Time’s Fell Hand part 3 by LJ Maas

Chapter 23: The Expense Of Spirit In A Waste of Shame…

Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered open and I reached down to kiss her forehead. My lips brushed against dry, overheated skin. She was even warmer than before and I suppose the worry showed in my eyes, but I believed her too feverish to notice my expression. In fact, her own visage told me that she wasn’t completely aware of everything around her. To my heart’s delight, she recognized me and offered an extremely weak smile.

“Are we on a boat?” Gabrielle asked.

I couldn’t hold back a small chuckle. “No, little one, we’re in the wagon. We’re on our way home.”

Gabrielle winced slightly and I cursed my thoughtlessness. I hadn’t realized my exact words until after I had already uttered them. She didn’t say anything further and I wondered if the word home had simply evoked a memory of the previous evening that she couldn’t fully remember in her present condition. I simply decided to continue.

“We left as soon as the sun rose, Love. We should be home this evening.”

“So soon?” she rasped.

“We left the majority of the foot soldiers behind so we could move faster.”

“Am I that sick?” She spoke so coherently that I forgot she was only, mentally, half there. Her eyes told the real story, as she appeared to struggle to stay alert.

“Not at all, love. You have a fever, but I bet it’s gone by the time we get back to the inn.” I didn’t lie exactly, but in truth, I was more worried about her illness than I let on. Gabrielle rarely felt poorly, unlike me who tended to wake each day with some sort of pain caused by the way I had abused my body for so many seasons. “If not, some of Cyrene’s soup will fix you right up. Here, drink some of this.”

“Oh, that’s terrible,” she said after taking a minimal swallow.

“I know, but if I told you that ahead of time you wouldn’t have taken it. Sorry, but it’s good for you. It’ll help keep that fever under control. Here, take a drink of water. It will wash away the bitter taste.”

She shook her head after one small swallow. “It hurts too much to swallow.”

“You really need to keep drinking as much water as you can, Love.”

“I’ll try later,” she said as she settled back against the pillows once more.

I thought she was ready to fall asleep again until I could feel the weight of her gaze watching my every move. I replaced the water flask on the peg it hung upon and turned to look at her.

“I’m so sorry, Xena.”

“Whatever for?”

“I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble last night. I just meant to…I’m not sure what, but it was almost like…like I didn’t have any control. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just let my emotions take over and lead me.”

“I know that, my love, and you owe me no apologies. We can talk more about everything that’s happened, but right now I only want you to concentrate on one thing.”

“Getting better?”

“Who says you’re not an oracle?” I winked at her as my jest caused her to smile again.

Gabrielle was asleep before I even left the wagon. We stopped for a few moments to rest and water the horses. I took the opportunity to stretch my legs, even though part of me was loathe to leave Gabrielle alone. Ephiny, who had hovered as close to the wagon as possible since Gabrielle returned to camp, gave me an idea.

“Do you mind sending someone to sit with Gabrielle? Preferably someone she knows.”

“I’d be happy to,” Mika answered from behind me.

I turned to glare at her. “I don’t want you anywhere near her.”

“Mika, you’re supposed to be on point,” Ephiny said. “Get back up there.”

“Yes, Commander.”

The young woman looked as though her world had ended, but I was still too angry with her to care. I knew that Gabrielle would chastise me for such behavior, but it was something that I didn’t seem able to control, especially not without Gabrielle at my side. Obviously, this whole homecoming had worn on my nerves, as well.

“She and Shanta get on well. Why don’t you take some time to get some rest yourself, though?” Ephiny waved to a nearby Amazon. After a short exchange, the woman ran off, apparently to find Shanta.

“Mostly because as tired as I am, I know there’s no way I’d sleep at this point. At least not until we get home where there are healers close by.”

“I guess I’d do the same,” Ephiny answered, patting my shoulder. “How is she?”

“I think her fever’s getting worse. The medicine I made up isn’t strong enough to fight anything serious, but I don’t have the herbs to make anything better.”

Shanta, one of the Amazons I recognized because of the time she spent as Gabrielle’s personal Amazon guard, ran up and saluted the both of us. Ephiny explained and Shanta seemed happy to sit with Gabrielle.

“See if you can get some water down her if she wakes,” I said before Shanta climbed into the wagon.

We set off once more, but I rode Tenorio a small ways behind the wagon. Ephiny was good company for me. Being a warrior herself, she knew enough not to prattle on, but rode in silence beside me. Acting rather unlike myself, I began our conversation first. I thought it quite odd that I should want to talk about what had happened in the last two days. I never wanted to discuss such things, especially if they had anything to do with feelings or emotions. Gods, what Gabrielle had done to me. I remember thinking that it was rather wonderful, actually.

“Hades of a couple of days, eh?” I asked.

“That it is. You know, I’ve been thinking. After all Gabrielle has been through, mentally and now physically, maybe your little surprise package will be a welcome surprise for her.”

My silence hadn’t been meant to confuse Ephiny, but I didn’t know how to explain what I was feeling.

“Did I say something wrong, Xena?” She actually looked concerned; perhaps worried that she’d said the wrong thing somehow.

“No, my friend, not at all. I just–I don’t know what to do about that now.”

“What to do? I’m not sure I understand.”

“I’m not sure Gabrielle can take any more of my surprises,” I answered. “What if it turns out like this did? What a fucking disaster.”

“You’re not seriously thinking about not telling her about the girl, are you?”

“Ephiny, Gabrielle’s been hurt in a way that I don’t think she’ll ever–look, I pray to Athena she’ll get over it, but I know she’ll never forget it. How can I set her up like that again?”

Ephiny’s manner was one of thoughtful silence. She offered no excuses or false hopes, which I appreciated. “It’s true, her homecoming wasn’t what she wanted it to be, and I’m with you. I hope it doesn’t affect her in an adverse way, not permanently anyway. Gabrielle’s a difficult woman to gauge. You know her better than I do, but I honestly think she’s about the last person in the known world who would ever give up…on anything, no matter how difficult. The woman I see as Gabrielle would, given the choice between living a dull, but easy life and living a painful, even difficult life that’s full of love and meaning…well, I think she’d choose the latter.”

“You have completely lost me, woman. What in Hades is all that supposed to mean?”

“Sorry,” she chuckled. “I was sort of thinking out loud. I was thinking about what a unique young woman Gabrielle is, I guess. No matter what she’s been through, she always manages to see the positive side of a situation.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning that as much as you love her, Xena, you can’t ask her to be less than she is. Whether the child is hers or not is irrelevant, don’t you think? You love her too much to refuse her anything and she’s the sort of woman that wouldn’t hold it against you if it turned out badly. You two really are the perfect match when you think about it.”

“Very funny,” I answered, pulling back on Tenorio’s reins. Our animals came to a stop and I waved over a soldier to take my mount. “Guess I have some rather heavy thinking to do.”

“You’ll do the right thing.”

“I have to thank you for this little talk, Ephiny,” I said as I dismounted. “I started out a little confused. Now, thanks to you, I’m completely confused.”

“Anything I can do to help, just call on me, Conqueror.” She winked and spurred her horse away.

“Some day, Amazon…some day,” I muttered under my breath.

****
Gabrielle’s eyes opened, but I knew immediately that she did not see me. She looked right at me as I brushed damp tendrils of hair from her fevered brow, blotting the beads of perspiration that gathered there. She took a few sips of water for me and even answered one of my questions, but her countenance was different. This was not my Gabrielle staring up at me.

“How do you feel, Gabrielle?” I asked.

“Are we still in port? The ship is rolling like we’re still at sea.”

I just stared down at her, unsure what to say. Gooseflesh rose up on my arms even though the heat of the day caused me to wear only a thin underneath shirt. The feeling that Gabrielle had been looking, not at me, but at someone in her memory persisted.

“At sea?” I asked. I was even at a loss as to how to answer. I suspected it was the fever speaking, but her speech caused her to seem so alert.

Quite unexpectedly, her hand shot out and she grabbed my wrist, her pincer-like grasp making my fingers tingle.

“Artus, please help me. I know you’re not like them,” she said.

I was in a daze, I suppose. I was uncertain how to react. Should I try to bring her mind into the here and now, or was I to go along with what I assumed was a feverish memory from the past? I decided to add as little as I could get away with to the conversation in hopes that she would realize who I was.

“Help you?” I asked. “What kind of help do you need, Gabrielle?”

“Bless Athena. I knew you would be as kind a young man as your father. My baby, Artus, he’s going to kill my baby. Please, can’t you do something to save her?”

Tears fell from Gabrielle’s eyes and I suddenly realized that my cheeks were wet with my own tears. My heart felt as though it had been painfully ripped from my chest. She seemed to be patting an invisible bundle at her breast, as though her child lay there feeding.

“Please,” she pleaded again. “Save my baby. You must know some woman who might want a healthy girl. Please, Artus. I have some gold hidden away. It’s yours if only you find a way to save my child.”

I didn’t care who this Artus was, or what he had been to Gabrielle. I didn’t care if this was supposed to be a part of Gabrielle’s memory or not. I pulled her to me and held her tightly. I cried with her as I kissed her forehead.

“Have no fear, Gabrielle. I will save your child. No matter what the cost, I’ll see that she is safe.”

I felt her body relax the moment I uttered my promise.

“Thank you. Everything will be all right now,” she said as she settled into my embrace.

I let myself cry for quite some time afterward, listening to Gabrielle’s rasping breaths as she finally slept. I was sure she would remember none of our conversation when she awoke, or once her fever broke so I allowed myself the luxury of feeling another’s pain and sorrow. It was something that I didn’t remember ever having done before.

Gabrielle’s delirious musings certainly assisted me in at least one way. I had made up my mind. I could hear Athena’s laughter in my mind as I silently asked her for the strength to become a parent at my age.

****
Four days had passed since we arrived back in Amphipolis. Gabrielle’s fever had finally broken earlier in the day. I sit in our room and write in my scrolls by the light of a single candle so as not to disturb Gabrielle’s sleep. Her rest had been sporadic at best. She had been unusually quiet today. She seemed depressed with a faraway look in her eyes as though she was thinking on something quite intensely. Mother had tried to convince me that it had been due merely to the toll the illness had taken on Gabrielle’s body. I feared, however, that it might have been something more. Yu Pan took my worries seriously. Either that, or he had humored me by saying that he would speak to Gabrielle once she felt a little stronger.

I rose to check on Gabrielle. I pulled the silky coverlet up, wrapping it around her more securely. She slept soundly and I thanked Athena that the delirious, fever induced dreams had ended. She looked pale, but at least her face had a peaceful appearance, the first such expression in days.

I returned to the desk and continued my tale. I had finally been writing down some of the more emotional moments that I had experienced since returning home to Amphipolis. It had been difficult to write about such things, especially the more emotional conversations between my mother and me. I could only hope that someday Gabrielle would be able to write of her homecoming, the miserable experience that it had been.

Future readers of these archives would have to be content to see this portion of our journey through my eyes alone. Gabrielle had not written in her scrolls since before we left for Potidaea. I didn’t want to say that I knew she would return to her quill for I had seen many people’s loves turned to stone after traumatic events in their lives. I had hopes, however, that Gabrielle would begin writing again. She was too strong a woman not to come back from such adversity. I didn’t know if she would ever feel comfortable enough to write about what happened in Potidaea. Perhaps some day, when the pain and the memories were not so raw.

I found myself wandering downstairs, but my hope for company deflated when I saw that only a few dim lamps burned. I was sure Cyrene was about somewhere, busily preparing for the next day, but I didn’t want to disturb her. I thought of seeking out Atrius or Ephiny, perhaps even Solan for a game of King’s Men, but at the same instant, I wondered if I really wanted any company at all. If that sounds like a contradiction in desires then I have explained how I felt rather well. In fact, explaining how I felt would involve saying that I had no idea how I felt. Perhaps anxious was the word for it. In any case, I found my legs directing me toward my old room.

I began to peer through baskets and drawers; tentatively at first, not really certain I belonged there. My feelings changed as I found only my belongings among the possessions. I felt tears fill my eyes as I thought of the heartbreak Cyrene must have experienced to compel her to keep the room as it was. I thought of Gabrielle, enduring unending pain and humiliation in her life in the hope that someday she would return home, then having her world crash in on her upon realizing that home had become more of an ideal in her mind than a physical place. Her parents had ruined that for her.

Had Cyrene ever suffered such emotions? She spent her life waiting, hoping her wayward daughter would return having learned what home really meant. The woman spent a good portion of her life hoping that dream would become a reality. How ironic that Gabrielle should have been the one to bring that about. I wondered if Cyrene had ever built up an ideal Xena, or if I disappointed her illusions with the woman I was now.

A large smile replaced my frown. There, in the bottom of a reed basket, lay two silver scroll cases. I gently picked them up and shook them, hearing the rattle of parchment within the container. I unsealed the cap, which opened with a pop, and looked at the contents in amazement. I remembered purchasing them at the bazaar only two days before Cortese’s army invaded Amphipolis. Cases for scrolls, whether they held one or ten scrolls, were usually made of leather. The silver cases with their intricate engravings and inlaid pieces of onyx were different from anything I’d ever seen before.

“But, Xe…you hate to write,” Lyceus said. He chuckled at the pining expression I had developed for the treasures.

“Yea, but these are special. You know, for sometime when I really need to work on something important.”

“What could be that important?”

“Well…” I searched my brain for an example to justify my purchase. “Like my will.”

“With Cortese’s army only two days away, I wouldn’t kid about that.”

“Oh, you know what I mean. Hey, Lyceus…can I ask you something?”

“Yea?” he drawled slowly.

“Geez, why do you always sound as though I’m going to ask you for a bucket of blood?”

“Because I know you,” he answered.

“Very funny. I’m feeling a little insulted.” I tried to put on an affronted expression.

“Oh, all right, I’m sorry. What did you want to ask?”

“Lend me four drachmas.”

Lyceus thought it was an extravagant waste of my…well, his hard-earned drachmas, but the shopkeeper’s pitch had captured me. He explained that the cases had been created so that once the cap was set in place; it created a perfectly sealed and airtight compartment. Amazingly enough, the man hadn’t cheated me. I unrolled the scroll, halfway expecting it to appear faded, or even the dull brown color that age brought to the material. It looked as fresh as the day I bought it.

I looked up quickly, feeling the weight of someone’s gaze upon my back. Selene stood in the doorway, leaning on the side of the entryway. She looked at me strangely, her expression quickly turning to one of almost compassion. Had she heard me say something aloud? I wondered if my memory of Lyceus and I on that day had been something I verbalized or only inside my head. As quickly as it had appeared, it vanished and Selene once again looked at the world through pools of blue contempt.

“I didn’t know anyone else was around,” I said.

“Taking a stroll through your childhood?”

“I suppose,” I answered as I tossed small items back into the baskets. Why was the girl so infuriating?

I imagined what Gabrielle would say. She had told me that Selene was jealous of me, but envious of what? What had Selene lacked during her childhood that I had the better of?

I put away a few items, giving myself enough time to think. I had promised my wife that I would speak with Selene. I figured the easiest way to start would to simply be nice to the girl. Gabrielle had gotten through to my sister’s friendly side. More than once, I had seen Gabrielle merely ignore Selene’s grating comments. I thought that if Gabrielle could do it, I could, too. I had no idea how to be nice to Selene until I looked down upon the scroll cases, which I absently twirled in my hands.

“I’d like to give you something,” I said.

“What?” She looked as though my offered gift was going to be a dose of mountain sickness.

In that heartbeat’s moment of time, I realized that she was surprised at the gift. More than that, I recognized that my way of behaving toward her had been far from inviting. Admittedly, my trip here had been filled with stress from the start, but in this startling moment of epiphany, I saw that the jealousy lay, not with Selene, but with me.

It was suddenly so clear to me. It wasn’t Selene, at least not wholly. I had been the guilty party all along. Yes, she had attitude to spare, but I could have made it much easier. Why had I been jealous of Selene, this gangly girl who hadn’t grown into herself quite yet? Once I comprehended the truth, it was stupidly simple. Just as she held it against me for being first, I was just as resentful at her for coming along second. She had it the easy way. She never had an army attack her hometown, lost her younger brother in battle, or watched her older sibling run from battle, branded as a coward. She never had to have her mother strike her in disappointment and rage. She came along after it all, after Cyrene had made her mistakes as a young mother and when life was good. Essentially, in my opinion, Selene had the best of it all and plainly, I didn’t like her for it.

“Look, Selene, I know we haven’t really gotten along since I came back–”

“That’s not my fault,” she was quick to interrupt.

I smiled weakly. “No, it wasn’t, not completely anyway.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” She didn’t sound defensive, only confused.

“It means that you have a chip on your shoulder the size of Olympus, but–I haven’t exactly treated you right since I got here.”

“Oh,” she said, even more confused now.

“Here, I’d really like you to have these.” I handed her one of the scroll cases, which she accepted slowly. She turned it all around and I watched as the expression on her face eased. Her pinched features relaxed and I realized how much she reminded me of my mother.

“You actually look more like mother than me,” I said. You remind me of what she looked like when I was a child.”

“Really?” She smiled and I believe she liked that idea.

“Well, uhm…thanks. I don’t really mean to be such a…I don’t know. This is beautiful. What’s it supposed to be, anyway?” she asked as she turned the case again in her hand.

“It’s a scroll case. Look…” I pulled the top off with a resounding pop and laid the parchment out flat so she could see it. Then, I rolled the scroll up again and showed her how it slipped into the metal tube.

“Cool, huh?” I said, hoping she would feel the same enthusiasm I had when I purchased them. “I wasn’t that much younger than you when I bought them.”

“It’s beautiful…nice work, but I’m not sure I should really take it.” She looked away from me so I couldn’t see her face, but I noticed the tenseness had returned to her voice.

“Sure, I bet you could use them.”

“I…I don’t think I would actually.”

“That’s not what Gabrielle says. She thinks you’re quite the storyteller. I bet if you wrote them down on these they’d last forever. In fact–”

I moved my seated body aside just as the metal object came hurtling at me. “What in Hades–”

“I don’t need you pretending to be nice to me just so mother will like you better and I don’t need any of your hand-me-downs!”

She ran out of the room, leaving me sitting there with my mouth hanging open.

****
“Those are not for you! They’re for Gabrielle.” My mother said just as her fingers came down atop my hand.

“Ow,” I tried to make it look as though her slap had hurt me worse than it actually had by rubbing the affected area.

“Oh, please.” Cyrene rolled her eyes then winked over at Gabrielle.

“I think she has your number, love,” Gabrielle replied, followed by a small smile. Her smiles had not been near their usual magnitude since our return from Potidaea. I understood, but pined for Gabrielle’s previous demeanor.

“My child,” Cyrene said to Gabrielle. For some reason she had taken to calling Gabrielle that yet, I’m not certain why. “She may be the Conqueror of the known world now, but she’s been using that same pout to get her way since she was four.”

I quickly realized my lower lip was actually sticking out a small bit just as both women looked over at me and laughed. Gods, introducing these two women was going to be the end of me, I just knew it.

“All right, I can take a hint. I shall go downstairs and have my morning meal with my real friends.” I attempted an affronted expression and winked at Gabrielle.

“I’ll share,” she replied.

“No, downstairs is just where you should go. That will give me time to help Gabrielle clean up if she feels up to it.”

“No, Cyrene, really, I can manage on my own.”

“Nonsense. You’ve been in bed for days. I’ll give you a hand and I won’t hear otherwise. Besides, it will give us a chance to talk.” Cyrene patted Gabrielle’s hand affectionately.

As worried as the thought of Gabrielle and my mother alone in a room made me, I saw the positive side to it. Gabrielle needed to talk about what had happened and who better to speak with than a mother? Friends and family were one thing, but I hoped that Cyrene’s unique relationship with Gabrielle might spark my wife toward some cleansing conversation.

Yu Pan had looked in on Gabrielle over the days she had suffered with fever. His herbs had put her on the swift road to recovery, but she had been too ill to speak with him at length. First thing that morning, Gabrielle had requested Yu Pan to visit her. I figured if our combined love and support didn’t exorcise Gabrielle’s demons, then no one would be able to.

I didn’t want Gabrielle to think I was abandoning her, even if it was to my mother. “Will you be all right?” I asked.

“I think Cyrene’s taking good care of me. I’ll be okay.”

I left the room after bestowing a quick kiss on each of the ladies’ cheeks. I rather enjoyed the surprised look on my mother’s face after receiving such affection from me.

Breakfast had actually been a rather cheerful affair. Gabrielle’s return to good health had placed everyone’s spirits a little higher. Delia and Anya enjoyed themselves as Cyrene’s helpers at the inn. Although mother didn’t much like the idea of guests working, the two had convinced her that they were more family than guests. Solan spent most of his day as a student with Yu Pan. Since their upcoming trip to Chin would be upon them by the end of the summer, Solan had begun studying the language and customs of the various provinces their in earnest.

Atrius and Ephiny had become an unlikely pair of comrades. They spent a great deal of time talking of battles and strategic warfare, even setting up sparring matches between the Amazons and Empire soldiers. I suppose that with such career warriors it was inevitable that they should gravitate toward one another. Cor had the time of his life watching and learning from the two.

Tenorio and I went for a ride and the stallion stretched his legs along the green hills of the Strymon River. Selene and I practically ran into one another in the barn. I had nearly forgotten last night’s incident between us. Seeing my sister brought about feelings of confusion mostly. That surprised me, but it was apparent, by the expression on Selene’s face, that it surprised her, too. I think we both expected my anger to rise over her actions, but I found myself, not wishing to fight with Selene as much as understand her and her motivations. What had caused her to chuck that scroll case in my direction?

“Good morning, Selene.” I patted Tenorio’s neck, finishing his brush down.

“Surprised you’re talking to me,” she said as she concentrated on her feet. Her eyes darted back and forth

“We all have our moments. I know I’ve had mine.”

“Look I–well, I didn’t mean to act like a brat last night.”

“Like I said, we all get that way some of the time. Selene, if you ever want to talk about…I don’t know…things, you just have to–”

“I know you mean well, and I’m sorry about my behavior last night, but let’s not try to become best friends or anything.”

“Gods above, Selene, we’re sisters. Don’t you think we should become closer than friends?”

“Why?” she asked.

“Why?” I repeated, stunned by her question. “What kind of a question is that?”

“I think it’s a perfectly natural question. I’ve been around for seventeen summers, Xena, and all that time we’ve been sisters. Now, all of a sudden you want to be a part of our family. Well, what if we don’t want to be your family? What about that?”

“And have I done something to you that was so terrible, Selene, to make you feel that way?”

“Yes. You come in here expecting–”

“I came here with no expectations at all.”

“But you did! You expected everyone to just accept that you’re back. All this time you never thought about us, wondered what we were like, or even if we’d like to see what your stupid castle looked like!”

I was silent for a few heartbeats trying to make some sense of her tirade. “Is that what you’d like, Selene? Would you like to come and visit us in Corinth?”

“Well, maybe…”

She appeared to have suddenly run out of steam. I believed that she expected there to be more fight in me than she was able to provoke at the moment.

“I mean…Gabrielle said…she said you were…” She shuffled her feet and I could see her cheeks turning red. For all her bluster I had to remember that she was still more girl than woman.

“Yes?”

“She said you were going on to see…”

I took a deep breath, hovering near the edge of my patience threshold. I tried to put one of those expressions on my face, one like I had used with Gabrielle in days gone by. Getting information from my young slave had been about as infuriating as this conversation.

“We were going to see,” I slowly said, hoping the lilt in my voice would prompt her to continue.

“Um…” she picked at the wood of the nearest stall gate.

“Selene,” I began as gently as I could. “This conversation might actually go somewhere if you could manage more than three words at a time.”

That pinched her bottom, which was the effect I was going for. I saw, just then, that there were times when her attitude might come in handy.

She huffed out a large breath and stood straight, crossing her arms across her chest. “Amazons!” she exclaimed loudly.

“But we have Amazons right here,” I responded, slightly confused. I swear, on the battlefield or in one on one combat, nothing escaped me, not one detail. I could see a trickle of sweat rolling down my opponent’s temple at twenty paces. Put me in the midst of people, talking about real situations and emotions, however…well, in short, I might as well have been a blind woman.

“I don’t want to just meet Amazons, I–oh, forget it!” she huffed.

I don’t know if the fog cleared from my brain on its own or if Athena slapped me in the back of my head, but the light shone brightly at last.

“Ohhh, you want to see the Amazon village, how they live…you want to see…you know…how they…um…live.”

“Yea,” she said as she exhaled in what sounded like relief. “You know…how they…live.”

“Well, I suppose I could talk to mother about it. She–”

“Won’t let me go,” Selene answered. She lowered her head and I was surprised at the air of finality her words had.

“You’re going to have to have a little more faith than that. Mother seems to have mellowed in that regard. I’m sure–”

“You’re not listening to me,” she said sharply. “She’s not going to let me go. She never lets me–”

“Do anything a young lady shouldn’t do,” I finished for her.

She nodded in silence.

“Because of me,” I said, suddenly able to see the invisible wall that existed between Cyrene and Selene. Now I understood why Selene had grown up holding such a grudge against me.

She flopped down and sat upon a small milking stool. “No weapons, no fighting, no sports. She wouldn’t even let me study with the other kids when the village hired a tutor from Athens. She didn’t like that he taught self-defense as part of the athletics. She was always so afraid I would turn out–”

She looked up from her rambling rather quickly. To her credit, at least she had the nerve to look embarrassed. “I guess it’s not really your fault, Xena. You just made a pretty convenient target.”

I must say that I think Selene wore confusion much better than arrogance. “I guess you never figured to meet me, so you spent a lifetime blaming me for all of it.”

“Well, I had to. I couldn’t blame mother.”

“Why ever not?” I chuckled ironically.

“Well…she’s, I mean, after what she was through with you…I guess I just…I couldn’t make her think that I was going to turn out the same way.”

I nodded in sympathy. “So you gave up your life to be the perfect daughter.”

“I didn’t really give up my life,” she countered.

“She stopped you from being who you really are.” I paused to sit on the ground beside her. “But, in her defense, I bet she never even knew she was doing it.”

“Yea,” she perked up. “That’s kind of how I looked at it. It wasn’t so bad when I was younger, you know, but now…” She rubbed her face with both hands, stopping to clutch handfuls of her dark hair. “I don’t know what to do anymore.

“I know what to do.”

“What?”

“Let me talk to Gabrielle first and I’ll get back with you. Don’t worry, little sister, we’ll work it out some way. Leave it to me.”

“Really?” For the first time, I saw something like hope burn in her eyes.

“Hey, being the Conqueror of the Known World ought to have some perks, don’t you think? I have to say though, Selene, I like you a lot better when you’re not throwing things at me.”

She laughed, somewhat self-consciously at first, but I figured it was a start.
Chapter 24: Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright…

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
This is just a small bit of writing I’m afraid. I’m hoping that it brings about a desire to do more. I had never needed any outside inspiration to write before; it had always come from within. I find that I’m rather empty inside and I fear that it has little to do with the fever I had so recently suffered. I saw the worry in Xena’s eyes from the first moment I awoke. She’s afraid I’ll not take up the quill again; she said as much this morning. I explained that she needn’t fear that, but she appeared unconvinced. Perhaps it was because I sounded rather unconvincing, even to my own ears.

Cyrene has gone downstairs to arrange for a portable bath to be brought up to the room and to fetch us a pot of tea. We had talked almost all morning and I believe some of it caused the heavy ache within my chest to ease up slightly. In fact, while I can admit that I am heartbroken beyond reason over what I see as my parent’s betrayal, Cyrene’s words have at least calmed me to the point of trying to accept. I don’t think I will ever understand, but I can at least accept their behavior. Cyrene has made that easier with her love and abundant compassion.

Cyrene had a manner that immediately put me at ease. It had been that way almost since the first day we’d met. There was a sort of connection between us. I don’t really understand why, considering she was Xena’s blood and not my own. When I thought on the enigma of it, perhaps that is exactly why this woman seems so familiar to me. I see Xena within Cyrene in so many ways. How odd that mother and daughter could be so alike after having spent so many seasons apart.

I sat at the small table in our room and ate what I could of a delightful morning meal. Since the days that my servitude ended, I had been most fortunate in having such culinary masters as Delia and Cyrene spoil me at the dining table. I enjoyed listening to Cyrene tell me all that I had missed around the inn since I’d been ill. The stories were nothing particularly important, just the sort of talk that people engage in to pass the time. Cyrene changed the sheets on our bed and removed the linen from the day lounger that Xena had obviously been spending her nights on.

Cyrene was an astute woman, as I have found most healers to be. Just as Yu Pan watched the world around him in reflective silence, speaking only when it was necessary, so I found Cyrene much the same. I could feel her watching me more closely than most people would have even noticed. She was extremely subtle about it, and in truth, I hadn’t the energy to allow it to unnerve me. Besides, I understood why she did it. It would have been foolish of me to think that Xena hadn’t confided in her mother about what had happened in Potidaea, but I knew that Xena had an interesting way of relating a story. She had always felt quite uncomfortable about talking about someone without that person’s knowledge, and that was even more apparent when it came to me. I suppose it came from her personal code of honor, or loyalty. In short, I suspected that she had left it up to me as to how much of my personal life I would reveal. It should not have come as any surprise to me, then, when Cyrene commented on the furrow in my brow.

You look as though you’re concentrating much too hard on that food.” She chuckled slightly after she spoke.

I offered a distracted smile. Between all of the other ramblings in my brain, what happened in Potidaea still replayed itself. I’m sure my face reflected that.

“I’m sorry, Cyrene. It really has nothing to do with the food. In fact, I was just thinking how spoiled I was with you and Delia feeding me.”

“She’s a wonderful woman, isn’t she,” Cyrene answered. “It’s been so wonderful having a woman my age to talk with. That’s a rare commodity in the village. You don’t realize how much you miss something like that until you experience it. Most of the women I grew up with live on farms outside of town.”

“I know what you mean. It’s been special to me…having friends, especially women near my age. I’m often surprised how much I have in common with Anya and Scylla, even considering how different our outward lives are.”

“Well, I’ll miss all of you a great deal when you go. I’ve become a little accustomed to having family running all over the inn again.”

“You know, Cyrene, you’re welcome to visit, or even stay, with us no matter where we are. You’re family and you’re always wanted.”

“Come over here, my child. That’s reminds me of something I wanted to tell you.” Cyrene patted the newly changed bed as she spoke.

She came over and assisted me in walking over to the bed. I accepted her help with little resistance. After spending so many days in bed, my legs felt a little like wet reeds. She poured us each another cup of tea then, after taking a few refreshing sips; we set them upon the small stand beside the bed.

“I asked Cor to have Elias help him and carry up a large copper bath. I told him to give us some time, though, so we could talk a little.”

“Cyrene, I feel bad for all the trouble you’re going to. Really, I wouldn’t mind using the baths at the end of the hall.”

“Nonsense, I won’t hear of it. Besides, with the privacy you get here in your room, you can relax and soak for a good long while with no interruptions.”

“Well, you make it sound too good to turn down,” I answered. In truth, it did sound wonderful and cleaning up after the last few days sounded marvelous.

“Gabrielle, your words about me feeling welcome wherever you and Xena are–”

“I meant that, Cyrene. You will always have a place with us.”

“That means a great deal to me. I think family has become more important the older I get.”

“Or the longer you’re away from them,” I added. My response had slipped past my tongue before I even realized that I had made it more than thought.

“What happened in Potidaea, Gabrielle?” she asked.

That was all it took. Isn’t that strange? I felt all the emotions; pain, heartache, betrayal, and anger, just as I had felt them on that day. Then, the emptiness that had captured my soul upon learning that nothing I had put my hopes into over the seasons existed, perhaps had never existed. With Cyrene’s one simple question, I found myself spilling out the story in a jumble of words, tears, and the occasional hiccup.

Some time later, Cyrene still held me in her surprisingly strong embrace. I sat up and she handed me a soft cloth with which to dry my eyes.

“You’d think I’d have no tears left with as much as I’ve cried over this,” I said. “I sure don’t feel at all like a Queen.”

“Well, if you want to know the truth, you don’t look much like one either.” She smiled at the jest and I couldn’t help but smile, too. “It’s nothing that a good bath and a clear head can’t fix, though.”

“Well, I suppose the bath can be provided, but the clear head might be a little tough. I have such an emptiness in my heart, Cyrene, and it feels as if the pain will never go away.”

“Perhaps that’s because you mourn for what you still desire. Gabrielle, just because your parents have forsaken you doesn’t mean that your heart has stopped wanting what they represent. Seeing Xena return home after all these season should have shown you that. Nearly a lifetime has gone by, yet Xena desired nothing more than that connection that we can only find with our family.”

“Then I suppose that means I’ll never find that connection,” I responded.

“Little one, you are so wrong.”

I don’t know which surprised me more, the fact that Cyrene had used that special term of endearment or the strength and conviction of her words.

“That’s what you reminded me to do today with your comments about family,” she continued. “What I remembered that I wanted to tell you, no matter how things had gone for you in Potidaea. You are my child’s whole world; I see that in both of your eyes. Xena means the world to me and you’ll never know how happy it’s made me, seeing her again. She’s my daughter and that makes you my daughter, as well. Gabrielle, as long as Selene, Cor, myself, and any of our own that come later are alive, you will have family. Not just blood kin, my child, but a family who sees you for the truly special young woman that you are. You may not be the child of my body, Gabrielle, but you will always be the daughter of my heart.”

It seemed only right that we would embrace and that I would find myself in tears once again. The last time I had felt such love had been on the day that Xena proposed to me. I had never thought to feel that sort of emotional tie ever again, but I had been wrong. I silently thanked Athena for such a gift, for how many people actually get a second chance at a family, and how many of them find one as wonderful as the one I now found myself a part of. For the first time since setting foot on my home soil of Potidaea again, I felt blessed and not saddened. That empty ache had all but disappeared; replaced with something I could not put a name to. It felt a great deal like the familiar comfort of home.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum
****
I hadn’t been away long from the room that Gabrielle and I shared. It was most of the morning, but evidently not long enough. When I made my way up the back staircase, I met Cor on his way down. He and the hired man, Elias, had just finished hauling up a large copper bath for Gabrielle’s use. Cor was on his way back downstairs to heat the water.

Mother had rigged up a sort of tent around the large metal bath. When I walked into the room, Gabrielle and Yu Pan both turned to look at me. I knew immediately that Gabrielle was different. That crease in her brow that she gets when she concentrates on something overly hard had disappeared. Had it been Yu Pan, Cyrene, or a combination of both the healers’ skills in easing Gabrielle’s pain? Who cares, is what I had been thinking. Anything that made my young wife happy made me delirious with joy.

“Forgive me. I had no idea you had company,” I addressed Gabrielle.

“It’s all right, love, come in.” Gabrielle held out one hand and I closed the still open door.

I crossed the room to the table they sat at and reached for her offered hand. After placing a gentle kiss upon her palm, I knelt down beside her. I didn’t feel at all awkward about such a position. I disliked the feeling of towering over my seated partner, and Yu Pan was not much taller than Gabrielle was.

“You look as though you’re feeling much better,” I said to her.

“Just stay down wind. I haven’t had a chance to bathe yet.”

“Beautiful all the same,” I replied, oblivious to Yu Pan’s presence. There was a time when offering Gabrielle any sentiment aloud in another’s presence caused extreme embarrassment on my part. I had come too close to losing her too many times to hold on to such foibles.

“Master Yu Pan, forgive me for not acknowledging your presence. It’s such a joy to see Gabrielle smiling that I forgot my manners.”

“Xena,” the old man nodded his head at me. It was rare for him to use my given name. I had usually been Conqueror or even Tong zhi zhe, the name for which he had known me during my time in Chin. By his form of address, I knew that this was to be an informal visit, as if we were family coming together for an afternoon’s discussion.

“Perhaps you two would prefer to speak alone?” I looked from Yu Pan to Gabrielle.

“Unless Master Yu Pan wishes it so, otherwise I’d love for you to stay,” Gabrielle answered.

“It would be most refreshing to share tea with the both of you,” Yu Pan added.

I knew that phrase meant more than simply sharing a hot beverage. Gabrielle had explained that Yu Pan often put special herbs in his teas, particular herbs depending upon the individual’s need. His healing methods ranged from storytelling to hypnosis, but they had never failed to instill Gabrielle with strength and a fresh outlook on life. I wondered, however, how herbs meant for Gabrielle would affect me, but I trusted the old man, which was saying a great deal. Gabrielle was accustomed to his roundabout way of getting to the point. It was usually a lesson in patience for me, wondering when he would get to the heart of his visit. Of course, by the time I realized that he had, the visit was usually over.

“Let us grow comfortable,” Yu Pan indicated the area under the open windows. The cushions that had previously surrounded the fireplace lay under the warm breeze coming in through the open shutters. “Shall we?” he asked.

Gabrielle felt much stronger walking next to me, the waxen pallor of her face had all but departed. We settled ourselves on the comfortable cushions and Yu Pan rolled out a bamboo mat upon which he placed a small teapot, three very small clay cups, and a rather plainly decorated jar.

“Just in time,” Yu Pan said in response to the knock on the door.

I had often wondered at our friend’s age. He jumped up to answer the door with a spryness that indicated a much younger man. During my days in Chin, I had learned of the mysterious monk who had elevated hand-to-hand combat into an art form. Little did I suspect that the Tiger of Shaolin would actually come to live in my own castle in Greece. Still, I pondered the mortality of this man who appeared so unassuming, yet held the strength of the Gods within his slight and elderly frame. When I had lived in the Eastern part of the known world, and men spoke of the elusive Tiger, the story had been nearly a hundred seasons old. Many a day had I thought of Yu Pan as an immortal, but I supposed only time would tell the truth of that.

Elias held a metal teapot in one hand, two layers of towel wrapped around the pot’s handle. He sat it on the table and, after Yu Pan whispered a few words to him, he exited the room.

I offered assistance, but Yu Pan waved me off, although he looked as though the pot of steaming water weighed as much as he did. I missed this part of drinking tea the most from those long ago seasons spent in Chin and Japa. The making of the drink was nearly as sacred to the people of those lands as any religious ceremony was to us in Greece. Women taught their daughters the intricate steps of preparation as if they were all a part of a formal ritual.

I watched with fascination and delight as Yu Pan carefully laid each utensil he would use on his wooden mat. It was like watching a dance or a well-choreographed battle. Each move was deliberate and precise, yet appeared to be wholly spontaneous. He carefully removed the lid from the clay jar and measured a goodly amount of dried herbs and flowers within the palm of his hand, placing them in the teapot. The sweet and earthy aroma of herbs filled the room as soon as Yu Pan poured in the steaming hot water.

“Mmm, I smell Jasmine,” Gabrielle said as she leaned against my shoulder. The warm breeze carried the scent of flowers and cedar.

“There are Jasmine plants just outside the kitchen. They vine up the walls. That scent is one I’ve always remembered,” I answered.

Gabrielle leaned into me further and rested her head upon my shoulder. It was almost a part of my nature to reach out and touch her when she was near. I wrapped one arm around her, but felt slightly self-conscious. I had no wish to make Yu Pan uncomfortable, but his next words dispelled any discomfort I might have had.

“It makes my soul glad to see that you two have found such happiness with one another. It seems as though your hearts have found the way to be one with nature.”

“One with nature? I’ve never heard you speak of that, Master,” Gabrielle responded.

As was his custom, Yu Pan answered Gabrielle with instruction as opposed to a simple answer. “There was a man whom I studied under as a young monk. He explained that there was something before all beginnings. It never moved and it never ended; yet, it always existed. He claimed that it was the inexhaustible source of everything else. He called it nature.”

“Are you saying that our hearts have a good relationship with nature?” Gabrielle asked.

“Very astute, nuér,” he replied. “Would that your mind and body reacted as well as your heart with nature.”

“Is that what’s wrong with me? Do you see that, Master?” Gabrielle asked.

“I have seen it, nuér,” Yu Pan answered.

I wondered if I should say anything. Was I a part of this wrongness with nature or was I simply there for Gabrielle’s benefit? I decided to be a silent strength for Gabrielle and hold my tongue. I understood enough to know that if Yu Pan wanted something from me, he would ask for it.

“When I was a child…” Yu Pan began as he poured each of us a cup of tea. “A Tai-Ch’i Master came to the village where I lived in order to catch a rogue tiger. The tiger had been disturbing the oxen and there were rumors that it had dragged off a sickly child from another mountain village. The Master explained to me that it was not the tiger, but the people at fault and that he would not capture and kill the creature, but become one with it. He said that the animal’s patience had most probably been exhausted. The humans built villages along the mountainous slopes, deeper and deeper within the bamboo jungles. Then, the people acted surprised when the wild animals attacked their flocks. It was they who came into the animals’ homes, destroying them for their own needs.

“Upon finding the tiger, the Master sat down before him and looked deep into the tiger’s eyes. It was as if they passed messages in silence. Without any struggle at all, the tiger fell to his knees. The Master sat on the tiger’s back and rode the animal away into the mountains, never to be seen again. It was said that while sitting on the back of the tiger, the Master attained enlightenment and the creature’s stripes burned as brightly as the rising sun.”

We sipped our tea during Yu Pan’s story. My promise to be Gabrielle’s silent strength quickly went the way of the bath water once he had finished. I still wasn’t sure about what he spoke of and so I simply said so.

“Okay, I don’t think I get it.”

“Xena,” Gabrielle said.

“Well, is it just me? Do you understand it?”

“Well, no actually.” Her lips turned upward into an embarrassed smile.

Yu Pan’s light laughter stopped us before our words could turn into any sort of an argument. “For some, enlightenment comes quicker than for others,” he said.

“I think the point of the tale is how the Master made the effort to understand the tiger instead of destroying him,” Gabrielle said.

“Very good, but what does that mean?”

“Becoming one with nature?” I answered. Of course, it was more of a question than a statement and Yu Pan saw it for what it was.

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

“Frankly, I’m just not sure.”

Gabrielle laughed. “Neither am I, Master.”

“And do you know the story of Anteus?” he asked.

We both nodded our heads and Yu Pan continued.

“Then you remember that the giant son of Gaia and Poseidon was invincible only as long as his feet remained in touch with the ground, for the ground was his mother. He knew and understood that his power came from nature herself. Have you ever heard the Oracle at Delphi speak?”

Gabrielle shook her head, but I acknowledged aloud that I had met with her a number of seasons earlier.

“And, what is it that she has inscribed over the lintel of her inner sanctum?”

