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Special Disclaimer: For this chapter I thought I'd give a heads up, so to speak. There is a wee bit of light bondage and a whip does come into play between our two gals. If this isn't your cup of tea...well, you've been warned.
The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 10: The Skies They Were Ashen and Sober...
Our camp was in the valley just beyond the plain of Marathon. The sun had yet to rise as we sat around a small table in the tent that Gabrielle and I had spent the night in. We had spent the previous evening planning and scheming, involving those closest to us in our plans as much as possible. Ephiny and Atrius probably knew more about our strategies than anyone else. We finally fell asleep last night holding on to one another tightly. I believe we were both too afraid to make love. It would have felt too much as though we were preparing for it to be the last time.
Gabrielle would be returning to our home in Athens at first light, after she reviewed the troops. That act was more to bolster the army's spirit than anything else. It was a Greek tradition that only I had performed in the past. I thought it interesting to think of how many more soldiers would die for their beautiful, delicate Queen than for their striking, battle-hardened Conqueror. In my heart, I believed that they feared me, but they served Gabrielle.
Gabrielle sat beside me with Solan, Atrius, and Ephiny sitting across from us. This was the one last bit of business I had to finish up before entering into battle. I had asked Atrius and Ephiny there to witness my decision. Atrius served as witness for the Empire, but I thought it important that Gabrielle's Amazons make witness of my decree. It didn't matter if they liked or even approved of my action, but I had put it off long enough.
"I've asked Atrius and Ephiny here to witness this," I said as I unrolled a parchment with my wishes plainly stated.
"Witness what, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"Well," I played with the edge of the scroll. "I've never gone into battle with heirs before. In the past, I expected that if I died the Empire would go with me. I feel differently now, for obvious reasons."
I glanced at Gabrielle and saw her features tighten. It was apparent that she didn't like this subject.
I wondered if I should preface my decision with any sort of explanation, but we simply didn't have time for that. "In order to preserve the Empire in case I should fall in battle, I've decided to legally appoint a successor to the throne."
Gabrielle and Solan looked at one another then, but I couldn't read their expressions. I decided to just say it.
"Should I meet up with Hades down there on Marathon, or any time thereafter, I appoint Gabrielle as my successor, Queen and sole ruler of the Greek Empire."
"But Solan is your son," Gabrielle interjected immediately.
"No!" Solan responded.
We all looked at him as if he had news to tell.
"I don't mean no, I'm not your son. I mean no, I don't want to lead the Empire. I mean well I'd do it if I had to, Mother," he looked at me and explained. "I'd do it to keep your dream alive, of course, but it's definitely not how I see my life. I'll work for the Empire until my dying day, but please don't ask me to give up my dream of traveling the world. Besides, Gabrielle," he said as he turned to the woman at my side. "We both know you're much better suited to leading than I will ever be. I'll always be your friend and faithful servant, but it's you who's earned the right to rule."
"I don't know what to say," Gabrielle said.
"Unfortunately, love, you don't get to say a lot. It's part of the deal you made when you agreed to marry me and wear the crown."
"I just thought it would be much further in the future before we'd have to consider it."
"Well," I grinned down at her. "You'll forgive me if I'm not in too much of a hurry to give it up just yet. Won't you?"
"Very funny, my Conqueror."
"Ephiny, is there anything in Amazon law that forbids your Queen from ruling the Empire as well?"
"This is definitely a first, but I can't think of any reason that might prohibit Gabrielle from ruling both realms."
"Then it's settled. Gabrielle, give me your signet ring." I requested the ring that I had given Gabrielle when I had asked her to marry me. It was a smaller version of the one I now wore.
I took the ring and placed in on my smallest finger, removing my own heavy ring bearing the Conqueror's mark. I slid my large ring upon Gabrielle's thumb. "I'll expect that back after this mess is all settled," I teased.
Thankfully, my words drew a small smile from Gabrielle. It was uneasy and perhaps forced, but a smile nonetheless. "If you don't mind," I then stood and addressed the others. "Gabrielle and I would like some time together."
I had no idea when I uttered the words whether they would be the last moments Gabrielle and I would ever spend together or not.
"I don't want to say anything to make this feel like it might be the last time we'll see one another," Gabrielle said.
Gabrielle turned toward me and stood there, almost defiantly. I couldn't help but smile. Was this actually the frightened girl that had walked into my life such a short time ago?
"I thoroughly expect to see you for dinner tomorrow night," she continued as she walked closer to me.
