Conquering the Conqueror
©July 2, 2002
General Disclaimer: You already know they arent mine. Im not doing this for money, only for adoring emails (email@example.com for those of you who want to start adoring now). I do thank Renaissance et al., the producers and everyone involved for inventing such wonderful women for us to admire, lust after and respect. I also thank LL and the ROC for just being. Theyre a pair of stunning actors who brought life and love to a couple of worthy characters.
Subtext Disclaimers: Well, it wouldnt be X:WP if there wasnt sexual ambiguity, but as things go along, sex gets less ambiguous. In fact, it gets decidedly lesbian. I think Aphrodite would, like, approve. If your local lawmakers don't agree with her, or you're under the legal age of consent, hit that big "Back" button at the top.
Violence Disclaimers: Offensive and abusive language, depiction of the aftermath of rape and other extreme 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.
Timeline reminder: This being Conqueror fiction, Hercules never existed in this world. Theres a mention herein of Jason and the Argonautsplease recall that according to mythology (and perhaps TPTB) Hercules played a rather important role in that adventure and, in a timeline where Hercules never existed, ALL things are going to be affected by his absence.
The story thus far (for those of you who refuse to re-read the whole thing<g>):
The Corinthian Resistance leader, Gabrielle of Poteidaea, a trained bard, is captured by the Imperial Guard and brought to trial before Xena the Conqueror. For her crimes against the state, she is sentenced to crucifixion. She is tied to the cross and her legs are broken, but, as she is being taken from the judgment agora to finish the execution, an unexpected vision causes Xena to stop the crucifixion. Training brings Gabrielle, a bard by training, brought to the palace where Xena has her treated for her wounds. The Conqueror swears to keep the young woman captive until she finds out the truth behind her vision.
Autolycus, the Conquerors spymaster, makes inquiries which reveal that Gabrielle's Resistance was little more than an irritation to the Conqueror and no real political threat. Darphus, however, was involved in Gabrielle's arrest and Xena, Palaemon, Xena's head of Security, and Autolycus feel sure that the case was trumped up to distract attention from some other plot. Darphus, the Conqueror's Captain of the Guard, we soon learn, is planning a coup with help of a mysterious man named Rexel.
The next night, an assassin enters the palace and makes an attempt on Gabrielle's life, but Xena saves the bard and captures the Chinese assassin. The man proves unable to tell them much because he has had his tongue cut out. Gabrielle is terribly frightened and the Conqueror comforts Gabrielle, letting the bard sleep with her in her bed.
Next morning, Xena broods over the changes she sees happening in her life because of the little blonde bard, but she can't seem to stop them and she's not sure she wants to. Darphus and Palaemon have a confrontation over palace security in which Darphus reveals some knowledge of the assassination attempt, but too little to implicate him.
Later that day, the man named by one of the Resistance fighters arrested and executed before Gabrielle Darphus' secret friend, Rexel is found and brought before the Conqueror. Xena questions him, but before she can get any information out of him, Rexel attempts an escape and Darphus kills him. It's too conveniently done, and Xena beats Darphus senseless, but can do no more than demote him without further proof. Gabrielle witnesses the beating and is horrified by the violence of the Conqueror's acts. She calls upon the Conqueror to try another way to achieve her ends. In the night, awakened by another nightmare of the mysterious crucifixion, Xena goes to the bard and asks her to forgive the false arrest and crucifixion she was subjected to. Gabrielle does.
Xena vanishes the next morning, headed to Rome to quash a rebellion, but the bard and she exchange letters while she is gone and Gabrielle is asked to join the Imperial Household as an historian. During these weeks, Autolycus also sends the Conqueror a background report about the bard, written by one of his spies. It details Gabrielle's marriage to Perdicus, a pregnancy, and a chance meeting she had with a group of Amazons while seeking medical assistance for her husband and herself. Xena has fears of betrayal, but sets them aside based on what she has observed about Gabrielle.
When Xena returns, victorious, some nine weeks later, a new bed slave, Leandra, accompanies her. Gabrielle discovers that she is jealous, fearing she may lose the Conquerors friendship, but she overcomes it and befriends Leandra. She decides to offer her services to the Conqueror as a secretary.
Darphus is being watched, but he continues his secret meetings. Iolaus, one of Autolycus' spies, observes Darphus meeting with a mysterious Chinese man, but their conversation exposes little beyond the fact their supreme leader is a woman. Xena fears that Lao Ma, Mother-Regent of Chin and one of the Conquerors few friends, may be seeking to overthrow her.
Meanwhile, Xena and Gabrielle are growing closer. Working as her secretary takes much of Gabrielle's fear of Xena away and the Conqueror finds herself drawn to the young bard. The Conqueror, having learned from a background check that Gabrielle's younger sister was sold into slavery, sets Autolycus to find the sister, Lila, and when Gabrielle confronts Xena about her treatment of the slave Leandra, Xena reveals that Autolycus is looking for Lila. During this confrontation, Gabrielle tells Xena for the first time about her marriage, Perdicus' wounding at the hands of Callisto, Gabrielles subsequent involvement with the Amazons, and the loss of her child and her husband.
Soon after, the Conqueror is invited to a dinner party at a local Corinthian nobleman's house, and she and Gabrielle have another falling out over Xena's "loaning" of her bed slave to Palaemon for the party. Gabrielle gets Palaemon to ask her instead and insists that Xena take Leandra.
Escaping his watchers, Darphus meets with the Chinese agent and insults their supreme leader. The leader has been hiding in the next room and, when she enters, Darphus learns, to his shock, that the guiding mind behind the coup is Callisto, whom everyone had believed to be dead. Callisto kills Darphus and threatens the Chinese agent. She has plans to finally get her revenge on Xena and she warns her agent not to screw them up.
Darphus' disappearance puts Palaemon in hot water with the Conqueror. Xena strikes him and dismisses him from her presence. Gabrielle, overhearing from her bedroom, objects to Xena's treatment of her loyal subordinate, insisting that Xena apologize. The two don't speak for nearly a day, but to make up, they each agree to take part in an activity the other likes. Gabrielle agrees to go fishing with the Conqueror if Xena will go to a play with her.
The play comes first and the two women enjoy themselves, talking and getting to know one another better. After the show is over, the disguised Conqueror and her secretary visit the local bazaar. Xena buys Gabrielle a necklace with a stone that resembles the bard's eyes, a friendship gift. Next morning, Xena takes the reluctant bard fishing, but they're interrupted by Palaemon with the news that Darphus' body has been found. No clues are forthcoming, but an aura of suspicion and fear envelopes the palace.
The scheduled dinner party arrives and Gabrielle accompanies Palaemon while Xena takes Leandra. The setting seems safe, but Xena's nerves are on edge. To make matters worse, she has an epiphany regarding her feelings for Gabrielle. When Gabrielle and Palaemon arrive, Xena realizes she is jealous of the young man and the logical conclusion hits her: she is in love with Gabrielle. As she broods over her feelings, the dinner party takes a deadly turn. Assassins dressed as dancers attack the dinner guests and despite all that Xena and Palaemon do, Gabrielle and Leandra are seized. Then Xena learns who has been behind all the plotting thus far: Callisto.
Xena tries to bargain with Callisto, but the blonde warrior refuses to trade the young women for the Conqueror. She insists she would rather kill what Xena loves and watch the Conqueror suffer. She flees into the night with her two hostages.
Xena confronts Autolycus, thinking he must have helped betray her, but he swears he is innocent and she is forced to trust him. She will go after the hostages herself and Autolycus will stay and rule Corinth and the Empire until she returns. Neither is happy about the situation. Palaemon, who was wounded in the kidnapping melee, demands to go with her on her quest for the two young women, but Xena refuses him.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle and Leandra are being transported across the country in a paymaster's wagon. Forced to change clothes, they are then put on horses as Callisto's flight continues. Three days pass without the pursuers catching sight of the kidnappers. Xena discovers Palaemon has stowed away amid her troops and she reluctantly promotes him to Captain of the Guard. Meanwhile, far to the north, Vercinix of Gaul receives a warning meant for the Conqueror: the Chinese under Ming T'ien are on the move toward the West.
And now on with our story .
Chaos is come again.
"Nothing! Not a speck of sawdust; not even a termite!" Palaemon ranted, climbing down from the under supports of the bridge. He glanced at his ruler, but the Conqueror didnt seem inclined to add anything. "It makes absolutely no sense: she could have put us two days behind by pulling that bridge. Timber is scarce and most of our engineers are with the city units. As much as she knows about our procedures, she must know that."
"Let it go," the Conqueror said briefly. "There was no other waygiven her liking for booby traps, we had to check."
Kesseldine, the Conquerors Lieutenant of Archers, commented from his position to Xenas left. "Shes cost us another two candlemarks without doing a damn thing."
The sturdy blond Captain shook his head, looking at the bridge they and the Conqueror had just inspected from water level to road deck. "Shes insanethis is just so typical! The trail reads like a snakes back, she doubles and even triples back on herself! And that move with the wagons was nothing but a way to guarantee we keep following all the false trails, too. Then she leaves the bridge clean as an Athens street the day before the Bacchic Revels."
Xena just gave her Second a look. Inside she was fuming as hotly as he, but she couldnt afford to let it show. "Mount em up and send a runner back to get the wagon train moving."
Palaemon nodded absently, his angry face still flushed, and mounted his own horse. "Re-up!" he shouted to a sergeant, who began the passing of the order back along the column. Kesseldine saluted more formally and moved to the gray steppe horse he favored.
"Im headed to the rearguard," he reminded both his superiors, then, with a brief nod, he was off in a flurry of unshod hooves.
The Conqueror accepted her reins from the groom holding her horse and swung herself up onto the tall black stallion shed selected as a reserve mount. As she watched, fast-moving trios of the Imperial Guard began thundering across the wooden bridge in precise lines, a horse-length between each threesome. They blurred together as Xena allowed her thoughts to wander over the goal before her.
Callisto's trail did look like the coiled serpent Palaemon had compared it tocrossing, re-crossing, doubling back on itself until the track actually became marked by its outlandish inconsistency. It seemed as if the fleeing party was deliberately wasting time, taking the most indirect route, and the pursuit had passed beyond mere illogic into torture. It was clear that Callisto and her force were still ahead somewhere and they still held Gabrielle and Leandra. In a nameless huddle of huts some leagues back, Xenas trackers had learned that a group of merchants had passed through, selling onions and cabbages. The merchants struck the villagers as odd because they were far too heavily armed for such an ordinary cargo, and when the headman had offered to buy what was left of their goods, the merchants had agreed and traded the loaded wagons for five horses. The headman was still congratulating himself for such a shrewd deal: the wagons alone were worth three times the cost of the horses. Two blonde women, without weapons and dressed in ordinary clothes, he remembered, had been among the party.
That had been a day ago and, now, on day six of the pursuit, the Conqueror used to rapid operations and immediate results found herself more and more frustrated and impeded. The simmering anger that she forced herself to keep tamped down ate at her and, despite her restraint, boiled over frequently into tirades as the natural obstacles to moving a force this largetime, supplies, and communicationssabotaged her more effectively than Callisto ever could.
Long practice had honed the Imperial Guard to a lean, smoothly running wolf pack of an army. Xena's innovations, instinctive and simple, had pared it down to the essential elements: Scouts, Light Horse and Infantry, and Archers. Specialization, however, wasn't enough. Culled biannually from the regular armies of all the subject states, every warrior in the Imperial Guard, no matter his or her initial assessment or assignment, could, when called upon, do all the other assignments as well, or he or she failed to make the Guard altogether. Cross-training meant, in some cases, extra years for a soldier to move from regular army to Guard, but it also meant that Xena's strike force and shock troop could survive and succeed in any type of warfare against any type of enemy in any type of terrain.
An enormous weapon in battle, her "Four Hundred" became a hindrance in a footrace such as Callisto was leading her.
The bridge crossing was a perfect example. The Conqueror, idly controlling the impatience of the high-stepping black, calculated that the crossing would take another candle mark, followed by further delay as the pack train and the re-up mounts were brought across. She ground her teeth sub-audibly. This bridge provided the only crossing within 15 leagues large enough for 400 troops, pack train carrying food, armor and other supplies for said 400, and a herd of remounts for the same 400. But, knowing Callisto as she did, Xena had insisted on a thoroughgoing inspection of the bridge before a single man or mount had set foot upon it. She, Palaemon, and Kesseldine had checked ever brace and support and found them untouched; Callisto had managed to delay them simply by the possibility that she might damage the bridge, and the waiting while everyone and everything crossed worked on the Conquerors nerves as effectively as any booby trapthe last thing Xena needed right now was time to wait and worry and wonder.
She sighed without sighing and tightened the rein on the black, which seemed as desperately eager as she to race across the wooden planks and begin the long climb up out of the valley.
Telemachus of Ithaca, sergeant to Artemisia of Ilion, Lieutenant of Horse, appeared suddenly around the bend of the trail, riding hell for leather, but he pulled up and approached at a more cautious pace when he saw the Conqueror waiting on the near side of the bridge. Xenas eyes narrowed as she read his expression. Something had happened and, by his crest-fallen look, the young man, once crown prince of a now subjugated island, had hoped to face only her Captain of the Guard, not herself.
"Report," she ordered, forcing calm into her voice, though she could feel the adrenalin rush of impending anger.
Telemachus clashed fist to breastplate and chose a point over her left shoulder to which to address his news.
