Chapter One: On the road
A banging sound roused her from bed in the middle of a moonless night. Still half asleep, she reached for her clothes and shoes, and fastened the sturdy copper plaited leather belt around her waist. When the middle-aged woman finally answered the harsh knocking on her back door and opened it cautiously, two soldiers of the First Order rushed in and quickly closed the door.
Rude behaviour was something she expected from the soldiers of the Conqueror, but never before had she been molested in her own home, her house was officially off limits - obviously 'was'.
A thousand equally rude comments flashed through her mind, but the instant she opened her mouth one of them handed her a scroll, firmly knotted with a leather thong adorned with the seal of the Conqueror.
"What does she want this time? It's nearer to dawn than dusk, and there's no one left she can threaten me with. It better be worth the lack of sleep." The irritated woman snapped in an attempt to hide her curiosity and fear.
"The Conqueror is dead, venerable Cyrene. We were ordered to see to your safety. Right this instant the council is in meeting to decide upon your fate."
"Dead? That's impossible, there was no war and no single fighter would even stand a shadow of a chance against her fighting skills. This can't be true." Cyrene said disbelievingly.
"Please open the scroll; it will answer some of your questions. But hurry, we probably don't have more than two candlemarks before the order is given to kill you, all other relatives, friends, and servants who may still be loyal to her."
The woman took a small knife out of her belt, severed the leather thong and opened the scroll. It said:
These are two of my most trusted soldiers, Theodorus and Palemon. They saved my life more than once and now they are responsible for yours.
The governing council just has received my letter of resignation. The government will remain stable, and though the members of the council don't trust each other, they are not stupid. They all cherish their wealth far too much to risk a civil war by fighting each other openly.
I don't know if they decide to tell the truth or if they find it easier to proclaim my death, and I really don't care. Whatever they decide to do, their first step will be to eliminate everyone too closely connected with me. That's why you need to leave the city as soon as possible.
Some time ago, I prepared two secure harbours for you, out of reach of my enemies: one in Chin at the imperial palace, one in Albion with the clan of Boadicea. Palemon has all the details.
Palemon and Theodorus are now under your orders, they are experienced fighters and leaders. You're the one in charge, but please follow their advice, trust them!
The Conqueror will never return but your daughter still loves you.
Xena of Amphipolis
"You know the content of this letter?" Both men nodded. "So my first order is, explain! What happened?" She said, impatient irritation colouring her voice.
"I will, but not now. It's a rather long story, and I can't say I fully understand the General. My priority is to get you out of town and to safety." Palemon answered. He stood just short of six feet, broad shouldered and muscular, but his discomfort was plainly visible. There was something in the voice of this woman that clearly reminded him of the one who is not to be disobeyed.
There was a long moment of silence. Cyrene's thoughts were running a mile a minute. Finally she answered. "I understand. Go to the kitchen and grab some provisions, I'll get a travel gear together."
Both men were visibly relieved. They had already envisioned carrying the woman out of town squirming and bound, against her will, and neither of them were thrilled at the thought of facing the wrath of their general at such an act.
Initially Cyrene had hated the house she was forced to live in for the last two and a half years, but now she felt a twinge of regret abandoning it. Half a candlemark later, everything was ready. Over the years, she had been forced to experience too many manipulations and traps by the Conqueror. The letter shouldn't have convinced her and wouldn't have, except for the last two lines:
Her daughter was the Conqueror, it simply made no sense, and for almost ten years, the woman she had born hadn't mentioned her place of birth. The Conqueror of all Greece and Rome was ashamed of being nothing but a mere village girl, she'd always presumed. This time, however, she was surprised to find herself yet again longing to trust.
The three guards at the great front gate of Corinth simply nodded when they passed by some three candlemarks before dawn. In her peripheral vision, Cyrene could see that they openly followed her and her protectors to a small house just outside of the gates where some horses were awaiting them. After helping her to mount one of them, they all rode in silence in the direction of the setting sun for about five candlemarks.
Cyrene knew she should be frightened or at least feel uncomfortable surrounded by these fighters, instead there was a feeling of relief and security she couldn't explain. She also knew she should mourn the death of her daughter or rejoice the death of the Conqueror, one of her greatest enemies, but she couldn't. Her heart never would accept the death of Xena, just like she never managed to hate her for becoming the Conqueror. And at the time, she really had tried to hate her, but the ruthless warlord she hated and the little girl she had raised, cherished, cared for, and protected, were never the same person in her mind. The current situation did nothing to diminish the confusion she always experienced when trying to make sense of the conflicting emotions she harboured towards her daughter.
When they finally stopped, Cyrene was exhausted and sore from the long ride. The five men she started with and the eight others they had met along the way began to make camp and set sentinels in the parameter. Soon there was a fire going and some rabbits roasting. Her body longed for sleep but her mind needed answers.
"What's next, Commanders Theodorus and Palemon?"
"Before we came to gather you, venerable Cyrene, we alerted the other members of the First Order and some of her other loyal soldiers and servants to the change in government. We were the Conquerors personnel guards, the General is concerned about our safety too; some of us have been with her almost since the beginning. We will meet with most of the men here during the day. This place can be easily defended because there's only one way in visible, and it can be evacuated as easily due to a secret passageway. When everyone's arrived we will divide forces, a few of us will escort the civilians, and the bulk of our forces will see to your safety. Then it's up to you to decide. We will escort you to Chin or to Albion, and then we will try to find new lives for ourselves." Palemon replied.
"I hope you understand that I cannot make any decisions about my future without knowing what really happened."
"The General's orders were unambiguous. She said, 'Once you're out of town and safe enough, my mother is the one in charge. She is my voice and my hand. Follow her orders.' So, I will tell you, venerable Cyrene."
"Stop calling me 'venerable', it's Cyrene, just Cyrene. By the way, that's an order. The way you talk about your 'General'?. Xena is still alive, isn't she?"
"The Conqueror is dead, but Xena is alive."
A sigh of relieve escaped the silver haired woman. "But how? Why?"
"The official report will say that the Conqueror was killed by a wild boar while hunting alone - at least that's what our spy in the council's chamber said, but Xena now is living in an Amazon village at our north-eastern border."
"But she can't just stop being the Conqueror; that's not possible."
"But that's what she did, Cyrene. I don't understand all her reasons, but I know that she didn't like being the Conqueror. She's a fighter, a warrior from head to toe and an inspired general, but she hated the court and she hated to rule. In the beginning, it was necessary. She needed Greece as a stronghold; the army needed the provisions and the reinforcements to fight the Persians and the Romans, to fight Caesar and his legions of slavers. During the last year and a half, she tried to take back some of the bureaucratic structures and administration levels, but it didn't work out. I'm sure she often was frustrated and lonely. She never talked about it, but you could feel it during our sparring sessions. Some days there was so much dark energy around her; no one dared coming near her. On these days, more than once, she easily defeated three or four scores of her best soldiers in less than a candlemark, sending most of them to the healers. And there were days she obviously didn't have the slightest interest in fighting, as if it just wasn't worth the effort." The man fell silent, seemingly losing his gaze in the flames of the fireplace.
"Please continue; why is she staying with the Amazons? They have every reason to hate her as far as I know."
"Theodorus, my friend, come here. Make sure I don't miss out on any details." Like Palemon Theodorus was about six feet tall but his slim waist, oval face and handsome features let him appear slightly taller than his companion. He seated himself on a log near the fireplace, half an arm's length away from his friend. Then Palemon continued.
"About two moons ago the General received an urgent message from one of the frontier posts. It said that a group of Amazon warriors attacked and killed half of the men. The council voted for a punishment operation against the Amazons. To teach them respect, they said, but in reality, they just wanted to wipe out the whole tribe - and add the destruction of the Centaur village nearby to the list of the Conquerors victories. All over the last year," Palemon continued after having received a signal from Theodorus, "the palace was bustling with rumours about the Conqueror's need to expand her influence, to occupy Gaul, and Albion, and Persia, and Egypt, and even Chin.
"I'm pretty sure you heard these. But there was nothing to gain but personal pride and glory in going to war with any of them, so our General told the council more than once. Greece was secure, and that's all that was ever of any interest to her. No, there was a time she definitely wanted more but it isn't true any longer. Anyway, the General just listened. And when they were about to issue gathering orders to the troops, she stood and said, 'No!' They looked at her as if she hadn't been there all the time. They even were bold enough to demand an explanation. During the last moons, she hardly interfered with the government, so they were more than surprised. She said, 'Queen Melosa knows that she doesn't stand a chance against my army. She's not a fool. There has to be something else going on. There will be no military intervention! The peace treaty with the Amazons will be honoured by me and my army! We will just have to find out the real reasons behind these attacks. The sitting is terminated for today!' She turned and left the room. The next day she ordered one score of the First Order to escort Gabrielle and herself to the north-eastern border."
"Stop, Commander. Gabrielle, who is Gabrielle, her body slave?"
"The general never had a slave and never will need one. You - of all people - should know that, she even tried to abolish slavery but at the time the army needed the support of the wealthy merchants, so her plans didn't work out." The tall soldier tried unsuccessfully to hide his annoyance.
"Who is Gabrielle then?"
"Gabrielle? Two seasons ago, at the beginning of winter?"
The Conqueror and four members of her First Order were on their way to Kyros, a former fishing village, which had lately developed into a large scale trading port, where she was to meet with representatives of the merchants' league. She knew there would be an endless flow of complaints and lamentations about taxes, security, trading regulations, currency exchange, and the like to sit through. She never had been a person to patiently listen to what she considered nothing other than selfish rambling and petty bickering. For the life of her, she couldn't understand why it was so important that she personally listened to all that boring stuff instead of the council members who in the end would have to deal with it. So Xena was rather reluctant to fulfill this particular duty. However, having already postponed it twice she had run out of good excuses to do it a third time.
So, she wasn't in the best of moods when she and her entourage started out. The week's ride southeast of Corinth allowed her to relax some and soon she found herself enjoying the ride and the company of her soldiers.
They spent the first three nights outdoor, hunting for dinner, laughing and remembering some of their campaigns, and sleeping on the ground curled up in their bedrolls. For the first time in moons, she really felt free. On the fourth day about a candlemark before dusk, they passed a middle-sized village and Xena decided on booking rooms at the local inn. The bedrooms on the first floor were small but clean, there was a bathing tube with steaming water, and she really was quite comfortable with her journey.
The central room of the inn held about fifteen small tables and it was dimly lit with only two torches. The evening crowd filled the room, the usual mixture of merchants, town's people, some mercenaries, young folk, and elders. Her men already had taken over one of the tables in the back facing the door, thus allowing her to have the whole room in view. The uniforms of the First Order were recognised and Xena noted the furtive glances cast at her every once in a while. As always, when travelling only with a small retinue she also had put on the famous blue, silver, and black leathers instead of her trademark brass armour, and sported the insignia of a captain. No one would have dared to bother the Conqueror but it seemed easier this way.
The food was good, and two mugs of ale made her lower her guard slightly despite the growing noises of the crowd. Palemon was talking about a new training schedule he planned on establishing with the Palace Guards. His ideas were sound and certainly would work out nicely. She was just about to voice her approval when her keen hearing picked up on the conversation at the neighbouring table.
"I got twelve; already well broken in, well, make it eleven. One of them is nothin' but trouble, but I had to take her in to get all the others. Have to get rid of her somehow but not here. They say these damned laws are really enforced here. Really don't know why this goddamned bitch has to put her nose in other people's business."
A wave of anger flashed through Xena and her body went rigid with tension. She knew they were talking about slaves; so she made a mental note to alert the reeve and the militia to deal with these slavers before continuing to Kyros, but there was something in the voice or the words of the man to keep her listening.
A second voice was heard. "Easy there, watch your big mouth, will ya! There's some of her pet soldiers over there, saw them comin' in."
"Yeah, yeah, don't be such a chicken shit. Let's go back to business. Take a look at them; some of the gals do have remarkable skills in the horizontal department, you know. The recalcitrant one even knows how to read and write but I doubt it's worth the effort to beat her into submission. She really has an acid tongue that one."
"So cut it off, spares a lot of screaming, too. It doesn't pay spending too much time on these stupid troublemakers, but on the other hand there's always a buyer thrilled by the challenge ahead."
Xena's knuckles went white with strain while she tried not to explode with pent-up anger. Slavers always did this to her mind set, but this time it was more personal, unexpectedly hitting home.
"Sounds like a good idea. Are you up to a short inspection? T'morrow in the afternoon there also will be two other buyers, now you would have the first pick. They're in a barn just outside the town."
"No, not now. First thing in the morning though. Never buy merchandise by torchlight, that's the one and only thing my father was ever right about."
Her first instinct was to run and search every barn in town. The rage boiling in her veins told her to beat the crap out of these slavers, and her guts were telling her that not only were the slaves subject to severe ill-treatment but also that they were probably illegally enslaved in the first place. To become a slave one had to be a criminal or a prisoner of war, no exceptions made. She would have preferred to abolish slavery in all aspects but this was as far as she was able to push the point with the merchants' league. Anyway, she had to be sure before springing into action. Ill-treatment was enough to financially harm the man considerably but owning and dealing in illegal slaves would put him completely out of business. So she had to bide her time, and she hated waiting.
In consideration of her obligations in Kyros, it would be more sensible to alert the local authorities but Xena convinced herself that she first had to make sure that they weren't in league with the slaver. Only reluctantly, she admitted to herself that there also was something else fuelling her decision. From the very first moment the man had mentioned the trouble making slave the tall warrior knew without the shadow of a doubt that she had to get to her, that she had to help her, personally. It was as if she were irresistibly drawn to this unknown woman beyond rational thought and reason. When not fighting Xena usually didn't act on instinct alone, this time, however, she simply had to follow her gut feeling.
After a night engaging in solitary swords drills to get rid of the ever growing tension crushing her heart, she followed the two men to their destination, her own soldiers in tow. They disappeared into an old but solid barn at the outskirts of town. It stood isolated on top of a hillock and was heavily guarded by at least ten men, so it would be very difficult to approach it undetected. Calling an attack or even raising suspicions would only get the slaves killed to destroy the only evidence.
She crept away and found her way to the town's reeve who at first was not at all pleased to be disturbed at his leisurely breakfast, especially by mere soldiers, First Order or no First Order. But when the elderly, over-fed man found a strong hand threatening to crush his windpipe he all of a sudden morphed into an incarnation of helpfulness.
The barn had been sold to a foreign merchant about two seasons ago that had wanted to use it as interim storage area. There never had been any problems with the merchant or his men. The reeve insisted on knowing nothing about slaves in his town, he even had the guts to point out that he needed ample evidence before legally pursuing the barn owner. Xena longed to simply knock him into next week but a part of her knew that he was right. One of her most important policies was to possibly not interfere with the local governments, regardless of how she loathed to, and how much easier it would be to solve the problems at the point of her sword.
About one candlemark later, the Conqueror of Greece and Rome was dressed in a black skirt descending almost to her ankles with a crimson bodice accentuating her hips and breasts. Three of her men and all of the town's militia were positioned in the forest nearby awaiting her signal, and Xena confidently approached the mercenaries at the front door. She claimed being in search of new body slaves for her critical and demanding husband. The piercing blue eyes of the raven-haired woman didn't rouse any suspicions and she was easily admitted, followed by Palemon who acted as her bodyguard and the reeve's son who would bear witness of the condition the slaves were in. The young man had only recently returned from three years of apprentice ship in Athens and thus wasn't known to the slaver.
They were greeted by the man from the inn, and Xena arrogantly listed the qualities 'her husband' requested his future slaves to possess in abundance. The slaver however was cautious, accustomed to doing his business with other petty slavers like the one at the inn who didn't find the merchandise to his liking or by testimonial.
