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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 22: He Jests At Scars, Who Never Felt A WoundI quickly debated. A part of me wanted to follow Gabrielle, but there was one thing I knew for certain. I would be of little comfort to her in the mood I was in now. A rage flowed through me so strong that it caused my entire body to tremble. The beast within me tried to fight its way free. Its attempts to free itself from my dominion actually caused me physical pain, so much so that if I lifted my shirt, I halfway expected to see stripes across my belly from where the beast tried to claw its way out.
I clutched at my abdomen in order to fight off the cramping of my muscles. Never before had I wanted to free the darkness inside more, but at the same time, knew I could not. I deliberated for a few heartbeats over simply letting go, loosing one blood curling scream, and allowing the beast free reign of its murderous impulses.
I pictured the carnage should I allow that to happen. It was tempting, to be sure, but as justified as I felt my revenge to be, these people were still Gabrielle's parents. At that moment, however, I'm sure that it repulsed us both to admit to that fact. No, I had to regain control and swallow my thirst for reprisal.
I had to close my eyes tightly for a moment. It seemed a great effort to draw air into my lungs. The beast pushed and I pushed right back. For the first time I could see the entity in a sort of physical form. It was easily my exact size and shape, but shrouded in darkness as if covered completely by a black cloak. So much easier this time, to fight off the tempting lies it whispered into my ear. I was finally fighting something I could see, even if I was the only one in the room with that particular sight. After all, I was a warrior by nature, a woman who spent a lifetime perfecting that art. It was almost anticlimactic, then, when I shoved with all my might, and the beast slunk away, nursing the unseen wounds I inflicted.
I finally became aware of my surroundings, feeling as though so much more time had passed than the few moments that actually had. I glanced around to find Hecuba and Herodotus staring at me in an odd fashion. I wasn't certain whether their strange looks came because of my behavior or the fact that they finally realized they had angered me to the point where I lost all reason.
I stood straighter, shaking off the last bits of control with which the beast tried to cling. I glared at Hecuba. She returned my stare, but looked away first.
"You don't understand," she murmured with slightly less conviction than when she had spoken to Gabrielle.
"I don't understand?" I questioned, carefully trying to keep my voice even, but perhaps failing. "I wasn't the woman who just told her daughter that she should have died as a weakling and a coward."
"There are more things to be considered than just our feelings."
"What more could there be? What more matters? Hades teeth, woman! What could you have possibly been thinking? What about your other daughter what if she suffered the same fate as Gabrielle?"
"Then I hope she died before letting them dishonor her. If she allowed them to handle her as Gabrielle did then I have no children," Hecuba answered.
I think my mouth hung open as I stared at the woman, utterly amazed by her response. "By the Gods, how could you deny your own children for having such incredible strength? Gabrielle suffered more indignities than most people see in a lifetime. She not only came away from the experience touched in a way that she will have to live with forever, but also with the ability to offer compassion to the very people who marked her in the first place. I suspect I wouldn't have been able to do the same and I damn well know you could not have."
"You speak of her as if her reputation was as clean as a Hestian virgin's instead of what she really is was," she hurriedly added upon seeing my arched eyebrow.
"I've heard what the people have said for the last season," she continued. "How do you think I felt inside knowing that it was my daughter who became known as the Conqueror's whore?"
I couldn't stop my actions, nor, at the time, did I have any real desire to. I crossed to where she stood in two easy strides and grabbed the front of her blouse, gripping it in my fist. I dragged the surprised woman across the room until I pressed her against the wall near to where Herodotus still stood.
I wanted to hurt her, as I held her there, but I knew words alone wouldn't touch her in the same way as her own harsh speech had wounded Gabrielle. What surprised me most was Herodotus's complete lack of chivalry. In those mere heartbeats that ticked by, I suspected his behavior had more to do with his browbeaten status as Hecuba's husband than his fear of me.
I watched as my grip tightened at the neck of her clothing. That's when I clearly saw the expression she wore. It was nothing new to me. I had seen that look before upon the faces of hundreds thousands of people in my lifetime; men, women, in battle or in my bed. The expression was one of fear, but not an ordinary sort of fright. Rather, it was the look of someone who fully expected life to end for them in a matter of moments. I believe that she truly felt as though I was going to kill her, and oh, how I wanted to.
