Penance, part 2 --- by Penumbra

Please see part 1 for disclaimers. Comments, email me at



The cheek quivered under her touch. Every time the thin needle punctured the pale skin, she winced at the mewing sounds of pain he let out. But it was a necessary task; the wound was bleeding so bad a mere bandage wouldnít have sufficed.

Over the commotion of the busy kitchen, she missed the noise of marching feet and the quiet swish of a door opening. However, she didnít miss the utter silence that suddenly fell in the kitchen. Her hand paused over the half-closed cut, the needle starting to tremble a bit.

A chair was moved behind her, the scrape of wooden legs thundering in the silence. A faint rustle of cloth signaled that someone had sat in the chair and a pair of booted feet settled on the bench next to her. She could see the feet only up to the ankles but it was enough for her to recognise their owner. The boots were of sturdy black leather and had nailed soles and reinforced tips. With great mental effort she steadied her hand and did the final stitch, tying a neat knot at the end. The skin under her fingers had grown even colder since she had begun her work, the pallor now intensifying to a pasty greenish white.

"Why shouldnít I have killed him?"

The voice startled her so bad she jerked a bit and dropped the needle. It pinged when it hit the stone floor, the small sound echoing in the deathly still room.

The question confused her first but she soon realised it was a continuation of their discussion from last night. Why, then...She pondered for a while, gathered her courage and went for the easy answer. The truth.

"Because you had a choice... Mistress," she added, the other slaves having informed her of the proper way of addressing the Conqueror. She could feel the woman smiling behind her and as she slowly turned, her feeling was proved true, a ghost of a smile caressed the shapely mouth. The eyes, however, reflected no humour.

It was the Destroyer of Nations, clad in a simple light blue tunic a shade paler than the blue brilliance of her eyes, lounging comfortably in a chair. She had a dagger in one hand and she used it to carve small, neat slices off the deer leg she was holding. The bits of meat were placed on a very pink tongue that deposited them behind her lips.

Once again, Gabrielle was smitten by the woman. True, she was hardly inconspicuous but it was more than that. This woman owned the room, from stony floor to the blackened timbres holding the roof up, her presence filling the space with sizzling energy that was both scary and exciting. It was enough to bring a small shiver to the blonde womanís spine, the exotic mix of fear and intense curiosity and something more the woman with raven hair sparked in her.

A perfect eyebrow rose.

"The man was going to rape you."

The statement brought the images back to her, flashes of gaping teeth, foul breath and the dirty palm pressed roughly against her mouth. Instinctively, her hand rose to the spot where his hand had slapped her, the cheek no longer swollen.

She also remembered the look of utter astonishment on the manís drunken face and the swift, cruel justice delivered on that spot. That last gurgling breath. Those hands, clawing at his throat. The sickening crack the other manís solar plexus had made when the Conqueror had elbowed him. And the bright blue light that had washed over her when those eyes had turned to her.

Her life was the Conquerorís, that was clear. It hadnít been hers in the first place, a fact she had accepted long ago as her lifeís tragedy. She couldnít fathom why she was still alive, so many times she had spoken against the dark woman. But here she was, conversing with the woman that was rumoured to have been born in the dark, muddy waters of the river Styx.

"Still, you could have... discouraged him otherwise." Gabrielle smiled a crooked smile at her choice of words and almost dropped off the bench when the grin was echoed in the handsome face opposite her. The kitchen staff took in a collective breath but still dared not move a muscle, choosing instead to do statue impersonations while following this most unusual dialogue.

"Yes," the Conqueror hummed and sliced off another shard of meat. She chewed on it, the silence dragging on. It was dawning on the fair-headed slave it was the way the woman spoke, with measured words. The dagger in her hand left the grilled deer leg and wagged in the air.

"You didnít listen to me yesterday."

All eyes in the kitchen shot to Gabrielle, many a set of eyebrows hitching towards hairlines.

"I did listen, Mistress," she contradicted with her best respectful voice. She entwined her hands to stop their shaking. "You wanted to set an example."

"Correct," the dark woman smiled. Gabrielle noticed she had very prominent canines and even that was... appropriate.

"But I believe one should never kill, unless it is absolutely necessary," the blonde woman continued.

The boots thudded to the ground and the Conqueror stood so swiftly Gabrielleís head felt dizzy. She gazed up, to the still smiling sharp-angled face. Another bite of the deer vanished into the dark womanís mouth and the blonde slave felt like licking her lips, they were as dry as a desert on a hot summerís day.

"That is why I hold this," the dark woman purred in a voice that was pure velvet over steel and waved the dagger. "And this holds you," she finished and gently tapped the front ring of Gabrielleís slave collar with the sharp blade. The slave felt her jaw muscles tremble as the dagger traced the edge of her chin, the cold metal in harsh contrast to her heated skin.

"Never again disobey my commands," the voice whispered and the dark woman stepped away, the faint smile still on the crimson lips. The Conqueror exited without a sound, leaving only the tension and a lingering scent of... something primal and musky. Gabrielleís nostrils flared at the scent. It was delicate and soon dissipated but she was sure sheíd remember it.

The babble started as if a floodgate had been opened. Everyone spoke at the same time, tugging at her sleeves and her hair, asking bewildered questions and berating her on what in the name of Hera that had been about. Everyone except her little patient, that is. He had fainted as soon as Xena had left, his pale face resting on top of the rough wooden table. Tracing the edge of the new scar in his face, Gabrielle sighed. She was playing with fire and had absolutely no idea what had possessed her to do it.

"So, if we move the footmen there and circle the defenses from here, near the harbour...," Kadmus was explaining, tracing his gnarled finger over the big map that depicted a sprawling city, in exquisite detail.

"Yeah, but theyíll be able to cut off the supply route here," Saba objected and jabbed a delicate finger at a hill outside the city. "Weíll be stretched too thin to protect the supplies, because weíll have to go around that hill," she concluded and folded her hands over her chest, big chocolate-brown eyes fastened on the map, her expression speaking of utmost concentration.

Xena followed the debate with one ear. Her two captains always kept it up, a plan following another as soon as the previous one had been trashed by the other. Different as night was from day, Kadmus and Saba were her most trusted aides, they had a keen sense of tactics and a feel for their troops.

Saba, a dark-skinned woman with some beauty and the shrewd mind of a con artist, was slender, almost willowy. Her frame was a clever disguise for considerable strength as well as stone-hard determination and ambition. Xena kept an eye on her for she had the kind of hunger that could someday be turned against her and that just wouldnít do. But while she was here, she was invaluable.

On her left, Kadmus towered over her five-foot frame. He was getting a bit old for the field already, his sword no longer as steady as it should have been. But he was the veteran of so many battles that Xena couldnít even remember, and all a life by the sword had cost him was one finger and half an ear. It spoke of skill and his experience was invaluable. He brought to the table a perspective so different than Sabaís that when the two merged, great plans were born.

