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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 4: There was this road
" And Athena's protection on all who travel with you today." Lydia, the High Priestess of Athena's temple here in Corinth, was just in the process of completing her blessing over our main caravan.
Gabrielle and I both chose that moment to yawn. We tried to stifle them as best we could. The erratic hours we had kept yesterday had both of us feeling more than a little drowsy this morning. Lydia arched an eyebrow between us. Gabrielle had the good sense to blush, but I could do no more than shrug in embarrassment. Like chastised schoolgirls, we couldn't resist sharing a small grin.
Lydia finished with her short blessing and we prepared to leave. The working part of our caravan had left at dawn. It had been comprised of numerous wagons loaded with the majority of our living supplies for the coming moons. The wagons would always travel at least three or four candlemarks ahead of us. The commanders would scout out suitable locations to make camp at midday and in the evening. By the time our main convoy arrived at the pre-selected destination, our tents would already be pitched and meals nearly prepared.
It was a great deal of work and very little leisure time for the servants, but Gabrielle stepped up to their rescue. She organized them to work in shifts so the same people were not always carrying the brunt of the load. She earned praise from the Amazon and the Centaur camps alike for her foresight. Even I could not help but add my admiration for my wife's actions. Having been served by others for most of my life, I didn't always think of the comfort of my hired people. I tried, and I think I was getting a little better at it, but Gabrielle seemed to think of others naturally.
The Centaurs and the Amazons had their own tents, but we provided wagons and supplies for their journey, along with any servants they needed. One thing that all factions of our party agreed on; each of us would keep our own camps. It was a relatively new truce between the Centaurs and these Northern Amazons. I didn't want any unconscious sleights to ruin the peace we now enjoyed. Then there was the simple fact that each of us, as a people, had our own customs and ways of doing things.
Of course, in the back of my mind lurked my jealous nature. In all honesty, I didn't want those Amazons any closer to Gabrielle than they had to be. Gabrielle was their Queen and they treated her with the utmost respect, but I also noticed the way that their eyes lingered when she passed them by. Most of them were women who enjoyed the company of other women. They appreciated a good-looking female, so in that respect, I understood their sidelong glances. It was my job, however, to keep them aware that Gabrielle belonged to me and no other. Yes, it was terribly possessive of me, and when Gabrielle reads this scroll, she will no doubt have words for me. What can I say? I barely noticed that just as many Amazon eyes followed me. I did find it amusing, however, that Gabrielle had been the one to point that fact out to me. So, I ask. Which of us is more jealous?
Just as thoughts of my jealous nature and Amazon women filled my head, the Amazon's second-in-command came into view.
"My Queen." Ephiny bowed low before Gabrielle.
Gabrielle stood a dozen paces away, but as she walked toward me, Ephiny walked beside her. Gabrielle had a wry look on her face.
"Please, Ephiny, call me Gabrielle."
"Ah, yes. I forget that you prefer that informality."
"Why is it that I think you tend to forget on purpose?"
Ephiny chuckled under her breath. She had actually held some small bit of animosity for Gabrielle when my wife had initially received Melosa's Right of Cast. However, Gabrielle's caring and compassionate nature, along with her intelligence and strength, had slowly earned her the respect of this loyal Amazon. I wondered if these two would always be somewhat at odds, however.
"Lord Conqueror," Ephiny addressed me with a slight incline of her head. There was always a tightness there in her voice when she spoke to me, as if she were grudgingly speaking through clenched teeth.
"Ephiny," I returned. "How is it that you can make addressing me sound like you're telling me to go fuck myself?" I asked in a low whisper.
"Why, I'm sure I have no idea what you mean, Lord Conqueror," she replied.
"Yes, I'm sure you don't," I facetiously agreed.
We both laughed at our innocent banter. Some would think that we held a dislike for one another. That was quite opposite from the truth. Actually, I got on quite well with Ephiny. We were warriors and hence, knew where we stood with one another. There was that code, after all. Then, there was our common denominator Gabrielle. True, she was Queen to each of us, but there was something more. Ephiny was more attracted to Gabrielle than she would ever let on. She knew it, I knew it, and Ephiny knew that I knew. I believe she rather enjoyed me knowing. I also didn't, for one heartbeat, believe that she would ever do anything to dishonor her Queen or her people. So, as it stood, Ephiny knew of my jealousy in regards to Gabrielle and the Amazon played it for all it was worth. I never faulted her for it. It was exactly the sort of thing I would have done.
