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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 14: If The Red Slayer Think He Slays...
"I have to say, Gabrielle, I don't feel at all comfortable doing this."
"Would you feel more comfortable hanging from a Persian cross?"
"Well, since you put it that way "
Livia and I had entered the house via the same sorts of tunnels that ran underneath the home that Xena and I occupied here in Athens. Livia led the way through the complex maze of passageways.
"Gabrielle, you do know that by sneaking into the house through these tunnels we're telling Cleisthenes and Lenora both that we're already convinced of their guilt."
"I am convinced," I answered, perhaps too quickly.
"That's what you thought about me, too. Remember?"
I stopped short at her words. There seemed to be no malice in them, maybe only a gentle rebuke. "That was different, Livia, you know that."
"I know, my friend, but I thought perhaps a reminder was in order. I understand that Lenora's guilt is clear, but Cleisthenes just might be innocent."
I nodded my head in silence. "You're right, of course. I can't just assume he's guilty by association. I admit, there might be a chance that he knows nothing of who Lenora is and what she's done. All right, maybe we should just confront him honestly."
"Good, does that mean we can get out of these horridly dank tunnels?"
I smiled at her enthusiasm for adventure. "Yes, let's go."
We turned, but stopped immediately.
"What is that?" Livia asked.
Standing before us was a large beast, perhaps the largest dog I had ever seen. The animal was a brindle color, the streaks on his coat causing him to look even more fearsome. I swallowed hard when I gauged his height to be nearly as high as my chest. He sported a thick leather collar around his neck dotted with spiked studs pressed through the leather. His lips quivered over large white fangs, but he didn't move.
"I think it's a hound," I whispered.
"By the Gods, it's huge. I've never seen the like."
"I've seen Roman scrolls with drawings of such animals. They used dogs like this in war," I answered without taking my eyes off the creature.
"That is quite correct, my Queen." Cleisthenes voice came from within the heart of the shadow heartbeats before his body stepped into the light, and he knelt down beside the animal. "Forgive Sir Jamus. He's still a little nervous in these new surroundings. Lady Livia, I hope you haven't forgotten anything. I could have easily sent any of your possessions down to you at our villa."
I watched the man as he spoke, appearing quite genuine, and never even asking why the two of us were roaming about in the subterranean tunnels below the house.
"Forgive us, Cleisthenes, but " Livia looked at me and I nodded. How could I not give him the same benefit of the doubt that I had offered to Livia? He hadn't yet showed any hint of harming either of us.
"We have some distressing news to share with you," Livia continued.
"By Athena's name, what could it be? Have you news of the battle?"
"It has to do with the battle, Cleisthenes, but not directly. It seems as though the problem is a little closer to home."
"Please, my Queen, tell me what's wrong."
"Perhaps you have somewhere more comfortable where we can speak?" I looked from Livia to Cleisthenes.
"Oh, pardon my manners, your highness. Yes, yes." Cleisthenes grabbed his animal's collar and gestured for Livia to lead the way through her home.
I followed Livia up a winding stone staircase and felt the hairs along the back of my neck rise up. I turned around to see Cleisthenes's concerned face looking back at me. There was something about his trusting expression. I offered him a quick smile and turned again to follow Livia. I wondered at his behavior, though. I found it odd that he should be so calm at finding the two of us wandering around the tunnels.
Livia led us into a large sitting area. One of Cleisthenes servants immediately appeared.
"Aramais, take Sir Jamus outside and please fix the ladies some of your special mulled wine," Cleisthenes ordered the man. The servant bowed his head once and walked away.
"Please, my Queen Lady Livia, I beg you to tell me what could be so wrong to bring you here?"
"Cleisthenes," I began. "Is your wife, Lenora, Greek?"
"Why yes. What an odd thing to ask."
Livia and I exchanged a look. "And you know this for a fact?" Livia asked.
