Summary: Gabrielle, an idealistic young woman from a country village, has been imprisoned for her criticism of the Conqueror's rule. When she is released and placed as a servant in the Keep, she finds herself with an opportunity to gain Xena's ear. She will soon discover that people are painted with minute detail, not broad strokes, and that even the unpredictable Conqueror has reasons behind her actions. As her beliefs butt heads with her emotions, she will face a difficult decision that could change more than one life, for better or for worse.
Copyright Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, etc. were created by Rob Tapert and the crew at Renaissance Pictures. I don't claim to own them, or intend to profit from them in any way. Any characters in this story that weren't in the television series have been created by me.
Warnings, etc: This incarnation of Xena is known as the Conqueror. Puppies, rainbows, and cuteness are banned in her domain. Well, not really, but keep in mind that she's not a very nice woman, and has done some naughty deeds.
This story contains subtext/maintext. If the idea of an emotional and romantic bond between two women is not your thing, you probably won't enjoy this story (but you're welcome to read, with an open mind).
A HUGE thank you to my fabulous beta reader, MadeForTrapping, who has been a great help and has written several excellent stories. Check out her Merlin series!
Chapter One: Shadow and Stone
Gabrielle had become a shadow. In the darkness of her cell, things once corporeal lost their edge, and melted into the surrounding black gloom. In dreams, she imagined herself fading to invisibility like a chilled winter's breath, slipping under the door and into freedom. But then the dream would change, and become a landscape littered with crosses and the sightless eyes of the Conqueror's victims. Gabrielle knew it was only a matter of time before that nightmare became her reality—it was the Conqueror's justice.
When the bolts on the door drew back, Gabrielle squinted and covered her eyes as blinding light flooded the room. The sun had been a friend once, when she'd stood in the agora and spoken of freedom; now even the torchlight was a foe to her unaccustomed eyes.
"You might have to kick her around if you want a response," rumbled the jailer's voice, gruff and haggard. "She don't move much, jus' sits there. Mind's a bit addled, if you want my opinion."
"I don't," said another voice, this one unpleasantly familiar. With a mounting sense of dread, Gabrielle dropped her hands to her knees and pulled them against her chest. The figure in the doorway was nothing more than a silhouette, but as it stepped closer, the face became visible. The dark hair, strong cheekbones, and pale blue eyes of the Conqueror were unmistakable. "Gabrielle, isn't it?" The Conqueror's voice was a sleek, predatory purr, and her prisoner shivered in response. "You've been convicted of inciting rebellion. Do you still deny it?"
Gabrielle hesitated, and then answered in a hoarse voice. "I spoke. If that is a crime, then I am guilty. I give voice to the people, to the -"
"Tired, the hungry, those who are too afraid to speak for themselves, and on and on… yes, I've heard the same speech from a dozen of your predecessors. Is that your mission statement, or your confession?" Gabrielle hugged her knees closer, and said nothing. "I put your talkative friends on crosses. I could do the same to you, but it wouldn't make a difference. Alive or dead, the people will never hear you again."
Gabrielle lowered her face into her palms again, willing herself not to cry, and hating herself for her cowardice. What did the others say, when their time came? Something brave. Something noble. They must have been courageous in death, as they were in life. Damokles has been the first to die at the monster's hands. He was only sixteen summers old, yet he'd thought himself a grown man. Until him, the Resistance had been a primarily underground movement. Pamphlets were circulated to those who might have been interested, and plans for change had been made quietly. Then, Damokles chose to step into the agora and speak, to use his charisma and charm to deliver his message to the people. He'd said he had a man's purpose, and therefore he would have a man's courage; that there must be no more whispers, but a loud call for change. Three days later, he was sentenced to a public crucifixion.
"Luckily, you might still be useful to me," said the Conqueror. "Depending, of course."
Me, useful? Gabrielle found the thought almost laughable. The ruler had all of Thrace and Macedonia beneath her boot, an army several legions large, and palace full of fine treasures. What could I possible have to offer in comparison? She swallowed, and took the bait. "Depending upon what?"
"You know a woman named Amarice." It was a definitive statement.
"She isn't in the Resistance," Gabrielle said, and then cringed as she hurriedly corrected herself, "There's no one in the Resistance by that name."
"But you know her, don't you. Is she a friend of yours?" Gabrielle pressed her lips together firmly. "Don't delude yourself into thinking you have options here, Gabrielle. I could make you beg for the mercy of the cross, but right now, I'm giving you a chance to use that eager tongue of yours without consequence."
