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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 26: Look In Thy Glass, And Tell The Face Thou Viewest"The next person who tells me to calm down and relax is going to lose a limb!" I growled at the people surrounding me.
We stood in the tavern of the inn, nearly three dozen of us crammed into the already overheated room. I was beyond angry, but not being certain who I actually wanted to concentrate my rage upon, I made do by shouting at everyone, not that some of them didn't deserve it, however.
"And you!" I stalked over to where Mika cowered in one corner, obviously trying to make herself small enough to avoid my attention.
Ephiny stepped between us, a move I thought brave considering the mood I was in just then.
"Conqueror, it wasn't entirely her fault."
"Then I'll only run her part of the way through!"
"Please, Conqueror." Ephiny turned back toward Mika. "Go make yourself useful outside."
The young Amazon wasted little time in rushing out the door.
"What in Hades' name is wrong with all of you? Between your supposedly specially trained Amazons and these elite Empire soldiers I think I'm just damned lucky to still be alive myself!
As the officer in charge, Ephiny had immediately taken blame, even though it had been the fault of the two Amazons and two members of the Royal Guard who had stood watch. Part of me felt a certain pride at Gabrielle's maneuvers, albeit a very small part. Gabrielle already possessed a great number of skills. It seemed as though moving among trained soldiers, not leaving so much as a footprint in her wake, had already been in her repertoire. The only thing that kept me from going into a complete panic was the fact that Cor was missing, as well, along with one large basket of food.
We believed they left of their own will, which is why I worked extremely hard at keeping my temper reigned in tight. All right, I failed miserably in that arena. I could never be objective when Gabrielle was concerned. Blame was equal between Gabrielle and her protectors; therefore, I spread my anger around liberally. Initially, I found it difficult to remain angry with Gabrielle. The lover in me believed that nothing was ever Gabrielle's fault. The Conqueror, however, was livid with her wife. Gabrielle was so intelligent, so intuitive. What could she have been thinking? And, to take Cor with her. I stalked around the room seething.
"All we have to do is send out a search party," Atrius suggested. "They couldn't have gone far, even on Gabrielle's horse."
"Right," I said. "All we have to do is send a search party out in about one of eight hundred directions!" I shouted back.
Atrius clamped his mouth shut and the muscles in his jaw tightened. I realized, too late, that he only said such a thing for my benefit, perhaps to ease my fears.
"Sorry," I muttered to him.
"I have men out there right now, Conqueror trackers. They'll find their prints," he replied.
"All right, get these men saddled up and ready." I indicated those in the tavern. "Ephiny, the same goes for the Amazons. Let's give ourselves a little more time to catch their trail. If the trackers find nothing, we'll set off in a few groups. My mother and Yu Pan have agreed to travel with us in case Gabrielle or Cor are injured."
Looking across the room at Ephiny, she appeared as angry as I did. I guessed at the target of her fury. Amazon officers took the failure of underlings quite personally.
I accepted a mug of strong port from my mother. I took a swallow and my eyes actually watered as the liquid burned my throat. I turned and gave her a questioning look.
"It will do you some good," she said. She must have known that my demeanor had changed as she moved away to provide food and drink to some riders who had recently ridden into town.
I had dismissed their Lieutenant with a wave of my hand. "Not now," I said as he deposited four saddlebags on a table near me. He closed his fist over his heart and backed away. I continued to watch him in a distracted fashion as he spoke with Selene, apparently arranging for some rooms. He quickly handed her a piece of parchment and ordered his squad into the dining area, following them a moment later.
Selene opened the note, continually looking up as though self conscious for some reason. When our eyes met, she looked at me strangely, folding the parchment and slipping it into her apron pocket. I pulled my gaze from Selene back to Ephiny.
"Ephiny," I called her over to where I stood. "Here," I thrust my mug into her hand. "Take a couple healthy swallows. You look as though you could use it."
She drank, draining the mug in one pull. "Sorry," she said as she realized what she'd done.
"Don't be. You look like you're going to kill someone before I do."
"We have to talk once this is all over."
"I know," I answered. I knew of what she spoke. It was the second time that Gabrielle had given her guards the slip. The first time could have been blamed on Gabrielle's illness. She wasn't exactly her self at the time. This incident was very different.
"She can't keep doing this!" she said suddenly.
I sighed. So, Ephiny wasn't angry with her Amazons. Her ire focused directly upon Gabrielle.
"She got by me!" she finally whispered from between clenched teeth.
It took all my strength not to laugh, even with the mood I was in. I knew that if I laughed at her she would walk away. I should have known. Hadn't I reacted the same way when Gabrielle bested me in a sparring match? Gods! That seemed a lifetime ago.
"She's been lucky. You weren't expecting it," I tried to rationalize. "She can't be that good."
"I can't find tracks. No one saw her. She didn't leave a sign!"
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying she's that good. I don't know what you or Yu Pan taught her, but she knows her stuff and that ought to scare the deep woods out of all of us."
