“Oh Lilla! What wondrous tales!”
In the pitch darkness of the room, Lilla smiled at the unabashed joy her older sister displayed. The master had picked a wonderful inn for them to stay in while in Piraeus. Iolaus was most pleased when Gabrielle had shown initiative in respectfully haggling with the inn keeper for a better price on rooms and meals. While the innkeeper had initially balked at bargaining with a slave, Gabrielle soon had the man engaged in a lively discourse. Her sister, Lilla conceded, had a gift in swaying others with her words. As reward for her efforts, the master had used part of the savings to obtain a small room for her and Gabrielle to share. Not only that, he had paid for them to have a bath! A warm water bath at that! Lilla did feel some guilt at the other slaves being housed in the stable belonging to the inn, but the opportunity to have a room in an inn didn’t happen every day.
“And the one about the Minotaur, I was so scared imagining it!”
“I know sister,” Lilla replied. “You nearly broke my arm by gripping it so tight!”
“Sorry,” Gabrielle said sheepishly while burrowing into the warmth of the covers more deeply. The two sisters were happy to have the opportunity to sleep in a bed being that it was the height of luxury, especially for slaves. The woolen blankets were a warm shield against the sudden surprising chill borne by the wind rattling the closed shutters.
“Do you think there was truth to the tale he told about Xena? That she descended from the heavens throwing thunderbolts and breathing fire?”
“I do not think it possible sister.” Lilla spoke most serious, “Recall Icarus, how he had wings held together by wax.”
“Oh yes! He flew too close to Helios high above,” Gabrielle continued excitedly “and the wax melted causing him to fall into the sea!”
“From what I have heard of Xena she is most fearsome, and has many skills, but surely she lacks the knowledge to construct wings sister as Daedalus could.”
“True, when I met her I did not see wings.”
“Gabrielle,” Lilla began earnestly, “Your imagination sometimes runs amok, you were just dreaming sister, it was just a dream you confused with waking reality.”
“But Lilla, I really did meet—“
“We must get some rest Gabrielle,” Lilla cut the thought off, “tomorrow we board the ship bound for Rome.”
The bed rocked slightly her sister rolled over, her back to Gabrielle
Silence between the two...
“But it could be that Xena was riding a horse like Pegasus?”
“Go to sleep Gabrielle.”
“How ill this taper burns.”
Leaning back from her maps of the east, Xena set the quill down then closed her eyes, while her other hand moved up fingers rubbing the bridge of her nose.
While all within the palace slept soundly, she could afford no such respite. True, she had achieved her first goal, the conquest of Greece. However, her new empire was at the stake and surrounded by many enemies.
A chill breeze sent a shiver down her spine, so much so that she looked up, eyes opening to scan the windows in the chamber checking to see if one had come open.
A small shuffling, within the room caused her to straighten in her chair, one hand moving to gasp the dagger upon the desk. Years of living the life of a warlord, had ingrained in her the need to always have a weapon at hand.
“Who comes here? Xena challenged, her raised voice echoing off the heavy stone walls. Silently she cursed the guttering candles within the space for not adequately dispelling the darkness.
Out of a sudden mist, a figure emerged. Reflexively, Xena blinked several times, believing her tired eyes to be playing tricks.
A black shade, glided towards her, the sight of it causing her blood to run cold and her hair to stand on end. In that moment, Xena recollected her cutting lament to Alti, on how she hated the dead, as you couldn’t take vengeance upon them.
“Tell me what you are!” Xena demanded, rising from her chair. The hard expression she wore softened as shapelessness took shape.
Xena heard her voice waver on the name of the girl. For a moment it was as if the cycles had not passed, the girl looked and was dressed in the very same manner as when the two had first met.
“Why do you come upon me?” Rasped Xena thickly, “Are you a spirit come to haunt me in my waking moments as you do in my dreams?” Slowly, she slipped round the desk, to step toward the little figure.
The sweetness of the expression, the tenderness of the eyes, the gentleness radiating from the girl, all drew her closer to the apparition. But, as she moved closer, Gabrielle glided back, her visage fading slightly, the sight of which caused Xena to take heed and stop her progress.
“What you see is but a memory.”
“A memory, I… I don’t understand.” Gently, Xena moved to kneel, sudden tears welling in her eyes, a testament to the charged emotions roiling within her. Emotions she didn’t understand, couldn’t explain, but felt.
“Of what could have been.” The shade replied. “And of what could still be.”
“Gabrielle, you speak in riddles, help me understand.” Xena pleaded while looking up into green eyes. Wanting so badly to reach out and touch the small figure before her. Now the tears truly began to fall, eliciting a gentle, compassionate smile from the apparition as she beheld the empress.
“You shall see me again.”
“I shall see you again?” Xena could not hold back the hopeful optimism within her voice.
“At Piraeus I shall see you again?”
Xena awoke with a start, rocking the chair in which she was seated. Looking about the darkened room, she saw it was empty.
“Another torment!” she raged while roughly wiping the wetness from her cheeks.
“By the gods!” Why does she choose to haunt me? Standing Xena moved to the nearest window, removing the bar, she threw the shutters open. The winds swept in ruffling the silken fabric of the crimson robe she wore as well as the papers strewn about her desk. With it came a distinct chill.
