Copyright Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and company are the sole property of MCA/Universal, Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA, and whoever else owns them. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this just for fun and not for profit piece of fan fiction.

Teaser: Xena has her hands full attempting to conquer Greece while dealing with treachery and deceit from within the ranks of her army. Haunted nightly by visions of a young village girl she met long ago, Xena struggles to discover the meaning of he r dreams, and to find the girl named Gabrielle.

Timeline of this story is after the events of “Armageddon's Arrival”, the first in the trilogy of stories. Part one of this story is the second installment of the series. I recommend you read the first story.

This is a Xena Conqueror Story, the plot is dark.

Language – A bit coarse in parts, not overly vulgar.

Artwork created by the supremely talented Aaron Wong. More of his fantastic art can be found on Deviant Art . www.deviantart.com search aaronwty or www.behance.net/aaronwty

The quotes and some of the dialogue points between characters can be attributed to Shakespeare's the tragedy of Julius Caesar, my favorite play, which served as major inspiration for the story. More inspiration came from George Patton, Sun Tzu, and Star Trek.

Thank You to Karyn for taking the time to proofread this story and for helping me become a better writer.

To contact: schawnyboi@gmail.com

 

Vengeance of the Destroyer

Part 1

 

Prologue

 

The old man forced himself to continue running toward Olynthus .

Abandoned by those who once promised loyalty, he was alone in the northern reaches of Greece . He had little time to think about it now; the trees of the forest dropped away to reveal a wide sloping clearing and at the bottom, Olynthus stood silhouetted against the sea. He had hoped to book passage on a ship bound for Ephesus .

The fates had turned against him, his war to save the Republic over. Why he continued to run was beyond the scope of rational thought, and his instinct for survival was driving him. Rational thought urged him to stop. His sons, his wife, now dead—such was the price of his involvement in Roman politics. Why run? What was there to run to ? Why not just accept fate, accept his death? The exquisite freedom he could gain by death…

Behind him came the telltale sound of horses' hooves thundering across the open grasses. With grey hair whipping wildly, he chanced a look behind at his pursuers. His foot caught on an old root; the glance back had cost him and caused him to tumble. Hitting the ground, he feebly tried to crawl forward, his old body betraying him as his strength was all but spent.

Surrounded, a ring of triumphant scornful laughter sounded in his ears.

“Take him to Talmadeus!”

 

Chapter 1

From every balcony, every rooftop, and on the streets below, the rabble that was Rome cheered him with abandon.

A most noble chariot carried the victor of the Battle of Pharsalus into Rome . Drawn by four magnificent black Greek stallions, the new first citizen of Rome was welcomed by the plebeian masses. Men of his victorious legions held the people back, giving his procession access down Rome 's cobblestone streets to the Forum, the very heart of the city. Pulled by his chariot, a bloodied warrior woman in chains struggled to stay on her feet. At times she faltered, her body then dragged over the rough cobblestones.

Men of his legions strode far ahead, their polished armor glinting in the bright Mediterranean sun. Behind them, all manner of dancers bobbed and weaved ahead of his chariot, exciting the crowd. Vestal Virgins reaching into baskets to throw rose petals in his path.

Trumpets blared upon his arrival at the Senate.

 

Ah, the Senate, he mused, the last vestige of Republican Rome.

 

“Ave Caesar!” the crowd roared, cheering him mindlessly, enthralled by the spectacle.

 

In gleaming armor of red and gold, Caesar stepped from the chariot, stopping to savor the magnificence of the moment, the sweaty, hooting mob that was the poor of Rome cheered ‘til their voices grew hoarse.

Behind him, his chariot was guided away, the woman roughly pulled away with it. His men backed up on cue, allowing the crowds to run forward to the base of the steps leading up to the Roman Senate before their line reformed again.

Turning, Caesar strode gracefully up the marble steps, warily eying the assembled Senators as he did so.

The Senate, den of traitorous vipers! Many of them, through both flattering words and bags of gold, had lent support to the legions of Pompey in the Civil Wars. They would pay with far more than gold for their lack of allegiance to his cause.

He, not Pompeius, had brought Gaul forcibly under Roman control. While old Pompeius luxuriated in Rome , he, Julius Caesar, had fought to bring Britannia to heel.

When Pompey and the Senate ordered him home without his legions, Caesar knew he must take action or lose all his ventures.

Now he would allow the Senators to fawn and flatter with silver tongues pledging him their support.

Long ago, Caesar had found the allegiance of men to be like the shifting sands of the desert.

Except for…

“Marcus Antonius!”

“Caesar, my lord.”

The eyes of the greybeards of the Senate shifted, taking in Caesar's most loyal Commander. Tall, with light blond hair and hazel eyes, Antonius cut a dashing figure in his bronze armor. He was widely rumored to be a reveler, enjoying his drink and the company of beautiful women. To include, some said, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt . Placed in command of a third of Caesar's legions at Pharsalus, Antonius had distinguished himself further, proving his loyalty to the man many in the Senate secretly worried would end the 500 year old Republic by proclaiming himself emperor.

With a flashed smile of supreme confidence, Caesar turned his back upon the Senators. If any had designs to kill, now was a prime moment, surrounded as he was by the greybeards. His body tensed, readying itself for a strike.

None came…

Spineless these Senators, thought Caesar, unwilling to get their hands dirty, rather wishing others such as Pompeius do their dirty work .

 

Before him was thrust a crown made of laurel leaves by a now kneeling Antonius.

 

“Caesar Imperator!” The crowd chanted.

 

With the back of his hand, Caesar brushed the crown aside. No, now was not the moment.

 

“Caesar Imperator! Caesar Imperator!”

Again the crown was offered, again he brushed it aside. Even with his victories, Caesar knew he wasn't yet powerful enough to claim the title of Emperor.

 

“Caesar Imperator! Caesar Imperator! Caesar Imperator!”

A third time the crown was offered, a third time brushed aside. Those who opposed him in the Senate had to be killed first, lest they become emboldened to strike.

 

One of his hands rose, the crowds fell silent in anticipation of his words.

 

“Citizens of Rome ,” Caesar's voice rolled off the marble, echoing through the streets. “Today we celebrate the addition of Gaul to our Republic!” The roar of the crowd rose to such heights it seemed the columned buildings themselves shuddered.

Both his hands rose, silence again descending over the masses. Dropping them, he gestured to two of his men below on the landing.

 

“And here,” he bellowed while pointing “I give you the former ruler of Britannia! The Rebel Boadicea!”

 

The tall woman was brought before the masses, forced to her knees; she was made to endure the taunts of the crowd while their spittle pelted her.

Again the throng fell silent, watching with baited breath as Caesar descended the marble stairs. With a deliberate movement, he drew his blade, the steel flashing in the light cast by the quickly setting sun. Before him, the woman stiffened, knowing death was near yet refusing to close her eyes. She would meet death like a true warrior. The blade descended and the masses roared, gleefully cheering the complete subjugation of Britannia to Rome .

Turning, Caesar paced up the steps again, smirking at the Senators as he did so. Upon reaching the top, he faced the throng once more while raising his bloody sword high for all to see. Slowly the people fell silent as the blade moved, bloody tip pointing East.

 

“The Bitch of Greece shall yield to Rome !”

 

The people roared their assent to this new war for conquest.

 

“See the people, Antonius,” Caesar instructed as the Senators parted before him. “how I have moved them.”

 

Chapter 2

The battle raged.

“Relentless!” Xanthos yelled. “She is a spawn of Hades!”

The troops of Xena the Destroyer had sliced though Talmadeus' lines of fortified entrenchments around the city of Olynthus with ease. Now the army was effectively cut in half and in disorganized retreat. Using the word retreat to label the chaos going on around him was being far too charitable. “You must hold this line to cover our withdrawal into the city!” His commander, Xanthos, yelled down from atop his horse. “Once in the city we will hold the gates open for your own retreat. Until that time you will hold to the last, Lieutenant!

Sevastian had no time to argue his view as Xanthos had turned to race his mount back toward the city gates, before the Destroyer's men surrounded them completely. He was left alone, a newly appointed Lieutenant, in charge of 600 battered men. His sudden unofficial elevation to a commander spoke volumes about the complete implosion of Talmadeus' army.

“Hold to the last,” he muttered. An exercise in the flowery rhetoric Athenians were so apt to use. He and these men would be sacrificed covering the retreat, that much was clear. Very well then , considered Sevastian, if I am to be but a pawn in this losing cause, then I will have some measure of solace by taking as many of the enemy with me to Hades as I can .

Arrows flew into his line, one violently ending the life of the man nearest him. Using his katana as a shield against the missiles, Sevastian batted those away which attempted to take his own life. His eastern armor was far better suited to arrows than the clunking metal plates which were en vogue with the Greeks.

“Use your shields!” he bellowed to the troops. Arrows began embedding themselves into wood with heavy thunks. He watched as the line of the enemy shifted, reasoning what was next. “Shields up!” he ordered in a hoarse yell “Form the defense!” The men scrambled, bunching together, forming a wall of protection using their shields, with those in the center raising them overhead, a formation the Romans call the tortoise. The sky darkened, not with clouds but with spears known as pilum. They arced toward his line in their hundreds, bringing more death from above. An ingenious weapon, as they struck the iron tip embedded into the wood of the shield, the handle breaking away, held as it was by flimsy wooden pins. Effective means to keep his troops from picking up the weapon and throwing it back at the enemy. Men would soon have to discard their shields, as they would become heavy, weighted as they were by the iron tips of the pilum. When they did so, an important means of self-defense would be lost.

Silence fell upon the battlefield as the Destroyer herself moved to the front of the line. Behind the dark warrior, the men of her cavalry formed. Sevastian had heard stories of the bravery of Xena in battle, always leading her men from the front of the battle line. This was the first time he had been witness to the Destroyer and she certainly looked the part of a conquering warlord. Astride a golden warhorse, the Destroyer was clad in black leather, covered by a layer of patterned armor. The breeze lifted and roiled the royal purple cape she wore. The sudden silence across the field was so complete that he could hear her cape flutter in the wind. For a long moment she sat, sword effortlessly twirling in one hand, the sun glinting both off her armour and the much feared metal ring at her hip.

 

Behind, the man nearest raised her personal standard, different from the rising phoenix, wings outstretched with evil tongues of fire at its feet, used as the standard of her army. No. No, this standard was cobalt blue, with a border black as Hades' realm, and in its center, woven in thread of black, was the stylized “X”, first initial of the Destroyer's given name. The cloth waved lazily in the breeze, the luminous thread of the X shining in the Grecian Sun.

 

Sevastian's tongue darted out to nervously touch his lips for a moment, his eyes scanning to either side, taking in the fear which was visibly rippling through the men.

She was death personified.

“Hold the line!” he yelled, in defiance of her, his lone voice borne up by the wind.

In that instant, Sevastian watched as her head snapped toward him, raven hair whipping about.

Slowly her sword lifted, the tip moving to point directly at him, marking him.

 

Oh shit.

 

“The gates are closing!”

The shout caused him and the men in line to watch as the heavy oak and iron doors began to slowly shut. In an act of complete betrayal, the yellow bastards in the city had cut them off, having made the decision to let them die. Now they were trapped between the troops of the Destroyer and stone walls.

Here they would sit and be slaughtered by cavalry while what was left of Talmadeus' force, including his oh-so-brave commander Xanthos, sat happily behind the temporary safety of the stone wall surrounding the city.

Men suddenly broke ranks, running with all they had to try and make it into the city.

Sevastian ran to a central position, which served to block the retreat. Slowly, he raised the crimson-stained katana blade before the cagey, wild-eyed men.

“You will hold, or you will die where you stand!” he threatened.

There is fatalism amongst soldiers. Sevastian watched as the men realized the die had been cast.

“If this be our final act,” he said with serious intent, “let us not appear before Hades clothed in the garb of cowards.”

The men understood, fading back into the line. Sevastian let out a slight sigh of relief.

Mutiny was averted.

Turning to face the impending onslaught, his eyes darted about, scanning the battlefield. Sevastian racked his mind for some means to salvage the day, to avoid his force being slaughtered. He would not win and now it was far too late to attempt a parley to discuss terms of his surrender. The best he could hope for was a draw, perhaps buying enough time ‘till sunset as the dark of night would make fighting difficult.

He had a sudden epiphany.

“Form squares! Now!”

Sevastian went on the move, running the length of his line shouting the command as Xena commenced the charge, the ring of her savage war cry sounding over the din of horses.

The men fell back, forming into squares, boxes of men with open ground in the middle. Those in front dropped to one knee, raising their pikes in defense against slashing blades carried by the men on horseback. Any man foolish enough to jump his horse into the center of the square would be pulled from his mount and slain.

“Reserve, with me!” he shouted, pleased as the men behind the line moved as one to follow him.

Behind the forming squares they ran. If Xena were to attack his position frontally, then he would use the 200 men in reserve to hit her left flank. His action would threaten her whole line, as should his men break through, he would be positioned behind her troops.

Swinging the curved blade overhead, he led the men up the slope and across open ground, running right into the force assigned to protect the flank of her army. His sword slashed, eviscerating a man as the lines clashed. Forward his men surged, wading into the larger force, being driven by a fanaticism caused by the realization they were on the cusp of defeat.

The line ahead of him faltered under the desperate assault.

“They're breaking!”

The enemy commander rode forth, his horse frothing from exertion. Too far away to slash him with his sword, Sevastian aimed and then flung his dagger at the man, striking him in the leg, where his armor didn't reach. With a cry of pain he lurched forward and was grabbed by the standard bearer behind, unwittingly giving the effect Sevastian wanted. It seemed to the enemy hoplites that their commander had been gravely wounded. Battles were won with more than tactics, more than brute force; battles could be turned by planting doubt in the minds of the enemy.

The line shattered before his men.

“Forward!” he screamed and his men let out a roar of triumph as the larger force fell back. This was no haphazard retreat; the enemy moved to reorganize their line, being far too well trained to give up the field so easily.

Screams from behind him caused Sevastian to turn his eyes to the line of men before the city gates.

It had all been a ruse.

The cavalry led by the Destroyer had broken off, parting as a curtain to reveal the troops behind. Flaming wooden barrels filled with Greek fire rolled down the slope, right into his men who were helplessly packed together in square formations. The barrels broke apart on the rocks jutting out of the slope, spraying fire upon the men as they did so. The smell of burning flesh assaulted him as the screams of the dying filled his ears. Nothing could put out the flames once Greek fire touched you; it devoured flesh down to bone.

The reformed and replenished enemy line ahead of him let out a yell of victory as they rushed back into his troops.

The tide of battle had turned.

“Reform the line!” he cried, desperation evident in his voice. It was too late; the men now broke and ran, panicked at the sound of cavalry converging fast upon their position.

He, Sevastian, would not run, would not be killed by a pilum in the back. No, he would die fighting. His katana rose in defense while quick prayers to the gods left his lips. One for his stepbrother held in ransom by Talmadeus, the other for his own honorable death. He had done all that had been asked of him by the warlord in his attempt to keep Kodi safe from harm. Sevastian was in an impossible situation, blackmailed into fighting for the man.

None of it mattered now; the Destroyer herself was upon him.

The man riding ahead of the warrior woman attempted to impress, recklessly charging his mount forward, wanting to kill him and gain glory in front of his leader. One of Sevastian's hands left his sword, dropping to uncurl the whip coiled at his side. As the horse thundered past, he dropped to one knee while raising his sword high. With a spark the two blades met. Spinning around while moving to stand, Sevastian's whip flared out, the end wrapping itself neatly around the man's neck. With a hard pull, the warrior was yanked from his horse, his neck snapping with an audible crick of bone.

 

“Impressive.

 

“Most impressive.”

 

The low, velvety timbre of her voice sent a shudder through him as her men formed a ring around him, blocking any escape.

Turning, he swallowed hard, watching as she gracefully dismounted. Holding her sword with deceptive casualness, she strode forward to a position in front of him.

By the gods, she was beautiful! Far taller than him or any of the men around her, the Destroyer was coated in the gore of battle. Even so, her features were striking in their sharp angular planes. Eyes of the fiercest blue pinned him with hypnotic potency.

Behind her, the man he had impaled with his dagger hobbled up, supported on one side by another. “Let me kill him, Xena!” he pleaded. Her blue eyes never moved away from Sevastian as she spoke.

“Darphus, your stupidity knows no bounds. He would gut you like a fish.”

Sevastian placed him; Darphus was his name. It would seem the Destroyer had a spy in her midst.

The men around him chuckled as the features of the hobbled man, this Darphus, reddened with sudden anger.

“Your cause is lost, and the men within the city will not survive.” Her voice became soft, calm in the surety of the pronouncement.

His brother would not survive.

A vision powerful and vivid flashed suddenly before Sevastian.

There she stood, the Destroyer, upon the worn steps of a temple, dressed most strangely in blotchy clothing of green, brown and gray.

 

“Your will submits to mine.” One of the Destroyer's hands left her hip, a most elegant finger extended, pointing to a spot directly in front of her. Her right boot extended and his forehead moved to rest upon its tip gently.

 

Blinking his eyes to dispel the hold of the vision, Sevastian noted a sudden slight twitch play momentarily upon her features.

Now was not the time to ponder the gods' intent with these strange images.

If he were to fight her, as pride begged him to do, his demise was all but assured and Kodi would most certainly die in the assault on Olynthus . He decided his best and only choice was to throw himself upon her mercy.

The Destroyer was not known for displays of mercy.

Falling to one knee, Sevastian held his blade up, presenting it to her while bowing his head in submission, awaiting judgment.

Xena watched as the eyes of her men shifted to her, fully expecting the man before her to be dead in the next moment.

She took the blade from his hands.

Silence reigned.

For a long terrible span Sevastian waited, breath quickening, eyes focusing on a single blood-tinged blade of green grass, believing this would truly be the last sight he would behold in this life.

“Disarm and bind him. Let no man touch him, I would speak with him later.” Xena's eyes darted to Darphus, her glare silently giving him warning.

She wanted this one left alive, at least until she better understood the vision bestowed upon her.

 

Chapter 3

 

“Is there no voice sweeter than mine to sound in great Caesar's ear?”

The eyes of Metellus Cimber pleaded with Marcus Brutus to speak on his behalf.

Brutus moved forward, falling to one knee before Caesar as he sat upon the dais of Pompeius in a marble chair, old Pompeius' statue rising behind, gazing with sightless eyes at the senators, once loyal to his namesake, now groveling in front of Caesar.

“I kiss thy hand, but not in flattery Caesar.” The young man stated earnestly while his lips touched the golden ring bearing Caesar's signet, placed as it was upon the consul's finger.

“Does not Cimber already kneel?” Julius asked with a smirk, which was mirrored on the features of Antonius behind.

“Most noble Caesar,” Brutus began in a measured tone, “we only suggest to you that Pompeius should not be left alive so that you may rule fully as consul of the Republic.”

And , thought Caesar wryly, all knowledge of those among you who supported his cause would die with him .

“Galia est pacata.” Caesar growled, “I personally executed Vercingetorix here in the forum of Rome . I, Caesar, then crossed the treacherous Oceanus Britannicus to invade for the glory of Rome . Today, as you have seen, I ended the worthless life of Boadicea, thus removing the last obstacle to our rule of that troublesome island. Now, you dare tell me one single old man is a threat to Rome ?”

“He still lives, great Caesar, and as long as he does; we fear the civil war will continue.” Brutus pointed out diplomatically.

Caesar let out a huff of annoyance. “I have destroyed his legions, killed his sons!” his voice rose in frustration at the slight man kneeling beside Cimber. Brutus was a friend. Long ago he had chosen for his life's path one of service in the marble draped halls of the Senate. Though not a soldier, and therefore unworthy of high esteem, the man before him on bended knee was nevertheless making a point. Pompeius alive meant a magnet for any dissenters unsatisfied with his actions.

“What then, dear Brutus, would you have me do in the name of our glorious republic?” asked Caesar. His voice managed a respectful tone, effectively covering his disdain for republican Rome .

“He should be killed, Caesar,” said Caius Cassius from further behind, “to prevent further bloodshed.”

Unlike the soft green of Brutus' eyes, Cassius' deep brown held a lean and hungry look within. Where the noble Brutus' first thought was for the good of all Rome , Cassius' jealous mind thought only of himself.

“I tell you now, great Caesar,” Cinna spoke while stepping near, “that the people tire of constant war, which drains our treasury, and desire lasting peace.”

Draping an arm over the rounded back of the marble chair he sat on, Caesar's eyes flicked up as his ears caught the murmurs of the greybeards sitting upon the back rows of the chamber.

“Do we not have peace now, Cinna?” asked Caesar.

“You are correct, Caesar,” Brutus conceded. “We have peace at the moment. And Pompeius is but one old man, yet he is dangerous for the engrafted hate he bears you. It is well within reason to think he would try to avenge the death of his sons on you and Rome .”

Ah , Caesar thought, finally the noble Brutus speaks with some smidgen of self-interest . Should the old doffer Pompeius manage to retake Rome , senators would be among his targets as they now had switched their allegiance.

“Caesar, think of Pompeius in the context of the many enemies which still surround us.” Brutus pleaded, moving to stand while helping the aged Cimber regain his feet. “To the west lies Hispania, supported by Hasdrubal, leader of a newly resurgent Carthage . To the east Greece , now locked in civil strife, but should the barbarian called Xena manage to consolidate her rule—”

“She won't!” Caesar replied curtly. Why couldn't that damnable woman have died on the cross ?!

“Is it wise to embark upon a war with Greece when so many enemies surround us ready to strike at our first misstep?” queried Cassius. “What should be done about Persia under the rule of Xerxes?” he prodded further while stepping closer, a move which caused Antonius, on guard behind Caesar, to tighten his grip upon the hilt of his still-sheathed sword.

“ Egypt under Cleopatra?” Cinna asked with worry.

“Well urged, Cinna. Both could act to cut our trade link with the riches of Chin and possible help from its ruler, Lao Tsu,” added Metellus Cimber.

“My dear Senators, they all are but pieces on the Latrunculi board.” Caesar's voice bore confidence. “You forget those leaders of whom you speak are already divided; mistrustful of each other. All that is left for Rome to do is conquer them one by one, starting with a very divided Greece . Do not worry yourselves; when the game concludes, Rome shall be in sole possession of the known world.”

“How so, most noble Caesar?” asked Brutus.

“As you are all my friends and I friends with you all, rest assured that I shall tell you in due time. Now it is sufficient for you to know that Antonius leaves within a fortnight for Egypt where he will solidify our alliance with Cleopatra. I shall see to the matter of Pompeius personally in order to assuage your fears.”

With that Caesar stood, a move designed to end further debate, his eyes watching as the greybeards followed, standing out of a mix of both respect and a healthy fear.

Once Pompeius is gone and Xena executed publicly in Rome , Caesar mused, I will kill these senators, disband the Senate, and finally rule as Emperor. Then one by one, the nations of the known world will fall to me .

“Come friends, let us taste some wine and enjoy the games held in my honor.” A most charming smile lit his features as Caesar and the senators moved to leave the chamber.

 

From a darkened hall the cry arose.

 

“Beware the Ides of March!”

 

Greybeards near murmured in confusion, eyes searching in the direction of the shout.

“What man is that who shrieks like a specter from the darkness?” Caesar asked.

Antonius strode into the hall, grabbing the figure and bringing the haggard man into the light of the tapers burning in the senate chamber.

“A soothsayer bid you beware the Ides of March, Caesar.” Brutus stated flatly.

“Bring the fellow here,” commanded Caesar. “What say you now, to my face?”

Old gnarled hands rose slowly, palms up in a show of humble intent.

“Beware… the… Ides… of… March.”

Silence ruled over the senate chamber for a long moment.

“He is mad,” Caesar's voice carried a hint of uncertainty. “Come, friends.”

As the group departed the chamber, Antonius alone remained, studying the man intently before he left as well, stepping quickly to be at Caesar's side.

Chapter 4

The luxury of warm water.

What a luxury it was, Xena reflected. Back in Amphipolis the three of them, Toris, Lyceus and she, all had to share one tub of water, having to work together to draw water from the town well, then placing the metal buckets over the fire to heat while they finished the day's chores.

Xena frowned at the thought that Lyceus and she had worked to haul water most days, Toris having made some excuse to get out of the work.

After the water had warmed, they would empty the metal buckets into a large wooden tub, tempering it slightly before bathing in the kitchen of their mother's inn. Paying customers got the privilege of a bath in their room. Peasant kids, as they were, scraped a bath when and where they could.

Toris, being the eldest, always made sure he was in the water first. The only thing he was ever first at was a bath. Well, that and supper. A smirk crossed Xena's features for a moment. Always did she give up her rightful place as second to go in the water to Lyceus. Ever grateful for the kindness, her little brother never tired of pleading with her to go before him for once and enjoy the tepid water before it became cold.

Lyceus' heart was always in the right place. Kindness flowed from him.

Now as a warlord, she could have a warm bath anytime she liked and damned if she ever got one. Cold water bathing in rivers was her norm when on campaign, same as her men. Getting used to the cold water in that metal tub all those years ago had proven to be good training for later hardships.

However, Xena had decided that today's rout of Talmadeus' army called for her to celebrate with a rare hot bath. Looking down, she took in the sight of the water, tinted as it was with the blood of those who had fallen in battle. Those she had killed. Such was war, she thought detachedly. If the unruly child that was Greece would not bend to her will peaceably, then it would be forced. All these petty squabbling warlords would be swept from the land; city-states would be brought to heel under her rule. There was no other way: Greece had to be united in order to survive against the hostile nations which surrounded her, and if Greece were to be united, she would be the one who would rule.

That was her destiny. The rest of the warlords would join and be subservient to her will or be killed. Shifting in the water, Xena tallied the score mentally. Cortese had been the first to fall to her, satisfying a need to have vengeance for Lyceus. From there, she, a simple peasant girl in Amphipolis, had marched, recruiting and then training an army that was unstoppable in battle. Strengthened by Caesar's betrayal, tempered by lessons learned at Corinth and Chin, hardened from destroying the Amazon tribes of the grassy steppes, she had moved to conquer Greece for her own. First the towns and villages of the region known as Chaicidice had fallen, and then her army took Macedonia . From there she launched an attack on Epirus , and finally proud Thessalia had been brought to heel. Now those opposed to her were marshaling what resources they could to make a stand against her. Only two city-states, Athens and Corinth , were left standing between her and destiny.

Of the major warlords, Theodorus had been—eliminated. At least Theodorus had died with some smidgen of honor, choosing to fall upon his sword amidst the annihilation of his army by her forces. Talmadeus was now under threat from her army. Smarter than Theodorus, perhaps the old man would concede defeat.

Only Draco and Zagreas remained. Word had it that Draco had been first employed as a mercenary by the King of Corinth, charged with defending the city. Typical of Draco, he had led a coup, taking the palace over and executing the former king in the city's Agora. Draco's second in command was the ever-cautious Zagreas. A smirk marred Xena's beautiful features for just a moment. Draco must be scraping the bottom of the barrel to choose an idiot like Zagreas. The man was so paranoid, Xena bet he wouldn't trust his own mother.

Then there was Toris.

A decidedly unfriendly smile touched Xena's lips for a moment. She was looking forward to seeing her long-absent older brother again.

Of the city-states, Sparta had been the most tenacious. Good warriors, those Spartans, but not good enough. For their stubbornness in opposing her, their city had burned. She ordered every man killed, filling the countryside with an array of crosses, shaped as the first initial of her name. Without mercy, she had ordered the women and small children to northern lands under her control. A life of farming and work in her mines was the sentence for them being so obstinate in urging their men to continue the fight even when it no longer made sense.

The flames which consumed Sparta were lovely, Xena reflected, how they colored the night sky with their destructive brilliance. Flickering shapes cast up by the fires upon the clouds, lights which could be seen for leagues in every direction.

A clear warning to those who would dare to oppose her destiny.

The only building she had allowed to stand was the temple dedicated to Ares. Such a shame that his bronze statue had melted into a lump from the heat of the flames.

Pity that… she thought with a smirk.

Xena suddenly frowned. A long, pained sigh escaped her lips.

“And here lies my chosen.”

“What do you want Ares?” words spoken as she moved to rest her head upon the back of the wooden tub.

“Don't I even get a hello first?” The god spread his arms wide while flashing a brilliant smile.

Silence.

His smile faded.

Dropping his arms, Ares moved to sit upon the edge of the tub.

“Ya know, most people would be awestruck by my mere presence,” Ares complained, citing Xena's lack of respect.

“They don't know you as well as I do.”

Xena watched with lidded eyes as the deity frowned, his ire rising.

“While you dawdle in your bath, Chosen, Caesar has conquered both Gaul and Britannia.” He chastised.

“Good.” She purred, inwardly pleased by his bewildered reaction.

“How is that good?” asked Ares in a distinctly un-amused tone.

“Let the Roman dogs spend their blood and treasure wiping out the remaining bands of resistance in those lands. They make my work easier when I take them for Greece .”

Ares stood, moving to clasp his hands behind him.

“So you say, Chosen . Yet here you sit outside worthless Olynthus , giving Athens and those allied with her all the more time to prepare for your attack.”

“Never leave enemies at one's back.” Xena replied calmly, daring him to disagree.

“I agree,” Ares conceded with a smile, “however you've cornered yourself into having to lay siege to take the city.”

“Perhaps.” She stated cryptically. “There are always choices.”

Standing suddenly, she waited, allowing the water to skirt off her tall body. Easily matching the deity in height, Xena watched as Ares' eyes widened as he admired her.

Men, be they gods or mortals, were always so easily distracted.

Stepping gracefully over the edge of the tub, she moved to cover her body with a black robe.

“I do not like my Chosen being forced into a siege. The enemy should have been destroyed completely and not allowed to gain the protection of city walls. It all makes me wonder if you are truly capable of holding the title of my Chosen .”

“Then pick another.” She challenged, “I will enjoy killing her—or him—as you watch. I recall you attempted it with, ah—” She paused, feigning having trouble recalling the name.

“Najara, from Phoenicia .” He growled.

“Didn't work too well for ya.” a feral smile lit her features. “Who knew a severed head could bounce so far, eh? All the way down that mountain side.” The warlord smirked at the god. “Course,” she began while sauntering over to him sexily, her long magnificently toned legs peeking out from the robe, “there was another one, what was her name?” The fingers of Xena's right hand snapped a few times as she pretended again to not recall a name, to continue toying with him.

Ares craned his neck back, looking up at the fabric roof of the tent in exasperation as if imploring Zeus to help him.

“Mavican.” he huffed out in exasperation, before slumping into a camp chair.

“Ah, yes!” Xena stated in an exaggerated tone. “Have ya checked up on her lately? Doing alright sealed up as she is in that cave?” A hint of a smile graced her features. “She sure whined for ya when things got tough.” The warlord goaded. “All I had to do was leave her hanging by some vines over a big hole and she whimpered for you like a new born.”

“Your point in bringing all this up?” he cut in grumpily.

“You brought it up Ares,” Xena retorted while moving to pour a bit of wine “I'm just reminding you of what happened each time you tried to replace me as your chosen. Face it, I've defeated every champion you've picked, so I'd say your threat to find another rings a little hollow.”

“Xena.” he rumbled her name in a warning tone.

“I seem to recall a certain war god begging me to help him.” She continued, ignoring his display of temper. “Remember, I was the one who tricked that pestering, soft-hearted fool of a half-brother of yours into another dimension. Unchain my heart.” A derisive snort of laughter bubbled up from her as she recalled the moment the demi-god had spouted that drivel. She paused to take a sip from the jewel-encrusted goblet, eyes watching as Ares fumed at being embarrassed by her. “Are you really sure you both had the same father?” she chided.

“ Olynthus , Xena!” Ares seethed; humiliated he had to ask her help to get rid of Hercules. “How are you going — ?”

“Leave that to me.”

His hand raised, finger pointing directly at her. “Don't take too long, my patience wears thin.”

With a flash he was gone.

For a long moment she was still, lost in thought, before walking to the tent flaps.

“You! Hoplite!”

The man came before her, moving to kneel, having been guarding the entrance to the tent.

“Fetch me the young officer who fought against us today, the one in the armor from the eastern regions.”

“By your command, Polemarchos .”

 

Chapter 5

Evening fell upon the camp.

Shackled to a wooden pole, Sevastian sat with hands above his head as the chain was not long enough for them to be any lower. Closing his eyes, he let out a long sigh, imagining it all gone, the camp, the city and the men. In that moment he could visualize being back where he had grown up, the town of Elis in Greece . His father had served as the local magistrate when the town had been allied with Athens in the great Peloponnesian Wars. They were reasonably well off in comparison to the rest of those living in the town, but when warfare neared, his cowardly father had rashly decided to uproot them. Seeking higher office from the nobility of Athens , Linius had been goaded into taking the whole family on what would become a disastrous journey to the Far East . The stated purpose of the trip was to negotiate a trade agreement with Chin. When Athens saw the riches he would bring back, his father had gloated, the whole city would fall to his feet in thanks.

So very naïve.

Those in the east are astute in negotiations, sometimes drawing out the process to weaken an opponent, or to gain financially. His father was conned into spending lavishly to impress, using the gold foolhardy Athens kept sending him. Some of that gold had trickled down to Sevastian, used to pay for the best temple education in both Chin and then Jappa. Included in that education was a rigorous dose of martial training, the best the eastern masters had to offer. Through it all, his mother never allowed him to forget his Greek heritage. As if it were possible, being as they were foreigners in a foreign land.

Word from Athens caused the family to return after years of fruitless negotiations. Negotiations which failed, his father stated vehemently, due to the meddling of Rome . The nobility of Athens were finally tired of sending gold and getting nothing of real substance in return.

It was on the way back his father died, the pestilence claiming him in an exotic land named India .

The leader of the Athenian Assembly was known to be related to Xena, Destroyer of Nations. That fact alone caused the old families of the nobility to bow and scrape in his presence. Dark haired, tall and wiry, the esteemed Toris made his connection to the slaughterer of Cirra known for his benefit. If unable to get his way, Toris would flaunt the idea of sending a missive to his sister, claiming with just his words he could bring her to Athens . Such was their deep family connection, he claimed, that should any harm befall him, his sister would seek vengeance upon Athena's city. So long as he lived, said Toris, the bonds of family love between him and his sister would keep Athens safe.

The masses of poor within the city walls were especially terrified of possible revenge as Xena, they said, would come down out of the sky in a chariot, throwing thunderbolts and breathing fire. So Toris, brother of the mighty Destroyer, lived as a king.

Why not? Fearful, cowardly Athens let him do as he pleased, believing they could placate the Destroyer by fawning over her elder brother.

The esteemed Toris had publicly berated Sevastian's dead father, moving to cast both he and his mother out of the city while confiscating all their property as payment for debt. He was saved from a life of slavery by his extended family pleading on bended knee, and Toris had decided to sentence Sevastian to 20 lashes of the whip and three years in the dungeon, convicting him for the crimes of father. Thank the gods he had met friends in that dungeon; one who helped to heal him of the lash wounds, the other who showed great talent in helping them escape.

After the events in Athens , Sevastian's mother had moved back to Elis , marrying a prosperous local farmer. Sevastian had drifted, meandering from village to village, not being cut out for farm life.

Kodi, however, was clearly a pain in the ass!

His stepbrother, mind filled with images of glory from speeches read in scrolls, had gone to save Greece from the Destroyer. Too small and far too young to even lift a sword, Talmadeus had laughed at the boy, and decided to gain a quick profit by selling him into slavery.

As stupidly immature as the kid was, Sevastian couldn't stand by and let him be enslaved.

Once Talmadeus had witnessed Sevastian fight in a failed attempt to rescue Kodi, he offered a deal. Fight in his army and Kodi would be safe.

Amazing how the fates wove their loom. A decision here, a decision there, and now he was chained to a post in the camp of the Destroyer.

 

A whisper, through the air.

Jerking his head away, the tip of the arrow missed his throat by the narrowest of margins. Adrenaline now coursing through him, he scanned the darkness, trying to focus on locating the assassin. The darkness was far too effective a cover.

“Face me!” he suddenly yelled out to the darkness, eyes watching as the soldiers of the Destroyer turned. “I am bound and unarmed.” Sevastian continued, “Surely even a coward such as you could take me!”

Silence.

The only thing that did happen was that his guard awoke, moving to take the arrow out of the pole before moving off to doze again.

Resigned to his fate, he slumped against the pole, his mind envisioning his options: either death by an assassin, or public execution by the Destroyer. It was said she could be ever so creative when killing a man.

Perhaps I shouldn't have dodged that arrow ? Sevastian thought wryly.

“Stand up!” the order given by a strangely familiar voice.

“Autolycus?” Sevastian whispered.

“Shut up will ya?” The man hissed though the helmet of a hoplite “Before you get us both caught.”

“Auto, get outta here, are you crazy?”

“Yes!” the thief rasped, “But I couldn't leave you here to die, especially after you saved my skin in Larissa.”

“Hestian Virgins.” Sevastian muttered.

“Yeah,” Auto nodded while unlatching Sevastian's manacles from the chains hanging from the wooden pole. “Guy grabs a couple a trinkets and next thing you know,” Autolycus frowned, “bam! I'm in jail awaiting execution.”

“Auto, you attempted to steal the golden throne of Hestia!” Sevastian pointed out in a whisper. “Didn't cha think they'd miss that?”

“Well,” Auto considered, “maybe the plan had a few flaws. Who knew gold was that heavy?”

“Practically everyone Auto, except you because you're blinded by greed. It was inevitable that they were gonna find you, seeing as you had to drag that throne, causing the legs to leave ruts in the ground all the way to the cart you were attempting to load it in.”

“Like I said, a few flaws in the plan.” Auto grumbled.

“Still, it's good to see you friend.” Sevastian conceded, thinking his words a bit harsh, considering the man was trying to free him.

“Yeah, well, don't think I'm gonna come save you every time you get in trouble. We are even again, buddy.”

“Nice uniform.” Sebastian quipped, his mood improving at seeing the man produce a pick to unclasp the shackles binding him. “What? You find the biggest, smelliest guy in the camp?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, a little ill-fitting and ill-smelling.” Autolycus conceded, “Best I could do on short notice.” The thief began to use the tools of his trade to pick the lock on the shackles binding Sevastian's wrists.

“You there!”

They both froze at the sound of the voice, and the sleeping guard assigned to watch Sevastian woke again with a loud snort.

“Come, the Polemarchos would have a word with him.” The man gestured for them to follow him. A word , Sevastian smiled grimly, a nice way of saying the high commander wished to interrogate him.

Sevastian thought quickly. “Grab the chains Auto, then lead me to her tent and scram. No need for the both of us to die.”

“I agree.” The spy rasped while taking the chains to lead him on, “Best of Greek luck to you when you meet the Destroyer, old friend.” Good old Autolycus , Sevastian mused sarcastically, accompanied by an appropriate roll of his eyes. Surely , he thought, the fates had it in for him. If Auto had been there just moments earlier, they might have gotten away .

**

Within the command tent, Xena moved to recline in the camp chair which had been constructed especially for her tall form. Aside from her oversized tent, it was one of the few comforts she allowed herself in the long years of war. Having dressed, she watched as the enemy officer was led into her presence. One of her elegant hands clasped the hilt of the katana he had presented upon his surrender. It was a fine made piece of craftsmanship. This was no ceremonial sword, accorded to some old fat shogun. No, this sword was both unadorned and well used.

She frowned at the guard leading the prisoner.

Her hand lifted, one elegant finger pointing at the man.

“You, wait outside the entrance.”

Sevastian watched as Autolycus eyes widened in fear before he moved to obey the order.

Within the tent, silence.

For long moments, cobalt blue eyes studied him by the light of the tapers. Her eyes flicked over his lean, compact form, studying his very worn, very utilitarian eastern-style hon kozane, lamellar armor. Whatever her intent, Sevastian considered, it was effectively masked by stoic facial features.

As he stood before her with his hands still shackled, Sevastian was still able to remove his battered helmet out of respect for the warlord he had heard so much about.

As she studied him, Sevastian took the same opportunity. After all, this was his first and quite possibly last chance to study the Destroyer in person.

She was an enigma, being death and beauty incarnate.

Long, flowing, onyx hair seemingly as smooth as silk draped over her shoulders, framing angular facial features. She was dressed in all black leather, so meticulously cleaned and burnished that it glowed in the light of the tapers. Strips of leather interlaced across her chest, and attached to each was a series of gold medallions. Stamped into the gold were the images of each major city-state she had conquered. He noticed first the war club design of Thebes , also emblazoned on their coins. Nearby, the raised Golden Alpha shimmered, symbol of the once mighty, now humbled Sparta . Thasus, Delphi, and Olympia rounded out the major states now pledged to her. He noted that each and every gold rivet holding the strips of leather together was imprinted with the seal of the many minor villages she had subjugated. His eyes looked for the familiar, finding that his home town was represented next to the emblem of tiny Potidæa.

Around her waist was a belt, also of black leather, whose emblems in golden bas-relief told of the regions of Greece now under her control. Thrace , Macedon, Chacidice, Eprirus, and Thessalia were all represented. Noticeably absent from her impressive ensemble was the owl representing Athens and the winged horse signet of Corinth . Beyond the leather strips of her battle skirt, long cross strings weaved down the legs of her pants, which tucked precisely into smooth, high black boots, each adorned with a single stylized X tooled into the leather.

In that moment, another vision appeared before his eyes.

 

“Can I count on you commander, to do what is necessary?” Xena asked.

“Of course.” Sebastian replied without hesitation.

 

“Are you a mystic?!?”

Sevastian felt the cold edge of his own blade at his throat as she asked the question. His breath hitched. Gods, the woman was quick in movement!

“No.” he stated simply somehow finding his voice despite the terrifying nearness of the blade and the fear of the woman holding it.

“So you say.”

Sevastian felt the razor edge cut into his skin, allowing a tiny drop of blood to flow down his neck. Despite the fright which threatened to overwhelm his senses, he managed to control his emotions, knowing that whatever he said next could determine whether he lived or died.

Why would she ask if he were a mystic?

“With all due respect Polemarchos, were I a mystic I'd be attempting to recall a spell to transport me from your presence at this moment.”

The blade left his throat as a surprised laugh escaped her lips.

“You intrigue me,” she stated flatly. “On a battlefield in Northern Greece I find man who speaks Greek, looks Greek, but wears eastern armor and carries an eastern sword.

“You no longer need these.”

Xena unlocked the chains on his wrists.

She moved to once again sit in her camp chair.

Taking a sip of wine, she continued to study him. Never having been one to believe in visions, she pondered why these new images had suddenly begun materializing when she was in his presence. The place was strange, her clothing and his were strange, but both she and the man before her most certainly were represented in the vision. The feeling she got from the two revelations thus far was one of trust, of complete loyalty on his part, and more strangely, hers. Bizarre how the instincts she trusted to keep her alive were now screaming out for her to place faith in him. One should never trust in the vagaries of visions, whose portents could mean anything.

Once a shamaness had boasted to Xena of being able to conjure visions, even going so far in her ruse as to bestow a title.

Destroyer of Nations

She later flayed Alti for her betrayal.

But, Xena considered, was this vision interrelated with her terrible dreams? For many cycles now, she was haunted by the same nightmare.

A darkened temple.

Before her was a beautifully innocent wisp of a girl. She was holding this girl in her arms, begging her to come back from Hades' realm. She would wake from such imaginings with tears streaming down her face.

Tears! The Destroyer of Nations overcome by emotion!

Various shades of dreams containing the girl, Xena recalled later, had begun their nightly visits after her army swept through Potidæa

The girl within her arms—Gabrielle. And many cycles ago, she had a chance meeting with a tiny peasant girl named Gabrielle.

Was that girl one and the same with the girl in her visions? It appeared so.

“Your name?”

“Sevastian.”

“You fought well today, Sevastian.”

“Thank you, Polemarchos.” Sevastian respectfully dipped his head at her compliment. “Still,” he swallowed hard before finishing his thought, “in the end, it was all for naught.” His thoughts turned doleful, remembering the men lost on this day.

“Of course it was, you fought against me.” He watched a slight smile form upon her lips.

“Still, your tactics were sound,” she continued, “you managed to form a defense against my cavalry, causing me to alter my battle plan. Why, you even pulled off an attack on my flank. You,” the hand holding his blade rose, the tip moving to point directly at him, “my little soldier, have too much potential to be squandering it fighting for a warlord such as Talmadeus. Your eastern skills are such as to best most men in battle.”

“Too kind, Polemarchos.” His head dipped again in deference to her.

“Xena is sufficient for the moment,” she instructed.

“Why haven't you killed him?”

Sevastian's features took on a puzzled look.

“Killed him?”

“Don't be coy with me,” She growled, “Talmadeus' skills do not come close to yours. You should have killed him by now, taken over his army. What holds you to him, I wonder?” she asked, while beginning to slowly twirl the sword again by its hilt.

Silence greeted her question.

“An oath of loyalty perhaps?” she asked, a slight smile touching her lips for an instant “Did he spare the worthless village you come from?”

Her smile broadened on seeing the anger rise in him.

“I pledged no loyalty to him,” Sevastian stated through clenched teeth.

“Then, I ask again, what holds you to him?”

Sevastian chose to remain silent, warring with himself over revealing that piece of information to the Destroyer. Would doing so place Kodi in even greater jeopardy?

“Get in here!” her sudden shout caused him to start a bit.

Sevastian watched as Autolycus popped his head though the tent opening.

In one swift motion, Xena placed his katana upon the ground next to her chair then stood, stalking over to grab Autolycus, pulling him into the tent beside Sebastian.

The bronze helmet Auto wore was so roughly pulled off, Sevastian was amazed the man's head remained attached.

“Well, my long lost spy returns.” Xena drawled sarcastically while tossing the helmet aside. “And here I thought you might have been foolish enough to try and run once you got out of my sight.”

“Me?” Auto smiled charmingly, “Never. A deals a deal, after all.”

“Uh huh.” She muttered, unimpressed.

Sevastian couldn't hide his surprise. “You work for—?” He began.

“Yeah well, a guy's gotta earn a living.” Auto justified. “Plus, I didn't wanna end up spiked to a cross.”

“So you are working for both Talmadeus and—”

“Small world huh?” Xena cut Sevastian off, giving both men a smug look.

Autolycus' breath hitched as Xena slowly leaned into his personal space, her sapphire eyes pinning him. Sevastian watched as her nose wrinkled at the stench of Auto's clothing.

“What?” Auto stated in an exasperated tone, while leaning away from her in a rather comical fashion.

Xena only grunted in response to his question, her head jerking slightly to indicate Sevastian.

“What's he got on him?” she asked.

Sevastian fumed, knowing Xena was referring to Talmadeus.

“Holding his half-brother,” Autolycus explained, “promises not to hurt the kid as long as Sevastian fights for him.

“Ah.” she said in understanding while her eyes flicked over to Sevastian for a moment, “A good enough reason to fight for the old bastard.

“Autolycus, get in the city and get this brat out. Bring him to me.”

“As you wish Xena, but it won't be easy, I—”

“Complete the task.” She growled. “Do well and I might overlook the fact that you were trying to free my new toy.” Her eyes darted to Sevastian for a moment.

“How did you—”

“Why else would you come in dressed as an average soldier, Autolycus?” Sevastian watched as her hand moved up, fingers giving Auto's cheek a little tweak. “I think it's cute, you wanted to save your little friend.”

In the next moment her features became cold. The back of her hand whipped across Autolycus' face so hard he stumbled backward a step.

“Try something like that again and I'll nail you to a cross myself.” Xena threatened.

“I will be sure to remember.” Auto sputtered, one hand rubbing his bruised and reddened cheek. Sevastian watched as Autolycus paled, no doubt thinking of the pain such a punishment would inflict.

“Good.” she purred aprovingly before her voice abruptly changed inflection. “Now get out!”

Auto scrambled out of the tent.

Sevastian managed to continue looking straight ahead, despite her moving to a spot behind him. He could hear the leather Xena wore creak ever so slightly as she leaned in.

“We can do this one of two ways, my little soldier.” She purred, hot breath washing over his ear, the low timbre of her voice sending chills though him. “One, out of gratitude for my saving your brother, you join my cause to unite Greece . Or two, I hold your brother as my hostage, keeping him safe only as long as you fight for me.”

Sevastian let out a relieved breath as she moved from behind him. Walking to a position in front, Xena casually clasped her hands to her back, purposely leaving him, an enemy, at her back. Was she showing her trust in him or testing him?

“I would choose the first.” Sevastian stated honestly.

“I thought so.” The warrior stated while glancing over her shoulder at him.

“Then in time,” she said while turning to face him. “I hope your gratitude toward me changes to loyalty, a commodity I value more than all the gold in Greece , as so few of those around me truly have any.

“Hoplite!”

With a quick step, the man entered, falling to a knee.

“Escort him to a tent.” She commanded. “Accord him the respect due an honored guest.

“You will clean up, and then join my officers and myself for the evening meal.”

Sevastian nodded, his eyes meeting hers as she pressed the hilt of his sword into his hand.

And with that, it would seem, he had been inducted into the Destroyer's army.

 

Chapter 6

Sevastian warily strode toward the command tent of the Destroyer, cognizant of the earlier attempt on his life.

His eyes flicked back and forth as he observed these men, this army. All was as it should be, equipment cared for, men organized, duties being performed with learned precision. It occurred to him while still shackled that Xena hadn't used even a quarter of her men in the battle against Talmadeus. He wondered why that was the case. Shouldn't a commander pledge the whole force in an attack? Committing this many men to the battle would have not only shattered Talmadeus' lines, but taken the city as well.

As was his manner, Sevastian intended to speak little and listen much tonight, believing it the wiser course of action in understanding more about Xena and her commanders.

While he had worried about the possibility of another attempt by an assassin, it did not keep him from enjoying the unexpected warm bath provided him by the servants of the Destroyer. In the Far East, cleanliness of both body and spirit was a noble pursuit; however amongst some in Greece the concept of regular bathing hadn't yet taken hold. Upon witnessing the various accouterments laid out for his bath, Sevastian noted the clear influence of eastern culture. It would seem that Xena herself had spent time in both Chin and Jappa, based upon his observations thus far.

Once washed, Sevastain had worked to clean his armor and underlying garments. He stood out from the average Greek hoplite due to his distinctive yet unadorned armor crafted in Jappa. Everything about his battle dress was vastly different, from the lamellar shields draping off his shoulders to the metal turn backs on his helmet, meant to deflect arrows. As he walked up the rise toward the command tent, Sevastian knew he was being discretely observed; as well he should be, different as he was from all the rest.

**

“Xena, surely you don't mean to allow Talmadeus to surrender?!”

“Why risk my men in battle,” she asked, “When I can achieve my goal through his capitulation?”

“We've beaten him back into Olynthus . One final push and we will take the city!”

“As I recall Darphus, your part of the push, as you call it, didn't work so well today.”

She watched as her first fought to keep his tongue in check, wisely deciding to stay silent. Amused at his reddened face, she goaded further. “I give you command of my flank defense and you are thrown back.”

“They were well trained!” Darphus defended weakly, a statement which earned him a devastating glare from his commander.

From the corner of her eye, Xena noted Dagnine working hard to stifle a smile at the plight of Darphus.

“And you Dagnine,” she began, “I entrust you with the task of shadowing the main army with your force as we moved toward Olynthus , and you fail miserably.”

“Xena—” he sputtered.

“Did I not point out the route you were to take?” she queried, “Was the timetable I gave you to be in position unclear?”

Wisely, the man remained quiet, noting the dangerous purr that marked her tone. Dagnine had learned when that tone appeared, someone's death occurred.

Sisyphus had already been… eliminated. Dagnine shuddered at the thought of what Xena had done to the man for his ineptitude. By the end, Sisyphus was screaming out pleas for Celesta to take him.

Dagnine desperately hoped he would not be next. When Xena's deep blue eyes pinned you, one never knew what thought was brewing in that sharp mind. Though were Darphus to be killed, his own path to being Xena's second in command might be open.

His ideas about advancement were interrupted by the rap on the tent pole by the guard.

“The eastern soldier,” the man announced with a deep bow upon seeing his supreme commander.

“A little pre-dinner entertainment?” asked Darphus, gaining a small mix of laughter from the men in the tent.

Sevastian watched as the man hobbled over, wounded as he was from the dagger, his dagger, which had impaled him in the thigh.

“Tell me I finally get to kill him, Xena.” One of Sevastian's hands slipped down to rest on the scabbard his sword rested in as Darphus said the words. The man attempted to use his superior height to good effect, but such actions left Sevastian decidedly unimpressed, although he was working hard to stifle an incredible urge to gag upon smelling the man's breath. The rotted teeth Darphus displayed through an unfriendly smile went a long way in explaining why he stank.

Keeping his eyes locked upon Darphus, Sevastian watched in the periphery of his vision as the man slowly raised his dagger.

“I'm going to take this—” Darphus began

“If you try, you will next find it lodged in your throat.” Sevastian finished, cutting the man off.

A laugh from behind Darphus caused them both to look at Xena.

“Darphus,” she rose from her chair, motioning the group to the table. “is that any way to treat my newest commander?”

“What!?” he spouted. The blurted word from Darphus matched perfectly the look of disbelief on the face of Dagnine.

“Xena, you can't be serious!” Darphus continued, dropping the dagger before limping over to his commander with arms wide. “Surely you don't mean to promote this… this…” he sputtered, trying to find the right word amidst his anger. “Dog!” he finally managed.

Her hand grasping his throat silenced any other thoughts he wished to vocalize.

“Surely I can do as I wish.” Xena growled. “Do not forget yourself Darphus, your temper will be your undoing.” With a push, she roughly shoved the man back.

This dinner would be interesting , thought Sevastian as he picked up his dagger.

 

**

“Caesar, troubles mount against us.”

