Stranger In A Strange Time chapter 9 by Red Hope

Chapter 9 – Face Me

Very slowly she moved her head to the right to stretch her neck then to the left yet she didn’t open her eyes. When the back of her aching head touched the rough surface behind her, her hallow eyes started to reveal themselves. The first thing she took in were the six women standing before her, three on the right and three on the left. They all bore ready weapons, dressed in leathers, and over their faces were distinct and beautiful wood masks.

The Conqueror’s upper lip curled at seeing the six Amazon guards and her head lowered to the weight she felt on her wrists and ankles. She swiftly brought up her arms to test the well engineered chains’ tension and they sounded in minor protest against her great strength. This was absolutely impossible for her to be in an Amazon jail when just earlier she’d gone to sleep in her bed. That was her last memory or at least she was fairly sure of it.

For a heartbeat she studied her simple attire, which was only her leathers that covered her upper body, torso, and turned into a skirt around her upper thighs. These were standards leathers for battle and typically armor fit snuggle against it all. The leather straps on her broad shoulders were slightly moved off but she ignored that for now.

The jail hut was rather small and made of wood, including the heavy wood door between the six Amazons, but every part was reinforced with metal. The door also had a small window with metal bars but that was the only source of natural light. There were a couple of lit torches hooked to the walls but those were far from her reach. The Conqueror was anchored to the wood beam on the floor and the beam was bolted to the floor quite precisely. She currently sat on a sturdy wood bench that had no back but the wall behind her.

The Conqueror was suddenly enraged and she gave a powerful struggle against her chains so that she stood up now.

The Amazon guards all reacted accordingly as the four with spears lifted them and took aim. The other two with swords each took a menacing step forward. No Amazon spoke as their stances and weapons said plenty to the dark ruler.

The Conqueror bared her teeth at them and growled, “Where is Queen Cyane?”

The Amazons did not answer but remained poised and ready to attack not that they were fearful of the Conqueror’s threats.

When the Conqueror didn’t receive any response, her eyes narrowed more and her tone grew deeper. “I want to talk to Queen Cyane… now!” For a beat she tried her chains again yet failed.

The six guards knew there was nothing the dark ruler could possibly do so one by one, they returned to their positions along the wall.

The Conqueror wasn’t too thrilled with this, her expression furious but she too knew she held no control over these Amazons. With gritted teeth, she slowly sat down but her burning eyes scanned over each guard.

The Amazons had no fear of the ruler as they were specially selected for this particularly duty. Their masks even helped them to feel slightly distanced from the ruler’s dangerous looks.

The Conqueror settled on the bench and as she waited for some form of communication, she ran through her memory. She didn’t recall any of the required trip it would have taken her to get to the Amazon Nation. She couldn’t think of seeing any Amazon when she was last awake. She admitted, secretly, that these Amazons had out smarted her for once and it would be only this once after she was free.

It wasn’t for another candlemark, since the ruler woke up, that the heavy door opened by an outside guard. After the guard stepped aside, the Amazon Queen sauntered in with a stoic expression. Her face was hard and her eyes frozen at seeing her greatest enemy ever.

The Conqueror suddenly leered at seeing Queen Cyane before her. She quickly stood up and took a menacing step yet she was cut short right in front of the Amazon Queen.

“I see you’ve finally awake after two days,” drew out the Amazon Queen.

If the Conqueror was dumbfounded by the amount of time she’d been unconscious, she certainly didn’t show it. “It’s been a long time, Queen Cyane.” Her lips pulled into an amused grin.

“Not long enough though,” charged back Cyane. She stood still, a breath away from the dangerous ruler, and her arms folded over her chest. “I’m informing you, Xena of Amphipolis, you will be put on trial for your crimes against the Amazon Nation. You will submit to Amazon justice for your crimes.” With that, she started for the door with a rap on it.

The ruler sarcastically laughed. “Queen Cyane, I thought you more intelligent than that. I see the seasons have inflicted your intelligence.”

The Amazon Queen waited a beat in the now open doorway but she smiled back at the ruler. “Conqueror, I believe it is your intelligence that has been… softened.” She held out a hand to the ruler and amusingly stated, “It is you that is chained in the Amazon Nation.” With a satisfying smirk on her face, she disappeared from the jail hut and a loud boom of the door followed her.

The Conqueror was grinding her teeth however that was the only indication of her irritation. She returned to sitting on the bench and went into deep thought about what could have happened, what is happening, and what will soon come to her. Eventually she found herself leaning back against the wall, her eyes closed, a grin on her face, and a content feeling washing over her.

It wasn’t until the following morning she was awakened abruptly by freezing water in her face. Her eyes flew open and her anger vibrant before the idiot that did such to her.

The guard that’d carried out the duty was quite satisfied at doing it but nobody but her knew that since her mask hid her face. She exited the open jail door with bucket in hand and nodded to somebody on the left.

The Conqueror had wiped the cold water from her face and pushed her bangs up. Just as she finished, her head lifted to meet the view of a small blond limping into the jail. She’d been waiting for the rebel leader to surface and it made her grin.

“Good morning, Conqueror,” greeted the rebel leader.

The dark ruler imposed by standing up to her full height and her cold eyes down on the younger woman.

Gabrielle didn’t crumble under the intimidation act but instead she tried to smile at the irony between them. “Sorry for the rude awakening but….” Her smile slipped into a fine grin. “Nobody is keen on shaking you awake.”

The Conqueror grunted then stated, “Saying my title always works.”

“True,” allowed the rebel leader. She limped her way off to the right then stopped and faced the ruler again. The entire time she sensed those burning blue eyes of the ruler on her. “Your trial begins at Helios high today.”

The Conqueror cocked her head to one side because she knew this wasn’t just an information session from the young rebel, she had some other purpose too.

Gabrielle studied the curious eyes high up. “I’m here to explain to you how an Amazon trial works.” She turned and limped to the other side of the jail.

“Especially since you’re an expert… with being an Amazon and all,” coldly joked the ruler.

The bard smirked up at the tall, dark woman before her. “I’ve done my homework… I know how things work.” She then hesitated and cleared her throat. “The Amazon that is prosecuting for the Nation goes by the name of Velasca.” Gabrielle noted how the ruler’s eyelids were slitting at her.

“Which means I need somebody to defend me,” logically concluded the ruler. She knew exactly where this conversation was going now.

“Yes,” quietly agreed the rebel. “Nobody in the Nation wishes to defend you.”

The Conqueror grunted and she was highly amused. “So you volunteered.”

Gabrielle tilted her head then offered a grin. “I did.” She turned and hobbled back across the jail. “The Amazon Nation is prosecuting you for the deaths of Queen Cyane’s elders in her original Nation and for assaulting Queen Cyane.” She was staring at the floor but now peered up. “They’re not prosecuting you for the wars or any deaths during the wars as those fall under the acts of warfare and diplomatics.”

“And what exactly makes Queen Cyane think that my army will not be marching over the Amazon Nation in the near future?”

Gabrielle knew she would hear about this and she’d already thought out her answer ahead of time. “Let’s say that nobody in Corinth will be missing you.” She slightly adjusted her weight on her walking stick. “You are here for the duration, Conqueror.”

The Conqueror’s jaw was set as her mind worked out how any of this was possible. She knew she’d get the pieces of the puzzle together soon enough.

“So,” started Gabrielle, “I’ve heard everybody else’s version of what happened that day you attacked the queen and her elders.” She stepped closer but not too close. “I want to hear your version.”

The Conqueror slowly let a joking smirk form then she laughed. “Don’t bother, rebel.” She waved her off then sat down on the bench. “I believe you’ve claimed enough reputation off of my name and history.”

A surge of anger rushed the bard’s body and she quickly limped up to the dangerous ruler.

The Amazon guards were not prepared for it as they quickly stepped forward with spears and swords at the ready.

Gabrielle ignored them as she had enough courage to override her fears. She met those steel blue eyes with her own furious ones. “Listen to me, you are not the Conqueror here… you are just another human here and you will be tried then you will be sentenced and last… you will carry out that sentence. There is no army here and there is no army coming.” She stopped for a beat so that it’d soak into the ruler’s mind. Then quietly and slowly she stated, “I am your only hope at beating this.”

The Conqueror seemed unmoved and her eyes a dead blue.

The rebel leader kept her surge of confidence so she ordered, “Now tell me what happened that day.”

The ruler straightened her back out and signaled the bench while offering, “Have a seat.”

The guards exchanged looks as the rebel leader took a grateful seat beside the dark ruler.

“I could easily kill you,” mentioned the Conqueror, who watched the rebel take a spot beside her.

“You already tried that,” remarked Gabrielle, “and it didn’t work.” She was rewarded by an amused grin from the ruler.

“My next chance I will be sure to execute you myself.”

The bard was chilled by the Conqueror’s idle remarks but she never showed it. She wouldn’t give into this mind game. “If you get another chance,” reminded the leader.

The Conqueror leaned in towards her enemy and murmured, “Ooo I will.”

Gabrielle held her gaze and didn’t falter. “You’re detouring from the topic at hand.”

The tyrannical ruler exhaled loudly then leaned back into her original position. “It won’t do you any good.”

The bard shrugged. “Let me judge that. Go on.”

The Conqueror again sighed yet it almost seemed to have a touch of sadness behind it. She glanced away from the rebel then back at her. “I’d just returned from Chin.”

Gabrielle dipped her head in acknowledgement; she was carefully listening and images formed before her imaginative mind. She tried not to flinch when the ruler told her the gory details of it but she’d asked.

Eventually the Amazon guards returned to their posts in the jail. They decided the ruler wasn’t any danger to the rebel even though that seemed so far fetched. They were baffled by the ease at which the two enemies spoke as if the events from a moon ago never happened.

“So,” interrupted Gabrielle, “by then you and Alti were… close, right?”

The Conqueror’s features returned some frustrations. “Yes.”

The bard licked her lips while she was in consideration of the past events. “Was Alti powerful then?”

The Conqueror tilted back some so that she had a better view of the smaller woman. “Compared to now, no but she certainly had powers then.” She could almost see the rebel’s mind calculating something.

“Hmmm,” mumbled the bard. “And she wanted Cyane and the elders dead so she could have their blood?”

“Yes,” simply answered the ruler.

The bard’s head was dipped down, her lips neatly pressed together, and her brow tight. She suddenly stood up with her walking stick balancing her on her weak legs. “I need to see to something.” She started to walk off but the rattling of the chains made her stop and peer over her shoulder.

“You won’t find the answer you want,” stated the Conqueror, “it was… my hands.”

Gabrielle shrugged, said nothing, and tapped on the door. When she left the jail cell, she started across the village and made a beeline for the temple. She made the slow journey up the steps then into the temple, which at first seemed empty. Eventually she was greeted by the shaman of the temple.

“Welcome, Gabrielle.” Yakut bowed her head in respect then smiled when she lifted her head. “What brings you here?”

The rebel diverted her attention from the beautiful painting of Artemis and smiled at Yakut. “Do you have some free time?”

“Of course, let’s go to my office so we can sit.” The shaman escorted the outsider through the side of the temple and into her office. She let Gabrielle sit then she took her chair behind her desk. “I can tell you’re puzzled by something.”

“I am,” agreed the bard. “Its about the Conqueror and Alti.”

Yakut suspected as much and she leaned back in her chair.

“I was curious if there’s any possibility for Alti to….” Gabrielle couldn’t quite phrase it right but she tried, “For her to control the Conqueror at all?”

The shaman truly considered the question and ran through her shamanism teachings. “Alti cannot control the Conqueror’s karma when it is her own.”

“That’s not exactly what I’m asking.” Gabrielle sighed as she tried to rework her words. “What I mean is can Alti influence the Conqueror at all? Either on a spiritual or mental level.”

Yakut now realized what the rebel was trying to construct. “It is possible that Alti greatly influences the Conqueror on a spiritual level so that she acts a certain way.”

“Do you think it’s intentional on Alti’s part?” tried the bard.

Yakut shook her head. “No shaman has control over another human’s spirit when they are alive.” She leaned forward then stated, “However what is possible is that since Alti and the Conqueror have karmas on similar paths that they feed off each other.”

Gabrielle digested this information and it was rather encouraging. “Is this common?”

“Very much so,” answered the shaman. “A shaman can easily influence a person’s karma in a certain direction.”

The rebel narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “How soon can that influence begin?”

“As soon as they meet,” replied the shaman. “It is instantaneous and is almost permanent especially over time.”

“Do you think Alti could have built some link between her and the Conqueror?”

The shaman sighed and leaned back into her chair. “It is possible but I can’t be sure.”

“Is there a way to find out?” challenged the rebel.

Yakut slowly nodded.

“If there is a link,” charged on the bard, “can it be broken?”

The shaman quickly realized what Gabrielle was trying for and she exhaled. “It is possible,” she relented, “but there’s no guarantees.” She tilted her head at the outsider. “I am not as powerful as Alti, Gabrielle.”

The rebel suddenly had determined features. “There has to be something you can do, Yakut.”

The shaman was jarred by the similar words she’d heard not so long ago. Her head fell forward, her eyes closed with many thoughts in mind.

“Yakut, please try.”

Yakut slowly lifted her head and saw the mirror of Janice Covington asking for help. She’d already refused Janice the first time and now Gabrielle’s very descendant was left brutalized by the dark ruler. She suddenly stood up and stated, “I will see what I can do, Gabrielle.” She stepped around her desk as Gabrielle rose up.

“When will you try?” The rebel limped along side the shaman.

Yakut knew she would require the queen’s authorization but she also knew the queen’s response ahead of time. “I will try now.”

The bard brightened at this news. “Thank you so much, Yakut.”

Yakut only dipped her head and prayed to Artemis that this was the right thing to do. She followed Gabrielle out of the temple, down the steps, and through the village to the jail hut. When she came upon the jail hut, the two Amazons at the door stepped in her path before the door.

“You are not authorized to the see the prisoner,” informed guard on the right.

The shaman was slightly taken aback.

“You must speak to Queen Cyane,” further added the Amazon.

“She’s with me,” argued the bard.

The Amazon switched her attention to Gabrielle. “And you are not the queen.”

This wasn’t exactly something Yakut felt like taking up with the queen. So instead she stepped closer to the Amazon and murmured, “Who guided her mother to the Amazon Lands, Karis?” She gave a challenging look. “Was it the queen?”

The guard swallowed and glanced at the other guard. She relented by stepping back to the jail door. After she opened the door, she stepped aside and let the pair pass.

Yakut hesitated and turned to the rebel. “Wait here… I must do this alone.”

The bard wanted to argue, her mouth already half open, but she stopped herself. She nodded then backed away from the door.

The Conqueror knew exactly what this new visitor was by the way she dressed. The headdress particularly gave the Amazon away more than anything else. She was amused by how these shamans seemed to attract to her like bees to honey.

Yakut stood before the ruler and for the first time had truly absorbed her striking power. “I am Yakut, I’m the sh-”

“Shaman,” finished the ruler. “And you’re not here for a social call, are you?”

The Amazon shaman swallowed as she gathered her internal strength.

“This has to do with Alti,” tried the Conqueror.

Yakut didn’t reply and stepped forward with her hands slightly lifting.

The Conqueror sensed a threat so she stood up quickly, her chains sounding out. “Try coming closer.”

The guards were prepared already having detected the tension when the shaman first entered.

Yakut ignored the warning and came closer to the ruler, she found herself in the ruler’s moving space.

It happened too fast for anybody to really recall what’d happened but somehow the Conqueror had ended up on her knees. Her head thrown back, mouth open in a silent scream, and Yakut’s hands pressed against her temples. Yakut stood like a statue, her eyes closed, and her features twisted tightly.

The Conqueror was numb to her body and paralyzed all over. Her mind was swarmed by things she couldn’t understand and it was overwhelming. Her heartbeat was going fast like a lightening bolt strike then suddenly her heart ceased for an instant. Then sensations struck her hard again and she could breathe once more.

Yakut’s hands were removed.

The Conqueror’s right hand shot up and caught the shaman by the neck. She was growling while standing up and lifting the shaman up.

Yakut gasped and struggled against the solid hand on her neck that were crushing her wind pipes.

The guards were already in action. The guard that was the fastest had given a thrust with her spear, which inflicted the Conqueror’s right shoulder.

The Conqueror’s hold on Yakut wasn’t broken for a few heartbeats then her world quickly spun.

Yakut suck in her last small breath yet she watched in amazement as the powerful ruler lost control and collapsed to her knees again. Her feet touched the floor and she stumbled back when she was released.

The guards pressed forward quickly and separated the shaman and ruler.

The Conqueror dizzyingly watched the guards then everything went black as there was a sharp pain up her right side.

Yakut was bent forward and gasping for air. She lifted her head but still was bent over and she stared at the Conqueror passed out on the floor.

Five of the guards worked together to lifted the unconscious ruler and throw her onto the bench. The sixth guard rushed to Yakut’s side while shoving her mask back. It was the same guard that’d used her spear to subdue the ruler, the blood on the tip of her spear.

“Are you okay, Yakut?”

Yakut offered a confident smile to her savior. “I am now. Thank you, Solari.”

Solari sadly smiled and touched the shaman’s shoulder. “What happened?”

The shaman straightened out her headdress then inhaled happily. “Alti had established a connection between her and the Conqueror over time. I broke it.”

Solari glanced at the ruler then at Yakut again. “Isn’t that risky? I mean, won’t Alti detect it’s been broken?”

“It’s possible,” slowly agreed Yakut, “but I doubt it especially since Melinda is there.”

“I hope you’re right,” murmured the Amazon. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine, Solari.” The shaman gave an appreciative smile. “Now I do believe the rumors about you being swift.”

Solari had a gloating grin. “They were never rumors.”

Yakut softly laughed then touched Solari’s arm for a heartbeat. “I should go. Thank you again, Solari.”

“You are welcome.” Solari tapped on the heavy door.

The shaman gave a polite nod to Solari then left the jail. She was instantly greeted by the concerned rebel.

“What happened?” urged Gabrielle. She hesitated for a beat as she took in the red mark around the shaman’s neck. “Are you okay, Yakut?”

Yakut heard the jail door close behind her. She finally nodded. “I’m fine.” She came closer to the rebel. “The Conqueror and I didn’t… see eye to eye.”

The bard snorted while shaking her head. “Well don’t feel left out.”

Yakut faintly smiled then she lost it. “I managed to break the connection.”

Gabrielle was thrilled, her face lit up. “So there was one?” At the shaman’s nod, she pressed forward. “And it was a strong one?”

“Yes but it is gone.” Yakut clasped the bard’s left arm and signaled her to walk with her. “There is a catch though.”

“What is that?”

The shaman peered over at the rebel then turned away. “Atli will reestablish it easily when they meet again.”

“Can’t it be stopped?”

Yakut stopped walking and faced the outsider. “There is only one way to do that in this lifetime.”

Gabrielle read the shaman’s disheartened features and it dawned on her. “Alti has to be dead.” She swallowed hard when Yakut gave a brief nod. “And the Conqueror isn’t exactly keen on getting rid of her best asset.”

“Remember Gabrielle,” started the shaman, “Alti is also the Conqueror’s greatest enemy.” She exhaled deeply then changed the topic. “I should go as I have much to do at the temple.”

“I understand.” Gabrielle offered a warm smile. “Thank you, Yakut.”

The shaman reflected the smile at the outsider. “You’re welcome.” She took one step but gazed back at the rebel. “I will see you at the trial this afternoon… I look forward to your stance, Gabrielle.” Then with that, she continued back to the temple.

The bard was taken aback by the shaman’s words having expected every Amazon against the Conqueror. She shrugged it off then decided she would go first see how Cyrene and Melpomene were doing. Plus, she wanted to update Cyrene on what was happening with the Conqueror or rather her daughter.

Cyrene lifted her head and smiled when Gabrielle entered the guest hut. She saw the worn expression on the younger woman’s face and knew exactly why too. “The trial hasn’t even begun, Gabrielle.”

The bard sighed and mutually agreed. She took a seat at the desk before asking, “Where’s Melpomene?”

Cyrene had her back to Gabrielle now as she busied with making the bed. “Taking a quick bath.”

“Ah.” The rebel now picked up the faint sounds of splashing from the washroom. “The trial starts at Helios high… will you be there?”

Cyrene paused when she came to the foot of the bed but she faced the bard. “I don’t think so.” She continued finishing up with the bed however she spoke as she went along. “I’m not sure I’m ready for that, Gabrielle.”

The rebel leader clearly understood how Cyrene felt. “I know,” she murmured, her gaze to the floor. “How is Melpomene doing?”

“She asks often about Janice,” gently responded the older woman. “You haven’t heard word from Melinda yet?”

Gabrielle exhaled deeply and shook her head. “I’d expect to hear something any day now.”

“I hope so,” agreed Cyrene, “I hope she made it in time too.”

“I’m sure she did,” stated the confident bard.

Cyrene eyed the young woman just as she finished with the bed. She then came over and knelt down in front of Gabrielle. She carefully collected the bard’s hands into her own. “I know this is hard for you, Gabrielle.”

The rebel snorted and stared down at her laced hands with the Conqueror’s mother. “I don’t know why I’m doing this, Cyrene.” She finally met the grey-blue eyes that studied her. “She crucified me and here I am trying to save her from getting crucified.”

“Maybe what Janice told you has some merit in your heart then,” suggested Cyrene.

“Reforming the Conqueror?” Gabrielle sarcastically laughed. “Could she really do that, Cyrene? You know her better than anybody else.”

“I thought I did,” sadly admitted the mother, “but my daughter is truly the stranger.”

“I wish it is only that,” murmured Gabrielle, “and that she’s not a monster.” Her emotions surfaced. “I asked the shaman, Yakut, to break a connection that the Conqueror had with Alti.”

Cyrene was puzzled by this information. “What kind of a connection?”

“I’m not exactly sure but I think to some degree it’s influenced her to act as she does.”

“It’s not an excuse,” reminded Cyrene.

“I know,” relented the bard. “I think though its part of the explanation… we’ll see.” She didn’t want to voice her hopes about what the broken link between Alti and the Conqueror may or may not do. She simply had to wait it out and see if there was any noticeable shift in the dark ruler or not.

Cyrene patted the young woman’s hand, the young woman that’d very much filled some of the gap in her heart when Xena left her so long ago. She rose up and turned her head just as Melpomene came out wrapped up in a towel. “Feel better, dear?”

Melpomene had a bright smile yet it wasn’t quite as magnificent as both Gabrielle and Cyrene had seen it in the past. “A lot better.”

“Here are your things.” Cyrene picked up the clothes from the top of the dresser and handed them to the child.

“Thank you.” The girl happily took them then disappeared back into the washroom to get changed.

Gabrielle brushed her hair back some then quietly asked, “Do you think you’ll see the Conqueror, Cyrene?”

The mother faced the rebel yet she didn’t answer right away. “I have to… at some point but I’m not ready yet.”

The bard remained silent despite she understood.

“I will though,” promised Cyrene. “She and I have been putting it off far too long.”

“She’ll be furious when she finds out that you’ve sided with me,” reminded the concerned bard.

“And she can thank herself for that,” remarked the annoyed mother.

Gabrielle sadly smiled but lost it slowly. “I should get ready.” She stood up on her weak legs with her cane to help her. “What will you do today?”

“I’ll spend some time with Melpomene… I think she could use it.” Cyrene ended the conversation there as the child came back into the room. “You ready?”

The girl nodded a few times as she approached the women. “Are you coming with us, Gabrielle?”

“No, sweetie.” The bard neared the child, a smile revealing itself. “I have other engagements.”

“You mean with the Conqueror,” clarified the sharp child.

Gabrielle quietly sighed but nodded her head. “Yes… with the Conqueror.”

“I heard the Amazons talking… saying that the Conqueror will be hung.”

Gabrielle exchanged looks with Cyrene but returned her focus to the child. “It’s too early to tell yet, Melpomene.”

“You’re going to stop it,” stated the girl.

The bard bent forward and heavily leaned on her walking stick. “I’m going to try, yes.”

“Why?” argued Melpomene, “Why would you? She hurt you a moon and a half ago.”

“She did,” slowly agreed the bard. She wasn’t sure how to explain it to herself much less to young Melpomene.

“Did you forgive her?” inquired the curious girl.

Gabrielle exhaled deeply then answered, “Almost, Melpomene… almost.”

“Why? She took my sister from me… I won’t ever forgive her for that.”

“I know, Melpomene but you have to see beyond that.” Gabrielle bent forward more even though it hurt her legs greatly. “If I didn’t forgive her, Melpomene then I will become consumed with anger and hatred.”

“Like the Conqueror,” summarized the thoughtful girl. “I don’t want to be like the Conqueror either.”

“Then you must learn to forgive her, Melpomene but it takes time so don’t push yourself.”

Melpomene nodded her head and watched as the rebel leader straightened up as much as her body would allow her.

Cyrene held her hand out to the young child. “Come on, Melpomene.”

The girl smiled at the older woman that was becoming very much like a grandparent to her. She laced her hand through Cyrene’s, took a step, stopped, and quietly said to Gabrielle, “I hope they don’t hang her.” Without another word, she left the hut with Cyrene in tow.

Gabrielle watched the door closed and she muttered to nobody, “I hope they don’t either.” She shook her melancholy away and decided it was best that she see to the guards at the jail before the trial. She made the slow journey through the village and approached the jail just as the door was being opened. She was surprised to see the guards flowing out of the jail with the Conqueror between them. She then became shocked to see how woozy acting the dark ruler was acting. She stepped up to the group but an outside guard stopped her quickly.

“You’re not allowed any closer.”

The rebel’s expression was cold, hard but her focus on the disoriented ruler. “What’s wrong with her?”

The guard sighed but explained, “She’s been drugged so that she won’t cause any problems.”

“What?” exclaimed the furious bard. “I can’t have her half out of it at the trial.”

The guard held up her hands. “I’m sorry… it was the queen’s orders.” She lowered her hands again. “You’ll have to take it up with her.”

“Just great,” snapped Gabrielle. “Can we just get her there?”

The Amazon nodded then signaled the escort to take the Conqueror to the center where the trial was being held outside.

The bard let out an aggravated huff however she followed them there as fast as she could go. She would certainly take this up with Queen Cyane later on as soon as she had a chance. She needed the Conqueror to be there mentally if any of this would work out at all. Just maybe she could take this to her advantage though.

When the group found themselves in the square where the trial would unfold, Gabrielle wasn’t surprised to see the crowd of onlookers. She absorbed how everything was setup with a table in front that was lined with elder Amazons, who were the council members. She and the Conqueror stood off to the left while Velasca and the queen were to the right. The jail guards were lined up behind the Conqueror and the rebel, prepared for any attacks or threats. Behind them, there was a sea of Amazon heads, who came to listen.

While the council members were preparing themselves, Gabrielle had a moment to determine just how drugged the ruler was by talking to her. “How do you feel?” She murmured up to the ruler. When hazy yet chipped blue eyes lowered to her, she shivered. “That good huh?”

The Conqueror’s hands were tightly bound by short chains and her ankles manacled with short chains. She slightly swayed while softly replying, “They used rauwolfia on me.”

Well the Conqueror wasn’t complete out of it, concluded the bard.

“It’s ironic don’t you think?” murmured the ruler.

Gabrielle peered up with a perplexed face and she didn’t like that smirk on the ruler.

“You’re defending me from death when I want to kill you.”

The rebel leader cleared her throat and her quick wits didn’t fail her. “Next thing you know you’ll start giggling, Conqueror.”

The tranquilized Conqueror held her loose tongue especially because her enemy was called away.

The bard and Velasca stepped up to the table where the council members were sitting. Gabrielle tried to remain calm even though she was growing nervous about this trial. She didn’t have exact plans set out on how to defend the dark ruler especially when the odds were so against her but she was going to try.

The head councilor explained the procedures of the trial to Gabrielle and Velasca then she asked if there were any questions. When neither woman asked, the head councilor ordered them to return to their charges who they were representing.

The Conqueror peered down at her representative. “So have a game plan?”

Gabrielle sighed at the amused tone the ruler had with her. “No,” she confessed.

The Conqueror snorted and was beyond amused at this point not that the tranquilizer helped her state.

“You know, I’d hate to admit this,” started Gabrielle, “but you’re more bearable when you’re high.”

“And to think you’re going to argue to Queen Cyane why I shouldn’t be.”

Gabrielle’s head quickly whipped up when she realized the Conqueror had overheard her and the Amazon guard’s earlier argument. Before she could say anything the head council member stood up and spoke out to everybody.

“We are here to begin the trial for Xena of Amphipolis,” she announced to the large crowd that was going silent.

The Conqueror bent towards Gabrielle and muttered, “Not that Amphipolis likes to lay claims to me.”

Gabrielle blinked and stared up at the suddenly chatty ruler. “Having you tranquilized is a bad idea.” She realized she was talking while the trial was starting and she needed to be focused.

“Xena of Amphipolis, you have been charged with the slaying of the following Amazons….” The councilor paused and lifted an unrolled scroll then recited eleven names one by one. She lowered the scroll and loudly added, “You are also charged with assaulting Queen Cyane.” She cleared her throat when there was only silence echoing back to her. “We will begin this trial with a recant of the events that day and what led up to it.” She held her hand out to the queen, who stood by Velasca. “My queen, since you are the only survive and witness of the events, you have the floor.”

The Conqueror let out an audible exhale.

Gabrielle controlled her urge to roll her eyes at the ruler’s reluctance to take the trial seriously. She chalked it up to the tranquilizer too.

The Amazon Queen stepped up before her Nation, council, the rebel leader, and her long time enemy. She held her position strong as she retold the tale of Xena the warlord that rode in fresh from Chin. Her story held every detail about Xena, Alti, and herself that led up to the events on that horrific day.

When the queen was finished, the Conqueror bent over and muttered, “She missed one detail.”

The bard curiously peered up at the dark ruler. “Which was?”

“I didn’t kill that young Amazon,” answered the ruler. “I only killed the ten council members.”

Yes, only ten mentally chided the bard. Gabrielle was going to ask more but figured it could be saved for later. She had her suspicions about what’d happened in the past. She could only wonder why the Conqueror never told her in the first place earlier today.

The queen bowed to the council members then returned to Velasca’s side.

“Now,” started the head councilor, “we will begin the questioning process of the trial. First we’ll begin-”

“Wait,” interrupted the rebel hastily. She limped forward some but not too far.

“What is it, Gabrielle?” inquired the patient councilor.

The bard mentally prepared her argument but it was still on a whim. “I would like to hold off on this part of the trial.”

“What?” barked Velasca, who stepped up to the bard. “You haven’t prepped the Conqueror enough?” Her cold stare bore into the rebel that was standing up for the ruthless ruler.

“I actually can’t,” shot back Gabrielle but her attention went to the council. “As you can see,” she called out and held her left hand out to the ruler. “My charge is drugged.”

“That’s to keep her sedate,” shot back Velasca. “She’s a threat to everybody.”

The Conqueror’s eyes were narrowing at Velasca and despite she was drugged she still sensed something out of place.

“Incase you haven’t noticed,” retorted the bard, “she’s manacled, weaponless, and has six guards on her heels. There’s not much she’s going to do.”

“So you say,” barked back Velasca, “but she’s dangerous with or without weapons.”

Gabrielle now faced the frustrating Amazon. “Well then we should make this even.” At Velasca’s challenging look she gave her sly reply. “Queen Cyane should be just as drugged.”

The crowd of Amazons cried out against such demand from the outsider.

The rebel expected such so she faced the masses and pointed at the ruler. “Look at her, will you!” She dropped her arm and said, “If this is truly such a fair trial as I’ve been told then the Conqueror should not be drugged so that she can properly defend herself.” The crowd settled down finally, which let Gabrielle turn back around. She examined the councilors, who were whispering amongst themselves.

“You can’t seriously be considering this,” urged Velasca hotly. “The Conqueror is dangerous when she isn’t sedate.”

The head councilor held up her hand for silence. She then calmly stated, “Gabrielle is correct when she said this is a fair trial and as such, we cannot allow in good judgment for the Conqueror to be in such a state while the trial is proceeding.” She sighed then nodded at Gabrielle. “You will speak to your charge and explain to her the situation. If she at all endangers anybody during the trial then we will have to take other measures. Is this clear, Gabrielle?”

“Perfectly,” answered the bard. She then tilted her head and cautiously asked, “Can I request that we continue the trial tomorrow? By then the drug should work its way out of her system.”

The head councilor leaned to her right some and studied the drugged, swaying ruler in the background.

“This is ridiculous,” snapped Velasca, “you’re endangering Amazons’ lives if you don’t drug her!”

The councilor’s head shot up at the angry Amazon. “Do you lack confidence in the guards performing their duties, Velasca?”

The Amazon’s temper quickly deflated at the turn of the table.

The head councilor called out, “Who is the head guard for the Conqueror?”

The guard in question stepped out of the line and made herself known.

“Approach the table,” ordered the councilor.

The head guard bowed her head then marched up to the council’s table. When she was close, she reached up and pulled her mask back to display her striking features and amber eyes.

“Ephiny,” warmly greeted the head councilor.

“Councilors.” The Amazon bowed her head then straightened up again.

“Velasca is questioning your capabilities of handling the Conqueror should she get out of line.” The council leaned back in her chair as she knew she was going to enjoy this conversation. “Do you believe you and your guards are competent enough to handle any situation that may arise?”

Ephiny held her back straight, her expression strong, and pride flowed from her. “I am highly confident, councilor.” Her infuriated eyes darted to Velasca then back to the councilors. “I have the best Amazons at my side.”

“And I have every confidence in your leadership, Ephiny.” The councilor nodded and stated, “I am satisfied then. Thank you, Ephiny.”

“My pleasure, councilors.” Ephiny bowed, pulled her mask back down and returned to her post behind the ruler.

“There you have it, Velasca.” The elder Amazon leaned forward again then forced smiled. “Are there anymore… concerns?”

Velasca exhaled and placed her hands on her hips. “No, councilor.”

“Fine.” The councilor gave her agreement to Gabrielle’s idea. “Tomorrow we will begin at Helios high again when the Conqueror is no longer sedate.” She tilted her head at the outsider. “See that she is ready, Gabrielle as I won’t have anymore patience to show.”

“Of course, councilor,” gave in the bard but she had a hidden grin at her success.

Velasca was grinding her teeth at the loss for today.

“We will convene from here,” the elder loudly ordered, “beginning tomorrow at Helios high. The trial is dismissed for the day.” With that, she stood as did the other members.

Velasca faced her rival and chewed out, “Don’t count on being so lucky later, rebel.” She spun on her boots and marched off to meet the queen.

The bard was shaken by the idle threat as she knew it certainly was one. She let out a small, held breath then went back to her own charge.

The Conqueror stared at the small, hunched woman before her. “I’m amazed… your tongue helped me for once.”

Gabrielle smirked and shook her head but she turned to the guards. “You will see to her?”

The head guard, Ephiny, stepped forward and dipped her head in acknowledgement.

“Don’t care to join me in the cell?” taunted the evil ruler.

The rebel returned to her smirking features. “I think I’ve seen too much of you as it is.”

“Do stop by later,” offered the Conqueror as if she were a very bored soul.

Gabrielle half grinned then limped off in the opposite direction.

“Let’s go, Conqueror,” ordered Ephiny from behind her mask.

The tall, dark woman gauged her guards but she’d have later to play with them when she was more up to par.

Gabrielle was away from the crowd of Amazons and making her way back to her guest hut that she shared with Cyrene and Melpomene. She needed some rest plus some time to clear her head out. As she went, she turned over Velasca’s threat and wondered if it warranted any merit. Gabrielle figured she had to be over analyzing Velasca and instead was getting too pumped up about the future of the trial. At least the Conqueror’s drug state gave her an advantage of more time to prepare.

For the afternoon, Gabrielle lay in her bed and simply stared at the ceiling or the back of her eyelids. She never really slept since her mind was vigorously working out the trial. Some questions surfaced in the middle of it all so that eventually led her to leave the hut and show up at the jail by late afternoon.

The jail guard almost sighed at seeing the rebel. She’d expected much so she had the door open by the time Gabrielle was close enough.

Gabrielle pleasantly smiled at the two Amazons then entered the jail a few paces.

The Conqueror had her eyes closed yet they slowly revealed at the presence before her. “Missed me already?”

“Like the cross you tied me to,” remarked the rebel.

The Conqueror ran her tongue along the back of her teeth; she suddenly leered at the younger woman. “I saved your cross… for later.”

Gabrielle tried to ignore her enemy’s head game so she shrugged. “Well I guess you and Caesar have something in common.” She slightly jumped when the dark ruler sprung up to her feet in an angry fury.

“Do not compare me to him!” hotly yelled the furious ruler.

The guards in the cell tensed as the ruler fought against her chains. They stepped forward once so that they made some point.

Gabrielle was holding her breath, her body chilled by the cold blue eyes digging into her.

The Conqueror’s chest heaved up and down as her body suppressed the earlier drug due to her rage. It wasn’t so much that the rebel compared her to the dead Julius Caesar but that she was reminded of her time on the cross. Her rage surged in defense more than offense that such a young woman that didn’t know her history could poke her so easily and so perfectly.

Gabrielle swallowed, her gaze faltered for a heartbeat but she lifted it again. “I apologize.” She actually felt guilty about her earlier comment, which was an incredibly odd feeling considering things. She sensed too that it wasn’t so much the comparison but something much deeper than that.

The Conqueror had been hunched over but now she straightened her back out. She regarded the honestly apologetic rebel and was inwardly grateful for the apology but she’d never admit that. Finally she took two steps back then sat down.

The guards pulled back with their weapons relaxed.

The bard exhaled then a quiet tremble rippled through her body. She didn’t dare take another step just yet. “I came to talk about the trial.”

“What do you want to know?” coldly replied the ruler.

Gabrielle brushed some her hair back then answered, “You mentioned that the queen was wrong about a detail.”

“Yes.” The Conqueror leaned back against the wall. “I never killed the young girl that fell from the tree.”

The bard’s eyes narrowed. “But she said-”

“What I told her,” cut in the ruler. “When they found the dead Amazon, I told Cyane that I killed her that doesn’t mean I really did.”

“Okay then how did she die?”

“It’s not about how… its who.” The Conqueror folded her arms over her chest. “Alti killed her to cause the distraction because Alti knew I wouldn’t be able to get that close to any Amazons without them being cautious.”

Gabrielle processed the new information then shook her head. “And I’m sure Alti will show up for the trial and claim that she did it.” She heard a low snort from the ruler’s direction. “I will have to think on that one.” Her glazed features centered back on the ruler. “Do you mind if I ask you about some things?”

The dark ruler tilted her head to the side as she noted the fine sheen of perspiration on the rebel’s forehead. She concluded it must be from standing on her weak legs but it was the exact opening that she wanted too. “Sure, I’m not going anywhere.” She scooted down on the bench some. “Sit.”

