A hand over the mouth, kept the kid from screaming.
Moments later, a gag was inserted, while the hand which had covered his mouth tied the cloth of the gag round his head, and then moved to wrap more bindings round his ankles.
Looking up, the youth shivered at his eyes took in a most fearsome warrior, face covered by a black mask.
Dragged up and hauled over a shoulder like a sack of grain, he was deposited alongside his fellow members of the perimeter guard.
“That is the last of the northeast quadrant, Lord Commander.”
“Well done.” Sevastian complimented the Amazon Zerynthia who gave the report. The guards had been, captured immediately after the shift change, no alarm had been raised.
Why should it?
The warriors had quickly stripped the men of their armor, and had taken their place on the line. While the armor the Amazons wore was comically ill fitting, in the cover of darkness it appeared that the perimeter guard was in place and all was well.
Adamis had been careless or plain stupid. His boundary guard was spread too far apart. He had also set up his camp far too close to forest. In the dark of night, it was nary impossible to see anything moving amidst the trees. An enemy could organize in the forest, and then attack without having to cross open ground.
To increase their stealth, the Amazonian warriors had used black ash from their camp fires to camouflage their skin as well as the metal bridles of their horses. Much to Sevastian’s embarrassment, Siri had all too gleefully coated his face with the charcoal. Highly undignified, his ego cried, for one trained as a Samurai to be slinking about. However, when with Amazon’s, one must do... well... as Amazon’s do.
These warriors were at home in the forest, this was their element. The silence in which they maneuvered was unnerving. In this particular arena of warfare, Sevastian knew he was far outclassed, the teacher now the student.
“You are in command.”
Siri, raised her war mask, and studied him. If she were shocked by his statement, it was well covered by stoicism. By the light of the new moon now breaking thought the clouds; her deep amethyst eyes were entrancing. Such a beautiful and rare color… He forced thoughts of her beauty from his mind. It was troublesome, that those types of thoughts kept cropping up.
“You are the Lord Commander; in charge by order of the Conqueror.”
“Yes, true, but now I appoint you to lead these warriors, they being your people.”
Now the stoicism broke and Siri looked at him unconvinced. More precisely she looked unsure in her ability to hold command. Sevastian certainly appreciated what she was feeling, being thrust to the highest echelon of the army with lightning speed. Leaning over, being that they both were upon horseback; he took a chance of losing a limb by briefly touching her forearm, as means to reassure her.
“As a teacher, I am content to command, but in action Amazon’s should be led by an Amazon. For me to allow anything else would be an offense both to you and your people.”
Silence, as usual, from her. But it was an apprehensive silence judging by her look.
“Our liege lord has taken note of you Siri.” Sevastian straitened in the saddle, “By the order of the Empress, you are hereby appointed to the rank of Commander.
Her eyes widened her mouth agape. “I...I am a Commander?”
“You are.” he replied, giving her a moment to let the news sink in.
“Lord Commander, I...I shall endeavor to prove myself worthy of this honor.”
“You already have, Siri. He smiled warmly. “If I may, a small bit of advice, one high commander to another.” His voice was conspiratorial in tone, his next words not meant for any other ears but hers.
Siri leaned towards him intent upon hearing what he would say next.
So enthralled by her proximity, Sevastian momentarily forgot what he was intending to say.
“You and I.” his hand rose, finger pointing first to her, then to himself “We are called to service, service to Empress then Empire. Her will is our first duty. Our own ego plays no part, as what touches us ourselves should be last served. We do not fight with an eye toward our own glory; instead we fight for the Empress who leads a Greece which includes your nation. As Greece thrives under Xena’s rule so too will your people. We happy few in her service shall see Xena be mistress over a greater Greece, a greater Empire than any man could have built.
“Now... Commander... “Sevastian relaxed in the saddle, placing his hands one over the other on the saddle horn while looking toward the camp, “Go and scare the wits out of those boys.”
Siri grinned darkly, anticipating what would soon be unleashed.
“Shame that your second could not be here tonight,” Adamis spoke.
The high commanders were gathered about Xena’s table, within her grand campaign tent.
“Indeed, Commander indeed, but duty must come first.” Xena replied with a smile as dinner was served, Kodi attending her personally. Here among her long serving commanders, she preferred simple dress. Light tan trousers made of wool, were tucked into her high black boots, a woolen tunic overlaid with a heavy fur vest. She wore no bracers or arm bands, behind her sword hung over the high back of her chair.
“In his absence, would it not be prudent to appoint a... temporary... second to help you manage this force?”
She could almost hear the internal groan from the other commanders at table. Meleager moved a hand up, fingers scratching his grey hair, clearly annoyed.
