General Disclaimer: Xena & Gabrielle belong to Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended, and no profit gained by this.
This is a Conqueror story. There is some violence, and some swearing.
My thanks to The Bardic Circle for the helpful comments and suggestions.
Comments Welcome: atLariel_a@Hotmail.com
Eventually, after a painfully long wait, the sun crept out of the sky. Its dying rays cast a warm orange glow over the rough wooden cross, throwing an eerie golden light over the broken figure lashed to it. Looking upwards from the base of the cross, I could see the suns corona burnishing the pale wood and the white figure, sending shadows skittering and rudely illuminating the pain filled lines etched onto her waxen, red-streaked face. The sight hurt my eyes.
I had no idea what I was doing there. What if they caught me? It could be me up there, dying piece by piece at her side in a mockery of comradeship. Dying for someone I didnt even know, and for a cause that I didnt really understand or would allow myself to believe in.
I wasnt even sure she was still alive. I mean, how could she be? Nobody survives a crucifixion, unless the Gods are involved, and the only God who takes any interest in mortal affairs these days is Ares. I didnt think hed have any interest in one small, smashed up girl.
Im not cut out to be a hero. I always knew that. Heroism is for the young, or the foolhardy. Not for people like me, with families to raise, mouths to feed, livings to be earned. Anyway, I was sure she was dead already. So what was the point in me even trying? Nobody survives a crucifixion. Still, at least I could tell myself that I tried; that waiting in the shadows until darkness came had somehow made a difference. I could live with myself, now that I knew I had tried.
I turned thankfully, hastily - and was stopped by the slightest sound. Petrified, I froze. Had someone seen me? But there was no-one else around. The square was deserted, the guards not due back for another minute. Nothing. An intense silence rushed through my straining ears. "Theres nothing," I told myself, firmly. "Just calm down."
There it was again. The smallest sound, barely audible. The slightest groan, and an imperceptible movement of her lips. I gulped, and my sick stomach heaved.
She was still alive.
Fighting down my nausea, I wrapped my cloak tightly around myself, and ran back across the square to wait for the guards to return from their patrol. They appeared a few moments later as I watched apprehensively from the shadows. Surely she would be dead by now? Nevertheless, I approached the guards hesitantly, fearful at putting my half formed plan into action.
"Can I take her?" My voice quavered, and I coughed, in an attempt to steady it.
They looked surprised; shocked, even. "What do you want with her?" They bristled with authority, and oozed with the danger of the woman they stood for. I was terrified, but I pressed on anyway. It was already too late to go back.
"Shes my sister. I want to take her home and bury her," I stammered.
"She was a criminal." One of the guards shifted a little, and looked uneasy. Was that a trace of sympathy on his face? "She has to serve as an example. The Conquerors orders."
"Shes my sister. Please? Let me take her home."
The guard moved again, glancing quickly at his colleague. "The Conqueror..."
"Will have forgotten all about her by now," I interrupted, quickly. "Her legs have been broken, and shes been tied to a cross in the town square. Shes dead. Dont you think thats example enough?" They remained silent; I pressed on, my heart in my mouth and my brain screaming its protest at what I was doing. "The Conqueror doesnt care about her now. Please. Just let me take her. What more harm can she do?" I gestured; both men looked up at the still, slight figure which lay twisted against the rough hewn wood. Blood from the gash on her temple mixed with the dried tear tracks that ran down her cheeks, and her face looked poised for tears and screams still; marks of the futile struggle for life which had been how shed spent her last hours.
"Please. She was just a child." My voice was dangerously near breaking, from terror I thought. "Look at her!"
They helped me cut her down and, much to my relief, she made no more movement or sound. I wrapped her chilled body in the blanket Id brought, and had the guards place her in the handcart Id managed to borrow. Thanking them, I turned and slowly wheeled my burden out of the square, and steeled myself for the long walk home.
She was still alive. I didnt know what I was doing.
"What in Hades..? Woman, are you insane?" Timeron came rushing out of our isolated little house, rousted from his doze by my frantic knocking.
"Help me get her in, quick!" Of course, once he saw who she was, he panicked. Wed both stood in the square earlier that afternoon, and watched horrified as the young, vibrant girl had been battered, broken and abased.
"Jaden, we cant keep her here! Have you lost your mind?"
"Just help me get her out of the cart!" We struggled with her - she was a dead weight - and somehow managed to manoeuvre her into our sons bedroom. We placed her carefully onto his tiny bed, once Timeron had removed our sleepy little baby, and I cut off her blood and sweat stained clothes so I could inspect the damage.
