I, Conqueror

by: SwordnQuil
SwordnQuil@aol.com

Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, and the rest of the known names belong to Pac Ren and everyone else who lays claim to them. I’m not doing this to make money.

Subtext: I believe that Xena and Gabrielle are lovers. There is erotica here.

Genre: As suggested by the title, this is a Xena the Conqueror piece. It is, however, a different Xena the Conqueror piece than most out there. What I have attempted to do is to write a Conqueror story as if it were written for X:WP instead of HTLJ. In addition, there’s a bit of Remember Nothing in here, only this time, it’s Gabrielle who has the memories while Xena does not. Confusing? Read on. J

Violence: Well, it’s the Conqueror. Are you gonna tell her not to fight?

Dedication: As always, I’d like to thank Mike for being such a great and supportive friend and beta reader. I love you, man! Thanks also go to Candace for once again beta reading fifty characters at a time, Elizabeth, and the rest of the Atlanta Xena crew. You guys ROCK! And a big thank you to list readers who put up with this being on their list every day.

Special thanks: Go out to a certain Lunatic whose question "Where are all the good Conqueror stories?" lifted my Muse to the challenge. And to Mary D, for her encouragement and requests for more! And, of course, every reader who has taken the time to drop me a line telling me how much you enjoy my attempts at story-telling. This story goes out to every one of you with heartfelt appreciation. You guys are the absolute best! Since my life has, for the moment, calmed back down, I will attempt to return each and every letter to everyone who took the time to send one to me. If you wish, you can reach me at SwordnQuil@aol.com .

Final P.S. With the completion of this story, I will begin writing Desert Storm once again, and then, when final rewrites to Redemption are completed, I will be starting on that sequel as well. Thanks to everyone for hanging in there. I hope you won’t be disappointed.

Last important bit: This story is completed. I am posting in sections to allow those who like it that way to have what they desire, but it is completed and will be going out a section a day until it is all up.

 

I, Conqueror

 

The moon was a pregnant sphere which hung heavily over the jeweled horizon, shining ghostly light into a sheltered glade hard by a small pond and protected by tall old trees who told their secrets to none save the owls perched regally upon their fragrant boughs.

A golden Palomino cropped grass near the pond’s edge, her hide burnished gold by the light of a cheery fire blazing near the center of the tiny glen.

The horse’s Mistress sat on the dew-dampened ground, her back resting against a fallen log, her hands occupied in the time-worn task of sharpening steel, the sound echoing across the pond’s still waters to sing against the opposite shore in a martial melody.

The woman’s companion lay, stomach down, on a fur bedroll, the noise of her quill’s scratching on leather parchment obscured by the rhythmic sounds of whetstone on weapon. Her body moved slightly, as her mind’s eye replayed the events which were being transcribed into the words she was writing. Her free hand came up occasionally to tuck a fine tendril of long, blonde hair behind one small ear. The quill ceased its movement as the young woman scowled, her fair brows knitting low over her eyes. "Xena?" she asked, not looking up from her parchment.

"Yeah?" her companion answered, continuing her task mindlessly.

"When I was going up against that big guy, you know, the one with the bald head and the eye-patch, did I double thrust with the left or right end of my staff?"

Halting her arm’s soothing motion, Xena tilted her head, thinking for a moment. "Right," she said, nodding definitively. "Definitely."

Gabrielle looked up briefly, grinned, then turned her attention back to her scroll. "Thanks!"

"Anytime." The sound of sharpening filled the air once again. "It was a beautiful move, by the way," she mentioned, off-handedly.

Gabrielle looked up once again, her green eyes wide. "Really?"

"Yes. Really." Xena’s expression was totally serious. "You’ve gotten incredibly good with your staff. Poetry in motion."

The bard couldn’t have kept her jaw from dropping open if she’d tried. "Thanks," she managed to finally stutter out after a few half-strangled attempts. "That means a lot, coming from you."

"Nah," Xena shrugged, " just telling it like I see it." Sheathing her sword, she stood in one fluid motion, the muscles in her long thighs shining in bas relief in the fire’s shadowed light. "I’m gonna check the perimeter. Be back soon."

Then she was gone, into the night, a soundless specter among the shadows.

Gabrielle blinked at the space her lover used to occupy, her face a study in perplexity. "Well, whadda ya know." She looked back down at the parchment, then gave up, knowing that after a bombshell like that, writing was a lost cause, her mind only wanting to replay the last thirty seconds of her conversation with Xena. "Poetry in motion, huh? Heh."

Rolling the half-finished story up and carefully tying the cord off, she gently shoved it into her scroll-bag, then flopped over onto her back, crossing her hands over her belly and looking up into the summer’s night sky as she awaited Xena’s return.

Several moments later, the bard found her view blocked by raven hair and dancing blue eyes. "See anything interesting up there?" Xena asked.

"Now I do," Gabrielle replied, grinning as she pushed herself up to lean on her elbows. "Everything quiet?"

"Yup." Removing her sword and chakram, Xena made quick work of her armor, bracers and boots, placing each in a careful order around their shared bedroll, her weapons the most close-at-hand. As was her habit this far into the wilderness, her leathers stayed on, much to her partner’s chagrin.

Pretending not to notice the expression on Gabrielle’s face, the warrior lowered herself down onto the bedroll, then gathered her lover into strong arms, placing a tender kiss to one fire-warmed cheek before settling back and looking up at the stars painting the night sky.

"You ok?" Gabrielle asked after a long moment, listening to the steady beat of the brave warrior’s heart beneath her head.

"Just thinking."

Another moment of silence, punctuated by the muted crackle of the banked fire.

"’Bout what?"

