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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 15: The Wrath Of The Lion Is The Wisdom Of God...
I would have never known that I had some talent as a spy, at least nothing that I could have ever put a name to like that. I suppose that intrigue and acting as though I felt things that I never did were all a part of training me for this moment. It was almost frightening, the ease with which I played the part of a woman out on the town with friends. I suppose what should have worried me the most was that so many other Athenian citizens were out in the taverns at this time of the afternoon. I imagine that the battle must have seemed very far away for them. They had no idea how close it really was.
I also felt frustrated and dejected. We decided to arrange ourselves in groups and pairs. Because I insisted on being a part of this manhunt, Ephiny insisted that I be in a group for additional protection. It honestly wore on my nerves, the idea that everyone was always trying to protect me. I wondered if Xena ever had the same problem. So, Ephiny, and two younger Amazons, Mika and Saria, were with me. Zagreus and Callius were two male Corinthian soldiers who rounded out our group. Zagreus was a few years younger than myself. Standing next to him was rather like standing alongside a rock wall. He was as gentle as a butterfly, respectful, and shy, but to look at him well, if I hadn't known him just the site would have terrified me.
"This place looks like exactly the sort of dive they might frequent," Ephiny said as we entered perhaps the tenth tavern along the docks.
"And you would know that how?" I smiled over at her.
"Well, I hope you're right. We're running out of taverns and time."
We settled in at a table, something not too far in back to make it look suspicious, but then not too close to the front to stand out from the crowd.
"Recognize any of them?" Ephiny asked.
"No, but I suppose they could be wearing regular clothing."
"That's possible, but I'll bet guys like them don't care if folks in these sorts of places know that they're soldiers for hire."
I was disappointed and it must have showed. I very much wished that I would suddenly wake up and realize that this had all been a bad dream.
"You okay?" Ephiny asked, placing her hand atop my own.
"I miss Xena. I miss talking to Delia and Anya. I can only imagine what they think of me, leaving without saying a word."
"I told Delia what was happening so she wouldn't worry. I know you think of her as one of your family."
"Thanks, Ephiny. To tell the truth, we could probably use Delia here right about now. She doesn't let anyone or anything frighten her," I answered as I wistfully though of the older woman.
"Another round here, folks?" A pretty, young barmaid asked us.
"Please," Ephiny said as she tossed the girl an extra coin for the service.
"Well, aren't you all the nicest--well, it just makes you appreciate decent folks."
"I take it some of your patrons aren't so very nice," I said. She looked tired and worn out, even though the evening had not even begun yet.
"Blessed Athena, you can say that again. Sailors you can have 'em!"
I looked around the room, but saw no group of rowdy sailors. She must have noticed my confusion.
"Oh, there not out in the main hall, missus. They've got themselves a private party going in the back. The owner has a private room for special parties and such. These gents, though, well all I've got to say is my bottom's going to be black and blue tomorrow."
I looked at Ephiny, feeling an odd mixture of elation and fear. "Are there a lot of them?" I asked.
"Gods, yes. Looks as if they left their ship bare for the night."
The girl left for the bar and returned with our fresh drinks balanced on a large tray. I nodded to Ephiny this time to see if she could engage the girl in conversation about her private patrons.
"A pretty fearsome bunch, I bet," Ephiny added in mock sympathy. "Those sailors."
"A double yes to that one. When I was a little girl, I saw the marines on the Lord Conqueror's ships. Big and decked out with all sorts of weapons and armor, they were, just like these ones.
"Kiria!" The bartender motioned our barmaid to pick up a number of drinks at the bar.
"Well, you folks have a good night. I'm off to the viper's den again," she said as she gave us a wink.
"What do you think?" We all bowed our heads close together so as not to be heard.
"Sounds like our scum all right," Mika said.
"We need to find out for sure first. The last thing we need to be doing is starting a barroom brawl with a bunch of innocent men."
"Sort of a contradiction of terms, if you ask me," Mika said to uncomfortable glances from Zagreus and Callius.
