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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 3: Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore
I must have actually fallen asleep, for I awoke, not with my customary level of alertness, but as a fat, contented cat. I stretched my body out and turned to spoon against Gabrielle's sleeping form. She slept much more deeply than I, and I smiled to hear the tiny snores that my wife refused to believe ever came from her.
I could tell by the sight outside our bedchamber window that Apollo was beginning his descent into the horizon. The sky glowed a warm orange color as the God's chariot carried the ball of fire below the edge of the known world. I lay there and nuzzled Gabrielle's neck and hair. She slept so deeply that she barely stirred. I wondered if it had anything to do with my sexual prowess or if it was merely an after effect of Yu Pan's tea. I chose to believe it was because of the former.
I, on the other hand, was quite awake. After counting everything from sheep to barmaids, I was still no closer to Morpheus's realm. It shouldn't have surprised me, however. I had lazed the entire day away, having done nothing more strenuous than making love to my wife, which had been a most pleasurable task. My body shivered slightly at the remembered bliss. There was nothing left to do, but to rise and spend the evening doing the things I should have been doing all day.
After a quick wash up and dressing, I went to work in my study. I surprised myself with the amount of work I was able to accomplish. There had been a great deal of paperwork to wade through. For some odd reason, the ruler of the Empire leaving the realm seemed to be cause for some distress among my Advisors. Therefore, I did a fortnight's work in one evening, attempting to provide for any unforeseen circumstances that might arise during my absence.
A number of candlemarks passed as I energetically attacked the piles of scrolls that demanded my attention. Soon after I had begun, however, I felt my concentration waning from my undertaking, even though I pressed on to its completion. My mind wandered repeatedly back to Gabrielle and her recent admission.
Now, in the old days, as I like to remember my youth, I could never let anything interesting go. Not so much interesting, rather inconsistent. Whenever I heard a story, and the hairs on the back of my neck prickled and stood up, it usually meant that there was something odd or off about it. That there was more I wasn't being told. This time, I kept going back to things that happened within Gabrielle's tale.
Once finished with my writings, I poured myself a cup of wine and sat back in my chair. I casually rested my feet on a nearby stool. Artisans had crafted the intricately carved stool out of the same wood as the chair I now sat upon.
"Enter," I said upon hearing a knock on the outer study door.
The Captain of my army walked in, but he had a distinct look of discomfort on his face. Atrius and I had become more like good friends than anything else over the years. His manner around me was usually one of reserved ease. He knew he was always free to speak his mind to me, however, but he rarely had to. Atrius could say as much with one look as my beloved wife.
"Atrius. What's up man? You look like Hades."
"Uhm, well I we heard that Lady Gabrielle wasn't feeling well. So, I I mean, we I mean--"
"Gods man, you sound like you're trying to ask for my hand in marriage! Spit it out," I added with a chuckle.
"Hades," he muttered and rubbed his jaw. "Truth is, Anya heard that the Queen wasn't well and she sent me to find out if she could do anything to help."
I couldn't keep from laughing. I certainly knew how he felt and I told him so. "Sit down and have a cup of wine with me. Gabrielle is with Yu Pan now...just some nightmares." I purposefully made light of the situation.
Once we both had a good chuckle about our women having the nerve to order us around like house servants, we sat and relaxed. We spoke of the trip the next day and the precautions we would take. Leaving Corinth was not something I did lightly, even though it may seem a casual thing, to simply take a holiday. Even though the empire experienced great prosperity, there were always factions who thought they could do better. A portion of my army would go with me. Actually, a much higher number than I usually brought. This, however, was a trip with the royal family. I would spare no cost in seeing Gabrielle and the rest kept safe. The armies that stayed to defend Corinth were five times the size that were normally kept on alert. The last thing I wanted to come home to was an attempt to overthrow my rule. What is mine stays mine. I may have changed in many ways for the better, but I could still be like a hound with a highly prized bone when it came to the things I considered as belonging to me.
