Blood Meridian, part 2 --- by Penumbra
Please see part 1 for disclaimers
and copyright notices. Comments, email me at email@example.com
The rock was still shining with the nightís dew, the moisture rising this high from the surrounding forests. She rested her palm against it, almost feeling the water dry beneath her palm as the rising sun bombarded the rock with its rays of heat. Her hand came away slightly wet and she patted it dry on the bright crimson of her cloak.
Rounding the massive boulder with care, the Conqueror brought her horse to a standstill and smiled towards the still dark horizon, before shifting her eyes closer. There.
It was a village turned Roman camp; cocooned between a forest and the high plateau she had crossed was a haphazard collection of huts, the ground near them littered with signs of battle. It had been a small village, unable to provide roofs for a whole legion, so there was an equally haphazard village of tents surrounding the huts. Roman standards glittered gold and red in the early morning, identifying the new owner of the land. The encampment was quiet, the morning chow still a half a candlemark away, and even the perimeter guards, obviously tired from the long march, were leaning on their pikes to stay upright and awake.
They had ridden with the wind under their hooves, choosing the toughest route. Taking just a few hundred men, all on horses, the Conqueror had navigated their way up to the plateau. It had taken them only a shade under two candlemarks to cross the high ground, the stars fading as they rode towards them, signalling the start of a new day. And now they were on the northern edge, with only a steep slope separating them from the Romans.
Xena gestured to Etor, who was riding next to her. The man nudged his horse closer and took off his helmet, smoothing his sweat-sticky hair back.
"Yes, my Lord?" he whispered.
"Whatís the troop status?"
"Lost two horses on the ride; the men turned back. All others are here, spread out as you ordered," he rattled, putting his helmet back on and fighting with the strap hook.
"Excellent," the Conqueror purred, reining her horse tighter. The mare was a bit edgy this morning, her hooves kicking small pebbles up from the rough terrain. They were hidden behind another boulder, the big stones scattered down the slope like a broken pearlstring of divine proportions. "On my mark."
Etor nodded and turned to relay the message to the lieutenants. The solemn men parted to join their respective squads, the quiet clatter of hooves against chalk stone the only sound. The plateau was ethereally quiet; the birds in the nearby forest had not yet woken up, the rush of wind being the only companion to the silent men and women preparing to enter battle.
Humming quietly to calm her horse, Xena brushed her fingers through the coarse mane. The horse whinnied, throwing her head around, calming down only when the Conqueror scratched her behind an ear. Now placated, the mare agreed to go down the slope to the next boulder, this one an elongated shape resembling an egg. Stopping behind the stone, Xena glanced back to see Etorís watchful face. The rest of her troops were still behind the high horizon of the plateau, waiting for her.
"Well, mígirl, time to make war again," the Conqueror whispered to Argo and let go of the reins to rub her tensed neck. With the early start, her sleep had been short, and all that ever managed to do was to make her irritated. Too bad for the Romans, she smiled to herself and smoothed her hands over her leather-clad abdomen, rapping her fingers against the hard ripples of muscle there. The toughened black hide was warm; her fingers trembled with the adrenaline that coursed through her. The air was filled with anticipation but she was in no hurry. Turning towards the rising sun, the Conqueror closed her eyes, feeling the warmth on her face.
It was on her skin, and in her skin. She breathed it, it was her lifeís blood, her soulís food. Born somewhere inside her, in a place she dare not guess about, the dark gossamer of her talent, of her purpose fanned out and took to flight. Black blood filled her veins, filling her so completely she felt her extremities tighten with the pressure. Her skin tingled under the assault and she could see the black tendrils spread on the insides of her eyelids, obscuring the golden haze of the sun.
The words were a private growl, the Conqueror talking to her inner self, coaxing out the fever by appealing to its vanity. And it came, throbbing at her temples, goading her on towards her battle. Her eyes snapped open, revealing the bluest of blues, a colour so brilliant it outshone the sky and the sun.
The sword made a faint scraping noise as it came out of the leather sheath. The grip moulded itself to her palm, the padding landing on familiar calluses, the hefty weight so familiar the sword could have been an extension of her arm since the day she was born. Flipping through her phrase library, she picked a convenient sentence. It didnít much matter what she shouted, her men would hear and follow even if she would yell Glory to Rome! Lifting the shining sword into the air, the Conqueror took a deep breath and squeezed her shins against the mareís sides.
"Kataktiste to chorio!" her yell rang, and was met by the thunder of a thousand hooves and the returning scream of her men.
The Romans woke up to the sound too late. Already, the raging storm of death was on its way, the torrent of men and horses cascading down the slope, a figure clad in crimson shooting down the rapids of flesh at an even greater speed, striving to reach the encampment first. Emergency horns blared and stupefied Romans emerged from their tents and huts in various stages of dress, about to learn the hard way that guessing at the Conquerorís mindset was a futile exercise. Having put scouts only on the riverside route, they had doomed themselves to a gory death.
Laughing to herself at the irony of her battle cry, the Conqueror switched her grip on the reins and twirled the sword in her hand. The dayís battle wouldnít be a conquest; it would be a massacre, from the looks of it. She could feel the ground under her steed tremble with the strength of her army, the rush of wind through the thousand arms and swords behind her singing of her power. Címon, címon, she grinned at the Romans, who were hastily ordering their ranks.
That day, her sword was baptised with the blood of a young, thin soldier, his upper left side separating from the rest of him with barely any resistance. He didnít have time even to scream before he was trampled by the Conquerorís horse. Xena flicked her sword, blood flying from it in a thick crimson arc, the heavy drops a fleeting vision of a sea of rubies in the sunlight before they rained to the ground.
The music of battle sprang to life, the incoherent yells and groans echoing across the small valley. The Conquerorís men engaged the Romans in a wide, thin line, to prevent escape. Xena herself plowed through flesh in the middle of it all, her back guard handled by Etor, while she swung her sword left and right.
A footman aimed his pike at her horseís side but the thrust was parried by a foot before the sharp end could meet the mareís golden coat. The Conqueror kicked the pike angrily aside, causing the man to stumble right into her sword, the sharp steel penetrating his chest all the way to the hilt. Pushing the dying man off her sword with her foot, she twisted in her saddle, meeting the short sword of a Roman on horseback. Sparks flew in the early morningís clear air, the toneless clang of metal against metal ringing loud.
