Blood Meridian, part 3 (conclusion) --- by Penumbra
Please see part 1 for disclaimers
and copyright notices. Comments, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
"Reinforcements! Send in the reinforcements! Demetrius!" Saba's scream sliced through the humid morning air like a heated knife. Even before the last echo vaporised, the commander of the rear contingent had urged his steed to a gallop, towards the approaching band of bloodied figures. Saba diverted to meet him while the Conqueror rode past, not slowing down one bit. She had every faith in her First and in Demetrius Poliorcetes, the troop commander who was now deep in conversation with Saba. But now Xena's thought lay elsewhere, farther down the road.
The battle was not lost; instead, it had reached a curious stalemate. The fighting chewed on human flesh like an unstoppable grinder. Her troops had damaged the Roman army enough to even the numbers, but upon seeing their heavy losses the enemy had done the single most important thing they had done so far: they had moved beyond fear.
The rear troops were fresh and rested, gawping at the Conqueror and the small knot of her honour guard that strained to keep up with her, smelling the blood. Surely they had heard the never-ending thunder of the battle, emanating from just a few leagues beyond their current position, just over the next ridge. With their additonal manpower, and with Demetrius leading them, victory was inevitable. The man wasn't named after Alexander the Great's successor by coincidence.
In a sense, the Conqueror was beyond fear now herself, beyond caring. She had a single purpose, a shard of thought that lived in her heart, urging her onward. Had she paused to think it over, she would have appreciated the irony of it, her selfish nature for once transcending itself because of someone else. But she had no time to consider such things; her consciousness was focused on the gnawing uncertainty on whether Gabrielle was alive or not, unharmed or not. The whole world bent to torture her; in her mind, the insistent rush of the wind was the scream of her beloved, the last breath she took; the thunder of Pyrgomache's hooves the beat of her beloved's heart, destined to die down as soon as she would rein in the frothing black beast she was riding.
"Thrice-blessed Aphrodite, please..."
Her eyes were beginning to blur from the tears she shed, mostly
because of the harsh wind that buffeted her face -- but some of the
moisture gathering at the corners of the stark blue eyes was due to
what she didn't know. A quiet prayer, offered unconsciously, reached
no ears but those of the black mare.
Just my luck, Mentuhetep thought and squeezed his eyes more tightly shut, having just learned that opening them was not the smartest thing to do when suffering from a splitting headache. The whole left side of his head was numb from the mace blow, but the right side reciprocated with enough pain to last two lifetimes. Owww.
The bright sun pounded upon him. He could feel the golden rays dancing on his forehead, lured by the dark coating of drying blood there. The rich liquid had seeped down to the hollows of his eyes while he had been unconscious, and he was almost sure he had ripped an eyelash or two off with his hastily aborted attempt at regaining his vision. Counting to fifty, he carefully stretched his arms and legs, making sure they were in proper working order and that nothing else was broken besides the skin on his forehead. Oh gracious gods... as sure as the sky is blue, I'm going to have a scar there, he moaned to himself, shaking his head.
When he finally reached fifty, he ripped his eyes open again, stubbornly squinting towards the bright morning sun. His head screamed in protest and for a while, and he felt like losing consciousness again. But the moment passed and his delicate eyes adjusted to the white glare. It took another small eternity before he could move his hands to his sides and push his upper body to an upright position. And as he rose, his eyes met the horror of it all.
The camp was still. An eerie silence hung in the air, broken only by the faint crackle of fire and a few weak wails. A few bodies stirred here and there, the rest obviously beyond help. The sickening scent of charred flesh lingered, emanating from the passenger carriages off to the side, where flames still licked the peaceful blue sky.
As he took in the scene, his stomach twisting, a man emerged from behind the burning wagons. It was Alkaios, of Xena's honour guard, if Mentu recalled correctly. He was staggering slightly, but other than a long but shallow gash across his chest, there seemed to be nothing seriously wrong with him. He stood up straighter and shook his head, as if to clear the fog from his mind, before spotting the reclining Mentuhetep and heading towards him.
"Master Mentuhetep!" the guard exclaimed, a bit breathless, when he reached the wounded advisor. "No, don't get up... wait," he said and dashed off, only to return with a moist rag in his hand. He dabbed away the thick coating of blood with shaking hands, his eyes wide and red from the terror and smoke. When most of the blood was wiped away, Alkaios hauled the still-weak Mentu up, supporting his tall frame with an arm around his waist.
"Are you better?"
"Yes, Alkaios. Thank you," Mentu said, smiling at the man who promptly blushed, the colour visible even through the layer of grime and ash on his face. "Who were they? The attackers, I mean."
"Well, they rode in from the south but that's all I know," the guard shrugged and guided Mentuhetep towards one of the few intact wagons. "Must've taken the rear guard by surprise."
"Right," Mentu murmured, sweeping his eyes around the devastation once again. He almost missed her.
His shrill scream echoed in the muted, smoky air, and in a flash he was beside the petite figure. The body was very still, the bard's fair hair, usually so glossy, covered in a grimy mixture of soot and blood. A wound in her scalp was bleeding sluggishly, but most disconcerting was the odd angle of Gabrielle's arm. It was bent sharply beneath her torso and Mentu winced at the angry swelling of her elbow. Cradling the small head in his shaking hands, Mentu gently brushed his fingers over Gabrielle's eyelids before resting them on her pulse point.
