Disclaimers: See Chapter One for all disclaimers, warnings, etc.
I only know how others feel about my stories from feedback. Let me know what you think. I'm at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Special Disclaimer: For this chapter I thought I'd give a heads up, so to speak. There is a wee bit of light bondage and a whip does come into play between our two gals. If this isn't your cup of tea...well, you've been warned.
The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 9: Some men with swords may reap the field
"A message just in, Conqueror," Atrius said as he walked into the war room.
He held a miniature scroll case in one hand, no larger than the length of his smallest finger. I recognized it as one that we had sent via the hawks. We used the birds of prey as messengers back to areas such as Corinth, or in this case, Sparta.
We sat around the large table set up on our outside patio. Our home could have easily held the generals, Cleisthenes, Solon, Atrius, Ephiny, and the assorted lieutenants, but it was slightly inconvenient for our centaur friend, Kaliepus. Those in attendance had become my war council. Darius and the rest of the Persians were still two days away, but we had sent word to Corinth and Sparta, along with the Amazon and Centaur territories, for soldiers to fight in the battle that looked inevitable.
"Is it going to make me happy?" I asked.
"I seriously doubt it," Atrius responded as he slipped a tiny roll of paper from the case and handed it to me.
"Son of a Bacchae!" I slammed the note back down to the table once I had read it. Silence greeted me when I looked at the faces around the table.
"You were right," Ephiny deadpanned to Atrius. "It didn't make her happy."
I sighed deeply. I'd been in worse situations. It was just that at that moment, I couldn't remember one. The only difference was that I had things I didn't want to lose now. One of them sat beside me, silently questioning me with her emerald eyes. I had to get back into Conqueror mode, as distasteful as that idea was to me. These people, the Empire, depended on me. Could I be a leader on the field of battle without turning into the Conqueror? More importantly, could I become a warrior without losing myself to the beast? Although I feared the beast, should it reappear, I was more than terrified that the darkness might never allow me to return to myself.
The Spartan army won't be coming," I said at last.
Everyone began to talk at once. Oddly enough, Gabrielle's even voice cut through the confusion. "Quiet," she said. It took only heartbeats until the silence returned. I was a little more than impressed. Perhaps it was because Gabrielle seldom raised her voice that the group immediately obeyed her.
"Xena, why? The Spartans would do anything to protect the Empire."
"They're in the last days of their moon-long celebration to Pan. He's sacred to them," I explained for the benefit of the Amazons and centaurs, "and they're not allowed to do battle of any sort during the festival. They say if they fight, Pan will become angry at their disobedience."
"And an angry patron God " Ephiny trailed off.
"Is not someone I want to get into it with," I finished.
I tossed the parchment down onto the table. "They wish us a speedy victory and promise to pray for us. They will march towards Athens the very moment their festival ends."
"Do they know Athens may not be standing when they get here?" Cleisthenes spat.
"You underestimate the forces that we do have, Cleisthenes," Gabrielle said.
"I have a hundred and fifty Amazons already on their way, Conqueror," Ephiny responded.
"As well as a hundred centaurs," Kaliepus added.
"It's much needed and appreciated, my friends," I said. "Atrius, what have we heard from Corinth?"
"We can have 20,000 troops here in five days, Conqueror."
"Five? Hades, this will all be over in two."
"They sent out the first five thousand on a hard march the day we sent our hawks."
"They'll have to be enough. Besides, I don't want Corinth undefended. Darius isn't fool enough to launch an invasion against me on only one front. Keep the bulk of our troops there and prepare the warships, but tell them not to leave Corinth. Let's hope our men aren't too taxed from the march that they can't fight."
"They've all been trained in the Palaestra, Conqueror."
"Thank the Gods for small favors." I nodded, as I thought of the massive gymnasium where two thousand soldiers trained at one time. The rigorous workouts were not for the faint of heart. Instructors drove the soldiers until they could run for days, never losing their breath.
"Plataea has sent word that 600 of their soldiers have already left for Athens," Atrius said.
"Athens can provide a Hoplite army of nearly 4,000, Conqueror," Militiades added.
