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General Disclaimer: Ok-- slightly revised disclaimer to a slightly revised story. My original intention was to write five discrete stories loosely linked together by the developing relationship of Xena and Gabrielle. Didn't work. Well, it did, but the stories are turning out to be more intricately connected than I had anticipated. Oops. So... here's the deal: The original story "Chiaroscuro" has been retitled "Tales of Dark and Light" and is now reposted with a few revisions. Think of it as a Director's Cut with restored footage. "Chiaroscuro" now refers to the whole sprawling 5-part mess and encompasses, I think, the entire scope of the whole project more effectively. Does that make any sense? Each story carries its own sex/violence disclaimers.
Sex/ Violence Disclaimer: This story contains references to a sexual relationship between two consenting adult women as well as references to a rape. Nothing graphic, but be warned.
All questions, comments, and other things are always welcome.
You can reach me at:: email@example.com
The day started off much the same as all their others. Xena rose with the sun and scouted the nearby area to make sure nothing dangerous had arrived during her short rest. She took her time prowling the outskirts of their campsite, listening to the sounds of the earth as it came to life around her. She also used this time to shake off the last dregs of the nightmare that had awakened her, sweating and shuddering, from her light sleep. It's a good thing we haven't run up against anything these last few days. I'm so tired I probably couldn't stop a child, she thought as she walked through the wooded glade. Nightmares were a normal part of her routine by now, but of late the faces and bodies that popualated her dreamscape were speaking to her of their pain and reaching out to pull her down into the darkness. Perhaps that's why I love the dawn so much, she mused while standing hip deep in the nearby stream trying to catch their breakfast.
Returning to the site, Xena started a warm fire to break the chill of the morning. Only then did she turn to wake the bard sleeping peacefully nearby. Gabrielle awoke reluctantly, her senses slow to engage with the early morning surroundings that gave her traveling companion so much pleasure. This was Xena's favorite time of the day, free from the haunting images of the night and the bard's innocently prying questions. They ate slowly, relishing the feel of the sun warming their skin, then they packed camp quickly and efficiently.
As they traveled easily along the well-marked trail, the last fog of sleepiness left Gabrielle, and she began to pepper the warrior with questions. "So, Xena, when you were battling the Harpies, how much harder was it to fight them when they were in the air?"
Xena groaned inwardly at the voice coming from behind her. Doesn't she ever quit? What in Tartarus is so interesting to her about me and a swordfight? Argo nickered in sympathy. No doubt Gabrielle was working on yet another tale of their exploits. Much as she loved the other woman's company, she wished Gabrielle would find someone else to weave her tales about.
"Well? Tell me? Was your first impulse to use your sword or chakram? Or--"
"Does it matter? Honestly, Gabrielle, I don't remember. How many times have I told you, the time for thought is before the fight. Not when someone is swinging at you."
"So you've trained so much that your skills have been--" the warrior could almost hear the gears in the young woman's brain clicking as she sought the right word "-- honed into a battle-ready instinct. Got it."
"Oh gods, Gabrielle! You've got to be kidding me!" Xena twisted around in the saddle. "'Battle-ready instinct?' Don't you think that's going a little too far?"
Her companion stopped on the trail and rapped her staff sharply on the ground. "Hey! Who's the bard here? This story should be good for a few dinars at the next tavern. You just stick to being the warrior and I'll--" She stopped abruptly as Xena slid off Argo, drew her sword, and began advancing with a deadly gleam in her eyes. "Uh, Xena, I didn't mean now--" Her words were silenced as the warrior hurled her body against the other woman, knocking them both to the ground as two arrows whizzed overhead. "No instinct, huh?" Gabrielle muttered as Xena sprang off her, sword at the ready.
"There are five of them," the warrior shouted just as two men landed directly in front of her. Xena quickly parried their thrusts, using the momentum as one man charged past her to smack him sharply on the head with the hilt of her sword, rendering him unconscious.
Gabrielle put her staff to good use, catching one man under the chin and blocking the other's sword thrust. "Where's the fifth?" she shouted over the fray.
"Must--" CLANG! "be--" CLANG! "the--" CLANG! "archer!" Xena finished off the second of her assailants, making sure he was down before turning to aid her smaller companion. Proving her words true, another arrow began traveling towards her. Instinctively deflecting the arrow with her sword, she slowed but did not stop its flight. Much to her horror, she saw it redirected towards Gabrielle. The arrowhead found its mark, gouging a place on the young woman's right side. Wincing in pain, the young woman dropped the staff just as she was swinging it towards her last opponent. She fell to the ground, helpless before the oncoming attack.
"NO!" Xena shouted, vaulting herself over the sprawled bodies and landing between Gabrielle and her attacker. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the heretofore hidden archer drop from the trees and advance, his bow drawn menacingly. She parried the swordsman's attack, hoping for a second to free her chakram and fling it at the second assailant. All she saw in her mind's eye was the blood flowing from her wounded companion. Another sword thrust-- the chakram came free-- but the archer was drawing his bow back. She'd never have time.
As the archer was about to let his arrow fly, he howled in pain, dropping his bow. Xena took the moment's distraction to finish off the man in front of her and turned fully towards the now unarmed archer who had a dagger protruding from his stomach. "Gabrielle?" she asked.
"I don't know where it came from."
"It came from me." A voice called from behind them.
Xena swirled, sword drawn. She saw that she faced a woman of about her own height, dressed in leather leggings and a white tunic. Her blond hair was gathered into a long braid that fell down her back, and she had startling green eyes. The dark warrior took all this in with a subconscious glance-- her true attention was focused on the woman's drawn sword.
"Whoa!" the stranger said, holding up her right hand, palm out. The sword was still firmly in her left. "I have no interest in finishing what these men started. I wouldn't have interfered at all, but I saw your friend get hurt. There was no way you could defend both of you-- not with that archer." She broke into a grin. "Maybe I should have just let you finish him off, but it looked like you could have used the help." Seeing that Xena was not about to relax her wariness, she sheathed her sword. "Okay-- see?" Now she held both hands in front of the black-clad warrior. "I'm unarmed. Don't you want to see to your friend? I give you my word-- you won't be harmed."
"Why should I--" Xena began, but Gabrielle interrupted her.
"She's wearing Amazon markings. It's okay. Look at her wrist."
Xena glanced at the stranger's arms and noted the bracer on her sword arm was indeed Amazon. She also noticed an intricately-worked silver bracelet, tight around the wrist, on her right arm. She nodded and lowered her sword, immediately turning her attention to her friend on the ground. "Let me take a look," she said softly, gazing into the bard's eyes. Gods, if that woman hadn't been there... She gently probed the wound, thankful that the arrow had only grazed the surface and not embedded itself into her side. Even though the wound bled copiously, she saw with relief that it was a superficial one and not life-threatening. Still, the sight of so much blood coming from Gabrielle's body was an unnerving one for Xena. She had long ago stopped wondering when protecting Gabrielle had become her first priorty. Now it was an instinct ingrained in her as deeply as breathing itself. She whistled for Argo, who obediently trotted back to her mistress. Xena quickly grabbed the necessary supplies from the saddle pack and began her ministrations. As she worked, she noted the stranger briefly pursue the trail the two live attackers had left.
"Just bandits, I suspect. This road is frequented by fairly wealthy travelers." She said to the other women. "I doubt they'll be back anytime soon. Not after the thrashing you two gave them."
Gabrielle smiled at the tall stranger in spite of the pain coming from her side. "Thanks. We did pretty well."
Xena frowned to herself. Not well enough. I must be more tired than I realized. She managed a small smile for her friend and spoke softly. "I need you to do something for me." She placed a poultice of water and healing herbs to prevent infection against the wound. "Hold this." Wincing at Gabrielle's sharp intake of breath, she put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I know it hurts, I'm sorry." She reached in the saddle bag for some strips of cloth they carried for bandages and gently began wrapping the wound. Aware that the stranger was still at their side, she addressed her, "So where's your riding party? I'm sure they'll want to see Gabrielle and know you saved their queen." This last was said with a hint of bitter sarcasm. And it's a good thing too, considering I failed so miserably.