"Good work earns you a good reputation, man. And I really don't like my household equipped with foreign scum."
The man was more than a head shorter than Xena, the gold in his mouth gleaming in the torch light whenever he opened it, his eyes impudently locked at her chest, her anger rising with every heartbeat. "I don't have the patience dealing with your fears, little man. Obviously, this reputation of yours isn't worth a dinar. Let's go."
She turned and half a heartbeat later heard a sound halfway between a squeak and a pain filled shout. The knowing smile on her face changed in an expression of utmost boredom as she turned again. The slaver was on his knees, his right hand being painfully twisted by Palemon.
"Never again! No one tries to touch my mistress without her permission, you worthless pigeon's poop. " Palemon sneered at the slaver who writhe in pain under his crushing hold.
"He's not worth the effort, get him on his feet. We'll go to Athens for the merchandise."
"No, please wait. I'm sure?" Three of his guards burst through the gate and two others emerged from the hayloft. "No, it's all right, just a misunderstanding. Go back to your duties. I apologize, ma'am. Please reconsider your decision. It's a long way to Athens and I have all you need. My stock is small but it's good quality, and you won't run into any language barriers. They're all young, skilled, and eager to serve. Just take a look at 'em." He nervously blurted out.
"We'll give it a try, little man. As I already said, three body slaves, fully trained, and a scribe able to fill-in as a body slave. No barbarians."
"They're all good stock?." The slaver began to babble, motioning her to the back part of the barn. Xena could almost see the greedy glint of dinars in his eyes as he detailed the qualities of his merchandise.
The meagre light of a single torch only produced some sort of twilight but it showed more than enough to get him arrested for ill-treatment. Some of his 'slaves' were barely more than kids, their features clearly testifying their Grecian heritage. Xena almost could smell their fear but there was more. It was the familiar scent of blood that led her to the darkest corner of the barn. On a pile of dirty hay was? someone curled up in a ball.
"Oh, you already found her. She will be the perfect scribe and her experiences as body slave are ample. But she has to be warmed up to her new master. She needs a firm hand and whipping on a regular basis to keep her in line. As you see she's well acquainted -?"
In the blink of an eye Xena's right fist connected with his nose, there was the distinctive sound of bones breaking and he slumped on the floor. She and Palemon took a defensive position in front of the slaves, and the Conqueror let loose her battle cry. The militia and her men had to fight their way in while the defenders took out four guards foolish enough to approach them. The mercenaries were quickly subdued, and Xena somehow managed to keep a lid on her temper long enough to take primary care of the slaves.
All of them were obviously undernourished and displayed different kinds of lash marks, and only three of them were strong enough to walk on their own two feet unassisted. The militia quickly transported them to the local healer and Xena sent Theodorus to keep an eye on the badly injured scribe, and then started to literally tear the barn to pieces.
"Never before had I seen her this mad." Palemon continued. "Yes, the General has a rather volatile temper, and it doesn't pay to get on her wrong side but she never loses control. She sometimes make believe she does but it's nothing but a game to get her what she wants. In the middle of a fight when battle lust incites her to do things nothing short of impossible, her eyes are gleaming with energy, dark and raw. I saw her eyes when she re-entered the barn. They were almost black but there was nothing human in them, only an aimless hatred and most of all there was desperation. I heard the sound of a sword thumping against wood. She was shouting. When she finally reappeared, two candlemarks later, her dress was torn but her eyes were once again familiar. We went to the inn where she changed into her uniform and burned the dress. I expected her to question the prisoners and to tell the reeve what she wanted him to do. But she didn't. She sent me to deal with the reeve and went to the over crowded healer's hut."
Theodorus tugged Palemon's left sleeve and started a long sequence of hand signals.
"Theodorus wants you to know that I'm wrong. The General's eyes were not as they usually are. There was a sadness visible that he and I only have seen once, when she went to the Centaur village to sign the peace treaty with Centaurs and Amazons. The General entered the healer's hut and didn't leave it for the next five days."
"Stop, Commander. Tell me, why doesn't he speak?" Cyrene asked, her curiosity finally getting the better of her. "I never before saw this kind of communication."
Theodorus gave Palemon an almost imperceptible nod. "When the General destroyed the Persian Empire some years ago Theodorus was taken as a captive, they questioned and tortured him, and when he didn't tell them what they wanted to know, they cut his tongue out. He was badly injured by the time we finally were able to set him free, and even the General wasn't sure of his chances of survival. Eventually his body healed but his soul did not. He almost died in the first battle after his recovery." Another set of hand signals. "He reminded me to tell you the whole story. He tried to get himself killed that day. The General saved his life, and then step by step she developed this language. At first, we only used the signals of hunters but it wasn't enough to really talk. So, she invented a hand signal for every letter and together they elaborated signs for day to day stuff, greetings and so on. By now every single soldier of the First Order knows to use them."
"Do you really want me to believe that the Conqueror of Greece and Rome, the person personally responsible for the deaths of thousands of people and the suffering of even more took the time necessary to invent a whole language just to keep one single soldier happy? You must be kidding, Commander."
Palemon obviously was hard pressed not to act on his anger. "Believe it or not but that's what she did, Cyrene. I know that you and the General don't get along too well with each other but to most of the people in this camp, she is family. There's nothing we wouldn't do for her because there's nothing she wouldn't do for us. In fact her sta?"
Palemon was silenced by another signal from the blond warrior, thus being saved to tell the older woman that her daughter not only had accepted being a slave to the Amazon nation, but also insisted on a trial held to balance the scales between them, - a trial liable to end with? No, he couldn't afford to think about this right now. His mind was going in wild circles at the thought of losing his General and friend to Amazon law, especially now when she had found happiness and love for the first time since fighting the Centaurs.
He took a deep breath and refocused his attention to the older woman. "In fact what she did for Theodorus isn't this singular or exceptional, she cares for her men. She told me not to argue with you but there's more to her than what you are willing or able to see. She's a conscientious and caring soul, Cyrene, though she does her very best to hide it. - I'd better continue telling you about Gabrielle."
Most of the slaves were released from the healer's hut after a day or two of treatment. Every one of them had been held illegally and so the reeve had them escorted to their respective hometowns. The slaver was sentenced to six years of hard labour and his mercenaries to two. As soon as it was obvious that the young scribe wouldn't be able to travel any time soon, Xena sent one of her guards to Kyros ordering the merchants to present all their requests, complaints, and pleas on parchment. A second was dispatched to Corinth to prepare quarters in the palace adjoining her own. The following days she spent in the healer's hut, riveted to the bedside of the young woman.
The scribe's condition was worse than she would have ever thought possible. Every square inch of her body was covered with lash marks, most of her ribs were bruised and there was internal bleeding in the lower abdomen. She constantly drifted in and out of consciousness, and the local healer didn't even try to save her. Once every three candlemarks the Conqueror made her swallow a tea designed to stop the bleeding and finally her patience seemed to pay off.
Xena ordered a chariot with a cargo area large enough to accommodate a stretcher and took her back to Corinth. The whole journey she kept the young woman sleepy to give her abused body the chance to heal of its own accord. And even though she tried to tell herself that she was solely acting out of compassion and that she would have done the same thing for every other slave as badly injured as the scribe, she couldn't help to admit that she cared for her, deeply. There was a time she wanted to rule the world but now the world seemed a small goal in comparison to the health of a small, undernourished blond woman.
What was more, Xena found herself surprised not just to want to bed the woman as she had done with others numerous times in the past, deriving pride and pleasure out of seduction. From the very first moment she almost drowned in the intense sea green eyes of her charge, the Conqueror longed for her confidence and friendship. She knew it wouldn't be easy to gain but it proved to be a greater challenge than anticipated. The young woman had no reason to trust her, she was known as a ruthless murderer and her bedchamber reputation also didn't any good. So, Gabrielle - and it took Xena two days to get her to tell her name - was frightened, cautious, and defiant all in one.
Four days after her arrival at the palace the young scribe was well enough to leave her room and take a walk in the gardens. "So all this beauty is for you alone, Conqueror?"
"No, everyone in the palace is allowed to spend as much time in the gardens as they like and every other day they are open to the public. But there's a part of the gardens no one but me ever goes to. To me it's the most beautiful part. I'll show it to you if you're not too exhausted yet."
They changed direction and soon were in front of a stone wall overgrown with ivy and grapes. The Conqueror divided the green veil and both stepped through. A big old apple tree dominated the view and all around it was a meadow with poppy, foxglove, dandelion, and lots of other healing herbs. In summer, they would be more clearly visible, now only an expert could identify them. The inner parts of the wall served as support for various kinds of wild roses and in the silence following their entrance, the gurgling sound of a very small river was heard.
"You were right. It really is the most beautiful part of the gardens. Outside the trees and flowers, the well kept paths, the benches and little bridges are beautiful but this is alive. It is as if it was meant to be this way. Thank you, Con? Xena."
"You're welcome, Gabrielle." Xena offered her a big smile for being called by her name. "Corinth was the first big town I took, more than eight years ago. The palace and the gardens were in ruins but my advisers convinced me that I needed a permanent stronghold in order to conquer the whole world. They made the plans for the gardens and right here in the centre they wanted to create some sort of private theatre for court members only. I told them to leave the place as it was."
"Why did you hide it behind those walls?"
"I didn't. A summer later when I returned from a rather long campaign the wall was in place. The chief gardener told me that this unruly part of nature was not suitable for a great ruler and that it interfered with the general design of the gardens' greatness. At the time, I was foolish enough to believe him. Whenever I want to be alone, whenever I need time to think or to meditate, I come here."
"Meditate? What's that?"
"Meditation is something you do to relax. You loosen up your muscles, sit down on the ground, sort of cross-legged, and all you think about is the rhythm of your breathing. Sometimes it takes longer than other times but eventually all the pressure, anger, fear, and sorrows you have go away - at least for a while. A friend in the far-east taught me how to do it. I'd be glad to teach it to you."
"It sounds good. I'd like to learn it but there won't be enough time. I have to leave as soon as possible. I don't want to run in any of my former owners."
"There's nothing to fear, Gabrielle, you're free. If you don't want to stay in the palace or in Corinth, I can arrange an escort back to your hometown. It's entirely your decision."
"I'll think about it. Can I stay here for a while?"
"Of course. I'll wait outside 'til you're ready. We'll have to change the bandages at your back in about three candlemarks." Xena turned to leave the enclosure.
"No, don't go, please. Can we sit by the tree?"
They made themselves comfortable, sitting side by side but keeping a distance of more than two feet. Xena tried very hard but without great success to keep her eyes from lingering on the young woman who herself seemed totally oblivious to this attention. They both were dressed in leather trousers and thick wool tunics accompanied by a fur-lined cloak to keep the cold of the winter afternoon at bay.
Gabrielle's blond tresses were glittering in the pale sunlight, every once in a while highlighted by glints of red. Xena drank in the outlines of her face, and found herself perfectly content just to sit here and watch. But she also didn't miss the tension permeating from her body testifying of some sort of inner turmoil, and suddenly the raven haired woman had to fight the urge to scoop her up in her arms and protect her against her own fears.
One and a half candlemark later Gabrielle decided on breaking the silence. "You're wrong, Xena. I'm still a slave by right and law. I'm a slave without a master but as far as I know, every single of my former owners has the right to lay a claim on me. I'm still nothing but property, that's why I have to go away as far as I possibly can."
Xena stared at her, wide-eyed, and was utterly unable to pronounce a whole sentence, "Explain!"
Gabrielle's eyes found the piercing baby blues of the Conqueror, her voice intent on not betraying any emotion: "Four years ago, when I was sixteen my parents sold me to a slaver. The slavery laws didn't yet exist, and so it was a perfectly legal transaction."
"I refused to marry. They had my marriage arranged when I was nine. I liked the boy but I didn't love him and I never would have learned to love him. My father said that he would get the bride price one way or the other. - Becoming the wife of a farmer and sheep raiser wasn't what I wanted anyway. I wanted to learn about other people, to tell stories, and to see the world, and somehow my wish was granted. I spent time in Persia and in Rome, in Ephesus and in Lutetia but I had to do it with a slave collar around my neck. By the way, where is it? I'll have to put it back on now that you know the truth."
"It was destroyed. I cut it to pieces with my sword, together with all the other items in the barn. And you will never have to see anything like that again. I can't understand how pa?. At the time, it may not have been illegal for your parents to sell you but the laws I established make it illegal to own native slaves sold when they were under age. There's no need for you to run away or to hide. You are free, free to do whatever you fancy to do, free to travel all around the world if you want to."
"Promise that I never will have to see a slave collar ever again."
"I promise I will never confront you with one but as long as there are slaves in Greece chances are that you'll see those collars. Unfortunately there's nothing I can do about it."
"I'm really free?"
"Yes, Gabrielle, but before you set out to conquer the whole world on your own we have to change the bandages on your back. Come."
A big smile was plastered on the young woman's face, and it didn't go away, not when they entered the palace and not when she slightly flinched under the tender ministrations to her back.
"An apple tree? You sure about this?"
Theodorus answered with a series of gestures that immediately were translated by Palemon. "I think this tree and the roof terrace above her bedroom were the only places in the palace the General really felt at ease in. She said the garden bit was a patch of a time past and therefore not touched by evil and darkness."
"There was an old apple tree at the edge of Amphipolis. She used to play there with her brothers, mostly with her younger brother, Lyceus. When the boy was killed during Cortese's attack she burned the tree to the roots." There was a long moment of awkward silence before Cyrene was able to snap out of her memories. "Please continue your story. I still don't understand why this slave girl seems so important to the Conqueror."
The windows looked east, and when Xena opened her eyes, she found the familiar view of the predawn sky, the first glimmer of light at the edge of the horizon. The rest of her surroundings were less familiar.
She was sitting in a chair both hands securely wrapped around another, smaller hand. She still wore her formal evening attire constituting of a long, dark crimson robe, held by a silver plated, black leather belt, her favourite dagger with ebony hilt and silver sheath emphasising her waist. Despite the rather uncomfortable position she must have spent the night in, she found herself surprisingly refreshed and in a good mood.
Gabrielle was still fast asleep, with a small smile at the edges of her lips. She looked incredibly young and innocent, and the Conqueror of Greece and Rome had a hard time letting go of her hand. The younger woman slightly stirred and tucked her hand under her chin, thus enhancing the impression of childlike innocence.
Xena finally went to her own bedroom and changed into trousers, a wool tunic and her armour. The daily sparring session with some of the First Order soldiers this day barely captured her mind. Her body reacted practically of its own accord while her thoughts still were with the young scribe.
The merchants she originally was supposed to meet with in Kyros had obviously decided to force the issue, and had arrived in numbers at the palace the day before. The council found it necessary to hold a welcome dinner, so Xena spent the evening listening to complaints and exploits, bargaining and bartering stories, knowing she would have to sit through hours and hours of more of this stuff the following afternoon.
It was close to the beginning of the third watch when the tall warrior entered her study to check on the young woman sleeping next door. As the nights before, she was suffering from a nightmare, whimpering and moaning, with fear and pain clearly written all over her face. Perhaps it was because of the confidence Gabrielle had shown her in the garden but unlike the previous nights, she didn't content herself with a compassionate look.
She quickly closed the distance to the bed and took her protectively in her arms, whispering soothing words and gently stroking her hair. Finally, the moaning stopped and her body quieted down also, but moments later the young woman's muscles suddenly tensed and she pulled away from the embrace. Xena saw the fear and the horror in her eyes and carefully positioned her hands where the other woman could see them. She tried to smile at her, to reassure her but Gabrielle's face told her it would be in vain.
