How Thin the Veil
Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
I am weary.
The strength that I possessed, the stuff of legend, means nothing to me now. For I lie here, alone, powerless to stop my lifes blood from flowing from my wounds into the dark, muddied earth beneath me.
My bones still echo with the jarring blows I received from my victims this day; nameless, faceless, and in the end I too will find that same fate. In life I was feared, reviled, and so in death I will be mourned by no one.
If there were breath enough left in my body, I would laugh. I willingly selected the path I trod upon; the decision was mine alone. And how I excelled at my chosen vocation!
In the world of Xena, the unconquerable warlord, there was no room for doubt.
No time for introspection.
No tolerance for a gentle touch or a kind word.
But in the end, it has come to this: I question the purpose of my very existence.
And as I draw in air in greedy, hitching spurts, the seconds between each gasp stretch on before me like years; I have all the time I need to reflect upon the consequence of the decisions Ive made.
And what I would give gods, it is worth more than the sum of my sorry life, if I could but hear some sweet word of forgiveness in her voice, feel the comfort of her touch!
Gabrielle. How did I lose you, in this living nightmare of my own making, when I never really found you at all? What has brought me us to this place? I feel a cold tear leak out the corner of my eye and trace a path across my temple, down into the bloodied mat of my hair. Can it be, at the moment when I stand on a jagged precipice gazing longingly at the tartarus I deserve, that I have finally found my heart?
Only to know with absolute certainty, with a joy tinged with bittersweet irony, that it belongs to another.
The heavy smoke from a score of campfires assaults my nostrils as I shove aside the flap of my tent and turn a squinting eye towards the rising sun. My thoughts come to me sluggishly and a dull, throbbing pain fingers its way through my forehead, reaching down towards the base of my skull.
I hear a rustle of movement behind me and my stomach lurches queasily. Aaah a thick curtain in my memory parts, and now it comes back to me last night. Too much wine and too much food, bad attitudes and even worse company; it is the way of it with these cut-throats who follow me, on a night when we celebrated the great success of our latest financial transaction.
Without even turning around, I thrust a sharp elbow into the midsection of Caine, one of my lieutenants.
"Get out of here, now," I say flatly, "before I cut you open and spread a trail of your innards from here to Mount Kirso."
Caine is a pig, I know that, and I fancy him squealing in terror as I hear him gather up his boots and scramble from my tent. He is a good lieutenant: he follows my orders, at least when my back isnt turned, and he performs well enough, both on the battlefield and in my bed. He is a brute of a man, with arms thicker than a young girls waist, and yet he pushes past me now, fearful. The tongues of his boots trail after him on the rain-soaked ground, and so intent is he on buttoning his trousers that he splatters face-first into the mud.
I laugh at him. It costs me, what with my splitting headache, but it is worth it. With a final grunt I turn back into my tent, but not before ordering the filthy Caine to have the serving woman bring breakfast to me.
With a heavy sigh, I collapse into my camp chair. It isnt an easy job being a warlord. Since I know Ill get no sympathy from my men, I pause for a moment to wallow in a trencher of self-pity, simply because it pleases me to do so. The fighting we simply stagger from one battle to the next, licking our wounds. My body aches from bruising injuries all too purpled and real, as well as the faint, scarred memories of those healed long ago.
It has been a rather successful fortnight; my army and I took a small farming village in Chalcidice, and the slaves we gathered there brought a pretty dinar with the Carthaginian traders. It was easy for me to turn a deaf ear as those pathetic villagers begged me for their freedom, pleaded for mercy. I was happy to see them go, otherwise, they would simply be more mouths to feed. But first things first, and so I kept a handful of the best slaves for myself. I do that, you know, every time I collect a fresh crop; the ones I have here in my camp seem to wear out so quickly, I dont know why. All save for my serving woman; shes been with me for longer than I can remember.
"Xena, its me." A hesitant voice outside my tent.
"Come whats taken you so long?" I growl, as the flap pushes aside and the serving wench enters, bearing a tray.
"Would you like this open?" She fingers the tent flap.
"No!" I bellow, preferring the soothing darkness now as opposed to a breath of fresh air. Damn that sour wine!
I watch as the bent figure places the tray on a small table by my side. Although we have been traveling quickly of late, I grudgingly note that the old woman has done a tolerable job keeping my dog pack of an army well fed with food that is vaguely appealing.
She arranges the dark bread, tea, and porridge so that they are within easy reach, and I cannot help but notice the gnarled fingers of her careworn hands. Her once-dark hair is streaked with gray, her blue eyes are faded, and her face is lined like the deep crags of a mountainside. Still, her features at one time might have been considered attractive. She keeps her head down for the most part, but from time to time I feel her eyes flicker in my direction. She must hate me, I know it, but she hides it well.
"Do you have anything in here that needs mending?" She begins to move about the tent, collecting my scattered clothing, examining the pieces for stains and tears.
"My tunic from last night yes, that one," I say, as she picks up a deerskin top, beaded and embroidered for me just last summer. "Its torn," I mutter, remembering the harsh, demanding hands of Caine on me last night. "Fix it."
