DISCLAIMER: See part one.

By romansilence


Chapter Ten: Shadows of the Past

They were right on time and breakfast was waiting for them on the back porch. They talked about the party and finally Janet asked about Yussef. "You two seem very close, Gabrielle."

"It's been more than twenty years since we last had the opportunity to talk privately. It's a simple story: We found her some 300 years ago when she was barely more than a toddler. Her parents were dead and we raised her. She became a member of the Royal Guard and on one of our rare joint missions with the Tok'ra, Garshaw's former host was wounded beyond her ability to heal her. Yussef volunteered."

The Queen's answer lacked her usual detail and thoroughness. This led the two Air Force Officers to believe that there was a lot more to this story than she was ready to tell. "I didn't want to bring up hurtful memories, Queen Gabrielle."

"You didn't, Janet. In fact we asked you to come here because we think that you deserve to know the whole story about what happened yesterday, and why it worked. In a way Yussef is a part of this story. I suggest we go inside and make ourselves comfortable." Xena said.

They took their usual seats to the right and left of the unlit fireplace with Gabrielle nestled in Xena's arms and Samantha cradling Janet. They had spent many evenings this way, talking about SG-1's missions and Amazon history, about their days in the infirmary and the laboratories. They found that there were very few topics they couldn't discuss; sometimes very passionately.

"Xena usually is not one for many words; that's more my domain. But today my Consort insists that she has to be the one telling the story that has to be told."

"Gabrielle had just found Yussef. She was three years old and alone in a big city where no one cared if she lived or died. Her mother had died a couple of days earlier, and she was aimlessly wandering the streets. She clung to Gabrielle as if she were a lifeline. We couldn't take away her pain, but we could offer her a new life; so we brought her back to Gaia.

"Our annual trip to the other planets was about to begin, but Yussef was still very shy with strangers; so we decided that for once I would go without the Queen. All these new faces and places would be too disturbing, too frightening for the girl.

"We had a new scout ship, faster than anything the Gao'uld ever had, and I was eager to test its flight capabilities. At first I wanted to go alone. The Queen's Consort doesn't necessarily warrant a Royal Guard and I was sure that I would be able to deal with any threats without help. On a whim Athena offered to come with me. She told me that she had a case of cabin fever.

"The trip went smoothly and we were way ahead of schedule. On the way back to Gaia we received a distress signal from the Tok'ra. Artemis had a bad feeling about it, but Athena and I wanted to help. We intercepted the ship and ran into an ambush. We escaped but Athena was severely injured." Xena said with pain in her voice.

Gabrielle subtly changed her position, allowing her to put a comforting hand on her wife's back. "Artemis also was wounded and too weak to heal her host. She needed a new host and I was the only one available. We both knew that it could only be a temporary solution because my body sooner or later would reject the symbiote due to the changes she herself had made in my physiology and body chemistry.

"If I hadn't been too arrogant to take a couple of guards, they never would have been able to harm Athena.

"As soon as the transference was made, Athena's body changed. She became pure, white energy and simply disappeared. Artemis' knowledge and feelings were overwhelming for me.

"I could feel the pain Athena's passing caused her, and I could feel her anger at having walked into an ambush – her growing need for revenge. It was a feeling I could relate to and it grew stronger every minute, fuelled by my own darkness.

"Artemis has always been a warrior, but she was a warrior without darkness in her heart or her soul. She enjoyed her skills, but she always tried not to kill. This changed the moment she blended with me.

"The darkness in my soul was poisoning her, step by step. I could feel it growing inside of me and of her, and I knew that I would lose the battle. It was an all too familiar feeling.

"I programmed an automated course back to Gaia, disabled my access codes, left a note, and locked myself in one of the storage rooms." The raven haired woman fell silent.

"When the ship landed…" Gabrielle continued.

"Please, my love. I have to tell this story." Xena pleaded.

"I know, Xena, but I don't have to like it. Take your time." Gabrielle answered.

"By the time the ship arrived on Gaia I had reverted back to what I once was: Xena, Destroyer of Nations. There was no love and no compassion left in me, only the desire to kill all those responsible for Athena's death. I wanted revenge.

"After sedating me and getting me off the ship, Gabrielle and Egeria were successful in separating my body from the symbiote but the darkness was not easily overcome. Artemis was as helpless against it as I was, but she at least tried to fight it.

"I didn't; I greeted the darkness like an old friend, the old friend it is for me. Artemis was held in a suspension tank, but Egeria had no way to bring her old personality back. So, she erased her memory and gave her a new Tok'ra identity."

"Jolinar!" Samantha said slightly stunned. "That's why the thing with Tirrin worked. Artemis and Jolinar did it. Xena and I were only along for the ride."

"No, Samantha, you're wrong. When Egeria first explained to us what had to be done, Xena and I thought that we could handle it alone. We didn't want you in harm's way. She warned us that Nirrti's darkness was too strong for Xena to face alone, even with my help. She could have fallen prey to it once again. We all were needed to succeed. You were far more than just along for the ride. Please, my love, let me tell the rest." Gabrielle asked.

"No, Gabrielle. It's my fault and my shame, so it also is my duty to talk about it. It may have happened 300 years ago, but it still burns in my soul. And I have to do this the right way."

The tall woman closed her eyes for a moment and scooted out from behind her wife. She knelt with her back to the fireplace, her knees slightly apart, and her hands with the palms upwards on top of her knees.

Over the last few weeks Samantha had learned enough about Amazon ways and customs to let her heart hurt at the sight of the formidable warrior in such a position of servitude. Her eyes quickly wandered towards the Queen whose face spoke loudly of her misgivings and the pain she felt at her partner's self-humiliation.

"I speak as one who has sinned against the Amazon Nation. I speak as one who has sinned against her Queen, and against her wife. I speak as one who has dishonoured herself. Hear the story of my shame."

"Xena, this isn't necessary." Janet said unable to stand it any longer.

"It is, Janet. It's necessary for both of you. In time you will understand. Let me do what has to be done." The kneeling woman answered.

There was so much pain in her eyes; every instinct and every nerve ending in her body told the small doctor to somehow make it stop. However, after having witnessed Samantha dealing with the aftermath of Jolinar's actions and her sacrifice, she knew that sometimes talking, confessing was the only way to ease the burden of guilt.

