Aftermath: The Tree of Life
By XWP Fanatic
For disclaimers, please see Part I.
As always, feedback is most welcome.
The night sky was becoming gray with the approaching dawn. Her horse moving quietly over the path, Xena moved from one cluster of troops to another. It was her presence among the men that gave them the confidence the battle would be theirs. None of them had ever seen the general defeated. She had experienced not one setback in her quest for Greece. They expected no less in Ephesus.
Her plan was simple and deadly. She had two hundred soldiers scattered along the pathway, one hundred of them her elite Royal Guard. The Sepian Pass was her choice for the site of the ambush. There was little doubt that the Romans would send an advance scout along the path. Her men would quietly take out that squadron after they had gone through the Sepian Pass unharmed. Once the arms caravan was fully inside the pass, her men would seal off the ends, pinning the Romans inside. After that, it would be a simple matter of raining down arrows on them until all were dead.
Coming to the squadron in charge of cutting off the Romans retreat, the Conqueror joined them in the circle they had formed. "Good day for a battle," the squadron leader commented.
The Conqueror let a wild smile loose, "Yes, it is. A good day for Caesar to learn his place."
One of the younger officers gathered up his courage and addressed the ruler, "When do we take Rome, my liege?"
Xena looked at the young man who had asked the question. It was the same one who had served her well at the temple yesterday morning. "Whats your name?"
"Minon, my liege."
"Minon, when we return to Greece, you shall train with Pala " she wavered, remembering where her Captain was at the moment, unsure of where he would be tomorrow. She refocused her attention on the expectant soldier, "You shall train with the Captain of the Guard so you may help lead our attack on Caesars stronghold."
The young mans features transformed with excitement and pride. "Yes, my liege. Thank you, my liege."
"There is always room for another good leader. Anyone who wants to see Caesars defeat as much as I do is welcome to ride with me into Rome." To the commander of the squadron she said, "Be sure to contain Caesars men here. I dont want them escaping."
"Our swords are yours, Conqueror. We will not fail you."
Swinging up onto her horse, she let her gaze fall one last time on these men. "Today we create legends for our grandchildren to recite. Be sure to be included in the roster of the heroes." With the click of her tongue, her horse took off, heading toward the next encampment.
At the start of the road which led to the Sepian Pass, Brutus stood beside four horsemen. "Find out if that Greek spoke the truth. If so, I want to know exactly what is waiting for us out there. You have three candlemarks. Go!" Slapping one horse on the flank, he watched his soldiers ride off.
"I dont see why I cant wear what I had on before," Gabrielle protested, feeling extremely self-conscious.
"If you are to be Queen, you must look like a Queen as you lead them into battle." Clymera adjusted the strap on the ceremonial outfit and looked at the young woman appraisingly. I think she might have a few more ready followers with this outfit. The Queens new clothing consisted of a low slung and high cut leather skirt, revealing legs which only hinted at their prior injuries, and a top which enhanced already ample attributes. Slightly obscuring the view was a plethora of bead and stone necklaces signifying rank and membership in the Amazon Nation. Clymera glanced over at Eponin who was clearly having some difficulties formulating words. With a widening of her eyes, she urged the army commander to speak.
"My Queen, you look like a true Amazon." It was the best she could say. Anything more might frighten the girl, and she didnt want that. Eponin had been more than a little surprised to find the garments the young woman had been wearing had concealed such a beautiful figure.
It was at that moment Solari returned to report on the armys readiness. She stopped, took in the change, nodded approvingly, and then reported. "My Queen, the children, the nursing mothers, the teachers and the elders are being seen to. What is your next command?"
Gabrielle took in a deep breath and considered. "Summon the warriors and the healers. We have much to go over with them."
The arms convoy proceeded slowly up the southern route, ascending toward the pass. The procession consisted of four heavy, covered wagons, the wood of each strained from the weight of the arms. Each wagon was pulled by a team of four horses who were lathered from exertion due to the incline and the weight of their load. In addition, the Ephesian climate was warm even in early spring and the day had dawned bright and clear, providing no protection from Helios above.
Preceding each wagon was a squadron of twenty armed soldiers on foot and four soldiers on horseback. Altogether, one hundred Roman soldiers were escorting the precious cargo. Riding ahead of them were three advance scouts. They had started along the southern route a candlemark before the rest, making sure the road was clear of the kind of welcome the Conqueror had in mind for them.
This trade route had long been a favorite among Ephesian bandits. The road was narrow and steep as it led up into the Prion mountains, making for tired men and horses. At the top of the mountains, the Sepian Pass had long proved to be deadly to traders. The road flared slightly but went through a break in the mountain range, creating a narrow tube for travel, exposed to attack from above and always at the mercy of what might be waiting around the next bend in the road. In the pass, the only options available were to go forward, to retreat, or to climb the rock face.
