A TIME TO CONQUER
Summary – Three years after FIN, Gabrielle the Conqueror has united the Greek nation under her rule. A tough but much-loved and fair ruler, she still grieves for the loss of her soulmate. As her adviser Virgil chronicles her rise to power, Gabrielle is alerted to a threat to her realm and, in time, the whole world…
This is my second fanfic. It's a little darker than the previous effort. I know not everyone likes post-FIN stories, but I hope you'll give this one a go. It might surprise you! All feedback gratefully received to firstname.lastname@example.org
Ownership – I don't own Xena, Gabrielle or the other familiar characters. They are property of RenPics/Universal. I receive no monetary gain – this story is just for fun
Violence – yeah, quite a lot
Angst – loads
Religion – parts of this story discuss aspects of monotheism in less than flattering terms. If this offends you, please look elsewhere!
Mythological note - I've borrowed a few aspects of Ancient Greek mythology, but in the spirit of the show their representation may or may not be 100% accurate!
The late summer sun beat down harshly on the busy Corinthian streets. Everywhere there was a sense of anticipation from those who did not wake early enough to reach the agora for the monthly proclamations. Merchants sold ale, wine and sweetmeats from carts. A small child whined until he was lifted onto his mother’s shoulders to see the spectacle. Soldiers stood at regular intervals within the crowd, arms folded, watching for any trouble. Keener eyed citizens might have spotted snipers stationed on roofs and in windows, crossbows poised to skewer anyone who might threaten harm to the leader.
A ripple of applause began from the end of the street closest to the agora, quickly building to roars of appreciation. Two huge warhorses cantered into view, jet black and pulling behind them a gilded chariot. Stood proudly in said chariot, next to the charioteer, was the object of the crowd’s attention. Clasped firmly in her right hand was her signature weapon, a mystical blade from a kingdom far to the East. From time to time she raised the weapon in salute, drawing wild cheers from the throng around her. Her left hand rested on the chariot’s edge. She was dressed in a brilliant white chiton, which had been cut to reveal the elaborate dragon inked onto her back. Resting on her short, slightly shaggy, blonde hair was a gold crown fashioned into the likeness of an Olympic champion’s laurel wreath.
The crowd’s roaring grew louder. “Hail Conqueror! Hail Conqueror! Long live Greece!”
On arriving back at the palace, I returned immediately to my apartments. I nodded at the Imperial Guardsmen standing watch outside my door. They snapped to attention and gave the somewhat understated clenched fist salute which I had insisted my army adopt in contrast to the more dramatic Roman style. I saluted back.
Entering my rooms and barring the door, I gave a long sigh of relief before placing the katana carefully on my dressing table, shucking the chiton and slipping into a more comfortable outfit. It was a variant on my long-preferred style of halter top and short, wrap-around skirt. This particular specimen was a rich blue colour with beading and a silver stitched pattern. The belt, which had been fashioned by the court’s senior leather craftsman, bore elaborate tooling as well as a specially designed hook for the chakram.
I picked the katana up from the dresser and returned it to its rightful place in my weapons cabinet. The cabinet had been designed to my precise instructions and contained bespoke holders not only for the katana and its scabbard but also my staff, sais and the chakram. The staff was a replica of the one I had stupidly thrown into a river when my head had been turned by that charlatan Eli and his empty promises of love and peace. At the thought of that time, I grew angry and closed the door to the cabinet. I wondered how Xena had tolerated my foolishness and for as long as she did.
Turning away, I surveyed the rest of my accommodation. For the legendary Conqueror and ruler of all Greece it was surprisingly understated, frugal even. Save for the huge bed in its centre, my bedchamber was almost devoid of furniture. There was a closet for my clothes and armour, and the weapons cabinet. A small table sat on one side of the bed, where at night I would rest a pitcher of water and a weapon of some description. It never paid to be defenceless, especially in ones bed. In a small alcove in the centre of the wall facing me as I slept was the urn containing Xena’s ashes. To the right of this, in pride of place, were her leathers and armour. Before I closed my eyes, every night, I would gaze on these artifacts, all that I have left of my soulmate.
The living area was similarly basic and functional. There was a desk where I could write and work on matters of state; a table with six chairs for the rare occasions when I entertained; and a long couch for relaxing. A water pipe, a gift from the ambassador of Kahina’s Berber tribe, sat in a corner. A set of double doors in one wall led out to a terrace with views across the palace’s walled garden. The only decorative concessions were the framed Sappho poem which Xena had commissioned for me on my birthday shortly before we left for Jappa, and a tapestry from the Norselands depicting a dark haired Valkyrie.
My one luxury was the bathing chamber, which had been designed by one of Rome’s most celebrated architects, and which featured a huge sunken tub and running water. Relaxing in it some evenings, I would wonder how I had ever coped with months on the road and, later, on campaign. The dirt, sweat and blood; the filthy clothes; the constant miasma of your own stink and that of those around you. How thrilling it was to come across a freezing pool where you could submerge yourself and scrub your filthy skin until it was red raw. When I was done wondering, I would feel a pang of guilt that months in the palace was making me soft.
I sat down at the desk and unwrapped a scroll. Since Jappa my once prolific writing had slowed to a trickle. The scroll I held in my hand was my attempt to describe the aftermath of Mount Fuji and the journey back to Greece. I sighed as I reread my words.
I still don't know how I made it down the mountain. The shock of the preceding hours had robbed me of conscious thought. I remember almost nothing of the journey.
When, at last, I reached Higuchi I was surrounded by excited locals, celebrating the final defeat of Yodoshi. I tried to tell them about Xena’s sacrifice but I could barely articulate the words. Perhaps they didn't understand me. Perhaps they simply didn’t care. I grew tired of the celebrations, tired of the jabbering voices, and the town’s mayor, at least, seemed to understand. He took me aside and bowed reverentially in his people’s custom. He insisted I keep the katana, saying I had earned it as much as any samurai. He then presented me with payment for my services. A huge bag brimming with gold and precious gems, riches beyond ones wildest dreams.
Xena had always been reluctant to accept payment for our work. This was, I think, penance for her warlord days of indiscriminate looting and pillage. At times it annoyed me, as I found myself telling stories in taverns for a few coins just to pay for a bed for the night, but I understood and respected her decision. But Xena was gone now and I had no such scruples. I readily took the offering and thanked him gruffly, before departing for the harbour. I didn't look back.
I found passage on the first ship departing westwards. The captain eyed me warily, and the crew muttered amongst themselves, but at heart he was a businessman and the fare I offered was too good to turn down. We spent days in uncomfortable silence, with me leaving my cabin only to eat, drill and deal with my bodily necessities. The crew whispered when I passed, calling me the white devil. Looking back, I can recognise how alarming I must have appeared, an unsmiling, unspeaking automaton, her back mutilated by a strange design, spending hours on the deck practising with her weapons. At the time, I barely registered the presence of others. Simply functioning took all of my strength and energy.
On the fourth day I was alone on the deck, my silent and relentless drilling having frightened off my fellow mariners. I took a break from my exercise and spent a few moments gazing at the horizon, cradling Xena’s ashes and dreaming of happier times. Briefly, I felt her there with me. I felt her arm resting on my shoulder. I heard her infectious laugh. We talked about the future and how we would always be together, and I shared my plan to return to Egypt. I rested my head against her and closed my eyes, and when I opened them she was gone. To this day I cannot say for certain whether she truly came to me. As time goes on, and her presence fails to manifest itself, I come increasingly to the conclusion that the episode was simply a product of delirium brought on by grief and lack of sleep.
Two nights later I was dozing in my cabin when I heard the door creak. Opening one eye, I saw one of the crewmen enter with a knife in his hand. Whether he was planning to rob or rape me I will never know, but my days of talking my way out of situations were long behind me and I simply took my katana and sliced through his belly. The look of shock on his face lasted only a few seconds before I raised the blade again and opened his throat. It was only as his lifeless corpse hit the floor heavily that I considered whether I might have taken a non-lethal option. That consideration was on a purely intellectual level. I felt nothing.
By mutual agreement, I left the ship at the next port. I was now in Chin, and still a very long way from home.
The next few months passed in a blur as I sought the fastest route back to the Mediterranean. I spent weeks riding horses into the ground, and when one had had enough selling it and buying another. I found passage on ships and boats aligned to every major trading nation in the Known World. As I approached India, I toyed with the idea of trying to find Eve to tell her of the loss of her mother. But the pull of home was too strong and I put the thought to the side.
By the time I had reached the Eastern shores of the Aegean, I had long abandoned my plans to travel to the Land of the Pharaohs. I was weak from months of travelling and still maddened with grief. It was only the thought of once again standing on Greek soil, and of fulfilling my promise to return Xena’s remains to her family mausoleum, which kept me going. When I finally landed at the port of Pagasae, I dropped to my knees and kissed the dock.
That was the end of the scroll. It was painful still to read, and if I was honest it wasn't my finest work. I pondered the fate of the crewman, disembowelled with ruthless, unfeeling efficiency, and wondered whether it was at that moment that the Conqueror was born. By that stage I'd killed countless times before, but I can honestly say that this was the first time I had felt nothing. No shock, no anger, no guilt, not even a sense that he had got what he deserved. Nothing more than a sense of irritation that I would likely have to change my travel plans.
I thought back to a story Xena had told me, quite early in our travels together, about the time she had essentially made a conscious decision to choose a path of violence and destruction. The decision had been made following her betrayal and crucifixion, and the subsequent death of her rescuer at the hands of Roman troops. She described the cold rage she had felt, the bloodlust that coursed through her as, crippled though she was, she killed an entire platoon with her bare hands. I'd felt nothing like that; I'd felt nothing at all. Part of me envied her passion for battle, envied the feral glee in her eyes each time she dispatched another unfortunate to Tartarus. I’d felt the bloodlust myself – you don't fight as fiercely and successfully as I have done without it – but increasingly and since losing my soulmate battle for me had become little more than a job; albeit one I had become extraordinarily good at.
There was a loud knocking, interrupting my introspection. I sighed as I remembered that I had an appointment. Unbarring the door I welcomed my domestic adviser. “Virgil. Come on in.”
“Your Majesty. Conqueror.” He gave an exaggerated bow before entering the room. I rolled my eyes. “It's okay, Virgil. At ease! Door’s closed now.”
He hurried in, sitting down on the couch without being asked. I noticed he was holding a number of scrolls and I cursed silently. This was likely to be a long session. I rang the bell which summoned my personal attendant and instructed her to bring us refreshments.
A small keg of ale arrived mercifully quickly, along with a tray of fruit and some sausage and sheep’s cheese. I poured generous measures for us both and then sat back at the other end of the couch, waiting for him to begin.
“Firstly, Conqueror, I wanted to congratulate you on an excellent performance at the agora today.”
Hmm. I wasn't above responding to flattery. “You think it went well, huh?”
He nodded eagerly. “Definitely. Did you hear the cheers when you announced the expansion of the Academy? Not to mention the reaction to your plan to reinforce our Northern border.”
“Yeah, well, they did seem pretty happy.” I took a long drink from my tankard. “Let's see how long that lasts when they realise how many more taxes they'll have to pay to fund it. And how many of their sons will be conscripted to reinforce that border.”
Virgil made a dismissive noise. “They love you, Conqueror. In their eyes you can do no wrong.”
I was less convinced of this. I'd seen enough of fickle crowds during my travels with Xena. Mobs can move very quickly from cheering to lynching. I made this point to Virgil and he shook his head. “Conqueror, you have unified Greece. You have given the people back their pride as a nation. You are already spoken of as our greatest leader since Alexander.”
Well, that remains to be seen. I took another swig from the mug of ale. “What's next?”
Virgil sorted through his scrolls. “Tomorrow, we expect the arrival of Beowulf. He wishes to initiate discussions on new trade links with the Kingdom of Denmark.”
“I guess he and Hrothgar patched it up, then.” I popped a cube of cheese in my mouth. “Suppose we’d better organise a banquet or something to welcome him.” I groaned inwardly. I hated these events.
“It's already done, your Majesty.”
Of course it was. Virgil’s natural exuberance, combined with his busybody tendencies, had made him an excellent domestic adviser and general organiser. When I had first hired him I had no idea he would fit the role so well. I had just taken Corinth, my first major conquest, and had been hit with the realisation that I would need to start the boring business of administration. Tax collecting, governing, the operation of the justice system... I had no talent for this and even less interest in it, and there was a pressing need to find someone who did. Virgil had attached himself to my army a few weeks earlier with a view to chronicling my campaign, and I had appointed him to the position on the grounds that he was a familiar face I felt I could trust. I had also felt a sense of obligation to his late father.
In any event, it had worked out very well. It was Virgil who had coined the “Conqueror” honorific, something I had been unsure of at first but which had proved crucial to the rapid growth in my support across Greece. It's much easier for folk to get behind a new cause or a new leader if they have a snazzy name.
I returned my attention to Virgil’s monologue. He was still talking about tomorrow’s banquet plans. Keen to move the discussion on, I gestured at the pile of scrolls. “Long agenda today?”
“Well. Conqueror.” He paused. “All of these papers relate to one matter.” His face had reddened. “It's something that I've been meaning to talk to you about for a while.”
I leaned back on the couch and raised my eyebrows. “Oh yes?”
“Yes.” He was speaking quickly now. “Conqueror, you have been ruler of all Greece for nine months now. People are beginning to talk…”
“About… alliances. And succession.”
My mouth dropped open. I could feel a cold anger building in me. Slowly, carefully, I annunciated my next words. “They. Are. Talking. About. This?”
I could feel the panic radiating from Virgil. “Conqueror. It is understandable. They simply seek stability… and the long continuance of a united Greece.”
I reached for the knife that had come with the platter of fruit and began to twirl it in my hands. “Perhaps they should talk to me about this. We’ll see how long they keep their tongues.”
Virgil fell silent. He chewed his lip and looked at his feet. I let him squirm for a few minutes before I spoke again. “Is that what these are? Marriage proposals?” I reached over and selected one of the scrolls. “Darius of Persia. Not the Darius of course. Just a jumped up warlord with an overbite. I should know, I've fought him. Let's see what others we’ve got. Menkhaf the Egyptian – he must be sixty years old. Ahihrom of Phoenicia. Never even heard of him.” I couldn't be bothered to look through all the others. “What in Tartarus have you been up to, Virgil?”
He looked up. His face was grey. “Conqueror. I swear. I have not sought these out. You receive an – invitation – of this sort every few weeks. I thought I'd wait until there was quite a few, then you could maybe find one to your liking.”
“Well.” I stood up and walked to the window. “That's never going to happen. You will write to all of these gentlemen and decline their proposals. The Conqueror has no need of a consort. I rule alone.”
“Some of them may take rejection badly.” To my irritation, Virgil had now stood and was following me to the window. “They may pose a threat to your lands…”
“They will take my katana in their gut more badly.” I whirled round to face him. “If they threaten these lands, then I will take theirs. It's been a while since I saw a decent battle.”
I could scarcely believe he was continuing to argue with me. Taking a deep breath, I spoke slowly, as if to a slightly backward child. “Virgil. I am young, still.” I was. If you discounted the time in the ice cave and my slumber in the Norselands, I was not yet 28 winters. “Succession will, the Fates willing, not be an issue for many years to come.”
Virgil sighed and I thought he had accepted defeat, when to my amazement he spoke again. “Conqueror. If you do not wish to take a consort, that is understandable. But perhaps you should, at least, take someone into your bedchamber. There are whispers, that it is not natural, living like a Hestian virgin.” He spread his hands. “Any man, any woman in Greece would be honoured to –“
That did it. I smashed my elbow into his chest and knocked him to the ground. In seconds I was on top of him jabbing two fingers into his neck. “Okay, Virgil. You know the drill. Enjoy your last 30 seconds of life.”
His eyes pleaded with me as a thin trickle of blood ran from his nostril. I let him suffer for perhaps five seconds before I reached over and released the pinch. “Don't, ever,” I spat at him, “Suggest anything like that again.”
My adviser nodded his agreement through the tears that had begun to flow. “Forgive me, Conqueror,” he finally managed to blurt out.
I sighed. Whilst the feeling, emoting Gabrielle might be long gone, I was no sadist and I took no pleasure in the discomfort of others. Although I lost part of my own soul along with my soulmate, I was neither a cruel nor capricious ruler. I reached down and offered my hand to the prone man. “Get up, Virgil.”
He allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. We stood in awkward silence for a moment. At length, I went to refill our mugs. On turning back to my adviser, I saw him distracted by my writing desk. “Conqueror!” He said in excitement. “You are writing again!”
I handed him the tankard. “Not really. I wrote that scroll a few months ago. Can't seem to write more. The muse is gone.”
“May I?” He laid his fingers on the scroll, gingerly, unsure of my reaction.
“Sure.” I gestured dismissively. “Knock yourself out.” I turned away. I didn't want to think about the scroll and what it represented.
A few minutes later Virgil spoke. “It's very – powerful, Conqueror. Very personal.”
“You don't like it.” It was a statement, not a question. I didn't blame him.
He shook his head. “It's not that I don't like it. But I want to know what happened next. How did you go from kissing that dock to leading an army that conquers Greece.”
“Forget it, Virgil. I'm not able to write all that.”
“I understand that, Conqueror. But I might be.” His near-death experience already seemed forgotten. Eagerly, he pressed on. “When I first joined up with you, it was to chronicle your battles. How about if I write your story?” He preened slightly. “I could be the official court historian.”
It wasn't the worst idea he had come up with, and part of me did feel as though I wanted to tell someone what had happened during that period. And perhaps I was feeling a smidgen of guilt for putting the pinch on him earlier. I took a deep breath and nodded. “Very well.”
“Great!” Virgil was beaming now. “We can start tomorrow!”
As was my custom, these days, I rose shortly after dawn. I thought back to the old Gabrielle, the girl who could sleep through an earthquake. The girl who rose, but refused to shine. Not for the first time, I wondered where she had gone.
Determined not to dwell on the past, I dressed in soft leggings and a simple linen shirt, which I covered with a light chain mail vest before heading to the drill grounds for my daily workout. I must have been feeling nostalgic, because today I had brought my staff. The guard on duty saw my approach and saluted before heading to the nearby barracks to find my sparring partners.
Sparring with the Conqueror was a great honour, and in the past had led to fights among the men. Audax, the captain of my personal guard, had since instituted a rota system. Looking at the three soldiers walking towards me, I saw that I recognised only one and that from memory he had not been as skilful a fighter as I would expect from an Imperial Guardsman. The other two were presumably new, and so unlikely to pose much of a challenge. I reminded myself not to prejudge the situation and twirled my staff a few times before indicating that I was ready for battle to commence.
As it turned out, my initial impressions had been entirely correct. The soldiers were slow to react and signalled their next moves way in advance. I beat them each individually without breaking a sweat, and even an attempt for all three to charge me at once lasted less than a minute before I had them disarmed and sprawled on the ground. In the end I dismissed my bruised and embarrassed opponents and spent the rest of the hour drilling alone. I saw Audax approach and took a break from my exercise. “Hello, Captain.”
“Conqueror.” He saluted me and gestured to the empty practice field. “Were my men… unsuitable?”
I wiped my brow with the sleeve of my shirt. “They were hopeless, Audax. I sent them in.”
He stiffened. “My apologies, Conqueror. I will have them put on latrine duty.”
I shook my head. “I don't want them punished, Audax. I want them to improve.” The truth was that I was growing increasingly concerned about the quality of my army. We were unlikely to be at peace forever and it was clear that the momentum and excitement that had carried my troops through the lightning campaign that conquered Greece was insufficient to maintain the skills of a standing army. Another thing to think about.
I bade goodbye to Audax and returned to my rooms, where I washed and changed into a fresh outfit in which to greet Beowulf. I chose a simple halter top and skirt, this time in a dark red colour. Similar to the clothing I was wearing when we first met. I placed the golden laurel wreath on my head and headed to the palace gates, where Beowulf and his entourage were just arriving.
It was good to see a familiar face. Beowulf smiled broadly when he saw me, then he and his warriors bowed deeply. After I had acknowledged the courtesy, Beowulf stepped forward and took my hand in his, before leaning forward and kissing it gently. “You look radiant, Conqueror.”
I felt Virgil shift in panic behind me, uncertain whether the Norseman’s gesture was about to cause a major diplomatic incident. He relaxed when he saw me smile and nod my thanks, before stretching to my full height and formally welcoming our guests. I asked an aide to show Beowulf to his rooms, and Audax appeared on cue to take his entourage to a part of the barracks which had been set aside for them.
A couple of hours later I sat with Beowulf in the walled garden. Attendants had brought us ale and a light lunch, and I allowed my visitor to sate his hunger before beginning conversation.
Beowulf wiped his mouth with his sleeve and took a long pull from his mug. Finally, he spoke. “Gabrielle. I am so very sorry about Xena.” He paused, realising what he had just said. “My apologies, Conqueror. I meant no disrespect.”
I raised a hand. “It's alright, Beowulf. It is just the two of us here. You can call me Gabrielle.” I sipped my drink. “Thank you for your condolences.”
