I groped towards the door of the tiny bedroom, careful not to wake my sister. Glancing back to make sure my bed looked occupied, I didn't notice the chair jutting out from a table in the centre of the room. Thump. I froze and held my breath, hoping the noise from the chair didn't wake Lila. No such luck.
"Gabrielle," Lila called sleepily.
"Go back to sleep," I whispered.
"What are you doing?"
"Nothing," I replied, allowing my annoyance to be heard. "Just go back to sleep, Lila."
Lila sat up and rubbed her eyes. "Is that a bag you're carrying? Are you running away?"
I debated whether to tell her, but I owed her that much. "I'm going to join the army of Xena the Conqueror. The camp is just a few hours North of Potidaea, and they're recruiting."
There was a pause, and then an eruption of laughter. "You? Hahaha, hahaha!"
The sting of her "don't be stupid" laughter caused me to blush. I should've expected her reaction, but somehow I thought my sister would understand.
Lila fought to control her laughter once she realised, by my stony expression, that I wasn't trying to be funny.
"You're serious?" She sounded astonished.
"Absolutely," I replied.
"You wouldn't last a day, Gabrielle. For Zeus' sake, I can beat you up!"
"Yeah well, you're very strong for your age," was my pithy response. She was right, I wasn't a warrior, but I had other skills that would be useful to the Conqueror.
Folding her arms across her chest, my sister sat upright in bed and gave me a disapproving glare.
How could I explain to Lila the frustration I felt at being trapped in Potidaea when the world around me was in chaos? I thought. No one in this village really understood that I was meant to do so much more with my life. The Conqueror was trying to unite Greece and bring stability to the region, and I was meant to be part of that. I sat down next to her on the edge of her bed. "Lila, you know I'm different from everybody else in this village-"
"I know you're crazy!"
"Well, call it whatever you like. The point is I don't fit in here, and the idea of marrying Perdicus-"
"He loves you, you know."
"But I don't love him," I said exasperatedly. Lila stared wide-eyed as though I just declared there were no gods. "Perdicus is a good man and he deserves a good wife," I continued in a gentler tone. "I want to be more than just someone's wife. I want to experience life, not just live it."
The look in Lila's eyes changed to bewilderment as I spoke. It would never occur to my sister that a woman had other choices in life. I felt sorry for her.
I continued to plead my case. "I want adventure. I want to travel. But more than anything, I want to make a difference in this world. Don't you see? I've got to do this, Lila."
My sister knew once I made up my mind, there was no point in arguing further, so she uncrossed her arms and held them out towards me.
"I'm going to miss you so much." Her lower lip began to quiver.
I put down my bag and embraced my sister and best friend. With tears flowing freely, we held onto each other, aware that our childhood together was ending.
"Cheer up." I tried to lighten the mood. "You'll finally have a room of your own."
The sun was just rising over the foothills of Mt. Holomodas as I entered the Conqueror's army encampment. It occupied a large, gently sloping field on the north side of the main route from Thrace to Central Greece. There was not much in the way of protection from the elements. The few trees that dotted the area had been sculpted by the wind into stooped and stunted shapes. I stood on the outskirts of the camp for a moment to take it all in: rows of tents; battle flags snapping in the breeze; the smell of leather and horse manure filling my nostrils; the scraping of stone against metal as soldiers sharpened their weapons.
For a moment, I wondered what I was doing in this place - me, just an eighteen-year-old peasant girl with few skills that prepared me for life as a soldier. But I couldn't go back to Potidaea. To return would mean giving up my dreams and settling for a meagre existence as a farmer's wife.
I steeled my courage and walked toward a group of soldiers guarding the road into camp. They must not have considered me much of a threat, because they didn't take up defensive positions. One of the soldiers, an officer judging by the plume on his helmet, stepped forward and addressed me. He seemed different from the others: his face not as hard, and his brown eyes warm and friendly.
"Can I help you, miss?" the officer asked.
"Yes, thank you. I'm looking for the recruiting officer."
The soldiers with him laughed, but the officer's face betrayed no amusement at my request.
"That would be Lieutenant Melikos. You'll find him on the other side of the camp." He pointed in the general direction I should go. "You can't miss him, he's next to the banner that says 'Join Here'."
"Thank you, uh-"
"Well, thank you, Lieutenant Galates."
"My pleasure, and good luck."
We gave each other a flirtatious smile, and then I turned in the direction Galates had pointed. As I walked away, I heard the other men tease him good-naturedly for being so polite to me.
The camp had everything an army, or a village needed. I passed a cook tent, a smithy, even a barber. One thing that made it different from a normal village was the population: it was predominantly male. The few women I saw were mostly from the support units, but there were a few who were soldiers. This raised my hopes of joining.
Lieutenant Melikos was indeed easy to spot among the men standing near the recruitment banner. He cut an impressive figure. Tall and ruggedly handsome, he was clad in full battle dress: bluish-purple tunic and black leather armour adorned with brass studs, with matching gauntlets and greaves, and newly shined, black boots. He wore his sword and scabbard on his left side. His polished bronze helmet glinted in the morning sunlight.
"Are you Lieutenant Melikos?" I asked, as I stepped directly in front of him.
"Yes, little lady, I am. What can I do for you?"
