Standard disclaimer: None of the characters, places, etc. in this story are mine, but instead are the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended by their use in this story.
Author's notes: This is the not-so-long-awaited (and probably completely uncalled-for ) prequel to my series of AU Gabrielle and Caesar fics. In this one, we see the Dark Conqueror in person for the first (and last) time, as well as get a look at some of her primary relationships. I tried to remain more or less faithful to what I had established in the rest of the series, although it was not always easy. Thanks, as always, to Lady Kate who helped beta!
"Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
That weighs upon the heart?"
"Therein the patient
Must minister to himself."
"Throw physic to the dogs, I'll none of it."
—Macbeth, Act V, scene iii.
"Well, it breaks my heart
To see you this way
The beauty in life, where's it gone?
And somebody told me
You were doin' okay
Somehow I guess they were wrong…."
—Flogging Molly, "Whistles the Wind," Within a Mile of Home
They were huddling in the cool, dark cellars of the Athenian Academy when the soldiers smashed the door in.
It had been Xena's army that had ended up taking the town rather than Callisto's—the Dark Conqueror had beaten the Bright Warrior to Athens by a day, perhaps two—but that was only preferable insofar as it was preferable to have one's throat slit rather than to be set on fire. The bardic elder Gastacius had commanded all the students to descend into the basement catacombs, and had Euripides and Homer stack trunks against the door, but that pitiful defense was no barrier to the soldiers of Xena. Pounding shook the timbers of the heavy wooden door, and Gabrielle was frozen with fear. She crouched, shivering, behind an old velvet couch and peeked out at the basement below. She saw the same fear reflected on all the faces of her fellow students and teachers, half-visible in the murky cellar gloom.
The ancient oak door shattered inward and light poured into the basement murk, washing over the bardic students huddled there, along with shouts, screams, the clash of metal on metal, and other battle noises which had come to them only dimly. The scent of smoke and blood flooded into the basement. From her position behind the couch, Gabrielle could only squint at figures silhouetted in the light at the top of the stairs.
"You there! Out! Come out of there this instant, or we'll kill you all!"
The soldiers were tossing the trunks off the stairs as they shouted. The wooden caskets shattered on the stone floor, spilling fabrics, instruments, and props everywhere. The heavy tread of boots pounding down the stairs filled Gabrielle's ears. She cowered, looking out from between the low legs of the old prop sofa. She could see them—rough-faced men wearing shining armor, carrying swords so sharp they gleamed. Four or five of them took up positions at the bottom of the stairs, standing watchfully with weapons drawn. Gabrielle knew most of the other bardic trainees had scattered like her, and were hiding in among the labyrinth of boxes, crates and shelves, in the catacombs, but not all of them; as she watched, soldiers came into her field of vision herding a handful of captives, young men and women dressed in bardic blue who looked every bit as scared as she did. She didn't know any of them well, but she had seen them together, had classes with them.
"Is this all?" demanded one soldier. "Where are the rest?" He turned to look at the captives, as if expecting an answer. None was forthcoming. The trainees stared at him, speechless with fear. The officer looked them all over, then grabbed one of them, an overweight, soft-looking boy who had helped Gabrielle occasionally with her lute lessons. He had tears in his eyes. The lead soldier drew back and struck him brutally across the face. The boy's cry sent shivers down Gabrielle's spine. There was no anger in the blow, and somehow that scared Gabrielle more than if the soldier had raged.
"Where are the rest?" the soldier demanded again.
"They…they fled," whimpered the boy. "Split up and…hid in the catacombs."
The soldier turned away. "You heard the prisoner. Split up and find them."
The rest of the group split up and disappeared into the dim, dusty piles of old furniture, bookshelves, and props no longer in use. The men at the bottom of the stairs did not leave their post, but remained watchful, swords drawn, scanning the area methodically. The high weeping of the boy the soldier had struck went on and on—when another of the captives, a woman who had been Gabrielle's occasional partner in dance lessons, tried to comfort him, one of the men gripped her by the arm and shoved her back.
