My Lord Conqueror: Taking Chances
By Kennedy Northcutt ©2011-2012
See Part 1 for disclaimers and a full description of this installment in the My Lord Conqueror series.
The window above her head rattled and the bed shook so much that Cyrene sat bolt upright with a gasp of shock. The last wisps of a wonderful dream full of grandchildren and sunshine and laughter still lingered as she sat there and waited.
Then she heard a strange whistling sound that got closer and closer. Something exploded loudly outside the window and the panes rattled and something crackled.
It was Braes turn to sit bolt upright. He ran a hand over the stubble on his face as he shook off the last vestiges of sleep.
“I think we’re under attack,” Cyrene said into the eerie silence that followed.
Braes threw off the covers and jumped out of bed. He quickly pulled on his discarded trousers and stumbled toward the door.
“And where do you think you’re going?” Cyrene’s stern tone stopped him dead in his tracks.
“To find out what in Tartarus is going on,” he paused long enough to throw on a soft leather vest over his bare chest, as he yanked the door open and strode purposefully out into the hall. “Stay here. You’re safer here than out there.”
Quickly donning her own clothing, Cyrene raced from the room and managed to catch up to him at the end of the hall. Another whistling was followed by a loud crack that shook the walls around them and made the floor beneath their feet shudder. Cyrene instinctively grabbed one of his hands and squeezed it tightly. He merely glanced at her as he continued on.
They rounded a corner and almost collided with several wide-eyed servants fleeing in the opposite direction. Braes grabbed the arm of one of the men and stopped him.
“What’s going on, man?” Braes asked the frightened man.
“C-catapults,” the man stuttered, as he managed to slip free of the general’s grip. “R-rain’ f-fire d-down from ta sky!”
The servant raced off before Braes could get anything else out of him.
“Come on,” he grabbed Cyrene’s hand and pulled her along with him. “No use trying to tell you to stay put, stubborn woman.”
Cyrene let the hint of a smile show at his words. But it was soon replaced with deep concern as she heard another whistling that got much closer than the last two. Braes yanked her against the wall just in time to avoid the debris that rained down on them during the impact from another catapult.
“Ooo, that son of mine!” Cyrene exclaimed angrily as they continued on. “When I get my hands on him, I’m gonna…”
The roof in front of them suddenly came crashing down with no warning. A huge boulder rolled free of the dust and rubble, as the stone wall caved in. Cyrene stood there looking at the destruction in shock. Braes, on the other hand, tried to figure out a way around the destruction.
“Too close,” Braes finished for her. “We need to get to the barracks and sound the alarm!”
“I need to find my sister,” Cyrene stared wide-eyed, as the cloud of dust finally settled. “What if she was in that part of the palace?”
“She sleeps down in one of the servant’s quarters downstairs,” Braes reassured her. “I’m sure she’s probably still sleeping soundly, too.”
“Why don’t you go on without me to slow you down,” Cyrene gave him a quick kiss on the lips, then stopped to caress his cheek for a moment. “I’ll go check to make sure Agatha is okay and I’ll set up a place for the wounded. It will probably have to be somewhere downstairs.”
“Okay,” he cupped her cheek and ran a rough thumb over the slight wrinkles next to one blue eye. “Stay safe, wife.”
“You, too, husband,” she kissed him again, this time a bit more desperately than before. “Please don’t get yourself killed, my love.”
“Not if I can help it,” he hugged her tightly. “We still haven’t taken a honeymoon. And this wedding night wasn’t exactly what I had planned.”
She chuckled slightly, despite the dire circumstances. “Come back to me.”
They parted ways. Cyrene navigated back the way they had come and found the stairwell down to the lower levels of the palace. Braes exited out a side door and almost collided with one of his advisors.
“Giles, whoa there!”
The younger and stouter soldier was slightly out of breath as he side-stepped Braes and fell into step next to him.
“I was just coming to make sure you were all right,” then Giles pulled a rolled parchment out of his tunic. “And give you this.”
Braes took the scroll and stopped as he quickly scanned its contents. He looked up and met the expectant gaze of the dark-haired man.
“Now?” Braes asked.
“Everything is in place, General,” Giles nodded. “We discovered a secret underground passage that will take you just north of the city walls. The exit is a small cave in the woods. I’ve left orders for the men to meet you there with a horse.”
“And the commanders?” He handed the message back.
“They’re waiting for you at the Boar and Sow in Therus,” Giles took the scroll and tucked it back into his tunic. “Two-thirds of the army is camped just west of Therus. The other third is flanking the Romans and baiting the trap, just like you ordered.”
“Any sign that the Athenians or the Romans are onto us?”
“No, General,” Giles continued. “Our spies have reported that the only thing the Athenians and Romans are talking about is your wedding and the fact that the queens haven’t made an appearance since they were crowned. They also report that most of the Athenians aren’t happy about this alliance with the Romans. Apparently, the Romans aren’t treating the Athenians like equals and are lording it over them every chance they get. The only one who seems remotely pleased is Representative Toris, but they say he’s more of a figurehead than a real player in all this.”
