UNION AT ALBION
© 2000 by C.J. Wells
Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, Palaemon, Lyceus, Argo, Darphus, Draco (and those two henchmen Hector & Gar from SOTP) belong to those rather fortunate individuals affectionately known as The Powers That Be at Studios USA, Ren Pics and whatnots. The only thing Iím gaining from them here is the personal satisfaction of toying with the characters in my own image. Besides the obvious Roman guys already acknowledged in my preceding stories, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106-48 BC), Marcus Licinius Crassus (115-53 BC) and Marcus Junius Brutus (85-42 BC) were also real Roman guys. The other Roman guys named and all of the other characters named are mine.
Series Credits: A very talented Conqueror bard, Angharad Governal (http://governal.tripod.com/) queried if I would ever give this continuing series a title. After careful reflection, I decided to do just that. Therefore, from here on out, I will proudly announce each new story as the next installment to my "Embrace/Freedom Conqueror Series." Creative, huh? Pressing on, I highly suggest that you read all of the preceding stories of this series, as this story will not make much sense otherwise. Once again, this story chronicles events from both womenís points of view.
Character Warning: Tattooed, battle-happy, kick-ass Conqueror and literary, dreamy, and yes, sexually charged Bard. Any questions?
Women in Love and Doiní It Warning: Tattooed, battle-happy, kick-ass Conqueror and literary, dreamy, and yes, sexually charged Bard under the covers together. Any questions?
Cursing Warning: Chef says he wants me to try his big chocolate salty balls.
Violence Warning: The tattooed, battle-happy, kick-ass Conqueror is back at it again: brutalizing, terrorizing and lopping off body parts. Some descriptions are rather graphic.
To my beta readers Inga, Sue, Mary and Jean, thank you very much!
Comments & Feedback: Very much encouraged.
I. THE CONQUERORíS LOG
The late evening that we left the Amazon village, Gabrielle and I rode the entire night and into the morning. Riding hard and fast, and with the moonlight as our illumination, we were in western Macedonia by midday. We continued riding until we reached the small village of Darcas, which was north and inland from the port city of Epidamnus. As the horses rested, I went to the village apothecary to stock up on special herbs and oils for my back. The Amazonsí inebriation method was something I should have anticipated. After many years in battle, I had grown accustomed to pain, and since this was pain that I welcomed, I would have preferred not to be so sedated with intoxicants in order to spare me. I was grateful for the effort they put into my back, although it was obvious that their love and respect for Gabrielle was the main reason I received any treatment at all. I knew that the worst whip marks wouldnít be any more disfiguring than any of the numerous knife and arrow wounds that pepper my body, but I was curious to get to a reflective device of some kind to see how my brand had turned out. I hoped that it was as beautiful as I had imagined it would be. Among their many skills, Amazon healers are excellent body artists. Gabrielle doesnít understand and I donít expect her to, given the manner in which she acquired her wound. But in my mind, my wound is a symbol of my love for her on so many levels. I only hoped that someday I could explain it to her and have her understand that symbolism.
Gabrielle stayed by the horses as I ran my errand. When I returned to her, I noticed that she looked drawn and pale and had black circles under her eyes. I realized that she had gone over a full day and night without sleep and I was sure she was quite famished as well, but I was anxious to get to Salonae. We had at least another full day of riding ahead of us, most of it at this point along the shores of the Adriatic Sea. It would be rough riding, for us and for the horses; so the sooner we reached our destination, the better.
Gabrielle didnít complain as I mounted Argo and told her we were riding again. She didnít gripe as Chulytisí gallop became more labored from the unsteady ground on which we rode, or bitch about the whipping, harsh wind from the sea. Years in slavery gave her that fortitude. I hated myself for putting her through this and secretly promised myself that I would make it up to Gabrielle with something very special, very dear to her once we were united with my troops in Gaul.
At one point, I looked back at her and she appeared as if she was about to fall off Chulytis. That battle can wait for me, I decided. "WHOA!!" I commanded to Argo. Gabrielle halted Chulytis.
"Gabrielle, letís take a rest," I said.
She nodded and quietly climbed down off of Chulytis. I climbed down off Argo and, pulling a blanket out of my saddlebag, spread it out over a soft sandy spot in the otherwise rocky shore. "Lay down, Gabrielle," I said. "Rest."
As soon as Gabrielle hit the blanket, she was asleep. I kneeled down next to her and, leaning in, gently kissed her cheek. "You probably havenít slept much since my Hard Death, my love," I said to her snoozing form. "You are so dear to me, Gabrielle."
I decided to utilize the time sharpening my weapons. I surmised that two solid candlemarks of hard sleeping should refresh Gabrielle for the next round of riding. She would have plenty of opportunities for sleeping and eating once we reached Palaemon and my troops in Salonae.
A while after Gabrielle fell asleep, as I sharpened my boot dagger and listened to her adorable snoring, I heard to my right the sound of horses galloping toward us. I elected not to awaken her. Instead, I jumped up, ran over to a sand dune nearby and listened carefully. When I was satisfied they were in range, I peeked up over the dune and saw that there were four riders and that they were soldiers in my Imperial Guard. Unsheathing my sword, I leapt up and purposely startled them. They brought their horses to grinding halts.
"What are you four men doing way out here?" I demanded in question.
They bowed in formal greeting. The sergeant answered. "Majesty," he said. "Commander Palaemon instructed us to scout for your whereabouts. We were expecting you in Salonae two days ago, my Liege."
"Dismount, men," I told them. "I had unfinished business in Thessaly, but as you can see, Iím on my way."
The men dismounted. I directed them to take their horses to where Argo and Chulytis were grazing. When they returned, I had resumed sitting next to a still sleeping Gabrielle.
"You men can rest. Weíll leave in a candlemark," I said. I began sharpening my sword and chuckling to myself over the fact that Gabrielle had slept through all of the commotion. When I was satisfied that my sword was thoroughly sharpened, I indicated to the men to get to their horses. As they departed, I lightly shook Gabrielle.
"Time to ride, my little spitfire," I said in a whisper.
"Okay," came her sleepy reply.
"Gabrielle," I said.
"I love you, Gabrielle."
"I love you too, Xena."
* * * *
We rode well into the night. Salonae was less than a day of riding away, but I decided that a camp for the remainder of the night would refresh both the horses and my companions.
We set up two adjoining campfires, one for Gabrielle and me and the other for the four Guardsmen. Of course, I was almost in pain from the desire I was feeling for Gabrielle. My cycle had started the morning of my Hard Death, something that I had told the Amazon healer Shaya in the event that I didnít remain conscious through the procedure. I suspected that Gabrielleís began around the same time. We had been on the same cycle for over four years, even during those instances of long physical separation. Usually, I would feel even more sexually aroused those two weeks after our cycles ended. Thus, needless to say, I wanted to make love to her so badly that I suspected the scent of my passion was oozing from my body and anyone within a hundred lengths distance could smell me. I was long past the days of showcasing sex with her in front of others and thus, kept my desire in check. I refused to deny myself closeness with her, however. We slept for those few candlemarks entwined in a loving embrace.
We reached Salonae by mid afternoon the next day. Palaemon and Aerol practically ran to me when my entourage entered the city. I dismounted from Argo and greeted my two loyal Imperial Guard commanders.
"My Liege, welcome," said Palaemon. "I see you found my scouts."
"I did, Commander," I replied. "Are you and the troops ready for the road trip?"
"Yes, Conqueror," came Palaemonís reply. At that moment, the Commander of my Eastern Gaul Army approached.
"Majesty, welcome." Commander Seumius was a native of my home village of Amphipolis. He fought with my brother Lyceus and me against the warlord who invaded our homeland over twelve years ago, but did not accompany me on my ventures in pirating after my brotherís death. Instead, he eventually joined the army of the infamous Celtic warlord Arvad of Massilia. I battled Arvad when I fought to conquer Gaul six years ago. After I defeated Arvad and personally eviscerated him, Seumius and I had a reunion of sorts. Seumius is a beautiful man. He has light brown hair that he has always worn very long, and deep blue eyes. He is shorter than me, probably no taller than Bahri, and very muscular. Needless to say, our romps in bed back then were highly charged and often excitedly painful. Once the animal passion blew over, however, Seumius became a trusted ally and has been with my military forces ever since.
"Commander Seumius, good to see you," I responded as I gripped his forearm in welcome. His eyes immediately fell upon Gabrielle, who was standing by my side.
"This must be Gabrielle," he said.
"Hello," came her friendly reply.
"Commander Palaemon needs to have his eyes checked," Seumius said to her. "Very pretty doesnít even begin to describe the vision in front of me."
Instinctively, I positioned myself between Seumius and Gabrielle. "Now that Iím here, the holiday is over. We have a war to wage. We ride now."
Palaemon and Seumius had already had their troops, horses and chariots stocked and ready for the long trek across Gaul. I had them assemble the troops in formations so that I could address them. Once they were there, I positioned myself on the stone dais at the cityís central agora.
"Warriors of the Realm," I announced to the ranks of soldiers before me. "We are about to do battle with the most ruthless bastard of the Iceni tribe, Niall of Calleva, and we WILL win this battle because I have before me the greatest fighting force in the known world!"
My troops let out a collective cheer as I continued. "This barbarian thinks he can parade his savage arrogance before you, my mighty warriors, but I think not!"
"When we land on the shores of Albion, we will defeat Niall and we will have him and his dogs down on their knees, and they will respect you and they will abide by my law, and if they donít, WEíLL KILL ĎEM ALL!!"
The cheer that followed was almost deafening. Palaemon, who had been standing at my side, spoke up, "To victory, for the Realm, for the Conqueror!"
Seumius spoke up, "HAIL, XENA THE CONQUEROR!"
My troops went ballistic in their enthusiasm. "CON-QUER-OR CON-QUER-OR CON-QUER-OR" they kept chanting. I stood over them on the dais with my arms folded, basking in my arrogance. I remained that way for a few moments of smug delight, but something pulled my gaze away from my troops over to the beautiful blond woman standing behind me wearing on her face a hauntingly blank expression.
"Warriors of the Realm, MOVE OUT!" came the command from Palaemon at that moment.
* * * *
By nightfall, my military entourage and I reached the port city of Aquileia on the edge of the Adriatic Sea. Aquileia is a beautiful city overlooking the majestic mountains that the Celtic locals call "The Alps." We continued our journey north along the rivers that surround the mountains. I rode in my command chariot with Palaemon and his second, Aerol. Seumius rode in a separate chariot. Gabrielle rode alone in a healing supply wagon that was driven by one of my elder healers. It was stocked with cloths, medicines and other supplies for treating injuries. In addition to being mostly covered with a thick canvas made out of sail fabric known as hemplines, the wagon was the most comfortable carriage in our entourage and afforded her plenty of opportunity for rest and writing in her scrolls. Both Argo and Chulytis were tethered behind the healing supply wagon.
We moved well into the night, stopping to rest shortly before sunrise of the next day. The troops set up makeshift camps alongside the horses and chariots. I went to Gabrielle. When I approached her wagon, she was predictably asleep with a scroll resting on her belly. I climbed up into the wagon and lay down next to her. I took one of the blankets in the wagon and covered us both to protect us from the biting chill in the air. When she stirred only slightly, I widened the opening to her tunic and slipped my hand inside. I covered her left breast with my hand and began gently caressing it as I stared at the delicate features on her beautiful face. She awakened.
"Weíve stopped for the night, Gabrielle," I said as I moved my hand to her right breast.
"Where is everyone?" she asked.
"Camped nearby," I responded and then leaned in close to her ear and whispered. "But not within hearing distance." I could feel the nub of my sex engorge.
Gabrielleís desire-filled eyes spoke to me as an invitation to proceed. I moved my hand lower and, removing the scroll from its resting place on her belly, slowly unbuckled her tunic belt. I playfully rubbed her firm, soft belly for a few moments and then moved my hand lower, slipping it under her britches, past her curls and to her inviting sex. I then began to gently stroke her warm, very wet center. As I stroked her with the fingers of my left hand, I propped my head up on my right and gazed into her eyes. She began running her fingers up and down my working left arm as I pleasured her. I was on fire.