I could feel the fingers of my free hand closing into a tight fist; feel my arm become almost weightless as I raised it into the air. I stared at the scene as though outside myself, watching from some distant corner of the room. Causing this woman physical pain seemed to be the only way to hurt her. She was impervious to emotion, as her lack of love or concern for Gabrielle so ably demonstrated. I found myself more than willing to show the woman what real hurt felt like, yet I could not do that because of Gabrielle.
Hecuba's words came back to me, though.
How do you think I felt inside knowing that it was my daughter that became known as the Conqueror's whore?
I paused, my arm stopping in midair. So, Atrius had been right.
"How long have you known about Gabrielle," I asked.
"Please, Xena Conqueror, I assure you we had no idea that--" Herodotus finally spoke up, but I saw the truth in Hecuba's eyes before she uttered a word to interrupt him.
"As soon as you brought her to Corinth rumors flew. We're not so far from the seat of the Empire as you think."
"Hecuba!" Herodotus cried out. To the man's credit, he looked as though she had struck him with her words. I had suspected that he knew of Gabrielle's past and chose to ignore it out of love for his daughter. Now, I could plainly see that this was the first time he was hearing such a thing.
"Oh, don't be a fool!" she snapped back. "How could you have not heard the gossip in the town?"
"Because I choose not to talk with people like that. How could you keep such a thing to yourself, Ba, and not tell me that you believed our daughter was alive?"
"Have you listened to a thing I said here today?" Her voice increased in volume until it was just shy of yelling. "She is only our daughter because I gave birth to her. If she had stayed with us, we could have taught her what was proper. How can we hold up our heads when everyone knows what she's done?"
Hecuba opened her mouth to continue, but she finally looked at my fist, still hanging in midair, knuckles white with the strain of not smashing into her skull. She swallowed and at last looked nervous instead of pious. Her thoughts were as transparent as water. She wondered just then, wondered what she had not thought to worry about yet. I could see that she questioned whether I would actually cause her physical harm or not. To tell the truth, I considered that silent question myself.
"You act as though she had some say in the matter," I said, teeth clenched together and my hand still poised in the air. "Like she asked to be kidnapped and sold into slavery."
"She may not have had a say in being taken away, but she chose to defile herself. She chose that sick and perverse life."
"Chose it over death," I retorted.
Our eyes locked and I knew what her response was going to be before she said it.
"Then I wish she would have died."
I knew it in my heart just then, that she had forfeit her life with that statement. It barely took a heartbeat's thought for my fist to begin its forward momentum.
Everything began to move slowly as though there were long moments between thought and action instead of the tic of an eye. I saw the terror in the eyes of the woman before me and I heard a scream. It was more like a howl, an animal's mark of rage. That's when I realized the tortured cry was my own. My fist made contact and the beast inside howled with glee. Finally, there would be blood.
Little did my darkness know that this moment was to be a turning point in our relationship. The wood planking beside Hecuba's head groaned and splintered under the impact of my blow. I watched as a tiny rivulet of crimson ran down the wall.
Hecuba's eyes fluttered open. Perhaps she wondered why I stood before her and not Hades. I felt a touch on my shoulder and turned to see Herodotus standing beside me.
"Please, Conqueror have mercy," he said.
I shrugged him off and released my hold on Hecuba. She fell limply into her husband's arms. I silently crossed the room toward the door, but turned back just before exiting.
"I'll not tell Gabrielle of our exchange, but know one thing. Just as you wished her death to save your own petty reputations, so you are dead to us. You've made your decision. You'll have to live with it."
I exited the house and scanned the small yard, searching for Gabrielle. I spotted Ephiny, leaning against a split rail fence. She straightened when I came into view, her gaze immediately going down to my injured hand. I examined the injury myself for the first time after stopping beside Ephiny.
"Get me a length of bandage," I commanded of one of the soldiers lingering about. He quickly returned and handed me the requested strip of cloth.
"Where's Gabrielle?" I asked Ephiny.
"In the barn. She wanted to be alone for a spell."
"Is she was she upset?"
"I would say that was putting it mildly."
"Was she a mess you know, crying?"
"Actually, just the opposite. I didn't know she knew words like that," Ephiny answered with a smirk. "She snapped at me when I tried to talk with her, so I thought it best to let her calm down. I guess her reunion didn't go as she had hoped."
"You guessed right. They found her past a little unsettling. At least one of them did, anyway. Did you suspect, too?"