I leaned back in my chair, a thoughtful expression on my face. Could it have actually been that simple?
"It was nothing that she learned from me. I don't think she did, anyway. It's always possible that Yu Pan taught her such skills. Between you and me, though, I think they're skills that she learned all on her own. Slaves live their whole lives right under their masters' noses, but very few slave owners are aware of even the most obvious details of their slave's life."
"You've lost me."
"Certain abilities that Gabrielle possesses come from simply being a slave. Slaves were a sort of invisible feature of a household. They did what was required, often going beyond what was necessary. The more perfect and efficient a household was, usually came down to how capable the slaves were. They did everything while trying to remain as invisible as possible. I think Gabrielle learned it there. So, in a way, she was trained to walk by and remain hidden, to listen without being seen, and to never have anyone know that she existed just out of eyesight. The Gods know she got enough practice nearly a lifetime."
"Sweet Artemis. She'd make a wonderful assassin," Ephiny responded.
"All I'm saying is, don't take it so personally."
"How can I not take it personally?" She looked around, as her voice grew louder. She took a deep breath and momentarily closed her eyes. "Frankly, I feel uncomfortable talking about this with you."
"Because she's my wife or because she's your Queen?" I asked.
"Both. As my Queen, I have no right to question what Gabrielle does. As the Queen of the Empire well, the Amazons have sworn fealty to you. Gabrielle is your Queen. Again, I have no right to make disparaging comments. All those reasons pale in comparison to the fact that you could probably break my jaw with one punch if you had the notion. There's that and that I think you're treading a little close to losing it over all this."
I smirked at her. "Okay, let's be honest. I consider you a friend, Ephiny. I'm not too far off there, am I?"
"Not at all, Xena. I think we've established that."
"Then I'm going to talk to you as Xena and not the Conqueror. I think you have every right to call Gabrielle on this. As second in command, and with Gabrielle being rather new to Amazon law and tradition, you're in charge of your people. You have to decide which is more important, the safety of your people and your Queen, or stepping on Gabrielle's toes."
"And you'll not interfere?" she asked warily.
"Not as long as it's done tactfully and reasonably. You may only have one small problem."
"And that would be?"
"I may kill her myself if she's okay when we find her."
Ephiny looked at me strangely. I honestly believe that with the way I had been acting, she wasn't sure whether I was serious or not.
"I found it!" Mika cried out as she ran into the tavern. "Tracks! I found tracks!"
We all followed the Amazon outside. Sure enough, she had not been lying. Under the light of the torches, it was easy to see that the footprints were unmistakably Gabrielle and Cor's. Their tracks led down a seldom-used path that led toward the outskirts of town. The area looked familiar to me, but my brain was too full of anger and frustration to remember.
Mika had a smug look on her face. As I mounted Tenorio, I quickly snuffed out her newfound arrogance.
"Don't look too comfortable just yet. I haven't fully decided not to slice you in two."
I tugged on Tenorio's reins and moved away from my family. I didn't want them to see me this way. My entire focus narrowed to Gabrielle and her welfare, while at the same time I was so infuriated with her that I could very nearly feel the beast pushing insistently against my ribcage for escape. That conflict in itself was enough to spur me to feelings of a sort of betrayal. I had never directed this sort of anger at Gabrielle and it frightened me into holding on even tighter to my control. Unfortunately, that tight restraint turned me into the Conqueror, not Xena. My answers were short and I felt the best way to handle my emotions would be to stay as far from those I cared about as I could.
It only took another moment or two before we were underway. Our luck held because Cyrene recognized the path about a half a candlemark into our journey. Once she said, waterfall, I remembered the way. So, my favorite childhood haunt was Cor's, as well. How ironic.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
"Cor, wake up, quickly!"
I gave him a great deal of credit for jumping to his feet and at least looking somewhat alert.
"Help me put this fire out, Cor. I hear riders coming down the road," I said.
"Well, that's great, Gabrielle. It means Selene got your message. Why do you look so worried?"
"Because it could be Xena, but what if it's not? I'm just trying to be careful."
"Oh, okay." He jumped up and immediately took charge of gathering our basket and water skin.
I tugged on Ridian's halter and the patient animal followed along behind us. I figured we could wait in the shadows at the side of the road until we could tell whether the riders were our own saviors or strangers.
I don't really understand what happened next. One moment Cor and I were crouched on a small rise above the road. The nighttime air smelled damp and earthy as we sat hunched amid the forest floor's greenery. A couple of small moths batted me in the head, but I kept quiet, remaining low to the ground.
The next instant, I felt the ground loosening beneath us. We were atop a very small hill, but with shocking clarity, I realized that the earth had begun to crumble under our weight. Before the first rider on the road came close enough for me to see, Cor had grabbed my sleeve, pulling backward. It was too late. The recent rains had softened all of the dirt around up.