She holds the garment up to the lamplight; even I can see that it is damaged beyond repair, though I stubbornly refuse to admit it.
"Xena, I dont know if"
I see her recoil from me, drawing in upon herself lest I strike out as I have in the past.
"Very well," she says, bowing out of the tent as though she were afraid to turn her back on me. And after all, I suppose she should be afraid.
"Ill be back when youre through here, Xena. Until then."
I hear her footsteps hurrying away, running from me, spawn from Hades realm that I am. I pick up the mug of hot tea, breathing it in, willing for the steam of it to drive out the crossbow bolt that slices through my brain. And I think about my loyal serving woman, who has promised to return. Shell be back. She hasnt left me yet.
Until then, mother.
My head, gods be thanked, feels as though its now only twice its normal size. We have spent the afternoon running drills. My army may be comprised of mercenaries, thieves, and killers, but by gods they will be the best-trained pack of rabble this side of Sparta. If you dont practice, you cant hope to execute come game time, I have always believed this. And my men are players.
In spite of our recent successes, I want my warriors to remain sharp. I have heard that a force is amassing near the Thracian border, with designs bent on taking out a certain warrior princess. Some young upstart is rallying them. Hah! Let them all try. When they finally arrive where I am now, theyll be where Ive already been.
For I have plans, you see. Well be on the move again before the week is out. Not because I fear some ragtag band of teachers and farmers bearing quills and pitchforks, no. It is because Ive heard of great riches that lie in store within the temples of Thessaly and Spiros. What the gods have no use for in this life, I shall take for myself.
To the victors go the spoils I say, even as I reach down to feel the bold thickness of the money belt I wear at my waist. It is always with me, I can trust no one else with it. It gives me power, certainty, and even now I cannot help but feel like a cock of the walk as I stride towards the enclosure where we have placed our newest slaves. They must bide their time here, in leg irons, until they become accustomed to the ways of our camp. Their little farming village - Poteidaia, was it? I burned it to the ground before I left, and I was warmed by the sight of it. The shrieks of the children, the screams of the butchered livestock a smoking, stinking blackened husk of shattered dreams was what I left behind, and why shouldnt I have? After all, the villagers will have no future need of it.
I walk slowly along the enclosure, taking a dagger out of my belt and running it along the wooden bars, just for effect. It does me well to see the terror in their eyes, it is vital that they know who is charge, particularly once we are on the road again.
My bronze blade sends a light drumbeat into the cooling evening air, and I pause as my gaze rests upon one slave who is fool enough to challenge me with a green-eyed glare of her own. I remember how she was one of the few who stood apart from the mewling sheep of her fellows when we attacked her village, and how she fought to preserve her freedom. She has spirit, this little chit. It was one of the reasons I did not give her up to the Carthaginians. It is a game I play, from time to time. One I have always won before. I am curious to see how long it will take for me to break her.
The western sky is streaked with gold and amber; it will not be long now before night overtakes us. I yawn. This day has been a long one. We all have worked hard at our war games, none harder than myself, and I feel the heat and the dirt clinging to my damp skin like flies to a rotting piece of fruit.
"See something you like, Xena?" The toady who calls himself my bodyguard cackles behind me.
I whirl around. In a lightning fast move, I am squeezing the life out of him, snaring him by the throat and pulling him up to me, so close that we could kiss if I were of a mind to. His eyes bulge out like blooming poppies, and spittle runs from the corner of his mouth as he struggles to breathe. I hold him in my grasp a few seconds longer than I need to, before I release him.
"As a matter of fact, yes." I feel the corner of my mouth turn up in a half-grin. "You," I walk up to the blonde girl. "I want you to draw me a bath. Looking at you " I snicker, "makes me feel all dirty."
I am disappointed when she shows no fear, but there is still plenty of time for that, I consider. I turn away and retreat to my quarters with the sound of my bodyguards choked laughter ringing in my ears.
The flickering light from my oil lamp paints the confines of my tent in great shadows, they bob and dip as an evening breeze slaps against the tarp. A dinner of lamb stew, cheese, and apples lies half-eaten next to me, along with a full flask of wine that my serving woman knew to bring. I ease my body against the back of the wooden tub, tilting my head upward to receive a tepid, soothing waterfall from the pitcher the slave girl holds over me.
"Thats the last of it," she says tonelessly, placing the pitcher down.
If she had wanted to, she could have cracked my skull open with it and attempted her escape; I know it and she knows it. It is a sign of my power over her that she has chosen not to.
"My back," I say, motioning impatiently.
She does as she is told. I feel warm hands on my skin, bathing, kneading out the kinks I have accumulated this day. A sponge continues to wash water down my hair, my face, my back. For a brief moment I forget myself, where I am, who I am with, and I am lost in the letting go. So tired .
"Is this all right?"
I startle in the tub, sloshing water over the sides, and I am angry with myself for my mental lapse.
"Fine," I fairly shout, and then, though I feel no need to make conversation with this slave girl whose body and spirit I will soon possess, I hear myself press on. "Arent you frightened of me?" I ask a question that surprises even myself.
She answers me, her voice soft and low behind my ear. "No."
