Aftermath: The Tree of Life

By XWP Fanatic
xwpfanatic@earthlink.net

Part IV

For Disclaimers please see Part I

Chapter Eighteen

 

The next morning found the Conqueror awake before dawn and speaking with Palaemon and Cefan. Xena had awoken more refreshed than she had felt in weeks. "Have the scouts been sent out to survey the road?" Life was good. She was going to humiliate Caesar, dupe the Amazons and return to Corinth with a newfound friend. A very profitable trip overall.

"They left about half a candlemark ago, my liege. We shall have their report by nightfall."

Xena nodded thoughtfully, "Have them report to me immediately. Palaemon, are you prepared for your visit with our favorite Ephesian Proconsul?"

"My liege, you will know when Caesar is planning to move the arms and by what route."

"Be assured of his veracity before rendering him incapable of further communication. I don’t want to be caught flat-footed. And he should know the penalty for lying." The harsh look on her face left no doubt what that penalty would be.

Palaemon snarled, "It will be done, my liege." He was still angered by the Proconsul’s treatment of his general. He had long ago determined that his honor was bound up with that of his leader’s.

The Conqueror knew the feelings her captain had for her and it gave her the assurance she wanted that her orders would be carried out completely and correctly. "Good. Cefan, did you destroy all of those tasteless plates that Salmoneus had made?"

The dark warrior laughed and flexed her biceps, "They’re a pile of dust now, my liege. It reminded me of my childhood days. Whenever I tried to help my mother in the kitchen, I inevitably broke something. I had a good time last night. And so did my men."

So did I, thought the Conqueror remembering her time with Gabrielle. Shaking her head, she let her gaze wander around the great home of Salmoneus’ home. "Where is our host? He hasn’t been out here fawning over me yet. Is something wrong?"

It was just possible to see the slight blush rise on Cefan’s cheeks. "I am afraid I had something to do with that, my liege." Xena’s silence encouraged her to continue. "I caught him trying to save some of the plates from destruction last night. I … uh … explained … to him that it was not a good decision."

"You didn’t kill him, did you?" the Conqueror asked, slightly surprised by her own concern for the annoying salesman.

"No, no, my liege. I think I scared him off. He announced that he was going to check on his holdings outside of Ephesus."

Xena chuckled, imagining the heavyset man making a hasty exit after his encounter with her intense lieutenant. "Well, at least it will be quieter around here for awhile." But she had hoped that her host would keep Gabrielle company. An alternative would have to be arranged. "I will be making a visit to Artemis’ temple today. I need to provide a distraction for the Amazons. And keep any of the Romans from suspecting why I’m here."

"I shall escort you, my liege? The Amazons will not take kindly to your being in their sacred temple." Cefan pointed out reasonably.

"No." The idea came into focus. "I want you to escort Gabrielle today. She’ll want to see the sites of Ephesus and she can’t come with me."

The Egyptian swallowed hard and used every internal resource to not react. Under the table, her hand curled into a fist, her nails digging into the skin of her palm. "Excuse me, my liege?"

The Conqueror fixed her pale blue eyes on her lieutenant. "Do you have a problem with my order, Cefan?"

"No, General, of course not."

A smile creased the Conqueror’s lips, but it was devoid of warmth, "Good." The Conqueror left the room without another word.

Palaemon turned to his second-in-command and shook his head, "What is your problem?"

"She’s her servant. When did I become nursemaid to some crippled girl? I’m an officer in the Royal Guard, second only to you."

A large hand was raised to stop the woman’s protests. "Gabrielle is her name. And if the Conqueror says that you are to escort her, you will."

Cefan’s brown eyes seemed to darken even more as she leaned forward to speak to her commanding officer. "Doesn’t it strike you as odd that a woman the Conqueror ordered crucified is still alive and traveling with us? She acts all sweet, tells stories, and cozies up to the Conqueror. I don’t believe it. Would you forgive someone who tried to kill you?" Seeing that Palaemon was about to protest, she reached out and grabbed his wrist, forestalling comment. "And just how did she manage to get off that cross? Someone has to be helping her. Possibly one of the Conqueror’s staff. We know the Conqueror has enemies, even within the household, possibly even in the Guard. Why should we accept her without question? And why should I act as a tour guide?"

Palaemon had to admit that she had a point. Gabrielle doesn’t seem to have any hostility toward the General but it could be an act. She is a very talented storyteller. "Cefan, I’m confident you’ll be the best tour guide Ephesus has ever seen. I have to see to my orders. And so do you."

Under her breath Cefan muttered, "But I don’t have to like it."

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

The Conqueror began her approach of the temple just after dawn. She had a squadron of her Royal Guards accompanying her, but at a distance, so her approach appeared singular. It was her statement to the Amazons: I defeated you by myself in Greece and I can do the same in Ephesus.

She heard a bird call as she neared the site, recognizing it as a sentry signal. A wild smile crossed her lips and she reached up behind her and let her hair loose from its tie. The slight breeze from the Mediterranean blew the dark strands about, making her appear even more primitive and dangerous. It was exactly the image she wanted.

She would never admit it to anyone else, but she thought the temple was magnificent, though it was a shame it was dedicated to Artemis. Of course, she wouldn’t have wanted it dedicated to Ares. None of the gods of Olympus were worthy of worship, she knew. They were as easily manipulated as mortals, sometimes even more so. They also had far more petty appetites and conflicts, and were fairly unintelligent, truth be told.

