The Conqueror's Harvest
Dagnine stood by the door to the Mess and tried to adopt a cavalier air. He took a deep breath of satisfaction at the way things were progressing. Although most of Xena’s elite guard had been either killed or imprisoned, most of the kitchen staff and slaves had been successfully coerced back to work. ‘Funny how an amputation or two changed a person’s priorities,’ he chuckled.
The group of soldiers at the table continued their conversation, ignoring him openly. Quickly removing his dagger, Dagnine threw it forcefully into the middle of the table, scattering men and bottles in a howl of protest. His grin faltered however as the knife wobbled and then fell uselessly on its side.
One of the Romans coughed in an effort to hide his contempt.
“Yes, Lord Dagnine?”
Dagnine puffed himself up as each man looked in his direction.
“Have you heard from Caesar yet? There are things I have to discuss with him: disposal of land holdings, the treasury, and of course my coronation.” He rubbed his hands gleefully. “I would imagine he’ll be at the border soon?”
The first Roman spoke up. “Great Caesar will march on Corinth when he’s finished with his business to the east. As for any changes, political or otherwise, he’ll be sending a Tribune who should be here in the morning. He will be Caesar’s representative, a man you will defer to, of course.”
Dagnine chewed the inside of his cheek. He didn’t like the idea of giving up all his newfound power, and certainly not to a bloody Roman. As much as he needed them and the force they represented, he had little time or respect for them as a people.
He nodded slowly and then turned on his heel, his mind filled with things he had better get to before the Roman arrived. Perhaps a moment with Mica could help find a way to gain access to the treasury? He scowled as he remembered the Roman’s guarding the Keep. Perhaps a few well placed arrows?
“We should be wary of such a man, Maximus. I don’t trust him.”
The tallest of the Roman’s nodded. “Good thing you don’t Gaius; his type should never be discounted. That look we’ve seen on his face should remind you of something.”
Gaius ran a long finger down the bridge of his nose. “Yes, like a cornered rat.”
The figure clothed in black removed his gloves and hood, sighing in appreciation as the cool air flickered over his graying hair. Bowing deeply, he approached a seated figure in deep meditation. He waited patiently until a well-shaped hand appeared out of a silken fold and motioned him forward.
“It is as you feared, mistress. Dagnine hopes to have an open trial and execution, placing himself in front of the people as judge, jury and executioner. The Romans will brook no disobedience and I fear their combined force will be infinitely more evil than Lord Xena ever could be.”
The majestic Oriental never faltered as she moved with fluid grace nodded, and then turned at the man’s words.
“Thank you, Quan Su. It was inevitable that Xena should fall to an enemy she has underestimated. The Conqueror has become too powerful far too quickly and has forgotten a very important thing: total power corrupts totally.”
The aged Oriental nodded sagely, having been privy to his mistress’ move to take total control from her ailing yet power hungry husband. He closed his eyes in anguish as he thought of his homeland lying in waste beneath the relentless tyranny of Lao Tsu. The just and caring Lao Ma would be a great Empress, and one who would not have to command obedience and fealty.
He took a moment to feast on the compassionate yet resolute demeanor the woman projected and sighed in pleasure as his own aura came back into balance. “Will you send your army now, Empress?”
The proud stature of the woman seemed to falter somewhat and Lao Ma moved to take her place on a nearby divan.
“I knew when I’d first met Xena that she was destined for greatness; her potential was overwhelming. Her destiny was prophesized years before we’d even met.” She moved forward, picked up a small porcelain cup, and nodded her thanks as Quan Su carefully filled it with jasmine tea.
Forcing dark images from her mind, Lao Ma brushed her lips gently against the fine china and then sipped daintily.
“While I must play my part in her destiny, I must be very careful not to alter it. She must walk her own path, my friend.”
The old man sighed wearily. “As must we all, Empress.”
Lao Ma tasted the title on her lips, much as she had the fine tea, and found both a little bitter.
At that moment she felt like nothing more than a mere chess piece. It was as if they were all just pawns being moved from place to place…to suit…what? Or whom?
Lao Ma knew that Dagnine would ally with Caesar. That particular play had been gaining momentum for years. Had Xena been totally ignorant of his gathering forces or was she just waiting for Caesar to make the first move? From everything she knew of the Conqueror, she suspected it was the latter as opposed to the former. It was a moot point at this stage of the game; the wild card had been played and now she was at the mercy of both Dagnine and Julius Caesar. However, by gathering a large army and coming to Greece, she was telling the world that Lord Xena had powerful friends. Caesar would be outflanked because he could never hope to take on Chin; there was something to be said for an endless supply of manpower. It was a war the Roman had to know he couldn’t win. His destiny lay in another direction but one Lao Ma knew would transect Xena’s once more.
The enamel of her teeth moved smoothly over the fine porcelain cup again as she drank the bitter brew. A single tear fell into the tea and Lao Ma hugged herself. ‘Who can withstand the raging waters? Be not as the cup, Xena, but as the contents itself.’
The chains bit painfully into her wrists as Xena tried to dislodge the leather gag. Her struggling ceased when footsteps could be heard and she feigned a look of total boredom. She could feel the guard’s eyes roaming over her naked body and snorted. Meant to demoralize her, chaining her to the wall naked was nothing more than a small inconvenience; it was drafty, after all. ‘Men are so easy.’ She already had a plan in mind whereby this guard, or another, would be tempted to partake of her beauty before…
‘Crucifixion.’ Having meted out that particular judgment on more than one occasion the Lord was well versed in all that it entailed. She wondered briefly if her limbs would be impaled against the wood or merely tied there. Her toes wiggled in sympathy and Xena cursed her overly vivid imagination. Snapping back to the task at hand, she fixed both guards with a cold stare and tried hard not to look overly curious at the bundle they had between them.
