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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 12: The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls Blood had a not altogether unpleasant smell. It was a sweet odor, not the sort of sweetness that reminded me of flowers on a spring day, but the sickeningly sweet odor of rotting and dying flesh. The viscous red fluid was all around me, coating my hands, blade, and clothes. It coated the ground and spattered every soldier around me. Tenorio had begun to slip and lose his footing as we twirled around, severing heads and limbs.
I leapt into the air, flipping forward over Tenorio's head, and landing in the midst of a small number of Persians. I pulled a second blade from my belt and dispatched the four of them with an enviable economy of movement. I slapped Tenorio sharply on the rump and the large beast trampled men and women in his haste to separate from the bloody arena. He sped off and galloped up the hillside. I was able to spare him a look and watched as he stopped a short distance from the battle. He would wait until it was all over, or at least until this wave had finished. He would wait patiently until someone retrieved him and rewarded the stallion for a job well done.
I was in the thick of the main fighting mass, now. On the fringes I had heard sounds, mostly screams that belonged to humans as well as animals, metal crashing against metal, the sound of bones breaking and the wounded praying to the Gods they served. Here, within the stifling center of the battle I could barely hear a sound. I didn't understand it at the time, but a vision of sinking under the surface of the water came before my mind's eye. A filter of some sort muffled the sounds here as though I was listening from deep underwater.
The beast had me now; of that, there was no doubt. I try to recall, upon the writing of these parchments, exactly how I felt, precisely what took place around me, but in all honesty, that would be nearly impossible. The darkness that overcame me in these times was not only beyond my control, but I had named it a beast for good reasons. Like any animal, the beast within me had senses and abilities that went far beyond that of any human. In the midst of battle, my body adjusted to the world around me in a most intense fashion. I could hear drops of blood as they hit the scarlet covered ground, smell the fear as it came off the soldiers in rolling, overpowering waves. My eyes, too, expanded their vision until I could see everything on the battlefield at once. However, at what a price these Godly abilities came.
The beast knew only of its own capacity for survival and its keen attention to the physical world surrounding it. This animal cared nothing for feelings and emotions. It dealt only in the concrete, not in the abstract. It was no hound to be reined in by its master. No slave to be whipped into submission. Neither was the beast inside of me any ordinary animal, wild or not. I can only compare my darkness to one thing a rabid beast. It was as if the beast enjoyed the violence.
It was an animal with a sickness about it. It was a rogue, a non-pack animal. It snapped and gnashed its teeth at any human brave, or fool, enough to step within striking distance. Its memory was short, if it had one at all. Rather it ran on instinct alone. It hadn't the ability to remember humans; its mind simply didn't function that way. Thus, when the beast was upon me I knew only what it knew, saw only through its eyes.
I cannot say how exact my telling of the rest of this day is, but I believe it to be fairly accurate, since Atrius and others have read and corroborated the tale on this parchment. I had wondered, before the battle, how the darkness would treat me on this occasion. Actually, I remembered more from this battle, being under the influence of the beast, than I had from my previous experiences in its grasp. I initially considered this quite odd until I considered the woman the beast tried to control.
The darkness had consumed me before on the battlefield, but I was a different person then, different on the inside. This time it seemed how shall I put it? I felt as if I was sharing my body with this beast. It wasn't as though I had control, but in the past, I was lost to my bouts with the darkness. I knew nothing from the time the ever-hungry beast broke past its restraints until I could force it back into captivity. Had I ever really forced it back, or had it simply had its fill? This time was different, however, and I could do little more than hang on for the spirited ride, strangely aware of everything the beast did.
One thing the beast excelled at was the fight. I heard myself shouting commands, moving this unit here, patching up a broken flank there. All the while, I dispatched Persian after Persian with blade and hand. There were so many of them. The enemy just kept coming and we kept killing them. I could barely move without wading through bodies.
Our lines had become haphazardly uneven. Our lighter, more rapidly moving Corinthian soldiers pushed forward faster than the heavily laden hoplite infantry could. I saw that our line had become a bottleneck. The Persians had slowed their onslaught, but I couldn't tell if we were pushing them back or if it simply took them that much longer to wade through the dead and wounded.
