She could smell death in the air. Though blood had yet to be spilled, Alti could detect the stench of killing to come as clearly as she could see the sun rising over the mountains through the branches of the trees. She was drawn to the promise of blood like the sting of a bee to fear. Shifting to a more comfortable stance, Alti adjusted her footing and tried hard not to look as though she was going to fall. She had no intention of letting the Queen, who was standing with negligent ease slightly higher and to her left, see how ill at ease she was in the trees.
Alti simply hated the Amazon propensity to attack from the treetops. What were they – a bunch of monkeys?
The Amazon Queen felt the sway of the branches caused by Alti’s movement and looked her way. An impatient hand sent a clear signal to the shamaness to remain still. Alti leaned against the trunk and held her breath. Through the leaves she could see the dark outline of horses approaching.
The group could have been a line of riders on horseback, but Alti’s keen black eyes knew better. The sight of their prey sent a welcomed thrill up her spine and death no longer mere perfume, became something she could practically taste. Her lip quivered into a sneer and she glanced up at her Queen with eyes shining in anticipation.
The intense green stare that turned her way made her uncomfortable enough avert her gaze elsewhere. She stared into the leaves of a tree on the opposite side of the path and spied the blond Amazon battalion leader, Ephiny looking at the enemy with a strange expression on her face.
The line of centaurs was clearly visible now. Young males led by a pair of slightly older mentors were out on a training run following a path that wound its way through the forest to the very bountiful Centaur hunting grounds.
Easy pickings, Alti thought, grinning. She glanced up at the Queen and tensed. The Amazon leader had lifted her hand in preparation for a signal. Alti squinted at the treetops that surrounded the path on both sides, clearly able to make out the squadron of Amazons who lay in quiet wait, swords drawn, ready for the Queen’s hand to fall and signal the attack.
The smelly bastards didn’t stand a chance.
High up in a tree, hidden by golden leaves of a towering oak, Ephiny took a deep, steadying breath, willing her body still and her balance perfect. She hadn’t drawn her sword and wouldn’t until her feet touched forest earth. It was her preference to leap from the branches empty handed, flipping mid-air if the need arose and drawing metal from scabbard later. In truth, she doubted she would even need to draw her sword at all; there was so many of them and so few Centaurs. The surprise alone would be enough to end the battle before it had even begun.
Poor bastards wouldn’t know what hit them.
She studied the enemy as they meandered along the forest path completely at ease. There was no reason for them to worry on this cool autumn morning. Though the Amazons and Centaurs had fought over hunting grounds and the gods knew what else for generations, there hadn’t been blood shed in almost a decade. A lot of squabbling and arguing, sure - but a soldier to soldier, blow by blow, full out attack? Not for years. Melosa was too good a leader and much too skilled a negotiator to spill Amazon blood unnecessarily.
But Melosa was dead, killed in challenge and a new leader ruled the Nation. This new Queen had a thirst for blood that seemed unparalleled in all of the Amazon’s long, war-filled history. For the first year, their new Queen succeeded joining the Amazon tribes together in a way no previous queen ever had. Yet despite this, Ephiny secretly worried that their new leader was marching them down the road a road of death, straight to Hades.
She stared at the line of young Centaur studs and sighed. Their new Queen was certainly going to be the death of the Centaurs. Strange. She had grown up believing that these mythical creatures were not only their enemy, but repulsive animals. Now that she got a good look at them, they didn’t seem so bad at all.
Her gaze zeroed in on the stallion leading the group. His coat was shiny and his mane long. As he smiled back at the boys who were following him, Ephiny found herself appreciating his strong profile. In fact, he looked almost … handsome.
The hunting party’s progress slowed as its leader’s head tilted. He raised his hand for the line to halt and they did, tails flicking nervously as they all looked around. The more experienced Centaur pranced forward studying the trees over his head and sniffing the air.
Light brown eyes skimmed the trees searching for whatever it was that had spooked him and he found it - a pair of similarly brown eyes framed by a head of curly blond locks staring back at him through the leaves high up in the branches of a tree.
Before he could shout a warning, the forest came alive with Amazons. They descended as though flying down from the canopy of branches overhead – a sea of masked and unmasked warriors, so quickly the Centaurs were surrounded by a wall of drawn swords before they knew what to do.
His young charges behind him began to rear and call out in frightened voices. They drew ranks, grouping closer to one another as the wall of Amazon warriors pressed in.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he shouted, finding the woman who had drawn his attention pointing the end of her sword directly at his nose.
“Don’t move,” Ephiny warned, trying to ignore the strange feeling of familiarity she had for this creature, “Please, don’t move a single hoof.”
The Centaur quieted at her politeness and called out to his group. “Stay still. Don’t move. They’re not going to hurt us. Just do what they say.”
“That’s right,” Ephiny confirmed, “We won’t hurt you as long as you do what we say.”
“Never make a promise you can’t keep, Ephiny.” A row of Amazon warriors parted, allowing their Queen to pass through.
The Queen, followed closely by Alti, stood before the Centaurs and inspected their prisoners. She strutted confidently to the leader, chuckling at the air of defiance on his face despite the hopelessness of his predicament.
“I have a message for you to take to Kaleipus,” she said.
“A message?” the Centaur repeated, stomping his rear hoof in distrust, “all this for a message?”
Ephiny walked forward, lowering her sword. “What’s your name?”
“I am Phantes, son of Tyldus,” the Centaur proclaimed proudly as he stared at Ephiny and a very slight, small smile twitched at the corners of his mouth.
Ephiny’s sword dropped to her side as she stared into Phantes’ soft, brown eyes. It was as though she knew him – met him somewhere before.
