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Chapters 13 - 14
Gabrielle stood rooted to the floor, watching the door which had closed upon Xena and her guards. What had she meant? Out of Prestia? She was sending her away? "Things did not turn out as anticipated?" She turned numbly to the unfamiliar voice. A tall man stood in the corner; she hadn't been aware an entrance was there. He walked with a grace and bearing that was familiar; she stared at his face and felt the pain of loss renewed. This was Xena's face looking at her.
Gabrielle pressed her palms hard against her eyes. "No," she managed, with a long, shuddering breath, "this isn't what I had in mind." She was gathered into a silent embrace. For the second time that evening she cried into a strong shoulder. She pulled away, saw the tears stains on the purple tunic. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty."
His face creased in a rough smile, as he produced a handkerchief from the folds of his tunic. "This isn't what I expected, either," he confessed. He led her to a chair in the corner, and poured two cups of wine. He thrust one at Gabrielle. "Tell me," he commanded simply.
Her impulse was to refuse; this was between her and Xena. "If you'd let her go..." was the nearest she could come to acknowledging this man's part in the affair.
He shook his head, said softly: "I can't do that, not right now. Xena understands; she doesn't like it, but she understands. And she hasn't argued with my decision; she knows it's the only responsible course, for the time being. I hate this too, you know; I feel horribly responsible for causing so much pain to you both. So talk to me. Maybe we can find a way to fix things." He smiled at her confidingly, and Gabrielle began to talk.
"I don't think this can be fixed. Xena is so angry... and she should be. It's my fault for doubting her..."
Her words left too many gaps to make sense, but Cletus followed her tale and arrived at a different conclusion. "She isn't angry, as much as hurt," he opined. "She gets hurt very easily you know, and no one has the power to hurt her more than you."
Gabrielle looked indignantly at this stranger, who presumed to tell her about Xena. "You've met Xena, what? Twice? And you're going to tell me about her feelings?"
"Don't put it down to royal arrogance," he pleaded, "but yes, I am. I have met her only twice, but I know her, maybe better than she knows herself. I know all my children."
"All?" Gabrielle asked, surprised.
"Xena isn't the only one. I think she's guessed that," he admitted to himself. Her pointed suggestion that he name an heir carried much understanding. "I have followed her as closely as any biographer studying his subject," he continued. "You're a bard. You must tell stories of, say, Orpheus; yet have you met him?"
"Well, actually, I have," she informed him, with her first smile. "You meet a lot of unexpected characters if you spend much time with Xena."
He grinned with appreciation. He liked this bard. "Well, then, think of someone you write about but haven't met---yet. You know *about* them. You know what moves them, for good or ill. That's how I've studied Xena. Did she like what I ordered for dinner?"
"There were all her favorite dishes," Gabrielle remembered.
"And the wine was to her taste?"
"Yes. But those are superficial things," Gabrielle pointed out. "Any innkeeper could track what a person liked to eat and drink."
"Very true, but that's only the start. I know about *you*, Gabrielle of Potadeia, erstwhile Queen of the Amazons. This is a momentous occasion, a meeting of monarchs! Yet we sit here, glumly staring into cups of wine, because between us, we are no match for the Warrior Princess, who we both love, yet both enchain."
The wine was making Gabrielle drowsy, yet she was alert to this flowery speech, quite unexpected from the monarch who'd stared down at her from every tavern wall. He was continuing: "I know that Xena would die for you. She would die to restore your good opinion of her. That's what this is all about, you know. She has tried to make herself worthy of you, and this evening, she discovered that she has fallen short of her goal."
"But she hasn't," Gabrielle insisted.
"She feels as if she has. You didn't trust her enough to even inquire whether she'd slain Atrius. You just assumed that she had." His eyes seized hers. " When she met you, her soul was in tatters; you've encouraged her hopes that it could be made whole. Tonight you threw it back in her face and said: 'Sorry; beyond repair'."
Gabrielle's mind felt as if it had run into a stone wall. Cletus went on, insisting that she hear every word: "Xena has spent a lifetime looking for someone to love her, flaws and all, someone she can trust. Her 'fathers', on the spot, and in the distance, failed her; Lyceus gave her that kind of love, and she's certain she failed him. Do you know of Caesar?" he asked.