"Alive," he whispered, more to himself than to anyone else. "She's alive." A great weight removed itself from his heart, and he bent down to place a feathery kiss on the bard's dirty forehead. He dare not even think what would have happened if the faint but steady pulse had not been there. This nightmare, just as I arrived...
He had joined the slowly advancing troops just the day before, arriving with the reinforcements the Conqueror had pulled from the southern guard. He had come to help organise the government for the newly conquered areas of Dacia. The population in the highlands of the area was sparse, but still, the arrangements at the new northern border would need some serious reorganising. The night had passed peacefully but on the first ray of light, the harsh reality of war had caught up with them.
He was still cradling Gabrielle's head in his lap, not having the energy to do anything else but pray for the young woman's life, when the rumble of hooves announced a party approaching from the north. The riders cleared the last ridge and streamed down the slope. Mentu's heart jumped as he recognised the leader, riding a few lengths in front of the rest. It was the dark, red wraith of death incarnate, the figure clad in flowing crimson, riding her black beast like the fires of Tartarus were at her heels.
Pulling at the reins so violently Mentu could see fresh blood flowing from Pyrgomache's gums, the Conqueror halted her horse mere feet away from the advisor and Gabrielle. The mare neighed weakly in protest, its lathered sides heaving strongly as she laboured to breathe. With an anguished groan, Xena slipped her boots free from the stirrups and jumped down, her muscles growing stiff from the long, harsh ride. Taking a few faltering steps, she finally collapsed to her knees next to Gabrielle, her fiery eyes sweeping the small body of the woman she loved.
"Is she..." the Conqueror whispered, her voice a hoarse growl from strain and emotion. Her bloodied right hand hovered over Gabrielle's still face, not daring to touch lest she find that smooth, golden skin cold.
"Morpheus holds her, not the guardians of Elysia," Mentuhetep answered. He pointed at the twisted arm he had not yet had the courage to move. Xena nodded, small pearls of tears forming at her eyes. Her fingers, still bloody from the night's battle, left thin red lines on Gabrielle's cheek as she gently brushed the soft skin. Clearing her throat without much success, she rose and ran towards the rest of her men.
"Lysimachus!" she called out to her healer, who was already headed
The wind blew from the southeast. Androdameios lifted his black head, sniffing the air with the taste of blood on his tongue. He could smell the dry, acrid scent of fear that still clung in the air, and the fine dust of the now deserted road. Leaning down towards a depression made by a hoof, he traced the edge of the circular pattern with his whiskers. Fear, and determination. A glance to one side affirmed that the Leader knew as much as he did.
Xena was crouching, one knee on the ground, twirling a stalk of grass between thumb and finger. Her eyes were on the horizon, where the now-deserted road led. Her gaze didn't waver, not even when the big cat sauntered silently closer and laid his soft head on her thigh.The feel of the coarse fur under her palm, the snall, gleaming eyes that stared at her hotly from under dark brows, they had no effect on her concentration. Inhaling the sweet scent of fear, she smiled towards the southern horizon and closed her weary eyes.
"You think they would know, Androdameios. Even after all these years."
With one fluid movement, she rose. Catching the edge of her billowing cloak, she wrapped the fabric around her. Her blood had cooled from the night's fighting; now she felt only hollow rage. But as sure as the sun would rise the next day, she knew that the rage would be her ally when she needed one. Turning back towards the north and the camp, she smiled at the panther.
"Come, my darling, the night's sentencings await us. And tomorrow..."
She trailed off, her eyes turned towards her quiet companion but
seeing him not. Her attention was focused on the cool, calculating
hate inside her, cherishing the thought of blood still to be shed.
The Roman general couldn't see anything but a pair of black boots, framed by the quietly shifting edges of a cloak of crimson so bright that it hurt his eyes. The dust was getting in his eyes, or so he told himself, as tears blurred his gaze. With quiet, bottomless pain, he lay down his sword at the Conqueror's feet, his fingers lingering on the cool metal before letting go.
"You understand the crime you have committed against this land?"
The cold, harsh words were almost spat at him. Augustinus flinched and bowed even more deeply, the small stones digging into his knee.
"Yes, o gracious lord."
He did as told but kept his eyes on the Conqueror's boots, afraid to lift his head to meet the blazing gaze of the woman who had beaten him at his own game, pushed his troops to the ground and sliced through them with a blade so sharp all that remained was tatters. His mind was raw from humiliation, heavy with the weight of all the souls that had walked into the war at his word. Suddenly, he felt very tired.
Brutus had promised that it would be easy. That the Conqueror was weak, spoiled, lazy. The sea on their journey had been turbulent and hard on his men, the rats fleeing the ships when they stopped for supplies in the south, but he had not heeded the warning signs the gods had sent him. Instead he had brazenly believed the new ruler's word and stepped onto the Dacian land.
