Disclaimer 1: Almost all the characters depicted in this work of fan fiction belong to Renaissance Pictures and MCA Universal Studios being taken from the TV-show Xena: Warrior Princess. No copyright infringement is intended, no profit will be made. The story, however, is mine, and may not be posted elsewhere without my written consent.
Disclaimer 2: This story deals with violence and its aftermath, some graphic descriptions included.
Disclaimer 3: This is a work of alternative fiction, i.e. subtext is maintext, based on the notion that there's more going on between Xena and Gabrielle than a chaste and hands off friendship. So, there are rather graphic scenes of consensual sex between adult females. There also are some elements of BDSM as well as allusions to non-consensual sex, sexual violence, and child abuse (none of them graphic). If this is offending to you: Go away, now! If you're under age: Go away! (and come back later!, besides there are a lot of great general stories on the web.). If it's illegal in your part of the world: Move!
Disclaimer 4: Timeline, well, technically speaking there is none, but there are references to adventures and background stories happening during the first four seasons of the show. It's basically a Xena: The Conqueror-story, but it has to do next to nothing with the Conqueror depicted in Hercules: Armageddon Now I & II. I really like the Big Guy, he's cute but I always felt that he gets way too much credit in Xena changing her warlord ways. So I began to play around with Xena's past and past conquests and suddenly had to deal with a Conqueror, weary of ruling and on her own way to redemption.
Disclaimer 5: This is my first attempt at fan fiction and my first story written in English, so please be kind. A special thanks goes to Tiara, my attentive beta; I would have been lost without her.
Acknowledgements: A special thanks to all the Xenaverse and its incredible bards, I owe you all, big time. Without you I never would have had the courage to even attempt writing about my favourite heroines.
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Conqueror and Amazon: Towards a new life
Chapter One: On the road
A banging sound roused her from bed in the middle of a moonless night. Still half asleep, she reached for her clothes and shoes, and fastened the sturdy copper plaited leather belt around her waist. When the middle-aged woman finally answered the harsh knocking on her back door and opened it cautiously, two soldiers of the First Order rushed in and quickly closed the door.
Rude behaviour was something she expected from the soldiers of the Conqueror, but never before had she been molested in her own home, her house was officially off limits – obviously 'was'.
A thousand equally rude comments flashed through her mind, but the instant she opened her mouth one of them handed her a scroll, firmly knotted with a leather thong adorned with the seal of the Conqueror.
"What does she want this time? It's nearer to dawn than dusk, and there's no one left she can threaten me with. It better be worth the lack of sleep." The irritated woman snapped in an attempt to hide her curiosity and fear.
"The Conqueror is dead, venerable Cyrene. We were ordered to see to your safety. Right this instant the council is in meeting to decide upon your fate."
"Dead? That's impossible, there was no war and no single fighter would even stand a shadow of a chance against her fighting skills. This can't be true." Cyrene said disbelievingly.
"Please open the scroll; it will answer some of your questions. But hurry, we probably don't have more than two candlemarks before the order is given to kill you, all other relatives, friends, and servants who may still be loyal to her."
The woman took a small knife out of her belt, severed the leather thong and opened the scroll. It said:
These are two of my most trusted soldiers, Theodorus and Palemon. They saved my life more than once and now they are responsible for yours.
The governing council just has received my letter of resignation. The government will remain stable, and though the members of the council don't trust each other, they are not stupid. They all cherish their wealth far too much to risk a civil war by fighting each other openly.
I don't know if they decide to tell the truth or if they find it easier to proclaim my death, and I really don't care. Whatever they decide to do, their first step will be to eliminate everyone too closely connected with me. That's why you need to leave the city as soon as possible.
Some time ago, I prepared two secure harbours for you, out of reach of my enemies: one in Chin at the imperial palace, one in Albion with the clan of Boadicea. Palemon has all the details.
Palemon and Theodorus are now under your orders, they are experienced fighters and leaders. You're the one in charge, but please follow their advice, trust them!
The Conqueror will never return but your daughter still loves you.
Xena of Amphipolis
"You know the content of this letter?" Both men nodded. "So my first order is, explain! What happened?" She said, impatient irritation colouring her voice.
"I will, but not now. It's a rather long story, and I can't say I fully understand the General. My priority is to get you out of town and to safety." Palemon answered. He stood just short of six feet, broad shouldered and muscular, but his discomfort was plainly visible. There was something in the voice of this woman that clearly reminded him of the one who is not to be disobeyed.
There was a long moment of silence. Cyrene's thoughts were running a mile a minute. Finally she answered. "I understand. Go to the kitchen and grab some provisions, I'll get a travel gear together."
Both men were visibly relieved. They had already envisioned carrying the woman out of town squirming and bound, against her will, and neither of them were thrilled at the thought of facing the wrath of their general at such an act.
Initially Cyrene had hated the house she now was forced to live in for the last two and a half years, but now she felt a twinge of regret abandoning it. Half a candlemark later, everything was ready. Over the years, she had experienced too many manipulations and traps by the Conqueror. This letter shouldn't have convinced her and wouldn't have, except for the last two lines:
Her daughter was the Conqueror, it simply made no sense, and for almost ten years, the woman she had born hadn't mentioned her place of birth. The Conqueror of all Greece and Rome was ashamed of being nothing but a mere village girl, she'd always presumed. This time, however, she was surprised to find herself yet again longing to trust.
