It seems that my worst fears have come to pass, my friend.”

I then explained the entire situation to Periander, including our suspicions about Militiades and his wife, Livia. I assumed that if Xena had trusted the man with my life, this information would do no harm. Besides, I needed help at this point. He didn’t act surprised by the news of these traitors and told me as much. It was apparent to me that he had no fondness for any of the members of the old aristocracy.

“Were we found out…by the mercenaries?” I asked.

“Not at all. Their ilk aren’t of the most dependable sort. I’m sure whoever is in charge thinks that the two men he sent to take care of you simply decided to carry you off and have a bit of their perverse fun before killing you.”
He said it so matter of factly, with barely a hint of emotion.

“And what became of my intended assassins?” I asked.

“Dispatched…quite easily.” I pictured each of them with their throats cut and I felt a physical shudder take me at the ease with which Periander spoke of death, this gentleman that I had previously known as simply a man of letters.

“We have much to do and only a short spell of time to work with. I’m afraid I must call on you again for your help.”

“I would consider it an honor, my lady.”

“Do you have a parchment and quill for me to write with?” I asked.

Once he returned with the requested materials, I began to write, explaining what I wanted him to do at the same time. “I need you to take this message back to my home, to Ephiny, the second in command of the Amazons. Tell her about the mercenaries and where I’ll be. I don’t want her charging into the city. The only way to catch our traitors is to allow them to make their move. We can’t let on that we know what’s coming. Lastly, you’re to make sure that Ephiny sends to Corinth for at least 100 warships.”

“Warships? Sent here?”

“Exactly. Seeing the mercenary forces here tells me that the Persians are planning to sail their fleet toward Athens at some point. If we haven’t heard anything from Xena, then we know the war isn’t at an end. Athens isn’t being taken by the soldiers we saw yesterday, so I’m sure there will be some sort of a sign given to Darius and his ships, something to tell them when the mercenary army is in place. My guess is that he’ll set sail for Athens at that time.”

“And what sign will we look for?”

“That’s the problem, I have no idea. The only good thing is that we know it hasn’t happened yet.”

“I don’t think I should leave you alone, your Highness.”

“Periander, I think we’re on a first name basis by now, don’t you?”

“Even so, I don’t think–”

“We have no choice. Between the two of us, I’m the one who can get into any noble house in Athens. Talking to them will be our only way of learning about the revolt before it actually happens.”

“Then I’ll go with you. I could–”

“No. It has to be this way, my friend. Ephiny must order those warships in or Athens will be lost.”

I rolled up the parchment containing the information that I’d just given to Periander. A tilted candle over the scroll’s middle allowed the melted wax to drip and puddle there. Removing the signet ring that Xena had given to me before we were married, I pressed the design, the Queen’s seal, into the pliable material.

“Here is your proof,” I said as I handed him the scroll. I could tell that he didn’t want to go, but he was a soldier, after all. He took the scroll and inclined his head.

“Aye, my Queen. And where shall we find you on our return?”

“There’s only one person who can help us inside of Athens. I’ll go to Cleisthenes residence and explain the situation. He knows more about this city than anyone. With his help I’m certain we can stop the revolt.”

“I’ll be as quick as Hermes,” Periander said with a wink. With no more of a goodbye than that, he was gone and I was left to carry out my side of the plan.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum
Chapter 13: Within Heaven’s Circle I Had Not Guessed At This…
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I hadn’t any sort of plan in my head at all and that distressed me. I was different now from when I’d first begun this little adventure. I’m not at all sure how to explain it, but it was as if my fear had had been put away somewhere. In comparison to yesterday’s fiasco…well, I suppose there can be no comparison. I won’t say that I felt no dread, but I believe I felt better prepared to face what might come my way.
I didn’t go out of my way to hide myself as I made my way to Cleisthenes home in the eastern section of Athens, the wealthy area, so to speak. The size of his estate had surprised me when Xena and I attended a party there in our honor upon first arriving in the city. He didn’t seem the sort of man to give in to the trappings of wealth. I believe that’s why I instantly liked him. He appeared genuine and down to earth, far different from his wife. What an unlikely match! Lenora was as shallow and dense as they came. Her callousness astounded even me and I have met many such women during my life as a slave.

As I said, I didn’t go out of my way to hide, that is, I didn’t go slinking about the back alleyways, but I did indeed attempt to remain as unremarkable as possible. If trouble came my way, I could always reveal my identity, but at this point, I remembered the two hundred or so soldiers waiting in that theater.

I had no idea how to approach the residence, unannounced and unescorted as I was. I was tempted to cross through the gardens and enter through the slave’s rooms. I decided that I would treat this large estate just as though it was a home in a small village. Certainly there was nothing improper about simply walking up and asking if the lady of the house might receive me. If all else failed, I would tell them who I was. I smiled to think how they would bustle around then.

“Hello,” I said to the young man sweeping the portico with a roll of wild fennel branches. He seemed to be a few summers younger than I was with a slight build, which could have explained why he was a house servant. He looked me up and down before deciding that my appearance didn’t warrant him pausing in his task.

“We give no free meals. Try your luck down at the agora.”

I arched an eyebrow, not over the fact that the young man directed me to the city’s commercial center, but because of his attitude. It was very clear that he worked for Lenora.

“I would like an audience with the lady of the estate.”

“So would I, but as you can see, that’s not going to happen.”

His glib attitude and my own need for speed tested my patience. “Please tell the lady here that the Queen of the Greek Empire is at her door.”

He chuckled at that. “And I’m the Lord Conqueror, too.” He laughed some more.

It was at this point that a number of the other yard servants paused in their duties to listen to our odd conversation. A young woman came over to the man I had been dealing with and, after continually glancing at me, she tugged on the man’s sleeve. Her strange behavior continued until the exasperated young man turned to her angrily.

“What?!” he asked.

The girl pulled at his sleeve until he bent down to meet her. She whispered in his ear. I guessed at what she related to him when I saw his face pale slightly. Without so much as an apology, the man bolted inside the house.

Heartbeats later I heard a familiar voice. “Don’t be a fool, Phidias! Why on earth would the Queen of the Empire be at our do–”

I’m not sure which of us was the most surprised, me, standing there in obvious astonishment or Livia, Militiades wife, looking as nonplussed as I.

“Your Highness?” Livia managed to say.

“Livia. What a…pleasant surprise to see you here,” I lied.

The young servant who had treated me with such indifference dropped to the ground before me, his forehead pressed upon the ground. My stomach turned at how many times I had assumed the same position.

“Forgive me your Highness. I had no idea. I meant no disrespect, I swear. My family has always served the Crown.”

“He’ll be whipped, of course,” Livia stated without much emotion.

“That’s not necessary.”

“But if you let them get away with–”

“I said no!” I responded, perhaps more forcefully than I had intended. “He meant no harm. Did you, Phidias?” I used the name I had overheard Livia speaking.

“None at all, your Highness,” he answered.

“Then it’s all made right as far as I’m concerned.”

“Consider yourself a lucky man, Phidias, that the Queen has a soft spot for those less fortunate.”

The tone of her voice surprised me greatly. If she had said it sarcastically, or even with the venom that I had become accustomed to from her, then I would have understood, if that was the right way to put it. Instead, Livia’s voice seemed full of wonder, as though she could not quite fathom the concept of treating those with a lesser station in life humanely. I could only hope that she would some day imitate my actions.

“Where have my manners gone. Come in and be welcome, your Highness. Are you hungry?” she asked with a glint of amusement in her eye. My stomach had taken that moment to inform all those around us that it had been some time since my last meal.

“I must admit that I’m famished. The last day has caused some forgetfulness where eating is concerned.”

“Come, let’s attend to you then,” she replied.

Again, I wondered at her considerate tone. I would be on my guard, however. This would be the sort of action I would expect if Livia were trying to lull me into trusting her. She may not have been a warrior, but I could very easily envision Livia plunging a fruit dagger into my heart.

Just as I turned to follow Livia into the house, her servant, Phidias, took hold of my hand and raised my fingers to his lips, placing a chaste kiss there.

“I am your slave, my lady,” he said.

“Phidias, there are no more slaves in the Empire,” I told him. His words had taken me unaware, as did his fervor.

“Then I would gladly give my life for you.”

“Well, let’s hope it never comes to that. Shall we?”

****
“I’m afraid I’ve eaten like a barracks soldier,” I admitted to my hostess.

Livia laughed and it was a sound that seemed genuine to my ears, not the polite chuckle I would have expected from her. I tensed at this unexpected turn. If Livia noticed my behavior, she certainly gave no sign.

“I don’t mean to be rude, but what is it that I can help you with? Obviously your business is urgent considering you have no escort or Royal Guard.”

“Perhaps I simply don’t want them to be seen,” I replied. I certainly didn’t want her to know that I had no guards around me.

“Ahh, very sly of you.”

I stared at her for a moment. How was I to ask what in Hades name she was doing in Cleisthenes home? I would ask in the only way I knew how, but would that give anything away? I suppose there were any number of reasons that I might meet with the man, but would any of them sound plausible enough to Livia? What could have dragged the Queen out of her home, dressed in traveling attire, other than something of the gravest circumstance?

“Actually, Livia, I came her expecting to find Cleisthenes,” I answered honestly.

“Oh my, then you are off the path a bit.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I know this might sound odd, but Cleisthenes and Lenora are living on our estate and I came down to live at theirs while Militiades is gone.”

“You switched homes?” I asked in some confusion.

She chuckled softly. “It’s not as bizarre as it sounds. Militiades and I live so far atop the mountain. With him gone, the state of our country right now, and having two small children, I felt much safer down here, closer to the city. Besides, my half-sister lives within the city gates and her husband is off fighting, too. So, she’s staying here with the children and me.”

“I see.” Her answer sounded rather reasonable to me. It wasn’t unusual in the least for wives on large estates to come into the city gates to live during times of war, especially when soldiers were in short supply.

“I suppose…” She looked down at the hands in her lap. “Well, I suppose you think me rather weak for something like that. I imagine that an Amazon Queen isn’t afraid of much.”

I smiled at her comment. “If you only knew.”

My response seemed to put her at ease and she smiled back at me. “It’s been difficult, living in Athens these past ten summers. My half sister is the only family that I have within a hundred leagues. I know you think of me as a bitch.”

“Not at all,” I guiltily lied.

“Has anyone ever told you that you make a horrid liar, your Highness?”

“Yes, I do think someone might have mentioned it somewhere along the way.” I smiled in return and I think we both knew the truth about our relationship just then.

“It’s obvious that you are a most diplomatic woman,” she said. “I’m able to look at myself realistically, though. I know I’ve treated you poorly since you’ve been in Athens. Jealousy, I suppose. You have what I once had. Where I come from, I was considered a princess. Here, in Athens, I am only the wife of a general.”

“Is status that important?” I asked.

“It was once. I’m not so sure anymore.”

“I have to say, Livia, confusion becomes you much better than arrogance.”

“Thank you…I think.”

We laughed together and I suddenly wondered if this was all a ploy meant to put me at ease. Gods, how I hate intrigue. I trust people far too much for it. She seemed so sincere. It was either the honest truth or she was giving the performance of her life.

Something struck me just then. It was probably nothing, but I decided to pursue it. “Livia, are you and Militiades close to Cleisthenes and his wife?”

“No, not really, which made his offer a little odd, I admit. I, for one, can’t tolerate Lenora. I don’t really understand why, but Militiades doesn’t care much for Cleisthenes. I gathered it was one of those ‘young man’ type grudges. I just assumed they knew one another summers and summers ago.”

“Do you mean that Cleisthenes was the one who made the offer to have you move into his home?” I felt an odd chill run across my back that had little to do with the air around us.

“Yes. Is that important in some way?”

It came to me in a sudden rush, the jumbled pieces of thought, along with bits and pieces of conversation that the last fortnight had brought to me. In one startling epiphany I remembered what had bothered me so about the luncheon I had with the women of Athens. I had left the lunch that day with niggling thoughts that something important lingered in my unconscious mind. I had missed something significant. As to whether it was a face or a word I had been unsure, but the harder I chased after the thoughts, the farther back they shrank from my conscious grasp. Now, they settled before my eyes as obvious as a massive hovering albatross.

“I have to admit, I was rather surprised at their generous offer,” Livia went on. “It’s not like Lenora to be charitable, as you well know. I imagine that wartime allows us to reveal our true colors, eh?”

“You have no idea,” I answered.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum

****

Many times had I been close to death, but I never remember it being like this before. In the past, I had been such an angry woman. If Hades had been standing at my shoulder, I would have merely spit in his face, not caring if it earned me an eternity in the pits of Tartarus. If I died, then I died. It would only have served to make me angrier.

Now, all I could think of was Gabrielle.

Each word I had wanted to say, but never did flashed into my head like lightning in a summer sky. Every touch I wish I had made, but never acted upon. All the harsh comments I had ever made disappeared into the air around me and all I could see before my mind’s eye were the moments of love and compassion that Gabrielle and I had shared.

I had been scrambling backward, out of the way of Militiades long sword. The bodies and the blood made it nearly impossible to move. I slipped and slid along the ground, scuttling like a crab on the beach, my hands unable to reach the sword that I’d dropped.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for this, Conqueror.”

In my mind, I cursed Militiades. I prayed for his soul to burn in the darkest pits of the underworld for his traitorous acts. Who knew that I would have to amend that prayer so quickly? I attempted to make one last lunge free of the blade that Militiades had raised so high into the air.

It was then that I saw the truth, there before me all along. How could my sight have been so dim?

I rolled toward Militiades just as his sword hissed into the air. The blade continued down past me, neatly slicing off the hands of the soldier behind me, who had been holding a scimitar in each of the now absent appendages.

There wasn’t even time for introspection as all my notions about the man standing before me were tossed out as so much dirty bath water. He held out a hand to me and I scooped up my fallen sword, as I took the offered assistance and leaped to my feet.

We stood back to back fighting. There was barely a moment to breathe let alone speak. Rarely had I ever worked so well in tandem with any warrior with the exception of Atrius. The army left behind by Darius made one last stand, so to speak. We had reached the shore and still the Persians continued to fight. Knee deep in water, Militiades and I continued to cut and slash, the bodies piling around us and the surf turning crimson.

Yu Pan did his part, as well. I could feel the heat from the flames as ships burned all around us, their masts causing chaos among the fighting soldiers. Ten men charged the two of us, but none of them made it to within two paces. A burning sail floated gently down from the sky, the Persian soldiers completely unaware. The sail wrapped around the screaming men, searing their flesh to the cloth. They dove for the water to put out the flames, but the salt water merely increased their pain. Their charred skin separated from their bodies as though they’d been skinned alive.

At last, the carnage ceased. Militiades and I looked around, our blades still held tightly within bloody hands. The world was scarlet, as far as the eye could see, but there were no more Persians to fight. My breath came in quick pants as I struggled, not only to take in the fact that we had been victorious, but also to come back to myself. Staying alive had taken its toll on me, as the beast was reluctant to give up its hold, even once the fighting was over.

Just as earlier, the struggle to come back to myself was different. It wasn’t easy, by any means. I wouldn’t want the reader of these scrolls to have any false impressions regarding the effort it took or the pain involved in wrestling with the darkness inside my soul, the darkness that was, in all actuality, not just inside, but rather a small piece of my soul. I saw and heard everything around me, however. That in itself was much changed.

“Conqueror?”

“I’m all right, Atrius,” I answered, assuring my captain that I was indeed the Xena he knew.

“You saved my life back there,” I told Militiades. “I owe you a debt.”

“I rather thought it made us even. You saved my life, and the lives of my children, by allowing me to return to Athens and the fold of the Empire. I’ve never forgotten that and I’ve never had the chance, until now, to return the kindness.”

I didn’t know what to say to the man. How could I ever tell him that up until a few moments ago, I was certain he was the traitor assisting the Persians? No man could have fought like that against a force that he was trying to help, however. But, if Militiades wasn’t the noble born traitor, then who was?

I looked across the ocean and I could see Darius’s remaining ships shrinking into the expanse of blue. I wasn’t certain whether they would head for Athens or Corinth yet, not until I turned my eyes back to land. My heart lurched in my chest as I thought of Gabrielle once again. Gods, I hoped that she wouldn’t end up in the middle of it.

“One candlemark, Atrius,” I said as I looked around at the bloodbath surrounding us. I shaded my eyes from the midday sun and stared far into the distance at the mountains. “One candlemark to regroup and take stock of our casualties. Inform our troops and notify the generals that we need to make our way toward Athens at best speed. I’ll take three hundred soldiers who can move quickly and any remaining cavalry on a forced march ahead of you. Understand?”

“Aye, Conqueror. It’s to be Athens over Corinth, then?”

“I know it for a fact.”

“May I ask, Lord Conqueror, and no disrespect is intended, but what power do you use to know such a thing for certain?” Militiades asked.

“I wasn’t sure before, but I am now. It’s not magic Militiades, just observation.”

“Of what?”

“That,” I replied.

I raised my arm and pointed to a spot high in the mountains overlooking Athens. The two men followed my hand until they saw the same thing as I. Far into the distance, high up the mountain that was dotted by trees and brush, a sparkling light appeared. The blinking, rhythmic light looked as though a looking glass or highly polished shield was being used to reflect the sun’s light. I knew that Darius would probably wait for a signal, but I had hoped against hope that it wouldn’t come from inside our own city.

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

They sat in the courtyard arguing about me. Rather, he sat upon the edge of the fountain as she paced back and forth. She was such a nervous woman, but he had always been kind, never anything but gentle in teaching me what he desired me for in his bed. I hid under the steps, easy enough because I was so small. I had just turned twelve, but my body was the physical size of perhaps an eight or nine year old girl. I knew of what they argued. I had experienced my first bleed one moon ago. Persian religious law dictated that foreign young women could not serve as body slaves past the time of their first blood. It was to ensure the purity of their line, in case some unfortunate slave should become pregnant with a master’s child.

“It is time, Majari,” she said with a tone of finality.

“We could tell people that she is much younger. She is so small, they would believe it.”

“And risk being ostracized should the truth be found out. Shame for even thinking so, my husband.”

“Where will we go to sell her?” He sighed and examined his hands. I could hear the defeat in his voice. “I won’t give her back to those Greek slavers.”

I could hear the wheels turning in her head. She was a smart woman. “Ran Tou will be visiting our household in the next fortnight. Surely, such an illustrious and wealthy warrior would have need of her in his household. I have heard tell that the leaders in Chin keep many hundreds of concubines.”

“Send her to Chin? She’s just a child.”

“She is a female slave, Majari. My mother taught me that none of them are be trusted with our men after a certain age. Gabrielle may be sweet now, but with maturity she will allow herself to grow with child just to shame you.”

“So, now I’m not even to be trusted around her? You know I do not break the law and penetrate her.”

“It’s one of the secret truths that Persian mothers teach their daughters, Majari… It’s not the husband to blame, but the girl.”
“Your Highness…your Highness? Gabrielle?”

I felt a hand touch me and realized that I had fallen asleep. I jerked away from the anonymous touch and awoke in unfamiliar surroundings for the second time in as many days.

“It’s all right, you just fell asleep. You must have been dreaming. Nothing bad I hope.”

I finally placed Livia’s voice and it all came to me, where I was, and what I was supposed to be doing. My vision cleared and I felt Livia gently brush the hair from my eyes. The compassionate gesture seemed out of place until I remembered all that we had talked of yesterday. I was ashamed at how easily I had believed she could be a traitor to Greece, merely because of her haughty behavior, which in fact had been due in part to her feeling alone in a strange land.

“I–I don’t think I remember. Something from the past, I think.” The dream had fled from my conscious mind as quickly as a wave breaking from the shore.

“You fell sound asleep after you ate. I tried to wake you once, but you never even stirred,” Livia said.

“Gods, is it still evening?”

“No, you slept all night. I’m so sorry, dear, but you seemed dead to the world.”

“I admit, I’m a heavy sleeper once I get there. Have you heard any word from the Amazons? Have they come looking for me at all?” I didn’t even bother mentioning Periander’s name. I knew she wouldn’t be familiar with a man known only as the keeper of the library scrolls.

“No one’s come looking at all.”

“That’s strange. I sent for them before I came here last evening. They should have been here by now.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. How about refreshing yourself and I’ll have a morning meal brought out onto the patio. Perhaps they’ll show up once the sun rises fully.”

“An excellent idea, thank you.”

It was difficult to enjoy any of the wonderful food that Livia had the servants prepare for us. The urgency of our situation had also affected my appetite. I wondered, as I had all morning, as well as in my dreams, whether Livia could have been lying. I wondered if anyone could have been that good of an actor.

Gods, I was so bad at this. My natural willingness to trust in the goodness of people made me such a horrible judge of character. At least, that’s what I thought of myself. I silently thought of Yu Pan. What would my teacher have to say about my personal feelings of inadequacy? He would ask me for proof. He was always so practical. He would ask me when I had been a poor judge of someone’s character. Then, I would have to admit that there had been few times in my life when I guessed incorrectly at someone’s nature. Right now, everything in me told me that Livia was sincere and that she was telling the truth. I decided to entrust one more person with the knowledge I had become privy to. I told Livia everything.

“My dear, Queen, do you mean to tell me that you thought Militiades and I–”

“I can only say…I don’t know what to say.” I wondered if my face reflected as much shame as I felt.

“Do you still–”

“No! No, not at all. I just didn’t understand what you were going through. I suppose I never took the time to find out.”

Livia forced a smile that eventually turned genuine. “I don’t guess that I made it very easy to do, find out, I mean. I’m really not…I don’t know, cold or heartless. I know my actions may have seemed so. I’m afraid much of it has to do with the life I’ve led. I would have been a Queen myself someday if Militiades had not led us to Athens. I took that out on you because of who you were and who you are now, young enough to be my own daughter and Queen of the Greek Empire. I guess I’m…was a little bitter over that.”

I couldn’t help but smile at her understatement.

“All right…a lot bitter,” she added. “I suppose I got that from my mother. You know the things that mothers pass down to their daughters.”

“It’s one of the secret truths that Persian mothers teach their daughters, Majari… It’s not the husband to blame, but the girl.”

“Oh, it’s not me, Donatia, but you know how these servant girls are nowadays. Once they have their first bleed, they’re all over our men. It’s not the husband to blame, but the girl.”

“Your Highness, are you all right?”

“Livia…please call me Gabrielle.” I shook my head in order to rid myself of the sudden haze that had come over me. The dream I had before I woke this morning came back to me with some profound insight attached to it.

“Actually, I just remembered what I dreamed of before you woke me this morning. I dreamed of the master I had while in Persia.”

“What an odd thing to think of just now.”

“Actually, it makes a great deal of sense, especially just now. It’s been in the back of mind for so long now, ever since we had lunch at Donatia’s, in fact.”

“What’s been in the back of your mind?”

“That’s just the point. I couldn’t remember.” The confused expression on Livia’s face prompted me to explain to her what I had told Xena about coming home that day and how I had felt as though I had missed something important.

“And you’ve remembered what it was?” she asked. “But, Gabrielle, what did your slavery in Persia have to do with an afternoon luncheon with the noblewomen of Greece?”

“For a start, it’s given me some indication of who the real traitors are within our circle.”

“But, where’s the connection?”

“I didn’t know it at the time,” I said as I thought back to the day of the luncheon. “I couldn’t remember if I had seen or heard something, but it left me uneasy. It turns out that it was something that I heard Lenora say when she was commenting on Donatia’s servant girl.”

“Lenora?”

“She used the phrase, ‘It’s not the husband to blame, but the girl’ when referring to Donatia’s servant.

“Well, that was simply Lenora being–”

“No, it was far from simple. Have you ever heard that saying before?”

“No…I don’t believe so.” Livia looked up at me, a thoughtful expression on her face. She appeared to be searching her memory.

“I wouldn’t doubt that. It’s something, a piece of advice, or an adage if you will that mothers pass on to their daughters.”

“Just because–”

“In Persia.”

“Oh, dear. Surely, though, there are ways that Lenora could have learned of these words?”

“The odds would have been incredibly high against that. The phrase is one of the seven secret truths that Persian mothers teach their daughters. Most Persian men know only a few. Slaves are never privy to the information. I spent nearly seven years in Persia and, try as I would, I could never learn any of the others beyond this one, and that was merely because of my own deception.”

“Perhaps if Lenora had been a slave, such as yourself, she could have overheard it in the same manner as you. To have had two female slaves learn of a secret in the same way sounds extremely unlikely, however. Doesn’t it?” Livia questioned, almost as if musing aloud.

“My thought exactly.”

So, the only way Lenora could have learned the phrase would have been if she had been on the other end of that scenario, if she had been raised in Persia…”

“But as a Persian noble, not a slave,” I finished.

There were long moments when all we could hear was the sound of the water softly splashing in the fountain beside us and the muted breaths we took. Neither of us wanted to believe in this new knowledge.

“Cleisthenes, too, do you think?” Livia finally broke the quiet to ask.

“I can’t say with absolute certainty, but could you have planned something of this magnitude without Militiades learning of it?”

“Only if he was on a campaign in another land, and even then I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“Then, there’s the little matter of Cleisthenes generous offer to exchange homes with you,” I reminded her.

“But what possible good would my home be over his own?”

“The only thing I can think of is the obvious…it’s location. Can you see the plain of Marathon from atop the mountain?”

“No,” she answered, but I saw some sort of realization brighten her eyes. “You can see the coast, though.” Her hand came to her throat and for the first time I saw the fear in her eyes.

“What have I done?” she whispered.

“Don’t,” I said. “Don’t think that way. Livia there was nothing you could have done to prevent this.”

“Gabrielle, you don’t understand. I lived here with them, dined in their home. Our children played together. I should have–”

“Livia!” I rose and moved closer to where she sat, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Please don’t do this to yourself. I need your help and it won’t be any good if you fall apart on me here.”

The harsh words seemed to have worked, as her features immediately calmed. There was a quiet determination about the woman now and I silently thanked Athena for the help.

“What can I do?” she asked.

I looked into the horizon as Apollo’s chariot flew into the sky with its bright yellow burden. “There’s something wrong. The Amazons should have been here by this morning, at least.”

“Should we contact the local militia?”

“Absolutely not. I already had a run in with a couple hundred mercenaries in the Menandros Theater.”

“By the Gods.”

“Thanks to a friend’s quick thinking I made it out alive. I believe that once some sort of signal is given, these soldiers will make quick work of the small force left to protect Athens.”

“Then what can we possibly do to stop them?”

“I’m thinking that the only way to actually stop it might be to make sure it doesn’t get started in the first place. We have to make sure that no signal of any kind makes it to Darius and the Persian fleet.”

“I’m not sure I like the sound of that, Gabrielle.”

“Come now, Livia.” I looked at her with an absolutely coy expression. “I’m certain that a Thracian princess has more backbone than that.”

It took a moment, but she smiled at me then, and I knew that she had indeed become a friend.

“Tell me, Gabrielle, does trouble often find you in such ways?”

I returned the smile and replied, “You simply have no idea.”
Chapter 14: If The Red Slayer Think He Slays…
“I have to say, Gabrielle, I don’t feel at all comfortable doing this.”
“Would you feel more comfortable hanging from a Persian cross?”

“Well, since you put it that way…”

Livia and I had entered the house via the same sorts of tunnels that ran underneath the home that Xena and I occupied here in Athens. Livia led the way through the complex maze of passageways.

“Gabrielle, you do know that by sneaking into the house through these tunnels we’re telling Cleisthenes and Lenora both that we’re already convinced of their guilt.”

“I am convinced,” I answered, perhaps too quickly.

“That’s what you thought about me, too. Remember?”

I stopped short at her words. There seemed to be no malice in them, maybe only a gentle rebuke. “That was different, Livia, you know that.”

“I know, my friend, but I thought perhaps a reminder was in order. I understand that Lenora’s guilt is clear, but Cleisthenes just might be innocent.”

I nodded my head in silence. “You’re right, of course. I can’t just assume he’s guilty by association. I admit, there might be a chance that he knows nothing of who Lenora is and what she’s done. All right, maybe we should just confront him honestly.”

“Good, does that mean we can get out of these horridly dank tunnels?”

I smiled at her enthusiasm for adventure. “Yes, let’s go.”

We turned, but stopped immediately.

“What is that?” Livia asked.

Standing before us was a large beast, perhaps the largest dog I had ever seen. The animal was a brindle color, the streaks on his coat causing him to look even more fearsome. I swallowed hard when I gauged his height to be nearly as high as my chest. He sported a thick leather collar around his neck dotted with spiked studs pressed through the leather. His lips quivered over large white fangs, but he didn’t move.

“I think it’s a hound,” I whispered.

“By the Gods, it’s huge. I’ve never seen the like.”

“I’ve seen Roman scrolls with drawings of such animals. They used dogs like this in war,” I answered without taking my eyes off the creature.

“That is quite correct, my Queen.” Cleisthenes voice came from within the heart of the shadow heartbeats before his body stepped into the light, and he knelt down beside the animal. “Forgive Sir Jamus. He’s still a little nervous in these new surroundings. Lady Livia, I hope you haven’t forgotten anything. I could have easily sent any of your possessions down to you at our villa.”

I watched the man as he spoke, appearing quite genuine, and never even asking why the two of us were roaming about in the subterranean tunnels below the house.

“Forgive us, Cleisthenes, but…” Livia looked at me and I nodded. How could I not give him the same benefit of the doubt that I had offered to Livia? He hadn’t yet showed any hint of harming either of us.

“We have some…distressing news to share with you,” Livia continued.

“By Athena’s name, what could it be? Have you news of the battle?”

“It has to do with the battle, Cleisthenes, but not directly. It seems as though the problem is a little closer to home.”

“Please, my Queen, tell me what’s wrong.”

“Perhaps you have somewhere more comfortable where we can speak?” I looked from Livia to Cleisthenes.

“Oh, pardon my manners, your highness. Yes, yes.” Cleisthenes grabbed his animal’s collar and gestured for Livia to lead the way through her home.

I followed Livia up a winding stone staircase and felt the hairs along the back of my neck rise up. I turned around to see Cleisthenes’s concerned face looking back at me. There was something about his trusting expression. I offered him a quick smile and turned again to follow Livia. I wondered at his behavior, though. I found it odd that he should be so calm at finding the two of us wandering around the tunnels.

Livia led us into a large sitting area. One of Cleisthenes servants immediately appeared.

“Aramais, take Sir Jamus outside and please fix the ladies some of your special mulled wine,” Cleisthenes ordered the man. The servant bowed his head once and walked away.

“Please, my Queen…Lady Livia, I beg you to tell me what could be so wrong to bring you here?”

“Cleisthenes,” I began. “Is your wife, Lenora, Greek?”

“Why…yes. What an odd thing to ask.”

Livia and I exchanged a look. “And you know this for a fact?” Livia asked.

“Well, of course I…” He trailed off, as he looked the two of us in the eye. He appeared to be thinking just then. “I don’t understand how this matters, but no, I don’t know it as fact. Her uncle promised her in marriage to me. Lenora had said that her parents died when she was a child and all she had was an uncle to provide her dowry.”

“Cleisthenes, would it surprise you to know that I believe Lenora to be Persian?” I asked.

“What?” He chuckled as he spoke. It was clear, from the expression on his face, that he thought the idea quite farfetched.

“I’m serious.”

“I–but surely you can’t think…I don’t understand what’s going on here.”

I felt sorry for the man. He looked completely and utterly lost as he sank down with a heavy sigh into the nearest chair.

“I don’t believe it,” Cleisthenes said.

I would have expected nothing less from him. What man could possibly believe that his spouse was a traitorous spy?

“I understand what you must be feeling, my friend, but it’s true. I have no solid proof, but I know from my own seasons spent in Persia that Lenora knows things that only a young woman brought up in that land could know,” I said.

“It sounds quite ludicrous,” he began. “I trust both of you with my life, but Lenora is my wife.”

“Perhaps if we spoke with her?” Livia recommended.

“She’s not here.” He looked at the two of us with a panicky expression. “She’s only gone into the markets with the children. She said she was getting claustrophobic staying indoors for the last few days.”

The servant arrived with our drinks. He offered a silver goblet to Cleisthenes and then came around to Livia, and finally myself. I wasn’t much of a wine drinker, but I enjoyed the fruity aroma of the beverage. I breathed in the pleasant aromatic spices and looked on as Cleisthenes took a drink from his cup. Livia prepared to do the same.

In two large strides I moved to where Livia stood and backhanded the goblet from her light grasp.

“Gabrielle! What in Hades name…”

I turned to face Cleisthenes. He wore his ever-patient expression, very nearly a smile. I slowly inverted my own glass and let its contents spill out onto the marble floor.

Cleisthenes sighed and shook his head. “It would have been so much easier if you would have simply drunk the wine, Gabrielle.”

Livia finally realized what the drink contained. “You bastard!” She surprised all of us by nearly launching herself at Cleisthenes. I knew that this woman might eventually prove to be a loyal friend, but I suppose I had no idea just how seriously she took her oath to the Empire.

Before I could intervene, Cleisthenes manservant struck her hard enough to cause her to lose consciousness. I pulled my chobos and without even thinking, I struck the man’s arm as he reached out for me. The contact of weapon against bone made a sickening sound. It was as though a stick of green wood splintered in half. He cried out and clutched his, now useless, limb.

“Enough!” Cleisthenes shouted.

I pulled back into a stance to fight him off, but realized my chance would never come. Cleisthenes had a crossbow leveled at my chest.

“I recommend taking a seat, my dear. You know, I really am quite fond of you Gabrielle. I have no desire to hurt you, but believe me when I say that I will if I have to.”

I was angry. I slowly sat down and let my fingers curl around the armrests of the chair. I couldn’t believe that this was it, that the Empire relied upon me as their Queen and I had let them down. This traitor would kill me and possibly bring all of Darius’s forces into Greece. I thought of Xena and wondered if she was safe.

“Aramais, get up. You look like a woman lying there. Go strap your arm up and attend to your chore…it’s time.” The servant rose, glared at me, and stumbled from the room, holding his arm to his chest.

“How did you know?” Cleisthenes asked. “About the wine, I mean?”

“Why should I tell scum like you anything!”

“Come now, there’s no need for harsh language, especially from such a lady.”

I looked at him with a wary eye. I honestly believe that he had enjoyed our friendship. It was probably incredibly naïve of me. I realized now that my only goal was to stay alive as long as possible and that meant placating the man.

“All right, we’ll deal,” I answered. “I’ll tell you my secrets if you tell me yours.”

“Hhmm, an interesting bargain, and I really see as I have nothing to lose at this point. Very well, ask me what you will.”

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

“I have nothing against you, Gabrielle, or my fellow Greeks for that matter. It’s your unfortunate circumstance to be married to the one woman I have sworn my life to visiting my revenge upon.”

“Xena?” I asked in confusion. “All of this, assisting Darius, because of Xena?”

“You have no idea what my future could have been like, what my life was supposed to be like before the Conqueror took Athens.”

“But you helped rebuild the city. You–”

“I waited nearly half my life to take away something from the Conqueror, to ruin her life just as she ruined mine. As much as you mean to her, Gabrielle, I suspect that seeing her precious Greece taken by her sworn enemies will do the trick even better.”

“And Lenora?”

“Ahh, yes. Right again. How do you do it?” He asked the question, but I had a feeling he really didn’t want an answer. “Lenora is Persian, lived there until she was fourteen. I met her family in northern Thrace on one of my many traveling ventures for the Conqueror. It all just sort of fell into place from that moment on.”

“Now that you’ve heard my tale…” He gestured toward me with a wave of his arm. “I’m dying of curiosity. Tell me, where did I slip?”

“Tamarind extract. Your man put it in our wine.”

“Well, aren’t you the clever one.”

“Trying to cover the extract with mulled wine was a good try, but tamarind extract has the distinct odor of cherries. Then there was the fact that your servant offered you the first cup, something that good manners dictate a servant never do. I suppose it really hit me once I thought about why you never asked either of us what we were doing wandering the underground tunnels, why we simply didn’t come to the door and ask for you. You didn’t have to ask because you already knew. You figured that if we slipped into the house through the tunnels, we were here to come after you.”

“Well done. You’re incredibly observant.”

I said nothing, waiting for his next move. I had learned many things about people in the time I had spent serving them. One of those things was that men love to gloat. They’re not simply satisfied with victory or a game well played. They want annihilation and disgrace. They want to stand over their fallen enemy and wave their sword about in their face. Since I knew all of this, I suppose Cleisthenes’s next words should have come as no surprise.

“Let us go out onto the balcony, Gabrielle. I have something I want to show you.”

I rose and moved away, toward the open patio doors.

“Slowly.” He cautioned me by pressing the crossbow shaft into my back ever so slightly.

I stepped outside and saw what I’m sure Cleisthenes meant for me to see. His servant, arm wrapped and cradled against his body, held onto a large piece of metal, something like the shields the hoplites carried. It had no design or decoration. It was merely a large piece of highly polished metal. I saw it burst into light as the servant, Aramais, tilted it toward the sun.

My heart sank at the sight. Livia, who still lay unconscious on the floor inside, had been correct. Her home afforded a lovely view of the coast. Even I could see the tiny dots upon the blue green sea that were Darius’s fleet. I also saw smoke rising into the sky. I took that as a good sign for our side.

“Well, let’s go back inside and figure out what we’re going to do with you.”

“I don’t understand,” I began once I sat down again. “What could Darius have offered you to turn traitor on your homeland? Surely, you realize that your life will be worthless in Greece, that you will be a hunted man.”

