THE CONQUEROR’S CAMPAIGN
By CJ Wells
Disclaimers: For full disclaimers‚ see Part 1. In addition to the aforementioned fabrications of TPTB‚ Velasca and Callisto belong to that happy-go-lucky bunch as well.
III. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG
There have been so many things about my past that I’ve reluctantly had to reveal to Gabrielle. Explaining to her the things that I did to others in my rise to power is particularly unsettling. The expressions that sweep across her face send shivers down my spine. They are often haunting‚ often perturbed‚ but usually the expressions reveal marked disgust. I don’t believe she even realizes that her face displays these expressions. It’s just a part of Gabrielle’s nature. She is the incarnation of goodness and this is how she responds to evil.
When I figured out that it was Shaikheti who was leading an army across Thrace to Germania‚ allying with Orocovis of Illyria was the first thing to cross my mind. It should have been a preposterous thought. Orocovis was once a leader of the same magnitude as Caesar. He had harnessed a great deal of power over the years‚ but unlike Caesar‚ his power wasn’t gained by conceit‚ bloodlust or betrayal. Orocovis’ power came from the love‚ respect and loyalty of his people‚ which he earned by displaying competence and perseverance in his leadership. When I fought him eight years ago‚ I fully expected him to fight to the death as Caesar did. But again‚ he wasn’t Caesar. A more appropriate leader with whom to compare him would be Queen Melosa of the Thesallian Amazons. But where Queen Melosa staved off a battle with me by brokering an understanding‚ Orocovis first chose to fight and then to surrender. It allowed me to bear witness to his might‚ which was for him a much greater mistake than if he had surrendered before fighting or fought to the death. For me‚ allowing a ruler of such enormity of strength to retain some level of power and authority over his people was a true threat to my master plan. I had to totally disintegrate his power‚ and I believed at the time that destroying his land and people around him‚ all the while keeping him alive to bear witness to my carnage‚ was far more devastating to both him and his people than merely executing him.
It took those eight years for Orocovis’ decimated people to rebuild a fraction of what Illyria once was‚ and in my role of Empress of the Realm I have done little to make those subsequent years easy. However‚ I felt a cautious level of confidence that Orocovis would join forces with me against Shaikheti despite our history. In addition to the knowledge that his enslaved people were being freed‚ I believed that Orocovis would greatly benefit from a challenging battle victory. However‚ the real reason for my confidence was in the spoken and written words of my love Gabrielle.
When she left me to wander as a traveling bard six months ago‚ Gabrielle’s soft voice‚ poetic charm and message of hope left a profound effect on those who listened to her. Word of the beautiful Bard of Poteidaia spread rapidly across Greece‚ and the impact of those words continued to influence and inspire long after she returned to Corinth. In addition‚ Gabrielle wrote incessantly. She wrote of our journey to Thrace to rescue the northern Amazons from Velasca‚ of my battle in Albion and her abduction by Callisto in Rome. And she didn’t just write for her own sake or for mine. Everything she chronicled she copied on at least three additional scrolls and left these scrolls in the hands of historians‚ storytellers or scholars scattered along our travel routes so that others could learn firsthand about that person whom she labeled‚ "the REAL Xena the Conqueror."
It had become Gabrielle’s personal mission to redeem my tarnished reputation and tortured soul.
Somehow it was her spreading word that motivated me to emancipate the enslaved Illyrians‚ something that I had contemplated doing prior to learning of Shaikheti’s presence in the Steppes. Gabrielle believes‚ more than anyone else including me‚ that I have the power of goodness within me. I’m still not convinced‚ but it warms me so much to know that Gabrielle sees this.
When I told her that I had freed the Illyrian slaves‚ I saw a glow on her face‚ which created a glow in my heart. I instantly wanted to hold her closely in my arms. Thus‚ saying not another word‚ I put down my sword that I had been sharpening and I began removing my clothing.
"What are you doing‚ Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"Preparing for bed‚ Gabrielle‚" I responded. "Why else would I be taking off my clothes?"
"Xena!" she exclaimed. "It’s freezing. I can’t believe you’re going to sleep in the nude as if we were in our warm bedchamber in Corinth."
