The sun was low, it being late in the day. Within the forest, the nervous chatter between the men had long since dissipated, it having been replaced with growing angst.
The sound began low, the telltale clatter of sword against shield rising up among the trees. The men in his column now became edgy, heads swiveling to and fro as they tried to ascertain the exact point the sounds were emanating from. The cavalrymen on either side of the column worked to control suddenly skittish animals.
Merciless, terrifying howls assaulted the ears One after another they rose rolling across the landscape echoing off the trees.
From darkness of the forest, spears flew, Gisela reared slightly as one landed near.
“Form the line!”
Though frightened by the specter of war, the men moved as one shifting to form the defense four ranks deep, pikes at the ready.
Horse hooves by the hundreds approached, yells assaulting the senses.
“Charge by Horse!” Sevastian bellowed the order as the first of the Germans approached riding between the trees. The men in the front grabbed the poles, each about nine feet in length and taking one knee, raised the pikes at a 45 degree angle butting the end in the ground. Behind, the next line of men held theirs straight on, horizontal to the ground. Third and fourth ranks raised theirs so that the tips of the weapon were over the first two ranks
The line swayed under the assault, riders being impaled on the end of the pikes, several being completely run through. Screams from the wounded enemy, rose up beside the yells of the men in his line.
“Lord Commander?” The captain rode up beside him.
“They are trying to flank us.” Sevastian gestured to the German riders. “Get the guard; protect the flank as we fall back.”
With a nod, the Captain moved shouting orders to set the guard in motion.
“Stay behind me.” Sevastian glanced back at the kid holding the standard, the colors of the army.
So in shock was the boy that Sevastian’s words did not register.
“Behind me!” Jolted back into reality, the kid shifted his horse watching as Sevastian slashed a charging rider, cutting the German clear though on one side. Blood splattered everywhere the man screaming in agony, as he toppled from his mount.
“Displace!” Men looked up to see the high commander pointing with a crimson blade.
The troops broke, filling back down the path at a run, snow being kicked up by boots as they did. The German riders, sensing a sure victory pressed the attack but were slowed, having been caught in the flank by men of Xena’s old guard.
Turning Gisela, Sevastian moved to fall back as well, racing his steed between the trees, ducking low to avoid branches, trying desperately to avoid being de-horsed in the mist of this melee.
“Reform the line!” Sevastian shouted, riding forward to a position in front of the running men, his presence, forestalled a full blown panic. Once more men lined up, pikes at the ready to face the enemy.
“Charge by horse!”
As before, the men formed the defense, as the members of the old guard rode past to a position behind.
“There’s too many of them! We are too few!” Fear was taking hold of the line.
“Steady!” shouted Sevastian, his words being echoed by the captains, attempting to gain hold on the mindless fright before it swept through all in the line.
“They will surround us!” cried the men.
“Good!” yelled their Lord Commander, “Then we can attack those bastards from every direction!” Amid tight laugher Sevastian spurred his steed down the snaking line, to rally the men, his sword raised, blade flashing in the fading light.
With bellowing war cries, the Germans blazed forward, slamming into the line. In this position, his men stood on higher ground, the points of the pikes slamming directly into the stomachs of the enemy. His men only parted, and then just for a moment, to let rider-less horses bolt through.
“Up Guard!” Sevastain yelled at the men of the Old Guard Cavalry “At them again!” He pointed with his sword. The riders, with Alistair in the lead charged straight into the Germans.
“Displace!” Again, the troops broke into a run as they fell back once more.
In the tight grip of one gauntleted hand, the leathers of Argo’s reins were held.
Outwardly, she was the epitome of confidence, the Empress of Greece, sitting atop Argo, looking like a goddess of war. In the light of the setting sun, Xena’s appearance was flawless. She had learned long ago that a warlord, or in this case an Empress, should look the part. The waning rays of Helios shone upon her hair, bringing out golden-brown highlights. Her burnished black leathers reflected the light, as well as the swirling bronze armor she wore. Despite the cold, she had decided to wear the flaud leather battle skirt as it gave more freedom of movement. Black knee high boots were polished to such a luster that the winter clouds roiling above shown on their surface. The wind cutting across the field whipped her red cape lined with black wolf’s fur. On her hip, the chakram, her sword attached to Argo’s saddle, on her person daggers.
