The Last Conqueror
Kamouraskan and Lariel
For disclaimers and credits, please see part 1
The young man sat quietly, patiently watching each step taken by the High Priest, or Haruspex, who was slowly making his way along the temple hall towards the altar with all the pomp and ceremony that befitted such a solemn and holy occasion. Like most things of the world, the young man knew at least enough of the ancient religion to know if it was being done properly, and he revelled in the carefully orchestrated arrangements. He, more than anyone, understood the importance of keeping up appearances. He'd proved that with the lavish funeral arrangements he'd made for his father, years ago.
The Haruspex, or seer, was appropriately cadaverous, fitting for a man who fasted before each appointment, and the gown he wore was appropriately and fastidiously clean and neat. The goat was brought forth for his examination and after a cursory inspection, deemed healthy and normal. With his approval, one of the assistants brought the animal to the altar, while another began to play the traditional flute. The bleating of the beast soon became drowned by the reedy wailing of the rough hewn wooden instrument whose off-key notes joined those of the chanting Haruspex.
"APLU! Phoebos! Apollo! Delian! Pythian! Lord of Delphi! Guardian of the Sibyls! Or by whatever other name You wish to be called, I pray and beseech You that You may by Your majesty be propitious and well-disposed to me, for which I offer this sacrifice. If I have worshipped You and still do worship You, You who taught Mankind the Art of Prophecy, You who have inspired my Divination, then come now and show Your Signs that I might know the Will of the Gods!" He paused for dramatic effect, throwing his hands into the air as if reaching out to the ancient God whose many names he sang. "I seek to know if this is the time of destiny for this man! THUI SRENAR TEV!"
The Assistant cried out, "FLERCHVA RATUM TUR!"
The young observer stared at the Priest intently as the echoing shouts died down around him. He could feel the sweat beginning to bead on his upper lip and the atmosphere in the small temple grew thick with anticipation as the wailing of the flute grew to a fevered pitch.
The Haruspex uncovered the ceremonial knife, and with one single motion eviscerated the goat. There was a sudden, eerie silence as the cacophony ceased. He then carefully opened and emptied the entrails onto the Patera with one fluid and much practised motion. The young man noted approvingly how quickly the liver was found and oriented along the line representing the sun's true path. Even through the flowing blood, he could see that it was clean and healthy, as were the other important organs. He allowed one small sigh of relief to escape his constricted chest.
The young man joined assistants in their chant: "IKAN NETSVIS ALPNU APLUS TURUCE."
Now that the ceremonial aspects were over, the Haruplex became garrulous, muttering to himself as he worked. "The Templum… here, and the quadrants and Gods which govern your future…" He moved quickly, measuring the organs and entrails that he had carefully laid out upon the altar stone before placing his ceremonial blade to one side. Then, he stepped back and studied the arrangement for several moments, before gesturing to the young man to approach the altar.
"I have seldom seen a man of war so influenced by women. Even the Gods that define your course are Aritimi, and Vetis." Aritimi was the Etruscan name for Artemis he knew, the others were a form of Athena or Aphrodite; it was never clear.
The smell of blood was thick in his nostrils, and he found the stench nauseating and yet almost arousing at the same time. "What of Maris? Is there no message from him?"
The Haruspex cast a quick glance at his youthful supplicant, before turning his eyes back to his divination. "Maris? Of course as a soldier you would expect him to be in ascendant, and he is. But you are fortunate to also be in the favour of his consort Turan, so there is Conflict and Concord."
"What of my destiny?"
"Your destiny is most unusual. It was somehow thwarted already, I see. "
"Delayed… only delayed. By two women, as was foreseen in another reading," he allowed, his normally controlled voice edged with resentment. "But now there is only one alive, and that one is failing." He refused to allow the small, satisfied sneer to creep onto his full lips.
The Haruspex merely glanced at him again, and continued, "I see the influence of three women, and all are alive. At least for now."