"Enough," Ephiny said. "I'll work my way to the door, maybe slip Kiria a few talants to let me have a look."
"Good idea. Zagreus, sneak around the outside of the building," I began. "I'm betting there's a back door to this private room and we don't want our rats shuffling off without notice. Saria, you and Callius casually start rounding up our party. Don't have them come inside, but surround this building. Mika and I will wait here for Ephiny to return. Does everyone know what they're supposed to do?"
They nodded and we sent Ephiny off first. After a few loud goodbyes, we sent the other three on their way out of the tavern.
I took a drink of my wine and grimaced at the taste. I hadn't realized that there were even differences in the quality of such a drink. It made sense that I only had the best since tasting wine for the first time with Xena. "I can't stomach one more swallow of this stuff."
"I know what you mean, but it will look odd if you're not drinking," Mika said
"Good point. I think I'll try cider."
"Let me get you some."
"I think I can manage to walk to the bar by myself, thank you, Mika Just keep your eyes open in case Ephiny runs into trouble." I nodded my head in the direction of the back room.
The tavern had started to fill with patrons, so I had to wait until the bartender noticed me. He looked at me twice as though trying to determine my age. I tried to look bored and it must have worked. He placed my cider on the bar before me.
I reached for my drink, but another hand arrived first.
"Well, if it isn't my favorite little actress. Or should I say, Queen?" he whispered in my ear.
I knew the voice before I even saw his face. I seriously wished I could knock the grin from his face when I did look up. The captain of the mercenary force leered down at me.
"Don't even think about screaming," he said. I felt the point of a blade press against my ribs. "Smile like we're friends."
I did as he ordered, then I watched him take a long gulp from a mug in his left hand. He stood so close to me that I could smell the liquor on his breath and his unwashed clothes.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Now, laugh a little to make everything look nice and friendly."
"Yea, like I just said something charming."
"I don't think I'm that good of an actress," I replied. He pressed the knife against my side again. I saw Mika look my way once. She smiled and turned away to watch Ephiny's progress.
"You better try or I'll take my chances and gut you right here."
"Good," he said after I chuckled politely. "Now, we're going outside. Just keep smiling and none of your friends ends up dead."
"And me?" I asked as we walked to the door.
"Maybe we can strike up a deal."
We moved through the alleys too quickly. It was almost dark and the shadows hid any distinguishing features I might have remembered for later. We were on the docks, I could tell that from the sound of the water beneath us.
"You killed two of my best men," he said as he roughly shoved me forward. I ran into a pile of boxes and barrels.
Before I could right myself, he was bending over me, pressing his body against mine. I quickly realized the sort of deal he thought we could make and I knew that there would be no one saving me at the last moment. Even with everything I knew, all of the warrior-like skills that Xena, Yu Pan, and the Amazons had taught me, I still felt terrified. I was alone and I let my fear control me. Suddenly, and without any warning, I became that slave girl again.
I froze out of fear, knowing that this man's size and anger meant that he could have whatever he desired from me, that because he was strong and I was weak, he could command and I would cower. It surprised me how quickly those old feelings came back at me and how ready my brain was to accept them. It was as though I had never grown up, never left slavery, and had only played at being Queen.
Just as quickly as these emotions surfaced, a new thought planted itself in my mind. I was the Queen. No matter what this man could do to me because he was stronger, I would still be Queen. I would still be a strong, smart, woman of integrity and he would remain scum. The mere thought caused me to look back around at him as he fumbled with his trousers.
I believe he saw it in my eyes for he paused when our eyes met. I didn't exactly see fear in his gaze, but there was certainly something that hadn't been there before. It looked almost as if it was surprise. His lapse in attention was the only one I was liable to get, and I reached under my dress. I had strapped my chobos to a belt under my gown. I pulled hard on the delicate strip of leather I had used to fasten them; in one fluid motion, my weapons came free in my hand.
The soldier looked down and this time he was indeed surprised. He was a highly trained soldier, but I believe my bold move temporarily stunned him into inaction. Whatever the cause I blessed Athena for the opportunity.