"Ladies," Gabrielle joined us. She waved to Anya across the courtyard and at the same time she muttered, "Don't make me separate the two of you."
Gabrielle gave the two of us that look. It was amazing what she could do with a mere gaze. I thought I could cast an intimidating glance, but Gabrielle outdid me easily. She arched one eyebrow so high into her bangs that I thought it would pop off. Then, her eyes turned such a green color. I don't exactly know how to describe it, but her eyes went all sharp, as if they had become two pieces of flinty emerald ice.
She gave us her look and just as quickly smiled at someone passing by. Her face did a complete transformation, turning warm and sunny in only the blink of an eye. Satisfied that we had adhered to her warning, Gabrielle walked away and began talking to Sylla.
"Just between you and me," Ephiny said out of the side of her mouth. "That look is enough to scare the Land of the Dead right out of me."
I smiled. "You and me both."
Part of me enjoyed that Gabrielle could instill that small amount of fear into those around her. I admit, I didn't like being on the receiving end, but then again, I suppose I deserved it most of the time.
I did notice that Ephiny's eyes lingered slightly longer on Gabrielle than usual. I felt proud, and yes, I suppose a little jealous. I was certain it was due to Gabrielle's traveling attire. Since Gabrielle had decided to ride alongside me on her own mount, as opposed to in the wagons, I encouraged her to have Anya create more appropriate riding attire than her customary dresses.
Gabrielle now wore trousers, blouse, and vest. Her trousers were leather, but different than the sleek black leather pants I wore. Hers were a fawn color. They were textured, as though someone had worked the leather until it became soft and pliable, but almost a bit fuzzy. Gabrielle liked the feel to them and I certainly liked the way the tight leather clung to her body.
I waved off the young stable hand that brought Gabrielle's roan mare up. Gabrielle had just recently learned to ride, an accomplishment in which we both took a great deal of pride. Although, if the truth were known, the only reason that she finally made up her mind to sit her own saddle was mostly because of her fear of high places. She had said on more than one occasion that my own black stallion, Tenorio, had a back that was simply too far a distance from the ground. She had fallen only once when taking her lessons and I feared that one time would put an end to her equestrian enthusiasm. I should have known better. This was Gabrielle, after all. In keeping with her determined nature, she picked herself up and started all over.
I helped Gabrielle onto her horse and then I easily mounted Tenorio's muscled back. He was a warhorse and stood nearly 20 hands high. He had a number of seasons under his saddle fur, but in a contest of sheer strength, I would still wager all I had on him. He'd carried me a fair piece over the seasons. I patted his neck affectionately and he snorted in that way that told me I was probably embarrassing him in front of the mare.
I looked at Gabrielle and noted that while she didn't look terrified, she didn't exactly look comfortable.
"Are you sure about this?" I indicated her horse, Ridian, with a nod of my head.
"Yes," she answered. "Very sure." She turned and smiled at me then.
I returned her affection and said no more. Besides, I could tell by the set of her jaw that nothing I said at this point would talk her out of riding on her own. I was quite proud of the way she sat the saddle, remembering everything she'd been taught. Simply recalling all the instructions that Marcasius had given her seemed a feat in itself.
Marcasius was an expert horse trainer and Captain of the Cavalry regiment of my army. Whenever I wanted to learn something new, I made it a point to learn from the best. I expected no less for my wife. The young Captain willingly gave Gabrielle his time, and she appeared the better horsewoman for it. He was demanding, but no more so than Gabrielle could be of herself.
I remember thinking that it would look awfully good, too; Gabrielle riding by my side, the people of Corinth cheering their new Queen along. It made her look strong, worthy of the crown. Best of all, Gabrielle's Amazons watched their Queen with renewed admiration.
A few farewells later and we made our way out the palace gates and into the streets of Corinth. Children ran alongside our procession and I smiled when I saw Gabrielle toss some honeyed dates to the laughing youngsters. She looked over at me guiltily as she quickly licked the stickiness from her fingers.
