Aftermath: The Tree of Life
By XWP Fanatic
Xena and Gabrielle are copyright and owned by a lot of people other than myself. This work is written entirely for fun and because I had too much time on my hands.
Xena, warlords and ancient gods are rarely pacifists. If you are looking for a story where no injury of any kind is inflicted, this would not be it.
Xena and Gabrielle are mature (most of the time), consenting (all of the time) adults involved with one another in a romantic kind of way. If you dont like stories where our heroes are an item, you should find another story.
The action in this story takes place in the Armageddon Timeline introduced in HTLJ. This means there was no Hercules, so Xena has not reformed and she and Gabrielle arent friends yet.
COMMENTS, FEEDBACK, ETC.:
If you want to drop me a line, heres how: firstname.lastname@example.org
SPECIAL THANKS TO:
The best beta reader in the world. If you like the story, its because she made me write it better.
The Conqueror leaned back in her velvet cushioned throne half-listening to the reports of her regents from Macedonia, Thrace and Illyricum. Her head pounded from the sheer dullness of this task and from the bright light streaming in from the open windows. The incoming breeze did bring the scent of spring inside, reminding her of the seasons she had spent conquering Greece; conquering was the fun part, ruling was not.
" and, of course, Macedonia is loyal to your liege, prospering "
Xena stifled a yawn, she could predict each word out of their mouths. Of course they said everything was fine in the territories they had been granted. To not do so meant death. But that wasnt what was bothering her.
Frowning, she shifted on her throne, crossing one long leg over the other, enjoying the feel of the silk as it resettled against her body. The Royal Wardrobe Mistress had been instructed in the design of each garment, rendering them in the Oriental style the Conqueror preferred. This one was midnight blue, a shade darker than the Conqueror eyes, with billowing sleeves, tight waist, and flared split skirt. The Conquerors insignia, a sword piercing through a chakram, was detailed in gold over her heart.
The regents watched the dress resettle on her sleek form with undisguised lust. Each of them had harbored many thoughts of what it would be like to conquer this woman before them.
This was not lost on Xena, who rolled her eyes, wishing they were as focused on their territories as they were on her body. She flicked her right index finger at Orpheus, the regent of Thrace, "Tell me of Amphipolis."
The regent felt the beads of sweat form on his brow. Curse my luck for having the Conquerors hometown in my region. When assigned it, he had taken it as a sign of honor, expecting frequent visits and royal favor. That was now laughable for not once in her five year reign had she come to visit her former home. Not that she would be welcome gods, they hate her there, especially the innkeeper, who calls Xena her demon spawn. "It is well, Conqueror. The town thrives under the sea trade you established between it and Troy."
An eyebrow raised slightly, "No disturbances of the peace?"
"None, Conqueror." Orpheus resisted the urge to wipe his hand across his forehead, it would only draw attention to his lie. He knew it would not be prudent to mention the effigy of the Conqueror that had been burned outside the towns inn. "It is a quiet town, enjoying the prosperity of your reign. As does all of Thrace. As does all of Greece."
Xena sighed and drummed her fingers on the arm of her throne. Five springs ago she had established the three main settlements outside of Corinth to maintain order. The men she had chosen were not her first choice, but she had been persuaded to appoint them on the advice of Menticles ... her previous Royal Secretary who was now food for worms. She should have made alternate arrangements, appointed men from her army once her rule had stabilized. She ran a hand idly through her long hair, rearranging the locks absently as an idea came to her.
But I can fix the situation.
These three men had willingly followed her new reign, despite the wealth and honor shown them by their previous rulers. Once her stronger force arrived, they capitulated. Their one thought in life was to protect their own wealth and status.
That made them dangerous.
If they could accept her as a ruler, they would accept another as easily. They believed they owed her nothing. She needed regents who would be indebted to her. She had endured enough betrayal.
It became clear to her, as her eyes narrowed she saw the future clearly: Orpheus would ally with another who promised him a more exalted title. So would the other two, they were even greedier than he. None had her vision of a unified Greece. A Greece that could rule the world, with her at the helm.
These men were dangerous.
A smile played on her lips, the men did not know her well enough to note that it did not reach her eyes. "You have all served me well. And I wish to honor you for it." She snapped her fingers and gestured for the scribe who left his position against the wall and hurried over to her throne. "Write this down: The Conqueror will entertain the Regents of Greece at the next full moon. They and all the members of their families are invited to Corinth to enjoy the pleasure of the Conqueror and to be displayed to all Greece."
The three men thrilled with the prospect of such an honor.
"I cant believe it! Orpheus. Timmon. Titus. All on crosses. As well as their wives, children ... even the babies. I saw one not three summers old. And that witch stood there, keeping watch to make sure no one could rescue them." Arrols voice shook with anger, wishing he could have done something anything.
His eyes grew wild when he pictured the scene he was certain would inhabit his nightmares for years. There had been more than fifty crosses on the Corinth hillside that morning, placed there as Apollos chariot began its race across the sky.
He had been in the city on business when he heard the otherworldly noise that drew him to a hill outside the city gates. Others had heard it too, for there was a throng of people traveling with him. Once he was close enough, he heard it for it was the cries of anguish of the regents, their families and their household staff.
Recalling the scene, Arrol doubled over in pain.
A large crowd had assembled to watch the spectacle, a fact that scared the young merchant almost more than the executions themselves. This acceptance of the evil of the Conquerors reign was the core of Greeces problems. No one raised a voice in protest or a hand in aid. He imagined the crowd washing their hands of the blood of the victims, never noticing they were still stained red.
And the Conqueror
When he first saw the woman he hated above all others, she was sitting in the midst of the crosses. She had worn the battle dress he remember from her entrance into Corinth black leathers, black armor, black cape and the wind blew her hair and cape wildly about, making her appear more the specter that she already was.
The same wind had brought the cries of the dying to Arrols ears.
"That wasnt why she was there, Arrol," Gabrielle said softly, placing her hand on his back, soothing him.