“Interesting,” Braes said. “So, where is this secret passage? I’d like to meet with the commanders and get things rolling before the whole city goes up in smoke.”
“What about…er…” Giles glanced at the door through which Braes had come. “Don’t you want to tell your…er…someone where you’re going?”
“Cyrene, Giles,” Braes slapped an arm around the man’s shoulders. “Her name is Cyrene and she really is my wife now. That part of this was not a ruse. It was real and I’m now a married man, so just get used to it.”
“But I thought…”
“I love her,” Braes cut him off. “And she knows I have a job to do.”
“But maybe you should at least tell her…”
“There’s no time for that, man,” Braes said. “Let’s go. Besides, Cyrene will be busy taking care of anyone who was wounded when the roof caved in. And there’s no telling what else that stepson of mine and his band of merry men have in store for Corinth. Time to put an end to this, once and for all.”
“Right, General,” Giles led the way toward a small stone outbuilding.
They ducked inside and Giles went immediately to a trap door in the floor that was hidden beneath a blanket of fresh straw.
“What is this place, anyway?” Braes asked.
“Used to be a storage shed,” Giles replied, as he lifted the heavy trap door and propped it open against the wall. “But I think that was just a cover to keep anyone from sniffing around in here. It’s actually the only entrance to the secret passage.”
Braes grabbed a torch from a wall sconse and quickly used a flint to light it. He then took a few steps down the wooden stairs into the passageway and stopped.
“Tell the wife that I’ll be back by morning,” Braes said to his advisor. “And spread the word that everyone needs to lay low and stay in their homes until we can take care of those catapults. We should be able to get some men out there to sabotage them tonight.”
“Right, General,” Giles nodded and then dropped the trap door back in place once Braes was out of sight. “May the gods be with us all.”
Cyrene and Agatha had their hands full. There were several wounded servants and pages on cots in a large open space beneath the palace. The space was usually reserved for storage, but Cyrene had managed to get enough help to move things around and provide a makeshift hospice to tend to the wounded. There were two healers assigned to the palace. The two men didn’t live in the palace. Their homes had escaped the worst of the damage.
The catapult assault was still going on intermittently above them. The ceiling over their heads shook occasionally as large boulders tore through stone and wood upstairs, raining dust down on their heads. They didn’t have much warning there in their makeshift shelter, but that didn’t really matter. They were fairly safe.
“I need some assistance over here,” Hector called from across the room.
Cyrene navigated through the sea of cots until she was standing next to him. “What can I do?”
“Pinch this off for me,” he motioned with his pale eyes to a bloody hole in a woman’s side. “You need to hold the skin together so I can stitch it closed.”
Cyrene did as she was told and cringed slightly when the woman groaned loudly. She hated causing others pain, but knew some pain was necessary in the healing process.
“Hang in there, dear,” Cyrene gave the woman a tentative smile. “This will be over soon.”
The woman merely nodded. Her face was pale and flushed at the same time. Sweat beaded her brow and damp reddish-brown hair clung to the dust and dirt on her skin. There was also stone dust in her hair and a nasty abrasion along the side of her face that was slowly oozing blood.
Hector sprinkled some powder into the open wound then quickly stitched the gash closed with pig-gut thread and a bone needle. His hands were already covered in the blood of others he had treated. Cyrene clenched her teeth shut as he worked. She wanted to remind him that he really needed to wash his hands after treating a patient, but he just wouldn’t listen. The man was even more stubborn than she was when it came to listening to anyone’s advice.
It occurred to Cyrene that she needed to speak to Xena about the obstinate healer. Maybe her daughter could do something about his attitude. Then again, Xena wasn’t exactly one to take no for an answer. She would probably…
Cyrene held that thought for the time being. What would her daughter do? Did all the stories about Xena’s quick temper and harsh punishments really have some basis in fact? After all, those emissaries hadn’t really done anything to deserve a swift execution. Had they?
A shudder raced through her, as Cyrene put the thought out of her mind and concentrated on the task at hand. She glanced at Hector out of the corner of her eye and briefly wondered if his attitude was even worth mentioning to Xena. After all, she had an entire kingdom to run. Well, actually, she had a kingdom to run once she returned from Rome with Gabrielle.
That thought brought an ache to Cyrene’s heart. She loved Gabrielle like a daughter and hoped beyond hope that the young woman was still alive. She didn’t know what would happen if Xena returned empty-handed. It was just too unthinkable to even contemplate. And what if neither Xena nor Gabrielle returned? What then?
Cyrene shuddered again. She didn’t even want to contemplate that possibility. It was too horrendous to even consider.
“By the gods, hold still, woman,” Hector admonished. “This is a very delicate procedure and requires my utmost concentration.”
“Sorry,” Cyrene absently apologized.
