Disclaimers: From here on out, there'll be bad language, same-sex involvement, rape and other violence. There's lots of blood and a good bit of nastiness, not all of it as just as we would like. Callisto tends to do that to a story.
Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and trouble is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?
"You stupid bastard!"
With a sodden thud, the body of the spymaster Autolycus struck the cold, stone wall of his own command room. He struggled to right himself, to defend himself against the next blow, but after the beating he had taken already, his limbs refused to answer him quickly or completely. He barely made it to his knees. In the harsh glare of the torches, he saw that none of the dozen Guards lining the room moved a muscle to help him, but he forced his swollen, bloodied mouth to form words.
"Conqueror, I swear "
"Swear nothing else to me," Xena snarled, gathering him again with iron hands and jerking him up to and then off his feet, to dangle from the impressive strength of her biceps. "You swore this symposium would be safe. You swore there was nothing to worry about. You swore taking only a light guard and allowing Gabrielle and Leandra to accompany me would be just fine!"
She tossed him backward again, and the Guards moved briskly out of the way so that he hit the stone wall with one already dislocated shoulder. With a cry, he collapsed to the floor, unable to hold himself upright. She followed, punctuating each furious question with a drop kick to some exposed area of his body.
"How much was she paying you, you double-crossing fuck? Was it enough? How do you like being in her pay now, King of Spies? She's not here to protect you, is she?"
He curled feebly into a ball and tried to protect his head with bloodied, broken hands. "I didn't do it. I wouldn't betray you." He screamed as she broke a rib in his back with the toe of her boot. "I wouldn't hurt the girls!"
The kicks stopped.
In the still moment of waiting, he felt everything bleeding. The pain had, for an instant, been numbed, but he knew that when it returned he might not be able to stay conscious. It was so important that he reach her in this moment and he repeated the statement had halted her blows.
"I would never hurt Gabrielle or Leandra. Never."
Other feet retreated in orderly, lock-step march, but he didn't dare unfold himself. He lay there, sobbing, over and over, "Never. I wouldn't hurt her never."
"How did Callisto get in there, Autolycus?"
The voice was bitter, cold, but not murderous, at least not toward him. Cautiously, slowly, the spy released his death grip on his head and loosed his long held tuck. When no blow came, he raised his head to look at the Conqueror.
The regal Empress of the World who'd departed for Davidicus' symposium in silk and jewels mere hours before had vanished like a pleasure dream. Autolycus didn't know when or where she'd changed clothes between the ruined dinner party and the palace; she had simply appeared, a nightmare in black leather and latticed steel, and begun beating the Tartarus out of him.
Xena stood now with her back to him, arms folded, staring with preternatural intensity at one of the wall maps of the Corinthian sewers and cisterns. Her stance, swelling the broad shoulders under their black leather half-armor, made her appear even bigger, even more dangerous, but Autolycus felt a tiny release from fear. She would have killed him already if that was her desire, but something, something had halted her, changed her mind, and he knew with a moments clarity that it was the mention of Gabrielle's name.
She swiveled abruptly, her azure gaze locking him to the wall he'd just managed to get propped up against.
"Tell me," she ordered. "If you want me to believe you didn't plan it, didn't help her, then tell me how she managed to get into that house, past all the guards in the city, kill my men and take what's mine?"
Autolycus raised his head, amazed at how clear it became now that the Conqueror had stopped pounding on it. He worked up moisture and spat, unsurprised by the fragments of tooth that came out with it.
"She's been here," he reasoned. "She didn't need to break in tonight. She's been living, unnoticed, in the city for some time."
He drew up his hand, slowly, carefully, aware quick movement could still be his death, and wiped a trickled of blood from his mouth and nose. Xena watched him, emotionless, waiting for the rest of his explanation.
"She had other contacts," he continued. "Darphus wasn't the only one; in fact, he may have been pretty minor in the scheme of things. And he certainly didn't know about the rest of her operatives."
The Conqueror nodded, looking away for the first time, and the former thief took the opportunity to try to straighten himself more. He knew his legs wouldn't hold him yet, but the pain kept him alert and alertness seemed the only thing that could save his life right now, so he continued carefully.
"Davidicus had to have been in on things. And his household. We hadn't heard even a rumor of impropriety from him. We should be able to get some details out of him or one of his servants."
"Davidicus didn't survive to be questioned," Xena said curtly. "Most of his servants fled. The Guard's out rounding them up."
Autolycus swiped irritably at a scalp wound that kept dribbling blood into his eyes. "There are reports of six different trails leaving Corinth," he muttered. "It's going to take a while to track down the false leads."
The Conqueror gestured impatiently. "You've already sent men out, haven't you?"
He nodded, then wished he hadn't as the nausea rose. "As soon as word reached the Palace. I sent riders to Athens and Thebes, but it seems to me that they'll head for Argos or some other port. If they're heading for Rome "
"They aren't," the decisive voice cut over his theorizing.
"I-- um-- I would think they'd want those Roman legions at their back," he said hesitantly.
She rose and went to the door. Orders were issued and one of her Guards went off at a run, but the exhausted Master Spy simply took the moment to rest his chin against his chest and try to get some control over the building pain. It hurt to breathe and now it was beginning to hurt to think as well.