"You like this, Gabrielle?" I asked seductively.
"Uhh" she moaned. "Yes I do, Xena. A lot." I did this for quite a while, stroking her center and looking into her emerald eyes. The strong desire I saw in them, along with her sensuous moans, was driving me to the brink of madness. Eventually, my own strong desire to capture her lips with mine overcame me and I leaned down to feel their soft touch. Just before contact, her tongue slid across the opening of my mouth in a seductive play. I opened it in invitation and she entered, licking my teeth and tongue so wonderfully. I could kiss Gabrielle forever.
We were sharing that long, deep, passionate kiss when Gabrielle reached climax. Removing my fingers from her sex, I immediately brought them to our still joined mouths. We both licked in delight.
"Lie on your stomach, Xena," she said.
I obeyed my Amazon Princess as she climbed out of the blanket and retrieved the flask that contained the medication for my back. I completely removed my battledress before she returned and covered us both with the blanket. She then poured the oily potion in her hands and began rubbing it on my back.
"How does your back feel, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"With your hands on it, great," came my earnest reply.
Gabrielle rubbed my back for a few marvelous moments before laying her body on top of me. Feeling the heat of her body on me, her soft breasts on my back and her curls on my ass brought my desire to new heights. More wondrous sensations followed as she brought her left arm around my waist in a sensuous embrace and began stroking my sex with the fingers of her right hand. As her breathing on the back of my neck became heavier and the grinding of her hips on my ass got harder and faster, my sexual excitement, and more significantly, the passionate love I feel for my woman finally did drive me to that brink of blissful madness.
After experiencing a climax that could topple Mount Olympus, I rolled over and took my lovely Amazon Princess into my arms. I was feeling such overwhelming love for her. Gabrielle rested her head on my chest and sleep claimed us both within moments.
When I woke the next morning, Gabrielle was not in the wagon.
II. GABRIELLEíS SCROLL ENTRY
My sleep was restless the first night that we camped with Xenaís troops. I kept hearing the clanging of swords and the sinister laughter of men. These were Xenaís finest fighters camped outside of the little wagon in which we slept. These were men who witnessed unspeakable atrocities, who committed unspeakable atrocities, and with more carnage awaiting them, they sparred and reveled in joyful anticipation. I lay awake for a while before deciding to get up and do something. Dawn had not yet arrived, but I didnít want to lie around thinking about the war ahead. So I untangled myself from Xenaís loving embrace, rose, and left the wagon in search of food and a place where I could wash up. I had hoped to return to her before she awakened.
As we journeyed further north, the cold in the air increased. On this particular morning, I actually saw a thin sheet of frosty dew on the ground and low foliage. The leaves on the trees surrounding us were an assortment of colors: crimson, yellow, green and brown. I thought it a rather beautiful sight.
I asked one of Xenaís Imperial Guardsmen where I might find food and a well. The kind soldier brought me to the makeshift mess tent where a large group of centurions were eating cooked ground wheat. A soldier gave me a bowl of the food and directed me to a barrel with clean water conveniently concealed behind some trees. I ate and washed up. Just as I stepped away from the barrel, Xenaís Commander Seumius approached me.
"Youíre up bright and early, I see," he said.
"Good morning," I responded. I regarded this man. He was very handsome and I immediately thought of the probable fact that Xena had bedded him.
"So, youíre the Conquerorís bard," he said rather condescendingly.
"Yes, I am."
"Hmm I didnít know that the Conqueror had any use for a bard," he said. "Of course, I donít doubt a beauty like you serves other functions in the Conquerorís service."
Before I could express to him my contempt for his impudence, a dark figure stepped in between us.
"Donít you have an army to command, Seumius?"
"Yes, my Liege," Seumius replied to the imposing presence of the Conqueror. "I was merely inquiring of your attractive bard here what her role in your court entails."
"I think you need to only concern yourself with what your own role entails, Commander," Xena said. "And thatís to do whatever necessary not to piss me off."
Seumius looked around Xena and eyed me for a moment before returning his attention to her. "I was just thinking that maybe the three of us can have a friendly dalliance before the big battle, like the old days," he said in a low, seductive voice. "Could take the edge off, Conqueror and she looks like sheís quite good at taking off edges."
I couldnít see the expression on Xenaís face because her back was to me, but I could picture it in my mind as her mighty fist landed on Seumiusí stomach. As he fell to the ground desperately trying to retain air, my attention flew away from the moment and I didnít hear what obscenities Xena was shouting to him. She had slept with this man, I concluded. She had shared a bed with him and apparently engaged in sexual adventures involving at least one extra person. When I had declared my love for Xena to her, I told myself that I would not let her torrid sexual past bother me. My main focus in our lives together was to pull her away from the violent beast that was so much a part of her. But now I was feeling a beast in me. It was the beast of envy; envy for everyone she had bedded everyone she had allowed to do the things to her that I so enjoy doing to her. I started feeling an anger toward her for being that way, being so weak with her body so as to let virtually anyone ravish it, including this cocky, dimwitted ass who withered on the ground including all of the cocky, dimwitted asses. I found myself turning on my heels and storming away from the both of them.
"Gabrielle, where are you going?" Xena asked, the angry tone still very much present in her voice.
"Back to the comfort of my wagon, Conqueror," I replied just as angrily.
Xena ran up to me and grabbed my arm, effectively swinging me around to face her. "Whatís the matter with you?" she asked.
"Let go of my arm," I said flatly.
Xena gripped it tighter. "What the fuck is the matter with you?"
"Let go of my arm," I repeated.
When she didnít, I yanked it out of her powerful grip. She was startled at my actions, I suspected, but not as startled as I was at that moment. As I again turned on my heels to storm away from her, Palaemon conveniently approached.
"Conqueror, the troops are awake and ready to proceed," he said.
Xenaís response was low and strained. "Letís move out then," she said.
* * * *
I stayed in the healing supply wagon the entire day. I only exited to eat, stretch, relieve myself or practice with my staff. We traveled alongside the majesty of the great alpine mountains of Gaul and on occasion, I would peek out the front or rear of the covered wagon just to eye their beauty. Mostly, I remained enclosed, writing tragic poetry and crying angry tears.
Xena and I didnít speak to each other for the entire day and into the night. I did watch her from time to time during the day, when she was riding in the chariot or speaking with her officers. I could tell that she was becoming more and more focused on the battle ahead. My dear friend Demi had told me that Xena wins wars because she never lets anything distract her. Winning is always the priority and she usually has her complete battle strategy mapped out in her head before the actual battle begins.
It was well past midnight when Xena decided to camp the troops for the night. We had reached the lands across the Danube River from Castra Regina, the last city Xena took from the Romans in Gaul. The Romans had erected a bridge, but it was narrow and could only support the weight of one loaded wagon or a quarter century of troops at a time. Needless to say, crossing that bridge would take several additional candlemarks of a little patience and a lot of praying to the gods.
Once we were all in Castra Regina, Xena ordered everyone to camp on the outer edge of the city. Because of its convenient riverside location, Castra Regina was a city of great wealth. Xena announced that once the shops opened in the morning, everyone would be allowed to replenish supplies and food. I made a mental note to stock up on scrolls, quills and writing ink.
Dawn was on the horizon already when I was finally able to seek Morpheusí calling. As tired as I was, I couldnít however, and decided to leave the safety of my wagon and go find out what Xena was up to. I walked along the scattered fires and tired soldiers looking for her and hoping not to see Seumius. After long moments, and to my delight, I found Palaemon and Aerol sitting at one of the fires.
"Evening, Palaemon," I said. "Have you seen the Conqueror?"
"Evening?" he replied jokingly. "Itís almost morning, Gabrielle." Palaemon smiled.
"So true, Commander." I smiled back.
"Our Ruler is a few paces down, sitting alone at her own fire," he informed me.
When I found Xena, she was predictably sharpening a weapon. Despite the chill in the air, she only wore her battledress and boots. Before she could spot me, I dashed to the nearest soldier and asked for a blanket. When I returned to Xena, I draped it over her broad shoulders. I said not a word to her.
Xena didnít look up at me. She didnít acknowledge my presence as she continued her uninterrupted methodical sharpening. I sat on the ground on the other side of the fire and just stared at her.
"What you saw yesterday was nothing compared to what youíll witness in Albion, Gabrielle," Xena finally spoke after a lengthy silence.
"What do you mean, Xena?" I queried.
"Youíre upset about me striking Seumius, right?"
"No, Xena well, I donít like it when you punch people, but thatís not why Iím upset with you."
"Then what is it?" she asked with a harsh tone.
"I hate it that youíve bedded so many people, Xena," I answered with an equally harsh tone.
"Iím sorry, Gabrielle. I canít rewrite my history."
"I know," I said. "I still hate it."
There was another long silence before Xena spoke. "If I could rewrite my history, I would change a few things, Gabrielle. Iím sure I would change a lot of the sex, although so much of it meant nothing to me. But the biggest thing I would change would be the shit that I did to you."
I didnít know how to respond, so I remained silent. Xena finally stopped sharpening her weapon.
"Remember that night, Gabrielle?" Xena asked. "That night that you you dreamt about?"
"Oh, when I uh, I you know, e-hem your brains out, Xena?" I said in jest as I felt the heat in my cheeks rise.
"Yes," she responded. "I I wanted to tell you then."
"Tell me what, Xena?"
"That I was hopelessly in love with you."
I donít know why, but at that moment, I became overwhelmed with emotion and began crying. "Why didnít you tell me?"
Xena got up and came over to where I was sitting. She sat down next to me and put her arm around my shoulder. I instinctively leaned my head down on her shoulder and felt her lips press against the top of my head. "I prepared myself for the occasion, Gabrielle," she said. "I had it all planned out. I dressed in one of my best silk robes for you, scented my body with lavender oil, and perched myself on my silly throne. I was going to have you come to me there and I was just going to announce it."
"You were just going to say to me, ĎGabrielle, Iím hopelessly in love with youí?" I asked.
"Something like that," she responded.
"I donít know. I told myself that I would pleasure you first, then Iíd tell you."
"But you didnít Xena," I said.
"After I pleasured you, I I, well, I thought that Iíd tell you after you pleasured me."
"Xena, you were stalling," I said, chuckling to myself as I wiped my tears away.
"Okay, I was stalling," she said as she again kissed the top of my head and brought her other arm around me in an embrace. "So then you did what you did, by the gods. And to top it off, you you kissed me down there. You did that a lot, you know, when you serviced me. I noticed it."
"I like kissing you, Xena."
"That kiss sent another powerful wave through me, Gabrielle. I couldnít speak after that."
"Thatís why you told me to leave your bedchamber, Xena?"
"I started crying, Gabrielle," she said. "I failed in telling you that I love you and I didnít want you to see me crying." She paused for a moment. "I bet you donít know this, but I visited you that night."
"When?" I asked as I looked up at her.
"Sometime later," she responded. "You had already fallen asleep."
"What did you do, Xena?"
Xena began stroking my cheek with the backs of her fingers. "I kneeled down next to your bed and played with your hair," she said quietly. "I did it very lightly so as to not awaken you. Then I told you that I love you, Gabrielle."
I began running my fingers down her cheek. "You are such a strong warrior, Xena," I said. "You fear nothing. Battle, pain, death. But you fear love. Why, Xena?"
"People fear what they donít understand, Gabrielle," she responded. "I donít understand love. I only know that I feel it, and it frightens me."
I felt such a warmth from Xenaís vulnerable admission to me.
"Love is the last thing in this world you should fear, Xena," I said. "Thereís nothing more beautiful, more perfect."
As tears began streaming down her beautiful face, she tightened her embrace. "I know, Gabrielle," she said. "I know."
We both lay back on the ground, still embracing, and finally allowed Morpheus to claim us for another brief period in time.
