Within the men groaned as they pressed their hands against wood, straining mightily to get the huge bronze wheels turning. The air within was fowl, 70 brawny heavily sweating men, working to push against the timber frame. Finally, the wheels, two on each corner, began to move, the huge siege engine rumbling slowly toward the wall. In the higher levels of the wooden tower, Roman troops awaited the moment they would spring into action. They would be brought near the stone walls, a wooden drawbridge would be lowered, and they would rush across and onto the top of the wall protecting Carthage.
The tower halted, those inside, tensed as the drawbridge fell. Arrows loosed by the men atop the walls struck home, wiping out the Romans in the first ranks to charge. Not enough to stop Roman torches from falling down to land amongst the wooden supports of the wall. While most were snuffed out by the defenders, some tumbled downward into the mix of crossbeams to set the dry wood alight.
“Sulla, get those other towers to the wall, now!” Caesar commanded, his voice ringing out over the tumult of battle. For a seven day, both day and night, his men had attacked; trying to gain control of the walls, the Carthaginians, thought weakened continued to fight valiantly. Based upon intelligence received from those attacking the wall, he had changed tact; his men would use an old weapon to bring down the walls…Fire. Like many growing cities, Carthage had outpaced its old wall and needed to build new. However, too much economizing had been done on the new fortifications. The walls were thinner, and buttressed with wood rather than stone.
Julius smiled as the torches were flung from the towers. Fire would destroy these ramparts if his men could set them alight. If the supports behind the stone could be destroyed, it would be a simple matter to battering them down.
“Caesar!” Crassus rode up, clearly something had gone awry. “A relief force has been spotted, it approaches our lines!”
“What does this force consist of?” Julius was calm in asking the question as a commander must always keep a level head.
“Cavalry by the hundreds, undoubtedly, this was planned to occur when we were fully occupied breeching the walls.
“Send orders to each of our readouts, along the line. I want half the men in each to mount up, and follow me in an attack on the relief force.”
“Caesar that will seriously weaken our line, the redoubts will only be at quarter strength!”
“You and Sulla will have to make do, shift men where needed. The force approaching must be destroyed, I will see to that. Julius leaned forward, grasping Crassus’ arm with force to make his point. “I want the attack on the walls to continue.”
Julius rode, reveling in the cheers from the troops as he traveled to each fort to the next, gathering up his cavalry from each. Down from the ridge the enemy rode, Caesar spurred his steed Bucephalus forward. His mount being named after a famous horse owned by a famous Greek. Like Alexander the Great, he would ride forth, to conquer his empire.
“The city gates are opening!”
The cry echoed down the Roman lines as Carthaginian soldiers rushed out. In the trenches, the Roman captains moved troops with trained proficiency. From the ditches, pilum were thrown at the approaching enemy while from the wooden towers, arrows flew, to cut men down.
“They are being slowed by the wooden stakes in front of our trenches.” Sulla stated the obvious as he sat upon his steed. “What ploy is this, why do they rush out to attack?”
“Simple.” Crassus pointed. “See how they try to fill in our trenches? They are attempting to break the siege, by breeching our line knowing our troop levels have been diminished by the calvary attack.”
“I will see that they fail!” Sulla spurred his mount, racing forward to urge the men on.
Crassus instead allowed his horse to mosey forward to the nearest wooden tower. Dismounting, he strode to the ladder to climb up. Once within, he had a perfect view of the unfolding battle. In the distance, he could see the dust fly from the horses; Caesar’s cavalry was fully engaged with the enemy. The Carthaginians were losing, being slaughtered by the hundreds, but they were dragging many a Roman with them on to judgment by Pluto.
“They attack the southwest perimeter.” Crassus looked to the two men sharing the space with him. “You.” he pointed directly at the nearest. “Run to Flavius, tell him to shift his men to cover the gap in our line. With a brief nod, the captain clambered down the ladder and was off.
“Vinicius...” Crassus stepped to the man free to speak now that they were alone, “I hear you have no love for Sulla.”
“I do not.”
“It is my understanding; he gave Caesar a very poor report on you, ruining your chances to be a General, ensuring you would remain at the rank of Legates.”
“He did so, to advance himself, while holding me back from my true destiny to lead.”