The Conquerors men were under strict orders to leave the advance troop unmolested until they were clear of the pass. Once they were a quarter candlemark out, she had men positioned to ambush them. This would allow her troops the small amount of time they needed to converge on the canyon, ready to seal off the ends once the quarry was contained within its length. Her archers above would then rain down arrows to kill a significant number of Caesars men. After that, it would be a small task for her foot soldiers to go in among the living and finish the job.
Ah, Caesar, do you feel me nipping at your heels yet? I cant wait for you to feel me when I have a blade at your throat. I will look into your eyes as I draw my sword across your exposed skin and I will laugh as the last breath leaves your body. Your tree of death did not kill me, but it did bear the fruit of revenge.
The Conquerors body thrummed with excitement as she waited atop the precipice. She watched the last of the scouts enter the open country and waited for the signal that they had been eliminated. It would have been more reassuring to have Palaemon and Cefan with her coordinating the upcoming attack, but she had instructed Charis in her duties and Xena herself was with the main force. It might not be an ideal situation, but she was confident that her victory was assured.
The sun warmed her back, loosening the muscles restrained under the armor, warming them for the upcoming fight. Caesars defeat will be soon. Just as that thought crossed her mind, Xena realized things were desperately wrong.
A flash of light caught in her peripheral vision drew her attention to the southwest. There she saw what she estimated to be another hundred Roman soldiers climbing up the hillside ready to engage her soldiers. The fact they had come from that direction told Xena the Romans had been tipped off as to her plans. She and her men were perfectly concealed among the crags and crevices surrounding the pass if one approached from the road.
With Roman forces ascending the road and the hillside, her troops were effectively trapped, their only choices to descend down into the plain and fight or descend into the pass and fight. If she brought all of her troops down to engage this latest force opposing her, the arms convoy would slip from her grasp. If she went ahead with her attack, her back would be exposed to the soldiers coming from behind her. If she split her troops, she risked losing both the convoy and her men.
She did not like any of her options. Her mind tried to war with itself, attempting to assess blame for this knowledge of the Romans, going through the likely suspects Gabrielle, Palaemon, the Proconsul, Salmoneus, even Cefan, though she had left her for dead. She shook her head violently, dislodging such thoughts. They were unproductive and uninstructive in this instant. Once she survived, she could punish the offender. And she would. Now she had to lead her men to a harder victory than anticipated.
Glancing eastward, the Conqueror noted that the signal from her squad assigned to overtake the scouts had not been seen yet. Something had gone awry there as well. With no method of contacting her troops along the lower part of the trail, the ones assigned to prevent retreat of the convoy, Xena had only one hundred men to effectively command against a known force of two hundred. A force coming at her from two directions that included a caravan with more than sufficient arms for responding to an attack.
The Conqueror grabbed the leather armor of a young soldier beside her. "I want you to go over to where the second squadron is and tell Charis that she is in charge of the attack on the convoy. She has only her squadron and the third squadron to command. I am taking the rest of the troops to the southwestern plain. Caesar is attacking us from behind. She is to not let the arms escape. Do you understand?" At the mans nod, she shoved him on his way. Charis squadron was on the far side of the crevice, safe from the second Roman force, and still concealed from the arms convoy.
Xena turned her attention back to the troops approaching from below. She had three squadrons remaining to defeat the larger force. She had another three squadrons further down the road, waiting to close in behind Caesar and another two at the far end of the Pass, who, if they were keeping according to schedule, should be sealing the end at that moment.
Casting her gaze around the men with her, the Conqueror tried to find the youngest and leanest. Spying an archer in light armor, she gestured for him. "Can you run fast, soldier?"
"I won the prize in the Corinthian games last year, my liege."
"Good. Heres your new course: I want you to run down the hillside until you reach Kaipher, the squadron leader. Tell him to move his men immediately to the southwest and to join me on the battlefield there."
The young soldiers eyes grew wide as he understood what his assignment entailed. He would have to run either around or straight through the oncoming arms convoy. One well timed and well placed arrow would end his race. "Yes, my liege."
Xena grasped his shoulder in a tight hold and ducked her head to meet his gaze directly. "When we return to Greece victorious, I will personally give you a laurel of gold."
The fear in his eyes fled in the presence of her confidence. "I will be honored, my liege. I will not fail you."
"Your comrades and I are counting on that. Go now!" The young man took off running without a glance behind him. To the other soldiers remaining, she let her ice blue gaze drift over them. "Tell me, how many Roman soldiers equal one Greek?"
A sergeant in her Royal Guard spat on a rock, the sound loud in the silence. "Ten Romans arent worth even one of us, my liege."
