The light from the full moon was striking in its beauty. The field was painted in peaceful hues of sliver, only the flickering touch light and the sounds from the Persian camp in a far distance marred the tranquility.
A hand upon his shoulder caused him to start. Even after all this time, he was still spooked by how silently Xena could move.
“Tell me Deshi…” Xena paused watching as he straitened at her use of the title. Never did Sevastain falter when it came to propriety. Having spent time in the east, she knew well the importance the peoples in those lands placed on etiquette.
“What do you notice about the field?”
Sevastain reflected that Xena, even at this most serious of moments, still took time to instruct. Over the course of his being in her army, Sevastian had found the Empress a learned master in the art of war and, her fearsome persona notwithstanding, a remarkably patient teacher.
“The field looks, well…” he thought for a moment more while looking at the terrain bathed in moonlight. “It looks like it has been prepared.”
“Superb observation, Xerxes has taken the time to drag logs across this field, removing vegetation and leveling it.” As he turned to look up into her blue eyes, he noted her amusement and watched as she chuckled, “He tries to control all the variables to ensure victory.”
“Sensei, pardon my brazenness, but why all the effort on his part?”
Her hand fell on his shoulder, “When a commander has trained his army to only follow orders, and not to think, everything about a battle must be planned. Her hand lifted away as she looked to the massive Persian camp. Even now, the various commanders in the Persian army are drilling the men to ensure they line up in the proper formation tomorrow.
“I spied on their camp.” She said matter of fact.
Sevastian was amazed. “You slipped into their camp How--”.
“I have been in the business of war for some time; very few skills are unknown to me.
“Agreed Sensei,” He stood in awe of her
“Xerxes is so fearful of a night attack by my force; he has ordered the whole of his army to stay awake.”
“Foolish, they will be exhausted tomorrow”
“Correct,” Xena praised. “Consider this. What is the best way to defeat an army which lacks the ability to adapt to the changing nature of battle?”
As Sevastian pondered the question, she swept past. Turning her back to him, Xena clasped her hands behind her back, gaze still on the Persian encampment.
“Muddle the plan?” He answered unsure.
“Your thoughts follow the correct course. So now my question is, how do you propose to... muddle... the plan?”
Sevastian turned fully, observing the Empress as she stood with her back to him. Her dark hair being blown by the gentle breeze, dressed in all black. She was at home with the darkness surrounding them.
“Do the unexpected.” He answered upon reflection.
Xena turned a flash of pure white as she smiled down at him.
“Sensei, I address you as one who only wishes to learn.” Sevastian prefaced, thinking his next question might spark some anger.
“Many in our own ranks, fear the Persians, you must admit, the scale of their army is daunting.”
“Do not fall into the trap caused by that line of thinking.” She warned. Many a poor commander thinks only in terms of size, they reason that the larger the army is, the more formidable it must be. Not so. Any force, no matter how large, can be routed.”
For a moment her eyes tracked to the flickering torches of her own encampment, Sevastian couldn’t help but follow her gaze.
Talmadeus, and those who agree with him, see the size of the Persian Army and quake in fear, because they only think in terms of the numbers against us. It is better to think in terms of how you can use numbers to your advantage.”
“Pardon, but I do not...” Sevastain began, but immediately fell silent realizing he was being taking liberties in asking questions before receiving permission from his Sensei.
“Continue.” Xena commanded while crossing arms over her chest.
“I am uncertain as to the meaning behind your words.”
Deshi, 400,000 mindless Persian lemmings are difficult to control on the battlefield. We do one thing that takes them by surprise and the Persians will fall like...What is that saying the gambler Rafe is fond of?”
“Something to do with a house?” Sevastian tried to remember. He had met the man only briefly in Pireaus. Xena had placed Rafe in charge of the collection of taxes, reasoning a con man would recognize any attempt to swindle the Greek State.
“Their force will fall like a house built of cards.” she stated. “I’m confident we will win, so much so I even give Xerxes the choice of ground on which to fight.”
“Come, Lord Commander, we have a final war council to attend. Prepare yourself, it will be contentious.”
She stalked off toward camp, he following.
The day’s excitement had long since come to an end, but her work continued.
Pausing momentarily to reposition the step stool, she stood atop it once again and brushed Argo’s beautiful mane of white.
“You did so well today.” Gabrielle cooed. The sound of her voice caused the stallion to let out a gentle wicker.
