THE CONQUEROR’S CAMPAIGN
By CJ Wells
Disclaimers: For full disclaimers‚ see Part 1.
VIII. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY
Perhaps it was my years in slavery‚ so consequently‚ unlike Xena‚ I wasn’t disappointed at the prospect of once again traveling to Rome. Years of confinement in that palace was so suffocating that I could easily spend the rest of my life wandering from place to place‚ reading‚ writing‚ speaking and loving Xena.
Thus‚ when we entered the hospice tent and learned that Callisto was stirring up trouble in Rome‚ I was secretly delighted about returning to that great city. I was fully aware that the journey would be long and onerous‚ but I was looking forward to embarking on that challenge…
… as long as it didn’t involve sailing.
It had been a long last two days. The day before started out with us engaging the enemy in battle. When the first enemy soldier approached me‚ I felt my heart sink to my stomach. I was terrified‚ but I also knew that Xena was close by. She would do anything in her power to protect me‚ and knowing that‚ I was concerned that her need to protect me might compromise her battle focus. Thus‚ when that first man approached‚ I convinced myself to think only of defeating him. I didn’t want to do anything out of fear or ignorance that could endanger Xena.
That first man was much taller than me. The Amazons had taught me how to deal with opponents of various sizes and shapes. Xena had given me a few tips over the last few months as well. "Everyone has a weakness‚" she would say. "Discover it and exploit it."
Killing wasn’t an option for me. I fought with my staff‚ the weapon that I had selected as my implement of war when I was in Amazon scout guard training. In hindsight‚ my personal code was a rather useless one on the battlefield. One simply doesn’t win wars by merely knocking out the enemy‚ but I wasn’t there to win a war. Xena certainly didn’t need me there to accomplish her mission. I do believe that my presence was needed‚ however. It is difficult to explain‚ but Xena and I bring something to each other. It is an invisible‚ intangible something‚ but we both feel it.
Xena ran off alone toward the enemy camp later that morning. Of course‚ I worried about her the entire time that she was gone. Retreating with Bahri‚ Hadiya and the Amazons to a safe zone at the outer edge of the battlefield perimeter‚ we set up a makeshift camp in the frozen forest and waited for Lieutenant Agenta and her troops to return. Shaikheti’s troops retreated from Agenta’s assault before dusk. When she returned to our fallback position‚ I immediately approached her and inquired about Xena.
"I believe that the Conqueror is infiltrating the enemy camp‚ Gabrielle‚" she advised.
"By the Gods!" I exclaimed‚ worried.
"Don’t be too distressed‚" she said. "The Conqueror is a master at surveillance. She has ways of slithering around like a snake and without drawing any attention to her presence."
Agenta didn’t exaggerate. I recalled many times during my years as her body slave that the Conqueror would slip up behind me as I walked down a corridor or ate in the palace kitchen. I never detected her presence until she wrapped her arm around my neck or grabbed me by my shoulders. I also never understood her need to do that other than some sick pleasure she derived in startling me. Having reminded myself of those times‚ I made a mental reminder to ask Xena upon her return why she engaged in that bizarre behavior.
As everyone hunkered together to endure the cold night‚ I looked up at the sky and gazed upon the great constellation Cassiopeia. I wondered if wherever Xena was she was gazing at the same stars that captured my attention. I didn’t sleep much. I thought about where my life with Xena had taken me. I was lying prone in a frozen German forest surrounded by hundreds of skilled warriors‚ but I felt completely alone.
Just before dawn‚ I was jarred awake by the sounds of rustling. My Amazon Sisters‚ who had slept along side me around one of the campfires‚ were gathering up their bows and arrows and preparing to advance again. I rose and grabbed my staff. Agenta also rose and stepped between my Sisters and me.
"You’re to stay here with me‚ Gabrielle‚" she announced.
"By order of the Conqueror‚" she replied.
"The Conqueror doesn’t give me orders‚ Lieutenant‚" I snapped.
