Winner of an Amazon Ice Award
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 bodyparts so in this story, extreme violence and its aftermaths are depicted in a realistic, graphical 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: According to this story's view on Xenaverse, Xena never met Hercules and hence, is on her old ways. Though she isn't a despot quite yet but getting there rapidly, Lunacy's definitions say this is a Xena the Conqueror tale.
Xena quotes Machiavelli's The Prince. Or is it the other way around, since Niccolo lived about two millennia after Xena…
The making of this story was greatly aided by Milk Duds, Pepsi Max and the music of Rammstein, KMFDM, Numb and Garbage. I wish to thank the Great Ones (LN James and Missy Good, most notably) for showing The Way and Michal Salat, Alphanumericx and my other beta readers and of course Mr P for putting up with me and my stories.
You can find more work by Penumbra at her site u m b r a e
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
P e n a n c e
© Penumbra 1998 - 1999
She averted her head to shield her eyes from the downpour. It rained on her in large droplets, making splashing sounds near her ear and small pings as it hit her breast armour. She cringed inwardly. Getting the stuff out of the intricate curves and twists of her bronze cuirass was a major pain but fortunately she had someone to do that for her.
Wiping most of the moisture off of her right cheek and eye, she turned her head back, just in time to see and hear the man's last scream and twitch. The noise he made was a sickening, wet sound, coming as much from his vocal cords as from the blood that rushed past them. With clinical interest, she watched as his hands still made minute moves over where his stomach used to be, even though he was most certainly dead. Odd phenomenon, those twitches, she thought idily. She flicked her sword to rid it of excess blood, a gesture that was more a reflex than anything else for the length of the blade was already encrusted in a thick coating of rust-coloured dried blood, from tip to hilt. Have to ask Mentu about that. Probably just muscle spasms or something.
The sword slithered back into its sheath with a faint scraping sound, barely discernable over the screams and moans the wind carried across the battlefield to her. She straightened, working out a small kink in her back, and let her gaze rake over the wide grassy plain gently rolling between two forests. Salamandron had been short-sighted enough to choose this field as the site of battle, condemning even more of his men to painful deaths. He was stupid, he did not see the one plain truth most of Greece already knew: she was invincible.
She was standing on a slight rise in the field and the added height provided her a perfect view over the clearing, the grass now trampled to dark mush where it was not covered by flesh that was either dead or dying. She herself stood in a pool of blood, ankle high. It rippled in the gentle breeze, lapping against her boots and at the piles of men that surrounded her, the bodies keeping the crimson liquid at bay, not allowing it to cascade down the wet grass. It would take a few years before grass on this field would be green again, so long it would feed on the red moisture.
The smell was strong enough to make her nostrils twitch. They widened and drank in the scent of death, gore and pain in all its glory. The scent was thick here and she revelled in it for she had brought it about. Throwing her head back, she felt the wind tug at her wet black tresses and cool her heated skin. The sky was eggshell blue and only faint wisps of clouds were visible. Oh, the day was perfect.
Her laughter was heard downwind of her position, which was right in the middle of the busiest spot of the day's battle. Her men paused in their work of ransacking the fallen enemy and helping their own and turned towards the sound. It was odd, to hear such vocal enunciation of joy on a battlefield but the men knew that their commander was a bit… eccentric in these matters. They watched the raven-haired woman spread her arms wide and let out another laughing whoop of joy at the sky, her smile bright white in the sunlight.
The men knew she wasn't laughing in relief at having won a battle. No, she was laughing because she liked what she saw around her, her masterpiece in the art of war, painted in crimson and gore. A collective shiver ran through the troops as they watched their high commander and counted their blessings. It was good to belong to the Conqueror's army, she was a fair leader and a brilliant tactician (and the object of most of the troops' wet dreams) but there was something so dark about her, an aura of danger that made the most courageous of men shiver when the electric blue eyes found their mark on them.
She still smiled, even white teeth and prominent canines clearly visible. This time, the smile was not directed at the sky but at a bound man, resting atop a pile of bodies. It was not one of her pleasant smiles and the man's grey eyes darted from the dead man he was resting on to the evil grin and back. The man under him was Darphean, one of his lieutenants, and he couldn't take his eyes off the grimace of pain that was frozen on the poor man's face.
"Now, Iliados, we need to talk," she said in a deep, smoky voice and, grabbing the whimpering man, she threw him over one shoulder and kicked one lifeless corpse out of her way. The slain soldier's throat was cut so deep his head was connected to the rest of him only by a small thread of skin. A fresh gush of blood sprouted from the gaping wound, staining the Conqueror's thigh some more. She didn't seem to even notice as she stepped around the man and over another. Coming thus clear of the circle of corpses she stopped, and with the help of two fingers in her mouth, produced a shrill whistle.
On cue, a huge golden warhorse came galloping towards them. Grinding to a halt next to them, the horse whinnied and her ears flicked back and forth. She was obviously a bit distressed so the tall woman stepped closer and let the mare nuzzle her hand. Gently, the horse did so, her sensitive nostrils fluttering at the heady scent of blood on her Mistress' hand.
"I know I smell funny, girl. Sorry about that."
She slung the hapless bound man across the mare's loins and stooped a bit to check on a bleeding cut just below the saddle. She ran her finger along the edge of the wound and the horse whickered, sidestepping a bit.
"You got a cut?" She clucked her tongue angrily, wishing whoever had injured her horse to be dead now - preferably with lots of pain, and by her own hand.
Iliados' head was swimming. His brain hadn't yet adjusted to his current predicament let alone the private show he'd gotten on the field. The dark warrior had captured him early on, bound him and settled him atop a corpse. From there, he had a perfect view of her and the magic of death she wove with her sword. After a while he had grown numb of the killing and he had closed his eyes, only hearing the screams of pain and the ringing laugh the woman had let out whenever the situation was getting thick. He would remember that laugh for the rest of his life, however short that should prove to be. He didn't entertain any illusions about his fate; his lifespan was measured in hours now.
And now, this killing machine from Tartarus was concerned
about a nick on her horse. A horse! Iliados couldn't believe it. She threw
a cape over her blood-soaked form and he felt a painful jolt on his dislocated
shoulder as she mounted the horse with one fluid move. She clucked her
tongue and they shot off towards the main camp.
Xena was bored. And when it came to Xena, bored equalled dangerous. Apparently Salamandron wasn't in on this small fact, the guard in a corner of the tent smirked. The Conqueror was sitting in her usual chair, her head resting against the high back. The vivid blue eyes were almost hidden by drooping lids as she watched the agitated man across the table along the length of her nose. The guard spared an admiring glance at her striking features as he had so often done and idly pondered what cruel entertainment the bored ruler would come up with to cheer her. The Conqueror could be so… inventive.
"B-but… you must leave us something, you can't just ta-"
He was cut short by a slap across his face. Faster than the eye could see, Xena had reached across the table and smacked him with the back of her hand. It was a casual slap but nevertheless, it made his teeth rattle in his mouth.
"I didn't request an opinion. I requested surrender," she smiled. The smile didn't quite reach the blue eyes. This man was a cowering idiot and she had had her fill of such men years ago. They didn't believe in her strength until she had beaten them in battle and they didn't obey her before she demonstrated her power to them, personally. Her knuckles itched to take her boredom out on him but what she needed to do was to teach the man a lesson.
"Bring the prisoner," she snapped at a guard who complied hastily, almost running out of the command tent. When she was in this mood, dawdling wasn't recommended.
The guard returned shortly, carrying a chair with another man. In the chair sat Salamandron's general, his limbs bound to the legs and armrests of the chair. Iliados was a bit wild-eyed but he seemed otherwise okay. The chair was set down at the end of the long table and Xena waved a hand, dismissing the extra guard. He bowed crisply and exited and Salamandron looked after him, envious of her excellent troops. His head snapped around as he heard the Conqueror addressing him. Even the voice was making him antsy; its deep, rich timbre echoed in his gut as unpleasant vibrations.
"Care for something to drink, Salamandron?"
He was caught off-guard by the casual question and now that she mentioned it, his throat was parchment dry. He nodded silently and Xena snapped her fingers and pointed at a golden flagon. The slave on duty that night raised an eyebrow at the odd request but she knew better than to question the dark woman's orders. She hurried the empty vessel to her.
A dagger materialised into her hand as if from thin air. The bored look never vanishing from her eyes, she drew the blade across Iliados' throat on one side. As Salamandron watched, frozen in his seat, the Conqueror grabbed the man's hair with one hand and, thrusting the dagger into the table, put the flagon under the stream of blood that ran from his general's jugular. The man made a moist coughing sound and struggled but the binds and the iron grasp on his hair wouldn't budge. His eyes rolled back after a while and the powerful gush of blood turned into a steady trickle.
Xena let go of the dead man's hair and extended her hand. A golden goblet was placed there and she nodded for the servant girl to give the shaking man one as well. Drilling her eyes into Salamandron, she poured the still steaming hot blood into her goblet, the red liquid sloshing in the intricately etched cup. The icy gaze didn't waver a bit when she brought the goblet to her lips and drank deeply.
Her lips were stained deep crimson, making the contrast even starker when she smiled a white, slightly blood-streaked smile.
"Excellent vintage. Care for some?"
The meeting progressed quickly from there on.
"So, the exact tally is…?"
"Eighteen killed, compared to over a hundred of theirs. Sixty-three wounded, of which nine are dying. We have as prisoners eighty-four men, fifteen women. Of the latter, thirteen are non-combatants…"
The list of her bounty went on but she listened to the number of horses, sacks of grain and weapons with only half an ear. The battle had been a minor one, Salamandron's troops had required only a fraction of her army to be brought down. Of course, she had ridden in front for it was her place and nowadays she took advantage of every possibility to fight. It eased her boredom, for pickings were growing rare. She had already conquered most of Greece, uniting the numerous city-nations under one banner. It was glorious, yes, but it also brought on the unwanted things about ruling: bureaucracy and boredom. And she knew that boredom was dangerous for her.
Adjusting her position in the chair, she let her gaze travel over her first-in-command, still reading out the detailed list of her new riches. Talas was his name and he was a fine piece of human flesh, that much was true. Tall, muscular and with flowing dark brown hair and deep brown eyes, he was handsome in a traditional sort of way and yes, women did swoon over him.
His speech faltered when he felt the hot gaze rake over his body, a shameless look of carnal origins. He prayed that he wouldn't get too excited right now. The Conqueror had once ripped off the offending member of one of her guards who had had the bad manners to have an erection in front of her. The thought of this happening was enough to curb his excitement and he continued his litany, now praying that his commander would stop teasing him and take him to her bed. He had dreamed about it long enough, ever since she had started to torment him with the lascivious looks. More often than not he fantasized about making love to this magnificent primal woman, sitting so close to him. But he wouldn't have survived all these years with the Conqueror if he were a fool so he kept his fantasies to himself. Acting out on them would've resulted in a sure death, and a painful one. Xena excelled in those.
His monologue went on and on and idly, the raven-haired woman pondered whether to let the poor man out of his misery and take him tonight. Her battle fever was still high, heated blood coursing in her veins and as always, it made her more than a bit prurient. But she wasn't feeling like a man right now. Her hunger for conquest hadn't been satisfied by the day so she needed something more. And Talas wouldn't really be a conquest, she knew from his reddened cheeks and faltering voice that she need only to crook a finger and the man would kneel at her feet. No. Something different…
"Of the women --" she interrupted. "-- anyone particularly… interesting?"
Talas deflated mildly, his pipe dreams evaporating once again. His commander wanted another conquest and it was his duty to obey her whims. So be it.
"There's one… just your type, my liege," he smiled faintly.
She sipped at her wine, trying to make the taste of blood disappear from her mouth but it clung firmly at the back of her throat. She had seen the minute slump of the man's shoulders and smiled a small private smile at that. She loved yanking her First's strings, if only to test his loyalty. She need not; she knew that Talas was ready to defend her with his life, so attached to her he was. But it was fun, to watch the man squirm.
"And what exactly, Talas, is my type?"
He gulped and cursed silently at his slip. Never assume, he screamed to himself.
"Uhh… her name's Trina and she's… quite lovely." He had picked out this girl early on, just for this purpose, noticing the proud bearing and flashing blue eyes. He knew his commander liked them feisty.
Xena held his gaze for a while, letting the silence drag on. She watched Talas' adam's apple bob up and down as she calmly sipped at the wine. Letting the man roast in the silence for a while more, she smiled and stood up.
"Good. Bring her here," she husked and set the goblet down. Grabbing the front of Talas' tunic, she yanked him near her and placed a scorching kiss on his surprised lips. The feel of the Conqueror's velvety lips on his, the scent of the woman of his dreams so close, he felt like his head was swimming. Xena got closer, her breasts that were covered only by a thin layer of silk pressing against his chest. He moaned in reaction when she let go of him.
"Be quick about it," she smiled. It took Talas a
few moments to register his surroundings as the red haze of passion dissipated.
He regained his wits and instinctively brought his hand to his swollen lips.
Gods. He knew what his dream that night would be about. Bowing a bit shakily,
he exited quickly. Maybe he'd use the services of one of the regulars,
women who followed wherever the camp went… yeah. Even though he knew that
his itch couldn't be successfully scratched by any other than the dark beauty
that resided in the command tent.
The girl was obviously a peasant but there was bright intelligence behind the dark blue eyes that were gazing at her brazenly and with unadulterated hate. Xena purred in satisfaction. She liked the spirit in this one; she was too young to fear her but too old to be too innocent. Perfect. She reminded herself to thank Talas on an excellent choice.
Trina glanced at the woman lounging comfortably in a high-backed chair, her eyes unable to cover her puzzlement. Here she was, a prisoner of war, sitting in the tent of the ruler of most of the known world and this… woman was asking her if she wanted wine. She shook her head in a jerking motion, meeting the shimmering bright blue eyes with some difficulty.
The woman was beautiful, she had to admit as much. None of the stories about the Conqueror, Destroyer of Nations, Butcher of Kírra, the Warrior Princess, none of them mentioned the primal beauty of the woman, the magnetic personality Trina felt in the intense gaze. Sure, tales talked about her feats, the blood and carnage, the victories. Trina had heard the stories all throughout her life for the Conqueror had begun her victorious journey many solar cycles ago, when Trina was still a child. And here the Xena of legends sat, clad in a shimmering silk robe of rich burgundy colour, the red that was also the colour of the wine in the golden goblet and of the dark woman's lips. And she had asked if she wanted some wine.
Xena noticed that the young woman's gaze was focused on her lips and she made a small smile and then pursed her mouth. The dark blue eyes jerked away, to focus on the table.
Silence settled in the tent again for they were alone. For Trina, it was uncomfortable for she still didn't know what was the purpose of her visit here. For Xena, silence was the natural state of existence.
Finally Trina reached the end of her patience. "What do you want of me?"
A-ha. Xena smiled like a cat at a cream bowl. She could just as easily take what she wanted but she relished conquest. She didn't have to force herself on anyone. Everyone, sooner or later, surrendered to her willingly, after some persuasion but of their own free will. Her charisma was irresistible.
Standing up with one fluid move, she startled Trina. As the Conqueror paced around the table to stand behind her, she caught a glimpse of smooth, long muscular legs as the robe parted slightly when she walked. The woman's gait was catlike in its negligent grace, quiet like that of a predator circling its prey.
Trina felt the presence behind her but she didn't dare to breathe, let alone turn towards the Destroyer. Silk made a soft whispering sound as it fanned around the woman when she crouched behind the low stool the girl was sitting on.
She was so close Trina could feel the heat emanating from the woman. The warmth brought with it the scent of the woman. It was primal and musky, a mix of leather and spices and something far more passionate and dangerous. Trina felt lightheaded.
The voice came close to her ear, warm breath caressing the delicate curves there. The rich, vibrating timbre was intense enough to make a small shiver go through Trina. It was probably the sexiest voice she had ever heard and at the words, she felt the woman move even closer, so close she felt two breasts press on her back. That alarmed her but before she could react, satiny smooth lips captured her earlobe and sucked on it, biting down gently.
All strength vanished from her at the exquisite feeling. The woman behind her fairly reeked of sex and was flaunting it but Trina didn't register this notion. She leaned back instinctively, coming into full contact with the woman. Xena grinned against the ear she was nibbling for a small involuntary moan escaped the woman. She snaked her arms around the lithe body to stop it from falling off the footstool.
"Your body," Xena whispered to the ear and traced its outline with her tongue, bringing her hands to cup two young firm breasts at the same time. Trina arched into the touch, all rational thought lost at the hypnotising words the low, melodious voice had whispered with just the slightest hint of a rasp.
Xena was a bit disappointed at the easiness of this
one. Her palm felt two nipples gone pebble hard and she took them between
fingers, squeezing the puckered flesh through the girl's shirt as she sucked
on the gentle swell of her neck. Easy, yes, but the fun part was still
For a prowling warlord, morning comes early.
The first gentle tendrils of the sun were just reaching over the treetops when the Conqueror's eyes opened to the world again. From the depths of her baby blues, she gazed at the ceiling of the huge command tent for a few moments, following a delicate seam from the central pole to the edge of the construction. The fabric was deep burgundy in colour, the wilted light that was let through tinted in blood red as it hit the white sheets of the big bed under it. An appropriate colour, if anything, the woman mused and smiling a big, genuine smile of expectant joy, she extracted herself from the sheets.
Stretching luxuriously, she paced in her field home. Sparing a fleeting glance at the curled-up figure of the girl… Trina, was it?… on the table, right where she had taken her and left her, she snatched her cleaned leathers from a chair and pulled them on. After quietly lacing her boots, she stepped outside to greet Apollo's chariot as it began its daily journey across the wide plane of sky.
The sky was an attractive pink hue, the treetops coloured in a lighter yellow shade. Stretching across her field of vision lay her crowning acheivement: her army. Laid out in a neat grid, tents were scattered all over the grassy plain, all around her burgundy and blue command tent. Letting her gaze rake over the city of cloth she was responsible for, she felt the impending joy bubble to the surface. She felt it tickle her nose and tug at her shoulders, beckoning.
Last night, when she was already in bed but not yet sleeping, a messenger had come. A neighbour and ally of Salamandron had served her with an ultimatum, threatening her with fire and fury if she didn't relinquish what she had taken. The Conqueror had replied with her usual flair, first making the messenger eat the offending note, and then carving out her reply to it, essentially a courteous equivalent of Eat shit. The messenger had thanked the gods she was a woman of few words, for she had carved them into his back.
So, she was feeling on today. The thought made her smile to the trembling shards of light that illuminated her army, her heavy hand of wrath. Not just one but two days of lovely carnage. Gods I love my job, she laughed in her mind and took to a run.
The tall, dark woman running was always a good omen for the men. It was an unmistakable sign of good battle for it meant she was in a good mood. Soldiers at their morning chores paused to gaze at the graceful figure that loped with steady, powerful pace around the camp, the handsome face adorned with a hearty grin. It was a familiar part of mornings of battle and the men greeted it with knowing smiles.
The rest of the lovely morning progressed in great bounds and leaps, buzzing with excitement. As she stood in the middle of her tent, waiting for the battle impatiently as her armour was put on her, the Conqueror felt like whistling. Of course she couldn't but really, there was a sense of… something in the air. Great things were about to happen; things were going to change today.
Small fingers tugged at the lacings of her left gauntlet, setting the intricate piece of black leather and bronze curves just right. She tried not to tap her foot in impatience for she was really itching to get out there. Taking a steady breath, she pushed the urge down. Her middle name was perfection and and it was not achieved by hurrying unnecessarily. At last, the laces settled evenly and the long ends were tucked inside the thick leather. She clapped her hands and didn't bother to hide the impending smile as she ordered a servant to fetch her horse.
The man hurried out and the Conqueror shifted her gaze to her First and smiled.
"Come, Talas. Carnage awaits."
The basket was so heavy she thought she was carrying lead pellets instead of firewood in it. The rough withes bit through her linen shirt and into her shoulder and she was sure she'd have an angry red welt right there, on the thickest part of her shoulder muscle. Adjusting the difficult item she was carrying, she peeked at the sun and sighed. Midday was nearing and she hadn't even started on the beets…
Her burden as well as her lithe body were almost knocked aside when a man rounded a corner a wee bit too fast. Barely did she manage to stay upright, helped by a steady hand on her forearm.
