When I was a teenager, a warlord named Cortese attacked my home village of Amphipolis. This violent act shaped my life and gave it a purpose. I vowed that I would rid Greece of the ruthless warlords and their roving bands of thugs.
It went wrong somewhere along the line. Events led me away from that goal, and I became the very thing I despised. Twelve years of roaming the world killing and plundering, and I thought I had everything I wanted. Then one day, I realised I was destined to rule an empire, not live in a dirty tent surrounded by a rag-tag bunch of mercenaries and no-hopers.
If my plans of conquering all of Greece were to be realised, I needed troops who were well trained and loyal, men who would fight and die for me and not just for my gold. It took nearly a year before I had a strong and loyal army capable of fighting for a country rather than their next meal. And once I did, I set out to conquer Greece.
It was in the spring of that year, in Chalcidice near the village of Potidaea, that I met Gabrielle. Our first encounter was, to say the least, memorable. I was in my command tent talking with Braextus, a commander in my army.
"How would you like to run Larissa for me?" I asked.
He gave me a suspicious look. "What's the catch?"
"No catch," I replied.
Braextus had been with me a long time. He was about twenty years older than me and had retired from the fighting business six years ago to settle down and raise a family. When he heard about my plans for Greece, he picked up his sword and joined me again.
"There's always a catch with you," he said with a chuckle.
That was one thing about Braextus I liked, he was not afraid to joke with me. He had always treated me with respect, but never out of fear or awe like some of my soldiers. And for that, he earned my appreciation. While his prowess on the battlefield was not what it once was he liked his drink a little too much and his uniform was tight across his stomach Braextus knew how to manage the logistics of a large army, and that made him the best choice to govern Thessalia for me. Besides, it meant he could settle down with his family and still serve me.
"The catch is I want you to oversee Larissa for me. It's a strategically important city, and I need someone I can trust to" I was interrupted by raised voices outside. "What is going on out there?" I stood up and stalked out of the tent to find out the cause of the disturbance.
And there she was, this scrawny yet spirited girl with long blonde hair, surrounded by a rowdy pack of my soldiers. She was holding them at bay with feigned hand-combat movements. The boldness of this young woman both amused and intrigued me. I could see she was in over her head and felt compelled to come to her rescue.
Just the sight of me coming towards them was enough to quickly disperse the group of soldiers. Gabrielle turned around and was surprised by my presence.
"Hey, watch where you point those things!" she cried.
I think she was referring to my breasts, which were about level with her face. The thought of my breasts being a dangerous weapon almost made me laugh out loud. I struggled to keep the smirk off my face and maintain a menacing stare. I made some quip about her threatening my army, and then I turned and walked away. I expected her to have the good sense to go home to whatever village she came from.
I couldn't believe my ears when I heard this impudent young pup call after me and boldly inform me that she wanted to join my army.
"Why would a slip of a girl like you want to join my army? Shouldn't you be out marrying a farmer or something?" I found myself asking. I wasn't expecting the answer she gave me.
"I was meant to do so much more than be a farmer's wife. A travelling seer once told me I was fated to meet a mighty warrior who was destined to unite a land in turmoil. This warrior is going to change the world, and I am supposed to help this warrior. Greece is just such a land its people starving, threatened, enslaved. I believe you are that warrior, General Xena, and I am here to help you."
By the gods, this girl was audacious or crazy walking into my encampment and boldly telling me that she was going to help me! What possible help could she be to me? I thought. Still, her arguments were persuasive, and against my better judgement, I found myself offering her a position as my personal assistant. I'd never had a personal assistant before servants and slaves, yes but never a personal assistant. I wasn't even sure what a personal assistant would do.
Later that evening, Darnell and I met to discuss the day's events over a glass of port.