The native savages had been of no consequence, but he had expected as much; they were after the rugged, hard land for one purpose only. When the news of the Conqueror's approach had finally reached them, on the fortieth day of their one-sided war, a pang of excitement had coursed through Augustinus. His troops had felt it as well, the sense of destiny approaching them. He would humiliate the barbaric ruler who had dared to make fun of Brutus; he would see the Acropolis as a conqueror of the land, as proud owner.
They had fought in the valleys, on the ridges and along the rivers, and the pressure had been never-ending. He hadn't slept well in days, and his troops had been dying around him under the Conqueror's sword and under the assault of disease. The ravages of this unfamiliar, hard land were alien to him and his legions, and those who did not succumb to the blade had suffered an agonising death in the hands of a cruel, unrelenting plague. His healers had been helpless, the magic of Aesculapius powerless against these new maladies.
He was so tired. He had been careless, not listening to his advisors when they warned him of placing the bulk of his legions in the small valley. His men had been exhausted, their eyes hollow as they crawled through no-man's land, living only to fear that they might die the next day. He had felt sorry for them, offering a moment of respite in the valley that was supposed to be well guarded. The Conqueror had given them no mercy. Not even the one surprise card he had pulled had helped in the fight...
"You understand the repercussions?"
The formal question came as no surprise.
"Yes, my lord," he said, finally lifting his head and meeting the eyes of liquid ice. His fate had been entwined with hers the moment the first Roman soldier had set foot in Dacia.
The Conqueror rose. Tracing a finger along the top of her breastplate, she seemed to be thinking, the whirlwind of thoughts reflected in the pale blue eyes that didn't even blink as they stared at him. Augustinus held no illusions about his fate; she was merely deciding how to kill him.
"Mentuhetep." The man was at her side instantly, even before the last quietly-spoken syllable of his name had died. "A coin, please."
The circle of gold flew in the air, a star in the bright torchlight, scattering warm beams of fire over the ethereally quiet central square of the Conqueror's camp. The dozens of spectators all held their breath as the coin reached the apex of its flight and slowly began to descend. The Conqueror caught it mid-air and placed it on the back of her hand as the crowd exhaled. Lifting the coin for the general to see, she smiled a small, cruel smile.
For a fleeting moment, the man could see twin sets of eyes stare at him, all deceptively cool and remote. But soon the golden gaze vanished inside the Conqueror's tanned fist, and he straightened his back. It would be his duty and his honour to die -- more so if it was to be by her own hand, as the coin had decided.
It was the most natural of human reflexes: to catch something thrown in one's direction. Such was the general's reaction as he grabbed for the coin. His expression of benign surprise was instantly replaced by a mask of agony, his handsome features contorting to reflect the fiery bolts of pain. The Conqueror had pulled two daggers from her gauntlets and driven them into his chest, all the way to their hilts. The breath exited Augustinus in a wet, pained scream as his lungs collapsed.
Xena looked down at the man as he vainly tried to inhale. Writhing in the dust, his chest beaded up in sweat at the extertion, but the air wouldn't stay inside him. She tried to feel remorse for his suffering, for not being able to breathe was surely one of the worst ways to die, but she couldn't find enough compassion in her heart. To her, the man was the enemy and thus deserved to die with honour, but only to swim in the fires of Tartarus for eternity.
Finally the general's frantic moves slowed. He had almost pulled out one of the daggers in his chest, but that had only hastened his death as air wheezed out of the exposed hole. He gave one last jerk at the blade and it came away with a sluggish spray of blood that stained the earth with gleaming red. The dust soaked up the moisture rapidly, and then the spectacle was over. Crouching down besides the corpse, Xena pried his fist open and placed the gold coin on his forehead before gently drawing his eyelids closed.
"Same as with Galen -- and then give the rest of him a proper funeral with the money," she said quietly to Mentuhetep. The tall man bowed and went to prepare the embalming fluids for sending the general's head to Brutus. The Conqueror turned towards the command staff around her. "War council in half a candlemark. Inform Etor and Tyra."
The crowd dispersed quickly, the assembled troops and officers muttering quietly but with assured smiles on their faces. The death of the Roman general was the spectacle they had been waiting for, carried out with the Conqueror's unmistakable flair. It had been a necessary ritual; now the Romans, as well as the Greeks, knew who was the master in the game of war. Xena headed across the encampment towards her healer's tent, her silent, rolling gait lifting small clouds of dust into the air. Some of her men were brave enough to meet her gaze as she passed. She replied to the acknowledgements with a nod, registering the compliments but not paying conscious attention to them. Rage still ate away at her heart and that pain was enough to dull her senses to the point that she felt herself to be a mere shell over razed nerve endings. My own people, turning against me... may Tartarus swallow them alive, she cursed calmly; she was beyond blind hate now.
Lifting the tent's flap, the Conqueror stepped inside, blinking away the multiple reflections of torch flames that insistently remained on her retinas.
"Lysimachus." She quietly acknowledged the healer. "How is she?"
"My lord... the arm is bad," the elderly, bearded man said, pausing to take a breath before explaining more fully. "A mace blow, the ulna was shattered. It will heal but it will also take time. She is awake now."
