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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
I didn't go out of my way to hide myself as I made my way to Cleisthenes home in the eastern section of Athens, the wealthy area, so to speak. The size of his estate had surprised me when Xena and I attended a party there in our honor upon first arriving in the city. He didn't seem the sort of man to give in to the trappings of wealth. I believe that's why I instantly liked him. He appeared genuine and down to earth, far different from his wife. What an unlikely match! Lenora was as shallow and dense as they came. Her callousness astounded even me and I have met many such women during my life as a slave.
As I said, I didn't go out of my way to hide, that is, I didn't go slinking about the back alleyways, but I did indeed attempt to remain as unremarkable as possible. If trouble came my way, I could always reveal my identity, but at this point, I remembered the two hundred or so soldiers waiting in that theater.
I had no idea how to approach the residence, unannounced and unescorted as I was. I was tempted to cross through the gardens and enter through the slave's rooms. I decided that I would treat this large estate just as though it was a home in a small village. Certainly there was nothing improper about simply walking up and asking if the lady of the house might receive me. If all else failed, I would tell them who I was. I smiled to think how they would bustle around then.
"Hello," I said to the young man sweeping the portico with a roll of wild fennel branches. He seemed to be a few summers younger than I was with a slight build, which could have explained why he was a house servant. He looked me up and down before deciding that my appearance didn't warrant him pausing in his task.
"We give no free meals. Try your luck down at the agora."
I arched an eyebrow, not over the fact that the young man directed me to the city's commercial center, but because of his attitude. It was very clear that he worked for Lenora.
"I would like an audience with the lady of the estate."
"So would I, but as you can see, that's not going to happen."
His glib attitude and my own need for speed tested my patience. "Please tell the lady here that the Queen of the Greek Empire is at her door."
He chuckled at that. "And I'm the Lord Conqueror, too." He laughed some more.
It was at this point that a number of the other yard servants paused in their duties to listen to our odd conversation. A young woman came over to the man I had been dealing with and, after continually glancing at me, she tugged on the man's sleeve. Her strange behavior continued until the exasperated young man turned to her angrily.
"What?!" he asked.
The girl pulled at his sleeve until he bent down to meet her. She whispered in his ear. I guessed at what she related to him when I saw his face pale slightly. Without so much as an apology, the man bolted inside the house.
Heartbeats later I heard a familiar voice. "Don't be a fool, Phidias! Why on earth would the Queen of the Empire be at our do--"
I'm not sure which of us was the most surprised, me, standing there in obvious astonishment or Livia, Militiades wife, looking as nonplussed as I.
"Your Highness?" Livia managed to say.
"Livia. What a pleasant surprise to see you here," I lied.
The young servant who had treated me with such indifference dropped to the ground before me, his forehead pressed upon the ground. My stomach turned at how many times I had assumed the same position.
"Forgive me your Highness. I had no idea. I meant no disrespect, I swear. My family has always served the Crown."
"He'll be whipped, of course," Livia stated without much emotion.
"That's not necessary."
"But if you let them get away with--"
"I said no!" I responded, perhaps more forcefully than I had intended. "He meant no harm. Did you, Phidias?" I used the name I had overheard Livia speaking.
"None at all, your Highness," he answered.
"Then it's all made right as far as I'm concerned."
"Consider yourself a lucky man, Phidias, that the Queen has a soft spot for those less fortunate."
The tone of her voice surprised me greatly. If she had said it sarcastically, or even with the venom that I had become accustomed to from her, then I would have understood, if that was the right way to put it. Instead, Livia's voice seemed full of wonder, as though she could not quite fathom the concept of treating those with a lesser station in life humanely. I could only hope that she would some day imitate my actions.
"Where have my manners gone. Come in and be welcome, your Highness. Are you hungry?" she asked with a glint of amusement in her eye. My stomach had taken that moment to inform all those around us that it had been some time since my last meal.
"I must admit that I'm famished. The last day has caused some forgetfulness where eating is concerned."
