Within the arbors of his estate overlooking Rome Brutus walked. The hour was late, the morning near. Above the clouds roiled, thunder sounding over the city. Taking the steps up, he walked to the veranda overlooking his gardens.
“I have not slept well since Cassius bid me join the faction against Caesar.” He muttered as the chill wind swept against him.
“In missives left me at the Senate House, at my statue in the Forum, at the sill of my window, the people ask me to strike! To fix the wrongs committed!” He leaned against the stone rail. “Yet I love Caesar well, he has been a good friend to me. I have no personal cause to spurn him.”
“You do what is necessary to save Rome from a man who would lead her to ruin.”
Brutus turned, finding a cloaked figure standing near.
“I was concerned that you would not show. You bring word from your mistress?”
“I do.” Reaching within the folds of his mantle Autolycus retrieved a rolled parchment bearing the pendant wax seal of the Empress.
Reaching for the parchment, Brutus tore the band away while moving to one entranceway of his home to better see by the light of the tapers. For some time he carefully read the writing within. Each glyph written by the Empress’ had been precisely formed and her point in the missive very clear.
Below Xena’s signature, the “X” of her name written with flourish, imposed over the title Imperatix… Empress- written in Latin, like the rest of the document.
“She promises to not attack Rome?” Brutus’ was dubious.
“Yes.” Replied Autolycus succinctly.
“You cannot expect us to believe that. I’ve read her speeches filled as they are with fiery rhetoric. She hates Rome.
“She hates Caesar, therein is the difference. Her armies will not enter Roman lands unless bid by those in power to do so.”
“So I read. If the Roman Senate calls upon her, if the plot against Caesar should fail--”
“She will come to your aid.”
“And if, the Senators should need to flee Rome?”
“You will be given asylum in Greece, should you have to flee. She will only invade if you desire it. Her Imperial Majesty wishes me to underscore that she does not desire war with Rome.”
“Provided that we senators kill Caesar.”
“Yes, that is her condition, but for now she is content to have you keep his army well away from the border of Greece. She understands the time must be right for you to strike.”
“She ordered the death of the members of the Athenian Assembly; forgive me if I say I do not trust her motives.”
“Senator, let me remind you, that it was you that sent the first overture. She has responded, graciously conceding to all your terms, while only giving you one condition in return. Our two peoples face many enemies; her feeling is that we should not fight each other if it can be avoided. War cannot be avoided with Caesar in power.”
“These are just words on paper, how do we know she will keep her side of bargain?”
“You don’t.” Autolycus stated flatly. However, having once made a written bargain, Xena has never broken it. Look at her history and you will note my words ring true.
Beyond the Veranda were the men stood, from within the house, a knock at the door.
“The faction who wishes to assassinate Caesar,” Brutus whispered the words, his voice having failed him, “they come to hear the news you’ve told me.”
“Kill, Caesar.” Autolycus stated forcefully before the conspirators arrived on the veranda. “You know how to contact me. Do not tarry in your response, the Empress does not like to be kept waiting.” Stepping back, he pulled the hood of his cloak to hide his face and slipped back into the darkness.
“Good Morrow Brutus.” Cassius stepped from the doorway leading on to the Veranda moving close to clasp the hand of his brother in law. I fear I and the men with me do intrude on your sleep.
“I was awake, Cassius, Do I know these men that come with you?”
“Yes,” Cassius turned to the group huddled together just outside the door. “And there is not one that does not admire you, for choosing to stand with us.”
“This,” Cassius gestured to one of the figures who pulled back the hood on his cloak. “Is Trebonius.”
“He is welcome here.”
“This, Decius Brutus.”
“This is Casca, Cinna, and Metellus Cimber”
“They are all welcome.”
“May I entreat a word Cassius?”
Those in the group watched as both Cassius and Brutus stepped a few paces away, Brutus unrolling a scroll, giving it to Cassius to read. The two then being in whispered discussion for some time.
“This is the East does not the dawn break here?” Decius asked making some attempt at conversation.
“No.” Casca spoke.
“Excuse me sir,” Cinna smiled. “It will. Those gray lines which lace the clouds are the beginning of the dawn.”
“You are both wrong. Here…” Casca pointed to both Brutus and Cassius. “Is where the sun of Rome will rise.”
“Friends, news has reached me this night which favors our endeavors.” Brutus paused, looking over the leaders of the conspiracy against Caesar. Ever since he had joined with Cassius, he felt his actions unreal, as if he were in some horrible dream, but it was no dream. He and these men with him would kill Caesar when he next appeared in Rome. “The Greek, Xena has sent word, wishing us well, and promising to not invade Rome.”
“We can trust this woman?” Cinna asked, rightfully dubious.
“No, but she is our best hope as we are without option, if the Senate moves to gather men and arms to our side Caesar will be rightfully suspicious and may invade the capitol to forcefully assume power.” Cassius replied. “Caesar has always been legalistic in this thoughts, he wants the Senate to lawfully coronate him. He believes Romans would rebel should he seize power. That is the only thing staying his hand.”
