Penance, part 3 (conclusion) --- by Penumbra
Please see part 1 for disclaimers. Comments, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The war council lasted not a half a candlemark. The outrageous cries of the high-ranked were quieted quickly and new orders were given. The talk was swift and fevered, everybodyís emotions running high. The meeting ended with each of the commanders receiving a scroll and then pledging their loyalty. One by one, the solemn figures departed back into the pouring rain. Finally, all that remained was the Conqueror, leaning quietly against the edge of her desk, adjusting her shoulder guard to settle just so as her horse was being fetched for her.
Gabrielle stood at one side, unsure of what to do. She felt fear but didnít want to voice it, lest the Conqueror laugh at her weakness. She took one tentative step forward but paused, not knowing if it was OK to approach the tall figure that oozed darkness. The hand on the shoulder guard paused and blue eyes found green.
Taking a deep breath, the slave crossed the remaining distance. She stood not a yard away from the Conqueror, both afraid of and drawn by the electric storm in the twin pools of clear azure. Quickly, before her mind could stop her she lifted a hand to the dark womanís cheek. It stopped a hairís breadth away from the heated skin, not quite touching but close enough for her to feel the power that rolled off the tall figure in intense waves. Her hand brushed along the curve of the cheek, still not touching, afraid of how it would feel. The slave dropped the hand to her side and turned away.
Suddenly, a powerful arm slid around her and she was pulled into a warm cocoon of leather, bronze and dark energy. The Conquerorís arms wrapped around the slave and squeezed her back against cold, hard armour plates. Gabrielle felt the womanís head bury itself in her hair. The dark woman exhaled with a sound that was almost a quiet sigh and half-lifted the slave into her lap.
Gabrielle felt the breath trickle through her hair and brush her neck, giving birth to a small delicious shiver. It was indescribable how good the strong, muscled and armoured arms around her felt, the unyielding pressure of the cuirass on her back, the long thighs that circled hers. She was caught inside the dark forcefield that was the secret of the Conquerorís strength and it brought with it a sense of delicious danger and white-hot passion.
The moment ended all too soon when Xenaís side man entered. He was responsible for keeping her crest up, no matter what happened. Apart from hers, it was probably the most dangerous job in the army but he owed his life to the Conqueror thrice over and would follow her through the seven levels of Tartarus if she asked him to. The pike with its crimson flag was his only weapon, a testament to his courage. His entrance signalled that everything was ready, the army waiting for her.
She disentangled from the slave and nodded at the kneeling man.
"It is time."
"Itís so beautiful," Aeolus breathed, and the Conqueror nodded, her feelings echoing his excitement. Next to her, Aeolusí horse pranced around nervously. The small roan was always nervous, it seemed, a mass of explosive jittering force. Together the horse and its rider gave credit to the manís name; he wasnít named after the God of winds for nothing.
The rain was so heavy it obscured everything beyond a hundred paces, reducing their target to a big black blur in the distance. But inside that hundred paces, directly before her, stood the bulk of Xenaís army, stretching out to the grey infinity in all three sides. Rows and rows of men and women, their armour glistening with moisture, their horsesí coats gleaming, weapons ready. Waiting for her. It was beautiful.
"Raise the standard."
The red cloth was blood-black and heavy from the ever-pouring rain and it swayed sluggishly on its tall pole. Aeolus balanced it with a small grunt and nudged his horse. The roan sidestepped and whinnied but finally set after the massive golden warhorse. Aeolus wiped the water from his eyes with one hand and marveled at how the Conqueror managed to look so wonderful even when drenched.
The army parted before her as she paced through it at a slow canter. All eyes were fastened on her and she delivered on her armyís expectations. Sure, calm, the epitome of confidence was the dark figure that sat upright in the saddle, rivulets of water running down the predatory face that was smiling a small, cruel smile. She could feel the power around her and inside her and it was just too damned intoxicating. The day would be hers, she was sure -- and with her, the troops were convinced of it as well.
When she reached the front of the army, she stopped and squinted her eyes. With enough imagination, she could see the inhabitants of Kórinthos on the walls, looking at her, but she didnít really need the visual confirmation. She felt her heart drawn in the right direction, over the bumpy ground and copse of trees, towards the defenders, now massing at the field of battle.
