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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 11: A Noiseless Patient Spider...
He wasn't exactly what I thought a God would look like, but I'd seen artistic renditions of him, so at least I was slightly prepared. He had a human face, torso, and arms, but from the waist down, he was a goat. He had a goat's legs, hooves, ears, and horns. I must have stared. I don't think paintings can really prepare someone for a sight like that.
"What did you do to everyone else?" I demanded. I wasn't usually so rude, especially to Gods, but the day had my patience wearing a bit thin.
"Nothing, my little lamb. They are simply dreaming sweet dreams."
"Why didn't I fall asleep?"
"I didn't wish it."
"I see, and do you get everything you wish for?"
"I am a God, after all."
"Speaking of which, don't you have some Spartans to celebrate with?
He laughed then. I don't know what I expected, but it certainly wasn't the rich sound that came from deep in his chest.
"Athena said that you were a shy slip of a girl who kept her opinions to herself. Artemis said that you'd grown a backbone since you've been with the Conqueror. I think you exist somewhere in between. Come, sit with me, little lamb, and curb your temper."
His words were smooth, like running your fingers against the unused parchment of a freshly unrolled scroll. They didn't affect me in a commanding fashion the way that I'd heard Pan's speech could do. Neither did his music. I'd heard that the pipes he played could lull women into such a stupor that they would gladly give their bodies to the God. It had to be the music because I couldn't understand what else they could have possibly seen in him.
Again, Pan laughed. "You would be surprised. Oftentimes it's not what you can see, but what you cannot that makes the person."
I know my face was beet red by the heat emanating from my skin. I had forgotten the first rule of dealing with the Gods in person. They can read our thoughts.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean that in an unkind way."
"I believe you, Gabrielle. Come " He patted the stone beside the one he sat upon and I joined him there by the side of the road.
"I'm a little stressed right about now. I intended no disrespect toward you or your chosen people," I said.
"Very respectful of you. Apology accepted. I'd do more for you if I could, little lamb. There aren't many in the mortal realm that I would make that offer to."
"But you hold the power to--"
"Cause never ending chaos." He said with a certain finality. "Gabrielle, it's true that with one word I could have the Spartan army standing before you now, but at what price? The people need their Gods, no matter how ineffective we seem at times. We may not be the best solution for mankind, but we're all you've got."
"I respectfully disagree. We have ourselves."
He smiled and looked me up and down. There was only the tiniest hint of sexual interest in his gaze. I guessed that he'd not met many mortals who stood up to him this way. Under ordinary times, I would not have acted in this manner, but these were anything but ordinary times.
"For people like you and Xena that would be enough, but mortals such as you two are rare, Gabrielle. Individually, you are two women who have the power to change the world around you, to compel others to change. Together, you have a strength that transcends what any mortal man possesses."
"I suppose that's all well and good, but it doesn't help us at this moment, does it?"
"I suppose not." He chuckled lightly and then went back to his flute playing. "Have you ever seen the Persians fight?" He asked at last.
"No, I can't say that I have. Is there something special about it?"
"Not really. They're very organized is all. You know how organized people can be. If one thing goes wrong well, they could lose their head about any number of things."
He almost seemed as if he was musing to himself, thinking aloud as though I hadn't even been there.
"Why doesn't your music affect me?" I asked. I could think of nothing more to talk of and yet I felt our business was unfinished.
"That's odd, isn't it?" He answered without answering at all. "And feelings you have no feelings for me?"
I laughed, but hadn't meant it to humiliate him. It simply seemed a strange question. "No none of those sorts of feelings."
"Curiouser and curiouser," he answered. "It's probably that damned Conqueror."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Sexual desire is usually inevitable when women get this close to me."
"Sorry to disappoint. You think Xena has something to do with that?"
"Wouldn't surprise me. She is quite skilled, even I must admit. Are you blushing?"
Again, I could feel the heat in my cheeks. "No well, maybe a little."
"Well, it doesn't really matter, does it? We haven't the time before your friends awake anyway. Now, where were we?"
He was infuriating to carry on a conversation with. He acted as though I had bid him come to me. I thought for a moment longer and realized that, indirectly, I had.
"The Spartans " I prompted.
"Yesss, I suppose I can work on that, but it couldn't possibly be until after the festival is over."
