I thank Ren Pic and all the initials in NZ for letting me use Xena and Gabrielle. I promise not to send them on any trips to India or mention any Indian dieties in this story.
There is very little violence in this story. There is some sex between Xena and Gabrielle. They are mates however so Jerry Falwell can relax and go back to watching the teletubbies to make sure they behave.
Do I want feedback on this story? Yes please. I have part two written in my head but if everyone hates part one I won't write part two. I'll just sulk for awhile and then write something else. So when you finish please tell me what you thought of the story and cast your vote on whether you want to find out what happens to our heroes in Ashes On The Wind. A little encouragement goes a long way on those lonely nights in front of the PC when your fingers ache and your carpel tunnel is acting up. I can be reached at email@example.com
So, without further ado, this story happens about a year after Dreams Lost and Found, I hope you enjoy.
THE WILL OF THE LION
By Jim Kuntz
"We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top. In our youths our hearts were touched with fire." Oliver Wendell Holmes, Civil War Veteran.
Ephiny cupped both hands up over her eyes to shade them from the low hanging afternoon sun. The vista before her was a plain of gently rolling earth covered by knee high grass browning with the dry fall weather. Small clumps of trees, spruce, oak and maple, autumn colors fully developed and resplendant, gold, red, and orange, were scattered across the plain as if Zeus had sown the land with trees the way a farmer sowed his field, randomly flinging the seeds by chance from his hand as he walked. From her elevated position on the ridge Ephiny's view extended for ten leagues down the dusty brown road before her till it disappeared over the horizon. Her eyes straining against the dazzle of the sun, she could see a single rider coming down the road, in the distance a rising trail of dust marked the approach of more riders several leagues behind the first.
It was warm for so late in the fall. The Amazon Princess was still wearing her light summer clothes, with a bare midriff and legs. But around her shins were bronze grieves. A highly polished bronze breastplate, tied by leather straps around her waist and over her shoulders, covered her chest and stomach. A golden bronze helmet with cheek guards that came down to the bottom of her jaw line and a horse hair plume dyed green on the crest was pulled down over her head, her blonde floppy locks cut almost entirely off so the helm would fit comfortably.
The Amazon stood patiently and waited till she could positively identify the lone rider as Keola, riding at a gallop. Ephiny turned to a female warrior, also in full armour, standing two steps behind her right shoulder.
"Mount the patrol and bring up my horse." the Princess commanded quietly.
Instantly the warrior turned and began bellowing orders. Nine Amazons, paired in couplets one behind the other, smartly mounted. The tenth Amazon came up and handed the Princess the reins of her black stallion then ran back and mounted beside her partner.
"Well Daria," Ephiny said, "let's go out and see what Keola has to tell us."
The Amazon Princess and her Lt. mounted at the same time and Daria pulled her rust colored mare up beside Ephiny's black.
"Patrol forward." the Princess commanded.
Daria raised her arm and pumped it once. With disciplined precision all twelve horses moved forward as one. As the Amazon cavalry reached the bottom of the long, gently sloping ridge Keola came pounding up. Ephiny brought the patrol to a halt with a raised arm. The Amazon scout turned her horse and fell in beside her commander.
"Report." the Princess said quietly.
Keola settled into her saddle and took a deep breath.
"Five riders, coming at a steady canter." she said. "Looks like an officer and four escorts. All well armed in full armour. Not a civilian party of diplomats. I saw no sign of our ambassadors. They're about two leagues behind me."
Ephiny looked down the road at the thin trail of dust kicked up into the hot, still air by the approaching horsemen.
"Well done Keola." she said without looking at her scout. "Go on back. The rest of the cavalry is camped on the other side of the ridge. Give your horse water and a good feed. And both of you get some rest. I may need you again soon."
"We'll be ready Princess," Keola answered with an enthusiastic grin, "whenever, wherever." She bowed slightly from the waist. "With your permission?"
Keola pulled her bay pony's head around and took off at a gallop past the troop, smiling and waving at the troopers till she disappeared in a cloud of dust up the ridge. Daria watched her go then turned to her commander.
"She's a little too cheeky for my taste Princess" the Lt. said with narrow eyes. " She seems to think this is some grand adventure created just for her amusement."
"I know. She's too dumb to be afraid and too smart to lose at this game she's playing. That's why she's the perfect scout. She enjoys throwing the bones with her neck on the line. I'll put up with a lot not to lose an asset like her."
The Princess' smile disappeared. She looked at her Lt..
" Now let's go meet this delegation of warriors and see what's what" she said. "I don't want them getting close enough to the ridge to see anything."
Daria nodded and pumped her arm. The patrol started forward.
When the two parties were a hundred and fifty yards apart the little group of warriors halted at the command of the officer out front, the tall red plume rising from the top of his helmet clearly marking his rank. Ephiny put her hand up and the Amazons halted as well. The two leaders eyed each other silently for a few moments. Ephiny noticed a large gray sack dangled down in front of the officers leg, tied by a short rope to his saddlehorn. The sack had a large black stain that covered the bottom. Suddenly the man yanked a dagger from his belt and cut the rope. The sack fell with a heavy, hollow thump to the ground. Immediately the officer turned his horse and took off down the road at a gallop, snapping his reins hard on his mounts flanks. His escort scrambled to catch up.
Ephiny watched them go, motionless, while Daria eyed her commander intently, ready to instantly respond to an order.
"Wait here." Ephiny said finally.
Daria started to say something about the Princess should not go anywhere unescorted but thought better of it. Ephiny chucked her reins and soon she was up to the sack. Dismounting she knelt down, holding her reins in one hand and using the other to pry open the sack enough to peer inside. The patrol watched as their commander slowly stood up and turned her back to them. They saw her hand come up to her face like she was rubbing her eyes. Suddenly she turned and with a decisive motion of her arm she signaled Daria to join her. The Lt. sank her heels into her rust and was quickly up to her commander. She jumped down and presented herself for orders. Ephiny looked down at the sack and Daria followed her gaze. The Lt. let out a long, pained sigh of air. The sack held two heads. One was face down showing only a shock of brown hair done up in a bun. The face was visible on the other. Old Lentilia, Chief of Farsala and a trusted advisor to Queens for thirty years. Her eyes and mouth were open and black dried blood was smeared on her cheeks and chin. Daria knew the other head could only belong to Willa, a just elected junior member of the Queen's Council who had volunteered to accompany Lentilia on her mission to bring the final answer of the Amazon Nation to the Carthaginian demands.
Daria looked away and her cheeks reddened with fury.
"Daria!" Ephiny said sharply.
The Lt. looked at her commander with fierce, hate filled eyes, then came to attention.
"These are your orders." Ephiny said evenly. "You will proceed immediatly to Pyra and report to the Queen and the Warleader what has happened. You will then find the Chief Priestess and escort her personally to our camp on the ridge to take charge of the remains. You will speak to absolutely no one but the Queen, Warleader and Chief Priestess. Am I understood?"
Ephiny nodded. "Go."
The Lt. walked to her horse and started to mount.
"Daria!" Ephiny said again sharply. The tall, athletic, raven haired Amazon, barely twenty four, looked back at the princess.
"Wipe that look off your face Lt.." Ephiny said sternly, staring at her protege. "The whole point of speaking only to the Queen and Warleader is to give them a chance to react and make plans before the entire nation knows. If you ride into Pyra with that face the whole Amazon valley will know something bad has happened before you even get off your horse."
Ephiny's look softened a little.
"If you are to command warriors Daria, you must first command yourself. If I thought my hair knew what my brain was thinking I'd shave it off. Your warriors must only see what you want them to see. If you're not in control of yourself Lt. I'll send someone who is."
The young Amazon took a deep breath, then another. She forced the rage down, down and out of her face. She mounted.
"I'll be back by dark Princess" she said quietly and she turned her horse and took off at a gallop.
The spring wind was brisk and chilly as it raced among the huts and down the muddy unpaved street that led to the center of Amazon government. Willa saw a woman emerge from a large hut and start down the road. She hurried over and touched her shoulder. The woman turned.
"Chief Lentilia, what a pleasure to see you" Willa said.
Willa offered her arm and the old Chief took it and squeezed it warmly. Lentilia was past her sixtieth year, yet still tall and erect. Her long dark hair was liberally sprinkled with gray and tied back in ponytail that extended halfway down her back. There were deep lines around her light brown eyes and a little sag of skin under her chin but her movements were decisive and vigorous and the smile she greeted her new colleague with radiated friendly acceptance and a sharp intelligence.
"What a pleasure to see you Willa" Lentilia said as she walked along beside the younger woman toward the Council Hall of the Amazon Nation. "Congratulations on your election as Junior Councilor from Pyra. The women there made a wise choice."
Willa blushed slightly with pleasure and embarrassment.
"That's a great compliment coming from the Councilor to four Queen's." Willa answered.
The younger woman, shorter and stockier than her companion, with brown hair and eyes and a body that spoke of raw strength, cleared her throat.
"I'm a little nervous," she said. "I wish my first Council meeting was not one of such gravity. I feel like I'm being thrown into the deep end of the pond without any swimming lessons."
Lentilia looked at Willa and smiled.
"I can see how you might feel that way." Her smile faded. "But sometimes my friend, the best way to learn to swim is just to jump in the deep end and swim. I have every confidence Willa that you'll swim."
The old Chief put her hand on Willa's shoulder and stopped her.
"Let me give you one piece of advice Councilor," Lentilia said with serious eyes. "You were elected to represent your people's interests, not to fade into the background because you feel new and out of place. The Queen is a wonderful listener who respects everyone's opinion. If you have something to say, say it. You do a disservice to us all if you don't."
Willa nodded gravely.
"Thank you Chief. I will."
As the two Councilor's approached the great Council Hall, the largest building in the Nation, made of rough hewn wooden planks with a wood shingled roof instead of thatch and painted dark forest green, the color of Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt and the Amazon's, Lintilia noticed at the entrance two guards instead of the usual one and both of them in full armour with swords on their backs and spears at attention by their sides. The old Chief stopped and knocked the mud off her boots and brushed and straightened her clothes. Willa watched wide eyed for a moment then hurridly did the same. After formally identifying themselves at the doorway to a very serious and officious young guardswoman, something the Chief had not had to do in twenty years, Willa and Lentilia entered the Council Hall.
The great building was divided by a wall in the center. The front half was the Council Chamber. Expert plasterers from Athens had plastered the walls and ceiling and on the plaster were painted exquisite murals chronicaling the glorious history of the Nation. Against the middle of the center wall was a raised platform colored gold and on it three large ornately carved green chairs with high backs. The center chair was larger than the other two and hanging from the top of its high back was the sacred Mask of Queenship, taken down and worn only on the most solemn of public occasions. In a semicircle around the platform were twelve simple backless chairs alternately painted green and gold. The gold chairs were for the Junior Councilors, one elected from each of the six villages of the Nation, Farsala the Capitol, Pyra, Kalvia, Lamia, Larisa and Trikkala. The green chairs were for the Chiefs of the six villages, each appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the Queen.