Atrius and Anya had been married in a small joining ceremony just a few days previous. Since this trip seemed to be turning into a family affair, Gabrielle had planted the seed in my head to prompt Atrius to bring his new family along. Their two little girls, who affectionately called me the Conqwerwor, and their son, Petras, were all looking forward to the journey. I knew that friends were a new concept and something important to Gabrielle. I believed having Sylla, Anya, and Delia as female companionship, the long trip would be made more pleasant for my wife.
Silence lasted for quite some time between Atrius and myself. It was a comfortable sort of quiet, however. We had known one another too long to resort to feigning conversation when it wasn't there. My thoughts had gone back to Gabrielle's most recent dilemma and suddenly I sat up, placing my feet flat on the floor. I had just remembered one of the things that had bothered me about Gabrielle's story.
"Atrius, do you remember last season, when we fought the pirates in Ambracia?"
"Aye, I do at that. Easier than training new recruits. Those pirates sure weren't much on dry land now, were they?"
"Do you remember the healer the Governor's troops had?"
"The one who made a mess of fixing your shoulder?"
I laughed. My right arm had a habit of becoming dislocated since I had popped it out the first time as a young woman. It had happened again while fighting in Ambracia and some ill trained battlefield healer only popped it in halfway. My laughter quieted into a pleasant smile as I remembered how my arm had been fixed. Gabrielle had given me a massage on the first night I came to own her. It was my wife's talent that healed my arm.
"No," I answered slowly. I tried to recall the face of the man I was thinking of. "It was another. He was older. He tended to people in the village, but the Governor recruited him to help in the castle while we were there. He had skin like a Nubian."
"Aye, I think I might remember the man you mean. Tall and kinda thin, from the Land of the Pharaohs."
"Yes, I think that's the same man. I probably only saw him in passing, though, either at the village or in the castle halls."
"As I recall, he always had a pack of children in his shadow."
"Yes," I answered thoughtfully. My brain rushed forward at the possibilities. "I remember that about him, too. Have any idea why?"
I don't recall ever asking. I assumed they were orphans of war. He was probably too kind-hearted to turn them away being a healer and all."
I ran my fingertips up and down my throat. "Either that, or once word got out, he had people bringing them to him." I had no idea why the thought occurred to me in the first place. Perhaps it was a well-timed gift from Athena, but I believed that this man was the healer who Gabrielle said had been so nice to her. If he was the same man who treated her when she was pregnant, then could he have possibly been involved after the child's birth?
I realized then what else had bothered me about Gabrielle's story. Gabrielle had actually said it herself. Nahil Abdular had been nearly obsessed with having children to carry on his line. I hadn't spent much time in the Land of the Eternal Sands, but I knew some of the ways of the dark-skinned men. Mostly, I remembered the reverence with which they treated their offspring. It was a country where even the most poverty stricken families never put their children to work. Youngsters were encouraged to be children for as long as possible, spending their days doing nothing more strenuous than play.
My questions now concerned the soldier who'd been ordered to take Gabrielle's child from her, with the command to send the child to its death. Even if Abdular had worked up his courage to order the child's death, certain he was appeasing his Gods, what would the underling do? In my experience, even the most blood thirsty of killers had Gods to whom they remained true. Could a man put aside his beliefs, even if he knew he would spend an agonizing afterlife paying the penalty? It simply didn't correspond with the almost fanatical veneration these men showed to children of all lands.
I was quite some time later, when the candles had burned low, that I realized that Atrius had quietly left me to my thoughts.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I woke feeling tremendously rested. It was as though I had slept for an entire fortnight. The first odd thing was that I had startled myself awake, and I breathed a sigh of relief to find that Xena had already risen. She had tried to convince me on more than one occasion that I snored, which I vehemently denied. Okay, so she had been right all along. It had been the sound of my own snoring that woke me.
I lit some candles in the outer room and one of the large oil lamps that hung from the ceiling. I saw the glow of lamplight coming from under the door to Xena's study. She never could stay in bed for any prolonged length of time. Well, for sleeping anyway. I was sure our day spent doing nothing at all would have her up the entire night.