“What now, Antonius?”

“Caesar, our commanders in both Gaul and Britannia report uprisings by various rebel groups.” Antonius fidgeted slightly while giving Caesar the news.

“Uprisings, Antonius? What type of uprisings?” Caesar groused, “Have we not defeated the forces aligned against us in those new provinces of Rome ?”

“Not all the Celts, Angles, or Saxons wish to be governed by Rome . It would appear they were merely waiting for you to return to Rome before challenging our rule.”

“Those who are defeated should learn their place.” Caesar groused.

He suddenly stood, his royal purple and white toga rustling as he moved to gaze out upon the city of Rome . Below his balcony, construction on what would become the Circus Maximus had begun. Already excitement was rising amongst the populace as this was the largest construction project ever witnessed in the capitol. 100,000 laborers, mostly new slaves from Gaul and Britannia, put to work building a structure of brick and mortar encased by granite and marble. The spoils from his successful war were paying for this latest construction. Soon, 300,000 Romans would be cheering wildly as chariots raced around the oval track. The project was yet another way he would endear himself to the people.

Soon, his residence atop the Palatine Hill overlooking the track would be the epicenter of the empire.

“I agree, most noble Caesar, yet these people agitate against Rome . The governors of both Gaul and Britannia have sent a plea to you and the Senate for more troops in order to end these rebellions.”

Antonius remained silent, awaiting Caesar's decision on a course of action.

“Send the requested legions, Antonius.” Julius grumbled while turning, “We can't have the greybeards in the Senate worried about our Northern provinces .”

“As you command Caesar, but…” Antonius hesitated.

“Yes?”

“Won't sending legions to subdue this minor rebellion disrupt your plan to invade Greece before Xena can consolidate her power?”

The question remained unanswered for long moments as Caesar moved to sit on an elegant lounge near his ornate desk.

“What does our spy say, Antonius?” Caesar asked, breaking the silence.

“Her troops were moving to lay siege on Olynthus at last word. If the city should fall, only Athens and Corinth remain.” Antonius watched as Caesar waved his hand dismissively.

“Caesar,” Antonius' voice took on a desperate tone, “ Athens has no spine and will surrender, leaving only Corinth , if Xena—”

“She won't!”

“Caesar, hear me.” Antonius pleaded. “Let not your wisdom be consumed by confidence. Although Xena is only a woman and an uncivilized barbarian, she could prove to be a formidable enemy if left in control of Greece .”

“I understand that better than anyone, Antonius. That is why I am sending you to Egypt .”

“ Egypt ? Why Egypt , of all places?” asked Antonius. Julius had to smile at the look on the face of his bewildered general.

“Antonius,” Caesar began while rising, “I need you in Egypt to woo Cleopatra. I hear, that ah…” a wry smile crossed Julius' features, “you and she had a bit of a tryst?” The slight uptick in the corners of Antonius' lips told Caesar all he needed to know.

“I hope you didn't burn any bridges in your brief dalliance with the Queen of all Egypt ?”

“No Caesar, I did not, but I warn you that she is no fool.”

“She is a woman, Antonius, need I say more?” One of Julius' hands moved up, clasping the arm of his loyal friend. “Seduce her yet again; let your sweet words fill her ears. Promise her the world and all within it to get her to ally with Rome .”

“But Caesar, what would Rome gain in such an alliance?”

“My friend,” Caesar began honestly, “you are most brave. I can always count on you, Antonius, to attack an opponent head on. But there are times when one must outmaneuver an enemy to ensure a battle is won even before it takes place.”

“Come.” Caesar turned, beckoning his friend to follow him to the desk.

With his back turned to Antonius, Caesar opened the silver-inlayed doors of a large cabinet filled with scrolls tucked neatly into leather cases. “Ah.” he murmured, upon finding what he was looking for. Unclasping the case, he freed the large parchment from its confinement. Unrolling it on the surface of the desk, he moved to place silver-clad weights upon the edges.

“This?” Julius asked, sweeping his hand over the parchment.

“A map of the known world, of course.” Antonius replied.

“This?” Caesar pointed.

“ Rome .” Antonius replied with irritation.

“Forgive me, my friend, I do not mean to patronize.” Caesar began contritely. “I merely try to illustrate my plan.”

Antonius visibly relaxed.

“This?”

“ Egypt , Caesar.”

“And between?”

Antonius allowed himself a devious smile, “ Greece , caught with enemies on two sides.”

“Sending forces to Gaul and Britannia will push back my time line for invading Greece, but it will work in our favor, giving you time to work towards an alliance with Egypt. It will also give me time to recruit and train more men for my legions from the poor of Italy . You see, my friend, should Xena somehow manage to proclaim herself ruler of all Greece, it will be of no consequence, as she will be overwhelmed by invasions on two fronts.”

“But Caesar, what of Carthage and her attempts to expand her rule in Hispania?”

“ Carthage , while resurgent, still is unable to match Rome at sea or on land. Greece —” Caesar's finger tapped the parchment. “ Greece is our most dangerous enemy at the moment.”

“And what of Persia ?”

“Xerxes has his hands full, trying to unite the various tribes within his newly conquered empire. He is far too busy to involve himself in our plans.”

“Your work here is finished, my friend.” Caesar stated while moving to roll up this map. “Be off to Egypt and take six of my legions with you.”

“Six?” Antonius stammered “Caesar, that is 36,000 men!”

“Yes. Mainly for show, of course, a demonstration of our military capability to impress the young Queen.”

“But do you not spread yourself too thin? Very few trained soldiers who are loyal to you will be left in Rome . I fear you may be left in danger from those who covet your power.”

“The greybeards?” Julius asked in surprise. “They haven't the courage to act.”

“But the warning, great Caesar, beware the Ides of March.”

“Believe you the words of a self-proclaimed seer?”

Duly chastised, Antonius fell silent.

“Your heart is in the right place, my friend.” Julius grasped the shoulder of his loyal general. “I know your concerns are genuine. Believe me when I say I do not intend to stay in Rome long. I shall be on the move, recruiting men from the villages of Italy in order to invade Greece .”

“Very well Caesar, then we shall meet again in Greece ?” asked Antonius, in clear need of reassurance.

“Yes, my friend. Now lay down your worry for me and concentrate on enticing Cleopatra with your charms.”

**

As per custom in the East, Sevastian had moved to take the seat furthest from the Polemarchos. Xena had surprised him and her generals by having him take the seat immediately to her right at the end of the long camp table. The move unseated Darphus and forced a comical rearranging of the order of seating. One glance over at Xena by Sevastian showed her to be amused by the shuffling of men. Unlike the Romans or those in the East, the Greeks preferred to be seated at table when dining.

Rising from her chair, the Polemarchos waited for the men to stand.

Reaching down, Xena raised the gilded jug filled with the first watered down wine to be served that evening, as to drink wine straight would be considered barbaric. It was told by many bards how the Spartan King Cleomenes I was driven insane by refusing to dilute his wine. This only reinforced the idea among her troops that undiluted wine could kill the drinker. Slowly, she poured a small amount of the burgundy liquid into the phial. “To Zeus and the Olympians,” she spoke, while her eyes locked individually with every man at the table as they dutifully repeated the libation. The solemn pouring of liquid as an offering to the gods in remembrance of the men of her army who sacrificed their lives in her cause to unite Greece .

When she had finished the phial of wine, a slave brought the second jug to be served thatevening. “To our honored dead,” she stated, pausing for the men to repeat the libation. Sevastian felt most uncomfortable at that particular moment, feeling hostile eyes watching him. It was not undeserved, as he had a hand in delivering some of those honored dead to Hades.

With the third jug she gave the final libation before the meal. “To the glory of Ares,” she said rather flatly, the phrase being much more enthusiastically repeated by her various commanders.

Upon her being seated, the men surrounding the table sat as well, while servants moved to serve various dishes consisting of vegetables, fruit, and fish. While he was Greek in origin, the time Sevastian spent in Chin had impressed upon him certain types of etiquette foreign to the Greeks. He did not relish having to eat with his hands, or using bread in lieu of a napkin.

“Commander.”

Sevastian couldn't help but give Xena a confused look as he didn't quite understand his new role in this army. The confusion written upon his features caused the imposing woman to stop for a moment and chuckle quietly at his plight.

“Use these.”

Gracefully she deposited a pair of wooden chopsticks in his upturned hand.

“While I am Greek,” she explained, “there are certain aspects of Eastern culture I can appreciate, like the civilized dining they enjoy and,” the words trailed off as dishes filled with rice and vegetables were set before her. With a flick of her wrist she silently commanded Sevastian to be served as well. “the foods of the region.”

“Too kind, Polemarchos.” said Sevastian, respectfully waiting until she began to eat before he joined in.

“Perhaps, as one of Talmadeus' commanders, you would care to enlighten us with the defenses within Olynthus ?” The question was valid, but the smug sneer on the face of Darphus gave Sevastian reason to proceed with caution. The man had made sure to reinforce the link between him and their enemy in front of Xena's senior command.

“I would be most pleased to help enlighten you, but you see I found myself unexpectedly locked outside the city gates this morning.”

Sevastian relaxed slightly at hearing the laughter begin from the men at the table. However, what relieved him most was the muted chuckle from Xena.

“Do you take me for a fool!?” Darphus asked, his temper now taking hold. “I, a better soldier than you,” he boasted, “know plans were made to defend the city!”

“You do?” asked Sevastian, turning the focus away from him and onto Xena's second. In the periphery of his vision, he caught Xena shift in her chair, clearly interested in the line the conversation was taking.

“Do tell, Darphus. You know of the plan for the city's defense?” she prodded.

“I—” he sputtered for a moment, “there has to be a plan or Talmadeus would not have retreated behind its walls. That is all I suggest.”

“I see.” Xena responded.

“Then,” Sevastian cleared his throat in the silence around the table, “perhaps as the better soldier, you would explain your plans for taking the city? I would be most pleased to learn of your tactics.” “Did I say better?” Darphus suddenly backtracked, having no immediate plan in mind for taking the city. “I meant elder, not better.”

In the long silence which followed, Sevastian warred with himself over the issue of revealing Darphus as a spy. He could, should he choose, reveal Darphus right here at the table. Certainly he had excellent evidence to back up his claim. Certainly he owed it to Xena to tell her of his evidence as she was saving Kodi from Talmadeus. It would be the honorable thing to do.

But wouldn't Autolycus have told her of a spy in her midst?

 

Chapter 7

“If we move troops in a fast assault in the way you suggest, our men will be easy targets for those manning the walls of the city!”

Sevastian watched as a red-faced Darphus and another commander by the name of Marcus dueled with each other though battle plans in front of the Polemarchos. Xena was correct; Darphus' temper would someday be his undoing.

“And if we shift the army in this direction, as you suggest,” Marcus retorted, “we run directly into the marshland east and west of the city. Our troops would become mired in the mud, bogging them down and tiring them out. They would be in no condition to mount an attack on the city walls even if the walls that face the marshes are weaker in design.

“The key to the city is the docks, which are difficult to defend; we should attempt a sea borne invasion.”

“Have you been drinking too much again, Meleager?” Darphus bellowed at the grey haired and grizzled commander, “How in hades are we to load an entire army into boats when we have none?”

“We build them.” The man offered quietly.

“Do you have any idea how long that would take?” Darphus shot back. “Plus, we know that the docks on Olynthus have limited capacity. How would we unload them under fire?”

Silence greeted the questions posed by Darphus. It would seem , thought Sevastian, that the second in command enjoys browbeating the others into accepting his views .

“A direct assault via the open plain in front of the the city would cause an unacceptable number of causalties,” Dagnine finally spoke, breaking the silence which had descended upon the men surrounding the battered table covered by a parchment map of Olynthus

“I say we go with Darphus' plan and move the army though the marshes to attack the city.”

Sevastian stole a glance at the Polemarchos , quietly pacing back and forth, seemingly deep in thought, the tapers within the tent causing her silky dark hair to shine.

“And you?” Darphus began derisively while lifting his hand, one finger pointing directly at Sevastian. “Care to enlighten us all with your tactical brilliance?”

Fighting back a sudden lack of confidence as the piercing eyes of the Destroyer fell upon him, Sevastian spoke.

“Tal—

One of the warlord's hands fell upon Sebastian's shoulder; Xena displaying a most genuine smile “You are now officially promoted to my second.”

The vision had only flickered before his eyes momentarily. What meaning was there behind these revelations being sent to him from the gods?

“Talmadeus' position is hopeless” Sevastian recovered, realizing the men around the table were waiting for him to continue. “He has no ships available to evacuate his troops, and any type of prolonged siege would eventually overcome his defenses given time. I take it a siege has been ruled out?”

“You waste our time stating the obvious.” The second growled.

Sevastian swallowed nervously, feeling the weight of the glares from the men assembled around the table.

“I beg your indulgence in my restating the arguments. Trust me when I say I will soon make my point clear.

“Hitting the walls in a direct attack would work, but would have a heavy cost in men and resources, and in my view, exactly what the enemy wishes us to do. Attacking via the docks is an excellent and imaginative idea,” Sevastian noted the smile Meleager suddenly sprouted, “however it would be a nightmare trying to unload men due to the limited space on the docks.” The smile on the old soldier faded just as quickly as it had appeared. “The plan to sneak attack after having men wade though marshland is impossible; fatigue would rob them of the vigor to fight upon reaching the city walls, assuming the enemy hasn't set hidden traps in that soggy swampland to disable and kill men moving up for any attack.”

“You know of such traps?” Darphus asked pointedly with a smile, glad to have linked Sevastian once again with the enemy within the gates.

“I know of no such snares being planted by the forces of Talmadeus.”

“And why not?” the second asked, accusatory, his unfriendly grin showcasing rotted teeth.

“I am but a mere lieutenant, commander, unaware of plans made by the higher command. My lot in the service of Talmadeus was to do or die, not to question the reasons why.”

“So you say.” Darphus muttered loud enough for those at the table to hear.

“You have summarized our situation well, my little soldier.”

The velvety voice of the Polemarchos suddenly cut though the discussion, the men parting as she strode to a position in the center of her commanders. Her eyes locked with his. “Now tell me…

“You could use Sebastian, Xena” Ares stated with a hint of a smile.

“Imagine what it would have been like, having someone with his qualities second to you in your warlord days, eh?” Ares continued rather conspiratorially, “All you ever had next to you, Xena, were scheming, backstabbing, small-minded little men who did more to keep you from fulfilling your own destiny than anything else. You couldn't run everything personally in your ill-fated attempt to conquer the known world. You had to place some trust in others to do your bidding. And what became of it? They constantly betrayed you.”

Ares? Xena asked herself as the momentary vision faded. Ares telling me I could use Sevastian?

Her brows furrowed. “Ill-fated attempt to conquer the known world?” Did he speak of her first, failed attempt to capture Corinth , or would this attempt to rule Greece fail as well?

“Tell me how you would resolve our dilemma, Commander?” she recovered to finish her thought.

“I would suggest a diversionary attack on the walls.”

“A diversionary attack?” Darphus interrupted, his voice incredulous, “For what purpose?”

“Here,” Sevastian moved a hand, finger sliding along a point on the map showing an eastern section of the wall. “While most of the walls surrounding Olynthus were built slowly, over many seasons, this last section had to be completed in haste due to the nearness of the fighting and of Talmadeus' force.”

“He planned to use this town as a base?” asked Marcus.

“No, he—” Sevastian paused, “we,” he conceded, “were retreating under the hammer blows of this army. His eyes locked with Xena's once more. “We were given no respite, no lull to regroup, and were herded into the relative safety of the city walls.” Sevastian noted a distinct smirk form on the Destroyer's features. “My unenviable task was to hold long enough for the main force to retreat within the walls.”

“Ah,” The dark man smiled in understanding, “No plan, just necessity.”

“So this section of the wall is weaker?” Meleager questioned while leaning forward to see better, bumping Darphus out of the way.

“Yes, Commander, these blocks of stone are smaller and laid without the benefit of mortar to hold them together, their weight being deemed sufficient to hold them in place until they could be mortared together later.

“And how do you know this?” asked Dagnine, who was given a flash of a smile from Darphus.

“As Talmadeus' army retreated, I was in command of a small squad hurriedly dispatched to look over the defenses of the town.

Seeing his explanation deemed sufficient, Sevastian continued.

“I propose a sapper's tunnel be dug under this section of the wall.”

“A what?” Dagine again spoke.

“A sapper's tunnel, a tunnel dug under the wall which is supported with wood. Once finished, the wood supports are burned, the tunnel collapses, and the wall with it.”

“And just how would we protect the men digging this tunnel?” sneered Darphus, pushing Meleager roughly out of the way as he spoke.

“A wood frame, butted up against the wall and covered by a pitched roof of metal plates or shields, would help protect those digging the tunnel, plus the enemy would be occupied with the diversionary attack on the main walls, believing it is the main attack.”

“And you believe Talmadeus would fall for it, believing that the frontal assault on the wall is the main attack.”

“If your enemy is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”

The confusion from the men around the table at Xena's words was palpable.

“Sun Tzu,” muttered Sevastian.

“The Art of War,” confirmed Xena with a grin at her newest commander. This one held promise.

“You have heard it correctly,” the warlord began, flashing a dazzling smile at the rest of the men. “We are three parts of the way to victory. We have denied the forces of Talmadeus rest in forcing his retreat; we have separated his forces at the city gates, part within the walls, the other captured; and now under this plan of attack, we move to where he is unprepared along the wall, appearing where we are least expected.”

“Or we fall into a trap!” shouted Darphus. “Xena, we cannot be expected to trust this man!”

“And why not?” The Polemarchos growled.

“Do I have to spell it out for all present?”

“Can you spell?” replied Xena.

“He is a captured enemy! Unworthy of trust!” Darphus bellowed, missing the slight.

“Has it occurred to you that his appearance in this camp is all part of my plan?” She prowled closer to the second as her commanders backed out of the way. A dagger suddenly appeared, twirling absently through the fingers of one elegant hand.

Darphus suddenly shook visibly.

“I... I… had… no…” he stammered.

“You had no idea?” She finished. “I agree Darphus, you have no ideas within that hollow space in your head.”

All his bravado having dissipated, Darphus dipped his head in submission before his commander, much as it pained him to do so.

“Get out Darphus, before I lose my temper and you lose your head.”

With a deep bow, the second beat a hasty retreat from the tent.

“We shall continue this discussion tomorrow evening. Until then I want our defense positions around the city strengthened. Nothing should get in or out of that city, I want it completely cut off. Marcus, I want a second wave of scouts sent to survey the surrounding countryside. We are in an exposed position on this peninsula. Right now I am the besieger; I do not want Roman dogs led by Caesar appearing suddenly from behind to besiege me .”

“As you command.”

“Dagnine, I want your troops positioned here,” Xena's finger touched a point on the parchment “directly in front of the main gates, yet out of range of enemy missiles. Make sure you are highly visible to the troops manning the walls.”

“And our flanks?”

“Darphus' troops hold those positions.”

“Very well Xena.”

“Go and make sure your troops are ready for tomorrow.” The command served as a dismissal, the high command dispersing out of the tent.

“Meleager, Sevastian, hold a moment.

“I like your idea old man.” Xena's smile was genuine and infectious as she paced toward the grizzled man. Meleager found himself unable to keep from grining in return. “Tomorrow, investigate the villages scattered along the nearby coast, see how many small craft you can commandeer.”

“As you wish.”

“Your siege machines?”

“We have two in pieces now, Xena, just arrived in the wagon train. The rest will take another seven days at least to get here, assuming the weather holds and the roads remain passable.”

“I want those two assembled tonight. Tomorrow, at the moment of sunrise, I want them put into use.”

“What shall we load them with?”

“Horses, Meleager.” Her hand fell upon his shoulder. “Parts and pieces of the horses killed in the battle today.” Sevastian noted how her smile had changed, from warm to menacing. “Disdainful as it is, we will catapult them over the walls. Let's see if we can start a little pestilence in the town and put some fear into the good people of Olynthus , turn ‘em against Talmadeus.” Meleager nodded slowly in understanding. “Tomorrow, after our horses and men in the wagon train have rested, put ‘em to work in the forests nearby cutting and cleaning the branches and bark from the largest trees. Drag ‘em back to our camp.”

“More wood for the cook fires? A long siege then Xena?” he asked.

“Just cut them and haul them here.”

Knowing better than to question further, Meleager nodded again, receiving two solid claps on his shoulder before her hand dropped away. He made his exit as the warlord glided over to where Sevastian was standing.

“Most noble and most merciful lord.”

Xena watched the man as he fell upon one knee while dipping his head. A smile played upon her lips as she thought about the words he used to broach the conversation. Noble? Personally, no. Her cause to unite Greece against all enemies was. She was certainly not merciful. Several more appropriately descriptive words came to mind. She was wrathful, yes. Vengeful— definitely.

“Yes, Commander?” she asked with remarkable patience, followed by a command. “Rise.” The eastern rules of decorum ran deep within the man.

There was no way to broach the subject gently, thought Sevastian. He steeled himself, preparing for the worst.

“My lord, Darphus—”

“Is a backstabbing, cowardly spy?”

Sevastian's mouth fell agape in incredulity.

“You will find that very little escapes me, my little eastern soldier.”

Turning her back to him, Xena paced to her camp chair and gracefully took a seat.

“Why else would he be so keen to kill you? Tell me, have attempts already been made upon your life?”

“Yes,” he replied, not taking a seat himself until she expressly allowed it.

“Darphus is indeed a snake.” For a long moment she studied him in silence, the fingers of one of her hands absently rubbing against each other. What of these visions which consistently plagued her since his arrival? Every instinct was screaming out to trust him; there was a familiarity there, a sense of having known him for some period, even though they truly had just met.

“Were I you, my next question would be why I would keep him around?”

“It had occurred to me, my lord.” His reply caused her to chuckle.

“Sevastian, as I have said, Xena is sufficient. You give me titles I have not achieved. Yet.”

Standing, she strode to the map table, taking a moment to pour two bowls of wine.

“Sit.” Sevastian quickly found himself a stool and soon was given wine.

Re-seating herself, Xena took a long draught herself before speaking.

“Have you wondered why I chose the phoenix as the standard of my army?”

“Something to do with renewal, a rising from the ashes?” Sevastian threw out a reasonable guess, which came off sounding incredibly trite. In turn he received a droll look from Xena.

“This is my second attempt to take all of Greece , my first having ended after my failed siege of Corinth ,” Xena stated matter of fact. “My army dissipated and I found myself being tracked by bounty hunters. Even Ares refused to come to my side, not that I would have lowered myself to beg him. I suppose it is because he hates the thought of losing almost as much as I do. In my first attempt, I made… mistakes, my handling of Darphus being one of them. But, like the Phoenix , I have risen from the ashes and this time I will not be stopped.”

“But why keep a traitor in your midst?” Sevastian leaned forward as he asked the question, “Make him privy to the plans of your war council?”

“Caesar.” The cold look upon her face as she spoke the name gave Sevastian pause. An involuntary shudder rolled though him at the hardness within her azure eyes.

“Caesar?” Sevastian questioned, brows knitting together in confusion.

“That man has a spy network in place within Greece , and within my very army, I am sure. Darphus is part of that network. He is like a loose thread, and if I pull on it at the right moment, I will uncover the entire network. Until then, I cannot keep him from his regular duties as he would be suspicious. When I pounce, I will blind Caesar's ability to learn my moves.” Sevastian watched as the warlord stood. Respectfully, he rose as well.

“So you were in charge of scouting out the defenses of Olynthus , eh?”

“Yes, Xena.”

“Well then, prepare yourself. We leave within a candle mark.”

“Leave?”

“Yes, my little soldier. You and I are going out this night to do a little reconnaissance.”

Sevastian swallowed audibly in nervous reaction, thoughts turning to the terrifying idea of scouting positions with the Destroyer, hoping he wouldn't make any mistakes.

**

“Auto, thank you for being such a good friend.” Kodi's eyes suddenly shone with tears.

“Ah, think nothing of it. Why that's what friends are for!” Zeus ! thought Autolycus, please don't start up with the crying again .

The two were seated in one of the many small servants' nooks within the home Talmadeus had “liberated” from the town reeve.

“It's all my fault that Sevastian got mixed up in all this! I shoulda just stayed home with mother!” With that tears fell once more, trailing down the boy's cheeks.

“Here, now. Drink a little of this tea, it'll make ya feel better.” Autolycus stood, handing a warm cup to the kid before walking back to the fire. “Now, because of me, Sevastian is being held by that monster of a woman! All I wanted to do was join with those fighting to stop her from ruling all of Greece .”

The boy slumped down onto the rough-hewn bench by the fire, taking a gulp of tea.

“It must be so dangerous for you to spy on that evil woman. You're so very brave to go out and mix into her army to find out information.”

“Yeah, well, that's what us spies do.”

“I know we will win, Auto,” the kid brimmed with confidence. “The walls are strong. Even with the size of her army, the Witch of Amphipolis will not prevail in this fight.”

“Your confidence is reassuring, Kodi.” Autolycus watched the kid without appearing to do so.

“Talmadeus told me today that I may get to see action.” Kodi's eyes lit up, filled with pride.

Oh, kid, thought Auto with sadness, you are too young to go up against those trained killers .

“I pray to the gods on Olympus , Auto, that I may meet the Destroyer and end her reign of terror personally.”

You are gonna get part of that prayer answered sooner than you think, boy , mused Auto.

“Be careful of making your wishes known to the gods for they are known to have a sense of humor.”

“Talmadeus says he has a surprise in store for the Destroyer which will get us out of this siege.”

“Oh?” Suddenly the kid had the spy's full attention.

“In the jail.” Kodi wobbled a tad upon the bench.

“Auto?”

“Yeah, kid?”

“I'm feeling a little.”

Before the spy could catch him, the boy fell off the stool and directly onto the floor.

“Well, that might leave a bruise or two. Sorry kid. Maybe mixed that stuff a little stronger than I thought.”

Walking to the door, Auto took a peek out, seeing nothing on the stair leading up to the kitchens.

Now, the moment of decision.

Working quickly, Autolycus moved to pick the kid up, slinging the slight form up and over one shoulder. Up the stairs he charged, eyes locked on the door and the two-wheeled peasant cart waiting outside.

Once outside, he scanned the empty back street before moving to heft the figure onto the bed of the cart.

“Get down here and help!” he hissed to the cloaked figure holding the reins.

No response.

Getting Kodi into the back, Autolycus covered the body with burlap before slinking along the side of the cart and into the passenger seat.

“Damnit, ya could have helped, you know!”

Still no response.

“Hey,” Auto moved a hand up, shaking the man.

“What?” The man jerked. “Who?” Widened, spooked eyes looked over at his sudden seat mate.

“Joxer! How in Tartarus could you fall asleep at time like this?”

“It's not exactly exciting out here, you know! A warrior of my caliber needs a higher challenge than just sitting—”

“Shut up! Look, change of plan. I want to see the town jail.”

“The jail?” the man fairly screeched out in question.

Joxer felt Autolycus' hand clamp down on his mouth, cutting his ability to say more. “Why don't you talk a little louder? I'm sure they didn't hear you in Athens ! Yes, drive this cart to the jail,” Auto began while fumbling to throw on a dark cloak, “assuming you can get this stubborn ass to move.”

With a click of the tongue, Joxer got the cart rolling, much to Auto's relief. Pulling the hood up to cover his face, a thought struck the spy. “You do know where the jail is, don't you?”

“Of course!” Joxer responded immediately. “Take a left here, right?” he asked with the next breath.

“Right.” Auto sighed.

“A right?”

“Give me those damned reins!”

“Jeez, ya don't havta get all huffy, you know!”

“Joxer,” Autolycus mentally counted to ten before speaking so as not to yell, “when this is over and we get paid, I want you to take your share and I never, ever want to see you again.”

**

Long, elegant fingers slid against each other, working to crush a bit of parched vegetation.

Through the mists of the swamp, a dark figure rose. Stepping gracefully, the mists parted and swirled around the long cloak as the blue eyes of the Destroyer shone in the muted moonlight as they scanned the terrain.

Finally, those piercing eyes settled on a crouched figure.

With a stealthy silence gained through years of practice, Xena moved to a position directly behind the man, studying him for a moment, watching as his head moved, eyes no doubt sweeping back and forth, searching diligently for any enemy, looking for any trace of evidence showing human movement.

A hand landed upon his shoulder.

Sevastian's whole body tensed, his breath held.

“Relax. Commander. Get up,” the words spoken by a familiar, velvety tone of voice, which was suddenly so close he felt chills. Without speaking, Sevastian did as told, rising up from his crouched position. Gods on Olympus , she could move as if a wraith. He had no indication of her presence at all until it would have been too late.

“Report.”

“My lor—” he stopped, catching himself while turning to face her, careful to speak in hushed tones. “Xena, troops have moved though these woods, but I can find no evidence of anyone now.”

“The reason for that is the task has been accomplished,” the warlord stated with certainty. “They will be back.”

As she stepped past, Sevastian caught a glint of moonlight upon metal. A circular object flew from her hand, disappearing though the mists. He heard it impact something solid. A shudder rolled through the marsh as the object flung by the warlord announced its return with a high-pitched wail. With a muted yelp of surprise, Sevastian dropped flat to the ground, moving hands to cover his head.

Silence.

He peeked up, to see the Destroyer looking down at him, a smirk upon her features. In one raised, gauntleted hand, a gold- and silver-inlayed metal ring shone. Gathering up what was left of his pride, Sevastian stood, clearing his throat slightly.

“The metal ring—” he began

“Called a Chakram, a gift from Ares, “she stated as matter of fact. “Come on.”

They paced forward though the muck. She has the Greek god of war giving her gifts? Any further thoughts on his part were quickly dispelled upon seeing the spiked log swinging back and forth between two large trees.

“These traps are everywhere. Found two covered by reeds; men would have fallen right on to sharpened spikes with poison on their tips. This,” her hand moved up, waving absently at the swinging log, “would have impaled at least two of my men before the others could have gotten out of the way.”

Sevastian was completely in awe of her abilty. “I found no sign of any such traps,” he stated with brutal honesty. “Were I in charge, men would have died due to my poor abilities. How did you know they were there?”

“I have many skills, one of which is being able to recognize traps set by Amazons.”

“Amazons?” Sevastian's tone in speaking the term underscored his inner confusion.

“Yes. Talmadeus must be receiving help from them. Not surprising; I have given them cause to hate me.”

“Come. This has gone on long enough. Time for me to cast my web, and you, my little soldier, are going to be the bait.

With that pronouncement, the warlord stalked away. In her wake followed a very anxious Sevastian.

**

“No one goes in.”

The men before him crossed their long pikes across the entrance, each dropping free hands to rest upon the hilts of sheathed swords.

“Now hold on a second, is that any way to treat a friend?”

“No one passes.” Auto's smile faded. These two were going to be tough.

“Listen,” he began conspiratorially while leaning in a bit. “Can you two keep a secret?”

The two brutes didn't disappoint, leaning in to hear what promised to be a juicy tidbit of news.

In the next moment, the guards were unconscious upon the ground.

“So can I,” Auto spouted, while removing two very specialized rings from the index fingers of his right and left hands. Within each a reservoir held a concentrated liquid dose of black henbane. Just a little pin prick from the needle jutting from the ring and now the two would be out for hours. The stuff worked well; he should know, he had accidentally poked himself once.

“Didja kill ‘em?”

The voice behind caused Auto to jolt in surprise, “Damnit, Joxer!” he hissed.

“Sorry.”

“No, I didn't kill ‘em,” Auto stated in a whisper, “no challenge in that.” Autolycus reached down, grabbing a ring of keys off one of the guards. “Drag these two and their weapons into that darkened street. Get them outta sight. Be sure to cover the ruts in the dirt left after you drag ‘em, then grab a spear and stand here and look like a guard. Got it?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

Moving to the door, Auto peered in, then let out a long sigh. “This place is guarded even more heavily than that temple I stole the knife of Helios from.” Within the jail, guards were positioned like stone pillars. They stood along each of the inside stone walls of the structure, near the small iron barred windows. A simple cot along one of the side walls held a long figure, apparently sound asleep, if the rise and fall of the crude blanket was any indicator. Whoever this was, he or she was clearly important by the number of guards assigned. If he were to leave this person of significance here and Xena found out, his always-tenuous employment with the Destroyer of Nations could come to an abrupt end with his own death.

But Auto considered that were he to be caught in attempting a jail break, death would come by the order of Talmadeus.

Decisions, Decisions.

Death by Xena.

Death by Talmadeus.

Decision made, he scanned the jail again, guards on every wall except, Auto smiled, the small window in the cell. Raising the key, he jammed it into the lock, breaking it off to keep those inside from getting out.

“What are you doing?” Joxer rasped in exasperation from behind.

“Attempting a jail break, stupid.

“Unhook that big mule from the cart and grab the driver's whip.”

“Why?”

“Now is not the time to ask questions,” Auto growled, “just get that animal unhooked and lead him over to the far wall by the window bars.”

“Okay.”

Auto grabbed a torch out of the sconce by the metal door. This jail, like all jails, had weaknesses. This one had pretty strong-looking rock walls, metal doors, metal cell bars, plenty of guards, but its Achilles heel was its thatched roof, a very dry thatched roof. Lowering his arm, Autolycus flung the torch upward. end over end, it tumbled through the air, landing squarely on the peak of the roof line. Instantly, the dry packed reeds caught.

Running to the far side of the jail, Auto broke the whip, tossing the wooden handle aside. He tied the long, braided leather end first around the bars, then to the shoulder harness of the donkey. Right on cue, banging and shouts sounded on the metal door of the jail as the room filled with smoke. A quick look though the window confirmed not only the smoke, but also flaming debris falling from the ceiling.

“Joxer, get that mule to pull!”

Stumbling over to the animal, the tall, lanky man grabbed the bridle and pulled with all his worth.

No movement.

“Damnit! Pull!” Auto yelled back, while digging his heels in the soft dirt, tugging on the improvised rope with all his strength.

“C'mon, mule!” Joxer begged, clicking his tongue as a means of encouragement, while desperately pulling on the bridle. “Please pull!” he pleaded with the animal.

No movement.

Smoke began to pour out between the bars of the window, the shouts within tapering off as the soldiers choked. Suddenly a man's face appeared at the window, blackened by soot, ash staining white hair.

“Help!” he gasped out, while coughing.

“Yeh, we're trying buddy!” Auto yelled.

One of the old, dry beams of the jail suddenly let out a loud crack as the flames devoured it. The noise spooked the mule into pulling and an instant later, the jail wall gave way with the old man tumbling out with it. Joxer just managed to jump out of the way as the freed animal stampeded past him, pulling the frame of the window along with him, bars and all.

Seeing the animal tear off, Auto couldn't help but shake his head. “It's always something,” he mused, having lost a means of escape. Now the cart was useless without anything to pull it.

“C'mere!” Auto grabbed the man, hauling him over to the cart the jail roof beginning to visibly sag as the flames continued to devour the supporting beams. “Do what I say and you'll live. Got it?”

The old man nodded.

“Now what do we do?” Joxer suddenly appeared by Auto's side.

“Well...ah...”

“Fire!! Auto suddenly yelled as loudly as he could. “Fire!!”

“What are you doing? You want us all to get caught?!”

Panicked shouts in the streets drew nearer as troops barracked in nearby buildings woke and stumbled out into the street. Panic hit as they realized the jail was engulfed in flames.

Ducking down, the spy led the group to hide behind the unhooked cart, eyes scanning the scene as soldiers ran past and orders were shouted. Embers borne by the breeze ignited hay being stored in the barn yard next door. In moments, the fire in the jail was quickly becoming a conflagration as the dry wall timbers of the barn began to catch next. Half dressed soldiers moved in to attempt to save the frightened animals in the corral and barn.

In that moment, their means of escape arrived; a huge wagon, pulled by six massive draft horses pulled up right beside the cart. Soldiers immediately moved to unload barrel upon barrel of water to throw on the quickly spreading flames.

Reaching into a side pocket hidden within his cloak, Auto pulled out a short metal tube, which he extended, much like one would do with a looking glass. Carefully he placed a wooden dart within the tube. Raising it, he carefully lined up his shot. With a sharp huff of air, the dart sailed, striking the driver of the wagon directly in the neck. The man instinctively pawed at the dart before losing consciousness, his body falling to the packed dirt road.

In the confusion, not a soul noticed.

“Joxer, grab the kid, throw him in the back. You,” he grabbed the old man “get on the driver's seat in the middle between us.

The group managed to get into the wagon just as the hundreds of horses in the corral stampeded at once, breaking though the wooden gate and thundering down the street. Soldiers, unable to get out of the way, perished under the hooves, their anguished screams of death filling the air as they were trampled to death.

“Stop them!!” A voice raised up as the last of the horses galloped past, a voice Autolycus knew well. Sure enough, leaning out of a top floor window was Talmadeus, clothed only in a night shirt.

“Yah!” With a snap of the reins, the team began to move.

Autolycus couldn't resist the moment. It just was too rich seeing the great Talmadeus in a nightshirt leaning out a window, helpless to stop the disaster unfolding on the streets below.

“Xena sends her compliments!”

The spy laughed as Talmadeus' face, lit from the flames, twisted with rage.

“Yah!” Auto bellowed again and the team began to pick up speed.

“Ya shouldn't have done that, Auto!” Joxer yelled from his position on the far side of the driver's bench. “The whole army's gonna be on our tail now.”

“Just couldn't resist!” Autolycus yelled over the din caused by the confusion within the city.

Through the panicked streets the trio rolled, following in the wake of the stampeding herd. The whole town seemed to be awake now due to the shouts of the soldiers and the quickly spreading fire.

“Who are you anyway? I'd at least like to know the name of the fella who is holding onto me tight enough to start rumors.” Autolycus quipped while pulling hard on the reins to round a bend as they followed the herd onto the main town thoroughfare.

“Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus”

“You are the famous Pompey the Magnus?” The disbelief in Joxer's voice rose up over the chaos.

“Yes” the old Roman answered.

“Pardon me, but you don't look very magnificent at the moment.” Auto spared a brief smile at the man in the shredded clothing. “Just hang on and we'll get you outta here.” Despite the seriousness of the situation, Auto was almost giddy. Xena would certainly reward him for this.

An arrow zipped by his head, far too close for comfort, knocking the giddiness right out of him.

Glancing back again, Auto saw members of Talmadeus' cavalry in pursuit. Unhindered by pulling a wagon, their horses were quickly gaining.

“Joxer, get in the back, shove those remaining water barrels into the street.

The lanky man stood and as the wagon hit a rut in the street, he tumbled into the back of the bed. His body slammed against the barrels, knocking all three in a domino effect onto the street. A goofy grin appeared on his face as several of the riders were unhorsed attempting to avoid the barrels.

“Hah!” Joxer stood up fully in the bed of the moving wagon, celebrating his triumph with a full goofy grin at having slowed down the horsemen. So caught up in the moment, he never had a chance against the arrow which hit him directly in the chest. Sinking to his knees, blood bubbled from his lips before he fell forward, the arrow pushing though his body, bloody tip now jutting out of his back.

“Damn!”

Autolycus glanced back, instantly knowing the man was dead.

“How are we gonna get past those?” Pompey yelled, drawing Auto's attention back to the situation at hand as the main gates came into view.

“Ah, well,” Auto, hemmed and hawed, “hadn't got that far in the plan yet.

“What?!”

“Look your magnificence, would ya rather be back in that jail?” the spy groused.

Up on the wall, Xanthos and the other men heard the thundering roar before seeing hundreds of horses heading right for the gates.

“Sir!” They'll batter down the wooden gates!” the man nearest yelled, pointing to the oncoming disaster.

Now a decision was to be made.

“Should we open the gates?”

Xanthos stood starkly quiet, making his decision.

“Sir? Sir!” The solider grabbed Xanthos' armor, tugging at him, trying to get his attention.

“Should we open the gates?” the man asked again, vexed by his commander's silence.

**

Sevastian forced himself to be calm.

The interior of his tent was nearly shrouded in darkness, the only light visible streaming in from the area in between the entrance flaps.

Relax, just relax , he told himself. Breathe normally, act as if you're sleeping without a care in the world .

His ears picked up the rustle of the tent fabric moving, his mind racing, pondering all the possibilities which could be responsible for such a noise. For hours he had been at this game, every noise playing upon his imagination. Was it the assassin? Was it just the wind? Was he just hearing things? Gods how he wanted this never-ending night to be over!

His thoughts turned to ponder the Polemarchos .

Visions aside, Sevastian had already determined he would trust her; evidence of that was the fact he was lying here in a cot, a sitting duck for an assassin.

Clearly, Xena was superior. In martial skill, in thought, in leadership, in bravery, in ruthless ambition, she outclassed every opponent. Even with past “mistakes,” as she termed them, she had fought back to be in position to unite all Greece under her banner.

In male-dominated Greece , she was going to be the victor. The various male warlords, despite all their bluster and bravado, had proven inept in the face of her will to conquer. She had crushed them all under her heel. The bards in the taverns he had visited while drifting from village to village had told stories of her life, her rise, and her vengeance for those who dared oppose her.

He, a nobody, could see her as superior.

Was it just ego that caused men like Talmadeus to oppose her? The inability to accept defeat at the hands of a woman? Even a woman who had demonstrated her superiority time and again? Or was it the inability on the part of these men to give up their dream of holding power over others? The great philosophers, whose works he had read, likened power to a drug. Could these men not accept the loss of a favored drug? So much so that they wasted the lives of soldiers and villagers while destroying Greece in their opposition to Xena's quest?

He had never known power. The eastern teachers had taught self-discipline, knowing ones limits, recognizing a superior. His life had been one of taking orders, not giving them. Actually, the battle today had been the first time he had been in the sole command of any large force. What did Xena possibly see in him? He was a drifter, moving from village to village doing odd jobs, hoping to just get enough to eat and a place to sleep at the end of the day. There had been no real purpose to his life, no goal to attain. Well, until Kodi had ended up being taken by Talmadeus. Then his purpose was just to get the boy home safely; after that he would have gone back to having no plan.

Another small rustle of the tent fabric.

It took all his willpower to keep from tensing up his body in preparation for a strike. A light sheen of nervous sweat suddenly covered his body.

Breathe , he instructed himself.

In, out.

In—

He felt the terrifying sensation of someone standing over him.

In the darkness, expressive, cobalt blue eyes watched the assassin. First tinged with sadness, they became cold.

“I wouldn't.” As she said the words from behind, the cold blade of her dagger moved to touch his neck.

“Marcus, of all people, you choose to betray me?”

The tall, dark man dropped the dagger he was carrying, letting out a sigh of defeat.

“You did well, my little soldier,” she praised a very relieved Sevastian. “Now rise, don your armor, and seek out Meleager. Tell him I want guards discreetly placed around all the tents of my commanders.” Until she knew the full extent of this spy ring, prudence was necessary.

“As you wish.”

Sevastian threw back the wool blanket, already wearing his lower armor, and moved to dive under his chest armor, hung as it was by a rope strung across the tent. In the silence he dressed quickly, untying the rope and rapidly tightening the cords of his armor, binding it to him. Pulling on his gauntlets, he moved to step out of the entrance of the tent.

“No,” her voice stopped him. “out the back.”

“The back?” he muttered, while scanning the walls, finally seeing a precise cut in the fabric. He hadn't even known she was in the tent with him.

Sevastian slipped through the cut she had made in the fabric and was gone.

“Sit.” She commanded, while using a striker to light a small taper illuminating the interior with a soft glow.

“Xena I...”

“It's too late for apologies, Marcus, you have chosen your destiny.”

“I am to die, then?” he asked, the eyes of her lover moving up to meet hers.

“Yes.”

He nodded in meek acceptance, strangely glad the subterfuge was finally over.

“However, how you die and how you will be remembered will be determined by what information you give me. I have the power to give you a merciful death, and a pyre with full honors, or crucify you publicly as the traitor you are to me and my cause.

“Tell me, Marcus,” Xena spoke while taking off her black cloak and laying it over a small chair. “Did Caesar put you up to this?”

“No, Xena!” he stated emphatically as she sat next to him on the small cot.

“Then who?” Xena asked gently. Marcus felt her hand upon his shoulder and forced himself to look at her, though his eyes were brimming with tears.

“ Myzantius .” He watched as both her eyebrows rose slightly, revealing an inner shock that just barely registered upon her face.

“After your defeat at Corinth and the dissolution of the army, I worked for Myzantius. Easy job, just helping him sell arms to the highest bidders. He captured a princess, using her to drum up a war between two city-states with a history of bad-blood between them. I was responsible to deliver a large shipment of arms. Ambushed by Draco, I had all of it taken from me.”

“And Myzantius?” she asked.

“As you can imagine, he was furious. I mean, no arms meant no payment from the city. I...” Marcus swallowed. “Obviously, I couldn't go back to Tracus, he would have killed me the moment I stepped inside the city walls. I didn't have the silver to pay him for the loss so I went on the run. Myzantius let it be known that he would send paid assassins after me until my dead body was in front of him.”

“Let me see if I can finish your tale, stop me if I go wrong. Since you didn't have the silver, you paid him instead with secrets. And once in a position of spying, he used the threat of exposing you to me to keep you feeding him information.”

Marcus dropped his head, face buried in his hands. Nothing more need be said.

“Tell me, at any point, did you truly love me?” As Marcus raised his head, Xena lowered hers, long, dark tresses obscuring the sadness written on her face.

“How I loved you...” he rasped thickly, voice overcome with emotion. “How I still am in love with you.”

“And yet, even that wasn't enough to hold you to me.” She whispered in reply.

The emotion was overwhelming, Marcus leaned against her, quiet sobs racking his frame as he did so, the moisture of his tears touching her skin where armor did not reach.

She, however, would not allow such emotions to consume her.

“Then, in the name of that love we once shared, Marcus, answer me this: Who else is involved?”

His head lifted from her shoulder, a sigh leaving his lips.

“You already know.” he answered.

“I have suspicions, Marcus. Confirm them for me.”

“Darphus.”

“And?”

“Dagnine.”

“Who else?”

“Many of the officers they promoted to positions of trust.”

“Names, Marcus.”

“Xena, I tell you truthfully that I don't know the full extent of their network. I was but one link in the chain.”

“How do you know this? What proof have you?” she asked, her voice cold. She knew Darphus was a snake, but hearing it was still a shock. She had shown him considerable mercy considering his running her though the gauntlet. As for Dagnine, she had underestimated him, thinking him too stupid to pull off spying on her.

“Have you any solid evidence to back up this charge, Marcus?”

“All you need do, Xena, is search them. Myzantius sold information to the highest bidder, in this case the Romans, who are most interested in your activities. The gold he received in return was used to pay those two to spy. Find the gold before they move to convert it to Greek silver and you've got your proof.”

“Caesar,” Xena growled. A typical play by the man; different sources for information, each used to verify the other.

“No, Marcus Antonius' signet stamp is on the coin.”

“One and the same,” came her retort. “Why did you not come to me? Why did you not tell me?”

“Fear of your wrath being directed at me.”

As he watched, Xena stood, walked to the chair and pulled on her cloak, her back remaining turned to him.

“Go to your tent, Marcus. I will send a runner to you with a package. In the eyes of this army and within the scrolls of Greek history, you will be remembered with honor.”

Behind, Marcus rose, “Xena I wish—”

“And so do I.”

Her former love slowly walked past, out of the tent and into the pre-dawn darkness.

Only then would she allow a precious few tears to silently fall.

**

“Sir! Do we open the gates?”

Xanthos made his decision. Talmadeus' cause was lost. No amount of silver from Toris could hold him to spying on the warlord now.

The brother of the Destroyer would have to get his information from someone else.

“Open the Gates!” he yelled before running down the wall. Reaching an access stair, he roughly shoved a man out of the way as the gates swung open, the herd thundering past into the plains in front of the city. Judging the right moment, he leapt onto the back of a horse, clawing his way onto the bare back of the animal, barely managing to not fall off and be trampled.

Moments later, the men on the walls watched dumbfounded as a wagon, pulled by six draft horses, thundered out the gate.

Chapter 8

“Where is it? Ya bastard!”

Darphus found himself roughly tossed onto the floor of his tent when his cot was suddenly kicked over.

“Xena, what inTar—” he tried to stumble to his feet.

Abruptly backhanded, he never finished the sentence.

The tremendous force of the hit caused spots to light before his eyes as his body slammed down upon the earthen floor of the tent.

“Get out!” the warlord bellowed to the naked woman cowering in the farthest corner of the tent. Without hesitation she complied, noting the wild, crazed appearance of the Destroyer. Tangled, dark hair flowed over the woman's shoulders, a sneer fixed upon the angular lines of her features and terrifyingly frigid, silvery blue eyes. Attempting to gather what clothes she could from the floor on which they were strewn, the woman dared not look back on her way out of the tent.

“Whores!” the dark woman bellowed, one hand clasping the top of a pottery jug. “And Wine!” The jug was roughly thrown across the tent, smashing against the dazed man, its contents soaking him. “That's what you chose to buy with Roman gold! You damned, traitorous bastard!”

“Xena, I have no Roman gold!” Darphus' voice took on the whine of one desperately pleading for mercy.

“The Hades you say!” she shouted. “Where is it?” she demanded, pulling her sword from the sheath upon her back. With a swift strike, the table upon which the wine had sat cracked in two as the blade sliced though the wood, sending splinters flying in all directions.

He tried to gain his feet; a kick to the head heeled him over once more.

Roughly tossing the press holding his armor and sword out of her way, the warlord stalked over to a wooden chest strapped with iron. With another strike, the lock on its front was shattered. The tip of her sword then lifted the lid, and a kick tipped it over, dumping smelly contents upon the floor.

“You see, Xena, I have no gold!” he cried, eyes darting to his blade lying nearby.

Her sword descended once more, this time breaking through the false floor of the chest. The telltale clatter of coin was heard. Reaching down, Xena picked up the metal strong box, throwing it in his direction.

“Open it, Darphus.” her tone was low, filled with menace as the dark rage of Ares boiled through the blood coursing in her veins.

A moment of decision.

Stretching out, he clasped the sword in his right hand before managing to get to his feet.

Raising his blade, he challenged her, murderous anger showing in his reddened face.

“Temper, temper Darphus,” Xena taunted.

With a yell, he charged while gripping the hilt of his sword with both hands.

Their swords met, the sound of metal upon metal ringing through the air.

Darphus leaned, attempting to shove her back with his sheer weight, the smug smile upon his face melting away when he looked up at her for an instant.

Xena was holding him back with contemptuous ease, just one of her hands upon the hilt of her blade.

Shoved back, he stumbled over the broken remains of the table, landing squarely upon his ass.

“You worthless coward!” she spat while advancing upon him.

His sword moved up defensively while he tried to stand to face her once more.

 

“Don't go in there.”

Sevastian felt a hand upon his shoulder, halting his progress toward the tent flap. Looking back he found Meleager behind him.

“But shouldn't we tell her about Dagnine?” he asked perplexed before jumping slightly as a thunderous crash sounded within the tent.

“She is in no mood right now to hear about Dagnine,” Meleager counseled, “The... gift... of being the chosen of Ares is upon her at the moment. You go in there now and you are liable to lose your head. Better to wait here, until she comes out and asks about his whereabouts.

“Then we both lose our heads when we explain his being gone?” Sevastian thought for a brief moment. “Meleager, does this army use dogs?”

“Of course.”

“Get a scrap of Dagnine's clothing from his tent. Let the dogs get his scent and send them after him in pursuit along with a full troop of cavalry.”

“A good damn idea. I'll just go and get the men moving,” the old man strutted off at a good clip.

“Sneaky,” Sevastian muttered. “And leave me to face her ill temper.” He had no idea what this being a chosen was, but with a squaring of his shoulders, the newest commander in the army of the Destroyer waited, mentally preparing for the worst.

Darphus let out an anguished howl as the arm holding his sword was severed at the elbow. Clasping his bleeding stump to his side, he looked up at Xena with fury in his eyes.

Hauled up, he was physically thrown out of the tent, landing at the feet of a shocked Sevastian.

“Bind him!”

The yelled order from the Polemarchos caused men to jump. Rope was hastily found and Darphus was tied, except for his now useless arm.

“Shall I attend to his injury?” asked a nearby healer respectfully, head bowed.

“I suppose you could, just to make sure he doesn't bleed to death.” An unfriendly smile appeared as Xena wiped her blade upon Darphus' dingy nightshirt before sheathing it. “I have plans for... parts... of him.

“As you command.”

Those outside the tent watched as the warlord turned upon her heel, slipping back into the tent for a moment and returning with a metal strong box in one hand. In an incredible display of strength, she gripped the lock, twisting the metal until it broke under the strain. Opening the lid, a look of disgust marred her beauty as she tossed the box on the ground, the clearly marked gold coin of Rome spilling out.

“A traitor to me,” she bellowed, causing the gathered men to cower. “A traitor to you!” One hand rose, sweeping over the men. “And a traitor to Greece !

“I will not rest until a united Greece slays the beast of Rome !”

With that, men began to cheer with abandon. The name of the Destroyer was chanted over and over, the sounds carrying as far as the men on the walls of Olynthus .

Suddenly she was before him, startling Sevastian out of his contemplation of the coin scattered upon the ground.

“Bring Dagnine to my tent.”

Sebastian physically shook as his eyes met cold blue. “Most benevolent lord.” he sputtered.

“Where...is...he?” Xena hissed, while looming over him.

“Gone.”

Strong hands gripped him, lifting his slight frame up with ease until his eyes were looking directly into hers. An odd and terrifying sensation, to be standing on the ground one moment, then finding one's feet dangling uselessly in the air the next.

He'd better talk fast.

“My lord, as...as you were indisposed, I took the liberty of sending a full troop of your cavalry, along with dogs, to track him down.”

His feet touched the ground again.