“Hey, Xena! I hear this little slave of yours is great in bed, even if she is a cripple!” He laughed and poked the other guard playfully.
The warrior’s heart lurched as his words hit home. Could it be Gabrielle…or what was left of her? They’d been separated earlier and Xena worried the young woman wouldn’t be able to face what she herself knew was common practice: the conquests of war were often raped and brutalized for days, leaving those who survived beyond caring. ‘But they think she’s a witch…that’ll delay things until…’ Her jaw tightened. She had to escape. Perhaps Andros had gotten away?
The men moved a little closer to the bar and Xena wondered if she could just convince one of them to open the door…
“Yeah, Conqueror…all these years you’ve been lording it over us soldiers and all the while you were just the same as us!” He, too, laughed and then jangled the keys in her direction.
“Well, this might be the last time someone opens this door without pain being involved, Xena.” He and his comrade pulled the small and all but lifeless form of the bard into the cell and then dropped her like a sack of root vegetables. One of the men pushed the bundle with the toe of his boot and grunted.
Xena’s words were muffled as she tried to speak through the leather. “Pick on me, boys.” But they paid her no heed, not even casting a glance her way as she rattled her manacles.
“Listen here, did they already have fun with this one upstairs? She looks half dead. I was promised a go at this one, witch or no witch.” The other man leaned over and poked the still form.
“Me, too. Say, she’s still a bit warm.” Looking furtively around him, he smiled and began unhitching his trousers. “Well, I’m gonna have a go before she gets too cold.”
Xena’s struggles began anew as the scene played out before her. Squeezing her eyes tightly against her growing anguish, she roared.
“Hehe…look, the great Lord Xena’s bawling for the likes of a filthy slave! That’ll be a grand story to tell me bar mates. It might even earn me a free drink or three, as well.”
An iron door slammed against the stone in the upper stairwell and both men quickly exited the cell, adjusting their clothing as they went. Keeping their eyes averted, both bowed quickly and then left Thracis with the prisoners.
“Oh, how the mighty have fallen, eh Xena?” He fingered his shoulder and then entered the cell.
“I’ve got a score to settle with you.” He leered at the chained woman and then inspected her healing wound. Xena’s biceps bunched as he dragged the tip of his nose across her chest and then snagged the nipple ring in his teeth. “Do I smell fear?” He chuckled a little and then watched the minute flinch appear at the corner of the warrior’s lips when he pulled hard. Grinning with satisfaction, he turned his attention back to the wound.
“One must know exactly where their opponent’s weaknesses are, Xena. And as you can see, you’ve taught me well.”
With a grunt of satisfaction, he donned his gloves, flexed his fingers and then began raining blow after blow on the Conqueror’s mid section.
Xena grunted with every strike, her head filled with bright stars as she fought to draw breath between the blows. Determined not to let the man get the better of her, she managed to take hold of the leather gag with her teeth and held on for dear life. Finally, as the sweat poured off the man, he stood back, smiled at her and then left.
The first breath taken was slow and painful, but each succeeding one seemed a little easier to take.
“Yes, always press the advantage,” she spat out. It was a lesson she knew well and one she would employ…soon. Finally, Xena opened her eyes and looked at the pitiful pile on the floor. While having had her fill of gods, she nevertheless prayed to any who were listening that the bard still lived. Her heart wrenched a little as she thought of a future without the woman. Groaning with effort, she gave the leather a final snap with her teeth and then spat out one severed end. Shaking her head furiously caused the remains of the gag to fall to the floor and she moved her jaw gratefully. Her eyes roamed over the bundle and then she looked away quickly.
“Gods.” Xena flinched with pain as she moved her torso this way and that. ‘Damned wound.” She arched her head forward and saw that it had begun to seep again. Another movement in the opposite direction had her clenching her teeth in agony. ‘Must have broken a rib.’ Laying her head back with a thump, Xena felt a wave of depression roll over her. Pulling at her chains once more, she sighed and then closed her eyes. ‘Well, they’ll come for me soon enough.’
She eyed the bundle a little closer and felt such pain. ‘It wasn’t supposed to be like this!’ Xena cracked the back of her head against the wall and growled. The Conqueror pulled hard on her chains, the thoughts of exactly what had befallen the bard racing like wildfire through her head.
Then she jumped and her eyes flew open as a warm hand encircled her ankle.
“Xena?” whispered the bard.
The Conqueror looked up and down the hall of cells, noting which were filled and which were empty. She didn’t see either Polis or Andros in any of them and for that she was glad. Perhaps there was still a chance…
Pulling her thoughts away from that line of thinking, she focused her attention on the guards. “Quiet” she whispered. “There aren’t any guards around right now, Gabrielle, but that might change. Best you stay on the floor and pretend to be…”
“They know I’m not dead, Xena. At least the guards upstairs do. And that man with the horrible scar, he said they were going to…” She swallowed. “They’ll burn me at the stake soon…perhaps tomorrow.”
Xena’s lips were pulled into a tight line and she yanked at the shackles once more. “Damn me for being so foolish!”
Gabrielle slowly dragged herself into the corner, grabbed the tattered remains of a blanket, and began tearing it into pieces. Sighing in relief, she wound the cloth around both legs and then began to get to her feet.
Xena could read the pain in the woman’s eyes and pulled at her chains. “I’m sorry, Gabrielle…I thought it was Ubris…I should have known.”
Gabrielle released the breath she’d been holding and moved towards the warrior. Pressing her heated face against Xena’s belly, she used both hands to secure the last bit of blanket around the woman’s midriff and then hugged her closely.
Xena smiled at the attempt to preserve her modesty.
“You really don’t have to go to the bother, Gabrielle. I’ve never been a modest woman.”