Xena’s chest expanded as she took in a long breath of air, then settled as she slowly let it out. "About the fact that I wish Autolycus had chosen a city other than Corinth to get himself arrested."

Understanding dawned and Gabrielle nodded. She knew that Corinth was one of the few areas that Xena actively avoided during their travels. It had been the sight of her worst defeat, the battle where she’d had to give up Solon and pull out, or risk the death of her son as well as the loss of her war. The Corinthians were sure to look none-too-favorably upon the Warrior Princess in their midst, even after all these years. Gabrielle heard it told from other bards that "Wanted" posters for Xena still littered the city’s walls.

Yet, despite it all, Xena was going back, willingly. All to help out a friend.

And Gabrielle believed that that particular act spoke volumes on just how much her partner had changed.

"Xena?"

"Mmmm?"

"What would have happened if you’d won that war? If you’d taken Corinth?"

The ensuing silence lasted so long that Gabrielle had given up on an answer and had just started to fall within the seductive web of Morpheus’ realm, when Xena’s deep voice rumbled beneath her ear. "Athens would have fallen and Greece would have been mine."

"Is . . .was . . .that what you wanted?"

Xena sighed again, awash in bitter memories. "At the time, yes. It was something I’d worked for for years. The loss of that dream, no matter how temporary a loss it might have been, devastated me. Borias was gone. Solon was with the Centaurs. My dignity stayed on the battlefield. The only thing I had left was my army, though I still can’t believe they stayed with me after all of that."

"And now?"

"Now? Gabrielle, the world doesn’t need someone like me having that kind of power. Say what you like about me and my seeming abilities to control my dark side. We both know it’s still there, waiting." She tightened her grip around the warm body laying so trustingly in her arms. "No. I have no wish to relive that particular dream again." Her voice, when it came again, held a definite smile. "Not when I have so many others I wouldn’t mind reliving, again and again."

Loosening her grip, she reached down and tilted Gabrielle’s head upwards, then met the soft, beckoning lips with her own, slowly deepening the kiss until both women were breathless.

"Oh yeah," Gabrielle said, grinning up at her lover, "feel free to keep reliving this dream as many times as you want."

Xena returned the grin with a feral one of her own. "I intend on doing just that, Bard. Starting now."

*******

Gabrielle awoke slowly the next morning, grumbling when a shaft of sunlight had the temerity to lance through the trees and rest on her closed eyelids. "Ugh," she muttered, pulling the fur covering over her head. "Just five minutes, Xena. I promise. Just five minutes."

There was no answer. Not that she had expected one, of course. Doubtless, the ‘up before the dawn’ warrior was swimming a few hundred laps in the pond, or working out some new, dazzling moves with her sword, or honing up on any one of her myriad of many skills, or whatever it was that she did when the haunting nightmares of her past pulled her out of the warmth of the bedroll and out into the land of the living once again.

The sun, as if realizing that its light wasn’t going to work in getting the small woman out of bed, commenced to use its other skill, heating the bard to near roasting beneath the thick fur of her cover.

"Alright already!" Gabrielle yelled, flinging the cover off her overheated body. Rolling onto her back, she scowled up at the sky. "Apollo, if you ever decide to come down and pay us a visit, please don’t hold me responsible for what I’m gonna do to you for these tricks you pull on me every morning."

The sun god wisely chose silence as the better part of valor, deciding instead to shine his rays on some other, more appreciative, territory.

Sighing in relief, the bard sat up, stretching, yawning, and trying to get her sleep-tousled hair back into some semblance of order. Her bladder chose that moment to announce, quite loudly, that a trip to the bushes was definitely in order, post haste, if you please.

Groaning over the unfairness of it all, she rolled to her feet and stretched once again, yawning until her jaw protested.

Her teeth shut with a snap as she blinked the sleep from her eyes and looked around the campsite for the first time since she’d fallen asleep in Xena’s arms the night before. Her urge to relieve the pressure in her bladder fell away just as suddenly.

"Xena?" she called out softly, turning her head to the right, the left, and the right again.

The waking forest’s soothing noises were her only answer.

"Xena? Xena, where are you?"

Silence.

Her heart sped up as she looked, once again, around the campsite. All of Xena’s possessions were gone. The absence of her weapons and armor were easily enough explained, given the warrior’s propensity to leave nothing, not even a simple fishing expedition, to chance.

In this case, however, everything was gone. Gone as if it had never existed.

Argo’s saddle and tack were missing, as were the saddlebags. The bard looked up. "Argo? Argo, come here, girl."

When there was no response, she whistled the command that should have had the warhorse at her side within seconds.

But she remained alone in the tiny glade.

"What in Tartarus is going on here? Xena, if this is your sadistic way of teaching me a lesson, please believe I’ve learned it. I swear on my father’s name, I’ll never sleep in again. Could you come back now, please? This isn’t very funny anymore."

More than a little annoyed with Xena’s antics, Gabrielle looked back down at the bedroll, sorely tempted to just go back to sleep until the Warrior Princess came back to her senses.

"No," she moaned softly at the sight which greeted her eyes. "Oh no. Please, no." Where two bedrolls had lain the night before, rumpled from their loving, only one now lay. Dropping to her knees, she buried her nose in the soft fur. Only her own body scent rose up to greet her. Of Xena, there was no trace. "By the gods," she whispered. "What’s happening to me?"

A noise sounded somewhere behind her and she jumped to her feet, staff in hand. "Xena, is that you?"

The noise was repeated and Gabrielle recognized it as the sound of booted feet moving through the forest, heedless of the noises they were making.

Correction. Many booted feet. And they were headed her way.

Whirling, she spied a likely stand of thick undergrowth and ran to hide within it, intent on discovering if it was friend or foe that was marching toward her.

