Aftermath: The Tree of Life
By XWP Fanatic
Please see disclaimers in Part I
Feedback, comments are always welcomed.
It was very quiet inside Salmoneus home. Xena, who all her life had preferred solitude, suddenly missed the activity it had been filled with. Gabrielle was gone, no doubt telling stories around an Amazon campfire. With Palaemons absence the Conqueror knew better than to go among her troops right now; he was the only one of her men who could hold his own against her in a sparring match. With the temper that had ensnared her, she would most likely destroy her own army before the battle of the morning. Xena even wished for Salmoneus company. The chatterbox would at least keep her mind off everything. Had she always been this alone and not known it?
She stood over her plans for the attack on the convoy. She forced herself to make her mind blank, to see only the parchment before her, to imagine every pebble on the road the Romans would use. Her question to herself was relentless: what have I not anticipated?
After their encounter with Gabrielle, the Conqueror had sent Charis to make sure her troops were deployed correctly. They were supposed to have been in position since dusk, sheltering in the canopy of night, becoming so still they could be mistaken for stones. Charis would report back later as to any problems. Xena would go among the troops just prior to dawn. Until then, she waited.
There was movement behind her and the Conqueror knew Cefan had returned. "Where is Palaemon?" she asked, turning slowly, remembering her lieutenants boast of returning with her captains head.
Cefan flushed hotly. Surely the Conqueror could see her injury and know what must have taken place. She fingered the bandage the healer had wrapped around her stitched-up thigh, the back stained dark with her blood. "My liege, he escaped."
"Then you failed. As you failed me with Gabrielle this morning." The Conquerors body radiated menace. "I do not tolerate incompetence among my guard. You know that."
The Egyptian held her ground, despite her thought that even the Conquerors cape looked dangerous. "My liege, you were betrayed, first by Gabrielle, next by Palaemon. I alone have returned to serve you."
"How were you injured?"
Cefan relaxed, glad for the Conquerors concern for her well-being. "The traitor, Palaemon, attacked me, my liege. I tracked him to the temple and tried to prevent him from reuniting with the girl. He struck me from behind, Conqueror, attempting to lame me."
Xena considered her solider, weighing her words. Cefan was, in a twisted way, telling the truth. The actions were true, the intentions were not. Gabrielle would never have spoken this form of truth to me, the Conqueror considered, then forced the fair-haired oracle out of her mind. "And this morning, describe for me the Amazon who attacked you. For I wish to not kill her when we purge the Nation before we leave Ephesus; I will leave that honor to you."
Cefan smiled, her fear dissipating. "Thank you, my liege. She was tall and fierce. Her hair was in braids and was dark, like the soil after a rainfall. Her eyes were the same color. She was in a command position, giving orders to those beside her."
That description doesnt match any of the warriors I saw, surely such a one would have stayed behind to guard her Queen. "I met the commander of the Amazon army. She is nothing like you have described."
The lieutenant became still. She knew from experience that every movement she made now would be evaluated and acted upon. "My liege, I did not say she was the commander but merely had a command."
"Why did you leave Gabrielle alone at the library?"
"My liege, I did no-"
One quick stride and the Conqueror held Cefan up by her throat, Cefans toes barely scraping the marble floor. The muscles in the Conquerors arms were steady, her rage giving her more than enough strength to suspend the warrior in her armor. "Do not lie to me! I have had my fill of lies. Tell me what happened this morning and I might let you live."
The lieutenant weighed her few options carefully. There was no doubt the Conqueror would kill her at the slightest provocation. She was like a wounded animal, lashing out at anyone, even those who would try to help. "Did she tell you that, my liege?" she whispered. "Did she say I left her? But then how does she explain her fleeing to the Amazons?"
She went to the temple to look at a statue. She threw herself unthinkingly on an injured woman. She tried to save a life. She cared and she was taken from me. "How do you explain it?" Xena questioned, refusing to be distracted from her pursuit of the truth from this woman.
"As I did this morning, my liege. She fled from me, went to the temple and betrayed you. I tried to stop her, but I was attacked."
"My fierce Egyptian warrior was defeated twice in one day? I should kill you for that alone." Xena slammed the solider against a wall and continued to hold her aloft. "How did you lose a crippled girl?"
"She is getting stronger, my liege."
Another meeting of stone and flesh. "Wrong answer. How did you let her go when I commanded you to watch her?"