"Oh no you donít," the Conqueror smiled when the man tried a semi-difficult lunge-parry-thrust combination. She anticipated him with a combination of her own, changing sword hand on the fly, her swing carrying inside his defences. Flesh separated from bone and the soldier clutched his chest, the wound exhaling his blood all over his horseís mane. The steed panicked and bucked, sending the wounded man flying to the ground. Unsheathing her other sword as well, Xena stood up in her saddle, pressing her calves tighter against her horseís sides, goading the mare to even greater speeds.
Etor was the first to hear it, but that was only natural since he was closest to the Conqueror. It began as a low chuckle when the dark woman did a double scything arc with her swords, downing three Romans with it. The chuckle evolved into a short burst of laughter when another horseman was cut in half, his innards flowing down his horseís sides. And when the Conqueror met another man on horseback, this one a bit more skilful, she let out a whoop of joy before jumping up in her saddle, her feet finding enough support for her to launch into the air. Etor paused in his fighting momentarily, to watch the slow, graceful flip the dark woman made in the air before catching the mounted man in the chest with her boots. The ugly, muted crunch of ribs being crushed made Etor flinch.
Swinging her swords in perpendicular arcs, she sliced the next man in line to four pieces. The Conqueror jumped over the body parts and a bewildered horse. Her feet hit the ground with force and she bled off her momentum with a short tuck and roll before bouncing back up, running.
A languid smile graced her lips as she ran towards the nearest cluster of Romans, her swords whirring through the air, bathing her with iridescent reflections from the sunís rays. Her blood was no longer whispering to her; instead it was screaming, its voice raw and wild from the excitement and sense of fulfilment. Blood pounded in her ears, throbbing through her arms to reach her fingertips, her lifeís energy guiding the swords. Ringing laughter echoed across the battlefield, her men knowing what it meant. The Conqueror was getting excited.
The world became a vision bathed in blood for her, her hand drawing
out the warm liquid of life from her opponents. The men were unwilling
to give, screaming and fighting her for their souls, trying to protect
what they had conquered and what was their home and family. But it was
of no consequence; she took what she wanted. The narrow streets of the
village were painted in crimson, the straw roofs and carefully laid
out wash sucking up the morbid moisture. A divine executioner swept
through the Romans, and all they could do was to go to their deaths,
screaming, despairing in their impotence and pain.
Gabrielle glanced at the sun for the eight time in a candlemark. Apolloís chariot was nearing its crest, struggling through the steepest slope of the skyís arc, and still there was no sign of the warriors.
Pacing quietly through the camp towards the cookís tent, the bard chewed on her lower lip, the dark clouds in her mind refusing to fade even under the assault of the bright sun. A storm was gathering on her mindís horizon, warring with her common sense. It wasnít as if a small number of Roman advance troops could offer more than token resistance to the Conquerorís forces. But still... all it took was a lucky arrow or one sword too much, and history would be rewritten.
The camp was quiet, the few troops left behind tending to their tasks. Small knots of men having their midday chow, cleaning their weapons or armour, their quiet talk occasionally halted by a burst of ribald laughter: it was a vision so peaceful the contrast to the menís purpose was almost painfully clear. The bard smiled and nodded to the few warriors she knew, the rest shying away even from her gaze, heads bending down in exaggerated concentration. Gabrielle knew the gesture wasnít of impoliteness but instead was because of who she was. In a sense, the bard realised, she had power over the warriorsí lives as well. One unwanted grope, one harassing word towards her, and the man would die with his genitals fed to him. Such was the law.
"Morning, Chloe," Gabrielle greeted the head cook as she stepped into the tent. Chloe, despite her fragile name, was anything but. Too enamoured with her own cooking, she weighed at least thrice as much as Gabrielle herself, with a fierce nature in proportion to her circumference.
"Hello, small one," Chloe smiled. "Smelled the food, did you?"
Nodding, the bard edged closer, her stomach threatening to rumble at the faintly spicy, rich scent of Chloeís stew. "Smells delicious," she said.
"Ah ah," said the cook, waggling her finger. "Flattery wonít get you far."
Gabrielle laughed, patting the cookís pudgy shoulder. "I know."
"The Conquerorís lunch will be ready soon, surely before they get back."
"Excellent," the bard smiled and snatched a sliver of nutbread from the table before ducking outside again. Munching on the rich, heady bread, she sauntered towards the river. But before she got to even the first tent, a new sound rose above the constant rush of the river. It was a distant thunder, a deep rumble coming from the plateau. Gathering force by the moment, the noise rolled over the camp, all men turning towards the high slope that led to the higher ground.
It was a living waterfall, a stream of metal, muscle and sinew that came down the steep slope. Led by the figure in a crimson cloak, the army thundered down from the plateau with mad speed, the men and women stained as if they had swum through a river of blood. Armour and flesh glinted in a distorted shade of coppery brown, so bright it hurt the bardís eyes. Not pausing when they got to the lower ground, the warhorses sped onward towards the camp, partially obscured by the dust lifted by a thousand hooves.
The Conqueror reined her horse in tight, almost standing in the saddle. Argo was tired from the heated battle and hard ride, her mouth frothing. Neighing in protest but slowing down, the massive steed stopped only a few steps away from Scyleia. The sturdy stablemaster took a hold of the reins and kept the ired warhorse still while Xena dismounted.
"Sheís wounded," the Conqueror breathed, her pulse still in triple digits from the adrenaline and endorphins of the battle. Taking a quick look at the shallow, slowly seeping cut in Argoís golden loins, the Amazon nodded and patted the horseís head, her boarís tooth bracelet jingling mutedly.
"Iíll take care of it," Scyleia said and led the jittery horse away.
Xena steadied her breath and raked a hand through her tangled hair. It came away even bloodier, her palms already stained deep crimson. The blood had dried in the harsh midday sun except on her palms where the reins had chafed the flesh to the point of soreness. The ride had been rough. Now, a bath. But before that...
The young man turned and hurried to the Conqueror at the call, bowing. "Prepare a casualty report and treat the Roman prisoners. The usual," Xena snapped. The man nodded, a faint grin of both fear and excitement creeping onto his face before he hastened away to fulfil the command.