Just then‚ Bahri intervened. "Let me handle this‚ Lieutenant‚" she said to Agenta before turning her attention to me. "Look‚ Gab‚" she started. "We were ordered to keep you here. If you go with us‚ we would be in violation of a direct order of the Conqueror. We violate an order‚ we die. It’s that simple."
"You don’t honestly believe that Xena would kill you all now‚ after all we’ve been through together‚ do you?"
Bahri looked up at the sky rather dramatically before returning her gaze to me. "Uh‚ YEAH!"
"Well I don’t‚" I said. "So let’s go."
Agenta frantically grabbed my arm. "But‚ but…" she stammered before Bahri grabbed her arm to release her grip from mine.
"Forget it‚ Lieutenant‚" she said. "Gabrielle’s right. The Conqueror won’t kill us."
"What makes you think so‚ Sergeant?" Agenta asked her.
"Because Princess Gabrielle won’t let her."
* * * *
Hours later‚ after Xena returned to us and Shaikheti was killed by my Northern Amazon Sisters‚ I reflected on the events of that day and the long journey across a Gaelic winter that awaited Xena and me.
"What’s going on with Callisto?" Xena asked the Roman Commander Marius as she and I stood‚ side by side with hands clasped‚ in the war camp hospice tent.
"She has been fighting in the Colosseum‚ as you know‚ Majesty‚" he started.
"She was nearly killed twice early on‚ my Liege‚" Marius responded‚ "but about two months ago‚ the wealthy Sabine‚ Claudius Appius Seneca‚ came into Rome with a group of women gladiators from the Sicilian city of Syracusae. Callisto immediately bonded with the women‚ learned their language and they have been wrecking havoc in the Colosseum ever since."
"So‚ she’s been entertaining‚ Commander Marius‚" Xena remarked. "Why should I care about gladiators doing what they’re supposed to be doing?"
"It’s more than that‚ my Liege‚" he responded. "She’s been making a lot of noise‚ challenging you to come to Rome and fight her one on one."
"So the bottom line is that I need to go to Rome and fight this bitch to save face‚ right?" Xena asked contemptuously.
"Right‚ Conqueror‚" Marius replied.
Xena’s grip on my hand tightened. "Fine‚" she said.
I decided to break my silence. "Excuse me‚ Commander Marius‚ but what do you know about these women gladiators?
"I was afraid that you would ask‚ Princess Gabrielle‚" he responded as he looked at Xena. She released my hand and‚ gently grabbing my shoulders‚ turned me to face her.
Xena took my hands into hers. "Many years ago‚ my growing army invaded Persia and Mesopotamia‚ Gabrielle‚" she began. "I wasn’t there to conquer those lands. I needed to plunder in order to finance my ultimate goal of conquering Greece and Rome. While there‚ we invaded several cities‚ including Ecbatana‚ Susa and Kangavar. These cities were havens of unbelievable wealth and we were eventually able to steal enough goods‚ silks‚ animals and gems to build an army the size of five legions.
"Well‚ to make a long story short‚" Xena let out a deep breath as she continued‚ "while we were in the area‚ we passed by the Mesopotamian Amazon village. I had no intention of pillaging there. I had cut my deal with Melosa and her tribe about two years before‚ so we passed by their land without incident. However‚ when we reached Babylon‚ a group of women from the tribe journeyed there as well and took up arms along side the Babylonians in a war against us. We defeated them‚ although not easily. After my army left the area with what we came to steal‚ the corrupt Babylonian politician who sided with me had the surviving Amazons of that battle taken in chains and sold into slavery."
"Queen Melosa had told me about our Sisters from Mesopotamia who fought against you in Babylon‚ Xena‚" I said. "She said that she was told by the leaders of that tribe that all of those women were killed. That is not true?"
"The Mesopotamian tribe was told that the women perished‚ Gabrielle‚" Xena said‚ "to avoid the rest of the Nation taking up arms to recover the enslaved captives."
