Copyright: Yes, I do not own the Xena concept and certain characters but the plot is all mine.
Violence: There is violence.
Subtext: I really dislike this disclaimer but yes, it's in here, thick and heavy.
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Started: September 23, 2006
Other Fanfictions Story Number: 66
Stranger in a Strange Time
by Red Hope
Chapter 9 – Face Me
Very slowly she moved her head to the right to stretch her neck then to the left yet she didn't open her eyes. When the back of her aching head touched the rough surface behind her, her hallow eyes started to reveal themselves. The first thing she took in were the six women standing before her, three on the right and three on the left. They all bore ready weapons, dressed in leathers, and over their faces were distinct and beautiful wood masks.
The Conqueror's upper lip curled at seeing the six Amazon guards and her head lowered to the weight she felt on her wrists and ankles. She swiftly brought up her arms to test the well engineered chains' tension and they sounded in minor protest against her great strength. This was absolutely impossible for her to be in an Amazon jail when just earlier she'd gone to sleep in her bed. That was her last memory or at least she was fairly sure of it.
For a heartbeat she studied her simple attire, which was only her leathers that covered her upper body, torso, and turned into a skirt around her upper thighs. These were standards leathers for battle and typically armor fit snuggle against it all. The leather straps on her broad shoulders were slightly moved off but she ignored that for now.
The jail hut was rather small and made of wood, including the heavy wood door between the six Amazons, but every part was reinforced with metal. The door also had a small window with metal bars but that was the only source of natural light. There were a couple of lit torches hooked to the walls but those were far from her reach. The Conqueror was anchored to the wood beam on the floor and the beam was bolted to the floor quite precisely. She currently sat on a sturdy wood bench that had no back but the wall behind her.
The Conqueror was suddenly enraged and she gave a powerful struggle against her chains so that she stood up now.
The Amazon guards all reacted accordingly as the four with spears lifted them and took aim. The other two with swords each took a menacing step forward. No Amazon spoke as their stances and weapons said plenty to the dark ruler.
The Conqueror bared her teeth at them and growled, "Where is Queen Cyane?"
The Amazons did not answer but remained poised and ready to attack not that they were fearful of the Conqueror's threats.
When the Conqueror didn't receive any response, her eyes narrowed more and her tone grew deeper. "I want to talk to Queen Cyane… now!" For a beat she tried her chains again yet failed.
The six guards knew there was nothing the dark ruler could possibly do so one by one, they returned to their positions along the wall.
The Conqueror wasn't too thrilled with this, her expression furious but she too knew she held no control over these Amazons. With gritted teeth, she slowly sat down but her burning eyes scanned over each guard.
The Amazons had no fear of the ruler as they were specially selected for this particularly duty. Their masks even helped them to feel slightly distanced from the ruler's dangerous looks.
The Conqueror settled on the bench and as she waited for some form of communication, she ran through her memory. She didn't recall any of the required trip it would have taken her to get to the Amazon Nation. She couldn't think of seeing any Amazon when she was last awake. She admitted, secretly, that these Amazons had out smarted her for once and it would be only this once after she was free.
It wasn't for another candlemark, since the ruler woke up, that the heavy door opened by an outside guard. After the guard stepped aside, the Amazon Queen sauntered in with a stoic expression. Her face was hard and her eyes frozen at seeing her greatest enemy ever.
The Conqueror suddenly leered at seeing Queen Cyane before her. She quickly stood up and took a menacing step yet she was cut short right in front of the Amazon Queen.
"I see you've finally awake after two days," drew out the Amazon Queen.
If the Conqueror was dumbfounded by the amount of time she'd been unconscious, she certainly didn't show it. "It's been a long time, Queen Cyane." Her lips pulled into an amused grin.
"Not long enough though," charged back Cyane. She stood still, a breath away from the dangerous ruler, and her arms folded over her chest. "I'm informing you, Xena of Amphipolis, you will be put on trial for your crimes against the Amazon Nation. You will submit to Amazon justice for your crimes." With that, she started for the door with a rap on it.
The ruler sarcastically laughed. "Queen Cyane, I thought you more intelligent than that. I see the seasons have inflicted your intelligence."
The Amazon Queen waited a beat in the now open doorway but she smiled back at the ruler. "Conqueror, I believe it is your intelligence that has been… softened." She held out a hand to the ruler and amusingly stated, "It is you that is chained in the Amazon Nation." With a satisfying smirk on her face, she disappeared from the jail hut and a loud boom of the door followed her.
The Conqueror was grinding her teeth however that was the only indication of her irritation. She returned to sitting on the bench and went into deep thought about what could have happened, what is happening, and what will soon come to her. Eventually she found herself leaning back against the wall, her eyes closed, a grin on her face, and a content feeling washing over her.
It wasn't until the following morning she was awakened abruptly by freezing water in her face. Her eyes flew open and her anger vibrant before the idiot that did such to her.
The guard that'd carried out the duty was quite satisfied at doing it but nobody but her knew that since her mask hid her face. She exited the open jail door with bucket in hand and nodded to somebody on the left.
The Conqueror had wiped the cold water from her face and pushed her bangs up. Just as she finished, her head lifted to meet the view of a small blond limping into the jail. She'd been waiting for the rebel leader to surface and it made her grin.
"Good morning, Conqueror," greeted the rebel leader.
The dark ruler imposed by standing up to her full height and her cold eyes down on the younger woman.
Gabrielle didn't crumble under the intimidation act but instead she tried to smile at the irony between them. "Sorry for the rude awakening but...." Her smile slipped into a fine grin. "Nobody is keen on shaking you awake."
The Conqueror grunted then stated, "Saying my title always works."
"True," allowed the rebel leader. She limped her way off to the right then stopped and faced the ruler again. The entire time she sensed those burning blue eyes of the ruler on her. "Your trial begins at Helios high today."
The Conqueror cocked her head to one side because she knew this wasn't just an information session from the young rebel, she had some other purpose too.
Gabrielle studied the curious eyes high up. "I'm here to explain to you how an Amazon trial works." She turned and limped to the other side of the jail.
"Especially since you're an expert… with being an Amazon and all," coldly joked the ruler.
The bard smirked up at the tall, dark woman before her. "I've done my homework… I know how things work." She then hesitated and cleared her throat. "The Amazon that is prosecuting for the Nation goes by the name of Velasca." Gabrielle noted how the ruler's eyelids were slitting at her.
"Which means I need somebody to defend me," logically concluded the ruler. She knew exactly where this conversation was going now.
"Yes," quietly agreed the rebel. "Nobody in the Nation wishes to defend you."
The Conqueror grunted and she was highly amused. "So you volunteered."
Gabrielle tilted her head then offered a grin. "I did." She turned and hobbled back across the jail. "The Amazon Nation is prosecuting you for the deaths of Queen Cyane's elders in her original Nation and for assaulting Queen Cyane." She was staring at the floor but now peered up. "They're not prosecuting you for the wars or any deaths during the wars as those fall under the acts of warfare and diplomatics."
"And what exactly makes Queen Cyane think that my army will not be marching over the Amazon Nation in the near future?"
Gabrielle knew she would hear about this and she'd already thought out her answer ahead of time. "Let's say that nobody in Corinth will be missing you." She slightly adjusted her weight on her walking stick. "You are here for the duration, Conqueror."
The Conqueror's jaw was set as her mind worked out how any of this was possible. She knew she'd get the pieces of the puzzle together soon enough.
"So," started Gabrielle, "I've heard everybody else's version of what happened that day you attacked the queen and her elders." She stepped closer but not too close. "I want to hear your version."
The Conqueror slowly let a joking smirk form then she laughed. "Don't bother, rebel." She waved her off then sat down on the bench. "I believe you've claimed enough reputation off of my name and history."
A surge of anger rushed the bard's body and she quickly limped up to the dangerous ruler.
The Amazon guards were not prepared for it as they quickly stepped forward with spears and swords at the ready.
Gabrielle ignored them as she had enough courage to override her fears. She met those steel blue eyes with her own furious ones. "Listen to me, you are not the Conqueror here… you are just another human here and you will be tried then you will be sentenced and last… you will carry out that sentence. There is no army here and there is no army coming." She stopped for a beat so that it'd soak into the ruler's mind. Then quietly and slowly she stated, "I am your only hope at beating this."
The Conqueror seemed unmoved and her eyes a dead blue.
The rebel leader kept her surge of confidence so she ordered, "Now tell me what happened that day."
The ruler straightened her back out and signaled the bench while offering, "Have a seat."
The guards exchanged looks as the rebel leader took a grateful seat beside the dark ruler.
"I could easily kill you," mentioned the Conqueror, who watched the rebel take a spot beside her.
"You already tried that," remarked Gabrielle, "and it didn't work." She was rewarded by an amused grin from the ruler.
"My next chance I will be sure to execute you myself."
The bard was chilled by the Conqueror's idle remarks but she never showed it. She wouldn't give into this mind game. "If you get another chance," reminded the leader.
The Conqueror leaned in towards her enemy and murmured, "Ooo I will."
Gabrielle held her gaze and didn't falter. "You're detouring from the topic at hand."
The tyrannical ruler exhaled loudly then leaned back into her original position. "It won't do you any good."
The bard shrugged. "Let me judge that. Go on."
The Conqueror again sighed yet it almost seemed to have a touch of sadness behind it. She glanced away from the rebel then back at her. "I'd just returned from Chin."
Gabrielle dipped her head in acknowledgement; she was carefully listening and images formed before her imaginative mind. She tried not to flinch when the ruler told her the gory details of it but she'd asked.
Eventually the Amazon guards returned to their posts in the jail. They decided the ruler wasn't any danger to the rebel even though that seemed so far fetched. They were baffled by the ease at which the two enemies spoke as if the events from a moon ago never happened.
"So," interrupted Gabrielle, "by then you and Alti were… close, right?"
The Conqueror's features returned some frustrations. "Yes."
The bard licked her lips while she was in consideration of the past events. "Was Alti powerful then?"
The Conqueror tilted back some so that she had a better view of the smaller woman. "Compared to now, no but she certainly had powers then." She could almost see the rebel's mind calculating something.
"Hmmm," mumbled the bard. "And she wanted Cyane and the elders dead so she could have their blood?"
"Yes," simply answered the ruler.
The bard's head was dipped down, her lips neatly pressed together, and her brow tight. She suddenly stood up with her walking stick balancing her on her weak legs. "I need to see to something." She started to walk off but the rattling of the chains made her stop and peer over her shoulder.
"You won't find the answer you want," stated the Conqueror, "it was… my hands."
Gabrielle shrugged, said nothing, and tapped on the door. When she left the jail cell, she started across the village and made a beeline for the temple. She made the slow journey up the steps then into the temple, which at first seemed empty. Eventually she was greeted by the shaman of the temple.
"Welcome, Gabrielle." Yakut bowed her head in respect then smiled when she lifted her head. "What brings you here?"
The rebel diverted her attention from the beautiful painting of Artemis and smiled at Yakut. "Do you have some free time?"
"Of course, let's go to my office so we can sit." The shaman escorted the outsider through the side of the temple and into her office. She let Gabrielle sit then she took her chair behind her desk. "I can tell you're puzzled by something."
"I am," agreed the bard. "Its about the Conqueror and Alti."
Yakut suspected as much and she leaned back in her chair.
"I was curious if there's any possibility for Alti to…." Gabrielle couldn't quite phrase it right but she tried, "For her to control the Conqueror at all?"
The shaman truly considered the question and ran through her shamanism teachings. "Alti cannot control the Conqueror's karma when it is her own."
"That's not exactly what I'm asking." Gabrielle sighed as she tried to rework her words. "What I mean is can Alti influence the Conqueror at all? Either on a spiritual or mental level."
Yakut now realized what the rebel was trying to construct. "It is possible that Alti greatly influences the Conqueror on a spiritual level so that she acts a certain way."
"Do you think it's intentional on Alti's part?" tried the bard.
Yakut shook her head. "No shaman has control over another human's spirit when they are alive." She leaned forward then stated, "However what is possible is that since Alti and the Conqueror have karmas on similar paths that they feed off each other."
Gabrielle digested this information and it was rather encouraging. "Is this common?"
"Very much so," answered the shaman. "A shaman can easily influence a person's karma in a certain direction."
The rebel narrowed her eyes in suspicion. "How soon can that influence begin?"
"As soon as they meet," replied the shaman. "It is instantaneous and is almost permanent especially over time."
"Do you think Alti could have built some link between her and the Conqueror?"
The shaman sighed and leaned back into her chair. "It is possible but I can't be sure."
"Is there a way to find out?" challenged the rebel.
Yakut slowly nodded.
"If there is a link," charged on the bard, "can it be broken?"
The shaman quickly realized what Gabrielle was trying for and she exhaled. "It is possible," she relented, "but there's no guarantees." She tilted her head at the outsider. "I am not as powerful as Alti, Gabrielle."
The rebel suddenly had determined features. "There has to be something you can do, Yakut."
The shaman was jarred by the similar words she'd heard not so long ago. Her head fell forward, her eyes closed with many thoughts in mind.
"Yakut, please try."
Yakut slowly lifted her head and saw the mirror of Janice Covington asking for help. She'd already refused Janice the first time and now Gabrielle's very descendant was left brutalized by the dark ruler. She suddenly stood up and stated, "I will see what I can do, Gabrielle." She stepped around her desk as Gabrielle rose up.
"When will you try?" The rebel limped along side the shaman.
Yakut knew she would require the queen's authorization but she also knew the queen's response ahead of time. "I will try now."
The bard brightened at this news. "Thank you so much, Yakut."
Yakut only dipped her head and prayed to Artemis that this was the right thing to do. She followed Gabrielle out of the temple, down the steps, and through the village to the jail hut. When she came upon the jail hut, the two Amazons at the door stepped in her path before the door.
"You are not authorized to the see the prisoner," informed guard on the right.
The shaman was slightly taken aback.
"You must speak to Queen Cyane," further added the Amazon.
"She's with me," argued the bard.
The Amazon switched her attention to Gabrielle. "And you are not the queen."
This wasn't exactly something Yakut felt like taking up with the queen. So instead she stepped closer to the Amazon and murmured, "Who guided her mother to the Amazon Lands, Karis?" She gave a challenging look. "Was it the queen?"
The guard swallowed and glanced at the other guard. She relented by stepping back to the jail door. After she opened the door, she stepped aside and let the pair pass.
Yakut hesitated and turned to the rebel. "Wait here… I must do this alone."
The bard wanted to argue, her mouth already half open, but she stopped herself. She nodded then backed away from the door.
The Conqueror knew exactly what this new visitor was by the way she dressed. The headdress particularly gave the Amazon away more than anything else. She was amused by how these shamans seemed to attract to her like bees to honey.
Yakut stood before the ruler and for the first time had truly absorbed her striking power. "I am Yakut, I'm the sh-"
"Shaman," finished the ruler. "And you're not here for a social call, are you?"
The Amazon shaman swallowed as she gathered her internal strength.
"This has to do with Alti," tried the Conqueror.
Yakut didn't reply and stepped forward with her hands slightly lifting.
The Conqueror sensed a threat so she stood up quickly, her chains sounding out. "Try coming closer."
The guards were prepared already having detected the tension when the shaman first entered.
Yakut ignored the warning and came closer to the ruler, she found herself in the ruler's moving space.
It happened too fast for anybody to really recall what'd happened but somehow the Conqueror had ended up on her knees. Her head thrown back, mouth open in a silent scream, and Yakut's hands pressed against her temples. Yakut stood like a statue, her eyes closed, and her features twisted tightly.
The Conqueror was numb to her body and paralyzed all over. Her mind was swarmed by things she couldn't understand and it was overwhelming. Her heartbeat was going fast like a lightening bolt strike then suddenly her heart ceased for an instant. Then sensations struck her hard again and she could breathe once more.
Yakut's hands were removed.
The Conqueror's right hand shot up and caught the shaman by the neck. She was growling while standing up and lifting the shaman up.
Yakut gasped and struggled against the solid hand on her neck that were crushing her wind pipes.
The guards were already in action. The guard that was the fastest had given a thrust with her spear, which inflicted the Conqueror's right shoulder.
The Conqueror's hold on Yakut wasn't broken for a few heartbeats then her world quickly spun.
Yakut suck in her last small breath yet she watched in amazement as the powerful ruler lost control and collapsed to her knees again. Her feet touched the floor and she stumbled back when she was released.
The guards pressed forward quickly and separated the shaman and ruler.
The Conqueror dizzyingly watched the guards then everything went black as there was a sharp pain up her right side.
Yakut was bent forward and gasping for air. She lifted her head but still was bent over and she stared at the Conqueror passed out on the floor.
Five of the guards worked together to lifted the unconscious ruler and throw her onto the bench. The sixth guard rushed to Yakut's side while shoving her mask back. It was the same guard that'd used her spear to subdue the ruler, the blood on the tip of her spear.
"Are you okay, Yakut?"
Yakut offered a confident smile to her savior. "I am now. Thank you, Solari."
Solari sadly smiled and touched the shaman's shoulder. "What happened?"