Plucking a shard of bone wedged in her breastplate, the Conqueror
took a deep breath. She flicked the bone to the ground, the yellow
sliver shining dully in the bright sunlight, in stark contrast to the
dark brown earth. Such was to be the end of the Romans: the dead
trampled to the ground in small pieces, the living doomed to suffer
the loss of their right eye and thumb, to prevent them from ever
lifting a hand against her. Smiling to herself, the Conqueror turned
towards her tent.
The shouts of war rose in the distance,
Sending women streaming, children in hand,
To escape the blade and men's desires:
Sword clashed, echoing metal on shield,
Voices screaming, then silence.
Setting the gauntlet on the bench and wiping her hands on a piece of linen, Gabrielle figured she was more than halfway through. Picking up the other gauntlet, she sighed. It was encrusted in a thick layer of gore, the delicate bronze swirls of the armour almost indiscernible under the reddish brown coating. The dry, heady scent of blood was strong in the air.
Slowly, the blood gave way under the bardís determined assault. Little by little the dully gleaming bronze came back into view, the familiar twirls and curves taking shape. Scrubbing vigorously with the linen, Gabrielle bit her tongue in concentration.
Although this was not her task, she liked it. Any one of the Conquerorís servants could have been the one to clean her armour after a battle but the bard had taken the job to herself. Despite its aspects of menial labour, it was something she did lovingly, knowing that her lover appreciated her efforts and always remembered to thank her.
Her lover. Setting the cleaned gauntlet next to its mate, Gabrielle bent to pick up the last piece of armour left: the breastplate. Setting it in her lap comfortably, she paused, just tracing the topmost curve with her finger. The dried blood peeled away in a thick, sticky layer and was scattered to the floor. There was a small dent on the lower left side of the cuirass, where the Conqueror had taken a dagger or a small sword. The plate was bent inward, the mute bronze wounded. Only this thin sheet of crafted metal had protected her love from the arms of Hades.
Absentmindedly dabbing away the blood, the bard tried not to dwell on it. But... it was someoneís life that decorated the armour, someoneís soul a down payment for that dull, unappealing colour. Smoothing her hand down the already-cleaned edge of the breastplate, Gabrielle prayed it would never be Xenaís blood that would pay the price. However selfish that is, she added, smiling crookedly to herself, scrubbing the cuirass with small, efficient strokes.
That thought was the epitome of their love, and the opposite. The selfishness that governed over their relationship, both loving what they had and determined not to give the outside world a chance to disrupt it. Gabrielle knew that at least two men had died for her, taking a dagger or poisoned food meant for her. When Xena had rescued her from being raped by a soldier in Arákhova, so long ago -- a century? Two lifetimes? -- she had also, inadvertently, thrust the bard into the limelight of the nation, exposed her to the mortal danger of absolute power. A constantly fluctuating stream of joy and sorrow, her life was more polarised than ever.
Slowly trailing the rag along the inverted fleur-de-lys that protected the Conquerorís solar plexus, Gabrielle sorted her thoughts. Jumbled as they were, she sensed a reason to the chaos. There was a dark cloud obscuring her soul, the storm of fear about to grip her. It was fear for Xena, and of Xena, she realised, knowing not which was the worse. The fear excited her in a morbid sort of way, her storytellerís soul hungry for food. Great stories were born of suffering and trials. Of martyrs.
"All done," Gabrielle whispered but her lover did not appear to have heard: the broad back, now clean of blood and encased in an another set of leathers, remained still, hunched over a map on the big conference table. A small muscle was twitching on Xenaís right shoulderblade and Gabrielle knew that spot by heart: it was the muscle that took the most strain when the Conqueror wielded her sword, now protesting the abuse after a long day.
Setting the breastplate next to the other bits of armour on the bench, the bard rose and paced quietly to the tentís centre pole. The Conqueror still didnít turn, her profile a portrait of concentration as the ice blue eyes darted across the map. Gabrielle could almost hear the diabolically sharp mind behind the eyes hum, forming plans and calculating the next move. Leaning against the thick wooden pole, the bard blinked the tiredness from her own eyes, focusing on the shape of the shoulders she knew so well, the graceful curve Euclid would have appreciated.
There was little she didnít know of her love. She remembered the shape and feel of every muscle, every graceful twining of bone and sinew, every ugly scar. She also knew by heart every variation of that low, vibrant alto her lover sang with, and the cold steel in her voice when she was angry. The chilling, detached tone when she was mad beyond belief, and the throaty timbre when she was sad and tired. In her loveís soul, there was blackness and light, and between them a chasm so deep Gabrielle couldnít begin to fathom what lay at the bottom.
Crossing the small distance, she wrapped her arms around Xena and rested her head between her shoulderblades. She rubbed her cheek against the hard mounds of muscle there, feeling the slide of silky skin against hers. There was a lingering coppery scent that stuck in the back of her throat; it was the ever-present taste of blood and the invisible darkness that seeped from the Conquerorís every pore.
The voice was soft, the quiet, gentle word vibrating against the bardís cheek. "Hey," Gabrielle replied and squeezed tighter. Warm hands came to rest on hers and the Conqueror straightened.
Turning her head, the bard licked the tired muscle. It jumped under the touch, Xenaís long hair falling down to tickle her face. The faint sheen of bath water and clean sweat tingled on Gabrielleís tongue and she could feel the adrenaline and darkness creep into her. She knew she was as much its victim as her lover but she would have suffered a thousand deaths rather than leave her place, leave her love alone at the black bloodís mercy. For she was as sure as the sky was blue that it would swallow Xena, eat her alive until the world was on fire: Tartarus would come on earth.
"How was your day?"
"The usual," Xena hummed, letting her tired eyes close. "An easy victory. The main contingent will pass us tomorrow... Weíre taking the eastern route."
"Ah," Gabrielle breathed and smoothed her palms over the dark brown leather covering the Conquerorís abdomen. This was her oldest set of leathers, from the time she had been but a shadow of her current self -- dark and light in equal measures, instead of the imbalance of the present. "Better weather there?"
The Conqueror chuckled at the small attempt at levity. "Yeah. And the scenery is so much nicer. Mountain vistas."