Xena had always told me that the first place to hit a man was between the legs, but she also said that warriors going into battle often wore metal protection there. She had explained the second way to disable a man with extreme pain, and so I followed her instructions to the letter.
While the soldier was trying to hold his pants up with one hand and draw a dagger from his boot with the other hand, I swung hard and with extreme precision. My club smashed into the soldier's nose and blood actually shot out of the man's nostrils right after I heard a satisfying crunch.
"You fucking whore!" He screamed, holding on to face with both hands. Xena had said having her nose broke hurt worse than pulling an arrow from her shoulder. She equated the pain with having a white-hot poker shoved up her nostril. I couldn't imagine it, but this man gave me every indication that Xena's comparisons were true. Unfortunately, it didn't completely incapacitate him.
He lunged at me and his sheer size knocked me to the ground. He punched me in the abdomen and I curled up into a ball, gasping for air and feeling I would never be able to take in enough to live.
"Oh, you're gonna pay for this!" He ripped my gown down the middle and saw that I had my shirt and trousers on underneath. It stopped him for a heartbeat, I'm sure he wasn't sure what to think. Then out of what must have been anger, he slapped me across the mouth, then again.
It was more than one voice calling out my name and I opened up my mouth to scream just as his hand clamped down over my mouth. He pulled me to my feet, jerking my body in front of him, his hand still tightly across my mouth. I kicked backward at his shins, but he never even noticed. I elbowed him sharply in the ribs. On the third try, I made my point. He grunted and loosened his hold slightly over my mouth. It was just enough for me to bite down hard on two of his fingers.
I couldn't understand why he started screaming like a demon or why he dropped to his knees, clutching his hand. I couldn't understand it until I realized that he was on his knees, two feet away, and I still had his fingers in my mouth. I spat and the digits skittered across the ground. I gagged and spat out the blood in my mouth that wasn't my own.
I didn't even have time to be sick over what I'd done. I pulled my arm back and cracked my weapon across his jaw. He fell over on his side, but rose again, clutching at air to get to me. Once he was on his knees, our eyes met for the last time. This time I did see fear as he fully realized what I meant to do.
Drawing back my weapon, I put all my strength into the final blow. It hit him squarely on the temple. He teetered there for a moment until his body crumpled in on itself. His eyes had rolled back into his head and I watched as blood trickled from his ear. He didn't move again, but I really didn't expect him to.
I turned in a fighting stance, nearly ready to take off the head of my next attacker. It wasn't the enemy, though, but Ephiny.
She looked down at the man and then back at me. I'm not sure whether I saw wonder or admiration in her gaze. She knelt beside him for a moment.
"He's dead," she said, rising to stand beside me.
"I know," I answered. "I never did that before," I said in a halting tone.
"Kill a man?"
"No. Want a man dead, and then kill him. I didn't even give him a chance to surrender. I just killed him."
"Gabrielle," Ephiny placed a hand on each shoulder. "He was trying to do the same thing to you. There's nothing to feel guilty over."
I shook my head to clear away the haze that had formed there. "I guess that's why I feel so bad."
"Because I don't feel guilty."
Ephiny smiled. "Good. You don't need to. Are you hurt?"
"No," I answered, looking down and my ripped and blood stained clothes. "It's not my blood. Not most of it anyway." I touched my cut lip where he had hit me.
"Come on, we have to go," she said.
"Yep, it was them. Like spearing fish in a barrel. We're rounding them up right now. Not very good mercenaries. Half of them were drunk."
"The Corinthian ships? Have they arrived yet?" Suddenly I forgot the dead man lying next to me and concentrated on the next step. I would examine all my feelings and motivations later. Right now, we were in the middle of a battle.
"Already in the harbor. They're stretched along the coast as you instructed and they haven't a single lamp lit. If you didn't know they were there, you'd run right into them."
"That's what I'm hoping," I replied. "And Darius?"
"He's about a candlemark from shore. They're running dark, as well."
