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.
Karreleus sidestepped a massive swing from Potus blade, then came back with one of his own, narrowly missing the other mans head with the tip of his sword. "Come on, you sissy. My mother fights better than you do!"
Breathing heavily, the young man adjusted his grip on the sweat-slick hilt of his sword, trying to ready himself for another attack. "Im trying, Karreleus! I told you I was a farmer!"
"Youre a soldier now, boy. And youd better start acting like one before the Conqueror herself lops off your head for ya."
Paling, Potus gulped, then nodded, his dark eyes determined. "Im ready."
"Yer not holdin a plow, fer Zeus sake! Stand with your feet further apart. Like this!" The old campaigner demonstrated and Potus mimicked his stance.
"Not by much, it aint. Alright now, hold up yer blade like that. Steady. Ready? Here it comes."
Potus eyes widened in shock as he managed to deflect the blow. A slow grin covered his face. Unfortunately, his amazement blinded him to the fact that the sword was returning for a repeat performance.
His own sword flying from his hand, the young man felt the bite of steel as it sliced through his armor and deep into his chest. Looking at Karreleus in dumb amazement, Potus fell to his knees, then pitched forward onto the ground.
"Aw fer the love of Zeus. Get up, boy!" The older man toed Potus over onto his back, then winced as his blood bloomed from the gaping wound in his flesh. "Damn me to Tartarus. Potus, whatd you go and do a thing like that for?"
"I . . . ."
Gabrielle, whod caught the very end of the exercise from her place behind a conveniently placed bolder, chose that moment to step into the spotlight, running over to the downed man and clamping her hand over the rent in his flesh.
"Get back with the other cooks, woman!" Karreleus shouted, trying to drag the determined bard away. "This man needs a healer, not a nursemaid."
"I am a healer," Gabrielle replied, "and this man is going to die if we cant stop the bleeding right now."
"But . . . ."
Another soldier, drawn by the commotion, wandered onto the scene, his hands full of half-repaired armor. Reaching up, Gabrielle plucked the needle and gut from his hand, mumbling a quick thank you to the stunned man. Then she looked back up at Karreleus. "Do you have any alcohol?"
The older man concentrated on moving his slack jaw. "We . . .the Conqueror dont let us keep none here," he said, finally.
"I got some right here, honey," a third soldier chimed in, removing a dirty flask from his leathers.
"Youre gonna get yer head taken off for that one, Pentres."
"What the Conqueror dont know wont hurt her none, Karreleus. Hey, sweetie pie, hows about you an me sharin a belt behind the supply tent?" he asked, waving the flask in what he thought was a seductive manner.
"Another time, perhaps," the bard replied, swiping the flask from his dirty fingers. She looked down at her wide-eyed patient. "This is going to hurt a bit, Potus."
"Are . . .are you an angel?"
Gabrielle grinned. "No. Just a friend. Take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and this will be over before you know it, alright?"
The young man nodded, worship evident in his eyes.
The bard cum healer colored slightly, then uncapped the flask and poured a liberal dose directly over the hemorrhaging cut.
Potus screamed, then passed out.
"Makes my job easier," she said unnecessarily. Reaching into her bag, she brought out a clean cloth that she and Xena used for bandages and dabbed at the wound, cleaning the worst of the blood off. "Its not as bad as it looks. A few stitches and hell have a nice scar to brag about to his friends."
The soldiers looked on in amazement as Gabrielle deftly repaired the gaping wound, her stitches tiny and precise. Smiling in satisfaction, the bard leaned back on her heels, wiping her bloody hands on the rag. Then she looked up at the soldiers crowding around her. "If you boys would be good enough to point me in the direction of your healing tent, we can get this man into a decent bed and bandaged up properly." She flashed them all her most charming smile.
And found herself suddenly surrounded by almost half a camp of eager volunteers.
Oh, Xena, if you could see me now.
The Conqueror, up before the dawn, was seated at her map table and pouring over battle plans when a knock sounded at the door to her chambers.
A nod to her interior guard, and the door was opened. Another soldier stepped across the threshold, bowing deeply. "Callisto asks an audience with you, Majesty."
Leaning against the back of her chair, Xena rubbed the bridge of her nose between two fingers. "Show her in."
The guard bowed again. "As you wish, Majesty."
He disappeared for a moment, then reappeared, a coyly grinning Callisto in tow.
"Good morning, my sweet!" Callisto cried out in her typical singsong voice. "And such a glorious morning it is, wouldnt you agree?"
Xena eyed her Second briefly before returning her attention to the map on the table. With a flick of her wrist, she dismissed both guards, who bowed and exited the room silently.
Callisto closed the final distance between them, parking one hip on the corner of the large table and pulling Xenas dagger from its place within the heart of Rome. She pouted, staring into the Conquerors glossy black hair. "Looks like someone had a very boring night last night."
Xena glanced up again. "Looks like you more than made up for that."
Callisto stretched, cat-like, proudly displaying the myriad of tiny bruises that dotted her shoulders, neck and upper chest. "I like to think of it as a sacred duty, my love. After all, someone needs to have fun here. And since it obviously isnt going to be you . . . ." Flipping the dagger in her hand, she proceeded to clean her short nails with it.
