The Last Conqueror
Kamouraskan and Lariel
For disclaimers and credits, please see part 1
Crouching behind the low bush, Gabrielle waited, breathing shallowly, until the guard had moved on. The last thing she needed now was to be caught - Xena had set her a test, and she couldn't afford to fail. She had too much at stake.
"Okay, Gabrielle. You say you can get things...I need something."
"Okay. What do you need?"
"Herbs, and other plants. Valerian, the seeds of a red poppy, and chamomile. And...very important if we're to hit Alti where it hurts - mugwort."
"The others should be no problem, but the mugwort?"
"Spiritual projection. She did it to me, and now it's her turn. Without that herb, I won't be able to get to Alti through her dreams. I want to see that bitch terrified. We have to destroy her confidence before we can do anything else. I plan on giving her some real nightmares."
"Well, the mugwort might be difficult. I think I know a place where I can get it though, but the guy who lives there is kinda creepy..."
The guard seemed to have settled into his position as official leaner against the door. Gabrielle sighed, and thought about the layout of the garden. She needed to get in there; it was the only place she knew that might have mugwort. She'd heard that Alti had put this place under guard, but she hadn't realised how closely secured the little house on the outskirts of town was. To complicate things further, the soldiers appeared to be some of Alti's best men, judging by the palace insignia on their uniforms.
"Interesting," she mused, "Why would Alti be so worried about an old man?" She filed the question away for later, and crept as quietly as she could round to the wooded area at the back of the little garden, crawling over scrub and through bushes bristling with sharp branches and thorns as she wormed her way closer to a shady corner of the garden, pausing frequently to check that she was still unseen and safe.
Finally, she slid out from beneath a leafy shrub and crouched down in the dappled green space, the gentle aroma of crushed herbs wafting around her as she crawled along the fence in search of the plant Xena had demanded. She wasn't even sure she knew what it looked like.
"Hello, Gabrielle." A soft voice, barely a whisper on the breeze, jolted her out of her preoccupation. Alarmed, she glanced up and then heaved a relieved sigh when she saw who it was. She stood, brushing the dirt and tangles from her knees and dress.
"Hello, Arminus." She greeted the old man with a soft smile. "I didn't hear you - guess I must be losing my edge, huh?"
"You have other things on your mind today," he replied, softly stroking the hair from her eyes. "Here's the mugwort." He handed her a small package which she unwrapped carefully. Inside, she found a fine brown-green powder.
"Thank you, Arminus." She refolded it carefully. Nervous green eyes turned towards him. "How... how did you know I wanted this?" The old man simply smiled, and turned to go. "Wait!" she called softly, "Is there anything you need? Anything I can get you?"
He turned opaque eyes onto her, and for a moment she almost imagined she could see lights and colours flickering in their depths. She blinked, and his eyes cleared. "Balance," was his reply.
She frowned, confused. "Excuse me?"
"The triangle is forming again. You will complete it."
His face was solemn, and for some unaccountable reason, Gabrielle felt afraid. She shrank back into the bush, and the comforting smell of rosemary enveloped her. His voice danced in her head, like rain on the rooftops and in the puddles on the street; incessant and delicate, yet penetrating. "The two always need you to counterbalance - you are the fulcrum. But be careful, and choose wisely. One corner of the triangle holds a great darkness - it will smother any light it finds. And if that happens, all hope will go from the world. Choose carefully, Gabrielle."
"What do you mean? What triangle? How can I make choices when I don't know what you mean?" Anxiously, she searched his eyes for an answer, but found only compassion.
"You have a good heart. Let it guide you."
"How do you know all this?"
He smiled, gently. "I know."
Gabrielle felt as though she was falling into a spider's web, its silken skeins softly wrapping around her limbs, tightening and trapping her. With a slight trace of fear, she asked, "I don't think I'm the one you mean..." Like a doomed fly trapped in the web, she struggled against destiny.
He reached over and took her hand. "I've been waiting for you for a long time." His voice faded, and she woke as from a dream.
"I'm not sure I understand." Blinking and confused, she glanced around but the old man had gone, as though he had melted into the ground. Her fist tightened around the tiny packet in her palm; it felt real, solid. She took one last look, and crept away silently.
"We know where she is."
Darphus had rushed to bring the news to his leader and now stood, flushed and happy, before her. But Alti was more concerned with something else.
"What about whoever helped her?"
Darphus smiled. "That's who came to us. A youth. Apparently they run a sort of blackmarket shelter for runaways and orphans. Quite the do-gooder. Only wanted medicines and food for turning her in. Not even a single dinar in gold."
Alti's eyes gleamed. "A do-gooder? Who happened to stumble onto Xena and free her? I knew it! Bring them to me. NOW!"