The shaman straightened out her headdress then inhaled happily. "Alti had established a connection between her and the Conqueror over time. I broke it."
Solari glanced at the ruler then at Yakut again. "Isn't that risky? I mean, won't Alti detect it's been broken?"
"It's possible," slowly agreed Yakut, "but I doubt it especially since Melinda is there."
"I hope you're right," murmured the Amazon. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine, Solari." The shaman gave an appreciative smile. "Now I do believe the rumors about you being swift."
Solari had a gloating grin. "They were never rumors."
Yakut softly laughed then touched Solari's arm for a heartbeat. "I should go. Thank you again, Solari."
"You are welcome." Solari tapped on the heavy door.
The shaman gave a polite nod to Solari then left the jail. She was instantly greeted by the concerned rebel.
"What happened?" urged Gabrielle. She hesitated for a beat as she took in the red mark around the shaman's neck. "Are you okay, Yakut?"
Yakut heard the jail door close behind her. She finally nodded. "I'm fine." She came closer to the rebel. "The Conqueror and I didn't… see eye to eye."
The bard snorted while shaking her head. "Well don't feel left out."
Yakut faintly smiled then she lost it. "I managed to break the connection."
Gabrielle was thrilled, her face lit up. "So there was one?" At the shaman's nod, she pressed forward. "And it was a strong one?"
"Yes but it is gone." Yakut clasped the bard's left arm and signaled her to walk with her. "There is a catch though."
"What is that?"
The shaman peered over at the rebel then turned away. "Atli will reestablish it easily when they meet again."
"Can't it be stopped?"
Yakut stopped walking and faced the outsider. "There is only one way to do that in this lifetime."
Gabrielle read the shaman's disheartened features and it dawned on her. "Alti has to be dead." She swallowed hard when Yakut gave a brief nod. "And the Conqueror isn't exactly keen on getting rid of her best asset."
"Remember Gabrielle," started the shaman, "Alti is also the Conqueror's greatest enemy." She exhaled deeply then changed the topic. "I should go as I have much to do at the temple."
"I understand." Gabrielle offered a warm smile. "Thank you, Yakut."
The shaman reflected the smile at the outsider. "You're welcome." She took one step but gazed back at the rebel. "I will see you at the trial this afternoon… I look forward to your stance, Gabrielle." Then with that, she continued back to the temple.
The bard was taken aback by the shaman's words having expected every Amazon against the Conqueror. She shrugged it off then decided she would go first see how Cyrene and Melpomene were doing. Plus, she wanted to update Cyrene on what was happening with the Conqueror or rather her daughter.
Cyrene lifted her head and smiled when Gabrielle entered the guest hut. She saw the worn expression on the younger woman's face and knew exactly why too. "The trial hasn't even begun, Gabrielle."
The bard sighed and mutually agreed. She took a seat at the desk before asking, "Where's Melpomene?"
Cyrene had her back to Gabrielle now as she busied with making the bed. "Taking a quick bath."
"Ah." The rebel now picked up the faint sounds of splashing from the washroom. "The trial starts at Helios high… will you be there?"
Cyrene paused when she came to the foot of the bed but she faced the bard. "I don't think so." She continued finishing up with the bed however she spoke as she went along. "I'm not sure I'm ready for that, Gabrielle."
The rebel leader clearly understood how Cyrene felt. "I know," she murmured, her gaze to the floor. "How is Melpomene doing?"
"She asks often about Janice," gently responded the older woman. "You haven't heard word from Melinda yet?"
Gabrielle exhaled deeply and shook her head. "I'd expect to hear something any day now."
"I hope so," agreed Cyrene, "I hope she made it in time too."
"I'm sure she did," stated the confident bard.
Cyrene eyed the young woman just as she finished with the bed. She then came over and knelt down in front of Gabrielle. She carefully collected the bard's hands into her own. "I know this is hard for you, Gabrielle."
The rebel snorted and stared down at her laced hands with the Conqueror's mother. "I don't know why I'm doing this, Cyrene." She finally met the grey-blue eyes that studied her. "She crucified me and here I am trying to save her from getting crucified."
"Maybe what Janice told you has some merit in your heart then," suggested Cyrene.
"Reforming the Conqueror?" Gabrielle sarcastically laughed. "Could she really do that, Cyrene? You know her better than anybody else."
"I thought I did," sadly admitted the mother, "but my daughter is truly the stranger."
"I wish it is only that," murmured Gabrielle, "and that she's not a monster." Her emotions surfaced. "I asked the shaman, Yakut, to break a connection that the Conqueror had with Alti."
Cyrene was puzzled by this information. "What kind of a connection?"
"I'm not exactly sure but I think to some degree it's influenced her to act as she does."
"It's not an excuse," reminded Cyrene.
"I know," relented the bard. "I think though its part of the explanation… we'll see." She didn't want to voice her hopes about what the broken link between Alti and the Conqueror may or may not do. She simply had to wait it out and see if there was any noticeable shift in the dark ruler or not.
Cyrene patted the young woman's hand, the young woman that'd very much filled some of the gap in her heart when Xena left her so long ago. She rose up and turned her head just as Melpomene came out wrapped up in a towel. "Feel better, dear?"
Melpomene had a bright smile yet it wasn't quite as magnificent as both Gabrielle and Cyrene had seen it in the past. "A lot better."
"Here are your things." Cyrene picked up the clothes from the top of the dresser and handed them to the child.
"Thank you." The girl happily took them then disappeared back into the washroom to get changed.
Gabrielle brushed her hair back some then quietly asked, "Do you think you'll see the Conqueror, Cyrene?"
The mother faced the rebel yet she didn't answer right away. "I have to… at some point but I'm not ready yet."
The bard remained silent despite she understood.
"I will though," promised Cyrene. "She and I have been putting it off far too long."
"She'll be furious when she finds out that you've sided with me," reminded the concerned bard.
"And she can thank herself for that," remarked the annoyed mother.
Gabrielle sadly smiled but lost it slowly. "I should get ready." She stood up on her weak legs with her cane to help her. "What will you do today?"
"I'll spend some time with Melpomene… I think she could use it." Cyrene ended the conversation there as the child came back into the room. "You ready?"
The girl nodded a few times as she approached the women. "Are you coming with us, Gabrielle?"
"No, sweetie." The bard neared the child, a smile revealing itself. "I have other engagements."
"You mean with the Conqueror," clarified the sharp child.
Gabrielle quietly sighed but nodded her head. "Yes… with the Conqueror."
"I heard the Amazons talking… saying that the Conqueror will be hung."
Gabrielle exchanged looks with Cyrene but returned her focus to the child. "It's too early to tell yet, Melpomene."
"You're going to stop it," stated the girl.
The bard bent forward and heavily leaned on her walking stick. "I'm going to try, yes."
"Why?" argued Melpomene, "Why would you? She hurt you a moon and a half ago."
"She did," slowly agreed the bard. She wasn't sure how to explain it to herself much less to young Melpomene.
"Did you forgive her?" inquired the curious girl.
Gabrielle exhaled deeply then answered, "Almost, Melpomene… almost."
"Why? She took my sister from me… I won't ever forgive her for that."
"I know, Melpomene but you have to see beyond that." Gabrielle bent forward more even though it hurt her legs greatly. "If I didn't forgive her, Melpomene then I will become consumed with anger and hatred."
"Like the Conqueror," summarized the thoughtful girl. "I don't want to be like the Conqueror either."
"Then you must learn to forgive her, Melpomene but it takes time so don't push yourself."
Melpomene nodded her head and watched as the rebel leader straightened up as much as her body would allow her.
Cyrene held her hand out to the young child. "Come on, Melpomene."
The girl smiled at the older woman that was becoming very much like a grandparent to her. She laced her hand through Cyrene's, took a step, stopped, and quietly said to Gabrielle, "I hope they don't hang her." Without another word, she left the hut with Cyrene in tow.
Gabrielle watched the door closed and she muttered to nobody, "I hope they don't either." She shook her melancholy away and decided it was best that she see to the guards at the jail before the trial. She made the slow journey through the village and approached the jail just as the door was being opened. She was surprised to see the guards flowing out of the jail with the Conqueror between them. She then became shocked to see how woozy acting the dark ruler was acting. She stepped up to the group but an outside guard stopped her quickly.
"You're not allowed any closer."
The rebel's expression was cold, hard but her focus on the disoriented ruler. "What's wrong with her?"
The guard sighed but explained, "She's been drugged so that she won't cause any problems."
"What?" exclaimed the furious bard. "I can't have her half out of it at the trial."
The guard held up her hands. "I'm sorry… it was the queen's orders." She lowered her hands again. "You'll have to take it up with her."
"Just great," snapped Gabrielle. "Can we just get her there?"
The Amazon nodded then signaled the escort to take the Conqueror to the center where the trial was being held outside.
The bard let out an aggravated huff however she followed them there as fast as she could go. She would certainly take this up with Queen Cyane later on as soon as she had a chance. She needed the Conqueror to be there mentally if any of this would work out at all. Just maybe she could take this to her advantage though.
When the group found themselves in the square where the trial would unfold, Gabrielle wasn't surprised to see the crowd of onlookers. She absorbed how everything was setup with a table in front that was lined with elder Amazons, who were the council members. She and the Conqueror stood off to the left while Velasca and the queen were to the right. The jail guards were lined up behind the Conqueror and the rebel, prepared for any attacks or threats. Behind them, there was a sea of Amazon heads, who came to listen.
While the council members were preparing themselves, Gabrielle had a moment to determine just how drugged the ruler was by talking to her. "How do you feel?" She murmured up to the ruler. When hazy yet chipped blue eyes lowered to her, she shivered. "That good huh?"
The Conqueror's hands were tightly bound by short chains and her ankles manacled with short chains. She slightly swayed while softly replying, "They used rauwolfia on me."
Well the Conqueror wasn't complete out of it, concluded the bard.
"It's ironic don't you think?" murmured the ruler.
Gabrielle peered up with a perplexed face and she didn't like that smirk on the ruler.
"You're defending me from death when I want to kill you."
The rebel leader cleared her throat and her quick wits didn't fail her. "Next thing you know you'll start giggling, Conqueror."
The tranquilized Conqueror held her loose tongue especially because her enemy was called away.
The bard and Velasca stepped up to the table where the council members were sitting. Gabrielle tried to remain calm even though she was growing nervous about this trial. She didn't have exact plans set out on how to defend the dark ruler especially when the odds were so against her but she was going to try.
The head councilor explained the procedures of the trial to Gabrielle and Velasca then she asked if there were any questions. When neither woman asked, the head councilor ordered them to return to their charges who they were representing.
The Conqueror peered down at her representative. "So have a game plan?"
Gabrielle sighed at the amused tone the ruler had with her. "No," she confessed.
The Conqueror snorted and was beyond amused at this point not that the tranquilizer helped her state.
"You know, I'd hate to admit this," started Gabrielle, "but you're more bearable when you're high."
"And to think you're going to argue to Queen Cyane why I shouldn't be."
Gabrielle's head quickly whipped up when she realized the Conqueror had overheard her and the Amazon guard's earlier argument. Before she could say anything the head council member stood up and spoke out to everybody.
"We are here to begin the trial for Xena of Amphipolis," she announced to the large crowd that was going silent.
The Conqueror bent towards Gabrielle and muttered, "Not that Amphipolis likes to lay claims to me."
Gabrielle blinked and stared up at the suddenly chatty ruler. "Having you tranquilized is a bad idea." She realized she was talking while the trial was starting and she needed to be focused.
"Xena of Amphipolis, you have been charged with the slaying of the following Amazons...." The councilor paused and lifted an unrolled scroll then recited eleven names one by one. She lowered the scroll and loudly added, "You are also charged with assaulting Queen Cyane." She cleared her throat when there was only silence echoing back to her. "We will begin this trial with a recant of the events that day and what led up to it." She held her hand out to the queen, who stood by Velasca. "My queen, since you are the only survive and witness of the events, you have the floor."
The Conqueror let out an audible exhale.
Gabrielle controlled her urge to roll her eyes at the ruler's reluctance to take the trial seriously. She chalked it up to the tranquilizer too.
The Amazon Queen stepped up before her Nation, council, the rebel leader, and her long time enemy. She held her position strong as she retold the tale of Xena the warlord that rode in fresh from Chin. Her story held every detail about Xena, Alti, and herself that led up to the events on that horrific day.
When the queen was finished, the Conqueror bent over and muttered, "She missed one detail."
The bard curiously peered up at the dark ruler. "Which was?"
"I didn't kill that young Amazon," answered the ruler. "I only killed the ten council members."
Yes, only ten mentally chided the bard. Gabrielle was going to ask more but figured it could be saved for later. She had her suspicions about what'd happened in the past. She could only wonder why the Conqueror never told her in the first place earlier today.
The queen bowed to the council members then returned to Velasca's side.
"Now," started the head councilor, "we will begin the questioning process of the trial. First we'll begin-"
"Wait," interrupted the rebel hastily. She limped forward some but not too far.
"What is it, Gabrielle?" inquired the patient councilor.
The bard mentally prepared her argument but it was still on a whim. "I would like to hold off on this part of the trial."
"What?" barked Velasca, who stepped up to the bard. "You haven't prepped the Conqueror enough?" Her cold stare bore into the rebel that was standing up for the ruthless ruler.
"I actually can't," shot back Gabrielle but her attention went to the council. "As you can see," she called out and held her left hand out to the ruler. "My charge is drugged."
"That's to keep her sedate," shot back Velasca. "She's a threat to everybody."
The Conqueror's eyes were narrowing at Velasca and despite she was drugged she still sensed something out of place.
"Incase you haven't noticed," retorted the bard, "she's manacled, weaponless, and has six guards on her heels. There's not much she's going to do."
"So you say," barked back Velasca, "but she's dangerous with or without weapons."
Gabrielle now faced the frustrating Amazon. "Well then we should make this even." At Velasca's challenging look she gave her sly reply. "Queen Cyane should be just as drugged."
The crowd of Amazons cried out against such demand from the outsider.
The rebel expected such so she faced the masses and pointed at the ruler. "Look at her, will you!" She dropped her arm and said, "If this is truly such a fair trial as I've been told then the Conqueror should not be drugged so that she can properly defend herself." The crowd settled down finally, which let Gabrielle turn back around. She examined the councilors, who were whispering amongst themselves.
"You can't seriously be considering this," urged Velasca hotly. "The Conqueror is dangerous when she isn't sedate."
The head councilor held up her hand for silence. She then calmly stated, "Gabrielle is correct when she said this is a fair trial and as such, we cannot allow in good judgment for the Conqueror to be in such a state while the trial is proceeding." She sighed then nodded at Gabrielle. "You will speak to your charge and explain to her the situation. If she at all endangers anybody during the trial then we will have to take other measures. Is this clear, Gabrielle?"
"Perfectly," answered the bard. She then tilted her head and cautiously asked, "Can I request that we continue the trial tomorrow? By then the drug should work its way out of her system."
The head councilor leaned to her right some and studied the drugged, swaying ruler in the background.
"This is ridiculous," snapped Velasca, "you're endangering Amazons' lives if you don't drug her!"
The councilor's head shot up at the angry Amazon. "Do you lack confidence in the guards performing their duties, Velasca?"
The Amazon's temper quickly deflated at the turn of the table.
The head councilor called out, "Who is the head guard for the Conqueror?"
The guard in question stepped out of the line and made herself known.
"Approach the table," ordered the councilor.
The head guard bowed her head then marched up to the council's table. When she was close, she reached up and pulled her mask back to display her striking features and amber eyes.
"Ephiny," warmly greeted the head councilor.
"Councilors." The Amazon bowed her head then straightened up again.
"Velasca is questioning your capabilities of handling the Conqueror should she get out of line." The council leaned back in her chair as she knew she was going to enjoy this conversation. "Do you believe you and your guards are competent enough to handle any situation that may arise?"
Ephiny held her back straight, her expression strong, and pride flowed from her. "I am highly confident, councilor." Her infuriated eyes darted to Velasca then back to the councilors. "I have the best Amazons at my side."
"And I have every confidence in your leadership, Ephiny." The councilor nodded and stated, "I am satisfied then. Thank you, Ephiny."
"My pleasure, councilors." Ephiny bowed, pulled her mask back down and returned to her post behind the ruler.
"There you have it, Velasca." The elder Amazon leaned forward again then forced smiled. "Are there anymore… concerns?"
Velasca exhaled and placed her hands on her hips. "No, councilor."
"Fine." The councilor gave her agreement to Gabrielle's idea. "Tomorrow we will begin at Helios high again when the Conqueror is no longer sedate." She tilted her head at the outsider. "See that she is ready, Gabrielle as I won't have anymore patience to show."
"Of course, councilor," gave in the bard but she had a hidden grin at her success.
Velasca was grinding her teeth at the loss for today.
"We will convene from here," the elder loudly ordered, "beginning tomorrow at Helios high. The trial is dismissed for the day." With that, she stood as did the other members.
Velasca faced her rival and chewed out, "Don't count on being so lucky later, rebel." She spun on her boots and marched off to meet the queen.