The blond woman's eyebrows shot up. "That Gabrielle?" She gracefully sank to one knee and bowed her head. "I'm honored," she said, looking up again. "I knew who you were, Xena. I just didn't realize that your Gabrielle and the Amazon Queen were one in the same."
Xena quirked an eyebrow at the mention of Gabrielle as "hers." Many people assumed a degree of physical intimacy between the former warlord and the young bard that wasn't present. Although Xena realized that those assumptions were based on her past-- when she would have taken someone like Gabrielle as "hers"-- the lewd remarks and appraising glances that often raked over them as they traveled enraged her. Their relationship was no one's concern but their own. But it seemed like the boundries of that particular relationship were constantly shifting these days. So much so that neither woman had felt comfortable saying anything about it. Certainly not Xena, who considered herself awkward at best with both words and emotions. So far she had been well-content to just let things drift. For some reason, even though the woman's words were spoken innocently enough, Xena burned at the images they conjured up. She felt the burn turn to anger as she addressed the blond woman. "How did you know who I was?"
A playful light shone in green eyes. "A warrior woman, dressed in leather, traveling with a small bard?" She rolled her eyes. "Come on. How many do you think are out there?"
Gabrielle's laughter filled the air, and Xena smirked in return. But still, she pressed the stranger. "So? Where are your companions?"
"The stories about you are true, aren't they, Warrior Princess? You're not much for manners." She bowed from the waist to Xena and again to Gabrielle. "My name is Corin. And yes, I was born of the Amazons and was honored to have been in their guard. However," she gestured around her, "I don't travel with them anymore. As you can see, I am alone." As she said this, Xena noted the look in her eyes, although her voice was clear and proud. I can see the shutters going up in her eyes, Xena noted with surprise. Something's not right. She doesn't seem like an exile. They're usually so... bitter. Xena arched a brow as she listened to Corin address Gabrielle. "There's a town nearby that we could make before nightfall. I'd be pleased if you would let me accompany you. Even though I no longer call the land my home, I am still an Amazon and consider it my duty to see you to safety."
That's no 'ordinary' Amazon. She speaks like a diplomat. In the guard, huh? Why wouldn't I be surprised to find out she LED the guard? Xena scowled at this last bit. "Look Corin, I can protect Gabrielle until we reach the next town." Her blue eyes were ice.
"I'm sure you can, Xena." Corin's voice held no reflection of the anger that clouded Xena's words. "But Gabrielle is injured. What if you were set upon by another band of attackers? Ones who were smart enough to use her injury against you?" She unerringly pointed out Xena's one weakness. "It's less than half a day if we start now and travel slowly enough not to aggravate the wound. I'll see you to a tavern and, if you want, leave you in peace." Xena's eyes lasered into Corin. Who are you? Her eyes seemed to be asking, Do you mean us harm? And why are you so far away from home?
The two warriors locked eyes-- cool green reflected back at troubled blue. "Please," Corin said softly and something settled between them.
Xena's eyes widened at the sudden energy she felt flowing between her body and Corin's, linking them together. She nodded, accepting, but not understanding what just happened. "All right."
Corin smiled. "Thank you." She whistled sharply and an imposing black horse cantered into the clearing. Noticing the women's surprise at the horse's entrance, she shrugged. "Didn't want to go charging into a situation where she might get hurt." She swung into the saddle with an easy movement. "Did we, Berdach?" The horse whinnied in agreement.
Gabrielle groaned. "Oh great. Now there are two of you. What is it with warriors and their horses?"
Xena and Corin exchanged a wry grins. Placing Gabrielle gently on Argo's back, she mounted behind the smaller woman, and they were on their way.
The trio made it to the village without further incident. The ride had been quiet, since Corin seemed no more inclined to conversation than Xena, and the normally voluble bard was groggy and in pain. With a careful glance, Xena observed that, although the village was small, it seemed to be a thriving community. The shops were tidy and well-kept, the streets free of debris, and the citizens industriously scurrying around. She saw that her arrival was not unnoticed, but, she realized with surprise, the glances thrown her way were curious rather than hostile. Why do I think that has more to do with who I'm riding with than anything else? she asked herself wryly as she noticed the respectful looks cast towards the blond Amazon riding beside her. Corin led them down a wide main street to a tavern of good size.
The barkeep greeted Corin with a nod as she spoke. "I need another room, Berus. A nice one with a bath. My comrade's friend is wounded."
Berus took one look at Xena holding the injured Gabrielle and asked with a snarl, "Since when did you start vouching for a warlord?"
Xena's eyes narrowed and the blue blackened. She wasn't in the habit of explaining herself or her reformed ways. Gabrielle usually did most of the smooth-talking. She started to reply angrily when Corin answered.
Her voice was eerily calm. "Perhaps you didn't hear me, Berus. I said my comrade," --a slight emphasis on the words-- "and her injured friend need a room." Xena watched as Corin held the barkeep's gaze until he slowly nodded. There was no threat in her look, no intimidation in her voice. Just quiet strength. Xena watched the exchange silence. Hmmm.... he respects her more than he hates me. That's interesting. Corin raised an eyebrow at Berus' assent. "Is there a room made up now?"
Berus finally found his voice. "Yes. The next to the last one on the left. Right beside yours."
"Have Kira bring some hot water, medical supplies, and some food."
At this last comment, Gabrielle's eyes brightened, and her head perked up. "Did somebody say food? I'm starving."
Both Corin and Xena grinned at the recovering bard. "Sure did, Your Highness. Let me show you to your room."
The Amazon made sure Xena and Gabrielle were comfortable, then discreetly excused herself, leaving the pair alone. Xena helped the young woman bathe, washing her hair, and then carefully tended the wound. With each ministration, Gabrielle became more and more animated, relieving the concern that clouded the warrior's eyes ever since she had seen the bard fall.
"Come on, Xena. This is a new tavern in a village we've never been to. I'd like to hear their bard." Gabrielle was arguing.
"You were just wounded. You could have been killed."
"Yes, but I wasn't. How come you always shrug off your wounds-- remember that time you got stabbed how many times? I forget. And then you and Hercules had a drinking contest? But my wounds-- scratches really-- impair me for weeks?" The warrior contemplated the indignant woman before her. Gods, she has a memory longer than the Furies. Well... she's certainly not acting too wounded. Her worry over the younger woman was slowly being replaced by amusement over the bard's tirade. Gabrielle intruded on her musings. "Besides, I want to find out more about Corin."
Xena arched a brow at the Amazon's name. At least we agree on that. That woman makes me nervous. When I look at her it's like I'm looking at something in myself. But... Her thoughts were interrupted simultaneously by Gabrielle's further arguments and a knock on their door.
Xena opened the door to admit a smiling Corin. She had changed clothes-- removing the dirty white tunic and replacing it with a deep crimson one. Her blond hair was loose, and Xena could faintly smell the crisp scent of bath salts that reminded her of the sea. Xena was shocked by her sudden recognition of the Amazon's beauty. Wordlessly she stepped back and admitted the woman into their room.
Corin's eyes danced over Xena and came to rest on Gabrielle. "Well, you seem to be feeling better. I could hear you coming down the hall. Why don't you two come downstairs and have some dinner?" Hearing Gabrielle's stomach growl in agreement, she added wryly. "I'm sure that snack has worn off by now."
"Actually, we were thinking of taking dinner in our room." Xena interjected.
Corin shot them both a questioning look. "But we have some wonderful entertainment tonight. Two very good musicians and an excellent bard. Although I'm sure he's not as talented as the Queen here. Please. Join us."
Xena set her jaw, and Gabrielle scowled. "She thinks I'm too fragile to go downstairs. Because of a scrape!"
Her traveling companion held up a hand. "I'm just concerned for your well-being. I mean what if a fight breaks out? The wound's not serious now, but if you get thrown across a table, it might become that way. I mean this is a tavern and trouble does seem to find us. Do you know just how many drunken suitors I've pulled off you in the last two summers?"
Loud laughter interrupted the pair's argument. "If that's all you're worried about, let the little one come down to dinner. I promise, trouble won't find you here."