It was significant. She was barely breathing, and had lost a lot of blood from the blow to her head, and the cuts on her body. And her legs...they were a mess. Not broken, but shattered.
I did the best I could, with my limited knowledge and a handful of herbs, but I dared not call for the healer. He is the Conquerors man. So I sent Timeron out to fetch the wise woman from the next village; she was experienced and could be trusted, as she herself practised illegally. It took several hours for her to come - we lived halfway between Corinth and her village, and were set back off the main road so finding us wasnt easy, but at least I knew we would be reasonably safe from prying eyes.
Between us - and with a vacillating Timeron lecturing us from the safety of the doorway - we washed her, treated her wounds and bound her up. The rest was up to her.
She was a fighter alright. That surprised me - I think I wouldve given up, and deep within myself, I half hoped that she would too. That such a frail little thing should cling so tenaciously to life astounded me, and shamed me too. It wouldve been easier if she had died. But she didnt. Physically, she was a wreck, but somehow she pulled through. Then, the fight really did begin.
She slowly opened dull green eyes which flickered blankly around the room, before settling on me. I smiled, as brightly as I could. "Hello," I said softly, and clasped one of her cold hands in mine. She blinked a couple of times, but said nothing as she swept confused eyes around the room again. They settled once more on me.
"Hello," she at last managed to croak, her chest rising painfully with each bubbling breath.
"Oh. You probably should drink something...Im sorry." I fumbled around for a while, pouring water with shaking hands, and spilling it all over the bed. "Here, let me help you..." At her doubting look, I smiled again, and held out the cup to her. She still didnt move, so I tried to slip my arm behind her head - she jerked away quickly, and then screamed as the motion rocked her whole body. I rushed to calm her, and lay her down again. "Shhh...be still now..."
Huge, pain filled eyes blinked back tears, as she struggled to bring herself under control. After several moments, her breathing eased a little, and I smiled once more as I mixed up the herbs that the wise woman had left.
This time, I eased my palm beneath her head, and held the cup to her lips, making sure she finished off the bitter, green substance. She kept tossing her head and spitting it out. "Drink it," I urged. "It will make you feel better. Make the pain more bearable." She didnt reply, but she stopped thrashing around, and drank the rest of the mixture. I stroked her face, and soon she fell asleep.
"She woke up." I reported our guests condition to my husband as he fed our baby son. He looked up, relief and fear warring on his features. "Here, let me finish feeding him."
"No, its okay - were nearly done now. And you have to take care of her." I was so lucky, to have found myself such a good man. Such an understanding man. "So, what do we do now?"
"What do you mean?" I stalled, not wanting to think about it.
"Shes a fugitive, and you cut her down. If they ever find out shes here, you will be killed. Well all be killed." He jiggled our son on his lap as he wiped at a grubby, food-smeared chin. "All of us. She cant stay here, Jaden."
"Timeron, shes hurt. She needs..."
"Jaden! What are you doing? This isnt like you...You saved her life, and risked your own. What more do you want?"
"I dont know, Timeron...but I cant just throw her out..." Desperately, I pleaded her case with my fear-filled husband.
"Shes alive, thanks to you. Youve done enough!"
"She needs us, Timeron! We cant just abandon her to the Conqueror. If she leaves here, shell die!"
"So, shell die. Maybe its for the best!" There was a shocked silence. He blushed, ashamed of what hed said, but his face remained resolute. "She will kill us all, Jaden. You, me...Dimitrios here. Is she worth it?"
"I..." An image of a golden haired woman standing on the steps at the feet of the Conqueror flashed through my mind, and passion-filled words echoed ghost-like around the room. Words about choice, freedom...words that I had never dared hope to believe in. My baby sons cheeks glowed rosy as the man I loved played with him on his knee. Was she worth it?
"Shell have to go, Jaden. Youve done more than enough for her, more than anyone else wouldve." My eyes filled with tears as he smiled sadly. "You did a brave and compassionate thing, love, for a girl you didnt even know. I dont understand why you did it, but I am so proud of you. Right now though, we have to think about whats best for our family."
I wouldnt - couldnt - let her go. "She cant walk, and still cant breathe properly. You know what crucifixion does. Would you have her out on the street? Shell die without us!" Something made me plead for the girls life, even as I acknowledged the truth of my husbands words.
