Legal disclaimer: Donít own 'em, wish I did. Storyís mine though and I promise to return them to their places after Iíve played with them. Well, maybe not Xena... I think Iíll keep her.
Explicit content and sex warning: This alt story features consensual sex between two adult women, the works with all anatomical details. If this kind of love bothers you, please go read some nice, general fiction. If itís illegal where you live, move. Bondage, domination, sadism, masochism and all their pals featured as well, in the name of love.
Extreme violence warning: This is Xena. The old Xena. Need I say more? Where the dark lady kicks butt, thereís blood and bodyparts so in this story, extreme violence and its aftermaths are depicted in a realistic, graphical way. Torture, yes. Sexual violence, no.
Spelling warning: Proper English. Place names are spelled in the official translitteration from Greek so Amphipolis is Amfípolis and so on.
Notes: According to this storyís view on Xenaverse, Xena never met Hercules and hence, is on her old ways. Though she isnít a despot quite yet but getting there rapidly, Lunacyís definitions say this is a Xena the Conqueror tale.
Xena quotes Macchiavelliís The Prince. Or is it the other way around, since Niccolo lived about two millenia after Xena...
The making of this story was greatly aided by Milk Duds, Pepsi Max
and the music of Rammstein, KMFDM, Numb and Garbage. I wish to thank
Michal Salat, Alphanumericx and my other beta readers and of
course Mr P for putting up with me and my stories.
P e n a n c e
© Penumbra 1998 - 1999
She averted her head to shield her eyes from the downpour. It rained on her in large droplets, making splashing sounds near her ear and small pings as it hit her breast armour. She cringed inwardly. Getting the stuff out of the intricate curves and twists of her bronze cuirass was a major pain but fortunately she had someone to do that for her.
Wiping most of the moisture off of her right cheek and eye, she turned her head back, just in time to see and hear the manís last scream and twitch. The noise he made was a sickening, wet sound, coming as much from his vocal cords as from the blood that rushed past them. With clinical interest, she watched as his hands still made minute moves over where his stomach used to be, even though he was most certainly dead. Odd phenomenon, those twitches, she thought ildly. She flicked her sword to rid it of excess blood, a gesture that was more a reflex than anything else for the length of the blade was already encrusted in a thick coating of rust-coloured dried blood, from tip to hilt. Have to ask Mentu about that. Probably just muscle spasms or something.
The sword slithered back into its sheath with a faint scraping sound, barely discernable over the screams and moans the wind carried across the battlefield to her. She straightened, working out a small kink in her back, and let her gaze rake over the wide grassy plain gently rolling between two forests. Salamandron had been short-sighted enough to choose this field as the site of battle, condemning even more of his men to painful deaths. He was stupid, he did not see the one plain truth most of Greece already knew: she was invincible.
She was standing on a slight rise in the field and the added height provided her a perfect view over the clearing, the grass now trampled to dark mush where it was not covered by flesh that was either dead or dying. She herself stood in a pool of blood, ankle high. It rippled in the gentle breeze, lapping against her boots and at the piles of men that surrounded her, the bodies keeping the crimson liquid at bay, not allowing it to cascade down the wet grass. It would take a few years before grass on this field would be green again, so long it would feed on the red moisture.
The smell was strong enough to make her nostrils twitch. They widened and drank in the scent of death, gore and pain in all its glory. The scent was thick here and she revelled in it for she had brought it about. Throwing her head back, she felt the wind tug at her wet black tresses and cool her heated skin. The sky was eggshell blue and only faint wisps of clouds were visible. Oh, the day was perfect.
Her laughter was heard downwind of her position, which was right in the middle of the busiest spot of the dayís battle. Her men paused in their work of ransacking the fallen enemy and helping their own and turned towards the sound. It was odd, to hear such vocal enunciation of joy on a battlefield but the men knew that their commander was a bit... eccentric in these matters. They watched the raven-haired woman spread her arms wide and let out another laughing whoop of joy at the sky, her smile bright white in the sunlight.
The men knew she wasnít laughing in relief at having won a battle. No, she was laughing because she liked what she saw around her, her masterpiece in the art of war, painted in crimson and gore. A collective shiver ran through the troops as they watched their high commander and counted their blessings. It was good to belong to the Conquerorís army, she was a fair leader and a brilliant tactician (and the object of most of the troopsí wet dreams) but there was something so dark about her, an aura of danger that made the most courageous of men shiver when the electric blue eyes found their mark on them.
She still smiled, even white teeth and prominent canines clearly visible. This time, the smile was not directed at the sky but at a bound man, resting atop a pile of bodies. It was not one of her pleasant smiles and the manís grey eyes darted from the dead man he was resting on to the evil grin and back. The man under him was Darphean, one of his lieutenants, and he couldnít take his eyes off the grimace of pain that was frozen on the poor manís face.
"Now, Iliados, we need to talk," she said in a deep, smoky voice and, grabbing the whimpering man, she threw him over one shoulder and kicked one lifeless corpse out of her way. The slain soldierís throat was cut so deep his head was connected to the rest of him only by a small thread of skin. A fresh gush of blood sprouted from the gaping wound, staining the Conquerorís thigh some more. She didnít seem to even notice as she stepped around the man and over another. Coming thus clear of the circle of corpses she stopped, and with the help of two fingers in her mouth, produced a shrill whistle.
On cue, a huge golden warhorse came galloping towards them. Grinding to a halt next to them, the horse whinnied and her ears flicked back and forth. She was obviously a bit distressed so the tall woman stepped closer and let the mare nuzzle her hand. Gently, the horse did so, her sensitive nostrils fluttering at the heady scent of blood on her Mistressí hand.
"I know I smell funny, girl. Sorry about that."
She slung the hapless bound man across the mareís loins and stooped a bit to check on a bleeding cut just below the saddle. She ran her finger along the edge of the wound and the horse whickered, sidestepping a bit.
"You got a cut?" She clucked her tongue angrily, wishing whoever had injured her horse to be dead now - preferrably with lots of pain, and by her own hand.
Iliadosí head was swimming. His brain hadnít yet adjusted to his current predicament let alone the private show heíd gotten on the field. The dark warrior had captured him early on, bound him and settled him atop a corpse. From there, he had a perfect view of her and the magic of death she wove with her sword. After a while he had grown numb of the killing and he had closed his eyes, only hearing the screams of pain and the ringing laugh the woman had let out whenever the situation was getting thick. He would remember that laugh for the rest of his life, however short that should prove to be. He didnít entertain any illusions about his fate; his lifespan was measured in hours now.
And now, this killing machine from Tartarus was concerned about a
nick on her horse. A horse! Iliados couldnít believe it. She threw a
cape over her blood-soaked form and he felt a painful jolt on his
dislocated shoulder as she mounted the horse with one fluid move. She
clucked her tongue and they shot off towards the main camp.
Xena was bored. And when it came to Xena, bored equalled dangerous. Apparently Salamandron wasnít in on this small fact, the guard in a corner of the tent smirked. The Conqueror was sitting in her usual chair, her head resting against the high back. The vivid blue eyes were almost hidden by drooping lids as she watched the agitated man across the table along the length of her nose. The guard spared an admiring glance at her striking features as he had so often done and idly pondered what cruel entertainment the bored ruler would come up with to cheer her. The Conqueror could be so... inventive.