"Xena." She spoke the name softly, and Xena felt an unexpected shiver run down her back, the Amazon's proximity waking something dormant in her. "This tavern is under my protection." The words were a quiet guarantee of safety. She gestured towards the door. "Now come down to dinner."
Corin had been right, Xena thought to herself as she surveyed the room from her seat. The 'keep led them to what he referred to as "Corin's table," and Xena nodded in approval at the choice. They were discreetly tucked into a corner-- close enough to the fire and out of the way of the main lines of the room's traffic. It was, she admitted silently, the table she would have claimed for herself. Both warriors sat with their backs against the wall, legs outstretched with Gabrielle's attention bouncing happily between them. Xena could see the curiosity shining bright in the young bard's eyes, and she figured that Gabrielle was trying to find a way to dislodge Corin's stories. Who is about as interested in talking about her past as I am. As she observed the other woman Xena got the sense that she and the Amazon were more alike than different, but she could feel no darkness in the blond warrior. Corin's silence seemed to emanate from a calm deep inside her, a calm Xena knew she herself did not possess.
The crowd was boisterous, complete with impromptu dancing inspired by the musicians Corin had told them about. But overall, the evening was peaceful. As Xena felt her wariness relaxing, she indulged herself in watching Gabrielle and enjoying the excellent wine before her. She noticed Corin's eyes scanning the room at regular intervals and marveled at how the Amazon maintained an easy banter with the patrons while on the lookout for potential trouble spots.
A man approached their table, but Xena wasn't alarmed. Many people had done so in the course of the evening to pay their respects to Corin. She sat her wine down abruptly when she heard the warning growl in Corin's voice. "Step away from the table, Tersius."
Both Gabrielle and Xena whipped their heads up to look at the man whose life was suddenly in danger. "I thought it was you, Corin." There was no threat in the man's demeanor or tone, and Xena's eyes narrowed as she tried to assess the situation. Corin had not moved, not shifted her position to prepare for an attack. I wouldn't want to be in that guy's boots. The thought flitted across Xena's mind as she watched the pair.
"Corin, you know I wanted no part of what happened."
The low, growling tone again. "I know, Tersius. That's why you're still alive. If you don't step away form the table, that could change."
Tersius held up his hands in surrender. "All right, Amazon. You win." He shook his head sadly and faded back into the crowd.
Corin finished her drink with a deep swallow and instantly, the barmaid was beside her. The hard planes of the blond woman's face softened slightly. "Thank you." But the kindness vanished when the serving girl left the table.
"Wow! What was that about, Corin?" Gabrielle tried to lighten the silence. "I bet that tale could win the Annual Competition at the Athens Academy."
Subtle as always, Gabrielle, Xena silently shook her head. Like a battering ram.
The ghost of a smile chased itself across Corin's face. "You are a charming young bard. But I have no stories to share with you. Now, if you'll both pardon me. I think I'm going to excuse myself until I'm fit company." She gracefully rose from her chair. Looking down at Xena, she placed a long-fingered hand on the other woman's shoulder. Only years of controlling her reflexes kept Xena from starting at the jolt Corin's touch sent through her. "Don't worry about the little one's safety. The busiest time of night has passed, and we'll have no trouble. Enjoy your wine." She nodded to Xena and smiled briefly at Gabrielle before making her way out the door.
Both the warrior and the bard watched her depart. Gabrielle was the first to break the silence. "Huh? She calls that a bad mood?" She cocked her head thoughtfully at Xena. "You could take a few pointers, you know."
Xena shot her friend a warning glance.
"Oh come on, if that had been you, that guy would have gone flying through the fireplace."
A deep rumble of laughter sounded over their table. The man Corin had called "Tersius" had returned. Xena tensed herself imperceptibly and raised a questioning brow at the man. "I thought you were the famous Warrior Princess. I was a volunterr at Tessalon." He mentioned a village that Xena and Gabrielle had saved from raiders six moons previously. "I never thought anyone could beat Corin, but you might have a chance."
The young bard stared at the solider in open-mouthed amazement. She glanced at Xena, who nodded. She knew that Gabrielle could smell a story here and was dying for the man to tell it. Admit it, Xena. You want to know about her as much as Gabrielle does. Maybe even more. "Please," Gabrielle motioned at their table, "Have a drink with us. We've just met Corin, but she seems... unusual."
Tersius sat easily in the chair once it had been offered. He seemed anxious to speak with them. Xena watched him closely, studied his movements, his expressions. His eyes held a haunted look. Or-- Xena thought wryly, remembering Corin's words to the man-- hunted. "That's right, young lady, your Warrior Princess is a superb fighter. Better than any I've ever seen. Except Corin."
There's that possessive again. What is it about us? Xena thought.
"How did you meet her?" Gabrielle's question returned her mind to the conversation before them. The bard was hot on the trail of yet another story.
At least this one won't be about me.
"I used to be a royal guard for the Kingdom of Argon," he began, naming a large and prosperous city a few miles off the coast. "I was the personal guard to the king's daughter, Livia." Xena could hear the pride in his voice at the choice assignment. "Things were-- well, how can I describe them?-- perfect during this time. Minus, the king, had arranged peace pacts with neighboring cities and villages. Trade was good. And our army kept raiders away. This was about five summers ago. One day an Amazon scouting party requested entrance to the castle and an audience with Minus. Corin was the captain of the party. She was an incredible sight-- clad in leathers on this huge black mount. Well, the king knew that the Amazons weren't about to attack him, so he granted their audience and request."
"Which was?" The bard refilled his port.
"Minus controlled some forest lands, bordering the kingdom. The Amazons were passing through and wanted the use of the lands for their summer solstice celebration. It's a large festival of--"
"We know the celebration," Xena interrupted.
Tersius paused a moment, then grinned sheepishly, hitting his forehead with the palm of his hand. "That's right, I forgot." He gestured at Gabrielle, "I guess you would know." Xena smiled at her friend, pleased that the younger woman was recognized for once. "Well, then you know the celebration lasts three days, culminating on solstice night. They offered-- as 'payment' and thanks for the use of the land-- to allow the women of the kingdom to watch or participate in the games and celebration if they were so inclined."
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances swiftly. It was rare that the Amazons allowed strangers to observe their rituals, let alone celebrate them. "They must have really respected Minus," Gabrielle commented.
Tersius nodded. "Minus led Argon with his queen Meghann and was a great believer in equality." His tone seemed sceptical to Xena, but she remained silent. "Boys and girls were educated together, and there were many women who ran shops and such. Even a few in the army. And more and more, it looked liked Livia would be groomed to take over the kingdom. Minus was no fool-- he knew what an honor the Amazons were offering. So he readily agreed." He smiled shrewdly. "The Amazons are good to have as allies. Livia-- who had recently passed her eighteenth summer-- had quite a reputation as a rider. She could just about make any horse dance a tune. She asked Minus if she could lead the delegation. >From the sparkle in her light blue eyes, I knew she'd be competing.
"The king agreed to Livia's suggestion. He was training both his children-- he also had one son-- to rule someday There was only one problem. Although I was head of Livia's personal guard, for obvious reasons, I couldn't go. You can imagine how I felt," he looked at Xena, "at the thought of charge going to a place where I couldn't reach her." He shifted his glance from Xena to Gabrielle, and the warrior knew he was comparing the princess to Gabrielle. She wondered again about how her protection of the bard was perceived and felt a seed of dislike sprout for the man before her.
She cut her eyes to the bard who seemed ignorant of the silent exchange. "Go on," she prompted roughly.
"That's when Corin stepped forward. She promised that she personally would escort Livia. I felt her staring hard at me as she spoke the words-- an oath from one warrior to another. I knew then that she would be safe in Corin's charge."
Xena nodded, her mind flitting briefly to the encounter this morning and how swiftly the Amazon had rushed to their aid.
"Anyway..." the man continued, "a bunch of women wanted to go. Most just to see the spectacle. A handful, Livia included, wanted to compete. The celebration lasted three days. I have to tell you: those three days were the longest I've ever spent. All of the men were barred from witnessing and no one could leave until the closing feast. At night you could hear their drums, and if the wind was blowing from the east, the sounds of their laughter came with the breeze." The man sounded slightly jealous. Maybe he doesn't like being exluded.Or a group of women telling him where he can and can't go, Xena thought. "I knew Livia was safe, but still I worried. But soon enought the small Amazon delegation returned, Corin at the head, Livia safely tucked between three warriors.
