Don't own 'em, wish I did. Story's mine though and I promise to return them to their places after I've played with them. Well, maybe not Xena... I think I'll keep her.
Explicit content and sex warning: This alt story features consensual sex between two adult women, the works with all anatomical details, with possible BDSM content.
Extreme violence warning: This is Xena. The old Xena. Need I say more? Where the dark lady kicks butt, there's blood and bodyparts so in this story, extreme violence and its aftermaths are depicted in a realistic, graphical way. Torture, yes; sexual violence, no.
Notes: I use only Proper English. Place names are spelled in the official translitteration from Greek so Amphipolis is Amfípolis and so on. This is the third part in a trilogy of sorts that began with Penance and continued with Blood Meridian so I suggest you read those stories first.
My everlasting gratitude must go to my most excellent beta reader, Michal Salat.
You can find more work by Penumbra at her site u m b r a e
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
A s c e n s i o n
© Penumbra 1999
It was the coldest morning in living memory.
It came from somewhere far to the north, this wind that delivered the snow and the bitter chill. The icy talons of the merciless wind had raked over the land, leaving behind bare skeletons of trees and a lifeless white landscape in its wake. Over the hills and into the valleys the wind had howled, driving the snow before it with a sound like a dying beast in the claws of a bird of prey.
In one of the innumerable valleys of the Eastern Macedonian high plains, the virginal white snow was stained deep crimson, small lakes of the bright liquid of life marking each spot where a soul had departed its incarnation. The battlefield, a boiling kettle of furious fighting just candlemarks earlier, had settled down as the two armies had hacked one another into oblivion. Now, it was just a field of death, the numerous bodies that littered the ground slowly vanishing under a shroud of snow, with not a sound audible above the keening of the wind. The bony black limbs of trees that reached into the murky white vastness of the sky now seemed an eerily prescient image of the fate of those who had taken to the field the night before.
The wailing of the wind woke her, or perhaps it was the shrill cries of the airborne scavengers circling high above her in their quest for sustenance, their black eyes as cold and unfeeling as the air.
But inside of her it was colder still.
Still the name rang on her lips, her first thought as she woke every morning, and her last prayer before she left this world for Morpheus' realm. Now, as wakefulness robbed her of the peace of oblivion, that name, pronounced so quietly not even the wind caught it, ignited the familiar flame of anguish inside her. The sharp nausea made her gut twist as, with great effort, she pushed herself up off the snow.
"Mother of Zeus," the Conqueror murmured as her eyes swept over the plain of death. As far as she could see in the waning snowstorm, small mounds of white swelled from the ground, marking a fallen warrior or his horse.
Not one of her warriors had survived. Turning slowly around in a circle, she sought out any sign of life -- a movement, a sound -- but the only thing she found was a large, twitching black form that emitted a quiet whining sound.
"Androdameios, no..." the Conqueror sighed and went to kneel beside the big cat, her bloodied hands gently gliding over equally blood-soaked black fur. The panther was taking quick, shallow breaths, the wound in his side welling up with fresh warm blood with every exhalation; he was beyond saving now, the light of life dimming from his emerald eyes. Pulling out her dagger, she placed it over the cat's heart and, with a deep breath, drove it home. "I'm sorry, Androdameios," she whispered, feeling the last hot breath on her palm, before the panther stilled for good. "I'm sorry."
Xena's blood mingled with the panther's, the hot liquid steaming in the cold air. She was bleeding from innumerable small cuts and nicks scattered over her forearms and shoulders, wherever an angry blade had sliced through her cloak and leathers. A long but superficial gash decorated her arm, the wound crusted with old blood and fluid; the whole limb had gone numb from exposure to the elements. As she moved around, the wound started to throb and she grabbed her tricep, pulling the edges of the gash together.
It was a marvel, she mused, that she had any blood to bleed -- so hollow was her heart.
"You would understand, Androdameios," Xena said to the panther, her voice hoarse from the battle. Pulling out the blade again, she slid it through the wound and down the tick torso before pulling the two sides apart and efficiently skinning the carcass.
She had left her horse in the hands of her stable master before the battle broke, and now Pyrgomache was nowhere in sight. Still squeezing her wounded arm, shivering uncontrollably from cold and blood loss, the Conqueror wrapped the sticky pelt around herself and bowed her head to the wind. Her pace was strong and sure as she headed towards the western ridge and the location of her base camp.
The hooves missed her head by mere inches but she refused to flinch.
"Whoa, boy! Steady!"
The man struggled with reins, leaning back and attempting to control the horse and cart with the sheer power of his bulk. The hulking monster of a horse, a dun stallion, reared again, vainly fighting his pinions. It took the man a few moments to get the horse to calm down, but eventually it did, snorting hostilely towards Xena.
"Good day, traveller," the driver said, his breath forming small, white clouds in the air. "Where are you headed?"
She had walked for candlemarks, down from the plains of death that were once again the domain of hungry beasts eking their living from the landscape. The air was still thin, the sun just a small circle of gold in the clear blue sky, and she was exhausted. It had been two days since she had slept for more than a fraction of a candlemark or had anything decent to eat -- at her base camp she had found yet another scene of carnage, the corpses of her rear guard slumped in various caricatures of suffering and terror on the ground. She had found her stable master, a manure fork through her chest, but her warhorse was nowhere to be found.
"South," Xena answered tonelessly and wrapped the black, furry hide tighter around herself. The horse was still edgy, whinnying quietly and turning his head, trying to get a good look at her. She lifted her hand and patted the horse's muzzle, touching the flaring nostrils gently. Her skin was of a peculiar coppery shade, the blood staining her fingernails and the creases of her hands a deeper crimson, and the stallion was obviously fearful of the primal, dangerous scent.
"His name is Aellus," the man said. "If you're heading due south, I can quicken your journey. I am Phineas of Évridios, heading home, and the journey is long if travelling alone." He graced his statement with a small smile.
"Phineas of Évridios," the Conqueror nodded back and patted the horse once more before circling round the animal and pulling herself up to sit next to the young man. She glanced at his big, paw-like hands, the deep purple-black half moons that decorated his nails and the numerous small, thin marks of gleaming scar tissue. "You're a blacksmith, if I'm not mistaken."
He threw Xena a sharp look, observing for the first time the razor-sharp intelligence that was evident in those eyes -- eyes of a pale blue even chillier than the winter sky. The woman he had at first taken for a lone traveller, perhaps on a pilgrimage through the volatile, violent area of Eastern Macedonia, was certainly not an ordinary vagabond. The animal skin covering her was freshly skinned and untanned, still smelling strongly of the beast that had previously worn it, and the rest of her was hidden inside a thick, ragged cloak.
"You have keen eyes, stranger."
"Yes, indeed," Xena said and turned her head towards the road ahead, not volunteering any further information.
The man clicked his tongue and the cart jerked forward, the heavy wooden wheels grinding into the frozen earth.
She was beyond caring, beyond concern for her own health. She fought with an emptiness of purpose, merely out of habit; killing was what came naturally to her, as automatic as breathing or the beating of her heart. She drowned her pain in the pain of others, the anguished song of her soul, cold as stone, overwhelmed by the wailing of the doomed in the fields of death.
Macedonia was on fire, and she had been the glowing ember, the divine spark, that had ignited the tinder. All through the fleeting autumn and subsequent harsh winter, she had scourged through the north of Greece, fighting off either the barbarians that poured across the border, or the dissidents among her own people. Where she didn't find old enemies, she had made new ones, just for the sake of letting her blade taste fresh blood.
Her reason for living was no more. It was as simple as that.
She'd once had a reason to seek out peace for her people, a motive for uniting all the unruly, bickering poleis under one banner, be it with brute force or with the sheer cunning of her mind -- she'd wanted peace because it was good for her Gabrielle. She wanted to give her beloved freedom to blossom, the time to see the beauty of her work and the justice in her rule. But all that had been for naught; no longer could she find any reason to strive for tranquility in her land.
Her blood ran bitter in her veins. Her Gabrielle had been the sole barrier between her mind and the deep nothingness of madness, and now, without her, she was sinking into the lake of darkness.
Xena followed the pointing finger and true enough, on the horizon narrow columns of smoke rose towards the sky.
"Thank you, blacksmith Phineas," the Conqueror said. "Your courtesy will be rewarded."
"All I ask for is Hera to slap some sense into her unruly son," the man replied, wry humour in his voice as he gestured in the general direction of Mount Olympus.
Xena nodded, not wishing for him to continue along that thread of thought. Compared to her, the God of War was a feeble and unimaginative fool; her mortal flesh had perpetrated the deeds he referred to, not some divine power.
The strong tang of smoke and beasts of burden clung in the back of her mouth, the bitterness of it tickling her throat, which had suffered already from days of shouting in the cold climate. A few goats traipsed down the main street, an uneven lane of frozen mud and animal dung. Évridios was obviously a poor village, victimised by the raiders gallivanting around the countryside, as a few charred roofs and collapsed huts clearly indicated. But for most part, the small houses were clean and the goats looked well-fed, prosperity stemming not from fortuitous conditions but from strength of spirit.
The blacksmith pulled up his cart at his house, the open front of the smithy like a black maw. The forge was silent, the bellows lying deflated and sooty on the ground. A scattering of old horseshoes, waiting to be smelted and worked into new shapes, spoke of the important role Phineas played in the everyday life of the village. Hopping down from the cart, he removed the horse's tack and nodded towards the door.
"My wife is inside. Broth and a piece of hard bread is all we can offer but..."
The Conqueror inclined her head, and even dredged up a small smile. "Broth and a spot of warmth is all I desire, blacksmith."
The broth was on the thin side, the strips of meat floating in it tough and stringy, but it was nourishment. Inside the small house attached to the smithy, it was warm and the air was stuffy, the gnarled logs crackling in the hearth, giving out a sharp-scented smoke that stung her eyes. Xena drained the last of the warm liquid and set her bowl down on the table, letting her eyes roam around the small room.
Phineas was obviously a man who took great pride in the talent of his hands. Woodcarvings adorned the two windows of the house, impish curls and tendrils above the small panes made of pig's bladder skin; the legs of the narrow cot at the far end were fashioned in the shape of a lion's paws. Everything was lovingly cared for but well-worn, and their poverty was evident in the threadbare clothes worn by the smith and his wife, a small, plump woman with jolly eyes. Suddenly ashamed, the Conqueror looked down into her bowl, and at the blood-encrusted hands that were curved around it.
She was warm for the first time in days, except for her heart, whose stony centre was as cold as the frozen earth. How dare I, she asked of herself, and rubbed her hand around the bowl, feeling the texture of the carved wood beneath her callused palms. How dare I come here, eat their food and enjoy what little they have, when I am the one responsible for taking away so much of it already?
She entwined her hands, leaning on the table with her elbows, and laid her forehead on her sore knuckles. Only now she allowed herself to acknowledge the bone-deep exhaustion that had pursued her for days -- no, for moons -- on end. So tired. She was just so very tired.
"You carry the smell of hard days on the road, stranger," Kepa, the smith's wife, said. She kept calling their visitor 'stranger' because she had not offered her name. A peculiar traveller, this one is, she thought and retrieved the bowl from the stranger's hands. "Perhaps you would appreciate a bath?"
"Most gracious of you," the stranger replied. Her voice was low and unobtrusive, very toneless at the moment, but Kepa had a feeling it was a voice more used to commanding than making idle talk. Arresting, throaty, made to deliver the parlance of assurance itself.
Rising with a quiet sigh, Kepa went to the corner and hefted two large buckets of water from the barrel, pouring them into a cauldron she placed over the hearth. The flames licked the blackened metal with great glee and soon enough, small bubbles rose to the surface and wandered towards the edges of the cauldron. A cloud of mist rose around her as she struggled to carry it to the bathtub.
"Let me help you with that."
Kepa nearly jumped out of her skin at the voice, so near her ear. How the traveller had managed to sneak up so close was beyond her.
The steaming water rushed into the tub with a mighty splash and, after a dose of cold water to temper it, the bath was ready. Kepa busied herself with putting away the buckets while keeping a wary eye on their guest. While the woman had been subdued and passive enough, the times they lived were dangerous; no-one warranted complete trust. But this one seemed complacent enough, wounded and weary. The heavy fur that had been draped over the stranger's shoulders was folded on the bench, and the stranger gave the pelt a gentle pat, pausing as if to remember something. The moment was obviously a private one and Kepa felt almost ashamed for intruding upon it.
The torn grey cloak parted and upon seeing what was revealed, Kepa straightened. She had thought the coppery hue of her skin to be the dirt of the reddish earth that was common in the southern fields, but the pieces of the puzzle clicked together when she saw the gore-encrusted armour inside the cloak, and the two swords that the woman carried on her hips.
Blood. That's blood, Kepa told herself and instinctively backed up a step. Why did Phineas have to go to work just now? The stranger looked as if her last bath had been in ichor; the curious crimson sheen was dotted with numerous dark, angry cuts, and as the woman turned, Kepa blanched as she saw the long gash on her arm. The sides of the wound had curved outward and the trench between was but a mass of near-black gore.
"You are hurt, stranger," she said, her voice trembling. She swallowed and steadied herself, determined not to show any frailty or fear.
The stranger paused in her task, holding her breastplate in front of her. To the wonderment of the smith's wife, a sad smile came onto the woman's lips.
"Nothing worse than what I bear beneath this," she said cryptically, and hefted the breastplate over her head. Her moves were terse and efficient, the pieces of her armour coming off in an almost ritualised sequence, carried out by the visceral memory of muscle rather than conscious though.
What was revealed under the layers of skillfully crafted bronze and thick leather was a woman of a quality Kepa had never seen. She had heard tell of women warriors but never seen one; this stranger was just as she had imagined them to be: wide shoulders, taut skin stretched over well-defined muscles, limbs long and limber. The woman moved with innate grace, the shifting shadows and light upon her body fluid and ethereal. What Kepa had not expected were the many silvery lines of scar tissue that marred the otherwise smooth skin. A few dark lines were criss-crossed among them, new additions to the already vast assortment she sported.
The water in the tub was tinted red as the visitor lowered her body into it. The colour ran like a dye from the stranger's skin and into the water, the pale pink waves cascading over her head and down her torso as Kepa poured more water over her. The gore and clotted blood washed from her head, leaving behind a sleek mass of hair as black as sin itself. While in the bath, the stranger took a scrap of cloth, dipped it into the water and started scrubbing her leather garments, softening the layers of encrusted blood. Kepa sat on the bench, watching the process with fascination, trying very hard not to look at the two long swords that leaned against the seat next to her.
"You are a warrior, then, stranger?" There was, she now realised, something so oddly familiar about the length of raven hair and the high, angular cheekbones. And those eyes. Most definitely the eyes.