The bard was shaken by the idle threat as she knew it certainly was one. She let out a small, held breath then went back to her own charge.
The Conqueror stared at the small, hunched woman before her. "I'm amazed… your tongue helped me for once."
Gabrielle smirked and shook her head but she turned to the guards. "You will see to her?"
The head guard, Ephiny, stepped forward and dipped her head in acknowledgement.
"Don't care to join me in the cell?" taunted the evil ruler.
The rebel returned to her smirking features. "I think I've seen too much of you as it is."
"Do stop by later," offered the Conqueror as if she were a very bored soul.
Gabrielle half grinned then limped off in the opposite direction.
"Let's go, Conqueror," ordered Ephiny from behind her mask.
The tall, dark woman gauged her guards but she'd have later to play with them when she was more up to par.
Gabrielle was away from the crowd of Amazons and making her way back to her guest hut that she shared with Cyrene and Melpomene. She needed some rest plus some time to clear her head out. As she went, she turned over Velasca's threat and wondered if it warranted any merit. Gabrielle figured she had to be over analyzing Velasca and instead was getting too pumped up about the future of the trial. At least the Conqueror's drug state gave her an advantage of more time to prepare.
For the afternoon, Gabrielle lay in her bed and simply stared at the ceiling or the back of her eyelids. She never really slept since her mind was vigorously working out the trial. Some questions surfaced in the middle of it all so that eventually led her to leave the hut and show up at the jail by late afternoon.
The jail guard almost sighed at seeing the rebel. She'd expected much so she had the door open by the time Gabrielle was close enough.
Gabrielle pleasantly smiled at the two Amazons then entered the jail a few paces.
The Conqueror had her eyes closed yet they slowly revealed at the presence before her. "Missed me already?"
"Like the cross you tied me to," remarked the rebel.
The Conqueror ran her tongue along the back of her teeth; she suddenly leered at the younger woman. "I saved your cross… for later."
Gabrielle tried to ignore her enemy's head game so she shrugged. "Well I guess you and Caesar have something in common." She slightly jumped when the dark ruler sprung up to her feet in an angry fury.
"Do not compare me to him!" hotly yelled the furious ruler.
The guards in the cell tensed as the ruler fought against her chains. They stepped forward once so that they made some point.
Gabrielle was holding her breath, her body chilled by the cold blue eyes digging into her.
The Conqueror's chest heaved up and down as her body suppressed the earlier drug due to her rage. It wasn't so much that the rebel compared her to the dead Julius Caesar but that she was reminded of her time on the cross. Her rage surged in defense more than offense that such a young woman that didn't know her history could poke her so easily and so perfectly.
Gabrielle swallowed, her gaze faltered for a heartbeat but she lifted it again. "I apologize." She actually felt guilty about her earlier comment, which was an incredibly odd feeling considering things. She sensed too that it wasn't so much the comparison but something much deeper than that.
The Conqueror had been hunched over but now she straightened her back out. She regarded the honestly apologetic rebel and was inwardly grateful for the apology but she'd never admit that. Finally she took two steps back then sat down.
The guards pulled back with their weapons relaxed.
The bard exhaled then a quiet tremble rippled through her body. She didn't dare take another step just yet. "I came to talk about the trial."
"What do you want to know?" coldly replied the ruler.
Gabrielle brushed some her hair back then answered, "You mentioned that the queen was wrong about a detail."
"Yes." The Conqueror leaned back against the wall. "I never killed the young girl that fell from the tree."
The bard's eyes narrowed. "But she said-"
"What I told her," cut in the ruler. "When they found the dead Amazon, I told Cyane that I killed her that doesn't mean I really did."
"Okay then how did she die?"
"It's not about how… its who." The Conqueror folded her arms over her chest. "Alti killed her to cause the distraction because Alti knew I wouldn't be able to get that close to any Amazons without them being cautious."
Gabrielle processed the new information then shook her head. "And I'm sure Alti will show up for the trial and claim that she did it." She heard a low snort from the ruler's direction. "I will have to think on that one." Her glazed features centered back on the ruler. "Do you mind if I ask you about some things?"
The dark ruler tilted her head to the side as she noted the fine sheen of perspiration on the rebel's forehead. She concluded it must be from standing on her weak legs but it was the exact opening that she wanted too. "Sure, I'm not going anywhere." She scooted down on the bench some. "Sit."
The bard hesitated for a beat then decided it couldn't be too risky. As she neared the ruler slowly she heard the guards close in too. She sighed heavily when she connected with the bench, it was a relief. Once she was situated, she started the conversation with open ended questions.
The Conqueror gave brief answers and wouldn't provide details unless Gabrielle started probing her. She could tell what the rebel's idea was for the trial and it was an interesting perspective however it didn't change the facts. After some length of time, she could tell that the leader rebel was well spent from all her thinking plus the standing at the trial today.
Gabrielle was silent for several heartbeats because she'd taken in so much information today. Her head bobbed a few times then she quietly stated, "I think that's a start for me." She focused on her counterpart. "I believe Queen Cyane starts tomorrow."
"Again?" retorted the aggravated ruler.
"This is different." Gabrielle toyed with her walking stick. "Velasca and I question her back and forth."
"I see," murmured the ruler.
The bard tried to relax now that she had a better game plan for the trial. She didn't feel so much at a loss as earlier before so her shoulders weren't as tense and her nervous calmer. "I should go... dinner will be soon." When she glimpsed out the small window in the door, she saw the setting rays of the sun.
"Don't care to join me for my dinner?" taunted the ruler.
Gabrielle shot a smirk at the Conqueror. "You'd be left starving then." She chuckled more to herself than anybody else then she climbed up to her feet. She took a limping step away.
"You shouldn't turn your back on me, rebel."
Before the Conqueror's menacing words could register into Gabrielle's mind, she suddenly felt cold metal wrap around her throat then her body was thrown back against the heated body of the powerful Conqueror.
The Amazons reacted in fluent motion together as they quickly pushed forward with weapons at the ready. They couldn't act though with the rebel caught in the Conqueror's dangerous grasp.
Gabrielle heaved for air as the chain tightened across her throat. She instinctively wrapped her fingers around the chain to stop its crushing. Her walking stick fell to the floor, which meant her legs lost their extra support so they started to give way. Now her body pressed harder against the chain because of her weight.
"Learn to be more careful," hotly whispered the Conqueror to the delicate ear below.
"Let her go!" ordered the head guard, who stepped forward.
The Conqueror met the Amazon's masked gaze. "Let's try something else, shall we? You open that jail door or this chain gets a little tighter."
Ephiny wasn't sure what to do, her eyes lowered to Gabrielle.
"Don't do it, Ephiny," rasped Gabrielle. She quickly choked when the Conqueror yanked the chain hard. "If you kill me now, Conqueror then you won't have any insurance to get out of here."
The ruler chuckled, her body shaking the smaller one against hers. "I didn't conqueror half the known-world because I'm stupid."
"Exactly," whispered the gasping bard, "so are you going to keep running from your past?"
The Conqueror's temper fired up at the challenge set in front of her. "My past has made me stronger."
"So has mine," rasped the bard, "but I also take responsibility for it too." She tried to pull the chain away from her throat some but with no success. "Why do you think I stood up in front of you?"
"As I recall correctly, you also escaped your punishment."
The bard closed her eyes and tried to calm her raging heartbeat. "An unfair punishment for representing the people… that was a punishment for… a… murderer."
"A crime according to my laws," hissed the ruler.
"Why is it a crime?" challenged the gasping bard, "Because… because the truth is that you've become the very thing you tried to… to stop." She heaved for air but her throat was caving in slowly.
"You know nothing," growled the Conqueror. She started to tighten the chains to stop the rebel's cutting words.
Ephiny stepped forward as the situation was spiraling downward.
Gabrielle shook her head at the Amazon. She would win this battle with the ruler no matter the costs. "I do know… know one thing." Her eyes opened for a second then closed against the pain. "When I was young... this warlord destroyed my village… my parents dead and sister enslaved. I escaped my father's… burning barn just as she and her army left." She stopped for a beat to suck in some air, her body now shaking but she wouldn't give up. "I wondered the countryside… for days until I entered a small village called… called Amphipolis."
The Conqueror's rage was slowly draining at hearing the story that she was captured by so deeply. Her eyes were glazed by the mental images of the young girl's childhood.
Gabrielle's air increase from the light withdraw of the chain. "I was starving by that time… I went to the market in town and came upon a food merchant." She opened her eyes as the dark spots in her vision were finally gone. "I stole a loaf of flatbread but the merchant caught me." She paused for an intake of needed air. "Just as he was about to take me to the constable a woman stopped him and paid him for the bread."
The Conqueror's manacle chains loosened more around the rebel's throat.
"She owned a local tavern so she took me in, fed me… clothed me… and her oldest son also became my brother." Gabrielle swallowed her surfacing emotions. "I had a family again." She touched the loose chain around her neck. "Do you know who took me in, Conqueror?"
The ruler's heart was pounding in her ears at the realization. She was overwhelmed and all she could do was whisper, "My mother."
The bard licked her lips then softly added, "You see, we're not that much different expect for one glaring fact." She now wrapped her fingers around the loose chain. "I have faith, Conqueror while you had yours but you lost it the day that Caesar shattered it. You never shattered mine and you never will."
The Conqueror snapped out of her reverie and swiftly tightened the chain again but not as strongly. "You want me to take responsibility for my actions here with the Amazons? Then we'll make a deal."
Gabrielle's eye stung from not just the pain on her throat but her legs as her feet scuffed the wood floor. She was barely able to hold up her body's weight with her weak legs. "What's… the deal?"
"If you win this trial then you return to Corinth with me to take responsibility for your rebel faction." The dark ruler's lips were near the rebel's as she breathed out her defining offer. "If you lose and I'm sentence to death then you must die too." Her lips curled into a grin as she teased, "A little incentive to encourage you to try harder."
"What if… you're sentenced but not to… death?"
The Conqueror's grin spread wider. "Then I will uphold the sentence, you will remain here until it's complete, and then you will return with me for yours." Her head came a bit lower so that her warm breath moved over the rebel's ear. "I will take into consideration your work with the trial."
Gabrielle's eyes started to roll back up into her head, her legs finally giving out from her. "I agree… you have… my word."
"Excellent." The Conqueror gave a rough jerk of the chain then taunted, "And you have mine." She suddenly lifted her shackled hands with her chains rattling in protest.
Gabrielle coughed for air as she collapsed onto the floor. She was on her knees that flashed hot pain up her body so she slumped onto her side and her hands balanced her as best as they could.
The Conqueror stared down at the fallen rebel. "Nasty having broken legs, isn't it?" She kicked at the boots that were apart of the mangled legs.
Gabrielle yelped when the Conqueror's kick caused pain to flash up her legs.
Ephiny was shaking with fury at the display and treatment to the outsider but especially at the fact she couldn't do anything. "Gabrielle?" She signaled her guards to engage the Conqueror as she rushed to the rebel.
Gabrielle coughed and shook her head at the Amazon. "I'm fine." At hearing the Conqueror's laugh from above, she tried to stand up but it was slow progress.
The guards closed in on the dark ruler and one of them tried to get the ruler with a spear.
The Conqueror ducked quickly but her hands were even faster. She caught the spear between her hands without so much as a scratch. She snapped the poisoned spearhead off from the shaft and snarled at the Amazons. "Try again." She dropped the spearhead so she could prepare for a second attack.
Gabrielle wasn't so happy with the events so she hurried her pained body to move faster. Ephiny's hands were touching her shoulder and elbow but she was only hindering her. She climbed up onto her raging legs and took a step back in front the ruler much to every Amazons' surprise. "Stop," she hotly ordered.
"Get out of the way, Gabrielle," commanded the head guard.
"No," argued the rebel.
The Conqueror was still despite her hands were up.
"She's not an animal," reminded the disgusted bard. "Don't treat her this way."
Ephiny's eyes widened and she yelled, "She just tried to strangle you, Gabrielle!"
"I know this," barked back the bard, who was wheezing on her shaky legs. "She gave her word to stay."
The Conqueror was carefully listening to this interesting turn of events between her makeshift protector and the heated Amazon.
"And her word is nothing here," yelled Ephiny, her eyes flashing like fire. "Move out of the way."
"No," snapped back Gabrielle. Sweat was starting to roll down her neck and onto her back then over her temples from the pain she was enduring. "If her word is not good enough then trust me, Ephiny."
Ephiny was grinding her teeth as she needed to teach the prisoner a lesson for such actions. Yet she knew there was no way around Gabrielle either without causing some harm.
"Please, Ephiny... don't step down to her level."
Ephiny could almost strangle her sword hilt but she swiftly waved the guards off, who hesitated to back off at first. "Then you have my word, Gabrielle as long as the Conqueror doesn't cause anymore harm to anybody."
Gabrielle shut her eyes as she swooned from the pain. "Thank… you." Then she lost her surge of strength and started to crumble to the floor.
Ephiny hastily acted yet came up short within a long stride. She watched in absolute wonderment at the scene before her.
Gabrielle leaned heavily against the Conqueror's strong hands at her waist that kept her from hitting the floor again.
The Conqueror had acted so involuntarily and caught the small rebel with complete ease. She guided the rebel back onto her feet then she slightly hunched over so that her long arm could scrape up the walking stick.
The bard gratefully received her stick then leaned heavily on it when the hand on her right hip slipped. She gained some balance then twisted her head up to the Conqueror and her thankful eyes met the ruler's.
The Conqueror was captivated by the rebel's caring gaze and all she could do was give a brief nod before she backed away.
Gabrielle broke the trance too then limped away into Ephiny's waiting presence.
The head guard was awestruck yet she directed the rebel leader out of the jail before anything else went nutso. She'd had enough for one day and she wasn't ready to see the Conqueror become anymore gentler than she had in that unexpected moment.
When Gabrielle was out of the jail with Ephiny at her side, she paused and whispered, "Thank you again."
Ephiny reached up and pushed her mask back. "You shouldn't have risked your life that way, Gabrielle."
The bard shook her head then softly murmured, "If she wanted me dead she would have done it this morning." She noticed that Ephiny refused to question what'd happened towards the end, which she was glad about too. "Plus now that she knows Cyrene is here… she'll have a lot to think about."
"I think so," gently agreed the Amazon. "She didn't know that her mother took you in, did she?"
Gabrielle licked her lips and peered up at the Amazon that was glowing from the setting sun. "No, I don't think so. She seemed fairly shock by the information."
"I'd say," relented the Amazon. She reached over to touch the bard's irritated neck. "You should see Eilis, the healer."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I'll be okay."
The Amazon grunted then teased, "I see where Janice gets her stubborn attribute."
The rebel leader rolled her eyes at the Amazon. "Be careful what you say… Eph." She quickly tried to get away before the Amazon could threaten her back.
Ephiny stood still, a smirk on her face, and her eyes bright. "Next time… Gabby," she murmured then she turned to order the door guard to open the jail. Just before the cell door open, she pulled her mask back over to hide her chiseled features.
Gabrielle made it back to her hut even though it was dinner time. She was happy to find nobody in the hut so she just made it to the foot of her bed and she sat roughly down on it. She threw her walking stick onto the bed then broke down crying with her face in her hands. All her hatred for the Conqueror broke loose and exploded to the top in a hungry rage that racked her heart. The hatred pooled in her eyes over and over then smeared her cheeks and coated her hands with salty, acid tears. And by the gods, Gabrielle finally found a sense of peace when her shattering sobs healed old, bleeding wounds.
Chapter 10 – Southern Comfort
Janice Covington slightly shivered against the chill flowing from the open window in front of her. She ignored it though as she was enjoying the sunrise too much. She'd gotten up early just for this occasion even though she was known for being the worst morning person.
The archeologist donned her Amazon cloak that'd been returned to her a couple of days ago. It was keeping her fairly warm but most importantly it hid her scabbed wounds all over her body. She hated to be reminded of her time in the cell and the Conqueror's torture. Yet her wounds were healing rather well so far, especially according to the pleased healer. The healer checked on her daily and always applied balsam to her wounds plus she was required to drink this odd tea that he said would help her left eye. And he was actually right; Janice's previously swollen eye was no longer swollen but merely red and bruised. Her vision was quickly returning in her left eye too, which was a relief.
Janice jumped from her thoughts when her chamber door creaked open so she turned around to see a familiar face.
Nakia smiled at the solemn woman by the window. "I didn't expect you up so early." She ducked into the room with a tray full of food. "I was coming to drop this off."
"Thank you, Nakia." Janice offered a smile that broke her hardened features. "How are things?"
"They are fine." Nakia closed the door behind her so that the guards wouldn't listen in on their conversation. "The Conqueror has the court here today."
"The court?" inquired the curious prisoner.
"Yes, all her advisors come to discuss politics and such." The Egyptian slave shrugged. "It is the Conqueror's least favorite."
The archeologist hid her grin because it made her think of Melinda. She also understood that was the exact location she'd attacked the Conqueror so many days back. "When does it begin?"
"Always at Helios high," informed the slave.
Janice processed that and decided that it would give her plenty of time to talk to her friend. She nodded then asked, "Will the healer be here later?"
