Aftermath: The Tree of Life

By XWP Fanatic
xwpfanatic@earthlink.net

Part II

For Disclaimers please see Part I

 

Chapter Seven

When Xena returned to the camp, she found Gabrielle in her tent, amid the clutter, propped up against one of the supports. Scowling, she dropped to her right knee in front of the girl, "What are you doing still awake?"

Gabrielle rubbed a hand over her sleepy eyes, "I thought you might need something when you returned. I wasn’t sure …" Seeing the look of annoyance on the Conqueror’s face, she dropped her eyes to the ground. "I’m sorry."

"In the future, if I want something, I’ll wake you." Xena replied, a bit more gruffly than she intended. When the girl’s sad expression deepened, Xena found herself explaining, "Look, this fortnight trip is going to be a bit rough on you. Anyone who’s not a trained soldier and used to this fast pace and setting up camp and being outdoors all the time …" why am I babbling? "… just get some sleep."

Gabrielle nodded and moved over to the far side of the tent where she had laid out the bedroll given her. Gratefully, she stretched out, massaging her leg muscles and pulled a cover over her body before quickly falling asleep.

Xena watched Gabrielle for a few minutes before laying down as well … Xena’s dreams were filled of her childhood – before everything went wrong.

 

The next morning Xena was up before the last stars became invisible in the sky. She wandered through the camp, making sure the watch was alert, the cooks preparing the morning meal and that all was as it should be. Breathing in the fresh scent of the grassy fields and the morning dew, she allowed a smile to cross her features. A deeper breath drew in the scent of the rich, dark soil and some late blooming spring flowers. As a relentless, restless energy filled her limbs, she ran toward the horizon to greet the sun.

Palaemon, having seen the Conqueror leave her tent, crossed through the camp and entered it. Even though they were extremely unlikely to go into battle during this march, the Conqueror had brought her field tent. It was large enough for a map table, a cushioned chair for the Conqueror to rest in, and four lesser chairs for her officers. The Conqueror’s bedroll was off to one side underneath her travel pack. As his eyes took this all in, Palaemon spotted the person he was searching for as red-gold hair came spilling out from under a wool blanket indicating her whereabouts. Kneeling beside her, he touched the covered shoulder gently. "Wake up."

"Don’t want to …" came the mumbled response.

He shook his head to keep a smile from forming. I’m glad I decided to awaken the girl; the Conqueror has no patience for slow risers. And it was his responsibility to see to it that nothing disturbed the Conqueror’s plans. "Wake up," he repeated, a bit sharper this time as he tugged her shoulder.

"Hey …" Gabrielle sleepily protested, while her hand snaked out and pulled the covers down from over her eyes. "Oh …" she sighed, seeing the Captain and quickly remembering that she was no longer in Corinth, no longer in her own home. "Good morning," she said through a yawn.

"Time to get up. The Conqueror is out for her morning run, I need to show you your duties."

"Run?" Green eyes looked doubtful, "Why would anyone want to spoil a perfectly good morning that way?"

"The Conqueror would. Get up, there’s little time before she returns." He left the tent to give her privacy to change into her day clothes.

Once Gabrielle emerged, Palaemon began showing her what her duties would consist of during this trip: how to pack the Conqueror’s supplies, how to ready the tent for the porters to break down, where to visit the cook and oversee the preparation of the Conqueror’s food. This, Palaemon emphasized, was the most important part of her duties. Even though he knew Xena trusted her Royal Guard, she was not na´ve. Gabrielle was to ensure that the food was not altered in any way by serving as the food taster while on the road.

"I guess I have a stake in the cooking now, huh?"

The Captain nodded, "You could say so."

"Have any of her personal servants ever died?"

"Sure," he replied, shrugging his broad shoulders. When he saw the girl go pale, he quickly added, "But it was never from food poisoning. Most of the time it was because they displeased the Conqueror in some other fashion."

Swallowing hard she asked, "Have any hints?"

"That’s why I came and got you up this morning. If you do what I tell you, you’ll be fine." Looking over her shoulder, he saw the Conqueror returning to the camp. "She’s back. I have to see to my men." With that, he turned precisely on his heel and went to where the rest of the camp was beginning to stir.

Gabrielle could see that the Conqueror was covered with a light sheen of sweat from her run, so she dipped a cup in the water barrel near the cook and returned to the tent. She had been given back her staff to assist her walking and was grateful as it eased the strain on her still recovering legs. Entering she found the Conqueror changing her shift … and promptly averted her eyes.

Xena noticed the girl’s reaction and a smile spread across her lips. Clearing her throat to get Gabrielle’s attention, she held the clean shift against her bare stomach to allow a clear view of her breasts. "Good, something to drink. Let me have some." Turning so as to face Gabrielle fully, she held out one hand, leaning forward slightly.

Forced to look at the Conqueror, Gabrielle resolutely focused only on the neck up. And tried desperately to ignore the heat spreading across her own face. "As you wish," she whispered extending the cup.

With those words, Xena heard the voice of Lyceus. That’s what he used to say when I was being too aggressive even for him; it always meant he was upset with me. Xena held up her hand, "Give me a moment." She turned back to her saddlebags to give the impression she was looking for something. Then she slipped the shift over her head and let it fall down her muscular body. Once clothed, Xena faced Gabrielle again. "Drink some first."

"Sorry, I forgot that’s part of my new role." She brought the cup to her lips and swallowed some of the water. She shrugged, thankful to now look at a clothed Conqueror, "Tastes good, like spring water." She extended the cup to the Conqueror’s waiting hand.

Xena drank the water in one gulp, noting it did taste unusually clean. "You’ll need to see to the packing of the tent …" she waved a hand at the contents.

Gabrielle nodded eagerly, "I know, Palaemon showed me my duties this morning. Everything will be as you need it."