The god of war delivers on his wager.
“Piraeus.” The word was suddenly upon her lips, “At Piraeus I shall see her again.”
Every instinct within suddenly urged her to ride to the port city. And just what reason will you give for waking the men in the dark of night. We ride to Piraeus because I spoke with a shade? Because my heart pines for some little peasant I met long ago?
“I am the Empress of the Greek lands,” firm resolve marked her tone as the decision was made. “My word is their command.”
Walking to the bedroom door, she flung it open, to cross the private audience chamber. Outside the Amazon guard was startled when the doorway they guarded abruptly opened.
“Wake my second, the Empress directed tersely. “Tell him I want 400 cavalrymen at the ready in the courtyard immediately.”
The eyes of both Amazon’s widened comically for a moment before one, Amoria by name dipped her head and departed at a run.
“Get up!” He bellowed while stepping into the darkened space.
Sevastian used a nearby flint and striker, to light the first torch in the barracks, then used it to light still more found in the sconces scattered about.
With a deft kick, he woke a sleeping Alistair who evidently had passed out on the floor, the effects of too much revelry earlier in the night.
“Who in Tartarus is kicking me in the butt!” A wave a fear crashed over the man’s face as he looked up to see his commander standing over him.
“Get up and clear your heads of the night’s merriment!” Sevastian yelled out to the men as Alistair watched. “I want you in the court yard ready to ride within the candle mark.”
All within looked at him in disbelief.
Men scrambled to dress, and don armor. Sevastian, satisfied they were moving with as much alacrity as possible, stepped out of the barracks and back into the darkness of the courtyard running headlong into Siri.
The Amazon waited most patiently and rather smugly as he picked himself up off the ground. “The rest of your armor, Lord Commander,” She said most pleasant
“Thank you,” he replied sheepishly, having been embarrassed by being knocked on his butt. The time limit imposed by the Empress had caused the need for him to rush to the barracks, heedless of not being completely dressed.
She slipped the black lamellar of his chest armor over his head, making quick work of tying the cords that held it to him. He felt a blush heat his cheeks when her long arms reached round him to quickly tie the silk cobalt sash about his waist. She then snugged the sword Xena had gifted him within its folds. Finally she placed his helmet, tying the cords under his chin.
“Th-thanks.” He muttered while looking down at his polished boots. Seemed this was a habit he kept repeating around the Amazon.
Looking up, he saw Gisela being led toward him by a military groom.
“I keep you from your rest Siri, go and—“
“Rest?” The towering Amazon snorted. “You think I mean to go back to bed? I go with the scouts ahead of you, making sure of a clear path for your much vaunted guardsmen.”
“I did not mean to offend.”
“Nor am I offended Lord Commander as I have found that men often speak first, and then think.”
Shaking his head, Sevastian watched she departed at a run to join her sisters. The group of Amazons then slipped quietly out the far gate of the courtyard.
This mission was off to a grand start, reflected Sevastain.
At her appearance in the courtyard, she heard the seconds voice rise up, calling the guard to attention at her presence. Mounting Argo she raised one gauntleted hand, gesturing for the column to move.
Spurring her mount forward, her men followed riding in lines four abreast, the outer men carrying lighted torches.
The guards ahead opened the heavy wooden gates, and the force swept into the dark streets of Athens, horse hooves sounding loud upon the deserted cobblestone streets. Within darkened homes, people listened with dread as the riders passed. This night had been one of terrors. Across the city, citizens had been drug from their homes, their screams echoing through empty streets. The scene repeated itself over and over, a bang upon a door, those within hauled from their bed.
The crimes which had been committed unknown.
Sevastian dared not speak as the determined look on the face of the Empress made him think better of asking questions. He understood, as all must have upon leaving the southern city gate that the force was on its way to the port of Piraeus. What would happen when they arrived, he did not know, but was certain the Empress would tell in good time.
A wonderful feeling of freedom, Xena reflected feeling the chill of the night upon her face as she led her guard forth. Riding this way reminded her of the raid she conducted upon Cortese’s encampment long ago. For many a cycle she had tracked his movements as the warlord swept from village to village raiding, plundering, and killing. Finally on the night of the winter solstice she and her men lay in wait observing the drunken celebrations in the camp below. All within her army were edgy, knowing the moment of attack was drawing near.
She had killed Cortese and every man who followed him. Some 800 she had impaled on large stakes of wood, one end buried in the ground the other being hewn to a rounded point. That punishment made even crucifixion seem mild. The weight of the man’s body served to slowly push the point of the spear, then the rest of the pike though the body. That was true justice, delivered to those who killed her Lyceus. Woe to the hand which had shed that costly blood.
Silent shock rolled through the men of the guard, shock that Xena noticed. Even Sevastian was surprised by the number...
“We must steel our hearts, secure in the knowledge that what we do is for the betterment of Greece.” Xena instructed the riders nearest as they passed a forest of crosses. The area was lit in a most macabre way by the many flickering torches of the men standing guard over this field of death. “You know this my loyal one,” now she spoke directly to Sevastian, “having already proved your fidelity to me. “These here, like the members of the Assembly…” one gauntleted hand rose gesturing to the crosses, “…Traitors all.” She pronounced.
