The Conqueror: Sceptre of Fate
Part I: When Destiny Meets Fate
By: Harpy & HkdonXetG ©2002
I groped towards the door of the tiny bedroom, careful not to wake my sister. Glancing back to make sure my bed looked occupied, I didn't notice the chair jutting out from a table in the centre of the room. Thump. I froze and held my breath, hoping the noise from the chair didn't wake Lila. No such luck.
"Gabrielle," Lila called sleepily.
"Go back to sleep," I whispered.
"What are you doing?"
"Nothing," I replied, allowing my annoyance to be heard. "Just go back to sleep, Lila."
Lila sat up and rubbed her eyes. "Is that a bag you're carrying? Are you running away?"
I debated whether to tell her, but I owed her that much. "I'm going to join the army of Xena the Conqueror. The camp is just a few hours North of Potidaea, and they're recruiting."
There was a pause, and then an eruption of laughter. "You? Hahaha, hahaha!"
The sting of her "don't be stupid" laughter caused me to blush. I should've expected her reaction, but somehow I thought my sister would understand.
Lila fought to control her laughter once she realised, by my stony expression, that I wasn't trying to be funny.
"You're serious?" She sounded astonished.
"Absolutely," I replied.
"You wouldn't last a day, Gabrielle. For Zeus' sake, I can beat you up!"
"Yeah well, you're very strong for your age," was my pithy response. She was right, I wasn't a warrior, but I had other skills that would be useful to the Conqueror.
Folding her arms across her chest, my sister sat upright in bed and gave me a disapproving glare.
How could I explain to Lila the frustration I felt at being trapped in Potidaea when the world around me was in chaos? I thought. No one in this village really understood that I was meant to do so much more with my life. The Conqueror was trying to unite Greece and bring stability to the region, and I was meant to be part of that. I sat down next to her on the edge of her bed. "Lila, you know I'm different from everybody else in this village—"
"I know you're crazy!"
"Well, call it whatever you like. The point is I don't fit in here, and the idea of marrying Perdicus—"
"He loves you, you know."
"But I don't love him," I said exasperatedly. Lila stared wide-eyed as though I just declared there were no gods. "Perdicus is a good man and he deserves a good wife," I continued in a gentler tone. "I want to be more than just someone's wife. I want to experience life, not just live it."
The look in Lila's eyes changed to bewilderment as I spoke. It would never occur to my sister that a woman had other choices in life. I felt sorry for her.
I continued to plead my case. "I want adventure. I want to travel. But more than anything, I want to make a difference in this world. Don't you see? I've got to do this, Lila."
My sister knew once I made up my mind, there was no point in arguing further, so she uncrossed her arms and held them out towards me.
"I'm going to miss you so much." Her lower lip began to quiver.
I put down my bag and embraced my sister and best friend. With tears flowing freely, we held onto each other, aware that our childhood together was ending.
"Cheer up." I tried to lighten the mood. "You'll finally have a room of your own."
The sun was just rising over the foothills of Mt. Holomodas as I entered the Conqueror's army encampment. It occupied a large, gently sloping field on the north side of the main route from Thrace to Central Greece. There was not much in the way of protection from the elements. The few trees that dotted the area had been sculpted by the wind into stooped and stunted shapes. I stood on the outskirts of the camp for a moment to take it all in: rows of tents; battle flags snapping in the breeze; the smell of leather and horse manure filling my nostrils; the scraping of stone against metal as soldiers sharpened their weapons.
For a moment, I wondered what I was doing in this place — me, just an eighteen-year-old peasant girl with few skills that prepared me for life as a soldier. But I couldn't go back to Potidaea. To return would mean giving up my dreams and settling for a meagre existence as a farmer's wife.
I steeled my courage and walked toward a group of soldiers guarding the road into camp. They must not have considered me much of a threat, because they didn't take up defensive positions. One of the soldiers, an officer judging by the plume on his helmet, stepped forward and addressed me. He seemed different from the others: his face not as hard, and his brown eyes warm and friendly.
"Can I help you, miss?" the officer asked.
"Yes, thank you. I'm looking for the recruiting officer."
The soldiers with him laughed, but the officer's face betrayed no amusement at my request.
"That would be Lieutenant Melikos. You'll find him on the other side of the camp." He pointed in the general direction I should go. "You can't miss him, he's next to the banner that says 'Join Here'."
"Thank you, uh—"
"Well, thank you, Lieutenant Galates."
"My pleasure, and good luck."
We gave each other a flirtatious smile, and then I turned in the direction Galates had pointed. As I walked away, I heard the other men tease him good-naturedly for being so polite to me.
The camp had everything an army, or a village needed. I passed a cook tent, a smithy, even a barber. One thing that made it different from a normal village was the population: it was predominantly male. The few women I saw were mostly from the support units, but there were a few who were soldiers. This raised my hopes of joining.