"About the mother? Well, she didn't act as I would have at finding my long lost daughter. If I'd known it was going to go badly, I would have warned you. I'm sorry Gabrielle had to experience that. She deserves better."
"You're damn right she does," I replied as I drew water from the well and rinsed my bleeding knuckles.
"Did you snap one of them in two?" Ephiny asked in that deadpan manner of hers.
"No, nothing so dramatic. Not that I didn't want to."
I wrapped the long, narrow cloth around my hand and tied it off to control the bleeding. It didn't feel broken, but I guessed it would be quite sore for a day or two. The blood came from abrasions the wood had caused and the crimson fluid seeped from the wounds each time I angrily flexed my hand.
I didn't have time just then to examine all that had gone on in the house, especially my own psyche and how light I felt since the moment that I had refused the beast its blood tribute. It would take some time before I could discuss it with Gabrielle, considering the circumstances that brought about the transition between my darkness and me.
Atrius joined us and silently indicated my hand with that disapproving look he has.
"It's nothing major and I didn't hurt either of them," I said in answer to his unspoken query.
"Son of a Bacchae! Sorry," he added, apologizing to Ephiny.
She smiled at her ally. "I've said worse myself."
"How is Gabrielle?"
"I'm going to see to her now. I suspect we won't be spending any more time here than we have to, though."
"Looks like a pretty good storm moving in. We should at least camp tonight and start out in the morning," Atrius said.
"Good plan. Let's not set up too close to their farm. How about the first stop we made this morning?"
"Aye, Conqueror, I'll make it so," he answered and quickly left to begin preparations.
"I'll leave Mika here in case you need anything. I'm sure Atrius could use a helping hand." She looked up at the sky, which had darkened considerably since I'd been inside. She pushed aside her blonde curly locks and wiped the sweat from her forehead. "The air is becoming thick. Looks like that storm will be upon us sooner than we think. I'll do what I can to get the tents up."
"Thanks, Ephiny," I answered. I didn't even see her turn and go, so preoccupied as I was with how to comfort Gabrielle.
I had never really seen Gabrielle angry, not the actual anger that I experienced on many occasions. She had always been able to take a deep breath and see the other side of the coin. She always used to tell me that there were two sides to every story, and she had the unique ability to think that way during times of emotional conflict.
The only other way I had seen her handle rage had been to become eerily quiet, turning inward and curling into a fetal position within her mind. I had always suspected that this behavior came from her somewhat low self-esteem. She always seemed to imagine that everything was her fault, so I believed her behavior had been due to guilt, feeling guilty for imagined reasons that only she knew or understood. I say all this to show what a complete surprise it was to me upon entering the barn where Gabrielle had gone.
She paced back and forth in front of the stalls, her body held stiffly and her hands clenched into fists. It was a terrible experience for Gabrielle to go through, yet how wonderful. For the first time, maybe in all her life, Gabrielle displayed anger for herself, over something that had been done to her. This time it wasn't in defense of another; it was only for her. However, I only think of this now, as I sit here writing by the light of the candle. At the time it happened, I could only feel a hollow sort of pain in my chest as my heart broke for my young wife.
"Can you believe her?" Gabrielle said between clenched teeth as soon as she saw me. "How could Gods, how could she be my mother?"
I said nothing in response. What could I say? I agreed completely, but I had no idea just then how to make Gabrielle feel better about the whole experience. I wanted to make it right for her, fix it somehow, but I could not see a way to accomplish that.
Gabrielle stopped moving and looked at me. I could only hope that all the love and affection I had for this young woman was apparent in my gaze. Quite suddenly, it looked as if all the energy it took to maintain such rage unexpectedly left her. Her eyes went from dark green back to their customary bright emerald. Then, she rushed across the hay-strewn floor and into my arms.
I squeezed her tightly until I feared that she would no longer be able to breathe. I kissed her and murmured the sort of nonsensical things that lovers say to one another in an attempt at providing comfort. It must have worked because she pulled away enough to look up at me. The expression of fury had left, but pain was still evident there in her face. In a way, I was surprised that she showed no sign of tears. When, I wondered to myself, would she cry?
"Is this really happening?" Gabrielle asked, her forehead now pressed to my chest.
"Little one, I am so sorry. I feel responsible for all of this."
She lifted her head. "Xena, don't you dare. There is no way you could have known what she was like, what she thought of me."
"I should have investigated more. I should have--"
"Please love, don't take this on your head. What you tried to do for me was lovely, and I'll never forget it."