"I believe he'll be here some time after Helios high." Nakia brushed a dark strand of her hair away from her face. "You have plenty of time to relax, Janice. If you need me then I'll be in the Conqueror's chambers. Theresa is in the kitchen today."
Janice nodded her head. "Thank you, Nakia."
The slave smiled then whispered goodbye before the vanished out of the chambers.
Janice faced the window again and watched the last of the sunrise, which seemed to fill her. She didn't realize how wonderful it felt to watch the sunrise again as she'd seen many during her digs but this was different. The sunrise gave her a sense of peace and calmness that'd eluded her for a month now.
She hadn't truly spoken to Melinda in these past three days since she was rescued from the cell. She was spending much of her time in the bed chamber as her body was too weak to allow her any movement. Today was the first day she was able to get out of bed and she had plans for a warm bath before doing anything else. Then she would talk to Melinda about everything that'd happened and what the future plans were.
Janice felt some sense of loss because she didn't know what'd happened and she had no control earlier. Now she watched her best friend impersonate the woman she hated so deeply. It was hard to swallow yet it was something she had to come to terms with since it saved her life, most likely.
Finally, Janice started her day by eating first and the food was becoming heavier and brought her body to life again. That meant her mind was working clearer too, which she was very grateful. After she cleared the tray of any food, she went into the bathroom that was half the size of the large bedroom. She was excited to find a tub there that worked very much like a modern bath at home, minus the showerhead. She gave the Conqueror some credit for mimicking the Roman's piping system for water.
After Janice felt cleaned and ready, she put on her cloak last by the door. She opened the door and the two guards straightened up in surprise by the blonde's arrival. Melinda had informed her that she was allowed to move about in the fortress but the guards would be her constant shadows. At first Janice almost put up a fight but then Melinda explained it wasn't just to hold up the impression that Janice was a prisoner but to protect her too, from Alti.
The guards at the door eyed the small prisoner that drifted out of the room.
Janice walked by them a few feet to test them. They didn't stop her so she went a few yards then grinned as her shadows marched behind her. She suppressed a chuckled then continued down the hallway that seemed almost never ending. Then it occurred to her that she really had no clue where to look for Melinda. She stopped and turned to her guards.
The two guards exchanged looks then peered down at the prisoner.
"Do you fellas know where the Conqueror is?"
Again, the sentries exchanged glances but they weren't sure what to say since they didn't expect to be fraternizing with the prisoner.
Janice sighed, her hands on her hips now. "Come on, I don't know this damn place." She was wondering if she shouldn't have asked Nakia for help instead of these moving statues.
"She's probably in her office," offered the sentry to the right.
The other sentry regarded his partner for speaking out.
"Ooookay," started Janice, "Where's that?"
The speaking guard shifted in place then stepped around the small prisoner while saying, "Follow me."
And that guard is named Bingo, inwardly joked the archeologist as she happily followed him. She was directed down the hall, down a flight of step, made a right into another hall, and stopped at a door that read: ο κατακτητ?ς. "This is it?"
The sentry that'd talked merely nodded his head now.
"Hmmm." Janice couldn't read the syntax but she figured that the guards wouldn't want her to get in trouble since it'd be their hides too. She decided she better not barge in so she respectfully knocked. She heard the order to come in and as she pushed the door, her stomach clenched. Janice stepped into what was a very big office but off to the right sat a dark woman behind a desk, her head down and scribing something.
The guards also filed in behind Janice.
The Conqueror finished doing something on the parchment, stopped, and stood up with her cold gaze on the party in her office. She'd expected Janice to show up today but not quite this early. Her steel features focused on the guards. "Wait outside until we're finished."
The guards quickly nodded then hastily left the office with the door closing behind them.
Janice watched them go for a second then looked to her friend.
Melinda came around the oak desk and approached the small archeologist. "How do you feel today?"
"Its getting better every day," answered Janice, her hands now folded over her chest in a protective manner. She soaked in the attire that Melinda wore, which consisted of black leathers and the very brass armor always described in Gabrielle's scrolls. She caught sight of the sparkling chakram on Melinda's right hip and the sword hilt poking over her shoulder but there was no cape. Janice realized that Melinda was more Xena than the Conqueror in this outfit and it subconsciously eased her.
"I hope so," murmured the translator as she towered over her friend. Her eyes were glazed with concern and her hands clenched at her sides because she wanted desperately to touch Janice.
Janice freed her right hand and toyed with her short hair for a second. "Mel, what's going on?" Her hand fell to her side.
Melinda exhaled sadly and nodded her head. "I've been putting this off, I reckon." She signaled to the couch nearby and offered, "Sit down with me."
Janice followed her friend to the sofa that was a royal shade of purple. She got comfortable beside Melinda but was slightly twisted so she could face her too. "When Alti took me, you were hurt on the dig site," she started.
"I was," agreed the southerner. She laced her hands together in her lap. "Just after you disappeared with Alti, Jack showed up 'cause he was returnin' the scrolls he took."
Janice perked up at this information but it didn't matter right now.
"Jack realized something had happened so he rushed me to the hospital in Corinth." Melinda leaned against the back of the sofa so that she was more comfortable. "I couldn't tell him what happened… I was upset as it was about it. He stayed in Corinth until I healed up, which didn't take long."
"Mel, your legs were shattered… weren't they?"
"Close enough," agreed the southerner, "but...." She signaled her perfectly fine legs and stated, "I'm a fast healing patient plus I had the best doctor money could by. I left within a few weeks."
"Then what?" urged the curious archeologist.
Melinda's memories of her days after Janice's kidnapping surfaced higher up. "I got in touch with one of daddy's old friends that I knew. He works at the Archeological Museum of Corinth… he's the curator. I had a hunch about that green stone on that scepter so I told him about it."
"He knew of it, didn't he?" encouraged the archeologist.
"Yes, and surprisingly enough he had it there in the museum."
Janice was astounded and hastily asked, "What is the stone?"
"Its called the Cronos Stone and he ain't sure about the history behind it." Melinda sighed then shifted some on the sofa. "I didn't tell him what I thought it could do but I asked him if I could see it."
Janice slightly grinned as she knew what Melinda was going to tell her next.
Melinda mirrored her friend's grin then continued into her story about what happened next and how she arrived all the way here. It was an amazing story of determination and faith, much like Janice's and Janice's eyes lit up with the story right before her….
Melinda Pappas clenched her teeth as she shrunk to the soft grass, on her hands and knees. She lost contact with the Cronos Stone as it pulsed green between her hands, almost blending with the grass. Just as Melinda prepared to pick it up with her right hand it vanished without a trace. "Ooo my," murmured the translator, "that's not what I expected."
Melinda shook off the shock to her body from the time traveling then she quickly climbed to her feet. Just as she adjusted her black glasses on the bridge of her nose for better focus, she discovered three scanty, leather clad women with swords staring at her. "Ooo… myyy."
"Who are you?" demanded the Amazon in the middle, her mask covering her face like the other two.
Melinda tried to remain calm or else this would go horribly wrong. "The name's Melinda Pappas."
The three Amazons gazed at one another but the one in the center took a step closer.
Melinda wasn't too frightened after having just faced that oddly robed woman that took Janice and then Ares before that. "I'm lookin' for a friend of mine… ya might have seen her."
The Amazon that'd been speaking the entire time took a second step closer. She was trying to decipher the odd dialect the woman held but she couldn't make heads or tails of it but she inwardly admitted that it was attracting. "Who's the friend? And why are you in Amazon territory?"
"Well I'm here because I'm lookin' for my friend." Melinda swallowed then added, "Maybe ya know her… her name is Janice and she's a bit of a pain." She hoped the joke would pay off on some level.
The speaking Amazon reached up and pushed her mask away from her face. "I know Janice Covington." She lifted her sword and neared the odd stranger, her sword tip pointed just at Melinda's throat. "Isn't it funny how you resemble the Conqueror perfectly?"
Melinda hastily held up her hands in defense. "I swear I ain't the Conqueror." Her stomach turned at the title that they were matching her up to and she didn't like it at all.
"We know," stated the Amazon, who had wild brown eyes and bright blond hair that was almost white. "Because she wouldn't dare show here without her legions and…." She waved her sword up and down Melinda's length. "Dressed like that."
The translator quickly had an offended expression, which made the Amazon smirk at her. She was simply dressed in button up blouse, khaki pants, and her dig site boots while her hair was twisted into her usual bun. When the sword was lowered from her throat, she also lowered her hands by her side.
"I'm Callisto," introduced the Amazon. "This is Velasca." She held her right hand out to the Amazon behind her, who removed their mask. "And this is Karis."
The two Amazons that'd stayed back now joined the pair.
Velasca scanned over Melinda with very judgmental eyes.
Melinda almost shuddered by the Amazon's stare but she stayed focused on Callisto. She knew exactly who Callisto was from Gabrielle's scrolls she'd read while in the hospital. This obviously wasn't correct in history if Callisto was an Amazon so she had to play along. "Can ya help me find Janice?"
Callisto lifted an eyebrow some. "I think you're a little late, deary buuut… we'll take you to the queen." She turned on her heels and ordered, "Follow us."
Melinda was uneasy but she didn't have much choice so she fell into step behind Callisto. The other two quiet Amazons were behind her and they hadn't sheathed their swords at all. Melinda found the walk to be a good fifteen minutes but it seemed to drag on longer since nobody was talking. She was fine with that because it gave her time to consider what she knew of history, what Gabrielle's scrolls told her, and what was right here before her. She could only guess what else rested ahead of her.
When the group arrived in the village, Melinda realized she was a sudden attraction to all. She tried to ignore the staring and gaping Amazons but it was increasingly hard. They finally stopped in front of a hut and Callisto rapped on the door a few times. When they were called in, Callisto went first then Melinda and the other two Amazons.
Queen Cyane peered up at her visitors but she hastily jumped from her seat at seeing her enemy.
"My queen," intervened Callisto, "this is Melinda Pappas," she hastily explained, "and she's looking for Janice."
Queen Cyane gripped the edge of her desk and stared with a mix of surprise and anger at the stranger in her office. She calmed her rapid heartbeat then calmly asked, "Melinda Pappas?"
"Yes, ma'am," answered the translator in her most proper southern draw.
The queen forcefully relaxed because she needed a clear head for this one. She inhaled sharply then informed, "I'm afraid Janice Covington has come and gone."
Melinda slowly nodded then asked, "Where might she have gone?"
"We escorted her to Corinth a few days ago." Queen Cyane straightened up from bending over her desk. "She was planning to engage the Conqueror and Alti so that she could get home."
Melinda took a hesitant step closer and carefully inquired, "If ya don't mind me askin', who is the Conqueror?"
Cyane folded her arms over her chest then made a big assumption as she stated, "She's Xena… your descendant."
Melinda slightly swooned and touched her forehead at this news. "Ooo my… I reckon I'm in deep here."
The queen was prepared to speak again but the door to her office hut was suddenly shoved open by a small blond.
Gabrielle came in, head down, eyes on a scroll, and as she lifted her head she said, "Queen Cyane, I just received… word…." She stopped then proceeded to gape at the tall, dark haired woman standing next to her. "By the gods," she breathed in astonishment.
Melinda Pappas's eyes were wide behind her black glasses at seeing Janice's ancestor before her.
Gabrielle's grip on her scroll slipped suddenly.
Melinda reacted quickly by bending then snatched up the falling parchment just above the floor. She held out the scroll to the bard along with a pleasant smile. "Good afternoon, Gabrielle."
The rebel closed her slack jaw as she received her scroll back.
"Next time try knocking, Gabrielle," instructed the irritated queen.
The bard's head quickly turned to the Amazon Queen. "I'm sorry," she offered, "I was just surprised about the news I received."
Queen Cyane interrupted the bard's hasty explanation as not so good. She decided to set that aside at the moment so instead she signaled to the tall stranger. "This is Melinda Pappas, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's focus returned to the tall woman before her and she tucked the scroll under her left arm since that hand was busy with her walking stick. "It's nice to finally meet you, Melinda." She held out her right hand.
The translator clasped the small hand into hers and briskly shook. "It's a pleasure, Gabrielle." Her brilliant blue eyes sparkled at the immediate draw she felt towards Gabrielle much like she had with Janice.
"You're looking for Janice," stated the bard. At Melinda's solemn nod she explained, "She's in Corinth now and I actually just…." Her gaze flickered over to the queen.
"What is it, Gabrielle?" queried the concerned queen.
Gabrielle's lips shaped a frown and she removed the scroll from under her left arm. "I received word from my faction that Janice has been captured by the Conqueror." She heard a soft moan filter from Melinda and it made Gabrielle ache inside. She was just as fearful too when she'd read the news. "She's in a lot of danger… I was afraid of this."
"Why did you let her do this?" coldly questioned Melinda, her eyes only on the bard. Something in her flared up that she couldn't understand but it was powerful.
Gabrielle noticed that the woman's earlier accent was gone and the tone mirrored that of the Conqueror's. "I couldn't have stopped her if I tried, Melinda. I did everything I could to ensure she had less odds against her. I am sorry."
Melinda touched her forehead that was starting to pound. "I know." She lowered her hand then asked, "What will happen to her?"
Gabrielle's gaze faltered as she quietly answered, "The Conqueror is after me so she'll use Janice to get to me."
Queen Cyane cut back into the conversation at that point. "Melinda, how did you get here?"
"I used the same stone that Alti had to travel here."
"Where is this stone then?" questioned Gabrielle.
The translator exhaled with a frown on her face. "It vanished when I let go of it." She shook her head then tried to explain it aloud. "I reckon the stone can't coexist with itself."
"Then Alti would have lost the scepter when she kidnapped Janice from the future," argued Queen Cyane.
"I know…." Melinda considered it more then added, "Maybe as long as it's in the hands of the owner it won't vanish… I ain't sure." She finally joked, "Not that time travel is exactly explainable either."
Gabrielle slightly grinned at the remark but she lost her amusement. "What now?"
"I have to get to Janice," stated the determined translator.
"Wait," cut in the queen, "before there's anymore gun blazing harebrain schemes, this needs to be worked out."
Melinda arched a curious eyebrow at the gun blazing part of the queen's speech. She knew that to be a Janice Covington concept more than anything. Her quick mind also already had an idea but she wasn't about to discuss it here with all these Amazons. She needed to talk to one person and the person was next to her.
Gabrielle detected something so she spoke first. "Queen Cyane, let Melinda stay here and we'll report a plan to you."
The Amazon Queen audibly sighed as her hands came to her hips. "I'm already harboring three fugitives… why not the Conqueror's decedent too?"
Melinda's eyes narrowed at hearing three fugitives.
"You're welcome to stay, Melinda."
"Thank you," politely agreed the southerner.
The queen looked to Callisto. "Show her to a guest hut."
"Right away, my queen." Callisto bowed her head then shifted around to the door between the outsider and the stranger.
"See that you do come to me before doing anything, Gabrielle." Queen Cyane held the rebel's gaze very seriously. "Enough lives have been endangered as is."
"I understand," agreed the bard. She then filed out of the hut with the Amazons and Melinda.
Callisto told her fellow Amazons to return to patrol duty and promised she'd return shortly. She escorted Melinda across the village and took her to an empty guest hut. "Here's the hut and I'm sure Gabrielle will care for you." Her wild brown eyes switched to Gabrielle for that confirmation.
"Not to worry," agreed the bard. She smiled at the Amazon and warmly stated, "Thanks, Callisto."
"Thank you too," agreed the translator.
Callisto bowed her head at the pair, took a step back, and stated, "I will see you both soon, I'm sure." With that, she was gone and heading towards the gates.
As soon as Callisto was out of ear shot, Gabrielle met Melinda's gaze and asked, "You have a plan, don't you?"
"I think so," replied Melinda. Her attention though was over Gabrielle's head as she saw the passerby's watching them. "Let's go inside."
The pair entered the hut and was relieved to be out of the village's scrutiny. Melinda offered the weary bard a seat then she took one too from the table.
"First, I need to know some things." Melinda kept her back straight in the chair but her focus centered on the rebel.
"Okay, what's that?"
The translator had to confirm her suspicious that'd been nagging at her. She questioned Gabrielle on several topics and was either pleased or displeased by the results however the information was helpful. Melinda soon realized she really wasn't just in the past but in another world or reality. Her questions were narrowing it down quickly as Gabrielle's scrolls had provided her with much insight about Xena's history prior to her meeting Gabrielle just outside of Potidaea.
"So the Conqueror began her campaign after Alti joined her?"
"Yes," replied Gabrielle, "the Conqueror killed her partner and took his half of the army. After that, she and Alti marched across Greece like a plague."
Melinda didn't read anything about Alti in the scrolls but that didn't mean much. What she did know was how Xena changed paths thanks to Gabrielle's scroll about Prometheus, which went into Xena's recent past. She reached up and removed her glasses as she asked, "Do you know Hercules?"
"Hercules?" tried the bard then shook her head. "No… never heard of him."
The translator was rubbing the bridge of her nose but stopped. She settled her glasses into her lap. "Ooo my… ya never heard of him?"
