A huff of annoyance caused him to stop…
Sevastian peered upward at a very irritated Siri, whose eyes shifted down to the bandage on her arm, a bandage he was gently removing.
“Hurts.” She rumbled low.
“Cuts do that.” He replied soft, while continuing to carefully remove the linen. The last part was always the worst, dried blood around the periphery of wound always caused the bandage to stick. “Here,” he murmured, “come sit.”
“What’s the matter, can’t you reach short stuff?” she stated with venom.
He ripped the bandage off causing her to yowl in pain.
“Oh, I’m sorry, did that hurt?” he asked with mock contriteness. In reality, he hated having to rip the bandage off like he did, but this was the best way to get the dressing free and the pain over quick.
Her glare down at him was damming.
“Here, Sevastain began in a conciliatory tone “come sit so I can see the wound better.” This time he noted she moved without adding another snide comment.
The two walked the short distance to the burning oil lamp, set near Sevastain’s cot. He guided her to be seated upon the low bed, while he knelt by her side.
“I cannot believe I let myself get cut by that woman.” Siri groused. Sevastian looked on momentarily as she absentmindedly rubbed her face with one hand.
He frowned, not liking the fact that Siri had been hurt. Over the cycles since they had met he had developed some feelings for…
“Well,” Sevastian paused to clear the lump in his throat, “Achria is quite a warrior by all accounts.” He stated while gently daubing a square of fresh linen over the bleeding wound. “A deep cut, It’s gonna need stitches, here put pressure on it.” As he said the words, Sevastian gently took hold her hand guiding it to the linen scrap over the wound.
It would never work between them, Siri an Amazon, and he… well… hardly anything one such as she would fawn over.
Standing, he moved to his ratty looking saddle bag and began to dig through its various compartments.
“I have been embarrassed in front of the other Amazon’s” She bemoaned. “That’s why I…” her voice trailed off.
“Why what?” Asked Sevastain as he walked back to again kneel at her side. She fell silent watching with a bit of confusion as he poured steaming water from a kettle into a bowl, after a few moments to let it cool slightly, he grabbed a cake of soap then carefully washed his hands in the liquid.
“Why I…um...” She tried again before falling silent,
“Would you pour a bit more over my hands to rinse the soap?” he asked looking up. She was lost a moment looking at his eyes, the way the light from the lamp was reflected in them.”
She jolted from such thoughts at seeing the look on his face. “Water?” he asked with a hint of a smile while motioning to the kettle sitting away from the brazier.
Sheepishly, Siri grabbed the kettle and, leaning over a bit, began to poor the warmed water within it over his hands.
For Sevastian, having her near was quite distracting.
“Thank you.” he fumbled. Pulling his hands away he dried them carefully.
She watched as he released the tiny clasps holding the top onto a little metal pot. “This is a gel made from the Aloe Vera plant and ground Nutmeg,” he explained, “It will help to hold down inflammation and numb the area in preparation for stitches.” He touched her hand, the one tattooed with crude looking bird, which held the bandage and gently moved it away. With deep concentration etched upon his features, Sevastian applied the gel before drawing out a needle made of bone, holding it above the flame of the oil lamp for some moments.
Siri marveled at how deliberate he was the care he took to do the job well. Amazon healers, in contrast, were not known for their gentle bedside manner. “You are embarrassed because you were beaten?” he asked gently, to take the edge off the question.
“No!” she spat, in resentment sitting up stark straight on the cot before slumping down in defeat. “Yes…” she said soft. “I was made to look the fool!” Siri griped while looking downward. “That’s why I came to you for aid with the wound rather than face the other Amazons in shame.”
“Siri, there is no shame in—“
“An Amazon, especially a Commander of Amazons does not lose!” she stated crossly.
“Is that what you believe?” he asked while working to thread the needle, this was the part he hated most, the work was extremely fiddly.
“The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.”
“What does that mean?” she shouted with ire. “And I am not a worthless man!”
He looked up at her not attempting to conceal his amusement.
“Sorry…” she mumbled, you aren’t completely worthless Lord Commander, I spoke out of turn.
Sevastian laughed, then looking up he laughed again seeing that she honestly didn’t realize the snub contained within her words.
“What?” she asked in confusion.
“Siri, you cannot improve without challenges. He daubed the fresh blood seeping out from her wound. Learn from this experience, become a better warrior.
He shifted slightly, drawing nearer to her. “Now hold still, okay? I want to do a fine stitch to leave as small a scar as possible.”
“Were I you…” he pricked her beautiful skin with the needle, the action causing a minute flinch. “I would go to Achria ask her to teach me all she knows, and I would be sure to spar where the other Amazon’s can watch.”
“So they can watch me loose and laugh at my expense.”