Inwardly, she was edgy, ears picking up the sounds of battle within the forest, the screams shill, quite the opposite of the calm surrounding her waiting army. How her blood cried out for her to join the fighting.
“Bring them to me Sevastian…bring them to me…
“Merciful gods! It sounds like a slaughter! Do we go in?” Menticles, asked beside her. His voice filled with doubt.
“No, the plan remains unchanged Commander.” Her eyes never left the clearing ahead. Gently, she moved to rest her right hand upon the saddle horn.
Nearly 80,000 men plus cavalry were arrayed in a huge three sided box formation with the rest of the army in reserve on the flanks. When the German’s broke through they would be surrounded, their avenue of retreat would be cut by the Amazons high in the trees.
And her army would slaughter them all.
The waiting was the hardest part.
Hard blue eyes flicked over her men picking up on the nervousness permeating them. No matter how much training, the first battle, the first time to see the enemy caused anxiety. After today, these men would be battle hardened, gaining confidence needed to face future foes.
The sound of the fight drew near.
“Stand ready.” Her command passed along through her cavalry caused the riders to check their own weapons one last time.
She looked to Siri who nodded, before leading her Amazons along the left flank of the army.
All was in place.
“Raise my standard.” The kid behind did just that, the black “X” on a field of white rising up to flutter in the cold wind.
“Charge Sarissa!” The army was so silent; Xena’s firm voice was heard clearly by all. The Sarissa being lowered by the front rows, these being 20 foot pikes, with sharp metal points. A curtain of death being lowered which would surround the enemy when he entered the field.
“Guard!” The men of her best cavalry came to attention. Guiding Agro, she moved to the front of the line. “By threes.” With the precision of expert warriors, the men quickly formed in ranks of three abreast.
“March…” With deliberate leisureliness, Xena led her cavalry down the right flank of her army, directly behind the lines, trooping her personal colours for all to see. On the left flank, Siri led her warriors on, getting in position for what was to come.
“Come on boy!” Yelled Sevastian, reaching down, he grabbed the wounded kid, by the arm and roughly hefted him over his saddle horn. The Germans had overrun the last defensive line, his men now in full retreat. Behind thousands of barbarians packed together and raced forward, only being slowed down by men of the old guard. Brave men those, sacrificing themselves to provide cover for the retreating foot soldiers.
He heard the yell, heard the hooves racing up, and knew he couldn’t raise his blade in time, especially with the kid slung across his saddle. Just as Sevastian turned to face his end, an arrow flew catching the German barbarian square in the chest. As the man toppled from his mount, Sevastain silently gave thanks to Amazons high in the trees above.
After recalling the guard and watching them blaze past, Sevastian spurred Gisela on, weaving through the trees, he put his all into reaching the clearing.
Peaking over his shoulder, Sevastain caught the sight of the first of the Amazon traps being sprung. A spiked log swung down upon ropes, impaling two German riders. Their bodies rocking to and fro as the log swayed, their horses continuing forward. More screams sounded as other traps found their mark.
The kid clawed at the saddle, desperate not to fall.
“Almost there.” Sevastian encouraged.
Cheers rose from the lines as the first wave of hoplites emerged from the forest.
Xena reflected that a competent commander would have suspected something was amiss by now and halted the charge. But the German’s lacked discipline and attacked as a mindless horde, once unleashed, nothing could stop them.
Her retreating men, skirted to the right, clearing out of the way of the action to come. Another cheer rose when the Lord Commander and his standard bearer at last broke into the clearing.
“Draw Swords!” Her command was instantly followed by the Guard.
“Right wheel!” Xena raised her own sword, circling it over her head, turning the blade in the direction the cavalry was to attack.
“Left wheel!” Siri yelled out from across the plain. The Amazons on the far side of the field preparing bows, making sure their swords were at the ready when out of arrows.