"I think I understand, your highness. Accept my apologies for the delay."

Xena took a deep breath and then looked directly at Samantha and Janet while speaking. "Hear the story of my shame!

"From the very beginning there was darkness in my soul. After my brother died, Ares used that darkness and I became a warlord. I was barely alive when Caesar put me on a cross. I only survived because Ares left his host and joined with me. He didn't try to control me, but instead fuelled my anger and darkness. He revelled in my ruthlessness and whispered encouragements to me.

"I left Greece and headed east. At the time I was nothing more than a killing machine, that's all I was interested in. One day I met a woman and wanted to kill her, but without even trying she beat me, and only a few days later she saved my life and sent Ares running. She touched me and he left my body and fled into one of my soldiers – though at the time I didn't understand what had happened to me."

"Ares was gone, but the darkness in my soul lingered as strong as before. Over the years I learned to control it. Usually the darkness in my soul only makes itself known when I have to fight a battle or use the healing device.

"By the time we had arrived back at Gaia the darkness had won, and it became even stronger when I was separated from the symbiote. Despite everything Artemis' strength had held it at bay.

"Everything for which I had fought for hundreds of years; everything I held sacred was forgotten. Everything I had felt, everything I stood for all of a sudden didn't have any worth anymore. There was only one dominant thought in my mind: I wanted revenge.

"I wanted to kill the ones responsible for setting the trap that had killed Athena and ultimately Artemis. I wanted to kill them with my bare hands and I didn't care what I would have to do to achieve this goal. Gabrielle felt the darkness in my heart, and she tried to snap me out of it by telling me about our past, our love, our people, but I was blind to the light she offered.

"They held me prisoner, but when I stopped threatening the Queen and stopped trying to escape, the guards became complacent, and I was able to get free. I took the Queen hostage and forced the Royal Guard to follow my command. We found the trail of the cargo ship and tracked them to a trading outpost, neutral territory. Three of our attackers were still alive. I killed two of them and tortured the last. They were head-hunters, free lancers. Shiva, a minor Gao'uld with aspirations of becoming a System Lord, had put a price out for every Tok'ra or supporter of the Tok'ra. We were just a chance hit and I held him responsible.

"His home planet was easy to find and he obviously felt very safe there. It was almost too easy to get my hands on him; there was no satisfaction in it for me at all. We simply walked in his palace and brought him to our ship via a ring transporter. His personal guard was not worth the price of their weapons. I killed them, and then slowly began to torture him; nothing any Ashrak ever did to his victims comes close to what I made him endure. I literally cut him to pieces. Gabrielle pleaded with me. She wanted me to back off, but I didn't listen.

"He was dead, but my need for revenge was far from satisfied. It still burned in my soul, and I would have done everything to satisfy it. So, I set out to destroy every sign that he ever existed. We captured a Ha'tac belonging to Ra and used it to destroy every temple ever erected in his name; I didn't care how many people were in there. Sometimes it was an air raid; sometimes we went down to a planet and planted a bomb. The others refused at first. Their thirst for revenge had been assuaged by the death of the head-hunters and the end of Shiva. They only complied when I threatened to kill Gabrielle the same way I had killed Shiva.

"Eleven planets all but shot to ruins, hundreds of people dead, dozens killed by my own hands. We left Ra's ship in orbit of the main planet and returned to Gaia.

"The only good it did was that Shiva's sons Ganesha and Karttikeya held Ra responsible, and destroyed a big part of his fleet, to the point of threatening his position as a System Lord."

The tall warrior fell silent and a single glance at the Queen's face told the other women that the worst was yet to come. Xena took another deep breath but now her eyes refused to meet anyone else's in the room.

"When we returned to Gaia three squadrons were ready to overwhelm me and fight for the liberty of their Queen. They were willing to die in order to save her but Gabrielle stopped them. She ordered them to leave us alone and not to interfere, under any circumstances.

"This house didn't exist yet; in its place was a small hut for honeymoons and spiritual retreats. I brought her here and kept her as my slave. All I did was drink and drill. When I was training, I had her restrained and always in my line of sight. She was nothing more than an object for me, a possession, something to command. Gabrielle daily tried to reach me; she tried to get me to see reason, to get me to remember our love.

"In time I began to listen and to remember. I remembered the good times; all the centuries we stood together, all the times we made love, but I couldn't stand it. One night I woke up, and I didn't see the plaything, the slave. Instead I saw someone not deterred by the hardships I put her through. She told me daily that she still loved me and after a fortnight I bolted.

"I also remembered the bad times and the sacrifices she'd made, when she had jumped down a lava pit, trying to save my life, when I had dragged her behind a horse, when we found ourselves side by side on a Roman cross. I couldn't stand it any longer. I knew I didn't deserve her. I took the cargo ship and left. It was hard to accept what I had allowed myself to become but I also couldn't stay away for long. So, I offered myself up to Amazon justice."

She raised her eyes from the ground and looked straight at Samantha and Janet.

"No amount of punishment can wash away my guilt or my shame. These feelings are a part of who I am and they always will be, just as much as I still feel guilty for the first village I ever raided. The darkness is an integral part of me. Your participation made it easier for me to withstand the temptation of darkness. I'll always be in your debt."

"It was our honour to help, your highness." Samantha answered. "We know of the temptation to follow the call for revenge, and to act out against those we love when we're hurt. What happened then will in no way influence our respect for you."

"If it does anything, your confession elevates our respect for you. Thank you for trusting us enough to tell us, your highness." Janet confirmed and emphasised her lover's words.

Xena looked at both of them with unbelieving eyes. "Please, excuse me!" She practically fled the room and silence fell.

Samantha's eyes were locked on the closing door for what seemed to Janet a long time. The blond head turned and the doctor only nodded. "Where can I find her, Queen Gabrielle?"

"Either at the training grounds or at the smithy. Physical exertion has always been her favourite way to deal with emotional stress."

"I'll check the smithy first. If you would excuse me, your majesty." The Queen nodded, Samantha kissed her partner and left the house. The doctor was hard on her heels when Gabrielle called her back.

"My place is with Sam." Janet said defiantly, but still stopped dead in her tracks.