Even as that thought coursed through her mind, she shivered, feeling the presence of her dark mentor. "Hello, Ares."

The God of War materialized beside her, leaning forward and letting his lips graze her cheek. "Xena." His fingers traced a path from behind her ear down to her shoulder. "You’re up early."

She met his gaze and frowned, "What do you want?"

The god straightened to his full height and he stroked his beard thoughtfully. "You." His eyes were wandering over her muscular form, his hands followed.

The Conqueror rolled her eyes, men – gods or not – were very predictable. "I’m kinda busy right now." Shaking her head, she resumed her approach toward the temple.

"Artemis knows you’re coming. The Amazons are ready for you."

Xena stopped once more and turned to face the god. "I haven’t exactly hidden my coming to Ephesus, Ares. What’s your point?"

"They may have a surprise or two waiting for you. Be careful. I wouldn’t want my Chosen damaged in any way. Not when I have such plans for you." He grabbed her chin and kissed her roughly, claiming her as his own. "Don’t forget who you belong to."

Xena met his eyes steadily. "Myself. Always, myself."

"We’ll see about that," he promised and then, in a flash of light, was gone.

 

Eponin stood by Terreis on the temple steps, they had been watching the Conqueror approach. "Why has she stopped, Ter?"

The Amazon Queen shrugged, "I don’t know any better than you do." Neither of the women had seen Ares materialize before Xena, impeding her progress. "How many men are with her?"

Eponin turned to her scout for the information, "Twenty. They are thirty paces from her, scattered about. We could take them out, my Queen."

"No, not yet. When we attack, Eponin, it will be to kill, not to wound, the Destroyer."

Eponin hated the inaction when the object of her hatred was within striking distance. Her hand went to the hilt of her sword, to assure herself yet again, that it was in place. Nothing would have given the warrior greater pleasure than to have drawn the razor sharp metal, let out a battle cry, and run to engage the Destroyer in single combat. Her sword had belonged to her mother, who had also been a valiant warrior. This was the same blade she had used to defeat Fila, the last great threat to the Nation. "I pray to Artemis that will be soon."

Terreis recalled and repeated the words of Clymera, "Soon the Conqueror will be brought to her knees." Soon I shall be brought to the Fields. I do hope to see the Conqueror die first.

"What is she doing now?" Eponin asked, exasperated with their quarry, not trusting her own sight.

The Queen lifted her shoulders in a shrug, "Sitting. She’s sitting."

 

Xena snickered as she settled down on the bench across from the temple entrance. She knew that the Amazons would be wondering what she was doing, why she wasn’t attempting to enter the temple. Casually she leaned back against the stone and closed her eyes, relaxing in the warmth of the sun and the clean smell of the sea. Raising her right hand she waved to one of her men.

The soldier hurried over and held out the items the Conqueror had previously entrusted him with. "Anything else, my liege?"

Shaking her head, she dismissed the clean shaven young soldier. Rolling open the scroll, she began sketching the layout of the temple with the charcoal stick he had given her. She hadn’t done this since preparing to invade Corinth, when she had sat on a nearby hill and personally sketched a complete map of the city. It had been very good for her, made her aware of every alley, every building, every egress and ingress. Attention to detail had always served her well.

She also knew it would drive the Amazons crazy. And Xena was content to sit there all day to keep them fixated on her and not her true objective. Caesar’s men, the Conqueror felt, could be handled with little problem. But if the Amazons were to ally with them, it would be a bigger challenge. Let them think she wanted their treasury’s gold – which she wouldn’t mind liberating as a bonus for her Royal Guard – and stay close to their temple.

Eponin could barely restrain herself with the inaction. Three candlemarks had already passed and nothing had happened. "Is that gods-be-damned demon going to just sit there and sketch all day? Is she planning on selling portraits of visitors to the temple for the highest price?" The warrior drew her sword and checked the blade once again.

The Amazon Queen leaned over and pulled the sword out of Eponin’s hands. "You’re making me nervous, Ep." Resting the blade across her knees, Terreis’ gaze fell on the dark-haired warrior still sitting and drawing across from her. "Did you ever think you’d see her again?"

A grunt was her response. "I had hoped on the battlefield, when we came back to our rightful lands in Greece."

"I remember watching her kill Melosa and for years all I could dream about was taking my revenge. But as she drove us from Greece, and forced us to flee here for the only protection we could find … I found myself hoping I would never see her again."

Eponin was surprised. "Don’t you want to avenge your sister’s death? She killed her under a flag of truce."

The Queen brushed red hair out of her eyes and willed herself to keep her voice steady. "I have always known that her presence would mean my death."

"What are you talking about, Ter?" The larger woman shoved her shoulder, attempting to dislodge the thought from her friend. "There are a hundred Amazons who would die before they let her harm you."

"If Artemis wills my death, then a hundred Amazons would only be wasting their own life’s blood. And I am not more important than the Nation." Terreis reached out and took hold of Eponin’s right hand, clasping it tightly. "If something were to happen to me, promise me you would look after Ephiny."

Eponin did not like the way Terreis was speaking; she knew that soldiers who spoke of death, soon died. "Nothing’s gonna happen to you. I won’t make promises I don’t need to keep."

"I need this promise from you, my friend. Ephiny has always been a little –"

"Fragile." Eponin supplied helpfully.