“Good.”Sevastian shook again as two of her long, elegant fingers moved to tap him on the left cheek most gently. The change in her demeanor occurred so fast he was amazed.

“I promote you to my new second.” Sevastian's mouth fell open, only to be closed by the same two fingers which had slid under his chin.

“My lord...”

“Xena, Sevastian, my name is Xena.”

“Xena, I...” Sevastian fairly squeaked out.

“You find my judgment in error?” She purred dangerously while looking down at the man.

“I beg your pardon, but I've never been in charge of anything of significance. I fear I may not live up to your expectations.”

“You will learn under my direct tutelage. Clean up, try to get a little rest, and I'll call for you when needed, Commander.”

“Oh, and ah, pick up this gold. I have a use for it later.”

With that pronouncement she strode off, men scattering out of her way.

**

“Don't you want to be in the Army of Caesar, boy?”

The kid looked up at the centurion with a dazed expression. “But sir, I'm just a farmer's son. I know nothing of war.”

“Don't worry,” the armor clad soldier began, adding a clap on the kid's back for reassurance, “You shall be trained. Then you will fight against the enemies of Rome , bringing glory and honor to yourself and your family.

The big soldier's eyes lifted, evaluating the old farmer studying him warily. “How many sons do you have, citizen?”

“Three sons, Centurion.”

“You know of military affairs, then?” the soldier asked upon hearing the farmer mention his rank.

“I fought long ago, in the Punic Wars against Carthage , Centurion.”

“ Rome thanks you for your service and has need of your two oldest sons.”

The elderly man nodded. This was no request for volunteers.

“You shall have them,” he responded, eyes moving to glance briefly at the tall figure in the distance seated upon a magnificent stallion.

“They will need much training and equipment, Caesar. The bulk your army, I fear, will be made up of green troops.”

“That is what I have you for, General Crassus.” Caesar paused, studying the man as he drew nearer, riding upon a grey mare. “You and General Sulla,” he added, knowing the two hated each other. Well and good, as their feud kept both generals so busy trying to outdo each other that they had precious little time to turn their attentions toward plotting against him.

“You have a visitor, Caesar, The noble Brutus comes to inform you of the concerns of the Senate.” The scowl upon Julius' face cheered Crassus considerably.

“Well then, I shall not keep such an honorable member of our senate waiting.” With that, Caesar turned his horse toward camp, passing long lines of new recruits on the road.

Brutus let out a long sigh as he waited. By Vestia, the tent Julius used while on campaign was more lavish than many homes in the capital. Within the fabric lined walls stood a massive oak map table, a huge gold-inlayed writing desk, a partition for his private bedroom, and another partition for his dressing room filled with various sets of armor. Not to mention chairs, small tables, and various oil tapers for lighting. “Must have an army of servants just to lug it all around,” he muttered aloud.

“More wine mighty Senator-ness?”

“Yes” Brutus lazily held out a glass etched with Caesar's Coat of Arms, “And... just Senator

Brutus appraised the man in front of him: Short, a tad pudgy, graying hair. “What is your name, servant?”

“Salmoneus, Senator”

“You are Greek, are you not?”

“Yes.”

Brutus noted the look on the man's face. “You have just a tinge of a Greek accent,” he explained. “ Southern Greece ?”

“ Southern Greece is correct, Senator.”

“Freeman or slave?” inquired Brutus

“Freeman.”

“And how long have you been in Caesar's employ?”

The man thought for a moment, “Why, it must be a full cycle now.”

“I see.

“How does a man from southern Greece come to be employed by the great Julius Caesar?”

“Well, I had a business opportunity go sour in Greece and had to leave the country ah, um… rather quickly.” Sitting down the wine jug, Salmoneus' hands clasped together in a nervous gesture.

“Oh?” Brutus found himself enjoying this banter. At least it passed the time while waiting. “Do tell.”

“Well, it all revolved around a little misunderstanding about some weapons.”

“You were an arms dealer in Greece , then?”

Salmoneus flashed a smile. “Among other things, your Senator-ness, ah, Senator.”

“The deal fell apart then?”

“More like it melted away.” Julius spoke from the tent flap, causing both men to turn in his direction, and Brutus to stand.

Julius strode into the space, “Salmoneus, a basin and a jug of water.”

The pudgy little man bowed and went to retrieve the items.

“Brutus, it is good to see you, my friend. You look well after what must have been a long ride to meet me here in northern Italy .” Caesar clasped the hand of the senator. “I trust you've found your accommodations acceptable?”

“Quite acceptable, great Caesar.”

“Good, I'm pleased you think so.”

Seeing Salmoneus return, Caesar motioned him to a stand, watching as his servant fit the ceramic basin into a purpose-shaped stand, pouring the steaming water into it, then standing back while holding a towel in one hand.

“So, Brutus, what have you come to tell me?” asked Caesar as he moved to the basin, washing his hands and face, scrubbing a bit with a cake of soap to get the dust of the day off.

“Caesar, the Senate had many concerns about your plans for war with Greece .”

“Concerns?”

Julius took the waiting towel, waiting for Brutus to elaborate. When nothing was forthcoming, he turned to face the man. Brutus' eyes discretely moved to Salmoneus.

“He is most trustworthy and discreet, Brutus, albeit chatty.” Caesar conceded. “Salmoneus has no love for the barbarian Xena.” Did he tell you the story of how he escaped being killed by her men?

Brutus watched as the pudgy little man shifted his feet, dipping his head in embarrassment.

“I, ah...” Salmoneus began a little falteringly, before plunging ahead. “Her troops attacked a village in which I was staying. To save my life, I tried to disguise myself as a woman.”

Brutus' eyebrows lifted in surprise.

“There is no shame in it, I might add,” Caesar smiled, “A case of quick thinking.”

“Did it work?” asked Brutus.

“No, her men found me and I was taken before her for judgment.”

“And?”

“She found me a source of amusement, making me stay in the dress. After humiliating me for several days, her army moved on and I was set free. I am one of the very few to escape her wrath.”

“So...” Brutus smiled wryly. “Like Caesar and myself, you have also met Xena, although when I met her, she was nailed upon a cross. I figured she was all but dead.” His eyes tracked to Caesar. “Quite an amazing escape she made.”

The look upon Julius' face told Salmoneus that Caesar was not pleased by Brutus' comment.

“Tell me, Salmoneus,” Brutus began, while moving to set his glass upon a nearby table. “What were your impressions of the barbarian?”

“She is evil incarnate. Xena is malicious in intent, devious in her desires, and brimming with hatred of Rome . I shall never overcome my nightmares of her. I recall in many a dream of her cobalt eyes pinning me in place, the long tresses of her hair, darker than the blackest of nights. Her wicked intelligence is only matched by her beauty.”

“So you see, Brutus, my servant has no love for Xena. You may speak freely.”

“Very well, Caesar.”

Julius motioned the man to a high-backed chair, taking a seat across from him.

“So, tell me of the Senate, Brutus,” Julius began as Salmoneus served him wine.

“Caesar, the Senate has many concerns.” Brutus leaned forward, “beginning with the incursions across the Spanish frontier in the new territory of Gaul .”

“They are little more than raiders, Brutus, and are of little interest. You ride for leagues to tell me of simple bandits?”

“We know they are supported by Carthage , great Caesar, and the Senate wonders why you focus on Greece , which has never attacked Rome , instead of moving forces against a known enemy in Carthage .”

“The sworn enemy of Rome is Greece . Xena has spoken often of her hatred for me and for Rome . Me leading troops against her and conquering Greece is not open for amendment or discussion.”

“Caesar, hear me,” Brutus pleaded. “This new campaign you feel necessary to embark upon worries the senators. I pray you consider the costs involved, thousands of farmer's sons taken to arms, the need for equipment, weaponry, it—”

“Is necessary,” Caesar interjected. “We must attack her as soon as permissible. Mark my words, Brutus, by land and by sea, I will destroy this Greek barbarian. If I fail, Rome shall be set to flame by her hand.”

“Some in the Senate doubt the wisdom of launching an attack.” Brutus let out a sigh of exasperation. “Is it not better that she is forced to seek us, wasting her means, wearing her soldiers, while we, lying still, are full of rest and fight upon known soil?

“No!” Julius stated emphatically. “Her power increases every day. If we do not attack, we may lose our ventures.”

“But what of the cost, Caesar!” Brutus argued back. “You've taken the sons of Rome by the thousands into your army, many of them farmers. Who shall harvest the grain in the fields? Winter is approaching; the poor of Rome will have no bread to eat. They will starve!”

“Then let them starve and decrease the surplus population in the city.”

“Caesar, you can't hold such callous belief!” Brutus huffed out in revulsion.

“With all my heart. Sacrifices must be made by all if we are to take Greece .”The senator was speechless, shock having overtaken him.

“The only delay in attacking Greece I will tolerate is the time I shall need to train an army of 85,000.”

“85,000!” Brutus hunched back into the chair. Nearby, Salmoneus barely kept from uttering a surprised gasp at the number. “In addition to the many thousands more already under your command?” With an army of such size , pondered Brutus, Caesar could well do as he wished, as no other force could match him in numbers .

“Yes, Brutus, 85,000 more. I shall train and equip them over the course of the winter months, when traversing the mountain passes of Greece would be suicidal. Better we wait for the snow and ice to melt before marching into Greek territory. Furthermore, I expect to be given every resource Rome can muster. I will unleash a total war against that barbarian bitch. I will kill every man, destroy every village, and we will annihilate them.”

Julius paused for a long moment, allowing his words to sink in.

“There is only one vote I want to see from the Senate, and that is their approval of monies to equip and supply my army.”

“Great Caesar, you cannot expect the Senate to heel to your demands like some trained dog.”

“Tell me, Brutus,”Caesar stood, stepping over to Salmoneus, who diligently began to unlatch the catches on his armor.

“When Xena sets Rome alight, what do you think will be the last words of the populace? Will it be words of damnation for me? I think not.” Caesar continued answering his own rhetorical question. “They will know that Caesar did all he could to protect them.

“Their dying words will speak to the betrayal of the senators, who failed to give me the means to protect them.”

At a loss to argue further, Brutus sat silent.

“Rest, my friend, then ride back to Rome and the Senate, and use your powers of persuasion to ensure I get what I want.

“And remember this. My first thoughts, Brutus, are always for the greater good of our loved Republic.”

Chapter 9

No rest for the wicked.

Xena smiled as she reclined in her camp chair. That was one of Lyceus' little sayings he spouted as they completed endless chores around mother's inn.

And she was definitely wicked, so the saying was correct; she had gotten precious little rest in the last cycle.

“Marcus.” she muttered sadly. Once again, she had been reminded of the dangers of lowering her defenses to fall in love. Love was a distraction, and she couldn't afford distractions keeping her from conquering Greece and defeating Rome .

Borias, now Marcus.

“It will not happen again,” she vowed. The pain of lost love was too great.

The cool breeze that had begun with the rising sun heralded the oncoming winter. Dressed for the chill, she sat in her camp chair wearing fur-lined gauntlets and bracers; loose woolen pants of blue were tucked into tall leather boots. Chain mail draped down over her waist, over which she wore her black leathers, inlaid with patterns of silver. Her blue eyes shimmered in the light of the just-breaking dawn which cascaded in thought the open tent flaps. Sparkling in the light as well was the ever-present chakram at her hip.

Her beautiful lips quirked up a bit as her ears picked up the sound of the catapults' first volley.

“Right on time,” she mused aloud. The fears of pestilence by the town folk would put even more pressure on Talmadeus.

Tapping her feet rather impatiently, Xena waited. A runner from the outer watch had reported a draft wagon had been stopped at the perimeter of her lines. From the description provided and the request to meet with her, it would appear Autolycus had returned with… guests.

Polemarchos , you have—”

“Send them in.”

A genuine smile appeared as Autolycus walked into the tent, pausing a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dim light cast by the burning tapers.

“You bring gifts for me, spy?” Xena teased upon seeing her guard recruited into carrying a limp form upon a shoulder. One of her fingers pointed to her own cot. Without a word, the boy was laid down.

Standing, she walked to the edge, her guard bowing subserviently as he retreated back to his position at the tent flap. Hands placed on hips, she studied the kid for a long moment. Long, flowing brown hair reached to his shoulders; slender; fair skin; his rounded face indicating his youth.

“Valerian root?”

“Yes, Xena. Perhaps a bit too much, given his size.” Autolycus conceded. “I had to mix it in his tea rather quickly; the boy might be out for some time.”

“At least he will be well rested.”

“So, this is his half-brother, then? Not much to him,” she continued, not waiting for an answer. “I can see why old Talmadeus' first thought was to sell him into slavery. I'd do the same,” Xena conceded. “A tiny little pip squeak like this has no promise as a solider. Probably couldn't even manage to stand if I placed even the lightest of armor on him. Another useless mouth needing to be fed, taking supplies from my army .Why not make a little money on the kid?”

“Y-you wouldn't do that, would you Xena?” Autolycus asked with a slight waver in his voice.

Just a bit younger than Solan would have been, were he alive. The sudden realization saddened her.

Damn those Amazons!

“What do you care?” Xena asked, glaring at Auto, “You getting soft on me? You will be rewarded for your work, spy, that is our arrangement.” She stalked toward him, watching as he cowered back. “What I choose to do with the kid is my affair, not open to debate by the likes of you!”

“As you will, Xena.” Autolycus dipped his head, fearful he had woken her temper. “I-I… do have something else to show you,” he stated while looking at his boots. Courage was fleeting when facing the Destroyer of Nations.

“Well, get to it, man!” she exhorted with a growl.

With quick step, Autolycus walked to the tent entrance. Leaning out, he motioned with one hand.

In the next moment, the guard brought in a shabby old man, dressed in dirty rags. He watched as a decidedly unfriendly smile formed upon her lips.

“Pompeius Magnus.” She stated, triumph clearly evident in that lovely voice. “You have done well, spy.” Her blue eyes flicked over to Auto. “Go, leave us. Get some rest and know your reward will reflect the extent of your services.”

With a small degree of courage returning, Auto raked his mustache and offered a hesitant smile before leaving the tent.

“Well, I must say I had wondered what exactly had happened to you, Pompeius.” He watched mutely as the barbarian woman stalked toward him, willing his feet to stay in place as his eyes met her baleful glare.

Shorter than she: Of course most were, reflected Xena. Her height was intimidating and she had learned to use it to good effect. Pompey looked frail, weary of the world and the fates which had taken so much from him.

She might be able to use him. In her younger days, Xena reflected, she would have just crucified the man, but experience told her she might be able to convince him to aid her cause, though it might be a difficult sell.

“Of course I'm not as interested in what has happened to you as the great Julius Caesar.” The condescension in her last three words was unmistakable.

“You intend to ransom me back to him?” he asked, with a note of resignation in his raspy voice. “Or am I to be used in some trade with Caesar? I know Talmadeus wished to trade me to you in hopes you might allow his army safe passage out of Olynthus .”

“I forget my manners.” She turned from him, confident he would not try to attack or escape from the hopeless look she found in those aged eyes.

She pointed to a side table topped with various decanters. “Help yourself to whatever you would like.” The Roman was taken aback by her demeanor, probably expecting the Destroyer of Nations to breathe fire, Xena mused. The stories the bards spoke about her grew ever more fanciful.

She watched as Pompeius gave her a courteous bow before turning to limp his way over to the table. Azure eyes watched intently as the man drank heavily of water before pouring himself a bit of wine.

“Tell me, Pompeius, where in Greece have you been hiding?”

The old man's shoulders slumped, “I was hiding in an abandoned barn before the soldiers of Talmadeus flushed me out.

“Where?

“Little village called Potadiea.”

Such a coincidence.

Though she would never tell him so, Xena could sympathize with his plight. She too had been stripped of everything with her loss at Corinth . Never would she forget being hunted as a murdering warlord. Little in the way of provisions, freezing in the bone chilling cold of winter, Xena had endured so many leagues of travel that her boot soles had almost completely worn away. As she walked, bloody footprints were left behind in the snow.

 

“Do sit, Pompeius, be comfortable.” Xena ordered as the man approached, clearly spooked by her, altogether far too timid considering he was once one of the elites of Rome .

[Past]

Unable to go any further, Xena had holed up in a rather decrepit looking barn for the night. It wasn't much, but at least it was shelter from the winds which blew the recent snow, whipping it around her as she had walked through the night. She recalled being surprised at finding the barn had a few animals within, expecting it to be empty. The lone, aged cow, scattering of goats, and gaggle of sheep watched the stranger in their midst with quiet apprehension until she had sat down in the fresh hay against the back wall. Satisfied she was no threat, the animals settled back into their nocturnal regime. Once master of half of Greece, now here I sit amidst piles of animal dung , she mused disgustedly. Xena was at the end of her options, or so it seemed, bloodied from a fight with some bounty hunters, starving, freezing from the cold; she was ready for the release of death.

[Present]

“You and I have something in common, Pompeius,” Xena leaned forward, eyes locking with his. “We both share a deep hatred of Caesar.”

[Past]

Dazed , Xena didn't remember reaching for the dagger, it just seemingly had appeared within her hand. Bringing it to eye level, she had gazed at the shiny metallic blade, turning it in her hand, watching as the moonlight shone upon it before slowly lowering it to rest upon her left wrist.

[Present]

“Yes.” Pompey replied The man was cautious, wary of the Destroyers motives.

[Past]

With a loud shudder, the door of the barn opened slightly, moonlight spilling into the space.

Instincts, forged over years of being a warlord, caused Xena to tense, instantly on her feet, readying herself for the oncoming fight. She would not be taken as a prize by some bounty hunter. The choice of fates would be hers alone to decide. In her own hand she bore the power to end this life.

[Present]

Xena, as always, was direct. “I offer you the chance to work with me, Pompeius, to rid the world of Caesar.”

[Past]

A charming sounding little grunt came from outside the door as the person on the other side attempted to open the door a bit wider. A little halfhearted smile warmed the warlord's countenance slightly in this most serious of all moments, as she suddenly recalled always having to fix the doors of the barn behind her mother's inn. The leather hinges tended to give over the seasons, causing the wood planks to scrape the earthen floor.

Another grunt, another wiggle of the door.

Prowling forward as would a panther, Xena moved though the barn. The animals didn't react; clearly they were familiar with whomever was outside trying vainly to get in. Reaching the door, one hand moved up, fingers curling around the door handle in the other; her dagger was at the ready. All she need do now was to wait for the right moment.

[Present]

“I—” Pompeius began haughtily, “I am a Roman. I could never ally with a barbarian Greek against Rome .”

[Past]

Another shove against the outside of the door caused the warlord to simultaneously pull.

“Oh!”

Xena relaxed her stance ever so slightly, seeing the little farm girl fall forward through the entrance and onto the earth floor. Children were sometimes used as assassins but this tiny and very clumsy girl was certainly no assassin.

In a smooth motion, the warlord closed the barn door behind her, keeping an eye on the girl as she rolled over.

“Oh!” the little thing exclaimed again, wide-eyed upon seeing the menacing, shadowy figure looming over her.

“Who... are... you?” Xena rasped, stepping forward as the frightened girl attempted to scoot away.

“Please...I...”

The words were cut off as a hand gripped the front of a threadbare blouse.

“I asked you a question, girl.”

 

“G-Gabri-elle.”

[Present]

“You come before me dressed in rags, and dare call me a barbarian?” Xena asked the Roman, abrupt anger apparent in her voice.

[Past]

“Gabrielle,” the warlord repeated slowly, pulling the wide eyed girl to her feet. “What causes you to visit this barn in the middle of the night?”

[Present]

“Puh…please… I meant no disrespect.” Pompey hastily added, hearing and seeing the flash of anger from his captor.

“Don't you?” Xena asked, before leaning back in her chair again. “In the eyes of Rome , a barbarian I may be, yet I do not intrude on the territory of Rome , stealing from cities and villages to supply my army. I do not deploy my army on soil belonging to Rome to fight civil wars. In fact, I have never attacked Rome . Now tell me, Pompey, who is the real barbarian?”

[Past]

“Papa, caught me staring out the window at the stars. I couldn't help it, they're so pretty to look at.” the girl conceded. “He told me if I was up wasting time looking at stars, I might as well check the animals in the barn.

“You're hurt!”

The words, or rather the compassionate tone of the words, struck a chord in Xena. This little wisp of a girl's first concern was not for herself, but for the welfare of a defeated warlord. Anyone else would have been scared for their own safety.

[Past]

“It's only a matter of time before you do attack, Xena. Your hatred of Rome is well known,” countered Pompey.

“I won't have to attack, Pompeius. Caesar will attack Greece .”

[Present]

“Papa keeps a small healer's kit here in the barn, because um… I'm a little clumsy sometimes,” little Gabrielle admitted, ashamed. Turning, the girl disappeared within the darkness in search of the kit. Xena found herself surprised by the fact that she would just allow the girl to walk away, unafraid that she might try to run. Moments later, the warlord found herself being willingly lead by the hand to where she could be seated and tended to. Impetuous little thing, this girl. Xena was well aware that most people were afraid to even talk to her, let alone actually touch her. There was something about this small girl that caused her innate defenses to lower.

[Present]

“I'm sure he will,” stated Pompey with resignation. “Then after proclaiming victory over Greece , Caesar will make himself emperor and end the Republic.”

[Past]

“You stitch well,” Xena praised, as the girl passed the thin bone needle through the skin of her upper left thigh. The girl, Gabrielle, had insisted upon cleaning her wounds and stitching the largest of them. The warlord allowed it if for no other reason than that it felt so incredibly good to have someone actually care for her. This girl was efficient; her bloodied feet had already been cleaned with antiseptic and bound in linen.

“Mama taught me,” Gabrielle explained. “We have no healer to call upon, so we must fend for ourselves.”

[Present]

“And you will just sit idly by and let it all happen?” Asked Xena.

“What else can I do?” replied Pompey in an exasperated tone. “I've been bested by Caesar and his loyal stooge, Marcus Antonius. 40,000 men—my whole army—destroyed; my means by which to fight him is now gone.”

[Past]

“I think papa has a worn pair of— Ah! found em'!” Gabrielle exclaimed. The boots she found were still a tad smallish and one had a tear above the ankle, but after traveling for leagues with near-bare feet, Xena was overjoyed to have something to wear.

“You are positive he won't miss these?” the warlord asked, smoothing a bit of dark hair from her eyes.

  You really need to find a way to separate it when you're writing about the present and past at the same time. Most people use italics. Some use [Present] and [Past] markers.

“No, Papa got new this solstice past. He put these here and forgot them. I wish I had something more to protect you from the cold.” Green eyes shone in honesty as they appraised the tattered cloak Xena wore. “Would you like my cloak? It may be a little small. Um, I don't have much that would fit you, sorry but you're kinda tall.” The girls eyes appraised the small cloak she wore, then slowly took in the imposing dark haired woman's towering form. Silently, Xena shook her head in the negative, too overwhelmed with the genuine kindness of this girl to speak.

[Present]

“What if I were to help you topple Caesar?” prodded Xena.

“Use me for your own aims, more like.” spat Pompey.

“Yes,” replied the Destroyer bluntly. “I could give you silver to recruit soldiers.”

 

 

[Past]

“Have you eaten?” asked the girl, while rummaging through a tattered woolen knapsack. “I figured I would stay out here for a bit and look at the stars so I brought along a little bread and cheese.

“I... I can't take your food,” replied the dark warrior. “You've been too charitable already to one who does not deserve kindness.”

“Nonsense,” Gabrielle stated with cute conviction while holding out the food. Xena couldn't quite recall when she had last eaten. Hunger broke down her defenses and she took the items, wolfing them down greedily.

[Present]

“Mercenaries, you mean.”

“Beggars can't be choosers, Pompeius.” Xena smiled wryly at the man, clothed only in a ragged toga. “Caesar destroyed your army, killed your sons! I hear...” The Destroyer let the words taper away, leaving the rest unsaid.

“You heard what?” Pompey took the bait.

[Past]

“Have you had many adventures?” asked the girl. “I'll just bet you have.”

“Too many adventures,” replied the warlord in the tone of one who has seen much.

 

[Present]

“That Julius took liberties with your young wife upon his return to Rome , ravaging her without mercy.”

The old man buried his face in his hands, a few quiet sobs shook his frame.

“Portia... my beloved.” he whispered mournfully. “Caesar forced himself upon you!”

 

[Past]

“Forgive me but I don't know your name.”

“Xena.”

“Xena,” a beautiful smile lit up the girl's face, “such a pretty name.”

[Present]

“There is more. You will not like hearing it, but I feel you must.” Xena spoke the words gently, as someone might do when offering comfort to a friend in need.

“Word has come to me that she fell into despair, believing you dead, and...”

“And?” Pompey looked up, a renewed fire now showing in his eyes.”

“Believing herself to be pregnant with the child of Caesar…”

“Was she? Tell me what your spies say, Destroyer!”

[Past]

“Gabrielle!”

The feminine voice caused both to look up.

“Lilla.” Gabrielle said while standing. “Wait here and I'll...” turning, the girl was incredulous at finding her new-found friend gone.

“Gabrielle?” The last bit of her name was mixed in with a grunt as the older girl leaned against the door, attempting to open it, finally budging it slightly with the help of her sister inside.

“Who were you talking with?”

“Myself. You know me, Lilla, always making up little stories about adventures.”

“Oh yes, heard plenty of them while tending to the flocks with you. Still no sign of any handsome prince come to sweep you off your feet yet!” Lilla teased. “C'mon then, I'll sneak you back in the house. Papa's gone to sleep and his ill temper with him. It's too cold out for you to stay in the barn tonight.”

“Okay...” Gabrielle stated with sadness, wanting so much to talk more with the exotic woman named Xena. Such was her fate to never have any adventures, to be stuck on a farm forever.

“What's wrong? Lilla asked.

“Nothing.” Gabrielle moved to guide Lilla to the door.”

[Present]

“She was.” Xena answered forthrightly. “For several moons, Julius had his henchmen keep her locked up until a... son... could be born, Caesarion by name.”

“Oh, Portia...” Pompey sobbed aloud.

 

[Past]

From the comfort of the darkness, Xena watched the two girls walk along the path back to the simple hut, which must be home.

“Goodbye, Gabrielle. May you find a prince deserving of you.”

With that, Xena turned, walking due east toward her own destiny.

[Present]

“There is more. It will be difficult to hear, but you must,” the warlord continued. “In her depression, it is said Portia killed herself by... swallowing fire.”

“Portia, dead...I have lost everything!” Pompey howled.

“No you haven't!” answered Xena, leaning forward again to emphasize her point. “You still have vengeance!” she growled with conviction “Cling to that! Let that be your consolation! You must revenge yourself upon Caesar!”

“Yes...” the man's hands slowly balled into fists.”

“Nemesis, winged balancer of life, dark-faced goddess, daughter of justice hear my plea! Help me in my quest to destroy Caesar, defiler of my gentle wife.”

“How I love to watch you work.”

Ares' voice resonated in her ears, the god appearing behind her chair, unseen by Pompey.

“And that is why I remain your chosen.” replied Xena discretely.

 

Chapter 10

“Very Good!”

The praise of the Destroyer was an odd-sounding thing coming from such a fearsome warrior. Sevastian kept his feet moving as Xena did the same, the two circling each other within the ring of watchers, and, by the looks upon their faces for Xena, adoring men.

He had managed to stay on his feet thus far, having the distinct feeling that the warlord was simply testing his various defenses, playing with him as a cat does before a kill. Each time she struck, he was forced into ever more complex maneuvers to keep from losing the impromptu sparring match. After being lifted effortlessly off the ground by her earlier, Sevastian had chosen to use finesse over muscle, trying to work his way inside her defenses, knowing that in a match based upon pure strength, Xena would quickly be the victor.

Once more the wooden practice swords crashed together, the power and weight of her stoke nearly forcing him to his knees. With both hands upon the raised hilt of his sword, Sevastian found he could not hold out much longer. Her sheer strength was incredible! Here he was, using everything he had to hold her back, while she looked quite relaxed, a feral smile showcasing confidence. So confident, in fact that she hadn't bothered to remove her dark fur-lined woolen cloak, the fabric billowing outward as she moved.

Tipping the end of his sword down, he moved sideways as her wooden sword slid from his. In a flash he had to block; two cuts, one aimed at the back of his right leg, the other a downward blow toward his shoulder. Her reach was incredible, the sword a true extension of her arm. The onslaught was never ending, Xena gave no rest, no time to regroup, no chance to attack. He was on the defensive from the instant the match had begun.

Moments later a roundhouse kick sent him flying, landing upon his back, Sevastian was quickly disarmed, the tip of the wooden sparring sword at his throat. Strangely, in that moment, gazing up, Sevastian had the oddest sense of having done this sparring with the Destroyer some time before. He was confused by the sensation as he knew full well they had never sparred until this very moment.

Her hand grabbed his armor and jerked him up suddenly onto his feet.

 

“Very good, indeed.” She stated with honesty. “The eastern masters have taught you well.”

“Too kind.” Sevastian dipped his head.

“Fitting,” Xena's voice rose cutting across the assembled men, “That my new second be a worthy adversary.”

For a long moment the men stared at each other in shock, murmurs rolling though the gathering.

Until...

“All hail Sevastian, the new second!” Meleager's voice rose up. For the first time in his life, Sevastian would hear cheers from men under his command.

He was dumbfounded by the experience, eyes darting to Xena who seemed, by her expression, to be enjoying his plight.

“To drills with you lot!” the Polemarchos bid in a tone which caused the group to disperse quickly.

“I suppose you've come back to tell me Dagnine has been captured.”

“Yes, Xena.”

“Well done.”

Meleager dipped his head, acknowledging the praise. “Do you wish him brought to you?”

“No.” Replied the Polemarchos while stripping off her gauntlets, beckoning a slave to come nearer with a bowl of water.

“No?”

“Chain him for now. I will summon him later.” Turning, she dipped her hands in the water, splashing her face before taking a piece of linen.

“Hold him, I have need of him, but Darphus I will use to make my point clear.” The Polemarchos waved the slave holding the bowl off.

“As you will, Xena.” With that Meleager turned, disappearing thought the masses of soldiers.

“Commander”

Turning from watching the catapults fire again, Sevastian took a rigid posture of attention.

So focused on propriety. this one , thought Xena. An added plus was that the man saw the need to bathe regularly, a trait Darphus had severely lacked.

“I want you to round up the lower officers from both Darphus' and Dagnine's commands.” Xena's voice was low, the velvety timbre discreet so the men nearest would not hear.

“Every one of the officers?” Sevastian questioned soft, with wide eyes.

“Yes,” Xena drawled. “Meet with them; tell them they will have the honor of appearing before the Polemarchos tonight.” A smile graced her features. “Tell them I will be selecting new commanders from their ranks. That should get their attention.

“As you wish.” Sevastian dipped his head in subservience.

“Walk with me.”

The two moved up the short rise, men making sure to be busy on the details of the camp as her presence moved past. Sevastian sensed the ever-present fear which accompanied her presence but there was more to it than simple fear. There was also admiration in those eyes for the Polemarchos . Where plotting and scheming seemed to infect the high command, the hoplites truly were bound to this darkly charismatic woman.

Of interest was the fact that Xena spoke only when necessary; idle chatter was something she clearly did not engage in. Ever aware of his station, Sevastian walked two steps behind and to her right, remaining silent, as those of a lower station should only speak when spoken to.

Abruptly she stopped, causing the second to do so as well.

Head turning, she seemed to be searching for something. Curious, Sevastian followed her gaze. A group of four soldiers was fast approaching, and bound between them was… Xanthos.

“It appears we have another unannounced guest,” Xena stated.

“Know him?” she asked without turning.

“A commander in the army of Talmadeus, Polemarchos . Xanthos by name.”

“I see, so it was he who left you to fend for yourself at the gates of Olynthus .” Her head turned and she eyed him knowingly over her right shoulder.

“Yes, Xena.” Sevastian was amazed at her ability to divine intent.

“Forgive my discourtesy, but might I ask how you know he was once my commander?”

“A man who abandons his command once in the face of danger will do so again. The proof of that is now walking toward us.

“Let us meet this fool.”

As the group approached, Xena waited, her hands moving to rest upon her hips, elbows flaring out the sides of her cloak.

Given Xanthos' penchant for arrogance, Sevastian could only think this meeting would go badly.

One of the hoplites came forward, evidently the bravest one. Perhaps they had pulled sticks to see who would come forward and he had gotten the short one. Kneeling before his supreme commander, the man drew in a hasty breath.

Polemarchos , we have caught an enemy officer.”

“Station,” commanded Xena, causing the man to rise and return to his post beside the other men guarding the prisoner.

Gliding forward, Xena stood before the man, appraising him with a silent intensity.

Xanthos caught sight of Sevastian behind the woman, this so called Destroyer. Perhaps expecting an ally, his lips twitched up a bit.

“You abandon your post.”

Xanthos bristled, straightening to his full height, still inches below the intimidating Destroyer.

“So did he.” Xanthos chin rose, eyes flicking to Sevastian for a moment.

“Let us be clear,” Xena stepped just a bit closer, directly into the space of the man.

“He did not desert, his command.”

Xanthos' breathing had grown more anxious, feeling the full force of her dark charisma.

“His command left him. You…left him,” she hissed.

As if sensing his end, indignant rage appeared in the Athenian. “You will be crushed, Destroyer!”

The movement was so quick; it seemed faster than a bolt of lightning thrown by Zeus! Xanthos' throat was laid open to his spine, blood splattering the face and uniform of the hoplite immediately to the left. The man displayed amazing discipline, not even flinching though covered in blood.

A small click resounded in the silence as the metal ring was placed back in position at her hip.

The body sagged in death, only held upright by a hoplite on either side.

“Take this piece of filth to the nearest hole, toss his corpse in.”

With a respectful nod, the men moved, the sounds of the camp picking up again.

“Come.”

Xena began walking again, expecting him to follow. Which Sevastian did, albeit in a daze induced by the shocking ease of her kill.

**

“He's coming around.”

Sevastian stood, peering around Autolycus in time to see Kodi squirm a bit while letting out a groan.

“Autolycus, I thank you for getting Kodi to me in one piece.”

“Well, that's what us spies do, ya know,” Auto raked his mustache with flair. “Go on a mission filled with danger and…”

“Do as you are told.”

The quiet tone of the Polemarchos , cut Autolycus off. She sat behind the two, ensconced in her camp chair and swaddled in her cloak, eyes closed. Sebastian debated with himself, witnessing her calm expression. Was that a tinge of a smile playing upon her lips? The Destroyer? Humor?

A hand grabbing his pulled his attention away.

“Brother, is that you?” Kodi blinked. Sevastian could tell the boy was trying to clear his mind of the cobwebs created by the heavy dose of valerian root.

“It's me, Kodi.” Sevastian leaned over as the boy's eyes found Autolycus.”

“Auto?” Kodi tried to sit up a bit, swooning as a wave of dizzyness hit him.

“Take it easy, kid.” Auto counseled, before stepping back to allow Sevastian to kneel down before the cot.

“Brother, I saw you.” Kodi's voice shook with emotion. “Saw you lead the fight against the Destroyer from the walls of the city. We all cheered for you from atop the parapet. You were a sight to see, fighting against the troops of that evil witch.”

Sevastian cleared his throat a tad nervously while Auto glanced over at Xena, whose countenance betrayed no inner emotions: A picture of silent tranquility, seated within her large chair, eyes still closed.

“You disappeared over the ridge and we had thought the worst, brother. But I never gave up hope that you would escape from her and return to us. Our...our situation may be grave, but all will fight to the death to keep her power from spreading any further over Greece .”

“Well...” Sevastian muttered, not knowing how to break the nature of the situation to the kid.

“Please brother, fight with us, not because of Talmadeus' bargain with you, but because it's the right thing to do. She must be stopped!” Kodi stated with a deep, but in Sevastian's view, misplaced conviction.

“Feel well enough to stand?” Sevastian reached out both hands, grasping Kodi's and slowly pulling the boy to his feet. The kid was a bit woozy but was soon solidly standing on his own. “Perhaps the gods will bless you or me,” Kodi added, “by allowing us the honor of killing her for the betterment of Greece .”

“Kodi...” Sevastian's voice took on a warning tone, eyes flicking to Auto, and then toward Xena who was slowly rising out of her chair.

“Never ask the gods for favors,” a now familiar velvety low tone, “they always want something in return.” Kodi's eyes widened in fright as the Destroyer herself suddenly loomed up before him.

“What do you say now, boy?” the warlord asked.

Kodi's breathing hitched for a moment before he recovered. “You are the Bitch of Greece!” he spat.

Rage painted Xena's features and her hand began to move slowly down to the chakram at her hip.

Oh gods ! Sevastian thought fast, dropping to a knee before her. “My lord, please show mercy; he knows not of what he speaks.”

“He shall learn respect,” she snarled, never taking those piercing blue eyes away from Kodi.

“Brother, do not kneel before this vile creature!”

“Shut it, kid.” Auto warned.

“He will learn respect, my lord.” Sevastian placated.

“She is an evil bitch! The spawn of Hades!”

Xena's arm moved so quickly, Kodi had no time to brace for the backhand which whipped across his face. The force was such that he toppled backward over the cot and onto the floor behind.

“I have heard enough!” she roared, hands balled into fists at her sides.

Auto moved around the upturned cot and grabbed the boy, eyes noting the blood flowing from his lip and nose as well as the flashing anger within his eyes.

“Your brother knows his place, boy!” she growled, “you will learn yours.” Xena's eyes cast down to Sevastian for a moment, before flicking back up to meet Kodi's.

“From this day forth,” Xena stepped around Sevastian, one booted foot kicking the cot out of the way as she loomed over both a kneeling Auto and a sprawled-out Kodi. “you will be in my presence every day of your life,” she ordered. “You will serve me personally, attending to my guests, and taking care of my possessions. As such, you will learn to restrain that mouth of yours.”

“I'll never serve you.” Defiant words, but Kodi's tone faltered.

“You most certainly will, little imp,” she said with an unfriendly smile, “unless daily beatings are something you enjoy. I will be pleased to whip manners into you.

“Auto, take the brat to the servants tent. Tell Minya he will be joining my personal household and have her give him suitable clothing and then explain his duties in minute detail.”

“Yes, Xena. Come on, kid.” Auto helped the suddenly mute Kodi to his feet, the two shuffling toward the tent flap.

“And boy...” the two turned at Xena's voice, facing her.

“Don't be stupid and try to run. If you do, I will kill every member of your family, beginning with Sevastian.” With a flick of a wrist, she motioned for them to leave.

“Rise.”

As Sevastian did so, she turned her back to him, taking her cloak off and tossing it over a nearby press. Unlatching her sword from her belt, she placed it precisely in a holder in the same press. Finally, the fearsome chakram was placed over the hilt of her sword. Without speaking, he watched as she turned the cot right side up, moving to arrange her furs upon it. Once done, she sat upon the camp bed, working her laces open on one boot.

“You think me unfair?” she asked without looking up.

“It is not my place to question, my lord.”

“Quit calling me that,” she barked, “I've told you time and again, Xena is sufficient. You must unlearn that bit of eastern courtesy around me; Greeks are not fond of titles. Yet,” she conceded, “some insist on calling me things like Ares' Chosen , Destroyer of Nations, Slayer of Kirra, The Warrior Princess of Kalmae, Enemy of Artemis, Conqueror, Witch of Amphipolis, and my most hated of titles, The Bitch of Greece.” Yet my given name remains simply Xena, and that is what I prefer.”

“Apologies.”

“I demand loyalty, Sevastian, and I will have it from you, even if it means holding the boy hostage to get it.”

“You have my loyalty.”

“The boy will be treated well, faring better than he would at home,” Xena continued, ignoring his pledge of fidelity. “He will be fed, clothed, even tutored, on my largess. However, he must yield to my intent.”

“I will make sure he does, Xena. I thank you for the kindness you choose to show him.”

“Yes, well, he reminds me a little of someone I once knew...” her voice trailed off, and she sat silently for a moment before turning her attentions to the other boot.

“Is all in readiness for tonight?”

“Precisely as ordered Xena ”

“I am weary; leave me. I will see you again at sunset, and we shall speak of your duties in detail.

“As you will.” Sevastian bowed, departing.

 

Chapter 11

“Pompeius Magnus,” the guard at the tent flap announced, allowing the man to pass into the tent, his presence silencing conversation.

“Ah, Pompey,” Xena stated from her position at the head of the long table. “Please do sit.” Her hand rose, one finger pointing to the space nearest on her left. “You are an honored guest.”

“What are they all doing here?” asked the Roman, indicating the men seated at the table.

“Having dinner,” replied Xena drolly.

In the shocked silence, he moved to sit. As he did so, a servant, Kodi, now wearing Xena's livery, moved to quickly pour him wine.

“My friends,” Xena began, her eyes gliding over the men surrounding her, locking with each pair of eyes for a long moment before moving to the next. “I'm pleased to announce that Pompeius has joined our cause to defeat Caesar.” She smiled as the men cast each other looks of surprise. “We welcome his alliance with us,” she drawled out in a tone which brooked no argument.

Acting quickly to prevent another silence, Sevastian moved his left hand, using the palm to slap the surface of the table. “To our alliance!” he spoke in a loud voice. The other officers quickly followed suit, the flatware upon the table clattering as they did so.

Her raised hand stopped them.

“May I present my commanders.”

“My second, Sevastian. Do not let his eastern dress fool you, Pompeius, My chief aide, Sevastian, is thoroughly Greek and has full authority to lead these men in my name.”

From his position on her right, Sevastian dipped his head to the Roman.

“Meleager,” she pointed, “in command of my supply trains and charged with all engineering, carpenters, cooks, to include siege equipment,” she added as outside, the sound of a catapult firing drifted in.

“My two loyal Athenians: Mercer , my commander of scouts and flankers; Menticles, in charge of my 1 st army Group.

“Now these two you have to watch, Pompeius,” Xena leaned nearer the man, “for they are very crafty warlords, whom I defeated. Sadus, in command of my 2 nd Army Group. And Virgilius, commanding my 3 rd Army Group.”

Meleager, the only one to survive the purge of Xena's top command, thought Sevastian. In one day, Xena had reorganized her army breaking parts of Darphus' and Dagnine's former commands into entirely new units. Little did old Pompeius know, but both he and Sevastian were meeting new commanders for the first time.

“Well met.” stated Pompeius graciously.

With a soft clap of her hands, Xena's servants moved around the table, delivering a first course of soup, Vicia Faba , with bread for dipping.

“You look much better, Pompeius,” Xena commented as the men around the table talked. “I'm so glad I had some Roman armor available.”

“Naval commanders' armor,” Pompeius muttered looking down at the intricate golden bronze metalwork, enlayed over a coating of blue. “Quite ornate, must have been high ranking.”

“ Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus was his name, if I'm not mistaken; he supported you in the civil wars against Caesar.”

“Yes...” Pompeius stated softly.

“Defeated at the battle of Massilia, his ship then ran aground in a storm following the battle,” Xena explained casually. “He landed right where my army was camped. Poor luck, really. I executed him.”

Pompey's eyes rose, meeting hers. “He was a coward, Pompeius,” Xena stated flatly, “leaving a fight to save his own neck. He deserved death.

“There are two types of people I despise, Pompey,” she stated while tearing off a bit of bread and dipping it in olive oil, “traitors and cowards.”

“Then why deal with me, am I not a coward?” asked Pompey, “Was I not on the run when captured?”

“True, you were on the run, but you had fought with your men, with much bravery from all reports. You only surrendered when further fighting would be a waste. Your men were so loyal that they helped you escape before Caesar could get his hands on you. You may be a Roman dog,” her voice rose at the words causing her command to chuckle, “but you are no coward.

“Eat and drink, Pompey, lest my men here think you dislike our Greek cuisine.” A most charming smile let him know she was teasing.

As the courses were served, Pompey found himself utterly enchanted by the charismatic barbarian warlord. While dining upon each wonderfully prepared course, he found this Xena to be well versed in the words of the philosophers, the great plays of Athens , and as to be expected, the intricacies of war. She was a most lovely woman, but still only a woman. However, Pompey noted that she possessed a sharp mind, an eye for detail, and a ruthlessness which rivaled the best and brightest of Rome .

“I have come to believe, from our conversations this evening,” Pompey sat his wine phial down, “that Caesar has met his match in you.” The elderly Roman general was mesmerized by the deep azure eyes regarding him.

“Our mutual friend, Caesar.” She stated wryly as servants cleared the table.

“Did he ever speak of me, Pompeius?” Xena asked, voice carrying over the now silent table. Leaning over, her fingers trailed down his right arm, hand settling upon his wrist. Her mere touch caused goose bumps to rise on his skin, warning tingles working down his spine. “You know, to amuse his dinner guests perhaps?” her smile remained, but that voice now held menace. “How he left me on a beach, nailed to a cross?” she prodded. “How he killed the entire crew of my ship in the same fashion?”

Pompey prudently chose to remain silent, deciding this conversation was not safe.

“No?”

Xena's beautiful smile morphed into a feral grin, her hand abruptly squeezing his wrist with slightly more pressure than was comfortable, causing him to squirm a bit before she let go.

“Over the last few cycles, I've had time to reflect upon my crucifixion. Strangely enough, in some ways Caesar helped make me who I am today. The fire of my vengeance was lit by him that day,” She leaned forward, pinning him in place with terribly cold eyes “and make no mistake: I will have my vengeance.

“Why, Pompeius, you appear to be perspiring. Are you a bit warm?” she asked. “What a rude host I am. In the poor light cast by these tapers, I hadn't noticed until now. Perhaps a bit of fresh evening air would do us all much good after such a wonderful meal.” With a clap of her hands, hoplites stationed around them moved to roll up and secure the fabric sides of the tent, letting in the chill of the evening breeze and exposing dangling figures wrapped in linen.

Wide-eyed, Pompey's head swiveled as he took in the sight of the figures placed in a ring around the large tent. Each was hung by a metal clasp around the neck, attached by a chain to a large, metal arm. The arms looked like those used to hang cooking pots near the fire and were attached to a wooden post, driven in the ground.

The distinct scent of pitch, tallow, and tar wafted around the table, carried by each cool gust. Every one of the figures was liberally coated in the mix, which had soaked through and saturated the linen which bound them up like some mummies in the land of the Pharaoh.

It was clear that some of these people were still alive as they struggled weakly; others had succumbed to the slow asphyxiation caused by the metal ring clasped about their necks.

“Caesar also gave me a deep hatred for duplicity. You see, these men were appointed by two of my top commanders, who betrayed me by selling information to Rome . Betrayal is like an infection of the body; it must be rooted out, all traces wiped from an army completely. Wouldn't you agree, Pompeius?”

Xena watched as the man nodded absently, clearly in shock at what he was witnessing.

Her hand rose, the sound of her fingers snapping sounding as loud as thunder in the silence.

Hoplites moved, brandishing torches. They walked from figure to figure, igniting them. Chilling, muffled screams filled with agony rose from the fire-engulfed figures. Those still alive struggled weakly against the wrapping binding them for a few more moments as the flames hungrily devoured them.

The hair of those around the table stood on end as they watched human beings become torches.

Xena shot a most unfriendly glare at Pompey, allowing him to feel the weight of her most redoubtable will. “Hear me well, old man. Though we are allies, we are not equals. You do as I say. If you betray me, I shall hunt you to the ends of the known world. As you can see,” her hand rose, waving casually at the horror of the now fully engulfed bodies. “I can be ever so inventive in my punishments.”

She rose abruptly from her chair, causing those around the table to do so as well. Another snap of her fingers and hoplites rolled maps out upon the table.

“Now we have sufficient light to begin our council of war.”

**

In the heavy darkness of late night, a lone torch blazed forth, shining its light upon a well-crafted pyre. With just a touch of the flame the logs ignited, sending a soul forth into the afterlife.

“You always wanted to be some kind of hero,” Autolycus muttered. “Well…” the spy let out a long breath. “I wanted you to know that you saved us from those horsemen, making our escape from Olynthus possible. So... you are a hero, Joxer.”

“You know,” he began conversationally, while tossing the torch in his hand into the flames. “You were always so damned clumsy, and bumbling—annoying,” the spy allowed a sad smile. “Drove me crazy with your antics.” “Now I find myself wishing you were here for me to trip over. See that goofy grin you always sprouted.

“You had too kind a heart for the business we are in, Joxer.”

Auto's thoughts turned briefly to the finely crafted wooden boxes given him by Xena. Specifically the gold coated object within. An involuntary shudder rolled though him.

“Enjoy eternity in the Elysian Fields, hero.”

A most beautiful dirge celebrating the heroes of Greece , sung in a familiar voice, caused the spy to close his eyes, allowing the beauty of it to wash over him.

Xena is an enigma, thought Auto, passionate, yet brutal.

“We gather to honor a brother lost,

and friend to me...”

The light of the flames danced upon the dully gleaming armor of the men gathered in formation around the pyre, men who all once hailed Marcus as their commander.

“What marks a life lived to its fullest?” Xena asked, voice carrying across the lines of men.

“Is it the dignities bestowed on us by others?

“No,” she answered.

“Is it the triumphs we celebrate?

“No.

“Perhaps the mistakes we make?

“No.

“Simply a life lived to the fullest is one of consequence.

“My brothers,” Xena turned, raising her arms, turning in a circle while regarding the men surrounding her.

“Marcus lived such a life, making a difference in the lives of those privileged to know him.”

Xena faced the pyre once more, gazing upon the flames, willing tears not to fall.

“May it be said that he died in order for Greece to live.”

“My friend,” she rasped softly. “My love.”

**

“Walk with me.”

His supreme commander brushed past. For a moment Sevastian lingered, eyes fastened to the rising flames of the pyre. Turning, he valiantly tried to catch up, a tough thing to do when the Polemarchos had such long legs and strode with such natural grace. If it all wasn't so serious, it would almost be comical to watch men literally diving out of her way, or standing with head bowed, cowering as if a shade were moving past.

Abruptly, she stopped at the makeshift corral, lit by sputtering torches where the horses of her cavalry were kept.

“Hello, girl”

Catching up, Sebastian gazed in wonderment at the unabashed joy Xena displayed.

The golden palomino ambled up to her instantly, receiving a most loving scratch upon the nose.

“I think I have always preferred horses to people,” she stated candidly, her back turned to him.

“Why is that?” Sevastian inquired after a short silence, his curiosity taking hold.

“Treat a horse well and you gain a loyal friend for life. A companion on life's journey who won't back-stab you, or take the love you give and then use it as a weapon against you. No,” her hand moved up, fingers still scratching. “Horses remain loyal, giving you pure love. Think of it,” she added after a pensive silence, “here is an animal far stronger than we, yet submits fully to the will of humans. Within that submission is an inherent trust of their master—or in this case, mistress.” Xena smirked, “I tell you, I would trust Argo here before I would trust the entire worthless lot we call humanity.”

At the cluck of her tongue, another horse paced to the corral fence, high-stepping a bit as she did so. Even in the light of torches, Sevastian could see the shiny coat of brown. “Now, this big girl I received as a token of goodwill from the leader of a Germanic tribe. Region called Oldenburg .

“Have you ever been to the land inhabited by the Germanic tribes?” Xena asked, while giving the brown mare a loving pat, much to the palomino's dismay, if the wicker of disapproval was any indicator.

“Always so jealous, Argo,” cooed Xena as she moved her attentions back to the palomino.”

“I have not, Xena.” Sevastian replied.

“Hmm… Unlike the Roman's or even most Greeks, the Germans are taller men. Those Germans. Long hair, long swords, but short on tactics. The way to defeat them is to use their size against them, something you are uniquely suited to do because of your smaller stature.”

Stepping toward him, she used her arm as facsimile for a sword. “See, when you get ‘em mad, they have a habit of raising their sword high,” her arm went up. “Spot the obvious mistake?” she asked.

“The man just opened his defenses; his whole body is exposed with the sword up like that.”

“Exactly Their swords aren't particularly sharp, but the weight of them coming down,” her arm lowered slowly, hand out in a chopping motion, “it's quite heavy and the force of the blow can break bone.” Her hand landed on his right shoulder before dropping away.

“Well, this Germanic leader tried to buy me off by giving this lovely horse here to me. Poor gift, really, as once I saw how sturdy she was, I wanted more of ‘em to breed for my army.

“So I raided the village and took ‘em all,” she stated nonchalantly.

Turning, she leaned against the fence, studying him. “She's now yours,” the warlord stated flatly, with a jerk of her thumb at the beautiful Oldenburg mare.

Sevastian let out a huff of astonishment. “My—”

“You call me my lord again and you'll be walking across Greece instead of riding.”

“Xena, you are too kind.”

“No, practical.” She corrected “Can't have my second without a horse, especially since I know you were trained to ride in the east. I named her Gisela, figured she should have a Germanic name. Depending on which German you talk with it could mean a number of things, but I prefer the meaning ‘noble offspring,' seeing as how a tribal king gave her to me.

Sebastian moved to the big mare, which seemed to take to him immediately, nudging him a bit using her head. “Ah, she likes you, and horses are a most excellent judge of character.” He looked to see her genuine smile being directed at him.

“A horse…” Sebastian muttered, closing his eyes and leaning slightly against the animal. “I have a horse once more.” The sheer joy caused by having one of the beautiful animals to call his own filled him

“And a command to go with it,” Xena added. He opened his eyes, pensively looking into the distance before turning to face her. His commander had been most generous; saving Kodi, giving his young half-brother a means to be of service, and to learn as well. Plus, he had received food, a tent, and now a horse. However, there was a price to be paid for all this, in using his meager talents in the service of her goal to conquer Greece and beyond.

“In addition to coordinating the actions of this army, I give you command of what I call my Old Guard. These are the elite picked from the rest of my cavalry. All have distinguished themselves in battle and have the privilege of better pay, better food, and better weaponry.”