"Theres been an accident. A supply wagon has overturned about a league back. The driver was injured."
"And the horses?" Xena interjected.
"The squad was working to free the horses when I left."
"You were in command?"
"And you chose to come forward rather than stay and assure the condition of the horses?"
Grey eyes widened, but he kept from stammering. "Yes, Conqueror, I thought "
"There was your first mistake," Xena growled. "When youre given a command, you stay with it, Sergeant. Come Hades or high water, you stay there until whatever has gone wrong has been set right or until you need reinforcements, and even then its best to send someone else."
"Yes, Conqueror," Telemachus answered morosely.
Xena gave him a pitiless glare, her mouth set in a fierce frown. "Did you at least delegate someone to come tell us when things have been settled?"
"Yes, Conqueror," he nodded so quickly that his helmet strap pinged against his breastplate. "I ordered Leuco to report when the wagon rejoined the convoy."
"What exactly caused this accident, Sergeant?"
"Ummm," Telemachus colored deeply.
The question he didnt want asked, the Conqueror deduced.
"Ithat is, the wagon master seemed to be dawdling, Conqueror," he tried to nerve it out, "and II ordered them to step it up. When we entered the upper valley, however, the wagons accelerated and one of the drivers was unable to control his load on the steeper trail."
Xena examined him closely, letting long moments of silence stream out between them. Telemachus began to sweat.
"Let me get this straight," the Conqueror burred, unsurprised to see the young sergeant flinch at the low, rough tone. "You thought they werent making a fast enough pace, is that correct?"
He nodded eagerly, again pinging his breastplate with helmet strap. "Yes, Conqueror, they were poking along "
"And you told them to hurry it up, eh, Telemachus?" Her tone should have been enough warning, but the Sergeant seemed to be concentrating on holding up his end of the conversation.
"Yes, maam. I told them to... to move along more briskly."
"Have you ever driven one of the supply wagons, Sergeant?"
"Well, no, maam, but "
"And do you know how long the wagon master has been in my army, Sergeant?"
"Well, no, maam, but
"Arlosens been a wagon master longer than youve been alive, little boy," her voice started out in that same quiet, low snarl, but with each sentence it gained strength and clarity and the diamond cutting edge for which she was famous. "Further, hes managed to stay my wagon master through 12 years of campaigning all across the world. He knows to a hoof beat how hard a horse should be driven and how fast a supply wagon can travel on uneven ground. Hes brought my army through this particular pass somewhere on the order of 50 times, so he knows this road like the back of his hand. But you decide you know better and order him to speed up, an order Arlosen would never think to disobey, because youre certain in your infinite experience of pack trainsbased on the last three days of commanding onethat he can get more speed out of those horses, right?" She watched the dry-throated swallow that worked the tanned throat of the prince-turned-sergeant. "Right, Telemachus?"
"Heres a little command tip for you, Sergeant," Xena hissed nastily. "Let your people do their fucking jobs!"
Telemachus nodded jerkily, his face the red of fine Italian terracotta. "Yes, Majesty."
Xena settled more comfortably on the blacks broad back and tried to control the rage surging through her. A tongue-lashing was all Telemachus infraction deserved, but her anger taunted her, calling for blood, or least a beating, preferably administered by the Conqueror herself.
For a space, Xena wondered at her own nature. The rage still felt like a force outside herself, and for the first time in her recent memory, she wanted to fight it, to control it before it controlled her. She seemed torn between the woman she had been and some new person who had come into existence that night at Davidicus symposium when she had realized the true extent of her feelings for the small, blonde bard whom she had made her Imperial Secretary. Gabrielle had fitted herself into a spot in Xenas life that the Conqueror had not even realized was empty and in doing so she had prized away one of the most dearly held maxims of Xenas personal philosophy: Love is for the weak and the foolish. Gabrielles friendship had shown her a different side of love, but she still struggled to reconcile the two widely divergent worldviews.
"The vanguard has reached the head of the valley, Conqueror," a Guardswoman called from the eastern end of the bridge, diverting her from her meditative thoughts.
Xena acknowledged the report with an up flung hand and returned her attention to the waitingbut no longer endangeredTelemachus.
"Youll stay here until Leuco brings word of the progress, then I want you on that supply train like an extra lead rein," the Conqueror commented, voice chilly.
"Thy will," Telemachus acknowledged the order in a small voice, his eyes glued to his saddlebow.
The Conqueror sat her horse as if the stallion were a mere extension of her own impossibly long legs, and Leuco, eldest son of Peirisades, the regent of the Bosporan Kingdom and Scythia, and therefore a near centaur himself, envied her that ease. He saluted sincerely as he pulled up his own mount before the Conqueror and Telemachus of Ithaca.
"Report, Corporal," the Conqueror ordered, her eyes never moving from the troops still crossing the highway bridge. Her gaze never stopped assessing, searching, and Leuco knew from experience that this was a sign that her temper was barely in check.
"The supply wagon has been righted, Despoina," Leuco tried to keep his tone neutral. "A horse had to be put down, but the wagon master has the re-up in place. They've resumed their place in the convoy."
Leuco allowed his eyes to drift to Telemachus briefly. Telemachus was his immediate commander under Artemisia of Ilion, Captain of Horse, but Leuco felt no loyalty to him. They'd never been friends, despite the similarities in their situations-- both the heirs to kingdoms superseded by Xena the Conqueror. Telemachus had never failed to show his contempt for Leucos father, Peirisades, who had surrendered to the Conqueror without a fight, certain that he didnt have the resources to resist the Imperial Army.
The Ithacans, Telemachus made certain to point out whenever Leuco was near, had fought nearly to the last man before the Imperial Navy had bombarded their main stronghold to rubble. Ulysses, Telemachus father, had been killed in the fighting, yet another reason for the Ithacan to hate Leuco and his wiser, if not braver, father. Their simmering dislike had yet to spill over into violence, but the Bosporan had decided he would welcome the Telemachus' challenge, if it ever came.
Now, Leuco noted with some pleasure Telemachus' lingering flush and nervous tension. The Ithacan had probably just endured a stinging dressing down from the Conqueror, and Leuco, having just cleaned up the mess of the overturned supply wagon, felt it entirely deserved. Telemachus had been in charge, and hed bullied the wagon drivers into pushing the animals and, when an accident inevitably occurred, hed abandoned the command without a thought. Now, he'd be blamed for the loss of a horse as well. It couldnt happen to a more deserving fellow in Leucos opinion.
The Conquerors jewel-bright gaze also turned to Telemachus. "Get back there and make certain there are no more accidents, Sergeant. Your corporal can stay here with me."
Telemachus saluted woodenly and turned his horse toward the rear, riding swiftly out of sight.
"Have you sent word to your father, as I asked?" the Conqueror inquired, her voice smoothed of the chill contempt shed shown Telemachus.
"Yes, Conqueror," Leuco answered. "Gabrielle " he paused, feeling the swell of helpless anger that talking about the kidnapped bard always elicited, "Gabrielle helped me compile a list of questions for my fathers administration. I expect that the answer should reach Corinth any day."
Xena nodded. The summary of the Bosporan Kingdoms preparedness for war had been requested during one of the last strategy sessions held before the dinner party and kidnapping. An army travels on its stomach, Borias had always said, and making sure that the supplies were in place to fill that stomach was one of Xenas strengths as a general. The Bosporans would be one of the main grain suppliers, should Callistos gambit involve more than a few hundred of her malcontents. Gabrielle had invited Leuco to the meeting without needing the Conquerors prompting, and Xena thought of the bards central role in those strategy sessionsusually held in the big dining room beside the mess hallwith a pang of deep regret. Id like to have her input now, the Conqueror realized with some surprise. Shed give me some perspective on this Id never think of myself.
"Your father has been a solid ally," Xena told the young man with unaccustomed warmth. "I expect that you will be the same when you take his place."
Leuco gaped. "Despoina, when I joined the Guard, II renounced any"
"Yeah, yeah," Xena gestured shortly. "Well, I un-renounce you."
A flash of light or movement on the hillside above drew her lapis gaze as the Bosporan prince, heir to a kingdom once more, struggled to thank his liege.
"Conqueror, you do me too much honor. I am content to ."
A raised hand from the Conqueror halted him in mid-modest self-effacement, but by that time the sounds shed heard were clear to him as wellthe screams of men and horses. Xena was moving before Leuco finished identifying the sounds. The black, stretched to his fullest, crossed the bridge in three great leaps, and Leuco, booting his mount into motion, followed as quickly as he could, hearing the Conqueror bellowing orders over the mêlée coming from the hillside.
"Medics move to the front! Everyone else, form a defensive perimeter!"
Leuco stayed on her tail, certain only of his need to protect his leader. She spurred the black straight up through dense vegetation to the switchback above. She crossed three flat roadbeds, her horse now laboring under even her light weight, before the ravine became too steep.
"Form two lines," non-comms screamed, but the Conqueror muscled her way through the press of horses on the road before anyone could move and forced her mount around the next up-swinging corner. Leuco rode in the Conquerors wake, but jerked his horse to a hard stop as he too rounded the last corner.
A Tartarus of blood and gore blocked the way, seen like a dream through a mist of rock dust. Horses struggled to rise on shattered legs while men crawled or stumbled about the scene. Blood-spattered equipment lay scattered from the front lip of the roadway to the steep cliff wall that rose at the back. It looked like a holocaust on some misplaced altar of Ares obscured by the smoke of its own burning.
Nothing that met the eye in the haze made sense: here lay a womans leg and there a horses head, but nowhere were there any weapons. Not a single arrow or broken sword showed anywhere. Indeed, none of the dead had even drawn a weapon, yet it looked like a field of combat after an army had passed over. Other Guards stood in shock at the edges of the chaos that filled the straight stretch between this curve and the next.
"Form up below," Xena ordered the sergeant next to her, one of Kesseldines men, and heard the command taken up around her. The disarray of uninjured Guards and horses thinned gradually and across the forty paces of mayhem, Nevon, Palaemons First Lieutenant, took the initiative to order non-essentials further up the hill for a similar formation.
By that time, the Conqueror was down from her horse, sword out and bloody as she moved forward, killing suffering horses as she advanced. No one could triage injured soldiers with murderous hooves flailing, and several of the mounts were beyond any veterinarians aid. Leuco, still acting as his lieges bodyguard, dismounted and followed on foot.
The stench of spilled entrails mixed with the coppery splash of blood, and even the Bosporan prince, veteran of several pitched battles, tasted his own bile at the horrific stench.
"What happened?" Leuco heard his own voice ask.
Xenas eyes darted to and fro as she assessed the scene. "This is the steepest part of the climb. The roadbeds undercut on all three tiers above us."
Xena looked down at the dead Guardswoman at her feet. It was clear that the woman had fallen from above, as if the road, heavily burdened by the movement and vibration of the armed and mounted Guardsmen, had given way on its own, but her horse, also dead, had lost all four legs at about the hock. Not an injury typical of a fall.
The Conquerors thought returned to the moments before the first cries of pain and panic. On the hillside, there had been movement, caught by her hunters eye, but unclear until now.
"No," she answered Leuco automatically. "It looks like a landslide, but there was some trigger. I saw something just before this happened. A spark. A flash of something."
Palaemon appeared at the far end of the roadway, arriving in a rush of black leather and bay horseflesh. Moving with care, he picked his way between the groups of medics.
"This wasnt a landslide!"
"No," she agreed.
"The Guards higher on the hillside saw a rope or a cable slice through the group on the highest level of this section. They said it swept everyone down the hillside onto the troops below."
Xena nodded as her mind instantly put all the pieces together. "A modified trip-line, set up so that the rope was hyper taut, but hidden. The trigger releases the tension and the natural spring of the rope sends it slashing through everything in its way."
"The bitch!" Palaemons fair skin flushed to deep crimson, but his voice stayed surprisingly low. "She left the bridge alone and booby trapped the damned road!"
"Exactly," Xena agreed in icy self-condemnation. "She set the trap to do the most damage here, where we were all clumped together. A greater concentration of casualties. Wed checked the bridgenothing to hurt us thereand continue up out of the ravine without a single further precaution. We checked for the expected, but not for the unexpected and she took us out. Just like Corinth. Our own complacency gives her the upper hand again."
The two commanders shared a long intense look, and Leuco felt the danger implicit in the stare lift the hair on his nape.
"Ive got Scouts outside the perimeter," when Palaemon spoke again, it sounded almost calm, "looking for any sign of the triggermen. I sent a search cordon out, moving slowly through the woods in either direction, looking for anything that looks like the cable."
"Let me know when you find it, but Im needed here."
The Captain saluted and turned to find his horse. The Conqueror also turned, but to a much grimmer task. Leuco followed, unable, it seemed, to do anything else, as she stepped through the dead, seeking the wounded.
A few paces away, a Guardsman lay on the far side of his dead horse. The mans lower leg bent at an impossible angle from under the saddle skirt. Leuco saw with some relief that the soldier was unconscious.
"Help me get him out from under," the Conqueror ordered, and for the next little while, he was too busy acting as field nurse to his commander to even ponder the evil intent that had caused the injury and murder all about them.
The heat of mid-day seemed less here, up out of the narrow alleyways and humanity-packed thoroughfares. Here the noontime sun was filtered and diffused by awnings and banners; here the wind from the Bosporus actually reached the skin with cooling breezes and refreshing salt air. Here the reek of cooking food and sweating bodies and rotting nightsoil was overcome by the scent of sunlight and unencumbered sky.