"Your Highness, I was sent to tell " Mika stopped once she saw my face and the condition of my clothes. "Your Highness, forgive me. I failed to keep you safe. You may have my life if you wish."
"Mika, get up," I said to the kneeling warrior. "You couldn't have done anything and don't be ridiculous. I'm not killing you for any reason. Besides," a small grin appeared on my face. "I need all the warriors I can get right now."
"Bless Artemis for choosing you, My Queen."
We all walked out of the alley and I was surprised at how close I was to the tavern I had exited a short time ago. Cries and shouts suddenly went out from all areas of the town at once.
"What's going on?" Ephiny grabbed a young man's arm as he ran past.
"There's an army marching into the city gates," he said in a breathless reply.
"Mika, were you going to tell me something before?" I asked.
"Oh yes!" she exclaimed as though just remembering. "The Lord Conqueror has returned," she replied in a small voice.
End of Gabrielle's Addendum
I watched as another soldier dropped out of the cavalry because of a lame horse. We pushed ahead at a furious pace and I could hear Tenorio puff great breaths. His body beneath me, though, still felt strong. He had a long way to go before he would feel the need for rest.
The cavalry ran nearly two full leagues ahead of the infantry. The men did their best to keep up and I couldn't help but be impressed at their spirit. The officers drove them hard. I believe that my own sense of urgency had spread to the men around me.
"We're still running ahead of them," Atrius called out as his horse charged alongside mine.
I had to admit surprise at pulling ahead of the Persian fleet. I suppose the confusion that reigned as they pulled from shore helped to scatter the one hundred or so ships left. It was a rough guess, but we had destroyed nearly half Darius's ships thanks to Yu Pan and his black powder missiles.
"Solan?" I spared a split moment for thought of my son.
"At the back of the cavalry," Atrius panted. Perhaps he wanted to say more, but now certainly wasn't the time.
We sped along the road, the horses' hooves making a sound like thunder on the clay-packed road. The noise surrounded us, making it easy to focus my attention on only one thing; reaching the harbor in Athens before Darius. I imagined what the Red Slayer would do to Gabrielle, my friends, and family if he were able to land in Greece. Perhaps the violent images and that subsequent anger directed at the Persians began my descent into the darkness.
"We're almost there!" Atrius shouted from beside me.
Looking at my friend and captain, I supposed that I looked as filthy and worn as he. I heard Atrius's voice, but it was soft, sounding faint and far away. There was nothing that could be heard over the horses' hooves, until I realized that it was the rush of blood inside my head keeping time with my rapidly beating pulse. The sound was anger. It felt like a fury so intense that there was nothing else. Nothing else existed for me but this rising ball of infuriating fire in my belly, swirling, capturing me and attempting to control me, control my thoughts, my will. I wanted the power back, I never gave it up willingly, but this time I needed it back, fearing what I would do inside the city if the beast had free reign. Who would be the first innocent person to touch me and lose their life to the beast?
I felt it happening, but I was helpless to stop it. The beast within began to pace back and forth, looking for an avenue of escape. Nothing I could do, no mind-altering technique of which I knew could stop my transformation. The beast wanted out and I could feel it as though it was clawing at the inside of my skin, attempting to split me in two and crawl out.
The transformation happened much like the last time, so very different from the past. I could feel myself losing the battle, but the beast didn't take all of me. Xena could think, react, speak, but not control. That belonged to the beast alone and it felt the distinct possibility that there would soon be blood to shed. My greatest fear, however, was that the beast never knew the difference between the lives it could take and the lives it should take. Meaning, it knew not from friend or foe. All were equal to its lustful desires.
"Slow the infantry down," I shouted to him once I saw the city gates. If the men were half dead from exhaustion, they would do us no good.
We pulled the cavalry into tight lines as we moved through the city streets, toward the harbor. Atrius and his ram's horn scattered the people from the streets. Tenorio practically shivered, feeling that we must be near our goal. The lights along the harbor were dim and that surprised me. Places that usually were bustling with nighttime activity were suspiciously silent.