He sighed heavily, placed our child on the floor and then grabbed me. Close up, I could see the heartbreak in his eyes as he said, "Then let her. Shes dead already."
Again, the image of the girl berating a stony-eyed Conqueror, resolute in the face of her death sentence, swam in my brain. It had been as effective as scratching out a road through a granite hill using a wooden spoon, but shed still done it. I didnt understand her spirit; in truth, it frightened me, but I couldnt help admire it. It was so unusual these days to see anyone with courage, with a belief in the future. Was such passion worth the risks Id already taken?
"No Timeron, youre wrong. Shes alive. Were the ones who are dead. Weve let the Conqueror drain our souls and our hearts, like she said. I cant help the Conqueror kill that girl."
"Now you sound just like her." His big, warm hands dropped from my shoulders, and he turned his back to me. My heart hurt to see his pain, and my head thumped with the danger I was placing my family in, but I couldnt give in to it.
"Shes not leaving here," I said, more with bravado than anything else. "Were away enough from the village that they wont find her. But if it means my death, then so be it. I think shes worth it." My bravado had won out.
I worked my hand underneath his shirt, and ran my palm slowly up his back, savouring the living warmth of his soft skin as it brushed against my fingertips. I needed to feel his blood pulsing through his strong frame, wanted the reassurance of his touch. Needed him to understand. He let out a shaky breath, but didnt turn around. "I hope youre right," was his only response.
"Why are you doing this?" Perplexed green eyes met mine. I was changing her bandages, and as much as she hated the sight of her smashed legs, she always had to watch.
"Your dressing needs changing."
"No, thats not what I meant. Why did you save me? Why are you taking care of me?" She put out a hand and gently stilled my own as it worked around her crushed limbs.
"I dont know," I answered, simply, surprising us both. She considered for a moment, then nodded as though she understood.
"Thank you. I know what a risk youre taking. I dont have much money but..."
"I dont do this for a reward!" I was shocked, and angry.
"Good. Because, truthfully? I dont have any money." She gave me a half smile, and the sight of it stunned me for a moment. I was tying up her shattered legs, and she was joking and smiling. Id never met anyone like her before... it was rare enough to see a smile on the face of anyone, and hers lifted my heart from a depth to which I hadnt known it had sunk.
"Youre amazing," I gasped out, involuntarily.
She chortled. "Me? Im a smashed up, crucified wreck. Youre the one who saved me. Why?"
"I dont know," I repeated, again. "I didnt want you to die." At her wordless prompting, I continued, "It...just felt like the right thing to do."
I could tell she wasnt satisfied, but it was honestly the only answer I could give her. All I knew was that I regretted having done it every day since, but I would do it again.
"Im not sure I wouldve done what you did. Not for a stranger. Not to risk my life," she finally said, once her legs were clean and wrapped up again.
"You? Of course you would!"
"How do you know? You dont know me." She turned her head into the pillow.
I shrugged, and went to fetch her medicine. "I saw you talk, once," I began as I re-entered the room. "Such talk...." I held her head and forced her to drink the liquid she hated. "Never heard anything like it."
"I was a fool then," she ground out, bitterly.
"Some of the things I said. Immature, foolish sentiments." She gave a soundless laugh. "Just a stupid child. What did I know about the world?"
"More than most of us, I thought. You didnt let your fear paralyse you." I softly stroked the hair from her brow. "You dared to dream of what could be. I thought that was wonderful. I remember wishing that I could dream like you."
She shook her head, angrily. "The Conqueror still caught up with me though, didnt she? Im paralysed now. Your views can change when youre strapped to a cross and your legs are smashed open."
"Dont let this kill you inside. You were so full of life - its what gave so many people hope." I could see her face closing, becoming tight and drawn in, and it scared me. I wanted her to be open, and vibrant, the way she had been. It gave me hope that maybe I could be that way, too.
"Hope?" she laughed, sardonically. "All I brought was the hope of a painful death."
"No," I answered, angrily. "The hope of a life. The freedom to live, not to drag out an existence. You have a spark, and it warms people who have been too cold for so long now."
"You think?" She looked into my eyes for a long time, and I noticed a peculiar flatness in them. They werent the eyes of the young woman that I had listened to up in the frost-hoared hills last winter. I had seen such possibilities in those eyes; we all had. "Im cold now." I tucked the blanket around her, but she cast it off. "That other person you think you knew? Its not me."
Deep in the heart of her eyes, a faint spark of pain flickered for the briefest moment, and then went out.
