Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, and the rest of the known names belong to Pac Ren and everyone else who lays claim to them. Im 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, theres a bit of Remember Nothing in here, only this time, its Gabrielle who has the memories while Xena does not. Confusing? Read on. J
Violence: Well, its the Conqueror. Are you gonna tell her not to fight?
Dedication: As always, Id 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 atSwordnQuil@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 wont 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.
That the Persians were uncommonly fierce fighters there was no doubt. In fact, the Conqueror had, at one time, seriously considered forging an alliance of sorts between the two countries on the basis of that fighting skill alone.
But in the end, she wisely rejected the notion. The very thing that made them such ruthless fighters also made them untrustworthy in the extreme. Forging an alliance, no matter how profitable in a militaristic sense, would be giving the Persians a knife to stick in her own back.
And that was not something she would willingly do.
The shouts and screams of dying men easily carried through the breeze to her ears, even over the thunderous sounds of horses flying into the fray. She felt the dark lust that hid in her heart ooze through to the rest of her body, infusing her limbs and muscles with a mystical power all her own.
She grinned fiercely, only feeling truly alive when on a field of battle, the smell of blood and death more ambrosial to her senses than a lovers kiss could ever be.
Her sword hissed sibilantly from its scabbard, cutting its first bloody swath before the dark Conqueror was even aware she had it in her hand.
Her war-cry sounded over the din of battle, causing many to pause in fear before returning to their killing tasks. She dove willingly into the waters of fury, the ruler of a nation and the harbinger of death all wrapped up in a package of terrible beauty and mesmerizing strength.
Men bowed helplessly beneath the weight of her majesty, one upon another, until corpses lay where men had stood moments before. All seemed as broken toy soldiers discarded by the careless hand of a bored child.
She waded deeper into the conflict, ringed by those whod kept her favor, changing the tide of the battle and making it hers once again.
The Conqueror chanced to look down after trampling two fallen soldiers beneath the slashing hooves of her horse, and saw the young blonde healer in a battle of her own, taking down men twice her size, one after another, with sweeping blows from an Amazon war staff. As the battle raged past her, Xena looked on, struck by the muscular fluidity displayed by the small woman, the ease of her moves seeming almost a primal dance. "What are you doing?" she heard herself shout atop the din.
Gabrielle looked up at the bloody apparition astride the massive horse, then blinked. The cold, remote Conqueror had become, after a fashion, her Xena once again; the passionate fighter for good. Or, at least, what good passed for in this alternate reality. It made her heart ache, feeling at the same time so close, yet so far away, from the woman towering over her, bloody sword in hand. "What does it look like? Im fighting!" Grunting, she brought another man to his knees, then aided him fully to the ground by a sweeping blow to the side of his head.
"I thought you said you didnt kill."
And indeed there were still signs of life in the bodies crumpled at the bards feet. Xena continued to watch, impressed despite herself.
After bringing down yet another opponent, Gabrielle looked back up, eyes widening in horror at the sight of a lance-bearing Persian riding at full gallop toward the broad back of the Conqueror of Greece. "Xena! Behind you!"
Without taking her eyes off the young woman, Xena reached back and grabbed the lance inches from her back. With a flick of her wrist, she pulled her erstwhile attacker off his horse, then skewered him to the bloodied ground with his own weapon. "Thank you," she replied with a short nod.
Gabrielle smiled slightly, trying not to look at the man with a lance through his chest, but happy that she had been in the right place at the right time to help. "Youre welcome."
Any more that might have been said was interrupted by a cheer that rose through the camp, signaling the end of the battle.
Callisto and two other Greek soldiers brought a huge mountain of a man over to the Conqueror. Smiling maliciously, the blonde warrior kicked the mans legs out from under him, dumping him to his knees on the blood-soaked ground. "Bow before the Conqueror, you pathetic sow," she snarled, kicking at the back of his head until his face met his knees fate in the viscous mud. His arms were lashed tightly behind his back, and Xena could easily see the corded tendons of his wrists and forearms as he desperately tried to break his bindings.
With a nod from the Conqueror, one of the soldiers pulled the mans head off the ground, dragging him back to his knees by the back of his uniform shirt. His face was a harlequins mask of mud, bone and gore.
Xena placed the tip of her sword against the Persians neck, smiling slightly. "Do you lead these men?" she asked in his own language.
The mans answer was to redouble his efforts to escape, his teeth bared in a feral snarl.
Callisto kicked him again, landing the inside of one knee squarely against his broad back and tumbling him into the mud again. His body flopped like a beached fish as his struggle continued.
Another nod from Xena, and the Persian was pulled up once again.
"Do you lead these men?"
The sword was again pressed against his throat. A thin stream of blood trailed down his neck to pool in his armor.
From her vantage point somewhat to the rear of the action, Gabrielle was immersed in her own struggle, though in her case, it was internal. A part of her, by far the largest, needed to go forward and try to stop what she was sure was going to be the mans slow, needless death. But another part was arguing loudly for a strategic retreat. Callisto was less than ten body-lengths away. How the blonde psychopath hadnt yet spotted her was a question Gabrielle was afraid to ask.
When the Persian soldier was kicked back into the mud and the sounds of his fingers breaking beneath the twisting weight of Callistos boot reached her ears, Gabrielles mind was made up.
Hefting her staff in a grip filled with purpose, she took a forceful step in the groups direction, her face stony with determination.
Only to be stopped by yet another fortuitous clasp to her shoulder. She whirled, this time seeing Tao Fengs seamed, somber face in the moons light.