Nodding to the subdued, nervous man, the Conqueror untied the bindings of her cape and removed the heavy crimson, along with the weight of her deeds, from her shoulders. The stark, heavy smell of healing herbs hung in the air, making her head ache. Now she just wanted to spend a few minutes with her love. On such simple pleasures does man's life depend, she mused, and stepped past the separating curtain.
Blood clung to the air. It was nothing to her, a mere curious perfume, when she stank of it. But when the scent lingered around her love, such innocence tainted with the tang of death, it made her heart burn until she felt her soul to be nothing but a cinder. "Gabrielle..."
At the broken word, the woman on the narrow cot lifted her eyelids, revealing two dull, frightened orbs of muddy green, laced with ruptured veins. Slowly, they focused on the kneeling figure next to the bed and found the dark eyes, so full of rage warring with concern. The bard turned slightly onto her side, every movement sending bolts of agony through her injured arm, but she didn't care.
"I'm all right, Xena... or at least I will be."
"I swear, whoever did..." Xena murmured, her eyelids drooping halfway shut. The air around her fairly shone with the dark energy that she breathed. "They will beg for me to kill them by the time I'm through."
The bard bit her lower lip, hard, to keep from screaming as she lifted herself higher and the injured arm bumped against the cot's edge. She didn't even remember how it had happened... she had run towards the wagon and had heard a noise behind her. She could remember a fleeting glimpse of a man on horseback, a mace aimed with deadly accuracy, a flash of pain before the blessed darkness had fallen. But that look in Xena's eyes...
"I have a war council."
Gabrielle let her head fall back onto the pillow when the Conqueror disappeared through the curtain. Silent tears obscured her eyes and she blinked them away, only to have them replaced by more of their kind. In the tent's humid, muggy air, she felt the touch of death on her skin, the fleeting sense of a fate so horrible that, with her limited experience, she was quite unable to imagine it. That look... it spoke of the agonies of Tartarus, the trials by fire that would befall whomever had touched her. Those hands she loved, and that loved her so well, would reach out and draw blood, with the precision and unlimited patience her lover was capable of.
The tears rolled down her cheeks like small pearls from a distant
sea, only to disappear within the folds of the blankets. Oh
Xena... if you only knew...
The scar tissue on her forearm was old and pale. A desperate innkeeper, slashing at her with a dagger, made the lucky strike of his life when he grazed her with the blade. He had then succumbed to her hands or to her blade, she couldn't remember; Cirra was fifteen solar cycles past. But the memory remained, in the form of the thin white line, a conduit of numbness along her skin.
"Conclusions?" she asked, lifting her eyes from the scar to the quiet war council around her. She waited, steepling her fingers and leaning back in her chair. The lines of stress ran deep in everybody's face, the shadows under their eyes darker than the new moon.
"The reinforcements were a life saver," Saba hazarded. Urged on by a nod from the Conqueror, she focused on a seam in the wall behind Mentuhetep, who stood next to the dark woman's chair. The intensity of the Conqueror's blue eyes was something she couldn't handle; the pale, cold blue thrummed with mute rage, barely kept in check.
"Yes...Demetrius Poliorcetes saved the eastern front," Tyra acknowledged and shifted her stance. "Without his troops, we would have been ground down on that side."
"So I gather," the Conqueror murmured and silently admired the way the older woman carried herself, although the wound under the thick bandage around her midsection was surely painful. The members of her council all sported similar emblems of battle, but that was to be expected -- she led with competent, experienced people, not with captains who stayed safely behind the lines. War was all about participation, and sacrifice -- a fact that she knew far better than anyone else inside the spacious, dark tent.
"Yes, my mistress?" the man murmured and bent down to hear better.
"Have the messengers gone?"
"Yes, four candlemarks ago," he smiled, flashing a perfect set of white teeth. "The news of your victory should reach the capital in three days."
"Mmm... victory," Xena murmured and lifted an eyebrow at the man. "Not quite."
"Ah yes," Mentuhetep said and smiled even wider. "How fitting this is...one last battle and the circle is complete."
The Conqueror nodded and rose from her chair. Rolling her shoulders around, she could hear faint cracks as bones aligned with tendons, and she bit back a grimace. She absently fingered a nick in her breastplate where some lucky Roman had grazed her with his sword. Have to get that fixed, she thought as she paced closer to the council table, which was covered in maps as usual. The conversation had risen from casual words to a faint buzz, the nearly two score people present conversing with a strange tone of relief, of lightness in their voices.
"Ladies. Gentlemen. It is not over yet."
The Conqueror's low words brought the conversation to a halt and all heads turned her way as she chose an apple from a fruit bowl. She fingered the shining green fruit, absentmindedly gazing at her distorted reflection on its surface, but did not bite into it. She was full; she had feasted on death, enjoyed the scent of human flesh, still tasting the blood on her tongue and smelling it on her skin. But her heart was hollow, wounded by betrayal.
"The identity of the troops that surprised the eastern brigade has been established?"
