The Last Conqueror
Kamouraskan and Lariel
For disclaimers and credits, please see part 1
Alti's lieutenant whirled about, and then froze. "Xena?" His voice echoed through the silent night. "Xena, is that you....?" There was still no answer, but the shadows of the deserted street seemed to come alive; shapeless forms reached towards him, echoes of a woman he had once respected and feared. He spoke quietly to the air. "So it was an act all along, you being crazy?"
For a moment he thought - no, hoped - that he had only imagined the whispering voice, but it came again, low and mocking; flowing into his terrified ears like poisoned honey. "Why shouldn't I kill you now, Darphus? Answer me that...."
In his confusion, he could hear her voice coming from all around him. He felt surrounded by it, and he spun around again until he lost all sense of direction, and still he couldn't tell where she was. He faced the darkest part of the alley and spoke without a tremor. "Because you need to find out how we knew that you were in the old temple."
He waited, his breathing tight.
"Ah, Darphus... How proud Alti would be. You've always been so loyal."
"You always knew where I stood."
"True. Always wherever was safest for you." Her voice was taunting.
"No. Against weakness. Alti was stronger than you, and now..."
"And now Alti can't hold the Empire together."
"Yes. The Empress is..."
"The bitch's name, Darphus. Call her by her name!"
"Alti! Alti only knows how to terrorize. You were always more... versatile."
"Such compliments." There was a rushing sound and his throat was suddenly held in a remorseless grip. "Tell me how you knew..." Xena whispered lovingly.
Darphus gasped out the information. "It was the one who resc... who helped you escape. The street kid... came to me, asked about the reward. Then took it in medicine and food, and told us where to find you."
Darphus was not surprised to be flung abruptly to the ground, but he was astonished to hear the mixed cry of pain and anger from the warrior as it was done. He lay there, afraid to move, waiting. Finally he asked the dark figure above him, "What are you going to do?"
"Don't you mean, am I going to let you live?"
"Yes," he admitted.
"You want life insurance? You're not a very good risk, and these are troubled times."
"I could help, you need me..."
Xena laughed. "You know, all sorts of people keep offering me help, and I stupidly accept it. Not anymore. I only need one thing. You know what that is."
The chakram. Darphus swallowed. "I can't. The Em... Alti keeps it with her on the throne..."
"I thought you'd made your choice. I'll give you until dawn. But only if you want to see the sun rise tomorrow."
The threat hung in the air until it floated away into the chill grey of dusk like a bubble carried on the breeze. Xena was gone, and for a moment, he wondered if she had ever been there. The damp sweat on his brow and palms indicated to him that she had. Damn both these women and their games. Perhaps it was time to find a third option. King Alexander was ambitious, and might need an experienced aide de camp. He closed his eyes, and thought about the chaos he knew would soon be coming.
A change in the air, an unfamiliar sound, pure luck; Gabrielle didn't know what shook her from her sleep. All she knew was that she woke abruptly, to see the petrifying sight of the Destroyer of Nations standing over her with her sword in a white knuckled grip, teeth clenched in a death's head grimace and eyes boring a hole through Gabrielle's skull.
"Xena?" Gabrielle rubbed her eyes, convinced she was dreaming. The warrior raised the sword, an agonised cry accompanying the gesture. "Xena - what are you doing?" She tried to rise, to roll away from the sword, but the warrior had her pinned by the legs. The sword didn't come down. "Xena...please?"
"The medicines and food were delivered. I thought you'd like to know." The tone was harsh, mocking.
The girl desperately tried to shake the fog from her mind. "Where have you been?"
"You betrayed me!" The words were torn from Xena's throat.
"I...what betrayal? What medicines? What are you talking about?" Her hands were up, making placating gestures as the livid woman stood over her, sword shaking in fury. "Xena, please - put the sword down!"
"I should've guessed. Prison's made me soft - trusting someone, even if they do look like an innocent. You're no innocent!"
"No, I'm not. I never said I was. But betray you? Why would I? We have a deal, remember?" Gabrielle worked desperately; her only hope was the faintest trace of reluctance that she thought she could see deep in the warrior's eyes. "You don't want to do this... I know you don't." Gabrielle's cheek stung from a blow that sent her head crashing to the side, and she cried out in surprise and pain.
"You don't know me, little girl, or you wouldn't have betrayed me - nobody does that, and lives." Xena closed her eyes for a moment and in that instant Gabrielle rolled and screamed.