"Good." Xena began pulling on her leathers and armor while Gabrielle saw to the bedrolls and other articles in the tent. The girl hummed as she worked and Xena winced listening – it was enthusiastically unmusical. As Xena was about to leave the tent and find Palaemon, she stopped at the entry flap and observed Gabrielle. She’s happy. "Why are you here?"

Gabrielle stopped humming immediately, recognizing the threatening tone of the Conqueror’s voice. She stilled her actions and looked directly into the ice blue eyes boring into her. "Because you brought me."

Xena shook her head, took a pace back into the tent so as to loom even larger over the smaller woman. "That’s not what I meant and you know it. Why did you participate in the truth contest? You never answered my question at dinner about why you didn’t leave Corinth."

Her heart was thundering in her chest, and Gabrielle wondered if the Conqueror could hear it. "That’s because we began speaking of my hometown. I wasn’t trying to not answer you, Conqueror. Remember, I must tell you the truth."

"So what is the truth? Why are you here?" Each word was enunciated clearly.

The truth, tell the truth. "Because I want to be. I wanted to meet you, to talk to you, even if it was only once."

Xena stared into the green eyes meeting hers and tried to detect any falsehood in them. Years of negotiating with enemies, warlords, and kings had trained her to spot even the slightest deception. Yet all she saw was the color of the grass that used to grow on her favorite hill outside of Amphipolis. Xena allowed a relaxed smile to play across her lips, "That’s has to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, Gabrielle. Absolutely the stupidest."

 

Chapter Eight

The mood of the army was infectious, Gabrielle observed. Everywhere they went, the people of Greece responded with enthusiasm for the Conqueror’s expedition to Ephesus. Even though as recently as five winters ago, many had been resistant to the Conqueror’s rule, everyone wanted Greece to take its rightful position as leader of the world. And if the Conqueror was the one to accomplish that feat, so be it.

On the sixth day of passing through towns and villages where the populace applauded the ruler and her troops, Gabrielle was sobered at the scope of power the Conqueror held. I used to think that the Conqueror’s real power was her ability to order the death of individuals. But now I see what her true power is – her ability to inspire hope or to demoralize the people at large. It’s a tragedy when a single life ends … but even worse when the masses lose their will to live.

Watching the Conqueror interact with her troops, Gabrielle knew why their confidence was strong in their abilities. The Conqueror always rode at the front of the procession. This position signaled her willingness to be first into the future that awaited them. She was no behind-the-lines general sending messages to the front. She led.

Riding on either side of the Conqueror were Palaemon and his lieutenant Cefanelwai-timbukili, a woman warrior from Egypt. Gabrielle smiled remembering her introduction to the dark-skinned woman. Everyone else in the company called her only Cefan due to their inability to correctly pronounce her given name. After one hearing, Gabrielle correctly repeated it, much to the warrior’s reluctant pleasure.

Each day the Conqueror, Palaemon and Cefan discussed battle strategies. As they would approach a valley, the Conqueror would question her two best soldiers, "Now, what if another army where to come over that ridge there? How could we best defend ourselves?" Or when a light rain covered the caravan, "How can we use this to our advantage? What do you know about the rainfall in this region?" On and on she would question them, and the three would argue the answers. Occasionally, the Conqueror would praise their replies. Most of the time, she would show exactly how she would dismantle them were she the enemy commander.

Every evening the Conqueror led combat drills. No matter how many miles her soldiers had marched or what the weather was like, the Conqueror had no stomach for idle soldiers. Some evenings her troops ran with their packs stuffed with stones to build up endurance. Other evenings they were led through a series of moves, almost dance-like in nature, by the Conqueror or Cefan. Every evening they had sword drills, and alternated with other weapons. Sleep was a valuable commodity – earned only after a day of marching, drilling and taking care of their equipment. Five candlemarks of sleep seemed a luxury to the soldiers.

They were clean; they kept their gear well-maintained; and they believed they could conquer anyone who opposed them.

Gabrielle believed it too.

Seated around the central campfire with the Conqueror, Palaemon, Cefan, and three other officers, Gabrielle watched as the flames cast interesting shadows on their faces around it. The jagged scar across the Captain’s features was beginning to look less ominous and more engaging each day. She liked how it curled up the corner of his mouth when he smiled, making everything seem more amusing. Not that Palaemon smiled very often. But she had been telling stories every night of their trip, and each night he seemed a little more relaxed in her presence. Tonight he even requested a story to be told.

"Of course, I know the tale of General Sinos." Gabrielle smiled brightly and pushed a loose strand of her hair behind her right ear. "Like any other ambitious General, he believed that he could assemble the greatest fighting army ever known in the world." Leaning forward, her elbows resting on top of her thighs, Gabrielle looked into the expectant eyes around the fire. Even the Conqueror looks interested in this tale … she probably expects a lot of blood and guts. Gabrielle smirked. I don’t think that I do anything she expects.

"When General Sinos and his soldiers entered the town of Methades, he saw hundreds of targets set up on a practice field near the town center. Each target was pierced in the center with an arrowmark. Not one strayed from the bulls-eye, they were each a perfect hit."

Cefan, who was known for her prowess with the bow, jerked a thumb toward her own chest, "Sounds like someone I know."

The other officers all let out whoops of good-natured laughter.

Gabrielle tried hard not to laugh, knowing the end of her tale, and wondering how the warrior would feel after she heard it. "The General reasoned, ‘With such men in my army, I could never be defeated.’ So he began asking around the town as to who the bowmen were. Each citizen he spoke to replied that the targets were the work of three brothers, the sons of Euronae. But they also warned that the brothers were the town fools. ‘I don’t care if they wet themselves and eat grubs, as long as they can shoot the target.’" Gabrielle’s voice had dropped an octave in imitation of the General, her mouth even taking on a different shape.