Lieutenant Melikos was indeed easy to spot among the men standing near the recruitment banner. He cut an impressive figure. Tall and ruggedly handsome, he was clad in full battle dress: bluish-purple tunic and black leather armour adorned with brass studs, with matching gauntlets and greaves, and newly shined, black boots. He wore his sword and scabbard on his left side. His polished bronze helmet glinted in the morning sunlight.
"Are you Lieutenant Melikos?" I asked, as I stepped directly in front of him.
"Yes, little lady, I am. What can I do for you?"
I took a deep breath and looked up to meet his eyes, preparing to explain what I was doing in the encampment of the Conqueror's army. "I am here to enlist."
"Bwahahaha!" Lieutenant Mekilos' laugh was deeper and more guttural than my sister's, but contained the same incredulity. The soldiers and civilians within earshot also broke into laughter.
"But I wish to offer my services to the Conqueror," I protested.
He laughed harder. "Go back to your village, little girl."
"I'm not asking to be a soldier, but I can be useful in other ways."
This elicited some lecherous comments from the crowd of men gathering around me, which I ignored. "I could be a spy," I continued hopefully. "No one would suspect me of being a master of espionage."
"No. Now push off," he barked. "I've got some real soldiers to recruit." Lieutenant Melikos turned his back and ignored me.
I wasn't going to take "no" for an answer, and was about to launch into another plea to the recruiting officer when the group began closing in around me.
"I know what service you could provide," leered one grubby soldier.
His comrades chortled, and from their expressions I knew I wouldn't like the service he was insinuating.
"So, how about it darling?" the lecher continued.
"Well, uh...that's not exactly what I had in mind," I said light-heartedly while I tried backing away. The group closed in tighter around me, blocking my escape. I looked to Lieutenant Melikos to come rescue me, but he kept his back turned, pretending not to hear them.
"Oh come on, you said you wanted to help the Conqueror. Now's your chance," another would-be recruit retorted.
"How would that be helping the Conqueror?" I asked, trying to sound nonchalant, as I looked for a way out of my predicament.
"By keeping up morale." The leader of the pack emphasized the word 'up' as he grabbed his codpiece. The unruly crowd sniggered at his gesture.
"No. I'm no good at making people happy. I'm a miserable person, honest. You'd want to— Hey!" I slapped at a hand that was trying to take liberties with my backside. "Didn't your mother teach not to touch things that don't belong to you?"
The men laughed harder, and two more tried to grab my breasts.
"That does it!" I yelled in my most fearsome voice. "These are lethal weapons," I said as I held my hands up and struck a combative stance. Judging by the chortles, I wasn't that convincing, but I swallowed hard and pressed on. "These hands can slice swords in two. They've been known to break boulders into pebbles. The Persian Army warns its new recruits that if they come up against me in battle, they are to run away screaming. He-ya!" I flashed my hands around in front of my face in mock punches and jabs.
The crowd took a step back. They seemed more amused than intimidated, but I didn't care as long as it got them to move. I was about to strike another menacing pose, when suddenly the crowd grew quiet and dispersed without another word.
"Yeah, that's it! You better be scared, because once you make me mad, I don't hold back. Yaah!" I feigned a strike at the retreating men.
"You've had a lucky escape!" I called after them. I took a deep breath, pleased that my wits had saved me from a very threatening situation.
I turned around and almost poked my eyes out on a pair of leather and bronze clad breasts. "Hey, watch where you point those things!"
I took a step back and was about to try my "dangerous hands" trick again, when I looked up into a pair of hard blue eyes. Standing an arm's length from me was a commanding warrior woman dressed in a uniform of black leather and intricately patterned, polished bronze armour. She towered over me, which made her all the more intimidating. Finally, it dawned on me who it was I was addressing. My mouth went dry and my heart pounded, as I stood before the most fearsome warrior in all of Greece — Xena the Conqueror.
"I hope you're not posing a serious threat to my army, because if you threaten my army, you threaten me. You don't want to threaten me, now do you?" The hardness in her eyes softened a bit, an eyebrow quirked upward, and the corner of her mouth turned up ever so slightly.
I made a strange croaking noise that in no way resembled the reply my brain instructed me to speak. I tried again. "N-n-no, M-Ma'am."
"That's 'General' to you," she said, correcting me.
Dread filled my lungs but I managed to squeak out, "yes, General."
"Good." The Conqueror turned and started walking away.
"Hey! Wait a minute!" I called after her.
General Xena stopped walking away and turned slowly. "What did you say?" She gave me this look that would've cowered a mountain lion.
"I-I-I-I mean, General, if you could let me... I-I- mean, um... spare a moment of your time... your precious time to let me explain that... I have... a... um... an affinity, yes, that's the word, an affinity for your cause. You have an incredible vision: to bring peace and stability to the region and to rid this land of marauding warlords and slavers. You're a true saviour of this country! So, I've come to join your...army…." My voice trailed away as I became captivated by her stare.
