Legal disclaimer: Don't own 'em, wish I did.
Extreme violence warning: This is Xena. Where the dark lady kicks butt, there's blood and bodyparts so in this story, violence and its aftermaths are depicted in all detail.
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 an addendum to my Conqueror trilogy of sorts that began with Penance and continued with Blood Meridian and Ascension so I suggest you read those stories first. Might not make much sense otherwise. And last but not least...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 email@example.com
With apologies to Vergilius.
O p a c i t y
© Penumbra 2000
She paused in her writing, placing the quill between her teeth and looking at the far wall of the tent. Hey eyes did not focus on the dark crimson fabric, however; they seemed to seek out the darkening sky beyond the thick bunting.
At the low, sonorous word, the bard lifted her gaze from the scroll she had been quietly reading on the wide cot that was their bed in the field. "Yes?" she replied, smiling at the warmth in the syllables of her name.
The Conqueror's cloak rustled audibly in the silence of the tent as she turned in her chair, her face in silhouette to Gabrielle. There seemed to be a ghost of a smile on her lips.
"How much do you remember of your childhood?"
Gabrielle blinked, the question completely blindsiding her. "My childhood? Um...not much. Why do you ask?"
"Of your mother?" Xena continued, seemingly not hearing Gabrielle's question. She moved the quill to the other hand and rolled the shaft between her fingers.
Intrigued, Gabrielle shifted in her pose, placing the now forgotten scroll on the bedding. Pulling up one knee and wrapping her arms around it, she closed her eyes, trying to visualise her mother. "She was...sad," she said, her eyebrows knitting as she reflected on her first impression. "Life was not easy, but I still knew she was there for all of us, even through the hard years."
"Sad," Xena murmured, her voice dreamy. "That's my memory of my mother as well. She had...dark hair, like mine," she continued, twirling a lock of her inky hair around two fingers.
"What brought this on?" Gabrielle asked, no longer able to curb her curiosity. Unfolding from her position, she stood and paced quietly to stand next to Xena's chair, her hand landing on the shoulder guard of her armour. The metal was cool against her skin, and with a fingertip she traced one gracefully engraved swirl.
Instead of a verbal answer, Xena unrolled one of the parchments scattered around the large desk. The dry material crackled as it was opened, its scent -- a delicate mixture of dust and animal hide -- almost drowned by the tang of warm candle wax and the faint scent of fresh blood that always seemed to cling to the Conqueror.
"Tomorrow's battle plan will see us cross the stream here, and here," she said quietly, her hand gliding across the map. "Down this valley to the tree line here," she continued, drawing an imaginary line at the foot of a hill, before shifting to the west and coming to a halt over a village. "This is Amfípolis."
"Ah," was all Gabrielle could utter. Her hand slid from the shoulderguard to entangle with her hair, the slippery ebony strands fluid around her fingers. She rubbed the tense knots of muscle on Xena's neck, the strain of the past days of merciless, bloody battle evident in their tightness.
"Now wouldn't that be irony of all ironies," Xena murmured, more to herself than to anyone else, her finger tapping the parchment next to Amfípolis, "for me to have travelled so far and so wide, only to die on the field where my mother met her fate all those moons ago?"
The small, hastily-summoned quorum of her officers looked uniformly exhausted, the humid, hot weather tiring them quickly -- all except the Conqueror, whose eyes were shining with excitement as she listened to the report from a running scout.
"...and they're retreating back towards the river farther upstream," he finished, gulping for breath, the long run up the hillside obviously having taxed him considerably.
"Excellent. Just as I predicted," Xena murmured, wiping one of her long blades clean with a rag. The once-virginal cloth came away dark red. "Dispatch a scout to Demetrius Poliorcetes, telling him what you just told me. He should be prepared for the retreating Thracians."
"Yes, my lord," the scout breathed, then bowed and started back downhill, towards the main contingent of troops.
Steel scraped against leather as Xena sheathed the sword before starting to clean the other. The cloth revealed long streaks of shiny metal amidst the ichor and gore covering the whole of the wide blade. Turning the sword around in her hand, she addressed the officers without lifting her eyes from her task. "Send the rear guard to help Demetrius; the rest will pull back beyond the river to circle around the next valley. The last pockets of resistance should be eradicated within the next few days."
Finally lifting her head, one of her dark eyebrows curved in a question, the Conqueror let her gaze rest on the skeleton version of her war council. Every solemn head nodded, and once again Xena mused upon their youth. Ten solar cycles her junior, if not more. This life destroys them so quickly, she thought with a morbid chuckle. She had outlived too many councils for her to even remember all the faces -- and all were dead now, either by her hand or because the vagaries of war had abruptly taken them from this life.
The council dispersed, the exhausted men and women squaring their shoulders as they joined their respective platoons, walking downhill to cope with the aftermath of the battle. The dead were arranged in piles awaiting burial, the wounded tended to, their screams of pain carrying up the hill on the feeble wind to where the Conqueror was standing. The ground on which she stood was trampled to reveal the dark earth, the soil soaked with blood so copious that, had the ground here not been porous, the hillside would have been awash with rivers of crimson.