Lentilia and Willa were the last to arrive. They quickly joined the other ten women who were standing in small groups inside the semicircle of chairs talking in hushed, anxious tones about the momentous events that had been transpiring outside the Nations borders. Suddenly the guard who was standing at the door in the far left corner of the center wall, the one leading to the Queen's private quarters, pounded her spear twice on the wooden floor. The Councilors quickly found their seats then knelt on one knee in front of them. The guard opened the door and Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation, dressed in a forest green, over the shoulder wrap, entered, followed by Princess Ephiny, adopted sister of the Queen and heir to the throne, in full armour except for her helmet, and then Xena, the Great Lion of Amphipolis, the Warrior Princess, the married mate of the Queen and her choice as Warleader of the Amazons. Lentilia let out a little gasp at seeing the Lion. She had gotten used, in the last peaceful year, to seeing Xena around Farsala in only her shift or with a light cloak thrown over her shoulders, her chakram her only weapon dangling from a hook on her belt. She had forgotten how dark, impressive and intimidating the Warrior Princess was in her leathers with full armour and weapons. It was a sight that strengthened the backbone of friends and weakened the hearts of enemies.
Gabrielle took her place in the center chair on the platform. Ephiny went to the chair on the bards left, closest to the Queen's heart, only a heartbeat away from the throne itself. Xena took the chair on her mates right, the Queen's strong right arm in times of trouble and war.
"Be seated." Gabarielle said quietly. The twelve Councilors rose and seated themselves.
"We have called this emergency gathering of the Council," Gabrielle began, her posture iron bar straight, that Queenly bearing that was so natural to her in full evidence, "because of the events that have come to Our attention in Vonitsa, only forty leagues to our west. Because of the momentous nature of the news I believe this Queen and Council must forthwith conduct itself with a gravity matching the seriousness of the situation. The informality of the past will have to be laid aside until more normal times return."
Gabrielle looked at Willa and smiled.
"Before We begin We would like to welcome Willa of Pyra to the Queen's Council. Her experience, intelligence and proven courage will be an important asset to the Nation. Welcome Willa."
The new Councilor bowed her head to her chest.
"The Queen's gracious welcome is deeply appreciated. I will do all I can to be of service to Your Majesty and the Amazon people."
"Thank you Willa." Gabrielle said warmly with a nod. Then she turned back to her other Councilors.
"Now," the Queen began, "We're sure you've heard many bits and pieces of information and rumor over the last three weeks about what's transpired. But We, the Princess and the Warleader have been working very hard these last days to pull together the truth of what's happened and we are now ready to present our findings for all of us to consider." The little bard turned to Xena. "The Warleader will speak first."
The Lion stood up and two guards, who had been waiting patiently by the entrance, came forward and stood in front of the platform and unrolled a large map of Greece which they held at the edges and turned for all the Councilors to see.
"Vonitsa," Xena said, "a port city forty leagues straight west of us down the Corinth highway. A hundred years ago it was a fairly important city of twenty thousand people that did a thriving trade through the western Agean with Thrace, Illrya and Macedonia. A lot of merchant caravans moved up and down the highway through our lands to Corinth and Athens and we made a nice profit charging them tolls. But then ninety years ago the Romans conquored Thrace and Illrya and diverted all the trade to Rome. Since then Vonitsa has been dying. It now has less than five thousand inhabitants, mostly fishermen and a few pirates who prey on the Roman traders."
Xena took a breath and looked around the room with a sly smile.
"And our toll income has been significantly reduced" she said.
There was a general murmer of laughter. Lentilia was the only one in the room who could remember the last time a trade caravan moved up or down the Corinth highway through Amazon land.
Xena's smile faded.
"However, the harbor and port facilities are intact and the city walls, though in disrepair, are still formidable. Twentyfour days ago, just after moonrise, ten Carthaginian war galleys glided up to the docks of the port and eight hundred elite marines poured out. The defenders, what there were of them, were taken completely by surprise and surrendered after only a token resistance. The city was under Carthaginian control by dawn."
The Councilor's shifted nervously in their seats and looked with dark faces at one another. Chief Nita of Kalvia stood up. Xena nodded toward her.
"Are you certain Warleader that it was the Carthaginian's? We have heard rumors that it was the Romans retaliating against Vonitsa pirates."
The freckled, redhaired Chief sat down.
"Yes Chief," Xena answered, her face stern and her eyes sweeping around the room to examine each Councilor, "I can say for a certainity that it was the Carthaginians. Only three days ago Princess Ephiny and I returned from Vonitsa where I did a personal reconnaissance of the city and the Princess met with the new Carthaginian Govenor"
A look of surprise bordering on shock engulfed every Councilors face but Lentilia's, the only member of the Council informed of Xena and Ephiny's mission.
"The city is firmly in Carthaginian hands." the Warrior Princess continued. "I would estimate more than a thousand regular infantry now occupy Vonitsa and they, along with the conscripted population, are working furiously to repair and strengthen the city walls. The harbor is filled with at least twenty warships and forty more supply vessels unloading every type of material. There can be no doubt this was a well planned major operation conducted by the Carthaginian Empire. They intend to stay in Vonitsa and apparently to turn it into a major center of operations."
Xena paused a moment to let all this information soak in. Then she turned to Ephiny.
"Princess Ephiny will now report on her meeting with the new Carthaginian Govenor."
The Lion sat down and Ephiny rose.
"While the Warleader clandestinely scouted the city," the Princess began, "I rode up to the main gate and announced myself as Princess of the Amazons and requested a meeting with the Carthaginian commander. I was treated correctly although hardly warmly. I was shown to the Govenors headquarters in the center of the city, great care being taken that I see as little as possible. I was left cooling my heals a long time in his antechamber before I was finally permited to meet him. I'm sure I was supposed to be awed by his importance and my insignificance. The Govenors name is Hasdrupal. He impressed me as being a bureaucrat and not a warrior. However he seemed efficient and competent. The meeting was short. He either evaded my questions or simply refused to answer them. I pointedly asked him if he understood that such a sudden and unprovoked attack on the Greek mainland was certain to bring a response from Athens and Sparta. After a long silence he replied that he hoped the people of Greece would see how dangerous the Roman menace was to us and how advantageous a close alliance to the Carthaginian Empire would be to our long term security and interests. He then abruptly ended the meeting and had me escorted under armed guard out of the city."
Ephiny took a breath and looked at the Councilors, who were all listening with somber faces.
"As a little background, "Ephiny said, " I remind everyone of the general situation in the world outside our borders. For one hundred and fifty years the Romans and Carthiginians have been dividing up the western and central Mediterranean between them. They have fought two brutal wars and no one would be surprised if a third one broke out at any time. The Carthiginian fleet is the finest and largest in the known world. Their infantry is considered tough and well disiplined, however since most Carthiginian manpower is taken up by the galleys their army is small in number. The Roman legions of course are unmatched anywhere and dominate every battlefield. But the Roman navy is small and usually ineffective. Romans only like water when they are in one of their famous baths."
Ephiny smiled along with everyone else in the room. Then her face became serious.
"Unfortunately, Councilors of the Nation, it would seem that the rivalry of Carthage and Rome has arrived on our shores. The question before us is how will we, and all of Greece, meet this challange to our futures. Queen Gabrielle has already been to Athens and Sparta to speak with their leaders on just this topic. I yield to the Queen of the Amazon Nation."
Again there was a general gasp of surprise and dark questioning faces. Chief Murise of Trikkala lept to her feet before Gabrielle could speak. The Chief was tall, taller even than Xena, and although approaching middle age, with lines around her black, sharp eyes and a sallowness to her windburned cheeks, her body spoke of nothing but brute power. Her bare arms, for Murise never wore a cloak, even in the coldest weather, had large rounded biceps and were covered with tattoos from shoulder to hand. Tattoos that spoke of triumphs on the hunt and in battle against enemies of the Nation, and personal enemies as well. She stood in her habitual pose, feet wide apart and defiant and her left hand resting on the hilt of her sword which she wore at her side rather than on her back, as most Amazon did. A short, wide, brutal blade that allowed her to do her killing up close, where she could smell the breath of her conquest's last gasp of life and look into their eyes as the spark of consciousness died away.
As the Chief rose Xena's eyes narrowed and her face assumed that marble warlord mask that kept friend and foe alike from guessing her thoughts. Ephiny sighed a disgusted little sigh.
The Queen slowly nodded her head.
"Chief Murise of Trikkala" she acknowledged.
The Chief put her right hand over the left one resting on the sword.
"My Queen," she began, with a low, slightly hoarse voice, "I would like to protest this travelling of Her Majesty without informing the Council of Her departure or of the nature of Her mission. The Queen's place is in Her Capitol where Her Chiefs can reliably contact Her with information or receive instructions from Her. And if She does travel it should be with a dignity and escort fitting Her place in the world. The tradition of our people Your Majesty has been that the Queen is the steady rock at the center of our lives and government. The people feel uneasy when the Queen is not seen in Her rightful and expected place. Furthermore I would like to point..."
"Chief Murise" the bard said quietly, her green eyes hard and focused as she gazed at the large Amazon.
"Your Majesty?" Murise answered, her face betraying a bit of shock at this interruption of her speech.
"Don't presume Chief of Trikkala," the bard said with an edge to her usually soft voice, " to tell the Queen how She should conduct the affairs of the Nation. Or lecture Her on the traditions of the Amazons. We have had many discussions over the last year and a half on how the Queen should handle the business of government. We will not have that discussion again now. Sit down Chief."
Murise's eyes became narrow slits and the color rose in her face. Her hand reflexively tightened around the handle of her sword and she took a long, slow, deep breath that expanded her chest like a grizzily bear standing on its haunchs to intimidate an enemy. Xena's hand settled silently around her chakram while Ephiny shifted her shoulders just slightly, enough to allow instant access to her sword. Suddenly there was a loud crinkling of parchment. Murise's eyes shifted to the two guards standing to the right of Xena next to the platform, where they had withdrawn with the map after the Warrior Princess had finished speaking. They had dropped the parchment and both of them had their hands on their weapons. The Chief slowly let the air out of her lungs. Suddenly she sat without another word. Her eyes however continued to blaze with barely suppressed fury.
Gabrielle took a slow breath in and out, her eyes fixed on the angry Amazon warrior.
"Thank you Chief Murise" she said finally in an even, controlled voice.
The tension in the room eased somewhat. The guards took their hands off the hilts of their swords and picked up the map. Xena however kept her fingers firmly wrapped around her gleaming chakram.