A week passed, and she slowly regained some strength. Her legs gradually began to repair themselves, but it was clear shed never be able to walk as before, if at all. I dont think her heart was in it anyway. A lot more had been shattered that day, under the heavy hammer of the Conqueror. As the days passed, whilst we started at every footfall and hid from every stranger, she faded quietly away. Timeron tried, Gods bless him, to fire her interest, but each suggestion was met with a polite rebuttal and an apology for being such a nuisance. I loved him so much for trying.
Neither of us could get through the stone wall that she was building up around herself. In desperation one day, I threw Dimitrios into her bed, and left them to it. Two hours later, I peeked in to find him curled up, sleeping snug against her under the covers, and her eyes wide and staring at the ceiling.
"Nice try," she said, drily.
"What?" I tried to look innocent. She rolled her eyes, and gestured to my bundle of a son. I grinned in reply. "He never sleeps like that for me." Grumbling, I sat on the bed. "What did you do to him? He was bawling when I left him."
"I know." She shot me another look, then gave me a tiny smile. "I told him a story."
"You must have the magic touch. Are you okay?" She looked a little pale, and very tired around her eyes. I was completely taken aback when she asked if she could have some of her medicine. "Youre in pain?"
"A little." She winced as Dimitrios squirmed in his sleep. "Your son doesnt stay very still for long, does he?"
"No," I called in reply from the kitchen as I mixed up her dose. "Hes just a bundle of movement. Even when he sleeps, he kicks out and...oh, Gods! Im so sorry! I should have realised!" I dashed into the room just in time to see her biting her lip, as Dimitrios landed her another blow. "Why didnt you call me? You must be in agony!" Quickly, I handed her the cup, which she drained instantly. She looked relieved as I scooped up my lively boy and settled him into our bed in the next room.
"The healer says your legs are making good progress."
"Really? Does she think Ill ever walk again?" The expression in her eyes was almost too much for me.
"She doesnt know," I answered through the lump that was forming in my throat. The wise woman thought it was pretty certain she wouldnt, if she continued with this listless and apathetic mood she was in. "Maybe, though itll take time."
She nodded. "Could you do something for me, please?" she asked, shyly.
"Of course!" I was so happy that shed finally brought herself to ask something of us.
"I cant keep imposing on you like this. Its not fair to you or your family; youve done so much for me already, and I know its caused you problems with your husband." She stopped my protests. "Ive heard you arguing. And Im putting you in danger the whole time Im here. If they found me..."
"They could. Youd be killed, and it would be my fault. What would your husband and son do then? I couldnt live with myself if anything happened to you all." We both remained silent for a long moment, until she spoke softly. "Would you contact my family for me?" There was a peculiar expression on her face, one of longing, worry and sadness. She missed her people. "I hate to think what theyve been going through. They probably think Im dead. I need to let them know Im alright. Theyll take care of me."
I started to panic a little. "Im sorry, I cant..."
"Its okay. They live in a tiny little village - the Conqueror probably doesnt even know it exists. Ill be safe there. Theyll look after me and I...I want to see my mother. You know?" A face as young and innocent looking as Dimitrios looked up at me in hope; she was just a child, trembling on the verge of tears. A hurt child who wanted to be in her mothers arms. My heart just broke, and my own tears streamed down my face. I folded her against my breast, so she couldnt see.
"Im sorry," I eventually managed. "Im so sorry." I hugged her as tightly as I could, without hurting her.
"Its okay," she reassured me, confused at my reactions, but I shook my head, grasped her face between my two hands, and took a deep breath.
"Your family were all killed, just after you were crucified. Im so sorry." I readied myself for the expected deluge.
It never came.
I felt the thin young body stiffen, but she remained mute. Helplessly, I watched as fat, soundless tears squeezed through staring green eyes and slid slowly down her thin, still face. She never made a sound.
"By all the Gods on Olympus, girl! What do you think youre doing?" Timerons deep voice boomed through the house, startling me as I was elbow deep in half kneaded dough; I was baking our bread, and had sent him off with instructions to carry our guest for her morning visit to the outhouse before he left for the fields. It was a painful trip for her to take, but she insisted on it. I dumped the elastic dough onto the floury table top, clapped my hands together to shake the dusty flour and rushed into the bedroom.
She was struggling to get out of the bed; half on the floor, trying to stand and biting her lip in pain. Timeron was slapped away every time he approached, and he turned to me in relief when I ran through the door. "Talk to her!" he pleaded desperately, as he watched her trying to get to her feet.