“Tyldus, huh?” The Queen stepped up in front of the blond warrior, blocking their connection. “Then you’ll make the perfect messenger.”
“What do you want me to tell him?” Phantes asked, straightening to his full and considerable height.
The Queen would not be intimidated. She strutted forward, her posture equally self-assured despite the fact that the tall half man, half horse loomed over her. “I want Tyldus to get the message that the Centaurs’ time has come to an end. By sunset, there won’t be a man; woman or foal left living in that stinking village of yours.” Her lip quivered upward into a mocking sneer as she backed away, leaving him staring at her, eyes wide in surprise.
“Kill him,” the Queen ordered Ephiny.
“Wha … what?” Ephiny stammered, stepping back.
“I said, KILL HIM!”
“He’s unarmed!” she exclaimed in outrage.
The Queen’s hand snapped out and grabbed Ephiny by the bodice, tugging her forward with an angry jerk. “I said … kill … him.”
“No.” Ephiny stiffened in defiance. She purposely sheathed her sword, shoving it into its leather scabbard with an angry thud. “I refuse to murder an unarmed man.”
Ephiny tried to turn and walk away but the Queen held tightly on to her top.
“Let me go,” the blond warrior warned, her voice going low and dangerous. “I said, let go of me.”
“Oh, I’m going to let you go,” the Queen replied smiling as Ephiny’s eyes went round with surprise. “Go to Hades!”
The Queen released the hold on her top and took a half step back. Ephiny looked down at the Queen’s other hand which was still gripping the hilt of a knife protruding from her belly. She touched the blood that was spilling out of the side of the wound and stared at her red stained palm in surprise.
“Have a nice trip,” the Queen said sweetly and twisted the blade.
Ephiny grimaced only once before her legs gave way and she plummeted to the dirt.
“Anyone else want to disobey my orders?” The Queen grinned and lifted her hand, the bloody knife still in her grasp as she turned to address the rest of the tribe. “No? Good.”
She wiped the knife off on Phantes fur-covered chest. The Centaur backed up in disgust, but he was surrounded by Amazons and Centaurs alike and had nowhere to go.
“You bitch!” he exclaimed, rearing slightly.
The order prompted the sea of armed Amazons to converge on Phantes like a swarm. The young stallions bucked and reared, shouting out in fear, but they too were soon surrounded and herded away from their leader.
“Get out of my way!” Alti shouted, shoving Amazons aside to get to Ephiny’s body.
As the woman warriors attacked Phantes, Alti kneeled at Ephiny’s side and drew her shamaness knife. Ignoring the screams and the thick sound of horse flesh being slashed, she began to hack with her own blade at the body.
Within a few moments, she was lifting Ephiny’s heart out of its warm, wet nest and holding it reverently in the palm of her hands.
“Ephiny, you were a fierce warrior,” her rough voice whispered to the bloody organ, “Your death will give me great power.”
The shamaness stared at her prize, bringing it nearer to her face for a closer look.
The organ was still, the heart no longer pumped.
“DAMN IT!” Alti shouted. She hated cold meat.
As Phantes’ cries echoed out through the forest, the shamaness shrugged off the disappointment and began her own feast in earnest.
The Queen paced around the body of the fallen Centaur, smiling. Phantes had been cut to ribbons. Blood leaked out from a multitude of sword slashes onto the forest floor, soaking the earth to a dark black.
“Well done,” she told her warriors and they began to back off. The Queen’s attention turned to the group of young centaurs who had been herded into a group and surrounded by Amazon women.
“Now, cut off their hands and sear them with pitch.”
When her warriors began to shift nervously with expressions that bordered on horror, she turned on them in anger.
“I said, cut off their hands and sear the wounds! Then you can let them go.”
Once more, the Amazons responded en masse, surrounding the young Centaurs to carry out the insidious order.
The Queen turned her back on the gruesome spectacle and strutted over to Alti, who had just finished eating the blond warrior’s heart.
“I’d say that’s a very clear message you’ll be sending to the Centaurs,” Alti commented through a mouth full of bloody organ meat.
“Did you enjoy your treat?”
“Hmmm, yummy,” Alti replied and rose to her feet, wiping the blood from her mouth with the sleeve of her cloak. “Thanks for the nice surprise.”
“My pleasure. I hope it brings you more power.”
“One more Amazon soul trapped in my web. It will.”
“Good, because you’re going to need it.” The Queen turned and watched her warriors carry their orders. She smiled at the screams of the young Centaurs as they lost their hands to the swords. Before long the smell of burned flesh tainted the clear forest air. The putrid scent was lifted skyward by dark trials of smoke that drifted up past the trees as bloody wrists were cauterized.
“They’ll come after you with everything they’ve got,” the Shamaness advised.
The Queen didn’t even bother to turn around. “That’s exactly what I’m counting on. Come. We need to join the rest of the Amazon nation. You don’t want to miss the extinction of the Centaurs, do you?”
Alti smiled with red stained teeth. “I wouldn’t want to miss it for the world.”
The Shamaness scurried after her Queen, using the back of her hand to suppress a sloppy, wet burp.
The Centaur response was immediate. Kaleipus’s outrage at the condition of the young stallions was clearly visible, even from the distant ridge where the Queen and Alti stood watching. The clang of an alarm echoed against the hills, and they watched as the Centaur army mustered, gathering their ranks into efficient, well organized groups.
Through tears, the hunting party relayed the location of their attack and Alti watched with a smile as the Centaur cavalry thundered out of the village in the direction given. The Shamaness looked over to her Queen and they shared a sweet moment of camaraderie.