She shook her head slowly, remembering the tale she had heard from the healer, Nikleo.
"She wasn't wicked then, you know. Arrogant, sure of her own invincibility; impatient, ambitious..." He smiled at the image he had formed in his mind of that Xena from years past. "She gave her heart to Caesar, because she was desperate for someone to love her." Gabrielle stopped her ears. She had never heard this story from Xena. When Gabrielle had alluded to it, the look in Xena's eyes had served notice that it was out of bounds for discussion. She found it impossibly painful to hear of Xena's betrayal and crucifixion at the hands of the man to whom she'd given herself. "I don't want to hear about Caesar," she cried.
"It's not a pretty story," he agreed, "but it explains so much. Time and again, she trusted her heart to someone, and had it returned in shreds. Consider Borius," he said, a finger punctuating the air.
"Borius felt he had to stop her from destroying the centaurs," Gabrielle put in. "That's why he betrayed her. Xena doesn't hold that against Borius."
"But I do, Gabrielle. You offer a noble defense of Borius, but consider the alternative. She bore his child. Yet when he found his way, he left her behind in her darkness. Was she so lost that he couldn't have found a way to save the centaurs *and* Xena? I can't believe that. Any woman who could surrender her child so unselfishly could have been reached. That," he punched his knee for emphasis, "would have been the moment. If he had tried, maybe she would have been spared the heartache of giving up her son." He shook his head. "Borius was just no match for Xena. He found her overwhelming. It was easier to betray her, than to love her," he said with passion. He paused to calm himself, looked at the fire and drank from his cup.
"Who am I forgetting?" he said at last. "Oh, yes the charming Petrocles. One of her earlier lessons. She was actually ready to marry him- Petrocles," he snorted, sounding every bit the father who feels no man is worthy of his daughter, "but she'd found in him one of those very young men who can't imagine that happiness lies in one woman, even Xena. What did Petrocles teach her? That professions of love are inconstant? Vows meaningless? Use, or be used? Another hard lesson, and still she trusted in love, had faith that someone could find her lovable. But after Borius, how long before she let *anyone* touch her? Not physically; sex had become commonplace and meaningless for her. Emotionally, it was another story." His voice lowered to a strained whisper. "She was as well protected as any fortress. No one got close. She wouldn't risk that kind of hurt again."
He held out his right arm, and pulled up the sleeve. He touched a spot above the elbow where the bone was crooked. "Broken three times. Used to hurt like Hades; still does if I think about it, so I've trained my arm to hold a sword, to absorb a blow, to take a direct strike without being affected by pain." He pushed the sleeve down. "That's how a warrior survives. It's the same with Xena, she can control her physical pain," he said with certainty. Gabrielle gave an unnecessary nod. "But the worst pain, was the pain in her heart. So she refused to feel that pain, refused to feel her heart." Gabrielle was fascinated. This man was verbalizing things she had often thought about Xena, yet never spoke aloud, certainly not to Xena. She felt disloyal listening to things said behind Xena's back, but some instinct told her this stranger, in some tiny way, shared her love for the warrior.
"Small wonder, really, that she could kill without remorse. She had divorced herself from her emotions, learned not to feel anything, because to feel, was to be in pain. How awful that must have been for her." Gabrielle sensed that he had thought these words many times, with no one to share them with. "How heady it must have been," he continued "to have the power to repay to the world the pain it had visited on her, and to fear no pain in return. My poor little girl; and to think it all started with Atrius."
Gabrielle looked at him sharply. "How do you know that?"
He pointed to the entry way he'd come from. It looked like a muraled-wall. "A handy observation post," he commented. "Things are not always what they seem in Prestia."
So Xena said, Gabrielle remembered.
"I'm not sure what Atrius did to Xena, but I can guess." His eyes narrowed. "Had I known, I would have sent him to Tartarus long ago," Cletus growled. "But I didn't know, and now she's suffering again because of her connection to that man, and her connection to me, because I am her new 'father' and in my own way I'm using and abusing her as much as Atrius." He looked at Gabrielle soberly. "Do you wonder Gabrielle, at her reaction tonight?"