"You had a bad dream. I'd better leave now, rest well!" She said in a quiet voice and went to the door. When she already was crossing the threshold, Gabrielle called her back.
"I'm sorry, Xena. Please, stay. I have to explain, you have to understand. It had nothing to do with you."
Xena was back at her bedside and sat down in a chair. She longed taking her in her arms once again, instead she said. "There's no need to explain, Gabrielle. With all the things you have probably heard about me, you had every right to react the way you did. Over the years, I built a reputation being some sort of sexual predator. I took what I wanted and from whom I wanted it, and I still do though it's been moons since the last time. It's part of who I am, so it certainly will happen again, but I promise I will never do it to you. You're off limits. I don't know much about your life but you have suffered more than enough. I just want you to get well and be happy."
The Conqueror was as surprised by her words as the young woman but she knew them to be true. All of her considerable emotional defences just seemed to crumble to dust regarding the blonde. When she once again tried to leave, Gabrielle's right hand found her left.
"Xena, please, sit down. There's a lot of gossip in this palace, and I heard a lot about you, that's true. There's also a lot of talk about your bedroom adventures but they all say that you only take what is freely given. They say your violence is for the battlefield only. I'm not concerned about this. I'm truly sorry my reaction hurt you, and I cannot promise that it will never happen again. It really had nothing to do with you personally. It is... One of my former...."
"You don't have to talk about it if it hurts too much, Gabrielle. It probably will take a lot of time before the shadows of your past have left your soul. I will always be there to listen and to care but you don't have to torture yourself."
"I don't know why, but I want you to know, Xena." Gabrielle left her hand in Xena's but her eyes were fixed on the blanket. "One of my former masters was a travelling merchant between Lutetia and Rome. He owned many slaves and had a house and office in several of the towns along the road. He loved to travel with a great retinue, with mercenaries, cooks, servants, and slaves. He purchased me as a body slave but when he learned that I could read and write, he only used me as one of his scribes. At first, I couldn't believe my luck, and I shouldn't have to. The first moons we spent in Rome and I was allowed to learn Latin. I wore beautiful clothes, was well fed and free to go everywhere in his house, garden and fields. If it hadn't been for the collar around my neck, I would have forgotten that I was a slave and not a servant. When he began travelling though there was no way to forget it."
Xena gently put her other hand on top of Gabrielle's and gave her an encouraging squeeze. "During the journey I had to stay with the scrolls, day and night. When we stayed at an inn, I was next door to his bedroom and when we made camp, I slept in a small tent next to his. One night, after about ten days of travelling, he entered my tent in the middle of the night. He was drunk. When I awoke, I found his arms securely wrapped around my body, his mouth only inches away from mine. He was breathing heavily and his mouth came nearer. I panicked. I knew he had every right to do with me what ever he fancied, but still... Somehow, I freed my right hand and slapped him hard across the face. He pulled away and left the tent without saying a word. I was afraid but eventually I went back to sleep."
The young woman's voice now barely was above a whisper. "The next morning I found myself naked and spread-eagled between two trees at the other side of the camp. The whole staff was standing there, and when the master came to me, I could see my handprint at his cheek. There was sadness in his voice but his eyes were blazing with anger. He said. 'What you did last night was really disappointing, my young slave. You attacked your master, and your punishment should be a painful death or at least I should cut off the offending hand. But I'm not in the habit of damaging worthy goods. Without your hands you won't be able to write and without your life you won't be able to bear witness of my justice.' He then gave a signal to someone behind me; I heard the slashing of a whip and felt the burning pain consuming my whole body. I soon lost my bearings but I know the whipping must have continued. When I regained consciousness, there was a leather cuff around my left ankle fixed to an iron ring in the floor of the wagon. Bandages were wrapped around my upper body but every breath sent a bolt of pain through my body. The next night we stayed at an inn. I was asleep as soon as I was left alone, and when I opened my eyes to the light of a flickering candle, I once again felt his arms around me. This time I did what he asked me to do. He didn't come every night but often enough to let me dread going to sleep, and always it started with an embrace and a kiss."
Gabrielle raised her head and found the tear-filled eyes of the older woman. "I'm not afraid of you, Xena. I reacted to his touch, his breath, his demands; I was lost in bad memories. Please forgive me. I probably can't help it but I don't want you to be afraid of my reactions."
"I won't ever let anything like this happen to you again. You're free to make your own choices but if it does anything good to you I'll have all of your former slave masters arrested. None of them had the right to ill-treat you. Justice now is in your hands."
The still injured woman obviously was tempted by Xena's offer. She searched the Conqueror's face for signs of dishonesty or falsehood but found none. "No, don't do it, Xena. It wouldn't be justice. It would be vengeance. It won't change my past, nor my memories, nor my dreams, my nightmares. They all thought they had a right to do what they did, and I thought they had the right to do so also. Now I know better, and I thank you for rescuing me."
"It was my pleasure, Gabrielle."
"Would you please stay until I'm asleep? I don't want to be alone right now."
"I'll hold your hand, so you won't feel alone."
The young soldiers' sword missed her head only by a quarter of an inch; had it been a more seasoned warrior she certainly would at least have been injured. She disarmed him with the next two strikes and called an end to the sparring session. When she turned to find her bathroom, she found the sparkling green eyes of her patient waiting for her at the far edge of the training grounds.
"The last one got pretty close, Xena. I hope you didn't do this on purpose."
"No need to worry, Gabrielle. My body knows how to protect itself. How long were you watching?"
"Long enough to know that your head was leagues away. You should take care of yourself better than this. I don't want you to get hurt."
"Why is this? You certainly don't owe me. If I would have been able to abolish slavery you never would have been in need of my help."
"I would be dead by now, Xena, and this you know better than anyone. I talked to one of your commanders, his name's Palemon. He told me that you stayed in the healer's hut for days without a break to save my life though the local healer would have let me die. So, yes, I owe you, and yes, I care about you, but I don't know why. I learned the hard way not to trust easily but I can't help it with you. It just feels right, despite everything."
"Thank you, Gabrielle. It's been a long time since someone cared about me, and I'll try to be less thoughtless in the future. I'd like to take a walk through the gardens with you but there's a bunch of merchants already waiting to bore me to death with their petty arguments about profits and stuff."
"Trading agreements are important not only for the merchants, Xena. I'm sure you know this. It's much harder to bargain for things the farmers can't produce themselves without them. I know, sometimes they are really boring but usually it's worth the effort. Would you mind if I come and listen?"
"I would be delighted to have you at my side, Gabrielle. But only if you're sure you're already up to this kind of activity."
"I'll only have to sit and listen. It beats staring at the ceiling all day."
"Very good. I'll take a bath, and then we can grab some lunch and meet with the merchants. You just saved my day."
Chapter Two: The journey
"From this day on Gabrielle only was on her own when the General was out practising with the army or the First Order, together they attended council meetings and court sessions and Gabrielle was able to convince the General more than once to change a decision for the better. It simply was impossible not to like her; her smile is utterly disarming and her voice reminds of the gentle lapping of water at the border of a small lake. She conquered the whole palace in a matter of days but only some of them knew of the price she paid every night for her sunny demeanour. The nightmares seemed to get stronger as time went by, sometimes she was screaming at the top of her lungs without ever waking up. The General began to spend the better part of the night sitting by her bedside and holding her hand thus trying to hold the dreams in check. The nightly vigils though began to take their toll. She was injured during a sparring session and now Gabrielle didn't leave her bedroom. And she learned about the General's nightmares that also could be held at bay by a simple touch of her hand. So they decided to sleep together, and there were no more bad dreams for either of them."
"So they became lovers?!"
"No, Cyrene, not right away. I don't know exactly when they became lovers but it was at least one and a half moon after their first night in the General's bed."
"Why does a soldier, even a trusted one as you obviously are, know so much about the private life of his commanding officer, Palemon?"
"The private rooms of the General are guarded by the First Order, Cyrene. We're only human, we talk about the things we see and hear. The General is more than capable of taking care of herself but we had to make sure that all the courtiers and nobles kept out of her way. Unfortunately, to ensure her privacy from the rest of the palace she lost some of it to us. I don't think she ever cared about our presence, at least not until Gabrielle captured her, heart, soul, and body."
Xena never had been fond of sleeping, even as a child she didn't like to stay in bed after sunrise, not even in winter. After the battle with Cortese, after the death of her beloved younger brother, sleeping for her soon turned into another word for having nightmares. She closed her eyes and barely a candlemark later she once again was wide awake, her covers drenched in sweat, her mind's eye still seeing the dead blood stained body of her brother. Physical exhaustion was the only way to control the dreams. Only after a full day of fighting, riding or drilling was her body too worn out to react on her mind's commands, and the dreams didn't disturb her slumber. After Caesar, her heart was totally dead, and she didn't dream any longer but as the years went by the nightmares returned, slowly.
The first one still was burned in her memory. It was after she stopped the war against the Centaurs and began to lead her army through half of Greece to conquer Corinth. Once again, her hands were covered with blood when she held the battered body of a dead man in her arms. This time fighting and killing did nothing to end the dreams, and so she learned to live with them. Over the years, they became as much a part of her as her battle cry or her sword.
The first night she spent with Gabrielle, sitting in this chair, and holding her hand, was the first night without those dreams, the memories of blood and carnage, burning houses and screaming villagers, of lost friends, and lovers, and?. She didn't know it then, and it took ten more days and Gabrielle to point the obvious out. When they finally decided to spend the nights together, sleeping side by side, for the first time in almost fifteen years Xena began to look forward going to sleep.
But soon the Conqueror of Greece and Rome was facing a problem of a different order. The first nights the young woman was careful to keep her distance, only her hand touching Xena's. The warrior's keen senses took in the blonde's scent, her breathing, and soon found their breathing rhythms surprisingly matching one another.
The fifth day a slight tickling brought her to her senses in the middle of the night. Gabrielle practically was wrapped around her body, her head resting on Xena's shoulder, her right leg loosely draped over the larger woman's thigh, her right arm stretched over her abdomen. To her utter surprise Xena found her own right arm comfortably resting at the small of Gabrielle's back, while her left hand was on top of the other woman's hip. She couldn't recall a time a living being had managed coming this close to her without her body automatically defending itself. Gabrielle's hair still was tickling her nose but she didn't want to disturb the young woman by brushing them away. So she kept still and marvelled at the peaceful and seemingly deeply content expression of her younger companion. The next morning, when Xena woke to the predawn glow creeping through the two large windows, Gabrielle was gone. Xena found her in the library immersed in a scroll.
The scenario repeated itself for the next half moon. Xena awakening with Gabrielle safely tucked around her, their chests rising and falling in the same rhythm. The mornings found her alone in bed, and Gabrielle already up and reading. The tall warrior couldn't help but feel a growing sensation of loss every time she found herself in bed without Gabrielle, and during her waking hours, she found her eyes following the scribe around ever so often, taking in her beautiful features.
One night she felt the younger woman slowly creeping away from her about a candlemark before dawn when the night is at its coldest and darkest. She began to move her right hand soothingly over Gabrielle's back and whispered. "Don't go. I'd love to wake up with you in my arms."
The young woman didn't stay and Xena also wasn't able to stay in bed any longer. She got up and took her golden maned war horse Argo for a long run before heading to the training grounds only slightly behind schedule. And once again, things repeated themselves
Ten days later Xena couldn't stand it any longer and followed Gabrielle to the library. They had to talk about it. The Conqueror knew what she felt for the younger woman was far beyond friendship and equally far away from sisterly devotion. She had captured her heart but now her body also longed for the presence of the blonde. Part of her dreaded the inevitable conversation; she didn't look forward to hearing that there only was some sort of convenient companionship coming from Gabrielle but in all her life she never had run away from possibly hurtful situations.
When Xena entered the library through the main doors Gabrielle looked up, a sad smile on her face. "I knew one day you would follow me but I don't want to talk about it. I will leave the palace as soon as possible."
"Why?" Xena had been prepared for a lot of things but not for this kind of quiet determination. "I don't want you to leave. What did I do to scare you away? Tell me what it is and I'll stop doing it. Without the fire in your emerald eyes my world once again will be nothing but darkness."
As before when speaking to Gabrielle Xena found herself saying things she otherwise never would have even thought but nevertheless she knew them to be true.
"You can't change who you are, Xena."
"I see. I should have known that your pure heart couldn't stand the nearness of a cold-blooded murderer like me for long. Palemon will see to it that you have enough money and provisions to take you far away from here."
She heard the sound of a chair crashing on the stone tiles and footsteps following her. She stood but didn't turn around. Gabrielle's body was barely an arm's length behind her; they didn't touch.
"Wait, you've got it all wrong. I don't care about your reputation. You have a gentle heart, Xena, you care for your people but you don't want to show it. You're funny, and the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. Never in my life have I been as comfortable with anyone as I am with you. Never in my life have I felt as safe and as cared for as with you. I want more than your friendship, and I know this can't be. That's why I have to go. I don't want to hurt you but there is no other way."
Xena turned around and found the younger woman's eyes fixed to the floor. "Gabrielle, look at me."
Silence settled on the shoulders of both women like a heavy weight, and finally Gabrielle's eyes found the blue orbs in front of her. Xena's voice was husky with emotion.
"Please, don't go."
They stood motionless for what appeared to be an eternity, blue eyes lost in green and green eyes in blue. Xena had to remind herself to keep on breathing, and when Gabrielle suddenly closed hers for two long heartbeats, she knew she had lost.
"I'm sorry, Xena."
Gabrielle turned and left the library almost running through the side door leading to Xena's bedroom. The tall warrior didn't try to call her back; she didn't follow her either. She just stood there, in the middle of her library, alone, barely understanding herself. Some candledrops later, she exited the big room, cancelled the sparring session, and began to climb the stairs to the roof terrace overlooking the whole city.
In the past, she would have stormed to the training grounds and kept on fighting until none of her soldiers were left standing. But now she wanted nothing more than to turn back time, to undo the conversation with Gabrielle, and keep on pretending. Surprised by her own reactions, she still was sure without her storming into the library Gabrielle never would have felt compelled to leave.
When she entered the rooftop it was still dark outside, and she lighted the wind and rain protected candles near the walls. She opened a hidden compartment hip high in the western wall and lowered herself to her right knee. She closed her eyes and prayed.
When she was on her feet once again, the rising sun was already warming her neck, and she was pretty sure why the young woman felt the need to leave. She had to try and talk to her to convince her otherwise.
Gabrielle already had left the palace, taking nothing with her but the clothes she was wearing. The startled guards at the palace's front gate told Xena which direction to follow and she quickly made her way to the southeastern gate of Corinth.
Halfway there she heard an angry male voice, menacing and mean, and a frighteningly familiar female voice, obviously scared and at the same time angry. She already was running but now she picked up even more speed. Her fist impacted on his chin when he tried to tear apart the scribe's tunic while her momentum took both of them off the body of the now unconscious woman, his neck breaking when they hit the ground.
Gabrielle had a nasty bump on her right temple but otherwise seemed unharmed. Xena cradled her in her arms and carried her back to the palace. She stayed with her the better part of the day and soon the blonde slipped from unconsciousness to a deep healing sleep. Xena lost herself in the peaceful features of the younger woman, and knew without a shadow of a doubt that she would do anything to make her stay. She never had felt so vulnerable and so at peace with anyone else before. Placing a gentle kiss on the sleeping woman's cheek, she sat down in a chair and whispered. "I love you, Gabrielle."
The Conqueror woke from the distinct feeling of being observed, and found herself facing a pair of piercing green eyes. "You saved me, once again. Thank you."
