Lucius Cornelius Flavius sat looking rather disinterested as Cassius went to work on yet another of the Greek prisoners. Gazing imperiously at a nearby slave, he offered one hand and then sighed as his nails were being filed.
Another scream pierced the air making the rather tall Roman call for more wine. Anything that would help block out the constant din was looked upon with pleasure. Casting his eyes over the other nobleman made him shiver with revulsion. This was his second experience ‘in the field’, both with Caius Cassius Longinus, and although he had little pull politically, he would do whatever he could to make this the last.
Christo strained against his bonds as another one of his men came under the cruel scrutiny of the worst of the two Roman pigs. His thigh throbbed painfully but the Briton knew it was nothing compared to the pain two of his men had already endured in the Roman’s efforts to make him talk. So far he’d been able to resist but if the pig called Cassius started poking around the arrow wound in his thigh any more things might change. He stared hard at the floor between his boots and tried to concentrate of relaxing his fingers. Both hands were tied tightly behind his back and his response to the torture he was witnessing was cutting off the circulation. He had to remedy that or he’d be in no shape to aid his men when reinforcements came.
Christo ground his teeth and prayed for that moment to come. His man Altocles must have made it to the castle and Lord Xena. Although two Roman soldiers had taken off after the man they would be no match for Altocles’ skills both as a rider and master at evading the enemy. All the training he and his men had done in these forests would be the deciding factor, he knew. After all, why else would Cassius be spending any more time than he needed to on he and his men? No, they wanted to know of any booby traps, the lay of the land, and the number of contingency forces that might be awaiting them.
His nerves thrummed dangerously again as another shriek filled his ears. ‘Concentrate, boyo, concentrate!’ If only he’d taken this supposed mission to find that godsbedamned Dagnine seriously! Truth was he’d only seen his orders as being a good way to put a feather in his own cap and perhaps needle his friend Andros along the way. With the good Lieutenant out with a full company combing the area northwest of the castle, any resistance mounted by the home forces now would be sorely stretched thin.
His eyes popped open as the shaft piercing his flesh was taken in one meaty paw.
“Well, little man? Do you still insist on letting your men take your punishment when all you need do is simply answer my questions?”
Cassius pushed his lips out disdainfully at the lack of response. “I see. Any attempts on your part to convince me of any noble heritage running through your veins have fluttered like ashes on the wind. Not that I needed any convincing, really.”
He turned and walked over to the table. Emptying his flagon of wine, he looked to his compatriot. “Tell me, Flavius: have we ever met a Briton worth even one of our lowliest of slaves?”
Cornelius’ eye twitched at the way he was being addressed. Not only was the man a bore but a pig as well. His family line was as good if not better than the great Caius Cassias Longinus’ and therefore his chances in the political arena were just as impressive. The only thing this man had which seemed to garner him favour with the senators was his penchant for violence. Although success in the field was important, one didn’t have to resort to senseless acts of barbarism. They’d spent all afternoon and most of the evening trying to wheedle information out of a few sorry Greeks. Either the men had no pertinent information to give up or they were going at things the wrong way. Cornelius prided himself on being a good judge of character and in his skilled opinion Cassias had far too many flaws to warrant his current assumption that he was in charge. Why if he’d been in command of this mission, they’d be well on their way to the castle, undoubtedly storming it at this very moment. Cornelius had little doubt his leadership would prove to be both successful and noteworthy. If he could bring Xena to Rome in chains…His eyes narrowed in calculation. ‘Enough of this stupidity.’
“I’m most certain a man’s mettle can be measured in ways other than this. My dear Cassias, you’ve only proven the man has a strong stomach, nothing more.”
Removing a small, very sharp dagger from his waist, the Roman moved to where Christo sat, grabbed the man by the throat and placed the point just under his eye.
“Now, I’d wager you’d get quite a bit farther in your attempts to glean information if you threatened a man’s sight. However,”
Pulling the struggling man forward, he grabbed the Lieutenant’s little finger and pried it away from the others.