"The rest of you men agree with that?" A chorus of assent greeted her ears. "Good. Then this will be an easy battle." She gestured to where the second Roman force could now clearly be seen approaching. "Seems Caesar knows we are here. So we will go down and stop his battle dogs. Agnon, your squadron is with me. Mentecles and Graphon, you will be right and left flank. Let no one escape. Charis and her troops will stop the convoy. And we will celebrate the total defeat of Caesar and his men." At the end of her speech, the Conqueror drew her sword, the metal singing as it was set from its leather confines.
Soon the air around her was filled with a chorus of metal being released into the open air, accompanied by bursts of light as the sun struck the metal. Gesturing with her sword, the Conqueror divided the troops and began her descent to meet those who would oppose her.
Within her veins, the blood rushed wildly, bringing warmth to extremities. Her fingers felt alive with the battle, grasping on the sword with confidence born of many victories The pommel seemed a mere extension of her hand, as if flesh and metal were molded together in her mothers womb. It had always been so for the Conqueror. Never had she dropped her weapon, never had it left her hands involuntarily. No man had ever beaten her in a fight, and she knew none ever would. It was her destiny to rule Greece, to rule Rome, to rule every place she set her heart and mind to rule. There was nothing that could deny her the vision she had. There was no one who would ever deny her dreams. Caesar had tried before. And all he had accomplished was to give life to a more dangerous opponent, a woman whose will had been forged much like the spikes that had been driven through her cross. The cross that had been intended to signify her death, had instead signified her birth. She was pure will, as Lao Ma had rightly acknowledged.
Leading her men into battle she knew that it would take all her will to win the day. Her men were scattered, unable to support one another. Her original plan of drawing Caesar tightly into a deadly embrace was foiled. She was forced to expand her men in order to meet his challenge.
When she was a hundred paces away from the first attack wave, she paused atop a small rise and raised her sword high above her head. Standing still in the sunlight she saw the array before her. Experience would have taught a lesser general to falter, because she could now see what had been hidden from view during her descent from the pass: another hundred Roman troops in reserve. Their commander had skillfully drawn her out. Had she known it would be two hundred men to her sixty, she would have chosen to descend into the Pass, sealing it off and waiting to strike the arms convoy as it moved closer to Syria.
She could feel fear rising in the men behind her. Without a backward glance, she swung her sword in a tight arc above her head. "Pick your ten men and teach them what a Greek soldier can do when challenged." With a cry, she launched herself forward and ran into the embrace of the battle. Her men shouted and rushed forward as well.
The Conqueror knew that her first kill was important in any battle. As she raced toward the fray, she chose her victim: the most prominent of the front line soldiers. The Roman stood a head taller than his comrades and he wore a cape of scarlet. Xena was disappointed because it would make it harder for his peers to see his lifeblood poured out on it. To effectively make her point she would have to decapitate him, she decided, then there would be no mistaking her presence among them.
Focused solely on her intended victim, the Conqueror moved with assurance over the landscape. Other Romans were angling towards her, but she paid none of them any attention. If they made it within her striking distance, they would be as dead as the soldier who wore the scarlet cape.
It was her sword against his that brought in the sounds of the battle. Delivering a series of high strikes, intending to throw him off balance, she bore down on him using her advantage of fighting slightly downhill. He moved quickly and blocked the blows, but had to take a short step backward to do so. This step cost him good position and the Conqueror exploited it by kicking him squarely in the knee. They both heard the crunch of the bone underneath the leg armor. His knee buckled, unable to support any weight, and as he collapsed, Xena made a reverse sweep with her sword and severed his head cleanly.
Warm blood cascaded onto her thighs and boots, some of the sticky fluid flowing down her legs underneath her own leg armor. She bent down and grabbed the helmet still secured underneath the chin of its newly dead owner. Hefting up the remains, causing more blood to spill out and trace paths down her left arm, she hurled the severed member into the next line of advancing Romans.
Once again, she chose her next victim. Ahead was a woman bearing ritual scarring which signified her as an Amazon from Northern Greece. Xena felt her blood boil at the thought of any Greek raising arms against her. That she was an Amazon and fighting under Caesars banner only made her angrier.
The woman felt the Conquerors attention. This was the moment she had awaited, the reason why she had allowed herself to be sold into Romes service. All Greece knew of the Conquerors hatred for Caesar. It was inevitable that one day Greek and Roman soldiers would clash. It was Amaris desire to be the one to kill the woman who had destroyed her village.
"Artemis, preserve me!" Amari shouted and engaged the one she hated most in the world.
Xena laughed, knowing petition the gods to be a useless exercise. They aided only on a whim, never in need. If the Amazon needed Artemis to preserve her, the Amazon was standing atop her own grave.