"Sorry about that, 'Rie," he breathed and took up his abruptly halted journey. She turned to look after him and frowned at the sight of gathering masses, people hurrying towards the north gate.
"Wait, Simon! What's going on?"
At the shout, the man halted again and half-turned. Smiling at the curious look on the girl's admittedly pretty face, he paced back a few steps.
"Haven't you heard? The Conqueror is headed this way."
She watched the retreating back that soon disappeared
amongst others. Pondering for a while and finally flipping a mental coin,
she put down the basket and hurried after the others. On a day like this,
her master would allow her some slippage. Probably.
The defence of Arákhova was, in manpower, about two hundred heads, as well as solid walls about fifteen feet tall and a sturdy wooden fence with iron-reinforced gates. The city was medium-sized and located in a peaceful area at the foot of Mount Parnassos, surrounded by hills and protected by its insignificant reputation. Until now, that is, Gabrielle thought wryly and with no small amount of trepidation as she watched the soldiers exit via the main gate. Men that had rarely seen battle but strong, skillful men nevertheless. Arákhova had been a peaceful place to live; if her life had been hers she would've probably settled into a similar town.
The hills that surrounded the small kettle of a valley where Arákhova lay were still quiet. No troops except the town militia were in sight but beyond the crest of hills and on the other side of river Kefissos, traders had seen thick pillars of smoke, both from the destroyed neighbouring village and from the army that had pounded through it -- so the scuttlebutt had said. She had never been one to engage in idle gossiping with the kitchen maids but she couldn't help overhearing a few rumours now and then.
Even after filtering out most of the hot air rumours tended to gather, the stories were enough to make a hardened man pause. They spoke of an army that trampled everything that came before it, and of the woman that wielded the unstoppable hammer of destruction. Daughter of Bacchus, she was rumoured to be, or perhaps of Ares. Gabrielle had laughed away such wild stories. Really… madwoman from Tartarus. C'mon. I bet if I told you she's able to breathe fire you'd believe that too, she smirked at the memory of the head cook with rounded eyes and pudgy, waving hands as she described the Conqueror.
She adjusted her feet, taking care not to slip off the slick straw roof. As with most of the town's populace, her curiosity had taken the best of her and so here she was, sitting on a roof of a house situated near the outer fence. The place provided her with an excellent view of the gently sloping, almost treeless hillside that surrounded the town, and of the troops milling about the grassy plains, waiting for something.
Picking up a loose straw and chewing on it, she enjoyed the moment of rest. Her life was hard but she was still young, her vigour at its peak. Life was hard for a slave, she had seen men and women no less than forty solar cycles look thin and frail, wasted away on too much work and too little food. Food. Her stomach grumbled and on cue, her cheeks reddened. The woman sitting next to her smiled and offered her a small salty pastry. People of Arákhova were like that, peaceful in nature; giving food to a person with a slave collar wasn't that surprising. Gabrielle took the offering, thanking the elderly lady, probably the owner of the house.
As she chewed on the mincemeat-stuffed offering, she listened. There was something odd about the air. About the hum of voices, for there wasn't any. It was as if the birds of the forest had stopped singing and the river stopped flowing. The whole town was holding its breath. Even the wind was quiet. Too quiet. She shifted in her seat.
The quiet lasted not a breath. What she first thought to be an odd shadow cast by clouds soon morphed into a cluster of men, silhouetted against the eggshell-blue sky. Crimson banners fluttered in the air, the gold-and-blue crest on them identifying the troops easily. It was the Conqueror's army and it stood there, waiting.
Later on, no-one was sure which side had lost its cool but it didn't matter for the end result was the same. Suddenly, the peaceful field was a mass of running men, half running uphill, the other down. Yelling incoherent screams and the names of various gods, the two masses met at mid-slope and the yells were drowned by an endless stream of metallic clangs and groans of pain. It was a ballet in red, shining metal and dark leather, sweating bodies engaged in a multi- faceted dance of death.
The battle had barely started when it became obvious the attacking force was losing. Slowly but with gathering speed the footmen backed towards the higher parts of the hills, dragging the bloodthirsty militia with them. After a few yards, the men abandoned battle altogether and turning towards the safety of high ground, ran for their lives. Smelling victory, the Arákhovan army followed them, fanning out across the hill. A few victory whoops sounded from nearby rooftops but there was still something that bothered Gabrielle.
"Way too easy," she muttered to herself as she watched the two armies that ran away from the town. "Too easy. I wonder…"
That was as far as she got in her musings when a new cloud shadow appeared on top of the hill. As it was with the previous one, this was not a mere shadow, it was a sea of darkness. As if they stepped from the bowels of the earth itself, a rim of men rose to the crest of the hill, the edges stretching halfway across the circle whose centre was the town. Some were footsoldiers but most were on horseback -- silent, straightbacked figures on massive warhorses. In the exact centre stood one lone horse, a few yards inside the wide semi-circle. Of the figure on top of the golden warhorse, one could see only a long, flowing mane of midnight black hair, glinting armour and a cape of crimson. It was the Conqueror.
Of course, some faraway part of Gabrielle's brain said and mentally slapped its forehead. The Conqueror always, always led her army herself. The earlier wave of men had been just the first wave, to lure the defenders away from the fortifications and to make them spread out. It had succeeded.
"Oh no…" she whispered as she saw the lone dark figure unsheath a sword and raise it high above her head. Her red crests followed suit, raising brazenly into the air and a thundering yell rose. The second wave was on.
It was as if the defending army was nothing more than a minor annoyance, so easily the central head of the army rode through it. The two edges of the semi-circle of horses and men curved down and inside, meeting the body of the central force mid-way. The militia was thus separated into two pieces, surrounded by a circle of professional soldiers on horseback. There was no way footmen could fight against a force like that, and the defenders were constricted into nothingness sooner than Gabrielle could squeak her horror. The attacking force plowed through and headed straight for the gates, still led by the dark apparition that was now stained crimson.
It was the arrow that woke her from the trance. It landed not two feet from her, barely missing the houseowner and embedding itself into the straw roof with a soft thunk. Deciding that being in plain view was probably not the most sensible thing to do when being attacked, Gabrielle helped the elderly lady down from the roof and took towards her master's house in a half run, her heart in her throat.
As she ran with the panicked throngs of people that
cried, screamed and dashed about the narrow streets, she felt a sickening
sense of deja-vu. Despite the volatile times Greece was living in, she
had been spared of the horrors of war most of her life. This was only her
second time and the last time had been over four years ago. But she still
remembered the dark figure painted in deep red and the heavy hand of the
divine executioner that had swept through her home village…
She was almost disappointed. Did nothing in the whole of Greece offer her a proper challenge? The meagre defenses of this village had been swept away like an irritating piece of hay in her hair, dissipated with the speed of rushing wind.
She felt her eyes water at the rush of wind as she sped down the hill. She felt the powerful contraction and expansion of Argo's ribcage between her legs as she urged the mare to even greater speeds. The scent of blood was beckoning her and she was going to answer its call. The smell of fear, sweat, and courageous determination always made her nostrils flare. It was the smell of the battlefield and it taunted her, throwing the gauntlet for her to pick up. She always did. The smell had never failed her, never had it not transformed to the rich, coppery scent she so loved, the scent of the harvest reaped by her sword.
She caught the first man right across his chest,
separating bone from muscle with a powerful sweep. The same arc continued
into his companion with a small flick of her wrist, the tip of the thick
blade coming out between his shoulders. He dropped his pike and made a
feeble grab at Xena's leg but she avoided it by twisting the blade and
finally kicking him off it. The last thing he heard in this world was a
bright, ringing burst of laughter. He missed the whoop of joy she made
when her sword found its mark again, for his soul was in the Elysian fields
Judging from the rising screams coming from somewhere far behind her, the main gates had broken and the invaders were in the town. She cursed her stupid, stupid idea to go see the battle for now the streets were so filled with hysterical people who were shouting, screaming and futilely praying for the gods to intervene that she couldn't get through. Gabrielle was sure the only god here, if any, would be Ares and he'd definitely be delighted at the carnage she'd just witnessed. She was positive she would see the agonised men courageously defending their homes in her dreams for many moons to come, provided she survived this ordeal first.
Even that would prove to be difficult. She tried to fight her way through the masses, towards her home, but it was to no avail. At the end of the narrow main street a scream rose and as she turned, her heart jumped into her throat. There was a cluster of men on horseback, plowing their way through the street and towards the town prefect's house. The crowd surged ahead of the troops in a massive, unstoppable wave of flesh. Oh no.
Quickly ducking behind a water barrel, she managed to avoid the hysterical crowd. She watched the frothing crowd stream past her, and then the men on horseback, the hoofbeats on the cobblestone street echoing almost painfully among the high-pitched white noise of the town populace. The last horse strayed a bit too close to the barrel and kicked it with one treetrunk-thick hind leg.
Gabrielle saw the oaken barrel tilt but she had no
room to back away. The heavy round surface caught her on one side and made
her stumble to the ground, her head meeting the stones. She was out cold,
not there to see or feel as the barrel emptied its wet contents on her
before rolling slowly across the now deserted street, to be stopped by
another man on a horse.
"Apology accepted, prefect Silane."
She could almost hear the small pop in his brain as a blood vessel finally gave in to the mounting pressure and ruptured. The bulky, sweat-stenched carcass of the man was now just a piece of inert flesh, masses of fat-infested meat marring the beautiful Oriental rug underneath. "Clean away this mess," she barked to a soldier standing in the doorway and he bowed, hastening to get help.
Her sensitive nose wrinkled at the stench. Before taking his final breath, the man had soiled himself, an unfortunate side-effect the nerve-pinch sometimes had on people not in good control of their bodily functions. A fitting end for a cowering blob of fat-for-brains, she mused, and turned away from the repulsive sight to take in the quite lovely room, so much in contrast to its owner. Previous owner, she grinned. A real bed was going to feel sooo good after many months of sleeping in tents.
The bed was truly a piece of furniture worth the Conqueror's smile. Covered in thick pillows and satiny sheets and surrounded by thick curtains, it was big enough to host a small banquet in. It fit the room's decor perfectly for the big, high-ceilinged space was decorated with the same rich and abundant flair. Persian rugs covered every inch of the stone floor, wherever there was not a table, a comfortable chair or masses of pillows. A fireplace stood at one end of the room and next to it rested a bathing tub, the gentle light of candles and the last rays of the evening sun reflecting off its bronze surface. It seemed the prefect was a hedonist to the bone.
As she paced across the carpeted floor towards the work desk, she was faintly aware she was leaving red stains on the floor. Glancing briefly at her blood-soaked form and then at the tub, she decided to have a bath as soon as possible. Judging from the itch she had again managed to get blood into places she'd rather keep as clean as possible.
When the servants had cleaned away the last of what was left of the prefect, Talas entered the chamber. She could smell the clean soap on the First even though she was seated at the desk. She aimed a white, gleaming smile at the parchment she was studying as she listened to his quiet steps. The bath could wait, she had other itches to scratch.
"So, Talas," she hummed in her low, sultry voice and heard the steps falter. Her grin intensified. "You managed to find a bath."
He opened his mouth and realised he had again inserted his foot in it. He could see nothing of the Conqueror in the tall-backed chair except a forearm and that was still covered in rust-coloured, dried blood, the crust flaking off the gauntlet. Oh, centaur crap.
"I, uh, everything had settled down so…" His voice trailed away as the Conqueror rose and turned towards him. Hades and the seven circles of Tartarus… Even covered in goo, muck and gore, the woman was stunning. Or maybe even more so. He felt his jaw muscles slacken again at the enigmatic smirk on her face and at the blazing blue eyes that were positively electric.
She paced closer, her gait quiet and fluid like that of a cat. Instinctively, he backed away. He got a sudden feeling that he was small, defenseless prey. She stalked even closer, driving him slowly towards the wall.
"Now, Talas…" A step.
"… tell me…" Another.
"… would you like to…" Another, and he felt his back touch the stone wall.
"… get dirty again?" She was so close he could smell the dark energy that oozed out of her. She leaned close, so close her breastplate pressed against his chest and Talas felt like he was drowning in the two vast pools of blue.
"Hmmm?" she hummed, a deep throaty sound he could feel in his gut. It spurred his bloodflow to certain places south and he gritted his teeth, hoping she wouldn't notice. She seemed to notice the pallor on his face, though, and he watched a very lovely pink tongue appear and lick the ruby red lips that were turned up in a creamy smile. Now he was sure the extra blood had been taken from his legs because he felt his knees grow weak even though his heart was hammering like nothing else.
The sound of a door hitting the wall startled him out of his aroused haze. Quicker than he could follow, she had moved away from him and towards the door.
The guard that had so hastily entered felt his heart skip a beat. The Conqueror's tone was far from friendly. "Th-there's trouble at the roundup," he managed to get out before she breezed past him, spiralling him to the stone wall so hard he felt his teeth rattle. After making sure his head was still in one piece he hurried after her, leaving the perplexed Talas alone in the room.
Roundup was the place where all the loose people were gathered, meaning survivors of the army, homeless people and loose slaves. As usual it had been established at the market square. It was also the place where most of the troops gathered, to celebrate a battle won and survived. She didn't mind that, her men worked hard and deserved to party hard as a compensation. But sometimes emotions ran too high after battle, so the celebrations were volatile at best. Her tolerance for idiotic, drunken antics was quite high but there were some things she didn't tolerate. One was abusing women or children and the other was fighting over insignificant things.
As it was, there had been a card game of sorts and it had escalated into an all-out fight when someone had accused of someone else of tampering with the cards. It was all the spark that was needed and now, about twenty men were engaged in all variations of knife and fist fighting.
The word rang clearly over the scuffle of bodies and grunts of the fight and the men paused. They would recognise that voice anywhere, even as one barked word and through the wine-induced haze. It was the voice of their much-respected but also much-feared commander and as usual, it was the most effective instant remedy for fighting.
These men, hardened by countless wars and too much death, stood like schoolboys caught stealing an apple. They felt the burning blue eyes rake over them and all prayed that their commander wasn't in a bad mood today.
She was just pondering which head to lop off to let off some pent-up energy when she heard a high-pitched voice scream, somewhere deep within the hastily collected clumps of people. She let one last cool gaze sweep over the men before starting towards the new sound.
The high-pitched voices seemed to emanate from somewhere behind a merchant's cart. The dark woman re-sheathed her sword and grasping the edge of the low roof of the cart, she pounced up and with a boost from strong arms; then she was on the roof, landing softly in a crouching position. Wooden planks under her feet creaked softly as she adjusted her position so that she could see the other side.
The person making the most noise was a slightly paunchy brunette, her mouth agape in a reddened face as she struggled in the firm grasp of one of Xena's soldiers. She was squirming and trying to get her hands free while the man was vainly attempting to subdue her. The brunette's companion, a younger girl with reddish-blonde hair and blazing eyes, was making much less noise, mainly because the hand of another soldier was at her mouth. As the Conqueror watched, the girl bit the hand and it was quickly withdrawn with an indignant howl from the man holding her. The bite was rewarded with a slap across her face and the soldier cursed, sucking on the broken skin of his palm. As he raised his arm again, Xena jumped off the roof in a rolling somersault-turned-flip move, landing behind the man with nary a sound.
"Slave bitch! I'll teach you…" he growled and the hand started to descend. Half-way through its arc, it was captured in a vice-like grip and he turned his head to see what had jerked his hand away from the punishment this girl clearly deserved.
He saw five long, tanned fingers curled around his wrist, squeezing so hard he could feel the hand getting numb. The fingers were an extension of a muscular, equally tanned arm that shone dark crimson in the feeble torchlight, a dull, unequal gleam that was drowned by the brilliance of two sapphire eyes and a row of even white teeth.
She chuckled deep in her throat at the look on the soldier's face when it dawned on him exactly who had grasped his hand. Letting the chuckle trickle through, the Conqueror twisted the arm and with some momentum and a simple half-turn, she banged the man hard against the wall of the cart. The aged wood protested such heavy handling, but the noise vanished under a different protest -- this one a gurgling, wet sound. The soldier's last breath escaped around the dagger that pinned him to the cart, air rushing with the blood that flowed from his throat, past the golden hilt of the sharp knife and onto his hands which were vainly clawing at the dagger under his chin.
The other man, now frozen into a statue, was disposed of with an elbow to his stomach and a sharp jab behind his ear. He fell to the stones like a sack of turnips and stayed there, his breathing laboured. The other woman fell also, having fainted away when the breast dagger had found its mark, but the other…
"You didn't have to kill him."
Xena turned at the soft, raspy voice. It was the blonde woman, a girl really, who addressed her, mile-wide eyes darting from the man pinned to the cart to the other on the ground and then back to Xena, never alighting in one place for longer than a breath. Finally the eyes settled on her and in the low light, the Conqueror saw fear, hate, confusion and… sorrow in the eyes. A dark eyebrow rose.
"Yes I did," she replied and turned to leave. She was stopped by the gentle, persistent voice.
She turned back. There was a rational explanation, yes, but she didn't have to explain herself to this… slave, she thought after getting a glimpse of dark leather and rust-specked rings of a slave collar half-hidden inside the girl's ripped blouse. She stepped a few paces closer and as expected, the slave stepped back. She was no contest to the Conqueror's long legs, however, and sooner than she could follow, Xena was standing before her.
"Why do you question me, slave?"
Gabrielle again felt like kicking herself but given her situation, it was impossible. Her big mouth had once again put her into an uncomfortable situation… a deadly, rubbery-knee-scary situation, she thought as she carefully lifted her head to look into the Conqueror's face. To her surprise, she didn't see seething fury there, just amused curiosity and mild impatience. She decided that if she was going to die, as people opposing the Conqueror tended to do, at least she'd go with her head up high.
"You just… murdered him," she said, gesturing vaguely at the now dead man, pinned like an insect to the cart. She was surprised to hear a snort of laughter coming from the tall woman, and to see white teeth reflected in the flickering torchlight. The tall woman's skin had an ethereal quality -- she seemed to glow in a misty shade of burgundy. It took Gabrielle a while but suddenly she realised the odd colour was not solely an effect of the torchlight. The woman was covered in blood. Somehow, it was very… appropriate. She gulped.
Xena watched the young slip of a girl in front of her, seeing the play of emotions on her face. She had courage, so much was obvious. Courage was often a thin disguise for stupid recklessness but somehow the Conqueror got the feeling it wasn't the case with this slave. There was definite intelligence in the eyes that gazed up at her, brazenly. She opened her mouth to explain why it wasn't murder but caught herself just in time. Her inner mind frowned. Why do I need to explain anything to her? it fumed. But… she smiled. Intelligence and courage were something she valued highly and besides, her staff was lacking a slave.
"Take her to my quarters," she barked to her honour
guard who had finally arrived. With a swift yank she dislodged the dagger
from the soldier and she was gone.
The hem of her skirt was wadded into a tight clump in her slightly sweating hands. She could feel moisture on her upper lip and she licked away the sheen of nervous sweat.
The chair was comfortable, she had to admit as much. In fact, all the furniture in the room looked comfortable, as well as expensive. She had never seen such an abundance of colours and luxurious materials, not even in her master's house. Late master's, she corrected herself. From the square she had seen the high, hungry flames that had fed on her home, her place of servitude. No amount of pleading, cajoling or crying had softened the guards' hearts, and so she had watched her life vanish in greasy black tendrils of smoke.
In hindsight, it was probably fortunate she had been knocked unconscious. Otherwise she would've been inside that burning house and not on the town square where she had woken up, next to Norah, the cook from next door. Norah had cried against her shoulder and though she felt like crying as well, she had been strong. Norah's husband had been killed in the battle and all Gabrielle had lost was her owner.
It was probably the crying that had attracted the guards' attention. As the last tears of her friend had dried away, two men had approached and grabbed them, their intentions clear in the loud voices and foul, port-smelling breaths. Her cheek was still swollen from the slap she had received but the bite had been worth the pain. And then, she had been saved.
She let go of the hem of her skirt and bit her lower lip, blonde eyebrows knitting. Now she was here, alone in this room overflowing with wealth. A guard had deposited her brusquely and then left her alone. Why, she couldn't fathom.