"What are you doing?" I ran to her, but was batted away too. "Youre in no condition to get up by yourself! Youll damage your legs even more!" I grabbed her arm and wrapped it round my shoulder as she slid off the side of the bed, and stumbled.
"I need to go," she said, through gritted teeth. It was all I could do to keep her upright as she tried to force legs as fragile as a birds broken wing to walk.
"Timerons just about to take you..." I said, trying to tug her back into bed. She shrugged me off, and clamped her hands on the bedside table.
"No, I mean I have to leave here."
"You cant...where will you go?" asked Timeron, his big brown eyes clouded with concern. In spite of all hed said, even with all the fear and the danger shed brought to our little home, he liked her. Said she reminded him of the daughter he hoped wed have.
"I dont know. Anywhere. I have friends - I hope." Her chin was set, and a frown creased her face. "Dont try to stop me. My minds made up. Its best for us all if I go. I couldnt bear it if anything happened to you because of me."
"I mean it!"
"Fine!" Eventually, reluctantly, I conceded, seeing the stubbornness in her. "If you can make it out of the cottage by yourself, well let you go." Timeron threw me an astounded look; she just looked about fit to cry. "Timeron, love. Go and fetch that staff youve got in the cellar for her."
Moments later, an old fighting staff of Timerons father was gratefully clutched between two shaking fists; it bore the weight of the shuffling, sweating young girl as she painstakingly made her way out of the bedroom, through the kitchen and towards the door. With tears streaming down her too-pale face, anyone could see that she was in agony, but she made no sound and kept on going right through the door and practically ran head first into the soldiers that were loitering outside. The exquisitely dressed woman with them smiled grimly.
The Conqueror had finally come for her.
"Good morning," purred the woman. "So nice to see you up and about at long last." She smiled, and I felt like a mouse seeing the cats claw poised at the edge of its burrow. Needless to say, the three of us made no reply. Timeron and I had hold of our poor girls arms as she struggled to stay upright, proud and defiant.
That seemed to amuse the Conqueror; her fat smile spread. "I thought you were never going to get out of bed. What is it now - a month, almost? I hope you didnt forget about me, Gabrielle?" She stuck an elegantly polished nail in her painted mouth, and smiled coyly at us.
Gabrielle bristled. "How did you find me?"
"Oh, that was easy. Two reprimanded guards...handcart tracks. Persuade a local, illegally operating healing woman...constant surveillance. I have my methods. You didnt really think that Id just let you go?"
"I did hope."
The Conqueror slid up our path, graceful and smooth like a snake uncurling for the strike, her beautiful silken robe unfurling behind her and leaving a shimmering trail of midnight blue and silver in her wake. She was a vision - an eyewatering tangle of bold, contrasting colours. All blues and silvers and blacks, with a splash of blood red about her mouth. "That always was your problem. You hope too much."
"And thats what scares you, isnt it?" Our defiant Gabrielle shot back, eyes blazing and fear filled.
"As if anything could scare me!" scoffed the Conqueror. "Least of all a silly little girl like you."
"So why wont you walk away and let me go?"
The Conqueror raised an eyebrow in surprise, then laughed sardonically. The small group of soldiers behind her shifted nervously. "Why would I want to do that?"
"Because you can. And to prove that youre not afraid of me."
"You forget. I dont need to prove anything to anyone." A steely tone crept into her silken voice. "I am the Conqueror. Still, it would be a grand gesture, dont you think? I am overdue for a grand gesture. What was my last one?" She mused for a moment.
"When you pardoned Caesar, Empress." One of her soldiers nervously spoke up.
"Of course! He did beg so, I thought he deserved it. So I pardoned him," she explained, a slight smile curving her lips. "Right before I had him executed. Well, he did deserve it - the little bastard. But enough about him. I want to talk about you!"
She walked right up to us, and brushed an index finger gently down Gabrielles cheek; the girl winced, and tried to pull away. "Pretty little thing, arent you?" Pulling the girls long skirt up, she swept a curious glance along the shaking, tightly bound legs that were revealed. "Pity about the legs. I seem to remember that they were quite shapely before." She ran her hands along Gabrielles calves, and the girl bucked slightly as the hands that were fondling her gripped tighter on their journey upwards. "Still hurts, doesnt it?" She sounded sympathetic, yet smirked at every wince that flew across the girls face.