I, or should I say the beast within, decided to try a tack that Darius would never have expected from me. I ordered a cautious pull back. The half a dozen generals at the front line understood exactly what I was doing. I called for a cautious pull back, instead of a retreat, in order to see what the Persians would do. With the state I was in, I fully expected the Persians to take full advantage of the ploy and rush the front lines.
Suddenly Militiades appeared at my side. Even as trapped within the beast's clutches as I was, Militiades sly treachery was transparent.
"Conqueror, why do we pull back? We should push--"
"Fool! Look around you," I growled.
Indeed, the Persians' superior numbers should have dictated that they take advantage, but they, quite frankly, amazed me. Their army took our actions to indicate a break in the fighting, a common practice in battle, but not as conventional as breaking for the night. There were times when this technique backfired, but not now. I wasn't the only one to stand there with a rather dumfounded expression on my face.
Atrius met my eyes and I noticed something more than simple shock at the Persians' behavior in his expression.
"Conqueror?" he questioned.
"What?" I hissed in return.
"I--Are you yourself?"
I knew what he asked and why. I'd never been able to act like a halfway conscious being when the darkness took me. In this instance, I had turned into something more tolerable than the usual murdering, bloodthirsty warrior. The beast still controlled me, but I was there. I was aware and with a voice. I still had the urge to separate the first man who touched me from his reproductive organs, however.
"No!" I hissed vehemently. Atrius was one of the few who I never spoke harshly to, but I knew it was important that he see I was only holding on to myself by an extremely tenuous grasp.
"Are you injured?"
I fully looked at him now, realizing that if I looked anything such as he it was no wonder he asked me such a question. Covered nearly from tip to tail in blood, dirt, and the assorted tiny bits of the enemy's skin and bone, he looked a fright. Looking down at myself I saw that I did indeed look much the same.
"No." I shook my head slowly while I examined my red-tinged hands.
Snapping my head up and quickly coming to myself, I began to issue orders to prepare us for the next wave of the assault. I planned to be the first to begin fighting again, a psychological advantage for our smaller fighting force.
Moments later, I stood with my generals and other officers to finalize our last battle strategy. I knew that this battle would last more than a day. We had neither the men, nor the resources, for an extended attack. I guessed that three or four days would be to our advantage.
"Wounded dead?" I asked no on in particular.
"A dozen soldiers dead, Lord Conqueror, about twice that wounded."
"Altogether?" I asked in disbelief.
I looked around for Atrius to see him nod. "Their dead are four deep out there, Conqueror. We've barely been touched."
"Pray that Athena keeps it that way," I said to them all.
"Does everyone understand what they're to do? If you have questions you damn well better ask them now." I looked at their silent faces. "Master Yu Pan, do your men know the signal?"
"I have made them quite aware that they are to look for the yellow smoke only, Lord Conqueror. We shall not fail you," Yu Pan replied.
I nodded my head, knowing that this man was a warrior at heart. He would carry out his end, of that I was certain.
"Lord Conqueror, I must speak," Militiades began.
I could hear the growl as it started in my own chest. I fought to keep from lashing out. "And?"
"With all respect, I feel as though I should lead one of the flanks, I would be much more useful--"
"Doing what I tell you," I spat. I took a deep breath, the beast longing to plunge a blade in the traitor's middle. I needed to keep the man from seeing my plan for him too soon, however. I added a few words that I hoped he would take as flattery.
"Look, you're one of the best warriors I have. When it comes to a fight with Darius, I want you beside me."
He inclined his head slightly and held his tongue. I had said the right words to praise him. Perhaps I was so convincing because the words I chose were not a lie, I simply meant them in a completely different way than the polemarchos suspected.
I stood naked in the small wooden tub. It had actually been a cask used for honeyed mead at one time. Someone had sawed the cask in half in order to use it as a tub of sorts. I could still smell the sweet odor of the drink once the water had dampened the wood.
I poured another bucket of cold water over my head, rinsing the last of the day's bloody fight from my body. On this, the second evening of battle, a cold bucket of water was more of a bath than most of the soldiers would get. They would have plenty of hot food and a dry place to sleep, but little else. The battle would start at first light and we would begin all over again.
