Don't own 'em, wish I did. Story's mine though and I promise to return them to their places after I've played with them. Well, maybe not Xena... I think I'll keep her.
Explicit content and sex warning: This alt story features consensual sex between two adult women, the works with all anatomical details. If this kind of love bothers you, please go read some nice, general fiction. If it's illegal where you live, move. Bondage, domination, sadism, masochism and all their pals featured as well, in the name of love.
Extreme violence warning: This is Xena. The old Xena. Need I say more? Where the dark lady kicks butt, there's blood and body parts. So, in this story, extreme violence and its aftermaths are depicted in a realistic, graphic way. Torture, yes. Sexual violence, no.
Spelling warning: Proper English. Place names are spelled in the official transliteration from Greek so Amphipolis is Amfípolis and so on.
Notes:This is the second part in a trilogy of sorts that began with Penance, so I suggest you read that story first. The ten second version: Xena is Conqueror. She is evil and she loves Gabrielle.
The poem: copyright L. J. Thompson 1999, many thanks to her for lending her talent.
My everlasting gratitude must go to my excellent beta readers, most notably Alphanumericx and Michal Salat (Virum mihi, Camena, insece versutum).
You can find more work by Penumbra at her site u m b r a e
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
B l o o d M e r i d i a n
© Penumbra 1999
"Death by evisceration."
The answer was a scream more like that of a wild animal than a human being. But the look in Galen's eyes was that of a hunted beast, a gaze that spoke of utter terror. He swung his heavy wrist shackles, surprising his guard and knocking him unconscious with the chain. The guard fell to the dusty ground and the prisoner surged forward, only to be plowed down by another guard. A third one rushed to the scene and lifted his pike to impale the prisoner.
The words reverberated across the forum, over the assembled crowd, echoing back from the marble pillars of the buildings encircling the plaza. The guard's pike froze over the prisoner's chest, and all eyes turned from the scuffle to the raised dais and to the occupant of the high-backed chair in the middle of it.
The Conqueror unhooked her cape from her armour and rose. Gently brushing a nonexistent fleck of dust from her gauntlet, Xena took a deep breath and smiled. The sentencing day had been long and dull, but finally held the promise of some excitement. And as luck would have it, the one prisoner to oppose her would be Galen -- a thorn in her side for far too long.
The guard lowered his pike and the prisoner rose to a half-sitting position. Although he had been addressed, his vocal chords seemed unable to form any words. He swallowed, his eyes following the imposing figure. Pacing with the quiet, efficient gait of a predator, the Conqueror came to the edge of the dais and looked down at him.
The voice was calm, effortlessly penetrating the hush that had fallen over the forum. The words seemed to wrap themselves around him, or so Galen felt. All his rage drained away, all that remained was... fear. The sapphire blue eyes that held him captive were cold, mute, alive only with darkness in its purest form. It suddenly dawned on him that evisceration was not the worst way to die.
The eyes were still on him as the Conqueror jumped down from the platform.
As if from the thin air a dagger appeared in the Conqueror's hand. A breeze blew through the square, fanning out the woman's hair into a halo of inky black. The wind was too feeble to dry the nervous sweat on Galen's forehead, and for a fleeting moment he wished for the wind to take away his sprit, to carry him away from that piercing gaze and that velvety, detached alto voice.
"You betrayed your polis, your home," Xena continued, making a sweeping gesture that encompassed both the city and all of Greece. Her Greece. She stepped closer, crouching down when she reached the semi-prone Galen. The man flinched when the Conqueror's long hair brushed his cheek, a hundred claws scraping him and infecting his flesh with her darkness.
He licked away the fine sheen of sweat on his upper lip when the dagger descended, guided by a steady hand. The blade stopped when it reached his chest, its tip resting gently against his shirt. It sliced the fabric neatly, revealing a heaving chest.
"Most importantly... you betrayed Greece. And I am Greece."
With that, the dagger drew blood. Galen uttered a small mewing sound, his hands squeezed into fists. Slowly, evenly, the sharp blade drew two perpendicular lines -- the Conqueror's X -- before drawing a circle around them. The wound seeped clear crimson blood, a few drops leaving their source and travelling down his chest.
"For this," the Conqueror continued, her tone conversational as she pointed at the new wound, "you'll get special treatment from Hades. We're old acquaintances." She rose and waved for the guards.
The stupefied man was dragged away and Xena was already
back in her seat, cleaning her dagger, while the guards tied him down to
the scaffold. The executioner's first cut brought him out of his stupor.
The shadows of her palace over the city had grown long before her day was over. The oncoming spring was making days longer and fields greener, though nights were still cold; nature was waking from its slumber, Kórinthos following suit. Xena paused at a window and looked over her polis, wearing a sad smile.
There was something in her nature that was part of the primal undercurrent of all living things. Her blood demanded things of her and rarely could she refuse its calling. Hers was the soul of a wanderer, her mind always set on tomorrow rather than the moment, anticipating what was to come. Waiting, relishing change, horrified at the thought of routine life. And here she was, the ruler of Greece, watching over the finest jewel of her crown which she had fought so hard for, and she was bored. What had been a new plaything had become a burden.
She saw a flock of migrating birds take flight from the rooftops and gather into a darkening cloud before heading north of the city, towards their unknown destination. For a fleeting moment she wished she could join them, before a discreet cough brought her out of her reverie.
"Yes, Mentu?" she said without turning.
"How was your day today, Mistress?"
She smiled towards the setting sun, feeling the waning rays dance on her high forehead, and considered. A treaty had been signed, and a spy executed. "Fine."
"Ah." He paused. "Would you like to have your bath now?"
She turned, the smile still twitching on her lips. The smile was mirrored on Mentuhetep's handsome, if wrinkling, face. The man was dressed in one of the flowing silk tunics he favoured, this one in the muted green of deep forests, with gold embroidery. There was a faint air of concern about him, but as far as Xena could remember the man had always worried because of her. He was a friend, a mentor, a strategist and a mother hen, all in one package.
"Yes, my friend," the Conqueror said and gently grasped
the man's forearm, drawing him towards her quarters. "And then you can
tell me about your day."
She ran her hand through the vapor, her gaze lingering on the maze of the light gray vortex of the steam. Such fragile shapes that disappeared in the blink of an eye, obediently following the flick of her hand.
The bath was wonderful. It was scented with rose oil and flower petals, the delicate scent rising from the hot water with the gray mist. Barely below scalding, the water felt very... pure. Virginal. It cleansed both her body and her soul, driving away the memories of blood and black with its quiet insistence.
She heard a door open and close behind her and a familiar presence permeated her consciousness. She closed her eyes lightly and smiled, sensing with just the eyes of her heart.
"Hello, my love," the Conqueror hummed, her voice a low purr. She lifted a leg out of the water and to the edge of the copper tub, feeling the blast of cooler air as the water sheeted away from her skin. Warm hands landed on her half-immersed shoulders, and then a rustle of cloth told her that her lover knelt next to the tub.
"Hello," Gabrielle whispered and slid her hands forward, breaking the surface of the water with her fingertips. The skin under the water was slick and smooth and the bard rested her chin on the edge of the tub, content to enjoy the silent closeness.
Water splashed as the leg on the tub's rim retreated and the magnificent body turned in the water. Gabrielle was momentarily entranced by the sight of two muscular buttocks bobbing up and down in the water, but her attention was quickly drawn away by the Conqueror's warm breath on her neck.
"Would you join me?" asked the throaty voice she so much loved. Gabrielle turned her head and refocused on the dark woman's eyes, now gone stormy blue and narrowed to mere slits. She knew the depths of the promise that those eyes held. Gabrielle undressed quickly and perched on the tub's rim, trailing a finger through the archipelago of multi-coloured petals. It was hot but not too hot, and so she went in.
Xena purred with delight when the cool, slippery body settled between her legs. She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle, smoothing her palms over the smaller woman's ribs before burying her head in the golden locks in front of her. The scent of her hair was that of outdoors, a memory of wild apples and sunshine in the errant strands that tickled her face. She nuzzled into Gabrielle's hair, absorbing the warmth of their connection.
Love. Such an odd feeling, with such odd effects. There seemed to be a small nook inside her where love resided, showering her with gold dust whenever the object of her affection came into view. It made her light-headed, this small pit of warmth always erupting in her abdomen. She would walk into Gabrielle's room and upon seeing that lithe, gentle figure bent over a piece of parchment, with just the tip of a lovely pink tongue showing between her teeth as she scribbled furiously, Xena, the Conqueror, would feel her face form a smile, her heart melting into a quivering puddle.
"How was your day, my bard?"
Gabrielle smiled at the gentle voice and rested her hand on a convenient tanned knee that peeked above the surface of the water. Trying very hard to ignore the feel of the Conqueror's breasts and two nipples gently brushing her back, she rapped her fingers against the knee. My day? Spent in my chambers, dreaming of you. Half the time thanking the gods for who you are, the other half wishing you were not what you are...
"The usual," she replied instead. "Went shopping. Cleaned up my desk and handled your correspondence. Wrote a poem."
"Yes," the bard smiled and let her hand fall from the knee. She followed the length of that beautiful thigh with her knuckles, feeling the small muscles jump as she neared the apex. Her other hand submerged and found Xena's forearm, stroking the corded tendons under the smooth skin, knowing the crisscross pattern of scars on that arm by heart. Like a roadmap, it mapped the comings and goings of a lifetime. "About you."
"About me?" The arms around her tightened momentarily and she could feel the Conqueror's soft exhalation on her neck. There was quiet wonder in the voice.
"You are my muse," Gabrielle said and, sliding a bit lower, rested her head on Xena's shoulder. The Conqueror's hand came up from the water and found her cheek, stroking it gently before turning it towards her.
The kiss was remarkably gentle, the lips that landed on Gabrielle's smooth and soft, so unlike the rest of their owner. Gabrielle gripped the forearms she was holding more tightly as she settled into the kiss, her blood rising at the feel of the rosy petals on her mouth, and of the incredible heat that came from the body behind her. She could feel her body arching into the contact, her heart quickening when Xena's hands parted and one slid lower, to slowly brush her stomach. The muscles over her ribcage quivered under the touch and she moaned her protest into the kiss when the hand came back up. Higher still, brushing the underside of her breast before--
They were rudely interrupted by the opening of the door and, more specifically, by the valet who came in. A boy of no more than fifteen summers, he was new and had yet to learn the utmost importance of knocking before entering. Gabrielle broke the kiss upon the slam of the door and whipped her head around just in time to see the boy screech to a halt, a colour more suitable to beets than humans creeping up his neck.
Even the bard flinched minutely at the Conqueror's tone, but the boy looked as if he were going to faint right then and there. Gabrielle scooted forward and fought the urge to sink under the water to cool down the heat she felt creeping onto her cheeks.
The Conqueror, on the other hand, had no such qualms about modesty. She put her hands on the rim of the tub and pushed herself up from the water and over the edge, not pausing but striding purposefully towards the boy. Water cascaded from her hair and off her body, leaving a wet trail on the marble floor.
"Speak up! What is so important?"
The valet backed up a step and focused his gaze on the tips of his shoes. That was the safest bet when the Conqueror was in this mood; she didn't take kindly to oglers.
"Th--" His voice broke and he cleared his throat, trying very hard to ignore the urge to look up. "There's a messenger from Rome..."
"And it couldn't wait?"
"He, um, he said... it was urgent so..."
Xena waved him quiet and dismissed him. The valet fled in relief. Not only was his life in less danger now; he was also in desperate need of a bucket of cold water.
"Hold that thought," Xena said to Gabrielle before
grabbing a robe and heading out in search of Mentu.
Tiberius was an impatient man.
There was a certain barbarian beauty to the city of Kórinthos, with its history of so many cycles not even ten men could count with their fingers and toes. But he hailed from the eternal city, where all roads led and, in his opinion, the centre of the world. And here he was, having travelled across the sea, forced to wait while this... Conqueror bathed.
