DISCLAIMERS: Part 1
SUBTEXT: Closer and closer to maintext. :)
THANKS to my beta readers CAS, Slaw & Extra! You guys are great! :)
FEEDBACK: Thanks to all of you who have given feedback so far. Please continue. Send me a note at email@example.com
The warmth of the sun did nothing to soothe Ria's nerves as she sat on the patio, waiting for word. It had become a ritual since the queen had left for foreign shores. The palace had become such a quiet and lonely place in such a short span of time. It was a testament as to how much a part of this place Queen Gabrielle and Prince Orion were.
She spotted a young boy running up the path. It was Duncan, the Royal Messenger. The woman rose and stepped down to the cobblestone walkway, meeting Duncan part way.
"Good news, I hope," she called out with a hesitant smile.
"I'm afraid not," the boy said as he slowed to a walk and caught his breath. "Ships have been spotted less than a day's sail from here. Roman. Most likely sent by the Conqueror."
"By the gods," Ria gasped. "Her Majesty and the prince?"
The glum face glanced down at the pathway. "No word."
Gabrielle found herself in a quiet room, waiting for the Conqueror. As soon as it became clear that Phantasia was the target of Brutus' fleet, she was ushered out by Marcus and was asked to wait in this small room.
Small being a relative term. Compared to the Grand Hall, this seemed like a box. However, it was a nice sized office with a large mahogany desk against one wall. There was also an ornately carved table, just large enough to seat four, on the far wall. The table sat under oversized windows, that looked out onto the gardens. A chair, couch and floor pillows circled the front of the fireplace on the right wall. The hearth's stones reached floor to ceiling. Normally, Gabrielle would have found the red velvet couch comfortable, but comfort was the farthest thing from her mind.
Thoughts whirled through the queen's mind as she rose and began pacing in front of the windows. Her country was in danger and she was stuck in this palace. Did they know what was coming? Had the scouts spotted any ships yet? Was Gallus prepared? They needed to get their fleet out into the Aegean Sea. If they could keep the fighting in the ocean and avoid a land war, innocent lives would be spared.
Abruptly, the queen stopped her pacing. There is nothing I can do from here. I must get back home. Home. Green eyes closed tight as thoughts of home filtered through her. The smell of the sea air, the beauty of the mountains... well, the people of Phantasia proudly called them mountains, but those who lived in true mountain ranges would consider them large hills.
A smile formed on her lips as Gabrielle pictured a day not so very long ago when she brought Orion up to his favorite spot, overlooking the sea. They laughed and played all day. What she wouldn't give...
The queen straightened as her resolve to return with her son and protect her homeland began to rise. No one, not even the Conqueror herself would stop Gabrielle from defending Phantasia.
The door opened and in strode the very woman that occupied her most recent thought. Xena had been in counsel with Iolaus and Marcus for over an hour. It had not been her intention to keep the queen waiting that long, but she needed to make sure that her men were on the same page and that everything would be prepared. Time was quickly becoming of the essence.
Confidence exuded from the Ruler of the Known World as she purposefully strode across the room to where the young woman was standing.
"My apologies for keeping you waiting."
Gabrielle was about to give a retort about being kept waiting, when Xena's words suddenly registered. With a nod, she accepted the apology. She did apologize, right? The Conqueror apologized to me, her prisoner? The queen filed that away for later contemplation, as the tall woman motioned for her to be seated at the table.
"I've been in councel with my top officers. I trust them with my life, which is saying a lot." This was said with a wry grin. "They agree, we need to get to Phantasia, immediately. We'll send word ahead for them to expect us."
"They won't believe you," the queen stated without hesitation. Did she even believe this woman? There was so much to digest.
"I know. We'll have to deal with that when the time comes. If you have any suggestions, I'm open to them. I'm calling my personal fleet into service to protect your island."
My island? There was a voice, deep inside her, telling Gabrielle to trust this woman, but common sense reminded her that this was the Destroyer of Nations. For all she knew, this entire event was a set-up.
"Why?" The queen didn't know why she bothered to ask. She didn't even know if she would believe any answer Xena could give.
"You don't trust me." It was a statement, not a question. "I don't blame you. I wouldn't trust me if I were in your place."