Cor and I both slid headfirst down the side of the hill, headed directly toward
the road. Large, leafy plants slapped me in the face as I slid down what had
become one slick trail of quickly moving mud. We could do nothing to stop our
forward momentum, spilling down onto the road just as the group of riders galloped
It took me a few moments to shake the cobwebs from my brain. I looked at Cor, lying next to me. If I looked anything as he did, which I was sure I did, I could have certainly frightened small children. Covered from head to toe in mud, with leaves and small bits of grass and sticks stuck all over, we looked like creatures that had just climbed out of a swamp.
I glanced at the ground in front of me and saw a pair of familiar boots. My gaze had to travel upward at some length before running into an equally familiar face.
"Xena," I jumped to my feet, slipping around some, and tried to appear casual about the whole thing. "Funny meeting you here."
I thought that perhaps humor would work. I was so wrong. Xena's face looked as dark as the sky during a midsummer's storm. I swear I could see flashes of lightning in her eyes.
"Are you hurt either of you injured?" She just looked down at me with a disapproving glare.
"No, uh," I looked over at Cor who was just climbing to his feet. He looked dazed and embarrassed, but unhurt. "We came up to have a picnic at the waterfall and Ridian came up lame and well, things sort of happened."
"Cor, your mother is very worried about you. Get yourself back there and clean up a bit before we head home," Xena said as she indicated the rear of the group.
"Get us some water and blankets," she ordered the nearest soldier.
I noticed Ephiny and the Amazons looking rather uncomfortable. As if they didn't know whether to be angry or mortified for me. I didn't know what to do or say. I suppose because it was the first time that Xena ever looked at me with such anger. I'd behaved badly, certainly not like a Queen. I knew this could have turned out much worse and it was entirely my fault. Most of all, I had the sudden notion that this wasn't exactly my Xena.
That's when I realized what was wrong, what had me so preoccupied that I couldn't even think straight. I wasn't looking at Xena, before me stood the Conqueror. Xena was there, all right, but beneath her nearly transparent veneer laid the beast.
This was new. I had seen the beast before, reacted to its attack, and fought it down. I had beaten it back on more than one occasion, but this time was different. This time, Xena was still in control, but only barely. I could see how close the darkness was to taking her over, but she controlled it. I wonder if she even knew she was in charge, teetering upon that slender thread between humanity and insanity? That was why she was so tight-lipped and stood so very tall and stiff. She was fighting to stay in control and winning. How odd that I should want to jump for joy just then. When our eyes met again, though, I knew that our conversation would have to wait until later.
The soldier brought forward the water and some dry blankets. After he set the items on the ground, he apparently stood there a moment longer than Xena liked.
"Don't you have something to do?" she growled.
"Aye Conqueror," he stammered as he quickly shuffled backward.
"Atrius, give the men a break," Xena ordered. "Come on, let's get you cleaned up," she then said to me.
"I can do it," I replied.
"Why don't I assist her, Conqueror?" Ephiny stepped forward.
Xena looked as though she was going to strike Ephiny, at first. She looked at me and took a deep breath. I saw a bit of Xena shine through then.
"Get some of that mud off you so I can give you a kiss and hug the life out of you," she said. She smiled briefly, then that tight look returned. She quickly turned and walked back toward the group of milling soldiers.
Ephiny and I walked off into the woods, far enough away from the torchlight to be unseen.
"How do you want to do this?" she asked.
"Just dump the water over me. I'm sure you want to let me have it, anyway."
"I'm serious. I'll just wrap up in the blankets."
"Okay," Ephiny replied as she scooped up the first bucket of water. She reared back and threw the contents of the bucket directly into my face.
I sputtered and coughed to clear the water and mud from my mouth. She'd at least done a fair job at clearing the much from my face and hair. She stood back, smirking.
"I have to say that you took a much more enthusiastic approach than I was prepared for," I told her. "You're angry with me, though, and that felt good, didn't it pelting me with the water?"
"I'm not angry at you, Gabrielle," she said as she brushed more mud from my hair. "I thought I was at first, but I realized I was just mad at me."
"Mad at yourself?" I disrobed and piled the soppy clothes at my feet.
Ephiny poured more water, this time over my head and I rubbed away as much of the dirt as I could. She continued talking once I had wrapped a blanket securely around me, pulling the second blanket over my shoulders.
"You got by me. I spend my days teaching younger women how to be good warriors and you come along and possess the skills to get by me without a sound. It's just my ego."
"I didn't think today, Ephiny. I'm so sorry and it won't happen again."
She looked extremely surprised.
"What?" I asked.
"You're the first Queen to ever apologize to me. I wasn't expecting it." She graced me with one of her infamous deadpan looks. "I suppose I shouldn't have expected anything less from you. Apology accepted."
"Well, I hope I didn't hurt your ego too much."
"Just bruised, not broken. Your wife may be a harder sell than I am, however."
"I know. Gods, I've never seen her this mad before, at least not at me."