And on her right... the Conqueror smiled a small, cruel smile. On her right stood Talas, his hair in mild disarray, dark brows knitted. He was obviously distressed and preoccupied, his eyes shooting stealthy glances at Xena. She had a strong hunch what was troubling him; her abrupt change of mind the previous night. The smile on her face threatened to intensify. The boy the fair-haired slave had been sewing up in the kitchen, he was Talasí slave. The scuttlebutt was that he had been in such a foul mood that morning that he had smacked the boy for being too slow with his wine, drawing blood when a ring had scraped the boyís cheek.

She nibbled at a piece of fruit and let Kadmusí words flow past her, unheard. Talas had been her First for almost... she adjusted her mental fingers... eight cycles now, lasting longer than any of her previous ones. One thing or another usually forced her to dispose of them and in this case, it seemed that the Firstís emotions were getting the better of him. Sheíd have to do something about that, soon.

"How about if we go around here, do a fake attack on this wall, and when theyíre distracted, ram this gate?" Talas uttered, two of his thick fingers tapping at the eastern gate to the city.

"Good, but only if they fall for it," Xena commented, joining the discussion. All eyes turned to her now as she calmly downed the last drops of wine in her cup. She thrust her hand out and the fair slave was there, pouring more of the heady local product for her. "If theyíre not distracted, we are separated into two waves, with too much space in between. They can do an attack run here--" she gestured, running a swift finger along an imaginary line, about halfway between the city and the forest around it. "And nail the main army against these cliffs here. Too little space." The finger stopped to point at a jagged line where the forest met the rocky shore.

A hum of agreement went around the table. Saba tapped her small teeth with a dagger, deep in thought, before spearing a candied pear with it. She munched on the sweet delicacy as all four people around the table meditated the dilemma in silence.

The conversation went on for hours, the occupants of the room not seeing the beautiful golden sunset nor the rise of the silvery sliver of an almost new moon to the dark sky. When the guard in the corner turned the big hourglass over for the sixth time since the beginning of the meeting, the Conqueror brought the sprawling conversation to a halt with a sharp slap of hands.

"Itís late. Weíll continue tomorrow," she said and her subordinates took the hint. Talas lingered for a moment but when she payed no attention to his fidgeting form, he too stormed out of the chamber, pounding his fist against the doorjamb as he passed it. Xena bit the edge of her goblet lightly to curb the impending evil grin. Talas was so easily led by his private parts that the Conqueror almost felt sorry for him. Almost.

On to other matters then, she mused and rapped her fingers against the golden vessel, thinking. Without turning she could feel the slaveís eyes on her, that misty green burning into her back. It brought about an odd feeling, a small spot of warmth, right there, just below a shoulderblade. It seeped through the linen covering of her upper body and spread, making the nasty grin mellow into a small, almost gentle smile. It had been a long time since someone had looked at her without a trace of fear, even behind her back. She turned slowly, the long fingers still tapping the metal surface.

The eyes met hers for a mere moment but it was a moment long enough for Xena to see the look they held. It was part curiosity, part something strange, intense and warm. No fear. The eyes were cast down in a quiet flicker but the look was transferred to the slaveís lips, the small, inward smile visible in the low candlelight. The Conqueror felt an odd tug at her lips as the smile was mirrored there.

In the little time sheíd had the fair-haired slave, she had grown curious. Having had her fill of back-stabbing people years ago, she had learned never to trust anyone, ever. But... what she felt when talking with the slave could only be described as tentative trust. Inborn familiarity, perhaps, or even... she dreaded to think of the word but being honest with oneself was the one rule by which she always abided. So she said it to herself: attraction.

She turned back towards the table and carefully rolled the maps and placed them inside their leather containers. As she handled the thin pieces of parchment with gentle hands, she thought. Repeating the word in her head.

It wasnít that she hadnít ever been smitten by a person, or that she lacked in experience. Hades, her promiscuity was almost as legendary as her fighting skills, both a testament to her intense, voraciously wild nature. But somehow, this was different. While she usually chose her bed partners by their looks or other such superficial qualities, this time she felt attracted to the girl for other reasons, for things she couldnít quite put her finger on. Sure, the slave was a looker but that was not all.

When the last scroll slipped inside its thick leather tube, she came to a decision. Her solemn vow to herself was that no matter what, sheíd always have integrity. It was sometimes the only thing that kept her going, that justified the faith she had in herself. That faith required that she take the bull by the horns when it was time to do so. She turned again and dismissed the guards with a wave. When the door closed after the last one, she set the goblet down and licked her lips.

"Whatís your name?"

The question startled her, so badly she almost dropped the half-full flagon she was cradling. Her gaze shot upward, to catch the disconcertingly blue eyes. The brilliant colour was partially hidden under the lids, flashes of it showing through dark lashes. The Conqueror was perched on the edge of the big desk, tanned arms folded and in stark contrast to the white linen of the shirt.

"Ga..." Her voice cracked a bit. "Gabrielle."


The Conqueror pronounced the syllables more carefully than she had, with a voice so different from hers. The dark womanís accent was a bit different, as was the deep, humming voice that was like a river of dark and intense emotions.

"Come here."

The words drew her closer, hesitant steps delivering her to stand before the taller woman. Her eyes were still cast down, seeing only a pair of boots and black leather trousers.

The rush of cloth made her flinch but Xenaís hand landed on her shoulder, long fingers curling around her body with surprising gentleness. The fingertips of the woman touched the edge of her shoulderblade and pressed down, making the harsh fabric of her slightly torn blouse bite into her skin. The hand turned her around and then left her shoulder, to brush her fair hair to one side. She felt a faint tug on her slave collar.

"You know why none of my slaves wear these?"

Now that the warlord mentioned it, Gabrielle realised what had been the odd thing bothering her for the last few days, a feeling of something missing. None of the other slaves had collars.

Most of the slaves had other markings, though. A few times sheíd gotten a glimpse of a shoulder and a white mark there, circular in shape with a big X inside it. Gabrielle recognised a branding when she saw it and the thought of having the searing metal press on her skin made her shiver. The mark was there to protect the slaves from any unwanted attention; it was received only by the most trusted of them and it was enough to scare away most rapists and drunken idiots. No one wanted to mess with one of Xenaís slaves for it was a sure way of securing her wrath. The Conqueror wasnít known for gentle punishments; the lash marks some of the soldiers carried were a sound proof of that.

She nodded in reply and almost heard the answering grin on the dark woman.

"Good," was the answer and the collar waggled a bit as Xena turned and reached out. The chink of metal on metal told Gabrielle that the lock at the back of the collar was about to relinquish its four-year long hold on her.