"B-but... you must leave us something, you canít just ta-"
He was cut short by a slap across his face. Faster than the eye could see, Xena had reached across the table and smacked him with the back of her hand. It was a casual slap but nevertheless, it made his teeth rattle in his mouth.
"I didnít request an opinion. I requested surrender," she smiled. The smile didnít quite reach the blue eyes. This man was a cowering idiot and she had had her fill of such men years ago. They didnít believe in her strength until she had beaten them in battle and they didnít obey her before she demonstrated her power to them, personally. Her knuckles itched to take her boredom out on him but what she needed to do was to teach the man a lesson.
"Bring the prisoner," she snapped at a guard who complied hastily, almost running out of the command tent. When she was in this mood, dawdling wasnít recommended.
The guard returned shortly, carrying a chair with another man. In the chair sat Salamandronís general, his limbs bound to the legs and armrests of the chair. Iliados was a bit wild-eyed but he seemed otherwise okay. The chair was set down at the end of the long table and Xena waved a hand, dismissing the extra guard. He bowed crisply and exited and Salamandron looked after him, envious of her excellent troops. His head snapped around as he heard the Conqueror adressing him. Even the voice was making him antsy; its deep, rich timbre echoed in his gut as unpleasant vibrations.
"Care for something to drink, Salamandron?"
He was caught off-guard by the casual question and now that she mentioned it, his throat was parchment dry. He nodded silently and Xena snapped her fingers and pointed at a golden flagon. The slave on duty that night raised an eyebrow at the odd request but she knew better than to question the dark womanís orders. She hurried the empty vessel to her.
A dagger materialised into her hand as if from thin air. The bored look never vanishing from her eyes, she drew the blade across Iliadosí throat on one side. As Salamandron watched, frozen in his seat, the Conqueror grabbed the manís hair with one hand and, thrusting the dagger into the table, put the flagon under the stream of blood that ran from his generalís jugular. The man made a moist coughing sound and struggled but the binds and the iron grasp on his hair wouldnít budge. His eyes rolled back after a while and the powerful gush of blood turned into a steady trickle.
Xena let go of the dead manís hair and extended her hand. A golden goblet was placed there and she nodded for the servant girl to give the shaking man one as well. Drilling her eyes into Salamandron, she poured the still steaming hot blood into her goblet, the red liquid sloshing in the intricately etched cup. The icy gaze didnít waver a bit when she brought the goblet to her lips and drank deeply.
Her lips were stained deep crimson, making the contrast even starker when she smiled a white, slightly blood-streaked smile.
"Excellent vintage. Care for some?"
The meeting progressed quickly from there on.
"So, the exact tally is...?"
"Eighteen killed, compared to over a hundredof theirs. Sixty-three wounded, of which nine are dying. We have as prisoners eighty-four men, fifteen women. Of the latter, thirteen are non-combatants..."
The list of her bounty went on but she listened to the number of horses, sacks of grain and weapons with only half an ear. The battle had been a minor one, Salamandronís troops had required only a fraction of her army to be brought down. Of course, she had ridden in front for it was her place and nowadays she took advantage of every possibility to fight. It eased her boredom, for pickings were growing rare. She had already conquered most of Greece, uniting the numerous city-nations under one banner. It was glorious, yes, but it also brought on the unwanted things about ruling: bureucracy and boredom. And she knew that boredom was dangerous for her.
Adjusting her position in the chair, she let her gaze travel over her first-in-command, still reading out the detailed list of her new riches. Talas was his name and he was a fine piece of human flesh, that much was true. Tall, muscular and with flowing dark brown hair and deep brown eyes, he was handsome in a traditional sort of way and yes, women did swoon over him.
His speech faltered when he felt the hot gaze rake over his body, a shameless look of carnal origins. He prayed that he wouldnít get too excited right now. The Conqueror had once ripped off the offending member of one of her guards who had had the bad manners to have an erection in front of her. The thought of this happening was enough to curb his excitement and he continued his litany, now praying that his commander would stop teasing him and take him to her bed. He had dreamed about it long enough, ever since she had started to torment him with the lascivious looks. More often than not he fantasized about making love to this magnificient primal woman, sitting so close to him. But he wouldnít have survived all these years with the Conqueror if he were a fool so he kept his fantasies to himself. Acting out on them wouldíve resulted in a sure death, and a painful one. Xena excelled in those.
His monologue went on and on and idly, the raven-haired woman pondered whether to let the poor man out of his misery and take him tonight. Her battle fever was still high, heated blood coursing in her veins and as always, it made her more than a bit prurient. But she wasnít feeling like a man right now. Her hunger for conquest hadnít been satisfied by the day so she needed something more. And Talas wouldnít really be a conquest, she knew from his reddened cheeks and faltering voice that she need only to crook a finger and the man would kneel at her feet. No. Something different...
"Of the women --" she interrupted. "-- anyone particularely... interesting?"
Talas deflated mildly, his pipe dreams evaporating once again. His commander wanted another conquest and it was his duty to obey her whims. So be it.
"Thereís one... just your type, my liege," he smiled faintly.
She sipped at her wine, trying to make the taste of blood disappear from her mouth but it clung firmly at the back of her throat. She had seen the minute slump of the manís shoulders and smiled a small private smile at that. She loved yanking her Firstís strings, if only to test his loyalty. She need not; she knew that Talas was ready to defend her with his life, so attached to her he was. But it was fun, to watch the man squirm.
"And what exactly, Talas, is my type?"
He gulped and cursed silently at his slip. Never assume, he screamed to himself.
"Uhh... her nameís Trina and sheís... quite lovely." He had picked out this girl early on, just for this purpose, noticing the proud bearing and flashing blue eyes. He knew his commander liked them feisty.
Xena held his gaze for a while, letting the silence drag on. She watched Talasí adamís apple bob up and down as she calmly sipped at the wine. Letting the man roast in the silence for a while more, she smiled and stood up.
"Good. Bring her here," she husked and set the goblet down. Grabbing the front of Talasí tunic, she yanked him near her and placed a scorching kiss on his surprised lips. The feel of the Conquerorís velvety lips on his, the scent of the woman of his dreams so close, he felt like his head was swimming. Xena got closer, her breasts that were covered only by a thin layer of silk pressing against his chest. He moaned in reaction when she let go of him.
"Be quick about it," she smiled. It took Talas a few moments to
register his surroundings as the red haze of passion dissipated. He
regained his wits and instictively brought his hand to his swollen
lips. Gods. He knew what his dream that night would be about. Bowing a
bit shakily, he exited quickly. Maybe heíd use the services of one of
the regulars, women who followed wherever the camp went... yeah. Even
though he knew that his itch couldnít be succesfully scratched by any
other than the dark beauty that resided in the command tent.
The girl was obviously a peasant but there was bright intelligence behind the dark blue eyes that were gazing at her brazenly and with unadulterated hate. Xena purred in satisfaction. She liked the spirit in this one; she was too young to fear her but too old to be too innocent. Perfect. She reminded herself to thank Talas on an excellent choice.
Trina glanced at the woman lounging comfortably in a high-backed chair, her eyes unable to cover her puzzlement. Here she was, a prisoner of war, sitting in the tent of the ruler of most of the known world and this... woman was asking her if she wanted wine. She shook her head in a jerking motion, meeting the shimmering bright blue eyes with some difficulty.