"Excellent," I replied. "That will help immensely." The Hoplites were extremely well trained and well-outfitted infantrymen. I would have preferred to have 10,000 of them, but even 4,000 greatly increased our odds of victory.
"What are your plans to fortify Athens, Conqueror?" Militiades continued.
"Hardly any. I don't plan to let him get that close. Come over here. Let's look at the maps."
We all gathered around a large makeshift table that was at least 20 hands across. Unrolled across it's length lay a map of Athens and the area of Attica.
"All of our scouts agree that Darius will put in on the only beach in Attica. cliffs line the rest of the shore, so it makes sense. It's also to his advantage. He must know an all out assault on Athens would last for some time. I'm sure he has hopes of decimating our number considerably in the fields of Attica, thereby giving himself an easy victory over the city of Athens. He doesn't know yet that we already discovered his plans for invasion. I want to keep it that way as long as possible. I plan to meet him here, on the plain of Marathon."
The generals all nodded their approval as everyone looked down at the area I indicated on the map.
"See, the plain forms a sort of crescent moon shape and is no more than two leagues across at the center. All around it, the mountains come right down to the sea. Limestone mountains surround the plain itself. We all know how overgrown the mountains are this time of year. Pines, olive trees, even cedar trees cover the hillside, not to mention the myrtle and other shrubs. We have enough cover to hide an army twice our size. Surprise will be one more thing that may help our chances."
"The marshes are still wet this time of season, too," General Aristides pointed out.
"Exactly. Marshes lie at each end of the plain. This early in the summer, they're still flooded. That means the Persian cavalry won't be able to circle around us. They'll have to use straight-on maneuvers. In addition, we have the advantage of looking down on them. Coat logs with Greek fire, set them aflame, and roll them down the hill to take out their initial infantry charge. We can also use catapults to help scatter and destroy their cavalry." I paused to take a sip of wine while they processed the information. I could see the warriors were already contemplating their strategies.
"The number of Persian ships is sketchy, but our best information says there are about 200 in all," I said at last.
"How many soldiers do you guess?" Gabrielle asked.
"Allowing for supplies and their cavalry's horses, I would say about a hundred men per ship. Sound pretty accurate, Atrius?" I asked.
"Twenty thousand soldiers," Gabrielle said softly as she quickly calculated the numbers. "We have little more than half that number."
"That's all we'll need for victory, your Highness," Militiades spoke with a confidence that I wish I had felt. "Evidently you've never witnessed a Hoplite army in battle."
Gabrielle didn't look up at the general. She had a rather faraway expression in her eyes when she replied. "No, General but I have seen the Persians fight."
"What in Zeus's name do you think that you're doing?" I asked my son.
Solan stood in the middle of the weapon maker's tent. He wore one of the new bronze breastplates that the smithy had evidently been fitting the young man for. That's one thing we had on our side in this war. Greece had an abundance of mining operations, specifically bronze and silver. One of the reasons that my armies had been victorious more often than not had a great deal to do with the bronze armor they wore.
"I'm being fitted for armor."
"I'm not a fool, I can see that," I answered. I admit that the closer it grew to the hour of battle, the more my patience deserted me. "What I don't see is why."
"For protection in battle, Mother. I plan to fight alongside you."
"Like Hades you will."
"I had a feeling you might take it badly," Solan said as he lifted the breastplate from his chest. He handed it back to the smithy, who quickly made himself scarce.
"Well, you don't have to worry any more. I know now and it's not happening."
"And what am I supposed to do while the battle's going on?" Solan stood toe to toe with me.
Now, I knew I was being unreasonable, but that rarely stopped me from acting a fool. "You can defend your Queen," I snapped.
"You really mean that I can hide in Athens with the other women!"
Maybe it was the way he shouted back at me or perhaps it was the wounded expression on his face. Ultimately, I think it was simply that for the first time in a long time, I listened to my son. I was so accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed that having anyone tell me no took some getting used to. I tried to put myself in his place and realized that I was being a peevish bully.