"Come, let's attend to you then," she replied.
Again, I wondered at her considerate tone. I would be on my guard, however. This would be the sort of action I would expect if Livia were trying to lull me into trusting her. She may not have been a warrior, but I could very easily envision Livia plunging a fruit dagger into my heart.
Just as I turned to follow Livia into the house, her servant, Phidias, took hold of my hand and raised my fingers to his lips, placing a chaste kiss there.
"I am your slave, my lady," he said.
"Phidias, there are no more slaves in the Empire," I told him. His words had taken me unaware, as did his fervor.
"Then I would gladly give my life for you."
"Well, let's hope it never comes to that. Shall we?"
"I'm afraid I've eaten like a barracks soldier," I admitted to my hostess.
Livia laughed and it was a sound that seemed genuine to my ears, not the polite chuckle I would have expected from her. I tensed at this unexpected turn. If Livia noticed my behavior, she certainly gave no sign.
"I don't mean to be rude, but what is it that I can help you with? Obviously your business is urgent considering you have no escort or Royal Guard."
"Perhaps I simply don't want them to be seen," I replied. I certainly didn't want her to know that I had no guards around me.
"Ahh, very sly of you."
I stared at her for a moment. How was I to ask what in Hades name she was doing in Cleisthenes home? I would ask in the only way I knew how, but would that give anything away? I suppose there were any number of reasons that I might meet with the man, but would any of them sound plausible enough to Livia? What could have dragged the Queen out of her home, dressed in traveling attire, other than something of the gravest circumstance?
"Actually, Livia, I came her expecting to find Cleisthenes," I answered honestly.
"Oh my, then you are off the path a bit."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I know this might sound odd, but Cleisthenes and Lenora are living on our estate and I came down to live at theirs while Militiades is gone."
"You switched homes?" I asked in some confusion.
She chuckled softly. "It's not as bizarre as it sounds. Militiades and I live so far atop the mountain. With him gone, the state of our country right now, and having two small children, I felt much safer down here, closer to the city. Besides, my half-sister lives within the city gates and her husband is off fighting, too. So, she's staying here with the children and me."
"I see." Her answer sounded rather reasonable to me. It wasn't unusual in the least for wives on large estates to come into the city gates to live during times of war, especially when soldiers were in short supply.
"I suppose " She looked down at the hands in her lap. "Well, I suppose you think me rather weak for something like that. I imagine that an Amazon Queen isn't afraid of much."
I smiled at her comment. "If you only knew."
My response seemed to put her at ease and she smiled back at me. "It's been difficult, living in Athens these past ten summers. My half sister is the only family that I have within a hundred leagues. I know you think of me as a bitch."
"Not at all," I guiltily lied.
"Has anyone ever told you that you make a horrid liar, your Highness?"
"Yes, I do think someone might have mentioned it somewhere along the way." I smiled in return and I think we both knew the truth about our relationship just then.
"It's obvious that you are a most diplomatic woman," she said. "I'm able to look at myself realistically, though. I know I've treated you poorly since you've been in Athens. Jealousy, I suppose. You have what I once had. Where I come from, I was considered a princess. Here, in Athens, I am only the wife of a general."
"Is status that important?" I asked.
"It was once. I'm not so sure anymore."
"I have to say, Livia, confusion becomes you much better than arrogance."
"Thank you I think."
We laughed together and I suddenly wondered if this was all a ploy meant to put me at ease. Gods, how I hate intrigue. I trust people far too much for it. She seemed so sincere. It was either the honest truth or she was giving the performance of her life.
Something struck me just then. It was probably nothing, but I decided to pursue it. "Livia, are you and Militiades close to Cleisthenes and his wife?"
"No, not really, which made his offer a little odd, I admit. I, for one, can't tolerate Lenora. I don't really understand why, but Militiades doesn't care much for Cleisthenes. I gathered it was one of those 'young man' type grudges. I just assumed they knew one another summers and summers ago."