Gabrielle shook her head mutely. Another betrayal.
He sat back and looked at the young woman. "Of course, I'm not telling you anything you don't know. You know her best of all," he acknowledged, "better than me, better than Hercules. Now there's a hand I'd like to shake. Fathering him might be the best thing Zeus has ever done. Sorry excuse for a god," he commented sourly. "I take it you're not a devotee of Zeus?" Gabrielle inquired. There seem to be few public shrines in Prestia.
"We've had our differences," Cletus affirmed. "Someday, we'll swap stories, you and I," he laughed. "You tell me about my warrior daughter, fill in the gaps, so to speak, and I'll tell you the history of Prestia. Then you'll understand about Zeus. Ironic that Hercules was so instrumental in Xena's finding the right path."
"Hercules is a fine man. He believed in Xena when no one else could; when she didn't believe in herself." Gabrielle recalled the story she had heard from Iolaus of Xena's first steps out of the darkness that had enveloped her for so long. "After Borius, I think Hercules was the first to really touch her, the way you mean."
"Hercules. Yes, he touched her heart," he said dismissively, "yet she gave it to you." He watched the bard's face. She was feeling her own hurt, and sense of loss, yet he could tell her real pain was over the wound she had inflicted on Xena. He wanted to make it easier for her. "So I thank you for being her friend. After Hercules, it was you who brought her back."
"I wasn't much of a friend tonight."
"Gabrielle, that took courage. You didn't have to tell her of your role."
"I shouldn't have."
"Secrets and lies are no answer to anything. Take that from a deceitful, secretive old man. Xena will appreciate your honesty."
"If she ever talks to me again. She told me to leave Prestia," she recalled suddenly, "She's sending me away from her." She looked at him with the silent wish that he'd explain that away.
He could guess at the reason for that, but kept it quiet, and said instead: "And I'm sure she already regrets it. When I visited her in her cell, her only thought, was for your welfare, her only request was that you be looked after. She loves you."
"I know," the bard said quietly.
"Do you? Then be more careful with her feelings," he admonished her. Perdicus flashed through his mind.
His tone provoked a defensive reaction from the shaken bard. "You have her locked in chains in a dungeon, and you tell *me* to be 'more careful with her feelings'?" she threw at him.
"She doesn't 'expect more' from me, Gabrielle. Isn't that what she said? I will never so much as share a fatherly embrace with her;" I gave up that right long ago. For you, she fought her way back from Tartarus. At least that's what I'm told. Any chance I can ever hear the eyewitness version?" he asked hopefully.
"Someday, maybe. I don't know whether I'm ready to tell it yet." She still woke from violent nightmares in which Xena was dead. Only Xena's strong arms around her assuring her that she was all right could comfort her. If Xena was seriously angry, she didn't think she could stand alone against the nightmares.
"I had a scheme once, to choose a village child at random," he coughed and winked, "and raise her in my household, provide her with security, a first rate education... It was all to prove that achievements were not determined by blood. What a lie that would have been. Of course I only wanted my 'blood' to be in my possession." He sighed. "It was never possible. of course. One look at her and everyone would have known she was my child. So I dropped it. If I had gone ahead with it," he said wistfully, "so much might be different. Xena would have been spared so much. I might have saved both my daughters. My beautiful, clever daughters, whole and happy, possibly squabbling over beaux, or adorning each other's hair. Instead..." he fell silent.
Gabrielle touched his arm uncertainly. A sudden premonition had sent a shiver down her spine. The other likeness in his face became clear.
Cletus rallied himself and continued: "Her sister was orphaned at Cirra. Her name is Callisto."
There was no way to think about this Gabrielle decided. "The Fates must be laughing themselves silly over this mess, " she said at last. "I wouldn't dare tell it in a fairy tale, it's too absurd."
"Absurd, if you like," King Cletus conceded. "I find it tragic. Two sisters, ignorant of their relationship, each bent on destroying the other. As the one who set the little tale in motion, I feel an astonishing sense of guilt."