* * * *
At dawn, Xena and I both awakened to the sounds of approaching men on horseback. Releasing me from a comfortable embrace, Xena was immediately on her feet, grabbing her sword and dashing toward the main camp. Although days of sleep deprivation told my body to remain where it was for the moment, the curiosity of my rather murky mind won out. I too leapt to my feet and ran after Xena.
When I caught up with her, Xena was gripping the arm of a very large Roman soldier.
"Good to see you, Commander Marius," Xena said to him.
"Weíve been here in Castra Regina for nearly a fortnight, Conqueror," he replied. "I was beginning to wonder if Niall wasnít that big a deal to the Realm after all."
Xena gave the Roman commander a friendly pat on his massive arm. "Iím to blame for our delay, Commander. Unfinished business in Thessaly."
"I fully understand, Conqueror," he replied with a rather large grin. "One must keep the home fires burning, must one?"
Xena turned to me and signaled for me to approach them. Has she slept with this one in the past too? I thought as I grabbed the manís arm in greeting. Why am I so obsessed over this?
"Gabrielle, this is Clarus Aeneus Marius, Commander of my Roman forces in Gaul and the man who fought beside me when I took Rome," Xena introduced. "Commander, this is Gabrielle of Poteidaia, my bard and my best friend."
The Romanís eyes widened in amazement. "Best friend?" he said. "By the gods, Majesty, this is well, uh, news." He looked at me. "I am pleased to meet you, Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
"Likewise," I responded with a curt lack of sincerity. I didnít know at the time which level of hate was affecting me more, my admittedly unjustified prejudice against Roman soldiers or the notion that this was yet another of Xenaís former bed partners.
"Whatís the status, Marius?" Xena inquired.
"What you would expect, Conqueror," he replied. "Niall and his pigs have taken control of all of the shipping ports on the southern shore of Britannia. They refuse to pay taxes and they claim to have our senior diplomats held hostage in one of their outposts. I havenít been able to confirm that last allegation, but I havenít heard from the diplomats, so I believe we should accept it as true."
"I see," Xena responded.
"Iím ready to fry the bastard, Conqueror," Marius said.
"Oh, Niallís going to get whatís coming to him, Marius."
"You have a plan, Conqueror?" he queried more as a statement than a question.
"I always have a plan, Commander," Xena replied.
When the shops of Castra Regina opened for business, most of our entourage flocked to them to stock up on needed supplies. In addition to purchasing more scrolls and quills, I wandered into a clothing shop and bought a heavy wool cloak to protect me from the ever-decreasing temperatures. Assuming Xena wouldnít bother, I purchased one for her as well. When I returned to the camp, Xena had just ordered Palaemon and Seumius to summon all of the troops for the continuing trek toward Albion, or Britannia, as the Romans referred to it. I had studied Latin with my dear friend Demi, who was of Greek heritage but raised in Rome, and was well aware that the Romans had a different name for certain regions, peoples and gods. As I boarded my healing wagon for yet another day of bumpy riding, I saw Xena walking toward her signature royal chariot. I called out to her.
"Xena the Conqueror!" I yelled, belatedly remembering the honorific. When she turned her gaze on me, I continued. "Would you be willing to ride with me for a half day?"
Xena cocked her head to the side and then looked at Palaemon, who was smiling ear to ear. "Yes, Gabrielle," she responded in her low and formal Conqueror voice. "I can accompany you."
Although Xenaís voice sounded controlled and stoic, her feet betrayed her as she giddily sprinted over to my wagon and practically dived in.
Once the wagon started rolling, Xena grabbed my shoulders and planted a strong kiss on my lips. "Making love in a moving wagon," she said grinning. "This will require creativity."
"Who says I want to make love, Xena."
Xenaís face was markedly perturbed. "Then why did you ask me to join you?"
"I want to spend time with you, Xena. Canít we just spend some time together without putting our fingers and tongues to work?"
Xena smiled. "Of course, love," she said. "Iíve missed talking with you these last few days."
"Me too, Xena," I said as I looked around and saw several new cushions placed in a neat pile on the wagonís floor. "Where did these come from?" I asked.
"I thought they might make your ride more comfortable, Gabrielle," Xena replied with a smile.
"Thank you, Xena. That was very thoughtful of you," I said and then, after a brief moment, had to ask, "So, did you sleep with Marius as well?"
"Well, did you?"
"No, Gabrielle, I never had sex with Marius."
"Oh," I sighed, relieved.
Xena lowered her head. "I slept with his wife, though."
"It was for strategic military reasons, Gabrielle," Xena exclaimed.
"How could bedding someoneís wife be for Ďstrategic military reasons'?" I inquired as I bore my eyes into Xenaís.
"You donít want to hear this, Gabrielle," she replied. "Itís an ugly story."
"We have plenty of time, Xena," I said as I leaned back onto a couple of those new soft cushions positioned behind me and folded my arms.
"Okay" Xena let out a big sigh and began. "It was seven years ago and I had just proclaimed myself ĎThe Conqueror.í I had taken all of Greece, including Crete and the other islands, secured strongholds in Pontes, Persia and Anatolia, and had achieved diplomatic relations with Egypt. Rome was the last big challenge of the known world.
"I came into contact with Marius through another Roman named Cassius Padraig Rommodus, who now commands my Apennines Army. Rommodus and Iíd never slept with him either was a bitter enemy of Caesar. He introduced me to a former ally but new enemy of Caesar, Marcus Antonius, another man Iíd never bedded."
Xenaís proud declarations caused me to snicker. She continued.
"So, to make a long story short, I met Marius and offered him a position in my army. Marius hated Caesar probably more than I did, but he was dubious about joining the renegade army of a power-hungry Greek woman. I wanted him, Gabrielle. He was undisputedly the best fighter in all of Italia. He was also fearless and loaded with contempt for those who were aligned with Caesar, especially Caesarís chief toadies, Pompeius Magnus, Licinius Crassus and that weasel Junius Brutus. Rumor had it that he had bitten off a piece of Brutusí ear and ate it with his lamb dinner during a Roman symposium. So I asked Rommodus what would be the best way to persuade Marius to join my army. Rommodus quickly advised me that seduction on my part would be out of the question. Marius was madly in love and devoted to his new wife, but the wife might be the Ďin.í She was both Greek and shall we say, one to enjoy the physical company of both genders."
"Lovely," I acidly said. "What was her name, Xena? Wait! Never mind, maybe itís better if I donít know."
"I met his wife, Gabrielle," Xena continued. "What a piece of work! A mere adolescent, 19 or 20 years old I believe, skinny, blond blonder than you, with big brown eyes and a bigger mouth. Everything out of it was sass, sass, sass. And she was obsessed with me, Gabrielle. She wanted to spend every moment with me. I was nearly driven insane by the woman, but it worked. With her nonstop desire to hang onto my ass, it was no time before she ran crying to Marius, begging him to join me. Marius was ever so willing to do her bidding and thus, he agreed to fight in my army. Together, with Rommodus, the young and rambunctious Palaemon, Antonius and the elite of my force, we were able to crush Caesar and send pathetic Brutus into hiding. Antonius later found him and murdered him. Since Caesar had already murdered his other little vermin before we invaded, our mission was accomplished and Rome became mine."
"So you slept with her to get her to convince Marius to join you." I said, not as a question, but to accentuate the obvious.
"Like I said, Gabrielle, strategic military reasons."
"Did Marius stay with her once he found out about the affair, Xena?"
"Not quite, Gabrielle," she answered. "He never found out are you sure you want to hear the rest of this?"
"Yes." Especially now.
"After I claimed Rome, Antonius was given Governorship. Of course, he instantly made a mess of things and was quickly replaced by Octavius. Thatís when he and I fell out. Marius and Rommodus were rewarded with commissions in my new Roman Army. The wife was pissed. She naturally assumed that I would give him a commission in my Imperial Guard once I returned to Greece, so that she could continue fucking me until her sharp little tongue fell out. That never crossed my mind. Those men were Roman. They wanted to rule in Rome and commissions in their native homeland were greater rewards for the both of them. As you know, Palaemon was destined for the commandership of my elite Guard. So, on the night before I was to leave for Corinth, I was awakened with the blade of my own chakram digging into my throat. It was the wife."
"How did she brandish your chakram without cutting herself, Xena?" I inquired, astonished.
"To this day, I canít figure it out, Gabrielle," Xena responded seemingly perplexed. "She kept begging me to teach her how to throw it, and in my carelessness, I allowed her to practice with it. Everyone who ever dared to wield it before or since has lost a limb, and I totally expected the same from her. I was secretly looking forward to watching an arm or an ear sliced from her body. But she mastered it, Gabrielle, almost as well as I had. If she hadnít been a complete lunatic, I would have considered training her as a fighter in my army. But crazy she was, and while she held my chakram under my chin, she started ranting and raving incoherently, telling me that she controlled me, body and soul, that I owed her for some injustice I had done to her family, that I was to do an indefinite sexual bidding to her even while we are both frying in Tartarus together."
"Did you kill her, Xena?"
"No, I didnít," Xena responded. "Not that I wouldnít have. But I wanted Mariusí continued loyalty. Killing his wife wouldnít have been a smart move in maintaining that loyalty. So I punched her. One strong blow to the face and she was out. I had her chained and then I summoned Marius. I told him that his wife had attempted to seduce me and when I declined, she tried to kill me. Marius was aware that his wife preferred women sexually, and she had made it obvious in her actions that she had this Ďcrushí on me. So when he saw her chained and babbling nonsense, he easily believed me. He had her committed to an asylum in Sparta."
"Is she still there, Xena?"
"Sheíd very well better be, Gabrielle."
"So," I said. "You lied to Marius to maintain his loyalty."
"I didnít lie, Gabrielle," Xena replied. "She had been constantly seducing me since the day we met, and she did try to kill me when I declined her advances that particular evening."
"You just left out the part about having slept with her before, right Xena?"
"A sinful omission," came the curt reply.
Xena was correct. I should not have asked to hear that story. I found myself even angrier at her than when Seumius was propositioning sex with the both of us. I looked away from her, my arms still crossed. I stared out through the slit in the canvas at the back of the wagon and looked at the troops following us. There was a long, tense silence before Xena spoke again.
"Gabrielle," she said, her voice soft and sad. "Do you not love me anymore?"
"Of course I love you, Xena," I responded as I felt my eyes watering. "Itís the love I feel for you that causes me to be so so jealous of all of those other people youíve been with. Sometimes I wonder if I I satisfy you as well as they did."
"But mostly" I interrupted. "I hate it that so many others have touched you touched what I feel is mine."
Another silence followed. "Gabrielle," Xena finally said. "Before you, I never shared my bed with the same person for any rational length of time. Before you, I never committed myself to being sexual with one person at a time. From the first time we were together, as Conqueror and slave, I never wanted to be with anyone else again. I AM yours, Gabrielle. I was yours before we met and Iíll be yours in the afterlife, when youíre in paradise and Iím being tormented in Tartarus."
I crawled over to her and hugged her. I cried into her breasts as I clutched her, my mind whirling with jumbled thoughts of what we have had together and what is yet to come. I donít want Xena to spend eternity in Tartarus. Yes, she has committed horrendous acts, but there is so much room for her goodness to shine. I know it. Iíve seen it. Often, in my most private reflection, I wished that the gods could create a special place for Xena and me once we cross over; a place where our souls could continue to grow and learn and love one another. Finally, I looked up at her and asked the question that had been simmering in my conscious since our reunion in the Amazon village a week before.
"Xena," I said softly. "What did you do those three days you were gone from the Amazon village?"
I didnít know what to expect, but I didnít expect the story I was about to hear.
III. THE CONQUERORíS LOG
When I left the Amazon village the morning of the desertersí trial, I had a major lust in me; a lust for blood, a lust for vengeance. But it wasnít a desire for any vengeance to which I was entitled. I wanted revenge for Gabrielle.