The woman was beautiful, she had to admit as much. None of the stories about the Conqueror, Destroyer of Nations, Butcher of Kírra, the Warrior Princess, none of them mentioned the primal beauty of the woman, the magnetic personality Trina felt in the intense gaze. Sure, tales talked about her feats, the blood and carnage, the victories. Trina had heard the stories all throughout her life for the Conquerer had begun her victorious journey many solar cycles ago, when Trina was still a child. And here the Xena of legends sat, clad in a shimmering silk robe of rich burgundy colour, the red that was also the colour of the wine in the golden goblet and of the dark womanís lips. And she had asked if she wanted some wine.
Xena noticed that the young womanís gaze was focused on her lips and she made a small smile and then pursed her mouth. The dark blue eyes jerked away, to focus on the table.
Silence settled in the tent again for they were alone. For Trina, it was uncomfortable for she still didnít know what was the purpose of her visit here. For Xena, silence was the natural state of existence.
Finally Trina reached the end of her patience. "What do you want of me?"
A-ha. Xena smiled like a cat at a cream bowl. She could just as easily take what she wanted but she relished conquest. She didnít have to force herself on anyone. Everyone, sooner or later, surrendered to her willingly, after some persuasion but of their own free will. Her charisma was irresistible.
Standing up with one fluid move, she startled Trina. As the Conqueror paced around the table to stand behind her, she caught a glimpse of smooth, long muscular legs as the robe parted slightly when she walked. The womanís gait was catlike in its negligent grace, quiet like that of a predator circling its prey.
Trina felt the presence behind her but she didnít dare to breathe, let alone turn towards the Destroyer. Silk made a soft whispering sound as it fanned around the woman when she crouched behind the low stool the girl was sitting on.
She was so close Trina could feel the heat emanating from the woman. The warmth brought with it the scent of the woman. It was primal and musky, a mix of leather and spices and something far more passionate and dangerous. Trina felt lightheaded.
The voice came close to her ear, warm breath caressing the delicate curves there. The rich, vibrating timbre was intense enough to make a small shiver go through Trina. It was probably the sexiest voice she had ever heard and at the words, she felt the woman move even closer, so close she felt two breasts press on her back. That alarmed her but before she could react, satiny smooth lips captured her earlobe and sucked on it, biting down gently.
All strength vanished from her at the exquisite feeling. The woman behind her fairly reeked of sex and was flaunting it but Trina didnít register this notion. She leaned back instictively, coming into full contact with the woman. Xena grinned against the ear she was nibbling for a small involuntary moan escaped the woman. She snaked her arms around the lithe body to stop it from falling off the footstool.
"Your body," Xena whispered to the ear and traced its outline with her tongue, bringing her hands to cup two young firm breasts at the same time. Trina arched into the touch, all rational thought lost at the hypnotising words the low, melodous voice had whispered with just the slightest hint of a rasp.
Xena was a bit disappointed at the easiness of this one. Her palm
felt two nipples gone pebble hard and she took them between fingers,
squeezing the puckered flesh through the girlís shirt as she sucked on
the gentle swell of her neck. Easy, yes, but the fun part was still
For a prowling warlord, morning comes early.
The first gentle tendrils of the sun were just reaching over the treetops when the Conquerorís eyes opened to the world again. From the depths of her baby blues, she gazed at the ceiling of the huge command tent for a few moments, following a delicate seam from the central pole to the edge of the construction. The fabric was deep burgundy in colour, the wilted light that was let through tinted in blood red as it hit the white sheets of the big bed under it. An appropriate colour, if anything, the woman mused and smiling a big, genuine smile of expectant joy, she extracted herself from the sheets.
Stretching luxuriously, she paced in her field home. Sparing a fleeting glance at the curled-up figure of the girl... Trina, was it?... on the table, right where she had taken her and left her, she snatched her cleaned leathers from a chair and pulled them on. After quietly lacing her boots, she stepped outside to greet Apolloís chariot as it began its daily journey across the wide plane of sky.
The sky was an attractive pink hue, the treetops coloured in a lighter yellow shade. Stretching across her field of vision lay her crowning acheivement: her army. Laid out in a neat grid, tents were scatterd all over the grassy plain, all around her burgundy and blue command tent. Letting her gaze rake over the city of cloth she was responsible for, she felt the impending joy bubble to the surface. She felt it tickle her nose and tug at her shoulders, beckoning.
Last night, when she was already in bed but not yet sleeping, a messenger had come. A neighbour and ally of Salamandron had served her with an ultimatum, threatening her with fire and fury if she didnít relinguish what she had taken. The Conqueror had replied with her usual flair, first making the messenger eat the offending note, and then carving out her reply to it, essentially a courteous equivalent of Eat shit. The messenger had thanked the gods she was a woman of few words, for she had carved them into his back.
So, she was feeling on today. The thought made her smile to the trembling shards of light that illuminated her army, her heavy hand of wrath. Not just one but two days of lovely carnage. Gods I love my job, she laughed in her mind and took to a run.
The tall, dark woman running was always a good omen for the men. It was an unmistakable sign of good battle for it meant she was in a good mood. Soldiers at their morning chores paused to gaze at the graceful figure that loped with steady, powerful pace around the camp, the handsome face adorned with a hearty grin. It was a familiar part of mornings of battle and the men greeted it with knowing smiles.
The rest of the lovely morning progressed in great bounds and leaps, buzzing with excitement. As she stood in the middle of her tent, waiting for the battle impatiently as her armour was put on her, the Conqueror felt like whistling. Of course she couldnít but really, there was a sense of... something in the air. Great things were about to happen; things were going to change today.
Small fingers tugged at the lacings of her left gauntlet, setting the intricate piece of black leather and bronze curves just right. She tried not to tap her foot in impatience for she was really itching to get out there. Taking a steady breath, she pushed the urge down. Her middle name was perfection and and it was not achieved by hurrying unnecessarily. At last, the laces settled evenly and the long ends were tucked inside the thick leather. She clapped her hands and didnít bother to hide the impending smile as she ordered a servant to fetch her horse.
The man hurried out and the Conqueror shifted her gaze to her First and smiled.
"Come, Talas. Carnage awaits."
The basket was so heavy she thought she was carrying lead pellets instead of firewood in it. The rough withes bit through her linen shirt and into her shoulder and she was sure sheíd have an angry red welt right there, on the thickest part of her shoulder muscle. Adjusting the difficult item she was carrying, she peeked at the sun and sighed. Midday was nearing and she hadnít even started on the beets...
Her burden as well as her lithe body were almost knocked aside when a man rounded a corner a wee bit too fast. Barely did she manage to stay upright, helped by a steady hand on her forearm.
"Sorry about that, íRie," he breathed and took up his abruptly halted journey. She turned to look after him and frowned at the sight of gathering masses, people hurrying towards the north gate.
"Wait, Simon! Whatís going on?"
At the shout, the man halted again and half-turned. Smiling at the curious look on the girlís admittedly pretty face, he paced back a few steps.
"Havenít you heard? The Conqueror is headed this way."
She watched the retreating back that soon disappeared amongst
others. Pondering for a while and finally flipping a mental coin, she
put down the basket and hurried after the others. On a day like this,
her master would allow her some slippage. Probably.