"Don't you touch me again! I told you once before..." Tears of anger and hurt seeped through the girl's eyelids, but she lashed out and landed a kick to Xena's legs. It was enough to send the distracted warrior off balance, and gave Gabrielle the chance she needed to get to her feet quickly. "You want to kill me? Go ahead! What have I got to lose?" Xena blinked a little, then raised her sword again. "You think I like living like this? Scrabbling around for food, always looking over my shoulder? Always afraid that someday I'll be the one on a cross, or another of my friends, because I couldn't protect them? I hate being this helpless!"
"You betrayed me, you little bitch!" Xena clung to her truth, against the onslaught of words and the sight of tears that coursed down the cheeks of the young woman in front of her.
"I never betrayed you - I don't even know what you're talking about! I tried to help you," Gabrielle spat back at her, furious and stung, and scared. "Look where it's got me."
The Warrior raised her sword again. "You told Alti where we were." She spoke as though it was a judgment. Gabrielle shook her head dully.
"Why would I do that? When?"
"How else did they know we were in the temple? It had to be you!"
"I got you out of there! If I'd told them, why didn't I just leave you there? Think, Xena... stop feeling, and just think!"
'Stop willing... stop wanting, Xena... silence your will, if only for a moment...'
'... all life is balance, Xena... find that which completes you...'
The sword dropped with a clatter, and the warrior grasped her head as half remembered words from an almost lost time echoed through her mind. Lao Ma?
Gabrielle watched, warily. "Are you alright?" She made to move forward, but hesitated as she watched the woman struggle with some inner demons. Again, the Shaman's words rose unbidden from her memory as she watched the warrior finally pull herself together; 'a great darkness - it will smother any light it finds.'
"You were going to kill me," she said, flatly.
"I still might," Xena replied, but the fire in her voice was gone.
"You don't trust me. Great. Without any proof, any evidence, you thought I'd do something like that." She snorted in disgust. "Go to Tartarus, and believe what you like. This partnership's over." Gabrielle turned, but was halted by Xena's sardonic question.
"In a hurry to pack up and quit, aren't you? What - have to run to Alti to see if she's still handing out rewards?"
The girl didn't turn around but the tightening of her shoulders was evidence that the remark had stung. "What is it with you? If money was the thing, I would've turned you in long before now." Xena was completely surprised when the smaller woman spun about, and dumbfounded to feel two rapid shoves to her chest. "Haven't you listened to anything I've said? Well, I'm NOT going to stay to be infected with whatever's inside you. It's dark, and alive and it scares me, Xena. I thought I could work with it, but maybe I can't. You've made it clear you're too crazy to think anything through. What's left?"
"I guess I was wrong about you too. No words left, no arguments? I thought you had more determination than this. You give up so easily; what good would you be to me?" Why am I even talking to her? Why am I letting her shove me, and kick me? Why don't I just kill her now?
"Think for just one minute! Think about what I've already done for you!" The fiery green eyes were back, blazing into Xena's consciousness. "I've risked my life, lost my home and had to split up my family...that isn't enough? What more do you want from me? My soul too?"
Xena's nostrils flared as the word registered. Her eyes narrowed as she remembered the prophecy. It couldn't be... she couldn't be. Could she? What would that mean? If only her head was clearer...
"I was told it was a street kid. If not you, then who? Who else knew we were in the temple? You've got more than twenty baskets of supplies sent by Alti personally at one of your drops!"
"Yeah. I thought you would've held out for at least fifty." The mocking sneer on Xena's face stung Gabrielle.
"You don't know what you're talking about. Prison's left you crazy. You know damn well nobody knew where we were hiding. Well..." Her voice trailed off. "...except Perdicus..." The two women stared at each other. "No, he wouldn't..." But there was resignation in her voice.
"Somebody did. If not you, then..." Xena let the unfinished sentence hang in the air. "Darphus said it was the street kid who helped me escape." There was still a faint trace of suspicion in her voice, and the recognition of it made Gabrielle's temper rise again.
"Do you want to believe it was me who betrayed you?" Xena remained silent, but shrugged her shoulders. Sighing, Gabrielle replied, "For the last time, it wasn't me. Whether you believe me or not, that isn't the way I do things. It must've been Perdicus. I knew he was worried. He didn't believe in me either. He probably thought he was protecting me."
