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 15 – Echoes from the Past
Melpomene smiled warmly as she took her aunt's larger hand. "Do I get to put honey on them?"
The bard grinned at the child as she closed the guest hut's door. "If you behave today," she brought up.
The girl tilted her head as she walked along side the rebel, headed for the food hut. "When have I been bad, Aunt Gabby?"
The bard relented with a smile to her face. "So far so good." Gabrielle squeezed the girl's hand in hers.
"Where is Cyrene?" questioned Melpomene.
Gabrielle considered it then honestly answered, "Cyrene went to see the Conqueror."
Melpomene fell silent, her face also dower compared to earlier. She gazed off in the direction of the jail hut, they were coming past it. Her walk went slightly slower when she saw the jail door opening and she could see the shadowy form of somebody composed inside of the jail. For a heartbeat, she peered up at her newly claimed aunt and saw she wasn't quite paying attention.
Suddenly Melpomene released Gabrielle's hands then broke off into a run for the jail hut.
Gabrielle was shocked and hollered, "Melpomene!" She growled because there was no way she could run to catch up or yell loud enough for the guards to hear her. She tried to walk as fast as she could, which caused her a great amount of pain. She kept trying to call out to the guards across the long distance but the blustery fall's wind washed her voice out.
Melpomene dodged into the jail and ducked out of Karis's quick grab.
Cyrene had been standing by the door, about ready to leave but then she saw the child dash around her. "Melpomene," she yelled and tried to scoop her up but missed.
Melpomene was fairly agile and jumped around the woman she considered her grandmother now. She then crossed the threshold and stopped dead before the standing, dark ruler of most the known-world. Her head tilted back until she met those icy blue eyes, which made Melpomene tremble in fear yet she proudly held her ground.
The Conqueror stood rooted as she took in this powerless but courageous child.
Cyrene quickly came up behind Melpomene in a protective manner.
The Conqueror's carnal eyes flashed to her mother then back down to the child. She slowly knelt down until her predatory eyes were level with the child's. She displayed a ruthless grin at the girl. "And who are you, little girl?"
Melpomene's quaking voice stated, "You don't remember me but I remember you."
The Conqueror arched a dark eyebrow. "I've heard that many times." A brief silence hung between her and the child and the Conqueror read through the simple girl.
Melpomene inhaled deeply then in not as shaky voice declared, "I'm Melpomene." She swallowed but when Cyrene's hands touched the sides of her shoulders she pressed forward. "You raided my town and… and killed my sister."
The Conqueror's previously intimidating demeanor faltered under the child's claims. She stared deep into the girl's emotional brown eyes and the Conqueror's lost childhood swept through her.
"I want to hate you," whispered Melpomene, "For who you are and what you did to me." Her eyes burned and slowly tears tracked down her soft cheeks. "But I was told if I do that then I'll turn into you," she hoarsely murmured, "and I don't want to be anything like you."
The Conqueror's throat tightened and her seasoned strength was nothing against this girl's powerful words.
"I won't hurt my sister's memory by hating you," emotionally whispered Melpomene. She wiped her healing tears from her cheeks then with her tear stained hand, she pressed her palm against the Conqueror's bare chest. "I forgive you, Conqueror."
The Conqueror shut her eyes tightly and her face twisted sharply. Her childhood memories swarmed her and took her many seasons back to the last heartbeats of Lyceus, the last heartbeats for Lyceus.
"No… n-n-no, Lyceus… please. It'll be okay." Xena's sword was long forgotten beside her as she cradled her small brother in her lap while on the ground. She was already coated in blood, the blood of Cortese, who she'd easily and enjoyably slain for attacking her home village.
Lyceus suddenly grabbed his sister's hand, as tightly as he could. "Xena, everything is fine," he promised. His hand was coated by deep red blood, his blood. "We did it… Amphipolis is saved," he whispered, "We protected mother… from… him."
Xena began to cry, her tears so acidic against her bloody features. "Don't talk… we'll get you to a healer." It was a lie, she knew it because there were no healers left in Amphipolis that were close enough and Xena knew nothing about healing, only killing. She swallowed and glanced down at the large open, bleeding wound in her brother's stomach.
Lyceus smiled as his sister. "I'll be fine, Xena," he gently promised in his weakening voice.
Xena's heartbeat was frantic while her brother's was slowing down. "Lyceus," she rasped in fear. "Please."
Lyceus use the last of his strength to tighten his hand against his sister's. "Promise me something, Xena?"
Xena's tears rolled faster down her bloody cheeks, the tears slipping between her lips and filling her mouth with salt and blood. "Anything, Ly… gods anything."
"If you ever get lost-"
"Ly," argued Xena.
"No," interrupted the dying brother, "Listen to me." He clenched Xena's hand harder. "If you get lost then remember this moment… remember me and us." Lyceus read the shattering pain in his sister's eyes. "I will always be with you, I will hear your thoughts but you will not hear mine… so you must remember, Xena." He lifted his free hand that wasn't bloody and pressed it against his sister's rapidly beating heart. "In here, Xena. Promise me?"
Xena lowered her head down to her brother's then painfully rasped, "I promise, Lyceus… I promise." Lyceus's grip on her hand was loosening and now her brother's hand on her chest fell. Xena's tears began more threatening and she curled her body over her brother's and started to rock. "Please no, Ly… don't leave me alone." She kissed her brother's warm yet blood stained cheek and murmured, "I love you, Ly." Finally, Lyceus's grasp was limp in her left hand and Xena drew back some. She stared at her brother's lifeless blue eyes that stared ghostly up at her.
Xena threw her head back and a shattering cry for her brother erupted from her lips.
The Conqueror broke away from her last memory of Lyceus when Melpomene's hand left her chest finally.
Melpomene saw the phantom memories wash away from the Conqueror's features. The Conqueror's eyes, for the first time, were raw with emotions and in some strange way that truly scared Melpomene more than seeing the Conqueror high on her steed with a bloody sword as she did many moons back.
Cyrene drew Melpomene into her arms. She knew something transcended within her daughter but she was unsure of what it was exactly.
Gabrielle had made it to the jail some unknown time ago and leaned heavily against the doorway for support. She'd witnessed the entire scene and all the emotions riding through the dark ruler. Her heart rate was frantic and her nerves on the edge.
Cyrene pulled the child away from the Conqueror and silently guided her away.
The Amazon guards were captivated and their nerves calmer than earlier from when the girl first snuck inside the jail.
Gabrielle tightly took Melpomene's hand while Cyrene held Melpomene's other hand. Together, they silently left the jail hut and the Conqueror to her emotions.
The Conqueror fell to her knees just when Melpomene and Melpomene's new family stepped out of the jail doorway. She slumped forward then lifted her head as she watched the backside of the family recede from her vision then the jail's door started to close, cutting off her view completely. The Conqueror suddenly fought against her wrist chains that went taught in protest, the manacles biting at her wrists. The Conqueror inhaled until her chest hurt then she closed her eyes and opened her mouth with her head back.
Cyrene, Gabrielle, and Melpomene halted and the family turned their heads to the jail hut that exploded with a heart wrenching scream of pain.
Cyrene broke into tears and turned her head to Gabrielle, who was crying too.
The Conqueror's cry echoed through the Amazon Nation and every Amazon paused in their daily activities to listen to her.
Melpomene felt fresh tears too but not for her dead family but for the Conqueror. She squeezed her grandmother and aunt's hands tighter for support.
Cyrene bent down and hefted Melpomene into her arms. She straightened up then found Gabrielle pulling them all into a long, needed hug.
The family eventually retired to the guest hut to try and settle down. A couple of candlemarks before Helios high, Cyrene left the hut with Melpomene at her side as the child was truly hungry. That left Gabrielle alone to consider this morning's unexpected events. She also was tired on a mental level, which was taxing on her physically. She sat at her desk with slumped shoulders and a worn expression.
Gabrielle slightly jumped when there was a knock at the door. She called in the person and was greeted by the Amazon Princess. Terreis told her the new developments that'd happened recently.
The rebel leader, Gabrielle, straightened up after hearing the news. "No," she breathed, "it's impossible, Terreis."
"I am afraid so." The princess crossed the distance between her and Gabrielle in the quiet guest hut. "They are here for her. We must go to the meeting… the council has put the trial on hold until this is figured out."
Gabrielle collected her walking stick from the desk then climbed to her aching feet. "Where is the meeting held?"
"I will take you." Princess Terreis hurried to the door and held it open until the rebel was outside. She then guided her new friend through the village to the meeting hut where all the bustle and gossip was located. She opened the door and let the outsider go in first then she followed next.
The meeting hut was already full of clamor as the council was at their seats, the queen at the head, and officials lining the walls. Princess Terreis and Gabrielle stole a spot along the wall and carefully listened to the opening of the meeting.
Queen Cyane stood up so that she could begin the meeting. "I called this emergency meeting because as you all know, yesterday the rebel leader, Gabrielle, had an attempt on her life. The assassin was captured and is currently locked up in a small jail hut. He has refused to say who he is and why he was attempting to assassinate Gabrielle." She stopped to take a long breath then she continued speaking. "This morning our western patrol unit was confronted by a small band of warriors, who attacked first. Luckily there were no casualties however the patrol was given a message. I received this message and it was a demand… a threat." She picked up the said scroll and held it up as she spoke again. "The warlord, Darphus, is demanding that we turn the Conqueror over to him or else he will attack the Nation. We have less than twenty-four candlemarks to decide before he attacks." When she sat down, this opened the floor to everybody and anybody.
"How in the Hades did this warlord find out about the Conqueror?" hotly demanded an Amazon, who stepped away from the wall.
Queen Cyane released a sigh at Velasca's question. "We do not know but it is obvious enough that there was a leak. Somebody in the Nation spoke about it to an outsider."
"Maybe it was one of the outsiders here that tipped this warlord off," argued Velasca.
"And risk my life?" Gabrielle limped forward twice then steadied a cold stare at her counterpart. "I don't appreciate being inferred stupid, Velasca."
"Perhaps it was that homeless child that… accidentally spoke."
"That homeless child, Melpomene, happens to be my niece," shot back the now angry bard. "And please inform me where in between the time from running from the Conqueror's wrath and playing with the kids here did she tell somebody?"
Velasca growled at the outsider.
Gabrielle didn't flinch as she'd stood up to much worse in her days. "You know, I think you're the leak, Velasca."
Velasca quickly reached up for her sword.
Princess Terreis jumped forward, between the pair, and her sword out already.
"Velasca," hotly yelled the queen, "step back!" When the furious Amazon compiled, she angrily added, "Now if you two are quite finished. Let's figure out this gods-be-damned mess."
"I say we give them what they want," offered Velasca, who sheathed her sword again.
"The Hades you will," yelled Gabrielle in a fury.
Velasca turned her head to the angry rebel and pointed a finger at her. The fire was alive in her eyes more than ever. "You brought this on us! You bring your faction lies to our Nation and now we are the ones attacked because we harbor the Conqueror for your means." Velasca turned her head to the Amazon Queen. "I say we hand her over and let them serve the Conqueror her justice!"
Gabrielle's anger grew heavier as she opened her mouth to fight.
"We will not hand her over," commanded a strong voice.
Velasca's head whipped around to settle on Prince Terreis, the legendary Queen Melosa's younger sister.
Queen Cyane's eyes were narrowed as she carefully watched the typically quiet princess take a stance against Velasca. It was utterly fascinating to her.
"We will not demoralize ourselves, Velasca," chewed out the princess. "The Amazons are true and strong, we always have been and we will not stray from that. We already cower before the Conqueror but now you tell us to cower before a mere warlord?" She stepped up beside Gabrielle then leveled the Amazon with cold stare. "That Amazons will stand up against this threat like all the others in the past."
Queen Cyane dipped her head at the princess's true words. She lifted her head then stated to Velasca. "If you have a problem with Princes Terreis's words, Velasca then I suggest you leave."
Velasca had been publicly defaced before the council and many of the officials. She backed away and returned to her earlier spot against the wall but her face showed she wasn't finished.
"We should take a stand against this warlord," started Princess Terreis. "This isn't about the Conqueror… this is about the Nation. We can no longer hide in the shadows."
"The Amazon Nation is already dying," announced the only outsider, "I know because I've watched it die just like everybody else." She held everybody's attention on her. "The Amazon Nation must breathe life into itself again or else there will be nothing left but the bards' tales about a mythological race."
Queen Cyane stood up after the rebel leader spoke. Her jaw was clenched then relaxed as she asked, "Why did it take an outsider to see this?"
The hut filled with a loud murmur then settled down again.
"Let us come together," announced Queen Cyane, "and take arms once again. We will not die, Amazons." Her old strength from seasons back filled her again when the hut filled with praise for her declaration.
Gabrielle smiled and peered up at the princess.
Princess Terreis mirrored the smile, leaned over, and gratefully whispered, "Thank you, Gabrielle."
The officials remained in the meeting hut and mapped out a strategy against the new threat. Gabrielle remained there to help some but there wasn't much she could offer in the ways of warfare. She knew little to nothing but at least she knew of the plans. Afterwards, she quietly filed out of the hut with the princess at her side.
Princess Terreis came to a stop once she was clear of the crowd. She turned to the rebel. "What will you do, Gabrielle?"
The rebel shook her head then replied, "Stay here, of course."
"It is dangerous," reminded the princess. "If we are defeated… this warlord will most likely kill you and Cyrene."
"Especially if he discovers Cyrene is the Conqueror's mother," murmured the bard thoughtfully. "Why does this warlord want the Conqueror?"
"I'm not completely sure," confessed the Amazon.
Gabrielle tilted her head to the right. "Don't you find it strange that there is a warlord in Greece?" She shook her head then reminded, "The Conqueror has killed them all… at least we all thought. She keeps the peace through all the lands."
Princess Terreis nodded her agreement as she too considered this carefully. "It is strange." She'd never realized that Greece was a peaceful state now that the Conqueror had forcefully united it. There were never any foreign attacks, warlords, kingdoms, or ruthless raids. "Maybe speak to the Conqueror about it, Gabrielle." She stepped closer so that she could keep the conversation quiet. "She may know who this Darphus is." She shook her head with a confused look. "The name seems so familiar to me."
The rebel had already planned on this but she nodded her head. "I'll speak to her right now actually. I'm sure she'll know who Darphus is." She also considered whether or not the Conqueror could provide help too especially since Darphus was adamant about having the Conqueror.
The princess clasped the outsider's shoulder then smiled sadly. "Thank you, Gabrielle." She squeezed the smaller shoulder. "I know you wished to become an Amazon as a child… perhaps one day you will wish that again." Her smile grew warmer.
Gabrielle clasped the princess's wrist then returned the smile. "Thank you, Terreis."
The princess released Gabrielle then said, "I should go. The queen will need my help to prepare for the battle tomorrow."
The rebel nodded. "Be careful."
"I will catch up with you later," promised the already moving Amazon.
Gabrielle gave a brief wave then started on her slow journey to the jail hut. When she made it, Karis opened the door then closed it after Gabrielle entered it.
Ephiny turned her head to Gabrielle then acknowledged her with a nod.
The Conqueror was silent, eyes closed, and her back ridged against the wall as she sat on the bench. She heard somebody come in and knew by the footfall and cane that it was Gabrielle. She then sensed the warm presence of the rebel taking a seat on the bench beside her.
Gabrielle knew the ruler was awake. She was slightly nervous because of earlier this morning. She clenched her left hand that was somewhat sweaty. She leaned over to the ruler, into her space, and carefully whispered, "There's a warlord here…." She trailed off when there was no immediate reaction from the ruler. "His name is Darphus." Gabrielle now found the usually haunted eyes of the ruler on her solely. "He… he knows you're here and wants you."
The Conqueror turned her head away, resting it against the wall again, and her eyes closed. "Tell them to hand me over to him."
Gabrielle blinked, surprised by the ruler's response, she peered up at the calm ruler. "They don't plan on it… they're going to fight him."
"Stupid," muttered the Conqueror, "they shouldn't."
"No," argued Gabrielle, "No not really." She fiddled with her cane then added, "The Amazons are tired of hiding… they didn't become a great race by hiding."
The Conqueror quietly agreed because she'd even known of the Amazon Nations as a child and admired them. It was those stories, from her childhood, that first drew her to them when she came back from Chin.
"You have to help, Conqueror," gently tried the bard.
"No," whispered the ruler, her eyes now showing again.
"These are your lands," reminded Gabrielle, "He's taking up arms in your realm." She was hoping her logic worked on the ruler.
"I have no army here," reminded the ruler, "I have no weapons." She clenched her hands in her lap.
This caught Gabrielle's attention and for the first time, she noticed the bleeding wrists of the ruler. She inhaled sharply as the ruler's voice floated down to her again.
"I have nothing," coldly stated the hollow Conqueror.
Gabrielle met the Conqueror's inhuman stare and she knew the Conqueror had lost something. An ache developed deep in Gabrielle's stomach and she wanted to comfort the ruler even though it was dangerous. "If… if that's what you consider your mother now." She saw how the Conqueror turned away.
"She has you now, Gabrielle," murmured the ruler, "You're who she's always needed. I can never give her what you give her."
"No," tried the bard, "but you can give her back what she lost so long ago." When hazy blue eyes turned back to her, she tilted her head to the left then gently added, "You're always going to be her daughter in her eyes. It's just whether or not you want to be." She bit her lower lip as she left that conversation there. "At least tell me who this Darphus is."
The Conqueror locked her hands together in her lap then finally answered. "He was my second in command for part of my campaign."
"Ooo gods," murmured the drained bard. "Of course he is and now he wants revenge for something huh?"
"Probably for a few things," admitted the ruler. "He was in my army for the Thessaly Campaign."
"When you took Thebes, Athens, and Corinth," summarized the bard.
"Yes," confirmed the Conqueror. "After I took Corinth, I found he'd raped and murdered a few women." She paused when she saw the rebel cringe. "I have a zero tolerance for rape and murder so I killed the half a dozen men that'd joined him."
"Obviously you didn't kill Darphus."
"No but I see I should have," hotly whispered the ruler. "I submitted him to a mini gauntlet figuring if he did live it then he'd be defaced from military forever."
"Well," started Gabrielle, "it looks like a few people don't mind his lack of honor."
"So it would seem."
The rebel leader was silent then inquired, "Does he have any weak spots?"
The Conqueror grunted then mildly joked, "Women." Then a faint glint returned in her eyes as she coldly stated, "And me."
Gabrielle let out a sigh then got up knowing that was all she was going to get out of the ruler.