“We have given him, many tasks to complete, which I might add he has agreed to. Subduing rebellions, crossing the seas to Carthage--”
“He may be killed in these actions,” Casca smiled deviously while cutting Brutus off, finishing the thought. “That would save us the trouble of having to bloody our hands in the Senate House.
“My friends, we must keep our scheme secret at all costs.”
“Well urged Cimber, let us swear an oath.” Cassius suggested.
“No.” Brutus was forceful in his dissent. “We need no other bond, that than of noble Romans who have said what they are going to do. We will not back down until the task is completed for all of Rome cries out for us to act.”
“Should Caesar be the only one to fall?” asked Decius.
“Yes what of the generals Sulla and Crassus?” Casca added. “Both have many connections, which could prove dangerous to us. Both could use Caesar’s legions against us.”
“Our cause will seem too bloody, to first cut off the head in killing Caesar, then to hack the limbs, they being his generals.” Brutus countered.
“Yet they should be feared.” Cassius was unconvinced.
“Don’t think of them friends, for I know they have little love of Caesar, or each other...” the group of men surrounding Brutus chuckled. “They will do us no harm.”
“The Dawn breaks,” Cimber noted. “We must be gone, lest those who are loyal to Caesar report us being gathered here.”
Cassius moved to leave, the group following, except Brutus.
“Friends go your separate ways, but all remember what you have said here, and, when the time comes to strike, prove yourselves true Romans.”
“Empress, I tell you my men cannot work any faster.”
“Perhaps I can find new ways to motivate them.” she replied as the two walked down the main thoroughfare in Olynthus. Behind and in front her Amazon guard walked, dressed in woolen pants, leather boots, tunic, and heavy cloak. Warm clothing being needed as winter was bearing down hard upon the land. To either side, the peasants bowed and scraped as she passed.
“I need more men!” Cecrops was adamant. “It is a wonder we have been able to produce even 10 of these sleek trireme’s you designed Empress. We first had to build everything from scratch to even begin to produce your ships. He lowered his voice. “Not to mention the… special… designs you wished completed first.”
“I do not care how you do it man, but you will speed the production of ships. I must have the means to protect Greece from a seaborne invasion... Nauarch.”
“Cecrops halted his step. “You are making me an Admiral?”
Xena, turned. Her beautiful woolen cloak dyed a dark indigo swirling about as she did so. The Empress was tall dark and deadly, yet of such beauty that even the Aphrodite fell short in comparison. Her raven hair fell about her shoulders, her leathers, black as night, matching her knee high boots. Her armor cuirass was golden, the hammered swirls of which were mimicked on her upper and lower arm bracers. White fur, trimmed the edges of her cloak as well as the edges of her bracers.
“Yes, Admiral, you will take charge of my fleet. I cannot think of anyone better suited for the task. “You cannot deny who you are any more than I can. I being a leader of men, and you destined to always be connected to the sea.”
“I am pleased to be upon land, thanks to you Empress, contented to build your fleet. To go back to the sea, well I--”
“I have seen you of late Cecrops, looking out to the sea beyond the docks, even after being imprisoned upon its waters, part of you wishes to be there again. I know well the wonderful freedom of sailing the waves. Her hand moved to touch his arm. “But... this time, you are free to voyage forth, but then return to the Greek soil you so love.”
“I need you.” She implored gently.
Cecrops nodded, “as you will.” he said soft.
“Good, good.” she patted his arm. “Come...” Turning she walked on, paying no mind to the peasantry falling to their knees about her. “I need to have a word with a Roman General.”
Pompeius had just settled into his second bowl of wine when the door to the chamber burst open.
“What takes you two fortnights to get to Olynthus?!”
He spilled wine upon his fine armor.
“Majesty,” Pompey tumbled to a knee. “I did not mean to incur your wrath, forgive me; the passes over the mountains are filled with snow. It took some time to traverse them safely.”
One of her sculpted brows rose...
He looked up at the monumental woman, who had just ducked thought the portal, the top of her head very near the ceiling of the chamber. “It is a pleasure to be in your company again.”
“I do not want to hear hollow flattery! When I beckon, you best start running!” her hands moved to rest upon her hips elbows flaring out her cloak, the action making her seem all the larger.
In the silence which followed, Xena slowly removed her fur lined gauntlets and Pompey looked past her for a moment to see a hulking Nubian man cautiously enter the room and stand against the far wall.
“Weaponry delivered?” she asked in a calmer voice.
“Yes.” he said emphatically while still kneeling. “I’ve recruited horse mounted mercenaries to Carthage, they, their horses, and equipment has set sail for Carthage. Gods willing they aren’t stopped by the Roman fleet. Due to the costs of the cavalry, fewer monies were available for Gaul Britannia and Hispania.”
“You trust those making the delivery of weapons?”