"They’d never make it in this army," one of the other officers called out. He bent his head and sniffed his underarm, "We all smell fresh as daisies under our General."

A female officer chuckled, "Hmm … I like the smell of warrior sweat in the morning." More than one of the other officers offered to indulge her senses. She frowned and waved an imperious hand at all of them. But Gabrielle saw her slyly wink at the warrior sitting next to her.

Gabrielle waited until her audience was ready for her. "General Sinos came to the home of the three brothers where he was greeted by their mother, a kind-faced woman who knew the hardship of raising three fools. When the General explained that he wanted her sons for his army, she burst into laughter, doubling over and waving her hands about. The General was furious, certain that this peasant woman was insulting him. He raised his hand to strike her, when she managed to say, ‘General, General … you don’t understand. My boys don’t draw the target and then shoot. They shoot and then draw the target.’" Gabrielle shrugged dramatically, "Thus ended General Sinos’ dreams of the greatest army ever known."

All the soldiers around the campfire laughed again. Cefan was elbowed in the gut by Palaemon. "Is that your secret, Cefan?" he asked, ducking the swat of her arm.

The Conqueror, who had sat silently throughout the telling of the story, inclined her head in salute to the girl. She’s bewitched my officers. In less than a phase of the moon. Already they fight for space at our fire, to hear her words.

And I’m glad I’m guaranteed a seat.

 

Chapter Nine

The priestess arranged the stag on the altar, propping up its neck so that the blood would drain more rapidly into the ceremonial bowl. Watching the dark liquid fill the gold basin, she focused her thoughts on her goddess. "Artemis … please … I need your guidance desperately. It has been three months since your last visit. Please, end your silence soon."

Situated at the mouth of the inlet, the temple of Artemis was the first sight visitors saw when entering the harbor of Ephesus. Built on marshy ground, a generation of stoneworkers had labored to lay the foundation which kept the temple safe above the water. Encompassing a rectangular area of two-thirds of a furlong by four chains, the place of worship was often referred to as a wonder by the citizens and visitors to the city.

One hundred and twenty-seven columns lined the portico, each a gift from a king. The columns raised the roof to a height of over one chain and allowed light and air to flow freely into the structure. The building was made of pale marble with dark green and red veins, lending color to the building. Decorating the interior space were golden pillars, silver statuettes, and exquisite paintings. In the center of the temple in the "House of the Goddess" was a statue of Artemis depicting her as protector of house, hearth and hunt. The temple was as much a museum and marketplace as it was a house of worship.

Priestess Clymera had been serving Artemis since her mother dedicated her to the goddess of the hunt, as a small child. Now, with her hair streaked with gray and her face etched with the lines of a full life, she petitioned Artemis for knowledge of who would be the goddess’ Chosen. Filling her nights were visions of a woman who would restore Artemis’ Nation to its former glory. She could make out neither the woman’s face nor even if she were already a part of the Amazons. The only thing that was clear were her eyes; they were the gentle green color of spring’s awakening.

Stopping in the center of the portico, Clymera gazed at the massive statues of four Amazon warriors. As Clymera stared up at the bronze women, they inspired a chill to run down the priestess’ spine. Of them all, the one called ‘Tana’ was her favorite. Tana depicted a woman warrior as she rose from the ground ready to strike her foe. The muscles in her legs stood out in bold relief, and some nights in the moonlight, Clymera believed she could see the statue rise up from its base. She also loved the look of sheer determination in the Amazon’s eyes, knowing that whatever prey she focused on would be hers.

That was the power of the Amazon nation: the will to survive. Maligned by men, misunderstood by ordinary women and formerly feared by all, the warriors had only each other and the protection of their goddess to rely upon.

Xena, the Conqueror, Destroyer of Nations, Warrior Princess, had shown how futile even that was. Systematically in her conquest of Greece, she had driven the women from their sacred grounds, burned their villages, and destroyed most of their standing army. Those who survived her scourge fled to Ephesus, home of Artemis, to pray for deliverance and vengeance against the greatest enemy the Nation had ever known. That it was a woman inflicting the blows made her crimes even greater.

Yet Clymera believed that soon Artemis’ Chosen would be made known. And she would bring the Conqueror to her knees. "Let me live to see that day, my goddess," she prayed.

"You will," Artemis said as she appeared in a flash of light. The gray-eyed goddess stood dressed for the hunt in a short forest green dress, brown half boots and her silver bow and quiver strapped to her back. Her fair was the color of a wildfire and her skin the color of doves.

"My goddess," Clymera sighed, falling to her knees and pressing her forehead against the cool granite. "How I have longed for you to come."

Touched by the genuine need in her priestess’ voice, the goddess said, "Arise, Clymera." She laid warm fingertips on the priestess’ shoulder. "I have received word that Xena intends to visit us. And I want the Nation to be ready for her."

Clymera’s heart beat faster in anticipation. "My prayers are to be answered?"

Artemis nodded slowly and she was unable to suppress a smile, "It is time for the hunter to become the hunted."

 

Chapter Ten

Athos buzzed with excitement as the Conqueror’s troops entered the city. The best inn, The Readyman, had already been selected as the lodging for the Conqueror and her senior officers. The rest of the men would camp outside the port, readying the gear for the voyage to Ephesus. The Macedonian contingent, which would also be making the trip, would join them.

The innkeepers were a middle-aged man, who was missing a few key teeth, and his young wife, who was less than half his age. Gabrielle felt compassion for the girl who seemed barely old enough to have begun bleeding, yet alone be wed to someone so much older than she. The inn was nice, however, and was decorated in cheery primary colors, which Gabrielle suspected were the girl’s choice. The first floor housed the requisite dining space and bar area, along with the innkeepers quarters. The second floor had the six guest rooms, and a bathing room. The rooms were no larger than one of the smaller closets in the Conqueror’s castle, but Gabrielle was thrilled to not be sleeping on the hard ground.