"Not this time, Janet. Give them some space; this is a warrior thing. Xena won't be able to let go of her old demons, if she doesn't get the chance to tell the parts of the story she has, if not totally left out, glossed over. The fortnight we spent at the cabin in retrospect was a lot harder on her than it was on me.

"The whole time she held me captive, I knew that she never would really hurt me. I knew that her love for me was stronger than all the darkness in the universe. I knew that eventually she would come back to me. She didn't have my confidence. She has come a long way, but she still is terrified that one day she once again could lose control.

"Xena has to talk about it, and she won't do it in front of you or me, but chances are that she will open up for Samantha. They are two of a kind, and since this whole thing happened my beloved wife never found the right person to whom she could speak. I hope she does now. The fortnight she held me captive still haunts her in her dreams."

"Why do warriors always have to be this irrational, Gabrielle?"

"It's a question of perspectives, Janet. We both know how to defend ourselves, but we never will be warriors at heart. What is irrational for us; makes perfect sense for them. They never would even think to reconsider. Remember your first evening on Gaia, the confrontation between Sam and Niva?"

"Of course I do. I was so scared for Sam, and at the same time I was so angry. I was sure that there would have been another way than just fighting it out. I was sure I could have talked her out of it." The brunette fell silent for a moment. "And at the same time I was bursting with pride at her willingness to defend me."

"So, you see, it's all a question of perspectives. You are more than just a warrior or a healer or a scientist. Give them the time they need." Gabrielle answered.

They sat in silence for a few minutes then Gabrielle said. "Let's go for a walk and try and find your daughter. I'd like to get to know her better. Sam and Xena will be back when they are ready. You probably will feel a big deal of unease over the day, but Sam will have to see this through on her own."

"What are you talking about, Gabrielle?" Janet's voice was definitively alarmed by now.

"I don't know for sure, but I think a few of the things Xena said hit a bit too close to home for your love. She will tell you; don't worry."

Xena was already at the smithy, trying to get the smouldering fire to burn hotter.

"I'll get the bellows." Sam said.

They worked together in companionable silence. She allowed herself to succumb to the rhythm of the work and the heat. Only a couple of candlemarks later it occurred to Samantha how strange this really was. She never before had been in a smithy and yet there seemed to be no need for instructions or orders. She simply knew what she had to do. It was eerie.

In the early afternoon candlemarks Xena stopped. "There's nothing more we can do right now. The blade has to cool out before we can work on it again. Let's go and take a bath."

"A bath sounds wonderful. I definitively could use it. Why do you need a new sword? Are there still uses for swords in a battle? I mean no offence, but you used guns and zats and the ribbon device against Nirrti, not swords or bows. Conflicts nowadays usually require long range weapons."

"Never go into an unknown situation without having at least a faint idea of what to expect. With Nirrti, we thought we knew exactly what to expect."

"You knew about Anubis' new warriors? And you didn't tell us?"

"No, of course not. You're right. We only thought that we knew what to expect. I initially thought two ribbon devices a bit overboard, but we needed them. In the past Nirrti always has been independent. She was one of the few Gao'uld who didn't base her influence on her Jaffa, but more on her knowledge and ingenuity. We didn't expect her to work with Anubis. Had I known, I would have insisted that Janet and the Queen stay at the base.

"We were lucky that the ribbon devices worked. I was surprised. According to your report the armour should have absorbed the energy."

"Different kind of energy than a staff weapon, I think. And it would be very un-Gao'uld-like to create a warrior they had no means to subdue somehow. They might be arrogant in the extreme, but as a rule they also are paranoid. By the way, where are we going?" Samantha asked obviously content with the Consort's explanation.

"A cave, further down the hills; hot springs just waiting for us. You might be on the right track. Zat'nikitels and staff weapons both rely on naqada as power sources. A ribbon device on the other hand reacts to the emotions of the wearer and uses the naqada in the bloodstream not as a power source but rather as a catalyst. You really could have come up with something, Sam, but we'll have to wait for the metallurgic analysis of the armour to make more knowledgeable guesses.

"And to answer the other part of your question. Like Earth, most of the new planets we come in contact with have developed beyond the bow, arrow, and sword stage but not all of them. We try not to overwhelm less developed societies with our technical advancements. It doesn't always work out, but we try not to interfere with their natural development. So, on a practical level, sword skills still are viable."

"But that's not the only reason, right?"

"No, it isn't. It's much more than this. For me, sword drills are better than meditation. I'm looking forward to teach you. It will be an enlightening experience for you. Don't look at me with disbelieving eyes. I know: you're a soldier and a scientist; I know this spiritual stuff can be a bit disconcerting. It took me a long time to come to terms with it, and you will too. It's worth it, believe me." Xena said with a smile.

There was a long, long moment of silence while both women stripped, slid into the steaming water, and stretched their limbs.

"What did you do after you left the Amazons?" Samantha finally asked. "You don't have to tell me if it's too personal."

"That's why we're here. Gabrielle sent you after me to get me to talk about the things I left out, right?"

"She didn't send me. I just felt that you shouldn't be alone, but I might have been wrong."

"It's strange; you know. My years as a warlord, the time I tried to kill Gabrielle, and the moons after Athena's death; among others, they always are close to my conscious mind, but speaking about it…"

"It's as if speaking about it makes it more real, as if it could come back to haunt you and then threaten to take over." Samantha said softly. When there was no immediate reaction she continued. "You read my service file, right?" She didn't really expect an answer and her voice changed to a tone Xena had never heard from her before.

"During Desert Storm, on the way back from a recon mission, my fighter was shot down over enemy territory. We ejected just in time but my back-seat died from a broken neck. When I found him he was already dead, and I still don't know if it was from the force of the ejection or the hard landing. I also had been injured and was taken prisoner. They were not pleased to find a woman wearing a man's uniform, doing a man's job. I was held in a small village, an oasis of about ten houses.

"I was beaten regularly. They wanted me to admit that our way of life was wrong; they wanted me to publicly confess to my sins and tell the world that I had seen the wisdom of Allah. They spent hour after hour talking to me, forcing me to learn their language; and if I didn't react the way they wanted me to I was punished, beaten, starved. But in a way I still was lucky.

"They were very traditional in their beliefs. The men were convinced that touching me in any sexual way would sully their souls or something like that. They beat me; one of them carved letters in my back. It was a constant struggle to even stay conscious.