"She was glowing with excitement and wore a victor's sash. As the two women approached Minus, Corin bowed on one knee to the king. When he bade her to rise, she caught my eyes and nodded, relinquishing the task of protection to me."
Lest we forget that you were the princess' guard. Xena narrowed eyes as she studied the man before her. The soldier's words painted a vivid picture of Corin, but then again, even after only spending a small amount of time in their company, the Amazon's honor shone through. Thinking about how solicitious Corin had been of Gabrielle, she was sure that the Argon princess had been well taken care of. Probably much better than you could, huh Tersiu?. I don't think you liked that one bit. She drew her attention back to the unfolding story.
"'Thank you again, Your Highness, for the use of your land," Corin began the formal words of gratitude, every inch an Amazon captain. She expressed her nation's thanks and offered a formal bond of friendship, which Minus, of course, accepted. Then, the formalities completed, she turned to Livia-- her face calm, but her eyes gleaming.
"'My princess,' she said, dropping again to one knee. 'The Amazon Nation thanks you for participating in our celebration as well as for sharing your extraordinary skills. I have never seen someone so gifted with a horse.' She brought her head up, eyes looking squarely at Livia. 'And I thank you personally for your charming company. I'll remember you always.'"
Xena shot a swift glance over to Gabrielle. The bard was caught up in the story-- undoubtedly imagining how she would re-tell it. I wonder if she knows where this is heading, Xena idly wondered.
Tersius' voice interrupted her thoughts. "Minus insisted that Corin and her party stay for the evening. After one look at Livia, Corin quickly agreed and dispatched someone to report that the others would be staying the night.
"That night, the ladies of the court told us all about the festival. The two Amazon escorts were clearly not used to such attention-- I think they were a bit overwhelmed. But Corin enchanted everyone. Playing down her own accomplishments-- she had won several of the competitions-- and praising Livia and the other women. It seemed like she drew everyone into the conversation effortlessly. No one could take their eyes off her, Livia most of all," he said almost ruefully.
It doesn't sound like you were too pleased about that.
"I was not the only one who noticed the princess' preoccupation. Minus' son, Aaron, was watching his sister like a hawk. The boy had always been unnaturally jealous of his sister's abilities. He was a vile young man, twisted and corrupt." Tersius stopped, closing his eyes as a brief shudder ran through him. He shook his head as if to chase away the unwanted memory.
"The dinner continued until the early hours of the morning. No one wanted to leave a room filled with such laughter. But finally, Minus called for an end. I immediately went to lead Livia to her chambers. Corin turned to me, 'With your leave,' she said, 'I'd like to escort the princess.' She smiled at Livia. 'Since I'm not sure when I'll again have the pleasure of her company.' She knew the rules of court impeccably; her language was flawless, formal but with a hint of familiarity. To the eye, she was merely a gallant warrior completing her duty. But standing so close to them, I could feel the heat shimmering between the pair. Read the connection in their eyes. What choice did I have? When the leader of the Amazon army wants to escort your charge, you let her. I nodded and watched them leave the room."
What choice indeed? Xena mused.
Tersius slowly refocused his eyes back on the two women in front of him and took a long draught of his port.
"They were lovers?" Gabrielle's question was more of a statement than anything. Seeing Xena's eyebrow arched in her direction, she shrugged. "I am an Amazon Queen, after all."
Tersius nodded. "I'm not proud of what I did that night, but-- as you can probably tell-- I was in love with Livia." Looking solemnly at Xena, he continued. "I'm not a fool. I knew that she could never return it. I thought she was meant for someone more than just a soldier. But I spent every day of my life guarding this woman, willing to exchange my life for hers."
"Of course you loved her," Xena finished for him, aware of Gabrielle's eyes now on her. She looked at the man before her with growing suspicion. Bet it rankled like Hades when your princess took another soldier as a lover. Especially a woman. But what did you call her? The leader of the Amazon army? Yeah, judging from what I've seen, you were more than a little outclassed. You knew it too.
"So I had to know. For myself." He drew a deep breath before continuing. "As her personal guard, my chambers were just on the other side of hers, and in-between them was a secret room-- a method of escape should raiders invade the castle. So that night, I crept into that room, only a thin wooden panel separating us. And I listened..." His eyes regained their faraway look as he recalled the exchange between the princess and her lover.
"'Why do you have to leave?' I heard Livia ask. It was a teasing, cajoling tone I had never heard from her. It was the voice of a woman in love.
"'Because my place is with the Amazons. As your place is here.' There was a silence followed by the unmistakable sound of two people moving together, their lips touching. There was a soft sound of a body landing of the bed, followed by throaty laughter. Corin's voice, 'Hey--'
"'You didn't think I had mastered that, did you?'
"'Well you didn't pay much attention during the combat demonstrations.'
"'You're wrong, my love. I never took my eyes off you. Or all those women you sent so easily to the ground.'
"More laughter. 'Is that why you've captured me?'
"'Oh yes. I want to feel a warrior surrender to me...' As the sounds of their lovemaking began, I tried to leave. But my body stayed riveted in its place. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I listened to their passion. I heard Corin give herself over completely to the princess, and I heard the princess do the same. I don't know when the warrior left Livia's chamber-- I had fallen asleep listening to the quiet whispers they shared after their passion. But I awoke shortly before down, in time to take my place as her guard.
"The Amazons left the next day. Corin was as gallant and charming as ever, but I could see the shadow of loss in her-- and its reflection in Livia's eyes." Tersius finished his port and gestured for the barmaid for another to be set at their table.
"That's it?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief. "That's why she wants to kill you?"
If I was Corin and I found this imbecile spying on me, I'd take him apart. Xena kept her thought to herself, well aware than Gabrielle wouldn't appreciate it. You can justify yourself and paint yourself the gallant protector all you want, Tersius, but you know and I know that you were jealous as Hades. Even now. But that's not what's driving you to speak. I wonder what is.
The ex-soldier shook his head sadly. "Oh no, my young friend. That's only the beginning."
"The Amazons had been gone for months. Livia still went about her duties with thoroughness and attention, but her eyes, so clear and blue in the past, were now clouded over with loss.
"One day, late in the afternoon, when Livia was presiding over court-- both she and Aaron had designated days-- there was a great commotion at the gates. Once again the Amazon captain was at our gates. Except this time she half lay across her horse, her body covered in blood. She gasped out the location of her scouting party-- they had been ambushed-- before sliding off her horse into Livia's arms.
"Livia insisted on waiting while the healer saw to Corin's wounds. I was one of those who helped carry her into the castle. I remained while the healer matter-of-factly stripped off the warrior's garb, and I watched Livia's face become more and more stricken as she saw each wound revealed.
"Meanwhile the other scouts were brought in; all three were near death. As soon as the healer got Corin settled, she raced off to the other Amazons. The captain's wounds were multiple, none too serious by themselves, but the hard gallop to find help had made the blood flow freely and weakened her seriously. When she came to, Livia was by her side. I was a ghost in the background.
"She opened those fierce green eyes. 'Livia,' she said, more a breath, more a whisper than anything. The princess tried to silence her, but she asked after the others. When Livia replied that she didn't know their condition, Corin sent to her ask.
"I didn't ask about the bandits because the scout had given me a report on the site of the ambush. Surprise had been the bandits' only advantage, and they had apparently used it to disable Corin's three companions quickly. I didn't tell her that I knew she was responsible for the fifteen bodies that also lay scattered about the site of the attack. She closed her eyes in silent prayer. 'I didn't want to...'
"'Quiet, warrior.' I interrupted. 'You protected your own.'
"'I know. But still-- the slaughter sickens me.'
So she took out fifteen bandits, rode injured to find help for her comrades, and felt pity for those who died attacking her. Hmmm.... I'd be jealous too. Question is, what did you do about it? She asked Tersius in her thoughts.