Soon the sound of their exchange of blows joined with those around them. Xenas heightened senses could tell that her men were suffering loss, as most were outnumbered four to one on the field. Many of the Romans were simply surrounding one of her men and taking him down, then advancing on to the next soldier. Those of her men who were surviving were members of her Royal Guard, who had been trained to fight back-to-back and shoulder-to-shoulder with their squadron. It was the Macedonian contingent who were being killed swiftly on the field. She made a mental note to make sure Charis taught them proper fighting skills when they returned home. At least, to those who were left.
A glancing blow to her left shoulder forced her mind back solely on her opponent. Pain had always served as a reminder of the present in battle. The scars later served as a reminder of victory, and a warning to not let her attention drift.
"A Greek fighting against Greece?" Xena sneered over their crossed swords.
Amari shook her head, "A Greek fighting for Greece, finishing what Caesar started."
"What Caesar started," Xena countered, keeping her opponent distracted, "was rage." With a flick of her left wrist, Xena tossed a dagger into the womans throat.
Grasping at the weapon, the Amazon created a larger wound as she tore the dagger from her flesh. She fell to the ground, clutching her neck, coughing out blood and she tried to spit out words of hatred.
Xena moved past her, finding the next Roman who was to die.
The scene that was laid before Gabrielles eyes staggered her. The Conquerors troops were divided and being swarmed by the Romans. There were two battle sites, one on the road and one in the southwestern plain. Neither looked good for the Conquerors troops, many of her soldiers had fallen.
On the plain, the Conqueror and a small band of her men had retreated partially up the hillside. The Romans were going among the wounded on the field and carrying the Romans downhill to their healers. It was obvious the battle would resume as soon as this task was complete.
On the road, the battle continued. Both armies had archers up on the canyon walls, making it difficult for hand-to-hand combat. A few skirmishes could be seen, but were soon broken apart by arrows. More Greeks than Romans littered the path and Gabrielles heart hurt for the men and women she had been traveling with.
Gabrielle turned to Palaemon. "How can we help her?"
The Captain considered the one hundred twenty Amazon warriors with them. "Well start by taking out the Roman rear guard. Then well divide and give support to the two forces." He looked at Eponin for her acceptance of this plan. She gave a brief nod. "Thats what well do then."
As the Amazons began to march toward the battlefield, Gabrielle grabbed hold of Eponins upper arm, pulling the commander to a halt. "Do they understand that they are not to harm the Conqueror? That we are here to help her?"
"My Queen," Eponin responded and she gestured to the women filing around them, "these are trained and honorable warriors. If their Queen gives them a command, they will obey it, on pain of death. She will not be harmed, because you are protecting her."
Gabrielle nodded, "Okay then, as long as they know that." Without further discussion, the new Queen fell into step with her troops.
Xena moved among the eighteen of her men who were still fit for battle. Each bore the physical testaments of a hard day of fighting. She tried not to think of the betrayal which had caused this loss of her men, it would only disrupt her focus. Seeing that the Romans were almost finished clearing the field, she stood in the midst of her soldiers and wiped the blood off her blade as best she could.
"Well, the fewer the soldiers, the greater the share of honor for each of us." With a backward sweep of her sword, she indicated the field. "We will all bear the marks of todays battle. And we will proudly display those scars when we are old and telling tales for our children." She met each of their eyes, willing her confidence into them. Today is not my day to die, I know it. Today is my day for something great. "Your children will know the names of those who fought here today. The story of our victory will be told to our children and to their children, and we shall be remembered. We few shall be remembered. The soldiers who are not with us today will be envious of our glory and they will curse the gods they were not here by our side. Yet we wouldnt want to share this victory with them. For what type of victory would an overwhelming force be? But today you can stand and take your place in the hall of heroes. Today you can prove you were a soldier born. Today you can earn the right to be called a Friend of Greece, a friend of mine, a soldier with rights and privileges born of sweat and blood. My mothers sons are all dead. But you can be my brothers when you fight beside me to victory."
"Victory!" Agnon shouted, jumping to his feet, alive with new energy.
"For the Conqueror!" Mentecles proclaimed.
"Glory!" Graphon exclaimed, swinging his blade through the air, cutting down imaginary Romans.
"Death to Rome!" Xena commanded as she led their renewed attack on the Roman forces.
Palaemon and Eponin advanced side by side through the ranks of men opposing them. Their fighting styles lent themselves to an easy teamwork Eponin was wild and fierce, always looking for her next conquest; Palaemon was methodical and determined, finding the corridor through the battle to the other side.
The rest of the Amazons threw themselves into the fray with abandon. They seemed to forget it was the Destroyer of Nations they were aiding. Instead, they were caught up in the bloodlust. The Amazon warriors had been inactive for far too long a time. The threat to the Nation was minimal in Ephesus, the site of Artemis temple. During the time of peace, Terreis had prepared them for war. This was the first true test of their preparedness, they would not shame her memory.