“Yes, they hate Caesar as much as you.”
“I doubt that.” she spat in retort while tossing her gauntlets upon the wooden table in the center of the room.
Pompeius stood, as she moved to sit in a carved high back chair, adjusting her cloak out beneath her before she did so. She made the chair look small.
Xena did not bid him sit, for quite a span she impassively scrutinized him causing the Roman to fidget slightly under the devastating glare of those blue eyes.
“Well, looks like working for me has been good for you Pompeius, or should I say good for your waistline.”
“Your majesty has been kind to me, yes.” he responded diplomatically. Out, upon the land, he could fool himself into thinking he was master of all he surveyed. Here, he was reminded of the collar round his neck, and who it was that held the leash.
“How many mercenaries have you recruited to help your personal cause?
“That’s all!” she yelled causing him to jolt. “I give you strong boxes brimming with silver and you can only manage 1,000 men! Your ineptitude staggers the mind! You lose your army to Caesar, you come to me in rags, I give you means, a simple task, and you still manage to screw up! Tell me Pompeius, is failure your only friend in this life?”
“All this makes me wonder if you are truly capable of ruling. Here I offer you the whole of Italy on a platter and you come to me with only 1,000 troops. You couldn’t take even tiny miserable Potadiea with that paltry a number.”
“Empress, Pompey willed some passion in his voice. “Once I land upon the shores of Sicily men will flock to my banner. “There on Sicily are members of my extended family, holding my estates, and my wealth, all ready to aid me in my cause. “You forget that I am... I was... a triumvir of Rome; I have many connections and resources.
“Big words, little man.”
“I tell you Empress, I am ready to recapture Rome.”
“Yes, about that, Xena waved one hand dismissively, “Don’t plan your victory procession in the Forum just yet, I have another mission for you.”
“That is not our arrangement! The Roman was livid. “We had agreed that I would invade Rome as soon as was possible! The moment is right! Caesar is in Hispania! I have been your errand boy for too long, fulfilling tasks which are far below my station!”
“Your station is to do as I bid.” She replied calmly, “Remember our agreement, you do as I say, I allow you to take Rome.”
“You!” he bellowed. “I see your ruse, sending me out to chase wild geese! You could have sent your second, that fawning stooge, to complete these tasks! You have no intent to send me to Rome! All your grand words about allowing my revenge were lies!”
“Temper Pompey, lest you say something you regret.” Her voice dropped down to a low rumble.
Pompey was not to be deterred at the warning contained in Xena’s tone. “You!” he pointed directly at her. “You! Are a lying whore and a Greek Bitc--”
Cecrops stood shocked at how nimbly the Empress launched out of the chair, to jab the Roman in the neck, causing him to tumble to his knees.
“I am altering the plan.” she rumbled low.
For long moments, she let a gasping Pompey wonder if he would die.
“Remember this Roman dog,” Xena looked down on the kneeling man. “I can break you as easily as I can a twig.”
She released the pressure point and Pompey fell forward, first gasping for air, then emptying the contents of his innards. Much to Xena’s disgust some of it splattered upon her black leather boots.
“Get some servants in here to clean his stinking mess up.” She moved to sit.
Cecrops was gone for just a moment, before returning with three slaves, who nervously set to work under the Empress’ gaze. Slowly her eyes drifted to meet those of a much chastised, yet still furious Roman. After some tense moments where each tested the will of the other, his head dipped.
They always look away, Xena mused. A touch caused her to look down. There a small slave girl was using bit of linen to wipe her boot before using another to polish the leather.
Gazing at the slave, her thoughts suddenly imagined Gabrielle in her stead.
“That will do.” The words came out in a strained rasp, due to the sudden emotions within. “Thank you…” Xena could hardly believe she had voiced the words, much less the shocked slave standing before her.
A gesture from her and the girl, along with the other slaves departed the chamber.
“It is good...” Xena paused, “To see some show of spirit from you Pompey.” Cecrops was helping the man up and to a chair. “Fear not, my Roman servant, I hold to my side of the bargain, you will have Rome, but first there is an opportunity to weaken Egypt, Persia, and Caesar’s Rome all in one stroke. And you are the man I choose to deliver the blow. Do well and I will have more faith in your ability to take Italy.”
Pompieus looked up from his lap, intrigued by her words.
“The greater part of their fleets is currently docked in Alexandria. Ships filled with Persian supplies, Ships carrying the Egyptian Army, and… the fleet assigned by Rome to patrol my Mediterranean. Wouldn’t it be a shame if something dreadful were to befall them? Why the loss of those ships would be a terrible tragedy.” Xena feigned a pout.
He leaned in, anxious to hear more.
He was hers to use.
She pointed to Cecrops “Have you met my new Admiral Pompieus?”
Multiple arrows struck their intended targets dead center, moments later the warriors which let them fly thundered by him riding upon their steeds.