I am perplexed. "Well, you should be," I warn her, stabbing at some of the larger soap bubbles in the bath with my finger. "Do you have a name, slave?"
She hesitates, as if unwilling to give away that part of herself. "Gabrielle," she says at last, relenting.
"Gabrielle," I let the sound roll off my tongue. A not unpleasant name. "Tell me, Gabrielle, what did you do in Poteidaia?" I tell myself that the more information I know about her, the more power I will have when the time comes to vanquish her.
"Nothing special," she replies, finding a particularly balky knot in my back and working it, "I was simply the daughter of a farmer."
"No hopes? No dreams?" I find myself leaning into her ministrations, attentively awaiting her answer. While this Gabrielle may well be the daughter of a farmer, there is nothing simple about her. That much I can tell.
Success! I can hear the catch in her voice, and her hands are now at rest upon my shoulders.
"II had thought of being a bard one day, but my father and Perdicas they would have none of it."
"Hah!" I laugh, all smug and self-satisfied, and I swivel around in the tub to face her. "Did I steal you away from your betrothed?"
"No, not really." Gabrielles face is a cold, placid mask in the lamplight. But I can see the green fire that burns within her eyes as she lifts her chin to me. "I watched him die by your hand."
At first I am unable to tear myself away, so rocked am I by the quietness of her fury. It unnerves me so, and I hate myself for having to admit it.
"Leave me!" I say at last, twisting slowly away. I flick a wrinkled hand towards the doorway of my tent.
Nothing. Is the girl rooted to the spot?
"NOW!" My voice is harsh, for it is the command of a warrior princess, and Gabrielle finally departs, taking slow, deliberate steps.
I rest my arms on the side of the tub and sit back, breathing heavily. There will be no victory tonight.
Gods be damned! How in tartarus could I have let this happen? I lead a small troop of my men about 30 in number back towards our camp. The hooves of our horses thunder along the dirt road, spraying the dust up in our faces, and I feel the low-lying branches of the trees that line the path swat off of me, like some school house punishment. The sun is sinking lower in the sky, but that is not the only cause for our hurry; it is the blood streaming down my shoulder that also spurs me along.
Where did this day go wrong? We had heard about the caravan of pilgrims on their way to Delphi. It was supposed to be unguarded, and I was sure that the gods would be more than willing to share the offerings that the pilgrims were bound to be bearing. Just a leisurely afternoon activity, easy pickings, before we broke camp and moved on.
But no. It was as if they had been waiting for us. I wonder if that damned rabble-rouser from Thrace had anything to do with it. The one with designs on stopping me. Something in my gut tells me so.
It looked innocent enough. Pack wagons, mules, women and children. I was at the head of the charge, sounding my battle cry, as we descended on the caravan like a plague of locusts. We had done this a thousand times before, why should today be any different? And suddenly there were men, both on horse and afoot. And a few Amazons too, if Im not mistaken. Archers. Swordsmen. Pikes. Some bastard got in a lucky thrown and nailed me with his knife. It was the last bit of luck he ever had; he paid for it by the point of my sword.
We could have taken them, Im sure of it, but some things just arent worth the effort. Let them keep their blasted gold pieces, wine, and incense. Ignorant pilgrims. They deserve their feeble gods. Greater riches await us in Thessaly, and the sooner we get going there, the better.
We arrive back in camp, bloodied but not bowed. Caine presumes to make a fuss over me, feigning concern, and calling for Joss, our healer.
My lieutenant should know better.
"Leave me be!" I slap him away, enjoying the surprise that registers on his bearded face. "And I dont want Joss either," I insist, swaying slightly as I turn towards my tent. Just the thought of the former butchers hands on my body makes me feel lightheaded. "Bring me the slave girl, Gabrielle." And with that, I storm through the flap of my tent, and feel slightly disoriented at how quickly my pallet is rising up to meet me.
I hear a soft humming, is it coming from inside my head or from without? I think about that, for a time.
There it is again.
It is outside, I am sure of it.
My head is cool. Is that a compress I feel on my brow? And then I blink open my eyes. Fuzzy shapes coalesce into the familiar; I am inside my tent, lying on my pallet, and Gabrielle is sitting at my side humming a childrens song.
"Ungh ." I wince, flexing my left shoulder, but it doesnt feel too bad now, actually. Just a deep, dull throb that I know will fade away in the days to come. I am a fast healer.
"How are you feeling?" Gabrielle asks the requisite question, although I know she could care less.
"Fine," I say, and I nearly mean it. I lever myself up on my elbow, remove my compress, and scrunch my head back a bit so I have a view of the wound. Six or seven stitches, nicely spaced, with a healing ointment finishing off the job. "Did you do this?"
"Yes," she says, reaching for a mug of tea on my small bedside table. "Drink this."
I do, detecting the scent of curative herbs in the drink as I take my first sip. Thank the gods, the knife wound is not serious. It was just the loss of blood that got to me, and I am incensed at possibly having shown any sign of weakness in front of my men. I drink greedily, knowing that the more I do so, replenishing what I have lost, the quicker my recovery will be.