The pale blue orbs, like two chips of ice, looked up from their task and the stranger nodded slightly.
A chatterbox, obviously, Kepa thought and leaned against the wall. The smell of the strange fur was strong and she touched it gingerly. It was too big to be the hide of any regular forest-dwelling game and the hair was too short to be a bear's, but whatever it was, it was luxurious and exotic. Brushing her hand over the stranger's cloak, she noted the way it was reduced almost to tatters, blood staining whatever cloth was left. Her eyes shifted to the warrior sitting in her bathtub, to the tired trembling of her muscles and the dark half moons under her eyes, and suddenly she felt very grateful for her share in life; at least she didn't have to risk death by blade every day to earn her bread and home.
"Your cloak is very badly damaged."
"Yes," the stranger said, her eyes not leaving the bracer she was cleaning.
"I have..." Kepa said, rising from her seat and going to rummage through a chest at the foot of their bed. With a satisfied grunt, she came up with a bundle of dark cloth. "This belongs to Phineas. It's in need of a bit of mending, but it's in far better shape than -" She pointed to the shredded garment on the bench.
"No, I cannot take what is yours," the stranger said, but Kepa waved her protests away. "All that you have endured, the blood you have shed for this land, is enough payment."
The stranger nodded, a sad enigmatic smile gracing her lips, as she rose from the tub and vaulted over the edge before dressing. The newly-cleaned black leather and softly gleaming brass armour made her look ...larger, somehow. Kepa felt the personality of the person standing before her, the overbearing, even suffocating, disposition of the tall woman so strong that her mental image of someone commanding an army was strengthened. If she were a commander, which she most certainly was, she was the sort who tasted first blood -- one who rode in front of the army and was the first one into the fire.
"Thank you of everything, Kepa of Évridios," the stranger said and accepted the offered cloak. Bundling it under an arm along with her swords, the laid a heavy hand on Kepa's shoulder. The squeeze was strong and Kepa had to crane her neck to meet the stranger's eyes. "May life be propitious to you and your husband," she said, before turning abruptly and leaving the house.
All that remained of the stranger was a scent of something dark and primal, and a gleaming gold coin on the table. Blinking, Kepa picked up the circle of precious metal and turned it over.
Though the eyes in the portrait were golden instead of blue, they were the same eyes, with the same empty look in them.
"Who is that?
The blacksmith turned and squinted into the distance. Sweat was running into his eyes from the heat of the forge. "That is Simon," he said and spat onto the ground.
Xena's eyebrow rose. "You hold a grudge?"
"He holds one," the blacksmith said and set the hasp back on the anvil. Sparks flew as he drove his hammer angrily down upon the glowing metal. "Against life."
The Conqueror watched the man called Simon, her eyes narrowing. He was attempting to control a jet-black horse who looked unmistakably familiar. Storm clouds gathered in Xena's eyes, her posture becoming more erect.
"His life must not be very dear to him."
Phineas set the half-finished hasp into the forge again and wiped off his sweat with his forearm. "He has no honour," he said quietly. "Makes his living on the misfortune of others -- pillaging battlefields, robbing travellers."
"Yes," Xena smiled darkly, her eyes still on the man in the distance. "But Fate is about to have Her revenge."
Against the whiteness of snow, the fan of red teardrops that she had flicked off her sword reminded her of a peacock's tail, the colours similarly brash. Cleaning the last of the still-hot blood from the blade with two fingers, she re-sheathed the sword and hoisted herself up into the saddle.
"Hello, old girl," she murmured and patted Pyrgomache's strong, veiny neck. The mare whickered in response, throwing her head. The horse was nervous by nature, her gigantic bulk belying the agility and explosive power she possessed.
It was her tack, here on her horse, the saddle still warm from the thief's seat. Twisting, Xena could see the razor-sharp lines of whip strikes on Pyrgomache's flanks, and her blood boiled. The man should have suffered far more but, alas, her justice had been as swift and effective as always; now Simon lay in the gutter, smiling through his throat.
"Tried to whip you into submission, hmm?" the Conqueror queried quietly. Pyrgomache sidestepped and whinnied in reply, and the Conqueror grabbed the reins, calming the beast. "With very little luck, I assume," she continued, fighting the fidgety horse. The mare eventually responded to the firm, familiar hand, quieting down, and then they were off.
They rode through the long day and into the night, even after the waning light had bowed to Hyperion's spawn and the stars. The sky was a velvety shade of dark indigo, the moon a third of a way through its arc, when the Conqueror finally reined in her already foam-flecked charger. Pyrgomache replied sluggishly, the hard beat of her hooves picking up clouds of dust from the road, the sand silvery and sparkling in the pale light. Finally, she slowed down to a canter so that Xena could steer her to the side of the road, where a plain opened between two distant treelines.
After giving the winded horse a good rubdown and seeing to the lash marks, Xena settled down, opting not to make a fire, but instead rolling open her sleeping furs in the middle of the wind-swept opening. Settling down on the furs, she gazed up at the quiet stars, the world around her ethereally silent as though it were holding its breath. She could hear Pyrgomache pace around her, the massive bulk of the horse ghostly in the midnight penumbra, and she could hear the wind wail through distant trees, slithering between branches and stalks of grass, before screaming across the field towards her, ruffling her hair and making the hide around her undulate. In the quiet, she thought of her Macedonian campaign.
The battle of the previous day had not gone well. It had not started providentially, and neither had it seen the Conqueror hold the whip hand in the end. The opposing side, barbarians driven from the north by the unusually harsh winter and the approaching Huns, were hungry and desperate. They had fought fiercely and what they had lacked in skill and battle tactics they made up in ferociousness and sheer numbers. It had not been at all elegant, not the refined art that she preferred to practice. Winning by cunning rather than the blade was always more honourable. No, it had ultimately been only about survival -- war reduced to its most primal, fundamental elements.
The news of my presumed demise has probably reached the capital already, she thought bitterly, and dug out a needle and a length of gut thread from her pack. The wound on her arm was throbbing again, agitated by the hard ride, and it was bleeding. The thread hissed quietly every time she threaded it through her skin.
Rumours travelled faster than the breath of Aeolus, and while she had been near death this time, she had been closer before. But the lack of reinforcements she had requested, and the fact that she had not seen any troops heading north during her ride, spoke volumes to her. In Kórinthos, blood had been shed almost certainly, and like a pack of carrion-devouring jackals, the people closest to her would be clambering for power, even sooner than her carcass would have cooled.
Biting off the extraneous thread after she had knotted the stitching, the Conqueror set the needle down and sighed. Not even the winds shifted with such volatility as did the reins of power. The life of a dragonfly was an eternity, the state of the seas immutable compared to the swiftness with which fidelity transformed itself to betrayal. One sign of weakness, one wrong word, one false, malicious rumour was all it took; kingdoms had fallen for less than a measure of jealousy, and for no more than a drop of bad blood.
"And what have I now, to show of my power?" the Conqueror asked of the wailing wind and of the frost-numbed grass, her words a mere whisper. Turning her hands in her lap, in the sallow moonlight she could still see the complex map of scars on her skin, and the dark blood under her fingernails where the bath had not cleansed them. Blood, that was what she had had for all her power. Blood, pain and more blood.
She had seen so many men succumb to her blade, seen the last look of agony on their faces before the oblivion took them away. Felt the sickly, thick resistance of flesh around her blade as she parted muscle from bone, life from body. The warm, viscous liquid of life had flowed over her hands and arms in crimson waterfalls, and she had bathed in it, breathed its essence, felt the strong, coppery taste on her tongue. The faces came to haunt her in sleep, but she had long since gotten used to them; to her, painting her masterpiece in blood and pain was as natural as stroking clay into the shape of a wine jug was to a potter. Her art was the application of terror, her talent in the ruthlessness with which her hands imparted it.
A dark shadow detached from the darker ones around it and came forward, the shuffle of shod hooves soft against the grass.
"Too quiet for your tastes?" the Conqueror murmured and, as Pyrgomache's raven head dipped lower, she laid her palm on the noble, elongated bridge of the mare's nose. The sensitive nostrils under her hand twitched in response and the horse gently nudged Xena's shoulder with her head. Brushing her hand over what remained of Androdameios, the Conqueror smiled wanly. "Do you know what that means?"
Pyrgomache whickered quietly in response, turning her head so that one large, dark eye was aimed at Xena. The Conqueror's level gaze held eternal sadness.
"It's just you and me, girl."
It took the Conqueror two days to get clear of the Macedonian plains and reach a more temperate climate. The forests had retained some of their lushness even in the face of winter -- a mere whisper of the splendour they displayed in warmer seasons, but much less monochrome than the wintry expanse of land she had left.
The roads were quiet and none of the fellow travellers she met dared approach her; rather, they gave her a wide berth, skirting to the other edge of the road upon the first sight of the lone warrior on her monster of a horse. The woman's melancholy mien and otherwise dark countenance was enough to discourage attempts at friendly chatter. And so Xena rode in solitude, her only companions the pensive thoughts in her mind and the silent warhorse.
Pyrgomache was obviously tiring from the days of hard riding, her coat, usually so luxurious, now dull and sticky under a layer of grime and lather. As for Xena, she felt the ache of exhaustion all the way to the marrow of her bones; she had not had a decent meal in the days after she had left Čvridios.
"You want to make a stop in the next village, girl?" the Conqueror murmured, scratching her mount behind one twitching black ear.
Pyrgomache twisted her head, whickering quietly but not breaking her stride.
"A brushing for you and a bath for me, then," Xena said, and steered the horse towards the thin columns of smoke she could see in the distance.
In a candlemark, she was on the outskirts the village. Riding along a small brook and through the village gates, she was struck by a vague sense of premonition, and of remembrance. It was as if...she knew this place, somehow. Perhaps it was a memory from the brash days of her youth, when she tore through every hamlet and small town in this part of Hellas, vainly seeking to calm her anger by plundering villages such as this one. But that was ten winters ago; to these people she was but a legend now, a ghost with no face.
Xena reined Pyrgomache to a halt in front of the only inn that looked respectable. An old, low building that yawed slightly in the wind, it didn't look very promising, but the scent of food that wafted from within the establishment was irresistible.
A balding, middle-aged man wearing an apron rushed out, grabbing the horse's reins as the traveller dismounted.
"Evening, traveller. I hope the gods smiled on your journey?"
"Phoebe was my companion and she was benevolent enough," Xena replied; the night sky had been cloudless all through her ride, the round face of the moon watching over her solitary travel. She grabbed her kit and turned to face the innkeeper. "The best for her and a platter of whatever you're serving for dinner, if you please."
The inn was quiet, with only a few other customers scattered around the large room. A stocky young woman -- the innkeeper's daughter, Xena guessed, for the family looks ran strong -- brought her a large slice of boar and a cup of mulled cider. She was halfway through her dinner when the innkeeper wandered closer and pretended to wipe clean the tables surrounding hers. When he began cleaning the same table for the third time, Xena set down her dagger and turned his way.
"What?" she growled.
He jumped slightly but dropped the rag, fiddling nervously with the hem of his apron nervously. "I do not mean to intrude upon your meal but...you come from afar, traveller?"
The Conqueror sighed, momentarily debating barking at him to mind his own business, but deciding to be courteous, if only to be left alone sooner. "Yes."
"We have heard of news of big battles...barbarians...great disturbance."
The innkeeper's brows drew together. This guest was certainly less than forthcoming.
"Is it true that the barbarians have invaded and are heading...here?"
"How can you be so sure?" the innkeeper said, clearly puzzled. "Did you fight against the army of that daughter of Ares?"
Xena's ears pricked up and she shifted her eyes from the cooked boar to the innkeeper. "Ares' daughter?"
"Yes -- she's the worst of all his bastard offspring," the innkeeper hissed, clearly warming to his subject. He spat, repugnance wrinkling his face. "She is no mortal, I tell you."
Xena nodded and leaned back, her head resting against the wall as her eyelids drooped almost closed. She hummed, urging the innkeeper to continue. The man perched on the edge of her table and leaned in conspiratorially, not noticing the viper-like look aimed at him across the table.
"Did you know that she breathes fire? And a soldier on his way from the front who stopped here on his way to his home village swore that he saw that gods-damned woman eat the hearts of her enemies," he said, pursing his lips in a gesture of disgust. "We have lost many of our own -- of our best -- to that soulless bitch," he continued, clearly inviting Xena to encourage him, which she did with a nod.
The innkeeper straightened, his eyes focused somewhere above the Conqueror's head. "There was a girl from here -- a girl just blossoming into young womanhood, a thing of beauty indeed. Her mind was as bright as the fields of flowers in Elysia, her heart as pure as spring water. Many winters ago, she was stolen from us...and sold to the slavers as that woman rode through here and destroyed our homes.
"During the last harvest, she returned -- on her own, no less. But she was not the same girl any more, no...she was marked, tainted by the evil of that inbred bacchae who dares call herself Conqueror."
"Marked, you say?" Xena's voice remained silky and smooth, like oil on water, betraying nothing of the sudden turmoil inside her.
"Marked, yes," the innkeeper said, nodding enthusiastically. It was not often that he got visitors from outside the immediate environs, and gossiping was one of his great vices. "Marked by the signet of the bastard woman..."
"I see," the Conqueror said and rose, her hands shaking from both rage and trepidation. Steadying herself, she paced around the table to stand in front of the man. She pulled out a dagger from her gauntlet, hefting it by the blade. "And was the mark -" she said and lifted the dagger, "- like this?"
Upon the dagger, where the gleaming blade met the hand guard, was her sigil -- an X inside a circle -- fashioned skillfully out of bronze and black enamel. The innkeeper's eyes darted from the mark to Xena and back.
"Yes, it is. Whose dagger is this?" he asked, beads of sweat appearing on his forehead.
"Mine," Xena purred, a slow, dangerous smile forming on her lips but never reaching her eyes. She flipped the dagger around in her hand and pressed the point to the innkeeper's jugular. The tip pricked his skin and a small pearl of blood ran down the blade. "Now, we are going to have a little chat, you and I."
The name was fire in her veins. As she ran along the village's main street, her heart hammering in her chest, the word, the sweet name of her beloved rang in her mind, over and over. She remembered not the bitterness of Gabrielle's sudden departure, nor the pain she had carried with her all these moons; there was, for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, something akin to joy inside her. She would see her love once more, and that was all that mattered.
With his last breath, the innkeeper had revealed that the bard was being kept in the village reeve's house, and that was where Xena was running. Bursting through the door, she was greeted by the sight of the reeve and his family seated around the table, having their evening meal.
"What is the meaning of this?!" the man bellowed, after hastily swallowing the bit of venison he had been chewing. He got halfway up from his chair before Xena closed a hand around his throat, throwing him against the wall and pinioning him there.