Gabrielle nodded silently, fighting back tears of fear and pain as the Conquerors hands ran freely along her lower body. The soldiers whistled and sniggered. Timeron and I still had a tight grip on her hands, and we could feel her shaking through our own petrified trembling.
"Theyll hurt for a long time yet. But on the bright side..." the Conqueror finally stood upright again. "...it wont be too long." Her teeth-only smile cut through us. "Youll be dead soon." The Conqueror basked in the show of admiration that her performance was earning from her men, as they snickered and stamped their feet.
She raked her gaze over us; I could feel her eyes like pin-pricks of light boring right through my skull and burning my brain. "I see youve found some friends. How lucky for you."
"Leave them out of this," Gabrielle spoke in her quiet, soft voice. "Please. Its me you want."
"Yes, thats true. It is you I want, but you see, these people have stolen my property."
"We have stolen nothing, my Lady." Timerons deep voice spoke up, anxious and halting.
The Conqueror merely raised an eyebrow in response and glared at him. I could feel him quaking next to me, and he quietened when she pointed to Gabrielle. "She is my property."
The young girl bristled at the label, but made no move to refute it. "Please, leave them alone. Ill go with you, if you promise me theyll be safe."
"You will?" The Conqueror thought for a moment.
"Yes, I wont resist. I promise."
"Youre in no position to strike bargains with me. Youre mine, whether these people live or not. In fact, Im really hoping you will resist - makes things so much more entertaining." She pointed at me. "You were the one who cut her down. Why?"
I couldnt speak; I was frozen inside with fright. She got impatient, and started towards me, and this jolted me out of my numbness. "I...I dont know," I stuttered, lamely. My babys cries started to come from the cottage.
"You dont know? You went to all that trouble, lied to my guards, and you dont know why?" Her face was almost incredulous, but suddenly, it turned hard. "Dont play me for a fool. I own all of you. Your lives are mine, and your childrens lives. If you value your miserable existence, you better remember that."
Gabrielle was crying as she clung to me. "Leave them alone! It doesnt matter why she did it..."
"Leave us!" She barked the order at her men, who backed carefully away until they were out of earshot. I notice they didnt let their eyes leave her, though. "It matters to me,"she continued. "It matters if your pathetic little preaching has won a convert. I cant allow that."
"I thought you said I posed no threat to you," challenged our brave girl.
The Conqueror practically snarled her response. "You dont. But thousands like you do, and I wont allow some stupid ideology to destroy all the stability that Ive brought to my empire. Peace and prosperity that I fought hard for."
"This isnt peace!" Gabrielle spat. "You dont know the meaning of the word! Youre waging war on your own people - there may be no blood on the soil, but youre still killing them!"
"So," the Conqueror said triumphantly. "Your fire is back. All that passion, all that belief." She turned to me, almost thoughtful. "Thats why you saved her, isnt it? For that?"
"Yes! Yes, it is! I saved her because she showed me something that I never even knew I missed; my own freedom! Freedom to choose my own life, and to live it free of fear. She gave me hope that I could be like her. That I didnt have to be like you! She made me believe that things could be different, and I wanted them to be, and you can never take that feeling away from me!" I startled myself with my outburst, the desperate attack of a cornered animal.
The Conquerors slap to the face cooled my temper, and I heard Timeron shouting through the ringing in my ears. She slapped Gabrielle too, for good measure, which left us both with stinging eyes and reddening cheeks.
"I can take away your life, woman. And if that doesnt bother you, I can take away your child too!" With that, she motioned to one of her guards who marched into my house, grabbed my boy and dumped him into the Conquerors arms. Timeron had to be held back by three of her men, and I screamed and tried to fight my way forward too. "And if thats still not enough, Ill take your husband, too," was her final comment; my eyes were glued to my screaming, crimson-faced baby as he tried to kick and squirm himself free of the arms that bound him like iron shackles.
She threw him to another of her men, and I watched him carry Dimitrios away. I didnt see her take her sword, and bury it upto the hilt in my husbands chest.
I heard someone scream, "NO!!" Timeron felt like a dead weight in my arms as he crashed to the ground. Uselessly, I rocked him in my arms, and pleaded with him to stay with me as my tears pooled with the blood pumping from his dying heart. He closed those beautiful eyes which had held my life, and left me, while I stroked his cheek and begged and bullied him not to. And I could still hear screaming; the noise pierced my brain, shrill and incessant, ripping into my consciousness when all I wanted was peace and quiet. I wished they would shut up. Couldnt they see that my husband was dead? I needed quiet, to think. To feel.