Across the space, Lilla had already fallen asleep.
The Circus Maximus had the single most beautiful stables Gabrielle had ever seen! The marble walls were covered by gorgeous mosaics which celebrated the majesty of the horse. Along the wide walkway to the track were allegories depicting the creation of the horse by Neptune. It was a story Gabrielle knew well, but the beautiful art upon the walls fired her imagination and spurred her thinking towards new stories.
The stall used by Iolaus’ team happened to be nearest the grand entrance to the track. Pausing in her work, Gabirelle looked out past the stable doors to the giant mosaic of Julius Caesar and Bucephalus. The scene depicted was known to every Greek. Alexander the Great tamed the magnificent Bucephalus, only here in Rome, it was Caesar who was taming the great steed. Despite the blatant rewriting of history by the Romans, the scene was beautifully done and Caesar did look quite heroic. Such was the power of image Gabrielle mused, many a Roman probably believed it truly was Caesar who tamed Bucephalus.
Turning, Gabrielle moved to brush Argo’s hind quarter. So intent upon her work, she didn’t hear the soft steps approaching from behind.
She tried to scream out when grabbed; before she could a hand covered her mouth. A hiss of pain escaped her assailant when she bit down on his finger. Gabrielle fought to free herself, but it was of no use! Her attacker was far stronger and larger than she.
A groan sounded and then she was free. Whirling about she gasped seeing Iolaus’ steward Alexandros lying upon the ground, Heniokhos standing behind, mallet in hand.
“Gabrielle are you alright?”
She ran to the chariot driver, giving him a tight hug.
“It’s okay Gabrielle.” he soothed, feeling her trembling. “All is well now.”
“I-I don’t understand. Why would Alexandros try to hurt me?”
Kneeling, Heniokhos placed his hand near the steward’s mouth briefly. “Still alive.” He muttered. Reaching out, he then grabbed a bit of rope and set to work tying Alexandros ankles and wrists securely. “That will hold him.”
“I’m going to get Iolaus. Heniokhos stood, looking Gabrielle directly in the eye. The man was absolutely tiny, meaning he was her height. It was good quality for a chariot driver being that it meant less weight for the horse team to pull.
“I’ll be back directly.” He ran to get the master.
With a shake of her head, Gabrielle moved to wake still sleeping Lilla.
“We must attack!”
“Why must we?” Meleager countered tired of the same argument brought up by Adamis time and again. “The impetus should be on Xerxes to make the first move. After all, we are the invader, the onus is on him to push us from Persian lands.
“I tell you, against an army of that size we must move first or they will surround us.”
“Our cavalry, the old guard, and Amazons will prevent that.” Sevastian said tiredly while rubbing his eyes. “They will shore up our flanks.”
“Doubtful,” Talmadeus shook his head. “We don’t have the numbers to hold back that large a force and if--”
“We do.” Siri retorted firmly.
“You command a pittance of Amazon cavalry, yet you say you will hold.” Mercer asked, voice sounding with stolid skepticism.
For a moment, Siri felt unsure, but she pressed on, knowing her rank gave every right to speak her mind in the war council, despite that these egoistical male blow-hards thought.
“Yes.” She said firm.
“Your Amazons cannot hold against that large a force, you will be swept back then—“
We will not only hold them, but will push them back all the way to Persia.” Siri touted.
“So you say.” Menticles now joined in. “I do not think so; your warriors are out of their element. No trees to hug here. Amazons don’t stand a chance in the open desert.”
“The setting of the battle, or the means by which we fight matters little, we will prevail.”
“Well, you’re sure of yourself, I’ll grant that.” Talmadeus conceded. “And having fought your people, I know well of your ability. But the Persian force is vast, I hold to my belief you and the rest of our cavalry will be forced back. Once the flanks are clear, the Persian foot soldiers will move to surround us.
“We have turned back large armies before.” She defended.
“Oh?” Menticles huffed. “When?”
“When we defeated Xena’s force during the Battle for Corinth.”
A deadly silence followed
“You dare to insult our Empress!” Adamis drew his dagger only to have his hand holding it stayed by Sevastian. Adamis was incensed at having been stopped. “You may not be willing to defend the honor of our liege lord, but I will!” He spat, thinking to forcefully pull his hand away until Xena’s laugh stopped him.