Gabrielle. It felt strange to hear it. The last time anyone had called me by my name was almost six months ago, when Lila and Sarah had come to visit. We had spent an awkward few days attempting to become reacquainted, but Lila’s overpowering and self righteous disapproval hung over us like a death sentence. It was clear that I had become everything she despised, and my insistence on showering her with gifts and money seemed to add to her revulsion. After four days Sarah indicated that she wished to return to Poteidaia as she had left her new husband running the family smallholding alone and I am ashamed to say that I felt a huge sense of relief when they left. Since then I had received only one letter, a short missive from Lila advising that Sarah was with child.
Beowulf was speaking again. “Your palace is very impressive, as is the city. Tales of the revival of Greece under Xena’s former apprentice reached the Norselands some time ago. I am not sure I would have believed it, had I not seen it with my own eyes.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You didn't consider me a fearsome warrior, then.”
“It's not that, Gabrielle. I just couldn't imagine you leading an army. Ruling a nation.”
“I guess I'm just full of surprises.” I took a long drink of ale. Time to change the subject. “So, you and Hrothgar are buddies again, then.”
Beowulf nodded gravely. “His anger passed. He was very smitten with Wealthea – Xena – and the thought that she would cheat on him with me maddened him beyond all reason. When the truth came out – well, we are brothers once more.”
“I'm glad to hear it.” I took a piece of flatbread and dipped it in the pot of olive oil. “So, what does King Hrothgar want with Greece?” I was, I realised, being blunter than the usual niceties of diplomacy would permit. But it was just the two of us here and I trusted Beowulf to be honest with me.
Beowulf was clearly surprised with my candour, but he seemed unfazed by it. “Our kingdom seeks… an alliance with Greece.”
It was my turn to be surprised. The distances involved were considerable, and culturally our nations had little in common with each other. I expressed this to my guest, who shook his head in disagreement. “The Greeks and the Norse are both honourable people. We both venerate our warriors… and our bards.” He smiled grimly. “Most of all, though, we have a common foe. Rome.”
I was a little taken aback by this, and paused for a long time before speaking. Carefully, I said, “Rome and Greece are trading partners. We are at peace.”
Beowulf gave me a sideways look. “For now, perhaps. But you can have no illusions as to Rome’s ambitions.”
I had no such illusions. Greece would, at some stage, come under attack from its more powerful neighbour. The truth was, however, that my army was in no position to defend against an all out assault and for now, at least, I preferred diplomacy. My sources told me that Rome currently had its hands full prosecuting campaigns elsewhere, and I said as much to Beowulf.
“You are correct, Gabrielle. The Romans are advancing through Germania. They threaten Denmark and the Norse people.” He leaned forward in his seat. “Hrothgar has allied with some of the more powerful Germanic and Gaulish tribes. We hope to push them back. Any support that Greece could give would be very welcome. Rome will struggle to fight on multiple fronts.”
I shook my head. “I wish Hrothgar well, but Greece has no interest in war with Rome at this juncture.” Seeing Beowulf’s face fall, I raised my hand. “But a more… informal arrangement might be in both our interests.” I took a deep breath. “I would be prepared to discuss intelligence sharing, as well as new trade and cultural links. I would also consider exchanges of military technologies and training.”
Beowulf nodded. “I believe we can reach a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
“Excellent. I will ask Virgil to start work on the details.”
We both stood and clasped forearms in the traditional warrior fashion. Beowulf bowed and spoke formally. “I will see you at the banquet this evening, Conqueror.”
After the Norseman left, I took a walk around the garden. I spent some time examining the roses and smelling the rich odours of the herb patch. I was lost in thought when I heard the gate open and a cough clearly aimed at getting my attention. I looked up to see an Imperial Guardsman saluting. “Adviser Virgil to see you, Conqueror.”
Virgil bustled in holding a leather bag which I could see contained parchment and writing materials. I groaned inwardly. I had completely forgotten our arrangement from the previous day. It was tempting to send him away, but I still felt a twinge of guilt for the pinch incident. Forcing a smile, I gestured towards the sheltered seating area before calling for a fresh keg of ale.
While we waited for the drink to arrive, I filled Virgil in on the discussion with Beowulf. I was expecting him to flap about my decision to meet with the Norse envoy alone and to agree to what we had, but to my surprise he nodded vigorously and praised what he saw as a positive step for Greek security and prosperity.
A serving girl arrived with the ale and poured mugs for us both. She left and Virgil looked at me expectantly, spreading his parchment on the table in front of us.
“Well,” I muttered, “Where do you want me to start?”
“Where you left the other scroll, Conqueror. Your arrival at Pagasae.”
I drank deeply from the mug of ale before beginning.
On arrival back in Greece I took a room in an inn by the harbour. After a few days of rest and decent food I felt my strength returning, and after a week I was ready to move on. I visited the local horse breeder and bought his finest beast, a pale grey mare with a jet black mane and tail. She reminded me of a horse I'd ridden months ago in North Africa, and somewhat fancifully I imagined she represented my own tainted purity. In any event, she was to carry me North to Amphipolis where I would fulfil my promise to inter Xena’s remains in her family crypt.
The route to Amphipolis took me close to the Thessalian Amazons’ territory, and on a whim I decided to take a detour to see how the tribe was managing after enduring heavy losses in the battle against Bellerophon. As I drew closer to the main village, I became increasingly surprised that I had not been challenged by any of the tribe’s scouts, and mentally berated my sisters for their lax security.
On reaching the village the reason for this lack of challenge became apparent. Inebriated Amazons lounged around outside the huts, cackling and shouting obscenities at each other. A number of men were present, some of them half naked and engaged in public congress with drunken tribe members. Near the perimeter of the village a sacred space, formerly dedicated to Artemis, was being used as a public pissoir.
I clenched and unclenched my fists as my shock gave way to anger. Dismounting my horse, I strode towards the larger structure which I knew to be the Queen’s hut and shoved open the door without knocking. Varia was lounging on a mattress with a red headed Amazon I did not recognise, swigging from a flask of wine. On hearing the door she looked up in surprise. “Gabrielle! What a surprise. We heard you had ventured East.”
“Varia.” I spoke softly but with menace. “What in Tartarus is going on? No patrols, men everywhere…”
Varia touched her companion on the arm. “Leave us.” She watched as the redhead departed and then pulled herself into a sitting position. “What is your problem, Gabrielle? It's always the same with you. You turn up here after months away and start throwing your weight around. Give it up.” She took another swig from the flask.
I looked at her in disbelief. “There’s a river of piss in the sacred circle of Artemis. Do you have no respect? No pride in your heritage? What has happened to our tribe?”
Varia stood up and pointed her forefinger at me. “OUR tribe? You were never a true Amazon, Gabrielle, just a stupid village girl who happened to be in the right place at the right time. And Artemis is dead at the hands of your girlfriend, or had you forgotten? Perhaps we’d have more respect for our dead goddess if her son hadn't slaughtered half the tribe while you picked and chose who’d live and die.” She snorted derisively. “Go back to Xena, Gabrielle. You're not welcome in this tribe.”
I stepped forward and, for the second time, ripped the Queen’s chain of office from Varia’s neck. “Xena is dead. And you’re a disgrace. I exercise my right of challenge. I’ll be back tomorrow at noon and we’ll finish this.” I turned and stalked out of her hut without looking back.
After an uneasy night in my camp outside the village, I returned as promised for my second battle with Varia. It was again to be a battle with fists and feet rather than weapons. I wound protective cloth around my hands as I surveyed the makeshift ring which had been constructed. The whole of the adult women of the village appeared to be in the audience, although to my relief it seemed that they were at least sober and that the men had gone.
Varia emerged from her hut ready for battle and after a brief announcement from an older Amazon the fight got underway. My opponent was as fit and aggressive as she’d been months earlier, but I'd honed my own skills in that period and I was now, frankly, in an entirely different class to the scrappy fighter who’d got her butt kicked in a futile attempt to save Eve. This time I anticipated Varia’s every move; I blocked her kicks with my hands or took the power out of them by moving in closer. I danced around, forcing her to waste energy in blows that did not connect. As she tired, I moved in for the kill. A roundhouse kick sent her reeling before a second foot connected with her solar plexus. Varia made a desperate lunge at me which I easily sidestepped before bringing my fist to connect with the centre of her face with a sickening crunch.
Her nose seemed to explode in a mess of blood and cartilage. Pitilessly, I followed up the punch with a second roundhouse kick to the side of her head. Varia collapsed, wordlessly, into a crumpled and bloody heap in the centre of the ring. I didn't know if she was alive or dead. In contrast, I was unmarked. She had barely touched me.
A shocked silence fell over the assembled Amazons, finally broken by the older woman who had introduced the bout. “All hail, our new Queen, Gabrielle!”
She handed me the mask I had last worn years ago, before my sleep in the ice cave. I pulled it over my face and raised my fist in triumph, even as Varia’s bloodied body was dragged off to the healer’s hut. I surveyed the tribe, who were now prone before me and couldn’t keep a note of satisfaction out of my voice. “Hail to the Queen, baby.”
I paused and refilled my mug. Virgil was gazing at me in awe. “Conqueror! That is a quite a tale!”
“Well, I can assure you, it's all true.”
“Was Varia dead?”
I shook my head. “She made a full recovery. But she chose to leave the village and join another tribe far to the North, away from Greece. I was pleased. She couldn't be trusted, and I didn't really want to have to kill her.”
Virgil nodded eagerly. “Of course. So what happened next? How did your victory over Varia lead to victory across Greece?”
I stood and stretched my back. “That, Virgil, will have to wait until next time. I have some matters to attend to ahead of this evening’s feast.”
My advisor bowed deeply and took his leave. I returned to my garden stroll. Curiously I had found it helpful to share the story and in an odd way looked forward to the next session. There were, of course, certain matters which I would be unlikely to share.
The banquet got underway in the early evening. The palace’s large dining hall had been decorated with a curious mix of flowers and hunting trophies, and all of the tables groaned with delicacies from around my realm – meat and poultry, fruits and cheeses, pastries and baklava. A team of servers bearing large amphorae hurried from table to table ensuring everyone’s drinking vessel was perpetually full.
I sat in my usual place for these events, on a table somewhat removed from the others and raised on a dais at one end of the hall. Joining me were Beowulf, Virgil, Audax and a couple of noblemen who had been given a night at the top table in recognition of something or other and whose names I had already forgotten. I was dressed in a pale blue chiton which the palace seamstress had made specially for the occasion, but which felt to me fussy and out of character.
Swirling the wine in my goblet, I observed Beowulf’s entourage, who were consuming prodigious amounts of meat and ale. “Your men have good appetites.”
Beowulf smiled indulgently at his troops. “A feast like this is a rare treat for them. It was a long journey from the Norselands.”
I cast a general’s appraising eye at the Norsemen. They were large men with huge upper arms and I thought how much stronger they appeared than my own army. “I'd like them to try sparring with some of my Imperial Guards.” I heard Audax’s sharp intake of breath but continued regardless. “Both can learn from the other. It can be the start of our military co-operation.”
The evening wore on, with more food, more drink and the incessant drone of the noblemen’s self-important chatter. I thought I noticed Beowulf gazing longingly at me on a couple of occasions but did my best to ignore it. Virgil had arranged for entertainment and we were treated to a poetry reading, a troupe of tumblers and a scantily-clad fire dancer from Persia. After an hour or so of this I could bear no more, and I left the revellers to continue the party while I headed back to my apartments.
On the way down a darkened corridor, I became aware of someone following me. I slipped into an alcove and drew my sais. As the figure approached I readied myself to strike.
In a fit of self-doubt I'd once told Xena that I had the reactions of a warrior but not the judgement to go with it. That was no longer the case and I stayed my weapons when I sensed that my follower was friend not foe. That didn't mean I was pleased with the situation, though, and I made that very clear when I leapt out of the dark to confront a startled Beowulf.
“Don't go creeping after me unless you want to feel my sais in your gut,” I snarled, still brandishing the knives.
Beowulf froze and I saw genuine fear in his eyes. I still marvelled at my ability to strike terror into the hearts of the sturdiest warriors. It was something Xena had accomplished without even trying, and now it seemed to be another one of her many skills that I had inherited. “Gabrielle,” he finally croaked. “Conqueror. Forgive me. I didn't mean to alarm you. I just thought… we could speak privately.”
I sheathed my sais as I groaned silently. I suspected where this might be headed. As I stood in silence, Beowulf sank slowly to his knees and offered his hands in supplication. “Gabrielle…”
I held up my hand to signal silence. Although the corridor appeared empty, I'd learned quickly that the palace walls had ears. “Come with me,” I commanded. “Let me show you the practice fields.”
I could sense Beowulf’s confusion and dismay at this, but he said nothing as he followed me through the sometimes labyrinthine palace layout out to the drill area. We stood in silence for a moment before I turned to look at him. “Okay, Beowulf. There's no one around. Are you going to tell me what you were doing back there?”
His expression was unreadable in the moonlight. After a time he finally spoke. “My apologies. I had hoped to speak to you after the banquet, but you left so suddenly.” He took a deep breath. “Gabrielle… you know how I feel about you. How I've always felt about you. I see you here, alone, left by yourself to deal with armies, and diplomats… it saddens me to see how isolated you are. Gabrielle… I would be honoured if you would take me as your consort. I would love and treasure you forever.”
I stood in stunned silence for a moment, before I realised that my jaw was quite literally hanging open. Was it something in the local wine that was making the men in my life so suicidally clueless this week? A declaration of affection and, perhaps, a desire for sex had seemed a possibility, but a marriage proposal? “Beowulf,” I finally managed to croak. “By the gods, man, why would you think I wanted a consort?” A thought occurred to me and my eyes narrowed. “Have you been speaking to Virgil about this?”
Beowulf looked genuinely baffled at this and I quickly concluded that there was no wider conspiracy at play. I waited for him to speak. When he did, it was in an unfamiliar plaintive tone. “I've loved you from the moment I first saw you, Gabrielle. Since we said farewell on the slopes under Valhalla, I've dreamed of you. Your beauty. Your purity. Your innocence.”
I gave a short bark of a laugh. “Purity? Innocence? I've killed hundreds. Probably thousands. I've stabbed, slashed, bludgeoned my way across Greece and beyond. I’ve lost count of the number of times I've wiped blood from my blade. And do you know what? I don't care. I feel nothing. I kill without regret. Without conscience. You're not in love with me, Beowulf. You're in love with some fantasy of who I am. So, thank you for your offer of consortium, but I'm afraid I must decline. I rule alone. I live alone.”
Beowulf was clearly shocked. “Gabrielle, no. This isn't you. This isn't…”
I cut him off. “You're wrong, Beowulf. This is me. The truth is I'm a cold-blooded killer and I'm as ruthless as I need to be to defend Greece.” I softened a little. “You're a good man. You deserve happiness. Find yourself a hot little shieldmaiden and make beautiful Viking babies together. But stop pining after me. I had one soulmate, and she's gone. I don't need another.” With that, I turned on my heel and left him. “Meet here tomorrow at first light,” I called over my shoulder. “I want your opinion on my troops’ martial skills.”
Back in my apartments, I stripped off the chiton and sat in my undergarments pondering the events of the day. Some might have found Beowulf’s protestations of love flattering or endearing, but I just felt a deep sense of irritation. I hoped this would not sour the negotiations, because I did value his military knowledge and hoped he could suggest improvements for my army.
My eyes came to rest on the Berber water pipe and I stood up and carried it over to the couch. I ensured the bowl was packed full of the herbal mix I favoured before lighting the coals and waiting for the sweet, spicy smoke to begin to bubble through the water and into the mouthpiece.
Settling back on the couch and inhaling happily from the pipe, I felt myself relax for the first time in days. I'd picked up the habit during the campaign in Thessaly when my healer, who had spent time in India, suggested the herbs as a form of pain relief and relaxant without the side effects that accompanied the crushed poppy. Gradually I felt myself sink into a comfortable haze, my surrender to Morpheus’s embrace cushioned by wine, smoke and sheer mental exhaustion.
The next few days passed without incident. To my relief, the events following the banquet were not spoken of again and the expected awkwardness with Beowulf did not materialise. He and I spent several hours observing my troops as they drilled. I was keen to gain Beowulf’s perspective on their current skill set, and to obtain his advice on how they might incorporate more passion and flexibility into their fighting styles. In return, I passed on our more ordered Greek techniques of fighting in formation and battlefield discipline. We could, I felt, both learn much from each other.
Meanwhile Virgil busied himself with drafting the details of the treaty, with particular focus on trade and intelligence sharing. I knew the Norsemen were keen to obtain the secret of Greek Fire, but I had no intention of sharing such a powerful weapon with anyone and bluntly told Beowulf this when the topic came up. It didn't seem to damage the negotiations significantly, and relations remained cordial.
After I had finished my morning drill on the third day after the banquet, Virgil called by my apartments with his scrolls to capture the next chapter in the Conqueror’s story. We ventured out to my terrace and he once again unfurled the roll of parchment expectantly. I took a deep breath and cast my mind back to the aftermath of my victory over Varia.
My position as Amazon Queen confirmed, I considered the immediate practical matters affecting the Nation. One of my first acts was to restore order and discipline within the village. The sacred spaces were reconsecrated and regular drills and exercises instituted. Restrictions on the presence of adult men within Amazon lands were reintroduced.
Virgil interrupted my tale. “Forgive me Conqueror, but can you clarify something for me?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
“If men are banned from Amazon territory, how does the tribe renew itself?”
“Ah.” I smiled. “The thing is, Virgil, men may not be allowed in Amazon territory – well, except for trade and diplomacy – but the Amazons themselves do get around.” I leaned back in my chair. “Contrary to some of the more lurid tavern gossip, most Amazons are not sapphic – well, not exclusively, anyway. Members of the tribe who desire relations with men will visit nearby towns and villages to find a mate. Sometimes they simply seek a night of pleasure, in other cases relationships develop. Either way… babies often result.”
“What happens to the male infants?” Virgil looked concerned.
“Relax, Virgil. The Amazons don't practise infanticide. Our shamans and healers have knowledge of a herb which, taken before conception, almost always results in a female child. When it doesn't, well…” I raised my hand and let it fall to my knee. “When it doesn't, the son may be brought up by his father. Or, the mother may leave the village.” I shrugged. “It happens, but remember that we also take in women and girls who were not born to the Amazons. Like me, in fact.”
My advisor seemed satisfied with this explanation, so I resumed my story.
As the tribe worked to return the village to normal, I made enquiries as to events since the battle against Bellerophon. I learned that the Amazon territory had suffered a series of raids from a local warlord who, it seemed, had been taking advantage of the absence of patrols and look outs to attack outlying farms and trading outposts. In the most recent attack a woman had been killed and two others taken, presumably for slavery.
I was furious that the sacrifice of all those who had died at Helicon had been squandered by Varia’s poor leadership, but there was no time to dwell on the mistakes of the past. I took a half dozen volunteers and rode out to the last place a raiding party had been seen. From there it was a relatively simple matter to track the raiders to their camp, which was set up in a valley on the outskirts of the forest. We waited until nightfall before scouting the camp. Disappointingly, it quickly became clear that the bandit contingent was larger and better-equipped than I had anticipated. Amazon numbers were already depleted and I had no intention of leading the Nation into another Pyrrhic victory. Another plan would be needed.
I sent my escort back to the Amazon village, while I travelled alone to the nearest town, Scippala, a farming settlement known for the quality of its olive oil. On arrival I stabled my horse and headed for the marketplace which played host to the largest tavern in town. My clothing and my tattoo attracted stares and whispers, but the sight of my weapons discouraged any potential challengers.
I ordered a mug of ale and engaged the barkeep in conversation. I quickly learned that the town had also suffered from the depredations of the same warlord, who was named Kyros. The town militia had, it seemed, tried and failed to defeat him, suffering a number of casualties in the process. I enquired as to the location of the militia’s barracks and made my way towards it.
At the barracks I found a bored and demoralised group of soldiers lounging around the practice yard drinking and playing dice. On seeing me they launched into an avalanche of catcalls and invitation to a variety of sexual acts. This was expected and I did not let it phase me. Instead I demanded, loudly, that I see whoever was in charge as I wished to offer my services in the campaign against Kyros.
Predictably, an especially foul mouthed militiaman came up to me and made a crude suggestion as to some alternative services I might offer. As he leaned in I snarled, “your breath is as bad as your language,” before kicking him in the groin and, as he bent double in pain, smashing my elbows into the back of his head.
The bad mannered soldier collapsed wordlessly to the ground and I watched as his newly silent comrades eyed me nervously and reached for their weapons. After a short time one of them stood and walked towards me, hands raised in the universal gesture of peace. “We seem to have underestimated you, miss.” He reached out to grip my forearm. “I am Demetrios, and I captain this garrison.” He looked at the unconscious form on the ground. “At this point, we’ll take any help we can get.”
I spent the next few hours sparring with the militiamen and by the end of the session I had allayed any doubts that were still being harboured. Demetrios readily agreed to a joint attack by the militia and the Amazons on Kyros’s camp, and plans were laid for an assault at first light the following morning. We agreed a rendezvous point and I returned to the Amazons to assemble a raiding party.
