See Part 1 for disclaimers and a full description of this installment in the My Lord Conqueror series.
Toris stood on the balcony of his place in Athens and leaned against the railing as he gazed out over the rooftops of the city. His villa was on a hill and the balcony overlooked most of the city right down to the sea beyond. It was a breathtaking view. There were a few ships in port and the sun sparkled on the water. It was late afternoon. The sky was a clear and cloudless blue and a fresh breeze kept the stink of the city itself away.
He inhaled deeply and let it out slowly as a small smile played at the corners of his mouth. Things were coming together nicely. His plans to undermine his sister's authority and make a name for himself on the Athenian Council were moving right along according to the timeline he had set. His spies had just reported that Xena was off chasing after her little blonde consort. The Council was ready to denounce her claim as Queen of Greece. And the Romans were waiting patiently to strike. They were more than ready, actually.
Toris felt pride swell inside him. He held all the cards.
Everything was as it should be. In two-day's time the Romans would be entering the Port of Athens with a significant force. The plan was that they would take over the city, naming him as Proctor. Then the real fun would begin. Toris couldn't wait. He would be the most powerful man in all of Greece and would make decisions for the good of the entire country. It was time for him to finally take his place among the elite and show everyone that he wasn't the coward his actions that fateful day in Amphipolis had made him out to be.
“I'll show them,” he squeezed the stone rail until his knuckles turned white. “No one will ever call me a coward again, least of all that bitch who shares the same blood as me.”
His grin became an evil smirk as he continued to stare out over Athens with unseeing blue-gray eyes.
Caesar strode confidently through the white marble halls of the Roman Senate with several of his personal guards on his heels. He was feeling more assured of his destiny with every click of his heels on the marble tile floor. The time for his declaration was drawing nearer and everything was falling neatly into place.
He approached the ornately carved white double doors that led to the Senate chambers and stopped. Two Roman sentries stood guard on either side of the doors and a man in blue, gold and white barred his way.
“Pompey,” Caesar greeted his rival with a slight nod of his dark head.
“Caesar,” Pompey did the same.
They both kept eye contact as they stood there. Caesar finally crossed his arms over his chest and let one dark brow arch.
“Has the Senate chosen you to be their lap dog?” He smirked. “Pardon me for saying this, but you don't really fit the bill.”
Pompey smirked and crossed his own muscular arms over his chest armor. “The Senate is in session—closed session, Caesar. You weren't invited. They asked me to make sure you understand that they don't want you here.”
“And why is that?”
“Closed session, Caesar. No one is allowed in there, especially you.”
“I am an upstanding member of the Senate, Pompey,” Caesar countered. “Or did they conveniently forget that little detail?”
Pompey moved nose to nose with his rival and lowered his voice to a confidential tone. “They forget nothing, Caesar. They especially won't forget that you have been scheming to take control of the Senate. Did you conveniently forget that little detail, Caesar? Hm?”
Caesar narrowed his eyes to slits. “You overstep, my friend,” he hissed. “Do you really think playing lapdog to the Senate will earn you a place of honor among thieves? Hm?”
Pompey moved back with a satisfied grin. “I don't think so, Caesar. I know so. And we're not friends.” His expression turned stony. “We haven't been friends for years. And the only overstepping I do is to keep you in line. Besides,” he shrugged, “Brutus was right about you.”
That got Caesar's hackles up, although he hid his surprise well behind a mask of indifference. “Oh? How is my old friend Brutus these days? Staying out of trouble in Gaul, I trust.”
“Well, before he left he confided with me that you had something up your sleeve,” Pompey went on smugly. “Now I know he was right and the rumors really are true.”
“Rumors? What rumors?”
“No,” Pompey shook a finger in front of Caesar, as a playful grin touched his lips. “You're not going to pull that political double talk with me, Caesar. I wasn't born yesterday. I know what's going on.”
Caesar rolled his eyes and sighed. “Really, Pompey? What is this all about? Has all that fresh air in the backwoods of Greece addled your brain? You never really were one to just get to the point.”
“No,” Pompey frowned. “Greece wasn't…” He stopped and shook his head. “Stop changing the subject, Caesar.”
“What? Me?” He feigned innocence.
“I'm warning you,” Pompey shook his finger in Caesar's face again. “This bad blood between us is…”
“Tiresome? Boring? Trite?” Caesar interrupted with a wry smirk. “I'm afraid I'm the one growing quite bored of your verbal banality, Pompey. Unfortunately, I'm also very busy. Too busy, in fact, to stand here and play these ridiculous word games with you. So, if you'll just move aside and let me pass…”
“Not a chance, Caesar,” Pompey signaled with a wave of his hand.
Several additional guards stepped out of the shadows to surround Caesar and his personal guards. They had their swords drawn and held the points of their blades inches from Caesar and his men.
“Fantastic,” Caesar sighed. “Did the Senate really put you up to this? Or did you come up with all this on your own, Pompey?”
“Why?” Pompey looked skeptical.
“Because these men are loyal to…well…me,” Caesar shrugged, as the additional guards turned their swords on Pompey. Caesar smiled in triumph as his words dripped sarcasm. “I think it's time we sent you away—far far away. How does Carthage sound? They are so very fond of our people, you know. I think they would welcome you with open arms.” He then turned to the guards. “What do you men think?”
The men chuckled. Pompey looked uncomfortable. Caesar put an arm around his shoulders and steered Pompey away from the door.
“It's okay, Pompey,” Caesar slapped his shoulder, as the guards moved in closer. “This is for the best. And it's been a long time coming, too.”
Caesar gave Pompey's shoulder one last pat and then he slipped out of the circle of men. He moved toward the Senate chambers and heard Pompey's protests fade away down the hallway. A triumphant smirk graced Caesar's features as he stood in front of the doors and took a deep breath. He let the breath out as he pulled the doors toward him.
“Hello, gentlemen,” Caesar greeted the room's occupants who all turned at once in surprise. “Miss me?”
The senators just stood there in dumbfounded silence as Caesar moved into the chamber and the doors closed loudly behind him.
Braes watched the last rider disappear through the gate in a cloud of dust. Twelve in all, he mused. They all carried the same message, if not exactly the same contents. Each had a leather bag tied to their saddle horn. And each messenger was heading off in a different direction.