I went to her study door, but heard muffled voices. I recognized that Xena was talking to Atrius and left them to their business. I went into the bathing chamber and set some water on the grates to heat for a bath. It didn't take very long before I was lying in a warm bath and allowing the day's worries to disappear into the bath water. The fact that I was able to do that amazed me more than anyone else. For five seasons, I had taken my guilt to extremes and now well, now it was in its proper place a safe place. The way that came about is a story in itself. I smiled as I thought about the waves rushing in toward that pebbled shore. But, I get ahead of myself.
I continued to think about how different I felt this evening, as I combed my wet hair before the looking glass. I paused in brushing out the tangles and peered at my reflection. Was it possible? I looked lighter somehow. It was the only word I could think of to describe the combination of physical and mental well being I now experienced.
I eventually made my way into my old room, across the hall from our bedchamber. I entered the large room and immediately made a fire in the large fireplace. It was the warm season in Greece, but the stone of the castle held in the chill and the dampness. I also lit a number of lamps and sat down at my desk. The room glowed a soft amber color caused by the dancing flames of fire. It gave the room a very comforting feel.
The room had once been my personal bedchamber. That was before Xena and I began sharing the same bed at night, which had been only one day after I arrived at the palace. I closed my eyes and could still see her standing in the shadows of this very room. She made herself known and she looked a fright. Dark circles under her eyes, her hair wind blown, and her boots soaked through and muddy. It was as though I was cast back into that moment
I immediately felt another's presence in my new room and I awoke in a state of confusion. I looked around and could see no one, but I felt someone near. I leaned over and lit the candle at the bedside. Still, I clung to the feeling that someone was there, watching me from the shadows. I was certain that my expression had caused her to reveal herself as I went from sleepy disorientation to fear.
She took a step forward, letting the light from the flickering flame announce her presence.
"My Lord." I exclaimed, starting to rise. "How may I serve you?"
"Relax, Gabrielle," Xena said, moving closer to the bed. "I have no need of you in that way."
The strained silence persisted as she stood there rather awkwardly. She looked as though she wondered if she should explain her reason for being there. I found her behavior strange. She was my master the Lord Conqueror. Why in Tartarus should she feel she had to explain herself to anyone? I tried to discover the reason for her discomfort and how I might serve her.
"Are you troubled, My Lord?" I gently inquired.
She appeared at war with her own emotions. She moved forward and sat at the end of the bed, just opposite, but facing away from me.
"I I " She cleared her throat and tried to begin again. "Sometimes I being alone at night. I mean, with you in here and me over there sometimes I wish it were different," she said with a heavy sigh.
I saw then what troubled her. Had she really grown accustomed to sleeping with me in her bed? I didn't understand her need, but I understood what drove people of strength warriors. They taught themselves never to show weakness or emotion. The sad end to that tale was when they did wish to show such emotion, they knew not how.
I did not pretend to understand why the Conqueror of the Known World actually felt anything for me, if that was even the case. I did know that it was my duty to serve her; to anticipate her needs when possible, even in the times when she herself knew not what she desired. I hoped I was correct in assuming what she wanted at that moment, and, deep down, I hoped that I was right.
"There are times, My Lord, when the only thing necessary to bring comfort to a person's soul, is the sound of another's heart, beating along with your own."
She looked taken back. When she didn't move or attempt to speak, I continued.
"I may be very unworthy company, My Lord, but perhaps perhaps if you were to lie here, Morpheus would beckon you."
When she looked over at me, and I turned to see her face, I saw into those eyes of beauty and pain. I saw the truth of it there in her gaze. In my company is exactly where she wanted to be. I was determined to show her as much kindness and compassion as she had shown me. I did not even understand why I wished it to be so. It was simply something inside of me.
Without removing her clothes, she made a move to lie back on the large bed, but realized that she still wore her boots, wet and muddy from outside. I was her slave, in her bed. It should not have mattered to her where she placed her dirty boots, but she carefully removed them all the same. Was it respect she showed me or simply concern over an expensive coverlet?
She lay down atop the blankets. I pushed the sheet from my body, knowing that the proper behavior for a body slave was to uncover myself in my master's presence. I did not pretend to know why she did it, but she grasped the end of the sheet and pulled it back up to cover me.