According to plan, a smaller division of Amazon warriors were waiting back at the scene of the crime to engage them, but it was nothing compared to the battalion that stood gathered here, in exactly the opposite direction, poised and ready to attack.
The dust had barely settled from the Centaur charge when the Queen turned and held up her hand, signaling for the army to hold.
“They won’t leave the village completely unprotected,” Alti commented, her voice low.
“No,” the Queen replied. “I want a look at what’s left before we go.”
A burly Centaur cantered to the center of the village shouting orders that the distance between them swallowed. Before long, Alti could see small groups of armed soldiers taking up strategic positions throughout the village.
“That’s Tyldus,” the Queen stated to Ephiny’s replacement, watching him closely. “When we attack, I want him killed as quickly as possible.”
The newly appointed Amazon commander nodded briskly. “I’ll take care of him myself.”
“Just make sure you take care of him.” The Queen strained her neck, hard green eyes searching the village.
Alti watched her look, guessing at what she was searching for and snickering when the prize presented himself, like a shiny bit of gold amongst a pile of river rocks.
“There!” the Queen shouted, pointing across the distance to a young, blond human boy who was sprinting across the village center on a pair of log, athletic legs.
“That boy,” the Amazon queen said, her voice loud enough for the gods to hear, “that boy is mine.”
And with that statement, the Queen drew her sword and swung it overhead, signaling the attack on the Centaur village below.
A terrifying war cry ripped through the air as a sea of Amazon warriors crested the ridge, flowing down the hillside and rolling toward the village like a tide of deadly lava about to kill everything in its path. Tyldus stopped in his tracks at the sound and looked up, astounded by the sheer number of warrior women that were descending upon his home. He barely had time to shout an order when the first wave of arrows rained down upon them, so many the sun itself was momentarily blocked by their shadow. The first arrow hit a thatched roof and it burst into flames. Seconds later, all around him Centaurs began to fall. He skirted on four legs sideways trying to avoid the certain death that thudded into the dirt just to his left and then his right.
Tyldus watched helplessly as one Centaur child fell and then another. He could hear the dreadful whistle of a second volley of arrows and then thousands more came arching over the rooftops to fall down upon his village, killing man, woman and child indiscriminately. At the sound of a war cry, he whirled around and braced himself to meet the charge of fierce women, slashing his Centaur steel against Amazon sword as tears blurred his vision.
Kaleipus sprinted down the path, sweat coating his fur and adding to the chill that had settled in his heart the moment the hunting party had returned to the village. The sight of their young men cradling the raw stumps of their damaged arms against their chests had blinded him with a red rage.
His hooves bit into the earth, sending dirt flying as he quickened his gallop and increased the pace. He knew exactly where the Amazons would be waiting. There was a spot just before the valley, where the path narrowed and the trees grew thick with leaves even at this time of year. They would be up in the branches lining either side of the path, bows drawn and waiting for them to come thundering down the road, lined up like a row of ducks ready for the shooting.
Just like their boys.
Still galloping, he turned and waved his sword, once to his right and then to his left. Two columns of cavalry split off from the main group, taking barely visible paths that circumvented the main road completely. Once the primary force engaged the Amazons and lured them out of the trees, the two splinter groups would attack from their rear.
After what they did to their sons, there wasn’t going to be one Amazon bitch left standing.
The thundering herd galloped down the path, drawing their swords as they closed in on the place where the boys told them the Amazons had gathered their army. They rounded a bend and slowed to a canter, staring up into the trees overhead, eyes shining with expectation.
But no attack came.
The column slowed to a halt, bunching up in confusion.
“Maybe they’ve formed ranks in the meadow?” Mesas suggested as he pranced to join Kaleipus at the front.
“No. They would never engage us out in the open. They know we would run circles around them.” He looked up into the branches, squinting. “No, they’re here … somewhere …”
The leaves rustled noisily as a cold wind chilled their souls. The forest remained eerily still as the Centaurs waited, shifting nervously from hoof to hoof. Before long their split ranks galloped up, joining the main force on the path. Kaleipus’s plan though well executed at this point was fruitless.
There wasn’t a single Amazon anywhere to attack.
A sudden realization made Kaleipus’s heart sink. “By the gods, they’re attacking the village!”
Mesas almost reared at the comment. “What! The village, Kaleipus?”
“It was a trick! They did that horror to lure us here so they could attack our women and children.”
“But, Amazons would never do such a thing.”
Kaleipus’s shoulder pushed into Mesas as he turned in haste. “The village!” he shouted. “Get back to the village!”
Legs kicked and reared as the Centaur army maneuvered in the narrow path trying to turn. The group made the transition and they thundered off at a gallop, back toward the Centaur home. Kaleipus put every ounce of his soul’s energy into his gait, thundering past even the youngest of Centaur soldiers to regain the lead.
He led the charge along the road, his long hair blown back by speed, his heart thudding with exertion and fear as they ate up the few miles between them and their home, hoping they would arrive in time to stop the carnage.
The path passed a series of fallen trunks and then curved to reveal a single Amazon warrior standing stoically in the middle of the road, sword still sheathed on her back.
Kaleipus sneered and drew his own sword. He had every intention of relieving this Amazon of her head, whether she was armed or not.
He hardly felt the first arrow that hit him in the chest. He was more surprised than anything to see it quivering there, sticking out of his own skin. The second arrow, however, sent a shock of pain through him, causing him to rear up. The last thing he heard was the telltale twang of a hundred bows as arrows rained down on them from either side of the road.
His last thought was of his adopted human son and the promise he had made to the greatest warrior he had ever known, all those years ago.
This was such delicious madness, Alti thought. She centered her concentration and threw her energy at a Centaur charging toward her. She could feel her shamaness skills purring as they came to life and tossed him to the side. His young slender legs kicked uselessly at the air as he reared back and tumbled over.