Quickly the rear guard of the Romans was destroyed, the soldiers not expecting an attack, believing their only enemy to be engaged. Their arrogance proved to be their downfall, as each member of the squadron lay bloodied on the field.
The Amazon war party moved forward and split, with half the warriors going down to the plain, the other half going up the path to the Sepian Pass. Eponin led the downward charge, sensing that the battle was fiercest there. She had vowed as commander of the Amazon army to never send one of her sisters into a battle she was afraid to fight.
Hearing the cries up along the path, Xenas gaze shifted in that direction. It was then she saw the Amazons arrayed around her, half marching on her forces near the Pass, the other half coming down to engage her.
Bending down she wrenched a spear from a dead Romans hands and prepared to launch it into the lead Amazon approaching her men. She knew it was always to her advantage to draw first blood and claim supremacy from the beginning. She cocked her arm back and balanced the spear carefully, taking aim. Just as she was about to release it, she spotted Palaemons figure among the Amazons.
Palaemon saw the Conqueror at the same moment and knew instantly what her plan was. He knew that it would very likely mean a revolt of the Amazons against their new Queen if the object of their help starting killing one of them. Quickly, he raised his left fist to his chest, hit it twice, and then pointed to the Conqueror. It was an old signal in the Royal Guard and signified allegiance to the Conqueror. He prayed that Xena would trust him.
His actions caused the Conqueror to pause. Keeping aim on the forward Amazon she waited to see who the woman would cross the field to engage. If she had even the slightest motion toward her men, she would be spitted.
Eponin could feel the energy of the battle flowing into her. Her strong legs propelled her quickly down into the plain and ever closer to the Roman forces. The Conqueror had less than a score of men still fighting, the others dead or wounded. But Im about to even the odds, Eponin gloated as she let loose a primal scream and ran toward the first Roman unlucky enough to be in her path. He had no hope of countering her overwhelming attack, and was soon lying on the battlefield, his hands briefly and desperately trying to put his insides back where they belonged.
Suddenly, she felt the air move beside her arm and then heard the sound of splitting flesh as a spear impaled a Roman who had come up behind her. Glancing across the field, she saw the Destroyer lift her sword in salute. Eponin knew it was the generals way of welcoming the Amazons as allies in the battle, although she hated being in debt to the ruler. In response, she raised her own sword, then plunged it into the next on-coming Roman. It looked to be a good day for fighting.
Atop the hillside, Clymera was barely able to restrain Gabrielle from going down to the battlefield. "My Queen, we need to remain here. The Nation derives strength from being able to see its Queen."
"They should see me down there," Gabrielle growled, her eyes constantly tracking the movements of the Conqueror.
"My Queen," Clymera said gently, putting a slim arm around the younger womans shoulders, "you are not a warrior. What good would it do you, or us, if you went down there? Stand here; acknowledge your warriors, decide whom to give special honor to at the victory celebration tonight, and be an Amazon leader. In time, we can teach you to be a warrior. But not today."
"She must live," Gabrielle whispered.
"My Queen, I have seen her in battle before, there is none her equal." The priestess voice wavered with emotion, her mind providing images of the last time she had seen Xena in combat, her bondmates blood fresh on her sword.
Green eyes fixed on the priestess. "Do you hate me for having the Amazons help her? You saw her in battle when she fought against you, right?"
The priestess nodded gravely. "I did. I watched her destroy several of our villages. We retreated from our northern lands only to find her attacking our western villages. Then we barely made it to our eastern villages and across the Aegean to Ephesus before she killed us all. My bondmate was badly injured in the last battle. She never healed correctly. Xena killed her, it just took a little while."
"Im so sorry."
Clymera nodded and patted Gabrielles hand gently. "I have learned that to hate is to do more damage to myself than the person I hate. I will not dishonor Kalias memory in such a way. I still hope that she will be the one to welcome me to Elysia. But, I will admit that the visions of you defeating her did not make me unhappy."
"Its only natural, Clymera. I wont defeat her, though. I dont even want to try." Gabrielle let her gaze wander down to the Conqueror. She watched in silence as Xena defended herself against two Roman officers.
"Wars are sometimes won without weapons," Clymera whispered.
With the help of the Amazons, the Romans were losing on the plain. The Romans favored the short sword, designed to pierce through gaps in armor more easily. The Amazons shunned armor of most kind, so they fought mostly with the longsword, staves and spears. This advantage translated into few Amazons being injured on the battlefield and Romans falling by the dozen.
When she saw that the plain conflict was in hand, Xena sheathed her sword and began running up the path where that conflict still raged. Her muscles burned with exhaustion, but she knew she must battle on and be with her soldiers. Apollo had past his midpoint in the sky giving her hope that the fight might soon be over.