I had wronged Gabrielle, a grim fact that I face every day of my life. Yet others, notably those two bastards who abducted her from her family, raped her and sold her into slavery, had wronged her as well. I decided as I was riding toward Corinth that I would atone for all I had done to Gabrielle. I decided that when I did return to the Amazon village, I would allow the Amazons their retribution. As far as I was concerned, it was only retribution on its face. I didnít necessarily feel that I owed the Amazons of Thessaly anything. Their Queen lives and their lands were spared. As for the northern Amazons, I anticipate that Iíll pay my price to them in the afterlife. But I owed Gabrielle a debt, and those bastards owed her a debt.
And the time had come for them to pay.
* * * *
When I reached Corinth, I dismissed the two women Guardsmen that traveled with me and continued on to the palace. The first order of business was to learn the identity of the man who presented Gabrielle to the auctioneer for sale nearly six years ago. I was running down the palace corridor toward the library when Palaemon stopped me.
"Conqueror!" he yelled from behind me. "Iím glad youíre here. I was about to ride back to the Amazon village to find you."
I stopped in my tracks, turned and faced him. "What is it Commander?" I queried rather impatiently.
"We have a situation," he responded.
"Throw him in the dungeon and Iíll deal with it later," I said. Naturally, I assumed that he was referring to yet another captured would-be assassin.
"No, my Liege," he said. "Niall of Calleva, thatís the situation."
I approached Palaemon. "What about him?" I asked.
"He has galvanized warriors of the three southern tribes in Albion, the Atrebates, the Dumnonii and his own tribe, the Iceni. Theyíve invaded our ports along the channel and we have word that hostages have been taken. They want war, Conqueror."
"Thatís fine with me, Palaemon," I responded. "Iím more than eager to spill that pig Niallís blood."
Palaemonís face lit up like a child on his birthday. I truly enjoy the company of this man. There were so many times that I wished he could have met my brother, Lyceus. I do believe they would have bonded like brothers. Now, I feel that Palaemon has become the closest thing I have to a brother.
"I have something I need to do, Palaemon," I informed him. "It canít wait."
"I can mobilize two centuries of men, my Liege," he said. "Aerol and I will ride north to Gaul. Whom shall we contact there, Seumius or Marius?"
"For this mission, Palaemon, both," I responded, then continued with my orders. "Iím sure they are both well informed by now and expecting us. Send a small detachment to Salonae tonight. You and Aerol leave at dawn, and take command of four centuries; two Imperial Guard and two Corinthian Army. Iíll meet you and Seumius in Salonae in four days. We should reach Castra Regina in a week."
"Yes, Majesty," Palaemon said.
"When this is done, Palaemon, they will be speaking Greek in Albion."
Palaemon laughed and we clasped arms. "Will Gabrielle join us, Conqueror?"
"No, Iíll have her stay with the Amazons. I donít want any harm to come to her." And I donít want her to see me kill again either.
"By your will, Conqueror," he said before departing. I resumed my jog to the library where I found Demitrius and his assistant indexing scrolls. When he noticed my presence in the room, he immediately stopped what he was doing and bowed in formal greeting.
"Afternoon, my Liege," he said.
I ordered him to dismiss his assistant. When the man had left the library, I grabbed Demitrius by his tunic collar. "Tell me that you have a record of who owned Gabrielle before me," I demanded.
"I do, my Liege," he replied. I released him and he went over to a section of the library, which was obviously often ignored, and grabbed a somewhat dusty and frayed parchment off of a shelf. Opening it, he glanced at the writing and then looked up at me.
"She was the former property of one Chayym Eben, an immigrant from Judea and resident of Sicyon," he informed me.
Thatís how she knew about the rich swine farmer. Thatís also likely the reason she avoided Sicyon when she left Corinth to wander as a traveling bard four months ago, I pondered. "Does that parchment provide the location of his domicile?" I inquired.
"Yes, my Liege, but it is over five years old," Demitrius said.
I didnít respond. I just grabbed the parchment from him and stormed out of the library. I was determined to find this man, even if it meant sailing to Judea to hunt him down.
I mounted Argo and rode to Sicyon, arriving there just after dusk. The residence provided in the parchment was a dwelling on the periphery of the village. It was in an area known as Hermesí Den because most of its inhabitants were struggling merchants, con artists, thieves and transients. Before locating Ebenís domicile, I stopped by the local Corinthian Army post and ordered three hoplites to join me. Ebenís homestead was nothing more than a rundown clay shack. I hoped that he still lived in the place. After dismounting from Argo, I ordered the hoplites to remain where they were. Then I walked up to the entranceway and kicked down the door.
Once inside the filthy dwelling, I found a man approximately in his early fifties sitting on a rundown chair with several young girls surrounding him. All of the girls were nude; they were all clearly adolescent, and one girl in particular had just removed the manís phallus from her mouth. In an instant, an ugly image burned into my head; the image of my Gabrielle, on her knees, naked and dirty, sucking this disgusting pigís manhood. I was furious.
"GET UP!" I ordered him. All of the girls leapt to their feet. He remained seated; probably more out of shock than out of any act of defiance on his part.
"Get out," I hissed at the girls. They began scrambling for the rags that were their clothing. "Wait outside by those soldiers on horses until I come out."
After the last girl was out of the dwelling, I casually walked over to Eben and applied my lethal pinch to his neck.
"Iíve cut off the flow of blood to your brain, you fucking pervert," I said to him as I watched him desperately gasp for air. "Chayym Eben, correct?"
He frantically nodded as he grabbed his neck in a vain effort to reverse the pinch. "Iím going to stand here and watch you die, you dog, unless you can provide the name of the individual who sold you the young slave I purchased from your auctioneer five years ago."
He fell out of his chair. Death was closing in on him. "Can you do that, pervert?"
He nodded. "Good," I said as I released the pinch. He deeply sucked in air and then threw up on the floor before I grabbed him by his filthy tunic and lifted him to his feet. "Who was it?" I asked. "Give me his name."
"I I" he gasped. "I donít remember hisname, Conqueror"
I backhanded him, sending him back to the floor and sprawling out over his vomit. I grabbed his tunic and lifted him up again. "Wrong answer," I said before hurling my fist into his stomach. He doubled over and was back on the floor a third time. I watched him as he coughed and gagged a few moments. Then I grabbed the little tuft of hair on the back of his otherwise bald head and forced him to gaze up at me. "Letís try this again, shall we?" I said. "Who sold you Gabrielle of Poteidaia?"
"I I can can get you that information, my Lady," he responded. "I keep an accounting" He coughed a couple of times, then continued, "All I need to do is look it up Please donít hit me again."
I released his hair and grabbed his tunic again, lifting him to his feet. "Go look it up."
He stumbled over to a section of his dwelling where rows of parchment were kept. I watched as he nervously looked over several before finding the correct one. "Here, my Lady!" he exclaimed almost gleefully. "I found it."
I grabbed it from him and looked it over. "Very good, Chayym Eben. Today is your lucky day. Gabrielle informed me that you were kind to her despite her servitude to you in this hole. Itís also my impression that you taught her how to fuck and be fucked correctly."
He nodded maniacally.
"And for those reason, I wonít kill you."
He took a deep breath.
"However, keeping under-aged girls as slaves and indulging in sexual perversions with them are illegal acts in my Realm."
He began shaking his head and babbling. "She was 19 she was 19" I interrupted him.
"Yes, but most of the girls here today are clearly no older than 16, and the price for disobeying the laws of the Realm is harsh."
I grabbed him by his tunic again. He fell to his knees, forcing me to drag him outside. He gripped my hand and repeated a desperate "please please please" over and over again. Once outside, I ordered two of the three hoplites to obtain the young girlsí identities and origins and make arrangements for their return to their families, if they had families. Otherwise, I instructed the hoplites to designate that the girls became wards of the Realm, and for them to be taken to a home for girls in Corinth. I ordered the third hoplite to transport Eben back to Corinth and turn him over to the palace Imperial Guardsmen with instructions to have him locked up in the palace dungeons.
"You shouldnít have let me catch you in such a compromising position, Eben," I said as his hands were being bound by the hoplite. "Enjoy life in your new home. Iím sure youíll get the same kind of taste these young girls have been getting from you."
I left Sicyon and rode Argo to Thermopylae, navigating my way through the darkness of night by pure instinct and adrenaline. I arrived there just before sunrise and was admittedly exhausted. I wasnít about to let simple lack of sleep come in the way of my sword and the bodies of Gabrielleís abductors. I headed directly to the Thessalian Army command post and barged into Commander Rhamosí bedchamber. He was quite unhappy over my interrupting his sexual playtime with the handsome young redheaded lad that lay in bed with him.
"Pardon my intrusion," I said most insincerely as I flashed him a glistening smile. "I just need to borrow two of your sergeants, Commander."
"Be my guest, Conqueror," he responded rather annoyed.
I proceeded to the sergeantsí quarters and retained two robust men who were eating their morning meal. After saddling up their horses, we rode north, past Pharsalus, west of the Amazon territory to a valley in the Pindus Range. The parchment I retrieved from Chayym Eben indicated that Gabrielle had been sold to him by one Hector of Parnassus, who identified himself as a lieutenant of Draco the Great. Draco was the son of a wealthy dealer of precious metals. He was born in Apollonia, the great port city of Cyrenaica on the continent south of the Mediterranean Sea, but he was schooled in Athens. As an adolescent, he rebelled against his respected father and took up the sword. By the time I had emerged as the Destroyer of Nations, he had become a cunning and skillful warlord. At first an opponent, he soon joined my army and fought in it toward the end of my Greek conquests. As reward for his services, I commissioned him license to harvest slaves in Thessaly.
I learned a great many things about Draco when he served with me. He was charismatic, passionate, but most of all, an unyielding perfectionist. His product had to be of the highest quality. Draco would never offer a slave for sale as a virgin after deflowering her. Draco would never rape a slave either. Rape wasnít in his nature. I knew from personal experience that he much too much enjoyed the song and dance of entreat and seduction. Also, he would never attempt to harvest humans from any village not sanctioned by the Realm, so Poteidaia would not have been a village he would have chosen to raid. I carefully calculated the time that I believed Gabrielle was abducted from Poteidaia from the information I had. She was taken sometime in the autumn season six years ago. At that time, I was fighting Arvad of Massilia. Earlier that season, Draco had volunteered to sail to Euboea across the gulf from Thermopylae to battle a vicious warlord there. He had been a successful slaver for well over a year at that point, but fighting was always a desire circulating in his blood. I suspected that it was while he was away at battle that his lieutenants decided to raid villages in Macedonia as well as Thessaly. With both he and myself preoccupied with wars, they must have figured that they could be reckless with their means and their methods in procuring slaves.
Draco had made a valley below the Pindus Mountains his slaversí headquarters. If the two lieutenants responsible for abducting Gabrielle were still alive, I honestly believed it would only be because Draco knew nothing of their actions. Otherwise, he would have forfeited their lives for insubordination and deceit those many years ago. If they were alive, my objective was to take his two lieutenants into custody, without objection from Draco, return them to Corinth and subject them to the public judgments before reuniting with Gabrielle in the Amazon village. It was an ambitious plan that would not have afforded me any sleep simply because of all of the travel involved. However, when I arrived at the camp just before nightfall, I immediately learned that Draco was back east in Trachis overseeing an auction. He had conveniently left his two top lieutenants, Hector and one Gar of Coronae behind.
When I rode into the central square of the headquarters, the slavers immediately gathered around and bowed in formal greeting. I dismounted from Argo.
"I wish to see one Hector of Parnassus and one Gar of Coronae," I announced.
Both men stepped forward.
I walked over to Hector and presented the parchment that I had obtained from Chayym Eben. "Is this the requisition for the procurement of one Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Hector?" I asked as casually as one interested in inquiring about the purchase of a pair of shoes.
"Absolutely, my Liege," he answered. "I donít recall this particular transaction, but that is my signature."
"Perhaps I can remind you," I started. "Think back about six years ago. Draco was in Euboea, I was in Thrace and no one was babysitting you."