"Not at all," promised the bard. "Why?"
Melinda dropped her head forehead with her fingertips rubbing her temples against the growing headache. "In my world, he stopped Xena from becomin' a warlord."
The rebel was in disbelief of such a possibility. She also noticed Melinda's pain and she touched the nearby knee of the stranger. "Do you need something for your head?"
The translator lowered her hands from her temples. "No, I'll be fine… thank you though." She put her glasses on again.
Gabrielle removed her touch as she smiled at the politeness of this woman, who was so opposite of the dark ruler she knew. "I see now why Janice was so reluctant to assassinate the Conqueror."
Melinda had a bittersweet smile at the rebel's words.
"Wait, you said in your world… when you were referring to this Hercules."
Melinda faintly nodded then explained, "Janice and I are from an alternate reality or world… Xena is nothin' like this in our history. She was a warlord for some time but she became a hero later."
Gabrielle had an abstract expression at such a concept. "Are you sure you're right? I mean how can you be sure?"
The translator had a wide grin that revealed her teeth. "I know because I read your scrolls about your adventures with her."
The bard held her breath and stared at Melinda then she suddenly shook her head. "That's impossible."
"I know how it sounds," agreed the southerner, "but you and Xena were famous in Ancient Greece. You inspired her to fight her darkness while she helped you discover all your strengths and abilities."
Gabrielle was shaken by this news as she stared at the space between her and Melinda. "Her and I were… partners?"
Melinda nodded and wasn't about to inform Gabrielle of her other suspicions that Gabrielle and Xena may have been lovers too.
"Gods," whispered the bard. "That must be another world." She shook her head at her imagination's vision. "I've hated the Conqueror since she destroyed my life."
"What happened?" urged the concerned translator.
Gabrielle went into a quick story about her history and how her life worked out so far. She watched the various emotions flicker across Melinda's face and in her eyes. She was just as captivated but by Melinda and how their chemistry flowed so well together. It was incredibly eerie yet so intoxicating at the same time. Gabrielle really wasn't sure what to make of it.
Melinda couldn't believe everything she'd been told. She was astounded that Gabrielle had survived so well and adapted but she contributed that to the Conqueror's mother helping too. She felt a lot of respect build up in her for this younger woman. She stretched out her legs some then tucked them back under her. "I don't understand why Janice thought she could stop the Conqueror when we're from another world."
"I don't think Janice knew," reflected the bard. "I think she believed she was in the past."
"That was her second biggest mistake," murmured Melinda, sadly.
"What was her first?"
Melinda lifted her saddened eyes to Gabrielle. "Thinkin' that she could really kill the Conqueror." She shook her head. "She can't kill."
"She would have done it, Melinda." Gabrielle's eyebrows pressed together neatly. "She was determined to do it."
"Well she's not going to," Melinda coldly stated as her accent disappeared. She stood up and walked away from the bard then started to pace.
Gabrielle could see Melinda's mind formulating a plan very quickly. She was dazed by the sheer beauty behind it and it was alluring too. "What are you thinking?"
Melinda Pappas stopped pacing and faced the rebel leader. "Meet the new Conqueror," her cool voice thundered as she removed her glasses.
Gabrielle stood up with her stick for help. She approached the tall, dark woman that loomed above her. "How are you…."
Melinda very slowly revealed a wild grin that felt too comforting. "Its time Alti had a taste of her own medicine."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to ask but she snapped it shut then murmured, "You can't…. It's impossible."
Melinda darkly chuckled as she neatly folded up her glasses and tucked them into her right pocket. "I can and I will." She closed in the space between her and the rebel then tipped Gabrielle's head back with her fingertips. "I can't let anything happen to Janice, Gabrielle." At the thought of any harm coming to Janice flared up her darkest strength from some hidden place that was only recently shown to her by Xena's soul.
"I know," whispered Gabrielle, who laced her hand through Melinda's. "I will do everything I can to help."
Melinda showed her classic smile and her southern accent returned. "Thank you."
The pair quickly worked together to iron out a solid plan that they knew Queen Cyane could not refuse. By the time they were finished, Gabrielle's head was pounding too and more from hunger. Melinda apologized for it then they thought it best to eat before it got any later. Gabrielle took Melinda to the food hut and when they got there, she was greeted by a worried Cyrene and Melpomene. Cyrene and Melpomene then realized they were standing in font of the Conqueror's descendant and Janice's best friend. Together the group joined in for a dinner at one table in the dining hut.
Melinda became more and more informed about the recent events and Janice's plans to stop the Conqueror and Alti. It truly worried her when she heard how ruthless the Conqueror was in this world. She knew, without a doubt, that right now Janice was most likely in grave danger. It harbored very dark emotions in Melinda that she tried desperately to clamp down on.
Just as they were finishing up, two curious Amazons stopped over because of the floating rumors. Melinda was quickly introduced to the legendary Ephiny that she'd read often about in Gabrielle's scroll. She then met Solari, who she instantly took to also. Ephiny and Solari joined the group with a round of diluted wine, minus one for little Melpomene, and the two Amazons told Melinda about Janice's time in the Nation. Melinda was left dumbstruck when she heard that Janice had been taught the sword and was rather skilled with it. She also made a mental note to have a little chitchat with this shaman, Yakut, who seemed to have some fair ideas about Alti.
"So," started Solari, "you want some sword lessons too, Melinda?"
The southerner's eyes darkened a shade but she was grinning. "I reckon I can hold my own, thank you."
"Really?" challenged Solari, "You don't look it."
Ephiny snorted and poked her friend's side. "She's only the descendant of Xena."
"Still," argued Solari, "after how many generations though?"
Melinda removed her glasses and set them down on the table. "Trust me," her accent gone and voice chilled, "I can handle myself fine."
Solari had a mouthful of wine in her mouth and she gulped it down. "Wow." She blinked at Ephiny.
Ephiny smirked and patted Solari's back roughly. "Told yah, Solar."
"Watch it, Eph," shot back the Amazon.
Gabrielle curiously watched as Melinda put her glasses back on and there was an inward shift in the stranger. She wanted to know what that continuing shift was in the woman as she could even feel it from her spot across the table. She figured she sensed it more than anybody else at the table.
"So what's the game plan now?" Solari glanced between Gabrielle and Melinda.
"You're going to help Janice, right?" piped up Melpomene.
Melinda smiled at the child sitting next to Cyrene. "Yes, I'm going to help her." Her instincts told her that the girl had a deep affection for Janice and also a lot of admiration for Janice too.
"The Conqueror will hurt her," sadly pointed out Melpomene. Her face was full of fear and worry.
Melinda kept her calm stature despite her swirling feelings deep inside that the child's words stirred in her. "I won't let anything happen to Janice, Melpomene."
The girl took that as an enduring promise and her face softened.
Cyrene clasped Melpomene's hand into hers. "We should get some rest, sweetie. Its getting late for us."
Melpomene's lower lip quivered up at Cyrene. "I want to stay and listen too."
Cyrene stifled a yawn but before she could put up an argument, Gabrielle jumped into it.
"We won't be long," promised Gabrielle. "And you need your rest, Melpomene."
The child slowly relented then nodded at Cyrene.
"Come on." Cyrene scooted out of her seat then smiled at everybody. "Goodnight, ladies."
Everybody chimed in with a goodnight to Cyrene and Melpomene then watched the pair leave the large hut. Cyrene was a bit relieved to get away as it was haunting to be near Melinda, who was the spitting imagine of her daughter.
Melinda sighed and lowered her gaze to Gabrielle after Melpomene and Cyrene left. "She was uneasy."
"I know," murmured the bard. "It's hard for her."
"I can imagine." Melinda toyed with her empty mug for a second.
"So do you two have a plan?" brought up Ephiny.
Gabrielle suddenly had a sly grin. "Ooo yeah and its all Melinda's idea."
Melinda quickly had three pairs of inquisitive eyes on her so she proceeded to explain her plans. Ephiny was speechless and Solari broke out with, "That will be perfect!"
"It's impossible!" roared back Ephiny, who glowered at her best friend. "Who in the known-world could-"
"She can do it, Ephiny," shot back Solari. She held her hand out to the stranger. "Look at Melinda, she's an exact copy of the Conqueror."
"No," hotly argued Ephiny, "She doesn't know anything about the Conqueror or how she acts or… any of that."
"Ya know, it's impolite to talk about somebody in third person when they're here," informed the prim southerner.
Ephiny was in mid argument when she faltered and blinked at Melinda.
Solari quietly laughed because she remembered those similar words from Janice Covington.
"And this will work," clarified the translator.
Ephiny was shaking her curly locks with her jaw set to her stubborn attitude.
"Wait," piped up Gabrielle, "can't Yakut help?"
"What you mean?" asked Solari.
"Well can't Yakut… show Melinda everything about the Conqueror?" Gabrielle's gazed went between the two Amazons.
Solari and Ephiny stared at one another for the answer.
Solari, Ephiny, and Gabrielle turned their attention to Melinda, who answered the question.
"A shaman can do astral projection and Yakut should be able to translate it to me."
"To you or into you?" tried the bard.
Melinda faintly grinned before answering, "Into me."
"That's perfect." Gabrielle was smiling brightly at the rising hopes.
Ephiny sighed before she rained on the parade again. "This is incredibly dangerous and somebody could get killed… namely Janice."
"Janice is going to get killed if we don't do something," debated the rebel.
Melinda was tensed up at the bard's words then her unusual icy tone appeared again. "Janice… will… not… die."
Gabrielle swallowed at seeing the ferocity just flowing from Melinda. It was a chilling reminder of the Conqueror and in an odd way it comforted her because it meant this plan would succeed.
"Tomorrow we will talk to the queen," stated Melinda to Gabrielle.
The bard nodded her agreement.
Ephiny finally caved in and offered, "Solari and I will help too."
Solari suddenly grinned when Ephiny agreed. "This'll be great." She then chuckled at the wild images of the plan that rested ahead.
And if anybody was the most skeptical about the plans it was the queen herself. She tried to argue and debate and fight the stranger and rebel's plans that they'd so perfectly mapped out. Yet she too found it was impossible to say no anymore because despite the risks it was very solid. Even Queen Cyane saw the possibilities working out and she had hope for the first time.
By that afternoon, the plans were already being executed as Amazons rushed to prepare. Gabrielle helped as much as she could with it and by mid afternoon she introduced Melinda to Yakut. Yakut was rocked by Melinda's forwardness and demands that she perform a projection of the Conqueror's life and transfer it to Melinda. Yakut hotly argued against it saying it was dangerous to Melinda but Melinda did not care, she was determined.
The shaman eventually found herself and Melinda in the temple alone and in a deep ritual. Yakut had transcended the axis mundi then projected the Conqueror's life into Melinda through her hands and eyes. Melinda had never experienced such a thing in her life and at first it scared her but she moved beyond it. Eventually Melinda actually felt as if she was living the Conqueror's very life and it reached deep into her hidden, dark chasm. By the time Yakut had completed the transfer Melinda was well spent with a headache and she also felt extremely split between two lives.
Yakut was fearful of such a result happening and warned Melinda to be leery of this split. She explained that such a split could wreak havoc on her mind and later cause detrimental problems. Melinda accepted the dangers because it was her only option to saving Janice. She would just have to deal with it when that bridge showed up if it did.
When the evening came, Melinda was done with Yakut and checking on the status of the preparations for the plans. She was satisfied that it was all working out well so she went for a break in her hut. She truly needed it and rested on her bed for awhile, her hands over her face.
Yet as she tried to relax, her mind would suddenly flash with images of the Conqueror's life. She'd see disturbing images of the Conqueror running her sword through enemies then the image would shift and it was Melinda killing somebody. Melinda's hands would be coated in blood and odd feelings of a hungry rush would sweep through her body. Melinda tried to shake them away but they never quieted completely until there was a knock at her door.
Melinda climbed out of bed while calling, "Come in." She was grateful to see Gabrielle coming into the hut.
"How are you doing?" Gabrielle closed the door and took an offered chair from Melinda.
"A little tired," admitted Melinda. She went back to sitting on the foot of her bed. "We're almost ready."
"Yes, we are," agreed the bard. "But are you ready?"
Melinda sighed then nodded her head. "Yakut showed me everything."
"Everything?" Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "You've seen all of the Conqueror's life?"
"Yes." Melinda pulled off her glasses then placed them on the bed next to her. "I understand now why she is the way she is."
"Why?" Gabrielle had to understand too.
"She was trying to protect Amphipolis from getting attacked by raiders and warlords. That's how it started."
Gabrielle slowly nodded. "I know… Cortese attacked Amphipolis then she lost her brother not long after."
Melinda faintly moved her head in agreement. "When Caesar betrayed her and set out to kill her, that was the changing point. She lost all hope and became full of anger… she's been on an endless quest for revenge."
"But she's killed Caesar," reminded the bard.
"Yes," agreed the translator, "but when ever did killing your tormenter quench your thirst for revenge?"
"Never," muttered the rebel. It struck Gabrielle blindly and she understood what was at the core of the Conqueror's drive. As dark as it truly was it also explained every piece and gave her so much insight to the past. She store that away for later thought and came back to the present. "Are you sure you're ready for this, Melinda?"
The translator peered down at her hands in her lap, her hands that had old calluses from handling a sword over a month ago in Ares's tomb. "I have to save her, Gabrielle."
"But what is it going to cost you?"
"What will it cost me if I don't save her?" Melinda met her friend's steady gaze. "I can't expect you to understand, Gabrielle but Janice is…."
"No." Gabrielle's voice was calm and assuring. "I understand, Melinda." She detected though that there was something else on Melinda's mind.
Melinda licked her lips then peered up at her friend. "A part of me is worried about whether I can do this." She clenched her hands in her lap. "Its not that I can't because I will but what if… what if it's too much then I get lost." Her blurry eyes held Gabrielle captivated. "What if it ends up costing Janice?"
Gabrielle sighed and stood up with her cane. She limped over then climbed up on the bed next to her friend. "I noticed you become… different at some points like… something else takes control."
"Yes." Melinda stared down at her hands. "Anytime I think about Janice being in danger or hurt… anything like that I just feel this shift in me." She turned her head to Gabrielle. "I didn't tell you this but when I met Janice, she was on a dig and discovered a tomb."
Gabrielle nodded but said nothing so that Melinda would go on.
"Janice and I plus a few others went into the tomb where we found some things."
"Well Janice found your scrolls…." Melinda shook her head, "Well the other Gabrielle's scrolls. Then I found Xena's chakram but only half of it. This gentleman, Smythe, who came too found the other half of the chakram. The two pieces attracted to each other instantly and when they touched… something happened to me."
"What?" murmured the bard, who was entranced by the story.
"Xena's soul possessed me," gently answered Melinda, "and the tomb… it belonged to Ares."
"By the gods," rasped the shocked rebel.
Melinda bit her lower lip then told the rest of the story. "Ares was asleep but we woke him up by entering the tomb. He wanted to be set free from the tomb that'd trapped him. He was going to kill Janice and that's when… I became Xena or she became me. I ain't sure but it felt so real."
"What happened after that?"
"Janice and I stopped him then we escaped the tomb. Janice blew it up so nobody would find it again." Melinda lowered her gaze again to her hands. "As soon as I realized Janice was safe again, I was back in control."
"Xena's soul left your body?" questioned the young woman.
"I don't reckon so because when Alti showed up, it happened again."
"And now whenever you think or hear about Janice being threatened you react the same way, right?"
"Yes." Melinda's shoulder slightly slumped. "I reckon Xena's soul never left me after Ares's tomb."
"What if it wasn't ever her soul to begin with?" probed the bard. "What if the connection of the broken chakram symbolized you becoming united with your karma? Maybe it's been there all along and you just didn't know it. And when Janice is endangered that's the trigger."
"It's possible," quietly granted the southerner.
"I can see you make that shift, Melinda… it's pretty obvious to me… I can't speak for anybody else." But Gabrielle could tell her friend was very unease about this revelation so she gathered up Melinda's larger hands into hers. "Melinda, you can use it to your advantage. If you don't accept it then it could hamper you more than help you and we both know that Janice needs you."
"I know." The translator shook her head and studied Gabrielle's features that painfully reminded her of Janice. "It did happen for a reason, I agree but what if I get into a dangerous position? What if it costs Janice her life?"
"Would you really let that happen?" tried Gabrielle. "I don't think you would and that's even the cause for it to come out."
Melinda knew from what she read that Xena would move heaven and hell to protect Gabrielle. She knew that their karmas were more than linked but were a balance. It was that balance that Gabrielle and Xena craved so greatly and moved them past many trials. If that was the fate of their karmas then it was very much the fate of hers and Janice's, which meant she would follow Xena's path to defy anything for Janice.
Gabrielle squeezed the hands in hers and confidently whispered, "You can do this, Melinda… and you know it too."
Melinda gazed into the most assertive green eyes she'd seen in a long time. Her acceptance of her possible fate clicked into place as she realized that nothing would stop her from saving and protecting Janice.
"Christ, Mel… you did it?" Janice Covington stared her friend in disbelief.
Melinda revealed a smug feature as she broke away from her story. "Yes of course, Janice Covington… I wasn't going to leave you here to have all the fun."