He had heard many tales about the Conqueror, most stories concentrating on either her beauty or on her cruelty, the majority of them surely nonsense. But Tiberius had not had that much of a chance to focus on foreign policy when the inner turmoils of his country were so intense. The civil war had taken a toll on his family and his fortune, and now... He shook his head to chase away the sight of the bloody toga, ashamed of the fleeting sense of glee he felt when finally, the man responsible for his downfall had paid for his crimes against Rome.
Why this barbarian ruler of Greece was worthy of this trip was beyond him. He had been sent away as soon as the deed had been done. He tapped his foot against the marble floor, glancing at the setting sun. Now, really. This woman -- woman! -- had the gall to keep him waiting, and if she didn't have the grace to appear soon, he would be forced to spend the night in this foreign city.
He paced to a window and, resting his hands on the windowsill, leaned out. The last rays of the sun shot from across the sea and bathed the clay roofs of the city in a disturbing colour of rusty brown, like old blood. Glancing down, he saw that his tunic and the white toga over it were coloured with a matching shade of faint crimson.
"You come from Rome?"
The words startled him; he turned and, had he not stood next to the wall, he would have backed up a step or two. How the woman had snuck up so close without him noticing was a mystery. But there she stood, her dark blue silk robe made darker still by the water that ran from her hair. Tiberius doubted for a moment his decision to disturb the Conqueror's bath. The ire in the cold blue eyes was plain.
"Yes. I have a message," he said and, cursing the trembling of his hand, pulled a signet ring from inside the toga. It held the image of the Gaul cock and a dagger. Brutus does have a sick sense of humour, Xena thought and received the ring as well as a roll of parchment. Giving the ring to Mentu who stood silently behind her, she cracked open the purple seal.
Tiberius watched closely as the Conqueror unrolled the parchment and scanned through it. He was most surprised by two things; that yes, the woman was as beautiful as the stories claimed her to be, and that there was such a wicked intelligence in the pale blue eyes. It was wisdom of the cruel sort, he deduced when the corners of Xena's mouth curved up in a small smile.
The parchment re-curled by itself and the Conqueror tapped her chin with it, thinking. Nodding at a decision made, she whispered something to Mentu who left the room, only to return with a box, tightly sealed and wrapped in linen cloth. He handed it to Tiberius.
"Take this to Brutus, along with my regards, my congratulations and," she paused and smiled a crooked grin, "my commiserations."
Tiberius weighed the box in his hands, finding it heavy. There was a faintly unpleasant air around it and when he brought it closer for a sniff, he recognised the stinging smell of embalming fluids. Jerking his head back, he looked up, cold nausea gripping his gut. There was a faint, cruel smile on the Conqueror's lips; just the very tips of her prominent canines were visible, resting on the crimson lower lip.
"Good day to you, my Lord," he said and bowed hastily
before retreating. He had to get out, fast.
Xena bit the inside of her cheek to stifle her laughter. The pompous messenger had acquired the look of a rabbit caught in a hunter's torchlight and he fled as quickly as his short legs could carry him. Turning to face Mentu, she adjusted her robe. It was clinging to her wet skin, her hair in turn clinging to it. It was cold, and she still had unfinished business with Gabrielle. That thought brought a wicked twinkle in her eyes.
"Is my courier ready?"
"He can sail at first light," Mentuhetep grinned. He loved conspiracies as much as his Mistress did.
"Good," the Conqueror purred and paced to the small writing desk in the corner of the reception room. Scribbling a quick note, she sealed it with her crest and handed it to Mentu. "Send this with the documents we found on Galen. And a flagon of the best wine. Octavianus will want to toast."
Mentu bowed and left with his instructions. Pouring two goblets of wine, she felt almost giddy, the palpable feeling of power over life more intoxicating than the strongest of grappas. The intricacy of the plan was just too delicious. She had now successfully gotten rid of a man she hated more than anything else, and was about to pit two half-brothers against one another. Rome would be in chaos for moons, maybe cycles to come. Taking a swig of the heady local product, she imagined Brutus' face when he would open the gift and find out that it was not wise to try to outsmart her. Or try to spy on her.
It was such a shame the rest of Galen was in such
a disorganised state. She would have preferred to send him whole but the
nature of his crime had been serious enough to demand that everything of
him below the chin was now in pieces best suited for dog food.
Oh, Hades, Gabrielle cursed and gave up. The ink on her fingers wouldn't budge, no matter how hard she scrubbed. Leaning back in the warm water, she took one flower petal between her forefinger and thumb, crushing it to release its fragile fragrance. They were the precious petals of spring's first blooms, a luxury few could afford. Gabrielle released the crushed petal back to the water and pushed it around with her finger, smiling in muted wonderment. How her life had changed in the past few years -- it was enough to make her head spin.
With little effort she could see the face of her lover in her mind's eye. The noble, predatory profile, the proud bearing and the eyes that missed nothing. The quiet wisdom and the cool, detached intelligence behind the eyes, and the fierce soul that governed above all. The Conqueror was a sum of all things wild, polarised to the extreme. And she, a former slave, a farmer's daughter, was this remarkable woman's heart's chosen.
Not that I have any choice in the matter, Gabrielle smiled and let her head loll back. There was a small spot inside her that ignited whenever Xena touched her, or gazed at her in that inimitable way that conveyed both dangerous passion and gentle love. In retrospect, Gabrielle realised it must have been harder for her lover to make the necessary mental adjustments. Sure, she herself had been in turn bewildered, ashamed and totally perplexed at the emotions and feelings that ran inside her, but the Conqueror... many a time, in the privacy of the night, had the dark woman wept in silence.
The door opened with a barely audible squeak and the bard closed her eyes, concentrating on that sound, on the rustle of silk and the sound of wet feet on the floor. They came nearer before stopping completely and Gabrielle opened her eyes to see the smiling face of her lover. Xena handed her a goblet before gliding back into the bath.
"Now, where were we?"
Grimacing slightly at the heady taste of the wine, Gabrielle gave the Conqueror an impish smile before taking hold of Xena's free hand and placing it on her breast. "Here," she whispered.
A shapely dark eyebrow rose. The Conqueror's goblet was set on the tub's rim with a slight chink and she leaned forward. Gabrielle could feel the hot breath on her cheek and a shiver travelled down her spine, brought about by the water that suddenly felt cool against her heated skin, and by the intensity that rolled in waves off the dark woman. A thumb brushed against her nipple and a whimper escaped her.
Xena's nostrils flared at the small sound of need and she smiled, feeling her bard's heightened state in the frantic beat of the heart under her fingertips. Suddenly, she reached into the milky water and came back up with Gabrielle in her arms. The bard squeaked in surprise. Water cascaded off them in a loud rush but neither cared when lips found one another again, and the world around them dissipated into a warm haze of desire. Without breaking the kiss, the Conqueror stepped out of the bath and paced across the floor, carrying the smaller woman with a casual display of strength. Settling her precious cargo on the nearest flat surface, a dinner table covered with a thick linen cloth, Xena finally extracted her lips and tongue from the enticing mouth.
It never ceased to amaze her. In the almost thirty winters she had fought and survived, never had she felt this way, never had one person held such power over her. As she gazed down into the beatific, smiling face of her bard, she fell in love all over again. The thick mane of hair, spread around like a halo on the linen and around the beautiful face, the green eyes gone dark and misty, pupils dilated to two dark wells, two doors to the soul of the woman who had chosen to love her. The Conqueror's heart ached with the sweet hurt of thirst never quenched, and the unfamiliar feeling of... not deserving. A small hand rose, and a finger traced a bulging vein in her bicep.
"You are so beautiful," Gabrielle whispered, brushing back over the trail of goosebumps her finger had elicited. The skin was smooth and taut, small rivers of water running down the elongated, rounded ridges of muscle.
"No," the Conqueror hummed, brushing Gabrielle's cheek with the back of her hand. Bending over the bard, she inhaled the scent of roses and arousal on her lover. "You are."
And then there were no more words save for those
spoken in passion.
Idleness was Tartarus.
Xena leaned back in her chair and tossed the quill in the general direction of its case. She missed and the shaft clattered across the massive ebony desk and fell to the floor. Entwining her hands, she bit her lower lip, thinking.
Saba bent down to pick the quill up from the floor and settled it quietly into its case. Resuming her attentive stand, she met the Conqueror's eyes, fighting the ever-present urge to turn away her gaze and run. The blue of the eyes was an icy shade, and with some angst the small, olive-skinned woman watched the dance of small muscles in the Conqueror's face. In clear relief they stood against the tanned skin, bunching and relaxing. Not good.
"Saba. I'm bored."
The words said out loud what the First had been guessing all along. Boredom was dangerous, especially when it came to Xena. The Conqueror had the unfortunate tendency to take out her boredom on others, in the cruelest and most inventive of ways.
Saba thought furiously, mentally flipping through appropriate answers. Her job as the First was not easy, but she could only blame herself for it. Since Talas' betrayal and Kadmus' death by the hand of the traitor Galen, she had been next in line for the prestigious yet dangerous position of the Conqueror's first in command. But she took great pride in her job and in the fact that the Conqueror, one of the most brilliant tacticians ever to grace the Known World, had faith in her. Damned if she was going to let her commander down. Or lose to that ever-present slippery, brown-nosing Etor. The man was just too sleazy for his own good.
Snapping away from the intricate mental maze of palace politics, Saba smiled at her commander.
"Peace can be frustrating, my liege."
Xena smiled back, raising a good-humoured eyebrow. In the power struggle that had followed Talas' betrayal and resulting dismemberment, Saba had proven her blood to be cold enough for this job. Kadmus had received the job, though, but that was more a sign of courtesy to the man who had been there for the Conqueror for so many years. But Saba... the woman understood the soul of battle almost as well as she did, and so far no complaints. The woman had been probity itself.
Adjusting the weight of her helmet under her arm, Saba fleetingly pondered suggesting a training session. But no, that usually ended up in her getting the bejeezus smacked out of her and Anatoli, her fiancee, would fuss over her again. Something different...
"A trading ship arrived yesterday," Saba began tentatively.
"They have a dealer of animals with them."
"Oh?" The other dark eyebrow joined its companion and the Conqueror sat up. An unfortunate mishap on the stable master's behalf had killed two of her horses; the animals had gotten chow that had thorn apple in it. So, shopping for new ones was not a bad idea. And, since she was feeling wicked...
"Shall I ask him to stop by or...?"
"No," Xena said and rose, tugging her long blue-and-gold
tunic to settle it better. Upon seeing Saba's confused expression, she
smiled a crooked smile and waved a hand at the nearest window. "It's perfect
weather for a little stroll."
It was that time of the year when the fragile freshness of spring is just about to give way to the full, suffocating blossom of summer; weather was hot, the nights getting warmer, rain coming in gentle, quick showers. The street was dry as bone, dust rising in small clouds with every step. People of every profession, gender, age and skin tone milled about, doing their daily shopping or hurrying on some errand, seemingly oblivious to the blazing sun and the simmering heat.
The Conqueror kicked a small pebble and watched it skitter across the street. Unlike in the centre of the city where buildings and temples were of marble and streets paved with stone, in this older area near the harbour the streets were narrower, the buildings made of sun-bleached red clay and heavy timbers. Kórinthos was an ancient city, losing in size only to Athína and Sparta. Before I visited, Xena added with a private smile.
It was debatable whether the town was better off with her influence than the previous king's but it was clear that Kórinthos prospered. The number of inhabitants had grown by a sixth since last summer, many families moving to fill in the places left by those who died in the siege, lured in by the added business of having a new army and a larger court as well as the increased safety in the city. For if there was something the Conqueror was known for, it was her iron hand of control. The city had never been so peaceful, so devoid of criminals. Justice was swift and harsh, and most who contemplated taking up a life of crime were convinced otherwise by the heads of highway robbers that decorated the city gates, and by the moans the wind carried from the murderers and rapists suffering the cross outside the city gates.
Both the number of languages as well as the volume increased as they neared the forum. The area was full of people and the Conqueror pulled her big hat lower. Travelling incognito was imperative and so both she and Saba had donned a disguise; the First was dressed in the rough short tunic of a servant, carrying a basket, while Xena had decided on a travelling salesman's garb of an old shirt, leather trousers and a large cartwheel hat to disguise her hair and provide shelter from the sun and curious gazes.