“There are some things in life that are worth giving up everything for, Gabrielle. My hate for Xena and my thirst for revenge are two things that I willingly give my life to fuel. I’m not a fool. I know that Darius’s promises are worthless should I stay in Greece, and the notion of spending the rest of my days in Persia is even less appealing. No, my friend, I suspect I shall give my life for this venture, but it will be well worth it.”

Too late did I discover that I had been dealing with a madman and a fanatic at that. It was nearly impossible to fight against a man who was so willing, almost enthusiastic about meeting Hades for a cause.

“I do hate to be the one to inform you, Gabrielle, but if Xena remains alive after the battle, she’ll be crucified for Darius’s pleasure. Actually, that will probably be the kindest thing he does to her. As for you…I could speak on your behalf if–”

“Not if you were the last living soul in the known world.” I saw immediately what he had on his mind.

His expression changed. I believe he truly thought I might take him up on his offer. “You leave me no choice then, Gabrielle. Gods, you don’t know how much I regret having to do this,” he said as he re-set his shaft upon the crossbow frame. “I don’t suppose you’d just like to drink the poison now, would you?”

I arched an eyebrow in his direction. He moved closer, and then paused, the crossbow still trained upon me. He was hesitant, that much was apparent, maybe even frightened. Cleisthenes was no warrior and I had found that there was a great deal of difference between killing someone and talking of killing him. He swallowed and stepped even closer until I was sure that if he loosed the arrow now, the shaft would fly straight through me.

Slowly lowering the weapon, he looked at me with a wistful expression, and then that faint smile reappeared. I had no idea what he was up to, only that I assumed he had lost his nerve. I looked on as his smile disappeared and confusion filled his features. He looked down and for the first time I saw the metal blade protruding through his chest. It was subtle at first, but as the metal disappeared back through his body, a crimson flood spread out across the front of his clothes. It wasn’t until his body crumpled in on itself and he fell to the floor that I saw the figure standing behind him.

“You, my Queen, are turning out to be a great deal of trouble!” Ephiny huffed out as she stood before me, the dead man’s blood dripping from her sword.

****
“Thank the Gods!” I said just as the tears fell from my eyes. I wasn’t prone to displaying so much emotion; I suppose it was simply a release of sorts after all I had experienced in the last two days. It appeared to frighten Ephiny, however.

She knelt before me, concern and affection flowing from her. “Gabrielle, are you all right?” She placed her free hand atop my own.

I nodded and then brusquely wiped the tears from my face. “Yes, thank you. I don’t know what came over me. Oh, Livia. She–”

I looked to my friend, realizing that she must still be lying on the floor. The sight that met my eyes was a comforting one indeed. Periander sat upon the floor, cradling Livia’s head in his lap. She had only just started to move about and the giant of a man let her lean against his chest until she felt steady enough to stand. One of the Amazons held a wet cloth to the rapidly forming bruise on the side of her face.

I came back to myself and felt a rather righteous indignation rise up inside. It was unfounded, but that didn’t stop me from expressing my ire all the same.

“Where have you been?” I questioned Ephiny. My voice held what I considered to be just the right amount of annoyance.

“Following you all over Hades and back again!” She snapped. “I’ve been trying to keep you out of harm’s way, but at the same time allowing you to do what you must, which I might add is considerably harder than I thought it would be.”

Her admission stunned me into silence. The words she used sounded oddly familiar. Harm’s way. It was a phrase that Xena had used on more than one occasion.

“Don’t tell me that Xena told you to watch me, too?” I asked. I looked back at Periander again. My expression must have held more anger in it than I actually felt, for Ephiny quickly responded.

“Well…I…she just…I told her it was a bad idea!”

“It’s all right, Ephiny, I’m not mad, it’s just that Xena seemed to be doing a lot of planning that I was unaware of.” I almost laughed at her expression; rather like a child that I’d just caught doing something she oughtn’t.

My explanation appeared to calm Ephiny a small bit. “Trust me when I say it wasn’t any great conspiracy. The Conqueror made me aware that, given your nature; you might want to go off and save the Empire on your own. I was supposed to let you, but to follow. Xena said that you might be able to get into places alone that you couldn’t possibly with an army behind you. Trust me, her first thought was to have us tie you up so you wouldn’t go off and get yourself killed.”

“Oh?”

“She thought better about the chaining you up part once she realized that if we all lived through this ordeal, you might never forgive her. I do have to say, Gabrielle, that it took a huge amount of faith on Xena’s part, to let you go off, I mean. I don’t know if I could have let the person I love do that. I hadn’t planned on you giving me the slip, however.”

“The slip?” I asked.

“I didn’t know about the tunnels. I’m glad you sent Periander for us.”

“Oh. I am sorry, Eph–”

“Don’t.” She held up one hand. She smiled then, and I must say it was the friendliest smile Ephiny ever offered me. “You’re not one bit sorry you did it that way, don’t even pretend. Besides, not only would you do the same thing all over again, you did exactly what I would have done given the same circumstances. I suppose it’s what any Amazon would have done.”

Then she did something that surprised even me. She placed one arm around my shoulder and said, “Are you sure you’re okay, now?”

“I’m a lot tougher than I look,” I replied.

“I’m starting to believe that,” she answered while wearing a smirk.

We stepped over to where the Amazons and Periander attended to Livia. After the rush of the last few moments, I had temporarily forgotten what we had been doing there in the first place. “The Corinthian fleet, Ephiny, did you send for them as I asked?”

“They should enter the harbor around nightfall. I hope you’re right about the Persians attacking Athens instead of Corinth or we’ve made a huge mistake.”

“But, we saw them signal Darius’s fleet,” Livia interjected.

The Amazons stared at Livia as though she’d just committed some unpardonable error. I believe that she’d been with me on such an informal basis that it never occurred to her that she was interrupting the Queen. I smiled because that pleased me, that she could forget that.

Realizing her breech of etiquette, Livia quickly apologized. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I–”

“Of course it’s all right, Livia. You and I are past that.” I lightly rested my hand upon her shoulder.

I quickly explained to Ephiny what Livia meant and what the two of us had seen from the balcony. One of our Amazons entered the room dragging the massive shield as proof.

“Well, have you a plan at this point?” Ephiny asked me.

It was a strange sensation, being in charge. Of course, I had quickly become accustomed to the authority I had within the castle back in Corinth. To run a household was something I had trained for, but to lead a group of Amazon warriors in a fight. I felt out of my element, since my skills as a warrior were merely adequate. I hoped that I could hold my own. I may have lacked some skill as a fighter, but a strategically minded thought process was something I prided myself on. I laid out the entire situation in my mind as though I was playing a game of King’s Men.

“I’m sure Cleisthenes planned on notifying the mercenaries in some way once he signaled Darius,” I said. “Perhaps he intended to use his servant.”

Ephiny smiled at me. “Tall man with dark hair pulled back and tied at his neck? An injured arm?”

“That’s him. His name is Aramais.”

“Mika,” Ephiny called out and gave her head a nod.

The Amazon Ephiny had addressed left the room and returned moments later, leading a very unhappy looking Aramais.

“Well, well, we meet again,” I said.

“Keep that bitch away from me. She broke my arm.”

So quickly that I barely saw it happen, Ephiny drew back her arm and punched the man in the face. He howled as blood streamed down his face.

“You broke my nose!”

“I bet it took your mind off that broken arm now, didn’t it?”

“You daughter of a Bacchae!” he retorted, which only caused Ephiny to reach out and hit him again.

“This woman is a Queen and you will address her with respect. If you fail in that regard…well, you’ve already felt what will happen. Understand?” Ephiny asked.

Aramais nodded, but glared at all of us through coal black eyes.

“Do you know how and where Cleisthenes,” Ephiny indicated the sheet-covered body on the floor, “was to notify the mercenary soldiers in town?”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

“I’ll not say a word!”

“Then we’ll just have to kill you.”

“I’m not afraid of death.”

“No?” Ephiny grinned at the man and I could see it was not a friendly smile. I let her go and merely played the part of an observer.

“Then let me put it this way. I can assure that the way you die will either be swift and painless or slow and excruciating. It will be the difference between slicing off your head or cutting off your balls, one small chunk at a time, then letting you bleed to death.”

“They were to split in half when they saw the signal to the ships,” he rapidly began. “Half will remain in the theater until the Persian fleet arrives, probably just before nightfall. The other half already dispersed themselves throughout the town. They will all gather at the harbor before the sun sets to await the Red Slayer.”

“The red what?”

“It’s what the Persians call Darius,” I explained.

“Take him away,” Ephiny ordered.

“Suggestions,” I asked after Aramais left.

“I suppose we can’t do much about the ones that are wandering the city, unless we just happen upon them, but that sounds unlikely. It’s a big city.”

“You don’t think they’ll try to stay by the harbor?”

Ephiny shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine on that one.”

“Then I suppose a trip to the theater is in order,” I responded. “At least we can cut our enemy’s number in half.”

“Do you feel…up to that?” Ephiny asked.

“I admit that I’m not a warrior, Ephiny, but I promise not to take on more than I feel I can handle.”

“I have serious doubts whether you know where that point would be, but you are my Queen. Please, promise me that you’ll at least stay by me.”

“I have no problem at all with that. I know my limitations.”

Ephiny chuckled under her breath before she turned to bark orders at the women in her command. I knew she was thinking the same thing as I was. Xena would call me the sort of woman who, once the battle started, would think she had no limitations. She would probably be right.

“I would dearly love to work on capturing some of these thugs hiding around the city, though,” Ephiny mused. “They could become quite a problem later.”

“How many Amazons do we have here?”

“Fifty and a unit of Corinthian soldiers. Are you thinking the same thing I’m thinking?”

“If we have to be in two places at once, I say we split our forces.”

“My thinking exactly. Eponin, you’re in charge. Put together a squad of twenty-five and go to the theater. Roust the soldiers hiding there. Secure anyone not killed and then meet up with us at the docks before nightfall.”

“Twenty-five?” I questioned. “You’re sending twenty-five Amazons against fifty mercenaries?”

“Hhmm, maybe you’re right. Ep, make that twenty and take three good archers with you.”

I raised an eyebrow at my second and she shrugged. “I figure a theater balcony will be just like shooting from the trees.”

Eponin left with her squad. I watched the confident, heavily armed women leave, and wondered why I had ever worried for them. The women all bowed their heads as they filed past me. There was not a one of them who was less than two hands taller than myself. Suddenly, I knew why Ephiny had sent as few as she had.

“We could start out by sneaking around the alleys and buildings down at the harbor,” Ephiny said once the warriors had gone.

“It’s a start, but it seems rather futile, doesn’t it? Without a place to start looking…well, like you said, Athens is a big city.”

“Damn, if we could only go about in plain sight! We could cover every building and tavern in no time, but we all stick out like sore thumbs.”

I turned to look at the remaining Amazons and Corinthian soldiers. It just might work. “Livia, I have to ask you to make you greatest sacrifice yet for the Empire,” I said while wearing a smile.

“Gabrielle, I do hate it when you smile like that. And what do you ask that I give for my Empire?”

“Your clothes.”

****

“I don’t like this, Gabrielle. I don’t like this one little bit.”

Ephiny stood before me with her arms crossed looking very much like a princess. She wore a white gown trimmed in red, with fine gold threads used as contrast. She looked rather beautiful. Extremely mad, but beautiful all the same.

“You don’t like my plan or you don’t like the dress?” I asked.

“The plan is brilliant. I think you know what I mean.”

“You wear a short skirt all the time.”

“It’s short for a reason. I can’t move in this thing.” She flapped her arms about and the diaphanous material floated around her like falling leaves.

“I admit, it may take some getting used to, but–”

“I haven’t any place to hide my sword,” she said. She thrust the weapon in question into the belt around her waist.

I looked around Livia’s dressing chamber and grabbed a scarf from the many items of clothing lying about. Livia’s wardrobe had provided amply for the Amazons and the female soldiers. Militiades clothing worked to disguise the Corinthian men. No one looked happy about the arrangement. I draped the scarf around Ephiny until the sword was well hidden. She sighed deeply.

“Look, all of you. This isn’t going to work if you look as though you’re in pain. I know this is something unusual, but you’re still warriors defending the Empire and I expect you to act as such.”

Ephiny, along with the others, looked properly chastised.

“The whole idea is to look like ordinary men and women. Search every inn and tavern near the docks. I suspect our friends will be rather close to the harbor and there are plenty of holes down there for rodents to hide in. Do we all understand?”

“Aye, my Queen,” they all replied in unison.

“Shall we have a night on the town, then?” I asked Ephiny.

“Yes. Gods know I could use a drink.”
Chapter 15: The Wrath Of The Lion Is The Wisdom Of God…
I would have never known that I had some talent as a spy, at least nothing that I could have ever put a name to like that. I suppose that intrigue and acting as though I felt things that I never did were all a part of training me for this moment. It was almost frightening, the ease with which I played the part of a woman out on the town with friends. I suppose what should have worried me the most was that so many other Athenian citizens were out in the taverns at this time of the afternoon. I imagine that the battle must have seemed very far away for them. They had no idea how close it really was.

I also felt frustrated and dejected. We decided to arrange ourselves in groups and pairs. Because I insisted on being a part of this manhunt, Ephiny insisted that I be in a group for additional protection. It honestly wore on my nerves, the idea that everyone was always trying to protect me. I wondered if Xena ever had the same problem. So, Ephiny, and two younger Amazons, Mika and Saria, were with me. Zagreus and Callius were two male Corinthian soldiers who rounded out our group. Zagreus was a few years younger than myself. Standing next to him was rather like standing alongside a rock wall. He was as gentle as a butterfly, respectful, and shy, but to look at him…well, if I hadn’t known him just the site would have terrified me.

“This place looks like exactly the sort of dive they might frequent,” Ephiny said as we entered perhaps the tenth tavern along the docks.

“And you would know that how?” I smiled over at her.

“Don’t ask.”

“Well, I hope you’re right. We’re running out of taverns and time.”

We settled in at a table, something not too far in back to make it look suspicious, but then not too close to the front to stand out from the crowd.

“Recognize any of them?” Ephiny asked.

“No, but I suppose they could be wearing regular clothing.”

“That’s possible, but I’ll bet guys like them don’t care if folks in these sorts of places know that they’re soldiers for hire.”

I was disappointed and it must have showed. I very much wished that I would suddenly wake up and realize that this had all been a bad dream.

“You okay?” Ephiny asked, placing her hand atop my own.

“I miss Xena. I miss talking to Delia and Anya. I can only imagine what they think of me, leaving without saying a word.”

“I told Delia what was happening so she wouldn’t worry. I know you think of her as one of your family.”

“Thanks, Ephiny. To tell the truth, we could probably use Delia here right about now. She doesn’t let anyone or anything frighten her,” I answered as I wistfully though of the older woman.

“Another round here, folks?” A pretty, young barmaid asked us.

“Please,” Ephiny said as she tossed the girl an extra coin for the service.

“Well, aren’t you all the nicest–well, it just makes you appreciate decent folks.”

“I take it some of your patrons aren’t so very nice,” I said. She looked tired and worn out, even though the evening had not even begun yet.

“Blessed Athena, you can say that again. Sailors…you can have ’em!”

I looked around the room, but saw no group of rowdy sailors. She must have noticed my confusion.

“Oh, there not out in the main hall, missus. They’ve got themselves a private party going in the back. The owner has a private room for special parties and such. These gents, though, well…all I’ve got to say is my bottom’s going to be black and blue tomorrow.”

I looked at Ephiny, feeling an odd mixture of elation and fear. “Are there a lot of them?” I asked.

“Gods, yes. Looks as if they left their ship bare for the night.”

The girl left for the bar and returned with our fresh drinks balanced on a large tray. I nodded to Ephiny this time to see if she could engage the girl in conversation about her private patrons.

“A pretty fearsome bunch, I bet,” Ephiny added in mock sympathy. “Those sailors.”

“A double yes to that one. When I was a little girl, I saw the marines on the Lord Conqueror’s ships. Big and decked out with all sorts of weapons and armor, they were, just like these ones.

“Kiria!” The bartender motioned our barmaid to pick up a number of drinks at the bar.

“Well, you folks have a good night. I’m off to the viper’s den again,” she said as she gave us a wink.

“What do you think?” We all bowed our heads close together so as not to be heard.

“Sounds like our scum all right,” Mika said.

“We need to find out for sure first. The last thing we need to be doing is starting a barroom brawl with a bunch of innocent men.”

“Sort of a contradiction of terms, if you ask me,” Mika said to uncomfortable glances from Zagreus and Callius.

“Enough,” Ephiny said. “I’ll work my way to the door, maybe slip Kiria a few talants to let me have a look.”

“Good idea. Zagreus, sneak around the outside of the building,” I began. “I’m betting there’s a back door to this private room and we don’t want our rats shuffling off without notice. Saria, you and Callius casually start rounding up our party. Don’t have them come inside, but surround this building. Mika and I will wait here for Ephiny to return. Does everyone know what they’re supposed to do?”

They nodded and we sent Ephiny off first. After a few loud goodbyes, we sent the other three on their way out of the tavern.

I took a drink of my wine and grimaced at the taste. I hadn’t realized that there were even differences in the quality of such a drink. It made sense that I only had the best since tasting wine for the first time with Xena. “I can’t stomach one more swallow of this stuff.”

“I know what you mean, but it will look odd if you’re not drinking,” Mika said

“Good point. I think I’ll try cider.”

“Let me get you some.”

“I think I can manage to walk to the bar by myself, thank you, Mika Just keep your eyes open in case Ephiny runs into trouble.” I nodded my head in the direction of the back room.

The tavern had started to fill with patrons, so I had to wait until the bartender noticed me. He looked at me twice as though trying to determine my age. I tried to look bored and it must have worked. He placed my cider on the bar before me.

I reached for my drink, but another hand arrived first.

“Well, if it isn’t my favorite little actress. Or should I say, Queen?” he whispered in my ear.

I knew the voice before I even saw his face. I seriously wished I could knock the grin from his face when I did look up. The captain of the mercenary force leered down at me.

“Don’t even think about screaming,” he said. I felt the point of a blade press against my ribs. “Smile like we’re friends.”

I did as he ordered, then I watched him take a long gulp from a mug in his left hand. He stood so close to me that I could smell the liquor on his breath and his unwashed clothes.

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Now, laugh a little to make everything look nice and friendly.”

“Laugh?”

“Yea, like I just said something charming.”

“I don’t think I’m that good of an actress,” I replied. He pressed the knife against my side again. I saw Mika look my way once. She smiled and turned away to watch Ephiny’s progress.

“You better try or I’ll take my chances and gut you right here.”

“Good,” he said after I chuckled politely. “Now, we’re going outside. Just keep smiling and none of your friends ends up dead.”

“And me?” I asked as we walked to the door.

“Maybe we can strike up a deal.”

We moved through the alleys too quickly. It was almost dark and the shadows hid any distinguishing features I might have remembered for later. We were on the docks, I could tell that from the sound of the water beneath us.

“You killed two of my best men,” he said as he roughly shoved me forward. I ran into a pile of boxes and barrels.

Before I could right myself, he was bending over me, pressing his body against mine. I quickly realized the sort of deal he thought we could make and I knew that there would be no one saving me at the last moment. Even with everything I knew, all of the warrior-like skills that Xena, Yu Pan, and the Amazons had taught me, I still felt terrified. I was alone and I let my fear control me. Suddenly, and without any warning, I became that slave girl again.

I froze out of fear, knowing that this man’s size and anger meant that he could have whatever he desired from me, that because he was strong and I was weak, he could command and I would cower. It surprised me how quickly those old feelings came back at me and how ready my brain was to accept them. It was as though I had never grown up, never left slavery, and had only played at being Queen.

Just as quickly as these emotions surfaced, a new thought planted itself in my mind. I was the Queen. No matter what this man could do to me because he was stronger, I would still be Queen. I would still be a strong, smart, woman of integrity and he would remain scum. The mere thought caused me to look back around at him as he fumbled with his trousers.

I believe he saw it in my eyes for he paused when our eyes met. I didn’t exactly see fear in his gaze, but there was certainly something that hadn’t been there before. It looked almost as if it was surprise. His lapse in attention was the only one I was liable to get, and I reached under my dress. I had strapped my chobos to a belt under my gown. I pulled hard on the delicate strip of leather I had used to fasten them; in one fluid motion, my weapons came free in my hand.

The soldier looked down and this time he was indeed surprised. He was a highly trained soldier, but I believe my bold move temporarily stunned him into inaction. Whatever the cause I blessed Athena for the opportunity.

Xena had always told me that the first place to hit a man was between the legs, but she also said that warriors going into battle often wore metal protection there. She had explained the second way to disable a man with extreme pain, and so I followed her instructions to the letter.

While the soldier was trying to hold his pants up with one hand and draw a dagger from his boot with the other hand, I swung hard and with extreme precision. My club smashed into the soldier’s nose and blood actually shot out of the man’s nostrils right after I heard a satisfying crunch.

“You fucking whore!” He screamed, holding on to face with both hands. Xena had said having her nose broke hurt worse than pulling an arrow from her shoulder. She equated the pain with having a white-hot poker shoved up her nostril. I couldn’t imagine it, but this man gave me every indication that Xena’s comparisons were true. Unfortunately, it didn’t completely incapacitate him.

He lunged at me and his sheer size knocked me to the ground. He punched me in the abdomen and I curled up into a ball, gasping for air and feeling I would never be able to take in enough to live.

“Oh, you’re gonna pay for this!” He ripped my gown down the middle and saw that I had my shirt and trousers on underneath. It stopped him for a heartbeat, I’m sure he wasn’t sure what to think. Then out of what must have been anger, he slapped me across the mouth, then again.

“Gabrielle!”

It was more than one voice calling out my name and I opened up my mouth to scream just as his hand clamped down over my mouth. He pulled me to my feet, jerking my body in front of him, his hand still tightly across my mouth. I kicked backward at his shins, but he never even noticed. I elbowed him sharply in the ribs. On the third try, I made my point. He grunted and loosened his hold slightly over my mouth. It was just enough for me to bite down hard on two of his fingers.

I couldn’t understand why he started screaming like a demon or why he dropped to his knees, clutching his hand. I couldn’t understand it until I realized that he was on his knees, two feet away, and I still had his fingers in my mouth. I spat and the digits skittered across the ground. I gagged and spat out the blood in my mouth that wasn’t my own.

I didn’t even have time to be sick over what I’d done. I pulled my arm back and cracked my weapon across his jaw. He fell over on his side, but rose again, clutching at air to get to me. Once he was on his knees, our eyes met for the last time. This time I did see fear as he fully realized what I meant to do.

Drawing back my weapon, I put all my strength into the final blow. It hit him squarely on the temple. He teetered there for a moment until his body crumpled in on itself. His eyes had rolled back into his head and I watched as blood trickled from his ear. He didn’t move again, but I really didn’t expect him to.

“Gabrielle!”

I turned in a fighting stance, nearly ready to take off the head of my next attacker. It wasn’t the enemy, though, but Ephiny.

She looked down at the man and then back at me. I’m not sure whether I saw wonder or admiration in her gaze. She knelt beside him for a moment.

“He’s dead,” she said, rising to stand beside me.

“I know,” I answered. “I never did that before,” I said in a halting tone.

“Kill a man?”

“No. Want a man dead, and then kill him. I didn’t even give him a chance to surrender. I just killed him.”

“Gabrielle,” Ephiny placed a hand on each shoulder. “He was trying to do the same thing to you. There’s nothing to feel guilty over.”

I shook my head to clear away the haze that had formed there. “I guess that’s why I feel so bad.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t feel guilty.”

Ephiny smiled. “Good. You don’t need to. Are you hurt?”

“No,” I answered, looking down and my ripped and blood stained clothes. “It’s not my blood. Not most of it anyway.” I touched my cut lip where he had hit me.

“Come on, we have to go,” she said.

“The rebels?”

“Yep, it was them. Like spearing fish in a barrel. We’re rounding them up right now. Not very good mercenaries. Half of them were drunk.”

“The Corinthian ships? Have they arrived yet?” Suddenly I forgot the dead man lying next to me and concentrated on the next step. I would examine all my feelings and motivations later. Right now, we were in the middle of a battle.

“Already in the harbor. They’re stretched along the coast as you instructed and they haven’t a single lamp lit. If you didn’t know they were there, you’d run right into them.”

“That’s what I’m hoping,” I replied. “And Darius?”

“He’s about a candlemark from shore. They’re running dark, as well.”

“Your Highness, I was sent to tell…” Mika stopped once she saw my face and the condition of my clothes. “Your Highness, forgive me. I failed to keep you safe. You may have my life if you wish.”

“Mika, get up,” I said to the kneeling warrior. “You couldn’t have done anything and don’t be ridiculous. I’m not killing you for any reason. Besides,” a small grin appeared on my face. “I need all the warriors I can get right now.”

“Bless Artemis for choosing you, My Queen.”

We all walked out of the alley and I was surprised at how close I was to the tavern I had exited a short time ago. Cries and shouts suddenly went out from all areas of the town at once.

“What’s going on?” Ephiny grabbed a young man’s arm as he ran past.

“There’s an army marching into the city gates,” he said in a breathless reply.

“Mika, were you going to tell me something before?” I asked.

“Oh yes!” she exclaimed as though just remembering. “The Lord Conqueror has returned,” she replied in a small voice.

End of Gabrielle’s Addendum

****

I watched as another soldier dropped out of the cavalry because of a lame horse. We pushed ahead at a furious pace and I could hear Tenorio puff great breaths. His body beneath me, though, still felt strong. He had a long way to go before he would feel the need for rest.

The cavalry ran nearly two full leagues ahead of the infantry. The men did their best to keep up and I couldn’t help but be impressed at their spirit. The officers drove them hard. I believe that my own sense of urgency had spread to the men around me.

“We’re still running ahead of them,” Atrius called out as his horse charged alongside mine.

I had to admit surprise at pulling ahead of the Persian fleet. I suppose the confusion that reigned as they pulled from shore helped to scatter the one hundred or so ships left. It was a rough guess, but we had destroyed nearly half Darius’s ships thanks to Yu Pan and his black powder missiles.

“Solan?” I spared a split moment for thought of my son.

“At the back of the cavalry,” Atrius panted. Perhaps he wanted to say more, but now certainly wasn’t the time.

We sped along the road, the horses’ hooves making a sound like thunder on the clay-packed road. The noise surrounded us, making it easy to focus my attention on only one thing; reaching the harbor in Athens before Darius. I imagined what the Red Slayer would do to Gabrielle, my friends, and family if he were able to land in Greece. Perhaps the violent images and that subsequent anger directed at the Persians began my descent into the darkness.

“We’re almost there!” Atrius shouted from beside me.

Looking at my friend and captain, I supposed that I looked as filthy and worn as he. I heard Atrius’s voice, but it was soft, sounding faint and far away. There was nothing that could be heard over the horses’ hooves, until I realized that it was the rush of blood inside my head keeping time with my rapidly beating pulse. The sound was anger. It felt like a fury so intense that there was nothing else. Nothing else existed for me but this rising ball of infuriating fire in my belly, swirling, capturing me and attempting to control me, control my thoughts, my will. I wanted the power back, I never gave it up willingly, but this time I needed it back, fearing what I would do inside the city if the beast had free reign. Who would be the first innocent person to touch me and lose their life to the beast?

I felt it happening, but I was helpless to stop it. The beast within began to pace back and forth, looking for an avenue of escape. Nothing I could do, no mind-altering technique of which I knew could stop my transformation. The beast wanted out and I could feel it as though it was clawing at the inside of my skin, attempting to split me in two and crawl out.

The transformation happened much like the last time, so very different from the past. I could feel myself losing the battle, but the beast didn’t take all of me. Xena could think, react, speak, but not control. That belonged to the beast alone and it felt the distinct possibility that there would soon be blood to shed. My greatest fear, however, was that the beast never knew the difference between the lives it could take and the lives it should take. Meaning, it knew not from friend or foe. All were equal to its lustful desires.

“Slow the infantry down,” I shouted to him once I saw the city gates. If the men were half dead from exhaustion, they would do us no good.

We pulled the cavalry into tight lines as we moved through the city streets, toward the harbor. Atrius and his ram’s horn scattered the people from the streets. Tenorio practically shivered, feeling that we must be near our goal. The lights along the harbor were dim and that surprised me. Places that usually were bustling with nighttime activity were suspiciously silent.

I saw Amazons in the street before me and pulled Tenorio up sharply, the remaining cavalry following my actions. I must have looked a fright, coming from the battle as I did, but the sight of Ephiny and her sisters dressed as for a coronation looked nothing short of comical.

She stepped from the group, and I thought that I had never seen anything look quite as wonderful before in my entire life. The sight of Gabrielle nearly backed the beast into hiding. I could feel it as though light had spilled into my soul, illuminating the darkness that usually resided there. Then Gabrielle stepped from the shadows and the meager light around us lit up her features. Just like that, the beast laughed at my attempt to rein it in.

Gabrielle sported a bruised cheek and the same looked as though it was forming on her chin. A cut on her lip still oozed blood and the red fluid stained the front of her torn clothes. As quickly and silently as a puff of exhaled smoke, the beast was there.

“Xena!” Gabrielle rushed toward me and I fought for enough control to take a step away from her.

“Xena?” I heard her say again, but this time it was a question. How could I tell her I didn’t know precisely where Xena was and when she would return?

“Gabrielle, take care,” I heard Atrius say from beside me.

“I see it in her eyes,” Gabrielle calmly replied.

I was so proud of her and I wanted to tell her so, but I was afraid of what would come out if I opened my mouth. She had no fear of the beast, she’d proven that in the past, but I wanted to tell her, scream at her, that she should be afraid. Xena stood here before her, but it was my darkness that controlled my actions.

“Xena?” She called my name and it felt soft.

I could feel my fingers clench tightly and then relax, repeating the action again and again. I was aware of so much more when the beast took control. Its animal skills and instincts made me privy to so much more than my physical self could sense. The scent of blood, alcohol, and salt hung thick in the air. I watched as Ephiny’s hand closed over the hilt of her sword. Good, I thought. She will protect her Queen. I heard Gabrielle’s heartbeat race faster as she drew nearer to me. Her breathing increased and I smelled the fear that she valiantly disregarded.

Again, there was the softness of Gabrielle calling my name, a peaceful soothing sound like rain falling lightly against the roof of a tent. Before the beast or I could stop her, Gabrielle reached out and struck me across my jaw. It wasn’t a slap, but a solid, closed fist punch.

“Are you insane?” I heard Atrius call out as he, too, grasped his weapon.

This time we both knew it was coming. Gabrielle drew back and hit me again. The darkness rose up, wanting to sweep the obstacle away, but there was a tiny piece of me, deep inside, that could not lash out at the source of the beating.

“Please, Xena! I know that you can do this. You’ve done it before. Come back to me.”

I heard a growl rumble deep within my chest. In the past, I would have wondered why I was suddenly loath to shrug the hindrance off, to strike out myself. There was the problem before me. To the beast, it would be nothing more than swatting a mosquito away.

“Xena!”

I felt a sharp slap across my cheek. Once more, the stinging vibration across my jaw and I sensed the beast preparing to lunge at its quarry.

Run, Gabrielle! I screamed inside my mind. I tried to verbalize the cry, but all I could manage was a low growl. I shook my head and the beast laughed at my attempts to take back some of what belonged to me. I wanted to run, scream, cry, anything to warn Gabrielle what was coming, but I could do no more than stand there and watch, with amazing clarity, as the beast took action.

Quick, too quick for any of the others to stop, my arm drew back and hurtled toward Gabrielle with all the strength inside of me. The force of it would break her jaw, if not kill her. I felt real tears run down my face at my inability to stop the force of the beast.

In mid swing, my arm stopped. The beast howled inside my brain and I nearly passed out from the sound. The deafening cries of pain and frustration echoed in my head, but my hand remained poised in the air between Gabrielle and I. The limb shook as though convulsing. The beast could move no further, nor could I pull my hand back. Whatever force kept me from striking Gabrielle surely kept me alive. I watched as those around us drew their weapons in order to stop my maniacal behavior. Only a few of those people understood what was even happening between Gabrielle and I.

After one final cry of anguish from the beast, I felt the control of my body return to me in a savage fashion. It was as though a massive windstorm swept through my psyche, blowing the beast apart into a thousand particles. The explosion started in my heart and spread outward to the tips of my fingers and toes. My body jerked once and the beast’s possession was over…this time.

“Xena?” Gabrielle called out again, taking me by the hand this time and stroking my skin.

“Gabrielle?” My own voice sounded strange to my ears.

It was almost as if Gabrielle was using her touch to call to me. It was a language that only my heart could hear and I felt myself respond. In her face, I saw none of the harshness or fear that I always anticipated after the beast’s control, no judgmental glare. I was genuinely surprised that I should find myself looking down upon a face, fairly overflowing with love.

Gabrielle leapt into my arms and life was immediately better. The rest of the world, the battle, the people around us, they were all suspended for the quick moments Gabrielle and I took for ourselves.

“You’ve got a wicked right cross,” I whispered in her ear.

“I hated doing that,” she replied tearfully.

“Thank you for it.”

With the Empire watching, that was the closest we came to declarations of love and adoration for one another. I knew I needed to let my wife go, to continue the battle, and tell Gabrielle what to prepare for, but as I held her close to me and glanced over her shoulder, I could only think one thing.

“Ephiny, what in Hades name are you wearing?” I asked.

****

“Don’t ask,” Ephiny replied. She pulled at the gown, which had fallen off one shoulder.

“Why do I have a feeling you had something to do with the way they’re dressed?” I asked my wife.

She smiled then and it was a most wonderful sight, that smile filled with affection, sunlight, and a bit of mischievousness. Before Gabrielle had a chance to explain, Torava, one of Gabrielle’s Corinthian Guard, rushed up to us.

“Conqueror,” she acknowledge me by placing her right fist upon her heart. She bowed to Gabrielle. “My Queen, the fleet approaches Barrasis Reef.”

“Well done,” Gabrielle answered and I was completely lost.

“Gabrielle, Darius–” I started.

“I know. There’s a lot to tell you but we haven’t the time right now. We need to get to the Watch Tower.”

“The Watch Tower?” I asked. The parapet overlooked the harbor and hadn’t been used in seasons. It held a massive array of catapults as a first defense against invaders. “Gabrielle, we need to make preparations–”

“I have. Trust me?” Gabrielle asked.

How could I do less? I took the hand she offered and we followed Gabrielle and the Amazons up into the two-story stone tower.

Torava looked out toward the blackness of the open sea with some sort of a long-range spyglass. “They’ve stopped there. It seems as if they don’t know what to make of the darkened harbor.”

“Neither do I,” I replied. “Gabrielle–”

Gabrielle held up a hand to me and placed it on my chest. “If this works, you’ll understand immediately.”

She nodded to Ephiny and a line of Amazon archers let fly a dozen flaming arrows. The shafts arced high into the dark sky, leaving an orange and yellow trail until they hissed loudly as they hit the water.

With no more forewarning than that, the entire harbor lit up as though the sun was high in the sky. All along the docks, soldiers and citizens stood together holding torches. Just as quickly, torches burst into flames out on the water. I found myself looking along the coastline as the blaze illuminated hundreds of Corinthian warships lying in wait between the Persians and Athens.

I only wish I could have seen Darius’s face. If his expression held any of the surprise and awe that mine did, the battle had all been worth it. I had no idea how Gabrielle had accomplished it all, but it certainly shouldn’t have surprised me. It shouldn’t have, but it did.

“They’re still thinking about it,” Torava reported after looking through her spyglass.

“I can’t believe he’s thinking about it. Do we send them some more incentive?” Gabrielle asked.

I laid a hand on her shoulder, feeling it was my time to step in. “Let’s not force his hand. You’ve played him well this far into the game. He may be a fanatical warrior, but he’s not a fool.”

“Their sails are going up!” Torava cried.

Cheers went up around us. By the time the Athenians and soldiers along the docks heard the news, the Persians were under full sail away from Athens.

I turned to Atrius. “Have a portion of the fleet follow them past the reefs, just to make sure they’re headed home.”

“Aye, Conqueror.”

Just like that, the battle ended.
Chapter 16: The First Day’s Night Had Come…
I sit at my desk and write by candlelight, copper-colored shadows jumping at one another on the walls of my study. It feels strange to sit and write in unfamiliar surroundings. Although this is our home, here in Athens, it is not Corinth. It is not truly home. Funny, I never really thought of our castle by the sea as home before. Rather, before Gabrielle.
How odd that I cannot sleep when my body feels more tired than it has in seasons. Gabrielle and I took advantage of having the luxury of the large marble baths in our own home. I had bruises and cuts over most of my body and Gabrielle’s beautiful body had not fared much better. Seeing her battered in such a way struck at my heart like a needle piercing my chest. She was not a warrior and had not deserved to be placed in that position. She would cuff me for that remark, I’m sure. Gabrielle has become so much more than even she is able to see. She will always stand up for her right to be my equal partner and I will continually do all that is within my power to see that she is kept safe. We are both aware of the other’s feelings and would have it no other way.

Gabrielle and I had talked until the candles burned down to shallow bowls of melted wax, each of us feeling that the events of the past few days couldn’t wait. It came as no surprise that she was mildly peeved at my having so many protections in place for her. Between myself and the parchment I write upon, I think she was merely unnerved with the fact that I knew she would do exactly as she had.

Gabrielle’s hand slapped into my midsection hard enough to elicit a soft grunt.

“I can’t believe you had nearly the entire Amazon Nation spying on me!”