"Stay where you are," he said curtly. "No talking." The woman stepped back, looking frightened. Gabrielle could do nothing but cower behind the couch, hoping they didn't see her in the shadows. She could hear the heavy steps of the soldiers ringing on the stone floors, and then all of a sudden there was a hoarse yell.
"Homer, no!" another voice shouted.
"You filthy little bastards!" A sharp thudding, and then a cry of pain. Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut, clasping her hands over her ears, caught between her need to know what happened and not wanting to hear whatever happened next. Finally she couldn't stand it any longer—she had to look.
She opened her eyes again to see two forms falling into her field of vision and striking the stone floor. One was Gastacius, and Gabrielle stared in horror at his glazed and sightless eyes. The wise bard who had been the head of the academy, to whom all students could go with their troubles, was no longer. Gastacius... And yet it was the sight of the other that froze her blood. It was Homer.
He was still alive. Blood stained his bright blond curls and the side of his face, and his shoulders were heaving as he struggled to get his breath back, but he was still alive. He turned his head to the side, and stared straight into Gabrielle's face from a distance of less than two yards.
A sandaled foot landed on his back, pressing him to the ground. "This little bastard bit me!" There was the scrape of metal on metal. "You're gonna lose your head for that, you Athenian maggot," the soldier snarled, his voice rough with rage.
Homer's eyes were locked with hers; she could see his fear. Later, Gabrielle would not remember any conscious decision; she was on her feet almost before she thought, the fire of panic racing through her veins. She shot up from behind the sofa, so fast she almost banged her head on an overhanging shelf.
"You leave him alone!"
"Gabrielle!" she heard Homer cry, but it was distant. She scrambled over the back of the sofa to fling herself between the soldier and her fallen friend. The next instant she was grabbed by the hair and spun around to stare into the misshapen face of the head soldier.
"Well, look what we've got here," the man said roughly. He grinned. "Take a look, men—a sweet thing for our queen! Our lady will reward us well for bringing her this one!"
This one? Bringing her? What do they mean? Gabrielle lunged, trying to free herself, but was yanked back easily.
"Don't hurt her!" Homer was shouting helplessly. "Don't—Leave her alone!" The men paid him no more heed than if he were a statue. Two men gripped her, one holding each arm, and started dragging her toward the stairway.
"Anybody else we should bring?" the officer was asking his men. He motioned toward Homer again, and Gabrielle saw that the Academy healer, a tall, black-haired woman named Pallonia, had hurried to his side; she was dabbing at his wound with a folded square of cloth.
Pallonia faced the man defiantly. "I'm a healer. This man is injured. He needs my help."
"Healer, eh?" The officer raised an eyebrow. "Bring her too, men—we've got plenty of wounded, and our own healers've got more'n enough to do. More, when Callisto gets here."
"No, wait!" Pallonia cried as the soldiers moved forward to seize her. "He needs my help—"
"Not for long, he doesn't, lady," the officer replied roughly. The hands on her arms cut roughly into Gabrielle's flesh. Pallonia looked appalled. "Take 'em to our queen," the officer ordered the men curtly, and she felt herself being propelled up the stairs toward the street outside. Just as she was shoved out into the street, she heard the rasp of metal as the officer in the cellar drew his sword from its sheath.
The soldiers herded Gabrielle through the burning streets of Athens, stopping to add several other girls along the way. The girls were all blondes and of Gabrielle's age or thereabouts; Gabrielle guessed they also were being taken to see Xena. What does the Dark Conqueror want with us? That was a thought that she tried to squelch.
She tried not to look too closely at the images of the carnage around her. In the Academy, she and her cohort had always talked among themselves about what it would be like to be up close in a real battle, between the armies of Xena and Callisto and Najara. At least—some of them did. Those who had come from war-torn regions remained significantly silent. Gabrielle had never understood why until now.
