Summary: Part II of the story that began with Conquest Hindered, and picks up directly where that left off (If you haven't read CH, this one won't make much sense to you!) Gabrielle and Kyros are on the run, and the Conqueror is launching a campaign against Sparta. Their relationship remains unresolved, but how long will it be until they meet again, and what will happen when they do?
Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, etc are owned by Rob Tapert and the Ren. Pics people, and I don't profit from the writing of this story in any way. Characters not from the show Xena: Warrior Princess are my own creations.
This incarnation of Xena is known as the Conqueror, so she's a little different than the one we all know. Puppies, rainbows, and cuteness are banned in her domain. Well, not really, but keep in mind that she's done some naughty deeds. She hasn't yet experienced the emotional benefits of heroism and a lovable sidekick - that said, she's not a sadistic torturer either, so don't be afraid!
This story contains subtext/maintext between two women.
Chapter One: (Xena's POV)
I've never been good with emotions. If I were, I'd have seen it all coming; it was in her eyes. The afternoon when I called Gabrielle to my study, there was something off about her and I couldn't place it. Her carriage was the same, and so was the way she spoke—soft and relentless at the same time, bolder than she had any right to be. But her eyes… they were different. I knew fear like an old friend, and I often made companions of anger and greed, but I couldn't put a name to what I saw in Gabrielle's gaze. No one had ever looked at me that way before, but as I stood facing her in the darkness I understood everything with vivid clarity: she'd been meaning to betray me all along. I had pardoned her, given her a second chance at life, and showed her emotions that I'd been guarding for as long as I could remember. The hollowness of these gestures made me angry, but it was the betrayal of trust that hurt, more painful than any cut from a blade. I should have screamed at her or summoned the nearest guards, but when I opened my mouth, all that came out was her name.
It was little more than a whisper, a desperate plea. I was begging her. What for? To stop this idiocy, to return to her chamber at once and pretend that a fit of madness had temporarily overtaken her, and then passed. You can't play this game, Gabrielle. You don't even know the rules, and you'll make enemies of us again. But she couldn't read my thoughts, and if she heard my voice she didn't acknowledge it. She ran.
My hand clenched around the hilt of my sword and I could hear the blood pounding in my ears as I took two heavy steps after her—but no more. It's funny, but I hardly noticed the boy. This whole mess was for Kyros' benefit, but in that moment he was nothing to me. I only had eyes for Gabrielle's shadow, and it faded, leaving me alone in the dark.
For a time I remained staring at that gloomy spot where she'd disappeared. I felt moisture on my cheeks and thought—ridiculously—that I'd started crying. But it was rain that fell, not tears. I was soaked through to the skin, and the grit beneath my feet had turned to mud while I stood clutching my sword, fingers nearly numb from the tension. When I came out from this reverie I sheathed the blade calmly and made for my chambers. I passed two guardsmen of the night watch, warming their hands by a brazier in the hall. They saluted like good soldiers, but I paid no attention to them. I reached my room and stripped off my wet clothes, exchanging them for a long silk robe. I poured a mug of water, drained it, and hurled it across the room.
"Fuck!" I cursed as it hit the wall. The explosion of ceramic was somehow gratifying, so I picked up a vase and threw that too, watching the shards fly, swearing like an Ionian pirate. The washbasin, an inkwell, and a number of empty scroll tubes followed in quick succession, but the adrenaline faded as quickly as it had come. I sank into my chair and took long breaths until my pulse slowed. Gods, I hated her. At least, I wanted to. I wanted to hunt her down, rage at her, and kill her. But inexplicably, I also wanted her to get away.
In the half-light provided by the candelabra, I surveyed my empty room. It had always been too lavish for my taste, flaunting the wealth of the throne with its tapestries and silks. I had intended to reduce the clutter when I took these chambers for my own, but somehow that never reached the top of my agenda. Now even the air in here felt crowded, and I was overcome by the need to feel the wind on my face and the earth beneath me at night. That's how it was before I became the Conqueror: poorer and simpler. I didn't know anything but the country, the bloodlust, the battles. Now I was caught between the walls of the city, burdened by actualities like power, politics, and wealth.
I waited for sunrise. When it came, so did Atreus.
"Report," I instructed, unmoving, my back rigid in the chair.
"I have grave news, Conqueror." He bowed his head apologetically. Under other circumstances, the term 'grave news' would have sparked my fury. As it was, I already knew what his report would be.
"The boy, Kyros, is missing," Atreus went on cautiously. "His guard was just discovered in the chamber. Says he was incapacitated by another soldier while on watch."
"It was no soldier that clubbed him," I corrected impatiently. "It was Gabrielle."
"What? Gabrielle?" He looked incredulous, and I couldn't blame him. "But the man swears his attacker was in uniform."
"So she was," I confirmed, rising to my feet. "She stole a uniform and she broke the boy out of his cell, right under the nose of your hand-picked guards. Would you care to explain how that happened?"
"I… I couldn't say, Conqueror. I don't know."
"Then you'd better find out, huh?"
"Yes. Of course" My captain was no longer looking at me. He was proud of his rank, and it would shame him that such a security lapse happened under his supervision. Accountability generally diminished with promotion, but in Atreus it flourished. He had risen through the ranks by surviving the early days and showing good judgment, and he was one of a handful of people that I found trustworthy. Of course, such assumptions can be flawed—after all, I had trusted Gabrielle.