The Queen nodded her head, her bondmate never had a strong constitution and was one of the gentlest souls she knew. She was an adequate warrior but did not have the fierce spirit that was necessary to excel in battle, like Eponin. Her greatest strength lay in her ability to negotiate agreements between disparate parties. Terreis had been worried about her Consort, wanting to make sure Ephiny was taken care of after her death. She was confident that the Nation would see to Ephiny’s physical needs – the Amazons took care of their own, especially the widowed Consort of the Queen – but Terreis wanted someone specifically charged with making sure she was emotionally taken care of. Time to call in a few favors, Terreis thought. "Yeah, fragile. And if I’m not here to protect her, I expect you, as my best friend, to do so."

Eponin looked at her with wide-eyed concern, "You want me to bond with her? Ter … we’d kill each other … it would never work …" she sputtered.

Terreis was dumbstruck. She hadn’t even thought about Ephiny bonding with anyone else. "I kinda was hoping she’d mourn me for a bit at least," was the response she finally managed. It was inevitable, Ephiny was too tender-hearted to not fall in love again, Terreis just hadn’t been confronted with that yet. Blinking back hot tears, she said, "No, you don’t have to bond with her, Ep. Simply promise me you’ll watch out for her. Like you’ve always watched out for me."

The warrior saw the desperation in Terreis’ eyes, so she nodded slowly and exchanged a warrior clasp with her Queen and best friend. "I promise, my friend. And I intend to keep that promise in about fifty years from now."

"Thank you, Eponin."

And the two Amazons returned their attention to the silent dark figure across the way.

 

Chapter Twenty

 

Gabrielle stood at the bottom step to the Library of Celsus and let her gaze wander slowly over the amazing fašade. In her brisk march past the library, she had noted the ornate decoration of the building and had been thrilled when Cefan had announced they were to visit it this morning.

She had been disappointed that the Conqueror had already left by the time she awoke. Traveling with the ruler, she knew that Xena was up before dawn every morning. How does she do that? It’s not natural. But, she doesn’t do anything the way everyone else does. Perhaps that’s why she’s the Conqueror, and the rest of us aren’t. And she could not help but notice that Cefan was less than happy at accompanying her. This surprised Gabrielle, because she had begun to think of the Egyptian warrior as somewhat of a friend. They had certainly spent a lot of time together during the trip from Corinth, but always in the company of the Conqueror or Palaemon.

The four statues on top of the steps represented four of the Muses. Climbing up the steep approach, Gabrielle stood in front of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. Her hand involuntarily went and rested on the writing tablet held in the statue’s hand. "I sing the song of Zeus, king of the gods …" she whispered, imagining herself as a bard, taken over by the muse.

Walking along the length of the building, she noted the other three muses depicted were Erato, Euterpe and Thalia. She thought it interesting the Ephesians had left the muses of tragedy, sacred hymns, astronomy and dance unrepresented. It was most likely a reflection of the values of the community. Tucking that thought away, she entered through the large double doors and found her breath stolen away again.

Never before had she seen so many scrolls in one place. There was row upon row of scroll cases, with the parchments carefully rolled, tied, categorized and placed. She felt a sense of awe to be in a room with so much learning and passion. More than that, she felt unworthy. She looked at the staff she held in her hand, which eased the pressure on her too easily tired legs, and felt ashamed at the noise it made on the marble floor as she tried to move through the aisles. Her clothes too cast her as an outsider to this literary community, as she was still dressed in the traveling clothes from their journey from Corinth, while the scholars in the library wore loose and vibrantly colored robes.

I don’t fit anywhere anymore. I’m not the little girl from Potadeia, chasing stars and dreaming dreams. I’m not the teacher of Corinth, teaching Greek to uneducated soldiers. I’m not even the oracle of truth the Conqueror believes me to be. I’m just Gabrielle. And I don’t think that’s enough.

Cefan’s rough voice broke her free of that chain of thought. "Are you planning on staying here for awhile?"

Gabrielle nodded, recalling where she was and realizing that she might never have such an opportunity again. "I was hoping too, lieutenant." Instinctually, she knew not to be too familiar with the warrior this morning.

"Don’t wander off, but I’m going to go outside and get some fresh air. I never was much into reading scrolls. I prefer to live the adventures others only read about."

To Cefan’s surprise, Gabrielle nodded vigorously, "I would feel the same way if I were you. You’ve done so much more than most people even dream of doing. I’ll be right inside here. I won’t leave without you, I promise."

Gabrielle began wandering through the aisles, reading the index cards to know where certain types of scrolls were located. She found the section designated Amazon history and folklore and she began pulling down parchments to read.

Convinced of the girl’s sincerity, Cefan grunted a reply and went to wait outdoors. She was still angry at the Conqueror’s decision that she watch over the fair-haired girl. Any other officer of the Guard could do the job adequately. She was certain this was a form of punishment from the Conqueror.

The mid-morning sun warmed her skin and she resettled her leather armor. A trickle of sweat rolled down the back of her neck, which she wiped away absently, and she pulled the dagger from her boot. Flipping the blade casually, she fought to push down the already overwhelming boredom she felt.

Glancing down the Street of the Curetes, Cefan realized that the temple was not more than a ten minute walk away. The Conqueror’s oracle seems intent to spend several candlemarks inside the library. It won’t hurt anything to go take a look at what is happening down there. And maybe I can find something worth doing.