"One day, about two or three weeks later, a young man who had been among the more enthusiastic of my captors decided that I was worth risking his soul. He tried to rape me. I killed him with the k-bar he had taken from me and used to shred the remnants of my 'scandalous' clothes. There were a few Jeeps just outside of my prison. My chances to escape were rather good; take one, disable the others, but I didn't go. I didn't really care about my freedom; I wanted revenge.

"With every kick and every punch raining down on me I had sworn that I would make them pay, dearly. I wanted them to pay for every lash mark they put on me, and for every time I had to beg them for water.

"When my knife slit his throat, the bruises and cuts on my body, the broken and cracked ribs, the pain simply ceased to exist. With him it had been in self-defence, but when I started to kill the other men, one after the other, it was nothing more than murder.

"Sometimes I wish someone would have stopped me, and I still don't know where I found the strength to do it. I'd like to think that it was some kind of nightmare or a hallucination. But it wasn't. I did these things.

"It was I who put my knife in their hearts; it was I who twisted their necks; it was I who slashed their guts; it was I who cut their throats. I killed all of them, every single man in the oasis, with my knife or my bare hands. I ended eighteen lives in less than an hour and a few of them didn't even have a chance to fight back. They didn't know what hit them.

"I didn't care whether they had been among my tormentors. I killed them all, but I still wasn't satisfied. I knew that there also were women and children; I had heard them from my cell, but I wanted the village destroyed. I wanted nothing of this place to remain; just like you wanted Shiva to disappear from the face of the universe.

"It wasn't just some out of the way nomadic village; they had satellite communication, electricity, and solar power. The solar cells all were channelled to a power centre and I rigged it for overload. The village exploded. I didn't know that they had a cash of explosives buried, but also didn't particularly care when I witnessed the amount of destruction.

"The women all had assembled for some kind of purification ritual in a tent near the small lake, a few hundred paces from the bulk of the buildings. That's why they were spared, but at the time I didn't know, and I deliberately accepted the possibility of their deaths.

"When the Air Force later had the area checked there was nothing left of the village, only ruins.

"I drove the last functioning Jeep to a vantage point on top of a dune and saw them scrambling around in fire and smoke, apparently crying for their men. I laughed, instead of driving away and trying to get back behind our lines, I stood there and laughed."

Hundreds of years of experience had prepared the Consort for the blonde's confession, especially for the things she didn't say.

She knew what she should have been doing and what in the past for someone else, someone not so much like her had worked: reassuring the young woman that what she had done was only due to a lapse of judgement; telling her that it would never happen again, that what she was feeling was not real, but she couldn't. She knew it wouldn't have been the truth. So, she held her tongue and waited.

"When I reached the first of our outposts I told them that I had been captured and was able to escape when their power system blew. I told them that I had been beaten whenever I was conscious, and they insisted that I see a shrink as well as a doctor. The man to whom they sent me was good, but he also was predictable. It was easy to lead him on. He wrote in his report that I probably had been raped, but was coping well and that there was nothing speaking against my return to duty.

"No one ever asked what really had happened, and there's only one other person who knows. He thinks that it only was due to the adrenaline coursing through my body. He thinks that I exaggerated, and simply doesn't want to believe that his goddaughter was … is capable of killing in cold blood.

"I lost control that day, and that's a thing a Carter never does. Carters don't cry; Carters don't feel; Carters don't ask for forgiveness, and Carters never, ever lose control."

"And yet, you still feel guilty."

"Carters follow orders, and there's no guilt in following orders."

One of Xena's eyebrows rising slightly was the only answer she got.

"I don't regret ending their lives. I regret killing them the way I did. I never felt so powerful and I never was so afraid, afraid of what I did, afraid of what I would be able to do.

"I killed them in their beds, caught them from behind. Hatred and anger were driving me on, consuming all my thoughts, all my actions, frightening and intoxicating.

"My father made me believe that this kind of killing is part and parcel of being a soldier; nothing more than a job well done. He told me a few stories to dissuade me from special ops training. He thought that I wanted to become a more deadly fighter, but I did it to become more detached. I wanted to find a way to keep a lid on the darkness, one way or the other.

"It didn't work. The darkness was always there. I could feel the darkness then, and I still do. It's stronger when I fight, but it's still there, even now, this moment."

Samantha searched the eyes of the raven-haired warrior and found sadness and understanding. "I'm sorry, Sam."

"Why? It was my failure. I let my control slip, and more than once."

"When you fought Nirrti, did you feel the darkness?" Xena asked.

"No, I didn't. Yes, I did." Silence once again permeated the cavern. "I had no problem controlling it while fighting Nirrti, but all in all it doesn't make any difference: Hathor, Apophis, Cronos, a first prime, or a Jaffa, one chieftain or the other; it doesn't make any difference.

"It's always there. Waking up, working in the lab, going to sleep, it doesn't make any difference. It's always there, every morning and every evening, every waking hour. It's in my dreams, my nightmares.

"I learned to live with the darkness, and I learned how to hide it to the outside world. I came close to succumbing to it more than once, but I'm mortally afraid of the day I won't be able to keep it in check – when the darkness instead controls me."

Samantha stared straight ahead, well aware of the taller woman at her side, but still reluctant to really rely on her comforting presence.

"Had Nirrti harmed Cassandra in any way, no fighting skills in the world would have saved her. When the darkness takes over I'm faster and stronger. I would have killed her, and I would have done so laughing."

"Promise me that you won't become a monster if something should happen to me." The taller woman said with a dreamy expression.

The blonde looked at Xena with question marks in her eyes.

"It's what Gabrielle asked of me, right at the beginning of our journey together. I didn't always keep my promise, but it kept me from totally losing it more times than I care to remember. I know that it's hard, Samantha, but you can control the darkness, and you can always rely on me to help you through should the temptation become too strong."

The blonde instinctively scooted closer to the other woman and suddenly was cradled in strong arms, Xena humming a lullaby. That's when the tears came, tears she never before had allowed herself to cry, tears for the men she had killed and for herself, for the loss of her innocence. And for the first time in her life, except when being with Janet, she didn't feel ashamed or weak for having shown her feelings.