Darnell was easily the best fighter under my command. Though a tall man, taller even than myself, he didn't appear to be a big man. He was perfectly proportioned for his height and his trim body disguised his considerable strength. He also knew how to think on his feet and adopt a strategy during the heat of battle. Making him my second-in-command was an easy choice, and I trusted him to take care of the recruiting.
"How is the recruitment going?" I inquired.
"Not a bad lot," Darnell replied. He stroked his close-cropped beard as he spoke. "We should soon be able to knock them into shape."
"Did you see to Lucon's punishment and instruct the men to treat my new personal assistant with respect?"
"Yes." Darnell hesitated a moment. "May I speak freely?"
"Are you going to keep that girl around?" he asked.
"Do you have a problem with her?" My tone was somewhat defensive.
"No, no problem," Darnell replied instantly. "It's just that you haven't had a personal assistant before."
"I decided it was about time I had one."
"There's something about her her spirit."
"Oh, yeah. I noticed her 'spirit' too." The commander raised his eyebrows and chuckled.
I caught his meaning and was quick to deny it. "That's not the reason. Besides, she's not my type."
He tilted his head and gave me a disbelieving stare. Darnell knew that my sexual appetite was often sated by young women. I answered his look. "This is strictly professional. If I am going to build an empire, I'm going to need someone to handle the mundane administrative work. Unless you want the job, Commander."
"Uh, on second thought, hiring a personal assistant was a great idea, General."
I didn't know then just what a great idea it was to hire Gabrielle, but I soon found out.
I left Chalcidice with an army of six thousand men and one personal assistant. My next objective was to conquer the kingdom of Thessalia and its capital city, Larissa. Taking Thessalia would not be an easy task. The Thessalian army was known for their fierceness and boldness in battle. They could pose a real threat to my army if they were allowed to make an alliance with neighbouring territories to the south.
My senior staff and I were gathered around the map table in the command tent. Gabrielle sat behind me, with quill and parchment, ready to take notes. The map showed Ambracia, a small kingdom just over the next range of hills. It was of little strategic value in my conquest of Thessalia, but it would be a sweet appetiser for the main course.
"Their defences are weak at this point," said Darnell, placing his finger on the western flank.
"And where are they strongest?" I asked.
"Here," he pointed to the eastern side.
"Then that's where we attack."
"General?" Darnell asked bewilderedly.
"Do you think the men are not up to it?"
"Of course they are, General."
"Then what's the problem?"
"We've had tougher opposition than Ambracia in the past, and we have tougher opposition ahead of us," he explained. "I see no need to waste more effort than needed on this worthless territory."
"Normally I would agree with you. And certainly against a stronger enemy you would go for the weaker flank. But it can be good for morale to let the men attack the strongest part of a weaker enemy. It will give them confidence."
"A wise plan, General," Darnell conceded.
From outside the tent there came some shouting.
"See what that is, commander," I said, irritated by the distraction.
Darphus, another of my trusted lieutenants, saluted and went to investigate. He returned shortly.
"What is it?" I asked gruffly.
"General, King Quallas of Ambracia has arrived in camp. Shall I show him in or have him arrested?"
I hated politics. Being a soldier was easy: kill or capture that was all you needed to do. Being a politician took patience, something I was lacking; however, if I was to build an empire, I had to be a politician as well as a soldier.
"Let's see what he has to say, shall we?" I looked around at my officers, who took my cue and backed away from the map table, taking up strategic positions in the event this was some kind of trap. Gabrielle stood behind me with scroll in hand. I sat down in my chair to receive my royal visitor.
"Escort the King of Ambracia with all due ceremony," I said with a wave of my hand. I pulled my lion's head dagger from my boot. The prop would be useful and would send a message.
Darnell motioned for a guard to fetch the king. The guard returned shortly with King Quallas and the king's servant, who carried a small chest. Quallas was a thin man with greying hair. He may have been a warrior in his younger years, but now he had a tired, timid look about him.
"General Xena," he began with a slight hauteur in his tone. "I have come to save you the time and trouble of conquering my small, insignificant kingdom."