“Better watch what you say to her, Hector,” Agatha was suddenly standing across the bed from them with her arms folded over her chest and a stern look on her features. “That’s the general’s wife and the queen’s mother you’re talking to. If Braes doesn’t bind your testicles and hang you from the battlements, then the queen will surely put a branding iron to that obnoxious tongue of yours.”
“Apologies,” he muttered, much to Cyrene’s bemusement.
“And I managed to get a pot of water heating over there with some strong lye soap for you to wash those hands in,” Agatha growled at him. “You will do that when you’re finished here or I’ll be the one you’ll answer to. Do I make myself clear, man?”
“Yes,” he glanced up at Agatha with a hint of fear in his pale eyes. “Perfectly clear.”
“Good,” Agatha stood there a moment longer and gave her sister a covert wink.
Cyrene shot her sister a knowing grin and mouthed a quick “Thank you” to her. Agatha just winked again and shuffled away to find another patient to tend to.
A heartbeat later the ceiling above rumbled and shook, raining more dust and debris down on them. Cyrene quickly leaned over the wound to block it with her body and keep the dust and debris out of the wound. Hector huffed impatiently, but kept his mouth shut. He then resumed his work once things settled down again.
“Thank you,” he muttered without looking at her.
“You’re welcome, Hector,” Cyrene shot him a wry smirk and then returned her attention to their patient. “How are you holding up, dear?”
“Better,” the woman uttered in a weak voice.
“Good,” Cyrene wiped some of the dust away from the woman’s face. “He’s almost finished. It won’t be long now.”
The woman merely nodded and kept her teeth tightly clenched in an effort not to cry out as the needle penetrated her skin several more times. When he was finished, Hector tied off the stitches and cut the thread with his teeth.
“There, all done,” he said with a self-congratulatory nod. “You’ll have a scar, but the arm should heal in no time.”
Cyrene helped the woman sit up and carefully wrapped a bandage around her arm.
“Keep it clean and dry,” Hector ordered. “If it gets infected—turns red and swollen and feels warm to the touch—come and find me right away. I’ll see what I can do if that happens.”
“Okay,” the woman held her arm close to her body as Cyrene helped her to one of the cots in the corner.
“Let me know if you need anything, Iris,” Cyrene said, as she let the woman lean on her for support and helped her sit down on a cot.
“Thank you, Cy,” Iris smiled wanly. “But maybe I should get back upstairs…”
“Nonsense,” Cyrene cut her off. “You just rest here, for now. I’m going to make you a sling for that arm, so don’t you go anywhere. I’ll be right back.”
Iris stretched out on the cot and let her eyes drift closed with a grateful sigh. Cyrene watched her for a moment more, then walked over to one of the tables that held a stack of bandages and other items. She found a strip of cloth long enough that she could fashion into a sling and returned to the injured woman’s bedside.
“Here,” Cyrene gently lifted Iris up again and quickly tied the sling into place. “There. That should do it. How does that feel?”
“Good,” Iris smiled again. “Thank you again, Cy.” She patted Cyrene’s arm. “The gods smiled down on us the day they sent you to us.”
Cyrene blushed. “Oh, you’re a dear to say so, but all the credit really goes to my daughter. She’s the reason I’m here in Corinth.”
“And may the gods smile on her, as well,” Iris said.
“I’m sure they are,” Cyrene smiled sadly as she patted Iris’ hand. “Now, get some rest, dear.”
Cyrene left the woman and walked through the maze of cots. People greeted her with weary smiles and words of thanks as she made her way over to the other side of the large room. Agatha was seated on a wooden chair and leaning against a stone wall.
“Hey,” Cyrene greeted her sister with a tired sigh, as she slumped into the empty chair next to her.
“Hey, yourself,” Agatha returned the greeting gruffly. “Do you think that’s the last of them? Wasn’t expecting to see so many wounded.”
“I don’t know,” Cyrene glanced at the stairs. “How many died in that first assault? Do you know?”
“Three,” Agatha sighed heavily. “Roof caved in on two young pages and one of the kitchen maids. Two were buried alive—Tabatha, the maid, and Rolf, one of the pages. By the time the men were able to dig them out, all three were dead. Jace died instantly from a blow to the head, poor thing. Don’t think he was much older than seven summers.”
Cyrene frowned. “Such a shame.”
“Good thing that thing didn’t hit the servants’ quarters,” Agatha said. “There wouldn’t be room down here for all the injured.”
“No doubt,” Cyrene nodded. “I’m just surprised more of us weren’t hurt. Braes and I ran right down a hallway that was hit by one of those catapults. We were lucky that we didn’t get too far or we’d be lying on those cots with the others.”
“I think things are tapering off. Shouldn’t be long before they run out of ammunition to launch at us, at least.”
“Yeah, but what will they send our way after that?”
“Let’s hope they don’t have Greek fire. That stuff spreads like crazy and will consume the city in no time.”
Cyrene shuddered. “By the gods, I hope you’re right.”