The bard shifted to a more comfortable position in her chair and gazed around the room at her advisors.
"Now my Councilors," she said, "We would like to report to you on Our conversations with the leaders of Athens and Sparta. We first spoke with Pericles, the leader of the Athenian High Council. As you know We have met several times with Citizen Pericles and our relationship has always been cordial and his dealings with Us frank and fair. He was even more open with his thoughts than usual at this meeting. He told Us he was completely appalled by this naked act of Carthaginian aggression and he stated several times that he did not intend to let it go unchallenged. To quote him, 'if the Carthaginian's can hold Vonitsa the Romans will consider Greece a dead buffalo and the vultures will come gliding in to rip us to pieces.' He did not share with me any specific plans the Athenians have made but it is certain that they intend to respond militarily."
Gabrielle stopped and let her gaze fall on each Councilor in turn.
"He did offer," she said slowly, "to begin immediate discussions on a mutual defense treaty."
There was a collective gasp in the room then several Councilors, including Willa, started to jump up from their seats but the bard held up her hand.
"Please Councilors, let Us finish Our report before there is any discussion. We politely ignored Pericles offer and changed the subject. We were not prepared to make any treaties or commitments until We had consulted this Council."
The Amazon's settled back in their seats with relieved faces.
"We then went with Our escorts Solari and Eponin to Sparta." the Queen continued. "We were greeted as all visitors to Sparta are greeted," the bard smiled, "with barely concealed contempt."
The Councilors all looked at one another and grinned and nodded knowingly. The Spartans were famous in Greece for their democratic spirit. They hated everyone equally.
"After sitting around for half a day in King Leonidas' reception hall," Gabrielle said, "and being served a truly awful Spartan dinner, We were allowed to meet with the King. We met in his private study. It's the first time We've ever met the man and We will admit he was quite impressive with his broad shoulders and thick curly black beard and dark penetrating eyes. He was in full armour, with a silver coated breastplate polished so bright We could see Ourselves in it. If We were supposed to be dazzeled We'll admit We were a bit."
The bard gave out a little snort in her throat.
"After all that waiting the meeting was short, to say the least. We're sure his spies had told him of Our meeting with Pericles. He asked a few leading questions trying to draw out what the Athenian reaction to the Vonitsa situation would be. When We asked him if Sparta was prepared to act he looked at Us haughtily and said Sparta was always prepared to act. Then he looked at Us rather strangely and said, 'dangerous times are upon us, Queen of the Amazons. Understanding who our true enemies are, and who they are not, will determine the future for us all.' That was the end of the meeting. He dismissed Us with a bow and a wave of his hand."
Gabrielle sat silent for a moment, her brow furrowed in deep thought.
"Our impression, Councilor's," she said finally, "is that Sparta will wait to see what the Athenians intend. They won't act alone. But if Athens marches so does Sparta."
The bard sighed deeply.
"And now my friends," she said in a quiet, sad voice, "the problem that confronts us."
She looked around the room.
"We all know the map. The only landward approach the Athenian and Spartan armies can make to Vonitsa is down the Corinth highway. Through the heart of our land. And if the Carthaginian's want to stop those armies short of the walls of the city, they will certainly try to sieze the Farsala ford across the Akheloos river, not five hundred yards from where we sit. The war for Greece, Councilors, may very well take place on our fields, in our vineyards, through our villages. Our homes will be the battlefield. What We must decide, with the help of your collective wisdom, is how to prevent this catastrophe."
The discusions went on till well after moonrise. Xena, Ephiny and Gabrielle said little, letting each of the Councilors have their say and offer their advice. The Amazon's were almost evenly divided between those who wanted to seek immediate alliances and present a defiant face to the Carthaginian's and those who wanted to stay aloof and neutral as long as possible. It quickly became apparent that Murise was leader of the latter group, arguing forcefully that the Amazons should stand apart from Greek politics just as their society stood apart from Greek society. Finally Gabrielle called an end to the meeting, promising that when new information or decisions required it they would be reconvened. The Councilors all went down on one knee and Gabrielle, followed by Ephiny and Xena, withdrew to the Queen's private chambers.As soon as the guard closed the door behind them Xena put her hand on her mates shoulder and turned her around.
"Gabrielle," the Warrior Princess hissed heatedly, "when are you going to get rid of that woman?!"
The bard let out a short disgusted burst of air. Her shoulders slumped with resignation.
"Xena I ..."
The Lion stalked away into the middle of the room and paced back and forth several times, fighting to control her temper. Ephiny and Gabrielle watched silently. Finally Xena stopped and looked at the two of them with blue eyes colder than any crystal of ice.
"The next time she puts her hand on her sword like that in Gabrielle's presence," her voice rumbled, "will be the last time."
The bard closed her eyes and sighed. She knew the Lion never made threats, she simply stated her intentions.
"Beloved," Gabrielle said, "please don't act hastily. It might make things..."
"Gabrielle," Xena interrupted, walking up to her mate, gazing at her with intense eyes, "you are Queen of a nation entering perilous times. You're not arguing anymore over salt taxes or village boundaries. The Nation's survival could be at stake and this government must stand united in its purpose. Dissent now, beloved, is treason."
Gabrielle's face clouded to hear that ugly word. She looked at Ephiny with a furrowed brow.
"Sister, what do you think?" she asked.
The Amazon Princess rubbed her chin and slowly shook her head.
"Well," she said, "the truth is I'm sick of Murise too. But she is Chief of the hunting village. The village I grew up in. The hunters of Trikkala are the fiercest and most independent of the Amazons. Also the most conservative. I know them well. Many of them think just like their Chief. Murise does represent their view of things. But," Ephiny brought her hand down and gazed at her sister with a stern hard face, "if the situation gets more dangerous Gabrielle, dissent will become treason. Xena's right. At some point this government, this Nation, must speak with only one voice," Ephiny's eyes narrowed, "your voice my Queen."
There was a long moment of silence as Gabrielle's active mind wrestled with the problem. Xena and Ephiny waited respectfully. Finally the bard looked at her mate and took her hand.
"Xena," she said quietly, "if I remove Murise now it will look like I'm punishing her for speaking her mind. It will destroy all the work I've done trying to make the Council into something more than a mindless powerless mouthpiece for the Queen."
The corner of Xena's mouth curled up in irritation.
"But," the bard continued, "if she ever challenges me again like she did tonight I will remove her. I'll write the order that very day. I promise."
The Lion's eyes glittered with a cold light.
"And I'll deliver it, personally, that very day." she said evenly.
"We'll deliver it." Ephiny chimed in, an unpleasant smile on her face. "I wouldn't miss that moment for all the dinars in Greece."
There was knock on the door.
"Yes?" the bard called.
The door opened and the guard stuck her head into the room.
"Chief Lentilia requests a moment of the Queen's time." she announced.
"Lentilia" the bard squeeked with a happy smile. She bolted through the door and instantly returned leading the old Chief by the hand.
"Lentilia, what can I do for you?" Gabrielle asked warmly.
The old woman smiled at Ephiny, who smiled back, and at Xena, who nodded respectfully.
"I just wanted to tell you my Queen," she said, "don't let Murise deflect you from the path you've started the Nation down. I'm convinced it's the right one. Murise is a good village chief. But she's comfortable with the past, and all these changes in the present you're making are very threatening for her. And she finds the future positively terrifying in its sudden uncertainty. Don't let her fear infect you my Queen."
Lentilia stopped and regarded the three younger women for a moment. Her eyes beamed like an aged aunt looking at her three favorite nieces.
"And I also wanted to say my Queen, "the old woman's face became serious, "that it can only be Artemis' will that has brought the Nation three such leaders at this critical moment in our history. Your energy, vision and experience give this old heart hope again after so many years of isolation,complacency and slow decline. The other Queen's I have served could never have coped with this situation. But you three will. It is your destiny Queen Gabrielle, Warleader Xena, Princess Ephiny, to save the Amazons from extinction. You were created for this moment." The old woman slowly bent down on one knee and bowed her head. "May Artimis' will be done."
Ephiny and Gabrielle looked at one another then knelt down with her and bowed their heads. Xena watched them then turned her head away, her face a hard warrior mask.
As Ephiny's stallion loped along the dark highway the brilliant full harvest moon cast everything in silvery shadow. The land rose up and down like gentle ocean waves and the vineyards of Pyra stretched back from the road on either side making it seem in the half light like Ephiny was travelling down a sunken path with walls of earth on either side. Suddenly four black figures emerged from the gloom on the right side of the road and blocked her way. The Princess pulled her mount up short.
"Halt." a young, reedy, slightly nervous voice called. "Advance and be recognized."
Ephiny let her black walk up a few paces.
"I'm Princess Ephiny" she said evenly.
Two flints clicked together and a torch flared to life. A warrior approached, torch in one hand, sword in the other. She held the light up toward Ephiny's face.
"Princess Ephiny is recognized." she said loudly, and with some relief. The warrior took a step back and came to attention. "The Princess is passed through. Welcome Princess."
Ephiny nodded her head and chucked her reins. After another half a league at a steady trot the Princess came to the top of the highest ridge between Pyra and the ridge she had just left her cavalry camped on. From the height she could see Pyra, two leagues away across the dark, undulating land. Around it on three sides, in precise geometric lines, two hundred campfires wavered like stars against the black of the earth. The village itself showed many fires that roughly marked out the few streets of the little town. The woman pulled her horse up for a moment to soak in this rare sight. The full might of the Nation gathered in one place. Ephiny was not sure which she felt more. Pride or sadness. War had come. A week from now would this village even exist? The Princess shook her head to clear the black thoughts and put her heels into her mounts sides.
As Ephiny cantered down the main street there was activity everywhere. A line of wagons and carts was being formed on one side of the road, each of them piled high with sacks of wheat and barley and other foodstuffs. Oxen and draft horses were being hitched up or brought feed bags and water where they were already hitched. From around the village smithing hut a dozen heavy hammers rang out a cacophanous symphony of metallic thunder as all the blacksmiths of the nation worked furiously to turn out the extra horse shoes and weapons and repair all the harness that would be needed for the coming campaign.The fires from their bellows flared up in mini volcanic eruptions of sparks, casting everything in a reddish flickering light. Yet Ephiny noticed that for all the bustle and noise there was something muted about the scene. Finally she recognized what was missing. There was almost no sound of a human voice. No shouting, no cursing, no orders being given. Everyone moved with pupose and precision and yet it was like they had all been struck dumb by the awful weight of what was happening. War had come and it oppressed everything like a wet woolen blanket thrown over the shoulders of the world.