Actually, it hasn’t been so bad. And the Conqueror did show me how to smooth the ground and layer my blankets to make it more comfortable. She said she has spent over half her life sleeping on stone and dirt. Ugh. Then that second night when I laid down and I felt all of my back realign itself. Gods … that felt terrific! And my legs seemed a little better the next morning too.

Caught up in her thoughts, Gabrielle didn’t hear the Conqueror calling to her. A large hand closed around her upper arm, "Gabrielle," the Conqueror faintly growled.

The young woman started, then blushed, then raised her eyes to meet vaguely amused blue ones. "Sorry, I was thinking."

"So I noticed. Come." With the command, Xena turned and left the inn, leaving Gabrielle to hurry to catch up with her.

Using her staff to give her additional leverage and speed, Gabrielle came within a few paces of the Conqueror. "Can I ask where we’re going?"

"You can ask," Xena replied, her favorite reply to Lyceus springing instantly from her lips. Her keen hearing picked up the barely audible sigh behind her. She fought to keep from chuckling. "I want to look around the town. I don’t get to this area very often."

"Okay." Gabrielle wondered why the Conqueror had brought her along, then realized it must be to keep her from trying to escape. "I wouldn’t have left, you know."

The Conqueror frowned slightly and drew to a stop. She thinks she’s a slave. And you’re thinking she’s some kid sister. Great. Stop fooling yourself. She’s just like everyone else… nothing different. "I wasn’t worried about that, Gabrielle. If you haven’t noticed, I have no guards around you. Go back to the inn." The Conqueror turned sharply on her heel and marched away quickly, not quite blending into the busy street.

Gabrielle let out a deep sigh now. Tapping herself in the forehead she muttered, "Great. I think you hurt her feelings. Imagine that."

 

The sounds of the marketplace were extremely lively. A new caravan of traders had arrived in town with a fresh stock of wares. Word had spread quickly of the Conqueror’s impending arrival. This translated to free-flowing dinars as soldiers drank, ate and made merry before their journey.

Like most markets, this one was located in the center of the city. Rows of carts lined a central square, each cart manned by at least one loud merchant. Many stood on crates next to their goods and called out their bargain prices. In between public announcements, they haggled with the shoppers surrounding them and collected the dinars.

The market seemed to be arranged by types of goods – housewares, food stuffs to one side; metal and leather works to another. Any other goods were located in the center of the market, except for the animal sales which were near the stables. The town was clearly prosperous, benefiting from both a rich sea trade and fertile farmland.

Xena recalled negotiating the treaties that allowed Athos unrestricted trade with Chios. It had been a typical negotiation: she set the terms, the other party agreed or faced destruction. I wonder how Chios is faring under our agreement. I hope not too well. Or I shall have to renegotiate. Can’t have anyone thinking I’m soft.

The Conqueror was idly looking at a new bridle and bit for Argo, when Cefan came running up to her. "My liege," she placed her right fist over her heart and bowed.

Xena noted her Lieutenant’s heaving chest as she drew in breath. "What’s wrong?"

"My liege, one of the contingent is dead and there is a riot starting in the north quarter."

"Is the Guard there?" Anger surged through Xena’s body like a flashflood. Whoever is responsible for this shall die. Slowly.

"Palaemon went to call the Guard and put it down. He sent me to find you."

"Lead me there, Cefan. Let’s not allow my Captain to have all the fun."

 

Gabrielle had seen to the preparation of the Conqueror’s room herself. The innkeeper had done a respectable job of removing dirt, but had made no attempt to add creature comforts. Gabrielle was unsure of the Conqueror’s mood and was unwilling to risk further angering her. When she recognized one of the officers she knew from her campfire stories, she made him go to the market with her. Between Gabrielle’s charm and his armed countenance, she had arranged for Persian carpets, Egyptian linen, Babylonian glassware and Turkish oils to be sent over to The Readyman. That’s a first – buying only the best of everything. I hope the Conqueror is pleased.

At the conclusion of their last acquisition, Gabrielle and her escort heard the cries coming from the north quarter. The distinct clash of metal on metal echoed through the stone streets and caused the fair-haired woman to begin moving in that direction.

A swarm of people came at her as they fled from the conflict. Twice Gabrielle was nearly knocked over, only her strong grip on her staff kept her upright. The crowd separated her from her escort, who was calling loudly for her to turn back. He wanted nothing to happen to the girl; he liked her stories and he feared the Conqueror.

Finally reaching the scene, Gabrielle was dismayed by what she saw. At one end of the small courtyard a soldier, a member of the Macedonian contingent, lay dead, a gaping chest wound still wet with his blood. A few feet from him, in the doorway of a home, a young girl sat curled up in a tight ball, rocking back and forth. The girl’s hair hung over half her face, but Gabrielle could see that she had been severely beaten.

Through an archway, Gabrielle could see and hear the last of the fighting. She saw Palaemon and Cefan subduing anyone who would oppose them. Very few people were actually so foolhardy.

Gabrielle walked back to the girl, being careful to gently set her staff down so as to make no sudden noises. Gabrielle slid to the ground beside her, but was unable to stifle a small moan as her legs protested. At the sound, the girl became wild-eyed and lunged at Gabrielle.

At first, Gabrielle was certain she was being attacked. But then she felt the girl’s thin arms settle around her shoulders and the girl’s face bury itself in the hollow of her shoulder. A wave of compassion overtook the storyteller and she closed her own arms tightly around the sobbing figure. Stroking the blood-matted hair, Gabrielle made small cooing noises and tried to will her strength into the girl.

