THE CONQUEROR’S CAMPAIGN
By CJ Wells
Disclaimers: For full disclaimers‚ see Part 1. In addition to the aforementioned fabrications of TPTB‚ that hottie Velasca belongs to that happy-go-lucky bunch as well. Marcus Antonius‚ a.k.a. Mark Anthony‚ (83-30 B.C.)‚ was a real Roman guy. Also‚ in honor of my other favorite TV show‚ The Sopranos‚ the language used by the enslaved Amazon gladiators in this and subsequent chapters is a combination of languages‚ including Mob speak. So‚ as you read their statements‚ think Tony‚ Christopher‚ Silvio and Paulie Walnuts. A managia!
XIII. THE CONQUEROR'S LOG
As I had anticipated‚ Gabrielle was curious about my history with Maphias. She didn’t ask me about him as soon as we left his home just outside of Rome. She waited until the next morning‚ while we were on our way to meet his contact‚ the Greek gladiator guard Theocritus.
Maphias was the first boy with whom I had ever had a sexual encounter. We were both 17 and he was as inexperienced as I was at the time. I don’t remember much about that first encounter other than it hurt and I bled. I have much fonder memories of my first sexual encounter with a girl. It was almost a year later and the girl was Maphias’ sister‚ Hedeia. Maphias and I had ended our "courtship" about six months earlier and I had moved on to Seumius. I remember that the night was cold and I was antsy. Thus‚ I had persuaded Seumius‚ my younger brother Lyceus‚ and three other of my delinquent friends to break into the cellar where Mother kept her best tavern wine‚ mead and ale. Two candlemarks later‚ six drunken adolescents were causing a late-night commotion in an otherwise empty tavern. The noise of an inebriated Seumius and I cursing at each other woke Mother‚ who was not amused by either the spectacle or our act of mayhem. Hedeia‚ who was Mother’s 21-year-old employed tavern maid at the time‚ was also awakened and was instructed by Mother to escort Lyceus and me to our bedchambers while she shuttled the other drunken juveniles to their awaiting parents.
Lyceus was passed out under one of the tavern tables. Despite my intoxication‚ I was lucid enough to help Hedeia move him to a nearby couch. After covering him with blankets‚ we left my snoring younger brother and Hedeia took my arm in order to assist me to my tiny bedchamber. Once there‚ she brought me a large mug of water to help me sober up. As I drank the water‚ my still cloudy mind started causing my mouth to say things that I would have never said to her had I not been drunk. I had fancied Hedeia since I was about 13‚ so I began babbling about how pretty she was and how much Maphias reminded me of her when he and I were courting. I started complimenting her on her smooth skin and thick‚ lovely brown hair. She had this strange look on her face that I took to indicate disgust‚ but when I started apologizing for my confessions‚ she gently pushed me back on my bed and brought her lips to mine. It wasn’t long before the clothing came off. I was drunk‚ but I wasn’t that drunk. The most vivid memory that I have of that night‚ next to my Sapphic bliss‚ was of worrying that my already angry mother would hear the moans and catch us in the act.
Gabrielle found my tale of youthful indiscretion amusing. "Did you break up with Seumius and start courting Hedeia?" she asked.
"No‚" I replied. "Hedeia was betrothed to a friend of my older brother‚ Toris. Our sexual encounter was a one-time experience. Neither one of us ever told anyone about that night. I’m sure that Maphias still doesn’t know."
"Am I the first person you’ve told‚ Xena?"
I was afraid she would ask me that. "Well‚ uh‚ not quite‚" I said. "I told Lao Ma."
"It was only because I wanted her to know that I had had an experience… with a woman… so that she would consider having sex with me. In hindsight‚ I wasted a perfectly good secret."
Gabrielle patted my head as if I was a five-year-old. "Glad to hear that you feel that way‚ Xena‚" she said.
* * * *
Upon arriving at the Colosseum‚ our entourage‚ which included Commanders Marius and Palaemon‚ my Imperial Guardsmen and the Amazons‚ were escorted to where the gladiator guards received their daily assignments. Theocritus was assigned to stand watch over the gladiators’ mess area that day. When we entered the mess area‚ Gabrielle immediately covered her nose and mouth with both hands.
"What in Tartarus do these gladiators eat that smells so disgusting?" she mumbled through her hands.
A guard captain approached us. "Ave‚ Conqueror‚" he said. "I am Guard Captain Gnaeus Protis Carmelus."