Sevastian could not hold back his pride at the display of martial skill. These Amazon’s had tested his patience for quite some span. However, once they had overcome pride and allowed themselves to be taught by a man, all had done well to quickly learn these new skills. For over three fortnights, he had trained these warriors in the art of mounted warfare. Warriors, who at first had shied away from horses, now were confident in the saddle.
Being the elite of the Amazon nation, all had experience with several types of weapons, to include bow and arrow, but none had experience at firing the weapon from horseback. Once Meleager had supplied them with enough large composite bows, Sevastain had first trained them with the weapon on the ground, which the warriors found to be easy. But the progression to using the bow while riding on horseback had been difficult.
He spent quite a span on basic riding skills and how to care for the animals. Over time, the women naturally built a relationship with thier horses. For many a cycle now the group had spent a day traveling, then another training, only to rise the next morning to travel again. They had been mirroring the movement of Xena’s Army. So had it gone since leaving Athens with a brief stop at Amphipolis.
These 250 warriors would be the first, then, as the Empress had commanded, they would instruct others in their nation. She was creating a fast a scouting force, which could double as a lethal strike force.
“Now single file!” he called out, “Fire as many arrows as possible in the window between poles!” “You first Akantha!” he ordered. When the warrior was midway through the course, he would send another.
One by one, he ordered each to direct their steeds down a beaten path interspersed with a series of wooden poles to one side. These being nothing more than small limbs from trees whose ends were buried in the ground. The object being to fire a given set of arrows as the horse passed the first pole and cease fire when past the second pole. The training designed to help speed delivery of arrows to target.
There was a sublime beauty in watching warrior and horse work as one. Certainly, the constant exercise of riding as well as drawing the bow string had made these Amazon’s even stronger though Sevastian would not have believed such a thing possible, as these women were already tremendously strong to begin with. He figured each Amazon was now at least as stout as three men.
“Stand higher out of the saddle!” he yelled, instructing the Amazon, Chrysippe, as she raced down the line. “You must fire in rhythm with the cantor of your horse!”
Sevastain had learned all their names, even managing to pronounce them correctly, though some were a challenge. Echephyle’s name first and foremost, she still corrected him, to his embarrassment and the ginger haired Amazon’s amused delight.
Since the light of dawn they had drilled. He could see both warrior and animal showing fatigue, it would be good to stop for lunch, then for a rest before moving on to other lessons.
“Dismount!” he yelled. After so many cycles spent in each other’s company, the warrior’s understood he meant them to gather round him for instruction.
Tying off the reins of their horses to low hanging limbs, the women encircled him, those in the front sitting upon their heels so those in the back might better see. It was necessary, as the High Lord Commander was; well, very… petite... in comparison to them. A fact many of the Amazonian warriors found humorous, though they would never speak of it to him. They didn’t need to; their amused looks told Sevastian what they were thinking. He took no offense, he was short. That was the way of it.
“Fantastic!” he smiled wide, causing many of the usually stoic warriors to do the same. All knew from experience that he would not deliver praise unless it was earned. “Now you see the results of all your hard work, your arrows on target, you and your horse work as one.”
“You’ve overcome the hardest part, letting go of the reigns and rising up out of the saddle. Now it is just a matter of smoothing out the motion of fetching an arrow, seating it on the bow, and letting it fly.” As he said the words, Sevastian’s right arm raised, hand reaching back, fingers grasping at an imaginary arrow. His left hand curled into a fist, as if holding the grip of a bow. He seated the imaginary arrow, and then hooked his fingers Mediterranean style though an invisible bow string. He smiled at seeing many of the warrior’s mimicking his motions. “Feel the cantor of the horse beneath you, he continued, use your legs to absorb the motion and keep your aim true. When all four hooves touch the ground together…” he motioned as if letting the arrow fly. “That slight span is the best moment to fire. With practice, all will begin to flow naturally, and you will no longer consciously think of what you need to do.”
“As naturally as when done by the Conqueror?” Siri asked with a wry smile.
Before the detachment had left Athens, Xena herself had demonstrated the skills she expected the Amazon warriors to learn. The sight of the Empress upon her golden warhorse firing arrow after arrow exactly on target had made quite an impression. Xena displayed such skill that many watching Amazons wondered if Artemis’ enemy had in fact been taught by Artemis.
“Our Empress…is…well… The warrior’s surrounding him laughed soft as he faltered a bit. Fighting the urge to look downward at his boots he continued. “An example of unparalleled grace combined with unequaled skill.”
“Now…” his voice rose as he recovered. “We must continue our drills…” Amazon’s were a stoic bunch, at least to the casual observer, but he had been around them for some time now. While they said nothing, he could almost hear the audible groan, just from observing the slight tick of emotion on their faces.
“…After a midday meal and a bit of rest.” He finished adding a smile for good measure.