Adamis was unrelenting.
“Who’d ya have in mind?” Xena asked drolly, leaning in slightly, she tasted the lentil soup Kodi had placed before her.
Outside, a horn blew, its wail sounding over the camp, soon joined by others.
Ensconced within her camp chair, Xena watched amusedly as her commanders first looked about in confusion, then to her, and when given permission, jumped up from table and piled out of her tent. She felt no need to do such; the war cry that reached her ears was unmistakable. Contentedly, she tucked back into her soup; as it would be a shame to let it grow cold.
“You run from Women!” Adamis screamed. The greenhorns had bolted, running mindlessly from the wave of mounted warriors. The rest of the army was in disarray, men attempting to don armor and fight, being unable to do both at the same time. Across the encampment, the women charged, many raising bows, appearing as if about to fire arrows to further spook the men into running. Across the breadth of the camp they continued on, regrouping once near what was left of the western perimeter guard.
“Well,” Meleager slapped Adamis upon the back. “First time I’ve seen an army of some fifty thousand frightened by a few hundred.”
Adamis was so enraged by the remark; he turned, throwing a punch, which Meleager ducked. Talmadeus standing near took the opportunity at hand to sock Adamis square in the jaw, sending him tumbling to the ground.
“You have much to learn.” Talmadeus stated flatly.
“You know one of the pitfalls of leadership is boy?” she took another bite of soup.
Kodi shrugged, “Deciding who to kill next?” he suggested, causing Xena to smirk. “You never miss an opportunity, do you?” She replied, giving a look which warned the boy against loosening his tongue again.
“Knowing when it is best to intervene in a situation, and when best not to interfere is the correct answer.” Hearing the voices of her commanders outside, Xena sat back in her chair and sighed. “The moment is right.” Standing, she walked to the tent flaps.
Both Mercer and Menticles broke in to laughter as Adamis tried to regain his feet, laughter which ended when the man drew his dagger.
“Your army group is in disarray, yet you chose to fight your own?”
Her words, spoken soft, but with an undertone of threat, gave Adamis pause and he moved to sheathe his dagger.
“Empress, this staged attack was underhanded and my men given no warning.” Adamis realized, as all did, the stupidity of his words, the moment they spilled from his lips.
“The enemy never attacks on schedule, nor does he send notes of forewarning.” Xena instructed, while crossing her arms over her chest. “Our soldiers, must not only be able to follow orders, but also be able to adapt to the changing nature of the battlefield.” Her words now meant for all her commanders.
“Restore order to my army.”
A severely chastised Adamis bowed then departed to do as bid.
The groups’ attentions turned to Sevastian who had allowed Gisela to able forward at a slow pace while he watched the goings on. After bringing his steed to a halt, he dismounted quickly walking to the Empress to kneel gracefully before her.
“Rise loyal one.”
Sevastian did so.
Looking up, he noted the smile on Xena’s lips, heard her laughter. “You are learning how to be an Amazon, Sevastian?” The tip of one of her elegant fingers slid along the contour of his cheek, removing a bit of the black charcoal covering it.
“Well...” he sputtered, glad of the charcoal black on his face as it covered his embarrassment.
“I believe your second, lacks an important requirement for being inducted into the Amazon’s Empress,” the commanders behind roared with laughter. Sevastian couldn’t help but smile, leave it to Meleager to make light of the situation.
“True, but it impresses me that he is open to learning new skills.” Her words silenced their laughter, though the men still wore amused expressions.
“You have performed a perfect raid on an enemy camp, commander, I am pleased.”
“Too kind Empress, but I must confess that I was not in command during the raid.” Sevastian smiled. “May I present the Amazon, Siri, whom you bid me appoint a Commander.” He backed out of the way, to take a position behind the Empress and to her right.
Talmadeus, Meleager, and all the other high commanders made no attempt to hide their shock. It was one thing to have an Amazonian guard, but to elevate a woman to commander was… unprecedented.
“Well, come from the throng and stand before me commander.”
Steadying herself, Siri dismounted, leaving the massed Amazons behind and then walked up the short rise to where the Empress was standing.
“Conqueror,” the honorific was stated soft, as Siri took a knee.
Ares gift within her reveled in the subservience, given her by the Amazon. Siri felt, the tips of Xena’s fingers slide under her chin, the gentle pressure causing her to tilt her head back to look up at the Conqueror.
“And what say you about this appointment?”
“I swear I will do all you command Conqueror, that I shall never desert your service, and that I will not seek to avoid death for the Greek Empire.”
“Good...” the word came from dark lips in a throaty purr. It had sorely tested her patience, but all the pieces were sliding into place. A deal with a Roman General, a stronger army, cloak and dagger games, better commanders, a most loyal second, and Amazon warriors ready to do her bidding. The time was near in which she would unleash her will upon the known world.