"I never should have let you go in the first place. You need to learn how to defend yourself first."
"I don't like swords, and I have to leave the palace as soon as possible, now more than ever."
"We will find a way, Gabrielle, but first I want you to drink this and go back to sleep. The headache will be gone when you reawake."
"It's late afternoon, Xena. I already slept the whole day." She closed her eyes for two long heartbeats. "I can't stand being near you and not being able to touch you. I have to leave."
For the longer part of a heartbeat there was a flicker of wonder and delight at the young scribe's confession running through Xena's eyes, and for at least as long she thought about confronting the younger woman with her deductions here and now but finally she decided against it.
"It's your decision, Gabrielle, but however I will make sure that you are protected. Either you stay and learn to defend yourself, and there are more ways to do that than using a sword. Or I'll give you a bunch of my soldiers for protection."
An expression of utter disbelief appeared on Gabrielle's face, tinted with a sparkle of anger but the Conqueror chose to ignore it.
"You're far too precious to me to let you go unprotected, Gabrielle. I want you to be safe and happy. You obviously can't be happy with me but at the moment, you won't be safe without me. You are free to stay here in your old room; you don't have to spend the nights with me if this is what's scaring you. You won't even have to see me except for your self-defence classes. Please, don't leave."
"I'll stay, Xena."
"Good, your lessons will begin tomorrow at noon. We'll meet at the training grounds." Xena didn't wait for an answer, she just left the room, silently berating herself for not having the courage to speak to her about her feelings as openly as she did to herself earlier while praying.
It was late at night when Xena returned from her hideout in the palace gardens. Passing Gabrielle's room, she could easily distinguish the sound of a rather hefty nightmare. All her instincts as well as her heart screamed to her to go in there, to soothe her pain, and take her in her arms. But she didn't, she meekly returned to her own bedroom, sure once again to be hunted by her own nightly demons.
Candlemarks later she still was on her back and staring aimlessly at the ceiling, half lost in self-deprecating thoughts. The sound of her guards suddenly coming to attention accompanied by soft footfalls in the hallway roused her to full alertness. Soon after the door slowly opened and someone hesitantly found the way to her bed. Xena could feel the mattress shifting under the additional weight, and a small linen clad body snuggling next to her.
"I know you're not sleeping, Xena. No one can come this near without you knowing it. I know it can never be more but I need your touch, as a friend, please."
"I was afraid of sleeping without you, Gabrielle. In case you don't know it by now, I want you to be my friend and I want you to be my lover but I'm ready to keep a rein on my desire as long as it takes to make you feel comfortable. I know you're afraid and given my reputation, you have every reason to be frightened. I promise all we will hopefully ever do together as friends and as lovers, we only will do with your consent. You will lead the way and set the pace." Xena knew she never would be able to say the following face to face so, despite the darkness in the room she closed her eyes and said. "I love you Gabrielle. I had many lovers, or bedmates, in my life but never before was I in love. I can't afford to mess this up. What ever will happen, it has to be your decision."
The smaller woman didn't answer but the next morning, when the first hints of dawn were announcing themselves, Xena found herself still wrapped under her. It took all of her willpower to slowly inch her way out of bed without awakening her companion and to start her day as usual with a sparring session.
After the midday meal, she met with Gabrielle. Before the young woman had a chance at saying anything about the night, she casually tossed her a fighting staff. Gabrielle caught it in mid air and Xena began to test her reflexes.
Surprisingly fast, they settled in a routine: sparring sessions with the army, lunch, Gabrielle's classes, administrative, juridical and council meetings, dinner, some candlemarks of paperwork, and finally a night of blissfully undisturbed sleep. While Xena was sparring or doing her paperwork, Gabrielle spent her time in the library or talking to the staff or some of the soldiers.
"Are you really sure about this, Cyrene? This country can get pretty dangerous in the course of the next few moons. We were instructed to escort you to a safe harbour."
"You also are bound to obey my orders, Commander." The older woman said in an all too familiar voice, and then there was an unexpected softening in her tone. "I know you're not comfortable with my decision, Palemon, but to me this isn't a question of security. My daughter and I have to talk. After all the big and small things you told me I simply have to know more about her, I have to look in her eyes, I have to make sure. Besides, Xena may be a brilliant strategist but I really doubt she could have anticipated the situation you and your men are forced to face now, Palemon. What are you planning to do with all these civilians pouring in our camp? You can't leave them without protection. A journey to Chin or even to Albion certainly would require the better part of your armed forces. What I want you to do only requires some of your men. I have to see her."
The tall man couldn't help being astonished by her words. They more than made sense, they also were strategically sound. The soldiers certainly could fend for themselves, but the civilians the General had warned them about needed protection. She had told them to expect about two to three scores, but now he had to deal with at least three times more, their number steadily increasing every day. He really hoped that she would get the chance to know how many were loyal to her, not to the government. Following Cyrene's orders he could dispatch the better part of his soldiers to protect the others and lead them to the safe harbour the General had prepared for them, an island with steep cliffs on three sides south-east of Corinth. There were far too many villages and military look-outs on the way to the next harbour to get this many people through undetected. So Cyrene's suggestion, or rather her order was more than tempting.
"You're right, Cyrene, it wouldn't be safe for these people to go without being protected as well as possible. We also may encounter more of the General's faithful on the way. It will take another day to organise our resources but then Theodorus and I will take you to the Amazons."
"Thank you, Palemon."
Gabrielle, to the surprise of the civil and the military staff, was more than talented in handling her fighting staff. She grasped the basic movements after one demonstration only and was able to adapt the more advanced moves very quickly adjusting them to her lower fighting angle. Xena was convinced this had to be accounted to the younger woman's heritage, the Conqueror was not ready to disclose to her yet.
The fifth day of this new arrangement, Gabrielle asked. "What you said a couple of days ago, were your really sincere?"
"I was and I am, Gabrielle. What ever will happen it's yours to control. And if there's something you want to know about me, just ask. I would never lie to you. Sleep well."
"You're still sure that it's me who should set the pace, Xena?" Gabrielle asked some days later when they had lunch under the apple tree.
"Yes, I'm sure, Gabrielle. It feels like the right thing to do. In the past when I gained this reputation of mine, when I still lived up to it, sex had nothing to do with love. I used my body to get what I wanted. It was a weapon as dangerous as my sword. I used sex to gain and maintain power, to buy allies and to control potential enemies. More than once, I spent the night with someone I killed the next day. Sex was a means to an end, and when it wasn't, all I cared about was my own satisfaction. I commanded in bed as I did on the battlefield. It was nothing but a physical act, and I didn't care what it meant to them. Some of my bedmates were deeply hurt when I tired of them. I had sex with more men and women than I care to remember, and it was always a question of dominance and control. Giving up this control would make me vulnerable and weak, well; that's what I believed then. There was no trust because I didn't have a heart to take part. Now, I have a heart. I'm in love with you, Gabrielle, and I'm not afraid to show you that this makes me vulnerable but it doesn't make me weak. I want you to be comfortable in my company, and that's why I want you to be in control."
As a rule, Xena wasn't a woman of many words but to Gabrielle she said more in one day than to her staff in a whole week. And once again, Xena was surprised by her own words; with Gabrielle, she was completely unable to hide behind her usual mask of cool emotionlessness. It was as if the sea green eyes were able to penetrate all her carefully built defences
"I'd like to kiss you, Xena."
Sitting cross legged on the ground Xena turned her upper body slowly to the right and lowered her head to the small blonde. Gabrielle almost imperceptibly flinched and the Conqueror froze in mid-motion.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle, it's difficult to set aside old habits. I'll lie down on my back. It should be easier for both of us." Gabrielle smiled this small smile of hers, equal parts gratitude and wonder.
Her face inch by inch came closer, and stopped when she was only a hand's width away. Xena was more than ready to drown in her beautiful eyes.
"Please close your eyes. They are too distracting."
Xena obeyed without even thinking about it. She could feel the warm breath once again coming nearer, lips lingering directly above her own. Relinquishing control was far more difficult than she thought; it took a considerable amount of self-control not to lift up her head in anticipation. Lips touched lips, briefly. Gabrielle's head snapped back, and Xena tried to smile reassuringly. The next touch was longer, despite its lightness sending shivers all trough Xena's body. And when finally a tongue began to repaint the outlines of her lips the tall warrior couldn't help moaning.
Even through closed eyelids, Xena believed she was able to see the smile on the blond woman's face whose tongue quickly demanded entrance in her mouth. At first, there only was a gentle and tentative probing, but when Xena's tongue hesitatingly answered, Gabrielle became more adventurous. Never before a simple kiss had had such an extreme effect on her, Xena literally felt dizzy and soon lost herself in the feeling.
Her fingers clawed in the hard ground below her in an effort to control the reactions of her body that was more than ready to take over. This fight she couldn't afford to loose. The dark haired woman tensed all over while trying to reign in the expression of her raging desire, at the same time reveling in Gabrielle's touch who had begun to run her fingertips up and down her face and neck.
Too soon her lips were left alone and she felt two feather-like kisses on each of her eyelids. Gabrielle's voice was much deeper when she whispered. "Open your eyes for me."
She did and looked directly into sparkling green with a hint of gold flashing through it. Her gaze was fixed to these eyes, unable to even blink, and when soft lips once again found hers, when her tongue gently was sucked into the younger woman's mouth, all she wished for was for the time to stop instantly, to live an eternity in this blissful feeling.
Now it was her turn to explore, and she did, thoroughly and gently, anchoring herself on the still winter hardened soil, her arm muscles straining with the effort to keep her body's demands at bay. To slow her own ragged breathing she broke the kiss and began to nibble on Gabrielle's lower lip, never loosing contact with the mesmerising eyes above her.
The scribe intensified the kiss, their tongues mercilessly teasing each other. Xena could sense Gabrielle's body as tense as her own, and she was quiet sure it wasn't from fear.
Gabrielle withdrew, jumped to her feet, and whispered a barely audible "Thank you." She bolted away never hearing Xena's , "You're welcome," nor seeing the shadow of a blush colouring the warrior's cheeks.
When they met about half a candlemark later at the training grounds, neither woman talked about the kiss, nor did they during dinner. But Xena who prided herself in her ability to shut out unwanted thoughts in order to concentrate on the task at hand couldn't take her mind off the incredible experience and also couldn't hinder her body tingling from head to toe at the memory alone.
It was way in the middle of the night when Xena finally gave up pretending to do her paperwork and entered the bedroom. Gabrielle already was asleep but immediately snuggled closer when the mattress shifted under the older woman's weight. Xena savoured her scent, the smile on her face and the way the moonlight was playing with her hair. What she felt now wasn't desire or arousal, it was contentment, even happiness, a feeling as unfamiliar to her as anything.
The next morning before preparing for her sparring session Xena placed a feather-like kiss on Gabrielle's lips and was rewarded with an adoring look of two very green and still very sleepy eyes.
"Xena, kiss me!"
Xena lowered her head and gently kissed the younger woman on the forehead, which made her grunt in disappointment. She descended to the right temple, down the jaw line to the neck, from the collarbone to the middle of the throat and kissed her way up to the chin. When her lips finally met Gabrielle's both breathing rhythms definitively were accelerated. Slightly parted lips enticingly invited her in but before she answered the challenge, she made sure Gabrielle really was sure about this by demanding permission with her eyes. She slowly continued yesterday's exploration and was surprised to find strong arms circling her waist and pulling her closer.
Her kiss became more demanding, and Gabrielle's tongue answered with growing enthusiasm while two sets of fingers were travelling up and down her back. The warrior balanced the weight of her upper body solely on her left arm thus freeing her right hand to find Gabrielle's breasts. The young woman's body suddenly tensed, and Xena stopped her movements as well as the kiss. She looked up into tear filled eyes.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I got carried away."
"Don't be sorry, Xena. It's not your fault. It's mine. I'm so messed up; I can't even stand a simple touch." Gabrielle said, turning her head away in shame.
"Please, look at me, Gab. It's not your fault, not at all. Being touched revives many hurtful memories. You didn't have a say in what the slavers and your former masters did to you and made you do. By touching you without your consent, I once again took away your freedom. Please forgive me. I love you, and I don't want to hurt you. Would you give me another chance after dinner?" The young woman only nodded and Xena left the room.
This day they didn't come together for lunch. Xena preferred to continue the sparring session with the newly recruited soldiers, Gabrielle chatted away the midday meal with the kitchen staff. Gabrielle's self-defence lesson was cut short by urgent messages arriving for the Conqueror, and both women were grateful for the interruption because neither could help to worry about their after dinner date. There was a council meeting in the afternoon Xena paid absolutely no attention to, and she was forced to have dinner with some local military governors. The whole time her mind was miles away and feeling Gabrielle's presence at the end of the table didn't help either.
After dinner, Xena entered her study to catch up on some paperwork, she found a note on her desk.
Come to the bedroom, now!
A reflex developed in fifteen years of fighting on her own, fifteen years of telling others what to do and when to do it, told Xena to go and teach this girl whose head didn't even reach her shoulder who really was in charge. But when she was more than halfway through the door, she suddenly retreated and sat down behind her desk. She stared down at the small piece of parchment, this morning's incident replaying in her mind. When she finally got to her feet, she still wasn't sure if she really would be able to pull this through but she was more than convinced that she at least had to try, for Gabrielle's sake as well for her own.
There were candles scattered all around the big bed, leaving the corners of the room where usually four torches were burning completely in darkness. The sound of a person's breathing told her that Gabrielle was sitting in the big chair near the entrance to the library.
"I'd like to see you naked, Xena. Please come to the other side of the bed." Gabrielle's voice was soft and inviting, and contrary to her trepidation, Xena didn't find it hard to obey.
Xena moved slowly, first removing the pin that held her long hair in a tight bun. Next, her ebony handled dagger was placed on a small table sitting between the two windows. She opened the carefully knotted dark red silk cloth around her waist and slowly undid the threefold wrapping, negligently tossing the scarf on the bed. Her wide black pants instantly dropped to the floor leaving her naked up to the hips. She stepped forwards to get free of them completely. From the hips upwards, her long torso was clad in a closely fitting top made of white dyed deerskin. Brass buckles on each side strapped it to the body and she slightly turned to the right when she opened the second set to show off what she was doing. Pulling the smooth material over her head it fell next to her trousers.
Three long heartbeats she stood motionless, fully aware of the eyes wandering up and down and exploring her body. Xena completed her half-turn, bent down and unlaced her boots. Her keen hearing picked up Gabrielle's slightly quickened breathing, so she took her time before stretching to her full height and once again facing the still seated woman.
She attempted to take another step forwards. "Stop, don't move."
Xena froze, utterly unable not to do what the quiet voice requested. The hands at both sides she stood still, trying not to think of the reaction of anyone accidentally coming in there right now. The thought persisted, and a heavy blush began to colour her cheeks. She held her position but couldn't help her own breathing getting faster. She unconsciously closed her eyes and heard bare feet touching the hardwood floor. She could smell the blond woman and feel her breath on her own chest.
"Xena, I want you to undress me."
The tall woman's eyes flew wide open at the request and were met by dark green ones. She held the gaze for a heartbeat, suddenly knowing that she probably never again would be able to deny them anything.
Gabrielle wore an oversized tunic Xena recognised as her own and a simple leather belt. Both were quickly discarded. Caring for her in the village and during the journey to Corinth the Conqueror had seen all there was of the younger woman's body but still the sight she was now confronted with took her breath away. She dropped to her knees, the thought of possible intruders forgotten, inching down the thin breeches and helping her to step out of them.