“Know thyself,” I answered, suddenly linking what all of these tales had in common. “It’s more than being in harmony with nature, but believing in it as well.”

“Not even so much just believing,” Gabrielle added in her excitement. “But, understanding that’s where it comes from.”

We both realized that we had finally understood Yu Pan’s parable. We didn’t need it, so sure were we, but if we had, Yu Pan’s smile and nodding head was our confirmation.

“Nuér, your recent illness indicates what to you?” Yu Pan asked Gabrielle a question for which he seemed to feel she should already know the answer.

“That my body wasn’t in harmony with nature,” Gabrielle answered.

Somehow, I felt instinctively that my role in the conversation was at a sort of end. I sensed that Yu Pan now taught a lesson to Gabrielle alone.

“And, was it your body alone that did not walk in the way?”

“I–I’m not sure I understand.”

“What makes up the self, my nuér?”

“Mind, body, Ch’i, and thought,” Gabrielle dutifully answered.

“And what is wellness?” Yu Pan continued to ask questions that even I would have had a difficult time answering, but obviously these lessons had been completely ingrained upon Gabrielle’s mind.

“Healing, happiness, health, and harmony.”

“I see you mention healing first. Is there a reason?”

“Well…I know that we hold the power within ourselves to self heal. I suppose that always seemed important to me. I use it a great deal, but sometimes…some of the time the illness seems to much for me to attempt.”

“What, ultimately, do you use for self healing?”

Gabrielle paused for the first time, but only for a moment. “My mind. I mean, I use my touch, but only as a sort of instrument. The source is located here.” Gabrielle tapped the index finger of her right hand against her temple.

“Illness indicates that you are not walking in harmony with nature, but what is most important is to understand what exactly makes up illness.”

“Aside from being sick?” Gabrielle asked with a cocky smile.

Yu Pan grinned at her humor and the old man looked at me. “She picks up your sense of humor,” he said; to which I could only shrug.

“Gabrielle, stress or emotional toil is a sort of sickness, as well. It can ravage the body much faster than many fevers, leaving one too weak to fight the physical illness that follows. Stress attacks the heart and soul.”

“Are you saying my fever came from the trauma that I went through over my parents?” Gabrielle asked.

“Precisely. I am not saying that your fever was not real, or that a true illness did not attack your body at some point, only that you had not the defenses to fight once it came upon you. Stress, my nuér, creates an enormous emotional and spiritual burden on the body. It lays upon our soul like so much dead weight, and the longer it lies there; the more it festers and deteriorates your body’s ability to be one with nature. It interrupts the natural flow of Ch’i, so that you cannot feel the earth beneath your feet.”

“I had no idea,” Gabrielle mused, almost as if to herself.

I smiled at her. I never tired of looking on my young wife with pride. I, too, had learned a lesson from Yu Pan’s teachings, but Gabrielle’s mind had always been like one of the giant sea sponges the cleaning women used on the floors. It had the ability to soak up great amounts of water and hold it all. That was Gabrielle’s brain. She learned and retained, making her the perfect student. I knew Yu Pan felt the same way. I could see the pride in his gaze, as well.

“When Hercules discovered Anteus’ secret of strength, he was then able to strangle the giant. That is how great the power of nature is to our Ch’i. To keep this delicate balance healthy and strong, you must work hard at keeping your heart and mind in harmony with nature, just as your daily qigong ritual keeps your body as one with the outside forces.”

“Not focusing on the stress I have to go through is a lot easier to say than to do,” Gabrielle interjected. I could see it in her face. She ruminated over her most recent emotional turmoil.

“Ahh, but is that not the mark of true balance and strength? When we, mere mortals, can melt our worries away and let nature take them on her wings and float them away? Can we not then say that we have perfected the way?”

“It seems a pretty mighty thing to shoot for,” I added.

“Xena…my nuér…” Yu Pan looked first at me, then at Gabrielle. “May I say that if there are two in this world in whom I would place such faith, it would be the two of you. I have known very few who are living examples of the positive and the negative, the Yin and the Yang. Within and without, in your hearts and bodies, you both exude the power of the light and the dark. When you have run out of your own strength, you have merely to look to your other half for that succor to lift you up. Put your faith in one another and harmony will come naturally.”

Gabrielle and I looked at one another and smiled. Yu Pan’s lessons were interesting and fulfilling, in an odd sort of way. I believe that we smiled, however, because, deep down, we already knew what he said to be true.

After that, we spoke in odd spurts about bits of nothing. Gabrielle had grown sleepy after that and I suggested a short nap until the water for her bath became ready. I, on the other hand, felt invigorated by the conversation, Yu Pan’s tea, or perhaps both. I left Gabrielle sleeping lightly on the lounge under the window. A great deal of information had been passed to us in Master Yu Pan’s subtle way. Gabrielle and I would need to deal with that information in the way that best suited each of us. For Gabrielle, it would be quiet reflection. For me…well, I left the inn in search of Atrius or Ephiny. I felt as though a good, rough sparring match would kick my brain into a higher gear.

****

“Mother?”

I nearly tripped over my own feet in an attempt to spin around and quickly confront the voice of my son.

“Solan!” I whispered between clenched teeth. “What in Hades name are you doing sneaking around up here?”

“Sneaking?” he repeated through his laughter. “I was just going to my room.”

“Well, you should know better than to sneak up on me like that,” I snapped.

My answers were short and my attitude testy because, in truth, Solan had caught me doing something for which I took no pride. I had been listening in on a conversation between Gabrielle and my mother. Now, in my defense, I hadn’t meant to eavesdrop. I had silently entered our room, moving as quietly as I could, thinking that perhaps Gabrielle still slept. It was only after I had moved into the room, and soundlessly pushed the door closed, that I saw their shadows moving behind the tent-like structure around the copper bath.

Gods on Olympus! I cursed to myself. I could easily hear their voices and they were already knee-deep in a personal conversation. Should I take the chance and announce my presence, knowing that they would probably suspect I had been listening to them from the start? What would Gabrielle do? I silently asked myself. My guess was that she would have been smart enough not to get herself into the same mess in the first place. Given the exact circumstances, however, I guessed that Gabrielle would have tactfully remained silent, waiting for the opportunity to slip out again. I liked that idea. Not only would it help me to save face before two women who had the ability to make me feel like a naughty girl of five, but I wasn’t altogether averse to the idea of finding out what Gabrielle and Cyrene talked about when I wasn’t around. Shameful, I know. I don’t understand what came over me.

“Cyrene, I feel guilty. You don’t really have to help me like this. I can manage.”

“You mean to tell me that you’re feeling well enough to lift the kettle to pour in more hot water when you need it?” Mother had stumped Gabrielle and my wife’s silence told me that she felt the same.

“Well, all right, you’ve got me there, but–”

“Is it that you feel uncomfortable?”

“Oh, no, not at all. I gave up feeling that sort of discomfort a long time ago.”

“Then it’s settled. Let me at least help you to wash your hair and I’ll leave you and let you have a relaxing soak. How would that be?”

“I still feel guilty, but I think it sounds wonderful.” I could imagine Gabrielle’s smile just then, as she gave in to my mother’s insisting.

I listened to the sounds of their chatter and the water, imagining what Gabrielle looked like, lying in her bath. The mental image did nothing to instill me with a sense of calm. Frankly, it did nothing but excite me.

“Oh, Gabrielle, how lovely. Wherever did you get such a marking? It’s a rose, isn’t it? Oh, see the stem weaves its way all along your neckline.”

I could hear nothing but my heart beat in the silence that lasted after Cyrene’s question. I could very nearly feel the tension that suddenly filled the room. I could tell that Gabrielle was weighing different scenarios in her mind, wondering what to tell my mother about the tattoo. Actually, Gabrielle was probably deliberating over the truth versus some made up tale.

The sigh that finally escaped Gabrielle was audible even from where I stood. I listened as Gabrielle told Cyrene the truth, complete and without any veneer to make it look better.

“…It was what it was,” Gabrielle finished at last. “I’m not proud of the things that I did to stay alive, but I refuse to be ashamed any longer. I’ll show remorse and even regret, Cyrene, but I will not hang my head in shame.”

I continued to listen to the silence that followed. Would my mother accept this young woman now that she knew Gabrielle’s story? Could she possibly show my wife any less compassion than Gabrielle’s own mother had? I listened to the words Cyrene spoke in amazement.

“Gabrielle, if you’re going to stay married to my daughter, you’re going to have to stop calling me Cyrene and start calling me mother. I swear, I’ll begin to feel offended otherwise.”

Could I have possibly felt more pride…any more honor at carrying my mother’s noble blood in my veins? I heard Gabrielle begin to cry and my heart broke. Mostly because I could not hold her in my arms, but her tears were not the product of sorrow, rather of happiness. On this day, Gabrielle came just a little closer to knowing what the unconditional love of family was like.

I knew Gabrielle was safe, even without me to console her, and I took that moment, when both women were too occupied to notice me, to retreat out into the hall.

Of course, that is when Solan found me.

“Are you actually eavesdropping?” he asked.

“I am doing no such thing. I’m just…just…” I looked around the hallway as if the answer to my predicament would be written on the wall.

“Eavesdropping,” Solan said while trying to hide his amusement at my extreme embarrassment.

“Don’t you have somewhere you’re supposed to be?”

Solan walked away chuckling. A mother’s job was never done. I believe I had made my son’s day, merely by looking more human to him than at any other time in our relationship.
Chapter 25: Out Of The Mud Two Strangers Came…

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
Whatever the illness was that I had suffered with, the fever took every bit of strength I had. Five days had passed since the day I talked with Yu Pan and Cyrene. My old teacher felt more like a father than a friend. I believe that he felt it, too. He had always called me daughter, but something made me feel as if he truly meant the words now. Cyrene, too, had caused me to feel so much a part of this family that calling her mother seemed as natural to me as calling Xena, My Conqueror.

Xena generally worried about me until our rides on Tenorio convinced her that I had grown stronger. I still hadn’t returned to full health. I was aware that I grew tired much too quickly, but Yu Pan and Cyrene both examined me, and I trusted their individual healing skills. They pronounced that I was healing and in another fortnight wouldn’t even remember the occasional fatigue I still suffered.

On this day, Xena and I spent all morning together. We went for an early ride on Tenorio just before sunrise and then came back to the inn. Cyrene treated us to a platter of fresh fruit and pastries that Delia had conjured up, along with a steaming pot of black tea. We came back to our room and found the decadent treat waiting for us. So, with nowhere in particular to be, Xena and I sat in our room, the window shutters thrown open to the sweet smelling summer breeze.

We talked for nearly three candlemarks. I was amazed and proud at the remarkable changes that Xena had been able to affect in Selene. The girl laughed and joked freely around us now, instead of wearing the dour expression that she had when we first arrived in Amphipolis. I was more than surprised when Xena confided that she had actually come to trust Selene and she had developed a certain affinity for her younger sister’s company. My, I had missed so much in the days when the fever had me in a delirious state.

Xena, unfortunate for me, had arranged to tour a mining facility farther inland. Most of our group went with in order to visit the large bazaar just outside of Amphipolis. I thought that my good health had progressed enough to allow me to accompany them on the trip. Xena and Cyrene categorically refused. It would have been a losing battle, trying to fight the both of them. So, with a shrug and a pout, I gave in. Anya volunteered to stay back at the inn with me, but persuaded her to go with the others. It was difficult, but I finally convinced her that, as the royal seamstress, she could not possibly pass up the opportunity to shop at a bazaar known for its fashionable linen from Egypt.

A shy knock on my door interrupted my reading. A number of scrolls from Periander and the Athens archives had finally caught up to us here in Amphipolis. I enjoyed Periander’s letter. I hope I do not offend the dear man by saying that

“Come in,” I said for the second time to the partially opened door.

Slowly the door eased inward and Cor’s smiling face appeared. “Hi, Gabrielle.”

I laughed at the young man’s constant smile. He, too, did not go on the day trip. In fact, the only reason that Cyrene allowed Selene to go was that Cyrene went, as well. In Cor’s circumstance, his apprenticeship as a smith kept him busy most days, but he took his responsibility seriously. That wasn’t to say he was always happy about it, but he showed a distinctly mature attitude for a young man of no more than twelve summers.

“Cor! How great to see you back so early. All done for the day?”

“Altus said it was getting to hot to work past morning, so he let me go early. Mother left me a huge basket of food. I’ll never understand why she thinks I eat so much. Anyway, I knew that you got left behind today, too.” He grinned again and I smiled along with him as I nodded my head in agreement.

“Well, I wondered if you wanted to go on a sort of picnic with me. It wouldn’t be far, but there’s a great little waterfall not too far into the hills. I figure we could both ride on your horse and it would only take a candlemark or so. It’s a really great spot.”

I thought about it for a moment. I began to rationalize in my head. Gods, was Xena rubbing off on me? The day was awfully warm and a swim in a nice cool lake seemed so appealing. Xena would have my head, but I was feeling much better. I knew I would say yes before I even spoke the words. I knew because I was already planning on how best to sneak away from my Royal Guard. Yes, Xena would be as mad as Hades when she found out, but what fun would playing hooky be if I couldn’t test the skills of my guard. A Queen had to have some fun, didn’t she, or what good was it in being a Queen?

****
“I’ve been all around the known world, Cor, but I haven’t seen many places quite so beautiful. This was a wonderful idea,” I said.

“I knew you’d like it, Gabrielle. I just figured you’d be the sort of person to appreciate something like this. It’s kind of nice, actually. Sort of like I have a bunch of sisters now.”

“Thanks, Cor. That means a lot to me. Besides it’s pretty nice to finally have a brother. That waterfall is breathtaking. I didn’t know the river went up into the hills like that. It’s so high.”

“You wanna know what I found when I climbed up to the top last summer?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“There’s a big rock way at the top that sort of hangs over the lake. Someone, and I won’t say exactly who…” he gave me one of his sly grins. “…carved some words into the stone up there.”

“And?” He had me curious now.

“It says, Xena and Lyceus jumped from here.”

“I don’t believe it. Are you serious?”

“Swear by Athena,” he replied. He followed his remark by spitting on the ground. I had grown used to the habit, even acting out the ritual myself on occasion. I didn’t know if it was superstition or tradition, although it was considered good manners for women to play act the deed as opposed to actually spitting.

“Wanna go see it?”

I looked up at the high summit, me old fear of heights splashing over me like a massive wave. “I don’t think so. Besides not wanting to be that close to Olympus I don’t think my body is recovered enough for that climb.”

“That’s right, I forgot. Sorry.”

“I sure wouldn’t mind a swim, though. How about you?”

“You bet. Wait, I only go swimming with the guys so I can take off–I mean…”

I lifted my tunic over my head and Cor figured it out when he saw the lightweight slip I wore under my top.

“You’re supposed to be my little brother, remember? Anyway,” I said. “That’s why the Gods created underwear.” I splashed ahead into the water, which felt wonderfully refreshing on my warm skin.

Cor followed, but just before he dove in, he looked out at me and with a deadly serious expression on his face said, “Gabrielle, did the Gods really create underwear?”

We had a wonderful time splashing about. I grew tired more quickly than I had in the past. It simply showed that I wasn’t as healed as I thought. Cor, however, thought my suggestion to dry off and dive into our food basket an excellent one.

Now, I had gone swimming all my life. I had been taught that when in mixed company, if women wore their undergarments, all would be well. I don’t think that I actually realized that when I had been a slave, no male in my master’s household would have ever dared look upon me for fear of the master’s wrath. Perhaps that is why I never really noticed, until that moment anyway, that my white linen undergarments grew nearly transparent and clung to my body like a second skin. Unfortunately, Cor noticed, too.

Being twelve helped the situation somewhat. Cor was more embarrassed than I was. I grabbed a towel, but not before Cor got one rather innocent eyeful. The poor boy stammered and backed up so fast that he tripped over a fallen log.

“Cor! Are you okay?”

“Yea.” He got up rubbing his backside and the back of his head at the same time. “I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I didn’t really see anything.”

“Oh, you little liar,” I replied through my laughter. “You looked and if I was twelve, I would have looked, too. And I thought you said I was just like a sister.” I continued to tease him, knowing that Cor’s natural goodness would allow him to be embarrassed, but I didn’t want him to think he’d done anything wrong.

His ears had turned scarlet and with his dark hair and sky blue eyes he rather reminded me of Xena, especially once he fixed that quirky grin on his face. “Well, you are my sister, Gabrielle. You’re just a really good-looking sister.” The way he giggled at his own humor told me that we had weathered the incident just fine.

I tossed a towel at him, which covered his face, abruptly stopping his laughter. “Turn around and get dressed, funny man, or I’ll start eating without you.”

“Hey, that’s okay,” he replied as he turned his back to me.

I laughed loudly. “You haven’t eaten that many meals with me, have you, Cor?”

****
“I’m stuffed,” Cor said. He fell back upon the ground and rubbed his stomach.

“Me, too,” I replied. “I couldn’t eat another bite.

“You sure?” Cor reached into the basket and waved one of the tiny round pastries at me. “There’s two left,” he said in a singsong voice.

“Well, maybe just one more bite.” I plucked the dessert from his fingers.

We talked together, nothing too deep. Cor told me all about life in Amphipolis and I shared stories about our castle in Corinth. I found myself relating the entire story of our most recent battle at Marathon, too.

“Hey, it’s getting late and we’ve got a ways to go. Ready to saddle Ridian?” I asked.

“Sure. Maybe we can actually get back before Xena even knows you’ve been gone.”

“Cor, I’ll tell Xena where I’ve gone, of course. Just maybe not right away,” I answered, followed by a wink in his direction.

I whistled as Xena taught me and amazingly enough, Ridian came out from the bushes. I hadn’t wanted to tie her up. She and I had become increasingly comfortable with one another to the point where I could trust her to return without a tether line. The mare grew closer and Cor and I each saw that Ridian limped.

“Uh oh,” Cor said.

“What’s wrong with her?”

Cor moved around the animal, looking as though he did this sort of thing every day. I realized that as a Smith, shoeing a horse had made him knowledgeable about these things. He slid one hand down the leg that Ridian had been favoring. He felt along the mare’s knee and then gently pulled up on her hoof. Cor pulled what looked to be a long iron nail from his trouser pocket and picked at the bottom of the horse’s hoof. He finally pulled rather hard and a large size pebble dropped to the ground.

“There ya go, girl,” Cor said to the horse. “Bet that feels better, huh?” He turned and looked at me. “Well, the good news is that she just picked up a rock, must have been on the way here.”

“And the bad news?” I asked in a cautious manner.

“It’s a bruise, so it’s pretty tender. That’s why she’s limping. We can’t ride her…not even one of us. She shouldn’t carry a rider for a couple days.”

“Lovely. So much for keeping our day trip quiet from Xena.”

“I thought you said you were going tell her anyway?” He questioned.

“Oh, be quiet, you.” I slapped him on the shoulder and he laughed as he started to remove Ridian’s saddle.

“It shouldn’t be too bad, Gabrielle. We can walk slow and stay on the main road. That way, if a wagon comes along we could hitch a ride.”

“Oh, right. I’m still not feeling completely healthy and Ridian limping along on three legs…I expect that we’ll be back at the inn by tomorrow morning. Of course, no one has any idea where we are, so Cyrene and Xena will both be worried sick, not to mention that the whole army will be looking for me. I figure that even if we grovel the rest of our lives, we’ll pretty much never be forgiven for this one.”

Cor lifted the saddle onto one shoulder and held out the food basket for me to take. “You’re not going to start crying or anything, are ya?”

I laughed at his sincere expression. The poor boy didn’t know how to take me half the time.

“I’ll be fine. Let’s go. Are you sure you can carry that?”

“Why did you want to?” He grinned at me.

“You’re a regular funny man, aren’t you?”

We could do no more than begin walking. It had taken us a good two candlemarks to get out there, so I figured it was going to be one long walk home. It was then that I realized exactly what I’d done in sneaking away from my personal guard. I was the Queen of this land and I had just done about the stupidest thing I could ever hope to have done. Xena was going to be beyond furious and she had every right to be. Hadn’t she told me that people might wish me harm simply because of who I was? I said nothing to Cor about my sudden fears. All we could do, at this point, was to put one foot in front of another and hope that our travel went well. In the back of my mind, however, I knew that things rarely went as hoped for.

****
“You’re looking worn out, Gabrielle,” Cor said. “Why don’t we take another rest?”

“If we keep resting every time I look tired, we’re never going to get there.” I chuckled. “I’ll take you up on it, though.”

We drank some water from the skin, which Cor had shown enough foresight to refill at the river. I was surprised and disheartened at my fatigue. It made me realize just how ill I had been over the past fortnight. I stopped drinking and quickly scanned the area.

“It doesn’t look like rain, but that sounds like thunder.” Cor looked up at the clear blue sky.

“Cor, get off the road. Now!”

Just as he moved beside me, nearly a full squad of Empire soldiers thundered past us. Once Cor saw who they were, he attempted to flag them down, but I knew they wouldn’t stop. They rode past in the blink of an eye, leaving us in a swirl of road dust.

“I can’t believe it! They never even slowed down,” Cor cried out.

“They’re not allowed to,” I replied, having recognized the riders’ insignia as they flashed past us. “They’re Royal messengers. They have only one goal. Get the Conqueror her messages…fast.”

“Does that mean there’s trouble?”

“No. They move like that no matter what. I saw a squad just like them pull up to the inn a few days ago. They brought personal messages to all of us from Athens and Corinth. They’re not to stop for anything, but I think I need to have a talk with Xena about their methods. Someone could get hurt with the way they barrel down the road like that.”

“Then, maybe that’s the guy to talk with,” Cor said as he pointed down the road.

Another member of the messenger squad, this soldier wore an officer’s uniform. A big man, he wore a scowl as he approached us. I had that funny feeling run up my spine, the one that often tells me what a fool I’d been. Our day was getting better, a heavily armed man on a lonely stretch of road – just the thing that one small woman and young boy wanted to run into. Who knows why I decide to take certain risks or what sort of intuition assists me in which course to take. I believe that either I have been lucky so far or that Athena protects me more than she watches other individuals. I decided to take a chance on this single soldier.

“Excuse me!” I jumped up and called out as the man trotted close.

“Out of the way, Miss,” he said and swerved his horse to barely avoid running me down. He never looked back, but I should have expected as much. What I didn’t expect was Cor’s indignant response. Gods! The boy had more scruples and ideals in him than even me.

“Hey! Don’t you know who this is? Who in Hades do you think you are?”

“Cor!” I hissed under my breath just as the officer pulled his mount to a stop, turning and coming back toward us.

I wanted to express my thoughts to Cor before the soldier pulled up in front of us. More than anyone, I understood that just because a man dressed as a soldier, it didn’t mean he was a soldier. And, if he was, the Empire’s insignia didn’t automatically make him a decent and honorable man.

The man closed in too quickly and I realized it would look suspicious if he saw Cor and I whispering at this point. All I could do was continue to stare hard at Cor. I tried to express as much as I could with my facial features.

“What?” Cor unsuspectingly asked with a shrug.

I shrugged back at him and looked down at my own body, as if to ask who he saw standing before him. Dressed in my riding clothes, with my ever-present chobos hanging from my belt, I was sure I didn’t look much like a queen, but I was, and there was no telling what an unscrupulous person might do with that information. I desperately sent that silent message to Cor and, after what seemed like a much longer amount of time than it had actually been, finally saw enlightenment emerge from behind his blue eyes.

“What did you say, boy?” the soldier asked.

“I think what he meant to say–” I began.

“I said don’t you know who she is?” Cor interrupted.

I cringed inwardly. I actually thought he had received my silent instruction to remain anonymous.

“I heard the Empire’s soldiers were kinder to stranded women,” Cor said.

Cor glanced back at me and in his brief glance, I was able to see that he understood the reason for my guarded behavior. I breathed an inaudible sigh of relief.

“You heard that, did you?” The soldier sat atop his horse, the beast easily as large as Xena’s stallion. The massive, dark brown animal shook his head and chewed at the bit in his mouth.

“Uh,” Cor swallowed. “Yes?”

The rider smiled for the first time and I must admit, it made him look slightly less frightening. He dismounted, but still towered over the both of us.

“Well, you’re right, young man. I apologize, Miss.”

He looked back at Cor again, then his glance returned to me. He paused and squinted. “Do I know you?”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever met you, Sir,” I answered truthfully.

“Again, my apologies for staring, but you seem so familiar. Did you travel here from Corinth?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. We have family in Amphipolis.”

“It’s odd,” he said as he continued to stare. “Is your husband in the military?”

Now, I am a horrible liar, dreadful at it, as Xena has pointed out on many occasions. I have gotten by a number of times by trying to become someone else. The safest route for me had to simply been to tell the truth, which is the path I decided to traverse here.

“As a matter of fact, my mate is a part of the Empire’s force.”

“Ahh, that explains it. I must have seen you in passing. Again, I apologize. I was trying hard to catch up with my unit and I forgot my manners. I had to stay behind in the last village to get my horse shod.

“Apology accepted, Lieutenant. That’s very similar to the problem we’re having. My mare injured herself and we’re still quite some ways from Amphipolis.”

“That happens to be where I’m headed. My horse isn’t much used to riding two. He’s a warhorse. I could send some riders back for you, though. My squad will stay the evening at the inn in Amphipolis.”

“Actually, if you’re going to the inn, you could give someone a message for me. Our family is there and I’m sure they’d prefer to come claim us themselves,” I quickly added as explanation.

“Aye, of course.”

Luckily, he had writing materials in his saddlebag. I wrote a quick note on a small piece of parchment, explaining where we were and why.”

I wondered who I should contact. It didn’t really matter. No matter who came for us, I would still have to face Xena’s wrath upon returning.

“The young woman at the front desk of the inn is called Selene. Can you please make sure she gets this note?” I figured more than anyone else, Selene could be the most discreet and pull Xena to the side with this information.

“Consider it done. Should I give her a name?” he asked.

“No, she’ll know once she reads the letter.”

“Very well, then,” he said as he tucked the letter inside his jacket. He mounted his horse again, turning back to us once last time. “Do you have enough food and water?”

“Yes, we’ll be fine. It’s just a good long walk,” I replied.

He saluted and galloped off.

“Gabrielle, why didn’t you want to tell him who you were?” Cor asked.

“Just being more careful than I was when I snuck off without my guards. I forget that I’m the Queen sometimes, Cor. Xena once told me that people might hurt me just because of who I am or what they think they could then force Xena into doing.”

“Ohh, I get it. That makes sense. Gabrielle, I’m sorry. I never should have gone along with this whole idea. I didn’t think it would turn out this way.”

“It’s not a problem. I’m the one who should have been acting like a responsible adult. Instead, I was caught up in being a kid again. I don’t think we’ll have any trouble, but it pays to be cautious with strangers.”

“I guess the good news is that once Selene reads your note, Xena will be out here in a heartbeat.”

“I think that’s what worries me more than anything.” I chuckled as we began walking once more.

It seemed as though an eternity went by, as we slowly walked for a while then had to rest because of my shortness of breath. Apollo’s chariot began its slow descent into the horizon and I grew concerned. Not worried exactly, but I wondered why the entire cavalry hadn’t thundered up yet.

“It’s late afternoon, Gabrielle. Shouldn’t Selene have sent out someone to look for us by now?” Cor’s thought obviously mirrored my own.

“I was kind of wondering that myself. Why don’t we pick a spot back off the road and set up as though we’re staying the night. We can start a fire and relax. I’m sure they’ll be along shortly and if they don’t get here by nightfall, the fire will help them track us down.”

“Makes sense. Besides, this saddle makes me feel like Atlas.”

We made a small camp and had some of the leftover food in our basket, minus all the sweets that we had entirely finished earlier in the day. Carrying a knife and a piece of flint with him all the time, Cor was easily able to light a small fire. The night was warm and we decided to get comfortable, lying down on opposite sides of the fire.

“Good thing Cyrene makes you so much food,” I said. I tried to get Cor to eat a little more, but I’m sure his nerves kept him from eating.

“I never met a girl who could eat as much as you, Gabrielle.”

“It’s a habit I’m going to have to break myself of as I get older. Otherwise, I’m going to be as big as a haystack. I think it’s just an old holdback from when I was a slave. There were times when I wasn’t allowed to eat for days and other times when I never knew when my master would grow angry and that might be my last meal. I learned to make them count when I got them.” I said all of this matter of factly, as though I had experienced that time in another life. And so it nearly felt. Almost.

“They starved you?” He asked. He seemed completely amazed that such a thing could happen.

I knew that Cor understood I had been a slave, but I wondered if he knew exactly what kind of slave I had been. I had no wish to destroy any illusions he had of either me or life in general, but neither did I wish him to hear it from his friends. I could imagine how a group of young boys would describe my servitude.

Suddenly, I was happy for the cover of darkness, glad that we could only see one another through the yellow and orange flames that sputtered and leapt from the blackened logs.

“Cor, do you…do understand what kind of a slave I was before I met Xena?”

“Kind?” I watched as he lowered his eyes and dug in the soft earth with a stick. “Well, you know, a guy hears things.”

I didn’t think I could have this conversation at a distance. I rose and moved to the other side of the fire, sitting down on the log beside Cor. I sat close enough so that our shoulders touched, even as he continued to stare at the ground.

“Then, you know what sort of tasks I–well, what kind of slave I was forced to be.”

“Yea, but you didn’t have a choice, right?”

I could hear Hecuba’s words ringing in my ears, mocking me. “To hear my mother tell it I should have died rather than let them touch me.”

“Well that’s just stupid,” he replied quickly. “I mean, you did what you had to do. Right?”

His simple observation brought me closer still to believing that was the truth. “Thank you, Cor. You don’t know how much those words mean to me. It was a hard life, but I always knew that Athena would deliver me one day.”

“I wish I could get my hands on some of those guys,” he said. “I’d make them sorry. I’d–”

“Get yourself killed, most likely.”

Cor jumped up and his red-faced indignation took me by surprise. “How can you be so calm when you talk about it. Aren’t you mad? Don’t you just wish you could…could…I don’t know. Do something terrible to them? Hurt them like they hurt you?”

“Cor, relax. I’m afraid the top of your head’s going to blow off.”

“Aw, Gabrielle, I’m serious.”

“I know you are. Come back here and sit down.”

He sank onto the ground as though his burst of righteous energy scattered away into the air.

How was I to explain it all? So many philosophies and ideologies made up my belief system. In truth, I remembered experiencing times when I felt exactly as Cor did, but those periods didn’t last long. I don’t know why I could not muster up the hate I surely should have had for those who abused me. Why was that? I could only consider it a gift from Athena. Too often had I seen other slaves, young women in positions such as myself, grow ugly and bitter at the fortunes the Gods had fated them.

“I don’t mean to be flippant or to dismiss your feelings, Cor. I hope you know that.”

He nodded and I placed my arm around his shoulder.

“I want to tell you something, something that I’ve never even told Xena.”

“No one?”

“Not a soul. It was something that happened a few seasons ago. A man who bought me in Chin owned me. He was a very unkind man and he treated me worse than I think any master I had ever had. He lost me in a game of chance to a pirate. Oddly enough, he met his death at the end of Xena’s blade, although she and I didn’t know one another at the time.”

“That’s kind of eerie,” he said. He listened intently and I was glad that his ire had calmed enough for him to listen thoughtfully. “So how did the pirate guy treat you?”

“Better in some ways, worse in others. I was a slave, Cor, and slaves were only possessions. Abdular, the pirate, only thought of me as something else that he owned, such as a horse or an expensive vase. He had some funny notions about what justice meant, though.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, I once told Abdular some of the things my previous master had done to me. Amazingly enough, Abdular tracked the man down and brought him before me on board his ship. Abdular gave me a blade. It was the first time I’d ever held one. He told me to exact my vengeance upon the man, to slit his throat.”

“And, did you?” Cor asked.

“I admit that I wanted to. I thought of the things he’d done, how he treated me, and I was certainly angry enough. The more I thought about it, though, standing there with that razor sharp blade poised at his neck, I realized that I couldn’t. And, not just couldn’t, but wouldn’t. I made a conscious decision not to kill him.”

“But, why, Gabrielle? After all those terrible things he did to you, how could you have let him live?”

“Because I realized two important things about revenge. First, it can’t change the past. I would have still been a slave. I would have still gone to bed at night hungry, still had my body used and abused by my master. None of that would have changed.”

“And the second thing?”

“The most important. If I would have killed that man, I would have been no better than him, or Abdular, or any of them. They lived within a circle of violence and hate. I suppose I thought that by breaking the cycle I wouldn’t become like them. Abdular never understood that.”

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle. Sorry you had to go through that kind of thing,” Cor said.

“Thanks, Cor. It always means a great deal to me when people can open up their hearts and minds and be a little bit objective. I’ve been condemned by a lot of people for what I did to stay alive.”

“Those kinds of people are all over. Mother says that they’re little people with little minds. Don’t you worry, Gabrielle. If anyone ever gives you grief around here, you just holler for me.”

I smiled at the bold words that came from such a young boy. “It’s a deal,” I replied. “And if you ever find yourself in a fix, remember I have your back, little brother.”

I gave him a hug and then yawned loudly. “Looks like we’re here for the night,” I said, peering out into the surrounding darkness.

“You get some sleep, Gabrielle. I’ll keep watch in case Xena comes.”

“It won’t do us any good if you’re too tired to walk in the morning. Wake me in a couple of candlemarks and I’ll take the next watch. We can trade off.”

I showed him where the stars should be positioned when it was time to wake me. Cor nodded and took out his knife, beginning to whittle away at a short stick. I was thoroughly tired, but Cor looked as though the day was just beginning. Oh, to be that young again.

I curled up on my side, not minding the sweet smelling grass that we had to lie upon instead of bedrolls. I hadn’t shared all of my thoughts with Cor. Not wanting him to worry, I never mentioned my confusion at why Xena hadn’t shown up yet. Could she possibly be so angry that she wanted to teach me a lesson? That didn’t sound like her at all, but then again, I could have pushed her to the very edge with this latest stunt. No, that simply didn’t seem like Xena, no matter how angry.

I rolled onto my back and stared at the stars until my eyes burned just to keep them open. Could Selene be to blame? The young woman seemed a little peeved, or at least exasperated, with me. It seemed that Selene wished to travel to the Amazon Territory with us. Xena and her younger sister had been getting along rather well recently, so I think I was the one Selene blamed for our answer. I admit, it had initially been my thought, but Xena agreed that we would gladly be Selene’s guardians, but first she would have to talk with Cyrene, explaining to her mother how she felt about the chasm that had developed between the two of them. Could Selene have held that against me enough to purposely misplace my note? It certainly didn’t sound like something she would do, but she was a young woman with a volatile temper and some rather immature notions.

I must have slept sometime after that because the visions of Xena and Selene, each turning their backs on me, filled my uneasy dreams.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum
Chapter 26: Look In Thy Glass, And Tell The Face Thou Viewest…
“The next person who tells me to calm down and relax is going to lose a limb!” I growled at the people surrounding me.
We stood in the tavern of the inn, nearly three dozen of us crammed into the already overheated room. I was beyond angry, but not being certain who I actually wanted to concentrate my rage upon, I made do by shouting at everyone, not that some of them didn’t deserve it, however.

“And you!” I stalked over to where Mika cowered in one corner, obviously trying to make herself small enough to avoid my attention.

Ephiny stepped between us, a move I thought brave considering the mood I was in just then.

“Conqueror, it wasn’t entirely her fault.”

“Then I’ll only run her part of the way through!”

“Please, Conqueror.” Ephiny turned back toward Mika. “Go make yourself useful outside.”

The young Amazon wasted little time in rushing out the door.

“What in Hades’ name is wrong with all of you? Between your supposedly specially trained Amazons and these elite Empire soldiers I think I’m just damned lucky to still be alive myself!

As the officer in charge, Ephiny had immediately taken blame, even though it had been the fault of the two Amazons and two members of the Royal Guard who had stood watch. Part of me felt a certain pride at Gabrielle’s maneuvers, albeit a very small part. Gabrielle already possessed a great number of skills. It seemed as though moving among trained soldiers, not leaving so much as a footprint in her wake, had already been in her repertoire. The only thing that kept me from going into a complete panic was the fact that Cor was missing, as well, along with one large basket of food.

We believed they left of their own will, which is why I worked extremely hard at keeping my temper reigned in tight. All right, I failed miserably in that arena. I could never be objective when Gabrielle was concerned. Blame was equal between Gabrielle and her protectors; therefore, I spread my anger around liberally. Initially, I found it difficult to remain angry with Gabrielle. The lover in me believed that nothing was ever Gabrielle’s fault. The Conqueror, however, was livid with her wife. Gabrielle was so intelligent, so intuitive. What could she have been thinking? And, to take Cor with her. I stalked around the room seething.

“All we have to do is send out a search party,” Atrius suggested. “They couldn’t have gone far, even on Gabrielle’s horse.”

“Right,” I said. “All we have to do is send a search party…out in about one of eight hundred directions!” I shouted back.

Atrius clamped his mouth shut and the muscles in his jaw tightened. I realized, too late, that he only said such a thing for my benefit, perhaps to ease my fears.

“Sorry,” I muttered to him.

“I have men out there right now, Conqueror…trackers. They’ll find their prints,” he replied.

“All right, get these men saddled up and ready.” I indicated those in the tavern. “Ephiny, the same goes for the Amazons. Let’s give ourselves a little more time to catch their trail. If the trackers find nothing, we’ll set off in a few groups. My mother and Yu Pan have agreed to travel with us in case Gabrielle or Cor are injured.”

Looking across the room at Ephiny, she appeared as angry as I did. I guessed at the target of her fury. Amazon officers took the failure of underlings quite personally.

I accepted a mug of strong port from my mother. I took a swallow and my eyes actually watered as the liquid burned my throat. I turned and gave her a questioning look.

“It will do you some good,” she said. She must have known that my demeanor had changed as she moved away to provide food and drink to some riders who had recently ridden into town.

I had dismissed their Lieutenant with a wave of my hand. “Not now,” I said as he deposited four saddlebags on a table near me. He closed his fist over his heart and backed away. I continued to watch him in a distracted fashion as he spoke with Selene, apparently arranging for some rooms. He quickly handed her a piece of parchment and ordered his squad into the dining area, following them a moment later.

Selene opened the note, continually looking up as though self conscious for some reason. When our eyes met, she looked at me strangely, folding the parchment and slipping it into her apron pocket. I pulled my gaze from Selene back to Ephiny.

“Ephiny,” I called her over to where I stood. “Here,” I thrust my mug into her hand. “Take a couple healthy swallows. You look as though you could use it.”

She drank, draining the mug in one pull. “Sorry,” she said as she realized what she’d done.

“Don’t be. You look like you’re going to kill someone before I do.”

“We have to talk once this is all over.”

“I know,” I answered. I knew of what she spoke. It was the second time that Gabrielle had given her guards the slip. The first time could have been blamed on Gabrielle’s illness. She wasn’t exactly her self at the time. This incident was very different.

“She can’t keep doing this!” she said suddenly.

I sighed. So, Ephiny wasn’t angry with her Amazons. Her ire focused directly upon Gabrielle.

“She got by me!” she finally whispered from between clenched teeth.

It took all my strength not to laugh, even with the mood I was in. I knew that if I laughed at her she would walk away. I should have known. Hadn’t I reacted the same way when Gabrielle bested me in a sparring match? Gods! That seemed a lifetime ago.

“She’s been lucky. You weren’t expecting it,” I tried to rationalize. “She can’t be that good.”

“I can’t find tracks. No one saw her. She didn’t leave a sign!”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying she’s that good. I don’t know what you or Yu Pan taught her, but she knows her stuff and that ought to scare the deep woods out of all of us.”

I leaned back in my chair, a thoughtful expression on my face. Could it have actually been that simple?

“It was nothing that she learned from me. I don’t think she did, anyway. It’s always possible that Yu Pan taught her such skills. Between you and me, though, I think they’re skills that she learned all on her own. Slaves live their whole lives right under their masters’ noses, but very few slave owners are aware of even the most obvious details of their slave’s life.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“Certain abilities that Gabrielle possesses come from simply being a slave. Slaves were a sort of invisible feature of a household. They did what was required, often going beyond what was necessary. The more perfect and efficient a household was, usually came down to how capable the slaves were. They did everything while trying to remain as invisible as possible. I think Gabrielle learned it there. So, in a way, she was trained to walk by and remain hidden, to listen without being seen, and to never have anyone know that she existed just out of eyesight. The Gods know she got enough practice…nearly a lifetime.”

“Sweet Artemis. She’d make a wonderful assassin,” Ephiny responded.

“All I’m saying is, don’t take it so personally.”

“How can I not take it personally?” She looked around, as her voice grew louder. She took a deep breath and momentarily closed her eyes. “Frankly, I feel uncomfortable talking about this with you.”

“Because she’s my wife or because she’s your Queen?” I asked.

“Both. As my Queen, I have no right to question what Gabrielle does. As the Queen of the Empire…well, the Amazons have sworn fealty to you. Gabrielle is your Queen. Again, I have no right to make disparaging comments. All those reasons pale in comparison to the fact that you could probably break my jaw with one punch if you had the notion. There’s that and that I think you’re treading a little close to losing it over all this.”

I smirked at her. “Okay, let’s be honest. I consider you a friend, Ephiny. I’m not too far off there, am I?”

“Not at all, Xena. I think we’ve established that.”

“Then I’m going to talk to you as Xena and not the Conqueror. I think you have every right to call Gabrielle on this. As second in command, and with Gabrielle being rather new to Amazon law and tradition, you’re in charge of your people. You have to decide which is more important, the safety of your people and your Queen, or stepping on Gabrielle’s toes.”

“And you’ll not interfere?” she asked warily.

“Not as long as it’s done tactfully and reasonably. You may only have one small problem.”

“And that would be?”

“I may kill her myself if she’s okay when we find her.”

Ephiny looked at me strangely. I honestly believe that with the way I had been acting, she wasn’t sure whether I was serious or not.

“I found it!” Mika cried out as she ran into the tavern. “Tracks! I found tracks!”

We all followed the Amazon outside. Sure enough, she had not been lying. Under the light of the torches, it was easy to see that the footprints were unmistakably Gabrielle and Cor’s. Their tracks led down a seldom-used path that led toward the outskirts of town. The area looked familiar to me, but my brain was too full of anger and frustration to remember.

Mika had a smug look on her face. As I mounted Tenorio, I quickly snuffed out her newfound arrogance.