"Ave‚ Guard Captain Carmelus‚" I responded. "I was told that the Greek guard Theocritus was assigned here today."
"He is‚ Majesty."
"Bring him to me‚" I commanded.
Carmelus briefly departed and then returned with a rather short‚ but burly man with a thick beard and very long‚ wavy hair. He bowed in formal greeting. "Conqueror Xena‚" Theocritus said‚ "I am at your service."
I grabbed him by his tunic and slammed him against the wall. "You have disgraced the Realm‚ you swine!" I shouted before looking over at Carmelus. "Direct me to a room where I can beat the living Tartarus out of this dog."
Carmelus‚ fearful for his life‚ directed us to a holding cell adjacent to the mess area. When Carmelus opened the door‚ I threw Theocritus inside. Turning to my accompanying entourage‚ I motioned to Marius and Gabrielle. "You two‚ come with me‚" I said. "The rest of you‚ stand guard."
Once the door was closed‚ I turned to Theocritus‚ who was picking himself off the floor. "Maphias bragged that you have the strength of ten men‚ my Liege‚" he whispered. "I now believe him."
"Didn’t hurt you too bad‚ I hope‚ Theocritus‚" I quietly responded as I took his arm and assisted him to his feet.
"Nothing that a soothing touch from a Roman porne wouldn’t cure‚" he replied in jest. "Please‚ call me Theo‚ Conqueror."
"Very well‚ Theo‚" I said before turning to Marius and my Gabrielle. "Okay‚ you two make it sound good." They proceeded to mimic the noises of beating the shit out of someone. I silently chuckled at Gabrielle‚ who seemed to be enjoying the mock thrashing a little too much. After throwing out the first of a series of mock profanities directed at Theo‚ I turned my real attention to him. "Now‚ tell me why I’m here‚" I quietly said.
"Lady Gabrielle’s abduction by Callisto four months ago was part of a bigger plan‚ Conqueror‚" Theo said.
"I figured that‚" I responded. "Let us piece this thing together."
As Theo and I compared our knowledge of events‚ we concluded that an alliance between Callisto and Shaikheti had been formed well before my first battle against him in Persia. After Marius had Callisto released from that asylum over five years ago and took her to the safety of his cousin in Castra Regina‚ her gratitude toward Marius for her freedom was short lived. Within a year‚ she was in a full-fledged affair with that cousin‚ Claudius Anaeus Seneca‚ who convinced her to leave Marius and journey with him to Persia. I learned from Marius that after Callisto left him‚ he seriously considered coming to me with the admission that he had disobeyed my order to keep her confined. However‚ since he reached the erroneous conclusion that he would probably never see Callisto again‚ he decided that what I didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me. I guess that Marius has Gabrielle to thank at that moment of his confession‚ because I seriously wanted to slit his throat.
Pressing on. While in the east‚ Callisto met Eldad of Persia. Apparently‚ it wasn’t long before she and Eldad began their torrid affair. Marius calculated that it must have started about a year after she left him‚ because his cousin‚ Seneca‚ didn’t stick around in Persia after Callisto had dumped him for Eldad. Marius knew of Callisto’s affair with Eldad‚ but he was unaware at the time that she knew Shaikheti. Callisto must have met him sometime after Seneca left Persia‚ since Seneca was apparently unaware of that as well. In any event‚ meet him she did and it wasn’t long before the two began comparing notes about their mutual hatred of the Destroyer of Nations.
Based on our collective intelligence‚ Theo and I concluded that it was about two years ago that Shaikheti began rebuilding his army. With Eldad’s tactical expertise and Callisto’s manipulative encouragement‚ Shaikheti put his army to the test by invading Lydia. I fought and defeated him there‚ three months before freeing Gabrielle. What happened between Eldad‚ Callisto and Shaikheti after their defeat in Lydia is shaky‚ but it wasn’t long after that that Callisto was back in Castra Regina begging Marius to take her back.
I turned my attention to Marius‚ who with Gabrielle’s assistance was torturing a straw-filled mattress. "So‚ she said nothing to you about what happened between her and Eldad in Persia?" I asked him.
"No‚ my Liege‚" he responded. "Only that Eldad had lied to her and betrayed her. She was never specific."
"And Shaikheti?" I asked.
"She denied ever meeting him‚" Marius replied. "I never believed her. How could she not have ever met her lover’s commander? Absurd."