"We have to at least think about it. This could be the last time," I responded as I reached out to touch her face.
"Always my realist," Gabrielle said. She leaned into my touch and smiled back.
"Ever my optimist," I replied.
"I'm going to try and defend Athens, Xena. You know that, right?"
"I expect nothing less, my love. You are a strong, capable woman and I'll try my best to have faith in that. Don't expect me to not worry at least a little, though," I added with a wink.
"As long as I'm allowed to worry about you, too."
"I suppose, if you must."
We each enjoyed a much-needed instance of laughter. It was spontaneous, light, and went a long way in relieving the tension of the moment.
"I still need to go to Artemis's temple and speak with her before I ride before the troops. Will you go with me?" Gabrielle asked.
"Of course," I replied before we headed up the hillside to a small temple dedicated to the patron Goddess of the Amazons. Gabrielle's Amazons had asked permission to build a temporary structure until they could build a more permanent, fitting structure. Gabrielle and I both encouraged the creation of the new temple.
I sat outside, on the steps of the temple, waiting for Gabrielle. I drew battle plans in the dirt with a slender twig. I tried to come up with a defense against any offense Darius might throw at us. My advantage was surprise. No one, not even the officers knew what we had planned. Only Atrius, the Centaurs, and the Amazons knew what to expect. Atrius and I wouldn't even inform the Athenian generals until the last moment. This was the only way I could assure myself that our battle plan wouldn't end up in Darius's hands. As far as everyone knew, we planned to meet Darius on the plain of Marathon. As long as the Persians didn't yet know that we planned to race down the hillside and bottle them up within the narrow plain, our smaller army had a chance.
"Well, that could have gone better." Gabrielle stepped down before me and placed her hands on her hips.
"That doesn't sound encouraging."
"She accused me of hanging around you too much!"
I smiled even though the situation was grave. "That means that you lost your temper, right?"
"Well they can be very frustrating, you know?"
"I know, love. What did she say?"
"She can't order Pan to help us. All she can do is speak to him and tell him how important this battle is."
"So, basically she gave us the brush off," I said.
"It certainly sounded that way. I just don't understand them half the time. Artemis said the way to certain victory over our enemies lies in the power of persuasion. She told me that we could obtain all the help we need under the city gate of Athens. Now, what in Hades name is that supposed to mean? Is the entire Spartan army hiding under the city gate?"
"Don't worry about any of it, love. It wouldn't matter anyway. If the Spartans had left a day ago it would probably still be too late to help."
"I suppose I expected more," Gabrielle said, hanging her head. "I don't know, like they would come charging in to deliver us."
"The Gods have their own ways and their own time, little one. I can't even believe I'm the one saying this, but you've had faith for a long time. Don't give it up just yet."
I gave her a hug and kissed her forehead. I was thoroughly surprised that those words had escaped my own lips. Here was I, a woman who had more Godly intervention come into her life thus far than most mortals saw in two lifetimes. Now, I was the one encouraging Gabrielle not to become disheartened and give up her faith. How ironic. I'm certain Athena was off having a good laugh at that one.
Gabrielle looked like some sort of warrior Goddess as she sat astride her mare. She rode down the lines of soldiers, nodding to some, smiling at others. I insisted that she wear her armor for the ride to our home in Athens. My reason had been for added protection, but its benefit was that it caused her to look as if she was going into battle alongside these soldiers rather than simply returning home after a few moments of meet and greet.
I may have been the Conqueror, but on this occasion, I rode beside and slightly behind Gabrielle. My own armor gleamed brightly under the early morning sunrise. Bronze armor protected my chest and back, while hammered bronze pieces hung in layers down my arms to mid bicep. Upon my head sat a helmet of the same metal as my armor. It had a faceplate that came down on a set of hinges at my temples. The faceplate had been fashioned in the image of a growling lion. It had been a number of seasons since I last wore it, but I remember what Atrius had once said about it. He had told me, after interrogating a prisoner from a battle in which we'd just fought, that the enemy had been terrified of the snarling, golden beast that had attacked them with such inhuman fury. Funny thing that the enemy never knew how right they had been.
Gabrielle had passed by the army from Corinth and rode slowly past the Athenian's Hoplite warriors. There were thousands of men wearing the fifty pounds of armor necessary to their occupation. The hoplites were the heavy infantry of any campaign and this battle would be no different. They had been named long ago for their extremely heavy shield, the hoplon. We used to always be able to tell which Hoplite soldiers turned tail and ran from battle, since the unwieldy shield was the first thing they would toss away in order to run.