Gabrielle’s chin quivered as she thought of the men leering at the Conqueror. And when that man had dared to touch her in such a fashion, the bard had found herself sorely tempted to act…even if that meant she’d suffer a beating. Without even trying, she could feel the strong calloused yet so very tender hands moving over her body.
She wiped a shaky hand over her damp face and clutched the woman to her. Although her spirit was still high, Gabrielle had known that any show of defiance on her part would result in harsh punishment. So, when the men had begun to push her about, causing her to fall, slapping her face and leering at her nudity, she had simply pretended to pass out and hope they’d leave her alone. The fact that someone had dropped a shift onto her and left her alone for a short period still confused her. Gabrielle was certain now that it had been the man who had just left that had given her the shift.
Her hand became sticky and the bard exclaimed in surprise. “Oh, Xena! Your wound is bleeding…and the bruises…”
Xena nodded and pulled on the restraints once more. “Yes, we’ll have to do something about that, and soon. From what Dagnine said, I’m to suffer a humiliating defeat before being crucified tomorrow. Thracis was here to make certain it would be so.”
The bard began to cry.
“Oh Gabrielle.” Laying her chin on the bard’s mussed hair, the warrior snorted and then began to laugh.
“I see nothing funny in our situation, nothing whatsoever!”
Xena tilted her head back and continued to chortle. “Well, this isn’t exactly the way I pictured our first time would be. Though I suppose chains were involved, as was the nudity, but I believe it was you against the wall, and not me.” She grinned down at the blonde. “It really is quite funny, Gabrielle. Think of it: after all the measures I’d used to coerce you, all the time consuming scenes of seduction, the word play, the debates…think of all the time we could have had together? And now…now that we’ve finally done the deed we both end up looking certain death in the face. Yes, I should think that worthy of a chuckle or two.”
The bard reached up and stroked the warrior’s chin. “But our time together was perfect, Xena. I wouldn’t have changed a thing, not one thing.”
The warrior sighed and then kissed the woman’s fingers. “How’re the legs? They must be pounding right about now. I did give you a double dose, so you might not be suffering the full extents of your injuries yet. That’ll come in a few hours, I should think.”
Gabrielle shuddered as she thought of how much worse the pain would get; it was already bad enough because her splints had been ripped off and she’d had to refasten them herself.
“Xena? If I stand back, can you tell me if I’ve got the braces on correctly?”
Xena could see the pain the woman was enduring as she staggered back and would have given anything to just pick her up and soothe it all away.
“Oh, Gabrielle.” It seemed so damned hopeless.
Gabrielle’s smile faltered and she stumbled forward, back into the warrior’s clumsy embrace.
“It’s not so bad, Xena. Really.” She didn’t really want to think about it but the fact of the matter was that neither one of them would be suffering their discomfort for much longer.
Xena felt the woman shudder against her and began to strengthen her resolve. They had to get out, that’s all there was to it.
Dagnine smiled as the Roman Tribune continued giving his report from Caesar, nodding in the right spots, looking sage in others, and all but died of boredom. At least part of the morning hadn’t been a total waste; Thracis had regaled him with reports on just how he’d softened the Conqueror up, ensuring that she wouldn’t be in any shape to complete the gauntlet let alone survive it. He rubbed his hands with glee. Now, if only he could get this windbag to finish up so he could go and visit Lord Xena, Conqueror of Corinth himself…bah.
He was already in a bad mood, having been counseled by Mica that burning a witch might be more harmful than good. The more he thought about it the more resigned he was to simply selling her to slavers, and be done with it. How could a witch hold him responsible if she were well out of his hands? Silence filled the room momentarily, and he sighed in relief.
Snapping his mouth closed once more, Dagnine grumbled beneath his breath, having lost yet another opportunity to be removed from further proceedings. He smiled weakly as the Tribune fixed him with a scornful glare.
Heads turned immediately as two Centurions entered the planning room.
“News, sire. Enemy troops are moving toward the eastern border. They’ve made camp a day’s travel away and are heavily armed, Tribune. Word has it that the troops number in the thousands and machines of war have been spotted.” The soldier nodded his head finally and waited.
“Caesar must know of this latest development. Have you sent word?” The soldier nodded as expected.
“Very well.” He looked to Dagnine.
“Who knows of the insurrection?”
Pressing his fingers thoughtfully under his chin, Dagnine pursed his lips and tried to look omnipotent. It was about time someone had noticed his importance in this matter.
“Hmmm. Well,” he drawled.
The Roman nobleman stepped closer and put both hands on his hips. “Well, indeed.”
The traitorous Lieutenant blinked a few times and then cleared his throat.
“Ahem…I don’t believe anyone knows…Tribune. The castle and Keep were taken in perfect synchronicity and although two officers are unaccounted for…”
He squeaked shrilly as his throat was seized.
“What? Why wasn’t I made aware of this?”
Dagnine tried to pull the man’s hand from his throat but found his efforts useless.
“Who’s second in command to this…moron?”
Thracis gulped loudly and then stepped forward.
“I am, sire. After taking stock of the men and officers captured, it was noted that both the Captain of the Guard and Lord Xena’s first Lieutenant were missing. We can’t be sure, but it’s possible that one of them is wounded. They may have had outside help.”
The Tribune sucked a tooth ominously and gave Dagnine a sharp shake.
“It seems your usefulness to Caesar has come to an end. We Roman’s do not suffer idiots easily and you,” he squeezed a little harder and was rewarded by a gargling sound that was almost music to his ears. “You definitely qualify.”
Having been somewhat satisfied with the purpling of the man’s face, the nobleman released his grip and turned his attention back to business.
Dagnine fell in a heap, rubbing his throat and tried to draw breath. He motioned to Thracis but the Lieutenant was paying him no heed. It seemed his allegiance had shifted. He glared darkly at the traitor but gasped as the Tribune turned his steely blue gaze back on him.