Gabrielle smiled against the shoulderblade, planting a feathery kiss there. Taking a step back, Xena turned in the bardís arms. Their embrace was gentle, almost tentative in its fragility. Adjusting her hands so that they were loosely wrapped around Xenaís waist, Gabrielle leaned back, catching the blue eyes with her own.
The intensity was almost frightening. The blue shone with the radiant glow of stars, the steel-gray starburst around the pupil as cold as the sunís corona at solar eclipse. The pupils were two dark wells into Xenaís soul, the intensity of her bare soul laid out to be seen and to be afraid of, the power of the womanís will enough to move mountains. And now, it gazed down at her, projecting all the love the Conqueror had, the openness almost enough to bring Gabrielle to her knees. The clarity was almost painful. She had power over the darkness; the power to drive it away, and the power to make the world its subject.
"Every morning, when I wake up," the Conqueror whispered, brushing the bardís cheek with the back of her hand, "I thank the gods for you."
Ducking her head to disguise her tears, Gabrielle caught the hand in hers and kissed the inside of Xenaís wrist. The pulse point there jumped. "I know," was all the bard could answer. Her chin was gently grabbed between a thumb and a forefinger and soft lips landed on hers. Melting into the kiss, the bard let go of the hand and grabbed the lacings of the leather tightly, suddenly and irrationally afraid that the moment would go away if she didnít hold on.
Breaking the kiss, Gabrielle rested her head on Xenaís chest, feeling her own hot breath on her face. Inhaling the sweet scent of patchouli bathing oil lingering on the skin, the bard splayed her hands over the leather covered back and sighed quietly.
"Whatís wrong, love?"
The tone was faintly concerned, the throaty purr of the bad blood a definite undertone. Not daring to look up, Gabrielle kissed the taut skin over a collarbone. "I need to feel you. Please."
"Yes," Gabrielle whispered, bringing her head up. The Conqueror inhaled sharply at the sight of the suddenly transformed misty green eyes that had just moments before been calm. Now there was a storm raging there, a fiery emerald of a sky, furiously searching for an outlet. "All of you." Gabrielleís hands strayed downward, along Xenaís battle skirt and back up, under the wide straps of hide. "I need to be yours."
The word vibrated in the air, pronounced with great care, the dark current underneath screaming through the quiet syllable. Strong hands landed on the bardís shoulders, circling from behind to cup her face. The divine lips, the scorching touch she so longed for, was near, hot breath on her face before two mouths met. Gabrielle poured her desperation and arousal into the kiss, biting Xenaís lower lip so hard she drew blood. The taller woman flinched and tore her mouth away. Dabbing the blood red lips with a finger, the Conqueror tightened her hold on the bardís chin.
"Please..." Gabrielle hissed, her voice smouldering with bound passion. She wrapped her hands around the arm holding her in place, feeling the thick tendons move under her fingers. She was almost standing on tiptoes now as the Conquerorís cool gaze washed over her, the hold on her unrelenting.
"Mine," Xena whispered before claiming the bardís mouth again, tasting the fire and fear, the passion still so innocent. Lowering her other hand to Gabrielleís chest, she could feel the frantic heartbeat, the skin flushed and hot. Suddenly letting go of everything but the hold of her teeth on the bardís tongue, Xena moved her hands downward, lifting the smaller woman with no effort and setting her on the table.
Gabrielle inhaled sharply, the new position making her painfully obvious of the need that lay in her. Grasping the dangling strips of leather on the battle skirt, she pulled the tall woman closer, vainly trying to find something, anything to push her wetness against. But there would be no release for her; the Conquerorís hands found hers and pushed them behind her back, grasping both slender wrists with one hand. The other came to the bardís upper lip, slowly tracing the graceful curve there with one finger, demanding entrance. Gabrielle took the digit into her mouth, sucking on it. The finger curved, battling with her tongue before grabbing a firm hold on her jaw bone and bringing her head up.
"All of me?"
"Yes," the bard sighed before repeating her lip lock on the finger. She had no more than a faint idea what she was giving herself to, but it didnít matter. The uncertainty excited her, the danger palpable in the Conquerorís tone enough to make a liquid fire ignite inside her.
"Come then," Xena hissed and yanked the bard by the jaw again. Gabrielle nearly toppled over as she slid off the table but she managed to follow, the even pull guiding her efficiently next to the Conquerorís chair. Xena let go of her and she slumped to her knees in front of the chair. A quiet groan of leather told her the Conqueror had sat down, and a hand beckoned the bard closer. She scooted forward until her head rested on the dark womanís thigh, her body between the powerful, muscled legs.
"My love," Xena whispered, brushing the strawberry blonde hair to the side to reveal a cheek, the skin satiny smooth. Gabrielle had closed her eyes, murmuring quietly as she absorbed the warmth of the leg, and the power of their connection.
A tug on her halter top brought the bard out of her trance. Alarmed, she lifted her head, just in time to feel the Conquerorís other hand on her shirt as well, the fabric protesting as it tore. Cool air hit her tender breasts and the bard shivered, suddenly very aware of the strength the Conquerorís handsí graceful shape belied. Those same hands, so efficient in cruelty yet divinely gentle at times, landed on her shoulders and guided her head back to the thigh and forward, so that the expanse of her back was revealed to Xena.
The Conqueror touched the creamy skin gently, just brushing the length of Gabrielleís spine, humming contentedly when a trail of goosebumps appeared where her fingers had travelled. The bardís breath caught and she gripped the chairís leg, to keep herself from devouring the dark woman.
"Beautiful," Xena murmured and reached for the table. Pulling an inkpot closer, she fished a map brush from underneath the parchments.
The ink was thick, black liquid, cool as it came in contact with skin. Gabrielle flinched at the sudden spot of coldness on her shoulderblade but relaxed again, as the brush drew the Conquerorís signet, an X inside a circle. Xena blew over the ink to dry it, and soon enough, the figure became a matte black.
"You have my mark," the Conqueror said, her voice thick with arousal, the quivering of the small body under her arms fanning the flame inside her to new heights. Tilting the bardís head, she bent down to place a brief kiss on her forehead. "Show me you are worthy of it." A brief, radiant smile accompanied the words.