Within moments, the first signs of human life entered into the glen in the forms of heavily weaponed and armored soldiers who were leading a large group of men, women, and children bound together by chains running through manacled wrists and ankles.

The bard counted twenty soldiers and at least five times as many captives. She tightened the grip on her staff, her quick mind coming up with and discarding various methods of attack. "Damnit, Xena," she whispered, "where are you?"

Gabrielle winced as the men and their captives shuffled by, trampling over her personal possessions as if they were just so much fodder littering the forest floor. As the last soldier slipped past her hiding spot, she began looking ahead, mentally constructing a path where she could remain hidden, yet continue tracking them until she could think of what to do against so many and still have a hope of being successful.

The woods became denser very close to the path the group was following, and Gabrielle chose that as her point of entry, slipping silently from her cover, already planning her ambush. "You owe me big for this one, Warrior Princess."

Just about to make her move, she was stopped by a hand on her shoulder. She turned quickly, staff raised, and narrowly missed sending a stranger into Hades’ realm. "Wha . . . . What are you doing here? It’s very dangerous out there right now. You need to get as far from here as you can. Quickly."

The stranger, a wizened old man with a beard that stopped at his belt-line, smiled calmly at her, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. "You must come with me. It is very important."

"I must . . . . Maybe you didn’t understand me, sir. You need to go back where you came from. Alone. I need to track those soldiers and figure out a way to get those people away from them. I don’t have time to talk to you right now."

The tiny man put a gentle hand on Gabrielle’s arm, his dark eyes earnest. "You must make time, Gabrielle of Poteidia. The fate of the world hangs in the balance."

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. "How do you know my name?"

"That is not important right now. What is important, however, is the message I must give to you."

Sighing in frustration, the bard dragged a hand through her hair, looking in vain for the soldiers and their captives. Perhaps, if she hurried, she might be able to set up her ambush further down the path. "I’m sorry. I can’t. I . . . ."

"You must. Please."

Shoulders slumping in defeat, Gabrielle schooled her face into an expression of polite interest. "What is it that you have to tell me?"

"Not here. Soldiers come. More everyday. Great armies are amassing in Corinth. The war is near. You must come with me to a place of safety. All will be revealed to you there."

"But those people . . . ."

"They will be safe, for the moment. They are to be used in the Conqueror’s mines."

Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed. "The Conqueror?"

"That, too, will be explained. Please. Come."

She shot one last look down the trail, then turned back to the man standing so patiently before her. She sighed again. "Fine. Lead on."

*******

Gabrielle found herself in a tiny cave, its interior brightened by the light of a small fire near the center. Thick furs lined the ground around the fire, and bags of food, water and clothing lay in disarray near the barren walls. The bard had visited more than a few hermits’ caves in her travels with Xena, and this one appeared to be no different from the rest.

While the man arranged his bone-thin body comfortably on the skins closest to the fire, Gabrielle chose to remain standing, reining in her impatience and need to help the captives she’d seen only with the strongest of efforts. Planting the tip of her staff into the sandy ground, she leaned against it, looking down at the strange man. "What is it you need to tell me?"

The man smiled his serene smile. "Firstly, my name is Manus. I am a Priest of the Fates."

"The Fates? What do they have to do with anything?"

Manus folded his hands in his lap and stared into the fire. "A great deal. Against their will, the tapestry of life has been rewoven into a present that should not be."

Bewildered, Gabrielle shook her head. "Would you mind explaining that a little better? I don’t think I understand what you’re saying."

"You know of a woman named Callisto, am I correct?"

"Yeah, I know her alright."

"In your reality, she is a goddess, right?"

The bard frowned. "What do you mean, ‘in my reality’?"

"Exactly as I have stated. Is she not a goddess?"

"Wha . . . ? Yes, she’s a goddess. Has she done something? Has she changed something?"

Manus nodded. "Indeed she has. The world you fell asleep in last night is not the world you woke up in today. As a goddess, Callisto managed to change the course of history by going back in time and preventing a very important thing from happening as the Fates had decreed that it should."

"And what is this thing that she changed?"

"In your world, there is a man known as Hercules. I assume you know of him?"

"Hercules! Of course I know him. Everyone knows Hercules! He’s one of the greatest heroes of our time!"

The old man shook his head sadly. "No one in this world knows of Hercules, because he was never born. Callisto killed his mother before she could give birth to him."

"By the gods," Gabrielle whispered, closing her eyes as she tried to imagine the horror of a world without Hercules in it. All the people he saved, dead now because he was not there. The giants and monsters he killed, free to roam the countryside because there was no one strong enough to stop him. "This is unbelievable."

"It is also, unfortunately, true."

"Why would Callisto do something like that? What could she stand to gain?"

"Her motives were not made clear to me, I’m afraid," Manus said, apology heavy in his tone. "As for gain, the only objective that can be guessed is her seat at the right hand of Greece."

"Say again?"

"The Conqueror is Greece, and Callisto sits to the right of the Throne."

"That’s the second time you’ve mentioned this conqueror person. Who, exactly, is the Conqueror? A name, please. Not more riddles."

"Gabrielle, I speak in what you call riddles only so that you may understand the gravity of the task I have been asked by the Fates to give you."

The bard balled her fists in frustration. "What task? Who’s the Conqueror? What’s going on here? I’ve got a lot of things that I need to be doing, and playing ‘twenty questions’ isn’t one of them."

Manus raised up his hands in a placating gesture. "I will ask you but one more question. I believe your answer will lead to your enlightenment."

Taking a deep breath to cool her temper, Gabrielle nodded. "Fine. What’s the question."

"What is the most important thing Hercules has done that has impacted your life most directly?"