Ephiny pulled her stallion up in front of Chief Ashita's large hut. It was now occupied by the Queen as headquarters for the government and army, the Chief moving to another hut for the duration of the campaign. Two guards stood at attention on either side of the narrow doorway while on a bench against the wall of the hut, to the right of the entrance, sat the Warleader, calmly whittling on a fresh piece of pine with the knife from her boot. The Princess dismounted and an aide to the Queen, hardly fifteen Ephiny thought as she looked at the fresh young face, appeared from the darkness. She handed her the reins.
"Feed and water him" Ephiny said quietly, "then bring him right back. I'll be leaving soon."
The aide made a curt bow then led the big black away. Ephiny stretched her joints, stiff from hours in the saddle, she went over and plopped softly down beside Xena. After a moments silence she looked at the Warleader.
"I've never seen you whittle before." she said.
Xena looked back at the Princess.
"Old habit from my warlord days" the Lion replied with a slight smile. "All the plans are made, the orders issued, nothing to do now but wait for the problems to start. Till then whittling makes the time pass easier." Xena expertly peeled a long shaving from the fresh wood. "You'll find Ephiny,that for all the stress, war is often extremely boring. Having something to occupy your hands can be a real help."
"Well," Ephiny said, leaning back against the hut,"I've always wanted to learn basket weaving. Maybe now's the time. If I get good I could start my own little business. I sure could use the damm money."
"Terrible being broke isn't it." she said. "Gabrielle tells me there isn't a dinar left in the entire Nation. They've all been spent on war supplies. She tosses and turns all night worrying about it. I suggested we solve the problem the way I did when I had my army but she didn't seem enthusiastic."
Ephiny looked at Xena with a questioning face. Xena smiled dryly.
"I'd just head for the richest city in the area, sack it and steal all their money. Gabrielle didn't think that was a good idea." The Lion shrugged. "Worked for me."
The Princess grinned. Then she laid her head back against the wall of the hut and gazed out with weary eyes at the comings and goings around her. She had not slept in almost a full day and it was hard to tell now when she might have the chance to sleep again. After a long moment of silence the Lion said in a low, quiet voice.
"I'm surprised to see you here. I thought you would stay with your command until you left at first light."
Ephiny's brow furrowed.
"Well, uh, I..."she hesitated and gave a little sigh. "I thought you might have some last moment orders. I thought I should check."
Xena looked at her kindling and slowly shaved off a piece. Then another.
"Are you thinking about dying Ephiny?" the Warrior Princess said finally in a low voice, without looking up. "Are you here to say goodbye?"
Ephiny started to turn her head toward Xena but then she turned away and stared silently into space, taking in a long slow deep breath and letting it out.
"It's a mistake many warriors make" the Lion said quietly. "You think so much about dying that it starts to become acceptable, then you begin to feel it's inevitable. You surrender to the idea of death. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. You act recklessly and bring on your own death just to end the suspence of waiting for it."
Ephiny did not move.
"War is death" the Lion continued. "The question to be answered is whose death. Focus on your mission Ephiny, and on destroying the enemy." Xena's voice became an intense growl. "Be the killer Princess, not the killed. Kill the bastards without mercy till the reason for the killing is ended. In war killing is the only thing that matters. The one who does it best wins. And we're going to win Princess of the Amazon Nation, we're going to win."
Ephiny turned to find two icy, clear, predator eyes staring into hers. The cold fire that blazed from those blue eyes warmed her blood like a torch. The time for doubt was over. War had come and the Great Lion was the greatest warrior in Greece. The Amazon Nation was going to win, to survive. Ephiny believed again. The fire in her eyes grew to match that of her leader. She let out a long breath and nodded once at Xena. The Lion nodded back.
After a moments silence the Princess looked around.
"Why are we out here anyway?"she asked suddenly. "Where's Gabrielle?"
Xena got a look of disgust on her face and shaved off a long splinter of pine with a heated snap of her wrist.
"The Queen is meeting with Lentilia's two granddaughters. They're here as part of the Farsala company."
Ephiny jumped up in angry surprise.
"What?!" she sputtered. "Xena, how could you let her do that? That's a job for their village priestess. Not the Queen. She'll be under enough strain these next days without putting herself through that kind of emotional torture. She can't personally comfort all the widows and orphans that are about to be made. We need that little woman in one piece Xena." Ephiny paused and looked at the entrance to the hut. Her eyes became soft with affection. "You know don't you that she is more important to the future of the Nation than the two of us put together. The things she has accomplished in the last two years. I can't believe it myself sometimes and I was there while she did it." The Princess looked at the Warleader. "You understand it's our responsibility to hold her together."
Xena looked annoyed.
"Of course I understand." she said, irritation in her voice. "Better than you I think. I tried to stop her. Probably yelled at her a little louder than you're supposed to yell at a Queen, but Gabrielle is Gabrielle. She takes responsibility for everything and credit for nothing. She sent for them when Daria came with the news, without telling me, and refused to be talked out of it. I don't know," Xena paused and sighed, "maybe I love her too much. It's killing me to see how these things are hurting her."
Suddenly two young warriors stepped out of the hut into the street. Xena stood up. In the shadowy light Ephiny recognized Lentilia's granddaughters Zoe and Phillipa. Both in battle dress, Zoe wore the green sash around her left shoulder that marked her as a Lt. in the Farsala company. The proud Grandmother had told Ephiny several times she had high hopes that one day, in the fullness of time, Zoe would also become Chief of Farsala. Now the young woman's tan cheeks were colored with emotion and her eyes blazed like red coals in the night. Beside her her sister wiped her runny nose with the back of her hand and tried to regain some of her soldierly composure, although all she really wanted to do was fall to the ground and wail her grief for her beloved Grandma. They came to attention when they spotted the Princess and the Warleader.
"With your permission?" Zoe said stiffly.
"Dismissed." Xena answered quietly.
The two warriors walked away down the street toward their encampment on the outskirts of the village. Xena noticed that as they went Zoe's arm slowly came up and encircled her sisters shoulders and finally pulled her close. The Lion looked at Ephiny, who was watching the sisters as well, and touched her arm.
"Come on." she said.
The two leaders entered the hut to find Gabrielle sitting in the Chief's large chair, an arm on each armrest, staring at the ground. Her puffy green eyes came up when she heard them enter.
"Should I have forseen this Xena?" she said in a small voice, looking at her mate. "Is this my mistake?"
"No." the Lion answered sharply. "If there is any blame it's mine. We talked about what might happen when Lentilia and Willa delivered your reply to the Empire's demands. They knew there was risk when they volunteered. But all I've learned studying the Carthaginian's this summer indicated they are generally correct in their treatment of ambassadors and respect for the standards of civilized behavior. I thought the worst that might happen is that they would be thrown in a Vonitsa dungeon for the duration so they couldn't report on any military preparations they might have seen. This atrocity is a complete surprise. I have no explanation for it. But it's not your fault."
Gabrielle sighed deeply.
"They were trying to comfort me." she said wonderingly. She put her hand over her eyes and sighed again. "This is a nightmare" she whispered raggedly.
Xena started across the room to hold her mate but as she approached the little bard suddenly stood up.
"No Xena." she said with strength in her voice again. "I'm alright. I've used up today's allotted time for crying. We have more important things to think about. Is everything ready? Is there anything I can do to help you? Anything we should be doing that we haven't done?"
The Lion stopped and looked at her beloved for a long moment with soft, worried eyes. The lines around the bards eyes had become so deep this summer, the face drawn and tired. She had lost weight she could not afford to lose on her already slender body and sometimes her eyes sparkled with fever although she never once complained of being sick. Xena had gotten into the habit of kissing her on the forehead these last couple of months just to take her temperature without being obvious. Gabrielle was slowly reaching the end of her strength and the Lion knew it. In her dreams at night she fantasized about taking the bard to her family farm in the peaceful Potadia valley and leaving her there till all this was over. In the harsh light of day Xena knew only worse was to come. Her heart ached to see her mate age in front of her. But she knew there was nothing to do but see it through. The only comfort she could offer her beloved was that they would see it through together, always together. The Warleader put out her hand. The Queen took it.
"No Gabrielle." Xena said quietly. "We're as ready as we can be. Everything is set in motion. Two riders are on the way to King Odyseus to inform him of the situation and hurry him up. His last dispatch said his Ithacans were almost all landed. Messengers are on the way to Athens and Sparta as well. Ephiny's cavalry leave at first light for the Izoles river and the army will be ready to march shortly after dawn. There's nothing more to do but wait," Xena looked in Gabrielle's green eyes and squeezed her hand, "and get some rest, beloved, get some rest."
The Queen sighed wearily, then her gaze shifted to Ephiny, standing quietly by the entrance. She stared at the Princess for a long moment with intense eyes. It seemed suddenly vital beyond words that she memorize every line, every crease, every curve of Ephiny's familiar face. That she commit it so indelibly to memory that it could never be lost. She released Xena's hand and walked over and wrapped her arms around the Princess and hugged her tight.
"Come back," she said in a thick voice. "The Nation needs you, Xena and I need you. Come back Sister."
'Sister.' Ephiny and Gabrielle were not sisters of course. Not by blood, not by being raised in the same adopted Amazon family. Their status as sisters was purely a political ploy, a legal manuever to secure the succession to the Amazon throne. When the Lion and the bard settled permanently in Farsala two summers ago and Gabrielle assumed her right of cast as the ruling Queen of the Amazons it was understood by everyone that Ephiny, who had ruled in her absence, was her unchallenged choice as heir to the throne.
But after the Queen and the Warrior Princess passed through the Amazon Marriage Ritual together a certain uneasy faction began to divide the Nation. Many people, especially the young, fascinated by the Lion's dark charisma and unequaled status as a living legend, began to wonder aloud why the mate of the Queen should not be considered the natural heir to the the Mask of Queenship. Older Amazon's, mindful of Ephiny's great service to the Nation, felt a building resentment of this questioning of her position.
Then suddenly, in the late spring, just after the seasons planting was done, and the rebirth of life had taken place all through the Amazon valley, heralds came to all the villages and summoned the Nation to the Capitol. In a ceremony as splendid and solemn as Gabrielle and her advisors could manage, the bard adopted Ephiny as her sister and proclaimed her Princess of the Nation, the only recognized and legal heir to the throne. Then a long procession of Chiefs and dignitaries, each proudly displaying her finest warrior battledress, mounted the platform raised in the large Farsala square to kneel before the Princess and the Queen and pledge their loyalty to the rightful rulers of the Amazon Nation. And first in line, in leathers and full armour, with polished weapons glinting in the sun and raven hair brushed and arranged lovingly around her shoulders by her mate, came the Warrior Princess. The symbolism was missed by no one. The talk of the Lion as a successor to the bard died as Xena bent her knee and swore her alligence as an Amazon warrior to Gabrielle and Ephiny.