Why indeed? Xena had definitely surprised Iolaus, that she knew. But thinking about it afterward, she realized that it was a pleasant surprise. Her Second had grown accustomed to life as a leader. Not a Conqueror, she mused, and then found that she agreed.
And Marcus? When Xena gave it some thought, she realized that the last few years had really mellowed her sometime-lover. He was a warm and caring man, who had let his anger as a youth get the best of him. It was that anger that Xena had used and exploited.
And this queen and her child... Initially, the Conqueror had an agenda and knew what had to be done to get what she wanted. So, why hadn't she followed through? That island would have been hers by now and dealing with Brutus' advances would be much simpler. There would be no worries about this queen or her people doing what was ordered. For that matter, why was Xena worried about that now? She should simply go there, give the orders, and kill whoever didn't obey her. I can't. The thought reverberated through her mind. Why can't I? The answer was complicated, yet so very simple.
I can't hurt them.
Gabrielle watched the emotions play out in the blue eyes before her. It was only a moment but in that moment she was able to read volumes. For reasons incomprehensible to the young queen, this woman, this ruler who was feared by all, wanted to help. Not conquer, not destroy, but help to protect Phantasia. It was all very clear... then, the moment was gone.
"Look, this is the way it needs to be done. You have no choice but to do as I say," she knew those words were a mistake the instant she said them, but damn it... "Time is running out!" Xena didn't mean to bark at the woman but she was getting frustrated.
Green eyes narrowed, boring a hole into the Conqueror. "I will NOT take orders from you. You have not signed the treaty so there is no way I will allow you to set foot on Phantasia. My army will be ready for whatever needs to be done, make no mistake." Gabrielle's voice rose as the anger over everything that had transpired this past week and what was happening now climbed to the surface.
Ice blue eyes narrowed and the tall form rose from her seat and loomed over the table. A slight internal tremor ran through the young queen as she took in the sight of the Destroyer Of Nations. Power, strength, and domination exuded from the person before her. Gabrielle had no doubts as to how Xena had become the Conqueror.
The low and dangerous voice rumbled, "Your island will be destroyed in 24 hours. If you have no wish to save it, then so be it."
Xena turned and marched to the door with a confident stride. Inside, she was in complete turmoil. She knew there was no reason for Gabrielle to trust her, but she also knew that Phantasia would fall into ruins if the queen did not allow her to help. Allow? Where in Tartarus was that coming from?
The Conqueror did not understand these feelings. Her rage at being told, in no uncertain terms, that her help was not wanted, stemmed from a deep and powerful hurt. All she wanted to do, from the moment she knew this woman's island was in peril, was to protect her. Xena abruptly stopped in front of the door. That's it, isn't it?
The thought paralyzed her. The Destroyer of Nations, wanted to keep this woman safe from harm - to protect her. She took a deep, cleansing breath and allowed all the emotions to wash over her. When was the last time she had felt such a need to protect anyone or anything? The answer was clear - Lyceus, her mother, Amphipolis. It's what led her down the path of destruction. No, she realized, it was the rejection of the people she had tried to protect, and the hate in her mother's eyes after her brother's death. Those were the things that led to her rampage over all the lands of the Known World.
Gabrielle had to will herself not to shake. So many emotions were whirling through her that it was hard to control her body's reactions. Despite her best efforts, her hands began to tremble and her eyes began to water. There was no way out - no way for her to warn her people. If she did not take the Conqueror's help, her people and her country may be destroyed. There were too many ships. Even if they spotted the Romans in time they would not be able to defend against so many. What do I do?
The queen was at a loss, and found herself feeling completely helpless. She berated herself. Don't let pride get in your way, Gabrielle. Is it worth all that will be lost? Let the Conqueror help, then deal with the consequences later. What those consequences would be, she did not pretend to know.
There had come a point when the queen had felt that she was making some head-way with the Conqueror. She really believed a treaty may be possible. This woman, this killer, had shown every mercy, when in fact she could have killed Gabrielle and Orion, and been done with it. The question of why she hadn't was always in the back of the queen's mind.