“No.” Sevastian took a bit of clean linen and daubed the wound to clear the excess blood. “So that they see that the greatest among them is willing to learn. They will understand Siri, after all aren’t many of the newest Amazon inductees to this army learning to ride. “Every master—“
“Every mistress,” She corrected.
“Of course,” he said while rolling his eyes. “My point is every teacher was once a student.” He pricked her skin again, placing another neat stitch. “Remember, you and I, are called to service, push ego aside. The Empress wishes the Amazon’s to learn this weapon, and you as their leader should set the example.”
“You saying I am being prideful?” she rumbled irate.
“We all can be prideful, I included, but the higher we are placed, the more humbly we should walk.”
Finishing the stitching, he used his teeth to cut the silk thread; Siri was quite impressed by the skill displayed in his work. “Just a moment more,” He said soft while standing. She watched as he rifled through the sack to grab another vial containing a yellow powder. “This is Turmeric, an Eastern spice which will help the wound heal more quickly.”
Taking a bit more cloth, he held it over the flame, scorching the material, turning it black. Setting that aside, he put a pinch of the Turmeric into a clay bowl, then added a few drops of water from the tea kettle. She watched as the mixture became a sort of yellow sludge, which he then rubbed gently atop her stitched wound. Finally he placed the blackened patch over the wound, and then wrapped her arm with fresh linen to hold all in place. “Okay,” he instructed, “keep it clean, change the bandage regularly. Come see me after a seven-day and I’ll remove the stitches.”
She watched as Sevastian smiled, obviously thinking up something.
“Tell you what,” Sevastian took a bit more aloe in hand, then rubbed her scraped knee, before touching her banged up shoulder with the gel. “Learn from this Achria, and when she deems you proficient challenge me to a sparring match.”
“For what purpose?”
“So you can prove the value of the weapon by using it to best me in a fight, the Amazons will love seeing me fall to your skill.”
“A set fight?” She raised one eyebrow.
Sevastain’s eyes widened as he looked up. “Oh, no! A fight I intend to win.”
“As do I.” Siri grinned, suddenly having found new motivation.
“There we have it.” He announced, gathering his materials.
She should take her leave; problem was, looking down at him kneeling so cutely beside the cot… She didn’t want to.
“Oh! Pardon me! I hope I’m not interrupting anything?” By his voice alone Sevastain knew the kid was enjoying catching finding Siri and him together like this.
Sevastian groaned inwardly, “What is it Kodi?”
“The Empress calls you to station, Lord Commander.”
“Gods!” Sevastian stood quick. “I’m late for the daily report.”
“Well, you do have good reason in being late.” Kodi added cheekily. Siri glared at the kid, who, in return, sported a grin right back at her, looking like the cat that got the cream.
“Siri, I shall see you tonight at the War Council.” said Sevastain while racing to gather various square parchments together for his meeting with the Empress.
“Thank you for stitching my wound, Lord Commander.”
Kodi could not resist, it was too rich. “Brother do you give such personal attentions to all your Commanders?”
Sevastian exited the tent, more than a tad embarrassed.
Xena sat behind her desk, long legs crossed femininely as she leaned against the back of the chair. One of her black boots, gently and repeatedly kicked idly as she ruminated on the state of play.
It was not enough for her to simply run an army, to garrison troops in each new city and province conquered. The bureaucracy, the multitudes of bean counters, also had to expand with each gain in territory. Across her new holdings in Asia, she’d had the old leadership crucified. She understood the brutality of crucifixion all too well, but it was effective in persuading people to not lead revolts against her. Unlike the rulers she’d executed, the newly appointed leadership owed her at least a modicum of loyalty for giving them position.
She turned her attentions to another in the latest series of missives from Autolycus.
It appeared Cleopatra was dead, Egypt in ruin. Mentally, Xena shrugged, not concerned at all for the queen. If she was stupid enough to ally with Antonius, she deserved death. Besides, she was more concerned with the actions of the living as opposed to the dead and gone.
Reading further, she looked over the strengths and weaknesses of the Persian Army as revealed by her spy network. It further confirmed what the spy had told her, and what she had already suspected. While the Persians could field a massive army; those within it were poorly trained and lead by nobles who knew little of war, having inherited their positions.
Xerxes focused too much on what he termed, Vengeance Weapons, fancy bladed chariots, and lumbering war elephants.
There was an opportunity here....
If she could pull off something unexpected in her attack, it would confuse her poorly trained enemy and allow her to win the day.
Shifting the papers, she continued to read. The missive now in hand was from Hasdrubal, pleading for her help as his city was on the brink of the last. Carthage was faring badly against the Roman siege, the cavalry force intended to relieve the city, a force she had spent much gold arming, had a poor showing. Seems it was defeated by troops personally led by Caesar.