“Ah, but now you have a chance to be promoted once more.” Crassus stated seductively, his arms moved up, hands grasping the man’s shoulders, turning him in the direction of Sulla. “Take your bow, fire the arrow true, and your enemy will be no more.”
“Yes.” Vinicius eyes narrowed, the spark of revenge now lit within.
“In the heat of battle, no one will know,” added Crassus.
It took no more prodding; Vinicius grabbed the bow and seating an arrow, let it fly.
Sulla fell, the arrow having struck him squarely through the side of his neck.
Next Vinicius fell, Crassus’ dagger slicing his throat open.
“You are nothing more than a useful idiot, my friend. I do thank you for using your great skill in archery to rid me of my rival.”
Vinicius stilled, the God Orcus taking hold of his soul in death
Crassus, left him, retreating from the tower, to climb back on his horse to direct the battle raging round the city walls.
The Amazon captains looked on with dubious expressions.
“It is called a Haladie.” All watched as the Empress leisurely turned in a circle, her right hand on the grip in in the center of the double bladed weapon. Slowly, then with ever quickening stokes, Xena moved the blade, slashing, then thrusting forward then back. As always, her movements were graceful, warrior and weapon moving as one.
“Empress,” Eurybe dared speak. “The weapon is impressive, but is not a sword better in single combat?” The woman pointed to the weapon in Xena’s hand. Those blades are only slightly longer than an extended hand, a sword allows for more distance when engaging an enemy.
“Not always so, the wielder of a sword must have room to maneuver the weapon,” Replied Xena, “Watch.”
The commander approached, dressed in full leathers and armor. Stopping he bowed before the Empress.
“On your guard Adamis,” ordered Xena.
Swallowing hard, he tried unsuccessfully to hide his fear while drawing his sword. He knew Xena was known to use sparring to kill those she had held in the balance and found wanting.
Before he could think further, the curved edge of the Haladie was arching toward him. Shifting his blade, Adamis slashed, only to have the motion of the steel edge halted as it caught on the hand guard of the Haladie. A punch to the face delivered by Xena rocked him. He staggered back upon his heel.
“C’mon Adamis,” Xena taunted, one hand motioning for him to step forward again.
Her smile chafed his ego.
Adamis’ slashed his blade downward with considerable force.
Her boot landed, pinning his sword to the ground, while she deftly placed the curved edge of the Haladie against his neck.
He ceased all movement.
“As…. the Gallic peoples say when sparring…” Adamis attempted to calm his breathing, daring not move while that blade was near. “Touché, Empress.”
“Indeed.” Xena smiled feral before lowering the blade to turn back toward the silent Amazons.
“A sword, like any weapon has strengths and weaknesses. The key with a Haladie, is to position yourself inside your opponent’s defenses,” She instructed. “In truth, the weapon you choose matters little. The greatest weapon you possess is not the one in hand, but instead your mind. Use it. Study your opponent, watch his movements, and then anticipate what he will do next. Act, don’t react in a fight.”
From within the ranks of the strapping warriors came a woman so trifling in appearance that many of the Greek Amazon’s scoffed.
“It so happens, we are fortunate to have an Amazon who hails from India. Achira is most deadly with the Haladie, she will instruct you in its use, learn well from her.”
“Her?” the word said from many in the group in a most condescending fashion. What irked Xena more was that laughter followed. She knew such laughter wouldn’t faze Achria, the warrior was confident in her capabilities. No, what displeased Xena was the haughty pride behind it.
“These here, fit for promotion?” Sevastian looked over the parchments in front of him.
“Most fit, Lord Commander.” Talmadeus responded.
The man who once captured his brother, and blackmailed Sevastian into fighting for him, now was tasked commanding the 2nd army group and with ensuring executive operations in Xena’s army smoothly. His skills in spotting potential in men were now used select candidates for position.
“I’ll sign off on these, Talmadeus based on your recommendation, but the Empress will desire to meet with these men, wishing to judge their character as well.”
Sevastain took quill in hand, placing his signature on the parchment. He next dribbled a bit of wax on the parchment; with his signet ring he then impressed his seal, the evil mark of the rising phoenix, to authenticate the document.
He addressed Meleager without looking up from the parchment.
“How goes it with our supply lines?”
“Better than expected, The Empress’ demand that we pay fair rates for grain and other commodities has fostered goodwill amongst the farming class, they are lining up to give us needed supplies. We have no need to confiscate goods. Paying them in Greek silver also pleases them, seems the Persians paid in parchment notes.