"I've sent for a healer," the Conqueror said, returning.
She bent and more than half lifted Autolycus to his feet, taking care not to grasp his dislocated shoulder, then steadied him as he swayed. With her support, he made it to the desk where he leaned upright. The chair had been shattered-- over his back, if he remembered correctly-- when she'd stormed into his office nearly a candlemark ago, screaming that he'd betrayed her and Gabrielle and Leandra had been kidnapped.
Now, she leaned silently beside him, eyes fixed on the facing wall.
"Why not Rome?" he asked, genuinely curious.
"I don't know," Xena admitted. "My gut just tells me that she isn't headed to Rome, that she isn't even committed to Rome's cause. That was Darphus' little ploy, I'd bet, and Callisto used them because they provided a convenient distraction." She shook her head. "Callisto's headed east-- toward Cirra, probably. Her old stomping grounds, where she may have some local followers left from her last attempt to unseat me."
"You can't be sure "
"No. Nothing's sure with that lunatic. I'll wait 'til morning to see what reports come in, but I'm mobilizing everything east of here as soon as I can get pigeons out in the morning."
She turned icy eyes to him and he felt himself quail. The death written in those eyes could be his own or anyone's, but he thought that she didn't care who had to die as long as she got what she wanted, Callisto. The Destroyer of Nations walked abroad again.
"Our command communications have been breached somewhere," she told him bluntly. "Darphus has been dead too long to know about tonight's details, and Callisto knew too much about too many other things. If you're not the breach, then someone else in the senior officers is. Theo is dead and Palaemon is upstairs with a wound from sternum to spine. I saw Palaemon fighting-- he wasn't faking to keep his position a secret. In your opinion, who in the upper ranks would have betrayed us?"
Autolycus frowned. "Depending on what she knew, it wouldn't necessarily have to be an upper ranking officer," he reminded her.
"She knew both Leandra and Gabrielle on sight," the Conqueror revealed almost grudgingly, "and she knew that they were both important to me."
"It wouldn't take long in the city to know that," Autolycus almost laughed, but caught himself as that murderous expression came over Xena's face once more. "Conqueror, please " He held up a hand, trying to placate. "Everyone in the marketplace knows Gabrielle, and Leandra often accompanies her into town. The guards you assigned would be notice enough that the two of them were not ordinary Palace staff. People notice things and talk amongst themselves." He frowned slightly, "And you must know that your-- um-- excursion to the theatre the other night was pretty common knowledge."
Xena's expression, if possible, turned colder. "What?"
"Even in ordinary clothing, Your Majesty isn't likely to pass unnoticed."
The Conqueror straightened from the desk and paced away to the innocuous wall map again. She felt odd-- shaky with adrenaline from the events of the nightand it wasnt a feeling she was used to. The rages, usually her familiar companion, felt appallingly alien to her, like a being outside herself. Inwardly, she felt only anguishguilt and desolation at the capture of the two young women with whom she had been so intimate.
With some effort, she forced her brain to think strategically, emotionlessly. What Autolycus was saying was correct; she had, through her attempts to keep them safe, marked Gabrielle and Leandra as targets. She had, as Callisto had taunted her, cared for them and that alone was enough to put them in danger. Her fury, then, ought to be directed at no one but herself.
Like acid, the familiar self-hatred burned through her veins. Lyceus, Mlila, Borias, Solanshe was death to those she loved. When would she learn that lesson? How many more loved ones had to die?
Enough! Wallowing in it won't save them, a colder, harsher voice in her psyche broke in. You know what has to be done. Do it.
"Callisto came into my Imperial city, Autolycus," Xena stated flatly, trying to bleed the renewed anger into focusthe focus shed need to find Callisto and send her to Tartarus where she belonged. "She suborned my citizens and my own Imperial Guard to aid her. She infiltrated a symposium that my security chief and my secret police chief had both declared without danger. She killed my Captain of the Guard and my guests." Looking over her shoulder at the spy, she stated the final and most serious of the charges. "And as if that wasnt enough, she stole my secretary and my bedslave to use as hostages." She turned to him fully. "I'm going after her and this time, I will make sure that she stays dead."
"Conqueror," he said carefully, "theres no need for you to go after Callisto. The Guard and my men can "
"Can find her? Capture her? Handle this?" Xena gave him a scorchingly sardonic look. "Youve done such a fine job up 'til now, Autolycus. Your men couldnt find their dicks in the dark."
He nodded, accepting the criticism. "We should have done better with Darphus, but Callisto She was supposed to be dead. Were only human, Conqueror."
"So is she!" Xena shot back. "She could and should have been caught before now." She threw up a disgusted hand, changing the course of the conversation. "This isnt a matter for discussion. By the third hour past dawn tomorrow, Im moving out after her, whether we know for sure which trail is the true one or not."
"Ill come with you."
"No," Xena clenched her fists, aware that she had to do something that every overstrained nerve in her body screamed was the wrong thing to do. "I need someone here," she gritted out. "We dont know how many rebels Callisto left behind to make the pursuit more difficult, and we dont want to lose what weve gained here in Western Greece. Corinth must be kept peaceful and under control and for that I need an administrator. Someone I can trust."
