The beat of the drum, sounded throughout the ship as the fleet plied the blue waters of the Mediterranean, below decks, the chained slaves moved the heavy oars in rhythm with its cadence.
On board the flagship, Pompey was most pleased with himself. Within the Admirals cabin, he snacked on a light lunch of bread, with cold meat and cheeses. In one fell swoop he, Gnaeus Pompieus Magnus, had broken the military stranglehold Caesar had on the Mediterranean by sending the Roman fleet to the bottom of Alexandria’s harbor. He did lament the loss of innocent lives. From all reports, the fires from the ships had moved into the city proper.
He shrugged, couldn’t be helped.
“Please Cecrops, do sit and join me.”
“Would you mind telling me, just where in the known would we are sailing to?
“Forgive me my friend, this fleet should set course for Ephesus.
“And what shall we do at Ephesus Pompey, or is that some secret?”
“Not at all Admiral, not at all,” Pompeius took a large bite out of a freshly cooked tart, made from beef bone marrow, heavy cream, and egg. War was tough business, but made more bearable after a quick raid on the Persian coastal town of Sidon There his fleet was restocked with all manner of commodities, to include some perishable items like these delicious pastries. He couldn’t let them go to waste.
“Xena tells me that at Ephesus Antony left behind a garrison of soldiers; I imagine there are a few of Octavian’s men there as well. We sail there to bid them join our cause.”
“You believe they will?”
“Most certainly,” Pompeius served himself another tart from the tray before him. We shall melt down the Egyptian treasures which Octavian looted, and will strike coin. “Gold, payment will ensure the troops loyalty, gold from Alexandria, and now Sidon.
“What happened in Alexandria I can at least understand in the context of war, but to raid Sidon was plain callousness, those people had done nothing.” Cecrops charged.
“You know,” Pompey spoke around a mouthful, “Not long past, another group in this part of the world rebelled, claiming they should be free of Roman rule. I and my troops marched right into their city, burned it, and then looted their grand temple which was dedicated to some solitary god. Pompey shrugged dismissively then chucked to himself, “I then put a man named Hyrcanus II in charge of the temple, a dedicated crook, sent me two-thirds of the gold offerings the people made to their one god.”
“Fascinating, what does this have to do with Sidon?”
“The gold taken from Jerusalem helped me fight Caesar, the gold from Alexandria and Sidon will do the same. The supplies raided from Sidon helped to resupply this fleet. Such is war Cecrops. Were the people in Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Sidon stronger they would have been able to resist, but the weak surrender to the strong.”
“Like you did to Caesar?”
Old Pompey’s anger rose for a moment, and then dissipated upon mulling over the logic in those words. “True,” he said simply. “But Caesar made a mistake in failing to capture me, a grave mistake indeed.”
“I remind you Pompey, while the Persians are weakened from fighting Egypt, they are not destroyed. Xerxes may move to attack in retribution for what we have done at Alexandria and Sidon.”
“Oh, I hope they will” Pompey smiled dryly, “Your Empress hopes so as well.”
“Clasp your hands over your head, Lord Commander, like this.” Siri demonstrated.
Moments later fearsome warriors descended from the trees by ropes, masks covering their faces.
“You trespass on sacred Amazonian land.” the comment was not directed at Siri, nor any of the other warriors in their group, but solely at Sevastian.
Before Sevastian could reply, the Amazons roughly pulled him from his mount. Slammed against the snowy ground, a huff of air escaped him, followed by a groan as his hands and feet were bound. A strip of cloth used to cover his eyes another used to gag his mouth. He could have struggled, but such actions would be useless. He would live to fight another day, as the sage Roman Tacitus had advised.
“This is unnecessary!” He heard Siri’s protest rise up amongst many others as he was dragged to his feet, and then tossed back over Gisela’s saddle as if he were light as a feather. “He is an emissary from the Conqueror of the Greek lands, second in command of the armies of Greece, and a stalwart ally of our nation!”
“All who trespass on our land are treated as such, be they high or low.” The Amazon who had hog tied him replied. “Have you lived among men for so long a span that you have grown soft, forgetting what we do to foreigners who invade our territory?”