The defence of Arákhova was, in manpower, about two hundred heads, as well as solid walls about fifteen feet tall and a sturdy wooden fence with iron-reinforced gates. The city was medium-sized and located in a peaceful area at the foot of Mount Parnassos, surrounded by hills and protected by its insignificant reputation. Until now, that is, Gabrielle thought wryly and with no small amount of trepidation as she watched the soldiers exit via the main gate. Men that had rarely seen battle but strong, skillful men nevertheless. Arákhova had been a peaceful place to live; if her life had been hers she wouldíve probably settled into a similar town.
The hills that surrounded the small kettle of a valley where Arákhova lay were still quiet. No troops except the town militia were in sight but beyond the crest of hills and on the other side of river Kefissos, traders had seen thick pillars of smoke, both from the destroyed neighbouring village and from the army that had pounded through it -- so the scuttlebutt had said. She had never been one to engage in idle gossiping with the kitchen maids but she couldnít help overhearing a few rumours now and then.
Even after filtering out most of the hot air rumours tended to gather, the stories were enough to make a hardened man pause. They spoke of an army that trampled everything that came before it, and of the woman that wielded the unstoppable hammer of destruction. Daughter of Bacchus, she was rumoured to be, or perhaps of Ares. Gabrielle had laughed away such wild stories. Really... madwoman from Tartarus. Címon. I bet if I told you sheís able to breathe fire youíd believe that too, she smirked at the memory of the head cook with rounded eyes and pudgy, waving hands as she described the Conqueror.
She adjusted her feet, taking care not to slip off the slick straw roof. As with most of the townís populace, her curiosity had taken the best of her and so here she was, sitting on a roof of a house situated near the outer fence. The place provided her with an excellent view of the gently sloping, almost treeless hillside that surrounded the town, and of the troops milling about the grassy plains, waiting for something.
Picking up a loose straw and chewing on it, she enjoyed the moment of rest. Her life was hard but she was still young, her vigour at its peak. Life was hard for a slave, she had seen men and women no less than fourty solar cycles look thin and frail, wasted away on too much work and too little food. Food. Her stomach grumbled and on cue, her cheeks reddened. The woman sitting next to her smiled and offered her a small salty pastry. People of Arákhova were like that, peaceful in nature; giving food to a person with a slave collar wasnít that surprising. Gabrielle took the offering, thanking the elderly lady, probably the owner of the house.
As she chewed on the mincemeat-stuffed offering, she listened. There was something odd about the air. About the hum of voices, for there wasnít any. It was as if the birds of the forest had stopped singing and the river stopped flowing. The whole town was holding its breath. Even the wind was quiet. Too quiet. She shifted in her seat.
The quiet lasted not a breath. What she first thought to be an odd shadow cast by clouds soon morphed into a cluster of men, silhouetted against the eggshell-blue sky. Crimson banners fluttered in the air, the gold-and-blue crest on them identifying the troops easily. It was the Conquerorís army and it stood there, waiting.
Later on, no-one was sure which side had lost its cool but it didnít matter for the end result was the same. Suddenly, the peaceful field was a mass of running men, half running uphill, the other down. Yelling incoherent screams and the names of various gods, the two masses met at mid-slope and the yells were drowned by an endless stream of metallic clangs and groans of pain. It was a ballet in red, shining metal and dark leather, sweating bodies engaged in a multi- faceted dance of death.
The battle had barely started when it became obvious the attacking force was losing. Slowly but with gathering speed the footmen backed towards the higher parts of the hills, dragging the bloodthirsty militia with them. After a few yards, the men abandoned battle altogether and turning towards the safety of high ground, ran for their lives. Smelling victory, the Arákhovan army followed them, fanning out across the hill. A few victory whoops sounded from nearby rooftops but there was still something that bothered Gabrielle.
"Way too easy," she muttered to herself as she watched the two armies that ran away from the town. "Too easy. I wonder..."
That was as far as she got in her musings when a new cloud shadow appeared on top of the hill. As it was with the prevous one, this was not a mere shadow, it was a sea of darkness. As if they stepped from the bowels of the earth itself, a rim of men rose to the crest of the hill, the edges stretching halfway across the circle whose centre was the town. Some were footsoldiers but most were on horseback -- silent, straightbacked figures on massive warhorses. In the exact centre stood one lone horse, a few yards inside the wide semi-circle. Of the figure on top of the golden warhorse, one could see only a long, flowing mane of midnight black hair, glinting armour and a cape of crimson. It was the Conqueror.
Of course, some faraway part of Gabrielleís brain said and mentally slapped its forehead. The Conqueror always, always led her army herself. The earlier wave of men had been just the first wave, to lure the defenders away from the fortifications and to make them spread out. It had succeeded.
"Oh no..." she whispered as she saw the lone dark figure unsheath a sword and raise it high above her head. Her red crests followed suit, raising brazenly into the air and a thundering yell rose. The second wave was on.
It was as if the defending army was nothing more than a minor annoyance, so easily the central head of the army rode through it. The two edges of the semi-circle of horses and men curved down and inside, meeting the body of the central force mid-way. The militia was thus separated into two pieces, surrounded by a circle of professional soldiers on horseback. There was no way footmen could fight against a force like that, and the defenders were constricted into nothingness sooner than Gabrielle could squeak her horror. The attacking force plowed through and headed straight for the gates, still led by the dark apparition that was now stained crimson.
It was the arrow that woke her from the trance. It landed not two feet from her, barely missing the houseowner and embedding itself into the straw roof with a soft thunk. Deciding that being in plain view was probably not the most sensible thing to do when being attacked, Gabrielle helped the elderly lady down from the roof and took towards her masterís house in a half run, her heart in her throat.
As she ran with the panicked throngs of people that cried, screamed
and dashed about the narrow streets, she felt a sickening sense of
deja-vu. Despite the volatile times Greece was living in, she had been
spared of the horrors of war most of her life. This was only her
second time and the last time had been over four years ago. But she
still remembered the dark figure painted in deep red and the heavy
hand of the divine executioner that had swept through her home
She was almost disappointed. Did nothing in the whole of Greece offer her a proper challenge? The meagre defenses of this village had been swept away like an irritating piece of hay in her hair, dissipated with the speed of rushing wind.
She felt her eyes water at the rush of wind as she sped down the hill. She felt the powrful contraction and expansion of Argoís ribcage between her legs as she urged the mare to even greater speeds. The scent of blood was beckoning her and she was going to answer its call. The smell of fear, sweat, and courageous determination always made her nostrils flare. It was the smell of the battlefield and it taunted her, throwing the gauntlet for her to pick up. She always did. The smell had never failed her, never had it not transformed to the rich, coppery scent she so loved, the scent of the harvest reaped by her sword.
She caught the first man right across his chest, separating bone
from muscle with a powerful sweep. The same arc continued into his
companion with a small flick of her wrist, the tip of the thick blade
coming out between his shoulders. He dropped his pike and made a
feeble grab at Xenaís leg but she avoided it by twisting the blade and
finally kicking him off it. The last thing he heard in this world was
a bright, ringing burst of laughter. He missed the whoop of joy she
made when her sword found its mark again, for his soul was in the
Elysian fields already.
Judging from the rising screams coming from somewhere far behind her, the main gates had broken and the invaders were in the town. She cursed her stupid, stupid idea to go see the battle for now the streets were so filled with hysterical people who were shouting, screaming and futilely praying for the gods to intervene that she couldnít get through. Gabrielle was sure the only god here, if any, would be Ares and heíd definetely be delighted at the carnage sheíd just witnessed. She was positive she would see the agonised men courageously defending their homes in her dreams for many moons to come, provided she survived this ordeal first.