Gabrielle hesitated. If she refused the Conqueror, she was as good as dead. Cooperation might gain her no more than a few listless days in her cell, but it might also buy her something better. Nowhere to go but up, she thought grimly.
"She's an acquaintance," she admitted grudgingly, and the Conqueror nodded.
"Good choice. We'll continue this conversation later, somewhere more comfortable. I'm sure you'd enjoy a reprieve from this filth."
When the door closed, Gabrielle became a shadow once more.
"She'll talk." Xena swept down the cellblock with her captain at her heels.
"What makes you think she'll speak truth?"
"She's on death row, Atreus. Everyone has a price. The weak want power and the powerful want wealth, but she just wants to stay alive. She's got nothing else to bargain with."
"But she hates you," he said bluntly. "She's an insurrectionist who wants to see you fall."
The Conqueror halted abruptly at the foot of the stairwell and grabbed Atreus by the collar, slamming him against the wall. "You know who else wants to see me fall?" She snarled. "The loyal officer that took those maps out of the keep and sold them to the highest bidder! He was your subordinate Atreus. You bring me the thief's head, or I'll cut yours off. You got that?"
Atreus managed a nod. "Yes, Conqueror." Xena's fist tightened around the material at his throat, and then unclenched. The captain let out a relieved sigh, and gingerly massaged his neck. Atreus had been with Xena since her earliest days, but when she was in a rage, there was no reprieve given for tenure.
"I want checkpoints at all the gates, and double the guard. I don't care if it's your own mother stepping out for some country air—nobody leaves this city without being searched."
"As you will." Atreus clapped his fist against his breastplate in salute, and then hurried off toward the barracks. Xena watched his departure with narrowed eyes, her jaw clenched in frustration. After a brief moment of pause, she climbed the rest of the stairs and headed for her chambers.
It was not a guard, but one of the serving women who came to retrieve Gabrielle. The maid was narrow as a sapling, with dusty hair that was graying at the temples, and hands made rough by seasons of labor. As soon as she stepped into the cell, she launched into a tirade about the state of Gabrielle's too-lean flesh and ragged clothing. It was intended more for the ears of the guard than the prisoner, but it stung nonetheless. No one likes to be reminded how far they've fallen,Gabrielle thought bitterly.
"Up you get," the woman urged, "And quickly, too. The Conqueror wants you at sundown, and you can hardly sit at her table clad in nothing but dirt and rags."
"At her table?" Gabrielle repeated, stretching the stiffness from her legs and following the woman out of the cell. The light made her squint.
"To dine, child."
Dining in the Conqueror's chambers, with no one for company but the Conqueror herself? It was rather like walking into a beast's lair unarmed, Gabrielle thought. If she died in there, no one would be the wiser. She swallowed, and forced herself to calm. Leaping to morbid conclusions wouldn't do any good for either her situation or her nerves. As a member of the Resistance, she wanted to make the Conqueror hear her. There was no better assurance of this than a private audience, and though the subject might not be of her choosing, it was an opportunity she could ill-afford to squander.
The maid, who said her name was Kora, led Gabrielle out of the dungeons and across a yard. It was little more than a barren patch of dirt used for sparring, but Gabrielle was sure she'd never smelled anything so wonderful as that open air—until she inhaled the scent of the kitchens, a tantalizing current of warmth and spice that chased away the chill in her bones. There were people everywhere she looked; some were carrying trays of roasted meats and vegetables, while others were hauling water. The throng of people was so thick that Gabrielle felt sure she would have been stampeded if not for her guide.
She was then taken to the servants' quarters to wash. Though the water was cold, she'd never experienced anything so cathartic. With a rough cloth, Gabrielle scrubbed away the dirt that streaked her skin, the sweat from her night terrors, the stench and the grime and the oily feel of the dungeons. Layer by layer, her imprisonment fell away, replaced by the scent of jasmine soap and pinkish, newborn skin. Gabrielle's old clothes were discarded, and she was given a new skirt and blouse, slightly worn but wonderfully soft.
When she was dressed, Kora gave her an appraising look, and nodded. "Good. Come along, child. Here, you take this tray, and I'll show you where to go. Speak honestly, and remember to show the Conqueror her due respect."
A few moments later, Gabrielle stood in front of the door to Xena's private chambers. Carefully, she balanced the tray across one arm and knocked on the door.