"Sorry‚ but I just cannot sleep in your embrace with clothing on‚ dear."
After I was completely undressed‚ I began to crawl into the thick bedroll that Gabrielle prepared for us. "Hurry up… hurry up… hurry up…" she kept repeating. "You’re letting in all of the cold air!"
Once I was fully cocooned in our bedroll‚ I reached over to pull her into an embrace and was disheartened to learn that she was more than fully clothed. "Isn’t this a bit much‚ Gabrielle?" I asked.
"Very well‚" I disappointedly said as I hugged my little bear.
"Xena‚" Gabrielle said through a muffled voice as her head was burrowed between my breasts‚ "how did you know Orocovis would still ally with you if he knew that he wasn’t under any obligation to do so?"
"Because of you‚ Gabrielle‚" I told her.
She looked up at me. "Me?"
"Yes‚" I responded. I told her just how widely her stories and scrolls were traveling throughout the Realm. She seemed somewhat shocked by the revelation‚ but when she smiled at me‚ the warmth that she had brought me since I crawled into the bedroll started turning into a wicked fire.
"Gabrielle‚" I croaked‚ "take off these clothes."
"It’s too cold‚ Xena‚" she protested.
I burrowed down deeper into the bedroll so that our eyes could meet. Then I began kissing her lips. My first kisses were very light‚ almost chaste‚ but then they became deeper. Gabrielle eagerly responded to them. Eventually I shifted so that I was lying on top of Gabrielle. We lay there‚ buried under layers of fur and nestled together‚ kissing for a very long time. As I kissed her‚ I would lightly stroke her face and neck with the backs of my fingers. She lightly combed my hair with her fingers while occasionally fondling my ears. These additional gentle sensations sent such profound feelings of love coursing through my body. Gabrielle is the world to me.
She began massaging my shoulders and upper back as the kissing continued. "Mmmm…" I moaned before breaking the kissing. "Are you still cold‚ Gabrielle?"
"Not exactly‚" she replied.
Gabrielle began shedding her clothing. First‚ the long fur cloak came off‚ then the long leather peplos‚ then the soft cloth tunic and finally her britches. Of course‚ I offered my assistance along the way. Gabrielle refused‚ however‚ to remove the thick woolen booties that covered her precious feet. "They tend to get colder faster‚" she stated as an excuse.
Once Gabrielle was nude‚ I pressed my sweaty body against hers. "You smell good‚" I said.
"How can you smell me at all under all of this animal hide?" she queried.
"I have many skills‚" I answered as I again brought my lips to hers. Soon the kissing‚ the closeness and the heat of being buried under mounds of fur and blankets began to heighten our desires. Gabrielle seductively brought her knees together and‚ with them‚ slowly spread my legs apart. She then ran her lovely hand down my side‚ to my hip‚ and then inward toward my sex. Gabrielle entered me‚ causing a shiver to run up my back to my neck and then up to my head where it tingled. I let out a deep moan.
"You like?" she asked.
"I like." I answered.
Our lovemaking that first night at the war camp ended as it began‚ with us buried under layers of animal fur kissing until sleep finally claimed us.
* * * *
I awakened to the sounds of troops moving about outside of our tent. Although I was quite eager to lead my warriors into another glorious battle‚ I was not looking forward to taking my arms from around my love and climbing out of that cozy bedroll.
"The troops are ready to move out‚ Commander‚" a voice from outside of our tent spoke.
"Excellent‚" came the reply from Palaemon. "I’ll alert the Conqueror."
"I’m alerted‚" I said to the shadow outside of my tent as I began slowly pulling myself out from my comfortable shelter.
"Damn!" I cried out as I crawled to and then reached for my battle garments.
"What’s wrong‚ Xena?" asked a sleepy Gabrielle.
"It’s fucking cold‚" I protested.
Gabrielle giggled. "Surprise‚ surprise‚ Warrior Princess."
Moments later I was dressed and ready to prepare the troops for the battle ahead. Gabrielle reluctantly shed herself of our bedroll‚ but not before completely dressing while still in it.