"Well, if it helps, I think she'll get over it. Come on, we better get back. At least you don't look like a swamp rat anymore."
"Thanks I think."
It was some time later when we neared the town. Xena and I had barely spoken since we'd, quite literally, run into each other. In the past, it had instilled a sense of security within me to sit there, Xena's arms wrapped around me. At that particular moment, I felt so many emotions, but none caused me to feel secure. I felt guilty and frightened, worried that I had irreparably damaged our relationship. I needed some reassurance, but I didn't think Xena was capable of giving it to me just then. So, I did what I always seemed to do under such circumstances. I cried.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle, are you crying?"
I nodded my head against her chest.
"Gabrielle," she sighed, her hand coming up to caress the side of my head.
"I made such a mess of things today. I didn't think of all the people I'd be hurting. I acted stupidly and now you're angry, the Amazons are angry, and everyone hates me." I eked the last word out just before my throat constricted because of my tears.
Xena leaned down and kissed my temple. That simple act said so much to me. She had defeated the beast, that much was apparent. Even more important, she did it herself.
"I won't lie to you, Gabrielle, I am angry, but part of my anger is due to fright."
She wrapped one arm around me and suddenly I felt a little better.
"I was scared to death that something terrible had happened to you. And, I admit, I was damned angry with you for putting yourself and Cor into such jeopardy. I certainly do not hate you, however. I love you, Gabrielle, and that is something that will never change."
She kissed me again and I knew that my Xena had returned.
"My love, there will inevitably be times when we grow angry with one another, but don't ever let your heart doubt my feelings for you. My love for you could never change, Gabrielle. Believe that."
"I love you, Xena, and I'm so sorry."
"We'll talk more about it later. All right? We need do go over some of the ground rules. Rules between one another as well as ruling the Empire."
I silently nodded, knowing the talk was necessary, but dreading it all the same. We had reconciled our initial feelings and that was what was important to me. I felt much more comfortable as we headed into town and down the main road to Cyrene's inn.
Upon entering the inn, those who had stayed behind greeted us. Delia immediately brought me my dressing gown and Scylla ran off to start the water heating for a hot bath.
Cyrene dragged Cor to his own bath, but not before he slyly winked at me. It was a conspiratorial look we shared, as though we alone had shared something special out there in the woods, as well we did. If nothing else good came from this day, I would always remember it as the day I gained a younger brother.
Once Xena had wrapped my fingers around a mug of steaming mint tea, I began to feel better. The beverage and the fire on the cool summer evening stopped my chills.
"I'm glad Selene told you we were stuck out there. I would have hated to be lying out there in the cold all night. It seemed so warm during the day," I said to Xena.
"What do you mean, Selene told us?"
"Well, that's how you found us, right?"
"Selene didn't have anything to do with it. Actually, it was mostly just luck. Your Amazon, Mika, finally found some tracks."
I laid my mug on the table and the voices at the table had started to hush, in order to listen to us. "But, didn't Selene show you the note I sent her?"
"How in Hades did you send her a note?" Xena looked about as confused as I was.
"The officer of the messenger unit passed us and he promised to take a message back for me. No wonder it took so long. He never gave it to her! I swear "
Xena jumped up so quickly it knocked her chair to the floor. "Selene!" She shouted loud enough so that every other voice inside the inn went silent.
People backed away and suddenly there was a path to the bar where Selene stood. She took a few hesitant steps toward our table.
"What?" she asked in a voice that already sounded defensive.
"Tell her what you just said to me," Xena directed me.
"I--" I wasn't sure where to start or exactly what Xena was getting at. "Um, Selene, around midday I sent a note to you by way of the lieutenant of a squad of messengers telling you where Cor and I were. The officer should have arrived by early evening at the latest. Didn't he give you my message?"
Selene looked stricken. Her head swung between Xena and me.
"Well," Xena said. "Did you ever get Gabrielle's note?"
"A note?" Selene repeated. She looked around the room uncomfortably. "I I never received it. I'm sorry, Gabrielle."
She seemed sorrier than she should have been. I immediately hoped the officer was still in Amphipolis. I began to make plans on how many ranks I could demote him when Xena's hand flashed by me in a blur. She had reached into Selene's apron pocket and deftly removed a folded piece of parchment.
Xena tossed the parchment onto the table before me. "Is this the note you never received?" Xena asked Selene.
I picked up the note, unable to believe what was happening. Cyrene had returned sometime in the middle of it all, but now she simply stood there and stared at her youngest daughter.
"Selene," was all Cyrene managed to whisper. It sounded as thought the older woman was astonished.
"I--I don't know where that came from. I--"
"Don't lie, Selene!" Xena raised her voice again. "I saw him give it to you."
I couldn't put the note down. I just kept staring at the words, waiting for them to change and have it become someone else's piece of parchment.
"Selene, how could you?" I questioned her. "If you were angry with me, I could understand, but Cor was with me your little brother. What if something had happened to him out there?"