"You are, simply put, a mess."
Upon hearing the wry words, the Conqueror turned to find Gabrielle staring at her expectantly, her head tilted to one side. In their six solar cycles of joint rule, the bard had not changed an iota in Xena's eye. Dressed in a simple tunic and the sturdy boots of a soldier, she seemed much like the woman she had rescued from slavery many moons back.
"Yes, I know," Xena smiled, her pronounced canines resting on her lower lip. Giving the partially-cleaned sword a twirl in the air, she rested the wide blade against her shoulder. She could feel the caked blood on her back crack and flake away as she flexed her sore muscles, her leathers sticky from sweat and the blood that had seeped between them and her skin. The palms of her hands were still slippery from gore and grey matter, the sword's grip slick to the touch.
Shaking her head with an exaggerated sigh and a smile, Gabrielle produced a rag and stepped closer, drawing the cloth over the topmost curves of the Conqueror's cuirass. Her hand was soon captured by Xena's much larger palm.
"I don't mind the blood, Gabrielle," she said quietly, letting go of her hand and smoothing the bard's cheek with the back of her hand. She left behind vivid red streaks on Gabrielle's soft skin, but the bard didn't make a move to clean them away; instead, she leaned closer, her lips gliding over the stained skin of Xena's collarbone.
"I can feel it in you," she murmured quietly, her arms slipping around Xena's waist. "On you. The passion."
With two fingers, Xena turned Gabrielle's jaw up, the feral smile still on her lips. It was evident how tired the bard was, from the deep lines around her eyes and the pallor of her skin, but there was fire in her eyes, more than just idle determination.
"You are such a power hound," the Conqueror murmured, gentle teasing in her voice. Capturing Gabrielle's lips with hers, she wrapped an arm around the bard's lithe body, crushing her against her armour. She could feel the heat of Gabrielle's skin beneath her fingertips as she brushed them across her back, could smell the thick, coppery sweetness of blood and the almost tangible scent of fear and want from the bard.
When their mouths finally parted, Gabrielle rested her cheek on Xena's shoulderguard, looking up towards the Conqueror's face, tracing every hard line and shadow there.
"You have blood everywhere," Xena said, drawing her thumb across Gabrielle's lower lip, leaving them an even more vivid shade of ruby red.
Licking her lower lip, the bard shrugged. "Some of it's mine. You bit me."
"So I did," Xena replied, and stepped back to look down the hill toward the western side of the valley. A spark of memory stirred in her and she frowned at the nearest thicket of trees. "Walk with me?" she said, extending her free hand to Gabrielle who promptly took it, curiosity upon her face.
The simmering heat relented somewhat as they entered the copse of trees at the bottom of the valley. The foliage tinted the light to a curious palette of greens, the shadows nervously shifting shape as a faint breeze disturbed the verdancy surrounding them. The path the Conqueror took seemed completely arbitrary to Gabrielle as it wound around boulders, over fallen trunks covered thickly in moss, and through thickets of bushes that scraped her bare knees and arms.
The vegetation cleared suddenly and they entered a small opening in the woods, the dry forest floor becoming a thick layer of grass and unostentatious flora of the region, wilting under the relentless sun. In the middle of the clearing stood a low mound of rounded rocks, the pile crumbling in all directions.
Without a word, Xena approached the cairn, giving her sword a quick twirl before jamming the blade into the ground next to the stones. She knelt on one knee, resting her arm on the finger guard of the sword, and for the first time in the endless days of the war, here in the privacy of the forest, she let her fatigue show.
"Xena...what is this place?" Gabrielle asked quietly, stepping closer and crouching down on the other side of the cairn, silently amazed at the sight of the Conqueror on bended knee -- something she had never once even imagined she would see. Picking up a rock that had rolled down the pile and come to rest alone a short distance away, she turned the warm, apple-sized stone in her hand.
"This..." Xena began in an equally quiet voice, brushing her fingers across the rocks nearest to her, "...is her grave."
Gabrielle licked her lips and carefully set the stone back in place, her eyes never leaving the Conqueror's hunched form. The dark wells of Xena's eyes, set deep in their sockets, seemed to absorb all light.
"Yes," Xena said, resting her cheek against the hilt of her sword. "I buried her here almost...fifteen solar cycles ago." Reluctantly, her eyes shifted from the simple grave to Gabrielle. Never had the bard seen the Conqueror look so weary with the burden of her chosen life. "They killed her because of me," she stated simply, "so that she couldn't produce any more offspring like me."
Unable to think of anything to say, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her knees, her gaze flickering between the grave and the huddled, tortured form of her beloved. The pain evident in Xena's posture hurt her sharply, as if Tyche had thrust a knife into her gut.
"When Cortese destroyed Amfípolis, the consequences were much more far-reaching than he ever could have imagined. In his worst nightmares, he couldn't have dreamed that he had given birth to the Destroyer of Nations," Xena said, with a snort of ironical laughter. "Poor, fatuous Cortese. An idiot who paid dearly for his mistakes...the whole of Hellas paid for them."