"Yes, my lord," Titus said and nodded briskly. Scratching his three-day-old stubble, his eyes flickered to the maps. "Some of the attackers wore insignia, and they made no attempts to disguise their tracks. But we got them all; not one got away to sound a warning," he finished, a tentative smile twitching on his lips. Saba bit the inside of her mouth to warn the man not to be overly derisive of the surprise attackers. The issue was more sensitive than most of the others realised.
"Mmm," the Conqueror hummed, finally biting into the apple before anchoring down the corner of a map of Macedonia and Thrace with it.
It was a land she knew by heart, and as she let her gaze roam over the dull, red lines of hills and the wider streams of blue ink that marked the rivers on the landscape of the map, she could still smell the sweet scent of autumn leaves and the rich earth under her feet, so many solar cycles in her past. It was another life: innocent, eager, the rich blood in her veins singing of life, not of the scent of death she so relished that day. But she had been unspoilt then, oblivious to the coming pain and injustice that would alter the course of her life forever.
"We leave immediately. Forty score men, circle through here--" Xena instructed, her words cool and clipped. Her hand made a languid arc over the map, encompassing the eastern end of the Central Macedonian plain. "-- and spread the troops around here when the morning comes. Leave no chance for escape to the sea, and block the eastern route as well."
"But the men have to rest," Etor protested.
"Yes," the Conqueror smiled, a thin-lipped grin that spoke of waning patience. "Once we are in place, we sleep. But not before. I don't want our quarry to get away."
Etor averted his eyes and found something utterly fascinating on his left gauntlet's lacings. The Conqueror herself had not slept in almost two days; when not fighting, she had been constructing the next violent meeting of the war. The man blinked away the weariness in his own eyes and nodded. He would prove himself worthy of the trust with which she had imbued him and the people all around him.
"Everything will be ready in a candlemark," Saba promised. "I'll give out the orders. The traitors will never know what hit them. Etor, Tyra?"
"My men are aware of the situation and ready to go," the woman nodded and squared her shoulders. "One candlemark it is."
"Excellent. Dismissed," the Conqueror concluded, and the people streamed out of the tent, one by one or in quietly chatting pairs. The main contingent would leave come morning, the long trek across Hellas for once peaceful. Her casualties had been severe, the war had been more of endurance than anything else. Again and again, she had proved her potency in her art and on her land.
The command tent became her solitary space as the last voices outside died away. She stood in the semi-darkness, the candles throwing nervous shadows over her still form as she quietly gazed at the map, at the expanse of her reign. They never learn, do they..., Xena thought, quiet sadness covering the barren, empty place in her soul. It was a circle complete; she would return to the place where she had been born of the ashes left behind by Cortese, and remind her people who owned them. They had forgotten who was the god weighing their fate, here on Earth.
My pain will be yours, again... my Amfípolis, she
thought, before rolling the map and replacing it in its container.
"It's so...merciless." She tried one last time but it was as futile as all other arguments had been. The dark head shook, barely perceptibly, but still conveyed a strong negative.
"Perhaps, but it is necessary."
The Conqueror's words did not ease her pain, but she had expected as much. Gabrielle knew the arguments by heart and understood what drove the dark woman to the sacrifices, the dark deeds she deemed necessary, but it didn't help. She feared what her lover was, and the absolute power she had over Fate because, this time, the power was hers as well -- however unwilling she had been to accept it.
"Gabrielle," the dark, sonorous alto began, almost hesitantly. "These are the people that hurt you. They rebelled against me."
"I know," the bard said quietly and averted her eyes. Her mind was rarely at peace with her heart; this time, she felt her hate for the abusers, saw the evil in their deeds, but all she could think of was the fire burning in Xena's eyes. She was already sinking into the sea of darkness and soon it would drown her. When the attackers had come, they must have known that what they were about to do would have dire consequences -- but what about their mothers, sisters, brothers, children? Collateral, they were called. The whole repulsive nature of war made her stomach twist in disgust.
"I have to go," Xena said and bowed down to place a gentle kiss on her forehead. The movement made her leathers groan quietly, the armour making soft, metallic noises as it chafed against skin and hide. The bard could hear the commotion outside and she knew Aeolus would be just outside the healer's tent, waiting patiently to follow her lover into yet another slaughter.
Without another word, the Conqueror rose. Her full armour was heavy but she moved as if it weighed nothing. Her stance was almost painfully erect, her eyes already ablaze with the fire that burned in her blood as it coursed through organ and limb. But there was gentleness in her gestures as she brushed the bard's skin one last time, trailing down the length of an arm with her fingers before breaking the contact. The streak she had drawn burned on Gabrielle's skin long after the tall, dark figure had silently vanished beyond the cloth wall.
She lay there for a long moment, listening to the abrupt, loud voices of the departing troops fade back into the faintly irritating whine of insects and the quiet hiss of the torches outside the tent. Lysimachus was puttering around in the front part of the tent, probably preparing another dose of painkillers for her. The benefits of the position, Gabrielle thought bitterly.
The curtain parted and the healer approached her, holding a small wooden cup. "Here's the night's medicine," the elderly man said and handed the cup to the bard, who drank deeply.
"Thank you, Lysimachus."
The man smiled and accepted the now empty cup. "Good night, Gabrielle. May the gods watch over your sleep."