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

Eponin was experiencing extreme frustration with the Destroyer of Nations. She could hardly believe that the woman she hated most in all the world could be content to simply sit, inactive, for the morning. "She has to be up to something, Ter. I think it would be best if someone went and positioned themselves a little closer to her. Just so she doesn’t try anything sneaky." It sounded lame even to her own ears, but she felt herself slowly going insane.

Her Queen and best friend understood exactly what wasn’t being said. "You can approach, but do not engage her without my explicit permission. We strike the Destroyer only upon my command."

Happily springing to her feet, the warrior was halfway down the steps by the end of her Queen’s instructions. Glancing over her shoulder, she gave a nod and continued.

The Conqueror’s eyes rose from her parchment as the Amazon woman came close. She forced herself to retain her impassive stare. Her plan was working. The Amazons were nervous and unsure of her plans. It was worth the time invested especially if Palaemon obtained the information she desired. I’m coming for you, Caesar.

This Amazon was more impressive than the ones she remembered from her devastation of them in her country. This one was obviously prepared to face down a threat – she was in better shape, her weapons and armor were well cared for, and her faced showed not one trace of fear. Perhaps if more warriors had been like this one seven years ago when she was eliminating the Amazon threat, the Conqueror would not have had as easy time of it. Too little, too late.

Eponin stopped about ten paces away from the Destroyer and sat down on her haunches. Then she fixed her stare and waited.

 

Cefan moved carefully through the streets, keeping close to the buildings and in the shadows. The last thing she wanted was to be inadvertently spotted by the Conqueror or another member of the Royal Guard. Disobeying a direct order from the general was not a wise choice on her part, but she felt it was her only option. She obviously has done something to displease the Conqueror and action was required on her part to regain access to her leader’s good graces.

From her vantage point, she could see the Conqueror on the bench and the Amazon warrior staring at her from nearby. She wondered what the Conqueror’s plan was, and seethed once more that she was not involved in it. A flash of red caught her attention, and her eyes were drawn the Amazon atop the steps of the temple.

One look and Cefan was certain the redhead was the Amazon Queen. The woman had a regal bearing and wore a more ornate set of leathers. She had never seen an Amazon before her visit to Ephesus, so she did not recognize the symbols of rank each one wore. Yet she knew this was the woman the Conqueror had stopped in front of during her entrance into the city. If the Conqueror recognized her, she had to be significant.

Noting that the woman appeared to be alone, Cefan began considering her options

 

Some time after the lieutenant had left her, Gabrielle finished the first scroll she had pulled down. It had described the temple of Artemis and its importance to the Amazon nation. Now the young woman had an overwhelming desire to go to the temple and compare the sights with what she had just read. After carefully replacing the scroll from where she had taken it, Gabrielle exited the library.

Standing on the busy street, dodging the multitude of pedestrians, she strained for a glimpse of her chaperone. "Cefan, where are you?" she asked absently. Judging from the placement of the sun, she realized it was near midday. While Gabrielle had only awakened a few candlemarks ago, she was certain Cefan had been up with the Conqueror. That would mean she had eaten breakfast early and was probably finding someplace to eat.

Gabrielle looked up and down the street for any sign of a food merchant, but saw none. She let out a deep sigh. Her curiosity had been aroused and she wanted desperately to go to the temple. Cefan asked me if I planned on staying here for a few candlemarks. She probably went somewhere else and plans on coming back for me. She’d never know if I took a quick look. Nodding to herself, content with her own logic, Gabrielle began walking toward the temple.

 

Xena stood and once again beckoned over her young guard. He came trotting over, sparing a glance at the stoic Amazon seated nearby. Bowing upon his arrival, he placed his fist over his heart, "Yes, my liege?"

The Conqueror looked over the young man more carefully this time. He had recently been promoted into her Elite Guard ranks and she was impressed by his demeanor. She made a mental note to have Palaemon begin spending more time with the young man. "See to it that my drawing is preserved and brought to my quarters."

"Yes, my liege. It will be done." Carefully, so as not to disturb the charcoal etching, he picked up the parchment and left.

Xena turned slowly and let her gaze fall onto the crouching Amazon. Her blue eyes hardened and narrowed. In an Amazonian dialect she said to the warrior, "Deeds, not stones, are the true monuments. Perhaps Artemis should consider if she is worthy of such a house."

Leaving a stunned Eponin behind, the Conqueror turned and left, her men drawing in and closing ranks around her.

 

It all became clear to Cefan when she saw the Conqueror leave. The Conqueror had not attacked the temple because she did not want a conflict with the Amazons. But she had wanted the Amazons to be apprehensive of her plans and off guard. What would make them more off guard than the random killing of their Queen? No one has seen me here. The Conqueror has left, with her escort. These Amazons are bound to have other enemies besides Xena. If I can strike down their Queen, they will be even weaker. And nothing will be able to stop the Conqueror from her goals here in Ephesus.

Pressing herself further into the shadows that hid her, she removed the bow which was slung over her shoulder. She carefully strung it and chose an arrow from her quiver. Cefan knew she would be able to fire two or three arrows before she would have to flee. She also knew that her skill would be sufficient to bring low the Queen.

 

Gabrielle stood in the courtyard at the base of the temple steps. It was a breathtaking sight, even more so than what she had seen from the sea. The glistening marble, the columns, the statues all delighted her eyes. Using her staff, she climbed up the steps leading to the temple area and found herself standing next to an extraordinary woman. With her red hair the color of the sunset and her eyes the color of fertile earth, it seemed only fitting to Gabrielle that she was worshipping at Artemis’ temple.