He paused, his eyes still bright with anger over the latest atrocities in the realm. "No, why was it then?"
The gentle woman closed her eyes against her own memories of the cross, memories which coursed pain through still healing limbs despite the four moons time since her injuries, "No one would have been foolish enough to make a rescue attempt, and she knows it. She was there to make sure no one ended their suffering prematurely."
"What? How so?"
At his confused look, she explained, "There are men ... I believe kind-intentioned ... who go amongst the crosses and end the pain of those who ask. I saw several of them push spears into the hearts of the other condemned. I considered asking for it too ... but I was too close to the guards."
"Thank the gods for that!" Arrol dropped to his knees and gathered her small hands in his. He and a few others had bribed a guard, who thought the girl already dead, to take her down from the cross. They had brought her back to Arrols home, tended to her wounds, her broken legs, and now she lived despite the marks imprinted on her by the Conqueror.
"I know, one must never give up hope. It is all that keeps us alive." An ironic smile at her next words, "That and the favor of the Conqueror."
"Youve been listening to her propaganda again."
She shrugged her shoulders, "Not that I have a choice." Every midday the town paused for a message from the Conqueror delivered in the various quarters by her Royal Criers. Those caught not paying attention were subject to beatings or worse. "But it is always good to know the mind of our ruler. I wish I understood the reasons for the deaths of her regents. Was it displeasure? Or something else?"
An idea was forming about how to find out, based on yesterdays message, but she dared not disclose it to Arrol. He would only try to stop her.
He pushed himself to his feet and began franticly pacing, "Well, I know. Shes a witch, a crazed harpy, a gorgon..."
Gabrielle laughed, despite the seriousness of the situation. "Gorgon? Every child knows that they have wings."
He scowled, not wanting to be put into a good mood, but instead was caught up in her mist green eyes. His heart had been hers since they had first met when she arrived in Corinth. She had always served as a balm on any of his wounds, physical or emotional. "Who knows what she hides under that cape?" he muttered, in a half-hearted effort to stay angry.
"It is a good thing you are a merchant and not a bard, Arrol. Youd be getting the stories all wrong." She could tell that her distraction was working as his paces slowed and he met her eyes, "Come, sit down, and Ill tell you about the gorgons, and the truth about how to recognize them." Reluctantly he took his place beside her, leaning a bit against her, inhaling the rainwater scent of her hair. "As you know, the world is cursed with three gorgons and two of them are immortal. The third ..."
First time visitors were always in awe of the Great Room. Set behind a stone entry room, the two enormous doors opened to what could have been an enclosed meadow, without the grass and trees. Over half a furlong in length and two chains wide, the room was large enough to host jousting contests. There were four entrances to the room: the Main, located in the center of the east end, which opened to the entry room; the Horsemans entrance set in the northern wall near the west end, which was a carved archway to allow the jousters on horseback to enter; the Petit Room entrance set cattycorner from the Horsemans entrance which led to a smaller room used for private consultations with the Conqueror; and the Conquerors entrance, opposite the Main, always heavily guarded, which led to private quarters.
The room was shaped as a rectangle except for the outcropping in the middle of the north wall there the Conquerors throne was set back to conceal the ruler from any ill-advised missile attacks which might take place. The outcropping was built of solid stone, while the rest of the south wall alternated between stone sections and windows which stretched the height of the room, and provided much of the light for its activities.
The rest of the walls were covered with brightly colored silk and wool tapestries, all of them gifts from the Emperor of Chin. The floor was wood, large planks inlaid over stone, scarred by the passage of time, feet and hooves. At this moment, the room smelled of sweat and the only sound was that of heavy breathing.
Two figures slowly circled one another in the center of the Great Room, swords drawn. As was Xenas custom, Palaemon, the Captain of the Royal Guard, joined her for a sparring match every afternoon. She never wanted him or any others to forget that she ruled because she had earned the right. Various court officials stood silent around the edges of the room watching and waiting for the days events to continue. No one dared to leave during the match since showing any disrespect was not tolerated.
The Conqueror swung her sword in a lazy circle around her, "Come on, Palaemon, show me what new moves you have."
Palaemon swallowed hard, disliking the smile she had just flashed him; her smiles during combat were primitive and wild, and spoke only of danger. The last time she had looked at him in such a way, she gave him the scar which ran from the center of his forehead, across the bridge of his nose and down his left cheek. It was a memory he did not wish to relive.
Getting no response she stopped moving altogether, dropped the point of her weapon, and swayed her hips suggestively, "You show me yours, Ill show you mine."
He knew better than to respond with a flirtatious comment of his own. The last man who did had been disemboweled. Enough fooling around; never let her get bored with you. And shes almost at that point, her eyes are half closed with sleep as it is. With a cry, he lunged, driving his sword at her chest.
It was deflected easily. "You can do better than that." Xena bared her teeth at him savagely.
He nodded and tried again. This time he feinted to the right, followed by a quick spin and lunge to the left.
The Conqueror swatted Palaemons sword as if it was an insect. This time her eyes narrowed, "Palaemon, were you out drinking with the other soldiers last night? I dont tolerate that behavior in the Captain of the Royal Guard. Surely, you know that." She shook her head imperceptibly.
"No, of course not, Conqueror." But the protest seemed half-hearted when accompanied by his next predictable series of moves which never even came close to hitting his mark. Now angered, Xena launched her own attack, ready to teach him a lesson. She found her sword being blocked, time and again. She laughed, realizing his deception, proud of him. "Tried to trick me? Make me overconfident?"
"It ... never ... hurts ... to try to get ... some small ... advantage." Palaemon panted, while pressing an offensive series of moves. Pleasantly surprised, he found himself able to drive her back toward the south wall. Perhaps his strategy had worked. He redoubled his efforts, using every ounce of skill he possessed. Jab, thrust, parry, lunge, spin, thrust.