I tried to get out of the situation with charm, realizing too late that I had never really mastered the art of subtlety. “Only because you mean more to me than life itself, little one.” Gods, would she think that as trite as it did to my own ears?

She looked at me full on. For a quick heartbeat I thought she was going to accept my remark, especially when I added what I thought was an equally charming and soulful look. I waited, still hopeful.

“You didn’t really think that line was going to work, did you?”

“No, not really,” I answered. “I lost you with the ‘more than life itself’ part, didn’t I?”

“I think so,” she responded quickly.

We laughed and fell into an embrace that meant more to me than winning any battle.

“Are you really angry?” I asked.

“I feel as though some small part of me should at least be indignant, but mostly I feel loved and protected.”

“I think you should go with that part.” I grinned.

“I’ll just bet you do.”

It is nearly dawn, and I have spent my time at this desk writing an account of the battle. Gabrielle…that girl. Just before sleep took her this evening, she said, in a most excited voice, that Periander would insist on an account of the battle for the Athenian archives.

Many of my soldiers would not sleep until the following day. Perhaps that is what has been niggling at my brain, causing my sleeplessness. The fleet would stay on alert, many of the ships trailing some distance from the Persians to ensure that Darius was truly headed home. For all the men and women who had joined the wild ride and marched back to Athens with me, I ordered the taverns and the baths open at the Empire’s expense. The town would be alive on such a night after the battle, anyway, and these soldiers deserved what little enjoyment I could provide them. Even from our home, high atop the hills outside of the city proper, I could hear cheers with my name attached to them, flying in upon the breeze.

I may have led our troops to battle, but most of Athens would never know that it was Gabrielle who kept them from war. I plan to ask Livia, Periander, and Ephiny to scribe their accounts of what went on in my absence. First, there are spaces where Gabrielle was injured or unavailable. Secondly, I wanted to be sure that an account of Gabrielle’s exploits to save Athens went into the official record. I wanted it there for all to see that she had truly become Queen to the Empire, as jealous and protective of her people and country as I.

I also studied the scrolls that Atrius and Militiades provided of battle statistics. Messengers sent the scroll to me after the moon had risen high in the sky. I wondered if my two officers even went home to their wives before filling out the report. When the fighting was finished, 9600 Persians lay dead on the plain of Marathon. Unbelievably, only 192 Greek soldiers died in the encounter. Against amazing odds, we defeated an army twice our size. Incredibly brave men and women all had followed me into battle and still the Empire remained intact.

The dead would be honored in a ceremony the very next day. I made a decision, sitting there reading the numbers of the battle. Greek tradition dictated that any who fell in battle had their bones interred in the public sepulcher. The crypt stood in a suburb of Athens called Cerameicus.

I wished to honor these brave men and women in some special way. They fought for their land against an army of much greater size. They followed me, some to their death, because they believed in the Empire and they believed in me. I spent some time sketching some rather crude drawings of what I had in mind. I was no artist, but I knew that the artisans employed by the Empire could make something out of it. My idea had been to erect ten columns out on the Plain of Marathon, one for each of the tribes that fought. The names of the slain would then be carved into the columns.

“Xena?” Gabrielle’s sleepy voice startled me. I never even heard her enter the room.

“Sorry, little one, I was lost to my thoughts.”

“I can see that.”

She walked stiffly to where I sat and curled up in my lap.

“This makes writing a tad difficult,” I said, not really minding at all.

“Good. You should be sleeping, not working.”

“Yes, mother. How about you, does your back hurt, you’re walking funny.”

“My hip, actually. I think the muscle’s just sore or tight. It’ll loosen itself out once I’m up in the morning.”

“Here, move this way.” I slowly massaged the area. “I hate to break this to you, love, but it’s already morning.”

“Oh, no you don’t. Today, it’s not morning until I say so. There ought to be some benefit to being Queen. I’m sore in places I didn’t know I could be sore.”

I chuckled at her behavior, especially since she had begun to purr like a kitten from the massage she was receiving.

“Mmmm, magic fingers,” she murmured.

My desire for this woman rose up unexpectedly. It felt most welcome and even though I knew they neither of us had the stamina at this point for a lovemaking session, I couldn’t help but go for the attempt.

“Let’s go back to bed,” I said as I stood and gathered Gabrielle in my arms. “Let me show you precisely what these magic fingers can do.”

****

I was sure that we were both so bruised and fatigued from the past few days that once I laid Gabrielle gently on her feet inside our bedchamber, we would go to bed and merely hold one another for what was left of the rest of the night. Early on in our relationship, Gabrielle had introduced me to the pleasure of cuddling. From the first, I knew I would enjoy it. The physical contact without sex was indeed new to me, but I admitted, if only to myself, that there was something to it. I never told a soul, not even Gabrielle, that the very day after my first evening’s cuddling experience I walked into Aphrodite’s temple and left her an armful of the finest roses from my private garden.

Now who would have thought that nothing more than the sweet scent of her breath so close to me would send me into such a tailspin? The whole world narrowed until there was only this woman before me. Nothing else in life existed for me. The ache between my legs, the one that normally hit me immediately after an intense battle, struck me with a delayed sort of vengeance. I leaned down and kissed my wife in a way that she could not possibly mistake for anything other than what it was. It was my, I need you and I need you now kiss.

Gabrielle pulled back and those beautiful emerald eyes sparkled up at me. There was something different in her gaze, something that stoked the flames of my passion further and yet, unsettled me at the same time. It took a heartbeat for me to realize that the expression in my wife’s eye was actually a reflection. It was the same libidinous fire that burned hotly from my own look of need.

Gabrielle’s eyes held the passionate haze of the battlefield. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t fought at Marathon. She had faced, and been victorious over, Hades in more subtle ways over the last few days. I doubted whether she was even aware of what it was that now held its sway over her, but I knew. I felt it myself, but had a great deal more experience in expressing and even stifling the need. Battle lust came as an after effect from the struggle with life and death. In the past, when I had been victorious, the battle lust gave me powerful feelings and sensations that I could, indeed must, conquer anyone and everyone, to celebrate every physical aspect of being alive. The closer I had come to death, the more intense the emotions were. This was battle lust; only I had never seen it directed at me from another’s eyes before. I saw it, but damned if it didn’t make me want her even more.

“Yes…I want you, too,” she responded softly to my unspoken thought.

I couldn’t hold back any longer and I pulled her into my arms and slammed the door shut behind us, dropping the latch. Something about why I shouldn’t make love to Gabrielle came to me, but suddenly I couldn’t remember why. It became very hard to remember anything when my skilled lover had her tongue in my mouth and her hand pressed between my legs. I had my back up against the door as I prepared to be taken by my feral young Queen while I was still standing. This wasn’t how it usually went at all, was it? In fact, I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d taken a woman in the throes of a good case of battle lust. Good Gods, the things we think about when being pleasured.

“Oh Gods,” I groaned.

My head slammed against the heavy wooden door as I groaned in a mixture of pleasure and relief. The pounding ache at my center had turned into a fiery need and Gabrielle’s fingers were taking the edge off it quite nicely. Gabrielle never stopped the motion of her hand and the slow fuck brought me quickly to, first one and then another climax. By the time I reached the third, my knees felt like melting wax.

I usually ended up leading the way when feeling the power of battle lust. It was, after all, about control and power. Suddenly, though, it was as if my psyche lay between my legs and some other highly sensitized parts of my body. Perhaps that was why, when Gabrielle slid to her knees between my legs, I not only didn’t stop her, I encouraged her. There was no pretense, no teasing arousal. Gabrielle was a smart woman and I’m sure she could see that my need went far beyond foreplay at this very moment. On the other side of that coin was that she was going through her own fitful need. The thought of Gabrielle struggling against something she didn’t know or understand gave me pause.

I managed to remember why I was so damned voracious. “Gabrielle…love…I think we might…maybe both of us…be suffering from a bit of battle lust,” I managed to say between pants. “Understand? I mean, what it is…what it could be doing to you? I’d…I’d hate to think we were just–”

She moved closer to me, watching her own fingers as they played in my wetness. I admit, I was rather mesmerized by the sight myself.

“Does this battle lust suddenly make me feel like taking you, again and again, until you can’t walk? Wanting to hear you scream my name until you have no voice left? Is it why I suddenly feel like doing things to you instead of with you?”

My whole body began to tremble in my attempt to push down the sensations that swept through it at her words. The effort at controlling my desires won until Gabrielle placed a gentle hand on my thigh. With a quickness that I had grown to envy, she jabbed at that perfect spot between labia and leg. My clit was on fire and I nearly fell to the floor. I believe the only thing that kept me upright was my pride. I just nodded in answer to her query.

“And, would there be anything wrong with it if we continued?”

Gabrielle leaned her forehead against my abdomen and breathed in the powerfully arousing scent. She looked as though nothing would have pleased her battle-clouded libido more than ravishing me right there, but she held back, waiting for an answer.

“Warriors all overcome the battle lust with different methods.” I was only able to slow down my breathing slightly, my words coming in short sentences. “For me it was always about sex. I wielded it as power. They grew tangled as one. I just…I just don’t want either of us to get hurt. We might…well, might forget ourselves.”

There, I’d said it. My entire being focused on my clit, but I gave Gabrielle the chance to stay or run with full knowledge of what could happen.

Gabrielle quickly lifted her head and leaned back on her heels. Just as quickly as it had come, the haze that clouded her eyes vanished. She was my wife once again, looking up at me as if she was merely asking me about the weather.

“Do you think that, Xena? That we could hurt each other, unconsciously in the grip of this?”

Had I ever thought that Gabrielle would hurt me? I admit, when she had me tied up, my own anxiety revealed my answer. Even worse, under the pull of the battle lust, either one of us might not be completely cognizant of who we were. Could I look into those emerald eyes, glazed over with carnality, and not express that fear?

The most important realization to date took shape in my brain. Gabrielle alone had the power to pull me back into myself, whether it was from my darkness or my own carnal desires. Our love had become the ideal weapon to sedate the beast, the beast in either of us. No, Gabrielle would never, could never, hurt me…even unconsciously.

“No,” I shook my head as I spoke. “I don’t think that would be possible, even lost to the battle lust.” My answer changed my wife’s demeanor in an instant.

“So then…” She smiled a most deliciously carnal smile. “You know that I would never hurt you…beyond what you like, that is.”

I saw that lovely pink tongue spear out of her mouth and I could no longer think of taking, only being taken. I groaned and wrapped a hand into those golden locks. Pulling her head in the rest of the way, I situated her right where I needed her the most. The feeling, even the sound of her licking at my sex was extraordinary. I felt instant relief from the pounding ache that had been consuming me and within moments, I came.

Of course, just because I was finished rather quickly didn’t mean my Queen intended to finish with me. Gabrielle continued to take in the abundant wetness between my thighs and I could no more have stopped her than I could have kept the night from descending. Legs and arms shaking, I finally had to beg to lie down.

I picked Gabrielle off the floor and placed her on the bed, covering her body with my own. I kissed the lips that had my own taste on them, and that started the fire burning all over again. I had always been amazed at how the battle lust seemed to make me insatiable.

“Tell me, my Queen, how would you like to be taken? Hard and fast? On the other hand, maybe you’d like it slow and torturous, tied down and at my mercy, my tongue teasing you until you beg me for release.”

“Ohhh,” Gabrielle groaned helplessly. Gone was her need to control. Her libido had taken over.

No part of my beautiful wife’s body went untouched by my hands, my lips, and tongue. By the time I situated my shoulders between her legs, the silky undergarment she wore was soaked. I used the tip of my tongue to caress her all along the edges of the drenched garment and she shivered and pressed her hips toward my face.

Without further delay, I wrapped two fingers around the thin garment. With one strong tug, the material was in my hand and I tossed it to the floor. The scent that had previously been contained was now released and the fragrance of my wife’s need just about undid me. I buried my face in that wetness, and ate and drank as if it was ambrosia and I a dying woman.

My hand found its way to my own center and I touched myself, circling and sliding my fingers across my own need in time to the rhythmic way Gabrielle’s hips pushed against my tongue. When she sped up the movement of those thrusting hips, I increased the movement of my own fingers. Gabrielle’s cry at her release was like music to my ears as I let myself go simultaneously.

I moved up to hold the still quivering woman of my heart. Gabrielle wrapped her legs around me tightly, which only served to press my mound against her own smoothly shaved flesh. That’s all the encouragement I needed. I began a slow, sensual grind against already sensitive flesh.

“Oh Gods, yes,” she murmured.

I smiled and kissed her again, our tongues only reminding us of the soft, wet flesh that pressed together further south. Gabrielle spread her thighs farther apart and I reached my hand down between us. Spreading my lips apart, I pressed into her again and we both immediately groaned at the feel of the silky wet folds.

“Don’t stop,” I pleaded, as my wife lifted and rocked her hips in counter rhythm to my own.

When we sped up our movement it happened as if we were one, both our minds linked much the same way as our flesh. I could feel her increasing wetness and I wrapped my lips around a very erect nipple, sucking harder when I felt the centers of our desire rubbing against one another.

We both climaxed in what seemed like a blinding flash. I lifted myself up onto my hands and pressed myself into Gabrielle firmly until I could feel her convulse against me as she came again. I groaned loudly at the feel of her trembling body and felt a warm rush of liquid flow from me at another release. I could feel my essence overflow onto Gabrielle, only to be swallowed up by her open sex.

I eased my body down and kissed Gabrielle’s cheek. She wrapped her arms around me and we rearranged ourselves to snuggle against one another. I held her tight and closed my eyes, sighing deeply. It was a sound of contentment. Our session of battle lust had turned into nothing more than powerful lovemaking. The need to have absolute control, to even inflict pain, had disappeared. That surprised me more than anything else did, I suppose. I never knew that I could enjoy, actually desire, to be on the receiving end of this spell.

I realized that I had kept it hidden inside of me for so long. I had never been free before to even think the concept inside of my own head. Frankly, I had feared thinking of it. Now, there was Gabrielle and I knew that I would be safe. For the first time in my life, I felt free to experience the other side of power. How strange to learn, that after all these years, the Conqueror wanted nothing more than to be conquered.

I lifted her chin and kissed her, knowing that it would never be enough. One lifetime would simply never be enough in which to love this woman. I wanted to tell her so, tell her that I would stand by her for all eternity, and suffer any harm or ill for her. I would go anywhere; do anything, be anyone, just to be with her. All of this I wished I could say, but as usual, when she looked up at me with those sparkling emerald eyes, my tongue felt leaden and uncooperative. I said the only thing that really mattered anyway.

“I love you, Gabrielle.”

“And I you, my Conqueror.”

I smiled at the inconsistency of my title now, but Gabrielle would be the only one to ever know of that and I knew she would die before relating to anyone the activities that took place behind our bedchamber door.

Suddenly Gabrielle sat up, her body language telling me that our lovemaking had invigorated her rather than the opposite. “I’m hungry,” she said.

I laughed until she smacked me in the stomach.

“Why are you laughing?” She asked as she feigned a pout.

“Because, my love. You are nothing if not predictable.”

“Very funny.”

“I’m feeling a bit famished myself.”

“Where are you going?” She asked as I pulled on my dressing gown.

“I think that breakfast in bed is due us. I’ll only be a moment.”

It didn’t take long to send word and have platters of fresh food sent from the kitchens. Gabrielle and I sat on a bed of cushions and pillows inside our bedchamber. We worked our way through two platters before we were completely sated. We spoke of many of the details from the past few days that we had either forgotten about or thought to put off until later.

“Some help Pan was,” I said as we lounged upon our makeshift bed if cushions.

“What do you mean? He did everything he promised.”

“Everything he promised? He didn’t do a thing but flirt with you!”

“On the contrary, love. I see his handiwork all over the tale you told me about the battle.”

“Okay, you’re going to have to explain that thinking.”

“Xena, you yourself told me that you didn’t understand why the Persians broke ranks and became confused.”

“That was at the end and I think it was because Darius had his fleet pull out, leaving half his soldiers there.

They saw that and they panicked. I still think that was what caused the pandemonium at the end.”

“Xena, you admit the God’s intervention by your very words.” Gabrielle laughed at me and I honestly couldn’t understand why.

“Are we looking at the same battle? I don’t remember saying–”

“You said that the Persians panicked, that pandemonium broke out…” Gabrielle looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to catch her meaning.

“And you think–? Oh, no. Just because those words merely happen to start–no, Gabrielle, I don’t believe it. Not until Pan himself tells me that yes, he did it; I will never believe something so outlandish.”

Gabrielle simply laughed and I pouted. Not a flattering look on a Conqueror. It would take a lot more than a play of words to convince me, however, that Pan had indeed caused that moment of confusion that turned the battle in our favor.

****
Gabrielle and I sat at the head of a long table inside the large hall we had chosen to use to hold court. Advisors from within the city, those we knew and trusted, surrounded us around the table. It had turned into more of a judgment and sentencing arena. The hall resided within the same building as the city’s archives, customarily used by the academic sector more than the political. Tall, slim alabaster columns formed the perimeter of the room. The roof of the building sloped upward to form a dome as opposed to the more common flat roofs. Beautiful and amazing Greek sculptures adorned the entire upper balcony

Four days had passed as we tried to make some sense of who did what and how we had ended up defending our shores against an attack that should never had been allowed to happen. Many were quick to point a finger in blame, but I needed more than that. Atrius and I, along with Militiades and a number of the Generals of the city, met over the course of two or three evenings to set some concrete military strategies in place.

I found myself in the uncomfortable position today of having to sentence those people who had conspired against the Empire in our most recent attempted rebellion. The easiest cases had been the mercenaries, the ones that the Amazons had left alive at any rate. Nearly all were soldiers for hire with no ties to Persia, other than a monetary bond. Some had records and magistrates around the Empire already sought them for a variety of crimes. For them it was to be prison. Many were quite surprised at my offer to join the Corinthian Army. They weren’t all bad sorts and I judged them individually. They usually gave in to criminal activity because they were warriors with nowhere to go. When there were no wars to fight, they had no livelihood. Realizing that some of them went rogue because of past troubles following military authority, I chose Corinth to station them. We were slightly less stiff there and I knew that Atrius and his officers could turn any roughneck into a disciplined fighting man.

“I only know that my husband is dead and the Empire is responsible!” Lenora’s voice carried throughout the hall.

“Your husband was killed in the act of attempting to take the Queen’s life,” I answered.

“I wasn’t even there. I don’t know why should be held accountable for crimes my husband committed.”

We bowed our heads close together around the table.

“She makes a point,” Daelus said. “Do we actually have any proof at all that Cleisthenes’s wife was indeed a part of the conspiracy?”

“We’re rather lacking of actual evidence,” I added.

“But she lied about being from Persia!” Gabrielle complained.

“Yes,” Tarien agreed. “The records show that Persia is indeed her birthplace, but so far no crime can be associated with that.”

“He’s right, Gabrielle. It’s not a crime to be from Persia.” I said.

“But, she–”

“We all know what she did, but the trouble is that without Cleisthenes here or even Lenora’s confession, which doesn’t seem as though it will be quick in coming, we have no solid proof that she was involved.”

“I can’t believe she’s going to get away with this.”

“What choice do I have? I can’t very well throw an affluent woman of Athens into the dungeons. I mean, I suppose I could, but it wouldn’t go over well. Is that what you want, Gabrielle…to see her in prison?” I asked.

It seemed important to Gabrielle, more so than the others sitting around the table, that Lenora pay for her part. I agreed with my wife, but I knew that this was one of those situations where we might have to acknowledge a game well played and let our adversary walk away. Gabrielle had such a sense of fair play about her that she hadn’t yet realized that our enemies don’t always receive what’s coming to them. Then again, Gabrielle’s desire for justice may have had something to with Lenora being Persian. I couldn’t tell.

Gabrielle’s face took on a strange expression after I asked her if she would prefer to see Lenora in prison. “I saw her,” Gabrielle spoke as if thinking aloud. “I saw her with them.” There was a faraway sound to her voice.

“Your Highness?” Tarien asked, looking at me.

“Gabrielle?” I laid a hand upon her forearm. I smiled when her eyes met mine. “I think you’re scaring our advisors.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” She looked around the table in embarrassment. “In answer to your question, My Lord, no, I don’t want to see her in prison. What she did was unforgivable, but I was just remembering that I saw her with her children before all of this muddle began.”

I watched Gabrielle’s face and understood her sudden emotional musing. The largest part of Gabrielle’s heart would always be reserved for children and this instance was no exception.

“She may be a traitor, a schemer, even a contemptible bitch, but from what I have seen, she is a good mother. Any goodness within her she reserves for her children and I hate to think of what they might endure should Lenora languish in a Greek jail.”

The truth of Gabrielle’s observation settled over the group and silence reigned. They knew that no matter what they recommended, no matter what observations they made, judgment and sentence of the accused was by my order. I had the feeling they were grateful for that fact.

“Bring the accused forward once again,” I asked the guards.

“No matter that I have no eye witnesses as to your guilt, Lenora, please don’t insult my intelligence by pleading your innocence. We’re past that point.” My voice was stern and Lenora’s sudden silence told me that she had given up pretending to be blameless.

“But because you have a family I’m loathe to press the full punishment for your crime upon you.”

Lenora looked me directly in the eye, a smirk evident on her face. I’m sure she thought she’d won.

“So, I’m caught in the middle of a major decision. I cannot send you to prison, yet I cannot possibly allow you to stay here in Greece.”

“Wha–?” Lenora stood there with her mouth hanging open.

“For your own safety, of course.”

“But…where am I to go?”

“I understand that you still have family in Persia. The Empire will offer you safe escort either to Persian shores or to your uncle’s lands in the upper provinces of Thrace, near the Persian border. Under no circumstance, however,” my voice turned as cold as I now felt, “will you ever return to this region of Greece.”

Lenora turned one last evil glance Gabrielle’s way before she spun around on one heel and left between the two guards who I had appointed to watch Lenora’s activities until she was safely out of our realm.

“How was that?” I asked Gabrielle.

“You are as shrewd as you are prudent, My Conqueror.”

I sat back in my chair quite proud of myself. The feeling had little to do with the solution I had devised for ridding us of Lenora. I sat back with a bit of an inflated sense of self due to one thing only. Gabrielle’s praise.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” I addressed all those finally remaining in the hall after the ugliness of our work had been completed. “We take our leave now, but hope to see many of you tomorrow at the victory celebration.”

The Empire was picking up the expense for a lavish dinner and party for family and friends in celebration of our victory over the Persians. We would also address the entire city in a ceremony to honor those slain in the battle at Marathon. It would be another long day for us and then Gabrielle and I, along with our party, would once again be on our way north. I had nearly forgotten the reason for our trip in the first place. I hadn’t yet had time to examine any of my feelings about returning home. The remainder of our trip would prove interesting indeed.

****
“Your method of timekeeping is less than impressive, commander,” I said to the Spartan leader before me.

“Our apologies fall short, Lord Conqueror, I am aware. We had to restrain many of our men with some force to keep them away from the battle. Our celebrations to Pan mean more than people are aware and we would have been faced with certain death and calamity if we’d fallen short in our respect of the God.”

“I acknowledge your reason for missing the battle, Komotor, and while I don’t understand it, I can respect it. Please accept my gratitude for the incredible march that you must have endured in order to reach here in such time. Let me also extend an invitation to your men to join in the celebration of our victory over the Persians.”

The fact that two thousand Spartan spearmen had traveled 150 leagues over three days in order to make the trip here, was not lost on me. The Spartans would always be among my first choice for soldiers when the conditions were of the sort that ordinary men could not endure. Pious and a bit extreme in their ways, they lived a life from birth that turned the men into extraordinary soldiers.

“Our thanks, Lord Conqueror, but our men cannot take part in a celebration for which they did not contribute. I hope I have not offended you with these words.”

He bowed to Gabrielle and I could see that her considerable charms had affected yet one more young soldier. I was more than surprised considering Spartan men were usually no more affected by women than Amazon’s were by Centaurs. I was soon to learn that his infatuation was actually awe.

“Your Highness,” he addressed Gabrielle. “May I ask if you were the young woman who spoke to Pan on a road outside of Athens?”

“You may, and I am,” she answered.

“The Lead Priest of our city bid me give this to you, if you did indeed exist. He said that Pan described you to him and I cannot think of another woman in Athens who resembles you.” An odd comment to make, but Spartans had never been known for their charm. It was probably the best he could do.

The Commander pulled a wrapped package from a cloth sack tied at his waist. With attention to his actions, he opened the parcel and removed an ivory flute from within the folds of fabric. Carved with delicate rose blossoms along its length it was exquisite.

“Thank you,” she said. “It’s beautiful, but I’m not sure I understand.”

“There is a scroll, too,” he added, placing the item in Gabrielle’s hand.

She looked at me and I merely raised an eyebrow in wonder.

She moved closer and opened the scroll, encouraging me to read over her shoulder.

Dearest Queen Gabrielle,

I found you to be a most charming and intelligent young woman. Artemis chose well, of that, even a blind man could see. I wish you to accept this gift and hope that you learn to make beautiful music with it. Someone as lovely as you should have no trouble creating beauty. Now you can take it with you wherever you go.

Oh, and one final note for the Conqueror…

Yes, Xena, I did it.

The God Pan, keeper of nature and wildlife

“Nobody likes a smart-aleck God,” I said between clenched teeth.
Chapter 17: Dark House By Which Once More I Stand…
Goodbyes are always difficult, even more so when friendships and acquaintances have been made. The moment had arrived for us to take our leave of Athens. We spent the last fortnight tying up the many loose ends that a battle can bring. Darius was uppermost on my mind. If he had the balls to attack the Empire at our strong point, he certainly wouldn’t think twice about invading surrounding lands and allies. I commissioned a set of emissaries to travel across our own provinces and surrounding lands. They set out immediately, each with a scroll sealed with my crest. The scrolls contained nothing more than the facts of the unprovoked attack by Persia against the Greek Empire. We were strong, and I ruled two-thirds of the known world. I felt assured that not many independent lands would risk alienating the Empire by giving Darius sanctuary or providing an army to him.

I also put new laws in place, witnessed petitions from people who would not have had the means to travel to Corinth, and appropriated monies for a variety of projects. We also decided to enjoy ourselves. Gabrielle seemed more at home in her role as Queen and delighted in entertaining in our own home. The knowledge of who our true friends now were helped the situation. We all felt much more relaxed, which is why it surprised me when Gabrielle reminded me of the remaining portion of our trip.

As for myself, I hadn’t been in much of a hurry to leave the city and our home in Athens. I admit, I believe I encouraged the easygoing attitude that prevailed around our household. Gabrielle gave in to my whim for a period, but soon enough, it became apparent even to her. I had been stalling.

“Xena?” Gabrielle asked me as we sat on opposite sides of a King’s Men board. I had finally gotten used to the fact that she usually won. It didn’t bother me quite as much as it used to.

“Hhmm?” I hummed in a distracted fashion. When playing with Gabrielle, I simply couldn’t let my attention lapse, even for a moment.

“About the rest of our trip…”

“Yes?”

“Have you…well, planned which route we’ll take?”

I’d been caught. To add to my discomfort, my mind was now far from the playing board. “Well…I thought about maybe stopping at Delphi first.”

“But, we hadn’t planned on being away from Corinth that long, did we?”

“I don’t know…” I hedged, avoiding her eyes.

“Xena, are you trying to avoid going to Amphipolis?”

“What on earth makes you think such a thing?”

“Well, mostly because you’re avoiding going to Amphipolis,” she replied.

I looked at her with an arched eyebrow. “Very amusing. I take it you have a point you’re trying to make?”

She opened her mouth, but I beat her to it. “And if you say the words ‘avoiding going to Amphipolis’ once more, I’m going to bed.”

She closed her mouth and sat back. I loved being able to anticipate her. She gets that cute pout and crosses her arms. I knew she was thinking of a reply, one that was witty, yet not too biting. I waited for her response with some confidence, but I noticed that her shoulders had slumped and she appeared defeated. No, not defeated, but relaxed. Oh, no. Well, so much for expectations.

“I know what’s wrong, Xena, and I want you to know that I do understand.”

She blindsided me with compassion. I hadn’t expected that.

“You may not realize it, but I’m just as afraid to go back home as you seem to be.”

That confused me. Gabrielle hadn’t acted in any way but with excitement over the prospect of returning to her birthplace. How could she dread returning home just as I?

“I didn’t know you were feeling that, little one. Don’t you want to go back home and see if your parents might still be around the area?”

I hadn’t yet told Gabrielle that I knew her parents lived. I still felt the time wasn’t right. I had hoped it to be after the stress of going to Amphipolis. My original plans had been to set camp outside Amphipolis, even though Potidaea was closer. They were each seaport towns, but Amphipolis provided a greater range of inns and taverns. It was also the harbor where most of the Empire’s warships were built, and I wished to make an official visit. Potidaea, on the other hand, was a shipping harbor, too many strangers coming and going to make me comfortable. It would be no more than a day trip from Amphipolis to visit the farm outside of town where Gabrielle’s parents lived.

“Yes and no,” she replied. “I’m not sure how to describe it. Part of me can’t wait, but there’s another part of me that wonders if I tempt good fortune with this desire.”

I smiled and nodded, rising and silently bidding her to follow me. We sat down once more on a small couch in front of the open doors to our private chamber’s balcony. The warm breeze felt good and we settled into familiar positions before I spoke.

“I know exactly what you mean, love.”

I hesitated. I hadn’t yet talked of my own feelings about returning home. Gabrielle already knew why I left Amphipolis and that I had found my mother was still living there. The reason I hadn’t had this particular conversation with Gabrielle earlier was that I hadn’t yet examined my own feelings over the situation. I’d been so preoccupied since we left Corinth, leaving me little time for introspection.

“I think I know what you feel, anyway. That is if it’s anything like I feel. I haven’t really had time to feel elation or dread, but what I do feel is…fear, I suppose. I’m just afraid, Gabrielle. I fear being turned away just as much as I do their acceptance.”

“But, wouldn’t that be better…if they accepted you?” she asked.

“I’m not so sure. Acceptance brings with it certain responsibilities. What if I couldn’t be the person they wanted me to be?”

“What if you never were the person they thought you to be,” Gabrielle mused aloud, almost as if to herself.

“Exactly.”

“But, you’re not afraid of anything, Xena.” Gabrielle hugged me around the waist, her voice so full of innocence and trust that I actually wished her thinking it made it so.

I laughed and held her close to me, kissing the top of her head. “I only wish that your words were as true as you seem to believe they are. You give me too much credit, little one.”

“Oh, I know you’re human and I don’t mean to make you think that I believe otherwise. It’s just that most of the time that’s the way my heart feels, as though you can do anything.”

“Some days I feel I can, but that’s because of you. You give me power, Gabrielle. I know that sounds incredibly sentimental, like something some has-been poet might say, but it’s true. In reality, you may not be everything that I think you are, but the point is that I believe it and that makes it true to me.”

We enjoyed the silence for a few moments more and I made the decision. “I suppose we should both bury some demons and just go home.”

“Home to Corinth, or home to Amphipolis?” she asked.

“Home…to Amphipolis,” I replied in a wistful tone that surprised even me.

****
Finally, the day had come. We left Athens in much the same fashion as we had left Corinth. Once we knew we were leaving a great deal had to be done to accommodate a caravan of our size. Delia stepped in to help us once more. I didn’t want to think what we would ever do without her, so completely did she run things when Gabrielle and I had to be absent, or were merely overwhelmed.

Gabrielle and I rode side by side and I was reminded of the day we started out on our little tour of the Empire. In much the same manner as she had on that first day, Gabrielle tugged at the collar of her armored vest. Over a full moon had passed since we had started out and the summer heat of Greece was now at its full might.

“Ugh,” Gabrielle commented. “Maybe we should do what they do in the Land of the Pharaohs, sleep all day and travel at night.”

“Gabrielle, you wouldn’t have to wear that if you rode with Delia or the others in one of the wagons.”

She scrunched up her nose and I had to bite the inside of my cheek not to laugh at her expression.

“I wouldn’t look like much of a tough queen, hiding inside a wagon,” she replied.

I smiled to myself. It appeared that my wife had developed something of a reputation during the battle as a young woman who could take care of herself. I leaned over my saddle to whisper to her. “You won’t look like much of a tough queen when you pass out and fall off your horse either.”

“Oh, very funny.” She pushed me away, but at least she laughed at my jest.

I pulled a small piece of cloth from my saddlebag and used the waterskin tied to my saddle horn to wet the fabric.

“Here, love. Tie this around your neck.”

She took the offering and did as I instructed. “Much better.” She smiled and in only moments, she looked happier, if not fresher.

We were both rather surprised to see my trusted man, Acasia, ride up alongside us. His horse fell into step easily beside me.

“Lord Conqueror…Queen Gabrielle,” he acknowledged us with his customary reserve.

I nodded at the man. “Acasia, how good to see you. You missed a little excitement in Athens.”

“I understand it was a roaring good fight, Conqueror.”

“Any fight we win is a good one. Did you obtain the package I requested?”

“Aye, Conqueror. No trouble at all picking it up. It’s been delivered safely, just as you asked.”

Gabrielle surprised me by greeting him quite cordially. In fact, she addressed him with as much enthusiasm as an old friend. She, who took a step backward whenever Acasia entered a room.

“Acasia, good morning!”

He looked at me and I merely shrugged, as if to say he was on his own.

“I met a friend of yours in Athens,” Gabrielle said. “Periander.”

I gave her credit. She tactfully avoided saying anything more as to the exact nature of the relationship between Acasia and Periander. I’m sure she wanted him to take the lead as to how much he would divulge or how comfortable he felt acknowledging it.

“Aye,” Acasia replied, looking around uncertainly.

“We became quite good friends. I’m afraid I’ll miss him terribly. He has led an amazing life,” she finished.

Acasia came as close to smiling as I think I had ever seen. “That he has, your Highness. He has a thousand stories and he loves to tell them all. I think some people look at him as simply a keeper of the archives.”

“I suppose that at one time or another, Acasia, we have all been guilty of judging a scroll by the case it’s carried in. It’s not right, but it’s the nature of humans. The good thing is that most of us learn from our mistakes.”

Gabrielle’s small statement left us speechless. I easily saw that she meant it as an apology of sorts to the man who she had judged by his physical appearance. Gladly, the expression on Acasia’s face told me that he had seen the double meaning in Gabrielle’s words, too. Before either of us had a chance to comment, she continued.

“Well, I suppose I should see how the others are managing and leave you two to your business. That way you won’t have to talk in cryptic messages about packages being delivered and such.”

She rode off toward the wagons leaving Acasia and me staring back at her in wonder.

“A pretty amazing woman herself,” he said.

“You don’t know the half of it,” I replied.

“So, did you have any trouble getting her there?”

“She bit me.” Acasia’s pleasant demeanor grew sour as he spoke.

“What?” I managed to get out through my laughter.

“I’ll tell you, Conqueror, that girl may have the face of an angel, but she’s surely a messenger from Tartarus. I went without sleep for three days until we reached the Amazon Territory. The moment I’d turn away from her she would be off into something. And she’s strong, too. A little bit of nothing, but she squirmed in my grasp and scratched at me like a bobcat.”

I found it extremely difficult to stop my laughter. My mind conjured up an image of Acasia trying to hold off a five-year-old girl. Every time I thought of it, I would break into fits of laughter once more.

“Just wait. The next time she’ll be your problem,” he said and I laughed even more.

“Please, man, I do apologize, but it’s hard to imagine a little girl with that much power.”

“Begging your pardon, Conqueror, but that’s because you’ve never had children. I’ll warrant that the first time that girl blinks those big green eyes in your direction, then you’ll realize the strength of her power.”

I pictured a tiny version of Gabrielle pleading her innocence while gazing at me with those deep green eyes. Yes, Acasia was right. I would be quite lost.

“Any new orders, Conqueror?” Acasia’s voice pulled me into focus again.

“Ah, yes. I received word from the Governor in Ambracia that he has no doctor living in his palace. He believes that the man I referred to died some time ago.”

“Forgive me, Conqueror, but your Governor lies. I saw the Nubian doctor with my own eyes held within the protection of palace guards.”

“Yes, I know you did, Acasia, and I’m not questioning your word. It seems, though, that the Governor wishes to hide the doctor from me for some reason or another. What I want to learn is why.”

“Shall I start for Ambracia directly, My Lord?”

“Actually, no. I may need you with us for a spell. Do you have a team of men whom you can trust to follow your orders to the letter?”

“Men I’ve trained myself.”

“Good. I want these men to kidnap the doctor from the palace in Ambracia. They must not be caught. I don’t want him harmed, but I want this doctor brought to the camps where we’ll be outside of Amphipolis. I plan to discover if he went to the Governor, seeking protection or if the Governor is hiding him for a reason of his own. Any questions?”

“None, My Lord. I’ll make it so.”

****
We were only candlemarks away from Amphipolis. I would have been able to guess at our proximity even had I not recognized the familiar scenery and landmarks. My heart told me that we were close. It had progressively grown heavier with each pass of the moon. Gabrielle had tried to make the journey lighter, occasionally coaxing me away from my burdensome thoughts, but after a certain point, even she gave up. I think that, she too, became overwhelmed with her own concerns about returning to the region.

I met with Atrius as we rode and Gabrielle left us without as much as a question. Most unlike her, but then I’m sure my mood was reason enough for her to want a respite.

“Scouts have found an excellent site to make camp,” Atrius said.

“Do they know we’re coming?” I asked. “The people of the town?” My captain had visited the town with a team of men to assess our need for protection and provisions.

“From what I heard they’ve been planning for it since you left Athens. Seems as though the whole town is in a sort of festival mood.”