From that day Gabrielle never used Ephiny's name again. Always Sister. At first it bothered the Princess, she had always considered the bard a friend, but only politics made them sisters. Still, there never seemed the slightest show or cynicism in the way Gabrielle used the word. And her actions could not have been more sisterly. She included Ephiny in everything having to do with the business of the Nation, and consulted with her constantly, as much as she relied on her mate. And in private Ephiny was a regular presence in the royal quarters. The guard at the door even being instructed not to bother announcing the Princess any longer when she arrived for a visit.
As for Xena, Ephiny had always greatly respected the Lion, and even liked her, a little, from a distance. The Warrior Princess, so self contained and aloof, open and affectionate with only one person in her life, could easily have made the Princess feel like a third wheel and Ephiny would have understood and pulled back without a word. But through a dozen small kindnesses and subtle gestures Xena made Ephiny feel accepted and welcome. After a year and a half the Princess could no longer imagine Gabrielle calling her anything but Sister. And with her son Xenon gone three years now, living with his Aunt and Uncle permanently in the Centaur village, learning the ways of his people, a lonely woman had found the emotional center to her life, two women that she loved, her sisters, her family.
Ephiny gave the bard a hard hug, then stepped back and smiled.
"You know I'm the bad houseguest Gabrielle." she said. "There's no getting rid of me. I always come back."
The bard did not smile. She just stared as Ephiny with sad, redrimmed eyes.
"Come on," Xena said quietly, "I'll walk you to your horse."
Outside the two warriors waited as Gabrielle's aide appeared out of the shadows leading Ephiny's mount.
"Remember," the Lion said, "if you have to charge wait till the last fifty yards before you let them break into a gallop or your column will start to scatter and lose its impact."
The Princess put her foot in the stirrup and mounted.
"And you're there to delay" Xena continued. "Force them to deploy and then pull out. Don't get sucked into a stand up fight. Don't let yourself be cut off."
Ephiny looked down at her Warleader and offered her arm. Xena slowly reached up and took it. She pulled the Princess down closer to her.
"Gabrielle's had enough heartache," she said, staring into Ephiny's eyes. "If you get yourself killed I'll come find you and then you'll be in real trouble."
Ephiny smiled and straightened.
"Promises, promises." she said. Then she gave Xena a wink and chucked her reins. The Lion stood in the road and watched until Ephiny disappeared into the darkness at the edge of the village. Then she went back into the hut to be sure Gabrielle got some rest.
The Carthaginian ambassador was sweating heavily. It was a hot midsummer day and hotter still inside the Amazon Council Chamber which had only two small windows to let in the breeze. Gabrielle and Ephiny had on their light summer clothes with bare midriffs and short skirts and sandals. The Warleader was dressed in leathers with full armour and weapons as she did every day now regardless of the heat. The Carthaginian had on his finest raiments. A sand colored tunic hemmed with gold thread, perfectly tailored light brown pants with a leather belt dyed gold and studded with small jewels and a solid gold beltbuckle. Finely crafted leather slippers turned up at the toes in the North African fashion covered his feet. On his head, over his curly black hair, a silk cap dyed red with a small diamond sewn in the top. His black beard was trimed to a point at the end of his chin and well oiled to hold its shape. A fine gold necklace hung around his neck and costly rings adorned every finger. The sweet smell of an expensive perfume hung in the still air. It was an impressive display of wealth and power and meant to be seen as such. Also very impractical in the heat. Sweat trickled down the mans forehead and temples and down his neck. He pulled out a silk kerchef from a pocket in his tunic and wiped his olive colored face as he paced back and forth inside the empty semicircle of councilors seats before the gold platform where the three Amazon leaders sat in their chairs.
"I know this is my second visit here to consult with Your Majesty, " the Ambassador said in heavily accented Greek, "but I urge you to give my offer careful consideration."
The man stopped pacing and looked at Gabrielle.
"The advantages to an alliance to the Empire are many. Your products can travel the whole Mediteranean duty free. You can receive goods from anywhere duty free. And swifter and more reliably as well. You will have the full might of the Empire behind you against your enemies and most importantly Rome will no longer be a threat. You will be secure here on your throne. The Empire prefers to leave local leaders undisturbed as long as they co-operate with the larger aims of our foreign policy."
The bard's eyes narrowed.
"And what, dear Ambassador Hashimi, is the larger aim of Carthaginian foreign policy in Greece?" she asked.
The Ambassador looked for a long moment into Gabrielle's green eyes and carefully considered his response. He wiped his brow again with his silk kerchef and then slowly turned and walked to one of the green Councilor chairs and sat down. Ephiny started to rise from her seat, fire in her eyes at this deliberate insult to the Queen of the Amazons, sitting in her presence without asking or receiving permission. With a slight wave of her hand the bard motioned the Princess to remain seated and do nothing.
"Queen Gabrielle" Hashimi said in his slightly nasal voice "may I talk to you frankly?"
The bard nodded her head. "Please."
"I've read the intelligence report on you." he began. "I know you are a woman who has seen much of the world as friend and partner of the Great Lion. I'm sure you understand better than most what's happening. I'm afraid young lady you are Queen of a fourth rate power in this dog eat dog world we live in. The old days of isolated small tribes and city states is fading away before the modern world of good roads and better sailing ships. The future is one of empires, Carthage, Rome, Parthia in the east. The earth is being divided up among the great powers and Greece is the next part of the pie to be eaten."
The Ambassador wiped his brow one more time and put his kerchef back in his pocket.
"Right now you have some leverage. The Empire would find it easier to make a treaty with you for what it needs instead of having to fight you. But if we must crush you young lady, be assured you will be crushed. It's as inevitable as the flight of the sun across the sky. You cannot stand against the course of history. Listen to the advice of an old man who has witnessed the destruction of too many. Sign a treaty now and save yourself Gabrielle. This could be your last chance."
Ephiny jumped up and took a step toward the Ambassador, who watched her with cool indifference. The bard grabbed the Princess's arm and stopped her.
"Sit." she commanded.
"My Queen , I won't have you insulted by this perfumed fop of a..."
"Sit down!" the bard demanded in a tone that allowed no dissent.
Reluctantly, her eyes on fire and faced flushed, Ephiny slowly sat.
"Ambassador Hashimi." Gabrielle said calmly. "We thank you for your frank comments. They give Us much to think about. We will consider them carefully and at the proper time We will give you Our decision as to the course We will take. Till then have a safe journey home. Good day Ambassador."
For a long moment the Carthaginian sat motionless. He studied the bards face then his gaze shifted to the Lion. She had not moved through the entire interview and now she stared back at the Ambassador through her impenetrable warlord mask. Finally the man stood up and walked out without a word or even the courtesy of a slight bow before leaving. As soon as the guard closed the door behind him Ephiny jumped up.
"We should have tied the bastard to his horse and had him whipped out of Farsala. I've never seen anything so disrespectful and disgraceful in my life!" Ephiny blurted.
She looked at Gabrielle to see her response but the bard had her elbow on the armrest of her chair and her chin in her hand, obviously deep in thought. Ephiny shifted her gaze to Xena, expecting some sympathy to her outrage but the Lion also seemed to be deep in thought, her eyes vacant and turned inward. The Princess stepped off the platform and paced around the room, letting her temper cool. Finally she looked at Xena again.
"So," she said, " what did you make of all that, was he a fool or just an incompetent?"
The Lion came out of her reverie and looked at Ephiny with a little smile.
"I would say," she said quietly, "he was a very brave man."
The Princess knitted her brows together in disbelief and uncomprehension.
"Ephiny," Xena said. "Hashimi came here today to either get a treaty or provoke an incident. He tried persuasion, then intimidation and finally he tried to get Gabrielle to lose her temper and do something rash that would give his government a pretext to rightously declare war and move on us. He knew what he was doing might get him killed but he never flinched. There's a reason the Carthaginian's have an Empire. They have the balls for it."
The Lion stood and reached out and grasped the bards hand and kissed it.
"Instead he left here without a treaty or an incident and he still doesn't know for sure what we intend to do. That uncertainty can only be to our advantage." Xena looked at her mate. "Well done beloved, very very well done."
The bard looked up and smiled at the Warrior Princess and then pulled her mates hand to her mouth and kissed it and pressed it against her cheek.
"I guess now there can be no doubt." she said quietly, sadly. "He stated it plain enough. Conquest. They intend to take Greece. All of it. There's nothing to negotiate except the terms of our surrender. Or we fight and risk everything." The bard sighed. She looked at her mate with dark, serious eyes. "Xena, is he right, are we fighting the tides of history here? The time of the warlords is over. Maybe the time of City States and tribes is over as well. Perhaps getting the best terms we can for our people is all we can do."
"No." Ephiny said sharply. "Our society is too fragile to survive under the heal of a conqueror. Without our independence, to maintain our institutions and follow our own special traditons, we're doomed. There is no treaty we could make with them that would not be the first step toward oblivion. We must fight Gabrielle. Every animal, every person, every society has the right to fight for its survival."
"Yes, but if it's a hopeless fight, what's gained by that?"the bard answered. "Life is still better than death. I'm responsible for the people's lives. Would I be wrong to sacrifice their society to save their lives?"
Xena released Gabrielle's hand and went over and sat down on one of the councilors chairs. She used the back of her hand to wipe some of the sweat that was forming on her forehead. Ephiny and the bard waited patiently for her to speak.
"If we make a treaty we lose." the Lion said slowly, deliberately. "If we fight and are beaten we lose. If we fight and win we save ourselves, at least for the forseeable future. And the future is always a risk, we'll face what it holds when it gets here. The question is, is it hopeless to fight now? Well, as you know beloved, the Lion always wins when she fights."
The Warrior Princess flashed a small intimate grin at her mate and the bards eyes smiled back.
"But let me tell you both the secret of my success. I don't take on hopeless battles. If I know I can't win I don't fight. Choosing the battles not to fight is as important as choosing the ones you will. I have a keen instinct on the matter." Xena paused and her face became dark and her blue eyes focused flame. "And my instinct here is very clear. We can win and we will win. The Amazons time on this earth is not yet over. We don't have to choose between death or slavery. We can choose to fight for our lives and we can save them. We simply have to have the courage and will and make the sacrifices necessary to do it. We have already made great progress in our preparations for battle and we will make more in the next weeks. Now is not the time to lose heart. I've never lost a war, I won't lose this one. I won't fail you Gabrielle."