“Lieutenant, you and your men have until sundown to leave this area. I would suggest you put things in order and do just that. As much as the great Caesar appreciates your part in things, neither he nor I can guaranty your safety much longer.”
And with a wave of his hand, the Roman dismissed him.
“There is war brewing, lads, and it comes from the east.”
Rubbing his throat gingerly, Dagnine hunched his shoulders against the dismissive looks from the Roman soldiers and left.
“It looks like our time together will have to be moved up, Xena.”
The small figure curled around her feet moved minutely and Xena tried again. “Gabrielle, wake up…someone’s coming.”
The bard murmured in protest until she was shoved roughly and then blinked in confusion.
Four guards appeared at the door to the cell and Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the Conqueror’s legs.
The Conqueror felt some of the strength seep out of her yet tried to maintain a stoic outlook. ‘They can’t win if I don’t let them.’ Her lower lip trembled as one man pulled the bard out of reach. Seeing the terror in the woman’s eyes pushed a little of the regret from Xena’s heart and she steadied her jaw. Why have regrets? Hadn’t she bemoaned the fact that there would be no one to mourn her death, and that she in turn had no one in her life that she felt love for? If she had to do it all over again, would her choices have been any different? In the short time the bard had been in her life, such lessons she had never known had been offered and finally taken, making every second of every moment together something precious indeed.
It amazed her at how clear things seemed now. It hadn’t been the living that was so hard it was that the dying was so easy. Although there was no way she could be there and help the bard when the time came, perhaps her action right now might pave the way to understanding? The bard was strong and she’d endured so much…this was just another test, one that she could face and win. A calm settled over her as her arms were trussed up tightly between her shoulder blades. After all, she and Death were old friends.
“Xena…don’t leave me!” Gabrielle scratched and clawed at the guard, screaming obscenities and looking every inch a wild cat. The warrior wanted to hold her, protect her, and die well for her. With all the misery she had caused this woman, it seemed the least she could do. Straightening up to her full height, Xena began to move forward, causing the guards to scramble after her. Just as she stood even with the door, she turned and winked at the bard.
The wail that arose in the blonde’s throat was cut off as she was backhanded and left in a heap. The clank of the jailer’s keys rang in her ears and Gabrielle pressed her hands over them and rolled into a tight ball in the dirt.
“Xena…” she crooned as her tears fell in a great flood of despair.
Keeping her gaze focused on her journey down the dingy corridor, the Conqueror couldn’t help but worry what fate awaited the bard. She flinched thinking about the poor woman trussed up against a pole amid lighted briars.
Every step had her doing a running inventory on the cuts and bruises she’d sustained while captured. A deep breath told her a rib was cracked and another was very bruised – an indication that it too could be damaged. A roll of her hip as she walked showed a slightly uneven gait, indicative of blood loss. Not too terribly significant yet and Xena knew it had more to do with pressure being applied by the bard rather than any restorative healing powers on her part. That particular attribute was hard to maintain; regular intense exercise, proper diet, and plenty of rest were not things she had indulged in for weeks.
Although the three guards accompanying her leered openly, they kept their crude remarks to a minimum and simply poked at her occasionally. Not that she gave them any cause; in fact, her steady pace had them slightly out of breath, something that made the warrior smile, if only to herself.
Two more guards stood at attention in front of the door at the end of the darkened hall and Xena braced herself. While it had been a few months since she’d been in that area of the dungeon, she had quickly surmised that her final stand against Dagnine would be held there.
She eased her shoulders back, relieving some of the pressure from her arms but it seemed to only aggravate her injuries. Cursing quietly, she wiggled her fingers and tried to hyperventilate during the last couple of yards before the doorway. Her fingers swelled with the coursing blood and the warrior hoped the circulation would return to her fingertips in a rapid fashion.
Both guards sneered as they pulled the torches down from the wall and lit the way before her. The large iron door creaked and groaned as it was pushed open. Xena steadied her stance and then braced herself for the ordeal she knew must come.
The cloaked figure watched the rise and fall of the bard’s chest, a hitching sob interrupting the tempo of the woman’s pain every so often. It hurt to see her in this fashion but he’d been told in no uncertain terms that each woman had to walk her own path. Quan Su tapped his chin thoughtfully and expelled a breath slowly through his hidden mouth.
‘The Empress did not say I was forbidden to aid these two while on their paths.’ His eyes crinkled in merriment as he removed a small packet, a wooden goblet and a hunk of cheese. Carefully laying them out on the crude bench, the man prepared the concoction in a swift manner, adding a bit of water from his corked flask until the mixture was thick and somewhat fragrant. Nodding once, he knelt quickly, placed two fingers behind the woman’s neck and then stabbed the points without hesitation. The sleeping woman groaned once and then rolled from her side to her back.
Moving rapidly he arranged Gabrielle’s splints and then ran his skilled fingers up and down the long bones of her lower legs. He sighed with relief and pressed both palms softly against the injuries, releasing his breath in a slow hiss. His breathing slowed and then calming himself both mentally and spiritually, the Oriental pushed his body forward through the metal bars and disappeared into the spreading darkness.
The slumbering bard felt an itch on her knee and absently scratched at it, rolling over in the process. The unsettled dust of the prison floor rose up causing her to sneeze, and at last she opened her eyes.
After taking a moment to focus on her surroundings the bard sat up, wondering exactly where she was. And then it all came back in a rush and a new crop of tears began to sprout from eyes circled in black and red.