Selene reached out and snatched the note from my hand. She held it in both hands and stared hard at it. I saw tears fill her eyes.
"I can't believe you'd betray us this way," Xena said, taking the note out of Selene's hands and tossing it on the table once more.
"Well...well I did!" Selene shouted back. "Yea, that's right. I read the note. Gabrielle wrote and said she was at the waterfall and her horse came up lame. I knew all that because she wrote it in her note, but I was mad at her, so so I just kept it to myself!"
During Selene's rant, I thought something was awfully odd about her tirade. I picked up the small square of parchment and read what I had written. "Xena," I said. I slid the note along the table to her.
Xena picked it up and read it. Her brow furrowed together and she must have read it a dozen times before she looked up at me. I saw something behind that blue gaze. Xena's expression held some sort of clarity, which I hoped she was about to share, since my note hadn't said any of the things Selene claimed. I had simply written that Cor and I were stuck somewhere down the abandoned road through the woods, and to send a rider with an extra horse quickly.
Xena looked at Selene and I could see a hundred images pass across Xena's face. "Ephiny, Atrius, have your troops call it a night. The party's over," Xena said.
Amazons and Empire soldiers scattered like ants. Our extended family seemed to take that as an invitation to leave also, for suddenly, Myself, Xena, Cyrene, and Selene were the only people in the room.
Cyrene stalked toward her younger daughter. "Selene--"
"Mother, I'll handle this," Xena said. Xena glanced sideways at Cyrene and the older woman backed down as if seeing something in Xena's expression. "Mother, why don't you help Gabrielle get cleaned up?"
I had no idea what was happening, but it seemed as though Xena wanted to handle this on her own. I certainly didn't want to see her beat her younger sister into nothing. "Now, wait a--"
"Gabrielle," Xena said with enough force to cause me to pause. She leaned down and kissed me softly. "Go with mother. I need to handle this."
I glanced at Selene who looked around the room as though searching for an escape.
"You're not going to hurt her?" I whispered.
Xena smiled and it was genuine. "No, my love. I promise you. Now go on. We'll talk later."
Cyrene and I moved slowly, both of us unsure of what was happening. We rounded the corner and with our feet on the first step of the staircase, we each heard Xena's first words to her sister. We both paused, wearing a perfectly matched set of dumbfounded expressions.
"Selene," Xena said quietly. "Why haven't you ever told anyone that you couldn't read?"
"That was different," I said to Cyrene as we entered the room that Xena and I shared.
Cyrene sat down in one of the chairs beside the small table. More accurately, she sunk into the chair, a dazed expression on her face.
"Gabrielle, could that be true what Xena said?"
My heart went out to the woman who had managed to ease so much of my own pain. How could I do the same for her when I believed that Xena's assumption about Selene had been correct?
"I'm not absolutely certain, but I think it does make sense. I think back on the things that Selene has said or done while we've been here and I think yes, Cyrene, I think it might be true."
"How could that be possible? I mean, how could I have not known?"
As I looked at the confused and heartbroken woman, I realized that she had no idea how Selene's life had gone, what the girl thought or felt. In fact, she barely knew her daughter. Xena and I had learned more about Selene, in the short time since we had been here, than Cyrene knew from a lifetime.
I sat down beside Cyrene and reached over, placing my hand over hers. They were balled into fists and for the first time since I'd known her, I felt the age within those hands. Her posture was one of defeat as she sagged in her chair. Then, as I looked on, she straightened up, lifting her chin into the air. How like Xena. Cyrene was not a woman to be defeated without a fight. I suspect her life had not been an easy one, and yet she had made something for herself and her children.
"What else don't I know about Selene?" she asked me with a determined look in her eye.
"I think that if you have to ask me that, if you suspect that you may not know your daughter as well as you thought, then you should be asking Selene that question."
"You think I don't know her secrets? I know about her her attraction to women. I've seen the way she looks at other girls and not boys. I may be an old woman, Gabrielle, but the concept of two women together did not start with your generation. I'm not as simple as my youngest daughter would have you think."
"Cyrene, I would never think that of you and I'm sure Selene doesn't look on you that way. I think she's confused about many of her feelings, even ashamed. She just needs to know you care, no matter what."
"Gods on Olympus! How can she not know that? All she has to do is look at how I've taken Xena back into our home, into our family."
I smiled at her, not in jest, but at the very will that I saw there. "I know that Xena loves me, too, but if she never told me that, I might be tempted to think otherwise. I think it's just the nature of humans to need that affirmation and then to doubt when it disappears."
"For me not to have recognized that Selene couldn't read, though. How could I have been so blind?"
"It's not difficult to see, Cyrene. For one, Selene hid it very well. Maybe some of her sullenness and bad temper was simply a way of keeping anyone from getting close enough to discover her secret. Then, of course, you ought not to be quite so hard on yourself. It's rather hard to gain perspective on something when you're standing right on top of it."