The three guards at the great front gate of Corinth simply nodded when they passed by some three candlemarks before dawn. In her peripheral vision, Cyrene could see that they openly followed her and her protectors to a small house just outside of the gates where some horses were awaiting them. After helping her to mount one of them, they all rode in silence in the direction of the setting sun for about five candlemarks.
Cyrene knew she should be frightened or at least feel uncomfortable surrounded by these fighters, instead there was a feeling of relief and security she couldn't explain. She also knew she should mourn the death of her daughter or rejoice the death of the Conqueror, one of her greatest enemies, but she couldn't. Her heart never would accept the death of Xena, just like she never managed to hate her for becoming the Conqueror. And at the time, she really had tried to hate her, but the ruthless warlord she hated and the little girl she had raised, cherished, cared for, and protected, were never the same person in her mind. The current situation did nothing to diminish the confusion she always experienced when trying to make sense of the conflicting emotions she harboured towards her daughter.
When they finally stopped, Cyrene was exhausted and sore from the long ride. The five men she started with and the eight others they had met along the way began to make camp and set sentinels in the parameter. Soon there was a fire going and some rabbits roasting. Her body longed for sleep but her mind needed answers.
"What's next, Commanders Theodorus and Palemon?"
"Before we came to gather you, venerable Cyrene, we alerted the other members of the First Order and some of her other loyal soldiers and servants to the change in government. We were the Conquerors personnel guards, the General is concerned about our safety too; some of us have been with her almost since the beginning. We will meet with most of the men here during the day. This place can be easily defended because there's only one way in visible, and it can be evacuated as easily due to a secret passageway. When everyone's arrived we will divide forces, a few of us will escort the civilians, and the bulk of our forces will see to your safety. Then it's up to you to decide. We will escort you to Chin or to Albion, and then we will try to find new lives for ourselves." Palemon replied.
"I hope you understand that I cannot make any decisions about my future without knowing what really happened."
"The General's orders were unambiguous. She said, 'Once you're out of town and safe enough, my mother is the one in charge. She is my voice and my hand. Follow her orders.' So, I will tell you, venerable Cyrene."
"Stop calling me 'venerable', it's Cyrene, just Cyrene. By the way, that's an order. The way you talk about your 'General'…. Xena is still alive, isn't she?"
"The Conqueror is dead, but Xena is alive."
A sigh of relieve escaped the silver haired woman. "But how? Why?"
"The official report will say that the Conqueror was killed by a wild boar while hunting alone – at least that's what our spy in the council's chamber said, but Xena now is living in an Amazon village at our north-eastern border."
"But she can't just stop being the Conqueror; that's not possible."
"But that's what she did, Cyrene. I don't understand all her reasons, but I know that she didn't like being the Conqueror. She's a fighter, a warrior from head to toe and an inspired general, but she hated the court and she hated to rule. In the beginning, it was necessary. She needed Greece as a stronghold; the army needed the provisions and the reinforcements to fight the Persians and the Romans, to fight Caesar and his legions of slavers. During the last year and a half, she tried to take back some of the bureaucratic structures and administration levels, but it didn't work out. I'm sure she often was frustrated and lonely. She never talked about it, but you could feel it during our sparring sessions. Some days there was so much dark energy around her; no one dared coming near her. On these days, more than once, she easily defeated three or four scores of her best soldiers in less than a candlemark, sending most of them to the healers. And there were days she obviously didn't have the slightest interest in fighting, as if it just wasn't worth the effort." The man fell silent, seemingly losing his gaze in the flames of the fireplace.
"Please continue; why is she staying with the Amazons? They have every reason to hate her as far as I know."
"Theodorus, my friend, come here. Make sure I don't miss out on any details." Like Palemon Theodorus was about six feet tall but his slim waist, oval face and handsome features let him appear slightly taller than his companion. He seated himself on a log near the fireplace, half an arm's length away from his friend. Then Palemon continued.
"About two moons ago the General received an urgent message from one of the frontier posts. It said that a group of Amazon warriors attacked and killed half of the men. The council voted for a punishment operation against the Amazons. To teach them respect, they said, but in reality, they just wanted to wipe out the whole tribe – and add the destruction of the Centaur village nearby to the list of the Conquerors victories. All over the last year," Palemon continued after having received a signal from Theodorus, "the palace was bustling with rumours about the Conqueror's need to expand her influence, to occupy Gaul, and Albion, and Persia, and Egypt, and even Chin.