Over the top of the girl’s head, Gabrielle could see the corpse of the soldier. Her eyes were drawn to another pool of blood on his body and she understood what had happened. "Shh, shh, he can’t hurt you anymore. It’s going to be all right." And Gabrielle prayed to Athena that her words would be true.

"Kill them!"

"Strike them down!"

"Gut them like they did to Nilos!"

Savage cries suddenly filled the courtyard as the Conqueror returned to the scene of the murder, followed by her troops and three bound men. She marched to the corpse and stood before it, facing the men brought to her for judgment. Palaemon and Cefan shoved them down on their knees before Xena, the men’s trousers becoming wet with the blood draining from the body. The Conqueror narrowed her eyes as she envisioned their punishment. Her upper lip curled in a snarl she said, "You dare raise a hand to one of my troops?" Slowly, savoring the fear she saw in their eyes, she drew her sword from the scabbard, the highly polished metal gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. "Hold out your hands."

One of the men went pale and gagged, realizing the import of her words. Another began sobbing hot tears. But the third, the oldest of the men, met the Conqueror’s eyes unabashedly and extended his arms.

Palaemon reached around the man who had finished retching and roughly supported the man’s arms so that they extended away from his body. Thank the gods the Conqueror has a steady hand or I might be worried.

Gabrielle who had been watching the scene with uncomprehending horror, suddenly understood what was about to take place. With unexpected strength, she wrenched free of the girl’s grasp and flung herself in the path of the Conqueror’s sword coming down to amputate the hands and forearms of the kneeling men. "No! Conqueror, no!"

The blade stopped a hairbreadth away from her temple. With a growl, the Conqueror caught Gabrielle by her tunic, pulling her up roughly. "I will deal with you later!" She started to push the young woman away, but Gabrielle grabbed hold of her forearm.

"No, please, Conqueror." Her eyes pleaded with the woman whom she was certain would now order her death again. Gods, at least let me save these men. They don’t deserve this. "Look at the soldier, Conqueror. Look at where he was struck."

Xena found herself looking at the body at Gabrielle’s request. She saw that he had been emasculated. The Conqueror’s eyes then traveled to the girl in the doorway and noticed the blood that stained her skirt.

"Yes, your filthy pig soldier laid his hands on my daughter!" the oldest captive spat. "He took her, against her will, and one of his friends held me back while he did her. My only regret is that by you taking my hands, I won’t have the pleasure of killing that man as well."

Xena faced the crowd of soldiers witnessing the scene. "Who was Nilos’ commanding officer?"

An officer in the Macedonian contingent stepped forward, placing a fist over his heart and bowing, "My liege, I was."

Xena neatly severed his head from his body. The head bounced on the stone courtyard and landed inside what was left of Nilos’ stomach. The officer’s torso fell roughly down, splattering the captives with hot blood.

Gabrielle gasped and turned away from the sight, she hadn’t even seen the Conqueror move.

"I will not tolerate such behavior among my troops." The Conqueror stated simply, meeting the shocked eyes of the three men. Turning her icy stare to the crowd, she continued, "I will not allow an officer to live if he brings me disgrace by his men’s dishonorable conduct. And the soldier who held this man will be brought to me by nightfall or I will execute Nilos’ entire squad."

Slowly, Gabrielle turned around, just in time to see the girl’s father lick off the officer’s blood that had splattered on his lips. She swayed, her vision tunneling to one pinpoint of light, and suddenly she felt nothing at all.

The Conqueror grabbed Gabrielle before she could reach the cobblestone. One arm securely around the trim waist, Xena patted Gabrielle’s cheek gently, trying to rouse her. Receiving no response, she gathered the girl for a second time in her arms. "Palaemon," she called, "take her back to the inn. Stay with her until I return."

"Yes, my liege." He reached his arms through the Conqueror’s and removed the small bundle. This one has the heart of a lion. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone more courageous. She fights when she has nothing to gain and everything to lose. Resisting the urge to nuzzle her hair, Palaemon began his journey back to the inn.

Xena turned her attention to her Lieutenant, "Cefan, have my healer see to this girl." As the Lieutenant left to carry out the order, the Conqueror reached into her belt and removed a bag of coins. She tossed them to the father, who was still on his knees before her. "There, take that."

The bag thudded against the man’s chest and instinctively his hands closed around it. By the weight alone, he knew there to be more than two hundred dinars in it. "You think this will make it right?"

The Conqueror shrugged, "Consider it her dowry. No man will pay for her now." Finding in the crowd a regiment man who wore an officer’s insignia, she pointed a long finger at him, "You. Tell Paxius to report to my quarters immediately," referring to the commander of the Macedonian regiment. Considering her judgment complete, the Conqueror stepped over the dead body and around the freed captives.

The father let the bag fall numbly from his fingers as he spotted the boot knife of the dead officer in front of him. Swiftly he removed it and thrust it at the Conqueror’s side as she passed him by.

Only Xena’s reflexes saved her from serious injury. She peered at the gash in her leathers where the blade had penetrated before she had caught his hand, and at the thin line of blood in its wake. It was a superficial wound, but she could tell it would need stitches nonetheless. Sighing, she shoved his wrist away and then pushed her dark hair out of her eyes, ignoring the blood that smeared on her forehead. "See to your daughter. And do not let me see your face again. Next time, I will not be so merciful."

 

Chapter Eleven

Gabrielle awoke in Palaemon’s arms as he carried her up the stairs in the inn. She let out a surprised cry and twisted suddenly, nearly causing him to drop her. "What happened?"

The officer reached the top stair and set her down gently. The young storyteller’s eyes were wide with fear and confusion. "You fainted, Gabrielle. The Conqueror ordered me to return you to the inn."