I took a deep breath and looked up to meet his eyes, preparing to explain what I was doing in the encampment of the Conqueror's army. "I am here to enlist."
"Bwahahaha!" Lieutenant Mekilos' laugh was deeper and more guttural than my sister's, but contained the same incredulity. The soldiers and civilians within earshot also broke into laughter.
"But I wish to offer my services to the Conqueror," I protested.
He laughed harder. "Go back to your village, little girl."
"I'm not asking to be a soldier, but I can be useful in other ways."
This elicited some lecherous comments from the crowd of men gathering around me, which I ignored. "I could be a spy," I continued hopefully. "No one would suspect me of being a master of espionage."
"No. Now push off," he barked. "I've got some real soldiers to recruit." Lieutenant Melikos turned his back and ignored me.
I wasn't going to take "no" for an answer, and was about to launch into another plea to the recruiting officer when the group began closing in around me.
"I know what service you could provide," leered one grubby soldier.
His comrades chortled, and from their expressions I knew I wouldn't like the service he was insinuating.
"So, how about it darling?" the lecher continued.
"Well, uh...that's not exactly what I had in mind," I said light-heartedly while I tried backing away. The group closed in tighter around me, blocking my escape. I looked to Lieutenant Melikos to come rescue me, but he kept his back turned, pretending not to hear them.
"Oh come on, you said you wanted to help the Conqueror. Now's your chance," another would-be recruit retorted.
"How would that be helping the Conqueror?" I asked, trying to sound nonchalant, as I looked for a way out of my predicament.
"By keeping up morale." The leader of the pack emphasized the word 'up' as he grabbed his codpiece. The unruly crowd sniggered at his gesture.
"No. I'm no good at making people happy. I'm a miserable person, honest. You'd want to- Hey!" I slapped at a hand that was trying to take liberties with my backside. "Didn't your mother teach not to touch things that don't belong to you?"
The men laughed harder, and two more tried to grab my breasts.
"That does it!" I yelled in my most fearsome voice. "These are lethal weapons," I said as I held my hands up and struck a combative stance. Judging by the chortles, I wasn't that convincing, but I swallowed hard and pressed on. "These hands can slice swords in two. They've been known to break boulders into pebbles. The Persian Army warns its new recruits that if they come up against me in battle, they are to run away screaming. He-ya!" I flashed my hands around in front of my face in mock punches and jabs.
The crowd took a step back. They seemed more amused than intimidated, but I didn't care as long as it got them to move. I was about to strike another menacing pose, when suddenly the crowd grew quiet and dispersed without another word.
"Yeah, that's it! You better be scared, because once you make me mad, I don't hold back. Yaah!" I feigned a strike at the retreating men.
"You've had a lucky escape!" I called after them. I took a deep breath, pleased that my wits had saved me from a very threatening situation.
I turned around and almost poked my eyes out on a pair of leather and bronze clad breasts. "Hey, watch where you point those things!"
I took a step back and was about to try my "dangerous hands" trick again, when I looked up into a pair of hard blue eyes. Standing an arm's length from me was a commanding warrior woman dressed in a uniform of black leather and intricately patterned, polished bronze armour. She towered over me, which made her all the more intimidating. Finally, it dawned on me who it was I was addressing. My mouth went dry and my heart pounded, as I stood before the most fearsome warrior in all of Greece - Xena the Conqueror.
"I hope you're not posing a serious threat to my army, because if you threaten my army, you threaten me. You don't want to threaten me, now do you?" The hardness in her eyes softened a bit, an eyebrow quirked upward, and the corner of her mouth turned up ever so slightly.
I made a strange croaking noise that in no way resembled the reply my brain instructed me to speak. I tried again. "N-n-no, M-Ma'am."
"That's 'General' to you," she said, correcting me.
Dread filled my lungs but I managed to squeak out, "yes, General."
"Good." The Conqueror turned and started walking away.
"Hey! Wait a minute!" I called after her.
General Xena stopped walking away and turned slowly. "What did you say?" She gave me this look that would've cowered a mountain lion.
"I-I-I-I mean, General, if you could let me... I-I- mean, um... spare a moment of your time... your precious time to let me explain that... I have... a... um... an affinity, yes, that's the word, an affinity for your cause. You have an incredible vision: to bring peace and stability to the region and to rid this land of marauding warlords and slavers. You're a true saviour of this country! So, I've come to join your...army?." My voice trailed away as I became captivated by her stare.
She stood there, completely motionless. Only her long, dark hair shifting in the breeze gave any indication that she was alive and not a statue. Oh good, Gabrielle, first you insult her and then you start blathering like an idiot. Great first impression! I thought.
My heart was hammering louder in its attempt to escape my chest. My feet felt like they had been nailed in place, and my spine had lost the ability to support my body. I crumbled to my knees and watched in helpless horror as the Conqueror finally moved towards me.
"Stand up!" Xena ordered.
My body rebelled against the command, but eventually I managed to get to my feet.
"You want to join my army?"
"Y-yes, General," I said meekly.
"Are you a warrior?" the Conqueror demanded.
"Not exactly, General."
"What does that mean?"
"I can learn," I said hopefully.
I heard the sound of the Conqueror drawing her sword. A wave of fear washed over me. I closed my eyes and waited for the worst.
For a moment, I thought I was hearing things. Had she just said 'take it', as in take the sword? I opened one eye cautiously to see what was going on.