“I find that kind of thing rather ordinary; you don’t have to beat someone over the head in order to get their attention. Speed and decisiveness, Cassias, have their rewards. After all, a man can do quite well with only one eye. By the time he actually gives you what you want, he’d be blind and absolutely no use to you. If you were, however, to get his attention, one finger at a time, why he’d still be of some use, albeit only to you and most probably not to his master should he survive the ordeal. For truly, what is a soldier without fingers?”
The Briton squeezed his eyes shut and held his breath, knowing the burning pain to come would only be the beginning.
Cassias frowned as a yell was heard outside the tent. A sneer painted his full lips as he entreated Cornelius to continue. His blood lust had been simmering all day and his frustration at not being able to secure information was driving him to the point of incoherent rage.
The sound of hoof beats could be heard and then the clashing of armour filled the air. The commotion seemed to break the spell he was under and the darkness receded from his eyes.
Finally tearing his gaze away from the scene just as the knife blade was being anointed with a dark spurt of blood, the Roman yelled a string of curses and pulled the tent flap aside.
“By the gods, you’d better have a good reason for interrupting…”
His eyes narrowed as he took in the scene before him.
There astride a golden horse was a woman dressed in dark battle leathers with a purple cape flowing behind her, and bright shiny silver gauntlets. Beside her were an officer and at least a company of men, either on horseback or standing at the ready. He watched as the woman motioned a man forward.
Her imperious stance alone would have marked her as Lord Xena, Conqueror of Corinth. His eyes darted left and right as he tried to figure out just how she could have gotten by his skilled centurions. One eyebrow rose dangerously as the Greek soldier dragged a heavy bag closer.
“What’s the meaning of this? Who are you and what is your purpose in my camp?”
Xena pursed her lips.
“Your camp. I see, either you’ve lost your mind and have wandered miles away from the Roman border or you’re just plain stupid to think I’d do nothing as you invade my lands. Which is it?”
The Roman sputtered as he struggled with a retort, his face purpling. How dare she! His hand went to the hilt of his sword and then he paused. There was a calm yet dangerous look to the woman’s eyes, something akin to death shroud. Although on foot and somewhat at a disadvantage, Cassias knew in his heart that this woman would be no match for him should she even manage to get past his men. However, it was impossible to bring the woman to her knees as she looked down on him from a higher vantage point. And oh how he longed to put this pompous woman in her place! No, he’d bide his time.
“Your lands?” he blustered.
Xena caressed a tooth slowly with the tip of her tongue, looking the man over with distaste.
“This charade has gone on far too long. I know why you’re here and who sent you.” She smiled and waited as her soldier dragged the bag closer to the Roman.
“I believe Caesar is expecting tribute. Enjoy.”
The Greek untied the end of the bag and began emptying the contents. A few of the nearby Roman’s shrank back in disgust as the grisly remains were exposed.
Cassias’ sense of smell was immediately assaulted as the soldier fanned the blue bottle flies away from their meal. As the bag was upended one last head rolled forward, stopping inches away from the Roman’s boot.
Gritting his teeth, he scanned what remained of his once proud and all but invincible centurions. These men had been hand picked and were the best that Rome could offer. He raised his eyes and glared poisonously at the woman. She held up one gloved hand and Cassias could see the crimson stain still dripping from it.
“Since I am the law of this land, I meted out justice immediately. They were trespassers and paid the price accordingly.”
“Caesar will hear of this. We came as his emissaries and this is how we are treated?”
His head turned minutely as something moved in his peripheral field. Flavius appeared at the opening of the tent dragging what remained of the two men that had been already interrogated.
The Conqueror’s Lieutenant moved his horse forward a step as the Roman slit one of the men’s throats. Curling his fingers into the dark bloody hair of his next victim, Cornelius locked eyes with the man and grinned.
“The life of these two men is immediately forfeit. As it won’t begin to pay for the lives of our ten centurions, we shall await your offer of at least twenty more of your men. Once that has been done, perhaps we can continue our discussion.”