“So,” Cyrene's voice behind him nearly made him jump. He just managed to compose his features as he turned to greet her with a stern expression. “Want to tell me what that was all about?”
He almost smiled as he saw her casually leaning against a stack of crates containing lettuce. She was a beautiful woman and one he knew was completely untouchable. He also knew she was the Conqueror's mother and chose to live a simple life. Being the infamous Conqueror's mother hadn't fazed her in the least.
“Are you pulling rank?” His scarred gray brow arched as he met her expectant gaze. Her eyes were not blue or green but a combination of both. He was almost lost in that gaze, but managed to appear to remain indifferent to her. “'Cause if you are, I'm warning you that my orders come from the queen herself. I won't go against her wishes.”
“Do I really need to pull rank?” She replied with a casual smile that made her eyes sparkle.
“I answer only to…”
She raised a hand. “I know who you answer to, General. And I won't ask you to betray my daughter's trust.”
“You won't?” He was more than a little surprised, but hid it well.
“No,” she glanced in the direction that the last rider had taken. “Although, I am a little more than curious to know where those twelve men were off to in such a hurry.”
“Service to the crowns,” Braes replied cryptically. “They have pledged their lives in service to the queens.”
“I hope this mission of theirs doesn't cost them their lives,” Cyrene added. “There's been enough blood shed in the last few days.”
She was referring to the emissaries and he knew it. But he decided to keep his lips sealed on the subject. After all, wasn't that exactly what those riders were all about? The leather bags contained the heads of all the emissaries. When those bags were delivered, on Xena's order, their respective leaders would know her wishes without question. She did not accept their offers of alliance and would not tolerate their interference in the affairs of Greece.
Of course, the messengers themselves also knew that their lives were forfeit. They would deliver their messages and die a hero's death in service to Greece. But their families would also never want for anything again. Each man was promised a king's ransom for their families, as long as they followed through and did what they were ordered to do. Blood for blood. Braes was certain there would be no other reply than the heads of those men.
Well, that wasn't entirely true. Some of the leaders might just decide to retaliate in other ways. Embargoes? Assassins? War? But Xena was prepared for whatever it was they planned. And so was Braes. The army was swelling in its ranks as each day passed. Troops were scattered around the countryside recruiting and training new recruits. And Xena's handful of spies scattered about had tripled in size overnight. The corornation of two queens of Greece had elicited quite a different response than expected. No one was sure if it was Xena's choice of Gabrielle or something else entirely. But one thing was certain, Xena's popularity with the masses had skyrocketed practically overnight.
And the palace coffers were overflowing with tributes from the surrounding countryside. Gold, silver and precious gems were being sent from all over Greece by nobles and rulers who wanted to assure their rulers of their loyalty, even if they themselves hadn't bothered to show up for the coronation ceremony.
There was only one city-state that had not responded at all. Athens. It was conspicuous by its absence from the coronation and its neglect to send any sort of tribute to Corinth. Braes wondered what game the Council was playing, especially since the spies in Athens were not very reliable and had yet to report what was going on there.
He walked over and sat down on an empty barrel. “Tis true.”
“Tis more than true,” Cyrene sighed. “I just hope Gabrielle is safe, wherever she is. There's no telling what Xena will do if she learns that something happened to that young woman.”
Braes picked a leaf of lettuce from the crate Cyrene leaned against and absently tore it into small pieces.
“I'm more worried about the repercussions of this latest debacle,” Braes muttered, as he glanced at the gate where the last rider had disappeared. “I'm getting too old for this.” He rubbed the tense muscles on the back of his neck. “Things are moving a little too fast for comfort. And the queens' absences aren't helping matters. I'm not very good at juggling diplomatic issues, running a kingdom and making sure no one knows that our newly-crowned queens are not even here to keep things from falling apart.”
Cyrene frowned. “I'm a good listener, if you want to talk about it. It comes with being an innkeeper for all these years.”
Silence hung between them for several moments, as Braes wrestled with his thoughts. He then sighed.
“I saved her life once. Did she tell you that?” He finally said.
“Twas a raid on the camp of one of her arch-enemies,” he continued. “They surprised us. We thought we were being so cagey by sneakin' into their camp late at night. But Menticles somehow knew we were comin'. He had archers keeping watch on the perimeter. One of ‘em shot her in the back. Arrow lodged beneath her shoulder blade and grazed her lung. Good thing twasn't poisoned. She never woulda survived.”
“Oh…my…” Cyrene's eyes widened. “And?”
“I was right there to drag her out of the woods,” he continued with a wry grin. “Made it to a cave not far away. ‘Pparentely Menticles and his men knew nothin' ‘bout the cave. They searched the woods for two days and didn't find us. Oh, they stumbled around near our hideout a few times and I had to keep Xena from making any noise in her delirium. Infection set in rather quickly.” He ran a hand over his bald head. “I got the arrow out and cauterized the wound. But she took a turn for the worse almost immediately. The infection was pretty bad. Thought she was a goner. Her fever spiked most every night. She coughed up gobs of blood more'n once. But…” He shook his head and met her expectant gaze. “Xena is a fighter and has the constitution of an ox.”
Cyrene nodded. “She's always been strong.”
“She also has amazing recuperative powers. I've never seen anything like it before,” he added. “Just when I thought she was dead, well, she wasn't. Things turned around and she was finally on the mend. Just like that. Don't know how she did it—how her body suddenly came back from the brink like it did.”
“So, she's in your debt?”
“Nope,” he shook his head. “Not at all. She's saved my life many times. ‘Tis what keeps me loyal to her.” He paused thoughtfully. “That and her devotion to her men. She would give nothing less than her life for any one of us.”
Cyrene studied him for a moment. “But?”
His gaze met her steady one and he let the hint of a smile touch his features. “But,” he broke eye contact. “There are some things that even a mother shouldn't know about her children.”
“Oh?” Cyrene cocked her head. “Like what?”
He returned his attention to the empty gate and stared off into the distance for a few silent moments as he gathered his thoughts. He knew things about Xena. Deep, dark secrets that only a handful of people knew, most of which were long dead.
He then absently glanced at the empty gate again.