She scrambled up the mountainside and threw herself down by one of her officers. She assessed the situation quickly. The Romans had used the physical space to their best advantage, using the wagons as cover, and their content as an unlimited supply of arrows and weapons. They were safe from an overhead attack, the shields of the soldiers turned up into a canopy. The only option was a full-frontal assault. One that would result in many Greek and Amazon deaths. Otherwise, it was a stand-off. Xenas men kept them in place from their vantage point on the precipice. The Amazons had cordoned off the path.
"Wheres Charis?" she asked as her breathing returned to normal.
The officer dipped his head and pointed into the pass below them. There on the ground was sprawled Charis body. "My liege, she went down to clear out a path for us."
Xena saw the arrows which impaled the body below and blew out a breath of frustration. If only I had had Palaemon with me earlier. If only I hadnt listened to Cefan and tried to kill him. And Gabrielle. Gabrielle. Suddenly, it occurred to Xena that if the Amazons and Palaemon were here, then Gabrielle must be as well. Carefully, she scanned the hillside until she spotted the fair-haired figure. She hardly recognized the young woman as she was dressed in the ceremonial outfit of the queen of the Amazons. Shes breathtaking. And shes staring right at me. Yeah, right; gods, Xena, get a grip. You cant really tell wheres she looking. Yet the intuitive part of her brain knew she was the object of the young Queens attention. And it made her want to end the battle all the sooner.
The part that Xena had always associated within herself with Ares suddenly sprang to life. The weariness that had been present moments before vanished and was replaced by a relentless energy, an energy that required Roman blood to survive. She turned to the officer beside her and grabbed a handful of his leathers. "Im going down and opening that path right now. Ready the men to follow me."
The man looked at her with profound relief. "Yes, my liege." He scrambled off to rally the men.
"Caesar, you will never defeat me again." Stepping back four paces from the edge, Xena ran the short distance and executed a series of flips as she plummeted to the path some several bodylengths below. Her legs bending to absorb the shock, she pushed off the soles of her feet and began sprinting for the nearest wagon, moving in a criss-cross pattern. As arrows began flying towards her, she drew her sword and sliced them easily, never breaking her focus on her target.
Two bodylengths away, she threw her body into the air and willed herself higher and higher, up over the wagon and crashing down through the shields arrayed to provide protection from airborne assault. The structure collapsed under her and she clambered over the metal and back onto the path. Once she was out of the way, her archers above began raining arrows down on the exposed Roman soldiers. The first wagon was defeated in short order.
Xena continued down the path toward the second wagon, but stopped in amusement as she watched a small Amazon curl up into a ball and drop herself on the shields much as she had just done. Once the warrior had broken through, another dozen Amazons descended, overwhelming the Romans.
Her soldiers, emboldened by her solitary assault, rushed along the path and attacked the two remaining wagons. Soon, all Xena could hear was the sound of her soldiers weapons meeting no resistance as they sliced through Roman armor.
Wandering over to one of the wagons, the Conqueror wiped her sword off with a remnant of the cover, then let her blade slide safely into its sheath. She jogged back up the road until she arrived by Charis. Kneeling beside her officer, she noted the rise and fall of Charis chest.
"I need a healer!" Xena barked at a nearby soldier. "Bring me a healer immediately!" Then she turned back to the young leader and ran a hand through the womans hair. "Just hold on, Charis, were gonna get you some help."
Responding to the voice and touch, the officer opened her eyes and met the Conquerors gaze. "Is the day ours?"
"The day is ours. And you will live, hear me? These scars will prove you fought in Ephesus, and made Caesar look foolish." It was true, as long as Charis had not lost too much blood, the arrows had not pierced through any vital areas.
"Thank you, my liege."
The soldier returned pulling an angry Amazon with him. "This is a healer, my liege."
The Conqueror rose from beside her fallen officer, "See that she lives. Shes a good soldier, I should have all of them so brave."
Aria scowled, but bent down to do her work.
Xena began walking among her troops, taking account of who lived, who was injured and who had fallen. When she came upon the body of the young runner, she stopped and picked him up in her arms. Cradling the lifeless form, she carried him to where the bodies of the fallen Greeks were being gathered. To the soldier who was taking note of the dead soldiers names, Xena gestured. "Do you know his name?"
The soldier nodded, "He was Salorer, my liege."
"Make note that his family is to receive a laurel of gold." She watched as the soldier inscribed her order on his notes. "Who else did I lose?"
While he recited the names of the fallen, Xena stared at the bodies lying at her feet. Several she could not have identified, the bodies mangled by sharp metal. To those she recognized, she vowed to kill their betrayer. Someone had told Caesars men of her plot and caused over one hundred thirty of her men to die. All would have been lost, perhaps even herself, if Gabrielle and her Amazons not appeared.
Gabrielle. At least it wasnt Gabrielle.