Memories of her earlier experience with this very prison had the bard rubbing the gooseflesh from her arms. It seemed so long ago and yet she knew it wasn’t. A shudder passed through her frame and the bard wondered at just how far she’d come. Had she ever contemplated loving a person who seemed to embody malevolence and cruelty? Until she’d had those dreams…
Other than the very few times she’d overheard her father commenting on how life had improved during her reign, Gabrielle had to admit she hadn’t given Lord Xena a passing thought. Why then should she even dream of such a person? But now, now all she could do was dream of her. It was as if both dream and reality had finally made that connection, becoming exactly the person she needed in her life.
She fingered the red spot on her cheek and felt the fires of anger spark again. Why hadn’t Xena fought them off? It just made no sense to adapt some stupid stoic warrior act and just go meekly to her doom! And now she’d die, they both would, without seeing each other, touching each other, or speaking the thoughts that needed to be said. Gabrielle crossed her arms over her face and cried bitter tears.
As her sobs finally subsided, Gabrielle’s fingers scratched at the spot on her leg again and she wondered if the cell might be infested. With a wrinkle of her nose, she slowly got to her feet and then frowned. The dull pain that had been slowly eating at her confidence and strength had disappeared, leaving her feeling quite revitalized. Her eyes widened as a quick inspection of her legs indicated the splints had been repositioned and that the initial itch she’d felt was spreading, warming both her bones and the joints. She eyed the floor warily, wondering just how spotty she’d become from the mysterious bites. Then her eyes settled on the bench and she jumped at the food. Sniffing the cheese suspiciously, she licked the chunk and then began to eat ravenously. It was only after she’d licked each finger clean and searched her shift for crumbs that she spied the goblet. Feeling no ill effects from consuming the cheese, she put a finger to the mixture and then tasted it.
Drawing her head back with distaste, Gabrielle cringed.
“Ewww.” But one eyebrow lifted as she recognized the contents. It was the very same potion both the Conqueror and Ubris had been giving her the past few days. Her brow creased at the thickness of the mixture and she made a horrid face as the brew was consumed.
“Blah. Blick. Ewww…” she shuddered, her tongue perfectly happy to be on the outside of her mouth rather than suffer any further assault.
A pleasant heat began to spread from her belly outward, joining the heated effects rushing like a small wild fire over her legs. Gabrielle gasped once and then laid her head back against the bars. Who would help her and why?
This question nagged at her until Gabrielle remembered the shift and cringed. If that man Thracis expected something for his continued acts of kindness he was going to be sorely disappointed. No, she couldn’t expect help from any quarter other than her own. Taking the cold bars in her hands, Gabrielle shook them with all her might, and then stood listening.
Footfalls could be heard and the bard quickly adapted a weak and pained demeanor, unwilling to display her newfound strength. A burly guard jangled the keys at her and she shrank against the bars as he proceeded to open the cell door.
“Get up, slave.”
The bard swallowed as she got to her feet slowly. The guard grinned and took a step forward. Gabrielle put a hand to her mouth and closed her eyes in terror. She peeked through slitted eyes and was pleased at the man’s response to her ruse.
“That’s right, slave, you better be scared.” And then he laughed. “But anything I might do to you is nothing compared to what Dagnine’s got planned.” He chuckled and then grabbed the bard by the elbow.
Gabrielle bit her lip and then taking her bravery in both hands, turned to face the guard.
“Where are you taking me?” She flinched as the man raised his hand to her.
“Look you…you have no rights here, none. You do what we say, you live a little longer.”
Gabrielle’s pleading eyes caused the guard to scowl uncomfortably.
“Why do you care? You being a witch and all, you’ll be crisp tomorrow anyway.”
The bard nodded slowly and then cleared her throat.
“Having an idea of where I’m going might make me less frightened. And if I’m less frightened, why I might not feel provoked to anger.” She blinked at the man.
The guard scratched his chin and then stopped. Thoughts of a mad witch focusing her black magic on him gave him pause. Perhaps it would be best if he stopped yammering and got this witch into Dagnine’s care?
The grip on her arm loosened somewhat and he motioned her forward. “I’m taking you to see Dagnine.” He peered down the corridor. “See that door over there? That’s where he’s having a party. And I guess he wants you to be there.”
Gabrielle allowed herself to be pulled along, noticing just how different the guard was treating her once he was reminded of her skills as a witch. If there was one thing she’d learned throughout this whole ordeal it was that you used anything and everything in order to survive.
She bit her lips sharply and a smile threatened to blossom forth. She was going to see Xena!
The room was much as she remembered it; cold, dank and decidedly ominous looking in the half-light afforded by a few torches. The Conqueror was pushed from behind and stumbled in the dirt. Small rocks and dirt had been dragged in recently, augmenting the rather hardened surface of the dungeon floor. An eyebrow lifted as she thought of Dagnine going to all that trouble, just for her. The warrior gazed around the room and not seeing a friendly face readjusted her checks and balances. If she were to survive this ordeal then it would have to be an all out no holds barred battle to the death. Xena smiled at the thought.
Someone grabbed her hands from behind and then she felt the bonds slacken. Pulling her arms in opposite directions, Xena snapped the last of the rope and stood at the ready. A murmur went through the room and a few more torches were lighted. Although it did nothing to increase the temperature of the room, Xena knew she’d be sweating before long.
Flexing her hands quickly, she spied Dagnine and his toadies at the front dais and moved forward.
The closer she got to the group of men the more she realized exactly what she was up against. Although never having participated in a gauntlet, she was nevertheless somewhat knowledgeable about what was expected. Would they begin the contest by throwing her down the line or was she to be softened up first? Silence filled the room with only the occasional sizzling from the torches and Xena felt her nerves thrumming with anticipation.
The light afforded her a clearer view and she eyed the long line of men that stretched from one end of the room to the other. She moved instinctively and put both hands up as something caught in her peripheral vision.
“Put this on, Xena. Can’t have my men’s attention wander, now can I?”