"Gabrielle -- where is she?" Xena hissed, her face inches from the reeve's. "Tell me, or by the gods I will glut the maw of death with the blood of your children," she said, shaking him like a rat in the jaws of a terrier.
The reeve had the wherewithal to pale at the utterly deadly look that she fixed on him, reinforcing the promise behind the words. His eyes darted around, frantically seeking help, but his family was frozen in place, the eyes of his children wide as tin platters.
"Who...are you?" he managed. The hand around his throat tightened perceptibly.
"I," Xena said, leaning even closer, "am her rightful owner."
Understanding glittered in the reeve's eyes, warring with a sudden flare of anger. But he was wise enough a man not to play courageous in the face of death; this woman would find her soon enough, whether he divulged the information or not. "In the cellar, out back," he choked out.
The stairs that led beneath the barn were narrow and rickety, groaning under the Conqueror's weight as she rushed down the steps. She met a sturdy locked door and unsheathed one of her swords, driving the heavy blade into a hinge. Sparks flew and the metal parted, as did the other, and the door swung aside.
Inside it was dark, with only a few slivers of sunlight streaming through small gaps in the foundation of the barn, barely illuminating the cramped space and the dance of particles in the close, mouldy cellar. Xena drew a breath of the rank, foul-smelling air and crouched to fit through the doorway. Her eyes adjusted to the dimness quickly and her sword swept through the rays of light, throwing glittering, nervous reflections on the walls.
Though it was hoarse and pained, Xena recognised the voice instantly. Her heart missed a beat and she turned toward the far corner whence the words had emanated.
A shadow moved in the corner, and her precious Gabrielle came into view. Her...betrayer, the true source and cause of her pain. Anger flared into life within the Conqueror, her knuckles going white as she squeezed the hilt of her sword. The joy had been but a momentary diversion; the agony dulled but not dead.
The figure rose to a crouch. "Xena...?"
"Yes," the Conqueror hissed, stepping closer and bringing her arm around so that the sword pointed directly at Gabrielle. The long blade shook with her rage. "Me. The one you deceived. Double-crossed. You," she said, the word a low growl, "you made me what I am now."
"Yes," Gabrielle whispered and stood up. Even in the sparse light, the pallor of her skin, stretched taut over her cheekbones, could clearly be seen. But her eyes had lost none of their fire, and now they blazed with courage and desperation. "But I can say the same of you."
Only then did the Conqueror take a look around. It was a cellar indeed, but one purposely designed for the storage of people. Her dark brows drew together. "Why are you here?"
"Because of what I am," Gabrielle stated simply and bowed her head. "Because of what I was."
"And what was that?"
The single word, spoken so quietly, shattered the air.
"I was yours," Gabrielle repeated and turned around, lowering the thin, crudely patched cloak she wore. Her once-strong, muscular back now bore a collection of bruises across the pale, parchment-dry skin, and on the shoulderblade was a large circular wound, badly treated and clearly infected. It was the spot where she had borne her mark: the Conqueror's signet.
"What have they done to you?" Xena queried, her voice thick.
"They tried to cut it out of me -- what they thought made me yours," Gabrielle replied and turned. The green of her eyes was a dark, muddy colour. "To them, I was your slave, a body to be owned and traded. By erasing your mark, they thought they could erase all that you were to me."
"And what...?" Xena began, but couldn't finish the question. Again, she felt cold, but for different reasons than before; the sword trembled so badly in her hand that she almost dropped it, as the blood drained from her extremities.
As simple as that.
"You were my life and my soul, Xena," Gabrielle said and stepped closer, gently pushing the sword aside. "But..." she began, laying a hand hesitantly over the dark bronze of the Conqueror's armour, "I wasn't your soul. Your soul is darkness."
Xena laid a hand over the smaller one on her chest, her heart aching from the first contact with Gabrielle's flesh. It was an overwhelming feeling, her head swimming as her skin recognised and remembered.
"I could not reign in here."
The Conqueror knelt, her sword meeting the ground with a muted thud as she wrapped both arms around the slender figure of her beloved. She breathed in the moist, dull scent of the earth on Gabrielle's cloak, and the warmth that the body in her arms emanated, feeling small hands settle upon her hair. Oh Gabrielle...you are so very wrong.
"I know I betrayed you," the bard said, her voice rough. "But I could not stand what was becoming of my soul...and the destruction being wrought in my name."
The hands entangled with her hair, brushing the silken, smooth strands gently, almost reverentially, before Gabrielle joined her on the floor. The Conqueror gathered her into her arms, squeezing the slim body close against herself.
It felt so good to hold her, giving slight easement to her painful yearning. It was her Gabrielle once more, and the feeling of belonging now blossoming in her heart was testament to the falsity of Gabrielle's statement.
"Come with me. We have much to talk about."
"She has to be removed," Etor whispered, too loudly for Saba who discreetly motioned him to silence.
"Later," she whispered and turned back towards Tyra, the council elder who was having a shouting match with Erasmus.
The Conqueror's First was not a woman of fickle mind, on the contrary; she had attained her position by out-surviving all the other commanders who held the post before her. The job held many dangers, the least of them certainly not being the Conqueror's capricious nature. Many had tried to outmanoeuvre the Destroyer of Nations but had paid dearly for their mistake.
"Titus confirmed that he saw her body!"
"And where is Titus, then?" asked Erasmus calmly, unperturbed by Tyra's heated tone.
"Not here, obviously," Tyra replied, clenching her teeth. She was a woman hardened by the years, her eyes dark and unforgiving as flint, and she was clearly losing her patience with the ever-sceptical, elderly general.
The people of Kórinthos were blissfully unaware of the play of power underway inside the royal palace. Ever since the news of the Conqueror's demise had reached the capital six nights ago, the war council had been in turmoil. What had been a collection of brilliant people, their talents and minds as diverse as their histories, had been reduced to a bunch of bickering backstabbers in the absence of the Conqueror. The council had been the ruler's right arm and the extension of her genius, but without her guidance, its members were lost.
And so the game is underway, Saba thought, already smelling the blood in the air between Erasmus and Tyra. Recently one of the council's youngest members, a young captain called Milleius, had mysteriously disappeared, and the First had a hunch he wouldn't be the last one to do so. Power as absolute as that which the Conqueror held -- had held -- was beyond tempting; it was downright intoxicating.
She herself didn't know what to believe and thus took a carefully neutral stand on the issue, letting the others fight for succession. While the seal on the message under dispute had been genuine enough, Saba was troubled by the fact that Titus himself had not delivered it. There were also rumours of Romans funding the barbarian upsurgencies along the northern border, the same that the Conqueror had ridden off to calm, be it with sword or with the weight of her word...although Saba suspected that words had not much chance of succeeding this time, the Conqueror's eyes had held nothing but deadly intent.
Saba cleared her throat.
"Do you wish to take a stand, ma'am?" Erasmus asked, the irony in his voice delicate.
"No. I have a suggestion," she said firmly, halting Tyra's impending protest with a raised hand. "Hear me out. I propose the middle route...let us wait for a few days more for Titus. He could just be delayed. If he is not here in, say, ten nights, we will consider the situation again, with firmer footing on the issue."
After a few half-hearted protests, the council agreed to her proposal, if only because the time was past the witching hour. The council dispersed soon after, Etor gesturing for Saba to linger. Finally, they were the only people left in the great hall.
"Excellent work, Saba," he said, a small smile on his lips. "More time for us to remove the others who stand before us."
He has to go, Saba thought, but dredged up a smile.
"Soon," he confirmed and unconsciously touched the hilt of his dagger. "I have already arranged the assassins."
Saba nodded and turned to leave. Soon, Etor...even you will feel the blade most intimately.
The brook gurgled gently through small rapids, the air otherwise quiet. Pyrgomache was drinking from the clear water a few yards downstream, and Xena watched the mare's noble head dip down and come back up, small beads of water glistening on her muzzle. She was a thing of beauty, that horse.
Behind her, Gabrielle was attacking her small reserve of food, wolfing down the hard bread and dried venison. The Conqueror herself was not hungry, and she could not bear to see what had become of her lover; Gabrielle had been a woman of bright, healthy composure but now she was half a wraith, her skin almost translucent.
"Would you like to have some?"
At her words, Xena turned and offered a wan smile with the shake of her head. "No. I'm not hungry."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, Gabrielle," the Conqueror said, relishing the familiar feel of the name rolling off her tongue. It felt wonderful to say it with a different meaning; for moons, it had been either a prayer or a curse, but now, it was simply a beautiful name.
When Gabrielle had finished the last of the hard meat, she straightened in her cross-legged position, her eyes still not meeting Xena's. To the Conqueror, she looked so young and frail, almost a child, but with the eyes of an ancient.
A grimace briefly crossed the bard's face.
"Yes," Gabrielle whispered and took a deep breath, almost as if she was unsure of how to formulate her next words. Xena nodded, understanding, and dug out her healer's kit.
Gabrielle obeyed, letting her cloak slide from her shoulders. In the cold air, sudden trails of goosebumps appeared and Xena laid her hands over the narrow shoulders, making Gabrielle shiver.
She worked in silence, in fear of letting her anger cloud her tone when she needed her words to be soothing -- anger not for the woman before her, but towards those who had injured her so unjustly. What had been a sign of love and protection, the only pure and good thing in the Conqueror's life, had been branded as something brutal and low, its meaning perverted and distorted, until people had seen in it only what they wanted to see. And as always, people saw the worst, assumed the most loathsome things.
The skin had been scraped, not removed -- a procedure that under normal circumstances would have healed in mere weeks. But the conditions in that cellar had obviously not been conductive to healing, Xena deduced, as she spread the ointment on the wound.
"How long has this been like this?"
The tendons in Gabrielle's neck corded as she turned her head, trying to swallow her scream of pain. "At least two moons...I'm not sure. Days ran together down there."
"I know," Gabrielle responded, turning to face forward again.
Xena's hands had lost none of their talent; with the same infinite patience and feather-light touch she showed handling her sword, the Conqueror had loved her, had felt her, and was now, once more, healing her. It was infinitely reassuring; ever since Gabrielle had departed, she had felt herself half a woman, missing the presence of her love, the feeling of safety and calm that permeated her environs. The warmth of the body behind her was a balm to both her ragged flesh and her tattered soul.
Though she had not wanted to admit it, and could not have allowed herself before now, she had missed her. The Destroyer of Nations.
"Gods, Xena..." Gabrielle said, her voice suddenly tired. As she turned, the dark half-moons under her eyes were clearly visible, a stark contrast to the sickly pallor of her face. "I have no words to..." She swallowed hard. "I...betrayed you."
The intensity of Xena's enigmatic gaze upon her made Gabrielle feel uneasy. Deciphering the mind that operated behind those oceans of pale blue was a sheer impossibility; the bard could only guess at the depth of emotion from what was visible and from experience, she knew that it was a mere shadow of what truly lay in the Conqueror's heart.
Quietly, almost hesitantly, Xena took one of the bard's hands into her own larger one. "No worse than the way I betrayed myself," she stated simply. "By not giving you reason to believe in me."
A heartbeat passed before she continued. "I want to give you that reason now. If you'll let me."
It was as close as she had come to pleading in the past ten solar cycles, and it was so hard.
"I will try," was Gabrielle's reply.
She was still weak and hungry, but the pain of the wound had receded to a dull throb. Inside the cocoon of Xena's cloak where the wind could not reach her, she was warm.
At first she had ridden behind the Conqueror, but her diminished strength had not been enough to keep her from sliding off the galloping mare. So she now sat in front of Xena, her legs around the armoured waist and her head resting on the hard, cold shoulder guard. Pyrgomache strode smoothly, her pace even and strong.
She could not remember ever feeling this safe.
"Are you okay there?"
"Yes. Very much so," Gabrielle said and adjusted her cheek to lay more comfortably against the ridges of the engraved metal of the shoulder guard.
Her days in captivity had been long. For moons, she had not been warm, nor had a decent meal. She had longed for a fire, or a bowl of stew, but her reality had been hard bread and water. In the wan light the short days had given her, she had seen her health slowly drain away, felt the weakness invade her body.
She had arrived in Poteidaia during the last harvest season, in the hope of finding her parents, should they have by some miracle escaped their captivity. Alas, no miracle had been forthcoming; all that had been waiting for her was news from her cousin of her mother's demise in the great famine two winters ago. And when the mark on her flesh had been discovered, her fate had been torn from her hands once again. She had refused to denounce its true significance, and so she had been jailed for the sake of her love, to await spring and the arrival of the slaver caravans.
Oh, my beloved. If only you could see the irony of it all, Gabrielle thought sadly and adjusted her arms around the Conqueror's midsection. A circle complete. What her love had wrought upon others -- pain, annihilation -- she had faced herself. Xena had destroyed all in her path in retribution for the random act of cruelty that had been perpetrated against Gabrielle, and now Gabrielle had paid for it. They were both mere pawns in the great game of vengeance, neither strong enough alone to swim against the tide of fate.
Leaning out a bit, she caught Xena's eye. There was a slightly dreamy smile on the Conqueror's lips, but it did nothing to hide the new, hard lines around her eyes. She had heard the stories of the Conqueror as a woman possessed, had seen the dried, clotted blood under her fingernails and smelled it in the fur she wore and in her very being; the Conqueror had drowned her rage in the only way she knew.
Out of the skillet and into the flames, Gabrielle, the bard thought and lowered her head.
"Hmmm?" the Conqueror replied, a low murmur that the bard more felt than heard over the rhythmic beating of Pyrgomache's hooves.
"Where are we going?"
Of course. Gabrielle sighed and shifted in her seat.
She had used to find that dedication so enchanting...and she still did, but for a different reason. She could never own Xena like Xena did her, for the core of the dark woman's nature was hers and hers alone; in that mind were recesses and canyons so deep and dark that the bard dared not even consider what might lay there. But, like a faraway mountain beckons a wanderer, she strove for that which seemed impossible -- the Conqueror's love.
When she had left Xena out of her love for the people of Hellas and for the sake of her own broken heart, she had been confident of the justness of her decision. But during her long months of solitude in imprisonment, she had come to find that there were infinite varieties of love. She had come to understand that the nature of Xena's soul was inherently dual: light and darkness and little in between. The darkness was Xena's, and what light there was -- that was Gabrielle's alone.
The Conqueror's hands paused over the piece of wood she was carving, only to resume a moment later. There was a curious smile on her dark red lips, its quality fluid in the nervous light of the fire.
"There is no-one on the council to take my place," she replied, not looking up. Across the fire, Gabrielle shifted in her seat and wrapped the dark fur around herself more tightly.
"How so?" the bard persisted.
"Hm. Good question," Xena replied and finally paused in her self-imposed task, shoving the dagger back into her boot. "I believe it is a combination of equal talent and equal ambitions."
"Ah. Too many people, too few thrones?"
