The Last Conqueror
Kamouraskan and Lariel
For disclaimers and credits, please see part 1
They surrounded the dazed body of their Empress and two carefully examined her, while the others kept their swords pointed towards the two huddled against the wall. Gabrielle's staff was too far for her to reach, tangled as she was in Xena's chains. The warders hesitated to move towards them, held back by the feral glare of the darker woman. The first of the soldiers had taken only one step when a clear voice spoke from behind them all. "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
Gabrielle heard the words but their meaning didn't quite register. She was panting for air in the sudden closeness of the cell, and thinking of how large it had seemed when Solon had brought her there in what seemed so long ago. Now there were six sword wielding soldiers in a semi circle to her left, protecting Alti. An equal number of Amazons lined up with their backs to the right hand wall with bows pointed at the Empress, while Terreis and Ephiny stood in the doorway. The cell seemed suffocatingly small now, and what little air there was, was overused and stale. She turned to Xena, and the pair slowly raised themselves under the watchful eyes of the warders, who stood stiffly to attention with their swords raised.
Almost in response to the movement, the guards retreated slowly towards the wall whilst covering Alti's prone body as best they could, as three more women slipped behind the archers into the overcrowded space and dropped to their knees in front of Gabrielle. Their eyes flickered around the cell and then settled on the girl, whilst their bodies hummed with the tense electricity that filled the room.
Gabrielle could feel a headache building up at her temples, and the thick air sucked at her chest, making her feel heavy and listless. The bone weary girl swallowed and asked, "Terreis? Is there something wrong with these guys' legs?"
Terreis ignored the question and asked instead, "Are you alright, my Queen?" and Gabrielle was surprised to hear a chuckle from Xena.
Despite the tension, or because of it, Xena's laugh startled them all. "You know, I was wondering why those two featherheads just stood and watched," she said. "Of course. That's why they wouldn't help. Well done, Terreis." Continuing in an oddly conversational tone, she said to Gabrielle, "What's going on is your friend Terreis has just used you to get out of a certain complication."
Gabrielle turned to face the still shackled warrior. "What complication?"
"The Amazon oath. Didn't you wonder how Alti had all these nice tame Amazons at her beck and call?" Gabrielle waited impatiently until Xena explained, "See, a few years back I beat the Queen of the Amazons, Cyanne, in what they call a Queen's Challenge. As much as the Amazons hated it, it made me their Queen. At the time, all I cared about was removing them as a threat, so once they'd sworn their loyalty to me, I left them alone. I know what an Amazon's oath is worth." She gave a half smile as every Amazon's chin rose slightly in grudging acceptance of the half compliment. "After my 'death' in battle with her, Alti proclaimed herself Queen and forced them to be her Honour Guard. Now you just beat Alti." She waved towards the tightly clustered bundle of guards who were hiding the form of the Empress. "And that means..."
Gabrielle's eyes widened in disbelief. "Oh, no way. You can forget it."
"Gabrielle..." began Terreis.
"No. Thank you, very interesting idea, but no."
"It's not something you turn down, Gabrielle," chided Terreis, "and this isn't the time to argue about it." She indicated the armed confrontation, and the group of guards who were now bending over and trying to lift their struggling ruler to her feet.
"There are even some people who would think it an honour, you know," said an exasperated Ephiny.
"Then find one of them and make them Queen," Gabrielle shot back.
Alti seemed to come to life and with the help of the guards managed to make it to her feet. She swayed and slapped at the hands that supported her. "I don't need your help. I could have stood. I could have beaten them by myself," she screeched unconvincingly. At the cough behind her, she turned as quickly as she was still able to, and took in the sight of Terreis and several other Amazons standing at the door, bows raised and pointed at her. Her face lifted, and she gestured wildly at Xena and Gabrielle. "Why are you standing there? Kill them, I want them both dead! Now!"
"I don't think you'll be commanding any Amazons ever again, Alti." Terreis spoke quietly.
"What are you talking about? Put those down, I order you."
The Amazon leader shook her head. "You lost the challenge."
The Empress froze. "That wasn't a challenge. It wasn't to the death."
"Like your challenge of Xena was to the death?" retorted Terreis, her voice filled with contempt. "Doesn't matter, we heard your plea. You said 'please' with Gabrielle's knife at your throat. You submitted to her."
"I was struck in the face by Xena. She interfered," Alti desperately disputed.
Terreis turned to the Amazons that had witnessed the staff fight, one of whom stared gleefully at her former ruler before answering. "Alti knew Xena was there and Gabrielle managed to trick her into range. I rule that Xena was like a naturally occurring boundary, a cliff or a wild animal."
Terreis grinned at the Empress. "I always considered Xena a force of nature."
Alti listened to the dispute with a look of disbelief on her streaked face. "You're all mad. And it doesn't matter anyway. In a few heartbeats, word will get back to the barracks, and this room will be flooded with hundreds of my soldiers. You'll all be slaughtered. And Xena..." For a moment there was the old glitter in her eyes, and her lips drew back in a smile, "you're not going anywhere. There's no key to those chains, and no sword can break them. It was too easy for you to escape last time. So I hope you like them, because they'll be with you for the rest of your life."