"Oh, it's no trouble, King Quallas." I said sarcastically, as I twirled the tip of the dagger on my left index finger.
He laughed uneasily, watching the dagger in my hand. He collected himself and continued his proposal. "I am prepared to pay you an annual tribute of fifty-thousand dinars if you allow me to remain the ruler of Ambracia under your control, of course. As a token, I have brought you this." Quallas signalled his servant forward.
"Hmm, I already have many servants, but I' m sure I can find a use for him," I said with a lascivious smile.
"Err, no, General Xena, the chest."
Quallas took the chest from the servant, placed it in front of me, and opened it with a flourish. Inside was a large, green jewel.
"What is it?" I sneered, feigning disappointment in the unusual gemstone.
"A priceless jewel of mysterious origins. It is said to possess magical powers," replied the king.
"What kind of magical powers?"
"Unfortunately, I have not discovered its secrets. A woman of your exceptional skills, however, will have little trouble."
"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather have the servant."
Quallas looked panicked. Obviously, he was not prepared for me to turn down his offer.
"I could raise the tribute to sixty-thousand dinars a year," he blurted out. "Plus the magical gem and the servant."
"Very well, I accept your tribute," I said matter-of-factly.
"Does that mean you will not invade Ambracia?" he asked hopefully.
Abruptly, I slammed the dagger into the arm of my chair, and jumped up and stood toe to toe with the king. It had the desired effect of rattling him. "No, that means I will take your wealth, your lands, and your life." I walked away, then turned back and pointed to the chest.
"Did you think you could buy my favour with a few dinars and an ugly green stone?" My voice grew louder, and I could see his body begin to tremble underneath his tunic. Even diplomacy is a battle with moves and counter-moves. He thought he could play me, but I had him check-mated.
As Quallas grew paler, I continued. "You stood a better chance facing me on the field of battle. At least you would've won my respect and the respect of your people. Instead, you've proved to me that you are nothing but a spineless weasel who would do anything to save his precious crown."
Before Quallas could say anything in his defence, I turned to my second-in-command and sealed the fate of the king and the fate of his kingdom.
"Commander Darnell, have the army assembled before first light. I want this worthless plot of land under my banner by this time tomorrow."
"It shall be done."
"Guards, take him away. I want his public execution to crown our victory celebration."
The scratching of quill on parchment came to a sudden stop when I ordered the execution of this pathetic excuse for a man. A tiny gasp came from over my right shoulder, as Gabrielle reacted to my order. I shot her a disapproving glare. She promptly lowered her eyes and continued writing.
"No, please. I'll give you anything," Quallas whimpered.
"Everything you have is already mine."
Quallas fell to his knees and uttered a strangled cry. It was pathetic that a sovereign should act in such a snivelling manner. Thankfully, I didn't have to suffer the sight for very long, my men dragged the king away to his fate.
"Now leave me, all of you. Darnell, I do not want to be disturbed. Is that understood?"
"Yes, General." Darnell saluted, but hesitated instead of leaving. "Shall I come back later and give you a readiness report?"
"Yes, Commander, but I will send for you."
"Very well, General."
Darnell saluted once more and left. I noticed my assistant start to follow him.
"No, Gabrielle, you stay."
She froze, and then turned to face me. I could see she was deeply distressed. She was still not used to the cruel reality of conquering an empire. I should have dismissed her, sent her home to her village, but I didn't. Instead, I gave her a stern dressing down.
"Gabrielle, never express your feelings in the presence of others. Do you understand?"
"Yes, General. I'm very sorry." Gabrielle apologised like a penitent child.
My demeanour softened. "Pour me a glass of wine . . .please," I added. I never said 'please' to anyone.
A look of surprise followed by relief flickered across my assistant's face. She quickly retrieved the wineskin and goblet resting on a serving table across the tent.