"Exactly," Xena said and smiled -- a real, genuine smile that lit up even her eyes.
"Are they not afraid of you?" Gabrielle asked, fascinated by this rare insight into the ruthless world of absolutism, and the myriad intrigues and dangers of a despot's life.
"That is of no consequence," the Conqueror replied, turning her carving in her hands. "Even an idle rumour of my death is enough to start the play for power. And I nearly did die, on that field in Macedonia." She fell silent after that, drawing out the dagger again and continuing with her carving.
That is as much as I want to know of it, Gabrielle thought and felt a small shiver go through her. Scooting closer to the fire, she extended her arms towards the crackling flames, feeling the warmth permeate her numb fingers.
They had stopped at nightfall, when Pyrgomache's breathing had been a constant wheeze and Gabrielle felt that she would slide off the saddle from sheer exhaustion. The mare had been treated with a thorough brushing, and upon seeing the blueish tinge of Gabrielle's lips and hands, Xena had built a small fire -- a calculated risk, though they were too far into the woods for the flames to be visible from afar.
It was a moment of almost bizarre mundanity amidst a life of the most unusual circumstances. Gabrielle found it comforting, to know that she could enjoy such a moment of silence, simply staring into the fire, with her love on the other side of the flames, and be content. What was even more amazing to her was that Xena, the Conqueror, was sitting with her quietly, not going anywhere. It was a precious moment of quiet companionship after so much pain and loneliness.
"What are you carving?"
Xena looked up, a hint of the previous smile still on her lips. "Come and see."
With a quiet sigh, Gabrielle rose and paced stiffly around the fire to sit next to Xena, peering intently at the hand hiding the piece of wood.
"What is it?"
Without a word, the Conqueror took hold of Gabrielle's hand and turned it palm up. Upon her open palm she placed her carving. It was a small, fluid shape in the image of a panther frozen in a ferocious leap, its tiny jaws open in a silent roar.
"It's beautiful," Gabrielle breathed, turning the miniature animal in her hand. It reminded her of something... "Where is Androdameios?"
"He died in Macedonia," Xena stated simply, turning her gaze back to the fire, redness rimming her hard eyes. The jittering, shifting light threw sharp shadows on her face. "That's him you're wearing now."
Gabrielle felt sick -- not because she was wearing Androdameios' fur but because she knew how much he had meant to Xena. The panther had been the embodiment of all that was primal in the Conqueror, and woman and animal had connected in a way Gabrielle could not understand but had felt strongly.
"I'm so sorry."
Xena shrugged. "War gives and takes away in equal measure."
The bard brushed her hand over the coarse fur, remembering how lustrous it had been on the panther, and how little of the inner, primal power of the animal it had concealed. And now...she shivered.
"Are you cold?"
"A bit," Gabrielle replied, quite untruthfully.
"Come here then," Xena murmured and pulled her close, under her own cloak. Hesitantly, the bard laid her head on Xena's shoulder, but when the taller woman did nothing to dissuade her closeness, she relaxed into the embrace, feeling the last of the coldness in her heart thaw.
"Better?" Xena asked, resting her cheek on the golden tresses.
"Much better," Gabrielle said and lifted her head, bringing her lips dangerously close to Xena's.
It was the natural course of events for Xena to lower her head so that their lips met, lightly at first. A quicksilver feeling of effervescence travelled through Gabrielle and she shivered again, for reasons quite different, as the contact intensified. The bard's senses were filled with the feeling and the divine scent of her love, and the softness of her lips. Xena's hands entangled in her hair and brought her even closer, deeper into the kiss that made her toes curl, and a sweet ache in her was fanned into life. When they finally parted, Gabrielle felt breathless and altogether too hot.
"That was...quite as I remembered," she said, inhaling unsteadily, and rested her forehead on Xena's jaw.
"I don't want to push you into anything," her lover replied quietly.
The words made Gabrielle lift her head, a smile in her eyes. "I know," she said and kissed an angular cheekbone, the skin ethereally smooth under her touch. Laying her hands gently on Xena's shoulders, she pushed the dark woman onto the ground.
For a moment, she just sat there, looking down at the woman she loved -- had not stopped loving -- despite all that she had done and what had been done unto her. There was something greater than mere affection that bound them together -- be it fate or whatever one chose to call it.
Xena's hands were folded on her stomach and Gabrielle set hers over them. So small and pale in comparison were they, light alabaster on gold. Looking up from their linked hands, past the softly gleaming breastplate and the folds of Xena's dark cape, she found the familiar eyes fastened on her, their blue gone dark indigo in the warm light of the fire.
"Gods...what did I do to deserve such beauty in my presence?" the bard whispered, brushing Xena's cheek with her knuckles. All the words she had been missing came to life in her mind, the beauty of poetry that she had not had cause to exercise during her long months of solitude.
The Conqueror lifted a wry eyebrow at the sudden extolment, for she didn't much care for her looks save for the advantage in intimidation they gave her over others of lesser stature. "Silly," she admonished quietly and took hold of the bard's wandering hand, pressing the knuckles lightly to her lips.
"Will you sleep with me tonight?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
Xena exhaled, closing her eyes briefly before opening them again with a new gleam.
In the palace, regardless of the ruler's actual or imagined status, life went on. The courtiers whispered and giggled in the corners with the captains of the guard, handsome as the men of war were, while the officials of the court kept the status quo of life with feasts, great fancy dress balls with plentiful drink, and as always their deadly schemes -- for while a well-disposed man was usually clever enough not to lose his life on the battlefields, he was in greater danger of doing so in the royal court.
In the main passageway, just outside the great festival hall from which sounds of drunken singing and ribald laughter emanated, Saba stood in the shadows, swirling around the last of her wine in a goblet. The purple liquid spun wildly in the vessel and her eyes were trained on the dark vortex, though they did not see it; she was so deep in thought.
She would never have accepted this, the First thought, her nose wrinkling in disgust as a very intoxicated soldier passed her with a woman under each arm. He staggered around the corner with much giggling from his companions, leaving behind a strong smell of cheap wine and torch smoke. Never. The Conqueror's court had been a sombre affair, moreso after the disappearance of the bard. It was a place dedicated to ruling the land and waging successful wars, not for indulging in the excesses of life.
The uncertainty of it all bothered her. If the Conqueror truly was dead, Saba knew she was on the right path -- in an alliance with the most hot-headed of her competitors in the game of ascension, for it was the best place for her to keep an eye on him -- but if Xena was still alive...she shuddered at the thought of the consequences, for they were clear: she would die, and not swiftly. It would probably still be better than the alternative, she added gloomily and drained the last of her wine. The Conqueror was a legend, her name whispered with trepidation in all the kingdoms of the world, while she, Saba, as a ruler would forever be in the shadow of the Destroyer of Nations. If there is a fate worse than death, it is obscurity, she thought humourlessly.
The door to the great hall creaked open and through the narrow crack came Etor. With barely-hidden contempt, Saba nodded to the man.
"'Tis done, then?" she asked.
"It is done -- she ate the lamb two candlemarks ago, and a moment ago she retired, citing bad digestion," he replied, smiling widely and looking utterly pleased with himself.
"Good?!" he asked and from the tone, it was clear he had enjoyed some of the sweet wine himself. "It is most excellent! With Tyra gone, all we will have to deal with is Erasmus and a few of the other weaklings."
"Lower your voice, fool," Saba hissed. "The walls have more ears than I dare to imagine."
"And what can the walls or their ears do, hmmm, my dear Saba?" he asked, his smile not wavering an inch. "Whisper to the dead perhaps?"
"Do not exalt in your victories, Etor, until the throne is secured."
"Why not?" he roared, gesturing wildly with his goblet. "That wicked bacchae is dead!"
For a moment, the First looked almost wistful, older than her thirty winters.
"For your sake, Etor, I hope so."
It was, she decided, the most wonderful of feelings, waking up to the song of birds. The air was crisp and clear from the cold night -- a night whose chilly touch she had not felt. Opening her eyes, Gabrielle was greeted with the sight of the heavens, pale blue amidst the greenness of the trees.
"Wonderful," she said to herself and wrapped the furs around herself more tightly. They were imbued with Xena's scent and she breathed it in deeply. Sitting up, she looked around, twisting to see the small creek that flowed past their campsite.
There was Xena, rising from the clear, cold water of the creek, in all her naked glory. The water sheeted off her long frame, leaving behind glistening skin over long, muscled limbs. The dark woman paced closer, her gait the quiet, efficient stride of a predator, and Gabrielle fell in love all over again.
"Oh dear," she mumbled, eyes transfixed on Xena.
"Oh, nothing," Gabrielle replied and lowered herself to the ground again, trying very hard not to smile. The night, just sleeping in Xena's arms, with the steady slow heartbeat beneath her ear, had been simply exquisite. The feeling of peace inside her was palpable.
"How is your wound?"
Curious. I didn't even remember it, Gabrielle thought and carefully flexed her shoulders. "A bit better. Sore, but not hurting," she said and turned onto her stomach.
"It's healing nicely," was Xena's judgement as she re-dressed the wound.
As the nimble hands worked the herbal paste into the wound, Gabrielle folded her arms in front of her and rested her chin on them. "Wouldn't this be a life worth living?"
"Hmm?" came the one-syllable query.
"Living on the road...nothing to worry about except the next meal..."
"Worth living, yes," Xena replied quietly, "but not possible."
Who was it that described power as, alternatively, a strong arm and a personal prison? Gabrielle wondered and closed her eyes. There were things in life one could not achieve, even when one prayed hard enough to awaken the dead.
As they rode that day, the hard road echoing loudly under Pyrgomache's hooves, the copse of trees that shadowed their trail thinned progressively. What had been a cloudless sky upon the break of morning was now covered with a thick shroud of clouds, and as they emerged from between the last trees of the forest, the first heavy drops of rain sounded with dull pings against the Conqueror's armour.
The healing wound in her back let its existence be known with every jolt of the ride, but Gabrielle didn't complain. She was getting used to pain as her constant companion, having lived with it for many moons. It helped if one didn't think of it, didn't dwell on the neverending white-hot throbbing.
Gabrielle adjusted her grip on Xena's shoulder guard, feeling the chafing of the Conqueror's newest scar with her hand. The wound on her arm had been deep and the remains of stitch marks were still visible. How does she deal with it? Gabrielle thought, feeling the contrast between cold, wet armour and warm flesh. All the pain. She remembered the multitude of scars that decorated the Conqueror's skin, a complicated roadmap of her life carved in her very flesh.
"I ignore it."
Gabrielle's deep thoughts dispersed at the low words and she looked up at the Conqueror, an eyebrow lifted in query.
"The pain," Xena clarified and shifted her gaze momentarily to Gabrielle's hand upon her arm. "That's what you were thinking of, right?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle replied and smiled in wonder. "You do know me well."
Xena smiled and cocked her head. "Your actions speak very clearly of your thoughts."
Gabrielle let go of her arm and shifted her grip to Xena's hips, grasping the thick leather strips of her battle skirt for support as they rode down a hill and took a sharp bend in the road. "Ignore it?" she asked.
"Yes. There is no other way."
Humming in agreement, Gabrielle rested her cheek against Xena's chest and blinked a few raindrops off her lashes. Only then did she focus on the world outside the warm protective cocoon of Xena's cloak.
"Xena...what is this valley called?"
"Fársalokón," the Conqueror replied as she pulled on the reins, slowing Pyrgomache to a languid canter.
They were passing through a valley of the dead. As far the low valley stretched, to a thicket of trees in the east and a steep ridge of hills in the west, the ground was littered with corpses in various stages of decomposition. Spears stuck out from bared ribcages in a haphazard forest that spanned the lowlands, and the gusty wind caught tattered remains of standards and legion flags that stood sentinel next to their once-proud carriers.
They came to a halt in the middle of the valley, where a pile of bodies blocked the path. With trembling legs, Gabrielle slid down from the horse and walked a few faltering steps, while Xena remained in the saddle, quietly watching the bard.
Turning around and taking in the view of past carnage, Gabrielle let out a small sound of desperation and confusion. "What has happened here?" she asked, gesturing towards the nearest body. It was a man, clad in the light tunic and chest armour of a hoplite. His hands, now but a collection of yellowed bones, were still clutched around an arrow that penetrated his midsection.
"The battle of Fársalokón was at Winter Solstice," Xena said, her voice completely devoid of tone as she dismounted. Wrapping the cloak tightly around her, she stared into the distance, her eyes narrowing as she remembered. "Dissidents from the north."
"Dissidents?" Gabrielle asked as she knelt on the muddy ground next to the hoplite's body.
"My own people, Gabrielle," the Conqueror said, her eyes still on the horizon. "Pushed from their homesteads by barbarians from north and, gone insane from hunger and fear, driven here...where I met them."
In the strengthening rain, the shapes in the ground grew misty and unclear. The pitter-patter of rain on whatever bits of armour still covering the corpses that the nearby villagers hadn't deemed worth scavenging grew louder. Quietly, her knees in the mud, Gabrielle watched the tattered feathers of the arrow that had sealed the hoplite's fate grow wet and limp, and sadness enveloped her heart. The field reeked of more than rotting flesh and the excrement of scavengers; it held a tangible air of hopelessness.
"I rode them to the ground in two candlemarks," the Conqueror said, turning towards the wind. The gusts of air flared her wet hair into a mane of heavy, inky black behind her.
Xena's startling honesty -- the coldness of her words -- spoke volumes to Gabrielle. This had been the reality of Xena's life for so long that she didn't even remember what it was like to fear. Xena couldn't feel or understand the despair that had driven the northern people to such extremes -- she had seen the people merely as a threat to the peace of her nation, nothing else, and so her sword had felt no mercy. Among the dead, they outnumbered Xena's once well-armed and trained soldiers ten to one, doomed to nonexistence by a superior force.
"Does this never end?" Gabrielle asked quietly of the hoplite, but it was the Conqueror that replied.
"As long as there is life in me, Gabrielle, so long will the darkness call me."
Gabrielle pressed her forehead to Xena's chest. The skin was clammy with perspiration.
"Oh...gods, Gabrielle," Xena groaned, her voice a low thrum. Her fingers entwined in the bard's hair as she squeezed her head closer, resting her cheek on the fair hair.
Gabrielle could feel the bunching of Xena's hard abdominal muscles under her palm, even through the thick leather, while her other hand was clenched deep within her.
It had begun innocently enough. She still rode in front of Xena and had tried to get a better hold. She had wormed closer, deeper inside the cloak that shielded them both from the chilly weather. The dark leather of Xena's outfit had felt so nice and smooth, warmed by the woman inside, and its scent both feral and comforting...death and desire. And so the temptation to taste the sweet skin so near her mouth, to feel its tautness over a collarbone, had become unbearable.