“Don’t look too comfortable just yet. I haven’t fully decided not to slice you in two.”

I tugged on Tenorio’s reins and moved away from my family. I didn’t want them to see me this way. My entire focus narrowed to Gabrielle and her welfare, while at the same time I was so infuriated with her that I could very nearly feel the beast pushing insistently against my ribcage for escape. That conflict in itself was enough to spur me to feelings of a sort of betrayal. I had never directed this sort of anger at Gabrielle and it frightened me into holding on even tighter to my control. Unfortunately, that tight restraint turned me into the Conqueror, not Xena. My answers were short and I felt the best way to handle my emotions would be to stay as far from those I cared about as I could.

It only took another moment or two before we were underway. Our luck held because Cyrene recognized the path about a half a candlemark into our journey. Once she said, waterfall, I remembered the way. So, my favorite childhood haunt was Cor’s, as well. How ironic.

****

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
“Cor, wake up, quickly!”

I gave him a great deal of credit for jumping to his feet and at least looking somewhat alert.

“Help me put this fire out, Cor. I hear riders coming down the road,” I said.

“Well, that’s great, Gabrielle. It means Selene got your message. Why do you look so worried?”

“Because it could be Xena, but what if it’s not? I’m just trying to be careful.”

“Oh, okay.” He jumped up and immediately took charge of gathering our basket and water skin.

I tugged on Ridian’s halter and the patient animal followed along behind us. I figured we could wait in the shadows at the side of the road until we could tell whether the riders were our own saviors or strangers.

I don’t really understand what happened next. One moment Cor and I were crouched on a small rise above the road. The nighttime air smelled damp and earthy as we sat hunched amid the forest floor’s greenery. A couple of small moths batted me in the head, but I kept quiet, remaining low to the ground.

The next instant, I felt the ground loosening beneath us. We were atop a very small hill, but with shocking clarity, I realized that the earth had begun to crumble under our weight. Before the first rider on the road came close enough for me to see, Cor had grabbed my sleeve, pulling backward. It was too late. The recent rains had softened all of the dirt around up.

Cor and I both slid headfirst down the side of the hill, headed directly toward the road. Large, leafy plants slapped me in the face as I slid down what had become one slick trail of quickly moving mud. We could do nothing to stop our forward momentum, spilling down onto the road just as the group of riders galloped up.
It took me a few moments to shake the cobwebs from my brain. I looked at Cor, lying next to me. If I looked anything as he did, which I was sure I did, I could have certainly frightened small children. Covered from head to toe in mud, with leaves and small bits of grass and sticks stuck all over, we looked like creatures that had just climbed out of a swamp.

I glanced at the ground in front of me and saw a pair of familiar boots. My gaze had to travel upward at some length before running into an equally familiar face.

“Xena,” I jumped to my feet, slipping around some, and tried to appear casual about the whole thing. “Funny meeting you here.”

I thought that perhaps humor would work. I was so wrong. Xena’s face looked as dark as the sky during a midsummer’s storm. I swear I could see flashes of lightning in her eyes.

“Are you hurt…either of you injured?” She just looked down at me with a disapproving glare.

“No, uh,” I looked over at Cor who was just climbing to his feet. He looked dazed and embarrassed, but unhurt. “We came up to have a picnic at the waterfall and Ridian came up lame…and…well, things sort of…happened.”

“Cor, your mother is very worried about you. Get yourself back there and clean up a bit before we head home,” Xena said as she indicated the rear of the group.

“Get us some water and blankets,” she ordered the nearest soldier.

I noticed Ephiny and the Amazons looking rather uncomfortable. As if they didn’t know whether to be angry or mortified for me. I didn’t know what to do or say. I suppose because it was the first time that Xena ever looked at me with such anger. I’d behaved badly, certainly not like a Queen. I knew this could have turned out much worse and it was entirely my fault. Most of all, I had the sudden notion that this wasn’t exactly my Xena.

That’s when I realized what was wrong, what had me so preoccupied that I couldn’t even think straight. I wasn’t looking at Xena, before me stood the Conqueror. Xena was there, all right, but beneath her nearly transparent veneer laid the beast.

This was new. I had seen the beast before, reacted to its attack, and fought it down. I had beaten it back on more than one occasion, but this time was different. This time, Xena was still in control, but only barely. I could see how close the darkness was to taking her over, but she controlled it. I wonder if she even knew she was in charge, teetering upon that slender thread between humanity and insanity? That was why she was so tight-lipped and stood so very tall and stiff. She was fighting to stay in control…and winning. How odd that I should want to jump for joy just then. When our eyes met again, though, I knew that our conversation would have to wait until later.

The soldier brought forward the water and some dry blankets. After he set the items on the ground, he apparently stood there a moment longer than Xena liked.

“Don’t you have something to do?” she growled.

“Aye…Conqueror,” he stammered as he quickly shuffled backward.

“Atrius, give the men a break,” Xena ordered. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up,” she then said to me.

“I can do it,” I replied.

“Why don’t I assist her, Conqueror?” Ephiny stepped forward.

Xena looked as though she was going to strike Ephiny, at first. She looked at me and took a deep breath. I saw a bit of Xena shine through then.

“Get some of that mud off you so I can give you a kiss and hug the life out of you,” she said. She smiled briefly, then that tight look returned. She quickly turned and walked back toward the group of milling soldiers.

Ephiny and I walked off into the woods, far enough away from the torchlight to be unseen.

“How do you want to do this?” she asked.

“Just dump the water over me. I’m sure you want to let me have it, anyway.”

“Very amusing.”

“I’m serious. I’ll just wrap up in the blankets.”

“Okay,” Ephiny replied as she scooped up the first bucket of water. She reared back and threw the contents of the bucket directly into my face.

I sputtered and coughed to clear the water and mud from my mouth. She’d at least done a fair job at clearing the much from my face and hair. She stood back, smirking.

“I have to say that you took a much more enthusiastic approach than I was prepared for,” I told her. “You’re angry with me, though, and that felt good, didn’t it…pelting me with the water?”

“I’m not angry at you, Gabrielle,” she said as she brushed more mud from my hair. “I thought I was at first, but I realized I was just mad at me.”

“Mad at yourself?” I disrobed and piled the soppy clothes at my feet.

Ephiny poured more water, this time over my head and I rubbed away as much of the dirt as I could. She continued talking once I had wrapped a blanket securely around me, pulling the second blanket over my shoulders.

“You got by me. I spend my days teaching younger women how to be good warriors and you come along and possess the skills to get by me without a sound. It’s just my ego.”

“I didn’t think today, Ephiny. I’m so sorry and it won’t happen again.”

She looked extremely surprised.

“What?” I asked.

“You’re the first Queen to ever apologize to me. I wasn’t expecting it.” She graced me with one of her infamous deadpan looks. “I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything less from you. Apology accepted.”

“Well, I hope I didn’t hurt your ego too much.”

“Just bruised, not broken. Your wife may be a harder sell than I am, however.”

“I know. Gods, I’ve never seen her this mad before, at least not at me.”

“Well, if it helps, I think she’ll get over it. Come on, we better get back. At least you don’t look like a swamp rat anymore.”

“Thanks…I think.”

It was some time later when we neared the town. Xena and I had barely spoken since we’d, quite literally, run into each other. In the past, it had instilled a sense of security within me to sit there, Xena’s arms wrapped around me. At that particular moment, I felt so many emotions, but none caused me to feel secure. I felt guilty and frightened, worried that I had irreparably damaged our relationship. I needed some reassurance, but I didn’t think Xena was capable of giving it to me just then. So, I did what I always seemed to do under such circumstances. I cried.

“Gabrielle? Gabrielle, are you crying?”

I nodded my head against her chest.

“Gabrielle,” she sighed, her hand coming up to caress the side of my head.

“I made such a mess of things today. I didn’t think of all the people I’d be hurting. I acted stupidly and now you’re angry, the Amazons are angry, and everyone hates me.” I eked the last word out just before my throat constricted because of my tears.

Xena leaned down and kissed my temple. That simple act said so much to me. She had defeated the beast, that much was apparent. Even more important, she did it herself.

“I won’t lie to you, Gabrielle, I am angry, but part of my anger is due to fright.”

She wrapped one arm around me and suddenly I felt a little better.

“I was scared to death that something terrible had happened to you. And, I admit, I was damned angry with you for putting yourself and Cor into such jeopardy. I certainly do not hate you, however. I love you, Gabrielle, and that is something that will never change.”

She kissed me again and I knew that my Xena had returned.

“My love, there will inevitably be times when we grow angry with one another, but don’t ever let your heart doubt my feelings for you. My love for you could never change, Gabrielle. Believe that.”

“I love you, Xena, and I’m so sorry.”

“We’ll talk more about it later. All right? We need do go over some of the ground rules. Rules between one another as well as ruling the Empire.”

I silently nodded, knowing the talk was necessary, but dreading it all the same. We had reconciled our initial feelings and that was what was important to me. I felt much more comfortable as we headed into town and down the main road to Cyrene’s inn.

Upon entering the inn, those who had stayed behind greeted us. Delia immediately brought me my dressing gown and Scylla ran off to start the water heating for a hot bath.

Cyrene dragged Cor to his own bath, but not before he slyly winked at me. It was a conspiratorial look we shared, as though we alone had shared something special out there in the woods, as well we did. If nothing else good came from this day, I would always remember it as the day I gained a younger brother.

Once Xena had wrapped my fingers around a mug of steaming mint tea, I began to feel better. The beverage and the fire on the cool summer evening stopped my chills.

“I’m glad Selene told you we were stuck out there. I would have hated to be lying out there in the cold all night. It seemed so warm during the day,” I said to Xena.

“What do you mean, Selene told us?”

“Well, that’s how you found us, right?”

“Selene didn’t have anything to do with it. Actually, it was mostly just luck. Your Amazon, Mika, finally found some tracks.”

I laid my mug on the table and the voices at the table had started to hush, in order to listen to us. “But, didn’t Selene show you the note I sent her?”

“How in Hades did you send her a note?” Xena looked about as confused as I was.

“The officer of the messenger unit passed us and he promised to take a message back for me. No wonder it took so long. He never gave it to her! I swear…”

Xena jumped up so quickly it knocked her chair to the floor. “Selene!” She shouted loud enough so that every other voice inside the inn went silent.

People backed away and suddenly there was a path to the bar where Selene stood. She took a few hesitant steps toward our table.

“What?” she asked in a voice that already sounded defensive.

“Tell her what you just said to me,” Xena directed me.

“I–” I wasn’t sure where to start or exactly what Xena was getting at. “Um, Selene, around midday I sent a note to you by way of the lieutenant of a squad of messengers telling you where Cor and I were. The officer should have arrived by early evening at the latest. Didn’t he give you my message?”

Selene looked stricken. Her head swung between Xena and me.

“Well,” Xena said. “Did you ever get Gabrielle’s note?”

“A note?” Selene repeated. She looked around the room uncomfortably. “I…I never received it. I’m sorry, Gabrielle.”

She seemed sorrier than she should have been. I immediately hoped the officer was still in Amphipolis. I began to make plans on how many ranks I could demote him when Xena’s hand flashed by me in a blur. She had reached into Selene’s apron pocket and deftly removed a folded piece of parchment.

Xena tossed the parchment onto the table before me. “Is this the note you never received?” Xena asked Selene.

I picked up the note, unable to believe what was happening. Cyrene had returned sometime in the middle of it all, but now she simply stood there and stared at her youngest daughter.

“Selene,” was all Cyrene managed to whisper. It sounded as thought the older woman was astonished.

“I–I don’t know where that came from. I–”

“Don’t lie, Selene!” Xena raised her voice again. “I saw him give it to you.”

I couldn’t put the note down. I just kept staring at the words, waiting for them to change and have it become someone else’s piece of parchment.

“Selene, how could you?” I questioned her. “If you were angry with me, I could understand, but Cor was with me…your little brother. What if something had happened to him out there?”

Selene reached out and snatched the note from my hand. She held it in both hands and stared hard at it. I saw tears fill her eyes.

“I can’t believe you’d betray us this way,” Xena said, taking the note out of Selene’s hands and tossing it on the table once more.

“Well…well…I did!” Selene shouted back. “Yea, that’s right. I read the note. Gabrielle wrote and said she was at the waterfall and her horse came up lame. I knew all that because she wrote it in her note, but…I was mad at her, so…so I just kept it to myself!”

During Selene’s rant, I thought something was awfully odd about her tirade. I picked up the small square of parchment and read what I had written. “Xena,” I said. I slid the note along the table to her.

Xena picked it up and read it. Her brow furrowed together and she must have read it a dozen times before she looked up at me. I saw something behind that blue gaze. Xena’s expression held some sort of clarity, which I hoped she was about to share, since my note hadn’t said any of the things Selene claimed. I had simply written that Cor and I were stuck somewhere down the abandoned road through the woods, and to send a rider with an extra horse quickly.

Xena looked at Selene and I could see a hundred images pass across Xena’s face. “Ephiny, Atrius, have your troops call it a night. The party’s over,” Xena said.

Amazons and Empire soldiers scattered like ants. Our extended family seemed to take that as an invitation to leave also, for suddenly, Myself, Xena, Cyrene, and Selene were the only people in the room.

Cyrene stalked toward her younger daughter. “Selene–”

“Mother, I’ll handle this,” Xena said. Xena glanced sideways at Cyrene and the older woman backed down as if seeing something in Xena’s expression. “Mother, why don’t you help Gabrielle get cleaned up?”

I had no idea what was happening, but it seemed as though Xena wanted to handle this on her own. I certainly didn’t want to see her beat her younger sister into nothing. “Now, wait a–”

“Gabrielle,” Xena said with enough force to cause me to pause. She leaned down and kissed me softly. “Go with mother. I need to handle this.”

I glanced at Selene who looked around the room as though searching for an escape.

“You’re not going to hurt her?” I whispered.

Xena smiled and it was genuine. “No, my love. I promise you. Now go on. We’ll talk later.”

Cyrene and I moved slowly, both of us unsure of what was happening. We rounded the corner and with our feet on the first step of the staircase, we each heard Xena’s first words to her sister. We both paused, wearing a perfectly matched set of dumbfounded expressions.

“Selene,” Xena said quietly. “Why haven’t you ever told anyone that you couldn’t read?”

****
“That was…different,” I said to Cyrene as we entered the room that Xena and I shared.

Cyrene sat down in one of the chairs beside the small table. More accurately, she sunk into the chair, a dazed expression on her face.

“Gabrielle, could that be true…what Xena said?”

My heart went out to the woman who had managed to ease so much of my own pain. How could I do the same for her when I believed that Xena’s assumption about Selene had been correct?

“I’m not absolutely certain, but I think it does make sense. I think back on the things that Selene has said or done while we’ve been here and I think…yes, Cyrene, I think it might be true.”

“How could that be possible? I mean, how could I have not known?”

As I looked at the confused and heartbroken woman, I realized that she had no idea how Selene’s life had gone, what the girl thought or felt. In fact, she barely knew her daughter. Xena and I had learned more about Selene, in the short time since we had been here, than Cyrene knew from a lifetime.

I sat down beside Cyrene and reached over, placing my hand over hers. They were balled into fists and for the first time since I’d known her, I felt the age within those hands. Her posture was one of defeat as she sagged in her chair. Then, as I looked on, she straightened up, lifting her chin into the air. How like Xena. Cyrene was not a woman to be defeated without a fight. I suspect her life had not been an easy one, and yet she had made something for herself and her children.

“What else don’t I know about Selene?” she asked me with a determined look in her eye.

“I think that if you have to ask me that, if you suspect that you may not know your daughter as well as you thought, then you should be asking Selene that question.”

“You think I don’t know her secrets? I know about her…her attraction to women. I’ve seen the way she looks at other girls and not boys. I may be an old woman, Gabrielle, but the concept of two women together did not start with your generation. I’m not as simple as my youngest daughter would have you think.”

“Cyrene, I would never think that of you and I’m sure Selene doesn’t look on you that way. I think she’s confused about many of her feelings, even ashamed. She just needs to know you care, no matter what.”

“Gods on Olympus! How can she not know that? All she has to do is look at how I’ve taken Xena back into our home, into our family.”

I smiled at her, not in jest, but at the very will that I saw there. “I know that Xena loves me, too, but if she never told me that, I might be tempted to think otherwise. I think it’s just the nature of humans to need that affirmation and then to doubt when it disappears.”

“For me not to have recognized that Selene couldn’t read, though. How could I have been so blind?”

“It’s not difficult to see, Cyrene. For one, Selene hid it very well. Maybe some of her sullenness and bad temper was simply a way of keeping anyone from getting close enough to discover her secret. Then, of course, you ought not to be quite so hard on yourself. It’s rather hard to gain perspective on something when you’re standing right on top of it.”

Cyrene twisted the apron in her lap. I wasn’t sure if my words were having any affect.

“How did I let this happen? I tried so hard.”

“Did Selene, or any of the children in town, have a teacher, or tutor when they were growing up?” I asked.

Literacy wasn’t exactly expected of people who lived as farmers or ranchers, but it had become rather uncommon within villages and cities. Usually traveling tutors or bards stopped within towns like Amphipolis and stayed for a season or two. Then, when they moved on, another took their place. Often, older students became teachers themselves.

Cyrene hung her head in what I could only decipher as shame. “She did get schooling with the other children…for a while. I–I…Gabrielle, it was all my fault.” Tears ran down Cyrene’s cheeks.

“What was all your fault?”

“Selene. I wouldn’t let her go back to the school once the town hired that…that…”

“Slow down,” I tried to understand where she was going with her blame.

“The teacher that we hired when Selene was a youngster. He had served in the military as a young man. He started a school that lasted for many seasons. Cor even went and learned his letters and numbers there.” She took a deep breath to calm herself and continued.

“When Selene was about seven or eight summers, this teacher began to fill the children’s heads with nonsense for a good part of the day. He taught them how to use weapons and fight, making them memorize strategies of famous battles. I made Selene stop going. I was so busy with the inn…I never took the time to see that she learned on her own. She always acted as though she had learned…”

“Did the other parents complain?” I asked. I couldn’t see where a little history and exercise would hurt children, but it seemed to upset Cyrene just by talking about it.

“You don’t understand!” she cried out and she jumped up from her chair. Her hands twisted together much as she had twisted the cloth of her apron. “I couldn’t let Selene keep going to that school. I couldn’t let her learn how to use those weapons…to fight and…Gods, don’t you see, Gabrielle? I couldn’t take the chance that she might–”

“…Become like Xena?”

Cyrene froze. She actually looked as though I’d slapped her.

“I–I don’t know what you mean.”

I just couldn’t accuse or judge this woman. I truly did not believe that she meant for any of this to happen. Perhaps she had closed her eyes to a great many things, but deep down, she thought she was doing better the second time. She must have believed that if she raised Selene differently, if she only changed what she had believed she had done wrong the first time, then this child would have the normal life that Xena had been robbed of. Cyrene’s behavior toward Selene, and her explanations of that behavior, confirmed what I had suspected all along. Cyrene had always felt herself responsible for what had happened between her and Xena.

I wondered how to respond, but in reality, I only had one course to follow. During all our talks, Cyrene had always told me the truth, even the truths that were hard to hear. She didn’t shy away from those difficult subjects, but she had always tempered her words with love and compassion. I only hoped that I could do the same.

“Can you really not understand what I’m saying, Cyrene, or is it that you don’t want to?”

“I don’t need you to judge me,” she replied.

“Oh, by the Gods, no. I would never do that to you. I have no right to judge anyone’s life, but I most certainly wouldn’t do that to you.”

She sat down beside me once more and reached out for my hand. “I know that, my child. I’m sorry for those words. It’s hard…hard to face certain things, especially when they’re not very flattering.”

“Cyrene,” I took hold of the hand that lay upon mine and gently squeezed. “Nothing that’s gone on before matters one bit, not now. It’s in the past and no matter what, you can’t go back and change it.”

“Even when you ruin someone’s life?”

“I think what matters most is what you do now, from this point on.”

“If Selene will even speak to me. I’m not so sure I would if our positions were reversed.” She shook her head and I could see that she was willing to examine her own heart.

“I thought Selene would turn out so much better if I did everything different. I thought that by keeping her from seeing or experiencing any of the harshness of life that she would grow up to be a happy and healthy woman. That’s where I thought I went wrong with Xena. I allowed her to do so much, to do exactly what her heart desired.”

“Cyrene, you could never have anticipated that your village would be attacked. Everything that happened after that point happened because of extraordinary circumstances. I don’t believe that your not allowing Xena to learn to fight would have done anything more than get two of your children killed that day.”

“I’ve told myself the very same thing for so many seasons, but telling yourself something and truly believing it are very different.”

“Just like knowing that Selene has been denied certain things growing up and actually doing something to change it.”

“What are you saying?”

“I guess I’m saying that you still have a chance to make some of it right. I mean, we can help Selene with her letters and things like that. Actually, that’s the easy part. What will be hard is you letting her follow her heart from now on.”

“But I’m still her mother…I know better than–”

“You have to decide, Cyrene, decide whether you’re going to continue to make her live your life. I suppose it depends entirely on how much you love her.”

“She’s my child. Of course, I love her.”

“Do you love her enough to let her be herself?”

I didn’t expect an answer. It was enough to see that she was silently thinking about what she would do.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum

****

I watched Selene and the myriad emotions that crossed her face as we stood there. First, it was fear, as she watched Cyrene and Gabrielle reluctantly walk away. Her eyes darted around the now empty room, as if to look for a means of escape. That impression struck at my heart painfully. How sad that I had become something…someone to be feared by my own sister. Then, the anger began.

It pulled at her and began to rip away her fearful outer layer just as I might pull at a loose thread on a piece of frayed fabric. Like a wounded animal, Selene would be that much harder to deal with. Deal with? What in the known world was I going to say, anyway? Perhaps if I stayed with compassion.

“Selene–”

“You go to Hades!” she struck out at me verbally.

Okay, perhaps she was going to make this more difficult than I had anticipated. All right. She was the one who wanted to play rough.

“Okay, so you can read and I’m crazy, right?”

“That’s right!” she replied.

“Well, then,” I said as I tossed Gabrielle’s note at her. “Read for me.”

She threw the note back at me and folded her arms across her chest. “I don’t have to do anything.”

“Come on, wise ass. You can read so damn good, then do it. You can’t prove me wrong, can you?”

“I could if I wanted to.”

It was obvious that no one had ever confronted her with this sort of badgering before. She resorted to the same childish response I’m sure I had used at one time or another as a youngster. Well, she had made her choice of weapons in this fight. I would simply use the same weapon against her, blade to blade. If she wanted to resort to childish rhetoric, then I would oblige.

“Bullshit. You couldn’t if you wanted to.”

“Could too!”

“Right. I see the truth now. You can’t read one word, can you? Not one word.”

That one did it. Fire burned from her eyes and it was like staring into a looking glass. How often had my own blue eyes looked ready to shoot lightning bolts?

Selene stalked over to the table and snatched up the parchment. For one brief moment, I wondered if I had been wrong and she could read. Her expression changed that fleeting thought. I realized that anger and youth had placed her in her current position. She was now stuck in a place she didn’t want to be in, but I gave her all the credit in the world. She honestly tried to look as thought she knew what she was doing. Selene stood there, rooted in place, and stared hard at the paper. I watched as her eyes darted across the page, looking as if the words would come to her if only she concentrated hard enough.

I began to feel sorry for her and sorry for what I’d done to push her into this admission, as tears filled Selene’s eyes and ran down her cheeks. Still she stared at the paper, appearing to hope for some sort of miracle. My heart broke in two at the sight. Tears continued to stream from her eyes and her nose ran, but still she held the parchment within her two unsteady hands.

I slowly walked to her and reached for her hands. “It’s all right, Selene. You don’t have to prove anything to me. You don’t have to prove anything to anybody. People who care about you will accept you the way you are and people who love you will overlook the worst of faults.”

She looked up and the fog appeared to clear from her gaze. She ran her sleeve across her face to wipe away the tears and reminded me of a much younger girl. Then again, I was no stranger to the idea of having my body race ahead of my maturity level.

“Here,” I said, reaching in to my vest. “I can guarantee that this has hardly been used today,” I said with a smile, as I pulled the clean cloth from my pocket. I dried her face and she surprised me by allowing me to do so.

“I can read, Xena. See,” she pointed to a spot on the parchment. “This word is to…and this one here…this one here is–is come. I–I just don’t…I don’t know all of them, but I can read.”

“I see that now. Besides, Gabrielle may be a wonderful bard, but between you and me, her handwriting could use a little help where neatness is concerned. Looks like you just need a little help is all. We can fix that, little sister. It will be easy, you’ll see.”

I hadn’t really been prepared for the way she fell into my arms, sobbing and apologizing. It was not only uncharacteristic for the Selene I had come to know, but especially different from the proud anger she had displayed mere moments ago. It again solidified the notion that as tough as Selene’s exterior appeared, she was still more girl than woman. Why we are always in such a hurry to grow up amazes me still the older I become.

I hugged her tight and whispered the sort of things I thought might calm a child. It eventually worked and she apologized for about the hundredth time.

“I’m sorry, Xena, I didn’t know it was from Gabrielle. I never would have done that to her. I really was going to show it to someone…later when I could get someone alone.”

“I understand and I’m sure Gabrielle will, too.”

“I’m so ashamed, so embarrassed.”

“There’s no need to feel that way. I won’t have you getting down on yourself.” I moved away from her and toward the bar. “I don’t know about you, little sister, but after the day I’ve had, I could use a drink.” I reached for the stopper on the nearest wineskin.

“Mother doesn’t allow me to have any strong drinks,” she replied.

I had a feeling my mother and I were destined to have a long talk about how she was making Selene pay for my mistakes.

“That’s going to change. In fact, I think a lot of things between you and mother change tonight.” I poured myself a full mug of wine and half that amount for Selene, cutting her portion with water just as I had done at one time for Gabrielle when she was new to the drink.

“I mean, I’m not giving you free reign to stay up every night in the tavern, you’re still too young for that, but you’re a young woman and there’s nothing terrible about a cup of young wine every now and then.” I took three long swallows and then watched as Selene took her first hesitant sip. “Well?” I asked.

She pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow. “And people pay to drink whole skins of this stuff?”

I laughed at her remark. “Well, it’s an acquired tasted. Maybe it’s a good thing that it doesn’t appeal to you at first. Too much can spell trouble, trust me. I’ve woke many a morning wishing I’d never taken my first sip.”

“Do you think Gabrielle will ever speak to me again?” Selene asked as she toyed with the edge of the wooden bar.

“Has she ever given you any indication that she would act that way?” I asked in turn.

“Well, people…change. You know…their feelings about things change. Sometimes you think you know them and then…I don’t know. Maybe Gabrielle doesn’t feel the same way about me now.”

“For one thing, Gabrielle is probably the most consistent person you’ll ever meet. Second…come with me.”

She took another healthy swallow from her mug of wine. I could see that the taste had become more palatable. She followed me to where I stood before an old looking glass. It had been hammered smooth and polished until it gleamed. It was a crude looking glass by my standards, but it provided a fairly accurate reflection.

I stood behind her and placed my hands upon her shoulders, both of us facing our reflections. “Look there and tell me who you see,” I told her.

“Us,” she answered truthfully.

This would take a little thought. I stepped out of view of the looking glass. “Now, who do you see?” I asked, in an attempt to have her look within herself.

She didn’t understand and looked at me as though I had two heads upon my shoulders. “Me,” she answered this time.

“Look closer,” I chuckled at her naiveté and pointed at her reflection. “Who is she?”

“I’m…” She paused. “I’m just me.”

“And who is that? What sort of person are you, Selene? What makes you…well, you?”

She stared intently at her reflection. “I can’t read,” she finally said softly. “I guess that makes me stupid.”

“No!” I said much more sharply than I’d meant causing her to flinch at the sound of my voice. I smiled gently and came up behind her once more, touching her shoulders.

“Don’t ever say that, Selene, because I don’t believe you’re stupid at all. It’s true you can’t read, but there’s a reason for that. How is it, though, that you’re able to cook all those recipes of mother’s and when she gives you a shopping list you come back from the market with every thing on a long list?”

She looked back at me sheepishly. “Elias helps me. He’s always been nice about it. He reads me the list or the recipe and I memorize it.”

“You remember all that?” I asked, truly amazed. If it didn’t have to do with fighting or battles, I had a hard time remembering what I’d eaten for my morning meal.

“Sure. Remembering is easy.”

“Well, let me tell you something. It’s not as easy as you think. It’s a very intelligent brain that can retain all that, Selene. You are a very smart girl.”

“Really?” She perked up quite a bit.

“Absolutely. You have a quick mind, little sister. I’m sure we can help you with your letters, and I guarantee that you’ll be reading as well as anyone in no time at all.”

“Will we have to tell people?”

I saw the humiliation in here eyes, the idea of anyone finding out. “Well, maybe just a couple of people. These people around us are our friends and I want to explain what happened today, especially after our scene earlier. But, in the future, you don’t have to tell anyone that you’re not comfortable with knowing.”

“I should tell Gabrielle, though, right? And mother?”

“Yes, I think apologizing to both of them might be a nice gesture on your part. Even though it all turned out right this time, keeping such a thing to yourself could have gotten someone hurt, or worse, today.”

“Yea, but I–”

I held up my hand to silence her. “Selene, we’re your family. It was a hard thing for me to learn, too, maybe one of the hardest things, but trusting the people who care about you can actually make you a better person.”

“And if they laugh at you?”

I smiled. “Okay, I still don’t take that entirely well, but the goal is to be able to laugh at yourself. Try to see yourself as others see you, Selene, and not the person your insecurities tell you that you are. I guarantee that if you start liking you, others won’t be able to help but follow suit.”

She smiled back at me. “Gabrielle said something like that once.”

“See, great women think alike.”

“Oh, Xena, could you teach me other things as well? A weapon? Do you think you could teach me to fight?”

“What?” She had caught me completely off guard with her question.

“You know, like you and Gabrielle fight. I saw you practicing before Gabrielle took ill.”

“I think asking mother to allow you to travel with us to the Amazon village is going to be enough of a shock. Let’s not send her into apoplexy.”

“Apa… what?”

“What I mean is that this new Selene is going to take some getting used to for mother. Maybe we should just take it one step at a time.”

“The new Selene?” she asked.

“You never finished answering my question. Who is that girl in the mirror?”

“Oh.” She turned again and gazed at her reflection, but with a more thoughtful expression. “I don’t know, Xena. I don’t know who I am. When will I figure it out?”

“It takes some people a lifetime to discover.” I said after I shrugged. “I’m still figuring it out about myself. What’s important is that you and mother talk, and that you make her realize that you need to discover who you are on your own. You can accept help from any of us…from anyone, but ultimately, you have to answer that question.”

“What if I find out bad things? I mean, about myself. Can I change them?”

Selene asked the question in innocence and she referred to herself, of course, but I took it personally. I squeezed her shoulders and answered her reflection.

“You can change anything about yourself that you wish to, little sister, anything at all.”

“Do you truly believe that, Xena?” She turned and looked at me, wearing a hopeful expression.

“I have to,” I answered. I don’t know if she understood what I meant, but it was enough for me that I spoke the words. After all, the answer had actually been for me.
Chapter 27: Fly Envious Time, Till Thou Run Out Thy Race…
I walked into our room and both women stood. My mother looked preoccupied. I suppose that’s really the only word to use. She wasn’t exactly distracted. It was as if she had all her attention focused on one particular thing.
Gabrielle looked a tad uneasy. Not that I ever had, but she looked rather as if I was about to unleash some sort of terrible punishment upon her. Of course, she most probably knew that wouldn’t actually happen, but she didn’t look absolutely certain, which is where the uneasy expression entered into play.

I decided to charge right in and confront my mother. I knew it might end in a knockdown drag-out situation between the two of us, but for Selene’s sake, it had to be done. I owed my sister that much.

“Mother,” I said.

“Xena,” she interrupted. “I need to know. Is it true that Selene can’t read?”

“Yes, it is. Mother–”

“Oh, Gods! What can we do to fix this?”

“Well, you might start by talking. You and she need to have a very long talk and you need to–”

“…Start talking with her instead of at her,” Cyrene finished.

“Um…yes,” I replied. “Look mother there are some things you need to know about Selene–”

“…And I’ve never even given her the opportunity to tell me about herself…what she wants out of life. I’ve spent her life telling her what she couldn’t be instead of discovering who she wanted to be.”

“That’s right.” I felt a little confused. Was I that good or had someone else discussed this with Cyrene before me? “Yes, well, you really need to–”

“…Discuss this with her as soon as possible. Do you think she’d be open to talking with me right now, dear?”

“Uh…okay,” I said in a slow drawl. This was going very well. “I mean, I’m sure that would go a long way toward straightening some things out. Mother, just remember–”

“Selene’s probably as skittish as a newborn colt right about now.”

“Well, yes, and–”

“…I don’t really even know her. I need to let her tell me what she’s feeling in her own time.”

“Yes, um, my thoughts exactly.”

“I’ll go right now,” she said. She turned to smile at Gabrielle and my wife smiled back. Then, Cyrene reached up and gave me a quick peck on the cheek before she rushed from the room.

“That was…um, easy. Too easy,” I added after a moment’s pause. “Gabrielle?” I called out her name in a slow drawl.

“Yes, Xena?” she answered, much too dutifully.

“What was that all about? Had you and mother already discussed Selene?”

“Just a little. I mean, I just happened to mention to Cyrene that perhaps she might want to look at Selene in a different way than she had been.”

“Gabrielle…” I repeated in a slow cautionary tone.

“Yes?” she answered.

I looked across the room at her and arched an eyebrow, attempting a stern expression. “Come over here.”

She fairly flew at me and I caught her in midair, crushing her to me until neither of us could breathe.

“You nearly scared the life from me, girl!” I whispered fiercely before kissing her hard.

I won’t say that it was harder than I intended for that wouldn’t be the truth. I wanted her to feel me in that kiss, to know what I felt for her and how much. It eased my heart to feel her return the intensity.

“Don’t you ever, ever do that again,” I said once we’d separated.

“I promise,” she replied. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t think. No, that’s not true.” She pulled away a bit more to look up at me. “I was thinking, but only of myself.”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Xena, I think…I’m not certain, but I think I snuck away like that because I could.”

I’m sure I looked at her strangely. “I’m not sure if you’re making fun of me or not,” I answered with some suspicion.

“No, never. I’d never humiliate or make a fool of you, Xena. I thought you’d know that by now.”

“I thought I did. I mean…yes, of course I do, love. I didn’t intend it to come out like that. I suppose I thought your answer was an attempt at…I don’t know…impertinence.”

“Not at all. I certainly didn’t mean it that way. I haven’t even thought it all through until just a few moments before you arrived. Cyrene and I had been discussing how the decisions we make as adults stem from events we experienced as children. We had actually been speaking of Selene, but it struck me that I did the same thing today.”

“Okay,” I began. “So, there’s some connection between you slipping off today and how you spent your childhood?”

“I think…maybe. It suddenly reminded me that I never got away with anything like that as a child. I played with other children my age that snuck away from home and played tricks on their tutors. I was a slave, and even though I was a child, my owners would have severely beaten me if I had tried anything the other children had. I suppose, somewhere deep down, I saw an opportunity to be the child I had never been. Gods, does that make sense at all? Sometimes the words just flow from me and other times I can’t express what I’m feeling at all.”

It all made perfect sense, and even though Gabrielle felt as if her explanation wasn’t clear, I understood perfectly. I had long wondered about the playful and childlike behavior that Gabrielle had displayed on rare occasions. That it had never occurred to me made me feel a fool. I believe I had conveniently forgotten that she served at such a young age. To think on it only made me angry or heartsick, so I mostly put it from my mind. I had to remember that trying to forget Gabrielle’s past was no way to deal with it.

“Yes, love, it does indeed make sense,” I said as I pulled her into my embrace once more. “I suppose it’s something we’ll have to work on…together.”

“I’m sorry, Xena, but you shouldn’t have to deal with the headaches that my past brings on.”

I laughed aloud at her answer and had to immediately respond to her indignant glare. “Oh, little one, you are a funny lady. How many times have you smacked me across the jaw to fight back my demon? You’ve been taking on my past since the moment we first met.”

“Well, that’s different,” she answered with an embarrassed grin.

“Different? And, why should it be different?”

“Because a Conqueror’s wife gets to make those kinds of rules.” She played with my collar, never meeting my eyes.

“I see. So, you get to worry, and fuss, and generally take a beating because of my past, but I can’t do any of those things. Have I got that right?”

“Exactly.

“Hhmm, I must have missed all that in those Conqueror classes.”

“I suppose I could overlook it this one time.”

She giggled when I pulled her closer and tickled her. I knew that we had once again been able to settle our anger without argument when I heard that laughter. It might not always be so, but I thanked Athena each and every time it happened this way.

A timid knock on the door brought Scylla’s face into view.

“Forgive me, Lord Conqueror, but I have her highness’s bath ready. Shall I help you, Miss?”

“No, that won’t be necessary, but thank you, Scylla,” I answered before Gabrielle had the chance. “I’ll help Gabrielle. Have a good evening.”

“Yes, My Lord…Your Highness.”

“Goodnight, Scylla,” Gabrielle added.

Scylla hurriedly left the room, and Gabrielle and I made our way just as quickly to the bathing rooms on the main floor of the inn. At that time of the evening there were no guests using the rooms, so I locked the main door for our privacy.

When I still lived here in Amphipolis, the only bathing options were two copper baths separated by curtains in a small room behind the kitchen or, for guests who could afford it, having a hired man haul one of the copper baths up to the guests room, followed by twelve buckets of heated water.

The inn’s current bathing chamber was something that my mother had often dreamed of building. I recalled her talking of such an area when I was a child here. She must have gone to some expense to build the addition with its tiled floors and sunken baths. There were also the traditional copper baths, which Gabrielle preferred. Three fireplaces heated water for the individual metal tubs, but a small system of waterworks controlled the sunken baths, adding and removing water via an aqueduct system such as Athens used.

Scylla indeed had prepared everything. Tendrils of steam rose around us from the heated water. In no time at all, Gabrielle felt clean and rejuvenated. I sat behind her as she lay in the still warm water. I had combed her long golden hair, and with a couple of deft moves, she tied her tresses up and off her face.

“I’m sorry,” she said, turning back to look at me.

“You don’t have to keep apologizing, love.”

“I feel like I’ve disappointed you. I know I’ve disappointed myself.”

“No, love, please don’t think that way,” I answered.

“Xena, you were so angry that your darkness struggled to break free.”

“I won’t lie to you, Gabrielle. The beast was beating on the gate, but it never broke through. I’m not even sure I understand how that happened, but I know now that my behavior was due more to fear than anger.”

“Fear? I don–”

“I was afraid, Gabrielle, afraid that you were hurt, that I’d lost you. A million scenarios ran through my head, all of them bad. I didn’t know what I would do if…” I took a deep breath and turned away from her. Perhaps it would be easier to admit my weakness if I couldn’t see her.

“I don’t know what would become of me if I ever lost you, if anything ever happened to you. I’m afraid…afraid that I’d go back to being the woman I was before I met you.”

“I don’t think that’s possible, love,” Gabrielle responded. She sounded so sure.

“How can you sound that certain?” I asked.

“For one, because I know that I’m never going to leave you of my own will, and I send Athena a daily prayer that we should always be together as one.”

“You said, for one. Is there a number two?” I asked, almost fearful of her answer.

“The second reason is the most important, my Conqueror. You’re simply not that woman anymore and I don’t think you could become her again for all the talants in your treasury.”

I finally looked up and met her gaze. She smiled at me with a look full of so much warmth and love that I believed her. Frankly, if Gabrielle had just told me that the moon was blue, I would have believed that, too. If there were only one thing that I would remember all my life about this young woman, it would be her enduring faith in me.

“As long as you belong to me, little one, I actually feel that I can be the woman you think me to be.” They weren’t merely words. I truly meant every one.

I leaned over to place a kiss upon her bare shoulder and just like that, I wanted more. A great deal more. I wasn’t certain this was the right time and I knew without question that it wasn’t the proper place, but my body didn’t care. The thing to do was to discern whether Gabrielle’s body ran in tandem with my own, slightly impulsive, desires. It took no more than a breath’s span to discover that she felt the same.

“Xena,” she moaned breathlessly as she turned her head, exposing more of her neck.

The vision was too much to refuse and so my mouth sucked gently on the skin there. Gabrielle raised her arm and wound her fingers within my hair, holding me to her. Soon, I left my seat and kneeled behind the end of the tub, my hands caressing Gabrielle’s arms, shoulders, and chest. I let my fingers roam wherever they had a mind. I didn’t even think about what I wanted to do next. I could only concentrate on the sensation of touch and Gabrielle’s silky wet skin.

I did separate from my desires long enough to wonder how far we should carry this seduction in such a public place, even with the door locked. However, just before I voiced my thoughts on that subject, Gabrielle’s small hand grasped one of my own and drew it downward across her body. She slid her own hand over her breasts, massaging each one. I watched, mesmerized as she circled her nipple with a delicate forefinger. Gabrielle removed her other hand from my hair and used it to force my hand over that of hers, the one that touched her body. Every miniscule thought I had regarding self-control, or of even moving to our bedroom, simply dashed away after that.

Gabrielle’s fingers pulled gently on her nipples, eliciting mild groans from each of us. She forced me to keep my hands atop hers, never touching her, only watching the pleasure her own hands created. The visuals struck directly between my legs and I felt myself growing wet. Gabrielle turned her head toward me once more and I captured her mouth in a passionate kiss, thrusting my tongue past her lips to taste her as deeply as possible.

We drew our mouths away from the kiss, each of us panting as we pulled much needed air into our lungs. I bent once more to her neck and sucked at the soft flesh there. Gabrielle’s fingers entwined themselves into my hair to draw me closer again.

“Yes, Xena…harder,” she moaned.

I bit the supple flesh of Gabrielle’s throat and sucked harder. “I want everyone to know you belong to me,” I growled, pulling that tender flesh into my mouth, sucking long and hard.

Gabrielle gasped. “Oh Gods, yes!” she cried out.

My lips slid down her neck and across her shoulder. Each gentle bite and subsequent caress of my tongue drew gasps of pleasure from Gabrielle. Once again, she used her own hand to touch herself and I allowed her to keep my hand atop her own.