He watched them move off, in groups of two or three, some gesturing as he had done as they explained some point, or asked questions to each other. These warriors were far less burdened by ego than men. Certainly, individuals among them had an ego the likes of which to exceed any man, but the difference being that ego was pushed aside when they worked as a group. It was heartening to watch them focus on helping the other improve. It was a camaraderie the like of which he had never seen.
Sevastian had heard the idle talk of the men in training. Many within the ranks had dismissed these women. Even with Greece being ruled by a woman, the fact remained that Grecian culture remained stodgily patriarchal. Still he was convinced. Line these Amazons up against any force and they would assuredly win.
“Unparalleled grace and unequaled skill, I like It.” a velvety tone rose up from behind him. “Perhaps in addition to Lord Commander, I should appoint you Court Troubadour?”
Sevastian jerked at the sound of that familiar voice. Turning, he instantly fell to a knee before the Empress, his hand moving fingers gently touching the very tip of her brown leather boot in submission.
“No ceremony Sevastian,” she stated gently. “Just your Xena, just your Empress.”
She gestured for him to rise.
“Majesty, it is good to see you.”
She looked at him skeptical a moment before laughing. “No one is ever happy to see me Sevastian. But, were anyone telling truth in speaking those words, I believe it would be you.”
“Mistress, I think it unwise to appoint me as Troubadour.”
“Why is that? She smiled. You’d miss all this?” Her arms rose for a moment, hands indicating the surrounding snow covered land. Rather than in a warm bed next to a fire, you prefer to be out in the frozen elements?”
“Well then you are a fool, such as I.”
He smiled, “I was also thinking of your welfare Empress.”
“Very kind of you Sevastian, how so?” After the growing tedium of long days spent training men, she was enjoying this respite in the form of the current banter between them.
“You would find my poetry sour and my music worse.”
She chucked at that. “Then I had better keep you where you are.”
Xena dressed simply. Brown leathers overlaid with bronze armor along with her usual knee high boots. To protect against the chill she wore a thick brown woolen cloak and heavy black gauntlets.
“I am most pleased Sevastian, most pleased. You have done well.”
“Empress, it is my honor to do so.”
Her hand clasped his shoulder briefly and a disarming smile relaxed him… slightly. One never knew with the Empress. “I was sure you would succeed. Your style is unobtrusive, your patience endless. Here you have taken 250 warriors, who automatically bristle at taking orders from a male and have worked your magic. Now these here,” she gestured to the Amazons, “will strike fear into hearts of my enemies.”
“The army groups...” she took a seat upon a log. “Wander the hills and valleys of my Greece. Talmadeus has the old hands training greenhorns. They learn how to soldier in the field, far from a warm cot in the barracks. They gain experience in how an encampment should be run, how to set a guard, how to scout, and how to fight. She drew her cloak tighter about her shoulders. “All set to my standard. And....” Xena took in a slow breath. “I’m bored Sevastain, bored with training, bored with having to spar gently against these young scared tenderfoots.”
“Forgive me majesty, but those new recruits have cause to be scared. Half the battle in sparring against you, is willing oneself not to surrender the moment you press your attack.”
Xena snorted in amusement at his words. “Sit Deshi, relax.” she commanded.
Sevastian did so, upon a partially exposed stone bolder jutting up from the ground.
“Let us begin.” Snapping a small limb from the log, she first used it to sweep away a bit of debris, before drawing lines in the snow.
“Our Force,” She used the stick to point to the lines, “Menticles, Virgilius, Adamis, 50,000 strong each. Mercer and Meleager positioned here in reserve.”
Sevastain’s brows rose in surprise.
“Much has happened since I ordered you train these Amazons.” she prefaced. “Recruitment is at an all-time high, the army now stands at fewer than 200,000 in total. Talmadeus, in addition to training has stepped into help Meleager with innumerable details. The army still needs much in the way of supply. Meleager is pulling his gray hair out with worry, driving all to work as fast as possible to provide weaponry, armor, and all the other accouterments my expanding army requires. I hope we shall be ready in the spring, if not, we do the best that we can with what we have.”
“Now, here” she drew his attention back to the diagram drawn in the snow. “Forrest.”
“Tell me, Lord Commander, how we go about defeating the Germans in territory they know well.”
Sevastian pondered the question. These strategy sessions had gone on for some time, the Empress patently teaching her art of war.
“Our army stands in forest?” he asked soft.
“No in a clearing.”
“Were the decision mine, I would not march into forest.”
“That is where the enemy is.” Xena countered.
“As you have taught me Sensei, never fight on ground of the enemies choosing.”
“Correct, but the Germans will not fight us in the clear, they know ambushing our force amongst the trees where we cannot maneuver is their best hope for victory.”
“Then, as you have instructed in these many sessions, I would give the enemy what he wants.”
“Use a small force to tempt the Germans forward, send it into the forest to the inevitable ambush, and then have them withdrawal in a haphazard retreat. The German’s would pursue, falling right into a trap.”Sevastian knelt down upon one knee, using one gloved finger to draw a line in the snow from the marked forest to the clearing where the army groups were represented.