"These are your family?"
"Don't you talk about him like that! He is my family." Gabrielle's tear stained face was now red with worry and anger.
"Was your family. He's as good as dead now." Xena's voice was flat; she turned away - ending the conversation. What was the point of continuing it? The stupid boy had made his own fate. But a hand grasped her elbow insistently.
"I'm not leaving him there!"
"You idiot - if you want to die, why did you argue with me just now? For some reason, Alti thinks he helped me escape. She's spent the last year waiting for someone to try and she'll assume he's the one from a prophecy made a long time ago. He's either dead by now, or will be soon enough, and so will you be if you go in there alone." The expression on the girl's face was unmistakable, and the former Conqueror groaned out loud. "Oh... no! I'm not going in there... forget it! I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid."
"You want Alti, don't you?" The girl's voice was quiet, but taunting. "How're you going to get her, if you're too scared to go into the castle? Or are you only brave enough to go sneaking into her nightmares, like last night?" Xena's eyes turned cold; Gabrielle pressed her advantage. "Besides, we can't stay here." She swept her arm around the derelict old barn. "It's not safe anymore. Not with the extra guards Alti's put on patrol."
"We? I thought our partnership was over?" Xena sneered.
"You changed my mind, isn't that what you wanted? You need me, and as much as I hate to admit it, I need you too. We don't have to like each other to work together."
"No." Seeing the girl's face grow hard again, Xena quickly added, "Okay - so it wasn't you... But I have reasons not to trust anyone. So don't presume we have anything other than a deal."
"I guess not." Gabrielle agreed. "But you don't have much choice really, do you? Neither of us does. We both want Alti off the throne..."
"I want her dead. I don't care about the throne."
"... so we have to work together. What do we do next?"
Xena thought for a moment. A glint came into her eye, and she smiled, calculatingly. "Maybe the safest place to hide is in plain sight. Okay - you've got what you wanted. We'll leave tomorrow. You better get some sleep."
"What about you?" asked Gabrielle warily, as she moved towards the heap of blankets in the corner of the dilapidated room.
"I have another date with an old 'friend'." She smiled coldly as she tipped powdered herbs onto the tiny, crackling fire.
Gabrielle was about to pull the blankets over herself, when her curiosity got the better of her. "Who is Lao Ma?"
"Where did you hear that name?" the warrior growled, the herbs forgotten.
"From you, just now. When you were about to... when you dropped your sword. You said 'Lao Ma'."
There was a long silence, until Gabrielle assumed there would be no answer to her question. Then surprising herself, Xena tried to explain. "She was a teacher, but more than that. A friend. She tried to teach me... but it's only been while I was in Alti's prison that I've begun to understand what she meant."
"Where is she now?"
"Dead. Alti killed her. Because of me." There was a long silence, as Xena stared into the distance, aware she was sifting through memories which she had kept locked away. Just as Gabrielle was about to lie down again, Xena continued, in a barely audible voice, "I got control of Chin by becoming Regent for her son. It was too great a prize to let one woman's life stand in our way."
"But thinking of her made you drop your sword."
With narrowed eyes, the warrior observed Gabrielle for a while, before turning back to her herbs. "What you said, it reminded me of something she said once," she said casually as she raked the burning brands of the tiny fire, sending a small shower of sparks into the air.
"And that made you stop and think? Maybe I should know more about her?" Gabrielle ventured, watching as the falling sparks played across Xena's eyes like a meteor shower through a stormy dusk sky.
"Stop asking questions," she ordered. "It won't stop me if there's a next time. You got your one chance. That's more than I gave anyone else." She broke her last stick of firewood, and jammed it into the heart of the fire.
"But even if we make a deal, the Persians might still rise."
"They won't dare!"
"They will if they think there's a chance amid the confusion. Let's face it, Alti isn't Xena, and
Darius already knows that. He may be making preparations already. He fought with Xena when she drove the Romans back. He learned a lot from her, not just how to fight on the field but how to wage a campaign. He was one of her admirers, but he is first and foremost a Persian."
"Sounds like he'd be a useful man to have around here." Caspius handed out the goblets of rich, sweet wine that lubricated the throats of his comrades as they discussed their options outside the hearing of the Conqueror.
"If we move against Alti with Chin's support," answered Claudius, fingering the ornate brooch that secured his heavily embroidered toga in place, "Would he back off until the dust settled? Would he join us?"