“Hold on,” I said in a voice that cracked when I spoke. I reached back to my neck and brought my shirt up and over my head. I needed to feel to feel her skin, even this small bit. When I returned to my previous position, I pushed my chest against Gabrielle’s back. My breasts pressed into her shoulder blades and when she resumed the downward movement of her hand, the motion caused my nipples to tighten in pleasurable anticipation.

“Please, Xena.” Gabrielle groaned as if in pain. She arched her back, finally her hand disappeared into the water and down between her legs.

I followed Gabrielle’s every movement with one hand, while the other made its way to her breast. I kneaded the full flesh and teased the hard nipple, flicking across it lightly with my nail. I could see her hips jump forward at my touch. Once again, she reached up and captured my lips in a kiss filled with intensity and fire. We broke from the kiss and I whispered in her ear.

“Do you feel this?” I asked, squeezing her nipple between my thumb and forefinger.

“Oh, Gods, yes. Deep inside.”

“You feel me inside, or you want me there?” I teased her with seductive words. She was oh so ready.

“Inside, Xena. Oh, Gods, please, I need you in me.”

I slid my palm down across her stomach and into the water. Gabrielle raised her hips toward my hand and I slid my fingers across her slick folds in long teasing strokes. Her legs parted wider and the muscles in her thighs stretched taut. Her breath caught in her throat when in one fluid motion, I slid two of my fingers deep inside of her.

Gabrielle’s hips tried to follow when I pulled my fingers away, just as her inner walls grasped at the loss. I followed the rhythm her hips set and she thrust harder against my hand until her entire body started to tremble. Her eyes rolled back in her head just before her eyelids snapped shut.

I was nearly ready to climax myself, watching as Gabrielle quickly crossed that line from pleasure to ecstasy.

“You’ll always be mine, Gabrielle. No matter what, I’ll always love you,” I said into her ear.

My words became the catalyst. Gabrielle’s body froze and her breath stopped, as wave after wave of sweetly intense pleasure swept through her. I wrapped one arm around her, my other hand stilled yet deep inside her. I was just as reluctant to leave that warm haven, as she was to feel me depart. Eventually, however, I gently removed my fingers causing Gabrielle to sigh in pleasure and contentment.

Gabrielle turned slightly, until she could see the expression on my face. “No matter what?” she asked breathlessly. “Even if I forget and do something incredibly stupid again?”

I chuckled and kissed the side of her neck before claiming those wondrously soft lips. “No matter what, my love. No matter what.”

“I’ll never leave you, my Conqueror. We’ll always be together.”

“I pray that it will always be so, little one.”

Since we hadn’t made too much noise, and my mother hadn’t come pounding at the door, we decided to spend some more time in the bathing room. I took my turn in a warm bath. There was a great deal of cuddling and relaxing involved. Two things at which Gabrielle said I continued to excel.

Back in our room, Gabrielle and I stayed up late into the night talking with only the moonlight streaming into the bedchamber as illumination. We sat upon cushions spread beneath the window, much like the day Yu Pan came to visit. To a stranger, I’m certain we looked like two schoolgirls, our heads pressed close together, sharing our secrets. We spoke to one another of private matters, things between us two, meant for no one else’s ears but our own.

We shared some of the conversations we had with others, as well, and I told her about Selene’s problem and my sister’s willingness to accept our help. Gabrielle did something then that surprised me, although it really shouldn’t have. My wife is the most compassionate and loving person that I have ever encountered, yet it still surprised me when she cried for Selene. Gabrielle understood what it felt like, thinking everyone around her was better than she was. She shed tears of empathy for a young woman she had only recently come to know. How could I not love this woman with all my heart? And, as I lay in bed that night, holding my entire happiness tightly in my arms, I prayed that Athena would actually grant Gabrielle’s somewhat farfetched requests. For the first time in many seasons, I looked forward to the summers ahead.

****
“So, I just wanted to apologize to all of you and tell you that there won’t be a repeat of what happened yesterday. Some of you risk your lives, or would be willing to, in order to protect me, and I don’t want to disrespect you or your loyalty to the Empire.”

“No apologies are necessary, Your Highness,” Atrius stood to say.

“That’s very agreeable of you to say, Atrius, but we both know it’s not the truth.” Gabrielle smiled rather sheepishly at my Captain. His attempt to put Gabrielle at ease was not lost on me. “At any rate, I’ve caused all of you a great deal of trouble and that’s something I never meant to do,” Gabrielle finished.

I stood beside Gabrielle, as a sort of support. She wanted to apologize to all those who either cared about her, or whose job it was to protect her. The tavern was full of family members, soldiers, and Amazons. I thought it took a great deal of nerve to stand before everyone that way and so I stood beside my wife, showing everyone that I believed in her.

The sound of a woman clearing her throat drew our attention to the back of the tavern where Selene stepped out from behind the bar. Her eyes gravitated toward the floor and she kept rubbing her palms against the coarse, green fabric of her skirt. Gabrielle and I looked at one another with duplicate expressions of bewilderment.

“I–I guess…well, since Gabrielle is big enough to apologize to people th–then I guess I should, too. I know some of you don’t know me so good, but I’m not really a bad person.”

“Of course you’re not, Selene,” Gabrielle said as she quickly stepped forward and took one of Selene’s hands within her own. The simple action evidently made a big impression on Selene.

“Gabrielle, I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you or Cor, I–”

“I know that, Selene, and none of us blame you in any way. Come on,” Gabrielle squeezed her hand. “It’s okay…really.”

I saw tears slowly fall from Selene’s eyes and my mother quickly rose to stand beside her daughter. It was perhaps the first time that Selene had ever received such general and unconditional support from her family, and I suspected that she was a bit of an emotional wreck.

“Thanks, Gabrielle. That means a whole lot to me,” Selene said, wiping the trail of tears from her face, as usual with her sleeve. I smiled inside, wondering if we would ever be able to turn this gangly young woman into a lady.

Selene continued. “I need to say this to everyone, though.”

“You don’t have to say anything more,” Cyrene put an arm around the tall girl.

“But, I do, mom. I need to say it for me, you know?”

Selene looked around the room at the mostly uncomfortable sea of faces. Those who didn’t appear ill at ease looked at my sister with compassion. I suppose word had already gotten around about Selene’s inability to read. I don’t know how, but that was the way. The thin walls of an inn made even the most personal moments fodder for public gossip.

“I just wanted to let all of you know…well, I guess most of you have heard that I got a note from Gabrielle yesterday. I…um…I didn’t say anything about, even though she told me that her and Cor were stranded. I guess when you heard about it a lot of you thought I was just being a bitch.”

“Selene!” Cyrene admonished her youngest daughter. Some of us actually smiled at this point. I believe we all pictured cursing within earshot of our own mothers.

“Well, mom, it’s true,” Selene replied. “Anyway…” She paused to dry her obviously sweating palms along her clothing once more. “I just didn’t say anything ’cause I…I couldn’t read it…the note. See…I can’t read.” She finished by staring at the floor.

“But she’s going to work hard at changing that,” I finally stepped in to say.

Selene’s head snapped up and she smiled over at me. I swear she looked like another person entirely when she smiled.

“Yea,” she agreed. “Xena said she’d help me.”

“And I’ll help, too,” Gabrielle added. “If you want me to, that is.”

Selene shyly nodded her head and once more, I reflected upon the change in her since we had arrived. Gone were the slouched shoulders, which she had used in an attempt to disguise her height. Standing amidst a room of Amazons and soldiers perhaps she felt much more at home. The most noticeable change was in her facial expressions. No longer did she appear dour and bitter, older than her seasons. Now, she simply looked like a young woman, awkward, shy, and quite attractive. Too good-looking I thought, as I noticed more than one soldier in the room managing a subtle eyeful. I didn’t want to ruin this time with morose thoughts, but I wondered if I would have turned out as Selene, had I never run from home.

A certain uncomfortable silence reigned after that, and we all looked around as though struggling for the perfect thing to say in order to wrap the whole issue up. The words we needed came from an unlikely source.

Ephiny rose from her chair and looked uncharacteristically understanding, as opposed to the customary stern expression she usually wore. “I think we should just chalk yesterday up to one huge learning experience, then. I don’t know about anyone else, but with the insight that Gabrielle and Selene have received, I see it as a rather positive thing to have happened.”

I stood there with my mouth hanging open until Gabrielle gave me a light elbow in the ribs. Realizing that all eyes were on her, Ephiny coughed and cleared her throat. She wasn’t used to the attention and attempted once more to blend into the walls.

“Well said,” Cyrene responded as a way to put an end to our open-mouthed staring at Ephiny. “How about a midday meal? The drinks are on the inn.”

It was definitely a way to reanimate the room. Predominantly soldiers and Amazons, no one had to ask them twice to accept free drinks. In no time, the room filled with laughing, talking family and friends.

It was some time later when I happened to catch Ephiny returning to the room. She pulled Selene to one side and I admit; I shamelessly strained my ears to hear their short conversation.

“Um…here.” Ephiny thrust what looked to be a beaded necklace into Selene’s hands.

“I…um…it’s very nice,” Selene responded. She looked a bit surprised and maybe a bit flustered at the gift. I figured that’s why she blushed furiously at Ephiny.

“It’s a trainer…a letter-trainer,” Ephiny explained. “See, each bead has a letter on it. In the Amazon village, we teach youngsters to speak at least two languages. This one is for the Greek alphabet. A young girl wears the necklace and she always has the letters to look at. It helps her to learn her letters. I just thought…”

“Thanks, Ephiny.” Selene carefully fingered the wooden beads. “Would you help me put it on?”

I watched as Ephiny expertly tied the cord behind Selene’s neck and cut off the extra with her knife.

“I don’t know how to thank you,” Selene said.

“Maybe you can send me a scroll sometime. You know…um, send a note or something when our tribe comes to town for supplies. Then I’ll know that it helped.”

“I–uh, yes…yes, I’ll do that.”

I believe it was when Ephiny saw me watching, and my arched eyebrow, that she moved on.

“Gabrielle,” I whispered in my wife’s ear. “Do you think Ephiny is…could she be after Selene?”

“Oh, Xena, you worry about the strangest things. I think Ephiny is just being friendly.”

I nodded my head, but made a mental note to keep an extra eye on my suddenly popular sister.

Somehow, the midday meal turned into a daytime celebration. There was music from a traveling group who wished to stay the night at the inn and eventually the lyrical sounds brought out the dancers. It had turned into a rather carefree event, even for me. I felt eyes on the back of my neck, however, and when I turned toward the feeling, I felt as though a darkness was about to fall upon our happy time.

Acasia stood near the door. My accomplice in the plan to rescue Gabrielle’s possible daughter had a way of blending in, amazing given that his physical attributes alone usually caused him to stand out in a person’s memory. A long scar across his rugged and tanned face, and missing one arm, he had still been able to merely lean against the wall and quietly enjoy a mug of ale until I noticed him.

“Acasia,” I grasped his arm and smiled cordially so as not to arise the suspicions of anyone in the room. “So, you’re finally taking some time out?”

“Aye, Conqueror. I also wished to ask permission of you to leave Amphipolis.”

“Leave?” I questioned.

“Unfortunately, to attend an old friend’s burial ceremony in Ambracia.”

I struggled to discern where Acasia’s hints were taking us, but I could not think who had passed into Hades’ realm that would matter to us. I knew he spoke of someone that we both knew. It couldn’t have been the Governor or someone would have notified me already.

“I hope it’s not someone too close to you,” I said.

“A very old friend. He was a healer…from the Land of the Pharaohs. I believe you knew of him?”

“Yes,” I answered sadly. “You don’t know how distressed I am to hear of your news. Do you know what he died of?”

“Bad news?” Gabrielle interrupted. She had materialized beside me without a sound while my head had been busy mulling over the implications of Acasia’s information.

“Uh, yes, love. An old friend of Acasia’s…well, of ours has died. A man who was a friend to the Empire.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. Were you close?” Gabrielle asked Acasia.

“Actually, Your Highness, it’s been many seasons since I–we last saw him. I was just here to ask the Conqueror if she wished to travel to Ambracia, to pay her respects.”

“Oh, Xena, you should go. His family might need financial help. Did he leave children?”

“Um, yes, I believe there were quite a few of them,” I answered, seeing a plan begin to take shape.

My chest ached from lying to Gabrielle, but I promised myself that I would tell her everything soon. I justified it mostly by telling myself that the ends definitely supported the means. I could no longer afford to be subtle about the matter. My subterfuge had, quite possibly, cost the healer his life. He had been brought to the Governor’s palace in Ambracia and likely executed in order to keep his silence about the selling of children as slaves. Now, I planned to confront Telamon and place it all in the open. With Gabrielle insisting I go, it would be easier than I expected.

“I think I should go, love, but you’re still not strong enough for a fortnight’s trip on horseback. Will you be able to get along here?”

“Of course. As long as your mother will have us, I’m sure none of us are in a hurry to leave.”

With the old healer dead, I would probably never learn if the child was Gabrielle’s or not. It left me in a rather sticky situation. At this point, I couldn’t make any sort of plan or decision. I would have to see what I turned up in Ambracia before deciding what to do about the youngster. I forced myself to smile and kissed Gabrielle’s forehead, again promising myself that I would explain everything to her as soon as I knew for sure.
Chapter 28: A Little Learning Is A Dang’rous Thing…

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I popped another piece of dried fruit into my mouth, hoping that I hadn’t been caught. We worked in the kitchen, Cyrene, Delia, and I. I assisted the two women as much to have something to do as to assimilate some of their culinary skills. They made an unbelievable team in the kitchen and I felt rather like a useless limb at times. On this day, we prepared desserts and pastries. The kitchen had become like a warm comfortable haven.

“Gabrielle, are you filling the pastries with that fruit or eating it yourself?” Delia asked me as a smiling Cyrene looked over from the bowl she stirred briskly with a flat sort of wooden spoon.

“Pwetty muth eathing ’em,” I answered, unable to even hide my mouth full of food.

Both women broke into a long bout of laughter. “For Gaia’s sake, child. Are you sure you’re not with child?” Cyrene teased.

My face grew red, which caused my tormentors to laugh even more. I never knew why discussing such aspects of life in front of people embarrassed me so. I knew their jests were in good fun, however, and so I laughed along with the two older women.

“Xena better get back here quick,” I said. “I’ve eaten everything that wasn’t fastened down since she’s been gone. I’m afraid I’ll be so big that she won’t recognize me when she returns. I do wish I knew why she went with Acasia, though,” I mused aloud.

“Oh, that one. He scares me something fierce,” Cyrene pretended to shiver.

“No, really, he’s as gentle as a lamb,” I answered quickly. “I know that sounds odd for a soldier, but Acasia really is quite learned and a perfect gentleman.”

“I can vouch for that, Cyrene,” Delia added. “Granted, his looks could frighten the life from you if you met him on a dark night, but his behavior is just as Gabrielle says.”

“Well, that’s good to know. I should be ashamed for judging him on looks alone, but I suppose it was just a first impression. Now wait just a moment,” Cyrene stopped to say. She set the clay bowl upon the table and looked up at me.

“Did you say that you wonder why Xena went to Ambracia?” Cyrene asked.

“I thought an old friend had died,” Delia said.

“Yes, that’s what she said,” I replied. I placed a ball of dough into a bowl and covered it with a piece of cloth.

“You sound as though you don’t believe that,” Cyrene said.

“I don’t,” I answered, followed by light laughter. “Not for a moment.” Both women continued to stare at me, glancing away only once to exchange their own looks.

“I don’t mean to say that Xena’s off doing something she oughtn’t,” I quickly explained. “I’m certain it’s something regarding the Empire, or even something that she feels might be too dangerous for me to know about right now. She wouldn’t have fibbed to me unless there’d been a good reason.”

“I must say, child, you’re awfully…well, restrained about it,” Cyrene said. “If it was me, I would have tried to beat the truth out of her before she left.” We all chuckled, knowing that it was human nature to want to do so.

“I suppose I might have been tempted, but I’m certain that she’ll tell me in time.”

“You’re a trustworthy soul, Gabrielle,” Cyrene responded.

I smiled back at the woman who had become like a mother to me in the last fortnight. “Not with everyone…only Xena. She’s earned that trust.”

End Gabrielle’s Addendum
****
I had been poor company the last few days. I suppose the bright spot had been that neither Atrius nor Acasia were the type of men to care much for witty banter anyway. It preyed on my mind, the fact that I had deftly hidden the truth of my journey from Gabrielle. More simply put, I had lied to her. The act didn’t sit well with me.

I spoke to Atrius about that very thing as we sat around the campfire one evening. I made him privy to all that Acasia had done for me in this matter, every detail about what I knew of the child that I had suspected of being Gabrielle’s daughter.

Atrius rarely gave me advice, but since our relationship had become closer to friendship than ever before, I suppose he felt comfortable in sending a little wisdom my way. He spoke of a number of things, but I believe I’ll always remember his last few words.

“What would you do if it was yours…the child? What would you do to find it?” he asked.

“Anything,” I answered. “Anything it took.” I didn’t have to think long about my answer.

“Then I suppose anything is what you have to do.”

I took that to include lying to my wife. The ends justified the means, meaning…anything it took. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this might be the first time in my life where such a rationalization was actually true. All along, I had been pursuing this fool’s venture for Gabrielle. I loved her and this was important, or would be, to her. What mattered to Gabrielle affected me. It wasn’t direct, but simply because of my love for her. Now, it had become significant to me. This child mattered to me. Now, it was personal.

By the time we arrived at the Governor’s palace, I was hot, dusty, and tired. Perhaps that was why I had been in no mood at all for games. It had been bad luck for the first soldier we ran into at the palace.

“Who wants to know about the old healer?” the guard asked.

“The Conqueror!” I said as I stepped from the shadows of a nearby column. “Why? Is it a secret?”

“N-no, my apologies, Lord Conqueror,” his voice shook as he spoke. I realized he wasn’t quite bright enough to lie about the matter. “I have my orders. I mean, I was told by my Captain–”

“I get the picture,” I interrupted. “Take us to Lord Telamon.”

“Yes, Lord Conqueror. I believe he’s in his private rooms. I’ll send a runner for him right away.”

“No, I believe I’ll see him in his private chambers,” I answered. “Take us there…now.”

I can only believe that the soldier saw something in my eyes, something that caused him to immediately obey my order. I left our Royal Guard inside the gates of the palace, as Atrius, Acasia, and I made our way to Telamon’s private rooms.

“Lord Conqueror, I had no idea…no one told me of a Royal visit.” Telamon bustled about as he spoke.

He ushered us into what must have been his private study. I had not considered Telamon a man of letters, but his many shelves of scrolls and free parchments easily surpassed my collection. My appointed official out past the Pindus Range was short, but well muscled. His sandy colored hair grew out from his head like a lion’s thick, reddish mane. While I had kept many men on the Empire’s payroll who were not completely trustworthy, Telamon had always been one of the few. I had actually known him to be an honorable man. I suppose that was why it disappointed me so, the fact that he could have been involved in any illegal slave trade.

“This isn’t an official visit, Telamon,” I responded.

“Oh, I see,” he answered. An unofficial visit from one’s superior was never a good thing, and I could see that Telamon was just beginning to feel the impact of my answer.

“May I offer you good wishes on your recent marriage,” he said.

“Thank you. I’ll pass along your good wishes.” I rubbed my temples and sank into the nearest chair. “My head is killing me. It feels as though I got stomped by a full grown centaur.”

“Shall I obtain something for you, Lord Conqueror?” Atrius asked me.

“By all means, Lord Conqueror, please allow me to call the healer to fix a pain draught for you,” Telamon added. “I have an excellent man living within the palace walls.”

I perked up at his words. “Healer? You still have a healer here in the palace?” I admit that I had held out some little hope that we had been wrong, that Acasia had been misinformed in some way about the old healer. I wanted there to be a miracle, that somehow I could still find out if this girl belonged to Gabrielle.

“Why yes, you might remember him,” Telamon replied. “He treated an injury you suffered when we last did battle together. Your shoulder, I believe.”

“Oh, yes, I remember him. No, I don’t want that butcher near me. You had another man, skin like the men of the Land of the Pharaohs.”

An odd expression crossed his face. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but it was apparent that it came about because I had mentioned the old healer.

“Yes,” he answered slowly. “Artus.”

The name hit me like a lightning bolt. That was the name that Gabrielle had called me when she had been delirious with fever. Although it was odd that she had mistaken me for an elderly, dark-skinned man, there was no mistaking the name.

I sighed. “Telamon, I could play the cat and mouse game with you, enjoying myself while I give you just enough cord to hang yourself. I rather like toying with people that way or at least I did, but frankly, I haven’t the time or inclination at present. So, I suppose I must forgo my usual pleasure and get to the point. I happen to know you’ve been holding the healer, this Artus, here within the palace walls, and I want to know why.”

Telamon still hadn’t figured it out, but he now knew that my visit held a much larger purpose. It was obvious, by the expression on his face, that my purpose caused him some concern.

“I–I’m not exactly sure what you mean. I–”

I held up my hand and the man stopped speaking immediately. “Please, Telamon, don’t lie to me. You would be amazed at what I already know. Now…please, sit. Atrius, bring our friend a seat.”

Atrius pushed forward a chair and indicated that the Governor should sit.

“Now…where was I? Oh, yes. Now, Telamon, I’m going to make this as pain free as possible. I’m going to ask you a question and you’re going to answer it as truthfully as you know how. Do not insult me with weak lies that I already know aren’t the truth. Can you manage that?”

“Lord Conqueror, I still don’t know–”

“Oh, yes. Let me explain what happens if you lie, interrupt me, or generally do anything to upset me. Acasia?”

Acasia stepped forward and drew a long, thin knife such as the one I carried in my left boot. He said nothing, but by simply being there, he made for an intimidating presence. He twirled the blade within his hands.

“We’ll start with fingers. If you’re foolish enough to go through all of them, then we’ll move on to toes until we eventually work up to your most prized appendages. Understood?”

The man nodded quickly. Telamon was no weakling, but I’m certain that my voice was deadly earnest. Like many before him, he was now eager to tell me what he knew. Well, perhaps eager was the wrong word to use. Perhaps resigned might have been better, for he still tried to skip around the issue at hand.

“Now,” I began. “I want to hear the truth about why Artus was so recently moved into the palace.”

“Really, Lord Conqueror, I have no idea–”

I motioned to Acasia who took hold of Telamon’s hand, placing it flat on the desk before us. I certainly had no intention of cutting off the man’s fingers, but he didn’t know that. To those who knew me a few seasons back, it would have been the sort of thing I would have ordered.

“Wait a moment…just one moment!” Telamon cried out. His posture went from a tense nervousness to a jumpy fear. Now, he appeared to slump in his chair and he sighed deeply. “I don’t know why I should hide it from you, anyway,” he said.

“Hide what from me?” I asked.

“The children,” he replied.

His willingness to admit it all surprised me some. Why would a man go to such lengths to hide a trail from me, and then when confronted, confess all?

“You said children,” I prompted.

“You must understand, Conqueror, that it was only the children I thought of. It was only their welfare I was thinking of.”

“Are you insane?” I shouted out at him. “They needed this?”

“Well…surely you understand what having parents can do to children.”

“I don’t even believe I’m hearing this,” I said as I leaned back in my chair, stunned at the man’s callousness.

“Lord Conqueror,” Atrius called out from the other side of the room. He held unrolled scrolls in each hand, tossing one aside all of a sudden to quickly grab a new one.

“I have an odd feeling, Conqueror, that you and Telamon are not speaking of the same thing.”

“We’re not what?” I asked in surprise.

“I don’t think you’re talking about the same thing at all,” he replied.

“Were not–what in Hades’ name is going on here?”

“What are you talking about, Lord Conqueror?” Telamon asked.

“What in Hades’ name do you mean? I’ll ask the questions around here!” I shouted back like a cranky child. I didn’t like being in the dark and at this very moment, I felt as though I was sitting in an inkwell. “So,” I began. There was an extremely long pause and everyone stopped to stare at me. “Telamon, what are you talking about?”

“I…well…the adoptions?”

“Adoptions?” I asked. I had no earthly idea what the man was talking about, no clue at all. I looked over at Atrius and Acasia, who would have made excellent bookends with their identical shrugs and blank looks.

“All right, let’s start this conversation over, shall we?” I rubbed my face with one hand, realizing in the process that my headache had disappeared. “Telamon, I already know that you sold children to slavers. We–”

“No, My Lord, never!” Telamon cried out, rising to his feet. The strength of his denial surprised me.

“I have spent the last ten seasons finding homes for these children!” Telamon said.

I was not only confused, but rather stunned, as well. Such a silence hung within the room that I could hear the breathing of the men around me. “I–I…” I had no idea how to continue.

“My Lord, may I be allowed to ask who has made such an accusation against me?” Telamon asked. He was sincere. I heard it in his voice.

I sat there in continued silence for a few moments longer trying to figure out how I had made the leap to thinking Telamon a kidnapper, worse, a slaver. That’s when I realized just who Telamon’s accuser was.

“Um…I’m afraid that would be…me.”

“My Lord?”

“Let me be honest with you, Telamon…”

I told him everything then, what I knew and how I had found out about it. I wasn’t too often wrong about a man’s character and something told me that he had earned my trust. I told him about my wife, about Gabrielle’s past. He had never connected the pieces to realize that the Empire’s new Queen was the slave I had selected in this very palace. He listened intently as I explained about Gabrielle’s child and how a physician named Artus had helped her. Finally, I told him of the people who had the child, what they were like, and how Acasia had literally purchased the girl.

“Gods, forgive me. I try to place them in proper homes, but sometimes we get fooled. Lord Conqueror, I can honestly say that I feel our Queen’s pain. I lost my wife to illness when I was just a young man, but she left me with two fine sons. They were killed three seasons after I lost her. I felt responsible for their deaths because I had been away in some campaign or another when the Persians attacked our village. I promised the Gods that if I ever had the opportunity, I would find a way to be there for some child. I had been your Governor here for only a few seasons. That’s when Artus came to me.

“Between the wars and the pirates that sailed along this coast, we had more orphaned children than even the Empire could support. Artus usually petitioned my office for food, supplies, and money. I didn’t know him very well, actually. That sounds strange, I know, considering that we were partners for over ten seasons, but we remained strangers out of necessity.”

“Necessity?” I interrupted to ask.

“Lord Conqueror, the children that we found homes for were often thought dead by the men who fathered them. These men would have preferred that the children stay dead, if you know what I mean. There were a hundred reasons why, their religion, their wives, or simply the fact that they wanted to pass the female slaves, the mothers of these children, off as virgins when they sold them. More than once, one of these men came back looking when they heard a rumor that their bastard child was still alive. And it wasn’t to welcome the child into the bosom of their family.”

“So, you two distanced yourself from one another in order to keep nosy people from learning anything and passing it on,” I said.

“You would be surprised what people would do for a few pieces of silver. Neither Artus nor myself were in a hurry to meet up with any of these men.”

“Is that how Artus ended up in the palace?” I asked.

“That among other things. He had become ill, age and too much hard work most probably. He wasn’t a young man. There was also the fact that we had heard inquiries being made into the whereabouts of a certain pirate’s child. I knew Abdular was dead by your hand, but I thought that perhaps another family member had come to make some claim or worse, exact a sort of revenge. I realize now, from what you’ve said, that our fears were unfounded. It must have been your man that made my own spies nervous.”

I smiled. “Even the watcher has watchers, eh?”

“Something like that, Conqueror. Artus died almost a fortnight ago. Celeste came for him as he slept. After all he had done for this valley, he deserved to be taken in such a peaceful manner.”

“You have no idea how much I counted on seeing this Artus,” I said.

“I’m sorry, My Lord, but perhaps I could help,” Telamon offered.

“I appreciate your willingness to assist, and all that you’ve done over the seasons for these children. I’m afraid, though, that Artus was the only one privy to the knowledge I needed. Only he would know where Gabrielle’s baby ended up. You see, I wanted to know for sure if the child I have in my custody is actually Gabrielle’s daughter.”

The man smiled at me for a few moments before speaking. “Lord Conqueror, I believe I may be of some help after all,” Telamon said. He rose and raised both his arms, indicating the many shelves filled with scrolls. “You can plainly see that I have kept a detailed record of each child that we placed with a family.”

I sat there, unable to speak, looking at the shelves that surrounded us. I had thought the number of scrolls odd when I first entered the room, but I had no idea, at the time, what they contained.

“You can see,” Telamon explained as he lay unfurled a scroll on the desk before me, “That I have the name of the child, if the parent gave them one.”

“How do you have them organized…by name?”

“Oh no. I’m afraid there are too many to reference in any way with that information alone. Besides, many of the children came to us with no names, especially the babies. I have them categorized by region and approximate age of the child.”

“Acasia, what was the girl’s name?” I asked.

“I…uh…” The strained look on his face made it look as though I’d just asked him to explain the meaning of life.

“You mean to say you kidnapped the child and traveled with her for three days, but never asked her name?” It was almost amusing, the look Acasia graced me with.

“Forgive me, Conqueror, but I told you I wasn’t good with that sort of work.”

“Oh, all right, all right. Telamon, let’s try with region and time period alone.”

I gave him the necessary information and he searched through a couple of shelves before opening a scroll, perusing it, and setting it before me.

“If Artus did indeed have a hand in secreting that baby away, it would be on this scroll, Lord Conqueror,” Telamon said.

I searched the parchment for any familiar names in the scenario. It looked as though the mother’s name went first if she was known. Since Artus had been summoned by Abdular to see Gabrielle as a patient, I was fairly certain he would have known her name.

I read through the entire scroll. With a sigh, I went back to the beginning and started over once more just to be certain. My shoulders suddenly felt as though they bore a great weight. I’m not sure what I thought I would feel. I suppose I had expected to experience a certain relief if this happened.

I handed the open scroll to Atrius. “I don’t know whether to be pleased or sick,” I told my Captain.

“What do you think?” he asked me.

“Gabrielle never named her child. At least that’s the way she remembers it.” I sighed again, an action that was becoming second nature to me. “I suppose we should bring the scroll with us for proof. Telamon, I’ll return this parchment to you by way of a Royal messenger.”

“Of course, Lord Conqueror. Did you find the answers that you seek…about the Queen’s child?” he asked.

I took a moment before answering. “I’m not sure.”

“There is one last place you might look,” Telamon added. “Artus had a sort of cottage by the hospice. As a healer, he saw patients there. Perhaps he kept some sort of written record that I didn’t know about.”

Atrius and Acasia both looked at me and I nodded. “That sounds like an excellent suggestion. One last thing, Telamon. I did you a great disservice by suspecting you of wrongdoing. Know one thing. You won’t have to spend your own fortune on this any longer. I’ll see that a proper orphanage is set up and the money will come from the Empire’s coffers.”

“Many thanks for your generosity, Lord Conqueror. The rumors of your change are indeed true.”

“Change?” I asked. I knew of what he spoke, but I was curious to hear what people had said about me. Yes, it was vain, I know, but I was only human.

“They say that the Gods have blessed you and that you’re no longer the same woman.”

I chuckled at the thought. “And what do you say?”

“That they are right,” he said with a smile. “The Gods have certainly blessed you.”

The people always wanted to believe in their Gods. Well, let them have faith in what they would. I had been blessed, but my good fortune took the form of a beautiful blonde, who waited for me even now in Amphipolis.

****

We rode up to the small building to find it bustling with activity. The commotion surprised me considering there wasn’t a healer here any longer. We dismounted and, of course, caused some disturbance ourselves. Being the ruler of the Empire, I could not travel without a suitable number of guards and soldiers. I had learned from a good many seasons of experience that pulling an escapade such as Gabrielle had recently become famous for could eventually get a ruler killed. I had no wish to ever meet Hades because some farmer, disgruntled about the amount of his taxes, surprised me by sinking a pitchfork in my back. It would not only be an extremely painful way to die, but as a warrior, most humiliating.

We were met by an older woman, perhaps my mother’s age. She wore a modest gray skirt and blouse, her hair tied back with a scarf. I noticed she had a blue flame embroidered onto her apron. The blue flame was the traditional mark for a priest or priestess of Apollo. It made sense then that she and her sisters of that order would be working at a hospice.

“Lord Conqueror,” the woman addressed me.

Even with a squad of soldiers around me, I was a little surprised that she recognized me. I suppose I hadn’t much of a feel for how the people of the Empire thought of me, or even if they would recognize me walking down the road. My profile had been stamped across most of the coins we used on an everyday basis, but who really looks at those things anyway?

“Holy One,” I said. I used the form of address that the priestesses in Athena’s temple preferred.

She looked surprised, as if she hadn’t been afforded that measure of respect in some time. “We are honored by your presence,” she responded. “How may we serve you?”

“Do the Holy Ones of Apollo’s temple work here? I mean, have you been here long?” I asked.

“No, Lord Conqueror, to both of your questions. We have just recently come to assist, for the community’s sake. The healer took ill some time back and was moved to the palace. I understand it was because of his faithful service to the Empire that he was provided such comfort. He has only recently left our mortal world.”

“I see. There is a new healer here, then?”

“Yes, My Lord. At this moment, he is in town, purchasing some supplies. Our order will do our best to see that he receives enough help to get him on his way.”

“Many thanks for that. I promise to make an offering to Apollo’s temple in order to assist you and your sister priestesses.” I nodded to Atrius and as usual, he read my thoughts.

“I’ll make it so, Conqueror,” he said.

“I take it this new man didn’t know the previous healer, Artus?” I asked her.

“I cannot say, My Lord, for I have not yet met the man myself. He arrived only one day ago. I suspect not, however, since he traveled here from Athens.”

“I see. Holy One, I seek some information that the old healer may have had among his personal possessions. Do you know where he lived?”

“Yes, My Lord. There is a small cottage behind the hospice. The new healer has taken up residence there, but I suspect that he hasn’t had the time yet to dispose of Lord Artus’s personal items.”

“Then that is where we shall be. Many thanks, Holy One.”

She curtsied before me, a sign of respect for my office. Under Greek law, priests and priestesses, although they had to obey the laws, were considered to be of equal status with the ruler of the land. I figured that she was simply returning the same regard I had shown her.

Atrius stationed the soldiers loosely around the area so as not to disturb the locals. I took Atrius and Acasia with me and we began to examine the healer’s cottage. The place was no more than a room really. I guessed that the man had spent precious little time relaxing here. It had been arranged much as any other healer’s cottage with shelves filled with jars and parchments, herbs hung from the rafters to dry.

Atrius and Acasia were both men trained in their letters; so all three of us took up the search for any sort of records that Artus may have kept. The majority of the scrolls that we found were methods of healing scribed in many different hands. Apparently, he used them as instructions or tutorials on the healer’s craft.

“Just what in Hades’ name do you think you’re doing?”

The voice surprised all three of us, so intent had we been in our search. We turned quickly, all three of us drawing our weapons as the stranger approached.

“And just who are you?” I asked, once I realized the young man was unarmed. In fact, he took three strides backward upon seeing our blades, fear emblazoned on his face.

“I–I…I’m the healer and this is my house. Look, if you’re thieves I have nothing at all of value but my name.”

“And that would be?” I asked.

“A–Artus.”

“You lie!” Atrius barked. “The healer Artus died nearly a fortnight ago.”

It came to me in a flash. Before the young man even answered, I knew what he was going to say. My epiphany explained so much as the answers to one riddle fell neatly into place.

“Stand down, Atrius,” I said as I replaced my own sword in its scabbard. “I think what this young man would like to say is that his name is Artus also and the old healer was his father.”

“Do I know you?” the young man asked me.

“No, but I feel as though I already know you,” I responded.

He looked at me oddly. He was correct. We had never met. As I gazed at him, however, I could suddenly see how anyone might think us physically similar, especially a young woman delirious with fever. He was slightly taller than I was with long dark hair that fell just past his shoulders. His skin was not nearly as dark as his father’s, rather the same olive tone as my own. Gray almond shaped eyes told me that his mother had probably been from the East, perhaps Chin, Japa, or even the land of the Scythians.

Yes, now I could easily see how Gabrielle had seen this young man’s face in place of mine that day in the wagon. When I remembered her words, “Artus, please help me. I know you’re not like them,” I could see that this was the healer who had assisted her and not his father.

“Young man, you don’t know how happy I am to finally meet you,” I said.

****

“I’m not sure I understand, Conqueror,” Artus said as we rode along the path that would eventually lead us to Amphipolis. Flanked by Atrius, Acasia, and surrounded by nearly thirty soldiers, the young man didn’t look overjoyed at his current position.

“Tell me again why I’m being forc–”

My glare stopped him.

“Um, I mean, why I volunteered to go back to Amphipolis with you? I’m needed at the hospice.”

“I won’t keep you any longer than necessary, Artus, and when I send you back, I’ll donate enough help and money to your hospice to make the trip worth your while.” I hadn’t told him that I already left the priestess from Apollo’s temple with enough money to provide for the hospice for an entire season.

“I’m going to need your help in filling in some of the holes in this scenario. For some reason, Gabrielle doesn’t remember the day she gave you her child, and since you can’t remember the child’s name, I thought if we all put our heads together we might determine if this girl is truly Gabrielle’s daughter or not.”

He didn’t look much happier, but he was a nice enough fellow and so rode along in relative silence. I did, during evenings by the campfire, learn a great deal about the young man who had followed in his father’s footsteps. After his mother died, the old healer had sent him to train in Athens where the younger Artus decided to live. In fact, he had actually been working in a small village outside of Athens when Gabrielle and I rode into the city and did battle with the Persians not too long ago.

Artus admitted that he had helped a young woman, a slave to Abdular the pirate. He had been only fourteen at the time, but the girl’s desperate and passionate pleas broke his heart. He had been an apprentice to his father when the girl, not much older than himself, had paid him in gold and silver to rescue her child. He did exactly as promised, offering the majority of the money to the guard whose duty it had been to destroy the baby girl.

The disconcerting part to all of this was that Artus said that the child did indeed have a name. Even worse, he couldn’t remember what the young woman’s name was, but swore he would recognize her face if he saw her again. I promised him that I would put his oath to the test.

My confusion regarding the entire convoluted mess stemmed from Gabrielle’s memory of the incident. She told me the tale on two occasions, but the details from the day she had to give her baby up were sketchy, at best. I understood that some people preferred to forget painful details in their lives, but Gabrielle had recalled every other moment in her with such startling clarity. After Yu Pan, that is.

I suddenly thought of the day when Gabrielle challenged and fought Queen Melosa of the Amazons. Gabrielle had not remembered that she even possessed the necessary skills for hand-to-hand combat. To save her life, Yu Pan had temporarily restrained Gabrielle’s memories. It was a hypnosis of a sort, not meant to erase the hard to bear memories, but to assist Gabrielle in placing them in a safe place until she was strong enough to deal with them.

In that particular case, the memories were actually the knowledge of such skills that would have put Gabrielle in grave harm if she had displayed them as a slave. I wondered then what Yu Pan might have done in order to help Gabrielle over the apparent death of her child. He had spent quite some time with her the day she had told me about her child and Gabrielle had felt so much better afterwards. It looked like a visit to the healer would be a priority once we arrived in Amphipolis.

Unlike the rainfall we had experienced traveling west, the weather was on our side for the return trip. We arrived three days sooner than on the trip to Ambracia. I couldn’t wait to see my family and, of course, Gabrielle. To hold her in my arms seemed like such a glorious luxury and I promised myself that I would never again take it for granted. It rather surprised me, however, that I was actually looking forward to seeing friends and family. I couldn’t describe the feeling and I certainly didn’t understand it. I think it was simply one more of the many changes I had undergone for which would be eternally thankful.

I had asked Atrius to set up a private tent for Artus at our camp just outside the town. I also explained that even though Artus was on our side, I wanted someone to keep an unobtrusive eye on the young man. He was a gentle young man, but he seemed rather…I don’t know, rather like those creative types who acted without a wit of common sense half the time even though he meant well. I suppose I didn’t want him wandering off and, like Gabrielle, have trouble find him.
Chapter 8: There Is A Road That Turning Always…
“I missed you so much,” Gabrielle said with her arms wrapped tightly around my neck.

“You don’t know how good that is to hear, my love” I replied.

We stood toe to toe in our private room, although I believe Gabrielle’s feet barely touched the floor. She had fairly launched herself at me once we were alone, a good thing, too. She met our party, along with a few of the Amazons, our friends, and family, outside in front of the inn. We arrived late into the afternoon and by the reception we received, I felt as though we had been gone much longer than a fortnight. When Gabrielle met me, her reception was slightly reserved; one might even say cool. Instantly I worried. Had she found out about my deflection of the truth?

I needn’t have been so concerned. The very moment good manners allowed us to retire for the evening, Gabrielle had tugged on my hand, leading to our room. She left me breathless with her first kiss and proceeded to weaken my knees with further caresses.

“You know,” I began. “I was a little vexed when I first arrived and you acted so aloof.”

“My Conqueror, you worry much too much,” she replied, followed by her customary lilting laughter. “It’s all part of the new, mature me.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize that the old version needed improvement.”

“That’s sweet of you to lie like that, but you know as well as I do that I’ve looked a little less than regal lately.”

“It’s all part of your charm, love.”

“Well, thank you. I just thought that it might help if I looked a little less like a doopa.”

I laughed aloud at her verbiage. “I’m almost afraid to know. What, may I ask is a doopa?”

She laughed along with me. “It’s sort of my own word, I suppose. Sort of like, uh…a harebrain.”

“I see. Well, love, not that I would ever think you a harebrain or a doopa, I’m sure your personal guard welcomes the change.”

“Ephiny’s words exactly,” she said with a smirk. “Now, how about a warm bath to wash off all the road you brought back with you?”

“Excellent suggestion. Join me?” I asked with a hint of a smile.

“Even though scrubbing your back does happen to be one of my favorite past times, I’m going downstairs to fetch us some dinner. I’ll even bring you back some port. How does that sound?”

“Significantly more lonely, but I admit that I’m famished. All right, leave me if you must,” I said dramatically.

“Try not to perish before I return, My Conqueror,” Gabrielle added saucily. She hurried through the door, narrowly avoiding my slap in the direction of her backside.

****
I held Gabrielle in my arms, feeling that pleasant sensation that comes from lying between clean sheets, next to a beautiful woman, and feeling a little lightheaded from an extra mug of exceptional port. I had not forgotten about my recent journey, the young man in our camp outside of town, or that I had to discuss all of this with Gabrielle. It was simply that at that moment, I cared about nothing beyond the perimeter of our room. In fact, I wanted nothing to do with anything much further past the edge of our bed.