Her senses had remembered every tendon, the graceful curve of Xena's neck, how the pulse point under her jawbone fluttered as her heart rate picked up. Her hands had found their way under the battle skirt quickly, lingering but a moment on the smooth skin on Xena's thighs before finding the source of all that heat.
Xena's voice was a deep growl, coming so near her ear that Gabrielle could feel the fleeting touch of hot breath on her cheek, before the whipping wind took it away. She pushed harder inside Xena, placing her thumb on her clit. She was rewarded with another long, delighted growl that was drowned in the deafening thunder of hooves against hard ground.
Daring a quick look to her side, Gabrielle regretted it immediately. They were riding on the edge of a steep ridge, the path no more than three spans wide. Suddenly, letting out a wild yell, Xena yanked at the reins with her free hand and Pyrgomache took a turn left, down another path that led down the ridge and towards the shore. Gabrielle held on for dear life, stubbornly refusing to remove her hand from within Xena.
The water was cold as it splashed on her bare legs and Gabrielle curled her toes as a shiver passed through her. Xena was riding the mare through the shallow shore waters, her hooves striking alternately wet sand and the grey waters of the Ionian Sea. Grabbing a firm hold on the intricate grooves of Xena's back plate, Gabrielle bit down on Xena's throat and thrust her hand deeper, so hard her bicep trembled with the strain. The Conqueror moaned, her hand closing almost painfully tight on Gabrielle's hair.
"Darling," Xena whispered, her voice thick. "Harder."
Gabrielle let go of Xena's neck and laid her cheek on the cool edge of her breastplate, her breath coming in short gasps. She could hear blood pound in her ears, as the hand in her hair let go and landed on the small of her back. The palm was large and warm even through her thick tunic and it grabbed her flesh tightly. Gabrielle did as was told; she pushed harder, bending her fingers inside the slick, muscled tunnel. Xena murmured something quite unintelligible and jerked in the saddle. She was getting close.
"Harder," she hissed again to Gabrielle.
Pressing the heel of her palm against the hard nub she felt between Xena's folds, Gabrielle gritted her teeth and wriggled even closer. Her arm was at an awkward angle and Xena moved restlessly around the wildly lurching saddle, so as to control one variable she slid her other hand down and under Xena's skirt, grabbing one muscular cheek. The bones of her hand were nearly crushed when Xena suddenly sat down and leaned back, the wind grabbing her cloak and wild mane of hair as she threw back her head.
"Oh yesss..." she groaned and leaned even further back, small flecks of ocean foam scattering over her heated skin. Gabrielle could see the trembling of Xena's muscles as her hand controlled the reins, the leather thong in the vice-like grip of her hand.
"My love," Gabrielle whispered and bent to lick a bulging vein on Xena's bicep. She traced the defined ridge to the bend circling arm and paused there to suck on the pulse point, all the while her hand worked, rubbing hard against Xena's clit. The Conqueror's moan turned into a ragged scream as she came, her hips lifting off the saddle. Gabrielle's hand was drenched with come and she felt the hot stickiness flow between her fingers and into her cupped palm.
Slowly, Xena returned from her moment of bliss, a lazy, sexy smile on her face as she settled back onto the saddle.
The kiss on Gabrielle's cheek was brief but it left behind a streak of fire. Withdrawing her hand, the bard settled back into the loose embrace, feeling Xena's heart pound.
"You are so beautiful when you come," Gabrielle said quietly, more to herself than to anyone else, but the Conqueror's keen ears caught the words anyway. Xena smiled and kissed the fair head against her chest, still feeling the last warm embers of the passion glow inside her. Shifting her grip on the reins, the Conqueror guided Pyrgomache off the seashore and to the soft sand of the beach. Great clumps of the white sand lifted up with each beat of her hooves.
The beach stretched along the languid curve of the coastline, towards the rocky hills in the horizon. The craggy, jagged gatherings of stone were dark and brooding in the gloom of the day, barely visible through the thin rain that had fallen from the sky all day long.
It was the seventh day of their long journey from Poteidaia to the Isthmus of Kórinthos. They had avoided the main roads, travelling through narrow paths through vast forests and staying close to the shoreline. And now, behind the hills, lay Kórinthos.
As she felt Gabrielle nuzzle her skin, the Conqueror smiled. Kórinthos had been the closest thing to a home she'd had in a dozen winters, but without her beloved the place had felt dead. And now she was returning home once again, with Gabrielle by her side.
She squinted towards the horizon. And as for those cowardly bastards that used to be my council...their time has come.
"Gabrielle. Gabrielle, wake up."
A green eye opened. "Hmmmm...?"
"We're close," Xena said and only then did Gabrielle notice that they had stopped, at the foot of the hills where they met the beach. "A candlemark and the cover of the night will be upon us."
Nudging Pyrgomache to a slow canter, the Conqueror guided her towards a massive boulder so smooth it could have been a black pearl from Gaia's necklace. When they came around the boulder, a slight depression in the rock wall was revealed.
"Best I could find."
Gabrielle tilted her head up and offered a small smile, trying to cover the trepidation she felt.
After dismounting and seeing that Pyrgomache got fed, they settled into the small alcove, Xena leaning against the rock wall with Gabrielle sitting between her legs. Setting up a fire was simply out of the question for the smoke would be visible to the city even in the dimming twilight, so Gabrielle burrowed deep into the embrace to keep warm despite the chilling rain and cool wind that blew from the sea. The air smelled of sea plants and salt, moist and heavy.
Though Xena sat quietly enough behind her, her breathing languid and warm as it brushed Gabrielle's neck, the bard could tell that she was dying to get going. The Conqueror's fingers were twitching over their resting place on Gabrielle's stomach...and there was tension in the air. Like an approaching thunderstorm, the bard could smell the coming destruction, feel the energy that was palpable enough to make the small hairs on her arms rise.
"Not long now."
Gabrielle turned slightly, choosing not to look up but settling her gaze on Xena's chakram instead. Tracing the intricate pattern on the shining circle, careful of the razor-sharp edge, she cleared her throat. "You're thinking of going alone, aren't you?"
"Of course I'm going alone. Gabrielle --" the Conqueror began, but was silenced by a slender finger on her lips.
"Shhh. I'm going with you."
"Gabrielle, it's dangerous...and this is my fight, not yours," Xena replied and turned the bard's head fully up, meeting the darkened eyes with her own. Their blue was almost grey now, mute and soulless.
Gabrielle smiled a smile that held not a hint of humour. "So soon you forget?"
"Forget what?" Xena replied, her brows drawing together.
"Your promise," the bard replied simply. "Xena, I want to be part of your life."
"But you are."
"No," Gabrielle said and shook her head, her unseeing eyes settling on the distant horizon. "I want to take part -- not as a spectator, but as an active participant. Be there for you, as you have been for me. I'm not a child anymore, Xena," she continued, smiling sadly to the Conqueror. "Ceased to be one long ago. I want to take responsibility for my own life."
"These people are deadly vipers...dangerous to the extreme."
"War gives and takes away in equal measure," Gabrielle replied and took Xena's hand into hers. "I'd rather die for you than live second-guessing my decision to stay behind, should you get killed," she said and squeezed Xena's hand, feeling the coldness of the long fingers on her palm.
"Hmm," the Conqueror grunted and rose abruptly, stepping over a startled Gabrielle. With wary eyes, the bard followed her lover as she dug out a brush from her saddlebag and applied it to Pyrgomache's inky black coat. The mare must have sensed her mistress' distress because she kept nudging Xena with her muzzle, gently, until she got the Conqueror's attention. Gabrielle couldn't hear what Xena spoke to her horse for the words were low, whispered into one twitching ear.
The last light of the day dimmed slowly, with Gabrielle sitting quietly in the shelter of the boulder, and the Conqueror brushing her battlehorse with long, brisk strokes, until the raven coat all but gleamed. Her moves were paced with an internal rhythm, her gait rolling as she paced around, tying pieces of linen around Pyrgomache's hooves. Walking around the mare one last time, brushing along the muscled flanks with her hand, Xena came to a halt a few yards from the mare. With one fluid move, she pulled out both her swords, the sudden move startling the bard.
The blades caught the last rays of Helios, reflecting the light feebly as they flew through the air, guided by the Conqueror's sure hands. The movement became so rapid that the lines of the swords blurred, until the blades no longer were separate entities; instead, they had become an extension of the Conqueror, part of her body and her soul. The wind keened as the swords sliced through it, the sound ragged and high as if the air itself were in pain.
The exercise, more a warm-up than anything else, was brief and soon the swords disappeared back into their sheaths. The Conqueror herself had become nothing but a dark silhouette to the bard, a striking figure against the pale glow of the sand. After a moment of quiet she dug into her saddlebag and came up with a bundle of cloth. Even in the darkness, as she flared it to its full length, Gabrielle could see its colour: dark, deep crimson.
Xena turned and came closer, extending a hand to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle's heart lurched in her chest. "You're taking me with you?"
"Yes. The Fates had a reason for bringing us back together," Xena replied, the white row of her teeth visible even in the low light. "Maybe this is it."
The bard took the offered hand and she was pulled up into a fierce embrace, Xena's lips landing on hers in a searing kiss.
The ride to the outskirts of the city took them but a quarter of a candlemark and by then the pale sickle of the moon had risen in the cloudy sky, visible only momentarily through the rain. Before the final bend in the road that would bring them to the first settlements outside the city walls, Xena reined Pyrgomache in and unsheathed one sword.
"Hold on tight," she told Gabrielle who was riding behind her.
"We merit a welcoming committee?"
"Most probably," Xena replied. "If we find guards, none of them can be allowed to alert the council."
True to Xena's premonition, when they rode the last distance and the walls of Kórinthos came into view, there was a squad of troops stationed just outside the outermost sphere of dwellings. Lighted with guttering torches, the men were huddled together, trying to keep warm in the clammy, rainy weather and pass time with games of dice.
Looping the reins even tighter around her hand, the Conqueror gave the sword one lazy twirl before digging her heels into Pyrgomache's flanks. The mare neighed and shot forward at a full gallop, her hooves making little noise with their muffling encasings.
The guards never knew what hit them. Suddenly, out of the darkness emerged a wraith of death clad in a shroud of blood, plowing through them with nary a shred of resistance. That night Xena's sword tasted first blood from a stocky, bearded man who fell with a scream cut short, the front of his leather armour drenched in his blood. Another guard was rendered unconscious with a vicious kick, his head snapping back with sickening speed, while the third caught the hilt of Xena's sword squarely in his face. The rest fell equally quickly, scattered haphazardly and in curious poses on the ground.
After flicking excess blood off her sword and re-sheathing it, Xena loosened her grip on the reins, letting Pyrgomache find her speed as they navigated the narrow, meandering streets between the houses. Kórinthos had grown quickly since Xena had assumed the throne, the relative safety and prosperity of the city luring both merchants to settle in, and craftmen to donate their talents to the city. The old city walls had grown too confining and consequently, the metropolis had expanded into the surrounding fields, usually without any pre-planning or order, resulting in narrow alleys that were an unnavigable maze for those who did not know them.
"You're not going to try through the main gates, are you?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena turned her head, just enough for the bard to be able to see the lopsided, cruel smile playing on her lips. "I may be many things but suicidal is not one of them," she replied.
The lane they were riding down terminated abruptly at the city wall and Xena pulled Pyrgomache to a stop right next to it before dismounting. Gabrielle stayed in the saddle, lifting her head up, up, higher still, following the slick stone wall all the way to its top edge, the embattled parapet only dimly visible in the rain, seemingly a thousand feet above her. Mother of Zeus...what did I just get myself into?
Had the night been windless and the guards flies on the outer walls of the city, they would have heard a string of quiet curses elaborate and colourful enough to make a sailor blush. As it was, only the few centipedes skittering across the clammy, moss-covered masonry heard the Conqueror as she clung to the wall.
"...and one more," Xena grunted around the dagger in her mouth, reaching up to grab another one of the slick stones. Her fingers hurt as she grasped for a better hold before pulling herself higher. How ridiculous is this, sneaking into my own city, she reflected wryly as she paused to catch her breath. The next handhold was already the embrasure of the battlement, but just as she was pushing herself up to its level, a scrape of boot against stone made her pause.
Gamw'to! she cursed, freezing into her awkward position. They have added guards to the watch. Another scraping noise, and the wind turned so that the words of a quiet conversation drifted to the Conqueror. The voices were approaching.
"...damn Uranus for siccing this miserable weather on us," one grumbled, and another replied with a grunt, just as the voices passed the Conqueror's position.
One, two, three, the Conqueror counted and pulled herself up, only to land in a crouch on the embrasure and launch into a quick flip. She hit the rampart right behind the two men. ...apples from a tree.
The question was aborted by Xena's blade as it sliced through the guard's throat. As he went down, clawing futilely at his bleeding neck, the other guard was silenced with a quick stab through the thin bone of his left temple. The scuffle took but the blink of an eye and soon the embrasure was deathly quiet, the guards' blood diluted to pale red pools by the falling rain.
After wiping the dagger and placing it between her teeth again, Xena parted her cloak and unwrapped the long rope coiled around her waist. With the help of the rope, it took only a fraction of a candlemark for Gabrielle to join her. As the bard freed herself from the coil, she darted a quick look around, pausing at the sight of the two dead guards.
"Xena...those are your men."
The Conqueror paused and looked up. Even in the dimness of the night, Gabrielle could see the hard look in her eyes.
"Were. They were my men," Xena said and threw the rope back over the wall. "They ceased to be my men when they chose not to wear my sigil," she added, gesturing towards the bodies. True enough, neither the helmets nor the collars of the men bore any signet of allegiance.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, but Xena had already turned away and was heading towards the nearest ladder in a brisk jog. Shaking her head, the bard followed, her heart pounding for many reasons. It wasn't that she feared this risky operation; Xena's presence was enough to make such fears dissipate. No, she was afraid of what would become of Xena's fragile equilibrium once they reached the castle and she confronted those that had betrayed her so. Oh Athena, please watch over her, Gabrielle prayed quickly before rushing to follow her.
The streets were deserted, not another person in sight as they jogged through the city. Xena's route took them from one shadow to another, their path clinging close to houses and taking them through the narrowest of alleys. Inside a quarter of a candlemark, their quiet journey led them to the castle wall.
"This silence is eerie," Gabrielle whispered to Xena, keeping as close to her as possible. Laying a gentle hand on her back, she felt the muscles there flinch. "Sorry," she said and pulled her palm away. In the darkness, she was almost sure Xena's silhouette had smiled.
"They've placed a curfew. We have another half a candlemark before the guards change and the intrusion is detected," the Conqueror murmured, brushing her hand along the rugged stone wall of the castle as she paced along it. Her sensitive fingers glided over the dark, rain-slick stones, feeling with a knowing touch.