Amazing how her smile could morph from friendly to savage in an instant.

“I shall name you commander of the Old Guard tomorrow.” Her eyes raked his lean, compact frame. “Be prepared for a challenge to your succession as commander; it is a tradition I only allow in the Old Guard. If you are unable to defeat a challenger, you are unfit for command of my premier unit.”

Sevastian could scarcely believe what she was telling him.

“Get some rest, my second; you will need it. Tomorrow will be a day of destiny, I can feel it.”

With that she walked past, disappearing into the night.

**

“They tell me I am to address you as commander.”

“Yes, in public that would be wise.”

Sevastian paused to consider the fact that a lack of sleep now characterized his life. He supposed being a commander in the army of the Destroyer would cause a lack of sleep from this point on. When he had come back from the events of this evening, Kodi had been waiting in his tent.

“You've done well, brother,” Kodi said with evident sarcasm, “a tent, furnishings, a command.” The boy's hand trailed along the press where Sevastian's armor lay cleaned up for the following day. “Why, even a private wooden tub in which to bathe. Far better than anything you had at home. I live with the rest of the servants, held in a pair of communal tents, with a common wash bucket. Tell me,” the boy asked, “do you have servants to deliver hot water to you on demand?”

“You should be grateful you are not dead.” Sevastian looked his half-brother in the eye directly as he said the words. “She saved you from the destruction of Talmadeus' downfall.”

“I would have rather died in the fight against her!” the boy stated with conviction. “Tonight I watched as she burned men alive! Are you blind, brother? Can you not see evil when it stands before you?”

“If you continue in this way, your death may be arranged. Do not forget yourself around her; treat her with disrespect and there will a price to pay.”

“Do you know what I did today, Sevastian?” “While you were off being a commander?”

Sevastian moved to sit upon his cot, looking over at Kodi, who remained standing by the press.

“Today, I served her breakfast, cleaned and straightened her personal quarters, and scrubbed the various bits and pieces of her armor.”

“And?” asked Sevastian, leaning forward to take off a boot.

“I am a slave, running at her beck and call.”

“I have seen slavery, Kodi; trust me when I say you are no slave. Sevastian grunted while freeing his foot from the other boot. “You forget that we all have our assigned duties. You and I are not slaves, we are in her service.”

“Mark my words, brother,” Kodi moved a hair closer as he spoke. “She will be the ruin of you; she will turn your heart as black as hers. Sevastian stood suddenly, “I owe her my complete loyalty,” he snarled, “and she will have my complete loyalty.” He took a step forward, causing Kodi to take a fumbling step backward. “She chose to spare my life; she chose to spare you from certain death; and so you will serve her faithfully as well.”

“Go to sleep, brother,” Sevastian counseled while still walking forward. “In the moments before Morpheus takes you, reflect upon your choice to run from home to fight the Destroyer. You will recall that your actions set in motion everything that has happened to us both.”

Angered, the boy quickly ducked out of the tent.

**

“20! Celesta, have mercy!”

The whip cracked, his screams drifting over the encamped army.

“21! Xena, have mercy!”

“I have none to give, Dagnine,” she stated coldly behind him. “And Celesta will take you when I allow it.”

She drew back the whip before unleashing it again, full force.

“You pay the price for your stupidity.”

“Gods take me!” he cried, voice hoarse from screaming. She watched as he slumped against the pole. Only his hands tied together above his head held him up

“Stabbing this army in the back.”

Another crack. The whip carved further into his flesh, now revealing the white of bone.

“Stabbing me in the back!

“Give me the count, Dagnine!” She commanded, allowing the hand grasping the end of the whip to fall limply at her side.

Nothing: He had passed out from the pain. A gesture from her, and Anzo grabbed another bucket to toss icy cold water onto Dagnine. He woke with a start, gasping while spitting out water.

“The count, Dagnine!”

“22!” he screamed out before sobbing pitifully.

“You wish this to end?” she cooed next to his ear.

“Lords on Olympus , please let it end.... please let it end...let it end...”

“I have a proposition for you, Dagnine, would you like to hear it? Or shall we continue?”

“Anything, Xena, I'll do anything!”

A feral smile of triumph now touched her lips.

His will had been broken.

Chapter 12

85,000 troops...

Men, she mused, always so obsessed with size.

Xena sat behind her battered camp desk, her naked body covered only by furs.

The scroll sent her by Salmoneus had listed plainly Caesar's intent: In the spring he would attack, as she suspected. The northern mountains of Greece were impassable in winter for any large force. Still, she would need to leave scouts in the passes to make sure in case Caesar changed his mind. If Hannibal of Carthage had been able to sneak attack Italy though the Alps , then Caesar might find a way as well. She doubted the man had the fortitude to attack in the dead of winter, but it always paid to have an early warning in place.

An army that size would take many resources to maintain; the peacocks in the Roman Senate would certainly be ruffling their feathers in anger at having to supply such a force.

There could be an opportunity here...

A shuffling in the outer chamber pulled her from thought.

In the opening between the chambers stood Kodi, dressed smartly in her livery, a tray filled with breakfast in his hands.

“Set it here, boy,” she commanded while rolling up the scroll written by Salmoneus. As he did so, she held the parchment over a taper lighting it, destroying sensitive information that was for her eyes only.

“Taste the selections,” she ordered.

Amused, she watched the bile rise in the little guy as he debated if he should follow the order or not.

“I'm waiting...”

Swallowing, the kid reached out, tasting first the fruit, then moving on to the main entree of thinly sliced fish, poached in an olive sauce.

“The tankard as as well.”

The kid took a sip.

“More...”

“Eying her evilly, Kodi took a long draught, draining the tankard of ale, his passive aggressiveness causing her to chuckle.

“In time, you will come to see me as your master, as your brother does.”

“He has been blinded by your sorcery. I'll never follow you willingly.” the boy spat.

“I enjoy a challenge.” Xena grinned for a moment. “Willing or not, you live and die at my command, remember that.” Silently, she pointed to a decanter, and the boy took the tankard over to fill it. “Dare to spit in it and I'll cut that tongue out of your head.”

“Is it light yet?” She asked, taking a bit of dark bread and layering the fish upon it. The dreams always cause me fitful sleep, Xena groaned inwardly, imagery of this Gabrielle I met so long ago. If only she had reached Potadiea in time.

“No, several candle marks away,” he stated in a more respectful tone while placing the drink before her.

“Very well, draw me a cold bath,” she ordered while taking a bite. “I believe I shall wear the armor with the talons for shoulder guards, boy; make sure it is ready. Today will be one long remembered. I can feel it within my very bones.

“Oh, and after you've drawn my bath, run and fetch me Mercer, little pygmy.”

Xena smiled again upon seeing the kid bristle at the remark. The boys ego stood at least fifty hand lengths tall; she would cut it down bit by bit. He would learn the humility his elder half-brother displayed.

“Shoo,” she ordered.

Without a word, the kid turned on his heel and left to do her bidding.

**

Up early, Sevastian had been unable to sleep, his thoughts upon the challenge Xena had spoken of.

As was his usual routine, after performing a series of stretching exercises to clear his mind, he took time for meditation, centering himself as the teachers of the east instructed, preparing himself for the day, sending up an invocation to the eastern gods that he do well in all things.

Already bathed, he began to dress by first pulling on a time-worn silk vestment Then in parts and pieces, he put on his familiar, well-kept yet time worn armor, tucking pants of a subdued, alternating, black-and-red checker pattern into high, black boots. Donning his red breast plate, which fitted him snugly, covering all the way to his neck, he then worked to secure the cords around him. Tying his lower matching protectors on, the large flaps covered his waist and draped part way down his legs. Battered bracer's, which went up to his elbows, were next, along with shoulder and armor for the sides of his arms, those pieces being fastened to his upper breastplate. His salvation, the deadly Katana which had saved his life on more than one occasion, was picked up from the armor press with reverence before being tied with black cords to his armor. He moved to first drape, then tighten, the worn reddish sash around his waist, the sword knocking against his right side. Grasping his cerise helmet with its decorative tooling and turn backs in the upper corners, he tied the cords around his chin. The ornamental golden metal wings which formed a V at the top of the helmet, wobbled a bit as he did so.

Finally, black leather gauntlets were pulled onto his hands; the outer parts, tops of his hands, and lengths of his fingers were covered by precise cut and secured pieces of lamellar matching his other pieces.

Stepping out of the tent, he observed the beautiful pre-dawn light as it painted the clouds in tones of fiery crimson and shadowy purple.

“I was just coming to see if you were up,” Meleager drew near. My, don't you look fearsome in that get up,” the gray haired man observed while handing him a wooden bowl filled with a creamy wheat glop, which looked to Sevastian like the paste the wealthy in the east used to hang their fine silk wallpapers.

Meleager motioned to a pair of rocks jutting above the grassy earth as a place to sit.

“There was movement in the town last night, my friend,” Meleager reported, while Sevastian took a tentative bite of the glop and frowned.

“Good stuff, that.” Meleager laughed at the second's dour expression.

“What kind of movement?” Sevastian took another bite of the bland, gooey wheat meal.

“Couldn't tell exactly, even though I moved to the front of the line and used a looking glass to peer down into the city. Movement of men and material for sure; for what purpose, I have no guess.”

“Perhaps your bombardment has spurred Talmadeus into attacking?”

“I don't know, that would be for Xena and you to decide.”

In the silence which followed, Sevastian pondered what Meleager had reported while working to finish his breakfast.

“Might I ask you something, Meleager?” he finally spoke

“Of course.”

“How did you come to be in this army?”

The grizzled veteran smiled. “I was a washed up drunk of a has-been warrior. The good people of Potadiea had paid me to mount a defense against the warlord Draco, a task at which I failed miserably.” The man let out a long sigh. “Many were taken as slaves, others slaughtered in retribution for my attempt to organize the townsfolk into a defense. Draco ordered the town decimated, killing indiscriminately one in every ten villagers. The young men he took into his army, the boys and young women were sold as slaves.”

Sebastian nodded, ruminating on the man's words.

“The first thing I did upon the loss was to get myself stone drunk as a means of consoling myself. Got so gods-be-damned drunk I stumbled, falling right into a pile of animal dung. I looked up, and standing before me was Xena, in all her sinister glory.”

Sevastian's brows hiked up a bit as he imagined the scene. “What did you do then?” he asked.

Meleager snorted a laugh as he took Sevastian's empty bowl. “In my drunken state, I told her to stop blocking the sun.”

“You didn't!” For the first time in a long time, Sevastian allowed himself a full laugh.

“I did,” replied the old man “all you gotta do is ask Xena.”

You thought yourself a regular Diogenes, did you?” Sevastian chided.

“I guess,” Meleager shook his head. “Can you imagine my speaking to the Destroyer that way and living? She told me I had a real talent for organization, but not a mind for strategy. Then of all things, Xena asked me to join her army. What did she say...” his voice trailed off as he thought a moment. “Oh,” the man smirked. “She said,” Meleager cleared his throat, beginning an imitation of the velvety tone with just a hint of a drawl. “You can either stay here and wallow in that shit pile or begin to live a life of consequence.”

Sevastian smiled at the imitation.

“So here I am, my commander,” Meleager used Sevastian's title causing the smile to fade.

“Don't doubt yourself, Sevastian.” Meleager's hand landed upon the shoulder of the second, “Xena has an eye for talent. She chose you for a reason, just as she did me.”

The light of the just-rising sun, caused Sevastian to look up, then stand.

“Where are you off to now?” Meleager asked looking up from his still-seated position.

“I think I will take a look at the condition of this army.”

“Should you not report to Xena?”

“I will, upon an inspection of this army.

“Meleager, have you informed her of what you know of the happenings in the town?”

“I will do so, commander.” Meleager rose.

“See that you do,” Sevastian turned, walking toward the corral.

**

“Xena, the scouts sent out their report. Nothing unusual; the upper part of this peninsula is clear.”

“I tell you, I feel as if something is afoot.” The imposing warlord motioned Kodi to attend her and he came forward, holding the long black leather bracers which went up to her elbows, fine links of chain mail draping over her hands. Not wishing to scandalize the boy, she already wore her leather skirt, with its strips of black interspersed with strips made of links of pure gold. Designs of silver from her time in Chin adorned her upper leathers, a long metal chain draping diagonally across her chest to her waist, an attachment point for her sword.

“Send yet another wave of scouts out to observe the roads leading to our position; I want additional eyes looking for any approaching force. I want the fastest runners you have, both on foot and on horse, at the ready to report back to me the moment the scouts see anything.”

“As you will, Xena.”

Mercer watched as the warlord pointed to a pair of shoulder bracers, which the kid attending her dutifully picked up. Turning, Xena bid him attach them to the metal talons of her shoulder guards, leaning over as he attached them; first to her left, then right arm. Rumor had it the boy was related somehow to the new second. Little pip-squeak of a kid, head was barely above Xena's waist. Pulling on one gauntlet, she moved to pick up her chakram, attaching it to her waist, before grabbing her sword in its black scabbard and attaching it to her left side.

“Do not fail me. ” she suddenly warned her new commander of scouts, looking up from adjusting her armor. Donning a cape of royal purple, she had Kodi pull it to one side while she clasped a tooled leather belt around her waist. Rising to the tips of her toes, she then landed back on the heels of her boots, settling the armor in place. “If this army is caught unawares, I hold you personally responsible.”

Mercer nervously shuffled his feet before nodding his understanding. “I shall go with the scouts myself.”

“Then go.” she commanded.

As he departed, Xena turned to the kid. “After attending to your duties here, you will report to Minya, who has work for you. Also, I picked out a tutor for you.”

“I am old enough to have no need of a tutor.”

“You...will... do...as… I... say.” she whispered menacingly, barely holding back from striking the kid again in anger.

Then she was gone, striding to the tent opening and out into the light of dawn, leaving a bewildered Kodi behind in the now-silent tent.

**

At the sight of his mount, Sevastian broke into a wide grin,

“Hello.” He marveled at the mare's sheer size. Those Germans must like to breed massive horses. Reaching out, he scratched her nose. “Feel like a ride today, Gisela?” he asked, receiving a wicker in return. “Let's see if we can find you a saddle then, eh?”

“Might I be of service to you, Lord Commander?”

The startled second jumped back, hand instinctively reaching for the hilt of his sword.

“I'm sorry, my Lord,” the woman before him apologized, “I didn't mean to alarm you.”

“My... Lord?” Sevastian asked, looking around to see if perhaps the Polemarchos was behind him.

“I am no lord,” he responded.

“Are you not Xena's second?”

“Well, yes, but...”

“Then you have the title of lord.”

“No one has called me that.”

“They will,” she replied.

He took a moment to appraise her as she stood before him in well cared for brown leathers, both top and skirt. A separate bit of tooled leather extended up one arm. At her wrists were bracers; on her feet, knee high brown boots. Fair skinned, her features were framed by long auburn tresses and hazel eyes much like his own. Of course, she was taller than he. Sevastian was beginning to think all Greek women were statuesque; it was enough to give a man a complex.

“You are an Amazon?” he asked, noting her warrior appearance.

“I am.”

Suddenly it dawned upon him. “You are Hippolyta,” he stated with more than a bit of uncertainty.

“Yes.” She smiled beautifully.

Sevastian bowed in respect.

“You have no need to bow before me.”

“But you are an Amazon queen and married to King Thesus of Athens . As such you are royalty.”

“Was married,” she corrected “Until Torris, brother of the Destroyer, plotted with the Athenian Assembly to assassinate my beloved and murder my only son. I would have been killed as well had it not been for my fighting skills. Now I find solace in being the stable master for the Polemarchos .

“Here, Xena left this for you my lord”

Before Sevastian could intercede, the Amazon effortlessly lifted a finely tooled black saddle onto the mare, bending down to expertly fasten the girth strap.

A whistle caused them both to look up as a golden palomino galloped past.

“And how are you today, Argo?” asked Xena in a soft tone. “Having fun getting to know the fresh faces from Talmadeus' stable?

“I see you've met my stable master.” the warlord stated flatly as Hippolyta moved to take Xena's saddle from a groom to place it upon Argo.

“Yes, Xena.”

“Come then, we have much to do.” With practiced ease, the Polemarchos mounted her warhorse as Sevastian followed, pleased to be upon a horse again.

As they rode, Xena cocked her head to the side, a smirk upon her lips. “She called you ‘my Lord?'”

“Yes, Xena,” he responded, more than slightly embarrassed.

“Did you like having a title?”

“No.”

“Now you know how I feel when you call me that. Strip all this away,” her hand moved up, gesturing to the men of the army bowing respectfully as they passed, “and I'm just another peasant girl.”

“Xena, with all due respect, I doubt anyone ever thought you just another peasant girl.” Sevastian responded most seriously, causing her to chuckle.

“Still, at some point I will have to take a title. When the four corners of Greece belong to me. ” she conceded. “Come,” she spurred Argo on, “there will be an attack today and we have a brief war council to attend.”

**

“As you all know, Virgilius will hold the left flank; Sadus, the right. Menticles, your troops will be in the center.” Xena leaned over the map marking the positions of the army. “Your reserves should be here,” her finger touched the map, “and here. Altogether, we have 25,000 in position with 4,000 in reserve.”

“More than a match for Talmadeus,” Virgilius said with confidence.

“In scouting, I found Amazon-style traps in the swamp,” Xena added.

“Amazons?” Menticles' voice held amazement. “Xena, I though you wiped them from Greece ?”

“Obviously some remained to carry on the fight against me. If they follow form, their warriors will be placed high in the trees of the swampy area to either side of Olynthus . Amazons love to fire arrows from on high. Sadus, Virgilius, watch your flanks as they are butted up against the marsh. Allow no force to pass or they will be behind this army. Extend your lines into the marsh should it be necessary.” Both men nodded, now far more concerned due to the idea of fighting Amazons.

“Meleager.” The warlord looked over at the man.

“Make sure those manning your siege engines have what remains of our Greek fire. I want that swamp ablaze as soon as the Amazon attack begins. The recent drought here will only aid us. We will flush those Amazons out like rats using fire and smoke.”

“As you will,” stated Meleager, inwardly saddened that he was unable to find enough usable boats for a surprise attack on the docks of Olynthus .

“Xena, how can you be sure of an attack? Is seems to me that Talmadeus has a suicide wish if he chooses to leave the protection of the city walls to face us. He has parity with us in numbers due to the advantage of those walls.” Sadus tapped the map, emphasizing his point about the walls. “We have worked day and night digging two large trenches encircling the city to the very edge of the swamp and at regular intervals are wood towers manned by our best archers. In front of our trenches are rows of wooden stakes pounded into the ground, sharpened tips pointing toward the enemy.”

“Sadus, all things being equal, I would agree with you, but I am convinced that his attack is a diversion.”

“You really believe a force is approaching from our rear?” Asked Menticles. “We've still had no indication of any happenings.”

“There will be word soon enough.”

“Crushed between two armies...” Sevastian muttered as he stood at her side. “Exactly,” Xena stated under her breath.

Xena took in the looks of disbelief which surrounded her. Well, except for Sevastian, who had a curious look upon his face. A thinker, that one.

“Consider this,” she began. “When Olynthus falls, then only Athens and Corinth remain. Athens we know has no spine and loves to fight by proxy. They would be more than happy to fund Draco in an attempt to destroy me.”

“But is not Athens led by your brother?” Sevastian inquired.

“Yes, and in addition to being related to me, he is a back-stabber.” The men around the table chuckled. “Family ties mean little when it comes to lust for power, my second. Were Torris not such a crawling toad, he would attempt to kill me himself.

“To the cause,” Xena stated, drawing their attention back to the map. “I will be in the center. When the time is right, I will move to the right flank, commanding the guard, ready to deliver a final crushing blow after Talmadeus is forced to commit his entire force attacking our lines. Know that you have no reserves as they will be placed under the command of Sevastian, along with a portion of my guard. He will use them to hold Draco's force until we can turn this army, if need be, to aid him in his fight.”

“If we battle well, today we have a chance at finally wiping all remaining resistance from Greece .

“Questions?” she asked, rising to her full height while placing hands on hips.

“Know that you are in positions of command because I know of your quality.” The men before her straightened, her confidence in them reassuring.”

“Stations.” Xena commanded and the group dispersed.

“Shall I take my leave, then?” Sevastian inquired, looking up to meet her eyes.

“No.”

“No?”

“If you leave this camp now, Draco might have forewarning of your approach. You must wait until he commits his force.”

“As you wish,” Sevastian dipped his head.

Turning from him, Xena sauntered over toward where Pompey was standing, the old man watching as her troops made final preparations for battle.

“I do apologize, Pompeius, for delaying your departure from us due to the business of war.”

“No need, Xena, I understand well the conditions placed upon us by war. I look forward to observing your martial prowess this day.”

Polemarchos , may I have a word?” Azure eyes turned to the ranking member of her guard, then moved to watch as the officers of her cavalry slowly formed a loose half circle.

“Pardon me, Pompeius.

“By your leave, Xena.” the Roman bowed gracefully. “I will take to my mount.”

“Xena, you know well that of all your troops we are most loyal, having sworn an oath to stand with you, come what may.

“Yes, Ampelios, make your point.”

“We refuse to be led by a foreign greenhorn who knows little of battle or tactics.” The man's hand rose, finger pointing directly at Sevastian, who stood a pace behind the Polemarchos and to her right.

“You dispute my choice of leader?” One dark sculpted eyebrow rose. “ Polemarchos , no…” never... Ampelios hemmed and hawed, “no man challenges your judgment, we challenge the man's competency as a fighter.”

“Who, then, wishes to challenge for leadership of my guard?”

“I challenge!”

Sevastian's eyes widened slightly as the biggest damned man he had ever seen shoved his way through the crowd.

“Anzo.” Xena greeted the man, for once having to look up. “You have more bravery in you than brains.”

As the men around laughed, Anzo dipped his head in respect to Xena.

Sevastian figured the German to be the size of a peasant hut. No wonder the Germans breed such monstrous beasts of horses! Draped in worn, splotched, mended leathers, with huge fur-lined boots, he topped even the Polemarchos by at least a span. Unlike the Greeks, the man had long, dirty, blondish hair and a beard which went down to the middle of his chest. And the Romans call us barbarians , thought the second. Have they seen the Germanic peoples?

“You know the rules for the challenge?” Xena asked the man.

“A fight to the death,” replied the giant.

“Choose your weapon then, Anzo.”

The man put down the massive battle ax he carried, reaching instead for his long sword. As the huge blade shone in the morning sun, Sevastian willed his features to be impassive.

“I am going to cut off your head and place it on a pike,” the German boasted before turning his head to the side to spit.

“You will try.” Sevastian stated with conviction.

“Kill him quickly, my second, we have much to do.” Xena said with distinct aloofness, while raising her hand

“Begin!” her hand dropped.

The big man lunged forward to deliver a slashing blow at Sevastian's chest. Skirting out of the way, the second drew his blade, and in one precise motion slashed across the back of Anzo's right leg, eliciting a yell of pain from the German.

“Stand still, will ya!” the man ordered, causing Sevastian to laugh at the absurdity of the statement.

A left slash of the long sword again caused Sevastian to back up, the tip of the blade whistling as it cut through the air in front of him. Anzo had put his all into the slash, and the weight of his blade, along with the force behind it, caused him to over-balance. While his own blade was not in a position to take advantage, Sevastian delivered a kick into the man's side, which felt like hitting a stone wall. Still, it was enough to send the big man crashing down.

“You have the grace of an ox,” Sebastian grinned, galling the man.

As Azno was helped up by his compatriots in the guard, Sevastian looked at his reddened face and wild blue eyes, and the second knew rage had overtaken the man, angry at being bested in a fight by a man he felt an unworthy opponent. The eastern warrior had noted such looks many times from those who thought themselves inherently superior. Pride is the downfall of many a man.

It was only a matter of time; this German would make a deadly mistake.

With a yell brimming with pure hatred, Anzo lunged forward again, sword high above his head, as the men of the guard cheered him on.

Moments later, the heavy sword dropped from the German's hand, his head dipping, eyes gazing blankly at the blade jutting out from his chest. The second had flipped his blade over, using it to stab into the man, a rather awkward move with a katana, but effective. Sevastian smiled, glad for the benefit of Xena's tutelage.

Sliding off the blade which had pierced his heart, Anzo collapsed to the ground as the cheers faded into silence.

“Any other challengers?” Xena drawled as Sevastian moved to wipe his sword clean upon the dead man's thick beard.

“No?” she said the word with more than a hint of amusement.

“Station!” she commanded, causing the men to disperse. Raising her gauntleted hand, Xena beckoned two hoplites to drag the man away.

“We'll give him a pyre later.”

“You knew?” asked Sevastian quietly, looking up at her with amazement, knowing now why she had given the little impromptu lesson on fighting the Germanic peoples.

“Yes.”

Sevastian dipped his head as a means of thanking her.

“Most incredible!” Pompey lauded from atop his steed. “I do not recall seeing their swords meet even but once! For such an unassuming man, you have great skill.”

“Very kind, General.” Sevastian moved to follow Xena's lead, mounting his own horse.

“Never make assumptions about your opponent, Pompeius, it leads to ruin.” With a cluck of her tongue, Xena urged Argo forward, Sevastian and Pompey in tow.

**

Some candle marks before the sun had reached its apex, the gates of Olynthus opened, and Talmadeus marched his Army out onto the sloping plain before the city.

Xena watched them atop Argo from her high position in the center of the battlefield. Grabbing her water skin, she took a long draught, then squirted more into her mouth, swishing it a bit, before spitting it out.

“Shame,” she said with pity evident in her voice, “that such well-trained men will be slaughtered. Talmadeus is many things, but he is no coward, and he instructs men well in the art of war.

“Raise the banner.” she ordered

The bearer on horseback to her right unfurled her personal colors, the black X on a field of cobalt blue, bordered by black.

At that, the standard of the army went up behind Sevastian, the rising Phoenix with golden wings spread wide, red tongues of flame below its talons. The sight of that flag reinforced the second's exalted position in the army for all on the field to see. Units headed by other commanders across the field now raised their own guidons.

How did this happen to me? Sevastian pondered, amazed at the sight of this proud boy, his standard bearer, holding the colors of the army up.

“Signal to Virgilius, then Sadus.” Xena called out lowering her looking glass. “Movement in the marsh; stand ready.”

At that, a hoplite dressed in full battle armor, including helmet with decorative plume, raised a flag with Xena's emblem in one hand, while raising another flag with Virgilius' insignia in the other. The man signaled, moving each in a blur of motion. On the field below, a hoplite responded in a short movement of flags. The man then dropped Virilius' pennant to pick up the flag of Sadus, signaling to the commander of the right flank.

“Astounding!” Pompey managed. “You have complete control of your army!”

“No different than ships signaling at sea, Pompeius” said Xena without taking her eyes off the phalanxes forming up before her army.

“What do you estimate their strength to be, my second?” asked the warlord, watching as the hoplites commanded by Talmadeus locked their shields together, the first few ranks projecting their spears out over the first rank of shields.

“9,000 or so, I believe.”

“I would agree.

“Archers at the ready!” she commanded, her words being signaled to the army with the banners.

“Little closer,”she muttered loud enough for Sevastian to hear. The second's eyes darted to Xena, then back to the field. “...Hit that slope...

“Fire!” she ordered, precisely as the rows of the phalanx broke down, the soldiers adjusting to marching up the incline.

A wave of arrows from all corners of the army darkened the skies. As the formation frayed slightly upon moving uphill, many found their targets, men dropping to the ground, other men closing the holes around them.

“Pilum!” Xena bellowed, the command dutifully signaled to the army.

As the spears flew, Sevastian recalled them impacting his own formations, death raining from above.

Talmadeus' men, as Sevastian's were before, were forced to drop their shields from the weight of the pilum embedded in them. Now they were reduced to brandishing bronze swords as they moved to face the men of the Destroyer.

“Fire at will.”

An assortment of arrows and pilum flew into the lines, screams of the dying rolling up over the field. Xena watched dispassionately as Talmadeus went down, his horse taken from under him by a precise shot. The old polemarchos stood circling his sword over his head, the metal glinting in the light as he rallied the troops.

Argo let out a wicker, shuffling her hooves a bit. “Patience, girl, we attack soon.” Xena patted the palamino comfortingly. She could feel Ares in her very blood, the glorious carnage of battle causing his gift to pulse through her veins. Her senses heightened, her strength surged, the craving for blood upon her sword producing an almost giddy feeling. Ares may be the god of war, but here, in this moment, on this field, she was a master in her element.

“ Battle , my second, is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge. It brings out all that is best; it removes all that is base.”

A cry from the flanks erupted as a rain of arrows flew from the trees of the marsh.

“See how the battle is joined! The Amazon's finally choose to make their appearance!” the Polemarchos laughed wickedly.

Moments later, the catapults stationed on either side of the army opened up. Greek fire landed in the dry brush of the drought-stricken marsh, flames spreading quickly, borne by the cold north winds.

The sounds of a horse in full gallop came from behind.

“Here comes my news, Sevastian, steady yourself.” Xena drew her sword from its scabbard.

Polemarchos !” the man reigned in his horse, gaining control of the steed. “An army approaches from behind our position! The enemy approaches in a great display, their battle flags are hung out, and they mean to challenge us here at Olynthus !”

“Whose army?” asked Xena calmly.

“They fly the banner and wear the colors of Draco, Polemarchos !”

“Distance?”

“Several leagues.”

“Talmadeus attacked too early, now his failure is complete.” A savage grin appeared as Xena turned to Sevastian.

“Take your men, my second, march them quickly and meet Draco's force at as great a distance from our own army as you can. Remember, Sevastian, no one ever defended anything successfully. There is only attack, and attack, and attack some more.”

“As you will, Xena.” Sevastian heeled his mare back, spurring her on, his standard-bearer following in close pursuit.

“Well, Pompius,” Xena stated while once more looking out upon the field of battle. “Will you fight this day, or shall I find you here after, waiting with the servant girls?”

Old Pompey's hackles rose. “I shall fight!”

“Then I will see you upon the field,”

Feeling the cry of her blood, Xena scanned the battlefield, her eyes beholding a lone figure upon a horse who, upon spotting her, smiled while raising the sword of war in salute. “Ares...” she said knowingly, watching as he vanished in a burst of light.

“Yah!”Pompey watched her gallop off before drawing his own sword, riding to the lines of battle without ceremony.

**

“Up, men! And to your posts!” Sevastian shouted, riding past the lines of hoplites, who got to their feet preparing themselves to march.

Reaching the front of the troops, his mare turned excitedly in a tight circle as he rose up in his stirrups.

“For today, my brothers!” his voice raised up as loud as possible, “we fight for a united Greece !” Three short cheers sounded as hoplites raised swords in the air.

“Forward... At the double click!” nother cheer rose, as the men readied themselves to run.

“March!”

4,000 hoplites in columned formations thundered forward at a running clip, with 400 massed cavalry in front.

**

“Commander, we've run out of Greek Fire!”

“Well and good, we've flushed those Amazon's from their bird nests in those trees. Get the hay bales.”

As the man scurried off to bring the armaments wagon nearer, Meleager turned. “You men there,” he shouted at the hoplites manning the catapult. “Redirect the line of fire!” Gesturing them to join him, he moved to the rear of the siege machine. “Lift!” he bellowed. With much effort, the men, some thirty in all, managed to raise the rear of the machine two handspans above the dirt. “To the right!” Meleager ordered. More grunts sounded as the big siege engine was moved, bit by agonizing bit.

“Further!” the grizzled old commander implored, eyes watching as the machine edged over, the mechanism now aligned to fire upon the center of the field, directly into the formations of enemy troops now less than half a league from the line occupied by Mercer's troops.

“Here!” with a grunt of relief, the men set the machine down.

“Prepare!”

Meleager moved back out of the way as the men jumped into action. With the use of a stout pole fitted into a receiver, the men worked to pull back the firing arm, twisting ropes along a central axle, to store up energy needed to fire the weapon. The arm to which the metal basket was attached lowered with each turn of the axle, the corded ropes straining as the firing mechanism was locked into position.

“Load!”

A pressed block of hay, held together by dried pitch and tallow, was carried forward by three men, who loaded it into a large metal basket on the firing arm. Grabbing a torch from the man closest, Meleager set the block alight, the flames sputtering a bit before taking hold. In moments, the block was fully engulfed.

“Fire!”

The lock was released, the axle spun forward, and the fiery mass arched up into the sky.

**

“Fire!” Menticles cried out.

Bowmen struck as the enemy approached. Arrows shot from the second defensive trench as the sword men in the first trench ducked down.

“Up!” Menticles ordered, shifting men to meet the oncoming enemy. Hoplites climbed from the first trench, lifting shields and swords as they prepared to meet the enemy.

From the sky rained down fire as the missiles launched from the catapults struck home. The enemy formation staggered, falling first into disorder as the sticky, lit tallow burned through clothing and into flesh. As more missiles flew, the formation broke apart completely.

Cheers rose from Xena's troops along the line

“Charge!” the Athenian commander roared, taking the lead, his sword the first to be plunged into the enemy.

**

Sadus, upon the right flank, was having a tougher time holding back the Amazon horde attacking his lines. Dismounting, he waded into the battle, slashing to and fro against the warrior women intent on pushing his line backward. To their credit, the men retreated slowly, step by step, over the dead bodies of their comrades.

A hellish, bellowing war cry erupted from behind the Amazons as the thunder of hooves shook the earth. The line faltered and then retreated as the Destroyer herself, at the head of her cavalry, slashed into the massed warrior women.

“Thank the Gods!” Sadus exclaimed as the fierce women broke into full retreat.

“Thank Ares,” the hoplite nearest murmured in correction.

**

“Die!” Xena barked out as her sword smashed the skull of the first Amazon within reach, blood and gore coating her and the side of Argo's armor.

The next ran up, attempting to strike at her leg. Kicking the woman back, Xena reached for and threw one of the many daggers placed upon her person. The blade pierced the woman's throat and she fell back upon the ground, her life pouring out, soaking into the earth. A vicious laugh bubbled up as Xena savored her revenge.

“Terreis!”

A grin from the Destroyer, who recognized that pained voice. “Melosa” she yelled out amidst the chaos of battle.

“Enemy of Artemis, you have killed my daughter!” the dark haired amazon screamed in anguish.

“Fitting!” bellowed Xena uncoiling her whip, letting the end of the braided leather touch the ground.

“You killed my son!”

Melosa's features shone in confusion

“Yah!” Xena spurred Argo forward, lashing out with her whip, the end wrapping neatly around the ankles of the Amazon Queen. As the palomino thundered past, the line grew taught and Melosa fell, dragging along the rocky ground behind the warhorse. Xena tied the handle of the whip to her saddle horn as she and her cavalry pressed on to destroy the rest of Talmadeus' force.

“Reform this line here!” Talmadeus used his sword to point from atop his second mount, his depleted reserve moving into place as men from the forward positions retreated back. The line was but partially formed when the distinctive war cry sounded, and looking up, the old warlord saw her approach. Raising his sword, he moved to spur his horse on to his destiny.

He never had the chance as a thrown pilum caught his horse, taking it out from under him. The animal staggered before falling to one side. Talmadeus was unable to get himself clear in time, the weight of the animal crushing his right leg.

Pulling up on her reins, Xena slowed Argo to a halt, much to the dismay of the warhorse, judging from the audible wicker and shuffling of hooves.

Dismounting with innate grace, she strode up to the man, looking down upon him, stoic features betraying nothing. For a long moment, in the midst of the chaos, she simply appraised the man, a broken leg certainly, but otherwise he was intact.

Not a single word passed her lips.

The tension of the moment was too much, “Do it, Xena!” Talmadeus urged, leg still pinned, with a spiteful yell. “Just kill me and get it over with!”

“You wish to die, Talmadeus?” the Destroyer asked with an eerily calm tone.

“I have no wish to die, but if the fates decree it, dying alongside my men will allow me to salvage some smattering of honor this day.”

“I see,” she stated, looking up at the carnage as her troops went about the business of killing the now-retreating enemy.

“At least I will have the satisfaction of knowing your end approaches.”

“Perhaps you refer to the imminent attack by Draco?” Xena asked, taking a knee as the men of her Old Guard looked on.

Talmadeus let out a huff of disbelief, his expression telling her all she needed to know.

“You are a reasonable man, Talmadeus. Call your men back and end this senseless bloodshed. Even if I am to be overwhelmed by Draco, why should these men suffer?”

“Would you see them cared for, Xena?” asked the defeated warlord. “Would Xena the Destroyer make and keep such a promise?”

“I swear before all present to see that your men, who have fought with such valor this day, are cared for.”

“I can ask no more.” With a gesture to his standard-bearer, the man struck Talmadeus' colors, tossing the flag upon the ground. Moments later a horn blew from the city walls. Across the field, the hoplites took a knee, tossing weapons aside.

The old man closed his eyes in resignation as chants of Xena's name rolled over the sloping plain.

“Free him!” she ordered while standing, watching as her men moved to shove the bulk of the dead horse off of Talmadeus. “Get him to a healer.”

“We shall speak later, Talmadeus.” Xena turned, striding to where Melosa lay.

“Still alive, my Queen?” sneered the warlord while turning loose the whip binding the legs of the Amazon. The queen attempted to speak, but at first only coughed up blood.

“You... have... no... son...” Melosa finally spoke with great effort, watching as the dark warlord casually coiled her whip, then moved to place it neatly upon her golden horse.

“Correct, Melosa, I have no son, because you attacked the centaurs, killing him in the process.” Xena stated casually while stepping back to the queen. Shifting her stance, Xena propped one boot up upon Melosa's bare midriff, eliciting a sharp cry of pain from the woman. “He could have lived,” Xena leaned over, placing more weight upon the boot, “known a protected life without war, without death, but you took all that away when you attacked his home.”

“Did you not get the missives I sent, Melosa?” asked the Destroyer. “Did I not warn you of the consequences of your actions? Did I not tell you that the centaurs were allied with me?”

The Amazon Queen watched as the sword now held within the right hand of the warlord began to twirl.

“With your death, I finally have my vengeance in the destruction of the Amazon Nation.”

“You... will... never... kill... us... all.”

“Those I don't kill, I will enslave!” Xena snarled, abruptly driving her sword into the chest of the Amazon. With contempt, she withdrew the blade.

“Get me my commanders. Now!” She ordered the nearest of her men upon horseback. Seeing the blood upon her sword, the look of death in her eyes—Ares' gift—he moved with alacrity.

“ Ampelios!” She called.

“Rest the horses and give them water, for we ride to meet Draco in short candle marks.” The man nodded, “As you will, Xena.” Ampelios shouted orders and the guard moved to the rear.

For the moment, she stood alone amongst the aftermath of battle. Smoke rose from fires burning in the marsh, the dead lying in their untold numbers scattered about the field. The hoplites of her commanders moved, corralling and disarming the men of Talmadeus' former army.

Her senses prickled.

Turning, Xena batted one arrow away with her sword; another was caught with callous ease by her left hand. That same hand which caught the arrow dropped it to grasp the chakram. With a step forward by the warlord and a snap of the wrist, the metal disk took flight. A scream indicated that the weapon had found its target hidden in the brush.

Her arm raised, the metal hoop returning to her grasp. “Flush them out! Bring them to me!” Xena commanded the hoplites that were nearest. Drawing their swords, dozens of men moved at a run to do their mistress' bidding.

“Long day already, girl.” Xena stated softly while cleaning and sheathing her sword. Walking to Argo, she assessed the horse for any wounds before grabbing a small water skin from her provisions, pausing to take a long swallow.

Another dismayed sounding wicker. “Not to worry Argo, in a moment I will let you have a drink as well.”

Turning her head, Xena regarded the line of silent commanders facing her, none brave enough to speak before being spoken to as they all knew her temperament in battle.

“We must look after our own deportment.” Xena stated without preamble.

“Menticles, you will take charge of our prisoners from Talmadeus' army. See that they are disarmed, yet cared for by the healers, and given provisions.

“Sadus,” Xena pointed at the man, “take charge of the Amazons which still live, the same as Menticles, and see that they are disarmed and cared for. I want three of your men guarding every Amazon; you know well of their ability to fight even when disarmed.

“Virgilius, move your troops into the town before the good people of Olynthus think to close the gates again. I want all of the remaining members of Talmadeus' army seized along with all of the town leadership. Also, seize the provisions of Talmadeus, to include tents, weapons, rations... understand?”

“Yes, Xena”

“Meleager, I want your men hard at work, digging large pits for a makeshift jail in which we will place the Amazons until I can break their spirit. Also, have them set up Talmadeus' tents for our use for the wounded. Finally, send your engineers into the town, have them assess the docks, and see where we can expand them as well as places we can clear to build shipyards.”

Understanding suddenly dawned upon Meleager's face. “That's why you had us working so hard to cut down trees.... ships!”

Xena gave the man a knowing smile.

“Mercer, you are in command of this army in my absence.” The man's mouth fell open in astonishment. “See to it that there are no surprise attacks in the offing against this force and that my orders are carried out.”

“Pardon my audacity in asking, but you are leaving in your moment of triumph?” asked Virgilius.

“Why friends, you forget that our second is off facing the army of Athens ' stooge Draco. I will take my cavalry and depart lest he be overwhelmed by a superior force.”

The gaze of the men moved past her.

“Leave me to begin your work.”

The group dispersed, and Xena turned, observing the groups of Amazons surrounded by her men. She walked toward the one with the telltale wound from her chakram being held between two hoplites.

“My, my,” the warlord's voice dripped with condescension, “that's a nasty cut upon your shoulder.”

The curly blonde Amazon stiffened, raising her chin.

“Aren't we the defiant one?” Xena purred. “Tell me, did you really think such a feeble attempt would succeed in killing me?”

The Amazon warrior remained silent.

“Retribution for the death of your Queen, perhaps?” One of the warlord's hands left her hip, nonchalantly gesturing to the corpse lying in the short grasses. “Or maybe you wished for me to kill you so you could join her in the afterlife?”

At those words defiance broke and tears fell, carving channels down the grimy battle soiled face of the Amazon.

“You knew her well, didn't you?” Xena uttered consolingly while stepping very near, one gauntleted hand moving up, a thumb delicately wiping an errant tear away.

“Tell me, what is your name, noble Amazon?”

The woman had to crane her neck back to look up directly into the eyes of Artemis' enemy.”

“Ephiny.”

“Lovely name. If I am to judge your attire correctly, Regent Ephiny, you now ascend to Queen of the Greek Amazons.”

“No, there is another.”

“Terreis? Or perchance you refer to Velasca?” Ephiny stood in shock.

“I know my enemies, Amazon. They are dead, I killed them myself.”

“What will become of us,” the woman dared ask, “now that you've conquered the last of the nation?”

A long, elegant finger delicately traced along Ephiny's jaw.

“You, and the remnants or your ... nation... are now mine.” Xena's fingers slid under the chin of the new Amazon Queen. “How you are treated by me will depend on your actions from this point forward. You must make sure your warriors keep the peace. For you to do that, I must work to break their spirit.”

“You'll never break their spirit.”

“The cure for spirit is fear, “You'll serve as an example.”

“Kneel before me, Queen.”

Ephiny nodded her head, resigned to the fate now forced upon her. She had never wanted the war with the centaurs. Melosa, under the urging of Velasca, had led the Amazon nation to ruin.

“What I do now, I do to save the lives of my people.”

“The lives you save begin with your own, Queen.”

Behind, sobs rose from the motley group of assembled Amazons as Ephiny, of her own volition, roughly fell to both knees.

“Take them,” Xena's voice rose as her hand gestured to the group.

Hoplites moved as the warlord strode to Argo, gracefully mounting the warhorse.

“Conqueror.” Ephiny called the title out warily, unsure to what to call the warlord.

“Yes.”

“May we have a pyre for our honored dead and our queen?”

“Why, of course,” Xena purred, “to do anything less would be barbaric.” She flashed an unfriendly momentary smile. “Take her to my personal healer.” Xena barked to the hoplites on either side while pointing at Ephiny, before urging Argo forward to meet her massing cavalry.

**

“Sir, you push the men too hard!”

“There will be time enough for them to rest in the Elysian Fields should we fail.” responded Sevastian in all seriousness. “Not much farther, Alastair.” the second raised up in his saddle, a smile forming on his face at what he saw before him.

“What is it?” the captain asked, confused.

“Come!” Sevastian spurred his mare into a full gallop, his standard-bearer and the men of the guard cavalry following.

As they came to a junction of roads, Sevastian pulled Gisela to a halt; his steed was antsy as if anticipating the upcoming fight.

“Divide yourselves, half to the left flank, half to the right.”

Confused, the calvary men parted as the formations of still-running Hoplites came over the rise.

“Here!” he gestured, “Form up!” Sevastian called out, pointing to the spot of ground. The captains moved the first wave of men into position.

Spurring his mare to the second position, Sevastian repeated the process. “Here!”

Soon the 4,000 were aligned, a full phalanx in the lead position, one directly behind, two smaller in reserve, archers for the moment occupying the rear.

“Rest!” Sevastian called out. Men across the formations let out a groan, some falling to their knees in exhaustion while others pulled water skins to parched lips.

“Where are my captains of the archers?” the second called out while racing his horse around the hoplite formations.

Three men ran to meet him.

“Names?” shouted Sevastian, hating the fact that he had so little time to know these men, and for them to know him.

“Sevillius, Commander,” the first man bowed

“And you two?” the second barked.

“Hagne, Commander”

“Isidoros, Commander.”

“Very well, Hagne, lead your archers onto the right flank; Isidoros, the left. Form up and await my command.”

“As you will, Commander.”

“Sevillius, you will be placed in reserve at the rear of our formations. Take the sharpened stakes your archers carry and drive them into the ground, points facing outward, here” Sevastian gestured.

“Towards our own men?” asked an astonished Sevillius.

“Yes. Place them in a semi-circle, captain. The flanks should be out farther than the center, like a bowl. Do you understand me?

Sevillius nodded.

“Good man,” Sevastian extolled. “Should you have time, have your men take the stakes from the archers of Hagne and Isidoros and drive them into the ground. Go now, you haven't much time.”

“Commander, a word!”

“Is your cavalry in position?”

“Yes,” the man said curtly.

“What is it then?” barked the second.

“The men do not understand your actions,” complained the guard captain.

“Look!” Sevastian guided Gisela forward.

“Tell me what you see, captain.”

“Commander, I see our hoplites in formation, facing a single sunken dirt road.”

“And behind?”

“I see a junction with three roads, all taking different routes, yet leading back toward the way we came.”

“Yes, and to the sides?”

“Heavy forest, Commander.”

“Perceptive observations. Do you understand now, Alastair?”

The captain sat upon his reddish steed in silence.

“The enemy must come down that road, Captain; he has no alternate route which is viable.”

“He has superiority of numbers, Commander; we shall be pushed back easily.”

“Not so, Captain. As you observed, the sunken road and the forests to either side, make it impossible for Draco to spread his force out and envelop us. He is limited to attacking us frontally, a position we can hold, as a dam holds back a river. His troops will stack up in this leagues-long sunken road, unable to join in on the fight.”

Understanding suddenly hit the man, as if a bolt from Zeus.

“We hold good ground, then!”

“Very good ground,” added Sevastian with a smile.

“But what shall we do? The men of your cavalry?”

“Fade into the forest, move unseen to a position behind Draco's force, and ambush his supply train.”

“For what purpose?” huffed the guard captain, indignant at such a menial task.

“To create confusion!” Sebastian growled. “The warlord we face is sharp, from all accounts; Draco knows the uniform of the Polemarchos' Old Guard. Attack from both his flanks, I want him to think Xena surrounds him on all sides and is about to deliver a killing blow.”

“Do... you... understand?” Sevastian annunciated each word making certain the captain knew his orders.

“Understood.”

“Then go, and may the fates favor your endeavors this day.”

With a nod of his head, the man was off to organize the guard.

“Come, boy!” the second ordered to his standard-bearer, who followed him to the front of the first phalanx. “You men,” he called out, “are the tips of the spear, holding back those approaching down this road." He gestured to the sunken path behind. “Those to your rear will support you, moving forward to the front rows, trading position with you when you tire.”

“We must be stubborn this day, for the army depends upon us!”

The sounds of men on the march sounded in the distance. The plodding step and the rattle of armor from Draco's approaching army being bore up by the wind.

“All the men who died before stand with you now.

“Form up!” called Sevastian from atop his steed, the command being echoed by captains of the hoplites.

“Lock shields!” he ordered, and the first rank raised the metal-clad armor, bronze swords jutting though the gaps; behind, spears rose over the first ranks.

Ah, what the Hades, thought Sevastian.

“For the glory of Ares!” he cried, drawing an energetic cheer from the hoplites.

 

**

“Hector, you understand I have no cavalry, and this army is blind!” Draco yelled out in anger as he rode next to his commander.

His hand went up, gesturing vaguely forward. “I have no idea what lies in front of us. Toris and his lofty rhetoric, filled with empty promises of Athenian horsemen. Where are they now, I ask you?”

The sounds of metal clashing drifted to his ears. “Some general commotion ahead,” he stated rising in his stirrups for a moment.

“Come, Hector, it seems I must ride forward and scout for myself. For all I know, it may be Xena's entire army.”

**


“Archers!” Sevastian yelled, watching bows lifted skyward.

“Fire!”

The Hoplites of Draco's Corinth fell under the withering fire, yet still they came on, pressing past the dead bodies of their comrades, trying to push his men back.

“Exchange!” the second yelled. The men in front moved to trade with those behind, keeping the front rank fresh to fight the onslaught.

“Archers!” the second called again.

“Fire!” Sevastian looked up at the position of the sun, which was well past its apex. He hoped the cavalry he sent out would soon attack, as despite his exchange of men, the hoplites were clearly tiring, his archers running low on arrows. Soon those men would be left with only their mallets to fight with.

Looking down the road, Sevastian saw a dark man upon a horse observing him through a looking glass. There was another next to him, to which he was speaking.

“Draco,” Sevastian murmured. “That is Draco.” His blood ran cold upon beholding the man. Draco was known for his ruthlessness his fearsome reputation being second only to Xena's.

**

“Definitely Xena's men. I can tell by the standard held aloft.” Draco handed the looking glass to Hector. “I don't know the man, certainly not Darphus or Dagnine,” he continued as Hector gazed through the magnifier. “She knows of our plan and has countered it.”

“Odd armor he wears, exotic.”

“From the East,” the warlord replied, taking back the glass. “Hector, upon this one battle, I am forced to rest our ventures. I like it not!

“Well,” Draco sighed, “he chose good ground. Never let your enemy choose the ground on which to fight.” His eyes looked to the sun. “We haven't much time, Hector. Brute force will have to be used. Rush all our reserves forward at a run; stack them up, the weight of it all will push his line back.” Draco closed his right fist, driving it into his open palm for illustration. “Use whatever horsemen we scrounged.”

“Understood.” Hector rode forward, hollering orders to the men as Draco motioned lines of his improvised cavalry past, the men threading a line between the packed earthen wall of the road and the formations of hoplites. Untrained, untested men pressed into service on clunking draft horses from farm fields made for a very piece meal cavalry.

**

Sevastian saw the men upon horseback attempting to form up, Oh boy, here it comes. he thought.

“Hoplites!” he roared. “At the ready!”

The men in the ranks braced. “Step back!”

The Phalanx, as one, took a careful step back, followed by another. This caused the front line of the enemy to tumble forward over the bodies of the dead, becoming easy targets for his men to kill.

“Hold!”

Momentum halted as the men continued to battle the enemy in the light of late afternoon.

“Archers! To the rear!”

Gisela pranced in place as the men scampered back to join their companions behind the line of stakes, taking position at the right and left flanks, the center occupied by Servillus' men.

A yell drew his attentions back to the line as, down the sunken road, the enemy surged forward, pressing en masse against his beleaguered men, attempting to bull them over with sheer force.

“Fall back!” Sevastian commanded. As his men did so, the enemy hoplites accordioned down, a mass of bodies tumbling to the earth as the men they were pressing against fell back to a reformed position behind a line of archers.

“Charge!”

At the command of Hector, the enemy horsemen thundered into the breach, racing toward Sevastians archers.

“Archers! At the ready!”

Bows raised and cords taut, wide-eyed men looked out as the horsemen drew near. Deciding discretion was the better part of valor, the men of Draco's cavalry abruptly pulled back on the reins upon seeing the spikes. In their haste to turn around, the men presented a lovely target for arrows.

“Fire!” ordered the second.

The arrows slammed into men and horses. The animals screamed as the missiles sunk into flesh, inexperienced riders quickly losing control. Enemy hoplites, unable to get out of the way, were trampled.

 

“Melee! Attack!”

 

At Sevastian's command, soldiers streamed past the archers, directly into Draco's hapless force, which began a pell-mell retreat to avoid slaughter.

“Drive em' back!” shouted the second, seeing the confusion of the enemy

 

**

“Damn it all!” Draco roared in fury from atop his mount.

His formations of men dissolved as talgamite in water.

“Reform this line!” Draco cried out in vain.

“Give me that!” he sniped down to one of many stunned troops nearest.

Snatching up the large composite bow from the man, the warlord placed the arrow precisely, and then carefully drew back the string. “I may have lost this day,” Draco drew a bead upon the enemy commander, “but you will not live to see the end of it!” Releasing the cord, a grin appeared, as the arrow struck home, the enemy toppling from his horse. “Pity really, I was hoping to capture you for service in my army.”

“Fly, m'lord, fly!”

Handing back the bow, Draco studied the messenger as he ran up.

“Fly further off, my lord, fly further off! Xena is in your tents, my lord!”

“My wagons are under attack?”

“Yes. m'lord! Her best cavalry.”

“Sound the retreat.” Draco spat out, turning his horse.

**

Coughing, Sevastian was helped to his feet by a pair of muscular hoplites as his standard-bearer looked on from atop his horse, while holding Gisela's reins.