Autolycus eyebrows, had they not been beaten into insensibility, would have shot up. "Me?"
Xena shot him a look, then grudgingly nodded. "But be aware, King of Spies, if I find any evidence that youve betrayed me, Ill be back for you in a heartbeat."
He gulped, audibly. "Nno, Conqueror, believe me "
"Ill have to, wont I?" she snapped, cutting off his protestations.
A slight pause followed as both tried to feel good about the turn events were taking. For Autolycus, it meant assuming responsibilities for which he had no preparation, no training, and assuming them under the clear threat of violence should he fail. For Xena, it meant giving up the most precious of her hard-won goals: total control. She was trusting someone to guard her back who, at the very least, had just failed miserably at that same position. It didnt feel comfortable, but she knew it was a necessity.
"Look," she plunged ahead, aware that she was in the middle of one of those huge turning points that life offered periodically, but aware also that her choices were severely limited. "The information lines have obviously been compromised. All the precautions we took after Darphus little scheme have failed. Callisto knew too much about my schedule, my security, my personal life. I want you to establish some way for us to communicatebirds, riders, whateverthat bypasses the normal routes and remains completely secure."
"No, Im serious here," she forced him to meet her eyes. "Handle this yourself, Autolycus. I want to know that youre the only one receiving the messagesand the only one sending them."
"I can do that," the Spy Master drew himself as upright as his aching body would allow. "Ill send birds with you and Ill take over the receiving myself."
"Next, I want those two buffoons, Garnon and Marstevius, rounded up. Darphus may not have confided in them any further, but I want them leaned on hard. Put the fear of the gods in them and see what they suddenly recall."
He nodded to show he was getting all the instructions and she returned it abruptly.
"And find out what the hold up is with the arrest of those Romans. We should have received confirmation of orders by now."
"Thy will, Conqueror."
A bustle of footsteps in the hallway signaled the arrival of the healer and Xena used it as an excuse to escape the stifling, blood-soaked room. Her decision was made, but the implications of her choice had yet to play themselves out. It made for a tremendously uncomfortable situation, worsened by her nagging fear for Gabrielle and Leandra. Shaking off the crowding forebodings, she made her way to the chamber where the Guard and healers had carried Palaemon.
Wan Li had just finished re-bandaging the Security Chiefs wound and stood looking at his patient consideringly when Xena entered.
"Hows he doing?" the Conqueror asked.
Wan Li wiped his bloodied hands with a rag. "He'll be fine. It actually looked worse than it was. Its an unusually long wound, but the slice didnt penetrate. The blade must have caught on a rib. Its to the bone, but it didnt compromise the chest cavity."
"Stop talking about me as if Im not here," Palaemon protested weakly.
Xena stepped forward to his side. "I thought you were still unconscious," she explained. "He says youll be fine."
"He ought to let me up," Palaemon argued groggily, still stunned by the herbed smoke Wan Li had used to anesthetize him. "We need to get on this before that maniacal bitch can get them too far away."
"You stop worrying about it," Xena ordered. "Youre going to need your strength to get better."
"Im next in line for Captain," Palaemon countered. "You promised me a promotion."
"Fuck your ambition, Palaemon," Xena snarled, but their eyes spoke to one another and she knew that it wasnt ambition speaking from her trusted officer. "Im not promoting you tonight. Im not promoting anyone. Im going after Callisto just as soon as we get the false trails run down."
Palaemon made a valiant effort to heave himself upright on the pallet. "Im going with you."
"You are not."
Wan Li put a restraining hand on the younger mans shoulder. "Dont tear the stitches out or youll have an even smaller chance of getting her to agree."
"Conqueror," Palaemon grimaced as his movement put pressure on the wound. "She knows youll come for her."
"Callisto? She damn well better know."
"No, Gabrielle," he corrected her. "Just because she said not to, dont think thats really how she feels. She knows youll come for her. And I'm coming with you."
"Just shut up and lay there, Palaemon," Xena raised an imperious finger to silence him as he opened his mouth to protest. "Ive had enough conflict for one evening."
Back in her chambers, the Conqueror struggled with her own traitorous concentration. She would need all her many skills to track Callisto, but she couldn't keep her thoughts on the struggle before her. Over and over, she saw Gabrielle in the painful embrace of Callisto's Second. Like a dagger in the gut, the image burned through her, leaving a wake of acidic fear behind it.
I should never have allowed her to go! Xena cursed herself. If I hadn't given in to her wheedling about Leandra this would never have happened. Blindly, Xena struck out, knocking a rack of quills from her desk with a satisfying clatter.
Enough with the dramatics, her conscience berated her. Be honest. She didn't even have to wheedle. One look at that tear-stained face and you were putty in her hands.
With a sigh, the Conqueror threw herself down in her chair once more. She leaned forward, elbows on the chair arms, cradling her head in her hands.
What am I going to do? She asked herself. I love her and Callisto has her hostage.
Her inner voice sighed impatiently, Then get her back.
Leaning back, she turned her thoughts toward doing just that.