I sighed in frustration. "That is rather the point of it all, though. We need them today. Xena may very well be doing battle with the Persians at this very moment."
"Ahh, I see your predicament." He went back to toying with his pipes, leaving me confused and with a rising temper.
"Pan, I would ask this of you as a favor."
"Favor?" he asked almost incredulously.
"A boon then. See that Xena is made victorious."
"And what can you give me in repayment, Gabrielle?"
"To save Xena's life? I'd give anything, anything at all."
"So, my little lamb. You would give me your body, simply to keep this woman alive?"
"My body's been used before in such a way. I lived through it then and I will again, I suppose."
I hung my head in shame at what I proposed. I suppose I didn't even mean it, not seriously, but I hid that thought from Pan. I knew that I could no longer treat myself in such a way. It was because of Xena that I could not. She gave me self-respect, and then she gave me love. How could I betray her in such a way? I recalled a time when I questioned what Xena had done to me. I asked her what she had left me fit for. I hadn't realized how the true the words were until now.
"Fear not, little lamb. It will not be asked of you," Pan's gentle voice said. There was something in that voice. He spoke as if he knew me far better than I realized. There was almost a personal sound to the tone he used.
The tears came of their own accord then, almost as if I had willed them to at that very moment.
"Are you crying?" he asked.
"Yes, you are."
"If you already knew I was, then why did you ask?"
"Well, I don't know. It's just something one does, I suppose. Come on now, stop that."
"What does it matter to you?"
"Well, of course it matters. If Art--" He stopped abruptly and clicked his hooves upon the ground impatiently.
"What were you going to say?" I wiped a few stray tears from my cheeks.
"Nothing, nothing at all." Now he tugged at his small beard and his hooves tapped even faster.
If he had been mortal, I would have sworn he was nervous. I wondered if the Gods felt that emotion.
"No, it wasn't nothing; it was something," I accused. "You were going to say something like if Artemis found out, weren't you?"
"I said no such thing."
"Why you little fibber you!"
"Oh, all right! You know, I thought about stealing a kiss from you, but you've turned into such a naggy thing I believe I'll keep my affections to myself."
"You know that Conqueror of yours should take you over her knee!"
I smiled a devilish grin that simply appeared from nowhere. "What makes you think she doesn't?" I whispered in his ear as I leaned closer to him.
"Okay, stop that this instant! You're getting me way off " He looked down and quickly placed his pipes across his lap. "Off track."
"So, what did Artemis tell you to do about me?"
"She said you were more trouble than anything that comes in your size should be!" he snapped. He turned away and I could see that I had finally stepped on his last nerve.
I thought for a moment until I could come up with the one thing that no man, even one that was half goat, could see past.
"I bet she figured you couldn't help me anyway."
A sound like a snort came from the God.
"I guess she just wanted you to give me the bad news in person, huh?"
"She said no such thing." He quickly turned toward me again. "She said--"
"How do you do that?"
I smiled. "Xena says it's a gift."
He pursed his lips in a quirky sort of smirk. "Trust me. It's a curse, not a gift."
"Sorry." I hung my head, hoping that my hair covered the expression on my face.
"Good Night! You're not going to cry again, are you?"
"I'm trying not to," I explained.
Pan sighed deeply and looked at the pipes in his lap. He picked the object up, looking at it as though some of the joy had gone out of the music.
"I suppose " He mumbled the rest.
"Excuse me?" I couldn't resist asking.
"I said, I suppose I can do something!"
"Well, you don't have to shout."
"Argh!" He groaned aloud. "Did Artemis actually choose you to lead her people, or did she get stuck with you as payment in a dice game?"
"Look, I can't promise any Spartans. I have my limitations, even as a God."
"But, you said--"
"I know, I know, and I will. I have to think on it, but rest assured " He looked into my eyes and I saw something in his own brown eyes that surprised me. I saw respect. Exasperation, to be sure, but there was actual respect in Pan's expression.
"I will do something, little lamb. Just give me a few moments."
"Do you think--"
"Oh. Um and my friends?" I asked, trying to contain my excitement.
"Oh, of course." He blew a few rapid notes into the pipes and I turned to see Ephiny jump to attention first, her sword already in her hand.