"I'm pretty sure you heard these. But there was nothing to gain but personal pride and glory in going to war with any of them, so our General told the council more than once. Greece was secure, and that's all that was ever of any interest to her. No, there was a time she definitely wanted more but it isn't true any longer. Anyway, the General just listened. And when they were about to issue gathering orders to the troops, she stood and said, 'No!' They looked at her as if she hadn't been there all the time. They even were bold enough to demand an explanation. During the last moons, she hardly interfered with the government, so they were more than surprised. She said, 'Queen Melosa knows that she doesn't stand a chance against my army. She's not a fool. There has to be something else going on. There will be no military intervention! The peace treaty with the Amazons will be honoured by me and my army! We will just have to find out the real reasons behind these attacks. The sitting is terminated for today!' She turned and left the room. The next day she ordered one score of the First Order to escort Gabrielle and herself to the north-eastern border."
"Stop, Commander. Gabrielle, who is Gabrielle, her body slave?"
"The general never had a slave and never will need one. You – of all people – should know that, she even tried to abolish slavery but at the time the army needed the support of the wealthy merchants, so her plans didn't work out." The tall soldier tried unsuccessfully to hide his annoyance.
"Who is Gabrielle then?"
"Gabrielle… Two seasons ago, at the beginning of winter…"
The Conqueror and four members of her First Order were on their way to Kyros, a former fishing village, which had lately developed into a large scale trading port, where she was to meet with representatives of the merchants' league. She knew there would be an endless flow of complaints and lamentations about taxes, security, trading regulations, currency exchange, and the like to sit through. She never had been a person to patiently listen to what she considered nothing other than selfish rambling and petty bickering. For the life of her, she couldn't understand why it was so important that she personally listened to all that boring stuff instead of the council members who in the end would have to deal with it. So Xena was rather reluctant to fulfill this particular duty. However, having already postponed it twice she had run out of good excuses to do it a third time.
So, she wasn't in the best of moods when she and her entourage started out. The week's ride southeast of Corinth allowed her to relax some and soon she found herself enjoying the ride and the company of her soldiers.
They spent the first three nights outdoor, hunting for dinner, laughing and remembering some of their campaigns, and sleeping on the ground curled up in their bedrolls. For the first time in moons, she really felt free. On the fourth day about a candlemark before dusk, they passed a middle-sized village and Xena decided on booking rooms at the local inn. The bedrooms on the first floor were small but clean, there was a bathing tub with steaming water, and she really was quite comfortable with her journey.
The central room of the inn held about fifteen small tables and it was dimly lit with only two torches. The evening crowd filled the room, the usual mixture of merchants, town's people, some mercenaries, young folk, and elders. Her men already had taken over one of the tables in the back facing the door, thus allowing her to have the whole room in view. The uniforms of the First Order were recognised and Xena noted the furtive glances cast at her every once in a while. As always, when travelling only with a small retinue she also had put on the famous blue, silver, and black leathers instead of her trademark brass armour, and sported the insignia of a captain. No one would have dared to bother the Conqueror but it seemed easier this way.
The food was good, and two mugs of ale made her lower her guard slightly despite the growing noises of the crowd. Palemon was talking about a new training schedule he planned to establish with the Palace Guards. His ideas were sound and certainly would work out nicely. She was just about to voice her approval when her keen hearing picked up on the conversation at the neighbouring table.
"I got twelve; already well broken in, well, make it eleven. One of them is nothin' but trouble, but I had to take her in to get all the others. Have to get rid of her somehow but not here. They say these damned laws are really enforced here. Really don't know why this goddamned bitch has to put her nose in other people's business."
A wave of anger flashed through Xena and her body went rigid with tension. She knew they were talking about slaves; so she made a mental note to alert the reeve and the militia to deal with these slavers before continuing to Kyros, but there was something in the voice or the words of the man that kept her listening.
A second voice was heard. "Easy there, watch your big mouth, will ya! There's some of her pet soldiers over there, saw them comin' in."
"Yeah, yeah, don't be such a chicken shit. Let's go back to business. Take a look at them; some of the gals do have remarkable skills in the horizontal department, you know. The recalcitrant one even knows how to read and write but I doubt it's worth the effort to beat her into submission. She really has an acid tongue that one."
"So cut it off, spares a lot of screaming, too. It doesn't pay spending too much time on these stupid troublemakers, but on the other hand there's always a buyer thrilled by the challenge ahead."
Xena's knuckles went white with strain while she tried not to explode with pent-up anger. Slavers always did this to her mind set, but this time it was more personal, unexpectedly hitting home.
"Sounds like a good idea. Are you up to a short inspection? T'morrow in the afternoon there also will be two other buyers, now you would have the first pick. They're in a barn just outside the town."
"No, not now. First thing in the morning though. Never buy merchandise by torchlight, that's the one and only thing my father was ever right about."
Her first instinct was to run and search every barn in town. The rage boiling in her veins told her to beat the crap out of these slavers, and her guts were telling her that not only were the slaves subject to severe ill-treatment but also that they were probably illegally enslaved in the first place. To become a slave one had to be a criminal or a prisoner of war, no exceptions made. She would have preferred to abolish slavery in all aspects but this was as far as she was able to push the point with the merchants' league. Anyway, she had to be sure before springing into action. Ill-treatment was enough to financially harm the man considerably but owning and dealing in illegal slaves would put him completely out of business. So she had to bide her time, and she hated waiting.