My body hurt in places I couldn't remember it hurting for some time. It had been a great many seasons since I'd been this bruised and tired, exhausted down deep into my body. I stepped from the tub; its water now tinged a ruby red from the blood of Persians. I toweled my body dry and put on clean clothing. I was about to fall into my makeshift bed, but it wouldn't do to be caught by a surprise attack in the middle of the night wearing nothing but an angry look.
I gulped down nearly half a mug of wine just as Atrius requested permission to enter. He came each night, I suspect to make sure I was all right. He walked in and I fell onto the bed, heedless of how it would look. He is probably the only man alive that I would do such a thing before.
"Have you eaten?" He indicated the untouched food on the table.
"Too tired," I mumbled as I threw one arm over my eyes. "Go ahead if you're hungry."
Thank you, Conqueror, but I don't think I could lift it to my lips."
"I hear you, my friend," I answered.
"Atrius," I called to him just before he left the tent. "I want every soldier ready to fight one candlemark before dawn tomorrow. I want to see all the officers two candlemarks before."
"Aye, Conqueror. So you think tomorrow will end it?"
"It will if I have anything to say about it. I want to go right at them just as the sky gives us enough light to see by. I have an idea, now that we've cut the Hades out of their number."
"I'll give the word. Good night, Conqueror."
I barely heard that last phrase. I know I was asleep by the time he turned because I never heard him leave the tent.
"Here and here." I pointed out the placement to Yu Pan.
We stared down at a map of the valley and the old man nodded silently. The oil lamps sputtered from the breeze that swept through the command tent. As sweltering as the summer days had been, that was how cold the night had grown. The flickering light cast eerie copper shadows upon the canvas walls of the men and women standing around the map table.
"The catapults won't launch the black powder packages far enough, but Atrius said that you seem you have a way to launch the missiles over our heads and into the midst of the Persians." I looked to Yu Pan for an answer.
"It is true, Tong zhi zhe. You may be assured that my technique will be most effective."
"I trust in your abilities, Master Yu Pan," I said in acknowledgement of the man's hidden talents and powers that were far superior to my own.
"Let me explain once again what I want from all of you. You all know what your individual tribes must do to make our plan work. At first light, I plan to hit Darius's front line. We hit him hard this time, with everything we have. The battle must end today."
"And today is most important for what reason, Lord Conqueror? After all, we have the resources of all Athens less than a day away," General Stesilaus remarked.
"I know you all feel that this is the case, but I received some news last evening that made that a moot point. Late last night our spies confirmed that the Persians are loading their cavalry onto their ships. I suspect that by midday they'll be ready to set sail."
"They're returning to Persia?" Themistocles asked; his brow knit in confusion.
"They're heading for Athens," I answered. "Darius is preparing to attack Athens while we're still fighting here."
"Surely, they will band together and fight. Even though the force we left in the city was meager they--"
"They'll be dispatched as easily as if they were old women. I'm certain Darius has infiltrated the city with a small, but extremely well trained group of soldiers or mercenaries. I'm even more certain that there are those living within the city that are helping Darius and these men."
A loud grumbling rose up from all around the table, with the exception of a select few that already knew of these developments. I had to eventually order their silence. "There's no sense in offering up righteous indignation at this point. The only way we can stop it all is to beat them here today. We can't allow those ships to set sail for Athens."
There was silence after my words. They were a group of people who just realized that there was a traitor among them. Perhaps not here, in this room, but where they lived, where they worked. The traitors might even be people who had lived near and befriended any of these men. I wondered what all these generals would think if I pointed out Militiades to them. I knew exactly what they'd do, which is why I held my tongue. I needed Militiades fighting abilities for a while longer yet. Besides, the beast was nearly salivating at the ways in which it would make our old friend pay for his treason.
I took in the sight of the officers around me, watched as their faces hardened, and their jaws clenched. It was a battle for pride now and that's what I wanted, what I needed of them.
"To keep from being outflanked and charged in at the rear, we're putting the Hoplites at the front. The lightweight infantry will start down the hill at a run in front of the hoplites, along with the cavalry we have left. Once they hit flat ground, they'll split and set up position at the right and left flank. We'll extend the front line the entire length of the plain by weakening the center. The Persians will push through and we'll come around and outflank them. It's rather basic, but with the way they've been pushing more men in, crawling over their own dead, I think it will work."