The Conqueror glanced over her shoulder and saw the approaching wall. With a few quick steps she placed additional distance between herself and her Captain. As she had hoped, Palaemon interpreted her movements as fear and rushed toward her. Yelling her battle cry, she launched herself at the wall, running up it, using the momentum to spring back over his head. She landed neatly behind him, tapped his shoulder playfully and placed her sword at his throat. Palaemon dropped his sword in surrender.
"Women are always most dangerous when they appear to retreat, Palaemon. Never forget that." She whispered into his ear.
The warmth of her breath sent skitters down his spine. Despite his position, Palaemon smiled. "Another lesson learned at your hand, Conqueror." He would love other, more private, lessons but he was wise enough to know that to ask would shorten his life.
Xena lowered her weapon and stepped away. She walked toward the extended towel from her personal servant. Casually, she wiped the light sheen of sweat off her brow and the nape of her neck. "What is our business today, Nestor? What new things to distract me?" With the grace of a feline, Xena sat upon her throne.
Nestor, the Royal Secretary, a tall, thin man who resembled a scarecrow, complete with corn colored and textured hair, consulted his scroll. "The Contest of Truth, my liege." His voice was nasal and always sounded as if someone had pinched his nose while he spoke.
With her left hand, Xena swept through her long hair, brushing it back roughly into place. "Ahh I had almost forgotten about that." Actually, she had forgotten. She still wasnt sure why she announced the contest yesterday, only that it had seemed like a clever idea at the time. "Announce the rules for the contest, Nestor."
The man peered over the length of his nose, which - in truth - did appear quite pinched, and read from the parchment, "Each contestant shall give a definition for truth. A panel of three philosophers will decide which definition is right ... and if you agree with their decision ... the winner will be rewarded as you see fit."
"And the losers?"
Nestor reviewed the scroll and noted that there was no provision for the losing contestants. "My liege, I await your command."
Xena pursed her lips in thought. "It seems to me that truth - if it exists - should not be free. Nor should the process of arriving at truth be free from ... pain. Dont all philosophers complain of the anguish they have suffered thinking their deep thoughts?" The Conqueror laughed, not pretending to hide her contempt for such men. Any able bodied man who did not choose the pleasures of war over all others was a waste of flesh in her opinion.
"They do, my liege." The Secretary waited anxiously to discover what penalty the losers would suffer. The Conqueror could be so ... creative ... at times.
"What is truth worth? A hand? A foot? A leg? A life?" A thought suddenly occurred to the ruler. "Nestor, that oracle who visited me last year and gave me the warning about the regents. Do you remember why he said he could see the truth of what would be?"
Nestor nodded slowly, a smile playing at the edges of his thin lips, "Yes, my liege, it was because he couldnt see the truth of what is."
That was the penalty, she realized, settling back into the comfort of her throne. "That then shall be my gift to those who are unable to see the present truth: I will enable them to see the future truth." She snapped her fingers, "Let it be written, all who speak lies shall be blinded." As an aside she muttered, "Perhaps that will cut down the number of fools I must endure today."
Upon the Conquerors return from her bath and changing, Nestor ordered food to be brought to her and placed on the table at her side. Mitrus, her food taster, stepped forward to sample the meal of roasted quail, boiled vegetables and sweet while she watched.
The philosophers from Corinth Academy were brought forcibly by members of the Royal Guard and shoved indelicately into their seats at the Conquerors left hand. Flushed from the exertion of the forced march, the three men panted for breath.
Xena cocked her head and quickly Nestor was at her side awaiting instruction. "I dont want to see those ... men. I am already suffering from the glare off their pale skin and shiny heads." She waved a hand in front of her eyes as if to deflect the glare. "Move them."
"Yes, my liege." Nestor signaled to Palaemon, who signaled to the three guards who had just brought the men into the Great Room. Instantly, the guards placed rough hands on the philosophers and dragged them out of her peripheral vision.
Xena, the Conqueror of Greece, would be the arbiter of the essence of truth.
She liked that: Another line on her list of accomplishments. Yet the one title she wanted most, dreamed about endlessly, lusted after more than all others was still out of reach: Conqueror of Rome and Executioner of Caesar.
Caesar, the one man who had ever defeated her, who had used her in the way she had now used countless others. The man who had shattered her legs and nearly crushed her spirit. The man who now ruled Rome and its empire. The one who knew what her truest weakness was.
"One day, Caesar. I will divide you."
Xena had not realized she had spoken aloud. She scowled at the hovering Secretary and waved him away. Glancing at the still-living Mitrus, she took one of the sweet pastries beside her. She idly wondered why all food tasters resembled rats.
"Have the proclamation read and let us see if we have any who would dare to instruct the throne on what truth is."
Palaemon, who had been watching the unfolding scene with masked interest, seriously doubted that any would come forward. Yet the promise of a reward from the Conqueror is sure to be tempting to some. I wonder what she will give the winner. And will it be worth gambling his eyes? And having her know his name. Of course, every day I wager my life, betting that she will not grow tired of me. If I live long enough, I know I am fated for fame. I will be her foremost Captain of the Royal Guard. Perhaps I will have the honor of saving the Conqueror in a battle against the Romans. Or even bringing her Caesar in chains. Or slaying the last of those brutish, unnatural Centaurs. Gods, all Ive ever wanted to do sense I was strong enough to hold a mans sword was to be bloodied in battle beside hr. And maybe just once to see something for me in those eyes I look into every night in my dreams.
His attention was drawn back to the present when the first contestant strode confidently into the Great Room. Here is a future blind man. The man, not more than twenty summers old, approached the Conqueror with head held high and eyes that bore into her. He did not bow, kneel or even incline his head. Palaemon had seen dogs with that mad look in his eyes before they were put down.
Watching him approach, the Conqueror amused herself by trying to determine how she would take his eyes. By poker? By knife? By spoon? Bet that would make an interesting sound.
"I am Sitacles of Agara."
Xenas eyes narrowed and she sat forward on her throne, studying the man intently. Speaking before being spoken to. No prostration before the throne. His lack of etiquette and lack of fear in her presence was remarkable. "So what is truth?" she asked softly, appearing to disregard each of these slights.