Gabrielle surprised herself by stepping forward and matching her smile. "You really must get tired of being wrong all the time. Ephiny? Did you get it?"
Ephiny nodded, but never removed her eyes from the Empress or lowered her own bow. "She'd put it right back where it always was. In her throne." Ephiny hesitated. "Gabrielle, are you sure?" Gabrielle held her gaze until Ephiny nodded to one of the women still kneeling before Gabrielle; upon receiving the order, the woman brought out her hand. The jewels on the chakram gleamed as the Amazon handed the weapon to the girl, who gripped it in her fists as she pivoted and faced the chained woman. She swallowed and presented the weapon to her with the words, "I believe this is yours."
Xena reached out a hesitant hand. Her fingers curled around the rim of the chakram, and she tested the weight in her hand. It was reassuringly familiar... like coming home, almost.
Then with a gleeful whoop, Xena launched the shining disc - it bounced off the walls, nearly scalped the Amazons and sliced through her wrist chains as though they were made of paper. The Amazons, guards and even Gabrielle jumped and Xena looked about at the suddenly nervous faces. She cocked her head and shook out her bruised wrists with a grin. "You're not worried about little old me, are you?" She stepped forward out of the shadows, her eyes glittering and focused on the soldiers protecting Alti. Though they had little space to move, somehow it seemed as though they drew back a pace.
Ephiny broke the silence. "Yeah, little old you scares the crap out of me, but first things, first. I think I can hear a good reason to make a tactical withdrawal." In the constricted silence, the sound of boots stomping along the upper corridors increased the claustrophobia.
Xena finished freeing herself, retrieved her chakram and cocked her ear. "Forty, fifty. As many more probably coming from the right side as well."
"Let's move it," said Terreis tersely. The Amazons repositioned themselves to create a protective wall, and with Xena shielding Gabrielle slightly with her own body, the two women slipped along behind them and to the doorway.
Impotently watching her prey slip away, and still the target of several Amazon arrows, Alti finally growled, "this is a mistake, Terreis. One you will very soon regret." She extended her hand and waved it quickly towards the row of armed women, who braced themselves for a shock that never came.
Alti gawked at her hand and again made the motion, but this time the Amazons simply stared back in confident defiance. Gabrielle said in wonder as though thinking out loud, "She was just another bully. Just another bully."
The Amazons retreated one at a time, until finally there were only the archers at the doorway keeping the Empress and her supporters at bay. As Xena passed through the doorway, she tossed a wave to Alti and smiled. "See you later."
"Run Xena." Alti snarled. "Try to run away. But where are you going to go?"
Xena flashed a smile and said, "Gee Mom, thanks for worrying. I'll be in touch as soon as I can."
Once in the corridor, with the cell door locked behind them, Terreis took in their numbers. Less than a dozen Amazons and a six foot prisoner, with dozens of armed soldiers headed their way. "We have a bit of a situation here," she understated impressively. "Not that I don't think you can take half of what's coming by yourself, Xena, but several good people might die that don't have to. Is there a way..?"
"No problem," was all she said, and she leapt for the ceiling, grabbing hold of the crossbars that made for ventilation of the cells and began to swing along them until she reached the first corner of the corridor, pulling into a crouch and hanging there in the dark like some great spider. The Amazons moved along underneath her until they were several lengths from the cell.
The soldiers charged down the stairway from above, and the group's commander looked to Terreis.
"Glad you're here. The Empress is locked in the cell with an extremely dangerous prisoner and the keys," she informed him curtly, shoving him urgently in the direction of the cell. "You'll have to break her out." He nodded and quickly led his troupe further up the corridor. Xena dropped down, and they began to run in the direction the soldiers had come from.
Behind them they could hear a quiet mumbling, pierced by the sudden screeching of the Empress. "You let them pass? Morons! I'm surrounded by morons! Why are you still standing there? Get after them!"
There was a frantic rush down several winding corridors, until the eastern side of the palace was reached and the doors to the Amazon compound barred behind them.
Terreis turned to Xena. "Okay," she panted. "You're the master strategist, supposedly. We can hold out here for a candlemark or so, but not much longer. Then what?"
Ephiny collapsed with a wheeze onto a chair. "Well, we aren't staying here. I have a feeling Alti just fired us as her guards, and whoever she gets for that job will be after everyone in this room about now."
"Then the generals will start killing everybody else," Terreis added. "Plans, people. We need plans."
"Alti will have to call a meeting for all her generals in the Throne Room to get her side of the story to them first," offered Xena. "She won't want them to know that she's lost control, and she won't want them to know about me. So we do have some time...
"Would be useful to be at that meeting. But I don't think we have an invitation."
Xena began pacing about the room, her hands fluttering as she thought. "Then we'll just have to make one. What are our assets?"
Terreis began to list. "Well, there's you." Xena raised a sardonic eyebrow. "The treaty with the Green Dragon, and you seem to have the support of the Queen of the Amazons."
Gabrielle nearly exploded. "Stop looking at me when you say Queen of the Amazons!"