The animal dealer was spotted easily; he had over a dozen horses with him, all only semi-tamed. They trotted in their small pen, eyes flashing and legs still weak from their journey. The Conqueror leaned against the wooden fence, gazing speculatively at the horses.
"What do you think, Saba?"
The First stepped closer, casting a sideways glance at the taller woman. "That young roan has potential, but the rest..." she trailed off, making a frustrated gesture. The horses were fine, but not quite as good as the Conqueror preferred. One clearly had a lame leg, and the rest had obviously suffered from the travelling.
Xena nodded in agreement. Yes, the roan was the only one that was noteworthy of them but she was still small and would most likely remain so. Too small to carry her with armour and full gear. But...
"There are other animals."
Saba followed the Conqueror's nod and, true, there was an assortment of cages on the opposite side of the pen, in the shadows. Graceful shapes could be seen inside them, skittering, jumping or prancing about. They walked closer, dismissing the monkeys and parrots until they came to the largest of cages where two green, piercing eyes regarded the world with venom. The Conqueror crouched down, resting a hand on a wooden bar of the cage. The animal came into motion and stepped into better light, eyes fixed on the Conqueror.
"It's beautiful," Xena breathed, admiring the play of muscles under the short, coarse black fur of the young panther.
The cat was wary, approaching with ethereally quiet, slow steps, hissing at the woman who stared back with eyes as predatory as his own. Baring his teeth, the cat hissed. The Conqueror's eyes narrowed and her smile turned into a full grin. The animal had issued a challenge, he was mocking her with a look of utter contempt, eyes closed to small slivers of emerald.
"Wouldn't go that close if I were you, mate."
Xena turned towards the wry words, to see a man, the trader. He was as big as an ancient tree, his legs two poles thicker than an oak and just as solid. Dressed in just a pair of trousers and a leather apron, carrying a big hammer, he had obviously been shoeing a horse. Pearls of sweat dotted his forehead as he squinted down at this prospective buyer.
"He's been nothing but trouble since I bought him in Port Saiid. Nobody wants him since he's untamed. Killed an animal keeper when we were in Piraeus," he said, pointing with his hammer at the wiry young animal. "You interested?"
Xena smiled before turning back towards the cage. Raising a challenging eyebrow, she regarded the panther. He was still young and though definitely a bundle of trouble, she had never been able to resist a challenge. "Open the cage."
The trader looked at the Conqueror as if she was half-witted. "Do you have a death wish?"
"Mistress, is this wise?" Saba whispered but Xena waved her away. Snatching the keys from the trader, she opened the cage lock and stepped inside.
The cage was just big enough for her to stand straight, and she did so, gazing down at the animal. He had resumed his pacing, his eyes never leaving Xena. The Conqueror crouched down, her concentration solely on the predator. He was pacing in circles, muscles shifting and twitching in smooth waves. The green gaze was hypnotic and the small hairs at the nape of Xena's neck rose as instincts kicked in. A small, satisfied purr rose deep in her throat as she surrendered to her instincts, nostrils flaring.
Suddenly, the panther lunged, jaws wide, claws thicker than a man's thumb and sharp as awls aimed straight at Xena. But the Conqueror had anticipated this, making a sideways dodge before launching into an attack of her own. She caught the animal on his side and wrapped long arms around the hot torso, the impact strong enough to send them airborne. They hit the cage's bars forcefully, the wood groaning under the immense stress. The cat howled in pain and Xena felt pain shoot through her arm but she paid it no heed. Instead, she let out a roar of her own and, bracing her feet against the bars, rolled to the floor with the panther under her.
She was passively aware of the yells and screams of the trader and Saba but her world was one of musky animal scent, coarse fur and claws. The paws got her on both shoulders, raking long, bloody furrows on her back and tearing away her shirt sleeves before she got a better hold. The panther's breathing was laboured because the Conqueror's knee was pressing into his ribcage, and he roared. The Conqueror felt the hot breath on her cheek, knowing sharp teeth were not far away. She twisted her head and got the panther on his jaw with her head. The animal twitched, momentarily dazed, and Xena took advantage of the situation. Rolling the big body over and mustering all her strength, she stood up with the panther in her arms. The animal twisted and turned, frustrated growls accompanying the frantic flailing of limbs, but in vain.
The Conqueror held on, burying her head in the thick fur and concentrating. Her arms trembled under the heavy weight, the shifting of powerful muscles a fluid dance under her fingers. But soon the animal tired himself out, the powerful ribcage expanding and contracting rapidly. Xena set the animal down and, before he could attack again, stepped out of the cage.
"That was... insane," Saba hissed between clenched teeth.
"Yes," the Conqueror replied and aimed one of her dazzling white smiles at the First. She turned back towards the cage, baring her teeth to the cat. The animal replied with an equally deadly smile and concentrated on chewing her hat. Xena laughed in delight. This one... I have to have. She turned to the dealer who was now paler than Saba's tunic.
"How much for the cat?"
"Uh..." he began but was unable to say more. The merchant had suddenly turned into a woman, a long mane of midnight black hair free of its confines, blue eyes regarding him with piercing clarity. He was sure he had seen the woman somewhere before. But where? This was his first time in Kórinthos.
A tall, thin man followed by a squad of soldiers made their way through the small crowd that had gathered, shoving people aside with sharp elbows and well-placed pushes. It took some moments but finally they reached the battered Conqueror and bewildered Saba.
"Mistress," Mentu said and bowed slightly. There was gentle reproach in his voice.
"Yes?" said the Conqueror, oblivious to the tone and the tingle of the long but shallow cuts on her back.
"An urgent message. From Thracea."
Dark eyebrows rose. The northern province had been a constant source of trouble for the past five years but none of the local trouble would merit a such a message to the capital.
"Pay this man and arrange for the panther to be brought to the palace," the Conqueror told Mentuhetep before starting for the palace, Saba and the troops in tow.
The crowd dissipated quickly. The trader got two
gold coins for the cat, thrice the requested price, and he bit a coin to
test its validity. Sure enough, it was gold. He turned the money in his
hand, wiping the sweat off his brow with one arm. When he flipped it over
again, he knew why the woman was so familiar. It was the same all-seeing
eyes that gazed back at him from the coin.
The twin doors opened forcefully, hitting the wall with a dull thud. The conversation silenced as if cut with a knife, everybody turning towards the doors.
"What," the Conqueror growled, waving a piece of parchment, "is the meaning of this?!" She strode closer to the massive wooden table of the war council and the parchment hit the surface, the heavy fist that followed it landing hard enough to make the quills and goblets on the table jump. An uneasy silence landed, everybody avoiding the ired ruler.
"It's Brutus, my liege," said Etor finally, bowing. Behind Xena, Saba rolled her eyes.
"Of course it's Brutus," the Conqueror thundered, waving her arm so that half of the council as well as most of the table was showered with blood from her wounds. There had not been time to attend to them. "Has he gone insane?"
"Apparently," said Erasmus, a general nearing his fortieth cycle. He had lost an arm in the Massacre of Cirra, his empty tunic sleeve tucked discreetly into his Roman-style toga. There was tired irony in his voice but he was entitled to that; the whims of rulers had cost him so much already, ever since he had been a young lieutenant in the Persian ruler's court. An arm, a family, a good night's sleep.
Xena grunted in agreement and pushed up the sleeves of her torn shirt. She hadn't had time to change either so she stood out like a weed in a garden of sparkling artificial flowers, her simple and dusty garb so much in contrast to the rest of the council. They tactfully ignored Xena's out of place clothes as well as the sluggishly seeping wounds on her back. The Conqueror's more eccentric exercises were rarely salutary.
"Status report, then."
Ironically enough, the general responsible for the northern defences, for Greece's border against Rome, was a Roman. His name was Titus, a man whose deviousness was only overcome by his sense of discipline. He was a beautiful sight to behold: thick, short dark hair, eyes with lashes any courtesan would have killed for, and the mouth of a professional debauchee. But looks could be deceiving, his loyalty was unquestionable. He hated Rome like only a child can hate an abusive father.
Titus pulled out a map of the appropriate region and anchored it with two apples and a silver goblet. Pointing with a slender dagger, he spoke in detached, cool tones.
"The Roman army has crossed the River Zrinos in Dalmatia and are headed towards the Sar Mountains. My estimation is that they're headed towards Dacia. So, no direct threat to us but..."
"... they're stepping on our toes," Xena finished, leaning towards the map. She took one of the apples holding the scroll open and carved a slice with her dagger. Chewing on the fruit, she tapped the map with her finger. "If they do conquer Dacia, our land route to the continent is blocked."
A round of nods went around the table.
"But why?" asked Erasmus.
Xena shrugged. "Brutus is a pompous man. He needs to show that he and the rest of the conspirators are a better choice than--" She paused, a crooked smile appearing on her face. "Caesar."
The conversation trailed off to further speculation on the Romans' motives. The Conqueror sat down to her chair, dissecting the apple with methodical precision, and followed the tide and ebb of talk around the table. As usual, Saba and Etor came close to blows; only a sharp word from Tyra, the council's eldest, prevented an all-out fight. The wrinkled woman with eyes cold as two chips of flint tolerated no ego battles.
Over two candlemarks passed and the wrestle with the panther reminded Xena of itself in the form of stiffening muscles and the unyielding pull of coagulated blood in her back. Suddenly she stood and clapped her hands. The conversation toned down to a quiet hush.
"Motives are not important. What's the troop status on the northern border?"
"About... two thousand footmen and hoplites, six hundred on horses," replied Titus, after consulting a scroll. "Not enough," he added, quite unnecessarily.
"Well then." The Conqueror was unable to keep the smile from forming on her face. It flashed white in the low candlelight, and she could already hear her blood whispering to her. She drew an imaginary line on the map with her dagger, before thrusting it into the table. It swayed gently, throwing nervous shadows over Macedonia.
"War it is."
The shadow of the palace grew heavy,
Chaining her to the city,
The quiet of the campfire lost
In the fog of battles won
And yet to come.
The candles had wilted down to mere stumps, the flames flickering across the walls. They danced to some unheard tune, the gentle yellow light throwing nervous shadows over the scroll-covered desk and high-backed chair, settling in on its occupant.
Gabrielle drained the last drops of her herb tea, rolling the cooling liquid in her mouth and enjoying the tickle of the leaves against the insides of her cheeks. Setting the wooden cup and the scroll on the nightstand, she fluffed the pillows and leaned back, her gaze settling on Xena. A small pang of worry shot through her chest.
It had been almost a week since the message from the northern border had reached the capital. Since then, the palace had seen a veritable stream of soldiers, commanders and messengers, men and women from every corner of the nation. The bard had been caught in the torrent as well; her days had been full of cataloguing, arranging and organising. People knew the leverage she had with the Conqueror and thus utilised every possible tactic to influence Xena via her. But Gabrielle hadn't travelled through Greece with the Conqueror without learning a thing or two.
Pinching the bedside candle, the bard wriggled down in the bed, sleep heavy on her eyelids. She gazed at her lover, who sat in her customary chair, hunched over a parchment. The Conqueror's skin shone dark bronze in the mellow waves of the candlelight, and as she bit the quill's shaft, the furrows on her forehead deepened like dunes and recesses in a twilight desert, evidence of her concentration even in the face of the distraction of recent days.
The quill descended and Gabrielle listened to the scratch of the lettering. Numerous such notes had left the Conqueror's hand that day and the air in the palace was tense with both trepidation and gleeful anticipation. The atmosphere was affecting Xena as well; she had been a woman of even fewer words recently, her mind caught up in the intricacies of her art.
Gabrielle mulled over the word, turning it around in her mouth. It had been almost a year since the Conqueror had covered the last of Laconía with Spartan blood. A year of change, and a year of a new life. There had been bad times and good times, and then there were times when the bard had been sure her heart would burst over her love for Xena.