She tried to avert her gaze, but it wasn't enough to shut out all the devastation around her.
Houses on all sides were burning, sending thick plumes of smoke into the air; the acrid smoke stung Gabrielle's eyes and chewed at the back of her throat, making her cough. Fresh bodies filled the streets, both of the dead, and of those who soon would be dead. She watched as Xena's men smashed in the door of one as yet unburned house; there was a short, sharp scream from inside, cut off immediately, and the high, wailing cry of an infant that likewise suddenly ceased. Occasionally in the streets as they passed, Gabrielle saw healers attempting to minister to the wounded and dying; whenever their caravan came upon one of the healers, the soldiers would forcibly pull them away from their patient. "Our lady's troops need you far more," said the man in charge of the group, with a rough laugh, as an elderly, white-bearded man protested; his protests did neither him nor his patient any good, however, as he was dragged along with the rest of the group. The killing was still going on. Even as Gabrielle watched, she saw men in armor and with swords dragging men, women and children out of houses and cutting them down. She shivered, trying to avert her eyes, knowing there was nothing she could do to help them.
Xena had set up her camp right outside what was left of the walls of the city; the once-strong walls lay in ruins, Gabrielle saw, smashed to piles of rubble by Xena's artillery. At the entrance to the camp, the soldiers separated out the healers from the rest of the prisoners and led them off somewhere, presumably to tend to Xena's wounded. Gabrielle watched Pallonia go desperately; she felt she was losing her only friend. The prisoners that were left—young blonde girls like herself—looked at each other with frightened eyes; none of them knew what fate awaited them.
Gabrielle had never been inside a military camp before, and under ordinary circumstances would have taken care to notice every little detail, so that she could remember it for her songs and stories. She was too afraid of what awaited her now to pay such close attention; as she was herded through the lanes of the encampment, she received a confused impression of tents set up in neat, orderly blocks, of men in shining armor marching in disciplined rows, of wide, clean lanes and alleyways, but she didn't have time to take it all in. The soldiers marched them efficiently through the streets, keeping them moving along toward an awning that loomed in the middle of the encampment. The sight of that awning, above the tops of the tents around it, filled Gabrielle with dread. She knew without asking: That was where Xena waited.
The awning was set up at one end of an open space in the middle of the encampment; Gabrielle guessed it was an assembly space for the troops. The guards shoved the girls into a rough approximation of rows in the open space. Gabrielle reeled at the rough treatment, blinking and trying to focus; she could not catch her balance for a moment and fell against one of the other girls. But as she straightened, even before her vision cleared, she sensed her.
Underneath the awning at the near end of the assembly space, there sat a massive chair—a throne, ornately carved and raised by several high, steep steps off the ground. Even through her fear, Gabrielle recognized that hideous throne from the tales—it was Xena's Dragon Throne, brought back with her from Ch'in. Sinuous dragons, in red and green and gold and black, writhed along its back and arms; more dragons were inlaid in jade and emerald and lapis lazuli along its steps. The throne was a monstrosity, and at any other time, Gabrielle would have stared at it in appalled fascination. Yet now her entire attention was taken up by the presence atop the throne—a presence as brooding and ominous as thunderheads gathered around a mountaintop. The Dark Conqueror.
She. Gabrielle was a bard and words were her tools, yet at that moment, all words fled her. The Dark Conqueror, the Warrior Princess, the Daughter of War, Destroyer of Nations—what had any of these words to do her, or she with them? She. There was no other word that could capture the elemental essence of what she was—indeed, she simply was, like the night sky, or the darkness of the blackest shadows. It seemed, in that first moment, as if the darkness under that canvas roof was something that was peculiar to her alone, that she carried within her and shed to all her surroundings; and at the heart of that darkness, she shone, standing out with the clarity of a star or a brilliant jewel.