“I have not forgotten sister,” replied Siri in a threateningly. “But for your sake, pray to Artemis, that the mistress he serves does not take offense at his treatment.”
“His mistress does not rule here by her own law, therefore she has no say in his treatment.” came the riposte. “Take him before Queen and Council!” He felt Gisela begin to plod forward.
Sevastian had been many places, and witnessed many things in his travels in the east. But his welcoming by the Amazon Nation now rose up to the top of his list of unique experiences. Meleager, were he here, would certainly be enjoying a laugh as his expense. Course... were the old commander here, he’d be tied up as well and be unable to laugh. Oddly, the image of that was a comforting thought in this particular moment.
“I apologize for this indignity, my Lord Commander.” Siri muttered low shame filling her voice. He felt her fingers run through his hair as she said the words.
Her touch made the indignity far easier to bear.
The senses are amazing gift from the gods, when one is diminished, the others work to compensate. He heard the sounds of the village long before they arrived. And when they did, drums began to sound, shuffling telling him the warriors had gathered to witness his arrival.
Around him the sounds of the Amazon’s dismounting. Hands grabbed him and he was pulled off Gisela, his horse letting out a wicker of disapproval.
Now you decide to stick up for me? Sevastian mused cynical at the objection made by his horse.
“Let go,” Siri’s irate voice. “He deserves to be treated with more respect.” He felt her hands undoing the bindings round his ankles, and Sevastian was glad for it as his feet had gone numb.
“This way,” She said softly, while her hand clasped his arm. She guided him slow as if knowing his feet were lacking sensation.
“Remove his wraps,” Ephiny’s voice.
Hands grabbed him roughly, an instant later he heard the strike and then the sound of a body hitting the ground followed by anxious murmurs from the throng around them.
Finally the mask over his eyes was removed gently by Siri and after his eyes had adjusted, Sevastian could see his surroundings. Next to him an Amazon lay, out cold. His eyes flashed up to Siri who shrugged. “Didn’t like her attitude.” she stated simply while releasing the remaining bindings round his wrists. Sevastian nodded silently, merely acknowledging her assessment of the situation.
Around them, a large grouping of fearsome warriors, none were looking at him with affability in their eyes. What was it with Amazon’s? The dead of winter and still many chose to wear leather and fur articles of clothing which left much exposed to the elements. Tough warriors these women! At least those under Siri’s command wore stouter clothing against the chill. Standing in groups were female children. Some were standing with what he assumed were their mothers, but Sevastian knew some were those left orphaned from his destruction of the Athenian Assembly. By their look, Sevastian could tell that he was hated. He accepted that. Had their fathers not been so dogged in supporting insurgency against the Empress they would be alive today.
His eyes darted round the village. Several mud brick huts with thatched roofs, a few constructed of rock, several long houses, for communal living arrangements. Most structures however, were made of wood with thatch roofs.
Ahead, a grouping of warriors upon a high dais faces covered by war masks. He assumed, the Amazon in the center was the Queen he had met some cycles ago.
“Approach,” It was Ephiny, he could tell by voice.
With Siri solidly behind him, Sevastian took a tentative step forward. When he did, drums sounded, unnerving him. As he moved to a position directly in front of the dais, the drums stopped now tall warriors crowded round on all sides, a living wall surrounding him.
As the Empress had commanded, Sevastian gave the Amazonian Queen due respect and bowed low as the Amazons under Siri’s command fell to one knee.
“You kneel before the Queen!” His eyes shifted to take in the one who had spoken those words. A rather stout looking Amazon had raised her mask up showing him her face. Saying the woman was curmudgeonly in appearance would be charitable.
Good luck lady… thought Sevastain, he only knelt before Xena.
“He is not a member of this nation, what obligates him to kneel?” Siri challenged.
“My Queen, he is on our land and will obey under the stipulation of the Empress’ own law.”
“Bremusa, he is not an Amazon, only Amazon’s give fealty to the Queen.
“My Queen, think of the precedent you set, if you let even one man disrespect you, they—“
“He has bowed, that is respect enough for the Queen of the Amazons,” Ephiny replied. Sevastain noted how the battle axe named Bremusa did not look pleased by the ruling on the matter.