A particularly sickening lurch jolted Gabrielle awake and she lay for a long moment fighting panic and claustrophobia in the pitch-blackness of the enclosed wagon. Her sleep, not deep enough to be restful, had been full of the creaking and groaning of the vehicle and the images of terror and dismay from the fight she had witnessed, but, above all else, Xenas furious, agonized eyes had haunted her uneasy dreams. The bard nearly cried again at the memory of that last glimpse of the Conqueror, sword at the ready, but feet frozen in place by the threat of violence to her friend and her slave.
Firmly held by Callistos minions, Gabrielle and Leandra had been dragged back through the private quarters of Davidicus mansion to the kitchens entrance and, having been swiftly, but tightly, bound, they were thrust into the rough wooden box of an Imperial paymasters wagon.
"Dont try calling out," the chief guard had warned. "Well kill you if you do."
Dark, dirty, and depressingly sacrosanct, Gabrielle had to admit the wagon was a perfect choice for the kidnappers. No one in his right mind would attack the Conquerors gold. The irony of it all wasnt lost on the bard. Callisto and her co-conspirators had proven quite adept at turning Xenas reputation and the fear it engendered to their advantage. The guards riding with the wagon wore Imperial surcoats and flew Xenas guidon, making them highly visible, yet completely unnoticed. Imperial paymasters and their troops moved constantly and anonymously through the Empire, and commanders of other squads or cohorts would never think to stop or question a pay shipment. They would be hiding in plain sight.
Another thudding pitch as the vehicle rolled over some obstacle and Leandra, awake now, whimpered, "Xena."
Gabrielle reached out with her bound hands and touched the slaves back. How odd the silk dress felt in these uncivilized conditions. "Im here, Leandra."
"Gabrielle," Leandras voice held both relief and renewed fear. She rolled to face the bard, even though they couldnt see one another in the stygian interior. "Where do you think theyre taking us?"
"I dont know," Gabrielle answered, worried. "I cant hear them talking over the noise of the axle and we havent stopped, even to rest the horses."
"Do you think Xena will find us?" Leandras question came hesitantly.
"Of course," Gabrielle awkwardly patted the other woman with her joined wrists. "Its only a matter of time before she comes for us."
The immediacy of her response seemed to calm Leandra, but Gabrielle found herself not so reassured. Callistos troops had moved so quickly and confidently through their plans. The Imperial secretary, now familiar with the gait of soldiers with explicit orders, saw just such purposefulness in the steps of the rebels. As theyd secured her hands, shed looked around and seen the groups leaving Davidicus back courtyard, each setting off in a different direction and with a different bearing. Some had shouted and run; others had moved stealthily through the screen of hedges surrounding the mansion. In the confusion, the fake payroll company would go unremarked, while Xenas troops and the Corinthian Guard sought to track down all the more obviously fleeing groups. It looked to be a long, frustrating search.
Poor Xena, the bard thought, with an unconscious sigh. The Conqueror had stood at bay, like a lion encircled by jackals, but the dual hostages had forced her to surrender at last. Gabrielle wondered if anyone else had seen the anguish that underlay the anger in the Empresss cerulean eyes. Shell blame herself, Gabrielle knew with almost instinctive insight. Shell see this whole incident as her failure to protect us. It would make the Conqueror extremely well focused on finding them, but the guilt, Gabrielle realized, would be eating the monarch up inside.
Moving her bound hands to her breast, Gabrielle located the tourmaline necklace Xena had given her on the night of the play. The delicate chain had held despite the rough treatment its owner had received and the bard sent up a tiny prayer of thanks giving. Let her be all right, she added to the prayer. Let her know that she did the best she could to protect us.
Somehow, concentrating on Xenas emotional response combated the fear the bard felt for her ownand Leandraslife. Gabrielle had never thought of herself as courageous, but she comprehended on some gut level that if she gave in to the terror and anxiety surrounding her now, she might not survive this ordeal. Callistos impact on her life already had been so serious and so profound that in her mind Gabrielle had transformed the warrior into some sort of force of fate or the gods. Perdicus death at the hands of that force had altered everything, had changed every path Gabrielle had ever contemplated for her life. She hoped against hope that Callisto's interference wouldn't change her life that profoundly again.
Xena will come for us, she repeated to herself calmingly, fingering the necklace like a prayer bead. Shes a hero and shell rescue us.
The Conqueror must have slept, at least for a small interval, because she awoke, cramped and stiff in her chair. Never a slow waker, never one to awaken disoriented or confused, the entire weight of the previous night settled back onto Xenas shoulders before her eyes even opened. Callistos mad laughter echoed in her ears, but all her inner vision could see was twin pairs of green eyes turned to her, both terrified and beseeching, but Gabrielles also filled with boundless trust in Xenas ability to save them both.
The question was, could she? Callisto had had help, lots of help, and seven distinct trails that led away from Corinth. In the time it took to run the dead ends down, Callisto would be drawing further and further away, carrying with her the lives of two women Xena found herself forced to admit she loved, though in vastly different ways.