Gabrielle displayed a heartfelt affection that told me I was not the only one that had missed my lover. She placed delicate kisses on my neck and chest, wherever she could reach from where she lay with her head on my shoulder. Her fingers stroked my skin absently. Her naked skin brushing against mine was all that it took to cause a delightful wetness to begin between my legs. I was tired and slightly high from drink. I wasn’t drunk, though. I merely experienced that light, floating sensation that came from being warm, well fed, and touched in an extremely gentle and loving manner.

Gabrielle’s fingertips grazed my nipple and I let out an almost inaudible gasp as the skin there tightened. I could nearly feel the tip elongating, hardening in an attempt to follow the source of the pleasure. I thought I had been quite silent, but not so. Gabrielle heard my small gasp and leaned up on one elbow to look at me. After pushing aside the light sheet that covered the both of us, she appeared to concentrate more on gazing at my body rather than looking me in the eye.

I had no complaints, however. The look in her eye simply increased the level of my own arousal. Frankly, with Gabrielle, I had been used to an excitement that quickly swept me into a passionate frenzy. Usually I was so intent on reaching that point of heart stopping physical release that I occasionally lost focus, my mind ending up in some sort of sexual haze. The feelings I experienced just then were different than in the past. It may have been due to the drink I consumed, but I doubted that alone was the cause. For the first time in my life, I was able to relax. Not just to relax my body, but my mind, as well. What I felt under Gabrielle’s tender, yet erotic, ministrations became soothing and decidedly arousing at the same time. I could feel that small part of my libido, which the beast controlled, easing back. It was as if Gabrielle’s gentling touch tamed the very beast within my physical body.

Gabrielle continued to touch me, only letting her fingertips lightly traverse my quickly warming flesh. She leaned down and placed the lightest of kisses upon one breast, then leaned in again and surrounded the nipple within the warm wetness of her tongue.

I moaned quietly and when she raised her head again, I placed the palm of my hand behind her head, indicating with a gentle pressure that I wanted more. She gave me what I desired, softly licking, and sucking each breast. She made a noise of contentment and when she rose up on one elbow once more, I smiled at her through half closed eyes.

“Like that, do you?” I teased her over the sounds of pleasure she had made.

She smiled back at me. “I believe the question should be, do you?” She didn’t wait for an answer before she returned to her caresses.

“Oh, Gods, yes!” I cried out when she took my nipple between her teeth and increased the pressure. She continued to nip at my skin as she positioned herself over me, straddling my body. They weren’t sharp bites, meant to cause pain, but rather pressure, merely to cause me to feel.

She sat up and ground herself against me, sliding down my belly until our mounds came together. We both moaned at the feel of our combined wetness. Unconsciously my hand went to the small of her back and pulled her down for a fiery kiss, lifting my hips at the same time to increase the pressure there.

She pulled away from the kiss, each of us quite breathless. She whispered only one word. “Slowly,” she breathed into my ear. She then sat up again and reached for my breasts, gathering their fullness within her two hands. She changed direction, bent down, and kissed me, just as her fingers pinched and rolled my nipples.

I groaned into her kiss, experiencing a small orgasm from that action alone.

She moved once more and it felt as though she was sliding down my body as effortlessly as liquid along my skin. There was nothing quick or explosive about this seduction. It was making love in every sense of the word, all emotion and smoothness, sensations and quiet intensity. I did not beg for my release, nor push myself to that goal. For once, I enjoyed the journey as well as the final destination. I allowed myself to float along on the passionate cloud that Gabrielle not only created, but controlled.

I pressed the back of my head into the pillow and sighed with a shiver as I felt Gabrielle’s mouth on my sex. She had pressed her palms against the inside of my thighs, gently encouraging my legs to open fully to her. I denied her nothing and no part of me. She rewarded me with a new pressure point.

Her hand encircled my thigh and I felt her fingers press sharply into the space somewhere on the back of my leg where my thigh and backside met. I briefly wondered how a pressure point would react with this slow, floating type of sensation I currently experienced. It took the tic of an eye to discover what this new pressure point would do. Suddenly, I felt a fullness within my lower belly. As illumination dawned, I realized exactly what I felt.

Gabrielle’s tongue began a warm exploration of my folds, just the tip of her tongue occasionally rolling across my clit. I breathed in sharply, a combination of surprise and ecstasy. The fullness inside of me felt as though she had penetrated me with her entire hand. There was none of the pleasurable pain involved only the sensation of being filled. Soon, I could feel the pulling and pushing motion, just as though she was using our favorite phallus-like toy inside of me.

I tried to rise up slightly to look down at Gabrielle. I needed to see for myself. Yes, she still had one hand around my thigh, the other reaching up to tease my breast. Her tongue lapped insistently against my increasingly wet sex, and still I felt the imaginary penetration.

I fell back upon the bed in pure rapture. “Oh, Gods…Gabrielle!”

She paused and raised her head. “Are you all right with this, Xena?”

“Yes, yes…Gods, yes.”

“I’ll take that as a yes,” she teased. “How does it feel?”

It took my brain a long moment to convince my tongue to react to the question and verbalize an answer. “Incredible,” I answered. “Just incredible. It feels like…Gods, it feels like you’re fucking me.”

I could imagine her smiling up at me. She often shook her head at my vulgar language, but in this instance, she said nothing about my choice of words. Instead, she answered me in a most erotic voice, low and purring.

“And so I am, love. With my mouth…”

I could suddenly feel my passion rising.

“My tongue…”

She flicked her tongue across that most sensitive spot. The edge of the precipice neared and my hips kept up with the imagined penetration.

“My body…”

I heard her words as though standing behind a waterfall. A sound like rushing water filled my ears and a curtain of wetness surrounded me.

“My mind…”

An indescribable heat attacked my belly, swirling just as my hips ground themselves against Gabrielle’s tongue. The heat was so intense that I actually felt my body backing away from it instead of rushing toward it.

“But what you feel now, my love is me…making love to you with my heart.”

I felt the deepest penetration yet, and the breath caught in my throat. I felt as though I had caught on fire from the inside out. I cried out again and again as one orgasm quickly blended into another. By the time Gabrielle released the pressure point, my sex was drenched, my body trembled with pleasure, and I couldn’t seem to choose whether I should be laughing or crying. I ultimately chose both.

“Gods above!” I kept repeating.

I never even felt Gabrielle rise and move up next to me. I suppose I must have blacked out, for the next thing I became aware of was Gabrielle holding me in her arms. I was floating again, but this time it wasn’t a part of any seduction. It was a reaction to Gabrielle holding me, sensing that I was safe and protected in her arms.

Gabrielle stroked my hair with one hand and rubbed small circles against my back with the other. From behind a veil of fatigue, I heard murmured words that comforted me…love…mine…forever.

“Sleep, My Conqueror,” she said.

And, so I did.

****

I woke to the sight of Gabrielle sitting by the window. She leaned toward the open casement, one elbow propped upon the sill and her chin resting in her cupped hand. Her other hand reached out the opening toward the tree that came so close to the outside wall that its branches came right up to our window. Her other hand reached out and I watched, my arms wrapped contentedly around a pillow, as a large native squirrel hesitantly crept along the edge. Slowly he moved toward the tidbit of bread that Gabrielle held in her outstretched fingers. The animal appeared frightened and nervous, but still he moved close. Finally, braving all, he plucked the morsel from her hands, scampering off with his prize.

“How do you do that?” I asked sleepily.

Startled by my voice, Gabrielle’s head turned quickly. She smiled at me, a look that rivaled Apollo’s sun. “Do what?” she asked in reply.

“Tame a wild beast to eat from your hand.” I think we both knew that I hadn’t really referred to the animal outside, but the one that resided within my own psyche.

“I don’t know, but it’s a wonderful feeling. Perhaps it was ready for a little human kindness or grew weary of its own kind. Maybe it was just hungry.”

“Most probably all three,” I added. I thought of my own reasoning and all three explanations certainly did apply. “Come here, you.”

She slipped between the sheets and I spooned my body around hers. “It was pretty indescribable…last night.”

“I’m glad you approve,” she replied.

“I know this is going to sound quite absurd, but I’m actually sore. Not in a bad way, but…you know, the sort of aching reminder of what a pleasant night we had. The silly thing is, I’m sore in a spot where penetration didn’t actually happen.”

“But, in your mind it did. The nerves that were affected sent a message to your brain and your muscles literally responded as though the physical part was real. Was it really pleasant, Xena?”

“Do you truly need to ask? Then let me answer in detail. Yes, love, it was far beyond anything I expected, anticipated, or even about which I’ve dreamt. Tell me, how many more surprises do you have there in your pleasurable arsenal?”

She smiled coyly. “Enough to last us a lifetime, my Conqueror.”

We heard a light rap on the door and Gabrielle started to rise, but I held her back with a gentle touch to her shoulder.

“Come in, ” I said.

“Xena! We’re not–”

The door opened and Gabrielle dove under the sheet. I admit, it was shameless of me, but there were times when I simply did things to see a person’s reaction. Gabrielle had not tamed the Conqueror too much for that. I even enjoyed such innocent actions as a way of teasing Gabrielle. I was constantly amazed that a woman who had lived her life as a body slave could get so embarrassed over something as natural as being found in bed with her legally wed spouse. As I said, to poke fun in such a manner was shameless, but it did make me smile.

“Morning meal is served,” Selene said as she smiled brightly at me and walked into the room carrying a tray laden with a teapot and some morning pastries.

She looked like another person altogether, with her cheerful disposition, something we had seen precious little of until just recently. She didn’t blink an eye at the fact that Gabrielle and I were still in bed or that, quite obviously, I wore nothing but a smile.

“Morning, Xena and…” She cocked her head at the slightly quivering mound of sheets that was my wife. “Um…Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle popped her head out, pulling the sheet up to just under her chin. “Good Morning. Thanks for bringing that up. You didn’t have to.”

“Well, I figured you two might want to just relax and…um, you know…talk, since you haven’t seen each other in a while.”

“Those pastries look great,” I said.

“Gabrielle helped mom and Delia,” Selene responded.

“Did she now,” I answered, looking down at Gabrielle.

“Don’t be fooled. I think I helped the most by staying out of their way,” Gabrielle added with laughter.

“Xena, I can read almost the whole first learner’s scroll,” Selene said. She looked fairly bursting with happiness. The learner’s scrolls were a series of parchments that taught youngsters how to read. I had no idea where Gabrielle got her hands on a set out here.

“Outstanding! See, I knew you could do it.”

“Yes, she’s doing extremely well,” Gabrielle responded. I noticed she suddenly looked uncomfortable.

“I feel like I’m learning a lot,” Selene said

“Well, Gabrielle is a superb teacher,” I responded.

“Oh, Gabrielle hasn’t been tutoring me.”

“Oh?” I questioned as I looked down at Gabrielle’s suddenly fidgety form.

“What does it really matter who tutors who as long as Selene is doing so well,” Gabrielle said.

“And who is this amazing teacher?”

“Ephiny,” Selene replied. “You know,” she added due to my silence. “The Amazon Captain.”

“I see.” I forced a smile on my face for Selene’s benefit. “It’s wonderful news.”

“Thanks. Well, I better go and leave you two to…uh, have your tea,” she finished, her cheeks tinged with pink over thoughts of what we might do after she’d left the room.

“Gabrielle,” I drawled once Selene had left.

“Now, Xena. She and Ephiny get along so well, and Ephiny’s really a patient teacher.”

“Yea, I’m just afraid letters may not be all she’s teaching.”

Gabrielle rose and put on her dressing gown as I did the same. She poured two steaming mugs of tea and placed one before me at the table. “For one thing, Ephiny would never disrespect you or me by doing that. I think you already know that. For another, it’s all been very innocent. They’ve studied every evening at the table in the kitchen in plain sight of your mother. She and Delia are both being very protective of Selene.”

It seemed as if they had me outnumbered and already outvoted. I did the only thing the Conqueror could do under such dire circumstances. I pouted.

“You’re so cute when you do that,” Gabrielle said.

“I’m a warrior, Gabrielle. Please don’t call me cute.”

Gabrielle stood up and laughed. As usual, when she laughed, I couldn’t manage to keep a straight face. I smiled just to see her happiness.

“Still love me?” Gabrielle asked.

“Always. I think I just want to be in a mood for a while longer.” Childish behavior, yes, but it was all I had to make me feel good just then.

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around my shoulders from behind and kissed my neck. “Well, you just go ahead in be in your little mood, my Conqueror.”

She turned away after another kiss, still chuckling over my behavior.

“Hey,” I grabbed her hand and physically pulled her back toward me. “Thanks,” I said before placing a tender kiss in the palm of her hand.

Sometimes I could be such a child and I knew it, too. Deep down, I knew what Gabrielle said was true. Ephiny would never disrespect her Queen, or a friend, by taking advantage of my younger sister. My much younger sister; I planned to remind the Amazon. It was all just conjecture at this point, anyway. I broke my morning fast with Gabrielle and prepared for the day thinking that perhaps I had actually imagined the Amazon’s intentions.

It was some time later in the day when I eventually made my way to Yu Pan’s room.

“Tong zhi zhe,” he addressed me when he opened the door.

“Master Yu Pan, good day,” I replied as I bowed.

“Please enter, friend.”

I walked into a room that I barely recognized as belonging to my mother’s inn. Yu Pan was a man with no vices, of which I knew, anyway. The closest thing to one was that he felt an important need to surround himself with pieces of home when he traveled. He had once told me that he never journeyed far from home, even though he had crossed the known world many times over.

The spacious room that I entered looked much like the rooms that Yu Pan occupied back in the castle in Corinth. Long silk tapestries covered the walls and the same material had been thrown over the bed. The customary table and chairs had been removed and Yu Pan’s many large cushions covered the floor close to the fireplace. Incense rose into the air from a miniature makeshift altar set upon a reed mat. Oddly enough, Yu Pan had already poured tea. I looked down and saw steam rising from the two clay cups, fashioned with the same design as the teapot.

“I’m sorry, you’re expecting company,” I said. “I can–”

“Indeed, and you are right on time.”

I arched an eyebrow in his direction. “I don’t even want to know how you do that, do I?”

“Perhaps some things are best left as elusive mysteries,” he replied. “Please, shall we sit?”

“I think I need to.”

Once seated Yu Pan took a sip of his tea and my brain tried to formulate some sort of plan as to what I even wanted from the man. As usual, he anticipated my thoughts.

“You wish to speak of a difficult subject?” he asked, but I suspected that he already knew that.

“I do, Master Yu Pan. I’m not even sure what I want to ask you.”

“About Gabrielle?”

I smiled. “How is it that you can read my mind so well?”

I saw amusement in his eyes, but there was only the slightest twitch of his lips to indicate that he smiled at all.

“There are no mind tricks involved, only simply logic and deduction. It is no secret, Conqueror, that Gabrielle is always close to your heart and your concern for her is placed above all.”

“I guess that’s so. Master, I need to know something about Gabrielle’s past, but I don’t want it to sound as though I’m accusing you of anything.”

“There is no fear of that. Please, ask what you will.”

“It’s a long tale and I’ve not a great deal of time to tell it,” I began. I related a most abbreviated version of my tale. I told Yu Pan about my discovery of the child I suspected of belonging to Gabrielle and all the details regarding my journey to rescue and obtain the girl.

“So you see, I fear I’ll never know if the child belongs to Gabrielle or not.”

“And what would you have me do for you…what part do you envision me playing in order to assist?”

“If only she could tell us more…specifically, if she named the child, we have records that might help us, but…”

“She has no memory of that day,” Yu Pan said.

“That’s right,” I answered slowly. “I wondered…you see…I mean, I know that you…”

“Xena, ask of me what you have come here to learn.”

I sighed. Hoping I wasn’t about to ruin a friendship with my own curious and suspicious nature. I had already accused one man falsely and didn’t want to repeat the same mistake I had made with Telamon. I nervously licked my lips before answering. “Did you alter Gabrielle’s memory of that day?”

“It was I, Conqueror. Forgive me, but it was the only way.”

“Does she realize? I mean, did she know you did such a thing?”

“At the time, yes. She no longer has any memory of the day we speak of, at least not in any detail, nor does she remember the moment that I hid it from her conscious mind.”

“Hid it?” I asked.

“It is never a good thing to erase the past from one’s mind. We must be able to see the past in order to know ourselves. On the same day that I helped Gabrielle to accept and deal with the memories of the entire incident over her child, I realized that even I could not ease Gabrielle’s suffering over that final day, the day on which she gave the baby up. It was with great sadness that I offered my nuér the only alternative that would help her. It was the only cure I had left.”

Yu Pan stopped to refill the pipe that had always been his constant companion. He relit the fresh tobacco with a brazier from the fire under the teakettle and slowly sucked on the long tapered mouthpiece. “You disagree with my actions. I can see it in your eyes.”

“I think…I’m actually a little surprised is all. It’s not like you, of all people, to play with a person’s mind lightly.”

“Lightly?” Yu Pan’s eyes narrowed and I believe it was the one and only time, even in seasons to come, I had ever seen the man anything close to angry. Then again, this was Gabrielle and she was as much a daughter to him as if she had been born of his blood.

He lowered his head and breathed in deeply, the pipe in his right hand forgotten. “I believed at the time that it was the only choice to be had. I felt…Xena, her pain was so great that I truly feared she would do harm to herself over her guilt. It was because of that powerful and frightening feeling that I granted her wish.”

“That’s when she asked you to hide it…the memory?”

“She no longer wished to remember that day, but she was adamant that I not touch her memories over the incident as a whole. She could not stand the pain of her own guilt, even though she always wanted to remember that she had a child, alive or dead.”

“How does one go about hiding a memory?”

“It is not very complicated. Actually, when one wishes to forget, to find relief from the grief of a painful memory, it is quite easy. My nuér’s past is safely hidden away, but ready to be remembered with one uttered phrase.”

To say that I pondered the old man’s words would have been an enormous understatement. Thoughts rushed through my mind, as though I raced along at a breakneck speed atop Tenorio’s back. I hadn’t the time to examine them all, but there they were, hurrying past in a tangled mass of emotions.

The thought that hit me with enough force to double me over was that Yu Pan had felt Gabrielle capable of doing harm to herself, killing herself. Had I been blind? Had I somehow missed the magnitude of Gabrielle’s situation? Had she been in so much agony that she had been ready to end her mortal life? I was suddenly at a loss as to how to proceed.

“Is it so important…that you know whether the child is truly of Gabrielle’s body? Could either of you love a child less who was born of another, yet loved as your own?”

His thoughtful question brought me up short, just as many of the old Healer’s remarks had always done. He merely had the ability to look at a situation from a different perspective than the rest of us did.

“I’m not sure how to answer,” I replied. “I mean, I suppose the answer would be no, of course. I look at the extended family, which Gabrielle and I have developed, and I realize what you’re saying. My mother deeply loves Gabrielle. In such a short time, she looks at her as a daughter of her heart. In the same way, I see that you have been more of a father to her than any other in her life. There are only a few who care for her the way in which you do.”

“And yet you seem adamant about discovering the child’s true identity.”

“For Gabrielle. I think it would mean so much to her. I only want to give her what was taken from her…to please her.” I could think of no other answer or explanation. Did I really want Gabrielle to remember the day of her greatest pain and suffering?

Before I could agonize further, Yu Pan seized the decision from my grasp with his next remark. He looked at something far off in the distance of his own mind, for his eyes never landed upon me as he spoke. His features filled with something akin to distraction.

“It would seem that it is time for Gabrielle to remember,” he said.

****
I didn’t want to simply walk in and hit Gabrielle with all of this. Not only would it be embarrassing for her, but she might also consider it even more painful should others know of her secret. Because of this, I decided to bring only Yu Pan and Artus with me to speak with Gabrielle. Actually, I only wanted Artus to look at Gabrielle to see if he remembered her face, or that perhaps seeing her would jog his memory for a child’s name. After that, I would dismiss him for privacy’s sake.

Yu Pan suggested that I actually speak with Gabrielle privately before we began, to give her a chance to decline any of it. It had never really occurred to me that Gabrielle might not want to go through this. Suddenly a thought slipped into my conscious mind. Who had I been doing this for all along?

“I’m getting a little worried, Xena,” Gabrielle said.

Her voice pulled me from my introspection before I even had time to examine that last thought in any further detail. That last question still echoed in my head.

“Oh, no, love, it’s nothing bad. Nothing like that.”

She let out a sigh and placed her palm on her chest. “I was beginning to think–”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s actually rather good news…in a manner of speaking.”

“Good news? How can good news be ‘in a manner of speaking’?” Gabrielle paused and then chuckled. “Xena, for someone who has good news to spread, you’re pacing the floor a good deal.”

I stopped and looked down at my feet. I had indeed been pacing back and forth. It was something I only did when I was nervous, couldn’t make up a good lie fast enough, or when simply trying to put my random thoughts into some sort of a coherent arrangement.

“Well, it’s only that–I thought it was a good thing, but things have become so jumbled, and I just don’t know whether I’m doing the right thing anymore.” I sat down beside her, dejected and tired. I suddenly had no idea if this was a good idea, let alone if it was the right thing.

“All right, you’re making me worry again,” Gabrielle said as she laid a hand on my back.

“Please don’t, little one. My brain is just trying to put my thoughts into some sort of order. I just don’t want to blurt it out to you, I want to discuss, maybe give you details of–”

“Xena, blurt it out, okay? You’re making both of us so stressed that we won’t even be able to enjoy our good news. Even if–”

“Gabrielle, since before we left Corinth, I’ve been searching for your child, your little girl.”

She just sat there and stared at me. Her eyes blinked once or twice, but otherwise she was still, hands resting motionless in her lap.

“I…I don’t understand,” she said. “I– I–” She looked at me as if she couldn’t remember my name.

Gods above! I look back in my memory as I write this and realize what a fool I was. I was Xena, the Conqueror! I was articulate, intelligent, and, by that time, had become somewhat compassionate. I should have been comforting Gabrielle, gently leading up to that moment of revelation. Instead, I acted like some witless…what was that word Gabrielle always used? Yes! Doopa!

“S–Say that again,” Gabrielle said.

“Which part?”

“All of it, I suppose.”

“Gods, I know this is coming out badly, but–” I took a deep breath, determined to begin again. “Gabrielle, the day you told me about your child, I began to do what I could to see if perhaps the Fates had allowed her to live.”

“You did what?”

“Yes, I know. I had a feeling you might be angry about me going behind your back.” I could tell by the strange look on her face that I was in trouble. “But really it’s all been for you, love. I couldn’t stand to see you so miserable, not knowing what happened. It took quite a bit of intrigue and a bit of money, but…well, I only did it because I love you.”

She looked out of the window for a quick moment. When she faced me again, I could see a sadness there, but she almost smiled. “I knew something odd was going on. Acasia always showing up and those silly riddles you talked in to hide what you were really saying, and I just knew you weren’t telling me why you really went to Ambracia.”

“You did? How did–” I closed my mouth in mid sentence. This was getting off the path and I decided I would come back to it later.

“Xena,” she began as she took one of my hands in her own. I could see that she was on the verge of tears, but handling it all much better than I ever thought she would. “You searched…spent money and time…for me?”

“Of course, love. Don’t you know that when you hurt, I hurt and when you’re happy, I feel as though I could do anything in this world. I guess I want you to be happy more than anything else in this world. I had a feeling finding out about this would give you a sort of…I don’t know, maybe closure. So, you wouldn’t think you failed in that part of your life.”

She threw her arms around my neck, which I hadn’t really expected. I had actually anticipated something emotional, but more in the way of anger. Wouldn’t I have grown cross if Gabrielle had planned some aspect of my life without my consent? I was thoroughly confused now, but I held to her tightly. That was when I realized what had struck me as the oddest part of the whole scenario. I just told Gabrielle that, essentially, I had found her daughter, the one she thought dead all these seasons, and so far, she remained silent about the child.

Of course! Yu Pan had told me that Gabrielle remembered this incident from her past as though it had happened to someone else or ages ago. It was the only way that her mind could deal with the trauma. Yu Pan had only erased from Gabrielle’s memory the specific day that she had been forced to place the child into the waiting arms of one of Abdular’s soldiers.

“Gabrielle?” I gently disentangled her arms from my neck. “Do you want to know about the child?” I asked and hoped it wasn’t tactless or inappropriate of me to draw her attention back to the focus of our talk.

“I was…too scared to ask. I think I’m afraid to know, Xena.”

Tears slowly fell down Gabrielle’s cheeks and I pulled her into my embrace. Her sobs were silent, but I felt the strain and release of her muscles. Perhaps Yu Pan’s hypnosis had worked on the surface, but on some deeper level, the pain still existed for Gabrielle.

“It’s all right, love. Gabrielle, listen to me. I found her. I mean, I think I found her. Well, I hope it’s her. I think your daughter is alive.” I kissed and petted her until I could feel her body respond to my words.

“You found her?” she asked, wiping the back of her hand across her tear stained face.

“I think…maybe…”

“Oh, Xena!” Once more, she grabbed me in a vise-like embrace. She began to cry again, but this time, I felt no pain associated with her tears.

“You just think you know?” she asked as she suddenly pulled out of the embrace.

“Well, that’s where this whole thing gets a little mucky.” I indicated that we should move over to the more comfortable chairs in the middle of the room. I then began my tale. I told Gabrielle of everything I had accomplished with Acasia’s help.

“You managed all of this with only Acasia?” she asked.

“Um…and Atrius.”

She continued to stare at me in silence.

“Ephiny.”

“Yes?” she finally said.

“Um…mother pretty much knows, too. Oh, okay, I’m sure almost everyone knows by now. I’m sorry.”

She slid her hand within my own and squeezed, as a smile crossed her face. “Go on. Tell me more.”

I stopped my story at the point before we had met the younger Artus in Ambracia. Actually, I never really admitted as to precisely what I had seen in those scrolls of Telamon’s.

“So, we really have no way of knowing if this little girl is mine.”

“Would that matter a great deal, love? I’m not saying that I don’t want to know for certain, or that you should ever give up wanting to know, but–”

“There’s a little girl in the Amazon village who has no one,” she finished for me. “And, she deserves a family.”

“That’s rather what I was thinking.” My answer came without any forethought. If I had taken the time to evaluate my response, I would have realized why Gabrielle looked so surprised.

“Really?”

Actually, she sounded more than surprised and I understood why. I was certain that I had never made an impression upon anyone as a family oriented woman, especially when it came to starting a family of my own. Gabrielle and I had skirted around the issue of starting a family a great deal, but we had never actually spoken of it at any length. She prayed to Athena daily for a child sired of us both, and, due to my more practical nature, I felt rather assured that it was never going to happen.

“I know that surprises you, and you don’t have to look embarrassed,” I said as her cheeks turned pink and her eyes gravitated toward the floor. “I’ve come to some conclusions during this trip. Seeing mother again, Selene, and Cor. Just watching the way we all get along with one another and the huge family we’ve become. I can see now the deep relationships that exist between me and Delia, Atrius, you and Yu Pan. Gabrielle, it’s made me want that for us. Our own family.”

“I knew you would feel that way someday,” she said with a smile.

“Oh you did, did you?”

“Well…I hoped. Besides, I knew you’d make a wonderful mother.”

“Ahh, I see.” I reached over and kissed her forehead. “I’m glad you’re so certain because just the thought really scares the Tartarus out of me.”

“So, we’ve sort of decided that it doesn’t matter who she really is…she’ll be ours?”

“I guess so.” Suddenly, my stomach didn’t feel at all well. I knew it would pass, but at that moment, what we were about to do felt incredibly frightening.

“Is she–wait a moment. I can’t keep saying she. What’s her name?”

“That’s more trickiness,” I answered. “Gabrielle, did you name your child…before you gave–before that day?”

“No, I didn’t,” she answered. Her eyes squinted as though trying hard to see something in the distance. “I…I don’t think I did.”

“You don’t think so?”

“I–I…Xena, I don’t remember. How could I not remember something as important as that?”

“It’s all right, really,” I tried to assure her. I heard the rising panic in her voice. “Master Yu Pan told me that you couldn’t remember that day.”

“Master Yu Pan knows? But, how would he–did he do something to me?” she asked in confusion.

“You asked him to, love. You just don’t remember because he hid all reference to it from your conscious mind.”

“Because of the pain I was in.” She seemed to have a vague memory of why, at least, she would have asked her mentor to do such a thing.

“Yes, love, but it seems as if it can be reversed. He told me that anything that can be hidden could be made visible again.”

I briefly wondered if I should say anything about why Yu Pan had decided to accommodate Gabrielle’s wishes at that time. As I said, it was merely a brief thought. I quickly dismissed it at a terrible idea. Such emotions seemed a private thing between Gabrielle and Yu Pan. Perhaps someday, I would tell her, but not now. She didn’t need the stress when everything was so raw and tender.

“He felt that you were in a terrible way,” I continued. “When you asked him if there was a way, he gave in and performed one of his…I don’t know what to call it…healings?”

“I suppose that’s close enough. So, do we never find out her name…was it changed?”

“I’m afraid we all neglected to get her name. I don’t know if it was changed, but Ephiny sent riders to the village to find out, but we’re talking a matter of days before they get back here. If her name was changed, then that information does us no good, anyway. I do have an alternative, however.”

“Which is?”

“They kept very detailed records of these adoptions. The scrolls I read had the mother’s name, when it was available. Gabrielle, your name wasn’t on the scroll and it should have been if this girl is yours. Unfortunately, three women had babies saved on the day we guessed that this all happened. Two of them were marked simply as slaves. The only way to find out if you’re the mother is to…to know what you named her.”

She looked at me and read my thoughts. Without us exchanging another word, Gabrielle’s face took on a look of stalwart determination.

“It’s time for me to remember. Isn’t it?”
Chapter 30: Out Of The Night That Covers Me…
“Yes, yes. That’s her.” Artus’s voice rang clearly throughout Yu Pan’s room.

The old Chin master sat on the floor with Gabrielle, holding her hands. They had spoken in hushed tones, presumably of things that had gone on previously between them. I had stepped backward, leaving them to have their moment of privacy. Eventually, I simply left the room to go in search of Atrius.

Upon my return, I found that Gabrielle still sat with Yu Pan. Her eyes red and swollen, the site caused an unseen band of steel to constrict around my chest. I wondered if he had found the strength to do what I could not, tell her the reason that he had hidden her memories. It would have been like him to do so. Always mindful of Gabrielle’s welfare, I could still picture him trying to be as honest and straightforward with her as he always had been in the past. Yu Pan had a no-nonsense, matter of fact way of looking at life that Gabrielle had acquired from their time spent together as student and teacher.

Atrius had delivered Artus to me from our soldiers’ camp outside of Amphipolis, and the moment the young healer entered the room, he recognized Gabrielle.

“Forgive me, Your Highness,” he quickly remembered Gabrielle’s current station in life.

“I–” she looked at me in confusion.

“I’m sorry, love,” I said as I quickly crossed the room and knelt to take her hand. “This,” I turned toward Artus, “Is the young man who helped you…that day. I’ve asked him to assist us.”

“I see.” Gabrielle stood and brushed the wrinkles from the simple skirt that she wore. She stood before Artus and I could see that there was not one shred of recognition within her emerald gaze. “I’m sorry, but at the moment, I seem to be lacking the necessary memories to remember you.”

“Not a problem,” he held out his hand, which Gabrielle graciously took. “I remember you, though. It may be five summers now, but you are unchanged. As beautiful a woman as you were a girl.”

“You flatter me. Tell me, if you remember me, do you remember my baby?” Gabrielle got right to the point and I couldn’t blame her. She suddenly looked tired and frightened all at once. It was no wonder. She had been through quite an emotional upheaval in an extremely short time.

“I do, Your Highness. I took your child as you asked and with my father’s help, we hid her until we could place her with a family in the region. Curse my own memory for not remembering her name. I think you named her yourself. It’s been so long, but if it helps at all, she lived on that day and did not perish.”

Tears filled Gabrielle’s eyes and I couldn’t keep from stepping up behind her and laying my hands upon her shoulders. She looked back before leaning against me and I could almost feel her gaining some little strength from my presence.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “And, to you,” she said to Artus. “I owe you a debt that can not easily be repaid.”

Artus bowed his head, but remained silent. Gabrielle pulled away from me and turned back to where Yu Pan still rested upon a cushion on the floor.

“I think the time has come, Master,” she said.

“No,” I said. Three sets of eyes stared at me.

“What do you mean, no?” Gabrielle asked.

“You don’t have to do this, my love.” I had no idea what I was doing, but in my head, I knew exactly what I meant and what I wanted to say. Unfortunately, those thoughts weren’t translating very well at that moment. I took one deep breath to steady myself and looked from Gabrielle to Yu Pan.

“Gabrielle, haven’t we already decided that it truly doesn’t matter? You said yourself that we would take the girl as our own. I don’t mean to sound callous or unfeeling in any way, but does it matter so much if she’s your blood or not?”

“Xena,” Gabrielle said through a half smile. “It doesn’t matter one bit and I don’t think you sound unfeeling at all.”

“Then let’s not do this,” I replied.

“I don’t understand. You’ve worked and planned this for moons. Now, when we’re so close to discovering the truth, you want to give up?”

“Perhaps, in this instance, failure would be a less painful alternative,” I mumbled.

She drew close to me and took both of my hands within her own much smaller ones. I couldn’t hide the cold clamminess of my skin or the way my hands trembled.

“What are you afraid of, Xena?” she asked soberly.

“Seeing you in pain.” I self-consciously looked around at the others in the room. Artus pretended to stare at the floor while Yu Pan didn’t even attempt to hide the fact that he listened to all we said to one another. “I don’t know why I waited until just now to see it, but it doesn’t matter, Gabrielle. Here I am sounding cold again, but is it so important to remember one day out of your whole life?”

“Would you say that if it was the day you gave birth to Solon, love?” she answered softly. There was no bitterness or reprimand in her tone, and I understood her challenge.

“I just–I recall the day you told me. I remember your tears and the agony you experienced, and it was agony. Nothing I did could take away that pain and it hurt me as though someone had reached into my chest and ripped my own heart in half. Is it really worth it, to be able to look back?”

“Xena,” she said as she squeezed my hands. “The import doesn’t lie in remembering one specific day, even if it was the day of my child’s birth. The significance is in being strong enough to look at my life in its entirety, the good as well as the terrible.”

“Even if it’s a pain you might find intolerable, unbearable to live with?”

She smiled once more. “Even then. I’m stronger now than I was then, Xena.” She took a half step closer until our bodies touched. “As wonderful and perfect as our love is, when I told you about that day, I felt as though you were all I had in my life. I thought that without you, I wouldn’t–couldn’t survive. I thought yours was the only love I had. I know that’s not true now. I have friends…family.” She paused and looked back at Yu Pan.

“I know you don’t want to see me in pain, anymore than I would want to see you wounded or in distress. Don’t let my words fool you into thinking I’m full of some sudden bravado, though. Frankly, I’m a little afraid of what I’ll remember and the way it might affect me. In fact, I’m a lot afraid.”

“Then why go through with it?” I asked.

“My lovely, Conqueror,” she squeezed my hands once more. “You, of all people, should know that the only way to tell how far we’ve come on a journey is by looking back to see where we’ve been.”

I shook my head. “How can I argue with a woman so wise?”

“So, you’ll stand with me on this?”

“I don’t have to like it to be on your side, love. Of course, I’m with you. I’ll never let it be otherwise. Master Yu Pan,” I looked over at the healer. “What do we do?”

****
“Now that the two of you have uttered your cases, it is time to hear my mind,” Yu Pan said.

“Master, do you disagree with my choice?” Gabrielle asked. I heard indecision and fear as it began to creep into her voice.

Yu Pan examined the pipe in his hand that had gone quite cold. He could not possibly deny the truth of his feelings, for they were there, emblazoned upon the features of his face for all of us to see. Of course, one of my gifts had always been my ability to read people from their facial expressions, to discern their body language. All this time, the old healer had remained silent as Gabrielle and I decided what we would do. The truth of the matter was that Yu Pan feared the situation as much, perhaps even more, than either Gabrielle or me. The question I asked myself was why? And, would he allow his personal feelings to control his actions, as I had wanted to do?

“Master?” Gabrielle repeated.

Drawn out of his stillness, I knew Yu Pan would answer honestly. It was unlike his nature to do anything less.

“My nuér, I am placed between two bamboo rafts upon a stormy sea. One foot lies on the first raft and my second limb rests precariously upon the other. It has seemed inevitable that the space between the two vessels should grow until a decision must be made and I must commit to one or the other.”

Artus raised both of his eyebrows as he listened to the old man’s words. The young man glanced my way.

“He always talks like that,” I whispered to Artus’s understanding nod. I instantly sealed my lips when Gabrielle gave me a quick version of the look.

“Now I’m more afraid than I was before,” Gabrielle admitted as she looked from Yu Pan back to me.

“Forgive me nuér, I don’t mean to terrify you, but I do wish you to know the implications involved.”

“Now, you’re saying there’s more to this? I thought you said earlier that Gabrielle could remember with just one phrase?” I challenged the old healer.

“And so it will be that easy to bring Gabrielle’s memory forward, but even though the method is simple, the experience is not.”

“All right,” I said forcefully. “Gabrielle, I’m back to you not doing this. We’ll–”

“You’re right,” she responded.

It wasn’t the speed with which she answered that surprised me; it was that she agreed with me. “You agree?” I asked.

“Forgive me, but may I speak before you make your decision?” Yu Pan spoke up.

We each nodded our approval and Yu Pan paused only long enough to take a puff from his pipe. It must have been an absentminded gesture for no smoke rose from the cold pipe.

“I believe that I have instilled fear within you, my nuér, with my reservations. I will not say, choose this way or choose that way, but I will tell you plainly what to expect so that you might make an educated choice.”

“I’d like that,” Gabrielle said.

“I’d feel better, too, knowing exactly what Gabrielle can anticipate,” I said.

“I did not make the choice impulsively, the one to hide Gabrielle’s memory of that day,” he said to all of us. “It is a method of suggestion that I learned from my Master and is a technique as old as the air we breathe. My nuér, I only acquiesced because your pain was so great that even I could feel the physical hurt.”

“I understand, Master, and I thank you. I don’t want you to think that I hold any sort of ill will toward you. I realize that it must have been a difficult decision for you to make,” Gabrielle said.

“I inform you of your pain, not to prompt you for any apology, but so you will know what you must experience now. Regaining your hidden memory is a simple enough task to accomplish, and I do not anticipate any difficulty. What you must be aware of is that once you recall this memory, you will feel the pain as strongly as when it first happened. Indeed, you will be in that moment. Even worse, initially, the pain will swell to ten times that of when you first experienced it. That is simply a side effect that I cannot control.”

We were silent when he finished. Gabrielle looked terrified and I didn’t know what to think. It was no wonder that Yu Pan seemed more fearful than Gabrielle or I over this whole scenario.

“Okay, we’re really not doing this now,” I said to Gabrielle. I received Yu Pan’s message loud and clear. Whether it was the correct message was yet to be seen.

Yu Pan continued to gaze unfalteringly at Gabrielle, quite as though I had no say in the matter. To some degree, he was correct. Gabrielle had to make her own choice here. It was difficult for me to admit, even to myself. I know my words here sound calm. I was anything but. There was one undeniable fact, however, and it was that, no matter how much love and support I imparted, Gabrielle would have to withstand the worst of this suffering.

“Gabrielle–” I began.

“I know how you feel, Xena, but I’m torn. I–”

“I wanted to say that I have no right to decide one way or another for you, love,” I said as I held up one hand to stave off her interruption. “Unfortunately, this is only a decision you can make because you’re the only one that will have to suffer through the ordeal. I want you to know that no matter your choice, I’ll do whatever I can to help you bear it. All I ask is that you don’t let fear guide you in making your decision.”

“Master,” Gabrielle addressed Yu Pan. “Can you offer me any guidance as to how to choose? I mean, I don’t want to be a coward, and this information is vital, but I’m just not certain. I keep focusing on the pain.”

“That is normal, my nuér,” he responded. “Come, sit and we will all share a cup of tea.”

“Special tea?” I asked with an arched eyebrow as I knelt on the floor.

“Oftentimes, Conqueror, tea is nothing more than tea,” Yu Pan replied.

His eyes sparkled with amusement, which immediately put the rest of us at ease. Odd, how each of us had been taking our cues from the old man. When we first entered his room, Yu Pan’s emotions had run dark and fearful. We took up that baton and raced along with it, feeling our own fears and insecurities regarding the situation mount. Now that he had suddenly calmed, we felt ourselves doing likewise.

We watched Yu Pan as he made a pot of tea and eventually, poured each of us a cup. Each movement appeared effortless and without thought, but just the opposite was true. Making tea was as much a ceremony in Chin as any religious observance in Greece. Most people never realized that every movement was deliberate and had special meaning. He placed a serving of tea before each of us. The undersized cups matched the simple, but elegant, teapot. Made of clay and fired to a deep brown color, the sides of the pot and cups sported elegant brushstrokes of the face of a tiger hidden within a bamboo jungle.

“May I tell you a story?” Yu Pan asked.

“Tea often goes with a story around here,” I explained to Artus, who had remained extremely silent to this point.

“Very true, Conqueror,” Yu Pan added.

“And, in this case, is the story merely a story?” I smiled after I asked.

“Partly yes and partly no,” he answered in his typically evasive fashion. “I tell this story so that we might all think of value,” he added as an afterthought.

“Value, as in worth?” Gabrielle asked, taking a sip of tea.

“Precisely, my nuér. Perhaps it will help you with your current dilemma.”

“Anything that will help, I’m all ears for,” Gabrielle replied.

“There was a man called Bian Heh. With some effort, he dug up a large piece of rough jade from Mount Chu. Wishing to show his undying loyalty to his Emperor, Chuli, he decided to make the valuable stone a gift to his sovereign. Unfortunately, the court jadders judged the stone as common. The Emperor was furious that Bian Heh would present him with such an inferior gift. The Emperor’s anger was so great that he had Bian Heh’s left foot cut off.

“Some time later, Chuwu was crowned Emperor of the Chu region. Bian Heh still faithfully served his Emperor and wished to make right his previous gift. Still believing that the piece of jade he had found on Mt. Chu that day was worth much more than the court jadders knew, Bian Heh once more presented the jade to the Royal Court. Unfortunately, even though the Emperor was new, the court jadders were not. Even if the stone had looked like anything more than the rough piece of rock that it was, they would not have been inclined to admit their mistake. Therefore, Bian Heh’s gift was deemed unsuitable and because of this, he lost his other foot.