Xena returned to her study of the battle plans.
Seeing that the Conqueror wasnt rising to the bait, Callisto sighed, and, coming to her feet, walked over to the window, staring out over the fields of soldiers beginning a new day. She turned back to the woman who was singularly uninterested in the sight. "Oh come on, Xena! Its such a beautiful day! The sun is shining . . . ." Trailing off, she cocked her head. "You do remember what the sun is, dont you, darling? Its that big yellow thing that hangs in the sky and makes us sweat?"
Xena shot Callisto another withering look. "I assume you have a reason for interrupting my work?"
Callisto snorted, flipping the knife casually in her hand. "If you can call looking over the same boring plans for the thousandth time work."
"Why am I not surprised?"
"You tell me."
With an overly dramatic sigh, Callisto returned to the desk, perching her hip once again upon one corner. "You need to get out more," she comment in a mock-serious tone, tracing one of the maps lines with the point of her procured dagger. "And I know just the thing!"
"And that would be," Xena drawled, batting the knifes edge away with the side of her hand.
"A surprise inspection!" the blonde cried out gleefully. "I think the troops are getting a little lax."
Without raising her head, Xenas eyes lanced through her second in command. "And the fault for that would lie . . . ."
Callisto pouted. "Just a figure of speech, my darling. Im sure theyre up and ready to do your bidding at a seconds notice. But it would do the men so much good to see their gallant leader striding among them, poised for action." She cocked her head, staring into the icy blue eyes while twirling the point of the knife around on her finger. "Wouldnt do for them to start thinking youve lost it, now would it."
The blondes insides curled as a dark smile bloomed upon the Conquerors lips. Before she could even think to move, Callisto was relieved of her knife and caught up in a neck hold, her back pressed against the hard body and soft breasts of her captor.
"Lost it, huh?" Xena purred into Callistos ear. "Does it feel like Ive lost it to you?"
Near to dizzy from the scent and feel of the Conquerors essence surrounding her, Callistos usual assortment of biting quips dried up in her mouth. She swallowed, determined to show the taller woman none of the fear and desire she was feeling from her suddenly changed, and charged, circumstances.
"I asked you a question, Callisto."
And if I could remember just what it was, Id be sure to answer you, my sweet.
"Dont think for a second that Im so enamored of your service to me that I would hesitate to snap your pretty little neck, Callisto. You live only because I allow it. You breathe because it pleases me. Youd do well to remember that."
Callisto kept even her thoughts deliberately silent, lest the Conqueror divine their meaning simply from breathing in her very air.
"So tell me, Callisto," Xena said conversationally, tightening her grip a fraction before releasing her captive and flinging her the length of the room, then flinging her dagger so it pierced the wooden door just a hair above the blondes head, "are we having fun yet?"
From her place on the floor, Callisto shot the Conqueror a look filled with murderous venom.
Xena threw back her head and laughed, then turned to the rooms other door. "Ling Li! Niamey!"
The two body servants came into the room quickly, kneeling at the foot of the Conqueror. "Yes, Majesty?"
"Prepare my leathers and armor." She looked back at Callisto, white teeth glinting in the torchlight. "I have an army to inspect."
With twin grunts, two soldiers heaved Potus unconscious body onto the crude cot which stood within the confines of the healers tent, then wiped their blood-stained hands off on the legs of their pants.
A tall, slat-thin man with Asian features and long gray hair tied back in a braid that reached well past his waist, stepped up to the bed, peering down at the injured boy. "Who is responsible for this?"
Karreleus stepped forward. "He forgot to hold his guard and I cut him. Twasnt meant."
"And the repair?"
Clearing her throat, Gabrielle stepped forward. "Um. . .that would be me."
The tall man looked from the young woman, down to the boy, then back again. He smiled slightly. "Very impressive. Where did you learn the skill?"
"A . . .friend . . .taught me."
"Then you are well blessed to have such knowledgeable friends. The Conqueror would have use for you both in her service."
Gabrielle rubbed at the back of her neck, thinking quickly,. "Um . . .well, my friend. . .shes not from around here."
Dark eyes looked, not so trustingly, down upon her. "Pity. The more soldiers that land upon our shores, the more we few healers are stretched thin among them."
"Id be happy to help. If you think you could use me, that is."
The mans distrust became more apparent. "It is rare for a woman to know of the healing arts. More rare, still, for her to be a part of an army. Is there something you are hiding? Are you an escaped slave?"
He grabbed her arms, looking for caste-brands, and Gabrielle allowed the examination, determined to give the man no reason to mistrust her. "No," she assured him. "Im not. . .from around here either." She thought more quickly still. A place sprang into mind. "Im from an island north of Gaul. Britannia. Perhaps youve heard of it?" She hoped not. The name came to her from a brief discussion she and Xena had shared one evening. If he started asking questions, she was lost.
The man smiled slightly. "That explains your coloring. Though you speak the Greek tongue like a native."
Gabrielle smiled. "Yeah, well Ive had years of practice."
After a long moment, the healer nodded, releasing her arm. "Then you are welcomed. I am Tao Feng, Chief Healer in the Conquerors army. And you are?"