Gabrielle had remained silent throughout, shocked and motionless. I realised that I was the one who was screaming.
The Conqueror matter-of-factly cleaned my beloveds blood from her blade, and re-sheathed it. The action seemed to break Gabrielle from her trance, and she shrieked, "You monster!! You didnt have to do that! He was a good man!"
"He was a criminal,"was the only response she got.
"He was not. He was a decent, hardworking man! He was my friend." Gabrielle valiantly fought back her tears, as she glared at the Conqueror.
"All the more reason, if he was one of your followers."
The sound of my broken voice surprised even me, as I whispered, half to myself, "He wasnt. Timeron didnt hear Gabrielle the way I did. He was too afraid. Of you."
"Oh. Pity, then," she said, without a trace of remorse. "Somebody clear that away. Oh, and shut that damned child up."
"Give me back my baby!" I still had Timeron wrapped in my arms, but I tried to struggle to my feet.
"For Ares sake, will someone shut that damned child up one way or the other!" she yelled furiously as Dimitrios frightened wails ripped through the air.
The last image I have of my son is of his sturdy little fists punching into the guards shoulder as he was hauled onto horseback. His screams still stab through my ears, in the unnatural silence that permeates every long night since that day.
"Two down, two to go," quipped the Conqueror, earning herself a ripple of careful laughter from her contingent. "Two traitors left - what to do with you? Traitors should die like the gutless pigs they are - just like he did." She nudged Timeron with her toe, and I exploded.
"He wasnt a traitor, you bitch! He was afraid of you his whole life, gods damn you! Too afraid to do anything, and he hated himself for it. He died afraid too, and I hate you for that!"
"Oh dear. You hate me. How will I ever go on?" I felt like a fool; what was one insignificant womans hatred to her, the Conqueror of the known world?
Gabrielle interrupted us. "How do you go on? How do you live with yourself, knowing all the things youve done?"
"I am the Conqueror! Its my responsibility to make sure that we have peace and prosperity in my lands...everything Ive done has been for that! To make a better world for us all" For a moment, the Conquerors mask slipped, and the cracks in her invincible persona were plain for all to see. She gestured sharply, and her soldiers retreated to a safe distance again, leaving her alone with us. We all knew she was safe; we could not harm her physically.
But Gabrielle sensed something else; she pressed on, her fingers burrowing deep into the fissures that were suddenly cracking the Conquerors implacable face. "Peace at the point of a sword? Prosperity for who? Your people are taxed to the hilt. Look around you! Do you see anything here but poverty, exhaustion? Hunger and hopelessness? Is this the world you wanted to create?"
"Any peace is better than war, little girl! The battlefield...the things it does to you - you have no idea! If you knew, you would understand..."
"I understand what it does. It hardens your heart. If someone isnt bleeding, then theyre not hurt, right? Wrong. Sometimes the deeper wounds are the ones that dont bleed!"
"Enough!" The Conqueror was toe to toe with the girl who, to my amazement - she always amazed me. Im so proud to have known her - stood her ground as her passion filled words dropped like dead birds at the Conquerors feet. "You dont know what youre talking about, little girl. My way is the ONLY way. Do you think Caesar or Alexander or any of the others I defeated would have been any better? This works because I make it work, and it works because I stop people like you from destroying it! You...I knew I had to stop you the first time I heard you. Yes, I heard you - that surprises you?" Gabrielles gaping mouth gave away her astonishment. "I make it a point to check out all potential threats. Theres something about you thats dangerous. A way you have with words, with people - people like her." She pointed rudely at me. "You could steal my peoples hearts right out from under me."
"You dont have your peoples hearts," I said.
That earned us a moments silence. "I know." She looked almost sad, for a moment.
"And where does that leave you?" Gabrielle looked on the woman with something like pity in her eyes.
"Alone," the Conqueror replied, sorrow threading the words.
"Youve been alone for a long time now. You just didnt realise it, Xena." The Conqueror started, surprised. "Is it so unusual to hear your name?"
"Nobody has called me by my name for a long time. Not since my mother died."
Gabrielle reached out cautious fingers, and touched the tall woman on her shoulders. "I cant imagine what that must be like, to lose your identity like that," she said, gently.
"I am the Conqueror!" Xena glanced down at the fingers which were moving in barely perceptible circles on her shoulders.