"Excuse me," Gabrielle said, moving within an arm’s length of the woman. "Could you tell me where I may obtain a sacrifice for the goddess?"

Those brown eyes tracked to hers and froze. Terreis drew in a ragged breath as she felt her legs weaken.

Seeing the woman’s obvious distress, Gabrielle stepped even closer, "Are you all right? Can I help you?"

This is her. Those green eyes confirm my fate. I am finished. "You are Artemis’ Chosen," she said even as the arrow impaled her chest.

Gabrielle screamed as the woman fell to the ground, the arrow shaft protruding out of her body. Fearing a further attack, the Gabrielle dropped to the ground and covered the red-haired woman’s body with her own. She closed her eyes tightly and waited for an arrow to strike her.

Cefan cursed when she saw Gabrielle on the temple steps as she let her arrow fly toward its target. "I knew it!" she called out, suddenly heedless of the danger. "That double-crossing daughter of a Centaur!" She nocked her second arrow and fired it, aiming for the betrayer.

Eponin had seen Terreis fall and was scrambling up the steps toward her when the next arrow pierced into her back, just below the right shoulder. Ignoring the pain, the warrior completed her journey, calling for her sister Amazons to both protect the Queen and find the attacker.

Pushing herself off the woman, Gabrielle looked down at the blood-spotted breast now marred beyond repair. She felt tears running down her cheeks at the sight of this senseless act.

Terreis struggled to remain alert for the few moments she had left. She heard Eponin’s cry, even though it sounded as if it were coming from leagues away and underwater, and felt her touch. Eponin was muttering comforting statements that the three women all knew to be false. The Queen focused her attention on the fair-haired woman who would soon take her place in the Nation. She lifted her trembling right hand and placed it on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "Artemis has blessed you. You are her Chosen." Terreis coughed, blood coating her lips. "I give you my right of caste."

"What?" Gabrielle sputtered. "I don’t understand. Right of caste?"

Eponin’s shocked eyes fell to Terreis. "Ter, you don’t mean that."

Turning her head to see Eponin, as her field of vision was becoming narrower with every second, she nodded slightly. "I do. This is … Artemis’ Chosen. And, you are to remember your promise."

For the first time in her life, Eponin did nothing to try to hide the tears that were flowing freely from her. She would have gladly exchanged her life for her friend’s. "I will, my Queen. I will see you on the other side."

A shaky breath was the last to fill Terreis’ lungs. As she exhaled, she formed her last words, "Tell Ephiny I am sorry to leave her."

Eponin gathered the Queen awkwardly in her arms, holding the body as tightly as she could with the arrow shafts in both their bodies. She stroked the red hair she had always teased Terreis about and closed the eyes that could no longer see her.

Seven Amazon warriors came running up to the scene and one roughly grabbed hold of Gabrielle, dragging her to her feet. A knife went to the young woman’s throat, as the Amazon incorrectly assumed that she was the attacker of the Queen.

Eponin’s voice cut through the commotion. "Release her. She has the right of caste." At this statement, which once again confused Gabrielle, the newly arrived women began protesting loudly. "Be quiet!" Eponin thundered, silencing them all. "Three of you, search for the one who did this. The rest of you, help me carry our Queen home."

Three scrambled down the temple steps, running to survey the area. The remaining women obeyed the warrior, lifting up the Queen’s body gently. Eponin struggled to her feet and caught Gabrielle around her upper arm. "You are to come with me."

Before Gabrielle could raise voice in protest, she was pulled into the temple, out of the sunlight, and out of Cefan’s view.

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

Gabrielle had no idea where she was. She had been pulled and pushed and shoved and driven deeper into the ground than she ever had been. Her legs ached, muscles and joints crying out for relief after too much use and too little reliance on the staff in her left hand. These fierce women had refused to allow her to go and had taken her into the temple where the lead officer quickly explained the situation to an older priestess. Together the band had gone behind the altar and down a flight of stairs and then another. Once there, they went through room after room filled with gold and other treasures. Gabrielle had never seen anything like it in her life. She wondered if even the Conqueror had as much gold in her vaults in Corinth.

Along the way, they had picked up an armed escort of over thirty women. At the end of the vaults, a hidden door was revealed and unlocked. Before they began their journey, one of the soldiers quickly saw to Eponin’s wound, giving it a field dressing until they could reach the healer’s hut. Five warriors went through the portal first, followed by those bearing the dead woman’s body, then the dark-haired soldier who had first grabbed Gabrielle took her through, and another ten followed. The remainder stayed behind, closing the door behind them and the locking mechanism echoed in the chamber. Gabrielle had entered into a long tunnel, with light provided every ten paces by a torch on the wall. Since the first guards were lighting the torches as they passed them, she had no way of telling how long the corridor was. It felt endless as the pain began to consume her thoughts.

"Please," she said to the warrior who had a strong grip on her upper arm still, "let go of me. I can’t run away."

Eponin looked at the young woman who was to be her Queen and blew out a lungful of frustrated breath. Her hand dropped away, but she said nothing. Her best friend was dead and had given her right of caste to someone who looked inherently unworthy of the honor. And there was still Ephiny to deal with once they reached the village.

"Where are you taking me? What is going on?"