For a long moment, the bard considered compounding her lies. But then she realized that trust would be poorly gained upon such a formidable untruth. Callisto was bound to find about her sooner or later, anyway. She sighed without really appearing to. "Im Gabrielle. Pleased to meet you, Tao Feng."
The healer bowed. "The pleasure is mine, Gabrielle." He looked back down at the young boy just brought in. "You stitch with the skill of a Master. Do you also know of herbs and proper wound care techniques?"
The bards grin widened. "Yeah. You could say Ive done it a time or two in my life."
Tao Feng made a careful inspection of the young womans body, noting the obvious muscularity and the athletic way she carried herself. A suspicion began to bloom in his brain, but he quashed it ruthlessly. "Have you been in a lot of battles?" he asked instead.
Gabrielle nodded, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "A few, yes. My friend . . .she was a warrior. I spent a good deal of time sewing her up after one fight or another."
"Where is your friend now?"
"Shes . . .she. . . died." The truth of that statement hit her, causing tears to once again prick at her eyes. She looked down at the ground, trying to keep the misery from overwhelming her. I miss you, Xena.
The healer laid a compassionate hand on her wrist. "I am sorry for your loss. It sounds like your friend meant a great deal to you."
"She meant everything to me."
Looking into the startling vehemence present in the deep green eyes, Tao Feng could do nothing but nod.
Wantingneedingto break the tension, Gabrielle looked around the room at the six other men who claimed the cots. "Can you tell me about these men?"
Smiling slightly, Tao Feng gestured to the cots. "Minor injuries, for the most part. Ive given them sedatives to speed the healing process. All except for this one." Walking over to the largest man in the tent, the healer pulled back the fur covering, exposing a leg very near to being gangrenous. "He broke it falling from a horse. Ive tried very hard to save the leg, but it doesnt look like I am going to be able to. Still, I shall keep trying until all hope is lost."
"Thats very admirable."
"And very foolhardy," Tao Feng said, putting the blanket back over the discolored and swollen leg. "For an army healer. But I was trained in the court of Lao Ma, and so can do no less."
Gabrielle cocked her head. "Lao Ma?"
"A very great and wise woman. A mentor, of sorts, to the Conqueror. Or at least she was, at one time. She now rules Chin under the Conquerors guidance. It seems the teacher has become the student once again."
"Excuse me for saying so, Tao Feng, but this Lao Ma doesnt sound like a very great or wise woman if she allows someone like the Conqueror to rule her country, especially from so far away."
Tao Feng held a finger over his own lips. "Words like those are best kept within the safety of your thoughts, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle blanched, realizing, too late, the gravity of her error. Her eyes swept the tent, picturing listening ears and wagging tongues. "Forgive me. I meant no offense."
After a long moment, Tao Feng winked. "No apologies necessary. As for your comment regarding Lao Mas wisdom . . .it is said that there is more than one way to tame a wild beast."
The bard looked back at him, her eyes sorrowful and deadly serious. "And what if the beast is too strong to be tamed?"
The healers return glance was one filled with compassion. "Then you must suffer the lesser of two evils. Let it free to do as it wills, or sacrifice it for the good of the masses."
Gabrielles eyes lowered to the floor, her heart heavy. "I was afraid you were going to say that."
"It is not the time to speak of such things, Gabrielle. Taming beasts is a job best left to those with wisdom greater than ours. Let us instead concentrate on our own small parts to play in this drama, yes?"
When the bard finally nodded, Tao Feng smiled. "You are a strong one. I can sense that." He turned. "Bandages are in this basket. Herbs are there. Other supplies over there. I shall entrust these men into your tender care. If you have need of anything at all, ask the nearest soldier to fetch me."
"I . . .can do that. Thank you, Tao Feng."
The older man bowed deeply. "Thank you, Gabrielle."
With a final smile, he ducked out of the tent.
Then he ducked back in again, his seamed face tense. "The Conqueror comes. We must wake the men."
"She comes. The men must be awakened and sent back to their units. Quickly. We have very little time." Tao Feng started toward the nearest injured soldier.
"Wait. These men are injured. Why must we wake them up? Whats going on?"
Suppressing a sigh, the healer turned to face Gabrielle. "If these men are found within this tent, they will be executed. The Conqueror has no use for injured soldiers in her army. If they cannot fight, they will die."
"But thats . . . ." Gabrielles voice trailed off as she remembered. Remembered her own encounter with a Xena changed by the threat of the Horde against an Athenian outpost. Remembered Xenas own orders to withhold food and water from the most injured of the men. Remembered her further orders to get those able to fight out of bed and back to their posts.
This is war, Gabrielle. What were you expecting? Glamour?
There are no good choices, only lesser degrees of evil.
What are we gonna do, Xena?
Do? Were gonna kill em all!
You know hatred, but youve never given into it. You dont know how much I love . . .that.
"Oh, Xena," she whispered, eyes bright with tears, "whos there to stop you this time?"
Tao Feng straightened, then looked at the young woman curiously. "Excuse me?"
Gabrielle flushed. "Its . . .nothing." She breathed in deeply, then let it out slowly. "Tell me what to do."
Reaching into one of the sacks, Tao Feng came up with several herb bundles, which he proceeded to break apart, crush between his fingers, and place in a large bowl. Then he added a generous amount of water from one skin, stirring the concoction thoroughly.