The man spoke harshly, each word barked out like the mad dog Palaemon was sure he was. "Truth sits upon the lips of dying men. I heard it first from my brother, Telos, as he lay dying on your battlefield." Emboldened by his own voice, he shouted, "The truth is you are a curse on our land! The truth is you have destroyed all that made life worth living! The truth is you deserve to die!" With a quick movement, he produced a dagger from his sleeve and flung it at her heart.
Damn, damn, damn! Palaemon broke from his position near the Conqueror and lunged at the man. He was too late to block the throw, but did manage to knock it off course. With a grunt and a cracking of bones, he tackled Sitacles and held him down forcibly, his right forearm across Sitacles throat crushing the windpipe.
The Conqueror casually reached out and stopped the knife before it found residence in Mitrus body. The food taster looked at the tip of the blade a scant hairbreadths away from his throat and passed out. "Cant afford to lose you that way," she said to him as he fainted.
Silently, Xena rose from her throne, much like a great cat stalking its prey. She crouched over the prone man. "You defy me? You come to my Great Room and dare attack me? Oh yes, truth is on the lips of the dying." With that she plunged his dagger into his intestines, raking a long gash through his middle. The flesh tore easily and the blood flowed freely from the jagged wound. She watched dispassionately as he writhed in pain, his hands clutching at his stomach, trying to hold it in. "Tell me, Sitacles, are you dying?"
"You know I am." For some reason he found himself unable to deny her question, unable to tear his eyes away from her hypnotic ice blue stare.
"And am I?" She gestured with the bloody blade at the length of her body, undeniably strong and healthy. Even her garments had escaped injury not a speck of his blood defiled them.
A spasm wracked through his body, convulsing him, "No."
Xena put her lips by his ear, in a mockery of a lovers whisper, "Then you have failed. Your whole life has been a failure, hasnt it? You have failed the memory of your brother. A man who was better than you, wasnt he? Isnt that true? Arent you pathetic?"
The fighting spirit in Sitacles died, "Yes." And then his body followed.
Xena wiped the bloody blade on his shirt and dropped it to the floor. "Truth is on the lips of the dying."
Nestor moved forward to begin overseeing the clean up activities. This was a procedure he was well familiar with.
The Conqueror, once again seated on her throne, motioned for Palaemon to come to her side. "Have the guard who let that man in without searching for weapons beheaded."
"Yes, my liege." He hated to lose a member of his guard, but he would have hated losing his own life even more. Turning sharply on his heel he left to carry out the Conquerors orders.
As he walked out the main entryway, a pair of servant girls entered carrying buckets of water and special salts to clean the stained floor. Both girls appeared to weigh only slightly more than the burdens they carried. Kneeling down, they sprinkled the salt over the crimson and began scrubbing with the sea sponges. It took them several attempts before the cleaning was complete.
Xena noted with mild interest that all that was left of Sitracles was a small wet stain on her floor. Idiot.
Meanwhile, Nestor waved some pungent material under Mitrus nose. His eyes, which were very close together and dark brown, narrowed as he tried to focus on Nestor hovering over him. "Get up now, Mitrus, the worst is over."
Xena stamped her heel, and bent a finger toward her Royal Secretary. "Let the contest continue. I want to be through with this before nightfall."
"Yes, my liege. Let me see how many contestants remain." The Secretary walked swiftly towards the main entryway and disappeared for a few moments. When he re-entered there was a half-smile across his thin lips. "My liege, only two contestants remain."
Much better, Xena thought. "Bring in the next contestant."
A stout young man entered and moved quickly to the petitioners circle in front of the throne. There he knelt, resting his forehead against his knee, carefully lowering his eyes, and awaited her command.
Much better; knows his place. Now if he can only manage a civil tongue and an insightful word "Arise and answer." The face that greeted her was ruddy from many hours laboring in the sun and he had large hands, good for handling animals and tools. From the look of him, Xena assumed he was a farmer.
"Conqueror, the truth is not that which really is, but what every man persuades another to believe. A lie told often enough becomes the truth." He lowered his eyes once again, not forgetting that he had risked them for the opportunity to speak before her.
Yes, this one is good. He would recognize the lie that is now regarded as truth that Caesar cannot be defeated. Damn it, even my own army still believes it, is still afraid of Rome and its legions. But Rome will be mine for the taking. Soon. That is the truth, I swear by Lyceus grave.
Nestor sensed that the Conqueror was about to declare this young man the winner. Cautiously he approached and spoke softly to her. "Shall I admit the final contestant?"
Impatient to end this tedium, she flicked her hand. While she waited, she leaned over the cushioned armrest of her throne, and plucked a bunch of grapes. Long fingers nimbly removed one from the stem and tossed it into her open mouth. She bit down on it, enjoying the burst of flavor and the texture of the pulp against her tongue.
Raising her eyes, Xena watched the progress of the small woman into the room. The woman wore a dark cloak made of a rough wool, with the hood drawn up over her head obscuring her features. In her right hand was a staff she leaned heavily upon as she walked. And she used it to pull herself back up to her feet after kneeling before the throne. Her countenance made her appear to be an old woman. When she heard the voice of a young woman, the Conqueror was surprised. "Conqueror, we know truth not by reason but by the heart."
The Conqueror rolled her eyes, another young woman full of romantic notions. Expelling a deep breath, she replied, in a silky, menacing tone, "You have failed to answer the question, what is truth, not how is it known."
Instead of being scared by Xenas reply, the woman stood a little straighter, causing the hood to slip back slightly, revealing a lock of reddish-blonde hair. "The truth is dangerous," she replied evenly.
Then I am truth, the Conqueror thought. "To whom? The one who speaks it? Because they might have their tongue cut out?"
Gabrielle decided to ignore the implied threat. Now is not the time to lose my nerve. She shook her head, partially to clear out the fear, "No, to the one who denies it."
Xena could see where this conversation was going and she felt a grudging respect rise for the woman. Not many would dare speak these words to her, tell her that she denied the truth, and thus forfeit their life. Intrigued, she decided to ask the question, "Is there a truth I am denying?"