"Excuse me, my Queen." Mika stood just at the entrance of the large double doors to the barn. She had that look on her face that said she would like to be anywhere, doing anything, other than that what she was about to do.
"I'm very sorry, but your fa--the man, he wishes to speak with you and refuses to take no for an answer."
I stepped away from Gabrielle, determined to let Herodotus know that he could go to Tartarus before I'd allow him to see my wife again. Gabrielle reached for me, grabbing my bandaged hand. I winced and she looked down, seeing my injury for the first time.
"It's nothing," I shrugged.
"I didn't hurt them." I gave her a weak grin. "I just hurt the wall a little."
I looked around, trying to figure out what to say.
"Was it over something they said something she said?"
"Words can't hurt us, love."
"It must have been something awful to make you punch a wall. What did she say, Xena?"
I knew I would tell her someday. If she asked, I would speak of it, but not now. It was just too raw.
"You wouldn't care if it was about you, I know that much about you, my Conqueror. It must have been about me, wasn't it?
"Now isn't the time, my love. We can talk about it later. I promise I won't keep anything from you, but not now. Trust me on this, all right?"
She slowly nodded her head, reaching up to gently kiss me. She turned to Mika, still waiting at the door and looking uncomfortable.
"Let him in, Mika, and then leave us, please."
Mika nodded, wearing an expression of relief and returned, followed by Herodotus. As Mika left the barn, I stepped back into the shadows. Gabrielle had indicated her need to handle this alone, to play out the scenario to its fruition. I refused to see her hurt, but I also respected her wish and understood her desire to stand tall before this man.
Mika left the man just inside the entrance. He looked a hundred seasons older than when we'd first met just a few candlemarks earlier. I suspected that what his wife had to say to him after I left had a great deal to do with his defeated body language. He took a step forward, but stopped when he saw me leaning against a stall gate.
"I just wanted a moment with her," he said. If he was hinting that I leave, he would be disappointed.
"I stay to make sure we don't have a repeat performance," I said as I glared at him from my spot in the shadows.
"I have no secrets from Xena," Gabrielle said. "Anything you say to me can be said in front of Xena."
Herodotus looked about as uncomfortable as one man can get. I couldn't work up a great deal of sympathy for his plight, but I did have pity. He let his wife run his life, even to the point of refusing to acknowledge his own daughter. I wondered what he would say, if he would stand up for himself or if he would continue to stand in Hecuba's domineering shadow.
He stood there looking at his boots. "Gabrielle," he looked up quickly. "May I still call you that?"
"Of course." Gabrielle couldn't help smiling.
"I never knew, Gabrielle, I swear to you I never knew about you. I don't want you thinking--"
"Enlighten me," Gabrielle interrupted. "Knew what about me?"
"Well, that I--" Herodotus looked back at me.
The man assumed I had rushed out and told Gabrielle what her mother had done. How simple was he? If I hadn't been angry before, I was after that. He stammered and stumbled around his words, looking at me to get him out of it. Gabrielle knew that I knew, so there was nothing to be done, but give her a quick version. Gods, I could have strangled him! Gabrielle was now looking at me, too, an expectant expression on her face.
"Your mo--Hecuba admitted that she suspected you were their daughter ever since you came with me to Corinth and the rumors got out. She knew, but well, you know how she feels. I'm sorry, love. I was going to tell you all of it."
Gabrielle stood, looking a little numb. She had one of those faraway looks in her eye, as if she couldn't quite grasp the truth of what I had just told her.
"It's all right, Xena, I understand," she said absently. "Just finding it a little hard to believe. She knew? All the way back then and never said anything? What kind of people are you?" she asked Herodotus.
"Gabrielle, I--" he stammered.
"If it helps, Gabrielle, I believe he's telling the truth when he says he didn't know. I don't think Hecuba told him," I responded.
"It's true," he said. "I could never have gone without trying to contact you, even if you would have thought me mad. I don't know what came over Hecuba. We spoke about you only after the Conqueror's man contacted us, but she never hinted that she felt so so strongly about about things."
"I see," Gabrielle said slowly. "So, where does that leave us?"
Gods, there it was in her eye, a tiny look of hope. If I thought she might hear me, I would have send her some sort of mental message, begging her not to hold out any hope, not to put any faith in this man who had none at all in himself.