Ixitor hated the city of Byzantium, hated the polyglot bazaars and the ancient ethnic quarters, hated the pretentious, Greek-style suburbs where the wealthy escaped the crime and the heat and the disease. He hated the constant, restless favor seeking of the court officials and the relentless huckstering of the traders. He hated the long, laden trains of camels and pack mules and horses that entered by every gate from sun up til sundown attended by shouting drovers of every skin tone from alabaster to ebony and disturbing the rest of even the most isolated neighborhood. He hated the smell and feel and taste of nearly everything in the timeless metropolis that bestrode the Golden Horn and connected Greece to Asia, a city more eternal than Rome itself, a city that would rule the world of trade and politics and prestige for millennia after Ixitor himself was dead and gone.
His hate for Byzantium, however, was outweighed by the other hate, the older, colder hate that drove him to live in a city which filled him with such loathing. For above all things, Ixitor hated one thing, one thing alone, one thing which was not a thing at all, but a woman, a woman who had pillaged, killed and burned all that Ixitor held dear, a woman who, unfortunately for Ixitor, ruled the city of Byzantium, who ruled, indeed, all of Ixitors world. Ixitor hated with a deep and abiding hate Xena the Conqueror.
But Ixitor was a man of special abilities, a man for whom hate was such a bone-deep constant that he could, without effort, conceal the hatred and a man to whom the outward world looked to perform a very special and very sensitive job. Ixitor of Byzantium had a way with birds, most importantly pigeons, and the pigeons housed at the Imperial Palace were among the most important birds in the Known World. Ixitor of Byzantium ruled the pigeon coops of the Imperial Palace of Xena the Conqueror, and, therefore, on some level Ixitor ruled Xena.
He came from Ambracia in Epirus, a riverside trading city near the Ionian Sea whose city fathers had surrendered readily when Xena the Conquerors army had swept down from Photice and Dodona to surround their piddling city wall. Xena had responded to that surrender with the arrogance of the Conqueror of Greece: charging them two weeks worth of supplies for not sending their surrender by messenger and saving her moving men and equipment the extra 45 miles to accept. Then shed marched off to the Illyrian Coast to settle matters there. Many Ambracians had opposed their city fathers decision, especially in hindsight and with no army camped outside the city walls, and a resistance movement had spread quickly, especially among the young nobles of Ambracia. Ixitor, already an established businessman dealing in fish from the Gulf of Actium, had not joined. He wasnt a noble, but a merchant, and a single ruler of Greece meant safer roads and fewer taxes for Ixitor.
But Androclius had joined. Androclius the fair, his fellow Ambracians always called him, and he was a fair young man, tall and handsome and red-golden blond, a true Achaean with a smile like Apollos sun.
Ixitor had loved Androclius from the moment hed laid eyes on the seventeen-year-old at the gymnasium where Ixitor was being educated by Androclius father. Shy, seven years older than Androclius, and a merchants son, Ixitor had never dared approach his young idol, but hed loved Androclius from afar for nearly ten years when Xena the Conqueror, in a lightning-strike raid, returned to put down the Ambracian Resistance by razing a quarter of the city and crucifying seventy-five of the "ringleaders," including Androclius, son of Stasanor the Rhetorician.
Ixitor lost his business because of the fires and because several of the dissidents, all friends of Androclius the fair, had been his employees. Forced by poverty and the retaliatory sanctions of the Conquerors tax collectors to leave Ambracia, Ixitor found work in Delphi, selling doves and pigeons for sacrifices at the Oracle. Delphi, as every Greek knew, lay a mere five miles from the Gulf of Corinth where once the port of Cirra had provided a home to many of the areas fisherman, once, before the arrival of Xena of Amphipolis.
In those years, like a restless ghost, Callisto often visited the ruins of her home, sleeping amid the burned out fishing huts, wandering the rutted streets that led nowhere. Nothing lived or moved in Cirra but Callisto, but even she had to eat and Delphis market gathered meat and produce and survivors of all sorts. Ixitor had been introduced to the revenge-obsessed young woman by two of the handful of other survivors of Cirra, and, within days, he had joined their cause.
Ixitor had first suggested his idea about the Conquerors pigeons during Callistos initial bid to kill Xena, but Callistos fiery confidence had allowed for no such subtle plotting. Callisto wanted only a chance to meet Xena in battle, to kill the killer of her family and her village; she cared nothing for the Empire that Xena had established. After Callistos defeat and reported death, Ixitor had moved to Byzantium. He hadnt known who would arise to smite the Conqueror, but he wanted to be in place to help the smiter in whatever way he could.
It was a simple enough idea.
The Conqueror used courier pigeons for the urgent business of her Empirewarnings of uprisings, news of disasters, calls to war all came through the pigeon coops of her great capitals via the valiant, far-flying pigeons exchanged by pigeon masters at points some 100-300 leagues apart. As an early warning system, it proved brutally efficient. The Imperial legions could be alerted in as little as five days by a call from 2500 Roman miles away, and all because a small, fast bird could fly 600 of those miles a day with a tiny scrap of paper in a bamboo tube attached to its leg, while a human messenger on horseback killed himself and his horse to make 70 miles a day, and a system of human messengers with stations every 10 to 15 miles could cover only 200 miles in their day.
However, no matter what distance the pigeons covered or which city they originated in, the messages they bore traveled through five great capitals Rome, Samarkand, Cairo, Athens, and Byzantium to be passed on to the Conqueror in whatever lesser city she was visiting. The pigeon masters of the great capitals controlled exactly which messages were entrusted to another winged courier and which were sent by boat or horse or runner.
A pigeon master could also decide which messages never got passed on at all and no matter how many troops Xena controlled within her Empire, no matter how quickly she was able to move those troops via horse or ship, she could not respond to a threat of war or rebellion if she never received the warning. Whoever controlled the passage of the carrier pigeons controlled the information that protected the Empires borders, the Empires integrity. And in Byzantium, northernmost capital of Eastern Asia, the lynchpin holding together the two halves of the Empire of Xena the Conqueror, the messages and the birds that carried them were controlled by Ixitor of Ambracia.
A flutter of wings from the south caught Ixitors eye and interrupted his gloating recollection of Callistos reaction when she had found him safely ensconced in the Imperial service at Byzantium upon her return from Chin after her miraculous resurrection. Here came one of his feathered charges now, on weary and uncertain wings. It was a second bird, a guarantor; hed intercepted the first message easily as a bird brought it in this morning near dawn, but every pigeon master sent two to ensure that the message made it despite storm or predators.
No one ever thought to worry about the other forms of destruction that could strike an important message, and that assumption had never wavered as Ixitor and Callisto gradually replaced three more of the most important pigeon masters in the Empireat Rome, at Athens, and at Cairowith men hand-picked to carry forward the plan for the destruction of that most hated of women, Xena the Conqueror. No one ever suspected the quiet, gentle pigeon masters, a little strange, a little obsessive about their birds, were in actuality the most dangerous soldiers in Callistos silent, secret army.
Ixitor raised a hand and the exhausted carrier landed heavily upon his palm, its tiny body quivering with each gasping breath. With amazing tenderness, Ixitor cradled the bird and removed the bamboo message tube so light to the human hand, so burdensome to the feathered messenger. He placed the pigeon in a sequestered cage, filling a water bowl and adding grain to the feed that awaited his charge. The pigeon cooed faintly and drank, then fluffed and settled, already closing its eyes for a well-deserved rest.
The message, because of the limited size of the parchment and the tube, was coded, but Ixitor, trusted because of his long service to the Empire at Byzantium, had been allowed to learn the codes and could read it easily. Besides, he knew what it said; hed decoded the mornings identical message.
"Parthia attacked. Chinese advance. 250,000 troops. Continued West 10 days ago."
Were he not the man he was, Ixitor would have immediately rushed to alert the Imperial garrison to the movement of Chinese troops toward their eastern borders. Were he not the man he was, he would have added a tick mark to the count of days since the troops continued West and, selecting two of his best pigeons, sent the message on to Athens for forwarding to the Conqueror, wherever she might be. But Ixitor was Ixitor of Ambracia and the Chinese troop movement was the stroke to smite the Conqueror for which he had long been waiting, long been watching, long been tending pigeons.
He took the rolled parchment to his cooking brazier under the white cotton awning behind the rows of pigeon coops on the roof of the Imperial Palace and smiling like a worshipper at the Delphic Oracle, he set the paper to burn upon his makeshift altar.
"For Androclius," he whispered as he had done hours before when he immolated the first message as well. "For Androclius the fair."
From atop the curtain wall where he walked with Hannraoi, Vercinix could see that the fortress of the Scordisci still hummed like an overturned beehive. For days, messengers, aboard lathered horses, and runners, sweat-stained and weary, had come and gone at every candlemark; armorers and blacksmiths had kept the forges clanging through the short summer nights; levies from the hinterlands of Scordisci territory had swarmed into the countryside surrounding the keep, their flocks and herds providing a mobile supply source for all the troops; and in every corner of the keep, fighting men and women still gathered in gesticulating knots to discuss the news that they would soon be marching to Greece.
Even Vercinixs own troops had become a part of the reckless excitement gripping the fortress. The Gaulish king well understood their eagerness. Huge battalions of Chinese had fought under Xena in the conquest of Gaul, turning the tide in a number of crucial engagements when her Greeks, Huns, and Eastern Europeans might have been overcome. The overwhelming numbers, coupled with the racial difference, had made the warriors of Chin an easy enemy to hate, and the chance to fight the faceless hordes again, this time with the luck and brilliance of Xena the Conqueror on their side, added a piquant taste of revenge to the preparations.
But convincing Hannraoi to mobilize his people hadn't been an easy task at the beginning.
"How do you know this is a true warning of rebellion?" the Chief of the Scordisci had demanded with typical lack of awe for his overlord. "How can you be so certain that the message meant what you say?"
Vercinix held his temper. "Trust me, Hannraoi, Ive met that particular snake and hed have just this kind of plan up his sleeve if he could find even the smallest power to work with."
"What makes you so sure?"
"I met him in the Altai a couple years ago," Vercinix explained. "The Conqueror had gone to meet with Lao Ma, a state visit, just to remind them who was boss, not that Lao Ma ever forgets. Ming Tien escorted her as her Warrior Princethe position she offered Xena so long agoand his arrogance was incredible. He deported himself as if he were Xenas heir instead of Lao Mas. He demanded deferential treatment, even in company with the other regents; he boasted of his tax profits and the skimming of the Imperial tithe that he did; he even bragged of his personal guards superiority to the Imperials. It was as if he felt himself to be untouchable."
"And the Conqueror allowed this?"
"He was careful of his words in her presence, but he watched her with the look of a bear dog who senses a weak link in his chain."
"And Lao Ma?"
Vercinix shrugged. "They say she is his mother. Before she married, she was a courtesan and his father, Ming Tzu, visited her often. If she had a child, a boy, he would have been given to his father to raise. No one knew that fortune intended Lao Ma to be a queen."
"Fortune is a whore," Hannraoi grumbled, "and at the moment she gives her favors without fail to the Conqueror."
"Some Fortune follows for love and not for a fee."
The big Scordisci shrugged. "If I had Ares for father "
"Hssst!" In spite of himself, Vercinix made the sign against the evil eye. "That rumour is best left in the dirt where you found it. Xena is no demi-god; She's as mortal as you or I, and I will wager you the Crown of the Celts that Ming T'ien is trying to be the one who kills Xena."
"What's it to us, King of the Celts, if the Chinese and the Greeks go to war? I say let the barbarians kill one another and leave us well out of it."
"A Celt turning down a war? The chance for loot and everlasting fame?" Hannraoi had the grace to return Vercinix's grin and acknowledge the accuracy of the barb. "If Ming T'ien brings the multitudes of Chin at his back," Vercinix continued, "we have no choice but to fight. They will overrun us like they did on the plains of Gaul under the Conqueror's command." He saw the thought on Hannraoi's broad visage and lifted a hand to halt it. "The difference is, she turned them back when we surrendered. Ming T'ien won't stop until he reaches Iberia and the Mare Atlanticum."
Hannraoi looked unimpressed. "So we trade one tyrant for another."
"Think about it," Vercinix cautioned. "What about our government has Xena changed? She learned from the Romans how best to keep a conquered country at peace. As long as we pay our tithes and our taxes, as long as our levies go to her army, she leaves us alone to rule ourselves as we always have done. I don't think Ming T'ien would allow us the same autonomy."
"But you are King of the Celts," Hannraoi argued, a bit facetiously. "You have the most to lose if a new Conqueror arises. For a lowly clan chief like myself, life might not change at all."
Vercinix didn't bother to dispute Hannraoi's deceptive self-definition. "True. I would lose my crown and probably my life, but you would lose more than that. You would face an army of occupation that numbers in the tens of thousands. You would be left alive, perhaps, to lead work gangs of your warriors to do the farming and fighting for a man who would make no effort to learn your tongue or honor your traditions. And whether you lived or died, your land would be given to others to farm and hunt, while your blonde children made exotic slaves in the land of Chin."
Both of the Scordisci's eyebrows shot up. "You are very certain of how things will be should Ming T'ien defeat Xena."