The archeologist grunted and leaned her side against the sofa. "You really kidnapped the Conqueror… Xena the Warrior Princess?"
"The Destroyer of Nations," added the grinning translator.
"Christ," muttered the still shocked archeologist. "I would have loved to seen that… and the look on her face." She snickered at her mental image. "Goddamn."
Melinda was pleased to see her best friend calmer than earlier when this conversation first started.
"Sooo...." Janice shook her head and asked, "We're in an alternate reality?"
"Yes, I reckon Yakut was wrong about her assessment of Alti's plans."
Janice's eyes narrowed as she tried to figure out Alti's real plans. "Do you think she was trying to gain extra powers by transversing worlds?"
"I reckon so," accepted the translator. "I reckon she saw a chance to double her power. If she controlled Gabrielle's karma in this world and in another, it was like gettin' a double cheeseburger."
Janice suddenly laughed at the joke. "Mel."
The grinning translator shrugged but she knew her friend would enjoy the lightheartedness, which was a success too.
"I bet there are other worlds too," theorized the archeologist. "She'll try to cross those too."
"Possibly but I reckon the Conqueror would get a bit suspicious with all these look alikes coming out of the woodworks."
Janice's nose crinkled up as she didn't consider that. "True."
"Alti most likely selected you 'cause she believed that the stage of your karma wouldn't mix so well with the Conqueror's."
The archeologist huffed and gave a dower look. "I think she was right on that one."
"If she'd kidnapped your real ancestor, Gabrielle, I reckon that both her and this Gabrielle would have been able to stop the Conqueror."
Janice smirked and teased, "That'd been the bacon on the burger then."
Melinda rolled her eyes at the smart remark.
"You started it," reminded the archeologist. Her very playful features appeared, her eyes lighter. "I could go for a double cheeseburger with bacon and tomatoes and-"
"Janice," cut off the groaning translator. Despite she was enjoying the good humor it was driving her nuts but deep inside she knew she adored it.
Janice cleared her throat and tried to be more serious. "So what now, Mel?"
Melinda coolly arched her right eyebrow. "Now we play with Alti while we try to find the scepter."
"How long will the Conqueror's trial take?"
Melinda shrugged then casually replied, "Could be a week or so."
"I ain't got that far yet," admitted Melinda. "I'm in contact with Gabrielle to see how things are. She showed me her coding system."
"Really?" Janice eyed her best friend. "You figured it out before you left her?"
"Yes," nonchalantly answered the translator. "Here, I'll show you something interesting." She stood up gracefully then directed Janice behind the Conqueror's desk.
The archeologist curiously peered into the bottom desk drawer that Melinda opened on the left side.
"Open one," offered Melinda.
Janice picked up one from the top in the deep drawer and unrolled the scroll. She was amazed to see her ancestor's hand writing clearly there in Greek syntax. "Are all those….?" She stared down in the filled drawer.
"Yes." The translator folded her arms over her armored chest. "The Conqueror has an extensive collection. She's kept every one of Gabrielle's scrolls."
"Goddamn," mumbled the archeologist. She rolled it up and placed it back in its home.
"Interesting part though," started Melinda, who opened another deep drawer on the other side. "She keeps Gabrielle's stories about her childhood separate from the rest."
Melinda tapped the open draw with her boot.
Janice stared at the heavy pile of what she assumed were countless stories about the ruler's childhood. She was amazed by how prolific her ancestor truly was.
"She keeps 'em separate 'cause her childhood memories are her only happy memories." Melinda shoved the drawer shut with her boot. "She reads 'em often, actually."
"How do you know all this, Mel?" Janice had befuddled features.
Melinda tapped her own head on the side. "Yakut showed me everything, Janice."
"She showed you… everything?" the archeologist emphasized.
The translator moved closer to her friend then gently answered, "Yes from her birth to the day I arrived."
"Then you know what happened in the…." Janice couldn't bring herself to say it even in a mere whisper. Her head slightly fell as her memories of the dungeon filtered back to her. She started to recoil yet she stopped when a warm touch came to her chin and lifted her head.
"Yes," murmured Melinda, "I know most of what she's done to you or planned to." She let out a sad sigh and let her hand trail onto Janice's cheek. "I want to help ya, Janice… please."
The archeologist collected Melinda's callused hand into her own and squeezed it. "You already did, Mel."
"I only stopped the pain." Melinda laced her hand through Janice's. "I ain't healed 'em."
"I know," gently relented Janice. "Give me some time."
The translator slowly nodded her head in understanding. She wanted to move in closer and hold Janice in her arms but she wasn't sure if Janice would allow her. Just as she was prepared to say something her head snapped up from something.
Janice tensed because she saw that instant transformation in her best friend. It was so alarming and made Janice's heart pause in a beat.
"Go around my desk… now," quickly ordered Melinda.
Janice didn't make a point of the fact that her friend considered the desk hers. She knew something was wrong so she reluctantly broke away from Melinda and stepped around the desk just as a loud knock came to the door.
Melinda touched the back of the desk chair with her hand then ordered, "Come in." She her hands deathly gripped the chair's back as she saw the dark shaman stroll into her office.
Janice paled because she hadn't seen the shaman since she visited her in the dungeon that first day. Her stomach pitched down and her knees slightly weakened from her fears.
Melinda detected her friend's uneasiness so she came around the desk while saying, "What is it, Alti? I am busy."
The dark shaman narrowed her cold gaze at Janice. "So I see, my liege."
"What do you want?" snapped the ruler.
Alti tore her gaze away from the prisoner and narrowed her eyes at the Conqueror. "Have you forgotten your meeting with the court?" She smirked at Janice while her husky voice tormented, "Perhaps you were slightly… distracted."
The Conqueror hastily reacted by stalking up to the shaman.
Alti slightly recoiled from her leering posture.
"Remember, Alti that I will cut your supply short." The Conqueror lowered her head closer to the shaman then darkly whispered, "Very quickly." She raised her head back up and hotly stated, "I'm not in the mood today."
"Lucky for the court then," chided Alti huskily. "I will keep them busy until your… arrival."
"See that you do," clipped the ruler then she waved off the shaman in disrespect.
Alti seethed at the ruler but it wasn't anything new, the games. She turned on her heels and glided out of the office, the door slamming behind her.
The Conqueror's eyes flickered to Janice then to the door. "Guards!" She fiercely ordered.
Janice clenched her hands at her side as her guards now entered the office next. She was curious what her friend was prepared to do to these sentries.
"Why did Alti come into my office?" barked the ruler, who was circling her men with burning blue eyes.
The guards were tense and their eyes occasionally following the ruler that circled them. "Because she wanted to see you," offered a logical guard.
"Really, Plato?" The Conqueror got into the guard's face. "What were your orders?" Her stare went between the two men. "I asked a question."
"We are to guard the prisoner," answered the same guard.
The Conqueror's cold eyes switched the silent guard. "And what else?"
The sentry fumbled some and racked his mind to think of what the other order was.
The Conqueror lost her patience and grabbed a hidden dagger from her breast. She suddenly rammed it into the sentry's gut. "Answer me correctly before I put this into your chest next."
The guard held his breath as the warm blade withdrew from his gut. His right hand now covered his bleeding wound. "Protect the prisoner… from Alti."
The ruler revealed a pleased yet dark smile. "Very good." She wiped her dagger clean of the blood on the sentry's leather clad chest. His blood made a perfect 'X' design too. The ruler took a step away while putting her dagger away.
Janice was stunned by her friend's actions but if it showed on her face it wasn't affecting Melinda at all.
The Conqueror spun back around to face her soldiers. "Now, again I ask why did Alti come into my office?"
The injured guard was weakening but he refused to fall less it meant his life. "Because we disobeyed your orders."
The Conqueror put her hands on her hips. "Exactly."
"We will endeavor to improve, my liege," promise the uninjured sentry.
"Do that or consider your life forfeited," casually stated the cold voice of the ruler. "Now get the Hades out of here and take care of your wound before I change my mind."
"Yes, my liege."
The sentries bowed and clapped their fists across their chests.
The injured soldier hesitated at the door and asked, "What of the prisoner, my liege?"
The Conqueror smiled at the soldier's sudden spark of intelligence. "I will return her to her chambers. See that you return to your posts there."
"Yes, my liege." The injured guard left with his partner and was relieved to be alive still.
Janice watched her guards go then when the heavy door closed, she debated what to do or say next.
Melinda kept her back to Janice, her shoulders ridged as her back. She didn't want to face her friend because of how she'd acted but it was how the Conqueror would have responded to the situation.
Janice swallowed when her feelings powered over her. She could see that her friend was struggling deeply with everything and she hadn't seen that earlier. This was just as hard for Melinda as it was for her and she'd been blind to that before now. She realized that Melinda truly needed her support and acceptance with these circumstances.
Melinda shuddered when a warm, small hand touched her mid back in a comforting contact.
"It's okay, Mel." Janice peered up when Melinda twisted her head around to her as she stood next to the tall southerner. Some part of her expected to see those monstrous blue eyes of the Conqueror but instead she saw nothing but worried, shattered sapphire eyes.
Janice broke apart in that instant and she hastily gathered up Melinda into a warm embrace.
Melinda pulled the small woman completely into her arms and lowered her head down close to Janice's. She soaked in the comfort and support from her friend that she knew meant everything to her. She was coming to understand Xena's resolve to always protect Gabrielle because Gabrielle provided her with everything that she was missing.
Janice held tightly to Melinda and her world felt at ease again despite their situation. Her faith in finding a way home suddenly shaped into Melinda and she knew home had found her instead. She settled her emotions down and lifted her head form Melinda's chest after some time. "Mel?"
"Yeah?" whispered the quaking voice.
"We're going to be okay."
Melinda faintly smiled then murmured, "Yes." Her sweet southern accent filled Janice's ears. "I promise."
Janice rubbed her right hand up and down Melinda's arm, her hand passing over the cool, brass arm bracer.
"I should go," gently reminded the translator.
"I wouldn't mind seeing you toy with the court." Janice enjoyed the shake of Melinda's body from a silent laugh.
"Janice Covington, ya have an evil streak."
Janice flashed a grin. "Sometimes… a lot of the times," she finally admitted.
"As much as I'd love to amuse you with the court I reckon Alti is already havin' a field day with my saving you from the dungeons."
Janice let out a huge, deep sigh. "I bet."
"Come on." The tall southerner separated from her friend and headed for the door. "I'll come by when I'm done with the court."
"Promise?" pressed the archeologist, who was trailing out of the office with her friend.
"Definitely." Melinda offered a smile then guided her friend through the fortress to her bedchambers on the third level. After she said goodbye, she made her fashionably late arrival to the court where her mood would quickly take a downward spiral.
Chapter 11 – Try Me
Melinda pulled her hood neatly over her face to obscure her dark features. The only thing that showed were her glowing blue eyes from the torchlight flickering from the torches lining the street walls in Corinth. She nodded at the six women beside her then started forward but a hand caught her wrist.
The translator turned back to study the Amazon, Ephiny.
"This is silly but…." Ephiny untied a small pouch from her side then held it out to the stranger. "Give this to Janice."
The southerner peered into the pouch and the items inside made her smile.
"She left them with me but…." Ephiny hesitated then shrugged.
"Thank you," murmured Melinda, "This'll mean a lot to her." She tied the small pouch to her leather clad hip.
"You better go," ordered Ephiny, "we'll be watching for your signal."
The translator nodded then turned once again as she broke off into a jog.
Callisto leaned towards Ephiny and muttered, "Is this really going to work?"
"Yes," stated Ephiny. She then turned her head to her fellow Amazons. "Let's split up and keep an eye out… be careful."
Melinda was only a block away from the Conqueror's fortress. Just ahead she spotted a squad of soldiers so she ducked behind a building in an alley. She hunkered down and watched them pass by without a care. As she rose back up, she assessed the wall that went around the fortress and the fortress itself was built into the cliff side of a massive hill that was shy of being a mountain.
Melinda carefully scanned the wall and observed the gates where there were several guards and in the two keeps. As she followed the length of the wall she picked out a guard for about every fifty yards. There were two corners where there were two keeps again then the wall connected to the cliff on either side of the fortress. It was quite the impressive complex really.
After a few steady breathes, Melinda checked all of her items on hand, which were a sword on her back, a dagger in her right boot, a climbing rope across her chest, and finally her special gift for the Conqueror. Melinda already knew the fortress's ins and outs thanks to Yakut's projection so she knew how to execute her plans perfectly. She just hoped it would be as simple as she wished it to be.
Finally, Melinda peeled off of the building and hurried for the right side wall of the fortress. She hastily ducked into the shadows that the wall created for her and she dropped her head back while her hands worked on freeing her climbing rope.
The sentry on the wall strolled past and continued his repetitive duty.
The translator licked her lips as the sentry came back towards her direction. She now had her climbing rope free and the hook at the end slightly swaying at her side. She was just waiting for her opening that she required.
The sentry spun around and walked down the wall to the keep at the corner. When he got to the keep, he stopped and studied the flickering city of Corinth. After a huff, he turned and marched down the wall for his constant distance. He came to the end then turned and slowly marched back towards the keep but then he thought he heard something. The soldier paused then scanned the area for the odd noise yet he couldn't come up with anything. After a shrug, he started to move yet when he lifted his left leg he was stuck by a mysterious, firm grip on his ankle. Before he could say or do anything, his feet came out from under him and he was jerked over the wall's side. He almost gave a cry but was too late when his head slammed against the wall and knocked him unconscious.
Melinda bared her teeth as she dangled from her climbing rope by her left arm while her right arm held onto the soldier's ankle. She stared at the unconscious sentry that swayed upside down below her. She then carefully wrapped her left leg around the rope then neatly slid down the rope until she was halfway down the wall. She released the soldier and watched him fall to the ground into a heap. She then raced back up the rope and popped up onto the wall.
The translator hastily pulled up her climbing rope then sprinted down the wall and into the torch lit keep that merely had a window for archers and steps in the floor. She went to the spiraling steps and raced down them silently until she came to the closed door at the bottom.
Melinda stopped and rested her climbing rope on the steps behind her then proceeded to unhook her cloak. She tossed the Amazon cloak onto the step then grabbed the climbing rope. She easily put the coiled rope across her chest and finally put her cloak back on to conceal it. This time, Melinda didn't put her hood over her head and neared the closed door.
Melinda's fingers slipped around the ring door handle yet she wavered from opening it. She closed her eyes then with several calming breathes, her winter blue eyes flew open and her body suddenly tensed with a dark strength. She shoved the door open and sauntered out into the square that was in front of the entrance to the fortress. She strolled across the square where many soldiers were patrolling here and there but they paid her no mind.
When Melinda approached the bottom of the steps to the entrance, she grinned at the sentries on guard duty. There were two sentries on every step, one to the right and one to the left with spears at their sides.
The guards quickly came to attention when the tall, dark woman was near enough for them to recognize her features. They each bowed their heads as the powerful woman ascended the steps very slowly.
The two guards at the door bowed deeper than the rest but one lifted his head. "Good evening, my liege."
Melinda nodded her head then coldly stated, "It's good to see some men awake."
The speaking sentry felt for whatever soldier was foolish enough to fall asleep on duty while the Conqueror was prowling about the grounds. He'd heard stories about the ruler's surprise checks on the guards late at night to test them. "Of course, my liege." He grabbed the door handle closes to him and pulled it open.
Melinda strolled through and entered the dimly lit courtroom where many of the Conqueror's political meetings took place along with some sentencing judgments. Her head twisted up to the left at a particular stretch of the balcony high above and it made her anger grow because it was the spot Janice had tried her assassination attempt. She was suddenly swarmed with memories of a gunshot then a sharp pain on her shoulder before she leapt up onto the balcony to capture her attacker.
Melinda shook away the Conqueror's memories then knew she needed to move quickly. She hastily went across the empty court, passed the throne dais, and opened a side door to a long hallway. She weaved through the low lit fortress and made her way up to the third level where her target should be located by now. When she came up onto the third floor, she slowed down because there would be guards close to the Conqueror's room.
As the southerner glided into the hallway, she was greeted by four guards on the floor that were quietly talking but they stopped. She gradually approached them as a dark grin pulled over her face.
"My liege," greeted a sentry. He wasn't sure how she was out here in the hallway when she never left her room. Or so he thought at least.
Melinda stopped in front of the four guards then studied each of their bowing heads. She detected they were shocked by her presents so she grunted at them then ordered, "I'm going back to bed. See that I'm not disturbed."
"Of course, my liege," replied the same guard.
Melinda swept by them and went down the hallway for another hundred feet until she came to the end where there were two large double doors. Just as she approached the doors, she reached into her cloak and a black bag formed in her hand. She neatly opened it then her right hand curled around the golden ring to one of the doors. She silently entered the dark chambers.
Melinda's head turned to the left as she stood in front of the closed doors to the bedchambers. About fifty feet away or so was a large bed with a still form resting in the middle. Her right hand slipped into the black bag and she removed something that flashed silver for a second in the softly lit room. She ghosted over to the bed and she leered at the ridged, sleeping features of the Conqueror on her back.