“Tell Meleager, we’re gonna need a lotta wood. When I’m done cleaning the known world of vermin, there’ll be a line of crosses from Corinth to the Caspian Sea.”
“Kill Xena…” one figure amongst many murmured upon seeing the entourage passing.
“Kill all... follow… Slayer…of Kirra…”
Callisto’s head fell forward as death placed its claim, her body falling slack upon the cross which held her.
In the light of early dawn, the two made their way through the market.
“I shall miss the harvest festivals.” Lilla declared with sadness while using both hands to raise the hem of her brown dress so that it didn’t drag though a particularly disgusting looking puddle.
Gabrielle took a moment to peek upward at her taller sibling, not worried about the puddle in the least as she wore her standard boots and trousers “I will miss them as well sister.”
“Especially the food,” Lilla chided, laughing at Gabrielle’s dower expression. “How you stay so thin and small eludes me sister, a full breakfast at the inn, and here you spend precious copper coin on sweet breads.”
“I did not hear these complaints when I gave you a piece.” Gabrielle retorted grumpily. All ill humor she held dissipated immediately, when Lilla enveloped her in a very loving hug. “It is probably good we had our fill before setting out on this adventure,” Lilla reflected “for I hear the waters are rough in the wintry season.”
“I always dreamed of having adventures, but now that we are about to sail the great sea to Rome, I find myself both sad and unsettled that we leave Greece.”
“Are you finding dreaming about adventures to be different than actually embarking upon one?” asked Lilla.
Gabrielle could only shrug her shoulders, “Truthfully, yes.”
“I don’t know the reasoning behind the masters desire to leave. He hates the Destroyer that is clear, but for reasons which remain largely unknown. It matters little as we are bound to him, the choice is not ours to make.” Lilla stated bitterly.
“Of all the possible outcomes of our enslavement sister, I do believe the fates have blessed us by allowing us to stay together, and by giving us a kind and gentle master. You must admit Lilla; things could have gone far worse.”
“Our lot has been better than many of those which count themselves as free men.” Lilla agreed, “And that is why I have never once thought of escape. The master has seen to it that we are protected while in his service.
Come,” Lilla took Gabrielle by the hand. “We must make our way toward the docks, as the time nears for us to board the ship. “It might be wise for us to seek out some remedy for sea sickness.”
“I’ve never been on the sea before; do you really think we’ll get sick?”
“Gabrielle, you once got a sick tummy crossing over a rope bridge.”
“It was high up and the wind made it shake!”
Silence reigned, save for the snorts of hard driven horses, the breath of both beast and man visible in the chill morning air.
All activity ceased upon her entrance into the city. Drawing back the black hood of her cloak, raven tresses were caught by the chill breeze. Hardened blue eyes aloofly flicked over the silent townsfolk, noting shock at her sudden appearance slowly morph into fear upon the faces of the peasants. One by one, the people fell upon knees, dipping heads, casting eyes downward. Behind and high above the Empress, her standard, carried by an Amazon scout was being slowly raised over the main city gate. Caught by wind it snapped smartly, a reminder to all within the city just who it was that had come calling.
“Station, Lord Commander.”
“Majesty,” Sevastian, rode to her side, dipping his head in deference once he drew near.
“I want this city searched. Every inn, every tavern, every business, every temple, every home, leave no stone unturned.”
Sevastian was silent, thinking the Empress would elaborate further as to what she wanted them to search for.
She did not.
“You going to ask what to look for, or were you planning on sitting here and continuing to enjoy this lovely sunrise with me?”
“The thought as to what we are searching for had occurred to me.” His response caused her to cast him a rare amused look.
Now or never Xena, get on with it, She took a deep breath.
“Look for a girl, tiny in stature, fair haired, with green eyes. She wears the dress of a simple peasant,” She paused a moment, thinking of Draco’s men raiding Potidaea, “perhaps even the mark of a slave. Round up all that fit the description, bring them to me in the town square.
“As you command sovereign.”
As expected, Sevastian did not question the order; instead he was on the move, shouting instructions to the guard to get the search underway. Soon, some of her men had dismounted and were banging sword hilts on doors to gain entrance, still more fanned out to canvass the other streets of Piraeus.
“You are close Gabrielle; I feel it within my very bones.”
Xena took the opportunity to dismount, pulling her cloak off, to fold it neatly then place it in the tooled leather saddlebag slung over Argo. Releasing the belt clasped about her waist, she freed the long cape of royal purple, a symbol of her status as wearing the color was traditionally forbidden to the general population. Clasping her belt back about her, she decided to do a little investigating of her own, before the kneeling, gawking onlookers drove her to a slip of temper.
Leading Argo to a nearby trough of water; Xena tied the reins loosely.
Pausing a moment, she beheld a peasant girl with beautiful straw-colored hair. As the girl knelt before her, it was plain that she clearly afraid, her body, quaking, breathing rapid.
“Look at me girl.”
Beautiful hazel eyes stricken with pure fear met her own for a moment then darted downward again.
Not Gabrielle, of course not, it wouldn’t be that easy, she let out a sigh. One of her gauntleted hands rose, while Xena stooped slightly to allow her fingers to lovingly brush through the girl’s hair if for only a moment.