“And then they see our amassed force and retreat back into the trees.” Xena stated flat.
“I have been speaking much with these Amazon’s.”
“They have shown me a most amazing skill, the ability to move from tree to tree high above the ground.”
The Empress smiled knowingly. “Have them in the trees, firing arrows down upon the Germans, fooling them into thinking a large force encircles from behind.”
“Good.” she extolled, “I’m coming to enjoy these sessions. You, my Lord Commander, are learning.”
Tomorrow continue on your way to Amazon lands.” Xena ordered. “You will arrive before the bulk of the Army, to give them warning of my intent.”
“Intent, Empress?” he asked.
“Yes,” Xena leaned back, “Ephiny will be nervous, her scouts reporting a large force approaching, she will think I’ve gone back on my word. Given my history with Amazons it is understandable. You will go first to soothe her nerves as she knows your value to me, knows that I would not attack as it would mean your death. Give her the due respect she deserves as Amazon Queen.”
She saw his look, being surrounded by a potential enemy would put anyone on edge. “Have no worries, second I will not abandon you. I may be vengeful, bloody and malicious, but I am loyal to you, as you to me.”
“You honor me beyond my worth.”
“No, I honor you because of your worth.”
Xena stood, Sevastian following at the sound of horses at a gallop. Using one of her brown leather boots she swiped over the snow, erasing the drawing etched there.
“Empress, show some concern!” Solari dismounted, dipping her head momentarily. “You ride ahead with no heed to your own safety, forgetting that you are in open country, unprotected by your guard.”
“Well now I am protected once more.” Xena winked at Sevastian who smiled.
At the sight of Solari, the Amazon’s who had pretended not to notice the Empress gathered round, 200 falling to a knee before her.
“Impressive...” Xena moved to stand before the kneeling warriors. “I have been witness to your progress ...”
Sevastain heard the steps behind him, knew exactly who it was.
“She gives me command of 50,000 troops, and you train…women.”
“Adamis, these...women you hold such a low opinion of can out fight any man.” Sevastian’s voice was low, curt. He did not turn being that it was disrespectful to the Empress.
A cheer rose from the warriors as Xena told them they would be returning to Amazon lands.
“Would you like to see a demonstration of their skill?” Sevastian taunted “Perhaps a little sparring match between you and one of these warriors? Why I’ll even let you pick--”
“No,” Adamis, began smug, “Honor dictates that I would never fight a woman, they being the weaker sex.”
“Oh, of course...of course... Sevastain intoned. “Hopefully you have realized by now that our Empress is a woman? Next time you speak with her, perhaps you should enlighten her on the weakness of her gender?” Sebastian’s smirk went unseen by Adamis standing behind.
“How clever you think yourself.” Adamis snarled. “While you waste time attempting to teach the little women here...”
“Little?” Sevastain eyed the man for a slight moment, before making a point to draw Adamis’ attention toward the tall, strapping, Amazons.
“I have the ear of the Empress.” Adamis rasped, angry. “It is only a matter of time before the constant demonstration my superior ability causes her to remove you from power. Why tonight I, and the high command, am invited to dine with her.
“I’m so glad your hand has healed since we... sparred.” The second said cheekily. “Now you will be able to pick up your food.”
Another general shout went up as the Empress bid the warrior’s farewell.
As Xena swept past, both men bowed low.
“Our camp is near, just over the second ridge.” She stepped up into the saddle, Adamis moving to his horse, to do the same. “It is unfortunate Sevastain that you must see to your duties here and are unable to join us.”
“I regret that as well Majesty.”
“Adamis’ men are most able; I must admit they drill well.” Xena complimented her newest commander who smiled self-satisfied down at Sevastian. “Of course, drilling by command is one thing, but they must also learn to deal with unforeseen circumstances, to think on their feet. Xena’s eyes locked with his, her unspoken order clear.
Now it was Sevastain’s turn to smile thinly.
“I assure you, your magnificence; they will meet any and all challenges!” “Adamis boasted.
Xena looked to Sevastain a moment longer, before riding off amidst cheers from the Amazons.
“Siri!” Sevastian turned, taking a step as he called her name. Next he was on the ground, having bumped into her, Siri being practically as tall as the Empress and solid as a stone wall.
“Yes Lord Commander?” she asked innocently as a laugh rolled through the massed Amazon’s standing near. For a moment, he scowled up at her, before breaking into self-effacing laughter as she clasped his hand to effortlessly haul him to his feet.
“Well, now that everyone is here...” he began referring to Siri with gentle sarcasm while dusting snow off himself. Another chuckle rose from the Amazons.
A gesture from him, and the warriors in the front ranks sat on their haunches so all could see.
“Rest, for tonight...” he paused and as he did the warriors bunched closer to him in anticipation.
A jubilant, fearsome war cry rose up from the Amazons.
“General that is the last of the picket ships, the way to the harbor is clear.”
“All is going to plan then?”