"I’m sure that wasn’t easy‚" I commented about Gabrielle’s dressing method as she crawled over to her boots.
"No‚" she replied‚ "but beats dressing in the cold."
We walked out of the command tent together to survey our surroundings. The sun was out‚ but a thin layer of fresh snow covered much of the camp. Groups of soldiers hovering over dozens of small fires dotted the area. Gabrielle and I first decided to check out the status of the hospice tent. Inside‚ the healers were erecting makeshift bunks. Medicines were displayed. Bandages were being stocked.
"This is where you’ll remain‚ correct?" I asked almost as a demand.
"Yes‚ Xena‚" Gabrielle answered.
"I’ll make sure that enough of my troops remain behind to guarantee your safety from ambush‚ Gabrielle."
"I know that you will‚ Xena‚" she said as she took her hand in mine.
I brought her hand to my lips and gave it a loving kiss. "I need to go and rally the troops‚" I told her. "Also‚ I need to see if Orocovis and his men have arrived yet."
"I’d like to meet him‚ Xena‚" Gabrielle said.
Orocovis and his army had arrived just after dawn. Gabrielle‚ Palaemon and I approached them‚ as they were setting up their camp adjacent to ours. Orocovis’ back was to me as we approached‚ but when he swung around‚ his eyes immediately fell upon Gabrielle.
"Welcome‚ Lord Orocovis‚" I said as Gabrielle looked up at me in amazement.
"Good morning‚ Conqueror‚" Orocovis responded. He was attired in his signature black-and-orange colored command uniform.
I looked at Gabrielle. "This is Gabrielle‚ my consort."
"And the famed Bard of Poteidaia‚" Orocovis added. "You know that her chronicles weave a mighty flattering tapestry of you‚ Conqueror."
"Lies‚ all lies‚ Lord Orocovis‚" I jested. The others laughed as Gabrielle grabbed Orocovis’ arm in a gesture of greeting. "Has Commander Palaemon briefed you on my first plan of attack?" I asked him.
"He has‚ Conqueror‚" Orocovis replied. "However‚ I’d like to propose a couple of suggestions."
"Of course‚" I said. "I’d be very interested in any input you’d like to offer." Gabrielle gave me a second startled look. "Palaemon‚ go and collect our other commanders and have them assemble in my command tent."
"By your will‚ Conqueror‚" Palaemon replied before departing.
As Gabrielle and I walked away from Orocovis‚ she grabbed my arm. "Xena‚" she stated‚ "you called him ‘Lord.’"
"It is his appropriate honorific‚ Gabrielle‚" I declared.
"I figured as much‚" she said. "I’m just pleased that you did."
We were silent during the remainder of our walk back to the command hut. Once inside‚ however‚ Gabrielle grabbed both of my arms and stared into my eyes.
"Xena‚" she began‚ "confess something to me."
"You purposefully had Palaemon‚ Glaphyra and Seumius enlist only a small number of fighters for this campaign."
"And… and you don’t really need Lord Orocovis."
"Of course I do‚" I affirmed.
"No you don’t‚" Gabrielle charged. "You could have easily summoned Seumius to arrive here with one legion… two legions… enough men to wipe this Shaikheti person off the face of the earth."
"What’s your point‚ Gabrielle?" I asked.
"You arranged it so that Orocovis’ entire army was brought into this battle for a reason‚" she accused. "What’s the reason?"
"You think I want to see him murdered‚ don’t you?"
I couldn’t tell if Gabrielle could see the hurt in my eyes that I was feeling in my heart‚ but that glint of disgust on her face was quickly replaced by a sad confusion. "I don’t want to believe that’s the reason‚ Xena."
"It’s not‚" I shot at her and then immediately regretted my tone of voice.
"What is the reason‚ Xena?" Gabrielle asked softly as both of her hands ran gently down my arms and then clasped my trembling hands.
"One reason is purely strategic‚ Gabrielle‚" I started. "I plan to flank Shaiketi’s troops from the south. As you saw‚ Orocovis wears a uniquely colored command uniform. All of his troops wear the same colors. The Germans will recognize Orocovis and his troops and seeing them with my advancing troops‚ know that my troops are allied with his."