“Have you heard any sort of…talk on the streets?”

I wasn’t exactly sure how to verbalize what I wanted to know. Atrius knew who Cyrene was and he knew most of my past, but I still didn’t enjoy displaying this kind of uncertainty and doubt around anyone other than Gabrielle.

“It’s been nearly thirty seasons, Xena,” he said. “A long time since you left.”

“I terrorized this region for another fifteen seasons after the day I left home. When you bring that much shame to your people they develop long memories.”

“For some, true. For most, they know only what you’ve done in the last few seasons. The young know only that you are the woman who abolished slavery and brought much prosperity to the Empire.”

“You’d be surprised at how small towns like to pass down stories. I’m sure I grew more evil with each retelling,” I replied. “Did you stop at the inn?”

“I did. The atmosphere is about the same as the town. I certainly heard no comments against either you or the Empire. You can bet that in a place where the ale flows so freely if you had dissenters, they would have been wagging their tongues.”

“Did you see her?” I asked.

“Aye, Conqueror. She served us food and drinks herself. She looks quite well and the family resemblance is easy to see. Frankly, she looks to be a good ten or fifteen seasons younger than she is. I’m no expert when it comes to a woman’s age, but that’s how it looked to me is all.”

“Did she say anything regarding your insignia?” I asked, indicating with my eyes the mark of the Conqueror that Atrius bore on his armor.

“She saw, and it was apparent she knew who we were, but…”

“But what?”

Atrius looked over at me and gave me a small smile. “She’s like her daughter in that respect…keeps her own counsel.”

I smiled back, feeling a strange sort of familial pride in his observation. I’m not sure why, especially since it had been nearly thirty seasons since I saw her last.

“I suppose since she didn’t set the hounds after you there’s hope, eh?”

“Aye, Conqueror.”

“Let’s ride in tomorrow at midmorning. As few soldiers as you expect to need. I don’t want this to be a procession. We can make a bigger affair out of it when I visit the ships, but not the inn. It’s sort of…well, personal. Does that make sense?”

“Completely. Would you like moral support?”

“You mean some friendly faces in the crowd? Yes, by all means. Ask Anya and the children, Delia, too. Atrius?”

“Conqueror?”

“All of you have been the only family I’ve known in nearly a lifetime. I’d like to share the good parts of my home village with you.”

His visage softened and if I ever thought to see the man cry, it was in his eyes at that moment. His eyes grew misty and he held out his hand. I grasped his forearm and we squeezed.

“Wherever you go, Xena, whatever trials you face, I’ll be at your back…me and mine.”

I nodded, unable to speak for fear of breaking down. I think he knew that. We rode the rest of the way in silence, yet I continued to think on the exchange. For most of my life, I had pushed aside bonds of friendship and did nothing to engender the love of family. Now, when my life lay closer to the end than the beginning, I realized just how important such things were. I nodded and laughed to myself. If I had only known, as a young warlord, just how much strength and power existed from such relationships, I could have been the happiest and strongest of all warriors.

****

We camped upon a rise just outside of Amphipolis, one that looked down into the valley and the center of town. Sylla had tied open the front entrance of our tent in order to allow in what little breeze existed. I looked through the opening and watched the lights that dotted the valley below, and I sat there worrying about what the following day would bring.

The slight breeze carried the sounds of laughter and music up to our camp. I had given Atrius permission for his soldiers to enjoy the town, but they were under orders to uphold a strict code of behavior. I knew how soldiers, whether they were men or women, acted while on a furlough. I did not intend to let them run wild. I suppose I thought that their behavior reflected upon me, too. Suddenly I felt myself acting as though everything I did here might come under the discriminating gaze of Cyrene, my mother.

“Hi there, remember me? I’m the one you share this tent with.”

Gabrielle’s voice registered in my head heartbeats before my eyes focused on the fingers she wiggled under my nose. I laughed at her and she seemed pleased that she could alter my humor, if only the tiniest bit.

“I’m sorry, love. I’ve been neglecting you I’m afraid,” I told her.

“Xena, I wish there was some way I could make you feel better,” Gabrielle said.

“Well,” I drawled, raising my eyebrows suggestively.

She giggled. “Is that the only thing you have on your mind?”

“Not the only thing, but by far the best thing.”

“Here, I made you something to drink,” she said. She placed the mugs on a small table and sat down beside me on the low couch upon which I half sat, half reclined.

I took a sip and enjoyed the aroma and warmth of the brew.

“What do you think?” she asked.

Suddenly I was suspicious. “This isn’t one of Yu Pan’s magic teas, is it?”

“I wasn’t aware he had any magic teas,” she answered me with a coy expression. “No, love,” she finally laughed aloud. “It’s just white peony.”

“One of your own?” I asked. I knew Gabrielle liked to cultivate herbs and flowers to create her own tea blends.

“Yes. It will relax you a bit without making you too sleepy.”

We finished our drinks and settled back onto the couch. Instead of snuggling against me and lowering her head to her customary spot on my shoulder, she sat back and bid me to lean against her. I looked at the open entrance to our tent a little self consciously, but just as quickly dismissed the thought of embarrassment should anyone see us. Hades take them! I thought, while taking a deep breath and lying against Gabrielle’s shoulder. My subjects, as well as my peers, would soon learn that I was the Conqueror when I ran the Empire, but I was simply Gabrielle’s spouse in the privacy of our home.

“What can I do to help,” she whispered as she let her fingers slide through my hair.

“I’m not sure. Trust me, love, if there was something that could be done to rid me of these butterflies doing somersaults in my stomach, I’d try it.”

I felt Gabrielle take a deep breath as she prepared to speak. The action told me that she felt she needed to measure her words carefully.

“Xena, are you afraid?”

“Terrified,” I admitted uncharacteristically.

“So, what do you fear the most about the situation?” she asked. She continued to stroke my hair and the easy touches relaxed me more than I thought anything could.

“It’s the not knowing. Not knowing what to say, what I should do, or how she’ll react. I just…I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“What do you want to happen?”

“I want everything to be perfect, of course.”

“Okay, now take one big step back into reality.”

I looked up just in time to see her smile and wink at me.

“I think you know what I mean,” she began. “You and I both know that situations rarely happen just as we’d like them to, and especially not perfectly.”

“All right. Well, in a perfect world I’d like to…to have my mother back. In reality, I’d settle for her not setting the hounds out after me.”

“Okay, that’s something we can work with. Why don’t we try to shoot for something in between those two? How about if we go to the inn and simply make some introductions? You both know who each other are so all you have to say is ‘hello, mother’.”

“Maybe I should call her Cyrene.”

“Did you ever call her that before?”

“No.”

“You keep trying to make this harder than it has to be, my love.”

“You mean you just want me to go down there without any sort of plan?” I asked, rising to look at her.

She smiled and gently grazed my cheek with the backs of her fingers. “That’s why I beat you at King’s Men. Did you know that?”

“Because I like to have a plan? I beg to differ. Gabrielle, on the battlefield–”

“On the battlefield you don’t make plans. You adjust to strategies.”

I stopped and looked at her in silence. Her words made sense, but I couldn’t believe that my wife, a former slave was lecturing me on war stratagems. “Go on,” I couldn’t keep myself from saying.

“You’ve read the same war histories that I have. Caesar…Alexander…they were good leaders and warriors, yet you defeated them. They each had the same flaw. They were inflexible. They made battle plans, some were quite brilliant, but when someone threw them a different look, such as the Conqueror did, they were unable to adjust. Perhaps it was their own arrogance, but they each seemed unable to turn away from their plans. It became their undoing.”

“When we play King’s Men, don’t you make some sort of a plan? Like if I move this way, you’ move–”

“No.”

“Oh.”

“I know what my ultimate plan is, it’s to capture the Queen,” she said.

“How do you decide what your move will be, and so fast?” I asked.

“I simply adjust the board based on my opponent’s move.”

“But, then you’re just…reacting.” I sat back, speechless. We had gotten so far off the original subject I almost couldn’t remember what we’d been talking about. I only knew that Gabrielle’s theories on battle and strategy were fascinating. The most interesting part was that they actually worked, on a game board, anyway.

“To a certain extent, that’s right. Most importantly, I’m flexible.”

“You mean, I should go down there tomorrow, say ‘hi mother, this is my family’ and just wait to see what happens?”

“Exactly,” Gabrielle answered.

“How do people live like that?”

“You mean without thinking every single move and action to death?” She smiled slightly as if to tell me she was joking.

“Very amusing. Where did you say you were sleeping tonight?” I answered.

We both laughed and I did indeed feel lighter. I wasn’t sure if it would last, but at least I would have Gabrielle and my friends beside me through the experience.

When we lay down to sleep a short time later I thought of the reasons I had previously used to avoid even thinking about returning home. I had meant to go back many times. There had been occasions when I had grown homesick or merely tired of the endless carnage my army engaged in with every league we crossed. There were even times when I just wanted to be a daughter again. Those moments would pass, however, and I would convince myself that there would never be a safe haven for me in Amphipolis again. It was not meant to be, but why then hadn’t I ever come to terms with that? Why had I still been hoping that maybe someday, someday she would forget the pain and the anguish, the shame I had brought upon my kinsmen. That someday she might simply want to call me daughter one last time.

****
Everything was so green. The endless sheep pastures, the trees that dotted the hillsides. The fields of honey-colored wheat and the perfectly blue sky complimented the lush greenery. There was simply no better day to return home. The odors, freshly cut hay and summer lilies in bloom, brought me back to a time when the only responsibilities in life I had were to run and play.

The town was cleaner than most, probably because they knew we were coming. Amphipolis had grown over the seasons and many, if not most, of the buildings looked unfamiliar to me. There were a few that stood out in my memory and I was curious to know if the old healer who had taught me the way still lived. Did the smithy that made my first sword teach anyone his craft, and whatever happened to old Crassius who was the only merchant in town at that time?

“How does it seem?” Gabrielle asked. “After so many seasons.”

She rode beside me, yet I’m afraid I had been so deep in my own memories that I had nearly forgotten she was there.

“Small,” I replied. “Everything seems so much smaller.”

There it was, the Golden Gauntlet Inn. It had started out as a simple lodging for sailors whose ships dropped anchor in the small, but busy port that was Amphipolis. I never even knew why Cyrene had named the place as she did. As the seasons passed, the inn grew in size and reputation. She added a tavern, more rooms, and a larger dining area. As a young girl, I remembered hearing folks say that it was the best lodging and food in all Macedon and Thrace.

We dismounted in front of the inn and I listened as Atrius gave orders to the soldiers and our personal guard. Gabrielle’s Amazons took their directions from Ephiny. We positioned the soldiers all around the inn, but the only people inside would be Gabrielle, myself, and those we considered family. Atrius and Anya stood beside us with Delia. They knew we were coming, Cyrene, and her family. I didn’t want her to be surprised or maybe I didn’t want my mother reminding me that she had disowned me in front of a tavern full of patrons.

“How do I look?” Gabrielle asked me.

“Beautiful,” I answered. She wore the same traveling clothes as I, not wanting any pretense of royalty.

“Good answer, Conqueror. You look quite beautiful yourself.”

“Well, thank you.”

“How do you feel?” she asked, giving my hand a squeeze.

“Surprisingly good. What happens happens. Right?”

“Absolutely. Xena?” Gabrielle called back to me as I turned. “I love you,” she said quietly.

“I love you, too, little one. Thanks for standing by me.”

“I wouldn’t consider it any other way.”

She made the statement with such a tone of strength and finality. I thought back to the time we first met and I wondered who had really belonged to whom. Few people might ever see it, but Gabrielle’s power, the energy that she kept hidden from most of the world was a force that I almost envied. I may have had the unnatural physical power, surely a gift from the Gods, but Gabrielle had that unseen intensity. It was a calmness that lay just beneath the surface of her quiet demeanor. Where I might command, she would sway. When I would muscle my way through, she would use tact and persuasion. My Queen was subtle, but her might was no less than my own.

I opened the door to the inn and allowed the other women to enter before me. Gabrielle, Delia, Anya, and Sylla entered the building followed by Yu Pan, Solan, Atrius, and finally, myself. Atrius wasn’t accustomed to going before me and I think he felt a little strange about it. To be honest, I believe I simply wanted to put off the inevitable for a little longer. Ephiny and the young Amazon, Mika, slipped in behind us. They were loathe to leave their Queen unprotected and so I told Ephiny that she and one other were invited to our gathering.

We chose to enter through the tavern and when I stepped through the door a plethora of memories assaulted my psyche at once. It was different and yet unchanged. Without warning of any kind, I had stepped back thirty seasons. The tables and wooden booths were all empty, but the unmistakable and tantalizing odor of roasted lamb floated into the room from the kitchen.

Standing before us were a young man and woman who looked as nervous as the rest of us. Cyrene was not present, but the two constantly looked back to the kitchen. I knew, just as in the past, that is where my mother would be, preparing, and supervising the meals for the day. My friends and family looked to me to take the lead, perhaps without realizing that I was as much a stranger here as they.

The young man looked to be no more than twelve. He had bright blue eyes, the color of my own and dark hair that was a mass of curls atop his head. He had an intelligent face and a perpetual grin as if he was always amused. I felt a sharp pang at the sight of this youngster whose face reminded me so much of my long dead brother, Lyceus.

The girl was different. She looked at me with fire in her eyes and I knew without question that she was my sister. I saw Cyrene in the girl’s face and the line of her proud shoulders, held stiff and high. I didn’t blame her for the way in which she looked at me. I suppose if our positions had been reversed, I would have been looking at her in much the same manner. I didn’t know what or how much she knew of me, but at the very least, she knew that I was the woman who had caused her mother great pain.

She passed through the beaded curtain that separated the great room from the kitchen, looking as she did that last day. She wore a simple cloth blouse and skirt, blue – her favorite color. For a moment, I thought that no time at all had passed. For just that one moment, I was fifteen and I had slipped back into the house to return to my own bed instead of making the pact with Ares that would leave me forever scarred. The moment went by, however, and there was simply a woman in her sixty-third summer standing before us. She was tall, but not nearly as tall as I was. Her hair had a sheen to it that indicated the lawsonia leaves she must have boiled and used to rinse the gray away. It was a common practice among noble born women and one I expected to have to try myself one day soon. Cyrene’s experience as a healer must have given her the knowledge.

Cyrene removed the towel from her waist and slowly wiped her hands, setting the rag upon the long wooden bar that ran along the back wall. She looked around the room once until her eyes found mine. They locked for heartbeats that felt like so much more. Her face was unreadable, as I saw neither disgust nor remorse in her expression, which made me all the more nervous.

“Selene…Cor, come here,” Cyrene called her children to stand beside her.

I looked at Gabrielle, to find her already watching me. She waited for me, but I felt as though my boots had been nailed to the floor. I slowly moved toward Cyrene and her children as Gabrielle came to stand beside me. I took a deep breath and struggled to find my voice.

“Mother,” I said with a slight nod.

She took a step closer to me. In the sunlit room, it was easy to see every detail of her face. Once she stood toe to toe with me, I knew how the day would turn out. It was very much like playing King’s Men with Gabrielle. I knew I was destined to lose, but I forged ahead anyway. I owed my mother that much.

“How dare you call me that,” she said from between clenched teeth.

“Cyrene, then,” I answered in an even tone. I could not fault her for this behavior. “Cyrene, I–”

I saw it coming, but I did nothing. I suppose it was the only thing I had to give her with any meaning – retribution. She slapped me hard across the face, but unlike that day so many seasons past, I didn’t run. There was no righteous anger burning in me this time, there was only hurt and a longing for something more. I suppose that’s why I didn’t stop her when she raised her hand and struck me a second time. On the third, someone else stepped in.

Gabrielle caught Cyrene’s hand in mid arc and held it there. The old woman turned eyes of fire toward my wife, Cyrene’s hand shaking with the effort to push forward. Gabrielle didn’t even look as though she was trying. Calmly she held the arm and just as coolly she spoke.

“She won’t stop you, but I will,” Gabrielle said.

Cyrene and Gabrielle looked at one another and I stood there, unsure of what my role was in the scenario.

“You don’t understand what a mother’s anguish feels like,” Cyrene said to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle smiled a bittersweet smile. Cyrene had no idea the anguish that Gabrielle had actually suffered. “Perhaps you’re right, but you won’t know that until you get to know me…know all of us. This isn’t the way.”

Gabrielle’s hold on Cyrene’s arm loosened and the old woman dropped her hand to hang limply at her side.

“And are you the one they call the Conqueror’s whore?” she said to Gabrielle.

“Enough!” I stepped close enough to tower over my mother. “You can say what you will about me; you’ve earned that right, but not her. A woman as decent as this doesn’t deserve your misplaced wrath.”

“Mother?” the young man she called Cor took a wary step forward.

Cyrene woke from whatever painful haze had taken her and turned to the boy. “It’s all right, Cor. It’s all right. “You’re right,” she said to Gabrielle. “This isn’t the way. What’s done is done, I suppose,” she finished, looking straight at me. “This is Coras, your brother, and this is Selene.”

She held her hand out and the young woman stepped up beside Cyrene. “Their father was Philius. I’m sure you remember him. He had a sheep farm by the river. He caught the fever and died about five seasons ago.”

“He was a good man,” I recalled.

Cyrene wasn’t screaming at me, but there was no affection in her tone, either. I could have been a long lost relative that she barely remembered for all the warmth in her voice. I knew that this might happen and I tried to take comfort in the fact that she was at least speaking to me.

“You look well,” I said. Gods, it sounded so lame, but I was trying.

“Well enough, I suppose,” she answered. “You’re looking fit yourself.”

“Fit enough for forty-four summers, I suppose.” I grinned. I couldn’t help it. For a moment I thought she would smile back, but it wasn’t to be.

Selene barely nodded in my direction, but Coras looked as though his grin was going to split open his face. I instantly liked the boy. He looked as though he was holding back from fairly bursting with questions.

“Are you wearing it?” He finally asked.

“It?” I asked.

“The sword…the one with the lion’s head.”

“Oh,” I smiled and pulled my leather vest to one side. Gleaming in the light, the silver lion’s head upon the hilt of my sword fascinated the boy. Blue sapphire eyes twinkled in the sunlight shining into the room.

“Wicked,” he exclaimed with a low whistle.

Gabrielle nudged my elbow and I realized that we were all simply standing there, again waiting for me to do something.

“Mo– uhm, Cyrene, this is my wife and Queen, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle smiled and held her hand out. They slowly shook hands.

“Your Highness,” Cyrene said, looking uncomfortable. “I apologize for–”

“Please don’t,” Gabrielle replied. “It’s an awkward situation for all of us, I suppose. And, I insist you call me Gabrielle…all of you,” she added for Selene and Coras.

Leave it to Gabrielle to get to the heart of the matter with no mucking about. Cyrene gave an easy sort of relaxed smile for the first time since we’d been there and it heartened me somewhat. It gave her a look that reminded me more of the woman I knew than the tight-lipped stranger I now saw.

“Thank you,” Cyrene answered. “And these others…they work for you?”

“Work?” I looked around until I realized that she meant the others in the room. Funny, but it had only been a little over one season since Gabrielle had entered my life, and I had begun to temper my ways. It seemed like much more time had passed than that since I had thought of these people as working for me.

“Oh, no, mother…” I slipped again, but she didn’t seem to notice this time. “These are my friends. They’ve become my family over the seasons,” I added.

I moved over near Delia and placed an arm on her shoulder. “This is Delia. Her husband, Galen, was my second in command for a long time before he fell in battle. I should think you two have a lot in common. Delia loves to cook and hides out in the kitchens all the time.”

Delia chuckled at my comment and placed a hand atop my own. “It’s an honor, Cyrene,” she said as she shook hands with my mother, Coras, and Selene.

Cyrene looked confused and I would have loved to know what she was thinking. I’m sure that she had dismissed the changes she had heard about in the Conqueror, knowing the unforgivable actions of my youth.

“This is Atrius, the captain of my army and my second in command. This is his wife, Anya, and their children. The strong young man is Petra…” He smiled up at me and it became easy to forget that I was trying to impress anyone.

“And these two here…” I bent down and scooped up my two favorite companions. Anya’s girls had been given the freedom to roam the castle and they would simply show up in the Great Hall while I was listening to petitions. They would crawl into my lap as a stunned room looked on. They were the only two people here who had never known me as anything more than the tall woman who lifted them high in the air to make them laugh.

“They are…let’s see, I always forget their names,” I said, which made the girls giggle.

“Conqwer…you know us!” Alisha, the oldest said between her laughter.

“Oh, that’s right, I do. This is Alisha and this little squiggly bundle is Ariana.”

I placed the still laughing girls back on their feet and when I looked up, Cyrene was looking at me as if I was a complete stranger. In fact I was, to her anyway. What she knew of Xena the Lion, The Destroyer of Nations, and the Lord Conqueror must have baffled her in comparison to the woman who now stood before her.

“Let’s see,” I began again as I spun around to see who was next. “This is Sylla. She’s been with me for quite some time and she’s become a sort of personal assistant to Gabrielle.”

I noticed that Selene whispered something in Cyrene’s ear, nodding toward Ephiny and Mika. It was easy to see what intrigued her. Amazons came and went through Amphipolis, but they usually kept to themselves. The girl had probably seen them before and her expression told me that she wished to learn more. Strong female role models were not something you ran into everyday in Greece.

“I’ve seen this woman before,” Cyrene indicated Ephiny. “Eating in the tavern.”

“That’s right,” Ephiny spoke up. “We’ve enjoyed your hospitality before.”

“This is Ephiny and Mika. They’re Amazons from the territory to the north. Ephiny is Gabrielle’s second in command.”

“So, it’s true then?” Selene looked at Gabrielle. A slight bit of awe tinged her voice. “You’re an Amazon Queen?”

“Well, it’s a long story,” Gabrielle admitted, “But, yes, I am.”

“Ah, and our friend Yu Pan. You would enjoy speaking with Master Yu Pan, mother. He has amazing abilities, one of which is the healing arts.”

“The man with the big dragon painted on his wagon?” Cyrene asked. Again, she didn’t say anything about my slip and so I felt that she had decided. I would call her mother.

“Indeed, that is I,” Yu Pan answered.

“Yes,” Cyrene nodded her head, obviously impressed. “I’ve heard of your skill. It would be an honor to discuss the healing arts with you.”

I turned to Solan last and waved my fingers for him to come and stand beside me. “I’d like you to meet someone very special to me.”

Solan stood beside me and for the first time since we had been reunited, I noticed that he stood nearly as tall as I. Obviously, a late spurt of growth had added a bit to his frame. He shook raven hair from his eyes and pretended not to be embarrassed at a mother’s pride, for I recognized it as such when I saved his introduction until last.

“This is my son, Solan. Your grandson.”

It became apparent to me at that moment that it would be children who would someday bring unity to our world. Nothing has the power to bring people together like a child, that bond that helps to dissipate our own meager longevity. I saw it in Cyrene’s eyes, as she looked at me in silent question. I nodded and nudged Solan forward.

“Grandmother–or should I call you Cyrene?” He asked, nervously glancing back at me.

“Grandmother will do just fine,” she said, reaching out to touch his cheek. “A grandchild,” she said, looking first at me, and then Solan. “A grandchild,” she repeated.

Solan grinned and I saw tears form in Cyrene’s eyes. I looked at my son and realized that he looked exactly like me when he smiled like that. I felt for my mother just then. I couldn’t be sure whether she cried from happiness or if it wasn’t laced with sadness at seeing my young likeness before her. Whatever the emotion, it didn’t stop the two from embracing. I wondered then if Solan would be enough to assuage the old woman’s pain, a pain that I had been responsible for in the first place.

“Hey, I’m an uncle!” Cor said.

Everyone laughed at the youngster’s comic expression. It broke the tension quite nicely.

“We never knew you had a child,” Cyrene said to me.

“Another long story. I’ll tell you all about it if you’d like,” I surprised myself by saying. I never talked about myself and certainly never talked about private matters with anyone other than Gabrielle. I owed the old woman, however, and I tried to pay my debt, albeit unconsciously.

She nodded and I was uncertain whether it was an affirmative response at my invitation to talk or if she was simply acknowledging my words.

“You’ve camped outside of town?” she asked.

“Yes, on the rise by the lake. We offered Palentus and his family fifty talents for the use of the land.”

“How long are you staying?”

“Well,” I looked at Gabrielle who shrugged as though to say it was my call. “We aren’t really in any hurry and we planned to go down to Potidaea for a couple of days.”

“You should stay here at the inn for a time…all of you,” Cyrene said.

There wasn’t any real emotion in her voice. It sounded as if she felt she had to make the offer. Her next words clarified it for me, however. It wasn’t that Cyrene was being purposefully cold to me; it was that she didn’t know how to display affection for me. Perhaps she was at war with herself and didn’t know what she was supposed to feel for me.

“Stay, Xena,” she said to me. I suppose it was as close as she could come to pleading. I saw it in her eyes. “I would like to get to know Solan…and all of you.” She looked around the room.

I looked at Gabrielle and this time our silent exchange made the decision her call.

“Gabrielle,” Cyrene began. “Don’t hold my earlier words against me. Have her stay.”

“But all of us? It would be too much of an imposition,” Gabrielle replied.

“Nonsense. The inn is nearly empty and we have room enough for everyone.”

“Yes, please stay,” Cor chimed in. His sister, Selene was silent, but I could see that she was curious about us.

“Nothing this exciting ever happens around here,” Cor added.

Gabrielle laughed, reaching out to ruffle the curls atop his head. “Well, then, we couldn’t possibly condemn you to such a boring existence.” Gabrielle winked at Cyrene and for the first time that day, the older woman smiled fully.

“My Lord?” Gabrielle addressed me as she usually did when others were present.

“I think my Queen has spoken, besides I think it’s a wonderful idea, too. As for everyone else, I’ll leave it up to all of you.”

They looked undecided. Delia spoke first.

“We wouldn’t want to intrude upon your family,” she said to Cyrene.

“You are my daughter’s family and that means you would never be intruding,” Cyrene replied.

Cyrene began to give directions to Coras as the others spoke of returning to camp to pack their necessities. I simply stood there, frozen in place, until I felt Gabrielle squeeze my hand.

“Hey, are you in there?” she whispered.

“Did she…did she just call me her daughter?” I whispered back.

“It feels good, doesn’t it?”

All I could do was nod. Cyrene’s choice of words stunned me. She was still careful to avoid looking at me or even speaking to me directly. I knew we still had a long way to go, but this began with more promise than I could have possibly hoped.

“Welcome home, Xena,” Coras said as he rushed past us out the door.
Chapter 18: Happy Those Early Days…
I lay in the dark holding Gabrielle, wondering what I would do next. We had all spent the previous evening laughing, talking, and telling stories about our time in Athens. Cyrene had asked many pointed questions, mostly to do with Gabrielle and myself. She never asked them of us, only eliciting information from the others. Perhaps she was still trying to figure it all out or at the least, decipher me, of what had become of the warlord she had last heard tell of. I had tried in every way I could to manage a few moments alone with her, but it seemed as though she purposefully avoided it. There was nothing I could do but try to enjoy the evening.
I knew I had come a long way when it came turn for Delia to speak. She told some most embarrassing tales, again mostly of me. She seemed to tell them for Cyrene’s benefit. Such as the time Delia had caught me whistling in the castle hall. I had gone to my rose garden to cut a flower for Gabrielle and then had tried to hide the blossom from Delia’s eyes once she caught me. Sitting there and listening to Delia tell the tale, I wasn’t sure whose expression seemed more surprised, Gabrielle’s or my mother’s.

I was so accustomed to waking before dawn that I lay there, attempting to meditate myself back into some state of sleep. I was never good at stilling myself in this way, always too much going inside my brain.

“Why don’t you simply get up before you burst,” Gabrielle’s sleepy voice came to me.

“I’m sorry, love. I didn’t mean to wake you,” I whispered.

“It’s okay…you didn’t.” She kissed my cheek and rolled over, clutching a pillow in my stead.

I chuckled, realizing that she was right. She wasn’t even fully awake. I rose, dressed, and kissed my wife before heading downstairs. It was still dark, but I needed no candle. I felt my way along the wooden walls, my memory leading me down the narrow staircase that came out in the great hall. I don’t know why I did it, but I turned right at the bottom of the stairs, down the hall that led to the inn’s private quarters.

The first room was Cyrene’s, of that I knew. A soft light glowed through the crack at the bottom of the door, spilling out onto the hallway floor. Shadows flickered in the light, telling me that my mother’s day had begun. I should have turned back then. This was no longer my home, and I felt like nothing more than an intruder. I continued along the darkened hallway. Two doors down it had been; the room where I spent my youth. Always two doors down from my mother’s room, close enough for her to hear me on those occasions that I had tried to slip in late.

I still didn’t know what drove me to press the latch and push the door in. Just curiosity, I told myself. I fully expected to find Selene or Coras sleeping soundly, but what I did find surprised me even more. The predawn light bathed the room in pale blue. I saw only shadows at first, until my eyes became accustomed to the half-light. I entered the room, turning in a full circle, wondering at the sight. The room was empty, more directly, the room had been untouched. It looked as it did on the day I fled, taking nothing more than a change of clothing and my sword.

I slowly sat down before the small mirrored dressing table. My favorite hair ribbons still lay upon the table, worn and faded with age. An abalone shell comb lay beside a silver hair comb. I looked around the room in complete surprise.

“What are you doing in here?” Cyrene’s voice surprised me.

I stood quickly, turning toward the door. “I’m sorry, I–”

“Xena?” she asked. She didn’t wait for an answer. “Oh, I thought you were Selene. What on earth–”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what possessed me.”

She turned abruptly and left the room. I quickly followed.

“You’re up early,” she effectively changed the subject.

I took the hint. I would take Gabrielle’s advice. She had told me last night, just before we fell asleep, not to force the issue. She reminded me that I would gain nothing by forcing Cyrene to speak to me. Her advice had been to wait until Cyrene was ready. Patience had never been one of my skills, but I took a deep breath and tried.

“I’m usually up at this hour, but I find myself without much to do here.”

She turned to go, saying no more. I didn’t want the conversation to end and so I trailed after her like a hungry puppy.

“I could help you,” I blurted out.

“You? Help?” She looked at me as though I had just offered to burn the place to the ground. She smiled again, just as she had done the day before. “Xena, even as a young girl you couldn’t keep from burning water.”

Now it was my turn to smile. “All right, I admit that my culinary skills haven’t improved much over the seasons, but I could do some of the morning’s heavy work for you. Bring in water from the well…chop wood for the ovens?” I wasn’t sure what else to offer, but she looked as though she was thinking about it, so she knew what I was talking about.

“Well,” she hesitated. “There’s bread to bake today, but Cor usually does the wood chopping.”

“Let the boy sleep late, then. I’ll handle it.” I went off in search of the woodpile, hoping it was still outside the kitchen door.

“It’s hard work,” she called after me.

I looked back and grinned at her, one of the smiles that reminded me of my youth. “Mother, I just held off a hundred thousand Persians from taking Athens. I should think I could handle a few logs.”

“Very well then, but I warn you, the whole lot needs splintered for the baking ovens outside. I bake bread all day today.”

“All right, all right,” I called back. After all, I was a fairly strong warrior; an unnaturally strong woman. How hard could it be to chop some wood?

****
“I can’t believe that boy chops this much wood every day,” I said as I hefted the axe into the air once again. It came down neatly into the middle of the log and I banged the wood against the cutting stump to send the axe the rest of the way through. Sweat dripped down my back and I shook back wet locks of hair from my eyes.

“Not every day, only on bread baking days,” Cyrene answered.

She tossed more wood into the large opening and straightened up, wiping her hands on her apron. I smiled to myself, thinking that I could barely recall a time when Cyrene wasn’t wearing her apron.

The ovens were quite large and I noticed that Cyrene had added two additional ovens during my absence. They were short and long with oval openings every foot. The items to be baked were inserted through the openings and sat on a clay shelf. At the back of each oven was a large clay enclosed fire pit. The heat of the fire went into the ovens through small holes in the clay wall that separated the baking area from the fire pit. I fondly remembered burning more than one loaf of bread as time got away from me when I was a young girl.

“I can do that.” I rushed over to help just as Cyrene bent down to add wood to the last oven.

“I’m not that old yet.”

“That’s not what I meant,” I tried to explain.

She looked up at me then, honestly looked at me for the first time since our awkward reunion. I still couldn’t discern what she was thinking. It seemed that mistrust and confusion reigned chiefly among the many emotions that passed between us, however.

She wearily sat down upon a wooden stool, as if finally feeling her age. I watched in silence as she took a deep breath and stared at her own hands as they lay in her lap. She didn’t raise her head when she spoke.

“Why did you come back here, Xena?”

I wasn’t prepared for her honest question, but how many times during our journey had I asked myself that same question? I had been unable to come up with an answer, but perhaps it was because I was looking for too much. Perhaps the answer was so simple that I had overlooked it.

I sat down on the ground beside her, displaying nearly as much fatigue. I wondered if we were both merely tired of carrying around this burden. The weight of anger and regret can become a heavy load indeed.

“I’m not sure. I think…maybe…I think I just wanted to come home.”

She sighed deeply and I could only imagine what memories flashed past her mind’s eye.

“When word came back to us that you had been given the name of Lion, everyone in town forgot why they blamed you. Only two seasons before they had wanted to stone you. They didn’t see it as you had helped them defeat a vicious warlord from taking all they had and then enslaving them. They simply saw that half the men in the town were dead and that you had talked them into fighting. Suddenly, they all took credit for knowing you. It didn’t surprise me, though, what you did to protect Greece. You always had such a sense of justice and fair play about you that it didn’t surprise me at all.”

“I wish I had lived up to the name. I know that you’re ashamed of me. Quite possibly, you detest me. I don’t blame you for feeling such things. I just thought that maybe…I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t know why I’m here.” I rubbed my temples, feeling the beginnings of a headache.

She went on as though she hadn’t heard my words. “Five seasons later I heard that you burned Pella to the ground, but before you did, they said you took the constable’s wife back to your camp. They said you raped her and then gave her to your men. I didn’t believe it until the talk said that became your trademark, to teach other villages a lesson. Finally, the talk said that rape was the kindest thing you did to those women.”

I could feel tears spilling down my cheeks, but I was unable to stop them. How could I refute the truth?

“Just when I had thought you dead to me, just when I thought that piece of my heart had finally died, talk came back to Amphipolis that you had begun to change. When they said that you had freed the slaves and began to look after the people instead of use them, I didn’t believe it, nobody did. Little by little, opinions changed as stories filtered up to us of the wonderful things you and your new Queen were doing in Corinth. Then, people started whispering about how the Lion had returned to Greece. I didn’t know what to think. I only knew that I had begun thinking of you again, wondering what you were really like.”

“I’ve changed,” I managed to say through my tears. “I know people may not believe me, but I am trying.”

“Did you know, back in those early days, that when I went to the market, people spat on me?”

“I’m so sorry,” I said just before my tears turned into genuine sobs. “I’m just so sorry.”

Few times had I cried like this and never around anyone other than Gabrielle. I felt weak and pathetic, but I didn’t even care. Worst of all, I couldn’t stop. It was as though over time a crack in a cistern had grown wider and wider, finally weakening the clay enough to let loose the contents inside.

I can never be sure what it was that caused Cyrene to act as she did just then. Perhaps we had both been feeling that a piece of our lives had been missing over the seasons. Maybe it was simply that we each realized that time can heal many things or that people really can change. It could have been something as basic as the fact that no mother can resist her own child’s cries.

I felt her hand in my hair, gently stroking my head. “Oh, Xena,” she sighed.

She pulled me against her and suddenly my head was in her lap, my arms around her waist. I couldn’t stop crying, but it seemed acceptable somehow. She hugged me and I thought that I had never felt anything as wonderful. Who knew that three additional words could cause me to fall apart so completely?

“My little one,” Cyrene bent and whispered against my hair.

****

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
The sound of an axe, as it bit into wood, must have been what awakened me. Sunrise brightened the room considerably. It fairly glowed as the sun’s light filtered through the parchment thin draperies. I lay in bed, luxuriating in the almost decadent knowledge that I had nowhere I had to be and no battles to fight. I examined the room from my comfortable position, impressed at my surroundings. I had expected no more than a simple cottage-like atmosphere at the inn, but this room alone dispelled that notion. Instead of a simple bedside table, there stood a hand carved table made from a most expensive wood. The large room also had a small sitting area with two comfortable looking chairs in front of the fireplace. An oval, hand polished looking glass hung on the wall and its length went from nearly floor to ceiling. Two small tapestries hung on the wall along either side of the looking glass. Even the colorful hand woven rug upon the floor reminded me more of our home in Athens or Corinth than an Amphipolean inn. It made me wonder about the woman who was our host. I hoped that I would have time to get to know Cyrene better.

I rose, barely able to remember that I had sent my wife from our bed before dawn. I brushed my hair and rinsed my face before crossing to the other side of the room, pulling open the window shutters.

Looking down into the area behind the inn, the sight of Xena mesmerized me. She lifted a large axe, bringing it down in one swift motion upon a log set up on an old stump. The log split in two and she placed the halves upright once more, chopping them into even smaller pieces. I watched and remained silent, not wishing to call out for fear of breaking the enchantment that Xena had cast over me. Equal parts pride and lust struck me at the same time. Once I could focus my brain on something other than the play of her muscles, bunching and releasing as she swung the heavy axe, I realized she looked rather happy. Physical activity of any sort always did make her the happiest.