"I Gabrielle, no matter what anyone says, even Hecuba, you will always be my daughter." He took her hands in his and I wondered if he was going to prove me wrong. That perhaps he'd developed a backbone in the past few candlemarks.
"Please believe me when I say that nothing you have done, or were forced to do, could dampen my joy at seeing you alive and healthy again. A piece of me died the day you disappeared. I honestly haven't felt true happiness until I saw you today. I knew, I just knew that you were my Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smiled and I thought that even with all the rest that had gone on, hearing her father say those words would be one good memory that she could take with her.
"Perhaps maybe you could come to Corinth for a visit?" Gabrielle looked at me as she said this and I nodded my head. "I know it's rather soon, but--"
"Gabrielle," Herodotus interrupted. "I well, I I'm not a strong man. I love you my child, but I just Hecuba can be " he let loose of her hands and his shoulders sagged.
I watched as Gabrielle's expression told me that she was a perceptive woman. Her eyes narrowed and her body grew rigid. They were small changes in the way she looked and held herself, but I noticed them all the same. They said that she knew what her father was trying to say. Gods, he couldn't even stand up to his daughter, a virtual stranger.
"What are you trying to say?" Gabrielle asked him. She stood even straighter now, a slight edge to her voice.
"I I If it were up to me, or only me, but Hecuba's--she's a a strong woman "
Gabrielle, looking every bit the Queen, said it first. "Perhaps it would be best if we didn't see one another for a while at least."
"She might come around." He looked relieved and hopeful at the same time. Unfortunately, it was apparent that both of them realized that day would never come, that this would probably be the last time they ever saw one another.
"I'm sure you'll write me if anything changes," she said.
"Perhaps it won't be long at all."
"Perhaps," she answered.
He leaned in and she allowed him to kiss her cheek. He squeezed her hands one last time. "Maybe someday " he trailed off before turning to leave.
"Yes, someday," Gabrielle agreed. He never heard her response, though. He had already gone.
She answered my earlier question the moment Herodotus left the barn. Like the Queen that she was, Gabrielle had held herself together for as long as she needed to. Once it was only she and I, Gabrielle gave herself permission to fall apart. I expected it and crossed the room just in time to catch her as she crumpled to the floor in tears.
"Please, love. I know you don't feel like it, but you need to eat just a little something."
She shook her head, wrapping her fingers around her mug of tea. "I know, Xena, but I can't force one bite down."
The rain fell in steady sheets against the tent. The sound of falling rain had always been a sort of comfort sound to me. Under different circumstances, Gabrielle and I would have been enjoying one another's company, lying on a soft mattress of cushions beside the large brazier in the center of the tent. Unfortunately, the events of the day had cast a gloom upon us that matched the weather outside.
Gabrielle sat unhappily beside the fire, unable to eat, barely communicative. I only made matters worse, I am certain, by hovering all afternoon. I was as much of an emotional jumble as Gabrielle. This latest turn had handcuffed my customary need to fix all that went wrong in Gabrielle's life. This time, however, nothing I did or said seemed to make it any better for her. By nightfall, I had attempted everything I knew to turn Gabrielle's dark mood around, but nothing worked. I did not blame her at all. I would have felt no different had it happened to me.
Gabrielle poured herself another cup of tea. "I can't seem to get warm enough," she said. "I feel chilled to the bone."
I wrapped a soft fur robe around her and she offered me a weak smile. "Thank you, love. I'm sorry I'm not better company."
I knelt beside her chair and pulled the robe closer about her. "Little one, you don't have to pretend for me, you know that. I know what you're feeling and I understand completely."
She nodded and let her head fall against my shoulder. "I'm sorry," she said as she brushed away the tears that had fallen as continually as the rain outside. "I can't seem to stop this. I'm trying, but--"
"Sshh, love. Don't think too hard on it. Just let your emotions go. If you need to cry, then cry. It won't make you feel any better by holding them in check."
"I feel so I want--I don't even know how to describe it. I don't even feel like I know what I'm doing, Xena."
She began to cry harder and I knew we where in for another candlemark or so of tears. This had gone on until I felt that she had no more tears in her to cry. I had been wrong. Just when it seemed that she had calmed, the emotions would rise to the surface once more.
I took the mug from Gabrielle's grasp and placed it on a small table, lifting her into my arms and carrying her to our bed.
"Let's lie down, love," I whispered.