“Why do you keep looking over there, General?” Cyrene broke the silence that stretched between them. “Do you know something about my daughter that I don't?”
He sighed heavily as he met her expectant look. “I've never before questioned my loyalty to your daughter,” he finally said. “I'm her general for a reason. And that reason is I've remained steadfast from the moment I met her.”
“And that loyalty is in question now?” She guessed.
“I follow orders like a good soldier should,” he went on sternly. “But there comes a time in a man's life when he doesn't see things the same way he did in his youth.”
She sat down on the crate next to him.
“It happens to everyone, eventually,” she glanced at his profile. “With age comes a certain amount of wisdom, at least for some of us.”
“Yes,” he nodded. “But a soldier should never question orders. To do so goes against all his training and everything he believes in.”
“And what do you believe, General?”
“Hm,” he grunted. “Not really sure anymore.” He glanced around. “This,” he waved in the general direction of the palace, “was never what any of us expected when we first joined up with Xena. She returned to Greece with a plan to get rid of all the riff-raff. It made sense and we went along with her plans because she was a dynamic leader. She doesn't believe in obstacles. She just finds ways to navigate around, under or over them. Sometimes she charges right on through without a thought for her own safety. But she always seems to come through with only a few scrapes and bruises to show for her efforts. And she ususally leaves a trail of dead bodies in her wake.”
“She was unstoppable when it came to defeating the scum who opposed her in those early days,” he replied with a shrug. “She had some kind of…” he paused and shook his head. “I don't know how to describe it, really.”
A knowing grin touched a corner of Cyrene's mouth. “She's special.”
“Yeah,” he looked at her and smiled faintly. “Special.” He looked away and his eyes went unfocused as he stared off into the distance. “When the battle lust kicks in there is really no stopping her. I saw her do some pretty amazing things that no mere mortal could ever do.” He shot a sideways glance her way and saw the hint of undisguised shock just before Cyrene's expression went neutral again. “I've heard rumors that a certain war god used to visit the wives of those loyal to him. I never put much stock in the rumors,” he looked pointedly at her, “until now.”
Cyrene's eyes flashed before she schooled her expression, once again.
“She's his, isn't she?” It wasn't really a question.
Cyrene sighed. “It's complicated.”
He placed a calloused hand over the folded hands in her lap and then looked up to meet her gaze. Cyrene glanced down at his hand covering both of hers and noticed how much larger it was than her own. There were a few faded scars on the back and his palm was rough with callouses. The gesture was so uncharacteristic of the otherwise stoic man that she was taken completely by surprise. When she looked up he was still watching her intently.
“My husband came to me very late one night…” She let the words spill out unheeded. It was a tale that only her sister knew. Cyrene had never told the story of Xena's conception to another soul. But General Braes listened so attentively and with such open compassion that she couldn't help telling him everything, including her own speculations and feelings on the subject. “The only other person who knows is my sister, Agatha, and she swore never to tell another soul,” she finished.
He took both of her hands in his and just held them. “You're a very courageous woman, Cyrene.”
“No,” she shook her head and looked down at their joined hands. “I just did what I had to do to keep my family together. I did what any mother would do.”
He studied her for a moment, until she met his gaze. “You deserve to be happy.”
She gently pulled her hands from his and clasped them in her lap. “I am happy,” she said with a tentative smile. “As happy as any mother could be. This is a dream come true. A blessing from the goddess herself. Besides, now that Xena is queen and has someone she cares deeply about, my work is done. I've done my best to raise her to be a strong, courageous woman who accomplishes anything she puts her mind to.”
He reached up and brushed a stray lock of hair away from her face. When she didn't pull away and only looked at him curiously, he blushed. Then he leaned close and placed a tender kiss on her lips. As he pulled back, they both looked at each other for a moment.
“Why did you do that?” Cyrene finally broke the long silence that stretched between them.
He smiled crookedly. “I've wanted to for a very long time. Just never had the courage. Until now.”
She gave him a lopsided grin. “Really?”
“Really,” he took her hand and just held it in his own. “I'm a warrior. I've fought a hundred battles, killed more men than I care to remember. But when it comes to wooing women, I'm as inexperienced as a young lad chasing the village girls.”
“Is that what this is, then?” She looked down at their joined hands and decided she liked the warmth of his calloused hand in hers. “Are you wooing me, General?”
He placed his other hand over hers and met her gaze. “If you let me. And, please, call me Braes.”
It was Cyrene's turn to blush. “Okay, Braes. But I have to warn you. I'm not the easiest woman to woo.”
“I wouldn't expect the Conqueror's mother to be anything less than a challenge,” he smiled warmly.
She returned his smile and then they just sat there in silence together and watched the activity around them. No one seemed to notice or pay attention to them as they sat there with the sun shining down on them. No one waved. No one came over to greet them. They just continued on their way, as if seeing the Conqueror's mother with the army's general were any everyday occurrence.
Ephiny climbed the last few steps to the deck and inhaled deeply. The fresh salty night air was a welcome change from the stale air below deck. She stood on the deck with her feet braced apart for a moment to get her bearings. Glancing around, she noticed a lone figure sitting on a coil of rope in the shadows near the bow of the ship.
Glancing up at the night sky, Ephiny noticed a million stars twinkling overhead. Then the breeze picked up and a slight chill filled the damp air that caused an involuntary shiver to race through her. She wrapped her bare arms around herself as she strode purposely across the deck.
Xena glanced up from sharpening her sword, then returned her attention to the blade. One Amazon or another had tried to engage her in conversation over the last few days. But she just wasn't in the mood to talk to anyone. As far as she was concerned, they could all just return to Greece and let her continue on alone and leave her in peace. She was sick of them already.
“Xena,” Ephiny sat down next to her. “Listen. I'm sorry.”
The sharpening stone stopped in mid-stroke, then resumed its rhythmic scraping after only a brief pause. Xena never looked up from her task. She just kept right on sharpening a blade that was far sharper than it needed to be.
“I don't expect you to understand,” Ephiny continued, trying to fill the silence that stretched between them. “We're Amazons.”
“That's a tired excuse,” Xena commented quietly. “Been there, heard it before.”
“It's who we are,” Ephiny countered.
Xena stopped, set her sword aside and turned to glare at Ephiny. “And this is who I am.”