“Rise, Amazons.” Ephiny commanded, the group behind him got to their feet.
“My Queen,” Siri spoke. “I present to you--”
“I know who he is.” Ephiny raised her mask, and then placed hands on hips.
“Why are you here?”
“I bring a missive…” Sevastian reached into a satchel handed him by Siri. The sound of weapons being drawn stopped him. He looked up with surprise which quickly turned to thinly veiled amusement. Only a man with a suicide wish would attempt anything surrounded by an untold number of Amazons.
He looked to Ephiny, whose nod caused the warriors to stand down.
Holding out the Parchment, Sevastian slowly stepped forward, till the Queen’s guard blocked further progress. Having the missive taken from his hand, he bowed low; backing up without turning his back to the queen he bowed with a flourish twice more in the style of the eastern diplomats.
Breaking the wax seal which bore the mark of Xena, Ephiny read the missive for long moments.
The parchment was then handed to the Amazon named Bremusa.
“She has no right!” the woman thundered. Quickly the parchment was passed to the other warriors on the dais.
“She is the Empress of the Greek lands; she has every right to make a state visit.” Ephiny responded calmly.
“We are a sovereign nation!”
“And she chooses to visit a sovereign nation.”
“The nerve the Conqueror possesses in sending him, a man, to tell us this! It is an insult! Now the woman’s choler was solely directed at Sevastian.
Hearing Bremusa’s voice, mused Sevastain, was like having to walk several leagues with a pebble in one’s shoe…. annoying.
“In council Bremusa,” The Queen stated curt.
“To your duties,” Ephiny commanded. The assemblage broke up, the women returning to work.
“I wish to speak with you in the private council chamber, commander in the military of Greece. The eyes of the Queen then tracked to Siri, “You too.”
“She is not a member of the council!” Bremusa’s voice rose along with her arm which blocked the door to what he supposed was the council chambers. The Amazon was giving Sevastain the beginnings of a headache. Ephiny was a most patient woman.
“She is however a commander in the army of Greece, and as such, may be of great help in answering your questions.” he suggested quietly.
Siri glanced his way for just a moment and her look spoke much about her displeasure with him for stating she would be compelled to answer their queries.
“Amazons under the command of men, it is an affront to Artemis!”
“Inside!” Ephiny shouted.
Bremusa fell silent.
Within the chamber the various… overlords… of the tribe moved to sit on one side of a beautifully decorated wooden table, Ephiny in the center. The building was not large, only designed to hold a select group of people. The floor was wood, the walls of the hut made from rock mortared together. Above wooden beams supported a roof made of thatch. Windows were high in the wall, and very small. To discourage eavesdropping he supposed. Along the walls was what could best be described as the trophies of Amazon conquest. Germanic helmets, shields, and long swords shared space with Roman legion standards. He recognized banners from the various former warlords of Greece and from as far as Persia. Directly behind the table at which the warrior’s sat, centered on the wall hung a very torn and bloodied standard bearing the unmistakable “X” of his sovereign.
“She is not invincible.” One of the Amazonian leaders spoke after seeing his gaze directed at the black and cobalt emblem.
Sevastian chose not to respond.
Neither he nor Siri were offered a chair, being made to stand. Subtly, Sevastian guided Siri to a position in front of himself, while he stood behind and slightly to the side. It was a clear indication to all present that he would defer to her.
“My Queen I must agree with Bremusa and lodge a formal protest. Amazon tradition holds that we take no orders from men.
“My orders come from a woman.” Siri said pleasant.
“No one asked you to speak,” Bremusa replied tersely.
“Bremusa, raging female, show some courtesy, Ephiny chastised.
“Raging… female…” Sevastian whispered to Siri, not understanding.
“In council, all are addressed by their name, to include meaning behind the name given them by the nation. Siri replied in a low tone so that he might understand.
Raging female… it took some considerable will for Sevastian not to show disrespect by snickering. A truer descriptor for that particular woman could not be found in the whole of the Greek language.