The first of the barbarians broke through. More than 1,000 riders thundered into the clearing, a mere taste of what was still to come. Screams followed as a third were suddenly swallowed by the Earth. Meleager’s men had dug massive pits along the edge of the tree line covering them over with the flora of the region. Horse and riders were impaled upon rows of sharpened wooden stakes, jutting up from the bottom of the pits.
Those that survived, attempted to halt their progress, hauling back on their reigns, but more riders in a second, then third wave broke into the clearing shoving those in the lead directly into the killing points of the Sarissa.
1,000 charging riders became 5,000, then 10,000 and still she waited.
As more riders broke through, her instincts told her the entire force had fallen into her trap.
Her blistering war cry was the signal to charge.
From left and right, her cavalry surged forward, sliding behind the confused German riders.
As Xena thrust her sword into the first which would die by her hand, she felt the steel edge of her blade grate against the man’s rib, a kick and the mortally wounded German toppled off his mount. The next blocked her sword with his, only to have her elbow slam him in the face, as he reeled back from the blow; he was decapitated by her blade.
The massed riders now thought to run back the way they came. A feral laugh of triumph erupted from Xena as thousands of arrows flew. Down from the trees they arced, directly into the chests of the barbarians. Waves of men fell to the earth, those still alive being trampled by the horses of their compatriots.
The Barbarians reorganized, attempting to ride directly into her 16 deep lines of Hoplites which surrounded them. Reasoning that if they broke through, they would escape the trap. For a moment, her blue eyes flicked over to see Sevastian giving orders, anticipating a charge.
The full charge never materialized, along the left flank, Amazons led by Siri rode parallel to the German’s firing off wave after wave of arrows from horseback. The Barbarian horde soon lost all leadership, the men unable to rally against her force. Those few that did make it to her line were again cut down by Sarissa.
Now it was just a matter of getting the killing done.
As the next challenger raised his blade, she grinned, her own sword twirling in her hand. As she blocked his downward blow, her free hand gabbed the hilt of her dagger, to plung it into his side. He screamed in pain as she used it to tear him open.
The same dagger was pulled from the dying German, to be thrown into the stomach of another. He fell, hands attempting to stem the flow of blood from his gut. His agony ended abruptly as he was trampled by other riders.
They died hard these savage men.
Having exhausted their supply of arrows, the Amazon riders now drew swords riding into the remnants of the German horsemen in the eastern style taught them by Sevastain.
Even embroiled in the heat of the fighting, Xena reflected how her Amazons were a thing of beauty on the battlefield.
An eerie quiet finally fell across the field as the last of the Barbarian riders tumbled from his mount.
A force of 20,000… Annihilated.
Such a shame the German’s had to be so stubborn. None of this would have been necessary if they had just heeded her missives desiring peace between their peoples. Xena expected the Germans to dismiss her overtures, they being too proud to negotiate. Now they would be compelled to agree to a peace on her terms.
As the various officers upon the field bellowed orders, and wayward horses were corralled, she casually reached down to grab her water skin, being disappointed upon finding it had been slashed through.
Dismounting, Xena used her cape to wipe the crusted gore from her blade; it would need to be sharpened, having gone dull after running so many through. Argo then was inspected carefully; she making sure her beloved horse was unhurt.
Looking up from sheathing her sword, Xena took in the sight of her commanders arrayed in a line before her, none daring to speak.
“Have the pike men run through those who still live, we kill them all.”
Of all her commanders, only loyal Sevastain had presence of mind to dip his head in acknowledgment of her order. Silently they retreated from her dark presence, only then did they dare yell out commands.
“Yes Conqueror?” The Amazon was brave indeed, daring to address her.
“Have your warriors take these corpses strewn across the field, use them to send a message to the German’s as only Amazons know how.
Walking forward Xena surveyed the carnage, her boots squelching through the pools of blood slowly soaking into the earth. Halting her progress she gazed down at the man. The German was quivering in fear at the sight of her, bloodied as she was. He was bleeding from various cuts, his most serious injury an arrow lodged in just below his right shoulder blade.