Gabrielle frowned, thinking over all the times she had met Hercules. All of the encounters were important. How to pick one above the rest? Was it the unchaining of Prometheus? A chained Titan, particularly Prometheus, would certainly throw the world into chaos, but if that had happened here, in this supposedly new reality, the effects certainly weren’t the same as they were in her reality. Despite being very old, Manus seemed quite healthy. The fire blazed easily in its pit.

She scratched at the back of her neck. What else could there be that was important to her directly? The only other thing she could think of was when he first crossed paths with . . . .

She looked up, face white with shock. "Xena. That’s it, isn’t it. The Conqueror you’re talking about, it’s Xena, isn’t it."

Manus nodded. "Yes. Xena is the Conqueror of Greece. Without Hercules to help change her path from evil to good, she was able to gather another army and storm the walls of Corinth. Athens fell soon after. She rules Greece, India, Egypt, Chin, and many other lands with Callisto at her side. And now, even as we speak, she is preparing to go to war against Caesar’s Rome. The Fates have told me that it is a war neither will win. Like a fire, it will spread all over the known world. Its effects will be felt as far away as Gaul and other places which we do not even know exist. Millions will die and civilization as we know it will lie in ruins. This war must not be allowed to take place."

Gabrielle stood silent in shock, her mind awhirl with images. She couldn’t comprehend what she had just been told. The pieces refused to fit together in her mind.

"You are the only one with the power to prevent this from happening, Gabrielle," Manus said solemnly.

"Me? How am I going to stop a war?" Her eyes were bright with unshed tears. "Does Xena even know me in this reality?"

The old man stood and laid a compassionate hand on the bard’s chilled arm. "No, she does not. Poteidia and everyone in it was destroyed many years ago by a warlord named Draco who thought to challenge Xena’s superiority. In this reality, you never existed."

The tears escaped her eyes’ imprisonment, rolling slowly down her cheeks. "Then how am I supposed to do what you ask? It took me years to gain Xena’s confidence. And that was a Xena who had already chosen the path of the greater good. I don’t have that kind of time! And even if I did, she would probably have me killed before I even got a chance to speak to her."

"The road ahead is difficult, Gabrielle," Manus agreed, awkwardly patting her back in an attempt at consolation. "There may be, however, one thing that can assist you."

Wiping the tears with the back of her hand, Gabrielle looked down at the man. "And what’s that?"

"There is a jewel that sits at the tip of the Conqueror’s scepter. Xena does not know of its properties, though Callisto certainly does. It is called the Cronus stone and it, alone, has the power to help a mortal change the fabric of time. If you can somehow retrieve this stone, you can use it to take you back in time to where Callisto killed Alcamene. If Hercules is allowed to be born, the tapestry of life will be rewoven into its correct alignment and this reality will end. Yours will become the true reality once again."

"So, all I have to do is get close enough to Xena to steal the stone, figure out how to use it to go back in time, and prevent Callisto from killing Alcmene?" Gabrielle’s tone was wry.

"It is either that, or try to convince the Conqueror to give up her plans for this war. Either way, the balance of history rests upon your shoulders."

The bard shook her head. "Why me?" she whispered.

"Because you are the link, Gabrielle. You are the pivot-point upon which the two realities merge."

Lifting her staff, the young woman paced within the cramped confines of the cave, her facial expression shifting rapidly from grief, to confusion, to a steadfast resolve, to grief again. "Will . . .will I succeed?" she asked finally.

"Even the Fates themselves do not know the answer to that question, Gabrielle. I’m sorry."

Gabrielle laughed bitterly. "I figured as much. When have the gods ever been of any use to us." She held up a hand before Manus could reply. "Don’t bother. It was a rhetorical question."

Ceasing her pacing, she squatted down in front of the fire, staring into the dancing flames as if she could divine something from their shifting patterns. Xena’s voice sounded in her head. Gabrielle, you’ve never run from anything in your whole life.

And she hadn’t. Not really. Not when it counted.

She rose to her feet, decision firmly made, heart steeled for the path ahead. "Alright then," she said, voice deep and steady with resolve, "point me in the direction of Athens."

Manus smiled. "The Conqueror resides in Corinth."

The bard flicked her hand. "Corinth, Athens. Let’s just get this show on the road. I’ve got a stone to find."

The wise-man couldn’t help grinning at the young woman’s courage. "A few words of caution before you set out."

"What," Gabrielle asked, obviously distracted and ready to go.

"Whatever her reasons, Callisto exchanged her godhood for the chance to rule at the Conqueror’s side. However it may look, she is the same Callisto from your world. She knows who you are and doubtless will know of your purpose, should you be discovered by her. I have no doubt that she will do anything she can to prevent you from accomplishing your task."

Throwing her hands into the air, the bard rolled her eyes. "Great. As if it isn’t going to be hard enough trying to steal a jewel from the Conqueror of the known world. Now I’ve got Callisto to contend with too?" She spun to stare at the tiny man. "Anything else you’re not telling me?"

Manus frowned. "You are going to need to change your clothing."

Gabrielle returned the look. "My clothing? What’s wrong with my clothes?"

"You are wearing Amazon-style clothing, Gabrielle. The Amazons no longer exist, except in a few, isolated pockets, in this reality. And those who do exist are in constant fear for their lives. Callisto has made it her ultimate priority to wipe every woman see sees as an Amazon from the face of the earth."

"Callisto? Since when does she care about the Amazons?"

"She didn’t, at first. The Conqueror had considered them a threat and nearly obliterated the largest bastions of Amazons, figuring, some say, to come back at a time when they were at their weakest and cull from them their strongest fighters in exchange for the safety of the rest. Their newly risen Queen-in-abstentia, however, a woman by the name of Velasca, ended those plans by almost succeeding in killing Callisto last year while the latter was on a scouting trip for the Conqueror. Callisto has taken a quite . . .personal . . .interest in them ever since. To walk about in the clothes of an Amazon is to sign your own death sentence."