"Corin was bed-ridden for only two days before she insisted on removing herself from the sickroom. Unfortunately, her companions were in much worse shape. Minus insisted that they all stay and recuperate. And Corin, once she saw the excited look in Livia's clear eyes, didn't refuse.
"I became their co-conspirator. Not like I had any choice. Livia was a woman in love. Thank the gods for Corin's discretion or it would have been all over the kingdom in a matter of days. I had to at least make a show of watching over Livia. We spent a great deal of time together, the three of us. But a word was never said about what was going on. Corin and I sparred often under the princess' delighted gaze."
And I bet you never once came close to touching her. The words raced across Xena's mind.
"Livia blossomed in a way I had never seen before. She seemed more confident and secure. More and more she was at her father's right side, advising him-- and advising him well-- on matters of state. Truly, the women were two halves of the same heartbeat." And it kills you to admit that, doesn't it, little man? Xena asked with her eyes. Tersius laughed. "As for me, I met a young woman myself and asked her to be my wife... " Seeing as how your first choice was otherwise engaged. "When Livia heard the news, she was thrilled and more than a little surprised. I guess everyone had decided that I was to be an eternal bachelor. But no one was more surprised than Corin herself when I asked her to stand beside me at the marriage ceremony."
Looking at the women's puzzled faces, he struggled for explanation. "We had formed a unique bond. I admired her, I respected her."
What a load of garbage. You wanted the princess at your wedding, and you wanted all the soldiers to see the head of the Amazon army seconding you. I bet Livia was the only reason she said yes.
"At first she declined, but later that night, I heard Livia speaking with her." So you spied on them more than once. Funny how you didn't mention that. "The next morning, she agreed to stand beside me. Looking back, I wish to the gods that it had never happened."
"Why? Gabrielle asked, all ears. "What went wrong?"
"At first, nothing. The ceremony was beautiful. Livia had given my bride a beautiful veil for the wedding night; Minus had insisted that the wedding take place in the royal hall-- an unusual honor and one I took to heart". Yeah, right. Thank the princess again. She sounds so much like Gabrielle, always going out of her way for others. Xena's cynical thoughts skidded to a halt And she gets so little in return. What am I going to do with you? How can I give you everything you deserve? And do I even have that right? She determinedly jerked her mind back to the conversation. "Corin, dressed as I was, looked stunning in tan leather leggings and a green silk tunic-- the colors of our kingdom. She wore her Amazon markings of rank. But she also now wore the seal of our royal guard, having earned that honor from Minus some weeks earlier protecting one of the kingdom's settlements from a small raiding party." So where were you during this raid? Protecting the princess? Ha! Doubt it."I could see by the look in Livia's eyes that she was wishing she and Corin could take their place here someday." And you were wishing that Livia was standing there as your bride, weren't you, soldier boy?
"After the ceremony was performed and Minus blessed us, a feast was held that continued on into the night. The members of the court put in an appearance, but it was really a celebration for the soldiers and their families." Tersius smiled as he remembered. "And it was a grand celebration! I've never seen so much food and wine or heard so much joyful music. Everyone laughed and sang and never seemed to grow tired. Much to everyone's amazement, Livia stayed throughout the evening, dancing with all the soldiers. Everyone assumed it was her way of thanking me for all my loyal service-- and I suppose it was. But I also knew it was her way to be near her own love on this special night." Xena noted the bitter look in the man's eyes, so at odds with his gallant words about the Amazon.
"Corin was the only one who didn't dance. Not that she wasn't asked. After a few drinks most of the men forgot that they were intimidated by her formidable strength and noticed only her sharp beauty." Tersius nodded, and Xena realized he must have seen the quickening look in her eyes. "I see you've noticed too." He chuckled. "Oh, she laughed, drank, and even joined the musicians for some tunes but not a single dance. There were even a few sly maidens who-- knowing she was an Amazon-- sidled up seeking a turn or two. But she charmingly refused them all.
"The evening was drawing to a close at long last. The children had been put to bed, and the musicians had announced the last song. In Argon we have a tradition-- the last dance was begun by the newlywed couple and finished by a betrothed one. As the music began my new bride and I stepped to the floor to begin the steps. Halfway through the song, when the second couple was to begin to dance, I noticed Livia approach Corin, take her arms and slowly lead her towards the dance floor.
"Livia began the intricate steps as Corin responding to her perfectly. I wondered who had shown them the dance. They moved slowly, sensuously, enacting the courtship ritual-- coming closer, stepping apart. There was silence except for the music guiding them together. Such love was shining between them, a joy in their eyes like no other. Even my own bride didn't look at me that way, and this was our wedding day. Silently, we watched, realizing that perhaps this was their wedding dance." Even Gabrielle noticed the bitterness in the man's voice this time, Xena noted, watching the bard's eyes narrow.
"When the music drew to a close-- as the dance required-- Livia was in Corin's arms. Everyone burst into cheers, I guess for the beauty of the dance and that they shared the love between them. Livia threw her arms around Corin's neck and pulled her down for a kiss. Which drew more cheers. I saw Corin smiling as she hugged Livia tight and spun her around in the joy of the celebration."
Tersius' words, which had been flowing freely, came to a halt, as if he were a child's toy that had suddenly wound down. Xena was lost in thought-- imagining not only the strength of the women's love, but wondering if she would ever have the courage to open herself to something that strong. With few exceptiong, she sought only physical release from her lovers. Her emotions were her own, tucked safely behind the warrior's mask. The young bard beside her was the only one who had ever come close to truly removing that mask And I can't imagine touching her, for that very reason. I think could she accept my heart, or maybe my body. But gods help her, I don't think she could all the darkness in trying to accept both, she thought to herself. She wondered what was chasing itself around in Gabrielle's head as she turned to look at her friend. There were the faint remnants of a smile-- no doubt from the image of the blond warrior and her lover-- but also puzzlement and a little sadness. They all took long drinks from their cups, lost in their own reflections.
"Something terrible must have happened," Gabrielle finally broke the silence.
Tersius nodded slowly, the haunted look that had left his face as he remembered the wedding returned. "I couldn't believe that they had acted so freely. I mean Livia was a favorite of the kingdom, and Corin had earned the respect of every man in the army, but still it was quite a risk." And you couldn't stand it that she was publicly declaring her love for Corin, huh? "There were about thirty people there, soldiers and their wives, but what none of us realized was that Ezra, the head of Aaron's personal guard was there. He saw everything.
"Let me explain," he began, seeing their confusion. "I've already told you of Aaron's irrational hatred of his sister. Or maybe it was completely rational. Livia outstripped him in every way imaginable. It was hard to believe that they shared the same parents. That's not to say Aaron was a fool. Far from it. He was shrewd and cunning where Livia was merciful and kind. Minus recognized that Argon under Aaron's rule would be a horrible place. Accordingly, Minus had taken steps to have Livia trained to succeed him. In Argon, the right of rule could be handed down to son or daughter, youngest or eldest. What mattered was the quality of the rule, not sex or order of birth."
And I bet you wouldn't have minded being the personal guard of Argon's queen. But then again, you seem to have been replaced in the 'personal' department.
"Aaron was fully aware of his father's intentions but, really, was powerless to do anything about it. So he seethed, quietly carrying out the tasks Minus threw him, all the while biding his time.
"Most of the soldiers were aware that there was something... not quite right about the king's son. He had the faint reek of destruction about him. More than once a lady of the night had to be shuttled away to a healer in a distant village, accompanied by a fair sack of dinars to keep her quiet. As I said, most of the soldiers kept their distance, but Aaron had around him a close-knit cadre of guards who, I suspect, shared his vices. The head of that guard was Ezra. And he was Aaron's attack dog. As loyal to Aaron in his corruption as I was to Livia in my devotion: we were a strange pairing in the royal guard. But since our duties mirrored each other, we had to at least pretend some sort of cordiality. Which was why he was present at my wedding. The rest of Arron's guard had refused to come. They looked on me as soft for guarding a woman.
"Ezra saw the dance. He saw their love. And he saw a way to give Aaron, if not the kingdom, then at least a chance for revenge.