"There are many here who are in need of your help," he said softly.
Gabrielle turned her head in time to see the soldier being pulled up once again, the tendons in his neck standing out in terror and anger. "Yes, I know, but . . . ."
"You cant help him, Gabrielle. He is the general of a losing army. As such, his life is forfeit." He cocked his head slightly. "Surely you realize this, from your time with your friend?"
Gabrielle turned back toward the old healer, a scowl firmly set on her face. "Of course I realize it. But that doesnt mean I have to like it. Nor does it mean that I have to just stand by and pretend it isnt happening." Her jaw set with determination. "I was able to stop it before." Remembering, again, her time in the Athenian fort.
"You will not be able to stop it now." Tao Feng looked over the small womans shoulder.
The soft sound of a bladed weapon being drawn through the air. Then silence.
Gabrielle shuddered, her head still turned away from the scene. "Did what I think happened just happen?"
The healer nodded as the crowed cheered at the sight of a triumphant Callisto holding the severed head of the Persian general high above her own.
"By the gods," Gabrielle whispered, sickened.
Tao Feng looked down at her, his dark, almond eyes sad. "Come. There are still many whose lives are not yet forfeit. Perhaps your skills will save them from the Conquerors blade."
Gabrielle wanted to turn around; wanted to imprint upon her memory the vision of yet another senseless death shed been unable to prevent.
Instead, she pushed that somewhat self-indulgent feeling down deep as it would go and concentrated on following Tao Fengs narrow back as he picked his way around corpses on his way to the hastily erected healing tent in the rough center of the Egyptian camp.
The scents of pain, fear, and death assaulted her sinuses as Gabrielle stepped through the flap and into the healing tent. Wounded soldiers filled every available surface, lying across cots, makeshift tables, and even in some cases, the muddy ground. Many were screaming in agony. Others were crying piteously to the gods for water. And some lay still as death.
Tao Feng raced among the injured men, providing words of comfort as two other healers did their best to repair the savagery done by the battles minions. Directly in front of her, Gabrielle saw a screaming man clutching desperately at a leg which had the broken shaft of a lance pierced right through it. His face was white with agony and his eyes rolled wildly in his head.
Taking in a deep breath, Gabrielle started forward, screwing her brightest smile on her face and calming him slightly with a gentle touch. "Ive come to help," she said in her most soothing tones. "Whats your name?"
"Z . . .Zargos," he said, hissing in pain. "Am . . .am I gonna lose it?"
The bard looked down at the wound which, though gory, appeared to be less life-threatening than at first glance. The lance had managed to pierce the meaty part of the soldiers thigh, though from her current vantage point, she couldnt tell if the wood of the spear was pressing against his artery, keeping his blood loss minimal for the moment. She looked back up into the pained eyes of the soldier. "Ill do my very best to make sure that you dont."
After a long moment, the man nodded and lay back on the cot, his jaw muscles bunched with the effort to contain his screams.
Gabrielle turned and grabbed the first able-bodied soldier she could find. "You, get me as many water skins as you can rustle up. And some clean bandages too, if you can find any. And some needles and thread from the armor kits."
The soldier looked down at her as if shed grown a second head.
"Now!" she growled, pushing him in the chest to get him moving.
The push sent the man stumbling from the tent, shaking his head in wonder over having been so easily bullied by a small blonde woman less than half his size. Nevertheless, he went to do her bidding as if the order had come from the Conqueror herself.
After all, it did no good to piss off ones healer. He might have need of her someday.
Turning to another uninjured soldier, she grabbed the water skin out of his hand just as he was about to put it up to his mouth and doused her own dirty, bloody hands with clean water, scrubbing as best she could. Then she poured the remainder of the water around the wound, flushing the dirt and gore from the site under less than ideal conditions.
Grabbing several bandages from a passing healer, she mopped up the excess water and blood, peering more closely at the injury, squinting in the inadequate lighting.
"You there," she called out to another soldier who had just dropped off his injured mate, "grab that torch and stand over me with it. I need to be able to see, somehow."
The soldier did as he was bade, ambling over, torch in hand, and looking down into the gentle green eyes of the woman who commanded his attention so easily.
With better lighting, she was able to see the full extent of the wound. It looked, by the lances very placement, that her worst fears were realized and that the weapon was effectively pressing against the mans artery, which would, when the lance was removed, spurt blood in magnificent quantities if she wasnt quick enough to apply the pressure needed.
She looked beneath the soldiers leg, seeing the spear-point and nearly four inches of haft sticking out from his flesh. Topside, almost a foot of weapon protruded from his leg. Both sides of the lance were covered in dirt and blood, ensuring that, either by push or pull, contamination would go into the wound no matter what she did.
Sighing, she wiped dripping sweat with the back of her wrist, leaving a dirty, bloody smudge behind. "Alright, then. Pulling looks to be the best alternative here." Reaching up, she grabbed the torch from the large soldiers hand. "I need you to help me. While I lift his leg up, you need to get down there and break off the point of the lance. Then I need you to pull it out of him from the top. Very slowly."
The soldier looked at her, goggle eyed. "You crazy, woman?"
"Not the last time I checked, no. Now, are you going to help me or not?"
After seeing the absolute and utter determination radiating around the woman like an aura, the soldier couldnt help but nod, swallowing against the bile raising in his throat. "Alright," he croaked. "What do I do?"
"Just break the tip off, close to the leg as you can." She turned to the injured man. "Just take some deep breaths, Zargos. Thisll be over before you know it."