Sitting on her heels, she savoured every inch of Gabrielle's body from the ankles upwards. Her eyes rimmed to the soft blond curls in front of her she couldn't help the heat concentrating between her thighs. She longed to kiss what now was so close, her head already moving towards her goal when she was once again stopped in mid-motion.
"Don't, Xena, please." Her head jerked back and her eyes dropped to the ground almost automatically. Time stood still while a part of her mind refused to understand her actions. Never before had she felt compelled to do another person's bidding. Everyone who ever tried to command her quickly ended regretting it, her eyes alone could dominate whole armies, and now she seemed to react to this soft voice without conscious thought.
Xena felt lips on the top of her head, and when the voice commanded her to "stand up", she did without raising her eyes from the ground.
"Don't move." She could feel Gabrielle's gaze almost like a touch on her skin. Her heart skipped a beat when she heard the young woman slowly moving around. Close enough to feel her breath but too far away to touch.
"You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."
"I'm but an old warrior with too many scars on body and soul. It's you who really is beautiful, your perfect form and smooth skin mirroring the pureness of your soul. You are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, Gabrielle."
"You don't have to lie to make me feel more comfortable."
"Please look at me, Gab." When the smaller woman was standing in front of her Xena said. "I don't tell lies, I never did and I never will. Sometimes I don't tell the whole story but I don't lie. Today there would have been more to say. I wanted to tell you how much I love to see the play of your muscles when you're handling your staff, the glinting in your eyes when you were able to execute a new move to perfection and the slight colouring of your cheeks. I wanted to tell you how wonderful your hair looks with the sun highlighting the few red strands and how mesmerising it appears in candle light. I wanted to tell you how I long to shower every inch of your body with my kisses, how I long to caress your breasts and gently suck your nipples and how I wish to drown in your gorgeous eyes. But I didn't tell you for fear to put pressure on you. This has to be your decision."
Xena fell silent, her eyes still locked with Gabrielle's. She tried to keep her breathing even, not wanting to show too much of her desire. Countless heartbeats later, a cool breeze made the curtains flap and brought both of them back to reality.
"Please kiss me but I don't want to be touched."
Gabrielle positioned herself in the middle of the bed. Xena followed suit and knelt next to her soft body. She could feel the tension radiating from the younger woman and knew that she had to be very, very careful. Lying on her back the young woman was totally at her mercy, helpless and vulnerable. The situation probably brought back cart loads of bad memories. It took a lot of courage to do this but most of all it was a sign of trust, and Xena never ever wanted to betray this trust.
She slowly bent down, placing a tender kiss on Gabrielle's forehead, kissing her way down to the left temple, along the jaw line to the collarbone, sliding slowly to the middle of the throat and ascending to the mouth. The smaller woman's lips were slightly parted but Xena took her time gently sucking the lower and upper lip before accepting the invitation. The tips of their tongues began a slow and gentle dance, gradually becoming more sensual.
None of Xena's former experiences prepared her for what she was feeling now. Yes, there was lust; she could feel the heat throbbing between her thighs but it was lacking the urgency she usually felt. Her senses were concentrated on the body beneath her. Her own needs fading almost into non-existence in comparison to the bone deep necessity to please her companion.
When their lips reluctantly parted for need of air, their breathing had become heavy and fast. Xena slipped from her kneeling position to lie on her right side, facing the younger woman. Her lips softly nibbling Gabrielle's ear, retracing its outlines with the tip of her tongue and sucking at the earlobe. She began to whisper.
"Do you know how smooth your skin is, Gabrielle? Feeling it touching my lips is intoxicating. Kissing you takes my breath away. I want to feel your touch on my skin. I want to hold you in my arms, chase all your fears away. I want you to enjoy being with me, I want to bring you pleasure like nobody else before did. But now, just lying here beside you, smelling the lavender oil you put into your bath and still being able to sense your own sweet scent makes me happier than I've ever been. Just being near you gives me joy, please don't leave me."
The smaller woman rolled to face Xena and began another passionate kiss, slowly increasing the pressure on the other's body thus pushing Xena on her back. When she broke the kiss, she was answered with a groan of disappointment.
"Please place your hands behind your head. There's something I want to try."
Xena did as she was told without hesitating for even a fraction of a heartbeat. She swallowed hard when the scribe began to imitate her earlier actions by kissing her forehead, and her heartbeat really picked up when Gabrielle finally arriving at the middle of her throat didn't search her mouth but continued south to her breasts.
Her already hard nipples tightened further, her back involuntarily arched closer to the mouth while Gabrielle continued her journey to the tip of Xena's left breast. Tremors run through her whole body when she felt teeth grazing her hardened flesh. A tongue was slowly flicking while a soft hand was kneading the other side. Xena's pectoral muscles flexed in response and she didn't mind moaning Gabrielle's name. She could feel the green eyes studying her reactions but was way beyond caring.
With the young woman's mouth now firmly planted on her right breast while her hand was kneading the left she felt at home. For the first time in her adult life, she really felt safe. Until then she found her pleasure in controlling the release of her mates but now she joyfully surrendered. Gabrielle's movements became faster, her grip firmer, and Xena's body unconsciously answered. Suddenly all movement stopped.
Xena lifted her head; Gabrielle was kneeling beside her, tears pouring down her cheeks. She sat up completely, all her high-pitched desire was gone, and began to kiss the tears away, careful not to touch her but with her lips. The salty drops continued to flow in eerie silence.
"Gabrielle, please let me hold you in my arms."
As only answer a body came nearer, a face was hidden at her chest. She cradled the smaller body almost as one would do with a child and rocked both of them slowly to and thro'. Xena could literally feel her anguish and she knew words never would be able to soothe her. So she began to hum an old lullaby her mother used to put her and her brothers to sleep when they were ill. She even remembered the words and felt Gabrielle's body gradually relaxing. She repeated the song twice. The tears finally subsided and Xena placed a tender kiss on Gabrielle's soft hair.
"You're welcome, anytime, Gab. I'll hold you whenever you think you need it and as long as you like me to. You're safe with me. Perhaps it would be better if we tried to get some sleep now."
"I'm so afraid; please keep on holding me, Xena."
And so she did. They sat together for a long time. The tall warrior gently rocked the blond woman, now and then placing a kiss on top of her head. Humming another lullaby, she soothingly ran the fingers of her left hand up and down Gabrielle's right arm. She feared Gabrielle would once again and irrevocably hide inside herself if they didn't talk about it now; still she dreaded what the possible outcome could mean to both of them. So her question was fuelled with equal parts of determination and fear.
"What are you afraid of, Gabrielle?"
There was no answer, at least not immediately. At first the younger woman's body tensed, then she snuggled closer to Xena's chest as if hiding in her strong arms. When she finally spoke, it took all of Xena's exceptionally sharp hearing to make out her words.
"I want to touch you, I want to feel your reaction to my touch, and I want you to touch me, Xena. No one ever asked me what I wanted to do, not even my younger sister. No one ever did what I liked to do. It was always me who had to obey. You're the first person in the world who ever paid attention to me. I'm safe in your arms, and when you smile, it is as if the sun rises for the second time a day. My heart longs to be taught what it means to be loved and to love in return but my body betrays my heart. My body perceives your touch as a threat and it perceives touching you as a threat. It paralyses me. It scares me."
When Gabrielle fell silent Xena wanted desperately to push her further, she wanted to ask questions able to help the younger woman to understand what exactly was happening. She didn't, instead she reassuringly pulled her body closer still and let her take her time.
"The last slaver was an exception. He beat me harder than any other ever did. Most of the masters called me a trouble maker, and I was punished often." She continued hesitatingly. "But they also took great care not to damage their property permanently. I usually knew in advance when I was due to a punishment, the anticipation was sort of part of it. I feared the pain and the humiliation it would bring, and my body reacted as it did today. My body became tense, my breathing faster, my nipples erect, and there was a strange wetness between my thighs. It always went away after the punishment. Perhaps you should do what the others did. Perhaps it goes away when I'm whipped or caned."
Xena's face in rapid transition was a study in anger, sadness, and fierce protectiveness. But she knew she now couldn't give in to these familiar feelings, she had to try and heal the younger woman instead.
"Gabrielle, my love, please tell me how my body reacted when you kissed me."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Please, Gabrielle, just try it. Close your eyes and recall what my body did. Describe it, my love. What did you feel when your fingertips travelled down my right side to my breast?"
Silence, and a low sigh.
"The muscles under your skin were hard to the touch. You were tense as if you were ready to explode in action the very next moment."
"What about my breathing?"
"It was faster and not as deep as it usually is, as if you were doing something very exhausting." Gabrielle stopped talking, and Xena once again had a hard time not to rush her in any way. "You also were wet between your thighs. - Your body reacted as mine did, but you couldn't have been afraid. You're strong and independent. No one could ever harm you, and so I'm sure you weren't afraid."
"You're wrong, my love. There are a lot of things I'm afraid of. My body may be stronger and faster than most other people's but I can be hurt emotionally as easy as anybody else. I just try and don't show it. But you are right also. My body didn't react to fear. I know it may be difficult to believe but please trust me in there. The human body only has a very limited amount of ways to communicate, especially when dealing with strong emotions like fear or hate or love or desire. What you saw was desire, sexual arousal. At first sight, it looks the same but if one takes a closer look there are subtle differences. The first difference is the scent, fear and arousal smell totally different, and the second is in the eyes. Two days ago, when we were kissing under the apple tree, there was a moment when you looked into my eyes. Try to compare it to the way my eyes are looking during a council meeting or something. The signs are there, you just have to learn how to read them properly."
"The pupils were larger than usual, I think," Gabrielle said, "almost begging me to come closer. The blue all around was much darker and it was sparkling like the water of a mountain lake in sunshine. Inciting me to drown in their depths."
Silence, once again. Gabrielle began to extricate herself from Xena's protective embrace. When they were sitting face to face, she continued. "I know what desire, lust, pure arousal looks like. It's as if there's a fire burning in the eyes, consuming everything else. Yes, there was a fire in yours also, two days ago as well as this evening but it was tempered by tenderness. Your eyes didn't show lust; they showed love. I didn't believe you when you said you loved me, now I do."
"I love you, Gabrielle."
"Please make love to me. Show me how to make love to you. I never learned how to satisfy a woman."
"There's nothing to learn, my love, just follow your heart." It was Xena's time to fall silent, reaching a conclusion she continued. "If you are really sure about this, I first will tell you what I intend to do:
"I will kiss your forehead and your eyes, my mouth will slowly taste your sweet lips, my tongue will dance around yours. I will place small kisses following the jaw line to one of your ears, and I will thoroughly clean it and nibble your earlobe. I'll kiss my way down to your shoulder and further down to your fingers, my lips barely touching your fingertips. I will press my cheek in the palm of your hand and gently suck your thumb. Your hand will guide my head back to your lips. Countless heartbeats later, my tongue will whisper in your other ear. I'll find my way to the other shoulder and arm. This time I will kiss my way upwards on the inside of the arm where the skin is even smoother and more sensitive. Three quarters back up I will stop, raise my head and ask your permission to kiss your breasts. You will order me to do so and I will obey.
"The kisses will be very light at the beginning, my lips slightly touching the soft flesh. My lips teasing them slowly, I will feel my own nipples getting harder than they already were. I will feel my clitoris throbbing and wetness pouring steadily out of my centre. My laboured breathing will match yours, and when I can't stand it any longer, I will suck your nipples one after the other like a newly born child does her mother's. They will get harder to the point of hurting. I will continue to shower your beautiful hillocks with kisses for a long time. My mouth will continue southwards but before relinquishing your breasts my eyes will beg for my hands to touch them while I kiss my way to the soft blond curls between your thighs. You will nod. I'll soon sit between your wide spread legs.
"My hands will knead your breasts in a slow, gentle rhythm. I will kiss your pubic hair, intoxicated by the scent of your arousal, the scent that is yours and yours alone, sweet with a hint of saltiness and musk, flowing freely but never enough to completely quench my thirst. I will once again look into your eyes, just to make sure. My tongue will begin to explore the folds of your nether lips and I will eagerly lap the spicy fluids. I will feel your muscles tense even further, your hips arching from the mattress. My tongue will circle around your clitoris that's pulsating with need. The moment the tip of my tongue begins to flick the swollen bud, we both will come. Our interior muscles will relax and then suddenly constrict, once, twice, with every slow stroke of my tongue. And when our bodies finally go limp, I will take you in my arms and hold you tight, and it will be the first time in my life that I didn't have sex but made love."
Gabrielle's eyes were locked with Xena's, and both were sparkling with desire. The younger woman's voice was hoarse and barely above a whisper when she finally could muster the strength to speak.
"Please make love to me, Xena."
There were surprisingly few awkward moments and as the night drew on the Conqueror found it more and more easy to put Gabrielle's pleasure first. They fell asleep just before dawn, and it took all of Xena's self-control not to cancel the sparring session to stay in bed with her for the rest of the day to more thoroughly explore her new lover's body. From now on during daytime, there always was a hint of joyful anticipation in the air whenever the two women were together. In the nights, Xena continued to serve the younger woman, reading the language of her body and the messages of her eyes, slowly coaching her beyond her fears - and then more than two quarter moons later there was the night when Gabrielle reciprocated for the first time.
Chapter Three: Night watch
The tall blonde Amazon found her right arm blocked in an iron like grip when she was about to strike the face of the girl in front of her for the second time. She turned her head, and hissed between her teeth. "This is none of your business, slave, back out or you'll regret it!"
Xena smiled, one of these smiles capable of chilling even mighty kings to the core of their bones, and then she said with the sweetest of voices. "Why don't you play with someone your size, 'Amazon'?"
Just as the former Conqueror of all Greece and Rome had anticipated, the woman drew her sword with her left hand and aimed for Xena's side but found herself shoved irresistibly backwards, clearing almost half a body length between her and the girl, and like the right the left wrist also was held captive with unbreakable force. Xena still smiled, and the fierce determination of her opponent began to falter.
"What by Artemis' bow is happening here?" The strong voice of Queen Melosa came from the opposite side of the training ground. Xena released both arms but still made sure to stay between the angry Amazon warrior and the young girl who was about five feet tall, slim with only the faintest hints of developing womanhood, her chestnut eyes looked frightened, irritated, and also grateful.
"This slave attacked me, your majesty. I knew from the beginning it was awfully wrong to accept this murderer and her scum in the village. I was about to install a very important lesson of discipline in my young protégé here when this abomination of the gods tried to kill me."
"Queen Melosa," the dark haired warrior answered, her face showing the slightest hint of amusement, and kneeled graciously before the Amazon Queen, "if this were the case, she would be counting her dinars to cross river Styx by now. As you know, I was assigned to repair the stone wall in the back of the training ground. This 'warrior' and the girl had a sparring session, staff against sword, obviously for the first time. After about two candlemarks, she deliberately began to break the defences of the girl. She executed a set of moves more appropriate for graduate class then for beginner lessons, and the flat of her sword hit the girl hard, deliberately. To me it sounded like at least two rips cracked but she didn't stop the lesson. Then she ordered her to bring a coup of water. The girl visibly was in pain and drank herself before returning to her 'teacher'. She then backhanded the injured girl in the face; her second blow was blocked by me. I'm rea?."
"Najara, I want you to wait for me in your hut, we need to talk. Xena, I will accompany Thania to the healer's hut. They will take care of her ribs and of the swelling in her face. Prepare to be punished."
Xena nodded, rose and went to the Queen's hut; there now would be no more threats to the girls security, and Anara was a very accomplished healer but nevertheless she longed to tend to the girl herself. Melosa carefully helped the young girl to staggering feet while the angry warrior still stood motionless, glowering, and only reluctantly followed Xena to the central part of the village where all the individual and communal sleeping quarters were located, a look of unconcealed hatred in the eyes.