I set the mug down. "Were were you alone?" I have to know.
"Yes," she replies. And then, as if understanding my fear, "No one else saw you like this."
"Good," I grunt, lying back. Already I can feel the drugs coursing through my veins, relaxing me, restoring me. I have had such wounds before, and know that tomorrow it will be all but forgotten.
My eyes slip shut, and through my closed lids I can see the play of light and shadows on the ceiling of my tent. I breathe in deeply, hurting just a little, and I release a contented sigh.
"Tell me a story, Bard."
I feel the compress slip back into place. The bard pauses for a moment, as if to collect her thoughts, and then she begins. Her voice is strong and clear, like music to my ears. Her tones are rich and warm, like mulled wine, and I find myself completely spellbound by the tale she weaves. It is a story of faith and hope; of love and nobility; of sacrifice and forgiveness. It is a story that usually I would find banal and tedious, decidedly unentertaining. But for some reason, on this night, with this storyteller, I am held prisoner by its magic.
It is the tale of a young girl turned mighty warlord, who sought her revenge for hurts both real and imagined against the guilty and innocent alike. She carried on a campaign of terror, leaving devastation and death in her wake, glorying in the horror of it all. But the more she claimed her vengeance, the deeper her despair grew. The mayhem she wrought upon the land simply served to hide a greater turmoil, an inner struggle, which threatened to destroy her.
Finally, hating what shed become and hating herself most of all, she faced her own death. Somehow, through strength and stubbornness, she survived, and the son of a god lent her his hand to show her the way. He convinced her that it was not yet too late to change, to make amends for what she had done, and so she resolved to change her ways forever, to toil for the greater good of all.
Along the way she found a friend, one who believed in her above all others. She gave her the faith and love she needed to sustain herself on a journey whose pathway sometimes grew narrow and dark, and overrun with rocks and weeds. Through it all, the friend stayed by her side. From the dark of night to the light of day, she never doubted the goodness that now dwelt within the warriors great heart.
"The end," I hear Gabrielle whisper.
I stand at the gateway of Morpheus realm now, my body unable to respond to my minds commands. Is that a hand I feel upon my cheek? I cannot be sure, but somehow I know that the bard has now gone. It was a fine story that she told, though I would never admit to it. And anyway, tales like that are simply the stuff of dreams. We never see such things in this life.
Take somebody like me, for instance. I was already damned by the Fates from the moment I first entered this world, I know it. People like me? Were just playing out the string.
Life in a warlords camp can be quite mundane at times. Just like any little village. There are chores to be done, finances to be taken care of, disputes settled, punishments dispensed with. I have taken it easy today, content to let my body do what it does best: heal itself. I pass the time re-counting the dinars I carry in my money belt, and giving orders for our move which I plan for the day after tomorrow. I make sure that the booty wagons are secure; I have no desire to lose even a single goblet of our precious hard-earned cargo during our journey to Thessaly and Spiros.
The slaves from Poteidaia are settling in nicely, or so I thought. Yesterday theyd been freed from their enclosure, fitted with lightweight leg and wrist irons, and put to work. Id taken an interest in Gabrielles assignment where normally I wouldnt have; I made sure she was working under the tutelage of my serving woman. Truth be known, I trusted no one else with her.
"Xena!" I hear Caines shout roll through the camp like an indignant clap of thunder. I turn to see him striding through the compound, coming from the direction of where we stable the horses. A group of soldiers trail behind him, dragging someone. "A slave tried to escape!"
My heart leaps into my mouth and I fight to control my breathing, to preserve my indifferent, bored exterior. "Really?"
I crane my neck, relieved beyond all measure to see as they draw closer that the escapee is a man of middle age, one of the Poteidaians. I recall that we kept him because he had some experience with livestock and horses; we figured he could be of some use to Iban, our horse wrangler.
The man is pulled before me and a crowd gathers round, I am well known among my troops as a rather impatient judge, jury, and sometimes executioner.
Hazel eyes stare at me with hatred from a bruised and bleeding face. The sleeve on his tunic is torn, his trousers are dirtied, and I can see that the chain on his leg iron has somehow been severed.
"Iban turned his back for just a minute, when this fellow grabbed an iron and"
"SILENCE!" I smack Caine across the mouth, hard. The crack of it resonates throughout the compound as he, and the rest of the crowd, grow deathly silent.
I am seething. How dare anyone try to run out on me! I will make sure this bumpkin regrets it before he dies. I step up to the man, the fury in his eyes matched by my own. "Is it true?" My voice is controlled. Calm. "Did you try to escape?"
"Yes," he spits out at me. "And Id try it again, you she-demon! Why if I had the chance"
I dont let him finish. I decide to test my injured shoulder. I let loose a roundhouse punch to the slaves middle. Of course he is powerless to protect himself from my assault, and he doubles over, standing thanks only to the guards on either side of him, the breath blown from his body. "Crucify him," I say to Caine. "And dont break his legs." I turn away, feeling vainly pleased at how well my shoulder withstood this test.
"Nooooo!" There is an agonized shout from the crowd.