Hearing a scream, Alti whirled in time to see an Amazon warrior hobble another of the enemy with a vicious slash of her blade across one hock and then another. The Centaur’s legs squirted blood and then betrayed him by collapsing. The boy fell to the dirt, clawing futilely in front of him in an attempt to rise. The warrior put him out of his misery with a spinning swing of her sword that relieved him of his human head.
Alti lifted her shamaness cloak and scooted to the side as she watched it roll by.
She chuckled with glee as all around her proud Centaurs fell. Their large bodies thudded into the dirt, sending a spray of blood and rock that clouded the air with dust and the sickly, sweet smell of death and defeat.
The Centaur race was about to be wiped off the face of the earth. Alti sneered as she watched a group of Amazon women circle and trap a Centaur mare. The fabled creature was beautiful to behold in her moment of death. She bared her hooves, slashing at the women who were taunting her with the points of their blades and laughing as they made tiny cuts that bled red stain all over the shiny golden coat. A warrior dropped to a knee and swung, cutting off a hoof and the mare screamed in all too human agony. The stump scraped the ground, turning the dirt red as she tried to hobble away. A single thrust and the beautiful mare thundered to the earth, eyes blank and staring at the sky even before her body had settled.
The Amazon warriors backed off, wiping the sweat and the surprise of their own brutality from their faces.
They were all in some kind of killing fever now, Alti mused, almost as though the Amazons had been placed under a spell of bloodlust. She looked for the Queen and found her in the center of the melee, strutting through the village and dragging a young human boy by the length of his blond hair. Skinny arms threw a volley of punches at the Queen, which she cruelly laughed off, pulling him around to keep the boy just out of reach.
The fighting was beginning to wane. Fires had erupted everywhere, engulfing the primitive huts and homes in a red blaze; the village was slowly burning, oozing life like an infected wound. Centaur bodies littered the earth and the Amazon warriors carefully avoided them as they walked with lowered swords in a dazed confusion, having no one left to kill. They made their way to the village’s center, drawn there by the Queen and the boy, who was still valiantly trying to fight his way free.
The blond youth stopped struggling as he noticed the Amazon army gathering. There were hundreds and hundreds of them, more than he had ever seen before.
“Look closely, boy,” the Queen said as she tugged at his hair, laughing at his grimace. “Look and behold the great and powerful Amazon Nation.”
The boy stared in outraged anger at the blood-stained warriors standing proudly amid the still warm corpses of the only family he had ever known, of the people who had become more his kin than humans ever had.
“Murderers!” he shouted, and began to struggle anew. “You’ve killed them all!”
“Not quite all,” the Queen whispered into the boy’s ear.
Alti gasped along with the rest of the Amazons as the lighting fast slice of the Queen’s sword removed the young lad’s head. His body hovered for a moment, held up by some unknown force as blood shot up and out from the neck. Then, almost comically, it tittered in a strange, stiff way to fall over.
The Queen held the boy’s head aloft, displaying it proudly.
“This is the end of the Centaurs!” the Queen announced as she held up her trophy by its long blond hair. “Our ancient enemy has been vanquished. Now, it is our duty to erase all trace that they ever existed.”
She took long steps, covering the circle left open by the army of women that surrounded her.
“We’ll need a ditch. A big ditch. A deep ditch. I want the Centaur half of these foul creatures thrown in and buried there.”
“The Centaur half?” Alti asked, just as confused as the rest of them.
“The horsie part,” the Queen replied, “got it?”
Alti looked at one of the bodies and then back at the Queen, the question they all had clearly on her face.
The Queen smiled wickedly in answer. “The human part comes back with us.”
An entire army of Amazons shifted, muttering nervously at the order.
“Do as I say or you’ll end up just like them. Throw the horses asses in the ditch. But their human part … I have plans for them. They come with us. Except for this one,” the Queen said daggling the head high. “Bring both parts of this one.”
Alti shook her head in disbelief, backing out of the way as the Queen strutted by swinging the young boy’s head nonchalantly. Only once before had she heard of such horror and carnage at the site of a great victory.
Not too long ago, Xena had delighted in taking the heads of her vanquished enemy, sticking them on pikes and setting them out to rot in the hot sun. Alti had admired Xena for her cruel creativity. It was a bloody message that sent fear into the hearts and minds of any who dared to march against her.
Alti had not heard of the likes of it since … until now.
I wonder, she thought as she stepped pointedly into a pool of blood, stooping to dip a finger and take a lick. Hmm. Centaur blood, not nearly as potent as Amazon.
“I wonder what will go through Xena’s heart when she sees her son’s head hanging from one branch and his body dangling from another.”
Xena crested the ridge of the last of the small hills and was immediately greeted by the sight of the army encampment spread throughout the sprawling fields of the Edomes valley. A loud cheer at her arrival filled the air and echoed off the soft purple peaks of the Rohodop mountain range that loomed over them in the not too far distance. The Rohodops were the gods’ border marking the end of Thrace and the last of the territories of Greece, but Xena felt little comfort at the sight of them. An uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach had been building over the last few days. She couldn’t account for it in any physical way; the weather for this time of year had been cool, but mild and the trip up until this point. It wasn’t too much wine and it wasn’t the food. Yet, something was tugging at her instincts, sending her a warning signal and if Xena trusted in anything, she trusted in herself.
The cheers of her name continued and she lifted her hand in salute at the greeting, using her heels to nudge Argo into a fast canter down the slope, relying on her horse to negotiate the hillside. Behind her, she could hear the thud of hooves and creaking leather of the 12,000 riders that thundered down the hill after her. Xena led her own hand-picked division of cavalrymen, the Royal Companions, down the gentle slope and on to the camp and rest for the night.