"Roll over, Gabrielle, facing away from me," she said. It sounded as if it was neither command nor request, but something in between.
I rolled over onto my side, as she requested, and she pulled the sheet up further. She then draped her arm around my waist. It seemed quite natural for me to settle my back against her chest. The warmth behind me felt so relaxing.
"Goodnight, My Lord."
She fell asleep in moments. Beginning the following evening, I spent my nights in the Lord Conqueror's bed. Every night, all night. I had never felt so safe and relaxed anywhere in my life.
I shook my head to bring myself back into the present. I pushed aside the many scrolls littering my desk, making room for me to write. As I glanced around the room, I had to pause in near disbelief. I had shelves filled with my own scrolls and many more from writers whose works I enjoyed. Had my life here actually existed for so short a span of time? It had been a little over one summer, yet the change had been dramatic.
I shaped the nib of a new quill with a tool meant to shave the pipe of the feather. I repeatedly dipped my new pen into the ink to prime it. At last, I began writing.
This scroll, like many others previously written, I meant for Xena's eyes alone. It would be an addendum to her current work, The Chronicles of Xena the Conqueror's Life. Some day, others would read these scrolls, but not just yet. It hadn't been unusual for me to add information to Xena's scrolls. She usually read them through in my presence and we might even discuss the writings. Afterwards, Xena sealed my scroll to the end of hers with hot wax and her heavy signet ring. She always made it clear that she did not do this to show that I needed her approval of my writings. The action was one of mere acceptance. I understood that she hadn't ever meant for me to feel demeaned, but it would always remain true that Xena was the Ruler of the Empire and even I must bow to her.
I knew that Xena was curious to know what had transpired between Yu Pan and me earlier today. To tell the truth, I'd like to know myself. I was there, but Yu Pan's mystical ways of healing and teaching continued to astound me. Most of the time, I learned from the man without ever knowing I was being taught. I decided that I would tell the tale as it happened. It would be up to Xena to determine the amount of belief she would place in the story.
I still cried uncontrollably after Xena had left the room. Yu Pan patted my hand and went about brewing tea with the requested supplies Delia had sent up from her kitchen. He had also sent one of the maids to his room for his own tea making materials. I had learned during my time in Chin that brewing and serving tea was not simply an everyday act. It was an art surrounded by a great deal of ceremony. To this day I did not understand all of the words Yu Pan spoke while executing his infusion skills.
I sat, as quietly as I could, while Yu Pan prepared his brew with very slow and deliberate movements. I honestly tried to stop my tears and my efforts seemed to work for a while. Then, I would think of my tiny baby girl and the tears would come again, no matter how hard I tried to hold them back.
"Come, Gabrielle, wipe your eyes and sit up," Yu Pan requested.
I did as he asked and even though I wasn't sobbing any longer, the tears continued to silently spill from my eyes. I couldn't possibly give up my own guilt in the whole affair. No matter that Xena had offered me her own absolution. I simply couldn't forget. And so, my tears continued.
"Now, now here," Yu Pan held out a small stone. It was a smooth piece of jade, about the shape and size of my thumb.
"What do I do?" I asked as I wiped more tears from my cheek.
"I want you to concentrate for me. You must hold the cup in one hand and sip the hot tea. With your other hand I want you to balance the stone, lengthwise up, in the palm of your hand."
I was skeptical, but as with every other lesson Yu Pan had ever taught me, I silently accepted it as fact and did as he bid me. Trying to do both was more difficult than I had first thought. I suspect nearly a quarter of a candlemark had passed before I huffed out a sigh in complete exasperation.
"I know this is important, Yu Pan, please forgive me. I don't mean to question your methods, but this treatment simply isn't going to work. I can't do it."
"Oh, this is not treatment, my nuér." Yu Pan used the term of endearment that I had grown accustomed to hearing from him and no other. In his language it meant daughter.
"What? But I thought--"
"I have found that occupying one's mind with a nonsensical task, while attempting to sip boiling tea, tends to take one's mind from its worries."
"What? I you--"
"Well," Yu Pan poured me another cup of tea as he spoke. "You have stopped your weeping."