Xena kept a wary eye on the crowd and stepped into the worn shift. Coming to her full height, she eyed what she assumed was the first contestant and then cracked her knuckles. The man grinned, and then someone threw him a club. Testing its weight on the palm of his hand he advanced on her slowly.
They circled each other, each sizing the other up as they tested strengths and weaknesses. Xena landed a telling blow to the man’s right knee and took great satisfaction as it snapped and the man went down. The room roared its displeasure and a few men pushed closely behind her, clubs in hand. Even as she turned, the warrior knew her chances of evading injury this early in the game were slim. Barely keeping her eyes open, Xena nevertheless saw stars as the blows rained down on her head and shoulders. Then the men stepped back leaving her to wipe ineffectually at the cuts that had been opened over her eyes. She smeared the blood from her hands across the front of her shift and then steadied herself for the next wave.
Gabrielle jumped as the door was slammed behind her. Another guard grabbed hold of her wrist and she was dragged forward, regardless of her injuries. She made each limp more pronounced and finally the man slowed to a more even pace. Keeping her eyes cast down, Gabrielle tried to ignore the rude leering soldiers. Her attention was caught as she passed the first pocket of men and she covered her face in horror as a large group of men began laughing and screaming as they pummeled something…or someone. It was as if she’d entered one of those traveling circuses; the howling, the fierce creatures, and the torment assaulted her senses, threatening to numb her with it’s intensity.
When she finally had a clear view of exactly what was happening, she screamed. Dagnine moved on the periphery of the crowd and pulled her up on the dais.
“Now you can really get a good look at the great and powerful Conqueror, slave. Don’t blink, mind; I don’t think you’ll have long before she’s the one conquered.” He chuckled and pulled the bard hard against him.
“I bet she can’t do what I can.” He mauled her breasts and as one knee gave out on the bard, he released her in disgust.
“Oh yes…a cripple.” Keeping one hand firmly gripped on her wrist, he turned his attention back to the contest.
A tall heavily muscled soldier nodded at the dais and grabbed up a spear.
“Let’s see how you do with me.” Xena wiped her eyes again and then slowly moved away from the man. The line formed up behind her again and she was pushed forward. Her eyes scanned the room and the adrenalin began pumping in earnest. The two rows of the gauntlet now consisted of men mobbed together indiscriminately and with nothing in the way of weapons she was definitely at a disadvantage.
One of the men nearby sported a dagger on his hip and Xena decided to even the odds. She lunged at it and threw it with unerring precision, leaving her opponent twitching as the weapon protruded from between his ribs. She looked to the next man, dismissing this one as he fell lifeless to the ground.
Dagnine scowled and pushed two other men forward.
“Gods, show her what kind of men you are, you fools! She’s just a mere woman!”
“I’m still more of a man than you’ll ever be, Dagnine.” She had time to turn briefly before the swarm of men was on her. Gritting her teeth against the rising pain, she tried her best to get in as many strikes as she could before she was numb and unconscious. It wasn’t long in coming.
Tears continued to fall as the bard wondered how much more she could take. It was killing her having to watch her lover being beaten to death.
“Please…can’t you just…”
“Kill her? Oh no, no, no…can’t do that, not after all the pain and suffering she’s put me through. We have a ways to go yet.” He smiled in satisfaction as a tangle of men set upon the unconscious warrior, sporadically raining blows upon her body.
“Enough!” One of the men pushed through the mob and doused the warrior with a bucket of water and the men waited, the scent of blood in the air.
Xena blinked deeply and slowly tried to rouse herself. She managed to prop herself up onto her elbows before a kick to the jaw sprawled her back into semi-consciousness. Blood dripped from her nose and one eye began to swell shut. Rolling over onto her belly, Xena pushed herself up and then got unsteadily to her feet. A few of the men stepped back as she squared her shoulders and looked them in the eye. The warrior seethed in her fury, pinning them where they stood. Some of them knew, even now, that she’d still be a force to reckon with if she had a weapon at hand. Most of them knew she didn’t need a weapon at all and were pleased they didn’t have to go against her in a contest of hand-to-hand combat.
Xena could see the bits of respect littered amongst the men and although there had been a time when she would have gladly fought shoulder to shoulder with them, that time was past and they were dead to her. To a few, her contempt was obvious and while some reacted in anger, there were others who had the temerity to display pity.
These were given the full force of her glare, leaving no man to wonder whether they’d reach old age were she to survive this.
The sea of mankind slowly parted as the warrior limped through them. One man grinned and doubled her over as he poked the blunt end of his spear into her solar plexus. Gasping a breath deeply in her lungs, Xena bit back a cry of pain as she felt the other rib break. Clutching her left arm against her side, she moved another couple of paces before someone else dropped her with a roundhouse right. A few more got in some kicks while she was down and Xena began to crawl on her belly in an effort to protect her ribs. She had just managed to regain her feet when everything turned black and she was face first in the dirt. A hot trickle of blood oozed from a gash at the back of her head and still she crawled forward.
Dagnine laughed dementedly as the cripple dropped to her knees and began to wail.
“Vengeance is indeed a dish eaten cold, Xena! And right now the feast is very much to my liking!”
Leaving the wailing blonde behind him, Dagnine moved in closer to get a better view.
“Yes!” he shouted as his former liege was dragged to her feet only to be punched hard in the face. The assailant howled his rage as additional punches were blocked and he was pushed back into the crowd. Xena growled in defiance. Two men took his place and Dagnine moved in closer still. His eyes sparkled as their combined blows brought the warrior to her knees.