I held her in my arms, feeling completely useless. I silently prayed for Athena's help in easing my wife's pain. All I could do was to stroke her hair and whisper tender encouragements and declarations of my love. I don't know how much time had passed, but she quieted at last and, fully dressed, we both fell into a very uneasy slumber.
Some candlemarks later, the rain had not decreased any. It's steady, almost hollow sound as it hit the tent had lulled me to sleep. Now, the empty sound awoke me.
"Gabrielle?" I murmured sleepily. Gone was the comforting weight of her body against mine.
I reached out a hand to find empty space. The air in the tent was chill and the lamps that had remained lit when we first lay down had either burned out or been extinguished by hand. The fire in the brazier had burned down to glowing red coals, meaning it had been some time since a servant had placed fresh wood upon the fire. Leaning up on one elbow, I found, not only Gabrielle's empty side of the bed, but her abandoned bedclothes, as well.
I looked around the tent, more alert now. The hairs along the back of my neck stood on end, a sure sign that my senses were telling me something was wrong. "Gabrielle?"
I quickly rose, fully clothed and still wearing my boots. I tossed two short logs on the fire to illuminate the tent. Reaching down for the second thick branch, I realized that the wood in the basket was the same wood that had been there when I went to bed. It caught my attention because a servant, or even one of our private guards, would have been assigned to keep the fire going throughout the night in our tent.
Determined not to panic just yet, I scanned the room for any additional clues as to her whereabouts. She had tossed her dressing gown upon the chair, yet her traveling clothes, boots, and heavy cloak were missing. It was apparent that she'd left the tent, but to combat my rising sense of panic, I told myself that in this weather, if she had needed some air, even wanted a private trip to relieve herself, she would have dressed in those missing items.
I tossed aside the curtain that separated the small antechamber from the main tent. The next flap was heavier, covering the entrance from the elements outside. I stepped out into the rain, blowing straight across and into my face. The weather had turned colder, the wind and rain cutting right through my clothing. The Royal Guard were absent, but Mika, the Amazon, stood beside the tent, blowing on her hands to keep them warm.
"Lord Conqueror," she snapped to attention.
"Where are the guards?" I shouted to be heard above the whistling wind.
"Gab--the Queen sent them in to get warm. I said I'd stay."
"Where is Gabrielle?"
"She took a trip to the edge of the woods. She said she wasn't feeling well," Mika answered. She looked confused.
"And you didn't go with her?"
"I--well, she said she wanted some privacy. I didn't think--"
"That much is apparent!" I grabbed the neck of her leather tunic and tossed her toward the woody area fifty paces away. "Find her!"
I moved to follow her, to find Gabrielle for myself, but suddenly realized what a fool I would look like when Mika brought an embarrassed and possibly maddened Gabrielle back with her.
"Guard!" I shouted at the top of my voice.
To their credit, barely the wink of an eye passed before nearly twenty soldiers rushed from different tents, their swords drawn. They knew my voice and understood that it must be trouble for me to call out like that. Once Mika brought Gabrielle safely back into camp, I would have everyone of the Royal Guard standing out in the freezing rain for the rest of the night. Amazons and Empire soldiers alike rushed to the sound of my voice, all of them heedless of the weather. Ephiny came at a run just ahead of Atrius.
"What's wrong?" Atrius asked.
"These morons left their posts when Gabrielle told them to go get warm."
Atrius looked astounded and Ephiny glared through dripping wet curls at the two Amazons who were supposed to be with the Royal Guard.
"The Queen told us to--" The ranking Guardsman began to explain, unaware that in my mind he had already been demoted.
"She told you, did she?" I shouted. "You fucking idiots! Even if I tell you to leave your post on Royal Guard duty, you're supposed to refuse. Isn't that what you were trained to do?"
"Aye, Conqueror but--"
"Son of a Bacchae," I spat as I turned to Atrius. "Does he want to meet Hades tonight?" The officer's continual attempt at making an excuse for his behavior was wearing on my last untouched nerve.
Atrius took over. "Not one more word!" he warned the younger officer. "The Queen is kind-hearted, but you know better than to obey that sort of order. She--"
"She's gone!" Mika's voice surprised me as she came running up to where we stood. I honestly had not expected that and dearly wanted to ask her to repeat herself.
"She? She who?" Ephiny asked. She looked at the faces around her. "Where is Gabrielle?"