Gabrielle stopped and faced the Conqueror.
"You, Cyrene,… and Melpomene should go back to Corinth."
Gabrielle understood the Conqueror's underlining meaning and she was remotely shocked by it too. She kept strong though and stated, "I know when to flee and I know when not to flee." She paused then defiantly stated, "This is a time not to flee." She turned and found the door already open for her so she left.
She finally made it back to the hut to find that Cyrene and Melpomene had returned too. Cyrene was resting in a chair with Melpomene on her lap, telling her some stories. She stopped though when Gabrielle entered and she immediately knew something was wrong. She'd heard that there was a warlord just outside the Nation's borders but that was all she'd overheard.
"What's happening, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle glanced at the silent girl in Cyrene's lap then back up to Cyrene. "A warlord is here… looking for the Conqueror."
Cyrene sighed then shook her head. "How did this happen?"
Gabrielle came over and sat in the chair across from the small table. "Nobody is sure but there was some leak… word got out that she's here."
"Well obviously it was some Amazon in the Nation that let it out."
The rebel nodded then stated, "Some think it was us."
Cyrene grunted. "We're not that stupid."
"That's what I said too," agreed the rebel. "The Amazons plan to fight him."
"Who is he?" asked the mother.
Gabrielle leaned back and settled her cane onto the table. "His name is Darphus… he was the Conqueror's second in command for the Thessaly Campaign."
"What happened?" spoke up Melpomene. "Why's he want the Conqueror?"
The bard bit the inside of her lip then answered the questions. "The Conqueror got rid of him for doing some things in her army. He wants her so he can have revenge."
Melpomene frowned then stated the obvious, "To kill her."
Cyrene pulled the girl closer against her body then she turned to Gabrielle. "Did you tell Xena?"
Gabrielle nodded. "She's…." She shook her head then stared down at her hands. "I don't know, Cyrene." She looked up at her mother again. "Do you want to return to Corinth? Janice and Melinda would keep you safe."
Cyrene's eyes narrowed. "What do you plan to do?"
"Stay here," answered the bard. "I have a trial to finish." Plus she wanted to keep eye on the Conqueror.
Cyrene felt a sense of fear about leaving Gabrielle and her daughter here. She'd backed away from so many fights before in her life and never supported any of them. She'd lost children over this in her past. She finally shook her head then stated, "I plan to stay." She then peered down at the girl in her arms. "You however," she said while squeezing Melpomene, "Are going back to Corinth."
"I am not," declared the defiant child. "I won't leave… not again." She slipped out of Cyrene's lap and stood to face her protective family. "I won't keep running... you can't make me go."
Cyrene glanced over at Gabrielle with a sad grin on her face.
Gabrielle huffed at the mocking expression on Cyrene's face. She remembered when she'd said very similar words as a kid too. She sighed then patted her lap. "Come here, Melpomene."
The girl came over and was lifted into her aunt's lap. "You won't make me go, right?"
"You can stay as long as you listen to whatever Cyrene or I tell you." Gabrielle curiously studied the girl's bright eyes. "If we have to run then we have to run, okay?"
Melpomene nodded her head several times. "Okay… I promise."
"Alright." Gabrielle hugged the child then relaxed back in the chair.
"Can't Melinda help?" tried Cyrene.
The bard sighed then answered, "I don't think I could get word to her soon enough. Darphus plans to attack tomorrow… at some time. He's given us twenty-four candlemark notice."
"Even if she heard today," murmured Cyrene, "it would take a legion at least twenty-four candlemarks to march this way."
Gabrielle sadly nodded.
"How big is Darphus's army?" probed the mother.
"I'm not sure," confessed the bard, "I think the Amazons are doing some reconnaissance to see." Just as she was about to add more there was a loud alarm in the village and yelling broke out.
Cyrene jumped up and raced to the door, throwing it open.
Gabrielle was just as frantic and once Melpomene was out of her lap, she tried to hurry over with her slow limp. "What is it?"
Cyrene shook her head, her eyes wide, and she watched as many Amazons raced around and formed a lump in one area. "I don't know."
"Stay here," ordered Gabrielle. She slipped out of the door and tried to hastily make her way to the problem. She saw the gates opening and the yelling increased rapidly as she grew closer. She was coming up to the gates when she saw the healer, Eilis, was racing across the grounds. "Oh gods," she whispered in fear.
"Hurry, hurry! We need to get her to the healer's hut."
Gabrielle picked up the distinct voice of Eponin. She came up to the crowd of Amazons then it broke open. Four Amazons were hastily carrying an unconscious, bleeding queen towards the healer's hut.
Eilis came through last and was yelling at the weapons master.
Eponin was at the front, carrying Queen Cyane's upper body weight. "We were surprised attacked in the forest!"
"Just the one wound?" called Eilis.
Eponin glanced back at the rushing healer. "Yes, in her shoulder."
Gabrielle stared wide eye at the arrow protruding from the raggedly breathing queen's left shoulder.
Eilis suddenly broke running again back to her healing hut to prepare things for the queen's arrival.
Gabrielle covered her mouth to hold back her gasp. She then ran her hand through her hair and just then an Amazon broke through the masses and came up to her side.
The bard looked up at the princess. "What happened?" she rasped.
"The queen, Eponin, and I were working on traps in the forest for battle. We were jumped and there was an archer in the trees." The princess swallowed hard then whispered, "That arrow was meant for me." She closed her eyes then carefully added, "Cyane pushed me out of the way… saved my life. Now she's going to die."
"You don't know that," came out the bard's convicting voice. "Let's go see to her." She grabbed the princess's hand and pulled her along.
Princess Terreis hastily hurried along as her fears for the queen's life were high. She and Gabrielle found themselves waiting inside the healer's hut. Gabrielle sat while she paced back and forth. The door to the room that Cyane and Eilis were located was closed tight. In the waiting area, Eponin also remained and she hadn't bothered to wash her hands yet that were still covered in the queen's dried blood.
It was a solid candlemark before Eilis emerged, her two assistance remained in the room with the queen. She approached the waiting and worried women then quietly stated, "She's still alive… barely."
The princess came closer to the healer as did Eponin. "Will she live?"
Eilis clenched her bloody hands then softly replied, "It is too early to tell yet." She sighed then honestly stated, "These next two days are important. She will remain here."
Gabrielle got up then came over while asking, "She's going to go through a fever?"
"Yes," answered the surprised healer. "These next days are crucial."
"If she can survive a gods-be-damned tree limb through her stomach she can handle a damn arrow," growled the weapons master.
"It is all in a human's will," reminded the healer. "You may go in to see her but please stay quiet."
"Thank you, Eilis," offered the princess.
"Don't thank me yet," argued the healer, who walked away to get cleaned up.
The two Amazons and outsider silently entered the room that was dimly lit by the various candles and the window having been covered by a matt.
The assistant healers were monitoring the queen. One would occasionally dip a cloth in cool water then put it against the queen's perspiring forehead.
The queen's skin was pale, her body still other than the reliable rise and fall of her chest. Her left shoulder was wrapped but the wrap was already tainted red. Her leather top had been removed so Eilis could work easier but now a light blanket cover her body mostly except for the wound.
Princess Terreis was feeling emotional at realizing it should be her on the pallet and not the queen.
Gabrielle detected the princess's distraught so she came closer. She grasped the princess's forearm and gave a reassuring squeeze.
Terreis sadly smiled at her friend for the comfort. She turned back to the wounded queen. She quickly realized that she was now in charge of the Amazon Nation while Cyane was in this state. The realization that she was now in command suddenly weakened her in the knees.
Gabrielle felt the princess falter so she now slipped her arm around the princess's waist rather discreetly.
Princess Terreis felt relief for this support not that she leaned on Gabrielle too much but that somebody cared. She knew there was a lot that rested ahead of her and Queen Cyane.
After the visit, they quietly filed out of the room and then out of the hut.
The weapons master turned to the princess. "Princess, you are now-"
"I know, Eponin," agreed the princess.
The bard's face flooded with realization now too. "You're in command," she whispered.
Princess Terreis sadly nodded.
Gabrielle showed a smile of assurance. "Terreis, you can do this."
"Gabrielle is right," broke in Eponin, "you have been well trained by the best two queens."
"I'm afraid I am not my sister, Eponin."
The weapons master shook her head then stepped closer. "Queen Melosa is gone; I acknowledge her memory every day." She clasped her hands onto the princess's shoulders and looked her in the eyes. "You are Terreis and you are an Amazon. I believe in your leadership, princess."
Princess Terreis nodded then smiled at the confident weapons master. She knew that was a lot coming from Eponin. "Thank you, Eponin."
"We must finish preparing." The Amazon released the princess.
"You're right," agreed the princess then she turned to Gabrielle. "I need to finish getting the Nation ready for the battle."
"I understand," agreed the bard. "Cyrene, Melpomene, and I plan to stay."
Princess Terreis was surprised by the resolve from the outsiders but she greatly admired it. "What of the Conqueror?"
Gabrielle noticed that the weapons master was carefully listening in on the conversation. "She won't help… she did tell me who Darphus is." At seeing the keen interest of the two Amazons, she explained the warlord's history with the Conqueror.
Eponin huffed then muttered, "That figures."
"It doesn't matter right now," broke in the princess, "as we need to get prepared."
Eponin consented readily.
"I will catch up with you this evening, Gabrielle." The princess then nodded at Eponin for her to follow.
Gabrielle watched the Amazons go then she let out a sad sigh as nothing seemed to be working out right. She pulled herself together and headed back for the hut to tell Cyrene the news. She remained in the hut most of remaining afternoon and worked up a message to be sent out to Melinda about the news. She could only pray it would reach Melinda at all. After she finished it she, Cyrene, and Melpomene went to have an early dinner. Gabrielle also made sure to get her message sent out, which she was happy to hear it could still be sent out.
The outsiders ate together quietly and near the end the princess showed up looking for the rebel leader. She requested that Gabrielle spend time with her, which Gabrielle easily agreed upon. Gabrielle said goodnight to Cyrene and her adopted niece then when they were gone, she focused on the princess.
Princess Terreis sat down since she saw not many Amazons were in the food hut anyway. She was relieved for that too. "Gabrielle, this will be a very bloody battle tomorrow." She steadied herself as a much defined number came to her lips. "Darphus has an army of five hundred."
Gabrielle was really surprised as she thought the Conqueror would have heard of such a decent size army composing in her realm. "The Nation is three hundred strong."
"Yes," agreed the princess, "but we are prepared so we stand a chance."
"How could he have created such an army so fast?"
"I don't know but I don't plan to ask until I have him." Princess Terreis sighed and laced her hands together on top of the table. "I want you to remain in the healer's hut… with the queen. There will be two guards that'll stay behind."
Gabrielle sighed but she relented with positive head agreement. "I understand."
"The Conqueror's guards will remain with her," further explained the princess, "as I am too afraid if she can escape that she will do so."
The bard's jaw clenched then relaxed. "Why not place her in the healer's hut with us?"
"I am not taking that risk with the queen mortally wounded. She may take a shot at the queen."
Gabrielle knew she couldn't sway the princess's decision so she slowly gave in. "Alright." She sighed some then shook her head at the situation.
"The two guards that I have instructed to protect you at the healer's hut also have been given an escape plan." The princess leaned forward then quietly explained it to Gabrielle. "If it so happens we look like we're going to be defeated the guards will hear word. You, Cyrene, Melpomene, and the queen will be taken to safety. There will be a wagon with horses prepared to go and Eilis will be there too… she cannot leave the queen's side."
"What about the Conqueror?" argued the bard.
The princess grasped the bard's hand across the table. "There's no reason to save her, Gabrielle."
"The Hades there is," argued the bard, "if you let her die then there's no doubt that Darphus will put her head on a pike. Then he will march to Corinth and demand her throne."
Princess Terreis sighed then gently reminded, "And Melinda will be there to meet him head on. She will easily defeat him."
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed as the plans were clearly mapped out in her mind, no matter the defeat or success of the Amazon Nation. "Terreis, you can't do this to Melinda and Janice. This is not their world… their home." She pointed in the general direction of Corinth. "That is not their lives."
The Amazon leaned forward. "But it can become their lives, Gabrielle. Melinda can finally make the Conqueror the greatest ruler known in human history." She grabbed both of the bard's hands into hers.
"No," refused the rebel, "you can't put them into that position."
"They already are," reminded the princess. "You know the costs of the Greater Good, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle hung her head and shook it as she whispered, "We can't do this to them."
"The Conqueror will not change, Gabrielle." Terreis released her friend's hands then dipped her head some to look up at the bard. "I know you think she will but you have to face the reality of things. If she was going to change she would have done it so long ago. That time has long expired for her." The princess saw the stricken features of the rebel and it upset her just as much. "Gabrielle, listen to me. She had a chance to redeem herself to the Nation and she threw it away… just today."
Gabrielle lifted her head, her face knotted by confused. "How?"
"The Conqueror knows more about Amazon law than ten Amazons put together." Princess Terreis saw the surprise written all over Gabrielle's face. "She's studied us inside and out. She could have easily defended herself at her trial because she knows everything." She paused as she compiled her next thoughts to share. "She also knows that if she fought beside us against Darphus that it would help her yet she refuses to do so."
"By the gods," whispered the stricken bard.
"How can you expect her to change when she won't even help herself?" logically questioned the princess. "If she'd agreed to help, I would have refused it but saw to her safety."
Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair and stared at the table space between her and the princess. "She won't even fight to protect Cyrene," she murmured then leaned her forehead against her hand as the truth struck her in the stomach.
Terreis swallowed against the forming lump in her throat. "I know you don't want to give up on her but you can't help somebody that won't even help themselves, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle licked her dry lips and her burning eyes lifted to Terreis. "What should we do if the Nation is defeated?"
The princess understood the subtle agreement the rebel was making with her and it upset her even though it was what she'd wanted. "You are to return to Corinth. I am sure Melinda and Janice will care for you. My hope is that the queen will recover and she can rebuild the Nation." She then tilted her head then carefully added, "Maybe Melinda, as the Conqueror, can help the Nation be revived."
"You can't sacrifice the Nation like this," argued the bard.
"I'm not sacrificing the Nation." Princess Terreis inhaled until her chest was full then slowly explained things. "You were right about what you said about the Amazons. If we die, we will die with our honor and be remembered for our greatness otherwise we could never join our sisters in the Amazon Eternity. For us to cross into Eternity we must go through the gates in the Land of the Dead. Our holy word is Courage, Gabrielle… there is nothing stronger than courage."
The rebel leader completely understood the princess's determination and code as she'd follow much the same thing all her life. Before she could process everything, an unknown Amazon hurried up to the table.
"My princess, the queen is awake and has requested for you. You must come quickly."
Princess Terreis hastily jumped up.
"Go ahead," ordered Gabrielle, "I'll catch up."
The Amazon Princess nodded then hurried off with the Amazon. She made it to the healer's hut quickly after her sprint. She bounded up the steps but silently slipped into the candlelit room of the queen's.
"Terreis?" softly called the queen.
Princess Terreis hurried up to the side of the pallet as a healer Amazon moved out of the way for her. She collected the queen's hand and was relieved to see the queen looking up at her. "Cyane, I can't believe you're awake. How do you feel?"
"Like I got shot by an arrow," weakly joked the queen. She laced her hand through Terreis's and held tightly. "How does it look?"
"Like you got shot by an arrow," tried to joke the emotional princess.
The queen smiled at the princess's attempt at humor. She closed her eyes briefly when the healer on the other side put a cool, wet cloth to her forehead. The feeling was welcoming but she opened her eyes again to the princess. "Did you finish the traps?"
"Everything is ready," promise the princess. "The warriors are prepared."
"How big?" urged the weak queen.
"Five hundred, my queen."
Cyane's upper lip rolled up some then she relaxed. "We have skilled warriors."
"All of them," softly agreed Terreis, "We will not fail… no matter the outcome."
"You will not," agreed the queen, "I have confidence in you, Terreis."
The princess shook her head then whispered, "I do not have the same, Cyane."
"Listen to me, Terreis… and listen carefully." Cyane took a few deep, rapid breathes then brought on all her strength for her next words. "Since Melosa and my Nation have joined, I have looked to you as my sister… my sister I've always wanted but you are still Melosa's sister."
"I am not Melosa though," softly argued the princess, "I am not as great as her or even you, Cyane."
"I will tell you a little secret, Terreis. Greatness does not come from your skills or abilities it comes from here." She placed her left hand on her chest, over her heart, which caused her to wince in pain. "You fight with your heart, you lead with your heart… you are great then." She lowered her hand to her cover stomach again. "I can only lead from my heart… I can no longer fight from my heart but you can do both, Terreis."
"How can you be so sure?"
"I know because I've been watching you over these seasons, Terreis." Cyane saw how the young princess was so captivated by her and was holding onto her words. "You are the Legacy of Melosa and it is your time, Princess Terreis."
"It's not my time," argued the princess, "it is still your time, Cyane."
Cyane's grip on Terreis's hand tightened greatly. "Even if I live through this my rein has come to an end, Terreis. I have kept the Nation safe all these seasons but it is time for the Nation to live again. I cannot do this but you can." She lifted their linked hands and pressed them against Terreis's chest. "Your time is now, Terreis and you must take it."
Princess Terreis closed her eyes as her surging emotions settled some then she nodded as her eyes opened. "I will, my queen." She held her grip strong to the queen's hand.
Cyane nodded then smiled at the proud princess. "Now go lead your Nation, princess. I will be waiting for your return."
Terreis lifted her and the queen's hands and placed a kiss to the queen's hand. She released Cyane's hand then quietly left so that Cyane could rest.
Cyane relaxed against into the pallet and her features softened considerably as she closed her eyes. All her strength was spent and her restless sleep easily claimed her.
Gabrielle climbed to her weak feet when Terreis came out of the room. "How is she?"
"Very weak," admitted the princess, "which is to be expected. She's resting now."
Gabrielle nodded her head then limped over to the Amazon Princess. "Are you ready for this, Terreis?"
The princess touched the bard's closest arm then confidently replied, "Yes."
Gabrielle now smiled at the new determination she saw in her friend. "We are twice armed if we fight with faith."
Terreis smiled softly now then murmured, "Plato."
"A wise Greek philosopher," agreed the bard. "I think he had something on that idea."
"I think so too," agreed the Amazon. "And I think we'll prove it tomorrow."
Gabrielle truly admired the Amazon Princess that held so much strength. It was refreshing and made her just as confident but some place in her was still hurting about the Conqueror. Princess Terreis was certainly right about one thing above all and that was that Gabrielle would not give up on the Conqueror.