"Well, of course I " He trailed off, as he looked the two of us in the eye. He appeared to be thinking just then. "I don't understand how this matters, but no, I don't know it as fact. Her uncle promised her in marriage to me. Lenora had said that her parents died when she was a child and all she had was an uncle to provide her dowry."
"Cleisthenes, would it surprise you to know that I believe Lenora to be Persian?" I asked.
"What?" He chuckled as he spoke. It was clear, from the expression on his face, that he thought the idea quite farfetched.
"I--but surely you can't think I don't understand what's going on here."
I felt sorry for the man. He looked completely and utterly lost as he sank down with a heavy sigh into the nearest chair.
"I don't believe it," Cleisthenes said.
I would have expected nothing less from him. What man could possibly believe that his spouse was a traitorous spy?
"I understand what you must be feeling, my friend, but it's true. I have no solid proof, but I know from my own seasons spent in Persia that Lenora knows things that only a young woman brought up in that land could know," I said.
"It sounds quite ludicrous," he began. "I trust both of you with my life, but Lenora is my wife."
"Perhaps if we spoke with her?" Livia recommended.
"She's not here." He looked at the two of us with a panicky expression. "She's only gone into the markets with the children. She said she was getting claustrophobic staying indoors for the last few days."
The servant arrived with our drinks. He offered a silver goblet to Cleisthenes and then came around to Livia, and finally myself. I wasn't much of a wine drinker, but I enjoyed the fruity aroma of the beverage. I breathed in the pleasant aromatic spices and looked on as Cleisthenes took a drink from his cup. Livia prepared to do the same.
In two large strides I moved to where Livia stood and backhanded the goblet from her light grasp.
"Gabrielle! What in Hades name "
I turned to face Cleisthenes. He wore his ever-patient expression, very nearly a smile. I slowly inverted my own glass and let its contents spill out onto the marble floor.
Cleisthenes sighed and shook his head. "It would have been so much easier if you would have simply drunk the wine, Gabrielle."
Livia finally realized what the drink contained. "You bastard!" She surprised all of us by nearly launching herself at Cleisthenes. I knew that this woman might eventually prove to be a loyal friend, but I suppose I had no idea just how seriously she took her oath to the Empire.
Before I could intervene, Cleisthenes manservant struck her hard enough to cause her to lose consciousness. I pulled my chobos and without even thinking, I struck the man's arm as he reached out for me. The contact of weapon against bone made a sickening sound. It was as though a stick of green wood splintered in half. He cried out and clutched his, now useless, limb.
"Enough!" Cleisthenes shouted.
I pulled back into a stance to fight him off, but realized my chance would never come. Cleisthenes had a crossbow leveled at my chest.
"I recommend taking a seat, my dear. You know, I really am quite fond of you Gabrielle. I have no desire to hurt you, but believe me when I say that I will if I have to."
I was angry. I slowly sat down and let my fingers curl around the armrests of the chair. I couldn't believe that this was it, that the Empire relied upon me as their Queen and I had let them down. This traitor would kill me and possibly bring all of Darius's forces into Greece. I thought of Xena and wondered if she was safe.
"Aramais, get up. You look like a woman lying there. Go strap your arm up and attend to your chore it's time." The servant rose, glared at me, and stumbled from the room, holding his arm to his chest.
"How did you know?" Cleisthenes asked. "About the wine, I mean?"
"Why should I tell scum like you anything!"
"Come now, there's no need for harsh language, especially from such a lady."
I looked at him with a wary eye. I honestly believe that he had enjoyed our friendship. It was probably incredibly na´ve of me. I realized now that my only goal was to stay alive as long as possible and that meant placating the man.
"All right, we'll deal," I answered. "I'll tell you my secrets if you tell me yours."
"Hhmm, an interesting bargain, and I really see as I have nothing to lose at this point. Very well, ask me what you will."
"Why are you doing this?" I asked.
