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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Epilogue: When I Have Seen By Time's Fell Hand (reprise)Three moons have passed since we first returned and happily rode through the gates of Corinth. How different from my returns in seasons previous. Those who used to welcome me and my armies at the gates only did so out of duty or because I had just defeated an enemy on their doorstep. Their cheers were based solely upon their own interests. I made Greece safe for themthat made them happy. They offered no love or loyalty, but it was just as well. Back then, I wouldnt have known what to do with it.
It was certainly a different sight when Gabrielle and I led the rest of our family through the paved stone streets that led up to the palace. Only the words utter pandemonium could have possibly described the scene. The streets had been crowded, or more accurately filled to capacity, with onlookers welcoming us home. Our victory at Marathon had given them cause for celebration. Of course, word had spread of Gabrielle's deeds in Athens during the battle, especially her calling in the fleet to put the Persians on the run. My Queen had risen considerably in the eyes of the Empire's citizens, and the people cheered for her and her Amazon soldiers as though they had all been returning heroes.
The noise was enough to scare Amira to tears. She had been sitting in one of the wagons with my mother, and when I slowed Tenorio to get close to the wagon, Amira held her arms out to me. I couldn't help but be flattered for their was no better word for it. Already, I had become her protector, and the thought made me wish that it would always be thus, even though I knew that as she grew older, Amira would eventually lose that wide-eyed hero worship.
I took her into my arms and rode up next to Gabrielle, thinking that Amira would want the security of her mother's embrace. By the time we had sidled up beside Gabrielle, however, Amira looked quite content to be riding in front of me. Her tears forgotten, she watched everything and everyone around us from the great height of Tenorio's back. In fact, she immediately endeared herself to the crowd by waving back at a group who had waved at her. A huge cheer went up from the crowd. I should have known what with the way Gossip travels across Greece that Corinth had already heard of the youngster who was their Queen's daughter.
Growing considerably bolder, Amira waved again when she saw Gabrielle do the same toward the onlookers. Every time Amira waved, loud cheers and whistles rose above the din.
"Xena, how come they all yell like that when I wave?" Amira asked.
"Because they know you're the Princess."
"Does everyone know what my name means?"
I laughed and squeezed her, my left arm wrapped around her middle. "Yes, little one. All of Corinth knows that you're our little Princess now."
The chaos we experienced on our return lasted for a full moon until all of the new members of our household had settled into their rooms and we back into the routine of our lives. Gabrielle had taken on the immense task of running the household, becoming more involved than she had ever been before. She currently displayed a confidence that I believed to have come from her experiences during our travels.
She had decided to make the entire third level of the palace for family. Cyrene, Selene, and Cor each had their own bed chambers all connected by one large sitting room to make it seem like more of a family area. Even though we had a formal dining hall on the first level, Gabrielle opened up a particularly large room on the third floor for a family dining room. It would not be possible for all of us to dine together regularly, but it would help to provide a more family-like atmosphere for Amira and the rest.
Cor got along famously right from the start. That's simply the sort of young man he was. He anxiously began working with the smithies and they welcomed his young talent, especially having learned that he had started his apprenticeship under Altus in Amphipolis.
He received equal amounts grief and admiration as Xena the Conqueror's brother, but Cor was much different than I was at his age. He let so much roll off his back, pretending as though he simply hadn't heard. Having hit puberty, the boy continued to grow at an alarming pace until he was nearly as tall as me. In another season or two, I would look up in order to speak to him. He had also begun to develop the muscles of a blacksmith. Between his physical appearance and simply because he was my brother, the taunts never went beyond talk. Im sure those who poked fun at him thought that I had taught him a thing or two with a sword. Truth be known, Cor had a rather keen dislike for the blade. He loved to create them in the forge, but he had no interest in using them as a weapon.
Mother and Delia had become wonderful friends, and if I ever wanted to find either of them, all I needed to do was to search the kitchens. If they weren't cooking, talking about cooking, or out marketing for food for cooking, they were playing nanny to Amira and Anya's girls. They became our resident grandmothers and that made just about everyone in the palace happy.
Mother kept in touch with the hired people from her inn at Amphipolis via Royal messengers. The married couple whom she had left in charge explained that, although they missed her terribly, things had never been better. Perhaps that was why Cyrene approached me one day about settling in Corinth permanently. Cor was ecstatic about the news, having come to love the work he did with the palace smithies. The only reservation Cyrene actually had was her concern that, as the Conqueror, I would not want my mother in my household. I think she thought I would be embarrassed. Cyrene's comments surprised me somewhat, but once I had the time to really think on the idea, I realized that the prospect pleased me greatly. Yes, there were some embarrassing moments, but the pleasure, the feelings of love that existed in my home now greatly outweighed any awkward moments suffered by me or Cyrene.