She needed to trust Xena, for her people's sake. I do trust her. The thought came and went before Gabrielle could stop it. Yet, she was unsure why. The queen tended to trust her instincts, and deep down, below the common sense and logic of the circumstances, Gabrielle trusted that Xena truly wanted to help her - to help Phantasia. Why? Does it matter? No, what mattered was saving Phantasia. With that decision made, the queen stood and took a step to follow the Conqueror, only to notice Xena's abrupt halt at the door.
Seconds ticked by before the Conqueror turned to face the queen. Their eyes locked and both women wanted to speak, but couldn't. Finally, Xena's lips parted and she said the two words that would make her more vulnerable than she had felt in years.
In that moment, Gabrielle saw pain and vulnerability in the eyes of the tall form across the room. No longer was she looking into the eyes of the Conqueror, but those of Xena - the woman. Her heart leapt to her throat.
Leaning over the railing, Gabrielle saw several dolphins swim by. If her stomach wasn't so queasy she would have smiled. Boats - why must I always travel on water? Because you live on an island, Gabrielle. They'd been enroute for several hours, and would be meeting up with Phantasia's flag ship soon.
The last six hours had been filled with crises, dilemmas, plans and strategies. Once it was determined that the queen and Conqueror were going to work together, things began to fall in place. Messages were sent ahead, with the queen's seal, to officers in the Royal Navy, along with messages for Gallus and the Royal Guard.
Several personal messages were able to be sent when Gabrielle spotted a servant in the palace, who was in fact from Phantasia. Mara was the one who had been relaying information to Eponin all along. Eponin, in turn would report to Ephiny. The queen could only imagine her Captain's reaction to her note. In it, Gabrielle told Ephiny the abbreviated version of the events of the past week, plus how the Conqueror was going to help defend Phantasia from the Romans.
To everyone's amazement, the teaming of the Conqueror and the Queen of Phantasia quickly became almost natural. Gabrielle was forced to admit to herself that, in the business of defending their lands, they made a perfect pair. The queen had also been a bit shocked when Xena complimented her abilities.
"That won't work," Gabrielle had stated from the other side of the table.
"What do you mean, that won't work," came the sharp retort.
"Look," the queen moved to stand next to the Conqueror, who was leaning over a map laid out in front of her. Gabrielle proceeded to point out a critical flaw in the plan.
Xena listened intently, then with a grunt, nodded her head and began barking new orders to her officers.
"You," Xena began as she turned to face Gabrielle, "have the makings of an exceptional strategist."
The queen had been taken aback, never having expected a compliment from the Conqueror. For the following two hours, they had set everything into motion and were prepared to leave Corinth. However, Gabrielle first had to tell her son she was leaving him behind.
It was one of the hardest decisions Gabrielle ever had to make. She had argued with Xena over it, but finally admitted that Orion would be safer in the Conqueror's palace, rather than on Phantasia.
Orion was all smiles when he had walked into the Conqueror's office and saw his mother sitting by the fireplace. He ran to her and was immediately engulfed in a warm hug.
What surprised Gabrielle was the familiar way her son interacted to the Conqueror when he spotted her standing off to the side.
"Hello, Xena," the child called out.
"Hello, Orion," Xena responded with a smile.
"Mother, have you seen the big tap...tapis...tap -"
"Tapestries," Orion's mother provided.
"Yes, that's them," the boy's voice became louder with excitement. "They're sooooo tall, even taller than Xena, and they have drawings on them, and they tell different stories, and Xena told me one this morning, and it was about the Persians..."
Orion continued with all the exuberance of, well, a four-year-old, to tell how Xena had let him sit at her desk and play in the Grand Hall, and simply share how much fun he had this morning. The queen looked up and caught the tall woman smiling down at the child. A contradiction, that's what this woman is, Gabrielle thought.
The boy finished and was lifted onto his mother's lap. "Orion, listen, I'm going away for a few days," she began. The prince started to protest but was gently hushed, "Sweetheart, Xena and I have some business to take care of, and we'll be back before you know it. So, I need you to be a good boy for Uncle Sal. Will you promise me that?"
The prince looked back and forth between his mother and Xena. His small hands clasped the necklace that his mother always wore and began gently twisting and tugging it. "Can't I come with you, Mama? I'll be good. Maybe I can help."
Gabrielle kissed her son on the forehead and began explaining that he needed to stay, when suddenly Xena was kneeling at their side.