"Do you mean that Cleisthenes was the one who made the offer to have you move into his home?" I felt an odd chill run across my back that had little to do with the air around us.
"Yes. Is that important in some way?"
It came to me in a sudden rush, the jumbled pieces of thought, along with bits and pieces of conversation that the last fortnight had brought to me. In one startling epiphany I remembered what had bothered me so about the luncheon I had with the women of Athens. I had left the lunch that day with niggling thoughts that something important lingered in my unconscious mind. I had missed something significant. As to whether it was a face or a word I had been unsure, but the harder I chased after the thoughts, the farther back they shrank from my conscious grasp. Now, they settled before my eyes as obvious as a massive hovering albatross.
"I have to admit, I was rather surprised at their generous offer," Livia went on. "It's not like Lenora to be charitable, as you well know. I imagine that wartime allows us to reveal our true colors, eh?"
"You have no idea," I answered.
End Gabrielle's Addendum
Many times had I been close to death, but I never remember it being like this before. In the past, I had been such an angry woman. If Hades had been standing at my shoulder, I would have merely spit in his face, not caring if it earned me an eternity in the pits of Tartarus. If I died, then I died. It would only have served to make me angrier.
Now, all I could think of was Gabrielle.
Each word I had wanted to say, but never did flashed into my head like lightning in a summer sky. Every touch I wish I had made, but never acted upon. All the harsh comments I had ever made disappeared into the air around me and all I could see before my mind's eye were the moments of love and compassion that Gabrielle and I had shared.
I had been scrambling backward, out of the way of Militiades long sword. The bodies and the blood made it nearly impossible to move. I slipped and slid along the ground, scuttling like a crab on the beach, my hands unable to reach the sword that I'd dropped.
"I've been waiting a long time for this, Conqueror."
In my mind, I cursed Militiades. I prayed for his soul to burn in the darkest pits of the underworld for his traitorous acts. Who knew that I would have to amend that prayer so quickly? I attempted to make one last lunge free of the blade that Militiades had raised so high into the air.
It was then that I saw the truth, there before me all along. How could my sight have been so dim?
I rolled toward Militiades just as his sword hissed into the air. The blade continued down past me, neatly slicing off the hands of the soldier behind me, who had been holding a scimitar in each of the now absent appendages.
There wasn't even time for introspection as all my notions about the man standing before me were tossed out as so much dirty bath water. He held out a hand to me and I scooped up my fallen sword, as I took the offered assistance and leaped to my feet.
We stood back to back fighting. There was barely a moment to breathe let alone speak. Rarely had I ever worked so well in tandem with any warrior with the exception of Atrius. The army left behind by Darius made one last stand, so to speak. We had reached the shore and still the Persians continued to fight. Knee deep in water, Militiades and I continued to cut and slash, the bodies piling around us and the surf turning crimson.
Yu Pan did his part, as well. I could feel the heat from the flames as ships burned all around us, their masts causing chaos among the fighting soldiers. Ten men charged the two of us, but none of them made it to within two paces. A burning sail floated gently down from the sky, the Persian soldiers completely unaware. The sail wrapped around the screaming men, searing their flesh to the cloth. They dove for the water to put out the flames, but the salt water merely increased their pain. Their charred skin separated from their bodies as though they'd been skinned alive.
At last, the carnage ceased. Militiades and I looked around, our blades still held tightly within bloody hands. The world was scarlet, as far as the eye could see, but there were no more Persians to fight. My breath came in quick pants as I struggled, not only to take in the fact that we had been victorious, but also to come back to myself. Staying alive had taken its toll on me, as the beast was reluctant to give up its hold, even once the fighting was over.
Just as earlier, the struggle to come back to myself was different. It wasn't easy, by any means. I wouldn't want the reader of these scrolls to have any false impressions regarding the effort it took or the pain involved in wrestling with the darkness inside my soul, the darkness that was, in all actuality, not just inside, but rather a small piece of my soul. I saw and heard everything around me, however. That in itself was much changed.