"It's all right I'm safe I'm fine." The awakening soldiers stared at me, sitting alongside my odd looking companion. I raised a hand and waved to show that I was unharmed.
I rose and thanked the God. He looked a little put out until I reached down and softly kissed his bearded cheek. He promptly became flustered at the affection, which he didn't have to conjure up with a spell.
"Are you blushing?" I asked.
"No," he answered quickly. "Well, maybe a little." I heard him say under his breath as I walked away. I could almost feel the change in the air when he disappeared.
"Are you sure you're all right?" Ephiny asked with some concern.
"Absolutely. He was a gentleman."
"Was that really it wasn't, was it?" Eponin asked.
"Pan, himself," I answered.
Ephiny shook her head as we mounted once again. "I've never met people who speak with the Gods so much as you."
"Trust me, it's something new for me, too. The good news is that Pan agreed to help the battle."
"Bless Artemis!" Ephiny exclaimed. "Are the Spartans coming?"
"Not exactly. Pan said he'd come up with something to help, though."
"Do you mind me asking how you managed that? From the stories I've heard, Pan's not exactly disarmed by a pretty face. Even one as pretty as yours."
"No, but like any man, tears completely disable him."
"Tears?" Eponin questioned, looking at Ephiny.
"I broke down and cried," I explained.
We road through the city gates in relative silence before Ephiny spoke up. " I may not have known you for very long, Gabrielle, but I do know this much, it's not like you to simply break down and cry in front of someone."
I smiled, but looked straight ahead at the road before us. "I know," I slyly answered.
I felt bad for Pan, who had looked so much more confused and frustrated than when he had first appeared. Artemis had told me that persuasion would win this small battle, though she didn't say anything about a little manipulation. Pan used his wiles on women all the time. I simply thought it was a just dessert to turn the tables a wee bit.
End Gabrielle's Addendum
I sat astride Tenorio upon the steep hillside. I had no fear my mount would slip upon the rugged terrain. His footing was sure and the warhorse had experienced this exact scenario countless times. I could not have asked for a more suitable plan. Darius's army, his cavalry in the lead, was already half way across the plain. He was no fool, though. I saw that his infantry pushed small log walls, four to five feet in height and perhaps 10 feet in length, out ahead of the horsemen. He had anticipated us using the downward slope to deploy moving obstacles, such as the burning logs I had in store. As I said, he was no fool and this was a tried and true maneuver that I'd taken from the Romans.
I moved among the soldiers who awaited my order to charge toward the advancing Persians. Raw energy floated in the air and surrounded us. The men were nervous, edgy, and most of all afraid. We all were. Any soldier there, myself included, who said they weren't afraid was lying. The beast within me savored the fear in my own mouth; coppery and tangy like the taste of blood upon the tongue. The majority of them would experience the emotion, yet still push on. A few would give in and freeze on the battlefield ensuring their deaths. Then there were those rare few, of which I was one. We were the ones who had the uncanny ability to push our fear into a place where it couldn't reach us. We experienced it only as a notion that we knew of, but couldn't feel. This ability was what turned ordinary soldiers into extraordinary warriors.
I watched as my soldiers looked to me for that necessary and critical incentive to charge down the hillside. They would do it out of fear, to be sure, but on this day, I needed more from them. I needed them to rush down that hill with the absolute knowledge that victory would be ours; that against insurmountable odds, we would defeat an army that had the audacity to step upon Greek soil. There was one last thing I could do in order to rouse the soldiers.
I nodded to Atrius and my Captain blew the ram's horn at his belt. Every General within the sound of my voice roused his men in order to listen. It was an old Greek custom that men fought within the same tribes and groups in which they lived. Friends and neighbors fought harder with the people they knew by their side. As hundreds of soldiers turned toward me, I began to speak.
"It is said that this land was once sacred to the Gods. Nearby stands the Fountain dedicated to Macaria. She was devoted to the liberty of the Greek people. The very plain below us, where the enemy now marches, was where Theseus did battle. In days long past, the Athenians routed Eurystheus. These are not myths or stories we drunkenly spout in taverns. The men in these tales were ordinary men whose courage turned them into heroes and warriors. They weren't Gods with heavenly powers, but flesh and blood men just like you " I pointed to the closest soldier who puffed out his chest just the smallest bit. "And you and you."