The assault on Kyros went better than I could have imagined. The joint attack took the groggy, disorientated gang of bandits by complete surprise as the militia swarmed the camp from the east and Amazons dropped down from the trees all around. One by one they fell to our swords or took off for the hills. It was my first proper battle since Jappa and my blood was up. I marvelled at the way my katana sliced effortlessly through flesh and bone as I unleashed my pent up rage on the warlord’s troops. I slashed my way through half a dozen of them before I came upon Kyros himself, easily recognisable in a gilded breastplate and plumed helmet. He came at me with a two handed sword; I feinted left and then dropped low. As the momentum carried him past I sliced my katana through both of his unprotected calves. The warlord screamed and dropped to his knees, at which point it was simple enough to move behind him, knock off his fancy helmet, grab his head with my left hand and bring my blade across his throat with the right.
When I looked up I saw that the battle was over. The camp was littered with the bodies of the enemy. Amazons and militiamen alike were watching me in awestruck silence. Demetrios stepped forward. “You’re… the finest warrior I have ever seen.”
I shrugged. “I learned from the best.”
The kidnapped Amazons, along with some of Scippala’s townsfolk, were found alive and relatively unharmed in a makeshift gaol at the back of the camp. Our forces had suffered only minimal casualties – a dead militiaman and a couple of Amazons with flesh wounds. Four of Kyros’s fighters had been captured alive; they were offered the option of enlistment in the militia or judgement by Scippala's magistrate, and all chose the former. The Amazons returned to town with the militia, where the combined forces held a joint victory celebration.
I paused for a drink of water and saw Virgil looking expectantly. “It sounds like a famous victory, Conqueror. But how did a local fight against a warlord lead to all this?” He gestured at the palace buildings around us.
“Ah.” I stood and leaned over the terrace railings, gazing out over the gardens. “Well, it wasn't really planned, at this stage.” I turned to face my advisor. “Kyros wasn't the only warlord causing problems in the area. The whole of Thessaly was plagued with bandits, slavers… all sorts of problems. Officially, most of the area was meant to be under the protection of the two main cities in the area – Larissa and Pharsalos. But their leaders were weak and…well. Something Xena told me a long time ago… act don't react. After the celebrations for the defeat of Kyros, I managed to convince the Amazons and the townsfolk of Scippala that they should work together, actively, to take the fight to the warlords and slavers. Not just wait for them to make all the running. After that… things kind of started to snowball. Demetrios and his men deferred to me and I found myself commanding not just the Amazons but a joint force. We helped protect towns and villages and in return they gave us supplies and recruits. Within a couple of months I had the beginnings of an army.”
Virgil looked impressed. “Were there lots more battles?”
I smiled a little at the memory. “There were. But most of them weren't particularly challenging.” They weren't. My troops were disciplined, effective and followed a clear chain of command. By contrast the enemies we fought were typically no more than a disorganised rabble, and the fighting usually ended quickly in our opponents’ slaughter or surrender. I also insisted my forces followed a strict code of conduct. Civilians were not to be harmed. Villagers and townspeople were to be treated with respect. No stealing, no drunken loutishness, no harassment of women and girls. Offenders were subject to harsh punishments; in the early days I had a recruit flogged for robbing a merchant stall and another castrated after I caught him forcing himself on a screaming village girl. There was virtually no trouble after this, and as a result my troops were welcomed wherever they went.
Virgil was packing up his writing tools. “I have a meeting with the city treasurer, Conqueror. Thank you for your time this morning.”
I bade him goodbye and returned to my seat on the terrace. My thoughts turned to the next part of my story, which I had decided to keep to myself. I wasn't entirely certain why I was so reluctant to tell Virgil about it. It would certainly make his History of the Conqueror more interesting. Perhaps, on some level, I felt ashamed.
Propping my head up in my hands, I replayed the events of those few days in my head. It was perhaps three months into my campaign to pacify Thessaly. All major threats appeared to have been neutralised, and the bulk of my troops were enjoying a few days’ leave. I decided that I would also take advantage of the lull in the action to fulfil my promise to return Xena’s ashes to Amphipolis. On the way I planned to stop off in Poteidaia to spend a little time with what was left of my family.
After my journey from the East I thought I'd had enough of ships for a while, so I decided to take the longer land route to Poteidaia. I enjoyed the ride and the break from commanding an army, and I made good time along the familiar roads. Camping alone in the area felt strange, but I did my best to put my grief to the back of my mind and concentrate on looking forward to the reunion with my family.
On arrival in Poteidaia I stabled my horse before making my way to Lila’s house – our old family home, I thought nostalgically, as I rapped my knuckles on the door. The door opened and my sister looked at me in shock. Finally, she managed a single word. “Gabrielle.”
I reached out to embrace her but to my dismay Lila first stiffened and then pulled away. She fixed me with what could only be described as a hostile glare. “Why are you here, Gabrielle? Where’s Xena?”
I tried not to let my hurt show. “Xena died, in Jappa. I am travelling to Amphipolis to inter her ashes in the family crypt. I'm here because… well, because I wanted to see you. And Sarah.”
Lila turned away and I followed her inside. The house looked shabby, shabbier than I remembered it. She walked to the kitchen bench and began kneading some dough. Without looking up, she said, “I'm sorry about Xena.”
“Thanks.” I put down my bag and reached into the coin purse on my belt. “Um… I came into some money. A reward. In Jappa. Here – get some new things for the house. Maybe hire a maid to help you and Sarah out…”
“We don't need your charity, Gabrielle.” Lila spat the words out. “We don't need charity from a killer. That's what your reward was for, wasn't it?” She shook her head. “That’s what you are now, isn't it. A murderer for hire.”
I was shocked into silence for a moment. “Lila! What…”
“Give it up, Gabrielle.” Lila had returned her attention to the dough, which she was now kneading furiously. “We know what you are. Every bard that's travelled through here for the last month has a story about the blonde warrior and her army of Amazons and men slaughtering their way across Thessaly.”
So, news travels fast. I took a deep breath. “No, Lila, you've got it wrong. It's not like that. My troops fight for the greater good. We take on warlords and slavers, like the people who killed Ma and Pa and took Sarah.”
Lila ignored this. “We’ve all heard the tales. Slitting men’s throats. Knee deep in corpses.”
“I'm a warrior. I fight. People get hurt, and die. But you know,” here I gave a half-hearted smile, “You should take what the bards say with a pinch of salt. I know that I always made my stories as dramatic as possible.”
“I honestly thought that it was all down to Xena.” Lila was shaking her head. “But now you say she's gone, and yet you're still at this.” She stared me in the eye. “When I heard the stories of a short blonde warrior woman who fought like a harpy. I prayed it wasn't you. But part of me knew. Look at you! Your clothes, your weapons…” Lila gave a shriek as I half turned and she caught sight of my back. “Good gods, what is that! Sorcery!”
“It's a tattoo, sister.” I was growing weary of this now. “It helps to protect me.”
Lila was starting to cry. “I just want my sister back. This fighter, this killer… it’s not the Gabrielle I remember.” The tears began to flow freely. “People here are afraid of you. Afraid of the stories they hear.”
“A lot has happened. I've changed. We both have. But, I'm still your sister.” I tried again to hug Lila but she flinched. “Look… I think I should go.”
“Okay,” she sniffed. “Maybe one day, when you give up the sword…”
“Maybe one day.” I picked up my bag and turned to leave. I left the coins on the bench as I did so.
I collected my horse from her short stay in the stables and rode north to Amphipolis, desperate to put the disastrous homecoming as far behind me as possible. When at last I reached the outskirts of Xena’s hometown, though, I found myself reluctant to enter. The memories were simply too painful. Instead, I turned my horse towards the family crypt, determined to achieve something at least from the trip.
The crypt was as silent and dusty as the first time I'd been there, when I first followed Xena all those years ago. I entered cautiously, tiptoeing around like a nervous child. There was a small shelf in an alcove on the far wall which appeared to be an ideal resting place for my soulmate’s ashes. As I walked towards it, however, my eyes went to a charred bone that was still visible and I thought of poor Cyrene’s horrible end. At that moment I knew I could not leave Xena here, with the constant reminder of the horror of her mother’s execution. I left the crypt and returned the ashes to my bag. I scoured the area for some wild flowers before returning to the tomb and leaving my offering. Whilst there I said a silent prayer for Lyceus and Cyrene before gazing at the ceiling and whispering “Forgive me, Xena. I'm still not ready to let you go.” With that I turned and walked out into the bright sunlight.
When the living think of the dead, the dead can hear them. That's what we were always told. Could Xena hear me in the Jappa afterlife, whatever that was? I blinked tears from my eyes as I vaulted onto my horse and pointed her in the direction from which we came.
Keen to put as much distance as possible between me and Amphipolis, I rode for six hours without a break. At last, seeing a familiar spot to make camp, I pulled up and slipped down, saddlesore, from my exhausted mare. I led the horse over to a narrow brook where from she drank greedily. After tethering her, loosely, to a nearby branch I set off to find something for dinner and some firewood.
My hunting trip yielded a couple of quail which, paired with some bread, cheese and fruit from my saddlebag, made for a decent dinner. After eating I went to the brook where I washed the worst of the ride’s grime from my body. I wrapped myself in a blanket and sat by the fire, occasionally poking the embers with a stick. My mood was black. The trip had been an unmitigated disaster. My family saw me as a monster, and I had failed in the promise I'd made my soulmate. If this run of luck continued, I'd probably return to Thessaly to find some ambitious lieutenant had usurped my command.
Say I had lost my army. What then? A return to my old life of wandering the Mediterranean and beyond, looking for adventure? Only this time, on my own. What had the mayor in Jappa called me before I left? Ronin. A lone warrior without a master. I thought back to Lila’s description of me – a murderer for hire. Well, perhaps that's what I was.
Sitting up, I wrapped my arms around my legs and breathed short, shallow breaths. I refused to give into the tears that were threatening because I knew if I did, they would overwhelm me. I pulled a sai from my boot and briefly entertained a fantasy of plunging it into my own heart. The knowledge that I would be unable to cross to the Jappa afterlife was the only thing holding me back.
Wallowing as I was in the depths of despair, my senses nonetheless remained alert and I suddenly stiffened. I sensed the presence seconds before the familiar blue light flashed in front of me and the God of War appeared.
Ares looked sombre as he walked towards me. “Gabrielle.”
I nodded an acknowledgement. “What took you so long.”
“I'm sorry for your loss.”
“You heard, then.” I took a deep breath. “Aphrodite not showing up?”
Ares pulled a face. “Sis says hi, and sends her condolences. She didn't want to come along. She doesn't know what to say to you.”
“Yeah, for once it's not all about her.” It sounded harsher than I'd meant it to. “I'm sorry. None of this is her fault. Or yours, for once.” I studied Ares’ face, which was unreadable. “So. What's the God of War doing hanging out by a dying campfire in the middle of nowhere? Surely this isn't a social call.”
“Well.” Ares stroked his beard as he continued to gaze at me. “In fact, I was hoping for a bit of a chat. But you're right that this isn't the most salubrious venue.” He wrinkled his nose. “And you, o battling bard, could do with a bath.”
“Hey!” I shouted. “I've been on the road for days! And that stream is as cold as the Styx-“
Before I could finish my rant, the trees and campfire faded away and I found myself partially submerged in a large marble tub full of steaming scented water. Momentary shock gave way to a feeling of relief as my aching muscles relaxed and the ingrained dirt of days of travelling – dirt that a scrub in a cold mountain stream couldn't really shift – began to wash away. I gave a small and involuntary moan of pleasure before I spotted Ares watching me with an amused look on his face. I shrieked and folded my arms across my chest.
“Relax, blondie, I'm not here to ogle you in the bath. Take your time. Let me know when you're done.” With that the God of War turned away and, warily, I returned my attentions to my grubby skin. At length I cleared my throat to attract Ares’ attention. “Um. I'm done here.”
I'm not sure what I was expecting – perhaps to be handed a towel – but instead the bathtub faded away as quickly as the forest and I found myself dry, clothed and standing in a luxurious chamber. Glancing down at myself, I saw I was dressed in a pale green chiton made of fine silk. I looked quizzically at Ares, who was standing at the other side of the room, gazing out of the window. “What's this? Olympus?”
“Nope.” He smirked and gestured to the window. “Just a preview of what your palace might look like.”
“Palace? What?” Out of one eye I saw Ares toss something in my direction and my reflexes kicked in as I caught it effortlessly in my right hand. Opening my palm I saw a small silver coin which I was shocked to see was imprinted with my likeness. “Hera’s tits! What the fuck is going on?”
Ares threw his hands up in mock horror. “Such language from the little bard!” Seeing the furious expression on my face, he relented. “Come here, Gabrielle. Let me show you something.”
I walked with some trepidation to the window and peered out. I was looking onto a busy street in what appeared to be a large, prosperous town or city. The main road wound up a hill from where a column of soldiers could be seen, marching towards us. I listened intently to their chanting, the words of which I could not initially make out. After a short time I realised in shock that the chant I could hear was my name. In confusion I turned to Ares, who had a faintly amused look on his face. “No feeling like it, is there? An army chanting your name. Battalions of men, ready to die at your command.”
I paused, unsure of what to say. Ares pressed on. “Come on, Gabby. You feel it. I know you do.”
The cheering army was getting closer. The refrain of GA-BRI-ELLE was becoming deafening. I winced. “Okay. Yeah. It's a good feeling.”
Nodding, Ares smiled at my admission. “It's intoxicating. Not to mention, something else you and Xena have in common.” He rubbed his beard. “I got you wrong, Gabrielle. All those years I saw you as the irritating blonde. The sidekick. The little voice of conscience getting in the way of what should have been Xena’s destiny. But then…” He paused and reached for a pair of goblets before handing one to me. “Then, after Helicon, I realised. You're as great a warrior as she ever was. And, every bit as ruthless when you need to be.”
I shook my head and took a sip of my wine before answering. “No, Ares, you're wrong. She is – she was – a much better fighter than I'll ever be. Those leaps, those backflips…”
Ares raised his hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah. The fancy acrobatics were quite something, I'll agree. But it was mainly for show, at the end of the day. You're not as elegant. But you get the job done.” He raised an eyebrow. “You didn't argue with the ruthlessness.”
I didn't, because I knew he was right. I had become ruthless. Uncaring. Scarily so. “Okay, Ares. Thanks for the bath and the new frock. Are you planning on telling me any time soon what this is all about?”
Ares drew close and stepped behind me, before gently laying his hands on my upper arms. He lightly pressed his body against me, in a movement that was incredibly sensual and yet at the same time curiously non-sexual. “I want you to be my champion. To accept my blessing, my favour. To fight and conquer, with glory and honour. To rule the Known World in the name of Ares.”
“Known World. Hmm. That’s a big place. Quite ambitious.” I pulled away and looked at Ares. “But what's the point? Where's the greater good?”
“Greater good. Hmm. Not something I've ever spent too much time worrying about.” Seeing my face, the deity made a calming gesture with his hands. “But, seeing as you brought it up, consider this. Greece is currently run by a bunch of warlords and weak kings. You've seen what was happening in Thessaly – slavers, bandits, all the rest of it – and you fixed it. All in the space of a couple of months or so.” Ares gestured at a table in the centre of the room, which I noticed for the first time was covered in scrolls. “And once you're in charge, there's so much positive change you can bring. Go on, take a look.”
I walked over to the table and skimmed a couple of scrolls. “Teaching of arts and medicine. Care for the sick and elderly.” I frowned. “Didn't you pull this exact same stunt on Xena that time you framed her for murder? From what she said, sounds like even the scrolls are identical.”
Ares shrugged. “Yeah, I offered her a similar deal. She didn't take it. All that nobility and guilt crap, blah blah blah.” He made a yapping mouth gesture with his hand. “But, I think you're a bit more practical now than she was then, Gabrielle. So, what's it to be? Will you be my mortal champion? Riding at the head of a great army for the glory of the God of War?”
I paused briefly, while I considered my options. Roving mercenary helping out the odd village with a warlord problem, sleeping in low rent taverns when I was lucky and out in the open when I wasn't. Sleeping alone either way. Or, using my martial and diplomatic skills to bring peace and prosperity to my homeland. Still alone, of course, but with the sense that I was doing something worthwhile. Something to make Xena proud. Not to mention something to sate my rage and grief. I nodded. “Alright, Ares. I'm in. Give me your blessing. I'm going to war.”
With Virgil busy with the city treasurer and Audax and Beowulf at the barracks discussing military tactics, I took the opportunity to catch up with the paperwork I had neglected for the past week or so. There were diplomatic communiques from Chin and Egypt; reports from my intelligence chief concerning troop movements on the Roman border; and rival bids from two architects for the construction of a new agora in Athens. It was going to take some time to do justice to the material and I needed peace and quiet to review it properly, so I instructed the guards outside my apartments that I was to be disturbed only in an emergency.
Given this instruction, I was surprised and irritated to be disturbed by a soft yet persistent knocking sound not two hours later. I rose and yanked open the door. “The Persians had better be at the gate of Corinth or someone's gonna get – “ I broke off when I saw the terrified expression on the face of Hesperos, my head steward. He was a timid man and I was astonished that he had thought to come to speak with me at all, let alone when I was busy with something else.
“We told him you were not to be disturbed, Conqueror,” announced one of the guards. When he started knocking anyway I was going to gut him where he stood, but Philip here,” he gestured at his comrade, “Thought you wouldn't want the mess by your door. I can do it now, though. Just give the command.” He drew his short sword. Hesperos fell to his knees and began to sob. Philip began to remonstrate with his fellow guard.
“Enough. All of you.” I held one hand up for silence and used the other to pull the trembling steward to his feet. “Hesperos. I can only assume that this is of the utmost importance?”
“Conqueror. I am so sorry. But I didn't know what to do! She said it was urgent! I told her to wait but then she said who she was and that I'd be in terrible trouble if I didn't speak to you straight away! I tried to find Chief Adviser Virgil but he is not in the Palace and..”
“Okay. Calm down, Hesperos. You're babbling. Who is this woman demanding an audience with the ruler of Greece?”
Hesperos had caught his breath. “She said her name was Eve, Conqueror. She said she is the daughter of the great Xena…”
Oh, crap. I took a deep breath. “Alright, Hesperos. You did the right thing.” I noticed that the guard was still holding his sword and glared at him. “Please return to Eve and tell her that the Conqueror will dine with her this evening. In the meantime, find her a guest room and offer her a bath.”
The steward hurried off muttering his thanks and further apologies. I nodded an acknowledgement to both guards and retreated back inside my chamber. Once the door was shut I sat down heavily on the couch, all thoughts of paperwork forgotten.
Eve. I hadn't seen her since the Amazon fiasco when I tried to save her from execution and had Varia beat me to a pulp as a result. On my return from Jappa, I had sent messengers to find her in India but their missions had proved unsuccessful. A year or so ago I had learned she had returned to Rome and I had written to her on several occasions to advise her of her mother's death. I had received nothing in response, not even an acknowledgement, and in truth I had put her out of my mind.
Now she was here. In Corinth. Out of the blue. I should, I thought to myself, be overjoyed to see Xena’s daughter, the woman I'd brought up as if she were my own child for those few short months before the ice cave. Part of me wanted desperately to bond with adult Eve. But a larger part of me wanted nothing to do with her. Her monomania, her belief in her own superiority and above all her sickening piety left me cold. She seemed entirely lacking in normal human sentiment. I thought suddenly of the satisfaction I'd felt when I smacked her in the head with her religious symbol and laid her out cold. At the time I'd told myself it was purely as a result of the portal to Hell and the corruption growing inside me. In truth, though, I'd wanted to do something similar for quite some time beforehand, not to mention afterwards.
In any event, she was here now and I needed to deal with that.
That evening, I allowed myself the luxury of a bath before spending a brief period looking through my wardrobe with little enthusiasm. In the end I ignored the smart gowns and chitons and changed into an Amazon two piece outfit made of animal skins. I felt more comfortable that way, plus I was for some reason keen to display my tattoo. Slipping my sais into my boots, I placed the laurel wreath crown on my head and made my way to dinner, which was to be held in my private dining room.
Unlike my plain and functional apartments, this room had been designed to impress foreign dignitaries. It was decorated with colourful wall hangings made of the finest silk from Chin. A large fresco depicted my final victory over Athens and my subsequent coronation as ruler of all Greece. The floor was covered in the finest carpet from Persia. Elaborate furniture, an inlaid mosaic and a marble bust of me finished off the effect. In truth I found it all faintly embarrassing, but it seemed to have the desired effect on visiting diplomats and the like.
An Imperial Guardsman bowed before opening the door and announcing me loudly. I nodded an acknowledgment and stepped inside, trying my best to ignore the hammering of my heart.
Eve was standing at the far side of the room, accompanied by Hesperos. She wore a long skirt made of rough linen and was draped in a drab brown scarf. I smiled. “Welcome, Eve. It's been too long.”
She stared at me for a moment before responding. “Thank you, Gabrielle.”