Xena entered the central room of Melosa's hut; it was a large square room with a well aired fireplace on the right side of the door, the hide of a great dark brown bear in front of it and many randomly distributed cushions. Two large windows dominated the left wall, capturing the sun from midday to sundown. Between them, a large desk with scrolls and other smaller pieces of parchment and a single chair dominated the room. In the back were two doors, one leading to the Queen's bedroom, the other where Xena now was headed opened to a small chamber with nothing but a bed, a small dresser and a chest secured by a large iron padlock. She sat down on the bed, took off her boots, and peeled herself out of her leathers. Aside her slave collar she now was completely naked.
Then she closed the door from the outside, and went to the right corner in the back of the central room where she knelt with her back to the door; so she would immediately be on display for everyone entering the hut. Xena resigned herself to a long period of waiting but merely five candledrops later the Queen entered her quarters.
"Please, turn around, Xena. I don't think that humiliation should be a part of punishment."
"I try to see it more as a matter of trust, mistress." Xena answered while turning around after hesitating imperceptibly.
"Why did you interfere?"
"The last four days, since I'm repairing the stone wall, I had the opportunity to cast glances to the training grounds. I'm a warrior more than anything else, and there's a part of me, longing for sword exercise or any other kind of drills. I know that's not possible now but? Sorry, I'm deviating? Najara and her apprentice always choose sparring hours not requested by any others and she never allowed her to participate in group training sessions, they always were alone on the ground, and so I had glimpses of her 'training techniques'. I don't know much about the traditions of this tribe but I also don't think that screaming and swearing should be the usual teaching tools. This warrior, Najara, she never was gentle or even understanding to this sensible girl; there's a part of me that easily can understand such behaviour, during a fight there's no time for being nice, but today she plainly overstepped my limit of tolerance. The girl, Thania, she was very brave for someone her age, she can't have more than eleven winters, considering her injuries and what I had to witness the past few days, praise would have been more adequate than punishment."
"Next time you find the slightest thing out of line with your perception of Amazon rules or conduct you will tell me immediately. This time you were right to interfere but next time you probably won't, so talk to me, trust my experience. What you did was the right thing, nevertheless I'm forced?."
"I know, mistress, and I knew when I decided to interfere. I'm guilty of disobedience. Your orders were unambiguous: 'Don't interact with any of the warriors or other Amazons without explicit clearance.' I regret, it was necessary but I will not apologise for doing it. I'm ready to receive the punishment you, Queen Melosa, find adequate." Xena answered, and slowly lowered her eyes back to the floor.
"You really are a woman of contradictions, Xena. But I suppose I won't get any more answers any time soon, so we better get this done with now. I have another warrior to reprimand. For disobedience, you will receive ten strokes on the back and ten strokes on your bottoms with a leather strap. Do you want to be restrained?"
"No, mistress, this won't be necessary."
"Come here, get on your knees, we will begin with your back." Xena did as she was told, and Melosa loosened a one and a half inch broad leather strap from her belt. It was moons since she had to use it on any of her subjects. The weapons' master usually dealt with discipline failures but Xena was her personal slave, so there weren't any excuses. The first stroke marked the right side of Xena's broad shoulders.
"One. Thank you, mistress." Xena said, loosening the grip on her thighs, and bracing herself hands flat, arms outstretched for what was to come.
"There's no need to thank me, I just do what I have to do, and there's no need to count either, unless you really want to."
The moment Melosa released her tenth and last stroke the main door burst open: "My Queen, the punishment of this slave should be public. She offended a renowned warrior in the open; she should face the consequences in the open. My honour is at stake, your majesty."
"Xena, get your clothes, and check on the girl, take your time. Come back when you've finished, knock on the door but remain outside. We will then finish your punishment." Xena rose without giving the slightest indication of even acknowledging the presence of the other woman, and went to the back door. Less than ten heartbeats later, she left the hut, imperceptibly bowing towards the Queen.
"My orders were more than clear, Najara, you were to wait in your hut."
"Your majesty, I learned that our short encounter at the training ground did have witnesses. The actions of this slave offended my dignity, this can't be. I demand complete satisfaction."
"You're right and you're wrong, Najara. Making Xena's punishment an official and public affair also means making your punishment an official and public affair, both being recorded in the history scrolls of the Amazon nation."
"My punishment? But majesty, I did nothing wrong."
"Nothing wrong?! Self-deception won't help you, Najara. Thania was your responsibility, it was your mission to teach her what it means being an Amazon, proud, and strong, and fierce, and free, and full of love and compassion. You failed; you fell short on your mission. An apprentice is not to serve your vanity but to remind you of your own mortality, and to assure the future of the whole nation. The young ones will live whether or not they know about our roots and traditions. We are not to spoil them but we're also bound to protect and to serve the next generation. Every punishment has to be justified and I don't consider backhanding an injured child only because she tried to quench her thirst appropriate behaviour. Less than one and a half moons ago, I issued a warning, and obviously, you didn't listen. So, for you there are two possibilities, either you submit to all of my orders or I will have to reconsider your assignment."
Najara regarded her superior for what seemed like a lifetime. She didn't move nor speak but surely, she was more than on the edge of losing her composure.
"This is your last chance; you can make your decision in the servant's room. It will not be easy for you to regain my confidence and my trust but it still is possible, so decide wisely." The Queen then turned her head to the scrolls on her desk, seemingly oblivious of the tall warrior.
About one and a half candlemarks later Xena knocked on the door though she felt more like bursting it open and kill this so-called warrior inside with her bare hands. When the door was opened, it took all of her willpower not to charge at the woman bend over the desk obviously to receive her share of punishment. Melosa could feel the tension and the anger emanating from Xena, and now she began to understand why nobody easily dared to second guess the Conqueror.
"What happened, Xena? What took you so long? Is everything all right with Thania?"
"I made a promise to her. I told her that everything will be fine, and that there's nothing to fear anymore. But there's no way for her to forget any time soon." Xena's voice was slightly trembling with anger and sadness at the same time, she took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Queen Melosa, I just wish to be the Conqueror again, long enough to gut the bitch in your hut with her own sword, and then slowly slice her throat."
"Sit down, and tell me what happened." She indicated a carefully smoothed and chiselled tree trunk that served as a bench in front of her hut.
Xena took her place at the right side of the Amazon Queen; she closed her eyes and sighed. "Thania was abused, physically and sexually for at least the last six moons."
"How did you find out?"
"When I came to the healer's hut there was a rather heated argument going on inside. Thania was almost hysterical and strictly refused to take her clothes off. Anara already had tended to her face but the ribs still had to be wrapped up. It took some time to convince her but eventually she calmed down. There were a lot of injuries."
Xena fell silent and once again closed her eyes, when she finally continued her voice was toneless and devoid of any emotions.
"Two broken ribs and a lot of bruises all over her body. Deep gashes on her back like whip marks but Thania said they were made with a cane. Two of them are infected, intentionally, by putting ashes in them. Her breasts each have several cuts made with a knife, and there were traces of heavy nipple clamps. The pubic zone also is totally bruised and sore from being penetrated with a phallus. Her buttocks are stripped with too many gashes and lash marks to count."
Another deep breath.
"Thania told us that this is part of being a warrior, to be able to fight even when your whole body is aching, to be able to serve another warrior in any way, to face the consequences of disobedience and mistakes. She said she deserved this treatment for being too strong headed and not to be trusted, and that before commanding a weapon one should be able to submit one's will and dignity, to learn respect for the weapon. She's merely more than a child, and yet she had to live through things?."
Melosa didn't bother to hide the disgust and anger this description had aroused. She sat motionless on the log and regarded her hands when Xena's voice finally trailed away. She wanted to close them around Najara's throat, crush her windpipe, and then slowly break her neck.
"Queen Melosa, I promised that she never again has to fear her."
"No, she won't, never again. I'll tell her myself, now! You're waiting here, outside the house. If she is stupid enough to come out of there, you're allowed to render her unconscious but you will not harm her in any other way."
"I will comply."
Melosa crossed the central place of her village in a beeline for the healer's hut. Aside Gabrielle, Thania at the moment was the only patient. The Amazon Queen knelt at the right side of her cot, the eyes of the girl suddenly flew open, and for the fraction of a heartbeat, she looked like some exhausted and frightened fawn.
"Thania, you're secure now. She will never harm you again. I promise. It is my responsibility to prevent such things. I'm sorry; I failed you. From now on, you will be my apprentice because what Najara did to you is not the proper way to train warriors. You're a very brave girl, and I'm sure you will make me a very proud tutor. The first thing I want you to do is to take your time healing of all of your injuries, and when you need a shoulder to lean on or to cry on I'll be there for you as well as Xena and Anara and Gabrielle. From now on I won't let anything bad happen to you."
The young Amazon looked at her wide eyed and slightly overwhelmed. It took her a few candledrops to regain some sort of composure. "I will work very hard, your majesty, I promise. Please don't hurt Xena, she only wanted to?." Her voice trailed off, and she was fast asleep due to a tea combining painkillers and sleeping herbs Anara gave to her moments before the Queen's arrival.
Melosa turned to leave the hut when the healer called her back. "Your majesty, please wait. It's about Xena."
"Anara, you should know better. Xena committed a deliberate act of disobedience; I don't have a choice here."
"It's not about the punishment, Xena already tried to explain it to Thania. She said not being punished for her transgression would hurt far more than all the strap marks she will receive. She said that it gives you no joy punishing her or anybody else, and that she doesn't have to worry. No, that's not what I want to talk about.
"'Til today I saw Xena as an accomplished healer but only for the body. Now I know she not only has the skills of a healer but also the heart. Without her help, I never would have succeeded in tending to the girl or even get her to speak about what happened. She knew how to touch her without being menacing; she knew how to talk to her and to soothe her soul. I learned a lot today about healing and about the former Conqueror.
"It was Xena's voice that initially calmed her down. She hesitantly accepted my ministrations on her upper body but her whole body tensed when I tried to put some salve on her pubic area. Xena simply said. 'It's okay, little one, no one will touch you if you're not comfortable with it. This salve, its smell is rather repugnant but it will help ease your pain, I promise. You can put it on yourself, we'll help, and that's all.' Thania nodded almost imperceptibly, and with a smooth, catlike motion Xena was seated behind the girl, and supported her back. The girl still is frightened to the bone but Xena? I don't know?. Please tell her she did a really good job here."
"I will, Anara."
When Melosa entered her hut she found the Amazon warrior in exact the same position she had left her but now the woman was unconscious. Xena almost casually leaned on the wall close to the door, a picture of relaxed boredom belying the angry tension still rushing through her whole body.
"If you judge her according to Amazon law she will die but a trial would force Thania to relate all her experiences in detail to the whole tribe or at least to the council. She has to talk about it but I doubt doing it in front of everyone would do her any good."
"You're right. What would you do if it were your responsibility? Apart from killing her on the spot, that is."
"She can't stay in the village any longer; her presence alone is susceptible to hurt the girl. Perhaps you could offer her a choice: expulsion or a trial ending with a death sentence, Queen Melosa. It's not exactly honest but I'm sure she won't call the bluff, she's too arrogant to even consider Thania's feelings."
"I'll give it a thought, Xena. Please leave us now, return to your assigned task. Your punishment will be completed after sundown."
"Yes, mistress." Xena left the hut, silently thankful of being alone, and able to spend some built up aggressive energy on the stone wall. She worked without a stop until the fading light made it difficult to place the great stones properly, and then she washed up and passed by the healer's hut before facing the remainder of her punishment. The girl due to the healing tea was still asleep, and Xena spent some peaceful candledrops with Gabrielle.
The Queen's hut was empty when Xena finally returned, so she built a fire in the fireplace, and prepared some bread, cheese, and a pitcher of cider on a tray next to the bear rug, as she did every evening. Then she discarded her leathers in her small room and knelt in the same corner as earlier this day, now facing the entrance.
Two very long candlemarks later, the Queen finally returned. She seemed exhausted and bonelessly slumped into the chair in front of her desk. Protocol commanded a slave, and especially a slave doomed to be punished, to wait for a word or a signal of her mistress before moving. Xena didn't care; she filled a goblet from the tray with cider and handed it to Melosa, then she once again lowered herself to her knees and began to unlace the boots. Only then, the Queen reacted.
"What do you think you're doing, Xena? I told you more than once, I don't need a servant."
"I apologise, mistress, I only wanted you to be more comfortable. I suppose your afternoon wasn't all too pleasant. I didn't mean to interfere in your personal sphere, although I'd like..." Her eyes sank to her lap.
"Xena, look at me. I appreciate your concern, and I will answer your questions concerning Najara but first there is a punishment term to complete."
"Of course, mistress, but you also should consider a supplementary punishment because what I just did also is against Amazon law. I suppose it should be considered as presumptuous."
"Presumptuous, no, I don't think so. You're a very caring person although slightly over protective. Such behaviour is by no means expected from any slave. I certainly will not punish you - or anyone else, for that matter - being a compassionate human being." The Queen sensed Xena's upcoming protestation, and changed the subject. "Now please, place your upper body on the surface of the desk."
About half a candlemark later slave and mistress were comfortably seated in front of the fireplace, both wearing oversized sleeping shifts and sipping some cider.
"So she left the nation for good?"
"So I presume. I sent her to another village about five days of fast travel north of here with orders to begin a new apprenticeship as a weaver and to forego her weapons. I also gave her a sealed scroll with information for the leader of our northern village. It contains a description of the latest events and her crimes as well as a set of instructions designed to tune down Najara's aggressiveness and to subdue her pride. But I don't think she will even try to atone. My orders are rather severe, and I let her read the scroll before I sealed it; I probably was too severe but I saw the fear in Thania's eyes, and I'm afraid I didn't think very rationally then. Questioning Najara was frustrating; she simply didn't acknowledge her guilt?"
"To her, what she did is the way things are done, the only way possible. She didn't think twice abusing Thania for her own sexual pleasure. It's the strong who decide and the weak who have to obey. I know she's a good fighter, always in the front rows, never retreating; killing is what she lives for. The sound of her sword slicing flesh and bone, the coppery scent of blood, this is her delight but I doubt she ever made a good leader. She only feels alive on a battlefield. Fighting for her is like swimming in a refreshing spring of dark energy?. I'm sorry, Queen Melosa, I didn't want to hold a lecture."
"You are welcome, everything you said is true. When we last fought off one of these petty warlords with more ambition then brains, she was close to uncontrollable. We defeated them easily but when they finally put their weapons down, she continued fighting and killing. Eponin had to knock her out. Still, what she did to Thania, I never would have thought possible. How did you know?"
"I didn't know about Thania, and I'm angry with me for not knowing immediately but I believed her darkness being limited to the fighting. I was wrong. I knew the first moment I laid eyes on her what kind of fighter she is. Her eyes gave her away, there's no life in her eyes, that's how I knew."
Although she was sure not to get an answer Melosa still had to ask because she really wanted to know more about this enigmatic woman before the trial started, deciding about her living or dying. "Did you have many people like her in your army to know them so well?"
At first, there was no reaction but then Xena's eyes found the grey brown ones a few feet away, and after what seemed like hours to the Queen turned her gaze to the flickering flames. Soon there was a sad smile on her face.
"No, there weren't many, Queen Melosa. Usually they are loners; they don't obey orders willingly. So I never accepted them. There was only one, more than ten years ago: myself. - Being dead inside made life bearable. I lived for the fear I could see in the eyes of my opponents during battle, and the pain I felt myself every day was eased by the pain I inflicted upon others. Bloodshed and hatred were all I lived for, all I craved."