The hoplites before us now were dressed in full battle gear, great metal giants. They were an awesome sight outfitted with a helmet, breastplate, and shin guards all made of bronze. They wore simple cloth tunics beneath all that armor and carried two weapons, an eight-foot long spear and a short sword forged of iron. They had been trained to fight in groups, not as individuals, and a well-trained platoon could easily be thought of as an effective killing machine.
I looked on as Gabrielle suddenly stopped and dismounted. I paused, but remained where I was, listening to Gabrielle speak to one of the soldiers.
"How long have you been in hoplite service?" she asked.
The soldier's only response was an odd tilt of his head.
I recognized the situation for what it was and dismounted, as well. I came up behind Gabrielle and placed my hand upon her shoulder.
"He can't hear you, love," I said. "The blacksmith pounds the helmet from a single sheet of bronze with no ear-holes. Actually, the only openings at all are for the eyes and the small slit you see that runs below the nose for his mouth."
I indicated for one of the servants standing with the army to help the soldier remove his helmet. The considerable weight of a hoplite's panoply required that servants, or in the past; slaves, assist the men with their weighty armor. The young servant and the platoon's lieutenant took the soldier's helmet, shield, and lance for him.
I noticed Gabrielle's hand go to her mouth to cover her smile. It was a serious situation, to be sure, but the soldier before us did indeed provide some cause for amusement. Although his helmet, armor, and weapons caused him to look the size of a giant, in reality, the soldier was a youth younger than Gabrielle. Not only younger, but he stood barely taller than the Queen did.
"You seem a little "
I'm sure Gabrielle was searching for a word that was honest, but at the same time tactful. The word runt came to my mind.
" A little short--er young to be a hoplite."
"I am sixteen summers, your Highness."
I watched the cloud of emotion move across Gabrielle's face. It was obvious that she felt much the same way that I did about young men and war. I remember one of the first lessons I had been taught as a military leader. I had been told that there were only two sure rules to war. The first was that, in times of war, young men would be forced to do battle. The second rule was that young men inevitably died in battle. Knowing that those two rules had been around much longer than I had been a warrior never made accepting them any easier.
The Greek Empire required that every person who wished to be a citizen, give two years of service to the Empire. The majority of young women became teachers, even though I tried to encourage more of them to enter into public service as interns and secretaries to those in the political arena. Most young men chose the army in order to travel, although more and more women joined the military every season. In times of relative peace, such as we had experienced for the last ten seasons or so, the army had been an easy road to citizenship.
The youth before us stood straight, with a look of pride at carrying the hoplite's spear and sword. His height might have left something to be desired, but his arms and shoulders were quite muscular.
"Why didn't you choose the army for your service?" Gabrielle asked.
The youth never hesitated in his answer. "My father served with the hoplites, and his father before him. They have both trained me well."
"And will this be your life's work?" Gabrielle asked in a curious tone.
A large grin broke across the young man's face. "No, my lady. I'm a bard, or I will be at any rate when I go to the Academy."
Of course, Gabrielle smiled, as well. "Some people consider me a bard, of sorts."
"Oh, not just of sorts, your Highness. I was in the library when you told the schoolchildren the story of Ganymede. You made the tale quite magical."
"Then I feel we have something in common," Gabrielle answered. "When you've come home from this unpleasantness I hope you'll come to visit me. I'd love to hear your stories."
"I--I would be most honored, your Highness I have these ideas, you see."
"Ideas?" Gabrielle asked.
"Well what I would really like to do is to write plays. Not just the orations that have been done to death, but real productions, with lavish costumes, and many people on stage all with speaking parts." He suddenly remembered just who he was talking to and ceased the wild gesticulating of his arms. "I suppose that seems well, quite foolish to someone like you." He bowed his head and remained silent.
"Not at all," Gabrielle answered graciously. "It sounds ambitious, and I do so love change." She winked at him when he looked up in surprise.
"I invite you to our home to tell me more once you return."
"It would be a profound honor, your Highness."
I assisted Gabrielle back onto her horse and I mounted Tenorio. Just as Gabrielle nudged her mount forward, she turned back to face the young soldier.
"I'm sorry, I forgot to even ask your name," she called back to the youth.