"Come in." Though the Conqueror's voice was muffled by heavy oak, it was no less intimidating. With a nervous swallow, the girl pushed open the door and stepped over the threshold. At first glance she didn't even see the woman who'd summoned her, as her eyes were too busy taking in the opulence of the room. The pillows and coverlets were dyed the deepest of blues, and tapestries of incredible detail hung periodically along the walls. A set of windows overlooked a private garden, and Gabrielle could smell the perfume of the roses growing below. There's more wealth in this room than the whole of Potidaea.
"Not quite what you're accustomed to?" Gabrielle's eyes snapped back onto the Conqueror, who sat at the table with a few scrolls spread before her. The ruler chuckled softly. "It wouldn't have been my choice, but I didn't do the decorating. Bring that over here."
Gabrielle obeyed, setting the dinner tray down on the table, and then hovering uncertainly. Xena stared at her, and Gabrielle's cheeks began to burn when she realized what was expected. Humiliated, she knelt on the floor at the Conqueror's feet. Gabrielle had never fallen to her knees before anyone but the gods, and yet here she was, a victim to the very submission that she spoke against. Gabrielle didn't want to believe that anyone was truly evil, but the Conqueror was trying her philosophy.
"You hungry, Gabrielle?"
"Yes, Conqueror," she said quietly, trying to keep the shameful tremor from her voice.
The tray was set in front of her, and Gabrielle's stomach rumbled to life. She cast a hesitant glance at the dark-haired woman, who raised an eyebrow in challenge. After a diet composed entirely of stale bread and cement-thick porridge, the rich food seemed like a mirage. Her hand shook as she grasped a piece of fruit, and she sniffed it cautiously before taking a bite. It was so sweet to Gabrielle's unaccustomed tongue that it tasted like pure sugar, and she felt full after only a few mouthfuls.
"Now, let's talk about Amarice." The Conqueror reclined in her seat, watching her guest intently. "Who is she? What's her connection to the Resistance?"
"As I said, Conqueror, she's not one of us."
"But she has common purpose."
"I guess you could say so. She and I… we disagree with aspects of your rule, but we believe in different ways of righting them. Amarice thinks justice can only be found at the end of a sword. That's not the purpose of the Resistance."
"No?" Xena raised her eyebrows in amusement. "You want me deposed. How would you fight me, if not with weapons?"
"With words," Gabrielle said softly.
"Words?" The Conqueror laughed. "You might think idealism is a strength, Gabrielle, but words couldn't save your friends. They spoke until their last breath, and now they're dead. What victory do you see in that?"
Hot tears sprang to Gabrielle's eyes. "They're dead because you feared their voices. You just admitted it!"
"I fear nothing," Xena said flatly.
Gabrielle trembled with anger. She wouldn't let this woman turn her ideology into a lie. Damokles' death was not a waste, she thought furiously. I won't let it be.
"Where can I find Amarice?" The Conqueror asked.
Gabrielle lifted her head and met the Conqueror's gaze. Despite her reddened and tearstained cheeks, her eyes were alight with defiance. "I won't be an accomplice in her murder."
"This isn't about morality." The dark-haired ruler leaned forward. "It's about security. She stole scrolls of a very sensitive nature, documents that could bring the armies of the south to our doorstep. If the Spartans come marching, it's not just me that will pay the price. It's you, and your rebel friends, and all the farmers outside the city walls. So I need you to tell me where she is."
The Conqueror's eyes were fixed on Gabrielle's, and she swallowed. Amarice wasn't exactly a friend, and if what Xena said was true, she had a duty to the kingdom. But how much could Gabrielle trust in the Conqueror's word? This was a woman who had systematically hunted down and executed her friends, belittled their deaths, and condemned Gabrielle herself to the cross. Maybe Xena was lying. Maybe she just wanted to eliminate another potential threat.
"Come on, Gabrielle" the Conqueror rumbled. "It's not my life that's at stake."
"I want your word that you're telling me the truth," Gabrielle said shakily. "That Amarice really did what you accused her of."
"You have it."
The girl took a steadying breath. "She doesn't live in the city, at least not permanently. I think it's the Amazon in her. Walls make her feel caged. She-"
"Did you say Amazon?"
Xena was on her feet in an instant, striding past Gabrielle and yanking the chamber door almost off its hinges.
"Guard! Find Captain Atreus and bring him here now!" As the soldier hastened to obey, the Conqueror began to pace, one hand habitually gripping the sword hilt at her waist. "Those documents had maps; battle plans for my march south, through Thessaly, right past the Amazon border. If I know their queen half as well as I think, that's a threat she won't take lying down. That's where your friend Amarice is headed, and I'm going after her." She eyed the open-mouthed Gabrielle, and then sneered. "You can come. We'll need someone to identify the body."