Cyrene twisted the apron in her lap. I wasn't sure if my words were having any affect.
"How did I let this happen? I tried so hard."
"Did Selene, or any of the children in town, have a teacher, or tutor when they were growing up?" I asked.
Literacy wasn't exactly expected of people who lived as farmers or ranchers, but it had become rather uncommon within villages and cities. Usually traveling tutors or bards stopped within towns like Amphipolis and stayed for a season or two. Then, when they moved on, another took their place. Often, older students became teachers themselves.
Cyrene hung her head in what I could only decipher as shame. "She did get schooling with the other children for a while. I--I Gabrielle, it was all my fault." Tears ran down Cyrene's cheeks.
"What was all your fault?"
"Selene. I wouldn't let her go back to the school once the town hired that that "
"Slow down," I tried to understand where she was going with her blame.
"The teacher that we hired when Selene was a youngster. He had served in the military as a young man. He started a school that lasted for many seasons. Cor even went and learned his letters and numbers there." She took a deep breath to calm herself and continued.
"When Selene was about seven or eight summers, this teacher began to fill the children's heads with nonsense for a good part of the day. He taught them how to use weapons and fight, making them memorize strategies of famous battles. I made Selene stop going. I was so busy with the inn I never took the time to see that she learned on her own. She always acted as though she had learned "
"Did the other parents complain?" I asked. I couldn't see where a little history and exercise would hurt children, but it seemed to upset Cyrene just by talking about it.
"You don't understand!" she cried out and she jumped up from her chair. Her hands twisted together much as she had twisted the cloth of her apron. "I couldn't let Selene keep going to that school. I couldn't let her learn how to use those weapons to fight and Gods, don't you see, Gabrielle? I couldn't take the chance that she might--"
" Become like Xena?"
Cyrene froze. She actually looked as though I'd slapped her.
"I--I don't know what you mean."
I just couldn't accuse or judge this woman. I truly did not believe that she meant for any of this to happen. Perhaps she had closed her eyes to a great many things, but deep down, she thought she was doing better the second time. She must have believed that if she raised Selene differently, if she only changed what she had believed she had done wrong the first time, then this child would have the normal life that Xena had been robbed of. Cyrene's behavior toward Selene, and her explanations of that behavior, confirmed what I had suspected all along. Cyrene had always felt herself responsible for what had happened between her and Xena.
I wondered how to respond, but in reality, I only had one course to follow. During all our talks, Cyrene had always told me the truth, even the truths that were hard to hear. She didn't shy away from those difficult subjects, but she had always tempered her words with love and compassion. I only hoped that I could do the same.
"Can you really not understand what I'm saying, Cyrene, or is it that you don't want to?"
"I don't need you to judge me," she replied.
"Oh, by the Gods, no. I would never do that to you. I have no right to judge anyone's life, but I most certainly wouldn't do that to you."
She sat down beside me once more and reached out for my hand. "I know that, my child. I'm sorry for those words. It's hard hard to face certain things, especially when they're not very flattering."
"Cyrene," I took hold of the hand that lay upon mine and gently squeezed. "Nothing that's gone on before matters one bit, not now. It's in the past and no matter what, you can't go back and change it."
"Even when you ruin someone's life?"
"I think what matters most is what you do now, from this point on."
"If Selene will even speak to me. I'm not so sure I would if our positions were reversed." She shook her head and I could see that she was willing to examine her own heart.
"I thought Selene would turn out so much better if I did everything different. I thought that by keeping her from seeing or experiencing any of the harshness of life that she would grow up to be a happy and healthy woman. That's where I thought I went wrong with Xena. I allowed her to do so much, to do exactly what her heart desired."
"Cyrene, you could never have anticipated that your village would be attacked. Everything that happened after that point happened because of extraordinary circumstances. I don't believe that your not allowing Xena to learn to fight would have done anything more than get two of your children killed that day."
"I've told myself the very same thing for so many seasons, but telling yourself something and truly believing it are very different."
"Just like knowing that Selene has been denied certain things growing up and actually doing something to change it."
"What are you saying?"
"I guess I'm saying that you still have a chance to make some of it right. I mean, we can help Selene with her letters and things like that. Actually, that's the easy part. What will be hard is you letting her follow her heart from now on."
"But I'm still her mother I know better than--"
"You have to decide, Cyrene, decide whether you're going to continue to make her live your life. I suppose it depends entirely on how much you love her."
"She's my child. Of course, I love her."
"Do you love her enough to let her be herself?"
I didn't expect an answer. It was enough to see that she was silently thinking about what she would do.
End Gabrielle's Addendum
I watched Selene and the myriad emotions that crossed her face as we stood there. First, it was fear, as she watched Cyrene and Gabrielle reluctantly walk away. Her eyes darted around the now empty room, as if to look for a means of escape. That impression struck at my heart painfully. How sad that I had become something someone to be feared by my own sister. Then, the anger began.