I rubbed my hand across my face and let my fingers slide slowly thru my hair. It felt hot and sweaty against my neck and I wished I'd put it in a braid that morning. I turned away from Solon and looked at the busy activity of our camp. We had gathered just outside the city, in almost the same place that we had spent the night before marching into Athens nearly a fortnight ago. That day seemed an eternity ago.
"I just don't want to see anything happen to you," I said quietly.
I felt him move up beside me and felt his hand on my arm. "I know, really I do. I suppose it's the same feeling that I have when I think of you getting hurt or when Gabrielle thinks about you fighting. I want to do my part, though, Mother."
"I know you do, but couldn't you--"
"I'm a good soldier," he said finally.
What could I say after that? He was a good soldier and I knew it. I turned to look at him and tousled his hair. It was an action that would have offended another man of his age, but Solan didn't seem to mind. He grinned and I was taken back at how much I was reminded of myself. I grinned back.
"Just don't get yourself all bashed up again. I can't keep asking Yu Pan to patch you up every time you get yourself in a fix."
"Aye, Conqueror," he answered as he smiled broadly.
I shook my head. It was as though my title, which had caused fear in so many for so long, had somehow become a term of endearment for those close to me.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's
Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
Sharing my noon meal with two-dozen women of Athens had not been on my list of favorite activities for the day. I would have much rather been helping Xena plan for battle. Although I wouldn't be fighting, Xena did take my evaluations of her battle plans seriously. Part of me felt insulted that she didn't want me fighting, but the other half of me was relieved. The thought of being down on that plain terrified me. Xena said that was normal, but when I asked her if she felt afraid, she said that old warriors didn't have the sense to be afraid.
So, as much as I found the whole afternoon's event distasteful, I smiled, ate, drank, and nodded my head appropriately. These were the wives of the generals and other important Athenians doing battle alongside Xena and her army. I understood how important it was for me to interact with them. Yes, Xena was a woman and we had promised never to split our duties along lines of gender. I believed her when she told me that she would not always be warrior and I would not always be Queen. The lines would blur occasionally, such as now. I admit that I volunteered today not only because Xena's talents were better used elsewhere, but because my lovely Conqueror would have run half of these petulant women through by now. I easily imagined Xena beheading Militiades wife and calmly returning to her food without a thought.
It was apparent that some of these women were from the old noble families that ran Athens at one time. The aristocracy, they called it. I easily kept a tally in my head of which women fit that profile. It was a generalization, true, but the women on that list thought of nothing and no one but themselves and their own. Many of the women were amusing in a rather sad way. There seemed not to be one intelligent thought among them. Even though Xena's victory over Athens allowed women many more rights, such as education, many didn't take advantage. The noble families still raised their daughters in much the same way as when the aristocracy ruled.
"You seem a thousand leagues away, your Highness."
"I'm terribly sorry," I said. I came to myself to find Militiades wife, Livia, staring at me. "Forgive me."
She smiled a smile that I had seen a thousand times before. It was a condescending smirk that, to outsiders, looked completely innocent. To the intended, it clearly held a certain bored malevolence. I could have been mistaken, but for her next remark.
"I'm sure afternoon socializing is not quite as exciting here in Athens as it is in Corinth."
Two women from my mental list giggled quietly at Livia's comment. If it had come from anyone else, I could have been sure it was an innocent remark. The subtle bite in Livia's voice made me certain, though, that she meant it to ridicule. I bit my tongue and smiled politely.
A young girl offered me a goblet of wine. I had never been fond of strong drink, but this was definitely one of the occasions that I felt I not only needed it, I deserved it. As the serving girl passed me by, the hem of her skirt caught on the edge of a low-lying table. Thankfully, mine had been the last goblet offered so only the silver tray clattered noisily to the floor.
I helped the girl to her feet, naturally being the only one who would assist her. It gave me a feel for what some of these women evidently thought of Xena's new laws abolishing slavery within the Empire. Donatia, General Aristides's wife, at least came over to see if the young girl had hurt herself. We gathered in Donatia's home and it gave me hope to think that not all the women here were unfeeling. I watched carefully as she gently chided the girl, whispered something in her ear, and sent her back to the kitchen area with a pat on the head.