She had worked so long and so hard to be without emotion, to care for no one and nothing beyond her own destiny, that she still felt some level of self-disgust when she acknowledged the feelings she had for others. Leandra was a case in point. When had the Destroyer of Nations ever given a moments thought to the welfare or well-being of a pleasure slave? As long as her slaves performed their duties when she wanted and didnt get in the Conquerors way the rest of the time, she didnt let their existence even register, let alone affect her decision-making. Leandra would have been the same if she had come along earlier in the Conquerors life.
If she had come along before Gabrielle, Xena corrected herself pointedly.
Now, Xena found herself worrying about the young slaves safety. Leandra was the most expendable of Callistos hostages, Xena reasoned, probably taken to insure that the correct blonde was captured. Darphus last legacy, the Conqueror realized bitterly. Hed passed his hatred of Gabrielle on to the madwoman who was his commander. Leandra was only a target because she resembled the bard so strongly.
You probably wouldnt have taken her for your bed if she hadnt looked like Gabrielle, Xena admitted to herself. How blind can one woman be? Since the moment you saw Gabrielle in that vision, you have been fascinated with her. She entered your supposedly nonexistent heart as if she held the only key to the door, and you never realized it? You must have been the only one. And now they're both being punished for the friendship and affection they offered me, Xena thought with a returning anger.
Callisto knew just how precious her captives were. Shed said herself that shed had the opportunity to kill Xena outright, but shed chosen instead to take the young women. She knew she could use them to lead Xena along whatever path of Tartarus she had planned for the Warrior Princess. The Conqueror had no choice but to follow; she couldnt abandon either woman to the torments, physical or psychological, that Callisto would devise for them. And Callisto herself must be stopped; this time, permanently.
All this mooning is getting nothing done, barked the inner commander. The sooner you get on the trail, the sooner you can kill that bitch and get the bard back.
With a familiar ease, Xena allowed herself to fall back on generalship. It had gotten her through emotional morasses before; she only hoped it could do so again. There'd be time later to worry. Probably too much time. For now, she had to get herself and her troops on the trail of the blonde psychopath who'd somehow managed to escape Tartarus.
Moving around the room, Xena lit candles to push back the pre-dawn darkness and gathered the items that shed need to take with her. Extra clothing, a back scabbard for her straight sword, the curved Chinese falchion she used when she fought on horseback, the heavier armor that shed need if they managed to besiege Callisto in some fortified place, she laid all the items out on the bed for a servant to pack.
As she stood looking at them, another thought occurred to her and she turned to the connecting door to Gabrielles chamber. Gabrielle would need things as well, she told herself, making her way into the bards room. Xena made her way around the room, collecting whatever fell to hand, but lingering over other items. The scroll case with its inlaid top would be needed; Gabrielle would want to write
Footsteps, hurrying by Gabrielle's door, interrupted her and she stiffened, instantly on alert.
"Conqueror!" The imperative voice came from her rooms and she turned as Iolaus, Autolycus recently appointed Second in Command, appeared in the connecting doorway. Flushed and breathless, he hurriedly gave his news.
"Your Majesty, weve found the main trail and it leads east across the isthmus and north towards the main roads to Thessaly."
A spark lit in the Conquerors eye. East, just as I guessed.
"Call the Guards to order and get me a servant to pack these things," she ordered crisply, nodding at his immediately given salute.
The exhilaration of the chase bubbled up within her and the Conqueror laughed low in her throat. Now, she would show Callisto what it was like to be hunted, hunted for her miserable life. The raven head tilted back as she let loose the ululating battle cry that had struck fear into thousands on battlefields across the vast plains of the known world.
"Run, you bitch," the Conqueror growled to the empty room, hearing the far away sounds of soldiers automatically responding to her battle cry. "Run while you can. But pray that in your hurry no harm befalls those two young women," she warned her absent enemy, "because when I catch you-- and I will catch you-- any harm you do them will cost you tenfold before you die."
See how our lives like birds take wing
Like sparks that fly when a fire soars
To the shore of the god of evening.
Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus
"We're stopping," Leandra whispered as the grinding of the ungreased axle slowed.
"Listen," Gabrielle cautioned.
The guards could be heard, calling to one another, over the noise of the wagon.
"They've met another squad," Gabrielle guessed, hearing greetings and harsh laughter.
Gabrielle frowned, concentrating on the bantering tones and shouts. "No I don't think so. They're teasing each other about the uniforms."
"Do you think they're going to let us out?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle answered honestly. "It's about time we were fed again."
It had been four days since the symposium, as near as the two women could piece together, and, aside from brief halts to change horses and give the two of them water, food and latrine moments, the squad had not slowed their relentless pace. Callisto had disappeared and none of the soldiers would acknowledge their questions about where they were going or when they would be released, though Gabrielle insisted on asking each time she and Leandra were freed for even a moment. Theodorus, Callisto's Second in Command, was the only person Gabrielle or Leandra saw consistently, and he merely laughed when the bard tried to get information from him.
"I hear keys," Leandra said.
The chains binding the cart were unlocked and dragged noisily through the enclosing hoops, covering all other sound, then the wooden top was lifted and bright sunlight blinded the captives.
"Out," ordered the deep, gravelly voice of Theodorus and they scrambled, cramped, battered and bound, onto the tailgate, squinting in the harsh light. Guards caught their bound arms.