I continued to watch as Cyrene came into view. She tossed wood into the back of the clay ovens and it looked as though she was preparing for a day of baking. I wondered how Xena had talked Cyrene into accepting her help. Only yesterday, Xena’s mother looked as though she had wanted to strike her daughter down. In fact, Cyrene did try her best until I stepped in to intervene. It very nearly took all of my effort not to strike back. Xena wouldn’t defend herself, but then again, I knew that. I watched as her heart broke in those few moments. I also knew that she felt this was a just punishment upon herself and that she owed her mother this little satisfaction. I understood Xena’s thinking, but I couldn’t comprehend how a mother could feel that way until Cyrene reminded me of her pain, a mother’s anguish. Still, I could never merely stand by while someone hurt my wife, not even her mother. I tried not to embarrass Xena, while at the same time quietly convincing Cyrene that I would not allow her to continue.

It was a strange thing to watch, Xena and her mother in the yard below me. Both women had unusually beautiful faces, but the moment they were both in a room at the same time, their expressions grew pinched. I know it’s an odd way to describe it, but that’s precisely what I saw. I faulted neither woman, but my most fervent wish was that each of them would somehow see their lives through the other’s eyes.

Xena had suffered terribly over the seasons. Laden with Ares’s dark curse, she became something she had little control over, something so evil that even she could not speak of that time easily. She lived practically an entire lifetime without the love of family, disowned by her own mother. Cyrene was the opposite side of that coin. Feeling betrayed and abandon, she had lost all three of her children on the very same day. I hoped that I would never experience such grief, as Cyrene must have surely felt for those many seasons alone.

The ages of Xena’s half-siblings surprised me until I thought of why Cyrene might have conceived them in the first place. It was only guesswork on my part, but perhaps Cyrene thought that the Gods would give her another chance if she tried again. Besides, she appeared much healthier than her age indicated and I knew, better than some, what it felt like to pray for another chance at motherhood.

They spoke to one another and I could see Cyrene turn and sit. Finally, she asked the question that I know had filled Xena with dread. I wondered how Xena would answer and abruptly realized that I had been listening in on a most private conversation. I was stuck where I stood, though. I couldn’t pull away or close the window without drawing their attention. I simply pressed my back against the open shutters and attempted to blend into the background as best I could without making a sound. I offered up a quick supplication to Athena to keep me hidden. I cursed my luck for hearing what was happening below, but I would have felt worse if my disturbance had been the catalyst to break up a much-needed dialogue between mother and daughter.

I listened, my heart breaking for each of them, as they related their own feelings. I was proud of Xena. She didn’t make excuses or attempt to cover up any of her past misdeeds. She didn’t make up a reason why she had come home, and she didn’t beg for forgiveness. She was honest in her assessment of why she had come, even to say that she simply didn’t know. Each woman opened her heart, perhaps not completely, but that sort of trust would only come with time. They were honest and it was obvious that candor hurt. Gods, if it caused me pain to hear, what must they have been suffering?

I closed my eyes against my own tears. How could a woman not feel her lover’s pain as though it was her own? The sound that caused my entire chest to ache with empathetic grief was the sound of Xena crying. Not just cries, but uncontainable sobs. When I chanced a glance down into the yard, I saw something that I don’t think I shall ever forget. The sight of my dear wife, the Lord Conqueror, crying in her mother’s arms was too much for even me. I could intrude no longer and while they were thus occupied, I took the opportunity to slip back into the room. Unfortunately, with the shutters open, I was still able to hear all that went on below.

“I’m sorry, mother, I overslept. I–” I heard Cor’s voice stop abruptly in the yard below, and I can only imagine what he thought at the sight before him.

“Are you all right? Is Xena okay?” he asked. I didn’t have to see his face. His tone clearly told of his confusion.

“Yes, everything’s fine, Cor. Xena’s just taken slightly ill. She’ll be fine in a bit, just overheated is all.”

“Oh. Do you want me to…uhm, chop the rest of the wood?”

“We’ll worry about that later, love. Right now, I’d like you to take some wood into the kitchen and get a fire going for tea. If anyone asks about breakfast, tell them things will be a little late today.”

“Okay,” Cor answered. He bent down and quickly loaded his arms with wood for the kitchen stove. Hesitating before going back into the inn, Cor added, “Don’t worry, Xena. Once I got so hot chopping wood that I passed clean out.”

I smiled at the boy’s helpful nature. It was apparent that Xena’s younger brother had an acute case of hero worship for his warrior sister. I heard Xena mumble something to the boy, but I couldn’t understand what she said.

“I don’t know what came over me,” I heard Xena say as she sniffed back her tears.

“I always told you that you should have a good cry now and again. You always did hold everything inside.”

I knew I would tell Xena about my eavesdropping later, but I couldn’t resist as I moved close enough to the window to see Cyrene wiping Xena’s tear and dirt-streaked cheeks with one corner of her apron.

“You children always did have such a hard time keeping your faces clean,” Cyrene continued, and when she said ‘children’, I somehow knew that she referred to the children she had lost.

Xena tried to smile, but more tears came instead. Perhaps she had held it back for so long that she simply couldn’t stop once she started.

“I don’t want anyone seeing me like this,” Xena said suddenly.

“I understand,” I heard Cyrene say. “Come, little one, I’ll show you the back staircase…it’s new. You just need to lay down…rest for a while and you’ll feel better.”

I smiled through my own tears. I always wondered why Xena had chosen that term of endearment for me, little one. I knew that she hadn’t used it with me as a mother to a child, although the way in which she protected and nurtured me in the beginning of our relationship would have made it seem so. I now interpreted the words as something extraordinarily special. Of all the terms that Xena could have used, she chose the one that had reminded her of family, safety, and home, of a love that she so desperately desired, but had felt herself too unworthy to request. I was proud to be the recipient of that endearment.

****

By the time Cyrene led Xena into our room, I had quickly dressed in a simple skirt and blouse. Even though I knew what had transpired between the two women, the sight of Xena took me back. They came through the door with Xena leaning heavily upon her mother. Xena’s eyes were so swollen they were almost closed. I was at least relieved to see that the uncomfortable expression that existed whenever they were together had relaxed.

“Xena?”

“Not to worry, Gabrielle. She’ll be perfectly fine after a little rest,” Cyrene said.

“Mother and I had a talk,” Xena said as she sat down on the edge of the bed.

I took Xena’s admission as a subtle way of telling Cyrene that there were no secrets between us. Tears fell from Xena’s eyes and I must say that I began to worry. It wasn’t like her to fall apart so completely. She looked utterly spent.

“I’m cold,” she said. I sat down beside her and could feel her shivering.

“Are you all right, love?”

She shrugged and I felt Cyrene’s hand on my shoulder. “It’s taken a lot out of her,” she whispered to me.

“All right, then,” I said as I finally pushed myself into action. “Lie back.”

It was like pushing a feather backward. Xena lay on the bed and I helped remove her boots. She was as helpless as a rag doll as I helped her off with her clothes and under the covers. Cyrene stood back, but stayed in the room. I had a feeling that she simply didn’t want to embarrass Xena any further.

“I hate those things,” Xena said about the nightshirt I slipped over her head.

“I know, but it will keep you warm,” I said. I pulled the thick coverlet up to her chin. She looked uncharacteristically small and vulnerable to me. “I’ll make you some of that red tea that you like and fetch a mug up to you,” I said, thankful that I had brought along some of the leaves and berries I used for the brew.

“Feeling any warmer?” I asked and she nodded her head like a little girl.

“I’m going downstairs for the tea. Anything else I can get for you, love?”

“Something for this head. It feels like it’s going to explode,” she replied hoarsely.

“Right. Would you like your mother to stay with you?” I whispered after I kissed her cheek. Again, she nodded and I knew it was something she would never have asked for herself. I could only surmise it was her weakened state that allowed her to agree in the first place.

I turned to Cyrene, who had been closely watching the two of us with an odd expression upon her face.

“Would it be too much trouble to ask, Cyrene, if you–”

“Of course not, dear. Go right to the kitchen and have Cor get anything you need. Selene should be up by now, too. Please tell them where I am.”

I happily noted that she had already taken a seat on the bed beside Xena’s prone form. It looked as though she had never intended to leave, even before I asked her to stay. I found that to be a very good sign, especially when I saw her reach uncertainly for Xena’s hand and take it in her own. Cyrene’s hesitation told me that these two women still regarded one another as strangers, but that the enigma known as the bond between mother and child was something that had endured.

I left the room, fully intending to take my time about brewing the tea. I wanted to give them as much time alone together as I could, even if it was for nothing more than to have Cyrene watch Xena sleep. Xena’s physical condition worried me some, but I knew what it felt like to carry such an extreme burden for so many seasons. Telling Xena about the birth of my child when I had been a slave had been one of the hardest things to overcome. I also knew the physical and mental catharsis I had experienced by loosing myself of the heavy weight. Finally letting go of it had left me as limp as a wrung out dishrag.

****

I entered the kitchen, hoping not to run into anyone but Cor. It was not to be, however. Nearly all in our party sat at a large table in the kitchen enjoying morning tea. We said our good mornings to one another and I told Selene and Cor where their mother was.

“Mother’s a very good healer. I bet she fixes Xena right up,” Cor said. I swear, the boy was perpetually cheerful and optimistic.

“Xena is ill?” Delia asked.

“Well, she’s feeling a bit…fatigued,” I answered truthfully. I hadn’t wanted to reveal Xena’s private business, but I didn’t like lying either.

“Perhaps you would have me visit with her?” Yu Pan asked.

“Thank you, Master Yu Pan, I appreciate that. I think this may be something that Xena’s mother might be…better suited for. Muqin ye nuér.” I added the last three words, mother to daughter, in Yu Pan’s own language in hopes that he would understand my true meaning.

“Ahh, I understand. There are times when a mother’s touch holds as much power as any healing herb.”

“Perhaps I should check on her?” Solan looked worried.

Gods, how many people would I have to tell about this in order not to tell them? Yu Pan saved me.

“I would speak with you first, my friend. Perhaps outside?” Yu Pan requested.

I smiled and nodded at my mentor as he and Solan walked past me.

“I suppose I’d better get the morning meal going,” Selene said.

“Why don’t you let us help, dear?” Delia asked, indicating Anya who nodded her head enthusiastically.

Selene looked at Delia with what I had come to recognize as the young woman’s customary expression of wariness. “That’s really not necessary,” Selene responded.

“It’s all right,” I said, placing my hand atop Selene’s. “Delia does all of our cooking in Corinth, it’s the only thing that makes her truly happy. Your mother might be a while,” I added with a whisper.

The young woman agreed with some reluctance, and they began the cooking. Selene explained the schedule that the tavern and the meals were on. It was difficult to read Selene. I was uncertain whether she felt intimidated by our group or if her mistrustful attitude was simply a part of her nature. Neither would have surprised me. I had known many a young woman whose dour expressions made them look older than their years. I knew also that having Xena here must have been affecting Selene on many levels. I wondered if the young woman worried for her mother, or if jealousy of her older sister might not be more to the point. Whatever the cause, I hoped it was something Xena and Selene could move beyond.

I went about brewing the rooibos tea that Xena liked so much. The red tea came from ingredients found in the land across the seas. Many leagues to the south of Greece, past the Aegean and even further south from the Mediterranean lay the dark land. I was surprised and elated when a merchant in Corinth had obtained a generous amount of the brew. I had never been there, but I had read a few of the rare accounts of the dark-skinned tribes that lived on the plains among wild and ferocious beasts. The rooibos was actually a bush with leaves that looked much like our own cedar trees. I brewed the tea from these red needles and it made for a very smooth, earthy flavored drink. I added some powdered white willow to the steaming mug, along with a touch of crushed valerian root. The mixture would cause Xena to sleep, but I knew that she had intended that anyway.

“Gabrielle? Can I do something to help?” Cor asked.

“Well…” He looked so earnest that I wished I had some small task for him. “What do you usually do during the day?”

He grinned and he reminded me of Xena and Solan with their dark hair and electric blue eyes.

“I mostly try to keep from being underfoot and getting into trouble.”

“Well, I for one could use a strong young man to show me where everything is in this kitchen.” Delia winked over at me. “Heaven knows how I’ll be able to reach up into that top cupboard.”

“Oh, I could do that! I know where everything is,” Cor answered.

I looked on and saw Selene smile, perhaps for the first time since we’d arrived. It made all the difference and suddenly the young woman looked beautiful. I smiled back at Delia and mouthed the words, thank you. I then took Xena’s mug of tea and made my way up the stairs and to our room.

I don’t know why, but I felt like knocking before I entered the room. I paused at the door, deciding against it in case Xena had already fallen asleep. Stepping inside as silently as possible, I surprised neither of the women. Cyrene turned toward me and smiled just as Xena opened one eye toward the door.

“Well, sneaking up on the two of you is definitely out,” I said. “Here you are, love.”

Cyrene added a few pillows behind Xena’s back as I assisted her in sitting up.

“I’m not an invalid, you know,” Xena said to no one in particular.

I sat down on the opposite side of the bed as Cyrene rested. “I know, my Conqueror, but doesn’t it feel good to have two women wait on you hand and foot for a change?”

She chuckled lightly, and then winced at the explosion of pain it must have caused in her head. She took a sip of the tea and smiled. “Wonderful as usual. Thank you, love.” She raised the mug for another sip and paused, looking over her cup at Cyrene and me. “Did anyone ask about me?”

“Well…yes. Everyone was having tea. Don’t worry,” I turned to reassure Cyrene. “When I left, Delia and Anya were helping Selene get everything started for the day.”

“I don’t know…” Cyrene’s expression had turned to one of worry at leaving her customary responsibilities. “I feel strange having guests do my work.”

“We’re not those kinds of guests,” Xena said and offered her mother a small smile.

“Xena’s right. Besides, Delia is in complete charge of the kitchens back in Corinth. She does it out of a love of cooking, so you have one of the best down there.”

Cyrene relaxed some, but I could tell that she was unused to having others do for her and didn’t know exactly how to react to such assistance. How much like her daughter, I thought. How was it that they had been away from one another for so many seasons and yet still had so many similar characteristics?

“So…what did you tell them…about me?” Xena interrupted my musings. “You didn’t tell them I was–”

“No, love. I mean…well, I did have to hint at it to Yu Pan. He was going to come see you if you were ill.”

“That’s okay, I guess. He knows how to hold his tongue.”

“I think he might have told Solan. Oh, and I guess Delia pretty much guessed when she heard Cyrene was up here, and–”

“So, basically everyone knows.”

“Yes. I’m sorry, Xena. I–”

“Don’t worry, love. I’m not angry.”

Xena smiled weakly and reached over to squeeze my hand before she continued to drink her tea. Only a few more moments had passed when Xena cleared her throat.

“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I feel a little strange with you two just sitting there staring at me,” Xena said.

“Oh,” Cyrene and I said in unison as if just realizing what we had been doing.

“Why don’t we just have a seat over there,” I suggested, indicating the chairs by the fireplace.

We rose and moved to the other side of the large room. The tea had already begun to work its magic. Xena took my hand and squeezed it once more before I walked away, and I couldn’t resist placing a quick kiss upon her cheek.

Cyrene and I sat in silence for some time. I admit that I wasn’t quite certain as to how to begin a conversation with Xena’s mother. I was also unsure of just how much had passed between the two women. Had they actually settled anything concerning the past? Certainly, the act of a mother comforting her crying child didn’t necessarily speak of forgiveness.

I looked back toward Xena and noticed that she had put the empty mug aside, and lay back down. She had her eyes closed and the line of her brow had relaxed, indicating sleep. Cyrene’s voice carried my conscious mind from concern over my wife back to the woman seated next to me.

“You two are remarkable to watch,” Cyrene said.

“I’m sorry, Cyrene. My mind must have been wandering. What did you say?”

“The two of you…you’re much different than I thought you’d be, her especially.”

“Is that a good thing or not?”

“Yes,” she chuckled, “I meant it as a good thing. Gabrielle, I…I’m not sure what you expect from me, even what Xena expects of me, or from her visit here. I…Gods, I actually know so little about her.” Cyrene’s voice was quiet, so as to be barely a whisper. I had to lean forward in my chair to hear her clearly, but I knew that if Xena had been awake, her unnaturally acute hearing would have sensed it.

“I’ve spent so many seasons feeling nothing at all over the past,” she finished.

I smiled, not being able to stop myself.

“You’re amused?” Cyrene asked.

“Not in the way you might think,” I answered. “It’s merely that Xena has used those exact words to describe the situation. It seems to me, though, that she spent the time doing nothing but feel.”

“I hope I haven’t offended you,” I said in response to her silence.

“No, dear. I suppose you’re more right than you realize. If I think about it, not a day’s gone by that I haven’t thought of it all…thought of her. I always wondered if I did it, if I turned her into what she became.”

“I suppose that’s what every parent ruminates about, whether they’ve had a falling out with their child or not,” I answered in an attempt to be diplomatic.

I held back from saying what I felt to be true, that Cyrene’s actions had certainly added to Xena’s change. There was so much more, though. There were no easy answers. Was it the dynamics of the mother and daughter relationship? Could having no strong male influence in her life have made Xena susceptible to Ares’s promises? Had the darkness he had cursed her with made it easy for her to turn from honor to evil? How many issues had played a part in why Xena had decided to listen to what the beast had whispered in her ear? I knew that both women needed to hear something solid, some answer to it all, but I was afraid they would find none. The truth was that they both could have handled things better on that day so long ago.

“Do you think it was my fault then?” she asked.

I wasn’t sure if she was looking for absolution for a past misdeed or merely curious as to my response. “Cyrene,” I reached over and laid my hand on hers. “I do know this much. Laying blame is not why we’re here.”

“Why are you here then?”

I offered her a confused smile as I shrugged. “It’s hard to put into words. For some sort of closure, perhaps. To settle old accounts…make amends. Find something that’s been missing. Perhaps merely for that connection that one can only obtain from family. Take your pick. I wish I had better answers for you, but I’m sort of going through the same thing myself.”

“That’s right, Xena did say that you had family in Potidaea. Has it been long since you’ve seen them?”

“Nearly twenty seasons,” I answered.

“Oh my. That’s is a long time.” She looked at me as one who knows there is more to a story, but has the good manners not to ask.

I don’t know why, I hadn’t even discussed it with Xena first, but I started in on an abbreviated version of my life. I told her of the different lands where I had lived as a slave, of how I first met Yu Pan, and finally, of how Xena and I first met. If she was surprised, or even repulsed, she hid it quite well. I held my tongue about many events, but I attempted to be as honest as a conversation with my wife’s mother would allow.

“I didn’t…well…I thought they must have all been rumors…who you were before. By the time we get news up here in Thrace it can become…well, the stories can become quite fanciful. The bards that pass through the tavern downstairs act like they get their stories from the Conqueror herself.”

She smiled and I found it contagious. I smiled along with her. I had heard some of those tales that made Xena, and even me, sound almost mythical. They accentuated everything. The good things turned into fantastic, unbelievable exploits, while they exaggerated the bad things to epic proportions.

Frankly, it’s the same in Corinth,” I added. “The people hang on every word and the bards tell the tale as though they lived in our very castle. In reality, they wouldn’t know Xena if she sat down at a table with them.”

“I think I should check on our patient,” I said, glancing to the other side of the room.

I rose and walked over to the silent bed. I smiled down at her still body, knowing she slept. Xena had kicked her legs free of the coverlet and even the sleeping shirt. I pulled the heavy blanket over her once again and bent down, placing a light kiss upon her forehead. When I returned to my chair, Cyrene had that same odd look on her face.

“It’s quite amazing really. I see how she is with you, Gabrielle, and with your friends downstairs, and she is nothing like the Conqueror that laid siege to this land.”

“That was a different woman,” I said.

“You make it sound so simple.”

“The degree of difficulty depends on how you look at life. Look at my own life. For me, there’s only here, right now. If I allowed myself to flounder in my past, I’m sure I’d have a different outlook. It’s become a matter of will, I suppose. I’m not successful every moment of every day, but I try, and I work very hard at not letting her win.”

“Her?” Cyrene asked.

“Me,” I answered, wearing an enlightened smile. “The other side of the coin that is my other self.”

“You are incredibly wise for a woman so young,” Cyrene said.

“I can’t take much credit. I believe it must be a wisdom borne of circumstance and nothing more.”

“I don’t know what to make of it all, what to make of her. You know, you go through your life pushing all these emotions into a hiding place so you don’t have to deal with them, so you can forget. You try to bury them and when something like this happens, and you pull out all those old memories to examine them, it’s all just one confused jumble.”

“That’s a very gray way of thinking. I like that,” I answered. “I’d rather talk to someone who doesn’t know what to make of things than someone who looks at everything as black and white, someone who feels as though they have all the answers.”

“Well, then you should love talking to me,” she replied, followed by light laughter. A long silence existed before she spoke again. “Where does all of this leave me and Xena then?”

“Wherever you want to be situated, I suppose. I’ve heard you ask a number of questions, but I’ve not heard you express where you want to be when all’s said and done.”

“The easiest thing would be for us to pretend that this little talk never happened, to go on with our lives. We’d know that there was no animosity between us. We’ve gone on without each other for this long. I don’t suppose it would kill us to continue in the same way.”

“I suppose that would be the easy way of it all, but is that what you’d actually like to see happen?”

“Of course not,” she answered quickly. “I have to think of Selene and Cor, too.”

“And you’re thinking that not having Xena as a part of your life would be easier on them in some way.” I knew I was pushing, and I hoped that my words wouldn’t cause my prompting to explode back in my face.

“Not really,” she answered with a sigh, running her fingers through her shoulder length hair. “I pride myself as an honest woman, Gabrielle and I think I’m simply making excuses. What I’m trying to say is that it would be easier for me not to have to deal with emotions that I’ve finally managed to bury.”

“Had you really buried them, Cyrene?”

“What do you mean by that?” Her tone told me that I’d struck some sort of tender spot.

“It’s only a guess on my part, but it feels to me like you weren’t exactly a reluctant participant in Xena’s attempt to make amends. You didn’t seem as though you tried to fight it very hard.”

She opened up her mouth, I expect to refute my judgment, but I continued before she could speak. “Oh, you started out skittish enough, but I’m thinking that if you had really not wanted the bother of it all, if you’d really wanted to do what was easiest, then you wouldn’t be experiencing so much doubt and confusion right now. I like you, Cyrene. Frankly, I don’t think I ever expected to like you so well in such a short space of time. So, my words are not out of any misplaced loyalty toward Xena. What I say to you now I say because I see, not only the pain that you and Xena have suffered, but also the inequity of your excuses.”

“Inequity?”

“Each of you says that you’ve buried the past, but your actions speak much louder than your protests. Simply said, you both sort of gave in rather quickly, if you ask me.”

“I never thought of myself as a transparent person, but I feel positively naked in front of you,” Cyrene said.

I laughed, but then quickly covered my mouth, looking over at Xena. She still slept, but I lowered my voice a notch. “I’m no seer, Cyrene, but I’ve spent a lifetime watching people who paid me no mind. I learned to anticipate and to avoid confrontation merely by learning a person’s tendencies. I suppose that’s why you think me able to look inside you,” I answered.

“Well, you were right. There’s a room downstairs, Gabrielle. Xena grew up in that room. All this time, all these seasons I’ve left it just as it was when she left…when I drove her away. You’re the first person I’ve ever told that to. I’m afraid I’ve never even explained it to Selene and Cor. I think they both know who the room belonged to, though. At the very least they suspect, especially Selene. I may have some fences to mend there, too. I don’t know why I kept the room as I did, but there you are. So you see, your assessment was much closer to the truth than you realize. I have been waiting for this moment for a long time now.”

“So, what will you do?” I asked.

“I’m still confused about it all. There are things that I’m sure neither Xena or I will find easy to say, but what makes it easier is recognizing that we both want to make it right. Each summer that’s gone by has brought me a little closer to despair of it ever happening. Now that the opportunity has arrived, I’m terrified.”

“Cyrene, there’s no reason to be frightened. Xena’s just as confused as you are. I’m almost certain that if you two just sit down together you’ll find that you’re each experiencing all of the same fears and doubts.”

“Well, then…I suspect the next few days should prove to be very interesting around here,” Cyrene said.

I believe she had no idea just how lively things could get when the Conqueror and her family were around.

End of Gabrielle’s Addendum
Chapter 19: I Remember A House Where All Were Good…
“You drugged me,” I said in a slow drawl to Gabrielle as she smiled down at me.
I toweled dry my hair; still damp from the bath I’d taken. Apollo had long since put the sun to rest yet I felt refreshed and oddly relaxed. A certain vigor had taken hold of me, I assumed from all the sleep I had obtained.

“Oh, please,” she said as she stood before me. “Do you mean to tell me that you couldn’t tell what was in it?”

“Willow and valerian,” I responded. I had caught the scent of the willow powder and the faint aftertaste left by the crushed valerian root.

“I knew you wouldn’t have taken it if you didn’t feel as though you needed it.”

“I believe I did need it, thank you, love.”

“It gave me time to get to know your mother,” Gabrielle said, to my instant dismay.

“What?” I tried to remove the discomforted tone from my voice, but I’m not certain I was successful.

“You act as though that bothers you,” she replied.

“My mother and my wife left alone all day with nothing in common but me? Oh no, where did you get that idea?”

“Very amusing, my dear Conqueror. I admit, we did speak of you, but only briefly. Hard as it may be for your ego to believe, we found things to speak of other than you.” She finished with a huge smile. Her relaxed and easy manner seemed as refreshing as my newfound energy and tranquility.

Suddenly, I wanted her. It wasn’t merely a desire to make gentle love to my wife. It was a need, pure and simple, the need to take, to own. It had been quite some time since I’d felt such a raw surge of lust, but it wasn’t the physical pleasure alone that struck at me. In the past, I had taken, but mixed into this current eclectic cluster of emotions was something new.

As I have said many times before, I have always taken care to do everything in my power not to make Gabrielle feel used, not to remind her of the days when a master could have her as rough or as coarsely as it pleased him.

I wanted her now, without even thinking of Gabrielle’s past, if for no other reason than because this woman fueled my passion beyond anything I’d ever known. I stilled my passion long enough to at least return my mind back to my wife. I was uncertain about doing anything that might make Gabrielle believe that I wanted to treat her body as a mere possession. It’s what I wanted at that moment, however. I wanted to claim her, to exert my right of ownership. I couldn’t explain this sudden need to control. Frankly, I had no desire to examine my psyche at that moment. An ache had begun between my legs that bordered upon the painful.

My hands wanted nothing more than to be on her body, and I drew her in toward me, between my open legs. I felt the muscles in the backs of her legs through the dressing gown that she wore. When my hands stopped at her backside, I realized that she wore nothing underneath the robe. That fact alone caused a raging river to flow from my aroused sex, and I was soaking wet in record time.

Her fingers traced soft patterns against the skin of my exposed shoulders and I felt the muscles in my belly tighten and quiver. It took everything in me not to grab her and drive my hand into her, claiming what was mine. I held back, closing my eyes in an attempt to restrain those emotions.

Warm lips upon my own caused my eyes to reopen rather quickly. Gabrielle’s tongue reached out and flicked against my upper lip. Her tongue pressed in, not pausing for permission to gain entrance to my mouth. Gods, if she only knew the fire she toyed with. We jousted for control, and as enjoyable as her questing tongue felt, I took no time at all in establishing the rules for the night’s pleasure. I wondered if she would be agreeable to them.

“Latch the door,” I said to her, pushing her away slightly. If she thought the tone of my voice odd in any way, she never said.

My eyes followed the sway of her hips as she walked across the room and closed both the top and bottom latches of the door. My heart tightened in my chest as I watched her. It was as if my emotions were at war. I wanted to take Gabrielle, to tease her, make her beg for release. There was another side to this desire that took me by surprise. Seeping into my conscious mind was a feeling that I could barely put explanation to. While feeling all this pent up need for control, I experienced something odd, the strange sensation that with Gabrielle, making love was never merely sex. In sharing my body with Gabrielle, torture became teasing, lust turned into longing, and the need to exert power was simply another way of giving without taking. I was simply amazed that I could attain such a personal epiphany in the throes of so much physical need.

By the time Gabrielle returned to our bed, I was in the process of tossing aside the towel I had wrapped around my body. She pushed the damp tendrils of hair away from my face and I saw a glimmer of something in her eyes. The emerald of her eyes darkened and I recognized what I could only describe as hunger. Could she need this as much as I?

I reached out and easily slipped free the loose knot of the dressing gown’s belt. The robe opened and upon seeing Gabrielle’s naked body, I felt lost. My eyes tracked upward, the smoothly shaven skin of her pubis, the flat, slightly muscled, abdomen, and the swell of two perfect breasts, hidden in part by the edges of her gown.

“Come down here,” I said.

I pulled her down toward me, situating her so that she faced me, straddling my lap. I pushed the robe from her shoulders and she easily shrugged out of the clothing. I ran my hands down her smooth back, grabbing her backside and pulling her tightly to me. We both groaned at that first skin-to-skin contact.

As our tongues teased, first in one mouth then in another, I was careful not to allow Gabrielle to feel as though she held any control. Just as she lost herself to her passion and reached out to touch me, I drew back and captured her wandering hand in one of mine. I briefly wondered at the small mind game that I thought I had put behind me upon meeting Gabrielle. There it was again, rising up like a hissing cobra from the grass. It was somehow softer now. Upon closer inspection, the sharp taste to my sexual dominance had lessened.

My fingers slid into her golden hair, pulling her head backward. The lovely line of her exposed neck was simply too much to resist. My kisses started out gently enough, but in moments, my lips drew the skin of her neck in hard enough to mark her. Gabrielle’s languid moan dispelled another passing thought, that perhaps my actions were too rough. The sound encouraged me and I felt a little better about loosing my libido. My hands tantalized, nails running along the line of Gabrielle’s back, my palms massaging her backside, pulling her against my belly.

One of my hands massaged her breast as my mouth feasted upon the opposite one. I teased and tongued a pale-colored nipple. Wrapping my lips around the hardened nub, I sucked and pulled, at last tugging at the sensitive flesh with my teeth. While sucking none too gently on one nipple, I pinched the other between my fingers. Gabrielle’s response was to grind her hips against me and cry out.

“Oh, Xena…yes.”

“Do you like it like this, Gabrielle?” I breathed against her ear.

“Yes, oh yes. Xena, please…I…I need you.”

“Need me, love? How do you need me?”

“Oh, Gods,” she moaned as I teased her with my words, continuing to stroke and torment her breasts.

“This…like this,” she gasped.

“This? Show me, Gabrielle,” I responded, entreating her to take an active part in her pleasure. “Show me how you want me, love.”

Gabrielle’s free hand reached for mine, guiding me to her own center.

My fingers slid through drenched folds. “Gods, you’re so wet,” I groaned.

I easily slipped two fingers inside of her just as her mouth covered my own. The sound of pleasure that she made, the way her moan vibrated against my lips caused an additional flood of wetness from my own body.

“Oh, Gods, Xena…harder. Gods, harder!”

I did as she asked. I made love to her with as much passion and physical force as her small body dictated. When she requested more, I gave it to her. This was no sensitive and kindhearted seduction. This was raw excitement, the sort of emotion that manipulated our eyesight into tunnel vision, narrowing our focus to only the absolute pleasure of the moment.

She came with a loud verbal cry, her climax almost sounding as if it had come upon her unawares. I trembled as I held her tightly, the touch of her skin setting my own aflame. I could barely speak a coherent thought, so great was my physical need. All my conscious thought had focused on the small area between my legs, flooded in moisture. I groaned as if in pain and slowly Gabrielle pulled back to look into my eyes.

“Xena?” she asked in a voice hoarse from passion.

“Your tongue, Gabrielle…I want to feel your tongue on me.”

I didn’t ask or beg. I simply stated my desire, what would bring me the greatest pleasure at that moment. I had no doubt that Gabrielle would provide what I wanted, exactly when I wanted it. I had already imagined in my mind what that warm tongue would feel like, sucking at those drenched folds.

As for Gabrielle, there was no hesitation on her part. She slid to her knees before me. The expression on her face caused me to believe that she anticipated as much enjoyment from pleasuring me as she had received when I had pleasured her.

I spread my legs wide and watched as the palms of Gabrielle’s hands slid along the inside of my thighs. She bent down to me, kissing and licking her way along the path that her hands had previously traveled. I groaned, not only at the feel of her, but of the sight, as well. Hearing the moaning sounds, that Gabrielle made as she moved closer to my center, merely intensified my excitement.

She explored and tasted my skin with her mouth, hands roaming up and across my stomach. It didn’t take her long to reach all of the little places on my body that made me writhe in pleasure. Gabrielle took her time with slow, lingering caresses. The touches were intoxicating and infuriating at the same time. I wanted the pleasure to last forever, but at the same time, I couldn’t reach the ultimate pleasure of my climax fast enough. By the time the tender strokes of Gabrielle fingers grazed the soaked curls between my thighs, my body already trembled in fiery expectation.

Never pausing for even a moment, Gabrielle slipped two and then three of her slender fingers inside of me.

“Fuck, yes!” I cried out as she wrapped her lips over the small hood of flesh and began to flick her tongue against it in a quick steady rhythm.

She continued the motion of slowly sliding out and then pressing in while continuing to suck at the pulsating bundle of nerves.

“Oh, yes!” I groaned even louder. The sensation of Gabrielle’s fingers filling me competed with the sensation of a firm tongue lapping insistently at my center.

A furious heat encompassed my body. I could scarcely catch my breath, unable to focus on anything beyond the warm, liquid feel of Gabrielle’s pleasuring. My body raced toward the swirling center of my being, to that hidden point where light and dark converged, where there was no beast within me, only untainted ecstasy.

I felt my inner muscles tighten, and then quiver uncontrollably. I took in one long gasp and threw back my head. The cry from my throat felt as though it had been ripped from my soul. Gabrielle’s tongue went still, but she continued the motion of her hand, its steady rhythm continuing to move in and out of my body. Before my mind had come down from my first orgasm, another shook me completely.

My muscles held on to those fingers buried deeply inside. I wove my hand into the thick golden hair, pulling her head firmly against me and feeling that delicate tongue once more. I rocked my hips in keeping with the rhythm she used, touching me to my very core. With one more cry I arched my back, unable to hold back any longer and not even sure why I wished to in the first place.

I fell back onto the bed, Gabrielle climbing up beside me. We were both sated beyond measure, but we continued to spend the rest of the night touching and pleasuring one another. There was not so much urgency to our passions, but it felt as though our love grew stronger with every touch.
hhhhhh{ggggg

“I forbid you to leave the room this morning until you remove that grin from your face,” Gabrielle admonished me.

I tried, but was unable to remove the ridiculously smug smile. Yesterday’s enormous amount of slumber had instilled me with more stamina than I’d experienced in ages. We pleasured one another so many times that I lost count and, for the first time in our relationship, Gabrielle cried mercy, giving in to the need for rest before I did. Of course, being the naturally forgiving woman that I was, I hadn’t wanted to toss that fact back into her face. Little did I realize that my haughty grin was a crystal clear reminder.

“What?” I attempted to appear innocent. I’d been working on just such a look for some time, and I was convinced that I’d finally perfected it.

“Don’t even try that, my Conqueror,” she said, easily seeing through my ruse. “You look about as innocent as a python caught in a bird’s nest.”

All right, I would have to go back to the practice arena to further work on my attempts at an innocuous expression. I tried to subtly express myself with words instead.

“My little one, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Gabrielle rewarded me with a glare. I would have to resort to emergency behavior. I pouted.

“Oh, stop that,” she said through her laughter, flouncing down upon the bed beside me.

“Well, I’m just not sure I know how to act in the face of such accusations,” I responded.

“All I know is that I have to walk out of this room today and face nearly all our friends and family, knowing full well that every one of them heard me scream and beg last evening as if I was a willing prisoner in a brothel.”

The smile returned, which earned me a good-natured slap on the arm.

“Xena, have you no shame…especially in your mother’s house?”

“Nope. Gabrielle,” I hurried to explain to her thoroughly crushed look. “It isn’t as though we were the first married couple to enjoy pleasure in this inn. Plus, I don’t know about you, and you’ll probably think me mad or arrogant, but any day that I can hear sounds like those of last evening come from your lips, I consider it a good day, indeed. That I in particular caused those sounds you made, well, for that I consider myself a most fortunate woman.”

Gabrielle smiled at me and followed it with a gentle kiss. “How is it your eloquence never deserts you when you’re trying to talk your way out of something, my Conqueror?”

“I suppose the Gods just get tired of picking on me most days,” I replied. “What have you planned for today?” I asked, changing the subject.

“I thought I’d spend some time with Selene.”

“Selene?” I questioned. “Why?”

I knew what my tone said. It indicated that I might as well have said, why bother? It was a cruel thought, but still rather apt. I thought the girl had all the charm of a poisonous asp. In the little interaction I had with her since our arrival, she had displayed a total disdain for me.

“Xena,” Gabrielle said in such a way that I recognized it as a chastisement. I knew that I deserved it.

“Oh, I know, but she’s just so…I mean that girl is–”

“Your sister?” Gabrielle asked.

“I suppose, as much as it pains me to say it.”

“I think she envies you, love. Probably just a bit of sisterly jealousy.”

“Envy? Me? What in Hades name for?”

“One very good reason that neither of you can do a thing to change. You were here first. You know, Cyrene told me that she’s kept your room downstairs, just as you left it, for all these seasons.”

“I know. I saw it the other morning. It was a little unnerving, but sort of reassuring at the same time.”

“I think that might have affected Selene more than Cyrene realized.”

“I suppose.”

“You should talk to her, Xena.”

“Not yet.”