All gathered round the table looked to the empress who sat peacefully in her camp chair.
“I take no offense hearing truth. The Amazon’s pushed my cavalrymen back then and now they shall help us defeat the Persians.” Opening her eyes, Xena leaned forward. “You lot have been arguing in circles for candle marks and still I hear nothing which convinces me to alter the plan. You will have your men in position before dawn arrives, now out all of you!”
“Gods on high! I knew she would not give up and here is the proof!”
The proof Iolaus referred to was in his hand, having been gained by a search of Alexandros’ person. Now all knew why the steward had wanted to take Gabrielle.
“Probably got hold of it on the docks, brought by one of the Merchant ships, Heniokhos surmised.
“Their weight in gold!” Lilla was stunned. Gabrielle wished she could see what all the fuss was about. Sensing her frustration, Iolaus handed the parchment to her.
There, on the bill, was her exact likeness, along with a princely reward. A shocked Gabrielle looked up to her master.
“I will do all I can to keep you from her clutches Gabrielle.” Iolaus vowed. Stepping away he began to pace attempting to order his thoughts.
“First things first,” Iolaus pointed first to Alexandros lying on the floor of the stable then to Heniokhos. “I want you to strip him of his finery, and then throw some rags on him. Take him to the docks this side Tiber and sell him to the press gangs for any price you can get. Those merchant ships are always in need of men to haul ropes.”
“but…” Gabrielle objected soft as the steward was dragged away.
“Don’t you dare feel sorry for him Gabrielle.” Iolaus warned. “In his lust for gold, Alexandros would have abducted you and not thought twice about it. If he stays near, you will not be safe.”
Iolaus gently placed his hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders. “We must work on a way to ensure the witch does not find you.”
From a respectful distance they observed. One watcher had become two, then four, and from then on, quite a crowd formed.
Despite the growing number of onlookers, Xena kept to her task, sketching her creation with a chunk of blackened carbon fetched from the ashes. First on the large piece of parchment she drew the gondola and driver. Then she drew the animal itself with its wrinkly skin, tree trunk sized legs, and long snout.
Finally someone had bravery enough to ask. Looking up Xena made eye contact with the one who asked the question, watching fear crash over the boy at having gained her full attention.
She had that effect on people…
A smile along with a little wink from her and the boy relaxed slightly.
“Come see.” She beckoned him closer.
His eyes widened to such a comical degree that it was all she could do not to chuckle.
“C’ere.” One of her hands patted the ground next to her.
Acestes willed his feet to move, thought they felt rooted to the ground. Several halting steps later he found himself sitting a respectful distance from... the all-powerful Empress. Something his mates in the army would have never believed, if they weren’t here watching at this very moment.
He yelped as her hand grabbed his arm, dragging him closer and, causing the assembled men surrounding them to laugh.
Acestes curiosity got the best of him and he leaned over just a touch to see the parchment.
“What manner of beastie is that!?”
“That my friend is called an elephant.”
Xena observed him for some moments as he looked at the parchment. “Looks big and scary doesn’t it?”
“That is how the Persian wants you to think, but you see, this big beast has big weaknesses.”
“Where?” he asked, his guileless question caused her to smile warmly.
Holding up the parchment, she motioned for the soldier nearest to take it. He had much the same reaction to her drawing, before passing it on through the gathered crowd.
Leaning back against the wheel of the supply wagon, Xena casually stretched her long legs, and crossed them at the ankles. The boys next to her stiffened like stone when she casually placed her arm upon his shoulder.
“Relax would yah.” She chided.
“See where the driver is perched?” her gaze flicked over the assembled men, who nodded. “Easy to knock him off with a thrown pilum or an arrow or two. And the feet, they are quite tender, a few spikes thrown upon the ground will stop a whole herd of them from charging.”
“Really?” the kid next to her asked, doubtful.
“Yes.” She replied with confidence.
“Then why use the beasties in battle?” the boy next to her asked. Xena understood full well he was voicing questions, many of these men harbored.
She ruffled his hair playfully, eliciting another round of laughter from the soldiers surrounding them.
“The Persian’s think these elephants will scare you, so much so that you will turn tail and run all the way back to Greece.”
“Not so!” the answer, voiced by many, rippled through the assembled soldiers.
She stood, taking a moment to help the boy next to her up as well.