"Get them into the hut and changed," the Second ordered.
Gabrielle noted thankfully that the guards were female, but their hard faces and biting hands indicated no softened vigilance.
"You heard him," one of the women repeated as she pulled the ropes away from Leandra's wrists and thrust her into a tiny, ill-constructed hovel at the roadside, "strip down."
Gabrielle, her hips numb from lying in the wagon for so long, followed stumblingly after the slave. The interior, leaking light from a partially collapsed roof, offered no indication that it had been lived in for years. It looked like a thousand other abandoned dwellings on the roads and byways of the Empire, emptied by war or disease or displacement. We could be anywhere, Gabrielle thought desolately. How will Xena find us with so few clues?
"Hurry it up," the head woman, a large redhead with a bad scar along one cheek, barked impatiently. "You're not performing in the Imperial bedchamber now."
Without a flinch or alteration of expression, Leandra slipped out of the once ornate, but now tattered, gown she had worn at Xena's behest to the dinner party. Silk worth more than all the gold the paymasters wagon should have held slipped to the dirt floor and the Conquerors prized bedslave stood proudly naked before the women as if on display for her Mistresss pleasure.
Gabrielle, standing behind her, envied Leandra her lack of embarrassment at being unclothed before these strangers. She noted with another sort of envy the stylized X and chakram of the Imperial seal tattooed on Leandra's left buttock. The owner's mark, she thought with a poignant jealousy. Angered at her own unworthy thoughts, Gabrielle struggled to disrobe.
"They're damn' near identical," one of the others commented, running an appraising eye over the prisoners, "'cept that one's clumsy."
Gabrielle, furious, blushed as she realized the guard meant her. The unfamiliar fasteners on the borrowed gown defied her newly unbound fingers and her innate modesty made disrobing before these witnesses even more difficult. Leandra turned and read the bard's distress.
"Let me, little sister," Leandra said calmly, unconsciously using the familiar endearment of one slave to another.
"Aww, ain't that sweet," the sarcastic comment came from the soldier who'd just spoken.
"Yeah, well," the leader smirked, "They're probably used to undressing one another. Xena probably likes both of them naked."
Gabrielle looked away from Leandra, humiliated by her clumsiness and by the things the women were saying, but Leandra caught her eye as she unfastened the midnight silk gown and touched the tourmaline necklace hanging between Gabrielle's breasts. She smiled as she made sure her body hid the necklace from the guards and winked.
Gabrielle smiled brokenly, teary-eyed at the kindness she saw in the green eyes so like her own. Her heart lifted with the knowledge that at least she wasn't alone.
"Jealous?" the bard forced herself to taunt the guards.
"Shut up," the scar-faced leader ordered coolly, snatching their dresses away from the duo. "Get dressed."
Simple skirts, blouses, and boots were thrown at them by one of the other soldiers, but Gabrielle watched as the two gowns were folded and bundled into two separate messengers' satchels. What could they be doing with Leandra and her dresses? Were they using them as a signal to Xena that they still had the two women; or did Callisto have some other, more sinister intent?
"Come on, blondie," Scarface snapped her fingers. "We ain't got all day, so unless you'd like to show your assets to the rest of the squad "
Gabrielle hurriedly tugged on the clothing.
When they were led outside once more, the paymaster's wagon had disappeared and the soldiers had changed clothing as well. They looked now like a group of merchants and their guard, complete with two laden carts. Horses waited for the two prisoners.
"Um, wait a minute," Gabrielle held up her hands with a panicked look. "I-- I don't do horses too well."
"Tough," Scarface replied. "Learn quick or we'll bury you under the onions on that wagon."
The bard decided the horse didn't look that tall after all, and after a few humiliating hops, she made her way into the high saddle, managing to stay there once she reached it.
"Move out," Theodorus ordered and the group formed up with the carts and the two young captives in the middle.
A sharp boot to the bottom of his boot brought Palaemon awake and he looked up at the tall, dark figure silhouetted against the stars.
"Majesty," he greeted unabashedly, pressing a palm against his wounded side as he sat up.
"I told you to stay in Corinth," Xena commented expressionlessly.
"Yes, Conqueror." He made it, with some effort, to his feet though she offered him no assistance. "And I told you I was coming."
"I could execute you for insubordination."
"Or you could give me the promotion you promised me."
She didn't react, except to look up at the starlit heights above them.
They were three days out of Corinth, moving along the Imperial Highway that bisected the Trachis. They had ridden nearly 35 leagues in three days through hilly countryside and golden river valley, following the uncertain trail of a paymaster's wagon which had been the only unaccounted for vehicle to leave Corinth in the chaos that was being referred to on the Corinthian streets as "Death's Dinner Party." The Conqueror's main force was camped at the hot springs of Thermopylae this night and scouts were searching shepherd's paths and game trails in the Kallidromos and the Trachinian Cliffs above them for signs that the wagon had passed or been seen.
The Conqueror's fiery anger had settled to a slow simmer that was apt to boil over at any misstep by her troops. It didn't do to disappoint the Empress with hesitation over the reading of the trail or the preparation of the evening's camp, and several troop members had bruises to prove the point. Given her furious precision over every detail, Palaemon had expected her to find him much sooner and send him packing back to Corinth. He knew, however, that her even-more-single-minded focus on that missing wagon and the young women believed to be in it had kept him unnoticed among her 400 swift-moving troops.