“Did the general say what we’re supposed to do besides wait for this to blow over?”
“No,” Cyrene shook her head. “He said the plan is too complicated to go into. All I know is he’s to meet with the commanders and set things in motion.”
“I don’t know,” Cyrene stared tiredly off into space. “There’s been no word since she set sail with the Amazons. I don’t know if she knew about Athens and the Romans before she left. Braes didn’t say.”
“Speaking of, where is that man of yours, anyway? Shouldn’t he be issuing orders or something?”
“Giles, one of the soldiers on his advisory staff, came to tell me he left,” Cyrene replied. “He went through a secret passage and is on his way to meet up with the commanders of the army, as we speak.”
“Left? Why in the world would he leave you at a time like this? He wouldn’t just up and leave the palace unprotected, would he? Especially without Xena here?”
“He had no choice,” Cyrene reached over and patted Agatha’s arm. “Besides, I’m fine down here. He knew that.”
Agatha grunted. “Men.Can’t trust the lot of ‘em.”
Cyrene smiled. “I trust Braes.”
“You always were a sucker for hard-luck cases, Cy.”
“Apparently it runs in the family,” Cyrene regarded her sister with a wry half-smile. “Is there any word from Grenella, yet?”
“Harumph,” Agatha grunted. “That old woman? I’m sure she’s taking her own sweet time in getting here.”
“So, you did send word, then?”
“Not like it’s going to do us any good,” Agatha scowled. “Amazons aren’t known to just jump into a battle that doesn’t concern them, you know.”
“They will if Grenella has any say in the matter,” Cyrene added. “The two of you are still joined, you know. She has an obligation to see that you’re safe.”
“She has an obligation to lead the sisterhood and protect the Nation,” Agatha countered. “I’m the least of her worries.”
“Well,” Cyrene sat back and let her eyes drift shut. “I’m sure the reinforcements will arrive shortly.”
Agatha snorted. “Don’t count on it.”
Cyrene patted her sister’s arm again. “She still loves you. She’ll come.”
“She’s a sentimental old fool if she does.”
Cyrene just chuckled as they sat there in companionable silence.
“I’m too old for this,” complained one of the women on the dusty road. “Explain to me why we’re doing this again?”
Grenella gave her companion a stern look. “Because I’m still the queen of this ragtag bunch of misfit feather-brains and the message said to bring as much help as I could muster?”
“Oh,” the gray-haired woman acquiesced. “And did we have to bring all of them? I mean, our warriors I can understand. But this bunch is just a bit too much, Gren.” She glanced covertly over her shoulder.
Grenella glanced over her own shoulder at the large group of women trailing behind them. Many of the women were grouped by tribe and weren’t willing to mingle with others, despite the fact they were all Amazons. Despite the fact they were all warriors. But the skirmish with Draco and the traitorous actions by those few who were still loyal to Velasca and her followers had left bad blood between the tribes. Many of them weren’t willing to trust anyone outside their own village.
And Grenella didn’t blame them in the least. She really didn’t trust any of them, either. But Aggie’s message was urgent and very clear. It said to bring as many reinforcements as possible. So, Grenella mustered the troops. Her first visit was to the Thracians, who were more than willing to provide
“We need to put the past behind us, Aeriella,” Grenella said. “This is as good a way as any to make that happen.”
“Siding with the Conqueror?” Aeriella gave her a bewildered look. “You really think losing more of our sisters in a fruitless battle is the only way to put the bad blood behind us?”
“No,” Grenella conceded. “But fighting side-by-side for the greater good just might do the trick.”
“We’re Amazons,” Aeriella countered. “We don’t fight for the greater good. We fight for a strong Amazon Nation.”
“Queen Gabrielle is an Amazon,” Grenella said. “And she’s now one of the most powerful women in Greece. Do you think she won’t do everything in her power to protect the Amazon way of life and form alliances to see that the Nation continues to grow and thrive? This isn’t just about protecting the woman I love, Aeriella. This is about ensuring our sovereignty as a nation. With Gabrielle seated side-by-side with Xena, the woman she was joined to in a sacred Amazon joining ceremony, we now have a strong voice within the government. We now have a say in what happens to our people and our lands.”
“Since when do we care about governments and politics outside our own sisterhood?”
“Since we’ve seen the size of our lands diminish as more villages expand around us,” Grenella said. “We can’t keep heading in the same direction, Aeri. We have to change with the times or risk extinction. Is that what you want?”
Aeriella sighed. “No, it’s not and you know it. But I’m just not sure this is the right way to go about it. We’ve never done anything like this before. Amazons don’t get involved in affairs that don’t concern the Nation.”
“We do now,” Grenella affirmed.
“Ugh, I’m too old for this,” Aeriella groaned and rolled her eyes.
“If you’re too old, then so am I,” Grenella chuckled. “I happen to be two years your senior, you know.”