Vercinix nodded slowly, his expression stony. "I have seen the man and how he treats his people. Xena, occasionally cruel and ruthless as she is, seems a benign presence compared to this one. Believe me, Hannraoi, there are worse things in this world than bowing to Xena of Amphipolis."
Something of his sincerity must have made itself felt to his opponent, for Hannraoi, with the air of one making a sudden decision, nodded. "Very well, then. Let us do what we can to aid the Conqueror."
Overseeing the activities that followed that conversation, Vercinix felt a little overwhelmed by the speed with which the tribes aroused themselves. But as the days went by, he began to feel a fierce pride in his people, despite their earlier differences. The thought of warespecially a completely justified warhad smoothed away much of the tension between the Scordisci prince and his overlord. Hannraoi, warrior-bred for generations, saw the agile mind of the Gaul jump ahead in the planning of this campaign and learned a new respect for the man hed previously thought merely a puppet of the Conqueror. Vercinix, for his part, depended on Hannraois knowledge of his own tribesmen and their neighbors to guide his decision-making. Diplomacy, even in this seemingly black and white mobilization, could prevent unfortunate and possibly deadly misunderstandings later. Celts were among the most prideful of people, the King knew, and their neighbors the Triballoi of Thrace were even more concerned about personal honor, so care must be taken that none received even the ghost of a slight, for fear that the coalition would crumble before it was fully formed.
"The pigeon should have reached Corinth by now," Hannraoi was saying, pulling at the long blonde moustache that trailed down over his chin.
"Yes," Vercinix agreed, "and within a day or two, Mendala will also receive the message."
"You're certain that this is what the Conqueror will want? A total mobilization of the Celts? Most rulers would be alarmed by that many soldiers on the move at one time; especially soldiers of a province that took so much effort to conquer. It might make most rulers worry that a rebellion was afoot much nearer to home."
Vercinix merely smiled at Hannraoi's attempts to rile him. Time and consideration along with repeated discussions with Hannraoi had made the King only more confident of his assessment of this threat.
"Xena is not most rulers, as you well know. If Ming T'ien is moving toward Greece-- and we have only this messenger as warning that he is-- Xena will want to meet him halfway, take away his element of surprise, and his numerical superiority."
"She gets to choose where she fights him, too," Hannraoi allowed.
Vercinix's smile turned wolfish and he quoted, "Sun Tzu said,
'Generally, the one who first occupies the battlefield awaiting the enemy is at ease;
the one who comes later and rushes into battle is fatigued.
those skilled in warfare move the enemy,
and are not moved by the enemy.'"
That brought a smile to the Scordisci's face as well. "You and that damned barbarian philosopher. I suppose the Conqueror quotes him as well?"
"Where do you think I learned it?"
"Very well, King of the Celts, you can explain to your philosopher Queen when she asks why the entire Celtic homeland looks to be under arms. I, for my part, will be playing the poor servant of a foolish overlord if she asks why I marched on Greece with the hordes of Scordisci, Triballoi, and the allied tribes at my back. Perhaps she'll only kill me for following orders and not crucify me for fomenting rebellion."
There is no greater sorrow than to recall a happy time in the midst of wretchedness.
Dante Alighieri The Divine Comedy.
"Come on, Gabrielle. Just do it."
"But I'm afraid I'll hurt you."
That got her a smirk and a raised eyebrow.
"Fine," she grumbled and turned away, readying herself again.
Xena approached so silently that even though the bard expected the arms that grabbed her from behind, she still lost an instant to surprise. Then her left foot stomped into her captor's instep even as her right elbow struck for the solar plexus. She might as well have elbowed a column on the Parthenon for all the weakness she found in Xena's midriff, but Xena faked her injury well and bent double, arms grabbing her stomach. As she'd been taught, Gabrielle whirled and aimed a roundhouse kick at her assailant's head.
Xena blocked it at the last instant, but Gabrielle knew from the warm glow in the Conqueror's eyes that she'd executed the moves perfectly.
"Good," Xena praised. "You went full out, just like you'll have to if you're ever caught that way. You're doing very well."
Her secretary smiled and blushed. "I appreciate your taking time to teach me yourself, Xena," she said, not for the first time, and received the usual noncommittal shrug, but this time Xena addressed the comment.
"I want you to be able to handle yourself. In case I'm not there," the Conqueror revealed.
Gabrielle gave her a surprised look. "But you you will be there, right?"
Xena quirked a grin, "I'll do my best."
Gabrielle sighed as she tried to hold that image in her mind: Xena, happy, teasing, near. She knew a moment of real fear that she might never again get to see that smile or those amazingly gentle eyes. It struck cold into her very soul and she forced herself to shake off the doubt. Xena will come for us, she told herself firmly. There was simply no other way to think.
Self-defense training had flown out the window the night she'd been kidnapped. She had been seized from behind just as she and Xena had simulated, but her mind, focused on the Conqueror's valiant fighting, had failed to signal her own body to resist. Just as Xena had warned her it would, the rush of fear, though not for herself, had frozen her.
Xena ought to be disappointed with me, she told herself feeling a wash of guilt, but recalling Xena's face, Gabrielle couldn't call the look she'd seen disappointment. If I had fought as Xena taught me, I might be with her now, helping her rescue Leandra, instead of being a hostage myself.
That thought, however, brought a different sort of guilt: How much more awful it would be for Leandra if she were alone in Callisto's clutches. It seemed many times that the only thing that kept them going was the support of each other. During the day, they rode close together, with Leandra coaching the inexperienced Gabrielle on her riding. At night, despite the taunts it drew, they'd begun to sleep huddled together. Both had suffered nightmares; just the night before, Gabrielle had soothed Leandra back to sleep with a tale.
"Tell me a story," Leandra had implored, voice still rough with tears.
"What do you want to hear?"
"Tell me a story about lovelove against impossible odds."
Gabrielle sighed, recalling the story of Orpheus and Euridyce, which she had spun out for Leandra. As she had hoped, the other woman had fallen asleep before she got to the ending of the tale and the failure of the lovers to be reunited
The sigh drew Leandra's attention and she turned to face Gabrielle.
"Why aren't you sleeping?" The slave whispered.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Just thinking."
Leandra seemed to know exactly where Gabrielle's thoughts had been.
"Xena will come for us," Leandra whispered the promise that Gabrielle had used to comfort the slave days earlier and herself mere moments before. "You know she will."
"I know she'll come for you," Gabrielle smiled. "She loves you."
Leandra frowned a little. It was so like Gabrielle to avoid her own fear by offering comfort, but Leandra wondered if the misdirection wasn't a way of avoiding the truth. For some time, Leandra had known the truth of Gabrielle's feelings for Xena, even if the bard didn't wish her to; but, more importantly, Leandra also knew what Gabrielle did notthat Xena returned those feelings.
"Gabrielle, I am the Conqueror's property. She doesn't love me. I am something she owns which another has stolen."
Gabrielle's mouth opened to deny Leandra's assessment, but the slave reached out and touched her lips with a fingertip.
"No, little sister, listen to me. I would be a fool to believe Xena loves me. I am a slave, nothing more; pleasurable in bed, but easily replaced. I know the Conqueror must come for me or lose face before her armies and her people. She must punish those who insulted her honor by taking me." Leandra smiled at Gabrielle's fierce frown. "But you, little sister, are something else again."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked, taking Leandra's hand away so she could speak.
Leandra freed her hand from the bard's grasp and moved it instead to stroke Gabrielle's hair away from her cheek.
"You know she loves you, Gabrielle," Leandra whispered gently.
An urchin's grin met her uncertainty. "You know Xena loves you."
"She-- she thinks of me as a friend," the bard stammered, cheeks flushing.
Leandra raised her eyebrows, eyes tenderly piercing. "And you? Do you think of her as a friend?"
A shrill whistle from one of the perimeter scouts saved Gabrielle from answering. The two hostages' eyes met and neither was reassured by the fear she saw in the other's gaze. Around them, the camp came to silent alertness. Soldiers drew swords and took positions wordlessly, waiting for whatever the whistle had warned them of. Leandra clutched at Gabrielle's hand, wide-eyed in the darkness.
After a long moment, hooves could be heard approaching, and then three riders burst through the night-darkened foliage. In the center rode Callisto.
The bard, having not seen Callisto since the night of the dinner party, had forgotten the magnetic force of her presence. Every eye in the camp followed her as she dismounted and handed her reins to the waiting horseman. She moved gracefully and concisely as if every gesture, every movement had been thought out beforehand. Her beauty, though tainted by the madness clearly visible in her eyes, was undeniable, and yet it was equally clear that she was a warrior, complete in the skills of arms and war.
In a flash of insight, Gabrielle recognized the similarities between Callisto and the woman the Cirran hated to the point of undying obsession. Women forced out of their traditional roles by war and suffering, both had set themselves to be the best. Both had lost those closest to them and had taken out their pain and anger on the world. Both sought dominance and power: Xena to conquer the world and Callisto to conquer Xena. Unsettled by the comparison, Gabrielle moved closer to Leandra, trying to avoid the wild brown eyes of the maniac who had stolen them, but the blonde warrior made no move toward either hostage. She ate a hastily prepared meal, and then disappeared into the tent erected for her with Theodorus in tow.
"Sleep," Leandra whispered when nearly a candlemark had passed without further sign of either of the warriors. "With her back, we're going to need all the rest we can get."
As she settled into her friend's embrace, Gabrielle acknowledged the wisdom of what Leandra said, but she also knew she had too much to think about to sleep this night.
There is the path of fear and the path of love.
Which will we follow?
The ninth day of their search dawned and the trail, if indeed they could be said to still be following a trail, narrowed into a series of winding traverses among the watercourses and woody ravines of the eastern hills. Callistos standard perversity showed in the choice of routes: Just a league or two to the west, the roads and hills flattened into the broad, grain-growing plain of Greeces breadbasket, Thessaly proper. Here, however, each stadia of ground had to be earned from the thick forest and steep track and the pace was slow and as mentally tiring as physically strenuous.
The bitch, the Conqueror growled in the vaults of her mind.
Xenas fury and anxiety warred night and day for supremacy over her emotions, but her outward demeanor, by force of iron self-control, remained impervious. Weakness, like the recurring nightmares and the skin-prickling unease that had plagued her since theyd entered Thessaly, must not be revealed to her troops. The Imperial Guard, even under the unquestioned loyalty of a Captain like Palaemon, was still the likeliest source for a coup attempt, and the slightest hint of uncertainty or untoward emotion on her part might give some ambitious would-be usurper ideas about forming his or her squad mates into a possible new regime.
Just what I need right now, Xena thought with bitter cynicism, some half-assed assassination attempt by some jumped-up corporal with delusions of grandeur. So she kept even tighter rein on her reactions and even more distance than usual between herself and her troops.
As a war machine, the Guard was invincible. In encounters since the Guard was completed, Xena had never lost a battle, had never even retreated on the field. Having them around her now was akin to carrying a god-given talisman that ensured success. Nevertheless, she couldnt escape the tension that seemed to rise up to her from the very ground of Thessaly.
It didn't really feel like mutiny: she'd learned to practically smell treachery having faced so much of it in her years as a warlord. Instead, something nagged at the back of her mind like a dull headache or a detail she couldnt quite grasp. It seemed to have to do with Gabrielle, with the nightly dreams she was having, she thought, concentrating on the vague whispers just beyond hearing
The shout yanked her back to the present and she drove Argo forward to meet the scout.
"Report," she snapped.
"Weve found something. Bout a league ahead," the Thracian scout, Sergeant Jannika, gasped out, reining in her lunging mount. "Darnells way out front somewhere. We think youd better come take a look, Majesty."
Xena glanced back at the winding file of men behind her. Palaemon had dropped back to rearguard, but Kesseldine was within sight. She shot him a hand signal for "Hold and form up." The big, bluff Altai mountaineer acknowledged it immediately and she rode off behind Jannika even as he began passing the order back the line.
What theyd found was a worn and rickety crossroad signpost on a road that could have been mistaken for a goat track. "Pharsalus" read the left sign, indicating the westward track, in barely legible letters of a script that had fallen out of use two generations earlier; "Thebae" spelled out the other. From each of the signs, an Imperial message bag hung.
"We didnt touch anything, Conqueror," Jannika hastened to assure her as soon as Xena dismounted alongside the miniscule squad of trackers and scouts.
"Have any of you ridden or walked down either track?"
"No, Majesty," their answers cascaded uniformly around her.
She nodded shortly and walked slowly forward, eyes scanning every foot of ground and blade of grass. One rider had brought the bags, she saw, judging by the cluster of identical hoofprints around the base of the post, but the group accompanying him had split, each following a separate direction, and he had joined the contingent headed toward Thebes.
Moving cautiously and afoot, the Conqueror traced each path away from the crossroads. When each track cleared on the underused "highway," it became clear that one group was smaller and that two of its horses bore light loads. She didnt for one moment believe any of the trail signs, given Callistos history of skilled trickery, but Xena let the information "stew" while she went on about the business of reading the trail.
Palaemon thundered up as she strode back from the road leading to Pharsalus, and she motioned him forward.
"Ive been over it," she called. "Get those bags down."
Using his knees to control the big bay, her Second handed down each satchel, and then dismounted.
"They're light," he commented as he took one of the small, triangular packs so that she could open the other.