Gabrielle swallowed hard as she considered her reply. The moment I came here I knew the prior sentence of death still stood. And this time, I dont think Arrol will be able to bribe a guard for my body. Finally, she found her voice and replied, "That you are afraid."
The Conqueror rose from her throne and stood on the platform, towering above her. "Of you?" Her voice dropped to its lowest register, where it was as much felt as heard. She heard the palace staff laugh at her question. No one would be afraid of this scrap of a girl before her. Apparently, the woman thought it was funny too. Xena heard her laugh as well and thought there was something familiar about that sound.
"Not of me. But of the truth that even you can still be afraid."
Lyceus. Her laugh sounds just like Lyceus did. She felt her knees weaken at the memory of her little brother. Drawing upon iron will formed by years of battle, Xena steadied her legs and her voice. "We shall see. So you speak truth?" A plan for forming in her mind to find some amusement out of this ordeal.
"I try to."
Xena approached the girl, and pulled back the hood covering her. Yes, this was the face of that insurrectionist she can condemned not too long ago. She had been very vocal at her trial. "Then you admit that I ordered you crucified less than five moons ago?"
Gabrielle gasped, she had not expected to have made that much of an impression on the Conqueror. Hasnt she sent hundreds to the cross before and after me? "I do."
Her fingers entwined themselves in the hair now spilling on the girls shoulder. "So you are as good as dead right now?"
Gabrielles head hung down, "I am." I was stupid to think that I could win this contest and get to speak to the Conqueror. Who am I to appeal to the ruler of all Greece?
The Conqueror grabbed her chin and forced her to make eye contact. For a moment the blue and green eyes held each other. Xena started to speak, then faltered momentarily, "Here is my judgment on you ... I will let you live as long as you always speak truth to me. And let us see if I am ever afraid." Her hand dropped from the girls chin, but their eyes stayed in contact. "But listen well, if I catch you in even one lie, one falsehood, one shading of fact, you will go back up on a cross and I promise it will be a more permanent arrangement." She motioned for Nestor. "Have her cleaned up and the healers see to her. Present her to me at dinner. Let us see how long our oracle of truth shall live."
"Yes, my liege." He took the startled Gabrielle by the arm and began to lead her to the palace household rooms. The sound of her staff hitting the wooden floor echoed throughout the chamber as they left.
Alive ... Gabrielle thought, surprised as everyone else in the room. Alive ... and able to speak her mind. As long as she never compromised, it would stay that way.
"You," Xena addressed the man who had won her contest, "Your reward is that you shall serve me as my orator. Let us see what truth you can have the world believe about me."
With a flourish, Xena retired from the Great Room, anxious to visit her army before her evenings dinner guest. She doubted the girl would last through dessert. It seemed everyone lied to her nowadays. Why should this girl be an exception ?
Gabrielle was speechless at the opulence of the personal quarters of the Conqueror. She had thought the tapestries in the Great Room were impressive, but they did not begin to compare with those hanging here. Looking closely Gabrielle realized that several depicted a significant event in the Conquerors life the one nearest the doorway was clearly her triumphal entry into Corinth five years ago, the one next to it was the battle of Athens, beside it was the battle against the Centaurs. She believed that others were of the Conquerors life as well, but she didnt recognize the events.
The floor was covered in overlapping Persian rugs. The soft surface aggravated her legs as it made her unsteady and she had twisted her knee twice already; even worse, she had nearly broken one of the Conquerors possessions. Her staff had been taken from her, the Conquerors security team obviously believing it to be a weapon. Gabrielle snorted a soft laugh, as if she could even lay a blow on the ruler.
Her eyes wandered around the room at the various trophies of Xenas victories. The most exquisite were pieces of porcelain from Chin, each delicate and hand painted. How can such delicate things share a room with her?
Nervously, Gabrielle smoothed the silk dress the wardrobe mistress had insisted she wear. With sadness, she noted how long the cut of the dress was, keeping her mangled legs from view. The mistress remarked on how the deep green brought out the color of Gabrielles eyes. No one had ever noticed her eyes before except Arrol. Who, she realized, must be mad with worry about her as he must have discovered the note she left.
Speak truth. Dont let her trick you.
After being dismissed by the Conqueror in the afternoon, Gabrielle had been taken to the baths, cleaned and presented to the healer. The healer, an old man who reminded her of her father, had been surprisingly compassionate. He clucked and shook his head when he saw how her legs had been set. He told her that with time, aggressive treatment and exercise, he thought he could straighten her legs to diminish the pain.
Gabrielle noted that the healer did not seem as hopeful, however, of her surviving the Conqueror long enough for that to take place. I will survive you, Conqueror, just like a survived your torture. Too much depends on this.
Since she didnt know whether it was proper for her to be seated without the Conqueror, Gabrielle wandered about the room. Her aching legs reminded her of another torture of the Conquerors to be late.
The footman opened the door admitting the Conqueror now dressed in a wine red dress. She waved off the Royal Guards who came to take their positions on either side of the door. "I dont think Ill be needing you in here." She cast a glance at the wobbling girl. "Shes not much of a threat. Except for getting a bloodstain on one of my carpets." Xena was pleased when she saw the girl try to stifle a gasp. "What do they call you?" the Conqueror asked. She led the way into a dining chamber.
Gabrielle was once again impressed by the richness of the room around a teak table were ten high-back chairs, each with blue velvet cushions. "Gabrielle." The girls eyes were drawn to the place settings made of gold on the table which was covered in white linen.
Xena cocked her head at the absence of an honorific.
A hand went up. "Dont feel compelled to honor me if youre not sincere, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle instantly understood the warning. "So insincerity is to be considered a lie?"
Xena shrugged, "I am surrounded by flatterers all day long. Its nice to have someone speak their mind." With fluidity of motion, Xena dropped into her seat at the head of the table. She motioned for the smaller woman to be seated as well.