She let her gaze linger on her lover. The face that was a bit too angular to be beautiful in the traditional sense of the word, and the strong curve of muscular shoulders. The play of tendons on the back of Xena's hand as she scribbled on the scroll. The look the dark woman had was one of tired concentration, and something more. The war fever, bubbling just under the surface. The minute twitching of her jaw muscles testified that she was nearing the dark abyss; it was as if Xena's blood was commanding her to enjoy the deathly harvest her hands reaped. Sometimes the message got through and the Conqueror did smile, but always the smile was the kind that Gabrielle never wanted to see. It never reached the eyes.
"It's nearing midnight."
The dark head rose at the quiet words and turned. The unconscious cruel smile mellowed into a gentler one as the Conqueror set the quill down. Straightening her fingers, Xena heard the faint crack of her knuckles. Grimacing as abused bones settled into place, Xena poured fine sand over the ink and then blew it off before putting the parchment away. "This can wait till morrow," she whispered and, changing her tunic to a simple shift, she put out all the candles save for one and climbed into their bed.
Gabrielle sighed quietly as the bed swayed and she tugged her lover closer, until the Conqueror reclined next to her. Playfully rubbing the dark head with her jaw, the bard wrapped both arms around Xena. The weight of the Conqueror's arm on her chest was reassuring and she massaged the hard nubs of muscle in Xena's back, carefully avoiding the bandages. A small tired purr of delight tickled Gabrielle's neck and she smiled to the distant ceiling before closing her eyes.
The room was quiet. From outside, only the distant sounds of walking guards and the even more distant night birds disrupted the silence. Gabrielle counted the steps of the guard just outside their door. One, two, three, four and turn. One, two, three four... It would continue like so until the morning, the guards changing every hour.
She felt the woman in her arms shift, the hand that rested just below her left breast twitching in sleep. The mane of silken hair tickled her throat and she brushed it gently aside. In the light of the single, guttering candle the bard could see Xena's neck cord, sinews standing out as the Conqueror walked through tortured sleep.
It was well past the witching hour before Morpheus
claimed the bard.
"This... was unnecessary, Helioa," the Conqueror tsked and rested her sword against her shoulderguard.
The man on the ground coughed as if to reply but the cough just brought a new gush of blood with it. It trickled past his lips and meandered down his cheeks in thick, crimson rivulets. His brow twitched, the muscles there trying to find irony in dying, and then it was over.
The Conqueror crouched down to close the man's eyelids. With one bloodied hand she brushed the skin to cover his pale gray eyes, the pain now gone from them. She sighed, resting the tip of her sword against the rough gravel and in turn, her forehead against the cool metal of the hilt. It was sticky but she didn't care; blood washed away easily enough. Stupid, Helioa. Really stupid. And I had to kill you for that.
She had once ridden with Helioa, back in the days when she was nothing more than an upstart warlord driven by hate instead of reason. The man had been good for her, teaching her what he knew of battle tactics and she had then repaid him by killing his wife and stealing his army. No wonder he had attacked. You just picked the wrong time, she smiled down at the corpse, shaking her head. Nothing's going to prevent me from reaching Thracea. Nothing. But you always were naive.
She stood up, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. Sweeping the excess blood off her sword between a thumb and forefinger, she stepped over the body, towards Saba. The sword slithered into its sheath with a faint scrape of steel against leather, the sound indiscernible over the screams of the wounded and dying. The Conqueror's ears pricked at the sound, her dark half drinking in the music of pain.
The First nodded in reply to the Conqueror and made a sweeping gesture over the narrow road and surrounding fields. As far as the eye could see, all the way to the tree line, the young crops had been trampled and slashed. The green was no longer green; it was a sickly shade of reddish brown, the ground littered with bodies leaking their life's essence into the uncaring earth.
Saba turned back to her lieutenants and spoke rapidly. The men nodded and ran to fulfil their instructions. The necessary aftermath of a battle. Already, the field healers were furiously at work, patching up gaping wounds and drugging those few unfortunates who had lost a limb but had the misfortune of surviving.
"This surprise attack cost us a few men but otherwise, no problem," the First commented, wiping her hands and neck with a piece of linen. Her eyes narrowed as she gazed across the battlefield. "Excellent exercise for the new troops."
"Yes," the Conqueror smiled. Saba glanced at her commander and she felt the little hairs on her arms and at the nape of her neck rise. The smile was there again. She had not seen it on the Conqueror's face since the Battle of Váthia, when the last of the Spartans had been eradicated. But here it was, mocking the sanctity of death with its brazen, obvious glee.
"There's a small valley about half an hour's march away," Saba continued.
"Yes. Send word to the main contingent about this," Xena said, indicating the battle. "We'll stop for the night at the valley." The first bowed and left to find Erasmus, the one other war council member to ride with the lead troops. The rest were scattered throughout the various sections of the army, so as not to place all their eggs in one basket.
Saba and Xena had an ongoing argument over whether the Conqueror should ride in the front or not. Of course, the potential danger was greater, but Xena wouldn't have missed this for the world. And it was her duty to be an example to her troops. If they were willing to risk life and limb for her, surely she must offer the same to them. And the men respected this. Pausing in their work, they either bowed or offered shy yet smug smiles to her as she passed them. She smiled back, occasionally nodding, and then the men strove twice as hard. She was a leader with honour, and thus it would be an honour to fight and die for her.
Pausing to wash her hands and get a drink of water, she continued, walking slowly across the clearing. Her eyes swept the ground, counting the number of slain soldiers, both hers and the riff-raff that had been Helioa's troops. And looking for Gabrielle. She knew the bard had travelled with a smaller group right behind her, and they had arrived when the battle had been at its worst. Now, the Conqueror guessed, her love would be in one of the healers' tents, bandaging wounds and administering herbs.
As it was, her judgement was sound. She heard the soft, musical voice of the bard coming from inside one of the large tents, soothing words filling every void between the groans and screams of the suffering. The Conqueror lifted the flap and stepped into the tent. Everybody fell silent, even the badly wounded.
"As you were," the Conqueror commanded quietly and the healers bent to their tasks again, shooting wary glances towards the tall, dark figure.
Xena paced closer and sat down next to Gabrielle who was bandaging the leg of a young hoplite. The man's face was pale, from both blood loss and because he had forgotten how to breathe when the Conqueror had stepped in. His high commander's eyes raked over him. The long gash in his shank hurt like Tartarus but he'd rather endure the pain than break down in tears before the Conqueror.
"How're you doing?"
The bard resisted the urge to roll her eyes but allowed a small snort of laughter. Sometimes, not often but sometimes, she thought Xena would make a perfect brooding hen. The way she watched over her so carefully was occasionally downright amusing. Like now.
"Me? Except for having an aching back from helping to carry this fellow here," she laughed, gesturing towards the scared young man, "I'm peachy. You were the one doing the fighting."
The Conqueror's eyes flickered to the soldier. His other leg jerked reflexively, as if he wanted to run away. Xena smiled inwardly and focused on the bard again. There was a small smile on Gabrielle's lips.
"How was it?"
"Easy," said the Conqueror succinctly. Finishing with the bandage, the bard patted the man's hand and his pallor lessened somewhat. Turning towards her lover, the fair-haired woman gave the bloodied figure sitting next to her a once-over and reached out a tentative hand. It brushed a swirl of the Conqueror's breast plate, wiping away most of the blood there and revealing a faintly gleaming bronze curve.
"Any of this yours?" Gabrielle asked, smearing the blood between her fingers. Though it was a warm day, a shiver passed through her -- the vague chill of premonition, and remembrance.
"No," Xena murmured back, lifting a hand and studying the plethora of small nicks and cuts on her knuckles. It had been a long time since her hands had looked like this, the stitchery of war sewn into her hands. "Except for this one cut here," she continued, twisting slightly to show a shallow gash of about a span in her side, "I'm unhurt."
The leather was warm, the surface slightly nubbly and moist from all the blood it had absorbed. Gabrielle rested her hand near the cut in the tight bodice, feeling the material go taut as the Conqueror breathed in. The breast plate had taken the lion's share of the sword's impact, and the wound posed no danger. No stitches. But...
"I'll put a bandage on it," Gabrielle said and turned to reach for the linen strips made for that purpose. Her hand was stopped, however.
"Later. When we stop for the night."
The night embraced her,
Covered her darkness with its own;
Morning lay hidden
Behind an uncharted ocean
Of star-crossed time.
The Conqueror lay waiting, savoring
The scent of roses and Gabrielle.
The black leather had cooled. It was now mute, inorganic, just an item of clothing.
Gabrielle drew blood as she bit her lower lip to distract herself from the pain of the needle. It was difficult, pushing the thin sliver of metal through the thick hide, and her fingers were already reddened from the work. But only a few stitches to go and the long gash in the bodice would be closed again. Of course the Conqueror had a spare set of leathers but the bard had a certain thriftiness ingrained in her. The last stitch tightened and the bard tied a neat knot at the end. Setting the leather and the needle down, she rubbed her fingers to lessen the stinging pain.
The tent was quiet; she had been concentrating on the sewing and Xena on eating and reading. The Conqueror sat at the other end of a big table, absentmindedly dabbing at a small bowl of olive oil and garlic with a piece of bread. Her eyes were riveted on a scroll, the latest report from Thracia. The candles were lit already, the twilight indiscernible through the crimson canopy.
A dark head rose from behind her seat and twisted to peer at the bard with curious, cunning green eyes. It took Gabrielle a few moments to register the new presence but when she did, she jumped a bit and scooted swiftly to the other end of her seat.
The Conqueror's head rose. "Yes?"
"I'm still not convinced he's safe," Gabrielle said, pointing discreetly at the animal. The panther chose just that moment to yawn, his pink tongue lolling out between razor-sharp teeth.
The Conqueror smiled and set the scroll down. "Androdameios and I have come to an agreement."
The black panther shifted his gaze when he heard his name. Yes, they had reached a truce, after another round of wrestling. It was still a rather uneasy one but both knew the limits. He understood that surviving was good, and he would do so if he became an ally to the tall, dark human. As an enemy, she had shown her power. Not even the strongest predator could survive long if he weren't prudent as well.
It was the eleventh day of their journey and already they were more than half-way to their destination. Having crossed the Thessalian plain without incident they were nearing the coast of the Aegean Sea. They followed the River Piníos that flowed between two mountains, like a border between warring giants; in the distance, the ever-cloudy tip of Mount Olympus was visible, and behind them was the shadow of Mount Óssa, following them through the day.
The rush of the river was their background music, blanketing the noise of the war camp. The main bulk of the army was still residing near the city of Lárisa, the crown jewel of the Thessaly region, restocking supplies. The front point of the army was marching with the Conqueror, waiting for the rest in Pieria.
Gabrielle rose, tentatively patting the animal's big head. Androdameios narrowed his eyes but let the blonde woman pet him. She didn't smell of danger, unlike the dark one.
Pacing quietly around the table, the bard came to stand behind the Conqueror's chair. Leaning in, she kissed the dark hair, lingering to enjoy the silken, smooth strands and the faint scent of bergamot.
"Can I lure you out for a walk?"
Xena set the parchment down and twisted in the chair. There was a small, warm smile on Gabrielle's face, her eyes reflecting the candles into a millions specks of soft, flickering yellow.
"Of course," the Conqueror smiled and gently grasped the bard's smaller hand in hers. "I'll get our cloaks."
The guards straightened with a muted clang of armour plates as the Conqueror emerged from her tent. Xena paused at the flap, waiting for Gabrielle to pass under her arm before letting the heavy fabric fall down again. The dark woman's nostrils twitched as the moist, heady scent of night air tickled the back of her throat. The air in the tent had gotten a bit stuffy and now, as oxygen flowed freely into her lungs again, she felt her senses heighten.
"Everything in order, Linus?"
The guard captain blinked the last of the impending sleep in his eyes away. He had taken the guard duty when one of his men had lost a finger in the day's battle. He hadn't expected the Conqueror to be in the mood for a stroll... but then again, he reminded himself, it was not wise to assume anything of the Conqueror. Talas had done so and paid dearly for it. Linus still shivered at the memory of the mutilated man, a screaming piece of meat hanging on the door.