“Many summers later, Chuwu’s son, Prince Chuwen took the throne. Bian Heh had the idea that perhaps, finally, someone would see the true worth of his stone. His fear held him back, however. Already, he was a cripple, merely from trying to display his loyalty. He was certain that this time if his gift failed to impress the Emperor poor Bian Heh would surely meet with the executioner. He could not look beyond his fear, however. He simply sat down and began to cry. The pitiful man could not stop crying, and so, he went on that way for many days and nights. It was said that he wept so hard, his tears turned to blood.

“Eventually, the story of the man who could only sit beside the road and cry met the Emperor’s ears. He sent forth men to find out who the man was and why he was so sad. Once the Emperor learned that the crying man was Bian Heh, he understood. It was only natural that the crippled man should be cheerless over his lot in life, but to that extent?

Chuwen ordered the man brought before him in order to hear Bian Heh’s own words on the matter. With a mournful wail, Bian Heh cried out. “Why is it that you cannot see what I know in my heart to be true? Why have the court jadders denied my lovely gift time and again? I have been the court’s loyal servant for many summers, and yet I have been branded as no better than a thief…a criminal.”

Chuwen, a fair and honest ruler, took great pity on Bian Heh. He had the court jadders examine the stone, even as he looked on. Truly, the outside surface of the large stone was rough and dirty, hardly a piece of jade worthy of an Emperor. Chuwen knew something about value, however. Even though the stone appeared unworthy, Chuwen believed in the value of Bian Heh’s word. The young Emperor also understood that appearances could be deceiving. Chuwen ordered his jadders to break open the stone and look inside.

“Just as Bian Heh knew all along, inside, beyond the rough and dirty outer coat, the translucent jade shimmered with energy and life. Once the stone was cut and polished, it became the rarest of stones and a guarded treasure in Chu. In memory of Bian Heh, and his loyalty to the crown for so many summers in the face of such adversity, Chuwen named the precious piece of jade, Bian Heh.”

“Bian’s Jade,” Gabrielle said wistfully. She spoke in a dialect of the Chin language, but I had heard the saying before and recognized her words.

“Precisely,” Yu Pan nodded his head.

“Excuse me?” Artus finally spoke. “I–forgive me, but I don’t understand the language you used.” I believe we had nearly forgotten that the young man could speak.

“It means Bian’s Jade,” Gabrielle replied. “It’s a common saying that I learned while in Chin, but I had never heard the story behind its origin. It was used to describe something that was extremely precious in value, not necessarily in monetary worth, but in personal value.”

“Quite a perfect explanation, my nuér. And, do you see behind my words at all?”

“I believe so,” Gabrielle answered slowly.

All I could do was watch and wait for her answer, for I, too, wanted to learn what Gabrielle had heard that I did not. I was not a stupid woman, but Yu Pan had tutored Gabrielle extensively in his Shaolin way. Her understanding was far beyond mine in such matters.

Gabrielle looked at me as she spoke. “I think it all boils down to the value we place on finding out my daughter’s name. Is it worth the pain to be suffered by remembering?”

“Isn’t that what we’ve already been trying to decide?” I asked before I rose and stretched my stiff legs.

Gabrielle rose also, came closer, and stepped into my embrace. “It’s no longer a question, love. It’s not that I have to remember, but that I want to.”

I should have known that would be her choice. Did I honestly expect her to back away from the challenge? “And the pain?” I asked.

She bowed her head before answering, as if trying to formulate her response just so. “I would say that the birth of my daughter, the memory of holding her, and possibly knowing her name, Xena, I value those memories above any pain I might suffer. I want to remember those things, but I don’t think I can do it alone. I’ll need your strength.”

“Just as I promised, love, you’ll have it.”

“What more do I have to do, Master?” she asked of Yu Pan.

“Let us be seated once more and we shall begin. It will take no longer than mere moments,” he replied.

Artus chose to leave the room just then. I think more from personal discomfort than for our privacy. Yu Pan instructed us to sit comfortably and nodded his approval when I sat slightly behind Gabrielle to hold her in my arms.

Yu Pan set an odd contraption upon the small round table near to where we sat. It looked to be constructed of wire, but not of ordinary bronze or silver. It appeared to be gold. It was lightweight and had been fashioned to hold something in the center and then turn upon that axis point.

Yu Pan set a large crystal in the center spot and gave the object a twirl with one hand. Indeed, the tiny machine continued to rotate without any help. It looked as though the small gears attached to the pieces of wire kept the thing spinning.

The sunlight that filtered into the room caught the crystal and painted sparkles of light across the walls. The repeated pattern, caused by the spinning crystal, could almost be felt, like the beating of a heart. It was like a pulse as it flashed across our eyes. Yu Pan sat before Gabrielle and they began to speak, sometime lapsing into Yu Pan’s native language. I was familiar with that particular dialect and was able to follow most all of what they spoke of. I admit that I didn’t understand some of it, but I could at least discern the words they spoke.

“Calm your mind, my nuér, and your zhèngqì (vital energy) will be able to flow smoothly. Concentrate your thinking, not on outside matters, but on what is happening within. Practice your Qi Gong (breath exercise). Relax…be calm…let you’re your mind free itself from all distractions. Feel the balance begin. Mind and body in harmony.

“Look inside, Gabrielle, and picture your memories. There is something missing. Your mind remembers that moment. Let it show you. Slowly now…breathe using tiaoxi (regulating breath)…slower…first there is koubi huxi (breathing through the mouth or nose)…now fushi huxi (abdominal breathing)…now, chongqì (filling the body with qi).

“Do you feel your qi?” Yu Pan asked.

Gabrielle nodded through opaline green eyes that looked into another realm, but seemingly saw nothing of the mortal world around her.

“Gabrielle, open up to me and remember,” Yu Pan said in a tone so soft it was nearly a whisper.

When he said the phrase was simple, I had no idea. I thought that at least it would be some secret wording, filled with hidden meaning. Yu Pan went silent, watching Gabrielle, intently searching her suddenly emotionless features. Her body had frozen and I wondered if she was even breathing.

All I can say is that I had not expected this. I felt it within her muscles first. Her body jerked forward, pulling her up to her knees. Then, I heard the cry. She had taken a large gulp of air before letting loose with what I can only describe as a wail. It was unheard of. The sound was something akin to the mournful howl of a banshee woman. It was a cry wholly filled with pain and despair. I realized that Gabrielle had remembered.

It hit her all at once, much as Yu Pan had said it would. As if every bad emotion that Gabrielle ever felt, in her entire life, had been packed away and saved in a box, waiting until now to be opened and experienced all at once. She took in another huge breath, but this time she raked it in, as though unable to pull in enough air to breathe.

I knew what she felt just then, not emotionally, but physically. All the signs were there. When I was a youngster, no older than Cor, I got into a fistfight with a boy twice my size. He was an arrogant bully, but it wasn’t him that I remembered all these seasons, it was that punch. He got in a clean stomach punch, dead center to my midsection. The punch immediately brought me to my knees. I remember feeling as though I would never breathe again. I surely thought that I would die that day because, not only had the boy hit me so hard that I expelled all my air with a heavy grunt, but I could not seem to make my muscles contract in order to take in another breath. My body had simply refused to function for me. I remember taking in small squeaking breaths until my abdominal muscles had eased enough for proper breathing.

So, I did what I knew would help Gabrielle, at least physically, at that moment. I couldn’t heal her emotionally, but I could at least ease some of the physical pain she experienced.

“I’ve got you, love,” I said as I kneeled behind her, placing both hands on her shoulders. “Take short breaths.”

“Gabrielle,” Yu Pan called her name sharply. “Shushu (breath counting)…focus your mind and your body,” he said.

The word he used meant much the same thing as what I had said, but in that moment of pain and confusion, Gabrielle seemed to grab onto the word from the Chin language. It was as though, to her unconscious mind, Yu Pan’s language felt more comfortable to Gabrielle than her native Greek tongue. I suppose it made sense due to her relationship with Yu Pan, but also because of the seasons she spent living in Chin. It was there where, for the first time, she had been treated as something more than a slave when she trained under the Order of the Rose.

“Breath, my love…slowly.” I moved my hand around and placed the flat of my palm against Gabrielle’s abdomen, pressing in and upward. I knew that the pressure and warmth from my hand would relax the muscles there enough to allow Gabrielle’s lungs to draw in air.

“Gods! Oh, Gods!” Gabrielle cried out at last.

They were the first coherent words that Gabrielle had uttered since the ordeal began. There was nothing at all that we could do now, but to listen to Gabrielle’s heartbreaking sobs and offer all the love and comfort that we could.

It would not have been possible for me to feel more pain had my very limbs been ripped from my body. My tears matched Gabrielle’s, drop for drop. This went on for I don’t know how long. I remember at some point that Yu Pan rose and went to the door. I believe I saw my mother’s alarmed face, but Yu Pan quickly stepped into the hall, closing the door behind him. When he returned a few moments later, I briefly thought that I should have let our family know what we were going about.

I shall not write in detail about the words Gabrielle spoke, or the guilty cries that escaped her lips. Perhaps someday, she might write of such personal things herself. What I remember most about the incident was that I would fall upon my own sword before I would let someone I love endure such a thing again. Nothing, no words or explanations from Yu Pan could have truly prepared us for the experience.

Time passed quickly and not at all. The sunlight had turned to moonlight, bathing the room in a silvery blue glow. Gabrielle lay like a limp child’s doll in my arms. She hadn’t the strength to cry anymore let alone the tears. She had shed as many as her body would physically allow.

Gabrielle lay unmoving for what seemed like half the night. In truth, it was probably much closer to a candlemark or two. At last, she stirred in my arms and I looked to Yu Pan for help. He nodded as if Gabrielle’s behavior was completely expected.

“She wakes.” He said as he looked over his shoulder at my mother and Artus.

Artus reentered the room after Gabrielle had seemingly fallen asleep. Cyrene, on the other hand, fairly bowled Yu Pan over to gain access. She said she could stand the girl’s cries of pain any longer. Bravely, Cyrene weathered the experience with the rest of us.

Gabrielle was slight and extremely fragile looking on the outside, but inside, this girl was made of steel. She opened up her swollen eyes and looked up at me. Her weak smile brightened my heart enough to place a large grin on my own face.

I bent down and kissed her forehead. “I think you fell asleep,” I said.

“I feel as though it’s been a fortnight,” she replied groggily as she rose into a seated position. She ran a hand through her hair and looked around the room, running into the anxious stares belonging to Yu Pan and Cyrene. “I seem to have drawn a crowd.”

Gabrielle was her old self and I wondered at first if Yu Pan’s magic had worked.

“Artus,” Gabrielle suddenly said. She had seen him earlier, but she had no memory of who the young man was. This time she looked at him with the sort of recognition old friends share.

I helped her rise to her feet and it did my ego good when I was the first one she threw her arms around. She responded in kind to Yu Pan and Cyrene. Taking both of Artus’s hands in her own, Gabrielle stood before the young man and smiled at him.

“I knew you were different the first time I saw you,” she said.

“I only wish I could have been as much help now as I was back then, Your Highness.”

“I was just Gabrielle to you once, Artus.”

“Well, that was some time back and you weren’t the Queen of the Empire then,” he replied with a smile.

“If it was good enough then,” she added. “It’s good enough for me now. In a way, you saved my life, and I know you saved the life of my daughter, my Amira–Xena, I remember!” she cried out, turning my way.

“Yes!” Artus joined in, pointing his finger at Gabrielle excitedly. “Amira! Yes, I remember now.”

“Oh, now you remember,” I winked at Artus, holding Gabrielle in my arms. She had rushed to me, talking rapidly in her excitement.

“I remember it all now, but it doesn’t hurt like it did before.”

“You didn’t know she was alive before, love. Hold on just a moment.” I walked over to the table and rolled open one of the parchment’s Talemon had given me. Pulling the candle a tad closer, I examined the list for perhaps the thirtieth time. I looked up at Gabrielle with a grin wider than the Strymon River.

“Come here, love,” I called to Gabrielle. I placed my finger along one line and Gabrielle read aloud so everyone could hear.

“Born to slave girl of unknown family, one baby girl. Name…Amira.” Gabrielle’s hand covered her mouth and she began to cry. They were good tears, if there can be such a thing.

Yu Pan beamed like a proud grandfather and Artus clapped me on the back as if I’d given birth to the child myself, or even more impossible, as though I had some sort of role in the conception. My mother hugged me, Gabrielle, and then me again.

“What a beautiful name, Gabrielle, how did you come up with it?” Cyrene asked.

“I had thought if I named her in the language of Abdular’s people, he might…well, it was a foolish hope, but I had to try. I thought maybe he would allow me to keep her.”

“And what does Amira mean in our language,” I asked.

Gabrielle smiled as if at some private joke. “It means, princess.”

“It all happens for a reason, doesn’t it love?” Gabrielle asked me as we stood looking out Yu Pan’s window.

“I can think of no better way to explain it all,” I replied.

Our other three compatriots were huddled together, speaking of healing methods and herbs. My mother was in heaven. Not only did she now have another healer to converse with, but also the news of Gabrielle’s child appeared to put a bit of spring in her step.

“Where are you off to, mother?” I asked Cyrene when she opened the door to leave.

She looked flustered, red in the Cheeks as if she had been high on drink. “I’m a grandmother,” she stated. “So much to look forward to,” we heard her mutter as she closed the door behind her.

Gabrielle laughed aloud and the sound hung in the air like tinkling brass bells to my ears.

hhhhhh{ggggg

Gabrielle paced our room in an animated fashion making plans, wishing, and dreaming, all at the same time. I, on the other hand, sat in the nearest comfortable chair and watched her. I found her excitement entertaining, but not at all contagious. In fact, I was growing rather sick at my stomach. My conscious mind blamed it on the fact that Gabrielle was spinning around the room like a child’s toy and it made me something akin to seasick. Deep down, however, I could see what was wrong. I think the conversation Gabrielle and I had explained it all. Actually, both of us spoke, but I don’t believe we heard one another.

“I wonder what she looks like,” Gabrielle said.

“Do you think she’ll like me?” I asked

“Clothes…we’ll have to rearrange our private rooms in Corinth.”

“Wonder how big she is. I bet I have to start putting things away, huh? You know, can’t leave my daggers just lying about.”

“I wonder if she’s smart, or likes the same things I do.”

“I hear she’s a handful. Do you think at five summers children are…I don’t know, trained?”

“There’s so much to do, so much to plan. Oh, I can have Anya make up the most adorable clothes.”

“Acasia said she bit him.”

Gabrielle froze and looked at me. She slowly crossed the room and sat on the floor beside my chair. She took my hand and appeared rather serious. “Xena, in all the excitement, and my own happiness, I never even asked you if this is what you truly want.”

“If this will make you happy, then of course, it’s what I want.” I smiled affectionately at her.

“Xena,” she said in that admonishing tone. “You can’t live your life that way, doing everything just for me. I mean, I love you for it, but it’s hardly fair to you.”

“Why not? It works for me.” I grinned down. “Look, my love, I’ve spent the better piece of my existence living only for myself and I was always unhappy. Living for someone else is what makes me happy. I’m happy, you’re happy. What’s the problem?”

“When you put it that way, I’m not sure I can quarrel with an argument like that.”

“That’s the way I like it best.”

She chuckled and laid her cheek atop my leg. After a long pause she said, “It does mean our lives will change.”

“True,” I agreed. “But I’m confidant that you can handle it.”

“You?” She raised her head and arched one eyebrow in my direction. “You mean we, don’t you?”

“Oh, yea…right. That’s what I meant…we.”

She rested her head on my leg again and I leaned back in the chair. The evening had finally caught up with us and I’m sure her head was just as filled as mine was with thoughts and ideas. We were silent for quite some time, and just when I felt myself drifting towards sleep, I couldn’t help verbalizing that one last worry.

“You don’t think she really bit Acasia, do you?”
Chapter 31: Five Years Have Passed…
“No,” I said.

“Xena,” Gabrielle implored.

“No.”

“Aw, Xena, I can’t have any fun,” Selene complained.

“Welcome to my world,” I countered.

We had been going around like this for nearly three days. It seemed that somewhere along the path, Gabrielle had joined forces with Selene. My sister wished to travel along with us to the Amazon village and then back to Corinth for a long holiday. Not only would Gabrielle be meeting her daughter for the first time, but Ephiny had informed me that an official joining ceremony between Gabrielle and I, before the Amazon Nation, was expected. Unbelievably, my mother had agreed with Selene’s plan.

“Mother said–” Selene attempted to explain.

“If I hear that one more time–”

“All right, we don’t have to get all worked up,” Gabrielle said. “Let’s stay calm and discuss this, okay?”

“Fine,” I said.

“Maybe if you just think on it for a while,” Gabrielle said.

“Okay,” I replied. I paused for a moment as Gabrielle and Selene exchanged relieved looks.

“I thought about it and the answer is still no.”

“Aw, Xena,” Selene said again.

“Xena, you did tell Selene that she could learn more from the Amazons,” Gabrielle said to me.

“I think she’s learning plenty from the Amazons she’s already met.”

Gabrielle and I both knew what had caused my stubbornness over this situation. I stomped about, thinking of my sister’s virtue more than anything else and looking, I suspect, like a blustering fool. My mother told me that Gabrielle made a great deal of sense and I should listen to her. Ah, yes, just the thing the Conqueror of the Known World wished to hear.

“She needs to learn things sooner or later,” Gabrielle said, pulling me from the ranting inside my head.

“That’s exactly what I don’t want happening! Let her learn about that when she’s married.”

“Actually, I meant as in how to be the sort of woman who can take care of herself. Strong…confident.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Besides, how am I ever going to get married if I don’t meet people?” Selene chimed in.

“You’ll meet plenty of new people when we get to Corinth. And, don’t look at me that way, they won’t be men. I think we’ve established that.”

“But, they won’t be Amazons,” she muttered.

“Precisely my point.”

“Xena, you can’t order me around. You’re not my mother, you know!”

I believe I sputtered a bit, unable to come up with a suitable reply. I finally threw out the only card I could play in such a circumstance. “I’m the ruler of the Empire and that’s just as good as your mother!”

“You–you…old crabapple!”

“Spoiled brat!”

“All right,” Gabrielle physically stepped between us this time. “Let’s retire to opposite corners of the room. Shall we?”

“Gabrielle!” Selene and I said in unison. We looked at one another and then back at Gabrielle.

“See how stubborn she is!” Once more, we said in tandem.

Gabrielle’s hand rose to her mouth, but it was apparent that she was attempting to hide her smile. If I hadn’t been so obstinate, I would have laughed at our infantile behavior, too.

“Well,” Gabrielle picked up the scroll bag that contained her clean parchments and writing instruments. “I’m leaving.”

I made a move to follow her and she quickly stopped me with a commanding look.

“Oh, no you don’t.”

“Well, you don’t think I’m going to stay here and argue with her all day, do you?”

“I most certainly do,” she answered. “You two can yell, fight, beat the Tartarus out of one another if you think it will do any good, but I don’t want either of you to step foot out of this room until you’ve made some sort of a compromise that you both agree on.”

“But, I’m getting hungry,” Selene said.

“I’ll ask your mother to send something up,” Gabrielle replied.

“What if I have to…you know, relieve myself?” Selene asked.

“All the more reason to be sensible and finish it up in a hurry.” Gabrielle turned and made her way to the door.

I chuckled as if Gabrielle had been teasing with her words. “You don’t really think you can keep me a prisoner here,” I said as though it was the most asinine thing I’d ever heard.

She turned and gave me a glance that would have withered a rose. I swear it would have felled a lesser person. I stopped dead in my tracks.

“You don’t want to test that statement, my Conqueror, do you?” she questioned.

“Um…no?” I answered with some hesitancy, backing up a step. For that one moment, this small girl before me was an Amazon Queen, co-ruler of the Greek Empire.

“That’s why you’re such a wise ruler,” she said as she stepped forward and gave me a kiss. Her face had returned to its usual sunny expression. She kissed Selene on the cheek and left the room without another word.

I looked at Selene, who stood with her arms folded and a rather superior smirk on her face. I mimicked her body posture and glared back.

“Whipped,” Selene said.

“Brat,” I replied.

hhhhhh{ggggg

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I do not feel like writing about unhappiness or pain today. I refuse to set down in prose any of the agony of my remembering, for today is a day of such joy for me. I can barely keep my feet on the ground. I feel that if I let go of the world around me, I will float into the air, so light is my heart. Granted, there is much to think about, but children are born and raised every day, in every part of the Empire and under every circumstance. Surely, Xena and I can do no worse than others.

I have just left Xena and her sister. Gods only know what they are about at this moment. They each think the other unreasonable and bullheaded without recognizing the same behavior in themselves. I certainly hope that they come to their senses before too much time passes. I’m not sure that Xena even sees it yet, but she’s merely being a big sister. I hope that Selene will see it also and realize that her sister’s actions come from love and not a whim to control.

I sit in the near empty tavern, tucked away at a corner table with my pot of freshly brewed tea and my scrolls. Others bustled through the tavern, working, visiting, or just mingling in the town’s most popular meeting spot. Upon coming downstairs, I found Delia in the kitchens. She happily whistled and hummed, teaching two of Cyrene’s young female workers how to stuff grape leaves with just the right mixture of lamb and seasonings. I tried to offer my assistance to Delia who promptly shushed me out of the kitchen. I ran into the same sort of reception nearly everywhere I offered to lend a helping hand.

Having set my mind at ease, knowing my energies weren’t needed anywhere else; I sat down to write. I had gone through nearly an entire pot of tea when Cyrene walked up to my table, a most curious expression on her face.

“Hi, Cyrene. Are you all right?”

“I’m on my way to get my spare room keys.”

“Did someone lose theirs?”

“The strangest thing,” she sat down beside me. “I went by your room and I heard voices shouting at one another. Once I realized they belonged to Xena and Selene, I tried to open the door and put a stop to their bickering. The door was locked and when I finally got those girls to quiet down and answer me, they were as surprised as me that they were locked in. Xena said the door must have locked itself. I looked all over the floor, but I couldn’t find the key to your door. I can’t imagine what happened to it.”

I smiled and reached into my skirt pocket, producing an aged, discolored metal key. “No mystery, Cyrene. I have it.”

“You—you have the key? How did you—I mean, why did you?”

“Don’t get mad at me, Cyrene, but I purposely locked them in there.”

“Well, I’m not mad, child, but what possessed you to do such a thing?”

I explained the disagreement that Xena and Selene seemed to be having and my solution to the problem. Cyrene laughed.

“My child, you are truly Athena’s chosen. Only the Goddess of wisdom herself could have come up with such a wise solution.”

“I’m certainly no Goddess, but it was good, wasn’t it?” I laughed along with her. “I just hope they haven’t escalated to—”

I froze, leaving my mouth open in mid sentence. Cyrene followed my line of site to the tavern’s front door. I could scarcely believe what I saw. Cyrene appeared to be in as much a state of shock as I was. All we could do was stare open-mouthed and listen to them as they walked into the tavern.

“I can’t believe you fell on me. Gods! You need to quit eating so much. It was like a centaur landed on me.” Xena brushed small leaves from her hair and craned her neck to look at the abrasion that had torn away the elbow of her shirt.

“It’s your fault! You said that trellis would hold us both.” Selene tried to close the long rip in her skirt. She limped along, having lost one shoe and sporting a large abrasion on one knee. “Just follow me,” Selene mimicked Xena’s low alto voice.

“It would have if you would have listened to me, smart ass. Just once if you could just do what I say without an argument. I said to—”

They both stopped and looked up at Cyrene and I, straightening their clothing in some small attempt at salvaging their dignity. I wasn’t certain what to say. Never, in my wildest imagination, did I think the two women would try to escape out the window. I simply stared at Xena in a dumbfounded fashion.

The gaze that Xena leveled in my direction told me not to say a word. “You didn’t tell us that once we had settled things you’d never be coming back.”

She held her head high and she and Selene walked up the stairs in a most indignant manner. Once I could no longer hear their footsteps, I turned to look at Cyrene. We laughed so hard that we cried.

“I think I may be sleeping in the barn tonight,” I said.

“Those two!” Cyrene said between fits of laughter. “I guess I should have gone back with that key a little sooner.”

“Well, the good news is that at least they came to some sort of agreement.”

“That means all of you will be leaving soon,” she said.

Even if I had been blind, I could not possibly have missed the forlorn expression on Cyrene’s face. I wasn’t certain, but I would have wagered that she would actually be sorry to see the lot of us go. She had regained her daughter and just as quickly, Xena would be gone again before they’d even had time to learn about one another. I tested those waters with some innocent teasing.

“You’ll be happy to be rid of us and get back to normal, I suspect.”

Cyrene didn’t answer, but smiled sadly. She lowered her head and examined her hands, which rested atop the table. How alike she and Xena were. I had a suspicion that I would have to use all my might to drag the truth from the woman. Before I had a chance to investigate any further, Delia walked into the room, drying her hands with a clean towel.

She came directly to our table and smiled brightly. She was in her element, here at the inn, and it was easily apparent that she could be no happier. It didn’t surprise me that she and Cyrene got along so well. They chatted, laughed, and shared secrets like two sisters. In getting to know Cyrene, I learned how much alike she and Delia were. So, it was no wonder I found Cyrene as easy to care about as our own special friend. Delia had always been somewhat of a mother, while managing to walk the slender line of friend, as well.

Am I interrupting a private conversation, ladies?” Delia asked.

I didn’t want to be rude, but just as I was about to give Delia a subtle hint with my eyes; Cyrene quickly pushed a chair toward the standing woman.

“Not at all. Please…sit,” Cyrene said. Her face didn’t express her customary open kindness and I could tell that Delia noticed that fact.

“I think maybe I did interrupt a private conversation,” Delia said.

Delia started to rise, but Cyrene reached out with one hand to stop her.

“No, honestly,” Cyrene began. “I think it’s just something I wasn’t quite willing to admit.”

“Cyrene, what could be making you so sad?” Delia asked.

“We’re leaving soon,” I answered for her.

“You knew?” Cyrene asked.

“I guessed. I suppose it would be how I would feel.”

“I see,” Delia answered. “And you’ve grown rather accustomed to having your long-lost daughter as a part of your life?”

“Not just Xena. All of you, I suppose.” Cyrene smiled hesitantly, as though she was embarrassed.

I wondered if such displays of emotion were unfamiliar to her. It didn’t seem so, at least as compared to the Cyrene I had come to know, but I thought about how she had been before we came into her live and the lives of her children. We knew that she was a loving mother and instilled her family with such virtues as honesty, integrity, and a strong work ethic. Had she been reserved in her outward displays of emotion?

“I’m sorry for the reason, but it’s rather wonderful to hear,” I admitted.

“I know it sounds foolish. I understand that you have an entire Empire to run, but I will miss you. All of you.” She smiled sweetly at Delia. “It’s been a long time since I had a woman my own age to talk with. It’s been a pleasure, Delia. The only good thing about all of you leaving is that at least I’ll know they’re in good hands with you in their home.”

“I think you give me entirely too much credit, my dear,” Delia said in between her good-natured laughter. “I’m certain they would listen to you much more often. I hate to admit it, but these girls do quite well without me, not perfect, mind you, but quite well.”

We all laughed at Delia’s attempt to lighten the situation, but it gave me an idea.

“Cyrene, why don’t you come with us?” I asked.

“Excellent suggestion!” said Delia.

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly,” Cyrene responded.

“Why ever not?” I asked. “It doesn’t have to be forever, just a visit. You could go with us to the Amazon Village. I understand we’re to have an official joining ceremony and Ephiny said they’re usually quite spectacular. I’d love for you to see our home in Corinth.”

“My child, nothing would please me more, but I have a business to run. Beside that, Cor can’t leave because of his apprenticeship. Who would mind the boy? It just seems impossible right now. Maybe someday…”

I felt dejected and powerless to make the situation right. I could have marched in a hundred workers to run the inn, but Cyrene would never have approved. This place was her life. She had built the establishment by herself and worked it nearly all her adult life in order to pay her family’s way.

“I understand. It does seem rather hopeless, doesn’t it?” I finally said.

Cyrene remained silent. I took her bowed head and sad face as her answer.

“One never knows what the Fates have in store for us,” Delia said.

As if her answer hadn’t been cryptic enough, the expression on her face changed from gloominess to simply mysterious. I seriously thought I saw a wicked little sparkle shimmer in her eye for just a moment. I passed it off as my own imagination. Before I left them sitting at the table, I vowed that I would someday find a way for Cyrene to visit with us for a spell, a plan that would somehow appease her more proprietary nature regarding her business.

hhhhhh{ggggg

I peeked my head into the room before entering. I don’t know if I expected Xena to toss lightning bolts in a Zeus-like fashion, but I knew the temperature was bound to be a little frosty. She sat at the desk in her dressing gown, her hair still damp from the midday bath she must have taken after her adventure. Of all the things she and Selene might have thought to do, scaling the wall of the inn would have been dead last on my list of guesses.

The desk had been an impromptu item that Cyrene had added upon Xena’s request. Since we’d arrived in Amphipolis, Xena had diligently sat just opposite the window, answering the messages that the Royal couriers had delivered.

I tiptoed in, but even with my light tread, she heard the slight creak in one of the floorboards.

“You don’t have to sneak in, Gabrielle.”

I looked up to see a dark eyebrow raised at a distinctly sharp angle, disappearing into dark, glistening bangs. “If you laugh, so help me, Gabrielle—”

“I would never!” But, I could not manage to keep the curve from my lips. I kept seeing that image of her picking leaves and twigs from her hair, desperately trying to hold together her dignity.

She shook her head as a reluctantly small grin emerged. “I swear, I should take you over my knee.”

“Hhmm,” I paused to place a thoroughly suggestive look upon my face. “That sounds like it has definite possibilities,” I added shamelessly.

Both eyebrows buried themselves in those same bangs. I liked that I could still surprise her that way. Her tongue suddenly knotted, and I watched as a lascivious glaze obscured her vision. My love was nothing if not predictable. Once she realized that I knew what she was thinking, she had the decency to look embarrassed, her cheeks going pink. For a woman of her age and experience, I found it a most charming expression of her love and respect for me.

I moved closer and slipped into her lap. We kissed and snuggled close for a while before I asked the inevitable question.

“Are you still mad at me?”

“Well, if you’d come in here about a candlemark ago you would have interrupted my thoughts of how high the tower that I would eventually be locking you into would be. Now that I’ve had time to think on it a bit…” she grinned at me as she trailed off.

“Well, I’m rather glad you’re not the sort of woman who holds a grudge.”

“Indeed.”

“Actually, the very milk of human kindness running through your veins.”

“You’re pushing it again.”

“Sorry,” I said. I kissed her cheek to hide my smile.

“You’re incorrigible, Little one, but I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’re the sanity that balances my craziness.”

“I take that, and your little escape, to mean you and Selene came to an agreement?”

“I hate to admit it, but I realized that I was acting like an old fool.”

“Oh my. And, what did your sister think of this startling discovery?”

“She agreed wholeheartedly.”

We both laughed in the knowledge that Xena was quite serious.

“I can’t believe you forgot about us, though,” Xena added.

“It’s not that I forgot. Well, okay, I admit that I did sort of forget, but there were extenuating circumstances.”

“Mmm,” she muttered.

I took that as a verbal request to continue. “I was actually trying to solve a problem for your mother.”

“Gods above! What did this family do before we came here?”

“Oh,” I slapped her lightly on one arm. “It’s not that kind of a problem. I was trying to convince her that we would welcome her company if she should decide to join Selene and accompany us. I wasn’t wrong about that, was I?” Suddenly, I thought about the offer I’d made without even consulting Xena. “How do you feel about that?”

“I’m not sure, actually. I guess…” Her face took on a faraway expression. “I guess I’m all right with it. Yes,” she smiled. “I think having mother along would be great.”

“There’s only one problem. She won’t leave the inn. Well, make that two if you count Cor.”

“Ah. That doesn’t surprise me about her. She must be to that point where she thinks the roof would cave in without her here to hold it up. I know because I’ve got the same lovely qualities.”

“I remember how long it took us to finally get out of the courtyard back in Corinth. You kept yelling that you had just one more instruction for your advisors.”

“Very funny,” she said before joining me in laughter. “So, did you come up with some sort of solution?”

I shook my head. “No, and I hate that. I can’t believe there isn’t some way to solve the dilemma.”

“Well, we have a few more days. I promise I’ll search my brain for a way.”

“Me, too.”

“Now,” she waggled her eyebrows up and down. “About that spanking…”

hhhhhh{ggggg

Two days had passed and I was still no closer to arriving upon a solution to Cyrene’s quandary. I couldn’t devote all my time to the predicament. I had been practicing with a new weapon upon Ephiny’s suggestion. The staff and short sword, she said, were weapons that every Amazon mastered at a young age. If I were to command the respect of the older Amazons in the Village, I would have to prove myself in a number of arenas, not only with weapons, but also in regards to tradition, ceremonies, and Amazon law. I had been studying such aspects of Amazon life since we first arrived in Amphipolis, but now that the time for me to officially take on the title of Amazon Queen had drawn near, we concentrated even more fully on the lessons.

“We leave tomorrow.” I told Cyrene as we sat together in the kitchen.

I needn’t have reminded Cyrene for the look on her face told me that she, too, realized the time had come. The young girls who worked in the inn’s kitchen bustled about around us, but Cyrene and Delia easily kept track of all that the young women did. Never would I have thought that the day’s savior would be our own Delia.

“Cyrene, I think you should start packing,” Delia said.

The remark seemingly came from nowhere and Cyrene looked at me, to which I could only shrug.

“And how am I supposed to do such a thing?”

“Well, first you take a bag, put a few clothes in it—” I sort of chuckled over my own wit, but stopped short when both women looked at me as though my hair had suddenly turned blue.

“Sorry,” I said. “Delia, what do you mean?”

“Just that Cyrene can’t, or won’t,” she winked at me. “Leave the inn to a stranger to care for while she’s gone. I have a solution to that dilemma.”

“Well?” Cyrene and I said, almost in unison.

“I shall stay behind and man the ship, so to speak,” Delia replied.

“What?” I said.

“Delia, that’s ridiculous,” Cyrene responded.

“I don’t see why. You admit that I do a wonderful job around here. It really does make sense. I’ve seen the girls joined in their ceremony in Corinth. I have time in my life for plenty of travel and adventure and I dare say this visit won’t be Gabrielle’s last to the Amazon Village. So, I thought I could stay here at the inn, mother Cor, and you could go on a sort of holiday.”

“I—I don’t know what to say. I couldn’t possibly agree to that,” Cyrene said.

“Why not?” Delia asked.

“Well, it’s too…I mean…Gabrielle, surely you see what I mean.”

“I sort of understand how you’re feeling, Cyrene, and as much as I love having Delia around, I have to agree that it’s a very good solution,” I said.

It was apparent that Cyrene’s bluster was simply for show. She wanted to go with us more than anything, and Delia’s solution was one that Cyrene could live with. I knew that Cyrene wanted to spend more time with Xena, but Delia throwing in our joining ceremony had been the perfect touch.

“I’m just not sure what to say,” Cyrene hedged.

“Say thank you,” Delia replied with a smile.

“Thank you. Oh, thank you, my friend,” Cyrene jumped up to wrap her arms around Delia.

As arguments go, Cyrene didn’t put up a very good one. It was all over rather quickly, but was simply because Cyrene was looking for a way to come along with us. Cyrene couldn’t hide her excitement as she immediately rushed off to make plans and give lists of orders to all the workers. Sometime later, I saw Cor nodding his head dutifully to his mother’s directions. The moment she turned her back, however, he winked in my direction. I silently laughed as I thought of the one moment of wildness, our impromptu picnic at the lake, Cor and I would always share.

As I said, I would dearly miss Delia’s company, but I enjoyed the way she said that she might travel with me again someday to the Amazons. I thanked her heartily for giving us more time with Xena’s mother, but in a way, Delia was as delighted as Cyrene. I suppose that as much as we relied on her, she still wished to contribute more to our family. As far as contributions went, this one would stand out in my memory for many seasons to come.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum

hhhhhh{ggggg
” Are you all right, love?” I asked of Gabrielle.

“Oh, just peachy,” she responded, as she wiped her face with a damp cloth that Scylla had provided.

I didn’t believe Gabrielle had anything left in her stomach to lose. As was her habit under times of extreme duress, she had been sick to her stomach since the moment we left Amphipolis. I don’t know which wore on her nerves more, meeting and being accepted by the Amazons or meeting her daughter for the first time.

Whichever frightened her worse was moot, since no amount of discussion or comforting could make Gabrielle’s physical body believe that the world wasn’t about to end. The odd, or amusing, however you looked at it, thing was that Gabrielle was fully aware of all of this. She knew it was simply her mind twisting her stomach into knots, but try to assimilate this information as she might; it just didn’t help.

If we don’t get there soon, I’m afraid what shape I’ll show up in,” Gabrielle gamely joked.

“What can I do for you, love?”

“Hit me over the head and knock me out until we reach the village.”

“Okay, if you say so,” I answered.

Gabrielle laughed at my jest and it made me feel slightly better, knowing that for a few moments, I could cause her to forget her worries. I wasn’t sure how to make any of this better, but thought some time on solid ground might help. I ordered a halt for a midday break. The troops were extremely thankful. The heat had grown unbearable as the summer wore on and today was no exception. If it became much worse, we would have to travel by night and rest during the extreme heat of the day.

Storm clouds rumbled off in the distance, and as much as we prayed for the rain to cool us off, the bad weather stayed just northwest of our position. Gabrielle and I took a walk along a small stream by which our party had decided to stop. We held hands and eventually stopped to sit under a large olive tree. I spread a blanket on the sparse and heat scorched grass, for the overripe olives had started to fall onto the ground around the base of the tree.

“How many?” Gabrielle asked, trying not to be obvious about the fact that she gazed all around us.

We played a game among ourselves. Since Gabrielle’s easy escape from the eyes of her personal guard, Atrius and Ephiny both had decided to add a few more guards to the Royal detail. They were men and women who had a bit more skill at remaining inconspicuous. Since Gabrielle and I had been told of the extra guards, which I completely agreed with, we played the ‘how many are?’ there game.

“How many do you think?” I asked.

“Hhmm, well…including the one in the high grass to our left and the woman in the tree just past your right shoulder, I say eight.”

“You’re off by half.”

“What? Impossible.”

I pointed the remaining guards out to her, but she steadfastly refused to believe that I told the truth about seeing some of them so far away. I settled myself against the tree and bid Gabrielle to lay her head in my lap. She did as I requested, but I could feel the tension in her body.

“Mmm, I’m so tired,” she said.

“I’m not surprised. You’ve hardly slept a full candlemark without fidgeting in your sleep or dreaming in the last three days.”

“I’m sorry if I’ve been keeping you up. I think it’s just my time of the moon coming up.”

“Gabrielle, are you telling me the truth,” I asked. I slowly ran my fingers through her hair in an attempt to soothe her frayed nerves.

“No,” she replied slowly. “I’m sorry, Love. I should know you can see right through me.”

“That isn’t quite the point, Little One. I don’t want you to hide your fears from me, no matter how you think I’ll react.”

“But you’ll think it’s foolish for me to act this way—”

“No matter how you think I’ll react, Love.”

I already knew what the problem was. In some matters, Gabrielle was completely transparent to me. She was a strong woman who’d lived a life that few could have come through unscathed. She had developed fears based on the way she had been treated, but she grew stronger every day that we were together, slowly becoming better able to handle the flaws that life had foisted upon her.

The one development that Gabrielle still suffered with was her fear of people. Not some innate fear of people in general, but Gabrielle had a need for people to like her. She had played the part of pleaser for so long that this consequence seemed natural.

She sighed deeply and curled into a ball beside me.

“Talk to me, Love,” I requested.

“I’m afraid, just nerves I suppose. The Amazons, Amira…I’m nervous about meeting them…all of them.”

“Why so nervous? You usually love meeting people.”

“Xena, what if they don’t like me? They’re all sort of stuck with me. I mean, I’m a Queen and a mother. It’s not as if they can just chuck me out and get another one.”

“True, I see your point there, but you’re being more emotional than usual. I know it’s hard for you to change what you are, Little One, and how you are, but I want you to try to believe what I’m going to say to you.”

“I believe everything you tell me, Xena.”

“Promise?”

“Promise,” she replied.

“I’m going to hold you to that. Okay, let’s look at this rationally, all right? First, there’s your daughter. Amira is going to love you. You’re her mother, the only one that she’s ever known, so it’s sort of a given that she’ll think you’re wonderful, plain and simple. You may have to get to know one another and she may be a handful at first, but that should be fun, a good time in your life, not one to dread. Right?”

“I guess that makes sense,” she answered with some hesitancy. I couldn’t tell if my words were sinking in or if she was just sleepy. Her words came slowly, with just a touch of a slur at the end.

“Then there are your Amazons. Gabrielle, I know my words may not convince you, but if you think hard, you’ll realize what I say is the truth. Artemis chose you to lead her people. Goddesses don’t make mistakes. She knows, just as I do, that you’re the best choice the Amazons could have made for a leader. You’re an intelligent, loyal, and more compassionate woman than about any I’ve ever known. When it comes to them liking you, well, most of them will. Some may be reluctant, but that’s simply because change isn’t easy and this caught them off guard. Granted, some may have to be convinced, but I believe some time with you should cure that. There will be some, though, that won’t like you.”

“That’s exactly what I don’t want to hear. What do I do about them?”

“Nothing. Because there isn’t anything you can do. They’ll be the ones whose minds can’t be swayed. They’ll dislike you for a variety of reasons. Some may be angry, not with you, but over Melosa’s death. They may not like the fact that you married me. They may think that puts them at the Empire’s mercy. I think the most likely reason is that some of them will be jealous of you. It may be because of your talent or your abilities. They won’t like that you’re a strong, independent woman. They won’t like that you can do things they cannot. And, there’s not one single thing you can do about people like that. You’ll make yourself sick trying.”

I paused to give her a chance to think about what I said. My words were merely an obvious observation, but I hoped that, coming from me, they would hold more import to Gabrielle.

“Gabrielle?” I said at last to her continued silence.

She stirred slightly and I heard that slow, deep breathing, punctuated occasionally by a light snore. I leaned my head back against the tree and smiled. I figured if she had finally relaxed enough to fall asleep, then she must have taken my words enough to heart to convince her.