I heard Hesperos gasp. It wasn't surprising. Eve had not only used my real name and omitted the honorific, she had failed to bow, curtsey or give any acknowledgment of my position. Unlike Beowulf’s faux pas, this was very clearly a deliberate show of disrespect. I drew a deep breath. I couldn't ignore insubordination of this sort in front of soldiers or staff. At the same time I had no intention of creating the scene which I suspected she was hoping for. I gave Hesperos a tight lipped smile. “Leave us.”
The steward nodded and hurried away. I turned to Eve. “I'm glad you've finally made it here. I've been wanting to talk to you face to face about your mother.”
Eve made a non-committal sound. She eyed my Amazonian outfit and gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head. “It's true what they say. Look at you, Gabrielle. Every inch the Barbarian Queen.”
She was trying to rile me. That much was clear. What was less clear to my mind at least was her motivation for doing so. I refused to take the bait and instead steered her gently towards the table. “Some days I dress as an Amazon. Others, in the finest silks. Greece is both of these and more, and as Conqueror I need to represent the whole of my lands and people.” I gestured for her to sit, which she did. “And speaking of that… Eve, please feel free to call me Gabrielle when we are alone. But in front of others…” I shrugged. “Conqueror, or Majesty, please.”
Eve gave a nod which I took as her assent and I smiled in response. “Now we’ve got the formalities out of the way – time to eat, I think!” I reached behind my seat to ring the small bell which signalled my waiting staff. Almost immediately, a server appeared with an amphora full of some of the best Greek wine. I nodded my thanks as he filled my goblet and went to serve Eve.
To my surprise my guest placed a hand over her goblet. “I don't drink intoxicants.”
I was already growing tired of this. “Since when?”
“Since I received a new revelation from the God of Eli.” Her face took on a dreamy aspect. “I cannot be true to Him whilst I indulge in the pleasures of the flesh.”
The server hovered, confused as to what to do next. I sighed. “Please bring our guest a pitcher of water.”
He scurried off. I turned to Eve. “No pleasures of the flesh, eh? Sounds like a big ask.”
“Not for me. I live to serve our God.”
At that moment the door opened again and a small team of waiting staff appeared with a selection of dishes which they placed on the table. It was a decent spread with poultry, lamb, bread, cheeses and fruit and I looked at it with anticipation. One thing that hasn't diminished over the last few years is my appetite.
Eve, however, looked pained as she surveyed the dinner. “I cannot eat flesh today. It is a holy day.”
“Well. Help yourself to bread and cheese then.” I decided to ignore her dietary demands and reached for a small roast chicken, which I began devouring with gusto. Eve, for her part, picked at a bowl of grapes.
We ate in silence for a few minutes. Eventually I steeled myself to have the conversation I'd been dreading. “Eve. About your mother… I want you to know that she died as she lived, fighting for the greater good. In the end, the sacrifice she made was so huge…” My voice trailed off. Just speaking of Xena still choked me up.
Eve made a non-committal noise and raised her hand. “Don't trouble yourself so, Gabrielle. The God of Eli has a plan. It was clearly my mother’s time.” She removed a pip from her mouth.
I was shocked at her response and her apparent blasé attitude. I ground my teeth in an attempt to calm my anger before I spoke. “No, Eve. You've got it all wrong. It wasn't Xena’s time at all. She was placed in an impossible situation.”
“It is not for us to question His will. We should accept and welcome His divine purpose.” Apparently growing tired of the grapes, Eve had moved on to a tray of vegetables.
She was, I thought to myself, a fanatic. There was no sense arguing with such people. My mind turned, briefly, to Najara. I said nothing and instead concentrated on draining my wine. The server with the amphora appeared as if by magic and refilled my goblet. I took another large gulp and forced myself to act politely. It was difficult, when a large part of me wanted to pummel her senseless. “So, Eve,” I managed finally. “What brings you to Greece? It doesn't seem that you're here to talk about Xena.”
The dreamy look returned. “You're right, Gabrielle. I'm not here to talk of my mother. My mission is for a higher purpose.”
I nodded for her to continue, although I'd already guessed what was likely to come next.
Eve leaned forward eagerly. “You have heard that Rome has now adopted the faith of Eli in full.”
“I had. I also hear that things don't go so well for the followers of the traditional gods.”
“Infidels.” Eve made a small noise of disgust. “They must be brought into the one true faith. To follow the one true God.”
“And killed if they choose not to? I thought Eli’s God was all about light and love.” I took another gulp of wine. The table still groaned with food but I was fast losing my appetite.
Eve fixed me with a cold stare, and just for a second I saw in her face a glimpse of Callisto. I shuddered.
“You don't understand.” Callisto was gone and in her place was the whiny Eve I had grown so tired of a few years ago. “We are saving their souls. It's better that they die in this world but have the chance of eternal life-“
I smashed my fist down on the table with a force that surprised even me. “Don't,” I snarled, “Don’t talk to me of souls and of this world being worthless. I know more of that than you can imagine.”
Eve looked put out and had adopted a sulky expression. “This isn't going well. I had hoped Greece would join Rome in converting to the one true faith.”
“No,” I said, “No, I don't think so. Greece has no interest in your religion. I saw how Michael manipulated us all. If his God is anything like him, I for one intend to stick with the ones I know.”
“Cosy with Ares now, are we?” She was actually pouting now. “I heard one of the first things you did here was consecrate a new temple to him.”
I forced myself to remain calm. “You're hardly one to talk about cosiness with Ares, Eve. And I've built quite a few temples to Aphrodite as well.” ‘Dite had kept a low profile since my return from Jappa, but I still had a soft spot for her and hoped she liked her new places of worship.
Eve opened her mouth to speak again but I cut her off with a raised hand. “Greece will not be adopting your religion. And in fact, I don't want your Elijans even preaching within Greek borders. We have our own gods, and we don't need yours.
“Eve, you are welcome to stay here for as long as you wish as an honoured guest. But your faith is not welcome here.”
She stared at me, shocked. After a time, she spoke in a small voice. “I wish to return to my chamber and rest.”
“I understand.” I forced a smile. “You must be very tired. I will call for Hesperos to escort you back to your rooms.” She could, I was certain, have found her own way back but I was loath to have her wandering around the palace unescorted. I whispered instructions to the wine server who had returned to refill my glass, and a few moments later he reappeared with Hesperos. “Goodnight, Eve.”
“Goodnight… Conqueror.” Her voice dripped with disapproval as she said the title. I ignored this and gave a small wave and a fake smile.
Finally, she had departed. I sighed to myself and chewed absent-mindedly on a skewer of lamb in between gulps of wine. The reunion dinner had been a disaster and I sensed I hadn't heard the last of Eve’s religious ambitions. Shaking my head, I finished the wine and determined to have an early night.
Back in my apartments, however, sleep seemed some distance away. I called for a fresh jug of wine and fired up the water pipe. Lounging on my sofa, I hoped that the double whammy of intoxicants would force me to relax, and sure enough after a few minutes I began to feel the tension easing throughout my body.
Until a sudden flash of blue light roused me from my comfortably fuzzy state.
“Tut, tut, Gabrielle.” Ares was waggling his forefinger at me. “You should go easy on that stuff. You need a clear head.”
“Ares.” I sat up and rested the pipe’s mouthpiece on its stand. “What in Tartarus do you want with me tonight?”
“Come now.” He helped himself to a goblet of wine and pulled up a chair. “Is that any way to speak to your patron god?”
I really wasn't in the mood for this. “Cut the crap, Ares. I haven't seen you for months. What's so urgent that you need to drop in to my bedchamber at this hour?”
He cocked his head to one side. “Well, I could be here to point out that the Conqueror hasn't done any actual conquering for the best part of a year-“
“I'm consolidating my position! Greece in no state to take on Persia right now, let alone Rome-“
“I could be here for that,” he went on, “But I'm not. I'm here to warn you.”
“Warn me? About what?”
“Not what, who.” Ares suddenly looked deadly serious. “Eve. She's very dangerous, Gabrielle. Much more so than she ever was as Livia. Protect yourself. And protect your realm.” He stood. “We’ll speak again, soon. In the meantime, watch your back.”
He disappeared in another flash of blue light. I groaned. Ares had confirmed my fears but had given me nothing specific to work with. Not for the first time, I wondered why the gods felt the need to talk in riddles rather than giving a straight answer. I sighed and reached once again for the wine jug.
I woke to a pounding head and a mouth drier than the Egyptian sands. Forcing open one eye I saw the position of the sun and groaned. It was already mid-morning. I berated myself for the over-indulgence of the night before. Hangovers did not become the Conqueror.
Reaching for a pitcher of water, I did my best to slake my thirst before braving the world outside my rooms. Sparring was, I thought, out of the question so I resolved to head up to the archery field instead for less strenuous exercise.
On arrival at the archery range I was delighted to find it deserted. I selected a small bow from the weapons rack and a box of arrows before taking up position fifty paces from a target. The bow was one of my weaker weapon skills, and I had not spent the time I probably should have improving it, largely because the chakram took care of my ranged needs.
An hour later I threw down my bow in disgust. No more than eight out of ten of my shots, on average, hit the centre of the target. Xena would, of course, have insisted test I kept going until every shot hit home. And then, I thought to myself with a smile, she'd have made me move twenty paces back and start the whole exercise again. Yet again I wondered if she was watching my discomfort and laughing that soft, delightful laugh of hers.
No. I pushed that thought to the back of my mind. I'd spoken to her almost daily. I'd called on the gods – personally – to give me a sign that she was still there, somewhere. Nothing. The only logical conclusion was that she was beyond my reach.
At least the pounding in my head had subsided to a dull ache. I picked up the bow and replaced it on the weapons rack, before returning back to the main palace buildings. On the way I ran into Virgil. Forcing a smile, I enquired as to the day’s schedule and was relieved to find that there was nothing of significance beyond the approval of some diplomatic correspondence. I asked about Eve.
“She left the palace at first light, Conqueror.”
“Alone?” I frowned. Annoying though she may be, Eve was family as well as an honoured guest, and I would of course have provided her with an escort for her return to Rome.
Virgil shrugged. “I believe she left alone. It seems she left in a hurry and spoke as little as possible.”
Hmm. I thought back to Ares’ warning and felt a sense of foreboding. I suspected I had not seen the last of Eve. I wondered briefly whether to have one of my spies track her, but on balance decided against it for now. I took my leave of Virgil, promising to meet with him later in the afternoon to review the correspondence he had mentioned.
We reconvened in the walled garden a few hours later. Food and a bath had almost banished my hangover, but I resolved to stick with water for the rest of the day. I approved the diplomatic scrolls which were routine and consisted of little more then flattery towards their recipients. At that point Virgil pulled out another scroll from his bag, and I realised with a sigh that he was eager to write the next chapter in his History of the Conqueror.
“So.” I forced a smile. “Where did we get to?” I knew the answer, of course, but I was stalling a little while I tried to decide how much to tell Virgil of this period.
“Well, Conqueror, you and your army had pacified Thessaly.” Virgil leaned forward. ‘I'm very interested in your motivations at this point. What made you expand your campaign into the rest of Greece?”
I was already certain that I did not want to tell my biographer of my meeting with Ares and acceptance of his blessing. That he was my patron god was no secret, and indeed was expected of a warrior ruler such as I was. The extent of my connection with the war god would, however, remain private for now. I hesitated for a moment before answering the question.
“My army had eliminated the immediate threat to the region. But Greece was still divided and plagued with weak, corrupt kings and nobles. Our nation… was once the centre of civilisation. It had been eclipsed by Rome. I wished to make Greece great again, to start a new golden age of science and culture. To achieve that, you need military might as well as scholars. And I was in a position to provide that.”
Virgil nodded as he scribbled frantically on the scroll in front of him. His next question took me by surprise. “What of the Amazons? Did you ever consider staying with them and concentrating your efforts on making the Amazon Nation a force to be reckoned with throughout the Known World?”
This was a bold and surprisingly perceptive comment on the part of my adviser. I paused to collect my thoughts. The truth was that my relationship with the Amazons was a complex one. I would be eternally grateful for the way they had adopted and welcomed me, and provided a safe haven in difficult times. At the same time I found many of their practices and rituals archaic and, whilst I respected them, I always felt slightly detached when they were in full swing. I could have made a life for myself with the Amazons, but I knew in my heart I would always have craved something more. How could I explain all of this to Virgil?
Eventually I spoke. I explained that, whilst I loved Amazon culture, I did not want to cut myself off from the wider Hellenic experience. This seemed to satisfy him and he turned his attention back to my military adventures.
“So, Conqueror. Thessaly was at peace and in your debt. What next?”
I took a deep breath before continuing.
The rulers of Larissa and Pharsalos were weak and useless, but happy to fund my army to keep the peace. When I returned to my army after a few days visiting my family, I decided that the balance of power needed to change. They would swear allegiance to me rather than treating me as a useful mercenary. They could keep their palaces and their finery, but the power would rest with me.
Both readily agreed. They weren't the types to argue with a tattooed and heavily armed warlord with an army of Amazons and men behind her. That gave me my first foothold. But, it wasn't enough.
To succeed in my plan to unify Greece, I needed access to a decent port. After some consideration I decided upon Corinth. There were a number of reasons for this, but uppermost in my mind was the fact that the city was ruled by a brutal king, Kapaneus. Kapaneus had taken power after the death of his brother, who had been a wise and much-loved ruler. There were rumours that the death was no accident. Whatever the truth of that, Kapaneus quickly acquired a reputation as a cruel and incompetent monarch. He levied high taxes and then squandered the money on luxuries for his palace and other vanity projects. Public works and the city guard were neglected but at the same time his spies arrested and tortured anyone who spoke against him. Grain stores he had had built at great expense proved incapable of keeping out damp or vermin, and the city teetered on the brink of starvation for two successive years.
In short, Corinth was ripe for a change of government and I intended to provide it.
Corinth, of course, lay some way to the south of my Thessalian base of operations. Moving my army all that distance was no minor feat, and I spent some weeks planning the campaign and its logistics. To reach Corinth we would have to travel through lands controlled by Delphi and this necessitated the negotiation of a complex agreement with the city’s elderly, eccentric ruler for safe passage through his lands.
At long last we reached Corinthian territory. Kapaneus was prepared for our arrival and we were met by several battalions. This was expected and I dealt with it by means of a tactical withdrawal which enabled my troops to manoeuvre such that the Corinthians were hemmed in within a narrow river valley. We were fewer in numbers but had the advantage of higher ground. It also became clear after the first few skirmishes that the opposing troops were poorly trained and suffering from low morale.
The Corinthians lost perhaps one hundred men on the first day. In contrast, our casualties were very light. We could have pressed on and slaughtered our enemies, but I had no desire to rob Corinth of its young military-trained men. That night I sent an envoy under the flag of parlay, and the Corinthian general and I met a short while later. The discussion was surprisingly cordial, and it became abundantly clear that the general and his senior officers had no love for Kapaneus either. The night ended with the cessation of hostilities. A number of the officers and men defected to my army, and the remainder headed for their homes or to hide in the surrounding countryside until the war was over.
I paused at that point and gave my adviser a smile. “And that, Virgil, is where you came in.”
Virgil indicated his agreement. “Conqueror, I'd heard of your heroics in Thessaly. When word got out that you were marching on Corinth I knew I had to be part of it. If only to see history in the making.”
“Hmm.” I smiled again. “I remember when you turned up.”
“Yeah.” He looked sheepish. “Me too.”
It was late one evening and I was still awake, poring over maps and potential strategies by torchlight in my tent. I was camped with my army on a plain a few miles from the gates of Corinth. To my great surprise the canvas strip which formed a rudimentary door opened and two of my officers appeared, holding a frightened Virgil between them.
“General Gabrielle! We found this waste of space sneaking around the camp. We would have gutted him where he stood, but he claims to know you. We thought we should just check before we went ahead.”
The second officer drew his sword. “General? What shall we do with him?”
I shook my head. “Release him. It's true, we… go back… a little way.” I turned to Virgil, who had dropped to the floor in shocked relief the second the officers had released their grip. “Well, well Virgil. Long time, no see.” I helped him up into a chair and poured a mug of wine for him, before saluting and dismissing his former captors.
Virgil looked pathetically grateful as he accepted the wine. “I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I should have sent word on ahead. But I didn't want to miss another day of your campaign.”
I gave him an amused look. “Really?”
“Really. This is history in the making and I intend to chronicle it. I hoped, Gabrielle… uh, General Gabrielle… that you would do be the honour of allowing me to observe you and your army and to write of your famous victories.”
“Sounds like you plan to make them famous.” I chuckled. “Sure, Virgil. Stick around. You’re very welcome.”
Over the next few days I finalised the plan of attack and we assaulted Corinth at first light on a midweek morning. As my spies had predicted, we met with only token resistance as the townsfolk opened the gates to my advancing army. My troops kept to their strict instructions not to harm civilians and in most of the city we were welcomed as liberators.
Those Corinthian soldiers still loyal to Kapaneus were holed up with him in his palace, and we fought a challenging and bloody battle through its rooms and corridors before reaching the King himself. To my disgust, given the sacrifice of his soldiers, he surrendered without even attempting to fight us. I dragged him out into the main agora where I proclaimed my victory and offered Kapaneus a choice of death or exile. He accepted the latter but as I turned to acknowledge the cheering crowds he pulled a knife he had hidden in his robes and moved to stab me with it. I was, of course, well aware of what he was doing and my katana made certain that his cowardly move was the last thing he ever did.
The next few months were spent in setting up my court, reviewing finances and transitioning the city militia into my army. I itched to be back in the field and chafed at the tiresome administrative tasks, so was delighted when Virgil took many of them in hand. I did take the time to convert the palace into my headquarters and proclaimed Corinth as the capital of the new Greek empire. It was around this time, too, that Virgil came up with the “Conqueror” title.
I paused to collect my thoughts. Virgil seemed glad of the break, putting down his quill and stretching, causing the bones in his shoulders to make a little popping noise. “Conqueror! The chronicle is coming along very well.”
“Good.” I gave a little sigh. “Well, you were present for the rest of my campaign, Virgil. You know what happened next.”
Well, not quite everything, I reminded myself. He didn't know about the delighted Ares toasting my successes and urging me on to still greater victories. Nor did he know about the near nightly dreams from which I always woke screaming. Dreams drenched in blood and gore and regret. Regret for the loss of my child. Regret for the loss of my innocence. Most of all, though, regret that I didn't ignore Xena’s stupid conscience and dump the damned ashes in the fountain when I had the chance.
Virgil interrupted my musings. “Of course, Conqueror, I'm aware of the battles you fought and the diplomacy you used to complete the conquest of Greece. I've already documented all of this. But I wondered whether you had any… insights into your strategy that I might include.”
“Not really.” A few vestiges of a headache remained and I rubbed my right temple. “You know how it was. Some local kings and nobles pledged their loyalty to me voluntarily. Others did not, and had to be… persuaded.”
I thought back to that time. My Corinthian campaign had caused great excitement throughout Greece and there was popular enthusiasm for my plans to unify the whole country under my rule. Riding at the head of an army, experiencing the adrenalin rush of battle and the worship of cheering crowds created a sense of euphoria. It was probably the closest I ever came to Xena’s battlelust. It was hollow, of course, and alone in my tent each night I brooded and agonised over whether I had done the right thing in accepting Ares’ favour. But the wheels were in motion and there was no realistic prospect of taking a different path. Plus, I told myself repeatedly, I was acting for the Greater Good. I was giving pride and hope back to the Greek people. With each new piece of territory I annexed, I instituted fair laws, kept the peace, abolished slavery and promoted learning.
“Sparta was a particularly fine piece of diplomacy. And, of course, fighting,” Virgil added hastily.
I nodded agreement. “It was.” The Spartans had been torn – impressed with my military prowess and keen to see a re-energised Greece, but at the same time reluctant to give up their treasured independence, particularly to a woman from the sticks. Sparta’s glory days were long behind it, however, and I had no doubt that my army could conquer the city without suffering significant casualties.
Still, I had no desire to humiliate Sparta and I sought a compromise which would result in the city state joining my growing empire whilst allowing its people and ruler to save face. In the end we agreed on a duel between the Spartan king and myself, using non-lethal weapons. To my delight he chose the staff, and I defeated him decisively in the agora in front of thousands of Spartan citizens. They and he readily pledged their allegiance, and I added another province to my portfolio.
Spartan warriors flocked to my army, and their excitement at being part of a successful military campaign helped to neutralise the initial rumblings of discontent when I forbid the mistreatment of the Helots, who would now be equal citizens of the Greek nation.
Virgil was still waxing lyrical about my victories. “Athens! That truly was your greatest victory, Conqueror.”
“Hmm.” If I sounded non-committal, it's because I was. Athens, uniquely at the time, had been ruled by an elected senate. In the past I had held romantic views about the city’s democracy. However, by the time of my conquest, the senate had become lazy, ineffective and corrupt. The majority of Athenians were keen to throw their lot in with the Conqueror and her reborn Hellenic empire. The senate ignored the popular will, however, and refused even to discuss possible terms for the city joining the rest of unified Greece.