"Were you a part of that‚ Xena?" I asked angrily.
Xena immediately sensed my fury. "No‚ Gabrielle‚ I wasn’t‚" she said. "But at the time I was far too preoccupied with building my army than worrying about what was going on in Babylon. I learned about the women’s enslavement in Syracusae sometime later. But by then‚ I had already conquered Greece and Rome and was fighting in western Gaul. I didn’t care."
She paused for a moment. "I’m sorry‚ Gabrielle‚" she said.
"What are you prepared to do now‚ Xena the Conqueror?" I asked.
"Free those Amazons‚ Gabrielle‚" Xena responded with sincerity.
We didn’t say much to each other for the remainder of that evening. Many of the soldiers of Xena’s army and Orocovis’ army‚ as well as the German clansmen‚ were celebrating their defeat of Shaikheti‚ whose body was placed on a pyre in the central area of the camp and burned. As the soldiers and others rallied around Xena and Lord Orocovis‚ he recounted the events of the last battle that lead to the defeat of Shaikheti’s army. I heard great confidence in that man’s voice as he spoke and felt a sense of comfort in the fact that he was being recognized in his rightful status of leader. As he finished‚ Xena leaned down and whispered to me‚ "There’s no need for me to add anything‚ Gabrielle. This is his moment of glory." It was probably the first time since the Destroyer of Nations came to power that she didn’t personally relish in her own victory after a battle. She was indeed changing.
Xena and I didn’t really join in on the celebration that followed Orocovis’ speech. We returned to that tiny bathing barrel that Xena had insisted we needed and bathed. Afterwards‚ we returned to the command tent and‚ covering ourselves with layers of warm furs and blankets‚ drifted off to sleep in each other’s arms.
When I woke the next morning‚ Xena was already up and dressed. "I have food if you’re hungry‚ my Bard‚" she said as she kneeled down next to our bedroll.
"I’m starving‚" I proclaimed.
Xena chuckled and handed me bread and cheese. "So‚ which route will we take for our trip to Rome‚ Xena?" I asked.
"There is only one route to Rome from here‚ Gabrielle‚" Xena said. "We go south through Cisalpine Gaul. It won’t be as long as our journey from Gesoria‚ but the weather might not be forgiving."
"By the Gods‚ Xena‚" I exclaimed. "The Vernal Solstice is on the horizon. It can’t get any colder!"
Xena snickered. "Oh yes it can‚" she said as she began lovingly stroking my hair.
"Will there be any sailing‚ Xena?" I asked.
Xena chuckled again. "No‚ Gabrielle‚" she said. "You won’t need to return to your diet of cherries and cucumbers."
We both laughed for a moment before I needed to return to the issue that had been simmering in my mind. "What do you know about those enslaved Amazons‚ Xena?" I asked.
"Honesty‚ Gabrielle‚ not much‚" she replied. "When I learned of their existence as slaves in Syracusae‚ I was told that they had briefly worked the wheat and grain fields there before escaping. I heard that they were captured‚ but I never learned of their immediate fate after capture. Sometime later‚ about two years after… you… you… you and I met…"
Xena paused‚ sighing before continuing‚ "…a small amphitheater was constructed near the city and many of Sicily’s slaves were trained as gladiators. It never dawned on me that those enslaved Mesopotamian Amazons would be trained as well‚ not that I would have given a damn one way or the other back then anyway."
"Queen Melosa told me that the leader of that band of Amazons who journeyed to Babylon to fight you was a fierce and dedicated warrior."
"All of those Amazons that we fought were fierce‚" Xena said‚ "But yes‚ if my memory serves me correctly‚ their leader was particularly fearsome." Xena looked up‚ reflectively. "She would have been a great asset to my army."
"Always the tactician‚ eh‚ Warrior Princess?" I commented jovially.
"Always‚" she replied.
