“If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Water from a retreating tide washed over Alexandra. She could not see nor hear anything but the pounding drums in her skull. She felt everything with acute awareness, and to feel is to live even with the excoriating pain of lost battles and dead lovers. She struggled to move. The heavy chain mail and wet leather pinned her down under its weight, and only her right side was free. The rest of her body was mired in the sand next to the towering white chalk cliff. The water flowed over her legs and retreated leaving chilled flesh in place of the ache that enfeebled her in the sand.
She struggled, held down by the relentless grasp of the shore. The wash of water moved over her hips, her stomach, and flowed down into the sand warming against her flesh mired in the pungent grave that fought her for possession of her body, not her soul. She felt her soul unconquered as she sank deeper with every wave.
Surrender came to Alexandra like that moment of sleep when all the uncalled thoughts cease, and the darkness is not blasted away with dreams of the incubus who haunts and demands her flesh.
Distant sounds, first like a peal of rolling thunder, and soon scattered marsh sparrows chirped against the background of gentle sea lapping at the shore. Alexandra tilted her head to hear them. Another damp wave registered under her arms, across her breasts in tantalizing sweeps, first warm, and growing to a nip of frost. She detected fingers touching her. They were tender. There were love and devotion in the touch that drifted across her body, not the hungry tearing, twisting, pinching, demanding slaps and hits she was intimately familiar with; the burning pain of others who possessed her. This was different. She relaxed to focus on the hands that soothed her.
“That’s good, My Lady,” Dari cooed as she bathed Alexandra’s body. “You’ll feel much better after a sponge bath. I used some essence of lilac to help relax you.”
Alexandra moved, relented, and gasped as the warm sponge went over her. She heard Dari speak.
“I’m sorry, My Lady. You must endure this insult. Injury affords no dignity. I thought it better I bath you instead of the nurses, who you have yet to meet.”
Presence drifted away. Alexandra lay in the sand content to let her handmaid work to free her from the grasp of her sodden grave. Dari appeared in a strange halo of her vision. Alexandra saw Dari look down into her face and she felt comforted by the love she saw in her handmaid’s eyes.
Alexandra struggled back into her consciousness and considered how this life had afforded her only a deepening pain and anxiety. Even as she fought for physical superiority and a disciplined mind, she had endured the terrible hurt of those lessons she gained in mastering her art at the tutelage of Master Cho, her savior. Only he had never violated her body or trust. Only he remained in her heart as her time carried her downstream to her destiny.
Again, she slipped away under Dari’s hands. Visions of Cezar walking down the shore toward her focused her mind with a stunning grip. His armor seemed ragged, his helmet a testament to the battle they had lost. Alexandra’s heart lifted as he limped toward her and Dari. He lived. That was all that mattered. The three of them were reunited again. They would go on together, lick their wounds, and later hunt down the bastards that invaded their lands. She would lead alongside Cezar as they stormed into the villages of the invaders. She would bring her wolves next time and see how fat they grew on the flesh of her enemies.
Alexandra screamed her oath to Cezar as he stood over her with piteous eyes. I swear by Gebeleizis, the god of battle, I will go to their villages and every woman whose womanhood is bearded and used by the men will be whored to our soldiers, and the hairless virgins will live as slaves until they too are old enough for whoring. We’ll kill every male of our enemy that dreams to defile a woman with his manhood.
“Alexandra, my queen. We must rebuild our army and learn from this day. We must come to know ourselves and our skill in battle better. Our fierce hearts have led us to slaughter. It is not our blood we seek but, theirs.” Cezar’s voice echoed in Alexandra’s ears.
He speaks the truth. My King must give me sons to lead our Army while the King and I seek to subterfuge the oppressor’s secrets.
“My Lord, lift me from this grave so that my handmaid and I can join you,” Alexandra beseeched Cezar through her tears of pain and frustration. She looked up as he stared across the sea. She knew it would be a long journey home with the few of their army that still lived.
In Alexandra’s vision, Cezar stood bloodied yet strong and dignified against the blue-gray sky of a waning sun. I will die before I betray my love with weakness and dispirited thought, she heard her voice ring in her head.
Lost in her drug-induced visions under thick bandages, Alexandra did not see the envy in Dari’s eyes as she looked at her bandaged Duchesses sylph-like body. Nor did Alexandra know of Dari’s new challenge to become the Wolfmaster or her deepening love for Marius. Alexandra knew one thing in the worlds and lives she inhabited; fate is inexorable and her allegiance with Dari held secrets that sealed their future together.