Who dares to question my judgment? In front of my men! They will pay too, alongside the slave.
"No! Please, dont!" A womans voice.
I feel a slight tug on the edge of my tunic, and as I twist around I see my men hauling her away from me. It is Gabrielle, the bard.
"Down, you slave bitch!" I see Caine raise his hand to her.
"Stop!" I warn Caine off with a blistering stare, and his fist pulls up short.
"Please dont hurt him." Gabrielle is on her knees now, struggling in the dirt. "Take me instead, I beg of you!"
This interfering little fool, doesnt she realize the risk she runs by making a play like this? And dammit, how did my supposed guards let her get this close to me, anyway? I wish I could just walk away from it all, but my pride, and my men, are unwilling to let that happen.
"Why?" For the life of me I dont understand. I search the bards pleading eyes. "What is he to you?"
"Please Xena," she sobs, using my given name. The tears are streaming down her dirtied face as she beseeches me, and even so I can see how she detests herself for having shown me such weakness. "Please," she says, more softly this time. And then, in a voice I can barely hear, "Hes my father."
I cast my eyes up to the blue of the late afternoon sky, cursing myself for my rotten luck, wishing Id never heard of the little village of Poteidaia. Well, I am the leader here! I am in charge! I can do whatever I want, cant I? I always have. Its not that I even care, really. I know that weve had a devil of a time getting help for Iban, its been many moons now since his last assistant died.
"Youre lucky Im in a good mood today." I treat Gabrielle to one of my most evil grins, and then I turn to Caine. "Twenty lashes, then. And no food or water for three days. That should fix his wanderlust." I can see the disappointment in Caines eyes, he is denied the crucifixion he was looking forward to, but a good whipping is something, at least.
Gabrielle has completely dissolved into tears. How irritating! And after me doing her this favor! I snort and walk away. "Have the slave girl cleaned up and brought to my quarters before a candlemark is through."
Tonight, I will teach her a lesson.
My shoulder is itchy where the stitches are pulling. Thats a good sign, I know, part of the healing process. I take off my cloak and collapse into my chair, waiting for Gabrielle. I am furious. Ive never overturned a judgment of mine, never. And yet I did today, because she asked me to. What kind of power does this slave girl hold over me? How dare she turn the tables on my game? And yet she offered herself up to me, in exchange for her father. Put her life in my hands, and trusted me with it. Did that not mean that the power, the control was mine? Damn it all, I am too hungry and too tired to figure it all out.
Gabrielle arrives within the candlemark, freshly bathed and wearing a change of clothes that I feel certain have been procured for her by Cyrene. No matter. They suit her. The bard has no words for me. Eyes down, she simply begins what has become our evening ritual, drawing me a bath, bringing me my supper.
Relaxing in my tub once more, I feel gentle hands remove the bandage on my shoulder. The skin around the stitches looks pink and healthy. A few days more and the stitches will come out; within a week or two I will barely show any sign of the knife wound.
"You did a good job with that," I say.
These are the first words that have been spoken between us this night.
She scuffs around in front of me, her face cloudy and pained. "II want to thank you for"
"No!" I say, with a hush in my voice. I press a moist finger to her lips, and say the words slowly, so she understands. "You will never speak of it again. If you do, Ill kill you myself." I turn my head away, for my benefit as much as hers.
"Do do you want to hear a story?" I can hear the tremor in her voice. Yes, it is I who hold the power now.
"How about if I tell you one, bard?" My eyes narrow and I grab her forearm, pulling her close. I must be hurting her, but I dont care.
"Its about a little girl whose father left the family because he got tired of living with them. They had to fend for themselves, she and her brothers and mother. A warlord attacked their village. The girl tried to stand up to them, but they were too much for her and her kin. Her younger brother was killed. If only he hadnt been so weak, so unwilling to practice the sword drills she so loved!"
Gabrielles eyes widen as I continue on.
"The young girl swore she would never be so weak, so defenseless, ever again. She left her village and grew strong, became a great warrior, and soon had her own following, an army she could call upon at her whim. It became easier and easier to take what she wanted, whenever she wanted it. She let nothing, and no one stand in her way. Even her older brother, Toris. He was fool enough to think he could challenge her get her to stop her plundering ways," I laugh harshly, "but he was wrong. No one could beat the warlord at her own game. No one."
The bard is whimpering now, and how I relish the sounds of her suffering! The pain of others it is like an elixir to me, bathing my own psychic wounds that never seem to heal. I tighten my grip on her wrist, I can feel the bones grinding beneath the fair skin. "Do you want to know how the story ends, bard?" I half-rise out of the tub, uncaring of the water sluicing off my body onto her. "Do you?" Now it is my turn for my voice to waver, and I can feel a wetness that is not bath water trickling down my face.
"Yes," Gabrielle breathes, in half a cry, half a whisper.
It is time. I can tell by the deafening roar of my blood, by a heart that threatens to burst through my chest, that the time has come to claim what is mine. I feel it, much in the same way as when I sit astride my horse on a bluff over a battlefield, in those last precious moments before leading the charge. It is a firestorm of excitement, of anticipation. It is a yearning to take, to possess; an emotion that I dare not call desire, for that would be a show of weakness.