Continuing on, she chose to step into a cloth merchants shop.
Her far above average height worked against her. Xena found it necessary to duck quite low to enter through the door, once inside she felt the need to crouch slightly, lest her head make contact with the ceiling.
The peasants within were all too eager to make their exit from the daunting woman looming over them, happy to leave the proprietor alone to face her. The man’s knees went weak as she approached and he slumped down hard upon them.
“Ta-Timoleon, Great Xena.”
Of all the sights he might behold in this life, meeting the infamous Destroyer was not something Timoleon would have believed possible. But here she stood, more fearsome than even the most fertile mind could imagine.
“It appears that you run prosperous business Timoleon, It would seem many in Piraeus frequent your… establishment.”
“The gods have blessed me with a good living, Great Xena.” The little man replied haltingly.
“Your own efforts made you a success, not some blessing from the gods.”
As many visit your shop, I require information from you. I look for someone Timoleon, a small fair-haired girl with eyes of a most rare color, green.”
“Empress, many come and go; I do not always recall details about those to peruse my shop.”
He trembled, at the sight of one of her hands reaching out slowly, to grasp the fine fabric of his tunic. “If your intent by those words is to gain some type of payment for providing me with information, you will be sadly mistaken.”
“Empress I would never—“
“Try to recollect Timoleon, as if your very life depended upon it.” She pulled him to his feet.
“P-please understand, our fair city attracts many traders who arrive from far and wide. I do not remem--”
“The docks” Xena murmured, while cursing internally, pure stupidity not to sending the guard to take immediate control of the ships lying in the port.
The hand holding him tight released his tunic, The Destroyer whirling about. Timoleon looked on bewildered as she stalked out of his store. Long after she had left, he remained kneeling, his body trembling, suffering from the shock caused by meeting the sublimely beautiful and supremely dangerous Xena.
“Sevastian!” She roared while mounting Argo. The yell had its intended effect as her second came running out from within a tanners shop.
“The docks!” she said simply, before spurring Argo forward.
“You men! With me!” he directed while continuing to run toward Gisela, mounting his steed quickly. Of the 400 searching the city, 50 riders moved to follow.
“Guaranteed to aid against becoming sick while at sea,” The stout woman standing before them stated with a grin. “Why it’s a little known secret…” she spoke in hushed tones, leaning over only after looking about the merchant plaza conspiratorially. The shop keep, being rather rotund, looked much like a toppling tree to wee Gabrielle. “Dionysius the Phocaean drank my formula before going off to fight the Persian fleet at the Battle of Lade.” Both sisters took a discreet step back as truthfully, the alcohol induced stench from the woman’s breath was dreadful.
“The great admiral Dionysius suffered from sea sickness?” Lilla was amazed.
“Didn’t he lose the battle?” asked Gabrielle who recalled a tale once told, her words immediately caused the woman to frown.
“Bah! Go on with ye, worthless slaves!” the woman barked, evidently quite offended. “I’ll not be selling anything to the likes of you!” Her hands moved to shove the girls away but she held back, feeling the change in tenor of the entire plaza. The sense of dread was palpable as tense sounding murmurs rippled through the crowd.
“The Destroyer comes!” The seller of perfumes in the next booth spoke. Suddenly very busy gathering his wares, the man didn’t care to enlighten further.
“Gabrielle, we must go.”
“Why would Xena come to Piraeus?”
“How should I know sister?” exasperation colored Lilla’s tone, “Perhaps she wants to spend the day shopping for vanities to full her palace! Lilla added with derision.
An image of Xena shopping popped into Gabrielle’s thoughts, she giggled, thinking no merchant would dare to haggle with the fearsome woman she had met. Though she only met the Destroyer for a short span, Gabrielle thought it unlikely Xena would enjoy shopping. “No matter,” Lilla continued, too worried to take notice of Gabrielle’s amusement, “because we shan’t be here to find out what she wants.”
“But…” Gabrielle protested, her heart wishing to see even just a small glimpse of Xena.
Both girls noticed the men across the plaza; their armor marking them as part of the Empress’ army. When the men turned from speaking with the shop keep, their gaze fell directly upon the two slaves. The look given wasn’t particularly nice.
Lilla ran, “C’mon Gabrielle!”
“But shouldn’t we see what they—“The thought dissipated as she got a close look at the expression worn by the soldier running towards her.
With Lilla in the lead, they skirted round the various booths filled with vendors darting back and forth thought the crowd.
“Gabrielle hurry!” Lilla implored, after turning her head back to find her sister trailing far behind
“I cannot help it, I have little legs!” Gabrielle shouted. Looking back, her eyes widened in terror taking in the sight of the soldiers quickly gaining on her.
Gabrielle fell hard, having slammed directly into high stacked wicker crates holding all manner of birds. The crates tipped, smashing to the cobblestones freeing their captives. Amidst the sounds of cackling fowl, she tried to gain her bearings.
“Look here girl!” A large man approached apparently the proprietor of the stand, who appeared none too pleased by her display of ineptitude. Before he could say anything further, all manner of peasants appeared out of the milling crowds, to grab the squawking birds. “Stop, damn ye!” he bellowed out to no avail as a free for all occurred, people running to snatch up a tasty dinner.