The big stack of scrolls on the desk beckoned her. Crossing her mental fingers and toes and hoping no-one would come in right now, she rose and paced to them. Hesitantly first but with increasing confidence, she let her fingers brush the rolled pieces of parchment, luxuriating in the feel of this frail material that still managed to carry the most powerful weapon in the world: knowledge.
She had a rare talent for a slave, for she could read and write. Words had been her passion in the carefree days of her youth, her head spawning stories she then wrote down on pieces of bark, on the sand at the riverside, on whatever she could find. Never in her life had she seen so much fine parchment, the surface of the scrolls slick and smooth under her digits.
"I wouldn't touch those if I were you."
The words, pronounced right behind her, made her heart jump into her throat for the umpteenth time that day. The voice was deep, dark and very, very close to her ear. She felt the hackles on her neck rise at the voice and the accompanying coppery smell of blood, both fresh and old. As the scent had predicted, when she turned she was greeted with the sight of a breastplate, beautiful bronze flourishes covered in a thick layer of gore, shards of bone and mud.
"Sit," the voice thrummed and, casting her eyes down, Gabrielle complied. Sitting was a good idea, as her knees were about to give out.
Another servant came in and, without saying a word, approached the outstretched hand of the Conqueror, starting on the laces of her gauntlet while two more servants brought buckets of hot water, obviously preparing a bath. Trying very hard to blend into the background, Gabrielle watched the slim fingers of the girl tug at the gauntlet, managing finally to set the encrusted ties free, removing it from the bronzed arm. The gauntlet was followed by the other and then, piece by piece, the other parts that made up Xena's armour. The process was a hypnotising one, the warrior transforming into human flesh.
At last, the leathers came off and revealed a bare back. It was an endless maze of hills and valleys, shadows shifting on the smooth skin which was marred only by a few thin white scars. As the woman twisted to loosen the last of the lacings, Gabrielle watched the play of muscles under the skin, powerful flesh contracting and relaxing in smooth cascading waves.
"Go. She'll bathe me tonight," Xena said to the servant.
Her gaze shot from the far wall to the Conqueror and found a pair of eyes so blue it almost hurt to look into them. The eyes were gazing at her, one eyebrow lifted in a lazy question.
"I don't speak loud enough?" was the reply, in a tone that held not a shred of humour. The servant girl exited and the now naked Conqueror paced quietly to the bathtub and with negligent, inborn grace lowered her beautiful length into the steaming water, purring in delight.
Hesitating a bit, Gabrielle approached the tub. The Conqueror seemed almost asleep now, her dark head resting on the wide rim of the luxuriously big vessel. But she wasn't asleep, for one eye opened and fastened on the unsure slave. A small smile decorated the dark red lips.
"I don't bite."
Encouraged thusly, Gabrielle stepped a pace forward to stand next to the copper edge, a hair's breadth away from the woman lounging in the water.
"Wash my hair," the dark woman murmured, shifting to a half-sitting position
Gabrielle found the soap and after dipping her hands in the wonderfully warm water, worked a heavy lather before settling her palms gently on the red-black tresses in front of her. Her hands were trembling slightly at the first contact.
It felt wonderful. The Conqueror's hair, albeit encrusted inside a sticky mass of dried blood and dirt, had a silky, smooth quality to it. Slowly, she worked the soap into the thick hair that seemed to go on forever, sliding between her fingers like spun silk. The dirt drained away and left behind heavy, cascading masses of hair the colour of a moonless night. Gabrielle smoothed down the endless layers of hair, combing her digits through the whole length of it, reveling in the sensuous feeling. Moving back up, she started another round, unconsciously humming a small tune as she spread the white foam across the dark head. She missed the small smile that reappeared on Xena's lips.
The humming vanished and the hands on her head paused. "Why what?"
"Why shouldn't I have killed that man?"
The hands resumed their task and Xena could almost hear the gears turn in the fair head of the slave.
"You could have just knocked him unconscious," came the answer. The smile intensified.
"Hm," Xena uttered and stood, offering her body to be washed. The slave complied, tracing the broad shoulders with a sponge. The water that ran from the black hair and bronze back was pale pink in colour and Gabrielle idly wondered how many lives had been lost that day, to create that fragile shade. There was silence and just as she thought the Conqueror had ended the conversation, the voice spoke again. Gabrielle felt it as gentle tremors on her fingers as they traced the curve of one shoulderblade.
"So, why didn't I?"
It was obviously a test of some sort. She could hear the faint rasp in the woman's voice, the implied threat. So, we play games, Gabrielle thought and pursed her lips in thought. Here goes nothing…
"You enjoyed it, perhaps?"
There was a moment of painful, tense silence and without conscious thought the blonde woman held her breath and closed her eyes, waiting for a yell, hit or stab. The back under her hands was stiff, not a muscle moved. The quietness hung in the air, silence so loud Gabrielle was sure her eardrums were about to burst. Suddenly, the back started to shake and a quiet chuckle wafted through the air. The slave's heartbeat slowed down to double digits again.
"Perhaps," the Conqueror smiled and bit her lower lip. It had been so long since anyone had spoken to her in such a straightforward manner. She found it refreshing that the slave was ready play with her life. The thin line between courage and insubordination was sometimes a line drawn in water, and the latter was a sure way to get a one-way ticket to see Hades and the shores of Styx.
"Or you had excess energy," Gabrielle ventured, tracing the back of one thigh with the sponge. Xena shifted her position and the slave's hand paused as she watched the tendons cord at the back of the knee.
"Perhaps." The word wafted down and still, Gabrielle sensed that the right answer was eluding her. Has to be something simpler… practical… she thought.
"You… wanted to make a statement," she ventured hesitantly. She was startled by a slosh of water as the Conqueror turned and stepped out of the tub. Straightening quickly and backing away, she lifted her gaze, finding the deep blue depths. The eyes were a bit disturbing in their intensity; she was sure they could see into her very soul. She took another step back.
The woman was beautiful. It was a sure proof of Nature's wicked sense of humour, she thought, that this killing machine was so perfect. The woman stepped closer, a half of a smile on the ruby red lips, parted just enough for her prominent canines to be visible. Gabrielle backed another step but the divine apparition followed. The warm, yellow light of the many candles in the room glittered in uncountable little stars on the wet, bronze skin of the tall woman, still pacing closer. The Conqueror's gait was gentle and quiet, catlike in its grace.
"They say a ruler should rule with both love and fear," she began, the hoarseness now more pronounced. The shouting of the day was getting on her voice. "Fear is so much more powerful," she smiled and wrapped a dark blue silk robe around her tall frame.
So, she had guessed right but still, Gabrielle's tongue itched to speak out her mind on the Conqueror's statement. The woman apparently saw her twitch in an attempt to curb her talkative nature for she smiled and nodded for her to continue.
"How can you say that?" The mildly insulting words were out of her mouth before she could stop them and she bit down on her tongue to prevent any more foolish utterances. The taste of blood in her mouth distracted her somewhat but not enough for her to miss the dangerous flash of the blue eyes and the impatient fingers that drummed against a goblet. A pause followed as the woman poured herself wine.
"Love is bound by the promise of loyalty that is broken when convenient," she said and sipped at the wine. A drop went by her lips but was caught by a long finger before it could escape the cheek. When the Conqueror placed the finger between her ruby red lips and licked away the moisture, Gabrielle had the oddest of sensations; she felt her mouth water and go parchment dry at the same time.
"But fear is kept up with the promise of punishment that is unbreakable," the Conqueror continued and paced around the blonde woman, to come standing right behind her. The slave felt hot breath on her head as the woman bowed down to catch the scent of her hair, her nose gently brushing the fair tresses.
"Punishment does have its advantages," the deep voice
whispered into her ear.
Oh, the down mattress was wonderful. She sighed in contentment and rotated her head, the vertebrae in her neck popping loudly. Despite her always Spartan and often harsh life at war camps, Xena was a hedonist to the bone. She enjoyed her women hot, battles bloody, drinks strong and beds soft.
The spacious bed was empty save her tall frame and a small mountain of pillows. She grinned at the utterly defeated look on Talas' face she had witnessed as she had unceremoniously kicked him out of the chamber just a few moments before. She had brusquely informed him that she didn't feel like sex after all and at that, his jaw had sagged at least a span.
She entwined her fingers behind her head and arched her back. Muscles in her back protested but it did worlds of good for the lower part of her spine. The memory of her First receded back, to be replaced by the young, bewildered face of the new slave. The mist-green eyes that had gazed at her with a curious mix of fear and interest, with insultingly little respect. She had killed people for less but lately… she had been lacking real challenges. Cities fell under her army, men under her sword and women under her touch, with little difficulty. The last time she remembered really enjoying a conquest had been at the Battle of Athens and that was almost two years ago.
This slave… she piqued Xena's interest. Sure, the girl feared her but she had the feeling it was born more out of common sense than her reputation or presence. And there was something else, something tugging at the cold lump that had replaced the Conqueror's heart so many summers ago. A sense of familiarity, of alternate futures perhaps. She closed her eyes and tried to pinpoint the feeling but in vain.
Well, no matter. She had a few days of leisure, for the men to recuperate and for her to plan. Yesss… She couldn't stop a smile edging itself onto her lips. Her hunger was insatiable and soon, very soon, a city that had been a thorn in her side for a long time would feel the death that sprang from her hands.
Sleep took over the Conqueror and she drifted to
Morpheus' realm with the smile still on her face, and she dreamed of a
fair-haired girl and a city on a narrow peninsula.
The following day dawned bright. Brilliant beams of light shot through the high windows of the room, creating rectangular areas of light on the rugs, making them shine in all their vibrant colours.
As far as the adjective could be applied to her, the Conqueror was feeling sunny as well. She whistled a simple tune, the steady notes leaving her lips to the pace set by the whiff of the sharpening stone on her sword. The blade was propped against a low footstool, next to a booted foot. Save for the distant chirping of a bird, the rhythmic hiss of stone against steel and the quiet whistling, the room bore no other sounds.
The stone ceased its insistent motion and was set on the table. The dark woman tested the blade with her thumb and found it to be satisfactory. Sharpness was essential, for the sword would soon be put to use.
Xena believed firmly in setting an example. She was not a ruler who rode behind her men, she was always at front in battles. She didn't choose to hide inside a castle, she chose to walk in open air, her head up high and sword ready. She didn't rule gently but with a firm hand, with justice and avoiding unnecessary cruelty. All this prevented instability, people rarely got delusions of grandeur when their heads were in danger of falling off their shoulders. So, whenever she made new conquests, she wanted to start on a clean table and to accomplish that, the table had to be cleaned first.
The blade flew through the air in a graceful arc, guided by a very steady hand. Sunlight hit the shining metal and made clusters of artificial stars that raced along the high stone walls. It sliced through the air so fast the lines of the blade blurred, creating a silvery halo around the tall figure wielding it.
The rectangles of white light had moved a little
farther in the room before it was time.
The woman's broken plea was cut off, literally. Her head dropped to the wooden planks with a muted thud, like an over-ripe melon, discarded as useless. It rolled closer to the edge of the platform before stopping, bloodshot eyes still open and staring in bewilderment.
Xena drew off the excess blood on the blade with a thumb and a forefinger, shaking the digits to let loose their warm coating. Four down, two to go and already the scaffold was slippery from blood, sweat and the grey matter of one late city official who had had a poor sense of timing. He had ducked just as she had swung the blade and instead of cleanly severing the man's head from the rest of him, she had taken off just the top of his skull. The calvarium of bone and blood had flown through the air and caught a spectator on his face. He had fainted away at the shock.
She stepped a pace forward and her boot made a sickening slurping sound when it hit a pool of gore. Next in line was a younger man, head of the city's militia. He had a swordsman's shoulders and wrists, fair skin stretching over some impressive musculature. Shame to waste such a fine man, she thought as she adjusted her grip on the blade. But war requires sacrifices. She lifted the blade and poised for a strike.
Suddenly, a hush fell over the crowd. The silence was deafening as the spectacle on the stage ceased. The only movement was the slow trickle of spittle down the Conqueror's arm, the white-foamed substance leaving behind a cleaner trail on the blood-covered skin.
Time lurched onward again and Xena wiped off the offending matter with one finger, flicking it back to the man. Arrogant eyes blazed at her from under a close-fitting leather cap, a tuft of unruly blonde hair stuck to his sweating forehead. The spit caught him on one cheek and stayed there. He paid no attention to it but kept on glowering at the woman towering above him, her sword now at her side. It was difficult to look up, into those blue eyes that seemed to shoot fiery daggers to his brain, so much the intense gaze hurt his head.
"Have you no manners, Acastus?"
His head jerked back and forth, from the crowd to his captor. The voice was dead calm and powerful, the tone slick velvet, as if she had queried about the weather. The words were clearly heard in the crowd as well, eliciting furious whispering and interested gazes. The Conqueror was going to put on a show.
Unable to think of an answer to the question, Acastus just flexed his arms again but the bindings kept. He returned his eyes back to the woman.
The dark woman stuck her sword into the wooden floor and it stayed there, wobbling a bit as she paced away a few steps. Rummaging through a nearby toolbox, she turned back towards the blonde man, this time holding a heavy hammer and a big chisel. Acastus' eyebrows rose. What did the demon woman have in mind?
"What I do not tolerate…" she said, stepping back towards him, twirling the chisel in her fingers, "… is impoliteness."
His neck popped as he tried to look up further but his eyes could only reach the very bottom of her breastplate, so close she was. He felt a leather strap brush his cheek, a brass stud marking a cold spot on his sweaty skin. He could smell the woman now, the sickening scent of blood and death on her, as well as the stinging, tangy smell that was his fear, reflected off her and magnified a thousandfold by the darkness she carried in her. She was so close he could've touched her just by leaning forward…
She weighed the hammer, more a sledge than anything else, in her right hand and grabbed the handle of the chisel with her left. The man's shallow breath brushed past her thigh and she saw the shaking of the powerful shoulders before her.
"And Acastus, it is impolite to wear a hat in front of a woman."
At the last word she lifted the hammer high above her head and let it drop on the chisel, driving the sharp instrument into his skull, all the way to the hilt. A gush of blood stained the dark brown leather of his cap and flooded to his forehead, down on both cheeks and on his shirt. The chisel exited under his jaw, three fingerwidths of the blade visible like a grotesque, crimson beard. He sagged to the planks with a last wheezing sound, one last rush of air from his lungs. The chisel's handle protruded from his head like a solitary horn, blunt and red-specked.
Discarding the hammer, she yanked her sword off the platform and proceeded to the last man, his face white as a sheet. He was the town's treasurer, a greedy thin man whose neck was sliced through as if it was a dry twig. His head bounced on the platform and one of her soldiers retrieved it, impaling it on his pike.
So, only five of the heads of the town's leaders found their way on the outside of the main gate, to guard over the lesser officials that hung on their crosses on the sloping field outside. Glassy eyes saw the agony of the crucified, bloodless ears heard the screams of pain and dying. The lesson was complete.
Her message was clear.
Her lunch was well-broiled deer in thick red wine sauce. The meat was very pleasant, the sauce excellent. This cook might last a little longer than the previous ones, she mused and sliced off another chunk with a dagger. Her taster was clearly enjoying the good food as well, the makings of a small paunch were at his waist. She made a mental note to put something unpleasant in the food one of these days, he was starting to enjoy his job a bit too much.
As usual, she ate alone. In times of war, meals were the few moments when she could be by herself, just sit, eat and think. All other moments were occupied by planning, fighting or bureaucracy but for now, she could let her thoughts wander free. On that day, they kept returning to the blonde slave she had saved from that rapist idiot the day before, to her blazing green eyes and gentle hands. She pondered for a while and made a decision.
"You," she said, startling the guard at one corner by pointing at him with one long finger. "Fetch that new slave." He bowed and jogged out of the room. She had counted to four hundred and eighty-six when he returned, his step a bit unsure.
"Well?" the Conqueror prompted. The slave wasn't with him.
"Sh-" His voice caught and he swallowed, a painful dry gulp that made his adam's apple wobble up and down. "She said she was… busy," he finally managed.
The syllables hung in the air and the guard took a reflexive step back. The Conqueror's jaw muscles bunched, transforming the smooth cheeks to a stony relief. The dagger in her hand pressed so hard against her thumb a small trickle of blood was let out but she didn't even notice.
"Busy…," she growled and stood abruptly. The guard
dodged out of her way as she stormed past him, down the stairs and towards
the servants' area.
The cheek quivered under her touch. Every time the thin needle punctured the pale skin, she winced at the mewing sounds of pain he let out. But it was a necessary task; the wound was bleeding so bad a mere bandage wouldn't have sufficed.
Over the commotion of the busy kitchen, she missed the noise of marching feet and the quiet swish of a door opening. However, she didn't miss the utter silence that suddenly fell in the kitchen. Her hand paused over the half-closed cut, the needle starting to tremble a bit.
A chair was moved behind her, the scrape of wooden legs thundering in the silence. A faint rustle of cloth signaled that someone had sat in the chair and a pair of booted feet settled on the bench next to her. She could see the feet only up to the ankles but it was enough for her to recognise their owner. The boots were of sturdy black leather and had nailed soles and reinforced tips. With great mental effort she steadied her hand and did the final stitch, tying a neat knot at the end. The skin under her fingers had grown even colder since she had begun her work, the pallor now intensifying to a pasty greenish white.
"Why shouldn't I have killed him?"
The voice startled her so bad she jerked a bit and dropped the needle. It pinged when it hit the stone floor, the small sound echoing in the deathly still room.
The question confused her first but she soon realised it was a continuation of their discussion from last night. Why, then…She pondered for a while, gathered her courage and went for the easy answer. The truth.
"Because you had a choice… Mistress," she added, the other slaves having informed her of the proper way of addressing the Conqueror. She could feel the woman smiling behind her and as she slowly turned, her feeling was proved true, a ghost of a smile caressed the shapely mouth. The eyes, however, reflected no humour.
It was the Destroyer of Nations, clad in a simple light blue tunic a shade paler than the blue brilliance of her eyes, lounging comfortably in a chair. She had a dagger in one hand and she used it to carve small, neat slices off the deer leg she was holding. The bits of meat were placed on a very pink tongue that deposited them behind her lips.
Once again, Gabrielle was smitten by the woman. True, she was hardly inconspicuous but it was more than that. This woman owned the room, from stony floor to the blackened timbres holding the roof up, her presence filling the space with sizzling energy that was both scary and exciting. It was enough to bring a small shiver to the blonde woman's spine, the exotic mix of fear and intense curiosity and something more the woman with raven hair sparked in her.
A perfect eyebrow rose.
"The man was going to rape you."
The statement brought the images back to her, flashes of gaping teeth, foul breath and the dirty palm pressed roughly against her mouth. Instinctively, her hand rose to the spot where his hand had slapped her, the cheek no longer swollen.
She also remembered the look of utter astonishment on the man's drunken face and the swift, cruel justice delivered on that spot. That last gurgling breath. Those hands, clawing at his throat. The sickening crack the other man's solar plexus had made when the Conqueror had elbowed him. And the bright blue light that had washed over her when those eyes had turned to her.
Her life was the Conqueror's, that was clear. It hadn't been hers in the first place, a fact she had accepted long ago as her life's tragedy. She couldn't fathom why she was still alive, so many times she had spoken against the dark woman. But here she was, conversing with the woman that was rumoured to have been born in the dark, muddy waters of the river Styx.
"Still, you could have… discouraged him otherwise." Gabrielle smiled a crooked smile at her choice of words and almost dropped off the bench when the grin was echoed in the handsome face opposite her. The kitchen staff took in a collective breath but still dared not move a muscle, choosing instead to do statue impersonations while following this most unusual dialogue.
"Yes," the Conqueror hummed and sliced off another shard of meat. She chewed on it, the silence dragging on. It was dawning on the fair-headed slave it was the way the woman spoke, with measured words. The dagger in her hand left the grilled deer leg and wagged in the air.
"You didn't listen to me yesterday."
All eyes in the kitchen shot to Gabrielle, many a set of eyebrows hitching towards hairlines.
"I did listen, Mistress," she contradicted with her best respectful voice. She entwined her hands to stop their shaking. "You wanted to set an example."
"Correct," the dark woman smiled. Gabrielle noticed she had very prominent canines and even that was… appropriate.
"But I believe one should never kill, unless it is absolutely necessary," the blonde woman continued.