"Whats that?" Gabrielle asked, face screwed in reaction to the bitter scent of the brew.
"A mixture of pain killers and stimulants. Normally, a dangerous combination. But I fear we have very little choice at the moment. Wake the men and feed it to them. I will call in some soldiers to escort their fellows back to the lines. Then I must make my way to the other tents in the camp. Can you handle this alone?"
After a moment, the bard accepted the bowl, nodding. "Its not something Id prefer to be doing, but if there isnt any alternative . . . ."
"There is none. As I have said, either they leave this tent, or they die."
"Then Ill do what needs to be done."
Tao Feng smiled. "Your friend was very wise for putting her trust in you, Gabrielle of Britannia. Good luck to you." With a final bow, he was gone from the tent.
Sighing and tucking an errant lock of hair behind her ear, Gabrielle went to wake the first of the men.
The Conqueror sat erect upon her chestnut stallion looking every inch the leader she was, her black hair and deep purple cape blowing loose in the fitful gusts of wind. Callisto rode off to her left and Marcus, with three of the Royal Guard in tow, trailed them both on the right.
The Commander of her army, Dagnine, trotted up to the group, his weapons and armor hastily donned. He saluted her with a clenched fist to his chest. "Majesty!"
She nodded slightly. "Dagnine."
Perplexed with the sudden and unexpected company, the General looked at the others in the group. Receiving no answers, save for a truly evil smile on the lips of Callisto, he looked back at the Conqueror. "How may I assist you today, Majesty?"
Xena merely looked at him.
Dagnine looked back, resisting the urge to fidget.
Callisto, under no such constraints, finally leaned forward in her saddle. "The Conqueror wants to inspect her troops, you moron. Did you think she just felt like taking a stroll along the grounds?"
"Oh. Ohhhhhhh. The troops! Of course!"
"A few blocks short of a castle, isnt he," Callisto said, sotto voce. "Poor darling."
Shooting Callisto a glare, Dagnine wheeled his horse around and started back toward the massive army standing before him.
The Conqueror kneed her horse into a quick canter and soon passed the hapless General with hardly a glance. Callisto had been after her for years to replace Dagnine. Xena suspected it was because he couldnt be bought. The Conqueror had in her possession the only prize Dagnine ever lusted afterthe Ixion Stone. Furthermore, the soldier knew she had it, though not where she kept it.
It was an obsession that would keep him in her service until she either took his life or gave him his prize.
The first option was far more likely.
He had proven his loyalty by defending her against what he thought to be an attack by Borias. And if he wasnt the brightest candle in the chandelier, he was an excellent fighter; strong and skilled with a variety of different weapons.
Nothing more was really needed, for the Conqueror herself always led her armies into battle. That was something that those who did not know her did not expect. The ruler of half the world didnt just don weapons and armor and go trotting off into bloody battles for sport.
Unless that ruler was Xena. Who, alone, was better than any fifty in her army, or any others for that matter. When riding at the head of an army, the Conqueror inspired her troops. And that type of inspiration couldnt be bought while sitting on a throne, no matter how many dinars one had to spend.
With an expressionless face and a regal carriage, the Conqueror nudged her horse to a stop before the first squadron of soldiers, all standing ramrod straight, their faces blank as their leaders.
Rows upon rows of archers and pikesmen, swordsmen and catapulters, mace-wielders and standard-bearers, horsemen and siege-engine infantry, stood at a statues attention before the impassive gaze of the Conqueror.
Hundreds of pennants, each bearing the colors and crest of the Keeper of Greece, snapped smartly to and fro in the ever freshening breeze. It was the only sound that could be heard on the grounds.
Xenas arctic eyes swept over the field of warriors, keeping the fierce pride in her heart from showing on her face. These were her men, bought and paid for with the blood of their brethren, brought to heel by her might and majesty, owing their lives, their very breath, to her alone.
Her serenity was rudely interrupted as Dagnine brought his panting horse to a stop before her. He, too, surveyed the spectacle before him, his own face shining with pride. "As expected, Majesty. Your army is ready to die at your command."
Xena turned her head slowly, capturing his gaze with her own. "Theyd just better be ready to kill at my command, Dagnine. Dying is a gift I leave to my enemies."
The General paled. "Of . . .of course, Majesty. That is what I meant to say."
Behind them both, Callisto snorted.
With a soft noise, the Conqueror descended into the ranks of her troops.
"Shes almost here," Karreleus whispered to the young man at his left, his own arm wrapped tightly about the lads waist. "Can you stand by yerself?"
"I . . .Im not sure." Potus was white-faced and trembling, as much from the pain as the fact that the Conqueror of Greece was no more than fifty feet away from him and heading his way.
"Youd better get sure pretty quick, boy. Cause standin aint gonna be an option anymore if you aint."
"Lemme go then," Potus hissed.
The older soldier did as he was asked, just managing to catch Potus as the young man slumped down toward the ground the minute his supporting arm was removed. "Tartarus blasted piece of . . . ." His words trailed off as a very familiar horse suddenly filled his vision. He straightened as if struck by lightening, somehow managing to bring Potus up with him as well.
"M . . .M . . .Majesty."