"I have nothing against you, Gabrielle, or my fellow Greeks for that matter. It's your unfortunate circumstance to be married to the one woman I have sworn my life to visiting my revenge upon."
"Xena?" I asked in confusion. "All of this, assisting Darius, because of Xena?"
"You have no idea what my future could have been like, what my life was supposed to be like before the Conqueror took Athens."
"But you helped rebuild the city. You--"
"I waited nearly half my life to take away something from the Conqueror, to ruin her life just as she ruined mine. As much as you mean to her, Gabrielle, I suspect that seeing her precious Greece taken by her sworn enemies will do the trick even better."
"Ahh, yes. Right again. How do you do it?" He asked the question, but I had a feeling he really didn't want an answer. "Lenora is Persian, lived there until she was fourteen. I met her family in northern Thrace on one of my many traveling ventures for the Conqueror. It all just sort of fell into place from that moment on."
"Now that you've heard my tale " He gestured toward me with a wave of his arm. "I'm dying of curiosity. Tell me, where did I slip?"
"Tamarind extract. Your man put it in our wine."
"Well, aren't you the clever one."
"Trying to cover the extract with mulled wine was a good try, but tamarind extract has the distinct odor of cherries. Then there was the fact that your servant offered you the first cup, something that good manners dictate a servant never do. I suppose it really hit me once I thought about why you never asked either of us what we were doing wandering the underground tunnels, why we simply didn't come to the door and ask for you. You didn't have to ask because you already knew. You figured that if we slipped into the house through the tunnels, we were here to come after you."
"Well done. You're incredibly observant."
I said nothing, waiting for his next move. I had learned many things about people in the time I had spent serving them. One of those things was that men love to gloat. They're not simply satisfied with victory or a game well played. They want annihilation and disgrace. They want to stand over their fallen enemy and wave their sword about in their face. Since I knew all of this, I suppose Cleisthenes's next words should have come as no surprise.
"Let us go out onto the balcony, Gabrielle. I have something I want to show you."
I rose and moved away, toward the open patio doors.
"Slowly." He cautioned me by pressing the crossbow shaft into my back ever so slightly.
I stepped outside and saw what I'm sure Cleisthenes meant for me to see. His servant, arm wrapped and cradled against his body, held onto a large piece of metal, something like the shields the hoplites carried. It had no design or decoration. It was merely a large piece of highly polished metal. I saw it burst into light as the servant, Aramais, tilted it toward the sun.
My heart sank at the sight. Livia, who still lay unconscious on the floor inside, had been correct. Her home afforded a lovely view of the coast. Even I could see the tiny dots upon the blue green sea that were Darius's fleet. I also saw smoke rising into the sky. I took that as a good sign for our side.
"Well, let's go back inside and figure out what we're going to do with you."
"I don't understand," I began once I sat down again. "What could Darius have offered you to turn traitor on your homeland? Surely, you realize that your life will be worthless in Greece, that you will be a hunted man."
"There are some things in life that are worth giving up everything for, Gabrielle. My hate for Xena and my thirst for revenge are two things that I willingly give my life to fuel. I'm not a fool. I know that Darius's promises are worthless should I stay in Greece, and the notion of spending the rest of my days in Persia is even less appealing. No, my friend, I suspect I shall give my life for this venture, but it will be well worth it."
Too late did I discover that I had been dealing with a madman and a fanatic at that. It was nearly impossible to fight against a man who was so willing, almost enthusiastic about meeting Hades for a cause.
"I do hate to be the one to inform you, Gabrielle, but if Xena remains alive after the battle, she'll be crucified for Darius's pleasure. Actually, that will probably be the kindest thing he does to her. As for you I could speak on your behalf if--"
"Not if you were the last living soul in the known world." I saw immediately what he had on his mind.
His expression changed. I believe he truly thought I might take him up on his offer. "You leave me no choice then, Gabrielle. Gods, you don't know how much I regret having to do this," he said as he re-set his shaft upon the crossbow frame. "I don't suppose you'd just like to drink the poison now, would you?"