The events of the last candlemark came flooding back to her. Gabrielle felt dizzy again, and reached out to grip Palaemon’s arm to steady herself. In her mind’s eye she could see the father licking the blood off his lips, savoring the metallic taste. "Did she? Those men?" For once, words escaped her.

"No, you stopped her."

Her stomach calmed, but her mind did not. "Why did she kill that man?"

Palaemon’s eyes hardened, his eyebrows drawing closer and his scar appearing even more ragged. "Officers have a sworn duty to the Conqueror to uphold her honor. Raping village girls does not do that."

"But he didn’t hurt the girl. Her father had already had his revenge."

"But the Conqueror hadn’t. And she was harmed too." His hand closed around her elbow and he began to guide her back to the Conqueror’s room. "You still look pale, you should rest."

At the touch of his hand, Gabrielle’s thoughts returned to the day of her crucifixion.

"Gabrielle, it’s time," Kaiphus had said softly, entering her cell. His eyes took in the tear-streaked face of his tutor, the woman who had taught him to read her own death sentence.

"Oh, it’s you," she sighed, managing a small smile and wiping at her eyes. She knew this was a hard assignment for one of her most promising pupils. "I’m glad."

He let out a strangled cry, not caring if any of the other guards heard him. This order was wrong, killing this girl would accomplish nothing. Except break his heart. "I’m not. If there were anything I could do, I would do it."

Gabrielle closed her eyes for a long moment, trying not to consider that this was her final conversation with a friend. "I know, Kai. But, I won’t have your family’s blood on my hands when I meet Hades."

"No," the guard agreed, "but I will have yours." He reached into his belt and removed a small packet filled with a white powder. "Here," he took a waterskin and unstopped the top, pouring the powder into it and shaking it gently, mixing powder and liquid, "drink this."

Suddenly unable to lift her arms to take the skin, Gabrielle eyed it warily. "Is that?" she couldn’t form the words to ask if the drink would end her life. She was condemned, but she still wanted every moment she had left.

"No, no." He pressed the skin in her small hand, his larger one closing around it. "It will ease the pain. The Conqueror has commanded that your legs be broken."

Drawing in a deep breath, Gabrielle made her choice. "No, Kai. I can’t. I won’t." She met his questioning eyes. "I can’t explain it, it’s stupid really. But, I can’t let this defeat me. Becoming numb is a coward’s way."

He wanted to argue, to convince her she was insane, but the set jaw and look of determination in her eyes caused him to reconsider. "Can you forgive me?" he asked instead.

"There is nothing to forgive. Will… will you walk me to my cross?" It would not be much, just a few more minutes with a friend; a friend who could not even acknowledge her in public for fear of his own life. But to have his presence, that would be enough.

"To both my eternal shame and honor, Gabrielle." And, foregoing the chains he had been sent in with, his hand closed around her elbow and he guided her to the wooden beams on a nearby hill.

Gabrielle stopped and faced Palaemon, "She’s going to kill me, isn’t she?"

The Captain was taken aback by her question. He hadn’t even considered that the Conqueror would harm this girl, not after the last fortnight traveling together. "I don’t think so, Gabrielle. If she wanted you dead, I would not have been told to bring you here. The Conqueror placed you in my arms herself." And I’ve never seen her do anything like that before, he added silently.

"Oh," Gabrielle remembered the sound of blood rushing in her ears and seeing the hard cobblestone pavement rising to meet her, and then suddenly being suspended in warm arms, safe above the street. "I guess I had better finish preparing her room for her then."

 

Chapter Twelve

Paxius felt the sweat trickle down the small of his back. He wanted nothing more than to rub it dry, but he knew better than to move.

The Conqueror stretched her long frame in the chair Gabrielle had brought in for use as a temporary throne. Its high back allowed her to recline her head and look at her contingent leader with half-opened eyes. Those who did not know her would assume she was about to fall asleep. Those who did knew that like the cobra the Conqueror was always still before she struck. "I am displeased, Paxius."

"My liege," Paxius found he had nothing to say. "Uh, the girl lives… Nilos is dead... and his commanding officer… is dead… There is no injury that remains."

Xena’s frown deepened. "I am injured, Paxius."

His eyes were drawn to her side, where he could see a slight bulge from the bandage. "I had heard you were attacked. I …"

She waved a hand at him, "That was merely a scratch. I am injured because your men do not know discipline. I am injured because now my name is associated with common street thugs. I am injured because I do not know if I can allow you or your men to travel with me. I am injured, Paxius. Do you understand?"

"My liege, my men and I are ready to serve you. Nilos was not like the rest of us."

"And yet you allowed him to remain in my army?"

"I did not know him," the Commander replied, not thinking.

Xena looked over at Palaemon, who had been standing at attention near the doorway. "Palaemon, who of my Royal Guard is the most promising of all my soldiers?"

"Espirith, my liege."

"No, no. Soldier, not officer."

Palaemon thought about the Guards who were traveling with them. Finally, he settled on one, "Then it would be Charis, my liege."

The Conqueror smiled, pleased that Palaemon had chosen a woman; that would suit her purposes well. "Have Charis summoned here immediately. I need to discuss tomorrow’s launch with my new Commander of the Macedonian Contingent."

"My liege!" Paxius protested.

Xena leaned forward, her eyes capturing his, "Be grateful that all I took from you was your command. Now leave before I change my mind." Palaemon’s hand clamped over the former commander’s arm and pulled him from the room.

Gabrielle spoke softly from where she had been seated during this exchange. "It is not just a scratch. I had to stitch your wound closed."

"Careful, Oracle, I would hate to hear you speak an untruth." The Conqueror turned and fully regarded Gabrielle. Xena repeated what she knew to be truth: "It was a mere scratch, nothing more. Haven’t you risked your life enough for one day?"