In consideration of her obligations in Kyros, it would be more sensible to alert the local authorities but Xena convinced herself that she first had to make sure that they weren't in league with the slaver. Only reluctantly, she admitted to herself that there also was something else fuelling her decision.
From the very first moment the man had mentioned the trouble making slave the tall warrior knew without the shadow of a doubt that she had to get to her, that she had to help her, personally. It was as if she were irresistibly drawn to this unknown woman beyond rational thought and reason. When not fighting Xena usually didn't act on instinct alone, this time, however, she simply had to follow her gut feeling.
After a night engaging in solitary swords drills to get rid of the ever growing tension crushing her heart, she followed the two men to their destination, her own soldiers in tow. They disappeared into an old but solid barn at the outskirts of town. It stood isolated on top of a hillock and was heavily guarded by at least ten men, so it would be very difficult to approach it undetected. Calling an attack or even raising suspicions would only get the slaves killed to destroy the only evidence.
She crept away and found her way to the town's reeve who at first was not at all pleased to be disturbed at his leisurely breakfast, especially by mere soldiers, First Order or no First Order. But when the elderly, over-fed man found a strong hand threatening to crush his windpipe and blue eyes burning holes through his skin, he all of a sudden morphed into an incarnation of helpfulness.
The barn had been sold to a foreign merchant about two seasons ago that had wanted to use it as interim storage area. There never had been any problems with the merchant or his men. The reeve insisted on knowing nothing about slaves in his town, he even had the guts to point out that he needed ample evidence before legally pursuing the barn owner. Xena longed to simply knock him into next week but a part of her knew that he was right. One of her most important policies was to possibly not interfere with the local governments, regardless of how she longed to, and how much easier it would be to solve the problems at the point of her sword.
About one candlemark later, the Conqueror of Greece and Rome was dressed in a black skirt descending almost to her ankles with a crimson bodice accentuating her hips and breasts. Three of her men and all of the town's militia were positioned in the forest nearby awaiting her signal, and Xena confidently approached the mercenaries at the front door. She claimed being in search of new body slaves for her critical and demanding husband. The piercing blue eyes of the raven-haired woman didn't rouse any suspicions and she was easily admitted, followed by Palemon who acted as her bodyguard and the reeve's son who would bear witness of the condition the slaves were in. The young man had only recently returned from three years of apprentice ship in Athens and thus wasn't known to the slaver.
They were greeted by the man from the inn, and Xena arrogantly listed the qualities 'her husband' requested his future slaves to possess in abundance. The slaver however was cautious, accustomed to doing his business with other petty slavers like the one at the inn who didn't find the merchandise to his liking or by testimonial.
"Good work earns you a good reputation, man. And I really don't like my household equipped with foreign scum."
The man was more than a head shorter than Xena, the gold in his mouth gleaming in the torch light whenever he opened it, his eyes impudently locked at her chest, her anger rising with every heartbeat. "I don't have the patience dealing with your fears, little man. Obviously, this reputation of yours isn't worth a dinar. Let's go."
She turned and half a heartbeat later heard a sound halfway between a squeak and a pain filled shout. The knowing smile on her face changed in an expression of utmost boredom as she turned again. The slaver was on his knees, his right hand being painfully twisted by Palemon.
"Never again! No one tries to touch my Mistress without her permission, you worthless pigeon's poop. " Palemon sneered at the slaver who writhe in pain under his crushing hold.
"He's not worth the effort, get him on his feet. We'll go to Athens for the merchandise."
"No, please wait. I'm sure…" Three of his guards burst through the gate and two others emerged from the hayloft. "No, it's all right, just a misunderstanding. Go back to your duties. I apologise, Ma'am. Please reconsider your decision. It's a long way to Athens and I have all you need. My stock is small but it's good quality, and you won't run into any language barriers. They're all young, skilled, and eager to serve. Just take a look at 'em." He nervously blurted out.
"We'll give it a try, little man. As I already said, three body slaves, fully trained, and a scribe able to fill-in as a body slave. No barbarians."
"They're all good stock…." The slaver began to babble, motioning her to the back part of the barn. Xena could almost see the greedy glint of dinars in his eyes as he detailed the qualities of his merchandise.
The meager light of a single torch only produced some sort of twilight but it showed more than enough to get him arrested for ill-treatment. Some of his 'slaves' were barely more than kids, their features clearly testifying their Grecian heritage. Xena almost could smell their fear but there was more. It was the familiar scent of blood that led her to the darkest corner of the barn. On a pile of dirty hay was… someone curled up in a ball.
"Oh, you already found her. She will be the perfect scribe and her experiences as body slave are ample. But she has to be warmed up to her new master. She needs a firm hand and whipping on a regular basis to keep her in line. As you see she's well acquainted …"
In the blink of an eye Xena's right fist connected with his nose, there was the distinctive sound of bones breaking and he slumped on the floor. She and Palemon took a defensive position in front of the slaves, and the Conqueror let loose her battle cry. The militia and her men had to fight their way in while the defenders took out four guards foolish enough to approach them. The mercenaries were quickly subdued, and Xena somehow managed to keep a lid on her temper long enough to take primary care of the slaves.