“Parchment notes?” Sevastian looked up confused.
“It’s a note with written denomination on it. The holder can redeem it to pay for goods.
“People are accepting parchment as payment?” asked a confused Sevastian as Meleager slipped one of the rectangular notes in front of him. Looking down he, became all the more vexed being unable to read the odd symbols of the Persian language on the colorfully inked note.
“Arabic numerals,” He muttered, finger tapping the parchment.
“Noticed that did you?” Meleager chuckled. Xena had to teach me how they work, as before I only understood Greek or Roman numerals. Got a couple of translators telling me the language. Zero is a very difficult concept by the by.”
“A very new concept zero. These people took these?” He held up the note, “Parchment over gold or silver?”
“Well, it was that or have their grain seized and get nothing.”
“Makes sense in that light,” Sevastian admitted. “Because accepting payment for anything with worthless parchment is pure folly. He scoffed, “Ink on parchment being passed like gold or silver, an absurd illusion, in place of real money.”
Meleager leaned in. “Xena ordered me to pay silver in return for these notes, wanted me to come tell you, said you’d know why.”
At first Sevastian was surprised at the news, but soon realized what was going on. “Another way to build goodwill, these peasants will support us against the Persians.”
“We should just take the grain.” Talmadeus spoke, “Instead of draining the Greek treasury to buy it.”
“No, the Empress comes not to just conquer, but to create an empire. We need the trust of these people.” Sevastian countered, believing he understood her plan.
“Any other business before I take my leave? I will be making my daily report to the Empress in a few candle marks.”
“Cecrops departed with the Roman Pompey who will kindly ferry him back to Olynthus. He is eager to resume supervision of ship construction.” Meleager shifted slightly to lean against the desk.
“How many ships have we got?”
“18 at last count.”
Sevastian slumped against the back of the chair he sat upon. “Just 18,” He said dejectedly.
“Shipbuilding takes time.” Talmadeus advised. “Athens wasn’t built in a day, the same holds true of the Greek fleet.”
“We’ve been slowed by the Empress’ insistence we use hard woods like, Ash, Beech, and Oak instead of soft Pine or Cypress.” Meleager added.
“We need ships, the further we go into Asia, the longer our lines of supply stretch. Merchant ships can ferry the needed supplies, but we need warships to protect them. Somehow we must speed construction.” Sevastian sighed. “The Empress won’t be happy at the news.”
“If a man does his best what else is there?”
“All true Talmadeus. Like all of us, they do the best they can with what they have.” Sevastain got his feet under him and stood. “Be sure to pass the word, we march the final leg to the ruins Nineveh tomorrow. All commanders should have their men ready to march before the first rays of Helios light the sky.”
“I would be remiss if I did not mention the talk rolling though the army, talk which is quite contemptuous. Some Commanders, and even lowly foot soldiers say openly, that their time should not be wasted looking for one worthless girl.”
“You tell them, their time will be used in any manner Xena requires. As for the girl, it is enough for them to know that the Empress has good reason for the search.”
“But...” Talmadeus began in a firm tone before seeing Sevastian’s stern expression.
“Continue your point.”
“But to offer anyone who finds the girl their weight in gold well, you must admit Lord Commander, such an outlandish reward causes talk.” Talmadeus waved the bill in his hand while making his point.
The terms of the reward were posted in Greek, Latin, Persian, and even Hieroglyphics. Explicitly stated was that the girl must not be harmed. Below the wording on the bill was the face of a girl, front and side drawn in the Empress’ own hand. Beneath that was simply written… Gabrielle and a description of the slave’s features the list beginning with reddish blond hair. These bills had been copied by scribes and sent out with Mercers scouts to every conquered village and hamlet.
“Would you rather us go back to forcibly searching each and every village we enter?”
“No...” replied Talmadeus, “I would not. But to--”
“The Empress has her reasons for wanting the girl found, we shall leave it at that. If any man persists in spreading such disloyal talk, stronger measures will be used to quiet their tongue. I will start with extra duties, a deduction in pay, demotion. If needed, we will move on to flogging or… crucifixion.”
In the silence which followed Sevastian’s casually placed one hand on his sword hilt “Let it be known to all, that the Empress will not tolerate her orders being questioned by any member of this army high or low.