"Three? Are you certain?"
"I have never seen such clear portents." The Priest gestured towards the mess on the table, as though it were self-evident. "There is no doubt."
"You will be given your opportunity; a chance to be the most powerful of living mortals. But your choice will come through the third woman, and only when one of the three is dead. How and what you choose will shape the world."
The Divination was completed; all joined in chanting: "NETSVIS SACCE! ZERI UTU RATUM! EISAR IPA LUCAIR THUI UTICE!"
As he waited for the sacrifice to be prepared for the meal, he mused over how this might affect his strategy. His time was coming, his destiny was near - he could feel it; right now, he could smell and taste it in the warm blood of his sacrifice. But three women? Xena was dead, so the reading must be wrong as to the times. But soon he would be given a choice? By Alti, or some unknown?
As always, he would look out for any signs but his planning was too far advanced to change it without a true signal, not simply a portent read in the entrails of a dumb animal.
Alexander, son of the second Philip, King of Macedonia, would not wait any longer for his destiny to be fulfilled..
"The Green Dragon is becoming a problem, Darphus. Ever since I killed that bitch Lao Ma..."
"I thought Xena killed her?"
"Me, Xena. What's the difference? She's just a tool I use when it suits me. She was very effective. Once." Alti smiled grimly, savouring the image of the once strong warrior scrabbling around the floor of her cell.
"How did you break her?" Darphus too was remembering his former commander. She had beaten him so severely once that he'd been unable to speak for months. He was lucky she hadn't killed him, and he knew it; he'd seen her kill men just for the joy of it. His jaw still ached sometimes, and he rubbed it as he thought of her. Alti smiled again, and cold fingers ran up his spine. In many ways, these two were very much alike, but for Alti to be able to destroy the Warrior Princess...
"It's easy to destroy people who love." Alti spat the word out.
"Why do you keep her alive?" He'd never understood. "You could get so much power from her."
"Yes, I could." Alti turned thoughtfully towards him. "Xena has immense power, and I will take it from her one day. But not yet. It suits my purposes to keep her alive, but broken. I don't want her causing any trouble...the prophecy..."
"Never mind." Eyes as black as death studied him for several too-long moments, and he could feel his soul shrinking inside him. "Don't wonder or even think about it, Darphus. I keep you alive because it suits me, and I'm teaching you some of the shaman ways because that serves my purpose too. But you couldn't cope with Xena's power. Xena is mine. If you forget that..." Her husky voice trailed off, like smoke curling into the chill moonlight air, and he gulped as charcoal eyes drank his soul.
Hands touching and stroking, playing through her hair and running over her skin.... water like silk caressing her body...the words "soft like water, but what can withstand the raging flood?" floated down and whirled around her pressured ears as she struggled to find oxygen amidst liquid. Then lips, soft and opening to hers as they exchanged life...
Hunkered in the shadowed far corner of her cell, out of sight of the tiny window and its faint shreds of candlelight, Xena clasped her knees and screwed her eyes shut as she tried to hold on to the flickering images that were playing behind her eyes. Pictures of a life once led; a reminder of who she was and who she could've been. In some ways, her memories were torture, in others salvation. Better than the reality she presently faced: betrayal, pain and fury were her everyday companions now, and she found it increasingly hard to hold onto her shattered sanity as days, weeks and months melted into an eternal, horrendous nightmare.
The sweet, high sound of the song as it whistled through the wind and sped her ship on. Beautiful music that circled her heart and stroked her beating soul as she stood proud and strong at the helm, listening to the slave girl's melody. She could feel the notes charging the air, electric and alive as they soared to the heavens, a gift to Poseidon himself.
"M'Lila..." The under-used voice was broken and low; a mockery of a voice.
There was a faint shadow at the cell window as her jailer looked in, alert for every sound. She pressed herself further against the damp stone at her back, and he disappeared.
"You have been dead for a very long time now, Xena…" came Lao Ma's voice.