Kórinthos was a harbour city, covering a small peninsula on the Gulf of Kórinthos. The area just outside the city, on the landward side, was an open area flanked by the edges of a massive forest. The trees had been cut to prevent surprise attacks by offering the city a clear line of sight inland. But the advantage was mutual, for any attacker could easily see the cityís defenders.
As it was, the Conqueror was now gazing down that tree-lined gateway that led to the city, blocked only by the mass of men that was there to stop her and the stone city walls. She wasnít at the exact centre of the army but on the eastern flank, with the edge of the forest in her field of vision. The corner of her shapely mouth twitched as she saw the defenders fan out and come forward to meet her, anticipating her formation. So far, everything had gone as planned. Act one, scene one had gone like a dream.
She ventured a look upward, eyes squinting at the stinging rain. In the western sky, the clouds were starting to thin out and Xena estimated it wouldnít take the rain more than a few candlemarks to stop; it was already getting less intense by the moment.
When the darker grey mass that was the other army had set itself between her and the tip of the forest, it was time to go. She nodded to Aeolus who lifted the standard higher and tilted it, a signal to the horns. The eerie sound of long trumpets echoed throughout the battlefield, drowning out the deafening clatter of raindrops on countless helmets and in turn, was drowned by a battle yell from a thousand mouths.
The first kill was always, always hers. When the two armies met, she had already plowed through the first few lines, her sword a sharp bolt of silver lightning as she scythed men down, left and right. The first one to fall by her sword that day had been a young hoplite, a man no more than fifteen or seventeen cycles old. He had been sliced in half, diagonally, his blood bringing the first of many red stains on her mareís coat.
Soon enough, the crowd around her became thicker and to give herself some space, the Conqueror jumped off her horse and sent it forward with a slap. The massive steed easily navigated to the side, leaving her rider to her deadly task.
She now had two arms to use, two longswords flying through the air and into flesh. Surrounded by at least two dozen defenders, she fought with grace born out of excitement and a smile born of joy. Swinging one blade to get a man in his arm, she turned and thrust the same blade through anotherís thigh, while the first man clutched his shoulder where his arm used to be. Stumbling to the ground, he was spared of further pain by a kick from the dark woman, his spinal cord snapping like a twig.
Her art was war and it was beautiful enough to best the efforts of the best poet or musician. On the green and brown canvas she created the whole spectrum of human suffering, painting with the red warm liquid of life. She blocked an axe by crossing the two swords before her and, with a twist, yanked the bladed instrument from the man wielding it. He uttered a noise of surprise but before it could turn into a full-fledged yell, she put one blade through his stomach.
The blood gushed on her when the man twitched in pain before falling. She felt the sticky, steamy mass hit her on one shoulder and neck as well as the left side of her face. Spitting out an errant shard of bone, she shook her head to dislodge the worst of it. It helped some but still she could feel the liquid seep through her cloak, making the cloth stick to her back and shoulder guard. The blood was almost black which meant she had hit the manís liver. While engaging in a game of parry and thrust with a tall, sweating footman, she spared a glance at the groaning soldier who was clutching his stomach. She guessed he would live another half candlemark before either his heart would give out or his bloodstream would be poisoned from the bad blood.
Slowly, the blood found its way inside her leathers. It was inevitable, really, considering how much of it was shed. Kicking a dead man off her blade, she rotated her shoulder to loosen up a twitching muscle there. Another small river of blood took the opportunity and disappeared in through her neckline, crimson rivulets running down between her breasts and pooling at the waistband of her battle skirt. But she didnít even notice the extra coating until she was clear of the first volley of men, having plowed through the mass like a bladed hurricane.
She remounted her horse and turned her around, taking in the scene of battle. The sight made her lips twitch, a smug smile irresistibly creeping onto her lips. Through the thinning rain, it was clear who would win. The defending forces of Kórinthos were larger in number than her army but hers were battle-hardened, experienced men and women who had faith in her and, more importantly, were willing to sacrifice their lives for her. The victory, in this conventional way, would be somewhat Pyrrhic but a victory anyway.