She was glad to be rid of the collar, certainly, but she was forced to face a new dilemma. The other reason why none of Xenaís slaves wore a collar was that there was no need to chain them to anything. No one dared to even think about running away and if someone was that foolish, well, there rarely was enough left of him or her to chain, after the Conqueror had had her way with the traitorous individual. It was, again, faith born out of fear, as the dark womanís philosophy dictated.

Metal groaned in protest but its strength was no match for the pliers and the lock fell, producing a muted thud as it hit the floor and its rich covering of mats. The collar closely followed it, the strip of leather with a row of rings now forgotten. Gabrielle felt a set of fingers brush at the ever-present red marks on her newly free neck. It was a patch of her skin nothing except the collar had touched for years and it was sensitive to this new sensation. She felt a small shiver go down her spine as the fingers traced a tendon, up to her ear and then progressing on to her hairline and staying there, gently twirling a lock of her hair around one digit.

The Conqueror felt the silky hair slide against her finger and valiantly resisted an urge to lean down and feel that texture on her face. Instead, she pushed herself up from the tableís edge and paced around the slave. She settled her tall frame into a chair and, taking the flagon from the tensed womanís hands, poured herself some more wine. The deep red liquid warmed her throat as it slid languidly down, giving her time to think. The slave was expecting something from her, she could see it in the reflexive clenching and unclenching of her hands. So, what to say... she mused and rewound the days in her head. Ah...

"Tell me a story."

She saw the surprised twinkle in the green eyes and the faint smile her words produced and she chuckled at her correct guess. Before entering the kitchen that day, she had heard a melodious, calm voice telling a story of a Minotaur with a bad stutter. It had made the boy laugh and forget the pain in his cheek, as intended. And it had proven to be this blonde slave who was telling the story with the pace and sense of dramatics of a professional storyteller.

Now that voice began, with a small hesitation at first. All hesitation vanished, however, when Xena nodded, giving her consent for the story. It was a tale well known to Xena, telling of the rise and fall of the Titans and Aresí attempts at using them for his conniving schemes. But somehow, the story captured her and she felt her ears twitch as she caught every word that flowed in an even meter from the slaveís lips, every sentence punctuated with just the right amount of emotion and suspense. The girl herself seemed to be immersed in the story, her arms illustrating the words with well-placed gestures. The woman had talent, Xena had to admit as much. Not to mention an inner beauty, brought out in glimpses and shards through the grey outer shell of a weary slave.

For the first time in many moons, the Conqueror felt at peace and relaxed.

The days in Arákhova stretched into a week and it was well into another before the new leaders of the town arrived and settled in. The new town council was loyal to Xena, for fear of her and for their own greed. Arákhova was a wealthy city and far enough away from areas of unrest that the people here would pose no danger to her. And besides, the ruler of Dhístomon, the next village down the River Kefeissos, was an old enemy of the new town leader. Xena smiled. That fact would be a sure-fire way to keep Ione busy. The hawklike middle-aged woman revelled in old grudges.

Arákhova hed been the last one of the bigger towns in her plan, just before the most massive one of all. The expectation of coming battle shone in her eyes, her blood starting to rise at the thought of a conquest so huge it would dwarf all others. Even thinking about all the lovely carnage ahead made her feel almost... bubbly, as if her feet were not touching the ground at all.

Apolloís chariot must have been recently polished, so brightly it shone from the sky. A ball of such brilliance it was hard to look straight at it, it travelled slowly across the cloudless sky, bathing Greece in its iridescent light. It saw the peasants at their work, dockhands hauling cargo in Pireus and it also saw a tall, dark-haired woman swing a sword that shattered the even light to a million pinpoints, all over the earthen training ground.

"Keep your guard more to the side or I can do... this," she growled, and sidestepping the lunging man, did a little twisting jump that deposited her behind him. She drew the blade lightly across his behind, tearing the fabric there and drawing a line of blood. The man yelped, trying to balance himself while clutching his stinging butt.

A chorus of half-muted, ribald laughter echoed across the open area and Xena smiled, waving her sword in one hand. It was her regular training session for her guards, with men most skilled in the art of war. And as usual, the mock fighting drew quite a crowd. Men and women of her army, from the greenest footsoldier to the most experienced rider, gathered in a loose circle around her and the few men whose turn it was that day. The spectators exchanged mumbled words, startled looks and low oohs and aahs at the spectacle, the Conqueror toying with her best.

"Now, all of you." A pause as the guards glanced at each other. "Címon, you bunch of chicken-livered pansies, attack me!" she taunted, her white teeth showing in two neat rows. Her sword kept up the twirling motion, her face unconcerned, even as the men gulped down her insult and readied their weapons. With one great battle yell, they rushed her.

The men numbered about twenty but they could have been two hundred for all the difference it made. She plowed through the sea of bodies with little trouble, having time to whistle a silly chicken-plucking tune and to take extra care that she did not inflict any permanent injury on her men. They were good but not nearly as good as her, not by a mile.

As she disposed of the last one with a kick on his mace arm and a slap from the flat of her sword to his cheekbone, the field quieted down. Even though the spectacle ended the same way every time, it seemed to get more breathtaking every day. As the twenty-plus men lay in the ground in haphazard piles, sporting injuries of various types, a few groans and more than a few worshiping glares were aimed at her and damn... it was good to be alive. She let the laugh bubble to the surface and, resheathing her sword, offered an arm for the nearest man.

"Címon, Etor. Letís take a break," she said and lifted the man upright with little difficulty. Etor, a big strapping man with a long mane of reddish hair and freckles, dusted off his studded leather armour and saluted her. He got a wink as a reply and nodded, heading for the water barrel.

She watched the huge mass of muscle move, a bit stiffly perhaps but that would be attributed to the two candlemarks of training and butt-kicking she had just delivered. When one of her closer staff would eventually have to relinquish his or her rank (and head), Etor would be a good replacement. Ambitious but not too much, clever but not too clever.

She brushed a few errant grains of sand off her gauntlet and shook a shoulder, settling the scabbard just so. Her steps took her towards the edge of the ring of spectators, towards a large oak. The crowd parted before her, allowing an unhindered line of sight towards the tree. Under its green canopy, protected from direct sunlight, stood a tall, gaunt man with skin the colour of ripe olives, and a fair-haired woman. They were deep in discussion, the woman waving her free arm animatedly while the other was holding a water skin.

"... but didnít you just say that Seth dismembered him?"

The man chuckled, a deep warm laugh that made his thin frame wobble. "Being in fifteen pieces is only a minor annoyance to a god, my dear," he countered and Xena recognised the discussion to be of his gods, a wealth of legends that had appealed to the slave and her bardic nature.

The man -- Mentuhetep was his name -- was a citizen of the Lower Kingdom, a country very far away, a sliver of green land on the edges of a massive river. He had been Cleopatraís court doctor, the rumours said, but had then stolen her lover. The lover had ended up dead, he himself expelled. Now Mentu was the Conquerorís doctor, friend and "style consultant," as he jokingly called himself.