"Ah, yes, my lord," he stammered and bowed. Xena nodded and turned towards the other guard. Eustis, if I remember correctly. The man's posture was almost painfully erect. Giving him a once-over, she turned back.
"We're going for a walk," the Conqueror said. Before Linus could ask, she raised a hand. "No need for an escort. I think I'm capable of taking care of myself." Her smile shone white in the pale moonlight. Linus swallowed his protest and just bowed again.
The command tent was situated near the centre of the camp, on a slight rise in the elongated grassy plain. It offered a good view of the camp, the bonfires of the guards like gigantic fireflies scattered between the tents. The Conqueror took possession of Gabrielle's hand as they walked down the gently sloping ridge, taking in the view in comfortable silence.
If there was one thing Gabrielle never stopped admiring in her lover, it was her inhuman patience, coupled with an infallible sense of the surrounding atmosphere. The Conqueror accepted the greetings and bows from her troops with grace and exchanged a few words with her officers. She was a commander who took her army and her wars very personally.
They walked through the camp, navigating between the tents that were arranged with precision. It reminded Gabrielle of a ghostly pantomime, the spectacle created by bonfires that shone through the white tents, and the silhouettes of soldiers like puppets at a children's theatre. Finally they came to the perimeter guard, men standing in solemn silence, eyes raking over the surrounding landscape.
"Would you like to see the river?"
The words startled the bard out of her trance and she turned her head to smile up at the shadowed face of her lover. Squeezing gently the hand that held hers, she nodded, her gaze lingering on the beautiful curve of a cheekbone and the mahogany highlights in the midnight black hair. "Yes, please."
They found a small ridge where the river and the tree line met, a short rock face plunging steeply into the river topped by a soft mound of grass. The Conqueror sat down, resting her back against an ancient oak before parting her cloak and pulling the bard into her lap.
"Mmmm," Gabrielle sighed, the hum barely discernible through the constant rush of water flowing below them. She wriggled, adjusting her back comfortably against Xena's breastplate and drawing the long arms more tightly around her.
The warm, throaty timbre of the voice tickled the bard's ears and she turned her head to the side, resting her cheek against the Conqueror's warm chest in order to hear the strong, slow beat of her heart.
Xena smiled down towards the fair head, almost white in the pale moonlight. The moon threw a fluorescent bridge over the mercurial, nervous surface of the river, the glint of silver on black water hypnotising. The earth was still warm, the warmth of the day seeping from the soil into the indigo sky.
Bending her head down, she caught the scent of wild flowers and herbs, the scent of Gabrielle's soap. So familiar was the smell she would have recognised it anywhere. Tightening her hold on her love, the Conqueror sighed deeply. It wouldn't be long before her darkness claimed her again, and then there would be no time for moments like these. Already, she could feel the coldness inside her gather, reaching its icy fingers of death towards her core.
"Xena..." the bard breathed, unsure of how to voice her thoughts.
"I'm having... a bad feeling about this." There. It was out.
"About what?" the Conqueror asked, her brows drawing together.
"All this," Gabrielle answered, gesturing towards the north. "The coming war. The world of death we're entering."
Xena turned the smaller woman in her lap so she half-faced her. Pushing away an errant strand of blonde hair behind an ear, the Conqueror placed her hand on Gabrielle's cheek. The bard leaned into the contact and turned her eyes towards her lover. The Conqueror's heart lurched at the look of silent, gnawing worry and hesitant fear in the green eyes, and she bit her lower lip so as not to yell at the world for putting that look in the eyes of the woman she loved.
"I know. But I must."
"I understand. But..." the sentence trailed off and Gabrielle turned her eyes back towards the river, envious of nature's inability to feel. She had slept uneasily, her dreams inhabited by black blood, blacker death and -- blackest of them all -- she had seen her love sink into that sea of darkness, swallowed by the liquid more evil than the waters of River Styx.
"Shhh. It's going to be all right," Xena murmured, pressing the fair head against her chest. Caressing the silken hair, she felt Gabrielle's uneven breathing, knowing the bard was fighting tears. Her own heart full and overflowing with the fleeting feel of pain, she began to sing. It was a quiet song, just between her, her love and the uncaring river.
They sat like that for a long time, the bard cocooned in the arms of the Conqueror, both smelling the rich scent of gathering dew and the thriving forest. Apollo rode his silver chariot across the sky's arc, gathering the stars with him until the moon was at its brightest, the heart of midnight at hand. Gabrielle had entered a hazy state of nonexistent time that was not quite sleep, when she felt the arms around her twitch and then freeze.
"What...?" she began, lifting her head. A finger landed on her lips, silencing her. There was a new gleam in the Conqueror's eyes, a shade of slate gray harder than rock. Xena cocked her head, a listening pose so familiar Gabrielle recognised immediately what was wrong. Someone was coming, and from the wrong direction.
"Four men. Armed," the Conqueror hissed and unwrapped her hands from under Gabrielle's cloak. Cool night air hit her chest and she could feel goosebumps raise there. Smoothing her hand down the familiar ridges of her cuirass, she extracted her long dagger from underneath it. Her muscles thrummed with the sudden surge of adrenaline and she grinned. She could down four men wielding nothing more than a toothpick.
With hand signals she gestured for the bard to run back to the camp and alert the perimeter guard. Gabrielle nodded, laying her hand momentarily on Xena's forearm. Be careful, she mouthed and waited for the answering smile before dashing quietly off.
When the bard's footsteps faded away, the Conqueror went around the tree and closed her eyes to better concentrate on what she heard. Mentally filtering away the hiss of water and the rustle of leaves in the gusty wind, she could hear two tell-tale sounds: the high, faint whine of wind on an unpulled bowstring, and the rustle of cloth against leather half-armour.
No, three sounds. The rapid beating of hearts was there as well. She could smell the excitement, fear and tension in the men. She smiled and started on an intercepting path. There was nothing sweeter than a pre-emptive strike on unsuspecting attackers.
It took her a little under a quarter of a candlemark to get on the men's path, so slowly and carefully she treaded. The men were well inside an arrow's range and would pass her position in moments. So the Conqueror put the dagger between her teeth and took to the trees. Settling on a thick branch, she sat down to wait.
The men emerged from the bushes in a small cluster, probably in direct defiance of their training, but they did not expect guards this far away from the main camp. Xena smiled and pulled her feet under her, grabbing a good hold of the limb. She let them all pass and just as the last man was under the tree, she took a deep breath and swung down.
She caught the man totally by surprise. He had time to utter half of a syllable before her feet hit his head. He fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes, out cold. Xena let go of the branch and hit the ground rolling, to bleed off the momentum. When she came to a stop, she straightened and faced the rest of the small squad.
For a fleeting moment, everything was completely still. The three men had turned at the small sound, to find their comrade on the ground, replaced by a smiling, shadowy figure in glinting armour. Then the moment broke and they rushed her.
She dodged the first sword with ease and caught the man with a jarring blow to his solar plexus. All the air whooshed out of him and he fell down, trying to catch his breath, while the Conqueror caught the second sword aimed at her with the hilt of her dagger. Sparks flew in the darkness and she smiled, twisting to one side and parrying another blow with such force that the man's sword flew into the bushes. The dagger plunged into his side and brought with it a thick stream of blood as it was withdrawn. The man screamed, his leathers quickly stained by the rich liquid as it flowed out of him to the frantic beat of his heart. The Conqueror finished him off with another stab between two ribs, this time aiming at his heart. A horizontal twist and the organ was sliced neatly in half.
The last man had gotten his bow ready and was aiming straight at her, his hands shaking. Even in the feeble light Xena could see the trembling and she smiled cruelly at him before turning towards the other man, who had gotten his breath back. Before he could lift his sword, however, the dagger found its mark in his throat. He died with his life's essence showering across the bushes, an agonising wet scream echoing in the night.
The whisper of feathers as they flew through the air was like thunder to her ears and she turned lazily, catching the quarrel with negligent skill. The archer's eyes widened but before he could pull out his dagger, the Conqueror was upon him. She wielded the arrow like a knife, parrying his arm with it before embedding it deep into his thigh. A groan of pain left his lips and he grabbed the thick shaft. His eyes, filled with pain, lifted and found hers, and all hope drained from him. The gleam in the deathly blue eyes held no mercy.
"You'll be the entertainment tonight," the Conqueror
smiled before rendering him unconscious with a jab behind an ear.
The interrogator nodded to Xena and wiped sweat off his brow with the back of his thick glove. Turning towards the bowl of hot coals, he took a hold of another one of the long, thin spikes. Its shaft glowed faintly red and white, the smell of hot metal momentarily overpowering that of charred flesh. He placed it against the prisoner's forearm and pushed it slowly in.
The Conqueror leaned back in her chair, her eyes drooping almost closed. She let the man's choked scream wash over her before receding into the background. His voice was getting hoarse from all the screaming. Twirling one of the metal spikes in her hand, this one cold, she stretched her long legs in front of her and stifled a yawn. The man was just too stubborn for his own good.
"Why are you here, Terminus?"
He shook his head, cursing the moment he had let his name slip from his lips. The interrogator chose just that moment to twist one of the long spikes in his arm. The searing pain of freshly-cauterised tissue tearing open caused another incoherent mewing plea leave his throat and he bit his tongue in half. To smell the burning of one's own flesh was something no remotely sane man wished upon even his worst enemies.
"That's just nine spikes. We can go to triple digits before you die."
The prisoner's breathing was erratic and a coughing sob escaped his lips. Squeezing his eyes shut so that he wouldn't see his forearm, which was beginning to look alarmingly like a hedgehog, he grunted something in his native tongue. The Conqueror leaned forward, tapping the man's knee with the spike she held.
"Cave quid dicis, quando, et cui, Terminus," she replied to the man's curse, smiling at the surprised look in his eyes. "I have many skills."
He cursed and yanked feebly at the bindings that pinioned him to the chair. Every move shot a jarring jolt of pain through him but it was of no consequence. The eyes that he had met were filled with a promise of more. Darkness itself had gazed at him, and he felt his blood grow cold. The pain in his arm and in his head from the kick all receded back, to be replaced by despair. He knew he wasn't getting out of this chair alive.
He inhaled unevenly and reopened his eyes. His gaze was drawn to his arm, the narrow metal spikes like gigantic sewing needles quivering with the tremor of his abused muscles. There was little blood since the searing heat closed the wounds immediately. His stomach twisted.
"You are trying my patience," Xena sighed and rose. The spy was more stubborn than he looked, and more idiotic. She already knew why they were here; it didn't take a genius to determine they were Roman spies. The leather armour and the bow threading, so different from the Greek norm, were all tell-tale signs. But of course she had to be sure.
It was on the seventeenth day of their journey when the front ranks of the army left the central Macedonian plains and headed north towards the mountains. The terrain was getting rougher, rolling hills and sparse woods making the progress difficult. That night they made camp along the Vardar, the river feeding into the Aegean Sea near Thessaloníki.
The sun was but a few degrees above the tree line when the Conqueror reached the advance troops sent to build the camp. Dismounting her horse, she stretched her aching legs, the muscles trembling from the strain the day's ride had put on them. She was nearing her target and impatience was taking control.
"Good girl," Xena murmured to her horse, scratching the sensitive nose. The steed's nostrils twitched and she bumped her mistress gently with her big, shapely head. The Conqueror butted back, laughed and gave a final pat before handing the reins to her stable master. "Be good to her today, Scyleia."
The woman nodded and patted the mare's side. Her hands were as big as a bear's paws and Xena had once been a witness to an occasion when Scyleia had arm-wrestled and drunk most of her honour guard under the table, no mean feat even for an Amazon.
Xena watched the retreating woman and horse, hiding a sad smile. She had been spending less and less time with Argo and the mare was obviously missing her mistress, as much as the Conqueror was missing her. It was good to spend some time with her horse, and the mare was excited as well, performing with agility and stamina unheard of in a horse her age.