Sweat began to instantly bead on his oily forehead. "We uh we were"
"You were harvesting slaves in Macedonia, RIGHT?"
Perspiration began to soak his tunic. "Well uh"
"And you harvested many young women, CORRECT?"
Hector cleared his throat. Gar began backing up. Both of my accompanying sergeants dismounted and stood behind the men, effectively tethering them.
"And you sold them as virgins after repeatedly raping them, TRUE?"
Hector wildly shook his head. "No uh but"
"DONíT LIE TO ME!" I grabbed his throat. The other slavers began backing away. "Stay where you are, all of you!" I ordered before returning my attention to Hector. "Now, you and Gar here abducted young women from Macedonia, you raped them and then sold them as virgins."
"But they wanted it, Conqueror," Hector desperately said. Unfortunately for him, it was the most fatally stupid thing he could say to me at that moment.
"On your knees, Hector," I said and then indicated to the sergeant behind Gar to force him on his knees.
"Please donít kill me, Majesty, please!" Hector begged. Gar was actually crying.
"Iím going to give you a choice, Hector," I informed him as I unsheathed my sword. "Something is coming off of your body today." I pointed to his head with the sword. "This," I pointed to his phallus, "or this. Which will it be?"
Hector began whimpering like a baby. "Which will it be?" I repeated. He looked down. "Hector has made his choice!" I announced to the onlookers. As the sergeant opened Hectorís tunic and pulled his britches down to his knees, Hector cried and shook his head in disbelief. The sergeant restrained him from behind. "Enjoy the last piece of pleasure youíll experience from a woman," I said as I gripped his male member, raised my sword and cut it off.
Hector let out a blood-chilling scream as the blood from the castration squirted everywhere. Gar vomited. I discarded the phallus on the ground in front of him and watched him for a few moments. When he was passed the pain and the reality of life without his precious instrument of sex filtered into his consciousness, he looked up at me. "Kill me," he said simply.
"Gladly," I responded as my sergeant released Hector and backed away. I swiped my sword across his neck, decapitating him.
I stepped over to Gar. "You participated with Hector in the abductions and rapes in Macedonia," I said more as a statement of fact than a question.
Gar nodded. "Draco has no knowledge of this, does he?"
Gar shook his head. "Because if Draco had known about this, you would have been dead six years ago, wouldnít you?"
Gar nodded. "Which will it be, Gar?"
"Fine," I said. The second sergeant began to release Gar. "Not yet, Sergeant," I said as I gripped his phallus and sliced it off. When Gar cried out a vicious holler, I looked at my sergeant. "Now you can back away," I said casually before gripping a large lock of Garís hair and running my bloodied sword across his neck as well.
I looked around at the shocked men for a moment before picking up Hectorís phallus and shoving it into his open mouth. I did the same thing with Gar. Then I lifted both bloodied heads by their hair and displayed them to the surviving slavers.
"This is the price to pay for deception and rape in my Realm!" Then I simply dropped the heads on the ground beside me, mounted Argo and rode out of the slaversí camp with the two sergeants in tow.
* * * *
With the near full moon as our light, we rode the entire night back to Thermopylae, reaching the Thessalian Army post at sunrise. I paid the soldiers handsomely, as I had done for the three Corinthian hoplites that accompanied me to Sicyon, and then, after cleaning the blood off me, I joined Commander Rhamos and his young lover for a large morning feast. Afterwards, I left Thermopylae and rode to an abandoned armory in a small valley between Thermopylae and Pharsalus. A belly full of food, two whole days without sleep and the emasculation and beheading of two men had taken their toll on me. I was physically drained. Once inside the armory, I laid out my blanket and peacefully slept until sunset.
I returned to the Amazon village after midnight and made passionate love with my Gabrielle.
IV. GABRIELLEíS SCROLL ENTRY
When Xena admitted that she had imprisoned Chayym Eben in that wretched palace dungeon and killed the two men who abducted me from Poteidaia, I felt a huge sense of betrayal. She had not betrayed me, nor had she really betrayed those men. Xena betrayed herself. Once again, she gave into her darkest impulses. Those two men who took me from my parents, separated me from my sister and violated my body did deserve a harsh punishment, but did they deserve the Conquerorís butchery? Was her butchery exacted because they had betrayed the Realm, or was it her simple pleasure of sweet revenge for what they did to me? I wanted to scream, but my first concern was for Chayym Eben. At the time he sold me to Xena almost six years ago, his health was uncertain. Iím sure that the subsequent years and advancing age have been more burdening to him, and I was convinced that even a short period of time in that pit of Tartarus would surely kill him. He was my first Master, but he wasnít an evil man or a brutal man. He didnít terrorize girls or abduct them from their families. He never raised his hands to me nor did I ever observe him raising his hands to another. Yes, he deserved punishment for purchasing young women and adolescent girls through questionable circumstances, and selling them as sex slaves, but I didnít believe he deserved the vileness of the palace dungeons.
In a huff, I climbed toward the back of the wagon and began exiting it.
"Gabrielle, where are you going?" Xena asked in a tone that was obviously oblivious to the sheer anger and frustration I felt toward her at that moment.
"Back to Corinth," came my angry reply.
Xena reached over in one swoop with those unusually long limbs of hers and grabbed my ankles with both hands. "Are you insane?" she asked.
I tried to pry them away from her powerful grip. "I need to get Chayym Eben out of that prison before he dies."
"Why?" she casually queried as she scooted her body closer to mine.
"Let go of me, Xena!" I said, my anger an obvious factor in my tone. "You didnít have to put him in that prison."
Xena released my ankles, but in an instant she gripped my upper arms and turned me to face her. "Yes I did," she said.
"Because heís a pervert, Gabrielle," she said menacingly. "He made young girls do things to him. He made YOU do things to him."
"Oh, I get it," I sneered. "You slaughter those two slavers and imprison Chayym Eben because they had me sexually, right?"
"Thatís right," she snapped back at me.
"Well, itís a good thing Iím not ĎThe Conquerorí or the bodies of your sexual past would fill the prisons and the graves."
Xenaís usually blue eyes took on a color of gray death. I believed at that moment I had crossed a line, and the Xena who entered my world nine months ago would be lost to the cold, evil Conqueror that consumed me in her world for five often treacherous years. I truly expected her to strike me, and I donít doubt that the thought went through her head, but instead she hauled herself out of the wagon. I didnít know what she would do. I did know that somehow I had to find a way back to Corinth to save Chayym Eben. Iíll convince Demi to forge release papers for me, I thought conspiratorially.
As I haphazardly gathered up my belongings while plotting my devious scheme for my former Masterís release, I heard the voice of the Conqueror address the troops.
"I need two volunteers from my Imperial Guard," she announced. "These volunteers will not continue on with us to our destination. I need these volunteers to sacrifice their position in this great battle that awaits us in order to deliver an important message back to Corinth."
I had already peeked out of the front of the wagon when several members of the Imperial Guard stepped forward to volunteer for the long journey back to Corinth. The Conqueror leaned over to Guard Commander Palaemon. I highly suspected he was suggesting which two of the prospective volunteers they could most afford to lose before the pending battle. Both of the men that the Conqueror chose were young and lanky. She wrote a correspondence on a blank scroll and sealed it with her signature seal of the Realm.
"Take two horses, men," she said to the two Guardsmen. "Your loyalty to the Realm will not go un-rewarded."
"By your will, Conqueror," the men responded in unison before departing.
"MOVE OUT!" The Conqueror ordered the troops. As my own carriage began to move, I ducked back in and awaited Xenaís return.
I waited for a very long time.
* * * *
As dusk came across the horizon, a steady stream of thick clouds rolled in with it. The air took on that distinctive smell which always precedes a rainstorm.
I was reclining on one of the comfortable cushions and reading when Xena climbed back into the wagon. She sat cross-legged and proceeded to stare at me. I returned the gaze. I felt a silent battle of wills occur with the winner being the one who held silence the longest. I decided to sacrifice victory.
"Iím sorry for insulting you, Xena."
"Donít you ever apologize to me," came her very harsh response. At the moment, I was so overwhelmed by the tone that I failed to understand the meaning behind those words. But I know Xena. I realized quickly that whatever verbal assaults I inflicted on her would be miniscule compared to what she feels in her heart I had suffered both by her words and from her hands. In her mind, she doesnít deserve any acts of contrition from me.
Also, Xena the Conqueror is too proud to ever require pity.
Another tactic was in order. "Thank you for sending those men back to Corinth, Xena."
She bore her eyes into me. "My best fighters were selected for this mission and I had to surrender two of them to save some sorry old pervert whoís probably dead by now anyway."
"You didnít have to, Xena," I said. "I would have gone back myself."
"Yea, youíre stubborn that way, Gabrielle," she remarked. "Like Tartarus was I going to let you leave me and travel that distance alone. Besides, no palace dungeon guard would have let Eben out at your request." She thought for a moment. "What were you going to do, forge some official documents to gain his release?"
"Yes, if thatís what it took," I replied frankly.
Xena chose that moment to beam one of her signature toothy smiles at me. "Come here," she said. "Why do you always make it impossible for me to remain angry with you?"
"I donít know," I said as I crawled over to her and allowed her to scoop me up into a loving embrace. Wrapping my legs around her hips, we began a series of short, tender kisses. I quickly forgot that I was infuriated with her as well. Xenaís lips are so soft and they seem to blend with mine perfectly. After long moments of our lips caressing and tongues playing, she fell still. Xena the Conqueror was sensing something. I opened my eyes and saw that hers were open as well. She turned her head to see Seumius at the front entrance of the wagon watching us. As I sighed my discontent over this man, she released me from her embrace and headed toward the front of the wagon. He immediately began backing up. I decided to crawl behind Xena and witness what was in store for this supercilious creature of a man, although I really didnít want Xena to harm him.
When I peeked out, Seumius was standing in a downpour by one of the two horses that pulled my wagon. In my displays of affection toward Xena, I had failed to even notice the biting drops of rain hitting the canvas top. Apparently, Xena was oblivious to the rain as well or didnít care one way or the other.
"My Liege," Seumius spoke. "The troops are very wet and rather tired. May we camp until the worst of this storm passes?"
"If we press on, we will reach Gesoria by midnight, Commander," Xena replied.
"True, Majesty," Seumius said.
Xena was silent for a few short moments. "Weíll camp until the worst of this storm passes," she decided. "Have the troops bunk down in tents. I want them resting or sleeping. I donít want to hear any frolicking, swordplay or gambling, do you understand me, Commander?"
"Yes, my Liege."
"I want us to reach Gesoria before dawn."
"Yes, my Liege."
"And Seumius, do yourself a favor and stay away from me for a while," Xena advised.
"By your will, Conqueror," Seumius replied, obviously relieved that Xena had decided not to punish him for his voyeurism. Despite the fact that I had felt envy toward this man for his past with Xena, I was actually relieved as well.
As the elderly driver of my wagon climbed down to seek shelter in one of the other wagons, Xena ducked back inside. I found myself smiling at her uncontrollably. "Love suits you, Xena the Conqueror," I said.
"You suit me, Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
* * * *
Xena and I got undressed and settled under two thick blankets. Our hands began an erotic exploration as our lips resumed the task they had undertaken earlier. I ran my fingers through her lush, black hair for several moments before moving them lower. I then alternated rubbing and lightly scratching the thin, raised lines on her back. Xena removed her silky lips from mine and began furiously sucking my ear as her strong hands massaged my rear.
"Youíve got such a nice ass, Gabrielle," Xena whispered into my ear. The caresses went on for long moments before our passions began to take over. I wanted to taste her. She wanted to taste me. So, she lay on her back as I rested my body on top of hers. I was positioned so that I was facing her saturated sex. I wrapped my arms around her powerful thighs and began sucking her nub. Xena scent was strong and inviting. My own loins tingled as I felt her long fingers grip my upper thighs and rear and her black bangs tickle the insides of my thighs. She began her sensuous feast as well. As I feasted, I massaged her firm yet soft thighs. I could feel the vibration of her moaning and her hardened nipplesí pointed touch on my hips. My equally hardened nipples were graced with the occasional presence of Xenaís fingers lightly pinching and manipulating them. With all that was going on in this position, climax eluded both of us for quite some time, but the additional time and effort proved to be well worth the wait.