Ephiny noticed the challenge in the piercing gaze. “I know. And I respect that.”
“Then why can't you people just leave me in peace?”
“Because,” Ephiny shrugged. “We've been on this boat for days. It's not like there are all that many people to talk to out here.”
“Amazons aren't generally known for their social skills,” Xena countered sarcastically.
“No, we're not,” Ephiny chuckled. “But I think Gabrielle would want this. She is definitely much better at it than I am.”
“Me, too,” Xena smiled sadly. “I really miss her.”
The words came out so softly that Ephiny almost missed hearing them. She studied Xena for a moment and actually saw tears swimming in her eyes.
“We'll find her,” Ephiny sniffed back tears of her own.
“Yeah,” Xena sighed.
“You don't sound very convinced.”
Silence stretched between them for several moments. The wind had picked up and was filling the main sail. Several sailors moved high up in the rigging, but no one disturbed them. Water gently lapped against the side of the ship and far off in the distance a lone seagull sang a mournful song.
“Tell me I'm not crazy,” Xena finally said.
“You're not crazy.”
“Then why do I feel like I'm losing my mind?”
Ephiny studied Xena's shadowy profile for several silent moments. She didn't really know how to answer that particular question. Her first impulse was to say that most everyone thought Xena was just a little crazy, if not totally nuts. Eponin had commented on the subject more than once. After all, it took a certain mindset to go into battle and cut men down like so much fresh meat.
Instead, Ephiny wrapped an arm around Xena's shoulders and pulled her close. The taller woman resisted at first, before she finally gave in and allowed herself to be hugged. Her shoulders sagging under the heavy weight of her sorrow, Xena rested her head against Ephiny's shoulder and let the tears fall for the first time in a very long time.
Ephiny just sat there in bewildered silence at this sudden and unexpected show of emotion from a woman who had remained completely composed throughout the entire voyage thus far. It was a little unnerving to have such a strong woman suddenly break down in tears.
“I won't be able to go on without her if…” Xena let the words hang.
“She's not going to die, Xena,” Ephiny reassured her.
“You don't know that,” Xena's expression hardoned. “And if she dies, there isn't a soul on earth or beyond who can stop me from following her to the other side. Not even Hades himself.”
Ephiny nearly shied away from the grim determination and dark resolve in Xena's tone. Then Ephiny thought of Gabrielle.
“She wouldn't want that, you know,” Ephiny said quietly. “Gabrielle would want you to continue living your life and changing things the way only you can, Xena. She wouldn't want you to throw away everything you've achieved just to follow her to the Underworld.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as she tried to hold her own tears at bay. Talking about Gabrielle's death was not easy for her, but she knew it needed to be done. “Besides, she would want you to be happy.”
“I could never be happy without her,” Xena said. “And I wouldn't want to continue living like nothing happened or nothing changed. I couldn't. She's my life now. She's my soul and my only reason for being.”
“Yeah,” Ephiny sighed. “I know how that feels. Believe me.”
Xena sat up and looked at Ephiny with interest. “You and Eponin? Really?”
Ephiny glanced at her incredulously. “Why does everyone find it so hard to believe?”
Xena chuckled, glad for the change of subject. “Because you're so…I don't know. And she's so…” She shrugged.
“She's amazing in bed.”
“Yeah, too much information, there, Eph.”
Ephiny smiled tentatively, glad that Xena was finally sharing in some light banter. “She is. She does this…er…thing with her…”
“Okay, yeah, I think I've heard enough.”
Ephiny chuckled and then sobered. “I don't know why I love her. I just do. She makes me feel really amazing when we're together.”
“So, you've finally forgiven her for her drunken antics in the village?”
Ephiny sighed. “I suppose. I don't exactly trust that she won't go on another bender and end up in bed with some sweet young nubile thing, but…” She shrugged. “She is who she is. And if she ever does it again, I'll walk away and never look back.”
“You could really do that?”
“No,” Ephiny admitted. “But I like to lie to myself about it. Makes me feel like I actually have a say in what happens. Gives me the impression I'm in control of the relationship—of my traitorous heart. This whole love thing sucks hairy centaur balls, ya know?”
“Yeah,” Xena sighed heavily. “Never thought I'd see the day.”
They watched as a shadowy figure emerged from below decks and headed towards them. The lumbering gate identified the figure before Eponin stepped into the light from an overhead lamp swaying gently in the breeze.
“Hey,” Eponin greeted them.
“Hey, yourself,” Ephiny patted the rope next to her. “What's up?”
“Needed some fresh air,” Eponin plopped down and tilted her head back to look up at the stars overhead. “Nice night.”
“Yeah,” Ephiny said.
Eponin inhaled deeply. “Smells way better up here than it does down in the hold.”
“It's going to rain soon,” Xena commented. “Probably kick up a pretty big storm.”
“Oh, great,” Ephiny rolled her eyes. “That means we're in for choppy seas.”
“Yeah,” Eponin grumbled. “Like a bunch of seasick Amazons wasn't enough on this trip. Now they'll be even worse off when things start getting' rough.”
“Get them up on deck when the storm hits,” Xena suggested. “The fresh air will help.”
“Yeah, not to mention they can puke over the rail, instead of where we all sleep,” Eponin grimaced. “I understand now why you don't go below decks, Xena. The smell is worse than a pig pen or manure pile in the heat of summer.”
“We still have a few candlemarks before things get ugly,” Xena said. “I'll see if the captain has some rope we can use to string across the deck and use for handholds when the storm hits. It's not always a good idea to be sliding around when the waves are crashing onto the deck and washing things overboard, including people.”
“If things get really bad, we'll just go below again,” Ephiny said with a resigned sigh. “I just hope there are enough buckets and the storm doesn't last very long.”
“Ares' balls,” Eponin exclaimed quietly. “Can this trip get any worse?” Two sets of eyes snapped around to glare daggers at her. “Okay, okay,” she held her hands up in surrender. “I won't say another word. Sheesh!”
Xena got up and strode towards the helm without another word, leaving Ephiny to continue glaring at Eponin.
“What?” Eponin said. “It ain't like you two weren't thinking the same thing.”