Cassias ground his teeth as he felt the reins of authority slip from his grasp. Although both equal in station and rank, he was by far the better soldier, the more gifted orator, and certainly the more skilled in the ways of war. Although his tactics had been unsuccessful so far, it was evident the fool he referred to as Flavius hadn’t the stomach or the stamina to do what ever it took to get the job done. After all, how much information could be gleaned by the removal of only one or two fingers? And then of course there was the entertainment factor involved. One did have to amuse one’s self when in the field, something he was sure the foppish Flavius didn’t quite understand.
Cornelius was busy observing the Greek Lieutenant as he cut the remaining man’s throat. An empathetic officer was a vulnerability he could use.
“Emissary’s don’t come armed to the teeth. Nor do their entourages contain centurion soldiers.” Xena looked down at the man dispassionately, the abhorrence clearly visible on her face. ‘What created monsters such as these?’ she thought. Not only were they mindlessly cruel but witless in their efforts to attempt to convince her of their innocence. Xena snorted derisively. That their actions all but mirrored her early forays into the field of betrayal and deceit was completely lost on the warrior for the moment.
Cassias thought briefly of continuing to feign ignorance but could see by the taunt in the Conqueror’s eyes that the time for such things was past. His temper flared again as one bloodied hand was placed on his shoulder.
“Hold, Cassias. Now is not the time nor the place to lose one’s temper.” The taller Roman’s lips twisted in a sneer as the other man wrestled with his loss of face.
Xena watched the interaction between the two men with fascination. There were many chinks in the armour of her current adversaries. Which one to play on first?
“You,” she indicated to the taller of the two Romans. “I can see that you are in command here. There was no need for the butchery of my soldiers, though it is nice to see someone in command who isn’t afraid of dirtying his own hands.” She inspected the drying gore glistening from her fingertips and smiled.
“It adds a certain something to a person’s ensemble, don’t you think?” she purred as she wiped the mess across the base of her throat.
Polis swallowed a shudder and looked across the clearing. Andros moved his horse out of the shadows and nodded back at him. Although they’d gone through the plan as much as they could it all hinged on perfect timing and a good deal of luck.
“It seems we have something in common…Lord Xena I presume? We haven’t been properly introduced. I am Lucius Cornelius Flavius, Tribune of the great Julius Caesar.” He tipped his chin slightly and graced the woman with a smile. The one she bestowed in return gave him hope that perhaps his compatriot had become a liability sooner than even he had expected. Now, if he could only gain the woman’s confidence…
Brushing his sticky hands quickly on the hem of his tunic the Roman eased away from the others until he was but a few feet from the Conqueror’s horse.
“I see that we may have misjudged each other’s intentions, Lord Xena. It was not my purpose to cause dissention between you and Rome. We had heard rumours that you’d fallen ill and were near death…it was to our mutual benefit that Caesar send in forces to aid in your recovery and return order to your realm. He had your best interest in mind, Conqueror.”
Xena smirked and eased her horse back. Casually flipping her hair over one shoulder, she engaged a brief look with her first Lieutenant and then resettled her gaze back on the toad before her.
“The news of my imminent death has been greatly exaggerated. As you can see, your source of information should be looked upon with suspicion, Lucinus Flavicus. Your rash belief based on lies and conjecture is responsible for the deaths of your centurions, not me.” Responding to her mistress’ wishes, Argo sidled to the right, enabling her to casually push her own men back while all but urging the two Roman’s forward. “Caesar would do well to look to his own interests, Tribune.”
Cassias’ hand flew back to the hilt of his sword. “You cast aspersions on the great Julius Caesar?” He guffawed. “You are a mere woman, Lord Xena, and one who sees treachery and intrigue at every turn.”
Xena leaned forward, fixing the taller man with a baleful stare. “You would have done well to have sent your second in command to my court as had previously been planned. It is quite evident he has no skills in the field of diplomacy; letting mindless rage rule your actions is the sure sign of immaturity at the very least and a weakened mind at most. Although it is through his actions that you have been brought to this sorry state of affairs, as commander it is quite clear where the condemnation lies.” Resettling her cape around her she cantered a few paces, dismissing both men as being beneath her continued interest.