"I told you "
With her free hand, the Conqueror slapped the lieutenant leaving behind an angry mark. "I find your explanation lacking. Where were you when you were to be guarding my oracle? What did you do, Cefan?"
The lieutenant refused to answer.
"Perhaps you were the one who betrayed me?"
"My liege, I killed your enemy! I did not betray you!" Cefan was becoming enraged herself. She had served the Conqueror for years, had fought by her side, had been a reliable and honorable soldier. To have the Conqueror question her now was insulting to the proud warrior.
The grip on Cefans throat became tighter. Xena leaned her long frame against the lieutenants pinning her to the wall, letting the woman feel the anger, the heat, the danger. "Who did you kill?"
The Egyptian replied with a snarl, "The bitch queen of the Amazons."
With sudden insight, Xena watched the morning unfold from a different perspective: The lieutenant wanting to be a part of the action at the temple, leaving Gabrielle alone and unguarded in the library. Gabrielle, being naturally curious, wanting to go to the temple to look at whatever had attracted her attention. When she was unable to find her escort, deciding to go anyway, anticipating a quick return. Cefan watching the temple, seeing Xena leave, knowing she was clear to make a heroic gesture. Only to have her plans spoiled by Gabrielles arrival. Cefan murdering the queen and the young oracle trying to save the woman. Gabrielle receiving the right of caste from the queen and Cefan concocting a story to cover up her own disobedience. The end result was the same. Gabrielle was torn away from the Conqueror in sacrifice to the lieutenants hubris.
"You have no idea what you have done." Abruptly, Xena released her prey from her grasp, causing Cefan to fall to the floor. The Conqueror knelt down beside the sprawled warrior. "You have disobeyed your last command, Cefan, you are hereby relieved of your duties." She waited for the relief at being left alive to fill the dark brown eyes, and then she added, "All of them." With two swift jabs to the lieutenants neck, the Conqueror cut off the flow of blood to the warriors brain.
"My liege," Cefan pleaded, blood already copiously running from her nose.
"May the fires of Tartarus consume your soul for an eternity for what you have done." Not wanting to be in her betrayers presence a moment longer, the Conqueror exited the room to go join her troops.
Cefan waited a few seconds more and then released the pressure points, grateful that the Egyptian court knew about them as well.
The moon was still high overhead when Cefan found the ship she sought. As she walked down the dock, two Roman soldiers approached her, their swords drawn despite her obvious injuries. They knew of Greek cunning, and had no desire to be fooled by a woman. "Halt! You may not come here!" the first of the two guards ordered.
Cefan was not about to be intimidated. She had just survived an attempt on her life by the Destroyer of Nations, two Roman guards were of little concern to her. "Tell your commanding officer that Lieutenant Cefanelwai-timbukili is here and has important news regarding his transport which is to take place in a few candlemarks."
The two guards exchanged glances, no one was supposed to know why they were here. How did this Greek soldier know of the arms? With a nod, the senior officer commanded the junior one to remain while he made the report.
Cefan leaned against a post, trying to take as much pressure as possible off her injured leg. She could tell the wound had reopened, but it was inaccessible to her. Hopefully, the Roman commander would have his healer tend to her after she gave her information. She had given her life-blood for the Conqueror. Now it flowed in mockery of that sacrifice.
It took nearly a half candlemark before the commander had her summoned to his quarters. Guided roughly by the first set of guards, Cefan entered into the large common room of the vessel.
Seated at an ornate desk was the Roman commander. He was dressed in the gold and crimson robes of Roman nobility, his armor polished to a shine. To either side of him were guards with plumed helmets and long spears. They were more decorative than functional, Cefan observed, noting that it would be difficult for them to obtain the leverage and distance they would need to strike with their spears in the quarters. The man himself was small and compact. His hair was dark and curly, an unruly tangle over an otherwise disciplined body.
His dark eyes lifted from the parchment he was studying and he took inventory of the soldier before him. He had spent his entire life in service to Rome. First as a soldier in the northern territories, then as special adjunct to Caesar. Now he was Caesars most trusted advisor and lieutenant, charged with missions that his ruler knew must succeed. This Greeks presence in his stateroom did not bode well.
"Who are you?" he asked, his voice cultured and low.
"I am Cefanelwai-timbukili, former lieutenant in the army of Xena, Conqueror of Greece and Destroyer of Nations."
A small smile drifted across the mans lips at the warriors proud demeanor. "Why former lieutenant?"
"The Conqueror attempted to kill me this evening. She is unaware that I live."