It pulled at her and began to rip away her fearful outer layer just as I might pull at a loose thread on a piece of frayed fabric. Like a wounded animal, Selene would be that much harder to deal with. Deal with? What in the known world was I going to say, anyway? Perhaps if I stayed with compassion.
"You go to Hades!" she struck out at me verbally.
Okay, perhaps she was going to make this more difficult than I had anticipated. All right. She was the one who wanted to play rough.
"Okay, so you can read and I'm crazy, right?"
"That's right!" she replied.
"Well, then," I said as I tossed Gabrielle's note at her. "Read for me."
She threw the note back at me and folded her arms across her chest. "I don't have to do anything."
"Come on, wise ass. You can read so damn good, then do it. You can't prove me wrong, can you?"
"I could if I wanted to."
It was obvious that no one had ever confronted her with this sort of badgering before. She resorted to the same childish response I'm sure I had used at one time or another as a youngster. Well, she had made her choice of weapons in this fight. I would simply use the same weapon against her, blade to blade. If she wanted to resort to childish rhetoric, then I would oblige.
"Bullshit. You couldn't if you wanted to."
"Right. I see the truth now. You can't read one word, can you? Not one word."
That one did it. Fire burned from her eyes and it was like staring into a looking glass. How often had my own blue eyes looked ready to shoot lightning bolts?
Selene stalked over to the table and snatched up the parchment. For one brief moment, I wondered if I had been wrong and she could read. Her expression changed that fleeting thought. I realized that anger and youth had placed her in her current position. She was now stuck in a place she didn't want to be in, but I gave her all the credit in the world. She honestly tried to look as thought she knew what she was doing. Selene stood there, rooted in place, and stared hard at the paper. I watched as her eyes darted across the page, looking as if the words would come to her if only she concentrated hard enough.
I began to feel sorry for her and sorry for what I'd done to push her into this admission, as tears filled Selene's eyes and ran down her cheeks. Still she stared at the paper, appearing to hope for some sort of miracle. My heart broke in two at the sight. Tears continued to stream from her eyes and her nose ran, but still she held the parchment within her two unsteady hands.
I slowly walked to her and reached for her hands. "It's all right, Selene. You don't have to prove anything to me. You don't have to prove anything to anybody. People who care about you will accept you the way you are and people who love you will overlook the worst of faults."
She looked up and the fog appeared to clear from her gaze. She ran her sleeve across her face to wipe away the tears and reminded me of a much younger girl. Then again, I was no stranger to the idea of having my body race ahead of my maturity level.
"Here," I said, reaching in to my vest. "I can guarantee that this has hardly been used today," I said with a smile, as I pulled the clean cloth from my pocket. I dried her face and she surprised me by allowing me to do so.
"I can read, Xena. See," she pointed to a spot on the parchment. "This word is to and this one here this one here is--is come. I--I just don't I don't know all of them, but I can read."
"I see that now. Besides, Gabrielle may be a wonderful bard, but between you and me, her handwriting could use a little help where neatness is concerned. Looks like you just need a little help is all. We can fix that, little sister. It will be easy, you'll see."
I hadn't really been prepared for the way she fell into my arms, sobbing and apologizing. It was not only uncharacteristic for the Selene I had come to know, but especially different from the proud anger she had displayed mere moments ago. It again solidified the notion that as tough as Selene's exterior appeared, she was still more girl than woman. Why we are always in such a hurry to grow up amazes me still the older I become.
I hugged her tight and whispered the sort of things I thought might calm a child. It eventually worked and she apologized for about the hundredth time.
"I'm sorry, Xena, I didn't know it was from Gabrielle. I never would have done that to her. I really was going to show it to someone later when I could get someone alone."
"I understand and I'm sure Gabrielle will, too."
"I'm so ashamed, so embarrassed."
"There's no need to feel that way. I won't have you getting down on yourself." I moved away from her and toward the bar. "I don't know about you, little sister, but after the day I've had, I could use a drink." I reached for the stopper on the nearest wineskin.
"Mother doesn't allow me to have any strong drinks," she replied.
I had a feeling my mother and I were destined to have a long talk about how she was making Selene pay for my mistakes.
"That's going to change. In fact, I think a lot of things between you and mother change tonight." I poured myself a full mug of wine and half that amount for Selene, cutting her portion with water just as I had done at one time for Gabrielle when she was new to the drink.
"I mean, I'm not giving you free reign to stay up every night in the tavern, you're still too young for that, but you're a young woman and there's nothing terrible about a cup of young wine every now and then." I took three long swallows and then watched as Selene took her first hesitant sip. "Well?" I asked.
She pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow. "And people pay to drink whole skins of this stuff?"
I laughed at her remark. "Well, it's an acquired tasted. Maybe it's a good thing that it doesn't appeal to you at first. Too much can spell trouble, trust me. I've woke many a morning wishing I'd never taken my first sip."