Most of her troops were now through the first line, the rest of the outermost defenders now retreating. The next line of defense was about a hundred paces towards the city, waiting inside the circle of trees that flanked the stone walls.
She turned the massive war horse with a gentle nudge, towards the high stone walls that beckoned her. Oh, how she wanted just to ride, ride like the wind, through the other army and through the walls, to her destination. She could see the yellow-black crest of the cityís king on top of the tallest castle tower, visible over the wall. Soon, she would rip down that piece of cloth and replace it -- her crimson would fly over the city. She was not one to sacrifice her men for nothing, though. There were other ways to make war.
The bark directed the honey-coloured mare to a gallop towards the
thin line of trees, the grinning Conqueror guiding her with sure
hands. Act one, scene two was over -- time for scene three.
"Where is she going now?"
Talas shrugged, seemingly unconcerned, but still his eyes stayed firmly on the crimson figure as it disappeared behind trees.
She was so easily spotted it was almost ridiculous. Of course, the cloak was a dead giveaway but even without it, the tall man suspected all eyes would be drawn to her. She carried another sort of cloak as well, something quite invisible yet obvious. It was as if... as if she had this impenetratable shield of sheer darkness. Something of Ares perhaps, or from her own utterly cold nature, he wasnít sure, but it was there.
It took a few heartwrenching moments before she came back into their field of vision. The red lightning on her golden horse shot between two large oaks and took a slight turn to her left. This put her at the front of the advancing army who embraced her, gathered behind her and launched against the second line of defense. But... something made small bells ring at the back of Talasí mind. Something... Before he could delve into the feeling any further, though, the king tugged at his sleeve and nudged him towards the door.
He watched the thin purple-cloaked back retreat through the doorway. The young king apparently couldnít stand the sight of his troops being slaughtered, Talas smiled. The high balcony provided a perfect view over the walls and to the battleground, a sound that was a mix of the groans of the wounded and the clash of metal against metal reaching even their high position, the pitter of rain a mere sidenote.
The sound was muted now, a mere hum easily drowned by the shuffling of soft suede on the stone floor. The king had an irritating habit of manifesting his nervousness by walking in circles and muttering. But this was his first big conflict, Talas reminded himself and snatched a bunch of grapes from a fruit bowl. Popping the grapes into his mouth one by one, he leaned against the wall and watched the young man squirm.
"You said this would be an easy victory!"
A dark, bushy eyebrow rose and Talasí mouth stopped chewing. He swallowed the grape carefully and focused on the beautiful colours of a tapestry on the far wall.
"I said this would be a victory. Itís never an easy one when the Conqueror is on the other side."
"Donít call her that," the king hissed, his hand clutching convulsively into a fist.
"Very well... but so far, she has followed the plan. Kórinthosí forces are superior, thereís no way she can pass through the second line with tired men. The day will be ours." I hope, he added silently. Yes, things had gone according to plan but still... this was the Conqueror, Destroyer of Nations, not some dinar-a-dozen warlord.
The king, however, was somewhat placated by his words. He repeated the last five words in his head until his heart agreed to descend from his throat where it had been hammering for the past four days. He was definetely too young for this, he knew, and cursed his father to the muddy bottom of Styx for leaving him with this burden so suddenly. He had known the exchange of power would generate interest but this was far worse that he had imagined. Not only was his city under attack but, to top that, by the Hades spawn herself.
He stopped and sat down on his throne, heavily. All the walking,
standing and jittering was getting to his muscles. He watched the big
man munch away on his grapes, seemingly oblivious to the battle
outside. The king took strength from the other manís relaxed
stance. He wasnít going to let some barbarian, a woman at that, defeat
him and his city, the brightest jewel in all of Greece.
Had a casual passer-by glanced at the water by the dock then, he wouldíve been almost sure it was a wraith that rose from the still waters. Fortunately, there was not a soul at the docks -- the whole city populace was either out fighting, watching it or huddled up at home, wishing for it to go away. So, Xena had an audience of eight seagulls and a stray dog as she broke the surface of the lead-gray water and grabbed the rope ladder that led from the wetness to the stone quay.