"Delia said I'd need some energy food." Gabrielle patted the sack tied to her saddle and smiled.
I admit; we made an impressive sight. The army and our personal guard wore their brightest armor. The deep purple banners fluttered in the gentle breeze, my lion's crest emblazoned on the cloth in a bright yellow. I wore my usual black leather and lightweight body armor. I'm sure we made an impact on a few eyes. Right up to the point when Gabrielle began to constantly tug on her vest.
I was partial to body armor made of discs or coins. It had kept me safer than any solid piece of metal I'd ever worn. Only one problem with it all it was heavier than a barge. It was also hotter than Hades underneath. I only wore a thin shirt with no sleeves under the leather. Gabrielle chose to wear a silken blouse under her armor, a choice that had been against my advice. It was apparent that she was regretting that decision now.
My whole top was black leather. Golden discs and hard leather covered my vital organs. Metal workers had fashioned Gabrielle's vest with real coins and I don't think she was quite prepared for how the protection she wore would feel.
"How are you holding up?" I asked Gabrielle.
"Good," she answered as she tugged at the collar of her vest again. "It's warm, though, isn't it?"
"Not too bad. We should stretch our legs in a little while and walk for a spell."
"I'm really not sore at all, Xena."
I smiled at her 'first day of travel' enthusiasm. "You may not be now, but tomorrow you'll be singing a different tune."
Gabrielle tugged at her collar once more and I saw her loosen the buckles that held her vest fastened together in the front.
"Take care not to reveal too much, little one."
"But we're surrounded by a huge army, Xena. We have personal guards, Amazon guards surely, you don't fear assassins."
"A hard truth to learn is that when you rule, even a farmer can become an assassin."
"Why would a farmer want to kill us?" she asked in all her innocence.
"It could be any reason. It doesn't even have to make sense to anyone but him. Maybe he didn't like the taxes he had to pay or the prices in the market. Maybe his son was killed in some battle defending the Empire. Hades, maybe he simply knows me from the days when I offended everyone. It could be anything, but since I'm the ruler, I'm the one he'll want to exact his revenge upon. Because you're my Queen, you are automatically included. I'm sorry, love."
Gabrielle appeared to think for a moment. She turned to me and offered up her customary smile. "There's nothing for you to apologize for, Xena. I suppose I was being overly na´ve in thinking that if the Empire was prosperous people would be happy."
"Well, maybe just a tad na´ve. It's one of the things I love about you, though."
We rode on in silence for a few moments before Gabrielle spoke again.
"It's a strange feeling, isn't it?"
"What's that, love?"
"The feeling that someone you don't even know might hate you enough to want to take your life." She shook her head to dispel some private thought from her mind. "Don't worry, I'm not frightened," she quickly reassured me. "I was just thinking out loud."
"Good. I want this trip to a pleasant one for you, little one."
"No matter what we find in Amphipolis or Potidaea?"
"Uhm about Amphipolis. You know, I've been thinking and I--"
"Not on your life, Conqueror. Xena, you promised we would stop there. Solan is looking forward to meeting his grandmother."
I squirmed in my saddle under Gabrielle's admonition. I had told her of the news I had received, that Cyrene still lived in Amphipolis. I had said nothing, however, about what I'd found in Potidaea. I was hoping to make that a rather pleasant surprise.
I was already rethinking the idea of standing before Cyrene again. I'd hadn't seen the woman since I ran away on the night my brother Lyceus had been killed. Cyrene had blamed me. She slapped me across the face and I ran. I suppose I'd been running ever since. I wondered if even the Conqueror of the Known World had the nerve to stand before her mother once again. If the old woman was anything like her daughter, time might have slowed her down, but it most certainly would not have softened her.
"You don't understand, Gabrielle. I'm pretty certain she wouldn't want to see me anyway."
"I know from the few things that you've told me that you both said and did things that you regret. Perhaps she feels just as you do. She could be every bit as frightened as you are about meeting again. Her heart may ache for the missed years just as yours do, Xena."
I sighed. "I wish I held your optimism, love. All right, I did give you my word."
"I just have a feeling that good things will come of it," Gabrielle said with an enthusiasm I wished I felt.