As I pointed to the soldiers, one by one, we could all feel the change. It was as palpable as if it was something we held in our hands.
"These men, these heroes of seasons past, fought, suffered, and even died on that plain down there. I ask of every one of you - will you do less?"
The cheers quickly became deafening and while the momentum of emotion was with us, I gave the order to loose the logs.
The brush and weeds quickly caught fire as the logs rolled downhill, but the mass of marching soldiers easily trampled out the flames. I commanded the trumpeters to signal the Hoplites with a blast of horns. I was honestly surprised that the Persians never even saw one of our camouflaged soldiers. Their equipment certainly prohibited them from springing into action, but the mere action of standing up, forming their squads, and slowly advancing on the Persians was enough to send a spurt of chaos through Darius's army.
My next order sent the catapults rolling in to where we had so recently staked the logs. The wooden arms held rope baskets into which the soldiers loaded small kegs of Greek fire. They lit the keg's fuse and sent the object flying through the air. When it hit the ground, flames burst forth and spread like liquid fire upon any man, beast, or equipment unlucky enough to have been in the kegs searing path. Smoke and the smell of burning flesh filled the air. The sky grew black and oily soot clung to our skin.
I watched Darius's cavalry swallowed completely by the advancing Corinthian army, while the Hoplites squeezed the Persian infantry from the middle. The enemy had nowhere to go. The men who ran in retreat were bombarded with flaming canisters of Greek fire. The ones who dug in and fought were overrun by the rush of almost fanatically obsessed soldiers of the Greek Empire.
It was finally my turn. The first wave had indeed decimated Darius's cavalry, but for every Persian infantryman we sent to the underworld, two more cropped up behind him. Three candlemarks into the battle I joined the largest number of my Corinthian army and charged down the hill into battle.
Tenorio reared up once and then kicked out with massive black hooves at anything that approached us from behind. This was it, the thick of battle. It was the place where no equipment or strategy made any sense or added to the outcome at all. This was the spot where thousands of bodies pressed into one writhing mass of broken bones and spewing blood. The smoke had made vision all the more difficult, but it didn't matter. My blade attacked anything that drew close enough without thought to sides or enemies. Tenorio grew as frenzied as I as the stench of blood soon blocked out any other odor. The grass grew slick with red ooze and men fell to their deaths because of it.
I shouted orders and decapitated at the same time. I had to yell until my throat was raw in order to be heard over the deafening sounds of the battle. Horses and men screamed as the ringing clash of metal against metal sang out. I was the Conqueror, in all her warrior glory, at that moment. I had left Xena upon the summit and the Conqueror had charged down that hill to the battlefield. I had neither the time nor the inclination just then to think of the consequences at pushing aside the civilized side of me. It was war and I was in the middle of battle. I didn't even know myself. There was only the need to stay alive and the blood lust that spurred me on to send as many around me as possible to Hades. It was inevitable, I suppose; the focus on the fight, losing myself to the glorious feel of the enemy's blood on my blade. At last, I believe it must have been the pungent smell of blood that woke the beast.
The darkness inside of me fed on my blood lust just as the lion feeds on a bloody carcass. A small portion would not be enough. The Lion craved even more with that first tasted smeared across its tongue. The beast ate ravenously, as though making up for lost time. It was but a blink in time before the beast's insatiable hunger swallowed Xena, and then the Conqueror, whole and all that was left was this perfect killing machine, bringing certain death to any in its path.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
The sun was directly overhead and something told me that it had begun. I don't know what it was that convinced me so thoroughly. It had been moons since I'd had a dream, or even a waking vision. I had begun to think that my clairvoyance had been borne of my life's previous despair. Had becoming happy taken my gift?
"Do you think it's happening yet?" I asked Ephiny.
"Yes, I'm certain of it."
"You'd never know it on a day like today. Look at the beautiful clouds."
Ephiny looked at me before crossing her arms and leaning back against the doorframe. "They're not clouds," she explained. We exchanged another look and Ephiny turned back to look at the sky. "That's smoke from the fires over Marathon."
I think I'm going to go lie down," I abruptly told her. I didn't want to think anymore. I already knew what I had to do. "Please tell everyone that I'm not to be disturbed."