I saw Amazons in the street before me and pulled Tenorio up sharply, the remaining cavalry following my actions. I must have looked a fright, coming from the battle as I did, but the sight of Ephiny and her sisters dressed as for a coronation looked nothing short of comical.
She stepped from the group, and I thought that I had never seen anything look quite as wonderful before in my entire life. The sight of Gabrielle nearly backed the beast into hiding. I could feel it as though light had spilled into my soul, illuminating the darkness that usually resided there. Then Gabrielle stepped from the shadows and the meager light around us lit up her features. Just like that, the beast laughed at my attempt to rein it in.
Gabrielle sported a bruised cheek and the same looked as though it was forming on her chin. A cut on her lip still oozed blood and the red fluid stained the front of her torn clothes. As quickly and silently as a puff of exhaled smoke, the beast was there.
"Xena!" Gabrielle rushed toward me and I fought for enough control to take a step away from her.
"Xena?" I heard her say again, but this time it was a question. How could I tell her I didn't know precisely where Xena was and when she would return?
"Gabrielle, take care," I heard Atrius say from beside me.
"I see it in her eyes," Gabrielle calmly replied.
I was so proud of her and I wanted to tell her so, but I was afraid of what would come out if I opened my mouth. She had no fear of the beast, she'd proven that in the past, but I wanted to tell her, scream at her, that she should be afraid. Xena stood here before her, but it was my darkness that controlled my actions.
"Xena?" She called my name and it felt soft.
I could feel my fingers clench tightly and then relax, repeating the action again and again. I was aware of so much more when the beast took control. Its animal skills and instincts made me privy to so much more than my physical self could sense. The scent of blood, alcohol, and salt hung thick in the air. I watched as Ephiny's hand closed over the hilt of her sword. Good, I thought. She will protect her Queen. I heard Gabrielle's heartbeat race faster as she drew nearer to me. Her breathing increased and I smelled the fear that she valiantly disregarded.
Again, there was the softness of Gabrielle calling my name, a peaceful soothing sound like rain falling lightly against the roof of a tent. Before the beast or I could stop her, Gabrielle reached out and struck me across my jaw. It wasn't a slap, but a solid, closed fist punch.
"Are you insane?" I heard Atrius call out as he, too, grasped his weapon.
This time we both knew it was coming. Gabrielle drew back and hit me again. The darkness rose up, wanting to sweep the obstacle away, but there was a tiny piece of me, deep inside, that could not lash out at the source of the beating.
"Please, Xena! I know that you can do this. You've done it before. Come back to me."
I heard a growl rumble deep within my chest. In the past, I would have wondered why I was suddenly loath to shrug the hindrance off, to strike out myself. There was the problem before me. To the beast, it would be nothing more than swatting a mosquito away.
I felt a sharp slap across my cheek. Once more, the stinging vibration across my jaw and I sensed the beast preparing to lunge at its quarry.
Run, Gabrielle! I screamed inside my mind. I tried to verbalize the cry, but all I could manage was a low growl. I shook my head and the beast laughed at my attempts to take back some of what belonged to me. I wanted to run, scream, cry, anything to warn Gabrielle what was coming, but I could do no more than stand there and watch, with amazing clarity, as the beast took action.
Quick, too quick for any of the others to stop, my arm drew back and hurtled toward Gabrielle with all the strength inside of me. The force of it would break her jaw, if not kill her. I felt real tears run down my face at my inability to stop the force of the beast.
In mid swing, my arm stopped. The beast howled inside my brain and I nearly passed out from the sound. The deafening cries of pain and frustration echoed in my head, but my hand remained poised in the air between Gabrielle and I. The limb shook as though convulsing. The beast could move no further, nor could I pull my hand back. Whatever force kept me from striking Gabrielle surely kept me alive. I watched as those around us drew their weapons in order to stop my maniacal behavior. Only a few of those people understood what was even happening between Gabrielle and I.