The silence that hung in the air felt like something tangible as if I could have sliced it in two with my dagger.
"My blade is yours, Lord Conqueror," Atrius said.
"And mine, Conqueror." One by one, every man and woman in the tent repeated the phrase. It may have been the quietest battle frenzy I'd ever stirred, but no less inspirational.
"Then let us prepare ourselves for battle, and may Athena be with us," I said.
As I said the words, I truly hoped that Athena would do a little something to protect my Gabrielle, as well. Deep down, my wife was all I could think about. I felt a certain unease, but couldn't possibly have known what it was attributed to. On the surface, though, I wouldn't be able to spare another thought for Gabrielle until much, much later.
Tenorio's muscles twitched uneasily. The stallion shifted his footing and I adjusted myself to remain steady in the saddle. Tenorio wasn't nervous; rather he itched to get back into the thick of it. He'd been bred to do exactly this and he was good at it. I knew his actions because the beast within me was already acting in much the same manner. Craving the fight and knowing it was only an instant away.
I rode up and down the hoplite line inspecting the soldiers who looked as ready for the fray as Tenorio and me. Daylight was still moments from now, but shortly the sun would rise over the mountains along the gulf. The brilliant glare would be at our back and in our enemy's eyes.
The Persian army outnumbered us, probably still two to one, but I had faith in my battle plan. Five of the generals wanted to immediately rush back and defend the walls of Athens. The other five, ironically led by Militiades, eventually convinced the others that attack would be the only sure way to put an end to the Persian threat for good.
I hadn't really planned on any rousing speech today, but even if I had, a young hoplite beat me to it. Since I had obviously overlooked the matter, the young man stepped forward. His voice was that of an orator as he encouraged the soldiers around him. I smiled to myself when I realized that it was Gabrielle's young friend, Aeschylus. I wondered if anyone would remember the young man for his words.
"On, sons of Greeks! Strike for freedom of your country! Strike for freedom of your children and your wives, for the shrines of your fathers' Gods, and for the sepulchers of your sires. All are now staked upon the strife."
Athena herself couldn't have timed it better. Just as the rousing cheers went up from the many lines of soldiers, the sunlight peeked over the cliffs. It hit the backs of our bronze armor and the army glowed as though the Goddess herself had enchanted us.
I gave the order, and thousands of cheering men and women rushed down the hillside toward what appeared to be an army of quite terrified Persians. It may have been due to the golden glow surrounding our army or maybe even the blood curling screams that the men let loose. They had seen us preparing, so we hadn't caught them completely unaware, but I believe our charge at first light was something they hadn't seen coming. Whatever the cause, the Persians were in a chaotic state by the time we reached them.
I charged down the hill leading the rest of our small cavalry force. It was roughly a league from our starting point to where the enemy waited. Without their cavalry, they were immediately on the defensive. We barreled into the infantry line and they seemed so confused that they didn't put up nearly the fight that we'd experienced from them over the last couple of days.
As soon as our charging infantry hit flat ground, they split into two sections. The Athenian infantry moved to the right under General Callimachus, while the Plataeans split to the left under General Aristides. The cavalry slipped in behind the infantry to take their place, a tactic I used to hold the Persians until the hoplites crossed the distance that separated our two armies.
The Persian's light infantry was down to the dregs of its soldiers, meaning that their best and brightest had already sacrificed themselves in the previous two days. I should take this opportunity to explain some details about the force we were fighting. The Persians made a living on the slave trade. Not only did slaves serve in their homes and work places, but in their armies, as well. Black archers from the land of the eternal sands, swordsmen from the banks of the Indus, Euphrates, and the Nile comprised the ranks of the Persian army. They had little training, no uniformity of language, and they'd all had different military systems in their homelands. Add to these disadvantages the fact that their shields were made of wicker, they wore no body armor, and their scimitars were ineffective against our long swords. It was no wonder the men died handily at the end of our blades. The Persians' advantage lay in their sheer numbers, however. As soon as I dispatched one man, another took his place before me. This was where Yu Pan came in.