"I'm all right, Atrius," I answered, assuring my captain that I was indeed the Xena he knew.
"You saved my life back there," I told Militiades. "I owe you a debt."
"I rather thought it made us even. You saved my life, and the lives of my children, by allowing me to return to Athens and the fold of the Empire. I've never forgotten that and I've never had the chance, until now, to return the kindness."
I didn't know what to say to the man. How could I ever tell him that up until a few moments ago, I was certain he was the traitor assisting the Persians? No man could have fought like that against a force that he was trying to help, however. But, if Militiades wasn't the noble born traitor, then who was?
I looked across the ocean and I could see Darius's remaining ships shrinking into the expanse of blue. I wasn't certain whether they would head for Athens or Corinth yet, not until I turned my eyes back to land. My heart lurched in my chest as I thought of Gabrielle once again. Gods, I hoped that she wouldn't end up in the middle of it.
"One candlemark, Atrius," I said as I looked around at the bloodbath surrounding us. I shaded my eyes from the midday sun and stared far into the distance at the mountains. "One candlemark to regroup and take stock of our casualties. Inform our troops and notify the generals that we need to make our way toward Athens at best speed. I'll take three hundred soldiers who can move quickly and any remaining cavalry on a forced march ahead of you. Understand?"
"Aye, Conqueror. It's to be Athens over Corinth, then?"
"I know it for a fact."
"May I ask, Lord Conqueror, and no disrespect is intended, but what power do you use to know such a thing for certain?" Militiades asked.
"I wasn't sure before, but I am now. It's not magic Militiades, just observation."
"That," I replied.
I raised my arm and pointed to a spot high in the mountains overlooking Athens. The two men followed my hand until they saw the same thing as I. Far into the distance, high up the mountain that was dotted by trees and brush, a sparkling light appeared. The blinking, rhythmic light looked as though a looking glass or highly polished shield was being used to reflect the sun's light. I knew that Darius would probably wait for a signal, but I had hoped against hope that it wouldn't come from inside our own city.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
They sat in the courtyard arguing about me. Rather, he sat upon the edge of the fountain as she paced back and forth. She was such a nervous woman, but he had always been kind, never anything but gentle in teaching me what he desired me for in his bed. I hid under the steps, easy enough because I was so small. I had just turned twelve, but my body was the physical size of perhaps an eight or nine year old girl. I knew of what they argued. I had experienced my first bleed one moon ago. Persian religious law dictated that foreign young women could not serve as body slaves past the time of their first blood. It was to ensure the purity of their line, in case some unfortunate slave should become pregnant with a master's child.
"It is time, Majari," she said with a tone of finality.
"We could tell people that she is much younger. She is so small, they would believe it."
"And risk being ostracized should the truth be found out. Shame for even thinking so, my husband."
"Where will we go to sell her?" He sighed and examined his hands. I could hear the defeat in his voice. "I won't give her back to those Greek slavers."
I could hear the wheels turning in her head. She was a smart woman. "Ran Tou will be visiting our household in the next fortnight. Surely, such an illustrious and wealthy warrior would have need of her in his household. I have heard tell that the leaders in Chin keep many hundreds of concubines."
"Send her to Chin? She's just a child."
"She is a female slave, Majari. My mother taught me that none of them are be trusted with our men after a certain age. Gabrielle may be sweet now, but with maturity she will allow herself to grow with child just to shame you."
"So, now I'm not even to be trusted around her? You know I do not break the law and penetrate her."
"It's one of the secret truths that Persian mothers teach their daughters, Majari It's not the husband to blame, but the girl."
"Your Highness your Highness? Gabrielle?"
I felt a hand touch me and realized that I had fallen asleep. I jerked away from the anonymous touch and awoke in unfamiliar surroundings for the second time in as many days.
"It's all right, you just fell asleep. You must have been dreaming. Nothing bad I hope."