Marius said that after her return from Persia‚ Callisto had become obsessed with knowing every move that I made. She was particularly intrigued during my war against Marcus Antonius. But Marius said that her obsession really began to manifest itself after word started spreading in Rome and Gaul about the Bard of Poteidaia. We concluded that it was around this time‚ while I was once again in Lydia fighting and Gabrielle was becoming an Amazon‚ that Callisto made contact with Shaikheti. He was back in Persia at that time‚ but intelligence sources put him in Castra Regina‚ without Eldad‚ around the time that I was recuperating from my Hard Death in the Thessalian Amazon village.
"Once Callisto learned that Gabrielle was traveling with you to Castra Regina‚ the original plan was probably to abduct her in Gesoria and take her back to Castra Regina‚" Theo posited.
"Makes sense‚" I agreed. "They probably figured that Gabrielle wouldn’t accompany me on the ship to Albion. When she did‚ the plan shifted to abducting her sometime before our supposed return to Corinth."
"Right‚" Gabrielle spoke up. "But you changed the plan‚ Xena‚ and we ended up here in Rome instead."
"And here is where you were abducted by Callisto‚ Gabrielle." I said. "I suspect that had I not found you in that Mithraeum‚ Callisto would have taken you back to Castra Regina to lure me there."
"Yes‚" Gabrielle said. "And then when you would have come to rescue me‚ she would have killed me‚ getting her revenge for Cirra and accomplishing her goal of driving you as insane as she. With you weak with grief‚ Shaikheti could have made a more successful move on Germania then."
"I suspect‚ however‚ that Shaikheti left Gaul when he got word that Callisto’s abduction was thwarted‚" I stated. "But it didn’t end there‚ not for him."
"So‚ why did he invade Germania‚ my Liege?" Marius asked.
I turned to Gabrielle. "Why do you think he did it‚ Gabrielle?" I asked.
Her expression was frank. "Honestly‚ I don’t think that it had anything to do with Callisto‚ Xena‚" she said. "I think that it was as simple as wanting to defeat the Germans and perhaps avenge Borias’ death with yours."
"So again‚ I ask‚ why am I here?"
Gabrielle eyes took on a reflective wisdom. "It has nothing to do with Shaikheti‚ Xena‚" she said. "You owe her a blood debt for Cirra."
It was profoundly ironic that despite all of their collaboration over the years‚ ultimately Shaikheti and Callisto were nothing more than rivals‚ vying for who would get to kill me first.
I turned to my loyal Greek guard‚ Theo. "Any other questions‚ my Liege?" he asked.
"I have one‚" Gabrielle spoke up. "What do these gladiators eat?"
"Roman fish sauce‚ Lady Gabrielle‚" Theo replied. "It’s fermented tunny fish. Quite a delicacy and a gladiator favorite."
"Whatever it is‚" Gabrielle replied. "This kitchen smells like shit."
Gabrielle certainly didn’t help our mock torture of Theo by forcing us to contain our laughter.
* * * *
When we stepped out of that holding cell‚ I had Theo’s wrists bound behind his back and a sack over his head to hide his unharmed face.
"I’m not done with his punishment‚" I lied to Carmelus. "We’ll be taking him back to Governor Octavius’ palace for still more interrogation."
"By your will‚ Conqueror‚" Carmelus said‚ apparently relieved that he wasn’t next in line for punishment.
My entourage escorted the "detained" Theo to a prisoner carriage. It was a tight squeeze‚ but all of us were able to fit inside. I then ordered the carriage driver to remain immobile.
After I untied his wrists‚ Theo removed the sack. "Whew‚ hot‚" he said‚ referring to heat of the sack on his face.
"Who of the gladiator guards do you trust the most?" I asked him.
"My closest allies are the Etruscan siblings‚" he replied. "Sontius Christophius and his sister‚ Adrianna Hegedice. They’ve handled Callisto and the Sicilian women very closely for some time now.
My driver will take you to the Governor’s palace‚" I began my instruction. "They’ll escort you inside‚ but then you’ll be released. I want you to go to Maphias’ for a few days. Lay low… at least until the Amazon slaves are freed and I’ve dealt with Callisto."
Theo’s sweaty face took on a troubled expression. "Excuse me‚ my Liege‚ free the Amazon slaves?"
"Yes‚" I said. "The women gladiators from Sicily. They’re Mesopotamian Amazons."
"Permission to advise‚ Conqueror‚" Theo spoke up.
"These women may have once been Amazons‚ but they’re not Amazons anymore."
At that point‚ the Northern Amazons Escritt‚ Darda and Amarice‚ as well as Bahri’s Amazon lover‚ Charicleia‚ drew their swords on Theo. "Once an Amazon‚ always an Amazon‚" Charicleia said.