Ephiny just shook her head, as she got up and strode toward the stairs. “I don't even know why I bother,” she mumbled as she descended toward the hold.
She paused on the landing to let her eyes adjust to the darkness. She winced at the odor that greeted her and nearly turned right around and climbed topside again. As she approached a single lantern that illuminated the hay-covered floor where her Amazons were huddled, her heart sank.
There was only one among them who hadn't gotten sick when they set out on the open seas. Briesse had her hands full nursing the others and trying to get them to eat or at least keep some water down. Zea looked worse for wear, too. She was green around the gills, mostly because she had eaten some raw fish and hadn't quite recovered from a vicious bout of food poisoning.
“All right, you lot,” Ephiny addressed them in her most authoritative tone. “I'm not going to mince words. There's a storm coming, so Xena suggests we move topside until it passes.”
Everyone groaned at once and no one moved.
“Come on, Amazons,” Eponin walked up to stand beside Ephiny. “This ain't the time for grumbling or bellyaching.”
“Speak for yourself, Pon,” Margalene piped in. “You and Queen Eph haven't been sick a day since we set sail. Amazons aren't meant to sail the seas. Our bellies don't like all this undulating motion.”
Several weaker groans followed.
“I don't care if you're all on Death's doorstep,” Ephiny said. “You need to drag your sorry feathered butts topside before the storm hits and the deck is too wet and slippery to navigate. Find a place near the rail and throw up over the side, if you must. I'm just sick of the smell down here. It's time for all of you to get your sea legs, anyway. You've been hiding down here long enough. Let's go. Move!”
More grumbles and groans followed, but a few of the stronger Amazons helped the weaker ones to their feet and ushered them past the queen and weapons master. There were glares and grumbles, but they finally managed to clear out. Only Briesse and Zea remained behind.
“You two coming?” Ephiny started for the stairs with Eponin close on her heels.
“We'll be there in a bit, my queen,” Briesse replied. She waited until she could hear the sound of sandals on the deck above them, then returned her attention to the pale woman lying in the straw next to her. “Come on, Zea. We need to go topside.”
“Don't wanna,” Zea muttered. She was curled up on her side and still suffering from stomach cramps as a result of her earlier mishap with the raw fish. “Go. I'll be fine.”
“I'm not leaving you,” Briesse pulled the smaller woman into her lap and held her close. “If you're staying down here, then I'm staying with you.”
Zea raised her head enough to look at Briesse. There were dark circles under her brown eyes and her cheeks were pale. Her lips were cracked from being sick and there was a light sheen of perspiration on her brow. Briesse gently stroked Zea's cheek with her thumb.
“You're still beautiful, even when you're sicker than a dog,” the blond scout said with a small smile.
“I probably look like Death warmed over, right now,” Zea snuggled against Briesse's chest. “My throat feels like I swallowed sand and my guts are churning like crazy.”
“I'll just bet they are,” Briesse chuckled, then sobered when Zea looked up at her with sorrowful eyes. “Sorry, love. Didn't mean to sound like I was making light of the situation. I just keep hearing Xena's words running through my head.”
“She did warn us. I'll give her that,” Zea muttered. “Just wish she'd taken that stuff away from me before I ate so much of it. Ugh.”
Briesse continued her gentle stroking. “I wish I had been paying more attention to you. I just never thought you would eat something you knew was bad for you.”
“Didn't taste bad when I ate it,” Zea sighed. “Actually, didn't really taste like anything. I wish I had your stomach. You aren't bothered at all by all this motion.”
“Hm,” Briesse rested her cheek against Zea's dark hair. “Just wait. You haven't seen anything, yet.” She then sat up straighter. “Speaking of which, you really need to be topside when the storm hits. You don't want to be down here in these close quarters when Poseiden decides to unleash his wrath. You'll just be completely miserable.”
“I don't want to go up there and face all that water,” Zea said quietly.
“Why not, love?” Briesse replied.
Zea didn't answer for the longest time. She just lay there enjoying the gentle stroking until Briesse actually thought she was asleep.
“Can't swim,” came the answer in a tone barely above a whisper.
“What?” Briesse couldn't believe her ears. “Did you just say you can't swim?”
Zea nodded. “Never learned. Didn't grow up close to any water.”
“I see,” Briesse shifted positions so she could lean back against the bulkhead of the ship. “Well, that most definitely is a problem. No wonder you've been so reluctant to go topside every time I've suggested it. Are you afraid you'll fall overboard?”
“Something like that.”
Briesse studied the dark head beneath her chin for several moments. “What are you really afraid of, Zea? Come now, you can tell me.”
Zea looked up and met the gray-blue gaze staring back at her. “There's a lot of water out there. I've never seen so much in my entire life. It's scary.”
“Scarier than getting up on a horse that you've just met for the first time?”
“Yeah,” Zea replied with a nod. “A hundred times scarier, by far. Horses don't drown you.”
“But you have no idea what the horse might do,” Briesse reasoned. “He could buck and throw you off. Or he could bolt for the woods. Or…”
“Horses don't scare me, Briesse,” Zea said matter-of-factly. “Most are pretty gentle, even when you first get to know them. They're a lot like children and just want attention.” She winced as her stomach spasmed. “The ocean is huge. All that water. Not to mention it's dark and unpredictable. I don't know what I would do if I fell overboard. Probably sink like a stone and drown for sure.”
“You kick your feet and tread water,” Briesse suggested. Then she mimed treading water with her arms. “It's not very hard, once you get the hang of it. I could certainly teach you a few things. Actually, I could probably teach you to swim like a fish.”
“That's the other thing,” Zea seemed to turn a shade of green. “Fish. Uck.”
Briesse chuckled again. “Well, since we're not going topside with the others, we might need to do something creative down here to keep from being thrown all over the place.”
Scooting out from under Zea and gently laying her in the straw, Briesse got up and rummaged around the fairly empty hold. She didn't find much. There was a coil of thin rope in one corner and an empty barrel. They were in the back section of the hold, which was separated from the main hold by a wall. It wasn't a large space. Briesse was sure there was quite a bit more stuff in the main hold, but she didn't want to leave Zea alone. The main hold could only be reached by a set of stairs near the bow of the ship and she would have to go topside then cross the deck to get there.