"Go on, take it." The Conqueror stood with the hilt of the sword turned toward me.
I looked at the weapon. I was surprised how steady my hand was as I reached out to grasp the handle. Just as I was getting a feel for the sword, the Conqueror let go and the weight of the weapon pulled me down.
She laughed as she retrieved her sword from me. "I think my army can survive without you."
I didn't come all this way to be denied, not even by the Conqueror herself. I tried another tack.
"I could be useful as a spy."
"A spy!" She didn't bother hiding the amusement in her voice.
"Yes, General. I can read and write. I know how to read maps too. Oh, and I'm a bard. Telling stories is a useful skill for a spy to have. I also managed to get to this camp on my own without getting attacked or murdered or anything,"
"Why would a slip of a girl like you want to join my army? Shouldn't you be out marrying a farmer or something?"
"I was meant to do so much more than be a farmer's wife. A travelling seer once told me I was fated to meet a mighty warrior who was destined to unite a land in turmoil. He said this warrior was going to change the world, and I am supposed to help this warrior. Greece is just such a land - it's people starving, threatened, enslaved. I believe you are that warrior, General Xena, and I am here to help you."
I studied the Conqueror as she absorbed my words and considered her response. There appeared to be some conflict going on within. Eventually she spoke.
"What's your name?"
"Gabrielle," I answered.
A shiver ran down my spine as the Conqueror said my name. Most people say my name quickly, making it sound hard and sharp, but Xena's low-pitched voice prolonged the syllables, making it sound exotic and unusual. Her voice had a sensual quality that I found entrancing.
"I have need of a personal serv-" She paused and reconsidered her choice of words. "A personal assistant."
"What would my duties be?"
"Oh, all sorts of things. Serving my meals, ensuring my quarters are clean, and making sure my laundry gets done-"
"Pardon me, General, but that sounds a lot like a servant."
"There will be other duties."
"You can take notes during meetings I have with my commanders and such. You did say you could read and write?"
"Yes, General. But I could do so much more. I'm good at telling stories and talking my way out of trouble. I would make an excellent spy. I mean, just look at me. Who would suspect me of being a spy?"
"No spying. We can't have my personal assistant getting captured as a spy, now can we?"
"No, General," I replied with obvious disappointment. The offer was not exactly what I wanted. The alternative, however, was to go back to Potidaea and marry Perdicus, which my pride would never allow.
"Personal assistant, huh?" I muttered.
"Take it or leave it."
A thought struck me. "Don't you already have one?" I queried, still campaigning for a job as a spy.
"I had her crucified for talking too much," she said with deadly seriousness.
I paused while my heart started beating again. "That was a joke, right?" I asked tentatively. Considering the Conqueror's reputation, this might've been a distinct possibility.
"Of course it was," she said impassively. "I had her thrown to the lions."
The Conqueror's battle-hardened commanders couldn't contain their disdainful amusement when, later that morning, General Xena introduced me as her new personal assistant.
"She's so puny! I'd throw this one back," one officer said, as he turned me around.
"Personal assistant - is that what they're calling themselves these days?" another officer said, insinuating I was some sort of camp follower.
"Heh, I could use some personal assistance with this!" the third officer said, grabbing his crotch.
The officers weren't quite as threatening as the men by the recruiting table, but they made me uncomfortable all the same. I wondered if I would have to go through this trial all the time. As they looked me over, I became very self-conscious about the way I was dressed. How could I ever earn their respect dressed in a brown skirt and blue peasant blouse? If I was going to be the Conqueror's personal assistant, I needed to look the part. I needed some sort of uniform.
My thoughts drifted toward the design of such a uniform, when another officer, Lucon, grabbed me and pulled me towards him. "How about giving us a little kiss, sweetheart?" he leered.
I tried to struggle, but he held me tight. Unable to think of any way to break free, I looked towards General Xena with a pleading look.
The Conqueror's eyes flashed with a wild glint, and her jaw clenched ever so slightly. She gripped the loutish officer by the throat and addressed her comments directly at him, "Is that any way to address my new personal assistant?" Her tone was low and threatening. Then she gave all the other officers a withering look. "Anyone else have a comment?"
All taunting ceased in an instant.
Lucon's face was turning purple in Xena's grip and the veins on the side of his bald head stood out in stark relief. The officer was only slightly taller than me and Xena lifted him up to look him directly in the eyes, which left him balanced on the tips of his toes. With a barely audible grunt she released her hold on Lucon's throat and pushed him away. He gasped for air and held onto the table to steady himself.
"All of you, out! Report back here in one hour."
Without comment, the junior officers saluted and scrambled out of the command tent. Naturally, I assumed that meant me as well, so I followed on their heels.
"You, stay!" She glowered at me with that same icy stare she had given Lucon.
I froze like a deer caught in the sights of a hunter's bow.
The Conqueror turned to her second-in-command and snarled, "Darnell, I want Lucon demoted."
"Immediately, General." He made a crisp about-face and started to leave.
"Oh, and Darnell?"
Darnell turned back around. "Yes, General?"
"Have him flogged in front of his entire unit. I want to send a message that Gabrielle is to be treated as a respected member of the Conqueror's staff and not a common barmaid. Is that clear?"