I arched an eyebrow in his direction. He moved closer, and then paused, the crossbow still trained upon me. He was hesitant, that much was apparent, maybe even frightened. Cleisthenes was no warrior and I had found that there was a great deal of difference between killing someone and talking of killing him. He swallowed and stepped even closer until I was sure that if he loosed the arrow now, the shaft would fly straight through me.
Slowly lowering the weapon, he looked at me with a wistful expression, and then that faint smile reappeared. I had no idea what he was up to, only that I assumed he had lost his nerve. I looked on as his smile disappeared and confusion filled his features. He looked down and for the first time I saw the metal blade protruding through his chest. It was subtle at first, but as the metal disappeared back through his body, a crimson flood spread out across the front of his clothes. It wasn't until his body crumpled in on itself and he fell to the floor that I saw the figure standing behind him.
"You, my Queen, are turning out to be a great deal of trouble!" Ephiny huffed out as she stood before me, the dead man's blood dripping from her sword.
"Thank the Gods!" I said just as the tears fell from my eyes. I wasn't prone to displaying so much emotion; I suppose it was simply a release of sorts after all I had experienced in the last two days. It appeared to frighten Ephiny, however.
She knelt before me, concern and affection flowing from her. "Gabrielle, are you all right?" She placed her free hand atop my own.
I nodded and then brusquely wiped the tears from my face. "Yes, thank you. I don't know what came over me. Oh, Livia. She--"
I looked to my friend, realizing that she must still be lying on the floor. The sight that met my eyes was a comforting one indeed. Periander sat upon the floor, cradling Livia's head in his lap. She had only just started to move about and the giant of a man let her lean against his chest until she felt steady enough to stand. One of the Amazons held a wet cloth to the rapidly forming bruise on the side of her face.
I came back to myself and felt a rather righteous indignation rise up inside. It was unfounded, but that didn't stop me from expressing my ire all the same.
"Where have you been?" I questioned Ephiny. My voice held what I considered to be just the right amount of annoyance.
"Following you all over Hades and back again!" She snapped. "I've been trying to keep you out of harm's way, but at the same time allowing you to do what you must, which I might add is considerably harder than I thought it would be."
Her admission stunned me into silence. The words she used sounded oddly familiar. Harm's way. It was a phrase that Xena had used on more than one occasion.
"Don't tell me that Xena told you to watch me, too?" I asked. I looked back at Periander again. My expression must have held more anger in it than I actually felt, for Ephiny quickly responded.
"Well I she just I told her it was a bad idea!"
"It's all right, Ephiny, I'm not mad, it's just that Xena seemed to be doing a lot of planning that I was unaware of." I almost laughed at her expression; rather like a child that I'd just caught doing something she oughtn't.
My explanation appeared to calm Ephiny a small bit. "Trust me when I say it wasn't any great conspiracy. The Conqueror made me aware that, given your nature; you might want to go off and save the Empire on your own. I was supposed to let you, but to follow. Xena said that you might be able to get into places alone that you couldn't possibly with an army behind you. Trust me, her first thought was to have us tie you up so you wouldn't go off and get yourself killed."
"She thought better about the chaining you up part once she realized that if we all lived through this ordeal, you might never forgive her. I do have to say, Gabrielle, that it took a huge amount of faith on Xena's part, to let you go off, I mean. I don't know if I could have let the person I love do that. I hadn't planned on you giving me the slip, however."
"The slip?" I asked.
"I didn't know about the tunnels. I'm glad you sent Periander for us."
"Oh. I am sorry, Eph--"
"Don't." She held up one hand. She smiled then, and I must say it was the friendliest smile Ephiny ever offered me. "You're not one bit sorry you did it that way, don't even pretend. Besides, not only would you do the same thing all over again, you did exactly what I would have done given the same circumstances. I suppose it's what any Amazon would have done."