Eponin’s silence continued unabated. Let Clymera explain it all later. She hadn’t seemed surprised at all in the temple about Terreis’ death and this girl’s appearance. Eponin wanted nothing to do with this situation, which would only get worse. They needed someone who could lead them in this time of crisis. Not this slip of a girl.

Gabrielle’s frustration level was reaching an all-time high. Cefan would surely be wondering where she was now. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, trying to stop the tears which suddenly threatened to pour out. Please don’t let the Conqueror think I’ve run away. Not now. We’ve just become friends … and I haven’t had one for so long. I was so stupid to go to the temple. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The tears that finally did come, washed her frustration away and replaced it with a deep sorrow as Gabrielle wished she could bring back Apollo’s chariot from its ride across the sky. All she wanted was to be back at the library where she had promised she would remain. How will she even know where to find me? For all she knows, I ran and boarded a ship bound for Greece, or anywhere else. Will she even care?

The forced march continued for another hour, ending only when Gabrielle was sure she would collapse from the pain. She could suddenly smell the sweet air of the surface and a bright light shone ahead of her, causing her to blink until her eyes adjusted to the change.

They emerged from the mouth of a cave and appeared to be just outside a small village. Two of the guards had run ahead, sent to assemble the village together. Eponin, as the head of the Amazon army, realized she had the unfortunate duty of informing the Nation of Terreis’ passing. She only hoped she could find Ephiny first.

Cries from the women in the village began when the honor guard carrying the Queen’s body emerged from the surrounding forest and entered the square. Carefully, Terreis was laid out on one of the long tables in the common dining facility.

Eponin left Gabrielle and strode over to one of the women villagers. "Where is Ephiny?" she asked.

A cry which sounded like that of a wounded animal answered her question.

Startled, every eye turned to Ephiny, who stood at the entrance to a hut, her eyes fixed on the dead body of her bondmate. "No!" she cried out again, this time forming a coherent word. Her body was trembling violently and two of her sister Amazons stepped forward to support her, as her legs were no longer capable of that act. "No," she whispered.

Gabrielle had no idea who this woman was but nonetheless she felt renewed tears coursing down her cheeks in sympathy. The curly-haired woman reminded her of herself when she found the smoking remains of her parents’ house. She watched as the woman was supported down the aisle and she collapsed over the dead body.

"What was her name?" Gabrielle asked the woman warrior standing beside her, keeping an eye on her while Eponin went to put strong arms around Ephiny.

The guard gave the oracle a fierce look, showing her annoyance that she did not recognize the Amazon Queen. "Her name was Terreis. And she was our Queen."

"And the other?"

"Ephiny. Her bondmate."

Gabrielle nodded solemnly. "And the woman who is with her now?"

Another exasperated look met her inquiry. How could this young woman not know these things and be admitted into their village? "Eponin."

"Her sister?"

Now the Amazon placed her hands on her hips and spoke in a cold tone. "We are all sisters. If you have more questions, you’ll have to address them to the Council."

Gabrielle took the not-so-subtle hint and fell silent.

From the east, another figure entered into the village, whom Gabrielle recognized as the priestess from the temple. The old woman came immediately to her and clasped both of Gabrielle’s hands in her own. The priestess’ hands were cool to the touch, but Gabrielle could feel the strength that still lay inside them.

The priestess met and held Gabrielle’s eyes for a long moment, seemingly searching out something which the young woman could not discern, before she let out a satisfied sigh. "Welcome home."

A frown furrowed Gabrielle’s brow as she processed the greeting. "I’m not sure what you mean."

A slight smile, "You will. I have seen you in my dreams for quite awhile. Excuse me, please." With a bow, which surprised Gabrielle, the priestess headed over to Ephiny and Eponin.

"Terreis is enjoying peace with Artemis now, Ephiny," she said as she stretched out a hand and placed it on the Consort’s shoulder. "She knew her fate and accepted it."

Suddenly, the cries stopped and pale gray eyes fixed on the priestess. "She knew?" Ephiny echoed.

Eponin squeezed her eyes shut, trying to wish this nightmare away – Terreis’ death and now Clymera’s revelation. Her hold on the Consort tightened as she remembered her promise to her friend.

Clymera knew this information was hard for Ephiny to hear, but it needed to be told. The Nation had to accept Terreis’ passing of the right of caste to this outsider. The only way to ensure it was to demonstrate it was Terreis’ knowledge of Artemis’ will. "Yes, she knew. And it hurt her so to know that she had to step aside for Artemis’ Chosen."

"She was Artemis’ Chosen," Ephiny corrected, a dangerous look coming into her eyes.

"Yes, as Queen she was. But the visions have foretold of one who can lead our Nation into its future. She is Artemis’ Chosen, and she has received the right of caste from Terreis."

"There is no need to go into this now," Eponin growled.

"You are wrong," Clymera countered, "now is exactly the time."

Ephiny twisted in Eponin’s hold to study the warrior. "Who did Ter give her title to? You?" The last word was spat out, intended to wound. Ephiny had always felt jealous of the relationship her bondmate shared with Eponin.

"No. Her." And Eponin gestured to the young stranger in their midst whose mouth was hanging open as she listened in to this exchange.

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Xena was quite pleased with how her day was going. It had been such fun to sit there and torment the Amazons. The sun had felt good, the sea air always did wonders for her disposition, and she hadn’t sketched in a very long time. She was disappointed that Gabrielle had not returned from the library when she arrived back at Salmoneus’ home, but knew her young oracle would be along shortly.