"It will be done." Darnell saluted and made another about-face. As he left the command tent, the second-in-command glanced my way and nodded.
"Come here," Xena said firmly.
My legs turned to jelly from fright and I collapsed on the floor, ungracefully landing on my backside.
"Here, take my hand." Her tone softened as she held her hand out to me.
When I hesitated, the Conqueror pulled me to my feet in front of her.
"Are you all right?" Her hand lingered on my forearm.
I tried to say something, but I couldn't speak. It felt as though a hand was gripping my throat. I had never stood that close to the Conqueror before. I didn't realise just how tall she was, or that she had the most piercing sky-blue eyes. She had a long mane of onyx hair and her complexion was flawless - tanned and olive toned.
"Uh, yes. Thank you." I finally managed a timid response.
The imposing woman backed away. "That kind of behaviour will not happen again, I assure you. I made my position quite clear on how you are to be treated."
The Conqueror walked over to a chair and sat down. She beckoned me over and told me to pour her some wine, which I did. As I handed the goblet to her, she started talking about her vision for Greece and her philosophies as an army commander. As I listened, I felt less fearful and more captivated by this stern, but charismatic leader. By the end of the hour, I was sure this was where I was meant to be.
The officers reported back to the command tent as ordered, and this time everyone was very polite to me. Before the briefing began, Commander Darnell introduced the soldier who accompanied him. I was pleased to see it was the lieutenant who had directed me to the recruiter.
"General, may I present Galates of the Fourth Perimeter Guards, second unit. He is my choice to replace Lucon."
"Galates, eh? So, you think you're ready to take command of the Fourth Perimeter Guards?" General Xena said with a sneer, as she stood toe-to-toe with Darnell's choice. Galates was one of the few men who came near to Xena in height.
"By your will, General." Galates snapped to attention and saluted his commanding general. He looked like he was about to faint.
"Yes, by my will." With that, the Conqueror drew a dagger from her boot and thrust it toward Galates' gut. Galates managed to jump back, blocking the attack with a defensive forearm move.
"Not bad. Very well, Lieutenant Galates. You now command the Fourth Perimeter Guards."
The newly promoted Galates snapped to attention and saluted. A bead of perspiration dripped down his pale cheek.
General Xena waved the dagger in acknowledgement, and then pointed to the map spread out on a large table. "Thrace, Macedonia, and now Chalcidice are mine. Our next objective will be the kingdom of Thessalia. My plan is to march through Epirus to the west of Thessalia. Once Epirus is taken, then Thessalia will be effectively cut off from the North, West, and East. Once Thessalia falls, Achaea will be easy pickings. Commander Darnell, I want the men prepared to move out in two days."
"Yes, General," Darnell acknowledged. The others took their cue from Commander Darnell and came to attention. In unison, they raised their fists across their chests to salute the Conqueror and exited the tent.
General Xena went back to studying the map, seemingly oblivious to my presence.
"Ahem." I cleared my throat.
"Uh? Oh, yes." She turned to look at me. "We need to discuss your duties, but first," Xena looked me up and down then continued, "we need to get you some kind of uniform. It wouldn't do to have the Conqueror's personal assistant dressing like a peasant girl, would it?"
Two days later, the Army of Xena the Conqueror left the Potidaea valley, with an additional six hundred new recruits and one personal assistant.
When I was a teenager, a warlord named Cortese attacked my home village of Amphipolis. This violent act shaped my life and gave it a purpose. I vowed that I would rid Greece of the ruthless warlords and their roving bands of thugs.
It went wrong somewhere along the line. Events led me away from that goal, and I became the very thing I despised. Twelve years of roaming the world killing and plundering, and I thought I had everything I wanted. Then one day, I realised I was destined to rule an empire, not live in a dirty tent surrounded by a rag-tag bunch of mercenaries and no-hopers.
If my plans of conquering all of Greece were to be realised, I needed troops who were well trained and loyal, men who would fight and die for me and not just for my gold. It took nearly a year before I had a strong and loyal army capable of fighting for a country rather than their next meal. And once I did, I set out to conquer Greece.
It was in the spring of that year, in Chalcidice near the village of Potidaea, that I met Gabrielle. Our first encounter was, to say the least, memorable. I was in my command tent talking with Braextus, a commander in my army.
"How would you like to run Larissa for me?" I asked.
He gave me a suspicious look. "What's the catch?"
"No catch," I replied.
Braextus had been with me a long time. He was about twenty years older than me and had retired from the fighting business six years ago to settle down and raise a family. When he heard about my plans for Greece, he picked up his sword and joined me again.
"There's always a catch with you," he said with a chuckle.
That was one thing about Braextus I liked, he was not afraid to joke with me. He had always treated me with respect, but never out of fear or awe like some of my soldiers. And for that, he earned my appreciation. While his prowess on the battlefield was not what it once was - he liked his drink a little too much and his uniform was tight across his stomach - Braextus knew how to manage the logistics of a large army, and that made him the best choice to govern Thessalia for me. Besides, it meant he could settle down with his family and still serve me.
"The catch is I want you to oversee Larissa for me. It's a strategically important city, and I need someone I can trust to-" I was interrupted by raised voices outside. "What is going on out there?" I stood up and stalked out of the tent to find out the cause of the disturbance.