The Queen put her elbow on the armrest of her chair and her chin in her hand. She gazed at her beloved with concentrated emerald eyes. She took in the whole presence of the Lion, body and soul. The tall, powerful, athletic form. The thick, developed thighs, the well defined biceps and the muscular shoulders. The dark forbidding charisma of her black leathers and the shock of long raven hair that surrounded her face like the black hood of an executioner. And the bard looked into the focused, intense, intimidating icy blue eyes that showed themselves pale and soft only for her, and she tried to separate herself from the unconditional love and trust she had for her mate. To stand apart from her heart and see only with the emotionless eyes of her mind. The bard could feel in her gut that the moment had come for a final decision. If it was war the Nation must dedicate itself completely to the task. There could be no appearence of indecision from the Queen. If she showed weakness or doubt after choosing such a fateful course it would devour the courage of the people like a cancer. The Amazon Nation would be destroyed before the first swords ever crossed. But what to base the decision on? Hashimi was right. The Nation was only a fourth rate power, about to challenge the might of one of the great empires on earth. How could they win? How could they survive? Sister would fight even if it were hopeless because she loved the idea of the Amazons and could not live without it. But the Nation was people, more than ten thousand women and children. Ten thousand lives that she alone was responsible for. Not Sister, not Xena. Only her. But the Warrior Princess had a plan, a carefully thought out campaign that would destroy the enemy and save the Nation. But conditions change, plans change. The only constant was the Legend of Amphipolis. The Great Lion. The warriors of the Nation would follow her to Tartarus because they believed in the Lion, in the legend of her invincibility. But was it responsible to place ten thousand lives in peril based on faith in one womans abilities? Was it rational to wager the survival of the Nation on the skill of one fallible human being? And the bard understood better than anyone that the Lion was a human being, not an all powerful Goddess of War.
Gabrielle straightened in her chair and shifted her eyes to Ephiny.
"Did the horses meet with your approval?" she asked.
The Princess, who had been studying the Queen intently, was caught off guard by the question.
"Oh, uh, yes," she sputtered, "yes, I've inspected all hundred of them over the last several days. They are all well bred and healthy. They'll make excellent cavalry horses. I'm ready to begin training the troop in the morning."
"Good." the bard said with a slight smile. "Pericles had his cavalry commander select them for me personally. He assured me they were the best in Greece." Gabrielle sighed an unhappy sigh. "Gods, for the money they should be," the bard looked at her mate and sister, "nine thousand dinars!"
Ephiny made a sour face and let out a long breath. Xena had no reaction. Talk of money bored her. She had never had any interest in it. Gabrielle was the book keeper of their partnership. The Warrior Princess was content to let the bard do the worrying.
"We don't have that much hard money in the entire royal treasury do we?" Ephiny asked.
"No." the bard replied. "We were almost two thousand short. I knew we would be. I took along all the gold and jewelry that the Queen's have collected over the years. I asked Pericles if there was an honest jeweler in Athens. He had me lay out all the things on his desk and then he paid me at least triple what the stuff is worth. I'm sure of it. Out of his own pocket. Then he wrapped all the things back up and handed them to me and said with a very serious look on his face that if I lost or broke any of his nice jewelry on my way back to Farsala he would be very upset."
The bard gave out a little laughing snort in her throat.
"I wonder if he would be upset to know that as soon as I left his office I went down to the bankers street and used his jewelry as collateral to borrow a thousand dinars at outrageous interest to buy hopolite shields. Two hundred and fifty will arrive in the next week. We should have enough shields now to properly equip the entire army."
Ephiny smiled at the bards story but Xena watched her mate with a tense, expectant expression. Gabrielle sighed and her face became sad and her eyes whistful and distracted.
"We are so broke," she said slowly, "and we still need so much. I don't know yet how we're going to manage." The bards eyes shifted to Xena. "But I think Warleader," she said quietly, "it's time you went to Ithaca and presented your plan to King Odyseus. If he agrees to aid us, when you get back I'll call a meeting of the Council and we will explain our plans, our plans for war with the Carthiginian Empire."
Ephiny took a long slow deep breath and absently rubbed her cheek with her hand and her eyes became distant and unfocused as a thousand thoughts and emotions raced through her mind till her face flushed and began to tingle unpleasantly. Xena looked back at her mate with clear cold narrow eyes, eyes absent fear and doubt, and a smile came to her lips. Not a smile that conveyed any happy emotion, but the smile of a carnivore that has come across the scent of its prey. Gabrielle put her hand on her flat stomach. She had hoped that finally making the decision would reduce some of the constant nervous churning in her belly that made it so hard to eat. It only felt worse.
"Stroke" the helmsman said quietly. "Stroke."
The day was bright and hot, the sun dazzling as it reflected off the green surface of the gently swelling Agean. But a steady breeze blew toward the rocky shore and Xena turned her face to it and breathed in deep the aroma of the sea. The Warrior Princess loved the sea. In her youth she had dreamed of being a sailor. Captain of her own merchant vessel. Or Admiral of her own pirate fleet. She laughed to herself. 'I could never dream of anything small in those days' she thought. The tiny ketch, rowed by four sweating oarsmen, turned from its course parrallel to the coast and started toward the narrow rocky beach a thousand yards distant. The helmsman, an old man with a craggy, windburned face and white hair, pointed toward the top of a high bluff that overlooked the sea.
"There she be warrior," he said in a thin nasal voice. "King Odyseus's summer retreat. Our good King is getting old I'm afraid. He's turned over much of the responsibilities of King to his son Telemechus. The boy's a good man, he'll be a good King in his ownself."
The old seafarer sighed.
"When Queen Penelope passed several years ago I think it took some of the heart out of the man. He spends too much time up there if you ask me." The old sailor nudged Xena with an elbow where she sat next to him and smiled a wicked little smile. "He's still young enough to find some pleasure chasing the beauties at court. Nothing like the smell of sweet perfume on a lovely neck to bring a man up out of his miseries. Hey what, don't ya think.?" He looked at Xena and frowned. "Well, maybe you don't think."
The Lion turned her head away from the old man and smiled.
"A sweet perfume on a lovely neck," she whispered, "sounds good to me."
As they got close to shore Xena could see two figures coming down the steep steps that zig-zaged back and forth across the face of the high bluff. One was dressed in a light blue sleevless shirt and dark brown pants while the other was a warrior with armour and helmet and a short sword in a scabbard at his side. As the prow of the ketch crunched up on the land the Lion made her way to the front and jumped nimbly down onto the rocky beach. The two men reached the bottom of the stairs and approached her as she made her way up the sloping shelf of land.
"Ho there, Ridian" the old man, standing up in the stern of the boat, called to the man in the blue shirt, "Prince Telemechus sent us with this visitor for the King. He said the King will want to see her right away."
The man in blue and the warrior stopped in front of Xena and both bowed.
"I am Ridian, the King's steward." the middle aged man in blue said. "Welcome to King Odyseus' private villa. He is out riding right now but is expected back shortly. Who may I say is calling upon him today?"
"You may say," Xena answered, "that an old admirer who casts a circle against her enemies has come to cast a net over her friend."
Ridian frowned, perplexed, but the look on the Lion's face said she was finished with the conversation. He shrugged his shoulders slightly in acceptance and motioned with his arm.
"Follow me please," he said, "and I'll show you to the guest quarters and inform the King of your message when he returns."
The villa was a long, one story rectangular structure of mudbrick painted white. Coming off the steps leading up from the beach the front entrance was a large patio of red bricks covered by a heavy blue awning that flapped slowly in the fresh breeze off the ocean. The Lion and her guide entered the villa and she felt immediatly the refreshing coolness of the interior. They went down a long hallway with large airy rooms on either side. A dinning room, a kitchen, a bedroom and finally the guest bedroom. The walls were all painted with murals of the hunt, pastoral scenes and pictures of a tranquil family in residence playing games, eating, a husband and wife holding hands and gazing longingly into each others eyes. The guest bedroom had a large window with a magnificent view of the ocean and a door to the outside that opened onto a small patio with a table and two chairs that also afforded a wonderful view of the rocky shoreline.
"If there is anything I can get you please ask." Ridion said with a bow. "I'm sure the King will be with you shortly."
"Thank you." Xena answered.
The man withdrew and the Lion went to the blue marble stand next to the bed and poured out some water from a delicate, painted vase into a porceline bowl and splashed the cool water in her face. She took off her sword and chakram and armour and laid it out on the bed. She was a guest in the home of a trusted friend and so many weapons would be an affront to his hospitality and a impolite questioning of his ability to protect her from her enemies while in his care. She took off her boots and went out onto the patio and sat in a chair and washed her legs and feet and brushed her long black hair with a small brush she had found on the stand. She had just finished getting out the last small windblown tangle when a deep voice rang out from inside the villa.
"Xena my friend, Xena! " it boomed with obvious pleasure and excitement. "Blast it woman, where are you!"
"Here Odyseus," she answered, "here on the patio."
The King of Ithaca bounded through the guestroom and emerged onto the patio. The man who approached the Lion was well past fifty now. Several inches shorter than the Warrior Princess, Xena noticed that in the three years since their last meeting his close cropped ebony beard, then only flecked with a few speckles of gray, now was liberally sprinkled with white, and the shaggy mane of black hair that fell thickly from his head almost to his shoulders had gone white around the temples. But the body was still the same. In the heat he was wearing a loose sleevless brown linen shirt and a kilt around his waist that stopped at the knee. Xena could see that the deep barrel chest, thick powerful arms and muscular, athletic calves, all covered with a fine coat of black hair, were unchanged. He was still the compact bull of a man she remembered. His black, deeply intelligent eyes danced with their habitual boyish, mischeivious luster as he offered his arm and the Warrior Princess took it and they pulled themselves together for a warm hug and a light peck on each others cheek.
"By the gods." Odyseus enthused in his baritone voice. "What a sight you are for this old man. I've sorely needed something young and beautiful to gaze on to bring these ancient eyes alive again. You are more than I ever hoped for."
Xena snorted and smiled.
"I'm hardly young any more Odyseus. I've seen my share of summers come and go."
"Everything is relative my friend," the King grinned. "Compared to me you are a tender young shoot of a rose just sprung from the ground."
Xena laughed. "I believe you are the first person to ever compare me to a rose. Usually I'm assocciated with some dangerous wild animal, or else the marital status of my mother is questioned."
The two friends grinned at one another. Then Odyseus' eyes narrowed. He reached out and gently grabbed Xena's right arm above the elbow and examined closely the markings on her upper arm.
"This is new" he said, admiring the intricate and precise geometric designs that surrounded the greek letter alpha. "I've never seen you with a tattoo, it's beautiful."
The Lion looked at her arm, then at the King.
"It's the Amazon marriage ritual tattoo. It's the emblem of my mate" she said proudly.
Odyseus cocked his head a little to one side and his black eyebrows beetled together questioningly.
"It's Gabrielle I hope?" he said, his voice almost daring her to say it was not.
The Warrior Princess looked at the King with narrow eyes.
"What would you say if I said it wasn't?" she said.
The mans dark eyes became just as narrow.