“Androdameia, subduer of men, your protest is duly noted.
“Who commands you Siri, beautiful victory.”
Sevastain’s brows rose. That is what her name meant? It was… lovely.
Xena the Conqueror is my commander, my Queen. I, in turn, command Amazon warriors.
“Who is your direct superior?” Androdameia pressed.
“Sevastian, Lord Commander of the Greek Army.” Siri responded forthrightly.
“You see?” Androdameia stated to those at table then sat back in her chair, pleased with herself.
“I am merely the first servant.” Sevastian clarified, I too take orders from the Empress.
A matter of semantics really, Androdameia replied.
“Her missive tells us she wishes to visit and confer with the Amazon Queen, why then does she bring such a massive force?” Ephiny leaned forward as she asked the question.
“Xena goes back on her word.” Androdameia charged.
“Were that the case, she would not have sent her second, to precede her, she would just attack.” Siri countered. “Nor would she send your Amazon’s back to you my Queen. She merely leads her army forth in training exercises.”
“Don’t believe it, my Queen. Don’t trust the Destroyer!” Bremusa said with conviction. “She has betrayed the Amazon nation before!”
“We will welcome the Conqueror.” The Queen pronounced “As we welcome her second.”
“My Queen!” Androdameia cried.
“Quiet! Both!” Ephiny yelled.
A blessed silence fell. (Least Sevastian thought so.)
“May I remind, our Queen that men are not allowed within our village.” A new player spoke.
“Lykopis, She-wolf, he is, as Siri noted an emissary, therefore—“
“Are we to disregard laws when convenient?” Bremusa cut in abruptly
Ephiny sighed, one hand moving up fingers massaging the bridge of her nose.
“We head North.” eyes were riveted to the map and the elegant finger sliding along the routes marked on its surface.
Talmadeus was the first to speak. “You intend to lead these boys into a battle then?”
“Not yet, but the time nears when they will have their noses bloodied.” she responded.
“I only ask, because as you well know, we have trained them as best we can these last months, but some still lack armor and sufficient weaponry.”
Silvery blue eyes tracked to Meleager.
“We are creating armor and weaponry at as fast a pace as possible. With, the Empress’ permission—“
“Xena.” She interrupted, “there is no Empress within this tent at the moment.”
“With Xena’s permission, we’ve changed our armor to the jointed style used by the Romans.”
“Why?” Mercer was genuinely interested; he thought Xena hated everything about Rome.
“Standard Greek armor is made from a single sheet of bronze, hammered to precisely fit the Hoplite, Meleager explained. “The process is very time consuming, why a Greek helmet alone takes three full cycles of Helios to shape from a solid piece of bronze. Roman armor is built in sections, joined together by leather ties, easier to produce and easier to streamline the assembly of various parts and pieces.”
“The Romans, though scum, do have useful skills.” her words caused the men to chuckle.
“We’ve also adopted the tall concave shield of the Romans, as it gives better protection.” Meleager explained, but ours shall be unmistakable in that the emblem on the front will be the rising phoenix.
“Other weapons?” Xena prodded.
Now Talmadeus spoke. “Each new recruit, who shows the aptitude, will be issued a Damascus steel sword. Finally we can replace the wooden ones they’ve been training with. Meleager has done well to recruit smiths able to produce such a weapon. In addition, they will receive a long dagger. Others have shown aptitude for the bow, and thus are now counted among the ranks of our archers. Our archer corps alone now numbers some 30,000. Other men will be given pikes and the Sarissa as a weapon, they being placed in the front of the phalanxes.
“Instead of eight ranks of men, we return to the formations of Alexanders time, 16 rows, those men in front holding the 20 foot poles with spear points on end, the Sarissa Talmadeus mentions.” Xena clarified, while beginning to pace back and forth in her characteristic manner. Her head cast downward, arms folded over her chest.
“In addition, we near our goal of having each man outfitted with clothing suited for winter and summer.” Meleager continued, “I must tell you Corinth has become quite a manufacturing center, thousands of workers toil day and night.”
“You have done admirably old man.” She stopped pacing, now looking at Meleager directly, gracing him with a smile. He smiled in return, dipping his head to acknowledge her praise.