Chapter 16 – A Little Alchemy
Janice Covington was still and fear coursed through her body, making her palm sweaty and her sword almost slipping from her hand. Her breathing was heavy as she stared at her friend, who just twirled her sword. She couldn't believe when her guards had told her that the Conqueror requested her presence down on the fortress grounds.
The Conqueror was glowing in the sunrise light, her brass armor brighter than normal. "Attack!" she hotly yelled at Janice.
Janice backed away with her sword lowering at her side. "No." She shook her head too. "There's no way." She glanced around to see that a patrol squad was watching with awareness about what was happening. The dekarchos of this particular squad was there as was another unknown but important soldier. That unknown solider held the sheath to Janice's Amazon sword, he'd given it to her when she first arrived.
"If you will not fight then you will die," growled the Conqueror, who suddenly lunged at the archeologist.
Janice easily jumped out of the way but she knew that the Conqueror was toying with her. She backed away from her attacker as she tried to figure out why her friend was doing this.
The Conqueror growled and pointed her sword at the prisoner. "You want freedom, you have to fight for it, prisoner."
The archeologist straightened up at this information. She hadn't expected this and started to understand maybe what was going on here. "The hell I'll be alive let alone free if I fight you."
The Conqueror laughed then lowered her sword some as she stepped closer. "You will live," she promised, "but I will cut you down now if you do not fight. Show me you're worth your hide." She suddenly sprung forward after her opponent.
Janice braced her self with her sword coming up to meet the powerful blow. She was relieved to find her body absorbed the shock easily and she was on her toes, not flat footed as earlier. She was suddenly met by rapid attacks from the ruler that she parried away easily. She still couldn't quite understand how she went from sleeping in the same bed with Melinda last night to waking up to fighting her.
The Conqueror was making a slow effort but then she picked up the pace.
The archeologist stopped a threatening swipe at her stomach. She looked up to see a sly glint in the ruler's wild eyes then there was the battle cry. She knew it before it happened and she ducked then rolled away just as the ruler did a back flip.
The Conqueror grinned when she saw Janice had figured out her move. She spun her sword then bounced on the balls of her feet. "You remembered."
The archeologist was several paces away. She reached up with her freehand and undid the clip to her cloak. She tossed the cloak away to reveal her lean, scabbed, yet toning body. "I'm a quick study." She gracefully spun her sword then met her opponent's blade.
The squad watched the lethal dance between the enemies perform before their eyes. They were amazed that the prisoner had any skill let alone so much to be a decent opponent for the Conqueror. The unknown soldier, who held Janice's sheath, glanced over at the dekarchos and secretly grinned. He wiped his grin away and returned to the watching the fight.
Janice ducked when the sword breezed of her head. She then tried her latest move, her right leg kicked up and just missing the Conqueror's moving sword hand.
The Conqueror laughed at the attempt and brought her sword at Janice.
The archeologist stopped the attack then brought her sword around to swipe at the Conqueror's stomach.
The Conqueror vertically caught her opponent's blade then gave a powerful thrust.
Janice just kept a hold of her blade that was thrown off. She then backed a step away when the Conqueror straightened up to her full height.
"Enough," hotly ordered the Conqueror, her lips were curled in a feral grin. She saw how Janice was warm and breathing quite heavily now. She turned her head to the left at the squad then pointed her sword at the dekarchos. "Over here, dekarchos."
The squad leader became uneasy but he compiled.
Janice was breathing heavy; her body hot but the cool fall breeze offered her relief. She glanced off to her left and saw that Hu was intently watching the show. She could tell he was on edge by how his teeth were baring and his fur up.
"You have one chance, dekarchos," informed the ruler, "if you fail to defeat the prisoner then your life is forfeited."
Janice's attention snapped back at hearing this.
The Conqueror could see that Janice was about to verbally dispute this so she cut her off ahead. "Do not talk, prisoner just fight." She walked away and came to stand beside the soldier, who had more official standing than the dekarchos.
Janice spun her Amazon sword as she tried to gain her wits. This was serious if her friend was relaying on her sword skills to defeat this dekarchos. She'd already tried fighting a squad leader once before and failed at doing so.
The dekarchos though had double incentive to defeat the prisoner since it was his position and life. He stalked up to his enemy with his sword unsheathed from his side. His blood pulsed heavily in his veins.
Janice swallowed as she saw those primal eyes of her opponent honed on her.
The Conqueror stood to the side, her gaze transfixed on Janice and the squad leader. Her hands rested on her leather clad hips and her right fingertips discreetly touched her chakram.
Suddenly the dekarchos attacked Janice and tried to come at her head.
Janice caught the blade then back peddled a few steps. She spun her sword as she tried to asses her opponent carefully. She tried to recall that state of mind that Ephiny had taught her that every good warrior used when fighting. She brought on her focus just as the squad leader attacked her again.
The dekarchos tested the woman's defenses and found no opening yet. He then suddenly lost strength when the small and unknowingly strong woman doubled her efforts and attacked him. He stumbled back several steps as he desperately fought off her attacks.
The Conqueror watched on with complete satisfaction but yet she didn't back her hand away from her chakram.
The ranking soldier beside the ruler, leaned over and whispered, "You were right, my liege. She is quite good."
"She has potential," agreed the ruler. "Fighting runs in her blood like fire... she just doesn't know it yet."
"If anybody can bring it out in her, my liege it is you," murmured the excited soldier.
The Conqueror softly laughed in amusement but she kept her full attention on the dekarchos and Janice.
There was a yelp of pain from the dekarchos when Janice's blade caught his left arm. He backed away with surprise all over his face and he glared at the woman. He became enraged then charged his opponent.
Janice braced herself as she took the blow that jarred her to her bones. She gave a quick kick to his stomach, which offered her a second to collect her focus again. She didn't have much of a chance as the dekarchos sprung up against her. Now Janice was hissing at the sharp pain on her right forearm that reopened some of the chakram cut from some time ago. She ignored the pain and the blood oozing out of her wound, her temper suddenly reared up.
The dekarchos was met by the fierce rage of the prisoner. He couldn't keep up with the rapid pace after so long then Janice's blade caught him in the side. He fell to his knees with this sword loosely clutched in his hands. His dazed eyes lifted to the angry woman standing before him.
"You fuckin' bastard," bit out Janice and she gave him a quick kick to his face.
The dekarchos's head snapped and blood flew from his mouth and nose. He then collapsed unconscious to the worn ground.
Janice turned to the Conqueror and held out her palms, sword still in hand. "Is that what the Hell you wanted?"
The Conqueror turned to the ranked soldier beside her. She held out her hand.
The soldier placed the sheath into the ruler's hand.
The Conqueror slowly walked up to the archeologist then threw the sheath at her. "Keep your sword, you'll need it now."
"The Hell I do," barked the angry archeologist, who snatched the sheath in mid air. Just as she caught it, she found the Conqueror's sword tip under her throat. She never saw her friend move so fast or so easily.
"I will make you an offer, Janice Covington so see that you listen well because I will not repeat myself." The Conqueror let her sword's tip touch the archeologist's skin. "You defeated my dekarchos, do you know what a dekarchos is?"
The archeologist knew what the title dekarchos meant in Greek. She wasn't a Greek translator but she knew enough history and enough words to get by. "Dekarchos translates to a leader of ten… a squad leader."
"Exactly," commended the grinning ruler. "You see, in my old traditional army… when we were more cut throat." She paused at seeing the archeologist lift an eyebrow at her. "Whenever the leader or somebody in command was challenged and defeated then that winner takes power." She stopped to shrug then went on. "Things are not quite that way anymore but sometimes I like to remember the good old days."
Janice's eyes narrowed as she began to figure out the Conqueror's intent.
"You pledge service to me, Janice as my dekarchos and I will free you." The Conqueror tilted her head as her cold eyes bore into the petite woman. "But if you so much as think of trying me, you will see the same cross that rebel found herself on."
"If I refuse this… gracious offer then what?"
The Conqueror's lips curled with her ruthless grin. "You can return to the dungeons and meet your cross soon." She now lowered her sword but didn't sheath it. She slowly walked up to her prey then proceeded to walk around Janice like she was powerless. "What will it be?" She stopped behind Janice and lowered her head closer to Janice's. "I can give you anything, Janice… but I need you at my side," she whispered.
Janice closed her eyes then they fluttered open as she made her decision. She sheathed her sword as the ruler walked around to face her. "I accept, Conqueror."
The squad soldiers all looked between each other because not only did they have a new leader but a female at that. They were unsure but by the fighting skills they saw they would not try her too much less they'd meet the Conqueror's sword. It was simple for anybody see that the ruler greatly favored this small woman.
"Come here, tetrarchès," order the Conqueror.
The unknown soldier marched up to the ruler and stood beside the pair. "My liege." The small soldier bowed his head then lifted it again.
The Conqueror focused on Janice. "This is the tetrarchès."
Janice narrowed her eyes then translated, "The commander of four files."
The Conqueror grinned at the archeologist's unknown skills for Greek military units and officer titles. "The tetrarchès as been in my service for much of my campaign and I trust him highly. He is also the soomatophylax." At Janice's clear confusion she translated the meaning. "The soomatophylax basilikos are my royal guards… elite guards from Macedonia that are highly trained."
The archeologist now understood then nodded as her eyes rested on the man that was about her same height. She figured he was older and probably older than her or Melinda by the way his features seemed so weathered. His hair was blond much like Janice's and curly locks that were in a mess. In his left ear he wore a gold loop earring.
The tetrarchès held out his arm then said, "The name's Iolaus."
Janice clasped his arm then shook it. "Janice… Janice Covington."
"Welcome to the Conqueror's finest, Janice Covington." Iolaus grinned wildly at him then peered up at the ruler after releasing arms. "You will come to find being in the Conqueror's service an honor."
The ruler huffed and clapped the man's back. "Still a thief and a liar at heart, aren't you, Iolaus?"
The soldier folded his muscular arms across his heavily leather clad chest that had a design in it. "Only for your praises, my liege."
The Conqueror grunted now then beautifully sheathed her sword behind her back. She then removed a purple colored leather string that was tucked into her left gauntlet. She stepped up to Janice as she stretched out the leather thong.
Janice was unsure but then realized what was going on since Iolaus bore one on his right arm. She hesitantly lifted her arm as the Conqueror came close to her side.
The Conqueror slowly and casually tied the leather strap over Janice's bicep as she spoke. "You will spend much of the day with Iolaus and your squad. He will teach you about your duties, how to run the squad, and how to patrol Corinth accordingly." She finished tying the symbolic purple strap then stated, "After you are finished you are to report to me. Are we clear, dekarchos?"
The archeologist tasted the Greek military title given to her and she wasn't sure what to make of it exactly. She slowly nodded her head as she tried to get use to the leather thong tied to her arm. "Yes… my liege." She almost choked on the royal formalities but she spit it up.
Iolaus signaled with his chin the watchful tiger. "What of him, my liege?"
"He is to stay beside Janice," ordered the ruler, "he is very much her partner."
"As you wish, my liege." Iolaus bowed his head to the ruler then straightened up at Janice. "We will begin now then."
The Conqueror grasped Janice's shoulder then stated, "See to your wound before you go." She arched an eyebrow at the tetrarchès in warning then she peered down at the silent archeologist. "You will serve me well, won't you, Janice?"
The new dekarchos met her friend's gaze, the powerful ruler. "Unconditionally, my liege."
The ruler showed a wide grin at hearing how easily Janice called her title this time. She released Janice then walked away a few paces but stopped by the former dekarchos. She glanced over at the squad and barked, "Clean up this mess… kill your former dekarchos."
Janice stiffened at this order as she watched her new squad rush to carry out their orders.
Iolaus grabbed the woman's attention by clasping her arm. "We will go to the healer's first then meet your squad."
Janice stopped watching the two squad soldiers dragging the former dekarchos away. "Alright… let me get my cloak." She walked away while placing her sheathed sword over her back again. She remembered the comforting weight of the sword on her back. She grabbed up her cloak, hooked it on, and called Hu over to her side.
The Conqueror entered back into her fortress and knew she would require some time before she could settle down and do her office work. She hurried through the empty court and went in search of a certain somebody she wanted to cross today. It was easy to find Alti as she was in her large chambers that doubled as an office. She barged right in without knocking and yelled, "Alti!"
The shaman surfaced from another connecting room and glared at the demanding ruler. "What is it, my liege?"
"Something has come to light recently." The Conqueror stepped up to the shaman, her features cold and growing angry. "I seem to have… misplaced my scepter."
Alti sighed then jabbed, "It is a silly scepter." She waved off the ruler and started to walk away.
The Conqueror's hand shot out, grabbed Alti, and yanked her back close to her body. She leered at the shaman and hissed, "You know exactly how fond of that silly scepter I am, Alti."
Alti's eyes were level with the angry ruler's. She held her ground as she whispered, "I have not seen your scepter, my liege." She paused then poked, "Perhaps you should look in the place you last left it."
The ruler growled and jerked Alti against her burning body, her lips almost touching Alti's. "I want my scepter returned, Alti," she murmured, "So see that you… find it for me."
The shaman grounded out, "I am a shaman not your toy keeper."
The Conqueror's slow, predatory grin appeared on her face. "You are what I make you, Alti." She tilted her head then murmured, "Or would you prefer to be reminded of that?"
Alti's teeth clenched and bore in a furious show. "No… my… liege," she hotly whispered despite it pained her to admit it.
"Then do as I instruct," commanded the ruler. "Find my scepter… now." She suddenly threw the shaman away then walked a few paces to the open door but paused. She became smug as she peered over her shoulder at the furious shaman. "By the way, I thought you'd be interested to hear that Janice Covington has pledged her services to me." With that, she swept out of the room and soundlessly went down the long hall.
Alti clenched her hands at her side and closed her eyes as her fury consumed her. Her black eyes flew open and she angrily marched into her other room but she soon appeared back out with the scepter with the Cronos Stone. "You want your scepter, my liege… then you shall have it." She laughed, tucked the scepter between the folds of her robe and disappeared out of her room.
The shaman disappeared out of the fortress and into the city of Corinth. She went directly to her intended target, who was an old acquaintance known as Arien and Arien was also an alchemist formally trained in Egypt.
Arien's head shot up when the door of his store opened up. He slightly smiled at seeing the dark features of the Conqueror's shaman. "What do I owe your visit to, shaman?"
Alti floated across the floor and came up to the counter where the alchemist stood. "I need your help, Arien. I will pay you well for it too."
The alchemist's eyes brightened at this offer so he leaned over the counter. "What do you need made, Alti?"
"I need something… remade," offered the shaman. She reached into the folds of her robe then displayed the well-known scepter of the Conqueror.
Arien backed a step away as if burned by the mere sight of the scepter. "I will not touch her scepter, Alti. You have come to the wrong alchemist."
The shaman lifted her free hand, palm up, and her fingers closing into her palm, her eyes honed in on the alchemist. "Need I remind you of my shamanism, Arien." Her fingers closed into her palm.
The alchemist hissed against the unknown pain burning up his right arm. "Stop it, Alti."
Alti turned her fisted hand over, which caused the alchemist to moan in pain then fall to his knees. "Then you will do as I ask of you, Arien."
"Yes… yes… just take this off," begged Arien. He fell forward when the pain suddenly disappeared from his arm. He rasped heavily but lifted his head when the shaman glided behind his counter and knelt down beside him.
Alti put the scepter under the alchemist's chin to lift his head up higher. She then pulled the scepter away and put the green gem between their views. "See this gem, Arien?" At the man's nod, she continued speaking. "I want you to break its power down into its liquid form then split it." She leaned in then whispered, "Can you feel its power?"
An alchemist also worked in the spirit world but not similar to the way a shaman did, especially a shaman like Alti. "Yes, I can. What are its powers?"
The shaman grinned and leaned into the man as the scepter lowered. "That does not concern you. I need this gem's power split in half but will it lose its powers if that is done?"
The alchemist considered it then he carefully replied, "I don't think it will lose its strength if its power is split in half."
"Can you transfer its elixir into another gem or metal?"
Arien sighed as he sat back on his knees finally and stared at the now glowing gem. He reached out but the shaman pulled the scepter away from his grasp. He swallowed then met the shaman's gaze. "I can transfer it, yes."
Alti stood up then ordered, "Let's get started then."
The alchemist nodded, rose up, and went to his shop's door to lock it up. He then came back around while saying, "Follow me." As he led the shaman back into his workshop, he mentioned, "I believe I can transfer it into a metal if you… wish to make it more discreet."
The shaman reached into her cloak and produced a simple dagger. "Will this do?"
The alchemist plucked the dagger from the shaman's hand then smiled. "Yes." He held out his freehand and signaled the scepter.
Alti wearily handed it over but decided she need only stay close to the alchemist to watch him.
Arien grinned when he felt the power more closely from the gem. He stared into it and it pulsed brightly in his eyes. "Such power," he murmured.
"Get started, Arien," hissed the shaman, who was lifting her hand in warning.
Arien snapped back and hastily made his way to his workstation. He first had to work the gem free from the scepter then once he accomplished this he hunted around for something on his shelves.
Alti stood over his shoulder the entire time to make sure he didn't pull any tricks.
Arien popped the clay vile's cork top and then carefully poured the clear liquid over the gem.
The Cronos Stone and vile's contents made a loud hissing noise.
The liquid poured over the green gem and onto the metal sheet covered work station. The liquid now glowed a bright green and pulsated much like the stone.
The Cronos Stone had faded into a dark green much like an emerald.
"Perfect," murmured the alchemist. He noticed the pool of green liquid was rather thick, which told him a lot. He got up quickly again and went back to his shelves, on the hunt for something else.
The shaman was entranced by the glowing pool of green as she was bent over it and stared at it.
Arien took this opening after glancing over his shoulder. He pulled out two viles this time but tucked one into his robe's pocket in the front. He came back to his workstation and sat down. He took Alti's dagger that sat nearby and carefully lowered it into the pool of green glow.
The pool instantly separated away from the dagger as if they were oil and water.
The alchemist uncorked his new vile then carefully poured the elixir over the dagger and green liquid. He inhaled the sharp smell of steel and fire mixing together. He calculated it carefully then suddenly stopped pouring the elixir. He set the half used vile into a tray nearby next to the earlier one.
"Did it work?" snapped the shaman.
Arien sighed but picked up the dagger from the now smaller pool. He held the dagger in his palm in display to the shaman.