The color drained from Gabrielle’s features as she recalled the events of the afternoon. "I couldn’t let those men be harmed. They were only protecting the young girl."

"It was foolish of you to step in front of my sword. You could have been killed. And then who would dare speak to me?" Xena smiled grimly, considering her own question. "You say that I am afraid of the truth, that I can’t bear to hear the words that are whispered about me in secret. So, I will allow you to shout them from the rooftop to me. But to do that, you must be alive. Because I will not make a special trip to Hades’ realm to hear you."

Gabrielle studied the Conqueror thoughtfully. This was not the response she had expected from this intriguing woman. I was so certain I knew her. So certain that in my time with her, she had revealed her depths. Now, I’m not even sure I’ve seen the entire surface, let alone what lies below. "How should I do this shouting then, my liege?"

Well, that’s a change, Xena noticed the use of the honorific, I wonder why she chose to use it now. "I have a country to rule. I must be strong in front of the people, or else they will lose respect for me. I cannot have you question my judgment -" the Conqueror held up a hand to forestall Gabrielle’s intended objection "- once it is made." The Conqueror watched with concealed amusement as the girl’s mouth shut. "But I will give you the ability to act as an advocate for what you believe is the truth of the situation. You may speak to me privately before I render judgment. If it is at all possible."

"Thank you."

"Don’t disappoint me, Gabrielle. I would miss your stories at night."

 

Chapter Thirteen

The first afternoon on board, while still full of excitement over the newness of the experience, Gabrielle leaned over the railing, observing the water. She could still see the coast of Greece on the western horizon and could not wait until she could see the shores of Ephesus. It would take three days to arrive, and already she was impatient.

The water foamed up the side of the ship, sending a refreshing saltwater spray onto her skin. In the clear Aegean depths she could see schools of fish swim aside for the vessel. Can a fish be knocked unconscious if we were to hit it with our ship? Can fish drown that way? Can fish drown at all?

"Dinar for your thoughts," the Conqueror said as she joined her at the railing.

Gabrielle flushed, not wanting to share her thoughts, such as they were, so she stated the obvious, "It’s beautiful."

The Conqueror nodded crisply and then pointed to the northwest. "I used to keep my ship in those waters mostly."

"You had a ship?" Gabrielle tried to picture the Conqueror as a sailor. "I didn’t know that."

Xena shrugged, the muscles in her shoulder shifting under the skin, "I keep meaning to have my Royal Biography transcribed." She allowed an ironic smile to play across her lips and her eyes grew distant, as if she could see the events she was about to describe. "After I made sure Amphipolis was safe from Cortese, I wanted to ensure we never suffered from his – or any other warlord’s – ambition ever again. I put together a crew and we patrolled the areas to the north and south of Amphipolis."

"Did you enjoy that life?"

The Conqueror took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the scent of the sea. "I like life on board: no walls, no ceilings, fresh air, the quiet. It’s an ideal life."

"So why did you leave it?"

Caesar, the answer screamed inside the Conqueror’s mind. Broken legs and a nearly broken spirit. M’Lila. I couldn’t go back to the sea without her. Even today I kept expecting to see her. And Caesar took her, took my crew, took my pride away from me. As I will take his life from him. First his weapons, then his life.

For a long moment, Gabrielle did not think that the Conqueror would answer her inquiry. She watched the play of emotions on the usually poker face, fascinated by the mixture of anger, fear, warmth and determination she saw. Finally, the Conqueror said softly, "It’s hard to conquer Greece from the water."

Gabrielle could tell that was not the real reason, but also knew not to press the issue. The fact that the Conqueror had revealed anything at all to her was significant. Gabrielle resolved not to treat that trust lightly. "I like the water," she whispered, steering the conversation back to safer topics. "It’s so full of mystery."

Xena favored the fair-haired woman with an indulgent smile. "You know, in all my time on the water, I only found it to be full of fish."

"Tch, what a thing to say," Gabrielle teased back, as she realized that was what the Conqueror was doing with her. "Tell me, did you ever see a mermaid while you were sailing?"

"A mermaid? What in all the gods of Mount Olympus is that?"

Gabrielle switched into storyteller mode, "You were never told about mermaids before? They were once part of the Sirens…"

 

The next night in the ship’s galley, the Conqueror, Palaemon, Cefan, Charis and Gabrielle sat around a large round table. The crew had cleared the dishes from the evening’s meal that had consisted of – not surprisingly – fish in a light broth. Now, elbows and mugs of hot tea rested on the wooden surface.

The Conqueror observed her newest officer intently. Charis seemed to have handled her rapid promotion rather well, escaping the arrogant demeanor that normally accompanied such a rise. Xena recalled when Charis was first appointed into her Royal Guards. Espirith had found Charis amongst a group of soldiers in Athens; she was better than most of the men in the squad even though she was only nineteen winters old. Six years later, Charis was the top soldier in the Conqueror’s Guards and would have soon received a promotion to a command level.

"The Contingent is to remain outside Ephesus until I know where the shipment is coming through. Then I will give you orders as to where to lead your troops."

Charis nodded vigorously, this being the third time they had gone over the plans. "I understand, my liege, it will be done as you wish. And while I am waiting, I will appoint new officers and squad leaders."

"Conqueror," Gabrielle hoped this was the appropriate time to ask her question, "may I ask about why you left Paxius and all his officers behind in Athos?"

Taking a long sip from her mug, the Conqueror gestured for Cefan to answer the question. Let’s see if Cefan understands why I made this decision.

The Egyptian rose to the challenge offered her, "I believe that the Conqueror knows that a bad leader creates bad officers. Removing Paxius from command was not enough. The Conqueror had to remove those he had most influenced."