Leaning back in his chair, Brutus tried to ascertain the veracity of the warriors statements. It would be within the Conquerors tactics to injure her own soldier and send her here to bait a trap. Caesar had warned him of the Greek rulers artifice before. "And why did she try to kill you?"
"Because I killed her enemy and made her jealous."
"And this enemy was?"
"The Queen of the Amazons."
He had heard of the disturbance at the temple this afternoon. His men had brought back reports of an attack on the queen and the commotion it created. There was no information on who had fired the fatal arrow, however. "Had she planned on this honor herself?"
"That became my understanding."
Crossing one leg over the other, the commander feigned an air of indifference. "So what brings you here?"
"The Conqueror plans on attacking your convoy at dawn."
"Does she now? And where will this attack happen?"
Cefan pictured the map the Conqueror had gone over with her earlier in the day. "Your men are taking the southern route, the only one that will lead them to their destination in Syria. The Conquerors men are set to take on your troops at the Sepian Pass."
The commander reached for a scroll and unrolled it. Laying it across his lap he studied the map and traced the route the arms would soon be following. The Sepian Pass was the mostly likely and best choice for an ambush. It was possible this information was correct. "Perhaps " he allowed.
"It is to be. Her troops are already in place. They only await their prey."
"So you have betrayed your ruler. What do you seek in return?"
"Safe passage to Egypt and a thousand gold coins."
"A thousand gold coins?" Brutus frowned, considering the sum. "Is that the going price of a soldiers honor?"
"Excuse me?" Cefan responded, not liking the change in tone.
"I thank you for your information, Cefanelwai-timbukili of the Egyptians, but I cannot allow you to live. My honor will not allow it. You have betrayed the one you swore allegiance to. I can expect no better from you." With a slight gesture, Brutus commanded his honor guard. "Kill her."
The seemingly decorative soldiers managed with considerable efficiency to raise their spears and hurl them, spitting Cefan, and driving her body into the wall. Impaled on two shafts of wood, Cefan breathed her last.
Brutus rose from his chair and passed the body as he left the room. "Now, lets go see if you spoke the truth."
Gabrielle paced in front of Artemis altar, as she had for the last candlemark. No one dared approach her. Even Clymera was surprised at the passion aroused in the young woman. She had been furious over Eponins decision to remain behind and guard her, despite her evacuation orders. Since leaving the village, Gabrielle had not spoken to anyone.
Palaemon sat to one side carefully watching over the scene. His uneasy alliance with the Amazon guards allowed him to remain close to their Queen. He knew that ultimately the Conqueror would want him to see to the young womans welfare.
Eponin came and settled down beside him, jerking her chin in the direction of Gabrielle. "Is she always this way?"
Palaemon met her gaze and smiled wearily. "Ive never seen her like this before, actually. She is the most gentle soul I have ever met."
The Amazon commander snorted out a laugh. "Then where did she pick up a few of those curses she directed at me earlier?" Gabrielles angry diatribe against the commander had actually won her reluctant admiration from the object of her fury.
"It could have been while on the cross."
"What?" Eponins eyes focused on the halting walk of her new Queen. "Is that where her legs were broken?"
Palaemon nodded. "Yes, although they are healing now. Before she had to use a staff all the time to walk."
"Caesar?" Eponin asked, knowing the Romans penchant for such a torturous death.
"No, actually, the Conqueror."
Startled caramel colored eyes raised to meet his. Eponins brow furrowed as she took in this new information. "You mean to tell me that she loves the Destroyer despite being crucified by her?" She never thought that an Amazon Queen would ever hold affection for the cold-hearted woman who had nearly annihilated their Nation, certainly not under these circumstances.
Palaemon shifted his line of sight to take in Gabrielle. "Yes, she does. She is the most remarkable woman I have ever encountered."
Remembering the Conquerors earlier accusation, Eponin said, "You do love her."
"Hopelessly," he answered, more to himself than to Eponin. Realizing he had spoken aloud, he quickly added, "She doesnt know."
"Are you sure about that?"
He nodded, "Yes, I am. If she had any idea, she wouldnt let me be here."
"Why not?" Eponin was intrigued. She wondered what had really gone on between the Captain and her new Queen.
"Because she wouldnt want me to get hurt." Seeing Eponins unspoken question, he answered it. "Not just because of the Conquerors reaction. But because she doesnt return my affections."
The Amazon commander shifted, pulling a dagger from her boot to play with. "I dont understand. You and Gabrielle seem like reasonable people, even decent. Why the allegiance to the Destroyer? She isnt worthy of it."