“Gabrielle!” Lilla appeared from the throng to roughly grab her hand, hauling to her feet. “We must run!” For an instant, her eyes tracked to where Lilla was pointing to see the soldiers shoving their way through the mob.
Terror stricken, the two darted toward the nearest open door, hoping to elude their pursuers.
“By Poseidon you charge a princely sum! The man before him exclaimed. “One would think these two were owned by the god himself!”
“You shall not find two better horses in all of Greece.”
Iolaus, having used Lilla to divert Gabrielle’s attentions with a chance to look about the market, was now engaged in spirited bargaining with the town reeve over the sale of both horses and carriage. While he was sad to see the animals go, he knew Gabrielle would be devastated at having to watch their sale after having taken care of them for so many seasons. Within he smiled remembering how the girl would speak with the animals as if they all were the best of friends. One afternoon unbeknownst to the Gabrielle, he sat outside the barn listening as the she made up a cute tale about an adventure in which the horses had worked together to save a village from a flood. The intrepid animals had used their brute strength to fell trees, and then hauled them to dam the raging river. Such a vivid imagination, Gabrielle possessed.
“Very well, I agree to the amount, if...” the man smiled, “You lower the price of the carriage. My wife will certainly have me redecorate the interior, that woman has such paticular tastes.” he complained.
“I offer to lower it by 100 drachma.”
“Certainly you can do better than that.” the reeve stated with mock indignation.
Glancing about, Iolaus could not help but notice activity on the docks had picked up considerably, the men loading the few ships remaining now worked at a frantic pace. Something was very wrong.
“I agree.” The men clasped hands, the reeve motioning for his servant to come forward and pay.
“We must go.” the words were rasped into Iolaus’ ear by the captain of the Myron, as the silver coin was handed over. “The Destroyer comes this way.” A chill raced through Iolaus.
“Are you sure?”
“She is unmistakable my friend.”
“I must wait for my slaves to return.”
“I will not risk my crew and ship over slaves.”
“They are worth much to me.” Iolaus turned to face the man.
“And the cargo within my hold is worth even more.” the old man countered. “If you wish to travel to Rome, you board now.”
The idle chatter within the tavern, stopped as a loud crash erupted from the kitchens.
“Gabrielle, gods above! Why must you always be so clumsy?” Lilla griped, while dragging her sibling to her feet again. Her sister had run smack into a serving girl, spilling the contents of a platter the girl held.
All in the kitchen stopped their actions, looking to the soldier standing in the open door.
“Stop!” the man yelled as the two girls ran once more.
“Why do they chase us?”
“Don’t know, don’t wana find out!” Lilla yelled back, smiling a little as the men dashing after them slipped on the spilled food upon the floor and roughly fell. Bursting into the public room of the inn, the two darted though the men standing about the bar. As today was the harvest festival, they were lined up to drink their fill even before Apollo’s chariot reached its apex in the sky.
Quick on the girl’s heels, soldiers ran into the bar. Unable to maneuver through the crowd as nimbly as the two small girls, they began roughly shoving men aside to clear a path.
“Stop!” Yelled Alistair while pushing a drunken peasant.
“Basterd!” the man yelled, taking clear umbrage at having the ale in his mug spilled. Grabbing a handily nearby jug, he smashed it hard upon Alistair’s bare head, causing the guard captain to drop to the floor. It was a poor decision to leave his helmet behind.
“That belonged to me!” A punch by the owner of the now smashed jug was delivered to the man who used it to level the guard captain. Stumbling back he fell upon a table surrounded by men, at breakfast. They stood, quite irate at having their meals dumped into their laps. Moments later a brawl began in earnest, enveloping the rest of the soldiers in its grip.
“By the gods!” Gabrielle yelped, ducking as a heavy stool flew near striking the last of the soldiers giving chase.
Up the wooden steps, towards the door they ran, only to dive out of the way as two men with hands about each other’s throats crashed through a closed pair of window shutters.
The words were uttered as if a curse.
Argo barreled through the crowds at a full gallop, Xena urging her Palomino on in order to reach her goal, the docks.
Behind, Sevastian followed having proved to be quite adroit at horsemanship considering they had just cut though some sort of procession. Despite the urgency of the current situation, the thought of seeing Hestian virgins sully their white robes as they drove out of her way caused Xena to smile.
Ducking down, she narrowly avoided being de-horsed by a rope strung over the road, decorated with garland and low hanging banners. All round, peasants dove from her path.
“Shit...” Sevastian stated curt as he fell forward, leaning against Gisela’s neck just in time as the rope passed overhead. Behind him, men of the guard were clotheslined by the same rope, amidst, the shrieks of the peasants; they fell, horses bolting forward into the hapless crowd.
Ahead, she spotted the harbor, rays of light shimmering on the rippling waves. It was there, Xena was certain, she would find Gabrielle.
A vendor’s cart, filled with the last of summer blooms rolled into the street straddling the narrow road. It was an obstacle Xena couldn’t maneuver round, and refused to stop for. Rising up from the saddle, she leaned forward, one hand grabbing Argo’s mane. With practiced grace, her mount responded perfectly. The merchant, having slipped and fallen during his frantic attempt to turn his cart at her approach beheld a sight which would fill his stories for cycles to come.