"Put away your weapons‚" I commanded the women before returning my attention to Theo. "What do you mean by that?" I asked him.
"These women have been fighting the gladiatorial circuit for years. They have grown to crave the bloodletting. They have no alliance with anyone but each other and are extremely dangerous. If you free them‚ you might as well free Callisto too‚ because they’re all the same‚ Conqueror. They’re bloodthirsty murderers with no soul‚ no heart and no conscience."
Gabrielle grabbed my arm. "I don’t believe that‚" she said to me.
I was conflicted. What Theo said made perfect sense. Fighting‚ be it in an arena or on a battlefield‚ robs something from you‚ your humanity. After years of conquering‚ I became that bloodthirsty murderer‚ void of soul‚ heart and conscience. Had Gabrielle not come into my life‚ I’d still be fully enjoying the feel of blood on my hands‚ the taste of fear and suffering‚ the smell of death. I had a decision to make.
"I respect your opinion‚ Theo‚" I stated. "But before I give up on these women‚ I need to at least give all of their Sisters here a chance to reach them." I looked at my Gabrielle.
"I understand‚ Majesty‚" Theo said.
At that point‚ one by one‚ my group filtered out of the carriage. I was the last to depart. Turning to Theo‚ I extended my arm. "Thank you for all of your help‚" I said to him.
He grabbed it. "Lady Gabrielle is a wise and wonderful woman‚" he said. "But sometimes‚ I suspect‚ she thinks with her heart. Now more than ever‚ Xena the Conqueror‚ you need to think with your head."
"I will‚" I said to him.
As soon as I exited the carriage‚ Gabrielle was by my side. "You’re not going to keep my Amazon Sisters enslaved‚ are you‚ Xena?"
I thought for a moment. "I promise you‚ Gabrielle‚ when the time comes‚ you and I will make that decision together."
"I don’t believe that they’re evil‚ Xena. Before they were gladiators‚ they were Amazons‚ loyal to their tribe and to the Nation."
"Yes‚ but Velasca was a loyal Amazon at one time too‚ Gabrielle‚" I said. "And so was Alti. Anything’s possible."
Gabrielle was silenced by my comment. I decided at that point that I needed to approach Charicleia and the young Northern Amazons in our entourage. "I would appreciate your insight during my discussions with these enslaved Amazons‚" I said to them.
"That’s why we’re here‚ Conqueror‚" Amarice spoke up.
Christophius‚ Adrianna and several other guards were overseeing the gladiators performing one of their daily duties before the events; cleaning the Colosseum ground of excess debris from the most recent games. There wasn’t often any blood to clean up since most of it was absorbed into the sandy ground. When it was necessary‚ the stained sand was dug out and fresh sand was poured into the hole‚ raked and then smoothed. Our group sat in the shade of the royal viewing vault to observe the gladiators at work below. There were more than twenty of them cleaning. Obviously Callisto was among them. I immediately noticed that she worked very closely with the other women gladiators. I didn’t see Niall of Calleva amongst the men. A few moments into our observation‚ another guard captain approached us.
"Ave‚ Conqueror and honored guests‚" he greeted. "I am Guard Captain Lucius Domitius Silvius. Can I be of service to you?"
I turned to the guard captain. "Yes‚ I would like for your two guards‚ Christophius and Adrianna to escort us to the gladiators’ dormitorium once they’re done with their chores."
"By your will‚ Conqueror."
The gladiator living quarters were directly below the Colosseum floor. It was dark and musty down there‚ but the gladiators seemed to have made the best of their circumstances. Relieved of any further duties until the bouts scheduled later that day‚ many of them were in the corridors playing estogyny and dice games. Some were lightheartedly sparring while others sat around in groups‚ telling tall tales of former lives. Callisto and all of the other women were together in one of the dormitory rooms. Theo’s two trusted friends were about to get the women when I stopped them.
"Before you bring them out‚ I’d like to know something‚" I said to the siblings. "Is there a leader and if so‚ which one is she?"
Adrianna and Christophius looked at each other. "Yes‚ my Liege‚" Adrianna spoke up. "They have a leader‚ but it’s not the crazed Greek woman who has your attention."
"It’s one of the others‚" I held.
"Yes‚" Christophius confirmed.
"Bring her out‚" I ordered. "Alone." I wanted to study this woman.
"By your will‚ Conqueror‚" Christophius stated before entering the dormitory room.