Knots within tangles, Gabrielle mused, realizing that Hercules’ absence had effects far wider ranging than even she had first considered. Since, in this reality, Xena had not died and Gabrielle had not existed, there was no one to stop Velasca from assuming the throne of the Amazons. She sighed. The Amazons, her friends, gone. Her family, gone. Xena, a cruel stranger and ruler over most of the earth.

Of them all, only Callisto remained constant. Maybe I can use that to my advantage, somehow. Maybe.

"Alright, I can work with this," she said aloud. "Maybe. Is there anything else I need to know?"

"Not that the Fates have told me," Manus replied, rummaging through one of the sacks on the ground and coming up with a simple peasant skirt and blouse, which he handed over to Gabrielle.

Taking the clothing, the bard looked at the tiny old man and raised an eyebrow.

After a moment, the priest caught on, and laughed. "Fetching as I’m sure I would look in that ensemble, I’m afraid the Fates made that choice themselves. I only followed their instructions."

Gabrielle couldn’t help the smile that slipped out. "I guess I’ll have to take your word for it, for now. Is there any place I can change into these?"

The priest bowed at the waist, his beard scraping gently over the dirt-packed ground. "I shall step out of the cave to give you your privacy. Let me know when you’re done."

Several moments later, Gabrielle was dressed and receiving final instructions. Looking down at her long skirt and modest blouse, she couldn’t believe how much she’d grown from the young peasant child who’d first gone out into the world wearing much the same clothing. It now seemed just short of ludicrous that she’d even made the attempt back then.

And now, here she was, just three years away from being that na´ve little girl hanging onto Xena’s coat-tails. Now she was expected to take on the world. Quite literally.

"Alright," she said as Manus finished off his ‘authentication’ of her outfit by ripping the entire bottom of her skirt off haphazardly while at the same time, rubbing dirt into the cloth. "Anything else?"

"That’s it, I think," the priest replied, tossing the spare fabric into the fire and watching as the flames greedily licked at it.

"Um . . .how long do I have? Before this war happens, I mean."

"From what I’ve heard from the soldiers who pass unknowing by my little home here, I would say a moon, no more than two at the very outside. When the Conqueror desires something, she doesn’t take her time obtaining it."

Gabrielle snorted. "That’s Xena, alright."

"It’s said that she’s waiting for more troops to arrive from the outermost reaches of her reign. Those from Chin are just now starting to come ashore. When everyone is present and accounted for, she will set sail for Rome."

A month isn’t a very long time to talk the ruler of the world out of a war. Especially a war against Caesar. I know how much she hates him, and I’ve got a feeling these two realities are the same on that particular score, Gabrielle thought, fidgeting with her skirt. I’m good, but I’m not that good. Looks like it’s the stone or nothing. Hope it comes with instructions or something.

Straightening her back and squaring her shoulders, the bard hefted her staff and blew out a long, cleansing breath. "I’m ready."

"Your staff . . . it might not be such a good idea." Manus, again, looked apologetic.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "And why not? Too long? Too short? Too . . .wooden?"

"Too Amazon," he explained, pointing at the markings. "If the soldiers don’t recognize it as such, Callisto and the Conqueror certainly will."

"They’re just going to have to live with that, then. This staff comes with me. Besides, if Callisto gets close enough to recognize my staff, she’s gonna recognize me well before then. I’m sorry, Manus, but I’m just going to have to take the chance that Xena’s army out there doesn’t know the difference between an Amazon staff and a Spartan war mace."

"That doesn’t seem very wise," Manus said, doubt coloring his voice.

The bard sighed. "Manus, I, a simple bard from Poteidia, am going, willingly mind you, up against the Conqueror of the known world to either steal a jewel from her scepter or to prevent her from waging war against her greatest enemy. If you can find any wisdom in that, I’d like you to tell me, because I sure don’t."

Manus smiled. "Point taken," he conceded.

"Great. I’m glad we got that settled. Now, which way to Corinth?"

*******

The imposing, monolithic stone of the Conqueror’s palace rose from the soil of Corinth like a Phoenix from the flames. An apt analogy, given that, in the end, a massive conflagration had signaled Xena’s triumphant entrance into the city that first time. She had expiated the city’s sins through burning and now stood at the precipice of a total retribution against the only man who had ever defeated her. All within a three-year time span.

The Conqueror was nothing if not extraordinary.

Without the castle, the massive grounds were filled to almost overflowing with soldiers setting up housekeeping in preparation for the upcoming war. The light from untold hundreds of campfires created a false dawn, stretching almost to the horizon.

The soldiers, still mostly Greeks, set about their tasks with a quiet military precision, each knowing that at any time, the gaze of the Conqueror could come down upon any one of them and send their souls halfway to Hades before their bodies even knew they were dead.

And no one, volunteer or conscripted, wanted to be on the receiving end of that.

Tents were set up quickly, armor was attended to and weapons were honed to a razor’s edge in preparation for the battles ahead. Conversations were muted and there was very little laughter, ribald or otherwise, to mar the seeming peace of the night.

It was a glaring contrast to the bands of marauders that the Conqueror herself used to lead those long ago years.

Few people knew that Xena had lost one army in her life. Being forced to walk the gauntlet was something she kept at the front of her mind each and every morning she looked out upon the lands she’d won through her skills. It was a humiliation she would never repeat. Back then, she had relied on some misguided sense of loyalty binding her men to her, before realizing the truth to the lesson that there is no honor among thieves.

This time, her recipe for absolute obedience was frighteningly simple.