"Conqueror, we have the leader of the Romans!" Palaemon shouted as he roughly handled his prisoner, pushing him down on his knees before the Greek ruler. Brutus struggled against his bonds and tried to rise to his feet, but Palaemons strong hand on his shoulder prevented any such movement.
Xenas eyes grew dark as she stalked over to the man and surveyed him. He was small and curly-headed, two things she never liked in a man. The fact that he was Roman and a confidant of Caesars made it all the worse. His robes, crimson and gold, were tattered and soiled from the battle, and his armor did not have the luster she suspected he maintained it at. Bending on one knee she captured his eyes. "Who?"
He didnt need to inquire as to what she meant. She wanted the name of the one who had betrayed her. Brutus decided it would be better to spend an eternity in Tartarus than to give her this satisfaction, so he said nothing.
"Youre Brutus, arent you?" she asked, continuing her survey of the man, deciding on her approach. "Ive heard of you. Youre Caesars pet. His lap dog. You go when he says go, come if he says come. Does he tell you when you can relieve yourself?"
The dark eyes staring at her became darker still, suffused with hatred.
"Id never treat my second that way." Xena rose to her full height and looked directly at Palaemon. "Id honor a man who could think and would be willing to take a stand for what he believed in."
At this, Brutus snorted. "Youd tolerate treason? I think not."
"Never. But I do want someone who will give me honest advice, even if I dont want to hear it." Xena shrugged dramatically, "However, that is a role that must be earned from prior faithful service. Such a privilege, to speak to Greece, cannot be given lightly. Im sure Caesar feels the same."
"I have Caesars ear."
Xena chuckled, "I would like to have it as well. On my wall."
"He will destroy you, despite this minor setback. I am sure of it."
"And what if he does?" Pleased that Brutus pride was at record levels, she started with her next line of argument. "Where would that leave Rome?"
"No, Rome would not be supreme; Caesar would be. Or dont you see that?" Xena bent down behind him, her voice and breath coming over his shoulder, tickling his ear. "If Caesar defeats me, Caesar will be invincible. Ask yourself if that is a good thing. What has he done for Rome as ruler? He has brought you to foreign soil where you wage wars. Why? To increase his glory. He had conscripted most of your young men into the army. Why? To fight those wars that increase his glory. He has instituted harsh new taxes. Why? To pay for those soldiers who fight the wars that increase his glory. Its all about Caesar. He cares nothing for Rome except for how it serves him." When she did not hear any objections from Brutus, she smiled and stalked around to his front. "Now, tell me, who told you of my plans for today?"
The Conquerors eyes narrowed dangerously. "I will ask that question a total of ten times, do you understand me?" Nodding to Palaemon, her Captain grabbed the ropes binding the Romans hands and lifted them up before her.
Moving slowly so that the Roman would realize all that she intended to do to him, she removed her breast dagger. She stared at the blade, covered with blood and gore as she knew she was, and twisted it in the sunlight, studying its length. Xena reached out and grabbed hold of his index finger and put the blade to its base. The cool metal rested there momentarily, letting him know he could stop its movement at any time by giving her the answer she desired.
"Who?" Silence met her and she shrugged, "Well, its not my sword hand." She began pressing the blade into his skin, carving under the base of the finger to sever it.
"Ce- something!" Brutus exclaimed when she was a third of the way through his finger, the pain agonizing as she slowly made the cut. "I cant remember the last of it. She was Egyptian and an officer in your army." Suddenly Brutus was quite certain it was not worth the price of his finger to withhold this information.
She wiped the blood from the blade on his cheek, a long trail of wet warmth. "Caesar would have left this field with no fingers, Im glad you have more sense than him," she whispered. Standing she spotted two of her soldiers, "Chain this man and guard him. I will deal with him later."
As they took Brutus away, Xena extended her arm to Palaemon. "Captain, good to see you."
Palaemon took her arm, "My liege, I await your command."
"Secure the area, burn their dead, prepare ours for burial on Greek soil and put down any of the lame horses." She rattled off her standard set of orders at the conclusion of a battle. "And calculate the tribute."
"It will be done, my liege." Palaemon bowed and set off to oversee the tasks given to him. He could feel a swagger return to his steps as he left the Conquerors presence as her Captain of the Royal Guard.
At the end of the afternoon, after seeing to all the captured Romans and taking a quick inventory of the arms, Xena began walking toward the temporary hospice. Since spotting Gabrielle during the battle, she had not seen her since. Her men had needed her, the Romans needed to be interrogated and arrangements made for the transport of the arms to her boat. She was the Conqueror and not some young poet in love, she reminded herself firmly, whenever the desire to run find the young woman threatened to overwhelm her.
Now, as Helios rays were bleeding over the horizon, she could deny herself Gabrielles gentle presence no longer. She felt the weariness of the battle deep within her, weighing her down as she walked across the field.