"Gabrielle," remonstrated Terreis, grabbing hold of Ephiny's arm before the hothead could react again. She attempted a reasonable smile, and an earnest tone. "Considering the position you and your new partner are in, you shouldn't throw away the unswerving loyalty of ten thousand warriors."
"Ten thousand? You have been busy," commented Xena sardonically. "Did the last person you swore unswerving loyalty to have a clue about that?"
"We found a little wiggle room in our oath," retorted Terreis with a straight face.
"Gabrielle," said Xena. "She's right. You need all the friends you can get if you want to save this city and your own neck."
Gabrielle sighed deeply as her eyes flicked around all the hopeful faces that surrounded her. Her headache was thudding into new life. She shook her head, sighed again and said, "Well, first things first, someone said. We need to get Xena cleaned up and ready to present to the Generals."
Terreis nodded. "Fine. And Gabrielle? We have a prisoner of sorts. We're holding the head of the Royal Household. What do you want to do with him?"
Xena recalled the young Patrician clearly. "Pericles? Why are they holding him?"
Ephiny answered. "He was sneaking out of the city with a cart a few days ago and stumbled onto one of the larger camps. Someone recognised him, and didn't think he should be telling anybody about ten thousand Amazons outside the city."
Xena chortled. "No. That's exactly what he should be doing. Have him brought to the door of the throne room with us."
Ephiny looked to her new Queen for confirmation. "Gabrielle?"
"Just do it, Ephiny." Gabrielle swallowed. "You say his name is Pericles?"
Xena paused. "Yeah?"
"I read some scrolls once, by a philosopher called Pericles. In it, he laid out the blueprint for a better kind of society. He called it a democracy... Could this be the same person?"
"Probably. He was always after me about something. I would've taken off his head if he wasn't such a great manager. So? What difference would it make?"
Gabrielle grabbed her quill. "All the difference in our world." She looked to Ephiny who was still staring at her. "What are you waiting for?"
"I just want to know if I'm following your orders or hers."
"I said, just do it, Ephiny. We've made our choice, remember?"
Ephiny's mouth dropped. "So that's it. We just forget about everything she's done? What about Potadaia? What about my Amazon sisters?"
"You want a fast answer?" snapped Gabrielle. "Because I don't know one, Ephiny. But hanging onto a past that can't be changed won't get us anywhere right now. We have a future to carve. Let's get started."
"You've released a wild bear into your home and now you're asking it to dance," growled the Amazon in response, pointing to the former Conqueror as she did so. "You can't tame a wild animal."
Xena turned suddenly, and directed a level glare at the smaller Amazon. "You want something from me?" she growled.
Ephiny didn't flinch. "Yeah. I'd like the people you killed to be alive, and you to be dead."
Gabrielle quickly pressed between them and, to both of their surprise, faced Ephiny. "Apologise," she demanded.
"What? Apologise to... to her?" Ephiny sputtered
"Yes. This isn't the time or the place, and you know we're committed to this action. If those facts aren't enough, then as your Queen, I order you to apologise. Or doesn't your Amazon oath mean anything to you?"
"I don't want her damned apology." Xena muttered. "Because she's not wrong." Ephiny looked to Gabrielle to see if she was still under a command to apologise, but Gabrielle waved her off, indicating that she wanted to speak to Xena alone.
Though before Gabrielle could begin, Xena changed the subject. "Can we just move on? We've got to get out of here fast and start preparing for Alti's next move. And Gabrielle... could you...?"
Gabrielle smiled at knowing the unasked question. " Don't worry. We'll send someone to the healers and make sure he's safe. They'll come back and tell us where he is."
Once that was off her mind, Xena began pacing about the room, firing out an incessant stream of orders. She wanted reports, numbers of potential combatants on all sides, the Amazons deployed around the city and a message taken to Ming Tien immediately.
She finally noticed that Gabrielle and the Amazons were staring at her silently. She returned the stare, wondering what was wrong.
Gabrielle walked towards her, chin out. "Xena? You're making a lot of commands here. I told Ephiny we were committed, and I assumed that meant you too. Do we still have our deal?"
Xena's response was cut short as the potential strategies connected in her mind. Inside her head a dozen voices seemed to be arguing with each other, and Gabrielle's voice seemed to be only adding to the cacophony. By force of habit, she found herself calculating how much to her advantage her alliance with Gabrielle was.
"Yes, we do. I agreed to listen to you once Alti was off the throne. That was all, wasn't it?" Xena hedged.
"It may have been once, but that's not what it's about anymore and you know it."
Yes, she needed the Amazons, but Gabrielle didn't have to be their leader. In fact... Her eyes caught an Amazon staff leaning against the wall, as if waiting for her. Gabrielle's eyes followed hers to the staff, and both turned to look at each other. Gabrielle gripped her own staff.
"So talk," replied Xena, airily. "What would you have me do?"
Under that cool gaze, Gabrielle began to unravel. "I don't know. There are so many things, so many ideas, I can't..."
Just pick up the staff Xena, the voice urged. You can have the Amazons and the treaty with Ming Tien and his black powder...
Return to the Academy