The bard hesitated for a beat then decided it couldn’t be too risky. As she neared the ruler slowly she heard the guards close in too. She sighed heavily when she connected with the bench, it was a relief. Once she was situated, she started the conversation with open ended questions.

The Conqueror gave brief answers and wouldn’t provide details unless Gabrielle started probing her. She could tell what the rebel’s idea was for the trial and it was an interesting perspective however it didn’t change the facts. After some length of time, she could tell that the leader rebel was well spent from all her thinking plus the standing at the trial today.

Gabrielle was silent for several heartbeats because she’d taken in so much information today. Her head bobbed a few times then she quietly stated, “I think that’s a start for me.” She focused on her counterpart. “I believe Queen Cyane starts tomorrow.”

“Again?” retorted the aggravated ruler.

“This is different.” Gabrielle toyed with her walking stick. “Velasca and I question her back and forth.”

“I see,” murmured the ruler.

The bard tried to relax now that she had a better game plan for the trial. She didn’t feel so much at a loss as earlier before so her shoulders weren’t as tense and her nervous calmer. “I should go… dinner will be soon.” When she glimpsed out the small window in the door, she saw the setting rays of the sun.

“Don’t care to join me for my dinner?” taunted the ruler.

Gabrielle shot a smirk at the Conqueror. “You’d be left starving then.” She chuckled more to herself than anybody else then she climbed up to her feet. She took a limping step away.

“You shouldn’t turn your back on me, rebel.”

Before the Conqueror’s menacing words could register into Gabrielle’s mind, she suddenly felt cold metal wrap around her throat then her body was thrown back against the heated body of the powerful Conqueror.

The Amazons reacted in fluent motion together as they quickly pushed forward with weapons at the ready. They couldn’t act though with the rebel caught in the Conqueror’s dangerous grasp.

Gabrielle heaved for air as the chain tightened across her throat. She instinctively wrapped her fingers around the chain to stop its crushing. Her walking stick fell to the floor, which meant her legs lost their extra support so they started to give way. Now her body pressed harder against the chain because of her weight.

“Learn to be more careful,” hotly whispered the Conqueror to the delicate ear below.

“Let her go!” ordered the head guard, who stepped forward.

The Conqueror met the Amazon’s masked gaze. “Let’s try something else, shall we? You open that jail door or this chain gets a little tighter.”

Ephiny wasn’t sure what to do, her eyes lowered to Gabrielle.

“Don’t do it, Ephiny,” rasped Gabrielle. She quickly choked when the Conqueror yanked the chain hard. “If you kill me now, Conqueror then you won’t have any insurance to get out of here.”

The ruler chuckled, her body shaking the smaller one against hers. “I didn’t conqueror half the known-world because I’m stupid.”

“Exactly,” whispered the gasping bard, “so are you going to keep running from your past?”

The Conqueror’s temper fired up at the challenge set in front of her. “My past has made me stronger.”

“So has mine,” rasped the bard, “but I also take responsibility for it too.” She tried to pull the chain away from her throat some but with no success. “Why do you think I stood up in front of you?”

“As I recall correctly, you also escaped your punishment.”

The bard closed her eyes and tried to calm her raging heartbeat. “An unfair punishment for representing the people… that was a punishment for… a… murderer.”

“A crime according to my laws,” hissed the ruler.

“Why is it a crime?” challenged the gasping bard, “Because… because the truth is that you’ve become the very thing you tried to… to stop.” She heaved for air but her throat was caving in slowly.

“You know nothing,” growled the Conqueror. She started to tighten the chains to stop the rebel’s cutting words.

Ephiny stepped forward as the situation was spiraling downward.

Gabrielle shook her head at the Amazon. She would win this battle with the ruler no matter the costs. “I do know… know one thing.” Her eyes opened for a second then closed against the pain. “When I was young… this warlord destroyed my village… my parents dead and sister enslaved. I escaped my father’s… burning barn just as she and her army left.” She stopped for a beat to suck in some air, her body now shaking but she wouldn’t give up. “I wondered the countryside… for days until I entered a small village called… called Amphipolis.”

The Conqueror’s rage was slowly draining at hearing the story that she was captured by so deeply. Her eyes were glazed by the mental images of the young girl’s childhood.

Gabrielle’s air increase from the light withdraw of the chain. “I was starving by that time… I went to the market in town and came upon a food merchant.” She opened her eyes as the dark spots in her vision were finally gone. “I stole a loaf of flatbread but the merchant caught me.” She paused for an intake of needed air. “Just as he was about to take me to the constable a woman stopped him and paid him for the bread.”

The Conqueror’s manacle chains loosened more around the rebel’s throat.

“She owned a local tavern so she took me in, fed me… clothed me… and her oldest son also became my brother.” Gabrielle swallowed her surfacing emotions. “I had a family again.” She touched the loose chain around her neck. “Do you know who took me in, Conqueror?”

The ruler’s heart was pounding in her ears at the realization. She was overwhelmed and all she could do was whisper, “My mother.”

The bard licked her lips then softly added, “You see, we’re not that much different expect for one glaring fact.” She now wrapped her fingers around the loose chain. “I have faith, Conqueror while you had yours but you lost it the day that Caesar shattered it. You never shattered mine and you never will.”

The Conqueror snapped out of her reverie and swiftly tightened the chain again but not as strongly. “You want me to take responsibility for my actions here with the Amazons? Then we’ll make a deal.”

Gabrielle’s eye stung from not just the pain on her throat but her legs as her feet scuffed the wood floor. She was barely able to hold up her body’s weight with her weak legs. “What’s… the deal?”

“If you win this trial then you return to Corinth with me to take responsibility for your rebel faction.” The dark ruler’s lips were near the rebel’s as she breathed out her defining offer. “If you lose and I’m sentence to death then you must die too.” Her lips curled into a grin as she teased, “A little incentive to encourage you to try harder.”

“What if… you’re sentenced but not to… death?”

The Conqueror’s grin spread wider. “Then I will uphold the sentence, you will remain here until it’s complete, and then you will return with me for yours.” Her head came a bit lower so that her warm breath moved over the rebel’s ear. “I will take into consideration your work with the trial.”

Gabrielle’s eyes started to roll back up into her head, her legs finally giving out from her. “I agree… you have… my word.”

“Excellent.” The Conqueror gave a rough jerk of the chain then taunted, “And you have mine.” She suddenly lifted her shackled hands with her chains rattling in protest.

Gabrielle coughed for air as she collapsed onto the floor. She was on her knees that flashed hot pain up her body so she slumped onto her side and her hands balanced her as best as they could.

The Conqueror stared down at the fallen rebel. “Nasty having broken legs, isn’t it?” She kicked at the boots that were apart of the mangled legs.

Gabrielle yelped when the Conqueror’s kick caused pain to flash up her legs.

Ephiny was shaking with fury at the display and treatment to the outsider but especially at the fact she couldn’t do anything. “Gabrielle?” She signaled her guards to engage the Conqueror as she rushed to the rebel.

Gabrielle coughed and shook her head at the Amazon. “I’m fine.” At hearing the Conqueror’s laugh from above, she tried to stand up but it was slow progress.

The guards closed in on the dark ruler and one of them tried to get the ruler with a spear.

The Conqueror ducked quickly but her hands were even faster. She caught the spear between her hands without so much as a scratch. She snapped the poisoned spearhead off from the shaft and snarled at the Amazons. “Try again.” She dropped the spearhead so she could prepare for a second attack.

Gabrielle wasn’t so happy with the events so she hurried her pained body to move faster. Ephiny’s hands were touching her shoulder and elbow but she was only hindering her. She climbed up onto her raging legs and took a step back in front the ruler much to every Amazons’ surprise. “Stop,” she hotly ordered.

“Get out of the way, Gabrielle,” commanded the head guard.

“No,” argued the rebel.

The Conqueror was still despite her hands were up.

“She’s not an animal,” reminded the disgusted bard. “Don’t treat her this way.”

Ephiny’s eyes widened and she yelled, “She just tried to strangle you, Gabrielle!”

“I know this,” barked back the bard, who was wheezing on her shaky legs. “She gave her word to stay.”

The Conqueror was carefully listening to this interesting turn of events between her makeshift protector and the heated Amazon.

“And her word is nothing here,” yelled Ephiny, her eyes flashing like fire. “Move out of the way.”

“No,” snapped back Gabrielle. Sweat was starting to roll down her neck and onto her back then over her temples from the pain she was enduring. “If her word is not good enough then trust me, Ephiny.”

Ephiny was grinding her teeth as she needed to teach the prisoner a lesson for such actions. Yet she knew there was no way around Gabrielle either without causing some harm.

“Please, Ephiny… don’t step down to her level.”

Ephiny could almost strangle her sword hilt but she swiftly waved the guards off, who hesitated to back off at first. “Then you have my word, Gabrielle as long as the Conqueror doesn’t cause anymore harm to anybody.”

Gabrielle shut her eyes as she swooned from the pain. “Thank… you.” Then she lost her surge of strength and started to crumble to the floor.

Ephiny hastily acted yet came up short within a long stride. She watched in absolute wonderment at the scene before her.

Gabrielle leaned heavily against the Conqueror’s strong hands at her waist that kept her from hitting the floor again.

The Conqueror had acted so involuntarily and caught the small rebel with complete ease. She guided the rebel back onto her feet then she slightly hunched over so that her long arm could scrape up the walking stick.

The bard gratefully received her stick then leaned heavily on it when the hand on her right hip slipped. She gained some balance then twisted her head up to the Conqueror and her thankful eyes met the ruler’s.

The Conqueror was captivated by the rebel’s caring gaze and all she could do was give a brief nod before she backed away.

Gabrielle broke the trance too then limped away into Ephiny’s waiting presence.

The head guard was awestruck yet she directed the rebel leader out of the jail before anything else went nutso. She’d had enough for one day and she wasn’t ready to see the Conqueror become anymore gentler than she had in that unexpected moment.

When Gabrielle was out of the jail with Ephiny at her side, she paused and whispered, “Thank you again.”

Ephiny reached up and pushed her mask back. “You shouldn’t have risked your life that way, Gabrielle.”

The bard shook her head then softly murmured, “If she wanted me dead she would have done it this morning.” She noticed that Ephiny refused to question what’d happened towards the end, which she was glad about too. “Plus now that she knows Cyrene is here… she’ll have a lot to think about.”

“I think so,” gently agreed the Amazon. “She didn’t know that her mother took you in, did she?”

Gabrielle licked her lips and peered up at the Amazon that was glowing from the setting sun. “No, I don’t think so. She seemed fairly shock by the information.”

“I’d say,” relented the Amazon. She reached over to touch the bard’s irritated neck. “You should see Eilis, the healer.”

Gabrielle shook her head. “I’ll be okay.”

The Amazon grunted then teased, “I see where Janice gets her stubborn attribute.”

The rebel leader rolled her eyes at the Amazon. “Be careful what you say… Eph.” She quickly tried to get away before the Amazon could threaten her back.

Ephiny stood still, a smirk on her face, and her eyes bright. “Next time… Gabby,” she murmured then she turned to order the door guard to open the jail. Just before the cell door open, she pulled her mask back over to hide her chiseled features.

Gabrielle made it back to her hut even though it was dinner time. She was happy to find nobody in the hut so she just made it to the foot of her bed and she sat roughly down on it. She threw her walking stick onto the bed then broke down crying with her face in her hands. All her hatred for the Conqueror broke loose and exploded to the top in a hungry rage that racked her heart. The hatred pooled in her eyes over and over then smeared her cheeks and coated her hands with salty, acid tears. And by the gods, Gabrielle finally found a sense of peace when her shattering sobs healed old, bleeding wounds.
Chapter 10 – Southern Comfort

Janice Covington slightly shivered against the chill flowing from the open window in front of her. She ignored it though as she was enjoying the sunrise too much. She’d gotten up early just for this occasion even though she was known for being the worst morning person.

The archeologist donned her Amazon cloak that’d been returned to her a couple of days ago. It was keeping her fairly warm but most importantly it hid her scabbed wounds all over her body. She hated to be reminded of her time in the cell and the Conqueror’s torture. Yet her wounds were healing rather well so far, especially according to the pleased healer. The healer checked on her daily and always applied balsam to her wounds plus she was required to drink this odd tea that he said would help her left eye. And he was actually right; Janice’s previously swollen eye was no longer swollen but merely red and bruised. Her vision was quickly returning in her left eye too, which was a relief.

Janice jumped from her thoughts when her chamber door creaked open so she turned around to see a familiar face.

Nakia smiled at the solemn woman by the window. “I didn’t expect you up so early.” She ducked into the room with a tray full of food. “I was coming to drop this off.”

“Thank you, Nakia.” Janice offered a smile that broke her hardened features. “How are things?”

“They are fine.” Nakia closed the door behind her so that the guards wouldn’t listen in on their conversation. “The Conqueror has the court here today.”

“The court?” inquired the curious prisoner.

“Yes, all her advisors come to discuss politics and such.” The Egyptian slave shrugged. “It is the Conqueror’s least favorite.”

The archeologist hid her grin because it made her think of Melinda. She also understood that was the exact location she’d attacked the Conqueror so many days back. “When does it begin?”

“Always at Helios high,” informed the slave.

Janice processed that and decided that it would give her plenty of time to talk to her friend. She nodded then asked, “Will the healer be here later?”

“I believe he’ll be here some time after Helios high.” Nakia brushed a dark strand of her hair away from her face. “You have plenty of time to relax, Janice. If you need me then I’ll be in the Conqueror’s chambers. Theresa is in the kitchen today.”

Janice nodded her head. “Thank you, Nakia.”

The slave smiled then whispered goodbye before the vanished out of the chambers.

Janice faced the window again and watched the last of the sunrise, which seemed to fill her. She didn’t realize how wonderful it felt to watch the sunrise again as she’d seen many during her digs but this was different. The sunrise gave her a sense of peace and calmness that’d eluded her for a month now.

She hadn’t truly spoken to Melinda in these past three days since she was rescued from the cell. She was spending much of her time in the bed chamber as her body was too weak to allow her any movement. Today was the first day she was able to get out of bed and she had plans for a warm bath before doing anything else. Then she would talk to Melinda about everything that’d happened and what the future plans were.

Janice felt some sense of loss because she didn’t know what’d happened and she had no control earlier. Now she watched her best friend impersonate the woman she hated so deeply. It was hard to swallow yet it was something she had to come to terms with since it saved her life, most likely.

Finally, Janice started her day by eating first and the food was becoming heavier and brought her body to life again. That meant her mind was working clearer too, which she was very grateful. After she cleared the tray of any food, she went into the bathroom that was half the size of the large bedroom. She was excited to find a tub there that worked very much like a modern bath at home, minus the showerhead. She gave the Conqueror some credit for mimicking the Roman’s piping system for water.

After Janice felt cleaned and ready, she put on her cloak last by the door. She opened the door and the two guards straightened up in surprise by the blonde’s arrival. Melinda had informed her that she was allowed to move about in the fortress but the guards would be her constant shadows. At first Janice almost put up a fight but then Melinda explained it wasn’t just to hold up the impression that Janice was a prisoner but to protect her too, from Alti.

The guards at the door eyed the small prisoner that drifted out of the room.

Janice walked by them a few feet to test them. They didn’t stop her so she went a few yards then grinned as her shadows marched behind her. She suppressed a chuckled then continued down the hallway that seemed almost never ending. Then it occurred to her that she really had no clue where to look for Melinda. She stopped and turned to her guards.

The two guards exchanged looks then peered down at the prisoner.

“Do you fellas know where the Conqueror is?”

Again, the sentries exchanged glances but they weren’t sure what to say since they didn’t expect to be fraternizing with the prisoner.

Janice sighed, her hands on her hips now. “Come on, I don’t know this damn place.” She was wondering if she shouldn’t have asked Nakia for help instead of these moving statues.

“She’s probably in her office,” offered the sentry to the right.

The other sentry regarded his partner for speaking out.

“Ooookay,” started Janice, “Where’s that?”

The speaking guard shifted in place then stepped around the small prisoner while saying, “Follow me.”

And that guard is named Bingo, inwardly joked the archeologist as she happily followed him. She was directed down the hall, down a flight of step, made a right into another hall, and stopped at a door that read: ? ?ata?t?t??. “This is it?”

The sentry that’d talked merely nodded his head now.

“Hmmm.” Janice couldn’t read the syntax but she figured that the guards wouldn’t want her to get in trouble since it’d be their hides too. She decided she better not barge in so she respectfully knocked. She heard the order to come in and as she pushed the door, her stomach clenched. Janice stepped into what was a very big office but off to the right sat a dark woman behind a desk, her head down and scribing something.

The guards also filed in behind Janice.

The Conqueror finished doing something on the parchment, stopped, and stood up with her cold gaze on the party in her office. She’d expected Janice to show up today but not quite this early. Her steel features focused on the guards. “Wait outside until we’re finished.”

The guards quickly nodded then hastily left the office with the door closing behind them.

Janice watched them go for a second then looked to her friend.

Melinda came around the oak desk and approached the small archeologist. “How do you feel today?”

“Its getting better every day,” answered Janice, her hands now folded over her chest in a protective manner. She soaked in the attire that Melinda wore, which consisted of black leathers and the very bronze armor always described in Gabrielle’s scrolls. She caught sight of the sparkling chakram on Melinda’s right hip and the sword hilt poking over her shoulder but there was no cape. Janice realized that Melinda was more Xena than the Conqueror in this outfit and it subconsciously eased her.

“I hope so,” murmured the translator as she towered over her friend. Her eyes were glazed with concern and her hands clenched at her sides because she wanted desperately to touch Janice.

Janice freed her right hand and toyed with her short hair for a second. “Mel, what’s going on?” Her hand fell to her side.

Melinda exhaled sadly and nodded her head. “I’ve been putting this off, I reckon.” She signaled to the couch nearby and offered, “Sit down with me.”

Janice followed her friend to the sofa that was a royal shade of purple. She got comfortable beside Melinda but was slightly twisted so she could face her too. “When Alti took me, you were hurt on the dig site,” she started.

“I was,” agreed the southerner. She laced her hands together in her lap. “Just after you disappeared with Alti, Jack showed up ’cause he was returnin’ the scrolls he took.”

Janice perked up at this information but it didn’t matter right now.

“Jack realized something had happened so he rushed me to the hospital in Corinth.” Melinda leaned against the back of the sofa so that she was more comfortable. “I couldn’t tell him what happened… I was upset as it was about it. He stayed in Corinth until I healed up, which didn’t take long.”

“Mel, your legs were shattered… weren’t they?”

“Close enough,” agreed the southerner, “but….” She signaled her perfectly fine legs and stated, “I’m a fast healing patient plus I had the best doctor money could by. I left within a few weeks.”

“Then what?” urged the curious archeologist.

Melinda’s memories of her days after Janice’s kidnapping surfaced higher up. “I got in touch with one of daddy’s old friends that I knew. He works at the Archeological Museum of Corinth… he’s the curator. I had a hunch about that green stone on that scepter so I told him about it.”

“He knew of it, didn’t he?” encouraged the archeologist.

“Yes, and surprisingly enough he had it there in the museum.”

Janice was astounded and hastily asked, “What is the stone?”

“Its called the Cronos Stone and he ain’t sure about the history behind it.” Melinda sighed then shifted some on the sofa. “I didn’t tell him what I thought it could do but I asked him if I could see it.”

Janice slightly grinned as she knew what Melinda was going to tell her next.

Melinda mirrored her friend’s grin then continued into her story about what happened next and how she arrived all the way here. It was an amazing story of determination and faith, much like Janice’s and Janice’s eyes lit up with the story right before her….

Melinda Pappas clenched her teeth as she shrunk to the soft grass, on her hands and knees. She lost contact with the Cronos Stone as it pulsed green between her hands, almost blending with the grass. Just as Melinda prepared to pick it up with her right hand it vanished without a trace. “Ooo my,” murmured the translator, “that’s not what I expected.”

Melinda shook off the shock to her body from the time traveling then she quickly climbed to her feet. Just as she adjusted her black glasses on the bridge of her nose for better focus, she discovered three scanty, leather clad women with swords staring at her. “Ooo… myyy.”

“Who are you?” demanded the Amazon in the middle, her mask covering her face like the other two.

Melinda tried to remain calm or else this would go horribly wrong. “The name’s Melinda Pappas.”

The three Amazons gazed at one another but the one in the center took a step closer.

Melinda wasn’t too frightened after having just faced that oddly robed woman that took Janice and then Ares before that. “I’m lookin’ for a friend of mine… ya might have seen her.”

The Amazon that’d been speaking the entire time took a second step closer. She was trying to decipher the odd dialect the woman held but she couldn’t make heads or tails of it but she inwardly admitted that it was attracting. “Who’s the friend? And why are you in Amazon territory?”

“Well I’m here because I’m lookin’ for my friend.” Melinda swallowed then added, “Maybe ya know her… her name is Janice and she’s a bit of a pain.” She hoped the joke would pay off on some level.

The speaking Amazon reached up and pushed her mask away from her face. “I know Janice Covington.” She lifted her sword and neared the odd stranger, her sword tip pointed just at Melinda’s throat. “Isn’t it funny how you resemble the Conqueror perfectly?”

Melinda hastily held up her hands in defense. “I swear I ain’t the Conqueror.” Her stomach turned at the title that they were matching her up to and she didn’t like it at all.

“We know,” stated the Amazon, who had wild brown eyes and bright blond hair that was almost white. “Because she wouldn’t dare show here without her legions and….” She waved her sword up and down Melinda’s length. “Dressed like that.”

The translator quickly had an offended expression, which made the Amazon smirk at her. She was simply dressed in button up blouse, khaki pants, and her dig site boots while her hair was twisted into her usual bun. When the sword was lowered from her throat, she also lowered her hands by her side.

“I’m Callisto,” introduced the Amazon. “This is Velasca.” She held her right hand out to the Amazon behind her, who removed their mask. “And this is Karis.”

The two Amazons that’d stayed back now joined the pair.

Velasca scanned over Melinda with very judgmental eyes.

Melinda almost shuddered by the Amazon’s stare but she stayed focused on Callisto. She knew exactly who Callisto was from Gabrielle’s scrolls she’d read while in the hospital. This obviously wasn’t correct in history if Callisto was an Amazon so she had to play along. “Can ya help me find Janice?”

Callisto lifted an eyebrow some. “I think you’re a little late, deary buuut… we’ll take you to the queen.” She turned on her heels and ordered, “Follow us.”

Melinda was uneasy but she didn’t have much choice so she fell into step behind Callisto. The other two quiet Amazons were behind her and they hadn’t sheathed their swords at all. Melinda found the walk to be a good fifteen minutes but it seemed to drag on longer since nobody was talking. She was fine with that because it gave her time to consider what she knew of history, what Gabrielle’s scrolls told her, and what was right here before her. She could only guess what else rested ahead of her.

When the group arrived in the village, Melinda realized she was a sudden attraction to all. She tried to ignore the staring and gaping Amazons but it was increasingly hard. They finally stopped in front of a hut and Callisto rapped on the door a few times. When they were called in, Callisto went first then Melinda and the other two Amazons.

Queen Cyane peered up at her visitors but she hastily jumped from her seat at seeing her enemy.

“My queen,” intervened Callisto, “this is Melinda Pappas,” she hastily explained, “and she’s looking for Janice.”

Queen Cyane gripped the edge of her desk and stared with a mix of surprise and anger at the stranger in her office. She calmed her rapid heartbeat then calmly asked, “Melinda Pappas?”

“Yes, ma’am,” answered the translator in her most proper southern draw.

The queen forcefully relaxed because she needed a clear head for this one. She inhaled sharply then informed, “I’m afraid Janice Covington has come and gone.”

Melinda slowly nodded then asked, “Where might she have gone?”

“We escorted her to Corinth a few days ago.” Queen Cyane straightened up from bending over her desk. “She was planning to engage the Conqueror and Alti so that she could get home.”

Melinda took a hesitant step closer and carefully inquired, “If ya don’t mind me askin’, who is the Conqueror?”

Cyane folded her arms over her chest then made a big assumption as she stated, “She’s Xena… your descendant.”

Melinda slightly swooned and touched her forehead at this news. “Ooo my… I reckon I’m in deep here.”

The queen was prepared to speak again but the door to her office hut was suddenly shoved open by a small blond.

Gabrielle came in, head down, eyes on a scroll, and as she lifted her head she said, “Queen Cyane, I just received… word….” She stopped then proceeded to gape at the tall, dark haired woman standing next to her. “By the gods,” she breathed in astonishment.

Melinda Pappas’s eyes were wide behind her black glasses at seeing Janice’s ancestor before her.

Gabrielle’s grip on her scroll slipped suddenly.

Melinda reacted quickly by bending then snatched up the falling parchment just above the floor. She held out the scroll to the bard along with a pleasant smile. “Good afternoon, Gabrielle.”

The rebel closed her slack jaw as she received her scroll back.

“Next time try knocking, Gabrielle,” instructed the irritated queen.

The bard’s head quickly turned to the Amazon Queen. “I’m sorry,” she offered, “I was just surprised about the news I received.”

Queen Cyane interrupted the bard’s hasty explanation as not so good. She decided to set that aside at the moment so instead she signaled to the tall stranger. “This is Melinda Pappas, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle’s focus returned to the tall woman before her and she tucked the scroll under her left arm since that hand was busy with her walking stick. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Melinda.” She held out her right hand.

The translator clasped the small hand into hers and briskly shook. “It’s a pleasure, Gabrielle.” Her brilliant blue eyes sparkled at the immediate draw she felt towards Gabrielle much like she had with Janice.

“You’re looking for Janice,” stated the bard. At Melinda’s solemn nod she explained, “She’s in Corinth now and I actually just….” Her gaze flickered over to the queen.

“What is it, Gabrielle?” queried the concerned queen.

Gabrielle’s lips shaped a frown and she removed the scroll from under her left arm. “I received word from my faction that Janice has been captured by the Conqueror.” She heard a soft moan filter from Melinda and it made Gabrielle ache inside. She was just as fearful too when she’d read the news. “She’s in a lot of danger… I was afraid of this.”

“Why did you let her do this?” coldly questioned Melinda, her eyes only on the bard. Something in her flared up that she couldn’t understand but it was powerful.

Gabrielle noticed that the woman’s earlier accent was gone and the tone mirrored that of the Conqueror’s. “I couldn’t have stopped her if I tried, Melinda. I did everything I could to ensure she had less odds against her. I am sorry.”

Melinda touched her forehead that was starting to pound. “I know.” She lowered her hand then asked, “What will happen to her?”

Gabrielle’s gaze faltered as she quietly answered, “The Conqueror is after me so she’ll use Janice to get to me.”

Queen Cyane cut back into the conversation at that point. “Melinda, how did you get here?”

“I used the same stone that Alti had to travel here.”

“Where is this stone then?” questioned Gabrielle.

The translator exhaled with a frown on her face. “It vanished when I let go of it.” She shook her head then tried to explain it aloud. “I reckon the stone can’t coexist with itself.”

“Then Alti would have lost the scepter when she kidnapped Janice from the future,” argued Queen Cyane.

“I know….” Melinda considered it more then added, “Maybe as long as it’s in the hands of the owner it won’t vanish… I ain’t sure.” She finally joked, “Not that time travel is exactly explainable either.”

Gabrielle slightly grinned at the remark but she lost her amusement. “What now?”

“I have to get to Janice,” stated the determined translator.

“Wait,” cut in the queen, “before there’s anymore gun blazing harebrain schemes, this needs to be worked out.”

Melinda arched a curious eyebrow at the gun blazing part of the queen’s speech. She knew that to be a Janice Covington concept more than anything. Her quick mind also already had an idea but she wasn’t about to discuss it here with all these Amazons. She needed to talk to one person and the person was next to her.

Gabrielle detected something so she spoke first. “Queen Cyane, let Melinda stay here and we’ll report a plan to you.”

The Amazon Queen audibly sighed as her hands came to her hips. “I’m already harboring three fugitives… why not the Conqueror’s decedent too?”

Melinda’s eyes narrowed at hearing three fugitives.

“You’re welcome to stay, Melinda.”

“Thank you,” politely agreed the southerner.

The queen looked to Callisto. “Show her to a guest hut.”

“Right away, my queen.” Callisto bowed her head then shifted around to the door between the outsider and the stranger.

“See that you do come to me before doing anything, Gabrielle.” Queen Cyane held the rebel’s gaze very seriously. “Enough lives have been endangered as is.”

“I understand,” agreed the bard. She then filed out of the hut with the Amazons and Melinda.

Callisto told her fellow Amazons to return to patrol duty and promised she’d return shortly. She escorted Melinda across the village and took her to an empty guest hut. “Here’s the hut and I’m sure Gabrielle will care for you.” Her wild brown eyes switched to Gabrielle for that confirmation.

“Not to worry,” agreed the bard. She smiled at the Amazon and warmly stated, “Thanks, Callisto.”

“Thank you too,” agreed the translator.

Callisto bowed her head at the pair, took a step back, and stated, “I will see you both soon, I’m sure.” With that, she was gone and heading towards the gates.

As soon as Callisto was out of ear shot, Gabrielle met Melinda’s gaze and asked, “You have a plan, don’t you?”

“I think so,” replied Melinda. Her attention though was over Gabrielle’s head as she saw the passerby’s watching them. “Let’s go inside.”

The pair entered the hut and was relieved to be out of the village’s scrutiny. Melinda offered the weary bard a seat then she took one too from the table.

“First, I need to know some things.” Melinda kept her back straight in the chair but her focus centered on the rebel.

“Okay, what’s that?”

The translator had to confirm her suspicious that’d been nagging at her. She questioned Gabrielle on several topics and was either pleased or displeased by the results however the information was helpful. Melinda soon realized she really wasn’t just in the past but in another world or reality. Her questions were narrowing it down quickly as Gabrielle’s scrolls had provided her with much insight about Xena’s history prior to her meeting Gabrielle just outside of Potidaea.

“So the Conqueror began her campaign after Alti joined her?”

“Yes,” replied Gabrielle, “the Conqueror killed her partner and took his half of the army. After that, she and Alti marched across Greece like a plague.”

Melinda didn’t read anything about Alti in the scrolls but that didn’t mean much. What she did know was how Xena changed paths thanks to Gabrielle’s scroll about Prometheus, which went into Xena’s recent past. She reached up and removed her glasses as she asked, “Do you know Hercules?”

“Hercules?” tried the bard then shook her head. “No… never heard of him.”

The translator was rubbing the bridge of her nose but stopped. She settled her glasses into her lap. “Ooo my… ya never heard of him?”

“Not at all,” promised the bard. “Why?”

Melinda dropped her head forehead with her fingertips rubbing her temples against the growing headache. “In my world, he stopped Xena from becomin’ a warlord.”

The rebel was in disbelief of such a possibility. She also noticed Melinda’s pain and she touched the nearby knee of the stranger. “Do you need something for your head?”

The translator lowered her hands from her temples. “No, I’ll be fine… thank you though.” She put her glasses on again.

Gabrielle removed her touch as she smiled at the politeness of this woman, who was so opposite of the dark ruler she knew. “I see now why Janice was so reluctant to assassinate the Conqueror.”

Melinda had a bittersweet smile at the rebel’s words.

“Wait, you said in your world… when you were referring to this Hercules.”

Melinda faintly nodded then explained, “Janice and I are from an alternate reality or world… Xena is nothin’ like this in our history. She was a warlord for some time but she became a hero later.”

Gabrielle had an abstract expression at such a concept. “Are you sure you’re right? I mean how can you be sure?”

The translator had a wide grin that revealed her teeth. “I know because I read your scrolls about your adventures with her.”

The bard held her breath and stared at Melinda then she suddenly shook her head. “That’s impossible.”

“I know how it sounds,” agreed the southerner, “but you and Xena were famous in Ancient Greece. You inspired her to fight her darkness while she helped you discover all your strengths and abilities.”

Gabrielle was shaken by this news as she stared at the space between her and Melinda. “Her and I were… partners?”

Melinda nodded and wasn’t about to inform Gabrielle of her other suspicions that Gabrielle and Xena may have been lovers too.

“Gods,” whispered the bard. “That must be another world.” She shook her head at her imagination’s vision. “I’ve hated the Conqueror since she destroyed my life.”

“What happened?” urged the concerned translator.

Gabrielle went into a quick story about her history and how her life worked out so far. She watched the various emotions flicker across Melinda’s face and in her eyes. She was just as captivated but by Melinda and how their chemistry flowed so well together. It was incredibly eerie yet so intoxicating at the same time. Gabrielle really wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Melinda couldn’t believe everything she’d been told. She was astounded that Gabrielle had survived so well and adapted but she contributed that to the Conqueror’s mother helping too. She felt a lot of respect build up in her for this younger woman. She stretched out her legs some then tucked them back under her. “I don’t understand why Janice thought she could stop the Conqueror when we’re from another world.”

“I don’t think Janice knew,” reflected the bard. “I think she believed she was in the past.”

“That was her second biggest mistake,” murmured Melinda, sadly.

“What was her first?”

Melinda lifted her saddened eyes to Gabrielle. “Thinkin’ that she could really kill the Conqueror.” She shook her head. “She can’t kill.”

“She would have done it, Melinda.” Gabrielle’s eyebrows pressed together neatly. “She was determined to do it.”

“Well she’s not going to,” Melinda coldly stated as her accent disappeared. She stood up and walked away from the bard then started to pace.

Gabrielle could see Melinda’s mind formulating a plan very quickly. She was dazed by the sheer beauty behind it and it was alluring too. “What are you thinking?”

Melinda Pappas stopped pacing and faced the rebel leader. “Meet the new Conqueror,” her cool voice thundered as she removed her glasses.

Gabrielle stood up with her stick for help. She approached the tall, dark woman that loomed above her. “How are you….”

Melinda very slowly revealed a wild grin that felt too comforting. “Its time Alti had a taste of her own medicine.”

Gabrielle opened her mouth to ask but she snapped it shut then murmured, “You can’t…. It’s impossible.”

Melinda darkly chuckled as she neatly folded up her glasses and tucked them into her right pocket. “I can and I will.” She closed in the space between her and the rebel then tipped Gabrielle’s head back with her fingertips. “I can’t let anything happen to Janice, Gabrielle.” At the thought of any harm coming to Janice flared up her darkest strength from some hidden place that was only recently shown to her by Xena’s soul.

“I know,” whispered Gabrielle, who laced her hand through Melinda’s. “I will do everything I can to help.”

Melinda showed her classic smile and her southern accent returned. “Thank you.”

The pair quickly worked together to iron out a solid plan that they knew Queen Cyane could not refuse. By the time they were finished, Gabrielle’s head was pounding too and more from hunger. Melinda apologized for it then they thought it best to eat before it got any later. Gabrielle took Melinda to the food hut and when they got there, she was greeted by a worried Cyrene and Melpomene. Cyrene and Melpomene then realized they were standing in font of the Conqueror’s descendant and Janice’s best friend. Together the group joined in for a dinner at one table in the dining hut.

Melinda became more and more informed about the recent events and Janice’s plans to stop the Conqueror and Alti. It truly worried her when she heard how ruthless the Conqueror was in this world. She knew, without a doubt, that right now Janice was most likely in grave danger. It harbored very dark emotions in Melinda that she tried desperately to clamp down on.

Just as they were finishing up, two curious Amazons stopped over because of the floating rumors. Melinda was quickly introduced to the legendary Ephiny that she’d read often about in Gabrielle’s scroll. She then met Solari, who she instantly took to also. Ephiny and Solari joined the group with a round of diluted wine, minus one for little Melpomene, and the two Amazons told Melinda about Janice’s time in the Nation. Melinda was left dumbstruck when she heard that Janice had been taught the sword and was rather skilled with it. She also made a mental note to have a little chitchat with this shaman, Yakut, who seemed to have some fair ideas about Alti.

“So,” started Solari, “you want some sword lessons too, Melinda?”

The southerner’s eyes darkened a shade but she was grinning. “I reckon I can hold my own, thank you.”

“Really?” challenged Solari, “You don’t look it.”

Ephiny snorted and poked her friend’s side. “She’s only the descendant of Xena.”

“Still,” argued Solari, “after how many generations though?”

Melinda removed her glasses and set them down on the table. “Trust me,” her accent gone and voice chilled, “I can handle myself fine.”

Solari had a mouthful of wine in her mouth and she gulped it down. “Wow.” She blinked at Ephiny.

Ephiny smirked and patted Solari’s back roughly. “Told yah, Solar.”

“Watch it, Eph,” shot back the Amazon.

Gabrielle curiously watched as Melinda put her glasses back on and there was an inward shift in the stranger. She wanted to know what that continuing shift was in the woman as she could even feel it from her spot across the table. She figured she sensed it more than anybody else at the table.

“So what’s the game plan now?” Solari glanced between Gabrielle and Melinda.

“You’re going to help Janice, right?” piped up Melpomene.

Melinda smiled at the child sitting next to Cyrene. “Yes, I’m going to help her.” Her instincts told her that the girl had a deep affection for Janice and also a lot of admiration for Janice too.

“The Conqueror will hurt her,” sadly pointed out Melpomene. Her face was full of fear and worry.

Melinda kept her calm stature despite her swirling feelings deep inside that the child’s words stirred in her. “I won’t let anything happen to Janice, Melpomene.”

The girl took that as an enduring promise and her face softened.

Cyrene clasped Melpomene’s hand into hers. “We should get some rest, sweetie. Its getting late for us.”

Melpomene’s lower lip quivered up at Cyrene. “I want to stay and listen too.”

Cyrene stifled a yawn but before she could put up an argument, Gabrielle jumped into it.

“We won’t be long,” promised Gabrielle. “And you need your rest, Melpomene.”

The child slowly relented then nodded at Cyrene.

“Come on.” Cyrene scooted out of her seat then smiled at everybody. “Goodnight, ladies.”

Everybody chimed in with a goodnight to Cyrene and Melpomene then watched the pair leave the large hut. Cyrene was a bit relieved to get away as it was haunting to be near Melinda, who was the spitting imagine of her daughter.

Melinda sighed and lowered her gaze to Gabrielle after Melpomene and Cyrene left. “She was uneasy.”

“I know,” murmured the bard. “It’s hard for her.”

“I can imagine.” Melinda toyed with her empty mug for a second.

“So do you two have a plan?” brought up Ephiny.

Gabrielle suddenly had a sly grin. “Ooo yeah and its all Melinda’s idea.”

Melinda quickly had three pairs of inquisitive eyes on her so she proceeded to explain her plans. Ephiny was speechless and Solari broke out with, “That will be perfect!”

“It’s impossible!” roared back Ephiny, who glowered at her best friend. “Who in the known-world could-”

“She can do it, Ephiny,” shot back Solari. She held her hand out to the stranger. “Look at Melinda, she’s an exact copy of the Conqueror.”

“No,” hotly argued Ephiny, “She doesn’t know anything about the Conqueror or how she acts or… any of that.”