"Then I'd say Xena, you are a damn fool."
"Uh huh," the Lion answered slowly. "Well, I am a damn fool." A tiny smile flashed across her face. "A damn fool for Gabrielle, always."
Odyseus chuckled and his eyes sparkled. He squeezed Xena's arm.
"I'm thrilled for both of you" he smiled. "I'm glad you decided to make such a deep commitment my friend. It will give your life a center. A steady rock to hold onto when the storms and temptations of life come around." The Kings face became serious. "People like you and I are capable of such great, and terrible, things. The terrible things come when we answer to no one but ourselves and our own violent passions and will. But when we completely and unconditionally embrace that special person we love, we connect ourselves to the rest of humanity. We find the bridle we need to rein in our egos and we start to find our true greatness. The things we can do for others."
Xena, whose eyes had grown distant and reflective as she listened, judging her friends words against the experience of her own life, finally nodded once and whispered, "yes."
Odyseus smiled broadly.
"You know, after you two left last time Pen told me that you and Gabrielle would be together forever. She said you were created for each other. She always had a marvelous instinct for such things. I knew she was right."
The Lion looked at Odyseus with a soft, sad expression.
"I'm sorry that we weren't at Penelope's funeral. We didn't get the news till months after it happened" she said.
The King made a disgusted little snort in his throat and looked at the Lion reproachfully.
"Xena, don't worry about that." he said. "I never expected you to be. But the letter I got from the two of you. It was a real comfort to me. I keep it by my bed and read it sometimes when I'm low."
Odyseus sighed deeply. He looked at the Warrior Princess with a sad questioning face.
"Why do you suppose," he said in a near whisper, "women as beautiful in mind and spirit as Pen and Gabrielle love rogues like us?"
"I don't know." Xena answered. " I ask myself that too." The Lion put her hand on the Kings shoulder and looked him in the eyes. "I guess all we can do is be grateful."
"Yes, grateful." the man whispered with a nod. Then a mischevious glint appeared in his eyes.
"Please thank Gabrielle for writing me that letter when you see her" he said.
The Warrior Princess started to say "of course" but suddenly her eyes narrowed and her eyebrows knitted together.
"So how do you know I didn't write it? I am in fact literate you know" she said, a little non plussed.
"Oh please Xena," Odyseus snorted. "Words of such tenderness and kindness and deep emotion. A woman with a mother of questionable marital status like you never wrote anything so beautiful."
The Lion got a hard look on her face.
"You know," she growled slowly, "I do have other things to do and other places to be. I don't have to stay here and be insulted by the likes of you."
"Yes you do" Odyseus smiled. "My cook Sofia, Ridian's wife, is preparing us a magnificent roast pig as we speak, and you're going to be very busy accompanying me on a walk to a high bluff I know where we can watch a wonderous sunset over the ocean. I know how much you like the sea."
The King turned and offered his arm.
"If you would do me the honor of accepting my invitation?" he asked seriously. Xena put her hand on Odyseus' forearm.
"I would be delighted to accept your invitation" she said just as seriously.
Odyseus led his friend through the villa but when they reached the front patio he suddenly stopped and looked at his guest.
"Uh Xena?" he said, his face inquiring, "Does being married reduce my chances of seducing you tonight?"
The Warrior Princess' face became dark with concentration as she considered the question.
"Well," she said finally, "I guess that depends on how strong the wine is and how much of it I drink at dinner."
The King grinned.
"Ahh," he said, "It just so happens I have a quarter barrel of strong, excellent twenty year old Theben wine in the cellar I've been saving for a special occasion. The occasion has arrived. We're going to do some serious drinking tonight my friend, some very serious drinking."
The Lion smiled. "Will you ever grow up?"
"Grow up?" Odyseus replied, shocked. "By the Gods, why would I want to grow up? Then I'd be nothing but a white headed wrinkly old fart the women wouldn't even bother to take pity on. It's the boyish charm that keeps them interested. Uh," the King looked uncertainly at Xena, "you are interested aren't you?"
The Warrior Princess patted his arm.
"Of course I am" she smiled. "What woman wouldn't be?"
Odyseus puffed up his barrel chest. "See there, working already."
Then he laughed his deep baritone laugh and Xena laughed with him and they went together down the path to enjoy a beautiful sunset and talk about all that had happened, good and bad, in the last three years of living.
After washing her hands and face in the bowl in her room Xena padded barefoot down the center hall of the villa to the entrance to the dining room. Odyseus was waiting patiently and after she took his arm he led her into the candlelit room. A perfect suckling pig with an apple in its mouth and garnished with slices of lemon and orange and sprigs of parsley waited on a silver tray on the dinning room table. Fine porcelin bowls filled to overflowing with dates, raisins, grapes, carrots, peas and green beans were placed around the pig. Silver finger bowls were positioned beside each silver plate as everything was eaten with the hands. Tall golden goblets filled with strong Theben wine were next to each plate. As Xena approached the table Ridian appeared out of the shadows and pulled back her chair and scooched it up under her as she released the King's arm and sat. He then hurried around and helped settle Odyseus into his chair.
"You set a magnificent table King of Ithaca" the Warrior Princess said admiringly.
Odyseus smiled and nodded. "Thank you Great Lion. Please eat."
Xena started to reach for some grapes while Ridian began carving the suckling when her eyes suddenly focused on an apparition hidden back in the shadows in the corner of the room. Odyseus noted her startled expression.
"Amazing isn't it?" he said with a slight chuckle without bothering to follow her gaze.
"It's uh,..."Xena struggled for the right word but could not find it. Finally she settled for "yes, amazing."
"Or spooky or bizarre or eerie, any of them would do" the King laughed.
The Lion just shook her head and concentrated on the incredible lifesize likeness of Penelope that stood in the corner, a marble statue painted to look so real you expected it to move or speak.
"Philo of Corinth is the sculpter" Odyseus continued. "I was told he's a genius and they're right. I commisioned him to do it as a surprise birthday present for Pen. I had him come out disguised as a messenger from Corinth so he could observe Pen at court for a few days without her or anyone else the wiser. I told him I wanted her to be sculpted as she was when she was just nineteen and I was wooing her." The King smiled. "Sneaking her out of her room to walk in the gardens around Delphi at night. She was the third daughter of King Agenon. He didn't approve of me. Thought I was wild and reckless. The man was a keen judge of character. But I wouldn't go away so he finally just put her hand in mine and said 'take her, if anything good comes of it it'll be a miracle of the gods.' "The King paused. "Pen was a miracle, my miracle. Anyway Philo was right on. That's exactly how she looked." Odyseus leaned back in his chair and grinned. "Pen hated it of course. She said it looked like some foolish moonstruck teenager, not her at all. But it is her Xena. That's exactly how she looked to me for more than thirty years. I could never convince her of that but it's true."
The King took a ragged breath and his eyes were dark.
"She died a few months after I gave it to her. I kept it in the bedroom for a long time but it just got to be too, "Odyseus sighed, " much. I finally had it moved here."
Xena noticed that Ridian had stopped carving and turned his head away. She heard him sniff. She put her hand out and covered Odyseus' where it rested on the table and squeezed. The man stared straight ahead for a moment, motionless. Then he took a deep breath and shook his head to stop the black thoughts that were flooding over him. He looked at Xena and smiled. He took her hand and leaned forward and kissed it.
"Enough of an old man living in the past" he said in a strong deep voice. "For the first time in two years I have again a strong, intelligent, beautiful woman to share my table. Let's speak only of the present and the future and let the past rest in peace."
The King took his goblet and raised it. The Lion took hers.
"I didn't get to toast you at your wedding my friend" he said with a hearty smile, "so here it is, 'may Xena and Gabrielle live long, and love well, and if you don't do it well, at least do it enthusiastically, that will make up for a lot.' "
The Lion laughed and clinked her cup with Odyseus and they both drained their large gobblets in one long drink.
"Yep," the King said as he drained his gobblet of wine. "Salomaya is due to deliver my second grandchild any time now. She's a wonderful young woman and a perfect match for Telemechus. Pen did a lot of scheming and manipulating to get her out of her marriage contract with Parsimon of Syracuse so Tel could marry her. In her own way Pen was the toughest person I've ever known. A will of iron and complete self discipline. Salomaya is like that. I think that's why Pen was so determined to see her with Tel. She knew what a help she would be to him." Odyseus smiled. "And of course they love each other dearly. Yes indeed Xena, I'm going to have many happy, healthy, beautiful grandchildren." The Kings chest puffed out proudly as he said the last sentence.
The King's steward quietly entered the room to remove the last plates and bowls of the finished meal. Odyseus touched the mans arm.
"Bring a fresh pitcher of wine please Ridian" he said.
A slight frown passed across the stewards face.
"Perhaps," he said hopefully, looking at Xena, "the King's honored guest would prefer to taste the freshly made apple cider that is cooling in the cellar? It's quite refreshing."
The Lion could not help but notice that Odyseus had drained two gobblets of wine for every one she drank during the meal. She tried to pick up on Ridians leading question but before she could speak the King said in a quiet voice that left no room for argument, "the wine please Ridian."
The steward made a slight bow of assent. He picked up the last dishes and started to leave.
"Ridian," Odyseus said, "please thank Sofia for us. She outdid herself tonight."
"Yes," Xena smiled. "It was a magnificent meal."
"I will tell her" the steward said. "She'll be very pleased."
"After you bring the wine you may retire" the King instructed.
Ridian bowed and left. Odyseus settled back in his chair and looked at the Warrior Princess with a very serious expression.
"Now Xena," he said, "I think it's time we discussed the reason for your sudden unaccompanied visit."
The Lion leaned forward and put her elbows on the table and her expression matched the Kings."You've heard about Vonitsa?" she said.
"Of course" Odyseus replied. "I'm not living on the moon here. I keep up with the world. The Carthaginians have landed on your door step. The question all Greece is waiting with held breath to have answered is what will the Great Lion of Amphipolis and the Amazons do?"
"Well my friend, "Xena said slowly, "I've come today to find out the answer to that question myself. I've come from Queen Gabrielle and the Amazons to ask your help in stopping these invaders that threaten us all."
Odyseus nodded. "You have a plan I assume. Something contained in that scroll you have so conspicuously tucked into your belt."
The Lion nodded. "May I?"
The King nodded yes.
Xena stood up and pulled the scroll from her belt and rolled it out, putting a gobblet at either end to hold it. Odyseus rose and stepped around beside her so he could see the papyrus better. Xena swept her hand over the scroll.