Both men dipped their heads as the second passed, departing from the tent.
“He is loyal; he’d follow Xena to Tartarus and back.” Talmadeus looked to Meleager who nodded agreement. “But…” Talamadeus paused to ensure he had Meleager’s full attention, “a second in command must also be unafraid to challenge the supreme commander.
“What are you getting at?”
“There is loyalty and there is sense, Meleager. Xena can make mistakes. A second in command should not let loyalty blind him from pointing out alternatives. By all accounts, Xerxes has close to 400,000 men, a formidable force, while we, even with the German recruits added to our ranks number only some 240,000 in comparison. Perhaps Xena should focus on the battle at hand and not the search for some slave girl.
Meleager poured himself a bit of lukewarm tea. “If he had doubts Talamadeus, Sevastian would mention them.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” Meleager answered.
“I do not share your belief.”
“Then we have a difference of opinion, perhaps you should take the issue up with Xena, see what her answer is? It would be a wiser course to take than you continuing to spread dissenting talk.”
Talmadeus stood for some moments, glaring at Meleager his hopes dashed that the man would ally within him on the issue. “Very well, I see my argument has failed to dissuade you.”
Talmadeus walked from of the tent.
“Cecrops you are the greatest of sailors, without your help, I doubt our foray in Alexandria would have turned out the way it did.” Pompey stood next to him as he delivered the praise. Both men leaned against the rail, looking out across the beautiful water, the coast of Greece rising up beyond.
“I am glad events played out the way they did, but now I look forward to being on dry land again.”
“I would have thought that a man trapped on the seas for 300 years would never wish to return to the waters again.” Pompeius’ words caused Cecrops to laugh, his full throated hearty laugh, which the Roman had come to enjoy hearing.
“Xena can be quite persuasive.”
“Oh, I know!” Pompey said emphatic while shifting his stance. She is quite versed in using the carrot or the stick.”
“Carrot or Stick?” Cecrops asked while looking down at the General.
“Yes, an old Roman expression from a fable involving a cart drover who couldn’t get his mule to budge. First he used the stick, or in his case a whip to no avail, but when he dangled a carrot in front of the mule the animal gladly pulled the cart in its attempt to get the carrot. Xena offers rewards or punishment to induce the behavior she wishes.”
“I see.” Cecrops returned his gaze to the water.
“Which did she use on you my friend?”
“I would have to say the carrot, when her beautiful blue eyes look pleadingly into yours, it is difficult to decline. Such is the power of her will.”
“Indeed, I must say she has used both on me, my friend, in one hand the promise of holding sway in Rome again, in the other, threat of death for not acceding to her wishes.
Cecrops nodded, he has been present when Xena had used the… pinch... to almost end the life of the Roman.
“But now, thanks to Xena, I am on my way back to Rome, something I had not thought possible.”
“But what of Caesar, Pompey, certainly he will move to stop you.”
“Yes, but he is tied down in Africa, far from the shores of Italia, that gives me time to build my army and get the support of the Roman people and Senate.” Pompey turned, leaning his back against the ship rail, the two men now facing opposite directions. Silently, Pompey gestured and sailors dropped the ropes they were working to slide a pace closer, then a pace closer still.
“You see, the key is the remains of the Roman fleet, which is Caesar’s means of resupply when he moves his army into the desert wastes. I plan to use my ships, and those which remain in Sicily to blockade Caesar, to deprive him of supply. He and his army will starve.”
“He may just load his army onto those ships and land on the shores of Italia. Have you thought of that possibility?”
“Of course!” Pompey huffed, “I may be old, but I am not senile... yet!”
“Though I may not look it, I do have an age advantage on you Pompey, as you have said, some three hundred years.”
Both men laughed.
“No, Caesar cannot lose face Cecrops, he will attack Xena in Africa, because he must. You see, if Xena defeats Xerxes, and takes his empire as well as Egypt, she would hold the riches of the east in the palm of her hand. That wealth, would make her unstoppable, Caesar will recognize this. There is also pride involved, he cannot spill Roman blood capturing Carthage, then up and leave it to Xena while he turns tail to run back to Rome.
“Good reasons, for thinking he will attack her, it is good you are allied with Xena then.”
“Yes, it has worked well for both of us, I get my revenge by taking Rome, she gets to destroy Caesar, but lately I can’t help thinking about what would come next.