"Thats what I mean," continued Gabrielle, letting the warmth of her flesh soak into the delicate silk which covered firm muscle. "You are the Conqueror, but youre Xena too. A woman, just like any other...dont you need the same things we all do?"
"I have everything I need. I can snap my fingers and get anything. Jewellery, servants, clothes, armies. Anything I want." She seemed half mesmerised by the low, soft voice and the rhythmic massaging, as Gabrielles fingers surreptitiously started to knead her muscles.
"What about friends? Love? Someone to talk to, laugh with? Dont you need that? I know I do."
A flicker of hesitation crossed those blue eyes like a cloud moving across the sky; they closed and her cheek lowered to brush against Gabrielles fingers. A slight smile crossed her lips. "I have friends," she replied. "In the palace."
"Are you sure theyre friends, Xena?" Gabrielle continued, her voice like a lullaby. "Theyre carrion, waiting to pick over the carcass. They wont be there when you need them, Xena."
Xena continued to nuzzle Gabrielles fingers as she replied, "And friends should always be there when you need them, right?"
"Yeah. Real friends should stick by each other."
"I havent had a real friend for a long time now." Eyes still closed, Xena rubbed her cheek against Gabrielles hand. "Guess I dont know what Ive been missing." She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly before continuing, "I do know one thing though." Azure eyes flew open, and stared deeply into green ones.
Gabrielle smiled. "Whats that, Xena?"
"Im not starting now. Nice try, Gabrielle." She hitched her shoulder, and I saw Gabrielles hand jerk, and then tighten its grip on her shoulder as a small gasp escaped her open lips. It was then that I saw the small trickle of blood start to slide down her chin. "Youre very good, Gabrielle. You almost had me believing I could have love. Thats when I knew I had to kill you - if you could get me believing that, what would you do to other people?"
She held onto the girl as she dropped slowly to her shattered knees, then pulled the short blade out of her stomach, leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. "Goodbye, Gabrielle. I think you wouldve made a good friend. But, I wouldnt. In a way, its a pity we didnt meet years ago - we mightve been good for each other then. But you see - I am who I am, and cant be changed now."
"Get away from her! You leave her alone!" Amazingly enough, I elbowed her aside, but I didnt care about her, or my own cowardice any more. What was the point in being terrified? I knew I was going to die, but I couldnt see Gabrielle die, alone in the dirt. I scooped her up into my arms, and gave her a watery smile when she looked at me. She even managed a weak smile back. "I..." She shook her head, and just smiled again. "Thank you for everything," was the only thing I could think of to say to her, as her life poured out onto the dusty earth.
"No," she managed, faintly. "Im sorry..."
"Dont be." I hugged her gently, with my heart in my eyes. "I would rather die on my terms, than live on hers. At least now Ill die with a free heart and that means so much. Thanks to you." I kissed her forehead, and rocked her and sang to her like she was my Dimitrios, until she slipped away. She was my friend, and I stuck by her right to the end.
I cried no tears for her that day - I saved them all for Timeron, and Dimitrios. But I have cried for her since. She was so young, and so special. Even the Conqueror mustve felt it - thats why she hunted her down. I could see the fear flickering behind those iron-hard eyes all through their meeting. Gabrielle never stood a chance really, but that never stopped her from trying and thats what I loved most about her.
I dont know what they did with Gabrielle afterwards. The Conqueror tells me things, but I can see in her eyes that shes lying, and I can see how she hates herself for it. Such a strange woman - a mixture of cruelty, hunger, desperation, need and loss. But I know even she wouldnt do half the things she says were done to Gabrielles body - what would be the point? To the world, Gabrielle died over a month ago, strapped to a cross in the centre of Corinth.
But at least I know what they did with Timeron. They sent him to his brother, and he was buried in the flower meadow where we met, at the spot where we first kissed and later made love. It was lying there, amidst the daisies and columbines, that he asked me to marry him. I really dont know why the Conqueror allowed that. She even let me visit his grave, once.
I still dont know whats happened to our baby. They wont tell me where he is, or how he is. The prison guards say things - awful things, but Xena tells me he is still alive.
Funny how it all comes out, isnt it? I am to be crucified tomorrow in the town square. The charge is sedition, just like Gabrielle. Apparently, I am an inspiration to some people. Since my trial, I have a following, and it worries the Conqueror. I am to have my legs broken, and will be nailed to a cross until my arms and shoulders break from the strain, and my lungs burst from the pressure exerted by my collapsing upper body.
And do you know? Im not afraid.
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