"The castle was quiet during the time I took my leave to be with my bride. But when I returned, I sensed something had changed. Corin and Livia had grown accustomed to not having me around, and I noticed them slipping away from my gaze more and more often. I bet it hurt to see them not even make a pretense of including you. Not to mention how matter-of-factly the others seemed to accept Corin's claim on Livia. "For the most part I let them be, let them enjoy their time together away from the stress of court." Well now, you really didn't have much of a choice about it. Corin could take you barehanded.
"The peace was destroyed one day, not too long after I had come back. I was on the practice field, working with some men, when I noticed Aaron's pack striding across the meadow-- Aaron's black eyes leading the way. One of the group detached himself and took me roughly by the arm.
"'Where is the princess?' Aaron's voice asked darkly. 'Why are you not performing your duties?'
"I gaped at Aaron in astonishment. I could tell that he was putting on a performance for the men around us. 'Livia is with Corin. You know that Corin is perfectly capable--'
"'You left her alone with.... with.... with.... that.... her?' Aaron shouted in outrage. He was very convincing, but we both knew his righteous indignation was false. 'Where are they?' he demanded.
"I saw already that no good would come of this situation for any of us. Aaron obviously had seized some sort of hidden advantage. Now he was pressing it. The prince had come perilously close to accusing me of dereliction of duty, and I knew that if I lied and said I didn't know, then I would be stripped of my duties and probably publicly flogged. On the other hand, if I told Aaron where they were-- and I knew what they were most likely doing there-- then I would be betraying my princess." Not to mention the woman who was your better in every possible way. Tersius sighed and ran a hand through his unruly hair.
"What did you do?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
You told him where they were.
"I told Aaron where they were," he answered, not meeting either woman's eyes. "There was a small cove near the river, with a waterfall and a pond, and a beautiful grassy bank. I had seen them sneak off there once or twice, had followed them to make sure of their safety." Safety my ass. You were spying on them again. "No matter how quiet I was, Corin always heard me. One day she called me over and we spent a wonderfully pleasant afternoon together. But I knew this place was special to them, so I tried never to intrude when they went there." You mean she nailed you and warned you off.
"We headed off towards the cove-- Aaron, Ezra, two of his men, and me. I'm not sure why I went, but they dragged me along the shady pathway.
"To this day, I still don't know why Corin didn't hear him. But they were certainly stunned by our sudden appearance into their sanctuary. I had been right. They were making love, the sun shinning down on them. Livia had her back to us as we emerged into the clearing. The sharp crack of a whip I didn't know Aaron held in his hand alerted Corin. Faster than I believed a human body could move, Corin reversed her position so that she was protecting Livia from both the onslaught of the whip and the men's eyes.
"Livia began screaming in outrage as the lash landed again and again on Corin's exposed skin. The princess alternately shouted for Aaron to stop and for Corin to get out of the way, but the Amazon held her firmly to the ground, silently serving as a shield."
"Why didn't you do anything?" Gabrielle demanded.
Tersius turned his eyes to her and regarded her sadly. "What could I do? They all had swords. I was outnumbered three to one. I knew that Corin would do nothing to stop Aaron as long as she was the only thing between the prince and Livia. She was keeping Livia safe. If I started fighting, Aaron might have turned on all of us. I don't know what I thought. Maybe that Aaron would come to his senses when he saw that Corin was not fighting."
Xena could hold her tongue no longer. "Do you think we're fools? You stood by and did nothing because you were jealous. You wanted to see Corin whipped for taking what didn't belong to her. For being a better soldier, a better person, a better lover than you ever could. You used Aaron to do what you never could, just like you're using us to try to purge your guilt."
Gabrielle was looking at Xena in wide-eyed astonishment. The warrior wasn't one for words and this tirade was more than a mouthful.
Tersius's face turned purple with rage and, he seemed about to defend himself, but instead he just slumped forward as if Xena's accusations had shattered all his pretenses. Shaking his head slowly, he sighed. "I know. Every day I live with the vision of those lashes burning into her skin. Of the blood that flowed like the river beside them. Aaron's arm kept slinging the whip against her skin until I could tell by the jerk of Corin's shoulders that he had beaten her unconscious. Livia's screams had stopped shortly after they had begun. She seemed to realize that they just fueled Aaron's pleasure in the act. I felt two soldiers thrust me forward as Aaron jerked his head at Livia. 'Take the princess to her quarters.' With his boot he kicked Corin's still form off her lover's body. The shock of the ground hitting her open wounds was more than even the Amazon could take, as she was jolted into consciousness and screamed out her pain.
"Livia turned towards her, but Aaron grabbed her back and shoved her at me. 'To her quarters, soldier. Move!'
"Not knowing what else to do, I began to try to lead her to the castle. Hearing her lover's screams of agony seemed to send her into a state of shock, and she allowed herself to be taken docilely to her chambers. All the while she was muttering something over and over again that I couldn't quite hear. As I walked her over to the bed and sat her on it, the litany continued. As the shock of the events hit me too, I turned and walked to the door. Just as I was about to leave she spoke loudly enough for me to hear. I turned to look at the princess' face-- the confusion gone, rage written all over her features. I stood helpless before her words. 'She will come for me.' We locked eyes for a moment and I realized that she knew everything." He jerked his head at Xena. "Just like you said. And I knew that the princess would never forgive me for not helping her lover. So I fled the kingdom."
Xena sat her goblet down abruptly and stood. Catching Gabrielle's questioning glance, she took a deep breath and unclenched her fists, then clenched them again to keep from beating this man to a pulp. "I need to go check on Argo. I'll see you later, Gabrielle." She turned and strode away, unable to acknowledge Tersius for fear of unleashing her rage upon him. As she left the tavern, she could feel her companion's eyes on her, and knew that Gabrielle would probably question her later about her uncharacteristic tirade against Tersius. But right now, she just needed out-- to get away from this horrid little man who was seeking absolution for his crime. She also wanted to find Corin because she somehow knew that the end of this story did not lie with Tersius.
Making her way through the now-deserted streets of the village, she headed south towards the small river that was the community's water supply. Looking at the moon's position in the night sky, Xena knew it was late. Even the animals of the forest had gone to sleep, and the only noise was the gurgling of the water she was approaching. Padding her way silently through the undergrowth, she came to a small clearing where she found Corin lying on her back contemplating the stars. Why did I know I would find you here? She paused for a moment. Because this is where I would come for peace.
Not announcing her presence, Xena took a moment to study the long, slender form resting before her. The Amazon's features were masked by darkness, but her silhouette was long and lean. Xena contemplated the power in those resting limbs, the way she had held the sword as if it were a part of her. So much like myself... I wonder...what her skin smells like.
"Xena." The name came out like a whisper.
The other woman arched her brow in surprise. She knew her approach had been noiseless.
Gracefully the Amazon vaulted from her reclining position to a standing one. Xena could see her teeth gleam in the moonlight. Xena stepped from her concealment and regarded her counterpart. Corin took one look at the warrior's face and spoke quietly, "I see you've been talking to Tersius."
Xena only nodded.
Corin smiled again. "I've heard about you for so long, Xena. Your bard weaves quite a legend. Do me the honor and spar with me," she said, drawing her sword
The dark woman grinned at the invitation and drew her own sword. With a soft cry, she somersaulted over Corin's head, intending to land behind her and tap the Amazon on the shoulder, but the blond warrior ducked and rolled in the same direction, so it was she who landed behind Xena. The warrior princess whirled and their swords met with a sharp clash.
They engaged in silence, both realizing that verbal intimidation wouldn't work here. The moonlight flashed quicksilver off their blades and over their bodies. Xena feinted left and then spun to her right, only to find Corin already there, slashing her blade downwards. Xena caught it with an upward thrust, fighting to gain back the steps she had lost. She moved on the offensive, bringing her sword higher, then slipping underneath to try and kick the blond woman's legs out from under her. The Amazon avoided the sweep with a grunt, leaping up lightly. But she landed unevenly, one booted foot catching on a stone in the grass. Xena pressed her momentary advantage with a flurry of blows, but Corin parried each of them, regaining her balance. A fine sheen of sweat broke over the two combatants, and Xena realized that for the first time she was battling a true equal-- not a god, a demi-god, or a god-aided mortal. Glancing in the Amazon's eyes, she saw a look of recognition that paralleled her own. She worked her sword in tighter, drawing Corin in until they were within a hair's breadth of each other. With a nod of her head, Corin brought her sword over Xena's, sweeping it out of her hands. Her own sword followed suit. The two women stepped apart, deftly catching each other's sword by the hilt. They saluted each other and then switched swords with quick flicks of their wrists.