"Are you looking for something?"
"Yes..." Xena hummed, pausing in her stride to smooth her palms over one square stone, only to continue her slow walk a moment later.
Instead of a verbal answer, Xena let out a small, satisfied grunt and crouched down next to a largish stone seemingly set tightly in the wall. However, when she scraped some of the mortar away, removed two of the stones surrounding it and gave the bulky, roughly spherical shape a push, it rolled away from the wall, revealing the dark mouth of a narrow tunnel.
"What is this?" Gabrielle asked, bending over to peek into the cramped confines. The tunnel reeked of wet soil, undercut by the faint odour of rotting flesh -- a combination that made her skin crawl.
Pushing her dagger into her boot, Xena reached into the tunnel, deep into the darkness and pulled at something. What emerged was the hand of a skeleton, the small bones of the hands detaching from one another and scattering to the ground. Adjusting her grip on the bony wrist, the Conqueror pulled out the rest of the almost skeletonised body, still wrapped in small slivers of flesh and the tattered remnants of a prisoner's clothing.
"Once, soon after I came here, there was a thief of great talent captured," Xena said as she cast the body aside. "Facing a lifetime in the dungeon, left to rot away slowly, he was desperation itself. He decided to escape."
"That's...him?" Gabrielle whispered, gesturing towards the pile of bones, the grinning skull on top of the heap.
"Yes," Xena said and dusted off her hands, smiling. "I found out about his plan," she continued, indicating the passageway, "when he was about half-way through. I let him dig the rest of it before releasing my hunting dogs into the tunnel."
True to her words, as the clouds momentarily parted to let down Phoebe's light Gabrielle could see teeth marks on the yellowing bones, where the fleshy part of him had been chewed off. She reached out instinctively but caught herself before her hand touched the remains. The skull with its few remaining tufts of hair and empty sockets seemed to be laughing at her from beyond.
"How...efficient," Gabrielle managed and drew away from the skull.
"Indeed," Xena said, wrapping her cloak around herself to keep it out of the way. "I go first, you stay close behind."
Gabrielle nodded silently, her eyes darting between the bony remains of the thief and the tunnel's mouth.
Xena's brows drew together. "Gabrielle. Are you sure you're up for this?"
Blinking, the bard turned her head towards Xena, offering a small smile. I did insist, didn't I? "Yes, of course," she said out loud and clasped her hands together to hide their trembling.
Xena's tall form disappeared into the tunnel with nary a sound and, after a deep breath, Gabrielle followed.
In the tunnel it was darker than midnight at the new moon. Gabrielle found it a very disconcerting feeling, not being able to see even her hand held up to her face. Momentarily, as she followed the quiet shuffling of Xena before her and what little her sense of touch was telling her of their path, she experienced a brief wave of nausea in her gut. Her sense of time and place was going haywire and she felt that she was, alternately, falling down and flying towards the heavens.
The earth was damp and soft under her palms as she crawled on all fours, keeping her head low to avoid touching the equally moist ceiling. The thick, dank air stuck to the back of her throat, the thin film tasting of woodsmoke and putrefying flesh. While her hands did occasionally meet something small and furry that shot away with a sound of indignant snickering, she prayed that her touch would not find any more dead men.
"Gabrielle?" Xena's voice was muffled. The bard cleared her throat, vainly trying to rid herself of the acrid taste in her mouth.
"A few more feet and we'll take a break."
Thank Gaia, Gabrielle thought. Reaching out, she could feel the tunnel widen and she followed the left-hand wall, feeling it curve sharply. Suddenly, something grabbed her hand and it took all her willpower not to scream out loud. She did, however, let out a small yelp that was most efficiently muffled by Xena's hand as she was drawn into an embrace.
"Sorry," Gabrielle whispered and wrapped her arms around Xena's solid frame, breathing in the comforting scent of her lover. Not dead flesh but instead, the quickness of her blood.
"C'mon. Sit down here."
In the darkness, Gabrielle approximated 'here' as best as she could and found herself sitting in Xena's lap. The light, elusive touch of the Conqueror's cloak surrounded her and she grabbed its edge, fingering the luxurious fabric as she prepared a question.
Though she was sure Xena couldn't see her smile in the darkness, she smiled anyway, leaning against Xena's breastplate. "Thank you."
"Hmmm," the Conqueror murmured. The voice was low and throaty, pondering, and Gabrielle felt its dark timbre reverberate deep inside her.
It was amazing, she mused, how keen the other senses became when one was useless. In the distance, she could hear the low murmur of flowing water, and over that voice the small sounds of whatever cave-dwellers inhabited this darkness. The small claws of rats rattling over stone, and their squeaks and chirrups.
"This is the old dungeon entrance, no longer in use and thus drained years ago," Xena said. "Prisoners were brought through a gate near the harbour and into this tunnel. The thief's tunnel intersected this passage, and he found the one spot where the water had worn the castle's stone foundation away."
"Where we came through?"
"Yes," Xena replied and wrapped her arms tighter around Gabrielle, who laid her head on Xena's shoulder.
It was a welcome moment of peace for Gabrielle, whose health was still not fully restored. Feeling around with her other hand, she curved her fingers around the top edge of Xena's breastplate, feeling the smoothness of the warmed metal under her palm. The Conqueror's heartbeat was slow and steady, her breath warm on Gabrielle's cheek.
As she adjusted her legs, Gabrielle's foot met something that gave a muted, hollow sound. Reaching out, she found a round shape that was smooth under her fingers, with faint seams running through the surface. Yanking her hand away, she uttered a small sound of surprise.
"Xena! There's another skull here."
"Yes. That must be the guard," Xena murmured.
"The one that discovered the prisoner's plans. When I released the dogs, I sealed him in here as well."
The cool, detached tone that Xena spoke with made Gabrielle's blood grow cold. "Why?" she asked quietly, not entirely sure she wanted an answer. But as always, Xena was ruthlessly honest.
"To keep the secret only to myself."
For a moment, Gabrielle struggled with her words. "That wasn't...fair," she finally managed, being as unabrasive as possible.
The Conqueror's laughter was hollow. "No. Only sensible."
And that's what it all comes down to, doesn't it? Gabrielle thought. Doing what is most logical, despite the...collateral damage. She had come to understand that Xena was not ruthless out of sheer evil; no, the Conqueror's ruthlessness was born of necessity. Palace politics was not something she enjoyed -- she loathed dangers one could not vanquish with a blade -- but she survived by doing whatever was most efficient and necessary, however cruel a solution that might be.
In effect, there must be two Xenas, Gabrielle mused, resting her head on Xena's shoulder. There was the one who cherished battle, and then the other who did whatever was necessary so she could go on doing what she so loved -- waging war. She shook her head, closing her eyes.
"Xena, why do you do it?"
The Conqueror rested her cheek against the cool tresses of Gabrielle's hair and shrugged. "There is no one else to do it."
And that's the crux, isn't it? Gabrielle sighed. While Xena was as ruthlessly effective in her dealings as the ruler of a nation as she was on a battlefield, in the palace one could rule with fear only for so long. Daggers were sharper here, and tongues held venom bitter enough to make even the mightiest of rulers fall. In all of the hundreds of solar cycles of Kórinthos' written history, only two rulers had died of natural causes -- a legacy that spoke clearly of the violent nature of ascension: it was never a question of if, but one of when.
"C'mon. Let's go on," Xena said and nudged Gabrielle off of her. As the darkness swallowed her warmth again, Gabrielle shivered momentarily before she followed.
"The guard station is just beyond that corner," Xena whispered, gesturing down the dimly lit hallway. "Usually two guards. I'll go and --"
"Shhh," Gabrielle hissed suddenly, pressing her fingers to Xena's mouth. "Listen."
The darkness had heightened her senses, but the tunnel had ended long ago, and the dungeons were always lit. Gabrielle could still hear the small scavengers skitter around, the sound of their scurrying almost drowned by that of the guttering torches lining the walls and the faint moaning of prisoners, their misery evident in their voices raised in cries of pain, and in the scent of fresh blood that clung to the air. But above all that noise, she could hear...singing.
Xena had cocked her head and was listening, her head turning as she tried to locate the sound. "It's a children's song."
"Yes, but it's being sung in Egyptian," Gabrielle whispered back.
Understanding flashed in Xena's eyes and she went to the cell that was the source of the tune. A quick peek inside and she turned back, nodding to Gabrielle. After signaling for her to wait, Xena ran down the corridor and around the corner. Gabrielle covered her ears to the sounds of flesh parting from bone, the muffled screams of the guards abrupt and desperate. In a moment, Xena came back, holding a blood-soaked dagger in one hand, a set of keys in the other.
"You're bleeding," Gabrielle noticed as Xena turned towards the cell door. The Conqueror glanced at the deep gash in her shoulder and frowned.
"How stupid of me. One of the guards must've gotten lucky," she said, shrugging. "No matter."
There was a small hatch embedded in the door. Xena slid the panel aside, revealing a small stone chamber, lit by a lone torch guttering on the far wall that illuminated a tattered figure slumped to the floor.
"Mentuhetep," Xena said quietly, her voice warm and unobtrusive. Inside the cell, the figure paused in its quiet song and straightened, a question in his eyes.
"Yes indeed, my friend," Xena said and smiled. Mentuhetep -- her trusted advisor, strategist, friend and mother hen, all in this one slight body -- stood up and tried to approach the door. His attempt was halted abruptly as the chains pinioning him to the wall reached their limit. He stumbled but stood up again, his dark eyes glittering in the dim light.
"I cannot tell you how good it is to see you again. The shadow of Nephthys is powerful down here, as are rumours," Mentuhetep said, pausing momentarily. "The latter had you dead."
"And how many times have I been pronounced dead in the past, Mentu?" the Conqueror said, struggling momentarily with the rusted lock before she got the door open.
"More times than I have fingers to count," Mentuhetep smiled, his teeth a white flash against his dark skin as he accepted the Conqueror's careful hug. Xena lifted him into the air, a small chuckle escaping her lips. When he was finally set to the ground, Mentu's eyes found Gabrielle. "Mistress Gabrielle."
Smiling, Gabrielle stepped forward, taking his hand and squeezing it. "I'm glad to see you alive, Mentuhetep."
"Yes, well, I think they were just trying to decide upon the most painful means of death for me," he replied with a hollow grimace. He retrieved the keys to his shackles from the Conqueror. "The last time I heard, they had narrowed it down to flaying me alive or evisceration." As he bent down to unlock the chains, his back and its collection of whip marks came into the light, framed by his shirt, torn and stiffened by all the blood it had absorbed.
"I'm so...sorry, my friend," the Conqueror murmured, her eyes flashing at the sight of the bloody stripes on his back. He paused in his task and looked up, offering Xena a small smile.
"You have saved me from so many deaths already. This is nothing."
The shackles fell to the floor, and soon the cell was again occupied by only memories of pain and death.
"She's coming, Etor. I can feel it in the very marrow of my bones."
Saba paused, lifting a waiting eyebrow to her companion who remained silent, his eyes glazed and red-rimmed.
"I don't know when, but I can almost smell her," Saba continued and sipped from her goblet, setting the intricately etched vessel on the armrest of the throne. Brushing her hand over her forearm, she smiled. "The hairs on my arms are lifting. There's something in the air, Etor..."
Resting her head against the throne's high back, she let her gaze travel around the cavernous throne room, currently empty except for her and her companion. Her eyes finally settled on Etor, meeting his glassy gaze.
"No comments, my good man? You're usually so talkative," Saba murmured, smiling. "Perhaps this is hindering your speech," she continued and leaned forward, curling her fingers around the dagger's hilt and yanking it out of Etor's chest. A low, hissing sound came from the wound, along with a healthy gush of fresh blood. Etor slumped forward, almost sliding off the chair.
Twirling the blood-coated dagger in her free hand, Saba lifted a weary eyebrow towards the silent corpse. "Guess that wasn't it, either."
A sudden loud commotion drew her attention away from her dark musings, and she sat up just in time to see the main doors to the throne room burst open. Through the opening streamed in what seemed to be half of the honour guard, led by her lieutenant.
"Basilio! Why are you in such a hurry that you don't have time to knock?" Saba asked of the man, the pronounced pallor of his face striking worry in her chest.
"My lord," Basilio said and bowed hastily. His eyes, round and wide as gladiator shields, darted around the room. "We have found two guards dead."
"On the southern rampart of the city walls," he replied, fingering the hilt of his sword nervously. "They were both killed before they even managed to get their weapons out."
"Southern rampart, you say?" Saba murmured, lifting her eyes to the long lengths of bunting that decorated the ceiling of the vast hall. They were still in the Conqueror's colours, for there had not been time to take them down. And now...there never will be, Saba though bitterly.
"Yes, my lord. I do not understand how someone could have surprised them."
In response, Saba hummed in agreement, lifting the goblet to her lips. From the brightly-coloured cloths her gaze shifted to her lieutenant. A good man he is, Basilio...good man. Not too bright, though, she added, correct in her judgement. And so she was the only one who did not jump out of her skin when a low, powerful voice rose from behind the row of pillars circling the room.
A quiet hush travelled through the troops scattered haphazardly over the central atrium, and all heads turned towards the source of the new voice.
The Conqueror stepped around the pillar and into the light, the silence in the cavernous room almost deafening. The dagger was hidden in her boot again so she strode through the troops empty-handed, her gait smooth and efficient, paying no attention to the swords drawn in her wake.
"I climbed the wall," she repeated, smiling, and lifted a hand to show her bloodied fingers. The rest of her was covered in a thin film of wet earth, small scrapes dotting the dark sheen with their crimson. The wound on her shoulder was seeping quietly, rivulets of blood running down to her fingertips and from there, to the floor. The only spot of colour on her otherwise dark countenance were her eyes -- two bright pinpoints of cool blue, their presence hypnotising.
The gaggle of troops parted before her, all eyes cast to the floor except those belonging to Saba and her lieutenant. The scrape of steel against leather was obscenely loud in the quiet hall as Xena unsheathed one of her swords, giving it a lazy twirl before resting it against her shoulder.
"So he was wrong after all," Saba said, her voice trembling slightly as she gestured towards Etor. All colour had drained from her face.
Xena glanced at the sad, slumped form in the chair and flashed a bright smile, the very tips of her prominent canines resting on her lower lip. "Close, but not quite," she said, her voice a throaty purr.
At the words Gabrielle, still behind the pillar, closed her eyes briefly. It was again the darkness speaking, the velvet voice of death incarnate. The tang of blood was already in the air.
The woman shrugged and rose gingerly, as if she were unsure whether her legs would work or not. Descending the few steps that led down from the throne, she replied: "I really didn't have a choice, now did I? It was kill or be killed."