"I know you've never been there" she said. "This is a map of the Amazon valley." She traced a line with her finger down the center of the map. "This is the Akheloos river. It runs south to north and emptys into the Agean. For eighty leagues there is only one good ford, here." The Lions finger pointed to a dot on the line of the river. "The Farsala crossing. The capitol of the Amazon Nation is built there on the west side of the river. The east side of the river is all foot hills of the Pelopenese mountains, covered in heavy forest. Trikkala is the only Amazon village on that side of the river. It's a village of hunters who harvest the forests of game and also dig a small copper mine. The village is hidden in the hills a league back from the Corinth highway. The west side of the river is an open valley about twelve leagues wide that ends in the Zama ridge line that rises up like a wall to form the western edge of the valley. Four agricultural villages are scattered up and down the valley connected by roads that all connect to the highway. Pyra is the closest village to the Zama ridge, built right on the Corinth highway six leagues from the ridge." The Warrior Princess' finger traced the line of the highway. "The highway crosses the ridge at a natural break. About two hundred and fifty yards wide with a fairly steep slope on the east side but a more gradual descent on the west. The break is open and treeless. An open doorway into the valley. North and south of the break is heavy forest along the ridgeline. Too thick for an army to march through. On the north side the ridge extends all the way to the sea becoming increasingly high and mountanious. On the south side however the ridge steadily lowers till after fifteen leagues it flattens out and disappears. So does the treeline. The Zama ridge is our wall against invaders. Unfortunately the wall ends and an army can easily march around it and enter the valley from the south."
Xena looked at the King.
"The plan I've developed depends completely on inducing the Carthaginians to attack us at the Zama break. If they march south around the ridge we're lost. We can never fight them in the open country there. There's no place to anchor our flanks. Their superior numbers would crush us."
"And why would the Carthaginians be so kind as to oblige you and attack where you want them too?" Odyseus asked.
"This entire campaign is about timing my friend," the Lion replied. "We're all carefully calculating the timing. The Athenians are furiously building up their fleet to challenge the Carthaginians for control of the sea around Vonitsa. They plan to strike in the spring. Everyone, including the enemy, knows it. The best way for the Carthaginians to prevent a siege and negate the Athenian fleet and the Athenian and Spartan armies is to sieze the Farsala ford. Once they've blocked it with fortifications they make Vonitsa an impregnable base from which to launch attacks against the rest of Greece. They will certainly march on us before winter sets in and makes the Corinth highway impassable."
"Why don't the Athenians just send their troops to your valley now before the Carthaginians move?" the King asked.
The Lion smiled an unhappy smile. "I wish you wouldn't ask sensible questions like that. It makes things that much harder." She sighed. "Politics Odyseus, politics. No foreign army has ever camped in the Amazon valley. Gabrielle's Councilors all but threaten open insurrection at the very idea of Athenian troops being quartered for who knows how long on Amazon land. Personally I want them there and so does Pericles. But things are no better at his end. He's not a King you know. Only the head of the Athenian democracy. He answers to the vote of his people and they are determined that Athens do nothing to provoke Carthage till they are ready to move in the spring. Athenian troops in the Amazon valley would certainly be looked on as an open act of war by the Carthaginians. Pericles assured Gabrielle at their last meeting a few weeks ago that if Carthage actually marches on us he will send the Athenian army to aid us, but till then we can expect nothing from Athens and if Athens does nothing Sparta does nothing. The Spartans are too paranoid about Athens to act alone and risk having Athens take advantage of the Spartan armys absence to grab some advantage over them. So it all comes down to timing."
Xena pointed to the Farsala ford on the map.
"Three days march from Vonitsa to the ford. Six days march from Athens to the ford. When the Carthaginians come they will be anxious to smash us as quickly as possible so they have time to adequately fortify the ford before the Athenians arrive. Going around to the south of the Zama ridge adds almost two days to their march. The timing becomes very dangerous. They could lose the race to Farsala. It's much better for them to force the break and take the most direct route to the ford."
Odyseus rubbed his chin while he intently studied the map.
"What do the numbers look like?" he asked.
"I've got twelve hundred superbly disciplined women" Xena answered. "Each Amazon village is required by law to maintain a company of two hundred trained and equipped warriors. The compitition to be named to the village levy is intense. Every Amazon is raised dreaming of becoming part of the Amazon army. The small and weak are ruthlessly weeded out. Only the strongest and toughest earn the priviledge of standing in the battle line of their village. I'll match my warriors with any similar sized force in the world. Including the Legions of Rome."
The King nodded.
"The Carthaginian numbers are only estimates but I think they are reasonable ones, "Xena continued, "I'll know better when I infiltrate the city and do a personal recon later in the summer."
Odyseus looked up with a surprised and disapproving face but the Lion was pouring herself a drink form the pitcher of wine Ridian had just set on the table and did not notice.
"The force won't be too large or they would never be able to keep it supplied at the ford over the winter" the Lion continued. "I estimate four to six thousand. About half will be regular Carthaginian infantry, the other half locally hired mercenaries brought in by their navy. The Carthaginain's are always short of troops and half their armies are usually mercenaries. Also I anticipate they will hire some local mercenary general who knows the terrain to command the army. That is their usual procedure in this type of campaign."
"Any idea who it will be?"
"Not a clue." Xena answered. "I hope to find that out when I do my recon. I always like to know who's doing the thinking on the other side."
"So, "the King said slowly. "What exactly is your battle plan and how do I fit in?"
"You're the surprise I'm going to spring on the enemy to destroy them." Xena said with narrow, intense eyes. "Look here, "she pointed to where the Akheloos emptied into the Agean. "On the west side of the river where it joins the sea the beach is narrow and rocky but firm and easily approachable from the ocean. You can land your troops here and march them up the river to the Corinth highway then down the highway to the break. I can have a trail blazed by my engineers in the next couple of months. Once you reach the break I intend to have spaces already carved out of the treeline on either side of the break so you can put your troops into the forests without being seen. When the Carthaginians strike our line at the break and are completely engaged you come bursting out of the trees on their flanks and pinch in to crush them. A classic double envelopement. A repeat of Hannibal's smashing of the Roman's at Cannae sixty years ago." Xena smiled that wolfish, predator smile. "I anticipate just the shock of seeing you appear magically on their flanks will be enough to start them running. Once they break ranks I intend to unleash Princess Ephiny on them."
Odyseus looked at Xena questioningly.
"I've had the Princess form the first Amazon cavalry corps. She's personally selected the one hundred toughest, most aggresive warriors in the nation to train." The Lion grinned. "She has a real butt kicker named Daria of Pyra as her top Lt. and together they are getting them in shape right now. It's funny, Daria looks a little like me and Ephiny thinks one day she will be a Warleader. From what I've seen she just might." Xena took a drink. "Anyway, I formed the cavalry for one basic mission. When the Carthaginians run I'm going to send Ephiny out with only one order. Kill'em all." The Lions ice blue eyes narrowed as she looked at the King. "I want this to be the first and last battle of this war. I want the bastards so broken and butchered that the Athenians and Spartans will only have to clean up the mess. The fall of Vonitsa should be a foregone conclusion."
The King shook his head with admiration and also with the respect of one professional warrior for another.
"Outnumbered four to one and you're plotting how to destroy them, not just survive. You truly are the Lion" he said.
The Warrior Princess shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly.
"I've been outnumbered in every major battle I've fought" she said matter-of-factly. "You know as well as I do it's not numbers that win. It's having the right warriors in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. Do that and the numbers become irrelevant."
"You're right of course" Odyseus replied. "Do you have any information on their tactics? I've never faced them in battle."
"I haven't either." Xena said. "I've been racing all over Greece the last couple of months talking to anyone I can find who has. Poor Argo is worn to a frazzle. But what I've found is encouraging. They use a standard phalanx. Three lines shoulder to shoulder armed with a hopolite shield and ten foot pike and short sword carried in a scabbard at the belt. The only wrinkle they add is a fourth line of young warriors armed only with a small round shield and a sword or mace. When an opposing line breaks they let the fourth line pass through so all those young legs can chase down the enemy and slaughter them and keep them from reforming. I think it's the Carthaginian answer to not having any dependable cavalry."
Xena took a long drink of wine and wiped her mouth.
"This will be the first time an Amazon army has faced regular, professional infantry in open battle. The Nation's traditional enemies, the Centaurs and Medians, live in the forests and hills north and east of us. All the warfare was tribal. Hit and run raids, ambush. Gabrielle has been working furiously gathering the armour and big four foot hopolite shields we need to face the hedge of pikes of an advancing phalanx. I decided early on not to bother arming our warriors with pikes. It takes months and months of training to handle one properly and we aren't going to attack anyway. All we need to do is stop them in their tracks and let the Ithacans have all the glory, if they will help us."
The Lion looked the King in the eyes and the man saw in her blue orbs the closest thing to a plea he knew he would ever see.
"Will you help us Odyseus?" Xena asked quietly.
The King took a slow deep breath and then turned and put his hands on the table and began closely studying Xena's map. The Lion sat down in her chair and started rolling her cup slowly back and forth in her hands, staring straight ahead with that granite warlord mask that she put on in times of stress. Finally Odyseus straightened and poured himself a full to the brim gobblet of wine and sat down in his chair at the head of the table. He took a long sip as he stared at the Lion. She gazed back unblinking.
"You're taking some long chances here Xena." he said in a low, deep voice. "Very long. You know as well as I how difficult it is to co-ordinate troops over such great distances. The timing leaves no room for error. A day late might as well be a year late. And surprise is everything. If we arrive too early and they discover us coming to your aid they just head south around the ridge, and I'll tell you straight out my friend, my responsiblity is to my warriors. I won't fight outnumbered in the open and have my people slaughtered with yours. I'll withdraw to my ships and leave you to your fate. Perhaps here, Warrior Princess, the chances are too long."
Xena took a sip of wine, but her eyes never left Odyseus'.
" 'the chances are too long' "the Lion repeated. "An interesting phrase from the man who conquored Troy by hiding in a wooden horse hoping they would be gullible enough to take the stupid thing into their walls instead of setting it on fire. A man who purposely locked himself in his reception hall with thirty heavily armed enemies and then proceeded to kill'em all. A man who..."
"I remember my life Xena" Odyseus interrupted, annoyed. "I was conscious during most of it."
The King took a drink and let it roll around in his mouth a moment and then swallowed.
"You asked me when would I ever grow up? "he said slowly. "I guess the answer is never. A mature man would pass on this pipe dream of a plan but.." the King gave a little sigh, "what son of Greece would not help her now against these ruthless bastards, and what gentleman would not come to the aid of a worthy lady like Gabrielle." Odyseus sighed again, and then a wolfish, predator grin slowly spread across his face that mirrored Xena's exactly. "I have the ships to put two thousand men on that beach by the Akheloos river. Will that be enough?"
Xena closed her eyes and swallowed with relief. She stood up and offered her arm. Odyseus rose and took it.
"It will be enough." she whispered with a nod of her head.
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