His style consultancy had made a definite impact on the slaveís outer appearance. When Xena had instructed him to think of something better for Gabrielle to wear than the ripped blouse and dirty skirt, he had clapped his hands in delight. The slave, it was soon discovered, had a nature even more stubborn than his so after about two dozen outfits, they had come to a compromise. The russet short leather skirt and dark blue top looked nice on the girl, an outfit so much better than the previous one and so much more appropriate for the Conquerorís personal servant.

The woman had risen to that status more quickly than anyone, even Xena herself, had expected. But from the first few nights on, she had grown to like the girl and her stories, her gentle and unflappable manner and her refreshingly straightforward and honest words. The woman had guts and gall beyond her years... not to mention a nice figure, Xena added, letting her eyes rake over the smaller womanís body. Definitely, her mind growled.

"Afternoon, Mistress," the slave said and bowed, a gracious gesture on her part. The man next to her bowed as well, the stiff movement a testament to his advanced years. Xena accepted the offered waterskin and took a deep pull from it, the sandy ground having found its way into her throat as well. The grains were washed away with the cool liquid and she splashed some water on her face. As the water mixed with her sweat, she tasted the salt in the drops, licking away a few that had meandered to her mouth.

She watched the play of light on the water-speckled face of the warrior, sparks reflecting off the numerous transparent drops there. The womanís tongue appeared, licking a few droplets away, and the rest were scattered with a quick shake of a dark head, the raven bangs slightly tangled and dirty from fighting.

The lesson continued for another two candlemarks, the Conqueror sharing her skill under the scorching sun, for her men to learn from defeat, pain and her harsh words. When Xena finally clapped her hands, thus signalling the end of the practice, a collective sigh of relief went through her guards. No bad injuries today, just the usual assortment of cuts and bruises, and one lost finger. Sometimes when a man wasnít quite as skillful, the lesson cost him a limb or even his life. It was natural selection, weeding out the weak ones so that they fell while training and not in real battle. What remained was the core force of her army, about a hundred of her best warriors. The best men and women in the whole of Greece. She was proud and it showed, as she smiled and nodded at the saluting troops, exchanging a word or two with some of them.

Gabrielle watched the Conqueror converse with her troops, clap a few backs and receive a whole barrage of admiring, longing and worshiping looks in return. It was dawning on the slave that these men didnít follow the dark woman solely because they were afraid of her. They were loyal because they admired her, respected her and were absolutely sure that her way was the best.

Prying her gaze away from the dark woman, Gabrielleís brow knitted. Her eyes had found Talas and the man looked haggard. Disturbed.

Her train of thought slowed down as she refocused on the Conqueror, now pacing towards them again. The smile had been ever-present today and it wasnít one of the raven-haired womanís nicer smiles, not by a mile. Predatory and calm, it was echoed in her straight-backed, vividly muscular form. She shone with pent-up energy.

"We move out tomorrow."

Again, she rose with the sun.

The dawn was rosy in colour and it covered the fair hair in a coating of pale pink, bringing out the fiery red highlights. The Conqueror smiled at the young woman dozing on the stack of pillows, a haphazard pile of satin and lovely human flesh sprawled on the floor. The light accentuated the gentle, smooth features of the slaveís face, cheeks shaded by long blonde lashes. She momentarily pondered waking the slave but decided to let her be. The young woman was exhausted, the Conqueror having kept her up till the midnight hours, talking and telling stories. That one discussion, an argument really, about Artemis had gone on for candlemarks.

As she paced around the room, chewing on an apple, Xenaís eyes kept returning to the youthful figure. It had been a long, long time since anyone had relaxed enough in her company to be able to sleep in the same room... or, for that matter, since Iíve been relaxed enough to sleep with someone in the same room, she added, her chewing slowing down as she pondered this new aspect.

It wasnít that sheíd be afraid to sleep with someone; no, she was well capable of taking care of herself when it came to conniving, ambitious bedfellows and assassins. More than once her bed had been stained with the blood of someone too desperate and stupid. No, it was more about her sense of... her tongue worked itself around her mouth as she fished for the right word. Her sense of personal space. Yeah.

She needed space. She certainly wasnít the huggy type of person, to put it mildly, and she got somewhat anxious in crowds. And six feet of heavily armed walking intimidation doesnít mix well with anxiousness. She couldnít stand the thought of someone in the bed next to her, snoring into her ear.

But... She turned back towards the slave, the silk of her robe whispering quietly as it brushed against her body. The dark head shook in wonderment and awe and the Conqueror confessed to herself that she was a bit... scared. In all its absurdity the word stuck in her throat and she started to twiddle with the half-eaten apple. There was something about the slave that made a small spot of warmth ingnite inside her, just the sight of the lithe body curled up on the floor. She stood there for a long moment, watching the play of gentle sunlight on the gentler face, wondering.

The sound of a blaring trumpet woke her from the idle daydreams and she shook her head, uttering a small bark of self-deprecatory laugh. Finishing the apple quickly, she nudged at the pile of pillows with one foot. The figure perched on them twitched and a sleepy face rose from the soft surface, a misty green orb peeking from under an eyebrow. The orb widened and its companion shot open as well. The girl scrambled to a standing position.

"Iím sorry Mistress, I fell asleep but..." she started, her voice a bit hoarse from all the talking and too little sleep. Her explanation was halted with a raised hand and a mild smile from the Conqueror.

"Never mind. Help me get dressed."

She had not been outside the gates of Arákhova for almost two years. The sight of the two massive wooden panels she now passed reflected as a gently roiling feeling in her gut.

It was clear to her that her fate was now entwined with that of the dark woman, as it had previously been with the collar. That piece of metal and leather had signified her position, chances in life and daily existence, condemning her to a social status that was a close equivalent to that of a stray dog. Now, it was somehow different. Though her social status had seemingly kept its status quo, all the other aspects of her life had changed.

That morning she had supervised the packing of the Conquerorís personal belongings. She, a former kitchen slave who, two weeks earlier, didnít even merit a bed in her former masterís house. And now, the Conquerorís paid servants, honour guard and even Mentu came to her for advice. She had been barraged with questions like How is she feeling today? and Where shall I put this? for hours on end while trying to get her bearings straight. Even Jacinthe, the small slip of a girl that had previously been responsible for Xenaís personal belongings had come to bury the war hatchet that morning, asking for advice.

Jacinthe. The girl had originally gazed at the fair-haired slave with barely veiled looks of contempt, as if she had intentionally stolen her place as the Conquerorís chamber maid. But after Gabrielle had pointed out the fact that this way she didnít have to suffer the dark womanís capricious nature and fits of rage that sometimes ensued from it, Jacinthe had mellowed down a bit and now... that morning the girl had even smiled at her.