Fear.

Fear had taken her to the top of the world, and fear would keep her there.

Within the castle, the atmosphere was much different. In the massive dining room, large enough to fit, it was said, the whole of Mount Olympus with room left over, the sounds of celebratory gaiety rang out against the imposing stone walls whose blank monotony was interrupted colorfully by gigantic tapestries which had taken many artisans years to create and maintain. Low music was barely heard beneath the sounds of voices raised in toasts, cheers, and drunken conversation. The room was filled with scents that hinted at savory delicacies from every land in the world.

Bold colors ran rampant in the massive room, the hundreds of torches serving to highlight hues every shade of the rainbow, as well as many others which Nature, in her infinite wisdom, hadn’t yet seen fit to create as yet.

Above it all, the Conqueror of Many Lands sat, her face expressionless as a granite mountain. The throne that supported her body was made by the same artisans who gilded their fallen leaders in gold and left them to slumber eternally beneath hundreds of tons of sandstone in the deserts of Egypt. It was gifted to the Conqueror by Cleopatra herself, who, it was said, traded her Queendom for a Conqueror’s kiss. The reality of the situation was much more prosaic than the stories the bards delighted in telling, but the romanticized idealism inherent in the tale made good press, and so each woman allowed the rumor to stand unmolested.

The Conqueror was clad in a long, heavy gown, its style, taken from the robes worn by the Emperors of Chin, one she’d long favored. Sewn into the gown were hundreds of priceless jewels, cunningly sculpted to form the iridescent scales of a large dragon which wrapped itself around her body and rested its fiery head upon her breast.

A simple golden headpiece sat atop her raven hair, which was bound up in an elaborate knot close against the back of her neck. Her body was barren of any further adornments, save for the large ring that nestled itself around her left middle finger, its clear stone the exact color of her eyes.

Behind her, huge, handsome, bare-chested men stood at attention, gently waving massive fans to dissipate the rising heat from her body.

All in all, she looked frighteningly remote and terrifyingly beautiful. The brightest jewel in Greece, setting herself up as a prize to be fought for and won. Untouched and untouchable. Perfection personified.

Or so the poets said, when seeking her favor.

She was also, at this very moment, utterly, absolutely, and abysmally bored.

The party, ostensibly thrown to celebrate her third year as the Ruler of Greece, had not been her idea. Far from it. Beneath the majestic robes continued to beat the heart of a savage warrior. In the depths of her soul, Xena still believed that her sword dictated her rule. Politics, she believed, were for the weak; for those who lacked strength of body and mind and so had to rely on false masks of ingratiating servitude to get what they wanted from this life.

And yet, civilization itself was built upon this eunuch’s game, and if she wished to be remembered as more than a bloodthirsty, and frightfully lucky, warlord, she’d have to play it better than anyone else.

And, for three years, she had.

It didn’t mean she had to like it, though.

Sharp eyes scanned the crowd yet again as she fought off the urge to drum her fingers on the clawed arm of her throne, wishing for something, anything, to break the monotony of the evening.

Cutting her eyes to the far right, she noticed Callisto, who had chosen to forgo her usual black leathers in favor of a gown that was, impossible as it seemed, even more revealing than her usual battlewear. It was done up in shades of gold and dark blue, with a neckline that plunged so severely that Xena was sure a private trim had been the order of the day before she slipped into it. Her breasts were just barely hidden, their innermost swells peeking tauntingly from their cover of sheer fabric every time the blonde woman moved the slightest bit.

Chocolate eyes met hers and a seductive smile curled the corners of Callisto’s full lips as she finished up her conversation with a swarthy man, leaving him pale and sweating and uncomfortably adjusting the inseam of his trousers as she walked away.

"Oh Xena," Callisto purred into the Conqueror’s ear as she bent forward at the waist, offering Xena a tantalizing glimpse of hidden treasures, "isn’t this party simply wonderful?"

Xena shot her second-in-command a look that would have frozen an erupting volcano, had one happened to be about. Callisto, however, wasn’t much fazed, being well used to that particular expression over the years, particularly when it was directed at her.

"Don’t be that way, my darling," the blonde continued, trailing a finger up one of the Conqueror’s arms. "Your people simply adore you." The seductive finger trailed along a bared and prominent collar-bone. "So why don’t you just sit back . . . ." Then slowly dipped down toward the valley of the Conqueror’s breasts. " . . .relax . . . ." Then slipped beneath the fabric, teasing warm, supple skin. " . . .and enjoy yourself."

Quick as lightening, Callisto found her wrist trapped within an iron grip as Xena pulled it from her cleavage.

Fighting not to allow the pain to show in her eyes, the beautiful blonde schooled her features into a girlish pout. "You’re just no fun anymore, my love. Haven’t you ever heard that all work and no play makes the Conqueror a dull girl?"

Remaining completely expressionless, Xena applied more strength to her grip, crushing the delicate bones of Callisto’s wrists until they were near to fracturing, then eased off, flinging the thin woman away from her, though not hard enough to cause the other woman to stumble and lose face in front of the crowd.

"Fine. Be that way," Callisto snapped, resisting the urge to rub her injured arm. "I’ll just have to find my fun elsewhere."

For the first time that evening, the remote expression of the Conqueror changed as Xena allowed a smirk to come forth. "You do that."

Callisto’s fingers itched to wipe the condescending expression from Xena’s face, but her mind called halt to her body’s demands. It wasn’t easy, Callisto being who she was, but in order for her carefully laid plan to bear fruit, she had to act the part of a loyal underling.

Closing her eyes, a smile curled her sensual lips as she pictured a vision sure to come to pass: a vision of the proud Conqueror, her hated and beloved enemy through past and present, through all realities, true and faux, Xena—the Warrior Princess—tethered at the neck and kneeling at her feet, a servile beast existing only to feed the whims of the one named Callisto.