Resting her forehead against the Conquerorís leather-clad stomach, the bard smiled as well, inhaling the scent of the leather and arousal on the woman, the proximity intoxicating. The mark was a promise; a hint of what was to come. She would be marked as the Conquerorís one, the only person allowed near her, and the only one who would bear the burden of that right. Moving her head down, she memorised the smells and the sounds, the groan of leather as Xenaís muscles tested its boundaries. The hard mounds of abdominal muscle trembled as she passed the mark of no return and her hands reached the apex of the Conquerorís legs, brushing the leather straps away. What...? The Conqueror wore nothing beneath her leathers. A blonde eyebrow arched and was answered in kind.
Xena gripped the chairís armrests harder as she felt small fingers brush the tight tendons of her legs, her exhalation shaky when the bard blew hot air over her centre before letting her fingers reach their target.
The bard hear the low purr coming from deep within the dark woman, and felt the accompanying tremor of muscles under her fingers. Her thumbs brushed just the edges of Xenaís folds, gathering the moisture there. She couldnít resist tasting the sweet honey, the musky taste making her own body respond with a flood. Humming to herself in the bliss, Gabrielle leaned in, taking the entire length with her tongue before latching onto the small nub of nerves, pulsing with the beat of a frantic heart.
"Oh, gods," the Conqueror exhaled, letting her head loll back against the chairís backrest. To feel that mouth on her, the small hands caressing her legs, was as close to Elysia she imagined she could get. Xena could feel her toes curl in delight in her boots and she laid a hand on the fair head between her legs, gripping the hair as the sensation built inside her.
Smoothing her hands around the Conquerorís powerful thighs, the bard splayed her fingers across the leathered abdomen, feeling the quiver of the muscles. Xenaís nectar was flowing freely, covering her mouth and chin as she sucked on the clit, raking the length of the shaft with her teeth before pressing down on it with the flat of her tongue. From the ragged breathing and the twitching of the hand on her head, Gabrielle knew her lover was getting close. Bringing a hand around, she stroked the Conquerorís slit, marvelling at the silky texture, her own body screaming for more of it. Lifting her head up, the bard caught Xenaís eye.
"Yes..." the Conqueror whispered, her voice thrumming with pent-up passion and impatience. "Yes. Now."
Entering the Conqueror with two fingers, the bard bent down to her task again, feeling Xena pulse around her fingers, tightening on her. A primal growl left the Conquerorís throat as Gabrielle bent her fingers to rub the walls. Gabrielle flinched when sharp nails raked her back, the heated wave making her own wetness increase. The scrapes burned on her back as the Conqueror laid hot hands over them, the fingers moving to the pace set by her tongue.
"Oh sweet Aphrodite," Xena whispered. Her world was that one spot inside her, the point of ultimate heat that was expanding. Her low growl turned into a throaty scream as her lover touched a small bump on her slick inner wall, sending her over the edge.
Gabrielle held on with pure will power, murmuring her delight. Nails dug into her skin and she felt blood trickle down her shoulders and back, the powerful convulsing of the body around her threatening to crush her as well. She rode the waves, drinking all that was given, guiding her lover through the sea of pleasure. When the storm subsided, Gabrielle refused to let go, keeping on her task until the blinding pleasure returned, her lover screaming out her name in the blind fury of her release.
Her whole body tingled. The long furrows in her back were abound with the feeling and she could smell her own blood, added to the heady mixture of the Conquerorís musky scent and her sweat. Licking the thick coating on her lips, Gabrielle smiled, nuzzling the taut skin of a muscular thigh. The muscles jumped under her touch so she just laid her cheek on them, gazing up at her lover who was labouring to get her breathing under control, smiling to the heavens with her eyes closed.
Reaching out blindly, Xena gathered her lover into her arms, moulding the smaller woman into her lap. "Thank you," she whispered, kissing Gabrielleís forehead.
To the bard it was a butterflyís wing against her smooth skin, so gentle it was. Enjoying the silent closeness, she idly played with the lacings of the leather bodice, counting the Conquerorís steady breathing, waiting. When the moments stretched on, impatience took control and she wriggled, her own need still strong, the healing scratches in her back reminding her of the Conquerorís promise, of the mark. Laying her hand on Xenaís chest, she looked up.
"Can I be yours?"
"You are mine, my love," Xena smiled.
"But..." Gabrielle trailed off, unsure of how to voice her want. But the Conqueror knew what the bard meant. Tilting Gabrielleís head up with a finger, she looked straight into the salient green eyes, brimming with love and tentative fear as they were.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," the bard whispered, "please."
Instead of a verbal answer, the Conqueror smiled, a beatific, brilliant smile, silently marvelling the love she had been given. So giving yet so demanding. A quick yank rid the bard of her last vestige of clothing, the skirt, and she was turned in Xenaís lap, landing across the Conquerorís knees. Gabrielle squealed in surprise at the sudden move.
"You are so perfect," the dark woman purred, tracing the beautiful expanse of Gabrielleís back with her hands. The scratches had already closed, their lines not marring the inky black mark on the bardís shoulderblade. Her hands travelled downward, to find the round, smooth shape of Gabrielleís bottom. Dipping briefly even further down, she found a pool of wetness, the evidence of her loverís arousal. The bard flinched at the quick touch, her nerves nearing overload.
The Conqueror reached to her side, bringing nearer the wine goblet and a plate of olives that were on the table, her late dinner. Picking one olive, she kissed it before stroking Gabrielleís sex with it, gathering the thick nectar that flowed there. A barely suppressed groan left the bardís throat and she squirmed. That only earned her a healthy slap on the buttocks, a clear warning that she was not to move.
"Divine," Xena hummed, her eyes drooping nearly shut. The salty taste of the stuffed olives combined with the liquid fire of her lover was simply too delicious. Treating another olive the same way, she fed it to Gabrielle this time. She could feel the bardís erratic breathing under her palm that rested on the small of her back, over the taut muscles. It was time to begin.
Taking out her breast dagger, the Conqueror tested its sharpness with her thumb -- a needless gesture really since she always kept it razor sharp and, true enough, it sliced her skin easily. Satisfied with the blade, she dipped it into the wine before positioning it on top of the ink drawing.
Gabrielle took a shuddering breath and carefully removed her tongue from between her teeth. Her head was swimming with the extra blood and her prolonged arousal and as the blade hovered a bare breath away from her skin, she could feel her skin extend towards its harsh touch, her pores waiting to exhale when the floating would end and she would feel the kiss of steel.