All of them were obviously undernourished and displayed different kinds of lash marks, and only three of them were strong enough to walk on their own two feet unassisted. The militia quickly transported them to the local healer and Xena sent Theodorus to keep an eye on the badly injured scribe, and then started to literally tear the barn to pieces.
END OF FLASHBACK
"Never before had I seen her this mad." Palemon continued. "Yes, the General has a rather volatile temper, and it doesn't pay to get on her wrong side but she never loses control. She sometimes make believe she does but it's nothing but a game to get her what she wants. In the middle of a fight when battle lust incites her to do things nothing short of impossible, her eyes are gleaming with energy, dark and raw. I saw her eyes when she re-entered the barn. They were almost black but there was nothing human in them, only an aimless hatred and most of all there was desperation. I heard the sound of a sword thumping against wood. She was shouting
"When she finally reappeared, two candlemarks later, her dress was torn but her eyes were once again familiar. We went to the inn where she changed into her uniform and burned the dress. I expected her to question the prisoners and to tell the reeve what she wanted him to do. But she didn't. She sent me to deal with the reeve and went to the over crowded healer's hut."
Theodorus tugged Palemon's left sleeve and started a long sequence of hand signals.
"Theodorus wants you to know that I'm wrong. The General's eyes were not as they usually are. There was a sadness visible that he and I only have seen once, when she went to the Centaur village to sign the peace treaty with Centaurs and Amazons. The General entered the healer's hut and didn't leave it for the next five days."
"Stop, Commander. Tell me, why doesn't he speak?" Cyrene asked, her curiosity finally getting the better of her. "I never before saw this kind of communication."
Theodorus gave Palemon an almost imperceptible nod. "When the General destroyed the Persian Empire some years ago Theodorus was taken as a captive, they questioned and tortured him, and when he didn't tell them what they wanted to know, they cut his tongue out. He was badly injured by the time we finally were able to set him free, and even the General wasn't sure of his chances of survival. Eventually his body healed but his soul did not. He almost died in the first battle after his recovery."
Another set of hand signals. "He reminded me to tell you the whole story. He tried to get himself killed that day. The General saved his life, and then step by step she developed this language. At first, we only used the signals of hunters but it wasn't enough to really talk. So, she invented a hand signal for every letter and together they elaborated signs for day to day stuff, greetings and so on. By now every single soldier of the First Order knows to use them."
"Do you really want me to believe that the Conqueror of Greece and Rome, the person personally responsible for the deaths of thousands of people and the suffering of even more took the time necessary to invent a whole language just to keep one single soldier happy? You must be kidding, Commander."
Palemon obviously was hard pressed not to act on his anger. "Believe it or not but that's what she did, Cyrene. I know that you and the General don't get along too well with each other but to most of the people in this camp, she is family. There's nothing we wouldn't do for her because there's nothing she wouldn't do for us. In fact her sta…"
Palemon was silenced by another signal from the blond warrior, thus being saved to tell the older woman that her daughter not only had accepted being a slave to the Amazon nation, but also insisted on a trial held to balance the scales between them, – a trial liable to end with… No, he couldn't afford to think about this right now. His mind was going in wild circles at the thought of losing his General and friend to Amazon law, especially now when she had found happiness and love for the first time since fighting the Centaurs.
He took a deep breath and refocused his attention to the older woman. "In fact what she did for Theodorus isn't this singular or exceptional, she cares for her men. She told me not to argue with you but there's more to her than what you are willing or able to see. She's a conscientious and caring soul, Cyrene, though she does her very best to hide it. – I'd better continue telling you about Gabrielle."
Most of the slaves were released from the healer's hut after a day or two of treatment. Every one of them had been held illegally and so the reeve had them escorted to their respective hometowns. The slaver was sentenced to six years of hard labour and his mercenaries to two. As soon as it was obvious that the young scribe wouldn't be able to travel any time soon, Xena sent one of her guards to Kyros ordering the merchants to present all their requests, complaints, and pleas on parchment. A second was dispatched to Corinth to prepare quarters in the palace adjoining her own. The following days she spent in the healer's hut, riveted to the bedside of the young woman.
The scribe's condition was worse than she would have ever thought possible. Every square inch of her body was covered with lash marks, most of her ribs were bruised and there was internal bleeding in the lower abdomen. She constantly drifted in and out of consciousness, and the local healer didn't even try to save her. Once every three candlemarks the Conqueror made her swallow a tea designed to stop the bleeding and finally her patience seemed to pay off.
Xena ordered a chariot with a cargo area large enough to accommodate a stretcher and took her back to Corinth. The whole journey she kept the young woman sleepy to give her abused body the chance to heal of its own accord. And even though she tried to tell herself that she was solely acting out of compassion and that she would have done the same thing for every other slave as badly injured as the scribe, she couldn't help to admit that she cared for her, deeply.
There was a time she wanted to rule the world but now the world seemed a small goal in comparison to the health of a small, undernourished blond woman.