I am glad to hear it.” Moving forward, she clasped the wrist of the man nearest, and then did the same with many others.
“Let that picture be seen by as many as possible, tell them what I have told you.” she ordered.
The men parted as she walked forward and on to another part of the encampment. This time she would draw and then instruct men on the weaknesses of chariots.
Drums and war cries sounded.
“Olympian Lords, those women can sure make a racket.”
An amused Sevastian looked to Meleager, who was sitting in one of the many camp chairs scattered about the space. Xena had gotten a new tent, and had given him her old one. Within these fabric walls his life had changed many cycles ago, here he had been inducted into Xena’s army. Truthfully, he was deeply grateful to be gifted the bivouac, but it was enormous, he felt a bit out of place within it.
“A most unusual and intimidating way to prepare for battle,” Sevastian observed.
The two men sat in amicable silence, listening to the fearsome cries of the Amazons outside as they moved to the rhythms of the drums.
Shifting in his chair to get more comfortable, Meleager watched, captivated with the precision Sevastian displayed while cleaning his weaponry. The second had two eastern swords, one he had crafted to personal specifications, the other presented to him by the empress. Meleager wasn’t one to be superstitious, but the few times he had touched the burgundy colored braid on the grip of the Empress’ old sword from Jappa... Well, he could feel the darkness which seemed to be infused within. That weapon had been used in some evil purpose.
“I’m just going to leave this.” Meleager put a small clear bottle on the top of Sevastain’s campaign desk and stood.
“What is that?” asked Sevastian while glancing up.
“Little something a friend of mine occasionally ships to me from across the seas. The Celts call it whiskey. Has quite a kick to it.”
“I didn’t think you drank Meleager.” said Sevastain while gently sliding the Katana back into its beautiful form fitting scabbard. Like the sword, the scabbard was well cared for and engraved with the “X” of his Empress.
“I don’t.” Meleager paused to adjust his armor. “But – if - we somehow manage to pull off a win against the Persians, I want to have one drink.” The Commander raised one hand, finger pointing at Sevastian. “Now mind you, it will be one drink only, and I only wish to share it with you.”
“I’d be honored.”Sevastain replied while standing. Taking the clear bottle to hand, he studied its contents.
“Not – if-.”
“What?” Meleager asked in confusion.
“Not if, we will.” Sevastian was firm in tone.
“We can beat them?” the old commander referred to the Persians.
“We can, Meleager, Sevastian looked the commander directly in the eye, “and we will.”
“This,” Sevastian held the bottle higher, “Looks like muddy river water.” He observed.
“More like fire water.” Meleager quipped. “It’s anything but smooth.”
Before Sevastian could reply a voice intruded.
“Your pardon, but might I have a word?”
Both looked to the tent flaps to see Kodi. Whatever he wanted, it must be serious. Sevastian rarely heard such courtesy from him.
“I will take my leave Lord Commander.” Meleager walked to the tent flaps.
“Meleager,” Sevastian called out causing the man to stop.
“I’ll see you after the battle for that drink.”
After a momentary smile, the Meleager ducked out of the tent.
“Kodi, whatcha need?” Sevastain walked to his desk intending to sit.
“I, um…” Kodi began haltingly. “You need help with your armor?” he asked abruptly, “I could maybe brush it out, ah, maybe clean your boots.” While Kodi said the words brightly, the look on his face caused Sevastian to come back round the desk and give his half-brother a hug.
“I’ll be fine Kodi, you’ll have me around to argue with plenty when the battle is over.” Sevastian poked the kid in the side playfully.
“It makes no difference, the disagreements we have brother, those are separate from my wish to see you safe. I-I’m… sorry for the things I’ve said to you.”
“Well…” Sevastian stated with a sigh, “I’ve said some awful things to you as well. Let’s just call it even.
“Again, I know it makes no difference towards changing your opinion, but I cannot in good conscience leave you without once more saying that Xena is wrong. She is wrong in both thought and action.” The words were blunt, but that was how Kodi was.
There were a number of cutting things Sevastian could say in retort. “Then we shall continue to disagree on that Kodi.” This was not a time to argue.
Kodi hugged him tightly, a lingering hug, and then departed in silence.
Walking back round the desk, Sevastain pulled out one drawer reaching for the folded square parchment inside bearing his seal. He placed in in the center of the cleared desktop. Should something happen, it would be easily found.
His will and testament.