Alti reached down and as she did so the dagger glowed the familiar green tone. She laughed as she picked it up by its handle. "Perfect." She then pointed the dagger at the dark gem. "Put the rest back in the stone."
The alchemist nodded then as he twisted back, his left elbow knocked the stone pretty hard.
The powerless Cronos Stone went airborne then headed for the ground.
"You fool!" Alti hurried over to the stone some paces away.
Arien hastily removed the silver band ring from his right hand. He dropped it into the green pool as he brought out his second vile. He glanced at the bent over shaman as he let a few drops fall over his ring.
The ring soaked in as much of the green liquid as it possible could then it was snatched up. The ring was silently dropped into the alchemist's robe pocket then the vile followed it.
"Is it damaged?" asked the concerned alchemist.
"No." Alti came over and handed the stone to him. "Be more careful, fool. Now fix it."
Arien sighed then placed the dull gem on its base in the remaining pool. He picked up his vile on the workstation and poured it over the stone.
The Cronos Stone glowed once again and pulsed fairly brightly.
Alti laughed and clapped the man on the back. "Perfect, Arien."
"Not quite done," refused the alchemist. He'd put the empty vile aside then worked to get the stone back into the scepter. He eventually wiggled it back into its home on the top of the gold scepter. He held it up in triumphant display. "It is done, Alti."
The shaman smiled as she scooped up the scepter. "You are a true alchemist, Arien."
"One of the finest," agreed Arien.
Alti still kept her evil smile as she reached into her robe. She untied a hefty pouch from her side then threw it onto the alchemist's workstation. "We will meet again, Arien." She then disappeared out of the workshop then eventually the shop.
Arien disregarded the dinars on his table and instead pulled out his glowing green ring. He held the green ring between his fingers and grinned at it amusingly. "You're the fool, Alti." He slipped the ring onto his finger and felt the power course through his body. He didn't know what the power was but given some time he would figure it out then use it to his every means.
Arien decided it was then time to celebrate his success. He scooped up the bag of dinars and headed out of his shop. He went towards the port where some of the finer taverns were located.
The shaman though returned to the fortress and made her way directly to the Conqueror's bedchambers and stored the scepter away deep in the Conqueror's trunk. She then hastily escaped the room then returned down to hers on the second floor. Her grin was wide at the thought of her perfect deception that the Conqueror would never be any the wiser.
The Conqueror had spent much of her day working on her realm's affairs. Just as she was gratefully finishing up, her office doors flew open and she jumped to her feet in reaction.
"My liege," announced a strong voice.
The Conqueror came around her desk as Commander Meleager bounded into her office. "What is it?" she urged.
"There's a problem, my liege," hastily started the commander. "I just received word from the constable of Ambracia about a warlord uprising."
"What?" The Conqueror approached the commander then demanded, "How did this happen?"
"We're not sure, my liege I have people checking into it." The old commander rested his hand on his sword hilt. "It seems they are bearing for the Amazon Nation."
The Conqueror tried not to become too alarmed at this news. "Have you sent a dispatch to Tricca?"
"Yes, my liege," answered Commander Meleager. "He is on his way to order the small Tricca Equestrian to mobilize." He then stepped aside as the ruler started out of the office, shoving the doors open in a fury. "What of the legions, my liege?"
"I want the Legio V of Thebes mobilized." The Conqueror was heading for the steps to go down to ground level, the commander tailing her. "How big is this army? And who the Hades is this warlord?"
"I am afraid it is your old friend, my liege." Commander Meleager steadied himself as he finally answered, "It is Darphus."
The Conqueror stopped on a step and turned back to her commander. "How in the name of Ares did that son of bitch get an army?"
Commander Meleager sighed then shook his head. "Its not known yet, my liege."
"Well you better find out, commander," snapped the ruler. "How big his army?"
"I believe it is a mere five hundred, my liege." Meleager watched as the ruler continued down the steps quickly. "Will you accompany the legion?"
The ruler considered this and knew the dangers if she showed up in the Amazon Nation when the real Conqueror was already there. She sighed inwardly then replied, "No, I trust that the legatus can handle his post as the legion commander."
"He is excellent," reminded the commander.
The Conqueror grunted then remarked, "All those Roman pigs think they're something… that is why I am the Conqueror." She finally came to the last step then hurried down the hallway.
"What of the Amazon Nation, my liege?"
The Conqueror stopped then turned to Commander Meleager. "Leave them alone… I want Darphus, I owe him a beheading."
The commander softly laughed then folded his muscular biceps over his silver plated chest. "Legio V of Thebes is four thousand strong, my liege. Do you wish their equestrian or ballista support to join them?"
"No," replied the Conqueror, "We're merely squashing a bug… not defeating an empire." She stepped through the open doorway into her court then ordered, "See to my orders, commander then report back to me."
"Of course, my liege." Commander Meleager left the ruler's side then hurried to carry those orders out.
The Conqueror marched out of the fortress then went directly to the small barrack that was attached to the walls. She was on the hunt for a certain dekarchos.
That particular dekarchos was on training duty with Iolaus out in the city of Corinth. Janice had learned quite a bit today from her superior and she was confident that her squad would follow her. Now Iolaus was showing the typical routes they marched through in the city to keep up on patrol.
Something caught Janice's ear and she stopped so she could pinpoint it. She sensed Hu stopped beside her.
"What is it?" inquired Iolaus.
"I'm not sure but…." Janice shook her head then said, "Let's back track for a minute."
The tetrarchès had twisted features. "A minute?"
Christ that damn time issue again, mentally complained the archeologist. "For a heartbeat." She was already moving but in a fast walk.
Iolaus shrugged then hurried along side the woman as he wondered what her hunch was all about.
The squad doubled back and soon figured out what Janice was hearing so well.
Iolaus unsheathed his sword then ordered, "Get these citizens settled down!"
The squad broke apart and hastily entered the chaos to figure out what was going on now.
Janice and Iolaus quickly jogged up to the mass of people and weeded through things.
"Alright back away," yelled Iolaus as he waved his sword at the people.
The people did easily back away as the Conqueror's soldiers formed a circle around the disturbance to block people.
Iolaus knelt down beside the lifeless body of a man.
Janice tilted her head as she studied the bruising on the man's neck. "He was strangled."
"It would seem so," agreed the tetrarchès. He tilted his head back to meet Janice's gaze. "But why?"
Janice scanned the faces of the people in the middle of the street with them. "Who knows what happened here?" she called out but nobody stepped forward.
Iolaus stood up then quietly stated, "They're not going to help you. Trust me."
"The Hell they will," muttered the archeologist. She narrowed her eyes at this man in the front of the crowd that was trying to slink away. "You!"
A squad soldier quickly reacted and caught the man then yanked him out of the people then threw him towards Janice and the tetrarchès.
Janice came around the body and stood before the taller man. "Did you see what happened here?"
"N-n-no, dekarchos," answered the scared young man.
The archeologist sighed then put her hands on her hips. "Listen, I'm not going to slap you in manacles and haul you off to the dungeon. If you do know something then I need to know too."
Iolaus was kneeling again beside the man as he finally concluded something. He got up and stated to Janice, "He's an alchemist."
"He was," corrected the archeologist, who returned to her attention to the young man. "Do you know him?"
The young man swallowed then stared down at the dead body.
Janice stepped into his view then asked, "What is your name?"
"L-Lysander," answered the man.
"Alright, Lysander tell me if you know this man?"
Lysander saw how calm the dekarchos features were and they were almost inviting. He'd never seen a dekarchos like that let alone a female dekarchos. "He… he is an alchemist. I've been to his shop a few times."
"Where's his shop?" inquired the dekarchos.
"It's on the west side of the city. I think his name is Arien."
Janice glanced at the dead alchemist then back at the frightened Lysander. "Do you know what happened?"
"He was jumped from behind," hollered a woman's voice.
Iolaus strained his neck then ordered, "Come forward."
The woman shoved through the crowd and broke through the squad circle. "I saw it happen." She was obviously a street vender, which was rare for women to do. "I sell baskets and weavings… things like that and my shop is right there." She pointed over the mass of people. "He was crossing the street and I noticed some guy tailing him." She stopped then shrugged. "I think he just wanted to rob the alchemist because he was flashing his dinars around… bought some expensive wine." The merchant glanced at the dead man then back at the dekarchos and tetrarchès as she further added, "The alchemist fought him but I guess the thief won."
Janice glanced at Iolaus, who was a former thief.
Iolaus shrugged then returned his attention to the merchant. "I take it he got the alchemist's money."
"Yes, and some odd ring he was wearing too," added the merchant. "It was pretty strange ring too."
"Why's that?" pressed the archeologist.
"It was a common silver ring but what was odd was it glowed green. I don't know why… I thought maybe I've been in the sun too much today." The merchant faltered then did her own shrug. "I know it was glowing green though."
Iolaus smiled pleasantly at the crazy woman. "Thank you for the help."
Lysander took that as his opening to go too.
The dekarchos quickly grabbed the escaping young men. "Not you though."
"I know what I said," reminded the archeologist, "and I am a woman of my word." Janice grinned at Lysander's still frightened features. "You're taking us to his shop."
The tetrarchès focused his attention on the squad soldiers. "I want two of you to see to the alchemist. The rest of you follow us."
"Come on, Lysander." Janice hauled the young man off towards the western side of the city.
Lysander's sandals scrapped along as he tried to keep up.
Hu however made his presence known again as he took up Janice's other side. He yawned some but faithful followed along. As he followed, he found himself going through busy streets, quieter ones, and then finally they were stopped.
"This is his shop," informed Lysander. He was at the bottom of the steps and pointed up at the door.
Janice clasped the man's shoulder then nodded at him. "Thank you, Lysander. You're free to go." She could tell the boy was relieved and he quickly left. Janice though climbed the steps then tried the door but it was definitely locked. "Iolaus, can you pick the lock or something?"
The ex-thief smirked, stomped up the steps, and brushed his hands together. "This is my greatest secret, Janice. Watch, okay?"
The archeologist stepped back to give him room on the platform, her hands on her hips and a curious look.
Iolaus faced the door, stepped back once, inhaled, and gave a sharp cry as he kicked at the door.
The door flew open and slammed into a wall on the inside.
Iolaus held out his hands to the open doorway now. "Thief extraordinaire at your service."
The squad soldiers all laughed together at the tetrarchès's great joke but they all went dead silent when their dekarchos glared at them.
Janice Covington huffed then walked past him to go in first. She stopped inside the shop after a few paces as it was dark some. "Where's the damn light switch?" she complained under her breath.
The tetrarchès entered next and removed the matt on the front window, which helped to shine some sun on the subject. As he tossed the matt aside, he scanned the contents of the shop. "Definitely an alchemist."
The archeologist had minimal knowledge about alchemy and the history behind it. She understood it was a crude version of chemistry that was more or less based on finding eternal life and transforming metals into gold. She started to explore the shop then eventually ended up behind the counter. She spotted the entrance into another room so she wondered into there next.
Iolaus soon followed behind and started mingling through the alchemist's things. "So you suffered the Conqueror's Língchí?"
Janice wavered in between picking up an empty clay test tube. "Yes."
Iolaus glanced over at her then mentioned, "I did too when I first met her. I still have a few scars left too." He wondered off to the left where there was some shelving.
Janice lifted the tube up to her nose and carefully smelled it. She quickly regretted the decision as it was a putrid odor. She put the empty vile back down then glanced over at Iolaus. "Why did you suffer the Língchí?"
Iolaus was opening a tube and peering in to make out the contents. "I dressed up as one of her soldiers." He corked it and put it back then turned his head to Janice. "I tried to steal her riches and needless to say she caught me." He neared Janice. "The Conqueror is quite intelligent… many of her best officers were once her enemies."
The archeologist grunted but made no comment as the tetrarchès walked past her. She heard him go back into the shop and she was about to follow but something stopped her. Janice leaned over the workstation more and with her right hand, her fingertips drifted over the teardrop size green liquid. When her fingertips hovered over the green liquid, it pulsated a bright green in reaction to her. "Holy shit," she muttered, "it can't be." She pulled her hand away and the liquid dimmed to an emerald shade. "Damn," she hotly growled then hurried out of the workshop.
"Dekarchos," called a squad soldier. He was one of the soldiers that had taken the alchemist's body to the state healer's morgue.
Janice stood beside Iolaus but her attention rested on the soldier. "What is it, Gilles?"
"When Biton and I took the body to the healer's we were informed to tell you that the Conqueror requests your presence right away," replied the squad soldier, Gilles.
The archeologist stepped up to him and asked, "You hear why?"
"No, I'm afraid not, dekarchos."
Janice nodded then turned her head to Iolaus.
"I will finish with them," offered Iolaus. "It is wise to respond to the Conqueror."
"Thanks, Iolaus." Janice headed for the door but paused then glanced back at her superior. "I think we better leave somebody here to guard this place."
Iolaus had twisted features but he decided to go along since Janice's hunch earlier was good. "Alright, leave one of your soldiers here."
Janice nodded then ducked out of the store and Hu waited for her at the bottom. She ran her fingers through his coat in enjoyment, a smile touched her lips. She lifted her head then ordered, "The tetrarchès will be finishing up with you. I need somebody to stay posted here for a few...." She decided not to state hours or candlemarks since she'd had previous bad luck with time.
A file soldier stepped up. "I will take first post, dekarchos."
"Thanks, Biton. I'll be sure to have somebody relieve you soon enough."
Biton nodded his agreement and he hid his surprise well about the dekarchos's outward appreciation. He actually enjoyed it as he proudly took his post by the store front.
Janice then signaled Hu to follow her and she was quickly heading back the fortress. It took her a good ten minutes to make it north of the city where the fortress jutted out from the hill side. She entered through the open gates then hurried up the main opening of the fortress. The four guards at the door pulled the doors open for her when she made it to the last step.
"The Conqueror is in her office, dekarchos," offered a sentry.
Janice nodded then stepped through the entranceway into the empty, quiet court. Her boots and Hu's claws were the only sound in the marble court as they went to the door for the hallway. When she finally arrived at the office, she was called to enter and she spotted her friend behind her desk like always. "You can't seem to get around that desk."
The Conqueror lifted an eyebrow as a grin played with her lips. "It would seem so." She signaled the three chairs in front of her desk. "You'll need to sit for this, Janice."
"That bad huh?" muttered the archeologist. She wondered over and after she sat, Hu laid down at her feet. "What's wrong?"
The ruler leaned back into her chair then stretched her long legs. "There's a small warlord uprising just east of Ambracia. The big problem is that this warlord is headed to the Amazon Nation… most likely he's there."
"Christ," murmured the shocked archeologist. "When did this happen?"
"I only found out an hour ago." The Conqueror sighed then peered down at her finally thinning scroll work. "I've sent orders for the Tricca Calvary to engage them. A Roman legion in Thebes will be mobilizing by tomorrow and headed up there."
Janice carefully considered this, her eyes washed out by thoughts.
"The warlord was the Conqueror's second in command during her Thessaly Campaign," informed the ruler.
The archeologist's face tightened together and her eyes focused on her friend again. "He knows the Conqueror is there."
The ruler slowly moved her head in agreement. "That's my suspicion too." She straightened up some then quietly added, "Which means that somebody in the Amazon Nation let word out about her kidnapping."
"Yeah but wouldn't they find it a little odd that the Conqueror is in Corinth and in the Amazon Nation?" Janice shook her head as she thought it out then she exhaled audibly. "Damn it. Let me go up there, Mel."
Melinda's eyes narrowed then she stated, "No." She saw her friend was about to argue her hotly but she stopped her first. "I'm not going to risk your life, Janice… recklessly."
"Mel, we have to help them."
"We are helping them," reminded Melinda, "I have a band of cavalry and a legion headed up there." She tilted her head then carefully said, "It will do them no good, Janice if you or I get hurt. Besides that if I go there's the possibility of somebody noticing two Conquerors."
The archeologist grinded her teeth as she tried to settle down her emotions.
"Janice?" gently called the linguist. When irritated green eyes met her gaze, she continued speaking. "I really need ya here with me. Please?"
Janice finally detected Melinda's usual, gentle tone of voice and pure southern accent. Her annoyance was broken and she slowly nodded her head. "Alright, Mel." Then as she mulled over it more so she knew it was best that she stayed after finding out about this alchemist.
"What is it?" Melinda knew something else was on her friend's mind.
Janice shook her head, her eyes directed towards Hu but she lifted her head up again. "I think we have a slight problem." Her confusion was clear as she began to explain what'd happen this afternoon. "Iolaus was training me and we were patrolling through the port. I heard this commotion so we doubled back then came up to this crowd."
"What'd happened?" urged the concerned southerner.
"An alchemist was murdered… supposedly by a thief." Janice clenched her hands in her lap. "It wasn't so much that, that was odd but one of the witnesses said the alchemist had a glowing green ring."
Melinda stiffened at this news and her stomach knotted. "Ooo my." She sighed then leaned forward some as she asked, "What else?"
"Well we went to his shop and looked around. In his… I guess workshop or somethin' he had this metal covered desk." Janice lifted her hands to demonstrate how big it was then her hands went back to her lap. "On the damn work desk there was this green glowing liquid."
Melinda softly groaned then slumped back into her chair as she absorbed this new information. This could not be good by any measure. "Alchemists are known for about four things, Janice."
"Metals into gold," ticked off Janice.
"The search for the Philosophers Stone," added the translator.
"An elixir for immortality," further recalled the archeologist.
Melinda sighed then finished it off with, "And transmutation… mainly of humans and metals."
"What a damn combination," muttered the archeologist. "You think this alchemist transmuted the Cronos Stone's powers?" She then huffed then brought up, "How the Hell would he have gotten the stone?"
"That… might by my fault," admitted Melinda. "I talked to Alti this morning telling her I was missing the scepter and that I wanted it found."
Janice quietly groaned then let out a long sigh. "Shit," she grumbled then stared down at the resting tiger at her feet. "This green glowing ring thing is missing too, Mel." She lifted her gaze to Melinda. "This thief swiped it off the alchemist."
"It is never a dull moment around ya, Doctor Janice Covington," informed the translator.
Janice became playful as she winked and teased, "I don't want you to get bored, sweetheart."
Melinda had a crooked grin at the archeologist then she slowly lost it as she considered the new predicament. "Janice, you'll have to figure out who stole that ring."
The archeologist sobered some then stared down at the tiger, her thoughts wondering off to what she'd seen today. "You really think it's possible that there's now a… Cronos Ring?"
The linguist tilted her head at her friend and gave her a dubious look.