Blinking through the blood and pain, Xena found the gauntlet line once more, and began crawling. The air whooshed out of her lungs as clubs rained down on her back and buttocks and she wondered if the end of the line was truly within eyesight or whether it was just wishful thinking. Her hands slipped in something and Xena looked down. A steady stream of blood was dripping from her gaping mouth and she could tell by her thready respiration that one or both of the ribs had punctured a lung. Blinking the darkness away, she tried to focus on something, anything to keep her moving. If she were to stop now, they’d be on her like a pack of wolves.
Dagnine watched the scene in slow motion as the warrior was kicked in the face and her head snapped to the side, spraying him with a crimson gush. He looked down at his hands as a pattern of blood and sweat dappled across them, a look of orgiastic glee twisting his features.
A few of the men turned their faces away in disgust as their comrades set upon the woman. While each of them had felt the iron grip of the Conqueror in one way or another, most of those who now hesitated knew the difference between fair combat and cold-blooded madness. With blank looks of horror on their faces, they shrank back into the crowd and then sat dejectedly in silence.
Xena fell beneath the blows again and each forward movement felt like death itself. Why go on, why not just get it over? Squeezing her eye shut, the warrior stopped, coughed out a mouthful of blood and then gritted her teeth. Her vision swam as a white image floated before her.
“Gabrielle?” she mumbled through red speckled lips. She blinked deeply, ignoring another ringing blow to the side of her head, and began to crawl towards the vision. Her breath began to falter and she was forced to stop again. Her legs and hips felt numb and she could barely feel the pain as open wounds sprouted beneath the clubs. Focusing on her forward momentum, Xena stared hard at the kneeling figure and began to move. If Gabrielle was still alive and that bastard Dagnine had brought her here to watch her die, she’d be damned to Hades if she would just roll over and do his bidding! She would not die like this…she had a choice; to die alone and forgotten in fallow fields, or fulfill her own destiny and reap a conqueror’s harvest.
Gabrielle cried out the woman’s name again and again, her fingers clawing at the air in an effort to will the woman on. “Oh, Xena…please.” The tears blubbered down her chin as she watched the warrior mouthing her name.
Sweat sprayed from the tendrils of her hair as Xena dropped her chin to her chest. While seeing the bard had helped strengthen her resolve, she wished that it would all end soon; she would have given anything not to see that same look of pity in Gabrielle’s eyes. If she had to die, and it was no longer a remote possibility, she wanted the bard to remember her as the strong virile person she was. ‘Not like this. Let me be spared this final indignity.’ Reaching out her hand, she stopped in surprise as it came down over a line in the dirt. Her mouth twitched and she coughed up another mouthful of blood and dirt. She’d made it! Xena didn’t know how but she’d survived the gauntlet. It took everything the Conqueror had but she pushed herself onto her knees and then tottered slowly to her feet. The men stepped back, a look of horror on their faces. Placing both hands on her knees, Xena tried to drag a decent breath through her damaged lips into her equally damaged body. Motes of brightness flitted back and forth and the room yawned dangerously but Xena held on, a determined set to her features.
“No one has ever survived the gauntlet! Never!” Dagnine ranted and raved as he paced in front of the broken body that was the Conqueror.
“I can’t let you live. Don’t you see? No one walks away, Xena, no one. I’d become a laughingstock if the men actually saw you walking around…proof that you were better than me. No. I can’t let that happen.”
He roared again and then pulled a sword from his scabbard. “Look Xena…it’s your sword. I think it befitting that you reap what you’ve sown all these years.”
As he raised the sword high, Xena pushed herself fully erect and began to laugh weakly. ‘I thought it was pain and hate that I’d sown, fool; now because of her, I see that it hasn’t been at all.’
“Even if you kill me now, I’ll have won.”
“Argggh!” he screamed, stopping the arc of his stroke. His fists shook with rage as he looked into her smiling face. It couldn’t be…it wasn’t meant to end like this! With a roar he swung the hilt of the sword up and screamed in triumph as the Conqueror jaw cracked beneath his blow.
Xena pushed a bedraggled bit of hair from her face and then spat a mouthful of blood and a tooth at Dagnine’s feet. Ignoring her wounds, she got to her hands and knees again and began taunting the man.
“Then you’ll have to kill me yourself, won’t you?” she slurred heavily.
“And frankly, I don’t think you’re man enough to do it.”
She watched as the pitiful excuse for a man flinched.
“I am better than you, Dagnine. I’ll always be better than you, and one day, one day I’ll raise another army and hunt you down like the cur you are.”
Dagnine blanched as he thought of spending the next year or so afraid to sleep in fear of her return. No, it would be hard enough keeping the other warlords from his throat let alone worrying about this bitch. Better to end it now, once and for all. He reached for his dagger and approached the fallen woman.
“You’ll never know just how long I’ve wanted to do this, bitch.” His reflection was caught in the blade and he growled. “But first…I think your chances of using whatever good looks you have left to win your way out of this will be sorely reduced. Although Roman’s are little more than trained animals, I’d wager not one of them will give you a second glance once I’m finished with you.”
Gabrielle screamed as a hand gripped her shoulder and she was pulled to her feet. Her eyes widened as both Thracis and some foreign soldiers moved onto the dais beside her.
“What’s going on here? You,” the Tribune motioned to the Roman standing nearby. “Maximus, restrain that man, and do it now!”
Dagnine yelled and turned to face them. “I’ll have my vengeance, Roman!” And then he noticed who was standing with the officer and roared with anger. “Thracis, you traitor!” The bard screamed again and shrank back against the wall as a dagger sprouted from the throat of the man beside her. He clawed at his throat once and then sagged slowly to the floor.
“That’s enough! Now is not the time to deal with your petty grievances, Lieutenant,” roared the Roman. Gabrielle watched in horror as the confrontation continued, blinking rapidly when another dagger appeared in Dagnine’s hand. Eyeing the distance between her position and Xena’s, she started moving slowly in that direction.