As she negotiated the sodden ladder quietly, other heads popped to the surface of the water. Other ladders were mounted as well and where there wasnít one, ropes with loops were thrown to bollards and climbed. It took only a few breaths for all the men to climb up and fall into a loose formation. They were her elite troops, her honour guard beefed up with assorted hand-picked men and women from the ranks of her army. Even soaked and tired from the swim as they were, they were a sight dangerous enough to bring a smile to her face. Kórinthos would never know what hit it.
It was simple, really. Everyone knew her to be straightforward and brutal, preferring a full frontal assault to underhanded tricks. So, when she found out her plan was compromised, she altered her usual strategy and did something really slimy, something quite unlike her. She snuck in through the back door.
Unsheathing one sword, she shifted her eyes to Etor. The red-haired man nodded back so hard droplets of water flew from his curly mane. Signalling with one hand, the troops separated into two uneven factions, the bigger one of about seventy men taking to a quick, silent jog after Etor, towards the landside edge of the city. Their mission was not the more dangerous one, though it was the more important in the practical sense of the plan.
The smaller cluster of troops flanked Xena. The dark woman smiled
at them, her most loyal ones, her friends. They smiled back the grin
of strong belief and utter confidence, enchanted by this clever plan
their commander had devised. The Conqueror twirled her sword, glad to
be rid of the cloak in the confines of the city, and set off at a
languid run towards the castle.
She was again amazed at how gullible people were. There could be no other reason, she thought as she pushed a dying guardís face to get him off her sword. The gaping hole in his midsection made a sickening, sluicing sound when the sharp metal exited it, as if his blood had grown attached to the blade that had made it flow out in such a profuse manner.
Her squadís casualities were three men while the castleís troops had been all but eradicated. Some had surrendered, most had chosen to fight but like the cityís army, their skills were dulled by the months of idleness and lack of practice these times of peace tended to spawn. She had found their strength lacking and stamina poor; they gave barely a show of resistance before they fell on her sword.
The corridor was high, long and lined with torches. Their flames flickered in the moist air, throwing nervous shadows on the stone floor and the pools of thick, crimson liquid on it. She doubted she would ever grow tired of the bright colour of lifeís essence.
They had conquered the castle with the simplest of plans: work your way up. The guards had been totally taken by surprise, their idleness making Xenaís task ever so easy. Now they had reached the top floor, a squad of ten men on the task of finding and securing the king while she went for the highest ground.
"Come, Linus," she yelled over the deafening clang of clashing swords in a closed space, gesturing for one of her honour guard to follow her. He disposed of his opponent with an evil kick to his groin, grabbed a few others and followed the Conqueror.
The tower was deserted and cold, the air humid, but to Xena it was the most abundant of treasure chambers. She sheathed her sword and smiled at the sight that opened from the high balcony, the battlefield that was a divine vision in lovely carnage. Snatching the red bundle from Linus, she mounted the balconyís narrow stone parapet, nothing but an artificial chasm below her.
She couldnít help it, she really couldnít. When she jumped and grabbed the low overhanging edge of the towerís roof and hoisted her muscled length to the tiled roof, an irresistable sense of joy bubbled to the surface. She laughed a low, chuckling laugh, her smile a beaming row of white teeth in the grey air. She felt elated and... Gods, like she could take on the whole Known World, with her right had tied behind her back and wielding a toothpick.
The yellow banner with a black pantherís head was lowered and replaced by a crest in glowing bright crimson. The thick bunting caught the gusty wind that blew through the light rain and flared out to all its glory. It was her crest. Hers. She let out a ringing whoop of joy and drawing both swords, the Conqueror crossed them over her dark head. End of scene three, she counted.
The red standard was the signal and the blare of war trumpets,
coming from the city gates, signalled the beginning of act one, scene
four, right on schedule. And she had box seats.
It worked like a charm but it was no wonder, she knew human nature so well.
The trumpets had been a signal for the other half of her troops that had snuck in, for them to open the main gates from inside. A part of the Conquerorís troops that had been hiding in the woods, waiting, now had a clear route inside and so, they dashed for the gates.