Siri did so; watching as Xena stepped away, back into her campaign tent. She returned, to hand Sevastian a missive.
“For the Amazon Queen, my second, I entrust you with its delivery.”
“I will do so,” he dipped his head.
“And while you’re traveling to Amazon lands, come up with a new way for men to show their loyalty, I’m tired of seeing heads dipping down as I pass. Heads should only fall when I use my blade.”
Sevastian was flummoxed, least judging by his expression. She could almost hear the gears turning within his mind.
“You wish some kind of a salutation, a salute? He questioned soft.
“Yes.” she drawled.
“As, ah, as... you wish.” Sevastain had no idea what do make of this particular task, but he’d figure something out.
Her senses pricked... her instinct telling her something was afoot.
“Commanders, return to your camps, pray that Siri has no Amazon’s ready to strike as they did here.” Their alarmed reaction to her words caused Xena to smile. “I bid all a good evening.”
Turning as the group dispersed, Xena strode back to her tent, ducking thought the flaps, she halted upon seeing the deity.
“I was beginning to wonder when you would show up.”
The goddess frowned at the remark.
Removing the cloak from her shoulders, Xena slung it over a chair.
“Can the boy go about his duties?” asked Xena.
Against the canvas wall of the tent, the Kodi was standing, wide eyed and trembling. “s-she just appeared...poof...” he mumbled in shock... “poof...”
“Gods do that, annoying if you ask me.”
Artemis frown deepened.
“I wish to talk with you alone, Destroyer.”
At the order from Xena, Kodi departed from the tent at a sprint.
“You’re in my chair.” Xena stated flat, while quirking up one sculpted eyebrow.
“You are brazen, tactless, and rude Destroyer.”
Some moments passed, “Stubborn as Hades!” Artemis exclaimed while moving to stand and gather her bow and quiver.
Xena smiled, one hand gestured for the deity to take the large chair behind the desk, “Something to drink perhaps?”
Xena took a seat in her chair.
Artemis, paced over to the old battered camp desk, moving the chair from behind it, round to the front, then sat gracefully. Xena recalled the utilitarian desk had been gifted to her by Zagreas, a token of his appreciation for her presenting him a sword. The desk survived, he had not.
For long moments, the two sat in silence observing each other.
Though she’d never tell the goddess, Xena had to admit, Artemis was formidable in her own right. The deity was the very personification of an Amazonian warrior, tall and very strong. It was said by the bards that Artemis performed 10,000 push-ups with every cycle of Helios.
Xena allowed herself a long suggestive leer at the deity... which had its intended effect, to gall her.
Upon her feet, the goddess wore beautiful sandals of brown leather whose crisscross ties ran up to knees of her long, toned legs. Around her waist, a short flowing skirt of white. The bottom edge of the skirt was covered by tiny embroidered patterns of crossed arrows and the “A” first initial of her name. The Alpha letter was designed differently, one leg shaped in the curve of a bow, the cross glyph being an arrow. The skirt dipped suggestively below her exposed navel and was high on her hips, a tanned leather belt barely holding it in place. Above her exposed tummy, was an armor currais of pure silver, polished to perfection and inlaid with designs of woodland animals. Her armbands were also inlaid with sliver trees as were her long bracers each one embossed with a leaping stag. Leaning against the chair was her six foot bow of silver next to that the never ending quiver of arrows.
Being that Xena was well acquainted with weaponry, her eyes jealously lingered on the uniqueness of that bow, secretly desiring to test the weapon. It was said goddess never missed when letting an arrow fly.
“Perhaps you’d like a try?” Artemis asked knowingly, her voice causing Xena to look away from the bow and into the face of the deity, whose hair of deep ginger flowed about her shoulders; while her eyes shone a beautiful green.
Just like Gabrielle...
“It could be arranged you know. In return perhaps you might pledge loyalty to me?”
Xena’s contemptuous snort of laughter caused the goddess to frown again. “You call me brazen! After all I’ve done to your people, you come here and ask me to be your chosen?”
“Yes.” The goddess replied simply. “You are a true Amazon at heart Xena, always have been.”
“Nice try, but no.”
“I cannot fathom why you stubbornly chose loyalty to Ares.”
“Many reasons, none of which I desire to discuss with you. Instead, tell me why you chose to... grace... me with your presence.”
“I wish to know your intent with my people.”
“Now you come and ask such a question?” Xena causally extended her long legs, crossing them at the ankles. “Where were you when I tore a swath of destruction through your people? When they needed you, you deserted them! Pardon me if I say that you have long past forfeited your claim as patron of the Amazonian people.”