“Not much down here, I'm afraid,” Briesse dropped the coil of rope next to her companion. “I did find this over there.”
“Do we have enough fresh water to get by?”
“I think so,” Briesse knelt down to examine their packs. “There are three skins here.” She tasted the contents of each skin and winced at the last one. “Must be Eponin's,” she commented as she set the skin aside. “We should be fine with these, though.” She set the skins next to Zea and sat down with her legs crossed. “The only thing we can do with the rope is tie ourselves to one of the support pillars and hope for the best.”
Zea eyed the hold warily. There were two wooden pillars in their section of the hold. They were both rather damp and neither was close to the straw they were sitting on.
“Can't we just stay here?” Zea asked. “The straw is a pretty good cushion.”
“It won't keep us from being thrown around when the really big waves hit,” Briesse countered. “I think we'd be better off tieing ourselves to one of the pillars, just in case the ship pitches sideways on a wave.” She then grabbed up an armful of straw and hauled it over to the base of a pillar. “Some of this should help, though.”
Zea watched as Briesse carried several armfuls of the cleanest straw she could find over to the pillar. She then returned for Zea, picked her up easily, carried her to the pillar and set her down on the straw.
“Wait here. I'll be right back.”
Briesse grabbed their packs and returned moments later with a fur-lined cloak over one shoulder. She dumped the packs next to Zea and sat down. She then pulled Zea into her lap and wrapped them both in the cloak, as she leaned back against the pillar. With some skill, she managed to wrap the rope around both of them and the pillar until she had them tied securely to it.
“There,” she finished the knot and wrapped her arms around the woman in her lap. “We'll be fairly warm and the rope should keep us from being tossed around.”
Zea melted into the woman behind her. “I could really get used to this.”
“Me, too,” Briesse said with a chuckle.
The floor beneath them creaked and groaned as the ship itself suddenly rose and dipped.
“Whoa,” Zea's eyes widened, as she felt her stomach drop with the sudden motion of the ship.
“Storm must be on us already,” Briesse looked toward the stairs and couldn't see anything but darkness. “Doesn't look like it's raining yet, though.”
Just then a bright flash illuminated the hold for a brief moment. It was followed by a low rumble of thunder in the distance.
Zea was doing her best not to let the motion of the ship bother her. She kept a finger on the pressure point on her wrist and closed her eyes. Another bright flash behind her eyelids was followed by a louder rumble of thunder.
“It's getting closer,” she said between gritted teeth.
“Yeah,” Briesse replied. “It won't be long now.”
“I'm…” Zea started to say something, but her words were lost as a sudden downpour was unleashed above them. Boots pounded against the deck above their heads and they could barely hear the captain shouting orders to his men to secure the rigging. She looked up and back down again, as water dripped from the ceiling above their heads.
Briesse pulled the cloak tighter around them and held Zea close. “This is definitely going to be a long night for all of us.”
“Uh-huh,” Zea nodded. Then a thought occurred to her. “Are we safe down here? What if the ship sinks?”
“If the ship sinks, Zea, none of us are safe, no matter where we are on this ship,” Briesse answered grimly. “Let's hope it doesn't come to that. I rather enjoy being with you and am head-over-heels in love with you.”
Zea looked up and caught the sincerity in Briesse's expression. “Me, too.”
Briesse just smiled, as the rain poured down on the deck above and leaked down on their heads, the wind howled, the ship creaked and groaned, and heavy bootsteps moved above them. She hugged Zea tightly to her chest and settled in for a long night, unable to come up with anywhere else in the world she would rather be doing than holding onto the woman she loved. Then again, making love to the woman she loved in a nice, warm bed back at the palace wasn't such a bad idea, either. But beggers couldn't be choosers, now, could they?
The seas were far worse than anyone could have imagined. Poseidon's wrath was unparalleled as the dark water roiled angrily. Huge waves crashed against the side of the ship, nearly capsizing it with their monstrous power. When the bow was turned to meet an incoming wave, the ship would soar toward the murky sky, nearly going vertical to the pouring rain. Then the vessel would plunge back into the sea with a heartwrenching, gut-splitting force that nearly sent the entire ship straight to the bottom.
The rain wasn't pouring so much as it was driving like spikes into the exposed flesh of those still braving the elements. The experienced crew worked tirelessly to keep Athena's Revenge afloat, despite the rage of Poseiden that threatened to tear the ship apart.
Xena manned the helm with her bare feet braced firmly apart on the slick deck and hands in a white-knuckled death grip on the wheel. Her arms and shoulders ached from the strain of keeping the ship from being torn to pieces by the storm's fury. It had taken some convincing on her part, but the captain finally let her use her sailing skills to steer the ship.
Captain Krim of Athena's Revenge leaned against the rail next to her and issued orders to his harried crew in a booming voice, as the lightning flashed blindingly and thunder roared. The downpour was so loud that it nearly drowned out all other noises around them. They had already lost two crewmembers to the enormous waves that crashed onto the deck. That didn't deter the captain, though. He just kept right on giving orders and directing his men to keep the ship afloat in the churning seas.
“'Tis a beast that Poseiden has unleashed upon us!” Lakonius shouted to be heard above the howling wind and lashing rain.
Xena didn't respond. She was too busy keeping the ship on a parallel course with the deadly waves that threatened to send them all to their deaths. Another wall of water crashed over the deck below. Xena's acute hearing picked up a few faint screams. Her eyes searched the deck and she spotted several figures huddled together at the starboard rail. She counted heads and was satisfied that all the Amazons who were topside were still there.
They were soaked and miserable. Shivering as they huddled together against the rail. They were so out of their element that it was almost comical. Xena might have actually laughed, if the circumstances weren't so dire and she weren't using every ounce of strength she possessed to keep the ship afloat.
Another wave crashed over the deck. Xena watched in wide-eyed horror as one of the Amazons broke free from the huddled group and slid toward the opposite railing. There was nothing for the Amazon to grab hold of as she continued to flail wildly in her inevitable slide toward certain death.
Xena didn't think. She merely reacted. With little warning, she grabbed the captain and yanked him to the wheel. Then she launched herself high into the air, did a perfect mid-air flip in the icy downpour and landed on the slick deck below.