"Forgive me, your Highness," Donatia said.
"There's nothing to apologize for," I said as I offered a friendly smile.
"Helena just started work in the kitchens. Serving is something new to her, but she'll catch on. I think she's just missing the rest of her family. She just started living in the main house in the servant's quarters. She seems very bright," Donatia explained.
"I don't know how bright she could be tripping over her own feet," said another of the women on my list. This brought on some laughter and general agreement from a number of the others, along with discussion on servants.
"Donatia, I'm surprised that you keep her living in your home," Lenora, Cleisthenes's wife, spoke up.
"She's a good girl very easy to get along with," Donatia defended her position.
"But, she's at that age " Lenora trailed off. She had that expression on her face as though everyone in the room knew what she was insinuating.
A few women even nodded their heads, but Donatia and I seemed to be the only women without a hint of what the woman was alluding to. Finally, it must have dawned on Donatia. Her expression turned sour.
"Just what are you suggesting?" Donatia asked.
"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."
"I trust my husband."
"Yes, of course. I'm just saying that if it was me I wouldn't have them in the house after a certain age."
I sat and watched as Cleisthenes's wife insulted our hostess. I attributed Lenora's clueless behavior to a noble woman having lived an entirely sheltered life. I was somewhat surprised, and even shocked, to see that a few of the women even agreed with Lenora's ludicrous idea. It seemed as though we were headed for a full-scale confrontation. I did the only thing I could think of on such short notice.
I tossed my goblet of wine upon the floor.
"Heavens! I am so sorry," I apologized as women and servants alike rushed to help me. I played the helpless Queen to the hilt. My ploy worked, however, as the women eventually dispersed into their little cliques and the luncheon went on.
Donatia was the last one to bid me farewell when I left late that afternoon. She walked with me all the way out to my carriage. She seemed somewhat in awe of my Amazon guard as she stammered, but I quickly realized that it was due to embarrassment.
"I--I thank you, your Highness."
"I enjoyed myself, Donatia. You have a lovely home."
"Actually I meant thank you for intervening this afternoon. I'm sure I would have started yelling like a fishwife if you hadn't dropped that wine cup."
I smiled back at the woman who had astutely caught on to my ruse. "I believe that there will always be women like Lenora in this world. I can only hope that there will forever be Donatias around to keep the balance."
She chuckled at my reply and squeezed my hand before I left.
During the carriage ride home I replayed the afternoon in my head. I had met a number of women and attempted to remember their names as well as their faces. Uneasiness slowly crept over me until I could no longer focus on my memories. Something nagged at me about the afternoon. I wasn't certain if it was someone I had met or if it was something that had been said. I only know that I couldn't pinpoint the time or even who was nearby at the time, but something lay just beneath the surface of the day, some odd feeling of disquiet. I could only hope that it had nothing to do with the battle that was now only a day away.
End of Gabrielle's Addendum
I sat alone in our tent, pensive and apprehensive at the same time. My confrontation with Solon had brought certain things to light, certain provisions that I had not yet made. It had been an eternity since I had gone into battle caring about anyone or anything other than myself. It had been in Amphipolis. Gods! Had it really been all that long ago? I could feel those emotions now as surely as if it had happened only yesterday. Would I worry as I had then?
I remember fearing for Lyceus, just three seasons younger than myself. Neither one of us had seen any real battle time before that day; even though I felt I had been training for it all my life. Sadly, my brother's skills, or his luck, ran short on that day. Had I been watching out for him more ah, well hindsight. A creation of the Gods' used to tell mortals what fools they had been. Would I be able to protect Solon any better? Did he even need my protection? I believe my son a better warrior than Lyceus ever was, but would I worry, and how would that affect my own ability to perform on the battlefield?
I recall that my thoughts were also on my mother that day. She had stayed behind in the village, tending to the wounded, providing food and drink during the three day battle. I find it ironic that the woman I have not spoken to for over twenty-five seasons had been uppermost in my mind during that whole skirmish with Cortese's army. At the time, I was driven. The thought that if Cortese's men got past me, my mother's life would be over, drove me like a madwoman in battle. It was enough, but at such a cost.