"If Darius was sure that this empire was beginning to break up, he'd find the men to move quickly. As would any of us." They all turned as the young, auburn haired man stepped forward. He'd entered without any flourish, and they all tried not to react with too much surprise. "Darius knows each of us. He'd be in this room, and not outside planning an attack, if Xena had lived. Xena didn't have time to finish the campaign - Alti saw to that. Any good Commander knows that you don't leave a proud and humiliated nation on your doorstep without either bringing them onside, or crushing them completely."
"True, Alexander. Xena would've ground them into the dust, the same as she did the Egyptians and the Gauls."
"Wrong, Illianus." The rebuke was gently spoken, but self-assured. "She would've brought them into the Empire as she did Rome and Chin. It's harder to fight something when you're a part of it. As each of us knows. Xena understood how to run an empire." Alexander held out his goblet; the wine was poured, and a few scarlet drops fell onto his wrist. He wiped the liquid onto his jerkin.
"The Persians have been the old enemy of Greece for thousands of years. Their name still brings fear." Caspius glanced anxiously around the small anteroom that they were currently gathered in. "Maybe if news of this were to get out..."
"What, Caspius? Do you hope that the people will overthrow Alti in fear of the Persians?" Claudius tossed him a disdainful look. "Don't be such a fool. She's got the Empire - and us - still too tightly wrapped up in fear. Talk of an invasion would bind them closer together and play right into her hands. And where will that leave us? Rome is not ready to fight another war alone. We need unity and we need the Dragon. And we might not be able to make any deals with Darius if he believes he can win it all."
Alexander spoke again. "Maybe Rome isn't ready. But the Persians are. And so is Macedonia." Although the room was filled with wolves of many varieties, all conversation stopped when the young king of Macedonia spoke. Resentment and petty jealousies were no match for the recognition of his talent. "And so it would seem is Chin," he continued. "If we were to band together, we would find ourselves allies in a common cause, not enemies. If say, the Green Dragon were to join forces with us, that alone would bring Darius to the negotiating table. We've all heard the reports of this army from Chin; ten thousand men on their way here, plus a contingent of their best infantry. We know what formidable fighters the Chinese can be. And we've heard the stories about Ming Tien. With him as a partner, we could be creating stability, not more adversaries."
"The Chinese are a relatively small force, despite the rumours of their weapons. And how long would we all remain as partners, Alexander? How long before one of the partners made a decision based on his own self-interest?" Claudius' tone was a clear rebuke and underlined his distrust of the younger man.
"I would think we would want to deal with each crisis in its time. I'm more concerned with surviving until that becomes a problem. The loyalties of the partners can be dealt with if we're still here to argue." Alexander pronounced. "Anyway Claudius, don't you believe a good leader sees opportunities, not problems?"
The others nodded, their expressions lifting. "Then the question would be..." Claudius fingered his goatee, "...how can we work together?"
"No," Alexander countered. "Or at least more exactly, the question is, what are we willing to give and take, what will have to be sacrificed, in order to work together."
There was a buzz of muted conversation. Alexander, listening quietly, flicked a brief glance around the room. For an instant, his eyes locked with another pair that was hidden in the darkest shadows of the room. The slim Amazon had been nodding thoughtfully at his words, before disappearing. He stared at the empty space where she'd been, then turned back to his colleagues with a pensive air.
He hummed quietly to himself as he strolled down the stone corridor, holding the candle up so its weak beams could pick out the uneven stone slabs under his feet. A slight rustle; maybe the wind catching the tapestries... he barely caught the sound, but next thing he knew, he was grabbed by the arm and thrust up against the wall. A warm body pressed into his, pinning him securely in place and fists bunched into his jerkin for good measure. He dropped the candle, scattering wax all over the floor.
"Gabrielle? What are... how did you...?"
"Where is he?"
"Who?" The youth's eyes shifted away from the green ones that were boring into him.
"Don't play games with me, Solon. Where's Perdicus?" The blonde's eyes narrowed, her temper livid in her face.
"Where he belongs, in jail. And that's where you'll be too when I tell Alti..." he blustered, trying to push her off, but she tightened her grip on his front.
"You've probably already told her all about me, how I helped Xena. Just couldn't wait to run back to her, could you?"
"Where is your friend? Too scared to come herself?" He spat the words out.