Janice laughed at the look then held up her hands while saying, "Forget I asked."
Suddenly Melinda stood up then said, "Come with me. I just had a thought." Her sweet southern accent floated back to the still sitting archeologist.
Janice popped up to her feet with her cloak falling around her easily. She trailed behind her friend and Hu tailed behind her. She finally came along side Melinda as they strolled down the endless torch lit and sunlit hallway. "You have a hunch?"
Melinda only nodded but kept silent as she didn't want anybody to overhear anything. She came upon her bedchambers and shoved the heavy door open by the golden ring.
Janice shut the door then stepped into the center of the room while Melinda was digging in some trunk.
Melinda paused and the clattering noise she'd been making quickly stopped. "Ooo my." She straightened up, turned around, and held up the prized possession to her friend.
"Sweet Jesus, Mel!" Janice had saucer eyes as she quickly came over and touched the familiar scepter that she'd come to both love and hate. "That's it, isn't it?"
"I reckon so." The translator's freehand passed over the stone.
The Cronos Stone hummed a bright green at Melinda's spirit then fade once her hand was away.
Janice was puzzled so she passed her hand across the side of the stone, which reacted to her too. "That's definitely it." Her hands rested on her hips as she stared very confusingly up at her tall friend. "Mel, didn't you check that trunk when you first got here?"
"Yes," answered the linguist. "And it wasn't there before."
Janice's lips puckered and her eyes narrowed from her thoughts. "That stupid shaman."
Melinda grunted as the scepter lowered to her side.
Janice's head dipped down in careful consideration. "This still doesn't explain this ring or what I saw in the alchemist's shop." She focused back on the southerner. "I know what I saw in there, Mel."
Melinda nodded then finally said, "Ya know I trust ya, Janice." She stepped a little closer to her friend.
The Cronos Stone reacted quickly by glowing brightly from the two strange beings from another world.
"Ya need to figure out what's going on, Janice."
The archeologist agreed with a bob of her head. "I will," she promised. "Something is going on… and I don't mean just with Alti."
"I reckon you're right," softly agreed the southerner.
Janice peered down at the scepter that was in Melinda's right hand. She saw how it was quite lively with them so near. "Mel… we could…"
The translator lifted the scepter and stared deep into the pulsating, magical stone.
Janice lifted her hand, her fingertips almost touching the stone but she knew what could possibly happen if she touched it. Her eyes flickered up and locked on Melinda's soft blue eyes.
Melinda let out a low sigh then softly stated, "It is tempting." She watched as Janice's hand lowered slowly.
"We can't… not yet," relented the saddened archeologist. "As much as I'd like to go home and just forget all this."
"I reckon we won't ever forget this, Janice." Finally, Melinda broke away from staring into the stone by lowering it back to her side. "I will try to find out what Alti is up to. Can ya deal with this murder and ring?"
"Sure thing, sweetheart," teased the archeologist. She enjoyed the gentle smiled that caressed her friend's lips from the banter.
Melinda released her smile then lowered her head closer to Janice's. "I'm sorry about this morning, Janice." She shook her head then spoke again. "I've been trying to think of a way to get ya out of the fortress without arousing suspicions. I reckon I get some of my better ideas when I'm fighting." At that thought, she shook her head because she knew when she was sparring or fighting her mind was in extra acceleration and the calculations were so fast.
"I admit I didn't understand what was going on at first but… I caught on," relented the archeologist. "I'm just glad you didn't kick my ass."
The translator chuckled but honestly mentioned, "You're a good fighter, Janice."
Janice shrugged then coolly remarked, "Runs in the bloodline."
"Somethin' like that," agreed the linguist. She returned to the open trunk and tucked the scepter away for safe keeping. She then closed it, knelt down, and worked to lock the padlock for the first time in many, many moons.
The padlock protested at first then snapped shut, the key popping out in protest. The key fell into a large hand and disappeared from sight.
Melinda rose back up and neatly tucked the key down between her cleavage.
Janice bit her lower lip but she just couldn't stop the comment. "So what else you got in there, Mel?"
Melinda Pappas merely arched an eyebrow as her expression became chilled much like the Conqueror. The look broke quickly as Melinda seemed to become subconscious of it. "Can we talk about somethin', Janice?"
The archeologist steadied herself because she knew it was serious. "Come on… we'll sit down." As she padded across the room to the long sofa against the wall, she noticed that Hu occupied one end of it. "Cats… I swear," she complained under her breath.
Hu heard it though and he lifted his head, his ears perked forward. He settled his head back down on his paws when the humans sat on the sofa near him. He sighed though because they were certainly going to ignore him as they were turned to each other.
Melinda had her hands locked in her lap, slightly bent forward and her eyes glued to her lap.
Janice could tell this was something very hard for her friend so she covered her right hand over Melinda's.
The translator slightly flinched at seeing the scabs on Janice's hands from the Conqueror's torture.
"What is it, Mel?" tried the archeologist.
Melinda inhaled deeply then raised her eyes to meet Janice's concerned gaze. "What are we doing, Janice?" Her voice held worry and her eyes showed she was lost.
Janice squeezed the larger hands under hers. She tried to prepare for this discussion that they'd been setting aside for a couple of days now. "Just so I understand, you mean between you and I?" At her friend's nod, she lightly bit the inside of her mouth as she composed her response carefully. "I'm not completely sure, Mel." She was uneasy about confessing her thoughts without knowing what Melinda thought first. Yet she knew if there wasn't some give from one of them then it may get sticky. "I'm not… going to complain about any of it though." She hoped that was enough but not too much at the same time.
Melinda studied her friend for a few silent moments and debated whether to read between the lines or not. She swallowed then quietly confessed, "I think a lot about the kisses."
Janice sensed her nerves growing tighter as she edged closer to her feelings. Her left hand, in her lap, slightly clenched up but her other hand didn't move away from Melinda's. "I... I do too," she softly admitted. Her gaze faltered though and she stared at her hand over top of Melinda's much larger ones.
"I'm just confused," whispered Melinda, "I ain't sure if it's me that wants to kiss ya or because of this… Conqueror persona." She shook her head at the mounting turmoil she'd been fighting for days.
Janice clearly understood what her friend was feeling. The kisses they'd share had always been when Melinda was shielded behind the Conqueror role and not completely herself. Yet Janice realized too that those urges most likely derived from somewhere deep in Melinda and the Conqueror persona merely gave her the charge to act on them. "Mel?"
Melinda had been lost in her thoughts too. She now focused on the archeologist after hearing her calling voice.
"We'll figure it out now then." Janice Covington had faint grin then her right hand freed from Melinda's. Her hand glided up then lightly touched Melinda's left cheek in a sweet caress. Janice slowly leaned into Melinda.
Melinda's heart thundered loudly against her chest and her stomach jumped then fell again. She stiffened just as Janice's lips just brushed against hers. Her eyes drifted shut then her body slowly gave into the feelings.
Janice could feel Melinda let going of her initial shock but she held still. This kiss was so shy and opposite of the previous ones. Then she moaned softly when Melinda pressed their lips tighter together. She melted into the growing kiss that warmed her skin and burned her lips.
Melinda opened her mouth as her tongue met against Janice's. This time her moan filled the quiet room. She truly felt her passion come to life because of Janice and nothing else. Her cravings were for Janice and because of Janice, which was something so new to her.
Janice slightly receded from the kiss to breathe in some air but Melinda quickly caught her lips again. She groaned at the linguist's amazingly talented tongue that made her feel so alive and desire so much. Janice knew Melinda had gained much more confidence as this second kiss was more heated.
Melinda tried to slow down the fever of kissing but it took another two kisses to calm herself. She completely withdrew and she grinned at hearing Janice's moan of pleasure and protest. She opened her eyes to be met by burning green eyes that were locked on her.
The archeologist cleared her throat then softly asked, "Did that help, Mel?"
"I reckon so," came the southerner's husky voice.
Janice gave a lopsided grin. "What's your decision?"
"It requires more confirming," toyed the translator. She leaned in for another long kiss.
Janice had no problem with helping to make the confirmation. She could tell these kisses were quite different from those she'd received from the previous days. These were sweet much like Melinda's accent. They drove to her heart as much as to her lower abdomen. The previous kisses had been soaked in pure passion. Neither kisses were better than the other but merely brought out different sensations in the archeologist.
Finally Melinda pulled back but leaned her forehead against Janice's, her eyes still closed. "Janice?" she murmured.
"Mmmm?" whispered the heavy breathing archeologist.
"As much as I enjoy those… I am scared."
The archeologist withdrew some but gathered Melinda's hands into hers. "What is it, Mel?" She tilted her head then tried, "Because of the split?"
"It ain't just that." The linguist glanced over at the room then back at her friend. "It's just… I'm old southern and religion. I… I don't…" She stopped and shook her head at the attacking thoughts.
The archeologist lit up with understanding at her friend's thought process. "A good ole Methodist southern proper belle." She sighed at the social barriers setup in her friend.
"In a nutshell," softly agreed the translator.
"And I'm sure you can guess what I think about all that horseshit?"
Melinda had a grin but it went sadder as she nodded solemnly. "I know its trash to you… but it is who I am."
Janice's shoulders slumped at this gentle declaration because she really hadn't considered that aspect. Way to call her entire life horseshit, inwardly berated the sighing archeologist. "I'm sorry, Mel. I didn't mean it that way." She shook her head then muttered, "I'm just a moral less thief without a sense of background." Her gaze was downcast. "And an inconsider-"
"Janice," cut in the translator, "its okay." She squeezed the small hands in hers. "We're just from opposite backgrounds."
Janice blew out a deep breath in frustration. "That's the truth, sweetheart." She shook her head then studied her friend. "What do you want to do, Mel?"
"Take a page out of your book," honestly answered the translator. At Janice's bewildered face, Melinda slightly smiled then clarified her words. "I ain't going to lose this." She made an indication by squeezing their hands. "Just because I have certain values grounded into my head."
"Mel," argued Janice, "you can't just throw your identity all away for this… for me."
"I ain't throwing my identity away." Melinda arched a challenging eyebrow at her friend. "I know who I am. I also know whatever this is between us it is bigger than either of us understand right now."
"I guess you didn't transcend time and worlds just for shits and giggles huh?"
Melinda slowly nodded then leaned in closer to her friend. "I reckon it'll be harder for me when… when we get back home. You'll have to be patient with me then." She freed a hand and tilted Janice's head back so that they were looking into each other's eyes. "I just got ya back, I ain't gonna lose ya now, Janice."
"Mel, I just… I'm worried about you. What if… I don't…." Janice trailed off then she became distraught at seeing Melinda's now smirking features. "What?" she asked slightly defensively.
Melinda leaned in closer then teasingly whispered, "Just shut up and put up, Doctor Covington."
"Melinda Pappas!" gasped the horrified archeologist. "Only I can cuss-" She was instantly shut up by a feverish kiss, which she moaned from happily.
Hu lifted his head at all the ruckus but he huffed at the again kissing women. He lowered his head and distantly wished he was in Lao Ma's room because at least she didn't do those oddly human things like this pair. He yawned, closed his eyes, and tried to ignore the soft moans of pleasure so nearby.
Melinda ended the kiss then straightened up some but mentioned, "By the way, I need ya to talk to the faction members."
Janice blinked out her passions then muttered, "What faction members?"
"Gabrielle's faction," offered the smirking translator.
"Oh." The archeologist's muddied head cleared up and she sheepishly smiled up at her friend. "Right. Gabrielle's fraction… faction I mean." She shook her head to clear out. She shrugged then muttered, "Fraction… faction… I'm good at any f word though."
Melinda chuckled then patted the smaller woman's closest knee. "Ya need to talk to somebody from the faction to update them. I reckon they don't know too much."
"Should I tell them about you?"
"If ya want to try but I reckon they ain't gonna believe ya." The linguist sighed then leaned back against the sofa. "I reckon Gabrielle hasn't touched based with 'em and hopefully they'll listen to ya." She tilted her head when it became clear that Janice wasn't completely listening to her, a wistful look on the archeologist's face. "Janice?"
The archeologist blinked out of her reverie and a faint blush painted her cheeks. She faked cough to steal a second as she gathered her wits again. "Talk to the faction, check. Gabrielle hasn't talked to them, check. And they'll listen to me, another check." She smiled and stated, "I'm on it, sweetheart." Her eyes then went wider than the sun when Melinda suddenly leaned forward.
Melinda's hand shot out, grabbed Janice in between her leather top at her cleavage, and yanked her down.
Janice was hauled onto Melinda's lap so that she now straddled Melinda's lap. She quietly yelped but was subdued with a fierce kiss to her lips. She pressed her body against Melinda's when strong hands came around to her back, under the cloak, and ran up her burning back.
Hu lifted his head then yawned loudly at the active women.
Janice drew back at hearing this and started to laugh. She turned his head to him. "I guess we're boring to some."
Melinda was grinning at the tiger, who flicked his tail at the pair. "That's alright… at least he won't bother us then."
The tiger exhaled extremely loud as if in response then he hung his head over the sofa's edge in utter boredom.
Janice shook her head amusingly at the sight. "We'll go see Lao Ma, boy. Promise."
This gave Melinda an idea and she drew Janice's attention back by touching her cheek. "Why don't ya take Lao Ma to the market this afternoon? Take your squad for her protection."
"Alright," agreed the archeologist. She leaned in for a soft kiss then regretfully scooted off of Melinda and stood up.
The translator easily stood up and towered over her friend. "Find me when ya get back."
"I'm sure you'll be in the office," casually remarked the archeologist, who was wondering over to the two doors.
Melinda watched the tiger flop off the sofa and follow after Janice. She peered back up at the archeologist then came over to her. "Just be careful out there. We don't know who this murderer, thief is and I don't like it."
"That makes two of us, Mel."
Melinda considered this more then mentioned, "I'll have Iolaus order the squads to patrol more heavily until it is figured out." She then focused back on her friend after this thought. "How do ya like Iolaus?"
"He's pleasant enough… he mentioned that the Conqueror once submitted him to Língchí."
The linguist nodded her confirmation then replied, "Do you know who Iolaus is?"
Janice Covington narrowed her eyes, her lips sealed tightly together reflecting that she was thinking this over. "I know who Iolaus is from mythology… yes. They say he was Hercule's nephew and that he helped Hercules with his second labor… then later married Hercule's wife."
"They did know each other," agreed Melinda, "but from what I read in Gabrielle's scroll… he and Hercules were close friends. They weren't nephew and uncle."
"Really?" The archeologist's interest perked up instantly. "So wait… is this the same Iolaus that you read about?" Janice's confirmation was Melinda's evil grin then finally a nod. "Holy shit… you're joking, Mel?"
"Janice Covington, when have I lied to ya?"
The archeologist grinned at this truth then ran Iolaus and Hercules through his head. "So… Iolaus does exist here but Hercules doesn't." She was puzzled and staring up at her friend. "Wasn't Alcmene his mother and then Zeus was the father."
"Maybe he wasn't born for some reason," suggested Melinda. "I ain't sure but Iolaus still exists here with or without him… just in a different light."
"It would seem so," agreed the archeologist. "Huh… this keeps getting more and more interesting."
Melinda started to open the door but stopped then bent over to her friend. "Also Iolaus… he had a thing for Gabrielle." With no other words, she drifted out of the room with door left open for Janice.
The archeologist crinkled up her nose at the concept but she shiver in dislike too. She grinned as she quickly left, closed the door after Hu, and chased after Melinda. Once she was close enough, she thoroughly teased, "I'll be sure to see if he has any… services to offer."
"You better not, Janice Covington," growled the translator and her accent lost.
Janice shivered yet again but for a completely different reason. She had a silly grin but she whispered, "Or else what?"
Melinda suddenly stopped.
Janice instantly stiffened up at seeing the familiar fire behind Melinda's eye that she was growing use to seeing. She stepped back once as she faced her friend now. "Now, Mel I was just kidding."
Melinda's eyes went into a chilled glacier shade.
Janice jumped back when Melinda stalked forward, after her. "Hu, stop her."
The tiger actually reacted and stepped between the pair, his head back and teeth baring up at Melinda.
The archeologist hadn't quite expected him to do that and she shyly smiled up at Melinda. "Um."
Melinda's eyes lowered to the tiger and she hotly whispered, "Back off, Hu before I make a nice rug out of you."
The tiger's low growl started to sound between them.
Melinda's eyes slotted at the tiger and she furthered added, "And a set of mittens."
Hu's fur rose up on his back as his tail flickered dangerously.
Janice was stunned by this as she wasn't sure what to do between the pair. "Hu?" She tried to call.
Melinda stared down the tiger and held her ground well. Her eyes locked on the tiger's.
Hu suddenly closed his mouth then walked away quickly then sat to watch the pair.
Janice's mouth hung open in absolute amazement at how Melinda stopped him without doing anything, as far as she could figure. She then suddenly realized her friend was looming over her. "Hi," she greeted but she shot a dark look at her supposed protector. "Thanks, Hu."
Melinda lifted her hands but her hands stopped in mid air and something else caught her attention. Her head snapped to the right.
Janice now heard the boot steps too. She glanced up to Melinda to see she'd backed away.
"Later," lowly promised the woman that now became the ruler of the largest realm.
The archeologist shivered at the promise then she watched as the nearing body was forming into a person.
"Commander," greeted the Conqueror.
"My liege." Commander Meleager bowed his head then his worn brown eyes fell onto Janice Covington. "The prisoner is not under guard, my liege…?"
"The prisoner is now the dekarchos of Dekania V, commander."
The commander just contained his surprise but this wasn't something complete unheard of either with the Conqueror. He now noticed the former prisoner had a sword and one that had usual markings. "Congratulations, Janice," he offered.
Janice nodded and also surprised that he knew her name. Then again he was the commander so he had to know all the business.
"I'm bringing you news about dispatch, my liege. Perhaps we can talk in your office?"
The Conqueror relented with a faint nod but turned to Janice. "See to what we discuss, Janice."
The archeologist tried to fall into her role as she bowed her head then replied, "Of course, my liege and I'll report back to you." She signaled for Hu to follow her then she made her way down the hall. She needed to find Lao Ma before the afternoon became any later.
The Conqueror briefly watched Janice go then she focused back on the commander. "Is there anymore news?"
"There is some," agreed Commander Meleager then he turned.
The ruler followed along side as they silently returned to the office. His news about Darphus would prove to not only enlighten the Conqueror but also irritate her to no end.
Chapter 17 – The Conquered
"Gabrielle, it's time," ordered the Amazon Princess. She stood in the open doorway of the guest hut, her eyes watching the hastily moving outsiders.