I motioned to one of the guards. “Tell Captain Atrius that I want to camp here for the night. We’ll start out again in the morning,” I commanded the soldier. He rushed off to inform my Captain.

We stayed there, under that tree, for some time. I listened to the thunder, far off over the mountains. Some time later, I rose to my feet and gently lifted Gabrielle into my arms. I walked back toward our camp, easily carrying Gabrielle’s slight form, hoping Atrius had already thought to raise our tent.

hhhhhh{ggggg

“They’re an advance welcoming party come to officially greet you,” Ephiny said to Gabrielle.

“Welcoming party? They look more like a lynching party,” Gabrielle muttered.

I almost laughed aloud, and I noticed the slightest hint of a smile playing on Ephiny’s face, as well. Gabrielle’s observation had been more than accurate. We had spoke of that very thing over our morning repast earlier in the day. I warned Gabrielle of the adversarial relationship that existed between the Amazon Nation and the Greek Empire. I explained that chances were good the Amazons would be uncomfortable welcoming armed soldiers onto their land. Not to mention that the last time many of them had seen me had been in battle, when the Amazons surrendered and I gave them their freedom for fealty to the Empire. I had thought of little else, since we broke our fast that morning, but that day fifteen summers ago. I warned Gabrielle not to expect too much from these women in the way of cordiality toward me.

Gabrielle learned that up until the day Melosa had shown up for our joining ceremony, the Amazons and the Empire had always teetered upon a fine line between ally and enemy. The friendship that now existed between someone like Ephiny and I would definitely be something new to the Amazons. The looks on the faces of the women who now presented themselves to us made that much apparent. I shuddered to think what they would think if they knew that their sisters, who traveled with us, had actually made friends with a few of the centaurs.

Ephiny broke ranks to move ahead and greet an Amazon warrior. The stranger was evidently a high-ranking officer. She wore a thin leather armband died a scarlet color, indicating her rank. Warriors alone wore the armbands, the color system identifying their rank. Grunts wore plain, undecorated leather; middle officers wore a pale blue tinted armband, while high-ranking officers, such as Ephiny, wore purple. I remembered that the scarlet color put this woman just below the elders of the village.

The stranger rather looked the part of someone of import. She sat aside her horse quietly, yet with a regal bearing. Blonde hair, cropped close to her head and brown eyes were strangely reminiscent of Ephiny’s features. She appeared to be a good five to ten summers older than Ephiny and I wondered if they were kin of some sort.

She and Ephiny exchanged a few private words as the rest of us waited patiently. Ephiny didn’t take long about returning, leading the Amazon officer to stop their horses before Gabrielle and I. Ephiny briefly looked at me, but she addressed Gabrielle, which is rather what I expected.

“Queen Gabrielle and Lord Conqueror,” she said formally. “Let me introduce you to Adara of the Panther Clan. Adara, Xena the Conqueror, and her Royal Highness, Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation.”

Adara bowed her head low, even though she remained seated upon her horse. “Your Highness,” she said. She smiled and her eyes reflected nothing but goodness. I thought such a disposition slightly out of place for a warrior.

“Please, Adara, I lean toward familiarity. Call me Gabrielle.”

Adara smiled again. “Then you must call me, Addie. It is what I am called by all my sister Amazons.”

Adara’s inclusion of Gabrielle as a sister Amazon had not been lost on those Amazons close enough to hear the conversation between the two women. Everyone seemed to relax slightly. It was obvious, to me at least, that this woman had just sized Gabrielle up and found my wife’s first impression acceptable. I felt rather certain that this was why she came out to greet Gabrielle.

“With your permission, Gabrielle, allow me to introduce you to our fellow sisters of the Panther Clan.”

I watched and waited as Gabrielle spurred her horse ahead and toward the waiting welcoming committee. The Amazon Nation was made of many tribes; each with their own Queen, but each tribe also split themselves into many factions or Clans.

The Amazons tended to be an equal sort of people, meaning that the Clans were not set up as a caste system. One Clan did not have more say or power over another. Rather, the individual groups were simply comprised of women with an expertise in one particular area. The Panther Clan, I knew, contained strong warriors, perhaps the best the Amazons had to offer. Ephiny herself was a member of the Panther Clan. One woman, usually the eldest, or most respected from each Clan then comprised the Elder Council. The Queen obtained most of her advice and guidance in running the Nation from the Elders.

The Clans contained women from every region of life from basket weavers to weapons experts. Even cooks had their own Clan. The whole idea behind the groups, as Ephiny had explained it to us, was that young Amazon girls who had strong ideas about what they wanted to do with their lives, trained, and sometimes lived, with the other women who excelled in that area. Most girls did not leave their homes or anything as Spartan-like. The system worked quite well and I often wondered if the lack of fighting and backbiting, politically, wasn’t because being women in the first place, they already knew what a caste system was. They lived in a male dominated world and Gaia had already placed them in a natural sort of social order.

I must admit, Gabrielle’s choice of clothing today had been a smart one. She didn’t care for the heavy gold traveling armor. It made her hot and uncomfortable, but she had come to realize its necessity. Of course, now it simply created an impressive sight. To the Amazon warriors, it made Gabrielle look as one of them. Her compassionate and courteous demeanor would then appease those who were not fighters. Her beauty helped too, I thought as I smile to myself. Amazons were not averse to the effects of a beautiful woman.

Adara introduced Gabrielle to the welcoming committee comprised mostly of warriors from the Panther Clan. I hung back beside Ephiny. She had spent the last few days explaining what would probably happen upon our arrival. I knew what to expect, which made it all a little less nerve-wracking.

We had decided earlier that the bulk of our army would camp just outside the borders of the Amazon territory. A number of soldiers had already left early that morning with Solan and Yu Pan when they made for Centaur land. Solan had wanted to say hello to his centaur family and friends before meeting up with us at the Amazon village. The Amazons became considerably friendlier knowing we entered their land with only our friends, family, and personal guard.

I was to play a secondary role to Gabrielle here among the Amazons. True, I was the ruler over all these lands, but this time was for Gabrielle. I knew and understood that. In the past, such action would have made my blood boil, so it was with some little surprise that I actually felt comfortable in the role of inactive participant.

We rode into the village, which had obviously prepared for some time for Gabrielle’s arrival. I watched Gabrielle more than anyone or anything else. She had begun to play her role, much the same way she did as when we rode into Athens. It was not in her nature to appear imposing and regal, but when the moment called for it, such as now, she played her role impeccably.

Additional introductions were made all around, not only between Gabrielle and the Amazons, but also between our family and our hosts. Gabrielle introduced Cyrene as he mother in law, and Cyrene beamed. The Amazons treated my mother as royalty herself, since they held a great deal of respect for their elders.

We watched as different Clans presented their colors, followed by music and dance. The center of the village, which was actually the size of a large town, overflowed with Amazons among the fringes. It appeared that everyone wanted to see the new Queen, besides witnessing history. Once Gabrielle accepted the Queen’s mask, the Amazons and my Empire would unite in a way they never had before.

Finally, Adara introduced Gabrielle to the Elder Council. Gabrielle, in turn, introduced me. It was all rather stiff and formal, nothing like the cheering and shouting we experienced upon entering Athens.

“The ceremony to pass over the Queen’s mask will be held this evening,” Adara explained as the onlookers slowly dispersed throughout the village. “We hope that you and your family will stay with us here in the village instead of your soldiers’ encampment.”

“We would be honored,” Gabrielle replied after looking at me for agreement.

It would be different, to be sure, but I imagined that it wouldn’t kill us.

“Ephiny told me that she has already explained the need for the two of you to be joined before the Nation. We don’t mean to prolong your time here unnecessarily. I hope you are agreeable to this Lord Conqueror?” Adara asked.

“I have no wish to go against tradition. Whatever your people request, I’m sure can be accomplished without too much trouble. Time isn’t a consideration when it comes to keeping the customs of my wife’s people,” I responded.

My reply seemed to satisfy those around us immensely. I knew that recognizing the Amazons as Gabrielle’s kin would go a long way with these people.

Adara assigned each of our families a couple of Amazons to act as guides. They would be our liaisons while in the village, but I understood that they would watch what we did and said just as much as they would assist us. Ephiny exchanged a few words with Adara out of earshot of the rest of us. I wondered what they said until they approached Gabrielle and I.

“Ephiny has expressed a wish to act as your escort during your stay,” Adara said. “Is that acceptable Gabrielle…Lord Conqueror?” They always seemed to add me as an afterthought.

“It’s most welcome,” Gabrielle said, and then looked to me.

“I believe our friend will make a superior guide,” I answered.

Much as she tried to hide her surprise, Adara’s face gave away her emotions. I was certain that she couldn’t wait to speak with Ephiny in private.

Each of our escorts, as Adara had called them, led us away from the center of town and back into the trees. I knew the homes of the Amazons would surprise the majority of our fellow guests. Few of us had ever seen the Amazon living accommodations before.

The heat of the day immediately eased as soon as we entered the lush, green forest. It was humid, yet cool in the shade. Gabrielle’s eyes sparkled as she turned her head this way and that, looking upward into the trees. Her eyes reflected the same verdant color surrounding us. In all her scrolls and stories, I was sure she had never known of this. No one knew how the Amazons lived, but their own people. It was an unusual honor for Amazons to even invite strangers to stay inside the village proper.

Gabrielle’s awe was over the tree homes that filled the ancient trees of the forest. Amazons had perfected the art of living high up in the trees. Walkways connected their homes yet were hardly used, the Amazons preferring to hop from branch to branch, a skill learned at a very tender age. They were not small, childhood forts. The Amazon homes were large, each family having many rooms to call their own. Staircases of wood, vine, and bamboo encircled the outside of the tree trunks. They had not fashioned the stairs for strangers alone, but for small children and those too elderly or injured to scramble among the tree’s numerous intertwined branches.

The trees were enormous and went so high up as to touch the blue of the sky. The area bustled with activity. Women cooked, cleaned, and visited with one another. Children laughed and played, all to nature’s music of the forest. It reminded me of a time past, and my heart instantly felt at peace. Perhaps, given my history here, that should not have been so, but there had always been a sort of cleansing feel to entering the forest of the Amazons.

I looked at my companions, and I could tell that they felt it, too. It lingered in the air like a pleasant odor and could be felt as though it emanated from the very ground beneath our feet. I knew what the others traveling with me did not, that if we had continued walking further into the forest, to its very core, we would come upon a tree so large that it put the others to shame. Here is where the feeling would be at its strongest. The ancient tree was hollow, carved out long ago after one of Zeus’s thunderbolts ended its lifeline. It was far from a dead tree, however. It was the temple of Artemis, patron Goddess of the Amazons, and the feeling emanating from its center was the power of the Amazons.

hhhhhh{ggggg

“I’m absolutely…well, I’m in awe,” Gabrielle said.

Ephiny smiled broadly, rather uncharacteristically I might add. She usually held her own counsel and her face was usually a mask. Pride in her homeland became evident in that smile.

“That’s why I didn’t tell you ahead of time. Nothing can prepare someone for the sight, and I wanted you to enjoy it without any preconceived notions at all.”

We strolled along the walkways, meeting people as we went. Everyone wanted to see Gabrielle, more out of curiosity at first. By the time we had arrived, and settled in the guest homes, those women who had traveled with us began telling their stories. I would guess that two candlemarks after we entered the village, word had spread of Gabrielle’s exploits. I heard some of the whispers and smiled to myself. They talked of how Gabrielle had defeated Queen Melosa in a fair fight and how the small Queen had risked her life to save the former Queen and her daughter. The Amazons, who saw more of Gabrielle in action in Athens than I, told of how Gabrielle’s trick of darkening the harbor and ordering the warships there under cover had effectively ended the Persian attack. Before we had touched the final stair down to the ground, Gabrielle had earned nothing short of Goddess status in Amazon eyes. Try as she might, however, it was almost impossible to get them to forgo formality and call her Gabrielle.

Once I landed upon firm ground, I turned to give a hand to Gabrielle. The last stair was slightly higher above the ground than the space between the other stairs. Just as I grabbed onto Gabrielle’s hand, something hit my legs and bounced off as if hitting a wall. I looked down at my feet and so it must have felt that way to the small girl lying dazed at my feet. Gabrielle narrowly avoided stepping on top of her. Moments before I had seen the child racing along with a stream of other children playing with a ball.

The youngster shook her head and looked up at Gabrielle. “Hey, watch where yer goin’, huh?”

I believe I heard the entire village make one collective gasp. One of their children had just treated the Queen as if she was a dockworker. I nearly fell to the ground in hysterical laughter.

Gabrielle, too, smiled down at the girl. “Why, pardon me,” Gabrielle said.

Ephiny picked the girl up by the back of her leather top, a disapproving glare on the warrior’s face. “Is this the way you talk to your Queen?” She took a better look at the girl’s face. “I don’t know you. Who do you belong to?”

Before the girl could answer, one of the many young women assigned to our family as escorts rushed forward.

“Amira, shame!” she said.

“Where does this girl belong?” Ephiny asked the young Amazon unknowingly. The rest of us heard the name and froze.

The young woman looked up at Gabrielle and I, then over to Ephiny. She did that a number of times as she stammered. “I—she—well, she’s…she’s Amira…the…” she paused and looked Ephiny straight in the face, rolling her eyes in our direction repeatedly.

“Oh!” Ephiny finally realized what the young woman was trying to say. “Gabrielle, I’m sorry—it…”

Gabrielle dismissed Ephiny’s apology with a wave of her hand, but she never took her eyes off the girl at our feet. Amira looked up at the adults around her with curious eyes, but no fear. She seemed to take it all in stride. I bent and lifted her off her feet in into my arm. I stood so we could all get a good look at her.

She smiled at me and I recognized her in an instant. Dark hair, the color of my own, and skin darkened from time in the sun. What stood out were her eyes. Just as Acasia said…as green as Gabrielle’s own.

She sat there swinging her legs back and forth and looking at everything below her. “Wow…just like bein’ in a tree up here.”

“Tell me your name again?” I asked.

“Amira,” she replied.

“Your mother gave you a beautiful name,” I said, glancing between Gabrielle and the girl. Tears rolled down Gabrielle’s cheeks, but her smile was a happy one.

“It means, princess,” Gabrielle added before her voice broke and she couldn’t continue. She seemed unsure of what else to say even if she could have calmed herself enough to speak more.

“Really?” Amira’s eye open wide.

My heart went out to her, but I knew she was simply experiencing the greatest joy of her young life, and the encounter overwhelmed her. The daughter whom she had thought dead for these past five summers had suddenly come to life. The child had not simply materialized, but she appeared happy, healthy, and the very image of her mother. I knew for I had met Gabrielle at the same age.

“Who are you?” Amira asked, pointing at me.

“My name is Xena and this is Gabrielle.”

“Uh oh,” Amira responded, looking down at the ground and wearing a rather guilty expression.

“Uh oh what?” I asked.

“She’s the new Queen,” Amira leaned toward my ear, yet whispered loud enough for all of us to hear. “I was supposed to be good around her today. I forgot.”

“I think you’re being very good,” I whispered back.

“Why is you so sad?” Amira pointed a tiny finger at Gabrielle.

It was as if I went back in time. There was that smile, the open, honest expression, and those eyes. At that moment, I was sitting in a meadow and a youngster had just given me a rose, so I would no longer be sad. The child had been Gabrielle all those summers ago, but this girl was unmistakable as Gabrielle’s daughter.

“Gabrielle isn’t sad. She’s very, very happy,” I answered for Gabrielle.

“But, she’s cryin’.”

“That’s just her way of being happy.”

The youngster didn’t look quite convinced, but accepted my words as the truth.

“Maybe if you’re good, Gabrielle will tell you all about it later.”

Amira beamed. Gabrielle reached over and brushed dark bangs from the girl’s face.

“Are you going to the ceremony this evening or is that past your bedtime?” Gabrielle finally composed herself enough to ask.

“I get to stay up special. All us kids do.”

“Well, how would you like to sit with us and the rest of our family at the ceremony?” Gabrielle asked.

You would have thought Gabrielle had placed a bag of gold in the girl’s hands. Amira appeared exuberant. “Yes, please.” She turned to look at the young Amazon woman who had scolded her earlier. “Shauna, is that okay?”

“Absolutely,” Shauna replied.

“So, it’s all settled then,” I said.

Amira tugged on my sleeve and again whispered loudly. “Are they gonna make you take a bath, too ’cause of tonight?”

I couldn’t help laughing this time. I had a feeling Amira and I were going to be good friends
Chapter 32: My Heart Is Like A Singing Bird…
“What do you think?” Selene asked as she twirled her body around so we could see her from all angles.

“Oh my,” Cyrene said. “It’s very…Amazon, isn’t it?”

“That the whole point, Mother. I sort of wanted to blend in, you know? Xena…Gabrielle?”

We all sat together in the large guest quarters afforded to Gabrielle and I. We shared a midday meal with our family and friends, but most of them had left to look around the village and to give Gabrielle some quiet time before the ceremony. Gabrielle was to meet with the Elder Council first. They would actually approve her right to the Queen’s mask. If they did indeed approve of Gabrielle’s bid for Queen, the official ceremony to hand over the Queen’s mask would then take place.

Gabrielle cried for a long while once we returned to our quarters. They were tears of happiness and perhaps some frustration. It took everything in her not to scoop Amira up and tell her who her mother actually was. She held herself back, knowing it was best for her daughter to learn of Gabrielle in a subtler manner. One good cry later and Gabrielle became much more animated. The pride in her daughter came out in her voice, even the expression on her face.

We all sat back during the meal and listened to Gabrielle with amused grins. She went on and on about Amira; how pretty she was, and wasn’t she smart? Every other sentence started with Amira’s name. It never became tiring. Everyone here loved Gabrielle dearly and each of us thanked Athena for blessing Gabrielle with such a gift. Actually, the reason Gabrielle was even in Amazonia took a secondary position, so thrilled was she upon meeting her daughter.

Just now, we sat with my Mother when Selene burst in to show us her new garb. Funny how seeing strangers half clad in leather didn’t bother me in the least, but seeing my sister dressed that way made me want to beat the Tartarus out of the Amazon who had suggested such attire in the first place.

I felt Gabrielle’s hand go to my shoulder and squeeze lightly. She sat on the arm of my chair and I could see that the smile on her face was a little strained. Even she thought Selene’s clothing somewhat sparse, she also saw what I saw in my sister’s face. Selene was happier than I had seen her since first meeting her. She finally found a place where she felt accepted for who she was. Perhaps that was why my mother acceded to Selene’s wish to ‘fit in’.

“There’s not much to it,” I couldn’t keep myself from saying.

Gabrielle squeezed harder, but her smile grew larger. “What she means is that what’s there is beautiful, Selene.”

“Thanks.” Selene smiled and looked down at herself. “I know there’s not much to it, but it’s the way all the women dress here. I just wanted to…you know…Xena, you’re not going to be ashamed to be seen with me, are you?”

Suddenly my sister sounded like a frightened child. I, of all people, understood the need to fit in, to feel accepted by one’s peers. All at once, I felt very ashamed at the way I had treated her, as though she didn’t have a brain in her head. On the contrary, Ephiny and Gabrielle already had Selene reading philosophy scrolls by Socrates.

I woke from my musing to see everyone in the room staring at me. I knew that the next words out of my mouth might very well spell out how the rest of our lives would be lived, Selene and I. The relationship with my new sister was important to me, and even though heartfelt chats were not my forte, I decided that we needed to speak alone.

“Would you two mind leaving Selene and I alone for a moment?” I looked to my mother and Gabrielle.

“Of course not,” they both said in unison. They jumped up far too quickly, and I found it slightly reminiscent of rats leaving a sinking ship.

My mother had given me free reign in helping to raise my younger sister. It was an honor of sorts and I didn’t want to disappoint Cyrene. We had talked in Amphipolis and Cyrene decided to become much more lenient in raising Selene. Since the girl would be my ward while visiting Corinth, Cyrene had said that I could set down as many or as few rules as I thought best. Unfortunately for Selene, I had been accustomed to running an army of undisciplined men. Rules by the bucket load were my choice.

“What?” Selene drawled, looking at me suspiciously.

I rose and walked near to where she stood.

“Don’t come any closer, Xena. I’ll tell mom,” Selene said, backing up to the wall.

“Oh, please. Where do you get all this paranoia from? Come on, let’s sit over here.” I led her to the back balcony of our quarters. It was quiet and peaceful there, facing the rest of the forest instead of out toward the bustle of the village.

I sat down on a stair, Selene warily taking the spot beside me. “Why are you acting that way?” I questioned her cautious behavior.

“Well, I figured you were setting me up for something. You’re usually not this nice to me.”

I chuckled. “I guess I’m not, am I? Sorry about that.”

“Did Mom make you do this?”

“Will you stop. Mother didn’t make me say anything. I just thought…I know I treat you like…”

“An idiot,” Selene finished.

“Yea, well, I’m sorry about that. Hades, I guess I am just an old…what was it you called me? Yea, an old crabapple I just…you know there are things in the world, Selene, people that will hurt you if you let them.”

“I know that, Xena. It’s not as if I’m a child. I may not have been out of Amphipolis, but I do know some things. Plus, I know that you wouldn’t act that way if you didn’t care about me.”

I smiled. Like Gabrielle, Selene had said the words that I had been unable to speak aloud. I had to prove to her that I could act like an adult, too.

“I do care, Selene. You’re my sister and I love you. I think that sometimes I look back at my own life when I see you. I grew up much too fast, learning adult things long before I was mature enough to handle the knowledge. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.”

“I guess I understand that, but you can’t protect me forever, Xena. I know you mean well, but I’ve seen seventeen summers. Most of the girls my age are married and have children already.”

I thought about her words and realized the truth in them. She was a young woman and I looked upon her as a child.

“I suppose I wanted you to stay as a child. I never had a sister before I met you. I guess I just wanted you to be my little sister for a bit longer.”

“Hey,” Selene said, nudging her shoulder against mine. “No matter how old I get, Xena, I’ll always be your little sister.”

“I guess that’s true, huh?” I gave her a hug and we finally laughed at ourselves. Knowing my family and my own inherited temper, I knew this was far from the last disagreement Selene and I would have. There were sure to be many more fights over the seasons, but it had not been that long ago when I didn’t have a family to argue with.

“Now, about that outfit,” I said at last.

“You hate it, don’t you? What? I look terrible in it, don’t I?”

I couldn’t help but smile to myself. The girl’s paranoia put mine to shame. I wondered if it was something we inherited from Cyrene.

“It’s a bit revealing, but you look rather beautiful in it.”

“Really?” She beamed over at me.

“Really. Now, if anyone touches you inappropriately, what do you do?”

Selene held up her right hand as though swearing an oath. “I slap her face and scream your name.”

I laughed aloud. “Atta girl.”

hhhhhh{ggggg

Sitting comfortably at my appointed place within the sparsely decorated Council quarters, I watched as Adara introduced Gabrielle to the Elder Council. Adara made it clear to me, in her rather easy going and subtle way, that I was there simply as an observer and because of my relationship with Gabrielle. I took no offense, smiled, and tried to be as even-tempered as possible.

This demeanor would have been impossible in days past, but I was a different woman now. Besides, I knew everything I did and said here would reflect upon my wife. Gabrielle took her position among these women quite seriously. We spoke numerous times about it, talking and planning how we would handle her Amazon reign. It would not always be easy, but Gabrielle had explained to me that she felt a sort of bond with these women. And, after having distanced herself from her own blood family, a people she could call her own became that much more important.

The afternoon’s meeting with the Elders of the tribe was a test of sorts. I was uncertain as to how they planned to go about it, but Ephiny said that the Council had to validate Gabrielle’s claim to the Queen’s mask. Unfortunately, Ephiny and Velasca had been the only Amazons truly close enough to hear both Timara and Melosa when they gave over their right of royalty to Gabrielle. A great deal rode on Ephiny’s honor among these women, considering that she was the only witness left alive. If the Council didn’t believe Ephiny, I didn’t know what we would do.

I saw the Priestess, Satena, was also present. Ephiny had obviously garnered Satena’s testimony as one in Gabrielle’s favor. The priestess had traveled with Melosa’s party when the Amazons presented themselves in Corinth. Satena had confided some time later that the reason she traveled with Queen Melosa had been a series of visions she had revolving around a new Queen who would take the Amazon race to new heights. Everything told the Priestess that she would find that new Queen in Corinth.

A part of me felt as though that time had been ages ago. Satena had indeed found her new Queen and she stood before all of us just then. The Elders, twelve of them in all, each held a place at a large, curved table. Gabrielle stood before them, standing nearly in the center of the giant emblem painted on the wooden floor. The circular design held a separate image, one for each of the Amazon Clans.

“Queen Gabrielle, first we would like to make it clear that we call you by this title as a courtesy. You are indeed Queen of the Empire, but whether or not we will offer you the Queen’s mask has yet to be determined,” Adara said.

“Understood, and I thank you,” Gabrielle replied.

They began, then. The council spoke individually to Ephiny and Satena, and the women of the Royal Guard. They even asked a question or two of me. Lastly, the council spoke collectively to some of the Amazon warriors who had been present in Corinth.

Looking on, I saw one or two of the Elders taking occasional notes upon flat pieces of parchment, while others nodded thoughtfully at the testimonies. In fact, most of the women seated on the Council did a rather outstanding job at hiding any emotion they might have felt. Their faces were as impassive as stone. I could not tell one way or another how Gabrielle fared in their eyes.

Eventually the time came for them to speak to Gabrielle. I wondered what she would say. In fact, up until the moment we had left for the Council room, Gabrielle wondered what she would say. How could she convince a race of women, to whom she was a relative foreigner, that she should be Queen, that they should obey her every word without question? Even I waited on the edge of my seat to see what words she would utter.

The Elder, Venora, spoke first. “Your Highness…Gabrielle,” she smiled. “We have heard from all present about what kind of a woman they think you are. Besting Melosa in a fair fight tells us of your skills as a warrior. Your actions in Athens during a time of war certainly speaks highly of your ability as leader and strategist. We have also been told of your willingness to risk your own life in order to save the life of Princess Timara, which shows us all that the stories of your heroics are quite true. These, however, are merely tales to those of us not present at the time. Unfortunately, we do not have the time to let your character speak for itself. So, I ask you, what kind of a woman are you?”

Gabrielle looked around the room. She paused when our eyes met and I smiled slightly, nodding my head a small bit in encouragement.

“Well, I was there, and even I’m impressed by the way you’ve made me sound.” She chuckled and most everyone in the room followed her lead. With that nervous, but oh so human gesture, everyone relaxed just a bit more.

Gabrielle bowed her head and looked at the floor. She stood still, her hands folded loosely in front of her. When she looked up again at the women before her she appeared more at ease.

“I have to say that I’m honored to be among you. I’m very glad that I’m here, no matter what your decision may be. I admit that when Melosa offered me her right to the mask, I don’t think I realized all that it entailed. That was before I had taken on the duties as the Queen to the Empire in earnest, however. I’m a much more learned woman in those areas now, and while I’m flattered at the words my friends have used to describe me, I need to add a little clarity.”

“Are you saying that someone lied?” Adara sat up straighter in her chair.

“No,” Gabrielle responded quickly. “Absolutely not. It’s simply that…well, perspective is a funny thing. What you see depends on where you’re standing at any given moment.”

“So you think our sisters simply see you differently than you see yourself?” Venora questioned.

“Exactly. Let me say again that considering me for such a role honors me immensely, but I don’t want to mislead you in any way.”

“Gabrielle, you rather sound as if you’re trying to talk us out of considering you for the Queen’s mask. Actually, you talk as though you don’t want to be Queen of the Amazons,” Lexa, another Elder, said.

“Part of me certainly doesn’t want it.”

Nearly everyone in the room held their breath, their eyes bouncing between Gabrielle and the table where the Elders sat wearing curious expressions.

“Let me explain,” Gabrielle hurriedly continued. “There is a part of me that wishes I was off living a simple life on a small farm somewhere, far away from the cares and responsibilities of royal life. That, however, is not my life and most of me wouldn’t have it any other way. Being in positions of power yourselves, I think most of you can understand what I mean. Those who lead carry such accountability upon their shoulders.”

As Gabrielle talked, I noticed that one or two of the Elders nodded in agreement.

“I am living the life I have been fated to live,” Gabrielle began again. I love what I’m doing and who I am. I am no hero, nor am I a famous warrior. To be honest, I have lived most of my life, since I was seven, anyway, as a slave. I’m sure most of you have heard the stories.

“I’m a simple woman, contrary to what my position within the Empire implies. I have lived a life that’s been both blessed and cursed, and I existed by doing whatever was necessary in order to survive. I suppose that’s what my new friends speak of. I believe we all have the potential to act with compassion, strength, or even heroics. I live my life now just as I did when I was that slave, doing whatever I need to in order to survive.

“When you ask me what kind of a person I see myself as, I can only say that I am what you see, no more and no less. I am no Goddess, no super human, only a woman who tries her best. If you approve of me as leader of your people, I will do exactly the same, whatever has to be done in order to see the Amazons thrive as a race.”

“And do you see any conflicts arising given that you would be Queen over two realms, so to speak?” a different Elder, Onyeka, asked.

“Please, don’t think that I have or would enter into this situation without much thought. Xena and I have discussed that very thing, but in all our talk, we could not conceive of a circumstance where I would ever have to choose one people or domain over another.”

“But, if you did have to?” Lexa prodded.

“Lexa, you ask her to answer concretely regarding an abstract scenario. It is impossible to answer,” Adara responded in Gabrielle’s defense.

“Very well,” Lexa continued. “Gabrielle, if the need to choose between the Amazons and the Empire arose, who would have your loyalty?”

There was silence as Gabrielle thought exactly how to answer. I knew, however that unlike others in the same position, Gabrielle would be completely honest.

“I won’t lie to you. My loyalties will never waver nor change. My first allegiance will always be to my wife, and I could never betray Xena. Rather than ever have to choose, I would like to think that intellect and a cool head would be beneficial in arriving upon a compromise instead of an ultimatum.”

“Well said,” Adara responded.

I could see that many of the Elders were impressed with Gabrielle’s sincerity, but there were still a few, among them Lexa, who looked unconvinced.

“So, you’re telling us that when it comes right down to the quick of things, you will side with the Empire against us,” Lexa said, proving my suspicion of her attitude.

“I don’t look at it as standing with the Empire, I see it as standing beside my wife.”

“Perhaps, but how can we know what will happen for certain?” Lexa said.

“Again, Lexa, you condemn her for an action she may never commit,” Adara added.

“Or an action that she may.”

“I am not a Goddess, I cannot see the future, but I feel from Gabrielle’s words that your scenario will never come to pass. At the very least, I see her doing everything in her power to avoid such a thing.”

You’re right, Sister,” Lexa began. “Perhaps to be safe, we should consult with Artemis.”

“You know that could take moons for Satena to receive an answer.”

“Then, maybe we move too quickly.”

“Satena has made it clear, Sister, exactly when the Queen’s mask must be accepted,” Adara replied firmly.

No one else in the room spoke, but some of the Elders looked at the floor, self-consciously aware of the tension between Lexa and Adara. Their conversation and the strained tone in their voices told me that this wasn’t the first time the two women took the opposite sides of an argument.

“Um, excuse me,” Gabrielle addressed Adara and Lexa.

They paused to look at Gabrielle.

“I don’t pretend to understand everything you’re talking about, but if you have questions as to my legitimacy, why don’t we simply ask Artemis?”

Gabrielle looked at me and I nodded, thinking it a most sensible suggestion.

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle, we should have made you more aware. As you know according to Satena’s visions, the mask ceremony must take place before the new moon. What you probably are not aware of is the amount of time it would take to contact Artemis. There would have to be ceremonies, prayers, fasting…it could be moons before Satena feels the spirit of Artemis contacting her.”

“The spirit of Artemis?” Gabrielle repeated.

She looked at me, and I shrugged my shoulders, just as unaware of what Adara was talking about.

“I was thinking more along the lines of just asking her. You know…in person,” Gabrielle added.

The Elders must have found Gabrielle’s question amusing because all of them chuckled lightly. Most were polite enough to cover their smiles with their hands.

“And, how do you propose we go about doing this ‘asking’?” Lexa asked as she looked around the room at her sister Amazons, seemingly encouraging them to humiliate Gabrielle with more laughter.

“Well…I…I mean,” Gabrielle looked nervously from me to them. “The last time, she just appeared when we needed her,” Gabrielle said.

I nodded my head in agreement, which caused every person in the room to look at Gabrielle and I as if we’d both lost our minds.

“You’ve met…actually spoken with the Goddess, Artemis?” Adara asked.

It was evident that she wanted to believe Gabrielle. I realized then that none of these women had ever seen their patron, which wasn’t very unusual. Some people lived their entire lives, serving one God or Goddess, without ever meeting them in mortal form.

“Yes,” Gabrielle answered. “You see it was actually Athena who introduced me to them.”

“Them?” Adara asked.

I knew where Gabrielle was headed, and I could see that, to these women, her story was about to go from ludicrous to completely unbelievable in a matter of moments.

“Well, there was Athena, Artemis, then Aphrodite showed up and I—”

Suddenly Adara laughed. “She’s joking, of course. Gabrielle, for a moment I actually believed—”

“I’m not joking at all.”

Silence, which is supposed to be no sound at all, filled the room with a deafening crescendo.

“I’m not sure I know what to say,” Adara responded.

“I do,” Lexa added. “If the potential Queen actually talks to the Gods, why doesn’t she simply summon Artemis for all of us to see?”

Adara looked over at Lexa and I saw what the Amazon warrior saw. It was a look of triumph in Lexa’s face, but there was something more. Lexa had been giving Gabrielle a Hades of a time for another reason. Obviously, Gabrielle had split open some sort of political power struggle within the tribe with her nomination as Queen.

Adara sighed silently when she looked up at Gabrielle. Lexa had beaten her and she could do nothing more than rely on Gabrielle. “Is this possible, Gabrielle?”

“Well, I—” she looked over at me. Actually, the entire room now stared in my direction, which made me extremely uncomfortable. I was in a position where I had to speak up.

“As we all know, the Gods are not ones to jump at our bidding. For some seasons now I have had a…well, a more in depth relationship with Athena than most mortals. I have always found that making an offering in the local temple a way of requesting her presence.”

“Artemis is our patron, as you know, Lord Conqueror, but do you suppose the temple of Artemis would suffice?” Adara asked me.

“I dare think so.”

“Are you aware that only Amazons may enter the holy temple? We can allow Gabrielle inside because the Princess Timara willed her rights as an Amazon to your Queen.”

“I am aware,” I answered. “I have faith that Gabrielle will have no trouble in summoning either Athena or Artemis.”

Gabrielle continued to stare at me in much the same way the rest of the room had only moments earlier. Once the Council decided that we would adjourn to the temple, we filed out of the building and Gabrielle and I walked side-by-side into the deep of the forest.

“But, Xena, I’ve never summoned any of the Gods’ before. They just…show up.”

“Don’t let them know that,” I indicated the Amazons around us. “You make an appropriate offering, you know the deal with that, and you ask Artemis to show up. If she doesn’t show, try for Athena.”

“Sounds easy,” she grinned, but the sound of her voice told me it was a facetious reply.

We must have made an odd site, but not one woman or child followed us. I suppose the strained, maybe even fearful expressions on the Elders’ faces discouraged any followers. I did notice that once again Ephiny and Adara whispered to one another as they walked.

We stopped before the massive wooden doors of the temple. Stained a deep, dark brown, they looked rather forbidding, closed and barred as they were. Satena directed two of the guards to remove the heavy wooden piece that served at lock. It seemed no wonder to me that Artemis never appeared to these women. In Corinth, Athena’s temple stood open every moment of the day or night so patrons could enter the sacred building and worship whenever they wished.

Satena directed the same two women to arrange a suitable offering. The women rushed off and returned less than half a candlemark later.

In the meantime, Adara looked to me. “Again my apologies—”

“No apologies are necessary, Addie. I understand the necessity for tradition and ceremony to be kept among your people alone.”

She looked relieved and I had to remind myself that she and I had most probably fought against one another in seasons past. These Amazons had as skewed a current view of me, as they had about the centaurs. She could have thought that I might lose my temper and start lopping off some heads if she hadn’t given me my way.

The two Amazons sent off by Satena returned, and Gabrielle and I watched as they deposited a fresh hind at the Priestess’s feet.

“I’m beginning to understand why you don’t see a lot of Artemis around here,” I said aloud.

“You find our offering lacking?” Satena questioned in an obviously offended tone.

I looked to Gabrielle to answer, since she had been completely aware of Athena’s wishes regarding offerings in her temple.

“Not lacking, just…well, imagine if someone threw a hunk of raw meat before you and expected it to be your dinner,” Gabrielle answered. “Or look at it as though someone really was setting this before you as an offering. Would you feel honored if another living creature lost his life just to pay tribute to you?”

“Are you saying that Artemis would be offended at our offering?” Lexa asked. It seemed as if she constantly tried to trap Gabrielle with her own words.

“Offended is rather strong. I’m simply saying that there might be more encouraging ways to entice your patron to make an appearance.”

“Such as?” Satena asked. Gone was her affronted expression. She sounded genuinely interested now.

“Well, I do know that Athena prefers silver in order to provide for her priestesses who care for the temple. She also enjoys flowers and living plants on her altar.”

“Interesting, but I and my novitiates are cared for by our tribe. We have no need for money,” Satena replied.

“I see. What do you do then with the game, such as this hind?”

“Our food is provided by the hunters of our tribe, so we give the meat to those less fortunate who live along the borders of our land. The gold and silver we do acquire is kept in the temple, unused.”

“Very admirable. I suppose—I mean I’m not an expert by any means—but, perhaps appropriate sacrifices should come from within.”

“Within?” Lexa questioned.

“Such as a personal offering or sacrifice. Lexa, what sort of role do you hold within the tribe, aside from serving on the Council?”

“I fashion staves. In fact, I carve some of the best staffs in all of the Seven Tribes.”

“Perfect, but you don’t just give them away, correct?”

“If I did, I’d go hungry.”

“Exactly, so a sort of personal sacrifice would be for you to give away one of these staffs.”

“Give?”

“I see exactly what you are saying,” Satena said while nodding her head. “Extraordinarily simple, yet I could see it being much more effective.”

“Well, now that we’ve learned that new step, perhaps we should enter the temple,” Adara said. “Are you ready, Gabrielle?”

“I suppose it’s as good a time as any,” Gabrielle said.

I gave her a strong hug before she turned away, quickly kissing her on the forehead. “Just remember who you are and why you want to talk to them, and they’ll appear for you.”

Gabrielle nodded her head and smiled. Perhaps I had been the only one who knew her well enough to see that it had been a front, a good one, but that might have been because she had been trying to convince herself, as well. When Ephiny walked past me, I realized that I hadn’t been the only one to see through Gabrielle’s false bravado. Ephiny looked at me with an expression that said she hoped Gabrielle knew what she was doing.

I hoped she did, too.

hhhhhh{ggggg
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I suppose I should have known that I couldn’t hide anything from Xena. She looked as nervous for me as I felt for myself. Ephiny had stayed by my side, even once we entered the temple. I noticed the same knowing expression on her face as Xena had cast in my direction. I hoped I could make the best of the situation. There had actually been no sense in worrying about something I didn’t have the power to change. I could do no more than request. Everything else lay directly within the power of Artemis and Athena.

I paused as we made our way toward the altar at the front of the temple. I’m sure that I appeared as a farm girl visiting Athens for the first time. Looking upward with my jaw hanging open, I searched the blackness above me. I had expected to see the sunlight sparkling through the branches, but the forest’s ceiling appeared nowhere in sight. Our soft booted feet caused echoes, lost somewhere high above our heads.

From the outside, the tree looked massive indeed. It had been at least twenty paces across. Once inside, I stood in awe. Everything had been kept as natural looking as possible. In some spots, roots as thick as my legs had pushed their way through the dirt floor when the tree had been alive. They had since been polished and fashioned into seats and benches. The walls looked polished smooth for as far up as I could see.

The absolute quiet had surprised me. I expected to hear sounds from outside. After all, this had only been a tree. I heard some muffled noises, but nothing I could distinguish. At the very front of the temple sat the altar. The altar had actually been a large slab of wood, sliced across the grain, and polished until it shone. It sat upon a grouping of tangled roots that came out of the ground like legs.

I guessed that a total of twenty or so women had entered the temple. The majority stayed back, sitting on the floor. It seemed apparent by their expressions that they hadn’t known what to expect. They looked around as they slowly sat, looking in the direction of the Elders, who, in turn stared at me. I hadn’t known how to tell then that I knew about as much about what would happen as they did. Instead, I kept that sense of outward confidence and turned to smile at Ephiny.

Ephiny stopped about six paces away from the altar. “I’ll wait here,” she said. I assumed to give me some sort of privacy.

I continued on to the altar and bowed respectfully to the beautifully carved likeness of Artemis. The artisan had been very generous in regards to some of the Goddess’s physical attributes. I wondered if the Amazons would be disappointed when they actually met her. My confidence level in her or Athena appearing had been relatively high. I worried more about the technique I would use to request their presence than whether they would actually show up. That surprised me sometime after the fact, but at the time, I had been much too caught up in the drama of the whole event.

What hadn’t surprised me had been the look on Lexa’s face. I had known from the start that she would be trouble. It had simply been the way she had looked upon me. I couldn’t fathom what she had against me, but it became clear that I hadn’t been the only person in that room with whom she had issues. My guess had been that some political tension existed within the Amazon tribe, and I just happened to walk into the middle of it.

I knelt before the altar, which had been customary for me. Xena had never been able to understand my reverence for the Gods, but then again, I’d never had them intrude and affect my life in quite the same way she had. Well, at least not in person as they had with Xena.

The good news had been that I’d been sure I looked as though I knew what to do. The bad news had been that after spending so much time discussing the correct sort of offerings to present to a Goddess, I had forgotten one myself. I had some obols in my pocket, but that seemed so impersonal and I hadn’t wished to offend, especially at a time when I very much needed someone to put in an appearance. I took a chance and offered something as personal as I could think of…my prayers and thanks.

They hadn’t even been prayers really. I had simply decided to talk to Athena as though she stood before me. Of course, recently enough good happenings filled so it hadn’t been hard to give thanks. Then, I thought about Amira.