“Yes.” Cecrops responded, pleased the battle’s had been short, even more so that none in their force had been killed.
Pompey looked out at the line of captured Roman Trireme’s and smiled. In a day’s work, he had captured a small navy. In Olynthus, Xena had shown him three warships she had ordered constructed in the Roman style. Each was so perfect in design, so flawless in detail, he’d have sworn, her ships could pass inspection at any Roman shipyard.
Xena told him that she intended to use the ships as raiders, covertly striking at Roman supply lines, but with the massing of fleets at Alexandria, her plan changed to using the ships to stealthily approach Roman warships and board them.
The Roman navy is complacent, the Persians and Egyptians too focused on fighting each other. Xena had pronounced, at their meeting at Olynthus, her point being that his task would be like child’s play.
She had been correct.
While Octavian had thought to use part of his force to guard the harbor entrance, they had been easy prey for his ships.
“One big happy fleet,” Pompieus muttered while pondering Xena’s mocking words.
“What?” Cecrops asked.
“Something Xena… the, ah, Empress told me.” The Roman explained. “Their complacency caused their downfall, not one of their ships challenged us properly.” Pompey gestured to the captured Roman ships now manned by his mercenaries.
“We look like them;” Xena’s admiral then was blunt. “I would have fallen into the trap.”
“No, you give them too much credit Cecrops, you are far superior a salior, you would know.”
Truth be told, Pompieus had some quiet concern about making landfall in Sicily due to the Roman navy. Antonius and Octavian had done him a great favor engaging each other and wasting their means by damaging their respective fleets. If he, Pompey the Magnus, managed to destroy the enemy ships amassed here, it would be devastating to Rome. Caesar would have only one option available, to reposition ships from Britannia, leaving the Roman legions there without means of resupply.
Now Octavian, that one held promise!
Most would have seen the powers arrayed in Alexandria and retreated due to lacking the force to fight either Egyptians or Persians. Octavian had instead used the confusion of battle to loot the city. The ships Pompey had taken were filled with all manner of Egyptian treasures. Spoil that was meant for Roman coffers, would now pay his legions upon reaching Sicily.
Pompey had to admire the young man’s audacity. He was off on a daring raid on Cleopatra’s ruling palace, meaning to make the Queen of Egypt a hostage of Rome. The commanders of the ships he had taken had told him as much before he had the lot of them executed and their bodies thrown to Neptune.
Pompeius supposed he shouldn’t be too surprised, after all Octavian had been schooled by Julius himself. Despite his hatred of the man, Pompey could respect Caesar’s cunning on the battlefield and his back door conniving when off. Caesar characteristic response to a challenge was always to attack, so it was with Octavian.
Even at this distance, his ears picked up on the sounds of battle within the city. The clash of weapons, the yells of two armies locked in combat wafting up to his ears after traveling over the waves. It was perfect; in the chaos none would be looking to the harbor when he struck. Shame really, had he a greater force, more enemy ships could be taken. Xena had been right, 1,000 was a paltry number.
“Are we ready?”
“We are.” Cecrops answered while looking down at the old Roman outfitted in slightly too snug armor. That was the thing about metal in that it was unforgiving when you added a few pounds.
“Good, send the ships in, if they leave now, they will reach the harbor entrance well past dark.”
“Xena’s admiral motioned to an ensign bearer, who dutifully sent the signal by raising and lowering the flags held in his hands.
Slowly, eight old and battered merchant ships crept by, tethered by thick ropes to a large row boat filled with his mercenaries Xena had taken Cecrops advice, had made sure these ships masts could be dismantled. Masts and Sails set against the blue sky, would give the lookouts in the harbor warning that ships were approaching. Moreover, the vessels had been painted black so they could use the darkness as cover until the very last moment.
“So it begins,” Old Pompeius laughed viciously. “I will have my revenge Caesar! Pompey smiled while raising both hands high “Cry Havoc!” he yelled with delight. “And let slip the dogs of war!”
Behind Cecrops shook his head, Romans were always so flamboyant.
“Search every room; break down doors if you must!”
Opportunity was slipping by; every moment he didn’t find the Queen was a moment closer to his presence beings discovered. It appeared that the Egyptian Army had, by sheer force of will, pushed the Persians off their fine ships, and into the city proper. Xerxes had been forced to order a counter attack to retake the docks, as the resupply for his army was on board those ships. All round fighting raged. The dead in their thousands lie in the streets as the city burned from one end to the other.
Caesar’s spy, the Vizer, had ensured the palace was lightly defended, the gates left unmanned in this time of crisis.
Nearly 4,000 men were searching the various floors of the mammoth palace. Octavian himself was leading a group toward the throne room on the first level of the palace. He had put off searching the throne room, thinking the Queen would not chose such an obvious place to hide; now it seemed the only place left. The soldiers ahead, tried opening the grand doors via handles, having found them locked, they now were using brute force, slamming their shoulders against the iron strapped wood.