"Th . . .thats what th . . .they all say. Aint known it once to happen yet."
Smiling, Gabrielle patted his shoulder with her free hand, then reached down and lifted his leg as high and as gently as she could. She nodded to the soldier, who gripped the bloody lance in his hands and, with great strength, snapped the point off, causing his injured mate to scream.
"Its ok. Its ok, Zargos," Gabrielle soothed, handing her torch to another man and grabbing some more clean bandages from the basket which had miraculously appeared by her side. "Hes just going to pull the spear out and then well get you stitched up and youll be good as new, alright?"
"J Jest get it over with, o..ok?"
"Ok." She nodded again, and the waiting soldier grasped the top of the spear and began to slowly pull it out of Zargos leg.
The injured man passed out before it was fully removed, providing the duo, plus the conscripted torch-bearer, with some much needed relief.
As soon as the weapon came free, Gabrielle pounced on the entrance and exit wounds, pressing the bandages against the mans leg with as much force as she could manage. White cloth turned red in seconds and the blood leaked through her clenched fingers. "More cloth," she ordered, gratified to see that her request was obeyed without argument.
With a curious tingling in her belly, she realized that she recognized the hands which had suddenly replaced hers on Zargos leg, keeping the steady pressure on.
Then, the absolute stillness within the tent came to her ears and she turned her head slowly, to be met with piercing blue eyes from extremely close range. "Xena," she said, a sense of happy relief coursing through her. Her lovers scent, the same even in this skewed universe, came to her even over the high stench of battle, and she allowed it to soothe her as nothing else ever really could.
She looked around further, seeing that her two helpers appeared ready to pass out, their posture was so rigid.
The Conqueror herself didnt appear to notice, her keen eyes flicking over the soldier so suddenly in her care. "Get some thread ready for stitching. Ill keep the pressure on here."
Nodding, Gabrielle stood, stretching cramped arm and back muscles as she did so. She turned to the torch-bearer who stood as a statue, his light frozen high over his head. She moved in to whisper in his ear, well aware that Xena would hear it. "Faint on top of her, and shell have you for breakfast."
The frozen soldier blinked once, then relaxed just slightly, the color returning to his face.
"Good boy," Gabrielle grinned, patting his shoulder and walking away to find some thread.
Dawn had come to give light to a new day. Inside the healing tent, Gabrielle finished tying off a bandage on the last of the walking wounded. She gave the man her sunniest grin and a pat on his uninjured arm. "Try to take it easy for the next day or so and dont pull those stitches, alright?"
The soldier, a grizzled old campaigner with more scars on his body than lines on a map, responded to her smile with one of his own. "Thanks. Best stitchin job I ever had."
Gabrielle couldnt help the laugh that came out. "Be sure and tell your friends. Good for business."
"Not our business," he replied, flicking his glance behind her toward where she knew Xena sat, finishing up her own work.
The bard sobered. "Very true."
After a moment, the soldier nodded again in thanks and shuffled from the tent.
Gabrielle yawned and stretched thoroughly, beyond tired after a long day and longer night. Then she turned, eyes set on the raven hair of the Conqueror, who was just finishing up a stitching job of her own on the leg of a young archer.
To the utter amazement of all save the bard, Xena had remained in the tent throughout the entire night, lending her own vast healing skills to those of the other healers and presenting her men with yet another side to the complex woman that she was.
And, in working so closely with her, Gabrielle could almost, almost, forget that this was not her Xena, but rather one who lent her aid for vastly different reasons.
Gabrielles Xena was a woman who healed because it was the right thing to do. This Xena used her skills as if she were honing the edge of her own weapon. Because to her, it seemed to Gabrielle, thats what these men were. Weapons to be tended, not men to be saved.
Fortunately for the bard, she was spared a repeat of the killing of Samos. If any of her men were injured beyond any use to her, the Conqueror didnt let on. She treated each and every one with the same clinical, remote expression that she used in her daily life as Ruler of Greece.
Gabrielle easily noticed that this Xena was focus personified. Where her Xena used focus as a watchword, this Xena used it as her entire reason for being. And anything that would disturb that focus, be it friend, lover --and Gabrielle didnt want to go there just yet. The thought of Xena in any reality bedding other lovers was something she refrained from dwelling on--, or foe would suffer the consequences, and those by her own hand.
And yet, there were times throughout the night and into the hours of early morning, when both were together, heads bowed, hair intertwining and limbs casually brushing as they stared intently into some wound or other, that the bard found herself forgetting, if just for a moment, that this was not just another job; that when the need for healing was over, they would not stand and retire to their bed together, satisfied with work well done, grateful for the love and support that simmered in the bond they shared between them.
The Conqueror looked up from her task, well aware of the green gaze upon her, and nodded to two of her rigidly standing soldiers. They came quickly and eased their comrade off the bunk and onto his one good leg. The trio bowed in homage to her, then turned and hobbled from the tent.
Rising to her full height, Xena subtly stretched muscles cramped and stiff from hours of forced inactivity and fine-detail work. She looked around the tent, eyeing the injured still abed, then nodded to Tao Feng and his assistants, who bowed formally back.
Finally, her eyes came to rest on the disheveled Gabrielle. "You proved your worth to me today, healer. Ill allow you to live, as well as to serve. For now."
Before Gabrielle could open her mouth to protest the title, Xena casually picked up the bards staff from its resting spot against one side of the tent. "Though one day, you will tell me how a woman who is not an Amazon comes to wield an Amazon war staff." She rolled the weapon in her hands before raising strangely knowing and silver eyes to her newest healer. "With the markings of their Queen etched in it."