Casting one last glance towards her noble honey-coloured steed, the Conqueror turned away and started for her tent. She could see the crimson canopy above the troops' tents, the bright red made almost coppery by the warm, tinted light of the setting sun. The ground was soft and trampled by a thousand men and horses, the upturned soil yielding under her boots as she silently paced the narrow lanes between tents, stopping near a cluster of men who immediately silenced and turned upon seeing her.
"Evening, my liege. I hope your ride went well," Erasmus said, bowing, his captains echoing the gesture.
"Yes," Xena smiled and gestured for him to rise. Erasmus was in command of the front troops, having arrived at the river in the early afternoon. "Any news from the front?"
Resting his hands on the hilt of his sword, the general squinted towards the sun, calculating the time. "I sent a messenger a few candlemarks ago, to see the front scouting party. She should be --" He paused, his eyebrow lifting. "Speak of Hades," he continued, pointing upstream.
Xena turned just in time to see a small boat hit shore near the camp and a small, lithe figure scramble up the slope that led to the water. Here the river was almost an elongated lake, the surface dead calm, making the water the best way to travel. The messenger ran the last quarter league, slowing down as she reached the small cluster of officers. Her eyes darted uncertainly from Erasmus to the Conqueror. She surely hadn't expected the high commander herself to be here.
"My lord," she said a bit breathlessly and knelt in front of Xena. Glancing a bit warily up at the tall woman's face, she took a deep breath and pulled out a scroll from underneath her tunic.
Cracking the seal quickly, the Conqueror unrolled the parchment and scanned through the message. As she progressed downward, her grin grew, until it was a full-fledged smile. The parchment re-curled itself and Xena tucked it inside her riding cloak. "Excellent. I--"
She was cut off by the sound of a high brass horn; a signal that another messenger had arrived. As it was, soon a willowy man emerged from between the tents, running as if Charybdis were at his heels. "Message from Rome," he wheezed before handing another scroll to the Conqueror.
"Even better," Xena said after taking a quick look
at the contents. She turned back towards Erasmus and tapped his shoulder
with the scroll. "War council meeting in a candlemark. Inform the others."
"Surely we cannot divide our troops like that!" Etor exclaimed, gesturing wildly with his big hands.
"Oh shut up, you idiot," Saba growled in reply, barely resisting the urge to stick her dagger into his throat. Instead she gripped it harder, pressing her thumb against the blade with such pressure that she drew blood.
"Well, if we were to do so, how do you suggest we deal with the gaping hole in our back sector," the man with the carrot-coloured hair sneered, his face taking on a matching shade as he tweaked Saba's patience. The First raised an eyebrow and decided not to take the bait.
"If we don't attack my way, the Romans will get away. As simple as that," she replied calmly, putting away the dagger and sucking on the wound in her thumb. Shouldn't get that agitated over him, the First reminded herself, risking a glance at the Conqueror. The ruler was remarkably calm, her head resting on the backrest as she stroked her panther's head. The animal still made Saba feel uneasy.
"How can you say that?" Etor persisted, getting the fish eye from the First.
Plucking away a small piece of straw from Androdameios' head, the Conqueror focused on the conversation again. The air was tense as Etor and her First went on with their usual verbal slugfest. Even the animal was sensing the mood, his velvety green eyes darting around the table. He was agitated as well, a small growl coming from deep within his throat. Xena felt like growling herself. Verbal clashes forged brilliant plans but this was getting to be a bit too much. She cleared her throat.
A snappy reply died in Saba's throat so she just shot another homicidal glance at Etor before turning towards the Conqueror, flinching minutely at the cool, mute blue of the eyes. A dark eyebrow lifted, tempting her, but she held her tongue. Damned if she was going to show weakness before her ruler by apologising.
"I'm sorry, my lord," Etor said and Saba bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. The man was not dumb, but sometimes his perspicacity in situations was way off-kilter. The Conqueror didn't like her war council members to be grovelling lackeys.
"Shut up," Xena said brusquely to him. He paled and his mouth snapped shut. "And you too," she continued to Saba. The Conqueror rose to her full, formidable height, her armour clinking mutedly. Pacing closer to the table, she was given room immediately, as much because Androdameios was following her as because of the waves of dark ire flowing off her.
"Titus, where's the main army now?"
"Camping outside Thessaloníki, as they should be, my lord," the man replied immediately.
"Good. And the Romans?"
"Now stopped for the night, the southern branch is about five candlemarks' march away, here," Tyra told her, tapping at the map with her finger. There was but a low, craggy plateau between them and the Romans. "Terrain is rough so the sensible thing would be to follow the river along the side of the plateau and circle behind them."
"That would be the five candlemarks?"
"Yes, my lord," Tyra confirmed. The elderly woman knew not what the Conqueror was getting at but it was of no consequence. Tyra had complete faith in her commander.
"But... if we go there, what about the rumoured reinforcements?" Etor ventured. He got a cold smile from Xena who dug out a parchment and set it on the table.
"No reinforcements for the Romans. Brutus has another set of troubles back home."
"Oh? What kind of trouble, may I ask?" Titus queried, scepticism heavy in his voice.
"Nothing like brotherly love," the Conqueror smiled,
her eyes twinkling with cold mirth. "Octavianus is forming a second triumvirate."
The rock was still shining with the night's dew, the moisture rising this high from the surrounding forests. She rested her palm against it, almost feeling the water dry beneath her palm as the rising sun bombarded the rock with its rays of heat. Her hand came away slightly wet and she patted it dry on the bright crimson of her cloak.
Rounding the massive boulder with care, the Conqueror brought her horse to a standstill and smiled towards the still dark horizon, before shifting her eyes closer. There.
It was a village turned Roman camp; cocooned between a forest and the high plateau she had crossed was a haphazard collection of huts, the ground near them littered with signs of battle. It had been a small village, unable to provide roofs for a whole legion, so there was an equally haphazard village of tents surrounding the huts. Roman standards glittered gold and red in the early morning, identifying the new owner of the land. The encampment was quiet, the morning chow still a half a candlemark away, and even the perimeter guards, obviously tired from the long march, were leaning on their pikes to stay upright and awake.
They had ridden with the wind under their hooves, choosing the toughest route. Taking just a few hundred men, all on horses, the Conqueror had navigated their way up to the plateau. It had taken them only a shade under two candlemarks to cross the high ground, the stars fading as they rode towards them, signalling the start of a new day. And now they were on the northern edge, with only a steep slope separating them from the Romans.
Xena gestured to Etor, who was riding next to her. The man nudged his horse closer and took off his helmet, smoothing his sweat-sticky hair back.
"Yes, my Lord?" he whispered.
"What's the troop status?"
"Lost two horses on the ride; the men turned back. All others are here, spread out as you ordered," he rattled, putting his helmet back on and fighting with the strap hook.
"Excellent," the Conqueror purred, reining her horse tighter. The mare was a bit edgy this morning, her hooves kicking small pebbles up from the rough terrain. They were hidden behind another boulder, the big stones scattered down the slope like a broken pearlstring of divine proportions. "On my mark."
Etor nodded and turned to relay the message to the lieutenants. The solemn men parted to join their respective squads, the quiet clatter of hooves against chalk stone the only sound. The plateau was ethereally quiet; the birds in the nearby forest had not yet woken up, the rush of wind being the only companion to the silent men and women preparing to enter battle.
Humming quietly to calm her horse, Xena brushed her fingers through the coarse mane. The horse whinnied, throwing her head around, calming down only when the Conqueror scratched her behind an ear. Now placated, the mare agreed to go down the slope to the next boulder, this one an elongated shape resembling an egg. Stopping behind the stone, Xena glanced back to see Etor's watchful face. The rest of her troops were still behind the high horizon of the plateau, waiting for her.
"Well, m'girl, time to make war again," the Conqueror whispered to Argo and let go of the reins to rub her tensed neck. With the early start, her sleep had been short, and all that ever managed to do was to make her irritated. Too bad for the Romans, she smiled to herself and smoothed her hands over her leather-clad abdomen, rapping her fingers against the hard ripples of muscle there. The toughened black hide was warm; her fingers trembled with the adrenaline that coursed through her. The air was filled with anticipation but she was in no hurry. Turning towards the rising sun, the Conqueror closed her eyes, feeling the warmth on her face.
It was on her skin, and in her skin. She breathed it, it was her life's blood, her soul's food. Born somewhere inside her, in a place she dare not guess about, the dark gossamer of her talent, of her purpose fanned out and took to flight. Black blood filled her veins, filling her so completely she felt her extremities tighten with the pressure. Her skin tingled under the assault and she could see the black tendrils spread on the insides of her eyelids, obscuring the golden haze of the sun.
The words were a private growl, the Conqueror talking to her inner self, coaxing out the fever by appealing to its vanity. And it came, throbbing at her temples, goading her on towards her battle. Her eyes snapped open, revealing the bluest of blues, a colour so brilliant it outshone the sky and the sun.
The sword made a faint scraping noise as it came out of the leather sheath. The grip moulded itself to her palm, the padding landing on familiar calluses, the hefty weight so familiar the sword could have been an extension of her arm since the day she was born. Flipping through her phrase library, she picked a convenient sentence. It didn't much matter what she shouted, her men would hear and follow even if she would yell Glory to Rome! Lifting the shining sword into the air, the Conqueror took a deep breath and squeezed her shins against the mare's sides.
"Kataktiste to chorio!" her yell rang, and was met by the thunder of a thousand hooves and the returning scream of her men.
The Romans woke up to the sound too late. Already, the raging storm of death was on its way, the torrent of men and horses cascading down the slope, a figure clad in crimson shooting down the rapids of flesh at an even greater speed, striving to reach the encampment first. Emergency horns blared and stupefied Romans emerged from their tents and huts in various stages of dress, about to learn the hard way that guessing at the Conqueror's mindset was a futile exercise. Having put scouts only on the riverside route, they had doomed themselves to a gory death.
Laughing to herself at the irony of her battle cry, the Conqueror switched her grip on the reins and twirled the sword in her hand. The day's battle wouldn't be a conquest; it would be a massacre, from the looks of it. She could feel the ground under her steed tremble with the strength of her army, the rush of wind through the thousand arms and swords behind her singing of her power. C'mon, c'mon, she grinned at the Romans, who were hastily ordering their ranks.
That day, her sword was baptised with the blood of a young, thin soldier, his upper left side separating from the rest of him with barely any resistance. He didn't have time even to scream before he was trampled by the Conqueror's horse. Xena flicked her sword, blood flying from it in a thick crimson arc, the heavy drops a fleeting vision of a sea of rubies in the sunlight before they rained to the ground.
The music of battle sprang to life, the incoherent yells and groans echoing across the small valley. The Conqueror's men engaged the Romans in a wide, thin line, to prevent escape. Xena herself plowed through flesh in the middle of it all, her back guard handled by Etor, while she swung her sword left and right.
A footman aimed his pike at her horse's side but the thrust was parried by a foot before the sharp end could meet the mare's golden coat. The Conqueror kicked the pike angrily aside, causing the man to stumble right into her sword, the sharp steel penetrating his chest all the way to the hilt. Pushing the dying man off her sword with her foot, she twisted in her saddle, meeting the short sword of a Roman on horseback. Sparks flew in the early morning's clear air, the toneless clang of metal against metal ringing loud.
"Oh no you don't," the Conqueror smiled when the man tried a semi-difficult lunge-parry-thrust combination. She anticipated him with a combination of her own, changing sword hand on the fly, her swing carrying inside his defences. Flesh separated from bone and the soldier clutched his chest, the wound exhaling his blood all over his horse's mane. The steed panicked and bucked, sending the wounded man flying to the ground. Unsheathing her other sword as well, Xena stood up in her saddle, pressing her calves tighter against her horse's sides, goading the mare to even greater speeds.