She stood there, completely motionless. Only her long, dark hair shifting in the breeze gave any indication that she was alive and not a statue. Oh good, Gabrielle, first you insult her and then you start blathering like an idiot. Great first impression! I thought.
My heart was hammering louder in its attempt to escape my chest. My feet felt like they had been nailed in place, and my spine had lost the ability to support my body. I crumbled to my knees and watched in helpless horror as the Conqueror finally moved towards me.
"Stand up!" Xena ordered.
My body rebelled against the command, but eventually I managed to get to my feet.
"You want to join my army?"
"Y-yes, General," I said meekly.
"Are you a warrior?" the Conqueror demanded.
"Not exactly, General."
"What does that mean?"
"I can learn," I said hopefully.
I heard the sound of the Conqueror drawing her sword. A wave of fear washed over me. I closed my eyes and waited for the worst.
For a moment, I thought I was hearing things. Had she just said 'take it', as in take the sword? I opened one eye cautiously to see what was going on.
"Go on, take it." The Conqueror stood with the hilt of the sword turned toward me.
I looked at the weapon. I was surprised how steady my hand was as I reached out to grasp the handle. Just as I was getting a feel for the sword, the Conqueror let go and the weight of the weapon pulled me down.
She laughed as she retrieved her sword from me. "I think my army can survive without you."
I didn't come all this way to be denied, not even by the Conqueror herself. I tried another tack.
"I could be useful as a spy."
"A spy!" She didn't bother hiding the amusement in her voice.
"Yes, General. I can read and write. I know how to read maps too. Oh, and I'm a bard. Telling stories is a useful skill for a spy to have. I also managed to get to this camp on my own without getting attacked or murdered or anything,"
"Why would a slip of a girl like you want to join my army? Shouldn't you be out marrying a farmer or something?"
"I was meant to do so much more than be a farmer's wife. A travelling seer once told me I was fated to meet a mighty warrior who was destined to unite a land in turmoil. He said this warrior was going to change the world, and I am supposed to help this warrior. Greece is just such a land — it's people starving, threatened, enslaved. I believe you are that warrior, General Xena, and I am here to help you."
I studied the Conqueror as she absorbed my words and considered her response. There appeared to be some conflict going on within. Eventually she spoke.
"What's your name?"
"Gabrielle," I answered.
A shiver ran down my spine as the Conqueror said my name. Most people say my name quickly, making it sound hard and sharp, but Xena's low-pitched voice prolonged the syllables, making it sound exotic and unusual. Her voice had a sensual quality that I found entrancing.
"I have need of a personal serv—" She paused and reconsidered her choice of words. "A personal assistant."
"What would my duties be?"
"Oh, all sorts of things. Serving my meals, ensuring my quarters are clean, and making sure my laundry gets done—"
"Pardon me, General, but that sounds a lot like a servant."
"There will be other duties."
"You can take notes during meetings I have with my commanders and such. You did say you could read and write?"
"Yes, General. But I could do so much more. I'm good at telling stories and talking my way out of trouble. I would make an excellent spy. I mean, just look at me. Who would suspect me of being a spy?"
"No spying. We can't have my personal assistant getting captured as a spy, now can we?"
"No, General," I replied with obvious disappointment. The offer was not exactly what I wanted. The alternative, however, was to go back to Potidaea and marry Perdicus, which my pride would never allow.
"Personal assistant, huh?" I muttered.
"Take it or leave it."
A thought struck me. "Don't you already have one?" I queried, still campaigning for a job as a spy.
"I had her crucified for talking too much," she said with deadly seriousness.
I paused while my heart started beating again. "That was a joke, right?" I asked tentatively. Considering the Conqueror's reputation, this might've been a distinct possibility.
"Of course it was," she said impassively. "I had her thrown to the lions."
The Conqueror's battle-hardened commanders couldn't contain their disdainful amusement when, later that morning, General Xena introduced me as her new personal assistant.
"She's so puny! I'd throw this one back," one officer said, as he turned me around.
"Personal assistant — is that what they're calling themselves these days?" another officer said, insinuating I was some sort of camp follower.
"Heh, I could use some personal assistance with this!" the third officer said, grabbing his crotch.
The officers weren't quite as threatening as the men by the recruiting table, but they made me uncomfortable all the same. I wondered if I would have to go through this trial all the time. As they looked me over, I became very self-conscious about the way I was dressed. How could I ever earn their respect dressed in a brown skirt and blue peasant blouse? If I was going to be the Conqueror's personal assistant, I needed to look the part. I needed some sort of uniform.
My thoughts drifted toward the design of such a uniform, when another officer, Lucon, grabbed me and pulled me towards him. "How about giving us a little kiss, sweetheart?" he leered.