Gratefully, Gabrielle took her seat to the left of the Conqueror, sinking into the cushions with unexpected delight, breathing out a soft sigh of relief. This is what it means to rule the world ... or at least Greeces portion of it. Not bad. "Perhaps more would if they did not fear your wrath for the telling of it," the words were spoken softly but with assurance. If Im going to die, at least I should make it count.
Xena shook her head. No one understands what it takes to lead hundreds of thousands of people. "Its not that the words spoken are so hateful, but what they inspire people to do."
Seemingly by signal, the household staff appeared and began serving the dinner. Rich smells of smoked duck, broiled swordfish, roasted vegetables and freshly baked breads rose through the air and directly to Gabrielles stomach. In response, it let out a loud rumble, causing the woman to blush and study the plate in front of her.
Xena, who had clearly heard the sound, chuckled. There seemed nothing false about this girl, every reaction bubbled immediately to the surface. Not a wise quality, she noted sadly. But it was refreshing. And so like Lyceus. "I see you approve of dinner."
"Quite. I havent seen this much food in one setting since before ..." she stopped immediately upon realizing what she was about to say.
An older man who was just pouring the wine flinched when she spoke, highlighting her mistake. He dared not glance at the Conquerors face. He knew it would not be a pleasant sight. Once he had seen it contorted with rage, that vision still haunted his nightmares. Silently, he urged the liquid to flow faster so he could make his escape.
Xenas voice became obsidian hard, "Finish what you were saying," she ordered.
"It was ..." Gabrielle started to try to explain it away and realized there was no doing so. Speak truth. "Before your reign," she whispered.
The wine pourer made a hasty exit. He was certain that the next sound he would hear from the room would be the girls dead body hitting the floor. Pity, she had been a nice looking thing.
Gabrielle thought she saw the faintest smile touch the Conquerors lips before the mask of neutrality she wore came down again. "It has been a few hard years. The war effort to consolidate our lands took a great toll. But one that was worth the price. And ... certainly ... even I cannot be blamed for the drought that swept through our country last year. Or can I?"
Gabrielle didnt trust herself to speak, instead she just shook her head and waited to see if that was the end of the Conquerors response to her.
Mitrus entered the room and took small portions of the meat and fish. He placed them in his mouth carefully, as if that caution might save his life should there be poison. After swallowing and waiting a few moments, he reached for the remaining food items. He sampled each, chewing delicately. Still alive, he drank from the wine. He didnt notice what a fine vintage it was, being too concerned about continuing to breathe. He hated his job, but slaves were unable to dictate their desires.
The Conqueror nodded to him, indicating he was free to leave. "The wine is quite nice," Xena resumed amiably after sampling some herself, "you should try it."
"Thank you." For more than just the wine, she thought. Her hand shaking slightly, she reached out and brought the goblet to her lips.
Xena picked up her utensils and began eating the food placed before her. With a wave of her fork she urged Gabrielle to join her. Her fair-haired guest had gone quite pale and she was worried that she would soon pass out if she didnt get some food in her. "After you managed to survive the cross, why didnt you flee Corinth? I wouldnt have known."
"I have nowhere to go anymore."
"Where were you from? I can tell from your accent that it is not from here."
Her accent was, in truth, a little rustic still. "A village called Potadeia."
"Its in Thrace."
Gabrielle was surprised the woman would know that. Potadeia hadnt been very impressive even to Gabrielle, but it had been home. "It is." She took a bite of the swordfish and nearly swooned with pleasure. If this were to be her last supper, she would be content. "It was ransacked by a warlord named Draco. A number of us were captured to be sold as slaves."
"You are a slave?"
"No. I escaped from capture. But my sister didnt. I havent seen her since. And the village was burned down by Dracos men. My mother and father died in that attack. I made my way south. And ultimately came to Corinth. Im a teacher now." She said all of this in a rush, she couldnt afford to have it thought she was a runaway slave ... not in addition to everything else: insurrectionist, crucifixion survivor, and full-time speaker of truth.
There has to be more to that story than the girl is letting on, Xena thought. No one simply escaped from Dracos men. Not a lie, just not the whole truth. Ill let that pass - for now. "Who and what do you teach?"
"Reading and writing to some of your soldiers. But as a young girl, I wanted to be a bard," she smiled wistfully, remembering hours in the hay loft with her sister, Lila, talking about heroes and monsters and falling in love.
Just what the world needs, another storyteller filling the peoples minds with fancy stories. "You serve the realm then. We need men who can communicate easily with me if we are to rule the world," Xena concluded.
Gabrielles brow furrowed, she had certainly never considered her position as aiding the war effort. "And if they are to be better men. Sometimes people write simply to learn and share not just to conquer."
Xenas face puckered at such a thought, "That too," she muttered, with more than a touch of sarcasm.
Normally being disregarded so blatantly would have infuriated Gabrielle, but this time she felt nothing other than a slight rousing of affection for the dark-haired warrior. Shes not quite so frightful once you get her off that throne. And she has let me speak my mind so far. Isnt that why I came here? Because I believed that somehow I could make a difference in her life. No one would be so cruel if they cared for even one person.
Or were cared for by even one person, she corrected herself. Perhaps that is the key.
When they brought in the dessert offerings, the kitchen staff was surprised to find Gabrielle still alive. One of the women, an older woman with graying hair and age spots dotting her hands, gave Gabrielle a shy smile of encouragement as she put a plate in front of her. This one must be something to still be breathing. Especially after what she said earlier. Gabrielle smiled back, excited by the raspberries and fresh cream.
The Conqueror watched with amusement the woman attack the plate. Gabrielle had already finished off two large helpings of the meal but still ate as if she had just been found in the desert after many long weeks. Some of my soldiers dont eat as much in one sitting. Xena certainly didnt, for she never liked the feeling of heaviness that overcame her after a large meal. And, as a soldier, she knew it was best not to let anything dull her senses for any period of time.
Before Palaemon reached the corridor leading to her private quarters, the Conqueror heard him. Her internal sense of time indicated he was a little earlier than usual. Xena picked up her goblet and drained the remainder of the wine, enjoying the warmth as it trailed down her throat.