I found myself already thinking of Gabrielle in these same terms. I had meticulously planned for Gabrielle's escape from Athens should I not only fall in battle, but should the Persians defeat us. I had not yet told her of my plans, nor would I. It made me happy enough to know they were in place. By Athena's will, I would not ever have to reveal them to my wife. I needed to enlist help from someone outside my own camp. I chose the one Athenian who I knew would risk life and limb to protect the Queen. It was an unlikely choice, but that would simply cause it to work all that much better. I had arranged for Gabrielle, planning for the worst, except for one scenario. I had yet to approach Gabrielle or Solon concerning my successor should I fall, yet our armies defeat the Persians. I hoped that my choice would be understood.
I mentally ticked off the items on the list in my head, waiting for Gabrielle to return from the city. We caught a spy inside the city today. I don't know which surprised me more. The fact that he wasn't a Persian or that he was an Athenian. I had spoken with Ephiny soon after we captured the spy and she doubled Gabrielle's guard in Athens. I had not learned of it early enough to warn Gabrielle, but with her Amazon guard, I was secure in knowing she was well protected. I wish I had known of what the spy had told us before Gabrielle left. If she had insisted upon the visit, she could have at least kept her ears open. I smiled at that thought. It would have been redundant to tell Gabrielle to do such a thing. She would do no less anyway, of that I was certain. Actually, I hoped that she would be bringing me back some news about the women she met with today.
Earlier in the day, after making future assurances in Athens for Gabrielle's welfare, I had stopped by Athena's temple. It's true, the Gods had been more trouble in my life than I cared for, but since Athena had become my patron, I had never entered into battle without her blessing. I wasn't about to stop now. I knew she would be there, just as I knew she would come when I bid her in Corinth.
I stood before her altar, laying my weapons upon the carved wooden table. I had carefully laid the talants of silver and small sack of grain in the bowls set beside the table. I had never really known what to bring as an offering. After all, what did Gods really need? I always figured that at least the priests and priestesses could use the food and money I brought.
I stood a little longer in the relative silence. Incense burned and a pleasant aroma filled the huge temple. I shifted my weight and folded my arms across my chest, and then I waited some more.
"Are you coming, or what?" I finally asked aloud.
The familiar sensation along my spine indicated that the form materializing before me would be Athena.
"For someone who only brings offerings when she wants a victory, you are a most impatient woman," Athena said once her form quit shimmering.
"I pray to you and thank you all the time," I answered defensively.
"Sure now that Gabrielle's tamed a little of the rough out of you."
I shrugged and tried to appear indifferent. How could I counter the remark when we both knew that it was absolutely true?
"At least you know better than to throw dead animals on my altar." She looked approvingly at the pouch of talants and the grain. "Those Spartans! They throw a gutted hind across my altar like I'm Artemis."
"Speaking of Spartans " I began.
Athena held up one delicate hand to halt my speech. "I've already spoken with Pan."
"Did you tell him to get his ass in gear and tell the Spartans they can fight?"
Athena took a deep breath as she closed her eyes and looked heavenward. Why was it that people so often did that when speaking with me?
"I'm sure even you understand why I can't simply order Pan to do that."
"Then let me explain my lovely Conqueror. There are two reasons. In the first place, I'm not sure he wouldn't refuse just to be stubborn. You know how he feels about my family. They made fun of him until he left Olympus and went to live in Arcadia. He's more Arcadian God than Olympian any more."
"And the second reason?"
"This time, Xena, you're going to have to rely on another to win this battle."
"I haven't got time for cryptic, Athena," I growled.
She quickly continued, overlooking my poor manners. "I'm surprised you haven't thought this through already. The one last Olympian with close ties to Pan is Artemis."
"They share the nymphs," I remembered.
"Meaning that he must obey Artemis," she finished.
She smiled as though she enjoyed telling me this next bit.
"It seems as though it will be up to your new Queen to convince her Amazon patron. Do you think our Gabrielle is up to the task?