When I heard the high-pitched whistling noise above me, I had no idea what it could be, for I couldn't spare a look. Something literally shrieked into the air as it flew past. A sudden explosion behind the enemy's line rocked the men on the ground and I silently cheered for Yu Pan. He told me that he had devised a plan for the black powder ammunition he created. I had my doubts when I saw it this morning, but I did trust in the old man's knowledge. I had seen something similar during my time spent in Chin. The decorative explosions that the people of Chin sent flying into the air during religious holidays looked very much like Yu Pan's black powder explosives, except that his were far more deadly.
He sealed the black powder into a tightly rolled parchment tube, something like a scroll case. A fuse ran into the tube and Yu Pan lightly attached the whole object to a large stake that he stuck into the ground. When Yu Pan lit the fuse, the object took off into the sky, leaving the wooden stake behind. It made a wide arc over our heads, shrieking like a banshee. It landed perfectly amidst the Persians. It was simply one more thing threw the Persian soldiers' lines into disarray.
Eventually, the Persians began to back up. Their spearmen stood firm, but that was their undoing. The hoplite's eight-foot spears were longer than the six-foot variety the Persians used. I gave the word and our flanking infantry units moved inward, just as the hoplites had done on our first day of fighting. With that pincer-like move, we all but destroyed the Persian spearmen.
I could feel it begin then, the idea that victory might not be as far away as I had previously thought. Suddenly, victory was not merely a possibility. It was inevitable. The Persian soldiers on the front lines, the ones who weren't dead already, took flight. That's when I began to feel that pressure in my head and chest. It was a pain that felt as if the beast was trying to claw its way out of my body. In reality, it didn't wish to go anywhere. The beast only wanted control. Surrounded as I was by the screams of the wounded and the dying, the blood that covered my hands, saddle, and Tenorio's neck, how could the darkness not have wanted a part of that?
It wasn't a gradual process, the beast stealing my psyche, not this time. I jumped from Tenorio's back and slapped his rump. The battle completely overwhelmed my senses once I was down there in the midst of it all. I knew I was no longer myself when the next man I sliced open caused me to feel good too good. Just like that, it happened. The beast was in control and I had to fight for my survival.
The Persian rear flanks had been keeping up a steady volley of arrows until Yu Pan's explosives started to thin their ranks considerably. The black powder bombs left huge, gaping holes in the earth, a scorched ring encircling their perimeter. They made convenient graves for the Persians who were unfortunate enough to be standing there. Now, the Persian archers lay dead in great piles within the concave fissures.
Darius's tactics surprised me. He seemed determined to send more and more soldiers to their death. Our right and left flanks continued to move in, squeezing their troops in at the middle and cutting off their front lines from any assistance. Darius continued to send men into the bottleneck, ten and twelve at a time with no success. At last, the Persians literally turned and fled.
It was the worst thing they could have done. We slaughtered the enemy as they turned and ran for the shore. In a haphazard fashion, we chased them down. It was a mass of running bodies, screams, and slippery footing due to the blood. We chased them all the way into the sea. Unfortunately, for us, that was when we discovered that Darius had already set sail with his cavalry. Many of the ships were just sailing away from land as we approached.
I quickly ordered Yu Pan and our surviving archers to bombard the closest ships with fire and explosives. It was here that the remaining soldiers, obviously seeing that Darius had abandoned them, made one last stand. It was a fierce one.
Both of my swords were in constant motion. The remaining Persians came at us as though their lives were over, which was rather close to the truth. They no longer even had the advantage of numbers. I noticed with some distress that General Callimachus fell beneath half a dozen enemy soldiers. It was nearly over, but this last wave hit us the hardest and I watched a number of my officers fall to the desperate Persians. I had no time to mourn them, however, since the enemy surrounded me in great numbers.
I didn't even try to fight the beast as it cried out in a sound like glee, using all it's inhuman strength to butcher the enemy before me. This time, the beast may not have been within my control, but I freely gave in to its bondage, knowing that it meant the difference in my living or dying. I never expected to lose my footing.
I went down in a tangled mass of limbs belonging to both the dead and the living. I had honestly never fought in a battle where the dead piled up so high. It was nearly impossible to return to my feet. I slashed out with my sword as I kicked at anything that moved or came near me. In all that confusion, how was I to know that Militiades had fought his way closer and now stood over me.