Gabrielle flushed, praised the guttering torches now feeble light, and just managed to catch the staff as it was tossed to her.
"Until then." The Conquerors piercing glance swept through the tent one last time before she turned and left.
The entire enclosure let loose with a blessed sigh of utter relief, none louder, nor more fervently felt, than Gabrielles.
Stepping out of the tent, Xena took a deep breath of the cool morning air, the scent of battle still borne in on the breeze. A runner brought her horse to her, and she leapt aboard silently, settling herself in the saddle and looking for a moment down at the tent, before wheeling the stallion around and heading back toward the Greek encampment.
It had been a long number of years since shed last spent her post-battle hours in a field hospice, tending to her men. Then again, it had been just as long since someone had had the temerity to invade her lands, so in a way, she felt justified taking the time away from post-battle inspections and all the rest to spend a few hours seeing that her men were fit for the next battle. She felt it a good return on the investment of her time, and so was well pleased.
She was also well pleased, though she would never say such, with the beautiful, green eyed healer she seemed to have so fortuitously acquired. Though she knew the woman was hiding a very large secret under a bushel basket, the Conqueror was, for the moment, content to allow events to play out as they would. Keen eyes and sharp tongues would follow the blondes every move for as long as Xena deemed necessary.
There was also an attraction there, to be sure. One that her battle lust urged her to act upon at the first possible moment.
Then why was she here, riding at full gallop toward her soldiers camp, rather than back in her castle, indulging herself in the sumptuous pleasures of her new healer?
Why, indeed, she thought to herself, reining her horse to a sudden stop, halfway between camps. She was the Conqueror of Greece. A woman who was not adverse to taking any number of lovers, willing or non, to her bed for the bliss of carnal release. Everyone within the almost limitless bounds of her Queendom, from the highest ranking of her ambassadors to the lowliest of street-beggars, lived to serve her whim, whatever it might be. What she wanted, she took, the gods be damned, be it land, labor or lover.
And she most definitely wanted the woman who called herself Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle," she whispered to the still-rising sun, pleased with the way the syllables fell from her tongue. "Gabrielle," she said again for good measure, imbuing the word with a primal essence, as she imagined it might sound when she placed her naked and needing body atop the ample charms of the beautiful young woman.
The sound of horses hooves beating against the ground interrupted her reverie and she turned a scalding glare toward the approaching rider.
A member of her Royal Guard pulled his horse to a stop beside hers, bowing in the saddle. "Majesty, Marcus begs the honor of your presence in your castle. Two spies were discovered trying to stow away aboard an outbound ship." He took in a deep breath. "Marcus believes they are Roman, Majesty."
All thoughts of erotic pleasures and comely blondes flew from the Conquerors mind as her eyes narrowed. "Is he sure?"
"No, Majesty. It is why he begs your assistance in this matter."
"Very well. Lets go."
And with that, she turned her stallion once again, heading off at best speed back toward her castle and leaving the Royal Guardsman scrambling to follow.
Gabrielle walked back toward the middle of the tent, dipping her bloody hands in a bowl of clean water and scrubbing them until her skin pinked with the pressure. From his place near one of the few occupied cots, Tao Feng smiled kindly down at her. "In one night, you managed to save the lives of twenty and more men, and impress the Conqueror while doing so. Quite a persuasive feat for a first effort."
Grinning, the bard playfully tossed the towel she was using to dry her hands into the older mans chest. "I didnt do too bad, did I."
"I should say not." He caught another yawn, which she attempted to hind behind an upraised hand. "Come. You deserve some rest. Thanks to you, there are many unoccupied cots. Choose one and try to sleep."
Gabrielle bit off another yawn and shook her head. "No. Thats alright. Ill help you watch over the injured. They need to be fed, and turned . . ." she yawned again, her eyelids drooping, "and their bandages need to be changed. . . ."
She didnt appear to notice as Tao Feng gently grasped her arm and led her over to one of the cots and pushed her so that she sat down upon it. "I am an old man who does not require as much sleep as I once did. I shall watch over the injured while you rest. Then it will be your turn."
Giving into the inevitable, the bard finally nodded and swung her feet up. "Alright," she mumbled, already halfway to being asleep. "As long as you . . .promise . . .to wake . . .me . . .up."
Covering the sleeping woman with a thick fur, the old healer tenderly brushed a tendril of golden hair from her fair face. "I promise," he whispered, before leaving Gabrielle to her dreams.
Callisto strode into the Conquerors throne room, her eyes ablaze with fury. "Whichever spineless worm is responsible for forgetting to tell me that there are Roman spies in this castle is going to . . . ." Her voice trailed off as she spied the casually reclining form of the Conqueror upon her throne. "Oh, hello, Xena." Her smile was overly bright as she fingered the hollow of her neck, trying her best to look sweet and innocent, all the while knowing Xena could, at least on that point, read her like a scroll.
Xena didnt even bother to take her eyes off their study of the two mostly naked men who knelt, arms and legs bound, before her throne. Their bodies were soft and round and sickly pale, their furred chests matted with terrors sweat. They stank to high heaven, but it was the stench of fear, one which the Conqueror breathed in deeply, and with pleasure.
Marcus took one deferential step toward the large throne, holding a tiny, tightly rolled square of parchment in his hand. "This was retrieved from one of them, Majesty."
Callisto clapped her hands. "Oh, good for you, Marcus. So utterly brave of you to have taken something so huge from the dough twins over there. I bet he fought you for it like a toothless old dog."