“The scouts?” she asked.
Now it was Mercer’s who was pinned by her blue eyes.
“Xena we’ve vastly increased the scope of our corps, due to the increased size of the army. With much instruction from your Amazon guard, these men have become the best scouts ever fielded by any army.”
“I’ll hold you to that statement, Mercer.” She warned.
“They will not disappoint.” he replied firmly.
“The Cavalry?” her commanders watched as she began to pace again.
“As all well know, we have two tiers of cavalry; those who prove themselves in battle are promoted into Xena’s old guard, under her direct command, as well Sevastian’s. The others used to protect the flanks of the army in battle. Talmadeus reported.
“The Amazon’s?” Adamis asked quietly.
“They will be my most elite strike force able to roam behind enemy lines to attack supply routes. They are well equipped to live off the land, able to use bow and sword in any attack. Xena smiled. “Under Sevastian’s direction, they have learned well the battle style of the east.
“But they number only 250, certainly not enough to make an impact in battle. It seems a waste of resources, to train so trifling a number of warriors.
“There will be more.” replied Xena, her tone one of certainty.
“Have you ever faced Amazon’s Commander?” The question posed by Talmadeus was directed to Adamis.
“Their number may be small, but they are most fearsome in battle. I’d go so far as to say, one trained Amazon, is equal to ten men in the field.”
Adamis was clearly unconvinced by his expression.
“Now old man, tell us of new toys.” A smiling Xena commanded of Meleager before resuming her pacing.
All in the war council watched amused as Meleager’s eyes lit up, his hands beginning to gesture.
“We have a new siege engine.” he said animatedly, “Of eastern design called a Trebuchet which can fire objects farther, and with higher velocity than the onagers of Roman use. Though they are heavier and therefore harder to maneuver into position, once set they can batter any fortification or army into submission.”
“And...” Meleager wiggled his brows in glee while reaching into a satchel. “We have this!”
He placed a small iron piece, the size of his palm on the table.
“What purpose does that serve?” Asked Menticles.
“This, my friends is called a Caltrop; it can be used against soldiers and cavalry. See the sharp nails that stick up?” His finger touched the tip of the small weapon. These nails or spines if you wish to call them that always land so that one of them always points upward from a stable base. The nails will penetrate boots, or horse hooves, to stop a cavalry charge.”
“Amazingly simple, yet effective.” muttered Talmadeus.
“And we have one more weapon, which will be given to the Amazon’s. Reaching down, Meleager pulled the weapons from his satchel and set it upon the table. Two finely crafted curved steel blades were connected together on a single handle.
“This is called a Haladie, from the land of India.” Meleager picked the weapon up by the handle. “Meant to be used in close quarters combat, it can slash as well as thrust.”
“A very terrifying weapon,” Adamis stated as Meleager demonstrated the weapon, slowly twirling it in hand, to slash then thrust forward.
“Amazon’s are well versed in hand to hand combat; this compact weapon suits their style.” Xena paused smiling at her commanders. “You know, I almost feel sorry for the men who line up against those warriors... almost.”
The men chuckled as Meleager placed the weapon back in his satchel.
A gesture from her and little Kodi walked forward his arms held out.”
“This, my commanders, is for you, capes of royal purple.” each man took one as she handed it to them. “As you are the highest rank in my Army, you will wear these in battle; your men must be able to see you.”
“And you Xena?” asked Meleager “The same?” he held up the cloak she had given him.
“No, I wear the color of Ares, red.”
Silence followed her words.
“You know the routes you are to march?”
“Mercer, scouts and flankers ahead, she ordered.”
“They will depart before the army, Xena.”
“Kodi,” she called as her commanders filed out of her tent and into the night.
“I find myself missing Sevastian.”
“You do?” the kid was mystified at her statement, as he hadn’t missed his obstinate brother.
“Yeah.” she said while moving to seat herself, motioning him to bring her wine. “He is excellent in administration of this force. No detail escapes him; I can always trust him to keep my commanders on task.”
“Shall we see him soon?” the kid prodded while handing her a chalice of watered down wine.