“Ya alright. then?” asked one of the men.

“You be bleedin', Commander,” said the other, noting the crimson liquid dripping down his arm. The arrow had snagged the lamellar armor, tearing it clear off his right arm along with the silk under padding as well, the edge of the arrow tip leaving a long gash in his upper arm.

“Damn,” he uttered, “get me a scrap of linen, will you?”

One of the two men pulled a length from his pack, wrapping it around Sevastian's arm.

Sevastian looked up to see the sun now low in the sky, turning his gaze to where the sounds of battle were still ringing farther off.

As if knowing what the commander was thinking, the hoplite wrapping his arm spoke.

“Nothin' holdin the boys back now, chasin' em' all the way ta Corinth , they are,” he said proudly.

“Yes well,” Sevastian smiled at the man, “it'll be dark in candle marks. Get the horn sounded for recall or they'll all be wanderers in the night.” The second's voice was gravely, a day's worth of yelling wearing on his speech. The other man took the order as his duty, running off at a good clip.

“Beggin' yore pardon, sir, but this ain't gonna hold, ya already bleedin' threw”

“Hmmm?” Sevastian looked down at the stained bandage.

“See if you can't scrounge up a healer.” the soldier moved to run. “Wait!” he reconsidered, kicking himself mentally for asking for attention ahead of the men, “tell him to come when finished with those that have the most need.”

With a nod the man left.

Sevastian moved to his mare, leaning against her a moment, trying to get the shakes caused by the fever pitch of battle to settle. Taking his helmet off, he slung it over the saddle horn, then reached for a water skin as a horn blew. Taking a long swig, he then squirted a bit into his right hand, the wound upon his left arm protesting as he did. Splashing his face, he watched absently as men began to straggle back. These men opposing Xena's army were not just from Corinth , but Athens as well. Staring forward completely lost in thoughts of the day, he never felt the tug on his arm as the bandage was removed, and shortly thereafter the prick of a bone needle jolted him from thoughts of the day's battle.

“Dammit man,” he griped petulantly, “coulda at least warned me before you started stickin' me.”

“Please forgive me, my lord Commander,” a sarcastic, velvety voice replied behind “I do the best that I am capable of in your service.”

Oh gods...

Glancing up, he noted the wide-eyed look from his standard-bearer.

Shit...

Looking back over his shoulder, he glanced at the elegant fingers at work sewing his wound.

“Pardon me, I...”

“Shut it!” Xena commanded. “Stand still!”

He did both.

“I am pleased with your work this day. Draco's men, as well as the hoplites of Athens , have been routed.” Xena's words were clipped. There was edginess to her; Sevastian did not wish to further test her patience.

The warlord finished tying a precise knot before biting though the twine with her teeth.

“Done.” she announced.

“Sevastian turned, “I beg your forgiveness for my words,” he dipped his head.

“How I enjoyed ambushing those soldiers of Draco, splitting them by sword,” she began, eyes scanning the men surrounding them, ignoring his words of apology. Men quickly averted their gaze when her eyes found them. “You ordered the cavalry to waylay the wagon trains?”

Yes, Polemarchos .”

“My shrewd little second, you listened well to my advice.”

“Too kind...”

“Leave a token force here, but they aren't coming back after that rout. Put down the wounded horses, pyre the dead, give them honors, and get that spoil from Draco's wagon trains hauled back to our camp before the scavengers get it.”

“As you wish, Xena”

“Here,” she stooped down, picking up his lost bit of armor handing it to him before walking back to mount Argo .

“Next we take Athens !” Her words caused cheers from the men who now knew for certain that Olynthus had fallen and that the army would be moving on. The Destroyer then thundered off into the fading light of day, her standard-bearer heeling his horse about to follow, loyal guard forming up behind.

Chapter 13

“Marcus Antonius, you only think of war when we could return to more pleasurable activities.”

A smile reappeared on the face of the Roman general upon recall of those pleasurable activities. Cleopatra noticed it as well, sliding closer to him as they lay upon the silken pillows, her rich dark skin, the long braids of her hair, exotic eyes… beautifully plush full lips that begged a man to kiss them.

The Queen of all Egypt leaned into him, delivering a most passionate kiss. Soft kisses then began to trail along his cheek before her lips were close to his ear.

“Ah, my queen, I only seek to remind you of the reason I am here.”

“Antonius, I cannot forget why you are here, as you do not allow it,” She whispered softly, hot breath washing over his ear in a most pleasurable fashion.

“Very well, Antonius, speak to me of your plans once more.”

The queen moved away from him, much to Antonius' chagrin. Reclining, she moved to take a sweet fig between two delicate fingers while spreading a bit of the soft Roman cheese upon it. Bringing it to her lips, she took a slow luscious bite, her tongue moving out after to remove an errant bit of the fragrant cheese.

Antonius momentarily forgot the subject he was to speak upon.

“As I have said before, Rome offers an alliance.”

“Yes, yes, Antonius, except that your alliance would benefit Rome far more than Egypt .”

“I beg to differ,” Antonius began to crawl forward, only to be stopped by her upraised hand. Disappointed, he shifted to a reclined position upon the pillows, lying upon his side, dressed comfortably in his Roman-cut toga.

“Caesar is obsessed with this barbarian Greek.”

Antonius was at a loss as to how to counter her claim. For long moments, he gazed past the queen through a window overlooking the shimmering harbor of Alexandria .

When in doubt, tell the truth, mused Antonius, if for no other reason than because it is easier to remember.

“I do not deny that charge, but my queen, can you not see why? Xena ruling Greece is a danger to Rome —and to Egypt .” He added after a pause, “You know me, Cleopatra, I am but a plain, blunt soldier. I only speak right on and I tell you Xena's appetite would not be sated were she to conquer Rome .”

“You hint that she would then gather forces against Egypt , Antonius.”

“As I said, my queen, I only speak to what I know to be true.”

Cleopatra stood, her silvery gown draping elegantly down her small figure. She moved to the window overlooking the harbor, with its wondrous lighthouse. Crossing her arms, the queen stood in silence. This was the moment she had been dreading; for years she had watched Rome expand its influence, knowing that at some point she would have to commit as an ally of Caesar, or align against him. If she were to fight, Egypt could face the prospect of being subjugated. The 35,000 men Antonius had brought was just a taste of the power Rome could muster. However, the one glaring military weakness of Rome was its lack of a powerful navy. On land, Caesar ruled; on water, Egypt was supreme.

And Rome has yet another weakness , thought the queen, infighting among its overly ambitious leaders. A smile, unseen by Antonius, touched her lips. She would use the penchant for Roman backbiting to save Egypt .”

“Speak truth then, Antonius,” she began turning around to face the still reclining Roman, “as a plain, blunt solider. My spies say Caesar plans to declare himself emperor upon the defeat of the barbarian woman.”

“My queen, I...

“Truth, Antonius.” Cleopatra interrupted.

The Roman general let out a resigned sigh.

“Yes...”

“I hear in Rome it is much lamented amongst the common people, that you do not see your own worthiness to rule.

Antonius sat up, wariness written upon his features. “Into what dangers would you lead me, Cleopatra?”

“Is it just that Caesar should straddle the narrow world as world like some colossus? Why should the known world be under his rule alone?”

“Men, my queen, are masters of their fates. So it is with Caesar; he is destined to rule Rome .”

“Then should Caesar rule, it would not be destiny's fault but our own, that we be enslaved.”

Cleopatra watched as Antony bristled, “Caesar is of fair mind, he would never –“

“Absolute power is corrupting, Antonius,” the queen interrupted, “believe me when I say I speak from experience. Caesar would not know his limits.”

The queen moved to a table laden with delicacies and picked up a dagger used for carving meat.

“ Antony and Caesar—What's so special about “Caesar”? She moved to carve CAESAR into the soft plaster.

Why should that name be proclaimed more than yours? Pronounce them—it is just as nice to say. Weigh them—it's just as heavy.

Write them together—yours is just as good a name. Below Caesar, she etched ANTONY into the wall, “yours is as fair a name.” Turning she watched as Antony stood. “Why should Caesar claim destiny gives him the sole right to rule?

Antonius, what dignities has Caesar promised you for your loyal service?”

The man remained silent, and that silence was telling.

Turning, the queen used the knife to slash though the written name of Caesar, leaving Antony 's untouched. Tossing the dagger aside, she slowly walked to Antonius. “Were we to ally, Antonius , Egypt and Rome would become a united Empire which we would rule together.” One of Antony 's brows betrayed him by quirking up in curiosity.

Slowly, she moved to embrace him, the touch of her fingertips causing goose bumps to rise on his skin. “Our... son...” she whispered sexily in his ear, “would rule the world.”

Suddenly, he pulled away slightly. “Who knows, you may not be capable of a son.”

“I'll give you a house filled with lusty sons!” she boasted.

  Needs clarification and re-writing.

“I have no doubt that you love me, if not for mine own worth, then for my worth to you in your plans to create an empire. However, I'd rather be a poor villager than be enslaved by any man.”

“I am glad my weak words have provoked such fire in you.” He felt her hands slowly wrap around him, her dark eyes looking up into his… it was too much for any man resist.

“Say it, Cleopatra, say that you love me true,” Antonius pleaded.

“I do love you, Antonius, and not just as a mere pawn, but as a partner in every sense of the word. Together, we shall rule the world, my love, Caesar and this trifling barbarian Xena, both be damned.”

She moved to playfully push the Roman back onto the pillows where the conversation had begun.

“Now, let our talk be muted, and replaced with action, Antonius,” Cleopatra playfully began to tug at the general's toga. “Let me bear you a son.”

**

In the blackness of night, a cross blazed, the body upon it completely immolated in flame. In the pits below, the surviving Amazons looked up in grief as their queen received the “pyre” Ephiny had requested of the Destroyer of Nations.

**

“You are magnificent.”

Xena didn't feel magnificent.

Earlier she had “liberated” the large townhouse once occupied by the Reeve of Olynthus, quite a prosperous man, if the massive basement kitchens, ornate first floor grouping of rooms, and the master suite she now occupied were any indication. He, like all who once held positions of power in the city-state, were dead—killed in a way which underscored her power over life and death. From a raised platform, they had all fallen as one by hanging. The corpses still dangled in the town square, gently swaying in the breeze as warning to others not to oppose her rule. Tomorrow, a clean slate, as she would appoint new leadership.

And the good people of Olynthus would learn of their part in her plans.

Pulling away from Ares, Xena took one of the worn furs she had used for years while on campaign to wrap herself. She had gotten so used to sleeping on the weathered furs that even the softest of sheets felt strange against her skin. Striding to the fire blazing in the massive hearth, she gazed broodingly into the flames, the flickering light highlighting the planes of her features as well as the muted auburn highlights of her dark tresses.

The lust after battle had to find release and Ares had been the release, much to her disgust. Sex with the deity, while fantastic by any standard, was still only a freeing of battle lust and nothing more. There was no tenderness or depth of feeling in such relations with the god. With the betrayal of Marcus, the walls keeping out such emotions had gone up fully She would never allow love to cloud her judgment again. But, she reflected, whether it be Ares, Borias, or any of the others she had known, there was still always a hollowness, a place deep within her soul none could reach.

Behind, she heard Ares rise from the bed they had shared, heard him snap his fingers, probably to be dressed, felt him moving nearer, and then his hands were on her shoulders, his lips touching her neck.

She wanted him to be gone.

“I am impressed with your actions this day, Chosen,” the god murmured in her ear. “You defeated two separate armies in one day, a feat worthy of note. Who knew such a half-pint could fight so well.”

Xena let out a sigh, knowing whom he was referring to. Men—even gods—fixated on size.

“We are within reach of our goal, Chosen; we are destined to rule Greece .”

“I...” she spat out while roughly pulling herself from his touch. “I.... am in reach of my goal; I.... am destined to rule Greece .”

“You are my chosen, Xena....”

Her hand closed into a fist, slamming down upon the table she was near, rattling the decanters filled with various fine wines.

“You, nor anyone else controls me, I answer to no man... or god!”

“Xena...” he ground out, voice reflecting his irritation. “You forget in your moment of triumph that it was I who took a peasant girl and transformed her into the most feared warlord in Greece . I gave you training, I gave you advice, and I gave you the power of my chosen.”

“Were you there when I suffered defeat at Corinth , Ares?” she countered, “There to help when I was on the run from bounty hunters? When I was starving and half-frozen from the cold? When I was chased by dogs in Chin?”

Silence...

Picking up a decanter, she poured herself wine.

Turning, she brought the silver chalice to her lips for a moment while glaring at the god.

“I recruited and trained an army. And I remind you that I did so while putting up with your incessant string of challengers to my title of Chosen . And let us not forget, I endured the hardships of war as I am unable to snap my fingers as you do and go to and fro. So please Ares, do prattle on about how I'm obligated to follow your every command.”

Xena could see the rage building within Ares. Just a little bit more...

“In fact, I'd say I've succeeded in spite of you. Perhaps I would have succeeded sooner without your… help…”

“Goad me no more, Xena, I shall forget myself; have care to your health, tempt me no further!” he roared.

“Am I required to indulge your rash anger?” She bellowed back, “Here you stand frothing at the mouth because I dare burst your fragile ego with the truth!”

“I remind you,” Ares changed tact wishing to bring up a fact that he knew would truly gall her “that Draco, while weakened, has slipped through your fingers.”

“I have defeated him like every other warlord in Greece ,” she countered hotly.

“Yes you have, Chosen, he is defeated, but not dead. Like a poor marksman, you... keep... missing... the.... target.”

“Leave me!” she yelled.

“Very well, Chosen.” Ares stated calmly, internally pleased that his taunt had worked. The inherent anger built up within Xena from the torments of her past had now been brought to a boil once more. It always served to focus his chosen, driving her to even greater achievements and, in the process, giving him even greater influence upon Olympus . One more tidbit of information would cause that anger to boil over into rage…

“But before I go, I add that Athena worries for her city…”

“I care not what she worries about; Athens will fall like the rest.”

“At this very moment, she tempts your second, turns him against you.” A dark smile formed upon Ares' lips at feeling the fury within Xena. “I've made many mistakes with you, Xena, but you know I've never outright betrayed you as your second is being tempted to do.”

“The man has promise; you have an eye for ability, Chosen ,” Ares conceded. “I wouldn't have given such a scrub a chance. Such a pity he will be turned from you as… Marcus was.”

“Take your leave! Haunt me no longer!” The chalice in her hand was hurtled at the god, passing through his dissipating smug form. It struck the far wall, its contents splattering over both wall and floor.

For long moments, Xena was enveloped in anger, pure rage causing her to visibly quake. Reining her fury in, she gathered her thoughts. Walking to the lone desk in the room, she drew out parchment, writing in precise glyphs before taking a nearby candle in hand, tipping it to let drops of wax fall upon the folded instructions. Using her signet, she pressed her seal into the cooling wax. Drawing out more parchment, she repeated the process several more times.

Missives in hand, she flung open the door to the suite, startling the two guards. “Get these to messengers, I want them sent tonight!”

With a dip of his head, one of the guards took the communications and bolted for the stairs.

Closing the door, she leaned upon it, a smirk upon her face. “Sun Tzu, my old friend, I will use your advice and shall seek to break the enemies' resistance without fighting.”

“Now for a bath, and then onto celebrations,” she muttered, striding across the room. Her men and commanders would expect her to make an appearance, and these appearances were always useful in boosting morale. As her mentor in the court of LaoMa had counseled, “ Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys.
Look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death!”

As for Sevastian, time would tell, but Xena found she hoped what Ares implied would not come to pass. If he were to turn, her efforts to gain his loyalty would have been for naught.

Anger once more marred her lovely features. And he would pay a very dear price for disloyalty.

**

“By the gods, I'm tired,” Sevastian muttered, slumping forward slightly in the saddle.

Gisela plodded along, following the wagons ahead as the group made its way back to Olynthus . Leaving Alistair in charge at the head of the column, he had ridden back to check on the wagons as well as the improvised rolling jails carrying prisoners. It had taken far longer to get the wagons moving than expected, spoils from the most damaged wagons being moved to those which could still be pulled by the big draft horses. As those were now overloaded, the pace was far slower in deference to wooden axles bearing increased weight

And now the group was immersed in the pitch black of a starless night. Dutifully, he had sent out scouts and flankers, but in this darkness, he doubted it effective. All he needed now was some leftover Amazons or highwaymen to ambush his tired force or the one he left behind at the road junction.

His horse let out a wicker...

“Just a bit further, Gisela,” Sevastian murmured, “then we can both rest, and you can have a good brushing and feed.”

An easily seen flicker of light caught his attention. He had given orders for the men to use no torches. Seeing such light now chafed him, as it gave away position.

Reining Gisela to a stop, he dismounted, legs aching a bit from having ridden for so long. Ahead of him, the wagons trundled on, oblivious.

Using the torch light ahead as a guide, he found and took a worn pathway, walking down the sloping gradient through forest, to a clearing which would have been very well hidden indeed except for the light giving the position away. Moving to tie Gisela's reins to a nearby branch, he crept forward. From what he had heard about Amazon's, the warriors would not be so stupid as to reveal their position. A group of foolish highway men, or even a merchant train, would be a better explanation. Why hadn't Alistair seen the torchlight and given a warning? Sevastian thought it wise to have a word with the man, as well as with his scouts, about paying better attention to the terrain around them.

Slinking up to the edge of the tree line, Sevastian beheld a sight which few would dare believe.

Outlined in the light of torches was a large campaign tent whose sides shimmered, being woven with what could only be golden thread. Standing guard at the entrance were two imposing female warriors; more were stationed at each corner of the tent. Dressed in golden armor they made for a most impressive sight.

Were these female warriors Amazons? Aside from meeting Hippolyta, he had never seen an Amazon, having only heard tales from traveling bards about the tribes of savage female warriors. Knowing his own information on the subject was lacking, he decided more reconnaissance was needed, as to not make assumptions when reporting these sights to Xena.

While debating the best possible route to get closer, Sevastian felt the tip of a spear nudge him in the back.

Damn... he hadn't heard a thing behind him.

With a sigh, he raised his hands, turning to face his captor, knowing better than to attempt to fight with a spear at his back. By the gods! His mouth dropped open at the sight of the warrior before him. If these be what Amazons looked like then...

“You are expected.”

“Wha...what?” he managed, while craning his neck back to take in the warrior. Why was it that suddenly he always seemed to find himself before towering examples of the female gender?

As if reading his mind, the woman smirked down at him.

Dressed in burnished white leathers covered by gold armor, the woman was taller than even the Polemarchos . The armor she wore strangely exposed her strong midriff as well as most of her seemingly tree-sized legs. Odd in that armor was designed to protect the most vulnerable areas and yet hers left them open. Of course, from observing her thus far, Sevastian doubted any part of this woman was vulnerable.

“Come, the goddess awaits you.”

“Goddess?”

His eyes darted, scanning her armor to gain some idea of what she meant. There, on her bracer, a design of an owl. Only one Greek deity had...

“Athena awaits you.”

Sevastian swallowed nervously as it all fell into place; everything here unseen by his men, a spectacular tent of woven gold, and a female warrior guard.

“Please,” he began nervously, not desirous to meet any of the Greek deities. Taken as a whole, they were known to be rather capricious. “There has to be some misunderstanding.”

The point of the spear nudged his ribs while her other hand pointed in the direction she wanted him to walk.

“There is no misunderstanding, mortal.” the woman stated flatly.

Sebastian was resigned to his fate. Turning, he walked toward the tent, the woman behind him.

**

“So, you wish to buy weapons, do you?”

Myzantius sat back in the padded chair behind his desk, surrounded as he was by the weapons of his armory.

“Yes. If...if you please, sir,” the peasant before him stated nervously. “Our town wishes to protect itself against the forces of Xena the Destroyer.” Myzantius watched amused as the raggedly dressed man nervously raked his black mustache.

“And what do you bring in payment?” asked the arms trader, internally doubtful that a band of village peasants could do anything to stop the army of Xena. But that was not his concern; his attentions only centered on making a profit by selling weapons.

“Items from our town treasury, great Myzantius,” the man fidgeted, shuffling his feet.

“For waking me, you'd better have something damned good.”

Bending over, the peasant opened a large trunk, pulling out a large, beautifully crafted wooden box. Coated with a rich stain and meticulously engraved, it looked to be something a prosperous village would place valuables in. Myzantius stood, eyes widening in anticipation as the box was placed before him.

“May I?” the man asked timidly, with a hesitant smile.

“Yes, yes.” the arms trader gestured, impatient to see what was within.

The lid opened, and there, coated in gold... the head of Darphus, the burned, rotting flesh locked in the agony of his last moments, frozen in a golden mask. Myzantius stumbled back in shock as a tiny mechanism within the box fired a poison dart, the tip of which pierced through clothing to embed itself in skin.

The arms dealer fell back into his chair as the poison raced through him. Around him, the men of Autolycus moved, slitting the throats of the Myzantius' guard both in and outside the armory.

Taking a bit of parchment from a pocket, Auto casually ran the paper through with a dagger, inlayed with a precisely crafted silver X.

“Xena sends her compliments,” Auto mocked, his words being the last Myzantius would hear in this life.

The dagger was plunged into the now-dead man's chest.

On the parchment, inscribed in Latin above the wax seal of the Destroyer was:

“Parricida vostri sum ad Graeciam”

Any learned reader would know not only the charge against Myzantius, but as it was composed in Latin, he would also deduce who paid the arms dealer for his treachery.

“Clear out this weaponry,” Auto ordered, “load it quietly into Myzantius' wagons, and let's take our leave.”

Myzantius gazed upon the bustle of activity with sightless eyes...

 

**

All activity stopped.

Xena's face remained stoic, yet inwardly she grinned at the effect her mere presence had on people. With a gesture from her, the healers turned back to their duties, the men in the cots relaxed from their rigid attention. As before, with those outside, she moved amongst these men, giving words of encouragement, praising their courage in battle, letting them know she knew full well the pain they were enduring. From cot to cot she moved, each man looking up at her with expressions akin to pure adoration as if she were some goddess from Olympus come down to visit, although she hardly looked a goddess. Dressed in her well cared for armor covering worn leathers of brown, she gave the impression of being a regular soldier, yet these men knew there was nothing common about their commander. For many cycles she had fought with them, suffered with them, and now triumphed with them. All believed that with the defeat of Talmadeus and Draco, nothing more stood between them and their goal.

With these common soldiers, Xena felt the most comfortable, having been surrounded by an army since Cortese had attacked her village when she was in her late teens. Here, Xena could relax, even laugh at the simple tales these ordinary soldiers told her. Most of these hoplites had begun as humble peasant folk, much as she had.

The spirit of these men was what enabled her to win battles. All volunteered freely to fight with her, very unlike Caesars' conscripted fodder. All believed in her goal of a united Greece , many having been preyed upon by the Roman dogs who had invaded their homes time and again, hunting for spoil.

“Talmadeus, how goes it with the leg?”

Her question caused him to look up, his eyes meeting cobalt blue.

“Healer was able to reset the bone, believes I will walk again, albeit with a slight limp.”

“Good news, then,” replied the warlord, while moving to sit on the edge of the cot.

“Xena, I thank you for holding to your word and treating my men with kindness, though they fought against you.” The tone in the old Polemarchos' voice was one which spoke of sincere gratitude.

“Against me or with me, they are Greek and as such deserve to be treated as an honored enemy.”

“Might I ask what will become of them?” Talmadeus watched the Destroyer with barely hidden angst over what might be done with the men of his former command.

“Well,” she began with a sigh, he watching as she placed her hands upon knees. “I hope many will choose to join my cause. If not, I'll disarm them and send them home.”

“You would give them that choice?” Talmadeus was amazed, his tone of voice reflecting it.

“Yes. I want men who choose to follow me, not those that are forced.”

“And… I want you to follow me by choice, Talmadeus.” The shock upon hearing her words was evident in his expression.

“I?” he asked, the question trailing off, and for long moments a silence fell between the two. “I'm a disgraced old war horse, who has had his day. What uses have I, other than being put to pasture?”

“You train men to fight well. That can be your use in this army, my friend.”

“You would be so kind as to call me a friend? Earlier this day you fought against me.”

“Yes, all true, but now I fight you no longer. Here,” Xena leaned in a bit for emphasis, “here is the chance for you to live a life of consequence, Talmadeus. If you are able to swallow your manly pride and follow me, help me train men to fight the Romans, instill your wisdom in them.”

She stood suddenly, looking down upon him.

“And,” he had to ask, “Should I refuse?”

“Then you may go,” she replied without emotion. “But should you oppose me again on the battlefield, know that I will show no mercy.”

Another long silence fell as she studied him, instinct telling her he would accede to her wishes.

“Think upon my offer ‘til tomorrow, then I will ask for a reply.”

She parted from him.

Talmadeus watched as Xena gracefully walked to the tent flaps, those caught standing in the aisle fumbling to move quickly out of her way.

Stepping out of the tent, the hoplites near came to an automatic attention in her presence. “What do you make of that?” she asked. The man nearest the Polemarchos followed the line of her gaze to the roiling clouds on the distant horizon being lit from within by flashes from bolts thrown by Zeus.

“The gods be fighting on Olympus this night, Polemarchos ,” he offered as explanation.

“Let us hope they keep the argument on Olympus and not meddle in our affairs,” replied the warlord, while donning her cloak to ward off the winter chill before walking off to meet her officers.

**

He had never been witness to such extravagance!

Left alone within the tent by the imposing woman who captured him, Sebastian took a long moment to study his lavish surroundings. Surroundings he dare not touch.

The mixed scents from delicacies spanning the known world assaulted his senses. All were precisely positioned upon an ornate mahogany table, inset with swirling patterns of pure gold. In the center of the table rose two massive golden candelabras. Above his head, golden lamps filled with oil burned, illuminating fine artwork consisting of paintings and full marble sculptures. At his feet, amazingly enough, was not bare ground but a large and very intricate mosaic of precious stones. All that which surrounded him had a common theme as it served to remind the viewer of the glory that was Athena. Around the space were large, finely carved wooden chairs, each upholstered in fine silk, bearing a symbol of the goddess. The one nearest a spear, another a distaff, an olive tree, and the last had the image of the ageis in its center, the head of Medusa. On a raised dais sat a golden throne, which would only be for Athena alone. Inset into the back was the representation of an owl, looking out at him with ruby eyes, wings made of silver feathers.

Even in his state of shocked awe, Sevastian couldn't help but ponder about what seeing such items would do to Autocylus; a well-practiced thief such as he would be in Elysia thinking of ways to nab such finery.

A muted blue flash of light drew his attention to the throne.

What he had been dreading now had come to pass; before him sat... a goddess.

He bowed low.

“Insightful,” she spoke, her tone was low, calm, but precise. “that you chose to bow to me yet kneel freely before Xena.”

Great. Moments into the meeting and it appeared he had already offended.

The goddess of wisdom was dressed in a shimmering white gown, high cut to reveal a scandalous amount of leg. The top of the gown tied over one shoulder, leaving the other bare. Upon the shoulder tie was a small, rounded shield symbolic of her role in war. Above open sandals of the finest leather, she wore golden protectors which reached to her knees. The arm in which she carried her sword was covered in gold, jointed armor running up to her bare shoulder. Around her neck were three golden necklaces linked by delicate chains, the front being made up of gold bands hammered into defined V patterns.

Eyes of the purest blue pinned him where he stood. The lines of her face were striking but less pronounced than his most beautiful, yet deadly, Polemarchos . Fitting that a goddess who loved the luster of gold so had such long, flaxen tresses.

How could he recover from such a blunder of etiquette? “Forgive me, goddess,” Sevastian worked to keep his voice steady under her seemingly all perceiving gaze “I did not mean to offend.”

“How can I be offended when your actions bespeak honesty?” she replied. “Any such kneeling and courtesies on your part would be no more than spurious flattery. Your devotion does not lie with me, but with another.

“So I ask,” he watched as she crossed her long legs femininely, “why does Xena merit such fealty from one such as you?”

“Goddess, she spared my life.”

“Yes.”

“Saved my half-brother.”

“Yes.”

Unable to account further, he remained silent, or as the eastern teachers had instructed, never miss a good opportunity to shut up.

“You list good reasons, but I urge you to delve further into your motivations.”

“She gave my life purpose again,” he answered upon inner reflection.

He was suddenly graced with a smile so perfectly lovely, it defied any coherent description.

“Correct.”

Athena rose from her throne, stepping toward him slowly, moving to a position directly before him. And, of course, he had to look up, lest he risk gazing somewhere he shouldn't. There was a tremendous power encompassing the deity. He could feel it cascading off her like waves breaking upon a shore.

“What if I told you that there are many ways to have purpose within a mortal life.”

She slid behind him, “What if I gave you new aspirations?”

The lips carrying that voice were so close to his ear that his breath hitched.

“I...”

He felt her move away from him. “The battle today was watched very closely on Olympus ; many there commented on your abilities

Turning, he watched as she poured two delicately shaped chalices full with wine. Before he could think to politely decline, one of the surprisingly heavy chalices was in his hand.

“By all accounts, it appears a decisive victory occurred today.” The goddess motioned for him to take a sip, which he obliged, and was amazed at the flavor and texture. “Now the moment I've been dreading these past cycles is about to occur. Athens , my city, and the epicenter of Grecian culture, shall fall to... Xena.” He noted her tone changed on the Polemarchos' name to one of disdain.

“Forgive me, goddess,” he fumbled the words nervously as Athena walked behind him again. “But what has this to do with me?”

“Have you not deduced my reasons? You, I desire to be my chosen.” Athena said bluntly. “Foreswear your allegiance to Ares' hound and join me.”

Sevastian was too staggered to even speak

“What is it that you want, my chosen one?” Athena whispered from behind.

“Want me to save your dear brother from her clutches?” she inquired temptingly “Say the word and it will be done.” “How about riches for you,” her voice shifted to his other ear, “and your family?” Sliding around him, she walked to the dais and retook her seat upon her throne. “Perhaps something more grand, like being sole ruler of Athens in my name? Perhaps I could lend my advice and aid in helping you gain an Empire to rule?”

He dipped his head, studying the wine held within the chalice in his hand. In that brief space of time he came to a realization, something a trader in India once had told him. The old doffer said “He who is contented is rich.”

“Most noble goddess of wisdom, I pray my words do not invoke your anger.”

Athena frowned, causing him much anxiety.

“Give voice to your thoughts and we shall see.”

“Kodi has much to learn about patience, the value of hard work, and respect for those in authority. Some lessons cannot be taught, they must be learned through experience. There is no better teacher of those things than Xena. Riches, like power, must be earned, and cannot be given lest they lose value in the eyes of the one they are given to. In either case, the vanities you name will not be mine, but yours, and as such they may be revoked.”

“There is thought behind your words,” Athena's praise after a few very tense moments relaxed him… slightly.

“But...” the deity asked, “do you not see the mistake in your choosing to follow one as mercurial as Xena? She is known for meting out death in the most inventive of ways, and without warning.”

“Goddess, as a mere mortal, I haven't the foresight of the gods, yet this I do know; Xena can be wrathful, malicious...”

“Artemis claims that she is also barbaric and revolting,” Athena smiled, “to list a few of her favorite descriptors.”

“Yet she has earned all she has, having risen to her position despite numerous challenges. By right, she claims not only leadership of the army, but of Greece .”

In the face of Athena's now stormy expression, he bravely pressed on. “Please forgive my insolence, goddess, but I am content. A man should know his limits and not exceed them. Should I live a thousand cycles, I shall never surpass Xena.”

“How can I debate such deep felt convictions?” the goddess stood.

“Should I be so bold, perchance, you could have a word with Xena?” Sevastian stated with utmost respect.

“Perhaps I shall.

“Unfortunate that I have failed to sway you.” Athena smiled at him all too mischievously. “Consequently, I leave you to your fate.” With a sweep of her hand, she and all around him dissipated as the mists, and he found himself in a bedchamber.

Before he could think, a hand was clasped tightly around his throat.

“Whaddja think your doin'?” hissed the Polemarchos .

 

Physically thrown across the chamber like some rag doll, he slammed against the wall, the back of his head connecting hard with the decorative wooden paneling.

“Athena's stooge!” the Polemarchos yelled while advancing upon him. “Come here at her behest to try and kill me!”

Sevastian attempted to right himself, spots flashing before his eyes. A well-placed kick in his ribs caused him to cry out as despite his armor, pain seared though his body.

“No one stabs me in the back! Not man nor goddess!” Another hard kick lifted his entire frame from the floor, flipping him over prone.

Hoisted up by the front of his armor, Sevastians feet left the ground as he found himself gazing wide-eyed, straight into the fury whose name was Xena.

“Did you honestly believe I wouldn't find out about your deceit? What did she promise you?” He shivered at her low, raspy tone, knowing his own end was not far off.

“Answer me!” she thundered.

“Rescue Kodi,” he sputtered, finding it hard to breathe due to the pain lancing though his side.

His head snapped to one side as she backhanded him so hard the spots returned, flashing orbs clouding his vision.

“What else!” His slight frame shook violently. “You are no fool, certainly you bargained for more!”

“No, I…” her hand clasped tighter around his windpipe, causing him to gasp violently for air.

“Riches, power, empire.” He rushed out, understanding all rationality within her had been replaced with focused rage, Ares' gift. He now hoped her torments would end with his quick death. Another hit across the face bowled him over as she had released him like he was rubbish to be discarded. Stumbling, he fell completely upon receiving a kick to his legs on the way to the floor.

“After all I've done for you, you still chose infidelity over loyalty.” Her voice changed, reflecting a deep inner sadness. Even shrouded in the fog of pain, Sevastian could feel it.

Opening his good eye (the other was quickly swelling shut), he watched as she turned on her heel, walking away from him, to slump down in a chair with an uncharacteristic lack of grace. “Why can I not find even one loyal man,” she lamented, placing her face within upturned hands. The sense of utter dejection radiating from her was palpable.

He tried to speak, but found himself unable, choking on blood instead.

He watched as she looked up at him with haunting blue eyes.

“I hope pain is something you enjoy.”

Outside, far from the confines of the room, the picket line of hoplites tried and failed to stop the figure who rode full bore past, upon a pure white stallion whose eyes flamed as coals. The men nearest tried valiantly to stop her, only to be thrown roughly back by some invisible force.

Onward she rode amid flashes of Zeus' bolts and the thunderous rumblings of his voice from high above in the firmament. Horns began to blare, the alarm being raised at the intrusion. Men who had been sleeping after a night's heady celebrations were roused by the sound. From all manner of bivouacs, they scrambled only to see the woman blaze past, her white cape snapping behind her, golden hair swirling wildly. Xena's guard, stationed upon the walls of Olynthus , ordered the gates closed at sighting, the figure riding toward them outlined now in the torchlight. Before they could ready weapons or think to move the heavy wooden gates, she was past, heading directly into the center of the town.

“I didn't...” Sevastian attempted.

Troops stood back in awe, now understanding who was in their mist. As her horse vanished, only Xena's personal guard were brave enough to cross spears at the entrance. With a wave of her hand, they were shunted aside.

“You didn't what?” Xena shouted.

The door to the chamber burst open

“Come to save your little stooge?” Xena yelled in accusation as Athena stepped into the room, leaving the door guards sprawled on the floor behind her.

“Your anger is misplaced, hound of Ares.” Athena retorted. The goddess smiled with glee at the murderous glare given her by Xena, happy to have struck a nerve with her words.

Without another glance, Athena moved to Sevastian, lifting the man physically from the floor.

“Yes, take your lapdog and depart.” The warlord sneered.

Instead, Athena moved to lay him upon the bed in the room.

“So sure are you about him?”

“He is a traitor!”

Sitting, the goddess observed the shallow breathing of the man, eyes looking over his various injuries. “Now you gain insight, Sevastian,” Athena's voice was soft. “Why does Xena still deserve your constancy?”

Even in the addled state he found himself, Sevastian could fathom that somehow, this all was a ploy on the part of the goddess. Athena hadn't converted him to her cause with her first try, so now she was attempting another avenue, hoping now, due to his treatment, he would have personal cause to turn.

“Faithless is he who says farewell when the road darkens,” he whispered.

Athena's expression became cold, while Xena's lips pressed into a thin momentary smile of understanding.

“I was mistaken about you,” all softness in the tone of the goddess vanished. “I had believed you would see the situation sanely. I know now that is not the case. You are blinded to the truth and averse to all reason.”

“Not a failure on his part, Athena, but on yours.” The smug tone in Xena's voice clearly infuriated the goddess, from what Sevastian could observe.

Rising, Athena stalked toward Xena, her long legs peeking out from her gown. “You dare!”

The Polemarchos held her ground, seemingly oblivious that this was Athena!

“You gotta do your own dirty work now.” Xena mocked.

Standing directly in front of Xena, the goddess placed her hands on hips. Sevastian looked on enthralled, as now there came a test of wills.

“I will not tolerate Athens ruled by the likes of you!”

“You have no choice, Athena. Perhaps if your concern had encompassed more than just what is within the walls of Athens you wouldn't be at this point,” Xena counseled, much to the ire of the goddess.

“Mind your tongue or I shall—”

“Do nothing!” the Polemarchos replied. “You would have already, but from what has transpired, obviously that is not permitted. You kill me and daddy will be mighty upset. I, however, am free to do anything.”

Sevastian was amazed watching the two. In appearance, they seemed such opposites. Athena with long golden tresses, dressed in her immaculate, flowing white dress, a white cloak resting upon her shoulders, her midsection covered by silver armor. The Destroyer the opposite, being dressed in worn brown leathers, covered by bronze armor, her raven hair disheveled in appearance.

Or maybe it was light and dark...

“I can, for instance, burn your precious city to the ground.”

“You wouldn't...”

“Ah, ah,” one of Xena's hands raised one finger wagging back and forth in the face of the deity. “You dare me again and I most certainly will set flame to the city.”

“Perhaps...” Athena changed tact after a few moments, her voice mellowing in tone. “We can reach an accommodation with each other.”

“Perhaps,” Xena replied with a lopsided smile, which faded quickly. “We could, but first you heal my second there.”

“You do not order me.”

“I think I shall wait until night to fire Athens ,” the warlord retorted, “the light from the flames is much more brilliant.” The goddess scowled at Xena, who smiled sickly-sweet in return.

With one good eye, Sevastian watched with trepidation as the goddess placed her hands upon him. First she touched his side, causing him to scream out as his bones shifted quickly then knitted together. Wounds, both internal and external, closed, the pain arching through his body caused Sevastian to pass out.

“I said to heal him, not kill him,” Xena groused, leaning in from behind.

“I am healing him! As I recall, you were working on the latter, Xena,” scolded Athena, while moving her hands to mend the broken bones in Sevastian's face. The pain shocked him back into consciousness, eliciting another scream.

“Done,” the goddess pronounced after ministering over the last few wounds. With a snap of her fingers, Sevastian vanished.

“You will bring him back!” the warlord bellowed.

“Heel, Xena,” the goddess derided, “I just tucked him safely into bed. Even with my attentions, he needs rest to heal completely. Leave him be this night. Tomorrow you can unleash your rash temper upon him again.”

Walking casually around Ares' chosen, Athena moved to the sideboard with decanters of wine. “Now let us talk of Athens ' fate.” Finding a chalice, she poured herself a bit of wine.

“ Athens will submit to my will.” Xena stated flatly, her tone brooking no argument.

Before speaking, Athena paused to take a sip of wine, and then frowned upon tasting the libation.

“You will not destroy my city.” The deity walked to the window in the bedchamber, which opened of its own accord, and tipped the contents of the chalice onto the street below.

“I will, should I choose to.” Xena watched the window close as if by unseen hands as the goddess turned to face her. “We are at an impasse then.”

“No,” replied the warlord, “let us make a trade.”

Athena's eyebrow quirked, “You expect me to bargain with you?” her voice carrying a haughty air.

“Only if you wish your precious Athens to survive,” Xena gracefully sat, irritated at the scale of the chair she chose. Tomorrow her furnishings would need to be moved and she knew just who would be doing the moving.

“You say you do not wish Athens destroyed, but let us get to the heart of the matter.” The warlord leaned forward as Athena crossed her arms over her ample chest. “You don't want your precious temple harmed.”

Athena said nothing.

Xena smiled wryly. “So, I will solemnly promise you that no harm will come to your temple, if….”

“If?”

“If you give me Cecrops.”

“I fear you have lost your reason, warlord,” Athena tossed the chalice nonchalantly, the goblet letting out a ring as it contacted the hardwood floor. “I cannot deliver on such a demand.” Her hands moved to rest upon hips.

“Cannot, or choose not?” Xena's smile galled the deity. “Bury the hatchet with Poseidon. Swallow that considerable pride you hold. I have need of an experienced sailor, and who has more experience than Cecrops?”

“If I accomplish this, you will leave my city be?”

“I will, after,” Xena smiled, “a much needed clearing of human debris.”

“Come now!” the warlord stood upon seeing the expression upon the face of the deity. “Revolutions are not made with rose-water! I will sweep clean the miserable political class which has plotted and schemed against me for many cycles.”

“Very well, I give you a free hand to do so, if you make an offering at my temple.”

Athena frowned at Xena's derisive laughter. “You know full well I cannot do that.”

“Because you are Ares' hound?” The words earned another deathly glare from Xena.

“He stands for nothing except constant war and chaos,” Athena pressed. “I impart wisdom in battle and in the administration of an empire.”

“I swore to be loyal and I shall.” Xena crossed her arms over her chest.

“You took that oath long ago, when you were but a girl.”

“I will not be swayed.” Xena pronounced, clearly seeing what Athena wanted. “If you give me what I want, I will…appear…to make an offering at your temple, to appease both you and the populace. That is as far as I will go.”

Silence between the two...

“Then there's a bargain made.” Athena extended her hand and the destroyer clasped it.

With a flash, the deity vanished.

**

“Xena…”

 

“Yesss…”

 

“Do you have to keep calling me little one?”

 

“Sorry, I can't help it, seems to fit you, and well…” Xena's voice trailed off…

 

“Well?” Gabrielle prodded sleepily.

 

“It's really cute.”

 

“Did the big bad warrior just say the word cute?” Gabrielle chided.

 

“I did, got a problem with it?” Xena teased.

 

“No,” Gabrielle began with a little chuckle. “I've never, ever heard you use the word cute to describe anything.”

 

“You're cute, little one.” Xena said softly, smiling as she felt the heated blush sweep over Gabrielle.

 

“Um, I guess if you like it, you can keep calling me that. Just maybe, could you keep it between us?” Gabrielle said while burrowing into Xena's protective warmth even more.

 

“Very well, just between us.”

 

“Good night, Xena,” Gabrielle paused for a long moment. “I do love you, I…” a long pause “I have for a very long time.”

 

“Love you, too, little one.” The words were said reverently by the warrior.

 

“Little one...” Xena murmured before jolting awake from a fitful sleep.

“Again the visions!

“Why must I be haunted at night by these shades? I do not remember such a time!” she groused, looking out the chamber window to see the first hints of the coming morning coloring the sky. Night after night, the hallucinations held her in their unrelenting grasp. This girl, this Gabrielle she had met for only moments, long ago. Why was she at the center of her sleeping torments?

Sitting up, Xena moved to run one hand though her long, raven hair, pausing to look about the room she was in with its ornately decorated ceiling, paneled walls, hardwood floors, and fine crafted furnishings. A long way from the small inn and the peasant life she had come from. Beyond the shifting of the guards' feet at the door, she picked up on familiar steps approaching.

“Kodi” she murmured just before a rasp at the door.

Getting up fully, she donned a robe to cover herself so as to not mortify the kid.

“Come.”

The door opened to reveal the boy, dressed in her livery, holding a breakfast tray. Wordlessly, she pointed to the nearby table. The kid walked to the table, setting down the tray and then arranging the various plates in a neat grouping. Mynia's instructions were beginning to take hold. The runt was learning discipline in how he served her.

“Draw me a bath,” she commanded.

His oddly adorable scowl at her almost caused her to drop the ever-present stoic look and laugh out loud. Kodi was one of those who absolutely despised being ordered. However, he was learning how to take orders while skating around the very edges of her temper.

A jerk of her thumb and the kid trudged off to fulfill her wish.

There was much to do.

**

“Well it's about time you met the new day.”

Sevastian had to smile at Meleager's voice, his eyes tracking to the old commander standing at the door. Glancing over at the man, Sevastian watched as he walked into the bed chamber. “So this is what it's like to be the second in charge, eh?” Meleager chided. “Got yourself a fine place to stay, comfy bed, guards outside the door...”

“I've overslept, then?”

Meleager picked up on the look of concern.

“Not to worry, Sevastian, the Polemarchos gave specific orders for all to let you be this day. She said you needed time to recuperate.”

“I see...” the second replied, letting out a groan as he attempted to rise up in the bed, the bandages around his middle constricting him greatly.

He caught Meleager watching him with some disquiet. “Seems you did have quite the tussle yesterday with Draco's troops.” Pulling up a chair, Meleager took a seat, Sevastian being content to let him go on thinking Draco was responsible for his injuries. Not a lie, as he was not asked directly to explain; besides, the explanation was so amazing, anyone would be hard pressed to believe it.

“Well, my friend, you missed quite a speech this morning.”

“Did I?”

“Xena was in rare form, all fire and brimstone as if she just arrived back from a visit to Hades' realm. Standing up on the scaffold in her brown leathers and fur-lined cloak, she certainly looked the part. Course, having the corpses of the old town leadership swinging from ropes behind her was a good attention getter for the crowd. Not a word was uttered as she spoke.”

“What was said?” asked the second, curiosity taking hold.

“She told the town's folk in no uncertain terms that they were now part of greater Greece and that their taxes and various revenues would now flow into her treasury, that this city would now have a new purpose. And that purpose would be to build up the Greek navy.”

“She wishes them to build warships, then.”

“Aye, and plenty of ‘em, by the looks of it, along with more merchant ships to replace those impressed by the Roman dogs while at sea. All dock front warehouses and homes are to be demolished beginning tomorrow. She says the owners will be... compensated... for their loss. All that land will be used for facilities to produce ships.”

“Amazing...”

Meleager leaned in, his eyes meeting Sevastian's

“At a meeting early this morn with the various tradesmen in the town, Xena pulled out parchments, with detailed drawings of the various facilities she wished constructed, as well as complete drawings for the types and sizes of ships she wants built. All was planned out.” Meleager chuckled, “Those men sat dumbfounded after seeing at the specifics contained within her drafting. I tell you, there are times when I wonder if there is anything Xena cannot do.”

Sevastian reached for and grabbed the bed post, lifting himself up, while waving off any help from Meleager. Standing, he was glad to be clothed in breeches, lest he be completely naked.

“I could tell you more news yet,” Meleager continued as the second walked slowly to a mounted metal mirror, observing the fading bruises upon his face, neck and midsection.

“And that would be?” asked Sevastian, slowly turning to face the man.

“After fighting with us yesterday, Pompey leaves with a full wagon train to parts unknown.”

Sevastian was not surprised by that news.

“Talmadeus joins our cause.”

“Does he now?” What an odd turn of the fates, his former commander was now under his command. That is, if Xena still wanted him to be in command.

“And a most strange apparition was sighted last night, a specter which moved though this army riding upon a horse—”

Meleager's words were cut short as a shuffling of the guard pulled both their attentions to the tall, dark figure filling the doorway.

“Meleager, you twaddle like an old woman.

“Out,” she commanded curtly, standing aside as the man bowed hastily to her and left.

Sevastian moved to kneel.

“I have told you, there is no need. I know of your quality.” Stopping his motion, Sevastian watched as she moved into the room.

“I see you have been filled in as to the happenings these last few candle marks.” Xena's smirk relaxed him a bit and he smiled.

“Rest this day.” She walked to him slowly, grabbing his arm gently, steadying him as she walked him back to bed. The oddity of her action played in this thoughts, since just candle marks before she was well into the process of beating him to death.

“This evening I require your presence at dinner, half candle mark after sunset.

“As you wish.”

The Polemarchos walked to the door, “Oh, I took the liberty of gaining your measurements. You need a new suit of armor, one in keeping with your status in this army, as well as the various accouterments a commander of your rank requires.”

“And,” Xena paused at the door frame as the guard came to attention, “send a missive to your relatives in Elis , have them prepare to move to Athens . It would be better for them to be placed in one of the large estates within the city. As they are related to you, and you are within my service, they need protection. Such a home with private walks and arbors all guarded by my troops will give them privacy.

A large estate with private arbors and walkways, Kodi being tutored, position and possessions showered upon him. In all it was an embarrassment of riches, well above his worth.

“It is...” Xena paused, her back to him, “unfortunate, what happened to you.”

Before he could think to reply, she vanished out the door.

Chapter 14

Sevastian was much surprised to find that dinner would consist of just him and the Polemarchos .

The two ate communally, choosing different fare from a series of plates placed precisely in the center of the table by Kodi. The simple meal of rice with scallions, bean sprouts, cabbage, and bits of fowl dipped in a spicy sauce being consumed mostly in silence.

“Kodi does well, Sevastian.”Xena's statement was the first words spoken since dinner had been served. Previously, Sevastian had only spoken to thank the Polemarchos for taking care of his mother, his statement causing obvious confusion to shine on Kodi's features.

It seemed both he and Xena were comfortable with silence. There was no forced conversation between the two, nor did the quiet seem unduly awkward.

His eyes tracked to his brother, who happened to be pouring him a bit more of the hot tea. The glare told him all he needed to know about what Kodi thought of the arrangement. Sevastian knew the kid had questions, having observed the dark bruising covering his face. Such questions would have to wait.

“I am glad he performs his duties to your satisfaction.”

After filling Xena's cup in an angry silence, the boy moved to a ready position by the near wall.

“Not quite,” the warlord qualified, “but he is progressing.”

The kid scowled.

“I'm sure he will double his efforts to ensure his duties are done to perfection.”

Sevastian's warning glance in his direction caused Kodi to drop his scowl and straighten his posture.

“So good to share a repast with one who appreciates civilized dining,” Xena took a sip of tea.

“An honor to be invited to dine at your table,” returned Sevastian, “in such opulent surroundings.”

“Well,” Xena smirked while her eyes darted around the dining room. “just so happens that I recently came into all this opulence. Appears the former owner had an accident involving a rope, having reached the end of it suddenly.” Sevastian smiled at the dark humor.

The Polemarchos was most elegant, while he wore his regular crimson armor, she chose to dress simply in a chinoiserie made of silk, with indigo colored sleeves, the rest being black with floral patterns. Her long hair was loose, falling down about her shoulders. Once more it was clear how astute she was in the etiquette of the east.

“Come,” she ordered, seeing that he was finished. Standing, she walked ahead of him to the library of the home. Behind, Kodi moved to clear away dinner.

Within the confines of the room, a map of Greece was spread out on a large table, the edges held by weights.

“The objective is here,” she stated simply, tapping a finger on the representation of Athens on the map. “Now tell me, my... most... loyal... second, the best means to move this army to our objective.”

A test of the man. Since her defeat at Corinth many cycles ago, Xena had worked under a different principle, to never tell people how to do things. Instead, she would tell them what to do and let them surprise her with their ingenuity."

In silence, Sevastian studied the map, noting the topographical features marked upon its surface.

Allowing him a moment, she motioned Kodi to enter carrying a tray with two chalices filled with wine. Taking one, she gestured for the kid to put the other on the table near Sevastian. The second was so engrossed in the map, he hardly noticed.

“Were I to organize the movement of this force, I would order the army to split…”

“You would split my force?” Xena questioned. Her voice suddenly behind him spooked him so badly that he jumped slightly. Why must everyone unnerve me by standing behind when asking questions?

“Go on.”

Y-yes,” he cleared his throat. “Sadus in the center,” his finger traced along the map, “as his troops saw the heaviest fighting against the Amazons, Menticles on the right flank, Virgilius upon the left.” He felt her move away from behind and relaxed, the beating he had received from her not far from his thoughts.

“Ahead and to the sides, I would send Mercer's scouts and flankers to ensure the road and area surrounding this army is clear.”

“I see.” He watched with disquiet as Xena studied him from her new position across the table.

“All three routes converge on Athens ,” he continued quickly, continuing to justify his idea. “From here in Chalcidice ,” his finger moved up following the roads, “then south through Macedon, the three army groups will be near to each other. In Thessaly , the distance would become greater, though the terrain is flat, making for an easier march. From there, a straight march to Attica where Athens lies.”

“And what if one flank of the army is attacked?” she asked.

“The other two army groups can turn, enveloping the enemy from behind.” Her eyes narrowed as she regarded him, a most unnerving experience.

“But not all of Thessaly is flat. What of the hills,” her finger touched the area, “any number of them could be used as cover for ambush-style raids.”

“A distinct possibility,” Sevastian conceded, knowing Mercer's scouts would be stretched thin in that area, the terrain slowing them down.

“It has occurred before with much loss to this army.” Straightening to her full height, she pointed to the suddenly present wine by his side. Sliding his hand around the cup, he took a sip as she crossed her arms over her chest. “Your plan is sound enough and will give me the opportunity to test my new commanders, who, despite the recent battle, are still very green. They must gain experience from having to make decisions in the moment, much like I understand you did when facing Draco.”

Her head dipped forward, black tresses obscuring her face.

“What we need, my second, is a larger cadre of experienced scouts, fighters who know the land, understand the areas in which attackers can conceal themselves, and can root them out with brutal efficiency as this army marches toward Athens.”

“Would we have time to train such scouts?”

He watched as Xena raised her head, a wry smile on her lips.

“Why should we train scouts when we already have experts in our grasp?”

“Experts...” Sevastian's eyes widened suddenly as understanding dawned. “You mean the Amazons?”

“Precisely.”

“Buh-but, don't they hate you?” he stammered thinking of hundreds of Amazons on the loose within the ranks of the army.