The boots thudded to the ground and the Conqueror stood so swiftly Gabrielle's head felt dizzy. She gazed up, to the still smiling sharp-angled face. Another bite of the deer vanished into the dark woman's mouth and the blonde slave felt like licking her lips, they were as dry as a desert on a hot summer's day.
"That is why I hold this," the dark woman purred in a voice that was pure velvet over steel and waved the dagger. "And this holds you," she finished and gently tapped the front ring of Gabrielle's slave collar with the sharp blade. The slave felt her jaw muscles tremble as the dagger traced the edge of her chin, the cold metal in harsh contrast to her heated skin.
"Never again disobey my commands," the voice whispered and the dark woman stepped away, the faint smile still on the crimson lips. The Conqueror exited without a sound, leaving only the tension and a lingering scent of… something primal and musky. Gabrielle's nostrils flared at the scent. It was delicate and soon dissipated but she was sure she'd remember it.
The babble started as if a floodgate had been opened.
Everyone spoke at the same time, tugging at her sleeves and her hair, asking
bewildered questions and berating her on what in the name of Hera that
had been about. Everyone except her little patient, that is. He had fainted
as soon as Xena had left, his pale face resting on top of the rough wooden
table. Tracing the edge of the new scar in his face, Gabrielle sighed.
She was playing with fire and had absolutely no idea what had possessed
her to do it.
"So, if we move the footmen there and circle the defenses from here, near the harbour…," Kadmus was explaining, tracing his gnarled finger over the big map that depicted a sprawling city, in exquisite detail.
"Yeah, but they'll be able to cut off the supply route here," Saba objected and jabbed a delicate finger at a hill outside the city. "We'll be stretched too thin to protect the supplies, because we'll have to go around that hill," she concluded and folded her hands over her chest, big chocolate-brown eyes fastened on the map, her expression speaking of utmost concentration.
Xena followed the debate with one ear. Her two captains always kept it up, a plan following another as soon as the previous one had been trashed by the other. Different as night was from day, Kadmus and Saba were her most trusted aides, they had a keen sense of tactics and a feel for their troops.
Saba, a dark-skinned woman with some beauty and the shrewd mind of a con artist, was slender, almost willowy. Her frame was a clever disguise for considerable strength as well as stone-hard determination and ambition. Xena kept an eye on her for she had the kind of hunger that could someday be turned against her and that just wouldn't do. But while she was here, she was invaluable.
On her left, Kadmus towered over her five-foot frame. He was getting a bit old for the field already, his sword no longer as steady as it should have been. But he was the veteran of so many battles that Xena couldn't even remember, and all a life by the sword had cost him was one finger and half an ear. It spoke of skill and his experience was invaluable. He brought to the table a perspective so different than Saba's that when the two merged, great plans were born.
And on her right… the Conqueror smiled a small, cruel smile. On her right stood Talas, his hair in mild disarray, dark brows knitted. He was obviously distressed and preoccupied, his eyes shooting stealthy glances at Xena. She had a strong hunch what was troubling him; her abrupt change of mind the previous night. The smile on her face threatened to intensify. The boy the fair-haired slave had been sewing up in the kitchen, he was Talas' slave. The scuttlebutt was that he had been in such a foul mood that morning that he had smacked the boy for being too slow with his wine, drawing blood when a ring had scraped the boy's cheek.
She nibbled at a piece of fruit and let Kadmus' words flow past her, unheard. Talas had been her First for almost… she adjusted her mental fingers… eight cycles now, lasting longer than any of her previous ones. One thing or another usually forced her to dispose of them and in this case, it seemed that the First's emotions were getting the better of him. She'd have to do something about that, soon.
"How about if we go around here, do a fake attack on this wall, and when they're distracted, ram this gate?" Talas uttered, two of his thick fingers tapping at the eastern gate to the city.
"Good, but only if they fall for it," Xena commented, joining the discussion. All eyes turned to her now as she calmly downed the last drops of wine in her cup. She thrust her hand out and the fair slave was there, pouring more of the heady local product for her. "If they're not distracted, we are separated into two waves, with too much space in between. They can do an attack run here--" she gestured, running a swift finger along an imaginary line, about halfway between the city and the forest around it. "And nail the main army against these cliffs here. Too little space." The finger stopped to point at a jagged line where the forest met the rocky shore.
A hum of agreement went around the table. Saba tapped her small teeth with a dagger, deep in thought, before spearing a candied pear with it. She munched on the sweet delicacy as all four people around the table meditated the dilemma in silence.
The conversation went on for hours, the occupants of the room not seeing the beautiful golden sunset nor the rise of the silvery sliver of an almost new moon to the dark sky. When the guard in the corner turned the big hourglass over for the sixth time since the beginning of the meeting, the Conqueror brought the sprawling conversation to a halt with a sharp slap of hands.
"It's late. We'll continue tomorrow," she said and her subordinates took the hint. Talas lingered for a moment but when she paid no attention to his fidgeting form, he too stormed out of the chamber, pounding his fist against the doorjamb as he passed it. Xena bit the edge of her goblet lightly to curb the impending evil grin. Talas was so easily led by his private parts that the Conqueror almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
On to other matters then, she mused and rapped her fingers against the golden vessel, thinking. Without turning she could feel the slave's eyes on her, that misty green burning into her back. It brought about an odd feeling, a small spot of warmth, right there, just below a shoulderblade. It seeped through the linen covering of her upper body and spread, making the nasty grin mellow into a small, almost gentle smile. It had been a long time since someone had looked at her without a trace of fear, even behind her back. She turned slowly, the long fingers still tapping the metal surface.
The eyes met hers for a mere moment but it was a moment long enough for Xena to see the look they held. It was part curiosity, part something strange, intense and warm. No fear. The eyes were cast down in a quiet flicker but the look was transferred to the slave's lips, the small, inward smile visible in the low candlelight. The Conqueror felt an odd tug at her lips as the smile was mirrored there.
In the little time she'd had the fair-haired slave, she had grown curious. Having had her fill of back-stabbing people years ago, she had learned never to trust anyone, ever. But… what she felt when talking with the slave could only be described as tentative trust. Inborn familiarity, perhaps, or even… she dreaded to think of the word but being honest with oneself was the one rule by which she always abided. So she said it to herself: attraction.
She turned back towards the table and carefully rolled the maps and placed them inside their leather containers. As she handled the thin pieces of parchment with gentle hands, she thought. Repeating the word in her head.
It wasn't that she hadn't ever been smitten by a person, or that she lacked in experience. Hades, her promiscuity was almost as legendary as her fighting skills, both a testament to her intense, voraciously wild nature. But somehow, this was different. While she usually chose her bed partners by their looks or other such superficial qualities, this time she felt attracted to the girl for other reasons, for things she couldn't quite put her finger on. Sure, the slave was a looker but that was not all.
When the last scroll slipped inside its thick leather tube, she came to a decision. Her solemn vow to herself was that no matter what, she'd always have integrity. It was sometimes the only thing that kept her going, that justified the faith she had in herself. That faith required that she take the bull by the horns when it was time to do so. She turned again and dismissed the guards with a wave. When the door closed after the last one, she set the goblet down and licked her lips.
"What's your name?"
The question startled her, so badly she almost dropped the half-full flagon she was cradling. Her gaze shot upward, to catch the disconcertingly blue eyes. The brilliant colour was partially hidden under the lids, flashes of it showing through dark lashes. The Conqueror was perched on the edge of the big desk, tanned arms folded and in stark contrast to the white linen of the shirt.
"Ga…" Her voice cracked a bit. "Gabrielle."
The Conqueror pronounced the syllables more carefully than she had, with a voice so different from hers. The dark woman's accent was a bit different, as was the deep, humming voice that was like a river of dark and intense emotions.
The words drew her closer, hesitant steps delivering her to stand before the taller woman. Her eyes were still cast down, seeing only a pair of boots and black leather trousers.
The rush of cloth made her flinch but Xena's hand landed on her shoulder, long fingers curling around her body with surprising gentleness. The fingertips of the woman touched the edge of her shoulderblade and pressed down, making the harsh fabric of her slightly torn blouse bite into her skin. The hand turned her around and then left her shoulder, to brush her fair hair to one side. She felt a faint tug on her slave collar.
"You know why none of my slaves wear these?"
Now that the warlord mentioned it, Gabrielle realised what had been the odd thing bothering her for the last few days, a feeling of something missing. None of the other slaves had collars.
Most of the slaves had other markings, though. A few times she'd gotten a glimpse of a shoulder and a white mark there, circular in shape with a big X inside it. Gabrielle recognised a branding when she saw it and the thought of having the searing metal press on her skin made her shiver. The mark was there to protect the slaves from any unwanted attention; it was received only by the most trusted of them and it was enough to scare away most rapists and drunken idiots. No one wanted to mess with one of Xena's slaves for it was a sure way of securing her wrath. The Conqueror wasn't known for gentle punishments; the lash marks some of the soldiers carried were a sound proof of that.
She nodded in reply and almost heard the answering grin on the dark woman.
"Good," was the answer and the collar waggled a bit as Xena turned and reached out. The chink of metal on metal told Gabrielle that the lock at the back of the collar was about to relinquish its four-year long hold on her.
She was glad to be rid of the collar, certainly, but she was forced to face a new dilemma. The other reason why none of Xena's slaves wore a collar was that there was no need to chain them to anything. No one dared to even think about running away and if someone was that foolish, well, there rarely was enough left of him or her to chain, after the Conqueror had had her way with the traitorous individual. It was, again, faith born out of fear, as the dark woman's philosophy dictated.
Metal groaned in protest but its strength was no match for the pliers and the lock fell, producing a muted thud as it hit the floor and its rich covering of mats. The collar closely followed it, the strip of leather with a row of rings now forgotten. Gabrielle felt a set of fingers brush at the ever-present red marks on her newly free neck. It was a patch of her skin nothing except the collar had touched for years and it was sensitive to this new sensation. She felt a small shiver go down her spine as the fingers traced a tendon, up to her ear and then progressing on to her hairline and staying there, gently twirling a lock of her hair around one digit.
The Conqueror felt the silky hair slide against her finger and valiantly resisted an urge to lean down and feel that texture on her face. Instead, she pushed herself up from the table's edge and paced around the slave. She settled her tall frame into a chair and, taking the flagon from the tensed woman's hands, poured herself some more wine. The deep red liquid warmed her throat as it slid languidly down, giving her time to think. The slave was expecting something from her, she could see it in the reflexive clenching and unclenching of her hands. So, what to say… she mused and rewound the days in her head. Ah…
"Tell me a story."
She saw the surprised twinkle in the green eyes and the faint smile her words produced and she chuckled at her correct guess. Before entering the kitchen that day, she had heard a melodious, calm voice telling a story of a Minotaur with a bad stutter. It had made the boy laugh and forget the pain in his cheek, as intended. And it had proven to be this blonde slave who was telling the story with the pace and sense of dramatics of a professional storyteller.
Now that voice began, with a small hesitation at first. All hesitation vanished, however, when Xena nodded, giving her consent for the story. It was a tale well known to Xena, telling of the rise and fall of the Titans and Ares' attempts at using them for his conniving schemes. But somehow, the story captured her and she felt her ears twitch as she caught every word that flowed in an even meter from the slave's lips, every sentence punctuated with just the right amount of emotion and suspense. The girl herself seemed to be immersed in the story, her arms illustrating the words with well-placed gestures. The woman had talent, Xena had to admit as much. Not to mention an inner beauty, brought out in glimpses and shards through the grey outer shell of a weary slave.
For the first time in many moons, the Conqueror felt
at peace and relaxed.
The days in Arákhova stretched into a week and it was well into another before the new leaders of the town arrived and settled in. The new town council was loyal to Xena, for fear of her and for their own greed. Arákhova was a wealthy city and far enough away from areas of unrest that the people here would pose no danger to her. And besides, the ruler of Dhístomon, the next village down the River Kefeissos, was an old enemy of the new town leader. Xena smiled. That fact would be a sure-fire way to keep Ione busy. The hawk-like middle-aged woman revelled in old grudges.
Arákhova had been the last one of the bigger towns in her plan, just before the most massive one of all. The expectation of coming battle shone in her eyes, her blood starting to rise at the thought of a conquest so huge it would dwarf all others. Even thinking about all the lovely carnage ahead made her feel almost… bubbly, as if her feet were not touching the ground at all.
Apollo's chariot must have been recently polished, so brightly it shone from the sky. A ball of such brilliance it was hard to look straight at it, it travelled slowly across the cloudless sky, bathing Greece in its iridescent light. It saw the peasants at their work, dockhands hauling cargo in Pireus and it also saw a tall, dark-haired woman swing a sword that shattered the even light to a million pinpoints, all over the earthen training ground.
"Keep your guard more to the side or I can do… this," she growled, and sidestepping the lunging man, did a little twisting jump that deposited her behind him. She drew the blade lightly across his behind, tearing the fabric there and drawing a line of blood. The man yelped, trying to balance himself while clutching his stinging butt.
A chorus of half-muted, ribald laughter echoed across the open area and Xena smiled, waving her sword in one hand. It was her regular training session for her guards, with men most skilled in the art of war. And as usual, the mock fighting drew quite a crowd. Men and women of her army, from the greenest footsoldier to the most experienced rider, gathered in a loose circle around her and the few men whose turn it was that day. The spectators exchanged mumbled words, startled looks and low oohs and aahs at the spectacle, the Conqueror toying with her best.
"Now, all of you." A pause as the guards glanced at each other. "C'mon, you bunch of chicken-livered pansies, attack me!" she taunted, her white teeth showing in two neat rows. Her sword kept up the twirling motion, her face unconcerned, even as the men gulped down her insult and readied their weapons. With one great battle yell, they rushed her.
The men numbered about twenty but they could have been two hundred for all the difference it made. She plowed through the sea of bodies with little trouble, having time to whistle a silly chicken-plucking tune and to take extra care that she did not inflict any permanent injury on her men. They were good but not nearly as good as her, not by a mile.
As she disposed of the last one with a kick on his mace arm and a slap from the flat of her sword to his cheekbone, the field quieted down. Even though the spectacle ended the same way every time, it seemed to get more breathtaking every day. As the twenty-plus men lay in the ground in haphazard piles, sporting injuries of various types, a few groans and more than a few worshiping glares were aimed at her and damn… it was good to be alive. She let the laugh bubble to the surface and, resheathing her sword, offered an arm for the nearest man.
"C'mon, Etor. Let's take a break," she said and lifted the man upright with little difficulty. Etor, a big strapping man with a long mane of reddish hair and freckles, dusted off his studded leather armour and saluted her. He got a wink as a reply and nodded, heading for the water barrel.
She watched the huge mass of muscle move, a bit stiffly perhaps but that would be attributed to the two candlemarks of training and butt-kicking she had just delivered. When one of her closer staff would eventually have to relinquish his or her rank (and head), Etor would be a good replacement. Ambitious but not too much, clever but not too clever.
She brushed a few errant grains of sand off her gauntlet and shook a shoulder, settling the scabbard just so. Her steps took her towards the edge of the ring of spectators, towards a large oak. The crowd parted before her, allowing an unhindered line of sight towards the tree. Under its green canopy, protected from direct sunlight, stood a tall, gaunt man with skin the colour of ripe olives, and a fair-haired woman. They were deep in discussion, the woman waving her free arm animatedly while the other was holding a water skin.
"… but didn't you just say that Seth dismembered him?"
The man chuckled, a deep warm laugh that made his thin frame wobble. "Being in fifteen pieces is only a minor annoyance to a god, my dear," he countered and Xena recognised the discussion to be of his gods, a wealth of legends that had appealed to the slave and her bardic nature.
The man -- Mentuhetep was his name -- was a citizen of the Lower Kingdom, a country very far away, a sliver of green land on the edges of a massive river. He had been Cleopatra's court doctor, the rumours said, but had then stolen her lover. The lover had ended up dead, he himself expelled. Now Mentu was the Conqueror's doctor, friend and "style consultant," as he jokingly called himself.
His style consultancy had made a definite impact on the slave's outer appearance. When Xena had instructed him to think of something better for Gabrielle to wear than the ripped blouse and dirty skirt, he had clapped his hands in delight. The slave, it was soon discovered, had a nature even more stubborn than his so after about two dozen outfits, they had come to a compromise. The russet short leather skirt and dark blue top looked nice on the girl, an outfit so much better than the previous one and so much more appropriate for the Conqueror's personal servant.
The woman had risen to that status more quickly than anyone, even Xena herself, had expected. But from the first few nights on, she had grown to like the girl and her stories, her gentle and unflappable manner and her refreshingly straightforward and honest words. The woman had guts and gall beyond her years… not to mention a nice figure, Xena added, letting her eyes rake over the smaller woman's body. Definitely, her mind growled.
"Afternoon, Mistress," the slave said and bowed,
a gracious gesture on her part. The man next to her bowed as well, the
stiff movement a testament to his advanced years. Xena accepted the offered
waterskin and took a deep pull from it, the sandy ground having found its
way into her throat as well. The grains were washed away with the cool
liquid and she splashed some water on her face. As the water mixed with
her sweat, she tasted the salt in the drops, licking away a few that had
meandered to her mouth.
She watched the play of light on the water-speckled face of the warrior, sparks reflecting off the numerous transparent drops there. The woman's tongue appeared, licking a few droplets away, and the rest were scattered with a quick shake of a dark head, the raven bangs slightly tangled and dirty from fighting.
The lesson continued for another two candlemarks, the Conqueror sharing her skill under the scorching sun, for her men to learn from defeat, pain and her harsh words. When Xena finally clapped her hands, thus signalling the end of the practice, a collective sigh of relief went through her guards. No bad injuries today, just the usual assortment of cuts and bruises, and one lost finger. Sometimes when a man wasn't quite as skillful, the lesson cost him a limb or even his life. It was natural selection, weeding out the weak ones so that they fell while training and not in real battle. What remained was the core force of her army, about a hundred of her best warriors. The best men and women in the whole of Greece. She was proud and it showed, as she smiled and nodded at the saluting troops, exchanging a word or two with some of them.
Gabrielle watched the Conqueror converse with her troops, clap a few backs and receive a whole barrage of admiring, longing and worshiping looks in return. It was dawning on the slave that these men didn't follow the dark woman solely because they were afraid of her. They were loyal because they admired her, respected her and were absolutely sure that her way was the best.
Prying her gaze away from the dark woman, Gabrielle's brow knitted. Her eyes had found Talas and the man looked haggard. Disturbed.
Her train of thought slowed down as she refocused on the Conqueror, now pacing towards them again. The smile had been ever-present today and it wasn't one of the raven-haired woman's nicer smiles, not by a mile. Predatory and calm, it was echoed in her straight-backed, vividly muscular form. She shone with pent-up energy.
"We move out tomorrow."
Again, she rose with the sun.
The dawn was rosy in colour and it covered the fair hair in a coating of pale pink, bringing out the fiery red highlights. The Conqueror smiled at the young woman dozing on the stack of pillows, a haphazard pile of satin and lovely human flesh sprawled on the floor. The light accentuated the gentle, smooth features of the slave's face, cheeks shaded by long blonde lashes. She momentarily pondered waking the slave but decided to let her be. The young woman was exhausted, the Conqueror having kept her up till the midnight hours, talking and telling stories. That one discussion, an argument really, about Artemis had gone on for candlemarks.
As she paced around the room, chewing on an apple, Xena's eyes kept returning to the youthful figure. It had been a long, long time since anyone had relaxed enough in her company to be able to sleep in the same room… or, for that matter, since I've been relaxed enough to sleep with someone in the same room, she added, her chewing slowing down as she pondered this new aspect.
It wasn't that she'd be afraid to sleep with someone; no, she was well capable of taking care of herself when it came to conniving, ambitious bedfellows and assassins. More than once her bed had been stained with the blood of someone too desperate and stupid. No, it was more about her sense of… her tongue worked itself around her mouth as she fished for the right word. Her sense of personal space. Yeah.
She needed space. She certainly wasn't the huggy type of person, to put it mildly, and she got somewhat anxious in crowds. And six feet of heavily armed walking intimidation doesn't mix well with anxiousness. She couldn't stand the thought of someone in the bed next to her, snoring into her ear.