I scrambled out of our bedroll and dressed. Later that morning‚ Xena and I began gathering up goods and food for our journey. We were loading the items into a wagon‚ one of three that would be used to transport our goods and us to Rome. Obviously‚ Commander Marius would be joining us. I wanted our friends and my Northern Amazon Sisters to come as well‚ if they were willing.
"Xena‚" I started‚ "How do you feel about my Sisters joining us to Rome?"
"That’s a mighty long journey‚ Gabrielle‚" she replied. "Are you sure that they would want to make such a long trip?"
"I’d like to ask them."
"That’s entirely up to you‚ Gabrielle‚" Xena said as she returned to her task at hand.
I placed our bedroll into the wagon. "Xena‚" I said‚ "How do you feel about Bahri‚ Charicleia‚ Hadiya and Stanislas joining us?"
"Why?" she asked.
"Why not?" I replied.
"We’re not going on a holiday‚ Gabrielle."
Xena plopped down onto the wagon the chest that she had been carrying. "All right‚ Gabrielle‚" she said angrily‚ "where is this going?"
"Oh‚ come on‚ Xena‚" I shot back. "Tell me that you’re not looking forward to fighting Callisto in the Colosseum."
Xena irritably put her hands on her hips. "Okay‚ yeah‚ I’m looking forward to making that bitch suffer."
I turned away from her and resumed placing items into the wagon. "Sounds like a holiday to me‚" I mumbled.
"Oh‚ so what are you saying?" she asked in a tone that used to scare Hades out of me. "Turn my back on the situation and let Callisto spew her shit unabated?"
I returned my gaze to Xena’s incensed one. "No‚ I’m merely asking if our friends could join us on our journey‚ that’s all‚" I said with a smile.
"You know‚ I think that you get some sick pleasure out of pissing me off‚" she said before turning and storming away.
For some reason‚ at that very moment‚ a sinister smile crept upon my face.
* * * *
Xena and I were ready to embark on our journey by late afternoon. She had entrusted Glaphyra‚ Agenta and the other officers with the task of breaking down the war camp and returning to their respective commands. Commanders Palaemon and Marius would be joining us. Commander Seumius was still recovering from his injury‚ but his lieutenants assured Xena that he would be safely returned to his command as well. After she gave out all of her orders‚ she approached Lord Orocovis. I accompanied her.
"Thank you‚" she simply said.
They clasped arms and he smiled. "Anytime‚ Conqueror‚" he said as he beamed a bright smile.
Xena then clasped the arm of the Gothic chieftain. She thanked him in his native tongue. He nodded and smiled before turning to Lord Orocovis and speaking to him.
Lord Orocovis translated for the German. "He said that if every woman fought like you‚ men folk would have to go into hiding."
Xena smiled her most beautiful smile as she patted the chieftain on his shoulder. "Yes they would‚" she said before we both turned and walked away.
Three of the ten Amazons took me up on my offer to travel to Rome. The others were eager to return to their homeland with the good news of Shaikheti’s defeat. I think that the three‚ Escritt‚ Darda and Amarice‚ were looking forward to embarking on an exciting new adventure. In addition‚ I was able to convince Xena to grant our four friends‚ Bahri‚ Charicleia‚ Stanislas and Hadiya a temporary leave of duty to join us as well. The Conqueror usually travels with a contingent of security guards‚ thus our friends could easily serve in that capacity as well.
Tethering Argo and Chulytis to our wagon‚ Xena and I‚ along with our entourage‚ left the war camp in capable hands. I sat next to her as she drove the carriage. She was still visibly angry with me. Wrapping both of my arms around her right arm‚ I kissed her cheek and eyed her beautiful profile. "You’re so cute when you’re angry‚ Warrior Princess‚" I said.
Try as she might‚ Xena was unable to suppress a smile.
* * * *
Several days into our journey‚ we came upon a small village by the Po River in Cisalpine Gaul. The weather there was considerably warmer than where our journey had started and there was a huge outdoor festival taking place right on the main roads of the village. People were laughing and dancing in the streets. Many had on costumes. Children crowded around street performers and puppeteers. Food vendors were everywhere. As we entered the village‚ many of the villagers‚ upon seeing the regal Conqueror‚ stopped whatever they were doing and began kneeling or bowing. Xena waved her arm. "Continue in your merriment‚" she commanded.