The Empress of Greece, upon a resplendent war horse, flying directly over his head.
Standing the merchant heard the telltale sound of hooves. Turning he let out a yelp, and quickly dove to the ground once more as a second rider flew overhead.
Happy to follow Argo, Gisela had made the jump as well, even without his urging.
“Thank Tyche!” Sevastian muttered expressing gratitude to the goddess of fortune for having somehow made it over the cart.
Behind, the traumatized merchant realized his luck had come to an end and ran out of the way as a wave of riders approached. Glancing back Sevastain caught sight of a plume of flowers filling the air, his ears picking up the shouts of the men. Turning forward, he glimpsed Xena, looking back at him for only a moment, a smile upon her lips.
She is enjoying this! Sevastian doubted he would ever figure out Xena, every time he thought he had her pegged another side of her personally shown.
“You see? I did not lie my friend that is Xena’s standard.”
Iolaus handed the looking glass back. “You spoke truth.” he stated dejectedly after spotting the flag fluttering high upon the city wall.
He moved away from the captain, pacing the deck, eyes searching as the ship inched away from the dock. Sending the girls to shop in the market had been intended to shield Gabrielle from seeing her beloved horses sold. Now that decision had cost him both slaves!
“Damn you to Tartarus Xena!” Iolaus shouted to none in particular, his hatred of the warlord, turned Empress now reached new heights. “Why can you not leave me be!” he wailed.
Looking once more to the town, Iolaus spirits rose as he spotted the two as they burst out of a tavern door. Running along the deck he watched the girls sprint down the wooden dock, barreling toward the ship.
Standing where the gangplank had been moments earlier he extended his arms.
“Jump!” he exhorted.
Lilla did just that, fearlessly leaping over the rapidly widening expanse of water between ship and shore to grasp the hands of her master. Turning in Iolaus’ arms she gasped, seeing her sister standing alone at the docks edge.
“Gabrielle, Jump!” Lilla held out both hands.
Looking past Lilla, Iolaus swore another virulent curse at the sight of Xena riding hard toward the very dock on which Gabrielle stood.
“Gabrielle, you must jump!” he yelled while pushing Lilla out of the way “Now!”
Overcoming her fears of being unable to swim she backed up a few paces, and then ran forward with all she had to leap from the end of the dock. The moment, she leapt, Gabrielle knew she would not make it, the ship was too far. She would drown. Every time she tried to swim in deep water she’d always sank like a rock.
Closing her eyes in fright of what was to come, Gabrielle reached out blind.
Two hands caught one of hers.
“You call that a jump!” Iolaus barked out as the girls momentum slammed her hard against the side the of ship
“More like a frantic leap.” she squeaked while being hauled up to the deck. “Best I could do.” On the deck, men cheered at the display of fortitude from the girls as they worked to unfurl the sails allowing the ship to pick up speed.
Dismounting from Argo, even before the horse had stopped fully, Xena raced to the end of the dock.
The last of the ships had sailed… it was too far a distance, even for her.
The smug cheers of the men on board infuriated Xena, so that she fairly quaked with anger.
Behind, she heard Sevastian running down the dock, to join her at the water’s edge.
There… on the stern…there could be no mistake
“Iolaus!” she bellowed.
“Better luck next time Bitch of Greece!” Gales of jeering laughter from the crew rolled over the waters of the harbor.
“It would have been far wiser to have left that unsaid.” An extremely irate Iolaus advised coolly while glaring at the Captain.
“Why?” the old salt laughed heartily, “We are safe, by gods; the woman would have be able to fly to catch my ship.”
“In my experience,” Iolaus growled, “Xena makes the impossible, possible.”
Frantically glancing both left and right, she found the docks empty.
“My empire for one ship Sevastian!” Xena thundered in anger as he drew alongside her, “One ship!”
Having never heard her master so angry, and driven by deep curiosity she stepped up upon a wooden crate, to better see over the ships rail.
Sevastian was stunned by the unexpected sudden gentleness within Xena’s tone.
“Gabrielle…” Xena said the name again. Standing on that deck was no sleeping torment, no shade come to visit her in the dark of night, no hunch, no feeling. The girl was well and truly alive! That realization gifted her with something Xena had not felt for many a cycle… joy.
After a deep breath, a grin formed, her usual disciplined stoicism failing to stop it from touching her lips.
She’s slipping away. The thought sobered Xena instantly.
Frantically she searched for a way to get on that ship, despair growing as with every moment she came closer to loosing Gabrielle again. Looking past the empty slips, Xena found her salvation. Without a word to Sevastian, she turned running full bore.
For some moments after the Empress had rushed past, Sevastian was too staggered to speak, his mind attempting to put logic to these events. Clearly, the girl they were searching for, this Gabrielle was on board. Why was the Xena so interested in her?
Still confused, he decided it best to follow, and so chased after the Empress.
“One side!” she growled while bowling two men down, then hurdling over some wooden barrels.
Reaching her objective, Xena bounded up the stone stairs, at the top of which were members of a very surprised Piraeus militia. Shoving past them, she continued to run, her cape fluttering as she sprinted along the stone battlement atop of the ports defensive sea wall. Merlons, capped with fearsome finials flew by to either side as Xena raced, putting all into reaching her goal.