Soon. Yes, so very, very soon, my sweet..

Opening her eyes, Callisto tipped a lewd wink the Conqueror’s way and slipped through the crowd, intent on playing through her fantasies in the peace and comfort of her own rooms.

*******

Drawn through the darkening evening toward Corinth by the horizon’s rosy glow, Gabrielle came through the last of the forest surrounding a gently breasting hill. Her eyes widened at the sight below her. Hundreds of small fires dotted the landscape, casting a glow that extended almost as far as the eye could see. The Corinthian palace, black against that rosy glow, seemed to rise up from those flames, remote and omnipotent. She’s in there, somewhere.

In her mind’s eye, Gabrielle pictured Xena looking down at this very scene from her room in the castle. Do you sense me? Do you know I’m here? Is there something within you that calls out for someone who never existed in this reality?

Crossing her arms, the bard rubbed flesh suddenly gone chill. Crazy as it seems, I hope so, Xena. Because that’s the only way this plan is gonna work.

Despite herself, Gabrielle laughed. "Yeah, if she doesn’t kill you first."

Slipping back into the forest’s concealment, the bard laid down her bedroll and set up a fireless camp for the night. To get to the Conqueror, she’d have to figure out a way to sneak through an armed camp filled with thousands of soldiers. Plans darted teasingly through her mind as she munched on some trail rations Manus had given her, washing the dryness from her throat with frequent sips from her water-skin.

Refusing to lock herself into one set course, she lay down on the thick furs and stared up at the stars, hoping that inspiration would be found beneath the comforting blanket of sleep. Shivering with the cold and without even a fire to warm some tea, she huddled in her bedroll and prayed for a miracle.

*******

The party was still in full swing when the Conqueror finally gave into her craving to be gone from the sights, scents and sounds of revelry in her name. A short nod, and her throne-bearers came forth, pulling the recessed handles and lifting her to their powerful shoulders as her eyes flicked over the gathered crowd for the final time.

As one, the people turned toward her, straightening proudly and lifting their goblets in tribute. "To the Conqueror!" they shouted in unison. "Long may she reign!"

Acknowledging the obeisance with the barest tilt of her head, Xena silently urged her bearers to escort her from the room, led by the Captain of her Royal Guard, the darkly handsome and lovelorn Marcus.

Her ears welcomed the stillness of the cool hallways as her eyes flitted over the patterns the torches drew upon shadowed stone walls. This deep into the castle, the only sounds that could be heard were the quiet, barefooted gait of her throne-bearers and the purposeful booted tread of Marcus, who led the way toward her private chambers.

Finally arriving at a set of nondescript doors—Xena wasn’t one to announce the way to her private sanctum—the throne-bearers set down the Conqueror. Smiling, Marcus offered his hand, which Xena took, allowing herself to be escorted up from the throne.

Releasing Xena’s warm hand, Marcus drew his sword and opened the door, stepping in quickly while holding his other arm across the threshold, ostensibly to prevent the Conqueror from entering until he had deemed her quarters safe.

Biting back her first smile of the evening, Xena easily evaded Marcus’ ‘protection’, twisting his arm out of the way and stepping into her suite of rooms.

"The day I can’t defeat a simple assassin in my own castle is the day I’ll gladly hand my crown over to you," she purred into her onetime-bedmate’s ear as she passed by, her face tight with a predator’s grin.

Heaving out a silent sigh, Marcus straightened and sheathed his sword, watching as his ruler’s azure eyes swept the length and breadth of the room, seeking any reason, no matter how minute, to draw her own cleverly hidden chakram.

The only movement within was that of the Conqueror’s body-servants, one, a tall woman with shining ebony skin; the other, a petite Asian woman, who came out into the main chamber and gracefully lowered themselves to the floor, kneeling with perfect grace at the feet of their Conqueror.

Determined to be of at least some help, Marcus moved past the trio and into the bathing chamber, his hand on his sword hilt in anticipation of trouble. Seeing nothing of interest, he moved off into the most private area of all, Xena’s sleeping quarters.

The room looked much as it always had, dominated by a huge, canopied bed; large enough, pundits said from behind covering hands, to service her entire army, horses and all. A huge fire blazed in the fireplace, and the sheets had been turned down and adorned with sweet-scented flowers, all in anticipation of the Conqueror’s nighttime activities, whatever they were to be.

Marcus couldn’t help the warm flush that ran through him at the memories of his own times between the Conqueror’s sheets. As with everything else, she was an extremely gifted and passionate lover who took him, a man who’d believed he’d seen and done it all, to places he’d never even thought to dream.

The flush deepened as he hoped that she would choose him tonight to assuage the boredom that seemed to emanate from her very pores.

Realizing that he was loitering a bit too long, the dark soldier blew out a breath and turned from the beckoning bed, travelling back through the bathing room and into the main room, to be met with a knowing glint in Xena’s captivating eyes. He blushed, then cleared his throat, feeling oddly adolescent. "All clear," he finally managed to say.

"As if there was ever any doubt. You may leave."

Startled, he looked up, but the glint in her eyes was replaced by that cold remoteness which had characterized her expression for many, many months, ever since her war with Caesar was assured. Suppressing a sigh of disappointment, he executed a flawless bow. "As you wish, Majesty."

With a look, he collected the throne-bearers, then left the rooms, closing the door softly behind him.

With perfect symmetry, the two servants rose from their places on the floor and began their task of divesting Xena of her accoutrements.