Palaemon arrived soon after the Conqueror. Placing his fist over his heart and bowing deeply, he grinned savagely. "My liege, it is done."

"Good. Give me a report, Palaemon." She indicated a chair for him to sit down in, as she settled back into the large velvet covered chair designated for her use.

"Caesar’s weapons will ship out tomorrow. His right hand man, Brutus, is in town to oversee the transport. They will be using the southern road and starting out at daybreak, my liege."

The Conqueror bared her teeth, she could already taste the victory of the morrow. "Excellent. You did leave the Proconsul with his life, did you not?"

"I did, my liege. But he will be unable to communicate for quite some time. At least, other than very basic concepts. I am afraid that his jaw was broken, as well as all of his fingers and toes."

An amused look glanced over the ruler’s features. "Toes, Palaemon?"

He shrugged, remembering the Proconsul’s screams when he snapped each of the digits. "I didn’t want him getting creative with a quill. Or running away if he lied to you."

"Very well thought out then."

"May I ask how it went at the temple, my liege?"

The Conqueror laughed, "Perfectly. They have their leathers all bunched up now, not knowing what I am planning on doing to them. They are so unbelievably arrogant to think that I would still care about their worthless collection of women. Ephesus and Artemis can have them for all I care; as long as Greece remains free of them." She stroked her chin thoughtfully, "Now, I wouldn’t mind a little of the gold they have in their treasury. But, I think I will limit myself to stealing from Caesar. The Amazons are hardly a challenge and I would rather keep Ephesus as a trading partner. For now."

For his next question, Palaemon tried to hide a smirk, but was not completely successful. "And did you enjoy the circus last night, my liege?"

Xena met his gaze steadily, hearing and answering some of his unspoken questions. "I did, in fact."

"I’m glad." Palaemon idly wondered if Gabrielle had a sister somewhere for him.

So am I. I just like having her near. She’s the first person in so long I have felt no threat from – in any way. Nor does she look at me like I’m a two-headed hydra. And she doesn’t look like one either: red-gold hair, soft green eyes, cute nose and the sweetest smile that I’ve ever seen. I like that she talks in her sleep – mostly nonsense words and giggles. In fact, she always seems to be talking; thank the gods above I like the sound of her voice. When did she become more to me than my oracle of truth? More than a substitute for Lyceus, more than family even. Not that I’ve had any in so very long to compare her to.

Palaemon watched the softness overtake the Conqueror’s features and he blessed the day that Gabrielle walked into the throne room. He had fought alongside the Conqueror for years and had never seen anything overtake her until now. It made him all the more willing to stand by her side in battle, if only to protect her for Gabrielle’s sake.

Slapping the flats of her palms on her thighs, she rose to her feet. "Enough of this, Palaemon, we have a hijacking to plan. Let’s go take a look at the map the scouts drew up and figure out where to lay the trap."

"Gladly, my liege. Tomorrow will be a day to remember. Certainly, one Caesar won’t soon forget."

She smiled as she brushed a strand of midnight black hair from her eyes, "Even in his dreams, Palaemon, I intend to haunt him." Dressed in her black leathers, her blue eyes seemingly flashing light, she did look like a phantom.

 

Xena laid out her plan for acquiring the weapons to Palaemon. Pointing at several points along the intended path, she indicated where various soldiers would be placed as lookouts and attack forces. Even though they had the route, she knew it was likely to be deviated from, Caesar’s men not trusting a foreign government to adequately protect the information. At least, Xena mused, she would file a false route with the Proconsul, in case he was on the take. But, knowing a false route was almost as meaningful as the true.

She summoned one of the lower ranking guards and handed him a sealed parchment. "Take this to Charis. Bid her to come to me this evening, a candlemark after sundown to discuss our preparations."

The soldier bowed and exited quickly. Once before a messenger had slowly walked out the door, only to discover one of the Conqueror’s daggers in his thigh by the time he reached it.

Xena and Palaemon were discussing the troop assignments when Cefan burst into the room. Never had the Conqueror seen the Egyptian so distressed. Placing her fist over her heart, she bowed. "My liege."

"Report." At that moment, she realized who was missing. "Where’s Gabrielle?"

Cefan knew she had to tread carefully upon hearing the tone of the Conqueror’s voice. "My liege, that is why I am here."

"Has she been injured? Where is she?" Xena took a step forward, raising herself to full height.

"My liege, she is with the Amazons."

"What?" Xena exploded, grabbing her lieutenant by the shoulder straps and shoving the woman against the plaster wall. "How in the gods’ names did you allow her to be captured?"

"She was not captured."

"What then? Explain yourself, soldier."

Cefan licked her lips and took as deep a breath as the Conqueror’s weight against her would allow. "She asked to go to the temple, so I took her there. She had been reading some scrolls in the library, so I assumed she wished to see whatever they had described. When we got there, she rushed up the temple steps and into the waiting arms of several of their warriors. One of them, a stout, dark-haired woman, attacked me, keeping me from the girl. While I was engaged, she disappeared with them into the temple. Once I was able to break free of the fight, I came here." Not quite how it happened, but I can’t tell the Conqueror I left her alone or what I was doing at the temple.

The Conqueror’s grip lessened and the anger in her eyes changed to a look of pain.

Cefan continued, "My liege, I fear she was a spy for the Amazons and she intends to betray you." The Egyptian reasoned that to be the truth, not able to discern any reason for Gabrielle to risk her life for a stranger.