“Ya know, it’s impolite to talk about somebody in third person when they’re here,” informed the prim southerner.

Ephiny was in mid argument when she faltered and blinked at Melinda.

Solari quietly laughed because she remembered those similar words from Janice Covington.

“And this will work,” clarified the translator.

Ephiny was shaking her curly locks with her jaw set to her stubborn attitude.

“Wait,” piped up Gabrielle, “can’t Yakut help?”

“What you mean?” asked Solari.

“Well can’t Yakut… show Melinda everything about the Conqueror?” Gabrielle’s gazed went between the two Amazons.

Solari and Ephiny stared at one another for the answer.

“Yes.”

Solari, Ephiny, and Gabrielle turned their attention to Melinda, who answered the question.

“A shaman can do astral projection and Yakut should be able to translate it to me.”

“To you or into you?” tried the bard.

Melinda faintly grinned before answering, “Into me.”

“That’s perfect.” Gabrielle was smiling brightly at the rising hopes.

Ephiny sighed before she rained on the parade again. “This is incredibly dangerous and somebody could get killed… namely Janice.”

“Janice is going to get killed if we don’t do something,” debated the rebel.

Melinda was tensed up at the bard’s words then her unusual icy tone appeared again. “Janice… will… not… die.”

Gabrielle swallowed at seeing the ferocity just flowing from Melinda. It was a chilling reminder of the Conqueror and in an odd way it comforted her because it meant this plan would succeed.

“Tomorrow we will talk to the queen,” stated Melinda to Gabrielle.

The bard nodded her agreement.

Ephiny finally caved in and offered, “Solari and I will help too.”

Solari suddenly grinned when Ephiny agreed. “This’ll be great.” She then chuckled at the wild images of the plan that rested ahead.

And if anybody was the most skeptical about the plans it was the queen herself. She tried to argue and debate and fight the stranger and rebel’s plans that they’d so perfectly mapped out. Yet she too found it was impossible to say no anymore because despite the risks it was very solid. Even Queen Cyane saw the possibilities working out and she had hope for the first time.

By that afternoon, the plans were already being executed as Amazons rushed to prepare. Gabrielle helped as much as she could with it and by mid afternoon she introduced Melinda to Yakut. Yakut was rocked by Melinda’s forwardness and demands that she perform a projection of the Conqueror’s life and transfer it to Melinda. Yakut hotly argued against it saying it was dangerous to Melinda but Melinda did not care, she was determined.

The shaman eventually found herself and Melinda in the temple alone and in a deep ritual. Yakut had transcended the axis mundi then projected the Conqueror’s life into Melinda through her hands and eyes. Melinda had never experienced such a thing in her life and at first it scared her but she moved beyond it. Eventually Melinda actually felt as if she was living the Conqueror’s very life and it reached deep into her hidden, dark chasm. By the time Yakut had completed the transfer Melinda was well spent with a headache and she also felt extremely split between two lives.

Yakut was fearful of such a result happening and warned Melinda to be leery of this split. She explained that such a split could wreak havoc on her mind and later cause detrimental problems. Melinda accepted the dangers because it was her only option to saving Janice. She would just have to deal with it when that bridge showed up if it did.

When the evening came, Melinda was done with Yakut and checking on the status of the preparations for the plans. She was satisfied that it was all working out well so she went for a break in her hut. She truly needed it and rested on her bed for awhile, her hands over her face.

Yet as she tried to relax, her mind would suddenly flash with images of the Conqueror’s life. She’d see disturbing images of the Conqueror running her sword through enemies then the image would shift and it was Melinda killing somebody. Melinda’s hands would be coated in blood and odd feelings of a hungry rush would sweep through her body. Melinda tried to shake them away but they never quieted completely until there was a knock at her door.

Melinda climbed out of bed while calling, “Come in.” She was grateful to see Gabrielle coming into the hut.

“How are you doing?” Gabrielle closed the door and took an offered chair from Melinda.

“A little tired,” admitted Melinda. She went back to sitting on the foot of her bed. “We’re almost ready.”

“Yes, we are,” agreed the bard. “But are you ready?”

Melinda sighed then nodded her head. “Yakut showed me everything.”

“Everything?” Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve seen all of the Conqueror’s life?”

“Yes.” Melinda pulled off her glasses then placed them on the bed next to her. “I understand now why she is the way she is.”

“Why?” Gabrielle had to understand too.

“She was trying to protect Amphipolis from getting attacked by raiders and warlords. That’s how it started.”

Gabrielle slowly nodded. “I know… Cortese attacked Amphipolis then she lost her brother not long after.”

Melinda faintly moved her head in agreement. “When Caesar betrayed her and set out to kill her, that was the changing point. She lost all hope and became full of anger… she’s been on an endless quest for revenge.”

“But she’s killed Caesar,” reminded the bard.

“Yes,” agreed the translator, “but when ever did killing your tormenter quench your thirst for revenge?”

“Never,” muttered the rebel. It struck Gabrielle blindly and she understood what was at the core of the Conqueror’s drive. As dark as it truly was it also explained every piece and gave her so much insight to the past. She store that away for later thought and came back to the present. “Are you sure you’re ready for this, Melinda?”

The translator peered down at her hands in her lap, her hands that had old calluses from handling a sword over a month ago in Ares’s tomb. “I have to save her, Gabrielle.”

“But what is it going to cost you?”

“What will it cost me if I don’t save her?” Melinda met her friend’s steady gaze. “I can’t expect you to understand, Gabrielle but Janice is….”

“No.” Gabrielle’s voice was calm and assuring. “I understand, Melinda.” She detected though that there was something else on Melinda’s mind.

Melinda licked her lips then peered up at her friend. “A part of me is worried about whether I can do this.” She clenched her hands in her lap. “Its not that I can’t because I will but what if… what if it’s too much then I get lost.” Her blurry eyes held Gabrielle captivated. “What if it ends up costing Janice?”

Gabrielle sighed and stood up with her cane. She limped over then climbed up on the bed next to her friend. “I noticed you become… different at some points like… something else takes control.”

“Yes.” Melinda stared down at her hands. “Anytime I think about Janice being in danger or hurt… anything like that I just feel this shift in me.” She turned her head to Gabrielle. “I didn’t tell you this but when I met Janice, she was on a dig and discovered a tomb.”

Gabrielle nodded but said nothing so that Melinda would go on.

“Janice and I plus a few others went into the tomb where we found some things.”

“Like what?”

“Well Janice found your scrolls….” Melinda shook her head, “Well the other Gabrielle’s scrolls. Then I found Xena’s chakram but only half of it. This gentleman, Smythe, who came too found the other half of the chakram. The two pieces attracted to each other instantly and when they touched… something happened to me.”

“What?” murmured the bard, who was entranced by the story.

“Xena’s soul possessed me,” gently answered Melinda, “and the tomb… it belonged to Ares.”

“By the gods,” rasped the shocked rebel.

Melinda bit her lower lip then told the rest of the story. “Ares was asleep but we woke him up by entering the tomb. He wanted to be set free from the tomb that’d trapped him. He was going to kill Janice and that’s when… I became Xena or she became me. I ain’t sure but it felt so real.”

“What happened after that?”

“Janice and I stopped him then we escaped the tomb. Janice blew it up so nobody would find it again.” Melinda lowered her gaze again to her hands. “As soon as I realized Janice was safe again, I was back in control.”

“Xena’s soul left your body?” questioned the young woman.

“I don’t reckon so because when Alti showed up, it happened again.”

“And now whenever you think or hear about Janice being threatened you react the same way, right?”

“Yes.” Melinda’s shoulder slightly slumped. “I reckon Xena’s soul never left me after Ares’s tomb.”

“What if it wasn’t ever her soul to begin with?” probed the bard. “What if the connection of the broken chakram symbolized you becoming united with your karma? Maybe it’s been there all along and you just didn’t know it. And when Janice is endangered that’s the trigger.”

“It’s possible,” quietly granted the southerner.

“I can see you make that shift, Melinda… it’s pretty obvious to me… I can’t speak for anybody else.” But Gabrielle could tell her friend was very unease about this revelation so she gathered up Melinda’s larger hands into hers. “Melinda, you can use it to your advantage. If you don’t accept it then it could hamper you more than help you and we both know that Janice needs you.”

“I know.” The translator shook her head and studied Gabrielle’s features that painfully reminded her of Janice. “It did happen for a reason, I agree but what if I get into a dangerous position? What if it costs Janice her life?”

“Would you really let that happen?” tried Gabrielle. “I don’t think you would and that’s even the cause for it to come out.”

Melinda knew from what she read that Xena would move heaven and hell to protect Gabrielle. She knew that their karmas were more than linked but were a balance. It was that balance that Gabrielle and Xena craved so greatly and moved them past many trials. If that was the fate of their karmas then it was very much the fate of hers and Janice’s, which meant she would follow Xena’s path to defy anything for Janice.

Gabrielle squeezed the hands in hers and confidently whispered, “You can do this, Melinda… and you know it too.”

Melinda gazed into the most assertive green eyes she’d seen in a long time. Her acceptance of her possible fate clicked into place as she realized that nothing would stop her from saving and protecting Janice.

“Christ, Mel… you did it?” Janice Covington stared her friend in disbelief.

Melinda revealed a smug feature as she broke away from her story. “Yes of course, Janice Covington… I wasn’t going to leave you here to have all the fun.”

The archeologist grunted and leaned her side against the sofa. “You really kidnapped the Conqueror… Xena the Warrior Princess?”

“The Destroyer of Nations,” added the grinning translator.

“Christ,” muttered the still shocked archeologist. “I would have loved to seen that… and the look on her face.” She snickered at her mental image. “Goddamn.”

Melinda was pleased to see her best friend calmer than earlier when this conversation first started.

“Sooo….” Janice shook her head and asked, “We’re in an alternate reality?”

“Yes, I reckon Yakut was wrong about her assessment of Alti’s plans.”

Janice’s eyes narrowed as she tried to figure out Alti’s real plans. “Do you think she was trying to gain extra powers by transversing worlds?”

“I reckon so,” accepted the translator. “I reckon she saw a chance to double her power. If she controlled Gabrielle’s karma in this world and in another, it was like gettin’ a double cheeseburger.”

Janice suddenly laughed at the joke. “Mel.”

The grinning translator shrugged but she knew her friend would enjoy the lightheartedness, which was a success too.

“I bet there are other worlds too,” theorized the archeologist. “She’ll try to cross those too.”

“Possibly but I reckon the Conqueror would get a bit suspicious with all these look alikes coming out of the woodworks.”

Janice’s nose crinkled up as she didn’t consider that. “True.”

“Alti most likely selected you ’cause she believed that the stage of your karma wouldn’t mix so well with the Conqueror’s.”

The archeologist huffed and gave a dower look. “I think she was right on that one.”

“If she’d kidnapped your real ancestor, Gabrielle, I reckon that both her and this Gabrielle would have been able to stop the Conqueror.”

Janice smirked and teased, “That’d been the bacon on the burger then.”

Melinda rolled her eyes at the smart remark.

“You started it,” reminded the archeologist. Her very playful features appeared, her eyes lighter. “I could go for a double cheeseburger with bacon and tomatoes and-”

“Janice,” cut off the groaning translator. Despite she was enjoying the good humor it was driving her nuts but deep inside she knew she adored it.

Janice cleared her throat and tried to be more serious. “So what now, Mel?”

Melinda coolly arched her right eyebrow. “Now we play with Alti while we try to find the scepter.”

“How long will the Conqueror’s trial take?”

Melinda shrugged then casually replied, “Could be a week or so.”

“Then what?”

“I ain’t got that far yet,” admitted Melinda. “I’m in contact with Gabrielle to see how things are. She showed me her coding system.”

“Really?” Janice eyed her best friend. “You figured it out before you left her?”

“Yes,” nonchalantly answered the translator. “Here, I’ll show you something interesting.” She stood up gracefully then directed Janice behind the Conqueror’s desk.

The archeologist curiously peered into the bottom desk drawer that Melinda opened on the left side.

“Open one,” offered Melinda.

Janice picked up one from the top in the deep drawer and unrolled the scroll. She was amazed to see her ancestor’s hand writing clearly there in Greek syntax. “Are all those….?” She stared down in the filled drawer.

“Yes.” The translator folded her arms over her armored chest. “The Conqueror has an extensive collection. She’s kept every one of Gabrielle’s scrolls.”

“Goddamn,” mumbled the archeologist. She rolled it up and placed it back in its home.

“Interesting part though,” started Melinda, who opened another deep drawer on the other side. “She keeps Gabrielle’s stories about her childhood separate from the rest.”

“Why?”

Melinda tapped the open draw with her boot.

Janice stared at the heavy pile of what she assumed were countless stories about the ruler’s childhood. She was amazed by how prolific her ancestor truly was.

“She keeps ’em separate ’cause her childhood memories are her only happy memories.” Melinda shoved the drawer shut with her boot. “She reads ’em often, actually.”

“How do you know all this, Mel?” Janice had befuddled features.

Melinda tapped her own head on the side. “Yakut showed me everything, Janice.”

“She showed you… everything?” the archeologist emphasized.

The translator moved closer to her friend then gently answered, “Yes from her birth to the day I arrived.”

“Then you know what happened in the….” Janice couldn’t bring herself to say it even in a mere whisper. Her head slightly fell as her memories of the dungeon filtered back to her. She started to recoil yet she stopped when a warm touch came to her chin and lifted her head.

“Yes,” murmured Melinda, “I know most of what she’s done to you or planned to.” She let out a sad sigh and let her hand trail onto Janice’s cheek. “I want to help ya, Janice… please.”

The archeologist collected Melinda’s callused hand into her own and squeezed it. “You already did, Mel.”

“I only stopped the pain.” Melinda laced her hand through Janice’s. “I ain’t healed ’em.”

“I know,” gently relented Janice. “Give me some time.”

The translator slowly nodded her head in understanding. She wanted to move in closer and hold Janice in her arms but she wasn’t sure if Janice would allow her. Just as she was prepared to say something her head snapped up from something.

Janice tensed because she saw that instant transformation in her best friend. It was so alarming and made Janice’s heart pause in a beat.

“Go around my desk… now,” quickly ordered Melinda.

Janice didn’t make a point of the fact that her friend considered the desk hers. She knew something was wrong so she reluctantly broke away from Melinda and stepped around the desk just as a loud knock came to the door.

Melinda touched the back of the desk chair with her hand then ordered, “Come in.” She her hands deathly gripped the chair’s back as she saw the dark shaman stroll into her office.

Janice paled because she hadn’t seen the shaman since she visited her in the dungeon that first day. Her stomach pitched down and her knees slightly weakened from her fears.

Melinda detected her friend’s uneasiness so she came around the desk while saying, “What is it, Alti? I am busy.”

The dark shaman narrowed her cold gaze at Janice. “So I see, my liege.”

“What do you want?” snapped the ruler.

Alti tore her gaze away from the prisoner and narrowed her eyes at the Conqueror. “Have you forgotten your meeting with the court?” She smirked at Janice while her husky voice tormented, “Perhaps you were slightly… distracted.”

The Conqueror hastily reacted by stalking up to the shaman.

Alti slightly recoiled from her leering posture.

“Remember, Alti that I will cut your supply short.” The Conqueror lowered her head closer to the shaman then darkly whispered, “Very quickly.” She raised her head back up and hotly stated, “I’m not in the mood today.”

“Lucky for the court then,” chided Alti huskily. “I will keep them busy until your… arrival.”

“See that you do,” clipped the ruler then she waved off the shaman in disrespect.

Alti seethed at the ruler but it wasn’t anything new, the games. She turned on her heels and glided out of the office, the door slamming behind her.

The Conqueror’s eyes flickered to Janice then to the door. “Guards!” She fiercely ordered.

Janice clenched her hands at her side as her guards now entered the office next. She was curious what her friend was prepared to do to these sentries.

“Why did Alti come into my office?” barked the ruler, who was circling her men with burning blue eyes.

The guards were tense and their eyes occasionally following the ruler that circled them. “Because she wanted to see you,” offered a logical guard.

“Really, Plato?” The Conqueror got into the guard’s face. “What were your orders?” Her stare went between the two men. “I asked a question.”

“We are to guard the prisoner,” answered the same guard.

The Conqueror’s cold eyes switched the silent guard. “And what else?”

The sentry fumbled some and racked his mind to think of what the other order was.

The Conqueror lost her patience and grabbed a hidden dagger from her breast. She suddenly rammed it into the sentry’s gut. “Answer me correctly before I put this into your chest next.”

The guard held his breath as the warm blade withdrew from his gut. His right hand now covered his bleeding wound. “Protect the prisoner… from Alti.”

The ruler revealed a pleased yet dark smile. “Very good.” She wiped her dagger clean of the blood on the sentry’s leather clad chest. His blood made a perfect ‘X’ design too. The ruler took a step away while putting her dagger away.

Janice was stunned by her friend’s actions but if it showed on her face it wasn’t affecting Melinda at all.

The Conqueror spun back around to face her soldiers. “Now, again I ask why did Alti come into my office?”

The injured guard was weakening but he refused to fall less it meant his life. “Because we disobeyed your orders.”

The Conqueror put her hands on her hips. “Exactly.”

“We will endeavor to improve, my liege,” promise the uninjured sentry.

“Do that or consider your life forfeited,” casually stated the cold voice of the ruler. “Now get the Hades out of here and take care of your wound before I change my mind.”

“Yes, my liege.”

The sentries bowed and clapped their fists across their chests.

The injured soldier hesitated at the door and asked, “What of the prisoner, my liege?”

The Conqueror smiled at the soldier’s sudden spark of intelligence. “I will return her to her chambers. See that you return to your posts there.”

“Yes, my liege.” The injured guard left with his partner and was relieved to be alive still.

Janice watched her guards go then when the heavy door closed, she debated what to do or say next.

Melinda kept her back to Janice, her shoulders ridged as her back. She didn’t want to face her friend because of how she’d acted but it was how the Conqueror would have responded to the situation.

Janice swallowed when her feelings powered over her. She could see that her friend was struggling deeply with everything and she hadn’t seen that earlier. This was just as hard for Melinda as it was for her and she’d been blind to that before now. She realized that Melinda truly needed her support and acceptance with these circumstances.

Melinda shuddered when a warm, small hand touched her mid back in a comforting contact.

“It’s okay, Mel.” Janice peered up when Melinda twisted her head around to her as she stood next to the tall southerner. Some part of her expected to see those monstrous blue eyes of the Conqueror but instead she saw nothing but worried, shattered sapphire eyes.

Janice broke apart in that instant and she hastily gathered up Melinda into a warm embrace.

Melinda pulled the small woman completely into her arms and lowered her head down close to Janice’s. She soaked in the comfort and support from her friend that she knew meant everything to her. She was coming to understand Xena’s resolve to always protect Gabrielle because Gabrielle provided her with everything that she was missing.

Janice held tightly to Melinda and her world felt at ease again despite their situation. Her faith in finding a way home suddenly shaped into Melinda and she knew home had found her instead. She settled her emotions down and lifted her head form Melinda’s chest after some time. “Mel?”

“Yeah?” whispered the quaking voice.

“We’re going to be okay.”

Melinda faintly smiled then murmured, “Yes.” Her sweet southern accent filled Janice’s ears. “I promise.”

Janice rubbed her right hand up and down Melinda’s arm, her hand passing over the cool, bronze arm bracer.

“I should go,” gently reminded the translator.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing you toy with the court.” Janice enjoyed the shake of Melinda’s body from a silent laugh.

“Janice Covington, ya have an evil streak.”

Janice flashed a grin. “Sometimes… a lot of the times,” she finally admitted.

“As much as I’d love to amuse you with the court I reckon Alti is already havin’ a field day with my saving you from the dungeons.”

Janice let out a huge, deep sigh. “I bet.”

“Come on.” The tall southerner separated from her friend and headed for the door. “I’ll come by when I’m done with the court.”

“Promise?” pressed the archeologist, who was trailing out of the office with her friend.

“Definitely.” Melinda offered a smile then guided her friend through the fortress to her bedchambers on the third level. After she said goodbye, she made her fashionably late arrival to the court where her mood would quickly take a downward spiral.
Chapter 11 – Try Me

Melinda pulled her hood neatly over her face to obscure her dark features. The only thing that showed were her glowing blue eyes from the torchlight flickering from the torches lining the street walls in Corinth. She nodded at the six women beside her then started forward but a hand caught her wrist.

“Wait, Melinda.”

The translator turned back to study the Amazon, Ephiny.

“This is silly but….” Ephiny untied a small pouch from her side then held it out to the stranger. “Give this to Janice.”

The southerner peered into the pouch and the items inside made her smile.

“She left them with me but….” Ephiny hesitated then shrugged.

“Thank you,” murmured Melinda, “This’ll mean a lot to her.” She tied the small pouch to her leather clad hip.

“You better go,” ordered Ephiny, “we’ll be watching for your signal.”

The translator nodded then turned once again as she broke off into a jog.

Callisto leaned towards Ephiny and muttered, “Is this really going to work?”

“Yes,” stated Ephiny. She then turned her head to her fellow Amazons. “Let’s split up and keep an eye out… be careful.”

Melinda was only a block away from the Conqueror’s fortress. Just ahead she spotted a squad of soldiers so she ducked behind a building in an alley. She hunkered down and watched them pass by without a care. As she rose back up, she assessed the wall that went around the fortress and the fortress itself was built into the cliff side of a massive hill that was shy of being a mountain.

Melinda carefully scanned the wall and observed the gates where there were several guards and in the two keeps. As she followed the length of the wall she picked out a guard for about every fifty yards. There were two corners where there were two keeps again then the wall connected to the cliff on either side of the fortress. It was quite the impressive complex really.

After a few steady breathes, Melinda checked all of her items on hand, which were a sword on her back, a dagger in her right boot, a climbing rope across her chest, and finally her special gift for the Conqueror. Melinda already knew the fortress’s ins and outs thanks to Yakut’s projection so she knew how to execute her plans perfectly. She just hoped it would be as simple as she wished it to be.

Finally, Melinda peeled off of the building and hurried for the right side wall of the fortress. She hastily ducked into the shadows that the wall created for her and she dropped her head back while her hands worked on freeing her climbing rope.

The sentry on the wall strolled past and continued his repetitive duty.

The translator licked her lips as the sentry came back towards her direction. She now had her climbing rope free and the hook at the end slightly swaying at her side. She was just waiting for her opening that she required.

The sentry spun around and walked down the wall to the keep at the corner. When he got to the keep, he stopped and studied the flickering city of Corinth. After a huff, he turned and marched down the wall for his constant distance. He came to the end then turned and slowly marched back towards the keep but then he thought he heard something. The soldier paused then scanned the area for the odd noise yet he couldn’t come up with anything. After a shrug, he started to move yet when he lifted his left leg he was stuck by a mysterious, firm grip on his ankle. Before he could say or do anything, his feet came out from under him and he was jerked over the wall’s side. He almost gave a cry but was too late when his head slammed against the wall and knocked him unconscious.

Melinda bared her teeth as she dangled from her climbing rope by her left arm while her right arm held onto the soldier’s ankle. She stared at the unconscious sentry that swayed upside down below her. She then carefully wrapped her left leg around the rope then neatly slid down the rope until she was halfway down the wall. She released the soldier and watched him fall to the ground into a heap. She then raced back up the rope and popped up onto the wall.

The translator hastily pulled up her climbing rope then sprinted down the wall and into the torch lit keep that merely had a window for archers and steps in the floor. She went to the spiraling steps and raced down them silently until she came to the closed door at the bottom.

Melinda stopped and rested her climbing rope on the steps behind her then proceeded to unhook her cloak. She tossed the Amazon cloak onto the step then grabbed the climbing rope. She easily put the coiled rope across her chest and finally put her cloak back on to conceal it. This time, Melinda didn’t put her hood over her head and neared the closed door.

Melinda’s fingers slipped around the ring door handle yet she wavered from opening it. She closed her eyes then with several calming breathes, her winter blue eyes flew open and her body suddenly tensed with a dark strength. She shoved the door open and sauntered out into the square that was in front of the entrance to the fortress. She strolled across the square where many soldiers were patrolling here and there but they paid her no mind.

When Melinda approached the bottom of the steps to the entrance, she grinned at the sentries on guard duty. There were two sentries on every step, one to the right and one to the left with spears at their sides.

The guards quickly came to attention when the tall, dark woman was near enough for them to recognize her features. They each bowed their heads as the powerful woman ascended the steps very slowly.

The two guards at the door bowed deeper than the rest but one lifted his head. “Good evening, my liege.”

Melinda nodded her head then coldly stated, “It’s good to see some men awake.”

The speaking sentry felt for whatever soldier was foolish enough to fall asleep on duty while the Conqueror was prowling about the grounds. He’d heard stories about the ruler’s surprise checks on the guards late at night to test them. “Of course, my liege.” He grabbed the door handle closes to him and pulled it open.

Melinda strolled through and entered the dimly lit courtroom where many of the Conqueror’s political meetings took place along with some sentencing judgments. Her head twisted up to the left at a particular stretch of the balcony high above and it made her anger grow because it was the spot Janice had tried her assassination attempt. She was suddenly swarmed with memories of a gunshot then a sharp pain on her shoulder before she leapt up onto the balcony to capture her attacker.

Melinda shook away the Conqueror’s memories then knew she needed to move quickly. She hastily went across the empty court, passed the throne dais, and opened a side door to a long hallway. She weaved through the low lit fortress and made her way up to the third level where her target should be located by now. When she came up onto the third floor, she slowed down because there would be guards close to the Conqueror’s room.

As the southerner glided into the hallway, she was greeted by four guards on the floor that were quietly talking but they stopped. She gradually approached them as a dark grin pulled over her face.

“My liege,” greeted a sentry. He wasn’t sure how she was out here in the hallway when she never left her room. Or so he thought at least.

Melinda stopped in front of the four guards then studied each of their bowing heads. She detected they were shocked by her presents so she grunted at them then ordered, “I’m going back to bed. See that I’m not disturbed.”

“Of course, my liege,” replied the same guard.

Melinda swept by them and went down the hallway for another hundred feet until she came to the end where there were two large double doors. Just as she approached the doors, she reached into her cloak and a black bag formed in her hand. She neatly opened it then her right hand curled around the golden ring to one of the doors. She silently entered the dark chambers.

Melinda’s head turned to the left as she stood in front of the closed doors to the bedchambers. About fifty feet away or so was a large bed with a still form resting in the middle. Her right hand slipped into the black bag and she removed something that flashed silver for a second in the softly lit room. She ghosted over to the bed and she leered at the ridged, sleeping features of the Conqueror on her back.

The Conqueror’s eyes suddenly flew open when she sensed the presence above her. She bared her teeth and her right hand swept up towards her attacker, a dagger in hand.

Melinda tilted to the left and the blade narrowly missed her face. She growled and promptly her hands shot down at the moving ruler.

The Conqueror inhaled a last sharp breath when the stings came to either side of her throat. Her body was completely paralyzed and her right hand involuntarily released her dagger. She was offered a perfect view of her attacker’s face as the attacker bowed over her menacingly. Her anger shined in her eyes but her eyes widened in disbelief as she saw her reflection. “Who are… you?” she rasped while trying to move her hands up to her choking neck.

Melinda ruthless smiled then lifted the black bag. “I’m your replacement, Conqueror.” She swiftly shoved the black bag over the ruler’s face then her right hand slammed into the ruler’s side.

A sharp pain riveted through the strong body of the Conqueror. Something entered through her skin, into her blood, and raced through her body and up to her head. The Conqueror was charged by desperation but suddenly her world went completely black and she lost control.

Melinda watched the dark ruler slump into the bed, utterly powerless and it filled Melinda’s hunger to see it. Quickly she released the pinch from the ruler’s neck and saw the Conqueror’s chest rise and fall rhythmically. She needed to rush less the Amazons thought she may have failed her quest. She trailed across the dark room and threw open a closet door where there were so many articles of clothing of a wide variety. She removed a pair of leather pants that were hidden deep then she grabbed a plain white top to use along with a hanging cloak. Last, she grabbed a pair of worn boots from the floor in the closet.

The southerner returned to the bed and she took a hot second to toss her metallic weapon onto the nightstand by the bed. She then hastily worked to get the nude Conqueror dressed in the clothes she’d selected. Finally she double checked to make sure the black bag was tied so it wouldn’t come off but not tight to strangle the ruler.

Melinda was satisfied then she briskly walked up to a long, heavy curtain that blocked the entrance to the small balcony. She slipped through the slit in the curtains and reached for her sword on her back. She gave it a spin as she neared the railing of the balcony. She then lifted her sword horizontally and the full moon started to reflect from it but she angled it a precise way. She slowly lowered her blade when she saw the same reflection twinkle back to her from in the city.

Melinda went back into the chambers and grabbed the unconscious ruler by her arms. She dragged the ruler out of the bed, dropped her to the floor, and hauled her across the floor. She then knelt down and buttoned the cloak up so that it wouldn’t reveal the Conqueror’s feminine attributes. She shifted her right foot some then removed her dagger, which she put the blade against her left wrist underneath the cloak.

Melinda closed her eyes, her jaw set as she ran the blade across her wrist then she smeared the blade in her blood to coat it. “Guards!” she called out. She pulled the dagger out the from under her cloak just as the guards broke into the chambers.

“My liege!” A sentry raced over with his three comrades. “What happened?”

“What does it look like, fool?” Melinda, now the new Conqueror, slowly stood up while holding out her bloody dagger. “How did he get past you four?” Her eyes were slits at them.

The sentries exchanged fearful glances and the earlier speaking guard said, “We don’t know, my liege. We didn’t see or hear anything.”

The Conqueror’s right hand shot out and grabbed the guard by his leather clad chest. She yanked him towards her so that he hovered over the unconscious form on the floor. “I want him taken to the fields.”

“T-t-tonight, my liege?”

“Right… now,” hotly whispered the ruler. “I want him crucified.”

“Yes, my liege.” The guard was thrown back into his original position but he stumbled back.

The Conqueror spun her dagger between her fingers then pointed it at her attacker. “See that you don’t remove the bag over his head… less you prefer to see his mutilated face.”

One sentry actually swallowed at the mental image he received. The talking guard signaled the men to gather up the attacker and it took every bit of their strength to haul him through the room towards the doors.

“See that only two of you go,” called the Conqueror, who was making her way to the washroom. “And be sure to forget tonight’s events.”

The sentries each paused at the door, clapped their fists across their chest, and in unison said, “Aye, my liege.” They made a hasty exit while carrying the unconscious captive. They rushed the captive down the hallway and down three levels then one more into the first level of the dungeon. They dragged the captive to a side door of the dark dungeon where one soldier opened the wood door.

All together, the sentries were able to toss the heavy weight of the attacker into a wagon. Two sentries went back to the Conqueror’s room to stand guard as told while one sentry went to get a horse for the wagon. The fourth sentry stood guard by the wagon and unconscious man in it.

It wasn’t long before the wagon was lashed onto a workhorse and the two sentries marched across the fortress’s grounds, to the gates, and the gates were opened for them. They then started the long trek out of the city towards the crucifixion fields that were certainly downwind of Corinth; the stench hovering over the fields like an invisible cloud.

As the two sentries were out of the city and halfway to the fields, they spotted a lonely figure walking down the worn, dirt path. At first they thought it was another soldier coming off duty from the fields then it struck them that they were far too thin to be a soldier. The sentries stopped the wagon and drew their swords as the stranger approached them.

“Who goes there?” called a soldier.

The cloaked figured lifted her head and her bright blond hair reflected the full moon. She glowed in mercury like a goddess then her laughing voice filled the air. “It’s a nice night for a blood bath, isn’t it, boys?” She gave a screeching battle cry and her sword scraped out of her sheath from her back.

The sentries withdrew their swords and quickly engaged the enemy. Then they found themselves very outnumbered when a swarm of warrior women collided into the battle. They soon found themselves on a different road that guided them to the underworld and their bodies cold with death.

Solari grabbed the edge of the wagon with one hand and with her right hand she grabbed the black bag over the head. She ripped it off and her wild grin formed. “Sweet Artemis… she did it.” There she stood and staring at the distinct, beautiful features of the dark ruler of half the known-world.

Ephiny neared her best friend and studied the unconscious ruler. “We need to move before word spreads.” She turned and looked at the four other Amazons. “Everybody get into the wagon, I’ll ride the horse. Make sure she stays asleep.”

The five Amazons nodded then climbed into the wagon with ease. Ephiny though vaulted up onto the workhorses’s bare back and urged him into a fast trot off of the road. It wasn’t long before they’d gone up a hill that went around the great capital and the wagon came to jerking stop beside another wagon where three other Amazons waited. Ephiny ordered everybody to work together as they got the Conqueror into the secondary wagon, which actually had metal bars and a metal roof on it. Once the Conqueror was in it, Ephiny had Callisto shackle up the Conqueror’s ankles and wrists then she ordered three other Amazons to cover their trail.

It was within a half of candlemark that the Amazon party was marching down the empty road with their valuable cargo in the wagon. They didn’t fear any soldiers being on the road since it was so late at night and by the time there would be more activity they’d be long gone towards the Amazon Nation. Every Amazon in the kidnapping party was filled with adrenalin since they had the most feared ruler completely unconscious and yet so close.

About halfway through the long trip, Ephiny ordered the party to take a break and everybody did except for one Amazon. Ephiny watched the Amazon that stood beside the wagon cage and was studying the Conqueror through the metal mars. She sighed then slowly approached the Amazon.

“How goes things, Callisto?”

The blond Amazon let go of the bars she was touching but she kept staring at the ruthless ruler. “I figured somebody had to stay and watch her.”

Ephiny grunted and folded her arms against her chest. “She’s not going to get up anytime soon.”

Callisto grinned in amusement at that idea. She turned and faced the leader of the group. “What will happen to her?”

“At the trial?” questioned Ephiny. At Callisto’s nod, she shrugged. “Its hard to say… but I doubt she’ll be freed.”

Callisto bit the side of her mouth then murmured, “She has many crimes to pay for besides those against the Amazons.”

Ephiny touched the Amazon’s nearby shoulder. “She does but those she’ll pay for in Tartarus.”

Callisto huffed as the Amazon’s touch left her skin.

Ephiny eyed the younger woman then quietly asked, “Are you sure you can do this, Callisto?” She watched as cold amber eyes met her gaze.

“If I don’t do this then I’ll always hate her.” Callisto turned again and glared at the dark woman in the cage. “Protecting her will be the hardest thing in my life.”

“It will be the most rewarding too,” pointed out Ephiny.

Callisto faced her superior then slowly nodded her head. “It will.” Her sidelong gaze turned to the Conqueror. “If it wasn’t for the Amazons… I’d still be a worthless slave.”

Ephiny exhaled quietly then confidently stated, “You were meant for this, Callisto.” She touched the Amazon’s mid back while saying, “See to her.” Her amber eyes flashed to the ruler, who was groaning.

Callisto smiled smugly while reaching to her belt for something. “With absolute pleasure, Ephiny.” She extracted her medical tool that was very much a weapon now then she reached into the cage between the bars.

Ephiny silently moved away to leave Callisto to her duties.

The Conqueror groaned as she felt a warm touch on her right wrist. Then there was a sudden sharp pain on the bottom of her wrist and her black dreamscape claimed her again but not without her sensitive ears picking out a hated voice.

“Pleasant nightmares, Conqueror.”

The Conqueror abruptly jolted awake by the tail end of her dream or maybe her memories that were trying to come back to her. She focused on the six Amazons that stood in the jail with her and faithful stood watch. The small window in the jail door showered with the morning sun’s light but that didn’t concern her at the moment. Instead she peered down at the top of her right wrist then she turned it over. There on the bottom of her wrist were small puncture marks and somewhere around half a dozen or so. She ran her thumb over them as she realized exactly what they were since she was so familiar with the healer’s tools of the trade.

When she lifted her head, she examined each of the guards then she honed in on one Amazon that held a sword out besides the head guard. The Amazon had shocking blond hair flowing out from under her mask and coming from the sockets of the mask, the Conqueror detected deep, old loathing. Some part of the ruler thoroughly enjoyed this and fully absorbed it like a leech yet that was only a small piece of her that gained any satisfaction.

The Conqueror now heard some voices chatting outside the jail then the door opened to reveal the rebel leader. She released an audible sigh at seeing her enemy and only acquaintance here in the Amazon Nation.

“Its morning, its breakfast time,” mentioned the bard, who had a tray of food.

Ephiny was in disbelief, as were several other guards minus Solari, who was snickering behind her mask.

The dark ruler curiously watched as the bard took a seat beside her on the bench.

“Gabrielle,” started Ephiny and she stepped forward.

The rebel shook her head. “Its fine, Ephiny.”

The head guard just decided to give up before starting because she couldn’t seem to win any arguments anymore.

The bard tried to maneuver her walking stick against the bench while balancing the tray in her lap. She was slightly unsuccessful as the tray tried to make an escape for the floor.

The Conqueror reacted by catching the edge of the tray and pushing it back into the small lap.

“Thanks,” murmured the bard, her small hands now on the tray. “The grapes are pretty good here.”

The Conqueror still hadn’t spoken but she took the cluster of grapes first.

Gabrielle didn’t mind the silence as she easily filled it with chitchat about her plans for the trial.

The Conqueror seemed as if she wasn’t listening but she was and she ate the well picked out meal. She’d been getting meals regularly yet they were never filling, not like this platter that Gabrielle had brought her. Just as she finished up so did Gabrielle’s long monologue that included only a few grunts and nods from the ruler.

The bard placed the empty tray on the last bit of bench to her right.

“Ask Yakut about her shamanism,” mentioned the ruler.

Gabrielle blinked and twisted back to the ruler after she set the tray down. “What do you mean?”

The Conqueror slightly lifted an eyebrow. “Get Yakut to talk about her shamanism powers and relate it back to Alti.” She laced her hands in her lap then leaned against the wall. “Yakut’s powers are more or less at the same stage as Alti’s were when I met her.”

“Really,” mumbled the thinking bard. “I think… I see what you’re… getting at.” She suddenly grinned. “Thanks.”

The ruler grunted then closed her eyes.

Well….” The rebel scooted off the bench with her cane and picked up the tray. “I’ll see you at the trial.”

The Conqueror opened one eye and briefly watched her enemy head of the jail. When the door closed, her lips were teased by a grin but it slowly slipped away.

Gabrielle returned the tray to the dining hut first then she went to her hut that she shared. When she arrived in the hut, she found Cyrene there and just coming out of the washroom. “Good morning, Cyrene.”

The older woman softly smiled then put her index finger against her lips and pointed to her bed.

The bard glimpsed over and saw the small head of Melpomene sticking out from the mangled blankets. The scene made a soft smile take over.

Cyrene silently neared the younger woman and quietly mentioned, “I wanted her to sleep in some. I think she could use it.”

“I’m sure,” agreed the rebel. She shifted on her stick some.