A body slid past her and she made a grab for it. Unfortunately, there was enough momentum behind the slide, not to mention the Amazon's weight, to yank Xena off her feet. She fell to the deck on her stomach and slid right toward the rail with a firm grip on the person she was trying to rescue.
“Ares' left nut!” Eponin screamed into the howling wind and pouring rain.
“Grab something!” Xena shouted.
They both came to a dead stop as the ship unexpectedly surged sideways in a huge swell. Eponin tumbled sideways and slammed against the door to the captain's cabin with a loud thud . Xena tried to get to her feet, but ended up sliding the same direction as Eponin and hitting the wall next to her. They both grunted.
“You okay?” Xena asked the dazed Amazon.
“Am now,” Eponin pushed the dripping hair from her face. “That was way too close for comfort. Thought I was a goner, for sure.”
“Yeah, me, too.”
The ship suddenly knuckled sideways again at that moment and it was all either woman could do to keep from being pitched into the dark, churning water below. They both wrapped their arms around the slick rail and held on for dear life, as the ship nearly turned completely on its side before the captain was finally able to get it under control again.
“I really hate boats!” Eponin shouted.
“I don't give a centaur's ass what you call ‘em. They suck! This sucks! When we hit land, I ain't gettin' on another one as long as I live—even if I gotta walk all the way back to Greece!”
Xena laughed, despite the precariousness of their situation. She just couldn't help herself. Seeing the usually-stoicd weapons master of the Amazons with the expression of a terrified child and water pouring off her was just too funny. It actually made their situation a little less dire and brought a hint of hope on the dark and dangerous surroundings.
“Hang in there, Pon,” Xena shouted above the din. “As long as the ship holds together we'll be fine. Just a little waterlogged.”
“And if it doesn't?”
Xena shrugged, as the ship settled and she could finally let go of the rail. “Then we'll all be seeing Hades sooner than later.”
Xena walked casually back to the stairs to the helm, leaving a wide-eyed Eponin staring after her in stunned silence.
“You can let go now,” Ephiny's voice brought Eponin out of her shock. “I think the worst of it is past us.”
Eponin loosened her death-grip on the rail and looked around. The waves were still pretty high, but the storm did seem to be abating. The rain wasn't lashing them anymore. It was just a steady, irritating downpour. And the wind had died down considerably.
“You okay?” Ephiny asked, as she put an icy hand on Eponin's shoulder.
“Yeah,” Eponin finally let go of the rail and grabbed a hold of one of the nearby ropes. She then shot a glance toward Xena, who had joined the captain at the helm and was staring straight ahead with an unreadable expression. Eponin shook her head. “She's completely nuts.”
“Who?” Ephiny followed Eponin's gaze and saw Xena. “Oh.”
“Yeah,” Eponin made her way back toward the huddled group of miserable looking Amazons.
“What did she say to you this time?” Ephiny was right on her heels.
Eponin stopped and turned to face her mate. “It wasn't what she said, so much as how she said it.”
“I think she wants to die.”
That got a raised-browed look from Ephiny.
“I mean it, Eph. I really think she wants us all to die, so she can search the Underworld for Gabrielle.”
Ephiny glanced at Xena again. The woman hadn't moved. “What makes you say that?”
“Because when she talked about meeting Hades, just now, she had this crazed look in her eyes that she gets when she's going into battle,” Eponin glanced up at Xena and shook her head. “All I know is we better find Gabrielle—and fast. I can't take much more of this. And if she's dead…” She let the words hang and shook her head again.
“Yeah,” Ephiny wrapped an arm around Eponin's waist and hugged her close. “The gods be with us all if that happens. Because there's no power on earth or beyond that will stop Xena from reaking havoc on those responsible for Gabrielle's death.”
It was cold. Dark. Silent.
All of a sudden, the world seemed to come back in a rush of noise, light, smells and motion that threatened to overwhelm all at once. The darkness fled as eyelids fluttered open. The smell of unwashed bodies, salt and filth filled tender nostrils. And something creaked loudly nearby.
“I think she's comin' ‘round, fin'lly,” a hoarse voice filled her ears. “Hey! You alive?”
“Leave ‘er be, ya lout,” someone else growled. “Give ‘er room ta breathe. Yer stink's ‘nough ta bring ta dead back ta life.”
Several low chuckles filled the space.
“Gods,” another voice grumbled. “Wish this storm would just blow itself out. Godsbedamned ”
Just then, she felt the motion and everything came crashing in on her at once. The sights. The sounds. The motion. Her heart sank as green eyes shot open and weathered timbers came into focus above her.
Metal clanked and she saw dirty faces watching her expectantly. All men. They watched her with a mix of curiousity, hunger and mild irritation. Metal clanked again, as someone moved just beyond her field of vision. She was lying on the floor—a damp wood floor. And it was rocking beneath her.
How long had she been unconscious? Better yet, where was she?
She tried to sit up, but the effort was a waste of time. She couldn't really move. She was too weak and her entire body ached. Then she felt the heavy metal shackles around her wrists and ankles.
“Lay still, girlie,” came a nearby gruff voice. “Ye've had a hard time of it and are still pretty banged up.”
She shifted her head slightly and the movement sent a sharp pain through her head. Squeezing her eyes tightly shut, she waited for the pain and a wave of dizziness to pass. Her stomach clenched and she felt bile rise in her throat. She quickly swallowed it down, as some deep-seeded instinct not embarrass herself kicked in.
Rough fingers gently stroked her forehead, as she tried to recover her wits. The gesture reminded her vaguely of something, but she couldn't quite clear her thoughts enough to figure out what it was. Or was it a who? She didn't know.
As she lay motionless for several moments, she tried to think—tried to remember. But, try as she might, everything was gone. Her mind was completely blank. All she knew was she was chained up in the hold of a ship and there were about six men with her. Every attempt to recall any remote piece from her past was met with a blinding pain in her head, followed by waves of intense nausea that brought bile rising into her throat. It wasn't pleasant, by any means.
After several futile attempts, she finally just gave up. Maybe the memories would return. Maybe they wouldn't. All she wanted to do was escape the pain and misery. So, that's exactly what she did.
“Here,” she felt something touch her lips and opened her eyes to see what it was.