"Come with us, and choose life..." said Cyane.
A new born baby's cry...
"Stop willing, stop wanting…"
The door slowly scraped open, and the blonde young man peered into the gloom cautiously. "Where are you, dog?" She stayed still for several moments, and then moved slowly out of her black corner. "Hiding from me?" He grinned. "Naughty dog. No water for Xena...no water for Xena." He tipped her half full cup onto the ground and mixed it into the filth on the floor. "That was two days rations. You'll get more in a few days time, and that's more mercy than you ever showed your victims. Bitch." She bared her teeth, and he backed out of the cell quickly, his dirty blonde head haloed in the light as he hurriedly locked the heavy door behind him. He watched her for a few moments, laughing as she snarled at him, and then he disappeared.
Immediately, her face straightened and she returned to her familiar corner. "Don't worry, Solon. Mother would never really hurt you," she said, as her ears followed his footsteps up the stairs.
Alti moved the tattered curtain aside, and stepped into the bright room. The sunlight pierced her eyes, causing her to squint, and she cursed under her breath. Once her eyes had adjusted to the light, she walked through the open door and out into the sunny courtyard. The old man was kneeling, pulling up weeds and tending to his herbs and vegetables.
"Hello, shaman," he said, without looking up.
"You always know it's me, old man," she rasped.
"I can always feel you. The air chills." He pulled up a long rooted weed, and cast it onto a pile.
"I never notice." Alti stood behind, dwarfing him. "I've come..."
"I know why you've come." Finally, he turned towards her and she almost shivered when his eyes met hers. "The prophecy still stands. Evil will be formed from the dark bones of the earth. It will suffocate the land like smoke, and reach out its fingers into many futures." Fire and smoke curled in his pupils, and she could see wavering images faint in the glow of the flames. "Only the two who are one will ever be able to end its reign."
"Always riddles, Arminus. It's annoying. The two who are one. How will I know them?"
"You already do." He yanked up another weed, and grubbed around in the earth.
"Xena. I know - she is the one."
"Yes. You both wait for her other half. The one who brings completion, balance and purpose. The triangle will be formed, and the way will be found - for you, or for her. This is the pattern of your past, and your futures." He sat back on his heels, and stared at her again. His eyes were opaque, and in their black lenses Alti saw her destiny played out again and again.
"The way to destroy me?"
"How can I stop them?"
"If you can find the balance first, join with it, and the dark prophecy will be fulfilled." Long fingers stretched out, plucked a few stems of mugwort and then placed them into a pestle. Alti smiled as she watched him pick the herbs and begin to crush the fragile stems and leaves. "I will win, old man. Everything you taught me has led me to this moment. I control my destiny."
Arminus was silent as he ran handfuls of earth through his fingers, rubbing the thick soil in his palms. The rich scent of damp loam mixed with herbs tinged the air. Alti felt she was going to suffocate, but she drew on the confidence that had never failed her. "I know what you're thinking, I always have. Well, you're wrong, old man. None of this matters, because Xena has no power now. As long as she lives, that power stays in that body. And as for meeting the other half of her soul - well, she'll never meet him. I've made sure of that." With a self-congratulatory smile, she turned away from the truth in his eyes.
She closed the outer door behind her, and said to one of her guards, "stay here. He's not to leave the house, and nobody is allowed to come in."
The rhythmic, incessant sound was barely perceptible. Xena took care to keep herself hidden in her dark corner, and worked at her manacle with a focus that, in better times, had won her wars and power. Now, that focus was directed solely at her wrist as she assiduously scraped stone against steel. Months worth of work, with the twin aims of gaining her freedom and providing her swinging mind with a purpose. Anything to help keep her semi-sane through this nightmare. Anything to stop her from thinking...of her hostage son, of her mistaken choices and lost chances...of what she would do if she ever got out of this stinking prison cell...
Although, sometimes she allowed herself the luxury of imagining what she would do to Alti when she did get out.