"Looking for a job," came Gabrielle's sharp retort, "Know of any good ones?"
Solon bristled, his fair features suddenly darkening as his lip curled in a humourless grin. "You know, I used to like you, Gabrielle. Really like you. But not anymore. You're on her side now. You've changed." He shouted hysterically as he struggled to loosen her hold on his collar. "You can go to Hades along with her!"
Gabrielle shoved him against the wall. "I don't have time for this, Solon. Perdicus could die if I don't get him out of here. You know I've always looked after him. He needs me. Help me, please?"
She shook him. "You damn fool! There's so much you don't get. I'm not your enemy, and neither is Perdicus - don't take this out on him. Tell me where he is. Where are they holding him?" The stubborn look on Solon's face didn't shift. "Look, this isn't a joke, Solon. We're all dancing on top of a live volcano. Don't you realise how much danger we're all in?"
"Yeah, a lot more danger since Xena managed to break her way out of jail, with your help! How could you? Everything that bitch touches, dies! And you'll be no different."
"You don't know the truth! You don't know anything about her!" Gabrielle blazed back.
"I know enough! I know what she did to my parents, Alti told me. She crucified my mother! Ripped me from my mother's arms when I was just a baby! Don't you tell me about that monster!" Furious eyes tore through her, and his own fists were grasping at the front of her shirt, shaking her with the force of the hatred that was filling his mind.
"You've been lied to. Of all the people who have been hurt by Xena, you're the last one who can complain. Alti's using you! If you knew the truth..." she screamed back at him, her own eyes kindling. "You think she's the good guy in all this? She's just as bad as Xena - she's ruined people's lives too, killed people. Terrorised so many - look at what she's doing to Perdicus now! Look at what she's done to you!"
Eight years old, sitting on the black covered knee of his protector, the woman who had just chased away the demons of another nightmare involving the black haired death that Alti told him about every night. 'Your mother had been crucified. When I found her, she was... beyond saving." He hadn't noticed the peculiar smile. 'Xena is a monster, but don't worry, Solon. You're safe, as long as you're with me. I won't let any harm come to you...' And again, the slightest upturning of thick lips. But he never noticed, not really.'
"She saved me! She brought me up and gave me a home..." His young face was a mixture of anger and threatening tears.
"She's filled you so full of hate that you'll never get over it; you'll never have a chance at a real life! Why do you think she keeps you around?" He looked at her blankly; she sensed an opening, and moved in. "Why you? She doesn't usually show such an interest in orphans, or teenagers. Find me another Palace jailer who is as close to Alti as you..."
"And why fill your ears so full of hatred of Xena?" Slowly, Gabrielle uncurled her fingers from the rough leather of his shirt, and took a step back.
"She wants me to know what a monster she is!" The defiance was back, blocking his ears, but Gabrielle persisted.
"No one has more reason to hate Xena than I do, but I know Alti's lying to you. The only truths you know are from other people. Think for yourself. "
"I don't understand..." he murmured, half to himself.
"It suits her to have you filled with hatred and rage... what purpose could that possibly serve? I think Alti's scared that if you learned what Xena knows..." She left the sentence hanging in the chill air of the corridor. He remained silent for a few minutes more, then with an abrupt cry, pushed her away.
"Leave me alone! I know what you're doing - you're trying to turn me against Alti for her! I hate her and I'll never forgive her for what she's done to me! And one day I'll kill her!" He turned, and fled back along the corridor.
Gabrielle watched him go. "Well done, Gabrielle. There's that golden tongue everyone admires," she commented to herself. "Now I'll have to find Perdicus on my own. I hope Xena's having better luck." With a muttered curse, she melted back into the shadows, just another faceless Palace servant going about her duties.
The Conqueror paced restlessly as the prisoners were hauled from their cells and brought to stand in ragged and despairing groups in front of her. She prowled along their ranks, sweeping searching eyes over them. She stopped twice, at an old woman and a young boy of about twelve.
"Her, and him. Let the others go." Her voice was almost regretful. The two hapless victims were pushed to their knees in front of her; moments later, their drained shells were cleared away for final disposal. A pale Alti took her throne again with the barest of sighs, and rubbed eyes that bore dark circles and a faint tracing of lines radiating from their corners. "There's just not enough of them." There was the slightest trace of desperation in her voice, as she muttered to herself, forgetting for the moment her ever-present Lieutenant Darphus.