"Then far be it from me to go against one of your feelings," I added with a smile.
"Xena, did you have time to read the scroll that I gave you yet?" As usual, Gabrielle was off on another subject, satisfied that we had settled the previous conversation.
"I have it right here." I patted Tenorio's saddlebags behind me. "I'm sorry, but after being up most of the night, I could barely keep my eyes open this morning."
She smiled just slightly, almost as if to herself. I wondered if she was remembering our lovemaking from the previous evening. At least, in my vanity, I hoped she was.
"I didn't really think you'd have the time this morning. I suppose I just wanted to make sure you brought it."
"I had planned to read it when we stopped for a midday meal. Would that be all right?"
"Of course," she answered.
I worried now at what the scroll contained. Gabrielle had said that I was to add it to my scrolls of the past two days. The only explanation she gave me was that it explained the time she had spent with Yu Pan yesterday. I had wanted to know what had transpired between them. Now, I wondered if I still did.
"So, you read my scroll?" Gabrielle asked.
"I read your scroll," I answered.
We walked together, hand in hand, leading our horses. Our midday break had been a short one. In the coming days, we would rest longer, occasionally waiting for the most intense heat of the day to pass before continuing. We started rather late today, partly due to Gabrielle and myself, but mostly because of the size of our caravan. We'd never traveled with this many women and children before. Usually it was just me and my army, and perhaps Sylla as my personal maid.
I don't know what I expected as I lay under the shade of a tree, reading the words Gabrielle had written. I now wondered why I had been so worried. There were no new horrors or revelations in the text. However, I did learn more of my Gabrielle. I discovered perhaps discovered is the wrong word, for it wasn't really something that came as a surprise to me. I found that Gabrielle had a strength within her that even surpassed what I had previously believed she possessed.
I, above many others, knew what it took to change, to put guilt behind, and move on. I was in a sort of awe over the ability Gabrielle seemed to possess. It was something I had been unable to do, even given that I had some of the same training that Gabrielle had. When I was half the age that Gabrielle was now, I too had studied with an old gentleman in my home village of Amphipolis. Again when I was older, an angry young woman who had just recently turned to the beast and all its darkness, I studied the way.
Her name was Lao Ma and she taught me more about myself than any before her. The only problem was that I was too young and filled with hate from what had gone on in my life previous to that point to really listen to what she was saying. Many of the great powers that she taught me have faded away with time, but I have always held faith that if I needed those powers, absolutely needed them, that they would be within me to access. On the other hand, that could be nothing more than wishful thinking.
My entire point with this ramble was to compare myself to Gabrielle, in this instance at least. She had accomplished what I could not, and I wanted her to know that.
"And, what did you think? Did it make sense?"
"Completely." My smile seemed to alleviate whatever silent fears she had been harboring. "I want you to know how much it means to me that you shared of yourself that way, Gabrielle."
"I suppose it makes it easier knowing that no one else will be reading about it anytime soon. I mean, I know it's a part of your chronicles, but I figure we'll be old and gray by the time it's put in the library. Right?"
"Very true. I have no doubt that you'll have me writing in these scrolls until the very moment Hades sends his sister for me."
"Very amusing, Conqueror." Gabrielle nudged me with her body and we both laughed.
"I suppose what I really wanted to say to you is that I'm very proud of you, for the way you've been able to live with your past."
"Thank you, love. That means a great deal to me, coming from you. Although, I still think that if I'd never done the deed in the first place, I wouldn't be suffering the guilt now."
"That's true, but we work with what we have, little one. You've done better than I ever did."
"Xena, that's not true. Look at the woman you are now," Gabrielle argued.
"Now," I said with a particular finality. "Gabrielle, this is the me that you know. I was a very different woman before you came into my life."
She hung her head in silence. I was aware that while Gabrielle had been no more than an infant during my more infamous years as Conqueror, she was familiar with the scrolls by which other bards had chronicled my life. My saving grace was that nothing that had been written about me, no matter how foul, had even touched on how evil I had been.
"Why, Xena?" Gabrielle asked in a soft voice. "Why did you ever become that way in the first place?"