Xena's hand came back from the depths of the satchel holding a wad of heavily embroidered maroon silk and the two of them shared a look. Palaemon recognized the material that they'd both last seen decorating the curves of the Conqueror's bed slave. His stomach plummeting, he scrabbled open the bag he held, but Xena forestalled him, reaching past him and drawing out the gossamer-like midnight blue of Gabrielle's evening gown. Now the Conqueror's balefire gaze stabbed into his.
"Which bag was on which sign?" she asked in a tone like raked coals.
"Th-this one was on the right," he held the bag up like a shield.
The Conqueror looked down at the two garments, aware of a building tidal wave of agony within her. No! her mind shrieked. No!
"It looks like she's going to make me choose," she commented, rich voice still rough and tightly controlled.
"But you can't " Palaemon let the comment trail off, aware he'd overstepped a boundary.
"Get the troops," she ordered, turning away from him and stuffing both dresses into the satchel she held.
"Conqueror," he was unable to contain himself, "you can't split our force."
"Get the troops," she hissed, cutting off his coming protest.
He remounted stiffly and galloped off, leaving her alone at last. The scouts and trackers had faded into the covering woods like ghosts once they'd seen the Conqueror's reaction to the discovery of the dresses, and Xena felt a surge of relief at their self-protective discretion.
She wanted nothing more than to be alone at this moment; alone to be silent and still and grieve as she wanted; alone to curse and wail and cry as she longed to do. Pain like shed felt only a few times in her lifeLyceus death, MLilas murder, Solans birththreatened to drive her to her knees, and, for perhaps the first time in her life, Xena wasnt sure she wanted to fight. Giving up, admitting defeat, might mean Callisto would release the girls She allowed the thought a moment of seductive supremacy.
But there was still a troop of 400 possible usurpers a league or less down the trail, and whatever else she might be, Xena was not a quitter. Instead, under the avid eyes of her troops, the Conqueror would have to out-guess and out-maneuver a madwoman who held the life of her beloved and her bed slave in the palm of her hand.
Her old friend, Anger, reared up from the tangled heap of her emotions and Xena seized the familiar and pain-deadening feeling of rage. She fought best in anger, she reasoned, and she was fighting now for two lives as well as her empire.
"Don't fail me now," she whispered to the red-black darkness that had guided her for so long.
A candlemark after the discovery of the dresses, the Conqueror's tent had been erected for the hasty command meeting. Xenas steward brought in the meat and meal, traditional fare of her campaigning forces. Though the recipes might change, communal platters of beef and rice or chicken and bulgur had laden every table this tent had ever held. Fifteen years before, the Conquerors home village had been attacked by Cortese and his raiders, and nearly fourteen of those years she had spent under wool, not wood, eating the ration of a common soldier alongside others of the same ilk.
Compared to the usual group of Imperial officers that gathered at the Conqueror's table in Corinth, this group was small: Palaemon ate at her left, as befitted his position as Captain of the Guard, with Nevon, his First Lieutenant beside him and to Nevon's left sat Tuava of Carthage, Lieutenant of Infantry. To the Conqueror's right, seated a bit further away because of her own nervousness over the supply train incident, was Artemisia of Ilion. Beside her was Leuco, promoted just two days before to sergeant after the punitive demotion of Telemachus and called to the meeting at Artemisia's discretion. Beyond Leuco was Wan Li, now assuming his role of field surgeon, and Kesseldine of the Archers. At the table's foot his accustomed place sat Darnell, chief of the Scouts.
The meal, a military one and not a social one, went quickly and quietly.
Not one of Gabrielle's nightly suppers, the Conqueror told herself as the servitors began to clear the dirty dishes, irony tingeing her thoughts. Those were never quiet.
Even the first of them, organized hastily when mealtime had found them in the midst of a huge discussion about new troop deployments in Anatolia and Armenia, had been marked by its share of liveliness, most of it caused by Gabrielle. The Conqueror allowed herself a momentary indulgence in the memory:
"Conqueror, I swear it-- that time it was Leuco's stomach, not mine."
The Bosporan Greek reddened attractively and laid a hand over his washboard flat abdominals. "I must confess, it was, Despoina," he admitted shamefaced. "It's been a long time since mid-day."
Xena frowned, looking around at the fifteen men packed into her chamber. They all wore rueful agreement in their expressions.
"Are you implying Im starving you?" the Conqueror inquired, watching all their eyes drop hastily. Her eyes met the cool, jade green ones of her secretary, which didnt hesitate to hold her look.
"Yes," Gabrielle said brazenly.
Against her will, Xena felt her lips curl, and, when the hardened soldiers sneaked amazed looks at the small blonde facing her, the Conqueror couldnt hold back a laugh.
"Then get the food ordered, bard. What else do I have a secretary for?"
Unrestrained laughter met her announcement of surrender, and Xena felt the kind of camaraderie in the room that had marked her first attempts at forming an army, a common purpose and teamwork that had been missing from her command for years, though shed not been aware of the lack until this moment.
The laughter and good fellowship that had marked those dinners in Corinth had vanished along with the hostages and Callisto, and, with a tiny shake of her head, Xena banished the memory as well and turned to the matter at hand.
She rose as the last plate was cleared and spread the maps across the table. Pieced together with the help of everyone, the four large vellum documents gave a detailed survey of the area between Thermopylae in the south and Pynda in the north from the border of Epirus to the Chalcidician shore.
"Palaemon, I want you to swing north towards Pharsalus," she drew a large sweep across the map with the tip of a finger. "She expects us to split, so be careful. She may have more snares set."
The blonde Captain swallowed hard, but spoke past his fear. "I don't agree with the idea to split the Guard. It doesn't "
"This is not a democracy," Xena interrupted. "I don't ask for a quorum vote. I gave you an order."
"As Second in Command, I'm obligated to object, to offer an alternative."
Xena folded her arms across her chest. "Shes separated Leandra and Gabrielle. Just how do you propose to be in two places at once?"
"We have no real proof she separated the girls."
"No, but we have no proof that she didn't. You volunteering to explain to either Leandra or Gabrielle why we chose to follow only one trail?"
That silenced him for a long moment and Xena resumed her explanation. "She expects it, but I intend to use the division to our advantage. Send a runner to Larisa and scramble more troops. Short patrols, lots of visibility. Pomp and circumstance. I want to make her think we're in one place when we're in another. Meantime, the two halves of the Guard can be moving around her, circling. Well meet up again in Larisa in three days. It shouldnt take that long, but I want us moving quickly, drive her forward, maybe catch her if we can."
"Conqueror," Palaemons face bore a flush, but he didnt sound completely chastened, "is it really wise to do as she wishes?"
"If it keeps the hostages safe, yes," Xena looked around the table at the intent faces of her command team. "She'll have calculated on my halving the troops. But she cant calculate how quickly we can move outward. If we can get ahead of her, we may be able to trap her between us."
Unexpectedly, Leuco spoke up. "Won't she kill them if we trap her?"
"No," Xenas voice held that dangerous edge every one of them recognized. "Not unless she's certain I'm there to watch.
A moment of shocked silence followed. Perhaps until then the Imperial commanders had never understood how deep Callistos hate ran, nor how well their sovereign understood it. The Conqueror was visibly furious, but so controlled that all of them feared breaking the silence again.
After a deep breath, Xena continued. "Send word to Corinth that I want a ship off Amphipolis-- The Lion by choice, but another ship if it can get there quicker. If we cant get around her first, lets use her own momentum to drive her into our net at Amphipolis. Then well see if she comes out alive this time."
The finality in the Conquerors voice sent shivers up more than one spine despite the warmth in the felt-walled tent.
Autolycus of Corinth was a troubled man. His ruler had departed 10 days before, chasing a mad, murderous outlaw, taking with her the cream of the Imperial Army as well as her own inimitable presence and authority, and now all Tartarus was breaking loose.
"Theyre doing what?!" hed screeched at his second in command mere hours ago when Iolaus had brought in the first reports.
"Vercinix has sent the Red Branch out to all the Celts and Hannraoi an others are collecting levies and supplies," Iolaus repeated unnecessarily. "The Thracian borders are restless, but letters of non-aggression have gone out to all the Western tribes. It seems Vercinix and company are calling everyone to arms, not just the Celts."
Added to the continued silence from Rome, the report of Celtic troop movement constituted a crisis ten times the size of any the Conqueror had anticipated in her frenzied briefing session the night of the abductions. The Conqueror had imparted plans for various scenarioshow he should respond to further Persian tax payment refusals; how he might face down renewed legal arguments from Romebut at no time had she offered any advice on how to face the mobilization of 50,000 probably hostile Celtic troops. The Western half of the Empire seemed poised for a mass rebellion just when the Conqueror was moving east in pursuit of Callisto.
"Just because Im paranoid doesnt mean the two things arent related," Autolycus muttered to himself.
What would Xena do?
Impose a naval blockade on the Italian peninsula. Lead the Sicilian legions to besiege Rome. Ride out to meet the Celts. Call up the IV Scythian to check the grain tax protest in Persia.
None of these were viable options for him, tethered to Corinth like a sacrificial lamb by the pigeon post he couldnt leave unattended. The Conqueror had ordered him to stay in Corinth, so his only option lay in scouring his spy networks for information and sending complete, concise reports on to the Conqueror.
While the pursuit remained in Greece, Autolycus would have no trouble keeping Xena as informed as if she were with him at the center of his web in Corinth. If she ventured much further east, though, the logistics became a hardship
It made no difference, the King of Spies told himself decisively. He had let the Conqueror down with Darphus and Davidicus, but she had given him a second chance. He would do everything in his power to keep from letting her down again.
Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up her fellow: but woe to her that is alone when she falleth; for she hath not the other to help her up. Again, if two lie together then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?
Late in the afternoon, they halted, and Gabrielle sank nearly to her knees as she was pulled from her mount. Behind her, Leandra called out softly as she too collapsed, but guards on either arm pushed the two women through the underbrush to the back door of a small building. The interior proved it to be a temple of some sort, but Gabrielle didnt have much time for analysis, for in the center of the temple floor, Callisto stood waiting. Theodorus, smiling his usual vacantly malicious smile, stood at her side. Callisto had studiously ignored the hostages since she'd rejoined the group two nights ago, but Gabrielle could see that their luck had run out. All the malice and mania of Callisto's dark brown eyes focused on the two young women before her now.
A young man stepped from behind the altar, a lighting spill in his hand. He moved with the confidence of one at home in the temple, yet he didnt seem to fit within its careworn facade. His sandy hair bore no traces of a tonsure and his robes, though travel-worn, were not those of an acolyte of Asklepius. His face, however, seemed to offer a clue to his religious devotion, for a narrow scar, like a line of red ochre, writhed from his right temple to the opposite jaw line, flawing a face once boyishly handsome. To Gabrielle, however, the scar told another, far darker story.
"Hippocrates!" The bards gasp held a spectrum of emotion: relief, shock, fear, affection, and, most of all, shame.
"Yes, indeed," Callisto congratulated her. "Good old Hippocrates, one of your little Resistance chums from Corinth. Now, isnt this a pleasant surprise?" Not waiting for an answer, Callisto turned to leave. "I promised you a reunion, Hippocrates, and here you are. You guard these two while Theodorus and I make some arrangements."
The man nodded silently, still staring at Gabrielle with a shuttered expression. The warrior looked at her captives a moment, and then leaned close to smile into Gabrielles flashing eyes.
"It might be tempting, bard, to try and get your old friend here to free you, but I promise: if you escape, hes going to take a looong time to die. You dont want that on your conscience, now do you?"
Gabrielle glared, but finally forced her eyes away from the soulless brown of Callistos dead gaze. A short nod and she turned away, looking at neither the warlord nor the young man. Leandra lifted a hand and touched the bards shoulder.
"Now that we have all that straight " Callisto smiled and strode back out the temples main door.
A loaded silence followed, then the man called Hippocrates blew out the lighting spill and laid it on the edge of the altar. He turned toward the inner parts of the temple. "We might as well wait comfortably in my chambers. Shes liable to be a while."
Gabrielle and Leandra trailed after him, the bed slave trying very hard not to look inquiringly at her fellow hostage. A friend from Corinth, but one Gabrielle had never visited, nor even mentioned. Leandra couldnt help being intrigued. She had a good guess why the Imperial Secretary had avoided the young man, and it revolved around the complex, even on some level unbelievable, relationship that Gabrielle had with the Conqueror.
Hippocrates came from the time in Corinth before Gabrielles crucifixion, and Leandra knew that Gabrielle did not much discuss that life. It was as if the prison door that had closed behind her at her capture had been the entrance to a completely new life. In spite of herself, Leandra couldnt help her interest in this glimpse into her friend and rivals past.
Down a set of stairs behind the altar, a small apartment was laid out, decorated with discreet samples from the donations to the popular temple. Fine tapestries kept out the chill of the subterranean walls and other rich furnishings were tastefully arranged to make an atmosphere quite cozy and welcoming.
Gabrielle looked around, her expression agonized. "This was where he lived, wasnt it?" she asked.
Hippocrates, mixing wine for the three of them, stiffened, and then turned. "Yes, this was where Galen lived. Democritus and I had pallets there in the kitchen."
Leandra, glancing between the two silent figures, finally asked. "Who was Galen?"
"Ask Gabrielle," Hippocrates replied, returning to the wine.
"Galen was Hippocrates teacher in the healing arts," Gabrielle answered, crossing her arms protectively over her midriff and looking up at the ceiling, trying to conceal tears. "He was in charge of this temple to Asklepius "
"Until she killed him," Hippocrates cut in.