"Fuck!" I shouted. I wanted to throttle Mika. The only thing that saved her life that day was the fact that my mind had already moved on to where Gabrielle might have gone.
Mika quickly explained to Ephiny what she had told me. Atrius had already begun to shout orders and mount up riders.
I went back into the tent and ripped off my soaked shirt, oblivious to the fact that Atrius stood directly behind me. He had seen my nakedness before. Right at this moment, I didn't care what he saw or thought. I quickly donned a dry shirt and grabbed my heavy cloak from where it had been hanging near the fire. Atrius realized what I was doing once I buckled on my sword.
"Conqueror, please, stay. You'll be safer here. Let us look for her. If her kidnappers--"
"She wasn't kidnapped," I said just in time for Ephiny to hear as she entered the tent.
"Did I just hear you correctly?" She looked warily between Atrius and me.
"Gabrielle left of her own accord, I'm sure of it," I answered.
"I don't understand," Atrius looked as though he didn't know whether to be relieved or not.
"I think I do," Ephiny responded. "It has something to do with today, with her family, doesn't it?"
"I think it has everything to do with that." I pulled on a pair of black leather riding gloves. "She's not herself, like she's having some sort of emotional breakdown. Damn me to Tartarus!" I hissed the words loud enough for them to take a step back. "I should have seen this coming."
"Why don't we get her back before we start taking on blame," Atrius said. "Where would she go?"
"Well, her horse is gone, so she's not on foot. I have trackers combing the area around the corral, but with this weather, tracks are going to be all but washed away."
"She's not so much running away from something as to it," I said. She doesn't know what she's doing exactly. She's unhappy and her whole world just crashed in on her today." I quickly explained what had happened with Gabrielle's parents.
"I think she's just she's going somewhere, she just doesn't know where or why. I thinking she's acting on feeling instinct."
"There are three roads leading away from Potidaea. We're sort of at a loss if we don't know where she's going," Atrius said.
"Let's split into three groups. Atrius, send some men back toward her parent's house, just to see if she would try to see them again. Then, you take the road heading back into Potidaea. Ephiny and I will get on the road going to Amphipolis. No matter what you find, be back here by sunrise. If we haven't returned, break camp and follow us, but send some men into the woods instead of following along the main road."
"Aye, Conqueror." Atrius left without another word. A man of action, I knew I could count on him to do his best to find my wife.
By the time Ephiny and I left the tent, I found Tenorio saddled and pawing at the earth, the member of the Royal Guard that had infuriated me so much, holding the stallion's reins. We didn't say a word to one another, but he mounted his own horse and waited behind me.
"Lord Conqueror, I--" Mika began.
"Get away from me!" I said in a hissing voice. It was only my focus on Gabrielle, which kept me from beating the Amazon to a pulp. I fear that if time had not been such a factor, even my newfound control could not have held back the beast. I would have littered the camp with beheaded guards.
"Mika, consider yourself lucky to still be alive," Ephiny said as she jumped onto her own mount's saddle. "I'll decide what to do with you later."
"If it helps at all, she hasn't been gone for more than half a candlemark," Mika responded.
We rode hard after hearing that Gabrielle hadn't left camp that long ago. The wind caused the rain to hit my face as though it was full of stinging bits of rock. I knew the road well and let Tenorio have free reign as we thundered along the muddy terrain. Ephiny's pony, along with the other Amazon mounts, could simply not keep up with my huge stallion's speed. We quickly outdistanced them. I heard Ephiny shout something, but I couldn't hear what it was. I wouldn't have stopped anyway.
I blinked a few times against the rain, and then rubbed my eyes in an attempt to clear my vision. Just ahead, I thought I saw the shadow of a rider. The heavy rain clouds hid the moon so that there wasn't the slightest bit of the silver orb to light up the night. The blackness well and truly surrounded me so I couldn't be sure if the shadow had been wishful thinking on my part, or not.
I had slowed enough to find Ephiny riding beside me once again. We could barely hear one another above the wind. A quick flash of lightning illuminated the road ahead of us and we both saw it this time. Ephiny pointed and I nodded. A cloaked figure sped ahead of us, heedless of the weather.
We drew closer and another jagged streak of lightning tore through the black sky. There was no question this time. The figure was too small to be a man, yet the perfect size to be Gabrielle. Covered in a dark cloak, she sat low in the saddle, her cheek nearly pressed against the galloping horse's neck.