I sat and stared openmouthed. It was true. I had stopped crying. For a few moments, I had forgotten my heartbreak.
"Master Yu Pan, what is wrong with me?" I finally asked in frustration. I pulled at my hair and ran my fingers through the locks.
Yu Pan sighed as he sat down beside me on the bed. I suppose that action would have been considered inappropriate had he been a younger man, or even if he had not been my best friend. As it was, I looked on him as more than a friend and teacher. To me, he was the closest thing to a father I had ever known. I imagine that was why I had always felt quite comforted when he called me nuér.
I felt, however, as though I would always call him Master. I had learned from my time spent in Chin and with The Order of the Rose that the term had little, if nothing, to do with slavery there. Students used the term to show respect to their teachers. In Chin, a learned teacher taught so much more than elements of education such as letters and numbers. A teacher taught life as well. That is what Yu Pan had been teaching me ever since we first met living how to exist in a world that often seemed foreign to me.
He placed his hand around mine and closed his eyes for a few moments. When he opened his eyes, he touched my forehead with the palm of one hand. He moved his hand gently in a circular motion.
"It is the dreams," he stated.
I nodded. I didn't know if he pulled the thought from my mind or if he simply remembered that, in seasons past, I had experienced the same depression during this time of the summer.
"My nuér, do you not practice your Qigong every day?"
"Without fail, Master."
The Qigong, pronounced chi-kung, were breathing and meditative techniques. It worked by manipulating or affecting the flow of Qi through exercise, breathing, and meditation. Qigong exercises produced very strong healing effects, for the mind as well as the physical body. A daily use of Qigong maintained good health and prevented illness before it started. The ch'i-related forms, or moves, I used in self-defense. Yu Pan had called the movements Tai Ch'i. The Shaolin fighting techniques that Yu Pan had taught me were nothing more than ch'i exercises.
"You practice them with this," he touched my arm to indicate my body. "But do you practice with this?" He then tapped my forehead.
"I--I don't understand, Master. I study all the techniques exactly as you have taught them to me. I leave no form out."
"Then the fault is mine. I sent you into the world only half clothed against the harsh elements, Gabrielle. You dream of your child again?"
I nodded my head. I didn't need to say more to Yu Pan. He knew more about my past than even I could remember at times.
He breathed out an audible sigh. "My nuér, it seems as though you cannot let go of this bit of sadness."
"My heart breaks when I think about it," I answered in defense. For a moment, it sounded to me as though Yu Pan had brushed off my old feelings of pain and regret. That surprised me, until his next words.
Yu Pan took my hand in his again. "I do not mean to discount your emotions. I know your pain is great. I feel the imbalance of your ch'i; it is quite palpable. But, to hold on to the past is not in our way."
Yu Pan spoke often about the two halves of a whole, the ch'i. It was written Qi, yet pronounced ch'i. It had often been translated as vital force, vital energy, or life force. Qi was both energy and matter. Qi flowed in, around, and through the body. A well and healthy body was a perfectly balanced machine. The yin and yang expressed the idea of pairs of opposites hanging balanced against one another, such as day and night, sun and moon, light and dark.
"I don't mean to, Master. Some days I think it's gone, but when I next meditate, it returns. It seems as though the feelings come back twice as strong as I had previously experienced them. I try, but--"
"Nuér, there is no try when working with the ch'i. There is only do."
"I have failed," I responded. I didn't like disappointing Yu Pan.
"You have learned," he answered. It was so like him to say the nonsensical words that would ease my humiliation. "Tell me, do you understand the way the ch'i works?
"I--I think I remember." I felt as though this was a test and so, I suppose, it was in a way.
"Well, the ch'i is a sort of energy inside of us. The human self has four parts mind, body, ch'i, and thought. The ultimate well-being is when all four of these areas are whole. Ill health comes when we lose contact with one of these four areas."
"Very good. Now tell me what it means."
"I--Uhm. What do you mean?"
"You recite your lessons superbly, but instruction without true understanding is merely recitation."
"I thought I was telling you what it meant."