But… She turned back towards the slave, the silk of her robe whispering quietly as it brushed against her body. The dark head shook in wonderment and awe and the Conqueror confessed to herself that she was a bit… scared. In all its absurdity the word stuck in her throat and she started to twiddle with the half-eaten apple. There was something about the slave that made a small spot of warmth ignite inside her, just the sight of the lithe body curled up on the floor. She stood there for a long moment, watching the play of gentle sunlight on the gentler face, wondering.
The sound of a blaring trumpet woke her from the idle daydreams and she shook her head, uttering a small bark of self-deprecatory laugh. Finishing the apple quickly, she nudged at the pile of pillows with one foot. The figure perched on them twitched and a sleepy face rose from the soft surface, a misty green orb peeking from under an eyebrow. The orb widened and its companion shot open as well. The girl scrambled to a standing position.
"I'm sorry Mistress, I fell asleep but…" she started, her voice a bit hoarse from all the talking and too little sleep. Her explanation was halted with a raised hand and a mild smile from the Conqueror.
"Never mind. Help me get dressed."
She had not been outside the gates of Arákhova for almost two years. The sight of the two massive wooden panels she now passed reflected as a gently roiling feeling in her gut.
It was clear to her that her fate was now entwined with that of the dark woman, as it had previously been with the collar. That piece of metal and leather had signified her position, chances in life and daily existence, condemning her to a social status that was a close equivalent to that of a stray dog. Now, it was somehow different. Though her social status had seemingly kept its status quo, all the other aspects of her life had changed.
That morning she had supervised the packing of the Conqueror's personal belongings. She, a former kitchen slave who, two weeks earlier, didn't even merit a bed in her former master's house. And now, the Conqueror's paid servants, honour guard and even Mentu came to her for advice. She had been barraged with questions like How is she feeling today? and Where shall I put this? for hours on end while trying to get her bearings straight. Even Jacinthe, the small slip of a girl that had previously been responsible for Xena's personal belongings had come to bury the war hatchet that morning, asking for advice.
Jacinthe. The girl had originally gazed at the fair-haired slave with barely veiled looks of contempt, as if she had intentionally stolen her place as the Conqueror's chamber maid. But after Gabrielle had pointed out the fact that this way she didn't have to suffer the dark woman's capricious nature and fits of rage that sometimes ensued from it, Jacinthe had mellowed down a bit and now… that morning the girl had even smiled at her.
There was something wrong with the picture, though. The slave pushed back an errant strand of her fair hair and adjusted the parcel she was carrying, her eyes on the broad back that progressed about twenty paces in front of her, surrounded by the honour guard. The Conqueror's armour was spit-shined until it fairly glowed, the black leather under it rubbed to its fullest gleam. In the fresh sunlight, the dark woman looked radiant, her mane of coal-black hair dancing around in the faint breeze. Gabrielle's mind got lost in the sway of the dark silk for a long time, until she stumbled a bit on a protruding tree root.
Yes, the picture. The slave was utterly, completely at loss as to why and how all this had happened. She hadn't meant to become… whatever it was that she had became. The Conqueror's chamber maid, personal servant and perhaps, even a… friend. Gabrielle worked the word around, trying to adjust to the idea, because it was really the only word she could use to describe the situation. Though it was the best she could come up with, it did not encompass the true spectrum of her feelings towards the dark woman.
In her head, she replayed their conversation from last night. She had told a story, a light humorous tale about Cupid's lost arrow and what trouble Artemis spawned with it. The story had launched them into a debate about Artemis herself, the Conqueror having a very low perception of the Goddess of hunt. After all, it had been Xena who had plowed through the Amazon Nation, leaving it crippled and feeble.
The conversation had brought to surface new sides of the Conqueror, as well as of herself. Never, ever in her life had Gabrielle thought the Destroyer of Nations would have a sense of humour and that a smile could be so fetching. When Xena had smiled, a genuine all-teeth affair that for once reached even the sapphire eyes, the slave's knees had faltered. Seeing the gentle twinkle of teasing in the blue eyes and the shrewd, razor-sharp mind pondering something other than handy ways of torturing people or war plans, had thrown Gabrielle's mind for a loop. The woman was a killing machine, yes, but one with a soul and with a mind capable of so much more than carnage. Perhaps even one with a heart.
Xena's army, being as large as it was, couldn't have fit inside the city walls so most of it was camped outside Arákhova. They reached the tent-covered grassy plain just before noon, the army just finishing its preparations. In fact, most tents were already in various stages of dismantling and packing, the Conqueror's army so much like a beehive, bustling with activity. Although the forerunners and scouts were already on their way and she herself would be leaving inside a candlemark, it would take the whole day to get all of the army on the move. Moving large masses of people and supplies for them was an operation of massive proportions and complications, and so it was done in multiple stages.
There was a podium at the centre of the open area, a hastily constructed wooden structure for messengers to read information and orders to the illiterate bulk of the army. Now, the Conqueror mounted the rickety ladder and was closely followed by her closest adjutants. Gabrielle stopped at the foot of the high platform, unsure of whether she should follow or not and generally wondering why in the Known World was she here anyway. A finger crooked her way solved the problem and with trembling hands she navigated the ladder, all the way up.
"Fellow soldiers," she began, her powerful deep voice carrying easily over the assembled crowd. Men and women had gathered quickly when the word had spread that she was heading that way, a sure sign of action. The sea of flesh, leather and glinting weapons that saluted her opening words roared like a sea possessed by Poseidon's wrath.
"Today, we start a journey that will lead us to immortality. We head to a victory --" A bellowing cheer interrupted her. She raised a hand to signal she wasn't finished. "Towards a united Greece…"
The voice went on, wafting in the air with negligent power, heard by even the last lines in the acres of jam-packed troops. It talked of harsh life on the road and its reward, her faith in them and the meaning of war, in the greater scheme of things. Gabrielle didn't hear all the words for she was so entranced with the voice itself, a satiny smooth tone that spoke with absolute confidence and honesty. A quick scan told her that the rest of the troops were equally swallowed by the voice, its promises and especially, the tone that said that the promises would be fulfilled. The words were simple but so was her message: honesty and integrity are the keys to victory.
A round of cheers rose again. This time she turned and gestured for the slave to hand her the bundle she was carrying. Gabrielle snapped out of her trance and hastily complied. From inside the wrappings, the dark woman revealed a neatly folded pack of cloth, its colour a crimson so brilliant it made the slave's eyes hurt. Xena flapped open the fabric and it turned out to be a cape that she then wrapped around her shoulders. The sight of the blood-red cape, snapping in the wind, the Conqueror's black hair a spidery web of black silk on it, made small shivers go down the slave's spine. She recognised the cape so well, after all these years.
It was rumoured that the cape had originally been snow white. It was coloured crimson by the blood of the Conqueror's opponents, their life's essence contributing to its vibrant colour. No matter how much it was washed, it remained bright red.
Now, the sight of the red cape brought about a thunder of yells, the noise swelling to such levels that it hurt the slave's ears. The Conqueror unsheathed one of the swords that hung at her sides and lifted it high above her head, its blade glinting in the sunlight.
"To glory!" she roared and it was answered in kind, a forest of swords, pikes and maces shot into the air and a chant rose.
It was her name, repeated with a thousand voices,
a thousand hearts beating for her.
Though the journey would have taken her three days on foot and two if she were running, travelling with an entourage the size of a big city was of course slower. She estimated that it would take them six days to reach the isthmus and settle into a suitable position. With an army of this size, one really couldn't count on surprise attacks -- one fought with cunning plans and sheer manpower.
Since almost all of the area they travelled through was already under Xena's control and no small-time warlord was so stupid as to bother her army, they travelled in peace. It was on the fourth day of travel when that peace was broken.
The forward camp where she resided had already left Voiotia, the high plains behind them and Mount Kithairón looming in the forward horizon. They had taken the shorter, coastal route that meant stretching her army a bit thin but the terrain was better. So in her tent the peaceful lapping of waves of the Gulf of Alkionídhon could be heard, the hiss of fluorescent water against the gently sloping sandy beach.
On the shoreline, a row of blazing bonfires illuminated the sea, the curve of the beach, and the men lounging on it who clustered in small groups to eat supper, sharpen their weapons and exchange war stories. They had stopped early that day, when a messenger had come to inform Xena that one regiment of the rear troops had been delayed because of a wagon accident. So the Conqueror had ordered a halt around nightfall and that left the men with some rare free time, if they hadn't chosen the short stick in the guard pool. A warlord's day, however, didn't stop there. The attack plan was revised again, for the thousandth time, or so it felt to Saba.
The small captain leaned against the central pole of the command tent, nibbling at her lower lip. It was a nervous gesture for her and surely she had justification for it. Around the big map table were clustered the usual faces; Kadmus who was deep in argument with Talas, the captain of Xena's hoplites and then the Conqueror of course, her eyes half closed as she listened to the testosterone-fueled argument and trimmed her fingernails with a wicked curved dagger.
There was one additional person, a thick-necked man with flaming carrot-red curly hair and intelligent eyes. Etor was his name if she remembered correctly and he was one of the Conqueror's honour guard, a rising star. He worried her simply because a rising star, one that was invited to battle planning, signified that someone else's star was rapidly falling. She fervently hoped it wasn't hers because the only way down was a straight trip to Hades' realm.
The argument was getting more and more heated, the veins on Talas' temples looked as if they were about to burst any moment. His face was a bit red and the three-day shadow he had on his cheeks was in stark contrast to the colour. Saba had noticed that recently the First had had these temper tantrums more often than was necessary and his appearance was a bit haggard. The woman's dark brown eyes narrowed as she followed him.
The First's eyes darted back and forth, from the tent's opening to Kadmus and from there, to the relaxed-looking Xena. The eyes were a bit wild and had a fire that Saba found a bit worrisome, especially the few times they flicked to the small blonde slave who was at Xena's elbow, filling her goblet whenever necessary. Then the eyes were pure murder.
Rumour had it that the slave had slept in Xena's room when they were at Arákhova and the same had continued here -- now she slept in the Conqueror's tent. The rumours didn't say anything about the nature of their relationship but did say that, supposedly, the First had almost been granted access to that wide pallet the Conqueror slept on. Almost. If the scuttlebutt was true, it all added up nicely but Saba had never been one to believe in idle gossip. She made a mental shrug. Her fate was not in her hands.
She almost bit off her lip when the Conqueror hit the table with a fist, making the various vessels, quills and assorted weapons on it jump. The boom cut through the argument like a sharp knife slicing into soft flesh, startling everyone into stunned silence.
"Enough!" Xena roared, her eyes blazing like two chips of cold fire. "We are here to discuss, not to argue. If you can't do the former, I'll make sure you won't be able to do the latter either," she growled, twirling the thin-bladed dagger with a light touch. All mouths snapped shut. The Conqueror was not in a good mood tonight, it seemed.
The pained silence was broken by the sound of a small gong. It announced a visitor and true to the sound, a flushed soldier, a footman according to his half-armour, side-winged helmet and small shield, entered the tent. He caught everyone's attention and steadied himself with a few deep breaths. He knelt in front of the tall woman and bowed his head.
"My lord, we have captured two spies."
The man hastily explained that a guard had seen a flash of light, a torch perhaps, at the rocky area a few hundred paces from the beach. He had taken his companion with him and his vision had proved to be true. It was a pair of men with strange insignias, trying to sneak away. They had been tied up and were brought back to the camp.
Xena nodded and tapped her mouth with the dagger. Nodding minutely at a decision made, she rummaged through a small chest next to the table and came up with a sturdy metal hook that was usually utilised to draw out tent wedges. It was about the size of her palm and had a wooden handle set at a right angle to the curved metal.
"Take me there," the Conqueror said and gestured for her adjutants to come with her.
The spies were at the beach, hogtied and guarded by at least ten angry-looking men. One of the spies tried to wriggle but a nasty jab from a pike discouraged him otherwise. All thoughts of further squirming were quickly forgotten at the sight of the tall, cloaked figure that emerged behind a bonfire. The figure and the reputation it carried was enough to make blood freeze in his veins, cold waves of pure fear cascading through him. His eyes focused on two hands that extended from within the crimson cloak that masked the figure. One of the tanned, strong hands was holding a small, curved dagger that reflected the yellow flames with vividness that spoke of sharpness. The sight of the hands, so beautiful yet so deadly, was almost enough to make him faint.
The trembling of his jaw was his only movement when the imposing figure came to stand next to him and with one fluid movement, crouched and grabbed his collar. He saw brilliant blue eyes fasten on the insignia there and then grow colder than the northern wind that one winter blew over his homeland, bringing ice and cold death. She spat a curse and, rising to her full height, turned towards the soldier that had fetched her.
"You said he carried a message."
She was handed a small scroll and upon uncurling it, to her consternation she saw that it contained detailed information of her army's progress, as well as numbers and possible exploitable weaknesses, as few as they were. Her brow darkened at this information that was clearly delivered to the spies by an insider.
"Who gave you this?" she asked the bound men, waving the scroll. Her voice was thick with rage, the added layer of menace bringing a chill to the warm beach. The men stayed sullenly silent and she shrugged. "Have it your way. Unbind them, leave only their ankles and wrists tied," she ordered one of the guards. The man hastened to his task and as she gestured, one of the slightly trembling but straight-faced men was lifted upright. The spy's determination wavered a bit when the blue eyes pinned him, the piercing gaze raking up and down. He said a prayer and gathered his courage, meeting the gaze.
The Conqueror smiled a small cruel smile at the man's spirit. Many a man had been broken down by just the threat of her but not this one, no. So, she was going to have at least some fun this night even though she suspected the men had as little idea about the traitor's true identity as she did. The man's shirt ripped with ease, revealing a heaving bare chest, covered in a glistening sheen of sweat. She lifted the dagger to his face, tracing one cheek with it, gently breaking the skin.
"Who gave you the scroll?" she repeated but the man stayed mum, a new wave of moisture beading on his forehead when the dagger moved downward. His silence was broken with a strangled groan and he thrashed a bit in his bindings as she drew the blade horizontally across his chest, making a cut about about a span wide.
"You can stop this anytime," she murmured and drew two longer lines, these vertically from the ends of the first cut to the waistband of his trousers. His breathing was laboured and he was pale as a linen sheet but stayed quiet. She shrugged and turned to the guards.
"Lift him upside down."
As the men hastily constructed a tripod from tent poles and hung the hapless man there from his ankles, Xena gestured for Etor to come nearer. The young man complied hastily; an opportunity to learn from the Conqueror herself was valuable beyond belief. He stood to the side and bent a bit forward, to see what the dark woman was doing.
The man hung so that his head was about a foot from the sand, his eyes level to the Conqueror's kneeguard. Small trickles of blood from his wounds were making their way down his chest and dripping down to the virginally white sand. Xena took the wedge hook and pushed it through his skin, at the top end of the rectangle. He whimpered at this, his fear overcoming the pain.
"Now, Etor, always hang the subject upside down."
Her tone was light, almost conversational, as if she were commenting on the weather or the brightness of the Milky Way that night, the belt of sky's gossamer bathing the beach with blue-white ethereal light. Etor nodded, not quite comprehending but sure that an explanation was forthcoming. At his nod, the Conqueror took a good hold of the hook and yanked swiftly upwards, a measured move of about a span.
The man's scream was heard throughout the camp, soldiers on their evening meals pausing and looking towards the beach. The word that spies had been captured had already spread and the men smiled, knowing the sounds so well. The danger that had loomed over them was being purged.
"When skinning, the subject remains conscious longer."
Etor nodded at the Conqueror's words and licked his lips, which had suddenly dried. The sand under the spy was now drenched in blood, the thick liquid running in wide rivers from the square patch of missing skin on his chest, down his neck and splashing around as he writhed in pain.
"Who gave you the scroll?"
"I don't know! Don't… it was left for us to pick up," he groaned, all fight gone from him now. He just wanted the pain to end.
"How do I know you're not lying?" she hissed, smiling,
and grabbed the hook again.
The first man lost consciousness at the middle of the second strip, the other had died at the beginning of his third from too much lost blood. Their story was the same, both screaming that they didn't know until they almost coughed out a lung. So, she had learned she had a traitor in her army, a fact of life, but someone quite high-ranked at that, which was worrisome. This one message was intercepted but nobody knew how many had gotten through. Luckily, the battle plan wasn't yet finalised in anywhere but her head -- spies were the reason why. But the day had been a sum of mishaps and bad luck.
By the time the interrogation was finished, the night was already halfway through and the rest of the meeting was pushed to the next day. The Conqueror was feeling the wear of a long day and when she finally returned to her tent, she sat down with unusual lack of grace, resting her head against the tall backrest of the chair.
"Rough day?" a gentle voice asked. She opened one eye, to see the fair-haired slave standing in front of her, a small smile playing on the coral lips. Instinctively, she smiled back and nodded.
Gabrielle knelt next to the chair and started on the laces of Xena's left gauntlet, trying not to see the blotches of blood on the dark leather and on the dark woman's hands. It covered the tanned skin in uneven caking pools of rusty brown and red, depending on its level of freshness. A small stain on the inside of her wrist was still warm and as she pulled the gauntlet away, Gabrielle's fingers stayed there, her mind deep in thought as she brushed at the small fleck of crimson. It stuck to her fingers and left them a bit sticky.
"Tomorrow's the big day, huh?"
The Conqueror was brought out of her trance by the quiet, pondering voice. She looked down, at the red-golden head and small fingers that stayed over her wrist's pulse point, warming the skin there, the small brushing sending faint sparks up her arm. The slave's head turned up at her and she found herself drowning in misty green eyes.
"Or the day after that. You scared?"
"A bit," Gabrielle admitted, not knowing why or for whom. Perhaps… for Xena, as silly as it sounded. A hesitant hand reached out and the Conqueror's other hand gently landed on hers. The slave lowered her head to cover the faint blush she felt on her face, and her eyes were drawn to the hand.
The Conqueror's hand was bigger than hers, and certainly warmer. The long tapered fingers were graceful in their shape, belying their talent in pain. Somehow, seeing her paler hand disappear under the tanned, bloodied one made her feel calmer. She felt comforted by the gesture and the warmth that seeped from the taller woman.
She got the other bracer off as well as her arm protectors and the breastplate that was so heavy it almost made her stumble. It was a constant source of wonderment to Gabrielle how the Conqueror managed to stay upright, let alone fight with the weight of a stone well on her but the tall woman didn't seem to even notice. She carried herself differently with the armour but it still looked as if the thing weighed no more than a feather pillow, so effortless her gait and military bearing were.
The slave began on the Conqueror's shin protectors and boots, tugging at the binds with small grunts. Buckles were easy but whenever Xena got blood on her boots, and that was often, the laces sucked it up and the knots were just small clumps of red paste that Gabrielle fought to untangle, cursing Gordius in her mind. Her fingers hurt from the effort but finally, the caked substance relinquished its grasp and the boots were off.
Exhausted from her fight with the thick leather thongs, Gabrielle sat down at the Conqueror's feet. Small trickles of the blood had run down the insides of her boots and onto her legs and the slave traced one such blotchy red line with her finger. She saw the tensed muscle jump, a smooth round shape contracting under bronze skin. The tall woman's legs were tired and tense from the day's riding and standing and it gave Gabrielle a good excuse to touch that tanned, satiny skin, an urge that had grown over the days and was becoming harder and harder to resist. She started the massage at the Conqueror's ankles and progressed upward, kneading the strained tendons with all the strength she could muster.
Xena let her head loll back at the wonderful feel of the small fingers on her legs, draining away the tension there with a knowing, gentle touch. Her eyes drooped nearly shut at the shivers of pleasure the massage brought out and she entered a hazy state of half sleep. She didn't hear the low, languid groan that left her lips when the slave found the hard knots in her anterior shin muscle, and she also missed the faint blush that rose to the fair slave's cheeks at the sensuous sound.
Scooting even closer for better access, Gabrielle worked the sleekly muscled legs with both hands. She was now almost sitting between the Conqueror's thighs, her thumbs finding sensitive spots behind the dark woman's knee. She took her cue from the guttural sounds that left the lips of the dozing woman.
Finally, she paused at the knee, her fingers hurting from the hard work. She rested her cheek against the inside of one knee, feeling the softness of the skin on her heated cheek. She watched the long, smooth thigh that extended from the knee, following the graceful lines of muscles hidden under the straining skin that disappeared under the dark leather of Xena's battle dress, the studded strips arranged haphazardly.