"Well done!" Corin exclaimed as they sheathed their swords. The blond woman hurled herself down on the soft grass, Xena landing beside her. "You are everything that I had heard, and more. It was a pleasure."
Xena shook her head, still grinning from the exhilaration of their encounter. "I'd hate to have you as an adversary."
"I take that as a great compliment. Thank you, Warrior Princess."
The softness of the Amazon's last words sent a flush of heat through Xena's body. "Where did you learn to fight like that? The Amazons are tremendous warriors, but honestly, they're better with quarterstaffs and bows. I've never seen swordplay like that." She marveled. "I'd say you were a Chosen, but Artemis--"
"Uses a bow. Actually you're right. I am a Chosen."
Xena looked sharply at the woman lying next to her. "You don't belong to Ares." She stated matter-of-factly.
"No," came the reply. "Athena."
"Is the goddess of wisdom. She is also a goddess of war. Who do you think holds Ares in check? Ares is the glory of battle lust while Athena is the success of a well-executed attack."
Xena was at a loss. The Amazon spoke so simply about it. Having the gods on Olympus take an interest in your activities was never a pleasant experience. She had been the victim of too many of the immortals' schemes to look upon them fondly. Yet Corin seemed to have accepted her status gracefully. "When did you learn?"
"I was touched by the goddess at an early age. Sometimes I think I was born with her sword in my hand." Seeing Xena's arched brow, she handed over the sword. "Her seal--" she showed Xena the hilt, "And mine--" She reversed the sword to show the other side.
"The mark of the chosen--" Xena tapped the silver bracelet on Corin's arm. "The two seals intertwined."
Corin sighed, lost in her own thoughts. "I shouldn't even wear this since I've renounced her protection. But I still belong to her." She touched the silver softly, her fingertips brushing against Xena's. The two hypersensitive warriors were aware of the slight change in their breathing, in the proximity of their bodies, but neither spoke. It was enough for now.
"Wait--" Xena spoke, the meaning of the words sinking in. "You renounced a goddess's aid? And she let you live?"
Corin shrugged. "It happens. Sometimes."
Xena nodded thoughtfully. "Ares let me walk away, although he still torments me."
"You don't belong to Ares."
Xena jerked her head around at the flat statement and stared hard into shockingly clear green eyes. The dark warrior knew she had to be Ares' Chosen. That was why he so relentlessly pursued her. Deep in her heart she always believed that this campaign she waged to free herself-- the only one that had ever really mattered-- would be the only one she ever lost. She fought hard to keep her voice even. "You sound like you speak from experience."
"I've learned a number of interesting things in my travels." She gazed at the slow moving water beside them and then turned back to Xena. "But that's not the story you came to hear, is it?"
All her questions were locked up in one word. "Why?"
"Why didn't I come back for her?" She paused. "The way you will always come back for Gabrielle?"
The truth of Corin's words hit Xena hard. Unconsciously she had been comparing the Amazon's situation to hers with the bard. But they're nothing alike, she thought furiously to herself. Wordlessly, she nodded.
Taking a deep breath and wrapping her long arms around her knees, Corin focused her gaze back on the river. "After that fool dragged Livia off, I was able to feel the pain that whip inflicted."
"So you knew about Tersius?" Even as she asked the question, Xena realized the answer.
"Of course I knew. He was wretched at hiding his feelings. The only thing that kept me from beating the stuffing out of him was Livia's kindness. Honestly, if I had caught him spying on us one more time, I would have." She shrugged, "Livia always wanted to believe the best of people."
Xena nodded. "I suspected as much. So what happened after Tersius left?"
"Until Livia was safe, I couldn't let myself feel anything. Once I knew she was gone, I howled like an animal, let the rage that would give me strength begin to work its way into my body. I dragged myself into an upright position while Aaron and his men circled around me like vultures before carrion. I knew he thought he had broken me with that whip, but I waited for my chance. If I could disable Aaron, the others would be too concerned with him to stop me from returning to Livia.
"Maybe Aaron sensed my thoughts, maybe he noticed that I wasn't as weak as I should be, or maybe he was just a twisted soul. But when we faced each other again, he smiled coldly at me with dead black eyes. And then he began to speak.
"'You know, you've ruined my sister. When word gets out about her little... trysts--' he spat the word, 'She'll be worthless as a ruler. Or a wife.'
"'Minus will never let that happen,' I replied, confident that the king wouldn't have this man taking over his kingdom.
"'Minus--' he mimicked, 'is in Athens for another two quarter moons. By the time he gets back, everything will be over and he'll be powerless.' He paused as if to think what to do with his sister. 'Maybe I should just turn her over to my men now. I mean, she is just a soldier's whore now.' He gestured to the three behind him, an evil gleam in his eye.
"Rage overrode any sense I had left, and I leapt for his throat. Unfortunately, he expected it-- had deliberately taunted me into it-- and he caught me full across the chest with the length of the whip. I pitched forward and felt a man on either side of me, dragging me up. Aaron leaned down into my face, and I could see Ezra hovering over his shoulder.
"'Do you think she'd like that? I mean, you would know what she likes.' I struggled against the men as hard as I could, and he backhanded me across the face. He tapped his boot on the ground like he was thinking, then he leaned forward again. 'I'll tell you what. I'll make a deal with you,' he whispered in my ear. 'We can let them have you and Livia goes free. No one will ever know anything. Her rule and her safety will be assured.'
"I heard the four men chuckle around me." Corin glanced at Xena who looked at her questioningly. "Oh, do I think he would have done it? Turned Livia over to them? I suppose I knew even then that Aaron, for all his corruption, wasn't that stupid. But the threat to Livia's rule was very valid. Despite what happened at Tersius' wedding, Argon is a huge kingdom, with some very traditional beliefs. Not to mention trade interests and defense treaties. At best Amazons are often only tolerated because of our history and our fighting skills. My relationship with Livia would have been perceived as perverse. No matter how much Minus believed in his daughter, neither would have been able to overcome that.
"But quite frankly, while Aaron was speaking, I didn't give a damn about Argon, I only saw him threatening my lover. Threatening her person. I couldn't tolerate that."
"So you submitted." Xena finished. Admit it, Xena, she chided herself, this woman's got depths you can only dream about. Oh really, another voice sounded in her head, wouldn't you do the same for Gabrielle?. The warrior shook her head to clear the voices and turned to Corin who seemed lost in her own thoughts for a moment.
"I remember the rocks and sticks beneath me, gouging into my wounds," she began. "Their teeth biting into my skin. Their fingers gripping my muscles as they spread my legs. All I did during the entire time was burn the face of each of my rapists into my memory. A red haze seem to settle over my eyes. At first I wondered if I was bleeding from some head wound, but after the foursome finished and left, the haze became sharper, and coalesced itself into the image of Ares standing before me. He stood staring at me, a sorrowful look on his face. 'It's all right, warrior,' he said to me in the gentlest voice I had ever heard a god use. 'We'll make you strong.'"
"He healed you?" Xena was incredulous.
Corin snorted. "No, he gave me strength. He fed me images of my violation, amplified the men's voices as Aaron whipped me. He showed me how long the men had spied on my lovemaking with Livia, rendering it sordid with their filthy remarks. Each image he fed me brought me closer to my feet, until I staggered into the woods. He cocooned me, so no one could see or harm me, but in returned for the protection he increased the pain I felt in each wound, mocking me in my humiliation until my eyes were filled with rage, and my soul empty except for the need for revenge on the men who had reduced me so. He led me to one of his temples where his priests took me in. It took me a full moon to heal enough to begin training. And I trained at Ares' side for another two moons before I could embark on my mission."
"You trained with Ares?"
"As did you, Xena. For years he entered the spirit of every man you fought to make you strong. The only difference between us is that I knew who I was fighting. It was during that time that I first saw you."