I thought it ironic that no one had ever asked me that question before. Why had I gone from being the Lion of Amphipolis to simply the Conqueror? In the few heartbeats that it took for me to answer, scenes played before my mind's eye. Amphipolis Lyceus Cyrene Ares Caesar. Had they contributed in creating the Conqueror or had I no one but myself to blame?
"I'm not sure that's a question that can be easily answered. It wasn't one instance, but a combination of many things. I suppose it all comes down to the fact that different people handle bad experiences better than others do."
Gabrielle and I continued to walk along holding hands. It was odd, the things to which I had become accustomed. Friends, bodyguards, and nearly half my army surrounded us, yet we spoke to one another as though we were quite alone. In our minds, I suppose we were. It wasn't as if we were shouting, however, and everyone kept their distance, allowing us our private time.
"Look at your life, Gabrielle. The situations you had to live with, the unhappiness and pain you were forced to endure. There must have been something in you, though, some force that kept you the way you are now. After all you've been through you still have such a beautiful nature. Some would think it unbelievable, but you continue to possess a certain innocence. I find it refreshing and at times I envy that you were able to keep it."
"But I don't know why I'm this way, Xena."
"Nor do I understand why I turned out the way I did. I made choices, it's true,
but there was something in me that just wasn't
nice. Look at Solan. Remember how he
was when he first got here?"
"Do I," Gabrielle added with enthusiasm.
"Well, he is his mother's son. I was just like that at his age. I was angry all the time. I don't know why, but that's the way I was."
"Insecure," Gabrielle mused.
"Me? Insecure?" I chuckled.
"You may not want to admit it, but that's usually the reason people push."
I thought about it for a moment. She was right, of course, but in all the seasons I had ruminated over my life and my, oftentimes, abominable behavior, I had never drawn that conclusion. Perhaps it appeared too obvious. I had a tendency to think that feelings and reasons for my behavior were complicated things.
"I suppose I never thought that someone as aggressive as I could be insecure or unsure, but in truth, that's exactly what I was. What made me even more dangerous than Solan was that I had the skills and the ruthlessness to back up my mouth." I swallowed and came to a complete stop. Turning toward Gabrielle, I knew I was about to make one of those confessions that I felt would cause Gabrielle to one day want to leave me, or at the least, fear me. "What Solan did for you, the day he took you to Yu Pan's to be healed, I would never have done that. In all honesty, I was more like the men who used you."
I just stood there, head lowered, unable to risk meeting Gabrielle's gaze. I wanted to be honest with this woman, but what would it cost me? I was terrified that I would see contempt or fright within those emerald irises one day.
I realized that she still held my hand when I felt her gentle squeeze. I looked up to see the wonderfully compassionate gaze that, by now, I should have realized would always be waiting for me.
"Just as you said that was before. You are a very different woman now."
And so, once more, Gabrielle proved to me that insecurity still surrounded me. For with one look, and a few loving words, she caused my world to lighten. She also helped me to put one more day between my past and my present.
"I have to admit, this feels rather decadent." Gabrielle sat back in the bath large enough to hold four or five people.
It was a large portable tub made of wood and leather, sealed with pitch and other glue-like substances. This one was relatively new, but I had traveled with similar conveniences for many seasons.
"How long do you suppose it took them to get this ready?" Gabrielle asked.
"The better part of the afternoon, I should think."
"Well, I'll have to reward the people who work so hard at it with something extra. It feels wonderful at the end of a day of riding and walking."
"If you think it feels good after a day of traveling, try it after you've done battle since sun up. It must be how the Gods' feel about ambrosia."
"How did they know where we want everything, Xena?" Gabrielle asked as she looked around the room, recognizing many of our favorite belongings. "I gave instructions on what to bring, but I never told anyone how we wanted anything placed."
"Atrius and Sylla, I suspect. In my conquering days, I lived in a tent like this one for most of the season. Surrounding myself with the comforts of home made a hard life more bearable. After a while, my servants just knew what I liked and where I wanted it put."
I removed my own robe and tossed it upon the cushioned bed. A warmth quickly spread through my belly at the appreciative look in Gabrielle's eyes as she gazed upon my naked body. It excited me beyond belief that I could instill that expression of desire in my wife, not bad for a warrior who had seen nearly forty-five summers. Oh, all right. Athena's rejuvenation helped to tighten up those muscles in a few strategic places.