In a flash of movement Xena kneeled, paying no attention to his scream as she roughly pushed the arrowhead through him. Breaking off the tip jutting from his back, she then broke the fetching off. In a smooth motion she pulled the shaft from him. His free hand instinctively covered the wound, sluggish dark blood, began dripping through his fingers. Standing, she walked back to Argo, opening her saddle back, she grabbed a bit of linen and a bit of powered goldenseal root. Returning, she dusted the wound with the powder, then wrapped the linen round his shoulder. The wound should be properly cauterized, but this would stem the flow of blood for now, long enough for him to make it back to his leader.
Standing, she looked down at him watching his eyes dart about as his ears picked up the screams of his comrades as they were executed. He had to be wondering why she would choose to save him.
“Gehen Sie zu Ihrem Führer… Go to your leader.” Having run into these barbarians before, she had picked a base working knowledge of their guttural language.
“Tell him Xena the Conqueror demands a meeting.”
“Er wird nicht kommen!” the man responded, Xena easily picked up on the defiance in his tone. Kommen…come…he will not come. She translated, working through his words.
He watched with widening eyes as her sword moved, the very tip resting near his left ear. Her boot then landed square in his chest pinning him to the ground. She began to draw a line from his ear diagonally down to his jaw. This took a bit more pressure than usual, her sword being dulled by the fighting. As her blade moved, a line of blood appeared in the thin gouge she was creating. A dark smile upon her lips at the sound of his scream.
“Tell him…” The tip of her blade left his chin, moving to a point just under the bridge of his nose, “If he does not come…” The German worked hard to control his shaking, as her blade passed under his left eye, before continuing down in a perfect line. “…I shall wipe your people from the earth.”
When finished, she had drawn a perfectly symmetrical crimson “X” marking him so his leader would know it was she who sent him.
“I give him one cycle to appear before me.”
“Now go.” She ordered. He struggled to his feet, leveling a look of pure hatred at her before turning to run as best he could. A gesture and her troops let him go, allowing him to disappear back into the woods.
She is dead, Majesty.
“I can see that Behrooz” Xerxes looked to his chief minister. The slight man had served him well these last few years, keeping him aware of the various plots against him, a tough job judging solely by the amount of grey blossoming in his hair.
“Pity really,” the King of all Persia, shifted on the Throne of Egypt, “I was hoping to make her one of my wives. Even in death she is lovely.”
“She would have been quite a trophy.” Behrooz admitted.
A wave of the hand and the corpse of the former Queen was dragged from the chamber, along with several others who had made the choice to die with her.
Xexes stood all within bowing at he did. Walking over to the small window he looked out at the damage now fully visible with the light of the rising sun. Alexandria was destroyed, the great library burned, the beautiful lighthouse topped. All terrible, but what really caused him worry was the destruction of his fleet containing supplies for his army. His soldiers occupied a burned out city, having no means of supply, he had to order a retreat. Conquering the rest of Egypt would have to wait.
“Has Babylon received my orders?”
Koulos, his security advisor now stepped forward to report. “They have your majesty; the best of Persia are on their way to the ruins of Nineveh.”
“Tomorrow, we begin our withdrawal from Alexandria; we shall meet the rest of our forces at Nineveh then move on to conquer Greece.”
“The routes the army is to take have been relayed to the commanders, majesty.”
“While I would rather focus on Egypt and its riches, it is time we finish these Greeks once and for all, I will have revenge for what Alexander did. This empire will stretch from the border of India, to the heart of Greece.”
“Can we trust this Roman, this Caesar Majesty?” Koulos moved near, one of the few permitted to do so.
“No, but we can still use him to advance our cause, like he uses us to advance his. The information he passed to us will enable us to defeat Xena. That helps us, and helps Rome.
“But, what of the Romans we killed in the siege of Alexandria? Were they not treacherous in attempting to spirit the Queen of Egypt away from us during the fighting? “
Xerxes laughed, garnering the attention of the hundreds packed into the throne room. “Typical play by the Romans, giving us usable information with one hand while using the other to steal the Queen of Egypt from us.”
“The dead Roman…”
“Octavian?” Koulos offered.