But mostly, it was to quiet her angry heart that still sometimes raged inside her, screaming and rabid, starving in its demand for blood-tinged revenge. Then, the madness that flowed through her, the images burned into her mind by Alti, would threaten to drown any last shreds of sanity - and she knew that if she were to survive, she needed her wits.
She paused abruptly, the sliver of stone gripped between two callused fingers. Sounds. Voices. Whose?
Her son's. And a stranger. A young female.
"Why are we down here? I thought you wanted to show me something, Solon?"
"You'll see." The boy was attempting to sound older, more impressive.
"I'm not sure about this...can we just go back?" The girl's voice was uncertain.
"Here - you take the candle." Solon's voice deepened. "Let me help you..."
"I can manage by myself, thank you. Don't you need your hands for something else?" There was a muttering, and the girl's voice came again. "Solon, we've talked about this. I'm too old for you. I came to you for information. We're friends...we help each other. That's all. I want to get out of here. This place gives me the creeps."
Their footsteps halted at the door of her cell, and Xena hurriedly stashed away her stone and turned her manacle around as she heard the key turn in the lock. As the door opened, she could see her jailer framed in the doorway.
"You know how Alti killed Xena?" Solon said.
"Yes, everyone knows that. That's how Alti became Conqueror." Xena could see a young blonde girl standing behind her son. "Look, this isn't funny, Solon."
"Wait. Watch." Solon patted her arm possessively. "Here, dog! Here, doggie doggie...!" There was no response. Solon saw the incredulous look on his companion's face, and strode deeper into the dim space. Gabrielle heard the muffled impact and then a gasp of pain, and saw a disheveled figure roll across the floor and curl itself into a foetal position. Solon looked back at Gabrielle, and smiled triumphantly.
"Solon! What are you doing?" she cried, grabbing his arm and trying to pull him out of the tiny, gloomy cell. She coughed as the rank odour hit her nose. "Oh Gods. What a way to live..." She spared a glance at the ragged figure on the floor; its form was hidden by a shapeless brown shift, and its face covered by filthy long hair.
The boy twisted away from her. "Don't you know who this is? This is Xena! She deserves it all. She deserves more than this!" He kicked out again, half afraid that his foot would connect. Xena swiftly rolled aside, as much as her shackles would let her.
"No-one deserves this! What's wrong with you?" The figure on the floor tensed as the girl's words echoed in the small confines.
Solon kicked out again. "She killed my mother and father! And thousands of others. Alti's told me what she's done...don't tell me what she deserves! She's an animal! If it weren't for Alti, she'd have killed me too!" His face darkened, and he drew back for one more attack. There was a snapping sound as the worn manacle broke, and before he could connect, he was picked up and tossed across the cramped space and against the cell door, slamming it shut and locking it on impact. He slid down the door, unconscious.
A stunned silence followed.
Gabrielle stared at the crumpled boy on the floor, and then slowly raised her shocked eyes to the bedraggled woman. With a heave, the prisoner pulled herself to her feet and wrenched herself free from her remaining chains. Gabrielle paled as the wild-eyed woman approached her, and backed up against the door next to Solon as Xena drew nearer. She closed her eyes against the sight of the gaunt and filthy figure as it grabbed Solon's uniform and dragged him to his feet roughly, all the while muttering guttural. The boy was still dazed, but awake, and Gabrielle tried not to be terrified as she heard the garbled oaths that the prisoner spewed. Solon struggled into consciousness and tried to grab for Xena. There was another crash and Gabrielle felt the door shake as, once again, the mad woman slammed Solon's body into it. She cracked open fear-filled eyes, and to her astonishment, saw Xena kneel down and with surprising gentleness, lift the head of the unconscious jailer as he once again lay slumped on the floor.