"Do you have room in there for me?" I asked.
"Well," Gabrielle looked around at the ample space in the tub. "I don't know. We may have to sit very close together in order to fit."
I chuckled as my long legs stepped into the warm water. It wasn't steaming, that would have taken the servants an entire day to accomplish with a bath this large. I imagined that the sudden increase in my body temperature would surely make up for any lack of warmth within the water.
I sat in the water that came up to my shoulders and immediately groaned. It was a sound borne of equal parts contentment and arousal. I pulled Gabrielle close and I think we both moaned as our bodies came together. Our mouths met, tenderly at first. Gabrielle's tongue gently traced the outline of my lips before entering my mouth.
We traded kisses this way for some time, the act serving to arouse us further. She wrapped her legs around my waist and I felt a slickness on my belly that had little to do with the water. My hands couldn't keep still. I slid them against Gabrielle's skin, one moment in gentle caresses, the next moment I kneaded the flesh, roughly possessing the body in my embrace.
"Gods, I want you, my Conqueror," Gabrielle gasped when our mouths separated.
I instantly flashed to the times when I had three women entertaining me in a bath such as this. I would have spent the day fighting, finishing the evening by working off the battle lust for which the beast demanded sex as payment. Never, though, had any woman said those words to me. Want had never been an option. They had pleased me by my command.
Gabrielle's words touched a place in my heart that only she could reach. They wrapped me in a sense of security, and the safety I found within Gabrielle's embrace only served to excite me more. She used my title as an endearment, a sort of inside joke between us. She had a choice when it came to being with me. At any time, she knew that she could turn away from me and I would let her go. It was that she chose me, knowing all that I was, and all that I had been. She wanted to be with me, and her decision meant all the world to me.
"You have me, little one," I answered. "Body and soul."
I cupped her breast and squeezed the flesh in my hand. My fingertips toyed with the hardened nipple, teasing, then pulling at the sensitive nub. She tilted her head back in delight and I took the opportunity to kiss and lick at her neck, sucking hard enough at the skin there to mark her.
One of my arms held Gabrielle to me and the other hand found its way between her legs. She sucked in a breath when my fingers explored the flesh there, made wet by her increasing desire and the warm liquid surrounding us.
"Please, Xena I need to feel you inside me."
That's all the invitation I needed to place two fingers against her and slowly press inside. She groaned loudly and murmured a few words that I couldn't understand. I pressed my fingers deeper and she began to grind her hips harder against my hand.
"Yes, just like that," she panted in my ear.
The first time we made love, Gabrielle had said barely a word, having been trained since childhood to serve and stay silent. It thrilled me to hear Gabrielle's voice during moments of passion, but to hear her ask, even demand, what she desired, Gods, for me, it came close to euphoria.
Suddenly I felt Gabrielle's hand between my legs and I nearly exploded into orgasm then and there.
"Gods, Gabrielle! Don't stop," I begged as she mimicked the motion of my own hand deep inside of her.
It was intense and quick, the climax that we brought one another to. Our timing was perfectly synchronized as we both froze at the same instant. I could scarcely believe that my own hand had kept moving inside of Gabrielle all that time. I wasn't consciously keeping it in motion, so focused on the pleasure I was receiving. It crept up on me unaware the second time and my body felt as though it were turning inside out as I strained to capture every last sensation of my orgasm.
When I could at last open my eyes and feel myself in my own skin again, I found Gabrielle with her arm wrapped tightly around my neck. Her body convulsed against me as she experienced a few aftershocks of her own.
I kissed her lips as we struggled to regain our breath. She leaned back and smiled that weak, sated sort of smile that she has after we make love.
"I suppose you want to take that bath now?" she asked with devilment in her eyes.
We both broke into laughter and I realized that Gabrielle had been right again. I would indeed have to reward the servants for providing us with this bath.
Gabrielle and I enjoyed the evening meal with a number of our traveling companions. Delia had created her customary culinary extravaganza and the whole evening felt like what I supposed a family outing would. It was a unique experience for me. In the past, travels such as this usually meant war and battles. Back then, there had only been my armies and me, a lonely world for a woman. I never forgot the feeling of traveling, surrounded by thousands of men, yet feeling completely alone.