"But, what does it mean to you, Gabrielle," Yu Pan prodded.
I thought for a moment about what he had asked. In a way, this was a very comforting situation for me. It reminded me of a time when I would sit beside Yu Pan in his tiny garden. He would talk and I would listen. Always there were lessons in his speech.
"What it means to me," I began thoughtfully, "is that my mind is being affected by outside forces. Because I can't get the past out of my mind, the natural flow of my body's resources has been interrupted."
Yu Pan looked very interested in the words I spoke. He nodded his head and was silent for some time before he addressed me again.
"Let me tell you something about these 'outside forces', shall I? Suppose a friend tells you something that upsets you. Perhaps she tells you that another of your friends has been talking about you behind your back. The words from the woman who told you keep running through your mind to the point where you can think of little else. Not only the words of the first woman upset you...the one who told you about it, but you also experience a myriad of emotions surrounding the betrayal from the second friend. You wonder why that woman said such things behind your back and how your future as friends will stand."
Yu Pan paused and I nodded my head to show that I followed his line of thinking. He quickly began again.
"Now, it is your own thoughts and worries that keep you awake at night and not the words of the unfaithful friend. Once, it could be said that it was she, an outside force, who troubled your mind. Once you have taken on anger, fear, even guilt over the incident, you are responsible for what is in your mind. You are no longer at the whim of another's words, now your pain is of your own doing."
"But, why can't I just rid myself of the pain? I can make other unpleasantness disappear when I meditate and practice my Qigong."
"Is this how you practice the way?"
"I couldn't have defeated the Amazon Queen, Melosa, in combat if I hadn't cleared my mind of all my thoughts of peace. I pushed them all away until I could scarcely remember I had ever felt them."
Yu Pan looked concerned and it worried me. "Master, have I done something wrong in this?"
"Not quite wrong, but dangerous my nuér."
"Something in me tells me you might have told me this sooner." I jumped up and nervously paced the room. I knew I sounded indignant and was already prepared to apologize when Yu Pan's smile stopped me.
"It is nothing that cannot be fixed, so not to be overly concerned. Let me explain. You have made a mistake common to those who practice and try to initially live according to the way."
Yu Pan had grown accustomed to calling the philosophies by which he lived his life, the way. I had never adopted all of his customs, but what he had taught me would stay with me all my life. It was almost as if he had adopted me into his way.
"When you do Qigong what do you think of?"
"Nothing, just as you taught me. It just comes."
"Do you put your thoughts away from you completely or do you gently put them aside?"
"I--I'm not sure. I don't think I understand the difference. Are you asking if I clear my mind completely?"
"Precisely," Yu Pan answered.
"Of course. It's almost as if I become a different person. While I'm in the way, my thoughts are so far removed that I scarcely know who I am."
"That is the danger you toy with, Gabrielle, although I know that you do not do it intentionally. When used correctly, Qigong should be as natural as breathing. We do not remove what clouds our mind, for in that, there is the danger of losing one's self."
Yu Pan smiled again, which was unusual. Ordinarily he hid his emotions.
"Why do you smile at my failure, Master?" I asked with some confusion.
"My joy comes, not from your wrongdoing, but at another opportunity for you to learn. I felt you would be advanced many summers before you would be confronted with these subtleties of the way."
"I suppose that's good, right? I don't think I much like the reason why I'm learning a lesson, though." My earlier sadness returned and I hung my head.
"Gabrielle, would you like me to help you put these memories in their proper place?"
"I don't want to forget about her!" I quickly exclaimed.
I remembered how Yu Pan had used a form of hypnosis to suspend my memories of my earlier days spent training with him. I had been brought to him after having been raped and beaten until near dead. I still remember little of that incident, but it turned out that it was our own Solan who had brought me to the healer, Yu Pan. As I healed, Yu Pan taught me the Qigong, which led to instruction in Tai Ch'i and his Shaolin fighting techniques. Once I had been discovered as a runaway slave, Yu Pan used his skills in hypnosis to temporarily suspend my memories of any of the skills he had taught me. If he hadn't, I would never have been able to return to my submissive slave's posture. It wasn't until I faced a royal challenge, hand-to-hand combat with the Amazon Queen, that Yu Pan had used his skills once again to restore my forgotten memories.