Knowing Carthage would be under siege had accelerated her time line of attack, now that Carthage was near destruction, she would have to move even faster. After Carthage, Caesar could turn his army eastward intending to conquer a weakened Egypt before challenging her. She would have to beat him to Egypt.
Or would she?
There was one variable... Pompey. Would Caesar instead return to Rome? She considered the question.
“You are late.”
“Pardon Empress, I am behind my time.”
Xena did not look up, nor did she command him to rise, instead she continued reading the parchment held in hand.
“Another reason I like you Sevastian, you don’t waste my time with excuses.”
He felt it best to not speak.
Sevastain stood, and waited, the interior of the tent hushed, save the sounds of the army surrounding it.
He looked to the papers in his hand for a moment.
“Xena.” She said without looking up while shifting in her chair to draw out quill and ink.
“Xena” he corrected, then began anew.
“The wave of dysentery which struck the army has abated.”
“Never should have started in the first place, pure stupidity for both Virgilius and Adamis to set up encampments down river from the rest of the army.” She grumbled while writing the missive, occasionally dipping quill in ink. She wrote to Hasdrubal, the hard truth, he and his people were on their own. She doubted the missive would even reach Carthage in time, or make it through the Roman lines, but the smidgen of honor that remained within her demanded she write her ally one last time. Actually, after a moment’s reflection she began to hope Caesar would intercept her message; it would gall him knowing she had lent support to Carthage.
Carthage’s hate for Rome had served her purpose well; it had worn Caesar’s army down and kept him preoccupied. She had done the same with all the lands under Roman rule. Greek silver was used to supply weaponry to aid their insurgency against Rome. But, all good things must come to an end. The rebels in Gaul, Britainia, and Hispania had been defeated by the Romans, like them, Hasdrubal had also reached the end of his usefulness.
Back to the earlier question. Would Caesar feel it necessary to return to Rome?
If he did, her task would become easier, no Roman Legions standing in the way of her conquest. Pompey and Caesar locked in a second round of their civil war.
Or… perhaps they would be smart enough to join forces against her?
She chucked, no, those two would never partner, too much hatred between them.
Maybe it was time to use Dagnine, and Autolycus to goad Caesar into remaining in Africa? A few timely notes from his... spies...would ensure Julius would forsake a chance at Pompey to face her.
Perhaps she wouldn’t need to expend the effort as Caesar’s manly pride would spur him to face her. A final battle between the two of them, Xena smiled at the thought, Julius always longed-for big victories against his enemies. Pompey or no, Caesar’s ego would not allow him to pass up a chance to face her.
She decided it was just as well to have Autolycus send the missives, besides Dagnine had nothing better to do. Part of her wished she could be there to witness the look on Julius’ face when he learned about Pompey landing in Italy.
Everything which had occurred thus far had gone according to her plan...
“The boiled root tea you prescribed did much to end the affliction.” Sevastian continued after some moments, along with instructing the men to boil their drinking water to rid it of the green grassy things.”
“Current strength of the army stands at 245,371 including auxiliary forces such as Meleagers engineer group and the troops from our new German allies. At present, 3900 are on sick call, the last of the dysentery cases. We have provision enough to last 6 fortnights; Meleager reports the farmers are most pleased by your order to pay fair rates for grain and other sundries needed by the army. We haven’t needed to confiscate any goods, instead we find ourselves in the enviable position of having a steady stream of suppliers.”
She scattered a dusting of fine sand upon the parchment, to dry the ink. After a few moments, she carefully picked it up and tilted it, allowing the sand to flow into a silver container on her desk. Finally she dribbled wax from a nearby taper on the parchment, and then impressed her seal. The missive was complete. Just a few glyphs on parchment, along with the impression of her signet and Carthage’s fate was sealed.
“Cecrops has departed sailing back to Greece to continue supervision of warship construction.”
She looked up from her work. “Number of warships completed?”
“Not good enough, I must have more ships to prevent Rome from landing troops behind my lines.”
Inwardly, Sevastain berated himself; He’d never considered that possibility.
Drawing out more parchment, she began to write again, this time the missive was meant for the leadership of the communities surrounding Olynthus.
“I will order the villages and cities around Olynthus to send more drudges to assist.”
For a long span the silence within the tent returned as quill scratched on paper.
Sevastian hesitated, this bit of news could cause her temper to flair, but it was his job to report every detail concerning the army. There was no means to preface it so he simply dove in.
“There is much talk of time being wasted searching for a girl, when the focus should be on the eminent battle with the Persians.”
No immediate reaction, Xena finished writing her missive without looking up.
“Your opinion, Sevastain?” she asked without emotion, while opening a missive from Salmoneus and beginning to read. It was what she expected. Carthage fighting to the last, the Romans poised for victory, along with Salmoneus’ incessant babble about his hopes for a handsome reward for service to her. She doubted any amount of compensation would satisfy the little pudge-balls expectations.