There were still a number of details to work out, but it felt good to think that time's fell hand had not dropped upon me like a fist. It could have, crushing all my hopes at reconciliation with these people I now affectionately call family, and who had been strangers to me not so long ago. I had fully expected to leave my family reunion in Amphipolis with nothing more than a kick to the backside. After all, I felt it was what I had deserved. Instead, the hand that fell had been covered in soft velvet. Even for Gabrielle it had not been overly unkind. Though her blood parents had turned their backs on her, good still came of it. Not only had she found Amira, but the loss of her real parents had given her a chance to see others, such as Yu Pan, who filled their places quite well.
Selene continued, with some determination, to lead me to an early grave. Her latest venture had been to learn swordplay. Unlike our little brother, Selene loved weapons. She wanted to learn all of them at once. At least Ephiny had been able to do what I had not. She convinced Selene to settle on only one weapon at a time. The Empire's soldiers, young and old alike, whistled and cheered when Selene walked on to the practice fields. It had only taken Ephiny a few icy glares, two black eyes, and one bloody nose to convince them that Selene was already spoken for.
Ephiny and Selene continued to see one another, faithfully adhering to my request for discretion. If my mother ever noted Selene's occasional empty bed at night, she never made a fuss about it. Although, I spent a rather sleepless night the first time it happened.
Gabrielle's new bodyguard, Prax, had mellowed slightly ever so slightly. I gave her some latitude there, knowing that Gabrielle had only recently begun to teach Prax the way. Some days they worked quite well together and on others, I though Gabrielle would simply turn around and gut the poor girl. Prax lived inside the palace having her own room on the same floor as us instead of in the Amazon barracks. She had eventually started to take her meals with us, upon Gabrielle's request, and slowly started to become one of our extended family. The more Prax learned from Gabrielle, the more the young Amazon mellowed. Perhaps her service to Gabrielle had been a smart thing, after all.
Amira was a handful, to be sure. Those beautiful green eyes and charming smile had quickly made her a favorite of everyone in the palace. It was a genuine affection they bestowed upon her and that lent us some relief, since she had made her way into every room on the estate from the kitchens to the soldiers' barracks.
Amira captured me as completely as her mother had done. It was not uncommon for one of my advisors to trip over a toy sword or ball when gathered in my private study for a meeting. She had me wrapped around her finger, but the odd thing was that I rather enjoyed it. I still lost my temper on occasion and grew angry or confused enough to go out to the practice field and pummel a few young officers, but that was me. I had changed a great deal, but I was still the Conqueror, after all. The darkness still existed within my heart, but thanks to Athenas blessings, I believe it buried itself a little deeper every day. Perhaps that was merely my own hope, but even that in itself was unique. A few seasons ago, I relished the evil inside of me, welcoming it as the other half of my soul. Now, however, that position had been taken by another.
The trip home from Amphipolis turned out to be a bit of solitude for Solan and I. We rode and talked of many things, some involving the past and some the future. We finally came to know one another and look at ourselves, as well as each other, in a different slant of light.
I tried to instill in him much of what he would need to know as my emissary in Chin. I felt confident in his abilities, and it helped that Yu Pan was to travel with him. I would worry less. That may sound rather odd considering I had not seen the boy in over fifteen seasons, but in all that time, a day had not gone by that I did not wonder about him.
Solan was nervous about his new position, but he was wildly excited about the traveling. Even though we would miss him terribly, I could not deny him his dream. He wanted to see and experience new places, meet new people. I silently asked Athena to keep an eye on him. Chin was slightly out of her jurisdiction, but she was a Goddess, nevertheless. In the meantime, I trusted Yu Pan's judgment and encouraged Solan to heed the old master's advice.
I had nearly finished the scroll I was writing in when I heard Gabrielles light step as she came into my study, slowing walking toward me.
"No need to sneak up on me, love. I heard you before you opened the door."
"How is it I can slip past even Ephiny without her hearing, but you catch me every time?"
"I suppose if she was as good as me, you'd be married to her and not me."
"Very amusing, my Conqueror."
"Thank you," I returned without pausing in finishing my letter.
"You promised you would start coming to bed earlier," Gabrielle admonished.
"I know, but something came up that required immediate attention."
I stopped writing and grabbed the candle, spilling some of the wet wax on the seam of the scroll. Pressing my signet ring into the pliable wax, I sealed the official document.
"Hand me that case, will you, love?"
Gabrielle brought the requested item, and I knew what she was thinking without her having said a word. I hadn't yet looked up, but I could already see the look of concern on her face. How would I explain my leaving to her? Especially when it was a trip I didn't want to make without her? I had never thought in such a way before. In the past, I had simply gone where I was needed. Rulers didn't always have the luxury of staying in their palace, safe and tidy unless they weren't fighting rulers. I was a warrior and that would always be so, or until I was to old to fight my own battles. Greece was still a place where the strongest made the rules. It wouldn't always be so, but for now it was.