"And I take it that’s a good thing‚" Gabrielle remarked.
"Well‚ we certainly don’t want the Germans to think we’re allied with Shaikheti‚" I said. "The Illyrians have always had a peaceful coexistence with the various Germanic tribes‚ even as those individual tribes have spent years fighting each other. They’ll instantly know that the Illyrians are on their side."
"So‚ Orocovis is needed to prove to the Germans whose side you’re on?"
"What’s the other reason‚ Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
I gripped her hands tighter. "I want to right a wrong done to this honorable man many years ago‚ Gabrielle‚" I said. "I want to give him the opportunity to regain that much deserved glory he once had."
"That’s why you’re willing to defer to his advice?"
"Only the greatest of leaders is confident enough in herself to know when to seek the counsel of other great leaders. I listen to your advice everyday‚ Gabrielle‚ and in case you haven’t noticed‚ I often take it."
She chose that moment to smile that GABRIELLE smile that turns my stomach inside out.
* * * *
A short while later‚ after I rallied the troops for battle‚ I returned with Gabrielle to our tent. Saying goodbye to her before departing with my fighting force was extremely difficult. After spending several moments in the privacy of our tent hugging and kissing each other‚ we stood next to Argo and before the troops for several moments embracing each other again.
"Come back to me‚" she whispered.
"I will‚ Gabrielle‚" I whispered back before giving her lips a light kiss and then sadly releasing her to climb up on Argo.
"LET’S RIDE!" I shouted to the troops who responded with a collective cheer.
It took us several hours to get to the location of the ongoing battle. Shaikheti’s troops had already attacked four Burgundian villages and were working on the fifth when we approached. As I had suspected‚ Shaikheti was nowhere to be found‚ but I was surprised by the number of warriors he sent to do these raids. It had always been Shaikheti’s practice to recruit a very large number of men‚ but only send them off into battle in small platoons. It was his way of ferreting out the weaker fighters. The surviving warriors of the first few battles‚ in which Shaikheti’s troops were usually outnumbered‚ were rewarded with returning to later battles with heavier backup. I always considered the practice really ludicrous. I win battles by either outnumbering or outsmarting the opponent. As for weak fighters‚ if Shaikheti invested any time and energy in properly training his troops before throwing them into a battle zone‚ he wouldn’t have to deal with massively weak and incompetent men.
The sheer number of the fighters from Shaikheti’s army that day led me to believe that somewhere along the line‚ he had discovered that his way was not the way to win wars. I also had to acknowledge to myself my first error of judgment. I assumed that he would never achieve that realization. That was the reason I didn’t bother to enlist more whole centuries of warriors from either the Imperial Guard or my armies from Thrace and Gaul. We were still not facing his entire army‚ as Shaikheti had sent only a few hundred troops to pillage these towns‚ but we weren’t necessarily going to outnumber them either.
Although nightfall was upon us‚ we positioned ourselves out of sight‚ but in range of the battle‚ nestled down in a ravine.
"Suggestion‚ Conqueror‚" Orocovis spoke.
"Let’s hear it‚ Lord Orocovis‚" I requested.
"We attack now‚" he advised.
"Three reasons‚ Majesty‚" he stated. "One‚ darkness under these circumstances can be our friend."
"Okay‚" I pondered.
"Two‚ fighting will keep us warm through the night."
"And three‚ we cannot set up campfires without drawing attention. If we cannot set up campfires‚ we’re either going to get very cozy with one another tonight or we’re going to freeze to death."
I nodded my head. "I wholeheartedly agree‚ but you forgot the most important reason‚" I said.
"Element of surprise‚ my Lord‚" I responded before standing and‚ quietly raising my sword‚ I pointed it in the direction of the fighting. Immediately‚ some of the troops began clawing up the inconveniently narrow ravine while others rode around it on horseback.
I jumped on Argo and urged her into a gallop. Lord Orocovis wasn’t far behind. Also close on horseback were Bahri‚ Charicleia‚ Hadiya and Stanislas. As we rode down toward the Burgundian village‚ I began feeling that anticipation that I feel just before a battle. My heart began beating faster‚ the hairs on my neck raised and I started to sweat. I enjoy a good battle.