“As it now stands, I cannot accept either one of you as emissaries of Caesar but as enemies of the state.”
Cornelius squirmed uncomfortably as his visions of hauling the great Lord Xena in chains behind his chariot went up in smoke. Not only had he been out maneuvered but the bitch was laying the blame of this whole fiasco at his feet!
Cassias barked out a cruel laugh at his countryman’s discomfort. If blame could be shifted onto Cornelius’ shoulders, his reputation would be unblemished. “The great ‘Flavicus’ has many such shortcomings, Conqueror,” he snickered.
Cornelius whirled on the man, spitting with rage. “It was you, you pompous ass! It was not my plan to torture the Greek soldiers but yours!”
Xena moved her men back into position as the two Romans circled each other. Keeping a careful eye on the whereabouts of the soldiers on both sides would be tricky. She turned to Polis and he slowly began to move his horse towards the enemy soldiers. Their attention was turned to their commanders, their true purpose forgotten. A few Greek soldiers began milling about with their Roman counterparts and soon a ring was formed around the two combatants. Once that was achieved, Polis and his men quietly removed themselves from the area.
Xena stood high in her stirrups and gauged the proposed trajectory. There seemed enough room between the Roman’s and their tent but she couldn’t be certain. Her eyes flashed in anger as she wondered just how many of her men had survived torture at these men’s hands. She’d already lost a good deal of men when Dagnine had left earlier; she couldn’t afford to have her numbers cut any further. How many officers had she left that she could truly count on? Andros, of course, and Polis and…Christo? She was certain a man as stubborn as the Briton would have survived torture and it galled her to think his life might be forfeit if she had miscalculated in her plans.
She thought briefly of the death that had surrounded her these past few days and felt heart weary. All she really wanted to do was return to the castle and Gabrielle. Surely there was more to her life than the constant state of siege and death. If she could circumvent this current attempt from Rome then she could spend more time at strengthening her rule, cutting the deadwood from her court and be the ruler she knew she was destined to be. With her resolve strengthened, she lifted her hand again.
“Now!” she shouted. Andros signaled his men hiding in the thickets and a dense volley of arrows fell upon them; the air was with filled with the cries of pain and death. Once upon a time, the Conqueror’s reaction would have been one of cold calculated glee, the results feeding the darkness within her. Now she only felt sorrow at the lives lost. Caesars’ power had grown too much to ignore. If his eyes were now on Greece would total world domination be far behind?
She felt ill as her own aspirations wafted before her eyes. How far had she been willing to go to secure her place in the annals of the great leaders of history? Such visions now seemed so cruel and pitiless. Was she nothing more than the likes of these men or Caesar?
As the dead and dying lay at her feet, Lord Xena silently vowed the comparison would never be made between them.
Only the two Roman’s remained standing as the last arrow struck flesh. The Conqueror sighed deeply and then signaled her Lieutenant again.
“Andros. See to our wounded.” Dismounting quickly, she walked over to where Polis was standing, his eyes somewhat glazed over with the horror that surrounded them. Clasping a hand on his shoulder, she waited until her presence was acknowledged.
“You’ve earned the right of Coup de Grace. What ever punishment you see fit to mete out to the two Roman pigs is up to you, I’ll not stand in your way.” The bravado seemed to fall from her shoulders as a tear made its way down the man’s inexperienced face. For once in her life Xena could actually see the horrors of her existence clearly: there was no triumph, no glory, and certainly no pleasure to be gleaned from the violence she lived. The all-encompassing misery mirrored in her Captain’s eyes was a humbling experience.
Polis glanced up at the Conqueror and noted the anguish that settled like a pall over her features. Suddenly he was afraid and more than a little embarrassed that he couldn’t live up to the expectations of his Lord. Gulping deeply, he dropped to one knee and grasped her gauntlet pleadingly.