"My nuér, what I am offering isn't like that at all. To be truthful, this has been the flaw in your own meditations."
"Gabrielle, there are two methods used by those of us with the power and knowledge of the way. The first way is to remove, or separate, one's self completely from the mind. This has been, in a sense, what you have already been doing. I do not encourage this type of method."
"I don't understand why. This method has worked for me so far. I'm not questioning you, Master, but I need to know why it's wrong."
"Do not sound repentant because of your query. It is a mark of maturity when the student can intelligently question the teacher," Yu Pan responded with his customary good nature.
"Then why, Yu Pan?" I sat back down beside him. I rarely used my mentor's given name. I don't know why, it just happened that way.
He sighed deeply before he began speaking. "Your mate, the Conqueror, is an example of what can happen to those of us who understand the power of the way."
"Do you know the one that the Conqueror calls the beast?"
"I've seen it face to face," I answered slowly. "How do you know about Xena's darkness?"
"I know of many things not spoken, my nuér."
He didn't need to say more. Yu Pan obviously possessed gifts given to him by the Gods of the Eastern realm. I had never questioned him before and I did not intend to demand any further answers now.
"Xena's darkness was a curse from the God of War, Ares."
"Mostly true. It is a spell cast directly from the hand of a God, but it is the Conqueror herself who perpetuated the darkness."
"But, Xena has tried everything to rid herself of the beast," I said in her defense.
"It started when she was quite young. Xena, too, knew the way. Whether it was a gift from the Gods, upon her birth, or some being who found favor in her when she was a child, I know not. No matter what the cause, the Conqueror had skills that were beyond human men even before Ares placed his curse on her. Perhaps it has been those skills that have prevented the darkness from swallowing the Conqueror completely."
I took in all his words and sat there in confusion. Perhaps if all of this was as Yu Pan said, maybe then there was a way to turn Xena's curse around, to eliminate it altogether. I had to turn my attention back to the conversation at hand so as not to allow myself to become too excited by this latest prospect.
"I'm still confused," I said in response to Yu Pan's still grave expression. "How is Xena's darkness supposed to have anything to do with the way I've been practicing my Qigong routine?"
"I am thinking mostly of the potential for danger, the potential to lose one's self to the point where that piece of yourself cannot be retrieved again. Gabrielle, when you forget who you are during Qigong, much as you did when you fought the Amazon Queen, you risk being unable to get that part of yourself back. Even worse, of an unknown entity taking over that piece of you."
"Is that what happens to Xena, then? Does she do this to herself willingly?" I asked in astonishment.
"No, my nuér, but her practice of losing herself in battle left her open for the God's curse to work with that much more strength. As you would say, she never had a chance. I am certain this Ares knew that before he gave her the dark power. By the Conqueror's own admission, when in battle she knows no one, not even herself. She loses herself to the dark lust for blood upon her blade."
"By the Gods, is that what I've been doing?"
"Gabrielle, have no fear. Your heart has kept you safe. Darkness cannot feed upon a light as bright as yours. Your ch'i has always remained balanced toward the light, whereas darkness and death has surrounded the majority of the Conqueror's life. With the new strengths you have about you now, there is always the possibility for you to turn toward something you do not fully understand, however."
Thoughts filled my mind of how close I might have come to a life filled with a darkness such as the one my beloved Xena existed with.
"You said that there were two methods used in the way. Is the second a safer method to use? Can you teach me this new way?"
"So eager," Yu Pan smiled. "You have changed little from the young girl who begged to learn more of the way."
Now, it was my turn to smile. Since Yu Pan had restored my memories of that time I had spent with him, I recalled them as fondly as my old friend did.
"There are two ways to immerse yourself within the power of the way," Yu Pan referred to the meditation I knew as Qigong. "You may submerge yourself within your meditation so deeply that you lose all concept of who you are. There is only the moment and all that it holds. There is another way, too. Rather than remove all thoughts of who you are from your conscious mind, you simply put aside that part of your mind."