And there she was, this scrawny yet spirited girl with long blonde hair, surrounded by a rowdy pack of my soldiers. She was holding them at bay with feigned hand-combat movements. The boldness of this young woman both amused and intrigued me. I could see she was in over her head and felt compelled to come to her rescue.
Just the sight of me coming towards them was enough to quickly disperse the group of soldiers. Gabrielle turned around and was surprised by my presence.
"Hey, watch where you point those things!" she cried.
I think she was referring to my breasts, which were about level with her face. The thought of my breasts being a dangerous weapon almost made me laugh out loud. I struggled to keep the smirk off my face and maintain a menacing stare. I made some quip about her threatening my army, and then I turned and walked away. I expected her to have the good sense to go home to whatever village she came from.
I couldn't believe my ears when I heard this impudent young pup call after me and boldly inform me that she wanted to join my army.
"Why would a slip of a girl like you want to join my army? Shouldn't you be out marrying a farmer or something?" I found myself asking. I wasn't expecting the answer she gave me.
"I was meant to do so much more than be a farmer's wife. A travelling seer once told me I was fated to meet a mighty warrior who was destined to unite a land in turmoil. This warrior is going to change the world, and I am supposed to help this warrior. Greece is just such a land - its people starving, threatened, enslaved. I believe you are that warrior, General Xena, and I am here to help you."
By the gods, this girl was audacious - or crazy - walking into my encampment and boldly telling me that she was going to help me! What possible help could she be to me? I thought. Still, her arguments were persuasive, and against my better judgement, I found myself offering her a position as my personal assistant. I'd never had a personal assistant before - servants and slaves, yes - but never a personal assistant. I wasn't even sure what a personal assistant would do.
Later that evening, Darnell and I met to discuss the day's events over a glass of port.
Darnell was easily the best fighter under my command. Though a tall man, taller even than myself, he didn't appear to be a big man. He was perfectly proportioned for his height and his trim body disguised his considerable strength. He also knew how to think on his feet and adopt a strategy during the heat of battle. Making him my second-in-command was an easy choice, and I trusted him to take care of the recruiting.
"How is the recruitment going?" I inquired.
"Not a bad lot," Darnell replied. He stroked his close-cropped beard as he spoke. "We should soon be able to knock them into shape."
"Did you see to Lucon's punishment and instruct the men to treat my new personal assistant with respect?"
"Yes." Darnell hesitated a moment. "May I speak freely?"
"Are you going to keep that girl around?" he asked.
"Do you have a problem with her?" My tone was somewhat defensive.
"No, no problem," Darnell replied instantly. "It's just that you haven't had a personal assistant before."
"I decided it was about time I had one."
"There's something about her - her spirit."
"Oh, yeah. I noticed her 'spirit' too." The commander raised his eyebrows and chuckled.
I caught his meaning and was quick to deny it. "That's not the reason. Besides, she's not my type."
He tilted his head and gave me a disbelieving stare. Darnell knew that my sexual appetite was often sated by young women. I answered his look. "This is strictly professional. If I am going to build an empire, I'm going to need someone to handle the mundane administrative work. Unless you want the job, Commander."
"Uh, on second thought, hiring a personal assistant was a great idea, General."
I didn't know then just what a great idea it was to hire Gabrielle, but I soon found out.
I left Chalcidice with an army of six thousand men and one personal assistant. My next objective was to conquer the kingdom of Thessalia and its capital city, Larissa. Taking Thessalia would not be an easy task. The Thessalian army was known for their fierceness and boldness in battle. They could pose a real threat to my army if they were allowed to make an alliance with neighbouring territories to the south.
My senior staff and I were gathered around the map table in the command tent. Gabrielle sat behind me, with quill and parchment, ready to take notes. The map showed Ambracia, a small kingdom just over the next range of hills. It was of little strategic value in my conquest of Thessalia, but it would be a sweet appetiser for the main course.
"Their defences are weak at this point," said Darnell, placing his finger on the western flank.
"And where are they strongest?" I asked.
"Here," he pointed to the eastern side.
"Then that's where we attack."
"General?" Darnell asked bewilderedly.
"Do you think the men are not up to it?"
"Of course they are, General."
"Then what's the problem?"
"We've had tougher opposition than Ambracia in the past, and we have tougher opposition ahead of us," he explained. "I see no need to waste more effort than needed on this worthless territory."
"Normally I would agree with you. And certainly against a stronger enemy you would go for the weaker flank. But it can be good for morale to let the men attack the strongest part of a weaker enemy. It will give them confidence."
"A wise plan, General," Darnell conceded.
From outside the tent there came some shouting.
"See what that is, commander," I said, irritated by the distraction.
Darphus, another of my trusted lieutenants, saluted and went to investigate. He returned shortly.
"What is it?" I asked gruffly.
"General, King Quallas of Ambracia has arrived in camp. Shall I show him in or have him arrested?"
I hated politics. Being a soldier was easy: kill or capture - that was all you needed to do. Being a politician took patience, something I was lacking; however, if I was to build an empire, I had to be a politician as well as a soldier.
"Let's see what he has to say, shall we?" I looked around at my officers, who took my cue and backed away from the map table, taking up strategic positions in the event this was some kind of trap. Gabrielle stood behind me with scroll in hand. I sat down in my chair to receive my royal visitor.