I loosen my hold on her wrist, while at the same time I reach for her face, cupping it in the palm of my hand. She closes her eyes and I see her flinch, but she does not turn away.
I lift her to my bed, and in spite of the wild horses galloping in my veins, I somehow find the will within myself to take my time, to rein in my passion so as not to frighten her. No. For once, fear is not something that I want to see in my lovers eyes tonight.
"Gabrielle," I say her name like a prayer, lowering myself upon her, my lips and tongue beginning a slow exploration of her body. My mind is exploding with the sensation of it all, and a map of every curve, of every secret place of her, is searing into my memory forever.
It is so subtle, so tentative, that I barely feel it at first, her hands reaching out, finally, and lightly stroking my back. I lift my head to her and see it in her eyes, that which I fear myself the desire. I move quickly then, like the animal I am, and I devour her mouth with my own. I feel all resistance melt away from her body, like snow in the springtime sun, and as I allow the passion to at last carry me away, I know this is her victory, not mine.
Before I lose all sense of time and self; as her cries mingle with my own, as her fingers rake the skin off my back, I hear her say it.
"I I hate you, Xena."
And in this moment, as this person Ive become, I know this: I do not care.
There is only one thing which I would permit to roust me from so warm a bed on so fine a morning, only one thing which flames the passion within me as intensely as a lovers embrace, and that is a good fight.
It was Caine who came storming up to my tent just before dawn when the scouts had raised the alarm. A large force was heading our way, and they didnt look friendly. It was that army from Thrace, I just knew it, led by that sniveling upstart. He was known to me, and I looked forward to seeing him again, to giving him a whipping; teaching him a lesson.
Caine wisely kept his mouth shut when he saw a sleepy Gabrielle in my bed. I dont care what that bastard thinks, but I will have to take extra care that he keeps his hands off of her. This time, Im not sharing.
Now, I exhilarate at the terrible pounding sound of our horses hooves upon the ground, much like an earthquake or a driving thunderstorm. As with those forces of nature, I will leave my mark upon the land and any hastily assembled army that dares to stand in my way. The crisp morning air fills my senses, and I breathe in the smells that set my mouth to watering: the dew-moistened earth, the tall pines, the sweat and the fear. It is this which I live for, this which keeps me going. I know no other way, in spite of what that dreamer Gabrielle thinks.
The approaching army is large and it will be a real challenge for my men, but what we lack in sheer numbers we make up for in skill and cunning. For example, I am sure that the upstart and his farmers and Centaurs are expecting to find me slumbering the morning away in my bed. But no, I have chosen to go out and meet them, charging them head-on. With any luck at all, just the sight of me and my soldiers bull-rushing them, will frighten them all the way back to Thrace.
There! At the edge of the wood I see the first sign of them, where the mist hugs the base of the trees like a child clings to his mothers skirts. Hades horses, but this will be a short fight! The terror on their faces, gods, is that a garden rake one of them holds? they appear even more pathetic than those buffoons from Poteidaia!
I pull my sword from my scabbard and rise up in my saddle, turning slightly to face my men. "Kill them all!" I cry, and just the mere thought of this prospect causes a scintillating thrill to shudder through my body.
We follow them into the woods. Over the sounds of their screams and the clanging of our swords against pitchforks and tree limbs, I hear myself laughing aloud at what quick work we are making of these farmers. I am determined that not a one will be left standing, and so we pursue them through the woodland. The going is difficult at times, and some of our horses lose their footing, but we press on. The formation wed had when we entered the forest has broken down; my troops are scattered now, but I feel that is probably for the best anyhow. This way, we can cast a wider net to bring down our so-called opponents.
Gods, do these woods go on forever? Has it been hours?
Im not tiring, not at all, but Im certainly getting tired of all these branches swatting me in the face and arms. One time, I nearly dropped my sword! And I think one of those damned farmers took a piece out of my calf with a trowel or something! Gabrielle will have more stitch-work to do on me tonight I think, smiling to myself.
There! I can see the trees thinning in front of us. At last, weve reached the ends of the forest. Without their tree stumps and bushes to hide behind, well see how brave this rabble are now.
A soft grunt to my left, and I see one of my men pitch out of his saddle and onto the ground, an arrow buried in his chest. His frenzied horse charges on without him.
Farmers with arrows?
We burst out of the woods and find ourselves in an open field. There are the farmers we were chasing, but now there are more men, and I can see armor, crossbows, and swords now, glinting in the late-morning sun.
The air around us is suddenly humming, filled with a cloud of arrows, but my men show no fear. Arrows, we can deal with. And weve got a few of those ourselves. We fly into the field, an angry swarm of hornets, anxious to take our revenge on the pests who bedeviled us in the forest. Sure enough, these armed men turn and run too.
Ha! How they flee before me! I see more of my men go down, but casualties are a part of the game. Some will make it back, some wont, and frankly, I dont care. The important thing is to destroy this pretender and his sorry excuse for an army. Since when did peace-loving idiots ever make good fighters? This boy-warrior is a fool, as his father was before him.
