The Last Conqueror
Kamouraskan and Lariel
Disclaimer: Characters are owned by Renaissance Pictures & Studios USA. No profit is gained through this story.
This story contains some violence.
Many thanks for the continuous help and assistance from our friends at the Tavern Wall, especially Cath, the invaluable insight of Mary Morgan, Ann and Trish, all on the Bardic Circle, particularly current & former members Lawlsfan, Claudia, Angelrad, Blindzon Elyzon, Emily Duncan, Emily Mills, Extra JLynn, and Temora.
We're not like the Conqueror - we're nice people! So please write to both of us at:
Kamouraskan@yahoo.com and Lariel_a@hotmail.com
"Clay is moulded to make a vessel, but the utility of the vessel lies in the space where there is nothing. Thus, taking advantage of what is, we recognize the utility of what is not."
-Lao Tzu, philosopher (circa 600 BC)
There was a tense silence as the gilt doors fell open. The crowd of onlookers shifted in anticipation, murmuring their approval at the parade that marched in matched cadence down the steep stone steps. Darphus strutted proudly at the head of the column, his ornate uniform scrubbed and glittering under the full summer sun as it blasted the gathered crowd, sending temperatures and tempers soaring. His column stopped and took position around the carved throne as the crowd settled down to their monthly entertainment; Judgment Day in Corinth. From here, the Conqueror's brand of harsh justice and strict punishment was hatched and nurtured, then sent abroad to all of the empire; from Greece to Chin, Britannia to Ethiopia. The Conqueror's tentacles were extensive and held her lands in a restless but seemingly relentless grip.
The doors opened again, and a single figure emerged from the darkness within. Under the copper sun, her hair gleamed black and streaked blood red over a face as pale as bone. A chilled silence drowned out the daylight sounds as the shadowy figure crept into the light and it seemed to the suddenly frozen crowd that the light fled from the striding form, casting dancing shadows as she took the platform and sat down, adjusting her heavy robes around herself.
"Bring out the prisoner." The deep tones and the words sent icy fingers shivering over exposed skin in the crowd. Even her own soldiers - hardened men who had seen her terrors on the battlefields of Rome, Gaul and Egypt - stared fixedly at their comrades rather than face the flickering blackness that coloured her eyes.
The beaten blonde was dragged from her cell and tossed roughly at the imperial feet.
"What is her crime?" The Conqueror smiled coldly as the young woman lifted her head in hopeless defiance.
"I spoke." The voice was low and sweet, yet tinged with steel. The Conqueror smiled again and leaned down to draw a careful finger through the blood that was clotting on the girl's forehead. She quirked her eyebrows and slid the finger into her mouth.
Darphus grinned and pushed the girl's head down towards the feet of his ruler. "She incited the people against you - encouraged them to revolt." A silent shudder ran through the assemblage.
"Get up!" The shadow of the dark figure dulled the vibrant blonde hair, and the girl shivered as the sun's warmth was taken from her. "Are you guilty?"
She still dared to raise resolute eyes and answer with absolute self-belief. "I gave voice to the people; the fearful, starving - the ones who disappeared in the night, never to be seen again." She raised herself unsteadily to her feet, and with a desperate bravado turned to the onlookers. "Have you no dignity? No rights? A right to live - to be free from harm?" The crowd stirred, but remained absolutely silent. A hundred eyes turned away, blinded by the fervent light streaming from those of the doomed girl on the platform.
"I guess they don't hear your voice," the Conqueror smirked.
The response came back, defiantly. "I'm not the only one. You can't break our spirit."
"The cure for spirit..." her lips curled, and she closed her eyes in predatory anticipation, "...is fear. You'll serve as an example. Put her on the cross." She turned dismissively, adding as though an afterthought, "break her legs."
Najara screamed as she was strapped to the cross and the crushing hammer blow fell. Hearing her cries and the horrified gasps of the crowd, Alti smiled in satisfaction and turned to Darphus. "Fear is the key, Darphus. It's almost all that I need to unlock the doors and it gives such power...it's like a drug. And I need my daily dose." Even Darphus couldn't watch as Alti placed her hands on Najara. "Give me your fear..." The tortured Najara writhed in agony as she tried to escape the clutching hands that were stealing her soul. "I can taste it..."
Her shrieking split the silent air, and the gathered onlookers watched horrified as the life and light was slowly, agonisingly drained from the woman. It only took a few more moments for Najara's screams to turn to gasping pants, and then to barely perceptible breaths.
"Do what you like with what's left." The cross was hauled upright, and the ruined shell of a body taken away to join the others lining the roads into the capital.
Alti resumed her throne, and gestured to Darphus. "Next?" She shifted happily, and laughed.