“Oh yes.” her smile widened, “There is an opportunity here; the best way to rid yourself of an enemy is to make them your friend.”

“Sevastian took a long draught from his cup of wine, causing the Polemarchos to laugh.

“Have faith,” she counseled, “and you will soon see Amazons in this army.” Walking toward the hearth, she placed her cup of wine upon the mantle and gazed into the flames for a moment before turning again to face him. “In my first attempt to conquer Greece , I shunted aside those whose skills could have helped me. I always thought I knew best, and in the end, I failed. This time, I try to build a coalition of the willing, because once Greece is mine, I know Rome will attack.”

She smiled again, seeing his questioning expression.

“How do I know this? First, it is what I would do. Second, like Caesar, I have my sources.”

Sevastian nodded.

Walking to the table, the Polemarchos removed the weights from the edges of the map, rolling up the parchment before moving to hand it to Sevastian, who hastily set down his wine.

“I approve your plan. Go and meet with my commanders, have them begin preparations to depart by the end of this week. At your meeting, tell Meleager he will remain here with a full garrison to ensure the good folk of Olynthus can start production of ships posthaste. I also want the tents we captured from Draco set up on the eastern plain near the freshwater river.

“If I may be so bold, who are the tents for?” Sebastian asked, confused as to why such tents were needed.

“Amazons.”

She is very sure of this, thought the second.

“As you wish.”

“Tell all my commanders that in every village, every town, and every city they enter along the way, they may execute and replace the town leadership at their discretion. The rest of this week I want men training, for we do not know exactly what the remnants of Draco's army may do.”

Sebastian's glance in Kodi's direction found the kid wide-eyed in horror. “I shall call the meeting this very night.

“No...”

“No?”

“It can wait until tomorrow. You, my loyal second, still need rest. I expect you to return to your quarters. This army is secure for the night.

“Dismissed.”

Sevastian bowed gracefully before departing the room.

“Now to find something to wear which will help set the tone for such a momentous meeting.” Her eyes met Kodi's, who was standing by the doorway. “Come, boy,” she commanded. With a frown on his lips, he did her bidding, walking behind the imposing woman as she left the room.

**

“We must try to escape.”

“Escape to where, Solari?” Ephiny questioned, leaning against the earthen wall of the pit they were confined in. The light of the flickering torches above outlined her features in a play of shadows. “Where can we go that the Destroyer cannot?”

“We cannot just stand here and do nothing!”

“Oh yes we can.”

“My Queen, I beg of you to see reason!” Solari rasped so the guards above would not hear. “Although some 400 of us have been captured, thousands more await your command to rise up against Xena. Do not forget that you are now the only queen left. The Amazons scattered across Greece will follow; you only need command it.”

“Just a scattered thousand, not thousands,” Ephiny muttered, her voice clearly sorrowful at the thought. The once mighty tribes of the Amazon nation had, one by one, been annihilated by Xena, the Amazons now teetering on the edge of extinction.

“We must plan your escape so you may lead them in battle once more to defeat Artemis' enemy!”

“Lead them to a sure death...”

“Better we die fighting than submit!” Solari hissed.

“Or... Is it better to submit than all die?”

“My Queen, you cannot be thinking of surrender!”

“We have already surrendered, Solari.” Ephiny raised her arms, hands with palms upward to illustrate her point. “Look around you. We are disarmed and imprisoned.” Her hands dropped. “Hundreds of our sisters have died in this battle alone. We are at the mercy of Xena; one word from her and we all will hang from crosses like Melosa. We will not die fighting, Solari, we will just die.”

“She's right, you know.” Ephiny recognized Eponin's voice in the gloom, smiling forlornly as her oldest friend drew near.

“Solari,” Eponin placed her hand on the woman's shoulder, “we may have some warriors, but the nations have precious little in the way of resources. We lack not only weapons, but food, shelter, even the most basic clothing to stave off the coming winter. Look around you; do you not see the pitiable state we are in?

“What happened here at Olynthus was foreordained, my friend.” Eponin, seeing the shocked eyes upon her, moved to explain. “The morning of the battle, ravens, crows, and kites flew over our heads, looking down upon us as if we were sickly prey, their shadows above us like a canopy under which the Amazon nation would die.”

Eponin, please, you mustn't believe in such omens.” Solari countered, her voice wavering with emotion.

“I believe it, but partly,” Eponin answered in a half-hearted attempt to bolster the morale of her friends.

“Is there nothing we can do?” Solari pleaded of Ephiny.

“I summon the Amazon Queen!”

Amazon's below looked up to see the Enemy of Artemis in all her evil glory. Standing at the edge of the pit high above, Xena was ringed by her guards.

Gasps of horror rolled though the throng as all recognized the garb the warlord bore. The attire was that worn when she presided over the killing of the foremost queen of all Amazons, Cyane.

Seeing the shock and anger in the faces below, the warlord smiled most feral.

A rope was lowered by the guard, and Ephiny parted from the silent crowd to grasp it, being hauled up and out of the pit.

“Walk with me, noble Amazon.”

Through the camp they strolled in silence, hoplites stepping aside to clear a path, then standing at rigid attention as they passed by. Coming to a healer's tent, Xena opened the flap and bid Ephiny to step through. Within, all activity stopped.

“Be at ease.”

At Xena's command, healers continued their work as the warlord stepped inside behind the Queen.

In various cots, Amazons lie under the competent care of the Xena's… women…

“No men,” Ephiny stated, amazed.

“How surprised you are. Do you think I would mix male healers or hoplites with Amazon warriors?”

“No. You, better than most, understand that such a mix would be volatile,” Ephiny stated softly.

“Correct.”

Down the middle aisle they walked, cots on either side filled with the wounded, many of whom knew Ephiny, and she, them. Weakly they tried to rise, having heard of Melosa's demise, understanding now that Ephiny was queen. A nod of her head stopped them in the attempt. The eyes of every Amazon darted nervously back and forth between the queen and the taller, darker woman behind her.

Reaching the end of the tent, the two stepped into the night once more.

“You would be so kind as to treat our injured warriors.”

“They fought with honor, however misguided.” With a gesture, Xena implored Ephiny to walk with her again. The new Amazon queen observed the order and organization of the army. The warlord was sure to point out the different army groups, as well as mention that men who once fought for Talmadeus were joining her army. There was also emphasis on the fact that men from surrounding villages were flocking to her banner.

Ephiny understood well the underlying meaning of the tour. If the Amazons chose continued resistance, they would be wiped from Greece . From their position on the perimeter of the encampment, the army spread out before them, the new queen saw the power Xena could wield.

“I no longer bear a grudge.”

The Amazon barely kept her mouth from falling open in shock at the statement.

“You, you bear no grudge?” Ephiny ground out, “You, Xena the Destroyer, bears no grudge! “You, who murdered untold numbers of our warriors, destroyed our villages, scattered our peoples to the winds, bear no grudge!”

“Your account of events is tainted by your very biased point of view,” the warlord growled, attempting to hold her temper. “Has it occurred to you that I did all I could to prevent war? I sent missive after missive, explaining to Melosa how I did not wish hostilities between our peoples. If I had not been facing the Spartans, I would have come to plead my case personally.

“You expected us to trust the word of the Destroyer of the Northern Tribes?” Ephiny fired back.

“I expected you would see reason!” Xena shouted. “Instead, Melosa doubled down on her gamble, leading a federation of tribes against me.” Xena stepped forward, towering over Ephiny. “She paid a fitting price for her actions!”

The warlord stepped away, and Ephiny let out a small gasp of relief, suddenly quite aware of how near she was to feeling the brunt of the Destroyer's legendary temper.

For a long moment, there was silence.

“I regret deeply the actions I took against the tribes of the Northern Steppes.” The warlord's head was bowed, back to the Amazon queen. “They offered friendship and I returned nothing but betrayal.”

“Do you confess so much?” The Amazon's voice wavered with abrupt emotion. Such words from Xena were akin to an apology while on bended knee. Ephiny, a warrior born and bred, knew full well how difficult it was for another much like her to concede a mistake. Pride was involved.

Ephiny watched as Xena turned cobalt eyes flashing in the moonlight, giving her a look which bore right though her. “I offer you a choice, Amazon.”

“I want you and your Amazons to join my cause.”

“You cannot be serious.”

Unexpectedly, Xena smiled. “I am.”

Ephiny's mouth opened, but she was unable to speak, so in shock was she at the Destroyer's words, for long moments. “You mean to bury the hatchet after such a prolonged conflict? You think such a thing is possible after unleashing an all-out genocide upon our people. You have gone mad.”

“Perhaps I have,” Xena countered “And perhaps your nation can profit from it. I give you a proposal, Queen. Listen well, as I have everything to give and you have nothing to bargain with.

Ephiny remained unconvinced but stood in silence, willing to listen.

“Let us start the discussion with what I require. I want the Amazon nation to swear personal fealty to me.”

“That would be impossible, the Amazon's—” A raised hand on Xena's part kept Ephiny from further speech.

“I want your people to serve in this army, using their fighting skills for the benefit of Greece . If you agree, your best warriors will be counted among my elite and I will dispose dignities upon them based on merit. Those that are the most outstanding, I will honor as my personal guard.”

“In return, I generously return the lands lost in the conflict between our peoples. I will allow you to rebuild your villages, rekindle your customs and traditions. Self-government can be yours once more; peace with security is within your grasp. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I give your people the protection of Greek law. My law.”

“Destroyer, such—”

“Call me Xena, Amazon.”

Ephiny pursed her lips before continuing on. “Xena, getting the Amazons to agree to your terms will be nearly impossible. Many will resist the idea due to a long held hatred of you. Honestly, can you blame them?”

The Destroyer stalked forward again, coming to a position in front of the queen, looming over her once more. “Then explain the alternative to them.”

“Alternative?” Ephiny craned her neck back, looking up, taking in Xena's stoic features.

“I will not rest until every one of your people is nailed to a cross. From here to Athens will I line Amazons, should it prove necessary. I will ensure that your nation ceases to exist, not only in actuality, but also within the pages of history.”

Ephiny understood well that if anyone could accomplish such a task, it would be this fearsome woman.

“I shall explain it to them,” the queen answered, bravely managing to keep the tremors from her voice.

“Do so, and I will expect your answer promptly.” Ephiny watched in amazement as Xena turned, quickly striding away from her.

“You would leave a prisoner unguarded?”

Stopping her progress, Xena turned. “You would never leave your people,” she replied before continuing her stride.

“How right you are, Destroyer.” Ephiny muttered, shoulders slumping, the weight of the known world seemingly upon them. After long moments of contemplation, Ephiny began to trudge back to the pits holding her sisters.

**

“Oh Cassius, if you could but win the noble Brutus to our party.”

“Be content, Cinna, three parts of him is ours already, and possibly the man entire upon the next encounter.” A flash of lightning lit the darkened street outside the Senate House, a gust of wind tugging at cloaks.

“Now go, see if you cannot find Brutus, fetch him to the Senate House this morn.”

“I will go, Cassius; his home lies near. Shall I find you here?”

“Here or on the Senate cloak room, politicking.”

“Very well.” There was a moment of silence as the man worked up the courage to speak. Cassius waited, outwardly patient, inwardly wishing the lanky man would get on with it; Cinna was but a useful idiot, having been easily swayed to the cause by the talk of disposing of new dignities upon the death of Caesar.

“We take a great risk here, Cassius, if Brutus fails to join us.”

“A man cannot live a life devoid of risk.” Looking past, Cassius noted the familiar gait of Casca.

“Casca, I would have a word with you.”

“Who is there?” asked the Tribune, reaching beneath his cloak to grasp the hilt of his blade.

“A Roman.”

“Cassius, ‘tis good to see you this night!” Casca's eyes darted to the cloaked figure that moved away from his friend, walking with purpose, vanishing down the darkened street.

A rumble from the black clouds above caused them both to look up, Casca pulling his cloak tighter about his shoulders. “Who ever saw the heavens threaten like this?”

“Those who have known how bad things are here on earth,” responded Cassius, with a voice filled with frustration. “I tell you, when the forked blue lightning seemed to break open the sky, I put myself right where I thought it would hit.”

“Why, Cassius, would you tempt the heavens so? We must stand in fear and tremble when the gods send warning signals. Just this night, strange sights were seen, shades rising from graves, horrifying shrieks sounding out in empty streets.”

“I know what these portents mean, Casca, and they are not meant for us.” Both looked up upon another flash lighting the skies above the capitol.”

“Do tell, Cassius.” Casca's voice was hushed in tone as unknown passersby came near, huddled in cloaks to ward off the night's chill.

“These are frightening warnings of an unnatural state to come. Right this minute, Casca, I could name a man who's just like this dreadful night. A man who thunders, throws lightning, splits open graves, and roars like the lion in the capitol. A man no mightier than thyself or me in personal action, yet prodigious grown.

“'Tis Caesar that you mean, is it not, Cassius?

“Let it be who it is.”

“The senators say Caesar means to anoint himself emperor upon the defeat of the barbarian Greek.”

“Then I shall use my blade to deliver myself from bondage rather than to see Rome under a king!” The Tribune noted the fire within Cassius' dark eyes, lit as they were from the many flashes of lightning arcing across the skies.

“I know more yet, Cassius…”

The taller Roman stepped closer, intent on hearing any news. “As you know, Cassius, as Tribune I represent the plebeian multitudes who grumble openly of being drained of coin to support Caesar's ventures. Who go to the markets daily in search of bread, only to find none due to Caesar taking farmer's sons from the harvest to conscript into his growing army. They say this Caesar would beat plowshares into swords to satisfy his personal grudges while causing Rome to toil under a heavy yoke. That he builds monuments like the Circus Maximus instead of feeding the poor.”

“These plebeians are most astute; Caesar takes our riches to gain glory not for Rome , but for himself, Casca.”

“I agree, my friend. But… what can be done?”

“Come, Casca, to the Senate House.” The tribune felt a hand grasp his right arm, urging him to follow. “We shall speak with the noble Brutus. I have within my mind a plan which may relieve Rome of this heavy yoke.”

“Very well, lead on, Cassius.”

**

“We are ahead of schedule,” Meleager yelled above the clatter, only continuing when Xena nodded approval. “Most of the smaller buildings have been taken down. We are taking care over the framing timbers so we can reuse them in the new construction.”

“Time?” asked the Polemarchos curtly, with raised voice.

“'Bout a fortnight before we can clear these buildings completely, Xena, then we can begin construction…” the rest of his words trailed off as, with a slight shake of her head back and forth, the warlord expressed her disapproval.

“To work any faster, Xena, I need more men.”

“You will have them.” Seeing the doubt in the man's face, the warlord stepped away, one hand moving out, urging Meleager to walk with her. “Tell me in detail what you require and I will order those from nearby villages to travel to Olynthus .”

“To build the ships on the timetable you desire, Xena, we would need hundreds of laborers. Where would we house them all? We can't possibly build structures for so many sudden arrivals.”

“We use the tents taken from Draco's wagons. Not the most comfortable living in the dead of winter, but they will do until more permanent structures are built. If any of the workers complain,” Xena stopped walking, causing Meleager to do so as well, “execute them publicly.”

The old man's eyes widened. “I hope it does not come to that!”

“Culling a few disgruntled workers from the herd will set an example for the rest.

“Has Sevastian spoken to you?”

“Yes, Xena.” Meleager broke into a slight grin.

“Might I ask what you find so amusing?” the Polemarchos growled.

“Apologies, Xena,” Meleager stated contritely while dropping the smile, “I was just recalling the events of this morning.”

“And?”

“Virgilius complained about having to take the left flank as his route to Athens , wishing instead to take the center, whose ground he found to be more favorable.”

“The response?”

“The second asked why Virgilius deemed it necessary to cross him in this exigent.”

Meleager stood silent for a moment, a grin upon his face.

“Quit drawing it out, ya old bastard, I don't have until solstice to listen to your gossip.” The harsh tone of Xena's words were mitigated by a smile. A much-relieved Meleager laughed heartily.

“When Virgilius pressed his complaint in a most uncivil manner, he found himself reeling from a solid hit to the face from the hilt of a dagger. The second stated the next time such obscenities were voiced in his presence, the dagger would be turned, the blade used instead.”

“Good.” Xena allowed herself a chuckle, imagining the shock upon Virgilius' face.

“Seems Sevastian was so put off by the remark, he ordered Vigilius to meet with Talmadeus in the healer's tent for instruction, then oversee the training of the newest recruits. The rest of the commanders were to break their units up and have the men spar as a means to sharpen skill.”

Blue eyes tracked to see the second approaching, dressed in his usual full armor. From his stride, he appeared to be fully healed.

She watched as he bowed low before her, and then assumed a position of attention, waiting for permission to speak.

“Yes?”

“Xena, the Amazons most respectfully request an audience. All… the Amazons request an audience.”

One finely sculpted eyebrow rose in silent question, to which Sevastian shrugged his shoulders ever so slightly.

“Well then, my most loyal second, have them gather in the town square and send messengers to fetch all my top commanders.”

Meleager was surprised. Most loyal? What had Sevastian done to earn that descriptor?

After another respectful bow, the second moved to fulfill the order.

**

The appearance of Xena along with her command upon the dais normally reserved for the town crier naturally drew a crowd. Meleager's men, given a break from demolition, ringed the plaza. Their presence was a silent reminder as to who was now in charge of the city.

“Virgilius,” the warlord tsked while her hand moved up, fingers roughly grabbing the man's chin. “What a nasty bruise you have there.”

“Compliments of your second in command,” the man griped.

“Count yourself fortunate,” scolded the Polemarchos , “I woulda lopped your head off.”

Xena turned from the now ashen man as the multitudes parted in haste, Amazon warriors moving to fill the town square. While still covered in grime and wearing shreds of clothing, the warrior women held heads high. Defiantly glaring at the Polemarchos , they lined up row after row.

At Xena's bidding, Sevastian ascended the dais, taking a spot behind and to the right of the warlord. A spot Xena had pointed to by extending one elegant finger.

The square was silent, save the gusts of wind whistling over the walls of the city causing Xena's standard to snap as it flew above the main city gate.

Ephiny moved from her position at the front of the formation. As she did so, Xena walked down the wooden steps with a confident swagger, meeting the Amazon queen halfway on the dais in a gesture bespeaking an uncharacteristic kindness for a defeated enemy. Behind Ephiny, the female warriors took a knee as their queen knelt before the Destroyer. Ephiny clasped her hands as if offering a prayer to the gods, hands that were surrounded by the Polemarchos' own. Every Amazon warrior then moved to lie prostrate upon the ground, much to the astonishment of the watching throng.

Xena watched the Amazon queen swallow hard, pursing her lips before beginning to swear an iron clad oath of allegiance to a warlord who had, until a few days ago, been committed to wiping the Amazon nation from Greece . After a long sigh, Ephiny mustered her courage to speak the words in a voice clear and true.

"I promise on my faith that I will in the future be faithful to you, my lord Xena, to never cause you harm, and all within the Amazon nations will observe the same homage to you completely in good faith and without deceit.”

It was done.

Ephiny couldn't help but think the warriors already in the Amazon land of the dead were crying out in anger at the events unfolding among the living. Certainly, the Amazons behind her had only been convinced by the fact that the nation was on its knees, and Xena's offer was their last chance for survival and some measure of peace after many cycles of war.

“Rise, noble Amazon.”

Ephiny slowly stood, her hands released by Xena. Two elegant fingers tapped the queen's lower right jaw. “You have chosen well, Ephiny, and now your nation will thrive once more.”

Sweeping past, Xena walked to the Amazons still lying prone on the ground.

“Rise, my friends.”

“Friends? She calls them friends.” Sadus had leaned in, whispering the words into Sebastian's ear. “Are we sure we can trust these… friends… not to kill us in our sleep?”

“Only time will tell,” responded the second, watching as Xena moved to clasp hands with several female warriors. While the Amazons were certainly not friendly to the Polemarchos , he noted the clear respect they accorded his leader. “One thing I do know is to never underestimate the Polemarchos . I would not have believed Amazons could become allies, yet before us is proof.

“I, for one--” “will show them every courtesy they are due as an honored ally, Sadus.” Sevastian's tone was one which did not invite further discussion.

“Is this an all-boy's club or can a woman stand up here?”

The look of shock upon the faces of the assembled men almost caused the usually stoic Ephiny to smile.

“Of course you may,” replied the second in a rushed flow of verbiage, while elbowing Sadus to scoot over.

“Bet ya never would have believed something like this could happen.” Ephiny watched as the men suddenly looked down, finding their boots of interest. “'Course. neither would I.”

At that, Sevastian smiled a bit, though unseen by the Amazonian Queen

“Well…” Ephiny let out a long breath while reflecting on the tension radiating off the men of Xena's command. “I can see we have a long way to go in building trust with one another.”

“Station.” Sevastian's head jerked up, meeting Xena's eyes across the space. He quickly moved to her side, surrounded as she was by the Amazons. A dangerous move, he thought, as any of the warriors holding a grudge could strike. Still, her action spoke of trust.

Walking to a position before her, he waited at attention for Xena's order.

“My friends,” Xena addressed the crowd surrounding her, “I have hoped for and anticipated this day, a day in which our two peoples may once more live in peace and security. This day is a new beginning, one which will see your nation be revived to take its rightful place as part of greater Greece . For our agreement to work, we must trust one another,” The warlord raised one hand, clasping the shoulder of a very surprised Eponin. “and trust between former enemies is always hard to achieve. Therefore, I shall take the first step, placing in writing my commitment to ensure the continuation of the Amazon nation. Tonight, we shall celebrate a treaty of peace between our two peoples.”

At those words, cheers rose from a faction of the Amazons who were most tired of the prolonged conflict with the Destroyer.

The hand left Eponin's shoulder, rising up in a gesture requesting, and getting, immediate silence.

“For now, a camp has been prepared for you. Rest, eat heartily, and divide the supplies which are rightfully yours. While you do so, your queen and I will meet, placing in writing that which we have already agreed to.”

Xena's hand gestured to Sevastian. “My second will show you the way to your camp.” As the eyes of the Amazon warriors flicked toward him, Sevastian attempted to not let any appearance of nervousness show. Thankfully, these women were not, well, most were not like those stationed in guard around Athena's tent.

Without a word, Sevastian turned, walking to the main town gate, Amazons training behind.

“You know what to do?” The commanders straightened in posture as Xena's gaze fell upon them.

“Yes, Xena,” they responded as one.

“Then do so.”

Ephiny watched with undisguised amusement as the men scattered from the platform.

“Come, Queen, we have much to put in writing.”

 

 

Chapter 15

**

Sandal soles slapped upon the polished marble floors.

Courtiers dodged out of the messenger's way as he made his way through the marble halls of the palace. As he wore the garments of his office, guards made sure his passage was unimpeded.

Seeing the recipient of the message, the runner knelt, arm raised, hand offering the missive, “Vizier Amenemhet, I bring a most urgent message!”

“They are all important.” The tall, elderly Vizier snarled, as he snatched the rolled papyrus parchment from the runner's hand. Unrolling the parchment, the man's expression became more and more anxious as he scanned the information. Looking up, Amenemhet pointed to another runner standing near. “Inform Khnumt-Amun Cleopatra that I humbly beg an audience immediately.”

**

Silent steps down well known streets.

Had Autolycus not sent word….

A pure bit of foolishness showing up here again, Xena mused, certainly she was not at the top of the favorite people list in Amphipolis. Making her way past darkened homes and shops with silent steps, she stalked from shadow to shadow, all the while thinking that there was no need for stealth; the entire village was sleeping in ignorant bliss. The shops, the markets, and the huts she knew as a little girl all were still standing. In her mind's eye, she recalled running along these rutted dirt streets, leading a rag-tag band of village kids. Even then, I liked to be in charge, she considered with a smirk.

Fond memories faded upon seeing the tombs of the village necropolis, hewn as they were into solid rock. Ahead, the warlord could make out two figures standing stark still on either side of the rolled back stone bearing the family crest that had sealed the entrance.

“Lyceus…” his name left her lips in a whisper.

“My lord,” the two Amazon scouts rasped soft, while dipping their heads in courtesy to the Polemarchos . My lord… that's what I get for charging Sevastian with the task of acclimating the Amazons to life in my army, grumbled Xena internally. Reaching out, she took the unlit torch offered to her.

“Go scout the Inn ,” She commanded, watching as the two women dipped heads again before slinking away into the darkness.

For long moments she stood before the pitch black entrance, feet seemingly rooted to the earth. Finally, with the utterance of a lament, she waded in the gloom.

The flint and striker she carried within the folds of her cloak worked to light the torch. Given the fact that the whole village was sleeping and was without even one single guard to sound an alarm, Xena worried little about someone spotting the light. They profess to hate me, her thoughts on the villagers of Amphipolis, yet they sleep in peace because of me. My reputation keeps them safe.

Turning from placing the torch in the wall sconce, Xena's shoulders slumped slightly as she regarded the coffin.

"You always did have trouble keeping your face clean.” Stepping forward, she blew the layer of dust from the engraved lid of the coffin. “Since you've been gone, I kind of lost my way.” A candid assessment of her loss at Corinth and years spent wandering in Jappa, Chin, and the Northern Steppes. Well, LaoMa did try to focus her, Xena conceded, but at the time she was just too wild to be tamed. Then there was Hercules. She shook her head dismissively—whata worthless lout, filled with delusions of what the world could be. The thought struck her; I wonder what happened to his little friend, the one I used so effectively against him?

A sigh escaped her lips before she continued. “I've done terrible things, brother. I've killed with nary a thought, just a flick of my sword…” a candid assessment she couldn't finish. “At the time I just wanted power to have power, with little thought as to what I would do once I attained it.”

“Lyceus, I know my true destiny.” One hand moved, fingers tailing along the wooden surface gently. “I will protect Greece from all who would seek to subjugate her. I shall build an empire across the known world with Greece at its center. It is not enough to defend our village, I must defend Greece .”

Turning, Xena began to pace along the length of the coffin before turning upon her heel to pace back. Slowly, her arms moved, folding over her chest as her head dipped.

“I know many don't trust my motives after all the bloodshed I've caused, certainly not Mother. I can't blame her. She can't see into my heart. But I've got to believe that you can and you know I'm right about this. In this world, one will always prevails,” her features hardened, eye lids narrowing. “My will prevails.” She stated in a low tone.

“I wish you were here,” she conceded, while stopping to lay hands on the coffin again. “It's hard to be alone."

“You're not alone…"

In a whirl of movement Xena spun while unhooking her chakram, scanning for the person who dared intrude.

The cavern was empty, the flicking light of the torch dancing off the rough cut walls.

Relaxing slightly, the chakram was slowly placed back in position upon her hip.

“That voice,” the warlord muttered. “I know…” Realization dawned upon her face.

“Gabrielle…” At a full sprint Xena tore through the cavern entrance and out into the night.

Silence.

Scanning the surrounding terrain, she found no telltale signs of movement. “I was sure I heard…” One arm rose up, hand moving, fingers running through thick dark tresses. “I am losing my mind.”

Turning, Xena re-entered the tomb, pausing to touch two fingers momentarily to her dark lips, then to the coffin. “Be at peace, brother,” she rasped thickly. Before the emotion could overwhelm her and the tears could fall, she brusquely grabbed the torch, dousing it in the sands, and then leaving it behind as she withdrew.

The stone was rolled back and timeless stillness returned to the tomb.

“Report.” The voice from behind caused the Amazon to start, reflexively moving to strike before her wrist was grabbed. “It's me.”

“By the gods, you are a wraith!” The declaration caused a slight smirk.

“I am no shade, Amazon. What is your name?”

“Zana, my Lord.”

It was all Xena could do not to roll her eyes at the honorific.

“Report, Zana.”

“My Lord, the inn appears to be empty of travelers, the kitchen and main hall are deserted, and the rooms empty.”

“Empty?” Zana watched as the Polemarchos eyes shifted, studying the structure.

“Yes, empty save one.” To the amazon, it appeared Xena bodily relaxed, if only slightly.

“Where?”

“One floor up at…”

“…the end of the hallway.” The warlord finished, cutting the small Amazon off.

“Once I enter, no one is to be allowed in until I leave. Understood?” Zana fought the shudder which threatened to roll though her frame at being pinned by those deep blue eyes.

“Understood.”

Sliding past, Xena walked up the worn wooden steps to the door. Straightening her posture, suddenly nervous fingers moved to adjust her fur lined cloak as well as her bronze armor and brown leathers. Forcing herself to stop trifling with her attire like some anxious girl about to meet her beau, Xena pushed the door open.

Stepping into the darkness, she observed the empty hall with its familiar smattering of tables. Walking to the bar along one wall, keen eyes noted the layer of dust upon the top, something her mother would never have tolerated under normal circumstances. It confirmed what Autolycus' growing spy network had reported.

The moment she dreaded had come; it was time to see mother again. Raising her chin slightly, the warlord strode across the hall to the narrow access way at the end of which was the kitchen, and to the right, the stairs up to the suite of guest rooms as well as the little grouping of rooms reserved for the children with her mother's room at the very end of the hall. Well, two rooms. Toris whined so much that mother eventually gave up and let him have his own room; she and Lyceus had shared a room.

The temptation was too much. Gently, she pushed the door to her old room open and looked inside. There, bathed in the moonlight, was what only could be described as a memorial to Lyceus. All his belongings were neatly arranged, just as he had left them. It was as if he had stepped out and would return any moment. Even his clothes for the new day lay neatly upon the bed. About the same size as Kodi, Xena though absently. She and Toris had been gifted with the height Lyceus sorely lacked. Toris had picked on both she and Lyceus constantly; well, ‘til she had out grown her elder brother and beat the tar out of him one morning, much to mother's dismay.

Notably absent was any trace of evidence that she had once shared the room as well.

No more tarrying; time to face mother again.

Turning, she walked to the end of the hall. Reaching the closed door, Xena slowly raised her hand to do something she would never do for anyone else—knock.

From beyond the door she heard a ragged cough erupt. A long, rolling cough, punctuated by gasps for breath. When silence returned within, Xena rasped soft upon the wood.

“W-who is it?” A weak voice called. “I am armed!” her mother's familiar tone rose up more strongly, “You'd be wise to…” the coughing began again, cutting off the rest of the thought.

Unhooking the latch, Xena pushed the door open.

For a moment her mother gazed upon her in wide eyed shock.

“You!” The accusing tone of that one word was like a dagger to her heart.

“How dare you show your face here!” her mother bellowed, unleashing another fit of coughing.

“Mother,” Xena said dejectedly, the word sounding foreign, having not uttered it in so many seasons.

Walking into the small space she immediately moved to the hearth, experienced hands moving to place bits of tinder and a few logs in the fire pit.

“Here you lay in a freezing room with only one taper burning,” Xena grumbled while reaching within her cloak to find her flint and striker for the second time this night.

“I'm fine, Xena.” Cyrene managed in a defiant tone before another fit of coughing began.

“Yeah, sounds like it,” came the retort as sparks fell, the warlord leaning in, blowing to help the few tiny embers ignite. The effort was rewarded as the fire came to life.

Rising up, she paced the few steps to the edge of the bed. Another pang of sadness hit on witnessing the look of fear on her own mother's face.

“By all the Olympian Gods, Xena! You're a big girl!” Cyrene whispered. “Of course I had an inclination that you'd be a tall one, but look how strong… you've…” The words faded as Xena moved away to the nearby chest, opening it and pulling out another blanket. Walking back, the blanket was tucked gently around her mother's far too thin frame. Xena then moved to take a seat upon the edge of the straw filled mattress. The two women sat in tense silence for longmoments, studying features which had changed over the seasons.

“Never could get you to wear a dress,” Cyrene spouted disdainfully after inspection of Xena's attire.

“Mother,” now the word spoken by the warlord held a tone of almost whiny annoyance.

“Fever,” Xena stated clinically while removing her hand from Cyrene 's forehead, feeling yet another pang of sadness when her own mother flinched slightly when she moved her hand to feel for temperature.

“I just have a bad cold, nothing more.”

“You have something more, Mother; you suffer from consumption.”

“How dare you call me that!” Cyrene yelled out, referencing being called mother, the outburst causing yet another fit of coughing. “You... are no longer my daughter; the daughter I knew died long ago having been replaced by a murdering warlord.”

“Very well,” Xena stated without emotion, keeping hold on the anguish she felt within, “if that is what you wish. Still, I do not renounce you as my mother, and I tell you the sickness you have is serious.”

“Are you a healer now, Xena?” Cyrene asked with scorn. “But I forget myself; should I address you as Destroyer? Warrior Princess?”

“That will be enough,” urged Xena in a low tone.

“Tell me, why did you come in the dark of night, Xena? Could it be you were afraid the reception you would receive from those in this village and your kinsmen?”

“I fear nothing.” Cyrene looked on warily, as Xena stood.

“Were they to realize you were here; I believe they would stone you to death, taking revenge for the deaths of their sons.”

The warlord stepped back to the hearth. Grabbing a metal rod, she poked into the flames, shifting the logs, before adding more wood to the fire.

"It's true, what they say—it's sweet.”

 

“What is sweet?”

 

“Revenge,” Xena replied while standing, turning to face her mother once more.

 

“It was sweet when I used my blade to remove kings across Greece from their plush thrones, sweet when I, a mere peasant, cleared fields of battle of haughty enemies who thought themselves so much better than I, and it will be sweet when I clean out the rats in Athens and Greece submits to my will.”

 

“What of your remaining brother, Xena? Shall you use your blade on him as well?”

 

“You think me so vile as to do such a thing?” Xena dipped her head, shoulders slumping forward to reflect inner sorrow.

 

“I don't know what to think, Xena, after hearing so many horrible tales.”

 

“Then let me allay your fears. Toris will soon be here with you, Mother. “I remind you that he is not exactly pure in deed either.”

 

“I know of his deeds, how I failed you both as a mother.” Cyrene 's voice held regret.

 

“You did not fail,” countered Xena, while stepping to the closed window shutters, absently fingering the latch. “There was such… love within this home, I can scarcely think of a better place to have grown up.”

 

“Cortese,” Cyrene uttered.

 

“Cortese,” Xena repeated.

 

Nothing more need be said. The tragedy associated with that name was known all too well. Cortese began the series of events that ended with a broken bond between mother and daughter.

 

Xena kept her back turned to her mother so Cyrene wouldn't witness the roiling emotions she felt, which momentarily overcame the stoic mask she wore. Agony at the loss of Lyceus, anger at being shunned by her own village, and heartbreak at being forsaken by her own mother.

 

“I take my leave of you, Mother.” Xena turned abruptly, her cloak swirling about her legs as she did. “But before I do, I must tell you of the orders I have given to the Amazon's I traveled here with.”

 

“Amazons? You traveled here with Amazons?”

 

“One of them is a skilled healer; Eris by name,” The warlord continued. “She will see to your recovery, the others will aid in running your inn as well as serve as your protectors.”

 

“I need no help from you, Xena.”

 

“If you had put the gold I sent regularly to good use, Mother, perhaps you would not have fallen ill from over-exertion.” Xena scolded.

 

“I will not take your blood money. I threw it all in the pond you used to swim in as a girl.”

 

“Must you be so gods be damned stubborn?” Xena roared, finally losing patience. “You will do as I say!”

 

A long sigh left dark lips upon seeing her mother clutching the blankets tightly, fearful of her own daughter.”

 

“It is too dangerous for you, Mother. I soon will hold power over all Greece , and those disaffected by my rule may seek to harm you to get at me. I cannot allow such a thing to happen. Therefore, you shall have protection and I will not tolerate any further debate on the matter.”

 

Xena moved to the door, intending to depart.

 

“Little one, what happened to make you so?” Cyrene whispered, despairing of the loss of the happy girl she once knew long ago.

 

The hand on the door latch paused.

 

“Much,” replied Xena coldly, before she opened the door to make her exit.

 

**

 

“T hree solid days of merriment in the Amazon camp.”

 

“And?” Sevastian looked over at the man riding next to him. Sadus presented a most fearsome appearance with the tattooed dark lines upon his face, golden earnings, and a gold chain about his neck. Instead of wearing his normal armor, Sadus chose light clothing this day. He wore a green, red, and gold striped tunic over brown woolen pants tucked into brown boots. For someone raised in the temple school as Sevastian was, where simplicity of dress, of food, and of weapons was the rule, this man looked like a preening peacock. To Sevastian, the word garish aptly summed up Sadus.

“It is unfair!” Sadus continued his protests. “My men got one night's allotment of mead and watered down wine, here Xena grants the Amazon's provisions, weapons, and allows them full nights of celebrations filled with drums and wild dancing.”

“Unfair that they enjoyed such a celebration, or unfair that you were not allowed to join in?” asked Sevastian with a slight smirk. The Amazons, with Xena's approval, had made it exceedingly clear that any man caught entering their part of the encampment would be executed in the most brutal of ways.

“I tell you, Commander, my men grumble at what they see as special treatment.”

“Tell me,” Sevastian began pointedly, “Who do your men serve?”

“Why, me of...”

“No!” Sevastian's tone caused the hoplites marching nearest to glance up for a moment. After too many cycles of Sadus' whining, Sevastian had about his fill.

“They, like you, like I, serve Xena,” the second scolded. “Get that through that tattooed head of yours, Sadus. What the Polemarchos decides to grant an important ally like the Amazons or anyone else is none of our concern. Our only task is to fulfill her orders to perfection.” Sadus proceeded to level his most lethal glare at an unimpressed Sevastian for long moments, until spurring his horse forward.

Scanning the road ahead, the second was most relieved to see the city of Pella , if for anything else, it would give him rest from Sadus' near constant complaining. The army groups were to converge on the city, per the orders of the Polemarchos, and Sevastian was relieved to see the encampment taking shape. Looking up, he watched Xena's personal standard rise over the main gate of the city. Catching the breeze, the cobalt and black flag unfurled, letting all know who now held the fate of the city within her hands.

Reigning his horse over, Sevastian eyed the hoplites marching though the main gate into the city to the camp beyond. Unlike Sadus, he was dressed in his usual crimson armor. Taking his helmet off, Sevastian swung it over his saddle horn.

“Lord Commander.” Sevastian picked up on the snarky tone and knew instantly who it belonged to.

“Yes, Kodi.”

“The Polemarchos demands your presence in the magistrate's chambers.”

Immediately Sevastian dismounted, handing Gisela's reins to his stepbrother. “Take her to the stables,” he commanded.

The boy stood holding the reins, defiance written on his features.

“Please,” Sevastian asked quietly, causing Kodi's lips to quirk up momentarily into a smile as he savored the achievement of a small victory. Without another word, he turned to lead Gisela to the stables.

“Wait.”

His step-brother turned, facing him. Sevastian stepped forward to take a knee before Kodi.

“You must learn to tie these better,” he mumbled, working the boy's laces as the hoplites continued to march past, being wholly unconcerned by their amused glances in his direction.

**

“Say what you like, Agota, and you will not live. Say what you like,” words spoken in an almost melodic tone, one that was velvety smooth and very dangerous.

The gaggle of commanders, including a just-arrived Sevastian, looked on with somber expressions as Xena's booted feet slowly uncrossed, and then moved off the desk they were propped up on.

All present stood within the court of law. This Agota was once the town reeve and stood charged with giving aid and comfort to Draco.

Rising from the high back wooden chair, Xena stood for a moment before sauntering around the desk and down the steps it was placed upon

“Speak now without lying, for it will avail you nothing,” she said in a tone of finality, standing before the man.

Behind the bar, Agota's eyes widened as he looked up at the deadly vision before him.

“Please,” the stout man huffed in exasperation. “You must believe me! I did not render any aid!”

In a move faster than a bolt thrown by Zeus, her fingers jabbed at a spot on his neck. Agota fell to his knees, seeming to be frozen, only able to stare dumbly up at the Polemarchos .

“I know all too well what you have done,” Xena growled.

“You have an itchy palm, Agota, selling provisions to Draco.”

The man attempted to speak but could not, his breath having failed him.

“And you will die for it, but think of this… your wife, your children, will be sent to work in my mines at Laurion. There, without the possibility of reprieve or parole, they will toil for the rest of their lives. All you hold dear destroyed due to your appetite for gold.”

The man toppled forward, his head ending up near Xena's immaculately polished right boot.

A gesture from the warlord and two hoplites dragged the body away.

In the silence which followed, the Polemarchos appraised her commanders. “We march at dawn tomorrow. Sadus, I and the second ride with you.” Standing next to him, Sevastian couldn't help but feel the man's sudden dread at having Xena joining his troops.

“I wish to be in Marathon within a fortnight; we meet there. Dismissed.”

“Hold, Sevastian.” Oh gods, thought the second as he turned in place to face her while assuming a position of attention.

Instead of calling him forward to where she stood, Xena walked to a visibly startled Ephiny, who stood at the forefront of a group of Amazon warriors.

“I have many skills,” the Polemarchos stated with a slight smile, as if reading Ephiny's thoughts on what had just transpired. In the shocked haze of seeing a man killed by the touch of fingers, the Amazon queen barely managed to nod her head in the affirmative.

“My Queen, this is where we part company.” Ephiny looked up directly into the eyes of the Destroyer, her mind flicking through the different possibilities inherent in that statement.

“Ephiny…. not that kind of parting.” The Amazon visibly relaxed, causing Xena to smirk.

“Take 100 warriors with you, find your sisters scattered throughout Greece , and begin to rebuild your nation.”

“I am in your debt, Xena.”

“I know…” Ephiny saw the warlord's right hand rise and tensed, only to feel the back of long fingers slowly trail up her right jaw. “…don't forget it.” The queen relaxed only slightly as Xena's hand dropped away.

“The 300 warriors in your service will perform all duties assigned to the best of their ability, but…” the Queen's voice trailed off and her eyes flicked over to where Sevastian was standing.

“Go on,” Xena instructed, “he has no ego to bruise.”

“They would not appreciate receiving orders from a man.”

“Cannot be helped, Queen. While the elite of your warriors are under my direct command, there will be times in which they will take orders from a man. However, in deference to your peculiar customs, the only man who will be allowed to give orders stands before you.” One elegant finger pointed to the second.

“There will be grumbling.”

“Too bad; they will obey.”

Ephiny dipped her head in acquiescence.

“Solari,” Ephiny stepped back while gesturing to the auburn-haired woman behind her, “I put forth as a commander, pending your approval, of course,” the queen added rather hastily.

“Solari.” The Polemarchos said the name slowly. “Well, I should like to… test… her abilities as a warrior. We shall spar later, Amazon.” The feral grin Xena sported raised the woman's angst considerably. Solari swallowed nervously. “Until later, Amazon.”

“Fare well, my Queen.”

Both women dipped heads in respect before taking their leave.

“I am displeased, Sevastian.”

Although he knew the source of her stated displeasure, Sevastian remained prudently silent.

Crossing her arms over her chest, Xena walked to where he stood, then began to pace before him with her head down. With every step she took, her boots sounded incredibly loud upon the wooden floor boards in the deserted chamber.

“The attacks were not coordinated, I do not know why.” Visiting her mother in Amphipolis had happened to coincide with a desperate Draco moving to attack her force. Whether the man had knowledge of her momentary absence from the army or not, she could not divine.

He took a deep breath and forged ahead. “The mistake is mine.”

“Even so,” she continued, as if not having heard his words “this force did manage to wreak havoc upon Draco's troops, but yet again he slips though my fingers before I can close my fist.”

Xena stopped directly in front of him, looming over his slight frame while casually placing her hands upon her hips.

“Tell me your thoughts in slowing your pursuit.”

“I had thought to consolidate the force, giving Sadus' men a respite, while allowing Virgilius to slip behind the remainder of Draco's—”

“No… no, no, no,” she rumbled, silencing anything more he might choose to say.

A greenhorn mistake, Xena mused, one Draco spotted and took advantage of. As good as the Amazons are at reconnaissance, Draco's observers slipped past their notice. Wily damned man probably dressed his scouts as simple villagers, as one villager looks very much like another. Gambling from the information his men reaped, the warlord surmised that her second was new, cautious, taking time to organize his command.

The insufferable, conniving piece of horse dung.

Sevastian watched as Xena's expression became decidedly unfriendly. Turning from him, she walked up the steps of the dais to sit casually upon the table once used by the magistrate.

“Here, I believed you understood,” she sighed.

“Understood?” he asked with genuine confusion.

Her fist, abruptly slamming down upon the tabletop, startled him.

"Attack rapidly, ruthlessly, viciously, without rest. However tired and hungry you may be, the enemy will be more tired, more hungry! Keep punching!” Her booming voice echoed in the chamber, her anger all too apparent.

In the silence which followed, Sevastian truly believed he might be meeting Hades in moments, such was her gaze upon him.

“You acted too cautiously, Sevastian, and allowed Draco to slip away,” she began in a more composed tone, “the very opposite of what you did when facing him the first time. There, even though the men were tired, you pushed his troops back by your attack.”

She watched as he dipped his head slightly, clearly scrutinizing her words. In the past, such a mistake, any mistake, would have meant death, but she had learned through hard experience that such tactics had weakened her army though a near constant purge of leadership at all levels.

She must, however difficult, show patience.

“Xena, Sensei, I address you as one who desires to learn.” One perfectly sculpted eyebrow quirked up as her second bowed low.

Xena had to smile, albeit internally, as he gave her the equivalent rank of teacher in the land of Jappa . Always, Sevastian was focused on decorum. Very well, two can play that game.

“Yes, Deshi.

“I had thought it better to coordinate a plan of attack,” he explained, without missing the fact she had used a new title on him, one that was fitting as he was learning from a true master in the art of war.

“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

“But?”

“Yessss.”

“Should one not underestimate the enemy?”

“True, you shouldn't underestimate an enemy, but it is just as fatal to overestimate him. You overestimated Draco's strength. If you had continued to push your attack, his lines would have broken.

“Ask it Sevastian.” Xena ordered, seeing the expression on his face.

“Such attacks would cost many lives, would they not?” He watched as Xena stood, a sad smile upon dark lips. Now she understood Sevastian's reasoning better.

She glided down the steps again to face him. One of her hands clasped his shoulder.

“Sevastian, soldiering has one great trap; to be a good soldier, you must love the army. To be a good commander, you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. And there is the great trap; when you attack, you must hold nothing back. You must commit yourself totally.

“In the end, my second, war is direct, brutal, and ruthless.”

She watched as he nodded in understanding before looking up and meeting her eyes. “Then I shall commit fully, and ruthlessly destroy all who oppose you.”

“See that you do as I will not always be so... forgiving.” Swallowing hard he nodded once to show clear understanding.

An unnatural flicker of light caused Sevastian to start, instinct driving him to swiftly draw his blade, slashing it out before him. Amazed, he beheld a swirling whirlpool of light, a portal suspended in mid-air.

“What are you doing?” The question, burred by that low timbre, caused goosebumps to rise upon his skin.

Instantly embarrassed, he lowered his blade. He had stood in front Xena, who certainly had no need of his meager skills.

“Cute,” she said curtly in a tone dripping in sarcasm, while roughly shoving him out of her way.

An echoed yell of outrage sounded within the shimmering light. In the next moment, a man appeared out of the vortex, his body sprawling out on the floor. To an amazed Sevastian, it appeared the man hailed from the land of the pharaohs. His long, dark hair was woven into long strands which draped down his back and shoulders. Wearing a light green top, tucked into ruddy crimson pants, the man wore golden rings upon his fingers and long, gold chains around his neck. Slowly getting his feet under him, amazement was etched on his features as he stared down at his black boots.

“Welcome back to land, Cecrops,” drawled an amused Polemarchos .

**

“Pelusium! Antonius fights at Pelusium!” Caesar's finger tapped the map spread out on the table in his command tent. “He involves my men in an Egyptian war against the Persian Empire !”

“Uncle, he thought it best to show our willingness to back up words of alliance with action.”

“Octavian, we only needed to use Egypt to further our own aims, not be dragged into a local conflict! You! You!” Julius' hand rose finger pointing. “You were to keep Antonius from making poor decisions!”

“He could do no less, Uncle,” countered Octavian. “What should he have done? Tell the queen of all Egypt he wanted an alliance, yet then not help a prospective ally when under attack?”

“I am accursed!” bellowed Julius as his hand swept the table top, its contents slamming down upon the ground. “The gods surely punish me!” Slumping down into his camp chair, Caesar watched disinterestedly as Salmoneus moved to pick up the items strewn upon the ground.

Octavian believed now was the time to press his advantage.

“Uncle, Antonius' rekindled affection for the queen of all Egypt has moved him past reason. He spends many a night in the arms of the queen. I tell you, he has gone beyond me, unwilling to listen to any council I give.”

Julius' eyes slowly moved from Salmoneus to Octavian. This young man was in essence his heir apparent as the child borne by Portia would be far too young to rule, should something happen to him. Octavian was the ideal Roman; tall, strong, intelligent, well educated, and keenly aware of the intricacies of Roman politics. If what he said was true, then Antonius was plotting with Cleopatra and that was unacceptable. Loyal Antonius was loyal no more. The loyalty of men rested upon shifting sands.

“Do you know what I must do now, Octavian?” asked Caesar with a long sigh, his anger at betrayal rising from a low simmer to a full boil

Silence…

“I am now forced to commit more troops to the cause in Egypt !” yelled Caesar. “Forced to commit troops I need to invade Greece !”

Standing up, Caesar walked around the desk, clasping his arms behind his back, attempting to compose himself. “Standing outside this tent, at this very moment, Octavian, are two of the most esteemed members of our beloved senate.” Caesar paused to point directly toward the pathway to the tent entrance. “Brutus and Cassius are here representing a senate already distressed at the costs associated with my army. Now I must tell them they must pay to send more troops and warships to Egypt to fight in a foreign war that has little benefit for Rome !”

“Uncle,” Octavian soothed, “ Egypt will repay you by using her most plentiful navy to ferry your troops safely to Greece to open a second front against the barbarian. She, along with her entire army, will be destroyed. Greece will be yours and Xena will be nailed to a cross in the Forum.”

“Re-nailed,” General Sulla murmured under his breath, standing in his full gleaming armor near the far fabric wall of the tent.

“Crucifixion round two,” uttered a stone-faced General Crassus nearby, “Maybe he'll get it right this time.”

“Sulla,” called Caesar.

“Caesar, my lord?” Sulla's grey brows raised, his jaw shifted slightly from side to side in a nervous tick as the man wondered if Julius had picked up on his and Crassus' comments.

“Pick the best from the troops we have been training so young Octavius can take his leave from us posthaste.”

“How many should I pick, great Caesar?”

“20,000, plus the naval garrisons on Sicily .” Sulla's eyes widened ever so slightly at the number, betraying his inner doubts.

“Caesar, may I remind you that these men, like most of the troops we have conscripted, are not as yet far in their training.”

“Sulla, well urged,” replied Caesar, while turning back to his adopted nephew. Raising his arms, the first council used both hands to clasp Octavian's shoulders firmly. “Octavius, you must complete their training en route.”

A listening Salmoneus busied himself, discreetly replacing items on Caesar's desk.

“Octavius, convey this message personally to Antonius, if you can.”

“Yes, Uncle?” The young man stepped closer.

“Tell him I do not begrudge his dalliance with the tart Cleopatra.” Octavian's mouth fell open at the insult. The queen of all Egypt compared to a common whore?

Sulla and Crassus chuckled wickedly at the slur.

“My boy, you really must lose your vestal innocence. Why, I recall it well,” began Julius as he leaned against his ornate desk, while folding his arms across his chest, covered as it was in decorative armor. "The Queen had herself delivered to my tent wrapped in a fine Persian rug”

“She was rolled within a rug?” asked young Octavian, wondering why someone would do such a thing.

“Oh yes,” Julius smiled, “carried by two dark Nubians.”

Caesar paused, laughing at the look of anticipation on Octavius' face. The kid had always loved a good story.

“These two guards unrolled the rug and up she rose before me, in all her feminine glory.”

“Bet that wasn't the only thing that rose up,” Sulla quipped to a bout of laughter.

“You mean she was naked, Uncle?” Octavius' voice rose in pitch.

“Quite naked.”

“What did you do then?” Octavian's eyes darted around the space, observing merriment in the eyes of Crassus and Sulla.

“What every smart man should do when presented with such an opportunity.”

“By Venus, you mean you…”

“All night, my boy, all night.” Howls of laughter from the gathered men rang in Salmoneus' ears as he stood discretely observing the scene while refilling a large glass decanter with wine from a clay jug.

“And your uncle will do the same with Xena when she is defeated,” Sulla stated, slapping the boy on the back.

“Sulla, you do not give me credit where it is due. I needn't wait till she surrenders,” retorted Caesar with a pronounced smirk. “She already fell to my charms once.”

“Uncle!” squeaked Octavius above another bout of mirth.

“Where was I?” Julius asked once the laughter had dissipated, while walking over to lean against the desk.

“Okay for dalliances…” Octavian prompted.

“Ah, yes. But tell our love struck general that he should never forget his first duty is to Rome . Tell him I order him back to Rome , that I wish to...confer with him.

“Uncle?”

“Yes?”

“What if he pays me no heed and continues on with the queen? I tell you he is not of a mind to listen to reason.”

“Then you must kill him, Octavian, by whatever means necessary.”

“But… he is…”

“Expendable, Octavian.” Pushing off the desk, Caesar placed his hands on the young man's shoulders. “You must harden your heart, my boy. Kill him if he refuses to obey.”

“Very well, Uncle,” Octavius braced himself, standing tall, with shoulders back. “I shall do my best in the service of Rome .”

“I know you will not let me down.”

A snap of the fingers served as a dismissal to Sulla and Octavian, while a gesture brought Crassus closer to have a word.

“Caesar, you send 20,000 untried troops to Egypt to corral Antonius under the command of a peevish schoolboy who knows little of war.”

“Octavian may surprise you, Crassus. He has a clever mind, that boy.”