Palaemon shook his head, unconvinced. "A spy? I don’t believe it!"

The Egyptian scowled at him, "You weren’t there, Palaemon. You didn’t watch her run into the embrace of our ruler’s enemy. And, my liege, the Amazon Queen is dead. She was shot by an arrow."

Xena’s brows constricted. "I just left there a few candlemarks ago. How could this all have taken place? Who killed her?" Suddenly the world felt like it was spinning out of her control.

Another lie, but easier. "No one knows, my liege. It looked like a sniper attack."

"And what did Gabrielle do? Was she involved in the attack?"

"No, Conqueror, she attempted to save the Queen. And then left with the Amazons. She seemed to be one of them."

Palaemon turned his attention to the Conqueror. Risking injury, he placed a hand on her arm. "Gabrielle wouldn’t do this, my liege. She’s had many other opportunities to leave and she never has. She has chosen to stay with you."

Xena found herself unable to hear clearly, her heart was crying out in too much pain.

"She’s never had a better reason to leave," Cefan countered. "She knows of your plan to steal Caesar’s weapons, my liege. She could be persuading the Amazons to form an alliance with Caesar."

Caesar, the name echoed through the Conqueror’s thoughts. She’s just like Caesar.

"Nonsense!" Palaemon responded.

The Conqueror released her hold entirely and took a step back, bringing her hands to her ears. "Enough! Be quiet the two of you." She could barely hear anything, the sound of blood rushing in her ears was deafening. An incredible pain started in her temples and radiated down her neck and back. She was nauseous and could taste bile at the back of her throat.

Trust no one. Trust no one. Remember that from now on, Xena, Conqueror. You were a fool to care about the girl. A fool to trust in her kind looks and gentle words. A fool of the worst sort – one that has led your men into danger by being a fool. For ten years, since Lyceus’ death, you have been focused on what mattered. Then you allow a distraction to enter into your life. This is the Fates’ way of punishing you for forgetting your destiny. Focus. Trust no one. Focus.

When she looked up once more, a hardness had settled over her face and in her eyes, making them turn to a murky gray color. "We will destroy the Amazons once and for all," Xena spoke slowly, each word carefully pronounced. "Ephesus will be remembered as two of my greatest victories – destroying the abhorrent Amazon Nation and humiliating Caesar."

Palaemon felt his heart breaking, knowing the pain his ruler was in, having seen the joy in her eyes earlier in the day. "My liege, send me to find out what is going on. I am sure there is an explanation for this. I will bring you back word, I swear by your throne."

Cefan couldn’t believe what she was hearing from the Captain. Doesn’t he understand what she has done? "Palaemon, be honest with your true intentions. You love the girl."

Both Xena and Palaemon recoiled, struck by her words. "You are out of line, lieutenant!" Palaemon raged.

It all seemed very clear to the Egyptian. Echoes of her morning conversation with Palaemon and his dismissal of her arose in her mind. Palaemon was the inside man! Cefan turned to the Conqueror voicing her arguments from this morning. "My liege, how did Gabrielle get down from the cross you put her on? Pull out her own nails and walk? Her legs were shattered. Someone had to help her down. Someone had to save her. Who else can get close to the crosses but your men? And someone of Palaemon’s rank would never be questioned if he allowed a prisoner to be taken down a little early."

"My liege!" Palaemon shook his head, his denial fierce. He had no time to deny the accusations because the Conqueror was advancing on him. "This is not true."

Reaching behind her shoulders, Xena drew her sword. "You’ve watched over her ever since she arrived. How do you explain it, Captain?"

Backing toward the door, Palaemon knew better than to draw his sword. Once his blade was unsheathed, the Conqueror would attack. If he could make it to safety, he might be able to save his and Gabrielle’s lives. If he was very lucky. "I serve you in everything, my liege. You know me. You know my life and my sword are yours."

The Conqueror nodded slowly and a dark smile gashed her lips. "Then I would like your head and heart."

"You may have them, my liege, once I have defeated your true enemies. If you still find fault in me." Palaemon felt the heel of his boot touch the threshold of the great room. He now had a direct line of retreat from the Conqueror, if he was fast enough. He scanned the area around him for anything to create a diversion, to buy the moments he needed to make a safe exit. On the low table nearby, he spotted an urn, which he sincerely hoped contained the ashes of one of Salmoneus’ dead relatives.

Everyone seemed to move at once. Xena advanced on her target. Cefan drew her sword, to join in the pursuit. And Palaemon grabbed the urn and hurled its contents at the angry ruler. Spinning on his heel, he raced, heedless of anything but his objective.

Xena coughed as the ashes flew in her face, blinding her as the dust settled in her eyes. Wiping angrily, creating large streaks on her face, she turned to Cefan. "Find him and bring him back to me. Dead. Alive. It doesn’t matter."

"And the girl?" Cefan asked.

"I will deal with her later. First bring back Palaemon."

"It will be done, my liege." Anger flashed in her eyes and she drew in a deep breath, puffing out her chest. "Death to those who have betrayed you." And she left to seek vengeance on one who had dared lift a hand against the Conqueror.

Xena did not respond, but instead settled heavily in a chair, suddenly feeling the weight of the entire world. Atlas knows nothing of the burden I carry now. "Oh, Gabrielle, I could have loved you."

Continued in Part V


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