Xena smiled, "Exactly. Gabrielle, you never promote those under an incompetent leader. It only furthers the problem and decreases morale because nothing changes."

"So you better hope I never screw up, Cefan," Palaemon joked. "Or we’ll both be looking for new jobs."

"Perhaps," the Conqueror allowed, smiling slyly at her Captain, enjoying the nervous reaction she provoked. "Palaemon, you know what your orders are when we land in Ephesus?"

"Yes, my liege. I am to go to the Ephesian council and give them greetings on your behalf. I am to inform them you are there to visit the marketplace, worship at the temple, peruse the library, go to the theatre and enjoy the comforts of the city. You would welcome a state visit with their Proconsul, but are there on leisure, not affairs of the state."

"I particularly like the part about worshipping at Artemis’ temple, my liege," Cefan contributed, knowing of her leader’s disdain for the goddess.

Xena nodded, "I am hoping that they find it intriguing as well. My destruction of the Amazons is well known, and was well needed," she added as an afterthought. "If they are the least bit suspicious of me, they will most likely decide that I am there to rob Artemis’ treasury, to add a final insult to her Nation. While they look one way, I shall strike in the other."

"How will you find out where the weapons are, my liege?" Charis asked, seeing how free the other officers were to voice opinions or questions. She had not expected the freedom, and did not want to waste an opportunity to learn.

"I have many skills, Charis, many skills." Pressing her hands flat on the table, the Conqueror pushed herself up to her full height. "Make sure the men are ready for their drills tomorrow. I want them to be focused on our mission, not on the Ephesian women when we land."

 

Gabrielle couldn’t sleep. The Conqueror had said that the ship would rock her to sleep like an infant in a mother’s arms. After two days on the open sea, Gabrielle seriously doubted that the water had any maternal instinct. She felt jostled, agitated, swayed … anything but comforted. Her love for the Greecian soil was rapidly rising. I wish I had thought to bring a handful of it with me. Then at least a part of me could be on land. How do people live like this? I will never complain about sleeping on the hard ground ever again.

The only place that Gabrielle had found pleasant on the entire ship was in the nets rising up to the ship’s sails. The first night she had slowly climbed halfway up the length of the mast and became entangled in the webbing. The motion did not bother her so much there for her eyes focused on the horizon, steadying her.

The sailors standing watch greeted her silently. The Conqueror had given the crew a rather intense lecture about what the nature of the men’s conduct was to be toward the young fair-haired girl. Consequently, Gabrielle believed sailors to be chivalrous at heart and responded even more warmly to them, unwittingly making it more difficult for the men to be chivalrous.

Climbing up to her favorite perch, Gabrielle sighed in contentment as her eyes drifted up to the stars hanging in the night sky. Quickly she traced favorite constellations, as if reassuring herself they were still there, remembering a time when her sister would join her in this pursuit.

"There, Lila, over the top of the tree, to the left and up a bit … that one’s the brightest. Can’t you see it?"

"How could I miss it, Rie? You point it out every night. I know it’s your favorite."

Gabrielle sighed deeply and rolled over onto her stomach and idly plucked at the grass. Slowly her eyes rose to meet her sister’s, "I’m gonna follow that star out of here one day, Lila, and it’ll take me to faraway places." Softly, she whispered, "I can’t be here the rest of my life. I can't. I won’t."

Lila shrugged, her older sister always had strange ideas. Why would anyone leave Potadeia? It wasn’t a big city, but their family had always been here; over half the town were their kinsmen. And the men they were promised to were here. Gabrielle wouldn’t be going anywhere – except in her dreams. "Sure, Rie. You’ll – oh! Look! A shooting star! There!"

Twisting around, Gabrielle saw the trace of light as it blazed its course across the night sky. "Well, Lil, I guess you don’t have to do chores tomorrow."

Lila smiled triumphantly, glad they had that agreement.

Sensing there was really nothing more to say, Gabrielle rolled back over and found her favorite star again. I hope you never run away from me; I don’t think I could survive that.

Gabrielle’s eyes focused once again on that same star which was now leading their way to Ephesus. You are taking me away, aren’t you? You didn’t forget me after all. If only Lila had wanted to follow you too. Gods, I miss you, Lil. I hope you’re still under these same stars with me.

Absorbed in her memories, she did not take note of the figure standing below her until the warmth of the voice drifted up to her ears, reminding her of the times her mother had sung her girls to sleep. It took Gabrielle a few moments to realize that someone was actually singing, and that someone was the Conqueror.

Gazing down, she saw the Conqueror leaning against the mast, her hands folded at the small of her back. The Conqueror’s hair moved with the breeze and reflected the moonlight. Though she could not see her eyes, Gabrielle knew they were the same soft blue as the night shift the Conqueror wore. And the voice she heard reminded her of a dream she had once, long ago.

"Lying here on the boards

One with the flow

With blue sky overhead

The great depths down below

No matter the way I look

Blue's all I see

And the tranquillity

Comes awash over me"

Gabrielle did not recognize the song, but liked it immediately. Nestling further into the ropes, she closed her eyes and concentrated on the Conqueror’s voice, letting it roll over her.

"A vessel strong, a moonlit night

Stars up above

The brisk salted air

Drenches my lungs

No place to go, no time to meet

Freedom at sea

And the tranquillity

Comes awash over me

"I understand the sailor’s choice

Romance alive

Sailing ships and dreaming dreams

Needing water to thrive

No place on land holds a home for me

I'm cast out to sea

And the tranquillity

Comes awash over me

"Take not my ship, take not the sail

They are part of my soul

Without the wind, the sea and air

I have no where to go

No matter the way I look

Blue's all I see

And the tranquillity

Comes awash over me"

Gabrielle never realized when she fell asleep in the gentle comfort of the sea’s embrace. And dreamt of another.

 

Continued in Part III


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