At the quiet word, Xena smiled and made the first cut.
Every drop of the blood was so beautiful, every crimson pearl
telling a tale of the strength to endure, for their love so pure.
The first sensation was the dull, throbbing pain in her back.
The second, as she opened her eyes, was the heavy moisture of the air in the tent. The canopy was still dark red though the day had begun, but just barely. Gabrielle knew without looking that the weather outside was cloudy, the city of tents blanketed by a thick layer of fog. Blinking away the small drops of moisture from her lashes, the bard yawned and closed her eyes again.
The pain was less intense now. Her shoulderblade had felt on fire -- no, that wasn't quite right. Her whole skin had screamed when the blade drew through her skin but her nerves had not heard it. She had floated away in a state of bliss, her pupils dilating so that everything was pure light, the small tongues of the candles brighter than the midday sun. And now the wounds brooded, pulsing to the beat of her heart. Wriggling slightly, the bard nuzzled the shoulder her head was resting on, half-splayed across Xena as she was. The taller woman still slept soundly, motionlessly, as she always did before a day of fighting.
Gabrielle stayed there, her mind walking in a state halfway between sleep and reality. She could hear and feel Xena's steady breathing, the ribcage expanding and contracting powerfully under her weight. The peace wouldn't last long; already, the morning's guard had changed and soon Jacinthe would come to wake the Conqueror. But for now, there was peace. Concentrating on the throbbing of her back and the soreness throughout her body, Gabrielle felt time slow down. Every breath was a lifetime, every moment stretching into the nothingness of the future.
They had spent the night in frenzied loving -- desperate, raw, wild. She had loved with abandon and so had Xena: the pain in her back as well as the rest of her was the living proof of that. The chill of dissipated afterglow still lingering between her legs, the tingling of the numerous scratches and bruises such love always gave her, all ressured and reminded her of the physical presence of her occasionally so sybaritic lover.
But even infinity has its limits. A guard's yell from outside roused Gabrielle from her trance and she opened her eyes to find Xena gazing at her. Both the gentle love and the blood of the beast were there, warring in the keen blue of the eyes. The Conqueror always woke up in a blink, alert the moment her consciousness returned from Morpheus' grasp. A dark eyebrow rose, reflecting the mild humour in the eyes.
"Morning," the Conqueror whispered. "How is your back?"
"As expected," Xena smiled. It was a very private smile, reflecting the side of her persona only Gabrielle got to see: warm and gentle. "Turn around."
The scarification had closed itself well, encapsulating the black ink under the skin. There would be many days of healing but it was going to be beautiful. Xena traced the edge of the circle with her finger, hearing the bard's breathing catch at this gentle stimulation of the sensitive tissue. The mark would last forever; a seal of trust Gabrielle would always carry on her back. Getting out a fresh bandage, Xena wrapped it loosely to cover the scab, ending the touch with a light kiss on the bard's shoulder. The skin tasted faintly of sweat and blood and the muskiness of sleep.
Half-turning in her sitting position on the bed, the bard wrapped the sheets more tightly around her, smiling. She caught Xena's hand and kissed the palm, the scent of her blood still there.
The front flap of the tent parted, admitting the slight figure of Jacinthe and a blast of cool, moist air. The girl was carrying the breakfast tray: bread and olive oil for dipping, and fruits.
"Good morning, Mistress," Jacinthe said and, after setting the tray on the table, started lighting the candles in the shadowy tent. Xena gave Gabrielle one last smile before grabbing a silken robe and rising. The fabric swished quietly against her skin as she walked towards the table, nodding briefly to dismiss the girl. Jacinthe turned and left; before the flap could fall closed, Saba entered.
"Lovely day, my Lord," the First grinned and shook the moisture from her short dark hair. She was already in armour, her helmet jammed under her arm, for she was to ride with the Conqueror today. Her skin tingled with anticipation; rumour had it that upon hearing the Conqueror was nearing their position, the Romans had split up their troops and were prepared to make a stand.
Xena selected a peach from the fruit bowl and fished a dagger from under the parchments on the table. It was her breast dagger, still bearing the dull copper brown stains of blood. Licking it clean, she nodded to the First before slicing into the fruit.
"The main contingent marched through the night and have now passed us. The weather is clearing up in the east; the Romans will have the rain that plagued us through the night," Saba grinned.
"Good," Xena smiled back and sucked a finger clean of peach juice. "Have the advance scouting parties left?"
"Half a candlemark ago."
"I'll be ready in a candlemark. Inform the captains of the day's march and tell Scyleia that I'll be riding Pyrgomache today," Xena said and turned away, dismissing the First. Saba bowed and left the tent, her raw, powerful voice shouting out orders the moment the tent flap closed behind her.
"Breakfast?" Xena asked, aiming an inquiring smile towards Gabrielle who was still in bed, wrapped in virginal white sheets. The bard lifted an eyebrow in return and crooked a finger.
Settling the tray carefully on the bed, the Conqueror handed Gabrielle her robe. This one was in a fragile shade of sky blue, the colour contrasting nicely with her fair hair. Climbing back into bed, Xena sat cross-legged on the mattress and sliced off another sliver of the peach, offering it to the bard. White teeth took the fruit neatly from between her thumb and the blade.
Their breakfast was a quiet affair, both women wrapped in their own thoughts. But the closeness was always there, in the small gestures and casual touches. The flicker of candle flames counted the pass of time as the bard ate and the Conqueror nibbled. Xena preferred a light breakfast before a day of riding: lean is mean, as the ever-motherly Mentu had a habit of saying.
After the last of the fresh bread had disappeared, Gabrielle set the tray on the floor and wriggled lower in the bed, resting her head on Xena's thigh. Again, for the duration of the day, she would be separated from her lover; she was to go with the wagons, for that was the safest place, while the Conqueror rode in the front. As if reading her mind, the dark woman shifted a hand and let it rest on her shoulder, its warmth seeping through the thin fabric of her robe, the privacy a warm, solid bond between them.
"Will you help me with my armour or shall I call Jacinthe?"
Gabrielle craned her neck to look at Xena. "I'll help," she smiled, shifting to a sitting position.