The Conquerors deep, husky voice burred through the old campaigners senses, jamming his spine even straighter as a hot flush swept down from his face and up from the toes of his boots to meet somewhere in the middle of his belly.
Having the Conqueror remember ones name was both a blessing and a curse.
For the life of him, Karreleus couldnt figure out which one it was in this case.
"I know the Conqueror wants her men to support one another, but this is taking it a bit too far, dont you think?" Callisto asked, eyeing the two men and grinning evilly.
In pure reflex, Karreleus pulled his arm away as if burnt, leaving Potus to sink, or swim, on his own.
The younger man slumped again, but managed to catch himself before pitching forward onto the ground. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he slowly pulled himself up to stand as straight as he could manage, with, in truth, wasnt very straight at all.
Callisto pouted at the display. "The poor dears hurt! Ive got just the cure for that."
Reaching back, the blonde unsheathed her sword and swung it in a deadly arc which headed directly for the swaying mans neck.
Potus closed his eyes and prayed to the gods, hoping that his death wouldnt be too painful.
Cat-quick, another length of bladed steel met Callistos sword, blocking the killing blow and forcing the weapon away from the young mans exposed neck.
"Put it away, Callisto," the Conqueror growled, not even bothering to look at her Second.
"Oh, Xena. Must you always take the fun out of everything?"
Pointedly ignoring the woman, Xena brought her own sword forward, its sharp blade easily parting Potus hastily mended shirt to expose the dull white bandage beneath. A split second later, the bandage was also history, leaving the mans stitched chest exposed to her view.
"How did this happen?"
Potus gulped. "I . . .tripped . . .Majesty."
"Hes lying, Xena! Let me kill him for you. Please?"
The young man bit back a shriek of pain as the cool steel of the Conquerors sword played across the stitches of his wound.
"And do you . . .trip . . .often?"
"No, Majesty," he managed to get out from between clenched teeth.
"Xe-na . . . ."
"You wouldnt, by any chance, be lying to me, would you?" Xena subtly increased the pressure of her sword against Potus thick chest.
"No, Majesty!!!" He couldnt help the scream that came out, but though his legs buckled, he managed to stay on his feet, sweat liberally coating his face and exposed chest.
Smiling slightly, Xena removed her sword. "I may have use for a man who can hold to his story under . . .adverse . . .conditions. Report to the Captain of my Royal Guard. Perhaps he can cure you of your unfortunate. . .clumsiness."
To the end of his life, Potus never knew which god gave him the strength to execute a bow that day, but every day thereafter, he prayed to each and every one in gratitude for their timely gift.
Before anyone could say that they even saw the Conquerors hand move, a whining noise was heard and Pentres was on his back, his dead eyes open to the blinding sun and half of a chakram sticking out of his lifeless chest.
Callistos delighted laughter pierced the still air.
"Tell me, Karreleus," Xena said conversationally, "is there a reason why my edict banning alcohol in camp seems to have been ignored by the men in your squadron?"
Swallowing hard, Karreleus bowed his head, looking down at his boots. "No reason, Majesty."
Callisto leaned forward in her saddle once again, cupping her hand to one ear. "Do speak up, you old goat. I dont think the Conqueror heard you signing your own death warrant. I know I didnt."
Karreleus head snapped up as his bearing straightened. "I said, No reason, Majesty."
The blonde woman grinned. "Thats what I thought you said, dear." Straightening, she turned to Xena. "Can I at least kill this one?"
The remote look returned to the Conquerors eyes and, with a flick of her hand, she continued on down the lines of her troops.
Behind her, Callisto shrieked in triumph.
Gabrielle knelt next to the deeply unconscious soldier, gently stroking his fine, black hair. In her soft, beautiful voice, she told him tales of the Xena she knew, the one who had changed into a force for the greater good through a timely intervention with a great hero.
She didnt use her lovers name, however. That was a risk she was, at that point, unwilling to take.
Regardless, they were her best stories, filled with inspiration and examples of how love and the simple desire to do good could overcome the darkest forces of evil.
The man, of course, didnt respond, but the sound of her own voice kept Gabrielle from imagining what horrors lurked outside of the healers tent, where ominous silence reigned.
She stopped speaking a short while later, to cool the parched dryness from her throat with some water from a skin. It was then that she heard the sound of horses, coming closer before stopping directly in front of the tent. The waterskin dropped unnoticed from her hand as she wiped the droplets from her lips, her heart pounding in a curious mixture of anticipation and abject terror.
She could feel Xenas presence through the fabric of the tent. Could almost smell her on the breeze; that combination of horse and sweat and leather so evocative to her senses. She gripped the cot where the soldier lay, her hand white-knuckled with tension.
The annoyed wicker of a horse, the settling of armor, the soft whoosh of a tent flap opening, and she was there, all bright armor and weapons and surreal magnetism.
Gabrielles throat was suddenly dry again as she stared upwards, her gaze captured by the clear blue eyes she had spent a virtual lifetime staring into, only to now find a stranger looking back. Her heart increased its rhythm as her stomach twisted inside her.
It was one thing to merely imagine meeting this woman whose cold, remote exterior completely overshadowed any evidence of the warm, caring, compassionate person Gabrielle knew lay hidden far beneath.