The senate was, of course, ultimately answerable to the people of Athens and the next set of elections would certainly have resulted in the return of candidates who supported reunification. But I was impatient and itching for a fight, and so I launched a military assault on the city. The senators fled or were killed in the battle, and Athens duly joined my empire, concluding my conquest of Greece. The best part of a year later, part of me still felt a little guilt for my actions.
Virgil could tell that my mind was elsewhere and, to his credit, decided to end the session. We said our farewells and I spent a little time reading through some treasury reports before retiring to my bed for an early night.
The next few weeks passed uneventfully. Beowulf returned to the Norselands to take the good news of the treaty to Hrothgar. He took with him a Greek weapons smith, a couple of military trainers and a sculptor who would teach the secrets of marble work to the Vikings. For his part he left behind three berserkers who would work with my troops to teach them savagery in battle.
I was sorry to see Beowulf go. After the awkwardness of the first evening had passed, I'd enjoyed having my old friend around. He did promise to return within the year, and I pondered the possibility of a state visit to Denmark at some stage.
We heard no more from Eve, and Ares failed to put in any further appearances, so I put the episode to the back of my mind and focused my attention on Persia, which was beginning to look weak and divided. I had my eye on a couple of the border provinces and began sketching out initial plans to annex one or both. The urge to conquer new territory was a strong one and both provinces had, after all, once been part of the Greek empire. I felt I had something of a moral obligation to re-acquire them.
Before I could devote further time to my military strategies, however, I was needed elsewhere in the palace. As well as my appearances at the agora, Virgil had shortly after my victory in Corinth arranged for what he termed “petition days”. These events were held every three to four months and involved me listening to the troubles and grievances of ordinary folk, all of whom were hopeful that the great Conqueror would magically solve their problems. The intention was to bring me closer to my people
I had mixed feelings about the petition days. Occasionally a case of great injustice would come to light and I would take pleasure in helping the victim and, where necessary, punishing the wrongdoer. Much more often, however, the session would consist of petty disputes which should have been resolved by village councils or local magistrates. I felt that having the Conqueror involved in such trivialities demeaned my position. Virgil, though, considered the events to be hugely successful and I was content to take my domestic adviser’s counsel for now.
For today’s session, I dressed in a long white and green dress. I wore my boots, rather than the sandals that would go with the outfit, as I wished to have my sais close to hand. I also strapped the katana to my back. This would make sitting back uncomfortable, but people seemed to want to see me with my signature weapon. Finally, I placed the laurel wreath crown on my head. Taking a deep breath, I headed out of my apartments..
The event was held in my throne room, and the said chair was located at one end on a slightly raised platform. The throne was large and intended to appear imposing, but it was not terribly comfortable to sit on. I was tempted to add some cushions but felt this would not be in keeping with the ruthless warrior image.
The hall was illuminated with torches and, like my private dining room, was decorated with various artifacts and artworks from around the Known World. It was also graced with a couple of marble busts of me, which made me cringe whenever I saw them but which Virgil insisted were good likenesses.
I settled myself on the throne and nodded at one of the guards to bring in the first petitioner. Virgil, who carried out an initial screening of each one, passed me a piece of parchment summarising the problem. I rolled my eyes as I read through it, but forced myself to adopt a neutral expression as the petitioners, a married couple from Chalcidice, entered the hall and bowed deeply. I nodded my acknowledgment. “Welcome, good citizens. What troubles you?”
The clearly very nervous husband spoke up. “Great Conqueror. We come to you for help with our daughter.”
“Uh huh,” I said, feigning ignorance even though I knew what was coming. “What's the problem?”
The husband spoke up. “She is betrothed to our neighbour’s son. It is a good match. There is a family farm…” he paused and gripped his wife's hand. “But she refuses the marriage.”
I did my best to keep the smirk off my face. “For what reason?”
It was the wife’s turn to speak. “She says she does not love him!”
I pulled a face. “Seems fair enough.”
“She has been betrothed since she was a tot! And it's not just that.”
“Hmm?” I inclined my head. “What else?”
The woman wrapped her hands around the folds in her dress. “She talks of… strange things. Learning to fight with a sword. Writing epic poems.”
“She sounds very interesting.” I rested a hand on an arm of the throne. “Is she here?”
The couple looked puzzled. The husband looked towards the door. “We asked her to wait outside.”
I signalled to one of the guards. “Bring her in.”
The guard returned a moment later with a dark haired girl who looked to be in her mid to late teens. She bowed before looking up, and I saw fear in her eyes.
“Don't be afraid.” I smiled at the girl. “What is your name?”
“P-Persephone, your Majesty,” she stammered.
“Okay.” I leaned forward and made sure I maintained eye contact. “How old are you, Persephone?”
“Eighteen winters, Majesty.”
“Well.” I drummed my fingers on the arm of the throne. “Your parents tell me that you do not wish to marry the boy they have chosen for you, and also that you would like to learn to fight, or perhaps to write poetry.”
Persephone nodded. “Forgive me Majesty, but I think I have much to offer. Much more than in my village.”
Her parents were tutting. I silenced them with a glare before speaking. “Persephone, I was once in a very similar situation to you. I ran away from the life my family wanted for me. I was a little younger than you and it was hard to leave them behind. I was fortunate though – I learned to write and to fight as well. You should have that opportunity.” I paused to collect my thoughts. “I would like you to stay in Corinth for a week. You will have the chance to train with the women’s battalion in my army and you will also spend time in the Academy. At the end of it, you can decide whether you wish to be a soldier, a scholar or to return to your home to marry.”
Persephone appeared overcome. “Oh thank you Majesty! Thank you!”
“Not a problem.” I turned to her parents, who had faces like thunder. “Your daughter needs to decide for herself what she wants in life. Love her for who she is, not who you think she should be.”
Persephone’s dilemma turned out to be the one spark of interest in the day. I listened with diminishing patience to a parade of visitors expounding at great length about grievances ranging from inheritances, to paternity, to the quality of the wines a tavern had bought in bulk from a nearby vineyard. Groaning inwardly, I removed the katana and its scabbard and laid them on a nearby table so that I could sit more comfortably. This was an especially poor selection of petitions and I wondered at Virgil allowing such trivialities to reach the Conqueror. My temper finally snapped mid-afternoon following an interminable row between two merchants over a contract, and I resolved the dispute with a coin toss.
I indicated to Virgil that the session was over, when to my surprise he leaned across and whispered in my ear. “There is one more petitioner I believe you should see, Conqueror. He arrived only just before we began and I did not have time to make a note. But I think you will want to hear his story.”
Struggling to mask my irritation, I watched the final petitioner enter and make the customary bow. He was a young man with dirty blond hair pulled back in a pony tail. His clothes were torn and grubby, and he looked exhausted. I had a sudden rush of concern for my visitor, and I whispered to a nearby guard to bring a seat. On seeing the stool, the man looked pathetically grateful and began babbling thanks.
“Welcome, friend,” I said as warmly as I could. “Please sit, you look very tired. What is your name?”
“Miklos, your Majesty.” His voice cracked. I signalled to a guard to hand him a water skin, which he drank from greedily.
“What brings you here, Miklos?”
“Majesty. Conqueror. My village is in danger. We need help. I am begging you…”
“Hold on.” I held up my right hand. “Slow down. Where is your village and why does it need help?”
Miklos paused, I assumed to collect his thoughts. “I hail from Antarae. It's a farming community, three days’ ride to the North West.”
I nodded. I was vaguely aware of the place. “Go on.”
“It's a peaceful place. My village – well the whole area – has always been devoted to Aphrodite. We have a temple which attracts many pilgrims, as well as shrines to Hestia and Demeter.
“A few weeks ago strangers appeared in Antarae, preaching about a new god. A single god. They said that the old gods were wicked and that we must worship this new god, or else we would suffer terrible torments after death.”
Involuntarily, I had begun to grind my teeth. I took a deep breath. “Did your people listen to these strangers?”
“Oh no.” He shook his head. “We thought it was nonsense. But they kept on. When we chased them from the village square, they would approach people in the fields or in their homes, preaching and threatening. We tried to run them out of town, but they kept coming back.”
I frowned. “Couldn't you have them arrested? Punished?”
“You must understand, Majesty, that we are a peaceful people. We did not want to hurt the preachers just because they believed something different to us… we thought we could just learn to live with it. Then one day, the priest of Aphrodite was found murdered in the temple. The temple itself… had been desecrated.”
Poor old ‘Dite. I bet she was pissed off. I sensed this was not the end of the story. “What happened then?”
“Some of the men from the village went to seek out the preachers in the nearby hills. When they found them, they were accompanied by warriors. They laughed at our people and said that if we did not convert to their religion, we would all end up like the priest of Aphrodite.
“That's when we got scared. We are farmers and traders, not fighters. We could not defend ourselves against a heavily armed group of warriors. I volunteered to ride to Corinth to petition the Conqueror. Unfortunately, after a day my horse became lame and I had to walk the rest of the way. I was afraid I wouldn't make it.”
I attempted a reassuring tone. “Well, you did. And you did the right thing.” I paused. “These… preachers. Cultists. Whatever. Did they say anything more about their religion?”
Miklos considered this. “I didn't listen too much to the detail. I do remember one thing though. They kept talking about the Messenger of Eli, and how she would be proud of them.”
Urgh. In a way, of course, this latest revelation was no surprise. I had, however, clung to a faint shred of hope that Eve herself would have no direct involvement in the outrage at Miklos’s village. No matter. The question of Eve herself could be dealt with later. The priority was to address the threat that the Elijan cult posed to Greece. I raised my voice a little so that all in the hall could hear it. “Followers of alien faiths who murder Greek citizens have no place in my realm. I shall personally lead a detachment of Corinth’s best warriors to neutralise the threat to Antarae and the region.” A ripple of surprise and excitement ran around the hall until I held up my hand for quiet. “We will leave as soon as possible.”
I gestured for a steward to come forward, and asked him to ensure Miklos was given food, a bed and fresh clothes. With that I stood, as a sign that all present were dismissed. The usual rigmarole of bows and salutes finally concluded, and once the far door had swung shut I turned to an anxious-looking Virgil. “I want us ready to leave in two days.”
“I’ll talk to Audax and to the stewards.” Virgil bit his bottom lip before continuing. “Conqueror… this may be nothing more than a local squabble. I thought it important you heard it but…” He ran a hand through his hair. “Is it necessary for you to attend in person? There is a garrison a few leagues from Antarae. Perhaps they could…”
“No.” My voice was soft but left no room for further argument. “A foreign religion is threatening Greek citizens and my Hellenic Peace. I'm a warrior queen. I need to deal with this myself.”
Virgil indicated his understanding and acquiescence. Even though we were alone, he dropped his voice. “These warriors Miklos spoke of. Do you think they are Romans?”
I had already considered this and concluded it unlikely. I shook my head. “Too far from the border and too near my capital. Far too risky, and it wouldn't make sense anyway. Why provoke Greece when Rome is occupied much further North? No, I'm afraid these are homegrown crazies.”
Virgil fell silent for a moment. When he spoke, it was hesitantly. “Conqueror… please do not jump to conclusions. Eve may know nothing of this. The Messenger of Eli is spoken of a lot by Elijans… the people who attacked Antarae have probably never even met her.”
Despite everything, Virgil had a soft spot for her, but I was rather less naïve. There was no doubt in my mind that Eve was up to her neck in this, but at the same time there was no point in dwelling on that right now. I gave a tight smile and nodded. “I know. Now, let's get going. I've got an expedition to plan.”
Preparing for a military campaign, even a relatively small one such as this, required considerable logistical effort. Based on careful questioning of Miklos, it was clear to me that, whilst the armed cultists were understandably frightening, they were relatively few in number. I had decided to take a detachment of fifty volunteers, including some of the better fighters in my Imperial Guard and a half dozen Amazons from the women's section, as well as a number of newer recruits who had yet to see action on the battlefield. A fighting force of this size could be mobilised quickly and without much difficulty. Much more of a chore was organising supplies and assembling the support staff, consisting of cooks, grooms, healers, blacksmiths and assorted helpers. Virgil worked tirelessly to ensure they were ready in time for the arbitrary deadline I'd set.
Before finalising arrangements for the trip, I had issued a proclamation denouncing the cult of Eli and had instructed the captain of the Corinthian militia that anyone found preaching the faith in public should be arrested. This I had done with some reluctance – my natural inclination was that the people should be able to worship as they pleased. However, I sensed that these were abnormal times and a different approach was needed.
On the day of departure I woke shortly before dawn and ate a light breakfast of bread and fruits before dressing. I wore a soft russet leather skirt with a matching top and a lightweight chain mail vest over the top. I strapped the katana to my back, the sais to my boots and the chakram to my waist. Taking a last look at my bedchamber, I headed out to the palace stables.
The palace grounds were now bathed in the soft light of dawn and as I approached the paddock I recognised the familiar outline of Argo II and her foal. One of my first actions in taking Corinth had been to send for the horse and install her in the imperial stables. I never rode her though and did not allow anyone else to either – she was Xena’s horse and I wanted to give her a comfortable retirement. The arrival of the third generation of Argos, a year or so later, had been an added bonus.
The golden mare and her baby came trotting over when they saw me, and I fished a couple of apples out of my travelling bag for them. I looked up to see one of the grooms walking towards me, leading the grey horse I had purchased on my return from Jappa. I had a number of other horses, but retained a soft spot for this one, whom I'd rather unimaginatively named Shadow.
The groom bowed his head. “Your majesty, will you be taking Shadow on your campaign?”
“Yes, thank you. Please tack her up.” I reached over and stroked the mare’s nose. “Bring her round to the front gates as soon as you're done.”
We left an hour or so later. I rode at the head of the column, flanked by two imperial officers on one side and a couple of Amazons at the other. As we wound our way through the streets of Corinth, I was greeted by the usual cheering crowds. Word of the purpose of the mission had spread quickly and it seemed a popular campaign. Corinthians remained very attached to the traditional gods. Briefly, I wondered how they'd react if they knew that all but two of them were dead at my dead lover’s hand.
I put that thought to the back of my mind, and we left the city behind on the road to Antarae. Miklos travelled with us, riding in one of the supply carts. Travelling in a group this size was slower than I would have liked, but after a while I settled into the gentle rhythm of the horse’s gait and began to relax. It had been a couple of months since I'd been outside of Corinth and I'd missed the open road.
We travelled for several days without encountering trouble or indeed anything out of the ordinary. At one point we stopped at the village where Miklos had stabled his lame horse. To his delight the beast had made a full recovery. There was great excitement at the Conqueror’s visit and the local tavern keeper insisted on providing drinks to my entire entourage. A small girl shyly presented me with a gift of flowers and my heart softened enough to give her a short ride on my horse, to wild cheers from the rest of the village. Perhaps Virgil was right and I was in fact the most beloved ruler since Alexander. Pondering that strange thought, I handed the child back to her mother and headed to the tavern for a drink. Ignoring the innkeeper’s protestations, I insisted on paying a generous sum for the refreshments. I would not take advantage of my people.
This diversion would, of course, delay our already painfully slow caravan even further but I decided to go along with it for now and take the opportunity to seek information from the locals. None had come across Elijans in the immediate vicinity but the troubles in the Antarae region seemed well-known. I felt irritation that I had to learn of the problem from a petitioner and resolved to speak harshly to my chief of intelligence on my return.
At long last we left the village and continued on our way. The troops were in good spirits but as we came closer to Antarae I began to feel a deep sense of foreboding. A couple of leagues from our destination I gave the order to make camp for the night. While the soldiers and support worked on setting up tents, preparing food and digging latrines, I spoke privately to the Amazons and sent them on to scout ahead. I wished to avoid unpleasant surprises the next day.
A few hours later I was resting in my tent when I heard an Amazon birdcall. I slipped out to the agreed rendezvous point on the outskirts of the camp. Even in the moonlight I could see the grim looks on their faces as they told me of what they had found in Antarae.
The village was destroyed and its people slaughtered. It was impossible to tell whether anyone had escaped, but Antarae itself appeared devoid of survivors. Of the attackers there was no sign.
I thanked the Amazons and went to speak to my officers. I warned them to prepare their men for what they would see tomorrow. Finally, and with reluctance, I summoned Miklos and told him of the tragedy. He reacted as expected: shock, disbelief, anger, grief. I suggested that he stay at the camp tomorrow but unsurprisingly he wished to see what was left of his village and I did not order him to stay behind, reasoning that this was his decision to make.
After a sleepless night I mustered the troops and we left for Antarae shortly after dawn. Around a dozen men stayed behind to guard the camp and the support staff. We did not know, after all, if the people who slaughtered the villagers were still in the vicinity.
Autumn was now upon us and there had been heavy rainfall overnight. A persistent drizzle continued, adding to the general misery as we made the short ride to Antarae. On cresting the hill above the village, the scale of the devastation became clear. Buildings were wrecked; livestock slaughtered; and even from this distance piles of what looked to be human corpses were visible in the main square. Miklos, at the back of the column, began to wail. I instructed a couple of my men to calm him and keep him back until we had confirmed there were no hostiles present. With that I urged Shadow forward and cantered down the slope leading into Antarae.
The scene of horror was so much worse close up. There were dozens, perhaps scores, of bodies on display. Some had clearly been cut down where they stood – others dragged into the square for makeshift executions. Judging by the smell and the bloating of the bodies, the massacre had taken place perhaps a week ago. I glanced around at my troops, some of whom were overcome with nausea. I didn't blame them. I'd seen countless corpses on the battlefield, of course - I'd been responsible for plenty of them – but this was different and was affecting even my hardened heart and stomach. There were no warriors here – only farmers and merchants, women and children, old people and babies. Even family pets. I thought of Caligula’s depredations and how Xena and I tried to protect the Elijans. And now, it seemed, things had gone full circle. If this was Eve’s doing… I growled and found my hand reaching, unconsciously, for my katana.
Forcing myself to remain calm, I reached into my saddlebag and found a piece of cloth which I tied around my neck, before pulling it up to cover my nose and mouth. It made breathing through the sweet, sickly stench of decay bearable. I gave muffled orders to the bulk of my troops to collect wood and begin constructing funeral pyres. I led some others on a search of what was left of the village, checking for survivors as well as any lurking attackers. The Amazons I sent on another scouting mission in search of the Elijans’ camp.
The grim task of building the enormous pyres took most of the day. The dampness of the wood made it all the more difficult and in the end we made use of an amphora of cooking oil found in one of the wrecked homes. When, finally, the bodies were consigned to the flames I said a few words about the dead being at peace now and promising to seek justice for them. It sounded hollow to me but it seemed to go down well with the troops. Even Miklos nodded agreement through his tears.
One piece of good news was the surprise discovery of two survivors – girls of perhaps ten and seven winters, hiding in an barn near the village outskirts. They were too traumatised to speak, but I surmised they were sisters and that they had survived on supplies stored at the back of the building. The girls were weak and in distress, but appeared physically unharmed. Nonetheless on our return to the camp I insisted that they be examined by a healer. If no relatives could be traced, I planned to ask the Amazons to bring them up in the tribe.
Back at the camp a sense of gloom hung heavy in the air. We had arrived too late to save the villagers and Greece had suffered perhaps the worst atrocity since I took the throne. The Amazons had located the remnants of a makeshift camp in the hills which had likely been the base of the cultists and their armed backers, but it had clearly been abandoned days earlier. I sent messengers to the nearby garrison, but in my heart I knew the trail had gone cold. If my instincts were right, the attackers would not be roaming the countryside in armour with weapons on display, but would be disguised as simple travellers or merchants. The Conqueror and her retinue of trained warriors were, for now, helpless.
We spent the next few days combing the area for any sign of the cultists without success. Morale was low and the weather had taken a turn for the worse, with the rain apparently taking up permanent residence. My own leadership was not what it should have been, not least because I had each night been plagued by vivid dreams of Xena calling out in distress. Try as I might, however, I had been unable to make out the words or reach her to comfort her. Eventually I took the decision to return to Corinth. It was a tedious, wet and dispiriting journey.
On arrival back in the capital I took two immediate actions. Firstly, I summoned the Roman ambassador to my palace. Secondly, I instructed Virgil to issue a new proclamation prohibiting any practice of the Elijan faith, even private worship. Having issued my orders, I headed to my quarters for a much-needed bath.
Dressed in an imposing gown and wearing my crown, I sat on my throne whilst I lambasted the ambassador, threatening all sorts of retribution should it turn out that Rome had knowledge of the attack on Antarae. I studied his terrified reaction carefully, and concluded that either he was a finer actor than even Euripides could have dreamed of, or he was telling the truth and Rome had no knowledge of the atrocity. I was inclined to the latter explanation. The ambassador himself, I knew, paid only lip service to the new faith of his country and appeared genuinely horrified at the turn of events. I dismissed him and began to ponder the extent of the influence of the cult of Eli within Greece itself.
My train of thought was interrupted by a knocking on the throne room door. I called for the visitor to enter, expecting Virgil. To my great surprise I was faced with Audax who stood in front of two burly Imperial Guards, holding between them a squirming Eve.
“Conqueror.” Audax saluted. “Forgive my intrusion at this hour, but my men made an arrest close to the palace.” He gestured towards Eve. “This lady – was found preaching the faith of Eli, in defiance of your majesty’s edict.”