"We'll head over there right away," agreed the bard. She was gathering up her scroll satchel that she'd packed earlier this morning.
"Your guards will take you there." Princess Terreis glanced at the two guards on either side of her that were waiting for the outsiders to go. "Please be safe and stay in the healer's hut with the queen and Eilis."
The rebel leader limped up to the princess. "Thank you, Terreis." She moved in and gave a one-armed hug.
Princess Terreis warmly received her friend yet drew back some. "I should go."
"Be careful out there… please, Terreis," murmured the very worried bard.
The Amazon Princess nodded then softly gave a reply. "We don't plan to fail, Gabrielle."
"I know but… just come out of this alive," urged the bard, "some things just aren't worth more than your life."
Princess Terreis lowered her head closer to Gabrielle's, her proud green eyes meeting the rebele's own set. "And some things are worth more than my life… this happens to be one of them." She squeezed her friend's shoulder then she reached to her hip. She revealed an Amazon dagger and whispered, "Take this, Gabrielle. I know you don't…." She sighed then held out the sheathed dagger in her palm. "Keep it for protection but I hope it doesn't come to that."
Gabrielle hesitated as she stared at the blade because never once had she'd used a blade beyond a kitchen knife. She knew little of weapons except her sharp words. Yet looking into the Amazon's eyes she saw the hidden plea and she sadly took the weapon. She worked the weapon between her belt and skin then hid it with her blue top. "Thank you," she whispered.
Princess Terreis only nodded, squeezed the bard's shoulder, and turned as she marched off to join her Nation.
"Be safe, my friend," murmured the watching bard. She sighed then gazed sidelong over her shoulder. "You ready, Cyrene… Melpomene?"
Melpomene came out and took her aunt's hand. "I'm ready."
Cyrene strolled out last, closed up the door, and hefted the satchel at her side. "We're ready." She said it mainly to the guards.
"Follow us," ordered a guard. She and her partner escorted the outsiders across the village and to the healer's hut. They remained outside the hut at their posts by the steps that led into the hut.
The outsider family hurried up into the hut and was welcomed by Eilis.
"How is the queen today?" questioned the bard.
The healer sat behind her desk and replied while she watched the outsiders get situated. "She is stable."
Gabrielle tried not to flinch at the healer's response because she knew that could mean anything. She'd settled her satchel on the long table off in the right corner. "Mind if I see to her?"
"Of course," answered the healer.
"Thank you." The rebel leader glanced at her mother and her niece, who were resting in the chairs that surrounded the table. "I'll be back." She limped across the hut and slipped into the dark room. She came over to the queen's bedside and found her asleep soundly. She picked up a cloth that was sitting in a cool bowl of water. She rung it free of the water then placed the moist cloth over the queen's forehead.
The queen softly moaned and her eyes slotted open.
Gabrielle held her tongue because she wasn't sure if the queen was completely awake or not. She gently patted the queen's cheeks and down to her neck.
"Gabrielle," murmured the hoarse voice of the queen.
"Sssh," softly ordered the rebel. "You need to sleep, my queen." A lump formed in her throat at seeing the wound in the queen's shoulder. She truly admired Queen Cyane for all her strength and determination to keep her Nation together against the Conqueror.
The queen's left hand slowly came up and lightly her fingers curled around the bard's wrists.
The rebel stopped her administrations as she saw Cyane's golden eyes upon her. "You must rest, Queen Cyane."
"I've been resting for too long," cursed the wounded queen.
"And you still need to rest some more," argued the rebel leader. She placed the cloth back into the bowl, which broke the contact between her and the queen.
"Sit down, Gabrielle."
The bard studied the queen's worn features but she could tell the queen would not let her leave. She slowly nodded then turned and found a chair nearby. With her freehand, she managed to drag it to the bedside then she took a grateful seat. Her legs released the pain they always felt from any amount of standing. She tilted her head at the waken queen yet all she heard was the queen's heavy breathes.
Finally after a long silence, Queen Cyane began to speak but yet her voice was so distant. "The Conqueror has suffered much in her lifetime, Gabrielle." She turned her head and studied the rebel leader. "Do you realize this?"
Gabrielle lowered her gaze to the small floor space between her and the bed yet her head lifted again.
Queen Cyane licked her lips then whispered, "I really don't hate her, Gabrielle." She rolled her head away then continued to speak again. "I am willing to admit I am afraid of her though. Ever since the day she killed the ten elders… I can still hear the screams… and feel myself hanging by my stomach." She blinked away her forming memories. "It's not something you ever forget, Gabrielle." She rolled her head back then whispered, "I think you understand this too."
Gabrielle's memories of her days on the cross instantly surfaced and her eyes squeezed tightly together. "I do," she murmured then her pain filled eyes met the queen's.
"You and I, Gabrielle… we've followed much the same path. We've both have withstood the Conqueror, survived her, and are made stronger." Cyane stopped as she swallowed against her parched throat. "But since this trial… since meeting you, I've come to realize something that separates you from me."
Gabrielle tilted her head then softly asked, "What's that, Queen Cyane?"
Cyane softly smiled at the outsider. "You don't fear the Conqueror like I do… that was my mistake."
"But I do fear her," challenged the bard.
Cyane inhaled slowly then debated back. "If you truly were, Gabrielle you would have ran… just like me but you haven't. If I hadn't ran from her then maybe none of us would be here today."
Gabrielle bit her inside mouth as she was seeing a common theme from everybody anymore. Could it be true that the Conqueror was alone ever since Lyceus's death? Cyrene first rejected Xena then not long after Caesar betrayed her and she could recall hearing stories about some Chin ruler also sending Xena away. Then there was Cyane later. The only person to ever welcome the Conqueror was Alti but Alti was obviously there for her own motives. The Conqueror hadn't seen trust or love since her long dead brother.
"Gabrielle," broke in the queen's voice, "I tried to help her but I feared her and because I kept her at arms length, Alti was able to seize her." She turned her head away from Gabrielle. "It is truly Alti that I hate."
"My queen, everything happens for a reason," gently reminded the bard.
"Yes, it does, Gabrielle." Cyane's hazy brown eyes turned back to the rebel. "There is a reason why you do not fear her… why you're the only one."
Gabrielle's head fell forward and shaking. "I don't know, my queen. She's so set in her ways."
"No one is set in their ways in the face of love," rebuked the queen. "Not even the powerful Conqueror… especially her." Queen Cyane let out a long sigh. "You will come to see this." She'd closed her eyes earlier but now opened it and turned her head back to the rebel. "You would make a fine Amazon, Gabrielle."
The bard huffed then held out her hand to her knees. "Minus my crippled legs huh?"
"Not every Amazon has to be a warrior," argued the queen.
The rebel leader leaned back into her chair as she settled her walking stick into her lap. "Maybe some day, Queen Cyane… just not today."
"When it is time," softly spoke the queen. Cyane turned her head away and closed her eyes. Her breathing calmed but her eyes were flickering fast under her eyelids.
Gabrielle carefully watched her as the silence lengthened. She was almost sure that Queen Cyane had drifted back to sleep again.
Queen Cyane's eyes flew open then she sharply stated, "It has begun."
Princess Terreis cupped her hands over her mouth as she knelt stealthy in the trees. Just below her several enemy warriors passed so she gave the call for battle. After she gave it, she heard her call echo through the forest at a rapid rate. She silently withdrew her sword then quietly moved through the trees and gave signals to nearby Amazons to fan out. She was grateful that Artemis had blessed them with a lengthier summer as the tree leaves had only slightly turned in recent days.
Darphus's men were thickening as the line of foot warriors were coming through the woods. Off in the distance the sound of horse's huffing rang out along with the distinct smell of them floating on the breeze.
Princess Terreis knew it was time to begin the attack as the enemy line came close to the ground traps. She suddenly lunged down and started the attack. Her sisters all dropped from the trees or appeared from behind trees with thrusting swords and vibrant masks.
The line of warriors broke out in a yell and attacked the Amazons. The meeting of swords rang out in the woods heavily along with wrenching cries as enemies were taken out. Occasionally, a warrior would suddenly disappear by an Amazon, who was hiding in the ground traps.
Princess Terreis spun around, twirled her sword, and rammed it up into an enemy's gut. She jerked it hard then yanked her bloody sword free as her target fell to the ground in a moan of death. She lunged off to her right as another of Darphus's warriors engaged her. She sensed a second coming at her left side so she gave a cry then jump just as her first opponent's sword came at her stomach.
The first warrior's swing clearly missed but he managed to skewer his comrade. He growled at his stupid comrade, kicked him off his blade, and dropped his head back to see the Amazon holding onto a tree branch with her left hand. He grinned up at her and unsheathed a dagger from his hip.
Princess Terreis laughed, tossed her sword up some, caught the handle with the reverse of her hand, and gave it a hard throw.
The warrior's dagger throw was completely off as the Amazon's sword plunged into his chest. As he grabbed at the hilt, he suddenly was rammed into his back from the Amazon's powerful landing.
Princes Terreis stood on top of her opponent's chest and she yanked her blade free from the dead warrior's chest. She glanced about her surroundings and saw that they were evenly matched right now. Then something in the uproar of battle caught her attention so her head jerked up and to the right. Over her shoulder, she saw a long line of cavalry riders begin to form in the woods.
The Amazon Princess clenched her teeth as her ears focused on the sharp breathing of the warhorses that were scraping their hoofs on the soft ground. She cupped her hands over mouth and gave the warning bird call to her Nation.
A man in the center of the cavalry line gave a cry, raised his sword, and pointed it at the battle. His laughter then filled the air as the small cavalry raced through the woods and plunged into the battle.
Princess Terreis watched in horror as Darphus's cavalry swept into the battle and ripped over Amazons with simple easy. She then learned to breathe again when the whistle of Amazon arrows flew down from the trees and began picking of the riders. She doubled her efforts and hurried to help an overwhelmed sister only so many paces away. Her prayers were as much with her Nation as they were with the guarded queen and outsiders hidden in the village.
Gabrielle had left the sleeping queen only recently. She'd spent over half a candlemark with the queen not that it was all talk. When she came outside into the main portion of the hut, she found her family and the healer organizing herbs and bandaging for later. It made her sigh sadly. "Can I help, Eilis?"
Cyrene turned her head to the young rebel. "Sit down, Gabrielle. I think we all have it."
The bard nodded then walked over to the table. She sat but it did her little good as her worries and thoughts wondered to the battle just outside the gates. She was breathing heavy from raging thoughts and desire to help despite there was little to nothing that she could do. She hated feeling this helpless especially due to her legs. When she slightly slumped forward, her stomach was poked by the dagger's hilt, which was an abrupt reminder.
Gabrielle glanced over at Cyrene and Melpomene's backsides as the women helped the healer organize certain amounts. Her stomach knotted up at the prospect of dying and wounded Amazons coming back to the hut either in heartbeats or candlemarks. A chill worked its way down her back as she knew the awful odds facing the Amazon Nation. Then as she dropped her head forward, she heard the soft voices of the guards outside from the window as they talked back and forth.
"I hear there were over a hundred on horseback."
"It could be a slaughter… we only have so many archers to pick off the cavalry."
Gabrielle tensed at this news having heard it for the first time. The princess had never mentioned anything about Darphus having a small cavalry and she could only imagine why. Maybe the princess was trying to still her fears from defeat and death. She suddenly stood up when all this soaked into her conscious.
Cyrene heard the bard move so she slightly turned. "What is it, Gabrielle?"
"I have… I have to see the Conqueror," answered the suddenly shaken bard.
Cyrene completely turned then hurried over to the rebel's side. "Gabrielle, there's-"
"Cyrene," cut off the bard, "they have a small cavalry," she whispered hotly but her eyes were lit up in fear.
The mother hadn't known like Gabrielle so she felt her breath still. "How...."
"I just heard the guards… outside," murmured Gabrielle. "I have to try and talk to her again, Cyrene. I know she's not going to listen but this time she had to."
"Let me come with you," started Cyrene.
"No," argued the bard, "I need to do this alone. Plus Eilis could use your help to prepare."
The mother glanced at Eilis and Melpomene but her worried features returned to Gabrielle. "Be careful, Gabrielle. Don't endanger your life, please. I can't lose anybody else."
The bard clasped her mother's arm then gently promised, "You won't, Cyrene." She then slipped out of the healer's hut before anybody would notice her gone. However the guards at the base of the steps noticed her coming down and they blocked her path.
"You are not to leave, Gabrielle," ordered the left guard.
"Listen, I need to talk to the Conqueror."
"No," ordered the same guard, "Princess Terreis mentioned you may try this. You are to stay here and we are allowed to use any means necessary to carry out those orders."
"Does that include my dead body?" snapped the outsider. "I am going and there is nothing either of you two can do about that." She came off the last stop and faced the pair. She wasn't fearful of them having stood up to the Conqueror on many occasions so her skills were toned anymore.
The left guard stepped in front of her directly as she would not back down easily. "Returned to the hut. Now."
"Listen, I'm not an Amazon and I don't take anybody's orders." The rebel leader's features were growing very cold as her fire reared up. "Now get the Hades out of my way."
The Amazon could tell that the rebel would not back down. She also wasn't sure if it was worth trying the rebel despite she was crippled but something about those fire green eyes told her not to underestimate. She stepped aside then clipped, "You are reckless, Gabrielle."
"Yea save it for somebody that'll listen," snapped the bard, who started walking away. She paused then glanced back at the pair. "Watch after my family… they're more important than I am." She said nothing else then moved as fast as her mangled legs allowed her.
The Amazons exchanged glances then the left one let out a frustrated sigh.
Gabrielle's breathing was ragged by the time she made it to the jail hut. She saw that the two guards that usually stood outside were no longer there. She figured they were most likely in the battle. She came up to the small window then called, "Ephiny?"
The Conqueror opened her eyes then saw the soft featured rebel in the barred window.
"By the gods, Gabrielle!" Ephiny came to the door and she was furious. "What in the name of Hades are you doing here! Get back to the healer's hut."
"Open the damn door," barked Gabrielle as she banged on it with her left hand.
"No," hotly shot back the Amazon. "Nobody is allowed in here and you need to be in the healer's hut."
"I'm not leaving until I can speak to the Conqueror," challenged the defiant rebel.
"Well I figured that much," hissed the frustrated head guard.
Gabrielle grabbed a bar with her freehand. "So let me in then I'll go back sooner, Ephiny."
Ephiny clenched her teeth then she grabbed the key at her side. She worked it into the lock then pulled the door open. "Why in the Hades do I put up with you, Gabrielle?"
"You have a soft spot for irritating blonds," joked the rebel as she limped into the jail.
Ephiny softened at the joke about her favorite two blonds and one she missed even if she didn't care to admit it. She closed the door up but didn't bother to lock it as she hoped the rebel would be leaving soon. She did remain in front of it and carefully watched the bard.
Gabrielle neared the slumped Conqueror and carefully started the conversation with a question. "How are you feeling?"
The Conqueror raised her head up, her ghostly features locking on her young enemy. "I am not fighting, rebel."
The bard sighed at hearing the old monotone and her title coming from the cold lips of the ruler. "I thought we were beyond that point, Conqueror."
"Leave," ordered the harsh voice of the ruler.
Gabrielle ignored the command of course and instead she slowly knelt down. Her knees touched the rough, cold wood floor and it pained her but it gave her a better view of the slouched ruler's face. She'd never once seen the Conqueror in such an unbecoming manner. "You know I'm not going to." Her back went ridged when hollow eyes locked on her.
"I should kill you now," growled the ruler, "because soon none of this will matter."
Ephiny stepped forward, which caused the other guards to follow suit.
Gabrielle waved them off with her right hand in hopes they'd back away. This was between her and the ruler. "Is that the answer huh?" Her right hand slipped under her shirt then she revealed a dagger.
"Gabrielle, no!" yelled Ephiny but she was too late as she watched in horror.
The Conqueror had the hilt in her hand, the tip pressed into the rebel's throat, and her face pressed close to the rebel's.
"We had a pact," whispered the fearless bard. Her chin lifted but her eyes only on the Conqueror. "I can keep my part of the bargain."
The Conqueror pressed the tip in more and she watched the skin break open, a droplet of blood formed just under the blade. "In a few moons, you will be forgotten and your dreams… they'll be crushed." She tilted her head. "Alti will take your soul… you'll never know your next life."
Gabrielle kept her eyes open despite she wanted to shut them against the ruler's darkening features and the cutting words. "She may be able to control my soul, Conqueror but she'll never own it." She licked her dry lips then whispered, "Just like you will never conqueror me."
The Conqueror's heavy breathing matched the rebel's for several heartbeats. Her teeth clenched together as her racing mind kept her shaking hand still from moving the dagger forward. Her arm muscles taut and flexing under her skin.
Gabrielle then quietly promised, "And my fears of you cannot conqueror me."
The Conqueror's lips pulled into a snarl as a low growl echoed from deep in her throat. She suddenly yelled, pulled the dagger away, and threw it furiously over the rebel's head.
Ephiny jumped out of the way just as the dagger screamed past her shoulder and sunk into the wood door of the jail.
"Leave!" yelled the enraged ruler.
The rebel held her ground, still kneeling but she braced herself for the next attack she expected.
"Leave!" repeated the Conqueror and she emphasized it by lifting the bard by her neck. She then threw the bard away onto her back.
Gabrielle hissed from the sharp pain up her back as she landed hard. Her walking stick was briefly airborne then clanked repeatedly against the floor and rolled off. She flinched as she moved about to get up. She saw the shadow now falling over her but she would not stay down.
"Gabrielle, get away from her." The head guard was coming to help the bard. Ephiny was seeing just too many deja-vu's lately for her taste.
"No!" hissed the bard. She shoved the Amazon away then angrily stated, "This is between us." She got to her feet on her own and ignored all the pain in her legs.
The standing ruler straightened her back out at seeing how the rebel climbed up onto her weak legs. Her anger grew again at seeing the defiance of this rebel and that she would not stand down.
Gabrielle's adrenaline coursed through her anger shaken body. She stood completely up and boldly held her ground against the ruler. "I will not be conquered!"
"Then you will die!" The Conqueror lunged for her enemy.
Gabrielle braced herself and caught the ruler's hands almost too easily. She gripped the ruler's wrists tightly and held her down from doing anything. "I will not be conquered," she challenged up at the ruler, "And you will not make me give in."