Even that would prove to be difficult. She tried to fight her way through the masses, towards her home, but it was to no avail. At the end of the narrow main street a scream rose and as she turned, her heart jumped into her throat. There was a cluster of men on horseback, plowing their way through the street and towards the town prefectís house. The crowd surged ahead of the troops in a massive, unstoppable wave of flesh. Oh no.
Quickly ducking behind a water barrel, she managed to avoid the hysterical crowd. She watched the frothing crowd stream past her, and then the men on horseback, the hoofbeats on the cobblestone street echoing almost painfully among the high-pitched white noise of the town populace. The last horse strayed a bit too close to the barrel and kicked it with one treetrunk-thick hind leg.
Gabrielle saw the oaken barrel tilt but she had no room to back
away. The heavy round surface caught her on one side and made her
stumble to the ground, her head meeting the stones. She was out cold,
not there to see or feel as the barrel emptied its wet contents on her
before rolling slowly across the now deserted street, to be stopped by
another man on a horse.
"Apology accepted, prefect Silane."
She could almost hear the small pop in his brain as a blood vessel finally gave in to the mounting pressure and ruptured. The bulky, sweat-stenched carcass of the man was now just a piece of inert flesh, masses of fat-infested meat marring the beautiful Oriental rug underneath. "Clean away this mess," she barked to a soldier standing in the doorway and he bowed, hastening to get help.
Her sensitive nose wrinkled at the stench. Before taking his final breath, the man had soiled himself, an unfortunate side-effect the nerve-pinch sometimes had on people not in good control of their bodily functions. A fitting end for a cowering blob of fat-for-brains, she mused, and turned away from the repulsive sight to take in the quite lovely room, so much in contrast to its owner. Previous owner, she grinned. A real bed was going to feel sooo good after many months of sleeping in tents.
The bed was truly a piece of furniture worth the Conquerorís smile. Covered in thick pillows and satiny sheets and surrounded by thick curtains, it was big enough to host a small banquet in. It fit the roomís decor perfectly for the big, high-ceilinged space was decorated with the same rich and abundant flair. Persian rugs covered every inch of the stone floor, wherever there was not a table, a comfortable chair or masses of pillows. A fireplace stood at one end of the room and next to it rested a bathing tub, the gentle light of candles and the last rays of the evening sun reflecting off its bronze surface. It seemed the prefect was a hedonist to the bone.
As she paced across the carpeted floor towards the work desk, she was faintly aware she was leaving red stains on the floor. Glancing briefly at her blood-soaked form and then at the tub, she decided to have a bath as soon as possible. Judging from the itch she had again managed to get blood into places sheíd rather keep as clean as possible.
When the servants had cleaned away the last of what was left of the prefect, Talas entered the chamber. She could smell the clean soap on the First even though she was seated at the desk. She aimed a white, gleaming smile at the parchment she was studying as she listened to his quiet steps. The bath could wait, she had other itches to scratch.
"So, Talas," she hummed in her low, sultry voice and heard the steps falter. Her grin intensified. "You managed to find a bath."
He opened his mouth and realised he had again inserted his foot in it. He could see nothing of the Conqueror in the tall-backed chair except a forearm and that was still covered in rust-coloured, dried blood, the crust flaking off the gauntlet. Oh, centaur crap.
"I, uh, everything had settled down so..." His voice trailed away as the Conqueror rose and turned towards him. Hades and the seven circles of Tartarus... Even covered in goo, muck and gore, the woman was stunning. Or maybe even more so. He felt his jaw muscles slacken again at the enigmatic smirk on her face and at the blazing blue eyes that were positively electric.
She paced closer, her gait quiet and fluid like that of a cat. Instinctively, he backed away. He got a sudden feeling that he was small, defenseless prey. She stalked even closer, driving him slowly towards the wall.
"Now, Talas..." A step.
"... tell me..." Another.
"... would you like to..." Another, and he felt his back touch the stone wall.
"... get dirty again?" She was so close he could smell the dark energy that oozed out of her. She leaned close, so close her breastplate pressed against his chest and Talas felt like he was drowning in the two vast pools of blue.
"Hmmm?" she hummed, a deep throaty sound he could feel in his gut. It spurred his bloodflow to certain places south and he gritted his teeth, hoping she wouldnít notice. She seemed to notice the pallor on his face, though, and he watched a very lovely pink tongue appear and lick the ruby red lips that were turned up in a creamy smile. Now he was sure the extra blood had been taken from his legs because he felt his knees grow weak even though his heart was hammering like nothing else.
The sound of a door hitting the wall startled him out of his aroused haze. Quicker than he could follow, she had moved away from him and towards the door.
The guard that had so hastily entered felt his heart skip a beat. The Conquerorís tone was far from friendly. "Th-thereís trouble at the roundup," he managed to get out before she breezed past him, spiralling him to the stone wall so hard he felt his teeth rattle. After making sure his head was still in one piece he hurried after her, leaving the perplexed Talas alone in the room.
Roundup was the place where all the loose people were gathered, meaning survivors of the army, homeless people and loose slaves. As usual it had been established at the market square. It was also the place where most of the troops gathered, to celebrate a battle won and survived. She didnít mind that, her men worked hard and deserved to party hard as a compensation. But sometimes emotions ran too high after battle, so the celebrations were volatile at best. Her tolerance for idiotic, drunken antics was quite high but there were some things she didnít tolerate. One was abusing women or children and the other was fighting over insignificant things.
As it was, there had been a card game of sorts and it had escalated into an all-out fight when someone had accused of someone else of tampering with the cards. It was all the spark that was needed and now, about twenty men were engaged in all variations of knife and fist fighting.
The word rang clearly over the scuffle of bodies and grunts of the fight and the men paused. They would recognise that voice anywhere, even as one barked word and through the wine-induced haze. It was the voice of their much-respected but also much-feared commander and as usual, it was the most effective instant remedy for fighting.
These men, hardened by countless wars and too much death, stood like schoolboys caught stealing an apple. They felt the burning blue eyes rake over them and all prayed that their commander wasnít in a bad mood today.
She was just pondering which head to lop off to let off some pent-up energy when she heard a high-pitched voice scream, somewhere deep within the hastily collected clumps of people. She let one last cool gaze sweep over the men before starting towards the new sound.
The high-pitched voices seemed to emanate from somewhere behind a merchantís cart. The dark woman re-sheathed her sword and grasping the edge of the low roof of the cart, she pounced up and with a boost from strong arms; then she was on the roof, landing softly in a crouching position. Wooden planks under her feet creaked softly as she adjusted her position so that she could see the other side.
The person making the most noise was a slightly paunchy brunette, her mouth agape in a reddened face as she struggled in the firm grasp of one of Xenaís soldiers. She was squirming and trying to get her hands free while the man was vainly attempting to subdue her. The brunetteís companion, a younger girl with reddish-blonde hair and blazing eyes, was making much less noise, mainly because the hand of another soldier was at her mouth. As the Conqueror watched, the girl bit the hand and it was quickly withdrawn with an indignant howl from the man holding her. The bite was rewarded with a slap across her face and the soldier cursed, sucking on the broken skin of his palm. As he raised his arm again, Xena jumped off the roof in a rolling somersault-turned-flip move, landing behind the man with nary a sound.