"Actually," Marcus stated in his typical humorless style, "I extracted it from his . . . ." The dark man waved the scroll in the general direction of one of the spys hind quarters.
Callisto took a step back, her face wrinkled in revulsion. "That is something I could have lived happily without knowing."
As Marcus handed the parchment to his Ruler, a decided twinkle sparkled in his eyes. Xena didnt bother to disguise the smirk that appeared, briefly, on her lips.
She carefully unrolled the parchment, accompanied by Callistos faux retching sounds, and noticed without surprise that it was written in hastily scrawled, and deliberately disguised, Greek.
In it, she found quite accurate accounts of her current troop strength, projected numbers of reinforcements still waiting in the wings, available weaponry, ships, and food supplies, and very little else.
She looked up again, her emotions hidden behind the blank tableau of her face, and slowly crumpled the parchment in one balled fist.
The two men, hastily recruited and very much inept at their jobs, blanched.
"Give to Greece what belongs to Greece. Give to Caesar what is Romes." She turned her head slightly, to look at Marcus. "Take their tongues and hands. Return the rest to Caesar, alive and with my compliments."
The two men started to struggle, screaming loudly and blubbering in terror. Marcus bowed and, together with the other members of the Royal Guard hed brought with him, bustled the struggling men to their feet, ignoring their pleas for mercy. "Your will, Majesty."
"Oh, this I just have to see!" Callisto crowed, striding for the good, a maniacal grin on her face.
"As you were, Callisto," the Conqueror intoned, her voice deathly soft.
"But Xena . . . !"
Xena turned her head, her eyes lancing into her Seconds. "Would you like to join our Roman friends, Callisto?"
The blonde pulled up short. "Come to think of it, it has been a little drafty in the dungeons lately." She shot a coy smile to Xena. "I think Ill pass this time. Thanks for asking, though."
Her General halted. "Yes, Majesty?"
"Im holding you personally responsible for the safe delivery of these spies. Take care not to let them out of your direct sight at any time. Am I understood?"
Marcus bowed deeply. "As you desire, Majesty."
The Conqueror flicked her hand, and Marcus and his guards led the gobbling men to their unfortunate fates.
Perking up, Callisto reversed her direction and headed back toward the Conquerors throne, her dark eyes intent upon the crumpled ball of parchment which Xena had thrown down at her feet. As she bent down to retrieve it, her reach was halted by a booted foot crushing the parchment to dust not more than the width of an eyelash from her extended fingers.
The blonde warrior stood up slowly. "Whats the matter, Xe-na?" She cocked her head, smiling brightly. "Dont you trust me?"
The Conquerors eyes narrowed, though she refrained from comment.
Callisto threw back her head and laughed, before meeting Xenas gaze in a cheerfully insane taunt. "Thats what I love about you, Xena. All fire and no heart." She laughed again, clapping her hands in childish glee. "We make such a wonderful pair, dont you think?"
Silence was her only answer.
Banished to her quarters, Callisto was busy redecorating by smashing priceless treasures against the stone walls of her room. Her piercing screams added greatly to the ambience she was creating with her somewhat unique sense of artistry.
After more than an hour had passed without signs of let-up, a dark figure detached itself from the shadows, stepping into the light and smirking. "Love what youve done with the place," came a deep voice underlaced with dark humor.
Recognizing the voice, Callisto turned, her face set in the primal snarl of an enraged beast. "You!" she screamed, running toward the figure, claws extended.
Only to find herself flying back through the air, her chest burning like fire, landing hard against one of the stone walls and crumpling to the floor in a heap.
"You really need to control that temper of yours, my dear. Red is such a bad color on you." A bass chuckle rolled through the decimated room.
Callisto struggled to her feet, wishing more than at any other time since her plan was put into motion, for a return of her godhood, if only to smash the arrogant bastard who stood, hands on hips, smirking down on her, into his component atoms.
Lacking the ability to do that, she settled for an icy stare. "Why are you here," she finally ground out.
"Maybe I just wanted to see how my favorite goddess-turned-mortal was doing?" Dark eyebrows rose in a pitiful attempt at innocence.
Callistos smile could have melted the paint off an urn. "Oh you do, do you?" She took in a deep breath. "Horrible!" she shrieked. "I ask for spies, you give me lumps of pig lard!"
The figure shrugged, spreading his hands. "You get what you pay for. You wanted something done cheap and quick."
Callisto bared her teeth again. "I wasnt talking about a quick fuck against the tavern wall, Ares."
The god of war snickered. "Im sure youd know all about those, my dear."
Callisto visibly swallowed her anger. "Im sorry," she said in an icy voice, "you must have mistaken me for your other girlfriend. You know, the tall, dark one who is turning my plan into a steaming pile of rancid vomit as we speak?!?!?"
Ares pretended to think about it. "Ive never known her to pay for it, no."
Forgetting her previous lesson, Callisto launched herself at the god of war again, only to be casually tossed back against the same wall in the same heap of tangled and hurting limbs.
She got to her feet more slowly this time, though refusing to give Ares the satisfaction of knowing how badly her body felt. "You failed me, Ares. Caesar wont bring Brutus army back if the spies cant tell him what Xenas troop strength is. His idiotic arrogance will cost him this war and our plans for the world right along with it."
Ares shrugged his broad shoulders again. "Spies are a dinar a dozen, my dear. Youll get your message to Caesar . . .eventually." He looked down at his nails, then buffed them casually against his studded leather vest. "If I were you, though, Id be worried about a more . . .immediate problem in your midst."