“Sire, I have shamed you with my inability to perform my duties as a soldier in your command. My actions are those of a child’s…
Xena felt the breath whoosh out of her lungs as the young man shamed himself publicly. Her eyes flitted from man to man suddenly aware of their unease. Each man dropped his gaze unwilling to find truth standing before him. Perhaps the rumours weren’t lies after all?
Andros paused at the entrance to the tent; his mouth was creased with a knowing smile as he went in to see about his friend.
Polis trembled as he was dragged back to his feet. Taking her hand from his grasp, the Conqueror removed her gauntlets and threw them on the ground.
“This was a bad way to die, gentlemen. There was no glory in it as it was not a war of honour but a small skirmish created by a man whose only thoughts are of greed and self-aggrandizement. The actions of his men are to be pitied. Our revenge shall be to return these men to face the humiliation of a very dissatisfied Caesar.”
Placing her hand gently on her second Lieutenant’s forearm, the Conqueror looked carefully into his grey eyes. There was such potential there. This was a man she intended to have around for a long time.
“Be thankful you can still see life as a child, Polis. I only wish…”
The walls were drawn up around the vulnerability he saw in his liege and Polis brought her hand to his lips.
“I give my life to you, Conqueror.” He spoke loudly and then smiled. “There are those who don’t realize just how truly happy and carefree they can be while others look on with open eyes.” And then he whispered, “You love her; let her be your eyes, if only for a little while.”
Xena rubbed the back of her nose quickly and turned towards her horse. ‘Godsbedamned cold I must be catching,’ she muttered.
Andros cleared his throat while his wounded men were being lifted onto litters and taken away. Christo had insisted they be dealt with first, of course, which was only proper. The Lieutenant rubbed his chin. There truly weren’t too many people he could count on as friends and Christo was surely one of them. He looked the Briton up and down and then came a little closer.
“What say you, Christo? I believe our men made a good accounting of themselves this day.”
Christo twisted into another position while not giving away the amount of pain he was enduring. His leg had become quite inflamed and although his hands had been untied, the circulation was very slow in returning.
“They did indeed, my friend. But I swear, I thought it was you mates what were getting clobbered out there. I couldn’t rightly hear what was goin’ on, really, only that swords had been drawn. I could taste the smell of death on the air, I could, and figured I’d be looking at the wrong end of a pair of snippers soon enough.” He wriggled his fingers and then groaned as the blood slowly made its way back out to his extremities.
Andros eyed the man’s wounded leg and grimaced. “I say, Briton, what is that smell? You haven’t been playing in the mud again so soon?”
Christo found himself laughing, if only weakly, as his friend attempted to divert his focus.
“Boyo, you’ll never know how much I thanked you for making me scrub down that day. Bleedin’ soap was good for something after all. Weren’t for that, I dunno just how long I’d have been able to keep that parlay going with the toadie bloke.”
“Ah, you mean the legend in his own pea-sized mind? Yes, nice piece of work, that. I fear both men would rather face the wrath of Lord Xena than what awaits them in Rome.”
A sneer twisted the Briton’s lips as he thought of the lives lost to the two men.
“Look mate, do me a favour and help me…”
Andros moved closely, taking his friend’s hand away from the arrow shaft.
“Now, now…I don’t want you to worry about scaring.” He patted the larger man’s hand. “Why, I can see some fairly detailed stitch work in your future. Something with roses, no?”
As the man sputtered his response, the Lieutenant quickly pointed in the other direction.
“Oh my god…she’s naked!”
“Cor blimey…the Conqueror? Where?” As he whirled around, Andros grabbed the shaft quickly and yanked hard.
“Argh!” Screamed the Briton as his leg was engulfed in flames.
Andros threw the bloody remains to the ground and then clutched the Briton to him. He held the man tightly until the shaking subsided and then motioned quietly to a couple of soldiers nearby.
“Bandage him up nicely, men. And get some leeches, will you? Right now, this man is the only one who can perform surgery…even if it does resemble needle point.” He grinned as the Briton yelled a volley of expletives his way.