I tied off the laces of my leather trousers, preparing to leave the room without Gabrielle if I had to do. I was no more ready to have this conversation with Gabrielle than I was prepared to confront my half-sister.

“Xena…”

“Gabrielle!”

We stood toe to toe, my much smaller wife and me. It felt like an eternity since I’d lost my temper, even longer since I’d directed it at her. I held tightly to the reins of my control, however. Gabrielle meant well, yet I didn’t know exactly how to tell her that I simply wasn’t ready for this, for the emotional toll that another family confrontation was certain to bring. Perhaps my expression told her what my tongue could not.

“I’m sorry,” she said, lowering her head. “I didn’t mean–”

“Neither did I.” I reached down and kissed the top of her head. She looked up at me and once more, I realized that without saying a word, Gabrielle had known what was in my heart.

I kissed her forehead lightly. “I will do exactly as you say, love, I promise. It’s not that I don’t agree with you, but I’m just not ready. Not yet.”

She nodded her head. “I understand. Forgive my impatience.”

“Now, are you going to finish dressing, or do I leave you to walk into the dining room unescorted?”

“Oh, no you don’t,” she said past her laughter. “I’ll only be a few more moments. I have no intention of walking into that room, filled with the jeering faces of our friends and family, without you beside me.”

“I’ll wager they heard nothing,” I said in an attempt to reassure. I sat down to wait.

“Well, I hope you’re right,” she replied. “I suppose the only satisfaction I might have will be that they heard your cries right along with mine.” She smiled one of those ‘payback’ smiles.

****
My happy expression slowly faded as I thought about her last statement.
“I told you so,” Gabrielle just couldn’t wait to say.

Chuckles and red-faced comments abounded the moment we sat down to a morning meal with the rest of our party.

“All right, I’ll have no more nonsense at the table,” Cyrene said as she sat down beside Gabrielle, patting her shoulder.

“I don’t get it,” Cor said to Atrius. “What’s everybody laughing for?”

“Don’t know, son. I didn’t hear a thing last night,” Atrius answered.

“That’s because he was making more noise than the two of you,” Solan leaned closer to me to say. His voice was just loud enough for the others to hear, however, and Anya’s face turned as scarlet as the bowl of pomegranates.

“Cyrene is right. I’m amazed that intelligent adults have so little else to talk about,” Delia said.

I have never seen grown people express so much chagrin in so little time. My mother was a stranger to many of those around the table, but Delia was a friend and mother figure to us all.

“I must learn your technique,” Cyrene said, sharing a smile with Delia.

“Yes, well…ahem,” I cleared my throat, attempting to take back some control. “Atrius, have you notified the harbor and the Captain there?”

“Aye, Conqueror. Would you like to inspect the operations today?”

“Might be a good day for it,” I replied, knowing that the harbor at Amphipolis would require a good two or three days to inspect.

The port was an important one to the welfare of the Empire and I wanted to concentrate on our mining and ship building operations there. Thrace was an important source of raw materials used in both these industries. The gold and silver mined from the Mt. Pangaeus district supplied a great deal of the Empire with metals. Gold was mostly decorative, but we used silver as money and bullion. My profile shone from where it had been stamped into the drachma, along with Athena’s image on the reverse side. The smaller obols held my image and that of a lion on the reverse. There were many other types and denominations of silver coins, all with some traditional Greek design on them.

Timber was another valuable product found in abundance within the area of Thrace. Actually, the hills that surrounded Amphipolis had been nearly bare of wood at one time. I remembered a day when I had been forced to purchase timber from the Etruscans in order to build ships. Now, the forests grew so thick that it became a necessity to farm the timber. Warships were constructed right at the harbor in Amphipolis. Both the mining and ship building operations were extremely important to the Empire. It would never do to allow the officers and leaders of these industries think that the Empire was not always watching them.

“Solan, I’d like to introduce you to a few of the officers there. Are you up for it?”

“Absolutely.”

“Master Yu Pan, you are welcome to join us, of course,” I said.

“Thank you, Conqueror. I already have another invitation for the day, however.”

“Master Yu Pan has been good enough to agree to visit with me today,” Cyrene informed me. My mother had long been the healer for our village. She had been looking forward to sharing information with the well-known practitioner since his introduction.

I watched, from the corner of my eye, as Gabrielle chatted quietly with Selene. My sister looked uncomfortable and I could only wonder of what they spoke.

“And what will your Amazons be up to today, Ephiny?” I asked.

“We go where the Queen goes,” she replied.

“That’s wonderful Ephiny. We’ll be able to use your help, I’m sure,” Gabrielle said.

“Help?” Ephiny asked.

“Yes. I just told Selene that I would give her a hand this morning watching the children.”

“Children?”

I always enjoyed seeing Ephiny’s discomfort. I’m not sure why, but we had that sort of friendship. Perhaps it’s something only understood between warriors, I don’t know. What I do know is that the expression on the Amazon’s face gave me a great deal of enjoyment.

“Selene runs sort of a community child care. It really helps out, especially during harvest when the women work in the fields during the day,” Gabrielle explained.

“Well, that sounds wonderful, doesn’t it Ephiny?” I said while trying to keep a straight face.

She glared at me, which only made it that much harder not to burst into laughter.

“Uhm,” Cor straightened in his chair in an attempt to get my attention. “I could show you how to get down to the harbor,” he finally said.

“But, I already know where the harbor is.”

“Oh.” He looked crestfallen. I didn’t have the heart to prolong his misery.

“That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like my brother’s company, though.”

Cor’s smile lit up the room even more than the sunlight already filtering in through the windows. The boy was genuine and I couldn’t quite help but like him. I found his energy and enthusiasm refreshing as well as contagious.

“Cor, have you forgotten about Altus?” Cyrene said.

“Oh, no,” Cor answered.

“Altus…the smith?” I asked.

“I’m working as his apprentice,” Cor answered with an expression of pride.

“I’m impressed,” I said.

“That’s pretty tough work,” Solan added.

“But, I have to work this morning, until midday. I can’t go to the harbor with you.” Cor’s disappointment came through in his voice.

“So, Altus is still the smith, eh?” I repeated. “Well, I wouldn’t mind paying him a visit. What to you say, Atrius, think we can postpone the inspection until this afternoon?”

“Aye, Conqueror. Easily enough.”

“How about it, Cor? Why don’t you take me along with you so I can visit Altus? That way we can all go down to the harbor this afternoon.”

“Oh, that would be great, Xena–I mean, Conqueror.”

I hadn’t been the only one uncertain about the true nature of the relationship I had to these people, this family. Cor acted just as confused as I was.

“Cor, I’m your sister. There’s no need for formality between us,” I said. “Altus must be getting a little long in the tooth for smithy work.”

“He’s the best,” Cor said. “He can make anything and he’s as strong as a Minotaur.”

“Well, we best be off, then,” I said.

I kissed Gabrielle goodbye and slapped Ephiny on the back. “Have fun,” I whispered to Ephiny.

Alerting Atrius as to exactly where I would be, Cor and I took off toward the center of town. I should have known that Atrius would be looking out for me. Four of my guard followed along at a discreet distance.

“Hey, Cor!” A small group of boys called out from behind us. “Is that your sister…the Conqueror?”

They laughed heartily and I saw the tips of Cor’s ears grow red. I suspected that Cor’s insistence that his newfound sister was the ruler of the land had been met with some ridicule from his mates.

I turned around once the boys grew closer. I stood up straight and folded my arms across my chest. I expect I was an impressive sight, considering the tallest among them only came up to my shoulders. They looked like a string of trout, all staring at me wide-eyed with their mouths hanging open.

“L–Lord Conqueror,” one boy finally managed. Soon they had all dropped to one knee. At least their parents had taught them manners.

“Get up, gentlemen. If you’re friends of Cor’s then you’ve no need to cower.”

“Wow,” one lad kept saying.

I smiled because I remembered what it was like to meet a full-fledged warrior for the first time, to have him acknowledge someone as insignificant as me. I felt as though the world had been mine that day, merely because a hero had spoken to me.

“Do you really live in a castle in Corinth?” one asked.

“Aye,” I answered.

“And is it as huge as they say?” another asked as we all walked along.

“Well, I think I do remember getting lost in the halls a time or two.”

“The sword,” the shortest among them whispered to Cor. “You said she had the sword.”

“Oh, you mean this?” I drew my weapon and held one hand up to the nearest guard. He had stepped forward, unsure of what I was doing.

I twirled my wrist, the large sword whistling through the air. “Here, Cor, why don’t you show it to them.” I handed the blade to my brother. I could see that he hadn’t expected such weight.

“Careful now. The blade’s damn sharp. Look, don’t touch or you’re likely to lose a finger,” I said.

Each youngster stared at the weapon in turn and I finally took it from Cor’s grasp. The boys realized they were all still standing there, staring. They all went their own ways, but I saw the way in which they looked at Cor. I hoped he would use the new respect that I had earned him wisely. He seemed like the sort who would.

We entered the large barn used by the smith. I smiled at the memories the place conjured up for me. It smelled of wood smoke and the back of my throat burned at the acrid odor of smelted metal. My mouth felt rather like I’d placed a silver drachma on my tongue.

Already sweltering hot inside the barn, Cor immediately stripped off his shirt and began to feed wood into the belly of a large log-fired forge making the temperature inside the building rise rather quickly. “Altus should be along shortly. He taught me how to get the fires hot enough, so he can start work as soon as he gets here.”

I sat down atop an old barrel and removed my leather vest, rolling up my sleeves and loosening the ties of my shirt at the stifling heat. I glanced around the large building, at the weaponry, armor, and tools scattered around the building in various states of repair. Surrounding the smaller hand forge lay anvil, hammer, pliers and, other hand tools. The smith used a hand forge to work on things like horseshoes and plow shares. As if for proof, horseshoes of various sizes hung on all the rafters.

I examined a large sword with intricate metalwork around the hilt that lay on a table beside me. “He still does fantastic work,” I said.

“You talk like you’ve seen his craft before. Do you know Altus, Xena?”

“That she does.” A voice from the past answered Cor. “Lord Conqueror,” Altus said, bowing low before me.

I rose and moved to where he stood. He must have been close to seventy seasons, but for all the time under his belt, he still appeared trim and well fit. The top of his head was smooth, but the hair on the sides of his head had long since gone gray.

“Altus, my friend, I was never more than Xena in my youth. Please think of me that way again.”

“Xena,” he said as he rose. He said my name with a sort of dreamy reflection on his face and I guessed that he must have been thinking on memories from days when we were both much younger.

He grasped my arm and we stood there without saying a word. I had a fondness for this old man. He had taught me much about using a sword when I was a youngster, and he was one of the few who had stood beside me back in the old days. He had felt as strongly about fighting off Cortese as I. Suddenly, I felt ashamed, mortified at what I had become over the seasons once I ran away from Amphipolis. I wondered what he had thought of me during that time and how disappointed he must have been. To my relief, he mentioned none of it.

“Well, one thing’s certain. You’ve grown a bit since you left home,” he said.

He laughed and I noticed for the first time that we were of nearly equal height.

“I’ve missed your talents, old friend. Now that I’ve returned, I plan to spend some money on your custom work.”

“Working in the metal has always been my love, Xena, as well you know. I’d be happy to create anything you have need of. This one, though,” he nodded his head in Cor’s direction, “Has the talent in his blood. He does all my heavy work these days. By the time I’m ready for Hades, this will be Cor’s business.”

“A talented smith in the family? Now that is a boon.” I winked at Cor, who responded with a broad smile.

I conversed with Altus and watched as he and Cor worked for most of the morning. The old man had been correct. Cor did seem to have an eye for how to work the metal. The boy had inherited a good work ethic from Cyrene and the respect he showed Altus impressed me. They stopped for a break at midmorning and we all sat outside, away from the heat of the smelting pots.

“Did Altus make that sword, Xena? The Lion one?” Cor asked. It made sense to me now as to why he had been so fascinated with my blade. His chosen profession gave him a natural admiration for such metalwork.

“That he did.” I touched the lion’s head and fingered the two sapphire eyes, thinking of the days when I had earned the name, Lion. Those were good days. I was a warrior, but one with honor and integrity. Back then, mothers wanted their daughters to be like me, a woman with strength enough to earn her own way in a land where men had always ruled. That was before I changed. Once the beast stole control of my life, those same mothers hid their daughters when I rode into town.

“I remember,” Altus said, looking at me. “Hot, just like today it was. Funny, the things your memory keeps a hold of when you get older.”

I smiled and nodded my head in agreement. “I remember blue.”

“The color blue?” Cor asked.

He looked at Altus and I as though we had lost our senses. I didn’t blame him. At his age, I’m sure I looked at my elders in the same way when they began reminiscing.

I chuckled at the boy’s confusion. “Yes, the color blue, the sky, the ocean. I remember how blue they were that day. I wore blue silk pantaloons, too. The village council of Amphipolis presented me with this sword in appreciation for keeping the Thracian coast free of invaders.”

“Persians?” Cor asked.

“Persians, Romans, Pirates…Barbarians,” I replied.

“Except them Britons, speaking of blue, of course.” He laughed aloud at a memory from some long forgotten battle. “They preferred to fight on their own soil.”

I grinned right back at the old man and turned to Cor to explain. “The Britons scared the Tartarus out of me the first time I did battle with them. The men wore women’s skirts, if you can believe that, and they painted their faces this wicked blue color. Gods, what fighters they were. They had no fear of us at all.”

“And the sword, Xena, does it really turn into a burning hot flame when you’re in battle?” Cor asked.

He had such an innocently curious expression on his face that I didn’t want to laugh, but Altus saved me the trouble. He roared with laughter.

“Boy, where in Hades did you hear such a thing?” He asked as he tried to regain his breath.

“Well, you know…” Cor’s face had turned scarlet and I lowered my head so that my hair covered my face, along with the smile that I wore.

“A guy hears things…” He trailed off and dug into the soft earth with a twig he had picked up.

“What else have you heard about me, Cor?” I figured we might as well get it all into the open.

“Stuff…” He continued to absently twirl the stick in the dirt.

“Coras,” I prodded.

“Well…Brentillius told me that you used to ride down from the sky and onto the battlefield in a chariot of flaming fire that Ares himself fashioned for you!” His sentence took on momentum with every word and his eyes were wide by the time he had finished.

Altus snorted. “Hades’ teeth, boy. You been livin’ with them women too long!”

“But, Brentillius said he saw it with his own eyes.”

“Chances are he’d had his fill at the tavern before he saw it, too.” Altus continued to laugh. “Cor, have you ever seen anything like that for yourself?”

“Well, no. I just thought that maybe…”

“It’s all right, Cor,” I said. “We all want to believe in the fanciful now and again. I’m just a flesh and blood woman, though, and that’s the truth. I’ve had more than a mortal’s share of experience with Gods, but there’s no flaming sword or chariot of fire. I hope you’re not disappointed.”

“Oh, no, not in you, Xena. Deep down, I think I knew that such things were impossible. I guess maybe I wanted to believe. It kinda made you like…I don’t know…a hero or something.”

I wondered what to say to my brother. What words of wisdom could I offer the boy that would tell him who I once was and who I became, and of all the days in between?

“My life has been far from a hero’s tale, Cor. In fact, I’m not too proud of many parts and downright shamed by others. There are many things about who I am that I don’t wish you to know of and, if you already know, I’d pray that you don’t imitate. One thing I’m sure of, and that’s that I will never be remembered as a hero.”

“But, you changed,” Cor said.

From unsuspecting lips can come the most profound of statements. Cor looked at me and I realized that if he knew of my past, the worst parts of it, he gave no indication at all. My heart felt lighter because of that fact. I had only ever experienced that sort of unconditional love from Gabrielle. Perhaps I felt good because of the simple idea that I had a little brother who loved me once more, but I think it went deeper. His love and acceptance also told me that perhaps I hadn’t been born bad, fated to evil. If there was even one drop of the same blood flowing in each of us then maybe it meant that I had a chance. Maybe there was hope for me yet.

“Aye, Cor. I changed.”

“And that is the mark of a man, or woman, of honor,” Altus said.

We exchanged a look and the old man’s expression told me that he believed my past to be far behind me. His respect did more to encourage me than all the words he could have thought to utter.
Chapter 20: When I Consider How My Light Is Spent…
Cor and I washed up, put on fresh clothing, and joined the rest of our party. Cor appeared slightly in awe of the fresh uniforms and armor that Atrius and the other soldiers wore. Even I had donned my finest for the inspection. The high collar and tightly fastened jacket were far from comfortable, but I knew that it looked impressive. That was all that mattered, especially since I only went there on a rare occasion. It wasn’t far to the port offices and I preferred to walk rather than ride. I suppose it may not have been the most impressive or regal way for the Conqueror to enter the harbor. Appearance was directly related to power among the men of Greece.

I had to actually formulate a plan for this inspection. It would do no good for those in my employ, yet so far from the throne in Corinth, to think that I didn’t have a clue as to what went on here. Some of the men in charge of the Empire’s work in Amphipolis were honorable and had earned my trust. Others were simply good at what they did; yet, I suspected them to be men who weren’t reluctant to lining their pockets with someone else’s wealth.

It was a delicate thread, the one that separated Xena the ruler, from Xena the woman. I balanced myself along that faint line, careful not to appear too casual, too familiar with these men, especially those in charge of the Empire’s coffers. At the same time, the new woman I had become did not want them to see me only as their lord and master. I was their ruler, that was true, but I preferred them to serve out of loyalty rather than fear. I believe this is the first time I have ever written those words. Perhaps it means that there is hope for the Conqueror yet.

Atrius joined us, easily stepping into pace beside me. “The officers will be meeting us near the mill, Conqueror. You can speak with them, see the lumber operation, and visit the warehouses without too much travel.”

“Excellent planning, my friend. Tell me, Cor, have you ever been aboard a warship before?” I asked as we walked along under the summer sun.

“I’ve never been on any ship before. The only thing I’ve ever been on the water in was an old raft I used to fish off of.”

“I can’t wait myself,” Solan added, slapping Cor on the back. “The ships made here in Amphipolis have a reputation as the best in the Empire. I’ve been on some big ships before, but never a warship.”

“Have you traveled a lot, Solan?” Cor asked.

“Hardly any at all…yet.” He smiled over at me. “I’m an emissary for the Empire now. I’m going to travel a great deal from here on in, go to all the places I’ve dreamed about. Master Yu Pan is going to accompany me to Chin. He’s even been teaching me their language. Pretty exciting, huh?”

I smiled at my son’s boyish enthusiasm. At that moment, I had to wonder which of these young men my son was and which was my brother.

“Um…I suppose,” Cor answered.

“Travel and adventure are not for everyone,” I added, guessing the reason behind Cor’s hesitant response.

“The other fellows my age think I’m foolish to want to stay here in Amphipolis,” he said. “It’s not that I’m afraid of traveling. I think it would be awfully fun to meet new people and see new places, but…I really love what I do, working with Altus.”

“And that’s a bold choice, little brother,” I responded. I draped my arm over Cor’s shoulder as he walked between Solan and myself. “It takes as much courage to spend your life in one place as it does to travel the known world,” I responded.

“Really?” Cor sounded surprised.

“Absolutely. There’s no given that your life will be any easier staying close to home. Sometimes it can be harder. What makes the difference is why you’re doing it. You want to stay here and do something you love, something you’ve a talent for. That will make all the difference where your future happiness is concerned, Cor. Besides, there’s something to be said for having a home and a family to come home to each evening. Your nephew will learn that in time,” I added with a wink at Solan.

“In time, mother, but in the meantime, I plan on having some fun,” Solan quipped.

I said nothing, but arched one eyebrow in Solan’s direction.

“Within the parameters of my position, of course.” He coughed and straightened his jacket.

“That’s what I thought you said,” I replied.

It felt so refreshing, the casual banter between the three of us, my son, my brother, and me. It also felt odd, but most of all, it seemed right and natural. I sent what had become my daily expression of thanks to Athena as I walked along. I offered it in silence with no temple in site, but I was sure the Goddess understood. Actually, aside from my lovely Gabrielle, I felt as though Athena had been the only other woman to halfway understand me. She had suffered, with unending patience I might add, through my bouts of childishness, customary selfishness, and monstrous ego. For that alone I owed her much.
hhhhhh{ggggg

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
“Please don’t make me, Gabrielle,” Ephiny said. She stood before me and looked into the room as though it contained a thousand deadly cobras.

“Ephiny, you’re an Amazon. I would have expected a little more backbone than this.”

“Gabrielle, I would do anything for you, I think you know that. I would gladly step between you and an oncoming chariot, a centaur’s arrow, or even a mountain troll. But, please, I beg of you, please, do not make me go in there with that pack of…of wild–”

“You make it sound as if they’re jackals.” I chuckled at her aversion to being in the same room with the children that Selene cared for during the day. “Look at Mika and Shanta. They look like they’re actually having fun.”

“They are. They love kids. Some women are like that, but not me. I’m a warrior, Gabrielle, through and through.”

“I distinctly remember you saying that you go where the Queen goes.”

“Really? I think you take what I say much too literally. What I actually meant was that I go almost anywhere the Queen goes.”

We stood there staring at one another in silence. I had my arms folded across my chest as I valiantly tried not to laugh. In reality, I had no intention of forcing Ephiny to do anything she didn’t want to do, but I must admit that I was mildly amused, watching as Ephiny shifted her weight uncomfortably from foot to foot. I was rather surprised at my own behavior. This was more like something Xena would do in order to make Ephiny squirm. I could hear Xena’s voice inside my head telling me that it was all a part of coming in to my own.

“All right, all right. Don’t have a breakdown on me.” I could barely contain my mirth. “I’ll be fine with Mika and Shanta, besides there are guards all over the inn, inside and out. Why don’t you catch up with Xena, go hunting, or find something to do that befits a warrior.”

“You are the greatest Amazon Queen to walk the earth.” The relief in her voice was more than apparent. As long as I live, I will never understand how anyone could fear something as small as a child.

“Go on, get out of here,” I replied in between my laughter.

I don’t think I had ever been around youngsters very much. How odd that I could love children so much and yet rarely have been in their company. Standing at the door, watching as Selene welcomed each of the women who brought their children to the inn for the day, I felt as though being in a room full of boisterous children happened to me every day. I couldn’t seem to stop smiling and in the back of my mind, I wondered why I was one of those women. The women I’m speaking of are the ones that Ephiny referred to, for whom child rearing appeared to come so naturally. How does that happen? Is it something that Hestia is responsible for? Does the Goddess of hearth and home choose women of particular characteristics to bestow the honor upon, or is it more random?

I greeted each of the strangers with a smile and accepted their praise and curtsies with as much graciousness as I could. It always seemed perfectly normal for people to call me Queen when Xena stood at my side, but without her, it felt wrong somehow, not exactly wrong, but altogether different.

Selene was quite expert at childcare. She played games, laughed, and even sang with the youngsters. I had as much fun as the children listening to the stories she made up for them. To see Selene smile and laugh made me feel better about her. I had begun to think that she didn’t know how. Her constant posture of mistrust, almost anger, made her so unlike Cyrene and Coras. I wondered how she could be so different from them.

“You’re quite a storyteller,” I said.

“Do you really think so?” she asked.

I heard uncertainty in her voice. Gone was her confident facade. She sounded as any other young woman who needed love and support. It made me wonder if Cyrene had been so busy building a better life for her children that she forgot the here and now of raising them. I mentally rebuked myself for the thought. Never having lived Cyrene’s life, I had no right to pass judgment.

“I do indeed. You should write them down. I know Xena would love to read them.”

It was immediately apparent that I’d said the wrong thing. The mere mention of Xena’s name was enough to ruin the moment. Selene’s scowl returned.

“I can’t picture the Conqueror enjoying children’s tales. I can’t even picture her around children,” Selene said.

I smiled, overlooking the fact that she meant the comment as an insult. “I must say, children do have a way of scaring the Tartarus out of her, but the funny thing is, they actually take to her quite well.”

“I wouldn’t trust her with my kids,” Selene said.

“Why?” I asked. I wanted to hear it from her, why she had such contempt for my wife. I was actually rather curious to know if it was more than jealousy on her part. I wondered if she would continue or retreat into her customary silence. It seemed as though my conversation had loosened her tongue, though.

“She’s a monster,” she blurted out. “I’ve heard tales of the things she’s done.”

I took a deep breath. I had to calm myself and remember who I was speaking with, and why. Of course, every instinct within me wanted to go into protection mode for my Xena, but I realized that wouldn’t do with this young woman.

“I won’t lie to you, Selene. Yes, in the past, Xena has done some things that even I have considered quite monstrous. Nevertheless, the key word here is past. Simply stated, she’s no longer that woman.”

Selene let out a short burst of air that sounded like a snort of disbelief. “It’s not that easy. No one can change overnight like that.”

“Xena’s change has been far from simple and by no means overnight.”

“So, you’ve changed her, have you?” she asked.

I laughed aloud, which caused the children around us to join in with their own giggles although they had no idea of what we spoke. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” I replied. “To change one’s character, their very soul, takes amazing strength and a great deal of time. Xena began to change her ways long before she met me, seasons in fact. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to turn her life around, but she had no idea how. Maybe that’s what my role has been in her conversion, I don’t know, but I do know that she no longer resembles the woman in those old tales.”

“You seem to have a great deal of confidence in this conversion of hers, Gabrielle.”

“I suppose I do, but then again I’ve seen the effects more than anyone else has. Selene, do you honestly think a woman like the one in those old tales could fall in love with her slave, marry her, and make her a Queen of the entire Greek Empire? You’ve seen the way she treats her friends, the way she acts toward me. Does that sound anything like that old Xena you’ve heard so much about?”

She shrugged and I saw that she didn’t want to admit defeat, but I had at least caused her to question her previous thinking. That was a start.

“She doesn’t know how it’s been here…all these years,” she said at last.

“I’m sure she has no idea what your life has been like, Selene. I’m sure none of us truly understand how it’s affected you.”

She looked at me, appearing to take comfort in my simple acknowledgment of her life as the younger sister of the woman famous throughout the known world as the Conqueror. I could only surmise that Selene looked at herself as the one who came last and had always felt as though she was second to Xena in all ways.

“Look at those two for example.” I pointed out two girls of about four and seven summers. I knew them to be sisters, but they had done nothing but go head to head since the moment they walked through the door.

“Cara and Pavi,” she replied. “They’re always at each other. It’s like they grate on each other or something.”

“True, I’ve watched how they act toward one another all morning, but look over there. See the little boy who wants the wooden soldier that Pavi has?”

Selene nodded and we continued to watch the scene play out. “Cara always seems to either physically push her smaller sister around, fight with her, or order her about. The curse of the younger sister, I suppose. Have you ever seen Cara actually behave in just a plain out and out mean way to Pavi?” I asked.

“I don’t really recall. I think they just argue all the time.”

“I suspected as much. Just watch what happens now, though.”

The little boy snatched the wooden soldier from Pavi’s hands and the girl began to cry. Selene made a move to intercept the boy, but I stayed her with one hand.

“Not yet. Look,” I said.

Cara’s head whipped around as soon as she heard her younger sister’s cries. It didn’t take her long to cross the room and confront the boy. She stood between Pavi and the boy, snatching the toy from his grasp.

“Here Pavi, don’t cry anymore,” Cara said.

We continued to watch, knowing that in another candlemark, the girls would probably be at one another again.

“I honestly never expected that,” Selene said.

“Maybe Cara just doesn’t realize how Pavi feels about being the younger one. You can see, though, that the moment Pavi needed her, Cara was right there. Sometimes life is just like that.”

A long silence endured between us as we sat there, watching Mika and Shanta play horse and rider with the children. The two Amazons took turns giving the children rides on their backs.

“Do you have children, Gabrielle,” Selene asked me at last. She didn’t look over at me, but kept her eyes focused on the activity in the center of the room.

“I–No, I don’t.” I had no idea how to explain my past, nor did I feel like divulging it just then. What a relief it was to me when I realized that I could actually think on that memory without falling apart. Master Yu Pan’s skills had truly helped me. “I very much want to, though.”

She looked over and raised one eyebrow. Gods! How she reminded me of Xena when she did that. “Xena’s children, of course,” I quickly added.

“The logistics of that seem a little tricky.” She grinned and I returned the smile with an awkward one of my own.

“Well, I’m a faithful servant of Athena. I have hopes that she will answer my prayers. The last time I saw her, she did give me certain reassurances.”

“You saw her…in person?”

I nodded.

“Wow. Have you met any other Gods?” she asked. I heard astonishment in her voice. How quickly I had become accustomed to the immortals that came and went in our lives. One summer earlier, I had the same expression on my face when Xena told me that she actually had personal dealings with the Olympian Gods.

“Some, yes.”

“Well, tell me. Who?” she asked.

“Artemis, of course. She’s the patron of the Amazons. I recently met Pan in Athens. I quite liked him. Oh, and there was Ares.”

“The God of War? Wow, I would have been shaking in my boots. What did you do when you met him?”

“I slapped him, as I recall.”

“You–” She stopped and pulled her head back, looking me up and down. “Remind me never to get on your bad side,” she said with a smile.

“I wasn’t nearly as brave as I make it sound. It’s a long story, but I tend to forget just how little I am when I’m confronting someone on Xena’s behalf, and at that moment, that’s exactly what I was doing.”

“Gabrielle, I have this feeling that you’re the only one who thinks of yourself as small.”

Her response, I noticed, carefully avoided mentioning my wife’s name at all.

“So,” I began as I looked around the room. The conversation had seemed to spotlight me and, as usual, that made me slightly uncomfortable. I tried to change the subject. “I bet you can’t wait to have a whole houseful of your own.” I indicated the children before us.

“I won’t be having any children. I can’t,” she answered.

For the second time during our conversation, I had placed my foot in my mouth. “I’m so sorry, Selene. I didn’t mean to–I mean, I didn’t realize you couldn’t have children.”

“Oh, no. It’s not that I can’t. It’s nothing physical. I just can’t…um, I’ve just decided that I can’t be with a man.”

I wondered if my face reflected the confusion I felt. “I…I don’t think I–I mean…you’ve decided this already?”

“Gods, this is embarrassing,” Selene said. Her cheeks began to glow pink. “I never expected to be telling a stranger this.”

“I’m not exactly a stranger.”

“Well, I just mean that I really haven’t told this to anyone.” She took a deep breath and I remained silent, allowing her the time she needed.

“It’s not exactly something I decided. Actually, it is and it isn’t. What I mean is that I don’t want to be with a man that way…any man,” she enunciated the last words slowly and I knew that she was sending me some sort of a message that I wasn’t getting.

“Oh,” I answered. Finally, it dawned on me what she meant. “Ohhh,” I responded. “I’m sorry. That was a little thick of me.”

“I figured if anyone would get it, you would.”

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to share that kind of a relationship with a woman, Selene.”

“It’s not that I’m ashamed. I know a few women who feel the same as me. I guess I’m disappointed at the idea of never having my own children. I don’t really know the Gods well enough to ask for favors.”

“I understand completely, but not having children from your own body doesn’t mean that you’ll be forced to go childless. There are alternatives. Besides, there are orphanages full of wonderful children who want nothing more than to be a part of a loving family, to have a mother who obviously has so much love to give. Your choice to love a woman doesn’t mean you can’t have a family of your own.”

“I guess I never thought about it that way.” Selene turned on the bench so that she faced me. “Thanks, Gabrielle. I appreciate you talking to me like this. It helps getting someone else’s perspective, especially someone who knows people as well as you seem to.”

“I enjoy talking to you, Selene, so it’s been my pleasure. Cyrene’s a pretty smart cookie, though. Have you ever talked about these things with her?”

“Are you kidding…with mother?”

“I take it that means you haven’t told her how you feel about women.”

“She’d flip, plain and simple.”

I smiled at her assessment of her mother. How we underestimate those around us. Cyrene and Selene weren’t the first mother and daughter that I knew to be oblivious to each other’s thoughts and feelings. Part of the problem was that daughters always seemed to believe that their mothers just fell from the sky one day and had not experienced any life at all. I wondered why that was.

“You’d be surprised, not only at how understanding your mother can be, but also how worldly. I imagine she’s seen quite a bit within these four walls.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Give her a chance. I’ll bet she surprises you.”

“You think so?” I could see that the idea tempted her.

“I can almost guarantee it.”

“I’m taking a big chance if your guarantee fails. I’ll have to come live with you if mother throws me out.” She grinned.

I knew she was teasing, but I also wanted to make her feel welcome. I smiled right back at her. “Even if you don’t get thrown out, the invitation exists. You’re welcome to stay with us whenever you care to. I’m sure you’d love Corinth.”

“Thanks.”

“Of course, that involves making some sort of peace with your sister,” I added.

She shrugged and looked away. I didn’t want to push, but I did want her to know that Xena felt just as awkward about initiating a conversation between the two of them. “If you and Xena were to talk, I’m positive you’d find it easier than you think.”

“You sure are good at making guarantees.”

“Only about things that I feel sure of.”

“And you think that me and Xena would hit it off, huh?”

“Well, I make no promises, but I will say that I think you’re both feeling a lot of similar emotions. Just because you share a bond of blood, doesn’t mean that you’ll become the best of friends. If nothing else, though, talking may make it a little easier to be around one another.”

She rewarded me with her customary shrug. “I’ll think about it,” she finally said before leaving and returning to the group of children.

End of Gabrielle’s Addendum

hhhhhh{ggggg
“Feel like some company?” I asked my mother as I sat down.

She stood behind the long wooden bar stacking clean mugs against the back wall. I always liked the tavern like this, quiet and hushed at the end of the day. The room was somewhat dark with only a few candles lit within the area Cyrene worked. She had already extinguished the two large oil lamps that hung from the ceiling. Elias, her hired man, must have lowered the chains that the heavy lamps hung upon in order to put out their flames.

The tavern had long since sent its last patron home or to bed here at the inn. It was late, but Gabrielle had grown accustomed to my late night wanderings. I never actually slept more than four candlemarks or so. I never felt as though my body needed more save for the times when I had engaged in anything strenuous or unless Gabrielle gave me a good enough reason to remain in bed. Back home in Corinth, I usually ended up in my study, reading and answering correspondence until morning, or unless I grew tired again.

Selene’s group of children had worn out Gabrielle. She fell asleep nearly as soon as her head hit the pillow. She slept with a smile on her face, however, and it caused me to think of the small package I had Acasia deliver. Perhaps it was time to tell Gabrielle.

I hadn’t wanted the lamplight to disturb Gabrielle, so I made my way to the tavern downstairs, in hopes that a late night mug of port would help me sleep. In truth, I had hoped that my mother would still be awake. Once I began thinking of Gabrielle, the girl that I assumed was her daughter, and Gabrielle’s parents, I was wide-awake. I thought about rousing Delia. She had always been my confidant in such emotional or moral dilemmas. I had a thought as I dressed, one that surprised me. I wondered what advice my mother could offer. She and I had spoken in a couple of short conversations, none nearly as emotional as our first. She did indeed seem to like Gabrielle. I suppose I wondered what it might be like, to go to my mother for advice. Frankly, I hadn’t done it much as a young woman. I was rather wild and kept my own counsel. It was easy to do since my mother was always busy with the inn.

“What are you doing up so early?” Cyrene asked.

“I might ask you the same question. It seems a bit early, even for you.”

“Ah, the older I get, the less sleep I need. I remember when you and the boys were toddlers, what I wouldn’t have given for a few extra candlemarks in bed. Now that I have people who can actually run the place, I find that the luxury doesn’t mean as much.”

I smirked at how familiar that thought was. “I know exactly what you mean. It must run in the family, although I think Gabrielle’s getting used to waking up and finding nothing but bedclothes.”

“Newly married and you can’t find a reason to stay in bed?”

“Mother!”

I hadn’t said that since…well, just about ever, but it came sliding off my tongue as though I had never left Amphipolis. I wondered if the heat creeping up my collar was visible in the low light of the room. The sly look on her face told me she had been teasing.

“I usually do pretty well in that arena,” I said wearing a smile.

“I’ll just bet you do,” she replied as she poured me a tall drink. “This is the kind you like, isn’t it?”

“In fact that’s what I came in search of. I’m impressed that you know me so well already.”

“Well, remembering what someone drinks is my business. When it comes to you, though, Xena, I don’t think I know you at all. Not the woman you are now anyway.”

“I’m sorry. That’s my fault.”

“No, I didn’t say it to place blame, my dear. I said it because it’s the truth, just as you know little about who I’ve become. Tell me something about you, Xena,” she asked as she poured herself a mug of tea from a brown glazed pot. I smelled the odor of sweet mint and my mind flew backward to my days as a child in this very inn and my mother’s early morning mint tea.

“To tell the truth, talking about myself is about my least favorite thing in the known world. Even so, I think I’d like that.”

It was almost as if someone else had spoke those words. Had I actually said that I would like to talk about myself? Gods, Gabrielle would get a laugh out of that one. It wasn’t that I actually wanted or desired to talk of myself. It was something more, something deeper. I think that in my heart I wished to speak of anything as long as it involved a conversation with this woman, the mother upon who my heart had pinned so many hopes.

“And?” Cyrene said at my hesitation.

“Well, as much as I would enjoy that, I have something on my mind that won’t really allow me to engage in talk of me. I wonder instead if I might speak of Gabrielle?”

She looked at me strangely just then. It was an expression I’d seen her direct my way before, one that spoke of a sort of pleasant surprise.

“Of course, my dear. Is something wrong with her?”

“No, not in that way. I just…well, I’m rather stuck on what to do, but to understand what I mean I have to go back and tell you the whole story.”