“I think….”

Gabrielle pulled her attention away from the child and turned to Cyrene with knitted eyebrows.

Cyrene sighed then pushed herself to say it. “I’m going to see Xena this morning.”

The bard was clearly shocked as it took her a few heartbeats to recover. “Are you sure, Cyrene?”

“Yes.” The Conqueror’s mother studied the sleeping Melpomene then murmured, “Its time her and I face each other… after so long.”

Slowly Gabrielle nodded then asked, “Do you want me to go with you?”

“I need to do this alone.” Cyrene’s washed out blue eyes met Gabrielle. “Stay here with Melpomene… she’ll be hungry when she gets up.”

Gabrielle nodded her understanding then moved in for a warm hug.

Cyrene truly needed the hug from the young woman she considered her second daughter. She placed a kiss to Gabrielle’s temple then pulled away to leave the hut.

The rebel sighed then went to the desk where she had a few scrolls that the Amazons had provided to her. She was working on the continuation of her journal as her days in the Amazon Nation stepped forward. These were unusual days that she had to write about, not wanting to miss one detail.

Cyrene was before the jailhouse in no time at all but her hands sweated with nervousness. She’d seen her daughter from a distance many times over but they had not spoken since the day Xena returned Lyceus’s lifeless body to Amphipolis. When she stepped up to the guards at the door, they questioned nothing since they knew who she was and they’d been waiting for her arrival.

The Conqueror’s eyelids gradually lifted as she half expected the rebel back in the cell. When her gaze filled with the form of an older woman whose salt and pepper brought out her striking blue eyes, the Conqueror trembled but stood up.

Cyrene slowly walked past the six guards. Her small steps brought her across the threshold and she stopped in front of her daughter, her head tilted back.

The Conqueror’s heart was furiously beating and her body tense with anxiety. She could practically count the wrinkles and creases in her mother’s face that had aged her since she last saw her. The blue in her mother’s eyes were worn out in rather dim compared to her childhood days.

Cyrene was amazed by the gentle features of her daughter, the high cheekbones, and the full lips that’d spoken for so many atrocities. Cyrene knew too that so long ago she’d sinned. “Hello, Xena… it’s been a long time.”

The Conqueror remains unmoving, her face still then finally her emotionless voice murmured, “Too long, mother.” She now rested her hands on her hips. “This is slightly… awkward… you here in the Amazon Nation… me chained up.”

Cyrene looked up and down her daughter’s length then returned her head dropping back some. “It’s uncanny.”

Slowly the Conqueror folded her chained arms across her chest in a protective format. “I hear you’re apart of the rebel faction.”

Cyrene tilted her head to the side. “I am a member.”

“How convenient,” hollowly muttered the ruler, “but I suppose that explains all the cute childhood stories about me that are in circulation.”

“Yes… seems like another lifetime ago.” Cyrene’s eyes went to slits. “You’ve done some changing since then.”

“It seems you have too,” mentioned the ruler.

The mother huffed then stated, “Not as much as some.”

The Conqueror grinned at the backhand remark.

Cyrene proceeded to wipe that grin away by saying, “I’m sure your little brother is so proud.”

The Conqueror’s grin did fall and very slowly as her eyes flashed her defenses. “Leave him out of this, mother.”

“Why?” argued Cyrene, “Every gods-be-damned day you dishonor his memory. Forget Toris and even my face but Lyceaus… he would have never wanted any of this.”

“This has nothing to do with him,” hissed the dark ruler.

Cyrene took a step closer, not at all fearful of her daughter’s darkness. “Then explain to me what yours and Lyceaus’s mission were after Cortese?” She studied the glazed facial features high above her and she could see her child was far off in the past. “Tell me you never deviated from it, Xena?”

The Conqueror jolted back to the present and her face darkened threateningly. “It’s all gone, mother… this is now.” She lowered her head down and menacingly whispered, “Now you’re with the faction and-”

“No,” cut through Cyrene. She took a step forward, which forced her daughter to step back and almost hit the bench. “You listen to me….” Her dark look far surpassed anything the Conqueror could accomplish. “Never try me, Xena… some things may change while others do not. I have lost a son and I will not lose another daughter… not to you… not again.”

The ruler straightened her back out as the implications her mother made to her.

“I have carried you in my heart all my life,” emotionally whispered Cyrene, “and I keep hoping my daughter will return to me… some day.” She bitterly laughed then muttered, “The Fates let it be before the day I die.” She read the emotions swirling deeply in her daughter and it was her intent to grab them then pull them up to the surface with her last words. “Just remember, Xena….” Cyrene leaned in then in her gentlest voice she promised, “No matter what you do or say, your mother will always love you.”

The Conqueror helplessly watched the burning tears roll down her mother’s cheeks from her reddening eyes. She couldn’t say anything so she turned her head away, her eyes slipping shut and her arms tightened over her chest.

Cyrene dipped her head, turned, and made her way to the door.

Ephiny ordered the door open for the mother then she escorted her out with her mask going back. After she kicked the door shut behind her, she circled around to face Cyrene. “Are you okay?”

Cyrene smiled through her tears. “Yes, thank you, Ephiny.”

The Amazon sadly smiled then cupped the older woman’s cheeks. “She’s lucky to have you, you know.”

“No,” murmured the mother, “I made her what she is today.”

Ephiny frowned at this then freed her left hand, she pointed at the shut jail door. “That woman in there… she is who she is because she chose her path. Nobody,” whispered Ephiny, “Nobody forced her to walk the road that she has been on.” She tilted her head and now rested her hands on Cyrene’s shoulders. “And maybe she’ll realize that before it’s too late.”

“By the gods,” rasped Cyrene, “I’ve always had faith that she would… but….”

Ephiny shook her head then slowly smiled. “Never give up on her, Cyrene… when everybody else has.”

The Conqueror’s mother quickly understood the wise words of Ephiny and she broke into tears.

The Amazon pulled the woman into her arms and held her securely. She’d seen so many things in this moon and half but for the first time, what stunned her the most, was that she actually saw some light in this dark world.

Gabrielle jostled from her chair when the hut door opened. There in the doorway she saw a worn, emotional Cyrene, which made her jump up quickly. “Cyrene, are you okay?”

Cyrene went to Gabrielle as Gabrielle came to her.

Gabrielle dropped her walking stick when close enough and she enveloped Cyrene into a powerful hug.

Cyrene held tightly to Gabrielle, her face in soft blond hair. Her red eyes filled again with tears.

Gabrielle’s neck soon became moist from the tears and she began to silently cry along with Cyrene. Her heart washed over with a deep burn for the woman that was her mother. She stroked Cyrene’s long hair and quietly whispered, “I love you, Cyrene.”

Cyrene lifted her head some, kissed Gabrielle’s temple, and murmured, “I love you, Gabrielle. Thank you for everything.” She slightly pulled back but her embrace helped to support the bard. “I may have rescued you moons back but in reality you have rescued me from a lifetime of grief and hopelessness.” She pressed her right hand against Gabrielle’s pounding heart. “You have been the light in my life when I lost mine the day I betrayed Xena.”

Gabrielle’s cheeks burned against her acidic tears. “You never betrayed her, Cyrene.” When Cyrene started to shake her head, she pressed the topic. “Xena had a path to follow, Cyrene… she would have no matter what you did or said.”

Cyrene swallowed against the rocky lump in her throat. “I could have stopped her, Gabrielle… none of us would be here today then.”

“But we are here,” refused the bard, “and we must face that now. Maybe not tomorrow or the next day will you be able to give back to her what she lost but maybe soon you can.” She dipped her head down, her glowing eyes held Cyrene still. “We have to have faith because if we don’t… then neither will she.”

Cyrene didn’t argue but her agreement showed as she drew Gabrielle in again. She held onto her adopted daughter for a long time until finally her gentle sobs broke into soft sniffles and her emotions calmed again. She then slipped an arm around Gabrielle’s waist to support her as they made the few steps to the desk chair. After Gabrielle sat, she went to get the cane and returned it.

Gabrielle and Cyrene spoke for awhile. Gabrielle mentioned that little Melpomene had headed off with the other Amazon children. Cyrene had noticed that Melpomene was becoming close with the other girls in the village, which had brought a smile to both Cyrene and Gabrielle. They then spoke about what Cyrene and Xena had said back and forth. Even though they were only a few words, Gabrielle saw the depth behind them. These next days at the trial would be harder than she ever expected.

And the trial’s next piece soon came and together, the mother and adopted daughter, walked to the village center. Cyrene took a position among the masses but front row.

Gabrielle stepped up to her spot before the council with Velasca and Queen Cyane to her right. She picked up the clanking and rattling of the approaching ruler with her guard escort.

The Conqueror held her head high, her eyes bright, and her features set stoically. She wordlessly stood beside her representative, her gaze fixed on the council.

Gabrielle didn’t speak to her, already picking up the wave of new distance between her and the ruler.

“Today,” spoke the head councilor, “we will go through an interview with Queen Cyane.” She gave a signal to the queen then she sat down in her chair.

Queen Cyane removed herself from Velasca’s side. She stepped up beside the council then turned to face her Nation. She stood proud, her hands behind her back, and body ridged.

“Velasca, you may begin,” offered the head councilor.

Velasca dipped her head in thanks then approached the queen some. She cleared her throat, then loudly question, “Queen Cyane, you are the only remain survive of Xena’s attack, correct?”

“That is correct,” agreed the queen.

Velasca paced away then turned to the queen. “When you first met Xena, what was she like?”

Queen Cyane’s gaze flickered to the Conqueror then back to Velasca. “Xena was a lost soul, so to speak. She’d just returned from a lousy campaign in Chin. She was partnered with another warlord, Borias, and they had a small army.”

“Would you consider Xena volatile at that time?”

“Very much so,” responded the queen but before she could say more, Velasca cut her short.

“Did she show any signs of being hostile against the Amazon at the start?”

Queen Cyane shifted on her feet then answered, “I was leery of her, yes. It wasn’t exactly comforting that she showed up with an army.”

“But was she hostile against the Nation from the start?” tried Velasca again.

The Amazon Queen locked her gaze with the Amazon. “Not at the start, no.”

Velasca rocked on her boots some before charging forward. “From my investigation, I’ve heard she’d made idle threats against your Nation at the time… personal ones. Do you deny this, my queen?”

The rebel leader stepped forward. “She’s badgering the queen, council.”

Velasca turned on the heels of her boots. “I am merely trying to point out Xena’s intent with the Nation from the start.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed at the Amazon. “You’re trying to get the queen in a corner.”

The head councilor held up her hand for silence before it got out of hand. “Velasca, move along, please.”

The Amazon sighed greatly but returned her focus to the queen. “My queen, when Xena and Borias’s army were there… what was Borias’s intent?”

“He wished to setup a treaty with us… he was a man of his word.”

“Did Xena agree with his plans?”

Queen Cyane chewed on the inside of her mouth. “Yes and no.” At Velasca’s signal to explain, she continued. “Xena wanted to learn fighting techniques from us but didn’t see much more use for us.”

“Expect to leave the elders hanging by their stomachs,” remarked Velasca.

“Velasca,” warned a councilor.

“My apologies.” Velasca turned to Gabrielle, smiled forcefully, and stepped away from the queen.

The bard slowly neared the queen with her head down, her thoughts working through her head. She smiled at the queen, and she was surprised the queen returned one to her. “Queen Cyane, you said you saw Xena as a lost soul. Can you please elaborate on that further?”

“Of course.” Cyane waited a beat so her thoughts could form. “When I first met Xena, I could tell she’d had a long, dark history and her heart was full of hatred. I believe at that point in her life she was swaying between doing what was right and what was wrong.”

Gabrielle faintly nodded then tilted her head. “Is it true that you invited Xena to join the Nation?”

“Yes,” answered Cyane, “I believed she would make an excellent Amazon.”

The bard slightly smiled at this image but she lost it with the Conqueror’s current image in mind. “If Xena was as hostile and volatile as believed, then why would you risk bringing such a woman into your Nation?”

Queen Cyane contained her grin at the line of questioning. She recalled those days when she first met Xena, before the Conqueror and before the Destroyer of Nations, and she knew why she’d offered a place to Xena. “Yes she was a threat but I believed she could be saved… I’d hoped that I could help her move beyond the darkness and bring out all that was good in her.”

“Good you say?” Gabrielle’s head bobbed at these words. She took a few steps off to her right then rotated back. “Was Xena any different after she met Alti?”

“What does this have to do with anything?” argued Velasca from behind. “Alti is not here on trial.”

Gabrielle whipped her head around to Velasca. “No she is not but I do have a point to prove.” Her gaze now went to the council, a hidden plea on her face.

“See that you make it quickly, Gabrielle,” stated the head councilor. She then signaled for the queen to answer.

Cyane licked her lips then slowly nodded her head. “Yes, Xena was much different after she met Alti.” Her features unknowingly softened at the bard because she pieced together what Gabrielle was intending for this trial. She truly admired the young rebel for standing up for the Conqueror when nobody else would do it. Even more, she respected Gabrielle because the Conqueror was as much as Cyane’s enemy as she was Gabrielle’s. It was an incredibly beautiful feat to watch the rebel leader stand beside the dark Conqueror.

Gabrielle’s lips were slightly puckered then she stepped closer as she asked, “In your best opinion, Queen Cyane would it be safe to say that Alti influenced the Conqueror on some unknown level?”

Queen Cyane studied the straining faces of the Nation, who were awaiting her definite answer. “Yes,” she breathed then her eyes closed when the Nation cried out.

“This is insane!” roared Velasca as she stomped up beside Gabrielle. “That monster,” she pointed at the Conqueror, “doesn’t require anybody to influence her to carry out her darkest desires!”

“Quiet!” yelled the head councilor to everybody.

“Silence!” hotly commanded another councilor.

The Nation’s out cry subsided then the council focused on the two representatives.

“This is absolute nonsense,” argued Velasca, “Gabrielle is trying to sabotage the entire trial by saying the Conqueror was somehow… controlled by Alti to do what she did!”

“Velasca, hold your tongue.” The head councilor sighed because she didn’t like this outlandish idea either but yet there was some loop here that must be observed. “Gabrielle, what is your intent?”

“I have a theory,” spoke up the rebel, “that the Conqueror didn’t act completely on her own will.” Just as Velasca was about to blast ahead, she stepped forward. “I’m not saying the Conqueror didn’t commit her crimes… because she did but I believe to some extent, if under different circumstances, she may have not done them.”

The councils started murmuring amongst themselves then the head councilor inquired, “And do you have some way to prove this, Gabrielle? As you can see, Alti is not here to question.”

The bard huffed then shot back, “Even if she was, would she answer honestly?” She shook her head then informed, “I may not have Alti here but I have somebody that can help prove or disprove my theory.”

“Who is that?” prompted a councilor.

Gabrielle tapped her walking stick against the ground uneasily then answered, “The shaman Yakut.”

Velasca exploded into a fury voice. “Yakut and Alti are completely different shamans.”

“But shamans nonetheless,” debated the bard, “and they’re both from the same stock. This isn’t apples and carrots here.”

“Gabrielle has a point,” spoke up a council member. “Alti and Yakut are both been taught in the ways of shamanism. This may hold some merit after all.”

“I believe you’re right.” Another councilor nodded her head.

“Fine,” spoke up the head member, “We will allow you to pursue this road, Gabrielle however be warned that this cannot and will not be any excuse. The Conqueror chose to perform these crimes.”

The bard slowly nodded her head but refrained from smiling at her small win.

Velasca stormed away from the frustrating council.

“Let us continue,” suggested the council.

Gabrielle cleared her throat before turning back to the Amazon Queen. “Queen Cyane, just before Xena attacked you and the elders you repeated that Xena said she’d killed the young girl?”

“Yes,” replied the queen, “Xena stated she’d pushed the young Amazon, Ellie, off from a tree branch.”

The bard walked over to the right and then asked, “Are you a hundred percent certain that Xena killed Ellie?”

Queen Cyane’s eyebrows knitted together neatly.

“Did you find any proof that she did this?”

The queen shook her head then argued back, “I can’t see why she would lie otherwise.”

Gabrielle shrugged while turning to the queen. “Well is it possible that Ellie was say… killed by Alti and Xena bluffed, just to provoke you to attack her?”

Queen Cyane opened her mouth to refute the idea yet no words escaped her.

“I ask again, did you find unquestionable proof, besides Xena’s words, that Eillie was killed by her?”

The Amazon Queen sighed then slowly shook her head. “We never investigated further who killed Ellie or how she died… we simply took Xena’s word.”

Gabrielle solemnly nodded then stepped back as Velasca took her opening.

“Refresh my memory,” offered Velasca, “who attacked who first? Did Xena attack or you and the elders?”

The Amazon Queen lifted her chest with a deep breath. “After Xena stated that she killed Ellie for sport, she said she was going to show us how she can out-Amazon the Amazons. Then she proceeded to attack us first.”

“So Xena didn’t really need to use Ellie’s death to provoke you in fact. She had every intent to attack you and the elders. Thank you, my queen.” Velasca smiled, bowed her head, and stepped back.

The head councilor’s eyes roamed over to the rebel leader. “Anything else, Gabrielle?”

The bard had her head down, her lips pressed, and wrinkles in her brow.

The Conqueror cleared her throat for some attention.

The rebel looked between the council and the ruler so she held up an index finger to the council. She neared the ruler and her questioning features lifted to the ruler.

The Conqueror gradually bent down until her lips were close to the bard’s right ear. She murmured a few words of suggestion then when she pulled back, she saw a glow on the bard’s face.

Gabrielle spun on her heels and rushed, as fast as she could, back to the queen. “Queen Cyane, please refresh my memory now too. How many elders were there in the grove with you?”

“There were ten,” replied the queen.

“Ten,” repeated the rebel, her eyes aglow. “So that means there were a total of eleven Amazon warriors against the Conqueror?”

Very slowly the queen nodded her head. “Yes.”

“Would you say, in your opinion, that Xena was a better fighter than you at that time?”

The Amazon Queen arched an eyebrow then drew out, “No. She was a competent warrior at the time… but she still lacked much training. She was rather brutal in her method and lacked the composure and grace of many warriors.”

“Yet she managed to kill ten Amazons and wound you terribly, Queen Cyane.” Gabrielle shook her head and then rhetorically asked, “How is this possible with such odds against her?”

Queen Cyane let out a long sigh then quietly replied, “I am not honestly sure.”

Gabrielle’s head was bobbing as she muttered, “Very interesting.” She walked away however she hesitated and pivoted back. “Queen Cyane, one last question.”

Queen Cyane straightened up as she waited.

“It is said you were still alive on the branch you hung from…?” Gabrielle saw the queen’s slow nod and she absorbed the haunted look washing over the queen at the memories. “Do you recall, after Xena left, what happened?”

Cyane’s jaw was locked tight but she willed her emotions under an iron fist. “Alti showed… I watched her… cut each elder’s throat.”

“Why did she do this?” murmured the rebel. She knew this was incredibly hard for the queen yet it was so crucial to her point.

“She wanted their blood… to drink so that she’d own their souls.”

Gabrielle came closer to the Amazon Queen and softly asked, “Did she take yours too?”

Tears held at the edge of Cyane’s eyes as she whispered, “Yes.”

Gabrielle wanted to touch the queen, to offer comfort but she knew she could not. “If Alti was the last person you saw before you were saved then is it possible that maybe Alti was nearby during the entire attack?”

Queen Cyane reined over her feelings finally as her memories filtered away. “It is possible, yes.”

“Is it possible too, that during the fight against Xena, that Alti somehow helped Xena fight you and the elders?”

The queen didn’t answer but after several heartbeats she shook her head. “I do not know… I am unqualified to answer that question as I am not a shaman. I do not know whether she had such powers.”

Gabrielle cocked her head, a faint smile on her face. “Thank you, my queen.” She slowly limped away.

The head councilor thoughtfully looked at Velasca. “Any thing else, Velasca?”

The Amazon folded her arms across her chest. “Nothing else, council.”

“Very well then.” The head councilor relieved the queen from her spot in front of everybody then she stood up. “I believe we’ve covered enough for today. We will resume the trial tomorrow at Helios high again. We are dismissed!”

The Conqueror twisted on the heels of her boots so that she had a perfect view of the rebel. “I’m surprised.”

The bard revealed a grin. “For once, you like my mouth huh?”

Ever so slowly, the Conqueror’s dark eyebrow lifted higher and higher.

Gabrielle’s eyes widened when she realized how her words sounded, her blush appeared on her cheeks then crept north and south from there. She made a clearing nose with her throat then hastily stated, “You like my words, I meant.”

The ruler grunted but she was stopped dead from any remark by the head guard.

“Time to go, Conqueror.” Ephiny signaled her to march, a gesture of her sword.

The Conqueror wavered for a beat, her eyes fixed on her small, short enemy then she swept past without a word.

Gabrielle let out an exasperated sigh when the space the Conqueror had filled was suddenly empty. A chill rippled up and down her back but settled when Cyrene came up to her. “What’d you think?”

Cyrene put her hands on her hips. “I think you’re giving her a better chance.” Her eyes wondered off into the distance to her daughter’s receding back. She stiffened when the Conqueror unexpectedly stopped and returned her gaze from over her shoulder.

The Conqueror studied her mother and the rebel side by side. She memorized the uneasy scene then she turned away before the head guard snapped at her.

Cyrene’s chest fell and her attention was back on her adopted daughter. “What will happen tomorrow?”

“I think Yakut will be questioned.” Gabrielle wanted to add more yet didn’t when the Amazon Queen approached them.

“Gabrielle, you’re bringing up an interesting angle from the attack.”

The rebel was taken back by the queen’s sincere, gentle words. She hadn’t expected Cyane to show any support for her theory. “Well… I think maybe there’s more to this than anybody thought.”

“I believe only Alti truly knows that answer,” refuted the queen, “however there is more light on things now.” She stepped closer then lowered her head closer to the bard. “Thank you,” she simply whispered then strolled off.

Gabrielle blinked as she leaned heavily on her walking stick.

Cyrene touched the young woman’s shoulder. “You should rest, Gabrielle. I know you’re legs are hurting you by now.”

The bard relented because she couldn’t argue Cyrene’s observations. She limped along side Cyrene back towards their shared hut but it was a silent trip since there was much on her mind. Tomorrow would prove to be very interesting as the Conqueror’s trial would narrow closer to the end.
Chapter 12 – The Future Meets the East

The Conqueror had her legs stretched out from the throne chair, her posture slumped, her right elbow on the chair arm, and her face in her hand. She had her chakram out and she spun it on her left finger like a toy. Her forehead was pounding as the idle chitchat of the court muddied up her head.

The court was rather chatty today after discovering that Rhodes, the advisor of state, had been unemployed recently. The advisors were trying desperately not to be next on the Conqueror’s list.

“Commander Meleager,” called out the ruler, who neatly caught her chakram in her left hand. Her head lifted from her hand when the commander appeared from the masses.

“My liege.” The commander bowed his head respectfully then stood his ground.

“What’s the status of the legions on the Norselands’ borders?”

Meleager steadied himself for this report that the Conqueror expected of him since the last court meeting. “They are almost prepared to attack the Norselands. They await your orders, my liege.”

The Conqueror tossed the chakram high up, stood, and caught the whistling weapon with ease. “Belay my previous orders,” she casually remarked then took one step down.

The commander narrowed his eyes. “My liege, the campaign is about to begin.”

“And I say it isn’t going to,” snapped back the ruler. She took the next step down. “It is much too late in the season for this.”

Commander Meleager was dumbfounded by the switch of orders. “My liege, we are-”

“Going to what?”

The commander tensed when the dark ruler was instantly in his face, her eyes glowing with warning.

The Conqueror leaned into the large man and placed the blade of her chakram under his chin to tilt his eyes up to hers. “You were saying?”

Commander Meleager weakened under the predator features of the ruler. “The legions will bunker down for the winter season and prepare for battle at first budding.” He swallowed when the Conqueror bared her teeth in a wicked grin.

“Excellent, commander.”

The commander’s shoulders slightly slumped when the ruler suddenly whipped away.

The Conqueror ascended the dais again then faced her court of advisors. “What of the Corinth Canal? I haven’t heard much on it… must be bad news.” She scanned her advisor’s faces and waited to see who dared to speak up.

“My liege,” started an advisor, “the canal’s progress has slowed.”

The Conqueror’s right eyebrow gradually arched. “What’s the problem?”

“Dieses… many of the workers are falling ill, my liege.” The advisor stepped through the sea of the court. “The healers can’t seem to keep up. We have the supply of herbs just not the help.”

“I see.” The ruler hooked her chakram back into its home. “See that you speak to me in the next day or two, Cyd. We’ll figure out how to improve their situation.” She took her seat while saying, “No use in letting good resources go to the afterlife.”

Cyd bowed his head, very pleased by the results from the Conqueror. He backed up into the masses of people.

Just as the Conqueror was prepared to question the court again, her assistant stepped up the dais and bowed his head down to the ruler. He whispered something hastily then waited for an answer.

The Conqueror slightly straightened up at the news but she didn’t gave herself away either. “Escort her in here,” she ordered then waved her trusted assistant away.

The assistant, Galen, respectfully dipped his head then hurried off to carry out his orders.

“My liege,” called out an advisor, who was pushing through the people. “I have been receiving news from Egypt.”

The Conqueror’s eyes lowered to the advisor of foreign affairs. “What of Egypt, Maximus?”

The advisor stood at the foot of the dais now. “Queen Cleopatra has requested your appearance in the next moon or so.”

The Conqueror made an audible annoyed sound.

“She merely wishes a visit,” clarified the advisor.

“And I need the Egyptian Navy,” muttered the aggravated ruler. “Bring the invite to my office, Maximus so I can consider it.”

“Of course, my liege.” Maximus was about back away but he stopped when the courtroom’s main doors were thrown open by the guards.

The advisors all turned their heads in oddity at who was interrupting the Conqueror’s court. When many recognized who it was, they dropped their eyes in respect.

The Conqueror stole an evil smile as she rose up from her throne.

At the entrance of the courtroom stood a petite but exquisitely beautiful woman, who had midnight hair tied into a bun and a soft complexion. Her smooth face was gentle yet her dark eyes were vivid against her red silk robe that flowed down over her ankles and hands. She required no invitation here as she glided across the floor with ease and perfect mannerism. As she neared the court, the sea of advisors parted to the sides for her and she soon stood before the powerful ruler of half the known-world. She placed her arms over her stomach and bowed her head deeply.

The Conqueror still held her smile and she went down one step at a time until she was on the ground level. She reached out and cupped the woman’s bowed chin then lifted her head up. “Corinth welcomes the House of Lao.”

Lao Ma’s beautiful ruby lips eased into a smile. “I am grateful, Conqueror.”

The Conqueror relinquished her touch then slowly bowed her head in respect for the Chin ruler. “As am I after so many moons of support from the House of Lao.”

Lao Ma bowed her head one last time then simultaneously the rulers straightened up.

The Conqueror turned to her masses and called out, “We will dismiss the court early today… if there are further concerns then see that you bring them directly to me.” She waved them off then a loud din of chatting began but she ignored them all. “You are a long way from Chin, Lao Ma.”

The Chinese ruler conceded with a faint nod then she quietly asked, “May we speak in private, Conqueror? Perhaps your office?”

The Conqueror placed her hands on her hips as she studied the ruler, who gave nothing away. She then held her left hand out to the door not far away. “This way then.” She escorted Lao Ma out of the court while her thoughts quickly ran over why the ruler had unexpectedly dropped in Corinth. Her realm’s affairs with Chin have been nothing but peaceful and for Lao Ma to show up unexpectedly was unknown of.

Lao Ma quietly floated along side the great ruler, who she’d known for some time. She hadn’t seen the Conqueror in almost twelve moons since the Conqueror’s last visit in Chin for certain political affairs. Yet she was uneasy despite nobody knew it but her.

The Conqueror cleared her throat then asked, “How was your journey here?”

“Peaceful,” softly admitted the Chin ruler. “I had safe passage.”

“How does Chin fair?”

Lao Ma smiled at the concerned ruler. “We prosper well.”

The Conqueror returned the smile too. “Always under the House of Lao.” She signaled to her office door ahead and opened it for her counterpart.

Lao Ma glided into the warm room and hid her hands into the sleeves of her robe. She turned as the darker ruler neared her after closing the door.

“I did not expect you, Ma,” stated the Conqueror.

Lao Ma dipped her head when the Conqueror called her by her first name. She understood the subtle meaning behind it. Her chocolate eyes met those of the Conqueror’s. “I apologize for not sending word… Xena.”

The ruler noticed the wavering in the Chin ruler’s tone at her name. It made her uneasy but she hid it well from her smaller counterpart. “It must be urgent then,” she summarized aloud.

Lao Ma’s eyes narrowed and she moved closer to the tall woman she knew so well. “It is most urgent, to me… and perhaps you as well.”

“Go on,” drew out the Conqueror.

The Chin ruler inhaled then carefully spoke, unsure how to present things but winging it really. “Over a moon ago, I sensed some shift in the balance… your balance and I grew increasingly concerned so I immediately left Chin.”

The Conqueror folded her arms across her chest while taking a few beats to consider the ruler’s words. “What was the shift, Ma?”

“It is unclear but it was strong enough for me to sense it.” Lao Ma tilted her head then came even closer as if trying to determine something in particular. She stared up into the Conqueror’s eyes for many heartbeats and then she murmured, “Now I understand what this is.”

The Conqueror’s eyes slotted quickly and her husky tone filled the small space between them. “What is it?”

Lao Ma stretched out her hand until it touched the Conqueror’s right arm. Her touch was lightening to the Conqueror and her breathless words captured them both. “You are not Xena.”

The Conqueror broke away as if burned by Lao Ma. She went several paces away then her stormy features centered on the Chin ruler. “What did you come here for, Lao Ma?”

Lao Ma slipped her hand back into her sleeves then softly stated, “To help you.”

The Conqueror crossed her arms against her chest then coldly stated, “I do not require help, Lao Ma.”

Lao Ma sadly smiled then closed in on the defensive ruler. “You’re spirit is her but much older and wiser through the ages.” Her right hand appeared again and this time against the Conqueror’s cheek. “You’re soul has grown more beautiful than I could ever hope for.”

The Conqueror’s eyes were closed and she leaned into the comforting touch of the woman she felt so linked to.

Lao Ma came closer and now had both hands against the woman’s cheeks. She gently whispered, “Tell me what has happened and how I can help.” She was amazed when the Conqueror’s eyes fluttered open and it was if another person was staring back at her. She never seen the Conqueror so tender and it made her heart still for a beat.

“I don’t know where to begin,” emotionally whispered the Conqueror.

Lao Ma brushed back the ruler’s hair behind her ear as she smiled. “Sometimes it is best to start at the end then work back.”

The Conqueror half heartily smiled and clasped her hands over Lao Ma’s much smaller ones.

“Let us sit.” Lao Ma released her hold then gestured to the sofa close by. She guided the taller ruler over and took a poised seat on the comfortable sofa next to the ruler. She soon learned of the mysterious yet amazing circumstances that’d come over the ruler since she’d sense the shift in the balance. She quickly realized that in fact she was not seated beside the dark ruler she’d tried to change moons back but instead the ruler’s much aged karma placed many lifetimes ahead of now. She also finally figured out why she’d always steered clear of the Conqueror since that dark shaman, Alti, had taken resistance next to the Conqueror.

Melinda finished her story and explanation of things that’d passed by since Alti’s kidnapping of Janice. At the end of it, she felt a sense of relief at spilling out the truth to an unconditional ear and supporter. She was also very spent emotionally and sluggishly leaned against the sofa.

“I understand clearly now,” gently spoke Lao Ma. “Thank you for telling me, Melinda.”

Melinda dipped her head some.

“I can tell this has not been easy,” stated the Chin ruler, “for you or your friend.”

Melinda sighed heavily and licked her lips. “It has been harder on Janice than me.”

“She struggles against things in her mind while you struggle against those in your soul.” Lao Ma shook her head. “Neither is easier than the other but both taxing on the heart.”

“I reckon so,” murmured the translator. She let out a long sigh then confessed, “I am scared this could change me, Lao Ma.” Her stricken features turned to the Chin ruler. “And I’m even more scared it could hurt Janice.”

Lao Ma solemnly smiled as she collected Melinda’s hands into her own. “Often what you fear is what will happen, Melinda however if you can let those fears go then they will not conqueror you.” She bent her head to peer up into hooded eyes. “You must not think so much about what is happening in you.”

“How can’t I?” debated Melinda. “Everyday I grow more fearful that I’ll really wake up as the Conqueror instead of myself.”

Lao Ma shook her head and squeezed the larger hands. “It is not the Conqueror inside of you but it is Xena.” When Melinda was about to speak, she stopped her short. “You have told me that Xena was never the Conqueror in your world then it is merely Xena’s karma you must follow… not the Conqueror’s.” She leaned in some. “As I have told the Conqueror in the past, I am blessed and cursed with the ability to see into people’s souls.”

Melinda digested this information and explanation to how Lao Ma figured her out so easily. “What do ya see in my soul?”

“Many things that the Conqueror is not and could not achieve for lifetimes to come. Your soul is at a changing point now, Melinda. You are a balance of the darkness and the light and you will grow into the light.”

“How is that possible?” Melinda shook her head, confusion written on her face.

“It is the cycle,” explained Lao Ma, “just as winter becomes spring and spring into summer then autumn and finally back to winter. A soul follows much the same cycles.”

“So at some point my soul will be completely light?” tried Melinda.

“Yes.” Lao Ma softly smiled then murmured, “Much like mine. I have reached my peak and soon I will cycle back to the Darkness.”

Melinda shivered at the thought of the Darkness.

“Do not misunderstand this cycle, Melinda.” Lao Ma’s soft voice eased her fears. “For everything has a balance in life… for when there is fire there is water.”

“My balance is Janice, isn’t she?”

Lao Ma smiled at the woman’s sharp perception. “Yes, she is your balance as you are hers and as you come to the Light then she will go to the Darkness.”

Melinda stiffened at this news.

“Just have faith in the cycle and balance, Melinda.” Lao Ma eased the translator to calm again. “You must accept your soul so that the balance is not broken.”

“I reckon I understand.” Melinda was calmer as the information slipped into the deep recesses of her mind.

“Now the Conqueror faces a great change,” informed the Chin ruler, “A change that could be disrupted by Alti.”

“She has to be stopped,” agreed Melinda.

“When it is time, yes.” Lao Ma released her hands from Melinda’s. “Until that time, I will remain here in Corinth to protect Janice from Alti.”

The southerner softly chuckled at the declaration. “Boy, will Janice love this.” Just then her head snapped up when there was a hard knock at the door. She instantly knew who it was so she got up from the sofa while her suddenly cold voice called, “Enter.”

Lao Ma turned her head as a tall, shadowy woman filled the room with her mysterious powers. She gradually got up to meet this evil woman that she automatically knew without a name.

“Alti,” greeted the Conqueror, who held her hand out to Lao Ma. “This is Lady Lao from the Kingdom of Chin.”

The shaman knew the smaller ruler immediately as her senses were heightened. “Lady Lao.” She was forced to bow her head in respect for the Chin ruler. When she lifted her head she was surprise to see Lao Ma was bowing her head in respect as well. “Welcome to Corinth.”

Lao Ma brought out a pleasant smile. “Thank you, Alti. This is my first visit here.”

“And an unexpected one,” added the dark shaman.

“Yes, as I wished to surprise the Conqueror so I could skip many of the formalities.”

The Conqueror kept her curling grin from showing at Lao Ma’s ability to skirt around the truth. “Lady Lao is planning on an extended visit.” She now showed her wild grin. “See that you take care during her stay here, Alti.”

“Of course, my liege.” Alti’s dark gaze broke away from the Chin ruler and met the Conqueror. “I came to speak to you about the prisoner.”

“Perhaps after Lady Lao and I have finished then I will find the time, Alti.” The Conqueror placed her hands on her leather clad hips. “I’ll come find you.”

Alti’s demeanor spoke of annoyance but she huskily agreed. “Very well, my liege.” She turned and exited the office without another word.

Lao Ma turned to the taller woman after the door closed. “Now I understand why the Conqueror has become lost.”

Melinda folded her arms across her chest as she huffed. “I know… it ain’t comforting either.” Then it struck Melinda that she’d promised Janice that she’d come by after the meeting with the court and that was several hours ago. She let out an audible groan and before she was questioned there was a soft knock at the door. “Come in!”

The door shoved open enough to let a small form slide in easily. “Melll…” Janice’s words fell short when she spotted the oriental woman in the office with her friend. “Mmmind if I come in, Conqueror?” She tried to recover.

The Conqueror grinned at the attempt but she waved the prisoner in while ordering to the guards, “Stay posted at the door.”

Janice shut the door then carefully approached the pair but her interest was solely on Lao Ma.

“Janice, this is Lao Ma from the Kingdom of Chin.”

Janice had knitted eyebrows at hearing Melinda’s southern draw properly introduce the stranger. She switched from Melinda to Lao Ma then stood in front of her, eye to eye.

Lao Ma offered a warm smile then bowed her head. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Janice.” She straightened up and her smile widened at Janice’s still perplexed features.

Janice snapped out of it when Melinda cleared her throat. She hastily bowed in respect since she knew some of the Chinese culture and history too. She knew the concept about giving and taking face even though she didn’t perfectly understand it. “Um….”

Melinda softly laughed at her friend’s pure confusion so she finally stopped toying with her friend. “She knows, Janice.”

“Oh.” Janice blinked at the Chin ruler then shyly smiled at her. “I’m sorry… this hasn’t been exactly the most normal thing.”

Lao Ma still held her smile. “I understood.”

“Lao Ma met the Conqueror many years back, Janice,” explained Melinda, “and they parted ways for some time until the Conqueror had a lot of power.”

“It has only been recent that the Kingdom of Chin and the Conqueror’s realm has created treaties,” explained Lao Ma.

The archeologist nodded at the news but asked, “How did you know… what happened?”

Melinda turned her head to the Chin ruler.

Lao Ma saw her position to answer the question. “Over a moon ago I detected a shift in the Conqueror’s balance so I hastily came to see what’d happened.”

“So you were able to figure out that Mel wasn’t the Conqueror?” At Lao Ma’s nod, the archeologist became incredibly concerned. “That’s not so good… what if Alti can figure it out too?”

“She will not,” answered Lao Ma, “as her abilities are different than mine. She cannot discern Melinda’s soul from the Conqueror’s but only identify that it is there and has the same powers.”

Janice looked clearly relieved and the tension flowed out of her body. “Thank god then.” Now she put her hands on her hips and glanced between the counterparts. “So where does this leave us?” And she didn’t like the smirking expression on Melinda’s face one bit. It wasn’t long until she heard Lao Ma and Melinda’s intentions until things were solved later down the road. Janice kept quiet the entire time, her hands gripping her hips, and her head cocked to the side.