"And yours, too," the bard smiled and relaxed against the soft pillows. "And thank you for not telling," she added more quietly. The man smiled a small, sad smile and nodded. He understood.
'Tis best you do not know... and you never shall, my love, Gabrielle thought and gulped down impending tears as her hand strayed downwards to her stomach. It came to rest on her abdomen, a light weight over the soreness there. There were things she could not ever forgive the Amfípolitans, memories that would never vanish. Their leader had put a seal on the village's fate when his hand had touched her and marked her flesh in more ways than even Xena was aware of. It was the ultimate humiliation.
"Oh, love... what they did to me..."
Her broken words reached no ears inside the dark tent; they died as alone as they had been born. She had been unable to meet the clear, bright blue depths that looked through her with nary an effort. Her secrets were not hers alone, not for long; her fate had been entwined with that of the Greek people from the moment she had become something more then the Conqueror's servant. And what was she now? Tainted goods, her body not worth three copper coins, the price of a slave.
The arm wasn't as bad as it had been. At first, the hot waves of pain from her injury were the sole occupying thought in her mind, but the medicines and the tight bandaging helped to keep the pain within tolerable limits. Carefully, Gabrielle rose to a sitting position, stifling a scream of agony by biting her lower lip to blood as the wounded elbow grazed the edge of the cot. But she got her feet on the ground and, with a shaky push, she was on her feet. The world heaved dangerously around her as her various aches and pains adjusted themselves to the new position.
Lysimachus had departed to spend the night with his wife, so the alcove in front of the tent was dark and empty. Gabrielle felt her way around the stools and small tables with her good right hand, hugging the other close to her body. It took what seemed an intolerable amount of time to operate the flint, but finally a candle flared to life. Grabbing a piece of parchment and a quill, the bard inhaled shakily and wrote the few words that held the weight of the world. After completing another message, she slipped the folded parchments between the folds of her loose tunic and exited the tent quietly.
No-one paid much attention to her. In the camp, the victory fest
was in full swing, the bonfires reaching to the sky, throwing agitated
shadows over the gently rolling landscape. Soldiers celebrated,
drinking, talking loudly, their voices full of the mixture of barely
suppressed pride and quiet sadness over their fallen comrades. A few
eyes noticed the small figure that paced silently between the tents
but all recognised the Conqueror's chosen. Despite their various
stages of wine-induced lust, none dared either approach or question
her on her nocturnal business; they all knew what their dark leader
was capable of were someone to cross paths with her lover. Gabrielle
got past the outer guards without incident and the shadows swallowed
her as she walked towards the smooth indigo velvet of the southern
sky, her stride pregnant with sure purpose.
The heat broke as expected that morning. The sky was darkening with heavy, gray clouds that hung low over the rolling land. In the distance, she could already see the tentative streaks of lightning, approaching them rapidly as they sped towards the still clear southern sky. The air reeked of sulphur and rain and the sky would open up within moments. Adjusting her grip on Pyrgomache's reins, the Conqueror turned her head, regarding the approaching thunderstorm.
"The rain will reach us before we arrive," Saba yelled from atop her cremello gelding and squinted her eyes against the wind that whipped her face. She rode with the first wave of the Conqueror's troops.
"No matter," Xena barked in response, and squeezed her calves against the coal black coat of her steed. She could feel the coarse hair of Pyrgomache's mane slither over her skin and she patted the corded neck, coaxing her gently. Behind her, in the distance, she could hear the muted murmur of thunder follow the flash of light that illuminated the dark dawn with piercing clarity. The two demons of the sky were chasing one another, the rain futilely attempting to cool them down. Dry leaves flew past her and caught on her cloak, the quiet rustle drowned by the continuous rumble of hooves on the hard road as they came around the last ridge and the treeline receded.
It was as if from a dream; the most vivid, horrifying deja-vu she had ever experienced. It was a mirage from the past that stared at her. Some things had changed while others were the same; the main street was wider and smoother than she had remembered, but the air was the same, the curves of the road patterns she could trace in her sleep.
To her ears, the scrape of her sword against its sheath was louder than the approaching thunder. She regarded the smooth blade, its sleek lines and the dark clouds that were reflected on its surface. They were the colour of her eyes, dark with pain and anger, heavy with the sense of inevitable destiny. As sure as the rain would wash away the blood, she would be the one to spill it. With great care, with no remorse. This place had ceased to be her home the moment Cortese had violated it; now, she inhabited her own universe. Her home was wherever her blade achieved its purpose.
Her muted yell, more a wild growl than anything, was echoed by her men. Swords flashed painfully bright as lightning stuck nearby. The troops were unusually quiet, only the clang of armour and the hoofbeats announcing their approach as they galloped down the narrow road and entered the village.
Quiet. Too quiet, was Xena's first thought. Twirling her sword in one hand, she reined Pyrgomache in, hard, the veins in her bicep bulging into thick filaments. The mare reared and shook its head, agitated by the black hatred that poured off her rider. No fires were lit; the main street was inhabited only by a few goats and the moaning wind. At the other end of the street stood a group of shadowy figures, armed with long pikes. The crest that flew over them was unfamiliar to Xena.