"Bring the candle closer," were her only words, spoken softly and huskily. With great trepidation, Gabrielle did so, crouching next to the former warlord. One eyelid was pried open, and then the other was examined in the candle's glow. Next, his arms and legs were examined thoroughly. "Nothing's broken." She turned, and for the first time looked at the girl next to her. "Grab an arm." Seeing the girl's terrified gaze, she added roughly. "He's coming with us."
Gabrielle's eyes were huge as she answered with a shaking voice, "us?" There was no response so she tried again. "What...what are you going to do with him?"
Xena ignored the trembling girl, searching for the key she knew was in one of the pockets of the boy. She found it and gazed at it with a triumphant gleam in her pale eyes. "He's tortured me for months." She turned a lopsided grin towards the shivering girl. "I'm sure I can think of something." The girl gulped. The prisoner shook her head, and snapped. "Do as I say!" Gabrielle grabbed a limp arm and stared back, wide-eyed. Xena flicked a quick glance around her cell and then again at the key in her palm. She grasped the girl's shoulder fiercely and stared deep into her terrified eyes. "This isn't a trick, is it? Don't lie to me, or I'll know. How did you get in here?"
"Solon brought me..."
Impatiently, Xena moved closer to the girl and said harshly. "I know that! Do you have a death wish? How do we get out of here?" The girl's breathing quickened in fear and she did not respond, so the prisoner pulled her white face even closer. "The only thing that is keeping you alive is the knowledge you have of what is outside that door. I am going out there with your help or you dead. Do you understand? I'd REALLY like to get out of here." She gestured at the walls. "The decor's lost its appeal lately," she said sarcastically. Gabrielle, looking at the dark, humourless face before her, gulped again and nodded.
"I know the way... But the other jailers..."
A sound that was close to a giggle escaped from the woman's mouth, which frightened Gabrielle almost more than anything else had up to that moment. "Oh, I'll deal with them," she promised, her eyes glowing in anticipation. Xena leaned in close to the boy, and to the astonishment of the girl, gently pressed a kiss to his forehead, before turning back to her. "So much to do," she whispered, and laughed again.
Together, once the door was unlocked, they scooped him up and half-carried, half-dragged him out of the cell.
They took Solon into an old temple that served as a refuge for the homeless children. Gabrielle found and quickly threw a tattered blanket onto the altar and Xena lifted the boy and carefully laid him down. "He should be back with us soon," she said, smoothing out his rumpled clothes and stroking his chest. She cast a surprised look at the silent and shaking girl next to her.
"What's wrong with you?"
"Those men...in the jail..." Gabrielle's voice wavered a little.
"Them or me. That's the way it is." The prisoner's voice was flat, uncaring.
"But...I've never seen anyone..."
"...killed before? Then you've been lucky," Xena snorted.
The girl seemed to draw herself together before her eyes. "No, I've seen people killed before. I've seen all sorts of deaths. I've just never seen anyone killed...well, the way you..." Gabrielle shook her head. "You seemed to enjoy it."
"Nothing like a good kill. And it's been a while." Xena smiled, sending spikes of fear running through Gabrielle's body.
"Then why not him?" Gabrielle gestured to the sleeping form on the altar. A brief flicker of emotion crossed the former Conqueror's face. Seeing it, Gabrielle frowned, puzzled.
"I have other plans for him." She gently touched the boy's face, and again Gabrielle wondered, but she allowed only her fear to show outwardly.
"I've heard of you," she babbled, deliberately. "I mean, who hasn't? The things they say about you...I always thought they were exaggerated. The killing...I mean, they say you killed thousands of people yourself. Is that true?" The older woman closed her eyes and stayed silent. "I guess it must be true. I guess you must need to be pretty ruthless to rule an empire. Look at Alti...."
Xena immediately sprang into life, startling Gabrielle with the intensity in her eyes as she snapped, "Alti! Don't talk to me about that bitch!" Gabrielle backed away as the woman growled and her face grew feral. "She's..." The young blonde's eyes narrowed briefly as she saw the trembling in the woman's hands. Xena sat slowly down at the foot of the altar and closed her eyes again.