Etor was the first to hear it, but that was only natural since he was closest to the Conqueror. It began as a low chuckle when the dark woman did a double scything arc with her swords, downing three Romans with it. The chuckle evolved into a short burst of laughter when another horseman was cut in half, his innards flowing down his horse's sides. And when the Conqueror met another man on horseback, this one a bit more skilful, she let out a whoop of joy before jumping up in her saddle, her feet finding enough support for her to launch into the air. Etor paused in his fighting momentarily, to watch the slow, graceful flip the dark woman made in the air before catching the mounted man in the chest with her boots. The ugly, muted crunch of ribs being crushed made Etor flinch.
Swinging her swords in perpendicular arcs, she sliced the next man in line to four pieces. The Conqueror jumped over the body parts and a bewildered horse. Her feet hit the ground with force and she bled off her momentum with a short tuck and roll before bouncing back up, running.
A languid smile graced her lips as she ran towards the nearest cluster of Romans, her swords whirring through the air, bathing her with iridescent reflections from the sun's rays. Her blood was no longer whispering to her; instead it was screaming, its voice raw and wild from the excitement and sense of fulfillment. Blood pounded in her ears, throbbing through her arms to reach her fingertips, her life's energy guiding the swords. Ringing laughter echoed across the battlefield, her men knowing what it meant. The Conqueror was getting excited.
The world became a vision bathed in blood for her,
her hand drawing out the warm liquid of life from her opponents. The men
were unwilling to give, screaming and fighting her for their souls, trying
to protect what they had conquered and what was their home and family.
But it was of no consequence; she took what she wanted. The narrow streets
of the village were painted in crimson, the straw roofs and carefully laid
out wash sucking up the morbid moisture. A divine executioner swept through
the Romans, and all they could do was to go to their deaths, screaming,
despairing in their impotence and pain.
Gabrielle glanced at the sun for the eight time in a candlemark. Apollo's chariot was nearing its crest, struggling through the steepest slope of the sky's arc, and still there was no sign of the warriors.
Pacing quietly through the camp towards the cook's tent, the bard chewed on her lower lip, the dark clouds in her mind refusing to fade even under the assault of the bright sun. A storm was gathering on her mind's horizon, warring with her common sense. It wasn't as if a small number of Roman advance troops could offer more than token resistance to the Conqueror's forces. But still… all it took was a lucky arrow or one sword too much, and history would be rewritten.
The camp was quiet, the few troops left behind tending to their tasks. Small knots of men having their midday chow, cleaning their weapons or armour, their quiet talk occasionally halted by a burst of ribald laughter: it was a vision so peaceful the contrast to the men's purpose was almost painfully clear. The bard smiled and nodded to the few warriors she knew, the rest shying away even from her gaze, heads bending down in exaggerated concentration. Gabrielle knew the gesture wasn't of impoliteness but instead was because of who she was. In a sense, the bard realised, she had power over the warriors' lives as well. One unwanted grope, one harassing word towards her, and the man would die with his genitals fed to him. Such was the law.
"Morning, Chloe," Gabrielle greeted the head cook as she stepped into the tent. Chloe, despite her fragile name, was anything but. Too enamoured with her own cooking, she weighed at least thrice as much as Gabrielle herself, with a fierce nature in proportion to her circumference.
"Hello, small one," Chloe smiled. "Smelled the food, did you?"
Nodding, the bard edged closer, her stomach threatening to rumble at the faintly spicy, rich scent of Chloe's stew. "Smells delicious," she said.
"Ah ah," said the cook, waggling her finger. "Flattery won't get you far."
Gabrielle laughed, patting the cook's pudgy shoulder. "I know."
"The Conqueror's lunch will be ready soon, surely before they get back."
"Excellent," the bard smiled and snatched a sliver of nutbread from the table before ducking outside again. Munching on the rich, heady bread, she sauntered towards the river. But before she got to even the first tent, a new sound rose above the constant rush of the river. It was a distant thunder, a deep rumble coming from the plateau. Gathering force by the moment, the noise rolled over the camp, all men turning towards the high slope that led to the higher ground.
It was a living waterfall, a stream of metal, muscle and sinew that came down the steep slope. Led by the figure in a crimson cloak, the army thundered down from the plateau with mad speed, the men and women stained as if they had swum through a river of blood. Armour and flesh glinted in a distorted shade of coppery brown, so bright it hurt the bard's eyes. Not pausing when they got to the lower ground, the warhorses sped onward towards the camp, partially obscured by the dust lifted by a thousand hooves.
The Conqueror reined her horse in tight, almost standing in the saddle. Argo was tired from the heated battle and hard ride, her mouth frothing. Neighing in protest but slowing down, the massive steed stopped only a few steps away from Scyleia. The sturdy stablemaster took a hold of the reins and kept the ired warhorse still while Xena dismounted.
"She's wounded," the Conqueror breathed, her pulse still in triple digits from the adrenaline and endorphins of the battle. Taking a quick look at the shallow, slowly seeping cut in Argo's golden loins, the Amazon nodded and patted the horse's head, her boar's tooth bracelet jingling mutedly.
"I'll take care of it," Scyleia said and led the jittery horse away.
Xena steadied her breath and raked a hand through her tangled hair. It came away even bloodier, her palms already stained deep crimson. The blood had dried in the harsh midday sun except on her palms where the reins had chafed the flesh to the point of soreness. The ride had been rough. Now, a bath. But before that…
The young man turned and hurried to the Conqueror at the call, bowing. "Prepare a casualty report and treat the Roman prisoners. The usual," Xena snapped. The man nodded, a faint grin of both fear and excitement creeping onto his face before he hastened away to fulfil the command.
Plucking a shard of bone wedged in her breastplate,
the Conqueror took a deep breath. She flicked the bone to the ground, the
yellow sliver shining dully in the bright sunlight, in stark contrast to
the dark brown earth. Such was to be the end of the Romans: the dead trampled
to the ground in small pieces, the living doomed to suffer the loss of
their right eye and thumb, to prevent them from ever lifting a hand against
her. Smiling to herself, the Conqueror turned towards her tent.
The shouts of war rose in the distance,
Sending women streaming, children in hand,
To escape the blade and men's desires:
Sword clashed, echoing metal on shield,
Voices screaming, then silence.
Setting the gauntlet on the bench and wiping her hands on a piece of linen, Gabrielle figured she was more than halfway through. Picking up the other gauntlet, she sighed. It was encrusted in a thick layer of gore, the delicate bronze swirls of the armour almost indiscernible under the reddish brown coating. The dry, heady scent of blood was strong in the air.
Slowly, the blood gave way under the bard's determined assault. Little by little the dully gleaming bronze came back into view, the familiar twirls and curves taking shape. Scrubbing vigorously with the linen, Gabrielle bit her tongue in concentration.
Although this was not her task, she liked it. Any one of the Conqueror's servants could have been the one to clean her armour after a battle but the bard had taken the job to herself. Despite its aspects of menial labour, it was something she did lovingly, knowing that her lover appreciated her efforts and always remembered to thank her.
Her lover. Setting the cleaned gauntlet next to its mate, Gabrielle bent to pick up the last piece of armour left: the breastplate. Setting it in her lap comfortably, she paused, just tracing the topmost curve with her finger. The dried blood peeled away in a thick, sticky layer and was scattered to the floor. There was a small dent on the lower left side of the cuirass, where the Conqueror had taken a dagger or a small sword. The plate was bent inward, the mute bronze wounded. Only this thin sheet of crafted metal had protected her love from the arms of Hades.
Absentmindedly dabbing away the blood, the bard tried not to dwell on it. But… it was someone's life that decorated the armour, someone's soul a down payment for that dull, unappealing colour. Smoothing her hand down the already-cleaned edge of the breastplate, Gabrielle prayed it would never be Xena's blood that would pay the price. However selfish that is, she added, smiling crookedly to herself, scrubbing the cuirass with small, efficient strokes.
That thought was the epitome of their love, and the opposite. The selfishness that governed over their relationship, both loving what they had and determined not to give the outside world a chance to disrupt it. Gabrielle knew that at least two men had died for her, taking a dagger or poisoned food meant for her. When Xena had rescued her from being raped by a soldier in Arákhova, so long ago -- a century? Two lifetimes? -- she had also, inadvertently, thrust the bard into the limelight of the nation, exposed her to the mortal danger of absolute power. A constantly fluctuating stream of joy and sorrow, her life was more polarised than ever.
Slowly trailing the rag along the inverted fleur-de-lys that protected the Conqueror's solar plexus, Gabrielle sorted her thoughts. Jumbled as they were, she sensed a reason to the chaos. There was a dark cloud obscuring her soul, the storm of fear about to grip her. It was fear for Xena, and of Xena, she realised, knowing not which was the worse. The fear excited her in a morbid sort of way, her storyteller's soul hungry for food. Great stories were born of suffering and trials. Of martyrs.
"All done," Gabrielle whispered but her lover did not appear to have heard: the broad back, now clean of blood and encased in an another set of leathers, remained still, hunched over a map on the big conference table. A small muscle was twitching on Xena's right shoulderblade and Gabrielle knew that spot by heart: it was the muscle that took the most strain when the Conqueror wielded her sword, now protesting the abuse after a long day.
Setting the breastplate next to the other bits of armour on the bench, the bard rose and paced quietly to the tent's centre pole. The Conqueror still didn't turn, her profile a portrait of concentration as the ice blue eyes darted across the map. Gabrielle could almost hear the diabolically sharp mind behind the eyes hum, forming plans and calculating the next move. Leaning against the thick wooden pole, the bard blinked the tiredness from her own eyes, focusing on the shape of the shoulders she knew so well, the graceful curve Euclid would have appreciated.
There was little she didn't know of her love. She remembered the shape and feel of every muscle, every graceful twining of bone and sinew, every ugly scar. She also knew by heart every variation of that low, vibrant alto her lover sang with, and the cold steel in her voice when she was angry. The chilling, detached tone when she was mad beyond belief, and the throaty timbre when she was sad and tired. In her love's soul, there was blackness and light, and between them a chasm so deep Gabrielle couldn't begin to fathom what lay at the bottom.
Crossing the small distance, she wrapped her arms around Xena and rested her head between her shoulderblades. She rubbed her cheek against the hard mounds of muscle there, feeling the slide of silky skin against hers. There was a lingering coppery scent that stuck in the back of her throat; it was the ever-present taste of blood and the invisible darkness that seeped from the Conqueror's every pore.
The voice was soft, the quiet, gentle word vibrating against the bard's cheek. "Hey," Gabrielle replied and squeezed tighter. Warm hands came to rest on hers and the Conqueror straightened.
Turning her head, the bard licked the tired muscle. It jumped under the touch, Xena's long hair falling down to tickle her face. The faint sheen of bath water and clean sweat tingled on Gabrielle's tongue and she could feel the adrenaline and darkness creep into her. She knew she was as much its victim as her lover but she would have suffered a thousand deaths rather than leave her place, leave her love alone at the black blood's mercy. For she was as sure as the sky was blue that it would swallow Xena, eat her alive until the world was on fire: Tartarus would come on earth.
"How was your day?"
"The usual," Xena hummed, letting her tired eyes close. "An easy victory. The main contingent will pass us tomorrow… We're taking the eastern route."
"Ah," Gabrielle breathed and smoothed her palms over the dark brown leather covering the Conqueror's abdomen. This was her oldest set of leathers, from the time she had been but a shadow of her current self -- dark and light in equal measures, instead of the imbalance of the present. "Better weather there?"
The Conqueror chuckled at the small attempt at levity. "Yeah. And the scenery is so much nicer. Mountain vistas."
Gabrielle smiled against the shoulderblade, planting a feathery kiss there. Taking a step back, Xena turned in the bard's arms. Their embrace was gentle, almost tentative in its fragility. Adjusting her hands so that they were loosely wrapped around Xena's waist, Gabrielle leaned back, catching the blue eyes with her own.
The intensity was almost frightening. The blue shone with the radiant glow of stars, the steel-gray starburst around the pupil as cold as the sun's corona at solar eclipse. The pupils were two dark wells into Xena's soul, the intensity of her bare soul laid out to be seen and to be afraid of, the power of the woman's will enough to move mountains. And now, it gazed down at her, projecting all the love the Conqueror had, the openness almost enough to bring Gabrielle to her knees. The clarity was almost painful. She had power over the darkness; the power to drive it away, and the power to make the world its subject.