"I have two men searching the boy's chamber," Atreus added, "looking for clues to their accomplices, their destination."
"You won't find anything," I said dismissively. "Gabrielle's not foolish, she'll have covered her tracks, or had someone else do it for her."
"We did find this." His voice was suddenly tentative, and he lifted a satchel and extended it toward me. It appeared empty, but I took it from him anyway and pulled open the drawstring. At the bottom was a pile of fine gold hair. My mouth went dry, and I swallowed hastily to cover my surprise.
"Should we mount a search, Conqueror? They can't have gotten far in only a few hours. If we send scouts out within a few leagues of the city-"
"No," I interrupted, dropping the sack with as much indifference as I could muster. "We're marching to war, Captain. I won't squander a whole company of soldiers on some game of hide-and-seek. "
"What about the city guards?"
"They'll be spread thin enough trying to keep order in my absence. They'll remain where they're stationed and do their jobs."
"But Conqueror, the boy-"
"Is not your concern," I warned, in a tone of finality. Kyros was my problem, and a private one. I was the only one who knew who he was, what he was—Gabrielle might have uncovered part of it, but not even the boy knew the whole truth. I had intended for it to remain that way, but now he was out of my hands, and so was his safety.
I bowed my head and massaged my temples with the tips of my fingers. "How long until the army is assembled?"
"The men from Phillipi will be here by nightfall," Atreus assured. "The rest of the host is here and awaiting your command, Conqueror."
"Good. I want to move out tomorrow."
"A day early?"
I nodded. "Gabrielle will take the boy South. They're political fugitives now, so there's nowhere for her to hide him within the realm. Her best hope is to flee somewhere outside of my jurisdiction. With the boy in tow and the illusion of a head start, her progress will be slow. If she's going our way, we'll catch up with her." I didn't know whether I hoped for this or dreaded it, and either way I wasn't even sure I was right. But if my voice betrayed that uncertainty, Atreus didn't seem to notice.
"As you say, Conqueror," he confirmed. "I'll spread the word."
"Good. Dismissed, Captain.
When he was gone I donned a plain shirt beneath a leather jerkin, and a pair of functional trousers. I wanted to survey the troops for myself, so I went down to the stables to find my horse.
Argo whinnied softly when she saw me, tossing her head, and I smiled and brushed my fingertips across her strong shoulder. "It's good to see you too, girl." Riding had somehow become a rarity for me lately. Matters of state kept me to my desk, and even in my spare time if was difficult to ride in a city of stone. The streets were too crowded and the alleyways too narrow. Gods. I felt like some fool queen sitting in a tower, drowning myself in silk while the rest of the world experienced life. The war campaign was more than a campaign to me now—it was a lifeline, to keep me from going stir-crazy.
I took my time tacking up Argo, stroking the lean muscle of her body, and apologizing for being so long between visits. When I finally mounted and gathered the reins in my hands, I felt a measure of strength flow through me, and it brought a rare smile to my lips. "All right, girl. Let's go give 'em hell, huh?" And then we were off.
People swayed and parted like waves of long grass as we trotted through the city. Some eyed me warily, others with excitement. Let them stare, I thought with an odd sense of satisfaction. It's the last they'll be seeing of me for a while. Soon I was through the gates, cantering toward the group of tents that seemed to sprawl for an entire league. The sight was impressive to my eyes—I hoped it was thus to the Spartans, when it arrived at their gates.
"Conqueror!" One of the soldiers hailed me, and I could see from his helm that he was an officer. I brought Argo to a stop and returned the man's salute.
"Captain. What news?"
"The men from Phillipi are approaching. Will you meet them?"
"I will," I consented. The officer led the way on his own mount, and we met the approaching cavalry a few hundred yards from the far side of the camp. Their company was half a century strong, and well-outfitted.
"Soldiers of Phillipi!" I called, turning Argo to ride across the breadth of their column. "Men of the North! Your arrival is well timed. Tonight, you will enjoy the company of your brothers. Tomorrow we march south, toward conquest!"
A roar of approval greeted my words. A few of them took up the chant of my title, yelling Conqueror! Conqueror! They thrust their swords in the air with each repetition, and the wave of sound grew. Had I any more words, I couldn't have made myself heard above the din. Instead I drew my own blade, and held it aloft in salute as I rode back across the column. Conqueror, they responded as one. Conqueror! I indulged in a grim smile.
I returned to the keep in the late afternoon, to pack the few things I would take with me when I rode. My eyes fell upon the sack that Atreus had brought me earlier, the one containing Gabrielle's hair. I would have burned it, if not for the horrible smell it would have created. I could think of no practical way to discard it, so I decided to simply stuff the bag into the bottom of a trunk and let it rot there as it may. But as I bent to close the lid, some foolishness overcame me and I rescued one golden lock from the pile. It was soft upon my open palm, and the reflection of the firelight made it shine. Without knowing why, I placed the little clump of gold into a pouch, and then tucked into my belt.
I decided to write part of this story in Xena's POV, mainly because I enjoy writing first person (and am much faster at it, strangely). Please let me how you feel about this style - if you hate it, let me know :) I promise I take constructive criticism well. Thanks for reading!