"Slave bitch! Iíll teach you..." he growled and the hand started to descend. Half-way through its arc, it was captured in a vice-like grip and he turned his head to see what had jerked his hand away from the punishment this girl clearly deserved.
He saw five long, tanned fingers curled around his wrist, squeezing so hard he could feel the hand getting numb. The fingers were an extension of a muscular, equally tanned arm that shone dark crimson in the feeble torchlight, a dull, unequal gleam that was drowned by the brilliance of two sapphire eyes and a row of even white teeth.
She chuckled deep in her throat at the look on the soldierís face when it dawned on him exactly who had grasped his hand. Letting the chuckle trickle through, the Conqueror twisted the arm and with some momentum and a simple half-turn, she banged the man hard against the wall of the cart. The aged wood protested such heavy handling, but the noise vanished under a different protest -- this one a gurgling, wet sound. The soldierís last breath escaped around the dagger that pinned him to the cart, air rushing with the blood that flowed from his throat, past the golden hilt of the sharp knife and onto his hands which were vainly clawing at the dagger under his chin.
The other man, now frozen into a statue, was disposed of with an elbow to his stomach and a sharp jab behind his ear. He fell to the stones like a sack of turnips and stayed there, his breathing laboured. The other woman fell also, having fainted away when the breast dagger had found its mark, but the other...
"You didnít have to kill him."
Xena turned at the soft, raspy voice. It was the blonde woman, a girl really, who addressed her, mile-wide eyes darting from the man pinned to the cart to the other on the ground and then back to Xena, never alighting in one place for longer than a breath. Finally the eyes settled on her and in the low light, the Conqueror saw fear, hate, confusion and... sorrow in the eyes. A dark eyebrow rose.
"Yes I did," she replied and turned to leave. She was stopped by the gentle, persistent voice.
She turned back. There was a rational explanation, yes, but she didnít have to explain herself to this... slave, she thought after getting a glimpse of dark leather and rust-specked rings of a slave collar half-hidden inside the girlís ripped blouse. She stepped a few paces closer and as expected, the slave stepped back. She was no contest to the Conquerorís long legs, however, and sooner than she could follow, Xena was standing before her.
"Why do you question me, slave?"
Gabrielle again felt like kicking herself but given her situation, it was impossible. Her big mouth had once again put her into an uncomfortable situation... a deadly, rubbery-knee-scary situation, she thought as she carefully lifted her head to look into the Conquerorís face. To her surprise, she didnít see seething fury there, just amused curiosity and mild impatience. She decided that if she was going to die, as people opposing the Conqueror tended to do, at least sheíd go with her head up high.
"You just... murdered him," she said, gesturing vaguely at the now dead man, pinned like an insect to the cart. She was surprised to hear a snort of laughter coming from the tall woman, and to see white teeth reflected in the flickering torchlight. The tall womanís skin had an ethereal quality -- she seemed to glow in a misty shade of burgundy. It took Gabrielle a while but suddenly she realised the odd colour was not solely an effect of the torchlight. The woman was covered in blood. Somehow, it was very... appropriate. She gulped.
Xena watched the young slip of a girl in front of her, seeing the play of emotions on her face. She had courage, so much was obvious. Courage was often a thin disguise for stupid recklessness but somehow the Conqueror got the feeling it wasnít the case with this slave. There was definite intelligence in the eyes that gazed up at her, brazenly. She opened her mouth to explain why it wasnít murder but caught herself just in time. Her inner mind frowned. Why do I need to explain anything to her? it fumed. But... she smiled. Intelligence and courage were something she valued highly and besides, her staff was lacking a slave.
"Take her to my quarters," she barked to her honour guard who had
finally arrived. With a swift yank she dislodged the dagger from the
soldier and she was gone.
The hem of her skirt was wadded into a tight clump in her slightly sweating hands. She could feel moisture on her upper lip and she licked away the sheen of nervous sweat.
The chair was comfortable, she had to admit as much. In fact, all the furniture in the room looked comfortable, as well as expensive. She had never seen such an abundance of colours and luxurious materials, not even in her masterís house. Late masterís, she corrected herself. From the square she had seen the high, hungry flames that had fed on her home, her place of servitude. No amount of pleading, cajoling or crying had softened the guardsí hearts, and so she had watched her life vanish in greasy black tendrils of smoke.
In hindsight, it was probably fortunate she had been knocked unconscious. Otherwise she wouldíve been inside that burning house and not on the town square where she had woken up, next to Norah, the cook from next door. Norah had cried against her shoulder and though she felt like crying as well, she had been strong. Norahís husband had been killed in the battle and all Gabrielle had lost was her owner.
It was probably the crying that had attracted the guardsí attention. As the last tears of her friend had dried away, two men had approached and grabbed them, their intentions clear in the loud voices and foul, port-smelling breaths. Her cheek was still swollen from the slap she had received but the bite had been worth the pain. And then, she had been saved.
She let go of the hem of her skirt and bit her lower lip, blonde eyebrows knitting. Now she was here, alone in this room overflowing with wealth. A guard had deposited her brusquely and then left her alone. Why, she couldnít fathom.
The big stack of scrolls on the desk beckoned her. Crossing her mental fingers and toes and hoping no-one would come in right now, she rose and paced to them. Hesitantly first but with increasing confidence, she let her fingers brush the rolled pieces of parchment, luxuriating in the feel of this frail material that still managed to carry the most powerful weapon in the world: knowledge.
She had a rare talent for a slave, for she could read and write. Words had been her passion in the carefree days of her youth, her head spawning stories she then wrote down on pieces of bark, on the sand at the riverside, on whatever she could find. Never in her life had she seen so much fine parchment, the surface of the scrolls slick and smooth under her digits.
"I wouldnít touch those if I were you."
The words, pronounced right behind her, made her heart jump into her throat for the umpteenth time that day. The voice was deep, dark and very, very close to her ear. She felt the hackles on her neck rise at the voice and the accompanying coppery smell of blood, both fresh and old. As the scent had predicted, when she turned she was greeted with the sight of a breastplate, beautiful bronze flourishes covered in a thick layer of gore, shards of bone and mud.
"Sit," the voice thrummed and, casting her eyes down, Gabrielle complied. Sitting was a good idea, as her knees were about to give out.
Another servant came in and, without saying a word, approached the outstretched hand of the Conqueror, starting on the laces of her gauntlet while two more servants brought buckets of hot water, obviously preparing a bath. Trying very hard to blend into the background, Gabrielle watched the slim fingers of the girl tug at the gauntlet, managing finally to set the encrusted ties free, removing it from the bronzed arm. The gauntlet was followed by the other and then, piece by piece, the other parts that made up Xenaís armour. The process was a hypnotising one, the warrior transforming into human flesh.
At last, the leathers came off and revealed a bare back. It was an endless maze of hills and valleys, shadows shifting on the smooth skin which was marred only by a few thin white scars. As the woman twisted to loosen the last of the lacings, Gabrielle watched the play of muscles under the skin, powerful flesh contracting and relaxing in smooth cascading waves.
"Go. Sheíll bathe me tonight," Xena said to the servant.