As Xena was arranging for our lodgings with the village magistrate‚ I approached one of the revelers and inquired about the festivity.
"We are celebrating the Vernal Solstice‚ my Lady!" the happy reveler announced. "Come‚ celebrate with us!" Before I could protest‚ a group of villagers surrounded me and escorted me to the village’s main agora where musicians were playing music and people were dancing to it. "Welcome‚ Lady Gabrielle‚" many of them said. My friends and Amazon Sisters came up behind me.
"Look at this!" Bahri shouted excitedly. "Come on‚ Charicleia‚ let’s dance!" Bahri grabbed her lover’s arm and pulled her out into the middle of where folks were dancing.
"Forget dancing!" Amarice announced gleefully. "I’m going for that food over there!"
"Me too!" Escritt shouted.
As my Sisters dashed off to indulge in a sinful array of meats‚ breads and sweet delights‚ Hadiya and Stanislas joined Bahri and Charicleia in dance. As I began clapping my hands to the music‚ a strong arm wrapped around my neck‚ startling me.
"Damn it‚ Xena!" I yelled. "You know‚ I think that you get some sick pleasure out of scaring the shit out of me."
Xena leaned down and playfully bit my ear. "We’re even‚" she whispered seductively. Remembering my earlier thoughts about the Conqueror’s old habit of sneaking up behind me and startling me‚ I finally knew now the simple answer why she did it. "Sick pleasure‚" I whispered‚ chuckling to myself.
"What’s so funny?"
"Oh‚ nothing‚" I said as I turned and grabbed her arms. "Dance with me‚ my Warrior."
Xena surprisingly began trying to dislodge her arms from my grasp. "No‚ I don’t think so."
"Well‚ I’m not much for dancing‚ Gabrielle."
"But you have many skills‚ Xena!"
"Dancing isn’t one of them."
"Sure it is. You’ve danced for me‚" I reminded her. "And if I recall‚ it was quite beautiful."
"That was different."
"It was for you."
"It still is for me‚" I said as I tugged my very reluctant consort into the crowd of dancers. Having her exactly where I wanted her‚ I began dancing merrily around her. Grabbing her hands‚ I spun her around several times. The Conqueror’s tenseness began to melt away as Xena began laughing and clapping to my rhythmic bobs and hops. At one point she threw her arms around my waist and‚ lifting me up‚ she twirled me around. I threw my arms around her neck as she did this. We were both quite dizzy‚ but I needed to answer an inner call to kiss her. After gently lowering me back onto the ground‚ I brought my lips to hers in a kiss that seemed to last an eternity. All of the revelers around us seemed to disappear.
"I love you so‚ Gabrielle‚" she whispered as we broke the kiss.
"As I do you‚ through all eternity‚ Xena‚" I responded.
Much later into the night‚ our group had wandered over to the village tavern. Exhausted from dancing‚ reveling and eating‚ we settled down at a table in one of the corner edges of the establishment. Palaemon ordered the tavern keeper to bring over an entire cask of ale. After each one of us dipped our mugs into the cask‚ Bahri raised hers in salute. "To the Conqueror!" she shouted.
The entire tavern turned their attention to our table. Everyone who had mugs in their hands raised them. "To the Conqueror!" the patrons said collectively.
Everyone drank. I sipped my ale while Xena practically downed hers in one hug gulp. After dipping her mug into the cask for a second‚ she raised it. "To Gabrielle‚ the beautiful Bard of Poteidaia!"
"To Gabrielle!" came the happy reply from everyone in the tavern.
Xena downed her second mug and instantly refilled it. "Sit on my lap‚" she then said to me.
I rose from my stool next to her and perched my bottom on her lap as she drank her third mug and reached over to fill it yet again.