From under the tent, Gabrielle glanced up and saw the Conqueror walking toward her. Leaving the soldier she had been tending, she stepped out into the last of the sunlight and began moving in Xenas direction. It was as if time stood still. She could no longer hear the sounds of the Amazon and Greek soldiers as they went about cleaning up after the conflict. She could no longer feel the terrible anxiety which had gripped her heart since the morning when she first saw the battle scene. It was as if everyone and everything had disappeared and all that continued to exist was her and Xena. She took inventory of the ruler, making sure she was well, fearful that some of the blood which coated the tanned skin came from her own veins. Gabrielle stopped in the middle of the plain and waited.
The suns rays painted the oracles body in interesting patterns. A body which was more exposed than ever before to the ruler, who was appreciative of the view. She smiled at the sight of the fair hair turned crimson in the dying light and the green eyes which matched the grass beneath her feet. Finally arriving several feet from Gabrielle, Xena did what she had never done before she knelt before another person.
Gabrielle gasped at the sight. Her immediate thought was that the Conqueror had been injured. She took a step closer and took inventory of cuts, scrapes, bruises and massive quantities of blood. None seemed to be bad enough to drive the woman to her knees. "Are you hurt?" Gabrielle whispered, reaching a hand out to touch Xenas hair.
At the touch, Xena shook her head. "Can you forgive me?"
"I understood why you reacted the way you did. Theres no need for forgiveness."
Xena shook her head harder and reached out a long arm, snaking it around Gabrielles legs, drawing her closer. "No, for this," she whispered as her hand trailed down the length of Gabrielles legs.
With the feel of Xenas hand on her, Gabrielle shivered. "I already have, long ago." Gently she reached down and cupped Xenas jaw, turning her face upward. "The cross was a tree of life for me, Xena," she spoke the Conquerors name for the first time. "It brought me to you."
Xena swallowed hard and forced herself to ask her next question, "Can you love me?" A thousand battles had not prepared her for the fear she felt in uttering those words.
Gabrielle smiled tenderly, "I already do." Her small hand caressed the Conquerors cheek not minding the dirt and blood.
A strangled sound emitted from the Conqueror and her arms flew around Gabrielles body, pulling the smaller woman close to her, burying her face in the soft skin of Gabrielles stomach, sighing in contentment when she felt Gabrielles arms close around her.
It could have been an eternity that they stayed in that position for all Xena knew or cared. She had a taste of the Fields in her arms, in the gentle pattern of Gabrielles breathing, in the softness of the skin beneath her cheek, in the hidden strength of the body pulled tightly against her. The weariness of the battle was banished from her in Gabrielles presence, she felt only peace.
"Come on, lets get you looked at," the oracle whispered, not wanting to disturb the moment, but unwilling to allow Xena to not be treated for any of her wounds.
"Im fine," came the muffled reply which tickled more than Gabrielle anticipated.
Gabrielle looked down at her hands which were now stained from the blood covering the Conqueror. "Then whose blood is all of this?"
"Not mine. At least, not most of it." Xena shifted slightly, dropping her hands to the back of Gabrielles thighs, relishing how the younger womans body molded against hers.
"Thank the gods." She rocked her hips gently, "Come on now, lets get you looked at and then lets go home."
"I have a lot to do before I can leave Ephesus. Not the least of which is decide what to do with your Amazons."
"Hmm," the smile was evident in the tone of Gabrielles voice, "I figured you would start by thanking them."
The Conqueror sat back on her heels and looked up at the young woman, "Can I just thank their Queen? Can she accept my gratitude on behalf of her Nation?" Xena allowed a smile to play at the corners of her mouth, the first one to grace her visage in days.
"Well, she could, but a certain ruler I know would never accept that offer. She would want the grateful helpee to speak to her Nation on her own behalf. Especially since that Queen cannot abide the thought that her Nation might not have the same regard for the helpee as she has."
Xena couldnt help it, she burst out laughing. "I have no idea what you just said. You lost me after the helpee of the first part stuff," she managed to say between fits of laughter.
The Amazon Queen smiled indulgently, "What I said is that you should thank them personally. Is that clear enough?" She held out her hand, "Please, lets get you looked at and cleaned up a bit."
The Conqueror looked over herself and took note of the bits of blood, bone, hair and assorted body parts that littered her body. It would take days before her leathers and armor would be clean enough to wear again. "Im not very nice to look at right now, eh?"
"No, youre beautiful to look at youre alive and whole, just the way I like you."
Xena took the offered hand and pushed herself to her feet. "I plan on staying that way for a long time, Gabrielle. I promise."
"Good," the oracle settled her hand more securely within the Conquerors own. "Time to face the Nation, Conqueror."
Concluded in Part VIII
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