"Tell my hoplites to stand down," Xena said to Tyra who bowed and turned her horse around to deliver the message. "As for them..." she began, pointing at the enigmatic figures with her sword, "kill them. But leave the leader for me."
Saba nodded and exchanged glances with Etor. The Conqueror's tone was cold and lifeless, her eyes mirrored the dark of the sky. The sky flashed bright white as lightning struck near them, the harsh light drawing sharp shadows over the planes of the Conqueror's face. The First nodded and, with a few hand gestures, relayed the information to the others.
The fight was as quick as it was brutal. The waiting troops were good but they were on foot and as outnumbered as they were, they stood not a chance. The Conqueror stood back as her honour guard sliced through them, razing through them with practised ease. The Amfípolitans' resistance was courageous but futile, and they knew as much; they had woken up that day just so that they could die with their boots on and swords unsheathed.
The only one left standing was the troop leader, a man nearing the age when hair turns from dark to silver and muscle usually gives way to wisdom. But in his case, the latter was yet untrue: his arms were thick and skillful as they swung the heavy two-hand sword in a wide arc. He stood his ground until an arrow caught him in the shoulder. His scream of agony was drowned by the sounds of those dying around him, but from her vantage point high on Pyrgomache, Xena could see his handsome if stubborn features twist into a mask of pain.
The word was quiet, impatient. As her men retreated from the quick slaughter, they ended the agony of those still alive as they parted before the Conqueror. Xena guided her horse closer, slowly. Re-sheathing her sword, she wrapped the crimson cloak around her and reined the black mare to a halt when she reached the man. "Lift him up."
Two of her guards rushed to get the man upright, supporting him. The grimace of pain edged away from his face and when he met her eyes, Xena could see they were as blue as her own, and as brazen as her own.
"I am Xena of Amfípolis."
"Oh, I know that," he smiled, his teeth streaked with blood. Shrugging off the helping hands under his arms, he probed the flesh wound on his shoulder gently, never taking his eyes off the Conqueror. "I'm the person you're looking for."
The moment stretched into an uncomfortable silence, as the Conqueror leaned forward in her saddle studying the man before her. He was beginning to fidget, his eyes darting from his shoulder to her face, as she dismounted and moved closer. Swiftly, quicker than he could see, she slapped him across his face.
"Wrong answer," she growled and parted her cloak, letting the rising wind blow it open. The crimson fabric swayed behind her like a trail of blood hanging in the air. "If you had been of importance in the battle, you would be dead."
Reeling from the impact, the man swayed and wiped blood off his cheek. The thunder swallowed his next words so he coughed and tried again. "I led the troops into battle to help the Romans," he said, matter-of-factly. "I am Laius of Xánthi."
"You were of no consequence. And as for this," she said, indicating the gore and dying flesh around her with one gauntleted arm, "I don't like loose ends."
"Ah, so she didn't tell you everything," Laius said and, incredibly, smiled. His eyes reflected a joy that was not entirely sane. The wild smile stayed on his lips even when the Conqueror stepped closer, her paces silent and soft. She came close enough to smell the blood on his clothes and the insane, redolent sweat on his thick body.
"You were the one who used her," she said, not asking but stating a fact. Her eyelids became heavy as she bent closer to catch the scent of fear on him, her nostrils flaring as she caught the whiff. Blood raged through her in hot waves, the intensity making her hands shake as they traced the familiar insignia on Laius' tunic.
"Yes. I was the one who fucked her," he said, instinctively stepping a pace back, his feet screaming for him to retreat from the darkness the Conqueror was spilling over him. But the dark also beckoned him; so long had he lived in its pain that it had become an expected friend. Soon he would die and then the pain would be no more. "Used her. Just like you used my wife. Killing her... not her flesh, but her spirit."
Xánthi... The name resonated in her mind, calling out memories long dormant. It had been her youth that had ruled back then, the rage yet to be harnessed by her later sense of purpose. She had been careless, foolish back then, the taste of blood on her tongue and in her mouth had been an aphrodisiac too strong to be resisted. The girl, one of many captured in the raid of Xánthi, had been young, pretty and full of the innocent, positive joy of existence she so envied. And so she had taken that away, ravaging the young woman in the privacy of her tent.
"You... raped Gabrielle?"
The tone was a low hiss, the words quiet, as the Conqueror's fingers slowly closed around his collar. She was close enough for him to feel her hot breath on his face. "I don't care about her name. She was as faceless to me as Norah was to you, and just as innocent," Laius said, his voice rising an octave when the vicelike grip on his collar tightened. Cursing the betrayal by his voice, he lifted his chin and gestured towards the dead man lying closest to him. The dusty, dark ground was sucking up his blood that had flowed freely, wrapping him in a glaring, loud crimson shroud. "The Amfípolis militia understood my pain, and the reason why you must be stopped. They were willing to die defending this ground from your tyranny, from any further sacrilege."
"Sacrilege." The man echoed the Conqueror's low growl and focused his eyes on the distant treeline, unable to meet the blazing blue gaze and unable to utter the last words. But the words were there: Committed by you. He opened his mouth again, fresh evil glinting in his eyes. "And after all this, the little wench still felt sorry for us," he grunted, the Conqueror's ever tightening grip making breathing somewhat difficult. Coughing and swallowing hard, he handed Xena a small square of parchment.