“You mean after she defeats Caesar, by gods I hope peace will follow!”
“Oh, I do as well Cecrops,” Pompey said earnestly, “at heart I am a man of peace, no, the question is who will rule after. Will it be Greece or Rome?”
“It shall be Rome!” Those words, spoken by Pompey were the signal to the assassins.
Cecrops cried out in pain as a dagger was thrust into his back, the first followed by others...
Dropping to his knees, he looked up in shock at Pompeius.
“Rome…will…fall.” He gasped before tumbling forward, succumbing to his many wounds.
All the while Pompeius eyed the dying man with pity.
“Pardon me, bleeding corpse, you are the ruins of the greatest sailor that ever lived. I wish,” Pompey hesitated working to keep his voice steady… “Oh how I wish, it had not been necessary to kill you, but ambition must be satisfied. I could not have the most experienced sailor in the world leading Xena’s fleet against Rome. I must rule Rome and Rome must rule the world.”
“Throw his remains overboard,” Pompeius commanded, “an offering from me to Neptune.”
Across the field, Onagers, the Roman designed catapults, fired as the first light of dawn shone. The walls of Carthage shuddered mightily under the impact of the boulders.
“That’s it Crassus, keep them firing at the same spot.” Caesar instructed. “We either bash the wall down, or the rocks lying about will create ramps our men can climb to top the wall.”
Julius was pleased that his cavalry had turned back the Carthaginian relief force. Such actions on his part would only serve to enhance his image back in Rome. However, Crassus also triumphed; the attack from the city, meant to break the siege had been turned back. Caesar disliked sharing the glory of victory, if it continued; Crassus could become a rival for the hearts of the people.
“Where are my Pilium throwers?” Julius demanded, looking about expectantly as he sat upon his mount.
“Lining up now Caesar,” Replied Crassus.
“Ah, good. You told them?”
“Yes, great Caesar. They will aim for the tops of the ramparts, forcing the defenders to seek cover while our men move the battering ram into position.
“One way or the other, we will breech the wall.”
For some long moments, Julius was silent, eyes scanning the carnage of the battlefield. Several of the wooden bulwarks surrounding the camps of his reserve troops had been scorched by fiery arrows, many of the wooden siege towers, currently sat engulfed in flame. Wounded men were being carried back to makeshift healer’s tents. Some would lose an arm or a leg; others would lose their life due to the wounds inflicted upon them. One, who had lost his life, Sulla, had been given a pyre even as the battle raged; he like the rest of the dead would have to wait for honors forthcoming in Rome in remembrance of their sacrifice.
“I remind you Caesar, the gate is wood, encased by iron, and this will not be easy.”
“It never is easy Crassus, but we must continue to press the enemy on multiple fronts, give him no respite; we have to wear them down.” Julius spoke the last words slowly, placing emphasis on each.
“Sieging is a messy business.” Julius stood in the saddle, his sword raised, tip pointed at the gates of Carthage.
“Renew the attack!”
A cheer rose from the men in the lines as the wheeled battering ram began to move. The framed structure had a peaked roof; the wood roof on top was layered by shields, some measure of protection from the weapons of the defenders on the wall above. Within a heavy log was cradled, supported by iron chains wrapping underneath. The ends of the chain were attached to wood supports. Inside, 40 men strained to push the ram into position.
Upon the wall, defenders ducked down, as Roman Pilum flew. Those who moved too slowly were struck and fell to their deaths.
After what seemed like an eternity, the soldiers managed to get the ram set. As they did the Carthaginians unleashed burning sands. Within iron buckets, sand had been permeated with Greek fire overnight. A torch set to the mixture set it alight, and then the bucket was dumped over the wall. The fiery gains tended to sift through armor to burn the attacker and set wooden siege equipment alight.
“At the Ready!” the Roman commander shouted. Within the structure men threw their arms round the log.
“Heave-!” the battering ram was hauled back, the chains holding it straining under the shifting weight. “Ho!” With all their might, the men thrust the ram forward, the iron covered tip crashing into the gate, leaving a marked depression as it was withdrawn.
The ram slammed the gates once more.
“It appears to be having some effect.” Crassus stated while viewing the action through his looking glass.”
“Fortune may be smiling on us at last.” Caesar replied.