"Do share it with me, Ares, wont you?"
The dark god smirked. "Well, its not very big, annoying as Tartarus, and has the ability to toss your entire plan right out of the window, so to speak."
Callisto scowled. "Stop talking in riddles and get to the point, Ares!"
The smirk deepened. "The point, my dear Callisto, is that you seem to have a bard in your bonnet." The glossy dark head jerked back as Ares laughed at his feeble witticism.
Callisto looked at him blankly for a moment. "A what?"
"Come on, Callisto! Did the removal of your godhood take some of your brain along with it? Short? Blonde? Annoying? Bard? Any of this ringing any bells with you? Hmmm?"
If Ares had been mortal, he would have died on the spot from Callistos look alone. "Are you trying to tell me, you overblown excuse for an imbecile, that that meddling bitch is here?! Gabrielle is here?! In this reality?!?"
Ares licked his finger and stroked it downward through the air. "Chalk one up for the blonde." He cocked his head, peering at her closely. "Are you sure youre not hiding some dark roots under there somewhere?"
A dark smile bloomed on Callistos face. "Maybe it isnt such a bad day after all. First Ill skewer her annoying little bardly parts to the ground over an anthill, then Ill sew her lips shut, then . . . ."
"Eh eh eh. Not so hasty, my dear. The problem with your plan, lovely as it is, is that youd wind up pissing Xena off quite royally. Seems our little friend has already managed to ingratiate herself with the Conqueror."
"That cant possibly be true. I just left Xena in her throne room and the little bitch was no where in sight. If Xena knew Gabrielle was here, theyd be rolling around like rutting weasels in every room of the castle!"
Ares grinned. "Jealous?"
"Of that little pissant? Hardly."
The grin widened, dark eyes twinkling. "Could it be that in this perfect little world youve created, youve gotten everything but Xena?"
Callisto matched his smile. "Oh, Ill have her alright. Chained at the neck and kneeling at my feet like the good little beast she is. And maybe, if she serves me especially well, Ill let her watch as I have my men take liberties with the annoying little gnat." She giggled girlishly as she rolled her eyes up behind her lids, imagining.
Opening her eyes, she shot a look toward Ares. "Where is the little darling, anyway? Id think shed be overjoyed to meet a dear old friend once again, dont you?"
"Sorry. I cant do all your work for you, Callisto. Just remember this. She knows who Xena is, but this Xena doesnt have the faintest idea who Gabrielle is. Other than a woman who just happened to wander into the camp, that is."
Callisto laughed again. "This day is just getting better and better, isnt it?"
Ares disappeared in a shower of red light, leaving only his smirk behind.
The blonde warrior didnt even know he had left. "He-ere, bardy, bardy, bardy. Were going to have such fun together, you and I."
" . . .and so while Hercules was busy tying up all the rest of the Medusas tentacles, Iolaus flipped up the back of her ugly gown. Poseidon was so offended by the view, he speared the Medusa on his trident, tossed her up into the sky, and let the townspeople go. And thats why, if you look up at the sky during a full moon, youll always be able to see . . .well . . .a full moon!"
Gabrielle finished with a smile, patting the young soldiers hand as he tried to laugh past the pain in his belly.
A smattering of applause was heard throughout the tent and the bard sketched a bow, her eyes twinkling. "Thank you all. Youve been a wonderful audience."
"And a somewhat captive one as well," Tao Feng commented, smiling slightly as he entered the tent, having stayed outside to listen to the story so as not to interrupt someone who was obviously a master at her craft.
Gabrielle jumped to her feet, shrugging slightly, but greeting the old healer with a warm smile. "What brings you here, Tao Feng?" Her brows knit low in a faux scowl. "I thought you were supposed to be resting."
"And so I did. That time has passed. There are other matters which must be attended to."
The bard opened her arms, gesturing to the men. "Ive given baths, changed bandages, passed out food and herbs, even told stories. There really isnt much more to do for now. Is there?"
"Not for the injured. This is more of a . . .duty. The partaking of which is mandatory, Im afraid."
Gabrielle cocked her head. "What kind of duty?" She was suddenly quite sure she wasnt going to like the answer.
Tao Feng steepled his long fingers in front of his chest. "Once every quarter moon, the Conqueror holds court in her public square. Pronouncements are read; new laws, likewise. She also metes out judgement upon those suspected of crimes against the realm. All citizens of Corinth are required to attend. There are no exceptions to the rule, unless the Conqueror herself grants leave, which she has done for these injured men."
"Well, somebody has to stay behind to help. If you dont mind, Id rather it be me. After all, Im not a citizen, right?"
Truth be known, Gabrielle was quite willing to do anything to avoid attending the Conquerors Court. The hard twisting in her guts assured her that she would hear and see things quite possibly beyond her ability to cope with them.
And if her fears panned out, how would she ever face her own soulmate again, provided her mission ended on a successful note? Could she ever look her Xena in the eye without remembering what shed seen in a Corinthian square?
Tao Feng looked compassionately upon the young woman, easily sensing her fear even from his position halfway across the large tent. He crossed over to her and laid a warm hand on her shoulder. "If there were another way to spare you this, Gabrielle, I would find it. But there is none."
"Please, Tao Feng. Im sure there are going to be hundreds of people out there. Surely I wont be missed?" She looked up at him, her green eyes bright with pleading.
"The Conqueror will know."
"But . . . ."
"She will know, Gabrielle. Please. You must come with the rest."