The trumpets were a signal to the defenders as well. They had turned at the sound and seen the gates open, men pouring from the woods towards the gaping holes in the wall. What was a soldier to do but react naturally: the cityís army had dropped everything and dashed for the gates, their minds not on reason but on their homes and families, now unprotected.
When man does not think with reason but with his heart, he does foolish things. As it was now, leaving the battle and running to the city walls had accomplished nothing but getting the defenders between a rock and a hard place, between two factions of Xenaís army with no room to fight and still, most of the Conquerorís new troops had managed to get inside. A simple mousetrap that had snapped on the defenders.
Xena watched her plan unfold with precision, the way she had seen it in her mindís eye, her shrewdness once again prevailing over a greater force. When the battle moved too close to the city wall for her to see, she stretched herself luxuriously, enjoying the moment of true greatness. Even the sky was smiling on her conquest, the last of the rain gone and gentle slivers of sun peeking through the clouds, illuminating the dark figure on the highest rooftop.
She went back in after a while, to be greeted by a barrage of yells and whoops. It seemed every man in her squad had seen or heard what was happening, put together two and two and had forgiven her the cold swim theyíd had to take. So her little bunch of troops was in the small anteroom of the balcony, saluting, applauding and chanting her name. She looked at the smiling faces and felt the grin twitch itself back onto her face at the sight of the big, scary and usually so stoic men smiling like crazed court jesters, respect and adoration in their eyes.
Suddenly, over the ovation, the crash of a door against a stone wall sounded. Every pair of eyes turned to the door and saw Etor enter with his adjutant, still soaking wet from the rain and blood, dragging a man between them.
"My lord... we stumbled upon this rat," the flame-haired commander said with a smug smile and lifted upright the man they had brought with them.
The small roomís temperature seemed to drop a few degrees. The captive manís face grew even paler, if possible, at the cold, cold glint that appeared in the two chips of blue ice. The Conqueror stepped closer, the darkness rolling off her tall, muscled figure in smooth waves. She stopped only a few inches from the prisoner, pinning the man with her gaze. His lower lip started to tremble a bit but he clamped his mouth shut tighter.
"Tell me, Talas," she hissed. The adressee wondered how she could make his simple name sound like a curse so easily. "How cheaply did you sell me?"
He couldnít comprehend the question and he was sure that if he opened his mouth, no sound would come out anyway so he settled on shaking his head. He was glad he was being held up, his knees felt like they were about to give out.
The voice spat the few syllables like a snake spewing its venom. The words stung him and he lowered his eyes, unable to keep his gaze on the two sapphires of pure electricity that burned through his head. The Conquerorís voice was deep, a flowing calm contralto that vibrated through him. His spine molten lead.
"Well then..." she began and grabbing the limp manís lapels, she yanked him from Etor and slammed him against the chamber door. His teeth rattled from the impact but it didnít hurt as much as the heat of the two hands on his chest, pinning him against the rough wood. All he wanted was to feel those hands on his body...
"Let me pay you," the Conqueror finished and snatched a dagger from her boot. Instinctively, everyone in the room moved a bit closer, close enough to see the broken veins in his eyes that were dilated to the size of dinner plates. They could also see the deadly glint of death in the dark womanís eyes, knew the calm cruelty she was capable of.
The dagger penetrated flesh easily enough, slicing through tendon and muscle with little resistance. Through the shoulder and into the door, the blade was the first nail in his coffin. He couldnít help the scream of pain that tore from his throat when the blade dug into him, nor when another pinned his other shoulder to the door. Now, even if his legs had vanished underneath him, he couldnít have fallen down.
She watched him squirm in pain, reaching futilely for the
daggers. All eyes were on her, she knew it and she decided, once and
for all, to show how betrayal was rewarded.
She ripped the red fabric off her so hard the silken cords that bound it to her groaned in protest and shredded some. Mentu shook his head and quietly retrieved the tossed cloak from the floor, right where the Conqueror had abandoned it.