The spout of a skin pressed more insistently against her lips and she opened her mouth slightly. Cool water flowed from the skin and she took several gulps of the slightly metallic tasting fluid.
“Rain water,” the voice said. “Go easy, girlie. Don't want it coming back up on ya. They're bein' kinda stingy with this stuff, so we only get one skin ta split between the seven of us in a day. Gotta make it last.”
She swallowed another mouthful and then felt a pang of disappointment when the skin retreated from her lips. But she didn't ask for more. As a matter of fact, she hadn't uttered a sound since returning to consciousness. She had no idea if she could even speak and decided to give it a try.
“Thank you,” she managed to croak hoarsely.
Her throat was sore from the bile and disuse, but she didn't really care. It was good to know that she could actually speak.
“Yer welcome, girlie,” a hand patted her shoulder and she almost winced from the contact. “Gotta stick together, since we're all in this for the duration.”
“In what?” She asked, her voice still gravelly and weak.
Metal shackles rattled and she heard the sound of scraping. Then her companion was sitting in her line of vision. He had dark hair and a dark mustache on features that were filthy, yet somewhat handsome. He wore tattered rags and his hair was scraggly and touched his shoulders. There was also a long scar that ran from one dark brow down to his chin. It didn't mar his features as much as it gave him a rugged appearance. It actually made him seem dangerous, until she saw the compassion in his brown eyes.
“Name's Autolycus,” he held out a filthy hand toward her.
She glanced at his hand and then reached over with her own. She was a bit surprised to see that her hand was just as filthy as his was as he took it in his own. His scarred brow rose and he seemed to be waiting for her to say something.
“Oh,” she frowned. “I…I don't…” He continued to stare in confusion, until his expression reflected sudden comprehension.
“Ooooohhh,” he released her hand and touched a finger to his temple. “That knock on the noggin, eh?” She nodded. “Yeah, I kinda figured somethin' like this might happen. You've been out of it longer than we've been onboard this tub. Boys who dumped you down here with us weren't exactly forthcoming with information, if you know what I'm sayin'.” She didn't. “But I'm sure you'll start remembering soon enough. Besides, not much to do down here but think, anyway. These guys,” he waved to the others who were watching them silently, “aren't really all that fond of carrying on a decent conversation. Ya know?”
She shrugged and instantly regretted moving. “Where are we headed?” She decided to ignore her discomfort and at least get some answers to the questions rolling around in her empty head.
“Not sure,” he picked up the chain that connected the shackles on his wrists to the ones on his ankles. “They won't tell us.”
He used a small piece of metal to pick the lock on one of his shackles, but quickly locked it back in place again. It seemed to be a nervous tick with him, because he repeated the action several times as if he didn't know he was doing it.
“I hear tell we're headed to Laconius, t'other side of the Aegean,” one of the others piped in gruffly.
“Gods, I hope not,” someone else added. “We'll end up dyin' in the arena, for sure.”
“The arena?” She rasped.
“Gladiator arena,” a large black man with a heavy accent said. “Laconius is famous for its ludi .”
“Yeah, they're rather infamous for the gladiators they train and send to Rome,” a small man with missing teeth cackled. “I hear tell they send in lions and tigers to get the crowds in a frenzy before the battles.” He cackled nervously again. “Most don't make it to Rome, though. Most die in the training arenas. And only the very best make it to the Coliseum. But that's where the real prestige is.”
“You boys are suddenly pretty talkative,” Autolycus commented with a dry chuckle.
“You just have to ask the right questions,” the bald black man grinned and showed off perfect white teeth in features nearly as dark as pitch. He then turned his dark eyes on her. “Women don't become gladiators. They are too weak to survive in a ludus .”
“Hey, who says she's headed to the arena?” Autolycus chimed in. “She's a slave like the rest of us, big fella. But that doesn't mean she's bound for a ludus .”
He then shifted the grungy and tattered sleeve of what remained of her shirt to reveal a small raised brand on her skin. It was red and swollen and looked like it hadn't been there for very long. She gingerly touched it and winced at the sting.
“Why else would she be on this here boat?” Their older, toothless companion cackled humorlessly.
He was as greasy and grungy as the rest of them, but was nothing more than skin and bones. His gray hair was pulled back and held with filthy piece of leather. That small piece of leather caught and held her attention. But when she tried to remember why it was significant, that stabbing pain shot through her head and she had to stop tyring to remember.
“Maybe she'll service the owner of whatever ludus they're sending us to,” came a muffled reply. A greasy head lifted off a pair of upraised knees and its owner leered at her with clear intent in his gray eyes. “I say we sample her wares before they're spoiled by some rich Roman bastard who's going to watch us all die in his arena, anyway. See what she has to offer.” He licked his cracked lips in anticipation.
A shiver of dread raced through her, but she didn't move. She just lay there staring up at him intently, waiting for him to make a move. A quick flash of memory hit her in the same moment. She was being raped and there was nothing she could do about it. Bile rose in her throat again and was joined by the little water she had swallowed. It threatened to choke her as she made a monumental effort to keep her expression neutral and swallow the bile back down in a throat gone tight with fear.
“Leave her alone or you'll be answering to me,” Autolycus was suddenly free of his shackles and held them in front of him in a defensive manner. “Don't think I'll hesitate to use these to bash your useless head in, Borellius. I won't.” There was a dangerous edge to his tone that had the other man dropping his head back to his knees. “That's better.” He quickly had the shackles back in place and looked around to be sure the lone guard snoring soundly on a bench across the hold hadn't seen him. He then lowered his voice and looked pointedly at the others. “Leave her alone. She's off limits to all of you. Got it?” They all nodded, except for the big bald black man. He just narrowed his eyes and glared. “Got it, big fella?”
“No harm will come to her,” he said in his heavy accent.
“Okay,” Autolycus nodded. “Good.” He then returned his attention to the only woman among them. “You okay?”
She only nodded, as she let out the breath she'd been holding and let her eyes drift closed. A sudden wave of exhaustion overtook her and she didn't fight it. Too much was happening and her head still ached unmercifully. So she let her thoughts go as she drifted back down into the darkness. She barely felt the rough fingers that gently stroked her temple, as she let go of everything and just sank deeper into the welcome arms of oblivion.
Continued in Part 11
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