A knock on the massive door, "Come," Xena ordered.
Palaemon entered and bowed to the Conqueror. His eyes swept over to the silent girl seated next to her and inclined his head. He was charmed to see her blush in response. For a moment he believed that his facial scar made him more attractive by making him seem mysterious. When the Conqueror cleared her throat softly, he turned his attention back to where it belonged, "My liege."
"Sit, Palaemon, have some " she waved her hand at the abundance on the table.
Gabrielle was about to offer some of her berries since there were only two plates at the table. Just then a servant entered with a plate for the Captain. Palaemon noticed Gabrielles kindness, and smiled slightly.
I need to make sure Palaemon gets outside of the castle more often. "What news do you have?" Xena asked, hiding a smirk.
Once again, he focused on the issues before him. Raking a hand through his short cropped blond hair, he replied, "Conqueror, I have an important message from our post in Ephesus." Her silence encouraged Palaemon to continue. "It seems Caesar is planning on shipping a large amount of weapons through that city by the next moon."
Caesar. Years of battle training helped her to appear calm. "Hmm to rearm his men in the Syrian campaign?"
"Thats my belief as well, my liege."
Xena smiled the same way as when she knew she had defeated Palaemon. Suddenly the room came alive with the energy flowing off of the dark-haired woman rising from her seat. "It would be such a shame to let good weapons go to poor soldiers. Perhaps I should liberate them."
The Conquerors blue eyes paled further to where Gabrielle wasnt sure there was any color left in them. She had seen the same look before the Conqueror condemned her to the cross.
"I await your command, my liege."
Ahh this will annoy Caesar greatly. Perhaps even draw him out of his cozy residence in Rome to meet me on the battlefield. Youve been hiding in Rome too long, Caesar. Come on out and play. But if you wont and I cant strike the serpents head it can still be fun severing the tail. Quite fun indeed. And Ill chop all the way to the head if need be.
"Well leave at dawn. It will take us nearly to the next moon to reach the port. Send a messenger ahead to Athos, we will sail from there to Ephesus. Have the Macedonian consignment readied to accompany us. And we shall take one hundred of the Royal Guard with us now." Xenas mind was racing through the preparations needed for the campaign, her blood warmed at the thought of dividing Caesar from his weapons at the very least.
Palaemon felt his skin prickle with excitement. Xenas eyes were bright, her lips pulled back in a snarl, even her hair seemed to radiate energy. The last time he had seen this look, the Conqueror had completed her conquest of Greece. That had won him wealth and status. He wondered what would be his reward from Ephesus. "I will see to it immediately, my liege."
"And have Nestor sent here. There is much to be done."
In her preparations for leaving, the Conqueror failed to notice that her young dinner companion had fallen asleep in her chair. Only when Nestor was leaving with a scroll full of instructions for running the city in her absence did Xena glimpse the curled up figure who she realized was snoring softly.
I completely forgot about her. Xena shook her head, amused with herself. She never forgot when there was someone else in her company, years of battlefield senses always kept her on constant alert to possible danger. Well, this girl is certainly no danger to me.
"Gabrielle " she said softly to awaken the girl, so she could at least go to the room assigned to her, stretch out those legs which must hurt. Xena recalled how Lyceus legs had hurt him for months after his fall from the tree as kids. Gods we kept climbing higher and higher, because I wanted to. And Lyceus never said no to any of my ideas. Not as kids, not even when Cortese came.
"Gabrielle " a little louder.
A soft snore tore from the girls throat.
"Gabr " Sighing, Xena gently reached out and pulled the girl out of her chair. She was small and fit easily in the Conquerors arms. And surprisingly light for all the food she had consumed, Xenas mind noted idly. Xenas purposeful strides took the two women to the door leading to the Conquerors private chambers. With her foot, she nudged the partially open door fully open and deposited her oracle of truth on the large bed. Someone should get use of it tonight, Xena thought. I have other plans.
Gabrielle awoke early the next morning, slowly stretching out her muscles, luxuriating in the feel of the cool linen sheets and the soft down of the mattress. Where am I? What happened last night? Dinner, Palaemon, invading Ephesus oh gods I fell asleep on her. And Im in her bed? She could hear her heart thundering in her chest and swore the rest of the palace could pick up on the sound as well. Gabrielle flung the sheet off and swung her legs over the side of the bed. They dont hurt as much this morning. No, Gabrielle, they hurt its just youre too terrified to feel the pain right now.
A quick glance out the window confirmed that the night was coming to a close, a rosy hue sliding over the horizon, and she was grateful for the approaching light. She could tell that the Conqueror had not joined her in the bed last, for only where she lay were the bedsheets disturbed. Gabrielle assumed the Conqueror had stayed awake all night preparing for the fortnight march.
She became aware of the rhythmic scraping of whetstone against metal. The Conqueror was sharpening her sword. Running a small hand through her red-gold hair, Gabrielle tried to straighten her rumpled appearance before approaching the other woman.
"Good morning, Conqueror."
Xena spared a glance at the younger woman but did not alter her rhythm. "Youre up early."
Gabrielle blushed and shrugged, "Apparently I fell asleep early too. I apologize for that."
The Conqueror snorted a short laugh, "I cant remember the last time someone fell asleep on me. Normally my guests are too terrified of me to close their eyes even to blink." That thought made her stop her work and she brought intense blue eyes up to hold Gabrielles green, "Why arent you afraid of me?"
Gabrielles heart stopped with the intense look of suspicion she was receiving from the Conqueror. Im afraid right now. But I dont suppose it will help to admit it only make her more distrustful like I have a guilty conscience. Gabrielle strove to appear calm and hold her voice steady, "My life is already forfeit, Conqueror. What more do I have to fear?"
The reply seemed to suit Xena and she returned to her task. "We leave in two candlemarks. Go see Helena about your provisions."
We? My provisions? Go? To Ephesus? "Conqueror?"