Her eyes burned. It had been sunset already when the Kórinthan army had finally surrendered. The general had fought as long as he deemed it to make sense, tasting defeat long before he could admit it to himself. The sky had turned to a fetching shade of pink and yellow when he had lowered his sword at the crimson-cloaked womanís feet, giving over his life and army to her. She had tolerated the manís long-winded speech and pleas of mercy for his army with quickly growing impatience and finally, when the man had been hauled off to the dungeons, she had stormed from the great hall.
Otherwise, the evening had been the usual mop-up that followed the first elated moments of joy after a conquest. She had seen to eradicating the few last pockets of resistance in the city while her army had settled in and outside the city, taking care of the wounded, dying and hungry, gathering rogue soldiers and putting down lame horses and everything that was the necessary yet boring aftermath of a battle.
She had breathed smoke, tasted mud and bathed in blood the whole day and she was tired. A quick wash had taken out most of the blood and mud but it could do nothing for the sting of torch smoke in her eyes and the few remaining blobs of drying blood, stuck in places blood really had no business being in. So she had been fidgety in the hall, itching and tired, her battle fever still high.
It never settled easily, the fever. The delicate tendrils of her dark side still coiled inside her field of vision, hot blood coursing through her veins. She felt alive, her senses heightened, the steady beat of her heart a pounding drum in her ears. The big muscles at her shoulders twitched, tendons on her neck standing out in a delicate relief of bronze and copper-red bloodstains.
Hot. Bothered. Intense. Primal. Pent-up.
"Put that, ummm..." She searched for a suitable spot, finally deciding on the small alcove on the outer wall. "There, by the window. Thanks."
The archer looked at her oddly. He was not used to the Conquerorís staff being nice, not to mention thanking him. The servants were real bitches sometimes; he wondered how the Conqueror managed to deal with them. But this one, she was nice in a quiet, gentle way. Not to mention a nice-looking piece of humanity, he mused, raking his gaze over the ample bust, flat abs and the curving hint of growing musculature on her legs, then mentally slapped himself. This woman was the Conquerorís, and if the rumours had it true the fair slave had other, more intimate, duties in addition to taking care of the dark womanís belongings.
After the young man had deposited the small chest he was carrying and left, Gabrielle sat down. Slumped, actually, diving into the plush chair with a grunt. She took off her boots and wiggled her toes, letting her head loll back against the soft cushion.
It had been a long day. The worst part of it hadnít been the massive effort and organisation it took to haul all the upper-level staffís belongings to the newly occupied city, no. She had scrounged through the castle, finally finding the kingís bedroom, and then ordered all the Conquerorís stuff to be brought there. Fortunately, the dark woman was spartan in her ways so there wasnít that much but still... all remaining time had been spent on attending to wounded soldiers, dressing gaping holes in their bodies and giving soothing words to those beyond her help. She had eaten while running and relaxed by walking.
She knew she hadnít been forced to do that. She belonged to the Conquerorís household; dressing wounds was not her duty. But she needed something to take her mind off the blue eyes, the mane of dark hair and the woman they belonged to. In her mindís eye she saw the Conqueror die a thousand deaths that day, the vivid images brought on by the ever-present wail of pain at the makeshift infirmary. A small but growing corner of her mind was actually... worried.
It was ridiculous, she berated herself, and green orbs disappeared under heavy lids. She had gotten so used to being at the Conquerorís side all the time. Serving her, cleaning her armour, unlacing her boots, chatting (though chatting usually meant she kept up a steady babble and the dark woman answered with one-syllable grunts), even laughing. There was a remarkably smart person under the thick, bloodied shell, one with a wry wit and a keen eye for detail. And today, she hadnít seen the Conqueror since dawn. The slave let out a dry snort of a laugh. She was actually missing the Destroyer of Nations.
She heard the doorís old hinges creak and opened her eyes with great effort. Upon the sight of the tall, dark figure, she jumped up and faced the Conqueror, almost kicking herself. It was not becoming for a slave to doze in Xenaís chair. The Conqueror, however, didnít say a word; she just closed the door and stepped towards Gabrielle, her feet ethereally quiet on the plush carpet.