There was something wrong with the picture, though. The slave pushed back an errant strand of her fair hair and adjusted the parcel she was carrying, her eyes on the broad back that progressed about twenty paces in front of her, surrounded by the honour guard. The Conquerorís armour was spit-shined until it fairly glowed, the black leather under it rubbed to its fullest gleam. In the fresh sunlight, the dark woman looked radiant, her mane of coal-black hair dancing around in the faint breeze. Gabrielleís mind got lost in the sway of the dark silk for a long time, until she stumbled a bit on a protruding tree root.

Yes, the picture. The slave was utterly, completely at loss as to why and how all this had happened. She hadnít meant to become... whatever it was that she had became. The Conquerorís chamber maid, personal servant and perhaps, even a... friend. Gabrielle worked the word around, trying to adjust to the idea, because it was really the only word she could use to describe the situation. Though it was the best she could come up with, it did not encompass the true spectrum of her feelings towards the dark woman.

In her head, she replayed their conversation from last night. She had told a story, a light humorous tale about Cupidís lost arrow and what trouble Artemis spawned with it. The story had launched them into a debate about Artemis herself, the Conqueror having a very low perception of the Goddess of hunt. After all, it had been Xena who had plowed through the Amazon Nation, leaving it crippled and feeble.

The conversation had brought to surface new sides of the Conqueror, as well as of herself. Never, ever in her life had Gabrielle thought the Destroyer of Nations would have a sense of humour and that a smile could be so fetching. When Xena had smiled, a genuine all-teeth affair that for once reached even the sapphire eyes, the slaveís knees had faltered. Seeing the gentle twinkle of teasing in the blue eyes and the shrewd, razor-sharp mind pondering something other than handy ways of torturing people or war plans, had thrown Gabrielleís mind for a loop. The woman was a killing machine, yes, but one with a soul and with a mind capable of so much more than carnage. Perhaps even one with a heart.

Xenaís army, being as large as it was, couldnít have fit inside the city walls so most of it was camped outside Arákhova. They reached the tent-covered grassy plain just before noon, the army just finishing its preparations. In fact, most tents were already in various stages of dismantling and packing, the Conquerorís army so much like a beehive, bustling with activity. Although the forerunners and scouts were already on their way and she herself would be leaving inside a candlemark, it would take the whole day to get all of the army on the move. Moving large masses of people and supplies for them was an operation of massive proportions and complications, and so it was done in multiple stages.

There was a podium at the centre of the open area, a hastily constructed wooden structure for messengers to read information and orders to the illiterate bulk of the army. Now, the Conqueror mounted the rickety ladder and was closely followed by her closest adjutants. Gabrielle stopped at the foot of the high platform, unsure of whether she should follow or not and generally wondering why in the Known World was she here anyway. A finger crooked her way solved the problem and with trembling hands she navigated the ladder, all the way up.

"Fellow soldiers," she began, her powerful deep voice carrying easily over the assembled crowd. Men and women had gathered quickly when the word had spread that she was heading that way, a sure sign of action. The sea of flesh, leather and glinting weapons that saluted her opening words roared like a sea possessed by Poseidonís wrath.

"Today, we start a journey that will lead us to immortality. We head to a victory --" A bellowing cheer interrupted her. She raised a hand to signal she wasnít finished. "Towards a united Greece..."

The voice went on, wafting in the air with negligent power, heard by even the last lines in the acres of jam-packed troops. It talked of harsh life on the road and its reward, her faith in them and the meaning of war, in the greater scheme of things. Gabrielle didnít hear all the words for she was so entranced with the voice itself, a satiny smooth tone that spoke with absolute confidence and honesty. A quick scan told her that the rest of the troops were equally swallowed by the voice, its promises and especially, the tone that said that the promises would be fulfilled. The words were simple but so was her message: honesty and integrity are the keys to victory.

A round of cheers rose again. This time she turned and gestured for the slave to hand her the bundle she was carrying. Gabrielle snapped out of her trance and hastily complied. From inside the wrappings, the dark woman revealed a neatly folded pack of cloth, its colour a crimson so brilliant it made the slaveís eyes hurt. Xena flapped open the fabric and it turned out to be a cape that she then wrapped around her shoulders. The sight of the blood-red cape, snapping in the wind, the Conquerorís black hair a spidery web of black silk on it, made small shivers go down the slaveís spine. She recognised the cape so well, after all these years.

It was rumoured that the cape had originally been snow white. It was coloured crimson by the blood of the Conquerorís opponents, their lifeís essence contributing to its vibrant colour. No matter how much it was washed, it remained bright red.

Now, the sight of the red cape brought about a thunder of yells, the noise swelling to such levels that it hurt the slaveís ears. The Conqueror unsheathed one of the swords that hung at her sides and lifted it high above her head, its blade glinting in the sunlight.

"To glory!" she roared and it was answered in kind, a forest of swords, pikes and maces shot into the air and a chant rose.

It was her name, repeated with a thousand voices, a thousand hearts beating for her.

Though the journey would have taken her three days on foot and two if she were running, travelling with an entourage the size of a big city was of course slower. She estimated that it would take them six days to reach the isthmus and settle into a suitable position. With an army of this size, one really couldnít count on surprise attacks -- one fought with cunning plans and sheer manpower.

Since almost all of the area they travelled through was already under Xenaís control and no small-time warlord was so stupid as to bother her army, they travelled in peace. It was on the fourth day of travel when that peace was broken.

The forward camp where she resided had already left Voiotia, the high plains behind them and Mount Kithairón looming in the forward horizon. They had taken the shorter, coastal route that meant stretching her army a bit thin but the terrain was better. So in her tent the peaceful lapping of waves of the Gulf of Alkionídhon could be heard, the hiss of fluorescent water against the gently sloping sandy beach.

On the shoreline, a row of blazing bonfires illuminated the sea, the curve of the beach, and the men lounging on it who clustered in small groups to eat supper, sharpen their weapons and exchange war stories. They had stopped early that day, when a messenger had come to inform Xena that one regiment of the rear troops had been delayed because of a wagon accident. So the Conqueror had ordered a halt around nightfall and that left the men with some rare free time, if they hadnít chosen the short stick in the guard pool. A warlordís day, however, didnít stop there. The attack plan was revised again, for the thousandth time, or so it felt to Saba.

The small captain leaned against the central pole of the command tent, nibbling at her lower lip. It was a nervous gesture for her and surely she had justification for it. Around the big map table were clustered the usual faces; Kadmus who was deep in argument with Talas, the captain of Xenaís hoplites and then the Conqueror of course, her eyes half closed as she listened to the testosterone-fueled argument and trimmed her fingernails with a wicked curved dagger.