Artemis appeared nonplussed for a moment, being unused to hearing such criticism.
“I know it appears that way, and in some respects your reproach is valid.” The immortal, fidgeted self-consciously in her chair. Many anecdotes held that the goddess much preferred the solitary stillness of the deep forest, to the politics of Olympus, or to dealing with humanity.
“Unlike many in the pantheon,” Artemis prefaced. “I have a far different philosophy were humankind is concerned. I chose not to intervene in human affairs. Mortals must be free to make their own choices be they wise or foolish. So, when the Amazon Queen calls upon me, I listen, I counsel, but I do not interfere. “Someday, perhaps sooner, perhaps later, humanity will outgrow the need for us gods, least that is my hope. Needless to say, my viewpoint does not make me popular on Olympus.”
Artemis couldn’t have known it by Xena’s expression, but the Goddess had just gone up in the Empress’ estimation.
“I am especially sorrowful ruler of the Greek lands, where your son is concerned, it seems even non-interference has its own terrible pitfalls.”
The deity watched as the vengeful rage of Ares; make its appearance in Xena. The woman’s features became hard; her eyes burring as coals, hands curling into fists.
“Believe me when I say,” Artemis continued. “I did all I could to warn Melosa, to dissuade Velasca, to turn them from inciting a war with the Centaurs.
“You should have done more.” Xena growled, her fist slamming down on the chair arm.
“I intervene in your cause, and then I must in others. In my experience as an immortal, that only creates more problems.”
“That boy was an innocent!” Xena cried out in anger.
“Many innocents are killed in war Xena, many died in your conquest of Greece, more will die in the war you are about to unleash.”
“You don’t think I know that? I make war only to protect Greece!” Xena was incensed “I will not see her fall to Rome!”
“Rome is west, from all accounts, it appears you wish to turn your army east.”
“I must rid the known world of all the trash that has their mark set on Greece! The Empress made a sweeping gesture with her hand, “Greece’s power must increase extending over both land and sea.
“And your own power?” asked the Goddess with a dry smile.
“To serve Greece.”
Artemis watched as Xena stood abruptly, walking over to pour herself a bit of wine from a nearby decanter. “I know my course is right, and I do not wish to debate its merits with you.”
“Forgive me,” The deity began with true contriteness, “I do not mean to raise your ire, nor do I try to deter you from your present course. I only seek understanding of your motives.”
“I doubt not of your wisdom.” Xena conceded. The gods as a whole did have more foresight than humanity.
“I...” Xena paused, her ego protesting what she planned to say next.
The deity leaned forward at hearing the uncharacteristic waver in the tone of the Amazonian Empress. Artemis dearly wished Xena could see herself in that role. If only Cyane had succeeded in turning Xena toward more noble ends.
“May I... call... upon you when needing advice in dealing with your Amazons?” Her early failure at Corinth had taught Xena well. If she were to create an Empire stretching across the known world, she would need help from every corner to include having as many of the pantheon on her side as was possible.
“You may, and when you do, I shall appear at your request.”
“I... thank you for that, and for your sympathy concerning the loss of my son.” The humble honesty in Xena’s words heartened the Goddess. Ares hold was not iron tight.
Xena turned, holding up her chalice in a second invitation for the goddess to partake of some wine. The immortal noticed the tears. Tears in blue eyes that were quickly blinked away. The pain… and the guilt… from the loss of her son ran very deep.
A shake of the head in the negative caused Xena to saunter back to her chair and be seated.
“To your question… what my intent is…” Artemis watched closely as the Amazon cast her eyes downward, clearly ashamed. In little flashes of emotion, the mask of indifference cracked, to reveal a glimpse of the real Xena.
“I committed terrible wrongs with your people; believe me when I say I mean to make some amends for past actions. I wish to see the Amazon’s revived and strengthened taking their rightful place as true guardians of Greece.” Xena’s eyes were locked solidly with hers while she spoke; now they dipped once more.
“I do believe you.” Artemis’ words caused Xena to look up in surprise. “There is good in you still Xena, if you look within, you will find it.”
“It is too late for me, my soul is black; my crimes many, I know what my destiny will be in the afterlife.”
“Only Hades knows that.” Artemis replied. “Until the moment of his judgment, change for the better is always possible Amazon.”
“I have no right to that title.”
“You do, if I say so.”
The goddess stood abruptly, and Xena surprised herself by standing in respect.
“I must go, Ephiny calls me.”
“She worries about this force.”
“Yes, ruler of Greece, she does. And what do you suggest I tell her?”
“That I come as a friend.”
The goddess smiled beautifully, and then vanished.