The slave heard a small humm of relaxation waft down towards her and the Conqueror's hand tangled into her hair, gently pressing her head against the soft thigh. She hugged the lower leg and closed her eyes, just enjoying the sense of comfort brought by the hand smoothing her hair and the small hum that had transformed into a song, the Conqueror's full contralto vocalising the words with just enough volume for them to reach the slave's ears.
They sat like that for a long time, the candles in
the tent burning away to guttering stubs, neither wishing to break the
rare moment of peace that would probably be the last for the next few days.
The following day was hot and humid and it saw them progressing slowly in the blistering heat that resulted in fainting men and frothing horses. At midday break the troops scrambled to every possible shadow a tree, stony outcropping or big boulder could provide.
For warlords, the responsibility brought some perks. One of them was the luxury of a lunch on a table and under a canopy of linen to shield her and her highest staff from the burning rays. The Conqueror herself sat at the end of the table, the others occupying the rest of it as well as other smaller ones, giving her a wide berth of privacy. She chewed on her pheasant, occasionally dipping a thick slice of bread into olive oil and brushing a bit of the light sauce onto it. The blue eyes roamed around, meeting other stares rarely and when they did, the other eyes skittered quickly away. Her battle fever was beginning to gather at the fringes of her mind and it shone through the baby blue depths.
Gabrielle came nearer and poured some more wine, quietly, not wishing to interrupt the dark woman's ponderings. However, when she turned to attend to the other members of the high command, she was halted by a hand on her wrist. It tugged at her and she was settled to perch on a wide armrest, the other arm of the Conqueror circling behind her, so near the slave could feel the heat but not the touch.
"Tell me, Gabrielle," Xena began, the slave's eyes misting over for a moment when her name left those ruby red lips. "What do you think of them?" she continued, gesturing with the golden goblet at the people lunching near her. The blonde slave re-focused her eyes and started from her left, at Kadmus.
"He's a bit nervous but his professionalism masks it easily," the slave analysed at the man, his salt-and-pepper-haired head bobbing up and down as he conversed with Etor. "The red-haired man is more than excited, he's anxious, impatient. He sees great glory and honour in the coming battle." The intelligent hazel green eyes shifted onward.
"The blonde woman is also expectant, her mood a mix of greed, elation and healthy fear," the slave analysed Xena's head scout, a willowy woman with a mass of blonde ringlets as hair and wide, grey eyes that spoke of calculating cunningness and extreme self-confidence. No surprise there, the woman was an Amazon and the best spy/scout Xena had.
She went on, recognising some of the faces and finding some quite new. Of the Conqueror's adjutants, a few were missing, most notably Saba who was riding with the rear troops. It was a sensible precaution, a wise warlord didn't keep all her eggs in one basket.
The last of the people present was the First. Talas was chewing on his bird with a faraway look in his eyes, his hands working in automatic gestures over the animal.
"He's a bit messed up. Nervous."
The judgement made the Conqueror frown. To her, Talas' face looked nonplussed, void of any real emotion. The hands were steady and calm as they deposited bits of the white meat into his mouth.
"Why do you say that?" she asked, quietly. As an answer, she didn't get words but instead, a discreetly pointing finger, aimed at somewhere behind the table where she couldn't see. She tilted her upper body in front of the slave's to be able to see what the blonde woman could from her vantage point. What the Conqueror saw made a dark eyebrow rise minutely. Well well… The man's leg was twitching nervously, the foot tapping the ground with an uneven meter.
The slave had lost her focus on the leg when the Conqueror had bent closer. The scent of the dark hair right under her nose was familiar, the herb concoction that scented her soap. But there was an added layer to it, something that was spicy, primal and musky. The Conqueror's scent. Suddenly, the beach's temperature seemed to notch up a few degrees, at the sensation of having this magnificent woman so close to her. She saw the muscles at the dark woman's back twitch and shift when she adjusted her position, powerful mounds of flesh that smoothly rose and fell under tanned skin. Gabrielle was sure that if the Conqueror didn't soon move to a safer distance, she'd have to bite at her hands to keep them from touching those delicious hills and valleys. She wasn't quite sure if she was relieved or disappointed when Xena straightened back up and continued with her lunch.
After a candlemark's break, the journey continued. The bulk of the troops took the route that was more inland, at the foot of Kithairón, while the Conqueror and her guards travelled the coast after the front troops and war chariots, their horses galloping along the sand pinstriped by the heavy two-wheelers. It did not matter anymore that her army left clear signs of their travel, their destination surely knew of its fate by now. A big city employed more than two spies.
The front of the army didn't reach their day's intended destination until twilight was nearing; the tail would march for some candlemarks still to settle into pre-arranged positions. The front troops, consisting mainly of horsemen and a handful of scouts and hoplites, circled around the Gulf, settling near a village on a small peninsula that thrust into the still waters. The camp was settled, tents put up and guards fanned out to their positions. It was like any other night at a war camp, except for a ritual, the only one the Conqueror followed.
The Conqueror gathered her closest troops and led them to a hill close to the shore, a cliff with a clean view southwards, over another gulf of water that was already ink-black in the dimming twilight. On the highest ground, she stopped and stood still, her adjutants silent at the sight. There, over the calm sliver of sea, a light could be seen. It was a light born of innumerable bonfires, kitched fires and torches, the glowing speck of a city, still in the gentle breeze of the evening. It was a blazing jewel along a coastline of dull pearls, a light that beckoned with its brightness and promise.
Xena took a guard's pike, one that bore her banner. The crimson fabric swayed in the feeble wind and offered glimpses of the intricate crest of gold and blue. The Conqueror drove the tall pole into the ground and it stuck there, standing as a signal. She turned towards the small speck of light in the horizon and narrowed her eyes.
"Here, at the village of Asprókambos, at this day of three fortnights after Summer Solstice," she began, her voice powerful, deep, a steady contralto that was divine in its smoothness. The words exploded in the still air, seeking a challenger but finding none. Her arms were spread at her sides, taking in the entire coastline and the city that guarded a peninsula that was the gate to Peloponnesus.
"… I, Xena of Amfípolis, lay claim to the
city of Kórinthos."
The night fulfilled the promise day's simmering heat had given. Clouds gathered over the waning moon and when night was at its blackest, they opened up and started to pour their wet cargo on the Isthmus of Kórinthos, or Corinth as it was known in the Roman world. The Conqueror woke when the first load landed on her tent, the steady pitter patter that soon grew to a sound that reminded her of a flooding river; it brought a smile to her face. Excellent, she chuckled and closed her eyes again.
When she opened them again, it was almost morning. The rain was still falling, the roof of her tent seemed almost black. She smiled at the dark colour that signified a new, positive twist to her plan. Stretching luxuriously in her bed, she felt her fingers and toes cringe at the feeling the darkness inside her produced. It pounded inside its gates, demanding release. Small tendrils of it had already escaped and were taunting her at the fringes of her vision, beckoning her to join the deep blackness on the shores of carnage inside her. Soon.
"Good morning, Mistress. It's raining cats and dogs," Gabrielle said as she entered through the curtains that separated the Conqueror's bed from the rest of the tent. The slave was smiling a small, tentative smile that relaxed as soon as she saw the grin on the dark woman's face. Xena accepted the offered cup of tea with a small nod and winked at the blonde woman.
"Yes. Perfect," she purred, threw a silk robe on her naked form and paced to her desk, leaving behind a perturbed Gabrielle. Sipping at the fragrant, herbed liquid she ran a hand through her disheveled hair and waited for the inevitable.
She was already dressed and strapping her swords to her sides when the message came, in the form of a breathless, wide-eyed archer. He stumbled into the tent and met the cool, relaxed blue gaze, his heartbeat steadying a bit at the Conqueror's calm. His clothes were dripping water and he shook a bit, pre-battle trepidation and the cold rain overcoming his muscle control.
"Most gracious lord," he began and knelt. His message was not good and he feared for his neck. "Commander Talas…"
"Is missing," a cool, deep voice ended the sentence.
He kept his eyes on the toe of his left boot, holding breath and waiting for an explosion of rage. When it did not come, he lifted his eyes and saw, to his utter astonishment, that the Conqueror was still sitting, carving out small slices from a peach with her breast dagger. There was no surprise on the dark woman's face but instead, the ghost of a small knowing smile. For the life of him, he couldn't figure out how she had known.
"I take it his horse is gone as well?"
The archer nodded, a small droplet of water dislodging itself from his nose.
"Good. Send in my messengers," she said and dismissed
the man. The swift-legged men and women came in mere moments later and
she dispersed them to fetch the commanding officers of the various parts
of her army that were spread around the city.
The war council lasted not a half a candlemark. The outrageous cries of the high-ranked were quieted quickly and new orders were given. The talk was swift and fevered, everybody's emotions running high. The meeting ended with each of the commanders receiving a scroll and then pledging their loyalty. One by one, the solemn figures departed back into the pouring rain. Finally, all that remained was the Conqueror, leaning quietly against the edge of her desk, adjusting her shoulder guard to settle just so as her horse was being fetched for her.
Gabrielle stood at one side, unsure of what to do. She felt fear but didn't want to voice it, lest the Conqueror laugh at her weakness. She took one tentative step forward but paused, not knowing if it was OK to approach the tall figure that oozed darkness. The hand on the shoulder guard paused and blue eyes found green.
Taking a deep breath, the slave crossed the remaining distance. She stood not a yard away from the Conqueror, both afraid of and drawn by the electric storm in the twin pools of clear azure. Quickly, before her mind could stop her she lifted a hand to the dark woman's cheek. It stopped a hair's breadth away from the heated skin, not quite touching but close enough for her to feel the power that rolled off the tall figure in intense waves. Her hand brushed along the curve of the cheek, still not touching, afraid of how it would feel. The slave dropped the hand to her side and turned away.
Suddenly, a powerful arm slid around her and she was pulled into a warm cocoon of leather, bronze and dark energy. The Conqueror's arms wrapped around the slave and squeezed her back against cold, hard armour plates. Gabrielle felt the woman's head bury itself in her hair. The dark woman exhaled with a sound that was almost a quiet sigh and half-lifted the slave into her lap.
Gabrielle felt the breath trickle through her hair and brush her neck, giving birth to a small delicious shiver. It was indescribable how good the strong, muscled and armoured arms around her felt, the unyielding pressure of the cuirass on her back, the long thighs that circled hers. She was caught inside the dark forcefield that was the secret of the Conqueror's strength and it brought with it a sense of delicious danger and white-hot passion.
The moment ended all too soon when Xena's side man entered. He was responsible for keeping her crest up, no matter what happened. Apart from hers, it was probably the most dangerous job in the army but he owed his life to the Conqueror thrice over and would follow her through the seven levels of Tartarus if she asked him to. The pike with its crimson flag was his only weapon, a testament to his courage. His entrance signalled that everything was ready, the army waiting for her.
She disentangled from the slave and nodded at the kneeling man.
"It is time."
"It's so beautiful," Aeolus breathed, and the Conqueror nodded, her feelings echoing his excitement. Next to her, Aeolus' horse pranced around nervously. The small roan was always nervous, it seemed, a mass of explosive jittering force. Together the horse and its rider gave credit to the man's name; he wasn't named after the God of winds for nothing.
The rain was so heavy it obscured everything beyond a hundred paces, reducing their target to a big black blur in the distance. But inside that hundred paces, directly before her, stood the bulk of Xena's army, stretching out to the grey infinity in all three sides. Rows and rows of men and women, their armour glistening with moisture, their horses' coats gleaming, weapons ready. Waiting for her. It was beautiful.
"Raise the standard."
The red cloth was blood-black and heavy from the ever-pouring rain and it swayed sluggishly on its tall pole. Aeolus balanced it with a small grunt and nudged his horse. The roan sidestepped and whinnied but finally set after the massive golden warhorse. Aeolus wiped the water from his eyes with one hand and marveled at how the Conqueror managed to look so wonderful even when drenched.
The army parted before her as she paced through it at a slow canter. All eyes were fastened on her and she delivered on her army's expectations. Sure, calm, the epitome of confidence was the dark figure that sat upright in the saddle, rivulets of water running down the predatory face that was smiling a small, cruel smile. She could feel the power around her and inside her and it was just too damned intoxicating. The day would be hers, she was sure -- and with her, the troops were convinced of it as well.
When she reached the front of the army, she stopped and squinted her eyes. With enough imagination, she could see the inhabitants of Kórinthos on the walls, looking at her, but she didn't really need the visual confirmation. She felt her heart drawn in the right direction, over the bumpy ground and copse of trees, towards the defenders, now massing at the field of battle.
Kórinthos was a harbour city, covering a small peninsula on the Gulf of Kórinthos. The area just outside the city, on the landward side, was an open area flanked by the edges of a massive forest. The trees had been cut to prevent surprise attacks by offering the city a clear line of sight inland. But the advantage was mutual, for any attacker could easily see the city's defenders.
As it was, the Conqueror was now gazing down that tree-lined gateway that led to the city, blocked only by the mass of men that was there to stop her and the stone city walls. She wasn't at the exact centre of the army but on the eastern flank, with the edge of the forest in her field of vision. The corner of her shapely mouth twitched as she saw the defenders fan out and come forward to meet her, anticipating her formation. So far, everything had gone as planned. Act one, scene one had gone like a dream.
She ventured a look upward, eyes squinting at the stinging rain. In the western sky, the clouds were starting to thin out and Xena estimated it wouldn't take the rain more than a few candlemarks to stop; it was already getting less intense by the moment.
When the darker grey mass that was the other army had set itself between her and the tip of the forest, it was time to go. She nodded to Aeolus who lifted the standard higher and tilted it, a signal to the horns. The eerie sound of long trumpets echoed throughout the battlefield, drowning out the deafening clatter of raindrops on countless helmets and in turn, was drowned by a battle yell from a thousand mouths.
The first kill was always, always hers. When the two armies met, she had already plowed through the first few lines, her sword a sharp bolt of silver lightning as she scythed men down, left and right. The first one to fall by her sword that day had been a young hoplite, a man no more than fifteen or seventeen cycles old. He had been sliced in half, diagonally, his blood bringing the first of many red stains on her mare's coat.
Soon enough, the crowd around her became thicker and to give herself some space, the Conqueror jumped off her horse and sent it forward with a slap. The massive steed easily navigated to the side, leaving her rider to her deadly task.
She now had two arms to use, two longswords flying through the air and into flesh. Surrounded by at least two dozen defenders, she fought with grace born out of excitement and a smile born of joy. Swinging one blade to get a man in his arm, she turned and thrust the same blade through another's thigh, while the first man clutched his shoulder where his arm used to be. Stumbling to the ground, he was spared of further pain by a kick from the dark woman, his spinal cord snapping like a twig.
Her art was war and it was beautiful enough to best the efforts of the best poet or musician. On the green and brown canvas she created the whole spectrum of human suffering, painting with the red warm liquid of life. She blocked an axe by crossing the two swords before her and, with a twist, yanked the bladed instrument from the man wielding it. He uttered a noise of surprise but before it could turn into a full-fledged yell, she put one blade through his stomach.
The blood gushed on her when the man twitched in pain before falling. She felt the sticky, steamy mass hit her on one shoulder and neck as well as the left side of her face. Spitting out an errant shard of bone, she shook her head to dislodge the worst of it. It helped some but still she could feel the liquid seep through her cloak, making the cloth stick to her back and shoulder guard. The blood was almost black which meant she had hit the man's liver. While engaging in a game of parry and thrust with a tall, sweating footman, she spared a glance at the groaning soldier who was clutching his stomach. She guessed he would live another half candlemark before either his heart would give out or his bloodstream would be poisoned from the bad blood.
Slowly, the blood found its way inside her leathers. It was inevitable, really, considering how much of it was shed. Kicking a dead man off her blade, she rotated her shoulder to loosen up a twitching muscle there. Another small river of blood took the opportunity and disappeared in through her neckline, crimson rivulets running down between her breasts and pooling at the waistband of her battle skirt. But she didn't even notice the extra coating until she was clear of the first volley of men, having plowed through the mass like a bladed hurricane.
She remounted her horse and turned her around, taking in the scene of battle. The sight made her lips twitch, a smug smile irresistibly creeping onto her lips. Through the thinning rain, it was clear who would win. The defending forces of Kórinthos were larger in number than her army but hers were battle-hardened, experienced men and women who had faith in her and, more importantly, were willing to sacrifice their lives for her. The victory, in this conventional way, would be somewhat Pyrrhic but a victory anyway.
Most of her troops were now through the first line, the rest of the outermost defenders now retreating. The next line of defense was about a hundred paces towards the city, waiting inside the circle of trees that flanked the stone walls.
She turned the massive war horse with a gentle nudge, towards the high stone walls that beckoned her. Oh, how she wanted just to ride, ride like the wind, through the other army and through the walls, to her destination. She could see the yellow-black crest of the city's king on top of the tallest castle tower, visible over the wall. Soon, she would rip down that piece of cloth and replace it -- her crimson would fly over the city. She was not one to sacrifice her men for nothing, though. There were other ways to make war.
The bark directed the honey-coloured mare to a gallop
towards the thin line of trees, the grinning Conqueror guiding her with
sure hands. Act one, scene two was over -- time for scene three.
"Where is she going now?"
Talas shrugged, seemingly unconcerned, but still his eyes stayed firmly on the crimson figure as it disappeared behind trees.
She was so easily spotted it was almost ridiculous. Of course, the cloak was a dead giveaway but even without it, the tall man suspected all eyes would be drawn to her. She carried another sort of cloak as well, something quite invisible yet obvious. It was as if… as if she had this impenetrable shield of sheer darkness. Something of Ares perhaps, or from her own utterly cold nature, he wasn't sure, but it was there.
It took a few heartwrenching moments before she came back into their field of vision. The red lightning on her golden horse shot between two large oaks and took a slight turn to her left. This put her at the front of the advancing army who embraced her, gathered behind her and launched against the second line of defense. But… something made small bells ring at the back of Talas' mind. Something… Before he could delve into the feeling any further, though, the king tugged at his sleeve and nudged him towards the door.
He watched the thin purple-cloaked back retreat through the doorway. The young king apparently couldn't stand the sight of his troops being slaughtered, Talas smiled. The high balcony provided a perfect view over the walls and to the battleground, a sound that was a mix of the groans of the wounded and the clash of metal against metal reaching even their high position, the pitter of rain a mere sidenote.
The sound was muted now, a mere hum easily drowned by the shuffling of soft suede on the stone floor. The king had an irritating habit of manifesting his nervousness by walking in circles and muttering. But this was his first big conflict, Talas reminded himself and snatched a bunch of grapes from a fruit bowl. Popping the grapes into his mouth one by one, he leaned against the wall and watched the young man squirm.
"You said this would be an easy victory!"
A dark, bushy eyebrow rose and Talas' mouth stopped chewing. He swallowed the grape carefully and focused on the beautiful colours of a tapestry on the far wall.
"I said this would be a victory. It's never an easy one when the Conqueror is on the other side."
"Don't call her that," the king hissed, his hand clutching convulsively into a fist.
"Very well… but so far, she has followed the plan. Kórinthos' forces are superior, there's no way she can pass through the second line with tired men. The day will be ours." I hope, he added silently. Yes, things had gone according to plan but still… this was the Conqueror, Destroyer of Nations, not some dinar-a-dozen warlord.
The king, however, was somewhat placated by his words. He repeated the last five words in his head until his heart agreed to descend from his throat where it had been hammering for the past four days. He was definitely too young for this, he knew, and cursed his father to the muddy bottom of Styx for leaving him with this burden so suddenly. He had known the exchange of power would generate interest but this was far worse that he had imagined. Not only was his city under attack but, to top that, by the Hades spawn herself.
He stopped and sat down on his throne, heavily. All
the walking, standing and jittering was getting to his muscles. He watched
the big man munch away on his grapes, seemingly oblivious to the battle
outside. The king took strength from the other man's relaxed stance. He
wasn't going to let some barbarian, a woman at that, defeat him and his
city, the brightest jewel in all of Greece.
Had a casual passer-by glanced at the water by the dock then, he would've been almost sure it was a wraith that rose from the still waters. Fortunately, there was not a soul at the docks -- the whole city populace was either out fighting, watching it or huddled up at home, wishing for it to go away. So, Xena had an audience of eight seagulls and a stray dog as she broke the surface of the lead-gray water and grabbed the rope ladder that led from the wetness to the stone quay.