Then she did something that surprised even me. She placed one arm around my shoulder and said, "Are you sure you're okay, now?"
"I'm a lot tougher than I look," I replied.
"I'm starting to believe that," she answered while wearing a smirk.
We stepped over to where the Amazons and Periander attended to Livia. After the rush of the last few moments, I had temporarily forgotten what we had been doing there in the first place. "The Corinthian fleet, Ephiny, did you send for them as I asked?"
"They should enter the harbor around nightfall. I hope you're right about the Persians attacking Athens instead of Corinth or we've made a huge mistake."
"But, we saw them signal Darius's fleet," Livia interjected.
The Amazons stared at Livia as though she'd just committed some unpardonable error. I believe that she'd been with me on such an informal basis that it never occurred to her that she was interrupting the Queen. I smiled because that pleased me, that she could forget that.
Realizing her breech of etiquette, Livia quickly apologized. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. I--"
"Of course it's all right, Livia. You and I are past that." I lightly rested my hand upon her shoulder.
I quickly explained to Ephiny what Livia meant and what the two of us had seen from the balcony. One of our Amazons entered the room dragging the massive shield as proof.
"Well, have you a plan at this point?" Ephiny asked me.
It was a strange sensation, being in charge. Of course, I had quickly become accustomed to the authority I had within the castle back in Corinth. To run a household was something I had trained for, but to lead a group of Amazon warriors in a fight. I felt out of my element, since my skills as a warrior were merely adequate. I hoped that I could hold my own. I may have lacked some skill as a fighter, but a strategically minded thought process was something I prided myself on. I laid out the entire situation in my mind as though I was playing a game of King's Men.
"I'm sure Cleisthenes planned on notifying the mercenaries in some way once he signaled Darius," I said. "Perhaps he intended to use his servant."
Ephiny smiled at me. "Tall man with dark hair pulled back and tied at his neck? An injured arm?"
"That's him. His name is Aramais."
"Mika," Ephiny called out and gave her head a nod.
The Amazon Ephiny had addressed left the room and returned moments later, leading a very unhappy looking Aramais.
"Well, well, we meet again," I said.
"Keep that bitch away from me. She broke my arm."
So quickly that I barely saw it happen, Ephiny drew back her arm and punched the man in the face. He howled as blood streamed down his face.
"You broke my nose!"
"I bet it took your mind off that broken arm now, didn't it?"
"You daughter of a Bacchae!" he retorted, which only caused Ephiny to reach out and hit him again.
"This woman is a Queen and you will address her with respect. If you fail in that regard well, you've already felt what will happen. Understand?" Ephiny asked.
Aramais nodded, but glared at all of us through coal black eyes.
"Do you know how and where Cleisthenes," Ephiny indicated the sheet-covered body on the floor, "was to notify the mercenary soldiers in town?"
"I'll not say a word!"
"Then we'll just have to kill you."
"I'm not afraid of death."
"No?" Ephiny grinned at the man and I could see it was not a friendly smile. I let her go and merely played the part of an observer.
"Then let me put it this way. I can assure that the way you die will either be swift and painless or slow and excruciating. It will be the difference between slicing off your head or cutting off your balls, one small chunk at a time, then letting you bleed to death."
"They were to split in half when they saw the signal to the ships," he rapidly began. "Half will remain in the theater until the Persian fleet arrives, probably just before nightfall. The other half already dispersed themselves throughout the town. They will all gather at the harbor before the sun sets to await the Red Slayer."
"The red what?"
"It's what the Persians call Darius," I explained.
"Take him away," Ephiny ordered.
"Suggestions," I asked after Aramais left.
"I suppose we can't do much about the ones that are wandering the city, unless we just happen upon them, but that sounds unlikely. It's a big city."
"You don't think they'll try to stay by the harbor?"
Ephiny shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine on that one."