"Yes, General." Gabrielle poured the wine and brought it to me.
"Thank you," I said as I took the glass from her. I never said 'thank you' to anyone, either.
There was something about Gabrielle an inexplicable connection I felt towards her. It wasn't the usual lust I felt for a pretty face. This young woman had a certain nobility that almost had me believing my quest for power was not for purely selfish reasons.
"You disapprove of my orders to take Ambracia. Why?"
"It is not my place to say, General."
"You may speak freely."
Gabrielle saw I was being sincere, so she spoke candidly. "You had an opportunity to take Ambracia without bloodshed. Instead you've ordered the king executed and your army into battle. Why sacrifice your men when you can achieve your objective without fighting?"
"I'm a soldier and the men out there are an army. It's what we do."
"But the outcome will be the same. Only your way will cost lives."
"What do you know about the cost?" I snapped.
Gabrielle nervously lowered her eyes at my rebuke.
I was immediately remorseful for snapping at her like that, but I wasn't about to apologise to a subordinate. Gabrielle had made a good point, but I wasn't about to admit that either. And I certainly was not going to admit that her disapproval bothered me.
I abruptly changed the subject to King Quallas' gift.
"What do you make of this green gemstone?" I asked, holding it up and turning it around to get a good look at it.
Gabrielle relaxed a bit once she realised I wasn't going to punish her. "How do you mean, General?"
"Well, you're something of a bard. I was wondering if you had heard any stories about a green gemstone with mystical powers."
"No. I've heard of the Jewel of Demeter, but nothing about a green gemstone."
"It's probably just something Quallas made up to make it appear more valuable than it actually is. I think I'll have it fitted to the end of a sceptre. What do you think?"
"It's only a green stone, what does it matter what you do with it?"
My assistant surprised me with her response. It didn't occur to her that this precious gemstone was worth a king's ransom. The trappings of wealth and position didn't seem to impress her.
As we spent more time together, I learned she had a very unique way of looking at the world. Her persistent questions and chatter about anything and everything annoyed me at first. But over time, I came to enjoy our evening chats, just the two of us. I discovered that Gabrielle was very inquisitive and eager to learn, especially about battle strategies, geography, and politics. Subjects I was keen to discuss.
It had been four days since we had taken Ambracia. Following a day of drilling my army for the campaign ahead, I was relaxing in a hot bath. As usual Gabrielle was present. Her job was to prepare my bath and have my robe ready when I was finished. While I bathed, Gabrielle talked.
"It's not that I didn't love my family, or that they didn't love me."
Often Gabrielle would make observations about things I normally took no notice of. She'd talk and talk about the simple things in life: the sunrise, the sunset, the stars in the night sky, the birds singing in the trees. This time, her chatter caught my attention. It was the first time she had mentioned her family.
"I just felt as though I didn't belong. Does that make sense?" She paused only briefly, because she was used to me not answering, and then she continued. "Village life is tedious: you wake up; you work hard; you go to bed. And you do that every day of your life. There's no change, no adventure."
"Don't you miss them?" I asked.
She didn't respond immediately. My question seemed to have rendered her speechless, so I prompted her. "Your family?"
"Oh, yes, General. Of course I do, especially my sister, Lila. But, I wasn't happy there. No, that's not entirely true. I was happy most of the time. It's just that I wasn't like the other girls. What I mean is I didn't want the same things."
"Hand me the soap."
"The soap." I pointed to a cake of soap on a side table just out of reach.
"Yes, General." Gabrielle handed me the soap.
"You were saying."
Gabrielle picked up where she left off. "If I had stayed in Potidaea, I would've been forced into marriage. Perdicus, the man they wanted me to marry, is a nice lad. He's kind and gentle, but he's not..." she uttered a frustrated groan. "He's been bred for the simple village life, and I couldn't see me spending the rest of my life with him. I didn't love him."
Then she said something that made me drop the soap.