She settled into the chair she’d been lightly perched upon and waved in my direction. “Well, we’ve a good three candlemarks before Apollo lights up the sky, and I’m all ears.”

I began to speak and once I did, the words came with ease. I told my mother just about everything I knew of Gabrielle, of her past and how she came to be with me. Oh, there were personal moments that I left unsaid, private times, but I tried to be as honest with my tale as I could. I knew those early days would not flatter my image, but still I told her about them.

When I finally fell silent, my mother breathed a great sigh. “I knew there was something special in that girl the first moment I laid eyes on her. Gods, what her life must have been like, and you’d never know it to speak with her.”

She took a sip from her mug and made a face at the tea that had grown cold. She poured the contents of the clay pot into a metal one. As she hung the metal container on a long metal hook and swung the hook over the fire in the hearth, I explained the dilemma I now faced. She nodded her head and I watched as tears formed in her eyes when I told her of the child that now waited safely for her mother, or at least for who I believed was her mother.

“I can see your concern,” Cyrene said.

“Any wisdom you’d care to share at this point would be most appreciated,” I answered.

“Xena, how can I know what is right?”

“I’m not looking for right and wrong here, mother. Oh, Hades, I suppose I am. How can one know what’s right? I don’t want to hurt Gabrielle. That would break my heart. I don’t know how much to tell her or when.”

“I suppose the only advice I can offer is what I would do in your stead.”

“Anything you can offer will help.”

“I think you should tell Gabrielle of her parents, right away…today if you can. I know she’s more nervous about meeting them than she lets on. Perhaps if she could see them, feel the bond of family again, she would be strong enough to face the other.”

“And if the child’s not hers?”

“How would she really know?”

“I suppose you’re right. I don’t know, I expected her to feel some sort of rightness about it, I guess.”

“That’s possible, if not a little fanciful. I think, little one, that it will boil down to one thing. If Gabrielle wants to think of the child as hers…it will be.”

“I suspected as much.”

“It’s getting lighter outside,” Cyrene said. “Come and sit with me in the kitchen while I make up the morning meal. You can take a tray upstairs to Gabrielle when I’m finished.”

I followed her into the large kitchen and pulled up a chair to watch her work, much as I had as a child. She moved with purpose and speed, but the pleasant expression on her face said that this was not so much a chore as a labor of love. I watched as she set a pot of grain to boil for porridge. She cut up some of last season’s dried apples and added them to the pot. With a mortar and pestle, she crushed hardened strips of cinnamon bark until they were powder and added it to the pot, as well. A most delicious odor soon filled the kitchen.

I continued to watch as she sliced salted meat to fry and mixed together ingredients for flat bread. I’m not sure it was one thing, but rather the combination of sights and smells that caused my heart to fill with all the good memories of my childhood. I remembered sitting there as a youngster thinking much the same thing as I did now…that there would never be another place in this world that would mean as much to me as home.

hhhhhh{ggggg
“Wake up, my love,” I whispered softly into Gabrielle’s ear. She murmured and attempted to move away from the sound of my voice, which made me smile.

“Gabrielle,” I insisted.

She opened one eye to glare at me, but she looked so absolutely adorable I could not even feign remorse. “It’s morning, Gabrielle.”

“I beg to differ,” she mumbled. “Xena, it’s still dark out.”

“If you don’t get up now, though, you’ll miss the best part of the day.”

“According to who,” Gabrielle answered as she closed both eyes once more.

“I’ve ordered it especially for you, little one.”

She continued to ignore me. I knew this called for some unfair play on my part. I took one of the steaming bowls from the tray and brought it closer to her. It was apparent that the tantalizing odor had reached her when her face twitched and she involuntarily smiled.

“Mother made porridge…with sweet apples and cinnamon. There’s even a huge chunk of honeycomb on top.”

“Mmmm,” she murmured.

“And hot mint tea,” I added.

“Well, at least you know how to wake a girl up properly, Conqueror,” she said with a smile. Gabrielle yawned and sat up in bed, moving some pillows behind her.

We ate our meal sitting in bed, a rare indulgence for us. When I looked out the window, I saw that Apollo’s chariot had just begun to light up the sky below the horizon. The blackness of the foreground stood out starkly against the red and pink tinged sky behind.

“Throw on something and let’s go drink our tea while we watch the sun rise,” I said. Gabrielle smiled and looked outside, nodding her head in agreement.

There was no one else about, as Gabrielle and I sat casually upon the wooden steps that led up to the inn. I wrapped a blanket around Gabrielle’s shoulders and she leaned back against my chest.

“Mmmm,” Gabrielle sighed as she settled herself against me.

“You’re going back to sleep again, aren’t you?” I whispered.

“Very funny, my Conqueror. I’m just enjoying the feel of you.”

“Oh, well then, may I say the feeling is very mutual,” I replied as I hugged her.

I missed this manner of quiet time we had always shared. Since we had left Corinth, our daily routines had changed so much that I hardly knew where Gabrielle was half the time. I believe I had been growing jealous of the time she spent with others.

“What are you thinking so hard about?” Gabrielle asked.

“Now, how do you know I’m concentrating on anything at all?”

She made a noise that sounded distinctly like a snort. “I can feel it in your body. Besides, a woman can just tell.”

“Is this stuff written somewhere?”

“What?” she asked after a short burst of laughter.

“I don’t know, but most women seem to have an awful lot of intuition or inside knowledge that I’m not privy to. I just wondered if there was a scroll somewhere that I was supposed to get and missed out on.”

“Oh, Xena,” Gabrielle continued to chuckle. She turned and placed a quick kiss on my lips. “You have more intuition in your little finger than I do in my whole body.”

“Okay, now you’re making fun of me.”

“Honestly. There’s only one difference between us, Xena…as women, that is.”

“And that is?” I was intrigued now. Gabrielle rarely missed anything about a person’s behavior. I was interested to see what it was that stood between me and this knowing that other women seemed to have.

“My Conqueror, your mind is much too busy to really hear anything that small voice in there tries to tell you.”

“I beg your pardon. I happen to perform my ch’i ritual every morning and–”

“Xena, you’re a warrior…that’s your way. I think that means that even when you calm yourself to the point where you feel that you’re thinking of nothing else, there’s still something there.”

“What?”

“Instinct. It’s always there with you, lying just beneath your conscious mind. Your instincts are what make you the great warrior that you are, though. You possess impulses…instincts, whatever you want to call them and they’re a part of you. In a lifetime of acquiring the same skills as you, I could never be your equal as a warrior. I simply don’t have the natural instincts that you do.”

I kissed her, once again marveling at the depth of this young woman. Gabrielle had lived so much life in so few seasons. How could a woman trained in every aspect of physical pleasure, used by men and women for most of her life, look at me with such an innocent gaze?

“You make it sound as if you have nothing up there,” I said, pointing to her head.

“I don’t. Not in the way you mean, but I don’t have the instincts that you do, Xena.”

“But, I’ve seen you fight. When you spar–”

“I react to what’s happening around me. I suppose the easiest way to explain is to say that my actions aren’t instinctual. The forms that Yu Pan taught me are anticipatory in nature. I react only to my opponent’s moves to defend myself. There’s no plan.”

“That’s why you’re so good at King’s Men, isn’t it?” I asked, rather amazed at the insight into Gabrielle’s way.

She just smiled.

“You tried to explain this to me once before, when I asked you why you were so good at the game. I don’t remember hearing it this way.”

“Perhaps you just weren’t ready to hear,” she answered.

She returned to her previous position, her back pressed against my chest. “You never did answer my question,” she said.

“What question was that?”

“When I asked what you were thinking about. I can feel the tension in your body. Is anything wrong, Xena?”

“No, love, not wrong. I just…” I took a deep breath and continued. “I had a sort of, I don’t know, surprise, I guess, to tell you about. See, I saved it until now, thinking it would be something grand, but now I’m not so sure. I’m afraid you might be…upset with me for not telling you before this.”

“Xena, I would never be upset with you for trying to do something nice for me. You should know that.”

“Yes, well…we’ll see. Gabrielle, I…I…”

She turned to look at me then. “It’s not something terrible, is it? Your mother hates me and wants us to leave.”

“What? Where on earth–no, of course not. I think Mother likes you better than me.” I chuckled lightly.

“No, it’s a good thing…I think. You see when we were in Corinth I made some inquiries and I found your mother and father. They’re living on a small farm just outside Potidaea.”

“What? Really?”

“Really.”

I waited for the storm that would cloud her features. It would start slowly, her brow furrowing together, then her eyes would darken from their normally emerald green irises to the color of a dark forest. I looked at my boots as I tried to explain.

“You knew they were alive before we left Corinth?”

“I’m sorry, I know I should have told you about this sooner. At first it was to be a pleasant surprise, then Marathon happened, and it’s been crazy ever since, and I–”

“Oh, Xena!”

I think I actually shut my eyes tight, preparing for the verbal dressing down that I felt sure was coming. I hate surprises, but when I felt Gabrielle practically launch her body into mine, it was a most welcome jolt.

“Oh, Xena, how wonderful! Thank you, love, thank you so much.”

She kissed me repeatedly until I truly believed that there would be no frightful display of temper.

“So, you’re not mad at all?”

“Mad?” she asked as she pulled herself back from me. “Why would you think such a thing?”

“Well I…I mean, I thought…you know, the last time you…okay, now I’m confused.”

Gabrielle chuckled and threw her arms around my neck, kissing me soundly enough to make my libido forget we were in public. A flash of heat struck at my lower belly and I had a quick vision of tossing my wife over one shoulder and carrying her off to our room.

“You can be so funny sometimes,” she said.

“That’s me,” I replied. “A laugh a heartbeat.”

The news had finally settled in upon Gabrielle. I could see her mind spinning and working behind the expression in her eyes.

“It’s more than I ever dared hope for, Xena. Were they well, did they look very old? Is their farm a large one or small? Oh, can we go right away?”

I don’t think she took more than one breath throughout all her questions. She jumped up and stepped back, the blanket falling from her shoulders as she twirled around. Suddenly, I wanted very much to meet the girl that I suspected to be Gabrielle’s daughter. I had a feeling that an excited five-year-old girl could have looked no different than Gabrielle did just then.

“We should go quickly. Let’s leave right now, Xena.” Her face burned with vivacity, a combination of happiness, excitement, and pure energy.

I raised an eyebrow at my wife, standing in the street in only her dressing gown, the sun’s first rays striking at her in long golden beams. I smiled a very large happy smile.

Gabrielle looked down at her own state of dress and her laughter burst forth like water through a dam. “All right, don’t say it. I know what you’re thinking. Perhaps I should get dressed first.”

I answered her laughter with my own. “Actually, little one, I was thinking how very beautiful you are and what a lucky Conqueror I am.”

I stood and she made her way quickly into my embrace. “Xena, how is it you know exactly what to say and do to make me happy?”

I smiled inwardly and hoped she hadn’t noticed the sigh of relief that escaped me.
Chapter 21: What Was The Name You Called Me…
Gabrielle moved around the inn as if she walked on nothing but air. I wasn’t the only one who watched her with a slight air of amusement. Our pleasure was in her great happiness. Delia and Anya had been delighted for their young friend. Even Ephiny smiled as Gabrielle struggled for most of the morning over what to wear.
The entire inn buzzed with Gabrielle’s happy news, mostly because she told anyone within ear’s reach. The closer the moment came to our departure, however, the quieter Gabrielle became. I could see her nerves beginning to fray. By the time we were packed and ready to leave, Gabrielle looked quite terrified. I should have known the realization of what she was about to do would consume her eventually. Frankly, Gabrielle had been such a source of strength through my own homecoming ordeal that I actually forgot that it might affect her so.

We brought enough supplies to camp for a number of days. Although Potidaea was only a single day’s journey from Amphipolis, I had no idea how long Gabrielle would want to spend with her parents on this initial visit. I even thought that perhaps we could convince them to return with us to Amphipolis for a more extended visit.

I ordered Atrius to ready what soldiers and supplies we would need for the journey. While Potidaea was only a day away on horseback, if we were to spend any time there, we would need to pack accordingly. That meant wagons with camping supplies for ourselves, but also for the soldiers who would accompany us. Wagons meant an extra day’s travel, but we were in no hurry.

Nearly everyone wanted to join us on our trip to Potidaea, but I quickly put a stop to that thinking. The last thing that Gabrielle needed was too many well-intentioned friends hovering about her. I could see that she had become more frightened than I ever was at returning home. I cursed myself for not anticipating her behavior.

Gabrielle’s excitement wore off eventually. She rode in front of me on Tenorio and some time near midday she fell sound asleep. Nervous tension seemed to work differently on her. While I would be unable to sleep with something pressing on my mind, Gabrielle was the complete opposite. She could retreat so far within herself that she could sleep for days.

Suddenly, Gabrielle jerked forward in my arms. If I had not reacted so quickly, she would have tumbled toward the ground.

“Gabrielle, are you all right?”

“I don’t feel well, Xena,” Gabrielle said.

I noticed she was rather pale when she turned to look at me.

“I need to stop, Xena. I need to stop right now!”

I knew the tone in her voice could only mean one thing. By the time I slid off of Tenorio’s back and managed to set Gabrielle upon the ground, she heaved the entire contents of her stomach into the long grass.

“Think you can standup now?” I asked Gabrielle some time later. She kneeled beside me on the ground, wiping her face with a damp cloth that Ephiny had provided.

“Is she ill?” Atrius came up to ask.

“Perhaps too much sun and excitement. Let’s stop for a break here, Atrius. Send all but our private wagon on ahead so we don’t get slowed down too much.”

“Aye, Conqueror.”

I helped Gabrielle to stand and Ephiny took a position on Gabrielle’s right. We walked her toward one of the covered wagons. Gabrielle’s Amazons had set up the wagon as a sort of tent. The inside had a comfortable layer of blankets and cushions along with our personal supplies.

“I feel incredibly stupid,” Gabrielle said as we led her to the wagon.

“Well, that will teach you to stay up all night drinking,” I responded. I said it to see what sort of expression I would receive from Ephiny. She didn’t disappoint.

“Xena!” The embarrassment brought back some color to Gabrielle’s face. “Don’t listen to one thing she says,” she told Ephiny.

“Not to worry. I rarely do,” Ephiny said out of the side of her mouth. She looked up and glared at me, which caused me some satisfaction.

“Xena, I don’t want to hold everything up.”

“And you won’t, love,” I replied as we reached the wagon. “Now, I want you to have a lie down and relax. If you fall asleep, we can continue on without disturbing you too much.”

“Xena…”

“Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle looked at me, then Ephiny, and once more at me. “Oh, all right.” I believe that she knew a losing battle when she saw one.

I chuckled as I helped her inside. Gabrielle made light of the whole matter. Her manner was rather cavalier…too much so.

“Thanks, Ephiny. I think I’ll sit with her for a bit,” I told the Amazon. We stood outside the wagon and whispered.

She nodded. “Is she really okay? She’s acting a little odd,” Ephiny said.

“I know what you mean, but I don’t know yet. Considering that I just went through the same thing, I can honestly say that it might be nothing more than a nervous reaction to meeting her parents again.”

“Well, I can see how that would do it.” She looked toward the wagon and lowered her voice another notch. “And, the other? I haven’t heard any news yet.”

“Acasia said she bit him. Seems as though she’s a female terror, I guess she’ll fit right in where she’s at, eh?” I chuckled and slapped Ephiny on the shoulder.

“Then I suppose my only payback will be that when you leave…she’ll be going with you.”

My laughter stopped as I stared at the Amazon’s retreating figure. My hearing was acute and I swore I heard her laughter as she walked away.

I climbed into the expansive wagon to find Gabrielle cooling her flushed face with a damp cloth.

“To tell the truth, I thought this thing carried camping supplies,” Gabrielle indicated the wagon. “I imagine Queen Cleopatra’s golden barge to be slightly smaller.”

I laughed aloud and removed my traveling armor. I thought it might be a nice change to you sitting astride a horse.”

“Always thinking of me.” Gabrielle had a far away look in her eyes. Something had disturbed her enough to make her physically ill, but she didn’t appear to be in a mood to speak of it.

“Are you sure you’re not ill, love?” I asked.

“Positive. Thank you for being concerned, but really, I just became overheated and what with all the excitement my stomach rebelled.”

“You woke quite suddenly when we were riding on Tenorio. Was it a dream?”

“I think it was,” she answered calmly.

“A vision?”

“I don’t quite remember, so it must not have been important.”

Gods on Olympus, but she was good. Then again, Gabrielle had spent a lifetime learning how to lie with the best of them. I, however, was unlike those masters she had previously served. I had trained nearly a lifetime in order to hone certain skills. Among which was the ability to ferret out those who would deceive me with untruths.

It was subtle, but as I said, Gabrielle was very good. I had noticed, however, the slight increase in the speed of her heart. I could see it beating erratically against the skin of her neck. A slight perspiration formed upon her brow and I watched as her right eye ticked almost minutely.

For very nearly the first time in our relationship, Gabrielle sought to keep the truth from me. That was somewhat unusual. Unusual enough that it disturbed me. It didn’t bother me quite so much that Gabrielle wished to keep her own counsel. What bothered me the most was that she would lie to me in order to keep it. That simply wasn’t like her.

I had two choices in the matter. I could simply leave it be and respect her wish to do the same. On the other hand, I could force the issue and confront her. With age is supposed to come wisdom. Why then do I seem to do the same things over and over again, without care to wisdom? Never being a subtle woman, I chose confrontation.

“My love, you no longer lie well,” I said.

She lowered her head to stare at the hands in her lap. “Only around you, my Conqueror. Only around you.”

“Gabrielle, I can see that you’ve had a vision that you don’t want to speak of, but you do understand that the only reason I press is in order to help in some way. You do know that, don’t you?”

“I know that, love. I just…if it had anything to do with you…or us, I would speak of it, but they were images that…confused me. Remember what you told me when we talked about Selene? You said that you weren’t ready yet. Well, that’s exactly the way I feel. I apologize for the lie. I don’t like doing that with you. It makes me feel almost dirty, but…well. I’m just not ready to talk about it, Xena. I’m sorry.”

I crooked one finger in her direction, beckoning her to me. She accepted the invitation immediately. My heart felt better the moment she rested within my embrace. “No apology is necessary, my little one. Gabrielle,” I tilted her head so that I could look into her eyes. “I don’t want you to feel that you can’t keep your own counsel about matters such as this. You are your own woman and that will never change. I only ever wish that you communicate with me. Even if you say that I’m to mind my own business, it’s better than what my mind can conjure up as an alternative.”

“I understand, Xena. I’ll do better next time, I promise.”

I kissed her forehead and simply held her like that for some time. Neither of us had any inclination to change positions. If it was forgiveness that she sought, then I gave it willingly, even though I believed she needed none from me. Why would I not forgive? Had not Gabrielle offered me the same, time and again, for some thoughtless action or ignoble behavior?

I wondered, though, as I held her. What images could have disturbed Gabrielle enough to make her ill, but most of all, why couldn’t she understand them?
****
“Feeling better this morning, my Queen?” Mika asked Gabrielle.

“It feels like a brand new day, thank you.”

“Sure you’re feeling well enough to riding up here?” I asked from astride Tenorio.

“Absolutely. I love you for thinking of the wagon, but riding in there yesterday…well, I didn’t know you could get sea sick on dry ground.”

Mika gave Gabrielle a foot up and my wife sat sidesaddle in front of me. Gabrielle had deliberated for some time that morning whether she should wear her traveling clothes, leather pants and armor, or dress like the Queen that she was. We talked over morning tea and she decided that the shock for her parents would be great enough. There was no need for their first impression to be that they had a battle-hardened warrior for a daughter. Instead, she dressed in a gown the color of the sky. Not the sort of fancy dress worn for a banquet, but an everyday lady’s gown. Gabrielle looked regal, yet familiar.

We rode along in relative silence until Gabrielle spoke. “Do they know we’re coming, Xena?”

“I sent Atrius ahead early this morning with a few men. He’ll speak with your parents and the soldiers will make sure everything is safe for us. That’s why Ephiny went with them.”

“Safe? Do you expect some sort of trouble?”

“Not at all, but you have to remember who we are, love. Rulers are always targets. Besides, we have no military presence in Potidaea, not even an outpost.”

“Because Amphipolis is so close?”

“Precisely. Even though Potidaea’s a major port of the north Aegean and the harbor generates a great deal of traffic, it would be a waste to have two outposts so close.”

Have you ever had trouble there…dissenters or unrest?”

“No, none to speak of. I hope that nothing will ever happen to either of us in that regard, but if it should, I’d rather be prepared. If we always plan as though something will happen, chances are it never will.”

“That’s rather the depressing part of ruling, isn’t it?” she asked. “I mean, to think that someone out there would want to hurt you, worse, see you dead simply because you are who you are.”

“Don’t let it bother you too much, love. Besides, the Empire enjoys a prosperity greater than at any time in the past. People don’t usually try to kill their rulers when things are going good.” I reached in and kissed her neck, which caused her to lean back into me. “I can tell you feel better today.”

She turned slightly and smiled at me. “I decided that making myself sick over things that I not only didn’t understand fully, but couldn’t do anything to change was foolish.”

“That’s my girl.”

We rode into town surrounded by infantrymen and members of the Royal Guard. The town stopped, as they usually did. We tried to be as quiet as possible about it, but unobtrusiveness became a tad difficult surrounded by fifty soldiers in gleaming metal armor.

I looked on as Gabrielle’s hungry gaze swallowed every visual detail of her hometown. Potidaea had grown into a lively harbor town over the last ten or twenty seasons. If Gabrielle did remember anything about the place, chances were slim that it had remained the same.

“Recognize anything?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I don’t remember much about the town. I suspect we didn’t come here very often.”

Gabrielle smiled and tossed a few drachmas out to a group of waving children. We each nodded to those people who were respectful enough to stop along the sides of the road and bow or acknowledge us in some way. As we rode on, the stone pavement from the town streets had turned into a dirt road.

The many small farms surrounding Potidaea all looked prosperous and healthy. The mid summer crop of wheat blew gently in the breeze like golden surf breaking onto the shore. The air smelled sweet, a combination of newly cut hay and the fig orchards, in abundance, around us.

Ephiny cantered down the road toward us, her pale colored pony tossing his head as though he would have loved to have free reign to gallop through the endless green pastures that surrounded us. Ephiny, on the other hand looked nervous. I suppose she felt as I did about Gabrielle’s safety. Strange places always had a way of making a second in command worry.

“You’re looking much better today,” Ephiny said as she pulled alongside us.

“Thank you, I feel much better,” Gabrielle replied. “Have you…um…met them, Eph?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Ephiny answered without looking over at Gabrielle. The Amazon reached over and briefly touched Gabrielle’s hand, as much as our moving horses would allow. “Don’t worry, Gabrielle. They seem like nice people.”

I felt the tension slip from Gabrielle’s body. I silently thanked Athena for the small favor. If we could at least get past the first bit of awkwardness, I just knew everything would turn out for good. After all, what parents would not want a girl as beautiful as my Gabrielle for their daughter?

Atrius met us at the edge of a recently plowed field. He saluted and ordered the majority of our men to remain there. We followed Atrius and Ephiny off the main road and onto a narrower road that led up to a small farmhouse. It was more path than road. Wagon ruts and patches of weeds had eaten away the long grass.

Gabrielle let out a small gasp and I followed her gaze to a large tree beside the barn. Two lengths of old tattered rope hung from one of its twisted branches, a plank of rotting wood dangled haphazardly from one of the pieces of rope. It looked to have been a child’s swing once, long ago.

“Xena, I remember that swing. I remember that tree,” Gabrielle said.

“Want to take a closer look?” I asked.

I didn’t really need an answer. She fairly jumped into my arms the moment I dismounted. Atrius also descended, drawing my attention from Gabrielle with his dour expression.

“Conqueror, I wonder if I might speak to you about where to camp the men for the night,” he said.

I raised an eyebrow at him. “Will you be okay for a moment?” I asked Gabrielle.

“Of course, love,” she answered in a distracted fashion. Her eyes never left the old tree.

Atrius walked beside me and we moved away from the rest of our party. I looked back to see Ephiny and Mika standing protectively beside Gabrielle. I looked back at Atrius. My captain’s demeanor hadn’t changed. He looked upset, worried, or both. I already knew something was wrong by Atrius’s carefully chosen words…where to camp the men for the night. It was a code of sorts. We had used it for seasons, but it had been some time since he’d last used them.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“It might be nothing, but…” he paused and looked around uncomfortably.

“Come on, old friend. Evasiveness doesn’t suit you. What’s going on?”

“Her parents,” he said. We both knew he spoke of Gabrielle. “I get a funny feeling about this.”

“What’s that mean? What kind of feeling?”

“Saying it out loud makes me sound like a worried old woman, but I talked to these people, Xena. All I can tell you is they sure don’t act like people that just heard their long lost daughter is alive.”

I didn’t know what to say. I should have been able to read between the lines better, but his words took me by surprise. “Well…I guess we have to cut them some slack here. I mean, it has to be strange for them, too. So they’re not the nicest–”

“That’s just it,” Atrius said. “They are nice. They’re polite, but pretty quiet.”

“You drag me away to complain that you have an odd feeling about Gabrielle’s parents because they’re nice?”

“Trust me, I know how odd it sounds. It’s just that…they’re too nice. You think they’d have questions or act surprised, but they act like someone comes along everyday and changes their lives like this. The woman acts…I just don’t know how to put it.”

I took a deep breath. If it had been anyone else telling me this, I would have laughed aloud, but this was Atrius. He had never been prone to hysterics. His suspicions had usually proved to have some basis to them.

“Are you saying you think they knew already…that Gabrielle was their daughter?”

“It would explain their behavior.”

“I don’t like the conclusions that I’m drawing from that. I especially don’t like Gabrielle walking into a situation that might burn her.” I ran a hand through my hair and sighed deeply. All right, there’s not much we can do at this point, but watch and ensure they don’t do anything to hurt Gabrielle.

“Sorry to be the one–”

“Forget it, friend. I’d rather know what to expect and I trust your instincts. Come on,” I turned and indicated that Atrius follow me. “And get rid of that grim expression. Gabrielle will be able to read that in a heartbeat.”

“Aye, Conqueror.”

“Hey, there. Everything all right?” I asked Gabrielle as I drew closer.

She had been touching the tattered rope that held the old wooden child’s swing, touching it as if it were a sacred icon of some sort.

“I remember playing here, Xena. I remember this swing,” she said.

I smiled. It was a genuine pleasure to see Gabrielle’s eyes light up at a good memory from her past. We all turned toward the sound of Atrius clearing his throat. When we turned, there they were standing before us. I didn’t know if I should feel joy or anger. I only hoped that my confusion wouldn’t become apparent to Gabrielle.

They stood beside one another and I assessed their relationship at once. He was a short man, thinly built. His skin had been darkened from seasons of working out under the sun. I noted his stance. It spoke to me of uncertainty and insecurity. His wife, however, stood out in stark contrast to her mate. Her bearing spoke one word…pride. Even the haughty way she carried herself told of her nature. I am no seer, but I have been blessed with certain gifts of observation. I could tell in an instant that it was she who ran their home.

Atrius took a step forward. “Lord Conqueror, may I introduce Herodotus and Hecuba of Potidaea. Sir…madam,” he nodded toward them. “I present to you Xena, Lord Conqueror of the Greek Empire and her mate, Queen Gabrielle.”

The introduction silenced us all for a moment or two. Personally, I had no idea how to greet or treat these two. Atrius had given them the basics of Gabrielle’s story before we arrived, leaving out, I am sure, the more terrible parts of her life as a slave. Gossip traveled faster than a speeding caravan across the Empire, however. Gabrielle’s story, who she was before she came to me, had made its way into even the smallest provinces. I knew that I had to be the strong one this time, just as Gabrielle had led the way during my own return home.

I stepped forward and the man bowed just as his wife curtsied.

“Well, now that we’re all completely uncomfortable…” My jest drew a smile from all concerned and seemed to ease the tense atmosphere, if only a small bit. I held out my hand to the man first and he accepted it readily enough, even though he wore nervous smile. The woman was going to be a harder sell. I could see that at once. She didn’t say or do anything terrible, she just didn’t act very enthusiastic about meeting her daughter. I kept telling myself that the situation was just as difficult for these two as it was for Gabrielle.

“Let’s forgo some of the formality of the situation, eh?” I said. “Please call me Xena. And,” I motioned for Gabrielle to come stand beside me. “This is Gabrielle, but I believe you know that already, don’t you?”

“Indeed, we do,” Herodotus said. His smile came much faster this time, even the woman, Hecuba, smiled. Her expression looked as though she thought on some long forgotten memory.

Gabrielle came alongside me. She touched my arm, actually held to it just above the elbow. She didn’t squeeze hard, but I felt the action must have made her feel grounded in some way. I understood completely.

She held out her hand and Hecuba hesitated before taking it in her own. It was an almost imperceptible pause, but I noticed it nonetheless. Thank the Gods, it seemed as if I was the only one to notice. If Hecuba had been at all standoffish, Herodotus made up for it. He took Gabrielle’s hand and swallowed it up between both of his own. He just stood there, seemingly unable to speak.

Being Gabrielle, I should have anticipated my wife’s next words. She had never been one to shy away from a situation, even an emotional one.

“Am I your daughter?” Gabrielle asked.

Only my wife could have been so bold and brave as to confront the situation head on. For all my strength and bravado I am sure I would have hid my feelings rather than leaving them so close to the surface. I heard Gabrielle’s voice, though; heard the nearly indiscernible hitch in her tone that spoke of her apprehension. I think she was actually afraid of the answer.

“Yes, Gabrielle, I believe you are,” Herodotus answered. He continued to hold Gabrielle’s hand, but Hecuba abruptly turned back toward the house.

“Why don’t I fix us all some tea?” She said as she walked away.

Herodotus motioned me to follow, but he kept his touch upon Gabrielle. He wrapped her hand around his arm before leading her toward the small home. When we arrived at the entrance’s threshold, he turned to speak to me.

“Your people…they are welcome too,” he said.

Atrius and Ephiny each gave me a subtle shake of their heads. “Perhaps we might get to know one another in a more private atmosphere. I think we might all feel a little more comfortable that way.”

Gabrielle looked relieved and I gave her a wink. I followed behind Herodotus and Gabrielle as they led the way into the small cottage. Hecuba had already placed a kettle of water over a hook in the hearth. The fire caused the small room to become warm, but not stifling. Actually, the climate outside had grown damp, rain clouds threatening to open up at any moment, so the warmth of the fire felt good.

The cottage looked as many a farmhouse in the Chaldice area. A moderately sized wooden table sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by four chairs. Another table, built somewhat higher than the first, separated the kitchen space from the rest of the room. I assumed that the high table had been a place on which to prepare food.

Two doors led into what I could only guess were other rooms. I could not say for certain, as they were closed. For the most part, this small house looked like all the other cottages I had ever seen. I admit, my mind had wandered as I examined the details of the house. My musing ended and I heard Herodotus’s voice.

“It’s impossible to be certain, of course, but it makes sense. Our Gabrielle and her little sister, Lila, disappeared when Gabrielle was only five summers. The men of the village helped me search the woods nearby, but we found no sign.”

“They never suspected slavers?” Gabrielle asked.

“We looked for a fortnight, at least,” Hecuba responded. “How could we have known…I mean, no one thought that here in Potidaea…we had never heard of such a thing.” Hecuba sounded defensive, but I’m not certain whether I could blame her. They had lived in an innocent age, in an area that had not previously known such an evil as slave traders.

“It must have been very hard on you,” Gabrielle said. Gods, how like her to think of her parents.

“Not nearly the same as the pain you must have endured,” Hecuba answered. “We’ve heard how the Persians beat their slaves.” There was some genuine feeling to the woman’s words. I thought she must have been warming to her daughter.

Gabrielle looked taken back. I could see her mind searching for an answer behind her emerald gaze. I suppose that neither of us ever thought to mention what kind of a slave Gabrielle had been.

“Actually–” Gabrielle began.

“Maybe we should speak of happier moments. Gabrielle, perhaps your parents would like to hear about Corinth,” I said.

I could see that Gabrielle had been about to reveal the truth of her past to the couple. What purpose would it serve? Did it honestly make a difference what sort of servitude Gabrielle had been forced into? Perhaps my affection had made me naïve, but I couldn’t see it mattering one bit to loving parents, hence my interruption. Gabrielle smiled after she took a moment to gaze at me. I believe she understood my intention. I listened then as Gabrielle told them of our home in Corinth and how she had become an Amazon Queen. As always, Gabrielle forgot herself when telling her tales. She drew the couple into her story, only pausing to answer an occasional question. Herodotus seemed quite interested in all of Gabrielle’s tales. He even drew me into a conversation about naval battles I had seen and the shipbuilders at Amphipolis. We discovered that he had been a sailor as a young man. Settling in Potidaea had been his way of remaining close to the sea.

Hecuba had been an altogether different story. It appeared to me that she repeatedly tried to steer the conversation back to Gabrielle’s time as a slave, no matter how often I directed the conversation away from that area. I couldn’t understand what she was after, if anything. I knew exactly what Atrius meant now concerning his gut reaction about Hecuba. It wasn’t anything I could pinpoint, no particular action of hers that led me to be suspicious of her, aside from her curiosity about Gabrielle’s time as a slave. It was a feeling, nothing more. I could scarcely accuse her of anything. One moment she was compassionate, seeming to feel Gabrielle’s pain when my wife referred to the days before we met. Two heartbeats later, Hecuba appeared to eye Gabrielle suspiciously, as though the woman mistrusted her for some unknown reason. I can put it no other way. It’s so difficult to explain a sense that one has about things. I write these things now to show that it didn’t surprise me at all when Hecuba next spoke.

“How did you serve, Gabrielle? What did they force you to do?” she asked.

“Ba, we agreed,” Herodotus pleaded with his wife, using what I assumed was a pet name. “It doesn’t matter.”

“And if the rumors are true? How will we hold our heads up?” she snapped back.

Their exchange took place so quickly that Gabrielle and I both sat there with our mouths nearly hanging open. The atmosphere had changed so suddenly from one of pleasantness to anger. The harsh words between Gabrielle’s parents had evidently left my wife reeling in wonder. Gabrielle looked confused at the almost bitter tone to Hecuba’s voice. I think I knew even then that it wasn’t really confusion that Gabrielle felt, but surprise, for she knew as well as I what rumors Hecuba had heard.

My heart ached for Gabrielle. This was going to be hard. More than hard, I feared that it might be the blow to finally break this incredible young woman’s spirit. I finally saw what I could not previously describe, what had only been a feeling. Had Hecuba suspected all along? Obviously, she had heard the rumors about Gabrielle’s previous life and had taken some sort of offense. I would not have guessed that the mother of my wife, a young woman who held absolute goodness within her soul, could have been so judgmental, so cruel and petty as to condemn her own daughter for doing anything she had to do to stay alive.

The look that Gabrielle and I exchanged in those passing heartbeats told me that she had chosen. Was it really a choice or was it resignation…defeat? For that is most certainly what I saw in her eyes just then. Those precious, always honest, emerald gems looked at me with a maturity far beyond Gabrielle’s physical seasons. Without words, she expressed the disappointment of her dashed hope, the wish for unconditional love from the family that she had to grow up without.

“I have nothing to hide Hecuba–” Gabrielle started.

“Gabrielle, you owe no one–” I tried to interrupt.

“It’s all right, Xena.” Gabrielle placed her hand over my clenched fist, which rested upon the table. “Honest,” she repeated.

“You obviously have some concerns about who I am. What is it you wish to know?” Gabrielle asked.

I waited for Herodotus to be strong. It was obvious that he knew, suspected, perhaps even believed the stories he had heard about the Queen of the Empire. He knew yet hadn’t cared. I could see it in his eyes. All he saw in Gabrielle was his lost daughter returned to him. That made it even more disappointing, his behavior. I expected him to stand up to his wife, to put her in her place, or at the very least, to apologize to Gabrielle. To ask Gabrielle to forgive his wife’s petty minded behavior. Instead, Herodotus displayed the type of man he was. He seemed to shrink in his chair, to almost cower beside his wife. Gods, had these two actually created the woman who sat beside me?

Hecuba took Gabrielle at her word. “Do you know what they say about you?” she asked.

“A good many things I should imagine,” Gabrielle answered. “I’ve learned that being in the public eye makes one fodder for every gossip in Greece.”

“What you’ve done. I mean, the things you’ve done…when you were a slave.”

“Look,” I interrupted, half rising from my chair. I found it difficult to hold my tongue at the woman’s accusations.

“Xena,” Gabrielle again caught my attention with her calm demeanor. “Thank you, love, but let me do this…please?”

I nodded and rose the rest of the way, pushing my chair away from the table. I folded my arms across my chest in order not to strike out at Hecuba. I stood in one corner, glaring at the infuriating woman.

“I don’t see how they could possibly know anything about the life I had to lead unless they knew me then,” Gabrielle continued. “I admit, some could have met me back then, but I seriously doubt they would have remembered a slave girl.”

“I think you know what I mean. You sound as if you’re trying to hide–”

“I beg your pardon!” Gabrielle said sharply, rising from her seat. “I have never once lied nor tried to hide what I have done in my life.”

“What you did–”

“What I did was anything and everything I had to do in order to survive! Yes, I know exactly what you’re trying to imply. Would you like to know how I served?”

“Gabrielle…” I said as gently as I could.

“No, Xena. If they want to know so badly, if it means so much to them, then they should hear it from me,” Gabrielle responded.