Parmenio’s division had arrived and settled in the valley days ago. Tomorrow, Lysimachus, Cassander and Nicator would add their brigades to their numbers. The plains of the Edomes valley would be flattened by 50,000 troops, but in a week’s time the wild grasses would once again sway in the wind as though they had never been there.
As she approached the first series of campfires, already blazing though the sun had yet to set, she slowed Argo to a walk and was immediately greeted by a runner who handed her a message.
She took it and unrolled it with a flip of her hand, frowning as she read. It was a report from Parmenio on the status of his troops and a brief description of the lay out of the encampment. The worried crease between her eyebrows deepened. She had expected it to be a report from Agina, the warrior she had sent to the Amazons.
Xena handed the unrolled parchment back to the Page without comment. Nodding, she followed the boy as he led her on a path through the troops to the command tent. She wasn’t surprised to find Parmenio standing there waiting to greet her when she arrived. It had been a long march, and she was hot and tired, despite the cool autumn air and Ares knew, there was a lot of work to be done before she could rest.
But – first things first.
“Hungry?” Parmenio asked, smiling.
“Starved,” she answered grinning back and swung a leg over her saddle horn, slipping gracefully from the horse to the ground. She nodded at the page, who took a hold of Argo’s rein and led the horse away, taking her to the groom.
“What’s to eat around this place?”
“Rabbit and deer. There’s peas and boar, too, if you’re in the mood.”
“Supplies?” Xena asked, ducking to enter the tent.
“Weapon inventory has been taken and is on your table. Food and grain, we’re working on it.”
Xena nodded and walked immediately to the table to study the maps. “Scouts?”
“Out, but not returned.”
Xena lifted her head, eyebrows furrowing with concern. “No reports?”
“Have you seen Agina?”
“Agina? No. Did you send her out?”
Xena didn’t answer, but turned her attention back to the maps. “I want to know as soon as she’s spotted. She should have a message for us from the Amazons.”
Parmenio lifted an eyebrow, intrigued. “You sent them an offer? When did you send her?”
“Hmm,” Parmenio’s eyebrows knotted, mimicking Xena’s first reaction. “She should be back by now. I’ll alert the perimeter. Do you want me to send a team out to search for her?”
“No. Just have them keep an eye out and send a runner as soon as she’s spotted.”
“Of course, Xena.” Parmenio nodded once and left the tent.
Xena waited until he was gone to look up from the map table. Agina should have been in camp waiting with news of the Amazon Queen’s reply. She knew the warrior well enough to know her long legs and stamina would have had her there and back well before her cavalry’s arrival in the valley.
She stared at the map that illustrated the last known borders of Amazon lands and ran her fingers along the markings.
Alexander was bringing up the rear of the column. As soon as he arrived in camp, she would send him out with a small patrol to reconnoiter.
If they, too, did not come back then she would know what her gut was already telling her.
She walked around the table and out of the tent and stared thoughtfully at the ragged peaks of the Rohodop mountain range. They loomed in the not too far distance, painted in hues of blues and purple by the soft light of the setting sun.
There was only one way up and through that range and that was via the Shiptka pass. Strategically, it was dangerous and one of the reasons why Persia had not succeeded in conquering Greece long ago. The pass was narrow and troops were only able to march three or four abreast at the most. There were many places where ridges provided the perfect opportunity for an attack. A division of thousands could be wiped out by a handful with little effort.
The Amazons flourished there and for good reason.
Xena stared at the mountains recalling an idea she had long ago, in her wild years when she and Borias had ridden together wreaking havoc through India and Chin. They had animals in India, she remembered, huge and lumbering but powerful. They called them elephants. Xena had whispered to Borias of her idea to train a cavalry of them and use them to cross these mountains at some other place, any other place, other than the Shiptka pass. He had laughed at her - his full, throaty laugh that had always angered her beyond reason.
Borias thought the idea utter nonsense, but Xena knew those huge beasts could lumber up and down the side of those mountains virtually anywhere. An attack on Greece from any point other than the Shiptka pass would be a complete surprise and result in total victory, not only against the Amazons, but all of Greece as well.
Too bad they didn’t grow those big, ugly creatures here, she thought with a sigh. She’d be leading a column of them up the side of the mountain and right through the center of the Amazon village at this very moment.
She smirked as she stared at the mountains, imagining a valley of Amazon huts as flat as pancakes and dusted with a topping of pulverized bird feathers.
A shout and Xena turned, watching as Alexander rode up. He jumped from his saddle and walked up to her, stretching stiff legs with a grimace.
“Gods, it’s nice to be out of the saddle.”
“I want you to take a patrol up the pass.”
Alexander froze mid-stretch. “What? I just got here.”
“I want that pass reconnoitered. Make sure you’re back by dawn.”
“Dawn! How far up do you want us to go?”
“Far enough to make me feel better.”
“Why in the name of Ares do you keep repeating me?” Xena turned on her general, clear eyes reflecting the painted colors of the sunset.
“If you’re trying to be funny, I’m not laughing.”
The amused grin faded from Alexander’s face. “You suspect trouble?”
“I suspect everything.” Xena turned from her commander to stare once again at the silent range of mountain fading quickly out of sight in a haze of twilight.
“I’ll go immediately.” Alexander turned on his heel and walked away.
“Alexander!” Xena called out, stopping him just as he was about to mount his horse.
Xena pursed her lips as Alexander waited patiently.
Alexander smiled briefly in surprise at the comment and pulled himself up into the saddle. “I’ll be back at dawn with a full report.”