Darphus stuttered. "B-but we had to let them go, or Xena might have become suspicious. But we can take them anytime. I can give the orders now, when we take the... take Xena."
"Do it. Do it now. And take great care with that youth. Do you understand? I want them alive when they are brought to me. They are as important to me as Xena. Perhaps even more so."
Gabrielle paused for a moment to take a breath. The air in the cramped tunnel was dank and warm, and she could feel each breath dragging through her lungs as she crawled along its length. She closed her eyes against her fear, and focused instead on Xena. How would she react when she popped out through the back of the altar?
It was her own fault. She had been concentrating on the Shaman's message and the part she might be forced to play, and she'd missed the first whistled warnings and had almost walked into the trap that had been laid for her. The temple had been surrounded by Alti's personal guard. Without any hesitation, she had gone to one of the many tunnels that had been maintained by her 'family' to make an escape possible. It was only now that she was beginning to have doubts about how the woman at the end of her journey would react. She prayed to whatever God might listen and protect her, and rapped first on the door before cautiously opening it. "At least she doesn't have any weapons," was her last thought before she pushed through the tiny doorway.
The next thought was "Wrong!" as she felt one strong arm grab her while another held cold steel to her throat. "Solon had a knife." She managed a small curse, before gasping out, "Alti's men! They've surrounded the temple. We have to get out now!"
Xena's eyes were still glazed but suspicious, and to forestall the inevitable question Gabrielle ground out, "Yes, I lied! I had a way to get out of here all along. But I didn't have to tell every maniac who kidnapped me and threatened my life twice a candlemark, did I?"
Xena's lips quirked, and she lowered the knife. "How many guards?"
"Too many. And they'll be kicking in the door in a few minutes. They're just waiting until they're all in position. We have to go now." Gabrielle tugged impatiently on the warrior's arm.
Xena pointed to the still unconscious boy on the altar. "We have to take him too."
"No. I won't help you hurt him any more."
"You don't understand, I don't plan to kill him, I just..." She trailed off.
Gabrielle stood up above the crouching warrior princess. "Just what? What can he do to you? I've put my life on the line to come and help you. We don't have time for games."
Xena grasped the girl's hand, and stared directly into her eyes. "He's my son."
Gabrielle could make no reply; too stunned, she looked first at the woman, then at Solon. The likeness was faint, but it was there around the eyes. "But he believes you killed his mother, and his father. Why didn't you tell him?"
"Just another way for Alti to torture me. She knew I would never tell him."
"It kept him safe. Alti kept him alive as long as he hated me as his parents' murderer. And... how could I let him know his mother was a butcher, an animal? How could I give him a legacy like that?"
There was such misery in the tone that Gabrielle almost forgot who this woman was. She gripped the hand still holding hers and said softly, "But you're wrong. Look at what you've put yourself through, to protect him. He would've understood. You should've given him the chance."
"Would you understand? Would you want to know?"
"To find out my mother was still alive? Yes," Gabrielle replied, simply.
The sadness that Gabrielle could see in Xena's eyes lifted a little, and she opened her mouth to speak just as there was a pounding at the main temple doors.
"The door's barricaded, but that won't hold them long," Xena shouted over the roars of the men outside and the battering of the heavy wooden doors. Both women ran to the altar and began lifting the boy onto the injured warrior's back. As they crawled into the tunnel with Solon stretched out on top of Xena, he stirred and moaned. Gabrielle was about to warn Xena that he was coming to and that the noise would alert the guards, when an almost casual fist rapped his head and he slumped unconscious again. Even in the dim light Gabrielle could see the grim smile.
"Mother knows best," Xena said.
Xena settled Solon onto the small pallet bed, tied his hands together and pulled the thin blanket over him. From a table in the centre of the next room, a group of children watched warily. He stirred, and tried to sit up; noticing who held his shoulders, he stiffened in both fear and contempt.
"Take your filthy murdering hands off me!" Xena almost cringed at the look of hatred which was being directed at her from eyes so like her own. She dropped his shoulders, and he sat up.
"Don't even think of going anywhere," she warned.
"What are you going to do? Kill me later? Keep me for when you get bored? I know all about you - Alti..."
"She knows nothing! Do you hear me?" Furious blue eyes bored into his, and he shrank back onto the pillow, burned by the intensity of a hatred which matched his own. "Don't you ever mention that woman's name to me again..."
"She brought me up when my mother was killed by your army! She's been good to me...she's my only family, thanks to you."
Livid, Xena lashed out at the boy. The sound of the slap echoed around the room, and brought Gabrielle hurrying in. Remorse instantly appeared on Xena's face as the boy's cheek turned pink, and she reached out a hand to him. "I'm..."
He turned on his side, burying his face in the mattress, to hide the tears that slowly began to roll down his cheeks.