Gabrielle was not interested in assuaging his guilt. "All your little experiments come home to roost," she commented bitterly. "Tell me, was Callisto's mother also married to a man who didn't deserve her too, or did you take another approach there?"
"Gabrielle, you're very pleased with the results of my first 'little experiment'. Allow me the pleasure of enjoying the second as well," he admonished her. "As to Callisto's mother, she was a fine woman. Very young, very much in a party mood. It was during a festival in Cirra. I rode down for the day, to watch the archery competition. It was a very long day.
I always wondered if she knew?"
"That Callisto did not belong to her husband. I think her experience with me sobered her up. I doubt she ever strayed again."
"And you'd know, what with your spy network keeping tabs on your offspring."
Yes, Gabrielle,' he conceded, "my spies were very effective. And Cirra was close enough that I could even take a peek at my second daughter now and again.
"Cirra's is close; why didn't you protect it?" she asked earnestly. So much would have been different.
"From Xena?" he asked rhetorically. "I wish I had been able to do that," he admitted. "You can't imagine how fast Xena's troops moved. She struck like a bolt from the blue. Cirra was ashes before we'd even confirmed the rumors she was approaching. It was a stunning maneuver." He shook his head in wonderment. "I can tell you, we scrambled for days tracking her progress away from Prestia. And cleaning up in Cirra."
His eyes narrowed, as if he squinted back over the years. "There were charred corpses to be buried. Scavenger birds to shoo away. Not many survivors. Callisto's mother and sister were found dead in their home. Callisto was never found. I thought her body had been consumed by the flames." A tear rolled down his cheek. He looked at Gabrielle and laughed at his own sentiment. "It must seem incredible to you that I weep over the 'monster', Callisto. Yet, I think of her as I remember her, a little child with soft brown eyes, blonde hair curling around her face, running in the mud with the other children. Laughing. That is who I thought I had lost in the fire."
"I don't find it incredible; I love a woman who is still a monster in the minds of many people. As much as I know her faults, and her past, I never see that monster."
"Yes, you would understand," he acknowledged. "Even though Callisto---"
"Murdered my husband?" she broke in.
"You forgive her for that?"
"I try. Everyday, I try to forgive her. Somedays, I almost get there," she realized. "Of course, if she were to walk in here right now..." She looked at him sharply. "Does she know?" She meant Xena.
He shook his head sharply. "No. I don't think the time is right. It may never be right. For either of them."
"Good." Gabrielle nodded her approval. "If Callisto knew...she just uses everything, every scrap of information as a weapon. She would use that to hurt Xena."
"Maybe," he said, unwilling to join the in the attack on his younger daughter. "What would Xena do with the information?"
Gabrielle considered briefly. "I don't know how it would affect her," she said at last."
"I didn't ask how it would affect her.I asked what would she do with the information? Would she use it as a weapon? Ignore it? Share it with Callisto? Or with you?"
"Why would she share it with Callisto?" she asked with thinly veiled contempt. "You can't imagine it would change anything?"
" The one thing in life we can be certain of, is change. Xena changed; why not Callisto?"
Gabrielle started. The words were so familiar. "It's funny. Xena once asked me that."
That piqued the king's interest. "What was your reply?"
"I said that Callisto couldn't change. That her heart had been eaten away by hatred." She felt a vague shame at that response, and Cletus saw it in her face.
"Don't be so hard on yourself,' he cajoled her. "You are an innocent; you can't imagine the darkness that can devour a soul. Xena can see the possibility of Callisto's salvation because she has climbed back from such depths of depravity... She can't believe anyone can be more lost than she was herself. Their destinies are intertwined; if Callisto is saved, Xena is one step closer to her own salvation," he ended in a fierce whisper.
The window in the cell door was left open now. It was small, not enough room to stick her head through, but it allowed light to fall on a narrow area of the cell floor. Xena focused her eyes there, noticing the dark splotches beneath the newly laid straw. She was certain someone had died in this cell recently. She couldn't say why, and didn't even link it to the remains of blood beneath the straw. It was just a feeling.