As she negotiated the sodden ladder quietly, other heads popped to the surface of the water. Other ladders were mounted as well and where there wasn't one, ropes with loops were thrown to bollards and climbed. It took only a few breaths for all the men to climb up and fall into a loose formation. They were her elite troops, her honour guard beefed up with assorted hand-picked men and women from the ranks of her army. Even soaked and tired from the swim as they were, they were a sight dangerous enough to bring a smile to her face. Kórinthos would never know what hit it.
It was simple, really. Everyone knew her to be straightforward and brutal, preferring a full frontal assault to underhanded tricks. So, when she found out her plan was compromised, she altered her usual strategy and did something really slimy, something quite unlike her. She snuck in through the back door.
Unsheathing one sword, she shifted her eyes to Etor. The red-haired man nodded back so hard droplets of water flew from his curly mane. Signalling with one hand, the troops separated into two uneven factions, the bigger one of about seventy men taking to a quick, silent jog after Etor, towards the landside edge of the city. Their mission was not the more dangerous one, though it was the more important in the practical sense of the plan.
The smaller cluster of troops flanked Xena. The dark
woman smiled at them, her most loyal ones, her friends. They smiled back
the grin of strong belief and utter confidence, enchanted by this clever
plan their commander had devised. The Conqueror twirled her sword, glad
to be rid of the cloak in the confines of the city, and set off at a languid
run towards the castle.
She was again amazed at how gullible people were. There could be no other reason, she thought as she pushed a dying guard's face to get him off her sword. The gaping hole in his midsection made a sickening, sluicing sound when the sharp metal exited it, as if his blood had grown attached to the blade that had made it flow out in such a profuse manner.
Her squad's casualties were three men while the castle's troops had been all but eradicated. Some had surrendered, most had chosen to fight but like the city's army, their skills were dulled by the months of idleness and lack of practice these times of peace tended to spawn. She had found their strength lacking and stamina poor; they gave barely a show of resistance before they fell on her sword.
The corridor was high, long and lined with torches. Their flames flickered in the moist air, throwing nervous shadows on the stone floor and the pools of thick, crimson liquid on it. She doubted she would ever grow tired of the bright colour of life's essence.
They had conquered the castle with the simplest of plans: work your way up. The guards had been totally taken by surprise, their idleness making Xena's task ever so easy. Now they had reached the top floor, a squad of ten men on the task of finding and securing the king while she went for the highest ground.
"Come, Linus," she yelled over the deafening clang of clashing swords in a closed space, gesturing for one of her honour guard to follow her. He disposed of his opponent with an evil kick to his groin, grabbed a few others and followed the Conqueror.
The tower was deserted and cold, the air humid, but to Xena it was the most abundant of treasure chambers. She sheathed her sword and smiled at the sight that opened from the high balcony, the battlefield that was a divine vision in lovely carnage. Snatching the red bundle from Linus, she mounted the balcony's narrow stone parapet, nothing but an artificial chasm below her.
She couldn't help it, she really couldn't. When she jumped and grabbed the low overhanging edge of the tower's roof and hoisted her muscled length to the tiled roof, an irresistible sense of joy bubbled to the surface. She laughed a low, chuckling laugh, her smile a beaming row of white teeth in the grey air. She felt elated and… Gods, like she could take on the whole Known World, with her right had tied behind her back and wielding a toothpick.
The yellow banner with a black panther's head was lowered and replaced by a crest in glowing bright crimson. The thick bunting caught the gusty wind that blew through the light rain and flared out to all its glory. It was her crest. Hers. She let out a ringing whoop of joy and drawing both swords, the Conqueror crossed them over her dark head. End of scene three, she counted.
The red standard was the signal and the blare of
war trumpets, coming from the city gates, signalled the beginning of act
one, scene four, right on schedule. And she had box seats.
It worked like a charm but it was no wonder, she knew human nature so well.
The trumpets had been a signal for the other half of her troops that had snuck in, for them to open the main gates from inside. A part of the Conqueror's troops that had been hiding in the woods, waiting, now had a clear route inside and so, they dashed for the gates.
The trumpets were a signal to the defenders as well. They had turned at the sound and seen the gates open, men pouring from the woods towards the gaping holes in the wall. What was a soldier to do but react naturally: the city's army had dropped everything and dashed for the gates, their minds not on reason but on their homes and families, now unprotected.
When man does not think with reason but with his heart, he does foolish things. As it was now, leaving the battle and running to the city walls had accomplished nothing but getting the defenders between a rock and a hard place, between two factions of Xena's army with no room to fight and still, most of the Conqueror's new troops had managed to get inside. A simple mousetrap that had snapped on the defenders.
Xena watched her plan unfold with precision, the way she had seen it in her mind's eye, her shrewdness once again prevailing over a greater force. When the battle moved too close to the city wall for her to see, she stretched herself luxuriously, enjoying the moment of true greatness. Even the sky was smiling on her conquest, the last of the rain gone and gentle slivers of sun peeking through the clouds, illuminating the dark figure on the highest rooftop.
She went back in after a while, to be greeted by a barrage of yells and whoops. It seemed every man in her squad had seen or heard what was happening, put together two and two and had forgiven her the cold swim they'd had to take. So her little bunch of troops was in the small anteroom of the balcony, saluting, applauding and chanting her name. She looked at the smiling faces and felt the grin twitch itself back onto her face at the sight of the big, scary and usually so stoic men smiling like crazed court jesters, respect and adoration in their eyes.
Suddenly, over the ovation, the crash of a door against a stone wall sounded. Every pair of eyes turned to the door and saw Etor enter with his adjutant, still soaking wet from the rain and blood, dragging a man between them.
"My lord… we stumbled upon this rat," the flame-haired commander said with a smug smile and lifted upright the man they had brought with them.
The small room's temperature seemed to drop a few degrees. The captive man's face grew even paler, if possible, at the cold, cold glint that appeared in the two chips of blue ice. The Conqueror stepped closer, the darkness rolling off her tall, muscled figure in smooth waves. She stopped only a few inches from the prisoner, pinning the man with her gaze. His lower lip started to tremble a bit but he clamped his mouth shut tighter.
"Tell me, Talas," she hissed. The addressee wondered how she could make his simple name sound like a curse so easily. "How cheaply did you sell me?"
He couldn't comprehend the question and he was sure that if he opened his mouth, no sound would come out anyway so he settled on shaking his head. He was glad he was being held up, his knees felt like they were about to give out.
The voice spat the few syllables like a snake spewing its venom. The words stung him and he lowered his eyes, unable to keep his gaze on the two sapphires of pure electricity that burned through his head. The Conqueror's voice was deep, a flowing calm contralto that vibrated through him. His spine molten lead.
"Well then…" she began and grabbing the limp man's lapels, she yanked him from Etor and slammed him against the chamber door. His teeth rattled from the impact but it didn't hurt as much as the heat of the two hands on his chest, pinning him against the rough wood. All he wanted was to feel those hands on his body…
"Let me pay you," the Conqueror finished and snatched a dagger from her boot. Instinctively, everyone in the room moved a bit closer, close enough to see the broken veins in his eyes that were dilated to the size of dinner plates. They could also see the deadly glint of death in the dark woman's eyes, knew the calm cruelty she was capable of.
The dagger penetrated flesh easily enough, slicing through tendon and muscle with little resistance. Through the shoulder and into the door, the blade was the first nail in his coffin. He couldn't help the scream of pain that tore from his throat when the blade dug into him, nor when another pinned his other shoulder to the door. Now, even if his legs had vanished underneath him, he couldn't have fallen down.
She watched him squirm in pain, reaching futilely
for the daggers. All eyes were on her, she knew it and she decided, once
and for all, to show how betrayal was rewarded.
She ripped the red fabric off her so hard the silken cords that bound it to her groaned in protest and shredded some. Mentu shook his head and quietly retrieved the tossed cloak from the floor, right where the Conqueror had abandoned it.
Her eyes burned. It had been sunset already when the Kórinthan army had finally surrendered. The general had fought as long as he deemed it to make sense, tasting defeat long before he could admit it to himself. The sky had turned to a fetching shade of pink and yellow when he had lowered his sword at the crimson-cloaked woman's feet, giving over his life and army to her. She had tolerated the man's long-winded speech and pleas of mercy for his army with quickly growing impatience and finally, when the man had been hauled off to the dungeons, she had stormed from the great hall.
Otherwise, the evening had been the usual mop-up that followed the first elated moments of joy after a conquest. She had seen to eradicating the few last pockets of resistance in the city while her army had settled in and outside the city, taking care of the wounded, dying and hungry, gathering rogue soldiers and putting down lame horses and everything that was the necessary yet boring aftermath of a battle.
She had breathed smoke, tasted mud and bathed in blood the whole day and she was tired. A quick wash had taken out most of the blood and mud but it could do nothing for the sting of torch smoke in her eyes and the few remaining blobs of drying blood, stuck in places blood really had no business being in. So she had been fidgety in the hall, itching and tired, her battle fever still high.
It never settled easily, the fever. The delicate tendrils of her dark side still coiled inside her field of vision, hot blood coursing through her veins. She felt alive, her senses heightened, the steady beat of her heart a pounding drum in her ears. The big muscles at her shoulders twitched, tendons on her neck standing out in a delicate relief of bronze and copper-red bloodstains.
Hot. Bothered. Intense. Primal. Pent-up.
"Put that, ummm…" She searched for a suitable spot, finally deciding on the small alcove on the outer wall. "There, by the window. Thanks."
The archer looked at her oddly. He was not used to the Conqueror's staff being nice, not to mention thanking him. The servants were real bitches sometimes; he wondered how the Conqueror managed to deal with them. But this one, she was nice in a quiet, gentle way. Not to mention a nice-looking piece of humanity, he mused, raking his gaze over the ample bust, flat abs and the curving hint of growing musculature on her legs, then mentally slapped himself. This woman was the Conqueror's, and if the rumours had it true the fair slave had other, more intimate, duties in addition to taking care of the dark woman's belongings.
After the young man had deposited the small chest he was carrying and left, Gabrielle sat down. Slumped, actually, diving into the plush chair with a grunt. She took off her boots and wiggled her toes, letting her head loll back against the soft cushion.
It had been a long day. The worst part of it hadn't been the massive effort and organisation it took to haul all the upper-level staff's belongings to the newly occupied city, no. She had scrounged through the castle, finally finding the king's bedroom, and then ordered all the Conqueror's stuff to be brought there. Fortunately, the dark woman was Spartan in her ways so there wasn't that much but still… all remaining time had been spent on attending to wounded soldiers, dressing gaping holes in their bodies and giving soothing words to those beyond her help. She had eaten while running and relaxed by walking.
She knew she hadn't been forced to do that. She belonged to the Conqueror's household; dressing wounds was not her duty. But she needed something to take her mind off the blue eyes, the mane of dark hair and the woman they belonged to. In her mind's eye she saw the Conqueror die a thousand deaths that day, the vivid images brought on by the ever-present wail of pain at the makeshift infirmary. A small but growing corner of her mind was actually… worried.
It was ridiculous, she berated herself, and green orbs disappeared under heavy lids. She had gotten so used to being at the Conqueror's side all the time. Serving her, cleaning her armour, unlacing her boots, chatting (though chatting usually meant she kept up a steady babble and the dark woman answered with one-syllable grunts), even laughing. There was a remarkably smart person under the thick, bloodied shell, one with a wry wit and a keen eye for detail. And today, she hadn't seen the Conqueror since dawn. The slave let out a dry snort of a laugh. She was actually missing the Destroyer of Nations.
She heard the door's old hinges creak and opened her eyes with great effort. Upon the sight of the tall, dark figure, she jumped up and faced the Conqueror, almost kicking herself. It was not becoming for a slave to doze in Xena's chair. The Conqueror, however, didn't say a word; she just closed the door and stepped towards Gabrielle, her feet ethereally quiet on the plush carpet.
Gabrielle felt her knees tremble. The dark woman came to stand a few handwidths from her, so close she could see the shimmering power in the blue eyes and smell the scent of sweet death. She didn't dare to meet that intense gaze so she dropped her eyes to whatever was on her level. That happened to be the Conqueror's bronze cuirass, sporting ever-present bloodstains and small dents from the day's battle. She watched the dully gleaming metal rise and fall with the Conqueror's steady breath, heard the leather under the armour groan when it was stretched to its limits by the dark woman's expanding ribcage.
There was a strand of crimson silk stuck in one delicate curve, glued to the metal by the last moisture that remained from the day's deluge. The slave lifted her hand and placed it on the spot, between the Conqueror's breasts. Her fingers brushed the skin above the neckline when she yanked gently at the red thread. The strand let go but her hand was captured and pressed against the warming metal.
Of their own volition her fingers curled around the edge of the tall warrior's leather bodice. There could be no other explanation. She felt smooth skin against her fingers, marveling at the silky texture. For a woman so hard and harsh, the Conqueror had the softest of surfaces.
A hand touched her chin and turned it up, forcing her to meet the eyes she had felt burning through her skull. She felt like she could drown in the sea of shimmering blue that opened before her, be swept away by the storm that lay just below the surface, be drawn into the black abyss of bliss. Her breath caught at the look in those vivid blue orbs.
Never in her life had Gabrielle had someone look at her like that. Never. The eyes were pure and full with promises of passion, sweat, pain and pleasure, even… love. Whatever love meant to the dark predator standing so near her.
The tapestry was a lifesaver. Without it her back would've been badly bruised by the impact but now she was only faintly aware of the long bunches of threads that tickled her exposed back, her mind occupied by the leather, bronze and dark energy that surrounded her, pressing into her and squeezing her between the stiff breastplate and the wall.
The Conqueror was close, so close she was almost inside her. The slave heard the ragged sounds of their breathing, tasted the wild scent of the warrior on the back of her tongue, felt the powerful muscles on the woman's arms expand and contract as she lifted the smaller woman up. The slave instinctively wrapped her legs around the dark woman's waist.
The lips were now close, so close to hers she could almost taste them. She felt Xena's hot breath on her upper lip and then the soft mouth was on it, kissing briefly before moving away again. Gabrielle dare not open her eyes lest the moment go away. It seemed like an eternity before the lips returned.
The kiss was fierce. Hot. Demanding. The Conqueror's lips landed on hers with enough force to bruise, the caress of the ruby red skin harsh and passionate at the same time. Gabrielle felt the exquisitely silken lips slide against hers and then a tongue lick her lower lip, requesting entrance. She opened her mouth and it was immediately filled by Xena's long, wet tongue, conquering that small space of dark privacy. She moaned at the feeling of the Conqueror's tongue inside her, the woman's hands travelling down her sides, leaving behind a trail of fire.
Xena smiled at the moan she felt vibrating against her lips. It was the balm that soothed her inner rawness but did nothing to tame the fire in her veins, the white-hot, absolute lust demanding attention. The woman in her arms squirmed against the unyielding pressure of her armour, fanning the flames with her low moans and sensuous movements. It seemed fever was truly contagious.
Gabrielle grabbed the taller woman's arms and when the wandering hands on her sides found their way down and under her behind, she squeezed the bulging biceps with knuckles gone white. The hands seemed to be everywhere; in her mind's eye she could see the Conqueror's long, strong fingers cupping her buttocks. When the dark woman withdrew her tongue and nibbled the slave's lower lip, Gabrielle was sure she was going to melt right there. She felt the tall figure shift her hips and grind her pelvis into her, the hardened leather of the battle skirt pressing into her groin. It made the moisture pooling between her legs rise to new heights. The insides of her thighs were already trembling from the delicious torture, the fine coating of her essence staining the dark leather.
One hand left her behind and came back up, tracing the quivering muscles on the ribs. Xena could feel the shallow, ragged breaths on her fingertips and she grabbed the side more firmly, bringing out a strained groan of pain and pleasure. The impatient hand started up again, this time ending up on the side of Gabrielle's breast, cupping the soft flesh there.
Gabrielle was sure she was going to die any time now if the torture didn't stop. Her nipples were painfully erect inside her short top, squeezed and rubbed by the harsh fabric and the wavy pattern of the Conqueror's cuirass. Every time either she or the woman around her moved, jolts of fiery pleasure shot from her breasts to points south, now hot and humid. She almost screamed in pleasure when the Conqueror's hand found her aching chest.
The fabric ripped with ease, one powerful yank enough to tear the front away. The slave's breasts were freed from their confines, creamy flesh spilling from inside the rust-coloured clothing and onto the hard metal. Xena grabbed the pliant flesh with one hand, squeezing the breast in her large palm. Her mouth found the sensitive tendons in Gabrielle's neck while her fingers found a nipple, pebble hard and waiting to be attended to. She squeezed the protruding point and rolled it between her fingers, and bit down on the pale skin of the slave's neck. Her reward was a sharp intake of breath and a low, guttural groan that was born deep in the slave's throat. To the Conqueror, the primal sound spoke of an urgent need. Already, her battle skirt had stuck to the slave's groin.
Suddenly, the slave was yanked off the tapestry and carried across the room to the big canopied bed. It seemed rulers of various kinds had a thing for frilly canopies, Gabrielle thought hazily, her mind more on the hot breath at her ear and the rough, wet tongue that traced the edge of the lobe, than on the silliness of kings.
The bed bounced gently when she was thrown on the down mattress. The abrupt separation from the warm cocoon of leather, bronze and dark energy rattled her. Hesitantly, she cracked one eyelid and peeked out. The sight of the Conqueror gazing down at her with liquid fire in her blue eyes was enough to make both eyes shoot wide open.
Xena smiled one of her small, crooked smiles at the look in the two green orbs. She unbuckled her belt and the two swords and chakram fell to the floor. Shifting her eyes down, she started on the side buckles of her armour. Her hands were interrupted, though, by a hand so much smaller and paler than hers.
"Let me, Mistress," Gabrielle whispered, her voice unable to produce enough volume to be more than barely audible. Xena did hear the faint words, though.
It was in the emerald colour of the slave's eyes, in the faint trembling of her hands on the armour, in the blush that had risen on the slave's cheeks and neck. Never in her life had Xena had one of her conquests look at her like that, echo the fierce passion. Usually, the men and women who fell to her charisma were initially reluctant and, when they gave in, still held a shard of fear in their moves, fear of her. That fear excited her but this was different. The slave was taunting her. Teasing. Provoking.
The buckles let loose and her breastplate was thrown to the floor, along with the shoulder guards. The slave's hands were on her leather-covered sides, massaging her through the pliant material. She felt the gentle touch of Gabrielle's breath on her throat and then the coral lips landed on her collarbone. The kiss was a soft one but it made a shiver go down the dark woman's spine. The gentle gestures, the pressure of the slave's breasts against her leather bodice, they were in such contrast to the look of hunger in the green eyes that the Conqueror knew she was being yanked, the beast in her lured out with a sure purpose. The slave was playing a game with her.
The touch moved lower as Gabrielle kneeled, starting on the buckles at the Conqueror's shin guards. They came off and so did the boots, discarded in a haphazard pile. Finally able to touch the Conqueror freely (although her mind still had trouble wrapping around that idea), she laid her lips on the taut muscle above the left knee, feeling the strong cords tremble under her touch. Running her hands all over the sculpted legs, she worked her way up, tasting the salt on the woman's skin, clean sweat mingling with the ever-present coppery scent of blood. The Conqueror's skin held in its taste the faint shadow of spices, bergamot and darkness, spread evenly over the luxuriously smooth surface.
He nose touched one of the leather strips of Xena's battle skirt and she pushed it up, feeling the brass studs against her face and smelling herself on the stained leather. But before she could progress any further, to finally see where the legs disappeared under the leather, she was yanked away by her hair and propelled back to the bed, thrown like a rag doll. The Conqueror's patience was at its end. As she lay on the bed the dark woman snarled at her and practically tore her leathers off.
The Conqueror's body, as often as she saw it, never ceased to take her breath away. Standing at the edge of the bed, looking down at her, the dark woman was one giant coil of energy, the blue of the eyes almost invisible at the edges of dilated black pupils. Her skirt ripped with ease, the fabric discarded with one impatient throw. She mewed in protest when the magnificent body disappeared from her sight but really, the Conqueror did feel so much better on her.