It was quite another to stand face to face with the contradictions themselves, seeing the differences and the sameness as if from the very pinnacle of Mount Olympus itself, though skewed in some very fundamental way.
She felt herself grow dizzy, but fought it off with a great strength of will that shed nurtured over the years.
Entering the cool dimness of the tent, Xenas glance fell upon a small, golden-haired woman crouched by the side of an occupied cot. Her beautiful jade eyes caught and held the Conquerors, searching.
Xena picked the woman for an Amazon at first glance, easily spotting the fluid muscularity beneath the concealment of her peasant clothing. Strangely enough, however, she didnt feel the spark of anger that usually accompanied the meeting of an Amazon warrior.
Instead, the Conqueror caught something good and open and gentle in the frank, unblinking gaze.
If her heart had been less successfully buried beneath entire mountain ranges of black hatred, she would have seen it for what it truly was.
Gabrielle felt herself pulled to her feet by the power of Xenas close presence. She stood before her lover-turned-stranger stolidly, determined not to let her fear get the best of her.
Seeing that she would have to be the one to break the impasse, the bard allowed a smile to break forth across her face. "Um . . .hello." She stopped for a moment, having no idea how this Xena desired to be addressed. "I . . .guess youre wondering who I am and why Im here."
The Conquerors face remained impassive. If she was offended by the womans lack of an honorific, she didnt show it.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Well . . .in case you werewondering, that ismy name is," she swallowed, "Gabrielle. Im a healer."
An eyebrow rose.
"I really am," the bard hastened to explain. "I happened to be wandering by when a young man was injured in camp. I stitched him up and Tao Feng, your healer, signed me up." She finished the last with a bright smile.
Which faded quickly as the Conquerors sword found itself just under the bards chin.
So great was her trust in Xena, however, that she didnt even blink; instead keeping her eyes steady upon the narrowed blue of her tormentor.
"Dont dig your grave deeper by continuing your lies to me, Amazon. Your swift death can become a very slow one in a heartbeat."
"Theres no need to kill me," Gabrielle replied, using the most soothing voice she could manage under the somewhat less than perfect circumstances. "I havent done anything wrong."
"You managed to infiltrate an armed camp filled with several thousand soldiers."
Gabrielle flushed slightly. "Well, there is that." She forgot herself for a second and grinned up at the woman who was, and was not, her partner. "What did you think of my technique? First class spy material?"
The sword pressed closer against the tender flesh of her neck, causing her to remember quickly.
"That was a joke."
The Conqueror only just managed to keep her utter bewilderment from showing on her face as she regarded Gabrielle. That a woman, seeming no more than a girl in reality, could stand with her neck pressed against the tip of her sword while smiling and telling jokes like she was talking to her dearest friend and not the Conqueror of Greece was perplexing in the extreme. Was she a simple idiot, or more clever than the foxes which sometimes ran across the Conquerors lands?
One look into the womans bright green eyes quashed the first possibility quite effectively. They were brimming with intelligence and a cheerful, though gentle, fire that left Xena, a woman used to such intelligence being used as a weapon against her, feeling even more perplexed.
It wasnt a state she found herself comfortable being in.
Reading the subtle movements in the Conquerors body that told her she was quickly running out of time, Gabrielle kicked her story into high gear. "Its kind of hard to infiltrate a camp when the soldiers invite you in," she started off. "And they did invite me. In a manner of speaking."
True to form, the bards words wove their magic around Xena, pulling in the most feared and dangerous woman in the world. "Go on."
"Its like I said. I was walking along the very edge of your camp when I saw a young man meet his fate at the wrong end of a sword. It was an accident, but when I saw that the other soldiers were just standing around staring at him, well . . .I just couldnt walk away."
"So you . . .helped."
Gabrielle grinned. "Thats right! Of course, Karreleus didnt want me there at first. Thought I was a cook or something. But when I grabbed some thread and started stitching the man up, I guess I convinced him pretty quickly. He led me to this tent, where I met Tao Feng, and the rest is history."
"Karreleus . . . . So, the young man with the repaired chest wound . . . . Your work?"
After a moment, Xena nodded and lowered her sword. "Impressive."
The corners of the bards eyes crinkled as her smile broadened in reflexive happiness. "Thanks!"
The sword came up again. "You still havent explained why an Amazon of such obvious and needed skills is conveniently found wandering so close to my camp."
Forgive me, Artemis. "Im not an Amazon."
The corner of her mouth curling into a smirk, Xena used her weapon to slice through the bards simple peasant blouse, parting it down the middle. Then she used the tip of her sword to slip the damaged material off of Gabrielles shoulders. "Your body speaks a truth your tongue denies," she countered, her eyes lingering on the exposed, muscled abdomen and arms before coming to rest on the young womans generous breasts and remaining there for several heartbeats.
Gabrielle resisted the urge to cover herself, instead standing proudly before the Conquerors inspection. "Not every strong woman in the world is an Amazon," she returned, staring pointedly at Xena.
Xenas eyes narrowed once again. There was more to the womans seemingly innocent and logical words than was evident at first blush. Just how much more, the Conqueror didnt know, and that made her just the smallest bit uneasy. "Perhaps," she said, keeping her sword steady. "But many are."