Some time later, when there were no more tears left for the moment and Samantha had resumed her former place, she asked. "Your darkness came from Ares. Where does mine come from?"

"The dark part of my soul didn't come from Ares or any other Gao'uld. I had it before. Everyone has it, every living being; some of us have just a harder time to keep darkness and light balanced. Even Janet and Gabrielle have it but their light easily outweighs the darkness. Before this whole thing with Artemis happened I was convinced that I had accepted the darkness in me, that I had a handle on it, that I could control it in every situation.

"You know about the death of my son and how I tried to kill Gabrielle?" The dark haired warrior continued; Samantha confirmed with a nod. "We didn't have much contact with the Amazons afterwards. Gabrielle knew that I would have to pay for the crimes committed against their Queen, the Queen's Regent, and the Amazon Nation, and she didn't want me to be punished.

"After my the broken back had healed – the one I'd had just before our crucifixion –, Artemis asked for our help in reuniting the Amazons scattered in small tribes all over the world, and we decided to start with Gabrielle's tribe. Six summers had passed since the day I dragged Gabrielle out of the village behind a horse. They had not forgotten, as I knew they wouldn't. Gabrielle tried to argue with the council and the acting Queen but I convinced her that I had to pay for what I did.

"At the time Amazon Justice was of the an-eye-for-an-eye variety. Gabrielle talked the council into something else; some kind of spiritual challenge and a few moons spent as a slave to the Amazon Nation. Then, I would have preferred a few sound whippings."

They had lifted themselves out of the water, sitting at the edge of the pool with their feet still dangling in the water, both of them reluctant to leave the safe harbour of hot, moist air and dim light.

"I thought that I had found my way while we were in India, but I learned a lot about myself facing the trials the head priestess had set for me, and later, while I was a slave, it was the memory of my time at the temple that helped me to stay calm and see it through. And at the end I was convinced that I never would lose control like this again."

"But it took a hell of a lot to push you this far, Xena, to get you to lose control; and I'm convinced that even when you treated Gabrielle as a slave, you never physically harmed her."

"How can you be so sure? You've never seen me when I'm like that."

"No, I didn't, but no amount of darkness can completely obscure the love I see within you, between the two of you. I think you would rather harm yourself than raise a hand against her. You said that when you held her prisoner, you spent the balance of the day drilling. You could have found other ways to burn out excess energy, but you didn't want to hurt her. That's how I know."

"You're a good listener, Sam, but you are wrong. What I did was far worse than beating her. I abused her, verbally and sexually.

"I tried to make her feel small and worthless, and I know a lot of the things I said hurt her very much. I knew what buttons to push, but instead of paying me back equally she gave me tenderness and compassion. She always knew me better than I knew myself. That was true then, and it is now. Only a few words would have been enough to send me running, but she didn't even try. She never wavered in her belief that the woman she loved one day would come back to her.

"I took her to bed and played with her body without regard for her feelings or her needs, and when I was finished I threw her out and made her sleep on the ground. I treated her like an object and cared more for my sword and armour than for her. I didn't think to ask for her consent either. I suppose she didn't want me to wake up to the feeling that I forced her into something, but I know better.

"What I did to her during those fifteen days and nights was rape, nothing less – and when I finally understood what I had been doing I didn't owe up to my crimes, I ran. I didn't want to see the love in her eyes replaced by pity. I was a coward and simply took off."

"A coward would not have come back, Xena. Sometimes I wish that I could take responsibility for what I did to these men; that I could pay for my crimes. I think I have gotten to know you well enough to know that you couldn't live long with your guilt and shame."

Xena looked at her younger companion with a sad, pain-filled smile. "I fled with the cargo ship we had taken from the head hunters. I didn't have a plan or a destination; I just ran. I finally ended up in an out-of-the-way corner of the universe in a joint frequented by thugs and drunkards.

"Suddenly eternity became far too long for me.

"As long as I had been with Gabrielle, I didn't mind living for eternity. I had accepted being forced to witness the death of people I've grown to love time and time again, standing and singing at their funeral pyres, mourning their loss; to live through the deaths of our children.

"But without Gabrielle, everything suddenly became unbearable. I couldn't think; I couldn't breathe; I didn't want to think. I knew that without Gabrielle the darkness would return sooner or later, and then there would be no way back.

"So, I drank. It dulled my senses. It made it possible for me to breathe, but I still could hear my thoughts; and my mind replayed everything I had done to her, every law I had broken, every worshipper of Shiva I had killed. I wanted to bury myself in the bottom of a bottle, but all I ended up with were a lot of hefty hangovers. I was a pathetic excuse for a woman and a warrior.

"Then one night, almost a moon later, I looked up at the night sky and I saw a constellation similar to the one we call 'Aphrodite'. Then I knew that I had to go home and at least try to make amends. I knew what I did would never be forgotten and I knew it should never be forgiven, but I felt the need to kneel in front of my love and at least ask for her forgiveness."

Just like the older woman earlier had known that Samantha had been far from finished with her surprising confession, the blonde instinctively felt that Xena still had a lot to say. So, she draped a towel around the taller woman's shoulders and let her hands rest there for a long moment to silently convey her support and understanding; then she wrapped another one around herself and quietly waited for Xena to speak again.

"I stepped through the Ring, but instead of the detachment of the Royal Guard I had expected, …"

Xena dialled the co-ordinates of Gaia. The planet had for more than one and a half millennia been a home for her, but it was with a certain degree of apprehension that she pushed the central button of the DHD.

She knew Amazon laws and customs by heart, having participated in the writing or amending of quite a lot of them over the centuries; she should have been able to anticipate what to expect, but she didn't.

There simply were no precedents to what she had done, neither in history nor in theory. The council would have been in its right to order her death for treason, rape, and murder.

She didn't fear death; it would be infinitely better than living without her beloved. They could decide to just incarcerate her and throw away the key. They could cut her to pieces and bury the different parts in different corners of the universe. They could send her away, a never-ending exile.

Her imagination was running wild. In the end, the decision would be Gabrielle's and Gabrielle's alone – not because she was the Queen. As an injured party she didn't even have the right to vote with the council, but regardless of how angry some of her sisters might be, they never would…

Her mind was running wild and she knew she was stalling. Taking a deep breath she stepped through the shimmering pool and found herself surprisingly alone in the clearing. The surveillance cameras would tell the council of her arrival, and they probably would send some guards. So, she sat down in front of the ring and waited.