“The woman is crazy!” the captain’s words, spoken from behind caused Iolaus to cast a glance back at the man.
“Crazy like a fox, perhaps.” Raising one arm he gestured to the wall, “See there?”
Panic on the man’s face. “You men, set every sail! Helm, steer us to the dead center of the channel as far from the fortifications at the harbor entrance as possible!”
“I do not understand. Why does she run madly along the top of the wall?” asked a very confused Lilla who had moved next to her master.
Iolaus was too angered to speak. He could only leave his arm raised, a lone finger continuing to point at the reason for the sudden panic on board ship. He waited as her line of sight followed his gesture.
“Oh gods!” she wailed.
“What?” asked Gabrielle who had moved her box, to use it to stand on in order to see more easily over the tall railing. “See sister?” Lilla pointed, “The wall turns, winding along the edge of the harbor, until—“
“She’s going to run to the end of the wall and jump?” Gabrielle’s mouth fell open in shock. “Jump on board our ship from where the wall ends at the harbor entrance?”
“We must sail past the opening of the harbor, before she reaches the end of the wall, if we don’t that spawn of Hades will be able to board this ship.” Iolaus let out a long sigh then leaned against the rail dejectedly.
“I have been witness to her doing greater feats Lilla, I know she is capable.” Iolaus tone was one of resignation, as if Xena were already on board.
The fortified wall, which followed the terrain it was constructed upon, had kept Xena at some distance. Now it loomed closer as the ship neared the narrow entrance to the harbor. As the wall came closer, so did Xena, her long legs moving with graceful stride to beat the ship to the narrow harbor entrance.
“By Aphrodite…” Gabrielle was in awe… “She’s beautiful!”
She’s deranged!” Lilla shouted, both slaves watching as the woman running along the wall pulled even with the ship
Gabrielle paid her sister no mind, being captivated by seeing Xena once more. “Beautiful…” she murmured again.
Where Gabrielle considered herself to have had changed only slightly with the passage of the seasons. Xena had changed much since they had last met, and she wanted to commit every new detail to memory. Most amazingly, it appeared the already tall Xena that she had met long ago, had grown much taller, and far stronger with the passage of time. Her black leathers now were stretched taut, showcasing the power beneath. Gone were the many cuts, and scrapes Gabrielle had ministered to in the barn. Gone also was the gauntness which had caused her new friends leathers to hang loose upon her frame. The deep purple cape she wore had a beautiful silky looking texture. A far cry from the blood stained and tattered one she had in the barn. Black leathers shone in the morning sun, no longer gashed open from blades.
“Beautiful…” that word, spoken a third time by Gabrielle, was intermingled within a sigh.
“Why does she chase us?” asked Lilla, “How have we offended the gods, to have them lit this curse upon us?”
Pulling even with the ship, Xena chanced a glance over at those on board. There amongst the faces of the terrified crew, standing at the side of Iolaus, there was Gabrielle.
“She chases us because—“Iolaus began wearily, meaning to briefly explain the history he shared with Xena.
The shout stopped Iolaus from speaking further. Surprised, his eyes darted from the evil running along the battlements, to the sweet little slave standing atop the wooden box at his side.
“Xena!” As if she were outside herself, Gabrielle heard the name yelled in her voice, without any conscious thought to do so.
A most feral grin formed on dark lips, the girl knew her, remembered her.
“Gabrielle! Come to me!” Xena implored.
Again she felt outside herself while attempting to climb onto the rail, meaning to dive…
“What in blazes are you doing girl!” yanked back, Gabrielle found herself struggling against Iolaus’ vice like hold.
“Let me go! Can’t you hear her?” She needs me!”
“Have you gone mad? I’ll not have you fall into the hands of that butcher!” Iolaus snapped back holding her all the more tightly.
Xena caught sight of the struggle, rage roiling within as the girl fought to break free, but couldn’t. Following the curve of the wall, her goal came within sight. Here wall and ship would intersect and she could leap on board.
“No!” she snarled, cursing the gust which filled the ships sails. Instinctively Xena grasped her Chakram, meaning to let the weapon fly to cut the ropes holding the main sail. Doing such would cause the yard arm holding it to drop down to the deck and slow the ship
You may hurt Gabrielle. The thought gave her pause, and she dared not throw the weapon, lest the rigging loosed by her hand somehow injure the girl.
The Chakram was reluctantly placed back upon her hip.
The favorable winds helped the ship pass the end of the battlement far before she could reach it. Those on board cheered wildly as they realized they had accomplished a most rare feat, they had beaten Xena.
Halting her stride, she watched helpless at the ship sailed on.
“Damn you!” she screamed in anguish. The ship was too far, the wall not high enough to create the angle she needed for a successful leap.
“I will cast you to Hades Iolaus!” she raged, Breathing hard, she slammed both fists down upon one of the many stone merlons.
“Not today Xena!” she heard him yell back taunting her failure. “Not today!”
The crew cheered once more, and amidst their shouts of joy Xena’s knees buckled as dark despair took hold. She slumped down against the stone roughly.