"Escort the King of Ambracia with all due ceremony," I said with a wave of my hand. I pulled my lion's head dagger from my boot. The prop would be useful and would send a message.
Darnell motioned for a guard to fetch the king. The guard returned shortly with King Quallas and the king's servant, who carried a small chest. Quallas was a thin man with greying hair. He may have been a warrior in his younger years, but now he had a tired, timid look about him.
"General Xena," he began with a slight hauteur in his tone. "I have come to save you the time and trouble of conquering my small, insignificant kingdom."
"Oh, it's no trouble, King Quallas." I said sarcastically, as I twirled the tip of the dagger on my left index finger.
He laughed uneasily, watching the dagger in my hand. He collected himself and continued his proposal. "I am prepared to pay you an annual tribute of fifty-thousand dinars if you allow me to remain the ruler of Ambracia - under your control, of course. As a token, I have brought you this." Quallas signalled his servant forward.
"Hmm, I already have many servants, but I' m sure I can find a use for him," I said with a lascivious smile.
"Err, no, General Xena, the chest."
Quallas took the chest from the servant, placed it in front of me, and opened it with a flourish. Inside was a large, green jewel.
"What is it?" I sneered, feigning disappointment in the unusual gemstone.
"A priceless jewel of mysterious origins. It is said to possess magical powers," replied the king.
"What kind of magical powers?"
"Unfortunately, I have not discovered its secrets. A woman of your exceptional skills, however, will have little trouble."
"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather have the servant."
Quallas looked panicked. Obviously, he was not prepared for me to turn down his offer.
"I could raise the tribute to sixty-thousand dinars a year," he blurted out. "Plus the magical gem and the servant."
"Very well, I accept your tribute," I said matter-of-factly.
"Does that mean you will not invade Ambracia?" he asked hopefully.
Abruptly, I slammed the dagger into the arm of my chair, and jumped up and stood toe to toe with the king. It had the desired effect of rattling him. "No, that means I will take your wealth, your lands, and your life." I walked away, then turned back and pointed to the chest.
"Did you think you could buy my favour with a few dinars and an ugly green stone?" My voice grew louder, and I could see his body begin to tremble underneath his tunic. Even diplomacy is a battle with moves and counter-moves. He thought he could play me, but I had him check-mated.
As Quallas grew paler, I continued. "You stood a better chance facing me on the field of battle. At least you would've won my respect and the respect of your people. Instead, you've proved to me that you are nothing but a spineless weasel who would do anything to save his precious crown."
Before Quallas could say anything in his defence, I turned to my second-in-command and sealed the fate of the king and the fate of his kingdom.
"Commander Darnell, have the army assembled before first light. I want this worthless plot of land under my banner by this time tomorrow."
"It shall be done."
"Guards, take him away. I want his public execution to crown our victory celebration."
The scratching of quill on parchment came to a sudden stop when I ordered the execution of this pathetic excuse for a man. A tiny gasp came from over my right shoulder, as Gabrielle reacted to my order. I shot her a disapproving glare. She promptly lowered her eyes and continued writing.
"No, please. I'll give you anything," Quallas whimpered.
"Everything you have is already mine."
Quallas fell to his knees and uttered a strangled cry. It was pathetic that a sovereign should act in such a snivelling manner. Thankfully, I didn't have to suffer the sight for very long, my men dragged the king away to his fate.
"Now leave me, all of you. Darnell, I do not want to be disturbed. Is that understood?"
"Yes, General." Darnell saluted, but hesitated instead of leaving. "Shall I come back later and give you a readiness report?"
"Yes, Commander, but I will send for you."
"Very well, General."
Darnell saluted once more and left. I noticed my assistant start to follow him.
"No, Gabrielle, you stay."
She froze, and then turned to face me. I could see she was deeply distressed. She was still not used to the cruel reality of conquering an empire. I should have dismissed her, sent her home to her village, but I didn't. Instead, I gave her a stern dressing down.
"Gabrielle, never express your feelings in the presence of others. Do you understand?"
"Yes, General. I'm very sorry." Gabrielle apologised like a penitent child.
My demeanour softened. "Pour me a glass of wine . . .please," I added. I never said 'please' to anyone.
A look of surprise followed by relief flickered across my assistant's face. She quickly retrieved the wineskin and goblet resting on a serving table across the tent.
"Yes, General." Gabrielle poured the wine and brought it to me.
"Thank you," I said as I took the glass from her. I never said 'thank you' to anyone, either.
There was something about Gabrielle - an inexplicable connection I felt towards her. It wasn't the usual lust I felt for a pretty face. This young woman had a certain nobility that almost had me believing my quest for power was not for purely selfish reasons.
"You disapprove of my orders to take Ambracia. Why?"
"It is not my place to say, General."
"You may speak freely."
Gabrielle saw I was being sincere, so she spoke candidly. "You had an opportunity to take Ambracia without bloodshed. Instead you've ordered the king executed and your army into battle. Why sacrifice your men when you can achieve your objective without fighting?"
"I'm a soldier and the men out there are an army. It's what we do."
"But the outcome will be the same. Only your way will cost lives."
"What do you know about the cost?" I snapped.
Gabrielle nervously lowered her eyes at my rebuke.
I was immediately remorseful for snapping at her like that, but I wasn't about to apologise to a subordinate. Gabrielle had made a good point, but I wasn't about to admit that either. And I certainly was not going to admit that her disapproval bothered me.