"What happened? The Conqueror never was a ruthless bloodthirsty monster, not even during the hardest time."
"You're wrong, your majesty. She was and I still am. This monster is still there, right under the surface but it no longer is in control. Over the years I learned to cage and to tame it but it's still there. You saw it during the fight. What happened?! A woman I tried to kill one day saved my life the next. She made an almost imperceptible hairline crack in my heart but I didn't know it then. It was the beginning of a slow, gradual change. It took almost ten years to understand what was going on inside of me, and the death of many innocent people. If you don't mind, Queen Melosa, I'd like to go to sleep now."
"Yes, of course, sleep well, Xena."
The black haired woman now knelt in front of the Queen. "Would you please fasten my restraints, mistress?"
"I don't think this will be necessary any longer, Xena."
"Please, mistress. I have to be reminded of my station in life; the slave collar simply isn't enough. You're far too generous a mistress, and I too eagerly make use of your kindness. My life isn't mine anymore but it's not enough just to know this, I also have to feel it."
With the fluid movements of a good fighter or dancer Queen Melosa rose to her feet, there was a hint of sadness in her eyes, and her voice was calm and gentle. "Perhaps, you're right. Follow my lead, slave."
Some candledrops later, she returned to the fireplace and poured herself a new goblet of cider. Xena's unexpected revelations certainly gave her a lot to think about but she still didn't understand why this proud ruler and warrior suddenly had decided to become a slave. Her mind flashed back to this day less than half a moon ago.
All during the last season small detachments of soldiers wearing the colours of the Conqueror intruded Amazon territory thereby violating the peace treaty. Her letters of protest were not answered, but from their outlooks in the trees, the Amazon guards had no difficulty in killing them or scaring them away without taking risks themselves. This time there were much more men, a small army of seven or eight scores just outside of shooting range in front of the forest, threatening to burn down the woods if the Amazons weren't to come out for the fight. Her warriors immediately went to meet the challenge. They were outnumbered two to one. Then from the east where a two-days-ride away the frontier fort of the Conqueror is situated a group of riders emerged. In the lead were two women riding double on a golden war horse, followed by twenty heavily armed soldiers. They rode directly between the lines, their backs towards the Amazon warriors.
"What in the nine levels of Hades do you think you're doing? No one wearing my colours and insignia is to attack the Amazon nation without facing my discipline."
There were no answers but a bolt released from a crossbow. The imposing figure with the brass armour snapped the bolt easily out of the air, brought it to her nose, and threw it disgusted on the grassy ground.
"Poison, only cowards use poison. In my army is no room for cowards. So, you better put your weapons and your uniforms down immediately, and then I may consider sparing your miserable lives."
The soldiers attacked, and Melosa saw twenty men of the First Order and the Conqueror of all Greece and Rome fighting their own army. Soon the Amazons joined the melee, and Queen Melosa fought side by side with someone she always had considered an enemy to the nation. It was the first time she had the opportunity to witness the fighting skills of this famed woman whose sword easily sliced through three opponents at a time while never letting the blonde woman on her right out of sight.
When the numbers of attackers and defenders about one and a half candlemarks later began to even out, the Conqueror stopped an arrow merely a hand's width away from Melosa's throat, and gutted a man trying to attack her from behind without even looking. Then she threw her chakram to intercept another arrow aimed at the Amazon Queen.
Thus distracted she wasn't able to hinder a spear piercing the right shoulder of her companion. The blonde who until then showed a respectable level of staff mastery went down. The Conqueror froze in her movement, and a sword thrust against her armour. A cry only just resembling a name escaped her lips, and a wave of energy seemed to wash through her whole body.
With the still silvery shining round chakram in one hand and the blood stained sword in the other, she now hacked her way through the enemy soldiers, and soon not one was left standing. The battle was over within candledrops. But not before one of them managed to kill a horse who collapsed on top of the blonde woman and impaled the spearhead even further.
The Conqueror was oblivious to everything and everybody but her injured friend. Somehow, she managed to get her out from under the horse's corpse. Tears were running down her face, she shook her head, and began gently touching the right side of the woman's body. There were many fractured bones as far as Melosa could see but being no healer herself, she was certain the woman was dead.
The fearsome warrior reached for a pouch between the folds of her battle dress, and fed the blonde some drops of a thick greenish liquid. She sliced the spear's shaft with her chakram careful not to move the tip, and then she took linen straps soaked them with another liquid and pressed them slowly around the iron tip still impaled in the woman's shoulder. Only then, the Conqueror raised her head and took record of the extent of the disaster all around her. Some of her men were obviously dead, all the others injured, and only about ten of Melosa's Amazons were in any kind of condition to tend to the wounded.
She turned around, lowered herself on her left knee and addressed the Queen. "Queen Melosa, I apologise for the breaking of the peace treaty. It happened without my knowing and consent but nevertheless it was my responsibility. I, Xena, hereby resign my rule of Greece and Rome and surrender to the Amazon nation. You may regard me as your prisoner but there's one condition: Help me to save the life of those of my men that still can be saved, and let them go unharmed when they are well enough to travel." Her eyes moved towards the motionless woman. "Help me save her life, and then I will do whatever you fancy."
"I demand your weapons and your armour as signs of the honesty of your intentions, Conqueror. Then my healer and her apprentice will tend to the wounds of your men as they do to my warriors. But I'm afraid; there's little we can do for the young woman at your side. You will need a new body slave some time soon."
A cloud of anger darkened the features of the tall warrior and her face changed into an unreadable mask, suddenly she was towering over the Queen, her voice was quiet but cold.
"Her name is Gabrielle; she is as free as any of your women, Queen Melosa. It probably will take moons to heal all of her injuries but she will survive. At the moment, there's nothing I can do for her. There seems to be no internal bleeding. Once her bones are realigned, she can't be transported safely for the following weeks and if I were to remove the spear now she would die for loss of blood. The only real danger is the poison; I gave her something to countermand the effect. I'm not sure it will work, so her condition has to be monitored."
"You speak with the assurance of a healer, Conqueror. As long as any of your men is in danger I grant you the freedom to move unrestrained in the village."
Xena simply nodded. She took a middle-sized sack out of the saddlebag of her golden horse and went to kneel next to one of the Amazons. A young warrior with a dislocated shoulder. Two of her fingers quickly hit a spot between collarbone and shoulder blade, she pulled and twisted the upper arm at the same time making the girl scream, and then she made a makeshift sling out of the woman's belt and once again hit the same spot.
"The insignia you wear say you will be a healer's apprentice next season. I know your shoulder hurts but I really would appreciate some help. What's your name?"
"Chulapa, Conqueror." The young woman stammered. She was about five feet five with long curly hair and hazel eyes.
"Chulapa, so you are a descendent from the northern Amazons. It's good to know that some of them have survived. Please call me Xena. I want you to help those of your sisters who are still on their own feet to help themselves. And I want you to check on my friend over there every five candledrops. If her breathing begins to slow, or to quicken, or to flat, you call me. If she's dreaming or sweating or moving, you call me."
"Yes, Con?, Xena."
It took about two candlemarks before the healers from the village arrived, and meanwhile Xena proceeded in small slowly widening circles to tend likewise to Amazons and soldiers. Not one of them ever doubted her authority or her knowledge. When the reinforcement finally reached the battlefield, she took a break - only to shed her weapons and armour, and lowly speaking to her horse.
The battle had started just before noon but it was short of sundown when finally all the litters and stretchers needed to transport the badly wounded were ready. Xena worked tirelessly, and though Anara at first was more than grumpy about the decision of the Queen she soon learned to appreciate Xena's healing skills. The group arrived at the village when the moon was at its highest. Melosa had tents prepared in a clearing near the village to accommodate the men, and the young blonde named Gabrielle was transported to the healer's hut.
Chulapa continued to monitor her condition but there was no change. About a candlemark before sunrise all the others were cared for, and Xena and Anara began the laborious task of tending to Gabrielle's multiple injuries. It took the better part of the next day to remove the spear and reset all the bones, and they could call themselves extremely lucky not to be interrupted by an emergency of sorts.
Melosa somehow did manage to take a nap between the return of the fighting force and the meeting of the council of elders in the morning. None of the women were happy with her decision, and after over four candlemarks of inefficient discussions, she made it a royal prerogative but then Xena managed to surprise her for the third time in less than two days.
Having finished her task in the healer's hut, washed up, and changed in a dark blue tunic Xena requested a meeting with the council of elders, the leaders of the army and the royal guard, the scribe, and the Queen.
"As you all know by now I surrendered my weapons to Queen Melosa. I grant that she will honour the conditions of my surrender concerning the surviving members of the First Order.
"I'm by all means alone responsible for the intrusions the nation had to suffer during the last moons. I didn't pay enough attention to this part of the realm. This is one reason why I resigned the rule and administration of Greece and Rome. I will send two of my men to Corinth as soon as possible to let the administrative council know that I will not return. My reign has long fulfilled its purpose. Since we put an end to the war with Rome, there's no threat to the security of my home anymore."
Saying what she did to the Queen had been a spur of the moment decision but it also was the right thing to do, for Greece that no longer needed a an Emperor-like Conqueror, for herself who now was freed from the boredom of ruling and for Gabrielle who would be able to live in peace and security with the Amazons. So, it was easy to take another step in the right direction.
"As most of you certainly will remember I also am responsible for other crimes committed against the Amazon nation and single Amazons, and therefore must be considered an enemy. There's not much I have to offer but I know the Amazons have a long juridical tradition with a great sense of justice. So, I submit of my own free will to an Amazon trial as a public evaluation of the extent of my crimes, the spirit in which they were committed, and the damage done to nation and individual alike. I suggest a public trial with a jury of representatives of all crafts, ranks and ages. I will not question the verdict, and I will accept your sentence without contradiction.
"I only request that the trial will be postponed until my friend Gabrielle is able to attend the session or sessions. She has to witness what and who I really am. Until then, to make all of you more comfortable it would be the best thing if I live amongst the nation as a slave held by guilt."
"Do you really think only one of us could possibly believe that there is even a remote chance to atone for all of your crimes? A trial will only end in a death sentence; it would be easier to kill you now, Conqueror." One of the elders said.
"You're right. It would be easier, it's what the Conqueror would have done only a few moons ago, and no, I don't think that even an eternity in Tartarus could rectify all my crimes. Atonement isn't an option. I'll await your decision in the healer's hut."
Now in the middle of the night, Xena's words to the council for the first time began to make some sort of sense but Melosa knew that there still was much more to it. It just wasn't discernible yet. She knew she should go to bed but she also knew sleep would elude her. So when she heard the sounds of one of Xena's nightmares, her thoughts drifted back once again.
The council meeting continued for the remainder of the day, and when Queen Melosa finally entered the healer's hut the sun was long past its descent. She found Xena fast asleep, leaning uncomfortably against the frame of the bed of the blonde woman, one hand protectively closed around her left biceps. She decided not to disturb her but to check instead on her injured subjects. About half a candlemark later Xena stirred in her sleep, moaned, and only a couple of heartbeats later was wide awake, breathing roughly. Her self-control was quickly reaffirmed and she followed the Queen. They left the infirmary part, and retired to Anara's private rooms in the back of the hut.
"Did the council agree?"
"Yes, they did but before we deal with details, I really like to know why you felt compelled to do this. You more or less in the council chamber forfeited your live. Yesterdays agreement would have been honoured under all circumstances."
"There are a lot of reasons why I did what I did, Queen Melosa. I'm not ready to talk about all of them now, and I probably never will be. It has nothing to do with you. You're a ruler with integrity and honour, this I will never doubt but your people need to know for sure that I no longer pose a threat to the nation." Xena closed her eyes. "And as long as I submit consensual to Amazon law, they will be more at ease accepting Gabrielle in the nation after the execution."
For five long heartbeats, the Queen was speechless. "Gabrielle is really good with a staff; she must have had some renegade Amazon teaching her, but being an Amazon has to be earned. Anyway, I doubt she willingly would be part of a nation responsible for your death."
"It will be a hard time for her. That's for sure. After the court sessions, she at least will understand your need for justice, and eventually will learn to like her new family. And you don't have to adopt her into the nation; she already is an Amazon, by birth. She is marked with the branding of an Amazon princess on her right thigh. I showed it to Anara to make sure someone else knows before we immobilised her in the bed. For Gabrielle it's just a birthmark, she doesn't know what it really signifies. At the moment, there's no more information about how she came to live with simple farmers. - Could we now address the 'details', please?"
Melosa still couldn't understand what prompted Xena to engage in such a self-destructive behaviour but considering the body language of the taller warrior, she also knew that for now there would be no further explanation.
"The trial will be held as soon as Anara gives the permission to proceed, depending upon Gabrielle's physical condition. Only then the jury will be prompted consisting of the elders of every craft, the leaders of the regular army and the royal guard, the weapons' master, three randomly chosen representatives of the apprentices, and, of course, the Queen. There also will be delegates from the neighbouring villages to bear witness of the trial. As soon as the official announcement of time and date of the trial is made, the charges against you can be filed. They will serve to establish a thorough preferral of charges. According to Anara Gabrielle will at least need one and a half moon to be able to attend a daylong court session. - The council also agreed to your request being a slave." Queen Melosa continued.
"The traditional proceedings with slaves held by guilt are to serve the whole village. In the past, every adult member of the tribe would have the right to order you around or even to issue a punishment term. This proved highly inefficient because there was no real chain of command and it was too good an opportunity to act out on personal grudges. You will serve the nation under my command as my personal slave. Tomorrow morning, past sunrise, there will be a meeting of the whole village to let them know about this decision and to bear witness of your acceptance of your slavery. I will pose a slave collar around your neck, and you will receive five strokes with a single tail leather whip. The strokes will be harsh, they will hurt, and they will mark your back but our weapons' master promised not to break your skin."
"As far as I remember your regulations ten strokes would be more appropriate, you also didn't mention the manacles and ankle restraints. I knew what I got myself into, there's no need to make exceptions."
"I didn't, these laws were changed when I took the Queen's mask, Xena. The restraints originally served not to remind their bearer of their slavery but to hinder any attempt at escape from it. It's difficult to climb trees and run through forest and undergrowth when you can't move your limbs freely. But it's been generations since an Amazon was forced to be a slave held by guilt. It was always a voluntary decision, as it was with you. Even the Amazons legally sentenced to slavery had the choice to instead leave the nation. So there's no point in wearing additional reminders apart from the slave collar. That's also why I reduced the number of strokes. Your primary obligation the upcoming days and weeks will be to tend to your soldiers and also to Gabrielle. - I know you are still concerned about her, about the poison but you'd better try to get some sleep. Tomorrow won't be a stroll through the woods."
The collaring ceremony saw no unpleasant surprises but when Xena some candlemarks later tended to her men, Chulapa burst through the tent's flap and called her to the healer's hut. Rushing through the dense forest at breakneck speed, she found Gabrielle white hot with fever due to the poison on the spear's blade. Anara's face told her enough to know that there was little left to be done.
Gabrielle's whole body was covered with sweat, she was shivering, her hands and feet were ice cold, and her face was burning hot. Her breathing was laborious and ragged; the whole area around the spear wound was inflamed. She was wrapped in dripping wet blankets in an attempt to reduce her temperature but to no avail. The healing tea Anara somehow had managed to pour down her throat didn't kick in, and every breath she took seemed to be weaker than the one before pushing her more and more away from life. Xena knew she was running out of time.
"Anara, is there a shaman in the village or nearby?"
"No, Xena. I'm sorry; you did a great job with her leg and shoulder. You better say your good-byes to her."