Janice’s annoyance flowed off and rippled over to Melinda, who became uneasy. Melinda finally offered to Lao Ma her room that she’d told her assistant to have prepared for her. With a verbal offer, Melinda and Janice escorted the Chin ruler through the fortress and Janice’s guards tagged along side. Melinda morphed into her role as the Conqueror as she led the group.

The Conqueror pushed open the heavy door of the bedchambers then let Janice and Lao Ma enter. She turned her head to the guards and arched an eyebrow at them in warning. She slipped into the bedchambers next with the door shutting behind.

“Holy shit!” yelped Janice, who jumped back and stumbled into her friend.

Melinda turned her head to the right at what’d scared the archeologist. She held her breath as her gaze leveled to the predatory eyes.

Lao Ma smiled, her head dipped down, and her soft features regarding the sleek, muscular tiger that was waiting for her. She neared him and her small hand slipped out from her robe so she could pet his large head. “This is Hu.”

Janice remained tense as she stared at the sitting Siberian tiger.

Melinda lifted her hands then rested them on Janice’s shoulders to assure her.

“Hu is my most loyal friend,” explained Lao Ma.

Hu responded by lifting his head and licking the Chin ruler’s wrist. He started to purr happily.

Lao Ma returned her gaze to the women by the door. “In Chin culture, we believe that the tiger is most protective and filled with wisdom.”

Melinda tilted her head then asked, “I reckon they bring good fortune and power.”

Lao Ma bowed her head in agreement. “The tiger is the king of the earth while the dragon rules the skies.” With curious eyes, she assessed that Janice was very frightened by the powerful animal so she sought to remedy the problem. She slipped around so that her back was to the women and she faced her feline friend.

Hu tilted his head back; he stared into swirling black eyes slightly above him.

Melinda was amazed at something seemed to pass between the Chin ruler and the tiger. Then when Lao Ma stepped aside, Hu stood up and leisurely neared her and Janice. Under her hands, Janice’s muscles tightened and she unknowingly started a massage.

Hu took a new seat but now just at Janice’s feet.

The archeologist inhaled quickly but she was transfixed by the handsome tiger below her. Emerald eyes slowly mixed with the tiger’s fire eyes. Janice hypnotically lifted her hands and her fingers combed through the tiger’s furry cheeks.

Hu’s purr filled the silence again and grew louder as Janice’s hands trailed up his head and behind his ears.

Melinda was fascinated and enjoyed the scene as much as Janice’s small, warm body melting against hers.

Lao Ma silently glided up to her furry friend and Janice Covington. “A tiger and dog always make instant friends,” mentioned the Chin ruler, “Forever loyal to one another.”

The archeologist constricted face lifted to the oriental woman. “Dog?”

“Yes,” murmured Lao Ma, “you were born under the dog.”

“Chinese zodiac,” elaborated the translator.

Lao Ma nodded then smiled at the tall, dark woman behind Janice. “Your karma has always been born under the tiger.”

Janice twisted her head around to gaze up at her best friend. “You’re a tiger?”

Melinda simply nodded her head.

“Hu will protect you, Janice.”

Hu’s agreement was a lick to Janice’s closest hand, his sharp teeth flashing but he demeanor gentle.

“Hu?” softly called the Chin ruler.

The tiger glanced sidelong at his friend, his head somewhat tilted as if he were carefully listening.

Lao Ma closed in the distance between her and the tiger. She touched him just over the shoulder. “Stay with Janice.”

“Lao Ma, I’ll be-”

“Safe with Hu,” finished the Chin ruler. “You cannot refuse him.”

The archeologist sighed and stared back down at her new, furry friend. She really did admire his beautiful striped coat of orange and black, which each seem to come to life when Hu moved. “Thank you,” she stated to Lao Ma.

Lao Ma had a soft smile. “Hu has offered, I did not make him.”

Janice blinked then lowered her gaze to the powerful tiger, who stared back at her. She slightly grinned now as she ruffled his fur on his head just to toy with him.

Hu instantly shoved his cold, wet nose against the offending hand.

Janice couldn’t stop her chuckle.

“We’ll leave you alone, Ma.” Melinda squeezed Janice’s shoulders then removed her hands. “I know you would like to rest.”

“Yes,” agreed the ruler, “Thank you, Melinda.”

Melinda breathed deeply as she stole a second before moving into her ruler role. She reversed out of the bedchambers.

The guards straightened up stiffly when the Conqueror exited followed by the prisoner and then they jumped at seeing the tiger. “My liege,” started a guard.

The Conqueror held up a hand. “He’s with the prisoner.” She signaled the tiger.

Hu’s fire eyes flickered between the two guards and his long tongue darted over his muzzle.

The sentries swallowed but simultaneously nodded, not sure what else to say.

The Conqueror gestured for Janice to follow her down the hall to her room. She opened one door by the gold ring then went in first followed by the rest of the small party.

The guards took posts on either side of the doors after they closed but they exchanged looks.

Janice was petting Hu, her head bent down.

The tip of Melinda’s tongue touched her lips as she debated what to say first. She knew her friend’s annoyance about earlier was still there. It was something she needed to settle or it would wedge them apart, which she wasn’t interested in right now. “Janice,” she tried, “I reckon Lao Ma’s help will be important.”

The archeologist retreated from her petting of Hu and looked at her friend. “Mel, I already have the guards… I have you… everything is fine.” She indicated the tiger. “Now him?” She huffed and shook her head.

“Alti is dangerous,” reminded the taller southerner.

Janice huffed then grunted out, “You don’t have to remind me, Mel.” She now put her arms over her chest in a defensive manner. “I don’t think Lao Ma needs to trail behind me like a shadow.”

“She won’t be a shadow,” defended the translator.

Janice quickly snapped and chewed out, “I can protect myself, Mel.” Her forest green eyes swirled with anger.

Melinda’s temper followed suit as she growled, “As if you were doing such a hot job earlier.” Her southern accent forgotten and her tone cutting.

Janice was jarred by the statement, she sucked in her pain then turned away from Melinda.

Melinda’s anger was instantly lost as she realized what’d transcended from her lips. Her regret swept through and she briefly watched her friend steer away, going across the large room.

Hu was sitting, his head turned, and eyes following Janice.

Janice remained quiet, her head hung low, and her arms still against her chest.

The translator’s jaw was set as she pulled on her usual calmness to fix things. She quickly came up behind her friend and lowered her head down closer to Janice’s right ear, without touching her at all. “I’m sorry, Janice. I didn’t… I shouldn’t have….” She lost her words, her hands in midair almost touching Janice, and they fell back to her side.

Janice sighed then shook her head. “This isn’t easy… for either of us, Mel.” Her voice quaked and she worked her hand through her short, golden hair.

Janice’s pain transferred into Melinda deeply and she followed her instincts. She stepped forward so that she brushed up against Janice’s back.

The archeologist’s eyes shut when the warm, strong presence behind her came closer. She uncontrollably leaned back into her friend just as Melinda’s strong arms slipped between her arms and side.

Melinda had her arms encircling the smaller woman and drawing her in tightly so that their bodies molded. Relief flowed through her at the silent agreement between them. She lowered her head back down until her chin was lightly on Janice’s head.

Janice placed her hands on top of her friend’s then rested her head against Melinda’s chest. She remained that way for some time without every thinking about it or questioning it. It felt too amazing to wonder about it. She didn’t break away from her peace until there was a nudge at their hands. Janice let out a chuckle and lifted her head.

Melinda discovered that Hu had decided to join them too.

The archeologist played with his soft coat as he sat at her feet again. “What we going to do now, Mel?”

The translator lowered her head down closer to her friend’s, her cheek almost against Janice’s. “We wait… it’s as much as we can do right now.”

Janice sighed, her attention on the tiger at her feet. “What happens if the Conqueror is sentenced to death?”

Melinda released a long sigh because she had no real answer. “We’ll face it when we get to that bridge… if we do.”

“I don’t know how we won’t be, Mel… Christ.” Janice shook her head, her lips sealed tightly.

Melinda tilted her head as she wondered what else was on her friend’s mind.

“You were right,” softly brought up Janice.

“About what?” Melinda instinctively tightened her arms.

“That I wasn’t doing so well earlier.” Janice bit her lower lip then shook her head with an aggravated huff. “I would be dead now if it wasn’t for you.”

“No,” argued Melinda, “ya would be alive now too… with or without me.”

Janice peered up at her friend, her eyes filled with doubt.

“The Conqueror wasn’t planning to kill ya,” gently told the translator. “She wasn’t going to let Gabrielle die either.” She watched the constricted, perplexed features on Janice’s face. “She knew that Gabrielle had bribed some of her soldiers back when she was sentenced to the cross.”

“So she… intentionally let her escape,” concluded the archeologist. “Why?”

Melinda, who perfectly understood her ancestral counterpart, answered the question. “She’s lonely… and bored.”

“What? Wait….” Janice’s right hand now touched Melinda’s right shoulder as she slightly turned in her friend’s embrace, her left hand rested on Hu’s head. “You’re telling me that Gabrielle is like… a toy to her? She’s just playing with Gabrielle?”

“No.” Melinda cocked her head to the side. “She’s intrigued by her.”

Janice grunted. “She has a funny way of showing it.”

“I reckon so.” When Janice leaned back into her again, Melinda continued to explain the mystery. “The Conqueror is realizing her realm is expanding but her world is shrinking.”

“All she has to show is a kingdom.”

“Nobody to share it with,” added Melinda.

“And nobody close to her… no family… or friends.” Janice sarcastically chuckled and muttered, “She controls the world but has….”

“Nothing,” softly finished Melinda.

Janice had a bittersweet smile at this realization. “Life is always so damn ironic.” Her head was bent down as she toyed with Hu’s thick coat.

Hu dripped his head back some and his tongue snaked out, licking his new friend’s hand.

“What about Alti?” murmured the archeologist.

“I will keep her busy,” coolly stated the southerner.

“Mel?” Janice dropped her head against her friend’s chest, her brilliant emerald eyes met Melinda’s inquisitive ones. “I didn’t say thank you.”

Melinda had a tender smile and her eyes shaded like the skies. “Ya don’t need to.”

“Yes… yes, I do.” Janice reached up and her right palm touched her friend’s smooth cheek. “Thank you… for everything… I’ve never had anybody care… about me.”

“Your daddy did,” debated the translator.

Janice noted how Melinda didn’t mention her mother, she lowered her hand back to her side. “So did my mother….” Her voice fell off as her emotions trickled to the surface. “Alti… showed me something while I was in the dungeon.”

“What happened?” Melinda was concerned, her tone showed it.

“Alti showed me a vision.” Janice now stared across the room, at the heavy curtains that led to the small balcony outside. “It was of my mother before she died.” She swallowed as her eyes closed and the vision drowned her suddenly. “When I was ten, my parents were working on at a site in Greece. It was early evening and my mother took my father’s truck to go into town, to get some supplies. I never saw her after that evening.”

Melinda inhaled and held her breath.

“The truck my father had was pretty old, beat up… we called it Bertha too.” Janice had a distant smile then it slipped away. “The truck broke down halfway to town so my mom tried to fix it with what little she knew. She couldn’t get it started so she walked back towards camp.”

Melinda swallowed then lowered her head down. Her eyes shut as she whispered, “What happened?”

Janice shook her head. “She didn’t make it back… a man in a truck pulled over, offering to help her.” She squeezed her eyes closed tighter in hopes it’d cut off the memory from the vision but it didn’t work. “He raped her then killed her, Mel.” Her eyes flew open as the wet drops tracked down her hot cheeks.

“Ooo god,” murmured the translator. “I’m sorry, Janice… I’m so sorry.”

Janice moved in the embrace so that she faced her friend.

The tall southerner drew Janice in closer, as deep as she could then when Janice’s moist face pressed into her neck, she began to cry too. Janice’s body quaked against hers silently and Melinda’s heart dropped further.

Janice clung to the warm, comforting woman that offered her safety as she broke down. Her mother’s final hours slowly started to recede out and the tidal emotions gradually calmed again.

Hu sensed everything upsetting so he moved closer and nuzzled his face against Janice’s side to comfort her too. He stopped after a bit and merely waited, his eyes closed, and face against Janice’s torso.

The archeologist gained control again and withdrew some. She peered down at Hu to see a ferocious creature that was tenderly comforting her.

Hu opened his eyes when he felt the attention on him. His fire eyes spoke to Janice.

Janice’s unknown resolve against the tiger gave way and she smiled at him gratefully. Her right hand threaded through his fur and held on for assurance.

Hu closed his eyes again and snuggled his face into the wool cloak the human wore.

The group remained this way for awhile, the time passing without notice. Then there was a demanding knock at the door, which broke the comfortable spell between them all.

Melinda was incredibly tense as power and darkness charged through her body without warning. “Janice, take Hu and wait out on the balcony for me. Stay quiet.”

“Wha-”

“It’s Alti,” clipped the southerner. “Go. I will deal with her.”

Janice’s eyes wondered over to the door as second series of bangs came and her stomach knotted. Melinda suddenly pulled away, which caused Janice’s emotions to recoil into a hidden area. She stayed quiet as she signaled for Hu to follow her. She made it to the curtains but looked over her shoulders at her best friend. She only saw the Conqueror instead leisurely approaching the main doors. Janice hurried through the curtains with her furry friend and found a spot off to the side of the balcony.

Hu knew something was amiss but he would not leave the small human’s side. Yet he purred when a small, warm hand worked down his coat in a repeated session.

Janice chewed on her lower lip for a second but stopped as she tilted her head. She tried to focus on the low yet strong voices of Alti and Melinda.

“It doesn’t concern you, Alti,” warned the Conqueror.

Alti’s black eyes flashed with anger. “Yet you required me to do a vision on her, Conqueror.” She stepped closer to the ruler. “She’s a threat to the realm… just like that rebel.” She folded her arms over her robed chest. “Or do you plan to let this one loose too?”

The Conqueror growled deeply as she closed in the small distance between her and Alti. Her teeth bared in a furious display. “Do not question me, Alti.”

Alti opened her mouth to start the argument. Her words were halted before they were breathed by the powerful hand around her neck.

The Conqueror kept her grip tight around the shaman’s neck. “I do as I please.” Her grip increased another notch. “She may be of more use than I planned… she’s close to the Amazons.” Her face leaned in closer to the shaman’s. “And don’t you want Cyane?”

Alti rasped as her right hand came up, her long fingers curling around the muscular arm of the Conqueror.

The ruler jerked her hand on Alti’s neck to get a response. “Don’t you, Alti?”

The shaman closed her eyes from the thinning air in her windpipes. “Y-e-s-s-s.”

“Then she is a way in.” The Conqueror abruptly threw Alti from her vice grasp then stared down at the crumbled shaman, who kneeled down gagging for air. “Do not compromise my plans, Alti.”

The dark shaman heaved yet she forced her legs to lift her before the ruler.

“Do I make myself clear?” The Conqueror neared the shaman again with her flickering anger in her face.

Alti dipped her head then answered, “Yes, my liege… perfectly.”

The Conqueror clenched her fists at her sides then walked away but over her shoulder she ordered, “Get out, Alti.”

The shaman bowed her head then backed up a step before turning and exiting the large bedchambers of the ruler. When she was out of the room, she rubbed her sore neck, which increased her anger for the ruler’s reaction. She noticed the two guards staring at her. “What is it, fools?” Her eyes narrowed at them. “Is there a problem?”

“Of course not, shaman.” The speaking guard turned his head away and became a statue like his partner.

Alti wanted to strike against them but thought wiser so she swept past them in a rage.

Melinda needed a few minutes before she faced her friend again. She went in search of something she’d been holding for Janice for a few days now.

Janice was entranced by the beautiful city as the low western sun started for its descent off to her left on the horizon. Even from here, she could inhale the distinct salty smell of the mixing seas and it filled her. She first sensed Melinda coming out before seeing her then there was a large yet gentle hand on her midback.

“I’ve been meanin’ to give ya this, Janice. Ephiny sent it.”

The archeologist was bewildered as she accepted the small leather pouch from her friend. She undid the leather string and peered in for the articles. “Goddamn!” She brightened as she dug out a cigar in complete triumphant.

Melinda was grinning at the archeologist’s happiness. Her nose slightly crinkled though at the thought of the pungent odor of the cigars.

“I need one,” concluded the small woman. She was excited to find her lighter too but she hesitated while looking at the end of the cigar that required cutting first.

Melinda smirked, plucked the cigar free while reaching into her cleavage, and she neatly cut the cigar then her dagger disappeared in a blur. She held out the prized cigar to her friend.

Janice blinked and then gaped. She received the cigar while asking, “What the hell else do you have in there, Mel?”

The southerner’s lips puckered some as her eyes brightened with teasing. “I can’t tell ya.”

Janice was biting back an evil remark. She instead plugged her mouth shut with the cigar then pulled out her lighter. She flipped the top mechanically then followed it by a flick. Once she had the cigar going, she dropped the lighter into the bag and worked it closed while holding the burning cigar between her teeth.

Melinda then grabbed up the cigar bag so that Janice’s hands were free.

The archeologist was grateful as she stepped up to the marble railing and leaned against it, her eyes scanning over the ancient city. “Isn’t it amazing, Mel?” Her left hand dealt with the cigar while her right scratched Hu’s closest ear.

Melinda had stepped back a bit so she wouldn’t pick up the cigar smell. She wasn’t opting to explain to people the new, strange odor. “It’s beautiful,” she murmured from her spot against the wall, her arms folded over her chest.

Janice shook her head as she took a long draw from her cigar. “I never thought I’d see something like this… Christ we shouldn’t be seeing this.”

The translator was grinning now. “It’s uh little different from the movies.”

Janice laughed and gazed over back at her friend. “It is that.” As she turned her head back, a group of seagulls swooped past and dove into an arch towards the sea. “Can you believe that the Conqueror is building the Corinth Canal?”

“Mmmm… I reckon she’ll succeed too,” logically concluded the southerner.

Janice was considering this as she smoked her cigar. Her gaze lowered to the wall that protected the fortress. She watched the sentries patrol the walls and the grounds with set precision. “Mel?” She spun around and leaned back against the rail as her cigar traded hands. “If we stayed here it wouldn’t be too bad.”

Melinda’s right eyebrow hiked up her forehead at this idea. “I reckon we don’t belong here, Janice.”

“No,” agreed the archeologist, “yet we could do so much here. Record the history so that the future will have it.”

“But this ain’t our world, Janice. God only knows if our counterparts exist in the 1940’s.”

Janice shrugged after just taking another drag. “Still… there will be archeologists researching this time period.” She held out her hands in indication of everything before going back to petting Hu. “We could have it all here.”

Melinda sighed deeply then dove into the debate finally. “This ain’t our time or our world, Janice. We are tampering enough with it by being here.”

“But think about what we can do to help these people, Mel. You’re the Conqueror… you can change it all. We could do this together.” She put the cigar in the side of her mouth while muttering, “And record it all to a ‘T’ and dotted ‘i’s, Mel.”

The translator released a drawn out exhale because she sympathized with her friend’s ideas. She still knew it would never work out right. “We can’t, Janice.”

Janice had taken her lost smoke of the cigar, snubbed it out, set it on the rail, and gradually let the smoke filter between her split lips. Her shoulders slightly slumped in defeat because she knew too. “There’s just… so much we could do, Mel.”

The translator pushed off the cold stone wall and came back to her friend. “There is but it ain’t up to us.” She stood in front of her friend with her head bent down to hold Janice’s gaze. “We still have to prove Xena’s existence in our world.”

Janice now had a silly grin at how her friend reminded her of the partnership. “Yea… you’re right, Mel.” Again she turned back around to stand before the great city. Her left arm positioned on the rail while she went back to petting Hu at her right side.

Melinda glanced over at her friend; she saw how transfixed the archeologist was by the beautiful view of the ancient city. It was also beyond Melinda’s imagination too as every morning since her arrival here she would watch the sunrises to start her day. She was trying to memorize the historical city by every detail.

“I remember when my father use to take me to the ancient ruins of Corinth… as a kid,” mentioned the archeologist. “I use to try to imagine what it use to look like before it was destroyed and forgotten.” She waved her hand at the city before her eyes. “My imagination doesn’t even compare to this.”

Melinda had a solemnly smile as she carefully listened. “My daddy never took me to a dig site.” She shook her head while brushing back her hair that’d moved from the breeze. “My mom was too afraid I’d get hurt.”

Janice grunted. “A dig site is no place for a proper belle.” Her teasing grin flickered at the translator.

Melinda sighed though then nodded her head. “But daddy always showed me all the photos… his notes, the artifacts, and he taught me syntax.”

The archeologist peered over at her friend, her head dropped to one side. “Is ancient syntax the only language you know?”

“Ooo my no.” Melinda chuckled as her playful eyes met Janice’s curious features. “I’m fluent in several languages.” At seeing Janice’s interest perking at this news she further explained. “I am fluent in Latin, French, German, and Mandarin.”

“Plus English and ancient Greek,” reminded the archeologist.

Melinda nodded then softly added, “I recently learned Egyptian hieroglyphics.”

“Christ,” blurted out Janice, “you’re more of a damn linguist than a translator, Mel.”

Melinda had a soft grin at the backwards compliment from her friend. “I reckon so.”

Janice moved her head in amazement at this revelation. She let out a long sigh then asked, “What did Alti want?”

“Mmmm… just your head on a pike,” muttered the annoyed southerner.

Janice shrugged. “Easy request.”

Melinda’s face darkened a shade but she didn’t look at her friend. “She’s trying to figure out why I spared you from the dungeons.”

“And why did you… Conqueror?” Janice saw the arched eyebrow coming in her direction. She gave back a challenging look to see what Melinda’s intent was from the start.

“Because you’re valuable to get to the Amazons.” Melinda straightened up quickly as she turned to her smaller friend. “I plan to… seduce you to my side.”

Janice suddenly looked as if she were a deer in headlights as she swore she misheard her friend. “Um… seduce?” Her mouth was cotton and her heart pounding plus Hu was forgotten.

Melinda nonchalantly neared her friend and smirked down at her. “The Conqueror always gets what she wants, Janice.” She then lifted her right hand then shoved the cigar bag against the smaller woman’s chest. She leaned down then sensually whispered, “Always.” With that, she strolled back towards the set of curtains and disappeared through them.

Janice breathed sharply after Melinda left the space, the wake of power still struck Janice in the knees. “Wow,” she whispered as her hand clenched her cigar bag. She peered down at her feline friend and asked, “Are all tigers like that, Hu?”

Hu seemed to understand as he flashed his teeth in a fine show then stood up, he walked away a few feet then glanced back at Janice.

The archeologist shook her head then followed Hu back into the bedchambers. And how does she plan to seduce me, mentally wondered Janice, who was smirking wildly.
Chapter 13 – Family Matters

Gabrielle’s head popped up when there was a rap at her door. She turned in her chair then called, “Come in.” She smiled when a familiar Amazon stepped into the hut, in her right hand was a sealed scroll.

“A message has arrived for you, Gabrielle.” The Amazon already knew that for Gabrielle it would require a lot to get up and come to her. So she marched across the short distance and held out the scroll.

“Thank you for bringing it, Princess Terreis.”

The fiery red head stood proud yet receptive to the outsider. “Whenever you’re ready to send a reply then simply ask for me, Gabrielle.”

The bard smiled up at the Amazon Princess as she placed the scroll on the desk. “Thank you again, princess. I appreciate everything you’ve done… everything your Nation has done.”

The princess bowed as her bright hair fell forward around her face briefly. “It has been a pleasure to the Nation.”

Gabrielle tilted her head to one side then softly asked, “Has it really or…?” She wavered, shrugged and softly stated, “I just thought the queen wasn’t so keen on having Cyrene, Melpomene, and I here.”

The princess rested her hands on her hips, a habit she’d learned from her sister seasons back. “Queen Cyane has seen much in her time… these are trying times for her.”

The bard sighed sadly then dared to ask the question on her mind. “Is she fearful of the Conqueror?”

“Who does not fear her?” countered the princess. “It is wise to have a healthy dose of fear for the ruler.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed then challenged, “I think Queen Cyane has had too many doses.” She saw how the princess was tensing at the direction of the conversation. “It just seems to me, from what I’ve seen, that she hides the Amazon Nation in the shadows.”

“It is the only way to survive in this world,” declared the princess.

Gabrielle read Terreis’s mannerism and something tipped her off. “And you don’t believe that though.”

Princess Terreis shifted uneasily as she didn’t predict to be transparent to this outsider. “It is not easy, Gabrielle… you are not an Amazon.”

“No… I’m not,” softly conceded the bard, “but I’ve always been attacked by the Conqueror much like the Nation. I fear her too.” She paused as she really considered that last declaration. Did she truly fear the Conqueror anymore? “I do understand the need to survive but if you think about it, princess… the Nation is already dead… you’re just hanging onto… nothing.” She shook her head. “I realized that at a young age and that’s why I decided to stand up. To give the people a voice and to stop the Conqueror no matter if it meant my life. I am more alive than I ever was before.” She tilted her head to the other side then gently asked, “Isn’t that what the Amazon Nation is about? Strength and truth?”

“Yet we cower before the Conqueror,” murmured the enlightened princess. She shook her head as her hands fell from her hips. “I understand your point of view, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle slowly nodded.

“You know the Amazon ways yet you’re not one of us….” The baffled princess was staring at the outsider in a new light.

The bard had a wide grin now then her light voice proudly declared, “Hey, don’t judge a scroll by its paper.”

Princess Terreis chuckled and agreed with movement of her head. She took a step back while saying, “I will leave you to your message. Please find me when you’re ready.”

“I will,” promise the rebel.

Princess Terreis was at the door but she hesitated and glimpsed back at the outsider. “Perhaps we can speak more about this later….?”

Gabrielle smiled at the hanging question in the space between them. “I would enjoy that, princess.”

The Amazon flashed a warm smile then exited the hut silently.

The bard adjusted in her seat at the desk and opened the message that she hoped was from Melinda. She smiled at the coded Greek on the scroll and carefully read over it. She let out a relieved breath when she heard that Janice was alive and healing now. When she was through the message, she hastily worked on a reply to tell Melinda what was happening with the trial along with her plans. She also expressed some of her concerns about the Conqueror and if Melinda had any suggestions since Melinda knew her best.

Just as Gabrielle finished her scroll, the door was shoved open some and Melpomene formed in the hut. Gabrielle smiled at the girl and set her quill down. She waved the girl over and picked her up.

Melpomene settled onto Gabrielle’s lap.

“I heard from Melinda,” mentioned Gabrielle carefully.

Melpomene peered up, wide eye at the news.

Gabrielle suddenly smiled and whispered, “Janice is just fine too.”

The girl squealed and threw her arms around Gabrielle’s neck happily. “Thank the gods… I was so worried.”

“I know you were, sweetie.” Gabrielle hugged the child back while mumbling, “So was I.” She rocked their bodies as she closed her eyes and repeated, “So was I.”

Melpomene drew back after a bit. “Melinda is okay too?”

Gabrielle knew things were not easy for Melinda but she wouldn’t worry the child with it. “She’s okay too, Melpomene.” She poked the cute nose in front of her. “I think everything will work out okay.”

Melpomene shook her head as she frowned. “The Conqueror won’t change though, Gabrielle.”

“Never say never,” argued the rebel.

“I heard that Cyrene is the Conqueror’s mother, is that true?” Melpomene had an awed expression as she held her breath in waiting.

Gabrielle could only wonder where Melpomene heard about this but she wasn’t going to lie. “Yes, Melpomene… Cyrene is the Conqueror’s mother.”

“Wow,” gasped the girl. “She’s your mother too, right?”

At that moment, Cyrene had slipped into the hut silently and already heard the conversation transpiring. She remained spellbound by Gabrielle and Melpomene.

Gabrielle dipped her head then softly replied, “Yes, she’s my mother too.”

“So you and the Conqueror are sisters,” logically concluded the girl.

The bard cocked her head then a grin appeared. “Not quite, Melpomene but she and I have a lot in common.”

Melpomene crinkled up her nose then vigorously shook her head. “No you don’t… you and the Conqueror are nothing alike.”

Gabrielle softly laughed. “On the outside we’re not but inside here.” She freed a hand and touched her heart, “We’re a lot alike… she just doesn’t know it.”

The child frowned then pointed out, “If she was then she wouldn’t hurt so many people.”

“Exactly.” Gabrielle leaned in closer as she gently explained things. “The Conqueror has a beautiful heart… just like mine but she’s… forgotten that she has it.”

“Are you going to help her remember it?”

“I’m hoping so,” agreed the bard, her smile back in place.

Melpomene’s eyes lightened and her smile beamed again. “I think you’re right. You know why?”

Gabrielle had a wry grin now as she went along with the child. “Why?”

“Because if the Conqueror and you have the same mother then the Conqueror must have a beautiful heart too… like you.” Melpomene had a hopeful and confident expression. “I’ve never had a grandmother but Cyrene is like my grandmother… she loves me even though I’m not her child.”

Cyrene covered her mouth with her hand to contain her cries from escaping and breaking the moment. Her feelings swept over her at the child’s honest words.

“And you know what, Melpomene?” Gabrielle leaned in, her eyes burning from hidden tears at the thought of Cyrene’s giving and loving heart. “Cyrene loves you as her granddaughter… don’t ever believe otherwise. Okay?”

Melpomene grew very happy at this pledge from her friend. She was all smiles. “Okay, Gabrielle.” She tilted her head then asked, “Does that make you my auntie?”

The rebel suddenly laughed in surprise as she reached up to wipe away her tears.

“Can you be my aunt?” anxiously asked the girl. “You’d make the best aunt… ever!”

Gabrielle laughed again at the excited girl.

“Yes, she would make the best aunt,” agreed the soft voice from the door.

Gabrielle’s head whipped around at hearing Cyrene.

Melpomene brightened at Cyrene’s agreement so she tugged on Gabrielle’s blue top to get her attention again. “Pleeease?”

The bard’s soft eyes returned to the child. “If you want me to be,” she gently agreed.

“Yes, yes,” gushed Melpomene. “Please?”

A chuckle came from Gabrielle and she nodded her head. “Okay just don’t go telling everybody about your rebel aunt.”

Melpomene giggled and suddenly engulfed her new family member with an extra strong hug.

Gabrielle had the air squeezed out off her as she returned the amazing hug. She then helped the child slide of her lap then she watched as Melpomene went over to Cyrene. Her sea mist eyes rose up to meet Cyrene’s gaze. “How long were you there for?”

“Long enough,” murmured the mother. She then gestured at the scrolls on the table because she could tell one wasn’t Gabrielle’s. “Did you receive word?”

“Yes!” Gabrielle brightened at this and smiled. “Janice is fine and so is Melinda. Melinda said she demobilized the Spartan legions as soon as she took control.”

Cyrene sighed in relief at this news. “Thank the gods.” She then peered down when a small hand took hers. “Yes, dear?”

“Can we go eat?” Melpomene looked between her new family with a very serious look. “I’m hungry.”

Cyrene bit her lower lip from laughing.

Gabrielle pointed a finger at her adopted mother. “I don’t want to hear it, Cyrene.”

“Well… you are the aunt,” jested the older woman.

Gabrielle forced her legs to lift her and she limped over with her cane in hand. “Come on… grandma. The grandkid is hungry.”

Cyrene’s washed out blue eyes darkened in warning. “Watch it, Gabby.” She turned to the door and opened it.

Gabrielle’s jaw was slack but Melpomene grabbed her freehand to drag her along.

“Come on, Auntie Gabby… we don’t want to miss dinner.”

Gabrielle just kept her growl down but her clenched teeth showed between her lips. “Just you wait, Cyrene.”

Cyrene was in the lead but her mocking laughter filtered back to the rebel.

The small family joined the Amazons for the dinner just as the sun finished its last candlemark. The meal that night was excellent and quite fulfilling too. Just as they were prepared to retire back at their hut, Gabrielle was stopped short by the princess requesting some time together. Gabrielle agreed and promised Melpomene and Cyrene that she would be in a little later. She then returned to an empty table while the princess collected two mugs of sweet wine for them.

Princess Terreis settled into the seat across from the outsider and gave her a mug. “I heard the trial is swaying in your favor, Gabrielle.”

The bard shrugged then replied, “It really won’t matter when it comes to the punishment.”

“It will though,” countered the princess, “because if you can show that she was influenced the sentence could be lighter.”

Gabrielle grunted and showed disbelief. “What? Instead of burning her alive they’ll only hang her?”

Princess Terreis shook her head at this sarcastic remark. “If you can prove that Alti influenced her to do these crimes then she may live.”

“Princess, I’m sorry but she killed ten or eleven Amazons… there’s no reason not to seek death.”

“I understand,” agreed the princess, “but you must realize if the Conqueror did not act on her own accord then she can’t fully be held responsible.”

“And you’re okay with her living?” brought up the bard. “Wasn’t your sister Queen Melosa?”

Princess Terreis hesitated as she took a sip of her wine then toyed with her mug. “Yes, Melosa was my sister… she died in the Last Great War against the Conqueror.” Her eyes lifted to the outsider. “I’m not completely okay with the Conqueror living. What I am okay with is knowing true justice was served here. That the Conqueror carried out her punishment according to what she did or did not do.” She shook her head. “This isn’t about revenge… for the dead sisters or for those outside of the Nation that have died because of her.”

“And you don’t think when the council passes judgment that they won’t be the slightest bit biased?”

“We’re all human, Gabrielle.” The princess studied the rebel leader then softly added, “Even the Conqueror.”

Gabrielle sighed then she gradually nodded her head. “Yes… yes, she is.”

“Earlier you said that… the Amazon Nation cowers in the shadows,” brought up the Amazon. “Can you tell me more why you see this?”

Gabrielle was taken back by this forward princess that was naturally curious. “I can but… why do you want to hear it from me? I’m the outsider.”

“Exactly.” The Amazon Princess smiled then stated, “You see things different than we do. Another perception is always useful to finding the true problem at hand.” She took a drink of her wine as she waited.

Gabrielle got over her initial shock then formulated her response carefully. “I believe I see it that way because after the Last Great War the Amazon Nation all but disappeared.” She leaned against the table. “I remember as a kid hearing about stories about the great Amazon Nations… I always wanted to be an Amazon as a kid.” A sad smile formed on her face as she went back to her childhood memories. “Some bards would come into the local tavern in my town. They’d always have a few stories about the gods and some fabled heroes but then there were the tales about the Amazons and their queens. I use to think they were just stories then one day I asked the bard how he came up with it.”

Princess Terreis chuckled yet kept listening.

“He told me that he didn’t… that it was true, all of it.” Gabrielle chuckled and wrapped her hand around her mug. “I wouldn’t believe him at first but then I did, I really did.” She had a coy smile as she kept relaying her past to the princess. “I loved the stories about Queen Hippolyta… she sounded like a goddess more than a queen.” Gabrielle’s eyes were bright with the old stories in her mind. “I sometimes thought about running away from home to join an Amazon Nation but I knew I really couldn’t since I was too young.”

The princess leaned against the table and continued to take in the outsider’s tale.

“I guess after everything that happened to me… when I lost my family and I met Cyrene, I stopped hearing about the stories for awhile.” Gabrielle’s expression fell now. “It wasn’t for some time until I heard about the wars against the Conqueror and the Amazon Nation. I heard how she drove Queen Cyane through Greece and laying waste to the other Nations in her wake. I kept hoping that maybe Queen Cyane would defeat her. I tried to believe that Artemis, the patron goddess of the Amazons, would protect the Nations from the Conqueror but… it never happened.”

Princess Terreis let out a sad sigh of agreement then took a drink of her wine.

“Then I heard about the Last Great War, when Queen Melosa and Queen Cyane joined forces to stop the Conqueror. That they hoped they could defeat her and I held my breath that they could do it. I wanted… I needed to hear of the Conqueror’s defeat… but all I heard was of her success and the blood.”

Princess Terreis’s eyes fell as she murmured, “It was the worst battle in Amazonian history… ever. So many lives were lost in that war.”

“So many lives have been lost since the creation of the Destroy of Nations.”

“Yes,” gently agreed the princess, “so many.”

“After the defeat,” continued Gabrielle, “I was at a loss; I’d really believed that the Amazons could stop her. That’s when I realized nobody would stand up to her… there was nobody left. The Amazons were broken… splintered and nobody ever spoke about them since the Last Great War. Some people even said that the Conqueror completely wiped them out.”

“That’s why you started the faction, wasn’t it?”

The rebel leader nodded. “I finally realized there was nobody left and not because there truly wasn’t but because we believed there wasn’t anybody. I took a stand in hopes that people would follow me and see that there is power in numbers. That if the Conqueror really believes fear does conqueror all then she is deathly wrong.”

“It is a desirable quest,” agreed the princess, “and a costly one too.”

“It’s been more rewarding than costly,” rebuked the bard.

Princess Terreis cocked her head then asked, “You stopped believing in the Amazon Nation after our fall from the Last Great War?”

Gabrielle peered down into her half filled mug then lifted her gaze. “Yes,” she admitted, “I did… like so many others.”

“A pedestal can only hold so much weight,” muttered the princess. She sighed then shook away her dismal idea about the Nations’ defeats in the past. “In many ways, I believe we are responsible for the creation of the Conqueror.”

Gabrielle’s eyebrows were knitted together as the considered the princess’s words. “Because of Alti?”

“Yes… we harbored Alti in our Nation then she met the Conqueror. If those two had never met then we may not be here today.”

The rebel pressed her lips neatly together. “Do you think the queen holds that responsibility on her shoulders?”

“Yes, I do believe so,” answered the princess. “I sometimes think it is that guilt that has blinded her.”

“Blinded her from…?”

“From challenging the Conqueror again,” replied the princess. “Queen Cyane only met the Conqueror’s sword in the Last Great War because of my sister. Melosa would not stand down while Queen Cyane was merely trying to keep her Nation alive. My sister pledged her life to the destruction of the Conqueror because it was the Amazon way. Queen Cyane’s heart was not in the Last Great War and her guilt over Alti and even the elders’ deaths has clouded her vision ever since.”

“I hope this trial will bring her some peace then.”

The princess was shaking her head as her soft green eyes met Gabrielle. “I believe it will bring some but not all that she requires. As long as Alti is free then she will always be plagued by the past.”

“Alti is a symbol of her weakness,” theorized the bard.

“In some ways, yes… she’s a symbol of the Amazons’ weakness. She was an Amazon and we failed to stop her before she paved the way for the Conqueror to become so powerful.”

Gabrielle pushed her mug aside, a new fire in her eyes. “The Amazon Nation can’t take on that weight, that responsibility. How can you be so sure that Alti is the key to the Conqueror’s success?” She then smacked her palms on the table and argued, “Even if the Nation does take that responsibility, why don’t you do anything to stop Alti instead of wallowing in your own guilt?