What was more, Xena found herself surprised not just to want to bed the woman as she had done with others numerous times in the past, deriving pride and pleasure out of seduction. From the very first moment she almost drowned in the intense sea green eyes of her charge, the Conqueror longed for her confidence and friendship. She knew it wouldn't be easy to gain but it proved to be a greater challenge than anticipated. The young woman had no reason to trust her, she was known as a ruthless murderer and her bedchamber reputation also didn't any good. So, Gabrielle – and it took Xena two days to get her to tell her name – was frightened, cautious, and defiant all in one.
Four days after her arrival at the palace the young scribe was well enough to leave her room and take a walk in the gardens. "So all this beauty is for you alone, Conqueror?"
"No, everyone in the palace is allowed to spend as much time in the gardens as they like and every other day they are open to the public. But there's a part of the gardens no one but me ever goes to. To me it's the most beautiful part. I'll show it to you if you're not too exhausted yet."
They changed direction and soon were in front of a stone wall overgrown with ivy and grapes. The Conqueror divided the green veil and both stepped through. A big old apple tree dominated the view and all around it was a meadow with poppy, foxglove, dandelion, and lots of other healing herbs. In summer, they would be more clearly visible, now only an expert could identify them. The inner parts of the wall served as support for various kinds of wild roses and in the silence following their entrance, the gurgling sound of a very small river was heard.
"You were right. It really is the most beautiful part of the gardens. Outside the trees and flowers, the well kept paths, the benches and little bridges are beautiful but this is alive. It is as if it was meant to be this way. Thank you, Con… Xena."
"You're welcome, Gabrielle." Xena offered her a big smile for being called by her name. "Corinth was the first big town I took, more than eight years ago. The palace and the gardens were in ruins but my advisers convinced me that I needed a permanent stronghold in order to conquer the whole world. They made the plans for the gardens and right here in the centre they wanted to create some sort of private theatre for court members only. I told them to leave the place as it was."
"Why did you hide it behind those walls?"
"I didn't. A summer later when I returned from a rather long campaign the wall was in place. The chief gardener told me that this unruly part of nature was not suitable for a great ruler and that it interfered with the general design of the gardens' greatness. At the time, I was foolish enough to believe him. Whenever I want to be alone, whenever I need time to think or to meditate, I come here."
"Meditate? What's that?"
"Meditation is something you do to relax. You loosen up your muscles, sit down on the ground, sort of cross-legged, and all you think about is the rhythm of your breathing. Sometimes it takes longer than other times but eventually all the pressure, anger, fear, and sorrows you have go away – at least for a while. A friend in the far-east taught me how to do it. I'd be glad to teach it to you."
"It sounds good. I'd like to learn it but there won't be enough time. I have to leave as soon as possible. I don't want to run in any of my former owners."
"There's nothing to fear, Gabrielle, you're free. If you don't want to stay in the palace or in Corinth, I can arrange an escort back to your hometown. It's entirely your decision."
"I'll think about it. Can I stay here for a while?"
"Of course. I'll wait outside 'til you're ready. We'll have to change the bandages at your back in about three candlemarks." Xena turned to leave the enclosure.
"No, don't go, please. Can we sit by the tree?"
They made themselves comfortable, sitting side by side but keeping a distance of more than two feet. Xena tried very hard but without great success to keep her eyes from lingering on the young woman who herself seemed totally oblivious to this attention. They both were dressed in leather trousers and thick wool tunics accompanied by a fur-lined cloak to keep the cold of the winter afternoon at bay.
Gabrielle's blond tresses were glittering in the pale sunlight, every once in a while highlighted by glints of red. Xena drank in the outlines of her face, and found herself perfectly content just to sit here and watch. But she also didn't miss the tension permeating from Gabrielle's body testifying of some sort of inner turmoil, and suddenly the raven haired woman had to fight the urge to scoop her up in her arms and protect her against her own fears.
One and a half candlemark later Gabrielle decided on breaking the silence. "You're wrong, Xena. I'm still a slave by right and law. I'm a slave without a master but as far as I know, every single of my former owners has the right to lay a claim on me. I'm still nothing but property, that's why I have to go away as far as I possibly can."
Xena stared at her, wide-eyed, and was utterly unable to pronounce a whole sentence, "Explain!"
Gabrielle's eyes found the piercing baby blues of the Conqueror, her voice intent on not betraying any emotion: "Four years ago, when I was sixteen my parents sold me to a slaver. The slavery laws didn't yet exist, and so it was a perfectly legal transaction."
"I refused to marry. They had my marriage arranged when I was nine. I liked the boy but I didn't love him and I never would have learned to love him. My father said that he would get the bride price one way or the other. – Becoming the wife of a farmer and sheep raiser wasn't what I wanted anyway. I wanted to learn about other people, to tell stories, and to see the world, and somehow my wish was granted. I spent time in Persia and in Rome, in Ephesus and in Lutetia but I had to do it with a slave collar around my neck. By the way, where is it? I'll have to put it back on now that you know the truth."
"It was destroyed. I cut it to pieces with my sword, together with all the other items in the barn. And you will never have to see anything like that again. I can't understand how pa…. At the time, it may not have been illegal for your parents to sell you but the laws I established make it illegal to own native slaves sold when they were under age. There's no need for you to run away or to hide. You are free, free to do whatever you fancy to do, free to travel all around the world if you want to."