The air was filled with evil chuckles and the crazed man began to weave a pattern with the blade. “Petty grievances, pretty grievances…”
The Tribune stepped closer and the disfigured man stabbed the air before him.
“You see, you can’t stop me, none of you can! First I’ll cut her up and then I’ll deal with you all!”
He turned his back on the advancing soldiers and Xena could see by the cast to his eyes that he had finally snapped. She held one bloodied hand up and smiled.
“Kill me then, Dagnine. Come and meet your destiny.” Gabrielle shook her head from side to side as she pushed both legs to function and move her closer to the warrior.
Feeling for something within reach, Xena willed herself to go on. Her hands closed over the blunt ends of clubs and she gritted her teeth with frustration. Then her blurred vision was filled with the maniacal look of Dagnine as he crouched before her.
“You never saw me as anything, did you Xena? Well, now…” He moved the dagger into his left hand. “Now, perhaps you won’t be seeing anything ever again.” The blade switched hands again and Xena found her eyes following every movement as if hypnotized.
“Which one shall I do first?”
He sensed the Roman officer behind him and sneered. “You should stay out of this, Tribune. This is something that’s been a long time in coming. Why, Lord Xena might be terribly put out if you interfere, wouldn’t you?” He cackled and then jabbed the blade closer, enjoying the look that was now on the woman’s face.
The Roman held his hand up, halting the advancing guards and bellowed imperiously, “I’m ordering you to stop this right now! This prisoner belongs to Caesar, now step away!”
Dagnine sneered in contempt. “You have no power over me, Roman; I make my own destiny.”
Xena’s breath was quick and shallow as she took that moment of distraction to broaden her search area. She moaned in relief as the sharp end of a blade pierced her palm. Closing her hand around the weapon, she pulled it closer and waited.
With his head slightly cocked to the left and a persistent tick appearing at the corner of his mouth, Dagnine looked every inch the madman he was. “Did you say something, dear Xena? Was it perhaps a plea for mercy?” His eyes narrowed at the clank of the Roman’s armour.
“Oh, go away.” The Roman’s jaw dropped as the idiot refused to acknowledge his authority in this situation. His eyes darkened with rage and he slowly removed the dirk in his belt.
“So, Xena. Have you decided which one I should put out first? Oh come along; I’m giving you far more patience than you ever afforded me. Why, compared to you I’m an upstanding citizen.” Dagnine flicked the end of the blade and smiled as a drop of his blood slid down the edge. “Let’s not forget who the monster is here, shall we? A person only has to look at me, for instance. It wasn’t bad enough that you treated me like scum, publicly ridiculed me at all times, and disfigured me…you had to turn your back on my offer of love for…” He turned and spat in Gabrielle’s direction. “For a common crippled…!” The look on his face changed as Xena’s blade flashed forward.
Her lips twitched as she pushed the blade farther into his throat and his surprise was total and complete. He flailed at the blade and as bloodied and hurt as the warrior was, she lunged forward and sank her teeth deeply into the meaty part of Dagnine’s hand as he tried to dislodge it.
The Roman watched impassively and then pushed his own dagger into the fallen man’s neck, just below the skull. Both sets of blue eyes pinned the man where he laid gasping and gurgling, and both in one fashion or another, took pleasure in watching his eyes begin to cloud over in death.
Xena nodded in agreement and then moaned in pain as the traitor collapsed onto her legs. The Tribune kicked the body over to one side and then looked down into the Conqueror’s face.
“Caesar has told me so much about you. I find everything he’s said has been an understatement. My name is Metellus Cimber, Nobleman of Rome, and Tribune of the great Julius Caesar. You’d do well to remember it; your name will forever be linked with mine and I shall be known well to historians this day.”
The Tribune accepted the accolades from his second Lieutenant and smiled haughtily.
“Although I shall be remembered for stopping a megalomaniac from reducing her realm to ruination whereas you, Lord Xena, shall be a mere footnote in the annals of those who would oppose Caesar.”
Gabrielle made her way over to where the warrior was lying and tried to clean the worst of the blood from her face. Xena smiled and tried to touch Gabrielle’s cheek.
“Don’t move any more, Xena. Let me help you.”
The Roman nodded once and then gestured to two of his men. One picked up Dagnine’s body and dragged it unceremoniously from the room.
“There will be no further unsanctioned bloodshed. Although Caesar is pulling us back beyond your borders, Lord Xena, there are certain things that must be dealt with before hand.” A cruel smile spread over his face. “It seems he’s received your latest tribute.” He motioned Maximus forward and both men conferred for a moment. Xena felt her blood run cold as they turned to face her.
Gabrielle blinked, uncertain as to exactly what had been said. Surely not now…
She stammered protestations as she was pushed back away from the Conqueror and then two guards dragged Xena up between them.
“Caesar’s will be done, Lord Xena. It seems his reach far exceeds your own.”
“But sire…please…!” pleaded the bard.
Another guard came forward and took hold of the bard, putting himself between the woman and the prisoner. “And this one, sire? What shall we do with her?”
“She’s nothing to me; I don’t care what you do.” Then he turned and looked the blonde up and down. “You, girl: are you a slave or free?”
“I’m free, sire, but please…”
“Then take her away. Put her out just beyond the gates. After our business is completed, I want the castle and grounds completely razed, is that clear? And I don’t want to lose any more men defending this woman so be quick about it.” He hooked his finger under the young girl’s chin. “It is over, go home. Should you attempt to return to this place you will be killed.”
He gestured to the two guards. “The light is waning. Let’s get this done and be on our way; there’s no telling just how long it will be before the heathens are at our door.”
“Nooooo!” screamed Gabrielle as she was pulled from the room.
Xena struggled in vain as she was picked up and dragged out to meet her fate.