He tugged on his reins, turned the horse and kicked his heels.
Xena watched with trepidation as Alexander rode away.
Food was left uneaten on her plate as Xena stared at the scattering of maps strewn across the table. She rested her hand on her chin and tapped absently at a point on the chart with the tip of one finger.
The last known location of the Amazon village.
It was late. Well past midnight. The air outside of the tent was still, the encampment quiet despite the fact that thousands of men lay nestled in sleep across the valley floor. Her campaign plan had them resting here for a few days while they finished off the last of the food supplies donated from the cities closest in Thrace.
Bring war stuff with you, but live off of the enemy she had counseled her war generals, Alexander among them. They were more accustomed to the old tried and true campaign method of setting up supplies lines.
If you don’t have supplies lines, then your enemy has no supply lines to cut off, she had argued when they objected.
Her generals were used to waging war in Greece, where food was only a friendly city-state away.
This campaign, however, was much different. Relying on a flow of supplies through these mountains would be suicide.
So, for the next few days the men got to rest and eat to their hearts content while they emptied their wagons of heavy, unnecessary food and wine stores. Perfect timing for a party. And what of the banquet that she had planned? Was it naive of her to believe that the Amazons would accept her offer?
No. Her offer was a good offer. Generous beyond measure. Certainly unexpected. At the very least she had no doubt Gabrielle would have been pleased. Her thoughts turned to the young woman briefly as they were wont to do, wistfully wishing that she would pay her a visit. Xena had passed too many nights in quiet solitude, hoping that her guardian angel might somehow pop in.
But Gabrielle had not come since Amphipolis and Xena spend every night thereafter alone, eating quietly by herself and going to sleep with only thoughts of the beautiful woman to comfort her. Eventually, her mind always wandered away from smooth skin and blond hair to return to the mechanics of battle and war – the only constant reality in her life.
Tonight was no different.
Her concentration returned to the maps in front of her. If she were the Queen of the Amazons, she would have accepted the offer. After all, the Greek forces outnumbered the Amazon nation almost ten to one.
Ten to one, yet the Spartans had done more with less at Thermopolis.
She remembered a conversation she had once, not long ago, with the God of War. He had made the claim that a big army meant big victories.
‘No,’ she had countered, ‘size hardly matters.’ The comment insulted him thoroughly, and he seemed to want her all the more for it.
But, Xena knew it was true, in more ways than one. The size of the army hardly mattered at all. Direct fighting, man to man, was the way you joined in battle. But it was the indirect tactics that brought you to victory.
She remembered telling Alexander just this. That indirect tactics were inexhaustible – like the sun and the moon, the heavens and the earth. Just like rivers and streams, there are countless ways to ebb and flow, and maneuver around the largest obstacles.
War was no different. Basically, there were only two ways to you could attack: directly or indirectly. Yet, these two in combination gave rise to more ways to win a war than even the God of War himself would ever imagine.
Coming up with new and creative ways to decimate her foes - this was what really got her juices flowing.
Xena stood up from the table and began to pace. There were an endless number of ways to plan a battle. That being said, once your battle plan was drawn, always … always be ready to change it on a moment’s notice.
Without another thought, Xena grabbed her sword and chakram and marched right out of her command tent, completely surprising the two guards posted at the entrance.
“Get Parmenio,” she ordered as she flipped her sword into the sheath on her back. The soldier hesitated in the darkness only a moment before rushing off to obey the command.
“Muster the troops,” she said to the other.
When the second guard didn’t move, she turned on him, the full force of her considerable charisma blazing from her eyes.
“I said, order the call to arms. Don’t make me repeat myself again.”
The guard jumped as though burned and ran off in the opposite direction.
Xena stood before her command tent, shadowed in total darkness as she adjusted the clasps on her armor, not needing to see where to pull and what to tug in order to make every piece snap perfectly into place.
It wasn’t long before the blare of trumpets began to rouse the sleepy encampment to life. She smiled with satisfaction as even under the cover of darkness a valley full of men scrambled efficiently, mustering into neat columns in perfect marching formation.
Moments later, Parmenio came scrambling up in a mess of disheveled armor, weapons and leather strips barely connected to keep his more valuable assets from showing.
“Xena,” he huffed, stumbling. “What’s going on?”
“Sorry to wake you. We’re attacking the Amazons.”
“You’re sorry to… what?” Parmenio blinked once, staring at his commander in disbelief.
Xena slapped her large palm amicably against his back and turned him to help with his clasps.
“I want three divisions of foot soldiers only. No cavalry. One column of hoplites with sarisas, two with light shields and short swords only. Sarisas will go up the pass.”
Parmenio tugged his breast plate into place and turned to let Xena finish. “And the other two?”
“The other two?” Xena said, smirking as she tied off the last clasp and adjusted his sheath. “The other two are going to make like elephants.”
Parmenio whirled around and looked at Xena as though she had lost her mind.
Xena smiled, a rare sight that, for Parmenio lit up the dark night unexpectedly.
“Come on in,” Xena offered, nodding to the command tent, “And I’ll show ya.”
A familiar voice filtered through the groggy haze. Gabrielle felt the gentle tap of a hand against her cheek. Moments later, she was doused in the face with a generous splash of ice cold water.
Coughing, she sputtered into consciousness.
“That’s better,” the same voice said. “Can’t have you hanging around here all day, drooling.”
Gabrielle lifted her head and blinked, trying to clear the fog that was obscuring her vision. The owner of the voice looked like a blurry shadow. She blinked a few times again and winced at the soreness caused by a tender bruise that was swelling up just under her left eye.