As soon as the last man had left, Andros sat down heavily on what he assumed was imported Roman furniture. “Needs padding,” he growled and grabbed a small pillow, jamming it behind his back. He sighed gratefully and then reached a shaky hand out for the bottle of wine nearby.
Xena watched from the doorway.
“I could use a touch of that, Lieutenant, so don’t be stingy and pour two glasses.”
Andros nodded but was silent.
“I want to thank you for your part in this mission, Andros. You performed your duties admirably. If it weren’t for your recalibrations we might have lost a few of our own men instead of the half dozen wounded in the volley.”
Andros sat staring at his goblet and Xena wondered if he’d heard her. Scrubbing a hand across her features she walked the length of the rather opulent tent, taking in the fine silks, foodstuffs, and bedding. She arched an eyebrow and then groaned.
“When I think of all the hard ground I’d slept on when I was just starting out as a soldier for hire…and there was no such thing as bedding. Why, we were happy enough to wake up with the boots still on our feet. How do you suppose they keep the camp followers from robbing them blind?” Putting hands on hips, she turned to face her friend.
The man nodded sagely and muttered a “yes sire,” before falling silent once more. It was clear the man hadn’t heard a bloody word she’d said. She thought briefly of poking him with the her sword, judging that might just be the ticket to wake him up, but decided in the state he was in that he’d take it the wrong way. People were so touchy around her these days. She huffed. ‘As opposed to ‘those days’ when you knew exactly what lay ahead of you; no chitchat, just use brute strength, add a little terror and mayhem, and get down to it. Why couldn’t things have remained the way they had? An eyebrow rose as she contemplated the Lieutenant. She wasn’t used to being ignored in this fashion. While not terribly upset with the man, it was an awkward feeling to get used to. Her lip curled. And why should she? She liked having men jump to attention, bow and scrape, bend to her will, be at her beck and call…
She sighed again. Well, while it was true that she did indeed like to see a man squirm, such behaviour needn’t be expected from her friends. While the word still felt rather awkward on her tongue, she did like the warmth she felt whenever she used it.
“We are friends, aren’t we Andros? I don’t think I could bear it if…” She coughed and seeing no response from the man muttered a little and walked to the front of the tent.
“Of course we are, sire,” came the man’s booming voice. “Why would you ask such a question of me? Haven’t I always been loyal…?”
Xena turned and made her way back to where the man sat. Then pushing a few scrolls aside, she took up a perch on the marble table. It was cold and she was very glad for the thick leather pants she’d worn. She pulled at the cape as it got tangled beneath her legs. Sighing with relief, she ripped the offending article from her and threw it into the corner. ‘Much better. Damned pomp and circumstance. Only fools and popinjays dress in such a fashion.’
She cleared her throat again. She was getting another sore throat. Somehow she just knew all this talking wasn’t good for her. Well, she’d be perfectly happy to just listen to the bard talk on endless about this and that. Truth be told, she believed it was actually possible to be lulled to sleep by a voice like that. The content of the discussion aided in that regard, too, of course.
Xena rubbed the smile from her lips and drank down some wine. Now was not the time to think of Gabrielle. They had two stupid Roman’s being dragged back to the castle at this very moment, both madder than two cats in a sack. While the thought of just letting the two kill each other off was inviting, instant gratification was not something that would be in her best interest at the moment. No, Caesar needed to have his ego slapped and slapped hard. By sending his two men back unharmed it would show her total lack of respect. Her lips twitched again. ‘Mind you,’ she thought evilly, ‘it might be fun to have them put on their barge without a stitch of clothing.’ She eyed the trunks filled with personal articles. ‘Yes, I’d have paid dearly to see the two fools ushered into Caesar’s presence wearing clothing that neither suited nor fit them properly. Caesar would know immediately what had happened.’ She smiled widely, looking very much like she’d just swallowed a very nice canary.
Andros glanced up from his goblet and caught that look upon his Lord’s face. He shuddered. It was a good shudder, one he hadn’t experienced in a while.