While he was inside‚ I looked at his sister. "What became of Niall of Calleva?" I asked.
"You’re about to meet his executioner‚ Conqueror‚" Adrianna replied.
At that moment‚ a raven-haired woman emerged. She was tall‚ almost as tall as me‚ with dark brown eyes‚ deeply tanned skin and a prominent scar on her chin.
"What’s your name?" I asked the woman. She didn’t respond.
"She doesn’t speak Greek‚ Majesty‚" Christophius stated.
"Of course she speaks Greek‚" I responded. "All Amazons speak Greek. It’s the language of their Nation."
"I’ve never heard any of these women speaking Greek‚ Majesty‚" Adrianna spoke up. "Their Latin is shaky as well. They speak a dialect of Sicily."
This is bullshit. She’s bullshitting‚ I thought. "I said‚ WHAT IS YOUR NAME!?!"
"Va fungule‚ bizzuoca!" the woman yelled in my face.
I looked at Gabrielle‚ who looked at the other Amazons. They all had perturbed expressions on their faces. I returned my full attention to the woman. "That’s not a name‚" I said to the guards. "What did she just say to me?"
"I don’t know‚ Conqueror‚" Adrianna said. "But Callisto understands their dialect. She can translate."
Brief moments later‚ Callisto was brought before me. As always‚ I had a strange‚ sickening sensation from her presence.
"Xena!" she gleefully purred. "I’ve missed you."
"You never wrote."
"Still have a sense of humor‚ I see‚" she said. "And Gabrielle‚ you’re looking lovely today."
"Dispense with the pleasantries‚ Callisto‚" I said‚ although I never took my eyes off the Amazon gladiator. "This woman said something to me… fun-goo biz something."
"Va fungule‚ bizzuoca?"
"Yeah‚" I said. "What does that mean?"
"Go fuck yourself‚ bitch‚" Callisto said with a smile. Her answer was an iron grip on my throat. Incensed‚ I grabbed the woman’s neck in a chokehold. She responded by grabbing my neck. Her hands were strong and I could quickly feel my throat being deprived of air. Marius‚ Palaemon and Hadiya grabbed the woman while several arms wrapped around me. We were pulled apart and as I was relieved of the woman’s strong grip‚ I quickly looked over at Callisto‚ who was still smiling.
"That was fun!" she announced.
The woman was coughing‚ as was I. "You’re not afraid of me‚" I said to her. "I’m impressed." I again looked at this woman‚ but this time I looked deeply into her eyes. There was potency in her eyes‚ but they were also blank. This was a woman who apparently didn’t care about anything anymore. My eyes were like that once‚ until Gabrielle. However‚ despite everything this woman had been through over the years‚ she still had several of her Sisters with her. Did she not care about them either? And then I realized that her alliance with her Sisters might be the key.
"Are you ready to tell me your name now‚ Amazon?"
"Si‚" the woman said. "Aster Zemarian‚ virago capa regia."
I nodded in acknowledgment to Aster before turning back to Callisto. "Capa regia?" I asked.
"She’s the Amazon’s leader‚ their boss‚ Xena‚" Callisto replied. "It’s a Sicilian thing. What she says goes."
"Is she your boss too‚ Callisto?" I asked smugly.
She stepped up to me to where her face nearly touched mine. "Oh‚ no‚ my pretty pretty Xena‚" she oozed. "I’m their compaesana… their sidekick… if you will. You’re my only ‘boss‚’ sweetheart."
At that moment‚ Gabrielle stepped up to Callisto and pushed her away from me. "Ooh‚ bold‚" Callisto charged. "I like that in a woman."
"So‚ you want to fight me to the death today‚ Callisto?" I asked.
"I have a splendid idea‚ my darling‚" she said. "Why don’t your girlfriends here‚ including your precious little Gabrielle‚ take on me and my girlfriends? Freedom goes to the winners."
"Enterprising idea‚ Callisto‚ except that my friends are already free‚ I’m planning on freeing your friends‚ and you won’t live to see the sun set."
"Free these women?" Callisto charged. "Are you sure about that‚ Xena?"
No‚ I’m not‚ I thought. "If they wish to return to their Mesopotamian Amazon village‚ reunite with their Sisters and remain there‚ I’m prepared to emancipate them." I turned to Aster. "That’s the deal."
The Amazon smirked. "Come zi belle‚ Conqueror‚" she said. "Nice offer‚ but I like Callisto’s idea better."
CONTINUED IN PART FOURTEEN
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