Leandra knew he didnt mean Gabrielle. Her emerald eyes went to the misty green ones of her friend. "Xena," the slave confirmed.
"She and her army were suppressing the Mitoans and the Thessalians, who were fighting amongst themselves," Hippocrates explained, declaiming like a lawyer, or a politician, with an ornate goblet in each hand. "She stopped for supplies and to leave her wounded. Galen had us carry one of the men to the altar, to pray for Asklepius help in healing him. It was the only way we knew to help one so badly injured." He handed Leandra her wine, revealing tortured eyes beneath the fringe of overlong hair. "She stormed in to see how the Guardsman fared and grew furious that no one had sought to stop the bleeding. Only Asklepius could do that!" The interjection came in a tone of innocence betrayed. "When she turned to Galen and he offered her the explanation, that the only sensible method ." He stopped, his voice choking to an end.
"She killed him," Gabrielle finished flatly.
"Yes! She cut him down, right before the altaran old man, a healer! When I tried to intervene, to save him, she gave me this." He gestured to the twisting scar across his face.
Leandra laid a hand on Gabrielles folded arms, squeezing gently, but Gabrielle turned away, seating herself wearily on a padded bench sitting against one wall.
"What are you doing back here, Hippocrates?" she asked.
Leandra, sensing the disturbance in her friend was far from over, seated herself beside the bard and watched the angst-ridden expression on the acolytes face.
"Where else was I supposed to go?" he asked indignantly, offering the bard her wine. He seemed to have regained some control with the question and he sneered at Gabrielles downcast head. "It was worth more than my life to stay in Corinth. The Resistance fell to pieces once we lost our leader and soon others began disappearingjust as your body disappeared from the Crucifixion Field of the Conqueror."
Gabrielle opened her mouth, looking up at him, but refrained from answering and looked down again. It seemed to only infuriate the young man more.
"You sold us!" He hissed. "You told her everything, didnt you? The Imperials took twelve men and women from their homes the next night. Three of them never returned. Those who did live have the scars and injuries and the nightmares to this day! You might as well have killed them yourself when you gave them to that monster!"
Gabrielles head snapped up. "Shes not a monster! And she didnt order those people taken. Darphus had the Resistance leaders rounded up; he was the one who tortured them. XeThe Conqueror arrested only one man, and he was a double agent working for Darphus: Rexel, who attended that meeting at Sargus shop, Rexel, who arranged for Joxer to be killed."
"Joxer! That idiot set fire to a tax booth and got caught in the act!"
"He was set up by Rexel," Gabrielle disagreed. "Rexel talked him in to setting the fire and then sent Darphus to catch him. They were using the capture as a distraction. They gave the Conqueror two Resistance fighters and two huge public trials and executions in order to keep her from finding out about Callistos plans."
"Callisto is on our side!" Hippocrates exclaimed. "She wants to bring down that tyrant as fervently as you once did."
Gabrielle shook her head wearily. "She wants Xena brought down alright, but shes on no ones side but her own. Callisto is not one of us, Hippocrates. She only wants to kill Xena out of her own lust for revenge." She pushed a hand through her tangled hair, wishing she could reach the idealistic young healer. "Callisto promises everyone support, but she is only in it for herself. She killed Darphus, in spite of all his maneuvering on her behalf."
"Darphus nearly betrayed us all," Hippocrates snapped. "He had to die."
Gabrielles eyes searched the face of her former friend and found little to recognize. Hippocrates had never been among the violent or bloodthirsty in the Resistance. He had always sought a peaceful solution, just as she had. Surely, the healer hadnt changed so completely in the six months theyd been out of contact.
"She killed Davidicus as well, Hippo," the bard offered. "He lured the Conqueror into her trap and thats how she thanked him. Shell kill you when shes gotten everything she wants from you."
Hippocrates looked from one to the other in disbelief. "Davidicus died at the hands of the Guard the night of the symposium."
"No," Leandra put in. "I saw Callisto stab him with her own sword."
Gabrielle nodded when Hippocrates turned back to her. "She did."
"Like I would believe a single word from you now," he huffed. "Youre nothing but a traitor. You gave us up to save your skin and now youre as much the Conquerors creature as this little pallakai here."
"Im not the Conquerors pallakai," Leandra offered calmly.
"Concubine, slave, whatever she chooses to call you," Hippocrates made an impatient gesture.
"I am a free woman," Leandra announced.
Gabrielles head snapped around.
"The Conqueror freed me the night of the symposium," Leandra continued, smiling at the dumbfounded bard.
Tears of happiness, completely out of context with the present situation, glittered in Gabrielles eyes, but Hippocrates angry voice drove them away.
"No one can call herself free while that harpy sits on the throne," the one-time healer spat out. "To pretend otherwise is ridiculous! Gabrielle, you knew that too onceyou called for her death, for her overthrow..."
"No," Gabrielles voice was low, but strong, "I never called for Xenas death. I wanted reform; I wanted power for the people of Corinth and Greece; but I never wantedIll never want Xenas death." She drew a shuddering breath, surprised, perhaps, at her own vehemence, but she finished the thought, "And Ill do everything in my power to keep her from being killed."
"Youve been bewitched!" Hippocrates threw up his hands. "Shes cast some sort of spell on you."
"No, Hippocrates," Gabrielle insisted, "I simply realized the truth: The Conqueror is our rightful ruler. She conquered Greece, and Rome, and all the Known World, and our pitiful little resistance group didnt have a snowballs chance in Tartarus of overthrowing her." The bard shook her head, still amazed that she too had once believed things so simple. "We would never have succeeded, Hippo. And, the real truth is, we shouldnt have." Gabrielle caught his wounded dark eyes in her own tourmaline gaze. "Shes a decent ruler, Hippo, not the greatest. Yet. But shes far better than any of the alternatives, believe me. She is impartial and fair, if not merciful. And now that Im in her householdnow that Im her secretaryIm finding out that shes not unreachable or irrational. Shes changing her rule; shes listening to what I say. Shes becoming a better sovereign every day shes on the throne."
Hippocrates struggled not to be moved by the bards sincerity. "Oh, of course. Now that youre there, how could she not change? Dont fool yourself, Gabrielle, because you dont fool me."
"There hasnt been a raid on the Corinthian Resistance since she returned from Rome, has there?"
"N-no, but "
"And the Academy of Performing Bards is still open, in spite of their recent smear campaign against the Conqueror?"
"Well, yes, but "
"Xena demoted Darphus the day before they left for Rome, Hippo. He was the one sending the secret police and the Guard after us. And she chose not to round up any of the bards the Academy sent out because I advised her not to. Three days after she came back from Rome, she repealed all the death warrants against Corinthian Resistance fighters. I wrote the order myself."
He gaped like a fish stranded on dry land. "But but "
"It may take time," Gabrielle continued, "but Xena is listening, and theres hope for change. If Callisto kills Xena, therell be only chaos again, warlords from all over the Known World fighting over whats left of the Empire. More people will die and nothing will be secure for years, if not decades. Xena is what keeps the Empire stable and safe enough for us to have the means and time and energy protest her rule. If Xena is overthrown, therell be no chance of reform. Well be spoils divided among the strong once more and no one will raise his or her voice for freedom because well all be slaves. If Callisto succeeds, therell be no hope."
Hippocrates shook off the power of Gabrielles persuasive speech and objected, "Callisto is preparing the way for another leader. Someone fair, just. Someone who will do away with the tyranny of Xenas regime. He will keep the Empire intact."
Now it was Gabrielles turn to gape. "Who? Who is this other leader?"
"The son of the regent of Chin," Hippocrates revealed triumphantly. "The whole world knows how benevolent Lao Mas rule is, and now Greece and the West will bow to her son."
"Oh, gods!" The Imperial secretary cried, covering her mouth with one hand.
Leandra could see the disbelief, indeed, the despair in the green eyes so like her own. "Gabrielle little sister, what is it?"
"Ming Tien," Gabrielle whispered.
"Yes," Hippocrates looked pleased. "Ming Tien and Callisto have allied to remove the Conqueror. Even now, the legions of Chin are moving west and the entire Eastern Empire is uniting under Ming Tiens banner."
"Or dying by his order," Gabrielle got out, tear-choked.
"No! No one has been killed. We have received word of the jubilant surrenders of garrisons in Parthia and the Altai. Every one has joined the Chinese army."
Leandra ignored Hippocrates exultant gloating. "What do you know about Ming Tien?"
"Xena defeated him several years ago, stripped him of the throne of Chin," Gabrielle explained, voice still weak with shock. "He had taken Lao Ma hostage at her mountain retreat and coerced her into naming him regent. He then executed 12,000 of her followers in the city, so that she had no power-base with which to take back the country. Xena sent in three legions and freed Lao Ma, then she took back Lao Tzu City."
Leandras eyes narrowed. "He was defeated, but allowed to live?"
Gabrielle nodded. "His mother pleaded for his life. Xena forced him to kneel before all his officers and beg their forgiveness for getting their troops killed. She took away all his command powers. He wasnt even allowed to carry a sword on his person."
The secretary and the slave looked at one another in complete understanding. Ming Tien had obviously been planning his revenge for such a complete humiliation ever since.
"Lies!" Hippocrates interjected. "His ailing mother asked him to take over the regency, but Xena, afraid of the love and loyalty of the masses for him, forced him to give up the throne."
"He ordered 12,000 people killed, Hippocrates. Some he burned; some he crucified; some he impaled; some he ordered to be turned loose in the countryside and let his dogs hunt them down. He killed the children first so that the parents had to witness it."
"These are fabrications fed you by the Conqueror! Dont you see; shes the evil one, Gabrielle!?"
"I read those things in the archives, Hippo, without Xenas knowledge. Lao Ma wrote the records herself and sent them to the Conqueror so that there would never be any doubt about what was done and by whom."
"Yet she pleaded for his life?" Leandra asked in a small voice.
"He is her only child."
A silence stretched between the three of them as each struggled with his or her own thoughts. Gabrielle felt like another crushing stone had been added to the burden she borelove for Xena, fear for Leandra and herself, and now the knowledge that two of Xenas greatest enemies had allied to strike back at the Conqueror. How can one womaneven a hero like Xenafight the whole world? Gabrielle wondered.
"I dont believe you," Hippocrates finally said.
"Fine, dont," Gabrielle tossed back, drained by his stubborn refusal. She leaned her head back against the wall and looked up at the ceiling, her eyes bleak. "Believe Callisto. Believe Ming Tien. But prepare yourself for the betrayals that will come." She looked back down at him. "Xena isnt goodness incarnate, Hippo. None of us are. But she has proven to me that she has changed. The good within her grows stronger all the timejust like her freeing Leandra and her repealing the warrants against the Resistance. Callisto has proven she will only lead you to death and destruction, Hippocrates. At least with Xena I have hope."
"Such a cheering section that Conqueror has," Callistos chill voice cut into the scene like a breath of air from the tomb.
The trio whirled to look to the stairwell where the blonde menace appeared, flanked by Theodorus as always.
"She was trying to talk me into following Xena," Hippocrates blurted.
"So I gathered," Callisto spared him hardly a glance, staring instead at the bard and the slave. "Well, sweeties, were ready for the next round of stump the Conqueror. Have you had a nice rest?" Neither hostage answered, and Callisto turned to ascend the stairs again. "Bring them, Theodorus."
The little procession wended its way outside to where Callisto had assembled her troops once more in the open space in front of the temple. The soldiers were divided into two squads, one much larger.
"Our little guessing game with the dresses will annoy Xena, I'm sure," Callisto purred gloatingly as she faced Hippocrates, her captives, and her troops, "but we need to make sure it delays her as well. I could have been in Amphipolis by now, but I chose this roundabout way to ensure some nasty surprises for the Her Imperial Bitchiness."
"The others will see to that, my queen," Theodorus hurriedly assured her.
"They'd better," Callisto snarled without turning her eyes away from her hostages. She snapped her fingers as if calling pets to her side. "Antonias, Polymides. You'll carry out the next little amusement I have planned for Her Imperial Bitchiness."
Theodorus looked a bit taken aback. "My queen, don't you want me to "
"No," she cut him off. "I want you here."
Her eyes hadn't left the hostages since they'd entered the clearing and Gabrielle tried to stifle the rising fear she felt as that insane gaze raked over her time and again. The bard tilted her chin, fixing her face with a look of defiance, determined not to let Xena down by begging or groveling to this foe. Leandra, beside her, held herself upright by sheer will as well.
Callisto drew her sword, walking forward. Immediately, tension and fear stiffened the restrained women's expressions.
"We dont need them both now," Callisto announced, watching avidly the consternation that spread over the young women's faces, then her features lifted in a demonic smile. "But which one shall we leave behind?" She cocked her hip and crossed her arm over her midriff, catching her opposite elbow. The sword in her hand trailed limp-wristed over her shoulder. "I never really learned to like either of them, did you, Theodorus?"
The hulking second in command grinned, showing darkened teeth. "No, my queen, I did not."
"I wonder which one would Xena be most likely to come after?" Callisto pretended to give it thought, eyeing each woman in turn. "A useless tagalong bard, or the slave whos been warming her bed for nearly two months? Hmmm?" Her dark eyes narrowed dangerously. "I think shed want to get back her sex slave, don't you?"