"Your Highness, may I be completely honest with you," she asked. When Orion
shook his head Xena continued, "I need someone to stay here and make sure everything
runs smoothly. You know, your Uncle Sal is a good man, but he's getting old and I think he
could really use your help." The prince pondered this for a moment, while the queen,
touched by the Conqueror's words, was suppressing both tears and laughter.
"I guess I could help him. If you really need me to," the four-year-old put his chin up, "I'll take care of everything, Xena." Both women smiled at the child. Orion turned back to the Conqueror, "And you'll take care of Mama, right?"
Blue eyes stole a glance at the blonde woman, seated on the couch, then back at the prince. Xena stated with all sincerity, "I promise to take care of your mother and bring her back to you, safe and sound." There was no doubt to the mother, child or Xena herself that she meant every word.
The mid-day sun was shining and there was not a cloud in the sky. A perfect day to be out on the ocean. However, the young queen felt differently. Gabrielle's stomach had pulled her out of her reverie and her face began to turn a few shades of green, when a hand reached out and took hold of the queen's wrist. As the hand tapped on a pressure point, Gabrielle's stomach calmed. Looking up in amazement, the queen gave a heartfelt thank you to the tall woman.
"Gabrielle, why didn't you tell me you got seasick?"
"How was I supposed to know you had a cure," the queen retorted.
An eyebrow rose, "I have many skills."
Xena proceeded to teach the queen about the pressure point on the wrist and just how to tap it to alleviate the nausea. The taller woman watched as Gabrielle's color returned and a smile brightened the queen's face. Xena decided that she really liked that smile and wanted to see it more often. Then the gravity of their situation set in and the Conqueror's own smile disappeared, as she turned and looked out to the horizon.
The idea that she could actually enjoy an ocean voyage astounded and delighted the queen. She made sure that she paid close attention to the way Xena manipulated her wrist. The relief she felt was so wonderful she knew that she was grinning from ear to ear, but when she looked up she saw the Conqueror grow serious and turn away.
"Xena, what's wrong?" Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand on the tall woman's arm.
Xena smiled to herself. That's twice she's referred to me by name.
She turned her gaze to the queen. "You have to ask?" Xena also took note of the hand that remained on her arm. She didn't understand why it felt - how could she describe the feeling? It simply felt right.
Gabrielle drew her hand back and looked out at the water. She had actually, just for a moment, forgotten why they were there.
"I almost forgot," she responded in a solemn tone. How could I do that?
"You're not used to war." The Conqueror answered the queen's unspoken question. "You've been through war, yes, but it hasn't consumed you. You've never felt the battle lust. The rage. The hate. Kill or be killed," she said with a far off look.
"I've never killed anyone before. I would never want to." Gabrielle turned away and looked out to the vastness of the ocean. She thought of Kyros. "Yes, I know of war. There are other ways to end conflicts. War, rage, hate... it's a vicious cycle."
Xena gave a compassionate smile. The innocence. No, not innocence. This woman had indeed seen much in her life. It's something else. Goodness... compassion... a reverence for life that the Conqueror rarely saw and hadn't felt in a long while. She could barely remember a time when she didn't live by the sword. All the pain and hatred that had consumed her for so long, had only just begun to fade. Xena recently felt that she was getting soft, but in truth some of the hate had disappeared. And this past week...
"I hope you never find out what it's like to take a life, Gabrielle." There was a catch in the tall woman's throat that caused the queen to turn and face her. "It changes everything." Blue eyes met green. "Everything."
They held each other's gaze for a moment and then both women turned and stared out onto the horizon.
To say that Ephiny was not happy was an understatement. When she received Gabrielle's message she ranted and raved as Eponin and Solari broke camp.
Now here she was, standing on Phantasia's flag ship, waiting for her queen and the Conqueror. There is something wrong here. This is not anything I would expect from the Conqueror. It's just not her style. Something is not right. Ephiny looked down at the parchment with the broken seal. Gabrielle's note. It's her seal, her writing... I just don't get it. As she looked up, she realized she would get some answers soon. She could just see the outline of a ship on the horizon. The Conqueror.