When we were in a relaxing embrace after our deeply sensuous exchange, Xena looked at me. "Gabrielle," she said. "Chayym Eben wonít be freed. Iím merely having him moved to a more inhabitable holding cell in the Corinthian Militia Compound. Iíve instructed Bahri to keep an eye on him. Heíll still face judgment."
"I understand, Xena," I said. "Bahri will be fair."
Xena delicately ran her fingers down my face. "I know you disapprove of what I did to Hector and Gar," she said. "You must truly see me as a vile creature."
"No, I donít see you as a creature, Xena," I responded. "But yes, I hate what you did. I feel that you betrayed yourself by killing them. You werenít motivated by any sense of justice, Xena. You were motivated by vengeance alone." I cupped her cheek in my palm and continued, "Those men died not because they had wronged many women, which they had done. They died because they had wronged me. The betrayal was allowing that dark power to invade your soul. You let revenge take over your logical sense of justice, honor and integrity. I believe that these are your true traits, Xena. I KNOW that they are."
"Okay, Gabrielle," she countered. "What do you think Hector and Gar deserved as punishment for raping you, raping your sister, and violating all of the other girls abducted from your village?"
"My bitter heart says death as well, Xena," I responded. "But last month you allowed me to spare a man who had raped girls even younger than I was at the time Dracoís men took me and he had killed the girls as well. It wouldnít be fair that that man is spared his life for doing something worse while these two men lose their lives."
Xena raised her eyebrow. "So, if you were ĎGabrielle the Greatí, what punishment would they face?"
"After a fair trial, Xena, life imprisonment at the womenís prison on Lesbos," I responded.
"What?" she exclaimed. "Why there? Why not the Dome of Trojans prison?"
"Iíd have them placed in an outdoor cage so, for the rest of their lives, they would be surrounded by women that they couldnít touch, have sex with, or harm. Everyday of their lives they would be forced to watch the women walk by their cage, ignoring them or insulting them or spitting on them, but never again would they feel the softness of a womanís body or the deepness of her core." I smiled. "I think that the punishment of having a phallus and not being able to use it is akin to having it cut off."
Xena chuckled. "What about self pleasuring, Gabrielle?"
I thought quickly. "I would order that their hands be permanently bound behind their backs," I said proudly. "Not only could they not self-pleasure, they would also be forced to eat from their plates like animals."
"I like that, Gabrielle," Xena said. "Thereís only one problem with it."
"Whatís that, Xena?"
"The women in that prison are being punished for crimes as well. This would be considered a pleasantry for them."
"Hmm" I contemplated. "Well, a little entertainment could be allowed. I canít imagine that any woman is capable of an atrocity greater than that of which a man is capable."
"Obviously your love for me has blinded you and deprived you of your memory, Gabrielle," Xena said.
I fell silent and the silence lingered for the remainder of rainstorm.
* * * *
Our entourage reached the costal village of Gesoria at dawn. Gesoria instantly reminded me of Poteidaia. It was a small peasant village and most of its inhabitants were women, children and older men. Most of the able-bodied men and older boys were off serving in one of the Conquerorís various armies. Fishing appeared to be the main source of revenue to the villagers, although many small goat and sheep farms dotted the outer areas of the village.
Just west of Gesoria was where the Conquerorís battle vessels awaited us. My jaw dropped at the size of these massive ships. Each ship had four masts and was almost twice the size of the warships that were docked in Corinth. When we had arrived, Xena immediately went to Palaemon, Marius and Seumius to begin drawing out a battle plan, I suspected. As I stood in total awe of the magnitude of the ships, Palaemonís second-in-command, Aerol, approached me.
"Good morning, Gabrielle," he greeted.
"Hi," I responded. Aerol, like Palaemon, was an attractive man. But while Palaemon was fair-skinned and blond, Aerol possessed all of the features of his classic Greek heritage. His hair was black, curly and very thick. His nose was long and prominent, his eyes were a deep, rich brown and he had a thick beard and mustache. Despite his strong features and position in the Conquerorís Realm, Aerol was a soft-spoken, friendly man.
"I see you are marveling at the beauty of our fleet," he said.
"Actually, I was marveling at their size," I responded. "Iíve never seen ships so huge."
"These were Roman ships before the Conqueror took Rome," he told me. "The Romans commissioned the Egyptians to build these ships."
"Were the ships built in Egypt, Commander?" I asked Aerol.
"No, the greatest of the Egyptian ship builders constructed these vessels in Rome using the finest resources. The hull, masts and gunwales were crafted from the strongest wood brought to Rome from Gaul. The best Egyptian smiths molded all of the metal parts. Some of the smallest luxurious refinements within the boats are made of carved Roman marble, Egyptian ivory and the most precious gems and metals known to man. What you see before you, Gabrielle, is the greatest maritime fleet in the known world."
Aerol smiled proudly. Xena the Conqueror may be tyrannical toward her civilian subjects, but the men and women who serve in her military practically regard her as some sort of goddess.
"Would you like to join me for morning meal?" he asked.
I looked over at Xena, who was in a deep discussion with her three military leaders. I was hungry. "Yes, I would," I responded.
Aerol and I walked over to large group of soldiers situated in a makeshift mess hall. As I began eating my cooked grain and bread, Aerol asked me to tell a story. I had the full attention of almost one hundred men who surrounded me as I told a rather silly tale about a young boy who finds a talking bird in the woods.
"So the bird refused to speak in front of anyone else?" asked Aerol.
"Thatís right," I responded.
"And none of the villagers believed the boy when he told them that the bird could actually talk," another centurion chimed in.
"Uh huh," I affirmed.
"By Zeus, Iíd kill that damn bird for being so stubborn," said a third man.
Several of the soldiers begged me to finish the story. "What did the boy do?" queried one. "Did the bird ever speak in front of another human?" asked another. "Did the gods give the bird the power to speak?" asked yet another. As I continued my story, I looked into the faces of these centurions. These were Xenaís mightiest warriors, but for a moment in time, I had created before me a group of men as bright-eyed and inquisitive as a gang of schoolboys.
As I finished the story, Xena approached us. "Whatís going on here?" she inquired menacingly. All of the men rose to their feet and bowed. I stood as well.
"Gabrielle was telling us a story, my Liege," Aerol responded.
"Sheís good at that, but you have your posts. Now GET TO THEM!"
Amazingly in unison, the men shouted, "By your will, Conqueror!" before practically falling over each other to be somewhere else. Only Aerol remained.
"Commander Palaemon has instructions for you, Commander Aerol," Xena informed him as she stepped up beside me and put her arm around my shoulder. Her possessive gesture did not go unnoticed by Aerol.
"Yes, my Liege," he answered and bowed before departing.
Is there something wrong, Xena?" I asked.
"No," she replied flatly.
"I was just telling them my talking bird story."
"Cute story," she said. "But Iím not sure which they appeared to be enjoying more, your story or your close proximity to them."
I playfully nudged my elbow into her side in an effort to lighten her mood. "Oh, Xena," I said. "Not everyone sees me as the perfect and might I add gorgeous being that you see." I chuckled at my mock arrogance and looked up at her, but saw a serious expression on her face.
"Itís time to sail, Gabrielle," was all that she said before escorting me, with her arm still firmly planted around my shoulder, to one of the huge warships.
V. THE CONQUERORíS LOG
With each passing day, I regretted more and more having Gabrielle accompany me on this mission. By the gods, I love her so much and I cannot imagine a moment without her, but I truly did not want her with me. Several years ago, when I acknowledged to myself my love for her, I promised myself that I would never expose her to the carnage that is so much a part of my life. It made no sense at the time. I would hurt her, but I didnít want her to see me hurting others. She was forbidden from witnessing any punishments or judgments, the palace dungeons were off limits to her, and before Darphus, she had never witnessed me kill. As time passed and I fell deeper and deeper for her, I became paranoid about the stories and rumors she would hear about me from the other palace servants. It was strange, but although I wanted her to fear me and I even wanted her to hate me for a long time, I never wanted her to see me as a demon. I often shuddered at the thought that she looked upon me as some sort of inhuman monster. Of course, those little isolating gestures on my part were fruitless. With all that I did to her and everything I denied her, I was a demon to her anyway.
But when I finally told her that I loved her, I reaffirmed that commitment that I made to myself. It was short lived. Darphus, Antonius, Bahri, the Amazons, Chayym Eben, Dracoís men, the story of Mariusí wife; and the worst was yet to come. As she and I boarded the warship that would take me to yet another battle and expose her to yet another instance of my glorious cruelty, my mind was taken away momentarily from my focus on the battle ahead. The night before I had asked her what would she have done to the two men who permanently stole her away from her parents and repeatedly violated her. Her response was both illogical and impractical in my mind, but at the same time it made total sense. Killing them made me feel better. Letting them live with the constant reminder of what they no longer could have or take would have been a greater punishment to them. It was the same logic Gabrielle employed in her six public judgments. In her mind, vengeance should never be the priority, justice and atonement should.
Gabrielleís Amazon tribe truly selected the proper moiety for her.
As we stood on the main deck, I looked down at Gabrielle, who had this look of utter wonder on her face.
"Have you ever been on a ship before, Gabrielle?" I asked.
"Well, there were a few boats in the harbor in my village," she responded. "Father took me aboard one of them once or twice when I was little, but Iíve never actually sailed on one and Iíve never even seen a boat this big before, Xena."
"Iíll give you a tour," I said as I guided her to the quarterdeck. "This is where I will spend most of my time, Gabrielle." I leaned down and whispered in her ear, "When Iím not making love with you."
She smiled as I took her hand and escorted her below to show her the sleeping cabins.
A short while later, after our little tour, we returned to the main deck. The sails were being raised and the fleet of ships began sailing out of the harbor. Seumius commanded one ship, Marius another and Palaemon a third. I commanded the fourth. Aerol accompanied me. Several smaller vessels carried the remaining troops, our supplies, weapons, horses and catapults. We had not even hit rough water yet when Gabrielle began clutching her stomach and weaving in place.
"I donít feel well, Xena," she said.
"Itís okay, Gabrielle, you just havenít acquired your sea legs yet," I informed her. "Itís common and will pass." Unfortunately for my Gabrielle, it didnít. She spent the next two candlemarks hovering over the gunwale emptying her belly. When she continued to vomit although nothing remained in her stomach, I became very concerned.
I took Gabrielle down below, helped her undress and summoned the healer. "Bring me some yellow root and black cherries," I ordered him. I had Gabrielle lay down on our large cabin bunk and applied a pressure to a point on her right wrist. She was doubling over. "This will stop the nausea," I told her. The healer returned with a small bowl of cherries and a vial of the crushed root. "Eat a couple of cherries, Gabrielle."
"I canít, Xena," she responded while holding her stomach. A tear trickled down the side of her face.
I took my thumb and wiped it away. "Please, Gabrielle, eat." She took some cherries in her mouth. I gave her a small plate to spit out the pits and pried off the top to the vial. "Now, place some of this on your tongue. Donít chew. Just swallow naturally."
Gabrielle winced at the taste. "Ack! That was nasty, Xena."
"It would have tasted worse had you not eaten the cherries beforehand," I informed her. "Now rest. The remedy you took should settle your stomach. Iíll leave the cherries here. Feel free to eat more if you need to. You should feel better by morning."
Gabrielle nestled in the bunk and I covered her with a blanket. I climbed in behind her and cupped my body against hers. I would lie with her only until she fell asleep. As her eyelids became heavier, I whispered in her ear, "There wasnít more than a thousand, Gabrielle. Not even close."
She turned her head slightly. "Pardon?" she asked.
"When you asked me that one time if there had been more than a thousand bed partners no, not even close," I responded.