Xena did not respond. She did not have to explain her decisions to this young girl.
"Conqueror? You want me go on a military mission with you?" Gabrielle was at a loss, she was of no use on the battlefield. She gestured to her mangled legs as if it were possible for someone to forget them.
"Not to fight," Xena said impatiently, explaining the obvious. "I cant take Nestor with me. Hes needed here to see to the affairs of state. So, you will serve as my personal attendant. I need someone who I know will not lie to me."
Well, youve really gotten yourself into something now, Gabrielle. "I believe that is our arrangement: my life for truthful lips."
"Go now. We leave in two candlemarks. Do not make me wait."
Gabrielle nodded swiftly, her fair hair swaying around her shoulders. "Of course. Excuse me then." She exited the room as fast as she could without fear of toppling over knowing that it would take a small miracle for her to meet the Conquerors timeframe.
Exactly two candlemarks later Xena stood among her finest Royal Guards, pacing through their midst, inspecting each man and woman, assuring herself that they should be chosen for this honor. They stood, backs straight, eyes forward, icy glares matching those of their leader. They had followed her into numerous battles before. They had never lost.
Gabrielle watched this from her spot on one of the supply wagons. Noticing for the first time how these were unlike any other soldiers she had seen before. They were clean, dressed in well-oiled leathers and gleaming metal armor, and had an amazing absence of scars. No one had been close enough to mark their skin, at least not too severely, with the notable exception of Palaemon. They were the best the kingdom had to offer. Each one watched Xena as she strode amongst them, tightening belts, adjusting gauntlets, inspecting blades. Gabrielle did not doubt that each one would willingly die for her.
How must that feel? To have people who would exchange their lives for yours? Does is scare you as it would me? Gabrielle did not see fear in Xenas countenance.
Satisfied with her Guards, Xena marched to the wagons of provisions. She inspected these quickly, merely making sure the necessary supplies were there. When she approached the wagon Gabrielle was seated on, Xena surveyed her carefully, noting with approval the travel outfit the wardrobe mistress had procured: knee high leather boots, indigo cotton skirt which just covered the top of the boots, and a white cotton shirt covered by a gray cape. "Do you have all you need?"
The fair-haired woman smiled gently, she had not expected this question, "Yes, thank you."
The Conqueror looked meaningfully at the driver of the wagon, one that she had chosen carefully, based on his advanced age. "Driver, this is my personal attendant. See to it that she comes to no harm. From yourself or others."
The old man nodded vigorously and patted Gabrielles hand chastely. "My liege, shell be treated like my very dear daughter."
"See to it." Their eyes locked for a significant moment before the Conqueror left to return to her troops.
Palaemon approached her, "Is everything to your liking, my liege?"
The Conqueror nodded crisply, "You have done well, Palaemon." She let out a shrill whistle and a stable boy approached with her warhorse. The golden mare was as light as her rider was dark. The mare nuzzled Xenas chest just before the woman leapt upon the horses back.
It was the most affection anyone had shown the Conqueror, Gabrielle noted.
Atop the tall horse, Xena addressed her troops. "We travel to Ephesus. There we shall bloody Caesars nose." She paused meaningfully, "Get him accustomed to tasting his own blood. For as surely as we shall conqueror Ephesus, we shall conqueror Rome. And you will be the ones marching with me to the Coliseum in triumph. And in honor."
"To Ephesus!" Palaemon shouted out.
"To Ephesus!" A hundred voices replied.
"For the Conqueror!"
"For the Conqueror!"
As the final cry sent shivers down Gabrielles spine, Xena nodded and led the way through the city gates. The people melted back from her and her armys path watching with awe the triumphal display. It looked more like a victory celebration than the start of a journey.
That night the army made camp outside the small town of Nexus famous for its temple dedicated to Ares. The black marble temple was not his most majestic but its claim to distinction was the number of recorded appearances by the god himself. Most people assumed it was because the priest was his favored; Xena knew it was because it was closest to where her army had camped while laying siege to Corinth.
At midnight the Conqueror entered the temple and awaited her mentor.
"Xena," Ares voice was like a caress. The god materialized in a flash of light in front of her, his arms spread out wide in greeting.
"Hello, Ares." She smirked, she knew there was no need for her to bow to the dark-haired god. She did, however, incline her head slightly, to give the impression of deference.
"How is my favorite protégé doing, hmm?" He circled the warrior, undressing her with his eyes, liking what he saw.
The Conqueror endured the scrutiny, knowing that it was part of the price she paid for having his support. He satisfied her battle lust, she satisfied his physical lust. "Im on my way to Ephesus." Xena kept her reply brief, it was always better that way.
Ares loved the womans insolence. Her regular defiance of the Olympians, including himself, only served to increase her stature in his eyes. "Well, then, nice of you to stop by."
Understanding passed between them.
Ares stroked his beard thoughtfully, "Caesar wont know what hit him, eh?"
Xena didnt like that he knew her mission was a personal one. It wouldnt do to have the god too involved in the situation; Ares liked to make things interesting and wasnt above putting more than a few obstacles in her path. She didnt want this to tempt him in any way. "Ephesus wont know what hit it. There are arms there that need liberating. And a treasury in Artemis temple which I understand has become a little swelled."
That distracted him. "Oh boy, going to get on Artemis bad side, huh? Thats what I like about you, Xena, you never show favoritism."
Xena looked like she had just tasted something awful, "What has Artemis ever done for me?"
He shrugged, spreading his hands out at his side, "Many people think you belong to her not to me."
Xena nearly choked, "What? Like Im an Amazon? I would think the mere fact that I have wiped out their nation would convince people otherwise."
"What can I say? Youre a woman " the back of his hand brushed against her breast " warrior. People get confused. Its understandable."
"Ill do my best to clarify the situation."
"You do that." Ares gave a brief wave of his hand and left the Conqueror alone. This was going to be fun. Artemis was not going to be pleased to learn of his chosens plans. Now he just had to figure out how to let Artemis know without raising too much suspicion.
Continued in Part II
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