I cautiously stepped into the deserted alley behind one of the public theaters. I had known all along what I was going to do, what I had to do, but I hadn't been certain whether I could actually do it or not. I desperately wanted Xena at my side, but I realized that simply wasn't going to happen. I had never actually realized how much confidence being beside Xena instilled within me, how merely living within the safety of our Corinthian castle was so entirely different for me. This was the first time in my life that I had actually been completely alone in a strange place, where there were no guards with only my protection on their minds, with no one controlling me or looking out for my well being. How odd. So, this is what it meant to be well and truly independent. I wonder if it was as terrifying an event in life to everyone else as it was to me right now. It's true that Yu Pan had taught me many skills, that Xena had encouraged me to hone the warrior side of my psyche, and that my Amazon friends were teaching me more and more about my own power. Even with all of these things, I cannot adequately express how frightened and alone I felt at that moment.
When Ephiny had pointed out that the clouds were actually the fires of battle, I had made my choice. I had to put aside my fear and see this to the end. Finally, my life didn't depend on anyone else. At last, other's lives depended on my actions. No matter what happened at Marathon, I wouldn't lose Athens.
Xena would be furious if she knew that I had snuck from our home without even one soldier to guard me. I'd be lucky if she ever spoke to me again. I simply had to move through the town on my own, though. If strangers knew that I was the Queen, I would never be able to catch Livia. As the days passed, I had grown certain that Militiades and his wife Livia were the leaders among the nobles. If any sort of rebel faction planned on taking over the city, Militiades would have left his wife in charge. I couldn't picture her fighting, but she had a sly mind just made for treachery.
I imagined what Ephiny might say when they eventually would break down the door to my bedchamber and discover that I had vanished. I tried to be thoughtful. I left her a note as to what I felt I had to do. I left the house through one of the passages that I'm sure even Xena had forgotten about. Our young servant, Lydia, had shown me the hidden rooms and passages of our home the second day after we had moved in. Some of the passages that had been built under the house led from the labyrinth and to the outside. They were twisting paths that had been carved into the solid rock of the hillside surrounding our home and led clear down to the open road. I had planned on this being a sort of reconnaissance mission, so I armed myself with only a half size set of chobos tied to my belt. With my riding wear on, I slipped from our home and headed into the city.
It was midday, but the circumstances of the battle had kept most people inside of their homes. The streets were far more deserted than I had anticipated. It did mean that I didn't have to hide my identity quite as much, but the virtually uninhabited roadways felt eerie and somewhat alarming. I passed by the open-air markets and very few vendors sat with their wares. The empty streets almost caused me to stand out too much. I had hoped for at least a little traffic. However, if there had been more noise, I might not have heard the footsteps behind me.
At first I thought it mere coincidence that the footsteps should stop and start as my own did. To tell the truth, I thought that my mind had simply overreacted to the circumstances of the whole day. I had honestly never thought to be followed by anyone. After all, who knew that I was even here? I silently chided myself for believing in the sort of nonsense that caused little children to imagine monsters lurking in every corner. I shook it off and convinced myself that the sounds were in my own head.
I paused at one of the few open vendors around the area and tossed him a couple of talants for a bracelet and attempted to make myself look like a bored traveler. I continued to browse his stall until I could turn around. I wanted to inconspicuously prove that I had made the whole footstep scenario up. I suppose, in hindsight, that if I had gone to this much trouble to prove that there was something or someone following me, I should have taken more care. Hindsight, however, is the perfect vision, after all. I had nearly convinced myself that I had been a fool when I quickly raised my head and looked into the nearest alley. A large figure, its face swaddled within a hood, quickly stepped back into the shadows.
I froze, but at least had the presence of mind to look down at the object I had absently decided to examine. It was a thin stiletto style dagger with an abalone shell handle. I immediately felt stronger with it in my shaky grasp. I didn't even haggle with the old man when he asked me for twice what the weapon was worth.
I felt a weakness in my knees that I knew was dread. It was as if the joints had all but disappeared on me, and I had to reach out and hold onto the tent pole to hold myself up. Something told me that I had to keep moving. If I could get somewhere familiar, where I could be recognized, I stood a better chance. I cursed myself for handling this whole scenario badly. Mere moments after leaving the protection of my little world, I had run into trouble. Not only had I run away, leaving myself vulnerable, I had convinced myself that the footsteps I had heard were imaginary. In doing so, I had made my way down the narrow, twisting city streets until I ended up behind the theater district; not the most pleasant part of the city. What had I been thinking?