I stood and walked towards my visitors. On seeing me, Eve had ceased to struggle and was now gazing into the middle distance, a faintly crazed expression on her face.
Audax continued his explanation. “Conqueror… we know that she was previously an honoured guest here. We didn't want to take her to the gaol.” He looked uncertain.
I put my hand on his shoulder in a gesture of reassurance. “Thank you, Audax. Your men did the right thing.” I fixed Eve with a stare and the soldiers seemed to sense they should let go of her. “Eve.” I spoke very softly but with what I knew to be an unmistakeable menace. “Some very bad things have happened a few days’ ride from here.”
Eve glared at me defiantly, but said nothing.
“Very bad things,” I continued. “Innocent people slaughtered by followers of the cult of Eli. Followers who speak of their devotion to the messenger of Eli. Now Eve,” my voice dropped almost to a whisper, “Would you happen to know anything about that?”
There was a pause and then to my surprise, Eve began to yell. “Those people were no innocents! They were disgusting infidels. They clung to their heathen gods and their pagan idols even after they'd been given the chance to redeem themselves!” Her voice grew louder and increasingly shrill. “Their fate was in their hands. They shunned the light, the true path of Eli and they paid the price! Look at it as a kindness, Gabrielle! Had they continued on their wicked-“
She didn't get the chance to finish her rant. I pulled back my right fist and slammed it into her face with such force I thought at first I had shattered her jaw. She dropped to the ground with a soft thump. I heard the sharp intake of breath from Audax and his men and felt their uncertainty. They had seen my fury on a handful of previous occasions and they did not know what I was likely to do next.
In truth, neither did I. Cold rage vied with hot bloodlust within me. I could beat Eve to death with my bare hands, right here in my throne room. There was a certain attraction to that, and I flexed my fingers in anticipation. Alternatively, I could simply put the pinch on her and count down her last 30 seconds on earth. Or, I could drag her outside to the agora and have her executed in front of cheering crowds. I could carry out the execution myself, running her through with my katana, or perhaps simply beheading her. Before that I could have her beaten, or even dragged to the place of execution behind my chariot.
Before I could make my decision, Eve groaned and pulled herself up onto all fours. Her bloodied face looked up at me. I saw, with some satisfaction, that she'd lost a tooth. Despite her injuries, the far away, dreamy look had returned. “Conqueror,” she gasped. “Conqueror, do what you must. Whip me. Lock me in a dungeon where I never see the light. Nail me to the cross and leave me to die slowly on the streets of Corinth. I am not afraid to suffer, to die, in the service of Our Lord.”
In a flash, I saw what she was about. My plans for violent retribution evaporated. Instead, I crouched down and gripped her jaw tightly. She winced as I pressed on the injured area. “Eve,” I hissed. “Let me tell you. I've been beaten, locked in dungeons and crucified. Been there, done that. There's no glory in it, and I'm not going to do any of those things to you. You're not going to get your martyrdom at the hands of the wicked barbarian queen. Your brainwashed followers won't get to tell tales of your bravery at the hands of the pagan oppressors.”
I released her jaw, stood and addressed Audax. “Captain. Please escort our guest to the finest suite of rooms we have available. Ensure that she has all she needs and arrange for a healer to look at her face. Our guest needs to be kept safe, so station guards outside of her quarters at all times. As soon as you can, put together an honour guard to escort her safely to the Roman border.”
Audax’s men still looked confused, but he understood what was happening and allowed the faintest of smiles to cross his face. “By your will, Conqueror.” He bent down to help Eve to her feet. “Now, miss, please come with me.”
Eve let out a bloodcurdling scream and, in that instant, I realised she was all Callisto. There was not a drop of Xena’s essence within her. My soulmate had been nothing more than a vessel to carry the spawn of her nemesis. Shuddering at this realisation, I managed to keep my voice calm. “Goodbye, Eve. Do not return to Greece.”
The soldiers ushered her out. I took steadying breaths, in an attempt to calm my ragged heartbeat. Could it be true? Had Eve really arranged for all those people to be slaughtered just to goad me into organising her martyrdom? Was she that evil, or simply delusional? It was a fine line, I thought to myself, and one Callisto constantly crossed.
Suddenly weary, I decided to return to my apartments. Once there, I removed my crown and called for a large jug of wine and a plate of meze. On their arrival, I poured a mug of the deep red liquid and slumped on the couch, sighing as I took a long draught.
Deep in thought, I started when a flash of blue light appeared and the God of War made his second appearance in as many months. “Gabrielle.” He nodded and poured himself a mug of wine.
“Ares. What-“ I didn't manage to finish before a soft popping sound alerted me to a second visitor, and the war god was momentarily forgotten. “Aphrodite!” I squealed like a young girl.
“Oh, Gabrielle.” The blonde looked embarrassed. “I'm so sorry. I should have been there for you. I just didn't know what to say…”
I cut her off by wrapping my arms around her and hugging the goddess fiercely. “Oh, I've missed you, ‘Dite!”
She returned the hug and leaned in to whisper in my ear. “By the way, Gabrielle. I dig the temples.”
A theatrical throat clearing interrupted our reunion. “That's all very touching ladies. But can the little catchup wait? We've got business to attend to.”
Reluctantly, we broke apart. ‘Dite was pouting. “Come on, bro. You're no fun.”
“This is serious, sis.”
“Yeah, I know. The fate of the world is at stake. Yadda yadda.” Seeing Ares’ glare, Aphrodite relented. “I'm kidding! I know this is a big deal.” She helped herself to a mug of wine and slumped down on a chair before waving a hand at her brother. “You'd better fill Gabby in.”
“Good job I ordered a large jug,” I muttered, watching the deities gulping my booze. I topped up my own drink and sat down carefully. “Okay, you've got my attention. What's going on?” I paused. “It's something to do with Eve, isn't it? I thought I made the right call today.”
“You did.” Ares settled down next to me on the couch. “You saw right through her. That's my girl! Unfortunately,” he bit his lip, “That's not the end of it.”
I suspected this might be the case. “Go on, Ares. I'm all ears.”
“Eve’s cult,” Ares began, “the faith of the One God. It's going to grow and grow. It has already taken over Rome. Soon, it will consume Greece. It will bring with it terror. Repression. Attacks on science. Music. Art. Poetry. Anything considered unholy by these fanatics.”
I shook my head. “I'm aware of the dangers of this cult. I have ordered it banned throughout my realm.”
“Good work, but it's not enough. This cult and the god it worships don't give up so easily. They seek to dominate the world and sweep away all other beliefs. In doing so they will crush scientists, artists and free thinkers alike. They will never be satisfied until all joy, all difference, all creativity is sucked out of the lives of mortals. That's the problem when you only believe in one god. It doesn't leave a lot of room for other ideas.”
I studied Ares. He was deadly serious. There was no sign of obfuscation. This didn't appear to be one of his little games. I sighed. “Why are you telling me all this, Ares? I know Eve’s out of her mind and I'm not ecstatic about the Elijans either. I'm in no position to take on Rome right now, so I'm not sure what more I can do at this juncture.”
Ares was silent for a moment before speaking again. “Let me show you something, Gabrielle.” He reached out his hand and laid his palm against my brow.
It's hard to describe what happened next. My senses were assaulted by dramatic visions, accompanied with deafening sounds and powerful smells of blood and burning. The images were jumbled up and there was something wrong with the speed at which the events in the visions took place, although in my confused state it was impossible to tell whether they had speeded up or slowed down.
I saw my palace, wrecked and in flames. Outside the walls a bloody battle had clearly taken place, and I flinched when I recognised my own body, mutilated and strung up just like Xena’s had been. I tried to focus on the rest of the scene but the vision had already moved on to unfamiliar times and places. Strangely dressed people hacked to death other strangely dressed people, both sides screaming in tongues I could not understand. Another scene, this time of people tied to stakes and burned alive. Elsewhere, a huge bonfire of scrolls, paintings and sculptures. The vision changed again to show a busy city street, full of people. Only all of the women were wearing some sort of shroud, covering even their faces. I wondered how they could see when I noticed a girl’s shroud slip to reveal a glimpse of bare skin. I gasped in shock when she was grabbed by uniformed men and beaten. Next, I saw a huge metal thing somehow flying through the air and into an impossibly vast tower, which went on to collapse into a city street which looked like no city I had ever seen.
By this stage my senses were completely overloaded. I had no idea what I was looking at or what tied these hideous scenes together. I tried to catch my breath just as what turned out to be the final vision began. Mercifully short, this vision showed a light brighter than a thousand suns, followed by a fire which burned unimaginably hot. At the end, a darkened sky looked out on a dead world of dust and ash.
As the vision faded I felt an unstoppable wave or nausea and I bolted from the couch to the chamber pot beside my bed. Gripping the vessel to my chest, I spent a minute or so dry heaving and expelling what minimal contents I had in my stomach.
The nausea subsided and I put the pot down. I wiped my mouth and reached for some water. Aphrodite was staring, a horrified look on her face. “Gross,” she muttered.
“Yeah, well. Try seeing your own death, deaths of loads more people and then for the finale the death of the world.” I turned to Ares. “What the fuck was that?”
“That,” he said, “is the end result of all this ‘one god’ garbage.”
I returned to the couch and, against my better judgement, accepted a fresh mug of wine from Aphrodite. My throat was still raw from the retching and I sipped it gingerly. “You're telling me the Elijans will be responsible for the end of the world?”
Ares shrugged. “They may not be Elijans by then. They may call themselves something else entirely and be sworn to wipe out the Elijans. The name doesn't matter. What matters is that they accept only one god, and everyone who doesn't follow that faith is an enemy. And, of course, any other gods who may be knocking about – well, they've got to go!”
I must have looked unconvinced, because Ares was now pacing the room and gesturing dramatically with his hands. “Think, Gabrielle. Think about all those times you encountered people worshipping a single god. Think about how they acted. What they said.”
I pondered this. I thought, way back, to the old man who was ready to sacrifice his son to please what he thought was his god’s whim. I thought of Najara executing anyone who didn’t meet her exacting pious standards. I thought of the crazy cult trying to sacrifice a willing, brainwashed follower on the top of a cliff. And, of course, I thought of Dahak. A terrible thought occurred to me. “Ares,” I muttered, “all these cults claiming to worship the one true god. Are they all following the same one? Dahak and the god of Eli. Are they one and the same?”
A lengthy pause and then Aphrodite spoke up. “We just don't know, Gabrielle. Nobody sees any of these ‘one true gods’. Just their followers and henchmen. That angel who tried to kill me. Eli, and Eve, and that gross guy in Britannia.” She pulled a face.
“Whatever! He was gross.”
Ares stroked his beard. “It's possible there's a whole set of these guys out there and, when they've finished wiping out the other pantheons, they'll turn on each other. Or, maybe it's just the one.” He shook his head. “You've gotta admit, Gabby, their methods are pretty similar. Manipulating mortals. Supernatural pregnancies.”
“Right, because you guys never do such things.” I thought of all the times Ares had tried to manipulate Xena, and me. Aphrodite fooling around with potions and spells. And, though I never liked to think of it given their subsequent relationship, we never quite got to the bottom of Xena’s paternity. “Pot, kettle, hmm?”
Aphrodite held up a hand in acknowledgment. “You're right, Gabrielle. The Olympians never could keep their noses out of mortals’ business. And Zeus could never keep his –“
“Sis,” said Ares in a warning tone.
“Oh come on, Ares, you know it's true.” ‘Dite let out a loud sigh and crossed her legs. “Anyway, we’re getting a little off-topic here.”
“Okay,” I said, still unclear as to where all this was going. “One god, monotheism, bad. I'm going to die because of it and so is everyone else. Why are you showing me this? What do you want from me?”
Ares was fiddling with a dagger he'd removed from his belt. He raised his head and fixed me with a stare. “Do you know what kicked all this off, Gabrielle?”
I had a sickening feeling that I did. “The Twilight?”
“Yep.” He twirled the dagger and with a quick motion of the wrist sent it flying across the room, where it lodged in a doorframe. Ignoring his sister’s shout of annoyance, Ares continued. “Losing the Olympians emboldened Eli’s god, and gave him the confidence to make a grab for power in this region. Once he has consolidated his influence here, another pantheon will be targeted. Another patsy given the power to kill gods and do his dirty work for him.”
Ares shook his head. “I think Xena was maybe beginning to understand this, before she died. Before any of us did. Bringing back ‘Dite and me slowed the One God’s progress in Greece and the surrounding regions. But we won't be able to hold him off forever, and eventually some other god killer will be tricked into finishing us off. After that, he'll move on to one of the other pantheons. Egyptian, maybe, or Norse.”
I felt a sense of despair. “This One God. He manipulated Xena, me - all of us. Urgh. I can't believe we fell for it. Especially after Hope. How could we be so stupid.”
“Oh come on, Gabs.” Aphrodite had moved to the couch and now she reached over and patted my knee. “He conned all the Olympians as well. What hope did a couple of mortals have.”
She had a point. I sighed. “So, what now? Is this One God unstoppable?”
Ares had taken a seat on one of the other chairs and was scratching his beard. “Not necessarily.”
“Well?” I was becoming frustrated now.
“If the Twilight could be reversed… with the knowledge we have now, I'm confident that the Olympians would ensure that this – ‘monotheism’ as you call it remains nothing more than a local cult.”
“Reversed?” I took in a sharp breath. How could that be possible? Then it struck me. “The Fates?”
“Oh, no no no.” Ares laughed mirthlessly. “I don't think you'd be too welcome in their temple, not after that stunt you pulled in the other world.”
“They should be pleased,” I grumbled. “I brought the real world back.”
“You did. And they realise this. That's why they haven't cut your thread. Still, you can't blame them for not wanting you anywhere near their loom. Anyway,” Ares continued, “this is way beyond their abilities.”
“Then what? Who can fix this?”
Ares and Aphrodite exchanged glances, then they both spoke at once. “Kronos.”
“Kronos! The King of the Titans? But I thought he was dead. Killed by Zeus and Hera.”
“Mmm… not exactly.” Aphrodite twirled her hair. “We – and by we I mean the Olympians as a whole… kinda imprisoned him in the Cave of Nyx. Snoozing. He’s stuck there until someone disturbs his sleep.”
“Er, okay?” I still had no idea where this was leading.
Ares took up the story. “Kronos has power over time. He will be able to reverse it, so that the Twilight never happened.”
“So, go and wake him then? Ask him to do his time reversal thing?” I took a gulp of my drink. My throat was feeling better. “Still not sure what it's got to do with me?”
“Well, Gabrielle, the thing is,” here Aphrodite looked awkward, “I don't think Olympians are going to be the first thing he wants to see when he wakes up. Not with all that history, you know. Baggage.”
I groaned. “Are you asking me to do this?”
Aphrodite clasped her hands together. “Yay! I knew you'd get it. You must see it makes sense, Gabs! You're the number one living Greek mortal hero!”
“AND you've got first hand experience of the Twilight and the things this One God does to get his way.” Ares raised his glass in a toast. “You're perfect!”
“Okay.” I took a deep breath. “What do I need to know? Where is this cave?”
Ares gave me the location, which was in a desolate and mountainous area perhaps a week’s ride from Corinth. I noticed him and Aphrodite exchanging looks. I glanced from one to the other. “Well?”
“Well, Gabs,” ‘Dite looked uncomfortable. “You know the story of the Titanomachy?”
I nodded. The epic war between the Titans and the Olympians had been a favourite tale of one of the bards who had frequented Poteidaia when I was a girl, although I'd never found the story particularly compelling. At the time it seemed too fantastical. I smiled to myself at the irony and returned my attention to Aphrodite.
“Do you remember anything about the armies Zeus raised?” She was squirming now. “The cyclops, and the hecatonchires?”
“Um.” I did recall the tales of such fantastic creatures. I had, of course, come across a cyclops when I first left home to travel with Xena. “Yeah. And?”
“Well, Kronos couldn't be left for any old mortal to stumble on his cave and wake him. So, Zeus left some guards in place…”
I groaned. What else hadn't they told me? “Okay,” I said, warily, “I suppose I can put together a battalion or two…”
“Nope. Sorry.” Ares was shaking his head. “This mission is real hush hush, you know. The One God can't know about it. I think we can just about shield you from Michael and his flunkies. Even sis and I can't hide an army.”
I could have screamed in frustration. “So what am I supposed to do? Take on a bunch of cyclops and this hecaton thing all by myself?”
“Well, not quite on your own.” ‘Dite had a mischievous look on her face which seemed quite inappropriate for the discussion we were having. You'll have a – companion. And I think you're gonna like them!”
A jolt of anticipation shot through me. Surely it couldn't be true? I tried to keep my breathing steady as I dared to hope. “Do you mean,” I finally managed to croak, “Xena?”
Aphrodite clapped her hands together and gave a little squeal. Ares shot her a look and then turned to me. “Yes. In a manner of speaking.”
“But how? You told me you couldn't speak to the gods of Jappa about this. I thought you guys didn't really talk.”
“All the pantheons are worried about this One God business. And we’re talking to each other, for once. The gods of Jappa agreed that the person to cause the Twilight should be the one to try and fix it. Xena’s spirit will be released from their afterlife and will accompany you.”
I rested my head on my fists as I tried to take in this unexpected development. This was everything I'd wished for over the past three years. But – “Only her spirit?”
“That's their best offer. Her body is gone.” Ares grunted and took another gulp of wine.
Aphrodite reached across and pulled me into a hug. “If Kronos can reverse the Twilight, I'm sure he can reverse the warrior babe’s untimely demise as well.”
The next few days were spent in a flurry of activity. I ensured my weapons were sharpened, packed a bag full of necessary supplies and spent a long time pondering the cover story I should use to explain my absence from court. In the end I spoke to Virgil privately and advised him that I believed war with the Elijans and possibly with Rome herself was coming, and that I needed to visit an oracle before committing troops to such a dangerous venture.
It was an established tradition for Greek leaders to seek the counsel of an oracle before going to war. After all, Leonidas himself had done so. Virgil was well versed in the tradition and nodded gravely when I told him of my plans. I explained that I needed to travel alone and incognito, and that my mission was to be shared only with Audax for now. Others enquiring as to my whereabouts should be told only that I was on a diplomatic visit of utmost importance.
I felt uneasy about deceiving Virgil, but at this stage I felt I had no option. The risk of my plans leaking and somehow reaching Michael was too great. Ares and ‘Dite believed they could shield me from the view of Michael and his god, but even the Olympians couldn't defend against careless talk.
On the fourth day Eve and her escort left for the Roman border and I relaxed a little. I resolved to leave the following night, and arranged for Virgil to meet me with a horse after dark and just outside of the city gates. Taking Shadow was out of the question – she was too distinctive and was in any event well known as the Conqueror’s horse.
I slipped out of the gates disguised in a long coat with a hood and found Virgil without difficulty. He had purchased a large chestnut stallion which he had arranged to be tacked up. I thanked him for everything he had done and gripped his forearm before climbing up on the beast. Virgil stood and saluted, clearly puzzled at what probably felt like finality in my words. I quickly turned the horse and set off on my journey, anxious that my adviser not see that my eyes were wet with tears.
This was, after all, most likely a suicide mission. I knew this in my heart. Great warrior I might be, but there was no way a single mortal could take on the beings guarding Kronos’ tomb. And even if I somehow managed to reach the sleeping Titan, what hope did I have of persuading him to bring back the Olympians – the family who had entombed him in the first place? Still, dying in a doomed attempt to right the wrongs of the Twilight and, ultimately, save the world was infinitely preferable to being slaughtered in my palace and my corpse hung like a side of beef. Most importantly, of course, my last few days on Earth would be spent with my soulmate or, at least, her spirit. And, I told myself, there was always the ghost of a chance that I might succeed in my quest. Reaching up a hand to wipe my face, I determined to remain positive and I turned my mount in the direction of the Cave of Nyx.
The next few days passed peacefully. I quickly got used to being on the road again, and I found the solitude soothing after the drama of the Antarae expedition and the bustle of the court. I was growing impatient, though, for Xena’s presence to make itself felt. Lying alone by the campfire at night, I wondered whether Ares had lied to me about her return.
I put such negative thoughts to the back of my mind and soldiered on. The rain that had marred the return journey from Antarae had ceased, and conditions for travelling were good. The days saw bright sunshine and the nights clear skies. An Autumn chill hung in the air, however, and I was glad of the thick hooded coat. It would have been good to detour into a town and have a mug or two of ale and a warm bed for the night, but I needed to maintain my low profile and so, with some reluctance, I kept to the back roads and away from human settlements.
By the fourth day I was making good progress towards the place Ares had described and subsequently marked on my map. It was late afternoon and my mount was picking his way gingerly down a narrow trail whilst I was keeping an eye out for a suitable place to camp for the night. Noting the number of rocks and debris scattered on the path, I dismounted and chose to guide the horse along this section. The last thing I needed was for him to throw a shoe so far from civilisation.
I hadn't seen another soul all day and, in truth, had let my guard down a little. As a result I was startled when three men appeared from the undergrowth brandishing weapons.