"Im not one of them."
"And I am supposed to believe this story based on what? Your word?"
"Itd do for a start, yes."
Xena snorted. "Then you take me for a fool."
"Hardly, Xena. You may be many things, but a fool isnt one of them."
The sword came up to Gabrielles neck again. "Very few have called me by my given name and lived to tell the tale."
The bard lifted her chin. "Than Im happy to be counted among the favored."
"You presume a great deal, Amazon," the Conqueror snarled.
The bard sighed. "Are we back to this again? I told you, Im not an Amazon. Im just a woman who happened to be in the right place at the right time and was able to help someone who needed the skills I could provide. Theres no sinister motive here. Im not a spy and Im not a killer. In fact," her eyes blazed with pride, "Ive never taken a life. And I dont intend on starting now."
Xena stared down at the young woman from her position of dominance, looking deep into Gabrielles eyes and trying to divine her thoughts, her motivations. She appeared an open scroll, ripe for the plucking. But werent those the very stories which had so much more written between the lines than could be read at first glance?
The bards gaze was guileless, and that made Xena, a woman who had spent nearly half her life sniffing out falsehoods lest they cost her her life, acutely wary.
But at the same time, she, beyond all bounds of good sense, found herself believing the woman. If, on nothing else, the seemingly outlandish statement that she had never taken a life.
Lowering her sword and switching it to her left hand, the Conqueror stepped forward, closing the small space between them, and used her right hand to cup Gabrielles chin, her callused thumb playing over the silken softness of the other womans lips. "Who are you?" she asked, softly, near to being lost in the warmth and softness of the face in her hand.
Xenas gesture wasnt cruel; nor was it loving. But Gabrielle couldnt keep her body from responding to the caress, it being something her Xena had done on occasions too numerous to count. She swallowed hard to prevent her natural reaction of sinking into the touch as she had so many times before. "Id . . .like to be a friend," she murmured finally against the gentle pressure of Xenas finger.
"I have no need for friends," the Conqueror replied, her thumb still travelling back and forth against the smaller womans full lips.
"Maybe not, but Id like to be one anyway."
Gabrielle stiffened as the sound of booted feet hitting the ground came through the thin fabric of the tent. Callistos sing-song voice followed quickly behind. "Xena, dear, are you defiling corpses in there? We have an inspection to resume, in case youd forgotten."
Xena continued to stare into Gabrielles eyes as her thumb played almost absently against the younger womans mouth. "Gather Marcus and his men and go back to the castle. Ill meet you there shortly."
The bard stiffened further as a slim hand appeared through a seam, grabbing the fabric as if to part the flaps. "Oh goody! Now I know youre doing something fun," Callisto said.
"Get back to the castle, Callisto. . . ."
The hand stayed where it was for a long moment before it was finally removed. A deep sigh followed. "Fine. Be that way. I suppose Ill just have to make some corpses of my own to have fun with."
Then she was gone, leaving Gabrielle to breathe more or less freely again. She looked up, but the cold remoteness had returned to Xenas eyes, turning her into the Conqueror once again.
Dropping her hand from the bards face, Xena turned to look at the lone remaining soldier still deeply unconscious on his cot. She took in the high color to the otherwise pale face and the sheen of sweat liberally coating his half-clothed body. With the point of her sword, she lifted the heavy fur covering, sparing little more than a glance to the grossly infected leg before lowering the fur once again.
"Tao Feng thinks his leg can be saved," Gabrielle chanced to say.
"Tao Feng fools only himself."
"How do you know?"
Xena looked back at her briefly. "Because I do." Turning away again, the Conqueror hefted her sword, ready to drive it through the downed mans heart.
Knowing she didnt have the speed or strength needed to halt the blow, Gabrielle did the only thing she could. She flung herself over the soldier and screamed.
Miraculously, Xena was able to stop herself a mere hairsbreadth away from skewering two bodies where only one had lain before. Her eyes widened in shock, then narrowed in anger. Reaching down, she grabbed the back of Gabrielles torn blouse and pulled the smaller woman away, shaking her as one would a rag doll. "What are you doing?!"
"You cant kill this man."
The Conqueror released her prize, tossing her toward the center of the tent. "Watch me."
Lowering her sword again, Xena did a slow turn back toward the woman who was just scrambling back up to her feet. "No?"
"What has he done that deserves an execution?"
"He is of no use to me."
"Because he cant fight?" Gabrielle asked, incredulity coloring her tones.
The bard stepped as close to the Conqueror as she felt she could. "Xena, this is a man, not a broken sword."
"He is a warrior who cannot fight. To me, a liability."
Gabrielles eyes grew both angry and sad. "And what about his family? Is he a liability to them too?"
Xena didnt hesitate. "Yes."
"I dont believe you."
"I dont recall asking for your belief. Or your permission." The Conqueror pushed Gabrielle away again, though this time, more gently. Then she hefted her sword, grasped the pommel in both hands, and thrust downward in a smooth stroke, piercing the soldiers heart and killing him instantly.
"By the gods," Gabrielle breathed, repulsed beyond comprehension at the act she had just witnessed.