After a long moment, the bard gathered her courage and nodded, praying to any and all gods to put the Conqueror in a magnanimous mood for the event.
The area around the Conquerors square was teeming with humanity. All the citizens of Corinth were equal on this day; young and old, healthy and infirm, rich and poor. Each was reduced to a simple common denominator: the conquered.
The square itself was ringed by members of the Royal Guard, resplendent in their purple, gold and white formal-dress uniforms. Each carried a long, stout spear whose butt was planted solidly on the ground at their feet.
Five hundred or more soldiers of the main Greek army ringed the throng of attendees, hands to weapons and eyes scanning the milling crowd, ever vigilant. Almost one hundred calvarymen continuously circled the gathering, their height giving them an additional advantage when scanning the crowd for potential trouble.
Quite against her desires, Gabrielle found herself standing at the very front of the remainder of the Greek army, Tao Feng a steady, quiet presence at her left shoulder. Though there were several rows of much taller citizens in front of her, the bard had, much to her chagrin, an unimpeded view of the throne set high atop an ornate marble dais.
Behind and to the left of the throne, a huge gong hung, a large mallet waiting beside it.
After several moments, a huge man, naked except for a linen loincloth that barely covered his anatomy, padded silently out onto the dais, lifted the heavy mallet, and, with a mighty swing, pounded the gong, sending the instruments somber reverberations out over the gigantic square and its attendant gathering of citizens.
As if under a spell which sealed their lips, the entire gathering went silent as the last note of the gong faded from the air.
The sound of booted feet stepping forward with firm purpose rang loud in the suddenly silent square. Marcus and Dagnine came into view, followed by a retinue of other high-ranking soldiers, all resplendent in their martial finery.
The gong sounded again, and several huge men, as nearly nude as the gong-striker, came out next, walking two by two. Each held a gigantic plumed fan attached to a long pole tight to his massive chest.
When they reached the front of the podium, the men split ranks to reveal six more men bearing a palanquin upon which the Conqueror of Greece lounged.
The litter was carefully lowered to the ground, and two of the men offered their hands to their Ruler, who accepted them and gracefully rose to her full, imposing height.
Gabrielle quickly brought her hand up to cover her mouth at her first view of a Xena she had never seen before.
Xena the Conqueror.
Ruler of Greece. Ruler of India. Ruler of Egypt. Ruler of Chin.
Ruler of the World.
She shook her head in amazement. Xena looked gorgeous and totally untouchable in her gold, Chin style gown. The vision presented, to Gabrielle, such a contrast between Xena, the absolute ruler, and Xena, the woman who walked the length and breadth of Greece in battle-scarred leathers and worn-through boots; her horse, tack and weapons the only things of worth she owned.
And it hit her for the first time what that curious expression she saw in Xenas eyes the night before this all started truly meant. There was fear in those amazing eyes, yes. Fear of what her life would have been like had Hercules never turned her onto a truer, better path.
But Gabrielle now knew exactly what that other expression had been within those same eyes.
Hard. Glittering. Merciless. Even after five years, that greed, that need to have it all burned within Xenas soul and was guarded over by a weak and flickering light that struggled to contain the burning passions which blazed night and day without pause.
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle whispered just barely under her breath. "You didnt just give up the darkness to find the Greater Good. You gave up the world."
Xenas keen eyes seared out over the milling crowd. She was well aware of her effect on each and every person, soldier and citizen alike. Shrewd and coldly calculating, she knew that her subjects were united in but one thing.
Their absolute fear of her.
She also knew that that fear could be used against her in a spectacular uprising of her citizenry, backed, perhaps, by the might of her army.
The only way to successfully counteract this threat was to give the citizens something to fear more than they feared her.
"Citizens of Corinth," she began, letting her deep, melodious voice spread itself out over the crowd, "as I stand here before you, so too does Greece stand upon the precipice of a new world order. As you enjoy daily the rights of citizenship Greece has seen fit to grant you, so too waits a person whose only goal is to take those rights away from you. As you live in freedom, so too does someone wish to take that freedom from you and make you into slaves."
She paused for a moment, letting her words sink in.
"That person is Caesar of Rome."
A murmur spread through the crowd, quickly silenced when Xena lifted her arms.
"As you gather here beneath the banner of Greeces blessings, Caesar gathers his army and his galleons, ready to come forth onto this bountiful land and make it his own. He comes not to free you, but to enslave you. He comes not to glorify Greece, but to bury it.
"He is the destroyer."
Another murmur rippled through the crowd, louder this time.
Xena allowed it to continue for a moment before again calling for silence.
"I stand before you today not as your Ruler, but as your Savior."
Another ripple of sound permeated the square.
"Look around you, Citizens of Corinth. Look around you and see the thousands of brave men and women who have heeded my call; who are ever vigilant and ever prepared to shed their own lifeblood in defense of both you and this country itself. Warriors from Greece. From Chin. From the faraway lands of India and Egypt. All prepared to do brave battle against the Beast of Rome."
The Conqueror fell silent once again as she watched the citizenry turn and look at the massive armies surrounding them. Looking at them, for the first time, not as jailers but as defenders.
She watched as many of her people offered hesitant smiles and nods to the soldiers who stood stone-faced and proud before the citizens attentions.
When the crowd turned back to her, Xena began once again. "And as I have done since I first took up the sword, I shall lead this great army to preserve the glory of Greece."
It started, then. First as a lone voice near the rear of the crowd. It spread through the masses as an encroaching wave over land, gathering strength and speed.