"What are you DOING? Solon? Are you okay?" demanded Gabrielle from the doorway. She hurriedly put down a jug of water, and placed it on the floor next to the pallet. She glared at the shamefaced woman until the blue eyes dropped to the floor. She made a cursory check of Solon before being pushed aside by the boy. She stood and spoke clearly, with some anger. "You will not do that here. I don't care what agreement we have, you will not hurt any child under this roof. Do you understand? This is a shelter from exactly that sort of thing, and I will not bring it in here."
Xena stared up at the small blonde girl who was lecturing her. Had she not been so ashamed it might have occurred to her that she could do anything she wanted and the girl wouldn't be able to stop her. But instead she could not face Gabrielle, and only nodded agreement.
"Fine." But then her voice softened. "Not that I don't understand, that you don't have reasons, but there isn't any excuse that will be accepted here, okay?"
Again the older woman nodded.
"Okay," Gabrielle said. Xena went over to the bed, but Solon rolled to face the wall. She stood there, unsure for a moment before Gabrielle took her hand and led her away.
Immediately trailing after Gabrielle were the most curious of the children. She reminded Xena of a mother duck, shepherding her fledglings around.
"So..." Xena began, clearly trying to struggle for control. "You think we'll be okay here?" Gabrielle knew that wasn't really the question; she reached out a cautious hand and made to touch Xena's elbow gently for a moment. The expression of fear in the ragged woman's eyes stopped her dead. She answered as though nothing had occurred, but made another mental note.
"Don't worry. This place is my home, and these kids are my family. They won't tell anyone you're here - you have my word on that. They had to learn some lessons in some pretty tough places, and they know when to keep quiet." Gabrielle put an arm around the thin shoulders of one of her "family", kissed the child's cheek and then tickled his ribs until he shrieked and giggled and squirmed.
Despite herself, Xena smiled. "They're so young. What makes you so sure they..."
Before she could finish, Gabrielle chased the small boy out of the room before returning to answer coldly, "Because they're used to it. Kids have to grow up fast around here, if they want to survive."
"Because of people like Alti. And me." Xena's eyes were shadowed as she watched the small group of children gather around the little rickety table and start laying out their meal. Their ages ranged from about five through to fifteen. Gabrielle seemed barely more than a kid herself.
"Yes," Gabrielle stated, honestly. "Come on - we should get something to eat. Then you should get cleaned up." The former prisoner realised for the first time how grimy she was, and after a few cursory sniffs of various body parts, followed Gabrielle into the other room. A tense silence fell over the collected group as the fabled Destroyer of Nations entered.
"Don't worry," Gabrielle reassured them. "This is Xena - she's my... She'll be staying with us for a while." At the pause, warrior looked curiously at the blonde but didn't comment.
"Xena? I thought she was burning in Tartarus?" questioned one wide-eyed toddler.
"She should be," remarked another.
"I heard she ate children. Ground up their bones and fed them to her dogs," a little auburn haired cherub offered.
"How can this be Xena if she's burning in Tartarus?" the first persisted.
"Can we trust her?" questioned one of the older children, looking anxiously at Gabrielle. Guilt and shame washed over the warrior as the realization hit her; a child of about twelve had just asked whether she would endanger them by giving away their secret hideaway. Not to mention the impression they had of her. She looked up to see Gabrielle's green eyes staring directly at her. She shrugged, and gave the most friendly and reassuring smile she could.
"How about we cut a deal? I won't tell on you, if you don't tell on me." There was a pause before there were hesitant nods around the table. "And I promise I won't grind up your bones."
Gabrielle breathed a small sigh of relief before ordering them all to wash their hands while she portioned out their bread, fruit and cheese. She picked up two plates and pulled Xena aside.
"What's the plan?" she questioned.
Xena shoved the food around her plate for a while before taking a small bite of bread. "Got the herbs?" She raised a brow as she tasted the bread - she'd forgotten that bread had a flavour. Gabrielle, chewing on a piece of food, threw her the little package. "Good. We'll start tonight." Gabrielle nodded. "Gods, this tastes good. Guess I'd gotten used to prison slop." She gratefully shoved some more food into her mouth.
Gabrielle paused, then placed the remainder of her bread onto Xena's plate. "You seem a lot better," she observed.
"Mmm," Xena mused. "I feel better." And a lot more clear-headed, she realised. There was still a feeling of uncertainty about what she was experiencing, and she wouldn't have been surprised to wake and find herself still in her cell. Or in Chin; her sense of reality had become so blurred. But for the first time in she wasn't sure how long, she was able to force down her unease and rage while not being in control of her environment. Could just being out of that cell have made such a difference? She looked to the girl at her side and found herself drawing some kind of strength from what appeared to be her genuine concern. "A lot better. C'mon - it's time. Alti's been having sweet dreams for much too long."