Athena and I shared conspiratorial smiles. We each knew that if anyone could speak convincingly, and from the heart, it was Gabrielle.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice roused me from my thoughts.
"Hello, love. I'm sorry. I was somewhere else for a moment."
"You look like you've been contemplating something very heavy."
"No, not really." I offered her a gentle smile.
"Are you sure you're not ill?" she asked with concern, pressing the back of her hand against my cheek.
"I'm sure," I said as I took her hand in my own. I gently kissed her palm and drew her down to sit beside me. "We have to talk of some things before tomorrow's battle. There has been a development that could affect you, even our entire battle plan."
Gabrielle's brow came together as she squeezed my hand. "What can I do?" she asked.
I smiled inside. How like Gabrielle. Not thinking how the outcome might affect her, not shrinking back in fear, but rather asking what she could do to help the Empire and me. Gods, but for a thousand soldiers with her soul.
"We caught a spy this morning
after you left for the city. The news we gathered gives us some cause for fear."
"A Persian spy?" Gabrielle asked. She was well acquainted with the Persians' methods. Their standard operating procedure had been to send in spies a day or so ahead of their army. More often than not, the advance scout attempted to blend in as one of the locals.
"That one's hard to answer. He's more traitor than spy. We've identified him as a local Athenian named Caridus. He's the son of a nobleman, an old family that was of the ruling aristocracy. His father, Letus, was one of the unhappy ones after I originally took Athens. He moved his family and wealth into northern Thrace, territory occupied on and off by Persia. It's pretty much been understood that people who live in those northern, far reaching provinces serve Persia more than they do the Empire. Hades! I should have crushed them when I had the chance."
"So, are you saying that there could be more of these traitors?" Gabrielle asked.
"That could certainly be the case. There's no way of knowing whether this is a case of one or two unhappy noble families or if their entire class has been promised a return of the aristocracy by Darius."
"By the Gods, Xena. If the latter is true they might be able to take Athens from the inside while you're fighting on the plain of Marathon." Gabrielle bit the nail on her thumb and I could see her instantly running counter measures through her head.
"Gabrielle, we can't allow our warships to leave Corinth's harbor while there's still a chance that Darius will attack there also. Our scouts haven't seen any ships break off from the main fleet and head toward Corinth, but it wouldn't take any more than half the morning to sail around into the Saronic Gulf and mount an attack on Corinth from the mainland side."
"But, Xena, if there is a revolt inside the city gates and Darius attacks Athens by ship, too, then the city will be lost without warships to protect the harbor."
"I'm aware of that, but we face certain defeat if we spread ourselves too thin on the chance that the attack will come on more than one front. Even guessing wrong could cause the fall of Athens, possibly Corinth as well." I sighed deeply and leaned back on the cushions at my back.
"I was hoping you might have learned something about the women of Athens today at your luncheon," I said at last.
"Hades!" Gabrielle cursed. If the moment had been less serious, I would have laughed. Gabrielle rarely used such language. "If only I'd known earlier. I could have asked the right questions."
"True, love, but imagine if you had slipped even once. If there is a plot among the noble families to assist Persia with a rebellion from the inside then we would have clearly alerted them to the fact that we have knowledge of their plan."
"I understand, but it doesn't make it any easier to take." She smiled at me in a way that said we both thought along the same lines at times.
Gabrielle then told me of her day, the women, and all that had occurred. First, she told me only the facts. Secondly, she spoke of her suspicions and personal thoughts regarding the women who had entertained her for the afternoon. Lastly, she shared the feelings of unease she had developed on the ride home.
"Was it something you heard? Someone you saw, perhaps a familiar face from the past?"
She shook her head as though unable to answer me. "I wish I could pinpoint it, Xena, but the harder I try, the further back into my mind it recedes. I'm certain of one thing. It had something to do with the past. Don't even ask me why I can say that with such conviction. It's something that I just know. Does that make sense?"
I reached over and kissed her forehead in an understanding gesture. "It makes complete sense to me. Sometimes, love, we just have to go with that gut feeling we get about things. And, when it comes to your first instinct about things well, let's just say that I'd have no trouble placing my life in your sense of intuition."