The Conqueror's angry features were broken by sudden emotions. She tried to rip her hands free and even though she was much stronger than the rebel she seem to have lost all of her strength. "Everybody gives in," she hotly debated but her voice cracked from surfacing aged emotions.
"I'm not everybody," stated Gabrielle, "and I'm not giving in."
The Conqueror's revengeful will died as she fell to her knees before the rebel. Her shackled hands were held up yet the rebel's clenched hands hid the manacles over her wrists as if she weren't really chained anymore. "Everybody has… given up," she rasped with her head dropping out of defeat.
Gabrielle's body trembled, not from fear or anger but from success. She didn't release the ruler's iron covered wrists but she lowered her head some to whisper, "I told you… I'm not everybody."
The Conqueror forced her closed eyes to open and she raised her head up. She stared into the soft features of her enemy and saw only long hidden truth. "Why?"
Gabrielle searched the ruler's desperate face that needed an answer so bad and it broke Gabrielle's harden heart. "I can't tell you why… but I can tell you that I will never stop."
The Conqueror could only accept that promise given to her. She closed her eyes then her always tensed shoulders fell and finally she released a long breath that'd been holding old rage. She unexpectedly rested the side of her head against her enemy's quickly moving chest.
Gabrielle finally released the ruler's shackled wrists then her hands lowered to the dark ruler's shoulders. She no longer saw the weight much less felt them on the ruler's shoulders as her arms encircled the ruler.
The Conqueror's freed hands now clung at the rebel's side. She breathed heavily in fear for the second time in her life. The rebel's rapid yet faithful heartbeat unconsciously soothed her old, festering wounds in her.
The Amazons were riveted by the scene. They watched on at the amazing change before them. And time later, they would continue to swear they'd actually seen something released from the dark Conqueror.
Gabrielle closed her eyes as she lowered her head closer to the ruler's. Her legs' pain was starting to sharpen against her like a raging hammer nailing her. She now started to clench to the ruler for support but she quietly breathed, "You must help the Amazons, Conqueror." She swallowed then murmured, "Cyrene needs your help. Melpomene." She then opened her eyes when she sensed piercing blue eyes upon her. "He has a cavalry…" Her voice held the plea and desperation then for once there was fear but not for the Conqueror but for these people's lives. "He's going to slaughter… all of them."
The Conqueror's returned strength started to lift her up by her legs. Her hands at the bard's waist no longer clenched but helped support the bard's weight. "Sit down," she ordered in a calm voice. She guided the rebel around until she was positioned on the bench.
Gabrielle let out an aspirated sigh as the beads of sweat rolled down her temples. Her eyes were briefly closed but she now gazed up at the ruler, her weak yet hot form slumped against the wall. "Please, you have to-"
"It's alright," cut in the Conqueror, "Just breathe for a heartbeat, will you?"
The bard relaxed some because she could see and feel the shift in the ruler. She had to have faith that it would be okay.
"Ephiny," started the turning ruler, "Amazon Law states that if a prisoner is willing to help the Nation in battle that they can be freed to do so."
The head guard tilted her head then said behind her mask, "Amazon Law also says we can reject the offer."
The Conqueror's hands balled up at her side.
"Ephiny, free her so she can help," started the arguing bard.
"You are not an Amazon," shot back the angry head guard, "and you're especially not the queen."
"Ephiny, if you free her then that means you six can fight as well. That's six more Amazons to help stop Darphus… and good warriors too." Gabrielle sat up now as her strength started to pick up again.
"Make that seven good warriors," piped up an Amazon's voice.
"Solari, be silent," ordered Ephiny.
Solari ripped her mask back and leveled her friend with a cold look. "This is stupid, Ephiny because if the Conqueror is willing to fight for us we should allow her."
"I don't trust her," snapped Ephiny.
Another guard stepped forward then stated, "I accept the Conqueror's aid… and I am Amazon." She reached up and pulled back her mask, which allowed her bright blond hair to spill out over her shoulders.
Ephiny yanked her mask back and stared wide eye at Callisto.
Callisto lowered her sword to her side then declared, "I have suffered under the Conqueror but even I can see that leaving her here when she wants to help will hinder the Nation. If we at all stand a chance at defeating Darphus then the Conqueror is the key to that success."
"Ephiny," softly urged Solari, "don't overlook the obvious here. Queen Cyane didn't put you in charge just to follow orders but to use your better judgment."
Ephiny's eyes flickered away from her friend and bore into the Conqueror. She stepped up to the ruler and continued to stare into the ruler that she considered more destructive than any army. She read the silent shift in the Conqueror, which told her gut to trust it yet her mind refused such nonsense.
Gabrielle was biting her lower lip but she let out a silent pray to whatever god when Ephiny reached for her key. She dropped her head against the wall and released a long breath that'd she'd been holding. Her lips twitched with a smile when she heard the wrist manacles collapse to the floor then finally the distinct snap of the ankle manacles filled the jail hut. After a heartbeat, her eyes fluttered open from the looming shadow casting over her.
"Time to go," ordered the Conqueror. She held out the rebel's walking stick to her, the first thing she picked up when she was free from the chains.
Gabrielle received the cane and noted the dried blood on the ruler's chewed up wrists. She could tell that the ruler could careless though about it. She merely moved her head in agreement then got off the bench. She limped through the small jail to the now open door.
Ephiny let the outsider through first then she follow suit. Next came the Conqueror behind her and then the five guards. "Gabrielle, you need to return to the healer's hut."
Gabrielle opened her mouth for an argument.
The Conqueror stalled it by stepping in front of the openmouthed rebel. "Just for once, listen to what somebody tells you to do."
The bard's jaw snapped shut and she peered up at the ruler. She swallowed then simply nodded.
Callisto was the last out so she ripped the Amazon dagger from the jail door and held it out to Gabrielle. "It's wise to keep this on you, deary."
The outsider accepted the weapon back. "Thanks." She tucked it back into the sheath that was still between her long skirt's belt and her stomach.
"I need you to watch after mother for me," softly urged the ruler.
"I will," answered the rebel.
"Get her to safety if any of this goes wrong," added the Conqueror. At Gabrielle's nod, she backed away while hearing Ephiny speak to her.
"We'll outfit you with some weapons from the armory," offered Ephiny, "but we must hurry."
The Conqueror dipped her head in agreement at the head guard. "Let's go then." She stepped away from the silent rebel and started off with the Amazons.
Gabrielle stood still and watching the group quickly move through the village. Her sights especially rested on the evolved ruler.
The Conqueror stole a quick glance back at the still rebel.
Gabrielle's emotions surged and she held up her freehand as if her touch would reach that far.
The Conqueror only nodded then focused back on what was at hand.
The rebel leader knew she needed to get back to the healer's hut. She accomplished what she could have only hoped for but now why did she feel so wrong for it? As she started on her trip back to the healer's hut, she realized it was because the Conqueror could be killed today and that didn't settle well in her stomach or thoughts.
As Gabrielle limped along, she heard an odd whistle that she hadn't expected at all. She stopped and turned her head in the direction of the whistle.
"You know, I would have had you if I'd waited for the Conqueror to get further from you."
Gabrielle stared at her assassin's face for the first time that was filing the square of his jail hut door. She narrowed her eyes at him then decided to go over to him. "Well I guess you underestimated her."
The assassin shrugged then smirked at the approaching rebel leader. "It really doesn't matter now."
The bard's face tightened up at his words. "Why?"
"You want to hear a little secret?" inquired the smirking assassin. His right hand grabbed onto a bar as if he could lean forward more towards the woman. "I wasn't really trying to kill you… I mean if I did then great but…." He shrugged then casually mentioned, "I was just a distraction for the Amazons."
Gabrielle froze at this information as she started to piece the puzzle together. "You're with Darphus… you were suppose to keep the Amazons busy while he was setting up."
"For a blond, you catch on quick."
Gods what was it with these stupid blond jokes, inwardly grumbled the bard. She ignored it though and tried to pump the assassin for more information. "Does Darphus have any other plans?"
The assassin laughed and now held onto both bars with his hands. "Let me out and I'll show you some of my plans."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and muttered, "Pig." She shook her head and started to limp away in hopes it'd make the prisoner talk.
"Wait, wait," urged the assassin. "I bet you haven't heard this one."
Gabrielle slightly turned and mimicked the Conqueror's common look. "What's that?" she drew out.
"Darphus has everything worked out to beat the Amazons and kill the Conqueror."
The bard stepped closer then snidely stated, "I bet he didn't factor in the Conqueror fighting for the Amazons."
The assassin smirked at the rebel's spunk but he shrugged then replied, "Actually he did… he was sorta hoping for it really." He saw the shock wash over the rebel's face.
"What's he have planned?" demanded the worried bard.
The assassin just shrugged again. He considered whether to tell the rebel or not but he figure by her limp and the fact she can't fight that there was no harm in telling her. Besides he'd get to enjoy seeing the dread fill the rebel once she heard Darphus's brilliant plan. "He's gonna set her up." He laughed then explained, "He's gonna get her to fight him but away from the battle somewhat."
The bard stepped closer to the jail. "Why?"
The assassin revealed a wide grin. "He's got this special spot to fight her where three of his best archers are hiding in the trees." He then pressed his face against the bars then whispered, "Don't tell anybody but the archers' arrows are tipped with poisonous hemlock." He laughed at the rebel's shocked and fearful face. "Darphus could never fight fairly I heard."
"By the gods… no," rasped the bard. The Conqueror would undoubtedly walk into Darphus's trap because she knew the Conqueror loved to challenge her enemy directly.
The assassin laughed again then gleefully declared, "Long live the Conqueror!"
Gabrielle broke away from her astonishment at the prisoner's words. She suddenly took off as fast as her mangled legs would allow her. She had to stop this; she had to warn the Conqueror. She came upon the healer's hut while yelling, "Cyrene! Cyrene!"
The mother threw open the hut's door and bounded down the steps at her daughter's frantic yells. She rushed up to the hastily limping bard and grabbed her shoulders. "What is it, Gabrielle?"
The Amazon guards shifted closer to the pair but not too far from the hut.
Gabrielle caught her breath then answered, "I have to go out there. The Conqueror… she's endangered."
"What's going on?" demanded the worried mother.
The bard caught Cyrene's right arm with her hand. "The Conqueror is fighting for the Nation." At Cyrene's relieved expression she sighed then told her about the assassin. After she told Cyrene, she whispered, "I have to get to her… I sent her out there, I can't-"
"Gabrielle, she can-"
"No she can't," debated the aggravated bard. "She'll be killed, I have to warn her." She started to move but Cyrene's grip suddenly at her wrist stopped her.
"You could be killed," refuted the mother. "I won't lose you both."
Gabrielle turned back to her mother. "And I can't let her die if there's something I can do about it." She lifted her freehand up to Cyrene's cheek. "You're just going to have to have faith that I'll be fine." She leaned forward and placed a kiss to Cyrene's other cheek and whispered, "I love you, Cyrene."
The mother finally released the rebel because she knew there wasn't anything she could do to stop the rebel. "I love you as well, daughter." She clasped the bard's hand into hers. "By the gods, be careful."
Gabrielle nodded then let go of Cyrene and hurriedly limped off.
Cyrene's chest tightened then her eyes stung from hidden tears. She wanted to chase down Gabrielle and drag her back into the safety of the hut but Gabrielle would only fight her.
Gabrielle made it to the stables. She prayed there was a horse or two left behind seeing as the Amazons really didn't have a cavalry. The Amazons were known for their mastery of riding but even that was becoming a legend these days. When she entered the distinctly smelling hut, she heard a few whines that were like wine to her ears.
A horse in the closest stall threw his head up and whinnied at the outsider. He stepped back when the limping human came into his stall.
"Sssh." Gabrielle touched his head to calm him. "I need your help, boy. I don't know your name or anything but I do need your help."
The gelding whined then threw up his head and finally calmed down.
Gabrielle only had a minimal knowledge of horseback riding. She'd never truly learned but that surely wasn't going to stop her now. She found the tack for the horse off to her right. The face tack was hanging from a wood peg while the saddle was high up and resting between the stall walls. She dismissed the saddle because she knew it'd be impossible for her to lift it with one hand let alone put all the tack on too.
The gelding watched as the human hastily put the harness over his face. He normally wouldn't take the bit into his mouth so easily but this time he did. He then scraped his hoofs through the soft, hay covered dirt and whined.
Gabrielle grabbed the horse's mane and urged him closer to the stall wall because there was a stack of hay there.
The gelding side stepped the paces then threw up his head in excitement. He could tell this human was wired by fear and courage all at once.
Gabrielle first unlocked the stall door. "Here goes," muttered the bard. She climbed the hay stack and then held tightly with her left hand to the horse's mane. She tried to push off the hay with her weak legs and painful yelp exploded from her lips. Yet Gabrielle made it onto the horse's back but slightly lopsided. She was breathing heavy but she had no time to calm down. She glanced at her walking stick still in her right hand. It would be almost impossible to hold onto it, the horse's mane, and the reins. She tossed the cane onto the ground and gathered up the reins. "Ya, boy!"
The gelding whined then pressed forward through the unlocked door. He hurried out of the stables then followed the human's signals for direction. He was going at a fast trot with the human bouncing on his back.
Gabrielle gritted her teeth from the bumpy ride but she held on tightly. Her legs were screaming in pain and her body was completely tense from the pain, perspiration forming over her skin.
The gelding approached the cracked gates so he slowed down then aimed for the open crack.
"Stop there!" yelled a guard at the gates.
Gabrielle ignored them and urged the horse through the gates.
"Stop, Gabrielle!" called an unfamiliar Amazon's voice.
Once outside the gates, Gabrielle tapped her boots against the horse's sides.
The gelding whined then broke into a canter for the open woods before him. He was thrilled to be out as he raced through the woods. He easily jumped over fallen trees and low ditches. He never lost his rider but he sensed her guidance from the reins and her holding onto his mane.
Gabrielle was breathing heavily as she held on for life. She was bent forward over the horse's neck but her head was up and her eyes scanned the forest. It was her ears though that first detected the battle before anything else. She pulled on the gelding's right rein and urged him that way.
The horse huffed harder and harder as his canter turned into a full gallop. He darted around trees with perfect precision. He was well trained by the Amazons to handle such heavily wooded forests.
"By the gods," whispered the awestruck bard. Her eyes filled with the scene of the battle; the warriors, the Amazons, and clanking steel. She pressed the gelding to keep going to the fight. She tried to hone in on the Conqueror knowing she had to be somewhere in there. When she was finally upon the battle, the gelding came to a fast stop so he wouldn't be hit.
The gelding whined unhappily yet he jumped over two clashing swords then started the dodge training around the various lumped fights.
Gabrielle merely clung to the black mane and let the horse guide her. She searched the many faces for the distinct one that she wanted. Then in the distance she heard the loud warcry echo through forest but unexpectedly she lashed forward.
The gelding abruptly stopped when a warrior cut down an Amazon.
The Amazon's blood, from her neck, sprayed in a fine mist up towards the shocked horse.
Gabrielle cried out and clung to the horse. She was suddenly spotted in blood and when she looked over the horse's neck she saw the dead Amazon and approaching warrior. Her body charged with fear.
The warrior leered at the vulnerable woman on the gelding and rushed up to her. His sword was raised yet as he brought it down, it was stopped by a long blade. He turned his head to the owner of the sword.
The rebel leader was amazed to see Callisto.
Callisto kicked the warrior away from the gelding and then attacked him.
Gabrielle was about to urge the gelding to keep moving but she heard a bird call. Just as she was about to signal the gelding, a new weight was on the rear of the horse. She grabbed for her dagger at her waist but a hand to her wrist stopped her.
"Relax," coldly ordered a woman's voice. "What in the Hades do you think you're doing here?"
The bard let go of the dagger's hilt as she realized it was Velasca. "I have to find the Conqueror."
Velasca tried to steal the reins from the rebel but failed. "The Conqueror can handle herself fine, rebel. You were suppose to stay in the hut to protect the queen."
Gabrielle thought that was a joke considering her condition. "Darphus is setting up to kill her!"
The Amazon paused at hearing this news. She glanced off to her right when a warrior was trying to sneak up on them. She kicked at him and sent him reeling into a tree. "What are you talking about?"
"He's going to lead her away from the battle then fight her. He has archers with hemlock tipped arrows." Gabrielle looked sidelong at the Amazon. "I have to get to her, Velasca. So either help me or get the Hades off. Now!"
The Amazon made a quick decision then replied, "Let's go." She wrapped her arms around the outsider's waist.
Gabrielle had pinpointed the famous battle cry earlier but she could only imagine if the Conqueror was still there. She ordered the gelding forward and helped guide him through the battle.
Velasca supported the bard's weight with her arms and anchored them down better with her strong legs. Her dark eyes scanned through the battle and tried to lock on the Conqueror. "Over there!" She pointed off to her right briefly then slipped her arm back around the bard.
Gabrielle had already seen the Conqueror. She pressed the gelding to go harder.
The horse whined loudly then leapt up over several fighting groups.
Gabrielle's head just skimmed under a few tree branches. She cried out in pain from her legs when the horse's hoofs abruptly connected with the ground. Her eyes welded up with tears but she ignored it all. She was getting closer to the Conqueror.
The Conqueror was armed with two swords. She twirled them both and rammed them behind her body, her swords plunging into two enemies that were racing up behind her. She jerked her swords free then flipped them around in her hands as she lunged after two oncoming warriors.
The two warriors' swords sparked against the dark ruler's Amazon blades. They tried to outwit her but failed miserably as one took a sound kick to his chest. The second had his neck slashed open and he fell to the ground bleeding to death.
The Conqueror rushed up to the one warrior that was still conscious. She crossed her swords just at his neck then pulled them apart in a blur.
The warrior's mouth was hung open but his head was sliced away from his neck. His blood sprayed over the Conqueror then his head crashed onto the ground.
"Conqueror!" yelled a laughing voice.
The Conqueror's head snapped up in the direction and she stepped back with her right sword spinning. "Darphus," she sneered at the warlord.
"I didn't expect the Amazons to let you out," toyed the Darphus as he sat proudly up on a horse. His yellow teeth shined at the dark ruler.
"They can't resist me," mildly joked the blood soaked ruler. Her former second in command still repulsed her like he had so long ago. "I see you've become uglier."
The warlord's smirking face hardened at the Conqueror. "Bitch," he growled.
"You could never come up with good remarks," jabbed the stalking ruler.
Darphus turned his horse around by his right rein. "You want me, Conqueror then you have to keep up!" He spurred his horse into a run.