"I'm not sure I understand the difference," I said.
"To remove is quite different than to put aside. Placing one's thoughts of self, your memories and who you are to one side is temporary. You put these things in a safe place until the time when it is safe to retrieve them."
I thought about his words. Such subtle differences, yet a world apart in their outcome. Would it be possible for me to simply place certain emotions in a secure spot until I was strong enough to deal with them? How I hoped that such a thing was possible.
"I will repeat my request to you, young one. Do you wish to learn such techniques to relieve you of your pain?" Yu Pan asked.
"I've tried so many different ways," I said in a voice that I could hear was filled with defeat. "I don't know if I'm strong enough to do it on my own."
"My nuér, as long as my teachings live within your heart, you will always have my strength to aide you. It is quite simple, shall I assist you?"
It took only a heartbeat to decide. I nodded my head and took both of my friend's hands within my own. I bent forward and touched the tops of his hands to my forehead. From my time in Chin, I had been taught that this was the highest form of respect a student could show a teacher.
"Come," he said. "I will help you to put your painful memories somewhere safe."
He directed me to a comfortable seated position on the bed, one where I could relax and lean back against the pillows.
"Close your eyes, Gabrielle. Quiet yourself and relax your entire body. I want you to breathe naturally. Once you relax, you will feel a warm breath, as it makes its way throughout your body."
I did indeed feel that inner breath. It started at the top of my head and flowed throughout my entire body. Nearly a quarter of a candlemark later, I felt it tingling in the soles of my feet. I knew this was part of a ch'i healing, as my body had experienced it at Yu Pan's hands long ago.
"Only when you are completely relaxed and breathing naturally can the relationship between ch'i and thought be made into a true connection. The warmth that you feel passing through your body is your thoughts and your ch'i making that desired connection. Use your whole body to breathe, Gabrielle. Feel the earth beneath you and do nothing more; think nothing more.
"Now, place an image in your mind's eye. Picture only one thing, that of the seashore. Watch the waves as they crash into the shore, taking the sand and pebbles with them as they wash back into the ocean. See only this in your mind."
I don't remember how much time passed after that. It could have been moments or candlemarks before Yu Pan next spoke.
"Tell me what you feel, Gabrielle."
It took neither time nor effort to answer. "Happiness," I said, and I meant it. It was a feeling coming from inside of me, this inner happiness.
"Good. Continue to relax every part of your body. Feel even your internal organs, blood, and nerves connect to your thought and your ch'i. Breathe with every part of your body. Now see the shore again. Watch as the waves come repeatedly to that pebbled shore. With each set of waves that break onto the beach, another washes back toward the ocean. When they break away, they carry sand and pebbles away with them. Can you feel yourself as those waves, Gabrielle?"
"Yes." I smiled to think that I knew what to do. Yu Pan didn't have to hypnotize me. I only needed his additional strength to face that pebbled shore. Now, I had the ability to see the direction in which I needed to go. Just as the pebbles and sand were washed back into the ocean, to be placed on some other sandy shore, so I needed to place those harsh and unbearable moments of my life. I would not forget, but I would put those times that would cause me pain in a safe spot, on some other shore, until I could safely return and visit them without fear of the agonizing grief. As I already knew, time would be the only thing that could accomplish that task.
I never even realized that I had slept until I heard voices. Upon rising and walking into the outer chamber, I found Xena and Delia sharing a cup of tea.
I came to the end of my tale and blew on the still damp ink. I took a small scoop of sandy powder and poured it onto the wet ink. I tilted the parchment this way and that, finally pouring the sand back into its container. I carefully rolled the parchment, yet did not seal it as I usually did. I wanted Xena to read it as soon as possible.
I noticed that the sky was a misty sort of predawn gray. I made my way back to our bedroom just as Xena entered through the opposite door. We both smiled and disrobed, sliding into bed and silently curling against one another. We were both too tired for many words, but there were certain things that simply had to be said before the last candle was put out.
"I love you, Xena," I said sleepily.
"And I you, little one," she whispered back.
To be continued in : Chapter 4 -There was this road
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