"But Xena...you've done so much good," Gabrielle protested, worried by the uncharacteristic moment of self-doubt. "You've united Hellas -- something no-one in written history has done."
"Yes, and I do not regret what I have done for the nation," the Conqueror stated firmly, her eyes flaring to life. "But I regret what I have done to the people I love," she continued, gesturing towards the humble mound of rocks before her. "The knowledge that my loved ones have paid the price for my mistakes will follow me to my grave, and beyond. Never has there been comfort that could penetrate that pain...and Gabrielle..."
"I fear that one day you will have to pay for my mistakes as well," Xena said simply, her eyes unblinking as she gazed at Gabrielle, both her hands clasped around the grip of her bloodied sword.
"Well," Gabrielle said after a brief silence, standing up with a sigh and walking around the grave to crouch next to Xena, her hand resting lightly on the Conqueror's thigh. "Should I enter the next life before my time, there is nothing that will make me regret my choices in this one." She rested her head on Xena's shoulder, hearing the unevenness of her breathing.
"It is just...very difficult to outlive everyone you have ever loved."
"I know," Gabrielle whispered, closing her eyes to prevent her tears from flowing freely. It was, however, a battle she lost soon, and the salty drops formed deep runnels into the dust, grime and clotted blood on her face.
"And I've found that revenge alleviates only part of the pain," Xena continued, her voice toneless. "When I returned to Amfípolis and found my mother dead, I hunted down the killers -- her friends and neighbours -- and cut off their eyelids." She paused to take a deep breath. "It was a just punishment, but seeing them succumb and die of the madness that followed did nothing to ease my pain."
"Shhhh," Gabrielle said, squeezing the thigh her hand rested on. "Let it go. There is nothing more you could've done."
"Oh, I know that," Xena said, standing up abruptly and taking Gabrielle with her. She wiped under her eyes with two fingers before yanking her sword out of the ground and finally sheathing it. "A long time ago, I met a young Roman upstart named Caesar. I could see myself in him vividly, the excitement of war was the air we both breathed. But I was young and reckless then, wanting bloodshed for its own sake...sua cuique deus fut dira cupido, was his warning to me."
"In everyone, the lure of violence becomes god?" Gabrielle translated, her eyebrows lifting at the statement.
"Yes," the Conqueror said, finally smiling. "Unfortunately for him, he forgot to heed his own words." Giving one last, gentle look at the grave mound, she blinked before straightening fully, the lines of worry smoothing around her eyes as she gestured in the direction they had come from. "Come, Gabrielle. It is time to go."
She could feel the sun on her back, where the warmth penetrated her cloak and armour and thick leathers, but paid no attention to the perspiration beading between her shoulderblades or how uncomfortable it was in the saddle. Instead, she just endured, posture ramrod-straight, her sharp gaze watching as the last of her troops marched over the ridge on which she was stationed. Many a covert look was aimed her way, ranging from curious to fearful, but she did not let her eyes linger long on anyone.
Pyrgomache's tail swished as she swatted flies, and she side-stepped a bit. The Conqueror tightened the reins minutely, placing a calming hand on the horse's strong, veiny neck, where the deep black of her mane was glistening with sweat. "Easy, girl," Xena murmured. "We'll get into the shade soon enough."
With a nudge of her calves, the massive black warhorse turned and the Conqueror squinted into the far horizon. The forward guard had left the day before, Gabrielle travelling with them south towards Kórinthos, a journey that would take them the better part of a fortnight. She, however, had elected to stay with the main contingent, to oversee their orderly retreat from Thracia. They had fulfilled their objective in eradicating the local upsurgence, and her presence would ensure that no soldier would be tempted to indulge in the spoils of war -- pillaging, raping, stealing -- too much, for if anything, she wished to finally lay to rest the disquiet that had plagued the area for many moons.
A balancing game, this is, she mused and nudged Pyrgomache to turn back. The horse obeyed with a throw of her head and a whine, clearly suffering from the heat. Power without wisdom is the surest path to a swift downfall...Mother would be shocked to see what a diplomat I've become in my later years, she thought with a crooked smile. Her eyes flickered towards the small copse of trees that she had visited with Gabrielle, now only a spec of green on the other side of the valley.
"You know, Pyrgomache," she murmured conversationally and leaned in to scratch the horse behind one sensitive ear, "there's so much of the past that never lets go of us..." She trailed off, turning to look over the ridge towards the southern horizon, her eyes narrowing. "If only we could realise that as we make our choices in the present."
Pyrgomache whinnied by the way of reply, turning her head so that one of her large dark eyes was staring at the Conqueror, seemingly mocking her for the sudden outburst of sentiment.
"You got that right, girl," the Conqueror chuckled and straightened up, adjusting her cloak before nudging Pyrgomache into a slow canter. She joined the last of her men trailing down the south side of the ridge, the endless column of soldiers and horses stretching as far ahead as the eye could see.
-- T h e E n d --