She didn't have to wait long; her senses first picked up the rustling of leaves and then she felt eyes on her, surrounding her. She even could have put a name to most of the eyes watching her. She stood up and waited for them to come forward and take her into custody. But nothing happened, and then she felt the presence of her soulmate.

When Gabrielle left the cover of the trees, the tall woman's breath caught in her chest. The blonde was every inch the Queen with her ceremonial leathers and the mask firmly in place. Xena instinctively fell to her knees. Gabrielle stopped at two arm lengths' distance.

Xena didn't dare to raise her eyes, but she couldn't help noticing that her partner had lost weight. Once more guilt and shame swept through her like a tidal wave. She continued to stare straight ahead, not sure what to say to her beloved.

"Look at me, Xena."

The mask had been pulled back and she looked into a face marked by lack of sleep and green eyes lacking their familiar spark. She began to tremble; remembering the only time her beloved had looked this desperate, shortly after Solan's death.

"I want you to listen to me, listen carefully. It's about the council's decision. They refused to let me take part in the sessions or even tell me what they decided. They think that when it comes to you my judgement is seriously flawed, and maybe they are right.

"I only know that they took a long time to come to a decision and that's why I'm here to remind you of your choice, the choice every lawbreaker has. You can choose exile. Then we both will leave Amazon territory forever or you can choose to be punished."

"We?" Xena's voice was barely above a whisper.

"We, as in you and me, Xena, together; the last moon has been hell for me. Leaving me here was the worst thing you possibly could have done. I knew where you were, and that you were trying to drown yourself in alcohol, and with every report I received I hurt a bit more. I need you more than I need air to breathe. Please, let us go and start a new life. I don't want you punished for what was out of your control. We can work everything out between us."

"I thought I had lost your love."

"No, my big dumb warrior, I need you in my life. There is no me without you. Let's leave here!"

"Gabrielle," the taller woman, still on her knees answered, "my real home is in your heart, but this is our home too. I will not run away, not for a second time. No one stands above the law.

"I can't spend centuries teaching it, and then not live by the law. I'll submit to the council's punishment. I'll do everything I have to, to regain the trust of the Nation and to be worthy of your love and forgiveness."

"Are you sure, my love?" The raven-head nodded. "Without knowing what they have in mind?" She nodded again. "I would feel better if we simply left."

"Is this really what you want? I know you want to make it easier for me, but think about the consequences. Would you leave our home, our family, our friends, our children?" Xena asked her.

"I feel that I have to pay for my crimes against the Amazon Nation and its Queen. I have to pay for what I did to the innocents on Shiva's planets, and for what I forced your warriors to do. It can never be enough, but it's a step in the right direction," she continued.

"However, I never will be able to pay enough for what I did to you, the woman who holds my heart and my soul and always will; I will never, ever be able to pay for what I did while I held you hostage. So, this is your call. If you really want me to run away from my responsibilities, I will. I'll let you decide."

"I knew that you wouldn't take them up on their offer. It's against everything that you are, my love. I don't know what they have in mind, but I will be with you every step of the way." She quickly embraced her lover, gave her a passionate kiss, stepped back, and put the mask over her face. "Guards, do what you have to do."

Xena stayed on her knees while two members of the Royal Guard dropped out of the trees, and shackled her hands behind her back. They ordered her to stand up and held her firmly at the elbows while two other Amazons secured her feet with cuffs and a connecting chain.

The chains were strong enough to hold an angry Jaffa, but all of them knew that these restraints wouldn't by far be strong enough to hold her should she really decide to try and escape. The guards also knew that the Consort wouldn't even think of doing something like this. They knew she wouldn't even try and defend her actions; that was just who she was.

There were two guards on her right side and two on her left, two following and two preceding her. They escorted her to the village square, all of them with their ceremonial masks firmly in place, but none of them were armed.

'Why? She should be treated as an enemy to the Amazon Nation. Their bearing spoke of at least a modicum of respect she felt she had lost any right to. Why did they do this? And why didn't she pick up on their lack of weapons earlier; she should have sensed it while they still were hidden in the trees.'

The closer they came to the main village the more Xena's mind reeled with questions. She had expected the whole village to be present for her trial and sentencing, but when they finally came to the central square it was completely empty. Except for the Queen and her guards, she hadn't seen a single soul.

The big double winged doors to the council hall opened. Her escort changed formation, with half of them now walking in front of her while the other four followed closely behind. Quick repeated glances taught her that not only the council of Gaia, but also the better part of Gabrielle's Regents were present, filling the rows as if it were a High Council Meeting.

Her guards stayed with her until she had reached the front row, and then filed out to the left and the right to stand along the side walls.

"Please take off the Consort's restraints." The chairwoman and Queen's Regent Solo ordered.

Xena had a hard time to limit her reaction to this rather surprising order to a raised eyebrow. The irons were removed and the tall woman lowered herself to her right knee to show her respect for the council.

"Xena of Amphipolis, Consort to Gabrielle, High Queen of the Amazon Nation, Commander in Chief of the Amazon Army, you have been accused of murder, rape, and abuse of power. Do you contest this Council's right to judge your behaviour?"

"No, Regent Solo." The dark haired warrior wanted to say more but was held back by the sense of ceremony she couldn't shake.

"The Council already has come to its conclusions but we want to make sure. Do you accept responsibility for these crimes?"

"No, I don't." More than a few of the women behind her audibly gasped. "Let's not play with semantics. – I am guilty of murder, rape, abuse of power, and a lot of other crimes. I will humbly submit to the judgement of the Council." Xena answered and lowered her eyes to the ground.

"Xena of Amphipolis rise and hear the verdict of the Grand Council." The tall woman came back to her feet.

'The Grand Council'. It had been more than four hundred year since all of the regents and vice-queens had been summoned for a court session. They probably had been waiting for her to come back all these weeks, but she thought while the other women in the room also stood, rationally it had been the only choice. Usually it was the prerogative and the duty of the Queen to decide about the punishment for capital crimes, but Gabrielle not only was one of her victims, she also was her bondmate.