Brutus looked out to the raging sea. The winds had picked up and now he could see it, the storm that was heading straight for them. Behind him, men were barking out orders and organized chaos reined supreme.
The plan was so simple. He would take Phantasia, give it to the Conqueror, thereby winning her favor. This would fortify his reputation as a great leader and warrior. A necessity for one who has aspirations of moving up in the world.
By the gods, this is no time to be delayed by a storm.
"Welcome aboard, Your Majesty." Captain Artilla bowed his head to the queen.
"Captain, it's good to be aboard." The queen smiled and turned to introduce the Conqueror. Although Artilla was leery of the situation, he trusted his queen. He inclined his head to the Conqueror, and she returned the small gesture of respect.
"Your Majesty." Ephiny stepped up and bowed, all the while keeping a peripheral eye on the Conqueror.
"Ephiny!" Gabrielle couldn't help herself. In fact she made no attempt to stop. She rushed over and hugged her friend. Xena looked to the display of affection with great interest. The joy in the queen's voice and the smile on her face upon seeing this woman, this... Amazon. Xena pushed that thought aside as she was called out of her reverie by Gabrielle's introductions.
The two warriors, Amazon and Conqueror, took stock of one another. Both reached out at the same time and gave each other a warrior's hand shake.
"Captain, we need to go over some things," Gabrielle said, gesturing Artilla over to the port side. Before the queen could continue, the Conqueror stepped between them.
"It looks like a storm is coming."
The Captain shook his head as he turned to look out toward his homeland. "Aye, that there is."
"Will it reach us before the Romans do," the queen asked.
"By the looks of it, we may luck out and they'll get caught in the middle of it," the Captain told his queen.
"Or, if the winds shift we'll be the ones to get caught in it," Xena added. "We'd better head for land."
The queen turned and peered up at the Conqueror. "You want to go to Phantasia?"
"No!" Ephiny responded much too quickly and loudly. All eyes turned to her and the Amazon found herself subjected to unaccustomed scrutiny. She inclined her head respectfully to her queen, "Forgive me, Your Majesty."
It was true that Ephiny and Gabrielle were friends. However, Gabrielle was still the Queen of Phantasia and Ephiny was the Captain of the Royal Guard. The Amazon never crossed the line in front of others. Her respect for her queen and adopted country would not allow her to.
So here she stood, in front of not only her queen, but the Conqueror. A woman who was feared the world over. The same woman who kidnapped the prince, imprisoned the queen and now had an armada on its way to Phantasia's waters. And I choose now to disrespect my queen? Ephiny internally berated herself.
"It's all right, Ephiny. Your objection is duly noted." The words were on the stern side, but as she looked into the eyes of her queen, Ephiny saw that her friend understood.
Xena watched the display. Her right hand twitched, for her first instinct was to give the insolent woman a taste of her fist. Fortunately, the years had given her increasing control over her temper.
Gabrielle turned to the ship's Captain, "Take us to the west port."
"I want to keep my fleet away from the storm," Xena was in full crisis mode, methodically going over scenarios and plans in her head. "If I move the fleet around the island from the west side then they can get behind the storm." She moved with Gabrielle to midship. "If all goes well they can be on the other side to greet Brutus." The queen followed the train of logic then spoke up, "What if the storm shifts? There is no way to know that the winds won't shift."
Gabrielle was right of course. Xena had sailed the seas before and had seen many storms. If the storm shifted west it would hit the island head on. If it shifted south it would take the intended course of Xena's fleet. Best to get the fleet around the other side of the island and pray the storm stalled Brutus' ships.
"This will work. We can wait out the storm on Phantasia as the ships move around it. We'll be picked up on the other side and head out to greet Brutus."
Xena's confidence was contagious and the queen quickly agreed. Orders were given and all ships set out on their new course.
"The Flagship is returning!"
Gallus spun around at the cry from the soldier. "What about the Conqueror's ships?"
"They were spotted heading northwest."
Gallus looked out to sea. He saw the signs of a storm out on the horizon. Was the queen on the Flagship? Was that storm going to make its way to Phantasia? The General felt a surge of adrenaline. Unfortunately, his energy was tempered by his frustration. He'd have to sit and wait. I hate waiting.
To be continued...
Taiko's scrolls of the Xenaverse