The larger frame on top of her made her sink into the bed, sandwiched between the soft mattress and the Conqueror's rock-hard, hot flesh. It burned her, the heavy body pinning her down. She could feel the brush of the dark woman's nipples against her and her brain nearly shorted out. Xena's raven hair was all over her upper body, teasing her neck and shoulder and sticking to her sweating skin, drawing lines into the moisture as the Conqueror's mouth moved to her breasts. She arched her back in an unconscious invitation, thrusting her aching flesh against the lips that spread a trail of fire and fury wherever they touched. Xena's hands supported her back, making the arc an almost painful one, her head now touching the sheets only barely.
"You are a tease, slave," the Conqueror growled into one creamy, delicious mound of flesh and caught the nipple between her teeth. Biting the tender nub and rolling it, she heard the animal groan that escaped the slave, audible over her own ragged breathing. The slave tasted so sweet, innocent and flauntingly explosive at the same time. She could feel the small body in her hands tremble, the woman's hands push at her shoulders in a feeble, half-hearted attempt to push her away. She smiled against the breast and, slapping away the hands, proceeded to suck on the other swollen nub of coral excitement.
A hand grabbed dark hair and pulled at it, hard, yanking the head away and to a side. The Conqueror snarled, her eyes flashing. Yanking the hand away from her hair, she squeezed the slave's other buttock so hard it made the small woman whimper in pain, feeling the dark woman's nails sink into her skin. But still, the slave forced herself to look into the blue-black depths, into the eye of the storm, to convey a message.
"Oh, so that's how you want to play it:…"
The voice was a deep, dark thrum, the words pounding in her ears. The Conqueror was smiling now, a white flash of teeth with their prominent, sharp canines. The white tips of the two teeth rested atop the blood-red surface of her lips, pressing into the flesh like two daggers. The smile was not a nice one and Gabrielle felt a wave of fear wash over her, bringing with it the odd sensation of being cold and extremely hot at the same time. The predatory look on the Conqueror's sharply angled face was intense enough to make her lower abdomen cramp.
"Very well," the voice gone raw from passion said and sooner than she could move a muscle, Gabrielle was on her stomach, the Conqueror's breath at her ear. "But pray to the gods you know what you're asking, slave." The smaller woman felt the furnace of the woman's body move off her.
She had no intention of moving, not that her legs would have had the strength anyway. She dared not move a muscle so she endured the cold air on her back and the intense throbbing in her groin that begged for attention. But she had started the game, unable to keep her hands off the Conqueror any longer, and she was going to finish it.
It took another small eternity before the woman returned. Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut tighter when she felt the touch of leather on her wrists, a thick thong binding her wrists together. Biting her lower lip to stop a moan when the cord tightened, she felt her jaw tremble.
Linen sheets rustled as the Conqueror came onto the bed, the heat of her body so close. Two hands grabbed the slave's hips and lifted up, forcing the fair-haired woman into an awkward position, her behind high in the air while her hands and face were still on the bed. Cool air hit her exposed centre and she drew in a sharp breath, both at the wetness she felt pooling between her legs and at the proximity of the Conqueror behind her, hands still on her hips.
Her hair was gathered in one hand and suddenly pulled. It wasn't painful, the strong tug more an even, demanding pressure on her scalp. Her head was lifted, higher, until she was like a drawn bow, her back arched into a tight curve. Getting up on her elbows, she felt her legs tremble when the Conqueror slid a finger through her wet folds. A small keening sound escaped between her ragged breaths when the finger travelled over her swollen clit.
"Oh, you are so ready…"
The slave's taste was musky, tangy, like a forest after a thunderstorm. Xena licked clean her finger, resisting the urge to dive to the source of that sweet honey. Instead, she yanked at the red-gold hair, marvelling at the play of muscles in the slave's back when she exhaled with a slight hissing sound and adjusted to the new position.
The muscles of the woman's legs jumped, the pale skin shifting under her touch. She ran a hand gently over the red marks of her fingernails on one buttock and then slapped down on the creamy flesh.
"Speak only when spoken to, slave," the Conqueror growled, holding tight to the squirming woman.
The last syllable transformed into a deep, raw scream when the Conqueror entered her. The slave wasn't sure what that thing inside her was but it was round, smooth and fit just so, filling her with both its bulk and with the sensation of being so open, so full of the dark woman. Her inner muscles clenched the shaft that had been thrusted into her so quickly, almost savagely. If it went in any further it would've come out of her throat, Gabrielle was sure.
It retreated and pushed back in, the friction almost overcoming her frustration at not being able to move. Her hair was still held by the steady hand, in a way she decided she liked. She also liked the feel of the Conqueror's hips as they pushed against her, the sweat of her passion that ran down her back and was sometimes licked away by the dark woman's inquisitive tongue, and the groans coming from behind her.
Xena watched a trickle of sweat run down the canyon of the slave's spinal muscles, tensed as they were. She followed the long line of hills to the delicious behind and to the sight of the black phallus, glistening with the slave's juices, moving. The smaller woman was meeting her thrusts now, shoulder muscles bunching to the pace of her pushing, responding to her rough handling.
She stilled, watching the slave squirm, attempting to suck more of the shaft inside her. The blonde woman was nearing the edge, so much could be heard form the quickened breathing and continuous moans, but she couldn't have her come. Not yet.
Gabrielle clenched the wadded piece of the sheet she had in her hands to stop the groan of frustration. It didn't help. Testing the binding of her hands, she found that the leather strip held. Gods, if only she could get herself free, she would pounce on the dark woman and fuck her silly. But no, she was held in place and somehow that excited her even more.
The shaft was still half inside her when she felt a finger on her liquid flesh. Brushing the edge of her stretched core and slipping around the cylindrical object in her, it gathered the moisture there but avoided her throbbing clit. She could almost feel the small nub of nerves extend out, pleading to be touched.
The finger moved back up and to her behind, brushing the circular, tight muscle of her sphincter. The odd sensation made her want to squirm again, her body unable to decide if it wanted the finger to stop the teasing or enter her. It did the latter and she sucked in a sharp breath and moaned it out, the finger poking inside her as far as it could and moving back out. Her muscle resisted the attack at first but gave out quickly when it realised how good it felt. Two fingers and pain mingled with pleasure, the fingers generating delicious friction. She felt so full.
All of a sudden, the shaft in her retreated and replaced the fingers, plunging past her sphincter so hard it hurt. Gabrielle screamed but the Conqueror just shoved it further in and whacked her reddening buttocks.
"Shut up and take it, slave!"
The words came as a low growl, warning her of the consequences of disobedience. The fair-haired woman panted and gritted her teeth, her toes clenching at the sensation that was a mix of pain and pleasure. Pleasure was winning when she consciously relaxed her muscles, letting the phallus slide in and out with less effort. It was liberally coated with her juices so the friction was just right, the Conqueror's other hand on her hip guiding her behind while the other one was still holding her hair.
To be taken in this new and strange way made her excitement grow. The woman behind her was having her in a very cruel way but with great expertise; the roughness was more a matter of skill than anything else. Her lower abdomen was now quivering with impending release and she moaned out her pleasure with enough volume to rattle the timbers in the roof. A throaty chuckle echoed her scream of pleasure.
"I'm getting close, Mistress," she managed to grind out, sweat beading on her forehead. She tried to stall the coming moment by taking deep breaths, knowing instinctively she would be punished if she came too early. That new avenue of thought was halted when she felt the Conqueror's mouth on her shoulder, biting, nipples brushing against her back. The hand on her hip vanished, to appear again on her clit, drawing tight circles around the bundle of nerves that was throbbing to the beat of her heart.
"Come now, slave. Come and know how good I make you feel…"
The hot breath on her ear made her shiver. Gabrielle felt the delicious pressure on her badly neglected clit and the slide of the smooth shaft in her, and rose higher, to the tallest of mountains. The edge beckoned her and when the words were whispered into her ear by the rough, low voice, she jumped over the edge and was falling, spiralling towards the blinding light of her pleasure. It came over her in tight, white-hot waves and she screamed at the pure joy of it, the heat reaching to every corner of her wracked body. She came with such earth-moving force she almost blacked out, the fear and pain fanning the flames of pleasure that washed over her.
Xena saw the slave come, melting into a mass of liquid, quivering pleasure. She could no longer keep back from her crest, the movement of the other end of the phallus was too insistent inside her and on her. She let go of the slave's hair and grabbed her hips, making one last rough push before she, too, went over the edge, screaming her orgasm to the deep red canopy of the bed. The fiery colour was easily matched by the crimson flames that danced in her eyes, the heat of the fire expanding outward from her core.
It was a moment of joining, two souls melting in
the arms of lust and passion.
The king adjusted his cape for the ninth time. The slim chain that held the purple fabric around his neck felt constricting and he cursed his decision to wear this sign of his power.
It was really, really strange. From the stories he had heard, he had expected the Conq--, the Destroyer, he corrected himself -- he had expected her to kill him, at best. But no, she had ordered him captured and put in the dungeons and then, he was left alone. For two days, no word of the woman, the only breaks in the smelly, dank prison being the regular visits of a guard bringing his food.
Now, he had been snagged from the cell's confines, bathed, and his old clothes handed to him. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine he was still the king and all was well. None of it ever happened, the Destroyer never came… He was brought out of his daydreaming by a soldier's club at his back, pushing him onward, reminding of his current status. Prisoner, not king.
To tell the truth, he was a bit miffed that the Conq--, the Destroyer had not visited him. In fact, he hadn't even seen the woman after the scene of the battlefield. The quick turmoil and conquest had both mystified him and kept him busy. He was miffed, but also relieved for he was certain the sight of the dark woman would be a sure omen of his death. So now, as he was led through the corridors towards the smaller banquet hall, he trembled in his boots.
When the two oak doors came into view, he took a shuddering breath and straightened his back. This was a flesh and blood person, a woman at that, who he was going to see, not Ares. He would die with honour and wasn't going to let some bitch make him soil himself.
The doors opened and the king stepped in. He squinted his eyes against the bright sunlight that streamed through the high windows. The white light landed on the long, dark table that now held a large dish, the one he recognised to be used when serving a whole boar or some beast of similar size. The dish was covered with a matching pewter dome, two foot-wide strips of thick cloth trailing from underneath its edge and over the table. So, he was to have lunch with… her.
He felt his jaw muscles go slack and was sure he looked silly, his jaw hanging limply. His eyes were fixed on the improbably tall figure by the window, a back silhouetted in the iridescent light. The sun's rays fell on the golden embroidered flowers and curves on the black robe she had on, reflecting off the feathery gold headpiece he could glimpse. And when she turned to face him, he saw the blue that drowned all other colours.
The woman was stunning. Sipping wine from a small, delicate goblet, she was dressed in one of her favourite official outfits, a thick robe with a wide black belt. The dress was from the eastern edge of the Known World, brought to her from the Orient across deserts and seas. The wide belt cinched down her waist, the ample cleavage showing enough to draw his attention. She smirked into her goblet at the look on the king's face. He was so young…
He complied, scrambling into one of the chairs that surrounded the table while keeping his eyes on the dark woman. He had expected her to be some ugly, battle-hardened wench but this… this was a woman of divine proportions. He caught himself staring and shook his head, angry at himself for falling for her wiles.
Xena had a purpose for this coming show, of course. She could have just lopped off the king's head but if nothing else, she was a wise Conqueror. A city of this size couldn't tolerate too drastic an upheaval, she needed the king to assist her in setting up the government. Then, she could lop off his head with its irritating eyes that were devouring her curves.
She brushed her fingers against the goblet, feeling the nubbed surface. The king was young, too young to see clearly. Of course, she could have just threatened him with a dagger until he complied but that would have been both risky and too simple. She needed to show him what it meant to betray or mislead her to make sure he would never do it, to make him see who she was and what she was capable of. And this way was much more enjoyable.
She chose a chair close to him, turning it so that she could face him. He followed the gesture, his eyes darting from her to the food. His stomach was growling already, the prison gruel not suitable for his delicate palate. A servant placed a goblet at his side and he gulped down the wine, not caring if it was poisoned or not.
"Excuse me?" he said, coughing out the wine he had inhaled at the sudden word.
"Trust. Trust brought you down."
He didn't understand, that much was clear. His brow furrowed but he nodded for the dark woman to continue. It had been plaguing him since the day of the battle, what had been the clever trick that had facilitated his downfall.
"You trusted the word of another man so deeply you took it to be the truth."
It had been delicious to see the Kórinthian army massed just as she would have planned it herself, had she known the attack pattern of the plan. The old plan. She had devised a new one as soon as she was sure there was a spy in her closest circle, keeping it secure until the last moment.
She remembered the look of confusion on Saba's face that soon turned to enlightenment and admiration, when she had told the smaller woman of the plan. She was to ride as the Conqueror while Xena would sneak away and lead the small cluster of elite troops on a mission that was very different. It had gone like a dream, Saba had been waiting for her at the woods and she had relinquished her horse and cape to the dark woman, a disguise complete enough to fool a casual onlooker. And when Saba had dashed off, the Conqueror had met with the troops and snuck with them around the fortifications and into the harbour, the heavy rain making the men and women on the rafts almost invisible.
The king had done just as she had predicted, relied on Talas' information and positioned his troops accordingly, not even thinking of the possibility that she might have another plan. Had she not had one, she would have had no choice but to follow the original one and her army would've suffered greatly.
The servant returned and lifted the dome, revealing the carcass of an animal, its head and lower stomach covered by the two strips of cloth. The king couldn't figure out what kind of beast it was; all he could see was charred, rough skin and a hollow in the middle, and steam rising from the cooked meat. His mouth watered at the scent of it, a roasted liver on top of the pile drawing his attention.
Xena fished out a dagger and handed it to the king and, utilising another, she sliced off a piece from the liver and speared it with the blade. She chewed on it and smiled.
"Delicious. Do taste," she said around the bite and gestured with her dagger. The king complied, finding the meat to be something he'd never tasted before but delicious anyway. He took another bite and washed it down with his wine.
"I've invited you here for a reason."
His mouth paused and he looked up, the odd tone in the woman's voice making small bells of warning ring at the back of his mind.
"But first, I want you to understand something," she continued, her tone almost conversational now. She grabbed the edge of one of the strips of cloth. "I don't take treason lightly."
With that she yanked at the cloth, revealing the head of the animal.
The king gagged on the morsel of meat still in his mouth and spat it out quickly, all colour draining away from his face. He looked as if he was going to faint and vomit at the same time, the goblet in his hand dropping to the floor with a loud clang.
It wasn't the head of a buck deer or some other animal, it was the head of a man. The flesh on his shoulders and on the stumps where his arms used to attach was charred and black. His face, however, had been spared of the worst of it, the handsome planes and angles of Talas's face still recognisable, even with the grimace of pain frozen on it. The face spoke of agony, of the fires of Tartarus come to earth, a pain so bad death was a relief. When the Conqueror yanked away the other piece of cloth, the king could see that he had no legs or genitals either. His mind flashed to a chat with Talas, not more than three days ago. The dark man had nonchalantly mentioned that Xena's favourite method of disposing of betrayers was something he jokingly called 'Slice and Dice'. He hadn't understood and Talas hadn't explained but now, he did understand.
She stated the terms of the deal that, in essence,
were that she would get every morsel of information and he got to keep
his limbs to himself. For now. He couldn't nod quickly enough to agree.
She brushed an errant strand of the honey-gold hair behind a small ear and smiled. The ear was just too damn cute to resist so she traced the edge of it, making the woman in her arms mumble in her sleep and nuzzle closer. She let the ear be, content just gazing at the fair-haired woman.
So far she had come, from the windy plains of Central Macedonia, from Amfípolis. Down mainland Greece she had plowed, one victory following another. Some of her first army, gathered from Thessaloníki and Sérrai and from the small, weary fishing villages on the coast of the Gulf of Strimonikós, had followed through her trek. The men had been the sullen, hard people of the area, eager to show their prowess and eager to pay back the dozen and one warlords that raided the area regularly. Talas had been one of those men, her longest surviving commander. He had risen in the ranks quickly and for the past years he had been her right hand.
She brushed the slave's cheek, the skin still hot and sweaty from their lovemaking. Talas had been at her side when her army had run through Poteidaia, a no-name village that meant nothing to her except that it was the home town of the woman in her arms. The slave had said that it had meant nothing, back then she was still one of the warlords that were the area's plague, one killer in the midst of many.
All that was going to change now; she was no longer just a warlord. No, in her eyes she was finally close to being worthy of her name. The Conqueror. She tasted the word in her mouth and smiled. Greece would be hers, the whole of it. She already owned the mainland, with Kórinthos she had gained a capital and beyond the city lay the final untouched land, the Peloponnesus peninsula.
The naked woman on top of her squirmed and shifted,
her face burrowing into the Conqueror's neck. The dark woman smiled a small,
indulgent smile at the body next to her and sighed. It felt good to have
the woman close to her, so good it almost frightened her. She couldn't
get enough of the woman, was intoxicated by the merest hint of lust in
the misty green eyes, wishing nothing more in life than to hear the lovely,
light sound of the slave's laughter or hear her moan out her pleasure,
the carnal joy she brought to her. She hugged the woman tighter against
her. Her love.
Epilogue -- Outside Váthia, southern Laconía
She switched her grip on the sword and cut the man's desperate pleas literally in half, her sword entering his mouth and exiting his head to bury itself in the rich, dark soil underneath. He twitched and let out a gurgling groan, blood flowing freely into his windpipe and suffocating him. The noise and his frantic gestures died down when she twisted the sword and kicked his head. The blade sliced through his cheek but he was already dead, his neck broken.
Yanking the sword free, she wiped her forehead to dry off the moisture there but managed just to make it a bigger mess. She cleaned the blade on the dead man's blue tunic and re-sheathed it.
He had been the last and now he had fallen. Beyond his body was nothing but a straight cliff that plunged down into the Mediterranean. And beyond that, there was just the open sea, blue stretching into the horizon. She spread her arms, letting the salty wind catch her cloak and brush through her bloodied hair. The sun was on her face, the scent of blood catching her nostrils, the heady aroma tickling her taste buds. She let out a burst of joyful laughter, the ringing sound of happiness born somewhere deep within her chest. She was finally there.
There, to be precise, was the southernmost tip of Peloponnesus. The middle spike of the thrice-forked southern coast that was divided equally between Laconía and Messinía, there she had driven the last of the Spartan troops. Leagues away from their home town that had fallen only a fortnight ago, the troops had fought valiantly for their soil but ultimately, they had had to give in to her irresistible force. The man in the blue tunic had been the last of them and she had pursued him to the edge of the cliff and killed him. Just like that. A thrust and Sparta was gone. A twist and Peloponnesus was hers.
She turned and put her hands on her hips, taking in the battlefield. It hadn't been a big encounter but it had been bloody, the Spartans desperate and her troops tasting the final victory. There was nothing to go back to so the Spartans had fought to the last man, taking many of hers with them. Already, there were men at the tasks of burying their fallen comrades and tending to those still living but wounded.
"Count the casualties, gather weapons, put down the lame horses and make a list of honourifics to be given," she counted off to Etor who had joined her -- the usual stuff. He nodded, saluted, and hurried back towards their main camp. She followed him but at a more leisurely pace.
Her tent was shadowy inside compared to the brilliant sunlight, and her eyes took their time to adjust. She saw the silhouette of Gabrielle against the redness of the tent's wall, the fiery copper highlights of her hair the only colour besides the blackness. She smiled and the shadow moved into better light and into her arms.
"All done?" the slave murmured against her breastplate, brushing the beaten metal with her lips. The Conqueror buried her hand in the thick, honey-coloured tresses and pressed the woman's soft cheek against her chest. The skin was cool compared to hers, a spot of freshness on her heated, sweating, dirty body.
"All done," she murmured, answering the many-layered question in the simplest of ways: with the truth.
It was the end of one era in her life. She now controlled the whole of Greece, had earned the name Conqueror. She had endured the vagaries of her war, gathering a few scars along the way, and fourteen years' worth of blood had rained on her. And she had survived, her body intact but her heart not hers anymore.
Yes, she could admit as much now. She, Destroyer of Nations, had fallen, hard. In the end, it hadn't been a sword that had brought her down but instead, a pair of green eyes and a spirit as strong as her own.
-- T h e E n d --
And no, this isn't really the end. This is a trilogy, continuing in Blood Meridian.