I could see by the look in his eye that he was caught in the same battle haze as I, the sort of spell that a warrior sinks into when in the midst of battle. Suddenly, the tall man was standing over me and I wondered how my plans to dispatch this traitor had gone so far awry. Wouldn't this be the perfect spot for him to do away with me? I was in a vulnerable position, and with all the chaos, chances were that no one would even notice who he was killing. The next thing I knew, Militiades had raised his sword.
"I've been waiting a long time for this, Conqueror."
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's
Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I heard someone calling my name from what seemed like a great distance. Either that or I was still under the water, which I had dreamed I fell into as consciousness left me. My body still felt as though I was crawling through mud or quicksand. Everything seemed to be moving slower than usual. I believe I lost consciousness again because I then felt as though I was dreaming. Scenes passed by my mind's eye quickly, leaving me confused and longing to see my wife.
"What's your name again?"
"Gabrielle, My Lord."
"I want you to try to remember something look at me, Gabrielle. As long as I have food on my table, little one, you will not go hungry."
"Another smile for me, Gabrielle? I am indeed a fortunate Conqueror."
"Do you feel something something more for me?"
"What? What do you feel?"
"I don't know just more."
"This is my promise, Gabrielle. All that I have I share with you, except my heart, and that I give to you completely." I said softly.
"I don't think I deserve to be a Queen, Xena."
"You do, my love, and I plan on spending the rest of my life showing you just how much I believe that."
"I'm so happy that I'm married to you Xena!"
"You've made me quite a happy woman as well, little one. Will I make a good wife, do you think?
"I think you will make a splendid wife, my Conqueror."
I woke myself by bolting upright into a seated position. I feared for Xena in a way that I never had before. The visions that passed by my unconscious mind's eye were all of Xena and some of our most precious moments together. I had no earthly idea why those scenes had returned to visit me in association with such a fearful premonition of Xena. I struggled to discern what the visions meant as I awoke more fully. That's when I realized that my head hurt like Hades.
"It's all right. You're safe now."
"Safe?" I rubbed the knot at the back of my head and tried to make my eyes focus on my surroundings.
"I--I mean you're all right here."
"Okay. Now tell me where in the Tartarus here is." I didn't like to swear, and I rarely felt the need to, but my head ached something fierce, putting me in a bad humor.
The voice above me sounded familiar, but I couldn't easily place it. I shook my head to remove the cobwebs lingering there, which only made it ache that much more. I rubbed at my temples and could barely believe my eyes.
"Periander?" I asked in disbelief.
The large man who ran the Athens library towered over me. He appeared both fearsome and comical at the same time. Periander was easily a full hand taller than Xena and built quite solidly. He was dressed in traveling clothes; rather different from the customary robes he usually wore around the library. He and I had become rather good friends in the time since Xena and I had come to Athens, but he was honestly the last person I expected to see before me. His physical appearance was intimidating to those who didn't know him, but his mannerisms were so effeminate and gentle that the older man appeared a complete contradiction.
"Periander, what in the known world are you doing here?"
"Well I live here," he answered in apparent confusion.
"I mean," I glanced around at my unfamiliar surroundings. "What am I doing here?"
"Well, I couldn't just leave you lying in the alley outside that theater."
"Leave me--you? Okay, maybe I'm still a bit woozy, but I think you're going to have to explain this from the beginning because I have no idea what we're talking about."
"Forgive me, your Highness. I told the Conqueror I would be bad at this." He sat beside the pallet I was on and wrung his hands, one after the other.
"You spoke with Xena about this today?" I was so much more confused than when the conversation had started.
"Oh, heavens, no. It's been a matter of days."
"You mean a few days ago, Xena told you I would be accosted?"
"Now, how would she have known that?" He looked so oddly sincere that I hadn't the heart to scream at him, which is what I wanted to do out of mere frustration.
"Periander," I asked as I rubbed my pounding head. "Do you have any willow bark that you can make a tea from?"
"Oh, forgive my manners. Of course, I bet your head hurts something fierce. You hit the ground like a sack of clay bricks. I'll be back in just a few heartbeats."