The two captives looked at one another, terrified. One would be freed and the other would continue as a hostage. It seemed a fate far worse than the one they now shared. Together, they had some consolation, some familiarity to sustain them. Isolated with Callisto, whoever was left would no longer have the comfort of her fellow-sufferer to aid her. Gabrielle imagined facing the internal crisis of two nights ago alone and realized she would have given up hope if not for Leandra. She couldnt imagine leaving Leandra to face her fate alone.
In sudden inspiration, Gabrielle pushed forward.
"Weve been lying to you all along," the bard improvised. "Im Leandra, the Conquerors bed slave. Shes Gabrielle, the bard."
Leandra held stock still as she watched Gabrielle offer herself to the maniacal Cirran. No one, in all her life, had done anything to protect the slave, and Leandra could hardly get her mind around the idea that Gabrielle had just lied to save her. Her thoughts were a chaotic mixture of abject gratitude and awestruck disbelief. It lasted only a moment.
Callisto threw back her head and laughed. "Oh, how wonderfully noble!" She smeared the word with sarcasm and venom. "The little bard makes the ultimate gesture to save Xenas whore. Nice try, Gabrielle, but, in case you hadnt notice, you were the only one who recognized dear, little Hippocrates when you entered the temple. Process of elimination, my dear, no pun intended."
Callisto jerked her head to Leandras guards.
"You know what to do," she reminded them as they seized the slave.
The bards heart dropped, but she thought quickly, trying with little hope to plant some doubt in the twisted mind. "How do you know shell come for either one of us, Callisto?" she demanded.
Using the tip of her sword to tilt Gabrielles chin higher, Callisto stepped forward, forcing the bards neck into an uncomfortably exposed position.
"Xenas very predictable, once you know herand hate her," the blonde warrior explained. "She seldom makes friends, but when she does, shes the only one whos allowed to kill them. And you, I think, are one of her friends. You see," Callisto purred snidely, "she has thousands of slaves, little girl. She could have a different one every night of the weekand often does. But she has, in all the years Ive known and hated her, had only one bard." Callisto smiled. It was not a pretty sight. "I think youll make excellent bait for my little trap, Gabrielle of Poteidaea."
Callisto dropped the sword point and gestured to the soldiers holding Leandra. "Send her back to Xena."
Gabrielle lunged forward, seizing Leandras hand. "Tell her not to come for me," she told her urgently. "Tell her everything you saw and tell her not to do as Callisto wants."
"Gabrielle," Leandra broke her other hand free to cup the bards face. "Take care, little sister," she choked. "Xena will save you."
"How touching," Callisto snarled mockingly. "Now, get her out of here."
Two pairs of green eyes kept their silent connection for as long as they were able, then Leandra was forced once more onto horseback and her mount led away by her two guards. Gabrielle found herself alone before the Conquerors greatest nemesis.
"Now, then," Callisto handed her sword to one of her henchmen and slowly circled Gabrielle, examining the bard from all angles. "What shall we send the Conqueror to assure her weve still got her little bard?"
Gabrielle glared at her, and Callisto clucked her tongue disapprovingly.
"Now, now, Gabrielle, don't get testy with me. You'll only make me angry."
Callisto made another circuit around the restrained woman and when she came back into Gabrielles line of sight, she was smiling, a frightening, mischievous glint in her mad eyes. "Ive got it!" she clasped her hands together in an overblown gesture of delight. "The hair. Well make Xena into our own personal Jason chasing all over Greece in pursuit of the bards golden fleece!"
It was done quickly, but painfully, with Callisto sawing and hacking to the scalp with a dagger drawn from her boot. Theodorus received the shorn locks into a bag as each handful was sawed from the bards head. In the end, Callisto held up a last long hank of Gabrielles silky red-gold hair and received a ragged cheer from her men.
"Well stay the night here," Callisto announced, handing the strands to Theodorus, and returning her dagger to her boot. "Make camp and get some food for yourselves from the temple," she ordered one of the lieutenants. "Theodorus, bring your little bag of gold and come with me."
Hippocrates, standing at the back of the pack, looked miserable and sick at the degradation Gabrielle had been forced to endure, but he didnt protest the haircut, or Callistos plan to stay. He simply turned back to the temple of Asklepius and went inside. After the bard had been bound hand and foot again and tossed on the ground beside one of the central fires, Hippocrates reappeared with a small bag of medical supplies. The troops gave him contemptuous looks, but left him alone with the bard while they prepared their meal. Gabrielle lay on her side, facing the fire, bound hands drawn up to cushion her abused head.
"Im sorry," the acolyte said, voice low, as he seated himself next to her. "I dont know why she had to do that."
Gabrielle, struggling with tears of anger and despair, didnt answer.
"Ifif youll let me, I think I can take care of some of those cuts," he offered.
He took her silence as assent and began to lay out the supplies.
Gabrielle stayed still as the gentle hands sifted through what was left of her hair and located the raw scrapes where Callistos knife had come too close to the scalp. She didnt care about the hair, really, though it had been ages since shed had it cut. What had her frightened and angry now was the separation from Leandra and the use to which Callisto was planning to put her hair.
"The golden fleece," the Cirran had declared. Everyone knew what a disaster Jason and the Argonauts quest for the Golden Fleece had been. For Callisto, it would provide a humiliating analogy for the quest she was forcing Xena to embark on.
"This may sting," Hippocrates warned as he prepared some ointment for one particularly deep cut.
Ah, irony, Gabrielle thought with a bitter, internal laugh.
The salve did burn and Gabrielle gasped involuntarily, her tears spilling over for another reason.
"Sorry," Hippocrates said again, flinching in sympathy. He looked at her seriously. "I am sorry, Gabrielle. I never knew she would I mean, I know that the ends justify the means, but II dont agree with the way Callisto is treating you. Or the bed slave."
"Her name is Leandra," Gabrielle replied quietly.
"Leandra, then," Hippocrates said, equally quiet. "I assumed she would keep you both together. I know it will be hard going on alone."
"I dont need or want your sympathy," Gabrielle told him with uncharacteristic bluntness. "Youre making a horrible mistake, helping Callisto and Ming Tien, and the whole world is going to have to pay for it."
Hippocrates searched her face, baffled by her continued protestations. "Can you really say that the Conqueror is a better choice? Do you really believe that?"
"With all my heart."
Their eyes met for a long moment, hers full of honest conviction, his filled with confusion.
"Ive never lied to you, Hippo, and Im not going to start now. Callisto is not to be trusted. Xena is our only choice."
"How can you forget everything shes done? How can you just forgive it all?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes a moment, a sad smile curving her lips. "Shes my best friend, Hippo. I love her and I would forgive her anything."
"But you told Leandra to tell her not to come for you," the medicos expression showed his bafflement.
"The Empire is worth more than one bard, Hippo," Gabrielle smiled, almost whimsically. "Xenas life is worth more than mine, and if she gives up this quest, she can save the Empire."
"You believe in her right to rule that strongly?"
"I believe in Xena that strongly."
Hippocrates looked down at his hands, still holding bandages and ointment, and, for a long moment, he thought about everything that had brought him to this point in his life.
Eighteen months earlier, he had been living a rather futile existence in Corinth, treating a few patients with the limited knowledge he had, scraping by, hating himself for not fighting back against the injustices he had experienced. Then a woman he was treating had mentioned a bard, new to Corinth, who was speaking of freedom, of resistance to tyranny, of each persons right to a better life. Hed heard Gabrielle at a secret meeting in the heart of Corinths poorest section and hed known, from the light in her face and the power of her words, that she believed wholeheartedly in everything she was saying. Her belief had led him to believe; her commitment had aroused a similar commitment in him, and theyd struggled side by side to change their world.
Now, that inspiring, hope-giving light shone from Gabrielles face again, but her message was one he thought hed never follow: trust Xena, follow the Conqueror. Lifting his eyes, he saw the truth of pure belief in her eyes.
"Would she listen to me, if I took her your message?" he asked, voice so low that, for a moment, even Gabrielle thought she hadnt heard what shed heard.
"Yes," the bard tried to control her soaring pulse. "If you told her Id sent you, she would listen."
"Id need proof."
Fumbling with her bound hands, the bard pulled her tourmaline necklace from its hiding place beneath her clothes.
"Take this," she ordered. "Shell know it and shell know I sent it. Tell her Tell her I love her and shes the best friend Ive ever had, but tell her she has to turn back. Hippocrates, tell her everything you know. Its so important."
Hippocrates took the delicate chain and stone in its filigree setting, but his face was doubtful. "Do you really think shell believe me?" He frowned. "Callisto could have taken this from you. The Conqueror might think Im lying."
Gabrielle frowned too, realizing that her friends fear had more behind it than shed reckoned with. He couldnt overcome his first terrifying encounter with Xena simply because she told him Xena wasnt such a bad person after all, and, given the danger of his present situation, she couldnt say she wouldnt feel exactly the same in his shoes.
"Isnt there something I could tell her that would convince her I talked to you, directly?"
Gabrielles mind whirled with possible proofs. There were so many things she wanted to tell Xena, so many things to say, but she needed, instead, a password, a key she could give Hippocrates that would prove his veracity. She needed something only she and the Conqueror knew, some easily recalled fact that only the two of them shared. Her mind, of its own accord, settled on a morning some three weeks after shed become Xenas Imperial Secretary.
Shed half-awakened to the uncomfortable sensation of water dripping onto her forehead. That was some dream, she thought, not opening her eyes. Her consciousness had already begun the slide back into sleep when, with a rather larger splat, another drop of water hit her forehead. Her forehead puckered into a frown, which, unfortunately, channeled the water into her unopened eyes, and, with a serious curse word that shed picked up from Xena, she sat bolt upright, swiping her arm across her face.
"Now, theres a reaction I like to see," said a low, amused voice. "A woman who wakes up swearing and swinging."
Gabrielles sleep-gummed eyes unglued and came to rest on her visitor with something approaching the Conquerors malevolence. Xena stood at her Imperial Secretarys bedside, barely covered in a towel. Another towel was held, forgotten, in her grasp and her wet ebony hair soaking the silk duvet, but Gabrielle found herself caught by the grin on Xenas face.
It had become something of a morning ritual in the three weeks Gabrielle had held her post as Xenas chief administrator. Xena awoke, well before dawn, and took some light exercisea run or a ridethen returned to bathe. If Gabrielle wasnt up by the time the Conqueror left her bathand she often was notthe Empress found some unique way to rouse her. One morning it had been the introduction of a handful of snow, from the ice bucket that held the breakfast juice, into Gabrielles warm sheets; another time, Xena had mercilessly tickled the bards feet. This wake-up call, by contrast, seemed fairly gentle.
"I didnt hear you," Gabrielle stated, voice gruff from slumber.
"Obviously," Xena smirked.
"So, Im not a morning person."
"Understatement of the millennium."
Gabrielle rubbed her eyes and stifled a yawn, unable to gather enough awareness for a comeback. "Youre dripping."
"So, dry my hair," the Empress ordered, tossing the towel into her Secretarys lap and plopping down on the bed.
"I dont recall this being in my job description," Gabrielle teased, taking the heavy cotton and blotting at the thick, raven hair trailing over Xenas shoulders and back.
She didnt mind her chore, actually; it reminded her of her girlhood friendships in Poteidaea, gossiping with others her age and doing each others hair. The feeling pleased her immensely, coming so soon after she thought shed lost Xenas friendship to Leandra.
When damp, Xenas hair showed its natural wave and Gabrielle idly wondered what it had looked like in Xenas childhood.
"Was your hair curly when you were little?"
The Conqueror glanced back over her shoulder and, amazingly, smiled at the inquiry. "Yes, and a bit lighter."
"Hmm?" Gabrielle fingered a few strands. "I cant imagine that."
Gabrielle didnt really expect a response, but after a quiet moment, Xena said, "My brothers and I were all blonde when we were small. Toris and Lyceus Toris hair is sandy brown and Lyceus was blonde."
"I didnt know you had two brothers." Gabrielle tried to keep her tone light. Xena so rarely shared intimate details and the bard didnt want to interrupt any potential communication.
"Yeah," the Conquerors voice sounded distant. "Toris is older and LyLy was the baby. It was just the three of us. And Mother."
"Did your family farm?"
Xena laughed absently, "No, Mother ran an inn. We helped when we were old enough."
Gabrielle tried to imagine a smaller Xena, busing tables and carrying drinks, but she wasnt very successful. As if reading her thoughts, Xena swiveled part way around on the bed and held out her hand.
"I got that scar when I was nine, cutting up vegetables for the lunch rush," the Conqueror chuckled, pointing to a faded white line that bisected the pad of her left thumb. "Mother was furious because I bled all over the peppers. They were three dinars a pound."
"Xena! You nearly cut off your thumb!" Gabrielle laughed, taking the extended hand. "Youre not safe with a kitchen knife, I see. Especially during the lunch rush."
When she looked up into Xenas eyes, her smile faltered. A world of sadness lay in the azure depths of those eyes, and Gabrielle found herself wanting to hold Xenas hand until all the sadness went away.
Gabrielle came back to the present moment and swallowed with some difficulty the lump in her throat.
"Tell her shes not safe with a kitchen knife," she whispered, "especially during the lunch rush. Shell know exactly what it means. Its aa joke we have together. Shell know you talked to me if you tell her that."