Her gaze shot from the far wall to the Conqueror and found a pair of eyes so blue it almost hurt to look into them. The eyes were gazing at her, one eyebrow lifted in a lazy question.
"I donít speak loud enough?" was the reply, in a tone that held not a shred of humour. The servant girl exited and the now naked Conqueror paced quietly to the bathtub and with negligent, inborn grace lowered her beautiful length into the steaming water, purring in delight.
Hesitating a bit, Gabrielle approached the tub. The Conqueror seemed almost asleep now, her dark head resting on the wide rim of the luxuriously big vessel. But she wasnít asleep, for one eye opened and fastened on the unsure slave. A small smile decorated the dark red lips.
"I donít bite."
Encouraged thusly, Gabrielle stepped a pace forward to stand next to the copper edge, a hairís breadth away from the woman lounging in the water.
"Wash my hair," the dark woman murmured, shifting to a half-sitting position
Gabrielle found the soap and after dipping her hands in the wonderfully warm water, worked a heavy lather before settling her palms gently on the red-black tresses in front of her. Her hands were trembling slightly at the first contact.
It felt wonderful. The Conquerorís hair, albeit encrusted inside a sticky mass of dried blood and dirt, had a silky, smooth quality to it. Slowly, she worked the soap into the thick hair that seemed to go on forever, sliding between her fingers like spun silk. The dirt drained away and left behind heavy, cascading masses of hair the colour of a moonless night. Gabrielle smoothed down the endless layers of hair, combing her digits through the whole length of it, reveling in the sensuous feeling. Moving back up, she started another round, unconsciously humming a small tune as she spread the white foam across the dark head. She missed the small smile that reappeared on Xenaís lips.
The humming vanished and the hands on her head paused. "Why what?"
"Why shouldnít I have killed that man?"
The hands resumed their task and Xena could almost hear the gears turn in the fair head of the slave.
"You could have just knocked him unconscious," came the answer. The smile intensified.
"Hm," Xena uttered and stood, offering her body to be washed. The slave complied, tracing the broad shoulders with a sponge. The water that ran from the black hair and bronze back was pale pink in colour and Gabrielle idly wondered how many lives had been lost that day, to create that fragile shade. There was silence and just as she thought the Conqueror had ended the conversation, the voice spoke again. Gabrielle felt it as gentle tremors on her fingers as they traced the curve of one shoulderblade.
"So, why didnít I?"
It was obviously a test of some sort. She could hear the faint rasp in the womanís voice, the implied threat. So, we play games, Gabrielle thought and pursed her lips in thought. Here goes nothing...
"You enjoyed it, perhaps?"
There was a moment of painful, tense silence and without conscious thought the blonde woman held her breath and closed her eyes, waiting for a yell, hit or stab. The back under her hands was stiff, not a muscle moved. The quieteness hung in the air, silence so loud Gabrielle was sure her eardrums were about to burst. Suddenly, the back started to shake and a quiet chuckle wafted through the air. The slaveís heartbeat slowed down to double digits again.
"Perhaps," the Conqueror smiled and bit her lower lip. It had been so long since anyone had spoken to her in such a straightforward manner. She found it refreshing that the slave was ready play with her life. The thin line between courage and insubordination was sometimes a line drawn in water, and the latter was a sure way to get a one-way ticket to see Hades and the shores of Styx.
"Or you had excess energy," Gabrielle ventured, tracing the back of one thigh with the sponge. Xena shifted her position and the slaveís hand paused as she watched the tendons cord at the back of the knee.
"Perhaps." The word wafted down and still, Gabrielle sensed that the right answer was eluding her. Has to be something simpler... practical... she thought.
"You... wanted to make a statement," she ventured hesitantly. She was startled by a slosh of water as the Conqueror turned and stepped out of the tub. Straightening quickly and backing away, she lifted her gaze, finding the deep blue depths. The eyes were a bit disturbing in their intensity; she was sure they could see into her very soul. She took another step back.
The woman was beautiful. It was a sure proof of Natureís wicked sense of humour, she thought, that this killing machine was so perfect. The woman stepped closer, a half of a smile on the ruby red lips, parted just enough for her prominent canines to be visible. Gabrielle backed another step but the divine apparition followed. The warm, yellow light of the many candles in the room glittered in uncountable little stars on the wet, bronze skin of the tall woman, still pacing closer. The Conquerorís gait was gentle and quiet, catlike in its grace.
"They say a ruler should rule with both love and fear," she began, the hoarseness now more pronounced. The shouting of the day was getting on her voice. "Fear is so much more powerful," she smiled and wrapped a dark blue silk robe around her tall frame.
So, she had guessed right but still, Gabrielleís tongue itched to speak out her mind on the Conquerorís statement. The woman apparently saw her twitch in an attempt to curb her talkative nature for she smiled and nodded for her to continue.
"How can you say that?" The mildly insulting words were out of her mouth before she could stop them and she bit down on her tongue to prevent any more foolish utterances. The taste of blood in her mouth distracted her somewhat but not enough for her to miss the dangerous flash of the blue eyes and the impatient fingers that drummed against a goblet. A pause followed as the woman poured herself wine.
"Love is bound by the promise of loyalty that is broken when convenient," she said and sipped at the wine. A drop went by her lips but was caught by a long finger before it could escape the cheek. When the Conqueror placed the finger between her ruby red lips and licked away the moisture, Gabrielle had the oddest of sensations; she felt her mouth water and go parchment dry at the same time.
"But fear is kept up with the promise of punishment that is unbreakable," the Conqueror continued and paced around the blonde woman, to come standing right behind her. The slave felt hot breath on her head as the woman bowed down to catch the scent of her hair, her nose gently brushing the fair tresses.
"Punishment does have its advantages," the deep voice whispered
into her ear.
Oh, the down mattress was wonderful. She sighed in contentment and rotated her head, the vertebrae in her neck popping loudly. Despite her always spartan and often harsh life at war camps, Xena was a hedonist to the bone. She enjoyed her women hot, battles bloody, drinks strong and beds soft.
The spacious bed was empty save her tall frame and a small mountain of pillows. She grinned at the utterly defeated look on Talasí face she had witnessed as she had unceremoniously kicked him out of the chamber just a few moments before. She had brusquely informed him that she didnít feel like sex after all and at that, his jaw had sagged at least a span.
She entwined her fingers behind her head and arched her back. Muscles in her back protested but it did worlds of good for the lower part of her spine. The memory of her First receded back, to be replaced by the young, bewildered face of the new slave. The mist-green eyes that had gazed at her with a curious mix of fear and interest, with insultingly little respect. She had killed people for less but lately... she had been lacking real challenges. Cities fell under her army, men under her sword and women under her touch, with little difficulty. The last time she remembered really enjoying a conquest had been at the Battle of Athens and that was almost two years ago.
This slave... she piqued Xenaís interest. Sure, the girl feared her but she had the feeling it was born more out of common sense than her reputation or presence. And there was something else, something tugging at the cold lump that had replaced the Conquerorís heart so many summers ago. A sense of familiarity, of alternate futures perhaps. She closed her eyes and tried to pinpoint the feeling but in vain.
Well, no matter. She had a few days of leisure, for the men to recuperate and for her to plan. Yesss... She couldnít stop a smile edging itself onto her lips. Her hunger was insatiable and soon, very soon, a city that had been a thorn in her side for a long time would feel the death that sprang from her hands.