But within the missive was something of note. General Sulla had been killed, a pity. Battles are won by slaughter and maneuver, the greater the general, the more he contributes to maneuver, the less he demands in slaughter. Sulla, a poor general, demanded much slaughter. The more able Crassus had been promoted to Caesar’s second in command.
“Such talk could ferment in the minds of the men.” Sevastian continued at last. “It could prove dangerous as the men may question your leadership.”
He jerked physically as her chair fell back she having bolted to her feet.
“How dare those scurrying rats tell me how I should carry on!” she roared while moving to loom over him. Her arm raised hand gesturing to the tent flap “I’ve been fighting since I was a small girl, long before many of them could even lift a sword!”
Sevastian found the mental image of Xena being a small girl ludicrously incongruous with the woman looming over him.
In the periphery of his vision he saw her hand clasp the hilt of the dagger in her belt. He swallowed hard, the tip of his tongue darting out momentary to lick suddenly parched lips.
His next words must be chosen carefully.
“Merciful Empress, you know I do as you bid. For innumerable reasons, I give you my full loyalty. I only inform you of the mood of the army.
“I will find the girl Sevastian.” Xena’s voice dropped low in tone, causing the hairs on the nape of his neck to stand.
“I understand Empress; you have made your desire to find the girl clear...” His voice trailed off. “But, pursuing this goal...” He near whispered his voice failing him as she continued to skewer him with her cold silvery eyes.
“I will have her!” she hissed.
“It could mean the loss of loyalty to you by the army.”
“I’ve lost armies before.”
“The loss of the army could end your Empire.” he argued. “They are essential to your keeping hold of power. Empress, should you be toppled from the throne, Greece would again be thrown into civil strife. The Romans will--”
“I will have Gabrielle!” Xena’s voice rose to a shout, “Even if it breaks the known world in two like an apple and flings the two halves into the void!”
She stepped away, her back to him. One of her arms moved up, fingers dragging through her dark hair. “She haunts me Sevastian! Night after night she fills my dreams. Day after day I long for her. I must find her! I don’t understand why, but I must!
“Your will is my duty, she will be found.”
“I take comfort in your loyalty.” her hand clasped his shoulder for a moment and in that moment Xena looked very tired, very tired indeed.
“Lord Commander I want such talk quieted.” She ordered while moving back to her desk and picking up her toppled chair.
“I have stated that you would find such talk disloyal, that you would approve of certain measures to see that it is silenced.”
“Oh?” she sat her gaze upon him, one eyebrow quirking up.
“I threatened a litany of punishments to include the whip, even the specter of crucifixion.”
“You do well, Sevastian.
He dipped his head in fealty to her
“That reminds me, you bobbing your head like that, what about the new salute?” Sevastian watched as Xena shifted, crossing her legs behind her campaign desk, and then crossing her arms across her chest. Her look was smug. She believing he had completely forgotten.
“Kodi demonstrated one to me that he learned from his readings of Latin.”
Her expression almost caused Sevastian to smile. It was very difficult to surprise Xena.
The kid peered round the fabric separating Xena’s work space from the rest of her new tent. The huge bivouac had been a gift from the Germanic leader Alaric. Meleager had half joked that it would take the whole of his corps to move it and set it up in the field.
She raised her hand crooking one finger at the kid, bidding him enter.
“Yes Xena?” he edged further into the space.
“Sevastian tells me you showed him a salute?”
Silence fell for long moments.
Xena leaned forward in her chair expectantly. “Well, would you mind showing it?”
“Oh! Um sure.” Kodi straightened up, realizing she hadn’t seen it yet.
She and Sevastian watched as Kodi raised his right arm, bending it at the elbow while his hand clenched into a fist. The fist touched his right shoulder, and then the arm extended straight, horizontal to the ground, while he unclenched his fist. Now his palm faced down, fingers apart as they extended outward.
“That is a Roman salute.” she stated flat while Kodi let his arm fall limply back to his side.
“Yes.” both brothers said in unison.
“You expect to teach Greeks a Roman salute?” She asked pointedly while looking to Sevastian.
“There is nothing Rome can teach Greece, Empress.” Kodi replied.
“Well said, boy.... Well said.” she praised. “You will demonstrate it tonight at my war council.”
“I shall see you both then, dismissed.”
Xena leaned forward once more; grabbing the dagger upon the desk she used it to break the seal on a large bundle of missives and began to read words written by... Brutus.
She smiled most beautifully.... then let out a pained sigh. Truly there was no rest for the wicked...
“Your boot licker is right. Searching for the girl is a foolish diversion.”
What was left of her smile faded instantly as she looked up see Ares standing on the other side of her desk.
“Did you really think you could keep such a thing hidden from me Chosen?”