The dark burgundy silk of the robe was soon replaced by solid black leather. The Conqueror held the bodice up and turned to let Gabrielle tighten the thick straps in the back. The bard tugged at the heavy hide, wrapping her fingers around the thongs and yanking them taut. Her fingers started to ache and heat up as she yanked at the crisscross pattern of leather cords, to make the tension even around the body. The breastplate was fastened with quiet efficiency and the Conqueror started on her shin guards as the bard fetched the gauntlets. Their laces were threaded and tightened and, after fastening the swords to her sides, the Conqueror bounced up and down, settling the armour in place.
"All done," the Conqueror said, grabbing the neatly folded crimson bundle that was her cloak and putting it under her arm. Gabrielle stepped closer, gently brushing her fingers along the bronze swirls on the side of Xena's breastplate. Arms wrapped around her and she was pulled into a warm, albeit hard and metallic, embrace.
"Love you," the bard said against the leather and bronze, smoothing her hands down leathered sides.
"Be careful," Xena whispered before breaking the contact. Switching the cloak to the other arm, she blew a kiss before stepping outside into the fog, to be greeted by Aeolus, her standard bearer. The crimson of her standard was wrapped around his pike; his small horse jittered next to Pyrgomache, made nervous by the massive black mare.
"Morning, my liege," the man bowed. "Excellent weather."
Sweeping her eyes over the fog-covered, grey landscape, the Conqueror grunted in reply to his ironic remark. The moisture was more than irritating. Mounting Pyrgomache, Xena breathed in deep the scent of the cool forest and the cold mountain air. Shaking open her cloak, she wrapped it around her shoulders to ward off the worst of the chill.
"Raise the standard."
The thick crimson bunting on his pike snapped open and caught the
feeble wind, swaying sluggishly as they nudged their horses to a
languid gallop towards the gathering troops.
"Twice-cursed Tyche! Fight, you idiots!"
Reining in her horse, the Conqueror unsheathed her sword, the echo of her enraged yell ringing across the troops. Pyrgomache neighed in protest at the yanking and reared, but didn't manage to throw her rider. Shifting her weight, Xena brought the irascible warhorse around, feeling the fluid shift of muscles between her legs. The mare was capricious at best and didn't like rough handling, but in situations like this, speed was of the essence. Romans were pouring down into the riverbed they were travelling, squeezing her troops from both sides.
It wasn't a trap or poor planning; sometimes things just take a different direction than one wants them to. Anticipating the Romans' tactics, the Conqueror had moved her troops to circle around the Roman front and strike in the middle. But by some divine influence the Romans had anticipated her as well and moved to the other direction, managing purely by luck to avoid the front lines of her army, and by mere leagues at that. They had circled around each other, the spiral tightening like an invisible noose, until there followed the inevitable clashing of the two armies.
Waving for her guards and Aeolus to follow her, she turned her horse towards the shallow canyon's side, the hoplite rows parting before her. Already, she could hear the noise of battle as the Romans engaged her men. On horseback, the enemy would reap sure destruction among her hoplites. Not if I have any say in the matter, she thought angrily and snapped her teeth in frustration.
The slope of the riverbed was relatively gentle and Pyrgomache jumped to the higher ground easily enough, her inky black mane whipping the Conqueror's hands as she shook her head to relieve the tension in her mouth. The thunder of hooves on the hard ground was loud enough to carry to Mount Olympus, the Conqueror's black apparition of a horse leading them towards the exposed side of the too enthusiastic Romans. They had heard what had happened to the southern outpost and were more than eager to mete out some vengeance.
"Na mnv meivei kaveis orthios!" Xena's battle cry rang and
her men met it, a forest of swords rising to meet the Romans. No man
was to be left standing.
Campfires dot the horizon,
Each one a Roman eagle;
The flames spread across the grassland,
Devouring everything in their path.
Murdering sleep: all is havoc,
The Conqueror stirs.
It was a sea of torches, a river of fire as wide and unnavigable as the Styx. In the twilight, the valley shone with the light of innumberable fires, the bustling anthill of a Roman camp filling the kettle of the valley from one end to the other, divided by a small stream.
"Sitting ducks," Saba grunted, absentmindedly tapping her cheek with a twig.
"That's the prisoner encampment," the lithe scout at her side said, pointing discreetly to a point close to the eastern slope of the valley. There was a small area resembling an animal pen, filled with people, some in the unmistakable garb of Greek hoplites. A circle of soldiers surrounded them, bows drawn. "Both Dacians and our troops are there."
"I've seen enough. Let's go back," the First said and tapped the scout's shoulder, instructing her to lead on.
The contingent was nestled on the other side of the ridge, spread out along the craggy slope. When Saba and the scout met the troops, the First headed straight for the cluster of horses and men in the middle of it all. The Conqueror's crest shone bright red even in the waning light while Xena herself, still on Pyrgomache, was reading a scroll.
"My lord," the First murmured and bowed, skilfully avoiding the horse's snapping teeth. Saba couldn't fathom how the Conqueror managed to keep the mare under her control, so unpredictable and angry was the horse. But the dark woman calmly compensated for her steed's nervous jittering, guiding Pyrgomache with a sure hand. Finishing with the scroll, Xena let it re-curl and nodded to Saba, leaning on her saddlehorn.
"Quarter of a candlemark to the spot. Like fish in a barrel," the First said. The close, carefree clustering of the Romans showed they had not yet learned of the demise of the southern guard that had attacked them earlier that day. Convinced of their might and safety, they had picked a peaceful valley to camp in.
"The main contingent is in place," Xena said, twirling the scroll in her hand. Her dark, powerful alto carried over the officers gathered around her, every ear turned her way. "The plan stays. At the sound of the horns."
All the officers saluted, Tyra ambling her horse closer to exchange
a few words with the Conqueror. The men began pouring up the slope,
slowly, for it was almost dark. The darkness was their friend, though:
the Romans would never know what hit them. Only the muted clang of
armour plates and the scuffle of thousands of feet and hooves broke
the silence; quietly, the constricting hand of the Conqueror tightened
around the soldiers of Rome.
Hyperion's spawn drew its silvery arc across the starbound sky, its pockmarked face full and serene, as if the spectacle below it were of no consequence. Higher still it rose, escaping the world, the shadow of Hecate not marring its round face on that night of blood. The dance of death was afoot; the play of pain was unfurling into a macabre ballet depicting the entire spectrum of human rage and suffering.