They continued down the dusty road in silence after that. No one spoke. The only real sound around them was a constant chattering from high above in the treetops. The flock of crows was not a bit afraid of the hundreds of warrior women below them. They didn’t seem to care at all.
Grenella glanced up at them and frowned. She didn’t really believe in signs from the gods. Didn’t really put much stock in what she considered hogwash. The gods rarely intervened in mortal existence, at least in her experience. But those crows were just eerie as they seemed to follow her band of warriors.
“Strange, aren’t they?”
Grenella turned to find one of the Thracian Amazons walking next to her and staring up at the canopy above them.
“Solari,” Grenella greeted the woman with a small half-nod.
“They followed us back when Gabrielle was with us,” Solari continued absently. “Gave me the creeps having them there all the time.”
Grenella glanced up again, then studied the younger woman. “Crows don’t bother me a bit. They’re just birds. Probably waiting for us to drop some scraps of food or something.”
“I wish Xena was here to scare ‘em off,” Solari returned her attention to the road ahead. “She’s good at scaring things.”
Grenella chuckled. “People, too, from what I hear.”
Solari looked at her with a bemused smile. “Yeah, everyone except Gabrielle.”
“Never scared me,” Grenella harrumphed.
“Aren’t you joined with her aunt?” Solari asked conversationally.
“Yes,” Grenella answered dismissively.
Solari studied the somber expression of the elder woman with a new sense of curiosity. Grenella had always been one of those Amazons of legend that were the subject of stories told around the campfire. She was an iconic leader who had managed to bring together several tribes that were slowly dying out. She was also a great warrior in her own right, once upon a time.
The woman walking next to her didn’t seem as legendary or iconic as Solari had been led to believe from those stories. Then again, stories were always embellished to make heroes out of the most ordinary people. The stories of Xena as the Great Conqueror were a true testament to that. Solari had been a bit disappointed by the actual woman herself when she finally met her. And then Xena had to fall head-over-heels with Gabrielle. What was up with that, anyway?
“Apologies, my queen,” Solari said.
Grenella looked at her in surprise. “For what?”
“I…” Solari clamped her lips shut and returned her attention to the road ahead.
“Solari,” Grenella’s tone softened. “I’m not angry at you for pointing out the fact that Agatha is my mate. It’s just…” she sighed heavily. “Our relationship is complicated.”
“You don’t have to explain, my queen,” Solari said warily. “I shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place. Your relationship with the Conqueror’s aunt is personal and none of my business.”
A long silence followed her words.
“We were happy together, once,” Grenella finally broke the silence. “When we were both so much younger and newly in love.”Solari just listened. “Then I went and did the unthinkable. I cheated on her. It was so stupid. I didn’t even have feelings for the other woman—can’t even remember her name now. I was still quite young, but already a seasoned warrior who had just been masked as the new queen when our queen was killed unexpectedly. I thought I had the world by the tail and was something special. Aggie left me and returned to her family, to her sister. Cy wasn’t having an easy time of it in those days, either. She had three very small children and an inn to run on her own, while that husband of hers kept running off to war, fighting for the God of War. Agatha was more than happy to move in and help out. It broke my heart when she left.”
“You still love her.” It wasn’t a question.
Grenella let the hint of a smile show. “I do,” she nodded. “With all my heart. She’s the other half of my soul and I can’t stand being separated from her.”
“Which is why you’re so eager to head to Corinth and help out,” Solari nodded her understanding. “Makes sense.”
“It does?” Grenella thought a moment and then shrugged. “I suppose so. But that’s not the only reason for this little excursion. I want to make that perfectly clear. We’re Amazons and we don’t involve ourselves in the happenings going on in the rest of the world around us. Unless our involvement will reap some far-reaching benefits for our future as a strong Amazon Nation.”
“Gabrielle,” Solari nodded sagely.
“She’s one of us,” Grenella said. “But she’s also so much more now. There is something about her that I can’t quite put my finger on. She’s special. And now she has the power and influence to see that the Nation survives for years to come.”
“I just thought she was rather irritating when I first met her,” Solari shrugged. “Go figure.”
Grenella’s brow shot up. “Irritating? How so?”
“Well,” Solari considered her words carefully. “She really didn’t say much at first. And then Terreis started hanging around her all the time. They became fast friends and Terreis seemed to bring Gabrielle out of her shell. All of a sudden this quiet kid who came to us all battered and broken was a chattering magpie who wouldn’t shut up. She just asked all kinds of questions and was always in the archives looking up our history and stuff. Terreis was totally enamored of her and wouldn’t stay away from her. It was so…”
“Irritating?” Genella chuckled. “Why? Because you were taken by Terreis? Is that it?”
“No,” Solari blushed to her roots and turned away quickly.
Grenella continued to chuckle. “Then what happened?”
“Terreis was killed and Gabrielle was suddenly our new princess,” Solari stated flatly.
“And you never had a chance with either one,” Grenella nodded sagely.