As I approached the enemy‚ I systematically began hacking Shaikheti’s men as I rode Argo. I swiped my sword across faces‚ throats and chests. With each new kill I felt a fresh burst of energy. Eventually‚ I jumped down off Argo and began taking on the enemy one by one. Each sword fight was brief and ended with my weapon plunged deep into their chests‚ necks or stomachs. The sight of their lifeless bodies and the blood on my sword served only to invigorate me even more. This battle lasted well into the night and ended when the combination of my forces‚ Orocovis’ forces and the Burgundian locals were able to annihilate most of Shaiketi’s soldiers. A few survivors retreated toward Shaikheti’s war camp. If the combination of fatigue‚ injury and cold of night didn’t kill them‚ I hoped that they would live to deliver a message to Shaikheti that his ridiculous plan to conquer the Germans was not going to happen. However‚ I also accepted the reality that this was just the first round of a war that promised to go on for some time.
Our casualties were few. I ordered my troops to gather up the bodies of the dead for a mass pyre as the ground was too frozen to attempt to dig graves. After speaking briefly with the chieftain of the local Burgundian clan‚ with Orocovis acting as my interpreter‚ I grabbed Argo’s reins and retreated to one of the village barns offered as lodgings for the troops. Bahri‚ Charicleia‚ Hadiya and Stanislas joined me. All four women had fought well. None had any apparent injuries. They piled straw into makeshift bedding and huddled close in the hopes of getting some rest before the next round of fighting. I pulled out a cloth and my sharpening stone and began cleaning and sharpening my weapons. I couldn’t sleep as the adrenaline of the battle was coursing through my veins.
That‚ and something else.
Gabrielle would have hated to see what I did. She would have hated to see me kill. I refused to notice the men whose lives I took; how young or old they were. I refused to think about the widows and fatherless children I was creating. I refused to think about the mothers who were losing sons. And I tried very hard not to think about Gabrielle when I engaged the enemy that night. I knew that thinking about her‚ her light‚ her goodness‚ would compromise my battle focus‚ my need to eliminate the enemy‚ my need to kill. As I wiped the blood off of my sword‚ I told myself that I wasn’t killing unarmed men. I wasn’t killing innocent men. I wasn’t killing for kicks. This battle was serving a good purpose‚ to deliver a kind and harmless‚ albeit sometimes obstinate people from a hostile takeover and to help a revered but beleaguered leader feel the joy of victory. There was goodness to what I was doing‚ I tried to convince myself. A greater goodness.
After spending considerable time sharpening‚ I looked over at my companions. Morpheus had claimed all four of them and they looked peaceful in their slumber. I‚ of course‚ was greatly missing Gabrielle. A moment later‚ I heard a quiet knock on the barn door. Not wanting to awaken my comrades‚ I padded over to the door and cracked it open. It was Palaemon.
"I don’t mean to disturb you‚ Conqueror‚" he whispered‚ "but I’m requesting permission to relieve the wounded from duty."
"Permission granted‚" I said. "At dawn‚ have a small band of healthy fighters and the walking wounded take the more seriously injured back to our war camp. They can go on horseback‚ but the healthy soldiers are to return here once the wounded are delivered to the hospice."
"What about those too seriously injured to ride‚ Majesty?" Palaemon queried. "We’ve secured them in one of the village huts. There are nine of them."
"See to it that the village apothecary makes them as comfortable as possible until they cross over."
"By your will‚ Conqueror‚" Palaemon said as he bowed and then turned away.
As he began walking toward a group of Imperial Guardsmen awaiting orders‚ I called out to him. "Commander Palaemon‚ you fought very well today but be alert‚" I cautioned. "Shaikheti has many more men to send to their deaths."
"We’ll be ready‚ my Liege!" he called out.
After shutting the barn door‚ I pressed my forehead against it and looked down at my bloodstained battle garments. "Please understand‚ Gabrielle‚" I whispered to myself as I felt a tear stream down my face.
Many more days of battle awaited us.
CONTINUED IN PART FOUR
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