“You may do your will, Caesar, but clever may not be enough against Antonius. He, unlike Octavius, is a tried and valiant soldier.”

“So is my horse,” responded Caesar. Crassus', huff of indignation told Julius he was not convinced.

“Tried and true like my horse, Crassus,” Caesar elaborated, “and for that reason I give him all the hay he wants. But my horse is a creature that I teach to fight—to turn, to stop, to run in a straight line. I govern the motion of his body. And in some ways, Antonius is just like that. He has to be taught and trained and told to go forward.

“Octavius will defeat him because that schoolboy is a thinker, my friend, and Antonius is not.”

“Thy will, Caesar,” Crassus stated flatly, still unconvinced. “But may I add you weaken us in an invasion of Greece by sending those troops with Octavian.”

“65,000 troops are not enough?” asked Caesar with a smile

The old general shook his head in disapproval. “Caesar, you and I both know these boys are not as of yet battle ready. You take great risk in fielding an unproven army.”

“Then train them, Crassus, and do so quickly.” Before the man could respond, Caesar's eyes shifted away.

“Salmoneus.”

“Yes, great Caesar?”

“Do fetch Brutus and Cassius.”

With a nod, the man moved to fulfill the task.

“Now, Crassus, do not think of what has transpired. We must show confidence; smile for the senators, my friend.”

“Caesar! All hail!” stated Brutus cheerfully as he entered.

“Good morrow, Brutus!” A genuine smile appeared on Caesar's lips at seeing his longtime friend. “Cassius, welcome.” The smile faded upon seeing the anger in Cassius' eyes.

“Wine?” Salmoneus appeared with four silver chalices placed precisely upon a matching tray.

“Ah Salmoneus, you read my very thoughts!” stated Caesar with a smirk down at the little gray-haired man.

“Friends, taste some wine with me.”

“Caesar, this sober form hides wrongs,” Cassius griped, while placing his chalice down on a nearby stand.

“Tell me, Cassius, how do I wrong you?” challenged Caesar, before taking a sip of wine.

“The capital is rife with rumors of Antonius' proclivities in Egypt . The general whose expedition you asked us to fund with Roman gold turns against Rome !”

“Your sources must be better than mine, Cassius, as I have as yet no word of a plot by Antonius.” A smug smile graced Julius' features, which galled Cassius.

“You insult my intelligence.” Cassius' hand moved to the dagger upon his belt, a move noted by Caesar, whose hand moved to rest upon his own dagger. Crassus went farther, moving to draw his blade.

“Gentlemen, let us not bicker!” Setting down his cup, Brutus adroitly moved between the two. Raising his arms, he held the men apart.

“Indeed,” Caesar warned “lest our harsh words provoke red drops to fall.

“Still…” Julius paused for a moment, one hand moving up, fingers rubbing the stubble upon his chin. “You do make a point, dear Cassius. If what you say is true then it would be most serious.”

“And what does…great… Caesar propose to do about his wayward general?” asked Cassius, in a voice most condescending. Julius dropped his hand, staring into Cassius' brown eyes for a long moment, letting the man know he did not appreciate his tone.

The senator, pondered Julius, always had a lean and hungry look in those eyes. It was widely known that Cassius enjoyed no plays, loved no music. Such men devote too much time to thought and therefore were a danger.

“This very day, I will order another 20,000 men to Egypt to corral any mutinous thoughts Antonius may have.”

“What?” Cassius said with outrage. “And who will pay for such a thing! Caesar, the senate has already paid enough gold for your ventures!”

“They will have to pay more.” Julius stepped around his desk. Sitting, he held up his chalice and Salmoneus quickly refilled it.

“By the gods!” shouted Cassius. “You will bleed us dry!” The senator pointed an accusing finger directly at Julius.

“Caesar,” Brutus paused to gently grasp Cassius' arm, lowering it slowly. “You know I have never questioned your judgment in military affairs, but you ask much of Rome . “Our sons, grain to feed the people taken for your army, gold from our treasury.”

“Brutus, you know I do not deal in half measures. Our beloved Republic is under threat and I shall preserve her.” Caesar suddenly spotted an opportunity. “I know you both, and you, I,” he stated most seriously. “I know that, like me, your first concern is for Rome .” Slowly, Julius rose. “I have read your words.” One hand moved, waving over a pile of rolled up parchments. “The senate has many concerns indeed. Border incursions in Hispania by Carthage , more worries about uprisings in Gaul and Britannia. Then add fears of possible action by Greece , or by Persia , and now we deal with Antonius' alleged sedition with Cleopatra.

“These times call for decisive action.”

“We would agree, Caesar,” Brutus said with honesty, “and I know the senate would agree in principle with your assessment of the morass we find ourselves in, but we are tasked with telling the senate what you plan to do about these troubles which you have so eloquently stated.”

It was now or never, thought Caesar, a life time of pursuing power now distilled down to this very moment.

“I desire, by vote, for the senate to appoint me legibus faciendis et rei publicae constituendae causa .”

“A dictator!” Cassius accused with fiery voice.

“A means to an end,” refuted Caesar. “We are in a dire emergency, my friends! Think of the welfare of Rome .”

“The senate will never…” began an astounded Brutus.

“I believe they will. Many of your fellow senators will side with me in this matter.” And should it prove necessary, bags of gold will buy their vote, mused Julius.

“If such a motion is introduced, I promise you both to only hold power as long as it is necessary to defeat Rome's enemies and not…one…moment…longer.”

“Power is corrupting, Caesar. How do we know you will keep such a promise?” asked Cassius with a most cynical smile.

“I shall place words on parchment with my seal stating plain my willingness to give up power when the current storm has passed.”

So, pondered Brutus with deep sadness, this is how 200 cycles of democracy ends. By a vote.

“The Senate would be most pleased to debate such a motion, Caesar,” Cassius walked back to the stand. Grabbing the chalice, he took a long drink of wine in an effort to buy more time.

“But,” Brutus interjected quickly, seeing Cassius floundering. “Unfortunately, great Caesar, the senate has adjourned.

“Then call them back.”

“It will take time, Caesar. Many of the senators have traveled to their estates in the countryside.”

“Then you had both hurry back to Rome to set the process in motion,” urged Caesar most mildly.

“We shall Caesar, we shall.” Cassius set down his chalice. “When the senate convenes, Caesar, shall we find you here at the base of the Alps or will you be in the capital?”

“No, friends, as you say, it will take time to gather the senate so I will move the bulk of my army to Hispania to deal with Carthage once and for all. Along the way I shall deal with the insurgency in Gaul . It will be good training for my army.” With those last words, Julius' eyes moved to Crassus. “When that is finished, I will appear in the capital with my army in tow.”

Brutus and Cassius both straitened, both understanding the threat levied by Caesar. With army in tow, Julius had the power to take control of the capital, and thereby Rome herself.

Stepping forward, Caesar clasped hands with the senators, “A good journey to you both.” As the men left, Julius turned to speak in confidence with his general.

“Crassus, with Myzantius' demise we have little idea what is happening within Greece . We must rebuild our network of spies to know what Xena plans next.

“Not entirely true, Caesar, we still have a spy in the upper echelons of Xena's command.”

“You mean Dagnine. Can we trust his information?”

“His information has always been reliable before.”

Caesar scratched his chin absently “Xena is no fool, Crassus. Leads me to wonder why she did not uncover his duplicity as well.”

“Her focus, perhaps, was on Darphus and this lover she had, Marcus,” Crassus offered.

 

“So….” Caesar continued Crassus' line of thought. “Xena, being distraught over the loss of her lover, Marcus, didn't search diligently enough to uncover our entire spy network.”

“Quite so; distracted by the betrayal of a trusted lover.”

Caesar nodded. “You see, my friend, why women are the weaker sex?” Julius smiled arrogantly. “They are incapable of keeping emotions from contaminating their ability to reason. They cannot separate the two. ”

“A reasonable explanation, Caesar. As you say, she is only a woman and as such, prone to fits of irrationality,” Crassus chortled. “If she manages to gain control of Greece , it bespeaks volumes as to how weak Grecian men are.”

Salmoneus, standing near, could not believe the gall these Romans possessed. Weaker sex indeed! The Xena who had spared his life and given him this… business opportunity…. was not to be trifled with by anyone, be they commoner or Caesar.

“Still, let us be prudent with Dagnine's information, making sure it dovetails with that of other spies we recruit before we trust him.”

“Agreed, Caesar

“One other matter troubles me, Crassus.”

The old general looked at Julius expectantly.

“Pompey,” Caesar grumbled. “Is he dead? Is he alive? Crassus, I must know if he plots against me.”

“I will double my efforts to find you an answer, Caesar.

“Do so.”

“Begin preparations to break camp, Crassus; we head to Hispania.”

Being so distant from Rome was of real concern, should Xena move to attack, but Crassus deemed it wiser to keep his lingering objections silent, and departed from Julius presence.

**

“Any doubt now?” asked Cassius as the two waited for the groom to bring their horses.

Brutus gazed blankly forward.

“No,” he said with a soft voice.

Cassius smiled darkly. Brutus was now part of the faction.

“Ah, good man!” Cassius said with false cheer as the groom approached leading their horses.

“A safe journey, my lords.” As the reins were handed over, a parchment was passed.

“See that your master gets this,” Cassius whispered, before mounting his stallion.

“I will do so, and I, like she, wishes that your enterprise may thrive,” replied Autolycus.

Chapter 16

The fires of Marathon howled as if a ravenous animal as they feasted upon the wooden structures.

“Keep this man safe.” The tip of Xena's bloodstained sword moved to point directly at Hector, held as he was between two hoplites.

The missives she had written long ago had finally borne fruit. Hector, enticed by the lure of gold, had turned upon his leader. Detailed messages listing all the needed information had flowed to her from this man. Using that, Xena had known of Draco's ambush of her force at Marathon , and planned accordingly. Her mentor, Sun Tzu, would have been pleased.

“Where is he, Hector?” asked the Polemarchos in a deadly tone.

“He, Zagreas, and the last vestiges of the army are on the run.” Hector's hand rose, pointing to the forest beyond the city walls.

Anger welled up within her at the thought of Draco slithering from her grasp once again.

“Commander! Station!” she shouted, her one handed grip on Argo's reins becoming so tight the leather squeaked loudly in protest.

“Yes, Polemarchos ?” A bloodied Sevastian was instantly at her side, reigning Gisela to a stop.

“I want every available man scouring that forest until they are found!”

“It'll be done.” The second dipped his head in respect. Before he could carry out the order, Sadus spoke.

“Xena, my men are worn to the bone from this day's fighting!” he groaned. “The dawn is but candle marks away. I say we—”

Sevastian turned ashen from shock; he had only looked away for a moment, turning in time to see Xena's sword buried up to the hilt in Sadus' chest.

The man coughed, blood dripping from his lips as the last moments of life ebbed from him. Slowly, his corpse slid from her sword as he toppled off his mount.

“Any other complaints?” Xena asked softly while eyeing her various commanders.

Silence.

“Sevastian, I place you in command of the second army group. I... want... Draco,” she purred dangerously while annunciating every word precisely.

“We shall not stop until they are found.” The second drew in a shaky breath, seeing death in those silvery blue eyes.

“Good. I trust you can organize the search?”

“I will do so.”

“Amazons! With me!” ordered Xena, spurring Argo forward.

“Fan your men out into leagues-long, thin lines. I want a second line behind the first, another line behind that.” Sevastian gestured, using the available light from the flames to make his point.

“Three lines, then?” asked Virgilius

“Yes.

“Mercer, I want your scouts and flankers spread out ahead of this army. Virgilius on the left flank, Menticlies on the right, I take the 2 nd army group to the center. Leave no gap that an enemy can slip through. No mistakes, commanders, or we will all surely pay for it.”

The men nodded in solemn agreement.

“Move!” the second ordered, and the commanders of Xena's army spurred their horses, shouting orders to the hoplites under their command.

“By the gods, that's a lotta forest to cover and in the dark.” Sevastian looked down to see Meleager standing near.

“It only appears that way. The valley narrows as we move forward; we shall box the remnants of Draco's army in.”

The man nodded, “And what are your orders for my men, Commander?”

“Stand in reserve here, spread your men throughout this city, regain order.”

“I will do so.”

Sparing a glance downward, Sevastian fidgeted in his saddle.

“And Meleager.”

“Yes, Commander?”

“Drag this corpse out of the way, its blocking the road.”

 

**

A battered and bloody Zagreas wished he had ignored Draco's summons and stayed in Corinth . He rued the day he ever thought to join with Draco and Athens against Xena, the Destroyer. Had Toris not dawdled in handing over the cavalry he needed, the day might have been theirs at Olynthus . Now the struggle against Xena was akin to fighting some giant, their force having been crushed under the blows delivered by her well-trained army.

Such musings on missed opportunities mattered little now.

Methodically, they had been hunted through the remnants of the night, pushed deeper into the valley, the men who chose to turn and fight picked off, one by one. Looking behind, he could see lines of Xena's men entering the clearing in which he stood; in the front upon a large brown steed was their commander in all his eastern regalia.

There is a tide in the affairs of men, mulled Zagreas. His had gone out, leaving him adrift in the shallow waters of misery.

“Come hither, Sirrah.” The young man accompanying his master approached.

“In Thessaly , I took you as a prisoner, choosing to save your life on the battlefield with the promise that whatever I ordered you to do, you would to the best of your ability.”

With a deliberate movement, Zagreas raised his sword, a wan smile touching his lips. Cycles ago, when he was new at the game of conquest, he had ridden with Xena and she had surprised him by presenting him with this very sword on his birthday.

Sirrah looked on, confused as Zagreas suddenly chuckled. “Today is the day of my birth” his master muttered aloud.

“I set you free Sirrah, on one condition,” Zagreas handed over his sword. Sirrah, grasping it by the hilt, now understood what he must do. He watched as Zagreas grabbed his tattered cape, pulling it over his face.

“Drive down the sword!”

Putting all his effort behind the thrust, Sirrah ran the sword though his master.

“Destroyer, may your vengeance be sated.” Zagreas fell as his horrified slave looked on. “See? I fall by the sword you… gave…me…”

Sirrah took flight into the pre-dawn darkness.

**

“Away, poor remains of friends, scatter to the four winds. Our cause is lost.”

“Not so, my lord!” urged Gar.

“Yes, even now, Xena herself comes upon me.” Leaning against a large boulder, Draco watched, feeling strangely carefree at seeing his end in sight.

“Leave me,” he commanded, absolving them of their oath of loyalty. The last of his shattered command obeyed, running from the approaching Destroyer.

With lidded eyes, Draco watched as Xena rode up, casually hauling back upon the reins to halt the golden horse she sat upon. By all the gods, she was even more beautiful than he remembered! Dressed as she was in the armor she wore the first time they had met, it seemed for a moment that time had not moved forward at all. As she dismounted calmly, her royal purple cape caught the breeze just as the sun made its presence known, golden rays now peeking over the horizon, illuminated her striking features. A poor decision it was to fight her; it was a fait accompli that such a goddess of war should defeat all opposition.

What could have been, Draco bemoaned, recalling their shared past. Oh, what could have been.

The sound of her sword being pulled from its scabbard brought him back to the present moment.

“At least it is good to know how the business of this night will end,” Draco stated in a resigned sigh. Slowly, he moved to stand, the open arrow wounds courtesy of Amazons in both his shoulder and his arm aching tremendously as he did. While the arrows had been roughly pushed though, the wounds only allowed his hand to grasp his sword, his arm no longer able to raise it.

“Draco.” She spoke his name slowly and without preface. As he was upon higher ground, she was forced to look up slightly to meet his dark eyes.

“You know, Xena," her one time adversary swayed upon his feet from apparent loss of blood. “I dreamt of being with you in love, or against you in battle. Now I can tell Hades that you at least gave me the satisfaction of one of the two.”

“It did not have to end this way.” Her voice, to his thinking, held just a touch of sadness behind her ever-present impassiveness.

“You know me, Xena, never able to curtail my pride and succumb, even to one as great as you.”

She watched as his left hand moved upward, a fingertip tracing along the lines of a scar upon his face. With eyes still fastened on her, he chuckled, evidently recalling the circumstances of how it came to be.

“Xena, I beg a last favor. I pray you may grant it, though I have been your enemy.” The sword dropped from his hand, the blade clattering as it struck a large rock.

One of her perfect eyebrows quirked up in silent question. “Inflict upon me one final wound; allow me an honorable death.”

He watched as her sword raised, the tip pointing directly at him, her grip tightening upon the leather-wrapped hilt.

Before he departed from the living, Draco turned his head toward the rising sun, allowing himself a last look at the vibrant colors of the countryside surrounding him. Winter was approaching, given the hues of the leaves. Like him, they were in their last moments as Persephone's absence would soon cause them to fall.

“ Greece , submit to thy mistress.” Words of the defeated, announcing her victory.

He leapt.

Her sword ran him through, and as it did, a cry escaped through his gritted teeth.

“How I would have... loved you...” he whispered in her ear, a statement of truth, borne from the lips of the dying.

For some moments, his arms enclosed her tightly, hands grasping, attempting to hold onto what would never be his.

At last, Celesta's power overcame his will.

Draco fell.

**

“Report,” ordered Xena curtly, while one gauntleted hand grabbed the bald head of the corpse sprawled across the hindquarters of the second's mount.

“My Lord, the army groups have been recalled, the encampment is being set up near the freshwater spring just north of the city. “There have been 206 men killed, 181 with various injuries.

“Zagreas,” she muttered upon inspection of the tattooed face.

She let go, and the head of the corpse fell forward.

“Give him a pyre with Draco.”

“As you wish.”

“Let the men get hot food tonight,” she ordered. “I shall give the order for libations as we celebrate a great victory, but remind my commanders to reign in their men's merriment, as we march on Athens on the morrow.

Sevastian dipped his head, acknowledging her commands.

“The wounded unable to make the march to Athens will stay here with accompanying guard to recuperate, compliments of the good people of Marathon.” Cobalt eyes shifted to the city reeve.

“Of…of… course, my Lord.” The man was shaking; fairly quaking at the vision of a blood-soaked and gore-coated Xena.

A negligent wave of a gauntleted hand and the slight, unmeritable man scampered away like a cockroach exposed to light. For a moment, Xena studied the gathered throng of peasants, she observing them, and they, her. Fear—she could feeling it radiating off of them. Fear of what she might do to them, to their families, to their town. In contrast, the men of her army stood tall, proud, and confident. The fighters and the frightened grouped together.

Turning back to him, Xena appraised her second for an altogether interminable span. Seeing that unfathomable gaze directed at him, Sevastian braced himself at attention, as if he were in the temple school again.

“Have I told you how much I enjoy being called ‘my lord?'” she asked with flat voice, features locked in stoicism.

The better part of valor being discretion, Sevastian remained silent.

“You, my loyal second, are a quick study,” she complimented. “You gave the enemy no relief, and even charged the city gates to keep them open, saving us from having to mount another siege.

“Most impressive.”

“Too—”

Before he could finish, she gestured impatiently and an abnormally subdued Kodi appeared at her elbow with a pile of garments. Behind him, two more servants stood with bundled clothing. It seemed the boy had learned, as many others had before, that it was not wise to test the temperament of the Polemarchos after a battle.

“Your new armor, my second.”

Polemarchos ,” Sevastian whispered the honorific in shock at seeing the finely crafted armor. Unable to finish the thought, he stared amazed at all the eastern-styled garb to replace all the clothing that had been stolen, worn out, or plain lost in his travels.

“You earned it,” she said flatly. “Tell all my ranking commanders we meet in the town hall at sunset this evening to celebrate. Maybe a little after dinner entertainment is in order. Perhaps we should dust off that bronze beast and put it to good use?”

A most feral smile suddenly appeared, which unnerved him. “As you wish,” he said, confused as to what she meant by bronze beast.

“You, I wish to see before sunset to discuss what will happen when we reach Athens . The magistrate's home has been commandeered for your use.”

Sevastian bowed low to her and then reached to take hold of Gisela's reins from the groom.

“Oh, and ah,” he watched as she took a moment to remove her gauntlets.

“Get me a seamstress immediately, the best you can find.”

“You wish me to…find you a…” For an instant, her usual stoicism nearly broke as a laugh threatened, seeing his befuddlement at the oddness of the request.

“Yeah, I've always wanted to learn to sew.”

The second stood open mouthed in shock.

Such a bad girl, Xena, she chastised internally, while slipping a finger under his chin closing his mouth.

“I… shall… bring one to you.”

“Good,” her fingers tapped the side of his cheek. “Once you get settled, send the half pint back to me.”

Kodi didn't outright scowl, but Sevastian could see by the twitching of his lips he wanted to.

Smart boy, thought the second.

**

Walking up the granite steps, Xena stepped through the door into a vast, marbled foyer with its plethora of Corinthian columns.

As she did, members of her newly appointed Amazon guard moved to surround the house of the town reeve.

“M'lady, it is our pleasure to serve.” The woman swallowed hard when pinned by azure eyes, then shivered as the flat tip of a carnage-splattered sword slipped under her chin, the pressure from it forcing her head to rise.

“Do I look like a lady to you?” asked Xena, while standing before the woman in all her after-battle, bloodstained glory.

“I… I do not mean to offend…”

“The only thing I want right now is a bath prepared, and then I want you all to disappear.” A flash of perfect white teeth in a hostile smile “Got it?”

“Your wish is our command,” the little woman choked out, unable to hide her relief when that blade moved away.

“Be gone!”

The leaders among the servant staff scattered, glad to get away from the warlord.

Finally alone for a moment, Xena allowed her shoulders to slump forward, permitting her exhaustion to show. With a sigh, she began to trudge up the grandiose marble stair to the second floor landing with an uncharacteristic lack of grace.

Reaching the landing, she studied the upper rooms, her senses picking up movement on the servant stairs. With innate discipline, Xena straightened to her full height, willing her commanding persona to reappear despite being fatigued from weeks pursuing Draco.

Amazons appeared, and with silent steps they moved, opening and searching all the rooms before moving to guard the entrances. She had come a long way from huddling around a meager fire, sharing food and horrid-tasting brew with her men.

Stepping forward, the Amazon warriors silently dipped their heads in deference as she passed, en route to the quarters reserved for the master of the estate.

“Orders, my Lord?”

Solari watched as Xena moved her arm up, fingertips of her left hand rubbing against her temple.

“Get some rest. I want you at the town hall tonight at sunset.”

“As you wish.” The next instant, Solari was gone. Amazons were women of few words, and at the moment, Xena liked that fact.

A jolt slid down her spine as her warrior's blood cried out, jubilant that Ares was near.

It seemed this day would get worse before it would get better.

Raising her sword slightly, she gently used one boot to nudge the door open, the two Amazons on either side coming to strict attention as she slowly passed through the doorway. “No one enters,” she ordered the guards.

Scanning the empty room, she took in every ounce of its gaudy glory. Polished dark wood floors glowed in the light of a fireplace, the mantle of which looked to have more carved marble in it than the Parthenon. Burgundy curtains were tied back to reveal windows fitted with exorbitantly expensive bits of colored glass. For such a wispy widower of a man, the town reeve certainly had a massive bed. Below a pulled back woven wine-red coverlet were sheets of purest silk from Chin, dyed a deep, forest green. Thick curtains in patterns of green highlighted with gold inlay hung on rails held up by intricately carved wooden bed posts. Matches the eyes of Gabrielle… Xena lurched physically at the random thought which had abruptly appeared as she had been appraising the green in the bed curtains.

Purging her mind of such thoughts, she walked past a set of plush green silken chairs and into a bathroom seemingly the size of her mother's entire inn.

Lowering her sword, she leaned on the doorjamb, observing a smiling Ares who was seated in a marble tub the magnitude of a large pond, a smug smile on his face.

“Join me, Conqueror of Greece.”

“Funny,” Xena gave the god a derisive smile, “how you never stopped by to see me on the rare occasion I got my ass kicked by some warlord,” she stated acidly, while pushing off the door frame, turning to walk back into the bed chamber.

“Xena!” Ares yelled indignantly from the tub. “Get back here! I command you, Chosen!”

Grabbing a leather chamois from her precisely arranged leather pack, the warlord walked back into the bathing room to face a grinning Ares. The god continued to stubbornly hold to the anserine idea that he controlled her. His rakish smile widened when she propped one boot upon the edge of the tub, the move showcasing a generous amount of toned thigh. Moments later, his grin faded when she dipped the leather square into the water, ringing it out one-handed before using it to wipe down her sword, cleaning it of battle gore. Ares frowned after repeated dips of the chamois turned the steaming water in the tub a rosy pink.

Satisfied the blade was clean, Xena set it aside for a moment, fingers unhooking her chakram, using the same square to wipe away the blood and bits of bone, until the disk gleamed. Hooking the disk back on her hip, she picked up her sword before pushing off the side of the tub with her booted foot. Casually sauntering over to a nearby folded cloth made of expensive Egyptian cotton, Xena decided a word with the town reeve was in order.

No man could get this rich honestly.

Wiping the blade then the chakram completely dry, she spared Ares not a single glance as she walked out.

“Damnit, Xena!”

Hanging the leather square on a hook near the bed, she reached into her pack again to retrieve a whetstone. Seating herself in a plush chair, without the slightest care about the stains being left by the bloody armor she wore, she laid the blade across her legs and went to work sharpening her sword. From the bath, she heard Ares rise from the tub and then the snap of his fingers.

“I don't get it,” a now dressed Ares stated from behind, hands moving to massage her shoulders as she sat in the chair. “I'd have thought you'd have been thrilled, seeing as how you've just become the sole ruler of Greece .”

Ignoring the pull of her baser instincts due to the nearness of the god, Xena took a breath and focused on her work.

“This army hasn't entered Athens yet, Ares, and there is still the matter of Corinth .”

“Those of power in Athens fearfully await news of the outcome of this battle, Chosen . Corinth has no options left either; why even now they send a runner to present you with a declaration of surrender.”

“I will believe it when I have said declaration in hand.”

Setting the whetstone down on the arm of the chair, Xena flicked her thumb gently over the edge of the blade, testing its sharpness, before setting to work again, scraping the stone along the blade in a slow, deliberate motion.

“I tell you I have never seen Athena so flummoxed!” Ares added, voice brimming with hauteur. “It was remarkable how you thought to use her to further your plans.”

“Nearly at the cost of my own second in command, no thanks to you,” Xena accused.

“Don't place blame for your temper or the fact you came to a false conclusion on me.

For a moment the deity was silent.

“You had better not be getting sappy over your pint-sized second,” Ares growled upon reflection of her words. “He's a pawn, albeit a loyal one, but still a pawn. Use him as such.”

Xena stopped sharpening her sword for a moment, recalling similar such words in a vision bestowed upon her long past when she had just met Sevastian.

She couldn't resist nettling him a bit. “Oh, now, don't tell me you are... jealous... Ares?” she purred.

“Me?” his voice rose on the word, rich with resentment over her accusation. “I am the god of war; he is a little bootlicker who jumps at your every command.”

“Uh-huh. That's why you… grace… me with your visit?” Xena mocked. “To regale me with the gossip in Athens , Corinth , and Olympus , then whine about my second in command?”

“Our long fought for goal has been achieved, my Chosen,” Ares moved to change the topic. “We now rule—”

“Amazing how you continue to use the word ‘we' when describing my successes.”

“I tell you again to reign back that ego, Xena. Without me, you'd be a peasant, dressing in worn rags, emptying used slop buckets from patrons at that rundown shack of an inn.” The pressure placed by his hands upon her shoulders increased to drive home his point.

“How can I forget?” she whispered loud enough for him to hear.

“After Athens is occupied, we can move on Rome .” As he said the words, he moved away, sitting in the chair opposite her. With a snap of his fingers a silver chalice appeared in his hand. Gesturing, to the table beside her, he pointed out that he had been kind enough to provide her with a filled chalice of her own.

“No.”

“No?” he leaned forward intent upon her next words.

“What is it you taught me so long ago, Ares?”

“I've taught you so many things, Xena,” he chortled arrogantly, annoying her. Ignoring her displeasure, he pressed on creating a list. “How to fight with every weapon imaginable, how to use the chakram I gave you to best effect,” the fingers on one of his hand ticked up as he mentioned each item. “How to fight with bare hands, how to stalk and kill in silence, how to become a master of battlefield tactics, how to reach the heights of pleasure in—”

“And your first rule, which we've discussed time and again, not to leave enemies at one's back!” She barked in irritation while standing, cutting off anything further he wished to say.

Walking towards the bed, Xena heard him rise from his chair as she busied herself slipping her sword into its sheath.

“If you turn west to fight Rome , you worry about Xerxes in Persia and Cleopatra in Egypt . They would be at your back.” His hands slipped about her waist, his lips touching her neck.

How her body cried out with his touch. How she hated it!

“You are the finest of acolytes, my Chosen .”

The sigh which left her lips told him her will to resist was faltering.

“Turn east then,” he rasped in one perfect ear.

“Conquer all enemies before you.”

“Yes,” she fairly whimpered, Ares' visions of glorious battles now filling her thoughts.

“Then destroy the temples of the eastern gods; build mine in their place.”

“As you wish…”

Ares smiled darkly; she was his completely. Gently his lips touched hers, the kiss deepening.

“I'm coated in blood,” she muttered, breaking the kiss, more of a feeble attempt to regain control of her battle lust.

“I'm the god of war, I like blood,” he replied.

All semblance of control faded, and in the next instant, Ares found himself being roughly shoved back onto the plush surface of the stuffed bed. His chosen straddled him, thighs pressing against his waist. Her hands grabbed his wrists, pulling his arms above his head, pinning them.

“I like a woman who takes charge!” he teased.

“Shut-up!” she commanded, while launching herself forward to kiss him roughly.

**

“No one enters.”

Sevastian had intended to knock on the door, instead finding crossed spears blocking his way. Looking up, he studied first the fearsome Amazon to his left, then the one to his right.

“Then I shall not enter,” he stated simply.

The spears uncrossed, the two women resuming a relaxed standing position with feet spaced apart, weapons drawn to their sides, gaze directed ahead into the distance.

Turning his back to the warriors, Sevastian took a hesitant step forward, his eyes moving to the elderly seamstress.

“Please,” he began, while moving forward to a silken chair at rest against a wall, “have a seat, madam.” He gestured with an open hand to the oversized seat. After eyeing him warily, the gray-haired old woman hobbled over, back slightly hunched from years of leaning over while sewing her creations for those of means. As he did with the stairs, Sevastian grasped her arm gently, guiding her in being seated. A most amazing sight, to see the members of the seamstress guild, working out by lots who would go to meet with Xena. The unfortunate... winner... this woman, being the one who would have an audience with the Destroyer.

Not wishing to spook the women of the guild, whom he had bid the old guard round up from their homes, Sevastian had taken a wet cloth and wiped some of the blood off him before meeting with the women. His attempt at not appearing as a barbarian had little effect, as the women had huddled together in fear of him, a first. Had he been just an ordinary traveler, they wouldn't have spared him a second glance, but now his mere presence as an agent of the wrathful Destroyer was enough to strike fear into hearts.

“Wine, milord?” the sudden voice of Kodi behind him caused him to start. A glance at the Amazon guard showed their amusement at his plight, well-hidden though it was.

“No,” he said in a voice a bit too edgy, causing the boy to smirk up at him.

His finger, pointing toward the old woman caused Kodi to move toward her.

“Wine, milady?”

The old woman, this Agathe, looked up in shock at the title, her aged eyes looking to Sevastian questioningly.

“If you would care to have some,” he smiled, trying to calm any fears she might have.

“S'okay,” he added, upon her continued hesitation

Agathe took hold of the silver chalice, studying it with an amazed expression before taking a small sip of its contents.

Sounds from the servants stair caused them all to look as a line of slaves carrying wooden buckets arrived, the water within releasing steam as it sloshed back and forth. Confusion occurred as the Amazons once again moved to a rigid attention, crossing spears before the door.

“Take that water back to the kitchens for now, keep it heated,” suggested the second, thinking the Polemarchos would not be pleased by such bustle outside her chambers.

The group trudged back down the servant stair.

Resuming his seat, Sevastian and old Agathe waited in silence, Kodi having disappeared, the only sound coming from the slight shifting of the Amazons as they stood watch.

Exhaustion was overtaking him, Sevastian fought it, pushing it away by running over the scope and sequence of the battle against Draco, his mind working to evaluate correct and incorrect action on his part.

“Sevastian.”

A sweet, velvety voice drifted into his dreams of care-free moments spent in the temple school.

“Wake up, my second.”

His eyes shot open and Sevastian found himself looking directly into the deep blue eyes of the Polemarchos . Her proximity so near, he rocked in the chair.

“Sleep well?” she asked with a smirk.

“My lord, forgive...”

The words, tapered off as he caught the amused look on Xena's features. Glancing around the hall, he noted the seamstress had gone, and by the looks given him by the tall Amazons, it was clear they found his current predicament highly entertaining.

Dragging his fingers through disheveled hair for a moment, he felt Xena's hand grab his, pulling him to his feet with ease. The Polemarchos was dressed in a beautiful crimson robe, tied loosely at the waist.

“As you are here now,” Xena began while sauntering back to the master suite, “Let us discuss what I wish you to do once this army reaches Athens .” The Amazons braced at attention as she passed the threshold of the chamber.

As he passed through, trailing behind, Sevastian picked up a distinct snicker from the Amazon guard.

**

Those casually sitting around the table fell silent upon his entrance into the town hall. Virgilius, Mercer, Menticles, a smiling Meleager, Talmadeus, and the Amazon Solari.

“A good evening to all,” Sevastian stated softly while continuing to walk towards the table, the metal protective plates fastened to his new boots clicking on the inlayed marble floor as he did so, his mind still consumed by what Xena had planned for Athens when her army took control of the city-state.

“Tell me of your loyalty,” she had stated.

“I am loyal to you, my Lord,” he had replied, visibly affronted by her words.

“Are you sure?” One of her sculpted eyebrows had quirked up at the question.

Sevastian had moved to kneel before her at the second challenge to his fidelity.

“Completely.”

“No reservations?” she challenged a third time.

At that he had gracefully shifted from kneeling to stretching out prone before her, the ultimate act of submission before a master.

“Very well, then, rise and let us speak of what I wish of you.”

Her plan was brutal; many would die, but she described it as a necessary action to purge the vermin to solidify her rule.

The hall surrounding them, like many others in cities and villages across Greece , was purpose-built for large gatherings and served as a showcase for the various craft guilds in the village. Ornately carved beams ran across the high ceiling. Metal rings embedded in the wood held ropes which supported hammered iron candelabras, the room glowing from hundreds of tapers. Glancing over, he noted the raised dais, on which a long, mahogany table sat. Seating for the most important; the rest would take their seats at long tables running perpendicular to the one on the dais. Sevastian imagined those of rank sat nearest to the dais, those of lesser import in the back.

As the chill of winter was upon the land, massive fires blazed in marble fronted hearths along the wall. This night, the hall would be used by all the ranking officers in the army of the Destroyer, as well as select members of the city elite. As such, it had been decorated with the banners of the army, each representing the various units under her command. Those ensigns were hung on poles jutting out above and behind the raised dais. From the high ceiling hung the standards of all the Greek states Xena had conquered·37 in all. Corinth and its surrounding territory would be 38, Athens would be 39. When those fell there would be one united Greece .

As the men of the lower command ranks entered the hall, Sevastian watched Talmadeus rise, the old warlord skirting around the table, his posture that of someone who urgently wished to engage him in conversation. Dressed in his usual armor, Talmadeus now walked to him only using a cane, instead of crutches, for support of his still-healing leg.

“I... I wanted to say,” Talmadeus began once standing before him. Sevastian remained impassive, one hand casually dropping to the hilt of his katana. “I would not have hurt the boy,” he finished, nervously scratching his neatly trimmed ginger beard.

Silence fell between the two.

“I did not agree with the means you used to get me in your army, Talmadeus, you know that.” The old man shuffled his feet slightly. It was an odd circumstance, pondered Sevastian, his old commander, now technically his subordinate. “But let us move beyond the past. You and I now must bury any grievances for now we both serve the same master. Her will is our command. now.”

Talmadeus smiled tentatively, fully relaxing only when Sevastian moved to grasp his arm.

A movement of chairs and shuffling of feet alerted Sevastian that Xena had arrived. He, like the rest of the command in the hall, stood at attention as she walked up the main aisle, select members of the town council in tow, and Draco's man, Hector.

Dressed for the weather in a fur-lined, tanned leather cloak, the Polemarchos had loose woolen black pants tucked into high black boots; around her waist was a large leather belt, inlayed with silver, a long dagger tucked neatly into it. Draped across a black, high-collared tunic, she wore two more criss-crossed, large, tooled, brown leather belts.

Reaching the dais, she mounted the steps, rounding the table and pulling off her fur lined gauntlets as she walked to the high-backed wooden chair in the center of the long table. Amazons appeared, pulling out the chair so she could be seated. All watched in complete silence as she casually tucked her gauntlets into her leather belt, then took off her long cloak, arranging it over the back of her chair. Unlatching her sword from the belt, Xena draped the scabbard chain over the chair as well. This was a different sword than she normally carried, the tang being a solid piece of bronze into which the blade fit. The chakram remained upon her hip.

Seating herself as the Amazons took position behind her, Xena surveyed the ranking members of her army for long moments.

“Sit.”

In the silence which followed a hall of 1,000 moving to be seated, all watched as the Polemarchos beckoned her commanders and the town elite to be seated at the long table.

“Hector, do sit,” she stated with a grin while patting the chair directly to her right. “You are an honored guest.” Sevastian moved to take the next chair over on the right, the rest of the commanders seating themselves by perceived seniority. Upon her left, the town reeve, Kletos, sat, followed by the town council.

“We have prepared a feast in your honor, my Lord,” Kletos began, eyes watching servers pour out of the kitchens with the first courses of the banquet. The wisp of a man was dressed smartly in a long-sleeved, silken tunic and black woolen breaches. “Roasted venison—”

“I'm sure it will be delicious,” the Polemarchos purred, cutting him off from reciting the whole menu, while leaning forward to nod approval of the first course brought before her. “From appearances, it seems Marathon does well, Kletos, and from the size and grandeur of your estate, it appears... you... do well.”

Sevastian recognized that dangerous, velvety purr; his master was displeased.

“ Marathon , my lord, as you know, lies upon a rich trade route and—”

“You are happy to take your cut from the taxes on said rich trade route,” she finished, silencing him. “A little skimming off the top to make your life more comfortable?”

Her hand moved to grasp his, clamping down until the man whimpered in pain. Leaning over slightly, her gaze pinned him. “From this moment on, all monies taken in my name will be delivered to my treasury. Understood?”

An ashen Kletos nodded vehemently.

“Good, I'd hate to resort to... unpleasantness.” Her hand released his as a beautiful crystal glass filled with wine was placed before her. After seeing all within had been served, she rose from her chair, all moving to stand with her. She hated these rituals, but Greek society expected it.

Taking hold of the glass, she raised it. “To Zeus and the Olympians.” The toast was repeated with more enthusiasm than she had mustered. Of course it would be, Xena mused, they don't have to put up with godly visits at all hours.

“To our honored dead,” she stated with far deeper conviction.

A muted flash and in the back of the hall he stood, smirking arrogantly. Xena, knew only she could see him.

“To Ares,” she stated flatly, inner thoughts pondering how pleasurable it would be to find, then bury, the Hinds Blood dagger in his chest. The pained look upon his face as he fell... The thought caused her to break into a smile, which was returned in kind by a deity unaware of her dark thoughts. He vanished.

It was custom, Sevastian knew it, and having Meleager elbow him as a means to remind was unnecessary.

“To Xena!” Sevastian raised his glass higher, “Conqueror of Greece!”

“To Xena!” her men repeated, voices filled with pure adoration for the Polemarchos .

Shoving Hector back into his seat, Xena moved to gracefully touch her glass to Sevastian's.

These men, she reflected, while turning to look over the crowd while taking a sip, were hers completely.

Trained in her unique brand of warfare.

Battle tested.

She moved to be seated, and with all ceremonies duly performed, dinner truly began.

**

“I tell you, Sevastian, Cecrops was not within the walls of Olynthus for more than a candle mark before he summarily dismissed me,” Meleager chuckled, regaling the members of the high command with his tale. “Said he had more knowledge about ships in his little pinky than I had in my whole body. And you know?” The old man paused.

“He was right!”

Sevastian laughed as he imagined the scene, joined by the rest of the commanders.

“You have Cecrops, the Cecrops, under your command?” asked Hector. How did you manage that?”

“It's a long story,” answered the Polemarchos . “I needed a quality sailor, and who better than Cecrops?”

“Are you in need of a quality commander?”

Now was the moment; she had all the information needed from this bit of debris. Draco's man watched as Xena drained her glass, then slowly moved to place it on the table, waving off Kodi as the kid moved to fill it once more.

“Did you enjoy your meal, Hector?” She asked casually.

The man was not to be dissuaded, remaining silent, waiting for her answer.

“I have no need of your paltry skills.”

“I beg to differ, Xena. I have plenty of skill in command.” Hector's voice was indignant, clearly taking umbrage at her remark. “I have far more practice than your staff commanders, more than even your second. Why, he barely was able to hold off our force at Olynthus ! Sheer luck saved him!”

“There is no such thing as luck in my experience, Hector.” Anything more he wished to say was silenced by her penetrating gaze. “What people claim as luck is really a series of right action, which leads to a successful outcome.

“You well may be a fair commander, Hector, but I find you lacking in one key aspect.”

“And that is?” the man asked in the tense silence which had swept over all at table.

“Loyalty, Hector. You have no loyalty.”

With a gesture from her, the man found himself held by two very strong Amazon warriors.

“I... I don't understand!” he stammered out in shock, while being hauled up out of his seat. The entire hall now fell silent as he was taken off the dais. Amidst cries of protest, he was bound by ropes, a gag tied around his mouth.

“You see, Hector, everyone has a code they live by,” Xena began, while sliding her chair back slightly, stretching her long legs under the table before crossing them at the ankles. “Farm hands are paid for a full day in the fields, all realize that. Bounty hunters use whatever means necessary to catch their quarry, all know that. Spies slink about and steal secrets, all understand that.

“But a commander must never betray his leader. My brothers in arms, before us here, recognize that.” One of her arms lifted, hand sweeping over the room. “You broke an oath, refusing to live by a code of honor you swore freely, Hector. You… betrayed…. Draco.”

Narrowing her gaze, Xena could see fear overtake the man.

“From the Romans, so well versed in duplicity, I expect no less, but you are Greek, and as such are held to a higher standard. The penalty for treason throughout the ages in our culture has always been death.”

She stood, and the rest of the hall stood with her out of respect.

Donning her sword, she took care in pulling on her cloak and gauntlets before sauntering around the table to a position in front of him. “In my eyes, you are a nothing more than a pile of filth which needs to be disposed of.” She smiled upon seeing his color pall.

“Station” The order stated without her eyes leaving his caused her commanders to quickly move to a position behind her.

“You know,” she continued conversationally, “you never answered my question about dinner” she tisked while shaking her head slightly at him. “I thought it made for an excellent last meal.”

“Take him to the Brazen Bull!” she demanded of the Amazons, who effortlessly lifted the fanatically struggling Hector to carry him out of the hall.

“Oh,” Xena drawled out while surveying the assembled officers in the hall, “You're not gonna want to miss this.” She swept her hand towards the door and the men immediately moved to the exit, jockeying for prime positions in the town square.

Looking over her shoulder, she regarded the town council still standing behind the table. “Coming, Kletos?” she purred. The town reeve walked stiffly around the table, councilmen in tow. Xena tucked her arm though his while smiling, sickly sweet, down at the old widower before dragging him along with her outside.

“Brazen Bull?” Sevastian rasped under his breath.

“You'll see, lord commander,” replied Meleager, “my men helped to ready it this afternoon.

Soldiers scattered out of the way as the group reached the main granite landing of the stair leading drown from Marathon 's Great Hall. The weather had turned; a light sleet now fell, blown by cold winds that wind whipping the cloak worn by the Polemarchos .

“Put him in!” she ordered with a gesture of one gauntleted hand.

The high command behind her, rank and file soldiers, and morbidly curious townsfolk, all watched the horror as a vainly struggling Hector worked the gag around his mouth free, and screamed for mercy.

In the square stood a large bronze statue in the shape of an over-sized bull. The metal beast had his head down, one hoof planted forward, the other raised, the posture such an animal would take before charging forward. Muscles stood out in sculpted relief, the tail of the animal flaring out. Beneath the belly of the beast, a tremendous fire blazed in a low, black cauldron.

It dawned on the second. “They are going to—” he sputtered, mind recalling history.

“Yes,” stated Meleager simply. “The Polemarchos saw it in the square this morning and while the town gossip would lead you to believe it a simple statue dedicated to fertility, we actually found offerings to Aphrodite within, Xena instantly discerned its true intent.”

The Amazonian commander, Solari, used a metal rod to flip open the latch, then used it as a lever to push the flap of hinged bronze up. The two warriors shuffled forward with their burden, tossing a screaming Hector within. Straightaway the man howled in pain as his flesh touched the metal. Removing her supporting rod, Solari allowed the metal to slam shut, beating on the glowing latch with the metal bar to lock the flap closed.

The horrific spectacle silenced the vast crowd, all watching as steam issued forth from the nostrils of the metal beast. The cries of the man within its belly sounding like...

“Well, whaddya know!” the Polemarchos grinned evilly, perfect white teeth shining by the light of the flames. “Old Diodorus wasn't just embellishing when he wrote his histories. A man's screams from within the belly of that beast really sound like an enraged bull.

“Death to all who betray Greece !” she shouted, voice carrying over the mute crowd. “And... I... am... Greece !” she rumbled, loud enough for those nearest to hear.

“Tap the kegs! We celebrate a great victory over Draco, and tomorrow we march to Athens !”

At that pronouncement, the men cheered, her name chanted by the troops.

“Give my thanks to the good people of Marathon for dinner, won't you, Kletos?” Her hand slapping him on the back, nearly causing him to tumble forward down the stair. “Oh, and Kletos, find someone to keep that fire ablaze all night.” The reeve, despite being in shock, managed to nod.

“A good evening to all.”

Her commanders watched as Xena stalked off, followed closely by her Amazon guard.

Chapter 17

“Gabrielle, do hurry!

Lilla's voice drifting up from outside the carriage house made Gabrielle hustle all the more as she moved to place her most important treasures in a knapsack. Racing for the door of her little cubby, she unexpectedly paused, turning to take in the space one last time. This, plus the country estate, had been home since they had been sold into slavery after Draco had sacked Potidaea . Gabrielle closed her eyes, unable to stop the image of a tall, black-haired man, Hector, giving the orders as they were rounded up to be sold into slavery. Many in Athens lamented the news of Draco's loss to the forces of the Destroyer. Gabrielle and Lilla had no sympathy for his death, no matter how heroically the bards had painted it.

“Ga-bri-elle!” Lilla yelled out again, adding more urgency to her tone.

Rushing past the now-empty stalls, the girl hurriedly pushed the wide door open, pausing only to see that it was shut completely, out of habit, before joining Lilla outside the townhouse.

“About time, sister,” griped Lilla, eying her smaller sibling and nodding in approval of her attire. Her hands reached down, fussing with Gabrielle's tan winter cloak. “Glad you wore your high boots, looks like we might be slogging through mud most of the way, judging by these clouds.” Lilla watched as her older sibling looked upward for a moment, appraising the storm setting in. As Gabrielle was tasked with care of the master's prized horses, she wore a simple pair of leggings for warmth, covered by a pair of worn, tan leather trousers, all tucked into high brown boots. A long-sleeved, forest green over-tunic and cloak draped over her shoulders would help keep her warm despite the chill of the road.

Looking past Lilla, Gabrielle believed one word could describe the scene unfolding around her.

Chaos.

The street was clogged with refugees seeking to get out of Athens . From doorways and windows, possessions were thrown. Items were even being tossed from open balconies above the street. Every type of conveyance imaginable was in use as people fought each other to get out of the city. Draft horses attached to long wagons; donkeys and carts; and rickshaws; but for her master, a splendid coach pulled by two of his gorgeous, retired racehorses. Gabrielle admired her handiwork on the two, seeing as she was one of many charged with the care of the animals. Despite the pandemonium in the streets, Gabrielle couldn't help but to be proud of her handiwork as the animal's coats shined most beautifully. These two where all that remained, the rest having been shipped across the sea.

Another wave of darkness spreading over the city caused her to look up at the roiling clouds, which were blocking the rays from Apollo's chariot. Usually fair-weathered Athens had been plagued by vicious storms of late, Zeus tossing bolt after bolt across tumultuous dark skies. Rumor had it that the Parthenon had been struck thrice in the same exact spot, which was taken by all who heard about it to be a bad omen. Gabrielle thought such predictions were silly as it was easy to foretell bad omens in the knowledge that Xena the Destroyer was approaching the city. She found no soothsayers willing to chance forecasting good things befalling Athens in the current climate of terror.

The esteemed Toris had pronounced from his balcony to the masses in the Agora that Xena would do no harm to the city, and that Athenians should not panic. Rumors had circulated for weeks and months that he had sent parts of the Athenian army to secretly fight the Destroyer. Toris tried to be sneaky by stripping them of their livery to make it seem as if they were only conscripted mercenaries. At least, that was the conversation Lilla had heard while serving the master and his sparse guests at table.

Judging the scene around her, it appeared Toris' words had fallen on deaf ears. Just outside the gates of the townhouse, a brawl had broken out between two cart drovers after one had blocked the other from accessing passage down the narrow thoroughfare. Behind them, all traffic halted as the rolling thunder boomed high overhead, surely Zeus' laughter at the scenes unfolding in the city dedicated to his daughter.

Her master had planned their escape well, understanding that nothing would halt the Destroyer. His prized racehorses had already been sent, the country estate having been sold. Only his desire to stay in his homeland of Greece had kept them here this long. Perhaps he was hoping against all odds that Xena's progress would be arrested.

“The master...”Lilla's words drew Gabrielle's attention from the expanding brawl past the gates.

Even she could feel the sadness radiating off the man as he descended the granite steps of the entryway. Dressed for the road in tan woolen pants with high black boots, he wore a cream-colored wool tunic with a natty, multicolored overcoat, which draped to his waist and had holes instead of sleeves for his arms. She watched as the few free servants who had chosen to stay in Athens lined up to say their goodbye to their former employer. Slowly moving down the line, he shook hands with each as first smoke, then flame erupted from within the townhouse. Iolaus, having sold the majority of the furnishings, was determined that Xena would not have use of the property when she and her army arrived to take the city.

Whispers amongst the staff had told of a time when her master had traveled with Hercules on his legendary journeys across Greece . The two had worked to right wrongs, to defend the weak. That is, until a fateful meeting with Xena, the Destroyer. Rumors were rampant, partly because her master expressly forbade the mentioning of Hercules' name in his presence. And partly because no one knew what had specifically occurred as he starkly refused to speak on the matter.

It was said that before Xena, Iolaus was a kind, joyous man. Now, though his kindness remained, it was clear the joy he once knew was gone. He hardly smiled, rarely ventured forth from his estate, except to see his horses in the chariot races at the hippodrome. He consciously chose to live a life of near complete solitude.

“Ready?” he called out now, standing by the open door of his carriage. Lilla, Gabrielle, and the rest of slaves nodded. Around them, the hired guards formed up, an escort out of Athens to the port city of Piraeus .

There, a ship awaited to take them to Rome as their master believed his best opportunity would be to race his horses in the as of yet unfinished Circus Maximus. Winning there would enable him to earn gold by breeding his fine horses for the wealthy of Rome .

The gates ahead opened and they walked onto the street. Gabrielle chanced a look back at the now completely engulfed townhouse, flames jumping out the windows, licking the outer stone, turning it black, as oily smoke rose into the darkened sky.

Her master evidently had no desire to look at the mayhem in the streets as black drapes covered all the windows of his carriage. Walking behind, Lilla moved to grasp Gabrielle's hand as the guards around them used pikes to force the panicked mob back to allow them passage. Many of the prominent citizens of Athens had fled the city for the safety of their walled country estates. The poor masses now took advantage, ransacking the homes of the wealthy for anything of value, then setting fires within.

“Have you ever seen the like?” muttered Lilla at her side.

“No...” was all Gabrielle could utter at first. “Like a day of judgment has arrived,” she added upon reflection of the scene.

Past the Theater of Dionysus they traveled, a motley looking group of guards keeping watch over the theater grounds. Chaos in the streets, and here these men guarded an empty theater, probably hired by the owner; it struck her as a waste.

Gabrielle lamented the fact that, although she lived in Athens , she had never been witness to a play. How she would have loved to go. Lilia had told how many of the wealthy, who had come to pay for the master's fine horses, had spoken of the grand theater of Marcellus in Rome proper. It was named by Julius Caesar after the sister of his nephew, Octavian. Perhaps there she would see a play performed.

Turning north, the entourage passed the Acropolis, home to Athena's magnificent temple. Packed along the avenue leading up to the shrine were many thousands, with their hands raised to the sky, imploring the goddess with loud voice to save her city from the Destroyer. While bolts from Zeus flashed fearsomely over the temple, it appeared to Gabrielle that no help from Athena would be forthcoming.

Reaching the Agora, one was struck by the silence of the milling crowds. All the shops were closed, many with hired guards keeping watch. High above the basilica, with its courts of law, the draped balcony of the first citizen stood empty, the windows surrounding it darkened. The only sign that the esteemed Toris was still in residence was his standard fluttering high over the Agora: The golden owl, symbol of Athena, with his family crest emblazoned behind on a field of the goddess' favorite color, pure white.