Solari nearly missed a step, as her head snapped back around and her mouth fell open. “What?”
“Face it, Solari,” Grenella sobered. “You had feelings for Terreis and then you transferred those same feelings to Gabrielle.” She shrugged. “It happens and is more common than you might think. Why do you think people revere rulers and put them up on pedestals like they are gods? We aren’t, you know. We’re just people like everyone else. We make mistakes. Some of us have enormous egos and do stupid things. And many of us abuse the power we are given for our own selfish gains. But every once in a while a leader comes along who has that special quality that mixes intelligence and skill with just enough humility and patience to make the right decisions. Gabrielle is one of those leaders. I just hope Xena can bring her back to us in one piece, so she can continue what she started.”
Solari nodded solemnly. “I’m with you there, my queen.”
Dismounting in front of the Boar and Sow in Therus, Braes handed over the reins of his dappled gray gelding and gave the animal one final pat on the neck.
“Good boy,” he said to the lathered beast, as he strode into the dimly lit tavern and looked around.
“In the back,” the tavern owner motioned over his shoulder from behind the bar. “Waitin’ for ya.”
“Thanks,” Braes pushed through a door and entered a smaller room filled with men in plain tunics and leather. “Gentlemen,” he greeted them with a nod. “I trust you have good news?”
A man with sun-bleached, short-cropped hair stepped forward to greet the general by offering an arm.
“You made it, General,” he took Braes’ forearm in a firm grip. “Glad it is we are to see ya here.”
Braes released the man’s arm and then greeted the others in similar fashion.
“Apparently, there’s a secret passage beneath the city,” Braes explained, once he had made the rounds. “Full of cobwebs and spiders the size of small rats, too. Took me a bit to wrangle my way through the overgrown brush in front of the exit, but I finally made it.”
“Giles find that passage for you?” One of the others asked.
“That he did, Polinius,” Braes chuckled. “The man’s a wonder when it comes to things like that.”
“We hear tell you’re a married man, now,” another man grinned from ear-to-ear behind his red beard.
“Congratulations,” someone else added.
“Thanks, men,” Braes held up a staying hand. “I’m happily married now and glad for it. Cyrene’s a wonderful woman. I’m a lucky man. But we have a problem to deal with right now,” his expression sobered.
“You couldn’t wait to tie the knot until after the queens return home?” The first commander stepped forward.
“Couldn’t be helped, Elias,” Braes said. “We’ll hold a grand celebration the likes of which haven’t been seen in all the civilized world as soon as the queens return, safe and sound. For now the queen’s mother is going along with this so we can get this matter with Athens and the bloody Romans settled. She’s as much for a peaceful resolution as any of us.”
“Aye,” Elias nodded gravely. “Any word from Rome, yet?”
“None,” Braes replied. “We don’t even know if they made it there safely. And we have no idea where Queen Gabrielle is. There’s no trace of her after she was in that alley, other than what Xena discovered at the docks.”
“That’s not good,” Elias shook his head sadly.
“No, it’s not,” said Braes. “But we’re not here to talk about the queens. What’s the status of things outside Corinth? Is the army in place?”
“Yes, General,” Elias stepped over to a table spread with a large map. “We have troops flanking the enemy as we speak. The Roman legion seems to be waiting less than half a league from the Athenians. It’s as if they’re waiting for the Athenians to make the first move.”
“They want us to fight each other, first,” Braes crossed his arms over his chest. “Then they can swoop in and defeat the victor. Typical divide and conquer scenario.”
“So, how do we keep from falling into their trap?” Another commander leaned on the table across from Braes. “We’ve already divided our troops and are spreading things a little thin.”
A sly gleam came into Braes’ eyes. “We don’t play their game, Commander Krug. This isn’t about fighting our own people. It’s about disabling those catapults and outsmarting the Athenians. I don’t think they’re as willing to join forces with the Romans as we were originally led to believe.”
“What makes you think that, General?” Krug straightened up, as if in challenge.
Braes eyed the man for a moment. Krug was his most difficult commander, but he was also a shrewd leader. The man knew battle strategies that reaped results and had an outstanding reputation. But Braes also knew they didn’t have time to strut around like a bunch of peacocks showing off their feathers, either.
“Are you questioning my authority, Commander?” Braes challenged in a menacing tone. “Because, if you are, you’d better have a really good reason to do so. I have Xena’s blessing to see this through with or without any of you.” He then pulled the sword from his hip and slammed it on the table between them. “And I won’t hesitate to eliminate anyone who isn’t with us. We don’t have time for games, men.”
Every one of the commanders shifted around the table until they were standing closer to Braes, leaving Krug to stand by himself on the other side. Krug absently stroked his gray beard as he stood there weighing his options.
“Fine,” Krug relented with a dismissive wave of his hand. “But if you’re wrong about the Athenians?”
“I’m not,” Braes picked up his sword and resheathed it without taking his eyes off the man across from him. “That’s why I’m the general.”