There was one additional person, a thick-necked man with flaming carrot-red curly hair and intelligent eyes. Etor was his name if she remembered correctly and he was one of the Conquerorís honour guard, a rising star. He worried her simply because a rising star, one that was invited to battle planning, signified that someone elseís star was rapidly falling. She fervently hoped it wasnít hers because the only way down was a straight trip to Hadesí realm.

The argument was getting more and more heated, the veins on Talasí temples looked as if they were about to burst any moment. His face was a bit red and the three-day shadow he had on his cheeks was in stark contrast to the colour. Saba had noticed that recently the First had had these temper tantrums more often than was necessary and his appearance was a bit haggard. The womanís dark brown eyes narrowed as she followed him.

The Firstís eyes darted back and forth, from the tentís opening to Kadmus and from there, to the relaxed-looking Xena. The eyes were a bit wild and had a fire that Saba found a bit worrisome, especially the few times they flicked to the small blonde slave who was at Xenaís elbow, filling her goblet whenever necessary. Then the eyes were pure murder.

Rumour had it that the slave had slept in Xenaís room when they were at Arákhova and the same had continued here -- now she slept in the Conquerorís tent. The rumours didnít say anything about the nature of their relationship but did say that, supposedly, the First had almost been granted access to that wide pallet the Conqueror slept on. Almost. If the scuttlebutt was true, it all added up nicely but Saba had never been one to believe in idle gossip. She made a mental shrug. Her fate was not in her hands.

She almost bit off her lip when the Conqueror hit the table with a fist, making the various vessels, quills and assorted weapons on it jump. The boom cut through the argument like a sharp knife slicing into soft flesh, startling everyone into stunned silence.

"Enough!" Xena roared, her eyes blazing like two chips of cold fire. "We are here to discuss, not to argue. If you canít do the former, Iíll make sure you wonít be able to do the latter either," she growled, twirling the thin-bladed dagger with a light touch. All mouths snapped shut. The Conqueror was not in a good mood tonight, it seemed.

The pained silence was broken by the sound of a small gong. It announced a visitor and true to the sound, a flushed soldier, a footman according to his half-armour, side-winged helmet and small shield, entered the tent. He caught everyoneís attention and steadied himself with a few deep breaths. He knelt in front of the tall woman and bowed his head.

"My lord, we have captured two spies."


The man hastily explained that a guard had seen a flash of light, a torch perhaps, at the rocky area a few hundred paces from the beach. He had taken his companion with him and his vision had proved to be true. It was a pair of men with strange insignias, trying to sneak away. They had been tied up and were brought back to the camp.

Xena nodded and tapped her mouth with the dagger. Nodding minutely at a decision made, she rummaged through a small chest next to the table and came up with a sturdy metal hook that was usually utilised to draw out tent wedges. It was about the size of her palm and had a wooden handle set at a right angle to the curved metal.

"Take me there," the Conqueror said and gestured for her adjutants to come with her.

The spies were at the beach, hogtied and guarded by at least ten angry-looking men. One of the spies tried to wriggle but a nasty jab from a pike discouraged him otherwise. All thoughts of further squirming were quickly forgotten at the sight of the tall, cloaked figure that emerged behind a bonfire. The figure and the reputation it carried was enough to make blood freeze in his veins, cold waves of pure fear cascading through him. His eyes focused on two hands that extended from within the crimson cloak that masked the figure. One of the tanned, strong hands was holding a small, curved dagger that reflected the yellow flames with vividity that spoke of sharpness. The sight of the hands, so beautiful yet so deadly, was almost enough to make him faint.

The trembling of his jaw was his only movement when the imposing figure came to stand next to him and with one fluid movement, crouched and grabbed his collar. He saw brilliant blue eyes fasten on the insignia there and then grow colder than the northern wind that one winter blew over his homeland, bringing ice and cold death. She spat a curse and, rising to her full height, turned towards the soldier that had fetched her.

"You said he carried a message."

She was handed a small scroll and upon uncurling it, to her consternation she saw that it contained detailed information of her armyís progress, as well as numbers and possible exploitable weaknesses, as few as they were. Her brow darkened at this information that was clearly delivered to the spies by an insider.

"Who gave you this?" she asked the bound men, waving the scroll. Her voice was thick with rage, the added layer of menace bringing a chill to the warm beach. The men stayed sullenly silent and she shrugged. "Have it your way. Unbind them, leave only their ankles and wrists tied," she ordered one of the guards. The man hastened to his task and as she gestured, one of the slightly trembling but straight-faced men was lifted upright. The spyís determination wavered a bit when the blue eyes pinned him, the piercing gaze raking up and down. He said a prayer and gathered his courage, meeting the gaze.

The Conqueror smiled a small cruel smile at the manís spirit. Many a man had been broken down by just the threat of her but not this one, no. So, she was going to have at least some fun this night even though she suspected the men had as little idea about the traitorís true identity as she did. The manís shirt ripped with ease, revealing a heaving bare chest, covered in a glistening sheen of sweat. She lifted the dagger to his face, tracing one cheek with it, gently breaking the skin.

"Who gave you the scroll?" she repeated but the man stayed mum, a new wave of moisture beading on his forehead when the dagger moved downward. His silence was broken with a strangled groan and he thrashed a bit in his bindings as she drew the blade horizontally across his chest, making a cut about about a span wide.

"You can stop this anytime," she murmured and drew two longer lines, these vertically from the ends of the first cut to the waistband of his trousers. His breathing was laboured and he was pale as a linen sheet but stayed quiet. She shrugged and turned to the guards.

"Lift him upside down."

As the men hastily constructed a tripod from tent poles and hung the hapless man there from his ankles, Xena gestured for Etor to come nearer. The young man complied hastily; an opportunity to learn from the Conqueror herself was valuable beyond belief. He stood to the side and bent a bit forward, to see what the dark woman was doing.

The man hung so that his head was about a foot from the sand, his eyes level to the Conquerorís kneeguard. Small trickles of blood from his wounds were making their way down his chest and dripping down to the virginally white sand. Xena took the wedge hook and pushed it through his skin, at the top end of the rectangle. He whimpered at this, his fear overcoming the pain.

"Now, Etor, always hang the subject upside down."

Her tone was light, almost conversational, as if she were commenting on the weather or the brightness of the Milky Way that night, the belt of skyís gossamer bathing the beach with blue-white ethereal light. Etor nodded, not quite comprehending but sure that an explanation was forthcoming. At his nod, the Conqueror took a good hold of the hook and yanked swiftly upwards, a measured move of about a span.

The manís scream was heard throughout the camp, soldiers on their evening meals pausing and looking towards the beach. The word that spies had been captured had already spread and the men smiled, knowing the sounds so well. The danger that had loomed over them was being purged.

"When skinning, the subject remains conscious longer."

Etor nodded at the Conquerorís words and licked his lips, which had suddenly dried. The sand under the spy was now drenched in blood, the thick liquid running in wide rivers from the square patch of missing skin on his chest, down his neck and splashing around as he writhed in pain.