The Conqueror's eyes suddenly flew open when she sensed the presence above her. She bared her teeth and her right hand swept up towards her attacker, a dagger in hand.
Melinda tilted to the left and the blade narrowly missed her face. She growled and promptly her hands shot down at the moving ruler.
The Conqueror inhaled a last sharp breath when the stings came to either side of her throat. Her body was completely paralyzed and her right hand involuntarily released her dagger. She was offered a perfect view of her attacker's face as the attacker bowed over her menacingly. Her anger shined in her eyes but her eyes widened in disbelief as she saw her reflection. "Who are… you?" she rasped while trying to move her hands up to her choking neck.
Melinda ruthless smiled then lifted the black bag. "I'm your replacement, Conqueror." She swiftly shoved the black bag over the ruler's face then her right hand slammed into the ruler's side.
A sharp pain riveted through the strong body of the Conqueror. Something entered through her skin, into her blood, and raced through her body and up to her head. The Conqueror was charged by desperation but suddenly her world went completely black and she lost control.
Melinda watched the dark ruler slump into the bed, utterly powerless and it filled Melinda's hunger to see it. Quickly she released the pinch from the ruler's neck and saw the Conqueror's chest rise and fall rhythmically. She needed to rush less the Amazons thought she may have failed her quest. She trailed across the dark room and threw open a closet door where there were so many articles of clothing of a wide variety. She removed a pair of leather pants that were hidden deep then she grabbed a plain white top to use along with a hanging cloak. Last, she grabbed a pair of worn boots from the floor in the closet.
The southerner returned to the bed and she took a hot second to toss her metallic weapon onto the nightstand by the bed. She then hastily worked to get the nude Conqueror dressed in the clothes she'd selected. Finally she double checked to make sure the black bag was tied so it wouldn't come off but not tight to strangle the ruler.
Melinda was satisfied then she briskly walked up to a long, heavy curtain that blocked the entrance to the small balcony. She slipped through the slit in the curtains and reached for her sword on her back. She gave it a spin as she neared the railing of the balcony. She then lifted her sword horizontally and the full moon started to reflect from it but she angled it a precise way. She slowly lowered her blade when she saw the same reflection twinkle back to her from in the city.
Melinda went back into the chambers and grabbed the unconscious ruler by her arms. She dragged the ruler out of the bed, dropped her to the floor, and hauled her across the floor. She then knelt down and buttoned the cloak up so that it wouldn't reveal the Conqueror's feminine attributes. She shifted her right foot some then removed her dagger, which she put the blade against her left wrist underneath the cloak.
Melinda closed her eyes, her jaw set as she ran the blade across her wrist then she smeared the blade in her blood to coat it. "Guards!" she called out. She pulled the dagger out the from under her cloak just as the guards broke into the chambers.
"My liege!" A sentry raced over with his three comrades. "What happened?"
"What does it look like, fool?" Melinda, now the new Conqueror, slowly stood up while holding out her bloody dagger. "How did he get past you four?" Her eyes were slits at them.
The sentries exchanged fearful glances and the earlier speaking guard said, "We don't know, my liege. We didn't see or hear anything."
The Conqueror's right hand shot out and grabbed the guard by his leather clad chest. She yanked him towards her so that he hovered over the unconscious form on the floor. "I want him taken to the fields."
"T-t-tonight, my liege?"
"Right… now," hotly whispered the ruler. "I want him crucified."
"Yes, my liege." The guard was thrown back into his original position but he stumbled back.
The Conqueror spun her dagger between her fingers then pointed it at her attacker. "See that you don't remove the bag over his head… less you prefer to see his mutilated face."
One sentry actually swallowed at the mental image he received. The talking guard signaled the men to gather up the attacker and it took every bit of their strength to haul him through the room towards the doors.
"See that only two of you go," called the Conqueror, who was making her way to the washroom. "And be sure to forget tonight's events."
The sentries each paused at the door, clapped their fists across their chest, and in unison said, "Aye, my liege." They made a hasty exit while carrying the unconscious captive. They rushed the captive down the hallway and down three levels then one more into the first level of the dungeon. They dragged the captive to a side door of the dark dungeon where one soldier opened the wood door.
All together, the sentries were able to toss the heavy weight of the attacker into a wagon. Two sentries went back to the Conqueror's room to stand guard as told while one sentry went to get a horse for the wagon. The fourth sentry stood guard by the wagon and unconscious man in it.
It wasn't long before the wagon was lashed onto a workhorse and the two sentries marched across the fortress's grounds, to the gates, and the gates were opened for them. They then started the long trek out of the city towards the crucifixion fields that were certainly downwind of Corinth; the stench hovering over the fields like an invisible cloud.
As the two sentries were out of the city and halfway to the fields, they spotted a lonely figure walking down the worn, dirt path. At first they thought it was another soldier coming off duty from the fields then it struck them that they were far too thin to be a soldier. The sentries stopped the wagon and drew their swords as the stranger approached them.
"Who goes there?" called a soldier.
The cloaked figured lifted her head and her bright blond hair reflected the full moon. She glowed in mercury like a goddess then her laughing voice filled the air. "It’s a nice night for a blood bath, isn't it, boys?" She gave a screeching battle cry and her sword scraped out of her sheath from her back.
The sentries withdrew their swords and quickly engaged the enemy. Then they found themselves very outnumbered when a swarm of warrior women collided into the battle. They soon found themselves on a different road that guided them to the underworld and their bodies cold with death.
Solari grabbed the edge of the wagon with one hand and with her right hand she grabbed the black bag over the head. She ripped it off and her wild grin formed. "Sweet Artemis… she did it." There she stood and staring at the distinct, beautiful features of the dark ruler of half the known-world.
Ephiny neared her best friend and studied the unconscious ruler. "We need to move before word spreads." She turned and looked at the four other Amazons. "Everybody get into the wagon, I'll ride the horse. Make sure she stays asleep."
The five Amazons nodded then climbed into the wagon with ease. Ephiny though vaulted up onto the workhorses's bare back and urged him into a fast trot off of the road. It wasn't long before they'd gone up a hill that went around the great capital and the wagon came to jerking stop beside another wagon where three other Amazons waited. Ephiny ordered everybody to work together as they got the Conqueror into the secondary wagon, which actually had metal bars and a metal roof on it. Once the Conqueror was in it, Ephiny had Callisto shackle up the Conqueror's ankles and wrists then she ordered three other Amazons to cover their trail.
It was within a half of candlemark that the Amazon party was marching down the empty road with their valuable cargo in the wagon. They didn't fear any soldiers being on the road since it was so late at night and by the time there would be more activity they'd be long gone towards the Amazon Nation. Every Amazon in the kidnapping party was filled with adrenalin since they had the most feared ruler completely unconscious and yet so close.
About halfway through the long trip, Ephiny ordered the party to take a break and everybody did except for one Amazon. Ephiny watched the Amazon that stood beside the wagon cage and was studying the Conqueror through the metal mars. She sighed then slowly approached the Amazon.
"How goes things, Callisto?"
The blond Amazon let go of the bars she was touching but she kept staring at the ruthless ruler. "I figured somebody had to stay and watch her."
Ephiny grunted and folded her arms against her chest. "She's not going to get up anytime soon."
Callisto grinned in amusement at that idea. She turned and faced the leader of the group. "What will happen to her?"
"At the trial?" questioned Ephiny. At Callisto's nod, she shrugged. "Its hard to say… but I doubt she'll be freed."
Callisto bit the side of her mouth then murmured, "She has many crimes to pay for besides those against the Amazons."
Ephiny touched the Amazon's nearby shoulder. "She does but those she'll pay for in Tartarus."
Callisto huffed as the Amazon's touch left her skin.
Ephiny eyed the younger woman then quietly asked, "Are you sure you can do this, Callisto?" She watched as cold amber eyes met her gaze.
"If I don't do this then I'll always hate her." Callisto turned again and glared at the dark woman in the cage. "Protecting her will be the hardest thing in my life."
"It will be the most rewarding too," pointed out Ephiny.
Callisto faced her superior then slowly nodded her head. "It will." Her sidelong gaze turned to the Conqueror. "If it wasn't for the Amazons… I'd still be a worthless slave."
Ephiny exhaled quietly then confidently stated, "You were meant for this, Callisto." She touched the Amazon's mid back while saying, "See to her." Her amber eyes flashed to the ruler, who was groaning.
Callisto smiled smugly while reaching to her belt for something. "With absolute pleasure, Ephiny." She extracted her medical tool that was very much a weapon now then she reached into the cage between the bars.
Ephiny silently moved away to leave Callisto to her duties.
The Conqueror groaned as she felt a warm touch on her right wrist. Then there was a sudden sharp pain on the bottom of her wrist and her black dreamscape claimed her again but not without her sensitive ears picking out a hated voice.
"Pleasant nightmares, Conqueror."
The Conqueror abruptly jolted awake by the tail end of her dream or maybe her memories that were trying to come back to her. She focused on the six Amazons that stood in the jail with her and faithful stood watch. The small window in the jail door showered with the morning sun's light but that didn't concern her at the moment. Instead she peered down at the top of her right wrist then she turned it over. There on the bottom of her wrist were small puncture marks and somewhere around half a dozen or so. She ran her thumb over them as she realized exactly what they were since she was so familiar with the healer's tools of the trade.
When she lifted her head, she examined each of the guards then she honed in on one Amazon that held a sword out besides the head guard. The Amazon had shocking blond hair flowing out from under her mask and coming from the sockets of the mask, the Conqueror detected deep, old loathing. Some part of the ruler thoroughly enjoyed this and fully absorbed it like a leech yet that was only a small piece of her that gained any satisfaction.
The Conqueror now heard some voices chatting outside the jail then the door opened to reveal the rebel leader. She released an audible sigh at seeing her enemy and only acquaintance here in the Amazon Nation.
"Its morning, its breakfast time," mentioned the bard, who had a tray of food.
Ephiny was in disbelief, as were several other guards minus Solari, who was snickering behind her mask.
The dark ruler curiously watched as the bard took a seat beside her on the bench.
"Gabrielle," started Ephiny and she stepped forward.
The rebel shook her head. "Its fine, Ephiny."
The head guard just decided to give up before starting because she couldn't seem to win any arguments anymore.
The bard tried to maneuver her walking stick against the bench while balancing the tray in her lap. She was slightly unsuccessful as the tray tried to make an escape for the floor.
The Conqueror reacted by catching the edge of the tray and pushing it back into the small lap.
"Thanks," murmured the bard, her small hands now on the tray. "The grapes are pretty good here."
The Conqueror still hadn't spoken but she took the cluster of grapes first.
Gabrielle didn't mind the silence as she easily filled it with chitchat about her plans for the trial.
The Conqueror seemed as if she wasn't listening but she was and she ate the well picked out meal. She'd been getting meals regularly yet they were never filling, not like this platter that Gabrielle had brought her. Just as she finished up so did Gabrielle's long monologue that included only a few grunts and nods from the ruler.
The bard placed the empty tray on the last bit of bench to her right.
"Ask Yakut about her shamanism," mentioned the ruler.
Gabrielle blinked and twisted back to the ruler after she set the tray down. "What do you mean?"
The Conqueror slightly lifted an eyebrow. "Get Yakut to talk about her shamanism powers and relate it back to Alti." She laced her hands in her lap then leaned against the wall. "Yakut's powers are more or less at the same stage as Alti's were when I met her."
"Really," mumbled the thinking bard. "I think… I see what you're… getting at." She suddenly grinned. "Thanks."
The ruler grunted then closed her eyes.
Well…." The rebel scooted off the bench with her cane and picked up the tray. "I'll see you at the trial."
The Conqueror opened one eye and briefly watched her enemy head of the jail. When the door closed, her lips were teased by a grin but it slowly slipped away.
Gabrielle returned the tray to the dining hut first then she went to her hut that she shared. When she arrived in the hut, she found Cyrene there and just coming out of the washroom. "Good morning, Cyrene."
The older woman softly smiled then put her index finger against her lips and pointed to her bed.
The bard glimpsed over and saw the small head of Melpomene sticking out from the mangled blankets. The scene made a soft smile take over.
Cyrene silently neared the younger woman and quietly mentioned, "I wanted her to sleep in some. I think she could use it."
"I'm sure," agreed the rebel. She shifted on her stick some.
Gabrielle pulled her attention away from the child and turned to Cyrene with knitted eyebrows.
Cyrene sighed then pushed herself to say it. "I'm going to see Xena this morning."
The bard was clearly shocked as it took her a few heartbeats to recover. "Are you sure, Cyrene?"
"Yes." The Conqueror's mother studied the sleeping Melpomene then murmured, "Its time her and I face each other… after so long."
Slowly Gabrielle nodded then asked, "Do you want me to go with you?"
"I need to do this alone." Cyrene's washed out blue eyes met Gabrielle. "Stay here with Melpomene… she'll be hungry when she gets up."
Gabrielle nodded her understanding then moved in for a warm hug.
Cyrene truly needed the hug from the young woman she considered her second daughter. She placed a kiss to Gabrielle's temple then pulled away to leave the hut.
The rebel sighed then went to the desk where she had a few scrolls that the Amazons had provided to her. She was working on the continuation of her journal as her days in the Amazon Nation stepped forward. These were unusual days that she had to write about, not wanting to miss one detail.
Cyrene was before the jailhouse in no time at all but her hands sweated with nervousness. She'd seen her daughter from a distance many times over but they had not spoken since the day Xena returned Lyceus's lifeless body to Amphipolis. When she stepped up to the guards at the door, they questioned nothing since they knew who she was and they'd been waiting for her arrival.
The Conqueror's eyelids gradually lifted as she half expected the rebel back in the cell. When her gaze filled with the form of an older woman whose salt and pepper brought out her striking blue eyes, the Conqueror trembled but stood up.
Cyrene slowly walked past the six guards. Her small steps brought her across the threshold and she stopped in front of her daughter, her head tilted back.
The Conqueror's heart was furiously beating and her body tense with anxiety. She could practically count the wrinkles and creases in her mother's face that had aged her since she last saw her. The blue in her mother's eyes were worn out in rather dim compared to her childhood days.
Cyrene was amazed by the gentle features of her daughter, the high cheekbones, and the full lips that'd spoken for so many atrocities. Cyrene knew too that so long ago she'd sinned. "Hello, Xena… it's been a long time."
The Conqueror remains unmoving, her face still then finally her emotionless voice murmured, "Too long, mother." She now rested her hands on her hips. "This is slightly… awkward… you here in the Amazon Nation… me chained up."
Cyrene looked up and down her daughter's length then returned her head dropping back some. "It's uncanny."
Slowly the Conqueror folded her chained arms across her chest in a protective format. "I hear you're apart of the rebel faction."
Cyrene tilted her head to the side. "I am a member."
"How convenient," hollowly muttered the ruler, "but I suppose that explains all the cute childhood stories about me that are in circulation."
"Yes… seems like another lifetime ago." Cyrene's eyes went to slits. "You've done some changing since then."
"It seems you have too," mentioned the ruler.
The mother huffed then stated, "Not as much as some."
The Conqueror grinned at the backhand remark.
Cyrene proceeded to wipe that grin away by saying, "I'm sure your little brother is so proud."
The Conqueror's grin did fall and very slowly as her eyes flashed her defenses. "Leave him out of this, mother."
"Why?" argued Cyrene, "Every gods-be-damned day you dishonor his memory. Forget Toris and even my face but Lyceaus… he would have never wanted any of this."
"This has nothing to do with him," hissed the dark ruler.
Cyrene took a step closer, not at all fearful of her daughter's darkness. "Then explain to me what yours and Lyceaus's mission were after Cortese?" She studied the glazed facial features high above her and she could see her child was far off in the past. "Tell me you never deviated from it, Xena?"
The Conqueror jolted back to the present and her face darkened threateningly. "It's all gone, mother… this is now." She lowered her head down and menacingly whispered, "Now you're with the faction and-"
"No," cut through Cyrene. She took a step forward, which forced her daughter to step back and almost hit the bench. "You listen to me…." Her dark look far surpassed anything the Conqueror could accomplish. "Never try me, Xena… some things may change while others do not. I have lost a son and I will not lose another daughter… not to you… not again."
The ruler straightened her back out as the implications her mother made to her.
"I have carried you in my heart all my life," emotionally whispered Cyrene, "and I keep hoping my daughter will return to me… some day." She bitterly laughed then muttered, "The Fates let it be before the day I die." She read the emotions swirling deeply in her daughter and it was her intent to grab them then pull them up to the surface with her last words. "Just remember, Xena...." Cyrene leaned in then in her gentlest voice she promised, "No matter what you do or say, your mother will always love you."
The Conqueror helplessly watched the burning tears roll down her mother's cheeks from her reddening eyes. She couldn't say anything so she turned her head away, her eyes slipping shut and her arms tightened over her chest.
Cyrene dipped her head, turned, and made her way to the door.
Ephiny ordered the door open for the mother then she escorted her out with her mask going back. After she kicked the door shut behind her, she circled around to face Cyrene. "Are you okay?"