To all outer appearances Xena was the picture of calmness. She nonetheless suddenly found her heart beating faster. The feeling of doom she had in the centre of her stomach since dialling Gaia now growing exponentially. She quickly closed her eyes to get herself back under control.

The representatives of the 'Grand Council' had put their ceremonial masks in place. "Consort Xena, you have been found guilty of abuse of power and multiple murders. However, we declare you not guilty of rape.

"High Queen Gabrielle's statement made it abundantly clear that everything that happened between the two of you after your return from Shiva's worlds, happened with mutual consent. She also left no doubt that she would be disappointed and displeased should this Council take it upon itself to interfere in her private life.

"After interviewing the members of the Royal Guards," the Regent continued, "who witnessed your behaviour during the mission, we came to the unanimous decision that we have no legal ground to find you guilty of rape or other forms of domestic violence, but we also want you to know that in the interest of our Queen's safety we will keep your conduct under close scrutiny."

The masked woman fell silent to let her words sink in. Xena found the eyes of the Regent and gave her a short approving nod.

"For abuse of power you will be sentenced to fifteen moons of servitude to the Amazon Nation. You will live as a servant, working in the kitchens and the food hut. During this time, you will be relieved of your command; you will not be allowed to handle weapons of any kind. You will have no access to the laboratories or the infirmary or the library. Off-duty you will be confined to your quarters or at the discretion of the Queen. As a sign of your servitude you will wear plain leathers without rank markings or honour badges."

Xena had a hard time to keep the surprise and consternation she felt at the Regent's words from showing on her face. They didn't even make her a slave – why? She had used part of the defensive forces to satisfy her need for revenge. She had used them to commit capital crimes. It didn't feel right to let her off the hook this easily.

Her consternation obviously showed on her face because the Regent continued. "The Grand Council decreed that the military operation against the murderers of Artemis and Athena and against their client was well within the boundaries of Amazon honour and Amazon justice. The same however can not be said about the rest of the mission. Reviewing your actions, the 'Grand Council' found you guilty of murder in 87 cases. Had you been in your right mind, we wouldn't have a choice but to try and find a punishment equivalent to a death sentence. After checking all available data and speaking with the venerable Egeria we are convinced that there were indeed extenuating circumstances.

"At the time you were not responsible for your actions. The Council sees your timely return and your willing submission to our judgement as a sign of your regret and repentance.

"These souls rest on your shoulders; and nothing we possibly could do to you could diminish your sense of guilt or be harder than what your conscience does to yourself.

"As a symbolic gesture, for every death you will receive three strokes with a single tail whip on your bare back after having spent three days and three nights in the sweating hut.

"Xena of Amphipolis, Consort to Gabrielle, High Queen of the Amazon Nation, do you accept the sentence?"

Xena sought the eyes of every single one of the thirteen women standing before her, searching for signs of discomfort or animosity. Finally, she answered. "Yes, venerable members of the 'Grand Council', I accept your decision and submit to the punishment with humility and gratefulness. But I have a question: Why? Why do you make it so easy for me?"

The Regent, a tall redhead with doe eyes, took off her mask and smiled at the other woman. "There are a lot of possible answers to this question, Consort Xena, but only two that really count: the Amazon Nation is what it is now only because of you and our Queen. Gabrielle is our heart and our soul and you are our strength and our confidence. You belong together like two molecules of oxygen. Deciding on any other punishment would have taken the both of you from us.

"But more importantly: We know you; all of us have known you our whole lives. We grew up listening to Queen Gabrielle's stories, and we learned that all of them are true. We know who you are. We saw the emptiness in your eyes when you came back with the news of Athena's death. We saw the hate when you killed Shiva and the head hunters, Shiva's priests and worshippers.

"That was not all we saw. We also saw the tiny flicker of life every time your eyes found the Queen's. We observed from afar how you tried to drown your sorrow and pain and memories. We observed how, despite all of this, the woman we all know and love slowly fought her way back to the surface. You and the Queen taught us not to give up on people and we certainly will not start with you."

Xena could feel a blush of embarrassment spreading over her cheeks but before she began to feel totally uncomfortable the Regent ordered.

"Guards, escort Consort Xena to her quarters. The sweating hut will be ready for her tomorrow morning."

"Two hundred and sixty-one strokes, that's…"

"I know, Sam, but please remember: I'm immortal. It took me almost a moon to recover from the beating – and Gabrielle was not really happy with me and the Council, but in the end I convinced her that it was the right thing to do, for the Amazons and for me – and ultimately, for her, it was the right thing too."

"I suppose that she was angry with you – for running away, for not trusting your love, for treating her the way you did. She never said a word, though, right?"

"What I did was rape. The Council knew it; I knew it. But Gabrielle…"

"What did she do when she finally acknowledged her anger and disappointment?"

"It was hard. Gabrielle began to question herself, her decisions, even her feelings. She never even considered questioning me and the darkness lingering in my soul. We spent time together, but we didn't share our lives. We talked but we didn't really – well, talk. It was if there was something between us, something big and ominous."

"A big pink elephant sitting in the centre of the room." Seeing the confusion on the other woman's face Samantha continued. "Everyone can see it, sitting there and taking up space but no one wants to acknowledge its existence. No one wants to acknowledge that you have to walk around it to cross the room."

"Sounds as if you're talking out of experience, Sam."

"In a way, Xena, but it's in no way comparable to what you probable went through. About a year ago, Janet asked me to take care of Cassandra while she was stuck at the base with an emergency. I blew it, big time. In the end, we all were angry at each other, but none of us wanted to talk about it. We ended up having a very loud, very passionate discussion and cleared the air. – Nothing compared to what you went through."

"A pink elephant?! Yes, that's close enough. We also found a way to 'clear' the air."

"But you could not turn back the hands of time. Your relationship never became what it was before, right? That's why the Xena of the stories and the one I know seem to be two totally different persons."

"You're defiantly too perceptive, Samantha Gabriella."

The blonde looked at her taller companion questioningly, but then sighed and said. "I know, one day you will answer my questions, but it's too early yet."

Xena started to smile, but then locked eyes with her younger companion. There was a certain seriousness in the blue orbs that made her reconsider to simply change subject.

"You're concerned that something similar could happen to you and Janet?"

The blonde nodded dejectedly.