"Every morning, when I wake up," the Conqueror whispered, brushing the bard's cheek with the back of her hand, "I thank the gods for you."
Ducking her head to disguise her tears, Gabrielle caught the hand in hers and kissed the inside of Xena's wrist. The pulse point there jumped. "I know," was all the bard could answer. Her chin was gently grabbed between a thumb and a forefinger and soft lips landed on hers. Melting into the kiss, the bard let go of the hand and grabbed the lacings of the leather tightly, suddenly and irrationally afraid that the moment would go away if she didn't hold on.
Breaking the kiss, Gabrielle rested her head on Xena's chest, feeling her own hot breath on her face. Inhaling the sweet scent of patchouli bathing oil lingering on the skin, the bard splayed her hands over the leather covered back and sighed quietly.
"What's wrong, love?"
The tone was faintly concerned, the throaty purr of the bad blood a definite undertone. Not daring to look up, Gabrielle kissed the taut skin over a collarbone. "I need to feel you. Please."
"Yes," Gabrielle whispered, bringing her head up. The Conqueror inhaled sharply at the sight of the suddenly transformed misty green eyes that had just moments before been calm. Now there was a storm raging there, a fiery emerald of a sky, furiously searching for an outlet. "All of you." Gabrielle's hands strayed downward, along Xena's battle skirt and back up, under the wide straps of hide. "I need to be yours."
The word vibrated in the air, pronounced with great care, the dark current underneath screaming through the quiet syllable. Strong hands landed on the bard's shoulders, circling from behind to cup her face. The divine lips, the scorching touch she so longed for, was near, hot breath on her face before two mouths met. Gabrielle poured her desperation and arousal into the kiss, biting Xena's lower lip so hard she drew blood. The taller woman flinched and tore her mouth away. Dabbing the blood red lips with a finger, the Conqueror tightened her hold on the bard's chin.
"Please…" Gabrielle hissed, her voice smouldering with bound passion. She wrapped her hands around the arm holding her in place, feeling the thick tendons move under her fingers. She was almost standing on tiptoes now as the Conqueror's cool gaze washed over her, the hold on her unrelenting.
"Mine," Xena whispered before claiming the bard's mouth again, tasting the fire and fear, the passion still so innocent. Lowering her other hand to Gabrielle's chest, she could feel the frantic heartbeat, the skin flushed and hot. Suddenly letting go of everything but the hold of her teeth on the bard's tongue, Xena moved her hands downward, lifting the smaller woman with no effort and setting her on the table.
Gabrielle inhaled sharply, the new position making her painfully obvious of the need that lay in her. Grasping the dangling strips of leather on the battle skirt, she pulled the tall woman closer, vainly trying to find something, anything to push her wetness against. But there would be no release for her; the Conqueror's hands found hers and pushed them behind her back, grasping both slender wrists with one hand. The other came to the bard's upper lip, slowly tracing the graceful curve there with one finger, demanding entrance. Gabrielle took the digit into her mouth, sucking on it. The finger curved, battling with her tongue before grabbing a firm hold on her jaw bone and bringing her head up.
"All of me?"
"Yes," the bard sighed before repeating her lip lock on the finger. She had no more than a faint idea what she was giving herself to, but it didn't matter. The uncertainty excited her, the danger palpable in the Conqueror's tone enough to make a liquid fire ignite inside her.
"Come then," Xena hissed and yanked the bard by the jaw again. Gabrielle nearly toppled over as she slid off the table but she managed to follow, the even pull guiding her efficiently next to the Conqueror's chair. Xena let go of her and she slumped to her knees in front of the chair. A quiet groan of leather told her the Conqueror had sat down, and a hand beckoned the bard closer. She scooted forward until her head rested on the dark woman's thigh, her body between the powerful, muscled legs.
"My love," Xena whispered, brushing the strawberry blonde hair to the side to reveal a cheek, the skin satiny smooth. Gabrielle had closed her eyes, murmuring quietly as she absorbed the warmth of the leg, and the power of their connection.
A tug on her halter top brought the bard out of her trance. Alarmed, she lifted her head, just in time to feel the Conqueror's other hand on her shirt as well, the fabric protesting as it tore. Cool air hit her tender breasts and the bard shivered, suddenly very aware of the strength the Conqueror's hands' graceful shape belied. Those same hands, so efficient in cruelty yet divinely gentle at times, landed on her shoulders and guided her head back to the thigh and forward, so that the expanse of her back was revealed to Xena.
The Conqueror touched the creamy skin gently, just brushing the length of Gabrielle's spine, humming contentedly when a trail of goosebumps appeared where her fingers had travelled. The bard's breath caught and she gripped the chair's leg, to keep herself from devouring the dark woman.
"Beautiful," Xena murmured and reached for the table. Pulling an inkpot closer, she fished a map brush from underneath the parchments.
The ink was thick, black liquid, cool as it came in contact with skin. Gabrielle flinched at the sudden spot of coldness on her shoulderblade but relaxed again, as the brush drew the Conqueror's signet, an X inside a circle. Xena blew over the ink to dry it, and soon enough, the figure became a matte black.
"You have my mark," the Conqueror said, her voice thick with arousal, the quivering of the small body under her arms fanning the flame inside her to new heights. Tilting the bard's head, she bent down to place a brief kiss on her forehead. "Show me you are worthy of it." A brief, radiant smile accompanied the words.
Resting her forehead against the Conqueror's leather-clad stomach, the bard smiled as well, inhaling the scent of the leather and arousal on the woman, the proximity intoxicating. The mark was a promise; a hint of what was to come. She would be marked as the Conqueror's one, the only person allowed near her, and the only one who would bear the burden of that right. Moving her head down, she memorised the smells and the sounds, the groan of leather as Xena's muscles tested its boundaries. The hard mounds of abdominal muscle trembled as she passed the mark of no return and her hands reached the apex of the Conqueror's legs, brushing the leather straps away. What…? The Conqueror wore nothing beneath her leathers. A blonde eyebrow arched and was answered in kind.
Xena gripped the chair's armrests harder as she felt small fingers brush the tight tendons of her legs, her exhalation shaky when the bard blew hot air over her centre before letting her fingers reach their target.
The bard hear the low purr coming from deep within the dark woman, and felt the accompanying tremor of muscles under her fingers. Her thumbs brushed just the edges of Xena's folds, gathering the moisture there. She couldn't resist tasting the sweet honey, the musky taste making her own body respond with a flood. Humming to herself in the bliss, Gabrielle leaned in, taking the entire length with her tongue before latching onto the small nub of nerves, pulsing with the beat of a frantic heart.
"Oh, gods," the Conqueror exhaled, letting her head loll back against the chair's backrest. To feel that mouth on her, the small hands caressing her legs, was as close to Elysia she imagined she could get. Xena could feel her toes curl in delight in her boots and she laid a hand on the fair head between her legs, gripping the hair as the sensation built inside her.
Smoothing her hands around the Conqueror's powerful thighs, the bard splayed her fingers across the leathered abdomen, feeling the quiver of the muscles. Xena's nectar was flowing freely, covering her mouth and chin as she sucked on the clit, raking the length of the shaft with her teeth before pressing down on it with the flat of her tongue. From the ragged breathing and the twitching of the hand on her head, Gabrielle knew her lover was getting close. Bringing a hand around, she stroked the Conqueror's slit, marvelling at the silky texture, her own body screaming for more of it. Lifting her head up, the bard caught Xena's eye.
"Yes…" the Conqueror whispered, her voice thrumming with pent-up passion and impatience. "Yes. Now."
Entering the Conqueror with two fingers, the bard bent down to her task again, feeling Xena pulse around her fingers, tightening on her. A primal growl left the Conqueror's throat as Gabrielle bent her fingers to rub the walls. Gabrielle flinched when sharp nails raked her back, the heated wave making her own wetness increase. The scrapes burned on her back as the Conqueror laid hot hands over them, the fingers moving to the pace set by her tongue.
"Oh sweet Aphrodite," Xena whispered. Her world was that one spot inside her, the point of ultimate heat that was expanding. Her low growl turned into a throaty scream as her lover touched a small bump on her slick inner wall, sending her over the edge.
Gabrielle held on with pure will power, murmuring her delight. Nails dug into her skin and she felt blood trickle down her shoulders and back, the powerful convulsing of the body around her threatening to crush her as well. She rode the waves, drinking all that was given, guiding her lover through the sea of pleasure. When the storm subsided, Gabrielle refused to let go, keeping on her task until the blinding pleasure returned, her lover screaming out her name in the blind fury of her release.
Her whole body tingled. The long furrows in her back were abound with the feeling and she could smell her own blood, added to the heady mixture of the Conqueror's musky scent and her sweat. Licking the thick coating on her lips, Gabrielle smiled, nuzzling the taut skin of a muscular thigh. The muscles jumped under her touch so she just laid her cheek on them, gazing up at her lover who was labouring to get her breathing under control, smiling to the heavens with her eyes closed.
Reaching out blindly, Xena gathered her lover into her arms, molding the smaller woman into her lap. "Thank you," she whispered, kissing Gabrielle's forehead.
To the bard it was a butterfly's wing against her smooth skin, so gentle it was. Enjoying the silent closeness, she idly played with the lacings of the leather bodice, counting the Conqueror's steady breathing, waiting. When the moments stretched on, impatience took control and she wriggled, her own need still strong, the healing scratches in her back reminding her of the Conqueror's promise, of the mark. Laying her hand on Xena's chest, she looked up.
"Can I be yours?"
"You are mine, my love," Xena smiled.
"But…" Gabrielle trailed off, unsure of how to voice her want. But the Conqueror knew what the bard meant. Tilting Gabrielle's head up with a finger, she looked straight into the salient green eyes, brimming with love and tentative fear as they were.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," the bard whispered, "please."
Instead of a verbal answer, the Conqueror smiled, a beatific, brilliant smile, silently marvelling the love she had been given. So giving yet so demanding. A quick yank rid the bard of her last vestige of clothing, the skirt, and she was turned in Xena's lap, landing across the Conqueror's knees. Gabrielle squealed in surprise at the sudden move.
"You are so perfect," the dark woman purred, tracing the beautiful expanse of Gabrielle's back with her hands. The scratches had already closed, their lines not marring the inky black mark on the bard's shoulderblade. Her hands travelled downward, to find the round, smooth shape of Gabrielle's bottom. Dipping briefly even further down, she found a pool of wetness, the evidence of her lover's arousal. The bard flinched at the quick touch, her nerves nearing overload.
The Conqueror reached to her side, bringing nearer the wine goblet and a plate of olives that were on the table, her late dinner. Picking one olive, she kissed it before stroking Gabrielle's sex with it, gathering the thick nectar that flowed there. A barely suppressed groan left the bard's throat and she squirmed. That only earned her a healthy slap on the buttocks, a clear warning that she was not to move.
"Divine," Xena hummed, her eyes drooping nearly shut. The salty taste of the stuffed olives combined with the liquid fire of her lover was simply too delicious. Treating another olive the same way, she fed it to Gabrielle this time. She could feel the bard's erratic breathing under her palm that rested on the small of her back, over the taut muscles. It was time to begin.
Taking out her breast dagger, the Conqueror tested its sharpness with her thumb -- a needless gesture really since she always kept it razor sharp and, true enough, it sliced her skin easily. Satisfied with the blade, she dipped it into the wine before positioning it on top of the ink drawing.
Gabrielle took a shuddering breath and carefully removed her tongue from between her teeth. Her head was swimming with the extra blood and her prolonged arousal and as the blade hovered a bare breath away from her skin, she could feel her skin extend towards its harsh touch, her pores waiting to exhale when the floating would end and she would feel the kiss of steel.
At the quiet word, Xena smiled and made the first cut.
Every drop of the blood was so beautiful, every crimson pearl telling a tale of the strength to endure, for their love so pure.
Continue on to the sequel Ascension