I sealed the closure on the leather scroll case in much the same way as I had the parchment inside.
"Xena, I've never seen you seal the case, too. Is this something overly important?"
"Indeed. If anyone else saw it, but the person I've addressed it to, I might have a rather big mess to deal with."
"I don't like the sound of all of this. Please, tell me this is something you can share with me."
"It is," I answered, placing the scroll case on my desk. "Come here." I guided her into my lap and kissed her.
"Now I am getting very worried."
I chuckled. "It's not quite that bad...not yet, anyway."
She looked down at the case before us and rolled it with her fingers until the seal became visible. Under my sigil I had stamped another imperial mark, that of the person to receive the message.
"This is going to the Pharaoh of Egypt...Cleopatra?"
"Aye. It is a message meant for her eyes alone. I'm giving it to Acasia."
"Oh, but Periander just arrived from Athens. They'll have had hardly any time at all together."
"Unfortunately, the Empire comes first. I need someone I can trust, but not a messenger. I need a spy a warrior."
"I take it if this gets in the wrong hands then"
"It could well start a war of massive proportions. Not here, but in Alexandria."
"And because Alexandria belongs to the Empire you have to be involved?"
"Part of my agreement with them. Pledging fealty to the Empire was due to the last Pharaoh, Ptolemy Auletes. He was a wise man and a good ally, but he was cursed with two of the most troublesome children I had ever known."
"And her brother, the younger Ptolemy. There were a couple younger boys and I believe another girl, but they weren't in line for the throne and so, were of little consequence. It may have actually saved their lives. When the older Ptolemy died, he left the disposition of Egypt in my hands. I have always let them rule themselves in exchange for fealty."
"Like you do with the Amazons and Chin."
"To name two, yes. The older Ptolemy made me a sort of guarantor of his will, which meant that I would have to chose which of his children was to rule in his place."
"Guardian, eh? And you chose Cleopatra. Hhmm, let me guess why. Did it have anything at all to do with her...assets?"
"Get those thoughts right out of your head. She and her brother were children."
"The younger Ptolemy was twelve and Cleopatra was fifteen."
"And did you sleep with her?"
"What? Why would you ask a thing like that?" I tried to quickly come up with a plausible lie, but not only did I abhor lying to Gabrielle, I was terrible at it.
"You know what kind of a woman I was back then, little one. I did things"
"It's all right, love. We both have a past we don't like to think on."
I smiled out of relief. She was right, of course. I didnt like to think of Gabrielles past any more than she enjoyed imagining mine. "Anyway, I chose Cleopatraactually, young Ptolemy forced my hand. When my forces were there, and I was executing the elder Ptolemys will, the young boy hired an assassin to kill his sister. They nearly killed me in the process."
"His own sister?"
"Royal families of every land have a habit of killing their own to move closer to the throne, as distasteful as that sounds."
"I saw a lot of that in Persia. Did you kill him then Ptolemy?"
"Right about now, Im thinking I should have." I looked up to see Gabrielle wearing a surprised expression. "I didnt have the heart to kill the boy, since he got most of his ideas from his traitorous advisors. They saw a kid they could manipulate and they did. I banished them all, he and his advisors, troops, the lot. I pretty much thought the kids own army would eventually kill him and save me the trouble."
"So, whats the emergency now? From what I understand Cleopatras been a good ruler for nearly, what...fifteen seasons?" Gabrielle asked.
"Ptolemy didnt die. In fact, he was given sanctuary by some nomadic tribes far to the north, Parthinians. Im just surprised that we never received word of such a thing. The bad news now is that Ptolemy and the generals of his new army are on their way back to Egypt to arrange some sort of meeting with Cleopatra."
"How true is that information?"
"True enough." I held up the edge of an open scroll. "This arrived this evening. Its from Cleopatra. Because Egypt and its surrounding lands have been honorable in their fealty toward the Empire, shes calling in a marker, so to speak."
"You owe her something?"
"In a way. When a land shows me their devotion, then later they get into trouble, its my responsibility to assist them, if not actually get them out of trouble."
We were silent for some time. Gabrielle was intelligent. I knew it wouldnt take her long to realize the inevitable.
Eventually she sighed. "So, when do we need to leave?" she asked.
At first, I thought she had misspoke, that she hadnt actually said we. As I stared into her face, I realized that there was no error. Gabrielle had every intention of going with me.
"Gabrielle, I have to go alone."
"Why on earth would you want to do that?"
"Well, I dont want to, but"
"Then, its settled."
"Not by any means. Gabrielle, we have a family now. We have Amira to think about."