“Nice horse you've got there.”
“Pretty lady, not safe to be all the way out here on your own.”
“Hey gorgeous, wanna have some fun with us?” This said while the speaker used his free hand to rub his crotch.
Why, I groaned to myself, were these losers all exactly the same? Same clothes. Same lack of martial skill. They even come up with the same lines.
I shook my head. “I wouldn't do this if I were you. It's not going to end well for you. Be on your way.”
Predictably, this resulted in a cacophony of laughter, insults and crude suggestions of acts they would like to perform with me. I sighed as I assessed the three morons in front of me. My katana would make short work of them all but drawing it risked identifying me as the Conqueror and I was after all meant to be travelling incognito. Instead, while they continued congratulating each other on their fine wit, I moved with lightning speed to kick the leftmost assailant in a particular spot on the upper arm that I knew would numb it and force him to drop the club he was holding. In one fluid movement I rolled forward and grabbed the club before bringing it up to nail him between the legs. The bandit howled in agony as he fell to the ground, by which time I was already up and bringing the heavy piece of wood to connect with the second man’s head. Only his rudimentary helmet saved him from instant death and he, too, dropped to his knees moaning.
The third man looked in horror and disbelief at his incapacitated comrades. “What the fuck are you? A fucking Amazon?”
“That's right.” I took a deep breath. “I'm a fucking Amazon. Now take your friends and get out of my way.” Still holding the club, I picked up the horse’s reins with my free hand and pushed past him. I didn't look back. I knew he wouldn't follow me.
“Nice moves. Well done.”
I almost jumped out of my skin. For a split second I thought the uninjured bandit might have followed, but we’d been walking for several minutes and there was no sign of him or his sidekicks.
“I'm here, Gabrielle.”
Spinning round, I saw her. At last. There she was. Xena, looking as strong and beautiful as the first time I clapped eyes on her all those years ago. She stood still, dressed in her classic armour but, I noted with my soldier’s eye, without any weapons.
Squealing incoherent expressions of joy I launched myself at her, only to stumble and almost fall when my arms closed around… nothing. Well, not nothing exactly. What I felt was hard to describe. It was both nothing and something. There was no physical matter to grab hold of, but the sensation on trying to do so was quite different to anything I had experienced. Thoroughly confused, I stepped back and gazed at the apparition of my soulmate. “Xena,” I eventually managed to croak. “Is it you? Really you?”
“It's me.” She spoke softly, calmly. “It's me. But I'm just a spirit, Gabrielle. I can't… interact with the physical world.”
“We… I…” blinking back tears, I reached out for her and again felt the odd sensation as my hands touched the nothingness that was her body. “Xena… what…”
“Hush.” She reached forward and laid her finger against my lip. I could feel it, but only in an indescribable way. She gave a small smile. “We've got a lot of catching up to do.”
“Yeah.” I glanced around, noticing the sound of running water as I did so. “Here. There's a creek. Looks like a good place to camp for the night.”
It felt strange, setting up camp under Xena’s watchful gaze. I knew we had a great deal to talk about, but I wanted to ensure that all mundane activities were complete before we began. I didn't want any interruptions.
Following Xena's instructions, I waded into the creek and quickly located two good-sized trout which I caught barehanded in accordance with her longstanding technique. I chuckled to myself as I remembered her piscine obsession, and that I'd never told her of my own preference for meat.
I cleaned and gutted the fish and wrapped them in leaves before leaving them to bake slowly by the side of the campfire. I laid out my bedroll and we sat snuggled together like old times. Well, like old times except for the weird feel of her against me, a faint hint of warmth.
We turned and gazed into each other's eyes. “Xena…”
The tears started to flow again. I choked them back and took a deep breath. Everyday for the last three years I'd pondered what I would say if we ever met again. Now it was hard to articulate my planned speech. In the end I abandoned it and focused on the most important question. “Why? Why did you do that? Leave me. Leave us? You said you never would, even in death!”
Xena looked down at the ground for a long time before looking up at me. Finally, she spoke. “I don't know. I thought… I don't know, I thought it would finally redeem me. Make up for all the evil I'd done. It sounds… stupid now.”
I said nothing, but continued to look at her. Xena sighed heavily before she went on. “I don't know what took hold of me. I do know that I've regretted it more than anything else I've done. And, believe me, I've got a lot of things to regret.
“Akemi… she convinced me I would save the 40,000 souls. That my permanent death was the only way to do it. But yet again… she lied.”
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. “She lied? What?”
A sad, slow nod. “She lied. Killing Yodoshi freed those souls. Me alive or dead… made no difference.”
I cradled my head in my hands. “Why. Why would she do this?”
“Maybe she wanted company. I never got to the bottom of it. Trust me, if she hadn't already been dead… I'd have killed her. Slowly. Painfully.”
I couldn't believe it. Xena’s sacrifice had been entirely pointless after all. I curled my fingers into fists and exhaled. “I knew I should gave dumped those fucking ashes.”
“Yeah, well.” Xena looked desolate. “Trust me, I've thought of nothing else these last few years.”
I turned to her again. “I tried to contact you. To speak with you. A sign, anything.”
“I know.” She placed her hand on my knee, creating the now familiar curious sensation. “I wanted to contact you desperately. But I couldn't. The gods that rule Jappa’s underworld would not allow it. Except for that one time…”
“On the boat?! That was really you?”
“Yeah, in the boat. The gods took pity on me and let me be with you one last time. After that…” her voice trailed off. “After that, nothing. I could watch you, sometimes. And I heard you when you spoke or thought of me. But that was it. And the only person I knew there was Akemi, and we weren't exactly talking. Lonely. And, eternity’s a long time.”
I sat quietly for a moment, taking all of that in. Then a horrifying realisation struck me. “You watched me?”
“Yes,” she said in a faintly amused tone. “Whenever I could.”
“So you know… you know about me? What I've done since you've been gone?”
“Hail Conqueror.” Xena grinned and gave a salute. “For the glory of Greece!”
“But… oh, gods. You must think me…” I shuddered. “I'm sorry, Xena. I'm a monster. I let you down.”
The spirit next to me drew closer and enveloped me in her arms. “No, Gabrielle! How can you think that? I'm so proud of you.”
Now I was utterly perplexed. I paused for a moment while I gathered my thoughts. “Xena… you say you've watched me. You must have seen me. Fighting. Killing.”
Xena gave a little smile. “Hate to break it to you Gabrielle, but you're the most powerful woman in the Known World and you had to fight to get that position.” Her spectral finger grazed my cheek. “You've united Greece and given its people stability. Security. Prosperity. And you've done it by fighting with honour. Protecting civilians. No torture of prisoners. Sure, you fought and killed. That's what happens in battle, and it's tough. But I told you a long time ago… sometimes there are no good choices…”
“Only lesser degrees of evil.” I completed the sentence. “But I made a choice. I didn't have to become this… Conqueror creature.”
Xena nodded agreement. “You didn't, and it was a choice. But if you hadn't… if you'd just kept wandering the countryside, helping out the odd village, fighting the odd warlord… how many more people would have died? Been enslaved?” She paused for a moment before continuing. “Something that we don't always appreciate – sometimes the best way to serve the greater good is to be the person that takes action, that makes tough decisions. It’s easier on your conscience to let someone else be that person… but it's also cowardly, in a way. People can suffer from your inaction just as much as they can from something you do. You know what I always said?”
I smiled, reading her mind. “Yeah. Act, don't react.”
“That's right. And the worst is not to act at all.”
We sat in silence for a while, as I felt a huge wave of relief course through me. I hadn't let Xena down. And maybe I'd made the right choice to follow Ares after all.
As if reading my thoughts, Xena smirked and added, “But, you and Ares getting so friendly… I admit I didn't see that one coming.”
We both burst out laughing, and it broke the seriousness of the discussion. The amusement was interrupted when I suddenly remembered that the fish were still baking. Cursing, I pulled my overdone dinner out from the embers. I pulled out some stale bread from my bags, along with some grapes that I had seen better days. Xena watched me chewing on the unappetising meal with a faint smile on her face.
“Guess this is one time when you're not sorry you can't eat anything,” I grumbled through a mouthful of trout. “Tomorrow, we’re hunting some proper game.”
There was so much more to talk about, but much of it was grim and I knew we had all of tomorrow to do it. Throwing the remains of my dinner in the dying embers of the fire, I laid down in my bedroll and signalled to Xena to join me. She duly did so, and I fell into a wonderful sleep such as I hadn't experienced in years. Simply knowing that the shade of my soulmate was lying next to me was enough to drive away all the fears and anxieties that the mission had planted in my thoughts. Against all the odds, I sensed that we might yet prevail.
Still enveloped in the embrace of Xena’s spirit, I woke just after dawn to a bright but chilly morning. Last night’s fire had burnt out hours ago. I toyed with the idea of starting another to heat some water for washing and tea but decided against it, opting for another hunk of the stale bread and a quick wash in the nearby creek. The cold of the water startled me and I decided to keep my ablutions as brief as possible.
Pulling a woollen over-shirt from the saddlebag, I turned to Xena. “I guess we’d better get going.”
Initially I thought it might be fun to try riding together, but the presence of the spirit unnerved the horse and he almost threw me. Xena offered to walk alongside while I rode but I wanted to be as close to her as possible and the trail was in any event growing ever more uneven and treacherous in places. So I put the unhappy horse on as long as rein as possible and we walked ahead of him.
It turned out that Xena had only a superficial knowledge of the background to her (temporary?) release from Jappa’s underworld. The powers that be there had told her little and she had not been privy to my chat with the Olympians a few nights earlier. She knew only that there was a very serious matter involving multiple pantheons, although she suspected the Twilight might feature somewhere. As we walked I filled her in on what Ares and Aphrodite had told me, as well as the horror of the vision I had experienced. Xena was of course well-used to Ares’ manipulations but I insisted that, in this case, he seemed to be telling the truth. Hearing that we had to waken a Titan having first fought our way through an army of cyclops seemed to alarm Xena far less than it did me, and she simply laughed and patted my arm, apparently secure in the belief that we could defeat these particular obstacles.
Talk of the Twilight and the threat from the One God led, inevitably, to Eve. This was always going to be a tricky discussion and I genuinely had no idea how Xena would react to the recent rather dramatic developments involving her child. To my surprise, when she brought up the subject it was in an understated way, but one that left no doubt as to her feelings on the matter.”
“Thank you for not killing Eve. She deserved it, though.”
I looked at her in shock. “What?”
“She deserved it. She is a monster. I created this, this – thing. As Livia she was bad, but this crazy religious version… so much worse.”
“It's not your fault.” I shook my head as we walked. “It's Callisto, Xena. She planted this – seed inside you. Just like Dahak did with me. With Hope. Only this time…”
“This time, they had angels and stories of love and peace rather than flames and demon children.” Xena finished the sentence for me. “Gods, I can't believe I was so naïve not to see it. Heaven and hell and flying around on clouds… all a big con trick to convince us what Eli said was true. All that crap about Callisto and forgiveness, redemption… all garbage to get what this god wanted. Control. Power.”
“They manipulated you by using the things they knew would work. This One God – or his minions – knew about your quest for redemption. They knew that you'd lost a child. You were perfect.”
“The perfect patsy,” Xena grumbled. “Look at us. How could we fall for the same crap twice in a couple of years?”
She had a point. We walked in silence for a few minutes. Eventually I spoke. “Yeah, you're right. We were stupid. But maternal instincts tend to crowd out common sense.” I reached out my hand to rub what would be her back, had she been corporeal. “But – this is our chance to make it right.”
Xena smiled in response and the atmosphere lifted a little. As we walked she told me more about her time in Jappa’s underworld, which was apparently dull and repetitive, with each day much the same as the last. She was able to observe some, although by no means all, of what transpired in the land of the living and of course she paid particular attention to Eve and to me. Her tracking of Eve’s activities had alerted her to her part in the atrocity at Antarae and the nightmares I'd suffered on the journey back to Corinth were her desperate attempts to let me know.
For my part I filled her in on those battles she hadn't watched, as well as day to day life at the court. I talked about my plans to expand into Persia and for Greece to grow strong enough to challenge Rome. Xena spoke admirably of my honorific, saying that back in her warlord days she'd always planned to name herself “Conqueror” once she’d taken Corinth. With mild embarrassment I admitted that it was Virgil who had coined the title.
Xena grinned. “It suits you!”
It was past noon and my stomach was protesting, so we stopped for a spot of hunting. I'd noticed some water birds by the creek and used my bow to make short work of a pair of them. I nailed each of them first time and, returning to the horse with my prize, it was hard to keep the smile off my face. “Not bad, huh?”
“Not bad. Better than that time with the deer, anyway.” Xena frowned. “But wouldn't it be easier just to use the chakram?”
I shook my head. “No. The chakram is too… too special to be used for something as mundane as dinner.”
“Huh! I don't remember that sort of reverence back when you were using it to cut up eel!”
We'd fallen so quickly back into our easy banter and laughter. I’d forgotten quite how it felt. My soul had craved our connection for so long. At that moment I vowed to myself that, whatever happened at the Cave of Nyx, we would never be parted again.
As we travelled, the landscape changed subtly. It became increasingly inhospitable, with the rocky trail bordered by angry, vicious, spiky vegetation. There was minimal shelter to be found. The only obvious fauna was the plethora of mountain goats who peered at us from behind boulders and from above on narrow rocky outcrops. After a time the absence of birdsong became apparent.
“Nice place,” said Xena drily. “Any human life anywhere nearby?”
“We can't be far from Nyx, now.” I stopped and looked around. “The locals avoid the area apparently. They think it's cursed. Look…” I pointed towards a break in the foliage and a small clearing which looked ideal to set up camp. “Let's stop here for the night. We’re making great time. I think tomorrow might be our big day and we’re going to need all our strength for that.”
Given that she no longer needed sleep or food the question of whether or not we stopped to rest was probably moot for Xena, but she readily agreed and a short while later we sat by a newly built campfire while I plucked the fowl I'd shot earlier.
Skewering the birds on a makeshift spit, I turned to Xena and asked the question that was gnawing away at me. “What do you think happens tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow, you defeat an army of cyclops along with this hecaton thing, then we both go and wake up Kronos and get him to fix everything?”
“Do you really think he’ll listen to us, even if by some miracle we get to him in one piece? Fix the Twilight?”
“Fix everything.” The spirit next to me stretched out and turned on one side, facing me. “Gabrielle, if we pull this off, I'm not going to settle for saving the world. He's got to save us too.” She smiled. “I'm not leaving you ever again.”
Xena's words were exactly what I needed to hear, and after dinner I fell into a deep and contented sleep, despite the enormity of the day ahead.
I woke early the next morning and after washing and relieving myself I removed the horse’s tack and untethered him. Seeing Xena’s quizzical look, I shrugged. “We might not make it back. No sense him dying up here as well.” With that I yelled and gave him a slap, before watching as the beast disappeared back down the trail. “He’ll make it back to civilisation eventually.”
Xena pursed her lips. “What if we succeed. How will you get back without a ride?”
I snorted. “If we can convince Kronos to reverse the Twilight, I think we might be able to talk him into arranging us a lift home.”
We started walking. I'd left all but my weapons and some essential supplies behind at the camp. I still felt a little laden down, but I knew we didn't have far to go. After an hour or so we turned a corner and I saw it. A narrow pass which widened into a flat, rocky area and behind that the base of a mountain range. At the foot of the mountain immediately opposite us, according to Ares and his sister, was the entrance to the Cave of Nyx. I took a deep breath. “Well, here we are.” I strained my eyes to see if I could see cyclops or any other legendary beings, but nothing of that nature was visible from where we stood.
Xena had a concerned expression on her face. “Gabrielle… if there are any – things – guarding that cave I can't help you fight them. I can't touch a sword, let alone swing it in battle. Driving me crazy.”
“You can help.” I smiled. “You can do what you do best. Teach me. Advise me. Watch my back.”
A soft sigh of relief. “That I can do.”
We began our trek through the pass when suddenly I became aware of something I hadn't felt since Jappa. The tattoo on my back had begun to feel slightly warmer than the rest of me. I tried to ignore the sensation as we proceeded on through the pass but the warmth continued to grow to the point of mild discomfort. I wondered whether to mention it, but decided not to. Perhaps it was all in my mind. I picked up the pace a little.
I heard them first. A soft beating, almost imperceptible at first but growing more insistent with each beat. “Xena,” I began, “Do you hear…?”
“Yes,” she whispered and made a hushing sound before signalling for us to seek cover in a nearby clump of trees.
It was too late for this, of course. My heart sank as I saw Michael, accompanied by perhaps forty other angels, flying towards us. “Guess they saw through our cover after all.” I grimaced and unhooked the chakram before letting it fly towards our pursuers.
The weapon bounced and ricocheted off the walls of the pass before striking three of the angels and returning to my hand. Xena whispered instructions and I tried a different angle, this time hitting five of our pursuers. However while the chakram slowed them and even appeared to cause them pain, the beings kept coming. In desperation I called out to Ares and Aphrodite, but in typical fashion they failed to answer. I began to sprint towards the far end of the pass but I knew there was no way I could hope to outrun them.
My foot caught a tree root and I found myself sprawled on the ground. In seconds, I knew, they'd be on me and while I intended to go out swinging, realistically my life expectancy was probably measured in minutes. Intense disappointment mingled with a sense of relief that at least I'd meet my end next to my soulmate. I pulled myself onto all fours and was about to leap up and face Michael and his platoon with my blade drawn, when suddenly the warmth of my tattoo transformed into a burning sensation. A split second later I was aware of a blinding flash of light and a huge pulse of energy, the impact of which forced me back down to the ground.
“Gabrielle. Gabrielle, get up.” Xena’s voice had taken on an air of urgency and her incorporeal hands pulled, uselessly, at my arms. “Come on. We've got to keep going.”
Groggily, I got to my feet and started trotting towards my goal. I sneaked a look back and saw the angels, lying apparently motionless in a tangled heap of limbs and wings. “Gods,” I croaked. “Guess it works on them as well.”
“I think they're down, not out. We have to keep going.”
I picked up the pace a little and after a short while we reached the end of the pass. I paused to catch my breath and removed my over-shirt, now ruined by the mystical energy which had exploded from my tattoo. My halter top, surprisingly but thankfully, remained intact. I surveyed the landscape ahead. A narrow and rocky path led down to an open area in front of the mountain which housed the Cave of Nyx.
From where we stood I could see that this open area was home to a settlement. A settlement of cyclops. There were rudimentary huts dotted around and a handful of cooking fires on which indeterminate but large joints of meat were cooking. I glanced at Xena. “Let's hope it's just those mountain goats.”
“Mmm.” I could see her mind ticking over as she assessed the situation. Finally, she spoke. “I count thirty. There may be more in the huts.”
Thirty. I reached into my shoulder bag and pulled out a water skin, before drinking deeply from it. “Do you reckon they've been here since Kronos was imprisoned?”
“Probably.” Xena shook her head. “Long time to hang around here.”
I stowed the water skin. “We can't fight thirty of them. And I don't think we can sneak past either.”
Xena said nothing for a moment and then leaned in to whisper in my ear. “Can you hear that?”
“What?” I strained to listen and then groaned. “Ah, crap. It's Michael and his posse, isn't it? They've woken up.” I cursed. “Ares’ balls. What now?”
To my annoyance, Xena had a grin on her face. I opened my mouth to speak but she hushed me. “Gabrielle. Think back to the start of our travels together. All those years ago. What did I tell you about getting out of sticky situations without fighting?”
Ah, a teachable moment. I almost laughed, until it hit me. “Get them to fight each other.”
“You're a genius.” I gave the ghost as close to a hug as was possible, and then unhooked the chakram.
“We need to time it right,” she murmured as we made our way towards the cyclops, settling eventually behind a large boulder. Hidden behind the rock, we waited in silence until the beat of the wings was almost upon us. Seeing the first angels emerge from the pass, I flicked the chakram so that it ricocheted loudly against several rocks and structures within the cyclops village. By the time the circular weapon had returned to my hand, agitated one-eyed creatures were already making their way to what appeared to them to be the source of the disruption. The angels, predictably, unsheathed their own weapons and the cyclops charged them, bellowing incoherent expressions of fury.
We remained hidden for a few moments more, by which time the melee was in full swing. Cautiously, we moved out from our hiding place, but we need not have worried. Both sides were entirely absorbed in the destruction of the other. Turning away from the carnage, we made our way through the cyclops settlement and towards the cave entrance, staying behind cover when we could in case we were spotted in anyone's peripheral vision.
Immediately before the cave entrance, the ground dipped a little and the resultant hollow, surrounded as it was by scrub and boulders, was virtually invisible until we were almost upon it. I moved forward gingerly before letting out a cry of shock. Sitting or lying – it was difficult to tell - in the hollow was the strangest creature I had ever seen. It was perhaps twice the length of a man but four or five times the girth. In the centre of its body was a large and vaguely human head on a thick neck the length of a forearm. Smaller and less well developed heads sprouted from elsewhere on its torso. The most startling aspect, however, was the multiple hands which seemed to cover the creature’s surface – some at the end of arms of varying length and others attached directly to the body. Due to the angle of repose, its legs were not fully visible.