"Scouts just came in," she told him. "The paymaster's wagon was found empty about 3 leagues north of here. The trail continues north along that ridge right above us. They estimate it was abandoned a day ago. There was a small hut and some muddled tracks, including the imprints of two pairs of small bare feet."
Palaemon grunted. "So we've made up some time."
She nodded, a gesture he sensed rather than saw. "Still nearly a day ahead, though, and now we don't know exactly what we're looking for."
Palaemon looked north as if he could discern the trail in the dark at this distance. "What's in Thessaly to aid her?"
"She's headed for Amphipolis," Xena said quietly, but with a surety that he didn't question.
"But you sent birds to every outpost east of Corinth."
"Then why didn't she take a ship? It's stupid to drag two hostages through the roughest parts of the country with Imperial troops on full alert when you can steal a boat from Corinth harbor and sail directly to Amphipolis in under a week."
"And miss all the fun of having me trail after her like a lovesick fool?" Xena snorted inelegantly. "She's enjoying putting me through this forced march. And I imagine I'll arrive there, only to have her set fire to my home village and try to kill Gabrielle and Leandra before my eyes."
"That won't happen."
"Of course not," Xena said firmly and turned to leave. Glancing back over her shoulder, the Conqueror gave Palaemon a carefully expressionless look. "Tomorrow, ride where I can see you, Captain of the Guard."
She left her newly promoted Second in Command gaping in her wake.
Thou are my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.
In the territory of the Scordisci at Sirmium on the southern bank of the mighty Danube, just north of the lands of the Triballoi of Thrace, a hunting party assembled. Vircinix of Gaul held his huge hunter on a short rein as men and dogs swirled about him and tried his best to look relaxed and eager. In fact, he was neither.
As he watched his host, Hannraoi, laughing with his house guard, Vercinix calculated with almost fatalistic precision how much longer he would have to smile and pretend and pander to the huge ego of the chief of the Scordisci. He had reached Hannraoi's territory some three weeks before, but, between lavish drunken feasts and the relentless round of the hunt, the two of them had yet to sit down with the required druid attendants and begin the work toward peace they both knew Vircinix had come to enforce. At this rate, Vircinix might well end up wintering in the lands of the Scordisci and that would not make his own overlord, the Conqueror, at all happy.
It was all, unfortunately, completely inescapable. As regent of Gaul, Vercinix was also, by Imperial decree, that most thankless of rulers, King of the Celts. Second only to the Conqueror's in sheer size, his "kingdom" spread from the dusty plains of Iberia on the Mare Atlanticum to the fertile west coast of the Euxine Sea. It encompassed a thriving trade economy, an agricultural base of stunning fertility, and many tribes who had been settled in their homelands for generations. His far-flung Celts shared many things-- the same gods and goddesses though under many different names; a group of similar and mutually understood languages; a style of art that sang with beauty and vitality; a lifestyle that venerated the family and children-- but most important of all, they shared a love of raiding and war that made no right minded Greek or Roman want them for neighbors.
That shared obsession with pushing territorial boundaries and reaving against their neighbors' property--especially during times of so-called peace-- had set Vircinix on his gradual way east from Cisalpine Italy on a diplomatic progress some five moons ago. That and orders from the Empress.
Vercinix had met his overlord in Brixia amidst the Po Valley, one of the most settled, if not most peaceful, areas of Celtic control. Xena still wore the laurel crown of her victory over the rebellious Rome legions, but Vercinix knew she carried the smell of success with her wherever she went. He'd known that the first time he'd faced her across a battlefield, when he was Boudicca's Second, and he'd recognized the impossibility of overcoming that gods-given skill and luck that surrounded her like a druid's glamour. He'd been ritually cursed by the more conservative elements of the druidic brotherhood when he'd offered an unconditional surrender after Boudicca's death.
"Too many of my countrymen will die and still you will take the land," hed admitted. "Id rather live this life a while longer than take my chances in the next just yet."
His reward had been Gaul and the Celts, a mixed blessing at the very least, and strict orders from the Conqueror to keep the peace she had delivered with a bloody sword. She'd reiterated those orders at their most recent meeting and had sent him eastward on the diplomatic round to secure new promises from his princes and chieftains. The Conqueror wanted the raiding stopped before it could erupt into outright war and she'd given him whatever authority necessary, from imprisonment to execution to wring agreement from the Celts.
Vercinix looked again at his hale and hearty host. Hannraoi wore about his muscled neck a sign of the Thracian peace-- a huge silver-gilt torc with bulls' head terminals that could only be the work of a Thracian silversmith influenced by Scythian and Cimmerian models. Each of the bulls wore torcs of their own, signaling that the gift was made from one prince to another. So, with one hand he takes their peace offerings, Vercinix reasoned, and with the other he pats the back of his raiders who return with Thracian cattle, sheep, and slaves. It was an unfortunately common form of Celtic statesmanship. They'd been biting the hand that fed them from the very first.