I motioned toward Ephiny to set her up on the other side of the road. We easily caught up to Gabrielle and I could see that her gray mare was tiring. His sides heaved and I could see his large puffs of breath in the cold air.
Each strike of lightning from the sky illuminated the landscape as bright as day and I finally caught a glimpse of Gabrielle's face. The cloak's hood had blown backward, but Gabrielle seemed oblivious. Her gaze looked vacant and tense and her face was a pale as the brilliant white light that surrounded us with each flash of lightning. The hollow pain in my belly made me want to retch. Never had I seen Gabrielle so distressed before, yet so seemingly unaware of her surroundings.
"Gabrielle!" I screamed over the wind and rain. She never looked at me, only stared straight ahead with some sort of absent-minded fixation. It was as if my Gabrielle wasn't inside this woman.
Ephiny caught my attention as she pushed her mount up against Gabrielle's horse. The Amazon's action squeezed Gabrielle toward Tenorio and me. The stallion seemed to know what we had planned. He craned his neck and pushed his head against the side of the mare's head. The action frightened the smaller animal enough so that she slowed her pace in an attempt to free herself from her confinement.
Ephiny reached over and made a play at grabbing Gabrielle's reins. She missed and my heart nearly stopped. Her foot had slipped from the saddle's stirrup and she nearly fell from her mount's back. Righting herself again, she closed the space between her horse and Gabrielle's and grabbed at the reins once more. Gabrielle seemed to fight for control, but decided to simply hang on to the mare's neck as the horse slowed to a stop.
I was off Tenorio in a flash, before the animal could even stop his own gait. Ephiny still held the mare's reins and Gabrielle nearly tumbled off the horse's back.
"Gabrielle," I called her name, but she looked right at me as if I was a stranger, as though she couldn't see me.
"No!" she cried out. "Let me go!"
Her behavior surprised me so much that I never even had a chance to stop her next action. She fought me off, hitting at me with her fists. I would have been in serious trouble if she had been using her fighting skills, but as empty of my Gabrielle as this woman was, so too were her fighting abilities suspiciously absent.
"Gabrielle, stop!" I yelled.
She fought me off, well enough to squirm away. She took off running down the middle of the muddy road. As I said, her actions so surprised me that it took a few heartbeats before I even knew she was truly running away from me. Getting my head back into the reality of what was happening, I sped off after her. It only took a moment for me to catch up to her, but Gods, how my heart was breaking. I never thought that Gabrielle would break like this, not after all she'd been through in her life.
I grabbed her and spun her around to look in her eyes. I had pinned her arms to her sides and held her tight. "Gabrielle! It's me Xena. Please, love, talk to me."
That's all it took to bring her back to me.
"Xena?" She looked around as if she had no idea how she had gotten in the middle of the countryside in the black of night.
"Yes, love, it's me."
I loosened my previous hold and instead wrapped my arms around her stunned and freezing body. She sobbed against me and the sound was enough to tear my heart in two.
"Gabrielle, little one, what on earth are you doing? Where are you trying to go?"
"Home," she said between her sobs. "I want to go home."
I was confused. Where did she mean? Had she been trying to get back to Amphipolis, or home to our castle by the sea? "I don't understand. Corinth is that where you mean?"
She pulled away and looked at me. Now it was she who appeared confused. She slipped to the ground and fell to her knees in the mud, her sobs growing in intensity.
"I don't even have one, do?" she cried. "I want to go home, but I don't have one!"
Her answer shocked me, but then again, it shouldn't have. This is what her flight had been about. I was correct when I assumed that she wasn't running away, but to something. She wanted to go home. What child hadn't felt that at some time in their adult life? Gabrielle had found out earlier in the day that everything she had previously associated with home had now been denied her. The dream that had most probably carried her through difficult times in her young life had been shattered. The dream of returning home had turned into a nightmare.
I could do no more than kiss her forehead, wet with rain. That's when I felt how warm she was in contrast to the freezing cold. She shivered uncontrollably and it was then that I saw she had passed out. I lifted her limp form and motioned Ephiny to bring the horses closer.
"What in Artemis's name is going on with her?" she asked.
"She's ill. Come on, Eph, we have to get her back to camp. She's burning up with fever."
"Son of a Bacchae," she muttered as she helped me mount Tenorio with Gabrielle in my arms. "Doesn't anything in life ever go easy for you two?"
"Not lately," I responded.
To be continued in : Chapter 23: Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright
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