She was not dressed like a powerful warlord, in a land where powerful warlords were known for corruption and decadence—at least, had been known, before she and her rivals, the Bright Warrior and She of the Djinn, had grown so large in stature that no other could match them. Neither she nor her enemies had ever been known for brilliant displays. She wore a long fur robe that obscured her from the neck down, though she was rumored to have a body that many women would sell their souls for. Her flowing black hair was covered by a bright gold helmet; her eyes were ice-blue, colder than the snows of the north, and half-lidded. She was said to be more beautiful than Helen of Troy; yet it was a chill, marble perfection. Gabrielle had heard it said that her expression never changed, that never did she reveal to anyone what might be in her heart—save in one circumstance only: in the heat of battle. Kings had groveled at her feet after a mere glance from those frighteningly pale eyes; even the bravest of men and women, brought into her presence, found themselves stammering and gulping out protestations of eternal loyalty, unable to maintain their resolve in the face of her irresistible force of will. She was many times more than the match of any mortal man who had ever lived, and of all mortal women save two: the Bright Warrior and She of the Djinn.
Xena's presence was so strong that even at that distance, Gabrielle was frozen with fear. Nor was she the only one. She could hear the terrified whimpers of the girls on either side of her, hear the high, miserable weeping from one who had given into her fear. Gabrielle's knees threatened to fold underneath her, from awe as much as from terror; she was trembling, and it took all her strength to lock her legs and hold herself upright. The Dark Conqueror did not seem to notice. Gods, she's beautiful. She's so beautiful….That wasn't the right word; Gabrielle the bard was at a loss for words.
The Destroyer of Nations was sprawled at the top of the Dragon Throne, her eyes half-lidded, her face expressionless as she regarded the girls herded before her. Her presence was so overwhelming that it was a moment before Gabrielle realized that she was not alone. Kneeling sullenly by the side of the throne, almost lost in Xena's shadow, was a man with dark eyes and hair as black as Xena's—a captive, Gabrielle realized suddenly; she could see the gleam of manacles on his wrists, and a chain led from a heavy iron collar on his neck to a ring set into the steps of the throne. His lower legs, she saw, were twisted and mangled, as if they had been broken and never reset. Xena's hand hung over the side of the throne, idly stroking his head.
"Is this all of them?"
At the sound of the Dark Conqueror's voice, Gabrielle's heart rose into her throat. Xena had spoken not to her, but to the guards who had escorted the girls to the center of the parade ground.
"All we could find, my lady," the guard to the left of her replied. "We scoured the city for you, my queen."
"All right." Xena gestured lazily. "You've certainly earned a good reward for this effort. After we're done here, go see Dagnon for a material token of my appreciation."
"Thank you, my queen," the head guard replied. As the captain bowed, Xena let her hand fall back to the head of her captive. He glanced up at her. His mouth tightened, and he pushed her away with his chained hands and shifted so that he was out of reach. Xena looked down at him with no expression for a moment, then gripped the back of his iron collar and yanked him back, hard. Her hand returned to its stroking.
"Do you know why you're here?" The Daughter of War turned her attention to the girls, fixing them with those frighteningly pale eyes. No one answered. The girl who had been weeping earlier continued to weep.
Xena continued, as if she had been answered. "You're here," the Dark Conqueror told them, "because I need a new servant. Someone to wait at table for me, clean my tent, lay out my clothes and look after my belongings on the march. It's good work; bread and board, and coin for your troubles. I'm not cruel, when not given cause to be—" the slave by the side of her throne shot her a clearly dubious glance at that "—and I'll treat you well. Which among you will volunteer?"
Still no answer. Gabrielle's knees were almost knocking together. Xena's icy face never changed.
"I'll ask again," Xena said after a pause. "Which of you will volunteer to serve me?"
No answer. Gabrielle's heart was in her throat; she could not speak. The slave by the side of Xena's throne lifted his head and glanced at the line of girls before him with an air of contempt that seemed oddly out of place for one bound as he was; he shook his head and looked away as if they weren't worth any more of his time.