"Who gave you the scroll?"

"I donít know! Donít... it was left for us to pick up," he groaned, all fight gone from him now. He just wanted the pain to end.

"How do I know youíre not lying?" she hissed, smiling, and grabbed the hook again.

The first man lost consciousness at the middle of the second strip, the other had died at the beginning of his third from too much lost blood. Their story was the same, both screaming that they didnít know until they almost coughed out a lung. So, she had learned she had a traitor in her army, a fact of life, but someone quite high-ranked at that, which was worrisome. This one message was intercepted but nobody knew how many had gotten through. Luckily, the battle plan wasnít yet finalised in anywhere but her head -- spies were the reason why. But the day had been a sum of mishaps and bad luck.

By the time the interrogation was finished, the night was already halfway through and the rest of the meeting was pushed to the next day. The Conqueror was feeling the wear of a long day and when she finally returned to her tent, she sat down with unusual lack of grace, resting her head against the tall backrest of the chair.

"Rough day?" a gentle voice asked. She opened one eye, to see the fair-haired slave standing in front of her, a small smile playing on the coral lips. Instinctively, she smiled back and nodded.

Gabrielle knelt next to the chair and started on the laces of Xenaís left gauntlet, trying not to see the blotches of blood on the dark leather and on the dark womanís hands. It covered the tanned skin in uneven caking pools of rusty brown and red, depending on its level of freshness. A small stain on the inside of her wrist was still warm and as she pulled the guntlet away, Gabrielleís fingers stayed there, her mind deep in thought as she brushed at the small fleck of crimson. It stuck to her fingers and left them a bit sticky.

"Tomorrowís the big day, huh?"

The Conqueror was brought out of her trance by the quiet, pondering voice. She looked down, at the red-golden head and small fingers that stayed over her wristís pulse point, warming the skin there, the small brushing sending faint sparks up her arm. The slaveís head turned up at her and she found herself drowning in misty green eyes.

"Or the day after that. You scared?"

"A bit," Gabrielle admitted, not knowing why or for whom. Perhaps... for Xena, as silly as it sounded. A hesitant hand reached out and the Conquerorís other hand gently landed on hers. The slave lowered her head to cover the faint blush she felt on her face, and her eyes were drawn to the hand.

The Conquerorís hand was bigger than hers, and certainly warmer. The long tapered fingers were graceful in their shape, belying their talent in pain. Somehow, seeing her paler hand disappear under the tanned, bloodied one made her feel calmer. She felt comforted by the gesture and the warmth that seeped from the taller woman.

She got the other bracer off as well as her arm protectors and the breastplate that was so heavy it almost made her stumble. It was a constant source of wonderment to Gabrielle how the Conqueror managed to stay upright, let alone fight with the weight of a stone well on her but the tall woman didnít seem to even notice. She carried herself differently with the armour but it still looked as if the thing weighed no more than a feather pillow, so effortless her gait and military bearing were.

The slave began on the Conquerorís shin protectors and boots, tugging at the binds with small grunts. Buckles were easy but whenever Xena got blood on her boots, and that was often, the laces sucked it up and the knots were just small clumps of red paste that Gabrielle fought to untangle, cursing Gordius in her mind. Her fingers hurt from the effort but finally, the caked substance relinquished its grasp and the boots were off.

Exhausted from her fight with the thick leather thongs, Gabrielle sat down at the Conquerorís feet. Small trickles of the blood had run down the insides of her boots and onto her legs and the slave traced one such blotchy red line with her finger. She saw the tensed muscle jump, a smooth round shape contracting under bronze skin. The tall womanís legs were tired and tense from the dayís riding and standing and it gave Gabrielle a good excuse to touch that tanned, satiny skin, an urge that had grown over the days and was becoming harder and harder to resist. She started the massage at the Conquerorís ankles and progressed upward, kneading the strained tendons with all the strength she could muster.

Xena let her head loll back at the wonderful feel of the small fingers on her legs, draining away the tension there with a knowing, gentle touch. Her eyes drooped nearly shut at the shivers of pleasure the massage brought out and she entered a hazy state of half sleep. She didnít hear the low, languid groan that left her lips when the slave found the hard knots in her anterior shin muscle, and she also missed the faint blush that rose to the fair slaveís cheeks at the sensuous sound.

Scooting even closer for better access, Gabrielle worked the sleekly muscled legs with both hands. She was now almost sitting between the Conquerorís thighs, her thumbs finding sensitive spots behind the dark womanís knee. She took her cue from the guttural sounds that left the lips of the dozing woman.

Finally, she paused at the knee, her fingers hurting from the hard work. She rested her cheek against the inside of one knee, feeling the softness of the skin on her heated cheek. She watched the long, smooth thigh that extended from the knee, following the graceful lines of muscles hidden under the straining skin that disappeared under the dark leather of Xenaís battle dress, the studded strips arranged haphazardly.

The slave heard a small humm of relaxation waft down towards her and the Conquerorís hand tangled into her hair, gently pressing her head against the soft thigh. She hugged the lower leg and closed her eyes, just enjoying the sense of comfort brought by the hand smoothing her hair and the small hum that had transformed into a song, the Conquerorís full contralto vocalising the words with just enough volume for them to reach the slaveís ears.

They sat like that for a long time, the candles in the tent burning away to guttering stubs, neither wishing to break the rare moment of peace that would probably be the last for the next few days.

The following day was hot and humid and it saw them progressing slowly in the blistering heat that resulted in fainting men and frothing horses. At midday break the troops scrambled to every possible shadow a tree, stony outcropping or big boulder could provide.

For warlords, the responsibility brought some perks. One of them was the luxury of a lunch on a table and under a canopy of linen to shield her and her highest staff from the burning rays. The Conqueror herself sat at the end of the table, the others occupying the rest of it as well as other smaller ones, giving her a wide berth of privacy. She chewed on her pheasant, occasionally dipping a thick slice of bread into olive oil and brushing a bit of the light sauce onto it. The blue eyes roamed around, meeting other stares rarely and when they did, the other eyes skittered quickly away. Her battle fever was beginning to gather at the fringes of her mind and it shone through the baby blue depths.

Gabrielle came nearer and poured some more wine, quietly, not wishing to interrupt the dark womanís ponderings. However, when she turned to attend to the other members of the high command, she was halted by a hand on her wrist. It tugged at her and she was settled to perch on a wide armrest, the other arm of the Conqueror circling behind her, so near the slave could feel the heat but not the touch.

"Tell me, Gabrielle," Xena began, the slaveís eyes misting over for a moment when her name left those ruby red lips. "What do you think of them?" she continued, gesturing with the golden goblet at the people lunching near her. The blonde slave re-focused her eyes and started from her left, at Kadmus.