I paid the bored vendor and nervously continued up the street. My idea was to slip into the back door of one of the theaters. There had to be people in one of them, even with the impending battle facing the city. I listened as the stranger followed along behind me, his footsteps heavy on the paved street. He made no attempt at elusiveness now. Perhaps he thought there was no need, since I had already caught sight of him.
Let me speak, at this point, of unreasonable fears, panic, and anxiety. As I said previously, being alone in a harrowing situation can be fear provoking. You look at yourself, and events, in a different way. The experience had stretched my nerves as taut as a hide pulled over the bowl of a drum. I felt the beginnings of panic set in and I took deep gulps of air to calm myself. Somehow, I had been doing this to myself. All I could say in my defense was that waiting for something, or someone to jump out at you from the shadows and go Gods know what to you was a heart chilling business. The mere idea built up more notions in my own mind than would ever have been physically possible.
I did everything I could to keep moving. I pushed down my rising panic and, with a course of action firmly set in my mind; I forced myself to walk slowly, looking up at the buildings as if I was searching for a particular one. Perhaps my nonchalance would throw off the man who I felt quite certain at this point would do me harm. How was I to know that I was jumping from the frying pot into the fire?
With every step I took, I regretted my decision to walk down the darkened alleyway, but I believe my anxiety made this poor decision for me. Finally, a sound reached my ears that was nearly magical. I heard men laughing, just as they sounded while enjoying the comforts of a tavern. I followed the smell of pipe tobacco and ale through a door that opened noiselessly when I turned the handle. I assumed that since this was an old theater, the actors must have been socializing without any performances to give. The war had put a freeze on the activities of the entire city.
I followed the dimly lit hall for what seemed like an eternity. I had been so intent on listening for the footsteps behind me that it completely surprised me when I walked into the middle of a noisy brightly lit hall. My only satisfaction in looking rather like a fool was that the fifty or so men sitting in the hall seemed even more surprised than I.
They stared at me with open mouths, mirroring my own expression, I was certain. In the uncomfortable silence, I could hear the sputtering of the torches on the wall. The hall was quite large and the men all sat at tables in various stages of drinking, talking, and playing dice games. I did the only thing I could think of in such an awkward situation.
"Hello, everyone," I said with a quick wave of my hand and a weak smile.
"Who are you?" A tall dark-haired man stood up and demanded. He looked me up and down and seemed to be deciding whether I was trouble or not. Oh, he had no idea.
I chuckled lightly with my reply. "You don't know how happy I am to see you. There was a man following me. I'm afraid he flustered me a bit." I tried to play on their machismo by acting like a helpless female. It was a role I detested, but oftentimes it became a necessity.
"A stranger accosting young women, eh?" He smiled, but no sign of amusement ever reached his eyes. "Well, we'll make short work of his kind."
He gave a quick jerk of his head and another man jumped up from his seat and went out through the door I had just entered. I don't know why, but none of us moved until the man came back a few moments later. I watched as he shrugged to the man who had first spoken to me. There was such economy of speech and movement among them. They reminded me of soldiers. I had no idea what prompted me to actually voice that thought aloud.
"Are you soldiers?" I asked.
"Why do you ask that?" The first man asked as he raised one eyebrow.
I looked around me and knew that these strong young men had to be soldiers. There dress was not similar, neither did they wear insignia of any kind, but it was their appearance and their weapons. A variety of blades hung from leather belts on each and every man. Swords, short and long, daggers, spikes, custom scimitars, and a myriad of metal blades in shapes and styles I'd never seen before. They were all fit and had that look in their eyes. I'd seen the same expression on Atrius's face, as well as Xena's. It was the look of a hardened warrior. An expression that only time and the horrors of death and battle could put there. These men were soldiers, of that much, I was certain, but they served with no Greek army that I knew of. That meant they could only be one thing mercenaries. The only reason that I could imagine mercenaries hiding out in an empty theater was for a planned revolt. They were waiting for something and I had a feeling that it had a great deal to do with the battle at Marathon.