"Promise that I never will have to see a slave collar ever again."
"I promise I will never confront you with one but as long as there are slaves in Greece chances are that you'll see those collars. Unfortunately there's nothing I can do about it."
"I'm really free?"
"Yes, Gabrielle, but before you set out to conquer the whole world on your own we have to change the bandages on your back. Come."
A big smile was plastered on the young woman's face, and it didn't go away, not when they entered the palace and not when she slightly flinched under the tender ministrations to her back.
END OF FLASHBACK
"An apple tree? You sure about this?"
Theodorus answered with a series of gestures that immediately were translated by Palemon. "I think this tree and the roof terrace above her bedroom were the only places in the palace the General really felt at ease in. She said the garden bit was a patch of a time past and therefore not touched by evil and darkness."
"There was an old apple tree at the edge of Amphipolis. She used to play there with her brothers, mostly with her younger brother, Lyceus. When the boy was killed during Cortese's attack she burned the tree to the roots." There was a long moment of awkward silence before Cyrene was able to snap out of her memories. "Please continue your story. I still don't understand why this slave girl seems so important to the Conqueror."
The windows looked east, and when Xena opened her eyes, she found the familiar view of the predawn sky, the first glimmer of light at the edge of the horizon. The rest of her surroundings were less familiar.
She was sitting in a chair both hands securely wrapped around another, smaller hand. She still wore her formal evening attire constituting of a long, dark crimson robe, held by a silver plated, black leather belt, her favourite dagger with ebony hilt and silver sheath emphasising her waist. Despite the rather uncomfortable position she must have spent the night in, she found herself surprisingly refreshed and in a good mood.
Gabrielle was still fast asleep, with a small smile at the edges of her lips. She looked incredibly young and innocent, and the Conqueror of Greece and Rome had a hard time letting go of her hand. The younger woman slightly stirred and tucked her hand under her chin, thus enhancing the impression of childlike innocence.
Xena finally went to her own bedroom and changed into trousers, a wool tunic and her armour. The daily sparring session with some of the First Order soldiers this day barely captured her mind. Her body reacted practically of its own accord while her thoughts still were with the young scribe.
The merchants she originally was supposed to meet with in Kyros had obviously decided to force the issue, and had arrived in numbers at the palace the day before. The council found it necessary to hold a welcome dinner, so Xena spent the evening listening to complaints and exploits, bargaining and bartering stories, knowing she would have to sit through hours and hours of more of this stuff the following afternoon.
It was close to the beginning of the third watch when the tall warrior entered her study to check on the young woman sleeping next door. As the nights before, she was suffering from a nightmare, whimpering and moaning, with fear and pain clearly written all over her face. Perhaps it was because of the confidence Gabrielle had shown her in the garden but unlike the previous nights, she didn't content herself with a compassionate look.
She quickly closed the distance to the bed and took her protectively in her arms, whispering soothing words and gently stroking her hair. Finally, the moaning stopped and her body quieted down also, but moments later the young woman's muscles suddenly tensed and she pulled away from the embrace. Xena saw the fear and the horror in her eyes and carefully positioned her hands where the other woman could see them. She tried to smile at her, to reassure her but Gabrielle's face told her it would be in vain.
"You had a bad dream. I'd better leave now, rest well!" She said in a quiet voice and went to the door. When she already was crossing the threshold, Gabrielle called her back.
"I'm sorry, Xena. Please, stay. I have to explain, you have to understand. It had nothing to do with you."
Xena was back at her bedside and sat down in a chair. She longed taking her in her arms once again, instead she said. "There's no need to explain, Gabrielle. With all the things you have probably heard about me, you had every right to react the way you did. Over the years, I built a reputation being some sort of sexual predator. I took what I wanted and from whom I wanted it, and I still do though it's been moons since the last time. It's part of who I am, so it certainly will happen again, but I promise I will never do it to you. You're off limits. I don't know much about your life but you have suffered more than enough. I just want you to get well and be happy."
The Conqueror was as surprised by her words as the young woman but she knew them to be true. All of her considerable emotional defences just seemed to crumble to dust regarding the blonde. When she once again tried to leave, Gabrielle's right hand found her left.
"Xena, please, sit down. There's a lot of gossip in this palace, and I heard a lot about you, that's true. There's also a lot of talk about your bedroom adventures but they all say that you only take what is freely given. They say your violence is for the battlefield only. I'm not concerned about this. I'm truly sorry my reaction hurt you, and I cannot promise that it will never happen again. It really had nothing to do with you personally. It is... One of my former..."
"You don't have to talk about it if it hurts too much, Gabrielle. It probably will take a lot of time before the shadows of your past have left your soul. I will always be there to listen and to care but you don't have to torture yourself."