"I want to find a place where I can be appreciated for who and what I am and not just do what's expected of me. And if I can't find that place, then I'll try and create it."
Her words struck a chord in me. I knew what village life was like, and I knew the need to go out and find what was missing. I was shaping the world to fit me instead of looking for a place for me to fit. I looked over at my assistant. She was talking about some other subject already, but the expression on her face as she spoke still held the look of someone in search of a place to belong.
I could be that place she belonged, I found myself ruminating, though I didn't understand why at the time. The thought had me shaking my head at such sentimental nonsense. Romance had no place in my life. I had an empire to conquer. Besides, she wasn't my type.
My army met with little resistance as we swept through much of Central Greece. This meant I controlled the territories of Thrace, Chalcidice, Macedonia, and Thessalia, with the exception of the area surrounding their capital city of Larissa. Now that I had effectively cut off Larissa from any aid, the Thessalians were vulnerable. Yet, my spies reported that the city was well provisioned and well armed, which meant Larissa could hold out for several more months.
Looking up from the map of Larissa laid out in front of me, I turned to Darnell. "We need a bold plan to break this siege quickly. Your thoughts, Commander?"
"General, I recommend an all out assault on their left flank. That's where the Thessalians are not as heavily fortified." He pointed to the area on the map.
Darphus shook his head.
"You disagree, Lieutenant? Tell me, what would you recommend?"
Darnell glared antagonistically at Darphus.
"I'd use Greek fire to burn the city to the ground, General."
Darphus returned Darnell's glare with a smug smirk. The antagonism between these two could be tiresome at times, but for the most part it was useful. With each one trying to out do the other it could produce several good battle strategies, allowing me more chances to achieve victory.
"What if we were to use elements from both plans, General," Darnell offered, winning this round of one-upmanship.
"What do you suggest?"
"We could attack their left flank using catapults and bombs filled with Greek fire to soften up their defences, then hit them with an all out assault."
"That sounds like a reasonable plan, Commander. Before I make any decisions, however, I'd like to mull it over a bit, perhaps talk it over with Gabrielle." In our evening talks, I had discovered Gabrielle's uncanny ability to see things from a different perspective. Perhaps it was because she was not schooled in the art of warfare, or perhaps it was her unconventional views.
"Gabrielle? Why would you want to talk military strategy with your maid?"
His comment ignited my fury, and my reaction was swift and painful. I applied an acupressure technique that stops the flow of blood to the brain and causes death in thirty seconds if it's not released.
Darnell fell down and grabbed his throat as he struggled for air. I leaned down and picked him up by his shirtfront to administer a warning. "Never forget that I command this army. Question me again, and I won't show as much mercy. Is that clear, Commander?"
"Yes, General." He gasped as blood drained from his nose.
"Good." I released the pinch with five seconds to spare. "Now, someone find my personal assistant."
Several minutes later, a messenger came back and reported that Gabrielle was not in her tent or in the immediate vicinity. Impatient to talk with her, I decided to go in search of her myself.
We were camped in the wooded foothills of the Pindus Mountains. The lack of any large open grassland meant my army was spread out over a wide area of forest terrain. Finding my wayward assistant proved to be a major undertaking. I walked downhill to where the support units were camped, but she wasn't there. I asked the head cook, but he hadn't seen her since before the evening meal. I felt a pang of apprehension. What if Gabrielle was in some kind of danger? I dismissed the thought as ridiculous. No one would dare lay a hand on her, if they valued their life.
As I wondered why Gabrielle engendered such a protective instinct in me, I had worked my way back uphill to where the Fourth Perimeter Guards were camped. By now, I had become angry and frustrated that I couldn't locate her. As I approached the area, my instincts told me something was wrong. From the smell of broth wafting through the trees, I knew the soldiers were eating, but there was an eerie silence not the rumble of chatter that usually accompanied mealtime.