True to his word, hardly any time at all had passed before Periander brought me a steaming mug of the relatively bitter tea. He had also been kind enough to drop a few chunks of fresh honeycomb into the hot brew. The wax melted and floated atop the brown liquid. The drink worked like a magical elixir and I could finally think without my brain balking at the attempt.
"Feeling any better?" He asked.
"Much, thank you. Now, shall we try this again? What in Zeus's name happened today? Gods, is it still today?" I at least answered the last question myself. Looking out the window above me, I could see that not much time had really passed at all. The sun had not yet dipped below the buildings surrounding us.
"Actually, you've been asleep quite some time," Periander answered. "If you hadn't been talking in your sleep on occasion, I would have finally gone for a doctor."
"Asleep for how long?"
"It's been a full day, your Highness."
"Seriously? Oh no."
"I'm afraid so. I brought you here yesterday at this time."
"So, tell me what happened."
"I'm not at all sure where to start," Periander said.
"How about when you spoke with Xena," I prompted. I was most interested in what Xena and Periander had spoken of, and what had prompted their conversation.
The quiet, yet physically daunting man had become a dear friend to me over the past fortnight or so. We talked mostly about scrolls, bards, and writings of one sort or another. I had learned that Periander had been a soldier many summers past, but his constitution for such unpleasantness had changed, therefore, his position within the city's library.
"I was most surprised myself," he began. "The Conqueror showed up at the library one midday. Now, in all the years that I've known the Conqueror, she and I have exchanged no more than a few words. To tell the truth, before you came along, Xena the Conqueror frightened me each time I had to pass her by. Acasia always told me to--"
"Acasia? The man who works for Xena?"
I found it highly improbable that Periander even knew such a man, let alone spoke to him. I had seen him on a rare occasion and I knew that his work for Xena was of the more unpleasant variety. Xena trusted him, which spoke highly of his character, but I knew for a fact that he must have been an assassin at least part of the time.
"Yes, that's the man. You see he told me--"
"Acasia? How do you know him, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Oh, not at all. We share a home here in Athens."
"Are we speaking of the same man? You mean the assass--I uh I mean " I stopped, my face red hot in embarrassment.
"It's all right. He gets that a lot."
"Have you two been friends long?" How else was I to put that? Knowing Periander the way I did, I suspected his friendship with Xena's trusted man was something more than platonic. I simply couldn't imagine Acasia as Periander's lover, however.
My friend smiled wistfully and nodded. "We've been friends since we were young men in the Spartan infantry together. Our lives were very different back then. Being Spartan meant something very different. I don't know how familiar you are with the Spartan community, your Highness, but it was a common practice for an older soldier to mentor a younger man. More often than not, that included becoming lovers. Spartan society was for men. We were taught from birth that desiring to be in the company of men was the natural way of things."
"I honestly had no idea," I answered. "I knew the Spartans lived a military sort of life, but I didn't realize all this."
"To Spartan men, women were only there to give birth to a strong line of sons. There was no love or emotion in the unions. Men didn't even live with their wives. The men of their unit, their brothers, and lovers were usually more preferable company.
"I was older than Acasia, so I became his mentor, his lover. We drifted apart, fighting in one war or another over the years. After he lost his arm in battle, it took a great deal to bring him to a spot where he wanted to live again. I was there for him and we've been together ever since."
"How absolutely wonderful. Periander, I had no idea your life had been so varied." I thought about how happy my friend seemed with his unlikely lover. The seemingly mismatched pair caused me to think of Xena, and I suddenly remembered the urgency of my task.
"Gods above! I almost forgot what I was doing here. Periander, were you there when I came out into that alley? What happened to the soldiers?"
"To tell the truth, your Highness, I had been following you since you left your home, on the Conqueror's orders, of course."
"Xena told you to follow me? But, how did she know--"
"I suspect the two of you know each other better than you know yourselves." He smiled gently in my direction. "Let me explain. The day that the Conqueror came to visit me at the library, she requested a favor. She had no one in Athens that she trusted completely, yet she needed just that. She knew how fond you and I had become and how much I respected you. She asked if, should anything happen in the way of a revolt within Athens, I would see you safely from the city. I wouldn't be cross with her in any way. I believe it took a great deal for her to ask for help. It was obvious to me that she cares for you greatly."