The heavy gown slid from her shoulders, revealing a warrior’s battle-hardened body beneath the vestments of civility, her coiled muscles and tanned skin glowing softly in the muted light of the room. The taller of the two women slipped the crown from her head as the smaller one stepped behind Xena, carefully removing the hairpin and unbinding the long, flowing tresses, allowing them to fall well past the tapered waist of the Conqueror.

"Your bath is ready, Majesty," came the soft-spoken words of Ling Li, the small, beautiful Asian woman who had been a gift from the beloved Lao Ma.

Giving the young woman a nod, Xena padded, naked, into the bathing chamber and slipped her long body beneath the gently steaming water of her hot-tub. She came up for air, pushing the dark hair from her face, then leaned against the back of the tub, allowing the hot water to work its customary magic upon muscles held tense in boredom.

Calming her thoughts, she allowed the sounds of the water gently lapping against the stone sides of the tub and soft noises of her body-servants as they moved around the room, awaiting her desires, to run through her, soothing her.

"Attend me," she softly commanded, not bothering to open her eyes.

A shuffling of cloth as it was lowered to the floor, and within seconds, another body joined the Conqueror in the steaming bath. The sharp scent of crushed herbs came to her nose and she lifted a lazy arm, allowing the woman before her to take hold of her hand and spread the fragrant lather across her heated flesh.

Squatting at the head of the tub, Ling Li lifted a ceramic jug and wet down the Conqueror’s hair once again. She then began to wash Xena’s thick, black hair, turning the chore into a chance to massage some of the remaining tenseness from her Lord’s scalp and neck.

Xena purred as a cat to cream as her body was lovingly attended to. Both servants had long earned their freedom, yet stayed in the Conqueror’s service for reasons Xena did not bother to divine. They served her well and she rewarded them in kind, raising neither hand nor voice to either, and demanding nothing they would not willingly provide.

She had taken both to her bed on occasion, separately or together, and would doubtless do so again when the mood struck her. But she also knew these two women, bound together by a common fate, had fallen into love with one another, and so she, mostly, let them be.

Feeling her body begin to respond to the intimate cleansing it was receiving, Xena reached down between her own legs and grasped the dark woman’s wrist, far more gently than she had done to Callisto earlier that evening. "Not tonight," she whispered, releasing her grip on the woman and coming to her full height in the tub.

The dark woman, Niamey by name, simply bowed and exited the bath, taking a towel from her lover and awaiting Xena’s exit from the fragrant waters.

*******

Carefully dried, then oiled with lavender, the Conqueror sat on a comfortable couch in the main room of her quarters, waiting patiently as Ling Li drew a comb through her hair, grooming the thick mass into some semblance of order. Xena had donned a royal blue, sheer, silk robe. The outline of her magnificent body could be glimpsed teasingly through the fabric, and both women surreptitiously enjoyed the view as they finished their attentions to their leader.

"Will there be anything else, Majesty?" Niamey asked, her ebony skin shining in the torchlight.

"You may go," Xena replied, waving them both away as she stood.

Both women bowed deeply, then exited the chambers on silent feet.

The Conqueror padded over to the massive window which faced east, toward Rome. Unknowingly, she echoed Gabrielle’s words as she stared with narrowed eyes out into the darkness. "Do you sense me, Caesar? Can you feel my breath on your neck?"

The night, of course, had no answer for her.

After a few more moments, she turned from the window and walked over to a massive table where her battle plans lay unfurled. A massive map of Greece and Rome stared back at her from the table. Her eyes scanned the map, picturing the day she would ride victorious into the Italian city, Caesar’s arrogant head skewered on the end of her sword.

A patch of lustful heat curled deep in her belly as a dark smile bloomed to life, unfelt, on her lips. She was the dark face of Death itself; the sword of retribution and the dealer of revenge.

A dagger appeared suddenly in her hand, and with a growl worthy of the demons of Tartarus, she thrust it through the heart of Rome, sneering as the bejeweled hilt quivered from the force of her blow. "You’re mine, Caesar."

*******

Morning came with sunlit promise, and Gabrielle spared a moment to send up a fervent prayer that the day before had been just a dream. But when green eyes, blurred from sleep, opened, only emptiness greeted them. "So much for that prayer," the bard muttered, rolling herself out of the bedroll and stretching her tired, stiff body. Hunger set upon her with a vengeance, yet a breakfast of cold trail rations held little appeal. The thought of hunting and killing an unfortunate rabbit held even less. "Well, they say the ‘lean and hungry’ look is in, these days. Might as well hop aboard that fad chariot."

Several plans had come to her during the night, but nothing seemed to stand out in her mind. The direct route was out. That much she knew.

Gabrielle almost laughed aloud as she pictured herself going amongst ten thousand or more soldiers, imperiously demanding to be taken to their leader. "Yeah. That’ll work. Wonder how effective I’d be without a head?"

Scratching the back of her neck under the long fall of her hair, the bard paced the confines of the small clearing where she’d spent the night.

A putrid smell wafted in on the early morning breeze and, wrinkling her nose in distaste, she followed the scent past the break in the trees, looking down at the massive army below. Women and children, most stooped from a life of heavy labor, wandered among the soldiers, ladling out breakfast from steaming cauldrons. From the stench, Gabrielle wondered if the women were trying to help or hinder the war effort. The men’s expressions, what she could see of them, seemed to be asking much the same question.

The bard’s face lit up. "That’s it! I’ll get myself hired on as a camp follower. Not quite as bold as presenting myself at the palace gate, but at least I’ll get my foot in the door."

Satisfied, for now, with her plan, or what there was of it, she confidently took apart her staff—the kitchen help couldn’t afford to look too aggressive—and stuffed it into her travel bag, which she then slung over her shoulder.

"Alright, Gabrielle. It’s show time."

*******

Continued - Part 2


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