Leaving the openness of the Agora behind, the group traversed narrow streets until they reached the eastern city gate marking the road to Piraeus . On the ramparts high above stood no soldiers, neither there nor manning the gate. The once-proud Athenian army seemingly had vanished into the mists. Upon reaching the gate, the heavens opened, drenching the multitudes as they fled the city. It was from this vantage point that all could see the wide plain surrounding the city. There, through the sheets of falling rain, Gabrielle could just see the assembled army of the Destroyer.

The army appeared only as a mass of tents and indistinguishable specks at this distance. All around the city it stretched, thousands upon thousands of men commanded by the warlord she had once spoken with in her father's hovel of a barn. Gabrielle had only dared speak once of her meeting with the Destroyer of Nations and that was to Lilla, though from the description given by the traveling bards, Gabrielle knew the Xena she had met and the Destroyer were one and the same. Lilla hadn't believed for a moment that her little sister had met the fabled Destroyer. The story was, Gabrielle conceded, too fanciful to be believed. No one would accept that a peasant such as she had been, had given some meager comfort to the woman who would one day conquer Greece . Now, as a mere slave, it was all the more improbable that she had ever been in the presence of the fearsome warlord, let alone risen above her station and actually spoken to Xena.

Shielding her eyes from the falling rain, little Gabrielle peered through the guards surrounding them, attempting vainly to perhaps catch some slight glimpse of Xena. She wondered, should they meet again, if Xena would even remember her.

Xena, Conqueror of the Greek lands, would never remember one as insignificant, as invisible, as she.

**

The rain fell, obscuring her view, its iciness penetrating her leathers, her dark hair soaked through.

Why was she enduring its chill to gaze upon a partially visible Athens ?

Within, she felt this... edginess... as if something were slipping away from her, yet she had no idea of what it was.

“No army?” she asked without turning.

“None. Deserted,” came the reply from the kneeling man behind.

“Bedlam reigns within the city?”

“Yes...Great Conqueror.”

Turning, she looked past the tent flaps at the members of her high command, noting that only Sevastian had deemed it worthy to stand in the rain with her, the others choosing to remain dry.

The second had her leather cloak neatly folded and tucked under one arm. “You are such a mother hen,” she said softly, noting the cloak, before her eyes shifted to meet his, catching his flush of embarrassment. Sevastian did the same thing with Kodi. Often she would spot him fussing with the boy's cloak or shoes. It was a source of amusement to many in the army, seeing the lofty second in command bent over, tying up the laces of a mere servant.

She had done much the same for Lyceus growing up; the boy could never keep his shoe laces tied.

“Rise, Themistocles.” The elderly Athenian general slowly got his feet under him, aided by Meleager.

“You have acted in a spirit befitting all true Greeks. Go with our thanks, and know that measures will be taken to ensure Athens ' protection.”

After a deep bow, the man hobbled out of the tent.

Striding back into the tent, Xena appraised her command for a moment as Sevastian took a position against the fabric wall nearest the tent flaps behind her.

“Menticles.” Her commander came to attention. “Take the entire 1 st army group into the city. I want all the gates closed; lock the city in for the night. Then move to put an end to the chaos by any means necessary. Put men on the streets, force the populace to return to their homes. Use the Athenian army quarters to billet the men this night. Do you understand me?”

“Clearly.”

A snap of her fingertips, the jerk of a thumb at the tent entrance, and her commander quickly left.

“Mercer, in addition to your scouts manning posts outside the city, I want your men on the highest ramparts of the city walls.

“Meleager, take a group of your men, ensure all is prepared at the Acropolis for our entrance on the morrow.

“The rest of you, see that your troops are ready, polished and shined; we must make for a good show.”

Her officers nodded in understanding.

“Talmadeus, I place you in command of the 2 nd army group. Ride with them in the morning; I will speak with you more about your duties in the next few cycles.”

“As you wish, Xena.”

“Out.”

Her men moved to fulfill her orders.

“Solari, Sevastian.”

The Amazon moved to stand near her second, who, after placing the cloak in his arms upon a nearby chair, braced at attention.

“Is your group assembled?” Xena asked, seeing both nod.

“Good. Then take a column of Amazons to the Agora. There, place some in guard of the basilica.” Xena walked to her camp chair to sit. “Find my lout of a brother and...” Both watched as her head quirked to one side for a moment as a peal of thunder rolled, “...place him under guard. Solari, you will explain in no uncertain terms what I expect of him on the morrow. Then move on to the Parthenon and place still more Amazons in guard. we must ensure Athena's temple comes to no harm.”

Solari's brows hiked at the order. Why would Ares' Chosen be concerned with Athena's temple?

“You, my loyal second...”

Solari spared a glance at the slight man. To her, it seemed Xena counted no one loyal. What had he done to deserve the title?

“Make your way to the Assembly, tell them I would speak to them tomorrow after the sun passes its apex.”

“I will do so.” The deception begins , he mused.

“My lord?” Solari spoke.

“Yeess...” The Polemarchos leaned back in her camp chair, resting the back of her head upon the wood.

“Upon completion of my task, may I have permission to give an offering at Artemis' temple?”

“What devotions you have are of no concern to me, Amazon.” Sevastian watched as Xena smiled wryly. “Hector's bones?” she asked knowingly.

“He sold many of our sisters into slavery. It is only fitting that his remains be offered to our goddess.”

“Ah, Solari, you do understand the sweetness of vengeance. Take his bones that you covet so and do what you will.”

A rap at the tent pole turned their attentions to the hoplite.

Polemarchos , the high priest of Athena's temple begs a word.”

“Go, fulfill your tasks, then return to camp.”

Both her commanders bowed, then took their leave.

“Send him in,” Xena commanded of the guard while grasping a chalice, holding it up casually so Kodi might fill it with warmed wine.

A chuckle escaped her, barely contained before it could blossom into a full-blown laugh at sight of the man entering her tent.

He was dressed in a full-length, black...vestment... with a comically wide black hat, with dark lace overlay added to cover the face.

“That'll be all, boy,” she ordered of Kodi, who left the tent. She waited until he had gone before she spoke.

“Autolycus, that is the most ridiculous outfit I've yet seen.”

“Worked, didn't it?” he stated proudly while taking off the huge bonnet-looking hat. “No one recognized me.”

“Athena's priests wear white,” Xena instructed drolly, while raising one hand up to rub her temple in exasperation.

“Oh... Hades!” Auto looked down upon his attire and grimaced visibly.

**

Members of the Old Guard, with Alistair at the point, had formed a wedge to clear the street ahead of him. The men of the 1 st army group had already done the lion's share of the work, but still the crowds filling the Agora resisted the call to clear the streets.

“Your quarry.” Sevastian leaned over slightly, shifting Gisela's reins to the other hand while pointing up at the man standing on a very prominent balcony.

Without a word, the Amazon gestured to her sisters and the women evaporated into the crowd.

Looking back up, his eyes met Toris', and Sevastian nodded ever so slightly. Toris leaned on the stone rail, dipping his head downward in dejection, long, dark hair falling forward about his shoulders. In the next moment, he was yanked off the balcony and into the building.

“That was fast,” muttered the second, not completely convinced that Toris had recognized him.

“Home, you idle creatures, get you home! Is this a holiday?” yelled Alistair to the crowds.

“But sir, we took the day off to see the great Xena.” The peasant's words were being echoed by others in the crowd. “Why,” the man continued, seeing he had gained an audience, “I wore my best clothes in hopes she might take a shine to me!”

Amidst the raucous laughter that followed, Sevastian spurred Gisela forward, coming to a point ahead of Alistair. He drew his blade, casually placing it on the man's shoulder, the exceedingly sharp edge near the skin of the peasant's neck. He allowed that edge to sink into the flesh a bit, drawing blood. The peasant swallowed hard as a line of crimson stained the tunic he wore. The crowd fell prudently silent.

“Such words offend me.” The second raised his voice slightly, projecting it so the crowd might be able to listen. “Were that my liege lord here, she would remove the insolent tongue you possess from your head.”

“Sir, I meant—” the man began to shake, wondering if death was upon him.

“I do not care what you meant,” replied Sevastian, whose eyes darted away to appraise the anxious crowd. “Get you home, all of you!” he yelled out, causing the crowd to dissipate into the forming mists now rolling through the streets.

“What is your trade, peasant?” the second asked, his blade still at the man's throat.

“Why, a cobbler sir, lowly mender of worn shoes.”

“Then I suggest you return to your work, cobbler, and be thankful you live to see another day end.”

The blade moved away and the man visibly relaxed. “I thank you sir.”

Sevastian leaned over a bit.

“And tomorrow, when Xena arrives, I advise you tell all it is best they hold their tongue.” The cobbler nodded, head bobbing up and down keenly.

“The Destroyer is not as forgiving as I am,” he finished darkly. Straightening in the saddle, Sevastian spurred Gisela forward to the building housing the Athenian Assembly, the guard racing behind.

**

Silence.

Within the tent, silence reigned as Kodi moved knowingly, handing her each bit and piece of her armor, having mastered the task after so many cycles. Seating herself, she extended first her left foot, then her right, allowing the boy to place meticulously polished black boots upon her feet. Each boot, below the golden scroll at the top, were embossed with an X.

Standing, she regarded the boy, just below elbow height as he moved to place golden bracers upon her wrists. She recalled this was similar to the armor worn when she first met his step-brother, Sevastian Except this day, the lustrous leather interlaced across her chest was deep brown instead of a dark black. For a moment, she fingered one of the many disks forged from pure gold with the designs of the major city-states she had conquered. Mutely, Kodi lifted the leather flaud at her hip to ensure the ties running along the sides of her long legs were taut before he moved behind her to work the lacing of her top.

This armor was far less protective than she would normally have worn, but with the sleeveless arming jacket tucked underneath, it would withstand most arrows and a glancing blow from a blade. She had decided to wear it out of pure symbolism, to remind all that it was she who conquered the regions and city-states of Greece .

Kodi moved from behind and she instinctively opened her arms slightly as he clasped the gold embossed belt firmly around her waist, before moving around her to pick up one last polished golden disk, which Thermistocles had brought. Her lips quirked up into a little smile as she leaned over a bit to allow him the access he needed to clasp it to a prominent point, just below her neck.

The golden owl of Athena representing what was now her city.

Stepping away from the boy, she placed beautifully made daggers on her person. One in a holder located on the back of her boot, one in a sheath on her belt by the gold buckle. Picking up the polished chakram, she placed it upon her hip. Lastly, her sword, secured firmly in his sheath attached to her leathers by various clips.

Outside, she could hear the sounds of the men forming up before her inspection. In front of her tent, she knew a military groom was waiting, holding Argo's reins.

“You do well, boy.” They were the first words she had spoken that morning, praise for the precise care he gave to the items she wore.

“Thank you, Xena.” She smiled genuinely at the kid, rebellious to the last, adding no honorific as many had come to do in her presence.

“Shall I help you with your cloak?”

She appraised the dark sky outside, gazing thought the flaps of the tent.

“No.” What she wore must be seen by the people this day.

Silence returned as he awaited her next order.

“Tell Minya I wish to have my belongings transferred to the governing palace above the basilica. She has an eye for where I like to be billeted, and will send slaves to move my things.”

“I will do so.”

“Your family comes to Athens soon.” Hearing no response, she turned facing the boy while placing hands on hips.

The kid looked terribly confused.

“Sevastian did not tell you this news?”

“I have not spoken with the lord commander.”

So snarky, this little scrap of a child, mused Xena, hearing the tone of his voice and the refusal to call his brother by name.

“You should,” she countered while rising on the balls of her feet, only to rock back on her heels, settling her ensemble before reaching for a pair of brown leather gauntlets—and an additional sword, one much like Sevastian wore.

“I do not agree with his choices.”

Ah, let the verbal sparring begin. She smiled.

“Be that as it may, you still must make the effort to speak with him. Take it from one who knows, this life we lead can be taken from us at any moment. Best to speak now, or forever regret words left unsaid to one who loves you.”

For a long moment, she locked her gaze upon him, letting him feel the full weight of her will. “I allow you to skip your studies today, lad. Go to the Acropolis and watch the show, if you like.”

She stepped away from him and out of the tent to fulfill her destiny.

Outside, the Amazon guard braced at attention as she emerged, two lines facing each other, an honor guard which would precede and surround her on her journey to the very heart of Athens .

For a moment, she appraised the warriors, attired as they were in the traditional battle dress of their people.

“Tell me,” Xena prefaced to the Amazon Solari, standing at her shoulder. “Don't you ever get cold?” Her words referred to the leather, two-piece, brown cloth and leather garments the women wore. Tucking the sheathed katana under one arm, the Polemarchos paused to don her gauntlets.

“No, Conqueror.”

“I see.” The wry smile made it clear to Solari that the Conqueror was not convinced by her answer. “Well, with all those masks, feathers, and war paint, I believe you will make quite an impression on the people of Athens .”

Solari remained silent.

“You know, you're a tough woman to have a conversation with.”

“I do not blather on as so many of your male commanders do. Xena looked past Solari, into the distance for a moment. “All is ready, then?”

“It is.” The Amazon dipped her head in obeisance to the new ruler of Greece .

“Good.” Xena stepped forward, reviewing each of the warriors of her close guard; swords, arrows and quivers, staffs, each woman carrying her weapon of choice, war masks slung over their shoulders.

Reaching the end of the line, her eyes met Sevastian's. The second immediately dropped to one knee as she came before him.

“Rise, my friend.

“You and your men are ready to face all challenges this day?” she asked as he moved to stand.

“Yes, my lord,” the answer she knew he would give.

Untucking the sheathed blade from under her arm, she moved quickly to snug it within the cobalt blue silk sash tightly bound about his waist, giving him a sword in addition to the one attached to him by cords.

“Make good use of it,” she commanded, cutting off any words he might have spoken. “Got it during my time in Jappa; it is well used and should be worn by one such as you.”

“Too kind, my lord, you gift me beyond my worth.”

Stepping back she assessed the man silently

Dressed in the armor she had made for him.

Black lamellar, with white piping about his chest, rose to cover all the way around him to his neck. Arrow guards hung from his shoulder armor, flaud lamellar hung down about his hips and waist, with still more covering his thighs, ending at the high black boots protecting his calves. Where his armor did not reach, silk dyed the finest shade of cobalt covered him, a doublet underneath it for added protection. Against the chill, he wore a lined black cloak. His helmet was also black, the back of which draped low to protect his neck.

Her colors.

“I shall see you after and look forward to your report.”

“As you command, my lord.”

Walking to Argo, the groom immediately handed off the reins of her fully armored warhorse. For a moment, she paused, waiting for Sevastian to mount his own steed before allowing Argo to amble forward to a position before her troops. The numbers within her army had swelled dramatically, the result of her success upon the battlefield. Raw recruits now filled the ranks, mingled among her battle-hardened men. Talmadeus would train them, and Athens , like the rest of Greece , would pay to outfit them.

“Raise the standard,” she called to the boy behind.

He complied immediately, the black “X” overlaid on a field of cobalt blue with dark border rose, the fabric catching the wind and unfurling. Further behind, she could hear the colours of the army ascending behind Sevastian, the rising phoenix snapping in the wind alongside her personal banner. Shouts rang out as her men were called to attention, unit flags of her army groups rising, guidons for smaller units. Not for mere show, these emblems; in the chaos of battle, men could rally around their unit flag, the bearer of which, carefully chosen out of the ranks by his proven bravery, would follow his commander faithfully upon the battlefield. On this day, something new was added. In the center of the field stood 39 flag bearers, grouped together with military precision, each man representing the militia of his home region of Greece . To either side, more banners flew, representing major villages and cities across Greece .

She had conquered them all.

Their presence was meant to make it clear to the populace of Athens who it was that now ruled them.

Guiding Argo forward, Xena rode slowly down the lines, trooping the colors before the men as before a battle. Unit emblems and guidons dipped as she passed, rising up again before the second passed some distance behind her.

At the end of the line, she motioned for the second to move alongside, smiling internally when he made sure the stirrup of his horse did not pass hers.

Always proper and respectful, her second.

“This is where we part,” she stated simply, while reaching to clasp his arm.

“I wish you much success, my lord.” As adept as she was at picking up on lies, Xena knew the sentiment behind his words were true.

“Amazons! With me!” she bellowed out before spurring Argo onward.

Shouts rang again along the lines as the men in formation turned, then followed behind their Polemarchos , a drum sounding to keep the men in step.

The columns passed before him and Sevastian found himself proud—very proud—to be a part of it.

“An honor to ride alongside you this day, Lord Commander.”

Talmadeus clasped his hand briefly before the two joined their horses with the moving line, the Old Guard Cavalry forming up in two lines on the outside of the moving infantry.

“You know, I always dreamt of conquering Athens . In a way, now I have,” mused the old commander. “Just not in the way I imagined. Goes to prove one never knows what the Fates have in store.”

The second considered the words of Talmadeus for long moments before he spoke. “Unlike most men, I tell you true that I had no dreams, no visions, no perceived destiny. I was not living, just surviving. Yet because of her,” Sevastian's chin jerked slightly, drawing Talmadeus' gaze to the flag of the Polemarchos fluttering far ahead, “I have found my destiny.”

**

Ahead, the gate loomed: Aged wood, strapped with iron. Above, her men manned the ramparts. As she passed through to emerge within the city proper, a sudden, sharp peal of thunder above frightened the multitude into silence. The cream of her Old Guard rode point, forming a wedge to force the crowds back. To her sides, as well as ahead and behind, were her watchful Amazons, bound by their collective oath to see no harm came her way. Behind that strode the men holding aloft the many flags of a once-fractured, now united Greece . In deference to Athen's pride, the white flag with golden owl was in the forefront. Along the streets, the citizenry watched her mutely. This was no cheerful occasion; this was the defeated watching the victor pass. Xena could see the apprehension written upon the faces of the crowd, Ares gift within reveling in their fear.

Unlike most warlords of Greece , she never felt the need to preen at the very front of the army. Whatever her position, that was the front of the army.

“Solari.”

“Yes, Conqueror?” the Amazon was instantly by her side.

“Stay here and point this road to my second.” A gesture from the warlord caused the Amazon to gaze at the road, then turn back to nod understanding to her before moving off.

A turn, and the cobblestone road widened into a grand avenue that began a gentle incline. Ahead, she caught sight of Athena's magnificent temple, a seemingly perfect representation of ordered angles achieved by mathematically contoured visual trickery—painted columns and a glorious frieze celebrating the goddess, running around the building above the columns. Above, on the fascia of the east pediment, was the bas relief depicting the birth of Athena from Zeus. On the western side, unseen from this angle, she knew to be another composition depicting Athena and Poseidon in competition for the honor of becoming the city's patron.

As the army snaked its way to the high temple, the crowds grew. Now the various classes who made up the rungs of the ladder that was Athenian society stood four and five deep; silent, watching her pass from the street level as well as from windows and balconies high above.

With impassiveness etched into her features, she made eye contact with as many as possible, pleased to see the dipped heads and slumped shoulders of the defeated appear when her gaze met theirs momentarily. She was a cat amongst pigeons.

However, driven by innate curiosity, these people would pack into the Acropolis and there she would give them a show that would be retold by the bards for centuries to come.

With inner satisfaction, she watched for a moment as her brother's emblem was hauled down from atop the basilica on the Agora below.

It would be replaced by her standard.

**

“The road to the Assembly!”

“What does she mean? Road to the Assembly?” asked Talmadeus.

“This is where I must leave you,” replied Sevastian, hardening his heart, preparing for what was to come.

“Leave?” The old commander was stupefied. “You will not go forth with us to meet the Conqueror?”

“No,” Sevastian stated firmly as he reined Gisela away, a large contingent of the Old Guard moving to follow. “We all have our assigned duties; I must perform mine.”

“And what, pray tell, might those be?” Talamdeus muttered, seeing the large force depart.

**

The fulfillment of a dream.

From Amhipolis she had come. From humble beginnings, she had risen above all challengers to lay claim to Greece .

Atop Argo, Xena gazed at the Parthenon. Though she be Ares' Chosen , she was not as base as to not to appreciate the beauty of Athena's temple.

Meleager had done an excellent job of preparing the area in front. Massive iron torchieres lined the sides of the square, their basins filled with oil; the flames cast a flickering light over the darkened space. The light danced over the marble tiles in the square and sent shimmering patterns of light and dark to play upon the ornate facade of the temple.

Far behind her, at the back of the square, her men of the second and third army groups marched, filing into the area with military discipline in stark contrast to the horde streaming in to fill the front of the square. The citizenry of Athens were no doubt unsure what exactly they would witness this day, but wanting to see the drama unfold nonetheless.

Seeing that Meleager's troops were ready at the top of the temple stair, Xena casually dismounted from Argo. Behind, her commanders—Mercer, Menticles, Virgilius, Talmadeus—did the same, their standard-bearers leading the horses away to a position on the right edge of the temple, near the hundreds carrying aloft the various banners representing the city-states, villages, and regions of Greece.

“Solari.”

Instantly, the Amazon was by her side.

With a slight nod, the Amazon commander told Xena what she needed to know. Sevastian was on the way to complete the task given him

“Take your guard, Amazon. Form a line here.”

Solari gazed where Xena was gesturing; the edge of the temple steps and the gilded rostrum used by the temple priests on high holy days.

“No one from the crowd passes.”

“As you command, Conqueror.”

Walking forward, she heard Virgilius' voice rise from behind.

“My lord, your second has not appeared. Perhaps he has gotten lost?”

The statement garnered a soft round of laughter from all except Talmadeus.

Stopping to gaze at him over one shoulder, she eyed him coldly.

All merriment ceased.

“Do not worry yourself, Virgilius. It is enough for you to know that his action this day is for the betterment of my Greece .”

With that she ascended the stair, the now silent commanders forming up behind.

A cold smile touched her lips as she regarded the man held between two Amazons.

“Kneel, brother, lest the multitudes gathering here think you have no love for your sister.”

With a sigh, Toris slumped roughly upon one knee as she reached the top of the stair.

“Conqueror,” one of the Amazons spoke—Siri, by name. “We bring your brother to you.” She paused momentarily as the powerful aura surrounding the Conqueror awed her into silence.

“He tried to escape this morning.”

“How?”

Siri watched as the Conqueror moved to place hands on hips.

“He attempted to escape through the garderobe in his quarters.”

Toris' humiliation burned red upon his cheeks as his sister laughed heartily at his action.

“Fitting, as I always believed you to be a piece of shit,” her voice rasped, suddenly near his ear.

“Get up,” she commanded curtly.

He did, his eyes on a level with hers, one of the few people who matched her in height.

“Glad you cleaned up after your attempted... escape.”

Toris' blue eyes lowered, his head dropping in shame.

“Smile, brother,” her finger slid under his chin, “let the people gathered here see the... love... we have for each other.” Suddenly, she grasped him tightly and pulled him into a very unloving hug.

“After you witness the day's course, I send you home,” she spoke softly, voice rumbling in his ear. “Our mother is aged. You will trade fine silks for woolen clothing, and running a city-state for running an inn. Know this, Brother,” she began ominously, while pulling back slightly, her gaze meeting his, “you are not free to leave Amphipolis. If you try, the rest of your life will be spent in the blackest pit I can throw you into.”

She pulled back from him further but her hands remained tightly grasping his arms.

He nodded slowly in understanding.

“You look well, Toris.” Her voice changed inflection and she clasped him on his shoulders before pulling her hands away. “Have you become mute?” she asked mockingly, her commanders chuckling from behind. “Have you nothing to say to your... dear... sister?”

“I wish you well, Xena. However, you may find having to rule Greece is different than wanting to rule Greece .”

In a flash, her right arm rose, hand reaching out, fingers tweaking his cheek roughly.

“My brother waxes poetic!” Two of her fingers tapped his cheek as her commanders broke into full blown laughter.

“Give Mother my love.” She passed by him, continuing on to the doors of the temple. Clasping his hands together in front, Toris dipped his head again as Xena's commanders stepped around him to follow her into the temple.

“Let us find a suitable spot to view the course as the Conqueror suggests.” Siri's tone was derisive. It was incomprehensible to the Amazon that such an outright coward could be related to the mighty Xena.

His Amazon guard guided him down the marble stair.

**

From his position behind the second, Alistair watched as the massive hall of the Athenian Assembly came into view. The marble-clad building was circular in shape, windows symmetrically placed all around. Rising up a full three stories in height and aided by the high ground it was built upon, the building was visible to much of Athens . The entrance consisted of columns two stories high, holding up a grand pediment, the fascia of which depicted the Assembly in bas-relief, sitting in congress as if in debate over an issue. Below, an inscription was carved into the stone.

“What does it say?” asked one of the Germanic riders behind him.

“Dem Deutschen Volke?” another German chided before Alistair could answer.

“No,” answered the captain, not understanding the Germanic tongue but nonetheless sure that was not what it said. “It is fitting that all tyrants perish.” Alistair translated, knowing the German troops Xena had converted to her cause could speak a smattering of Greek but not read it.

“Tyrannos omnes oportet perire,” stated Sevastian.

“You know the tongue of the Romans?” asked a shocked Alistair.

“Yes,” responded the second curtly, while reining Gisela to a halt. He bristled as a man representing the guard which protected the Assembly appeared, slowly walking down the stair toward him, his face obscured by his helm.

“The few guards on duty around the building have been quietly eliminated.” Autolycus' voice rose up as he walked near. “Fare well, Lord Commander. Three hundred and fifty on the chamber floor, hundreds more in the gallery above. They sit in ignorant bliss, awaiting a speech to be given by Xena.”

A speech which would never happen.

Auto passed him, never having stopped walking, the spy continuing to pace down the cobblestone street, disappearing around a bend.

“Explain to me your part of today's action,” Sevastian commanded of Alistair, while reaching for a water skin.

“I am to encircle the outside of the building with my force. I will allow no man to escape, and will kill all who try, women and children being the only exception, per direct order of the Polemarchos .”

“Correct. Now move.”

“You men, dismount and follow me,” Alistair ordered while waving impatiently.

Sevastian took a long sip from the skin, attempting to quell his jittery nerves as he watched members of the Old Guard form a perimeter around the building. Gisela seemed to pick up on his angst and pranced in place a bit, jostling him.

“Easy now, girl...easy,” he cooed gently. .

Scanning the area, he was glad to see the streets nearly empty, the people enthralled by the spectacle in the Acropolis as Xena had predicted. Autolycus' work was also evident in the tarp-covered wagons nearby. Wagons guarded by men dressed as peasants so as to not draw unwanted suspicion.

All was ready outside, the men in place. “Check your weapons,” Sevastian ordered, while removing his cloak and handing it to his standard-bearer, behind. The boy draped it over the saddle horn of his steed.

“Dismount and follow me.” Leaving Gisela in the hold of his flag bearer, the second ran briskly to the entrance portal, 250 plus men behind.

**

“You dare obstruct Xena!”

Her commanders moved to draw their blades.

“Hold.” One gauntleted hand rose, stilling the men behind her.

For a moment, she studied the two temple guards with some amusement.

“You have a wish to die this day?” asked Xena while poking the crossed spears derisively with a finger.

“We are sworn to protect Athena's temple.”

“Little man,” Xena growled down at him, “had my intent been to destroy your precious temple, it would be a smoldering ruin.”

“Let... me... pass.”

For a mere instant, the guards nervously eyed each other, then the spears uncrossed.

“Meleager!”

“Yes, my lord?” her commander jogged over from his position by one of the columns.

“Raise my standard.”

“As you command,” he responded with a bow. “You men there, haul those lines!” he yelled while pacing away.

With a heavy kick from one booted foot, the bronze doors flew open to slam against the marble walls, the impact ringing though the temple, startling the old priests who were all lined up in a cute little row.

Entering, she took a long moment to study the interior as her commanders filed in behind, leaving Meleager outside to complete his task.

Columns of while marble, painted in a riot of color, rose up nearly three full stories. At her feet was painstakingly inlayed multi-colored marble flooring in an ornate design. From above and to the sides, lamps filled with oil burned, lighting the space. All was clean, walls and flooring having been polished to a brilliant shine. So very different from Ares' temples. There, plain torches burned, and the area in which his bronzed statue stood was usually covered by the bones of the vanquished, or offerings of weaponry once used by defeated enemies.

“Close the doors,” she commanded. Mercer moved to do her bidding.

**

The milling crowd was stilled at the sight.

In the openings between the outer temple columns, long, narrow banners slowly began their ascent. Each one was hauled up by ropes running though iron rings embedded in the marble above. Each of the six moved upward at exactly the same pace, three on either side of the now-closed central portal leading into the inner sanctum of Athena's temple. Each banner was bordered in cobalt blue and in the center was the stylized X of the Destroyer upon a field of the purest white, in deference to the goddess whose temple they would hang from. Higher they rose, each nearly as long as the columns were tall, the gentle breeze swaying them in a rhythmic motion. The voice of Zeus rumbled through the dark clouds, loud thunder shaking the square and all in it as the banners reached their apex.

There was a shout, and all eyes turned to the many carrying the banners, representing all Greece .

Husbands moved to hold wives, children were clasped tightly by parents, lovers embraced, all eyes brimming with tears.

The flags slowly lowered, dipping until the fabric touched the ground, an act of submission to the one whose banner now hung between the columns of the Parthenon. Elderly Themistocles was left alone for a moment to hold the banner of Athens aloft. Then it, too, slowly lowered, amid much wailing from the people. Once it had fallen away, eyes shifted to the banner rising over the basilica beyond, one which mirrored those draping from the temple.

**

In the edges of her vision, she watched him approach while she continued to study the massive statue of Athena Parthenos. The sculpture was covered with ivory and sheets of pure gold. In the middle of the massive helmet were griffins sculpted in relief. Athena stood fully upright in a long tunic which reached her boots, the armored tips of which jutted out from the draping edges. On the plate covering her breast was the head of Medusa, worked in ivory. One hand held a statue of victory; in the other hand, a spear. At her feet was a shield, and near the spear, the serpent Erichthonius. On the pedestal, a depiction of the birth of Pandora was carved in sharp relief

When the man was near, her hand whipped out suddenly, knocking the gilded platter from his hands and dumping its contents of laurel, incense, and other various libations across the marble floor.

“Are you so thoughtless as to expect Ares' Chosen to make an offering to Athena?” she snarled.

“Forgive a foolish old man, great Xena,” he stated, while backing away. “I only brought these from force of habit.” Her hand caught him before he could back further away and balled the silken fabric of his white robe before yanking him up close.

“What is in that?” she asked him, noting the fear in his eyes and the quaking of his old bones.

“In wha…” his voice trailed off, eyes following the length of her other arm, raised as it was, one finger pointing to a jeweled metal cabinet at the base of the statue.

“Great Xena, the reliquary holds the sacred cape of Athena herself.”

Now, that could be put to good use.

“Open it.”

“O-open it? Pardon, y-you wish us to—”

His stammered words ended as he was forcibly dragged across the space to a position in front of the box.

“I... said... open... it.” For what seemed an eternity, the old codger fumbled around his person. Just when Xena thought to draw her blade and run him though to satisfy her frustration, he found the key. With shaking hand, he inserted it into the lock, which loosened with a satisfying click, the heavy gold door swinging open to reveal the contents

Within, neatly folded, was a cloak of pure white, whose edges were threaded in pure gold. Shoving him out of the way, she reached in.

“Only the high priest may touch—”

His words silenced by her droll look before she shoved the man back.

In a swift motion, she snapped the cape open and then twirled it around her to clasp it to her shoulders. Turning, she faced her stunned commanders.

“Let us go and speak to the people.” Xena took a step forward, then stopped to eye the old priest for a moment. “Nice statue,” she complimented, watching as a hesitant smile played upon his lips. “But… it looks nothing like Athena,” she finished flatly. His smile faded, his eyes drawn from her to the huge statue.

With a chuckle, she left him to ponder her words.

**

The group ran up the steps and into the Assembly building. Reaching the foyer, the men wordlessly split into four groups. The largest, led by the second, charged forward, one around to the other side of the chamber, the other two racing up the stairs on either side to the galleries above. Armored men pledged to the service of the Destroyer ran past the figures of carved stone and painted mural meant to celebrate the long history of Athenian democracy, a history which would end today.

Reaching the stout wood- and iron-strapped main door, Sevastian slowed, seeing the portal closed. Whipping his hands out to his sides, he commanded the men following. Seeing his gesture, they lined up single file, their backs against the wall to either side of the door. Weapons drawn, they waited in quiet anticipation for what was to come.

Slowly, he drew his blade. The katana he had carried for years left its form-fitted sheath with a bare whisper of metal against wood. Flipping the sword in his hand, he raised the hilt, using it to strike the wood of the door three times, a slight pause between each strike. Each strike sounded impossibly loud, echoing as it did off silent marble halls.

A peephole slid open, eyes peering out. From that vantage point, it appeared Sevastian stood alone.

“Who asks to come before the assembly?” the voice challenged. Sevastian recognized it from the day previous, the sergeant of arms. A man who had been all too pleased to give him a detailed tour of the building which Sevastian had quickly agreed to, as it aided in planning the actions of this day.

“A messenger,” Sevastian raised his voice so that those within, might hear. “From my lord Xena, Conqueror of the Greek states and ruler of the same.”

“She does not rule this Assembly!” the man responded in fierce defiance.

The opening slammed shut.

Great, he offended their sensibilities, now what...

Glancing over, Sevastian's eyes met those of the nearest man, who could only shrug slightly.

What gall these graybeards possessed! Their city has fallen, yet here they sat clinging to the idea that they were equals to his mistress. Like many of the old aristocracy, they would learn the error of their ways only when it was too late. Pride goeth before a fall.

After a pause, he decided to continue the farce, hoping to gain entrance without having to batter the door down and losing the element of surprise. Raising the hilt of his sword again, Sevastian knocked thrice upon the door.

And again, the hole slid open.

“My liege lord humbly requests to address this august body, representing as it does the people of Athens .”

Again the hole slid shut.

Nothing.

Sevastian waited in high anxiety for some long, horrible moments before he heard the bar holding the door lifted. Placating their egos had worked.

The portal suddenly swung open before him.

For a mere instant, time paused at the precipice between the old and new.

Grey beards in flowing, silken robes sat in elegantly carved wooden chairs behind small, ornate desks. Around the room itself, tapestries hung depicting the history of Athens . Glancing up, he noted the vast painted ceiling, an allegory depicting Athena granting democracy to her city-state.

“Esteemed members of the Assembly,” the man called out. “Xena, the Destroyer.”

Sevastian, attired in his black armor stepped forward.

“Where is she?” The man, the sergeant of arms, rasped impatiently, looking past the second as he came nearer. From behind him, Sevastian allowed his blade to appear.

 

“Xena sends her regrets.”

 

A flick of his sword and the man was decapitated. Before those in the room could scarcely react, his men streamed past him and into the chamber.

An orgy of killing began, which would bathe the chamber in blood.

Those nearest had no time with which to act in defense of their persons, and were run through where they sat. Across the chamber, his men moved grimly, persuing their task. Greybeards stumbled over each other, vainly trying to escape through the west portal on the far side of the chamber. The grand furniture within the room upended as they tried to make their escape. A group of them lifted the oak bar holding the west door, then stumbled back in shock as more men of the Old Guard streamed in with weapons drawn. High in the gallery above, people bolted for the closed and barred doors, clawing over one another in an effort to reach the portals to stop them from being breached as those in the lower chamber had been. Desperately, the crowds moved to lean upon the wooden bar as the doors of the gallery were battered. Terrified screams for help rang out as the entrances began to fail under the strain.

“Climb up!” Sevastian shouted, pointing with his crimson-stained blade. His men complied, boosting each other up, clawing the fine tapestries to gain some foothold upon the walls. Reaching the second level, they continued the work of slaughter, slicing though the bodies to carve a path to the barred doors.

Movement caught his eye. Flipping around, Sevastian caught sight of disheveled members of the Assembly guard streaming out from hidden doors on either side of the speaker's platform.

“You close the barn door,” Sevastian chastened derisively while parrying one man's blade, he being of some rank in the Assembly guard by the looks of his uniform, “after the horse has gone!” With a slash, Sevastian's sword ended the man's life, cutting him through, his entrails spilling about the floor.

A crash from above, along with a crescendo of screams, signaled the doors had been breached, and now it was just a matter of getting the killing done.

The guard charged with protecting the members of the Assembly were cut down quickly, being no match for the elite of Xena's troops. As another met his end by his blade, Sevastian had mere moments to deflect a thrown dagger, the impact of which knocked the sword from his hand. Immediately, he drew the blade Xena had gifted him, gutting the charging attacker.Sevastian looked up, finding one lone man standing atop the speaker's platform. As he strode quickly up the steps, the man made to run.

“Stand where you are,” Sevastian commanded, “and I will see to it that your end is quick.”

The greybeard stood his ground, closing his eyes, lips moving in prayer, as his death strode towards him.

With a well-practiced slash of the katana, the last man of the Assembly met his end, a spray of blood flying across the marble statue of Athena standing nearby.

Calm returned to the chamber.

The first and last cut had been his, reflected Sevastian, turning to look upon the terrible scene below him from his high vantage point on the platform.

**

“Open the doors.”

Her men did so and she walked out between the columns, her banner now raised to either side.

Reaching the landing of the marble stair, she paused, her white cape catching the breeze, billowing out behind her.

While the crowd remained silent, her troops in the back of the square let out shouts filled with jubilation for their Polemarchos . The cries of thousands of men rang off the marble, the sound floating over all parts of the city. Slowly, her name rose out of the formless roar to be repeated over and over. Fitting that her men should cheer as this day was a celebration of their victory as well. Placing hands on hips, Xena reveled in the moment, azure eyes sweeping the crowds packed together behind her Amazon guards.

Grabbing a smaller banner from Meleager's hands, she descended the steps with a pronounced swagger, walking to the high pulpit from which she would speak. A first, as the pulpit was reserved for use only by the priests of Athena to make offerings to the goddess. The bar, both in front of her and behind, was ornately carved marble, its friezes telling of the great battles in Athens ' history. Sculpted soldiers with swords drawn marched behind horse-drawn war chariots chasing the last of a defeated enemy. In the placeholder, she rammed the staff to hold her personal standard. The implication of her act was clear... the Destroyer now claimed Athens , the jewel in the crown of Greece , as her own.

Upon the platform, she stood silent, allowing one hand to drape casually at her side, the other to rest on the hilt of her sword. It was at that moment the rays of Apollo chose to light the square, chasing away the darkness caused by the storm clouds. In the light, the gold of her armor glittered, and the leather she wore shined. Her cape, which all knew to belong to Athena, fluttered behind, borne by the breeze. Many in the crowd wondered if the goddess had given the Destroyer her blessing. The fearsome woman had not been struck down for having the audacity to wear the relic.

The cheers of her men faded and soon the square mirrored Xena's silence, the multitudes waiting, anticipating her words.

“You all do know me,” her voice was soft. Not so soft that the peasants could not hear it in the stark silence, but soft enough that the crowd moved forward, drawing to her that they may listen better,

“for I am one of you,” she finished, pausing to note confusion evident on the upturned faces of the people.

“Take off his mantle,” a hand left her sword to sweep down her tall frame clothed as it was, “and we are much alike.”

“A peasant, I,” the reduced timbre of her voice gained volume, “lowborn, the daughter of an innkeeper. And like you,” her arm raised, a hand sweeping over the masses, “I came of age sitting near the hearth, listening to the bards relate the glories of our Greece . Of great Theseus,” a brief murmur rose from the crowd at the mention of Athens ' native son. “Of Achilles, of Odysseus, and of Jason. As with many here, such tales filled me with pride for our Greece .”

“And then...” her voice lowered again, a tinge of deep sadness making its appearance known within her velvety tone, “the warlord came to my village, like many others of his kind who visited villages across our land.

“And what did these warlords do?” she asked the crowd in a silky, low purr.

“They ransacked homes and shops, stealing from and killing their brother Greeks! They sold our own into slavery!”

The softness of Xena's voice abruptly dissipated, morphing into a cry filled with righteous indignation. She lurched forward, hands grasping the bar, anger so apparent on her features that the crowd fumbled backward as if some evil spirit had suddenly appeared before them.

“Like many of you, I wondered where our heroes had gone. Who would rise to save us? Great Alexander!” She cried out while her arms slowly stretched outward, hands opening at her sides. She tilted her head back slightly as if to implore the heavens above. “Why did you leave us so soon?”

In the stillness that followed, all watched as her hands returned to the bar for a moment before she roughly pushed away, pausing a moment, her head dipping, dark tresses obscuring her face.

The hissing of the burning oil within the torchieres was the only sound within the square.

“And... then...” Xena's voice rang out again in sorrow as her head rose, gaze sweeping over the crowd. “As our Greece lay bloodied and bare by the hands of her own people...

“The Romans came...

“To take still more from our land, killing our men, raping our women, and fighting their petty civil wars upon the sacred soil of our Greece !” she raged, both fists slamming down upon the bar with tremendous force.

The multitude watched, engrossed as Xena took hold of the bar while her shoulders slumped forward, a palpable sadness radiating from her. “When the poor of Greece cried, I wept for them!” she wailed in despair. One hand rose, fingers curling into a fist to strike fiercely against her own breast before falling limply away.

 

“Forgive me... my heart lies with those innocents killed by both Greek and Roman, and I must pause while it comes back to me.”

Turning she strode from the pulpit, ascending a few of the stairs, her back to the murmuring crowd.

“There is much truth to her words,” she heard one of the many speak behind her.

“Aye, masters,” another voice agreed, “we have fought each other for too long, allowing Rome to have her way with the lot of us.”

Looking up, with back still turned to the people, Xena caught the eyes of her stoic-faced commanders and smirked at them. The tide of opinion was turning in her favor.

 

“They steal our gods,” She stated clearly, while turning to walk back down to the pulpit. One of her arms rose, hand flying back for a moment, referencing the great temple behind her, “and give them new names, call them theirs. Take our lands, rob us of our art, copy our architecture, raid our ships, rewrite our tales, bastardize our language, sell our people into slavery, and then... dare,” a pause, “to call us barbarians?” A wry smile touched dark lips as hints of mirthless laughter rolled over the square.

“A barbarian I may well be,” she conceded, “but...I... shall... never... be shackled by the chains of Rome !” Her voice became defiant, one fist hitting the bar of the pulpit, the other arm rose, hand reaching for and pulling her sword from the sheath attached by clips to the armour across her back. The sword rose, its point toward the west—toward Rome .

A cheer sounded from the people.

“And so,” she paused to lower the sword, holding it casually at her side.

“From the northern reaches I marched, taking towns and villages under the protection of my banner.”

“And oh, my friends,” her hand moved quickly, re-sheathing her sword, “what stinking vermin I found within those villages and towns! Taxing our people to ruin, taking bribes to mete and sell high offices, and betraying us all to Rome !

To her left she spied the crowd surging forward, her Amazons being pushed back.

With a graceful leap from the pulpit, she ran down the wide steps to spread her arms wide.

In front of... Toris.

“My friends!” she cried out, blocking her brother from the surging throng.

“He is a traitor!” One man yelled up from the mass of people.

“He treats with the Romans!”

“Friends!” her voice rose above the shouts. “Let us not bicker amongst ourselves! That is what the Romans wish us to do! If my brother treated with the Romans, it is a grievous wrong, and grievously shall he answer for it. Justice will be done for our Greece !”

The crowd relented, stepping back, and as they did she took a moment to glance at a very frightened Toris. Her eyes met his, and he knew... she had saved him from the mob that would condemn him.

All watched as she slowly paced back to the high rostrum, coming before the bar once more.

“No more division among us! We must unite as one! I choose to fight for Greece and will defend her by land and by sea to remit the plague of Rome ! I fight for the greater good of all! And those who follow me,” she gestured to her soldiers, some now breaking ranks to move forward, mingling with the crowd, “chose to lay down their lives if necessary to save our beloved Greece from ruin. Follow me,” she implored the thousands within the square, “and together as one, we shall destroy all our enemies, both at home and across the seas!”

The last echoes of her forceful tone resonated off the marble. In its absence, a thoughtful quiet fell over in the square,

A cheer, unbridled, swept through the masses, the wave of sound growing in both size and strength as the folk gathered within thundered their approval of her words.

“There's none nobler in Greece than Xena....”

Voices again rose from the crowd.

“The best qualities of Greece exist in Xena and we shall crown her!

“Friends, you do not wish to crown me,” her hands rose up in a gesture meant to placate, which silenced all. “I offer you nothing but blood and tears in my quest to defend our Greece . You all do know me; I am no politician, no member of your Assembly, I have no sweet promises with which to fill your ears.”

“They of the Assembly are traitors!” One of the many in the crowd voiced protest.

“We must rid ourselves of their filth!” another yelled.

Perfect, mused the chosen of Ares, Sevastian works to free me from the yoke of meddling greybeards, and this crowd will call his deeds their own.

In the far edge of her vision, she caught sight of a boy no older than Kodi, scampering up a tree planted in honor of Athena.

“A crown!” the masses bellowed, picking up the chant which started from a few. The Amazons to the front and both sides swayed to and fro in their efforts to hold back the cheering throng. With a gestured command from Xena, the Amazons pulled back from the front of the rostrum. The masses surged forward, reaching up, attempting to touch the one they chose to wear the crown of a united Greece . Xena could feel their fingertips grazing the toes of her black boots.

The people, of their own volition, parted ever so slightly to one side as the boy ran up, holding high a hastily woven crown of laurel leaves. Boosted upon the shoulders of a peasant, the kid reached up, while she downward, one hand elegantly taking hold of his offering.

Rising back to her full height, Xena raised her arm, holding the crown high for all to see.The square, once somber, filled with shouts of elation.

“My friends!” she yelled out.

“Silence!” members of the mob spoke, “every man be still! Xena speaks!”

“Before I take this crown, I ask you. Would you like to see our Greece rule again, my friends?”

“Yes!” the answer rippled up though the masses in a myriad of incantations.

“And... Would you like to send the Roman dogs home again.... my friends?” Her hands swept out to her sides.

The crowd roared its affirmation.

“Then I proclaim myself Empress over the 39 Greek states, and herald to you the beginning of the third Greek empire!”

With no further preamble, she placed the laurel upon her head.

Exultation filled the square.

“To the Latin quarter !” one shout rang out amidst many.

“Revenge ourselves on the Roman dogs and those who side with them!” Another voice rang shrill.

“Seek!”

“Burn!”

“Set fire!”

“Kill!”

“Leave no traitors alive!”

The mob acted as one, stampeding out of the square to set to work.

For long moments, she stood watching the mob depart, while moving to cross arms over her chest. Her soldiers moved back to reform ranks, her commanders awaiting orders from their new empress.

Silence descended upon the square.

A chuckle bubbled up as she reflected upon her work. Fetching the laurel leaves from atop her head, Xena tossed her hastily made crown aside.

From a pouch, tucked into her leathers, she produced a small cloth sack, whose gold coins inside jingled as she shifted it in her hand.

Tossed gracefully, it was snatched in midair by a man dressed in tattered peasant rags. “You and your friends did well this day, inciting the crowd in my favor.”

“Thank you, Empress,” the man stated with a low bow. “If I may be so bold, you needed none of our help this day. Your words held a power all their own.”

Empress... it has a nice ring to it, mused Xena.

“Tell your master I would meet with him after sunset.”

“I will do so.” The man bowed again while backing away to join his compatriots.

Turning, she strode gracefully up the stairs toward her waiting commanders, who all took a knee as she neared.

“Ah, boy,” she called out, seeing the boy, urging Kodi to approach.

The little scamp did just that... without any courtesies to her person. Such a brazen little rebel this kid.

“Well, what did you think?” she asked, thinking to be humored by his opinion.

“You... enhance... highly, Xena, using lofty speech to paint yourself a hero.”

“You did not like it, then?” A mocking pout formed upon her face.

“It was not the truth,” he added, “not a real recounting of your deeds.”

Her fists slowly clenched at her side, her anger rising.

“History will be kind to me, boy,” she bent at the waist, lowering herself to gaze into his eyes, “because I intend to write it,” she hissed.

Straightening to her full height, she ruffled his hair with one hand. “Go; enjoy the rest of this day.

 

 

**

“Here, be quick about it!”

His men positioned on either side of the clay urn, which was as tall as a man, tipped it over, and smashed it on the marble. The black tar within oozed out.

Already, the bodies had been piled in the center of the chamber and doused with the stuff, this sulfuric-smelling Greek fire, which had been in the wagons guarded by Autolycus' men. Waving his men out of the chamber, the group retreated back into the marbled foyer. From above, the last of the various treasures made of gold or silver held within the Assembly building were being tossed from the floors above, raining down to strike the marble floor. His men darted about, gathering up the items.

Auto's wagons, having been emptied of Greek fire, now were filling with looted treasures.

From the basement vaults came the last of the chests filled with silver, money usually appropriated by the Assembly. Now the coin belonged to Xena.

“Alistair!” he bellowed.

“Lord Commander?” the man yelled down from above.

“Finish quickly, we take our leave!” Sevastian shouted up at the man on the landing.

“You men, out!” the order floated down from above.

The troops rambled down the stairs and through the foyer.

For moments, Sevastian was left alone within, the silence in the building like that of a tomb.

The light at the front portal was dimmed by shadows, his men carrying the last of the Greek fire that the building had been drenched in over the last few candle marks.

“Smash them on the floor here,” he gestured, while walking past and out the door, hearing crashes behind him as the large pottery urns broke.

Stepping into the light of day. Sevastian took in the scene. His men now held back a large mob, their shouts filling the square. Not shouts of anger, no... shouts of encouragement! As if the mob was cheering he and his men on in fulfilling their task. It would be too bizarre as to be believed were he not witnessing it.As he descended the stairs, a measure of quiet fell.

Alistair approached, a lit torch in one hand, as the last of the men scrambled out of the entranceway.

Sevastian gestured that it be given to him.

“Call all the men to get back from the perimeter,” the second commanded.

Alistair did just that, the Old Guard backing up to the street before the Assembly.

With a flick of his wrist, the lit torch sailed through the air and into the darkened foyer of the Assembly building. Instantly, the Greek fire inside ignited, forcing Sevastian to take a step back and shield his face with one arm as flame flashed out the entranceway. A ghoulish sounding howl erupted from within the building as the flames sucked in all the available air they could while engulfing the dead within the Assembly chamber in a pyre of sorts.

By the time Sevastian had mounted his steed, the whole of the building was immolated in flame.

He, the guard, and the crowds looked on in silence as the dry wood popped and cracked, devoured by flame.

“Monster!” The shrill despair of the scream caused him to turn his head. “You are a monster!”

A tall, blonde-haired peasant girl broke though the line of his men, squirming free from a soldier who tried to corral her. Across the cobblestones she ran, chased by more men of the Old Guard.

Seeing she had no weapons, Sevastian relaxed, looking on with curious amusement as she raced towards him.

Under a treasure-laden wagon she dove, the soldiers behind comically slamming into each other as she slipped past their grasp. The second rolled his eyes at the display of ineptness.

“Perhaps, the Guard needs more training, Alistair?” Sevastian asked of the man next to him as the girl darted out from under a wagon wheel. “We conquer all Greece in Xena's name, yet this lone peasant girl alludes us?”

“We shall see about that!” Spurring his horse, Alistair moved to intercept the girl, who squirted past him, his horse's hooves skittering on the worn cobblestones.Sevastian drew the blade Xena had gifted him, becoming far more alert as the girl managed to arm herself with Alistair's own blade, which she had knocked from his hand. Surprising, this one, outwitting his men, clearly having some training in the use of a blade by the way she held it.

“I'll kill you and the Slayer of Cirra!” she screamed.

When the moment was right, he slashed with the back of his blade, knocking hers away while simultaneously kicking her back with one boot. Her momentum thus stalled, the soldiers caught her.

“I'll kill you and all who follow that butcher!” The girl—well young woman, he corrected himself at seeing her up close—squirmed mightily, having surprising strength for one so tall and slight.

“Sir, she attacked you!” Alistair drew near, grasping his sword as it was handed up to him.

“Very observant of you, Captain,” stated the second with pronounced sarcasm while sheathing his blade.

“You are an agent of the Conqueror, and she has interfered in the course of your duties!”

“So?” Sevastian was inclined to let this clearly delusional girl go.

“You cannot be seen as weak in front of the people,” urged his captain while drawing his horse near. “It reflects poorly upon both yourself and the Destroyer!”

For a moment, Sevastian pondered the man's words while staring down at his bloodstained armor. He was sure much blood also covered his face. Certainly, it made him look the part of a monster, as the girl claimed. While he was inclined to let the girl go, for his men, pride was now involved.

“What is your name, girl?” Sevastian asked out of idle curiosity.

A loud crack of wood sounded and Sevastian looked up in time to see the dome of the Assembly cave in, the standard at its apex tumbling into the flames.

“Callisto. Remember it, as one day I will revenge myself on you and the bitch you serve.”

He certainly couldn't allow that amount of insolence to go unpunished.

“Very well, Alistair,” Sevastian let out a pained sigh, “bind her with the others and let us march to the basilica.” Sevastian reined his horse over, standard-bearer behind following his lead. “Someone gag her,” he ordered tersely. “I don't wish to listen to her smarmy mouth all the way to the basilica.”

“Mount up!” his captain shouted.

“Let's go!” Sebastain gestured impatiently. The loaded wagons trundled forward, the guard taking position on either side.

Behind the moving column, parts of the marble cladding covering the outer wall of the Assembly building began to fall, the iron pins holding it to the brick having melted from the heat.

The vast portico over the entranceway was next to go, the massive stone columns shifting and grinding apart as the weight of the pediment toppled forward. The grand inscription decrying tyranny smashed to rubble upon hitting the ground.

The masses cheered anew, spellbound by the destruction. The flames arching into the sky proclaimed the death of liberty and the birth of tyranny.

[End of Part I]

To Be Continued

 

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