Elias cleared his throat loudly. “Your orders, General?”
“I’m returning to the palace immediately to set the second phase of our plan into motion,” Braes said. “I’ll give the signal when it’s time to take out the catapults. We’re still waiting for the reinforcements to arrive. They should be here sometime after nightfall.”
“And the main force, General?” A third commander stepped up to the table. “We have them waiting here.” He pointed to a spot on the map. “All the new recruits, the hoplites and every able soldier who didn’t volunteer on the mission to disable the catapults. There are close to a thousand troops in all.”
“And with the reinforcements arriving soon, we should have enough to drive the Romans out of Greece,” Braes added with a nod. “Good.” He then looked up at the expectant faces. “Wait for my signal and then go ahead with phase three. Move them toward the valley, here,” he pointed to the map. “They won’t know what hit ‘em.”
“You do know they outnumber us three-to-one, General,” Krug pointed out.
“Once they’re in the valley it won’t matter,” Braes said. “Those woods are a perfect place for an ambush and that’s exactly what’s going to happen when those reinforcements arrive.”
“Who are these reinforcements, General?” Elias asked curiously.
Braes let the hint of a smile play at the corners of his mouth. “Oh, you’ll see soon enough, men.”
Grenella glanced up at the sky overhead and noted the setting sun in the distance. They were just nearing the crest of yet another hill that overlooked yet another valley on a journey that had taken longer than she had anticipated. She held up a hand to signal for the women behind her to stop. Then she signaled again and the women immediately disappeared off the road they’d been traveling on.
“Remember what we discussed, Aeri,” Grenella said in a hushed tone. “Just a couple of old women on our way to the next village.”
“Right,” Aeriella nodded, as they continued shuffling over the crest of the hill. “Romans?”
“Mm-hm. Marching this way, by the sounds of it.”
Aeriella shot a quick glance over her shoulder and could see no one. She gave the smallest of nods and let a satisfied grin show for the briefest of moments.
“I didn’t think they could do it,” Aeriella said quietly.
“Make it this far inland,” Aeriella explained. “Why are they so far inland?”
Grenella shrugged. “I don’t know. But it sounds like there are a lot of them, if their bootsteps are any indication. They may have landed in one of the other ports and are planning a surprise attack.”
“More than we were led to believe,” Aeriella glanced over her shoulder as the first Roman troops came marching over the rise.
Both women shuffled slowly off the road as a Roman in a red tunic and gold armor rode toward them on a white stallion. The two Amazons shot confused glances at each other before moving into the thick brush at the side of the road.
“Move aside,” the red Roman ordered, as he approached the women who were already well off the road.
“Good day to you, too,” Grenella snidely commented to him, as she held a hand over her eyes to block the sun. “What brings such a fine group of soldiers all the way out here on such a beautiful day? You know you’re leagues from any major city, right?”
The Roman eyed them suspiciously from atop his restless steed. “What business is it of yours, old woman?” A dark brow rose on his chiseled features.
“Well,” Grenella continued. “We’re on our way to that village up ahead. I suppose it would be nice if we got there and found that it was still intact. I don’t think they’re expecting an attack today.”
He glanced ahead as his men marched past. “And what business do you have in that village?”
“My sister,” Aeriella chimed in. “She’s been sick and wants us to come help take care of her until she’s well enough to go about tendin’ her farm.”
He seemed to weigh her explanation for a moment. “We aren’t headed to the village,” he finally said. “But you might want to get your sister out of there. I cannot guarantee that the village will still be standing in a few days time.”
“Why’s that?” Grenella asked with as much innocence as she could muster.
“I can’t really say,” he evaded. “Just take my word for it, old woman. You don’t want to be anywhere near here.”
Grenella kept an eye on the number of troops marching past without being too obvious about it. She was a little surprised that there were so many. The lines of armed soldiers in full armor were about twelve men wide and there seemed to be no end to the numbers that passed by.
“And where would you suggest we go, young man?” Aeriella felt a need to fill the silence. “My sister isn’t well enough to travel.”
“Then load her in a wagon and take her back the way you came,” the man said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
He didn’t wait for a response and merely turned his horse to keep pace with the last of the troops that finally crested the hill. Grenella and Aeriella watched in silence as the last line of Roman soldiers cleared the crest of the hill and marched toward the valley below.
“This is not at all what we were expecting,” Aeriella muttered.
“No, it definitely isn’t,” Grenella agreed.
The Romans finally disappeared around the next bend and it wasn’t long before their footfalls faded into the distance. Once they were completely gone, Grenella silently signaled toward the trees. The hidden Amazons emerged and dropped from the trees until they were all surrounding the two older women.
“Not what we were expecting,” Solari repeated Aeriella’s earlier comment.
Grenella frowned as she continued to stare at the spot where the Romans had disappeared.
“This definitely changes things,” she muttered softly.
They all nodded their agreement as they followed her gaze in thoughtful silence.