"Dont call her that," a voice responded, but not Palaemons.
Eponin jumped, startled at hearing Queen Gabrielles comment. "My Queen " her face reddened at being caught in this discussion. She couldnt believe the young woman had been able to approach them unnoticed. Youre becoming a gossip maven, Eponin, just like Terreis always said you would.
"No one is to call her the Destroyer, do you understand? She is my friend." Gabrielles stare brokered no argument.
Eponin wanted to disagree, but found she could not. This was a direct order by her ruler; she had no choice in the matter, not if she were the Amazon she claimed to be. "Yes, my Queen."
The new Queen let out a sigh and sunk to the ground beside them. "Im glad we have that settled. I cant stand this waiting. You should be with her, Palaemon. She will need you in the coming morning."
Before the Captain could respond, a runner approached them and bowed before Gabrielle. After being bid to report, the woman took a lungful of air and began. "My Queen, I followed the warrior as I was ordered."
Gabrielle held up a hand, "What warrior?"
The commander grimaced, "The one who attacked him." Eponin knew this news would not be accepted in a peaceful manner.
"Cefan?" Palaemon asked. He had thought it strange that the Amazons had not captured her at the temple, but now it made sense that they had followed her.
Gabrielles anger flared up anew. "You mean to tell me we could have found out where she was and you didnt tell me?" Unable to sit beside the warrior and control herself, Gabrielle stood and took a few paces back. "What else havent you told me, Eponin? Are there other surprises in store? You do not have anyone trailing the Conqueror, do you? No one who would harm her?"
"No, my Queen."
Gabrielle held up a hand and shook her head vehemently. "Obviously, Im not your Queen. You disobeyed my direct order that you help with the evacuation of the Nation. You allowed three other Amazon warriors to participate in your rebellion. And now I find that you are concealing the actions of the soldiers from me. I am not your Queen, Eponin. You are your own Queen. Is this how you treated Terreis, or do you have special contempt for me?"
Chastised and speechless, Eponin tried to process the outburst of anger that had been directed toward her. She knew the young Queen was right, but she hated admitting it even to herself, let alone another person. Instead, she sulked.
Palaemon tried to keep from snickering, but it was difficult. Gabrielle had certainly learned a thing or two during her time with the Conqueror, he noted.
Not receiving any response, Gabrielle directed her attention to the messenger. "Tell me about the warrior."
The messenger met the Queens angry green eyes. She had never heard anyone speak so strongly to Eponin. It had been rumored that Terreis would occasionally have to dress her down in private, or in a council meeting, but never in front of any other audience. "My Queen, she was injured after her encounter with the Greek soldier," said gesturing toward the Captain.
"His name is Palaemon," Gabrielle growled in frustration, tired of the prejudice.
The messenger winced. "Yes, my Queen. After her encounter with Palaemon the warrior found a healer who stitched up her thigh wound. She went back to the Destroyers "
"Her name is the Conqueror," Gabrielle growled again.
Are there any other names I should know? "Yes, my Queen. She met with the Conqueror." It felt strange not referring to the enemy of the Amazons by her proper designation, but the messenger had no desire to experience the Queens ire like Eponin. "They had an angry confrontation. The Conqueror struck the warrior repeatedly and then left her."
"Was the Conqueror all right?" came the soft question, a gentleness present in the voice that was absent before.
"Yes, my Queen. The warrior then left and went to the docks where she met up with the Roman fleet."
Palaemon sprung to his feet. "By the gods, her betrayal is complete! That conniving, low-born daughter of a bacchae!" There was no doubt in the Captains mind what discussion had taken place between Cefan and the Romans. "Youre right, Gabrielle, I must go to her." To Eponin he said, "I leave her in your protection."
"Palaemon, stop!" Gabrielle ordered to his back as he began hurrying away.
Disbelieving blue eyes turned back to her. "Gabrielle? She needs me. If Cefan told the Romans of the Conquerors plans " there was no need for him to finish the thought, it was too upsetting to do so.
"Then it will take more than you to help her. Stay here, Palaemon, and trust me."
The Captain slowly nodded, believing he understood what she was trying to communicate, hoping he did.
To the forgotten messenger, Gabrielle said, "Continue with your report. What happened next?"
"My Queen, the Romans killed the warrior."
"Damn them to Tartarus!" Palaemon stamped his boot on the ground forcefully, sending tremors up his leg. "I wanted that pleasure. Did it look painful?"