Weve nearly reached the end of the field. I can see how the ground rises sharply up another 50 leagues or so away; it forms a ravine or sorts. Good. Well have them cornered, and then there will only be the mopping up. Well have won. And just in time, too. My leg is starting to throb, and my injured shoulder is mounting a complaint also.
"Lets finish it, boys!" I shout, waving my sword in a great circle. I spin my horse around, the better to see the field behind us, and suddenly my throat runs dry. I feel the muscles of my face go slack and my sword arm dips low, for in this moment of shock I have lost control of it.
It is I who have made the mistake. I who am trapped. I let these farmers lure us across this field, let myself be distracted by my confidence and superior might, never noticing how the grounds on either side of us were gradually rising, forming a natural battlement.
And now comes a moment when my heart knows fear. For down the hillsides pour Centaurs, with Amazons on their backs, and after that more foot soldiers, well equipped and fresh.
"Retreat!!! Retreat!!" My voice is a hoarse shout, and Caine quickly takes up the call. But it is no use. Already our path back across the field is cut off, and the ravine in front of us is so sheer that it would be impossible to be scaled by any but our best climbers on a good day.
I can feel it now, the breaking down. My men are scattering. Panicking. The weight of the enemys force crushes in around us, squeezing us like a nut in a vise. I have to laugh. This young warrior is good. He risked a trick on me that I would have been proud to claim as my own, and it worked. But gods be damned, its not over yet! I refuse to believe it.
"Hold your ground!" I sweep my horse past the three or four of my soldiers I catch sight of who are casting frantic eyes towards the ravine. "Make a stand!"
Many of my men have been unhorsed now, and without the power of a mount beneath them, I see them mightily intimidated by the Centaurs and those crazed Amazons. "No!" I cry, pushing the sweat-soaked hair out of my face as I ride over to a pocket of my men on the ground. "Gather in!" I can barely hear my voice over the roar of the battle. "Form a perimeter!"
There is terror on their faces, whether from the fear of death in battle or death by my hand, I do not know. But I see several of them move, responding to my command.
No there are more of my men, running, but I can see they are heading right into the maw of a fresh contingent of enemy soldiers. "Not that way!" Even as the words leave my lips, I know they cannot hear me. "Youve got to hold!" I spur my horse towards them, harness jangling and hooves flying. "Youve got to pull together"
In the blink of an eye, it happens. My horse goes down with a terrible bellow, and me along with it. My head strikes the ground, hard. I lay on the battlefield stunned, unable to draw in a breath, but I realize if I dont soon find the will to get moving, it will mean the death of me.
I try once and fail. Again and I roll myself over onto my knees, panting, and then I am crawling, spitting out dirt, hands reaching for my sword.
There! I find it, and push myself to my feet.
It is a different view, from here.
The battle is lost.
Overwhelmed by this realization, I curse and scream a battle cry to the skies, but there is no one left who hears me. My soldiers who remain standing are dead men, and so it must be that I am dead, too.
But there is more work to do before I journey to Tartarus this day.
I fight like the demon Gabrielles father says I am. My sword bites into flesh, slashing, stabbing, cutting, and the ground around me becomes slick with blood and gore. The putrid, metallic perfume of it fills me, fuels me. I could go on like this forever, playing this game, keeping in tempo, a slave to my master.
I am entranced, mesmerized by this dance, when in a jarring flash, an explosion of pain hits my left leg. I stagger backwards but somehow keep my feet. I look down to see the bloodied point of an arrow protruding from my thigh. I take a faltering step forward and feel the shaft of it grind against my bone, and then I do go down, tottering onto one knee.
If only I had a horse! If only there was someone to "Caine!"
Like a good lieutenant, he never strays far from my side.
The behemoth lumbers over to me, his beard sprayed with blood, cuts and bruises dotting his massive arms.
"Help me," I say, struggling to keep the desperation out of my voice. I see his eyes travel from the slice on my calf to the arrow shaft, from the wound on my shoulder which has begun to ooze again, to the bump on my head which bleeds down into the nape of my neck.
I extend my hand. "Please," I say again, my voice a choking rasp.
Caine takes one more quick look around the battlefield and returns his gaze to me. It is then that I see the stranger in his dark eyes. And who was I to presume I ever knew him in the first place?
An ugly sneer snakes across his features, as an idea begins to form. How the gods mock me now! For I know that look all too well; I have caught sight of it in my mirror many times.
In two steps Caine is beside me. He shoves me down onto the ground, kicking my sword away, and I curse myself for the yelp of pain I release as the arrow pushes through my leg. In my haze of agony, I can barely feel Caines rough hands upon me as he cuts off my money belt and pulls my ring of leadership from my finger.
When at last I open my eyes, gasping, sweat streaming down my face, he is gone.
But I am not ready to give up. Not yet. Again, I find my sword. Again, shaking, I rise to my feet. The battle swirls around me, the time for the mopping up has begun. Now I will get to see how it feels to be the piece of garbage that gets swept away. And I refuse to go alone.