She stopped with her mouth open as if to speak, but closed it again rather slowly. A few more moments of silence lay heavily between us. "So, youre telling me that I have to decide between you and our family."
She must have been thinking hard because she didnt say anything more for a long time. When she finally spoke, her words surprised me. I had expected to hear a certain resignation, not the adamant ejection that met my ears.
"I find that unacceptable," she said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I dont think I should have to make that choice. I dont think you should have to either. I"
"Xena, listen to me for a moment." She lowered her head, raising it again after a small pause. She had an odd look in her eye, but I recognized it as one of my own. She wanted to say something, but wasnt sure if she could find the right words. "I would never do anything to put Amira at risk of any sort of hurt, but I love you and Ive Ive gone through too much to lose you on some nameless battlefield with only a bunch of warriors around you."
"Gabrielle my, little one " I gently lifted her chin that had uncharacteristically begun to quiver. "You are not going to lose me on any battlefield."
"You say that, but I know you, Xena, youre the first into the fray. If something happens Iwell, I want to be with you, fighting beside you."
"My small warrior," I replied, followed by a smile. Holding her closer, I honestly felt flattered. There was such strength in her words, and the power of the sentiment touched my heart as only Gabrielle, and her heartfelt language, could manage to do.
"There may come a day, my love, when we will have to discuss this, but this is not that day. You havent given me time to explain, yet. Although I have no intention of dying on any battlefield ever, it certainly wont be in Alexandria. Im not going there to do battle at all, nor do I think it will come to that. Egypts forces are considerably smaller than the Empires. Even if Ptolemy should join with Cleopatra, they still wouldnt have the numbers or might to defeat us."
"I dont understand then, why do you have to go at all?"
"A display of might...power, I guess. To show Ptolemy and Cleopatra that nothing gets past the eyes of the Empire. I cant afford to have them warring with each other any more than with me. Greece receives a fair bit of grain from the Land of the Pharaohs. Bad times there equate to shortages on our end."
"I had no idea," Gabrielle muttered, almost as if to herself. She had a new look in her eyes, another one I knew well. Except, this time the expression usually meant there was some plotting going on.
"So, why do I have to choose at all? Why doesnt the whole family go?"
I just stared at her, mostly too embarrassed to admit that I really hadnt thought of that as an option. "What?"
"Didnt you hear me or hadnt you thought of that?"
Damn! Why did she have to know me so well. "Honestly? I suppose I thought that...we just got settled and...with the others here...well, I dont know...Ioh, all right, I never thought of it." To her credit, Gabrielle didnt even laugh at me. "I guess my mind was focused elsewhere."
"And understandably so."
"Okay, why are you being so nice to me?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Im trying to be understanding and you still get paranoid."
"Yea, well, it keeps me alive," I replied with an expression tinged with hurt pride.
"Have I hurt your feelings?"
"Luckily Im a quick healer. I have to admit, love, that I never thought of asking the entire family to travel so far by ship."
"First of all, when you count it in days, it will be less than traveling to Amazonia, and I, for one, would love to see the Land of the Pharaohs. It would be educational for Amira. Frankly, no one has to come if they dont want, but it may look rather good."
"Ahh. You mean impressive." Her words had started me to thinking along the same path I guessed her mind ran.
"Just so we dont take any chances with our safety, we go with a fair sized fleet and your flagship is a spectacle in itself. An official visit from the Conqueror and her new Queen shouldnt be a complete surprise to a land under Empire rule. Of course, if your entire family and your child were also present, no one would ever suspect that you had any military intentions at all."
I smiled broadly and almost laughed aloud. "Im beginning to realize why you consistently beat me at Kings Men. You, my love, not only have a head for strategy, but theres a little deviousness lurking in there, too."
"Who me?" She chuckled and then kissed me. "What do really think of my idea? Will we be safe...safe enough to take the family?"
I thought about it for a few moments, leaning back in my chair, Gabrielle resting her head against my shoulder. There was potential in going as a family unit, but in the back of my mind there was a niggling sort of fear. Could I keep them safe?
Quickly adding numbers in my head, I figured that forty or fifty ships would hold enough soldiers and Amazons to not only impress Egypt, but to also put a barricade between those I loved and any potential harm. It didnt take much longer to make my decision.
"Well, if it's to be the Land of the Pharaohs for us, then let it be for our entire family."
The Conqueror & Gabrielle will return with the next novel in the series, tentatively called: "Ptolemy's Curse."
Thanks to all who have read & loyally continue to write to me. It is appreciated more than you know. I am working on getting 3 of my books re-edited & back into print, along with a screenplay that we want to start shooting this year. At summer's end, I'll begin the next story in the Queen Series.
Thank again & as always...Read & Enjoy,
To be continued in : The next novel..."Ptolemy's Curse."
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