The sun had already set by the time Gabrielle and I reclined on the well-cushioned mattress that served as our bed. I lay with my head in Gabrielle's lap and she slowly ran her fingers through my hair.
"Do you feel like talking, Xena?"
"Of course, love. What would you like to talk about?"
"You might think it too invasive," Gabrielle said with a slight hesitation in her voice.
"Gabrielle," I opened my eyes to look up at her. You're my wife. There's nothing about my life that I wouldn't tell you."
"But I'm not sure I have the right to ask."
In truth, I did fear the question, but I could refuse this woman nothing. No matter what Gabrielle asked, I would be as honest as I could. For the unconditional love that this woman gave to me, I could give her nothing less in return.
I took both of her hands in mine. "You have the right," I uttered softly. "What would you like to know?"
"When did it happen? When did you become "
"I just meant, when did people stop calling you the Lion and start to call you the Conqueror?"
I suppose I knew that this question would come some day. There were worse things Gabrielle could have asked about, but that thought didn't help at the moment. I closed my eyes and settled my head back into Gabrielle's lap. She stroked the side of my head as I wondered how she would take this story. I had discovered that my wife could be a jealous creature, every bit as much as I could.
"I suppose I'd have to go back quite a bit to give you the whole story. It wasn't long after I'd run from Amphipolis and accepted what I thought was a gift from Ares. Warriors started showing up wherever I was camped. Seemed as though word had been spread that I was Ares' chosen. Easy as that, I was a young girl leading my own army.
"I changed a small bit every day. You can't possibly live amongst a bunch of soldiers without becoming a little like them. There were times when I had to fight my own men to prove myself as their leader. That was when the abilities Ares gave me seemed a good thing to have.
"The God of War and I parted ways when it came to how I would use this new army he'd provided. Ares lived up to his reputation back then. He was the God of chaotic warfare. He wanted to slash and pillage the entire country, but Greece was where I drew the line. I suppose I still had some small bit of goodness left in me back then. The attack on my village by Cortese was still fresh in my mind. I wouldn't ever forget Lyceus, and so I made it my mission to drive the warlords out. Soon enough, my goal became larger. I realized I wouldn't be content until I'd driven every foreigner off of Greek soil."
"You sounded quite admirable back then," Gabrielle commented.
"For a while there, I actually think I was. The change wasn't all at once, but little by little, I began to lose my compassion for people. Part of my transformation was inevitable. Power does odd things to some people. I suppose it didn't help that I had Ares whispering in my ear every time we--"
I stopped abruptly, realizing my mistake too late. Hades balls! Me and my big mouth! I just lay there with my eyes closed. There was nothing to do now, but to admit it. If I had never stopped talking, I could have covered. I slowly opened my eyes and found Gabrielle looking down at me with an expression that seemed almost amused.
"What?" Innocence was not something I feigned well. After all, I'd had so little practice.
"You're the one who stopped talking."
"Oh so I did." I sped through my brain looking for a good explanation, but none came. "Uhm I thought I mean I didn't want you oh, Hades."
Gabrielle reached down and touched her index finger to my lips. "Xena, when you first told me that you were Ares' chosen I sort of realized that he wasn't after your mind."
I sighed and gave her a half smile of relief. "I just didn't mean to I don't know, throw it in your face. I wasn't thinking."
"I feel honored that you can forget yourself in your tales, Xena. It tells me that you feel comfortable, that you feel free to talk to me, and I know that's not something you do with just anyone. You do feel comfortable talking about all of this, don't you?"
"Up until a few moments ago I did." I finally laughed when I couldn't keep the dour expression on my face any longer.
"You're such a funny lady. Go on with your story."
I took her hand and kissed it. Once more Gabrielle surprised me with her understanding.
When had I changed? When had this new Xena been born? I closed my eyes once more until I could smell the ocean and feel the movement of the ship under my feet. Some memories were still quite vivid to me and this one was no exception. The words echoed through my brain like the clash of cymbals in an empty hall.
Tell Hades to prepare himself. A new Xena is born tonight
new purpose in life
To be continued in : Chapter 5 - I Remember, I Remember
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