"Heís a bit nervous but his professionalism masks it easily," the slave analysed at the man, his salt-and-pepper-haired head bobbing up and down as he conversed with Etor. "The red-haired man is more than excited, heís anxious, impatient. He sees great glory and honour in the coming battle." The intelligent hazel green eyes shifted onward.

"The blonde woman is also expectant, her mood a mix of greed, elation and healthy fear," the slave analysed Xenaís head scout, a willowy woman with a mass of blonde ringlets as hair and wide, grey eyes that spoke of calculating cunningness and extreme self-confidence. No surprise there, the woman was an Amazon and the best spy/scout Xena had.

She went on, recognising some of the faces and finding some quite new. Of the Conquerorís adjutants, a few were missing, most notably Saba who was riding with the rear troops. It was a sensible precaution, a wise warlord didnít keep all her eggs in one basket.

The last of the people present was the First. Talas was chewing on his bird with a faraway look in his eyes, his hands working in automatic gestures over the animal.

"Heís a bit messed up. Nervous."

The judgement made the Conqueror frown. To her, Talasí face looked nonplussed, void of any real emotion. The hands were steady and calm as they deposited bits of the white meat into his mouth.

"Why do you say that?" she asked, quietly. As an answer, she didnít get words but instead, a discreetly pointing finger, aimed at somewhere behind the table where she couldnít see. She tilted her upper body in front of the slaveís to be able to see what the blonde woman could from her vantage point. What the Conqueror saw made a dark eyebrow rise minutely. Well well... The manís leg was twitching nervously, the foot tapping the ground with an uneven meter.

The slave had lost her focus on the leg when the Conqueror had bent closer. The scent of the dark hair right under her nose was familiar, the herb concoction that scented her soap. But there was an added layer to it, something that was spicy, primal and musky. The Conquerorís scent. Suddenly, the beachís temperature seemed to notch up a few degrees, at the sensation of having this magnificient woman so close to her. She saw the muscles at the dark womanís back twitch and shift when she adjusted her position, powerful mounds of flesh that smoothly rose and fell under tanned skin. Gabrielle was sure that if the Conqueror didnít soon move to a safer distance, sheíd have to bite at her hands to keep them from touching those delicious hills and valleys. She wasnít quite sure if she was relieved or disappointed when Xena straighened back up and continued with her lunch.

After a candlemarkís break, the journey continued. The bulk of the troops took the route that was more inland, at the foot of Kithairón, while the Conqueror and her guards travelled the coast after the front troops and war chariots, their horses galloping along the sand pinstriped by the heavy two-wheelers. It did not matter anymore that her army left clear signs of their travel, their destination surely knew of its fate by now. A big city employed more than two spies.

The front of the army didnít reach their dayís intended destination until twilight was nearing; the tail would march for some candlemarks still to settle into pre-arranged positions. The front troops, consisting mainly of horsemen and a handful of scouts and hoplites, circled around the Gulf, settling near a village on a small peninsula that thrust into the still waters. The camp was settled, tents put up and guards fanned out to their positions. It was like any other night at a war camp, except for a ritual, the only one the Conqueror followed.

The Conqueror gathered her closest troops and led them to a hill close to the shore, a cliff with a clean view southwards, over another gulf of water that was already ink-black in the dimming twilight. On the highest ground, she stopped and stood still, her adjutants silent at the sight. There, over the calm sliver of sea, a light could be seen. It was a light born of innumerable bonfires, kitched fires and torches, the glowing speck of a city, still in the gentle breeze of the evening. It was a blazing jewel along a coastline of dull pearls, a light that beckoned with its brightness and promise.

Xena took a guardís pike, one that bore her banner. The crimson fabric swayed in the feeble wind and offered glimpses of the intricate crest of gold and blue. The Conqueror drove the tall pole into the ground and it stuck there, standing as a signal. She turned towards the small speck of light in the horizon and narrowed her eyes.

"Here, at the village of Asprókambos, at this day of three fortnights after Summer Solstice," she began, her voice powerful, deep, a steady contralto that was divine in its smoothness. The words exploded in the still air, seeking a challenger but finding none. Her arms were spread at her sides, taking in the entire coastline and the city that guarded a peninsula that was the gate to Peloponnesus.

"... I, Xena of Amfípolis, lay claim to the city of Kórinthos."

The night fulfilled the promise dayís simmering heat had given. Clouds gathered over the waning moon and when night was at its blackest, they opened up and started to pour their wet cargo on the Isthmus of Kórinthos, or Corinth as it was known in the Roman world. The Conqueror woke when the first load landed on her tent, the steady pitter patter that soon grew to a sound that reminded her of a flooding river; it brought a smile to her face. Excellent, she chuckled and closed her eyes again.

When she opened them again, it was almost morning. The rain was still falling, the roof of her tent seemed almost black. She smiled at the dark colour that signified a new, positive twist to her plan. Stretching luxuriously in her bed, she felt her fingers and toes cringe at the feeling the darkness inside her produced. It pounded inside its gates, demanding release. Small tendrils of it had already escaped and were taunting her at the fringes of her vision, beckoning her to join the deep blackness on the shores of carnage inside her. Soon.

"Good morning, Mistress. Itís raining cats and dogs," Gabrielle said as she entered through the curtains that separated the Conquerorís bed from the rest of the tent. The slave was smiling a small, tentative smile that relaxed as soon as she saw the grin on the dark womanís face. Xena accepted the offered cup of tea with a small nod and winked at the blonde woman.

"Yes. Perfect," she purred, threw a silk robe on her naked form and paced to her desk, leaving behind a perturbed Gabrielle. Sipping at the fragrant, herbed liquid she ran a hand through her disheveled hair and waited for the inevitable.

She was already dressed and strapping her swords to her sides when the message came, in the form of a breathless, wide-eyed archer. He stumbled into the tent and met the cool, relaxed blue gaze, his heartbeat steadying a bit at the Conquerorís calm. His clothes were dripping water and he shook a bit, pre-battle trepidation and the cold rain overcoming his muscle control.

"Most gracious lord," he began and knelt. His message was not good and he feared for his neck. "Commander Talas..."

"Is missing," a cool, deep voice ended the sentence.

He kept his eyes on the toe of his left boot, holding breath and waiting for an explosion of rage. When it did not come, he lifted his eyes and saw, to his utter astonishment, that the Conqueor was still sitting, carving out small slices from a peach with her breast dagger. There was no surprise on the dark womanís face but instead, the ghost of a small knowing smile. For the life of him, he couldnít figure out how she had known.

"I take it his horse is gone as well?"

The archer nodded, a small droplet of water dislodging itself from his nose.

"Good. Send in my messengers," she said and dismissed the man. The swift-legged men and women came in mere moments later and she dispersed them to fetch the commanding officers of the various parts of her army that were spread around the city.

Part 3 -(End)

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