“Let me at least try, Braes,” Cyrene kept pace with her husband as best she could as he hurried through the halls of the palace. “He’s my son and…”
“No!” He suddenly dead-stopped and spun around to face her. “No,” his tone softened at the look of shock on her face. “Please don’t even consider it, Cy. I mean it.”
Cyrene narrowed her eyes and set her closed fists on her hips. “And what makes you think you can stop me?”
He studied her for a moment. “I’m general of their majesties’ army and what I say goes.”
She gave him a steady look that said differently. “I’m Xena’s mother,” she countered in the same stern tone as he was using. “And that means I have just as much a say as you do, General.”
His expression hardened. “This is war, woman…”
“And I’ve seen it up-close and personal,” she interjected stubbornly. “I’ve been down in that room all day caring for the dying and wounded.” She held up her hands for him to see. “I still have their blood on my hands to prove it, too.”
He sighed heavily and broke eye contact with her to stare up at the ceiling—at least what was left of it. Moonlight filtered through the few rafters that still remained intact. Most of the ceiling had either caved in or caught fire candlemarks earlier. It was a just a good thing the palace itself was made of stone. It didn’t burn at all. The catapult assaults had finally ceased just as the sun was setting. Braes took some comfort from the fact that his men must have been somewhat successful. He still had no word from any of them, though. That worried him.
“Cyrene,” he stepped close and grasped her upper arms. “I don’t want you caught in the crossfire, sweetheart. Can you understand that? I love you and I don’t want to lose you.”
“You don’t know what Toris will do if you go out there,” Braes countered.
“He’s my son,” Cyrene reached up to grasp his arms. “I need to at least try to make him see reason.”
“My men on the battlements report there are two more legions of Romans joining the Athenians,” Braes said. “They have us surrounded and outnumbered four to one. I’d rather get you out of here and take you to somewhere safe and secure. There’s no telling what those dogs have up their sleeves.”
“Braes,” Cyrene’s tone turned pleading. “I’m not one to sit idly by and let innocent people suffer, not when I can do something about it.”
“He hasn’t listened to any of us up to this point. What makes you think you can get through to him now?”
She shrugged. “I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to give up trying. These people don’t deserve to have their city destroyed for nothing. Xena isn’t even here.”
“And she didn’t want him knowing it, either,” said Braes. “No one outside the army and the immediate family is to know that she’s not here, Cy. You know that.”
“I do,” Cyrene nodded. “But I also know how far this has gone. Xena wouldn’t want these people to die for nothing. And don’t get me started on Gabrielle. She was upset enough over what happened with those emissaries.”
A dark shadow of remembrance came over his expression. “Yeah.”
“I want to do this, sweetheart,” Cyrene saw her opening and took it. “It’s my duty as his mother to talk some sense into my son.”
“And if he decides to turn the tables and take you hostage?”
“Then attack while he thinks he has the advantage,” she laid a palm against his clean-shaven cheek and stroked it with her thumb. “Please.”
It wasn’t a plea. It was more like an affirmation of her love for him. And a goodbye caress—just in case.
“You know I won’t signal an attack if you’re out there with him,” Braes took her hands in his and held them against his chin. “I can’t.” He rested his forehead against hers.
“You do what you must,” Cyrene pulled away enough to look him in the eye. “It’s your duty. My life isn’t worth the destruction of Corinth, Braes. We both know it.”
“You’re the queen’s mother,” Braes squeezed her hands in his. “Your life is worth more than mine.”
She let her forehead rest against his. “I guess we’re at an impasse, then.”
“Stalemate,” he nodded.
“So, what do we do now?”
Braes turned to find Giles standing a respectable distance away with his eyes averted. He moved away from Cyrene and walked over to the man.
“A messenger just arrived a short time ago,” Giles confirmed. “The army is in place. Reinforcements arrived with a report that there are more Romans marching from the north. The catapults were successfully disabled. It’s time.”
Braes shot a glance over his shoulder to Cyrene. “Okay,” he said to Giles. “Give me just another moment.”
“Yes, General,” Giles bowed, turned on his heel and left.
“I have to go,” Braes took Cyrene’s hands and kissed her knuckles. “Please don’t do anything crazy while I’m gone. Okay?”
“Like talk sense into my son?”
“Like leave the city,” Braes soberly replied.
“You don’t trust me?”
“I don’t trust that son of yours.”
Cyrene nodded. “Okay, I’ll give you that.”
Cyrene thought about it for a moment and then nodded again. “Fine. I won’t leave the city.” She kissed him goodbye and watched him turn and walk away.
She wasn’t about to tell him she planned on finding another way to carry out her plans to meet with her son and try and talk some sense into him. It had been years since they had spoken. Cyrene wasn’t under any delusions that Toris would listen, much less change his mind. But that didn’t mean Cyrene was just giving up before she even gave it a shot. Her son was still her son, after all. Even if his choices were never in the best interests of anyone but himself.
Continued in Part 14
Return to the Academy