Sleep took over the Conqueror and she drifted to Morpheusí realm
with the smile still on her face, and she dreamed of a fair-haired
girl and a city on a narrow peninsula.
The following day dawned bright. Brilliant beams of light shot through the high windows of the room, creating rectangular areas of light on the rugs, making them shine in all their vibrant colours.
As far as the adjective could be applied to her, the Conqueror was feeling sunny as well. She whistled a simple tune, the steady notes leaving her lips to the pace set by the whiff of the sharpening stone on her sword. The blade was propped against a low footstool, next to a booted foot. Save for the distant chirping of a bird, the rhythmic hiss of stone against steel and the quiet whistling, the room bore no other sounds.
The stone ceased its insistent motion and was set on the table. The dark woman tested the blade with her thumb and found it to be satisfactory. Sharpness was essential, for the sword would soon be put to use.
Xena believed firmly in setting an example. She was not a ruler who rode behind her men, she was always at front in battles. She didnít choose to hide inside a castle, she chose to walk in open air, her head up high and sword ready. She didnít rule gently but with a firm hand, with justice and avoiding unnecessary cruelty. All this prevented instability, people rarely got delusions of grandeur when their heads were in danger of falling off their shoulders. So, whenever she made new conquests, she wanted to start on a clean table and to accomplish that, the table had to be cleaned first.
The blade flew through the air in a graceful arc, guided by a very steady hand. Sunlight hit the shining metal and made clusters of artificial stars that raced along the high stone walls. It sliced through the air so fast the lines of the blade blurred, creating a silvery halo around the tall figure wielding it.
The rectangles of white light had moved a little farther in the
room before it was time.
The womanís broken plea was cut off, literally. Her head dropped to the wooden planks with a muted thud, like an over-ripe melon, discarded as useless. It rolled closer to the edge of the platform before stopping, bloodshot eyes still open and staring in bewilderment.
Xena drew off the excess blood on the blade with a thumb and a forefinger, shaking the digits to let loose their warm coating. Four down, two to go and already the scaffold was slippery from blood, sweat and the grey matter of one late city official who had had a poor sense of timing. He had ducked just as she had swung the blade and instead of cleanly severing the manís head from the rest of him, she had taken off just the top of his skull. The calvarium of bone and blood had flown through the air and caught a spectator on his face. He had fainted away at the shock.
She stepped a pace forward and her boot made a sickening slurping sound when it hit a pool of gore. Next in line was a younger man, head of the cityís militia. He had a swordsmanís shoulders and wrists, fair skin stretching over some impressive musculature. Shame to waste such a fine man, she thought as she adjusted her grip on the blade. But war requires sacrifices. She lifted the blade and poised for a strike.
Suddenly, a hush fell over the crowd. The silence was deafening as the spectacle on the stage ceased. The only movement was the slow trickle of spittle down the Conquerorís arm, the white-foamed substance leaving behind a cleaner trail on the blood-covered skin.
Time lurched onward again and Xena wiped off the offending matter with one finger, flicking it back to the man. Arrogant eyes blazed at her from under a close-fitting leather cap, a tuft of unruly blonde hair stuck to his sweating forehead. The spit caught him on one cheek and stayed there. He paid no attention to it but kept on glowering at the woman towering above him, her sword now at her side. It was difficult to look up, into those blue eyes that seemed to shoot fiery daggers to his brain, so much the intense gaze hurt his head.
"Have you no manners, Acastus?"
His head jerked back and forth, from the crowd to his captor. The voice was dead calm and powerful, the tone slick velvet, as if she had queried about the weather. The words were clearly heard in the crowd as well, elicting furious whispering and interested gazes. The Conqueror was going to put on a show.
Unable to think of an answer to the question, Acastus just flexed his arms again but the bindings kept. He returned his eyes back to the woman.
The dark woman stuck her sword into the wooden floor and it stayed there, wobbling a bit as she paced away a few steps. Rummaging through a nearby toolbox, she turned back towards the blonde man, this time holding a heavy hammer and a big chisel. Acastusí eyebrows rose. What did the demon woman have in mind?
"What I do not tolerate..." she said, stepping back towards him, twirling the chisel in her fingers, "... is impoliteness."
His neck popped as he tried to look up further but his eyes could only reach the very bottom of her breastplate, so close she was. He felt a leather strap brush his cheek, a brass stud marking a cold spot on his sweaty skin. He could smell the woman now, the sickening scent of blood and death on her, as well as the stinging, tangy smell that was his fear, reflected off her and magnified a thousandfold by the darkness she carried in her. She was so close he couldíve touched her just by leaning forward...
She weighed the hammer, more a sledge than anything else, in her right hand and grabbed the handle of the chisel with her left. The manís shallow breath brushed past her thigh and she saw the shaking of the powerful shoulders before her.
"And Acastus, it is impolite to wear a hat in front of a woman."
At the last word she lifted the hammer high above her head and let it drop on the chisel, driving the sharp instrument into his skull, all the way to the hilt. A gush of blood stained the dark brown leather of his cap and flooded to his forehead, down on both cheeks and on his shirt. The chisel exited under his jaw, three fingerwidths of the blade visible like a grotesque, crimson beard. He sagged to the planks with a last wheezing sound, one last rush of air from his lungs. The chiselís handle protruded from his head like a solitary horn, blunt and red-specked.
Discarding the hammer, she yanked her sword off the platform and proceeded to the last man, his face white as a sheet. He was the townís treasurer, a greedy thin man whose neck was sliced through as if it was a dry twig. His head bounced on the platform and one of her soldiers retrieved it, impaling it on his pike.
So, only five of the heads of the townís leaders found their way on the outside of the main gate, to guard over the lesser officials that hung on their crosses on the sloping field outside. Glassy eyes saw the agony of the crucified, bloodless ears heard the screams of pain and dying. The lesson was complete.
Her message was clear.
Her lunch was well-broiled deer in thick red wine sauce. The meat was very pleasant, the sauce excellent. This cook might last a little longer than the previous ones, she mused and sliced off another chunk with a dagger. Her taster was clearly enjoying the good food as well, the makings of a small paunch were at his waist. She made a mental note to put something unpleasant in the food one of these days, he was starting to enjoy his job a bit too much.
As usual, she ate alone. In times of war, meals were the few moments when she could be by herself, just sit, eat and think. All other moments were occupied by planning, fighting or bureucracy but for now, she could let her thoughts wander free. On that day, they kept returning to the blonde slave she had saved from that rapist idiot the day before, to her blazing green eyes and gentle hands. She pondered for a while and made a decision.
"You," she said, startling the guard at one corner by pointing at him with one long finger. "Fetch that new slave." He bowed and jogged out of the room. She had counted to four hundred and eighty-six when he returned, his step a bit unsure.
"Well?" the Conqueror prompted. The slave wasnít with him.
"Sh-" His voice caught and he swallowed, a painful dry gulp that made his adamís apple wobble up and down. "She said she was... busy," he finally managed.
The syllables hung in the air and the guard took a reflexive step back. The Conquerorís jaw muscles bunched, transforming the smooth cheeks to a stony relief. The dagger in her hand pressed so hard against her thumb a small trickle of blood was let out but she didnít even notice.
"Busy...," she growled and stood abruptly. The guard dodged out of
her way as she stormed past him, down the stairs and towards the
Return to Penumbra