After one final cry of anguish from the beast, I felt the control of my body return to me in a savage fashion. It was as though a massive windstorm swept through my psyche, blowing the beast apart into a thousand particles. The explosion started in my heart and spread outward to the tips of my fingers and toes. My body jerked once and the beast's possession was over this time.
"Xena?" Gabrielle called out again, taking me by the hand this time and stroking my skin.
"Gabrielle?" My own voice sounded strange to my ears.
It was almost as if Gabrielle was using her touch to call to me. It was a language that only my heart could hear and I felt myself respond. In her face, I saw none of the harshness or fear that I always anticipated after the beast's control, no judgmental glare. I was genuinely surprised that I should find myself looking down upon a face, fairly overflowing with love.
Gabrielle leapt into my arms and life was immediately better. The rest of the world, the battle, the people around us, they were all suspended for the quick moments Gabrielle and I took for ourselves.
"You've got a wicked right cross," I whispered in her ear.
"I hated doing that," she replied tearfully.
"Thank you for it."
With the Empire watching, that was the closest we came to declarations of love and adoration for one another. I knew I needed to let my wife go, to continue the battle, and tell Gabrielle what to prepare for, but as I held her close to me and glance over her shoulder, I could only think one thing.
"Ephiny, what in Hades name are you wearing?" I asked.
"Don't ask," Ephiny replied. She pulled at the gown, which had fallen off one shoulder.
"Why do I have a feeling you had something to do with the way they're dressed?" I asked my wife.
She smiled then and it was a most wonderful sight, that smile filled with affection, sunlight, and a bit of mischievousness. Before Gabrielle had a chance to explain, Torava, one of Gabrielle's Corinthian Guard, rushed up to us.
"Conqueror," she acknowledge me by placing her right fist upon her heart. She bowed to Gabrielle. "My Queen, the fleet approaches Barrasis Reef."
"Well done," Gabrielle answered and I was completely lost.
"Gabrielle, Darius--" I started.
"I know. There's a lot to tell you but we haven't the time right now. We need to get to the Watch Tower."
"The Watch Tower?" I asked. The parapet overlooked the harbor and hadn't been used in seasons. It held a massive array of catapults as a first defense against invaders. "Gabrielle, we need to make preparations--"
"I have. Trust me?" Gabrielle asked.
How could I do less? I took the hand she offered and we followed Gabrielle and the Amazons up into the two-story stone tower.
Torava looked out toward the blackness of the open sea with some sort of a long-range spyglass. "They've stopped there. It seems as if they don't know what to make of the darkened harbor."
"Neither do I," I replied. "Gabrielle--"
Gabrielle held up a hand to me and placed it on my chest. "If this works, you'll understand immediately."
She nodded to Ephiny and a line of Amazon archers let fly a dozen flaming arrows. The shafts arced high into the dark sky, leaving an orange and yellow trail until they hissed loudly as they hit the water.
With no more forewarning than that, the entire harbor lit up as though the sun was high in the sky. All along the docks, soldiers and citizens stood together holding torches. Just as quickly, torches burst into flames out on the water. I found myself looking along the coastline as the blaze illuminated hundreds of Corinthian warships lying in wait between the Persians and Athens.
I only wish I could have seen Darius's face. If his expression held any of the surprise and awe that mine did, the battle had all been worth it. I had no idea how Gabrielle had accomplished it all, but it certainly shouldn't have surprised me. It shouldn't have, but it did.
"They're still thinking about it," Torava reported after looking through her spyglass.
"I can't believe he's thinking about it. Do we send them some more incentive?" Gabrielle asked.
I laid a hand on her shoulder, feeling it was my time to step in. "Let's not force his hand. You've played him well this far into the game. He may be a fanatical warrior, but he's not a fool."
"Their sails are going up!" Torava cried.
Cheers went up around us. By the time the Athenians and soldiers along the docks heard the news, the Persians were under full sail away from Athens.
I turned to Atrius. "Have a portion of the fleet follow them past the reefs, just to make sure they're headed home."
Just like that, the battle ended.
To be continued in : Chapter 16: The First Day's Night Had Come
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