"No takers?" Xena asked after a pause. No one in the group herded before her answered. Xena looked at them all for a moment longer, her face utterly expressionless, but her jaw seemed to tighten. "Fine. Guards!" she commanded.
The guards gripped one of the girls and dragged her forward. The one they selected was shorter than Gabrielle and very, very young-looking; she seemed almost too frightened to protest as they hauled her right before Xena's throne. The Dark Conqueror looked down at her. "Will you serve me?"
The child only stared at her. She was trembling. Xena regarded her with those ice-blue eyes, waiting for an answer. When none was forthcoming, she looked at the guards on either side of the girl. "Kill her."
The girl's scream as the soldiers ran her through was echoed by the screams of the other girls in the tent. Gabrielle was too shocked to make a sound; she could only stare in horror as the almost-child dropped, lifeless, to the ground. Her breath came fast as the guards returned to the huddled mass of women; two of them grabbed the girl who had been crying and started to drag her forward next. When they released her in front of the Destroyer of Nations's throne, her legs buckled under her and she collapsed to the earth, sobbing too hard to speak. Xena's face did not change as she looked down at her next victim.
"I ask you—Will you serve me?"
The crying girl was sobbing so hard she couldn't form the words. Xena waited a moment, then nodded. As the guard raised his sword, Gabrielle's heart leapt into her throat.
The guard froze with his sword upraised, glinting in the dull light from the overcast sky; the sun was on the edge of its horizon. The crying girl broke off, and even the dark-haired slave by Xena's throne looked up in surprise. But Gabrielle saw none of them, as the Dark Conqueror's gaze fell on her.
"You're ordering me?" the Daughter of War asked in a quiet, deadly voice.
Gabrielle met Xena's eyes, and was nearly struck to the ground by the full weight of the Dark Conqueror's charisma. Those pale eyes focused on her with incredible intensity. Nothing, in that moment, seemed to exist beyond the Destroyer of Nations; the tent, the slave, the girls, the guards, everything else seemed to have dropped away. Through numb lips, Gabrielle heard herself say, "I do."
The words were almost a whisper. Her eyes. Oh gods, her eyes…. Gabrielle's knees were trembling in awe and terror. "I'll do it. I volunteer." Had she actually said those words? "I'll be your servant. Just—just don't kill anyone else."
She had taken her life in her hands. Gabrielle knew it; it was almost as if she could sense Xena's mind teetering on the edge of a knife blade. Each breath seemed to last forever.
"All right. I accept."
It took Gabrielle a moment to understand the words; then she sagged with relief. The Daughter of War's pale eyes seemed to fix on her alone, even as she spoke her next words to the guards. It was as if she were seeing in that moment into Xena's soul.
"Guards. Dispose of the rest of the girls, and show my new servant to her quarters. You'll start your duties tomorrow."
As they led her off, she found herself glancing over her shoulder—not at the Dark Conqueror, but at her slave. The captive met her eyes and smiled slightly—an edged smile sharp enough to cut. Gabrielle wasn't sure what she had gotten into, but she knew it was too late.
The Dark Conqueror watched as the guards cleared the assembly grounds of the women, one hand idly stroking the head of her slave, who bore her treatment sullenly. An observer would have seen her face a perfect mask, with no hint of emotion on those icy features. Presently, she turned to the prisoner by the side of her throne.
"What did you think, slave?"
He glanced up at her, then looked away, his jaw set. Xena looked down at him again, and something flickered on those snowy features. Her hand tightened, digging her nails into his flesh.
"I asked you a question, slave. I want an answer."
He jerked away from her in irritation, and gave a noncommittal grunt in response. Xena's ruby lips curled briefly in a teasing smile.
"Jealous, slave?" she jeered.
"About what? She's no different from all your other girls. She'll be gone within a month. I'm the one you can't live without." There was a peculiar, bitter satisfaction in his voice.
"Well, I liked her." Xena patted his head. "Good boy," she said briskly, then rose to her feet and descended the steps of her throne. The slave watched her go, his dark eyes burning.