“Put your backs into it!” Octavian yelled, impatient to get the door open. In waves, the men of his command hit the door.
“You! Find another way in!” As ordered, the soldiers scattered, beginning the search.
Octavian paced anxiously, looking for something, anything to use as a battering ram against the door.
“Nothing!” he muttered aggravated. These Egyptians were sparse in decorating their palaces. Tile floors, stone walls, few heavy furnishings.
A crack sounded, the bar holding the door shut giving a bit.
“That’s it!” he encouraged. Three abreast his men slammed the door at once, then quickly moved out to make way for three more behind.
Within the throne room she knew the end had come. The Persians had defeated her army.
All was lost.
“My Queen, please you must flee the palace, Egypt needs you. I beg—“
“My time has come; I will not be captured and be placed in some cage for people to jeer at. No, Cleopatra would rather die than be dragged through the streets of Babylon.”
Her fingers slipped under Raia’s chin. “I do not willingly surrender my crown; the Queen of Egypt shall die a Queen.
The bar drawn across the portal cracked, as the Persian scum battered the doors to her throne room.
“I die of my own free will, and I die knowing that conquerors can only make a pyre of me, my spirit shall always remain free.”
Loyal servants looked to their queen in shock.
“Go I say!”
To a man her retainers silently refused her order choosing to stay until the end.
With a gesture, Her Vizer stepped forward, a simple wicker basket held within his hands, his thumbs holding the lid closed.
Prying the lid open ever so slightly, she slipped her hand within.
The asp took little time. Cleopatra flinched at the bite, the venom coursing into her.
“My end…is…here,” last words, from the last Pharaoh of Egypt.
The door to the throne room burst open and as it did, Raia surged forward. Before her father could stop her, her hand went into the basket, the snakes within biting her as they had done to the Queen.
The signal was given, and a torch was thrown into the hold of the ship. As fast as legs would allow, he raced along the decks to jump into the dark waters of the harbor. He surfaced gasping for breath. As he swam to the rowboat, his compatriots busily unfastened the ropes tying them to the ship.
A flash, sickly yellow in color could be seen as the Greek fire within the ships hold ignited
Freed from the ship, those in the rowboat, helped pull their comrade out of the water, and then all watched the burning hulk lumber past, being carried by the tide. On it sailed, directly toward the helpless ships in the harbor. Screams rose from the decks as the watch yelled out, warning of the impending doom. Ships packed together had no chance of escape. The rigging, masts and yardarms were the first to light as the fully engulfed hulk bumped up against the ships at anchor. The process was repeated, seven more times across the harbor as the other fire ships hit their mark. The cool breeze rising from the sea pushed the flames relentlessly causing fire to jump from ship to ship.
Their work finished, the men in the boats, came about, to row back to Pompieus’ fleet sitting safe outside the harbor.
“You let her die!” Octavian shouted at the silent Vizer, sitting on the stone floor cradling his lifeless daughter in his arms.
Rage drove the Roman General to his next act.
“You will join her!” Octavian’s used his blade to run the man through.
The sword was withdrawn and the Vizer’s body slumped over his daughter’s.
“Yes, man, what is it?”
The runner leaned over gasping for breath.
“On, man, on!” Octavian shouted, “What news?”
“Fire in the harbor!”
Instantly, Octavian was on the run shouting orders for his men to clear out of the palace, to run for the docks lest they be trapped in the city with no means of escape.
Through the courtyard, and into the streets the Romans ran, 4,000 men making a dash though the narrow streets of Alexandria, attempting to make it to the docks.
From above, spears reigned down.
“Persian’s on the roofs! Form up!” Octavian ordered. The men raised their shields high over their heads and packed together.
“The Egyptian lines must have broken.” The man nearest yelled.
Octavian did not care whose lines had ruptured, be it Egyptians, or Persians it made little difference, his focus was on not being captured by either.
At a running clip, the Romans soldiers kept their shields high, while bunching together for protection.
Ahead, the Persian line formed, Looking beyond Octavian saw the harbor, the hundreds of ships within fully ablaze. All was lost, their means of escape gone.
The die was cast... so be it. Mused Octavian
“Consistite!” Octavian shouted His troops stopped.
“Intente!” The General called the lines to attention, with stoic discipline, previously green farm boys moved with the precision of hardened soldiers. Unit standards rose, held up proudly by their bearers. The SPQR Standing for Roman Senate and people in gold, framed by a golden laurel on a blood red field.
Like Cleopatra, he would not surrender, knowing what lay in store if the Persians captured them. He and his men would rather die than be enslaved.
“By our deaths, Rome shall have glory this day!” Octavian brandished his short sword circling the blade over his head.
“Procedite!” As one, the men marched forward in unison, shields up, sword points forward. Octavian moved to a position in front of the formation. Ahead, lay the Persian horde.
“For Mother Rome!” words shouted by Octavian then repeated by his men as the lines clashed.