"And she told you I would sneak away from the house?" I was still rather dumbfounded that Xena had so easily read my mind, amazed that she had actually anticipated what I would feel it necessary to do.
"What she actually said was that the situation might never come to be, but that I should watch the road near the bottom of the hillside at your home. She told me quite plainly that there was a chance you might feel the need to take the situation into your hands. She entrusted your safety to me, so I did as she requested. I followed you into the city. My skills certainly aren't what they used to be, though. You caught me in the market."
"So, it was you following me all along."
"Aye, your Highness. If I had any idea who had been in that theater, I never would have allowed you go inside. Once I slipped in to follow you I knew that the revolt the Conqueror had hinted at was very much a reality. I'm sorry that I couldn't help you until you came out. I'm afraid I reacted a bit too enthusiastically in shoving you out of the way. How is your head, by the way?"
"Reeling," I answered, rubbing the still tender spot on the back of my head. "But not because of my fall. It seems that my worst fears have come to pass, my friend."
I then explained the entire situation to Periander, including our suspicions about Militiades and his wife, Livia. I assumed that if Xena had trusted the man with my life, this information would do no harm. Besides, I needed help at this point. He didn't act surprised by the news of these traitors and told me as much. It was apparent to me that he had no fondness for any of the members of the old aristocracy.
"Were we found out by the mercenaries?" I asked.
"Not at all. Their ilk aren't
of the most dependable sort. I'm sure whoever is in charge thinks that the two
men he sent to take care of you simply decided to carry you off and have a bit
of their perverse fun before killing you."
He said it so matter of factly, with barely a hint of emotion.
"And what became of my intended assassins?" I asked.
"Dispatched quite easily." I pictured each of them with their throats cut and I felt a physical shudder take me at the ease with which Periander spoke of death, this gentleman that I had previously known as simply a man of letters.
"We have much to do and only a short spell of time to work with. I'm afraid I must call on you again for your help."
"I would consider it an honor, my lady."
"Do you have a parchment and quill for me to write with?" I asked.
Once he returned with the requested materials, I began to write, explaining what I wanted him to do at the same time. "I need you to take this message back to my home, to Ephiny, the second in command of the Amazons. Tell her about the mercenaries and where I'll be. I don't want her charging into the city. The only way to catch our traitors is to allow them to make their move. We can't let on that we know what's coming. Lastly, you're to make sure that Ephiny sends to Corinth for at least 100 warships."
"Warships? Sent here?"
"Exactly. Seeing the mercenary forces here tells me that the Persians are planning to sail their fleet toward Athens at some point. If we haven't heard anything from Xena, then we know the war isn't at an end. Athens isn't being taken by the soldiers we saw yesterday, so I'm sure there will be some sort of a sign given to Darius and his ships, something to tell them when the mercenary army is in place. My guess is that he'll set sail for Athens at that time."
"And what sign will we look for?"
"That's the problem, I have no idea. The only good thing is that we know it hasn't happened yet."
"I don't think I should leave you alone, your Highness."
"Periander, I think we're on a first name basis by now, don't you?"
"Even so, I don't think--"
"We have no choice. Between the two of us, I'm the one who can get into any noble house in Athens. Talking to them will be our only way of learning about the revolt before it actually happens."
"Then I'll go with you. I could--"
"No. It has to be this way, my friend. Ephiny must order those warships in or Athens will be lost."
I rolled up the parchment containing the information that I'd just given to Periander. A tilted candle over the scroll's middle allowed the melted wax to drip and puddle there. Removing the signet ring that Xena had given to me before we were married, I pressed the design, the Queen's seal, into the pliable material.
"Here is your proof," I said as I handed him the scroll. I could tell that he didn't want to go, but he was a soldier, after all. He took the scroll and inclined his head.
"Aye, my Queen. And where shall we find you on our return?"
"There's only one person who can help us inside of Athens. I'll go to Cleisthenes residence and explain the situation. He knows more about this city than anyone. With his help I'm certain we can stop the revolt."
"I'll be as quick as Hermes," Periander said with a wink. With no more of a goodbye than that, he was gone and I was left to carry out my side of the plan.
End Gabrielle's Addendum
To be continued in : Chapter 13: Within Heaven's Circle I Had Not Guessed At This
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