"I still don't understand why this is so important."
"Alti's a performer, her strength comes from her confidence and the fear she sucks out of the people around her. But I noticed that whenever things didn't work out as she planned, she'd grow weaker. We need her to be afraid."
"You make her sound like she's just some sort of bully."
"Bully, con artist, it's all the same. If things are falling apart like you say, she just needs a few nudges. And I'm gonna enjoy giving her this one."
The smile did nothing to reassure Gabrielle. The shaman's words echoed in her memory. "...a great darkness - it will smother any light it finds..." She shivered. "What are you going to do?"
Xena stared past her to some point far away. "There's one thing that Alti fears. I wonder how she'll react if she thinks it's happened?"
One of the children interrupted the blonde before she could ask the obvious question. "Gabrielle. That man you came in with?"
"You mean Solon?"
The child nodded. "He's gone."
His bed was empty, the rumpled sheet pushed down and the window opened. Xena's fist crashed into the mattress, and then into the wall. "Damn! He'll go straight back to Alti."
"He knows where we are. We'll have to leave - all of us." Gabrielle thought fast, taking charge as Xena continued to fume and rant. She called her family together, and started arranging their move. "Phedaera, make sure Perdicus hears what's happened. He'll know where to hide you all. There's another place Xena and I can hide out at - it's rough, but it's safe." The kids turned accusatory glares onto Xena, which she tried unsuccessfully to ignore.
All she could see was black and red, swirling and wild like a maelstrom as she ran down the tunnel, chasing after the mocking voice that had dragged her into this place. But the voice was half lost; deafened by the insidious whispering and murmuring that surrounded her, crept inside her expanding skull and fixed onto her brain like a leech. On the edges of her consciousness, the voice taunted.
"The prophecy is coming true, Alti." She reached out her hands, and watched in horror as the fingers twisted, joints thickened and skin toughened like bark. "And you are helpless. You can't stop it." Laughter rippled through the air, sending a torturing breeze burning across Alti's sensitized ears. She screamed soundlessly as she watched her arms turn into tree branches. "Who's the powerful one now, bitch? You're impotent." She could feel her body thickening, feel her bones becoming roots and branches... "You're mine!"
"No!" she at last managed to break through the spell. "I'll find you, Xena! You can't escape me!"
The voice came again, a faint snickering on the burning wind. "I've found my soulmate, Alti. I've found the balance... there's nothing you can doš"
"NO!" With a scream, Alti sprung upright in her drenched bed, heart thudding as the nightmare left its mark on her conscious mind. "Xena!" she swore, before calling to her guards.
The dungeon door swung open. Perdicus was dragged to his feet as Alti entered the cell, closely followed by a swaggering Solon, though still pale and weak from his recent ordeal. The petrified street kid quaked as he saw the expression on Alti's face; she clutched his face and screamed at him.
"So you're the boss of this underground organisation? The one who broke Xena out of my dungeon?" His eyes widened in terror, but he nodded his agreement. "You're nothing! Where is she? Tell me!"
"I don't know who you mean," he stuttered. She made a motion, and the next moment he was bent double and gasping as the pain seared his kidneys.
"Tell me where she IS!" she demanded again.
"It was me...I did it..." he choked out.
"It was Gabrielle all along, wasn't it?" Alti looked to Solon for confirmation of the name.
Perdicus started, and then closed his eyes as he heard Gabrielle's name. "No, I am the leader. Not Gabrielle...leave her alone..."
"Why did you lie to me? You should've known that you couldn't fool me...I can see into your soul." Alti's switch of tactics had its effect and she was pleased to see the boy's eyes widen further. "Shall I look into your soul, boy?" She grinned humourlessly, and thin fingers clutched at his temples as she slowly drew his face nearer. He started shaking as he fought his fear.
"I warned her this would happen, why would she want to help Xena?" he blurted, "She always wants to help people, and she doesn't think about herself, that she might get hurt!"
"Of course. I'm sure she only wants to help people. I know she is a light in the darkness. Xena will hurt her...that's what she does. If you tell me where she is, I can help her."
"I'd rather die than have you anywhere near her!" he gasped out, his eyes avoiding hers.
"You love her?" He nodded. "Does she love you?" He remained silent. "So. She loves you. That's good." She patted his cheek and released him; he slumped to the filthy floor, defeated. Alti cast him a last contemptuous look, and then left the room. Outside, she turned to Solon.
"Good work, Solon."
"Thank you Empress. I know where my loyalties lie," he replied, bowing his head.
"This Gabrielle will be mine soon. It's easy to bend someone to your will when you have love as a weapon. The boy will lure her here."
"What will you do once you have her?"
"Oh, just talk. I'll give her some choices." A strange smile crept across her face. "We have the future to discuss. And Xena to destroy."
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