Princess Terreis understood the outsider’s point of view and she slowly started to nod. “Some of the Nation carries this weighted responsibility… mostly Queen Cyane’s side of the Nation. The side of the Nation leftover from Melosa does not; they are prepared to correct the aged old mistake.”

“But so long as Queen Cyane is in power then there’s not much that can be done.”

The princess was frowning but she knew it was true. “There is no simple solution, Gabrielle.”

The bard relented some as her shoulders slump. “Well… maybe this trial is putting things in motion.”

“I think they are,” agreed the princess.

“Speaking of trial…” Gabrielle waved with a sigh as she eyed her new found friend. “I should speak to the Conqueror about it.”

The Amazon smiled at the outsider’s persistence to help her enemy despite all the history. “I admire you greatly for representing her, Gabrielle. There is nobody here in this Nation that giving to do such an act. You truly fulfill your own legend.” She smiled at the flush developing in Gabrielle’s cheeks.

“Thank you, princess.”

Princess Terreis reached out and captured the bard’s hand. “Please call me Terreis, Gabrielle.”

This didn’t seem to help the bard’s flush as it deepened a shade.

The Amazon Princess release the small, warm hand then started to get up. “I will escort you to the jail.”

“That’d be great.” Gabrielle got up but much slower and she collected her mug after quickly finishing it off.

Together the new friends rid of their used mugs and strolled out of the hut into the cool evening. They were quiet at first but Gabrielle easily filled the void again.

“I take it that Velasca doesn’t like me much,” carefully mentioned the bard.

The princess had her hands behind her back as she strolled along side the limping woman. “Velasca is a dedicated Amazon… she believes in our destiny for greatness. She believes that the Conqueror threatens that greatness.”

“Just as she always has,” reminded the rebel. “I guess that makes me a threat too since I’m representing her?”

Terreis’s features were falling at her friend’s obvious concern. “Gabrielle, she will not do anything to harm you. I can guarantee that.”

“What about the Conqueror’s mother?” reminded the rebel. “She’s a perfect target to get at between me and the Conqueror.”

The princess considered this as she knew the outsider, Cyrene, was the Conqueror’s mother and very close to Gabrielle too. She could see where Cyrene would be an excellent target but she couldn’t imagine Velasca stepping over those lines. “Don’t worry, Gabrielle… she likes to be intimidating but that’s her show.” She came to a slow stop when they were close to the torch lit jail. “Thank you for the talk tonight, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle smiled up at the princess. “Thank you too, Terreis. It’s nice to talk to somebody in the Nation.”

Terreis now suddenly grinned and quietly offered, “Ephiny is rather impressed by you so that is what originally perked my interest.”

Gabrielle laughed and asked, “Ephiny? The head guard Ephiny?”

“The same,” answered the princess. She winked then took a few steps away. “People notice you, Gabrielle… more than you think.” She gave a wave, said goodnight, and hurried off.

The rebel shook off her surprise as she neared the jail. The guards knew her so well that they opened it just as she was close enough. She stepped into the torch flickering jail and refrained from the unexpected smile at seeing the quiet ruler sitting on the bench. “Don’t you ever get bored of sitting there?”

The Conqueror narrowed her eyes at the jibe. “They don’t give me walks.”

Gabrielle bit her lower lip as she refused to laugh here in front of these Amazon guards that most likely hated the ruler. She worked the laugh back down her throat then limped up to the Conqueror. “I think the trial is going well.”

The Conqueror had seen the unexpected amusement in the rebel’s eyes despite the low light in the jail. She hadn’t expected her words to be taken as a joke however she could see why it sounded funny to the rebel. “Instead of death by fire I’ll only be hung.”

Gabrielle had been sitting down on the bench when she faltered and peered across at her enemy. “Well….” She sat down finally then finished what she was saying. “I thought that too but I think we’re in luck.” She stopped as her features wrinkled at how she’d said this was luck. Was the Conqueror living through this trial truly a good thing or not? Should she even be allowed to live, mentally wondered the bard.

The Conqueror could see that the bard was someplace else so she tilted her head. “You were saying?”

The rebel blinked from her reverie and focused on her enemy again. “I was….” She tried to recall what she was talking about anyway.

“You were telling me about my luck,” refreshed the ruler.

“Right.” Gabrielle cleared her throat then proceeded to relay some of her discussion that she had with the princess. After she was done telling her about it, the Conqueror merely huffed at her. “What?”

“You really think they’ll let me live?” The Conqueror grinned and leaned into her counterpart. “Whether I murdered one Amazon or all of them they would hang me.”

“You don’t know that,” argued the bard.

“Yes, I do.” The Conqueror straightened up then coolly stated, “I know I wouldn’t let me live if I were them.”

Gabrielle grunted as she folded her arms across her chest. “Well thank the gods you’re not them… that’s the difference.”

The Conqueror suddenly flashed an amused smirk. “Always the optimist aren’t you, rebel?”

“Well somebody has to make up for your lack of it.”

“Ooo I have optimism that I’ll have you back on your cross by the time this is all over.”

Gabrielle’s jaw clenched then relaxed as she bent forward to the ruler. “Then you’ll be unleashing Tartarus on earth, Conqueror.” When the ruler cocked her head in misunderstanding, she threateningly whispered, “She’s also known as your mother… there’s no greater scorn than a mother’s wrath.”

The Conqueror straightened up as she digested the rebel’s honest words. She put her arms over her chest and read the confident woman before her, more confident than she’d ever seen the rebel.

“I think,” started the bard, “that you and I both understand Cyrene.” She saw how defensive acting the ruler was but she still pressed forward anyway. “And if you do then you know, like I do, that she’s very torn between protecting you and protecting me.” She toyed with her cane in her lap for a heartbeat then softly finished. “I also know that it would hurt her to lose either of us… especially if it was to one another.”

The Conqueror swallowed hard because she knew it was her mother that had unwantingly linked her to this rebel leader. Her mother had shunned her many moons back and she had rejected the existence of her mother ever since that fated day. Yet when her mother stood before her this morning, every bit real, she knew she could no longer deny her mother. She reconciled long ago that she’d hurt her mother by leading Lyceus to his death and that guilt suddenly swallowed her all over again this morning.

“I almost hurt her,” confessed the bard, whose emotional eyes lifted from staring at her hands. She’d force Cyrene into following her in her plans to kill the Conqueror and as she sat here, she realized it was the worst move ever. She saw that the Conqueror was carefully listening so she whispered low enough so only the Conqueror could hear her. “I don’t want to hurt Cyrene… ever.”

The Conqueror was breathing heavily as she read between the lines of the rebel’s offer. She knew what this meant if she agreed or disagreed and her body was wired by the hatred to strike out against her enemy, to destroy her enemy. The Conqueror could not allow this rebel to continue against her realm less everything be lost. And yet the Conqueror had lost so much in her moons as she took over the known-world piece by piece. Her only link to the past, to her family was sitting right here and she had a chance to reclaim her identity if she so decided. For the first time in her life, she was fearful that this second chance could slip through her fingers if she didn’t take it.

Gabrielle watched in pure amazement as her silent offer was agreed to by a simple nod from the Conqueror. She could even translate the hidden agreement deep in the Conqueror’s steel blue eyes. She was in disbelief and touched her forehead as the realization swept over her and she became woozy with relief. From that day forward, there were never anymore threats of a cross and any other forms of death promises.

The Conqueror broke the spell that was between them with her clipped tone. “What of the trial tomorrow?”

Gabrielle lowered her hand to her lap and returned her attention to the ruler. To the ruler, who she newly formed a silent pact of peace because of one woman they both held high in their lives. She had a faint smile as she rolled into her explanation of her plans for the trial tomorrow.

The Conqueror agreed to it all rather readily. She also had a few confessions she had yet to make but they could wait until later. At the end of the talk, she watched as the rebel leader painfully got to her feet and studied her.

“Get some sleep… it’ll be a long day tomorrow.”

The Conqueror’s right eyebrow hiked up her brow some. “On what bed?”

Gabrielle bit her lower lip, her eyes flickering to the guards then back to the Conqueror. “You’re use to sleeping without a bed.” She stepped away a few paces then glanced back with a wide smirk. “Or have you gotten that soft since your campaign?”

The Conqueror knew it was a tease yet she narrowed her eyes in warning. She didn’t need this brass rebel taking new liberties already but part of her conceded to it. She easily jibed back, “That’s easy to say when you’ve been pushing a quill all your life.”

Gabrielle swallowed her laughter then teased back, “Don’t forget moving my lips too.” Her eyes sparkled at the new level of banter between her and her enemy. She continued her walk to the door but wavered when the ruler’s monotone floated to her.

“How could I forget,” murmured the ruler, who closed her eyes and slumped against the wall in a relaxed mode.

Gabrielle stole one last look, said nothing, and left the jail with a lighter heart than she could ever recall. She soon found her way back to the hut where she changed for bed and crawled into her cool sheets. She listened to the gentle slumber of her mother and newly adopted niece in the other bed. She put her hands under her head and stared at the thatched roof overhead, her thoughts floating off to her recent success over these days. Her dreamscape soon found her and she felt more prepared for the trial than the day before.

The trial began in excitement since the new disclosures that Gabrielle had brought to light before the Nation. The trial this day focused on the only other Greek shaman known, Yakut. The young shaman stood before her peers, her hands behind her back, and her formal, tribal dress on. Velasca had already questioned her once and now the outsider was stepping up to her.

“Yakut, how long have you been a shaman for now?” inquired the bard.

The shaman lifted her chin then proudly stated, “For twenty seasons now.”

Gabrielle smiled at this then leaned heavily against her cane for support. “I’m just guessing but are you relatively close to the same level of power as Alti was when she was in Queen Cyane’s Nation?”

The shaman tilted her head then replied, “I can’t be sure since I never met her.”

“Is there a way to gauge it, possibly? Maybe by the length of her being a shaman perhaps?”

“That’s possible,” agreed the shaman.

Gabrielle turned to the council. “Do we know for how long Alti was a shaman when she met the Conqueror?”

The head council leaned to her left and gazed over at the queen. “My queen?”

Queen Cyane stepped away from Velasca and answered, “When the Conqueror arrived in my Nation, Alti had been a shaman for twenty-three seasons.”

Gabrielle beamed at this new information so she returned her focus to the shaman. “Yakut, is it safe to say then that you and her are roughly the same then?”

“That is safe to say, yes.” Yakut adjusted her stance then waited for the next question.

“From the questioning yesterday of Queen Cyane, I brought up the question about whether it was possible for Alti to help Xena fight the queen and the elders. As it seems so impossible that the Conqueror could have killed ten Amazons and wound the queen. Do you have any information to offer on this, Yakut?”

The shaman had picked her brain already and proceeded to answer the question rather confidently. “Yes, it is highly probable that Alti was able to help Xena do this.”

“How is this possible?” inquired the curious rebel.

“My assumption would be she used a mix of things. A shaman works in the spirit world… that is all their power and at this particular stage a shaman cannot inflict any pain on a person.” Yakut paused as she gathered her thoughts. “What a shaman can do is… emphasis a person’s weaknesses or strengths that emulates from their karma.”

“So then what you’re saying is that Alti emphasized the Conqueror’s natural abilities as a fighter?”

“Yes, exactly.” Yakut’s eyes followed the moving rebel as she continued to speak. “Alti would have to been near by for this to work. The one problem that Alti may have faced was the Conqueror’s conscious mind.”

Gabrielle stopped pacing and lifted her head to the shaman. “Conscious mind?”

“Yes, the Conqueror may have resisted the notion of killing the Amazons but Alti could severe that spiritual. She merely had to fuel the Conqueror’s hunger for power by showing her the darkness that Alti was so familiar with. In turn, this would override the Conqueror’s sense of right and wrong because she is pulled in by Alti.”

Gabrielle’s head was bobbing so she pulled away from her thoughts. “So Alti greatly influenced the Conqueror to act the way she did?”

“Yes,” replied the shaman, “it many ways Alti controlled the Conqueror like a puppet on that day.” She stopped then added, “Granted the Conqueror has final say in her actions but those actions were influenced by Alti and her shamanism.”

Gabrielle nodded then said, “Thank you, Yakut.” She stepped back as she heard Velasca moving forward again.

Velasca had her head down but she lifted it and asked, “Yakut, can you be certain that Alti influenced the Conqueror’s actions that day?”

The shaman sighed then shook her head. “Not without having been there first hand.”

“So we really can’t be sure whether Alti did or didn’t influence the Conqueror’s actions that day,” she summarized to everybody. “Yakut, repeat to the council and the Nation what you told the council back on the day that Janice Covington requested the Nation to help her. It had to do with the Conqueror’s destiny.”

The shaman’s memory quickly pinpointed what the Amazon was speaking about so she nodded. “When I look into the Conqueror’s karma, I discovered that she was destined for this life… to be the ruler.” She pressed her lips tightly together but forced herself to say the last piece of it. “It wouldn’t have mattered whether she met Alti or not, she still would be the Conqueror today.”

“Wait,” jumped in Gabrielle, “The Conqueror is only on trial for her crimes against the Nation… nothing else.”

The head councilor sighed and gave a warning look to Velasca.

“I am merely pointing out the fact that with or without Alti, the Conqueror will carry out her destiny… that includes Alti’s unproven influence.” Velasca grinned when the council members started to nodded.

“She has a point, Gabrielle.” The head councilor’s attention flickered between the representatives. “Any other question, Velasca?” At Velasca’s negative response, she turned to Gabrielle. “Gabrielle?”

The bard nodded then moved away from the silent ruler at her side. She approached Yakut again then asked, “So the Conqueror is destined to… be the Conqueror, correct?”

“Yes,” answered the shaman.

Gabrielle cocked her head to the side. “Was the Conqueror destined to kill the elders?”

“That’s a speculating question,” argued Velasca from her spot.

“But it’s a fair one,” charged on the outsider, “since you opened that door.”

“She has a point, Velasca,” remarked the head councilor. “Go ahead, Yakut.”

Yakut steadied herself for this response as she answered, “No.”

The air was filled with a roar of chatter from the spectator Amazons from far behind.

“Silence!” ordered many of the councilors in booming voices. When the silence finally came, the head council allowed the trial to continue.

“The Conqueror wasn’t destined to kill the elders,” repeated the bard. “So you’re saying she may have never killed the elders and attack Queen Cyane?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” agreed the shaman.

Gabrielle’s head was bobbing repeatedly then she tapped her cane on the solid ground. “Yakut, when the Conqueror was first arrested and brought here to the Nation, I asked you about this influence that Alti may…..” Her eyes switched over to Velasca as she finished with, “or may not have. Do you recall this conversation?”

Velasca ran her tongue along the back of her molars as the carefully listened to the outsider continue with the shaman.

“Yes, of course I do.”

“You explained to me that it was plausible that Alti and the Conqueror may have a connection. Can you explain this connection as you explained it to me?”

The shaman nodded then cleared her throat. “This link or connection is something instantaneous when two karmas on similar paths meet. It actually can happen between anybody, regardless of shamanism or not, however a shaman can increase the strength of this connection and take advantage of it for good or bad. In the case of Alti and the Conqueror, these two emphasis the Darkness in one another… that is their link and over time it can become permanent too.”

“Through this link can a shaman influence the other person?”

“Yes, greatly too.”

Gabrielle licked her lips as she prepared for the next part that would be the breaker. “As we’re all wondering, Yakut is there any proof this connection really exists between the Conqueror and Alti. Does this connection, right now, exist between the Conqueror and Alti?”

Yakut narrowed her eyes at how Gabrielle asked the question so she honestly answered. “No, there is no connection… right now.”

Velasca smirked as her point was perfectly proved.

The council members started to chatter as did many of the Amazons in the Nation.

Gabrielle stepped closer to the shaman then loudly asked, “Why is there no connection right now, Yakut?”

“There is no connection because I severed it.”

The din of voice went silent and all that was heard was the faint rattle of the Conqueror’s chains, which captured everybody’s attention.

The rebel leader turned to Velasca and stated, “There’s your proof.” She faced the Amazon Nation while calling out, “There was an instantaneous link when the Conqueror and Alti first met.” She had a hidden smile for Cyrene, who stood behind the Conqueror. Her eyes went back to the shaman. “Yakut, could you tell whether this connection between the Conqueror and Alti was strong when you severed it?”

The shaman bit the inside of her mouth then finally answered the question. “I was barely able to severe it… it was in the maturity stage of being permanent.”

Gabrielle huffed and while shaking her head she declared, “Alti is very much a leech.”

“That is a perfect analogy of Alti’s shamanism, yes,” agreed Yakut. Her expression was grim but her tone was very agreeing with the rebel.

“Thank you, Yakut.” At the shaman’s nod, she returned to the Conqueror’s side.

“Anymore questions, Velasca?”

Velasca dropped her arms from her chest then shook her head. “No, council.”

“Fine.” The head council glanced at the other members, who were all in agreement. “We will convene for the day then continue tomorrow at Helios high again.”

There was a roar of talking all at once as people broke up into different groups, discussing the tidal turn of the fascinating trial. Nobody had been betting on the outsider bringing up such a perspective.

Cyrene carefully approached Gabrielle and the Conqueror after getting around the six guards. “I think you’re swaying them, Gabrielle.”

The bard smiled at Cyrene, grateful for her presence. “I think so too.” Her attention lifted to the ruler. “This might turn out okay after all.”

The Conqueror merely nodded because she was wordless before her mother and the rebel leader. She felt too uneasy here so she started the pace walk to her jail but a warm hand grabbed her left arm to stop her. She peered down at soft, worn blue eyes that showed nothing but love.

“Have some faith, Xena.” Cyrene squeezed her daughter’s strong forearm while whispering, “Everything happens for a reason.”

The Conqueror dipped her head down as she murmured, “Yes it does.” She glanced at Gabrielle then broke away from them as she continued towards the jailhouse with her guards swarming around her. She heard Gabrielle and her mother still chatting in the background then it grew distant. She tilted her head to the right when an unexpected yet distinct sound grabbed at her honed warrior skills. She abruptly stopped and turned as she tried to pinpoint the noise.

“Conqueror, let’s go,” ordered Ephiny, her voice hostile. She tensed when the Conqueror’s head snapped to the right and Ephiny raised her sword at the ready.

The Conqueror suddenly gave a vibrating battle cry and she easily sprung up into the air. She landed halfway between the guards and her mother with Gabrielle but she quickly broke out into blurry sprint.

Gabrielle saw the dark ruler coming at them, her body charged by fear about what was happening.

Cyrene grabbed onto Gabrielle’s arm to hold her in place, she wasn’t scared and she transferred that into her adopted daughter.

The Amazon guards all yelled at once as they chased after the freed ruler.

The Conqueror stole a heartbeat fast glimpse to the right as her target was coming closer.

Gabrielle looked in the same direction then she saw it, her mouth opening to release a yell of warning. She suddenly dropped her cane then shoved Cyrene as far as she could before her weak knees buckled under her weight.

The Conqueror launched her body into the air with her right hand stretching out as far as the manacles allowed her. Her warcry sounded again from her lips just as her fingers wrapped around the shaft of an arrow.

Gabrielle gasped as the arrowhead skimmed her view then disappeared in a blur from the Conqueror’s perfect catch. She then collapsed to her aching knees in a wash of pain and relief.

The Conqueror tucked onto the ground, bounced up onto her feet, and tossed the arrow to the ground. She quickly acted again as the whistle of another arrow came, her left hand snapping out to catch the arrow coming at the rebel again. Her furious eyes honed in on the archer standing tall on one of the huts and stringing a third arrow.

“Stop him!” bellowed out the queen’s powerful voice.

The assassin gave one last shot as his third arrow screamed directly towards the Conqueror.

The ruler growled and plucked the last arrow from mid air with ease. She snapped the two arrows in her hand and threw them to the ground with pure disgust. She watched in satisfaction as the Amazons hurried after the retreating archer, who was jumping from hut to hut with less than great stamina. A soft moan of pain captured her attention so she knelt down beside the rebel to help her. By this time the guards horded around her and the rest of the group.

Cyrene was back on her feet after watching the amazing display of the attack and her daughter’s abilities. She gathered up Gabrielle’s walking stick as she came over to help.

Gabrielle was breathing heavily as the Conqueror helped her get to her feet again.

“Are you okay, Gabrielle?” asked the head guard, her mask pushed away from her face.

The Conqueror, for the first time, saw the striking features of Ephiny but she returned her focus to getting Gabrielle on her feet again.

Gabrielle nodded her head to Ephiny’s question. “Cyrene?”

“I’m just fine, Gabrielle.” Cyrene held out the cane once the rebel was up again.

The bard gratefully took her cane then tried to regain control of her coursing fear after just being attacked. Her eyes met the Conqueror’s unemotional ones but she could tell by the actions the Conqueror was just as concerned. “Thank you for saving me, Conqueror.”

The Conqueror straightened up to her full height. A sharp remark came to mind but she bit it back since her mother was here and she knew the rebel was already shaken enough. She now wondered if she was getting soft after all. Her dark eyes switched to Ephiny as she coolly requested, “When they get him, put him in the cell with me.”

Ephiny blinked then realized it was less of a threat but a joke. She wasn’t sure how to respond but Gabrielle took the opening.

“I think the Amazons can handle him,” reminded the rebel.

The Conqueror huffed, folded her arms against her chest, and kept a smirking expression on her face.

Gabrielle shook her head, her nerves still badly shaken by the event. “Why did he….”

The Conqueror sighed at the bard being so naive and her hands fell from her chest. “Somebody wants you dead for representing me.”

The rebel didn’t like much being on the receiving end of an assassination attempt. “Who?”

The Conqueror had her ideas but she wasn’t going to voice them here.

“Is everybody okay?” inquired a new voice.

Gabrielle lifted her head to see the queen outside of the circle of guards. “Yes, we’re all fine, Queen Cyane. Thank you.”

The ruler turned her head to the Amazon Queen.

Queen Cyane secretly nodded her approval to the Conqueror then focused back on the rest of the group. “Gabrielle, you and Cyrene should return to your hut. I will post two guards there for the time being until we apprehend this man. I had two Amazons find Melpomene and bring her to the hut.”

“Thank you again.” Gabrielle was in agreement to the queen’s orders.

Cyane turned some then called out, “Princess and Eponin, escort Gabrielle and Cyrene back to their hut, please.”

The two Amazons jogged up while they waited for the queen but now given new duties. The queen then hurried off to find out any news about the attacker.

Gabrielle glimpsed at the ruler once more then repeated, “Thank you again, Conqueror.” When she saw the ruler wasn’t going to say anything, a warm hand touched her back, it was Cyrene.

Cyrene signaled for Gabrielle to go ahead in the opening in the guard ring now. She didn’t follow yet and bitter sweetly smiled at her daughter. “Thank you, Xena,” her voice full of emotions.

The ruler’s jaw flexed against her surfacing feelings for her mother but all she could do was nod her understanding. She then watched as the rebel leader and her mother were escorted through the Amazon Nation to their hut.

Ephiny pulled her mask back down then ordered, “Come on, Conqueror.” This time her tone wasn’t forceful but tinted with respect.

The unexpected commotion after the trial soon settled down when the assassin was actually apprehended just outside the Nation’s walls. He’d kept them fairly busy as he escaped out of the village but his escape was short lived when he was shot in the leg by an arrow from a patrol Amazon. He then was dragged back into the Nation and thrown into his own jail, a meager jail compared to the Conqueror’s but a locked up tight jail.

Around sunset, the outsiders were delivered their dinners along with news about the assassin’s apprehension. The princess had delivered both the food and good news then further told them they were allowed out of the hut now. The guards were also dismissed from their duties since things were safe again.

After the dinner, Gabrielle excused herself and left to go see the Conqueror. She knew that the ruler probably had a fair idea about what was going on even though the princess refused to explain anything, yet. When she arrived at the jail the door was already opening, she was happy to see the Conqueror certainly awake and seeming to expect her.

The ruler watched as Gabrielle took a seat beside her.

Gabrielle exhaled deeply then asked, “You’ve been cooped up in here too long huh?”

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow at her allied enemy, which was enough of an answer.

Gabrielle’s eyes glowed with an idea so she slid off the bench then approached Ephiny, who was easy to pick out with her curly hair. “Ephiny, can the Conqueror take a walk with me?”

The head guard was gaping behind her mask but her definite tone answered, “Gabrielle, that is beyond out of the question.”

“Ephiny, she just saved my life.”

“I don’t care if she saved Queen Cyane’s life… the answer is still no.”

Gabrielle stepped up closer to the head guard and poked her in the chest with her left index finger. “She’s not going to run. She saved my life. And you and the guards can play tag along anyway.” She lowered her hand then hotly commanded, “Unlock her now… she’s not a goddamn caged animal.”

“Gabrielle,” seethed the frustrated Amazon.

The Conqueror was biting back every comment in the book and just controlling her smirking features. She remained statues.

Gabrielle tried her best impression of what maybe was the Conqueror’s dangerous looks. “Unlock. Her. Now.”

Ephiny clenched her left hand at her side then suddenly spun her sword and sheathed it behind her back. She stepped around the bard while hotly ranting, “This will cost me every one of my feathers.”

“And then some,” remarked a guard.

“I don’t want to hear it, Solari.” Ephiny was working the jail manacles off the Conqueror while the regular chains stayed on her.

“She saved Gabrielle,” started another Amazon, “it’s a fair trade.”

Solari turned her head to Callisto and she was shocked by the Amazon’s support.

Ephiny huffed as the chain clanked onto the floor. She rose up and backed away as the ruler stood up to her towering height. She unsheathed her sword however she kept it at her side. “I swear, if you make me regret this then no words of Gabrielle’s will save you.” She spun on her heels and stomped up to the door and banged heavily on it. “Open it, Karis.”

Karis unlocked the door then pulled it open; she didn’t understand why she was opening it.

Ephiny marched out first then another guard then a third followed by the Conqueror, Gabrielle, and the last three guards.

“Ephiny, what’s going on?” demanded Karis.

Ephiny turned to the Amazon and replied, “We’re going for a stroll.” Her tone showed she was annoyed, frustrated, and plain testy about this. “I don’t want a word of this to get to the queen.” She stepped closer then hotly whispered, “Is that clear?”

Karis held up her hands. “You’re the head guard, Ephiny.” She grabbed the jail door and pushed it shut. “Good luck too.”

“Thanks,” chided the head guard, who signaled everybody to fall out. She guided them towards the edge of the village then followed the loop towards the sparring fields that weren’t too far. She knew that would be the safest spot, away from the Nation’s eyes and ears.

Gabrielle limped along side the ruler, who was very quiet. She glanced up to see how the Conqueror was looking at everything with precision despite the torch lights offered little. “I wish I could do more to thank you for saving my life… this is pretty bland in comparison.”

“No,” argued the Conqueror, her gaze falling to the rebel. “This is perfect.” She enjoyed the cool, fresh air of the autumn evening. “I don’t like to be… locked in one place too long.”

Gabrielle huffed then nodded her head. “I can sympathize there.”

“Cyrene is okay?” softly questioned the Conqueror and her words were only heard by the rebel.

Gabrielle noted how the ruler said Cyrene’s name. She tilted her head back and replied, “Your mother is fine… she was pretty shaken up like me.”

The ruler just nodded her head.

Gabrielle walked closer the Conqueror, almost brushing up against her. “Do you know who it was?” She pause then quietly added, “They won’t tell me anything.”

The Conqueror grunted at the comment. “They won’t either.” She scanned around at the village then peered down at the rebel. “I have my guesses… those arrows weren’t Amazon.”

Gabrielle smirked then remarked, “Well it was a male.”

The ruler rolled her eyes then lifted her head again.

“So he was probably hired then,” concluded the bard.

“Either he was hired or inspired.”

Gabrielle smirked wildly then teased, “You’re a poet and you didn’t even know it, Conqueror.” She giggled when the ruler shot her a dangerous glare for the joke.

“I must be seeing too much of you,” jabbed back the ruler.

Although the jab was given too lightly as the bard was still grinning then she lost it as she went serious. “So if he’s inspired then….?” She waited for the ruler to fill the void.

“Then word leaked out that I’m here and they want me.” The Conqueror exhaled her frustration. “I have plenty of enemies.”

“Hard to believe,” dryly remarked the rebel leader.

Ephiny held up her hand at the group. “This is as far as we can go.”

Gabrielle scanned over the sparring field then pointed to the wood bench at the edge. “Let’s sit down.”

The Conqueror smirked. “Ooo goody.” She trailed behind the bard as she was taken to the bench.

The guards circled around the pair but it was going to be short lived.

“Ephiny, wait over there?” asked the rebel. “I want to talk to the Conqueror alone.”

Ephiny was bugged eyed as she ripped her mask back. “Gabrielle-”

“Listen to her, Ephiny,” challenged the Conqueror, her tone not at all threatening.

Gabrielle was smug at the head guard.

Ephiny pointed her sword at the guards and ordered, “Fan out about twenty paces from them.”

Gabrielle watched in satisfaction as the guards fanned out from either side and behind them but not in front. That left them a perfect view of the field, the wall, the trees beyond the Nation, and finally the night sky that was lit by the waning moon. “So you don’t know who it is exactly?”

“No,” answered the ruler, “but scum always surfaces to the top… eventually.”

The bard rested her cane in her lap as she peered up with hooded eyes at the ruler. “I’m not sure I like this.”

The dark ruler flashed a grin at the rebel. “That’s what happens to anybody that associates with me.”

“That’s real comforting,” chided the rebel.

The Conqueror’s grin slowly disappeared as her thoughts wondered off to a place besides the current problem at hand. She turned her gaze to the night sky as she quietly asked, “How is my brother… Toris?”

Gabrielle bit her lower lip as she debated how to answer this question. She knew she had to be honest or her growing understanding with the Conqueror could be damaged. “Cyrene and I haven’t seen or heard from him in several moons.”

The Conqueror’s head snapped down. “What?”

The bard swallowed then mustarded up her courage to explain the situation. “Toris just… disappeared. Cyrene and I tried to find out what happened but our resources are limited. He was in Amphipolis last… running the tavern. He would send money now and again to help Cyrene and I. Then we stopped hearing from him so Cyrene and I took a trip up to see what was going on.” Her story fell off as she stared at her cane and hands in her lap. “Cyrene’s tavern was closed up tight and his things were all there. Nobody in Amphipolis knew what happened to him.”

“People just don’t disappear,” hotly declared the ruler.

“Well Toris did and we can’t find out anything.” Gabrielle’s voice now cracked as she added, “Cyrene has been worried sick about him. She tries not to think about it but she scared he might be dead by now… since he hasn’t shown up.” She ran her fingers through her hair. “I’m scared she might be right.” She peered up at the ruler. “Toris is my brother… if something has….” She shook her head then turned her head away. “What can’t go wrong?”

The Conqueror leaned forward as the tried to process everything she was told. She realized that all along she had the easy, simple means at her fingertips to track down her brother but she the most important piece of that, knowing her brother was missing, she didn’t know thanks to her ignorance. She shoved her internal anger away then looked sidelong at the emotional, small woman beside her. “Who is Janice Covington?”

The bard was jolted out of her thoughts by the question. Her eyes locked on the Conqueror’s for a few heartbeats but she dropped her gaze to the ground. “She’s my descendant… sort of.” When the ruler prompted to continue with an expression, she sighed first. “I guess you’re still behind on that story, huh?”

The Conqueror sat up again then replied, “I have some pieces of it but I want to hear you tell me.” She lifted her arms, which caused her chains to jingle. “It’s not everyday the Conqueror is kidnapped.” Her joke wasn’t lost on the rebel.

“I guess not,” agreed the bard, who watched the ruler lower her hands back to her lap. “Well it all starts and ends with Alti, I would say.”

“I’m starting to figure this much out,” remarked the aggravated ruler. “What did she do now?”

Gabrielle touched her neck and scratched there, preparing to tell the truth no matter the costs. She didn’t like this but maybe it would work out alright, she had to hope for the best. “Alti… time traveled… sort of.” She lowered her hands to lap the gripped her cane for some assurance.

“How did Alti time travel… sort of?”

“She used your scepter to do it.”

The Conqueror’s eyes filled with understanding suddenly as she realized she’d been missing her scepter for some time now. The last spot she’d seen it was in her trunk and not since then. “The stone transported her.”

“Yes,” replied the bard, “that stone is the Cronos Stone.”

The Conqueror’s memories flooded her from back when she took the stone from King Quallus so long ago. She recalled the king’s words that it was “a rare jewel, unlike any other, possessing a strange power,” whispered back the king’s memory.

“What is it?” broke in the bard’s voice.

The memories vanished from the Conqueror’s mind as she focused back on the present. “The king, who I took it from, warned me about this.” She clenched her hands in her lap. “Leave it to Alti to figure out what it does.” She ran her tongue along the back of her teeth then theorized aloud, “So she kidnapped Janice so she could control your karma for a few lifetimes?”

“No,” replied the rebel, “to control my karma over worlds.”

“Worlds?”

“Alternate realities,” explained Gabrielle, “Janice is my descendant but from another world.”

The Conqueror smirked and murmured, “Only Alti would be stupid enough to try something like that.” Her eyes narrowed as she asked, “Then the woman impersonating me is my descendant as well?”

“From that reality, yes,” replied Gabrielle. “Her name is Melinda Pappas.”

“Funny how Alti failed to mention that minor detail,” growled the ruler.

Gabrielle shrugged then reminded, “Funny how she forgot to mention the minor detail about the Cronos Stone.”

The ruler stared down at her clenched hands as she whispered, “Alti can’t have that scepter. She’s too dangerous with it.”

“I’m surprised to hear you say that,” murmured the rebel.

The Conqueror met the curious rebel’s gaze. “Nobody should have that kind of power… not even me.” She shook her head then stated, “Being able to alter time can throw everything off.”

“But you could fix so many things too,” murmured the rebel, her eyes filled with ideas.

“For every thing you think you fix,” started the ruler, “another thing goes wrong.” She turned her head away. “It’s like a rippling effect… no good can come from it. Everything happens for a reason and that should not be tampered with.”

Gabrielle sighed as she conceded to the ruler’s wisdom. “It could be dangerous, you’re right.”

“It is dangerous that those two are in this world.” The Conqueror lips curled into an angry smile. “Alti will have much to answer to.”

“You know,” brought up the bard, “everything does happen for a reason… maybe there’s a reason why they came here… to this reality. I mean it throws the balance off sure but still it happened.”

The Conqueror leaned forward again. “It doesn’t matter because it has to be corrected.”

Gabrielle leaned closer to the ruler then asked, “You wouldn’t use the Cronos Stone?”

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow at her counterpart. “Contrary to popular opinion, I happen to have a few brains and know that scepter is nothing but dangerous… especially in Alti’s hands.”

“Since when did you care about what Alti does?”

“Let me tell you a little secret about me, rebel.” The Conqueror leaned over to the smaller woman now. “I keep my friends close but I keep my enemies closer.”

The rebel leader glanced at how close they were, which made her coyly smile then she considered what the ruler explained to her. She lost her smile then tilted her head. “Gabrielle.” At the ruler’s twisted features she explained, “My name is Gabrielle.”

“I know you’re name,” snapped the ruler.

“Yea well… try using it instead of rebel,” mocked Gabrielle. “I’m more than just a rebel… some people consider me a bard… a daughter, a sister, a friend-”

“A pain in the ass too,” remarked the ruler.

Gabrielle pointed a finger at the Conqueror. “Ha. You’re real funny you know. Who would have thought?” She smirked at the glowering expression coming at her as she lowered her hand. “I’m sure you’re more than just the Conqueror.”

“Just?” repeated the irritated ruler. “Perhaps the Destroyer of Nations or the Warrior Princess although lately I’ve been favoring murderer and bitch.”

Gabrielle shrugged but presented, “You’re still Cyrene’s daughter though. Doesn’t that count for anything? How about Lyceus and Toris’s sister?”

The Conqueror turned her head away and stared up at the moon now. “That was a long time ago.”

“Well to be honest….” Gabrielle sadly smiled then finished what she started. “To be real honest that’s something you can never escape… family is forever.” She toyed with her cane then whispered, “That was something Cyrene taught me when she first took me in.” She let it go there as she thought back on what the Conqueror said earlier. “So then Alti is your enemy?”

The Conqueror grinned then replied, “She’s my play thing.” She saw the instant shiver from the rebel, which thoroughly amused her. “She’s nothing but a tool… if she dies tomorrow I could care less.”

“And what do you think about this connection that she’s always had with you?”

The Conqueror’s grin slipped at this point. “I find it… interesting.”

“Interesting to know she’s been influencing you against your will all along huh?”

“Against my will?” The ruler shook her head then reminded, “More like influencing my will more than required.”

“Still,” debated Gabrielle, “she had some sense of power over you.”

“True,” granted the most feared woman. “It’s a mutual agreement between her and I.”

The young woman considered this thoughtfully then replied, “I don’t think any agreement with that shaman can stay too safe for long.” She pointed at the ruler. “She’s already hiding the Cronos Stone from you.” Her hand went back to her lap. “Next she’ll stab you in bed so she can have your karma and kingdom.”

The Conqueror’s slotted her eyes at the perceptive rebel leader. She let out a long sigh and went back to the night sky that felt so good to see after so long. “Why did you let Janice Covington try to assassinate me? You knew she would fail the mission.”

“No, I didn’t let her go so she could assassinate you.” The rebel saw the fascination in the ruler’s eyes. “I sent her to warn you.”

“Warn me?”

Gabrielle nodded her head. “About Alti.” She shrugged then gently added, “I figured as soon as she told you about Alti’s plans you would go off the deep end. I was hoping, if anything, Alti would be next on the cross. Then I had alternate plans to get Janice to safety… there was no way I could have stopped Janice from doing what she wanted to do.” She waved her hand then gently added, “I just had to make sure she made it out alive.”

“And if Janice hadn’t told me about Alti?”

“Ooo she would have told you,” answered the bard. “It was her leverage over you and she knew it.” She smirked then softly added, “You wouldn’t have killed her without knowing first how she came to be. You’re too curious to know why she looks just like me.”

The Conqueror tried to play off like she wasn’t and it wasn’t showing to Gabrielle. She sighed then muttered, “It’s a bitch when my mother is siding with you.”

Gabrielle quickly processed what the ruler’s point was then she laughed at the joke. “Cyrene does understand you pretty well even if it’s been a long time.” She flashed a grin for a heartbeat.

“You’ve kept me busy,” admitted the ruler. “I will give you that… you and your faction.”

“Its kept me busy too,” relented the bard.

The Conqueror suddenly stood up while saying, “By the way, I enjoyed your coding system.” She turned around so she could enjoy the shocked features of the rebel leader.

“You… how did… you couldn’t have….”

“Yes, Rhodes, and I did.” The Conqueror crossed her arms against her chest.

“Rhodes?” repeated the bard, who jumped to her feet as much as she could. “What….” She shook her head while positioning her cane in front of her.

“Rhodes wasn’t quite as good at retaining your coding system as you thought. He would translate your messages then merely throw them out in the trash.”