"How very true," the Conqueror smiled and swept her sword through the air in a languid arc. At the apex of the move, she shifted her grip and abruptly shoved the blade behind her. It caught Basilio square on his abdomen and he jerked in surprise, but the Conqueror held on to the grip, pressing it against her pelvis for better support. Basilio let out a moist, coughing scream.
"A vipers' pit, this is," Saba said and made a sweeping gesture with the goblet, seemingly unmoved by the impending death of her lieutenant.
"But you managed to survive."
Xena yanked her sword out of the dying man, sending a delicate spray of blood flying. It fell upon the stone floor gently, like the first drops of spring's first rainstorm, quietly. Basilio crumpled to the ground less gracefully, letting out one last wheezing breath before his body stilled.
"Where are the others?"
"I am," Saba murmured, tilting her head with a sad smile, "the last one left."
"Congratulations," the Conqueror hissed, rage flashing in her eyes.
All that Saba had time for was to lift her goblet in a salute, before Xena suddenly stepped forward, her sword pulled back. The blade made a high-pitched whine as it sliced through the air, not diverting from its path nor slowing down as it cleanly severed Saba's head from her shoulders.
The sound the head made as it dropped to the floor was most curious -- like an over-ripe melon, soft and muted, just loud enough to make everyone in the room cringe. Saba's slender body followed the head, suddenly limp limbs folding together. The goblet she had been holding was let loose from lax fingers and it met the stone floor with a hollow, metallic clang, spilling its contents. An ever-widening pool of blood was forming around Saba's shoulders, her blood mixing with the rich wine to create one lake of crimson, thick and warm.
"Idiot," Xena murmured disgustedly and shook her head, grabbing the edge of the nearest guard's cloak. After cleaning her sword with the garment as the man looked on, terrified, she stepped into the puddle, grabbing Saba's head by its long mane of dark hair. With her garish prize, she turned towards the ethereally silent onlookers. "Here is your brave ruler now," she said in a clear voice and threw the head towards the thickest clique of troops. The men scrambled away from the bloody head as if touching it had meant similar fate, and so it rolled across the floor undisturbed.
"Are the rules of ascension clear?!"
Her question never received a verbal answer. The soldiers simply dropped their weapons and retreated, their eyes cast anywhere but at the ired Conqueror, hoping to avoid her wrath. She let them go in peace, watching as the last of them vanished through the main doors. Again, quiet settled into the throne room.
"Cowards," Xena muttered, resting the tip of her sword against the floor and leaning on it, her posture suddenly weary.
"Xena..." Gabrielle said quietly, coming to stand by her side. He hand hovered briefly over Xena's blood-covered arm, finally settling on her bicep and around the wide band of leather there, the bronze decorations cool against her palm. "Xena."
"I'm all right, Gabrielle," the Conqueror replied, closing her eyes at the falsity of her words. Taking a deep breath, she let the surface tension drain away. "They're all gone. I killed the last one of them," she muttered, shaking her head.
"Yes," Xena replied, gripping the sword with two hands and turning her eyes towards Gabrielle. The bard was startled to see how dull their usually-radiant blue was, and how deep the mud-encrusted lines around them were. Casting her eyes down, the Conqueror stepped away from Gabrielle's warm touch, her sword swinging loosely in her hand. With a few casual steps, she was standing next to Saba's head, staring into the glazed eyes, wide and dark in their look of utter surprise.
Instinctively, Gabrielle flinched as Xena kicked the head, sending it rolling towards the far end of the room. It was halted by a pillar and stopped there, rocking quietly at the root of the thick stone column. The Conqueror turned around, her eyes trained towards the unseen sky, blinking.
"I'm just so tired," she murmured.
"Pardon?" Gabrielle said, stepping closer. Her hand was extended towards Xena but she thought better of it as she saw the simmering wrath in Xena's eyes that suddenly turned towards her, slicing through her very soul with frightening ease. So instead she just entwined her hands in front of her, meeting Xena's gaze with worry in her heart.
"I said," the Conqueror hissed, "that I am tired!" Her last word was almost shouted, her powerful voice echoing in the empty hall. Suddenly, she let out a wild yell, the hunting cry of a predator, and turned around, her sword cleaving the air around her.
"Tired of this back-stabbing nest of vultures!"
At the words, she pulled her sword back and threw it with all her might. The twirling blade caught the light of the dozens of candles illuminating the room, casting nervous, fleeting reflections of flames on the far walls. It cut cleanly through a candelabrum, scattering the candles all over the stone floor, before colliding with a pilaster. The sound was a deafening clang, its power freezing time in the throne room.
"So tired," the Conqueror said again, her voice suddenly weary and subdued. Covering her face with her bloodied hands, she collapsed on her knees. "Dear Athena...help me."
A warm hand landed on her shoulder, staying there momentarily before it came around to her wrist and gently pried her hands away.
"Xena..." Gabrielle whispered, crouching down to her level. She could feel Xena's rapid pulse at the wrist she was holding, through the thick tendons and the layer of grime and gore. "Look at me. Please."
Quickly, the blue eyes flicked to her, their movements feverish. They were dry and burning, rage smouldering in the background. It was as close to tears as Gabrielle had ever seen her.
"I'm weary of fighting a constant war on two fronts, Gabrielle," Xena said quietly, every word pronounced with great care. "Most of my life I have spent at court," she continued, gesturing at the throne, "wary of the next dagger or the next fool who would try to poison me.
"I am a soldier, Gabrielle. I live on the battlefield, and there is where I want to die as well -- not from some lowly assassin's knife in my bed, but on my own two feet, my sword in my hand, wet with the blood of my enemy."
Gabrielle let go of her wrist and brushed Xena's cheek with the back of her hand, mute in wonder at Xena's piercing honesty. She was pulled into a fevered embrace, the Conqueror's long arms wrapping around her, and she felt herself melt at the intensity of the contact, and at the weight of Xena's words.
Both heads turned towards the quiet voice, finding Mentuhetep sitting on the steps leading up to the throne, a thoughtful look on his narrow features.
"Yes, Mentu?" Xena replied quietly, tilting her head expectantly. The man's eyes fairly twinkled with excitement.
"There might be a solution, mistress."
"Well, my good man," the Conqueror said, dredging up a smile despite her ennui. "I am, as they say, all ears."
"Oh Hades," Gabrielle cursed and rubbed the fresh ink stain on her thumb, managing only to spread it around. "Jacinthe, could you fetch me a cloth?"
"Yes, my mistress," the slight girl murmured and vanished among the gaggle of brightly coloured courtiers, only to return a moment later with the requested item.
"Thank you," Gabrielle smiled and wiped her hands. When Jacinthe responded with a low bow, the bard grabbed her shoulder and pushed her gently upright. "There are limits to obsequiousness, Jacinthe," she admonished gently.
"Yes, my mistress," the girl replied again and offered a slightly awed smile, along with another bow.
It's hopeless, Gabrielle sighed in her mind, and turned toward her writing desk again, picking up the quill she had abandoned when it had spat ink all over her hands. I should have the royal quillmaker spend the afternoon in the public stocks for producing such sub-standard implements, she thought idly, until a shiver ran through her. I actually have the power to do that, now, and nobody would second-guess my decision. Gracious gods.
As she shifted uncomfortably, her stiff clothing adjusted to her change of position, the heavy, gold-embroidered tunic rustling as she bent her arm. As she moved, the courtiers turned their heads her way, idle question in their eyes, but soon turned back towards their respective companions. Gabrielle darted a covert look around before focusing again on the landscape that opened before her.
The spring was slowly giving way to summer. The sun was hot and bright, the flowers on the knoll she was sitting on already in full blossom, spreading their sweet fragrance over the grassy slopes below her - slopes that were now teeming with troops.
The warm spring had given birth to other things besides the rich fauna covering the landscape around Kórinthos. While the harsh winter had acted as a deterrent to the barbarians flowing over the northern border, as the weather warmed the conflicts had again increased. The attackers were now better armed than before, their professional tactics speaking strongly of outside military influence, and even the Persians had taken interest in the conflict, amassing troops to their own western border. And so, on that day, two moons after the vernal equinox and her ascension to the throne, Gabrielle was overseeing the final exercises before the troops were to march to Larnía, where they would board ships bound for Thrace.
The tunic was heavy upon her and she could feel beads of perspiration slip down between her shoulderblades, but she bore this onus of her duty gladly. Anything to help, Gabrielle thought wryly and bit the end of her quill. Her position was still anything but secure, and she could sense the venom in the whispered voices around her, could feel the gazes of those envious of her position burning holes into her back.
"Is everything to your liking, mistress?"
Jacinthe's worried words brought Gabrielle out of her trance and she straightened, dropping the quill on the empty parchment with a sigh. The Muses seemed disinclined to cooperate with her this afternoon. "Yes... but it's been a long day."
"It has been that," the girl agreed and filled Gabrielle's goblet.
"And," the bard continued, leaning towards Jacinthe and lowering her voice, "these people make my skin crawl," she said, and pointed discreetly over her shoulder at the chatting groups of noblemen and ladies-in-waiting, the precious metals and stones of their outfits competing in brightness with the sun itself, their talk superficial and otiose.
Jacinthe nodded, not quite comprehending what could be so scary about the well-dressed men and women milling about. After all, they seemed complacent enough, sipping their wine slowly and trying very hard not to appear bored as they pretended to be interested in the mock battle winding down before them.
The field had been trampled down into dark reddish brown sludge, the horses struggling to stay upright with their heavy cargoes as their hooves sank into it. Squinting against the glare of the setting sun, Gabrielle tried to make a pattern out of the sheer visual and aural chaos of it all - lieutenants shrieking instructions over the deafening clang of metal on metal, horses veering past one another in a wild dance, the underlying low sounds of the courtiers conversing behind her.
"Madness, I tell you," she muttered, picking up the quill and twirling it in her fingers as she considered the many layers of meaning to the words. "All of it..."
As she watched, the largest concentration of troops broke up, the soldiers sheathing their weapons and sending a quick prayer to the gods for letting them live through the dangers of the exercise. But even in their bone-tired state, the troops parted quickly as their commander rode towards the high ridge, still sitting upright and proud after hours of grueling training. Gabrielle's lips curled up in a wistful smile.
"...but isn't she just amazing?" Gabrielle murmured as she watched her lover reach the crest of the ridge and turn around, with her long mane of midnight black hair flowing behind her. As always, Xena had fought with her head bare of a helmet -- so brazen and sure was she of her superiority, and justly so.
"Pardon?" Jacinthe said, bending closer.
"Oh, I was just talking about her," Gabrielle said, sitting back. "Xena," she clarified, gesturing towards her with the quill. "She looks so...happy."
"If you say so," the girl murmured, casting a curious eye towards the tall silhouette of the Conqueror. There was a faint touch of a smile on Xena's lips, a hint of joy underneath all the cold cruelty evident in the firm set of her mouth.
Though she could not hear the words with which Xena addressed her troops, Gabrielle was more than able to hear the voice in her head, and imagine the words it delivered: they were smooth, firm, simple; they spoke of what was to come, honestly and with great belief in her soldiers' abilities.
The Conqueror's speech was short, and soon the troops dispersed, the men conversing among themselves in small groups as they headed towards the stables. Under the grimy layer of dust, sweat and mud that stained all of the men's faces, Gabrielle saw nothing but confidence. What Xena wove with her words was sheer magic, Gabrielle thought, and uttered a self-derisive snort. And she calls me the bard. She set the quill down once more and leaned her elbows on the desk, and closed her tired eyes.
The quietly murmured word drew her out of her inner musings and she opened her eyes to the sight of Xena, in all her dark glory and with a devious smile on her lips, standing before the desk.
"Yes," Gabrielle smiled, letting her eyes sweep over the muddy form of her beloved. "And all I did was sit here and watch you."
"Well," Xena said, resting her palms on the desk and bending closer so that she could whisper into Gabrielle's ear, "spending a day with the ladies-in-waiting is enough to drive the strongest of us to the brink of exhaustion."
At that, Gabrielle let out a dry snort of laughter. "My cheeks are sore from all the smiling," she whispered back.
Xena straightened, her armour jingling softly. Brushing an errant strand of her hair out of her mouth where the wind had driven it, she smiled to Gabrielle and extended her hand. There was a twinkle of mischief in her eyes.
"Ride with me, your majesty?"
Gabrielle bit her lower lip and shot a quick look towards the people looming near her, whose undivided attention was now upon them, their every ear straining to hear the conversation. May Hades greet them all soon, she thought, and turned towards her love.
"It would be my pleasure," she said, not missing the double entendre, and placed her hand in Xena's.
The Conqueror's smile shone brighter than the setting sun. "I know."
The infantryman had lain on the battlefield for candlemarks, the essence of his life slowly seeping into the hard ground, his entire world one of pain as he lay there in limbo, unable to die but too gravely wounded to live through the night. And so, when his last breath escaped through the wound in his chest, he gave the Conqueror an unmistakable look of gratitude.
"Next?" she murmured, yanking the pike out of the now-dead soldier.
"Over there," Gillas said, pointing to his right. Out of the corner of her eye, Xena saw the man's throat undulate wildly as he fought to keep his composure and she smiled, knowing that it was necessary for him to see this task through if he was ever to make his heart hard enough to survive the wars fought off the battlefield. Gillas was one of her newer lieutenants, and a soldier of great promise, but only the Fates knew how much of that promise would be realised.
The next casualty died as silently as most of the others, his strength already exhausted. His blood splattered to the ground in thick, dark red pools as Xena pulled the pike out, his body giving one last shudder before stilling for good. She heard Gillas murmur a small prayer and she shook her head. She realised that the distinction between killing one's enemies during battle and dispatching them when they lay on the ground afterwards - the fine line between warfare and murder -- could be disturbingly fluid. But if Gillas was to ascend beyond the stature of lieutenant, he would quickly have to learn to squelch such troublesome thoughts and learn that the only safe enemy was a dead one -- regardless of how the said enemy was dispatched.
"Next?" she asked. And so they continued, pacing the battlefield, sending the men laying next to the corpses of their comrades on to whatever gods they worshiped. It was the first day of battle, and while she usually took prisoners, tonight she couldn't be bothered. They still had a day's journey before they would meet the main contingent of the northern invaders, and she didn't want to be burdened with the extra effort of transporting captives.
The sounds of the battlefield quieted as dusk settled upon them. Those who had eluded her pike soon exhausted either the air in their lungs or the blood flowing in their veins, and the Conqueror's army retreated to the base camp. She was one of the last ones to leave the field, Gillas moving quietly by her side and holding up a torch to light their way through the maze of bodies and trampled vegetation.
"Cold night," Gillas offered, obviously made uneasy by the stretch of silence. By way of a reply, Xena nodded, changing her grip on the pike resting against her shoulder. As she looked across the vast battlefield, she could see the last of her men, the ones who had helped with her gruesome but necessary task, go through the last piles of bodies to see if anyone was left alive. Their breath formed small white clouds, which disappeared quickly into the darkening night.