Her eyes were blind, her ears bearing only their own din. She looked with the eyes of her black soul, seeing each man as meat, as an obstacle between her and the next piece of flesh to be slaughtered. The Conqueror was red rage, the dark spectre of death following her, clinging to her tall, powerful frame like a living cloak. Guiding her hand, the darkness made her moves smooth, silent, perfect. She was beauty incarnate, grace worthy of the temple of death she so adamantly created around her.
The scent of mountain flowers was dulled by that of death and gore, the pungent, acrid smell of fear resting like a thick blanket over the men and women of both armies. Surviving mattered, nothing else. Greater glory vanished under the music of war, desperation over pride. Having long since dismounted, the Conqueror navigated slowly through the battlefield and through the men there, her way paved with the crimson as brilliant as that of her cape.
It had flowed for candlemarks, the ebb and tide of battle. From the twilight when the brass horns had sounded their horrid wail across the valley and the Conqueror's troops had poured from three sides into the kettle of the valley, the rich soil of the area had opened up and Tartarus had come to earth.
She was numb; the present was her life. Remembering not the frightened, pale faces that twisted into masks of pain under her sword, she reaped her harvest with lazy, scytching sweeps. Few had talent to last more than a moment against her and those who did succumbed eventually, screaming the name of their gods as their souls flew away, as did Xena's memory of them. In her private gallery of horrors, the new faces were lost to the masses, appearing only as nameless sets of a nose, mouth and two eyes in the darkest hours of the night. Only then would they see the Conqueror crying, scorching tears a thick, lucid membrane over the most brilliant of blue eyes. But now... Flesh separated from bone, and the slaughter screamed on.
The throng was at its thickest and the Conqueror went through the middle. Her face was twisted into a mask of rage and cold detachment, the eyes grey as two flintstones. Only her white teeth were visible through the mass of blood and gore that had splashed upon her, little of it her own. She didn't notice when a lucky Roman scraped her upper arm with his sword, nor did she see Saba disembowel the man efficiently. His desperate scream rose momentarily over the battlefield's concert of staccato clashes of metal and the languid thunder of human voices. Soon, however, the scream died away, to be replaced by another. Roman was no different from Greek; all became equal when they looked Death in the eye. None dared to laugh at His face, save for the dark spectre that had been the impetus for the carnage in the first place.
"The eastern front is in trouble!" the First yelled through the noise and parried the sword of an enraged Roman who couldn't understand why he was unable to beat this small, fragile-looking woman who was armed only with two slim daggers. Little did he know, but he learned soon enough; Saba did a fine thrust - lunge - parry combination that ended in a stab through his groin.
Xena followed her First's other, outstretched hand and sure enough, on the eastern slope the Roman standards were pushing her troops uphill. She yelled in anger and launched into a flip over a cluster of Romans. Three heads fell as she swept them off their respective shoulders while she was airborne. Landing with force, the Conqueror ran the last few steps to Tyra, who was leading her honour guard.
"Send fifty horsemen to the east with Etor; you circle round the back and squeeze that bulge down!" Xena bellowed, and hacked down a Roman before gesturing towards the problematic slope with one of her swords, its long blade eerily dark and gleaming in the moonlight. The older woman on her trusted roan nodded and her eyes narrowed as she assessed the situation. A few sharp commands to her captains and the Conqueror's command was being executed.
Pausing momentarily to catch her breath, Xena sweeped her eyes over the battles nearest to her. The troops had long ago split into small clusters of chaos. One couldn't always tell who was Greek, who was Roman -- one just trusted luck and fought to survive. It was warfare at its worst; the battle would be won by the side who would hack, slash and murder the other into extinction. Flicking the blood off her swords, the Conqueror stepped back into the deadly chaos.
With Saba working her back quarter, Xena dove into her art again. Her muscles were tiring, her grip on the swords slippery. Shifting her fingers, the slickness beneath her palms lessened some, but she still felt the impending stiffening of her leathers. The wet edges of her cloak slapped against her legs as she sidestepped a soldier gone berserk. Swinging one sword into the burly man's path, she sliced his leg off at the knee and ended his misery with a quick thrust that severed his neck from the rest of him.
"How is the eastern brigade?" she shouted back towards Saba before engaging a pair of swordsmen, metal meeting metal with an eardrum-shattering clang.
"Not good," came the answer, almost clinical in tone. A gurgling scream announced that the First had sent yet another soul to Hades. "Left side's still weak. And..." The sentence trailed off.
"And what?" Xena asked after a while, when a lull in the battle offered a moment's respite.
Wiping her sweating forehead with her arm, she turned towards the east, just in time to see another, fresh cluster of troops pour down the slope, sandwiching her troops between them and the Romans.
That was all she could mutter before another faceless soul engaged her. Disposing of him quickly, she gestured for Saba to follow close behind her. Kicking the new corpse onto a small pile of already stiffening bodies where the Romans had collected their early casualties, she did a neat flip over the corpses and landed in a crouch. Saba joined her moments later.
"Who are the new troops?" the Conqueror hissed, pointing with one dripping sword through the impregnable mound of dead men that effectively hid them from the battle. The First's chest heaved strongly and she thrust both daggers into the blood-soaked earth before wiping her hands clean on her short cloak, all the while shaking her head.
"I have no idea," Saba finally managed. Her thigh muscles were trembling from strain, her ears ringing from the fight. Envious of the Conqueror's effortless crouching posture and easy breathing, she put her hand over her stomach where a horseman's pike had grazed her. A new scar to add to the collection, she thought wryly before focusing on the problem of the enigmatic new army, as small as it was. "As such, they could wipe out the east side."
"Where could have they come from?" Xena hummed, a thoughtful look in her eyes.
"Well, they couldn't have come from the west so they're not the Roman reinforcement. The terrain is bad in the east so they must've circled via the southern river valley through our supply..."
Again the First trailed off and even through the blotchy red mask of blood on her face, a casual onlooker would've seen the sudden pallor on her dark skin. Her eyes shot up from the black ground, just in time to see the truth flicker into the Conqueror's hard gaze. Xena's grip on her swords tightened into a deadly vice as her heart lurched.
"Oh no. Gabrielle..." the Conqueror breathed.
Part 3 -(End)
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