“By the gods,” rasped the dumbfounded rebel. “I can’t believe… gods-be-damned.” She ran her fingers through her hair then her angry features met the ruler’s stare. “Then you knew… everything?”

“Almost.” The ruler shrugged as the started walking along side the rebel. “I didn’t know my mother was with you. I did know your movements, your briberies… your plans.”

“You didn’t know the faction members,” challenged the rebel.

The Conqueror’s faced darkened in answer. “No… I don’t know them all. You’ve been excellent about hiding that and your location.”

Gabrielle noted how the guards were circling around them again as they went back towards the jail. “My faction is just a… game to you, isn’t it? A game of cat and mouse.” She wasn’t sure she liked that assessment about her and the Conqueror but yet it was brutally honest.

“It was but….” The Conqueror displayed a curled grin. “I haven’t had this type of a challenge in many moons.”

“It’s a relief to know I’ve kept you entertained,” coldly remarked the rebel.

The Conqueror tilted her head then casually mentioned, “Don’t berate yourself… I have few enemies I respect in my life… you’re among the few.”

Gabrielle blinked then suddenly stopped walking, which caused the Conqueror to stop too after a few paces.

The ruler turned her head to the rebel leader at the edge of the guard circle. She lifted a curved eyebrow.

“I still don’t know whether to be flattered or insulted,” murmured the bard, who shook her head and started walking again.

The Conqueror kept her small laugh internal. “It’s easier to be flattered.”

Gabrielle had no response as she silently returned to the jailhouse. When they came to the door that was opened by Karis and the other guard, she stopped and faced the ruler. “I guess tomorrow will be your big day.”

The ruler rolled her eyes. “I’m absolutely ecstatic,” she commented dryly.

Gabrielle unexpectedly grasped the Conqueror’s strong arm then said, “Hey it might just work out.”

The Conqueror faltered under the gentle, warm touch but she came back to herself. “I hope for my mother’s sake it does.”

Gabrielle released her hold after realizing what she was doing. “I hope so too,” she murmured then watched as the Conqueror started for the open jail door.

The Conqueror paused in the doorway then turned to the rebel. “Thank you for the walk… Gabrielle.” She then vanished into the flickering light of the jail as the guards rushed in at once.

Gabrielle released a long breath then to nobody she murmured, “You’re welcome.” She then lowered her head and made her way back to the hut. She was exhausted physically and mentally after today, her thoughts well wearing her out on many levels. Tomorrow would prove to be another trying day.
Chapter 14 – The Split

Melinda Pappas was abruptly jolted from her dreams when there was a loud pounding on the doors. She threw her bed sheets off and adjusted her white nightshift before throwing on a black silk robe that rested close by. When the second set of knocks came, she threw open the door. “What is it?”

The torchlight from the hallway flickered of the fearful features of Nakia. “My liege, I’m sorry to wake you but….” She glanced over her shoulder at the guard at the prisoner’s bedchambers at the other end.

The Conqueror followed her gaze then hastily clipped, “What’s happened?”

The Egyptian slave folded her arms over her stomach to keep her robe in place. “Janice woke up from a nightmare, she’s hysterical… one of the guards woke Theresa and I but we can’t get her to calm down.” She saw the darkening features of the ruler so she poured out the rest, “She was saying some woman’s name… Mel… Melinda or something then she demanded to see you. I sent one of the guards to get the healer to sedate her.”

The Conqueror stepped out of the room then closed the door as she ordered, “I will take care of her. Tell the healer to belay the orders. Get the guard back here.”

Nakia stepped back then bowed her head. She turned and ran down the hall with her robe flowing and her sandals echoing down the hall.

The Conqueror briskly walked down the long hallway as she tied off her robe. Her heart pounded as she shoved the door open to the bedchambers. Instantly her ears were filled by Janice’s cracking, raw voice off to the left. She turned her head to see the archeologist curled up in a chair and Theresa kneeling down and trying to comfort her.

Theresa recognized the great ruler so she stood up, her worried eyes leveling with the Conqueror’s. “I tried to… I’m sorry, my liege.” She bowed her head.

“Leave us,” clipped the ruler. “Take Nakia with you when she returns.” She pivoted on her feet, her metallic eyes flashing as she watched the slave leave the room. When the door shut, she took Theresa vacant spot in front of the small, huddled archeologist. “Janice?” she called. She heard the quiet sobs despite Janice had her face buried in her knees and body.

At that moment, Hu appeared from the shadows and sat beside the chair. He rested his large head on the armchair as his reflecting eyes stared up at the huddled blond.

Melinda carefully extended her hand and lightly touched the archeologist’s closets, heavily scabbed up leg. “Come on, Janice… it’s me.” Finally she had a glimpse of Janice’s face, which was bright red like her eyes and her face completely moist from crying. And the fear, Melinda had never seen such fear in all her life. “Ooo god,” cracked Melinda’s voice and she stood up but stayed hunch over. She snaked her arms between Janice and the chair and managed to heft the small woman into her arms.

Janice had never displayed any weakness towards her friend. She felt so lost as the nightmare still attacked her mind. She clung to the solid, strong body that carried her across the room.

Melinda easily got them onto Janice’s disheveled bed and she sat down at the head. She worked Janice onto her lap as she sat Indian style. Janice’s face was hidden under her chin then Janice’s legs were wrapped around her waist. She tangled her fingers into Janice’s short hair while her other arm was around Janice’s back. She closed her eyes and whispered comforting words to her friend.

Hu had moved over too, he now sat at the side of the bed, and his head rested on the bed. He stared at the women holding one another.

Janice’s body trembled and her hold on Melinda was almost life threatening. Her eyes were on fire and her throat ached from all her cries. She tried to suppress the nightmare and the memories that surfaced too. It was too real as the dagger cut her skin again, Rhodes’s rotting carcass still filled her nostrils, and this time she thought she was undergoing the water torture instead of the woman she witnessed.

Melinda kissed the top of Janice’s head. She soothingly ran her fingers up and down Janice’s back. “Let it go, Janice… you’re safe here.” Her rapid heartbeat wasn’t settling though, which she knew wouldn’t until Janice was okay. “It’s just you and me… ain’t nobody else.” Melinda’s accent was warm and inviting. “Just let it out.”

Janice’s breathing was becoming slightly regular. Her chest slowing and her sobs fewer. After awhile, she withdrew her face from Melinda’s neck and angrily wiped her tears away from her face.

Melinda leaned back some then used her right hand to tenderly wipe the tears away from her friend’s face. She displayed a warm, tender smile despite her eyes were full of sadness. “Are ya okay?”

Janice couldn’t talk but she nodded.

Melinda tried to neaten up some of Janice’s messy hair. “Ya really get bad bedhead with this hairstyle.”

Janice broke into a laugh then a few tears slipped past again.

Melinda sighed but she had a faint grin as she wiped the new tears away. “Ya really scared me.”

“I’m sorry,” came Janice’s cracked voice.

“No,” whispered Melinda, who leaned in to kiss her friend’s cheek. “Nottin’ to be sorry about.”

There was a subtle whine next to them, which caused them both to turn their heads in the direction.

Janice slightly smiled at the tiger and she bent over so she could place a tender kiss to the tiger’s head. She then ruffled his furry head up and in return he bumped his cold nose against her retreating cheek. When she straightened up again, her eye contact was lowered to the small space between her and Melinda. “Mel?”

“Yes?” The translator dipped her head so she could get some view of her friend’s face.

“Thank you.” The archeologist raised her head up as she smiled sadly. “You didn’t have-” She was stopped by the finger against her lips.

“No, don’t ya say it.” The linguist lowered her hand until her fingertips were under Janice’s chin, tilting her head up. “I wanted to, Janice Covington. Everybody can’t be strong all the time.”

“I know,” murmured the archeologist. She slipped her right hand into Melinda’s and their hands locked together in their laps. “Its just I was doing fine… no damn nightmares and now….” She shook her head.

“They’re surfacing,” concluded the southerner.

“I think so,” agreed Janice.

Melinda bit the inside of her lip. “Just try not to think about any of it when you go back to sleep.”

The archeologist recoiled as she shook her head. “I can’t… I don’t want to go back to sleep. I….” Her tears started to brim at her eyes and she was withdrawing from the resurfacing nightmares. “She continues to torture me in my dreams, Mel,” she emotionally rasped.

Melinda became obviously upset as her friend started to break down again. “Janice, its okay… I swear.”

“No… she’ll… I don’t want to die.” Janice became another person when her memories engulfed her feverishly.

“Janice, you’re okay… she’s ain’t here.”

Janice grabbed Melinda’s sides and frantically shook her head. “If you leave though she’ll show up, Mel.”

The translator was shocked by her friend’s words. She grabbed Janice’s hands into her own and promised, “I ain’t going anywhere, Janice.”

“Don’t leave me alone, Mel… please.”

Melinda cupped Janice’s smaller hands easily into one of hers. She reached up with her freehand to wipe the fresh tears away. “I ain’t leavin’, Janice.” She realized what was happening as the nightmare and memories still plagued her friend’s safety. She then started to move and slipped out of the bed but Janice grabbed at her.

“Mel-”

“Sssh it’s okay.” Melinda reached out and pulled the small woman into her arms. She settled the archeologist against her body then sensed a small but strong arm locked around her chest and over her left shoulder. She glanced down at Hu and arched an eyebrow at him in question.

Hu stood up then strolled over to the door, his tail swooshing back and forth.

Melinda walked over to the door, closed her eyes, and when her eyes opened again her body and mind were consumed. “Guards, open the door.”

A guard hastily shoved the door open for the ruler and he was stunned to see the prisoner in the ruler’s arms. He stepped aside when the Conqueror came out with the tiger following behind.

“Follow me,” she ordered the guards. She went down the hall until she reached her bedchambers at the other end of the hall. She commanded them to stay posted at her bedroom door then she kicked the door open. Hu entered first and she looked at the guards with a frozen stare. “See that you hold your tongues about tonight or else I’ll cut them out myself.”

“Yes, my liege,” replied a guard.

After the Conqueror was in her bedroom, she kicked the door shut then hurried over to her large bed.

Janice’s quiet sobs were settling again as she released Melinda. She sunk into a cool but soft bed then the sheets were drawn over her.

Melinda took a quick second to disrobe then came around to the other side. She crawled into the bed under the sheets then shifted closer behind her friend.

Janice was trying to gain some sense of control again. She dried her face with her hands then turned on her back to see Melinda next to her. She now rolled onto her left side just as Melinda drew her in close.

The linguist kissed Janice’s forehead then adjusted the sheets over them. She tightly wrapped Janice up against her body, in her arms, and legs. She sensed that Janice was finally coming back. “Ya going to be okay, Janice?”

The archeologist pressed her hand against Melinda’s chest then whispered, “Yea… I’m sorry.”

“I told ya, there ain’t nottin’ to worry about.” The southerner soothingly rubbed her friend’s back. “I’m just gonna have fun explainin’ this later.”

Janice grinned a little then lifted her head to meet Melinda’s gaze in the dark room. “Is this apart of your… seduction plan, Mel?” She pleasantly watched as both eyebrows rose up on Melinda’s face. She then thought it best to leave that one alone so she asked, “Where’s Hu?”

Melinda sat up some then felt a new weight at the foot of the bed. She glanced down to see the large tiger stretching out across the foot of the bed.

Janice felt it too so she peered down and quietly laughed. “Typical cats.”

Hu heard the remark so he flicked his tail at Janice’s covered feet then snuggled his face into his paws.

“Come on, try to go to sleep,” softly prompted the southerner.

Janice settled back into the warm, long body next to hers. She tried to remain calm and settled even though she was scared of her nightmares returning tonight.

“I’ll be right here,” promised Melinda.

“I know… thank you.” Janice tried to return to her usual gruff attitude to help her. She closed her eyes and the emotional night was spent on her. She slowly passed over into her dreams after half an hour.

Melinda though, her eyes closed, stayed awake for longer. She considered her friend’s plausible nightmares and what could be done later down the road. The nightmares hadn’t shown up at all in the past few days but now they were suddenly and it wasn’t a good sign. She also would have to contend with the rumors that would arise tomorrow from Janice being in her bedchambers. The guards wouldn’t talk but certainly Nakia and Theresa would especially once they come looking for Janice in the morning and she’s not in her bedchambers. Well Melinda decided it would have to wait tomorrow because there wasn’t much that could be done tonight.

In the early morning, Janice was aroused by the distant sound of the yelling and clanging noise. She woke up to an empty bed even minus Hu. She was startled at first but realized she was in the Conqueror’s bedchambers. She climbed out of bed then immediately noticed the nightstand by the bed had her leathers folded there. She only had on a nightshift that Nakia had provided her with several days back.

Again the voices and noise filtered to Janice from a specific direction then something caught her eye. She suddenly grinned.

Hu had his head poked through the curtains that led to the balcony. He saw his human friend awake finally but he turned back out onto the balcony.

Janice was curious as that was the location of the sounds so she hastily put on her leathers but padded outside without her boots. She spotted Hu laying on the floor and warming his body in the morning sun. Janice though went to the marble rail and peered down at the fortress’s grounds.

“Come on, attack!” commanded the Conqueror. Her sword was over her head and at the ready, a wild grin showing her enjoyment.

Suddenly the ten soldiers charged in after the ruler.

The Conqueror laughed then her battle cry filled the air as she spun her sword around to catch each soldier’s blade with ease. She give one an abrupt kick his chest, sending him on his back then she slashed her sword at another soldier’s stomach, just catching him. She then dodged a sword swipe meant for her face.

The Conqueror kept moving so fast, her laugh or warcry coming to life at certain attacks. She felt so alive as her body anticipated every move of the soldiers. Her ears pounded with the soldiers’ frantic heartbeats and the ravish thrill to win the battle took her over.

Janice was entranced by the flawlessness of her friend’s unknown abilities. She’d seen Melinda fight Ares back in the tomb, which was stunning in itself but this was different. She wasn’t a bard but she knew that Melinda was poetic with every calculated move she performed. It shook her to realize that Melinda hadn’t learned any of this and this was natural for Melinda, like it was for Xena.

The Conqueror efficiently had all the soldiers disarmed, beaten, and on the ground with ragged breathing. She spun around and eyed the ten men with absolute disgust. “I’ve seen kids fight better than you.” Her cold gaze leveled to the squad leader then she pointed her sword at him. “See that you better train them, dekarchos or next time I’ll have your head.”

The dekarchos, or squad leader, bowed his head then ordered his men to get up.

The dark ruler spun her sword as she saw the next squad coming for exercise.

Janice was amazed and she was curious to see this more up close and personal. She rushed back into the bedchambers and quickly got cleaned up and ready. “Hu, come on, boy.” She called for him and was happy to see him loyally following her out of the bedchambers.

The two guards stiffened up when the prisoner came out of the Conqueror’s quarters.

“Hey,” started Janice, “can you fellas take me down to the grounds? Where the Conqueror is training the squads?”

The guards exchanged looks, shrugged, and started down the hallway. It wasn’t long when the guards had the prisoner out of one of the side doors of the fortress and strolling onto the grounds towards the exercising ruler. Janice stopped several yards away and her hand instinctively ran up and down Hu’s back when he sat beside her.

The Conqueror clipped another soldier’s arm then kicked a third in the stomach. Her laugh rang loudly then she shot up into the air, flipped around, and landed neatly behind the soldiers. She slashed her sword at their unguarded backs, which effectively took some of them down. By then the five remaining guards weakly charged the Conqueror, who no sooner disarmed them and bruised them allover.

The Conqueror remained tall but her burning eyes fell on the squad leader. “Better,” she commented, “but they require more training.”

The dekarchos bowed his head in agreement yet he was relieved at the Conqueror’s assessment. He then ordered his men to get up then got them out of the grounds and into the city.

The Conqueror watched them go momentarily then she spun her sword. She sheathed it with the distinct scraping filling the silent grounds. She then turned her head to the prisoner.

Janice inhaled sharply as she became entranced by the Conqueror’s slow walk towards her. Earlier Janice had become enthralled by precision and dangerous beauty behind her friend’s abilities but now she was captured by the raw power flowing from her as she neared her.

The Conqueror loomed over the prisoner, her grin very ravishing. “Follow me to my office,” she ordered.

All Janice could do was nod. She then fell into step behind her friend as they entered back into the fortress with Hu at her side and the guards behind her.

The Conqueror did not speak but led the way through the fortress. The energy in her was flowing from her body in every direction and her mind was lost of much thought. Her carnal instincts from the fighting were still controlling her purely. When Janice and the tiger were in the office, she ordered the guards to stay posted at the doors.

Janice tilted her head as she watched her friend go to the large window to the left of the office. The heavy curtains had been drawn back some time ago so the morning sun splashed brightly into the room and made the tall woman glow in gold. Janice was breathing heavier than expect but she quietly neared her friend. “That was really… amazing.”

Hu followed Janice a few steps then stopped and sat down. He watched as his human friend closed in the distance to the much taller woman.

The archeologist stood next to her friend, her eyes peering up at the tense yet quiet woman. “You really… dominated them.” She stiffened when her friend turned to her and blazing sapphires were clawing into her. She was suddenly afraid that maybe this wasn’t Melinda after all.

The Conqueror vanished in a quick movement and she easily shoved the smaller woman back against the corner of the wall and window. She roughly pressed her body against Janice’s and pinned her, she lowered her head and sneered, “I’ll show you dominance.”

Janice grabbed at the Conqueror’s arm that was pressed tightly against her body. A strong hand at her bare stomach held her against the wall but before she could protest anything, her lips were forcefully taken by a carnal kiss that willed her to give in without a chance.

The Conqueror took away all of Janice’s strength and she felt the small woman give into her rein. She broke the violent kiss just as small hands held onto her hips for support. She leaned in again for another searing kiss that caused Janice to moan in partial protest and passion. “Don’t… fight it,” she growled between the kissing, her hand sliding up Janice’s scabbed stomach.

Janice slightly broke away and she moved her head in objection. “No,” she rasped. Her right hand shot up to grab the large wrist near her stomach, trying to desperately to halt the hand’s movement up her stomach.

The Conqueror leered at the archeologist’s resistance because it fueled her hungry. With her freehand, she turned Janice’s face back to her then sensually whispered, “You want this, Janice.” She lowered her head so that her burning lips glazed over Janice’s, her tongue tentatively running over Janice’s sealed lips. “You feel this power… this Darkness too.” She now moved her lips across Janice’s as she purred, “We both want this, Janice.”

Janice’s control was lost in another dominating kiss but her body trembled when the Conqueror’s earlier freehand found its way to her inner thigh. This sparked resistance into her and she jerked out of the kiss as she angrily demanded, “No!”

The Conqueror deeply laughed then pressed her body harder so that Janice couldn’t move anymore. She leaned in again while whispering, “You’re resistance is only making it more wild.” Her voice was husky as she hotly added, “Keep resisting… come on,” she rumbled deeply.

Janice gritted her teeth as she knew those last words were true. She suddenly released the wrist she’d been pushing down on then she murmured, “I know you won’t do this… Melinda.” Just as she felt those perfect, full lips touch hers they were idle against hers. She had her eyes closed and waiting for the final surrender if it was demanded of her. The large hand on her stomach slipped away as did the one on her thigh. Janice twisted stomach now calmed and she warmly whispered, “Come on, Mel. Come back to me.” Then suddenly that feral power that’d been pulsing from her friend had vanished. The heavy weight of her friend quickly slumped against her in some subtly defeat.

Absolutely relief washed through the archeologist and she hastily pulled her friend into an embrace that would be needed by now. “It’s okay, Mel… everything is fine.”

Melinda Pappas came back to her body in a matter of heartbeats. Her emotions flooded her as she realized what’d happened between her and Janice and what could have happened. It wasn’t long before tears built up in her eyes and she hoarsely murmured, “I’m sorry, Janice.”

“It’s okay… it’s okay, I swear.” Janice tightly held onto her friend. “We’re fine… nothing to get upset about.”

Melinda locked her eyes tightly together as she tried to gain momentum of her raging emotions. Her face was buried into Janice’s hair and she clung to the small woman- a complete contrast to earlier.

Janice inwardly sighed at how closed that had been. She waited for the southerner to gain some self control before saying anything again. She then lifted her head, which made linguist also raise her head up. “Mel, you want to sit down?”

Melinda only agreed by a nod. Her hand was laced through by Janice’s and she was unknowingly guided across the floor to the center of the office where the couch, wood table, and couple of chairs rested. She was softly told to sit, which she did then her hollow eyes filled with Janice’s concerned features.

“Mel, come on… its okay now. Nothing happened.”

Melinda swallowed hard as she ran her longer fingers through her hair. “I… I could have… I would have hurt ya, Janice.”

“You didn’t though, Mel,” urged the worried archeologist. She gathered Melinda’s larger hands into her own. “What happened?”

The linguist’s head was bent forward as her emotions kept raging through her. She slowly lifted her head, her eyes filled by worry and fear. “It’s called battle lust.”

Janice’s face screwed up with confusion, her mouth slightly open as if she was going to speak but she had no words.

“I was in control,” whispered Melinda, “but I ain’t… its hard to explain, Janice.”

“Is this apart of the split that Yakut was talking about?”

“Yes, it is,” agreed Melinda. “At some points I don’t know who I am. I… I was caught up… by the battle lust.” Her breathing grew heavy by her fears.

“Mel, its okay,” assured Janice and she squeezed her friend’s hands harder. “We’ll work you through this.” She tilted her head then curiously asked, “What is battle lust?”

Melinda swallowed as she prepared to explain the consuming sensation. “It is an overwhelming feeling a warrior gets when they’re fighting especially if the fight is close to death.”

“It sounds a lot like an adrenaline rush,” murmured the thoughtful archeologist.

“I reckon so.” Melinda lifted her head some. “I’m sorry, Janice.”

The small woman shook her head and squeezed her friend’s warm, large hands tighter. “Mel, it’s okay. You’re under a lot of pressure here…. I’m sorry I didn’t see it sooner.” She frowned in disappointment at herself. “I need to be there for you more.”

Melinda finally had her head up and she held her friend’s eyes. “We need to be there for each other.”

Janice softly smiled at this, her features lighter now. “You’re right.”

“If there’s a next time, Janice… then say my name sooner.”

The archeologist tilted her head to the right then gently asked, “It snapped you out of it huh?”

“Yes,” came the still hoarse voice of the linguist.

“Mel?” Janice could tell though that her friend wouldn’t meet her gaze, her focus distant and fuzzy. She squeezed Melinda’s hands then gently called, “Melinda?”

Melinda Pappas returned to the present and sadly smiled at her friend.

Janice release one of Melinda’s hand then placed her palm against Melinda’s cheek. “I don’t think you trust yourself with this… this split and battle lust but I do trust you.” She leaned in and lightly kissed Melinda’s forehead then murmured, “I trust you with my life, Melinda.” She pulled back and observed the surfaced emotions on Melinda’s face and in her eyes. Janice knew she’d calmed many of her friend’s fears by those simple words. “Come on.” She got up and hauled Melinda to her feet. “I know you have stuff to do.”

“What will you do today?” inquired Melinda, her hands now freed.

The archeologist shrugged. “I’m feeling a bit cooped up now.”

“I know.” Melinda had been considering this for some time now. She was trying to work out a way to free Janice from this predicament without causing too much of a stir. “Lao Ma might be able to get you out of the fortress for a bit.”

Janice had questioning features but she nodded. “Let me know… I think I’m gonna get my guards to give me a tour of the fortress.” She casually walked over to Hu, her yawning protector. “Minus the dungeons,” she muttered.

The southerner studied the tiger and a question came to mind but Janice was the one to say it.

“And why didn’t you protect me, ooo lazy hairball?” teased the archeologist.

Hu was lying down on the cold floor and he flicked his tail at Janice. He blinked, looked at Melinda then tilted his head back up to Janice. He then got up and rubbed his large head against Janice’s closest leg.

Janice huffed yet she smiled and ran her fingers through his coat. “I guess he trusts you too, Mel.” She glanced over at her friend. “You’re the only one that doesn’t.”

The linguist sighed because she knew her friend was right. She straightened out her shoulders as her next step towards Janice brought her into another mind set. “Guards?” She called out.

The guards pressed into the room after swinging a door open.

“Yes, my liege?” The speaking guard bowed his head followed suit by his comrade.

The Conqueror strolled past Janice and bee lined for the nervous guards. “Take the prisoner on a tour of the fortress. See that you bring her back here by Helios high.”

“Aye, my liege,” agreed the quiet guard.

Janice came over with Hu tailing behind her. “So where to first, fellas?” Her grin was broad and held amusement like her eyes.

The sentries exchanged glances, said nothing, and shuffled out of the office.

The Conqueror stepped aside as Janice passed her but her right hand shot out and caught Janice’s left arm to stop her.

The archeologist wavered under the powerful touch and she questioningly peered up at her friend.

The Conqueror leaned down then her usually steel voice came out warm. “Thank you, Janice.” She then released the prisoner as she straightened back up.

Janice didn’t make a show of it so she only nodded then left the office with her furry protector. When the office door was closed, she exhaled in relief from finally getting some space from her friend. It wasn’t so much how it’d happened between her and Melinda but that it happened and worse, Janice loved it. Oh it’s only been more years than you can count since you’ve been kissed like that, Janice, inwardly blamed the archeologist. The memory from only a few minutes ago flooded her and she shivered at the thought of Melinda’s lips against hers again. She urged the feelings away then came back to the present with a silly grin on her face. “Well I know this damn fortress is big so where to first?”

The guards glanced at one another again then one stepped forward to take the initiative. “Follow us.” He wasn’t sure what to call her but he turned along with his partner and they led the way to the first level. The tour would begin outside with the grounds, small barrack, and wall.

The Conqueror returned to her desk and started her usual daily reports. She hated this aspect of rulership yet it was required and needed if her realm was to succeed. She didn’t trust anybody else to do the work or to do it correctly. She started with the proposal from Cyd about the Corinth Canal and the healer aide that was required to help the workers. She’d need to get it finished and decided on by the midday when her advisor would show up for an answer.

Just as the Conqueror finished going over the proposal scroll, there was a gentle knock at her door. She dropped the scroll on the desk with a thunk then called out, “Enter.”

Lao Ma soon glided through the entrance and closed the door behind her. Her smile at the ruler was gentle and her face showed no deception. “Good morning, Melinda.”

Melinda rose up from her desk and approached the Chin ruler. “How are ya, Ma?”

Lao Ma bowed her head then lifted it again. “I am well. I see you continue the Conqueror’s work…?”

Melinda glanced back at the covered desk then she nodded at the smaller, oriental woman. “Yes, unless I want people to wonder.”

Lao Ma’s lips tugged with a faint smile. “It is wise… perhaps you can correct much of what she’s done.”

“Very subtly, yes.”

“I would like to request that I may have a tour of Corinth today and that Janice joins me.”

Melinda now smiled for once. “I reckon Janice would like that.”

“It would do her well to get out of the fortress.”

Melinda nodded her head in agreement. “I will order an escort with you.” She considered something then added, “I will have my assistant, Galen, lead you. He does well with the city’s history.” She then had a wide grin. “Then tonight we’ll follow the Conqueror’s tradition for a banquet.”

Lao Ma bowed her head then lifted it again. “As you wish, Melinda.”

Melinda chuckled but she kept her grin. “If I can’t make use of all her powers and luxury then what is left?”

The Chin ruler followed the line of thought as she turned to the door. “Then there would be nothing else.”

“Mmmm,” agreed the linguist. “I will send Janice to your room when she returns. I reckon she’ll finish her tour soon.”

“That is fine.” Lao Ma went through the door that Melinda had opened. “Thank you, Melinda.”

Melinda nodded then watched the small yet powerful woman she’d recently befriended. She was relieved to have Lao Ma’s support and understanding during all this chaos and mix up. She hadn’t expected the help but it was very welcoming for both her and Janice. She finally closed the door then returned to her desk work.

By that late evening, the promised banquet had gone into full swing when Helios set in the low west sky. The great ruler of much of the known-world was seated at her throne, poised at perfection, and lavished in a beautiful red silk dress made from the finest in Chin. The pattern was very much oriental with gold stitching, her hair twisted up behind her head and pinned by decorative, gold chopsticks, and the gown was form fitting yet long enough to just cover her feet. On her showing chest she bore the finest sapphire known in her realm that reflected her eyes perfectly. She was truly the Conqueror of her lands.

At the floor of the court, which had been conveniently converted to a banquet hall with food, there stood the bowing ruler of Chin. She wore a matching outfit to the Conqueror’s minus the significant necklace but she was very much the Conqueror’s counterpart.

The Conqueror’s hawk eyes scanned the faces of the masses at the various tables until she found the one she was looking for above all. Seated at the back was the prisoner, who looked anything but the role as a Chin style dress had been fashioned for her earlier today. Janice’s dress was pure red silk with no sleeves, a small collar around her neck, a teardrop opening over her chest, and slits running down either sides starting at her thighs. On the bottom portion of the dress, there was the beautiful design of the Chin phoenix from their famous tales. Even from her distant spot, Janice’s red dress brought out her glittering sea green eyes and highlighted her new hairstyle.

The Conqueror finally rose up from her throne with her robed dress pouring out around her feet. She bowed her head to Lao Ma, who lifted her head in unison to the Conqueror’s. She inhaled then loudly announced, “Tonight we celebrate the House of Lao in Corinth… in my realm.” She observed all the advisors, wealthy, higher officers, and stationed guards. “Welcome Lady Lao as I have welcomed her.”

Lao Ma respectively dipped her head then remained still.

The Conqueror glided down the steps then on the final step, she stopped, and held out her hand.

Lao Ma kept her head bowed but she took the offered hand from the great ruler. As soon as the Conqueror’s feet met the floor of the court, she rose her head up and gave a warm smile to the Conqueror.

The Conqueror mirrored the smile back then escorted her guest to the head table where many of her head advisors and officers awaited her arrival. Lao Ma took the chair to the right of where the Conqueror sat, who was at the head of the table. Once the Conqueror sat, the court suddenly exploded with chatter and the movement of the slaves to serve dinner.

The dinner was a lavish feast and the food was a meeting of the east and the west. Lao Ma found her usual dishes from home and absolutely new dishes that were traditional to Greece. She’d come to discover and enjoy an interesting cheese that the Conqueror explained was called feta. The Conqueror made a mental note of the Chin ruler’s enjoyment and would later order some feta to be gifted to Lao Ma on her return trip home.

After the large meal, the desserts followed suit not long afterwards but the wine kept flowing through as a river. At some point, the Conqueror paused in her idly chatter and stole a view of the prisoner so far away. She could tell by Janice’s body language that she was tense and uneasy so she would have to remedy that at first chance.

Janice Covington was relieved that Hu was lying near her feet, under the table. She would stop at some points and toss him hidden pieces of meat, which he was grateful for. She’d come accustom to the people around her table despite they were mostly ignoring her except for one.

The aristocratic person at the table, who did not ignore Janice, sat across from the table. It was one of the faction followers, Argus, and he tried not to overly talk to Janice as it would certainly tip somebody off but he kept a steady gaze on her.

“So, are you related to that rebel… Gabrielle?” inquired a woman from across the table. She sat next to Argus but her husband was to her left.

Janice lost her appetite when everybody’s eyes switched to her. She pushed her plate away some so she’d have a second to think of a decent response. “I am but very distantly.”

The woman assessed Janice’s features and certainly took in the fact she had a lot of scabbed wounds and bruises. “I am surprised the Conqueror let you live much less let you dine with us.” Her tone was edgy and held disgust, her eyes very judgmental.

Janice’s temper flared up a notch but she was clamping her jaw tightly.

Hu detected the shift as his head came up from his paws, not that anybody could really see this but Janice felt him move around.

“The Conqueror and I have come to an understanding,” drew out the archeologist.

“She means she provides services,” emphasized a man at the table, “to the Conqueror.” His statement was followed by some laughter.

“What confuses me,” brought up that same woman again, “is why she would want such an unnatural’s… services?” Her face was screwed up by repulsion. “Surely I thought she had better taste than… this.” She pointed at the prisoner then leaned back as if sickened by the prisoner’s very presence.

Janice Covington never backed away from any fight so she quickly stood up, her hands on the edge of the table, and she was bent over the table. Just as her mouth opened so that she could chew out this woman, strong hands clasped her shoulders then a dark, grounding voice filled the void.

“I do have better taste because if I did not, I would have chosen your services , Nysa.”

Janice’s anger mostly calmed but it wasn’t gone yet, but she watched in complete satisfaction as that woman, Nysa, reacted as if she’d been slapped across the face.

“My liege,” defensively spoke Nysa’s husband, who rose up.

The Conqueror lifted her chin some as her cold eyes froze the aristocratic husband. “See that you teach your wife to play nicely, Jason.” Slowly her hungry grin spread out over her face as her stare went to Nysa. She then purred out, “Unless she prefers to experience… my services to correct her manners for treatment of my guests.”

“It will not happen again,” hastily relented Jason. “I apologize, my liege.”

“I do not require your apology, Jason.” The Conqueror released the prisoner’s shoulders then held out her right hand to Janice’s leaning profile. “Perhaps Nysa would be so kind to apologize to Janice.”

Nysa swallowed but the ruler’s threatening features told her it was best to act quickly. She rose up from her chair, bowed, and stated, “I apologize for my words… Janice.”

The ruler pleasantly smiled now despite her eyes were still hard. “Very good, Nysa.” Her smile quickly fell as she threateningly whispered, “See that this occurrence does not repeat.”

“It will not,” promised Jason. He quietly ordered his wife to sit and his mood showed that his wife would most likely hear a long lecture from him later. He too took his seat again.

The Conqueror reached for the back of Janice’s chair and moved it aside, one of the chair’s legs almost catching Hu’s tail that’d flopped out of the way in time.

Janice turned to her friend and savior with appreciative features. She could also tell that the Conqueror had something else in mind by that glint in those deep cobalt eyes.

“Janice, I would be honored if you… serviced me to begin tonight’s dancing.” The Conqueror held out her right hand in offer.

The archeologist was hesitant at first but slowly she lifted her hand and clasped the warm hand into hers. “Yes… of course, Conqueror.” Her stomach knotted when the Conqueror’s cat like grin appeared instantly to her response.

Everybody at the table was goggling at the pair as they never imagined the Conqueror beginning a banquet’s dancing with another woman much less a prisoner and enemy. They kept staring in astonishment as the Conqueror led the petite, finely dressed woman to the open dance floor before all the tables. This drew the crowds’ complete interest and they never fathomed such a controversial scene.

The Conqueror signaled the musician to begin in any heartbeat as she turned to Janice with her right hand up.

Janice stepped up and slipped her hand into the Conqueror’s then she sensed a strong arm slip around her small waist. She knew how dancing work even though she wasn’t the best but she just prayed her friend would lead as she couldn’t do this otherwise.

The Conqueror pulled Janice in closer just as the music began. “I couldn’t think of a better way to stir up trouble.”

Janice had a grin as her body started to move with the Conqueror’s with such ease. “You did an excellent job, I think.” She signaled, with her chin, at the crowd just memorizing them.

“Ah yes.” The Conqueror stole a quick look then whispered, “I believe I have… how perfect.” She suddenly pushed away from Janice and spun her with beauty. She then coiled Janice back against her body then lowered her head close. “You look absolutely amazing, Janice.”

Janice chuckled then whispered back, “Do not get use to me in dresses.” Her feet and hips followed the ruler’s to perfection as it was almost too easy.

“But you make it look so exquisite,” purred the Conqueror’s sensual voice. She drew away from her dancing partner at the right beat then brought her back as they glided across the dance floor.

“Are we back to your plans to seduce me?” toyed the teasing voice of the archeologist.

The Conqueror gracefully spun Janice around then pulled her back in but surprisingly with Janice’s back across her front side. Her left arm was wrapped around Janice’s waist and she brought her lips down to Janice’s delicate ear. “And do I really need to seduce you, Janice Covington?” She slowly pulled her wrapped hand away from Janice’s stomach, her touch so lingering and smooth across Janice’s stomach. “Or are you just enjoying the wait until I take you?” she suddenly slipped away but not without breaking her clasped hand with Janice’s.

The daze archeologist came back to the dance as her and the Conqueror met halfway and continued the sensual dance that was displayed to all. Her mind slightly woke up from the sexual haze between her and her friend and she tried to figure out if this was Melinda or the Conqueror she was dancing with now. As she considered it deeper, this was really both of them but always in the end it was Melinda.

The Conqueror’s body moved across the petite woman’s and the music made her feel alive. The song’s end was near so she twirled Janice away moved a few steps then brought Janice back to her. “For once you have nothing to say, Janice?” Her eyes were glowing brighter than the sapphire on her neck ever could.

Janice leaned in close as she breathed, “I think a tiger has my tongue.” Her joke wasn’t lost on her friend as the Conqueror’s face came down closer to hers.

The Conqueror had a wild grin spreading over her face. “Not yet.” Her head lowered more as the music was slowing down and so were they. “You do trust me, Janice?” she silken whisper went into Janice’s left ear but she pulled back some to capture Janice’s gaze.

Janice freed her right hand from the Conqueror’s hip and touched it against her closest cheek. She knew she could easily break this spell by saying Melinda’s name but she wouldn’t risk it, not here. She also understood what was being asked of her in this very instant and her eyes showed her answer as her voiced response came out very precise. “I trust you with… everything… Conqueror.”

The Conqueror sensed the closing of the song so she closed in the distance.

Janice’s eyes slipped shut just before the Conqueror’s full and silky lips met hers. She moaned softly between the kiss that was so shattering of all her senses. This kiss was far different than the ones they’d had in the office this morning and it was only tinted by hunger but covered in passion for each other. The hushed voices of the masses were blacked out by the intensity behind the Conqueror’s searching tongue and warm lips.

The Conqueror held Janice tightly against her body then as she drew back from the kiss that brought Janice’s tongue with hers. She ended the kiss with a gentle nip to Janice’s lower lip then her feral grin showed between them. “I believe we have utterly aghast the people.”

“Welcome to my life, Conqueror,” lightly joked the long time controversial and infamous archeologist of the 1940’s.

The Conqueror softly laughed at the reference then straightened up and Janice stood beside her but their hands still holding. “Let us finish the evening, together,” she called out to the masses. She held out her hand to the musician to begin a variety of songs.

The court bustled with noise again, the people getting up to find dancing partners or standing aside to watch. And of course, all the whispered talk was about the Conqueror and the prisoner loafing together so casually amongst the people instead of at least behind doors.

Hu sat on the edge of the people, his back just brushing against the table that Janice had been seat at earlier. He lifted his head when a very familiar hand went through his coat. His fire eyes softened at his friend’s face.

Lao Ma smiled at him then looked at the crowd of dancers and onlookers. “It is a strange custom, Hu.”

Hu flicked his tail a few times.