Hippocrates tried not to think about the absurdity of approaching the Conqueror and saying, "Youre not safe with a kitchen knife, especially during the lunch rush." Instead, he concentrated on comforting the prisoner. "Im headed for Larisa," he told Gabrielle in a voice designed not to carry. "Its only a few leagues north and Im sure the garrison there can get me to the Conquerors attention. Ill leave as soon as youre gone in the morning."
Gabrielle nodded, feeling a little hope return. If Hippocrates took the message, Xena would be warned as soon as tomorrow, perhaps, and shed have time to plan for a meeting with Ming Tien. The whole world knew that Xena with a plan was unstoppable, and Gabrielles confidence in the woman she thought of as her hero soared.
"You should get some rest," Hippocrates offered, eyeing his charge professionally. "Shes going to push for Amphipolis now that shes sent Leandra back to the Conqueror. Youll be traveling rough. Sleep now, while you can."
Gabrielle nodded, feeling weariness descend on her with Hippocrates kind words. "I think I could sleep," she answered.
"Ill watch," the young man gave her a tentative smile. "Youll be safe. Go to sleep."
In the long evening,
Under the edge of purple clouds,
I long to meet one
Who has gone to wander
The latitudes of heaven.
Anonymous Zen poem
When he thought no one was looking, Palaemon rubbed wearily at the still aching wound on his ribcage. His hand was there now, just resting, holding in the stitches, while he leaned against his horse and watched the slow line of Imperial Scouts canvas the stretch of road leading to a four-way crossroad some 15 Roman miles outside Metropolis. Palaemon, like his colleague Autolycus back in Corinth, was a troubled man.
The Conqueror had split her forces, despite Palaemons objections, and now she was four days ride to the west, following her own portion of Callistos trail to Demetrias and then to Larisa, while Palaemon and his command circled to meet her from the east. Theyd been riding two days in these opposite directions and their distance from one another increased with every candlemark that passed until the turnaround point came for the other company at Demetrias. It seemed like a reasonable plan, but Palaemon couldnt shake the feeling of unease that being separated from the Conqueror gave him. Perhaps hed spent too long as her security chief, but something about the separation made all his instincts rebel.
He should be with the Conqueror, his gut told him. Thats where he belonged.
But she had sent him off on what, so far, had shaped up to be a wild goose chase. Theyd been searching, sending out scouts for leagues ahead and had found nothing but muddled tracks and some vague rumors of passage.
The area was nearly uninhabited at this time of year because so many of the villagers were in the high pastures, tending the flocks of sheep and goats that made up their livelihood. Here the Thessalian plain tilted upwards to the Pindus Mountains, making grain raising impossible, so the scattered population depended on livestock and hunting for their sustenance. Here, too, the search for Callistos second track had ground to a halt.
Palaemon sighed as he watched the line of scouts disappear around yet another bend in the track that passed for a road. They were following the faint traces of hooves, which they hoped might lead them to a better trail and new clues about the divided forces of Callisto.
After a long, boring wait, during which the Captain continued to absently massage his healing side, a whistle sounded from beyond the curve of hillside. Two clear notes indicated it was clear to follow, so Palaemon signaled to the troops spread out in the shade of the trees behind him. While they mounted, he rode forward.
Rounding the corner, the big blonde Captain halted in amazement, dismounting almost automatically. The crossroads had been reached, but all four of the incoming roads looked like theyd been pulverized by spades or plows as far as the eye could see.
"What in the name of Hades?"
"Sheep," Darnell, seeming to materialize out of the air, answered succinctly.
Palaemon started violently, then swung around to cuff the shoulder of the magically reappearing scout. "Zeus, Darnell, you're worse than Xena for sneaking up on people! Now, what do you mean, 'sheep'?"
"Those are sheep tracks," the scout explained. "When I saw the track had gone to Tartarus, I went looking for a local. Found a man in the next valley. Said his cousin has sheep. Said some men paid him to run his sheep up and down the road a few times here and over on the other forks."
Darnell cracked a small grin. "Ten dinars and a bag."
Palaemon gave him a skeptical look. The taciturn guide never smiled and the Captain was suspicious he might be being set up for a joke. "A bag?"
Darnell drew a small tuck bag from inside his tunic. "Said they told him to keep what was in it because it was worth more than the money."
Palaemon snatched the bag out of Darnell's palm and tore open the drawstrings as the scout continued,
"Told him the owner'd be around in a couple days and shesaid she for surewould pay him big for keeping it safe. He kept it, but he didn't understand why anyone would pay" Palaemons grunt of surprise sounded next to him, "for a bag of hair."
Palaemon lifted a big, scarred swordsman's hand full of soft, red-gold hair and the two men looked at it with puzzled expressions for a long moment.
"Why would she cut ?" Palaemon began, only to trail off again.
"No knowing," Darnell shrugged, "but I think Xena needs to see this."
"We cant send it ahead," Palaemon reasoned. "Well meet her before anyone could catch up with her. We might as well just take it with us."
Darnell nodded. "I think were done here anyway. The local said there were only four riders in the group he met and none of them were women." He shook his head at Palaemons sharp look. "No one we know. They were leading five packhorses, though. Thats how they could make it look like a big group: they let one carry less so wed think one of the girls was aboard that horse."
"Clever," Palaemon said with biting sarcasm.
"Yep," Darnells tone held more equanimity. He was a tracker and used to the ways a trail could be made to lie.
"All right, then," Palaemon decided. "Call your scouts in. Well make a little faster pace to Larisa now."
In the cool hour before dawn, the Conqueror ducked out of her tent and gestured for the waiting soldiers to go ahead with dismantling the shelter. Leuco, whod been waiting for her to emerge, joined her as she stood watching her men.
Artemisia of Ilion had been chosen to Second the Conqueror while Palaemon was gone, and Artemisia, in turn, had delegated Leuco to act as the Conquerors bodyguard and aide de camp. It allowed Artemisia to maintain a discreet distance from her Empress (who, frankly, scared the Lieutenant of Infantry to death) and allowed Leuco, whom Artemisia thought had the makings of a very good officer, to learn from the best. Leuco was taking his duties very seriously, trying to anticipate the Conquerors decisions and desires and working to make the Conquerors intimate surroundings run as smoothly as possible.
Now, the young Bosporan handed the Conqueror a bowl of boiled wheat meal sweetened with milk and honey, which served as the breakfast for the company.
"Tell them not to bother with the tent tonight," she ordered, taking the bowl with a nod. "It takes too much time, and Ive certainly slept out on the ground before."
Her voice said a lot about her physical stateit was strained and rough with fatigue and held an undercurrent of pain even Leuco couldnt fail to notice. She looked like Tartarus, the Sergeant thought. His dark eyes traced the circles under her shadowed blue eyes that spoke of another sleepless night. The thinning of her cheeks that showed she wasnt eating as she should.
"Thy will," he answered, then, taking all his courage, reached out and touched the hand holding the bowl. "Eat up, Despoina."
Xena gave him a look, and then smirked self-deprecatingly, swirling the mush around in the bowl. She appreciated his effort, even if she thought it unnecessary. Food didnt seem to hold much interest for her when she had so much on her mind. Shed gone over the maps again, trying to outguess her quarry, trying to determine where, in the hundreds of square miles detailed on the diagrams, Callisto was hiding. No answers had come, though shed pored over the charts til well past midnight.
As they walked to the horse lines, she slurped down the porridge without benefit of a spoon.
"Have the hunters start earlier this evening," she ordered. "This is pretty settled country were in. Game may be short and were running low on supplies. I dont want to stop and resupply, even though theres little chance well catch them before Larisa."
She handed the empty bowl to him and took Argos reins from the horse roper.
"Happy?" she lifted one brow at him as she swung up into the saddle.
He, in turn, gave the bowl to the groom in exchange for the reins to his bay. "Ecstatic," he grinned, mounting fluidly.
They cantered ahead to meet the scouts who had gone out before dawn.
"Theyre still leaving a path as wide as the Aegean," Jannika, the Sergeant of the Scouts assigned to the Conquerors squad, noted without preamble as she rode up to them. "I swear we could follow it in the dark."
"Tonight, we may try," Xena said sternly, her jaw once more set in its grim line.
"Great," Leuco tried for flippant and failed. "Just great."
"The trail leads around to the northwest," Jannika began, pointing out the general direction, but she lowered her arm as one of her men whistled shrilly from the edge of the wood. "Theyve found something else," the sergeant frowned as she kneed her horse around.
Xena clucked to Argo and the three rode quickly out to meet the incoming team of scouts. One of the horses bore two riders, they saw as they drew closer.
"Someone is hurt?" Leuco guessed.
"Not any of my guys," Jannika disagreed. "Theyre all there."
"We found him on the other side of the stream," called one of the scouts as they neared. "Hes sick or somethin. I cant find a mark on him, but hes burnin up."
The Conqueror took one look at the pale, sweating face and the tiny, pink-tinged bubbles that clung to the mans lips and turned to Leuco. "Get Wan Li. This mans been poisoned."
The Bosporan rode off at top speed and Xena set about getting their charge settled somewhere comfortable, not an easy task in a camp that was being disassembled. By the time Wan Li arrived, the patient lay on a pack cloth in the shade of a half-filled wagon with the Conqueror herself sponging sweat from his forehead. Leuco joined Jannika and one of the scouts standing in a half-circle around the hastily assembled pallet.
Setting down his medical pack, Wan Li knelt beside his ruler.
"I think its belladonna," Xena informed him.
"Has he been conscious?"
"No. He struggled some, but hes out of it completely."
The Chinese physician blew out a hard breath. "Its probably too late. Ill see if I can rouse him, though. Perhaps he is one of Callistos whom she found expendable."
While Wan Li tended to his patient, Xena looked at the young man again.
"No, I know him from somewhere, but its not from Callistos bunch." She took one of the mans hands and showed it to Wan Li. "A little smooth for a soldier."
Wan Li smiled. "He has hands like a surgeon, soft and white."
"Thats it! Hippocrates! I knew I knew him," Xena nodded decisively. "He was an acolyte to Asklepius," she explained. "Remember that crazy old coot during the Mitoan-Thessalian thing a couple years ago? Remember, I left some of the wounded in the temple and the old man did nothing but pray over them?"
Wan Li nodded, recalling well the fate of the crazy old coot, as Xena called him.
"Hippocrates was studying with him. He moved to Corinth afterwards. Autolycus said he joined up with Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle," Hippocrates echoed faintly, then was seized with a coughing fit. When it passed, he was unconscious again.
Wan Li held a cup of harsh herbs under Hippocrates nose and watched as the man thrashed about trying to escape the stench.
"No!" the voice was stronger now and, after a moment, Hippocrates eyes opened. "Where ? What ?"
"Youre in the camp of the Conqueror," Wan Li informed his patient and saw the mans eyes widen fearfully.
"Conqueror! I need to see the Conqueror."
"Im the Conqueror," Xena answered this time.
Bleary eyes tracked to her. "Youre not so tall anymore."
One raven-dark eyebrow flowed upward. "Oh, yeah, hes lucid."
"She said to give this to you," Hippocrates managed a whole sentence with some effort.
"She who? Give what to me?" Xena longed to shake him, to shake the information out of him, but she knew he was too weak for that.
Wan Lis skillful hands moved over him, finding no pockets or pouches in his clothing, and the Chinese shrugged his perplexity.
The Conqueror, however, prised open the left hand of their patient and discovered the silver and stone necklace he clutched with the last of his strength. She gasped, knowing instantly where the jewelry originated. In a flash of memory, she saw Gabrielles shy, smiling face as Xena had fastened the necklace about her throat. Another image followed, of the thin silver chain nestling against smooth, bare flesh above the gossamer-like blue gown Gabrielle had worn when last the Conqueror had seen her. Fear, like an ocean wave, rose and threatened to overwhelm Xenas thinking.
Her steely gaze pinned itself on the recumbent man.
"Where did you get this?" she demanded, in a low, tense whisper.
"Its too late," Hippocrates replied mournfully. "I saw them. Its too late."
"Too late?" Xenas voice sharpened further and she did take hold of the front of his tunic. "Who sent you here, Hippocrates? Who? Was it Gabrielle?"
A small smile waxed and waned on the delirious mans face. "Gabrielle. Shes so beautiful. She said the Conqueror wouldnt kill me. Not safe with a kitchen knife," his voice trailed off and a welling of red bubbles came seeping over his lips.
Not safe with a kitchen knife, the phrase rebounded through the Conquerors memory like a boulder in an avalanche. Flickering images met her through the maelstrom: the innocent flush on Gabrielles cheek as she slept, the grumpy green eyes that blinked open as the water dripping on the bards forehead finally awoke her, the gentle touch of the towel on Xenas own hair, the amazing ease with which shed spoken of her childhood to the listening secretary. Xena recalled exactly where shed heard the phrase before and knew that, whatever else Hippocrates might not be able to tell them, he had been with Gabrielle recently.
Her only link to the hostages, and the man could only speak in disjointed fragments! Xenas expression reflected her dismay and anguish as she met Wan Lis eyes. The physician shook his head.
"I dont think hell last much longer," he said, regretfully.
"Hippocrates." Speaking harshly and this time actually giving him a small shake, the Conqueror tried to regain the young mans wandering attention. "What did Gabrielle say?"
The darkening eyes narrowed as he fought to find some last measure of coherence. "Dont follow," he whispered, bloody froth coating his mouth. "Dont follow. Its too late anyway. I saw what they did to her."
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