"I can't let her die, Anara. I need a room where we can be alone; I don't want to endanger anybody else. And I'll need a brazier to burn herbs and spices. They have to be newly harvested, I'll be back soon."
Xena left the room before the healer even had a chance to give voice to her reservations; all she could do was to follow the instructions and summon the Queen.
"I don't care about your fears, Amazon Queen. There's only one way to save Gabrielle's life, and I'm more than ready to pay the price requested to do so. She has to live."
"But you're no shaman, Xena, and also no priestess. You're a warrior and a healer, and there's nothing you can do."
Xena took a deep breath to fight the urge of just breaking through the door the Queen was blocking with her body. She had to stay as calm as possible. Her rational mind knew that she now was the Queen's responsibility, and that the woman needed an explanation. So she decided to let her heart speak, unable to keep a note of desperation from her voice.
"Queen Melosa, please try to understand. There's nothing a healer can do to help her, or even a priestess. Gabrielle has to fight the fever all by herself but her mind is drifting in unconsciousness, so she now is not able to communicate with her body. That's what I'm attempting to change. I'll have to slice through the veils covering up her life force. I know that we both could be trapped in this world between life and death but I simply can't afford to lose her. Gabrielle is my light and my salvation; she owns my heart and holds my soul." The Queen looked at her as if she saw her for the first time. "I'm no shaman but I have to try. Over the years, I learned many things. I know what must be done."
Melosa finally nodded her consent.
"It's not unheard of that an evil spirit of the other-world takes possession of the shaman's body, especially if the shaman is badly prepared. So, you better place some of the archers around the hut. Should this happen to me, they will have to kill me. Take no risks, use the execution poison."
Melosa nodded once again and took a step to the left to let Xena pass by when a voice said.
"Wait, Conqueror. You will need an assistant. Someone has to take care of your body while you're trying to save the wandering soul of your friend."
Xena turned and looked in eyes so black one couldn't tell the iris from the pupil. She was old, six maybe seven decades, with silvery white hair. "No, it's too dangerous, venerable elder, but I appreciate your good intentions."
"The danger for the assistant is only to her life not to her soul. I'm old; sometimes I'm weary of life. I'm willing to take the risk, and you will accept my help. Let's get started."
The old Amazon exuded an aura of authority not even the astonished Queen dared questioning her further.
Aside Gabrielle's bed and a second cot nearby, the infirmary was empty, all the other patients temporarily having been moved to the dining hut. Xena tossed the now damp blankets covering Gabrielle's body on the floor and stripped her as far as the broken limbs allowed. She took off her own clothing and positioned the brazier at the foot of the bed. Soon some of the freshly harvested herbs were burning in the fire; she added an assortment of roots from Anara's supplies and prepared a tea with some others, which she gulped down.
Sitting cross legged on the empty bed, she closed her right hand over Gabrielle's left and put her left on top of the young woman's heart. Xena closed her eyes and consciously slowed down her heartbeat while the silver haired Amazon for the first time ran a sponge dripping with herb flavoured water all over her body to prevent it from drying out. The journey really began with Xena's upper body slowly rocking back and forth, her mouth forming silent words. Then her eyes flew open.
The former Conqueror found herself sitting on a rough plain with grass more yellow than green. There were no sounds at all, not of man, not of animal. There was no wind, and the light was somewhere between dusk and nightfall conveying the impression of timelessness and imminent danger. The heart in her chest was pounding fast, and she knew this was her guide to get to Gabrielle.
She started walking and her heart accelerated its pace. Soon her body was covered with sweat, the heartbeat now reverberating in her ears. She continued on. She began to stumble, and fell, and resumed her walk, once, twice. She was exhausted and thirsty, and every muscle in her body was aching, reminding her of the day she had to run the gauntlet.
'Don't go there,' said a voice familiar and strange at once. 'Fulfill your destiny, Warrior Princess.'
For the third time she scrambled to her feet, her stiff movement fuelled by willpower alone. And then she saw it: a tent decorated with the old language of mankind, the language taught by Prometheus and forgotten for hundreds of generations, unknown even to the most powerful of shamans and priestesses. She somehow knew it was a warning but she also knew that she still had to enter.
Gabrielle's arms and legs were chained to the pole of the tent. Her eyes were wide open but there was not a shadow of recognition in them. Xena tried to talk to her but couldn't find the words. A wave of fear and desperation washed through her and the ground beneath her was shaking.
The voice came back. 'Fighting your emotions will only lead to defeat. Embrace them or they will swallow your soul, Warrior Princess. Remember: To control others leads to power but controlling?.'
Xena knelt in front of Gabrielle's body and hugged her, her head fitting nicely under the breast of the younger woman. She soon felt chains against her knees, her waist and crossing her back, pinning the two bodies together.
'Xena, no, go away. Break the chains as long as it's still possible. You have to be free, go.'
Gabrielle's voice was in her head and in her heart, so she was all but surprised when her own voice also didn't come from her mouth.
'I am free, Gabrielle, as long as I am with you my heart is free, as long as I am with you my soul is able to bear its burden. I need you, my love; you're the air I'm breathing. Come with me.'
Blue eyes and green eyes met, fear muted to love and the chains were gone, the tent was gone. They were alone on the endless plain. Xena still was on her knees; Gabrielle bent her head and pulled her in a kiss.
When Xena regained consciousness she was curled on the bed, covered with a blanket, her right hand still in Gabrielle's left. She got to her feet, willing her trembling legs to steadiness, and found the fever much lower than before. The breathing still was heavy but had settled in a regular, almost normal rhythm. Gabrielle was safe, and Xena's lips escaped a relieved sigh.
A water skin was held in front of her. "Drink, Warrior Princess."
Xena took it and gulped down half of it in one take. "Thank you. It's been a very long time since someone called me thus. Please don't use it; my actions disgraced the name long ago. Call me Xena. Besides, what's your name?"
"Everybody here calls me Grandma but my name is Akyra."
"I know it won't be of any importance to you but you have my gratitude for your assistance, Akyra. I know I would have failed without your help. I owe you."
"It was a most remarkable experience, Xena. It was my pleasure, and yes, to me it counts. You better get your clothes back on, so I can call in the others. The Queen and the healer without a doubt are still pacing outside."
Xena nodded and then asked. "It's near sunset now, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is. You slept about one and a half candlemark after you brought her back."
Xena left the hut to breathe in the evening air and Anara checked on Gabrielle. Some candledrops later, the Amazon Queen joined the tall warrior. To her own great surprise, Melosa was relieved to see the angry and desperate tension gone from the face of her former enemy.
"You did a great job, Xena. Anara is positive that Gabrielle will fully recover from her injuries, and Akyra really is impressed. She said, you were a great surprise and it takes a lot to surprise her."
"Thank you, Queen Melosa, but I simply was lucky, and without Akyra I wouldn't have succeeded. Thank you for letting me do it."
"You're welcome. Anara tended to your men. Two of them have recovered enough to be very anxious. They don't seem to be too happy about your decision. I told them to be patient until tomorrow morning. Go back in the hut, stay with Gabrielle. I'm sure she can feel your presence. Try to get some sleep."
"No, use my title. You're my personal slave but you never will be my body slave. 'Mistress' is only to be used in things dealing directly with your condition. Did I make myself clear?"
"Yes, you did, Queen Melosa. Thank you."
It was almost mid-day when Gabrielle finally came to her senses; she looked up in hazelnut eyes belonging to a young woman with her left arm secured in a sling. She didn't know where she was and a growing feeling of panic was added to the heavy pain that initially did cause her waking up.
"Hello Gabrielle. Everything's all right. You're saved. My name is Chulapa and you're at the Amazon village. We're in the healer's hut."
"She'll be back soon. She's with her soldiers at the moment. Please, don't try to move, you were badly injured out there. Anara, our healer has to be told that you're awake."
At this moment, the door opened and Xena entered the room with the Queen. Gabrielle tried to sit up to greet her.
"Stay put, Gab. Moving now is a really bad idea." Xena knelt next to the bed, taking the blonde woman's hand in her own, her commanding voice now as soft as drops of summer rain. "I'm so happy to see your beautiful eyes again. I'll tell you what happened. What's the last thing you remember?"
"I was hit by a spear. I went to the ground and I could see the blue sky above. There were the sounds of the battle and I could smell the blood. Did you know it smells like sweetened copper? And then there was pain all over. That's all."
"The battle was at its end when the spear took you down. I'm sorry I wasn't able to protect you. There was poison on their arrows and spearheads. You still are a little feverish because of this but it won't do you any harm. Your shoulder now is healing fine. But? One of them killed a horse and it collapsed almost on top of you. Your right arm is broken at the wrist and a second time halfway up to the elbow. There are also three cracked ribs and many bruises. That's why it's hard for you to breathe. There won't be any problems with this either but the horse shattered your right leg. No, baby, it's all right. It will get as good as new. I promise. But to do so you will need a lot of patience. It's not to be moved or strained in any way for the next moon at least."
Xena saw the strain in the face of her lover when a wave of fierce pain raged through her body. "I'm sorry, Gab, from now on there will always be some kind of painkiller available for you. I don't want you to hurt but the less you'll take the faster your bones will knit together."
She now planted a gentle kiss on each of the green eyes. It was then that Gabrielle saw the slave collar, and the loving sparkle in them turned to an angry glow pushing aside even the pain. "How dare you touch me with such a thing on? You promised I wouldn't be reminded of these years any more. You lied to me."
The furious woman tried to turn her head away but found her eyes locked in the saddened blue ones less than a foot away from her. "I want you to be safe and happy, Gabrielle. I never intended to hurt you but you were injured because of me. I'll do anything to make sure you're safe and cared for. The slave collar has nothing to do with your past but for me it was necessary."
There still was more anger than understanding in the forest green eyes. "Do you remember the day we talked about redemption, one week before we left the palace? You said, everyone should get the opportunity to change their ways of life and how important it is to balance the scales of justice. This was my chance to do so. I have a debt to the Amazon nation, Gabrielle, and the slave collar is but a part of it. Soon a trial will be held about all the things the Amazons had to suffer because of me, and I intend you to witness this trial. I want you to know what I really am. I want you to decide for yourself if I'm really worthy of your love."
The expression of the young woman's eyes changed to gentleness. "Until the trial starts I'll be a slave to the Amazon Queen but it has nothing to do with the kind of slavery you know. I swear."
"Are you sure that there won't be any??"
"Yes, love, I'm sure. Amazon laws and traditions are very different from what you've experienced. I'm what they call a 'slave held by guilt'. I'll do chores for the community as soon as you and my men are better. I'm not allowed to wear or handle weapons but that's about it. The collar is merely more than a symbol."
The light filtering through the windows indicated less than two candlemarks to dawn, too late to go to sleep and too soon to alert the guards by leaving the hut. There was some paper work to do, there was always some paper work to do, but she really wasn't in the mood. So she once again allowed her mind to picture the past.
It took the rest of the day to fill Gabrielle who was drifting in and out of consciousness in to the details. She was all but comfortable with Xena's decision and more than frightened about the possible outcome of the trial but she also knew that Xena was convinced to do the right thing.
At sundown the funeral pyres for the eight Amazons and ten soldiers were lit. Apart from the scouts and outposts and the hunting party all the warriors and artists and crafts women were attending as well as most of the children and as many of the wounded Xena and Anara were comfortable with. The mourning ground near the Artemis' temple about a quarter of a candlemark walk east of the village was almost crowded.
As the Queen, Melosa also was the priestess of her tribe and it was her duty to perform the funeral service. The drums began a slow and steady beat, like a heart healthily pounding, symbolising the life of the Amazon nation. A roar of grief resounded throughout the whole forest, and the pyres were lit. Melosa invoked the power of the goddess to guide the souls of their fallen sisters and their male allies to a well-deserved resting place. She implored Artemis to welcome them in her forest and bid them farewell.
Then a slim curly-haired red head took her place next to the Queen. Ephiny was not only a good archer and a fine lawyer but also one of the best singers of the nation. Her clear voice filled the clearing with the traditional mourning song, rising easily above the rearing flames. It was the last good-bye to the warriors, an attempt to honour their courage and dedication to the nation, an offer of comfort for the loved ones they left behind.
When her fair voice finally began to trail away and literally seemed to mingle with the flickering fire another voice was heard: a woman's voice, deep, and full, with a timbre somewhere between velvet and silk.
She sang of the love of a warrior but not to a woman or a man, not to bloodshed and violence, not to the simple pleasures of life. The song told about the love of a warrior to his home and his family and about the things the warrior had to do to protect them. His heart grew heavy and heavier with every new enemy killed but he knew that this was the price he had to pay, and that in the end the scales would be balanced and the Elysian Fields awaiting.
All but several heartbeats after the song's end the Queen realised that it was Xena's voice they'd heard. The pyres had burnt low by now, and one by one the women returned to their huts taking special care of the wounded. Soon Melosa found herself alone with her new slave.
"Thank you, Queen Melosa. You made the men very proud by allowing them to participate in your sacred ritual."
"Your soldiers died defending the Amazon nation. The very least we can do is to treat them with respect. Your voice is breath taking. One day I'd like to hear it in concert with Ephiny, the young woman who sang before you."
"I hope it didn't interfere with your traditions, Queen Melosa. If it did I'm ready to take on the consequences. The men went into this battle of their own accord, I asked them to do it but it wasn't an order, and when Palemon asked me to sing I couldn't refuse. It's been years since I last sang for my men. I long ago lost the purity of the heart necessary to do it the right way; I hope Ephiny will preserve hers."
Xena's face told Melosa that she wasn't ready to really open up and tell her more but she still couldn't hold her tongue. "No, it didn't interfere, Xena, it completed the ceremony. This song, that's how it all began, isn't it? You were trying to protect your family."
"That's how it all began but the end doesn't justify the means, Queen Melosa. I'll better go and check on Gabrielle, she really was pissed off at not being allowed to attend to the funeral. I'll be in your hut as soon as possible. I know that a personal slave has to spend the nights near her mistress. And I guess you didn't change this part of the law."
"No, I didn't but I also didn't count on having a personal slave at all. I don't even have a servant. There's a servant's room next to my bedchamber I used to store things in. It will be yours as soon as all is ready. But as long as Gabrielle needs you, you'll spend the nights in the healer's hut, and you won't leave it without my permission."
"Yes, mistress. It's a good temporary substitute for the night restraints."
"How did you get to know so many details about our laws and traditions, Xena?"
A sad smile adorned Xena's features. "About ten years ago I lived as a guest of the Northern Amazons and I learned a great deal. Queen Cyane asked me to stay and become one of them. In return I killed their leaders one by one, Queen Melosa. - If you don't mind I'd like to return to the village."
Melosa was utterly unable to do more than to give a brief nod. She was baffled and speechless. She knew ten years ago the Northern Amazons were destroyed by Xena's army but the children and elders who over the years found their way to other tribes and villages apparently didn't know any details or were reluctant to share them. One more reason to speak to Akyra.
When Melosa was on her way back to her hut, she saw Xena leaving Artemis' temple.
The Conqueror was said to be Ares' chosen, so why did she spend time in Artemis' temple? One of the many questions Melosa still was unable to answer about her slave. She went there every evening, stayed for about a quarter of a candlemark, and then returned to the village. But she found herself reluctant to question Xena about it.
During the last ten days she had learned a lot about her; first of all, that she still had some difficulty seeing her as slave. Xena was a rather self-confident woman who never shied away from a task and attended to every single one of them as if it was the most important thing of the world. But there were also moments when the former Conqueror of Greece and Rome - and to her surprise Melosa also didn't see her in this role any longer - was sad and almost self-despising, notably when compelled to speak about her past.
To be continued in Part II