She knew the voice belonged to her mother. Gabrielle would recognize that sickeningly sarcastic tone anywhere. Squinting in order to see better through the murky shadows of light and dark, Gabrielle was able to make out her mother’s sleek form. She was moving around the cellar, fussing with something near the primitive fire pit.
Shifting her weight onto her legs, Gabrielle stood, trying to relieve the strain on her shoulders. They were stiff and ached from supporting her body – for how long, Gabrielle had no idea. She bit back a groan, hoping her mother wouldn’t notice.
“Uncomfortable?” her mother asked and then glanced over her shoulder just in time to see Gabrielle grimace. “Good.” She returned to her work, smiling happily.
“You’ll be happy to know, your friend got away from us.” Again, her mother glanced back just in time to see a small smile play at the corners of Gabrielle’s mouth.
“Don’t get too smug about it. We followed him. He led us to your dorm. Ran all the way there just to look up something in your laptop. What was he looking, I wonder?”
Her mother’s form shifted to the left and a blazing fire revealed itself in the center of the ominous pit. The flames were dancing menacingly, licking at the burnt bottom of a black cauldron that had been suspended over the fire. Mother was struggling with something and she moved, blocking the view to the hearth once more.
“I guess he found what he was looking for in your laptop. He took the opportunity to change your password, too. Now, that wasn’t very nice of him, was it?”
Gabrielle heard her snicker and watched with apprehensive curiosity as she worked. It looked as though her mother was slicing something in preparation for stew.
There was a small, almost catlike cry and then Mother stopped having to struggle so hard with whatever she was doing.
“But don’t worry. We were able to trace what your friend had searched for. It took no time at all to bypass the security and reset your password to something I’m sure we’ll have no problem remembering. Something like, let’s say … Xena?” She glanced over her shoulder at Gabrielle again.
Gabrielle was tugging on the straps holding her wrists to the wall and froze at the mention of the name.
“You can’t get out of those, so you might as well relax.” She turned back to her task and continued to talk. “So, where were we? Ah yes, Peter. You don’t have to worry about him. I have a couple of agents following him as we speak. They’ll take care of him, you can be sure of it.”
Mother paused, not bothering to look at the alarmed expression on her daughter’s face.
“I know who Evelyn is,” her Mother added, smiling triumphantly without turning around.
Gabrielle tried not to gasp as her eyes grew wide.
“I even know where Evelyn lives, thanks to your email address book.”
Gabrielle forgot all about the pain in her shoulders.
Gabrielle’s Mother turned around fully and stared at her daughter. Her hand held a long, sharp carving knife that was dripping blood onto the cold cellar floor.
“More importantly, I know exactly what Evelyn is up to.” Her mother turned back to her task and continued her work. “What I don’t know is who is helping her. But no matter, we’ll find that out soon enough. I’m sure your friends will lead us right to her. My agents are very skilled at what they do.”
Mother threw something wet and red into the cast iron cauldron. Gabrielle could hear the pieces sizzle when they hit the bottom. Shadows shifted across her mother’s back as she stirred the contents using a long, iron ladle.
“This is my own version of an ancient recipe, Gabrielle, passed down by generations of Amazon Shamans. I imagine your friend Evelyn would love to know the ingredients. At the heart of it is opium. That much hasn’t changed. But, I got rid of the stupid animal parts. After all, one can only go so far in the spiritual world on four legs. My recipe calls for something more pure and much more powerful. True power lies in purity, Gabrielle. It’s …,” she turned and sneered, raising her eyebrow in a familiar, but disturbing way, “let’s just say it’s an ingredient that’s very, very hard to get.”
Her mother tossed something away and it tumbled through the air, hitting the rim of a pail in the corner. It teetered on the pail’s edge for a moment before falling in. Gabrielle was able to make out the small hand and arm of an infant - veins, cartilage and bone exposed on the raw end where it had been severed.
Gabrielle gasped, appalled.
“You are a sick bitch,” she muttered.
Her mother laughed fully and the sound bounced off the cement walls that surrounded them.
“Sticks and stones, Gabrielle,” she said, holding up a small chest bone and waving it at her daughter tauntingly.
Gabrielle turned her head aside and her Mother laughed again.
“Enough fun,” Mother stated and tossed the bone away. “Let’s get down to business.”
She reached down, picked up a rag and wiped her hands on it.
“The time has come, Gabrielle. Everything I’ve been working for up to this point is coming to fruition. Xena ....,” she smiled when Gabrielle started at thesecond mention of the warrior’s name. “Xena is about to finally realize her full potential.”
She tossed the grotesquely red-stained towel to the side and strutted up, reaching a cold hand out to caress Gabrielle’s swollen cheek.
Gabrielle fought the urge to flinch, staring instead with brave eyes into her Mother’s icy, hard green ones.
Mother brushed back a lock of Gabrielle’s golden hair and smiled, unperturbed. “Xena has always been the key. And you, my dear, have always been the key to Xena. I guess we were aware of that from the very beginning. What we didn’t understand was how much you had managed to … influence her. Caesar’s old axiom divide and conquer didn’t work as planned. You had changed Xena too much in ways far deeper than we ever suspected.”
“It took me a little while … a few thousand years, in fact. But, eventually, I came to realize that in order to enable Xena to reach her true potential for rage, I needed to remove you from the picture altogether.”
“Cutting your puny life short ahead of schedule and bringing your soul here with me had the added benefit of giving me a direct link to Xena. Your soul is still connected to Xena’s, you see. And I’m connected to you.”
“I can feel her bond to you … right …,” Mother touched the tip of her finger playfully against Gabrielle’s nose, “ … through …,” then her lips, “ …ours.” She laid her cold palm over Gabrielle’s pounding heart. “You two are so hot for each other it makes me wet just thinking about it.”