“Now” she moved to sit, “to your studies.”
“Xena I am not a child, I do not see the need to--”
“You are not a man either, therefore I do see the need.” she replied quieting him. “I gave my solemn word to your mother and father that I would see to your education. If your tutor requires it, it will be done boy.”
“Recite.” she commanded, while pulling furs about her for warmth, “where we left off.
As she took a sip of wine, and closed her eyes, he began.
“Any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”
“That is not where we stopped.”
“I do not see why I must recite passages from Homer’s Iliad!” he whined.
She let out a pained sigh while attempting to stay her temper. The eastern obedience his brother displayed was completely absent in Kodi, this boy was proud as a peacock and stubborn as a mule. “You are Greek, and as such must know the story of our people, she answered back tersely. “Begin at the correct spot.”
Kodi looked to Xena, sitting quiet in her camp chair, eyes closed. He stuck his tongue out at her.
“Be careful, with no tongue you won’t be able to speak.... Don’t tempt me boy.”
As her lips quirked up into a smile, his tongue disappeared behind his.
“And so their spirits soared as they took positions on the passageways of battle all night long, and the watch fires blazed among them. Hundreds...” he paused thinking... Hundreds...”
Hundreds strong, as stars in the night... Xena prodded.
“...in the night sky glittering round the moon’s brilliance blaze in all their glory,” He continued, finding his place. “When the air falls to a sudden, windless clam all the lookout peaks stand out and the jutting... uh...
“Jutting cliffs.” Put some emotion in your tone.” she commanded
“How are you able to recall this stuff so easily?” he complained.
“A thousand fires were burning there on the plain and beside each fire sat fifty fighting men
poised in the leaping blaze, and champing oats and glistening barley, stationed by their chariots,
stallions waited for... for...
“Dawn to mount her glowing throne.” Xena finished.
“I was getting there, Kodi defended.”
“I do not wish to wait until the morrow for you to get there.” She sighed. “You missed parts of the passage, you must work on this, Kodi.” her firm tone booked no argument.
“Yes, Xena.” he sulked.
“Onward then,” She shifted in her chair, “explain Pythagoras’ theorem.”
“The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.”
“Good, good. Now fetch the mathematical problems assigned by your tutor so I can see your work.”
“Yes Xena.” Now the kid’s voice took on a brighter tone. He enjoyed practice in calculations far more than reciting Homer, especially after Xena had fired his imagination by telling him of their use when throwing her Chakram.
After this, Kodi knew there would be continued exercises in both writing and speaking Latin.
The cold north winds caused by the god Boreas assaulted him, causing the flames of the fire to whip about. He had been kicked out of the Amazon village and ordered to make camp amongst a grove of trees standing a league away from the village proper. After that tumultuous council meeting and hatred directed at him from all corners, Sevastian was glad to be surrounded by the quiet of night.
Having some rations in his saddle bag, he had protested when Siri insisted he take some food with him. Now in the chill of evening, he was glad to have it. The barley she had given him had already been cooked in their kitchens; all the dour cook would allow Siri to give him. He’d had just warmed it by setting the clay bowl by the fire, while he brushed Gisela and made sure she was fed. After that, as per his usual routine, Sevastain had cleaned his armor and weaponry. Donning worn brown pants and a green tunic of the eastern style, he moved to sit by the fire. Now that he was no longer moving round, he pulled on his black cloak to ward off the chill.
“How do those women grow so tall eating food like this?” he muttered upon tasting the near flavorless barley. “Waste not, want not, I suppose.” he grumbled while finishing the contents of the bowl then setting it aside.
Snow began to fall.
Getting his feet under him, Sevastian moved to throw his saddle blanket over Gisela. Moving back to the fire, he set his fur out, preparing for a nights rest. He was not alone. Within the forest he knew Amazons were watching his every move, Ephiny was being prudent. Taking off his cloak, he threw it over his armor, as protection against the snow, before sliding under his furs to sleep.
Through the whole of Sevastian’s evening routine, soft amethyst eyes watched from the canopy far above, Siri having resolved to stand guard over him thought the night.