"Mmmm good," she said as she smiled faintly and drifted off to sleep. I extracted my arm from around her waist and adoringly kissed her temple before exiting our sleeping cabin and returning to matters that awaited my attention on the quarterdeck.
* * * *
The sea god Poseidon must have sent favorable ocean currents in our direction because we were close to the Albion shores just before dawn the next morning. I was up throughout the night going over the last details of my battle strategy with Aerol. I had already provided much of my plan to my other commanders on the other vessels before we embarked on our voyage.
Before my rise to power, the Romans had set up three shipping ports on the south side of Albion. The easternmost port was only across the channel from Gesoria in the village of Dubris, a small agricultural village just east of Niallís native inland village of Calleva. It would have only taken us a few candlemarks to sail there. However, our destination was further west, off shore between the other two ports. The central port was at the tiny village Caesar named Regnum, which was just east of the small island of Vectis. The last port was located west of Vectis, in the village of Durnovaria. Each port had no more than a dozen small keels and supply vessels. When I conquered Rome, I took control of Albionís southern ports. They were operated by those loyal to the Realm; sailors from Rome and Gaul, Celtic fishermen and merchant marines and those Albion tribal natives who most appreciated my defeat of Caesar.
Niall of Calleva hated Caesar with a passion, but he hated me as well. He was also, simply stated, a brute. I knew that he had been able to take control of those three ports by murdering most, if not all of the sailors of the Realm and native dockworkers who ran them. He was also a cannibal who had been known to eat the raw organs of the men he captured or defeated in battle. Some years ago, in Caesarís attempt to conquer Albion, he battled Niall twice and lost both times. It wasnít because Niall was a superior warrior or because his fighters outnumbered the Romans. Neither was the case. Niall was victorious because he and his tribe of animals, in the form of men, fought like wild dogs. They attacked in packs, hacked their opponents even after slaughter and they never retreated, even if injured. The Romans who survived the battles against Niall retreated out of pure fatigue.
Ah, but that was where Caesar made his crucial mistake. Ever so arrogant, he fought Niall on the notion that his so-called mighty Roman troops would win simply because he believed they were naturally superior human beings to the tribes of Albion he called "Britons". Sure, his Romans soldiers could march upright and read scrolls, but those qualities didnít amount to a valley of sheep when going up against a bloodthirsty savage like Niall. The only way to defeat him was to exhaust him.
Albion has several tribes that they call "clans". Niallís clan, the Iceni, is the largest of the southlands. The two other southern shore clans, the Dumnonii and the Atrebates were traditional enemies of the Iceni, but aligned with them when Caesar began his attacks. However, all of the clans to the north and on the companion island of Ierne have remained bitter enemies only of the Iceni. My understanding was that the other clans resented the fact that the Iceni drove a huge wedge between the Dumnonii, the Atrebates and the other island clans. Many small civil wars erupted in the years following Caesarís failed invasion and my subsequent conquests, and most believed that Niall was solely responsible for this tribal division.
When we set sail from Gesoria, two of my vessels, one commanded by Marius, headed north and east through the channel and up the North Sea. A small port existed beyond the Iceni lands. The Parisii, the largest and most civilized clan of the central island, controlled this port. The Parisii are believed to be the "first" clan of Albion. They are part of the larger tribe of Parisii that inhabits an important territory in Gaul. Leaders of their tribe have governed the great Gaulish city of Alesia for generations, and continue to do so under my rule. The Parisii reputedly established a neighboring village of Alesia, bearing the tribeís name, Paris. Mariusí orders were to recruit Parisii fighters in Albion to engage the Iceni from the north while we attack from the south and west. Recruiting Parisii wasnít going to be difficult. More than any other in Albion, that clan hated Niall of Calleva and the Iceni.
To tire out Niall even more, I planned both a land battle and sea battle. I suspected that Niall had taken possession of all of my ships at the three Albion ports when he invaded them, but also knew that he couldnít navigate his way across a bathing tub with any of them. There was no need to destroy the ships, but by positioning my catapult vessels within range of all three ports, I planned to blast portions of the ports. This would be what I called the first wave of my attack. The damage would not be grave, but enough to draw attention. Niall likely relocated my seized diplomats in each of the port buildings or within the bowels of the ships on the assumption that I wouldnít attack neither and sacrifice their lives. Of course, no one life is more important than the greater glory of the Realm, except for Gabrielleís life obviously, so the first order of business was to start a fiery commotion, thereby sending the message to Niall that Xena the Conqueror had arrived and was ready to scrimmage.
I also decided not to tell Gabrielle that innocents were likely to be sacrificed in this battle.
That morning, three catapult ships simultaneously blasted sections of the three ports. As the warriors of the three clans scurried away from the burning structures, Seumiusí ship landed a safe distance away from the central port in Regnum and his troops disembarked the ship to begin their land battle. They were the second wave. He and his troops would engage the three southern clans at the site of the smoldering ports for three whole days before the third wave began. On schedule, Marius, his troops and the Parisii allies swept down from the north before dawn the fourth day and engaged Niallís stronghold near his main camp in the Roman established village of Londinium. I predicted that most of Niallís warriors were positioned at or around his stronghold. Seumiusí surviving troops did a mock retreat back to their ships, allowing their foes to retreat back to the main camp to assist the others fighting my Roman forces and the Parisii.
Mariusí forces fought the clans for four full days. In the first full week that Seumius and then Marius fought Niallís warriors, my ship and Palaemonís vessel were anchored off shore. We were preparing my elite Imperial Guard strategically and mentally for their upcoming wave of battle. Palaemon, Aerol and I drilled the troops on the two ships we commanded. Gabrielle watched and, I believed, kept an accounting of our activities. She was doing a lot of writing. She also spent many hours practicing with her Amazon staff. I refused to allow any of the Guardsmen to spar with her, preferring to do it myself. I didnít want them hurting her, I told her. I also didnít want her getting too friendly with any of them. During this mission, the other reason why I didnít want Gabrielle to accompany me became painfully evident. I could barely stand to watch the men of my troops, as covertly as they could possibly muster, notice her, eye her, want her. Many times I noticed them look upon her; some adoringly, others with sheer lust in their eyes. I wanted to kill them all. Of course, when I wasnít preoccupied with their looks of craving, I was battling my own provocative stares. She was a constant portrait of beauty and desire to me, even when she would lean up against the gunwale, green with nausea. I still felt a deep sense of envy whenever any of my men merely looked at the splendor that she is. Although I was able to maintain my battle focus in those days leading up to our turn to attack, as I suspected would be the case, her presence, her beauty, and my need for her continued to burden me.
Because we were anchored, Gabrielleís seasickness seemed to abate somewhat, although the seaís waves caused the ships to continuously bob. I was still very concerned because she refused to eat anything considerable, preferring to exist on cherries and cucumbers. I told her to eat meat and grains, but she insisted that her stomach wouldnít handle those heavier foods.
I slept sporadically for the first few days, taking naps in the midday and early evenings, drilling well into the night and into the morning. When we saw each other, Gabrielle and I didnít speak much. Because she was practically starving herself, Gabrielle slept more and more as the days passed. However, on the evening before the morning I was going to join the battle, I went to her. She was preparing to turn in for the night. We hadnít slept together for several days and I wanted to feel the warmth and sensuousness of her body next to mine.
"May I go to shore with you tomorrow, Xena?" she asked as soon as I entered our sleeping cabin.
"Oh, sweetheart," I said. "Youíd be safer here." I had decided as we were sailing to Albion that I just couldnít expose Gabrielle to my battle tyranny. Thus, she was to remain on the safe shelter of the ship.
"But I want off this boat, Xena," Gabrielle implored. "Please!"
Her appeal almost brought me to tears. "The battle that awaits me is near its end, my love," I told her. "When I defeat Niall, there is this place on the island where I want to take you. I know you were not meant to be on the sea, Gabrielle, but I promise you, this is almost over. In the meantime, I want you safe."
I brought my lips to hers. As much as I wanted to, we would not make love that night, but I held her close and hummed sweet endearments into her ear until the combination of Morpheusí grasp, exhaustion, and famine allowed sleep to claim her.
* * * *
Now it was my turn to enter the fray. With the damaged ports virtually abandoned, my Imperial Guard, Palaemon and I landed on shore with the main land catapult power. Seumius and his surviving warriors accompanied us. We marched the troops and rolled the catapults to an area just out of range of the main battle near Niallís stronghold. Aerolís orders were to remain on board my ship, watch over the fleet and, most importantly, protect Gabrielle.
We entered Niallís stronghold in phalanx formation in the predawn of Mariusí fifth day of battle with the clans. I was in front and center of the forces. From the moment we landed on shore, I saw the carnage. Bodies were everywhere. Many of the heads of my dead soldiers were missing. The Iceni were known to chop the heads off of their defeated. They would display the heads on the tips of long swords or palisades mounted into the ground and lined in a row. I had done that display tactic of terror once or twice very early in my conquests, but quickly developed a major distaste for the practice and abandoned it back then. When we were in range of Niallís stronghold, I observed for a moment the battle before me. There were mass casualties on both sides, but my Roman troops and the Parisii allies were holding strong. I quickly noticed that two of the Parisii fighters were obviously women. One was tall and lean with long red hair. The other, however, was an even taller, black-skinned warrior who bore the Parisii body markings. None of the clans of Albion and Ierne allowed their women to fight, so seeing the two Parisii women engage an enemy was a highly unusual delight to see.
I stood there waiting to be noticed. It didnít take long. A massive, blood-soaked man emerged from amongst the fighting warriors and carcasses. He raised his signature, double-edged sword in the air and then pointed it toward me. Then he let out a blood-churning growl.
"GGGRRRRRR!!!!" The fighting around him stopped. On cue, my surviving troops and the Parisii allies, with a war weary but intact Marius, retreated in our direction. Niallís warriors surrounded him.
"XENA THE BITCH!" he yelled at the top of his lungs in his native tongue, "TIME FOR YOU TO DIE!"
Palaemon leaned over to me. "What did he say, my Liege?" he asked.
"He was sending me his warmest morning greeting, Commander," I responded. "Now, letís kill him."
I briefly looked at Seumius to my left. He was bruised and tired but eager to fight again. Palaemon was nearly coming out of his skin. "ATTACK!" I commanded. My forces began running toward the enemy, who charged as well. The waves of battle were very effective. Niallís forces had dwindled down to the few dozen remaining warriors on the battlefield that morning.
As we ran, I set my sights on Niall. I wanted to execute him personally. Clanging swords, I looked into the gray eyes of this swine and said to him in his native tongue, "My time to die will come when I decide, dog." He fought maniacally. Obviously, he preserved his energy for this moment of opportunity. We fought hard and for a very long time. Niall was very strong and excellent with a sword. He was able to slip two good slices into me; one on my right thigh and the other on my side, not far from the spot where Darphus stabbed me five months before. However, he was also portly and exceptionally clumsy, and his coordination decreased more and more as his overtiredness increased. Although days of travel and lack of sleep left me likewise exhausted, I took advantage of his fatigue and ungainliness and finally sliced my sword across his lower belly. As he went down, I kicked him in his face. He fell backwards and landed hard on his back. He gripped his bleeding stomach and looked up at me. I raised my sword.
"So, you like heads, Niall?" I said condescendingly in his language. "Letís add yours to the collection."
Just as I was about to chop off his miserable head, he raised one bloody hand in a halting gesture. "Please donít kill me," he said. This, of course, was the last thing I expected to hear from a highly skilled and feared warrior like Niall of Calleva. I stood there, actually dumbfounded. This man had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of my elite fighters. He had continually spat at me and at my Realm and now he was pleading for his pathetic life.
And for some reason, I couldnít finish him.
Upon seeing their beleaguered leader cowering on the ground bleeding and begging for his life, the surviving tribal warriors surrendered. I lowered my sword and called for Palaemon, Seumius and Marius. "Bind him and the surviving clansmen," I said. "Designate one of our ships as a prisoner vessel and load the clansmen onto it. Put Niall in a holding cabin on my ship."