I finally placed Livia's voice and it all came to me, where I was, and what I was supposed to be doing. My vision cleared and I felt Livia gently brush the hair from my eyes. The compassionate gesture seemed out of place until I remembered all that we had talked of yesterday. I was ashamed at how easily I had believed she could be a traitor to Greece, merely because of her haughty behavior, which in fact had been due in part to her feeling alone in a strange land.
"I--I don't think I remember. Something from the past, I think." The dream had fled from my conscious mind as quickly as a wave breaking from the shore.
"You fell sound asleep after you ate. I tried to wake you once, but you never even stirred," Livia said.
"Gods, is it still evening?"
"No, you slept all night. I'm so sorry, dear, but you seemed dead to the world."
"I admit, I'm a heavy sleeper once I get there. Have you heard any word from the Amazons? Have they come looking for me at all?" I didn't even bother mentioning Periander's name. I knew she wouldn't be familiar with a man known only as the keeper of the library scrolls.
"No one's come looking at all."
"That's strange. I sent for them before I came here last evening. They should have been here by now."
"I don't know what to tell you. How about refreshing yourself and I'll have a morning meal brought out onto the patio. Perhaps they'll show up once the sun rises fully."
"An excellent idea, thank you."
It was difficult to enjoy any of the wonderful food that Livia had the servants prepare for us. The urgency of our situation had also affected my appetite. I wondered, as I had all morning, as well as in my dreams, whether Livia could have been lying. I wondered if anyone could have been that good of an actor.
Gods, I was so bad at this. My natural willingness to trust in the goodness of people made me such a horrible judge of character. At least, that's what I thought of myself. I silently thought of Yu Pan. What would my teacher have to say about my personal feelings of inadequacy? He would ask me for proof. He was always so practical. He would ask me when I had been a poor judge of someone's character. Then, I would have to admit that there had been few times in my life when I guessed incorrectly at someone's nature. Right now, everything in me told me that Livia was sincere and that she was telling the truth. I decided to entrust one more person with the knowledge I had become privy to. I told Livia everything.
"My dear, Queen, do you mean to tell me that you thought Militiades and I--"
"I can only say I don't know what to say." I wondered if my face reflected as much shame as I felt.
"Do you still--"
"No! No, not at all. I just didn't understand what you were going through. I suppose I never took the time to find out."
Livia forced a smile that eventually turned genuine. "I don't guess that I made it very easy to do, find out, I mean. I'm really not I don't know, cold or heartless. I know my actions may have seemed so. I'm afraid much of it has to do with the life I've led. I would have been a Queen myself someday if Militiades had not led us to Athens. I took that out on you because of who you were and who you are now, young enough to be my own daughter and Queen of the Greek Empire. I guess I'm was a little bitter over that."
I couldn't help but smile at her understatement.
"All right a lot bitter," she added. "I suppose I got that from my mother. You know the things that mothers pass down to their daughters."
"It's one of the secret truths that Persian mothers teach their daughters, Majari It's not the husband to blame, but the girl."
"Oh, it's not me, Donatia, but you know how these servant girls are nowadays. Once they have their first bleed, they're all over our men. It's not the husband to blame, but the girl."
"Your Highness, are you all right?"
"Livia please call me Gabrielle." I shook my head in order to rid myself of the sudden haze that had come over me. The dream I had before I woke this morning came back to me with some profound insight attached to it.
"Actually, I just remembered what I dreamed of before you woke me this morning. I dreamed of the master I had while in Persia."
"What an odd thing to think of just now."
"Actually, it makes a great deal of sense, especially just now. It's been in the back of mind for so long now, ever since we had lunch at Donatia's, in fact."
"What's been in the back of your mind?"
"That's just the point. I couldn't remember." The confused expression on Livia's face prompted me to explain to her what I had told Xena about coming home that day and how I had felt as though I had missed something important.
"And you've remembered what it was?" she asked. "But, Gabrielle, what did your slavery in Persia have to do with an afternoon luncheon with the noblewomen of Greece?"