“Yes, the man took a risk, showed initiative, lucky for us that his gambit failed. The queen, even in Roman hands would still be a symbol for her people, a reason for them to continue fighting. Now that she is dead, they lose all hope.
“Have you…” the king paused lowering his voice. “Killed them?”
“The Romans, yes.”
“I know that idiot!” grumbled the king, “I mean the nobility of Egypt.”
“All dead, you rule completely, no rivals for the throne of Egypt.”
“No legitimate leader for the Egyptian people to coalesce around.” One of the king’s hands slid along the silk of his robes absently before calling forth a handmaiden with a bronze mirror. For long moments he admired himself in the shined surface, before motioning for her to leave his presence. “Cleopatra’s death ends her dynasty, and thus the rule of the Pharaohs ends with her.”
“What of my secret weapons Koulos?”
“They will be waiting for us at Nineveh.”
“More than a match for the poor Greeks and the woman who leads them.”
“An affront to god and man to have a woman leading an army, leading anything,” Koulos stated passionately.
“Indeed, Koulos, I hear stories that this savage Xena is not only most beautiful, but big and strong as well.” She will make a wonderful addition to my harem.
The courtiers looked on as their king shared a laugh with his chief of security. Near the king a wealthy merchant, dressed in the finest of silks, listened closely, while raking his dark mustache with practiced flair. His real name…Autolycus…
“Fish sounds good for dinner dontcha think?”
“Certainly Empress, but we don’t have…”
Sevastian watched amazed as Xena’s hands flashed into the water hauling up two large fish, flinging them back from water towards the river bank where they were adroitly caught by Siri.
“I don’t need gear to fish.” she moved to the river bank, her knee high boots sloshing thought the water.
“How… did…? You just…” Sevastian was unable to form a cognizant thought. He’d never been witness to anything like that.
“Practice, Sevastian, practice. That’s all it is.” Xena reached the bank of the river and gracefully stepped up from the icy water. “Oh, I don’t cook.” She stated while walking past in the direction of the camp.
“I don’t either,” said Siri, right before hoisting the two fish into Sevastian’s arms and continuing on her way following in the wake of the Empress.
“You know, I am your command...” Sevastian fell silent, giving up.
Meleager snickered behind him.
“Well, look who volunteered!” Meleager abruptly lost all good humor at Sevastian’s words.
His look turned sour when the second dumped the fish into his arms.
“C’mon, I’ll help you clean them and fillet em’, It’ll make the work go faster on these monsters From the corner of his eye, Sebastian spotted a peeved Mercer who had been tasked with gathering firewood beyond that Adamis, cursing a mean streak as he attempted to light some tinder in the fire-pit Xena bid him construct.
Apparently, ex-warlords did not have an appreciation for the inherent value of work.
“Not bad Sevastian, not bad.”
“Thank you Empress.”
“Xena, Sevastian we are in the middle of the wilderness, decorum may be discarded for now.”
“As you wish,” Sevastian smiled slightly, while shifting the deep iron pan set above the low flames. It was a simple recipe, flour, a couple of garlic cloves, a spot of wine, rosemary, salt and a dash of the eastern spice pepper. Provisions he had attained from the Amazons. Siri had been kind enough to fetch him a few fresh quail eggs.
“Where did you learn to cook?” asked Siri. Typical… he couldn’t tell if the Amazonian Commander was impressed with the meal or not.
“Trial and error mostly,” he shrugged. “I had to figure something out, Kodi needed to eat.”
“Well you’re gonna make someone a good wife someday, Sevastian.” Meleager quipped earning himself a devastating glare from Siri and Xena.
“What?” he asked innocently.
“You got a little more of that?” said Adamis from behind.
As Sevastain moved out of the way, to allow Adamis access to the pan, Xena leaned back against the tree she was near, stretching out her legs and crossing them at the ankles.
“You know, I once used an iron pan to defeat a couple of thugs sent by Zagreas to kill me.” She chuckled. “They really thought they had the drop on me, I acted like I was asleep till the last moment.”
“You didn’t have a weapon handy?” Meleager asked, looking up at her from across the flames.
“No fun in that, fighting with an unusual weapon gets the juices flowing.” Her grin caused the old commander to shake his head.