I abruptly changed the subject to King Quallas' gift.
"What do you make of this green gemstone?" I asked, holding it up and turning it around to get a good look at it.
Gabrielle relaxed a bit once she realised I wasn't going to punish her. "How do you mean, General?"
"Well, you're something of a bard. I was wondering if you had heard any stories about a green gemstone with mystical powers."
"No. I've heard of the Jewel of Demeter, but nothing about a green gemstone."
"It's probably just something Quallas made up to make it appear more valuable than it actually is. I think I'll have it fitted to the end of a sceptre. What do you think?"
"It's only a green stone, what does it matter what you do with it?"
My assistant surprised me with her response. It didn't occur to her that this precious gemstone was worth a king's ransom. The trappings of wealth and position didn't seem to impress her.
As we spent more time together, I learned she had a very unique way of looking at the world. Her persistent questions and chatter about anything and everything annoyed me at first. But over time, I came to enjoy our evening chats, just the two of us. I discovered that Gabrielle was very inquisitive and eager to learn, especially about battle strategies, geography, and politics. Subjects I was keen to discuss.
It had been four days since we had taken Ambracia. Following a day of drilling my army for the campaign ahead, I was relaxing in a hot bath. As usual Gabrielle was present. Her job was to prepare my bath and have my robe ready when I was finished. While I bathed, Gabrielle talked.
"It's not that I didn't love my family, or that they didn't love me."
Often Gabrielle would make observations about things I normally took no notice of. She'd talk and talk about the simple things in life: the sunrise, the sunset, the stars in the night sky, the birds singing in the trees. This time, her chatter caught my attention. It was the first time she had mentioned her family.
"I just felt as though I didn't belong. Does that make sense?" She paused only briefly, because she was used to me not answering, and then she continued. "Village life is tedious: you wake up; you work hard; you go to bed. And you do that every day of your life. There's no change, no adventure."
"Don't you miss them?" I asked.
She didn't respond immediately. My question seemed to have rendered her speechless, so I prompted her. "Your family?"
"Oh, yes, General. Of course I do, especially my sister, Lila. But, I wasn't happy there. No, that's not entirely true. I was happy most of the time. It's just that I wasn't like the other girls. What I mean is I didn't want the same things."
"Hand me the soap."
"The soap." I pointed to a cake of soap on a side table just out of reach.
"Yes, General." Gabrielle handed me the soap.
"You were saying."
Gabrielle picked up where she left off. "If I had stayed in Potidaea, I would've been forced into marriage. Perdicus, the man they wanted me to marry, is a nice lad. He's kind and gentle, but he's not..." she uttered a frustrated groan. "He's been bred for the simple village life, and I couldn't see me spending the rest of my life with him. I didn't love him."
Then she said something that made me drop the soap.
"I want to find a place where I can be appreciated for who and what I am and not just do what's expected of me. And if I can't find that place, then I'll try and create it."
Her words struck a chord in me. I knew what village life was like, and I knew the need to go out and find what was missing. I was shaping the world to fit me instead of looking for a place for me to fit. I looked over at my assistant. She was talking about some other subject already, but the expression on her face as she spoke still held the look of someone in search of a place to belong.
I could be that place she belonged, I found myself ruminating, though I didn't understand why at the time. The thought had me shaking my head at such sentimental nonsense. Romance had no place in my life. I had an empire to conquer. Besides, she wasn't my type.
My army met with little resistance as we swept through much of Central Greece. This meant I controlled the territories of Thrace, Chalcidice, Macedonia, and Thessalia, with the exception of the area surrounding their capital city of Larissa. Now that I had effectively cut off Larissa from any aid, the Thessalians were vulnerable. Yet, my spies reported that the city was well provisioned and well armed, which meant Larissa could hold out for several more months.
Looking up from the map of Larissa laid out in front of me, I turned to Darnell. "We need a bold plan to break this siege quickly. Your thoughts, Commander?"
"General, I recommend an all out assault on their left flank. That's where the Thessalians are not as heavily fortified." He pointed to the area on the map.
Darphus shook his head.
"You disagree, Lieutenant? Tell me, what would you recommend?"
Darnell glared antagonistically at Darphus.
"I'd use Greek fire to burn the city to the ground, General."
Darphus returned Darnell's glare with a smug smirk. The antagonism between these two could be tiresome at times, but for the most part it was useful. With each one trying to out do the other it could produce several good battle strategies, allowing me more chances to achieve victory.
"What if we were to use elements from both plans, General," Darnell offered, winning this round of one-upmanship.
"What do you suggest?"
"We could attack their left flank using catapults and bombs filled with Greek fire to soften up their defences, then hit them with an all out assault."
"That sounds like a reasonable plan, Commander. Before I make any decisions, however, I'd like to mull it over a bit, perhaps talk it over with Gabrielle." In our evening talks, I had discovered Gabrielle's uncanny ability to see things from a different perspective. Perhaps it was because she was not schooled in the art of warfare, or perhaps it was her unconventional views.
"Gabrielle? Why would you want to talk military strategy with your maid?"
His comment ignited my fury, and my reaction was swift and painful. I applied an acupressure technique that stops the flow of blood to the brain and causes death in thirty seconds if it's not released.