He smiled and his expression was so bright that I knew in an instant that Gabrielle had added another to her list of adoring young faithful. Perhaps it should have made me jealous, but all I felt was an intense sort of pride. How far I'd come in some respects. All I could think, at that moment, was that this wonderful, beautiful creature loved only me. I surprised myself, for in the past I would have taken pride in something wonderful because it belonged to me. I rather think we belonged to one another, anyway.
The young man bowed slightly before he shouted his name back to Gabrielle. "It's Aeschylus, your Highness."
"It doesn't make much sense that we're spending the last few moments we have together in silence," I said.
We stood in my command tent at the summit of the hills surrounding Marathon. It was a warm morning and the sounds and smells of battle surrounded the small tent. I could hear Tenorio as he snorted and pawed at the ground. He patiently endured the forty pounds of armor that the stable hands were fitting him with, even though it had been more than a season since he'd experienced the weight.
Gabrielle and I had only moments before we were to go our own ways. Outside, Ephiny took charge of the Amazons and the Corinthian soldiers who would travel with Gabrielle back to Athens. It was a hard request to make, but I had asked Ephiny to travel with her Queen. It seemed just as difficult a decision for Ephiny to make. She was a warrior, and I knew she almost itched to be in the middle of the battle that would soon take place. She was a woman who knew her duty, however. When I confided in her, she understood that aside from Atrius, there was not another with her skill that I would entrust Gabrielle's life to.
We had spoken at length about the way I had wanted Gabrielle watched over. We clashed heads over this, but once Ephiny assured herself that she could protect Gabrielle under any circumstance, she agreed with my plan. I trusted that my lovely wife would turn out as predictable as I thought she was, otherwise I would never have hazarded the plan.
Gabrielle looked up quickly. "Please, don't say it like that."
"Sorry." I shook my head to dispel my past thoughts. "I didn't mean it like it would be the last ever."
"I wish this would all go away." Gabrielle moved to wrap her arms around me and I did the same. Of course, with both of us in armor, it left a little to be desired in the way of physical comfort. It did much to ease our aching hearts however, as only the love of a partner can do.
"It will be over before you know it. I'll be home in time for an evening meal, and I expect something good."
That made Gabrielle smile. "Promise?" she asked.
"If it's in my power, you know I do."
"Now, you must promise me something, as well, little one."
"Anything," she answered quickly.
"Do try to stay out of trouble, Gabrielle," I whispered just before I kissed her forehead. I smiled at her guilty look of chagrin.
"I don't look for it it looks for me." She formed a sort of pout that took her from warrior goddess to young girl in my eyes.
She held to me as closely as possible and I think even she realized that my previous words to her might have been a promise I would have no power to keep. Neither one of us said anything, however. To voice our fears might have given them solidity. Unspoken, they drifted within the ether of our conscious minds as we struggled to push them further and further away.
The hawk screamed and I flinched at the high-pitched sound. The bird landed deftly upon a long pole that one of the standard bearers held in place. The top had a sort of perch fashioned to it. The bird hopped down to the waiting lieutenant's hand and remained patiently until Atrius had removed the small scroll case attached to the leather pouch fixed on the animal's body.
"They're advancing with the majority of their cavalry leading the way," Atrius said.
"So, it would seem that they know we'll be waiting here," I answered. The Persians expected me to charge down the hill at them. Thus, placing their cavalry in front of their infantrymen would take out quite a few of our soldiers in the first charge.
I rather think that means we have a traitor in Athens, eh?"
"Athens or our midst, Conqueror?" Atrius asked in a low tone.
"That remains to be seen. Doesn't it?"
Five of the generals and a sprinkling of staff surrounded us so we kept our voices low. The other five generals already lay in waiting on the battlefield. I made sure that Militiades was one of the men on the top of the hill with me. If he planned to give anything away to Darius, he wouldn't live long afterwards.
The hills that led down to the plain weren't smooth grassy knolls. The demanding, rugged hillside was dotted with trees and overgrown scrub. I hadn't let any of the generals in on my battle plan, which didn't go over well. I had to smile when Militiades turned out to be the loudest objector.
"Are the hoplites set?" I asked Atrius.
"Aye, Conqueror. All platoons reported."
"Then let's begin our march downward, shall we?"
"Gentleman," I turned to the men who would be leading the battle, but who knew so little of my plans. I moved near the large table that had been set up to hold our terrain map. "Let me explain "
The five generals with me were not the worse warriors, by far. I considered Militiades and Aristides among the best. The five that I sent down with the hoplites, I not only trusted, but also knew that they had experience with such infantry soldiers as the hoplites before.