The Conqueror watched him go for a heartbeat then she laughed excitedly for the hunt. She spun her swords, sheathed them behind her back where they crossed, and she leapt up into the trees. She landed neatly in the branches but she hastily took off after her prey.
"No!" screamed Gabrielle at the top of her lungs. She'd seen the man on horseback that she assumed was Darphus. Her desperation escalated when the Conqueror took the bait and chased after the warlord. Also Gabrielle barely had a clear view of the fast moving ruler in the leafy cover.
"Follow Darphus," called Velasca over the din of fighting.
The rebel leader calmed some at hearing the perfect alternative. She spied the warlord that was hurrying through the battle. She urged the gelding to follow the distant warlord and she was amazed to see they were catching up.
The Conqueror knew she was being led away from the battle but she wanted Darphus. Her blood pulsed with hunger for this insolent man's death. She saw he entered a clearing and stopped with his horse rearing up on its hide legs. The Conqueror's leering grin formed and she neatly landed on the ground on the edge of the clearing.
Darphus unsheathed his sword and pointed it at his long enemy. "Today you will die, Conqueror." He grinned wildly. "You have lived far too long."
The Conqueror clenched her hands at her sides. "Get off that horse and I'll show you how long you have to live, Darphus."
Darphus laughed then spun his sword. "Have I ever been a fair fighter, Conqueror?"
"Shut up in fight," snapped the ruler.
"With pleasure." The warlord spurred his horse towards the ruler and gave a battle cry.
The Conqueror growled, her eyes narrowing at her target but it wasn't Darphus. Her warcry broke free as her hands went to her back for the swords' hilts. She dropped down onto one knee as her swords sprung forward.
The horse's chest sunk into the Conqueror's swords. The horse cried out in sharp pain then went crashing to the ground with dirty and grass spewing up into the air.
The Conqueror had extracted her blades in time then whirled away and climbed to her feet expertly.
Darphus was rocketed from the saddle and hit the ground hard with his sword rolling out of his hand. He groaned then tried to get to his feet with his hands.
The Conqueror smirked then warned, "I told you to get off the horse. You still don't listen." Her backside was to the clearing then something made her skin on her back crawl from the clearing's direction. She had no time for this though as Darphus approached her.
Darphus wiped the blood away from his face but it wasn't his, it was the dying horse's. He glanced at the raggedly breathing horse that had a dark pool of blood seeping from its chest. He then turned back at the smirking ruler. "You fuckin' bitch." He quickly engaged the ruler.
The Conqueror laughed in amusement at her opponent's attempts to break her defenses.
Darphus pressed harder, which forced the Conqueror to back step into the clearing. His eyes flickered up to a tree branch but quickly returned to his opponent's face.
The Conqueror caught the motion and that confirmed her earlier suspicious that something was wrong. She couldn't make any confirmations as her enemy was pressing her hard.
"Conqueror!" cried out a familiar voice.
The Conqueror's concentration was broken for a heartbeat and that cost her as Darphus's blade cut her left arm. She hissed then jumped away with angry features.
Darphus laughed but glanced over to see a gelding with the famed rebel and an Amazon on it. This wasn't exactly what he had planned for yet he knew he had to be flexible.
Gabrielle pulled the gelding to an abrupt stop on the edge of the clearing.
"Get out of here, Gabrielle!" yelled the furious ruler. She then jumped when Darphus lunged at her. She raised her swords and stopped his feverish attacks.
"No, Darphus has set you up!" hollered the bard into the clearing, "He has-"
The Conqueror's face froze when she heard the rebel's words cut off. She watched in horror as the Amazon, Velasca, threw the rebel off the horse's back. "Hades," she hissed.
Gabrielle clawed the ground as she lay on her aching stomach. She heard the Amazon's boots hit the ground then when she lifted her head some, she her vision filled with the angry Amazon's face.
"It's time for you to shut up, rebel," snarled Velasca. She reached behind with both hands and unsheathed her sword. She was looking forward to finishing what she started in the meeting hut yesterday. "I will do what the Conqueror should have done a long time ago."
Gabrielle's breathing was erratic as her mind raced with what to do.
The gelding reared up when he saw the danger to the smaller human. He tried to bring his hoofs at the Amazon that he'd never liked from the start.
Velasca darted out of the way then growled at the protective horse.
Gabrielle used her hands to push her body up.
The horse came along side the rebel leader and he angrily huffed at the Amazon. His teeth showed.
"Stupid horse," hissed the Amazon.
The rebel clung to the horse's nearby leg and used it to help her get up. She eventually got to her feet with the gelding's body for support. "You were the leak, weren't you?"
Velasca laughed and held her ground, legs in battle stance, and her sword pointed at the rebel. Off to her right she heard the crossing blades. "I am the Amazons' savior, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle stared at the Amazon like she was insane. "You're with Darphus… by the gods."
"Finished her, Velasca!" yelled Darphus, "And get over here to help me."
Velasca stepped closer to the rebel leader. "This Nation has become too weak and you've proven that, Gabrielle." She pointed her sword at the fighting warlord and the Conqueror. "Now they trust her to fight for us." She bitterly laughed and directed her sword at the rebel. "Darphus will defeat this weak Nation and I will be the only Amazon left." Her dark eyes brightened with excitement. "And I will rebuild the Amazons to their glory days. Queen Cyane's Nation has come to an end."
Gabrielle was stunned by the evil Amazon's proclamation. "You setup your Nation to die," she chewed out.
"No," sneered the angry Amazon, "I am exterminating the weak links of the Amazons. It is time for a new Nation with a new queen." She stepped closer as she hotly whispered, "And a new realm without the Conqueror… and without a rebel leader that spreads lies."
"They are not lies!" yelled the bard.
Velasca gave a battle cry then came at her opponent.
The gelding tried to bite the Amazon but missed.
Velasca struck with a hard kick to the rebel's chest.
Gabrielle screamed as she went sailing into the air then crashed into the ground.
The gelding protested by rearing up again and came at the Amazon. Yet he whined out in sharp pain when cold steel went thrusting into his chest and caught his heart.
Velasca quickly moved away with her bloody sword when the gelding collapsed to the ground in a dying heap. She then turned her cold eyes onto the rebel leader that lay on her back only a few paces away. She spun her sword then stalked up to her weak enemy. "Your time has come, rebel."
Gabrielle sat up with her hands behind her. Her ears pounded with her heartbeat yet in all the chaos the close din of clashing swords filtered to her. She hastily reached for her dagger under her shirt as the Amazon raised her sword. "No, your time has come, Velasca!"
Velasca saw the rebel's movement for the hidden dagger yet Velasca was moving faster. Her sword came down towards the rebel in a blur.
The rebel leader had already let go of her dagger when the background behind Velasca had changed. She screamed as she used her hands to hastily roll away but the Amazon sword caught her left leg in the thigh. She cried in pain as she laid partially on her side and stomach however she glanced over her shoulder.
Velasca remained hanging on the Conqueror's sword by her stomach. Her mouth was open with blood seeping out from the corners and her eyes up to the trees, praying to Artemis.
Gabrielle's terrified eyes lifted further past the dead Amazon and focused on the Conqueror.
The Conqueror's left arm was still stretched out with the dead Amazon on her blade. Her other sword was across her body horizontally and had just stopped Darphus's vertical slash. She snarled at her enemy then extracted her sword from Velasca's stomach and swiped her left sword at him.
Darphus backed away just in time then called out, "Now!"
"No," screamed the rebel, "Conqueror!" She watched helplessly as two arrows whizzed from hidden spots on the edge of the clearing.
The Conqueror rammed her swords into the ground then raised her hands in time to catch the shafts, the tips just near skin at her chest. Her nose detected a mousy odor on the arrowhead; she instantly knew what that smell meant. "Nice try, Darphus." She threw the arrows to the ground. She then grabbed her swords' hilts.
"There are three archers," shouted the bard.
The Conqueror had already extracted her blades from the ground when she heard the third whistle. She ran out of time to pinpoint it.
Gabrielle stared in shock as the third arrow pierced the Conqueror's lower back side, through the leathers into the skin and sunk into her muscle. "Gods… no," Gabrielle whispered fearfully.
The ruler clenched her teeth then suddenly whirled around with her left hand raising the sword. She released the sword's handle when she had her aim perfect.
The sword whirled through the air in a spinning circle. The blade cut into the hidden archer's chest and his cry filled the air.
The archer dropped to the ground with the Amazon sword protruding from his chest.
The Conqueror had a satisfied look yet she peered down at her injured backside. With her freehand and clenched teeth, she ripped the arrow out then lifted it to her nose. Her features wrinkled up at the mixed smell of her blood and the mousy scent again.
Darphus was grinning then started to laugh. "How long do you think you can last, Conqueror before it makes it to your heart?"
The Conqueror dropped the arrow to the ground, stepped on it with a distinct crack, and lifted her right sword. "Long enough to kill you, Darphus."
"Not likely," argued the warlord. He raised his sword then defended himself when the Conqueror attacked him. He could already tell the Conqueror was slightly weaker, which encouraged him more.
Gabrielle scanned about desperately as she tried to think of some way to help. She saw over her left shoulder was Velasca's lifeless form but she was fairly far. She pulled up her internal strength then tried to get to her feet. But her attempt was futile as her mangled and now injured legs could not help her. She collapsed to the ground in a painful, defeated display.
The Conqueror's attention was briefly caught by bow strings going taut in the distance. She growled then gave a piercing warcy. She flipped up into the air and landed past Darphus several paces and her sword was dropped. Her hands quickly moved to her sides as she unsheathed the daggers at her side. She threw her arms and her wrists flicked the daggers.
Darphus had finally recovered from the unexpected launch and turned around. He caught the tale end of the amazing display as the Amazon daggers shot through the air towards his hidden archers.
The Conqueror's now free hands were able to catch on the oncoming poisonous arrows. She stopped them just in time then spun around and tried to throw them at her enemy.
Darphus yelped and ducked out of the way from one almost scraping his upper, exposed arm. He smirked at the injured ruler. "Nice try." His smirk was lost though when the archers far behind the ruler hit the ground, dead.
The Conqueror heard the bodies hit the forest floor. Now her smug features showed as she bent down and grasped her sword's hilt. "It's just you… and me, now."
"You won't live long enough, Conqueror," challenged the warlord. "I'm sure you can already feel the hemlock coursing through your veins. It'll travel to your heart."
"Not before I have yours in my hand," snarled the ruler. She wasted no more time and attacked her enemy. She caught a quick view of the rebel leader several paces away on the clearing's edge.
Gabrielle hissed as her arms dragged her aching body across the forest floor. Her hands finally touched the dead Amazons and her hands were coated in Velasca's cooling blood. She ignored it then rolled the Amazon over as best as she could. Her eyes were filled by the view of the Amazon sword that she'd been after. She clenched the bloody hilt then rammed the tip onto the soft ground.
The rebel leader's jaw was set as she tried to haul her body up. She muffled a whimper of pain from her legs but she slowly made progress. At some point, her left hand slipped and ran down the coated blade and cut her palm. She ignored it and held tight to the handle with both hands again.
Finally Gabrielle made it to her feet. She used the sword as a walking stick as she very slowly limped towards the ensuing fight. Despite it was a battle, she was amazed by the Conqueror's beautiful dance against Darphus.
The Conqueror spotted the rebel coming closer to them. She growled then clashed her sword against Darphus. She spun him around so that she was now between him and Gabrielle.
Darphus spied the nearing rebel with amusement. "She's as restless as you, Conqueror."
The ruler popped a punch at his face and caught him for his distraction.
The warlord hissed as he stumbled back from the blow. He straightened up with a bleeding lip and nose.
"Get back, Gabrielle!" commanded the ruler's cold voice. Just as she raised her sword at the warlord, her right hand was shaking uncontrollably.
Darphus surprisingly watched ruler's grasp on the sword's hilt falter.
The Conqueror's right hand was numb now but her left hand caught the sword by the hilt just in time. She growled at her enemy as she knew she was running low on time.
Daphus was gleeful at seeing the hemlock's paralysis coming into affect. He charged the ruler with a dangerous attack.
The Conqueror was both left and right handed with her sword however the hemlock quickly weakened her abilities. She just barely caught the warlord's blade with her vertical blade.
Darphus was moving much faster in comparison to the ruler. He dodged around her shaken defenses and kicked at her stomach.
The Conqueror absorbed the blow yet her legs suddenly gave up control. She dropped to her knees and her left fingers stopped receiving commands to hold the weapon. Her sword fell to the dirt. The Conqueror only had upper body motion and she lifted her head back.
Darphus towered over the prone ruler. "Who would have thought the great Conqueror would ever come to this?" He lowered his sword and smugly bent over the ruler. "Paralyzed and helpless… it's becoming of you." He suddenly struck the Conqueror with a blow from his sword's hilt.
The Conqueror could do nothing as her head was slammed by the hard metal. She growled as she crashed into the ground and her vision briefly swam while her mouth filled with the taste of blood.
"She's not completely helpless," challenged the limping rebel.
Darphus's head snapped up from staring down at the motionless yet still breathing Conqueror. He pointed his sword at the rebel leader. "You!" He laughed as he simply stepped over the Conqueror's body and approached the rebel. "You've caused enough problems for me."
Gabrielle stood before the warlord and despite she was slumped over she proudly held her head up. "I plan to keep doing it," she hotly defied.
"Not anymore." Darphus readied his sword.
Gabrielle put both her hands on the Amazon sword hilt and prepared to raise the sword at the right moment.
Darphus yelled and raised the sword over his head. His blade came down but was immediately stopped by another sword. His shocked features turned to the dark, angry face of the Conqueror.
"Nor am I completely paralyzed, Darphus." The Conqueror held her body up with her left hand and her shaking right hand held the trembling sword. "Drop, Gabrielle!" she yelled as her sword quickly tucked under Darphus's arms and slashed up.
The rebel leader released the sword hilt and she fell to the ground as Darphus's sword swept over her head. She then felt warm blood spray from above and coat her. She closed her eyes and turned her head away.
Darphus screamed in pain then stumbled back, his sword forgotten and his hands around his sliced neck.
The Conqueror dropped her sword and turned her head. She watched in satisfaction as her enemy fell to his knees now, teetered for a heartbeat, and slowly dove to his right side.
Darphus's hands loosened from his neck and his ghostly, cold eyes remained lifelessly staring at the Conqueror. The shock of his defeat was written all over his face.
The Conqueror released a painful breath then her upper body gave into the poison. She slumped onto her back and stared up through the opening in the forest to the lively blue sky. "Gabrielle?" she softly called.
The rebel leader crawled over to the Conqueror and stopped at the ruler's right side then used her hands to sit up. Her left hand balanced her from behind her and her right hand in her lap but she wanted to touch the dying ruler. "I have to get help, Conqueror."
The Conqueror shook her head then her eyes focused onto the rebel. "It's too late for that." She swallowed as her thoughts were starting to slow down. "Especially… since… you're legs are injured." Her chest rose and fell quickly.
"I have to try," argued the frantic bard.
"No," whispered the ruler. She willed her paralysis away from her right hand and she collapsed the rebel's hand. "Stay here… with me."
Gabrielle clenched the ruler's blood slick hand and her eyes burned from unshed tears. "I have to try," she hoarsely repeated.
"Sssh," whispered the ruler. Her eyes closed as she murmured, "Isn't this what you've always wanted?" Her eyes fluttered open and locked on the blurring rebel that hovered over her.
"No," rasped the bard, "not anymore." She couldn't do this; she couldn't sit here and watched the Conqueror die. "I have-"
"Gabrielle," softly drew out the ruler's voice. Her tone wasn't her normal cold monotone but inviting and almost tender. "Everything will be fine."
Gabrielle glanced at their clenched hands then back at the ruler's motionless face. "You can't die… the realm needs you. What are we going to do?"
The Conqueror's chest rose high then slowly fell. "Just go forward." A brief emotion passed over her face then disappeared. "The known-world doesn't need a tyrant, Gabrielle… you know this."
Gabrielle's chest rose and fell wildly as she whispered, "No, you're not that tyrant… I was wrong." She lowered her head down closer to the ruler's. "You've helped so much too. You've stopped all the warring Greek states, brought peace… the economy is strong. And we can worship under any religion in your realm. We're well protected from outside threats."
The Conqueror sadly smiled at that last statement. "Just my punishment and taxation could use some help huh?" Her joke was delivered to the bard but she got the wrong effect.
Gabrielle broke into hot tears.
The Conqueror's slow mind tried to think of a way to ease the rebel's new fears. "You know what… I've come to… realize about you, Gabrielle."
The crying bard tried to calm some as she throatily whispered, "What's that?"
The Conqueror's fuzzy blue eyes locked on the rebel for once instead of beyond her. "You make a great enemy but… an even better friend."
Gabrielle's tears only strengthened and she shook her head frantically. "Oh gods please… don't leave, Conqueror."
"Xena," murmured the Conqueror then she finished the line at seeing Gabrielle's confused features. "My name is Xena."
The bard's rapid heart wavered then continued its hasty beats. Gabrielle lowered her head down onto the ruler's slowly rising chest. Their locked hands remained between their bodies.
The Conqueror clenched her teeth as she forced her left hand to lift off the ground. She just managed to rest her hand on the bard's shoulders to soothe her.
Gabrielle's powerful tears rolled down over the bridge of her nose and cheek then pooled on the dark ruler's chest.
The tears rolled down the Conqueror's chest then stopped over the Conqueror's slow beating heart. They then suddenly picked up momentum as the ruler's chest fell and they streamed down against the ruler's neck.
Gabrielle's head rose high up on the Conqueror's chest but her ear heard the slurred heartbeat. She quickly lifted her head when the Conqueror's chest fell one last time. "No," she breathed, "Conqueror?" She touched the ruler's left cheek and it was chilled from the working hemlock. "Oh gods no… please, no."
The Conqueror's left arm fell off the rebel's back and hit the ground. Her right hand had long ago lost its grip.
Gabrielle became hysterical as she yelled, "Don't leave… I need you." She searched the lifeless, staring blue orbs below that didn't respond to her. "Don't leave me," she breathed emotionally. "Wake up!"
The Conqueror made no response. Her face was peaceful for the first time since her childhood.
Gabrielle stared at her legs that had betrayed her. Her life was nothing but irony as the Conqueror shattered the very legs that could have brought her help. She suddenly threw her head back and started screaming, "Help!" She inhaled sharply and hysterically cried out, "Help! I need help!" Her tears rushed down her cheeks at the resounding silence coming back to her ears. "Gods please, help!!"
To be continued.Return to the Academy