Darnell fell down and grabbed his throat as he struggled for air. I leaned down and picked him up by his shirtfront to administer a warning. "Never forget that I command this army. Question me again, and I won't show as much mercy. Is that clear, Commander?"
"Yes, General." He gasped as blood drained from his nose.
"Good." I released the pinch with five seconds to spare. "Now, someone find my personal assistant."
Several minutes later, a messenger came back and reported that Gabrielle was not in her tent or in the immediate vicinity. Impatient to talk with her, I decided to go in search of her myself.
We were camped in the wooded foothills of the Pindus Mountains. The lack of any large open grassland meant my army was spread out over a wide area of forest terrain. Finding my wayward assistant proved to be a major undertaking. I walked downhill to where the support units were camped, but she wasn't there. I asked the head cook, but he hadn't seen her since before the evening meal. I felt a pang of apprehension. What if Gabrielle was in some kind of danger? I dismissed the thought as ridiculous. No one would dare lay a hand on her, if they valued their life.
As I wondered why Gabrielle engendered such a protective instinct in me, I had worked my way back uphill to where the Fourth Perimeter Guards were camped. By now, I had become angry and frustrated that I couldn't locate her. As I approached the area, my instincts told me something was wrong. From the smell of broth wafting through the trees, I knew the soldiers were eating, but there was an eerie silence - not the rumble of chatter that usually accompanied mealtime.
Then I heard a solitary voice echo off the trees. It was obviously female, though I couldn't make out what she was saying. I followed the voice until I reached the clearing. There on the bough of a fallen tree stood a petite figure, dressed in a bluish-purple tunic and black leather cuirass, regaling the enthralled men with a story. It was my assistant.
Gabrielle's enthusiasm for storytelling was conveyed in her passionate delivery. Her expression and intonation gave the words life, and I found myself captivated by the story as well. When it was over, she took her bow to rapturous applause. The beaming smile on her face, as she accepted their appreciation, was as enchanting as the story. I had seen Gabrielle smile before, but not like this. Her smile radiated unabashed joy at having made the men's mealtime something special. At that moment, I was very proud of her.
The moment was soon gone, however, when I witnessed Lieutenant Galates help Gabrielle down from the tree. He held her waist and her gaze, a little too long for my liking, and she didn't seem to mind.
Her smile faltered as she caught sight of me. She quickly pulled away from Galates, as though she had been caught doing something inappropriate, or at least that's the way it looked to me. She was soon lost in a mass of soldiers. I took that moment of distraction to slip away, and returned to my command tent.
Several minutes later, Gabrielle arrived. She stood obediently outside the open flap.
"Come in," I ordered brusquely.
"You had need of me, General?" Gabrielle inquired timorously.
"Yes, I did. I had important matters to discuss with you, and you were nowhere to be found. I had to come looking for you." My irritation was evident in my tone.
"I'm very sorry I wasn't available when you needed me." Gabrielle seemed genuinely sorry.
My ire softened. I couldn't stay mad at her for long. I lifted her chin and gently chided her. "You need to let me know when and where you go, and with whom." I placed emphasis on the words "with whom".
"Yes, General. It won't happen again." Her eyes glanced downward.
"Well, you were helping to keep up morale, and that's an important part of maintaining a disciplined army. You tell stories very well."
She smiled at the compliment, but it was heavily guarded and not the wide, spontaneous smile she had displayed in the clearing.
"I trust your entertainment of the troops will be limited to just telling them stories."
"Yes, General," she replied innocently, completely missing my implication.
Changing the subject, I directed her attention to the spot I was pointing to on the map. "Thessalia is my next major objective. I'd like your thoughts on how to take it."
Gabrielle looked confused. "What about your military advisors, General?"
"What about them?"
"Shouldn't you be asking them?"
"If I asked them, they would come up with the same idea as me. Sometimes it's good to have a fresh perspective, especially from someone who has not been trained in military tactics. So please," I said gesturing at the map, "tell me how you would do it."
"I wouldn't know where to begin," she said as she looked over the map.
"Alright then, if you were to write a story about it, how would you do it?"
"A series of epic battles, I guess."
"Say that I've fought enough epic battles and needed another way."
"Then you fight a series of not so epic battles," she explained simply.
"Okay," I said, trying to maintain my patience. "Let's try a different approach. Say you were confronted by a pack of wolves that were between you and where you wanted to go, how would you get through them? Remember that the wolves are quicker, more manoeuvrable, and have greater stamina than you."
"I'd feed them so they would be too full to bother trying to eat me."
"What if you didn't have enough food for them all?"
"Then, at least I'd have a smaller pack to worry about."
"A smaller pack", of course! It was so simple and so obvious: divide and conquer. I would reduce their strength the same way I took Corinth - poisoned grain. With most of their army incapacitated, the rest will fall easily to my superior forces. "Thank you, Gabrielle, that was most helpful."
"It was?" she asked with genuine surprise.
"Yes it was," I replied.
My approval relaxed Gabrielle, and she smiled shyly. "Thank you, General."
I was about to dismiss her, but something inside me wanted to keep her near. "I didn't catch all of the story you were telling earlier on. Would you tell it to me now?"
"If you want me to."
"I want you to."
I settled down into a chair and listened. Not to the story, but just to her voice.
Continued in Part 2