I tried to struggle, but he held me tight. Unable to think of any way to break free, I looked towards General Xena with a pleading look.
The Conqueror's eyes flashed with a wild glint, and her jaw clenched ever so slightly. She gripped the loutish officer by the throat and addressed her comments directly at him, "Is that any way to address my new personal assistant?" Her tone was low and threatening. Then she gave all the other officers a withering look. "Anyone else have a comment?"
All taunting ceased in an instant.
Lucon's face was turning purple in Xena's grip and the veins on the side of his bald head stood out in stark relief. The officer was only slightly taller than me and Xena lifted him up to look him directly in the eyes, which left him balanced on the tips of his toes. With a barely audible grunt she released her hold on Lucon's throat and pushed him away. He gasped for air and held onto the table to steady himself.
"All of you, out! Report back here in one hour."
Without comment, the junior officers saluted and scrambled out of the command tent. Naturally, I assumed that meant me as well, so I followed on their heels.
"You, stay!" She glowered at me with that same icy stare she had given Lucon.
I froze like a deer caught in the sights of a hunter's bow.
The Conqueror turned to her second-in-command and snarled, "Darnell, I want Lucon demoted."
"Immediately, General." He made a crisp about-face and started to leave.
"Oh, and Darnell…"
Darnell turned back around. "Yes, General?"
"Have him flogged in front of his entire unit. I want to send a message that Gabrielle is to be treated as a respected member of the Conqueror's staff and not a common barmaid. Is that clear?"
"It will be done." Darnell saluted and made another about-face. As he left the command tent, the second-in-command glanced my way and nodded.
"Come here," Xena said firmly.
My legs turned to jelly from fright and I collapsed on the floor, ungracefully landing on my backside.
"Here, take my hand." Her tone softened as she held her hand out to me.
When I hesitated, the Conqueror pulled me to my feet in front of her.
"Are you all right?" Her hand lingered on my forearm.
I tried to say something, but I couldn't speak. It felt as though a hand was gripping my throat. I had never stood that close to the Conqueror before. I didn't realise just how tall she was, or that she had the most piercing sky-blue eyes. She had a long mane of onyx hair and her complexion was flawless — tanned and olive toned.
"Uh, yes. Thank you." I finally managed a timid response.
The imposing woman backed away. "That kind of behaviour will not happen again, I assure you. I made my position quite clear on how you are to be treated."
The Conqueror walked over to a chair and sat down. She beckoned me over and told me to pour her some wine, which I did. As I handed the goblet to her, she started talking about her vision for Greece and her philosophies as an army commander. As I listened, I felt less fearful and more captivated by this stern, but charismatic leader. By the end of the hour, I was sure this was where I was meant to be.
The officers reported back to the command tent as ordered, and this time everyone was very polite to me. Before the briefing began, Commander Darnell introduced the soldier who accompanied him. I was pleased to see it was the lieutenant who had directed me to the recruiter.
"General, may I present Galates of the Fourth Perimeter Guards, second unit. He is my choice to replace Lucon."
"Galates, eh? So, you think you're ready to take command of the Fourth Perimeter Guards?" General Xena said with a sneer, as she stood toe-to-toe with Darnell's choice. Galates was one of the few men who came near to Xena in height.
"By your will, General." Galates snapped to attention and saluted his commanding general. He looked like he was about to faint.
"Yes, by my will." With that, the Conqueror drew a dagger from her boot and thrust it toward Galates' gut. Galates managed to jump back, blocking the attack with a defensive forearm move.
"Not bad. Very well, Lieutenant Galates. You now command the Fourth Perimeter Guards."
The newly promoted Galates snapped to attention and saluted. A bead of perspiration dripped down his pale cheek.
General Xena waved the dagger in acknowledgement, and then pointed to the map spread out on a large table. "Thrace, Macedonia, and now Chalcidice are mine. Our next objective will be the kingdom of Thessalia. My plan is to march through Epirus to the west of Thessalia. Once Epirus is taken, then Thessalia will be effectively cut off from the North, West, and East. Once Thessalia falls, Achaea will be easy pickings. Commander Darnell, I want the men prepared to move out in two days."
"Yes, General," Darnell acknowledged. The others took their cue from Commander Darnell and came to attention. In unison, they raised their fists across their chests to salute the Conqueror and exited the tent.
General Xena went back to studying the map, seemingly oblivious to my presence.
"Ahem." I cleared my throat.
"Uh? Oh, yes." She turned to look at me. "We need to discuss your duties, but first," Xena looked me up and down then continued, "we need to get you some kind of uniform. It wouldn't do to have the Conqueror's personal assistant dressing like a peasant girl, would it?"
Two days later, the Army of Xena the Conqueror left the Potidaea valley, with an additional six hundred new recruits and one personal assistant.
GO TO CHAPTER 2