Gabrielle started to back away towards the door, but was stopped when a low voice suddenly whispered into her ear, "Where do you think you're going?"
How had she moved so quickly? "Ahh...I was..."
"Leaving?" Xena chuckled. "I don't think so."
Real fear flooded through the young girl as she felt the firm flesh of the warrior pressing into her back; her arm screamed its pain as it twisted round her body, her wrist seized in a firm grip. She remembered what she'd seen those hands do effortlessly to a man an hour before, and shivered violently. "Please, let me go. I won't tell anyone. I promise."
"Trust you? Never trust nobody. Promises mean nothing - I know. No, you're staying here until I decide what I'm going to do with you. You could get in the way of my plans." Xena went to the door and locked it, placing the key somewhere under her tattered shift. With a barely perceptible sigh, she lowered herself carefully to the floor. Gabrielle was almost shocked to realize that this woman had finally reached the limits of her considerable strength.
"They...ahh, they look pretty painful." Gabrielle gestured to the open wounds that criss-crossed the warrior's arms. A particularly nasty looking gash on the side of one leg had opened up and was seeping fresh blood. She marvelled that the woman had been able to come this far.
Xena grunted in response.
"You need your wounds...and everything else, cleaned."
"No one touches me. I'll tend them myself," came the short answer.
"I know people who could help..."
The sentence was cut off abruptly as the warrior suddenly gripped the girl's throat and growled. "You tell no one. Got me? Anyone finds out I'm here and you die. No matter where you run. And I swear to the gods, I'll go after your family next."
Xena didn't see the cold look that came over the green eyes. "My family's already dead. And you don't have to threaten me. I only meant to help."
"I don't need any damned help." Xena released her grip, and levered herself upright. She checked on Solon again, nodding to herself and murmuring occasionally; Gabrielle could catch the odd word, but could make no sense of the woman.
"What are you going to do when he comes round?" Gabrielle asked warily, as Xena picked up the boy's head and rocked it.
"I have plans."
"You said that earlier. You said you had plans for Alti too. What did you mean?"
In response, Xena bared her teeth, and carried on rocking the boy.
"Are you planning to kill her?"
"What do you think?"
"And then what?"
"What do you mean?"
Gabrielle drew cautiously closer, to look in the eyes of the woman cradling Solon. They burned a fevered blue. "What will you do once you've killed her? Are you planning to take back your throne?"
Xena's eyes became even more glazed. "Throne? For what? Power destroys. All I want is to kill Alti. All I can think of now is how I'm going to make her feel...I want to feel the soft give of her throat as I slice it with my dagger...feel the thick warmth of her blood as it oozes onto my hands...I want to see the fear in her eyes and hear her begging for her life. I want to take all her fear and shove it down her throat until she chokes on it..." The woman continued to rant, but the words were too garbled to hear.
Gabrielle shivered at the primeval satisfaction that etched the weary face, but prodded her again. "Alti isn't afraid of anyone."
"She's afraid of me," Xena smirked, in tired satisfaction.
Cautiously, Gabrielle continued to probe. "She has power...she can do things that ordinary people can't. They say she's half god..."
"She's just a hag who can run a good con. But she's clever. I need to think how I can get to her..." Xena said, half speaking to herself.
"That'd be difficult. There are guards everywhere, and Commander Darphus is with her pretty much all of the time. And then of course, she knows what's going on anyway. They say she can read minds, you know. She probably already knows where we are...she probably can hear you now..." Gabrielle ran on, watching the older woman with calculating eyes.
Xena stretched her neck muscles, and there was an audible pop. She stared at the girl with a flat hard gaze. "You talk too much. Go to sleep. You don't want to make me angry, do you?"
Gabrielle shook her head, and closed her eyes, waiting for exhaustion to overtake the woman. She had much to think about.
To be continued...
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