The messenger hesitated, wondering if she should answer a Greek mans question. When the Queen made no effort to keep her from doing so, she decided to speak, hoping it was the right choice. "She was run through by two spears."
"Good. Not as good as drawing and quartering, but good," Palaemon muttered, knowing that some victims remained conscious while they bled to death internally. He hoped that Cefan had been one of those. She had been a friend, but she had tried to harm the two most important people in his life; that was unforgivable.
Gabrielles thoughts wandered back to the campfires she had shared with the Egyptian, and Cefans reluctant humor. She wasnt always an enemy and she was once the Conquerors friend. She deserved better than death at the hands of the Romans. "Eponin, summon the council. We need to prepare for battle."
The commander of the Amazon army regarded Gabrielle with surprise. "Against the De against the Conqueror?"
A frown furrowed between pale eyebrows, "Dont be ridiculous."
"Never!" Aria exclaimed. "By Artemis holy temple, never!"
The small cluster of women stood behind Artemis altar where the Priestess waited before performing her duties on holy days. It was a small space and forced the seven women to stand closer than many of them would have liked. Gabrielle imagined there was a line drawn between them, for they were divided into two clear camps, with two wavering in the middle.
"This is our chance," Rana pointed out reasonably. "The Destroyer is unaware of the Romans knowledge of her attack. She will be outsmarted. Let us aid the Romans and secure a lasting peace for us in Ephesus."
Clymera regarded the young Queen sadly, it was easy to tell where the Queens heart was. "My Queen, I have seen visions of you defeating the Conqueror. Artemis has shown me your future."
Gabrielle shrugged, "Then I reject it."
The priestess glanced around, afraid she might find Artemis herself standing in their midst to hear the blasphemy. "My Queen, you cannot."
"Just watch me. I am not some pawn of the gods. I didnt ask for this title, but I have it. As long as I have it, I will do what I believe best. I have never found the gods to be all that interested in my welfare. No god came when my village was destroyed, my parents tortured and killed, and my sister taken in slavery. No god came and saved me from the cross." Her gaze swept around the circle, "No god came and saved your Nation from the Conquerors ambition. It was you. It was your effort, your blood, your plans. You came to Ephesus for safety. Artemis didnt bring you."
Silent tears coursed down Ephinys cheeks. "Artemis did not save Terreis." She shifted closer slightly when Gabrielle laid a gentle hand on her forearm.
"We are Artemis Nation, Gabrielle. Your concern for the Conqueror cannot deny who we are. If we abandon our goddess, we are lost."
"Clymera, I dont suggest you disavow Artemis. But I dont believe the future is set. We are not Artemis plaything, nor is she ours. The future is ours to do of as we will. Did Artemis will you to be driven from your native lands in Greece? I dont think so, otherwise why worship her? This is the Nations opportunity to return to Greece. If we help the Conqueror now, she will be indebted to us. You will return once again to your homeland in peace."
"She cannot be trusted," Solari protested.
"Are we the only ones who remember that the Destroyer killed Melosa under a banner of truce? Thats the ruler you would have us save now." Aria could not believe this was even being considered.
Eponin had been silent up until this point, but knew time was against them and the Conqueror. "Queen Gabrielle does not have to ask our permission to act, Aria. You forget yourself. The council may be divided, but the Queen is not. And you are obligated to obey." Eponin reached over and grasped Solaris bracer. "You are an honorable soldier, Solari. What do you say?"
"I stand united with my sisters."
"As do I," Eponin responded. "We are united with our Queen," the warrior gestured to Clymera and Ephiny. "Rana, Aria, what do you say?"
The animal trainer shifted, crossing her arms slowly, "I am a woman of action. I would prefer the action to be against the Destroyer, but I will fight with my sisters."
Gabrielle gave a small smile to Rana and then looked expectantly at Aria. She made a note to repeat that Destroyer announcement to everyone later.
Aria looked at the other Amazons for a long moment before replying. "I will be spending my day trying to heal injuries inflicted by Romans who should be our allies. I will concede in this matter, but I wish my objection noted. Further, I do not believe Gabrielle is fit to be the Amazon Queen given her affection for our enemy. This is a mistake of epic proportions. I only hope we survive to realize it."
Not the rousing affirmation I was looking for, but Ill take what I can get. Gabrielle rolled her shoulders, adjusting the weight of responsibility as it settled heavily on them. "All right, Eponin, you and I will meet with Palaemon and make our plans."
Continued in Part VII
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