"I don't know why, but I want you to know, Xena." Gabrielle left her hand in Xena's but her eyes were fixed on the blanket. "One of my former masters was a traveling merchant between Lutetia and Rome. He owned many slaves and had a house and office in several of the towns along the road. He loved to travel with a great retinue, with mercenaries, cooks, servants, and slaves. He purchased me as a body slave but when he learned that I could read and write, he only used me as one of his scribes. At first, I couldn't believe my luck, and I shouldn't have to. The first moons we spent in Rome and I was allowed to learn Latin. I wore beautiful clothes, was well fed and free to go everywhere in his house, garden and fields. If it hadn't been for the collar around my neck, I would have forgotten that I was a slave and not a servant. When he began traveling though there was no way to forget it."
Xena gently put her other hand on top of Gabrielle's and gave her an encouraging squeeze. "During the journey I had to stay with the scrolls, day and night. When we stayed at an inn, I was next door to his bedroom and when we made camp, I slept in a small tent next to his. One night, after about ten days of traveling, he entered my tent in the middle of the night. He was drunk. When I awoke, I found his arms securely wrapped around my body, his mouth only inches away from mine. He was breathing heavily and his mouth came nearer. I panicked. I knew he had every right to do with me what ever he fancied, but still... Somehow, I freed my right hand and slapped him hard across the face. He pulled away and left the tent without saying a word. I was afraid but eventually I went back to sleep."
The young woman's voice now barely was above a whisper. "The next morning I found myself naked and spread-eagled between two trees at the other side of the camp. The whole staff was standing there, and when the master came to me, I could see my handprint at his cheek. There was sadness in his voice but his eyes were blazing with anger. He said. 'What you did last night was really disappointing, my young slave. You attacked your master, and your punishment should be a painful death or at least I should cut off the offending hand. But I'm not in the habit of damaging worthy goods. Without your hands you won't be able to write and without your life you won't be able to bear witness of my justice.' He then gave a signal to someone behind me; I heard the slashing of a whip and felt the burning pain consuming my whole body. I soon lost my bearings but I know the whipping must have continued. When I regained consciousness, there was a leather cuff around my left ankle fixed to an iron ring in the floor of the wagon. Bandages were wrapped around my upper body but every breath sent a bolt of pain through my body. The next night we stayed at an inn. I was asleep as soon as I was left alone, and when I opened my eyes to the light of a flickering candle, I once again felt his arms around me. This time I did what he asked me to do. He didn't come every night but often enough to let me dread going to sleep, and always it started with an embrace and a kiss."
Gabrielle raised her head and found the tear-filled eyes of the older woman. "I'm not afraid of you, Xena. I reacted to his touch, his breath, his demands; I was lost in bad memories. Please forgive me. I probably can't help it but I don't want you to be afraid of my reactions."
"I won't ever let anything like this happen to you again. You're free to make your own choices but if it does anything good to you I'll have all of your former slave masters arrested. None of them had the right to ill-treat you. Justice now is in your hands."
The still injured woman obviously was tempted by Xena's offer. She searched the Conqueror's face for signs of dishonesty or falsehood but found none. "No, don't do it, Xena. It wouldn't be justice. It would be vengeance. It won't change my past, nor my memories, nor my dreams, my nightmares. They all thought they had a right to do what they did, and I thought they had the right to do so also. Now I know better, and I thank you for rescuing me."
"It was my pleasure, Gabrielle."
"Would you please stay until I'm asleep? I don't want to be alone right now."
"I'll hold your hand, so you won't feel alone."
The young soldiers' sword missed her head only by a quarter of an inch; had it been a more seasoned warrior she certainly would at least have been injured. She disarmed him with the next two strikes and called an end to the sparring session. When she turned to find her bathroom, she found the sparkling green eyes of her patient waiting for her at the far edge of the training grounds.
"The last one got pretty close, Xena. I hope you didn't do this on purpose."
"No need to worry, Gabrielle. My body knows how to protect itself. How long were you watching?"
"Long enough to know that your head was leagues away. You should take care of yourself better than this. I don't want you to get hurt."
"Why is this? You certainly don't owe me. If I would have been able to abolish slavery you never would have been in need of my help."
"I would be dead by now, Xena, and this you know better than anyone. I talked to one of your commanders, his name's Palemon. He told me that you stayed in the healer's hut for days without a break to save my life though the local healer would have let me die. So, yes, I owe you, and yes, I care about you, but I don't know why. I learned the hard way not to trust easily but I can't help it with you. It just feels right, despite everything."
"Thank you, Gabrielle. It's been a long time since someone cared about me, and I'll try to be less thoughtless in the future. I'd like to take a walk through the gardens with you but there's a bunch of merchants already waiting to bore me to death with their petty arguments about profits and stuff."
"Trading agreements are important not only for the merchants, Xena. I'm sure you know this. It's much harder to bargain for things the farmers can't produce themselves without them. I know, sometimes they are really boring but usually it's worth the effort. Would you mind if I come and listen?"
"I would be delighted to have you at my side, Gabrielle. But only if you're sure you're already up to this kind of activity."
"I'll only have to sit and listen. It beats staring at the ceiling all day."
"Very good. I'll take a bath, and then we can grab some lunch and meet with the merchants. You just saved my day."
END OF FLASHBACK
To be continued in Chapter Two: The Journey