"Then I suppose a trip to the theater is in order," I responded. "At least we can cut our enemy's number in half."
"Do you feel up to that?" Ephiny asked.
"I admit that I'm not a warrior, Ephiny, but I promise not to take on more than I feel I can handle."
"I have serious doubts whether you know where that point would be, but you are my Queen. Please, promise me that you'll at least stay by me."
"I have no problem at all with that. I know my limitations."
Ephiny chuckled under her breath before she turned to bark orders at the women in her command. I knew she was thinking the same thing as I was. Xena would call me the sort of woman who, once the battle started, would think she had no limitations. She would probably be right.
"I would dearly love to work on capturing some of these thugs hiding around the city, though," Ephiny mused. "They could become quite a problem later."
"How many Amazons do we have here?"
"Fifty and a unit of Corinthian soldiers. Are you thinking the same thing I'm thinking?"
"If we have to be in two places at once, I say we split our forces."
"My thinking exactly. Eponin, you're in charge. Put together a squad of twenty-five and go to the theater. Roust the soldiers hiding there. Secure anyone not killed and then meet up with us at the docks before nightfall."
"Twenty-five?" I questioned. "You're sending twenty-five Amazons against fifty mercenaries?"
"Hhmm, maybe you're right. Ep, make that twenty and take three good archers with you."
I raised an eyebrow at my second and she shrugged. "I figure a theater balcony will be just like shooting from the trees."
Eponin left with her squad. I watched the confident, heavily armed women leave, and wondered why I had ever worried for them. The women all bowed their heads as they filed past me. There was not a one of them who was less than two hands taller than myself. Suddenly, I knew why Ephiny had sent as few as she had.
"We could start out by sneaking around the alleys and buildings down at the harbor," Ephiny said once the warriors had gone.
"It's a start, but it seems rather futile, doesn't it? Without a place to start looking well, like you said, Athens is a big city."
"Damn, if we could only go about in plain sight! We could cover every building and tavern in no time, but we all stick out like sore thumbs."
I turned to look at the remaining Amazons and Corinthian soldiers. It just might work. "Livia, I have to ask you to make you greatest sacrifice yet for the Empire," I said while wearing a smile.
"Gabrielle, I do hate it when you smile like that. And what do you ask that I give for my Empire?"
"I don't like this, Gabrielle. I don't like this one little bit."
Ephiny stood before me with her arms crossed looking very much like a princess. She wore a white gown trimmed in red, with fine gold threads used as contrast. She looked rather beautiful. Extremely mad, but beautiful all the same.
"You don't like my plan or you don't like the dress?" I asked.
"The plan is brilliant. I think you know what I mean."
"You wear a short skirt all the time."
"It's short for a reason. I can't move in this thing." She flapped her arms about and the diaphanous material floated around her like falling leaves.
"I admit, it may take some getting used to, but--"
"I haven't any place to hide my sword," she said. She thrust the weapon in question into the belt around her waist.
I looked around Livia's dressing chamber and grabbed a scarf from the many items of clothing lying about. Livia's wardrobe had provided amply for the Amazons and the female soldiers. Militiades clothing worked to disguise the Corinthian men. No one looked happy about the arrangement. I draped the scarf around Ephiny until the sword was well hidden. She sighed deeply.
"Look, all of you. This isn't going to work if you look as though you're in pain. I know this is something unusual, but you're still warriors defending the Empire and I expect you to act as such."
Ephiny, along with the others, looked properly chastised.
"The whole idea is to look like ordinary men and women. Search every inn and tavern near the docks. I suspect our friends will be rather close to the harbor and there are plenty of holes down there for rodents to hide in. Do we all understand?"
"Aye, my Queen," they all replied in unison.
"Shall we have a night on the town, then?" I asked Ephiny.
"Yes. Gods know I could use a drink."
To be continued in : Chapter 15: The Wrath Of The Lion Is The Wisdom Of God...
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