"So, give me your best guess. If you had to choose, who would you say, of the women in attendance, could possibly be disloyal enough to turn to the enemy? Who could be the leader, of sorts?" I asked.
"Gods, Xena, that is such a big question."
"It's not like I'm going to go crucify them, love. I just want to hear your perceptions."
"If I had to choose today, with only the knowledge I have right now, I would guess Livia of Thrace."
"Militiades wife," I said.
"She and Militiades would be my first choice, but there's something wrong with the feel of that. I can't explain it. I wonder if she hates us enough to truly be a traitor or if I simply dislike her because of her arrogance. She and her clique of ladies all remind me of the sort of women that ran the households where I served."
"I know what you mean. Militiades is one egotistical bastard, too. It scares me that it fits, though. Militiades is the likely choice to lead a rebellion against the Empire. He's not only one of the wealthiest men in Athens, but he's trusted. He's the Polemarchos and in charge of a great deal of the upcoming battle. All that would only speak well for him if he hadn't served the Persians once already. He and his entire family turned traitor once before."
"Does that necessarily mean he could do it again?" Gabrielle asked.
"I suppose only the Gods know the answer to that one and if they know, they're not telling. There could be two or two hundred nobles in on a plot to overthrow Athens. A lot depends on what kind of leadership they have."
"Meaning our worst case scenario would become a reality if Militiades turns out to be the leader of this mutiny. He could very well turn the tide of battle as a general in my army. I could order him off the battlefield, but if he's innocent, I cut my own throat with that action. He's an incredible officer and warrior.
"So " she mused and leaned back.
"So," I agreed.
My brain felt as though my thoughts were stretching it eight different ways at once. We sat beside one another quietly for long moments, each of us trying to organize the jumbled web of intrigue in which we found ourselves.
"If there's to be a plan then, we'll have to come up with it at the last moment," Gabrielle voiced my exact thought. "While you're on the battlefield with Militiades, I'll have to be in Athens looking for our traitor and their cohorts."
"I won't put you in harm's way, Gabrielle," I said emphatically.
"Don't do this, Xena. I've always understood the consequences of being your Queen. It would have been naïve of us to think we could have gone through our entire lives living in a peaceful fantasy world. That would have been wonderful, but we both know life doesn't work that way."
"I can't be at my best if I'm fearing what will happen to you," I admitted with some guilt.
Gabrielle leaned into me and nuzzled my neck. I wrapped my arms around her and she laid her head upon my shoulder. It seemed a natural reaction for me to run my fingers through her golden locks.
"Xena," she began softly. "I'm not sure whether you even know this or not, but from the moment we met you've been trying to give me a sense of myself. And, not just a sense of the me that I am now, but you helped me see the woman that I still can be. Because of you, I've learned that I can be strong and that there's nothing wrong with a woman being that way. You've not only treated me as an equal, encouraged me to be strong and independent, but you've also taught me."
"You make me sound like all of Zeus's muses wrapped into one," I quipped in order to cover my embarrassment. Had I really done all, or any, of that for my lovely partner?
"We're partners, my Conqueror," Gabrielle went on as she used the very words in my mind. "You've taken every opportunity to tell me that we rule together. I admit, I'm not overly fond of war or anything associated with it, but it seems as though we find ourselves in an exceptionally unusual spot. The ruler of the Greek Empire may very well have to lead a battle in two places at once tomorrow, the plain of Marathon, and possibly Athens. My only question is, do you trust anyone more than me to act in your stead?"
I just stared at her for the longest time. First, I kept coming up with reasons why Gabrielle couldn't do this. Then, I tried to think of someone anyone who might carry out a plan that might never need to happen, but would all boil down to intuition and intelligence.
She was right, of course. Not only was there no one I trusted more in this known world, but Gabrielle and I had the uncanny ability to see one another's thoughts as though they were our own at times.
My silence seemed answer enough
for her. She snuggled against me closer and squeezed her arms around me tightly.
"I know," she said. "It scares me, too."
To be continued in : Chapter 10: The Skies They Were Ashen and Sober
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