She was glad to be rid of the collar, yet the chain which held her to the wall allowed her to go as far as the waste bucket, no further. She settled onto the blanket and lay still, wishing she had thought to wash away the scent and taste of meat from her hands. Dungeons had rats, and the large rat that had prowled her cell the night before would likely be back looking for supper again. Couldn't be helped, she thought with resignation, she was here now, for the night. For how much longer?
She stretched to her full length and set to work dissolving the areas of tension that had developed in her body. Carefully she explored and relaxed each muscle group. It didn't cure the unaccustomed queasiness in her stomach, or the dull throb behind her eyes. Gabrielle's face drifted across her mind; she thrust it away from her. She'd have plenty of time to think about that; she wasn't going anyplace. Now she wanted to sleep, to forget the whole miserable mess. She rolled on her side, brought the blanket up around her, and was asleep in minutes.
"Break her legs." At the words she sat bolt upright, sweat beading her body, despite the chill of the cell. She always ended the dream at that point; she could not, would not endure that pain again, even in the recesses of her mind. It was a familiar dream, one which had haunted her through all her years of wanton destruction. That nightmare had ended when she killed Darphus and sought a new path. Now her nightmares featured her as the villain, not the victim. They were no easier, but different. Except for the journey to Mt. Nestos, this horror had been long absent. She lay back as a wave of nausea swept over her. Why was it back, she wondered?
This had been the long version of the dream, beginning, as always, with her kneeling defeated on the deck of her own ship. She was richly adorned, as she had been that evening, waiting for her erstwhile lover, but her 'adornments' included manacles, much as she wore now, and a heavy iron collar. As a reaction to her current predicament the nightmare was appropriate she thought. Skip forward to a scene on the beach: rough soldiers stripping her fine garments, being careful to avoid tearing them. They would be worth something in the marketplace, silk woven with gold thread would fetch a price, and this crew would have it as their prize. She had understood, and ripped wildly at the garment as it was slipped over her head. Her teeth caught it and ruined any resale value. The price she paid was a solid rap in the face. Well worth it, she felt. Their crude hands fondling her exposed body were all too vividly remembered now, as was the coarsely woven cloth of the tunic she was to die in. The labored breathing which crucifixion induced had caused her chest to rise and fall heavily, countless times, each movement against the rough cloth chafing her nipples. Such a tiny thing to remember, yet she could feel it even now. The short version of the dream began at this point: bound to the crucifix she recalled the dizzying sensation of being raised swiftly off the ground. The sudden strain of her body weight wrenching her shoulders caused her to wince. As the cross was hammered into place she opened her eyes again to see her betrayer watching smugly, as she hung, powerless, waiting to die. It had been Caesar, in the flesh. In her dreams, the face had changed. Sometimes Atrius leered at her, Borius and Petrocles had their turns, and Caesar returned, was the most frequent face. Nothing had prepared her for this evening's nightmare. Tonight, when she looked down from her cross, the face regarding her cooly had been that of Gabrielle. She retched in reaction.
At that moment something flashed in the dimly lit space before her. She reached out by instinct and grabbed a fat rat. Her hand held it securely while her forefinger and thumb sought the right spot on its throat. She pinched suddenly, and the rat fell still. The sound and feel of a crushed windpipe, regardless of the tiny scale, was familiar. She remembered with a shudder that she had sometimes, depending on the victim, or her mood, liked to kill that way; it satisfied her rage, her lust for death, like other methods often failed to do. Gabrielle is right, she acknowledged grimly. I am a natural killer. But if I *had* killed Atrius, I would have done it that way, Gabrielle, I wouldn't have been satisfied with a knife. She hurled the dead rat against the cell door.
The guard kicked at the door: "Go to sleep," he ordered, and slammed the tiny opening shut. That ended the light in the cell. She began to laugh. "Doesn't matter," she said softly, "vision's so damned blurry, anyway." She didn't notice that her speech was slurred. In minutes she had begun to retch violently, and made her way to the waste bucket, where she knelt for long minutes, emptying her stomach of the evening's meal. At last she collapsed on the floor next to the bucket, too weak to move elsewhere.