Gabrielle’s upper lip quivered briefly in disgust and then she rammed her knee upward, striking a blow into her Mother’s crotch that sent the woman stumbling backward bent over in a spasm of blinding pain.
“Still wet?” Gabrielle asked sweetly.
Her mother sucked in the discomfort and stomped forward, slapping across Gabrielle’s already swollen cheek so hard the sting of it brought tears to her eyes.
Mother glared at her daughter with green eyes that flashed bright with anger.
“Enough talk,” she said and stepped away to check on the contents in the pot. She dipped the ladle in and spooned out a small amount of something thick and red and bubbling with heat, and took a taste. “Not quite spicy enough.”
Gabrielle watched suspiciously as her mother walked back to her with a round bowl in one hand and the same long, sharp knife dangling loosely from the other.
Gabrielle stiffened and stood with arms strapped up against the grey cement wall, glaring in defiance.
If her mother was going to slit her throat, Gabrielle refused to show any fear whatsoever. She braced herself for what she knew was coming: an ear to ear slash that would end her life.
The corner of Mother’s lip lifted and the blade slashed out, rending open a cut across the length of Gabrielle’s exposed forearm. A line of blood dribbled thick droplets all along the slice.
Cradling the bowl in the crook of her elbow, Mother cut open her own hand, smiling as blood oozed out. “We’re supposed to do this palm to palm, but this will have to do.” She wrapped her bleeding hand around Gabrielle’s forearm and squeezed.
“Blood to blood, just like you and Xena. Isn’t it romantic?” Mother sneered, mockingly.
A thick stream of red dribbled down and dripped to the floor. Quickly, Gabrielle’s mother used the bowel to catch the powerful harvest, the combination of mother and daughter blood now mixed together.
Mother released her grip and wiped her palm against Gabrielle’s shirt. It left a red smear just over her heart. She walked back to the pit and dumped the contents of the bowl into the cauldron. The cellar filled with the pungent smell of whatever it was cooking on Mother’s hearth.
After stirring a bit, Gabrielle’s mother used the ladle to lift out a portion of the putrid stew. She sniffed it and flashed Gabrielle a wickedly satisfied smile.
“Nothing like Mom’s own cooking.”
Using the ladle, she very carefully poured the brew into a small glass vial. The juice filled the tube quickly, the excess flowing over the sides down into the fire.
The flames sizzled and danced, consuming the overflow with a sinister hunger and bathing Gabrielle’s mother in red and golden hues as she finished her task by capping the vial closed.. Gabrielle watched silently as she stuck a needle through the membrane of the vial’s cover and pulled on the plunger, sucking a frightening large quantity of reddish brown fluid into the cartridge.
“You know what this is, don’t you, Gabrielle?” Her mother wiggled the syringe between her fingers, displaying it for Gabrielle to see as she walked back. “This is a new and improved, modern day version of that old family recipe. Back in the day, the Amazons used to have to drink an entire bowl full of this foul tasting stuff and dance around an open fire. Ask Xena, she’ll tell you. It was embarrassing. Antlers on your head, howling at the moon. Now, thanks to better living through chemistry and a little touch of sugar, space and everything nice … all we need is this. Just a teeny tiny shot of this home brew, a tenth of the size of this, is enough to send you to the moon and back. This much … well … this much should take you all the way to the land of the dead … permanently, I suspect.”
Her mother snickered happily as she reached up and wrapped a rubber strap around Gabrielle’s bicep. She drew it tight and watched the veins in Gabrielle’s arms bulge as the flow of blood was restricted.
“Nice arms you have there, darling. Good veins. Mine are just the same. Must be in the genes.” Gabrielle’s mother chuckled as she used two fingers to slap a particularly nice vein causing it to puff up a bit more. “Puuurfect.”
“Of course, your soul will be compelled to make a stop along the way, tied as it is to Xena. You should arrive just in time to watch Xena lose her soul to a rage so fierce, so intense, it will ignite a chain reaction that will resonate throughout eternity. You have no concept of the power, do you? Of the fire her rage will ignite … of what it will release into the world. We’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
Eyes wide, Gabrielle stared as the needle moved toward her arm. Just as the sharp tip touched her skin, she began to struggle.
“Stay still, Gabrielle. You want to be with your precious Xena one last time, don’t you?”
Mother tried again, but Gabrielle continued to squirm.
“I said stay still, bitch!” A hard fist connected solidly against Gabrielle’s jaw. She slumped, momentarily dazed and her mother took the opportunity to drive the needle deep into the vein in her arm.
Quickly, the plunger on the syringe was depressed and the vile liquid emptied into Gabrielle.
Mother removed the needle and tugged away the constricting rubber band. As soon as the flow of blood returned, Gabrielle’s world immediately tilted. She felt the taste of opium in the back of her throat. It had a floral perfume to it that tickled her nostrils and made her tongue go numb. Her world spun as her eyes rolled back in her head and she instinctively knew that the dose was a lethal one.
“I thought you needed me alive,” she said, her own voice sounding weird and distant.
“I did,” her Mother stepped away, smiling at how quickly Gabrielle was fading. “Until it was time. Now, it’s time. Time for you to go back to Xena so you can watch her soul burn.”
Gabrielle felt herself dropping as though she were falling backward into the wall, through the cement. Her mother became a distant shadow, a voice from the end of a long dark tunnel whose echo carried whispers to her from far, far away.
“Aren’t you coming, too?” Gabrielle asked, her mind muddled into a happy stupor.
“Why, I’m already there, my darling. I’m already there.”
To be continued - Part 10
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