“Are you having another scathingly brilliant idea, milord?”
Xena laughed. “Oh, to be sure Andros.”
He waited but no information was forthcoming. He was about to lapse back into silence himself when he felt a warm hand on his arm.
“What is troubling you, friend?”
Andros felt a shuddering breath leave his body. Oh, how he wanted to tell her of his fears! Things had changed so drastically lately. She was more distant with him than ever before and yet treated him with more civility. She was less inclined to sudden rants and thoughtless acts of violence and yet was just as ruthless as ever she was before. He decided that although he had a distinct history with the woman, he didn’t know the Conqueror at all. And that troubled him.
“We were very lucky this evening, sire. In this fading light, well the whole thing could have gone terribly wrong. Why didn’t we just storm in, take over the camp and take our losses as usual? That we met up with you at all in this dense forest was an incredible piece of luck as well.”
He shuddered as he thought of the woman trying to face down a large contingency of Roman soldiers, ten of which were seasoned centurions. He had to admit that the Conqueror was still a force to be reckoned with, regardless of her affiliation with a certain bard. Small cold fingers of jealousy threatened to dig at his innards again but he successfully pushed them away. Watching the woman in action as she sailed through the elite Roman soldiers like a scythe through wheat was truly a vision to behold. In fact, it was their screams for help that alerted he and his men as to the Conqueror’s whereabouts. He’d been so happy to see her out and about the castle that he’d been found totally flatfooted when she had explained that Christo had found more than Dagnine to contend with in his search. Once she’d thought out a plan they’d acted quickly, taking the trophies with them. He smiled darkly knowing exactly where Lord Xena had wanted to go with them with regards to the plan. Mindless provocation was a good way to put an enemy on uneven footing.
He glanced at the woman from under dark lashes. There were benefits to be had now that the air had been cleared between them. When had he actually been able to sit in companionable silence with the woman without fearing she’d find his skills as a fearless cold warrior wanting? He straightened up. And just when had he actually been able to ignore the Conqueror without being brought to task for it? Although always able to speak his mind in her presence, the woman had never felt the need to respond in kind. He waited patiently, wondering if she would lighten her own burden of silence.
Sounds of the camp being struck filled the air and the Lieutenant scratched up a cowlick at the back of his head trying to make out exactly what the two Roman’s were screaming about. How far away from the prison was his room? The cacophony from the two accompanied by images of Xena, tall-dark-and-dangerous, muscles straining and hair flying around as if it had a life of its own were two reasons he knew he’d still be awake at sunrise.
His thoughts were interrupted as the Conqueror offered him more wine that he more than gladly accepted.
Xena cleared her throat and then swallowed the contents of her flagon. “You know, I really detest all the conversation two people are expected to have. Can’t they just sit in each other’s company without one talking the ear off the other?” Andros’ eyebrow rose slowly.
“Small talk, bah!” The man looked more morose than ever. Gritting her teeth, the Conqueror decided to give it a try.
“First of all, I did measure. You saw me, and in fact backed up my calibrations. Secondly,” she pulled another finger down. “Secondly, we didn’t just rush the camp because although I knew some of our men were prisoners, I didn’t know exactly how many or in what shape they were in. If we rushed them the damned Roman’s might well have killed the bunch of them.” She paused as her anger flared. “And thirdly, why am I explaining my actions to you at all? I’ve never had to before.”
‘How in Hades did Gabrielle do this, and so easily? Well, if she could do it…’ She paused and then her anger subsided, leaving her shoulders rounded and her head bowed.
“I’ve changed, haven’t I?”
He nodded but couldn’t find any words.
“Am I so horrible now that I’ve lost the confidence of my men?”
What could he say? Andros knew he was on very thin ice as he chose his words carefully.
“I don’t know what the men think, milord. I know you have many who would follow you to the ends of the earth and back were you to even ask it. But these are troubling times, sire. The men need to see you strong and fearless, and they need to see you imposing your will and acting without question.”