"Slow down‚ Xena‚" I said.
Xena’s eyes were already beginning to take on a glazed‚ intoxicated look. "Why?" she asked.
I leaned over to her ear‚ "Because I want your wits about you for later‚" I whispered and then seductively kissed her ear. Xena let out a low moan.
"Tell us a story‚ Gabrielle‚" Bahri asked‚ breaking my concentration.
"Yes‚ Princess Gabrielle‚ we’d love to hear a story‚" Escritt added.
I briefly looked at Xena‚ who was polishing off her fourth mug of ale‚ before beginning my story. "Once there was a lone Woman Healer who traveled the land offering aid to those in need. She traveled throughout the Greek countryside‚ mending broken bones‚ treating ailments‚ patching wounds. She was excellent at what she did and the people whom she treated were very grateful for her care‚ but she never seemed to show any love or compassion for her patients. She methodically treated them‚ received her compensation and moved on.
"One day‚ the Woman Healer is on her way to Akanthos from northern Thessaly. She needs to repair the broken wrist of the village Quaestor there. She still has many lengths of travel ahead of her and night is falling. So‚ the Woman Healer decides to rest by spending one night at an inn located in the tiny village of Methone. During her stay that night‚ a barbaric warlord named Albertus of Athens invades the village. He has with him a small army of thugs and they begin running in and out of the village dwellings‚ stealing the good villagers’ food and goods‚ beating the men and terrorizing the women and children."
Xena lightly pressed her forehead against the side of my neck. Her bangs tickled my shoulders. She then slipped her hands inside of my tunic and began tenderly stroking my belly‚ arousing me almost to distraction‚ as I continued.
"Upon hearing the first sounds of chaos‚ the Woman Healer rises from her bed‚ quickly dresses and runs out of her inn chamber. She goes down into the street and sees Albertus assaulting a young village Maiden. Although the Maiden is fighting back‚ the warlord’s strength and size are too great for the young woman to bear. The Woman Healer‚ witnessing the Maiden’s struggle‚ calls out the name of the barbaric warlord. ‘Albertus!’ she shouts. The barbarian immediately releases the Maiden and approaches the Woman Healer. Unsheathing her sword that she wears on the side of her healer’s tunic‚ the Woman Healer begins fighting the warlord. His thugs‚ seeing the fight‚ begin to charge her as well. Her situation looks doomed‚ but single-handedly‚ the Woman Healer proceeds to defeat the warlord and his entire band of thugs‚ much to the surprise of the village men. After the fight‚ Albertus of Athens‚ reduced to a whimpering fool‚ runs out of that village as if Bacchae are chasing him.
"The villagers‚ having been saved from that brutal warlord‚ are very grateful and reward the Woman Healer‚ whom they now called the Woman Warrior‚ with a huge festive gathering the very next day. As the village elders surround her and toast in her honor‚ her attention is drawn to that village Maiden‚ who is among the other young village women bringing the feast to The Woman Warrior. Although many of the village men are taken by the Woman Warrior’s great beauty‚ they are all too intimidated by her strength and courage to approach her in courtship. However‚ that young village Maiden does approach her. They are both shy at first‚ but as the day wears on‚ they talk‚ they laugh and they become great friends. And in a very short span of time‚ the Maiden captures the Woman’s heart. And the once uncaring and uncompassionate Healer is transformed into a warm and loving Defender."
There is a strange silence after my little story. "That was sappy!" Bahri exclaimed. "Cute‚ but sappy."
"I liked it‚ Princess‚" Darda spoke up. "An unloving healer who becomes a loving warrior. Interesting twist."
"I liked it too‚" Amarice chimed in‚ "although I would have loved to have heard more about just how the Woman Warrior dispensed with those barbarians."
As our friends continued in their critique of my little tale‚ I turned and looked into the beautiful blue eyes of my love. "Thank you‚" she whispered to me.
CONTINUED IN PART NINE
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