"Youíre sparing him, my Liege?" Palaemon asked.
"No, weíre taking him to Rome to face judgment," I responded.
I donít know why, but Palaemon smiled at me. Marius and Seumius, on the other hand, looked at me as though I had lost my mind. "By your will, Conqueror," Marius belatedly said.
As my fighters began apprehending the surviving clansmen, I approached the Parisii allies who stood exhausted in a group. "Thank you for your assistance," I said to them collectively. At that moment, the leader of the clan and the two Parisii women stepped forward.
"I am Graeme," he announced in the dialect of his clan. Although I had some difficulty, I was able to catch most of what he said. "I am the leader of the Parisii people here. This is a glorious day for us. We can now live without the fear of Niallís continuous poisoning of our brethren clans."
The white Parisii woman spoke. "I am Stanislas, sister of Graeme," she said. "I too am grateful. With hard work, we will be able to reunite with our brethren clans of the southlands. Now we will have peace."
When Stanislas put her arm around the taller black Parisii woman, my heart began racing. I donít know how this lovely woman came to live amongst this clan in Albion. Perhaps the Romans abducted her into slavery. Perhaps she was the daughter of Taruga or Zanzibar ivory merchants who traveled the region. But it was obvious that she had a love for Stanislas that was the same way that I love my Gabrielle.
"I am Hadiya," she said. "Stanislas and I share a blood union. Thank you, Xena the Conqueror."
As the Parisii warriors walked away, I stood there on the bloody, body-riddled battlefield for long moments, thinking everything and nothing at the same time.
VI. GABRIELLEíS SCROLL ENTRY
After Xena left the ship to go ashore, I once again leaned over the gunwale of that beautiful ship on which I had been a miserable occupant and emptied what little was in my stomach.
The night before, I had begged Xena to let me go ashore with her. I had no desire to fight, nor did I want to see her engaging in what I feared was her favorite pastime, killing the enemy in battle. I just wanted to be on dry land. When Xena was safely away from the ship, I approached Aerol and inundated him with irritating pleas.
"Youíve got to let me go ashore, Aerol," I begged. "I canít take this boat anymore." I grabbed his arm for dramatic effect. "Iím so ill, Aerol. I donít know how much longer I can go on like this."
"Iím sorry, Gabrielle, but I have my orders to keep you on board," he said.
Damn Xena and her orders. "Look Aerol," I said quite agitated. "Iím dying on this boat. What would you rather? Disobeying the Conqueror and having her return to a live Gabrielle or obeying her and having her come back here to her dead little bard?"
"Iím sorry, Gabrielle," he replied.
Diplomacy was not working.
"Dammit, Aerol!" I screamed. "If you donít let me off this boat, Iíll Iíll Iíll jump off!" And with that, I ran to the shipís starboard side where a short plank was fastened to the hull. I climbed down onto the plank and walked carefully to the edge. The water below me was very choppy, likely twenty leagues deep and probably infested with man-eating sea creatures.
"Please get off that!" Aerol implored.
"Only if you take me to shore," I responded, determined.
"By the gods, Gabrielle, do you want to see my head on a platter?"
"Take me to shore, Aerol," I demanded.
Aerol threw his arms up in defeat. "Okay, okay!" he shouted. "Now come back here!"
Aerol and I rowed to shore on one of the tiny keels attached to the hull of our ship. I could barely wait to touch the earth below me. When our keel hit land, I leapt out of it and fell to the sandy beach. Screaming my joy, I actually kissed the dirt below me and rubbed it on my face. Aerol must have thought I had succumbed to total lunacy.
I looked up at him with my mud-stained face. "Aerol," I said. "Iím hungry."
Aerol and I found a large stone on which to sit. It overlooked a lovely valley that was surrounded by tall grasses blowing in the autumn breeze. Off in the distance, there was a huge deep forest. The location where we sat was very peaceful.
Aerol had wandered off briefly to kill a rabbit for our meal. While he was gone, I thought about Xena. She is the greatest fighter in the known world, but I couldnít help but to worry about her well-being. A part of me wanted to go to that battlefield. I wanted to feel her closeness, I wanted to feel safe, and I wanted to know that she was safe as well.
Aerol returned with two hares to eat. He had also managed to find some juicy black berries. I had brought my staff, a water skin and a satchel of cherries and cucumbers from the ship. I regretted that I forgot to bring bread.
I was so famished that I managed to eat the rabbit that Aerol cooked for me over the small fire he built, as well as half of the rabbit he cooked for himself. Finally sated after days of painful hunger, I leaned back on the rock and looked up at the cloud formations. Aerol joined me and we chatted
and waited for my Conquerorís return.
* * * *
We saw the troops coming over the horizon. Aerol jumped to his feet as Palaemon, Seumius and Marius entered the landscape. There were several men tethered together in binds. They wore strange clothing. I suspected that they were prisoners of war.
When I didnít see Xena with the group, I immediately became frightened and ran over to them. Aerol was right beside me. Since I felt most comfortable with Palaemon, I approached him.
"Whereís Xena?" I said, in my haste forgetting the honorific.
"Sheís fine, Gabrielle," he responded. "She was speaking with our Parisii allies. Iím sure sheís only a few lengths behind us."
I breathed a sigh of relief and looked up at Palaemonís prisoner. He was a burly man dressed in animal furs and leather. His arms were stretched out and tied at the wrists to a thick stick positioned across his upper back. He looked and smelled horribly. There was a prominent gash across his midsection.
"This is Niall of Calleva, Gabrielle," Palaemon informed me. "Heís going to Rome to face the public judgments." Palaemon handed the tethering rope to Aerol. "Take him, Commander," he said to Aerol. "The others are going on a designated prisoner vessel. Confine Niall on the Conquerorís ship."
As Aerol led away the barbarian Niall, Palaemon grabbed my shoulder. "She could have killed him, Gabrielle," he told me. "She was prepared to separate his head from his body, but something stopped her."
I looked up at Palaemon. "You were with her on that battlefield today, Gabrielle," he said. "No one has died by her hand in this war." Rendering me speechless, Palaemon walked away, leaving me to my musings.
I waited by the large rock for Xena to emerge. When she appeared, she was walking with a limp and clutching her side. I ran to her and threw my arms around her neck.
"Youíre hurt, Xena," I exclaimed.
"Why are you not on the ship?" she asked irately.
"Donít be angry with Commander Aerol, Xena," I said as I put my arm around her waist and guided her to the large rock. "I forced him to bring me ashore."
"How did you force him?" she inquired, her voice lower and more ominous.
"I threatened to jump, Xena."
Xena didnít react to my confession. She sat on the rock, grunting. "Do me a favor, Gabrielle," she said.
"Anything, my love."
"Go summon the shipís healer," she told me. "Have him bring cleansing ointments, cloth and sail thread. And have Argo and Chulytis saddled up with a dayís rations and brought from the ship."
I kissed her forehead. "Anything for you, Xena," I said as I began trotting in the direction of the ships.
"GABRIELLE!" Xena yelled, halting me. I ran back to her. "Take your staff, Gabrielle just in case."
I grabbed it and kissed her forehead a second time before running to the ships. Several moments later I returned with the healer. Palaemon came with the two horses in tow as well. The healer helped Xena remove her battledress. The gash in her side caused me to gasp. The one on her thigh was not nearly as bad. Just before he proceeded to apply the ointments and stitch the wounds, Xena hit pressure points on both areas. Apparently, she felt little, if any, pain as he bore the sail thread needle into her skin over and over.
I was no longer on that awful ship, but I felt as though I could lose my stomach once again.
When the healer finished, Xena assisted him in covering the wounds with the cloth bandages. She then turned her attention to Palaemon.
"Are we ready to sail, Palaemon?" she asked.
"We need to retrieve our two ships from the Parisii port, my Liege," Palaemon replied.
"Leave them, Commander," Xena said. "Gifts to the Parisii for assisting us." She looked at the horses, and then me, and then Palaemon. "Celebrate our victory tonight, Palaemon," she continued. "Our warriors deserve their merriment. Gabrielle and I will be back in the morning. Weíll journey to Rome then."
"By your will, Conqueror," he said before smiling at me and departing.
* * * *
Xena and I rode our horses into the deep forest that I had observed from my large rock. I was concerned about her battle injuries and looked over at her several times as we rode. Whatever pain she may have been experiencing was hidden behind a mask of strength and determination. I was also still very aware of the continuing discomfort she was feeling from the healed wounds on her back. Although the pain had days before been replaced with an irritating itch, in my constant state of nausea on the ship, I neglected to give Xena her daily applications of oil remedy to her back. Now she had fresh wounds with which to contend and all I wanted to do was shower her with tender, healing touches.
The forest in which we rode was made up of tall pine trees as well as large oak and maple bearing leaves in a variety of autumn colors. They seemed to go on endlessly. The trees were so dense and thick that the bright afternoon sun couldnít penetrate them in most spots. We rode for well over a candlemark and finally came to a majestic river with a slow current. Xena jumped down off Argo and began taking things out of her saddlebag. I jumped down and removed my blanket, a scroll and some food from Chulytisí saddlebag.
After Xena and I made camp, she took my hand and guided me back into the forest. We approached an outdoor temple. It was made up of a simple stone slab with a large decorative lekythoi placed on its center and some smaller vases, lush flowers and vines surrounding it. Although the smaller vases were filled with moss, ferns or flowers, the lekythoi was empty. Overall, the temple was a beautiful sight to behold.
"The local tribes of this region believe the water of that river is sacred," Xena explained. "Every full moon, someone from one of the local villages comes here and takes the lekythoi, fills it with water from the river and nourishes these flowers and plants with it. I donít know how sacred that river is, Gabrielle, but itís amazing that these flowers are still blooming in this cold autumn air."
"Itís beautiful, Xena," I simply said as I sat on a log and faced the outdoor temple.
Xena began pacing rather nervously. "Gabrielle," she began. "Do you ever think about bearing children?"
That question was totally unexpected. "Sometimes, Xena," I responded. "Why?"
"I would think youíd make a great mother, Gabrielle," she said. "You have such love and patience for them, and they seem to respond to you." She stopped pacing. "I wish I could give you children. I would give you as many children as you desired, and they would all be so pure-hearted and beautiful because of you."
"I believe some women marry men mainly because they desire children," I said. "When a woman doesnít have those feelings for her mate, I think a child senses the absence of a real passion between the parents. A child deserves parents who love each other as well as the child, Xena."
Xena paced again and was silent for long moments before coming over to me and kneeling by my side. She looked down at my hands and lightly took them in hers. Her hands were trembling.
"You deserve so much as well, Gabrielle," she said softly. "You deserve someone who appreciates the glory that you are someone who respects you, sacrifices for you, loves you." Xena looked up at me. Her blue eyes sparkled like gems. I sighed at her exquisiteness.
"You are my light, Gabrielle," she said after taking a deep breath. "You are my paradise on earth and I want to spend the rest of my life deluging you with appreciation."
Xena gripped my hands tighter and took another deep breath. "I donít deserve to even ask this, but but please join me in union, Gabrielle," she said quietly.
As my heart stopped beating, she rose up, stepped back, resumed her nervous pacing and began prattling. "I understand if you need time to think about it take all of the time you need consider all of the options weigh the pros and cons thereís a lot to take into account Iím not the most easy person to live with"
"Yes," I whispered.
"Wars, conflicts, affairs of state, assassination attempts, my temperament it can all be quite nerve-wracking, Iím sure but"
Xena stopped and looked at me. Tears of great joy began streaming down my face as I jumped up and ran to her. She took me into her arms and we held each other so close.
"I love you, Xena," I whispered.
"I love you, Gabrielle, so much," she whispered.
That night, under the shiny stars and by a sacred river, we loved one another; our passions taking on a whole new and marvelous meaning.
You are cordially invited to read my next installment, Surprises in Rome
"Please check out 'Gabrielle's Option (A Vignette)' here"
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