“Empress, I must protest! I need no reason to have us all out in the wilderness, to meet this Germanic tribal leader.”
“What’s the matter Adamis? Didya have a date tonight?”
Xena’s jibe caused the men round the fire to laugh; even Siri did so, a rarity.”
“They should be meeting us in our camp, we being the victor and able to set terms.”
“The German wished to meet here. We are trying to play nice with a prospective ally. We have beaten them, and badly, I allow the man to save some face by dictating were we are to meet.”
“We are in foreign territory in the open—“
“Yes, but we are trying to form an alliance with these people, one must show some trust. Siri’s Amazons are keeping watch they will make sure you are safe Adamis. Besides, don’t you like bonding with your fellow commanders? Here we are enjoying the country, dining in the open air—.”
A call from the Amazons stationed high in the trees sounded.
“Good, they have arrived.” Xena moved to stand, her commanders following lining up in a row behind based on some perceived seniority, except for Siri who chose to stand directly beside Sevastian, silently gazing at the other commanders daring any of them to make her move.
As the German riders crossed the plain Xena paused to brush a little snow off her black leathers then adjusted her bronze armor. Attached to clips upon her back, her sword, on her hip her chakram shone in the late afternoon sun.
“They sure don’t look too happy,” muttered Sevastian from his position a step behind and to her right.
“If they looked happy Sevastain,” Xena eyed him over her shoulder for a moment. “I’d be worried.”
She paced, five graceful steps taken with a heavy dose of swagger, then a turn, followed by exactly five steps back. Xena’s head was down, dark hair obscuring her face.
“Let us speak to the meeting this night. What are your impressions?”
“The delegation was certainly shocked at the sight of their men impaled on trees.” Autolycus shook his head, her spy having watched the episode from a discreet distance. “Do Amazons read books to learn how to do that stuff? Impaling for dummies or something?”
“Sadly, they learned it from me,” replied Xena.
“Xena,” now Sevastian spoke. “This Alaric, do you think he can unite the Germans? They are so divided, all being fiercely loyal to their own clan.
“Yes, he has the right arguments to persuade. First peace, I’ve made it clear, Greece will respect Germanic sovereignty, Second, he will be able to freely trade the products of his lands with my empire, Third and most importantly in the short term he and his people get a chance at revenge against Rome.”
“Why not just have my men assassinate the other tribal leaders and be done with it?” Autolycus asked.
She smiled Auto’s words, “I’ve never been one to think twice about using assassination as a weapon, but in this case these tribes are roughly equal, were a civil war to break out over leadership, it would weaken them all. I need them united, one people, behind one leader, only then will they be powerful enough to take on Roman Legions.”
“I gotta hand it to yah Xena.” Auto slumped down into a chair. “When you made that agreement with the Senators of Rome, I thought you were crazy. He laughed, “Here you were planning all along to have the Germanic horde sweep into Italia.”
“Precisely, in truth, I and the Germans both get what we want,” Xena stopped pacing. “The Germans get revenge for all the past injuries Rome has inflicted upon them, and I will get to take the capital. If I play it right, none of my men need die taking Rome. In fact I may come off looking like a savior of Rome.”
“Or Pompey landing on Roman shores, that would give the Senators cause to ask you to intercede.”
“My shrewd little second,” Xena walked to him, clasping his shoulder with one hand. “Germanic invasions would give them cause to, or perhaps they will ask due to another circumstance I have created. Either way if the senators request help, I respond fulfilling my side of our agreement.”
“But if Rome asks for help against the Germans... that would mean you’d have to fight...” Autolycus’ voice drifted off seeing one of her beautifully sculpted brows quirking upward, a knowing smile on her lips.
“In our accord, the city of Rome is mine, but the Germans won’t be able to resist, they will violate our agreement by moving to sack the city.”
“Now…” Xena moved to the sideboard, pouring three cups of wine. “Let us toast our treaty of peace with the Germans, and to future success against the Persians.
“Tell me what you know so far from being near the Persian King spy,” Xena asked after taking a sip. “Spare me no detail.”