"Empress? Perhaps if you could just try to sleep?" He stared in confusion as the group of fifty prisoners was released from the ropes that were cutting into their wrists and ankles.
Her answer was simple. Blunt. Venomous. "Xena."
"We'll find her," he reassured, doubt in his eyes. "She can't hide forever." He was overdue a visit from the Warrior Princess himself. His eyes sought out the shining disc that the Conqueror had placed as the gleaming centrepiece of the throne - it looked like a gold and silver halo, hovering higher than head level. He gulped, and glanced around nervously; their meeting had been only a day ago, and he knew she was making him sweat... playing with him, because she could.
Alti dismissed his assurance with a sneer. "Always useful to have a backup plan, Darphus. Especially when dealing with Xena. But she can't defeat me. I'm too powerful, even for her. I'm just taking out a little extra insurance." Her voice held its usual swagger, but the Lieutenant noticed the slightest trace of uncertainty in her eyes. "If Xena has found her balance... if I can't win this girl from her, then I'll need all the power I can get. Where better than to take souls which have completed the cycle of birth and death many times? So rare... still, there's always my emergency supplies."
"Emergency supplies?" he questioned, completely at a loss.
She smiled grimly and gestured to the Amazons who were gathered in a cordon around her throne. "I always have a few old souls up my sleeve. Meanwhile, bring the boy up." At his surprised expression, she smiled coldly and explained, "Where Gabrielle goes, Xena's sure to follow. There's been no sign of the street girl, and I want to dangle the bait. I'm getting tired of playing their little waiting game. Take a couple of the Amazons and fetch him yourself."
He turned, gestured to the nearest two Amazons, and left. Alti gestured to her guard. "Get those prisoners back here. I've changed my mind. I may need all my strength today." She walked over to where the prisoners were once again waiting, their terror making them easy to break and draw from.
The two Amazons followed Darphus as he wandered through the passages until they surfaced in a quiet little courtyard, which backed onto the kitchens. Only the background noise of clattering dishes and the subtle buzz of dinner preparations for the Conqueror and her large entourage disturbed the silence. The trees and shrubs fringing the little square gave an air of tranquility and peace, a welcome relief from the heart wrenching and fear-filled screams which they had left behind them. It was an oasis of normality. The Amazons had relaxed under its influence, whispering quietly to each other as they crossed the courtyard. Darphus swivelled abruptly to face them, a strange leer on his face.
The women halted, almost bumping into him as he laid his hand casually on his sword hilt.
"Lieutenant, what is it?" one of them asked, in a faintly accented voice, glancing quickly around the silent little square.
Noticing their momentary uncertainty, his grin broadened and he moved closer to them, ignoring the servant opposite them who was drawing a huge bucket of water from the well. Her slight arms shook with the strain as she heaved on the rope that hauled the large, iron-rimmed bucket to the surface.
One of the Amazons stepped forward, her hand on the short sword she wore at her waist. "Don't get any stupid ideas..." The other Amazon put out her hand, causing the young woman to pause.
"Enough, Ephiny. Darphus usually thinks with his brain, not his groin. What's this about, Darphus?"
"You have something I want, that's all." There was a clatter and an oath behind them as the young servant dropped the rope, causing the bucket to drop back into the well.
"She's right. I don't want you for that, although I've always had a hard spot for redheads," he leered. "No, we need to talk." The Amazons exchanged a glance, and once again the armed woman let her hand drift from her sword hilt as Darphus continued ingratiatingly. "I'm not going to be a pawn in the games that are going on here. I need to be able to protect myself. I need something you have, something very rare these days." He smiled, exposing broken, yellowed teeth. "An old soul." He moved quickly, and suddenly he had his sword in his hand; the incredulous Amazons were frozen by the unexpectedness of his assault. He disarmed a startled Ephiny quickly, following up with a heavy blow to her head. The Amazon gasped as she sunk to her knees in shock. His sword was raised again, as the redheaded leader dropped to her knees to hold her aide-de-camp. "Are you mad, Darphus?" she cried out.
"Not at all. You'll be my first... and I want this to be special." His sword moved quickly, and the unarmed Amazon was soon grasping at her side. Her hands bloomed red, and she stared in amazement as the thick liquid seeped through her fingers.