Xena couldn't believe the story she was hearing. She suddenly realized how incredulous the tales of her own dealings with the gods sounded, and why so many people believed she only existed in legend. Recognizing Corin's experiences were as real as her own, she sighed. "How?"
"During the siege of Macarda. A siege most would have said was certain suicide. But you triumphed. He had big plans for us, you see. After I completed the final step of my training, he was going to bring us together." Corin turned to contemplate her darker counterpart. "You said you never wanted me as an adversary. Can you image what would have happened if you and I had ridden together during your warlord days?"
The two woman stared at each other as images flashed through Xena's mind: blood, carnage, burning cities, and then, lastly, a searing vision of their bodies intertwined.
"Oh yes, Xena. All that. And much more," Corin growled in her ear.
Xena turned to swallow, but her mouth was dry, her lips parched. Taking a deep breath, she finally spoke. "What was the final step?"
"Ah.... I had to avenge myself."
"Kill the men who had violated you."
Corin merely nodded.
"Where was Athena in all this? I've never known the gods to stay out of something when they could meddle. At least here, her presence would have been justified."
"A very good question. Actually, Athena is the least interfering of all the gods. In her wisdom she realizes that we poor mortals are best left to find our own way. I had been chosen from birth. She trusted that I would find the right way."
"But you were under Ares' spell."
"Oh no, Xena. Gods -- except for the lesser, more mischievous ones-- very rarely cast out-and-out spells. Usually they merely appeal to some heretofore hidden, unexplored side of ourselves.
"In other words, you can't make an assassin out of someone who has no blood lust," Xena stated flatly.
"Exactly. I had modeled my life on Athena's teachings: moderation, discipline, honor. In exchange for this, I received peace. But Ares shattered all that. By merely stripping away the hard veneer of reason I had surrounded myself with, he made me face raw, visceral emotions for the first time in my life. The rage, the shame, the physical pain of the attack. And the hunger for my lover."
Xena found herself remembering her time at the head of an army, when she could feel the wind rippling over her skin and smell the fear sweeping across the lands before her. When she took lovers randomly and left them exhausted in her wake. Oh yes, you know exactly what's she's talking about. That's why you lived the life you did for ten summers. That's why the nightmares are so bad. Deep down you still want it because there's nothing else like it in the world.
"So I hunted them down like the animals they were and killed them. Except for Aaron. The two soldiers had been dismissed from the guard. Bought off most likely. Finding them in a local tavern and dispatching them in an alley was easy enough. But Ezra-- I took my time with him. I crept into the castle and found his quarters. Then I led him to Aaron's door to make him think I was finally bringing him to justice. When we got to the door, I slit him across the belly, just like I was butchering a deer. I spread the entrails from his door to Aaron's. Then I finished carving up my prey." She closed her eyes, but her voice held no horror, no remorse for her actions.
"Needless to say, when they found Ezra-- or I should say what was left of Ezra-- Aaron knew who had come for him. That night I was waiting for him in his chambers. I sat him down and reviewed everything that he had done. I made him understand that for every touch of pain I had felt, he would feel twice as much. For every scar I had, he would have two. For every violation I had suffered-- well, you get the point.
"I stripped him and bound him to his bedposts on the hard floor. No soft cushions for him. Then I uncoiled the whip before his eyes, striking it in the air over his head. Ares had surrounded us with a wall of silence so I could have the pleasure of hearing Aaron's screams.
"Before I bent to my task, I leaned down close to his face to taunt him, the way he taunted me. As I started to speak, I forced him to look at me-- and I found myself staring into Livia's eyes." She shook her head at the memory. "I couldn't believe I had never noticed before. Aaron and Livia had the same eyes. And everything I felt for Livia surged over me, mixing with the rage and hate.
"You see, there was just one problem with Ares' method of training. In order for me to feel the pain and anger to their fullest, Ares had to let me feel all the emotions, including the love I had, in the same way. That's when I realized that by spilling his blood I would be spilling hers as well. The rage and the love started fighting with me. And I had to get some sort of control. I couldn't just feel any longer."
"And reason returned. You found the right way."
Corin nodded. "So I fled. But I was still a murderer. I had betrayed my vows as an Amazon and killed in cold blood. In my rage, I had cursed Athena for abandoning me."
"But she couldn't hold you accountable--"
"No, she couldn't. I hold myself accountable, Xena. I walked away from Athena's path. I chose to break my vows as an Amazon and as a Chosen. I don't feel remorse for what I did." She cast a wry look at the dark haired warrior. "Unlike the guilt you carry around like a second suit of armor. I've made peace with my actions. Accepted the blackness as an intimate part of myself."
"What about the love?" The words were barely more than a whisper.
"I don't return to Livia because the very thing that saved Aaron's life would eventually destroy her. I don't think I could stand looking into her eyes--"
"And seeing him."
"Right. The rage would inevitably return because the love would be there too."
"Why haven't you returned to Athena?"
"My time with Ares taught me something very valuable. By choosing reason, I had relinquished the exhilarating extremes of emotion. The love I felt for Livia when we were together was only a fraction of what I feel for her now." She looked at Xena sharply. "And I can't give that up. So I've spent the last four summers trying to reconcile the two. When I find the answers, I plan on making a trip to Athens. It's been far too long since I spoke to my goddess."
The two women sat in silence for a moment until Xena smoothly stood and offered her hand to Corin. The blond woman took it, rising to meet Xena's blue eyes with her green ones. Xena could feel the energy pulsing between them where they touched. She closed her eyes to better absorb the sensations. "Such a dark warrior," Corin said quietly, tracing the line of Xena's jaw with her free hand. "So much guilt and pain. So little peace." Xena felt the heat rising, suffusing her body as Corin rested her palm against Xena's cheek.
"What is this?" Xena's voice was raw. Why do I look into her eyes and see my own?
"You and I are connected. But right now our paths lead in different directions."
"No-- I don't think our destinies are intertwined as yours is with Gabrielle's." Xena lifted her head in surprise at the mention of the young woman's name.
"Shhh--" she quieted. "You'll learn the things you need to know in your own time." Her voice changed, lost its throaty growl as she broke contact with Xena. "I think we both need to get back to the tavern and get some sleep. I don't know about you, but that workout wore me down" She grinned at Xena who grinned back, knowing that both of them could take on a small army right now and emerge as victors.
The next morning Xena awoke with a start, banging her head on the bed's headboard. "Athena!"
"Just a little longer--" Gabrielle muttered sleepily, then "Huh?" As she registered the name, "Where? Not another one-- why do I think I'm gonna meet all the gods before we're done?"
Xena couldn't help but laugh at the grumpy woman before her. "Relax, Gabrielle, Athena's not here. I just realized something, that's all." She smiled to herself. Why hadn't Corin seen it?
"Oh good, 'cause I'm really not up to any confrontations with a goddess. Especially before breakfast."
A wave of affection for the bard washing over her, she smiled at the young woman. "Why don't you go back to sleep? We'll have a lazy day, there's nowhere we really need to be right away."
"Sounds great to me." Not one to question her good fortune, Gabrielle immediately buried her head in the soft pillow and returned to her slumber.
Xena gave one last smile to her friend and returned to her musing. The eyes. That's been bothering me all night. She said Aaron had Livia's eyes-- and both Tersius and Corin said that Aaron had black eyes. Yet Tersius repeatedly referred to Livia's eyes as light blue. And if anybody would know, he would.
You're wrong Corin, my friend. Your goddess did interfere. She gave Aaron Livia's blue eyes long enough to save his life. Not to mention your soul. And if she hadn't who knows where we'd both be right now.
She quietly slid out of the bed, dressed quickly and hurried downstairs to find Corin. "Where is she?" she abruptly asked Berus.
"She's gone, warrior. Said something about a journey she'd been needing to make." Swallowing rapidly at Xena's harsh stare, he added, "That's all I know, I swear."
"Relax, Berus. You'll live longer." She gave a wicked grin to the cowering barkeep and headed back upstairs.
A journey, hmmm? Why do I suspect we'll be seeing you again? I hope this means you've found the answers you were looking for. Maybe this means there's some hope for me as well.
Next story The Queen and the Soldier