After wiping the blood from her sword, Xena reached under the furs and yanked the soldiers coin purse from beneath the mattress. Turning, she tossed the purse, heavily laden with dinars, to the bard. "Find a runner and see that this gets to his family. Tell them he died with honor. Then see to it that he receives a proper burial."
Gabrielle looked from the purse up into the emotionless eyes of the Conqueror of Greece, her own eyes shiny with unshed tears. "Did you even know his name?"
Ever after, the bard swore that the tiniest kernel of sadness entered the steel blue of Xenas eyes, then was gone as a candles flame to a gentle breath. "His name was Samos. He was one of my best cavalry-men."
And without another word, the Conqueror turned and was gone, leaving a heartbroken Gabrielle behind.
The breeze, cooler now with evenings coming, blew in through the open window of the Conquerors study, lifting the hair from her brow and settling it back haphazardly. The scrolls before her rustled slightly and she held them down with an annoyed flick of the hand, squinting as the torches guttering light cast some of the words into shadow. Her body chilled with slowly drying sweat, sprung forth by a spirited sparring match with some of her Royal Guard. And, of course, Callisto, who never could turn down a chance to cross swords with Xena in any reality.
The scrolls had arrived that day, brought by courier, and were from the many spies she had in Rome and its provinces. Her quick eyes scanned the text, finding nothing unexpected in the missives.
Caesar had yet to declare himself Emperor, but the rumor was on the lips of, it seemed, every citizen in the country. The Senators were getting restless and there was some talk of a revolt, but nothing so well-staged that it reached her ears.
A dark smile spread her lips as she read of Caesars sending of Brutus and several legions across the sea to Gaul to quell a small uprising there. Brutus was, without a doubt, Caesars best general. Her enemys army was much weaker without him at the helm. Why Caesar would choose to send him to a far away nothing of a country while Greece stood, poised to strike, was a puzzle sure to occupy many days thought.
"Cocky bastard," she muttered, reaching for the next scroll in the pile.
"Who are we talking about this time?" Callisto asked from her place by the window, reclining on one of the couches and twirling a tangled lock of her hair. "No, no . . .let me guess." Grinning evilly, she sat up. "Hes about this tall, has an absolutely atrocious hairstyle, and enjoys putting Warrior Princesses up on crosses."
The Conqueror shot Callisto a look before returning to the scroll she was reading.
Callisto threw back her head and laughed. "Oh Xena, Xena, Xena. Its always about Caesar, isnt it? Caesar this. Caesar that. Why, if I didnt know any better, Id swear you still had a little thing going for him."
Any reply Xena might have made was halted as her hyper-acute hearing picked up an unusual noise borne in on the evenings cool breeze. Cocking her head alertly, she waited.
The sound was repeated. And then again, growing louder.
"What?" Callisto asked, well used to the expression.
The Conqueror slowly rose to her feet, then crossed the room to look out of the window. All seemed normal, but her instincts continued to raise an alarm her body couldnt ignore.
"Trouble," she muttered, turning from the window and crossing to the large door which sealed her rooms off from prying eyes.
Callisto jumped up from the couch, clapping her hands. "Goody!"
Grabbing the handle, Xena flung the door open, her eyes lasering into those of one of her door-guards. Before she could open her mouth to speak, there was a commotion in the hall and a young, very badly out of breath runner came into her view, almost collapsing from exhaustion. "Trouble!" he gasped out, trying to bow and almost falling to the floor for his efforts.
"Thats obvious, you insignificant little worm," Callisto snarled, grabbing the runner by the front of his uniform and pulling him up so that he was inches away from her face. "What kind of trouble?"
The runner took tortured breaths, his overworked lungs near to bursting with the effort of pulling air in and letting it go.
Callisto shook him savagely. "Speak up, ingrate, or Ill feed your little body to Cerebus myself!"
"P . . .P . . .Persians!"
Xena turned quickly, hand on the pommel of her sword. "Where."
"In the . . .camp! Took . . .took over some . . .Egyptian ships . . .at sea! Came in . . .through . . .the . . . harbor!"
"And the harbormaster let them through?" The man would die, quite slowly, and by her own hand, she vowed.
"No! Yes! Majesty! They were . . .dis . . .disguised as Egyptians! He didnt know!"
"Let him go, Callisto."
Rolling her eyes, the blonde warrior dropped the gasping soldier, then shook the hand which had held him, a look of disgust on her face.
The Conqueror looked down at the runner, her eyes gone silver with anticipation. "Where are these Persians now. Exactly."
The young man finally managed to catch his breath. "Still in the Egyptian camp, Majesty. The small army from Chin came over to assist, and Dagnine said to tell you that hes sent two squads there as well. He remains behind with the main force to watch for an attack from another direction."
"He actually said that?" Callisto remarked, shaking her head in mock amazement. "You must be mistaken. That incompetent idiot couldnt find his way out of an outhouse if he had a map."
Bending down, Xena hauled the runner back to his feet. "Go back and tell Dagnine to stay on the alert. Under no circumstances is he to send any more troops unless he hears from me directly. Got it?"
"Good. Now go."
Pushing the runner back down the hall, the Conqueror turned once again to her door-guard. "Wake Marcus and have him gather his troops. We have some Persians who need a lesson taught to them."
Callistos delighted cackle could be heard throughout the castle.
Continued - Part 3.
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