That revelation came to me in a matter of heartbeats and I struggled to keep my facial expression unchanged, to even appear carefree.
"Something wrong?" The first man asked.
"Wrong?" I turned back to him. I realized that I had allowed my eyes to roam over the group.
"What makes you think we're soldiers?" he asked again, only this time his fingers wrapped around the handle of the sword he wore at his hip. I watched his fingers flex over the worn leather wrapped around the silver metal.
My mouth went bone dry as I realized for the tenth time that day what a fool I'd been to leave home without any protection. I could protect myself, but I was no warrior, especially against professional soldiers outfitted the way these men were. I wondered what skill I could possibly call on to get me out of this situation. I smiled broadly at the men, realizing then that I most certainly did have a skill for just such a circumstance. I had spent nearly my entire lifetime playing the part of the happy mistress when I was nothing more than an ill-treated slave. I had spent the seasons becoming a consummate actress.
"Why, I'm here for the same thing you're here for!" I exclaimed enthusiastically.
"Is that so?" the first soldier commented. "And just what are we here for?"
"The play! You all are trying out for the play, aren't you? I know I don't look nearly as warrior-like as you do, but I was hoping to get one of the soldier parts. You see, I've always wanted to be an actress. I borrowed these clothes from my brother, he's not very artistically minded you see, and--"
"You're here for a play? To get a part in a play?" This time the soldier really did look amused.
"Oh, yes! That is what you're doing here, isn't it?"
"Um yea, that's it." He released the light grip he had on his sword and chuckled. His laughter sounded genuine and I'm sure he found the entire scenario humorous.
"Well, I'm sure you guys will just gobble up all the parts. Maybe I should just go down to the Serkis Theater and try for a part there. I don't see much point in going up against you guys, you're shoe-ins! You know, it's just like my uncle Olaf used to say--"
"Look," he interrupted, his patience finally at an end. "Why a couple of my friends here escort you to the next theater. After all, your pervert could be out there still."
He nodded his head to two different soldiers. My new escorts stood up and I simply didn't like the look on their faces. They looked as if he didn't intend to let me get far. Alive, that is.
"Oh no. I couldn't. That would be such an imposition."
"It's my pleasure," the new soldier hissed. Again, a smile that looked anything but cordial.
"No, really I just--"
"I insist," the first soldier, who I took to be a commander, said.
His tone had such an air of finality that I knew if I fought against it any longer, I would be found out. He looked at me as though he still wasn't quite sure if I was who I said I was. I could only nod my head, offer my thanks, and look sincere. I shook his hand as any lady would and left the way I'd come with my new, ferocious-looking escorts.
"Gee, I bet I dragged you away from a really good dice game, huh?" I asked my silent attendants.
One grunted something in reply.
Another few steps and we were at the door that led into the alleyway. I stopped with my hand on the doorknob. As I spoke, I loosened the tie on the handles of my shortened chobos. I may not have stood much of a chance against two men who towered over me, but I intended on taking at least one with me on my way to meet Hades.
"I can really see myself the rest of the way, I wouldn't think of--"
"No problem. I got my orders," one soldier said.
"Jes open the door, Missy. We ain't got all day."
I turned back to the door and braced myself. I knew that I would be able to jump to one side and pull my weapons before either of them reached for me. I was small and fast and that would be my advantage over them. I tried to calm myself using one of the techniques I had learned from Yu Pan. I thought of the old man and wondered how he was doing at that moment. Xena and my old friend had planned on some surprises for the Persians. I just hoped they were both safe and unharmed.
My moment of finality came at last, and I pushed open the door. The afternoon sun had dipped behind the buildings, leaving the alley encased in shadows. I took one large step into the darkness, preparing to spin around and attack, and felt my body roughly shoved downward. It all happened so fast, yet so slowly at the same time. I didn't even have time to react, even unconsciously, but I seemed to see it all unhurriedly moving along in every detail. I watched from outside of myself as my body was tossed aside. I lost my breath when my back hit the ground, followed by the back of my head making sharp contact with the stone-paved street. I lost consciousness as slowly as if I was sinking under the surface of the ocean.
End Gabrielle's Addendum
To be continued in : Chapter 12: The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls
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