"You're not like me, Sam. You will never turn your darker instincts against those you love, because you never were completely under the spell of the darkness; you never willingly embraced it like I did time and time again. But to put your mind more at ease I will tell you how we made it through this particular obstacle course.

"After I paid my debt to the Amazon Nation the first time, still on Earth, after the crucifixion, Gabrielle and I changed the way Amazon Queens ruled their people right from the beginning. The Queen, Artemis' Chosen, was regarded as the ultimate authority for just about everything. Everyone from the lowest slave to her Consort was under her unquestioned command.

"Gabrielle didn't want to rule alone, especially considering the task ahead of us, uniting a Nation in diaspora – scattered all around the known world in small tribes that sometimes even didn't know that there were still others like them. So, in time, the Amazons became accustomed to see us as one, and to accord us the same authority, and whenever I became too bossy towards my wife Athena brought me back to my senses.

"Being stripped of my rank and relegated to kitchen duty changed this. The Amazons had no choice but to come to Gabrielle with their concerns and suggestions – and my beloved bard learned that she was a great Queen in her own right and didn't need my help.

"At first it intensified her insecurities, fears, and anger, but in public she hid it well. I had the chance of observing her in action; as strange as it may sound, I never really had seen her. To me it almost was as if she had finally stepped out of the shadows and into the light.

"Well into the fifth moon of my punishment, a group of young Amazon warriors came from a remote planet to finish their education. They were an obnoxious band of wannabes with delusions of self-importance and the first ones that treated me, what they thought was, according to rank. Strangely enough they didn't know what had happened and that serving food and cleaning tables was only a temporary assignment. Servants were not very high on the social ladder, and one day I couldn't take it any longer.

"They treated me with their usual disdain, and one of them started to talk about Gabrielle: how she needed a real warrior to satisfy her, someone who wasn't such a looser as the Consort; how she would make her scream in lust, and lead the Nation to victory against the Gao'uld. Not loud, just enough to be heard by her buddies at the table. She saw that I had heard her and started to bitch about the soup not being hot enough. I took the whole cauldron and emptied it over her head. It had been hot enough to give her second degree burns."

Even after more than three hundred years, there still was a satisfied glint in the raven-haired woman's eyes.

"I reckon you also burned your hands lifting the cauldron." Samantha quipped.

Xena smiled, but instead of answering she just continued with her story. "Of course, it was Gabrielle's duty as a Queen to punish me. A servant hurting a warrior – that was unthinkable. A lot of things have changed since then. Today, both parties would be punished, one for losing their temper, the other for disrespecting a fellow Amazon, but at the time she didn't have a choice.

"Gabrielle had to order me punished. But Gabrielle wouldn't be Gabrielle if she hadn't insisted on doing it herself. The law didn't leave her much of a choice. She either had to order one of her people to do it or do it herself. I was whipped in the centre of the village, the normal punishment doubled, because of what I am.

"We thought that we had already talked about all our issues, but it turned out that nothing could be further from the truth.

"When they bound me to the whipping post I could feel it flowing towards me, like a tidal wave. I could feel her anger, her outrage. I could feel her fighting with the urge to let the whip go full force. And for the first two lashes she really did. Then she stopped. The rest of the strokes were still very hard, but they no longer were intended to really harm me.

"Later she felt horrible for nearly losing control, but it got us to talk, really talk, about everything. It was the first step on a long road. It's hard to explain, Samantha.

"It was as if the first two strokes had finally made her aware of her anger and disappointment, no, disappointment is not the right word; as if it had opened a door, for both of us. Over the centuries, she had had to face my darkness more than once; and more than once it had been directed against her, but that had only been for a few candlemarks or a couple of days.

"Gabrielle never would have needed my help to lead the Nation. She could have done it on her own, right from the beginning. That's something we both had to learn. For centuries I had been the leader of the Amazon warriors; instead of supporting the Queen's decisions I had become the power behind the Queen, the Queen's power.

"When I was reinstated everyone expected me to simply slip back into my old role but we found that we could not. Gabrielle and I, we both had changed. The way we act now wasn't born in a day. It took some time but finally I no longer felt the need to stand in the spotlight. Gabrielle still asks for my advice but she also knows that she has my support even if I might disagree with her."

"But you are no longer regarded as her equal."

"As a human being I'm her equal but according to Amazon law I'm not. She's the Queen. I'm her Consort, and that's how it should have been from the beginning. We still argue that I often exaggerate in public. At the beginning I only did it to make everyone understand who's in charge, so to speak; but over the decades and centuries it has become natural to me. It has become part of who I am, of how I feel comfortable in my skin. I built this house to always make us remember that time, and to remind us that there always will be a future."

Then the tall woman changed subject and Samantha knew that the questioning was over for the time being.

"Gabrielle and Janet are probably walking a trench somewhere, waiting for us to come back to them. It's nearly time for dinner."

So, she decided to let it be. "Yeah, I could eat something. Xena, thank you for sharing with me."

"Back at you, Sam, and thank you for listening."

They wrapped themselves in fresh towels and left the bathing cavern, both of them unwilling to once again slip into their sweaty and forge-soiled clothes. A set of leathers with all the markings for rank and honour was waiting for Xena and a simple white tunic, similar to the one the weapons' master had been wearing not too long ago, for Samantha. On top of the tunic, there was a note.

Xena and Samantha shared a short and rather monosyllabic evening meal with their partners. Gabrielle and Janet did all the talking, telling them about their day, about spending time with Cassandra and the young Amazons and about the girl's plan to participate in their training. Before the two Earth women retired to their room, Gabrielle emphatically reminded Samantha of her choices concerning the impeding punishment.

Janet felt that her lover was emotionally drained from her long talk with the Consort and that it probably wasn't all about Xena. A few times this day, she had been tempted to storm off in search of her lover when a particularly distressing emotion came through what she now saw as their link. She knew that Samantha would talk to her when she was ready, so the small doctor didn't ask any questions. She just offered warmth and comfort.

They fell asleep on their bed, still clothed, and Samantha dreamed of a ball of light appearing before her, shimmering and warm. It soon was joined by another ball; it also was of a shimmering white but with dark spots and patches. The balls gravitated towards each other and fused. They now emitted so much light that the dark spots were barely visible.

Part 11

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