With a victorious cry, Darphus raised his sword high and prepared to strike - and was caught completely unawares by the small blonde servant as she hurled herself in front of the stricken Amazon leader. He stopped, amazed, as the girl looked up at him with large green eyes and yelled, "Wait!"
"What in Ares' name are you doing, girl? Get out the way, or I'll kill you too!"
He felt a presence at his shoulder. "Killing defenceless girls now, are we Darphus?" a familiar voice said softly. "And I thought you already had a hobby." Darphus felt his back go cold, as the warrior's deep, throaty chuckle sounded in his ear. His sword was knocked out of suddenly nerveless fingers by a powerful kick. He swallowed, paralysed, as Xena purred into his ear, "Aren't you supposed to be running an errand for me?"
"Alti... it's set into her throne. I couldn't get it." He tried to turn pleading eyes her way, but his head was roughly grabbed, and held in place.
"Then what use do I have for you?" He stammered a little, but she just chuckled again. "I think it'd be more fun to watch you try and explain to Alti why you tried to kill two of her Amazon Guard. Don't you, ladies?" The bleeding woman nodded dazedly, while the other held her head and cursed under her breath.
The last thing Darphus felt was a heavy iron pot being slammed against the back of his head before he slumped forward, out cold.
"Terreis! Are you alright?" Still stunned, Ephiny tried to crawl to her commander, but was stopped by Xena. She took a firm grip on her skull and began examining her eyes in the light.
The red head was staring at Gabrielle. "Yeah, I think so. Bloody Tartarus, I can't believe we managed to let that bastard get to us both like unarmed kids."
Gabrielle shushed the further curses and peeked underneath the woman's tunic, and drew in a breath as she saw the blood. Biting her lip, she ripped off a piece of her skirt, and mopped up some of the fluid. "It looks a lot worse than it is, but I think you might need stitches. It's bleeding a lot, but it doesn't look very deep," she commented, grabbing Terreis' hand, folding the fingers round the piece of cloth and then clamping hand and cloth heavily onto her wound. "Hold this...we'll fetch the healer."
"Yeah, this one'll be fine." Xena's verdict seemed detached and uninterested. "But I think they can make their own way to the healer. You're strong enough."
"Yes, thank you both." Terreis took in the bedraggled clothes, stained and smelling of the lower depths of the stronghold. She knew that two servants would not want to be singled out to Alti - the Conqueror was known to be unpredictable in her rewards. "We'll be fine, thank you both. And especially to you. You saved our lives." She held out a bloodied hand to Gabrielle; after a moment's hesitation, the girl grasped it firmly.
"No problem," she replied, a smile lighting up her face.
"That was a brave thing you did. What's your name?"
"Uhh..." Gabrielle shot a quick look at Xena, and said in a shaky voice, "...I'm Tara, and this is my sister, Althea."
"I'm Terreis, and this is Ephiny." The dazed Amazon nodded sullenly in their direction, before struggling to her feet. "The Amazon nation owes you a debt of gratitude, Tara. You too, Althea." Terreis saluted them both, then with Ephiny's help, limped off towards the healer's hut.
Gabrielle shook her head in relief. "Xena, it's a good job you were around. What were you doing here? I hate to think..."
"What did you think you were playing at?" hissed Xena angrily. "You nearly blew our cover! If Alti finds out we're here..."
"She won't! And what was I supposed to do - just stand back and watch two people be murdered?" Gabrielle threw back contemptuously. "You might be able to do that, but I can't!" She stomped back into the kitchen, leaving Xena to retrieve the dented iron pot, and fill it with water.
At the far end of the courtyard, hidden by overhanging ivy, Terreis watched with narrowed eyes. Ephiny was clutching her head still, and breathing heavily.
"Terreis! What are you waiting for? You need the healer, quick!" Terreis shook off the hand that was anxiously tugging at her elbow, and ignored her blood as it slipped between her fingers.
"Just remembering something I saw when I was younger. Melosa and I were there when the Treaty of the Northern Territory was signed, not long after Cyanne and the other leaders were killed. We'd sneaked in, and were hiding under the furs of one of the wagons. We saw the whole thing. Alti was there, but of course she wasn't leading the negotiations."
"Who was?" The younger Amazon asked.
"A dead woman walking," Terreis replied, nodding towards the kitchen. "Her." At Ephiny's confused expression, she elaborated with one word. "Xena."
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