The hoplites had been marched into place candlemarks ago, as soon as Gabrielle had reviewed the troops. Keeping my entire battle plan a secret had paid off. Darius knew enough about what I was doing to know that we'd be there on the plain to greet him. That much was apparent by riding with his cavalry in lead. What he didn't know was that I had placed the hoplite army, under complete camouflage, along the entire length of the narrow plain. It was easy enough to do. Netting and canvas covered the kneeling soldiers on each side of the flat land. With the help of the man-made cover, the brushy and tree laden landscape could have easily hidden 20,000 soldiers. Once Darius's army made it at least halfway onto the plain, the armor bearers and servants had to pull off the hoplite's covering. All the soldiers had to do would be to stand up in formation and begin moving in. I had planned to squeeze the enemy in from the middle. The longer the hoplites could remain undetected, the better.
"Quite brilliant. Darius will never be expecting that," Militiades mused aloud once I had unveiled my plan.
"I know," I smiled at him.
"Each of you, take your men down the hillside. Stop before the logs that we set up down there." I pointed down the uneven terrain to the groups of soldiers manning the logs and catapults.
They had staked the bare trees to the ground, and then coated them with Greek Fire. When Darius's men were in place, the soldiers would use torches to set the logs aflame, and then loose them from their stakes. The rolling logs of fire would help in taking out their initial cavalry charge and any large catapults or heavy equipment they might have. If everything went well today, we would take out half their men and even the odds of battle within the first few candlemarks. In war, however very little ever went well.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I believe the hardest thing I have ever had to do, in my relationship with Xena, was to ride away from her that morning. I wanted to be with her, but I knew that I couldn't. It wouldn't have been good for either of us. I knew that Xena would have to turn into the Conqueror in order to do her job well, and I feared that once the Conqueror took over, it would be all too easy for the beast to appear.
It hadn't taken us long to near Athens. Our home sat apart from the others in the area, almost on the top of a hill. It looked down upon the city, which was oddly quiet. Ephiny and even my new friend, Eponin, had tried to strike up conversation with me, but I'm afraid I made a rather poor traveling companion. I worried about all that would, or could, happen on this day and how much our lives might change. I thought especially of my promise to Xena, to stay out of trouble. The more I thought about what I would have to do, in order to stop an insurrection within Athens, the more I realized that I would break my word. I could only hope that Xena would understand.
Xena and I had spoken of what to do if trouble broke out in the city. Her guess had been that if Militiades and his wife betrayed Athens, Militiades would attempt to affect both fronts. Xena told me that Militiades would try to sway the outcome on the battlefield, but it was certain that he would have his wife, and others, attempt to gain control of the city from the inside. I couldn't picture any of the nobles I had met able to lift a sword, let alone be able to carry out a revolt. Xena explained that they would probably have carefully hidden mercenaries around the city. A hundred mercenaries could easily carry out a coup, even in a city the size of Athens.
Xena wanted me taken to safety should any of this come to pass. Why was it that I couldn't make her see that I couldn't do that? I know how she feels about me, but to run away and hide that thought left a most unpleasant taste in my mouth. If I could only get around the city without being heralded as the Queen. My guard would surely attract so much attention that I'd never be able to find out what was happening until it was too late. I needed to find out where and how Militiades wife, Livia, planned on overcoming the city. If it turned out to be true, I needed to get word to Corinth to send the warships out to intercept Darius's fleet. So, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do, but no idea how to do it.
"Halt!" I heard Ephiny call out. The soldiers instantly obeyed her command. "Do you hear that?"
"It sounds like music flute music," one of the Amazons answered.
I listened and I did indeed hear the music. It was an oddly soothing sound to me.
Ephiny yawned and shook her head. "There's something strange about thi--" In the middle of voicing her concern, Ephiny slowly slipped from her saddle, as if she was floating, until her body gently settled upon the road.
I looked all around me as everyone one of my personal guard, including the Amazons, followed Ephiny's lead. They all hit the ground, sound asleep.
"What in Hades--"
"Not Hades " A strange, lilting voice drifted toward me from the road.
I finally saw him there. He was in the exact place that Artemis said he would be,
although she never actually told me it would be him. I remember that she said something
about help being found in this exact spot. Under the city gates indeed! Sitting
upon a small boulder, under the stone archway into Athens sat the God Pan.
To be continued in : Chapter 11- A Noiseless Patient Spider...
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