Xena opened her mouth and then shut it slowly. She ran suddenly cold fingers through her mane and then placed her chin in both hands, both elbows on her knees, and just gazed at the floor.
“I have changed, Andros. Why I’m even having this conversation with you, justifying my actions, and not running you through is proof of that! But is this a bad thing? I’m a good leader, Andros, and I’ve always tried to do what was best for my men and my realm. Somewhere along the way I lost that focus. I got caught up in the image I was trying to sell to our warring neighbours and began living it myself. How can this be a good thing?”
“It can’t, sire.” Both dark heads looked up as Polis stood at the entrance to the tent, torch in one hand and bottle in the other.
“I’ve distributed a bit of grog to the men, sire, and most have headed back to the castle. There are a group of us waiting to escort you and we can leave at your command. But first,”
He pushed another bench closer, knocking the contents to the floor, and then sat down with a clunk. “Who’s for grog?”
The other two gazed at him with tolerance, much as two patient siblings would a younger less experienced cousin.
Both held up their goblets.
“Pardon me for saying so, sire, but…if I may speak frankly?” Not bothering to wait for an answer, the man went on. “You showed the men tonight that while you hadn’t a scared bone in your body and would certainly do anything to protect your own interests such actions wouldn’t include putting them at risk if there were other avenues to take. I’d say that was a good thing for them to see.”
Xena was quiet as she assessed the information. She slogged down her grog and held her goblet out to be refilled. Andros grunted but said nothing; it had been a very long time since the Conqueror had loosened the tight fist she held herself in and had just relaxed. Well, as much as she could anyway. He took a larger swallow of his own brew and then burped.
“You’ve shown yourself to be human, sire, and that can’t be a bad thing either.” He placed the empty bottle unsteadily on the table and then rose.
“Well, what say you? Shall we head back to the castle, just three devil-may-care soldiers looking for a night of frivolity and fun?” Andros blanched visibly. Was the man insane?
“You’re right, Polis, I think I’ve changed for the better. The men might miss the monster I used to be but they’ll have to put up with the bitch that I am regardless.” She poked Polis where his stitches were still healing. “As for you, you young pup, I don’t want to hear about anything that might fall off without undo care and attention in the next six weeks do to whatever proclivities you might be engaged in tonight. Take care of it and it’ll take care of you. Words to live by.”
Andros spewed the last of his grog down the front of his tunic.
“I’m not feeling myself tonight, Andros. I suppose it’s something you’ll have to put up with for awhile.”
Andros grinned and tentatively put an arm around the larger woman’s shoulder. “If I might, sire…I think you are acting more like yourself than you have in years.”
Xena chuckled and nodded slowly. Perhaps she’d been taking herself and her role as ‘Conqueror of Corinth’ a bit too seriously? She grabbed the shorter Polis around the shoulders and the three exited the tent.
“Oh, a wenching we will go…” Xena grabbed the man quickly around the throat, effectively squeezing off both the tawdry words to the song and the man’s airflow.
“We’ll have none of that, Polis.” She looked at her first Lieutenant. “He’s had too much to drink. Perhaps I won’t kill him until he’s sobered up.” Andros smirked as the young man’s face went white.
“By the gods you’ve sobered up quickly, Polis. Ready for your punishment?” He nodded slowly and she took her hand away, smiling as he dragged in a lungful of air.
“Don’t you let me see you again, d’you hear?” She watched as his lower lip quivered.
“Not for 24 hours anyway. You were on sick leave, were you not? Well, with Christo out of commission for a while, I suppose you’ll have to see Andros about your wound… tomorrow…after your wenching tonight.”
Xena smirked and tossed her goblet into the camp’s dying fire. “Tell you what, boys. While you try your luck with the castle wenches, as nice as they are, you remember one thing: while you’re hoping to secure a bed partner for the night I’ll be locked in the arms of a woman who loves me, who ever that might be, and is at this very moment waiting up with worry until I return.” She chuckled and then leapt into her saddle.
“Last one home gets to inspect Christo’s stitching in the morning!” And with that, they were off.