Deep within the bowels of the Conqueror's palace, a young jailer made his way through dark, damp tunnels to a specially constructed cell. He shifted the bowl of day old scraps in preparation for opening the cell door, first glancing through the solitary window that was sunk into the door to confirm that the prisoner was safely secured to the wall. The stench of rot and faeces that hit him as the door scraped open would have offended anyone else, but this jailer took a tangible delight in the squalid conditions. Over in the far corner, something stirred in the fetid straw. A human being raised its head to stare with an idiot's grin in anticipation of feeding. The long dark hair was a mare's nest of oil and chaff; the once strong body covered by a crisscross of scars and sores.
"Food for the dog, food for Xena." The jailer laughed as he tossed the scraps of gristle and fat to the floor of the cell. He watched as the woman eagerly snatched at the meagre nourishment, swallowing with animalistic grunts of pleasure. Again the jailer thanked his Patron, Alti the Conqueror, for this, the sweetest of revenges. The former Destroyer of Nations, once the formidable leader of the empire, keened in feral joy as Solon emptied the last of the morsels onto the ground.
A clear voice broke through the babble of shouts from the marketplace hawkers. The merchant turned to find the personification of innocence, holding a heavy purse up to him in inquiry.
"Is this yours?" the pretty apparition asked, guilelessly.
Instinctively, the merchant moved to check his own swollen money sack - much to his relief, it was still tucked securely in his waistband. Speculatively, he eyed the slight young form in front of him and the proffered purse, then smiled a teeth only smile and nodded. "Damn! How could I have left that behind? Thank the Gods such an honest child as you discovered it! Wherever did you find it, my girl?"
The young woman blushed at the compliment, and pointed to one of the many alleys that emptied onto the bustling square. He reached out his hand to take the purse, but the girl closed it in her fist. "I hate to ask," she whispered shyly, "But just to be certain that it's yours, could you show me where you might have dropped it?"
"Of course." The Merchant was jovial as he evaluated the girl's size and strength. "Never trust a stranger. Unless you're a fool!" He followed her eagerly to the shadows of the alley. She was describing her find in a pleasant singsong voice when she was stopped suddenly by a sight that shocked her.
A wall of grimy urchins barred their way. Instantly the merchant reached for his sword and spun about, only to see more of the children seeming to flow over the roofs and fences until they were surrounded. He could feel his companion shaking beside him, and he froze as a tall, sandy haired lad stepped forward.
"Leave your purse and the girl, and you live." The demand echoed in the unnatural silence of the children.
He glanced at the wide-eyed girl who was trembling next to him, then flicked his gaze back to the group of boys ahead. Nodding his understanding, he dropped his own bag of coins to the ground and backed through the opening made in the circle. With a last glance at the abandoned girl and his money, he turned and fled. Snatching up the purse and grabbing the girl by the arm, the tall lad and the mob of children scattered through the gaps and crannies of Corinth's back alleys until they were outside their lair.
The boy was turning to face the girl, when her harsh reprimand and forceful shove sent him sprawling into the dirt. He looked up into the blazing green eyes.
"Perdicus? That was supposed to be a con! A simple bait and switch. When did you decide to change the plan?"
"Gabrielle, I thought..."
"You THOUGHT?" Gabrielle fought to control her temper. "I thought we agreed that I think. I plan. Do you know what you've done?" She looked to the children clustered about them. "That rich fool would have never reported a con, but an army of children? Robbing the Conqueror's precious merchants? She'll be sending out her guards to find us and crush us like bugs." She paused as comprehension flitted across their faces, rapidly followed by fear. "Or maybe turn us to stone while we sleep! Now do you understand?" Three score of heads nodded emphatically.
"Fine. Now..." Gabrielle pulled the coin sack from Perdicus' hand and tipped the money out. She quickly counted it, and then formed it into little piles. "Thanks to all of you 'thinking', we have to find a new patch. Spread the word that the heat is on, and that the food drops will be delayed. We'll send out notice when things have cooled down." She handed out some coins to a lanky redhaired boy. "We need medicine and milk the most - give these to the healer. She'll get them for us. Ask her to leave them at the drop off point near Telemon's farm, at the usual place." At her nod, the children melted away again.
Gabrielle turned back to face the taciturn teenager who still sat, stunned, on the ground. She frowned, but reached out a hand to him and hauled him onto his feet.
"Perdicus? Why did you make me do that to you in front of the others?" There was a mutter from the boy, and Gabrielle responded. "Yes, I do. I've always looked after you." There was a pause before she continued, "But Perdicus?" The voice that completed the thought was cool. "Please don't do that again. As much as I care for you, I can only afford to make an example of you once."
To be continued...
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