Once more, I acquiesced to Gabrielle’s will. The determination in her eyes actually caused me to take a step back until I felt my back pressed against the wall.

“I had only one job during all the seasons I spent as a slave, one job and many masters. I was a body slave. From the time I was kidnapped until I met Xena I served in my master’s bed giving physical pleasure when it was demanded of me.”

Gabrielle stepped away from the table and turned away from them. She abruptly turned back to face them, her dress swinging around her body.

“I was good at what I did…very nearly the best. Each day I did exactly what I was told, exactly when they told me. I never spoke back and I never disobeyed, and because of that, I stayed alive for one more day. Each and every day that became my goal, simply to live for another day until someone, somewhere, would come for me.

“I know more about the art of pleasure than you can even imagine. I’ve been educated in more countries and on more subjects than merely pleasure. I’ve been a student of some of the greatest minds across Greece, Persia, and Chin. I’ve seen more things in my young life than most people could hope to see in an entire lifetime. I feel my own shame for what I did, but I will never again let anyone make me feel ashamed for doing it.”

“Y–You sound almost proud of what you did,” Hecuba struggled to say through her indignation.

“If that’s what you think then you haven’t heard a word I’ve said.”

“You admit that you had a choice. You chose to give them your body.”

“That’s right, I gave them my body. I did what they ordered me to do. There even came a point where I strove to become the best at what I did. They had all of me, whenever and however they chose. So, yes, I gave them my body, but I never once gave them my soul. Not once did I give any of them who I was inside. And I never – ever – judged anyone else for doing what they had to do in order to survive.”

“We’re not judging you, Gabrielle.” It was the first time Herodotus spoke since Gabrielle’s outburst began.

“We are the ones who have to face our friends and family with this shame!” Hecuba shot a withering glance at her husband. He backed down immediately. “I don’t know if we can accept this…accept what you’ve done.”

Hecuba’s words struck Gabrielle as one final blow. “You have to face?” Gabrielle shook her head in disgust. I could see her anger, her righteous indignation burning brightly in her gaze. Part of her looked amazed, too. As though she was as astonished as I was to hear those hateful thoughts coming from her own mother. “Would you care to share what I was supposed to do, in your opinion?”

“You should have refused to obey.”

“And be hung, beaten to death, or worse?” Gabrielle responded, a genuine look of amazement still on her face.

“At least you would have had honor in death,” Hecuba answered before turning away from Gabrielle.

“By the Gods,” Gabrielle finally said in defeat. “How could such a pathetic excuse for a woman have given birth to me?”

Gabrielle turned and walked out of the house, leaving Hecuba sputtering with rage. The woman’s anger had left her unable to verbalize a coherent response. Herodotus looked as defeated as Gabrielle. Yet she had left standing tall with self-respect and pride, whereas he sat there limply, fully aware of his shortcomings and unwilling to change them.

I watched as Gabrielle stalked through the door, Ephiny immediately two paces behind. I slowly turned back to the room’s occupants. I took a deep breath, feeling the beast so close to the surface, so quickly, that it frightened me. Another cleansing breath. Now, it was my turn.
Chapter 22: He Jests At Scars, Who Never Felt A Wound
I quickly debated. A part of me wanted to follow Gabrielle, but there was one thing I knew for certain. I would be of little comfort to her in the mood I was in now. A rage flowed through me so strong that it caused my entire body to tremble. The beast within me tried to fight its way free. Its attempts to free itself from my dominion actually caused me physical pain, so much so that if I lifted my shirt, I halfway expected to see stripes across my belly from where the beast tried to claw its way out.
I clutched at my abdomen in order to fight off the cramping of my muscles. Never before had I wanted to free the darkness inside more, but at the same time, knew I could not. I deliberated for a few heartbeats over simply letting go, loosing one blood curling scream, and allowing the beast free reign of its murderous impulses.

I pictured the carnage should I allow that to happen. It was tempting, to be sure, but as justified as I felt my revenge to be, these people were still Gabrielle’s parents. At that moment, however, I’m sure that it repulsed us both to admit to that fact. No, I had to regain control and swallow my thirst for reprisal.

I had to close my eyes tightly for a moment. It seemed a great effort to draw air into my lungs. The beast pushed and I pushed right back. For the first time I could see the entity in a sort of physical form. It was easily my exact size and shape, but shrouded in darkness as if covered completely by a black cloak. So much easier this time, to fight off the tempting lies it whispered into my ear. I was finally fighting something I could see, even if I was the only one in the room with that particular sight. After all, I was a warrior by nature, a woman who spent a lifetime perfecting that art. It was almost anticlimactic, then, when I shoved with all my might, and the beast slunk away, nursing the unseen wounds I inflicted.

I finally became aware of my surroundings, feeling as though so much more time had passed than the few moments that actually had. I glanced around to find Hecuba and Herodotus staring at me in an odd fashion. I wasn’t certain whether their strange looks came because of my behavior or the fact that they finally realized they had angered me to the point where I lost all reason.

I stood straighter, shaking off the last bits of control with which the beast tried to cling. I glared at Hecuba. She returned my stare, but looked away first.

“You don’t understand,” she murmured with slightly less conviction than when she had spoken to Gabrielle.

“I don’t understand?” I questioned, carefully trying to keep my voice even, but perhaps failing. “I wasn’t the woman who just told her daughter that she should have died as a weakling and a coward.”

“There are more things to be considered than just our feelings.”

“What more could there be? What more matters? Hades teeth, woman! What could you have possibly been thinking? What about your other daughter…what if she suffered the same fate as Gabrielle?”

“Then I hope she died before letting them dishonor her. If she allowed them to handle her as Gabrielle did…then I have no children,” Hecuba answered.

I think my mouth hung open as I stared at the woman, utterly amazed by her response. “By the Gods, how could you deny your own children for having such incredible strength? Gabrielle suffered more indignities than most people see in a lifetime. She not only came away from the experience touched in a way that she will have to live with forever, but also with the ability to offer compassion to the very people who marked her in the first place. I suspect I wouldn’t have been able to do the same and I damn well know you could not have.”

“You speak of her as if her reputation was as clean as a Hestian virgin’s instead of what she really is…was,” she hurriedly added upon seeing my arched eyebrow.

“I’ve heard what the people have said for the last season,” she continued. “How do you think I felt inside knowing that it was my daughter who became known as the Conqueror’s whore?”

I couldn’t stop my actions, nor, at the time, did I have any real desire to. I crossed to where she stood in two easy strides and grabbed the front of her blouse, gripping it in my fist. I dragged the surprised woman across the room until I pressed her against the wall near to where Herodotus still stood.

I wanted to hurt her, as I held her there, but I knew words alone wouldn’t touch her in the same way as her own harsh speech had wounded Gabrielle. What surprised me most was Herodotus’s complete lack of chivalry. In those mere heartbeats that ticked by, I suspected his behavior had more to do with his browbeaten status as Hecuba’s husband than his fear of me.

I watched as my grip tightened at the neck of her clothing. That’s when I clearly saw the expression she wore. It was nothing new to me. I had seen that look before upon the faces of hundreds…thousands of people in my lifetime; men, women, in battle or in my bed. The expression was one of fear, but not an ordinary sort of fright. Rather, it was the look of someone who fully expected life to end for them in a matter of moments. I believe that she truly felt as though I was going to kill her, and oh, how I wanted to.

I could feel the fingers of my free hand closing into a tight fist; feel my arm become almost weightless as I raised it into the air. I stared at the scene as though outside myself, watching from some distant corner of the room. Causing this woman physical pain seemed to be the only way to hurt her. She was impervious to emotion, as her lack of love or concern for Gabrielle so ably demonstrated. I found myself more than willing to show the woman what real hurt felt like, yet I could not do that because of Gabrielle.

Hecuba’s words came back to me, though.

How do you think I felt inside knowing that it was my daughter that became known as the Conqueror’s whore?

I paused, my arm stopping in midair. So, Atrius had been right.

“How long have you known about Gabrielle,” I asked.

“Please, Xena…Conqueror, I assure you we had no idea that–” Herodotus finally spoke up, but I saw the truth in Hecuba’s eyes before she uttered a word to interrupt him.

“As soon as you brought her to Corinth rumors flew. We’re not so far from the seat of the Empire as you think.”

“Hecuba!” Herodotus cried out. To the man’s credit, he looked as though she had struck him with her words. I had suspected that he knew of Gabrielle’s past and chose to ignore it out of love for his daughter. Now, I could plainly see that this was the first time he was hearing such a thing.

“Oh, don’t be a fool!” she snapped back. “How could you have not heard the gossip in the town?”

“Because I choose not to talk with people like that. How could you keep such a thing to yourself, Ba, and not tell me that you believed our daughter was alive?”

“Have you listened to a thing I said here today?” Her voice increased in volume until it was just shy of yelling. “She is only our daughter because I gave birth to her. If she had stayed with us, we could have taught her what was proper. How can we hold up our heads when everyone knows what she’s done?”

Hecuba opened her mouth to continue, but she finally looked at my fist, still hanging in midair, knuckles white with the strain of not smashing into her skull. She swallowed and at last looked nervous instead of pious. Her thoughts were as transparent as water. She wondered just then, wondered what she had not thought to worry about yet. I could see that she questioned whether I would actually cause her physical harm or not. To tell the truth, I considered that silent question myself.

“You act as though she had some say in the matter,” I said, teeth clenched together and my hand still poised in the air. “Like she asked to be kidnapped and sold into slavery.”

“She may not have had a say in being taken away, but she chose to defile herself. She chose that sick and perverse life.”

“Chose it over death,” I retorted.

Our eyes locked and I knew what her response was going to be before she said it.

“Then I wish she would have died.”

I knew it in my heart just then, that she had forfeit her life with that statement. It barely took a heartbeat’s thought for my fist to begin its forward momentum.

Everything began to move slowly as though there were long moments between thought and action instead of the tic of an eye. I saw the terror in the eyes of the woman before me and I heard a scream. It was more like a howl, an animal’s mark of rage. That’s when I realized the tortured cry was my own. My fist made contact and the beast inside howled with glee. Finally, there would be blood.

Little did my darkness know that this moment was to be a turning point in our relationship. The wood planking beside Hecuba’s head groaned and splintered under the impact of my blow. I watched as a tiny rivulet of crimson ran down the wall.

Hecuba’s eyes fluttered open. Perhaps she wondered why I stood before her and not Hades. I felt a touch on my shoulder and turned to see Herodotus standing beside me.

“Please, Conqueror…have mercy,” he said.

I shrugged him off and released my hold on Hecuba. She fell limply into her husband’s arms. I silently crossed the room toward the door, but turned back just before exiting.

“I’ll not tell Gabrielle of our exchange, but know one thing. Just as you wished her death to save your own petty reputations, so you are dead to us. You’ve made your decision. You’ll have to live with it.”
****
I exited the house and scanned the small yard, searching for Gabrielle. I spotted Ephiny, leaning against a split rail fence. She straightened when I came into view, her gaze immediately going down to my injured hand. I examined the injury myself for the first time after stopping beside Ephiny.

“Get me a length of bandage,” I commanded of one of the soldiers lingering about. He quickly returned and handed me the requested strip of cloth.

“Where’s Gabrielle?” I asked Ephiny.

“In the barn. She wanted to be alone for a spell.”

“Is she…was she upset?”

“I would say that was putting it mildly.”

“Was she a mess…you know, crying?”

“Actually, just the opposite. I didn’t know she knew words like that,” Ephiny answered with a smirk. “She snapped at me when I tried to talk with her, so I thought it best to let her calm down. I guess her reunion didn’t go as she had hoped.”

“You guessed right. They found her past a little unsettling. At least one of them did, anyway. Did you suspect, too?”

“About the mother? Well, she didn’t act as I would have at finding my long lost daughter. If I’d known it was going to go badly, I would have warned you. I’m sorry Gabrielle had to experience that. She deserves better.”

“You’re damn right she does,” I replied as I drew water from the well and rinsed my bleeding knuckles.

“Did you snap one of them in two?” Ephiny asked in that deadpan manner of hers.

“No, nothing so dramatic. Not that I didn’t want to.”

I wrapped the long, narrow cloth around my hand and tied it off to control the bleeding. It didn’t feel broken, but I guessed it would be quite sore for a day or two. The blood came from abrasions the wood had caused and the crimson fluid seeped from the wounds each time I angrily flexed my hand.

I didn’t have time just then to examine all that had gone on in the house, especially my own psyche and how light I felt since the moment that I had refused the beast its blood tribute. It would take some time before I could discuss it with Gabrielle, considering the circumstances that brought about the transition between my darkness and me.

Atrius joined us and silently indicated my hand with that disapproving look he has.

“It’s nothing major and I didn’t hurt either of them,” I said in answer to his unspoken query.

“Son of a Bacchae! Sorry,” he added, apologizing to Ephiny.

She smiled at her ally. “I’ve said worse myself.”

“How is Gabrielle?”

“I’m going to see to her now. I suspect we won’t be spending any more time here than we have to, though.”

“Looks like a pretty good storm moving in. We should at least camp tonight and start out in the morning,” Atrius said.

“Good plan. Let’s not set up too close to their farm. How about the first stop we made this morning?”

“Aye, Conqueror, I’ll make it so,” he answered and quickly left to begin preparations.

“I’ll leave Mika here in case you need anything. I’m sure Atrius could use a helping hand.” She looked up at the sky, which had darkened considerably since I’d been inside. She pushed aside her blonde curly locks and wiped the sweat from her forehead. “The air is becoming thick. Looks like that storm will be upon us sooner than we think. I’ll do what I can to get the tents up.”

“Thanks, Ephiny,” I answered. I didn’t even see her turn and go, so preoccupied as I was with how to comfort Gabrielle.

I had never really seen Gabrielle angry, not the actual anger that I experienced on many occasions. She had always been able to take a deep breath and see the other side of the coin. She always used to tell me that there were two sides to every story, and she had the unique ability to think that way during times of emotional conflict.

The only other way I had seen her handle rage had been to become eerily quiet, turning inward and curling into a fetal position within her mind. I had always suspected that this behavior came from her somewhat low self-esteem. She always seemed to imagine that everything was her fault, so I believed her behavior had been due to guilt, feeling guilty for imagined reasons that only she knew or understood. I say all this to show what a complete surprise it was to me upon entering the barn where Gabrielle had gone.

She paced back and forth in front of the stalls, her body held stiffly and her hands clenched into fists. It was a terrible experience for Gabrielle to go through, yet how wonderful. For the first time, maybe in all her life, Gabrielle displayed anger for herself, over something that had been done to her. This time it wasn’t in defense of another; it was only for her. However, I only think of this now, as I sit here writing by the light of the candle. At the time it happened, I could only feel a hollow sort of pain in my chest as my heart broke for my young wife.

“Can you believe her?” Gabrielle said between clenched teeth as soon as she saw me. “How could…Gods, how could she be my mother?”

I said nothing in response. What could I say? I agreed completely, but I had no idea just then how to make Gabrielle feel better about the whole experience. I wanted to make it right for her, fix it somehow, but I could not see a way to accomplish that.

Gabrielle stopped moving and looked at me. I could only hope that all the love and affection I had for this young woman was apparent in my gaze. Quite suddenly, it looked as if all the energy it took to maintain such rage unexpectedly left her. Her eyes went from dark green back to their customary bright emerald. Then, she rushed across the hay-strewn floor and into my arms.

I squeezed her tightly until I feared that she would no longer be able to breathe. I kissed her and murmured the sort of nonsensical things that lovers say to one another in an attempt at providing comfort. It must have worked because she pulled away enough to look up at me. The expression of fury had left, but pain was still evident there in her face. In a way, I was surprised that she showed no sign of tears. When, I wondered to myself, would she cry?

“Is this really happening?” Gabrielle asked, her forehead now pressed to my chest.

“Little one, I am so sorry. I feel responsible for all of this.”

She lifted her head. “Xena, don’t you dare. There is no way you could have known what she was like, what she thought of me.”

“I should have investigated more. I should have–”

“Please love, don’t take this on your head. What you tried to do for me was lovely, and I’ll never forget it.”

“Excuse me, my Queen.” Mika stood just at the entrance of the large double doors to the barn. She had that look on her face that said she would like to be anywhere, doing anything, other than that what she was about to do.

“I’m very sorry, but your fa–the man, he wishes to speak with you and refuses to take no for an answer.”

I stepped away from Gabrielle, determined to let Herodotus know that he could go to Tartarus before I’d allow him to see my wife again. Gabrielle reached for me, grabbing my bandaged hand. I winced and she looked down, seeing my injury for the first time.

“Xena?”

“It’s nothing,” I shrugged.

“Did you–”

“I didn’t hurt them.” I gave her a weak grin. “I just hurt the wall a little.”

“Why?”

I looked around, trying to figure out what to say.

“Was it over something they said…something she said?”

“Words can’t hurt us, love.”

“It must have been something awful to make you punch a wall. What did she say, Xena?”

I knew I would tell her…someday. If she asked, I would speak of it, but not now. It was just too raw.

“You wouldn’t care if it was about you, I know that much about you, my Conqueror. It must have been about me, wasn’t it?

“Now isn’t the time, my love. We can talk about it later. I promise I won’t keep anything from you, but not now. Trust me on this, all right?”

She slowly nodded her head, reaching up to gently kiss me. She turned to Mika, still waiting at the door and looking uncomfortable.

“Let him in, Mika, and then leave us, please.”

Mika nodded, wearing an expression of relief and returned, followed by Herodotus. As Mika left the barn, I stepped back into the shadows. Gabrielle had indicated her need to handle this alone, to play out the scenario to its fruition. I refused to see her hurt, but I also respected her wish and understood her desire to stand tall before this man.

Mika left the man just inside the entrance. He looked a hundred seasons older than when we’d first met just a few candlemarks earlier. I suspected that what his wife had to say to him after I left had a great deal to do with his defeated body language. He took a step forward, but stopped when he saw me leaning against a stall gate.

“I just wanted a moment with her,” he said. If he was hinting that I leave, he would be disappointed.

“I stay to make sure we don’t have a repeat performance,” I said as I glared at him from my spot in the shadows.

“I have no secrets from Xena,” Gabrielle said. “Anything you say to me can be said in front of Xena.”

Herodotus looked about as uncomfortable as one man can get. I couldn’t work up a great deal of sympathy for his plight, but I did have pity. He let his wife run his life, even to the point of refusing to acknowledge his own daughter. I wondered what he would say, if he would stand up for himself or if he would continue to stand in Hecuba’s domineering shadow.

He stood there looking at his boots. “Gabrielle,” he looked up quickly. “May I still call you that?”

“Of course.” Gabrielle couldn’t help smiling.

“I never knew, Gabrielle, I swear to you I never knew about you. I don’t want you thinking–”

“Enlighten me,” Gabrielle interrupted. “Knew what about me?”

“Well, that…I–” Herodotus looked back at me.

The man assumed I had rushed out and told Gabrielle what her mother had done. How simple was he? If I hadn’t been angry before, I was after that. He stammered and stumbled around his words, looking at me to get him out of it. Gabrielle knew that I knew, so there was nothing to be done, but give her a quick version. Gods, I could have strangled him! Gabrielle was now looking at me, too, an expectant expression on her face.

“Your mo–Hecuba admitted that she suspected you were their daughter ever since you came with me to Corinth and the rumors got out. She knew, but…well, you know how she feels. I’m sorry, love. I was going to tell you all of it.”

Gabrielle stood, looking a little numb. She had one of those faraway looks in her eye, as if she couldn’t quite grasp the truth of what I had just told her.

“It’s all right, Xena, I understand,” she said absently. “Just finding it a little hard to believe. She knew? All the way back then and never said anything? What kind of people are you?” she asked Herodotus.

“Gabrielle, I–” he stammered.

“If it helps, Gabrielle, I believe he’s telling the truth when he says he didn’t know. I don’t think Hecuba told him,” I responded.

“It’s true,” he said. “I could never have gone without trying to contact you, even if you would have thought me mad. I don’t know what came over Hecuba. We spoke about you only after the Conqueror’s man contacted us, but she never hinted that she felt so…so strongly about…about things.”

“I see,” Gabrielle said slowly. “So, where does that leave us?”

Gods, there it was in her eye, a tiny look of hope. If I thought she might hear me, I would have send her some sort of mental message, begging her not to hold out any hope, not to put any faith in this man who had none at all in himself.

“I…Gabrielle, no matter what anyone says, even Hecuba, you will always be my daughter.” He took her hands in his and I wondered if he was going to prove me wrong. That perhaps he’d developed a backbone in the past few candlemarks.

“Please believe me when I say that nothing you have done, or were forced to do, could dampen my joy at seeing you alive and healthy again. A piece of me died the day you disappeared. I honestly haven’t felt true happiness until I saw you today. I knew, I just knew that you were my Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle smiled and I thought that even with all the rest that had gone on, hearing her father say those words would be one good memory that she could take with her.

“Perhaps…maybe you could come to Corinth for a visit?” Gabrielle looked at me as she said this and I nodded my head. “I know it’s rather soon, but–”

“Gabrielle,” Herodotus interrupted. “I…well, I…I’m not a strong man. I love you my child, but I just…Hecuba can be…” he let loose of her hands and his shoulders sagged.

I watched as Gabrielle’s expression told me that she was a perceptive woman. Her eyes narrowed and her body grew rigid. They were small changes in the way she looked and held herself, but I noticed them all the same. They said that she knew what her father was trying to say. Gods, he couldn’t even stand up to his daughter, a virtual stranger.

“What are you trying to say?” Gabrielle asked him. She stood even straighter now, a slight edge to her voice.

“I…I…If it were up to me, or only me, but…Hecuba’s–she’s a…a strong woman…”

Gabrielle, looking every bit the Queen, said it first. “Perhaps it would be best if we didn’t see one another…for a while at least.”

“She might come around.” He looked relieved and hopeful at the same time. Unfortunately, it was apparent that both of them realized that day would never come, that this would probably be the last time they ever saw one another.

“I’m sure you’ll write me if anything changes,” she said.

“Perhaps it won’t be long at all.”

“Perhaps,” she answered.

He leaned in and she allowed him to kiss her cheek. He squeezed her hands one last time. “Maybe someday…” he trailed off before turning to leave.

“Yes, someday,” Gabrielle agreed. He never heard her response, though. He had already gone.

She answered my earlier question the moment Herodotus left the barn. Like the Queen that she was, Gabrielle had held herself together for as long as she needed to. Once it was only she and I, Gabrielle gave herself permission to fall apart. I expected it and crossed the room just in time to catch her as she crumpled to the floor in tears.

****
“Please, love. I know you don’t feel like it, but you need to eat just a little something.”

She shook her head, wrapping her fingers around her mug of tea. “I know, Xena, but I can’t force one bite down.”

The rain fell in steady sheets against the tent. The sound of falling rain had always been a sort of comfort sound to me. Under different circumstances, Gabrielle and I would have been enjoying one another’s company, lying on a soft mattress of cushions beside the large brazier in the center of the tent. Unfortunately, the events of the day had cast a gloom upon us that matched the weather outside.

Gabrielle sat unhappily beside the fire, unable to eat, barely communicative. I only made matters worse, I am certain, by hovering all afternoon. I was as much of an emotional jumble as Gabrielle. This latest turn had handcuffed my customary need to fix all that went wrong in Gabrielle’s life. This time, however, nothing I did or said seemed to make it any better for her. By nightfall, I had attempted everything I knew to turn Gabrielle’s dark mood around, but nothing worked. I did not blame her at all. I would have felt no different had it happened to me.

Gabrielle poured herself another cup of tea. “I can’t seem to get warm enough,” she said. “I feel chilled to the bone.”

I wrapped a soft fur robe around her and she offered me a weak smile. “Thank you, love. I’m sorry I’m not better company.”

I knelt beside her chair and pulled the robe closer about her. “Little one, you don’t have to pretend for me, you know that. I know what you’re feeling and I understand completely.”

She nodded and let her head fall against my shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she said as she brushed away the tears that had fallen as continually as the rain outside. “I can’t seem to stop this. I’m trying, but–”

“Sshh, love. Don’t think too hard on it. Just let your emotions go. If you need to cry, then cry. It won’t make you feel any better by holding them in check.”

“I feel so…I want–I don’t even know how to describe it. I don’t even feel like I know what I’m doing, Xena.”

She began to cry harder and I knew we where in for another candlemark or so of tears. This had gone on until I felt that she had no more tears in her to cry. I had been wrong. Just when it seemed that she had calmed, the emotions would rise to the surface once more.

I took the mug from Gabrielle’s grasp and placed it on a small table, lifting her into my arms and carrying her to our bed.

“Let’s lie down, love,” I whispered.

I held her in my arms, feeling completely useless. I silently prayed for Athena’s help in easing my wife’s pain. All I could do was to stroke her hair and whisper tender encouragements and declarations of my love. I don’t know how much time had passed, but she quieted at last and, fully dressed, we both fell into a very uneasy slumber.

Some candlemarks later, the rain had not decreased any. It’s steady, almost hollow sound as it hit the tent had lulled me to sleep. Now, the empty sound awoke me.

“Gabrielle?” I murmured sleepily. Gone was the comforting weight of her body against mine.

I reached out a hand to find empty space. The air in the tent was chill and the lamps that had remained lit when we first lay down had either burned out or been extinguished by hand. The fire in the brazier had burned down to glowing red coals, meaning it had been some time since a servant had placed fresh wood upon the fire. Leaning up on one elbow, I found, not only Gabrielle’s empty side of the bed, but her abandoned bedclothes, as well.

I looked around the tent, more alert now. The hairs along the back of my neck stood on end, a sure sign that my senses were telling me something was wrong. “Gabrielle?”

I quickly rose, fully clothed and still wearing my boots. I tossed two short logs on the fire to illuminate the tent. Reaching down for the second thick branch, I realized that the wood in the basket was the same wood that had been there when I went to bed. It caught my attention because a servant, or even one of our private guards, would have been assigned to keep the fire going throughout the night in our tent.

Determined not to panic just yet, I scanned the room for any additional clues as to her whereabouts. She had tossed her dressing gown upon the chair, yet her traveling clothes, boots, and heavy cloak were missing. It was apparent that she’d left the tent, but to combat my rising sense of panic, I told myself that in this weather, if she had needed some air, even wanted a private trip to relieve herself, she would have dressed in those missing items.

I tossed aside the curtain that separated the small antechamber from the main tent. The next flap was heavier, covering the entrance from the elements outside. I stepped out into the rain, blowing straight across and into my face. The weather had turned colder, the wind and rain cutting right through my clothing. The Royal Guard were absent, but Mika, the Amazon, stood beside the tent, blowing on her hands to keep them warm.

“Lord Conqueror,” she snapped to attention.

“Where are the guards?” I shouted to be heard above the whistling wind.

“Gab–the Queen sent them in to get warm. I said I’d stay.”

“Where is Gabrielle?”

“She took a trip to the edge of the woods. She said she wasn’t feeling well,” Mika answered. She looked confused.

“And you didn’t go with her?”

“I–well, she said she wanted some privacy. I didn’t think–”

“That much is apparent!” I grabbed the neck of her leather tunic and tossed her toward the woody area fifty paces away. “Find her!”

I moved to follow her, to find Gabrielle for myself, but suddenly realized what a fool I would look like when Mika brought an embarrassed and possibly maddened Gabrielle back with her.

“Guard!” I shouted at the top of my voice.

To their credit, barely the wink of an eye passed before nearly twenty soldiers rushed from different tents, their swords drawn. They knew my voice and understood that it must be trouble for me to call out like that. Once Mika brought Gabrielle safely back into camp, I would have everyone of the Royal Guard standing out in the freezing rain for the rest of the night. Amazons and Empire soldiers alike rushed to the sound of my voice, all of them heedless of the weather. Ephiny came at a run just ahead of Atrius.

“What’s wrong?” Atrius asked.

“These morons left their posts when Gabrielle told them to go get warm.”

Atrius looked astounded and Ephiny glared through dripping wet curls at the two Amazons who were supposed to be with the Royal Guard.

“The Queen told us to–” The ranking Guardsman began to explain, unaware that in my mind he had already been demoted.

“She told you, did she?” I shouted. “You fucking idiots! Even if I tell you to leave your post on Royal Guard duty, you’re supposed to refuse. Isn’t that what you were trained to do?”

“Aye, Conqueror…but–”

“Son of a Bacchae,” I spat as I turned to Atrius. “Does he want to meet Hades tonight?” The officer’s continual attempt at making an excuse for his behavior was wearing on my last untouched nerve.

Atrius took over. “Not one more word!” he warned the younger officer. “The Queen is kind-hearted, but you know better than to obey that sort of order. She–”

“She’s gone!” Mika’s voice surprised me as she came running up to where we stood. I honestly had not expected that and dearly wanted to ask her to repeat herself.

“She? She who?” Ephiny asked. She looked at the faces around her. “Where is Gabrielle?”

“Fuck!” I shouted. I wanted to throttle Mika. The only thing that saved her life that day was the fact that my mind had already moved on to where Gabrielle might have gone.

Mika quickly explained to Ephiny what she had told me. Atrius had already begun to shout orders and mount up riders.

I went back into the tent and ripped off my soaked shirt, oblivious to the fact that Atrius stood directly behind me. He had seen my nakedness before. Right at this moment, I didn’t care what he saw or thought. I quickly donned a dry shirt and grabbed my heavy cloak from where it had been hanging near the fire. Atrius realized what I was doing once I buckled on my sword.

“Conqueror, please, stay. You’ll be safer here. Let us look for her. If her kidnappers–”

“She wasn’t kidnapped,” I said just in time for Ephiny to hear as she entered the tent.

“Did I just hear you correctly?” She looked warily between Atrius and me.

“Gabrielle left of her own accord, I’m sure of it,” I answered.

“I don’t understand,” Atrius looked as though he didn’t know whether to be relieved or not.

“I think I do,” Ephiny responded. “It has something to do with today, with her family, doesn’t it?”

“I think it has everything to do with that.” I pulled on a pair of black leather riding gloves. “She’s not herself, like she’s having some sort of emotional breakdown. Damn me to Tartarus!” I hissed the words loud enough for them to take a step back. “I should have seen this coming.”

“Why don’t we get her back before we start taking on blame,” Atrius said. “Where would she go?”

“Well, her horse is gone, so she’s not on foot. I have trackers combing the area around the corral, but with this weather, tracks are going to be all but washed away.”

“She’s not so much running away from something as to it,” I said. She doesn’t know what she’s doing exactly. She’s unhappy and her whole world just crashed in on her today.” I quickly explained what had happened with Gabrielle’s parents.

“I think she’s just…she’s going somewhere, she just doesn’t know where…or why. I thinking she’s acting on feeling…instinct.”

“There are three roads leading away from Potidaea. We’re sort of at a loss if we don’t know where she’s going,” Atrius said.

“Let’s split into three groups. Atrius, send some men back toward her parent’s house, just to see if she would try to see them again. Then, you take the road heading back into Potidaea. Ephiny and I will get on the road going to Amphipolis. No matter what you find, be back here by sunrise. If we haven’t returned, break camp and follow us, but send some men into the woods instead of following along the main road.”

“Aye, Conqueror.” Atrius left without another word. A man of action, I knew I could count on him to do his best to find my wife.

By the time Ephiny and I left the tent, I found Tenorio saddled and pawing at the earth, the member of the Royal Guard that had infuriated me so much, holding the stallion’s reins. We didn’t say a word to one another, but he mounted his own horse and waited behind me.

“Lord Conqueror, I–” Mika began.

“Get away from me!” I said in a hissing voice. It was only my focus on Gabrielle, which kept me from beating the Amazon to a pulp. I fear that if time had not been such a factor, even my newfound control could not have held back the beast. I would have littered the camp with beheaded guards.

“Mika, consider yourself lucky to still be alive,” Ephiny said as she jumped onto her own mount’s saddle. “I’ll decide what to do with you later.”

“If it helps at all, she hasn’t been gone for more than half a candlemark,” Mika responded.

We rode hard after hearing that Gabrielle hadn’t left camp that long ago. The wind caused the rain to hit my face as though it was full of stinging bits of rock. I knew the road well and let Tenorio have free reign as we thundered along the muddy terrain. Ephiny’s pony, along with the other Amazon mounts, could simply not keep up with my huge stallion’s speed. We quickly outdistanced them. I heard Ephiny shout something, but I couldn’t hear what it was. I wouldn’t have stopped anyway.

I blinked a few times against the rain, and then rubbed my eyes in an attempt to clear my vision. Just ahead, I thought I saw the shadow of a rider. The heavy rain clouds hid the moon so that there wasn’t the slightest bit of the silver orb to light up the night. The blackness well and truly surrounded me so I couldn’t be sure if the shadow had been wishful thinking on my part, or not.

I had slowed enough to find Ephiny riding beside me once again. We could barely hear one another above the wind. A quick flash of lightning illuminated the road ahead of us and we both saw it this time. Ephiny pointed and I nodded. A cloaked figure sped ahead of us, heedless of the weather.

We drew closer and another jagged streak of lightning tore through the black sky. There was no question this time. The figure was too small to be a man, yet the perfect size to be Gabrielle. Covered in a dark cloak, she sat low in the saddle, her cheek nearly pressed against the galloping horse’s neck.

I motioned toward Ephiny to set her up on the other side of the road. We easily caught up to Gabrielle, and I could see that her gray mare was tiring. Her sides heaved and I could see the animal’s large puffs of breath in the cold air.

Each strike of lightning from the sky illuminated the landscape as bright as day and I finally caught a glimpse of Gabrielle’s face. The cloak’s hood had blown backward, but Gabrielle seemed oblivious. Her gaze looked vacant and tense and her face was a pale as the brilliant white light that surrounded us with each flash of lightning. The hollow pain in my belly made me want to retch. Never had I seen Gabrielle so distressed before, yet so seemingly unaware of her surroundings.

“Gabrielle!” I screamed over the wind and rain. She never looked at me, only stared straight ahead with some sort of absent-minded fixation. It was as if my Gabrielle wasn’t inside this woman.

Ephiny caught my attention as she pushed her mount up against Gabrielle’s horse. The Amazon’s action squeezed Gabrielle toward Tenorio and me. The stallion seemed to know what we had planned. He craned his neck and pushed his head against the side of the mare’s head. The action frightened the smaller animal enough so that she slowed her pace in an attempt to free herself from her confinement.

Ephiny reached over and made a play at grabbing Gabrielle’s reins. She missed and my heart nearly stopped. Her foot had slipped from the saddle’s stirrup and she nearly fell from her mount’s back. Righting herself again, she closed the space between her horse and Gabrielle’s and grabbed at the reins once more. Gabrielle seemed to fight for control, but decided to simply hang on to the mare’s neck as the horse slowed to a stop.

I was off Tenorio in a flash, before the animal could even stop his own gait. Ephiny still held the mare’s reins and Gabrielle nearly tumbled off the horse’s back.

“Gabrielle,” I called her name, but she looked right at me as if I was a stranger, as though she couldn’t see me.

“No!” she cried out. “Let me go!”

Her behavior surprised me so much that I never even had a chance to stop her next action. She fought me off, hitting at me with her fists. I would have been in serious trouble if she had been using her fighting skills, but as empty of my Gabrielle as this woman was, so too were her fighting abilities suspiciously absent.

“Gabrielle, stop!” I yelled.

She fought me off, well enough to squirm away. She took off running down the middle of the muddy road. As I said, her actions so surprised me that it took a few heartbeats before I even knew she was truly running away from me. Getting my head back into the reality of what was happening, I sped off after her. It only took a moment for me to catch up to her, but Gods, how my heart was breaking. I never thought that Gabrielle would break like this, not after all she’d been through in her life.

I grabbed her and spun her around to look in her eyes. I had pinned her arms to her sides and held her tight. “Gabrielle! It’s me…Xena. Please, love, talk to me.”

That’s all it took to bring her back to me.

“Xena?” She looked around as if she had no idea how she had gotten in the middle of the countryside in the black of night.

“Yes, love, it’s me.”

I loosened my previous hold and instead wrapped my arms around her stunned and freezing body. She sobbed against me and the sound was enough to tear my heart in two.

“Gabrielle, little one, what on earth are you doing? Where are you trying to go?”

“Home,” she said between her sobs. “I want to go home.”

I was confused. Where did she mean? Had she been trying to get back to Amphipolis, or home to our castle by the sea? “I don’t understand. Corinth…is that where you mean?”

She pulled away and looked at me. Now it was she who appeared confused. She slipped to the ground and fell to her knees in the mud, her sobs growing in intensity.

“I don’t even have one, do?” she cried. “I want to go home, but I don’t have one!”

Her answer shocked me, but then again, it shouldn’t have. This is what her flight had been about. I was correct when I assumed that she wasn’t running away, but to something. She wanted to go home. What child hadn’t felt that at some time in their adult life? Gabrielle had found out earlier in the day that everything she had previously associated with home had now been denied her. The dream that had most probably carried her through difficult times in her young life had been shattered. The dream of returning home had turned into a nightmare.

I could do no more than kiss her forehead, wet with rain. That’s when I felt how warm she was in contrast to the freezing cold. She shivered uncontrollably and it was then that I saw she had passed out. I lifted her limp form and motioned Ephiny to bring the horses closer.

“What in Artemis’s name is going on with her?” she asked.

“She’s ill. Come on, Eph, we have to get her back to camp. She’s burning up with fever.”

“Son of a Bacchae,” she muttered as she helped me mount Tenorio with Gabrielle in my arms. “Doesn’t anything in life ever go easy for you two?”

“Not lately,” I responded.

Continued in Chapter 23

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