Then I heard a solitary voice echo off the trees. It was obviously female, though I couldn't make out what she was saying. I followed the voice until I reached the clearing. There on the bough of a fallen tree stood a petite figure, dressed in a bluish-purple tunic and black leather cuirass, regaling the enthralled men with a story. It was my assistant.
Gabrielle's enthusiasm for storytelling was conveyed in her passionate delivery. Her expression and intonation gave the words life, and I found myself captivated by the story as well. When it was over, she took her bow to rapturous applause. The beaming smile on her face, as she accepted their appreciation, was as enchanting as the story. I had seen Gabrielle smile before, but not like this. Her smile radiated unabashed joy at having made the men's mealtime something special. At that moment, I was very proud of her.
The moment was soon gone, however, when I witnessed Lieutenant Galates help Gabrielle down from the tree. He held her waist and her gaze, a little too long for my liking, and she didn't seem to mind.
Her smile faltered as she caught sight of me. She quickly pulled away from Galates, as though she had been caught doing something inappropriate, or at least that's the way it looked to me. She was soon lost in a mass of soldiers. I took that moment of distraction to slip away, and returned to my command tent.
Several minutes later, Gabrielle arrived. She stood obediently outside the open flap.
"Come in," I ordered brusquely.
"You had need of me, General?" Gabrielle inquired timorously.
"Yes, I did. I had important matters to discuss with you, and you were nowhere to be found. I had to come looking for you." My irritation was evident in my tone.
"I'm very sorry I wasn't available when you needed me." Gabrielle seemed genuinely sorry.
My ire softened. I couldn't stay mad at her for long. I lifted her chin and gently chided her. "You need to let me know when and where you go, and with whom." I placed emphasis on the words "with whom".
"Yes, General. It won't happen again." Her eyes glanced downward.
"Well, you were helping to keep up morale, and that's an important part of maintaining a disciplined army. You tell stories very well."
She smiled at the compliment, but it was heavily guarded and not the wide, spontaneous smile she had displayed in the clearing.
"I trust your entertainment of the troops will be limited to just telling them stories."
"Yes, General," she replied innocently, completely missing my implication.
Changing the subject, I directed her attention to the spot I was pointing to on the map. "Thessalia is my next major objective. I'd like your thoughts on how to take it."
Gabrielle looked confused. "What about your military advisors, General?"
"What about them?"
"Shouldn't you be asking them?"
"If I asked them, they would come up with the same idea as me. Sometimes it's good to have a fresh perspective, especially from someone who has not been trained in military tactics. So please," I said gesturing at the map, "tell me how you would do it."
"I wouldn't know where to begin," she said as she looked over the map.
"Alright then, if you were to write a story about it, how would you do it?"
"A series of epic battles, I guess."
"Say that I've fought enough epic battles and needed another way."
"Then you fight a series of not so epic battles," she explained simply.
"Okay," I said, trying to maintain my patience. "Let's try a different approach. Say you were confronted by a pack of wolves that were between you and where you wanted to go, how would you get through them? Remember that the wolves are quicker, more manoeuvrable, and have greater stamina than you."
"I'd feed them so they would be too full to bother trying to eat me."
"What if you didn't have enough food for them all?"
"Then, at least I'd have a smaller pack to worry about."
"A smaller pack", of course! It was so simple and so obvious: divide and conquer. I would reduce their strength the same way I took Corinth poisoned grain. With most of their army incapacitated, the rest will fall easily to my superior forces. "Thank you, Gabrielle, that was most helpful."
"It was?" she asked with genuine surprise.
"Yes it was," I replied.
My approval relaxed Gabrielle, and she smiled shyly. "Thank you, General."
I was about to dismiss her, but something inside me wanted to keep her near. "I didn't catch all of the story you were telling earlier on. Would you tell it to me now?"
"If you want me to."
"I want you to."
I settled down into a chair and listened. Not to the story, but just to her voice.
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