"For a start, it's given me some indication of who the real traitors are within our circle."
"But, where's the connection?"
"I didn't know it at the time," I said as I thought back to the day of the luncheon. "I couldn't remember if I had seen or heard something, but it left me uneasy. It turns out that it was something that I heard Lenora say when she was commenting on Donatia's servant girl."
"She used the phrase, 'It's not the husband to blame, but the girl' when referring to Donatia's servant.
"Well, that was simply Lenora being--"
"No, it was far from simple. Have you ever heard that saying before?"
"No I don't believe so." Livia looked up at me, a thoughtful expression on her face. She appeared to be searching her memory.
"I wouldn't doubt that. It's something, a piece of advice, or an adage if you will that mothers pass on to their daughters."
"Oh, dear. Surely, though, there are ways that Lenora could have learned of these words?"
"The odds would have been incredibly high against that. The phrase is one of the seven secret truths that Persian mothers teach their daughters. Most Persian men know only a few. Slaves are never privy to the information. I spent nearly seven years in Persia and, try as I would, I could never learn any of the others beyond this one, and that was merely because of my own deception."
"Perhaps if Lenora had been a slave, such as yourself, she could have overheard it in the same manner as you. To have had two female slaves learn of a secret in the same way sounds extremely unlikely, however. Doesn't it?" Livia questioned, almost as if musing aloud.
"My thought exactly."
So, the only way Lenora could have learned the phrase would have been if she had been on the other end of that scenario, if she had been raised in Persia "
"But as a Persian noble, not a slave," I finished.
There were long moments when all we could hear was the sound of the water softly splashing in the fountain beside us and the muted breaths we took. Neither of us wanted to believe in this new knowledge.
"Cleisthenes, too, do you think?" Livia finally broke the quiet to ask.
"I can't say with absolute certainty, but could you have planned something of this magnitude without Militiades learning of it?"
"Only if he was on a campaign in another land, and even then I wouldn't be so sure."
"Then, there's the little matter of Cleisthenes generous offer to exchange homes with you," I reminded her.
"But what possible good would my home be over his own?"
"The only thing I can think of is the obvious it's location. Can you see the plain of Marathon from atop the mountain?"
"No," she answered, but I saw some sort of realization brighten her eyes. "You can see the coast, though." Her hand came to her throat and for the first time I saw the fear in her eyes.
"What have I done?" she whispered.
"Don't," I said. "Don't think that way. Livia there was nothing you could have done to prevent this."
"Gabrielle, you don't understand. I lived here with them, dined in their home. Our children played together. I should have--"
"Livia!" I rose and moved closer to where she sat, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Please don't do this to yourself. I need your help and it won't be any good if you fall apart on me here."
The harsh words seemed to have worked, as her features immediately calmed. There was a quiet determination about the woman now and I silently thanked Athena for the help.
"What can I do?" she asked.
I looked into the horizon as Apollo's chariot flew into the sky with its bright yellow burden. "There's something wrong. The Amazons should have been here by this morning, at least."
"Should we contact the local militia?"
"Absolutely not. I already had a run in with a couple hundred mercenaries in the Menandros Theater."
"By the Gods."
"Thanks to a friend's quick thinking I made it out alive. I believe that once some sort of signal is given, these soldiers will make quick work of the small force left to protect Athens."
"Then what can we possibly do to stop them?"
"I'm thinking that the only way to actually stop it might be to make sure it doesn't get started in the first place. We have to make sure that no signal of any kind makes it to Darius and the Persian fleet."
"I'm not sure I like the sound of that, Gabrielle."
"Come now, Livia." I looked at her with an absolutely coy expression. "I'm certain that a Thracian princess has more backbone than that."
It took a moment, but she smiled at me then, and I knew that she had indeed become a friend.
"Tell me, Gabrielle, does trouble often find you in such ways?"
I returned the smile and replied, "You simply have no idea."
To be continued in : Chapter 14: If The Red Slayer Think He Slays...
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