How easy to think good and happy thoughts when I knew that not a hundred paces away, my very own daughter lay napping. They had tried, all those men. From the Persians to the barbarous pirates of Greece, including Ares, the God of War, they had all taken their turns at me. They had tried to defeat me and they failed, Athena had seen to that. She would always have my never-ending loyalty, but for saving my daughter, for that I had no gift large enough to offer her.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum

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” I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting for you to request my presence.”

Athena’s voice took me so much by surprise that I spun around and drew my sword out of sheer reaction. I felt rather embarrassed when I realized it was the Goddess. The Amazons standing near me also drew swords, but I made them step back and pause with a wave of my hand.

“What are you doing here and what in Hades are you talking about?” I asked.

“You—you didn’t call on me,” Athena replied, realizing something had gone wrong. “But, I felt something.”

“That wasn’t me,” I said through clenched teeth. “That was Gabrielle.”

“How odd. It felt just like you. Where is she?”

“She’s in there.” I jerked a thumb toward the temple in exasperation. “Gabrielle is the one summoning you.”

“What’s Gabrielle doing in Artemis’s temple looking for me?”

I slid my blade back into its scabbard and rather ungraciously took Athena by the arm and led her a few paces away from the still-amazed Amazons.

“I would think,” I began, my teeth still clenched tightly together. “That being a Goddess and all, you might already know.”

She pulled her arm out of my grasp. “You forget your place, Xena,” she snapped. “Look if I went around listening to every mortal’s thought, I’d quickly go insane. It doesn’t work like that.”

“Well, just try for a second. It would save a hell of a lot of explaining on my part.”

Her gray eyes took on a vague, far away sort of expression. It only took a heartbeat for clarity to express itself in those eyes.

“Oh,” she said, embarrassment clear in her face. “I guess I should—” She shrugged toward the temple.

“What a good idea.”

“Do you think—I mean, should I go in the front or just pop in?”

“Surprise me.”

She left in a sort of huff. I couldn’t blame her. I’d acted a tad exasperated with her. Although I tried to show some deference for Athena, the Gods just naturally got on my nerves. At the time, I think my poor disposition had been mostly due to worry for Gabrielle and what had been happening inside Artemis’s temple.

I turned around to find about half a dozen Amazons staring at me. I knew I needed some sort of explanation.

“Uh…she just needed directions.”

hhhhhh{ggggg

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

I admit that my mind had wandered a bit. My thoughts had begun to revolve around my daughter. The train of my deliberations grew longer and longer until I barely remembered what I’d come there for in the first place. I worried about how I would tell Amira that I was her mother. That notion had been overshadowed by the complete and utter joy I felt at first seeing her. She was so perfect, so intelligent, and utterly beautiful. Gods! Had I become one of those mothers? I didn’t want to be one of those women who doted on a child who wasn’t anywhere near as gifted as her mother thought her to be.

I had asked a few of the young women who had been in charge of caring for Amira since she’d been in the village, and they found the girl amazingly resilient. I hoped that some of that came from me, from my blood flowing within her body. My other wish had been that she had enough spirit to forgive me for giving her away. Xena saw it differently. She said that I had saved Amira from death on that day, but it would always be hard for me to view the experience that way. I suppose my guilt wouldn’t let me. I said a quick prayer asking Athena to give me the words to tell Amira. Athena!

With a sudden flash of clarity, I remembered what I was supposed to be doing at that moment. Athena’s presence helped to remind me.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come,” I said, remaining on my knees until she bid me rise.

“Yes well, that’s a long story.” She looked uncomfortable for a moment, but the expression didn’t last. “I’m here now and I understand you need a little one-to-one with Artemis.”

“I sure do. You see…” I stood closer and spoke in a volume that only she could hear. “The tribe seems to have some little political games going on and there are some who hope that I won’t be Queen. In fact, I think that they put me in a position where I had to call on you just to prove I couldn’t get you here.”

“Women!” Athena crossed her tanned arms across her golden breastplate.

“I ‘m just glad you made an appearance.” I looked over my shoulder and caught Ephiny staring at me oddly.

“Oh, they can’t see me.”

“What?” I lowered my voice to a sort of hiss. Actually, I whispered between clenched teeth. “Won’t they just think I’m nuts now—standing here talking to myself and all?”

“Not for long, little one. I’ll find Artemis and drag her butt down here. She’s probably off hunting somewhere, so it may take a little while, but I’ll be back.”

“Okay.” I know I sounded a bit unconvinced.

“Trust me?”

She cupped her hand against my cheek and suddenly my doubt vanished. I don’t know if it was some sort of godly power or if it was the look of compassion those gray eyes displayed. Either way I mustered up a confident smile for her.

“Always, Athena.”

“That’s my girl. Artie doesn’t mean to ignore these gals, but she’s extremely shy. I know mortals don’t think that about Gods, but we have our traits, too. My sister hates crowds and people seem to frighten her for some reason. Besides, have you seen the offerings these guys give?”

I chuckled. She was right. I’d never thought about the Gods as being afraid of anything. Perhaps, like Xena, Artemis just didn’t excel at small talk and that made being around people a rather frightening prospect.

“I’ve sort of spoken to them about the offerings. I think they’re willing to work on that.”

“Thank goodness. Okay, Gabrielle, wait here and…well, just stall them, I guess.”

She disappeared leaving behind her customary gold shimmers of light. Her last words hadn’t exactly filled me with confidence. I still felt wonderfully trusting that she wouldn’t let me down. What I lacked confidence in was what I was going to say to Ephiny, who stood staring at me just then.

“Are you okay,” Ephiny asked under her breath once she’d moved closer.

“Sure,” I answered. I tried to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary had just happened, that I hadn’t just spoken with an invisible Goddess.

“Are you sure?” She just stared at me.

“Oh, all right. I can’t lie to you anymore than I can fool Xena.”

“Where you talking to yourself?”

“No, I was not. I’m not some sort of lunatic, thank you very much. Athena was here. She’s gone to get Artemis.”

“I couldn’t see her.”

“She was invisible to everyone else.”

“Uh huh.”

Ephiny couldn’t have made her disbelief clearer than if she’d simply come out and said she thought I had lost my mind. We spoke low enough so as not to be overheard, but our expressions had obviously made Adara aware that something had gone amiss. She came closer and bowed her head in close to ours.

“Is everything all right?”

Ephiny looked at me with that infuriatingly patient look she had, but remained silent.

“Oh, fine! Go ahead and tell her,” I answered.

“Athena showed up and told Gabrielle that she would get Artemis,” Ephiny responded.

There was a long pause before Adara spoke. “I didn’t see anyone, Gabrielle.”

“She was invisible…Athena,” Ephiny added.

“Really?” Adara asked. “Can I ask you a question, Gabrielle?”

I wasn’t too certain I wanted to say yes. I could see what was coming. Adara wore the same expression as Ephiny had.

“Sure, go ahead,” I finally said.

“I—well, I feel sort of stupid for asking, but—what was she wearing? What did she look like?”

I almost laughed aloud at the childlike quality to her voice and her wide-eyed expression. She may have been a battle-hardened warrior, but there hadn’t been a trace of doubt in her voice. She simply accepted my words as truth.

“Well, let me paint you a picture…” I began. I proceeded to give her a very detailed image of the Athena that I knew, while Ephiny rolled her eyes in apparent embarrassment.

When Athena told me that it would be some time before she returned, I took her at her word. I hadn’t realized remembered that time was a rather abstract concept for immortals. Time didn’t pass for them as it did for us, and so, it lost a little something in the translation. So, when Athena and Artemis appeared behind me after only a short while, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

I knew immediately what I would see when I turned around. The temple went eerily silent, more than mere quiet. Not one Amazon in the room looked past me without her mouth hanging open and a stunned expression on her face.

“I told you I wouldn’t let you down,” Athena said, followed by a bright smile.

“I knew you wouldn’t,” I replied.

“Gabrielle.” Artemis stepped forward and took both of my hands, kissing each cheek in turn.

Artemis looked beautiful, her auburn hair cascading down her shoulders and back, green eyes alive with an emerald fire. She wore leather, hunting attire, however, which said that Athena had been correct about her sister’s whereabouts.

The Goddesses looked past me and I turned to begin introductions. I did wonder if I was required to introduce anyone. After all, wouldn’t a God already know each person? I didn’t want to appear rude, though, so I prepared myself to speak. I couldn’t resist the quick peek I took at Lexa’s face. Yes, it was rather childish of me, but I suppose human nature to have puffed my chest out a little more. I admit I enjoyed that the woman’s attempt to cut me down had failed. I didn’t understand Lexa’s motivations, but I had seen that expression she wore before, the look of defeat.

I introduced Satena, Ephiny, and Adara first, then the members of the Elder Council. No one said a word. If they hadn’t nodded their heads upon hearing their names, they could have been mistaken for statues.

“What’s wrong with them?” Athena lowered her voice and asked from behind a smile.

“They’re just a little…nervous.” I struggled for the right word. “They’ve never seen a God before, but they’re sort of in awe, since Artemis is their patron.”

“Artie, you’ve never even been here?” Athena admonished her sister.

“I have so! I just use a spell of invisibility.”

“She’s shy,” Athena whispered.

“Don’t you have somewhere you have to be?” Artemis glared at her older sister.

“Not at all. In fact, I can spend the whole day here with you.”

“How did I get so lucky,” I heard Artemis grumble.

It made me smile, the interaction between the two. They reminded me of Xena and Selene. They each stopped talking when they realized all eyes stared in their direction.

“Yes, well…where were we?” Artemis asked of no one in particular.

“Perhaps Satena can explain best,” I said.

I didn’t want to tell this story. It felt too much like being a child and tattling. What was I supposed to say? You told me I could be Queen, but these ladies won’t let me? Having Satena explain things was a good idea. She was one of the few people present who I felt would give a completely honest and unbiased account of the impasse we experienced.

“Your worship—” Satena began.

“Please, Satena, Artemis will do,” Artemis replied.

“Thank you. I don’t know how far back to start. Actually, I have done all that I felt you instructed me to do.”

“You translated my wishes to perfection.”

“I’m honored. Gabrielle has come to stand before the Elders so they might ascertain whether she is the rightful heir to wear the Queen’s mask. That seems to be where we ran into a little…I suppose the term would be difference of opinion.”

“I’m not sure I understand where trouble could have started,” Artemis walked around the semicircular dais as she spoke loudly and to no one in particular.

I wondered if it was my imagination when I saw her glare for a quick moment in Lexa’s direction. I do know Lexa had decided to hang her head and examine the tops of her leather boots. It could have been coincidence, but I had my doubts.

“Satena and her novitiates are my emissaries. My wishes for my people go through them. Now, it appears that Satena understood that I selected Gabrielle as my chosen. Gabrielle is here to accept the leadership of this tribe. She is not here to have people test her, people who have no understanding of what it means to lead people, what concepts like integrity, compassion, and loyalty mean.”

Artemis had obviously grown angry as she spoke. I looked over at Athena and she looked at me as though she wished she could intervene. Perhaps I was the only one there, aside from Athena, who understood that Athena would have humiliated her sister by intervening in front of us.

“I am disappointed in the Elders, thinking their wishes take precedence over mine. Let me ask, were my wishes not clear?” Artemis continued.

I knew what I’d been about to do might be a huge mistake, but nothing, especially being Queen, could be worth turning my back on these women. With the exception of Lexa, I truly believed they hadn’t done anything to deliberately disobey Artemis. Actually, I didn’t even really think Lexa had that in her to do. So, I decided to speak up.

“Um…” I stepped forward and raised my hand as if requesting permission to speak. Frankly, the look on Artemis’s face frightened me. “To tell the truth I—um they—well…I don’t think it was…very clear, I mean.”

Satena lowered her eyes. “It’s my fault, Artemis. I must have misinterpreted the dreams you sent me.”

Suddenly, everyone wanted to take the blame.

Perhaps it had been my willingness to step into harm’s way, I don’t know, but Athena decided to back my cause.

“Artie, did you actually tell the priestess of your temple here what you wanted?” Athena asked. “Tell her that Gabrielle was the one and that she was a lock for the job?”

“I—I…well, I—” Artemis looked around at everyone, at Satena with her bowed head, the Amazons practically on their knees, and my frightened expression.

She looked at Athena, but couldn’t quite meet her sister’s gaze. She mumbled something out of the side of her mouth.

“What?” Athena asked.

“I said it’s my fault!” she shouted.

I knew instantly that Athena was the older of the two sisters. Artemis didn’t want to admit her fault, but she gave in under her big sister’s rebuke. I couldn’t help smiling. Artemis looked around and saw my smile. Looking down sheepishly and back up again, she smiled along with me.

“Okay, so the whole message in a dream needs a little work,” Artemis added.

“Artemis, couldn’t you meet with Satena in person when you have certain wishes for the tribe?”

“What? In person?” Artemis replied. If she had been mortal, I would have thought that expression she wore had been fear. “Oh, I don’t know about that.”

I noticed that a number of the Amazons looked thoroughly disappointed. “You know I—I certainly don’t mean any disrespect, but I…”

“Gabrielle, I chose you to lead my people because I thought playing coy wasn’t in your repertoire. Spit it out.”

“Sorry. I could be wrong, but isn’t it sort of…well, an insult to your people not to want to ever talk with them?”

I believe I heard a few people actually gasp. I felt as though I should maybe close my eyes tight and wait for Artemis to lop my head off with the golden short sword she wore on her hip.

“Of course it is and meeting with them right now is the place to start to clear things up. What an excellent idea, Gabrielle,” Athena said as she slapped her sister on the back. Artemis blanched at Athena’s remark.

The Amazons present were in shock, followed by awe. At first, they didn’t know what to say. Moments later, they all decided to speak at once. I think that was simply too much for the Goddess, whom I just realized actually was painfully shy, so much so that it bordered on a fear of mortals. Athena silently nodded to me and indicated the Amazons closing in on us.

“Ladies!” I turned on my commanding voice, the one I rarely used. Everyone stopped in mid-thought.

“Let us remember that this is our patron and a Goddess. Artemis does want to become more accessible to her people, but she is also due the respect due a God. I think a little decorum is in order, don’t you?”

The silence didn’t last long.

“You are absolutely correct, Gabrielle. Our apologies, to you as well as Artemis,” Adara bowed her head after speaking.

The women surrounding her nodded their heads as if offering their own apologies for overwhelming Artemis. Their actions convinced me that these women were indeed a people that I wanted to become a part of. They had a nobility and honor about them. They appeared to have a deep respect for others as well as themselves. I appreciated their behavior and certainly toning it down had calmed Artemis a small bit.

“Perhaps we could all take a walk around the village?” Athena suggested happily.

Artemis glared at her and leaned in closer. Only a few of us were close enough to hear her remark.

“Wait,” Artemis whispered. “Don’t I hear father calling you?”

“Nice try,” Athena said just as quietly. “Shall we go?” she asked loudly to us all.

“Addie, would you mind giving us a short tour of the village?” I asked.

“It would be my extreme honor, Your Highness.”

Adara squeezed my hand gently. I didn’t bother to admonish her for using my title instead of my name. I understood why she had done it and I felt just as honored by her vocal acceptance of me as her Queen.

We filed out of the temple just as we had entered, in single file. Satena stayed near Artemis and I believe the familiar face comforted the Goddess. When I caught Athena’s eye, I mouthed the words thank-you. She simply winked at me.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum

hhhhhh{ggggg
” Well, I see there’ll be two more for dinner,” I said as I hugged Gabrielle.

She looked different somehow. Perhaps only a candlemark or two had passed, but I felt as though I had sent a girl into that temple and a woman now greeted me.

“I see Athena finally found you,” I said.

Athena glared over, pretending to ignore my comment.

“What do you mean, finally?” Gabrielle asked.

“I’ll explain later,” I replied with a chuckle. I simply couldn’t ever let Athena think she’d gotten away with something.

Whatever Gabrielle had done or said inside had impressed the women sufficiently. We walked along with the Elders, Athena, and Artemis led by Adara. My keen hearing picked up snatches of conversations from the women surrounding us. They spoke of how wonderful Gabrielle was, how smart, compassionate, the list went on and on. I smiled to myself. Had these been the same women who joined with Lexa in laughing at Gabrielle so short a time ago?

Adara stopped occasionally to introduce Gabrielle to some Amazon or another. She then left it in Gabrielle’s hands to say something to the Goddesses. Athena was her usual confidant, smiling self. Artemis, on the other hand, looked as though she would lose her morning meal at any moment. I must admit, though, that by the end of our tour through the village, Artemis had lightened up considerably.

“The women here are more amazing than I ever gave them credit for,” Artemis said.

“I’m glad to be a part of them,” Gabrielle answered. “Will you both come back this evening for the mask ceremony?”

“Oh, I don’t—” Artemis began.

“Wouldn’t miss it for anything,” Athena interrupted, nudging her sister in the back.

Artemis looked suitably chastised from one look by Athena. The Amazon patron smiled and touched Gabrielle’s cheek. “I suppose if you can change as much as you have, then I should be able to do the same. Of course, we’ll be there. In fact, I want everyone to see me place the Queen’s mask in your possession.”

The Goddesses left in their customary, leaving behind their essence that hung in the air as shimmering pieces of light. The Amazons around us, actually, the entire village seemed to pause in amazement. I thought I saw Athena wink at someone just past me, but when I looked, there was no one there and too fast, they were gone. Gabrielle and I exchanged a look as though trying to substantiate what we’d both just seen, but we shook it off, being there were more important things at hand.

“Well, is anybody else hungry? I sure could do with a meal.” I put my arm around Gabrielle and grinned.

The Amazons just stood and stared at me for a moment and then returned to looking at one another. I laughed aloud at their expressions. These women just had no idea how their lives were about to change.
Chapter 33: Dost Thou Know Who Made Thee…

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I paced through the spacious rooms that made up our home in the Amazon village. I should have been obsessing upon the coming evening’s festivities. That would have made sense at least. Instead, I wrung my hands and walked back and forth, waiting for something as innocent as seeing my own daughter again.

Xena had gone with Ephiny for a tour of the Amazons’ training facilities. After I’d seen my wife strap on her sword, I felt the need to extract a promise from her. She gave me her word that she wouldn’t pummel any of my new subjects too badly. I thought it important, at least on our first day there.

Everyone seemed to conveniently find something to do for the afternoon. I wasn’t sure whether I appreciated the gesture or not. I wanted more time. What would I say? How would I explain to a child of five summers how and why I had given her up…why her mother had never been around?

In the midst of my fretful behavior, Nia, the young woman who had cared for Amira since her arrival in the village, cleared her throat to announce herself.

“Your Highness?”

I must have looked as though my mind had been off traveling a thousand leagues away. “Yes, Nia, please come in.”

Nia entered holding the hand of a smiling Amira. The youngster always looked cheerful, as though fear had been something she hadn’t quite comprehended yet. I knew it could not be, but I wished that it would be so. She looked around the room, and I noticed that expression which said life, every day in fact, was a complete adventure.

“Hi, Gab—um, yer Highness,” Amira finished after a stern look from Nia.

“Gabrielle is just fine. I thought that maybe you and I could visit for a bit, Amira. Would you like that?”

“Sure.” She continued to look around the room as she spoke.

I quickly wondered what a youngster her age could get in trouble with inside our quarters. I hoped that Xena hadn’t left any of her weapons anywhere about.

“Shall I stay?” Nia asked.

“No, thank you, Nia. We’ll be fine. Perhaps you might ask the cooks to bring ’round something to eat?”

“Right away, Your Highness,” she said before hurrying off to do my bidding. I had serious doubts whether I would ever be able to convince these women to treat me informally.

Even after my time in the palace at Corinth, I had a difficult time getting used to anyone fetching and carrying for me. It still felt odd to tell someone what to do. The Amazons made it quite easy. They were nothing if not highly organized. All I had to do was ask for something and seemingly, moments later someone laid it at my feet. Thus, before long, Amira and I sat down to a wonderfully prepared lunch.

We’d both eaten more than our fair share. Amira had inherited my appetite, but the way she bounced around the room, I could certainly see how she stayed so tiny. She was her mother’s daughter and I was happy not to see her father when I looked into her face.

“These are my favorite.” Amira pointed to a plate of small meaty pastries. They tasted like spicy bits of lamb meat wrapped up in a bread-like pastry.

“Then you should have the last one,” I replied.

“Oh, no. That wouldn’t be po—lite.”

She had pronounced the word as if saying, oh. It seemed suspiciously as though she’d recently learned the word. I didn’t want to spoil her, even though I knew that might become inevitable. I would try to guard against it, I thought to myself. I did want to commend her, however, for such courteous behavior.

“Well, usually you always offer the other person the last one of anything, but in this case, since it’s just you and me, you go ahead.”

She appeared to think about it for a moment. “We could share.”

“Hhmm, what a good idea. I’m proud of you for thinking of that, but I’m getting sort of full, so you go ahead.”

“‘Kay,” she quickly replied, reaching for the pastry, and taking a large bite.

We talked about all manner of things during the afternoon. Amira was certainly hard to stop once she started. Our discussion was to my benefit, since I found her intelligent beyond her years. She had big ears and a quiet tongue most of the time; much like her mother had been as a child. Amira listened to conversations when no one paid her any mind. I learned an enormous amount of information about the people and habits of the village. It was information untainted by bias or political affiliations, the village as seen through they eyes of a child.

Amira had to thoroughly investigate everything. She examined the contents of some of the clothing baskets we had packed. She came upon my armor vest and it intrigued her the most. She attempted to lift the vest.

“Ooh, this one is heavy!” Amira said.

“That’s because it’s armor. I wear it when I travel out in the open.”

“It’s pretty.”

“Pretty uncomfortable.”

“You should wear this tonight. Everyone will know you’re Queen then. You’ll sparkle jes like Athena.”

She moved into my lap and snuggled against me. It felt wonderful, like nothing I’d ever experienced before. She did nothing but play with her fingers and hum to herself, appearing as comfortable as though we’d never been separated her entire life.

“Amira, how did you already know I was going to be Queen?”

“I heard it. Somebody said it. Can you ride a pony?” She changed the subject.

“Yes I can. In fact, Xena taught me. Amira, what other things have you heard?”

She shrugged and snuggled against me further. “Things.

This was my opportunity. I would tell her now. I should start slowly. Begin with when Xena freed me. No, before that. I would have to tell her I had been a slave, probably explain what slavery was. Perhaps I should tell her about when I was her age. Of course, then I would have to explain about my mother and father and that could get tricky. I could always—

“Are you my mama?” she sat up straight to ask.

My brain wanted to answer, but the girl’s directness had frozen my tongue in place. I could do no more than nod my head.

“Good.” She smiled and returned to her comfortable position, snuggled against my chest.

“Why good?” I found my voice enough to ask.

“Cuz you’re nice. I hoped it was you, but I been waitin’ a long time. Athena said you would be nice.”

“Athena? Athena speaks to you?”

“Yep, since I was just a kid. She said not to ever tell no one, so I didn’t. I figure it’s okay now, though, since I saw her talking to you, too, today. Ya think it’s okay now, Mama?”

I knew tears might frighten her, but I couldn’t stop them. All this time, Athena couldn’t directly interfere in our lives, but she had watched over my daughter, just as she had watched over me in my life.

“Yes, I think Athena will understand. Amira, is that okay with you…me—your mother?”

“Oh yea! I knew it was gonna be you. I watched when you guys was walkin’ around the village. I climbed up a tree so’s I could see better and Athena winked right at me before she disappeared.”

“So, that’s who she winked at.” I tickled her belly and Amira giggled and squirmed in my grasp.

“Are those happy tears again?” she asked.

“Yes, they’re very happy tears.”

She thought about that and then replied, “You’re happy a lot, huh?”

“I am now, little one. I am now.”

She seemed satisfied with my answer. I wondered how she would take leaving the village that she’d so recently called home. “Will you mind leaving the village and coming to live in Corinth?”

“Will Xena be there, too?”

“Yes, she will.” I chuckled. “I wouldn’t go anywhere without her.”

“Okay, that’s good. What’s it like at your home?”

“Well, it’s a very big castle by the water—”

“I won’t have no friends.” Her mind jumped around so fast that it made me more sympathetic toward Xena having to tolerate the way my mind worked.

“That’s not true. You’ll know lots of people there, Selene and Anya. Remember Anya’s little girls?”

“Yea,” she answered with a giggle. “I like them.”

“And Selene is your aunt because she’s Xena’s sister and Cyrene will be your grandmother. Cyrene isn’t coming to Corinth, though.”

“Why?”

“She’s going back to her own home, but we can visit there again so you can see where she lives. Besides, I bet you’ll love Xena’s little brother, Cor.”

“Okay.”

Amira went back to playing with her own fingers. She obviously had the ability to adapt to any situation without too much turmoil. I imagined Athena had blessed her with that trait. It hadn’t occurred to me just then that it had actually been an inherited trait of my own.

“Amira, do you—um do you want to talk about this anymore? You know, about me being your mother?”

“Nope.”

“Okay.” I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t know if I should even bother telling her anymore. She appeared content with the information she had.

She turned and her green gaze made me feel as though I had been looking into a reflective device, such as the highly polished piece of round metal that reflected my image when I dressed.

“Do you?” she suddenly asked. “Wanna talk?”

Her concern made me smile. “I—well—um, After all this time, I’m not sure what to say. Do you have any questions for me?”

“Ooh, ooh, Mama?”

“You thought of something?” I asked out of relief from the awkward silence.

Her eyes lit up like stars in the sky and she bounced up and down on my lap. “Can I have a pony?”

I laughed at the girl’s train of thought. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m not laughing at you. Yes, I just bet Xena would love to teach you to ride a pony.”

“Yeah! I’m gonna like Cormith.”

Xena and Ephiny walked in with what I considered perfect timing. They looked hot, dirty, and as though they’d just fought off an army. They looked a little too happy with themselves, so I assumed they’d gotten the better of whomever they’d fought.

“Xena, Xena…” Amira ran up and leapt into Xena’s arms.

I watched the exchange, silently contemplating how uncharacteristically comfortable Xena looked as she held Amira. It warmed my heart to see such a thing, for both their sakes.

“Well, hello there, Princess. Why are you so excited?”

“Mama sez I’m gonna live with you guys in Cormith.”

Xena looked surprised, but she covered well. “You don’t say?”

“Mama sez I’m gonna have lots of friends.”

“Oh?”

“Mama sez I can have a pony.”

“I see.”

“Mama sez you could teach me to ride a pony.”

“Oh, I think I can manage that.”

“Can I have a sword? Please, please, please?”

Amira surprised both of us with that request. Xena just laughed.

“I bet Mama didn’t say the sword was okay, did she?”

Amira giggled and shook her head.

The girl was quicker than I gave her credit for at first. I think there was some inevitability that brain of hers would lead to trouble someday. Amira was just too smart, and I could see that it would be a full time job being a mother to a daughter such as her.

I shook my head at Xena as she caught my eye.

“Well…maybe a wooden one,” Xena responded to claps from Amira.

“It’s been a long afternoon, Amira. I think maybe a nap is in order if you’re going to stay up late tonight,” I said. I actually couldn’t wait for my daughter to see me accept the Queen’s mask that evening.

“No, no, no,” Amira cried out and hid her face in Xena’s shoulder.

I smiled at the antics I had seen numerous children display at the word nap. My wife, however, had never had the experience.

“Well, if she’s not really tired—” Xena hedged as she looked at me.

I crossed the room and placed a hand on Amira’s back. She hid her face behind her hands and pressed her face against Xena. “I don’t know,” I said, winking at Xena. “I’m pretty tired. I think Xena and I were going to have a bath and then take a nap. You could always join us.”

“Okay,” Amira quickly looked up smiling as though the counterfeit tears had never begun.

“You little faker,” Xena teased the girl.

I took Amira from Xena’s arms and my child put her arms around my neck as though we’d been doing it for seasons. I noticed Xena had a darkening bruise on her cheek, just under her eye.

“Did someone hit you out there?”

“It was sparring, love. It’s to be expected.”

“But you? Someone got close enough to do that?” I admit to surprise, but I quickly closed my mouth. I hadn’t wanted to embarrass Xena in front of Ephiny.

“It happens.” She shrugged and then poked Amira in the belly. “Race you to the bathtub!”

Amira squirmed until I set her on the ground then she and Xena raced off. I’d never seen Xena act so young before and it pleased me immensely. Just before they took off, however, I caught the brief glance Xena had cast in Ephiny’s direction followed by the Amazon’s uncomfortable looking expression. I could have imagined the entire thing, but if I hadn’t known better, I would have said that Xena tossed a warning glance at Ephiny.

Before we even had a chance to warm the water for our baths, a commotion outside drew all of us to the window facing the village.

“A pony!” Amira cried out, jumping up and down.

Amira’s delight caused more of a feeling of dread for Xena and I. Below our window a number of Amazons, swords drawn, surrounded a centaur, Solon, and Yu Pan. Xena and I didn’t even take the time to say anything. We looked at one another and rushed out the door, me in my dressing gown yet.

“Stop that. Stop that at once!” I shouted.

I was uncertain from where that forcefulness had come. Thinking back, I do remember surprised expressions on the faces of those who knew me well. The Amazon guards looked unsure, but their elders had confirmed me as their queen and these soldiers were nothing if not disciplined.

“Put your weapons away at once!” I ordered. Seeing well-meaning strangers treated in such a way would have irritated me, but watching as the guards treated my family as criminals, it made my blood rage.

The six Amazon guards hesitantly returned their blades to their sides, looking questioningly at one another. Lexa strode into the middle of the fray, one of her elegantly carved staves grasped in one hand. I quickly wondered if she would always just happen to show up when there was trouble about.

“What are you doing on Amazon land?” Lexa demanded of the centaur. She spat the words, which did nothing to cool my ire.

“I’ll handle this situation, Lexa,” I said. I should have been more diplomatic, but my anger had gotten the better of me. I didn’t think how those around us would perceive my words, but to the other Amazons, Lexa just moved down a peg in the village hierarchy.

“Of course, your majesty.”

Her reply was anything but amiable. I imagined her using the same tone to call me an unforgivable name.

“Someone please explain what has happened here,” I asked.

“If I may, Your Highness. I am Neely, of the Panther Clan. I am the officer in charge of the border guards today. We stopped these men and the centaur from trespassing on our land without prior permission. They did say that they knew you and the Lord Conqueror, so we brought them here under guard to verify their story. Forgive the use of our weapons, but until I could corroborate their story, I would not allow them to harm anyone in our village.”

I thought about her words and caught Yu Pan’s eye. He nodded slightly and gave me a tiny smile. His look could say so much. Perhaps it was the connection we seemed to share. Maybe it was simply that his expression told me now was the time to calm myself. I took a deep breath.

“These gentleman are members of my family,” I explained.

“Again, forgive me, Your Highness. We didn’t—”

“You’ve done your job well, Neely. I should have thought ahead and made arrangements for them to enter the village. I didn’t mean to take you by surprise.”

She acted taken aback by my words, yet pleasantly so.

“The centaur is a member of your family?” Lexa asked. I’m sure she had remained silent for as long as she possibly could.

“No, Lexa, I think that’s apparent, but he is a friend. I believe I made it clear to the council that under my rule, all centaurs are friends to the Amazon people and welcome in this village.”

I looked over at Neely and the other guards. “The wars and constant bickering between the centaurs and Amazons is at an end. I’ve received assurances from the centaurs regarding this peace, also. Is that understood?”

“I—” Neely looked around at the growing circle of Amazon onlookers. “Yes, absolutely, Your Highness.”

“I know it’s not going to happen overnight, but I do expect the Amazons to do the right thing in accepting the olive branch that’s been extended.”

Neely smiled as though finding something amusing about my statement.

“Do you disagree?” I asked.

“Not at all, Your Highness. In fact—”

She stopped abruptly, looking around us. I noticed that Lexa had made herself scarce. Could that have been who Neely had searched the area for, also?

“Well, may I just say that you’re a breath of fresh air here in Amazonia.”

“Thank You, Neely. You may return to your jobs. You did the right thing, of course.”

“Your Highness,” the women said in unison. They appeared slightly reluctant to leave, but could do nothing else since I’d dismissed them.

Xena walked up to stand before her son. “And you,” she said sternly to Solan. She couldn’t hold the expression and grinned. Solan followed her action and they ended up embracing good-naturedly.

“Master,” I embraced Yu Pan. I had so much to tell him, but being the man he was, it was a certainty that he somehow knew much of my news.

I noticed that a number of Amazons had gathered around us, mostly to see the centaur. The girls, no older than Amira, hadn’t yet learned or cultivated their elders’ hate for the centaurs. They hadn’t met one before and were obviously intrigued, as was Amira. Lexa, of course, had already slipped away.

“Are you a pony?” Amira asked.

The young centaur reared back his head and laughed at the tiny girl. He appeared to be Solon’s age, dark good looks and long, black curly hair. I felt a good, somewhat easygoing aura about him. He had laugh lines around his mouth, a good sign. He bent his torso down low to speak to Amira.

“Have you ever seen a pony who could talk before?” he asked.

Amira shook her head.

“Then I must be something else.”

“What?” she asked.

“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Dresillus Silway de Bretagne, and I am a centaur.”

“What’s that?”

“They really must be teaching these Amazons new ways,” the young centaur said to Solon.

“It’s sort of a long story,” I interrupted to say.

“Dre, this is my mother, Xena the Lord Conqueror, and her wife, Queen Gabrielle,” Solon introduced us. “You heard my arrogant friend’s introduction. Most everyone just calls him Dre.”

“I think Xena and Gabrielle will be good enough,” Xena said, stepping up and grasping Dre’s hand.

“And this,” I motioned to Amira. “Is my daughter, Amira.”

“Well, well,” Solan began. “So, this is the little princess.”

“How do you know that’s what my name means?” Amira asked.

Xena bent and lifted Amira into her arms, bringing her up to our level. “Amira, this is my son, Solon. I’m his mother just like Gabrielle is your mother.”

“Hi there, little sister,” he said and Amira smiled broadly.

“He’s big as a tree jess like you, Xena.”

“But not as big as this fellow.” Solan slapped his friend on the shoulder while laughing.

It appeared that Solon and Dre were old friends. Considering how Solon acted when we first met him in Corinth, having such an amiable friend rather surprised me.

“Oh, yea. He’s real big,” Amira exclaimed. “Can I have a ride?”

“Amira, centaurs aren’t animals for us to ride,” Xena explained. “They’re people like you and me.”

“Oh.” She looked confused and I couldn’t say I blamed her. “Sorry.” She was becoming quite familiar with that word.

“Nonsense,” Dre replied. “That doesn’t count for little girls and pretty ladies. Would you really like a ride?”

“Really? Yes, please. Can my friends come, too?” Amira pointed to a group of young girls standing at the corner of our home.

Dre laughed. “Absolutely. Come on, little princess, your big brother Solon can sit up there with you.”

Xena lifted the youngster into Solon’s grasp once he’d vaulted himself easily onto his friend’s back. Amira looked down at the ground and for a moment, I thought she had inherited my uneasiness for high places.

“Look at me, Mama!” she called out, clapping her hands.

I waved as Dre trotted over the group of young girls. I doubted any of them would have been brave enough to mount Dre’s back if Amira hadn’t been there first, encouraging them. The first few girls seemed worried, but by the time everyone had taken a turn, they all laughed and giggled at Solon, Dre, and their terrible jokes. Many a mother stopped what she had been doing to watch the odd sight. Some were shocked; a few didn’t look happy, but most simply watched in surprise. They may not have known it at the time, but the scene they witnessed was indicative of the way their lives would soon change.

“That was fun, Dre, thanks a bunch,” Amira said, breathless in her excitement.

Once Amira had returned to my side, I nodded to Yu Pan. “I want so much for you to meet someone, Master.”

“Ahh, and this is Amira,” he said.

He bent down and Amira walked right up to him. She certainly had no fear about her. Centaurs, strangers, nothing appeared to shake her. Yu Pan didn’t have to stoop very low, since he stood no taller than I did. He pulled an object from the folds of his robe and held it out to Amira.

“A present for the princess,” he said, handing the object to Amira.

“For me?” she asked, accepting the gift. She smiled and her eyes brightened when she unwrapped the cloth, revealing a beautiful cloth doll. “Mama, look.” She held the doll up for my inspection.

“How beautiful. Amira, this is Yu Pan. He is a very dear friend of mine. In fact, I think of him as my father.” The words came so easily, but that had been the first time I had ever publicly recognized my relationship with Yu Pan, beyond mere friendship. I immediately wondered what his reaction would be.

“Then you are my grandpapa!” Amira pointed at Yu Pan.

He seemed delighted and straightened up to laugh aloud, something we rarely saw him do. “I suppose you could look at it that way. Then we will share a special name. Shall we? You may call me lãoyé (pronounced lou- [as in loud] yuh).”

It took her a few tries to wrap her tongue around the foreign sounds, but she did an admirable job.

“Thank you, lãoyé,” Amira said politely. As I said, the girl had no fear in her. She took Yu Pan’s hand and started to lead him away. “Would you like to see where we stay?”

Yu Pan’s eyes crinkled in laughter and he winked at me before he turned to follow Amira. My heart felt extremely full at seeing the wonder and love in those aged eyes of his. He was the father of my heart and it made me happy to see that he felt much the same. We all chuckled at Amira as she walked away, hand in hand with Yu Pan.

“See, this isn’t our forever home. Pretty soon, I’m gonna go back to Cormith with Xena and Mama. And when we get there I’m gonna have new friends and a room of my very own, and a pony, and a wooden sword, and Xena promised—”

They finally moved out of earshot and we all laughed.

“Yep, she’s definitely your daughter,” Solon said, followed by more lighthearted laughter.

“Oh, hush.” I slapped his arm and he put on a mock wounded expression that reminded me of his mother.

“I’m so sorry for the welcome you received,” I said.

“Well, I admit, when the Corinth delegation got back and told everyone what had occurred, there were many disbelievers,” Dre began. “When Solan showed up with his friend, Yu Pan…well, let’s just say that the change in him made believers out of us all.”

“Hey,” Solan said.

“Sorry, mate, but you know it’s the truth.”

“Yea, I guess I was pretty much of a prig, wasn’t I?” Solon laughed.

“What I want to know is how it happened. How did you turn this arrogant ass into a real human being?”

Solan glanced quickly over at Xena and then me. He grinned that lopsided smile that reminded me so much of his mother. “I guess you could say that I finally had some sense beaten into me.”

“I want to hear all about it someday and not from you. I hear the Queen is the storyteller in the family.”

I laughed the compliment off. “Frankly, life has moved so fast lately that there’s been little time for stories.”

“And, to what other secrets has my son made you privy?” Xena asked, wearing a smile.

“Are you kidding? All he’s done in the last day has been to talk about you and his new family.”

Solan’s cheeks turned red in his embarrassment. He stared down at his shoes then looked up to find all of us smiling at him. “I—uh…it was—I—oh shut up!” he punctuated his exclamation with a hard punch to Dre’s arm.

Solan laughed along with us and Xena grabbed him and affectionately tousled his hair. He looked rather young when she did that. In fact, Xena did, as well. I had noticed the changes in Xena’s attitude, mostly toward the children, since we had first left Corinth. Once I thought about it, I realized that it hadn’t been only toward the children. Her whole view of life, her very posture had lightened, as though she no longer carried the burdens of the world upon her strong shoulders.

It wasn’t only her attitude that had grown younger, but it appeared as though she had actually grown physically younger. Was I going mad? Gone were the white wisps of hair at her temple that she possessed when I first met her. The tiny lines around her eyes and mouth had all but disappeared. I thought my eyes played tricks upon me, but there it was the physical proof of it. I wondered if Xena had noticed the changes.

“Solan! You’re back.” Selene’s voice took me away from my reflections.

She and Solan embraced. They had become rather good friends during our time in Amphipolis. Our extended family had created the oddest of compatriots. Technically, Selene was Solan’s aunt. With the relationship they had developed, I would have thought them brother and sister. That had never been more apparent until Dre caught sight of Selene dressed in her Amazon garb.

“Introduce me, mate,” Dre said.

A very familiar expression crossed Solon’s face. Oh, no, I thought to myself. He’s going to be as protective as Xena for her little sister. Gods, the girl was destined to be an old maid.

“Um, Selene this is Dre. Dre—Selene,” he said abruptly.

“Hello.” Selene took Dre’s hand, a certain expression of awe on her face. She quickly realized that she’d been staring. “I’m sorry—I—”

“Have never met a centaur before. Don’t worry; we’re even. I’ve never met an Amazon before,” Dre responded. “At least not one as beautiful as you.”

“Yes, well…” Selene was obviously flattered, but quickly excused herself.

“What are you looking at?” Solan questioned his friend as Dre’s eyes followed Selene’s retreating figure.

“Hey, mate, you can’t tell me you haven’t noticed how gorgeous she is.”

“She’s my aunt! My mother’s sister,” Solan explained.

“Little sister,” Xena added.

“Ah, I understand,” Dre responded.

“Besides, she likes girls,” Solan said with a smug grin.

“Hades, man, do all the women in your family like other women? No offense intended,” he said in my direction.

“None taken,” I replied with a sympathetic smile.

“Pretty much,” Solan added.

“Moving on,” Xena prompted. “What brings you this way, Dre, besides Solan?”

“The truth is that he’s one of those odd centaurs who actually likes Amazons. Actually, he likes anything in a skirt.”

“Very funny. It’s true in one respect, though. Personally, I’ve always wondered why we kept such an age-old feud going, since most of my family can’t even remember how it got started in the first place. Officially, I’m the tribe’s emissary. Kaliepus wanted to check with Gabrielle first to see if sending a delegation of my people here for your coronation this evening would be appropriate. We want to share in such a momentous occasion for both our peoples.”

“I think it would be very appropriate,” I replied. “It’s also much appreciated. I’ll be sure to alert the guards this time so they’ll be expecting you. Please, tell Kaleipus that I greatly appreciate him taking this first step.”

“Speaking of the ceremony, we still have things to do,” Xena said.

“I hope you’ll come back with Solan this evening, Dre,” I said.

“Absolutely.”

We caught up with Yu Pan, sitting on the steps to our home. He still listened intently to Amira’s ramblings. We said our farewells and I motioned for one of the guards standing nearby to escort the men and Dre from the village. I didn’t want them to run into trouble on their way out. After they left, I sent a message to Ephiny so that she would alert the Elder council about the centaurs coming to the evening’s festivities. It was perhaps happening faster than I planned, but peace had come to these two peoples and there was no time like the present to begin.

Xena, Amira, and I headed off once more for those hot baths.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum

Continued in Chapter 34

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