Cyrene smiled through her tears. "Yes, thank you, Ephiny."
The Amazon sadly smiled then cupped the older woman's cheeks. "She's lucky to have you, you know."
"No," murmured the mother, "I made her what she is today."
Ephiny frowned at this then freed her left hand, she pointed at the shut jail door. "That woman in there… she is who she is because she chose her path. Nobody," whispered Ephiny, "Nobody forced her to walk the road that she has been on." She tilted her head and now rested her hands on Cyrene's shoulders. "And maybe she'll realize that before it's too late."
"By the gods," rasped Cyrene, "I've always had faith that she would… but…."
Ephiny shook her head then slowly smiled. "Never give up on her, Cyrene… when everybody else has."
The Conqueror's mother quickly understood the wise words of Ephiny and she broke into tears.
The Amazon pulled the woman into her arms and held her securely. She'd seen so many things in this moon and half but for the first time, what stunned her the most, was that she actually saw some light in this dark world.
Gabrielle jostled from her chair when the hut door opened. There in the doorway she saw a worn, emotional Cyrene, which made her jump up quickly. "Cyrene, are you okay?"
Cyrene went to Gabrielle as Gabrielle came to her.
Gabrielle dropped her walking stick when close enough and she enveloped Cyrene into a powerful hug.
Cyrene held tightly to Gabrielle, her face in soft blond hair. Her red eyes filled again with tears.
Gabrielle's neck soon became moist from the tears and she began to silently cry along with Cyrene. Her heart washed over with a deep burn for the woman that was her mother. She stroked Cyrene's long hair and quietly whispered, "I love you, Cyrene."
Cyrene lifted her head some, kissed Gabrielle's temple, and murmured, "I love you, Gabrielle. Thank you for everything." She slightly pulled back but her embrace helped to support the bard. "I may have rescued you moons back but in reality you have rescued me from a lifetime of grief and hopelessness." She pressed her right hand against Gabrielle's pounding heart. "You have been the light in my life when I lost mine the day I betrayed Xena."
Gabrielle's cheeks burned against her acidic tears. "You never betrayed her, Cyrene." When Cyrene started to shake her head, she pressed the topic. "Xena had a path to follow, Cyrene… she would have no matter what you did or said."
Cyrene swallowed against the rocky lump in her throat. "I could have stopped her, Gabrielle… none of us would be here today then."
"But we are here," refused the bard, "and we must face that now. Maybe not tomorrow or the next day will you be able to give back to her what she lost but maybe soon you can." She dipped her head down, her glowing eyes held Cyrene still. "We have to have faith because if we don't… then neither will she."
Cyrene didn't argue but her agreement showed as she drew Gabrielle in again. She held onto her adopted daughter for a long time until finally her gentle sobs broke into soft sniffles and her emotions calmed again. She then slipped an arm around Gabrielle's waist to support her as they made the few steps to the desk chair. After Gabrielle sat, she went to get the cane and returned it.
Gabrielle and Cyrene spoke for awhile. Gabrielle mentioned that little Melpomene had headed off with the other Amazon children. Cyrene had noticed that Melpomene was becoming close with the other girls in the village, which had brought a smile to both Cyrene and Gabrielle. They then spoke about what Cyrene and Xena had said back and forth. Even though they were only a few words, Gabrielle saw the depth behind them. These next days at the trial would be harder than she ever expected.
And the trial's next piece soon came and together, the mother and adopted daughter, walked to the village center. Cyrene took a position among the masses but front row.
Gabrielle stepped up to her spot before the council with Velasca and Queen Cyane to her right. She picked up the clanking and rattling of the approaching ruler with her guard escort.
The Conqueror held her head high, her eyes bright, and her features set stoically. She wordlessly stood beside her representative, her gaze fixed on the council.
Gabrielle didn't speak to her, already picking up the wave of new distance between her and the ruler.
"Today," spoke the head councilor, "we will go through an interview with Queen Cyane." She gave a signal to the queen then she sat down in her chair.
Queen Cyane removed herself from Velasca's side. She stepped up beside the council then turned to face her Nation. She stood proud, her hands behind her back, and body ridged.
"Velasca, you may begin," offered the head councilor.
Velasca dipped her head in thanks then approached the queen some. She cleared her throat, then loudly question, "Queen Cyane, you are the only remain survive of Xena's attack, correct?"
"That is correct," agreed the queen.
Velasca paced away then turned to the queen. "When you first met Xena, what was she like?"
Queen Cyane's gaze flickered to the Conqueror then back to Velasca. "Xena was a lost soul, so to speak. She'd just returned from a lousy campaign in Chin. She was partnered with another warlord, Borias, and they had a small army."
"Would you consider Xena volatile at that time?"
"Very much so," responded the queen but before she could say more, Velasca cut her short.
"Did she show any signs of being hostile against the Amazon at the start?"
Queen Cyane shifted on her feet then answered, "I was leery of her, yes. It wasn't exactly comforting that she showed up with an army."
"But was she hostile against the Nation from the start?" tried Velasca again.
The Amazon Queen locked her gaze with the Amazon. "Not at the start, no."
Velasca rocked on her boots some before charging forward. "From my investigation, I've heard she'd made idle threats against your Nation at the time… personal ones. Do you deny this, my queen?"
The rebel leader stepped forward. "She's badgering the queen, council."
Velasca turned on the heels of her boots. "I am merely trying to point out Xena's intent with the Nation from the start."
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed at the Amazon. "You're trying to get the queen in a corner."
The head councilor held up her hand for silence before it got out of hand. "Velasca, move along, please."
The Amazon sighed greatly but returned her focus to the queen. "My queen, when Xena and Borias's army were there… what was Borias's intent?"
"He wished to setup a treaty with us… he was a man of his word."
"Did Xena agree with his plans?"
Queen Cyane chewed on the inside of her mouth. "Yes and no." At Velasca's signal to explain, she continued. "Xena wanted to learn fighting techniques from us but didn't see much more use for us."
"Expect to leave the elders hanging by their stomachs," remarked Velasca.
"Velasca," warned a councilor.
"My apologies." Velasca turned to Gabrielle, smiled forcefully, and stepped away from the queen.
The bard slowly neared the queen with her head down, her thoughts working through her head. She smiled at the queen, and she was surprised the queen returned one to her. "Queen Cyane, you said you saw Xena as a lost soul. Can you please elaborate on that further?"
"Of course." Cyane waited a beat so her thoughts could form. "When I first met Xena, I could tell she'd had a long, dark history and her heart was full of hatred. I believe at that point in her life she was swaying between doing what was right and what was wrong."
Gabrielle faintly nodded then tilted her head. "Is it true that you invited Xena to join the Nation?"
"Yes," answered Cyane, "I believed she would make an excellent Amazon."
The bard slightly smiled at this image but she lost it with the Conqueror's current image in mind. "If Xena was as hostile and volatile as believed, then why would you risk bringing such a woman into your Nation?"
Queen Cyane contained her grin at the line of questioning. She recalled those days when she first met Xena, before the Conqueror and before the Destroyer of Nations, and she knew why she'd offered a place to Xena. "Yes she was a threat but I believed she could be saved… I'd hoped that I could help her move beyond the darkness and bring out all that was good in her."
"Good you say?" Gabrielle's head bobbed at these words. She took a few steps off to her right then rotated back. "Was Xena any different after she met Alti?"
"What does this have to do with anything?" argued Velasca from behind. "Alti is not here on trial."
Gabrielle whipped her head around to Velasca. "No she is not but I do have a point to prove." Her gaze now went to the council, a hidden plea on her face.
"See that you make it quickly, Gabrielle," stated the head councilor. She then signaled for the queen to answer.
Cyane licked her lips then slowly nodded her head. "Yes, Xena was much different after she met Alti." Her features unknowingly softened at the bard because she pieced together what Gabrielle was intending for this trial. She truly admired the young rebel for standing up for the Conqueror when nobody else would do it. Even more, she respected Gabrielle because the Conqueror was as much as Cyane's enemy as she was Gabrielle's. It was an incredibly beautiful feat to watch the rebel leader stand beside the dark Conqueror.
Gabrielle's lips were slightly puckered then she stepped closer as she asked, "In your best opinion, Queen Cyane would it be safe to say that Alti influenced the Conqueror on some unknown level?"
Queen Cyane studied the straining faces of the Nation, who were awaiting her definite answer. "Yes," she breathed then her eyes closed when the Nation cried out.
"This is insane!" roared Velasca as she stomped up beside Gabrielle. "That monster," she pointed at the Conqueror, "doesn't require anybody to influence her to carry out her darkest desires!"
"Quiet!" yelled the head councilor to everybody.
"Silence!" hotly commanded another councilor.
The Nation's out cry subsided then the council focused on the two representatives.
"This is absolute nonsense," argued Velasca, "Gabrielle is trying to sabotage the entire trial by saying the Conqueror was somehow… controlled by Alti to do what she did!"
"Velasca, hold your tongue." The head councilor sighed because she didn't like this outlandish idea either but yet there was some loop here that must be observed. "Gabrielle, what is your intent?"
"I have a theory," spoke up the rebel, "that the Conqueror didn't act completely on her own will." Just as Velasca was about to blast ahead, she stepped forward. "I'm not saying the Conqueror didn't commit her crimes… because she did but I believe to some extent, if under different circumstances, she may have not done them."
The councils started murmuring amongst themselves then the head councilor inquired, "And do you have some way to prove this, Gabrielle? As you can see, Alti is not here to question."
The bard huffed then shot back, "Even if she was, would she answer honestly?" She shook her head then informed, "I may not have Alti here but I have somebody that can help prove or disprove my theory."
"Who is that?" prompted a councilor.
Gabrielle tapped her walking stick against the ground uneasily then answered, "The shaman Yakut."
Velasca exploded into a fury voice. "Yakut and Alti are completely different shamans."
"But shamans nonetheless," debated the bard, "and they're both from the same stock. This isn't apples and carrots here."
"Gabrielle has a point," spoke up a council member. "Alti and Yakut are both been taught in the ways of shamanism. This may hold some merit after all."
"I believe you're right." Another councilor nodded her head.
"Fine," spoke up the head member, "We will allow you to pursue this road, Gabrielle however be warned that this cannot and will not be any excuse. The Conqueror chose to perform these crimes."
The bard slowly nodded her head but refrained from smiling at her small win.
Velasca stormed away from the frustrating council.
"Let us continue," suggested the council.
Gabrielle cleared her throat before turning back to the Amazon Queen. "Queen Cyane, just before Xena attacked you and the elders you repeated that Xena said she'd killed the young girl?"
"Yes," replied the queen, "Xena stated she'd pushed the young Amazon, Ellie, off from a tree branch."
The bard walked over to the right and then asked, "Are you a hundred percent certain that Xena killed Ellie?"
Queen Cyane's eyebrows knitted together neatly.
"Did you find any proof that she did this?"
The queen shook her head then argued back, "I can't see why she would lie otherwise."
Gabrielle shrugged while turning to the queen. "Well is it possible that Ellie was say… killed by Alti and Xena bluffed, just to provoke you to attack her?"
Queen Cyane opened her mouth to refute the idea yet no words escaped her.
"I ask again, did you find unquestionable proof, besides Xena's words, that Eillie was killed by her?"
The Amazon Queen sighed then slowly shook her head. "We never investigated further who killed Ellie or how she died… we simply took Xena's word."
Gabrielle solemnly nodded then stepped back as Velasca took her opening.
"Refresh my memory," offered Velasca, "who attacked who first? Did Xena attack or you and the elders?"
The Amazon Queen lifted her chest with a deep breath. "After Xena stated that she killed Ellie for sport, she said she was going to show us how she can out-Amazon the Amazons. Then she proceeded to attack us first."
"So Xena didn't really need to use Ellie's death to provoke you in fact. She had every intent to attack you and the elders. Thank you, my queen." Velasca smiled, bowed her head, and stepped back.
The head councilor's eyes roamed over to the rebel leader. "Anything else, Gabrielle?"
The bard had her head down, her lips pressed, and wrinkles in her brow.
The Conqueror cleared her throat for some attention.
The rebel looked between the council and the ruler so she held up an index finger to the council. She neared the ruler and her questioning features lifted to the ruler.
The Conqueror gradually bent down until her lips were close to the bard's right ear. She murmured a few words of suggestion then when she pulled back, she saw a glow on the bard's face.
Gabrielle spun on her heels and rushed, as fast as she could, back to the queen. "Queen Cyane, please refresh my memory now too. How many elders were there in the grove with you?"
"There were ten," replied the queen.
"Ten," repeated the rebel, her eyes aglow. "So that means there were a total of eleven Amazon warriors against the Conqueror?"
Very slowly the queen nodded her head. "Yes."
"Would you say, in your opinion, that Xena was a better fighter than you at that time?"
The Amazon Queen arched an eyebrow then drew out, "No. She was a competent warrior at the time… but she still lacked much training. She was rather brutal in her method and lacked the composure and grace of many warriors."
"Yet she managed to kill ten Amazons and wound you terribly, Queen Cyane." Gabrielle shook her head and then rhetorically asked, "How is this possible with such odds against her?"
Queen Cyane let out a long sigh then quietly replied, "I am not honestly sure."
Gabrielle's head was bobbing as she muttered, "Very interesting." She walked away however she hesitated and pivoted back. "Queen Cyane, one last question."
Queen Cyane straightened up as she waited.
"It is said you were still alive on the branch you hung from...?" Gabrielle saw the queen's slow nod and she absorbed the haunted look washing over the queen at the memories. "Do you recall, after Xena left, what happened?"
Cyane's jaw was locked tight but she willed her emotions under an iron fist. "Alti showed… I watched her… cut each elder's throat."
"Why did she do this?" murmured the rebel. She knew this was incredibly hard for the queen yet it was so crucial to her point.
"She wanted their blood… to drink so that she'd own their souls."
Gabrielle came closer to the Amazon Queen and softly asked, "Did she take yours too?"
Tears held at the edge of Cyane's eyes as she whispered, "Yes."
Gabrielle wanted to touch the queen, to offer comfort but she knew she could not. "If Alti was the last person you saw before you were saved then is it possible that maybe Alti was nearby during the entire attack?"
Queen Cyane reined over her feelings finally as her memories filtered away. "It is possible, yes."
"Is it possible too, that during the fight against Xena, that Alti somehow helped Xena fight you and the elders?"
The queen didn't answer but after several heartbeats she shook her head. "I do not know… I am unqualified to answer that question as I am not a shaman. I do not know whether she had such powers."
Gabrielle cocked her head, a faint smile on her face. "Thank you, my queen." She slowly limped away.
The head councilor thoughtfully looked at Velasca. "Any thing else, Velasca?"
The Amazon folded her arms across her chest. "Nothing else, council."
"Very well then." The head councilor relieved the queen from her spot in front of everybody then she stood up. "I believe we've covered enough for today. We will resume the trial tomorrow at Helios high again. We are dismissed!"
The Conqueror twisted on the heels of her boots so that she had a perfect view of the rebel. "I'm surprised."
The bard revealed a grin. "For once, you like my mouth huh?"
Ever so slowly, the Conqueror's dark eyebrow lifted higher and higher.
Gabrielle's eyes widened when she realized how her words sounded, her blush appeared on her cheeks then crept north and south from there. She made a clearing nose with her throat then hastily stated, "You like my words, I meant."
The ruler grunted but she was stopped dead from any remark by the head guard.
"Time to go, Conqueror." Ephiny signaled her to march, a gesture of her sword.
The Conqueror wavered for a beat, her eyes fixed on her small, short enemy then she swept past without a word.
Gabrielle let out an exasperated sigh when the space the Conqueror had filled was suddenly empty. A chill rippled up and down her back but settled when Cyrene came up to her. "What'd you think?"
Cyrene put her hands on her hips. "I think you're giving her a better chance." Her eyes wondered off into the distance to her daughter's receding back. She stiffened when the Conqueror unexpectedly stopped and returned her gaze from over her shoulder.
The Conqueror studied her mother and the rebel side by side. She memorized the uneasy scene then she turned away before the head guard snapped at her.
Cyrene's chest fell and her attention was back on her adopted daughter. "What will happen tomorrow?"
"I think Yakut will be questioned." Gabrielle wanted to add more yet didn't when the Amazon Queen approached them.
"Gabrielle, you're bringing up an interesting angle from the attack."
The rebel was taken back by the queen's sincere, gentle words. She hadn't expected Cyane to show any support for her theory. "Well… I think maybe there's more to this than anybody thought."
"I believe only Alti truly knows that answer," refuted the queen, "however there is more light on things now." She stepped closer then lowered her head closer to the bard. "Thank you," she simply whispered then strolled off.
Gabrielle blinked as she leaned heavily on her walking stick.
Cyrene touched the young woman's shoulder. "You should rest, Gabrielle. I know you're legs are hurting you by now."
The bard relented because she couldn't argue Cyrene's observations. She limped along side Cyrene back towards their shared hut but it was a silent trip since there was much on her mind. Tomorrow would prove to be very interesting as the Conqueror's trial would narrow closer to the end.
To be continued.Return to the Academy