"Make sure the perimeter guards light no fires tonight." Her voice was a low, unobtrusive murmur.
"Yes, my lord," Gillas replied, and bowed as they parted ways at the entrance of her tent. While he headed towards his tent at a brisk pace, rubbing his bare arms to keep them warm, she turned towards one of the two guards and handed the blood-crusted pike to him.
"My lord," the guard greeted her.
"Evening, Eustis," she murmured, wrapping the cloak around herself. "Where is Linus?"
"The captain should be back from his dinner any moment, my lord," Eustis said, his voice quavering slightly as he shifted the pike from one hand to the other. He did not know how to have polite idle chat with the Conqueror and so he chose his words carefully. "Do you wish me to let him know you are looking for him?"
Turning her head towards the camp, Xena narrowed her eyes, tired as they were from the long day and the smoke of burning houses. "No, it can wait."
She fell quiet after that, standing there in silence, surveying the sea of tents before her. A feeling of déjŕ vu enveloped her. How often had she stood before her tent, looking out over the temporary city sprawling around her and wondering how many of the men there would see the next nightfall? The pain would not be hers, nor theirs; no, the price would be paid by their mothers who would outlive their sons, and the wives who would no longer have a father for their children.
"Such is war," she muttered quietly, pushing a strand of wind-swept raven hair behind her ear.
"Pardon, my lord?" asked the guard, but Xena ignored him, shifting her eyes from the anthill of her camp to the distant horizon, the sky now just vast darkness above her. The world around her was black as well; no longer could she see the blood covering her hands and armour, nor smell the sweet scent of death above the smell of food and torch smoke. Though her flesh was sticky against the leather she wore and the dark passion of battle still rushed through her veins, if she just closed her eyes she could well imagine that her day hadn't been one of death.
"But that would be futile," she murmured and turned abruptly, startling Eustis so that he almost dropped the pike. "Arrange a hot bath for me," she said and the guard nodded, rushing away to find the Conqueror's servants. As her eyes flickered to her other guard, the man kept his eyes forward and his posture painfully erect. Humming in satisfaction, Xena entered her tent.
Without Gabrielle, it was cold and empty inside. Removing her cloak and draping it carefully over a chair, the Conqueror paced around the table, sitting down heavily in her chair. Empty, she repeated to herself and sat back, feeling her gore-encrusted back stick to the chair in a most unpleasant way. Gods, I miss her.
Pouring herself a goblet of wine, she sat back again and sipped at the rich, dark liquid, the burning of alcohol in her empty stomach a welcome diversion from the wounds on her body which were beginning to demand attention. Sloshing the wine in the cup, Xena licked her lips and smiled crookedly. It certainly does not pay to be the responsible one...I'm getting to be too old for this game, she thought idly, too tired to count all the small aches and pains. Fingering the golden goblet, she cast an appreciative eye over the intricate engravings of battle scenes on its sides. Vainglorious yet utilitarian...the very picture of me, she thought, a bit bitterly perhaps. For what else am I but conceited in my quest for absolute power?
That was a question she asked of herself often, and always in vain -- it was clear to her that she did not share Gabrielle's instinctive understanding of why she waged these endless wars. Somehow, Gabrielle understood her better than she did herself -- understood what drove her to such heights of selfishness that she was willing to let others be slaughtered in her name, for her glory.
"Here's to you, Gabrielle," she said quietly, and saluted the empty air with the cup.
Shifting in her awkward pose on the windowsill, Gabrielle turned. "Yes it is," she smiled. "Come on in, Mentu."
The tall, gaunt man stepped through the doorway, his feet silent on the plush carpet as he crossed the room and came to stand next to the still-seated Gabrielle. Bracing an arm against the wall, he leaned forward to peek over her shoulder. "The stars are bright."
Resting her head against the cool, coarse stone of the wall, Gabrielle wrapped an arm around her knee. "Yes," she said quietly, tracing the unseen patters of constellations with her eyes. "I wonder if she's looking at the same sky as I am now."
Turning to lean his shoulder against the wall, Mentuhetep smiled at her quiet words. "I'm sure she is alive and well."
"Oh, I don't worry about that," Gabrielle said and laughed, despite her sombre mood. "I was just wondering...if the battle is over yet."
"Ah," said Mentu, comprehending. It was the seventh night after the Conqueror's departure, and also the fall of the day when her troops would have met the first of the invaders. Messengers would not arrive for several days. "Do you miss her?"
"That is a bold question, Mentuhetep."
"Yes, it is," he said, smiling to match Gabrielle's expression.
"And I wouldn't have pegged you as one to make so obtuse an inquiry," Gabrielle added, great warmth in her voice as she turned away from the stars to face the third member of the triumvirate.
"You do know I miss her as much as you do..." he said.
"And you worry even more," Gabrielle quipped in between.
"...and worry more, yes," he smiled. "But of the three of us, she is the strongest."
The vernal equinox had seen more than Gabrielle's ascension to power; it had seen the birth of a triumvirate, with the Conqueror raising her and Mentuhetep up as equals beside her throne. That had been Mentu's idea, his humbleness not preventing him from suggesting such an unorthodox arrangement. The advantage it offered was a ruling body with six eyes and three lives -- far more than its enemies had.
"I so detest this," Gabrielle said quietly, closing her tired eyes. She was weary to the bone, the long day behind her full of dignitaries, courtiers and common men vying for her attention. Like flowers, they sought out the brightest light in their vicinity, and right now, in the Conqueror's absence, that light was Gabrielle.
"Life at court?"
"No," she said, opening her eyes and shaking her head emphatically. "Not being there with her...not knowing how she fared today." She paused, struggling for words. "Not having her near me," she finally said frankly, her words quiet and frangible.
"So it is her physical presence that you miss above all else?" Mentu asked and perched on the corner of a nearby desk. "Interesting."
Gabrielle's eyes shifted from the far wall to him, a twinkle of ironical laughter in them. "No, it's pathetic. But after what happened last time...I'm understandably reluctant to part ways with her." Leaning back against the wall, Gabrielle sighed. "The blood of the people she killed is as much on my hands as it is hers, and I fear what she will do. She gets so angry and careless, so easily...killing without reason other than the thrill she gets from it. But in that state she can become blind to the dangers around her."
"But Gabrielle, you cannot blame yourself for what she has done, or protect her from the dangers she chooses to walk into," Mentu protested, gesturing towards the window with a long arm. "Her will is her own."
"But her heart is not hers, Mentuhetep," Gabrielle said, leaning forward and locking eyes with the man. "There is a bond, here," she said, brushing the chest of her ornate tunic with her hand, "whose depth even I don't understand...but it is the only thing that prevents her from being swallowed by the darkness. She was there once, last winter, and she almost died. I will not make her go through that again, if I can help it."
Mentuhetep shifted in his place, in silence. Evident in the clear sheen of Gabrielle's eyes, its intensity overwhelming, was a wisdom a woman of her age should not possess - for such wisdom was brought about by pain and suffering, not by a happy life. Night and day, they are, he thought. Both with such charisma, and neither with any clue about the extent of its power...together, they are indomitable.
"What she does is as much an extension of me as it is of her...and that's why I am willing to walk through Tartarus for her," she finished, gesturing vaguely towards the chamber door and the castle behind it. Mentuhetep smiled quietly at the evident frustration in her words, but saw the reason in them: for Xena, Gabrielle was ready to endure a life in court, as dangerous and tedious as it was.
"She is fortunate to have you as hers, Gabrielle," he said, leaning in to lay a light hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "You have the heart to guide her to use her power wisely."
"Yes...and you know what?" Gabrielle asked, to which Mentu lifted a questioning eyebrow. "I believe in what she is doing."
"In what sense?" Mentuhetep asked, his brows knitting.
"I believe she is what's best for the nation. She is ruthless, yes, but..." she paused, her eyes narrowing as she sought among the stars for the correct words. "I mean, who am I to stand in the way of history? What she has done has made the whole of Hellas fight under one flag for the first time in the written history of our nation. She has united our people...and she has been the one to pay the highest price for that accomplishment." She turned her head, her eyes reflecting eternal sadness. "She has given her soul for it."
Frustrated by how little of what she felt could be conveyed with words, Gabrielle leaned back again, turning her head towards the window next to her. She could feel Mentu's silent presence next to her but it was not an oppressive feeling, merely...comforting. The wide windowsill gave her generous room to sit but it was still hard, the sharp edges of the stone digging into her behind. Reaching out with one hand, she touched the glass. The pane was slick and cool, distorting the stars slightly.
"The sky is like velvet tonight," she said, brushing her hand across the glass, trying vainly to feel the imagined softness of the firmament above her, picturing her lover standing in the cool night air, breathing in the smoke of torches and the scent of the blossoming trees.
Though it was well past the witching hour, she was not sleepy. Resting her forehead against the window, she gazed outside and down into the city surrounding the castle. Guttering torches, their light feeble in the deep darkness, signaled city guardians on the move, traversing the empty streets as Kórinthians slept. To Gabrielle, the streets were but a great maze, stretching far and wide before meeting the city walls, now nothing but shadows in the distance. "All these people...putting their faith in me," she murmured, squinting. "I feel so inadequate, unable to protect them."
"Protect them from what, Gabrielle?" Mentu asked, softly.
"The world," she replied, rubbing her upper arm. "We live between powerful enemies...I fear for the safety of my people, who trust me to give protection I'm not able to provide."
"That is Xena's job, Gabrielle. Have faith in her, as I do" Mentuhetep said quietly as he stood up. Placing a light kiss on Gabrielle's temple, he took one last look at the dark sky. "Good night."
"Good night, Mentuhetep," she said, turning her head and giving the man a small smile before he departed, quietly, leaving the bed chamber for Gabrielle again. She rose, carefully stretching limbs that had grown stiff from her position in the windowsill.
Working a kink out of her neck, she paced quietly across the plush rug to the candelabrum next to their bed, only one of the candles still lit. Running her palm lightly along the thick shaft, the white wax surface feeling slick and warm on her skin, she smiled. "Good night, my love," she whispered to the small flame before pinching the wick and extinguishing the last light in the chamber before climbing into the bed. Morpheus took her quickly away and she dreamed of a camp far to the north, quiet in its midnight rest, and her beloved sleeping under the same stars.
Epilogue -- three generations later
The door of the inn opened with great force, letting in a billowing cloud of soft snow and a gust of cool wind, before a figure wrapped in heavy layers of wool stepped in and closed the door behind him. The inn's occupants, clustered around the hearth and cradling mugs of hot mead, cast hostile eyes upon the newcomer as they shivered from the sudden blast of cold. But when he unwrapped the woollen cloaks from his tall figure, recognition made many a face smile.
"Afternoon, Eugeios," the newcomer greeted the innkeeper, clapping his hands together to restore circulation. "Enchanting, what the sky is sending down to us."
"Two days of snow," Eugeios the innkeeper said, lifting his scrawny arms in a gesture of surrender. "Did we not sacrifice enough at winter solstice? Why are the gods testing us thus? This is not good for business!" he finished, his voice thundering through the small common room of his inn.
"Well, that's why I'm here, eh?" Nostromo countered, winking, an ever-present grin on his lips as he rapped his scroll case. If you asked anyone in Komotiní, nobody could recall not seeing the storyteller smile in his inimitable way, as if he was in on the universe's little secrets and was finding them very amusing indeed. A wiry man with ageless features and a penchant for razor-sharp irony when it came to tales of the high and mighty (a talent that had nearly cost him his life on more than one occasion), the storyteller was a much-loved man in the village.
"The stage is all yours, my friend," Eugeios said, gesturing grandly towards an empty table next to the hearth.
"I, Nostromo, teller of tales," he began as soon as he had jumped onto the table. His voice was low and clear, carrying easily over the buzz of the conversation in the inn. At the words, most heads turned his way, those interested shushing the rest to silence. "I sing the song of light and of darkness...and of how they came to be torn apart, only to be united again."
A quiet hush travelled through the crowd as it recognised the oft-told tale.
Nostromo paused there and looked up from the scroll that he kept in his hand, more as a prop than anything else, for the knew the story by heart. His audience was gazing at him, their eyes unblinking and expectant.
The tale of the two is the tale of one
Two halves of a whole, brought together
Two lives, entwined as one
And when apart, on that sad day, even Gaia herself cried.
Too few lives had Hellas to offer
For the Conqueror's thirst to be quenched then.
Too feeble were the bard's powers
For her to tear out her own empty heart.
Taking a sip from his cup of mead, the storyteller snuck a peek at the crowd. These people, the hard men of the north that scrounged out their living from unwilling, cold earth, were sitting quietly, their attention riveted on him. Most remembered the tale from their childhood, old as it was, and while only the very eldest among them had seen the Conqueror except on the rare coin that came their way, the story -- of the legendary Xena, the most notorious and most respected ruler in the history of Hellas, who in the course of a reign that lasted longer than the life of an average man guided the nation to prosperity within and glory without, and of the bard Gabrielle who captured her heart -- was much-loved and one they would never tire of hearing.
At the last word, Nostromo snapped his fingers, smiling a crooked smile that spoke of personal experience on the subject of the fickleness of fate.
I sing the song of Xena the Great
Who with blood united Hellas
I sing the song of Gabrielle the Conqueror
Not of men but of hearts.
He finished with a flourish, letting the scroll re-wrap itself with a snap before bowing. The inn's patrons rewarded his troubles with a cacophonic clatter of mugs against tables and a few copper coins thrown in the general direction of his reward collection cup.
"Thank you," he said, still smiling, flipping through his scroll collection. "What will the next story be about?"
"Troy!" came a shouted request from the audience.
"Ah, the lovely Helen and what men will do for love, eh?" Nostromo countered, selecting the correct scroll. "Have you no sympathy for poor Menelaus?" he asked with a twinkle if mischief in his eyes.
"None whatsoever," one brave and somewhat inebriated patron replied, his brazen tone eliciting a round of laughter.
"Trojan wars it is, then," Nostromo said, shrugging. "Because what is a bard's job if not to recite history?" Untying the scroll and opening it, he cleared his throat and began.
And so the night went on in the inn, a spot of warmth in the midst of a field of snow. Tale after tale was told until Nostromo's voice grew hoarse and pained -- each story relating moments of glory, great battles won and lost, the past glory of Hellas. And in each story were two hearts finding one another, as it should be -- for if anything, it is love for which the greatest hardships are endured, and for which the greatest battles are fought and won.
-- T h e E n d --
And this time, it's really the end. This trilogy has only three parts, unless I get a burning desire to be the next Wagner. Hope you enjoyed the whole gory ride as much as I did.
Read the companion piece to this trilogy, Opacity