"Do you think Gabrielle will ever speak to me again?" Selene asked as she toyed with the edge of the wooden bar.
"Has she ever given you any indication that she would act that way?" I asked in turn.
"Well, people...change. You know...their feelings about things change. Sometimes you think you know them and then...I don't know. Maybe Gabrielle doesn't feel the same way about me now."
"For one thing, Gabrielle is probably the most consistent person you'll ever meet. Second...come with me."
She took another healthy swallow from her mug of wine. I could see that the taste had become more palatable. She followed me to where I stood before an old looking glass. It had been hammered smooth and polished until it gleamed. It was a crude looking glass by my standards, but it provided a fairly accurate reflection.
I stood behind her and placed my hands upon her shoulders, both of us facing our reflections. "Look there and tell me who you see," I told her.
"Us," she answered truthfully.
This would take a little thought. I stepped out of view of the looking glass. "Now, who do you see?" I asked, in an attempt to have her look within herself.
She didn't understand and looked at me as though I had two heads upon my shoulders. "Me," she answered this time.
"Look closer," I chuckled at her naiveté and pointed at her reflection. "Who is she?"
"I'm..." She paused. "I'm just me."
"And who is that? What sort of person are you, Selene? What makes you...well, you?"
She stared intently at her reflection. "I can't read," she finally said softly. "I guess that makes me stupid."
"No!" I said much more sharply than I'd meant causing her to flinch at the sound of my voice. I smiled gently and came up behind her once more, touching her shoulders.
"Don't ever say that, Selene, because I don't believe you're stupid at all. It's true you can't read, but there's a reason for that. How is it, though, that you're able to cook all those recipes of mother's and when she gives you a shopping list you come back from the market with every thing on a long list?"
She looked back at me sheepishly. "Elias helps me. He's always been nice about it. He reads me the list or the recipe and I memorize it."
"You remember all that?" I asked, truly amazed. If it didn't have to do with fighting or battles, I had a hard time remembering what I'd eaten for my morning meal.
"Sure. Remembering is easy."
"Well, let me tell you something. It's not as easy as you think. It's a very intelligent brain that can retain all that, Selene. You are a very smart girl."
"Really?" She perked up quite a bit.
"Absolutely. You have a quick mind, little sister. I'm sure we can help you with your letters, and I guarantee that you'll be reading as well as anyone in no time at all."
"Will we have to tell people?"
I saw the humiliation in here eyes, the idea of anyone finding out. "Well, maybe just a couple of people. These people around us are our friends and I want to explain what happened today, especially after our scene earlier. But, in the future, you don't have to tell anyone that you're not comfortable with knowing."
"I should tell Gabrielle, though, right? And mother?"
"Yes, I think apologizing to both of them might be a nice gesture on your part. Even though it all turned out right this time, keeping such a thing to yourself could have gotten someone hurt, or worse, today."
"Yea, but I--"
I held up my hand to silence her. "Selene, we're your family. It was a hard thing for me to learn, too, maybe one of the hardest things, but trusting the people who care about you can actually make you a better person."
"And if they laugh at you?"
I smiled. "Okay, I still don't take that entirely well, but the goal is to be able to laugh at yourself. Try to see yourself as others see you, Selene, and not the person your insecurities tell you that you are. I guarantee that if you start liking you, others won't be able to help but follow suit."
She smiled back at me. "Gabrielle said something like that once."
"See, great women think alike."
"Oh, Xena, could you teach me other things as well? A weapon? Do you think you could teach me to fight?"
"What?" She had caught me completely off guard with her question.
"You know, like you and Gabrielle fight. I saw you practicing before Gabrielle took ill."
"I think asking mother to allow you to travel with us to the Amazon village is going to be enough of a shock. Let's not send her into apoplexy."
"What I mean is that this new Selene is going to take some getting used to for mother. Maybe we should just take it one step at a time."
"The new Selene?" she asked.
"You never finished answering my question. Who is that girl in the mirror?"
"Oh." She turned again and gazed at her reflection, but with a more thoughtful expression. "I don't know, Xena. I don't know who I am. When will I figure it out?"
"It takes some people a lifetime to discover." I said after I shrugged. "I'm still figuring it out about myself. What's important is that you and mother talk, and that you make her realize that you need to discover who you are on your own. You can accept help from any of us...from anyone, but ultimately, you have to answer that question."
"What if I find out bad things? I mean, about myself. Can I change them?"
Selene asked the question in innocence and she referred to herself, of course, but I took it personally. I squeezed her shoulders and answered her reflection.
"You can change anything about yourself that you wish to, little sister, anything at all."
"Do you truly believe that, Xena?" She turned and looked at me, wearing a hopeful expression.
"I have to," I answered. I don't know if she understood what I meant,
but it was enough for me that I spoke the words. After all, the answer had actually
been for me.
To be continued in : Chapter 27: Fly Envious Time, Till Thou Run Out Thy Race
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