Xena inclined her head towards the strange sight. “I guess that's your hecatonchires.”
I nodded, unable to speak for a moment. We were still outside of the creature’s line of sight. Dropping my voice, I leaned in to her to speak. “To get to the cave entrance we’ve got to go through this thing.”
She nodded. “It looks tough. But maybe you can pick it off from a distance with the chakram.”
“That skin looks as tough as a gorgon’s hide! And we don't know how fast it can move.”
“True. But there might be another way.” She fixed me with a knowing look. “You know, Gabrielle, you don't always have to fight…”
“You can talk your way out of it.” I finished the thought. “Of course. That's what I used to do best, before I started with the whole killing and conquering thing.”
“There's a time for that too. A time to conquer and a time to talk. Let's try talking first.”
I edged forward and cleared my throat loudly to attract the creature’s attention. It looked up and I had the strange sensation of its multiple heads appraising me. I ignored this and forced a smile.
“What – do – you – want,” croaked the hecatonchires. It spoke slowly and with a weirdly metallic timbre.
“I am here to see Kronos.”
“No!” This somewhere between a rasp and a scream. “No one passes! Sacred - duty to defend – cave. Zeus…”
“Zeus is dead, along with most of the Olympians.”
“Dead…?” The creature looked forlorn, lost. I felt a pang of sympathy for it.
“The two survivors have sent us here. To wake Kronos and change the past. Bring their family back before a new god kills them. And everyone else.”
The hecatonchires continued to sit/lie almost motionless and in silence. Its main face was contorted into an expression which might have been sorrow or confusion. It was impossible to tell. Eventually this face turned towards us and the creature spoke. “Kronos will awaken? What… happens…my vigil…”
I decided to take a chance. “You have served Zeus well. Now, all that remains is for him to be brought back. When Kronos wakes you'll be released from your vigil.”
There was another moment of silence and then to my amazement the creature used its many hands to gesture towards the cave entrance, now clearly visible at the base of the mountain. “I know… you speak the truth, mortal. Go. You may pass. Zeus… must return.”
I could scarcely believe our luck, but I was not going to look this particular gift horse in the mouth. Xena and I exchanged looks before I thanked the hecatonchires, bowed deeply and hurried past towards our final hurdle.
The mouth of the cave was small and narrow. Inside, it opened into a roughly circular space before narrowing again into a passageway leading deeper into the inside of the mountain. It was dark inside and I was delighted to see a torch mounted in a sconce a short way past the entrance. Digging into my bag for a flint, I looked up in surprise as the torch burst into flame spontaneously as I approached. I gave a silent thanks to the Olympian architects of the tomb before removing the torch from its bracket and gesturing to the passageway. “Here goes.”
“Here goes.” Xena shrugged her shoulders but was unable to hide the anxiety on her face. “Take care. The place could be trapped.”
It could indeed be trapped. I exhaled heavily. “We’d better tread carefully then.”
With extreme caution, we inched our way down the passageway. The flickering light from the torch showed smooth walls and an even floor, with no sign of decoration of any sort. It was chilly in the cave, and I regretted losing my over shirt.
After a few minutes exploration revealed no nasty surprises, we relaxed a little and picked up the pace. I had no idea if the angels could enter the cave or not, but the cyclops wouldn't hold them off forever and I was keen to get to Kronos before they did.
We proceeded in companionable silence for perhaps ten minutes more when I noticed the passageway widening and a faint light visible ahead. I stopped and turned to Xena. “Do you think this is…”
“I think it must be.” She touched my arm. “Wait here. I'm going to scout ahead.”
She was gone only for a very brief time, but a powerful sense of loneliness grabbed me and I found myself breathing very deeply to remain calm. What would happen if even her shade was to vanish? I couldn't bear to think of it and I screwed my eyes tightly shut, all the while wondering what my subjects would think of the mighty Conqueror acting like a scared little girl.
Thankfully, I sensed Xena’s return and shook myself to put my fears to the back of my mind. “Well?” I asked, keeping my voice even.
“Up ahead. You need to see it.”
Nodding, I gripped the torch tightly and made my way towards the light ahead. On reaching the end of the passageway, I gasped audibly.
The tunnel opened up into an impossibly vast chamber decorated with frescos, statues, and all sorts of decorative metalwork, apparently cast in solid gold and silver. A large hole in the ceiling, many cubits up, allowed sunlight to enter. In the centre of the room was a huge catafalque, itself decorated with scenes of battle which, would I suspected tell the tale of the Titanomachy. Lying upon the platform was an enormous figure in an apparently peaceful repose, huge hands clacked on his belly.
“Kronos,” I breathed as I gazed on the sight. “What do you think we do now? How do we wake him?”
“Tickle his feet?” Xena gave a wicked chuckle.
I glared at her with mock ferocity and shook my head. “This is serious!”
“I know.” She smiled. “Just approach him. See what happens.”
My walk towards the sleeping Titan was probably the slowest minute of my life, but with Xena at my side I felt confident enough to continue. On reaching our destination I paused, unsure of my next move, but I needn't have worried. Kronos began to stir as if aware on some level of our presence, before letting out an incoherent groan and stretching out an arm.
I jumped back in alarm but the Titan appeared merely to be going through the standard actions of anyone waking from a long sleep. Presently he opened his eyes and swung his huge legs over the side of the platform. On observing us, he let out a throaty, mirthless laugh before speaking.
“Mortal. What brings you here to the tomb of the King of the Titans? And you,” here he turned to Xena, “What are you? A ghost?”
“Lord Kronos,” I announced before dropping to one knee and bowing my head. “Lord Kronos. We come here on behalf of the gods and the people of the world to beg your favour.”
“The gods?” The Titan rolled his head from side to side as if removing a crick in his neck. “My children? Who killed my kin and trapped me in here?”
“Your children are mostly dead.” I stood up, deciding that continuing to kneel would not, after all, improve my negotiating position. “That's why we’re here.”
A clearly baffled Titan pushed a huge hand through the close-cropped curls on his head. “Dead?”
“Dead by my hand.” Xena stepped forward. “Forgive me. I was tricked into it.”
Kronos had begun to pace the room, shaking his head. “I don't understand any of this. A ghost killed my children? How can this be?”
“I wasn't a ghost at this stage. I was a mortal. Another god – not from your family – gave me the power to kill gods. My own daughter was threatened by the Olympians and… I did what I thought I had to to protect her. But it turned out it was all based on a lie. This god simply wanted power. He manipulates others to destroy his rivals. He manipulated me and the result was the Twilight of the Gods.”
I took up the story. “Followers of this god… or one very like him… will one day destroy the world. The Olympians could have stopped this. But… most of them are gone.” I took a deep breath. “Lord Kronos. We beg you to use your powers to change time. Please, reverse the Twilight.”
The Titan stood still for what felt like an eternity, but which was in reality probably less than a minute. Eventually, he spoke. “My children imprisoned me here. They slaughtered the other Titans. Why should I help them? Perhaps it is simply this new god’s time. Theirs is over. As was mine, long ago.”
“Lord Kronos.” I decided to try a different tack. “If the bards are truthful, you tried to eat your children. That is what began the war between the Titans and the Olympians.”
Kronos’ yell and the subsequent echoes made me jump, and Xena and I looked around anxiously in case the noise triggered a rock fall. To my relief the interior of the cave appeared intact. I returned my attention to the Titan, who seemed in genuine distress. “My Lord…”
“You don't understand! It was a prophecy! If I didn’t stop Zeus and the others, the Titans would be destroyed!”
“And the prophecy came true.” Xena spoke softly, but with conviction. “But only because you acted on it. And in our time, the Olympians did the same thing for the same reason. And now, they too have been destroyed.”
Kronos had returned to sit on his former resting place and he stayed there, silent, for a few moments. After a while he reached out a hand towards Xena and me and then sat still, with only his eyelids flickering as if in a trance. Xena and I glanced at each other before agreeing, wordlessly, to remain where we were and let this play out.
The Titan let out a deep sigh and his eyes opened. “I have seen your pasts. And you –“ Here he pointed at me “Your vision of the future.” He shook his head. “Mortal, and… spirit. You speak the truth.”
I decided to remain prudently silent and restrict myself to a small nod to acknowledge his words.
Kronos spoke again, this time to me alone. “The threat from this god – from this belief in only one deity – is real. You could simply have left your palace and saved your own skin. But instead you risked your life to try to prevent something that may happen centuries after your own death. You are a true hero, mortal. My family chose their champion well.”
He turned to Xena. “Spirit. You have a dark past. I can see it all. But… you overcame it. You have guided your friend well in life and on her quest. And I sense that your death… and exile to a foreign afterlife… was not meant to be.” Addressing us both, Kronos continued. “Your love, your bond… the strength of it is overwhelming.”
Xena spoke up. “Great Titan. We cannot be apart. Our souls are joined.”
“I understand.” Kronos stood and stretched out his arms. “I will grant your request.”
“You’ll reverse the Twilight?” I couldn't stop myself, or keep the air of disbelief from my voice.
“Not exactly,” Kronos boomed, with a hint of something that might even be amusement. “That's not quite how it works. I will give you both the chance to make sure the Twilight never happens. You can fix it. Together.”
With that the Titan raised his arms high and threw back his head. Suddenly he was surrounded by energy of some sort which crackled and sparked around him. I felt a blast of what felt like an icy wind around me and I reached for Xena and the comfort that even her ghostly form brought me.
Wrapped in each other's arms, we watched the swirling energy patterns around Kronos grow brighter and more urgent, while at the same time an unearthly howling began to grow up around us. The sound and light became almost unbearable when suddenly they cut out and we were plunged into nothingness.
Slowly, gradually, I became aware of the world around me. Dim light. A chill in the air. The smell of pine. I blinked until my surroundings swam into view and gasped as I realised where and when I was.
When Kronos said he would give us the chance to stop the Twilight happening, I had expected we would find ourselves in Rome, just before Xena was struck with the chakram. Or perhaps a little earlier. At a time when we could have dismissed Eli as the fool that he was and avoided the Ides of March, and Eve’s conception, entirely. Another possibility, and one which I dreaded, was that we would awake to find ourselves nailed to the crosses, but that this time we’d be cut down in time and survive, without any need to cross into the One God’s afterlife.
But when my senses cleared there could be no doubt. The damp and cold belonged to only one place we had visited. We were in Britannia.
Britannia. Of course. Where all of this started. I shook my head in an attempt to clear my thoughts, and chuckled to myself at how strange my long hair felt. I glanced down at my body. Fit and healthy, of course, but without the strength and muscularity that I had developed after our sojourn in the ice cave.
Someone was speaking to me. I shook my head again and turned in the direction of the voice before recoiling in horror. It was Khrafstar.
“Gabrielle, are you alright? I was just telling you more about our One God when you went a little strange. Are you feeling unwell?”
I took a step backwards. “Stay – away – from – me.”
“What? Gabrielle…” Khrafstar moved closer and took hold of my elbow. “I was just…”
Quick as a flash, I brought up my staff and jabbed him hard in the belly. He doubled over in pain and I took the opportunity to turn away and sprint as fast as I could to the large tent in the centre of the Britons’ camp, which I knew housed the army’s command centre. Rushing through the flap I saw Xena standing next to Boadicea, who was speaking animatedly and pointing at a map.
Xena. Real. Alive. I dropped my staff and launched myself at her, squealing with delight. She caught me easily as I wrapped my legs around her waist and buried my head in her shoulder. After a few seconds I turned my face and initiated the sweetest, most intense kiss of my life. Of any of the lives I've lived.
We stayed like this for I don't know how long, ignoring the baffled looks from the warriors in the tent. Eventually Boadicea’s loudthroat clearing led us, reluctantly, to break apart. Xena put me down gently before taking my hand, which she gripped tightly. I glanced up and saw that she had the same silly grin on her face that I knew I also sported.
“Ladies.” Boadicea’s clipped tones interrupted my thoughts. “Nice to see you so… pleased to see each other. But, at the risk of spoiling your fun, we've got a battle to win here.”
“Absolutely.” Xena placed her free hand on the table bearing the map and leaned over it, apparently deep in thought. After a while she spoke. “Right. We position a hundred of your warriors here, just beyond this hill. Then we need a small raiding party to create a distraction…” She paused and turned to me. “Gabrielle. What would you suggest?”
Boadicea’s expression was priceless, but she managed to keep her mouth shut while I studied the plan. I noticed a second, smaller Roman outpost nestled in hills to the South and suggested that a detachment was sent to block the main route to it in order to prevent men and supplies being sent to relieve the main garrison. Nods of agreement went round the room and I sensed Boadicea relax. I squeezed Xena’s hand and smiled as she squeezed back.
The planning went on well into the evening, and we were about to break for some refreshments when a guard entered the tent with the news that the Romans had captured a follower of the local cult of the One God. Xena nodded gravely, but made no suggestion of a rescue, instead calling on the assembled crowd to eat and drink before resting to conserve their strength for the battle to come.
Grabbing a hunk of bread and a mug of mead, I took a seat next to Xena by the large campfire. For a while we didn't speak. We didn't need to. We gazed at each other while we ate and drank, secure in the knowledge that, alive or dead, we would never be parted again. When it came time to sleep, we snuggled together under some furs in the main tent. Dozens of others slept nearby. I would have preferred somewhere more private – it had been a long time since we had lain together – but somehow we both managed to put our more lustful thoughts to the backs of our minds and contented ourselves with the simple intimacy of enjoying the warmth and listening to the other’s heartbeat.
The next morning, things panned out in a familiar way. On the hill opposite Caesar had a cross raised with Khrafstar tied to it, and his troops yelled out taunts to the assembled Britons. No rescue party this time of course, but to my surprise Xena had acquired a crossbow from somewhere and I watched as she shot a bolt solidly into the centre of Khrafstar’s chest. She turned away as his body hung, lifeless on the cross before saying, loudly “No one deserves to die like that.” As cheers erupted she muttered so that only I could hear, “Not even him.”
There was no time to mourn Khrafstar, even if I had been so inclined, because battle commenced shortly afterwards with a surprise attack by Boadicea’s forces on Caesar’s ballista camp. The rest of the day, and indeed the following one, was a whirlwind of activity - fighters coming and going from the battlefield; support staff running to and fro with weapons and supplies; a constant smell of blood and burning and a cacophony of noise. Xena seemed everywhere at once – directing operations, defending the camp, yelling instructions, leading attack parties. For my part I ran the makeshift infirmary and provided the odd bit of strategic input. If I had thought about the situation logically, I probably should have been very afraid – we were after all taking on the greatest military force in the Known World. But I never had any doubt that Xena would prevail, and in truth I felt we were invincible.
Perhaps I was foolish and drunk with hubris following our success with Kronos, or maybe the gods were watching over us and we were never in danger. In any event, the battle ended with a Roman rout. Caesar himself was dead, slain by an arrow from an anonymous Briton’s bow. The surviving legionaries, stripped of their armour and weapons, headed for the coast. Xena had vetoed Boadicea’s original plan to slaughter every last Roman, saying that such a glorious victory should not be tainted with the blood of unarmed prisoners, and that in any case soldiers left alive to tell of the fearsome warriors of Britannia would minimise the risk of anyone else attempting an invasion.
As we celebrated the victory, Xena was asked to name her reward. She asked only that the temple of Khrafstar’s cult be destroyed. Boadicea shrugged her shoulders at the odd request, but readily agreed to it and a detachment of warriors was sent out the next morning to reduce the temple to rubble.
We stayed with Boadicea and her people for a few more days to allow us to keep caring for the wounded. Once we were satisfied that we had done all we reasonably could, we said our goodbyes and began the trek to the port.
A short way down the road a familiar blue light and a popping sound as a pair of Olympians materialised in front of us. There was a brief moment of silence before Ares’ broke into a huge grin and Aphrodite gave a little squeak before enveloping me in a bone-crushing hug.
“You guys,” gasped Aphrodite after I finally wriggled out of her grasp. “You guys were awesome! You did it! Everything is back to how it should be!”
“Never doubted you for a second.” Ares had given Xena a friendly hug and accepted a chaste kiss and was now smirking at me. “I chose my champions well!”
Xena rested her arm casually on my shoulder and surveyed the gods in front of her. “It's good to be back. How's the family?”
“All present and correct. Not to mention, very relieved.” Areas shook his head. “You won't be seeing any problems from them, trust me. And they'll make sure any One God cults don't get off the ground.”
A thought suddenly occurred to me. “What about Kronos?”
Aphrodite slapped me gently on the arm. “Oh, that was a load of father-son drama alright! But it's all good. He's got a gig overseeing the Elysian Fields.”
“That's great.” Relief washed over me. Kronos had done the right thing and saved the Olympians, not to mention the human race. It would have been terrible if Zeus had not recognised that, but knowing the gods it wouldn't have surprised me. Another thought occurred. “And… the hecatonchires?” I hated the thought of him left lying in that desolate place, his vigil at an end but with nothing to take its place.
“Relax, Gabrielle. He's in the Fields as well. And I took the liberty of changing him a little.” ‘Dite put her hands on her hips and pouted slightly.
“I made him into a handsome young man! And trust me, he is HOT.”
“Unbelievable.” I smiled and wrapped my arm round Xena’s waist. “Well, I'm glad we helped save the world. But if you'll excuse us, we have a boat to catch.”
“Have a good trip. And – knowing what you do now, if either or both of you fancies being my champion and ruling the Known World – just give me a call.” Ares winked. “There's a vacancy in Rome now, after all.”
Before we could respond to Ares’ offer, Aphrodite gave a little wave and both deities vanished. We looked at each other and burst out laughing, before settling into a steady pace on the way to our next adventure.
We sat together on a bench outside a tavern by the docks. Our ship would sail with the tide, and we were idling away the hours before departure with a drink or four. I was wrapped in a fur overcoat which provided suitable protection from Britannia’s climate, and as I watched my breath mist in front of me I thought how glad I was that we were heading for the warmth of the Aegean.
I ran a hand through my newly shorn locks. A few days with long hair had reminded me what a hassle it was when travelling and why I'd never grown it again after the incident in India. I turned to Xena. “When we get back to Greece, we need to visit a decent weaponsmith.”
“Hmm?” Xeba took a long swallow from her mug. “There's a really good one in Corinth. We could try him.”
“Reckon he could make me a katana?”
“I'm sure he could, but it wouldn't be as good as the one from Jappa.” Xena looked serious. “Are you sure about this, Gabrielle? We've been given a second chance. We don't need to follow the exact same path this time.”
“I'm sure.” I leaned back against the wall of the tavern. “Xena, we need to have each other's backs. I need to be able to defend you, protect you. We're partners.”
Xena frowned. “Your blood innocence…”
I shrugged. “Really? I was thinking about that, and all the fights I'd been in long before Meridian. How many heads did I bust with my staff? I'm not stupid. Some of them wouldn't have woken up.” I shook my head. “I'm a warrior, Xena. It took me a long time to realise it, but that's what I am. And warriors fight, and sometimes kill.”
“Is this really what you want…?”
I covered her hand with mine. “Yes. If it's with you.”
She smiled her understanding, and we sat for a little while looking at the boats. I rested my head on her shoulder. “So, what next? I guess we should be expecting a Chinese delegation shortly after we get back?”
“Mmm.” Xena ruffled my hair. “Maybe. Who knows if things will happen when they did before? We've changed time, after all.”
“Well, I'm coming with you this time. Properly, not through some sneaky deal with Ares.”
“You will?” I saw concern in her eyes.
“Yes. If we can find a way to bring Ming Tien down peacefully, we will. If we can't… I'll help you kill him.”
Xena took a deep breath and nodded almost imperceptibly. “Any other surprises?”
“Well… I was thinking about what Ares said…”
“Gabrielle…” A warning note in her voice.
“I'm just saying we shouldn't dismiss it out of hand. We could rule Greece together.”
“Well. Ask me again a couple of months. For now,” Xena stood up and stretched, “We're going to go back home and see all those people we thought we'd lost. Mother. Solan. Your folks. Hercules. Ephiny. Even Joxer!”
“Now you're talking.” I thought how much better I felt, just knowing that the people I loved were still with us. And knowing that Hope had never existed. I wondered if Xena felt the same way about Eve.
“Looks like the boat’s ready. Come on.”
We headed down the jetty, arms around each other. “Hey Xena,” I said. “Reckon I could get a tattoo in Corinth?”
“Yeah, I know a guy that does them. It won't have magical powers, though.”
“What about a pair of sais?”
“Can you promise me one thing?”
“Whatever we do, please let's stay away from Jappa.”
Xena jumped on board the ship and offered me her hand. “You got it.”
I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her cheek. Leaning into me, she whispered, “Even in death, Gabrielle, I will never leave you. And this time I mean it.”
I knew it was true. We had saved the world and we'd also saved our souls. Sighing happily, I took her hand and led her to our cabin below decks. “Come on. It’s many days back to Greece. And we've got a lot of catching up to do.”
“By your will, Conqueror.”
“Oh, yes. I think tonight might be my time to conquer.”