“Perhaps there is something I can take back to Chin.” Lao Ma tilted her head to the right. “Something of it at least could be useful.” Her gaze wondered over the masses and the Conqueror with Janice stood out more than anybody else. Finally something else caught her gaze, it was the dark shaman off to the right standing outside the circle. Lao Ma could tell Alti was brooding and her hatred stare was centered on the center of attention in the dancing ring.

Hu too was staring at Alti as if he was debating whether to bite her now or later.

“We must watch her carefully, Hu,” warned the Chin ruler. “She will be the downfall of the Conqueror if we do not.”

The tiger sighed loudly then peered up questioningly at his friend.

“She is a yao mó, Hu. We must be careful of such a demon.” Lao Ma continued rubbing the tiger’s head while quietly stating, “She will be sent back to Di Yu… to the Chamber of Avici so that she may never be reborn.”

Hu watched the dark shaman and his friend’s whispered words made perfect sense to him. He truly knew that if anybody could send that evil human to Avici it was Lao Ma. That would then pull away the dark veil over the Conqueror and over the realm.
Chapter 15 – Echoes from the Past

Melpomene smiled warmly as she took her aunt’s larger hand. “Do I get to put honey on them?”

The bard grinned at the child as she closed the guest hut’s door. “If you behave today,” she brought up.

The girl tilted her head as she walked along side the rebel, headed for the food hut. “When have I been bad, Aunt Gabby?”

The bard relented with a smile to her face. “So far so good.” Gabrielle squeezed the girl’s hand in hers.

“Where is Cyrene?” questioned Melpomene.

Gabrielle considered it then honestly answered, “Cyrene went to see the Conqueror.”

Melpomene fell silent, her face also dower compared to earlier. She gazed off in the direction of the jail hut, they were coming past it. Her walk went slightly slower when she saw the jail door opening and she could see the shadowy form of somebody composed inside of the jail. For a heartbeat, she peered up at her newly claimed aunt and saw she wasn’t quite paying attention.

Suddenly Melpomene released Gabrielle’s hands then broke off into a run for the jail hut.

Gabrielle was shocked and hollered, “Melpomene!” She growled because there was no way she could run to catch up or yell loud enough for the guards to hear her. She tried to walk as fast as she could, which caused her a great amount of pain. She kept trying to call out to the guards across the long distance but the blustery fall’s wind washed her voice out.

Melpomene dodged into the jail and ducked out of Karis’s quick grab.

Cyrene had been standing by the door, about ready to leave but then she saw the child dash around her. “Melpomene,” she yelled and tried to scoop her up but missed.

Melpomene was fairly agile and jumped around the woman she considered her grandmother now. She then crossed the threshold and stopped dead before the standing, dark ruler of most the known-world. Her head tilted back until she met those icy blue eyes, which made Melpomene tremble in fear yet she proudly held her ground.

The Conqueror stood rooted as she took in this powerless but courageous child.

Cyrene quickly came up behind Melpomene in a protective manner.

The Conqueror’s carnal eyes flashed to her mother then back down to the child. She slowly knelt down until her predatory eyes were level with the child’s. She displayed a ruthless grin at the girl. “And who are you, little girl?”

Melpomene’s quaking voice stated, “You don’t remember me but I remember you.”

The Conqueror arched a dark eyebrow. “I’ve heard that many times.” A brief silence hung between her and the child and the Conqueror read through the simple girl.

Melpomene inhaled deeply then in not as shaky voice declared, “I’m Melpomene.” She swallowed but when Cyrene’s hands touched the sides of her shoulders she pressed forward. “You raided my town and… and killed my sister.”

The Conqueror’s previously intimidating demeanor faltered under the child’s claims. She stared deep into the girl’s emotional brown eyes and the Conqueror’s lost childhood swept through her.

“I want to hate you,” whispered Melpomene, “For who you are and what you did to me.” Her eyes burned and slowly tears tracked down her soft cheeks. “But I was told if I do that then I’ll turn into you,” she hoarsely murmured, “and I don’t want to be anything like you.”

The Conqueror’s throat tightened and her seasoned strength was nothing against this girl’s powerful words.

“I won’t hurt my sister’s memory by hating you,” emotionally whispered Melpomene. She wiped her healing tears from her cheeks then with her tear stained hand, she pressed her palm against the Conqueror’s bare chest. “I forgive you, Conqueror.”

The Conqueror shut her eyes tightly and her face twisted sharply. Her childhood memories swarmed her and took her many seasons back to the last heartbeats of Lyceus, the last heartbeats for Lyceus.

“No… n-n-no, Lyceus… please. It’ll be okay.” Xena’s sword was long forgotten beside her as she cradled her small brother in her lap while on the ground. She was already coated in blood, the blood of Cortese, who she’d easily and enjoyably slain for attacking her home village.

Lyceus suddenly grabbed his sister’s hand, as tightly as he could. “Xena, everything is fine,” he promised. His hand was coated by deep red blood, his blood. “We did it… Amphipolis is saved,” he whispered, “We protected mother… from… him.”

Xena began to cry, her tears so acidic against her bloody features. “Don’t talk… we’ll get you to a healer.” It was a lie, she knew it because there were no healers left in Amphipolis that were close enough and Xena knew nothing about healing, only killing. She swallowed and glanced down at the large open, bleeding wound in her brother’s stomach.

Lyceus smiled as his sister. “I’ll be fine, Xena,” he gently promised in his weakening voice.

Xena’s heartbeat was frantic while her brother’s was slowing down. “Lyceus,” she rasped in fear. “Please.”

Lyceus use the last of his strength to tighten his hand against his sister’s. “Promise me something, Xena?”

Xena’s tears rolled faster down her bloody cheeks, the tears slipping between her lips and filling her mouth with salt and blood. “Anything, Ly… gods anything.”

“If you ever get lost-”

“Ly,” argued Xena.

“No,” interrupted the dying brother, “Listen to me.” He clenched Xena’s hand harder. “If you get lost then remember this moment… remember me and us.” Lyceus read the shattering pain in his sister’s eyes. “I will always be with you, I will hear your thoughts but you will not hear mine… so you must remember, Xena.” He lifted his free hand that wasn’t bloody and pressed it against his sister’s rapidly beating heart. “In here, Xena. Promise me?”

Xena lowered her head down to her brother’s then painfully rasped, “I promise, Lyceus… I promise.” Lyceus’s grip on her hand was loosening and now her brother’s hand on her chest fell. Xena’s tears began more threatening and she curled her body over her brother’s and started to rock. “Please no, Ly… don’t leave me alone.” She kissed her brother’s warm yet blood stained cheek and murmured, “I love you, Ly.” Finally, Lyceus’s grasp was limp in her left hand and Xena drew back some. She stared at her brother’s lifeless blue eyes that stared ghostly up at her.

Xena threw her head back and a shattering cry for her brother erupted from her lips.

The Conqueror broke away from her last memory of Lyceus when Melpomene’s hand left her chest finally.

Melpomene saw the phantom memories wash away from the Conqueror’s features. The Conqueror’s eyes, for the first time, were raw with emotions and in some strange way that truly scared Melpomene more than seeing the Conqueror high on her steed with a bloody sword as she did many moons back.

Cyrene drew Melpomene into her arms. She knew something transcended within her daughter but she was unsure of what it was exactly.

Gabrielle had made it to the jail some unknown time ago and leaned heavily against the doorway for support. She’d witnessed the entire scene and all the emotions riding through the dark ruler. Her heart rate was frantic and her nerves on the edge.

Cyrene pulled the child away from the Conqueror and silently guided her away.

The Amazon guards were captivated and their nerves calmer than earlier from when the girl first snuck inside the jail.

Gabrielle tightly took Melpomene’s hand while Cyrene held Melpomene’s other hand. Together, they silently left the jail hut and the Conqueror to her emotions.

The Conqueror fell to her knees just when Melpomene and Melpomene’s new family stepped out of the jail doorway. She slumped forward then lifted her head as she watched the backside of the family recede from her vision then the jail’s door started to close, cutting off her view completely. The Conqueror suddenly fought against her wrist chains that went taught in protest, the manacles biting at her wrists. The Conqueror inhaled until her chest hurt then she closed her eyes and opened her mouth with her head back.

Cyrene, Gabrielle, and Melpomene halted and the family turned their heads to the jail hut that exploded with a heart wrenching scream of pain.

Cyrene broke into tears and turned her head to Gabrielle, who was crying too.

The Conqueror’s cry echoed through the Amazon Nation and every Amazon paused in their daily activities to listen to her.

Melpomene felt fresh tears too but not for her dead family but for the Conqueror. She squeezed her grandmother and aunt’s hands tighter for support.

Cyrene bent down and hefted Melpomene into her arms. She straightened up then found Gabrielle pulling them all into a long, needed hug.

The family eventually retired to the guest hut to try and settle down. A couple of candlemarks before Helios high, Cyrene left the hut with Melpomene at her side as the child was truly hungry. That left Gabrielle alone to consider this morning’s unexpected events. She also was tired on a mental level, which was taxing on her physically. She sat at her desk with slumped shoulders and a worn expression.

Gabrielle slightly jumped when there was a knock at the door. She called in the person and was greeted by the Amazon Princess. Terreis told her the new developments that’d happened recently.

The rebel leader, Gabrielle, straightened up after hearing the news. “No,” she breathed, “it’s impossible, Terreis.”

“I am afraid so.” The princess crossed the distance between her and Gabrielle in the quiet guest hut. “They are here for her. We must go to the meeting… the council has put the trial on hold until this is figured out.”

Gabrielle collected her walking stick from the desk then climbed to her aching feet. “Where is the meeting held?”

“I will take you.” Princess Terreis hurried to the door and held it open until the rebel was outside. She then guided her new friend through the village to the meeting hut where all the bustle and gossip was located. She opened the door and let the outsider go in first then she followed next.

The meeting hut was already full of clamor as the council was at their seats, the queen at the head, and officials lining the walls. Princess Terreis and Gabrielle stole a spot along the wall and carefully listened to the opening of the meeting.

Queen Cyane stood up so that she could begin the meeting. “I called this emergency meeting because as you all know, yesterday the rebel leader, Gabrielle, had an attempt on her life. The assassin was captured and is currently locked up in a small jail hut. He has refused to say who he is and why he was attempting to assassinate Gabrielle.” She stopped to take a long breath then she continued speaking. “This morning our western patrol unit was confronted by a small band of warriors, who attacked first. Luckily there were no casualties however the patrol was given a message. I received this message and it was a demand… a threat.” She picked up the said scroll and held it up as she spoke again. “The warlord, Darphus, is demanding that we turn the Conqueror over to him or else he will attack the Nation. We have less than twenty-four candlemarks to decide before he attacks.” When she sat down, this opened the floor to everybody and anybody.

“How in the Hades did this warlord find out about the Conqueror?” hotly demanded an Amazon, who stepped away from the wall.

Queen Cyane released a sigh at Velasca’s question. “We do not know but it is obvious enough that there was a leak. Somebody in the Nation spoke about it to an outsider.”

“Maybe it was one of the outsiders here that tipped this warlord off,” argued Velasca.

“And risk my life?” Gabrielle limped forward twice then steadied a cold stare at her counterpart. “I don’t appreciate being inferred stupid, Velasca.”

“Perhaps it was that homeless child that… accidentally spoke.”

“That homeless child, Melpomene, happens to be my niece,” shot back the now angry bard. “And please inform me where in between the time from running from the Conqueror’s wrath and playing with the kids here did she tell somebody?”

Velasca growled at the outsider.

Gabrielle didn’t flinch as she’d stood up to much worse in her days. “You know, I think you’re the leak, Velasca.”

Velasca quickly reached up for her sword.

Princess Terreis jumped forward, between the pair, and her sword out already.

“Velasca,” hotly yelled the queen, “step back!” When the furious Amazon compiled, she angrily added, “Now if you two are quite finished. Let’s figure out this gods-be-damned mess.”

“I say we give them what they want,” offered Velasca, who sheathed her sword again.

“The Hades you will,” yelled Gabrielle in a fury.

Velasca turned her head to the angry rebel and pointed a finger at her. The fire was alive in her eyes more than ever. “You brought this on us! You bring your faction lies to our Nation and now we are the ones attacked because we harbor the Conqueror for your means.” Velasca turned her head to the Amazon Queen. “I say we hand her over and let them serve the Conqueror her justice!”

Gabrielle’s anger grew heavier as she opened her mouth to fight.

“We will not hand her over,” commanded a strong voice.

Velasca’s head whipped around to settle on Prince Terreis, the legendary Queen Melosa’s younger sister.

Queen Cyane’s eyes were narrowed as she carefully watched the typically quiet princess take a stance against Velasca. It was utterly fascinating to her.

“We will not demoralize ourselves, Velasca,” chewed out the princess. “The Amazons are true and strong, we always have been and we will not stray from that. We already cower before the Conqueror but now you tell us to cower before a mere warlord?” She stepped up beside Gabrielle then leveled the Amazon with cold stare. “That Amazons will stand up against this threat like all the others in the past.”

Queen Cyane dipped her head at the princess’s true words. She lifted her head then stated to Velasca. “If you have a problem with Princes Terreis’s words, Velasca then I suggest you leave.”

Velasca had been publicly defaced before the council and many of the officials. She backed away and returned to her earlier spot against the wall but her face showed she wasn’t finished.

“We should take a stand against this warlord,” started Princess Terreis. “This isn’t about the Conqueror… this is about the Nation. We can no longer hide in the shadows.”

“The Amazon Nation is already dying,” announced the only outsider, “I know because I’ve watched it die just like everybody else.” She held everybody’s attention on her. “The Amazon Nation must breathe life into itself again or else there will be nothing left but the bards’ tales about a mythological race.”

Queen Cyane stood up after the rebel leader spoke. Her jaw was clenched then relaxed as she asked, “Why did it take an outsider to see this?”

The hut filled with a loud murmur then settled down again.

“Let us come together,” announced Queen Cyane, “and take arms once again. We will not die, Amazons.” Her old strength from seasons back filled her again when the hut filled with praise for her declaration.

Gabrielle smiled and peered up at the princess.

Princess Terreis mirrored the smile, leaned over, and gratefully whispered, “Thank you, Gabrielle.”

The officials remained in the meeting hut and mapped out a strategy against the new threat. Gabrielle remained there to help some but there wasn’t much she could offer in the ways of warfare. She knew little to nothing but at least she knew of the plans. Afterwards, she quietly filed out of the hut with the princess at her side.

Princess Terreis came to a stop once she was clear of the crowd. She turned to the rebel. “What will you do, Gabrielle?”

The rebel shook her head then replied, “Stay here, of course.”

“It is dangerous,” reminded the princess. “If we are defeated… this warlord will most likely kill you and Cyrene.”

“Especially if he discovers Cyrene is the Conqueror’s mother,” murmured the bard thoughtfully. “Why does this warlord want the Conqueror?”

“I’m not completely sure,” confessed the Amazon.

Gabrielle tilted her head to the right. “Don’t you find it strange that there is a warlord in Greece?” She shook her head then reminded, “The Conqueror has killed them all… at least we all thought. She keeps the peace through all the lands.”

Princess Terreis nodded her agreement as she too considered this carefully. “It is strange.” She’d never realized that Greece was a peaceful state now that the Conqueror had forcefully united it. There were never any foreign attacks, warlords, kingdoms, or ruthless raids. “Maybe speak to the Conqueror about it, Gabrielle.” She stepped closer so that she could keep the conversation quiet. “She may know who this Darphus is.” She shook her head with a confused look. “The name seems so familiar to me.”

The rebel had already planned on this but she nodded her head. “I’ll speak to her right now actually. I’m sure she’ll know who Darphus is.” She also considered whether or not the Conqueror could provide help too especially since Darphus was adamant about having the Conqueror.

The princess clasped the outsider’s shoulder then smiled sadly. “Thank you, Gabrielle.” She squeezed the smaller shoulder. “I know you wished to become an Amazon as a child… perhaps one day you will wish that again.” Her smile grew warmer.

Gabrielle clasped the princess’s wrist then returned the smile. “Thank you, Terreis.”

The princess released Gabrielle then said, “I should go. The queen will need my help to prepare for the battle tomorrow.”

The rebel nodded. “Be careful.”

“I will catch up with you later,” promised the already moving Amazon.

Gabrielle gave a brief wave then started on her slow journey to the jail hut. When she made it, Karis opened the door then closed it after Gabrielle entered it.

Ephiny turned her head to Gabrielle then acknowledged her with a nod.

The Conqueror was silent, eyes closed, and her back ridged against the wall as she sat on the bench. She heard somebody come in and knew by the footfall and cane that it was Gabrielle. She then sensed the warm presence of the rebel taking a seat on the bench beside her.

Gabrielle knew the ruler was awake. She was slightly nervous because of earlier this morning. She clenched her left hand that was somewhat sweaty. She leaned over to the ruler, into her space, and carefully whispered, “There’s a warlord here….” She trailed off when there was no immediate reaction from the ruler. “His name is Darphus.” Gabrielle now found the usually haunted eyes of the ruler on her solely. “He… he knows you’re here and wants you.”

The Conqueror turned her head away, resting it against the wall again, and her eyes closed. “Tell them to hand me over to him.”

Gabrielle blinked, surprised by the ruler’s response, she peered up at the calm ruler. “They don’t plan on it… they’re going to fight him.”

“Stupid,” muttered the Conqueror, “they shouldn’t.”

“No,” argued Gabrielle, “No not really.” She fiddled with her cane then added, “The Amazons are tired of hiding… they didn’t become a great race by hiding.”

The Conqueror quietly agreed because she’d even known of the Amazon Nations as a child and admired them. It was those stories, from her childhood, that first drew her to them when she came back from Chin.

“You have to help, Conqueror,” gently tried the bard.

“No,” whispered the ruler, her eyes now showing again.

“These are your lands,” reminded Gabrielle, “He’s taking up arms in your realm.” She was hoping her logic worked on the ruler.

“I have no army here,” reminded the ruler, “I have no weapons.” She clenched her hands in her lap.

This caught Gabrielle’s attention and for the first time, she noticed the bleeding wrists of the ruler. She inhaled sharply as the ruler’s voice floated down to her again.

“I have nothing,” coldly stated the hollow Conqueror.

Gabrielle met the Conqueror’s inhuman stare and she knew the Conqueror had lost something. An ache developed deep in Gabrielle’s stomach and she wanted to comfort the ruler even though it was dangerous. “If… if that’s what you consider your mother now.” She saw how the Conqueror turned away.

“She has you now, Gabrielle,” murmured the ruler, “You’re who she’s always needed. I can never give her what you give her.”

“No,” tried the bard, “but you can give her back what she lost so long ago.” When hazy blue eyes turned back to her, she tilted her head to the left then gently added, “You’re always going to be her daughter in her eyes. It’s just whether or not you want to be.” She bit her lower lip as she left that conversation there. “At least tell me who this Darphus is.”

The Conqueror locked her hands together in her lap then finally answered. “He was my second in command for part of my campaign.”

“Ooo gods,” murmured the drained bard. “Of course he is and now he wants revenge for something huh?”

“Probably for a few things,” admitted the ruler. “He was in my army for the Thessaly Campaign.”

“When you took Thebes, Athens, and Corinth,” summarized the bard.

“Yes,” confirmed the Conqueror. “After I took Corinth, I found he’d raped and murdered a few women.” She paused when she saw the rebel cringe. “I have a zero tolerance for rape and murder so I killed the half a dozen men that’d joined him.”

“Obviously you didn’t kill Darphus.”

“No but I see I should have,” hotly whispered the ruler. “I submitted him to a mini gauntlet figuring if he did live it then he’d be defaced from military forever.”

“Well,” started Gabrielle, “it looks like a few people don’t mind his lack of honor.”

“So it would seem.”

The rebel leader was silent then inquired, “Does he have any weak spots?”

The Conqueror grunted then mildly joked, “Women.” Then a faint glint returned in her eyes as she coldly stated, “And me.”

Gabrielle let out a sigh then got up knowing that was all she was going to get out of the ruler.

“Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle stopped and faced the Conqueror.

“You, Cyrene,… and Melpomene should go back to Corinth.”

Gabrielle understood the Conqueror’s underlining meaning and she was remotely shocked by it too. She kept strong though and stated, “I know when to flee and I know when not to flee.” She paused then defiantly stated, “This is a time not to flee.” She turned and found the door already open for her so she left.

She finally made it back to the hut to find that Cyrene and Melpomene had returned too. Cyrene was resting in a chair with Melpomene on her lap, telling her some stories. She stopped though when Gabrielle entered and she immediately knew something was wrong. She’d heard that there was a warlord just outside the Nation’s borders but that was all she’d overheard.

“What’s happening, Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle glanced at the silent girl in Cyrene’s lap then back up to Cyrene. “A warlord is here… looking for the Conqueror.”

Cyrene sighed then shook her head. “How did this happen?”

Gabrielle came over and sat in the chair across from the small table. “Nobody is sure but there was some leak… word got out that she’s here.”

“Well obviously it was some Amazon in the Nation that let it out.”

The rebel nodded then stated, “Some think it was us.”

Cyrene grunted. “We’re not that stupid.”

“That’s what I said too,” agreed the rebel. “The Amazons plan to fight him.”

“Who is he?” asked the mother.

Gabrielle leaned back and settled her cane onto the table. “His name is Darphus… he was the Conqueror’s second in command for the Thessaly Campaign.”

“What happened?” spoke up Melpomene. “Why’s he want the Conqueror?”

The bard bit the inside of her lip then answered the questions. “The Conqueror got rid of him for doing some things in her army. He wants her so he can have revenge.”

Melpomene frowned then stated the obvious, “To kill her.”

Cyrene pulled the girl closer against her body then she turned to Gabrielle. “Did you tell Xena?”

Gabrielle nodded. “She’s….” She shook her head then stared down at her hands. “I don’t know, Cyrene.” She looked up at her mother again. “Do you want to return to Corinth? Janice and Melinda would keep you safe.”

Cyrene’s eyes narrowed. “What do you plan to do?”

“Stay here,” answered the bard. “I have a trial to finish.” Plus she wanted to keep eye on the Conqueror.

Cyrene felt a sense of fear about leaving Gabrielle and her daughter here. She’d backed away from so many fights before in her life and never supported any of them. She’d lost children over this in her past. She finally shook her head then stated, “I plan to stay.” She then peered down at the girl in her arms. “You however,” she said while squeezing Melpomene, “Are going back to Corinth.”

“I am not,” declared the defiant child. “I won’t leave… not again.” She slipped out of Cyrene’s lap and stood to face her protective family. “I won’t keep running… you can’t make me go.”

Cyrene glanced over at Gabrielle with a sad grin on her face.

Gabrielle huffed at the mocking expression on Cyrene’s face. She remembered when she’d said very similar words as a kid too. She sighed then patted her lap. “Come here, Melpomene.”

The girl came over and was lifted into her aunt’s lap. “You won’t make me go, right?”

“You can stay as long as you listen to whatever Cyrene or I tell you.” Gabrielle curiously studied the girl’s bright eyes. “If we have to run then we have to run, okay?”

Melpomene nodded her head several times. “Okay… I promise.”

“Alright.” Gabrielle hugged the child then relaxed back in the chair.

“Can’t Melinda help?” tried Cyrene.

The bard sighed then answered, “I don’t think I could get word to her soon enough. Darphus plans to attack tomorrow… at some time. He’s given us twenty-four candlemark notice.”

“Even if she heard today,” murmured Cyrene, “it would take a legion at least twenty-four candlemarks to march this way.”

Gabrielle sadly nodded.

“How big is Darphus’s army?” probed the mother.

“I’m not sure,” confessed the bard, “I think the Amazons are doing some reconnaissance to see.” Just as she was about to add more there was a loud alarm in the village and yelling broke out.

Cyrene jumped up and raced to the door, throwing it open.

Gabrielle was just as frantic and once Melpomene was out of her lap, she tried to hurry over with her slow limp. “What is it?”

Cyrene shook her head, her eyes wide, and she watched as many Amazons raced around and formed a lump in one area. “I don’t know.”

“Stay here,” ordered Gabrielle. She slipped out of the door and tried to hastily make her way to the problem. She saw the gates opening and the yelling increased rapidly as she grew closer. She was coming up to the gates when she saw the healer, Eilis, was racing across the grounds. “Oh gods,” she whispered in fear.

“Hurry, hurry! We need to get her to the healer’s hut.”

Gabrielle picked up the distinct voice of Eponin. She came up to the crowd of Amazons then it broke open. Four Amazons were hastily carrying an unconscious, bleeding queen towards the healer’s hut.

Eilis came through last and was yelling at the weapons master.

Eponin was at the front, carrying Queen Cyane’s upper body weight. “We were surprised attacked in the forest!”

“Just the one wound?” called Eilis.

Eponin glanced back at the rushing healer. “Yes, in her shoulder.”

Gabrielle stared wide eye at the arrow protruding from the raggedly breathing queen’s left shoulder.

Eilis suddenly broke running again back to her healing hut to prepare things for the queen’s arrival.

Gabrielle covered her mouth to hold back her gasp. She then ran her hand through her hair and just then an Amazon broke through the masses and came up to her side.

The bard looked up at the princess. “What happened?” she rasped.

“The queen, Eponin, and I were working on traps in the forest for battle. We were jumped and there was an archer in the trees.” The princess swallowed hard then whispered, “That arrow was meant for me.” She closed her eyes then carefully added, “Cyane pushed me out of the way… saved my life. Now she’s going to die.”

“You don’t know that,” came out the bard’s convicting voice. “Let’s go see to her.” She grabbed the princess’s hand and pulled her along.

Princess Terreis hastily hurried along as her fears for the queen’s life were high. She and Gabrielle found themselves waiting inside the healer’s hut. Gabrielle sat while she paced back and forth. The door to the room that Cyane and Eilis were located was closed tight. In the waiting area, Eponin also remained and she hadn’t bothered to wash her hands yet that were still covered in the queen’s dried blood.

It was a solid candlemark before Eilis emerged, her two assistance remained in the room with the queen. She approached the waiting and worried women then quietly stated, “She’s still alive… barely.”

The princess came closer to the healer as did Eponin. “Will she live?”

Eilis clenched her bloody hands then softly replied, “It is too early to tell yet.” She sighed then honestly stated, “These next two days are important. She will remain here.”

Gabrielle got up then came over while asking, “She’s going to go through a fever?”

“Yes,” answered the surprised healer. “These next days are crucial.”

“If she can survive a gods-be-damned tree limb through her stomach she can handle a damn arrow,” growled the weapons master.

“It is all in a human’s will,” reminded the healer. “You may go in to see her but please stay quiet.”

“Thank you, Eilis,” offered the princess.

“Don’t thank me yet,” argued the healer, who walked away to get cleaned up.

The two Amazons and outsider silently entered the room that was dimly lit by the various candles and the window having been covered by a matt.

The assistant healers were monitoring the queen. One would occasionally dip a cloth in cool water then put it against the queen’s perspiring forehead.

The queen’s skin was pale, her body still other than the reliable rise and fall of her chest. Her left shoulder was wrapped but the wrap was already tainted red. Her leather top had been removed so Eilis could work easier but now a light blanket cover her body mostly except for the wound.

Princess Terreis was feeling emotional at realizing it should be her on the pallet and not the queen.

Gabrielle detected the princess’s distraught so she came closer. She grasped the princess’s forearm and gave a reassuring squeeze.

Terreis sadly smiled at her friend for the comfort. She turned back to the wounded queen. She quickly realized that she was now in charge of the Amazon Nation while Cyane was in this state. The realization that she was now in command suddenly weakened her in the knees.

Gabrielle felt the princess falter so she now slipped her arm around the princess’s waist rather discreetly.

Princess Terreis felt relief for this support not that she leaned on Gabrielle too much but that somebody cared. She knew there was a lot that rested ahead of her and Queen Cyane.

After the visit, they quietly filed out of the room and then out of the hut.

The weapons master turned to the princess. “Princess, you are now-”

“I know, Eponin,” agreed the princess.

The bard’s face flooded with realization now too. “You’re in command,” she whispered.

Princess Terreis sadly nodded.

Gabrielle showed a smile of assurance. “Terreis, you can do this.”

“Gabrielle is right,” broke in Eponin, “you have been well trained by the best two queens.”

“I’m afraid I am not my sister, Eponin.”

The weapons master shook her head then stepped closer. “Queen Melosa is gone; I acknowledge her memory every day.” She clasped her hands onto the princess’s shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “You are Terreis and you are an Amazon. I believe in your leadership, princess.”

Princess Terreis nodded then smiled at the confident weapons master. She knew that was a lot coming from Eponin. “Thank you, Eponin.”

“We must finish preparing.” The Amazon released the princess.

“You’re right,” agreed the princess then she turned to Gabrielle. “I need to finish getting the Nation ready for the battle.”

“I understand,” agreed the bard. “Cyrene, Melpomene, and I plan to stay.”

Princess Terreis was surprised by the resolve from the outsiders but she greatly admired it. “What of the Conqueror?”

Gabrielle noticed that the weapons master was carefully listening in on the conversation. “She won’t help… she did tell me who Darphus is.” At seeing the keen interest of the two Amazons, she explained the warlord’s history with the Conqueror.

Eponin huffed then muttered, “That figures.”

“It doesn’t matter right now,” broke in the princess, “as we need to get prepared.”

Eponin consented readily.

“I will catch up with you this evening, Gabrielle.” The princess then nodded at Eponin for her to follow.

Gabrielle watched the Amazons go then she let out a sad sigh as nothing seemed to be working out right. She pulled herself together and headed back for the hut to tell Cyrene the news. She remained in the hut most of remaining afternoon and worked up a message to be sent out to Melinda about the news. She could only pray it would reach Melinda at all. After she finished it she, Cyrene, and Melpomene went to have an early dinner. Gabrielle also made sure to get her message sent out, which she was happy to hear it could still be sent out.

The outsiders ate together quietly and near the end the princess showed up looking for the rebel leader. She requested that Gabrielle spend time with her, which Gabrielle easily agreed upon. Gabrielle said goodnight to Cyrene and her adopted niece then when they were gone, she focused on the princess.

Princess Terreis sat down since she saw not many Amazons were in the food hut anyway. She was relieved for that too. “Gabrielle, this will be a very bloody battle tomorrow.” She steadied herself as a much defined number came to her lips. “Darphus has an army of five hundred.”

Gabrielle was really surprised as she thought the Conqueror would have heard of such a decent size army composing in her realm. “The Nation is three hundred strong.”

“Yes,” agreed the princess, “but we are prepared so we stand a chance.”

“How could he have created such an army so fast?”

“I don’t know but I don’t plan to ask until I have him.” Princess Terreis sighed and laced her hands together on top of the table. “I want you to remain in the healer’s hut… with the queen. There will be two guards that’ll stay behind.”

Gabrielle sighed but she relented with positive head agreement. “I understand.”

“The Conqueror’s guards will remain with her,” further explained the princess, “as I am too afraid if she can escape that she will do so.”

The bard’s jaw clenched then relaxed. “Why not place her in the healer’s hut with us?”

“I am not taking that risk with the queen mortally wounded. She may take a shot at the queen.”

Gabrielle knew she couldn’t sway the princess’s decision so she slowly gave in. “Alright.” She sighed some then shook her head at the situation.

“The two guards that I have instructed to protect you at the healer’s hut also have been given an escape plan.” The princess leaned forward then quietly explained it to Gabrielle. “If it so happens we look like we’re going to be defeated the guards will hear word. You, Cyrene, Melpomene, and the queen will be taken to safety. There will be a wagon with horses prepared to go and Eilis will be there too… she cannot leave the queen’s side.”

“What about the Conqueror?” argued the bard.

The princess grasped the bard’s hand across the table. “There’s no reason to save her, Gabrielle.”

“The Hades there is,” argued the bard, “if you let her die then there’s no doubt that Darphus will put her head on a pike. Then he will march to Corinth and demand her throne.”

Princess Terreis sighed then gently reminded, “And Melinda will be there to meet him head on. She will easily defeat him.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed as the plans were clearly mapped out in her mind, no matter the defeat or success of the Amazon Nation. “Terreis, you can’t do this to Melinda and Janice. This is not their world… their home.” She pointed in the general direction of Corinth. “That is not their lives.”

The Amazon leaned forward. “But it can become their lives, Gabrielle. Melinda can finally make the Conqueror the greatest ruler known in human history.” She grabbed both of the bard’s hands into hers.

“No,” refused the rebel, “you can’t put them into that position.”

“They already are,” reminded the princess. “You know the costs of the Greater Good, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle hung her head and shook it as she whispered, “We can’t do this to them.”

“The Conqueror will not change, Gabrielle.” Terreis released her friend’s hands then dipped her head some to look up at the bard. “I know you think she will but you have to face the reality of things. If she was going to change she would have done it so long ago. That time has long expired for her.” The princess saw the stricken features of the rebel and it upset her just as much. “Gabrielle, listen to me. She had a chance to redeem herself to the Nation and she threw it away… just today.”

Gabrielle lifted her head, her face knotted by confused. “How?”

“The Conqueror knows more about Amazon law than ten Amazons put together.” Princess Terreis saw the surprise written all over Gabrielle’s face. “She’s studied us inside and out. She could have easily defended herself at her trial because she knows everything.” She paused as she compiled her next thoughts to share. “She also knows that if she fought beside us against Darphus that it would help her yet she refuses to do so.”

“By the gods,” whispered the stricken bard.

“How can you expect her to change when she won’t even help herself?” logically questioned the princess. “If she’d agreed to help, I would have refused it but saw to her safety.”

Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair and stared at the table space between her and the princess. “She won’t even fight to protect Cyrene,” she murmured then leaned her forehead against her hand as the truth struck her in the stomach.

Terreis swallowed against the forming lump in her throat. “I know you don’t want to give up on her but you can’t help somebody that won’t even help themselves, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle licked her dry lips and her burning eyes lifted to Terreis. “What should we do if the Nation is defeated?”

The princess understood the subtle agreement the rebel was making with her and it upset her even though it was what she’d wanted. “You are to return to Corinth. I am sure Melinda and Janice will care for you. My hope is that the queen will recover and she can rebuild the Nation.” She then tilted her head then carefully added, “Maybe Melinda, as the Conqueror, can help the Nation be revived.”

“You can’t sacrifice the Nation like this,” argued the bard.

“I’m not sacrificing the Nation.” Princess Terreis inhaled until her chest was full then slowly explained things. “You were right about what you said about the Amazons. If we die, we will die with our honor and be remembered for our greatness otherwise we could never join our sisters in the Amazon Eternity. For us to cross into Eternity we must go through the gates in the Land of the Dead. Our holy word is Courage, Gabrielle… there is nothing stronger than courage.”

The rebel leader completely understood the princess’s determination and code as she’d follow much the same thing all her life. Before she could process everything, an unknown Amazon hurried up to the table.

“My princess, the queen is awake and has requested for you. You must come quickly.”

Princess Terreis hastily jumped up.

“Go ahead,” ordered Gabrielle, “I’ll catch up.”

The Amazon Princess nodded then hurried off with the Amazon. She made it to the healer’s hut quickly after her sprint. She bounded up the steps but silently slipped into the candlelit room of the queen’s.

“Terreis?” softly called the queen.

Princess Terreis hurried up to the side of the pallet as a healer Amazon moved out of the way for her. She collected the queen’s hand and was relieved to see the queen looking up at her. “Cyane, I can’t believe you’re awake. How do you feel?”

“Like I got shot by an arrow,” weakly joked the queen. She laced her hand through Terreis’s and held tightly. “How does it look?”

“Like you got shot by an arrow,” tried to joke the emotional princess.

The queen smiled at the princess’s attempt at humor. She closed her eyes briefly when the healer on the other side put a cool, wet cloth to her forehead. The feeling was welcoming but she opened her eyes again to the princess. “Did you finish the traps?”

“Everything is ready,” promise the princess. “The warriors are prepared.”

“How big?” urged the weak queen.

“Five hundred, my queen.”

Cyane’s upper lip rolled up some then she relaxed. “We have skilled warriors.”

“All of them,” softly agreed Terreis, “We will not fail… no matter the outcome.”

“You will not,” agreed the queen, “I have confidence in you, Terreis.”

The princess shook her head then whispered, “I do not have the same, Cyane.”

“Listen to me, Terreis… and listen carefully.” Cyane took a few deep, rapid breathes then brought on all her strength for her next words. “Since Melosa and my Nation have joined, I have looked to you as my sister… my sister I’ve always wanted but you are still Melosa’s sister.”

“I am not Melosa though,” softly argued the princess, “I am not as great as her or even you, Cyane.”

“I will tell you a little secret, Terreis. Greatness does not come from your skills or abilities it comes from here.” She placed her left hand on her chest, over her heart, which caused her to wince in pain. “You fight with your heart, you lead with your heart… you are great then.” She lowered her hand to her cover stomach again. “I can only lead from my heart… I can no longer fight from my heart but you can do both, Terreis.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I know because I’ve been watching you over these seasons, Terreis.” Cyane saw how the young princess was so captivated by her and was holding onto her words. “You are the Legacy of Melosa and it is your time, Princess Terreis.”

“It’s not my time,” argued the princess, “it is still your time, Cyane.”

Cyane’s grip on Terreis’s hand tightened greatly. “Even if I live through this my rein has come to an end, Terreis. I have kept the Nation safe all these seasons but it is time for the Nation to live again. I cannot do this but you can.” She lifted their linked hands and pressed them against Terreis’s chest. “Your time is now, Terreis and you must take it.”

Princess Terreis closed her eyes as her surging emotions settled some then she nodded as her eyes opened. “I will, my queen.” She held her grip strong to the queen’s hand.

Cyane nodded then smiled at the proud princess. “Now go lead your Nation, princess. I will be waiting for your return.”

Terreis lifted her and the queen’s hands and placed a kiss to the queen’s hand. She released Cyane’s hand then quietly left so that Cyane could rest.

Cyane relaxed against into the pallet and her features softened considerably as she closed her eyes. All her strength was spent and her restless sleep easily claimed her.

Gabrielle climbed to her weak feet when Terreis came out of the room. “How is she?”

“Very weak,” admitted the princess, “which is to be expected. She’s resting now.”

Gabrielle nodded her head then limped over to the Amazon Princess. “Are you ready for this, Terreis?”

The princess touched the bard’s closest arm then confidently replied, “Yes.”

Gabrielle now smiled at the new determination she saw in her friend. “We are twice armed if we fight with faith.”

Terreis smiled softly now then murmured, “Plato.”

“A wise Greek philosopher,” agreed the bard. “I think he had something on that idea.”

“I think so too,” agreed the Amazon. “And I think we’ll prove it tomorrow.”

Gabrielle truly admired the Amazon Princess that held so much strength. It was refreshing and made her just as confident but some place in her was still hurting about the Conqueror. Princess Terreis was certainly right about one thing above all and that was that Gabrielle would not give up on the Conqueror.

 

Continued in Chapter 16

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