"My huntsmen have located a lion, my lord king," the Scordisci called across the intervening space, a feral smile splitting the flowing moustache her wore. "How does that sound for a day's sport?"
Vercinix stiffened in his saddle, seeing the looks that went round. Lions were protected by Imperial decree; only the Conqueror herself hunted the lion, unless it could be proven that the beast was endangering people or livestock. Here before all these witnesses, Hannraoi was taunting him with treason, testing Vercinix's loyalty and his resolve to enforce the Conqueror's law.
"Not very good sport, it sounds," Vercinix commented coolly, "hunting a lion from horseback with a squad of warriors at my back. I'd much prefer the honor of hunting it as Her Majesty the Conqueror does."
Hannraoi's smile congealed. "All alone with a knife and a boar spear, my lord? I'm sure I'm not the first to think our Xena has a death wish."
'Our Xena,' is it? Vercinix thought cynically. "Let us try instead for the boar this day, Prince of the Scordisci. I've a craving for pork and no wish to test my skills against those of the Conqueror."
It was as subtle a rebuke and warning as could be delivered at distance and in front of 25 Scordisci warriors, but Vercinix saw it hit home with Hannraoi. It was only the first of many repetitions he would probably have to make, but perhaps the matter was settled for this day.
"Boar, it is, my lord king," the big man agreed, tilting his head to acknowledge the hit, and kicked his hunter to Vercinix's side. "They abound in the eastern forest. We'll find a king of the forest for the King of the Celts."
Amiably, Vercinix nudged his horse to follow the Scordisci huntsmen toward the east.
Three candlemarks later, the party had secured two boar sows and a small stag, but the boar himself had remained elusive. Vercinix and four of his portion of the hunting party had positioned themselves along a thin trail through a thicket of beech scrub. The beech mast was thick on the ground and it looked as if the pigs had eaten there recently.
"Monsieur le pig will be back," commented Dunixi, Vercinix's Gaulish tracker, confidently.
After a few moments, they did indeed hear something heavy moving along the trail toward them. Dunixi grinned and made a mocking bow before taking up his spear and settling himself in position. Vercinix stifled his laugh and made ready as well. As king, his was the honor of killing the beast.
The thrashing, now audible to all, came closer and Vercinix felt the tension stretch, lengthen, attenuate. He set the boar spear, forcing its butt against the ground and bracing it with his foot. His men stilled themselves. For them, this would be the hardest moment. When the boar burst from the underbrush, they must not distract it from its target: the king would draw its charge and kill it. More lord than one had been killed by a loyal retainer's inability to stand by and see his master charged by a boar, but Vercinix saw that his own men had each paired with a Scordisci and he knew that it hadn't been by chance. If Hannraoi had planned an unfortunate hunting accident for the King of the Celts, the Gauls of the King's Guard had other plans.
Branches on a scrub bush at the east edge of the clearing shook and Vercinix's awareness of politics faded. Now, it was only himself and the boar, and, if he had his way, the boar would leave the clearing swinging from his spear shaft.
It was unclear who shouted, but the reason became immediately clear. The figure that burst through the underbrush bore no resemblance to a boar, but he was barely recognizable as human either. He collapsed to one knee as he passed through the resistance of the leaves into the clearing and only a quickly outthrust hand kept him from landing on his face. The other splayed hand clutched his side as he swayed in his crouch.
Vercinix was at his side in an instant, his blue eyes quickly taking in the man's straight black hair and almond shaped eyes.
"Are you all right?" The Gaul asked, knowing already from the battle map of bruises and cuts crisscrossing the Asian's face that the answer had to be negative.
The man murmured an answer in some Eastern tongue, but it set him coughing and he brought up bright blood.
"Where are you wounded?" Vercinix tried Greek since it was the Conqueror's official language and the man looked up.
"I am Quan Po," the man rasped. "I have a message for the Conqueror. Is she here?"
Vercinix grimaced sympathetically at the physical effort it took the man to speak.
"No," he answered regretfully. "She is in Corinth. You're some four hundred leagues from there."
"I-- I must " another coughing fit wracked the overly thin frame and Vircinix saw the blood seeping from between the fingers Quan Po had pressed to his ribcage.
"Easy," the regent spoke calmingly. "You're going to need some rest before you can go on. Let us help you."
Quan Po shook his head and, turning, spat another mouthful of blood onto the clearing floor. "I must see Xena. I have an urgent message for her."
"I am Vircinix, regent of Gaul," the king offered. "I am one of her chief officers. I can see that a message reaches her as quickly as possible."
A look of relief crossed the pain-constricted visage.
"Lao Ma sent me," the messenger gasped out. "The Conqueror must be warned. The-- the Green Dragon " His breath faltered and, if not for Vercinix's steadying hand, he would have fallen.
With the help of two men at arms, Vircinix lowered him to the ground, and then motioned his companions back. Quan Po's dark eyes sought the hazel blue ones above him with desperation and Vercinix read the knowledge of death in those eyes.
"Hold on," the king said automatically.
"She must be told," the messenger whispered, eyes losing focus even as he said the words. "Tell Xena the Green Dragon has grown large. He must be made small."