It was as if someone had driven a white hot dagger into her soul, piercing the hard shell to reach the one soft spot inside her. She didn't need to see the words; she would have recognised the curling, steady hand from miles away. The familiar, round curves of the vowels and the smooth ellipse of thêta and phi. Letting go of the man's collar, she grabbed the parchment and crushed it inside her fist, knuckles pale as old bone that had seen a hundred cycles of the sun.
"Mistress," Saba whispered to her, as much to take her attention away from the moment as to get her instructions. "What are we to do with him?"
"Burn," she growled, the syllable dark and hoarse, rumbling deep as
if it were fiery air escaping a volcano. "Burn him. Slowly."
In the human mind, sanity is bound by a membrane no thicker than a thought, a tegument as transparent as a dream. It is an illusion kept up by necessity and by reason; it takes but a prick of pain and the dream is gone. Reason replaced by paranoia, necessity by primal instinct. Hate becomes blind, without prejudice and premeditation, as it approaches its complement sorrow, without understanding why.
Gabrielle's message for her had arrived with Mentuhetep. The man had been half crazed with uncertainty -- the bard's cot had been found empty that morning save for that parchment. Xena needn't see the words anymore or touch the thin page that bore such heavy consequences, she knew the thought by heart. "I am unworthy of you; my presence surely offends you as you now know the truth..." Oh, Gabrielle, the Conqueror thought and opened her eyes. Was my love not a reason for you to stay? To live? Her tears were swallowed by the sky as it rained down in raging streams. The wind whipped the heavy drops against her but she didn't feel their impact.
It was the sea that stretched before her, beginning abruptly as the cliff that plunged into it ended. On the distant horizon, the sky met the water boundlessly, dark gray melting into the frothing green. She saw the sea but she did not comprehend it; the seagulls screeching above her went unheard.
The sword penetrated the wet, rich soil with no resistance. The black ground swallowed the smooth steel, spitting out droplets of mud as if it were bleeding black blood. When the Conqueror collapsed on her knees, the mud stained her boots and her battle skirt but she did not feel the cold sludge that mottled her thighs. Resting her forehead against the cross of her sword, the tears burning deep gorges into her heart, she was unable to distinguish between hatred and her own pain.
The word dissipated in the wind, was pushed to the ground by the rain that streamed down from the sky in a neverending cold river.
"Why did you leave me?"
Of course the wind did not answer, and the seagulls' suggestions were incomprehensible to her. Inhaling shakily, she tried to swallow the sob building inside her, vainly trying to shove down the wail tickling her lungs. She remembered the time she had last seen the Aegean sea from that cliff. She had been in her fifteenth solar cycle, barefooted, the longing only a vague echo in her. That echo had built, gathering force by the years, gaining strength from the innumerable faces she had sent to Hades, from their screams and pleas for mercy.
Gabrielle had betrayed her. She had warned the village of her plan,
giving them ample time to send all women and children to safety. But
that was not what she felt the hatred for; no, it was how
Gabrielle had betrayed her, by not believing in the power of her
love. It was not the blade that conquered all, she saw now. It was
love. Her blade was worthless, now that broken love had dulled
it. Never had she felt such pain from a sword or from a dagger, with
such breathless, white hot clarity. Her purpose was gone.
The last troops exited Thrace the day after the brief side note of the Greek-Roman war in Amfípolis. They left behind the rugged plains of Dacia, now of Greece, the Roman bodies there slowly melting into the ground. The battlefields were soon marked only by heaps of bones and discarded weapons. New grass peeked out from the dark copper-red soil; it would take but a few months before Demeter's gifts would flow richly over the skeletons, covering the remains of the battles.
The people of Amfípolis returned to their homes soon after the last of the Conqueror's troops vanished beyond the horizon. They found their homes intact but their men slaughtered to small pieces and piled in neat heaps along the main road. And in the middle of it all stood a cross that held the charred remains of what had once been a man but now was just a piece of meat, barely alive. The whole of Laius' skin was burnt off and the wounds had been tended to carefully before he had been put on the cross. The elements had further whipped his raw flesh and when he was lifted off the cross, he lived but a few agonised hours, his voice long gone from screaming.
The rain continued for days on end, pausing momentarily only to start again. On the seventh day, when the Conqueror reached her capital, the clouds parted reluctantly as Apollo rode his chariot at the sky's highest peak. He saw Hellas under his wheels breathe out the moisture the rain had bestowed upon it, the ground drying up quickly in the heat he offered to Pan's fields and forests.
Under the blazing midday sun, the Conqueror bore the onus of her success with a heart so heavy it could have been made of lead. The crown of victory was nothing but a constricting pinion to her, the delicacies of the celebratory banquet ashes in her mouth. The truckling dignitaries' speeches and meretricious diplomats' salutes she did not hear as she bore the burden of the greatest conquest of her rein, and the greatest loss of her life.
For if nothing, love was eidetic; the memory never fading, only
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