I am unable to press the attack. Still, on sheer will alone, I am able to strike down all who come near. After some long moments of this, I realize that even will has its limits. My strength has been leached from me, I can barely hold my sword in my hands. I stand upright only thanks to knee joints that I have locked in place; one slight tip and down I would go. What breath I can take in is no longer enough to fuel my screaming muscles, my foggy sight, my muddled mind. Is this the end? I do not know, for I have never ventured this far down the darkened path.
And then, through the smoke and the haze, through the cloud of my own vision, I see him, the leader of this victorious army. A pretender no longer. He is young, too young to be in a battle such as this, but I can tell by the crimson splashes that coat his tunic that he has already been consecrated by a baptism of blood this day.
He is a handsome young man, with light brown hair and blue eyes, eyes as familiar to me as my own. He moves closer to me, and it is then that I see the disgust, the look of hatred that mars his features. I feel myself sway under the onslaught of his gaze. Is his face a reflection of what Ive become?
He lifts his sword towards me; there is someone elses blood dripping off the point of it. But not for long.
A heartbeat later, I lower my own weapon.
Is this when the great warlord finally has a change of heart? Or, in the end, am I simply too tired of it all? Either way the result is the same. No more.
Im not sure whether I say the words or think them.
But the next thing I know, I have a lovely view of the late afternoon sky, and the annoying noises of the little dust-up going on around me have faded away. I try to draw in a breath, and this is my mistake. I feel it now oh, yes. Like Ive been skewered through the middle by a white-hot poker.
I sense him next to me, though I cannot see him, my Solon, and I feel a brief flare of warmth as he takes up my hand. He is speaking now, though he sounds so very far away.
"Im sorry, mother. For the both of us."
Time. It is the one thing we always think we have plenty of. Time to move on to Thessaly. Time to work on that new sword exercise I picked up from the Carthaginians. Time to show Gabrielle Im not the monster she thinks I am.
I am not sure how much time has passed. It is night now, or perhaps it is just the darkness which has descended upon me. How cold the ground is beneath me! What I wouldnt give now for even a horse blanket to ward off the chill that holds me fast.
I will die here, alone, I know this.
I deserve it.
I am not afraid of dying, but as I lie here now, helpless as a newborn babe, I realize that all my life Ive been scared of living. Its why Ive been chasing death all this time. I was afraid of life, frightened of feeling, terrified of loving. The young girl from Poteidaia was right: where theres life, theres hope. A belief that its never too late to change. Well almost. For my time has just about expired.
In my minds eye I can see Gabrielle as I left her, and I worry what will become of her. Cyrene is with her now, a taller shadow in the candlelight, and as I draw closer I can see my little bard is weeping. Clothes and a bit of food are being placed in a traveling sack; can it be? Gabrielle is leaving this place.
No . I reach out my hand to her, but she doesnt hear me.
Please dont leave me. I need you. Ive changed!
But the vision fades. My candle flickers out, and then there is only the darkness.
I am weary.
Each breath I draw in is an effort, and the pain blazes a swath through me so wide that I wonder why I even bother. But I know the reason why my reason for living. What I wouldnt give to hear the sweet sound of her voice feel the comfort of her touch! She cant leave me she cant! Im still here!!
"Gabrielle ." I release a cry into the cold darkness.
"Please please dont leave me!"
Can it be? A warm hand on my cheek. "Sssh Im not going anywhere."
"Ga" With a start, my eyes flutter open, and I make an awkward half-motion to sit up. But the pain gods, its like a horse has fallen upon my chest!
"Easy dont try to move!" Firm hands press me back down, and I realize Im lying on a soft cot. My eyes begin to water. It is her. Gabrielle. She is with me.
"Whatwhat happened?" My voice sounds cracked and dry, like an old womans.
"Ssh dont you remember?" Cool water is brought to my lips, and I take a couple of greedy, choking swallows before it is pulled away. "We were passing through Plontios when it was attacked by raiders. You and the local militia were able to drive them off, but one of them got in a lucky strike with his sword."
She lays a cool compress across my brow and, slowly, my disorientation begins to clear. Plontios yes. We were on our way to Ephium for the festival. Wed heard there were raiders in the area .
"Ive been so worried, Xena. That was three days ago."
I look at her clearly then, and see the paleness of her face, the exhaustion blanketing her delicate features.
"Sorry about that!" I attempt to muster up a small smile.
"Sorry?" She grins and at the same time catches a tear with her index finger, just before it escapes her eye. "Whats there to be sorry for? It was just you had a fever. And terrible nightmares ."
Ah, yes. I close my eyes briefly. Just these few short moments in Gabrielles company, and how quickly those demons have already retreated to the dark recesses of my mind. Soon, they will be no more than a wisp of a thought, scattered into the wind.
"Its over now," I say, realizing how hard this has been on her. I marshal my flagging resources and reach out to take her hand in mine.
"I know," she sniffles, surrendering in the battle to ward off her tears. "Its just I thought I was losing you."
"Im not going anywhere," I say, closing my eyes and feeling the urge to sleep overtake me. I need to rest now. Sweet, dreamless sleep. And Gabrielles soothing voice is the last thing I hear.
"Neither am I."
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