"Xe-na! Xe-na! Xe-na! Xe-na!"
In the middle of the chanting crowd, Gabrielle stood, stunned, only just managing to keep from joining her own voice to the rest.
Never overly talkative, this woman had managed, on the strength of her words alone, to make an entire population forget her own crimes against them, and turn their anger toward an opponent theyd never heard of, and who had, as yet, never committed even one infraction upon their property or person.
She had only heard Xena give two speeches in their time together. One to an indifferent crowd as she confessed to the crimes she had committed against the town of Cirra, Callistos parents, and Callisto herself. The other to a group of demoralized soldiers who looked to her as their one shining hope.
What had one of the men called her? "Xena of Corinth," she whispered, looking back up at the regal figure standing ramrod straight and basking in the crowds adulation. "By the gods. Thats exactly who you are now, isnt it."
As if hearing the whisper above the din of the crowd, the Conqueror unerringly met the stunned green eyes of her new and very beautiful healer. She allowed a brief smirk to curl one side of her mouth before allowing it to fade away just as quickly. What secrets hide behind those shining eyes, Amazon? And how long will it be before you reveal them to me?
After a long moment, she broke the lock of their gazes, leaving the object of her attention almost breathless with the intensity of the searing look shared between them.
The Conqueror held up her arms, quieting the crowd once again.
She held her silence for a moment, allowing her gaze to become diamond-hard, her face stony as she glared out over the milling throng.
"There are traitors among us."
This time, when the noise started, Xena let it continue, keeping her knowing smile locked tight behind her full lips.
"Like wolves among sheep, they come. Attacking the elderly. The infirm. Your children. They take away your property, smiling, and put a collar around your neck in payment. And, like wolves, they are too cowardly to attack an enemy of equal might. Instead, they stand against those too weak to oppose them."
She went silent for a moment, looking over the crowd. They looked back, suspicion for their neighbor clearly written on their faces.
"Caesar has no wish to fight me. He knows it is a battle he cannot win. So instead, he sends forth insurrectionists and spies, seeking to undermine the unified glory that is Greece."
Her arms went wide again. "Citizens of Corinth. I will not allow this mighty nation to fall to the Beast."
The crowd erupted as one voice, shouting and chanting and pumping furious fists into the air.
The Conquerors gaze lanced out over the crowd as they screamed out their adulation. Smiling briefly, a hard, almost bitter thing, she turned and stalked to her throne, turned again, and gracefully lowered herself into it.
Marcus stepped forward, unfurling a tightly rolled scroll. "To keep Caesar from imposing his cowardly will upon Greece, the Conqueror has decreed the following proclamations."
The cheering crowd quieted as the Captain of the Guard read the Royal Decrees imposing an even stricter martial law upon the people. All businesses were to close at sundown. People were prohibited from assembling in groups more than three outside of homes and regulated business establishments. Speaking out against the Realm was punishable by death.
When he was finished, Marcus stepped carefully back and positioned himself, once again, behind and to the immediate right of the Conqueror.
From his place to Xenas right, Dagnine stepped forward. "Bring out the prisoner!"
Gabrielle looked on, suddenly numb, as a young woman was pulled out from a small hut to the left of the dais and thrown, face first, into the dirt at the bottom of the stairs. The woman had long, wavy red-golden hair and was wearing torn peasant clothing. When she lifted her head up from the ground, the bard gasped aloud as vivid, determined green eyes met hers briefly before sliding away.
"The resemblance is remarkable," Tao Feng observed from beside Gabrielle. "You could almost be sisters."
The bards comment was lost as Xenas voice sounded over the crowd. "What is her crime."
The young woman turned her head, sneering at the Conqueror. "I spoke."
The words were imbued with a lifetimes worth of despise for the woman casually looking down at her.
"She incited the people against you, Majesty," Dagnine said. "She encouraged them to revolt."
Slowly, Xena arose from her throne, the smirk plain upon her face. Like a wild beast stalking prey, the Conqueror of Greece walked calmly down the steps toward the young woman. "Get up."
Stay down! Please, stay down!
The woman struggled up to her feet and stood, unbowed and unbroken, before her tormentor. Xena stopped before her, intentionally towering over the much smaller woman. Reaching out, she grabbed a fistful of golden hair, then dropped her hand and caressed her captives lips.
"Are you guilty?" she purred.
Xena, no! Stop! Dont do this!
Defiantly, the woman shrugged off the Conquerors caress. "I gave voice to the people. The fearful. The starving. The ones who disappeared into the night, never to be seen again." The woman turned, looking out over the crowd.
Gabrielle stiffened, tears of horror already gathering in her eyes, sure that she could quote exactly the next words the woman would say. Her words.
"Have you no dignity?" the woman cried out to her unheeding listeners. "No rights? A right to live! To be free from harm!!"
By the gods. It is me!
A dark smile spread the Conquerors lips as the crowd remained silent and scoffing. "I guess they dont hear your voice."
The young woman swung back around, her face full of hate. "Im not the only one. You cant break our spirit."
Xenas smile broadened as Gabrielles heart sunk through her body. "The cure for spirit is fear. Youll serve as an example." She gestured casually to her waiting guards. "Put her on the cross."
Xena, no! Dont do this! By the gods, dont do this!!
Gathering up her robes, the Conqueror walked back up the stairs, then turned her head. "Break her legs."
The young woman made not a sound as she was bustled to the waiting cross and tied down. But when the heavy mallet shattered her legs, she and Gabrielle screamed as one.
Continued - Part 4
Return to The Bard's Corner