Sobs racked her frame, tears trailing down her cheeks to fall upon dark leathers.
A wretchedness unfelt since the loss of dear Lyceus came upon her.
Sounds of someone approaching at a run, there was no need to look up, she knew who it was.
“Majesty…” The word had begun forcefully, tapering off as he took in the sight.
The Empress seated her cape beneath her, back against the stone. Her long legs were pulled in, being bent at the knee, her face buried in arms which crossed over her knees. The wind filtering through the stone crenellations, whipped the strands of her long black hair.
Shocked at seeing Xena so, Sebastian’s first instinct was to try to understand what had transpired to make the usually stoic Xena distraught. No. Now was not the time. Such a moment deserved privacy. Problem was he had nowhere to go in order to give privacy, decorum demanded he not leave her side until dismissed. Dithering for a moment, he backed away a pace or two. Dropping to one knee before her he lowered his gaze.
For an interminable span, he remained glad to at least be able to catch his breath from the exertions.
“Her name is Gabrielle.” Her tone was soft, so much so that he barely heard it.
He gazed upward to find the Empress standing, looking out over the battlement towards the ship on the distant horizon.
Without taking her eyes away from the ship, she motioned for him to rise.
“We met by pure happenstance long ago and from the moment I renewed my quest to unite Greece her memory has haunted me.” Her voice grew stronger. “For what reason, I do not know.”
From his vantage point, Sevastian could see Xena’s features become hard, grief morphing into fury. Ares gift, men called it, now rose to the fore.
“I shall have her!” she raged, hands grasping the stone so tightly Sevastian swore he heard the rock crack under the strain.
Her head turned, snapping away from the sea and towards him, blue eyes so filled with fiery hated that he shivered.
“I prophesy to you, that until I find that girl I will tear the known world apart! No man, no king, no god above will keep me from her! With Ate by my side I will wreak discord and vengeance upon all who dare stand in my way!”
He was much relieved when that evil glare left him to return to the sea.
For long moments silence again enveloped the two, he watching as her head dipped down, gaze dropping to the waves crashing against the foundations of the sea wall.
Fluidly she stepped toward him, arm flashing up, a one hand grasping his armor. When she dragged him to the edge of the battlement, Sevastian was sure she meant to toss him to the rocks below.
“Tell me what you see Lord Commander?” her silky voice was so close to his ear, it sent a reflexive shudder through him as he hung over the edge, only her hand grasping the back of his armor, kept him from plunging down into to the roiling water.
“Debris?” he replied haltingly, swallowing hard while hoping his answer was the correct one.
“It is called flotsam Sevastian and it has all the markings of Roman warships.”
Jerked back from the edge, he looked up at her, amazed at her ability to divine such information from scattered bits and pieces floating upon the waves.
Once more he was hauled to the edge and forced to look down.
Sevastian cursed his tendency of inquisitiveness.
“See that?” Xena asked while pointing. Sevastian nodded quickly.
“What is that?”
“Looks to be several wooden shields, amidst the other...flotsam... Empress.”
“Yes, yes. Do you see the design?”
“Whose is it?” she growled impatiently.
He pursed his lips, a red background, and a golden eagle, with lightning bolts in outstretched claws, a distinct design. Easy...
He was pulled back from the edge.
“Very good, you know well the markings of my enemies.”
“A battle has occurred off this coast, a battle unknown to me due to the abject failure of Autolycus and his worthless spy network!”
“We must look to the present situation.” Xena prefaced, although she found it difficult to take her mind off Gabrielle, there were more pressing matters to attend to. “I want the search of Piraeus begun anew, this time send my guardsmen out to look for survivors of the battle, Roman survivors. She stepped a pace closer looming over him, “I want them rounded up so I may have a... word... with them.”
“As you command.” He dipped his head in respect.
He quickly moved to depart from the overwhelming darkness which enveloped her person.
He halted his stride immediately, turning to brace at attention.
“You will speak to no one of my actions here.”
“I shall not speak of it majesty.”
She turned from looking out over the rampart to gaze directly at him while folding arms over her chest. He was glad the dark intent which had shone from her eyes was no more.
“Ah, but many who are curious will ask you my second. My enemies always hope to capitalize on any moment of personal weakness because people with weaknesses get killed by those who lack them.” Xena smirked, while moving her arms outward from her side for a moment. “I am not dead.”
So, you will tell me Sevastian,” she prefaced, with eerily calm voice. “What did you witness here?”
For just a moment he pondered the question.
“I witnessed the Empress of all Greece personally lead the fight against those who threaten our land.”
“And?” she queried. He swallowed nervously as one of her perfectly sculpted eyebrows rose.
“To that end her many virtues shown. Our Empress is clear in purpose, courageous in action, and commands the hearts of all who call themselves true Greeks. ”
“Very good,” She turned to face the waters once more, her back to Sevastian. “Leave me, conduct your search, and bring all whom you find before me.”
Unseen by him, she smiled at Sevastian’s choice of words. The man was always precise in the words he chose to use and in every action he took. Mistress… he was reaffirming loyalty to her.
As he departed, she bent slightly, leaning over to place both hands palm down upon the stone. “You belong to me Gabrielle.” She murmured while looking out over the waves.
“You are mine!”