Gabrielle felt her knees tremble. The dark woman came to stand a few handwidths from her, so close she could see the shimmering power in the blue eyes and smell the scent of sweet death. She didnít dare to meet that intense gaze so she dropped her eyes to whatever was on her level. That happened to be the Conquerorís bronze cuirass, sporting ever-present bloodstains and small dents from the dayís battle. She watched the dully gleaming metal rise and fall with the Conquerorís steady breath, heard the leather under the armour groan when it was stretched to its limits by the dark womanís expanding ribcage.
There was a strand of crimson silk stuck in one delicate curve, glued to the metal by the last moisture that remained from the dayís deluge. The slave lifted her hand and placed it on the spot, between the Conquerorís breasts. Her fingers brushed the skin above the neckline when she yanked gently at the red thread. The strand let go but her hand was captured and pressed against the warming metal.
Of their own volition her fingers curled around the edge of the tall warriorís leather bodice. There could be no other explanation. She felt smooth skin against her fingers, marveling at the silky texture. For a woman so hard and harsh, the Conqueror had the softest of surfaces.
A hand touched her chin and turned it up, forcing her to meet the eyes she had felt burning through her skull. She felt like she could drown in the sea of shimmering blue that opened before her, be swept away by the storm that lay just below the surface, be drawn into the black abyss of bliss. Her breath caught at the look in those vivid blue orbs.
Never in her life had Gabrielle had someone look at her like that. Never. The eyes were pure and full with promises of passion, sweat, pain and pleasure, even... love. Whatever love meant to the dark predator standing so near her.
The tapestry was a lifesaver. Without it her back wouldíve been badly bruised by the impact but now she was only faintly aware of the long bunches of threads that tickled her exposed back, her mind occupied by the leather, bronze and dark energy that surrounded her, pressing into her and squeezing her between the stiff breastplate and the wall.
The Conqueror was close, so close she was almost inside her. The slave heard the ragged sounds of their breathing, tasted the wild scent of the warrior on the back of her tongue, felt the powerful muscles on the womanís arms expand and contract as she lifted the smaller woman up. The slave instictively wrapped her legs around the dark womanís waist.
The lips were now close, so close to hers she could almost taste them. She felt Xenaís hot breath on her upper lip and then the soft mouth was on it, kissing briefly before moving away again. Gabrielle dare not open her eyes lest the moment go away. It seemed like an eternity before the lips returned.
The kiss was fierce. Hot. Demanding. The Conquerorís lips landed on hers with enough force to bruise, the caress of the ruby red skin harsh and passionate at the same time. Gabrielle felt the exquisitely silken lips slide against hers and then a tongue lick her lower lip, requesting entrance. She opened her mouth and it was immediately filled by Xenaís long, wet tongue, conquering that small space of dark privacy. She moaned at the feeling of the Conquerorís tongue inside her, the womanís hands travelling down her sides, leaving behind a trail of fire.
Xena smiled at the moan she felt vibrating against her lips. It was the balm that soothed her inner rawness but did nothing to tame the fire in her veins, the white-hot, absolute lust demanding attention. The woman in her arms squirmed against the unyielding pressure of her armour, fanning the flames with her low moans and sensuous movements. It seemed fever was truly contagious.
Gabrielle grabbed the taller womanís arms and when the wandering hands on her sides found their way down and under her behind, she squeezed the bulging biceps with knuckles gone white. The hands seemed to be everywhere; in her mindís eye she could see the Conquerorís long, strong fingers cupping her buttocks. When the dark woman withdrew her tongue and nibbled the slaveís lower lip, Gabrielle was sure she was going to melt right there. She felt the tall figure shift her hips and grind her pelvis into her, the hardened leather of the battle skirt pressing into her groin. It made the moisture pooling between her legs rise to new heights. The insides of her thighs were already trembling from the delicious torture, the fine coating of her essence staining the dark leather.
One hand left her behind and came back up, tracing the quivering muscles on the ribs. Xena could feel the shallow, ragged breaths on her fingertips and she grabbed the side more firmly, bringing out a strained groan of pain and pleasure. The impatient hand started up again, this time ending up on the side of Gabrielleís breast, cupping the soft flesh there.
Gabrielle was sure she was going to die any time now if the torture didnít stop. Her nipples were painfully erect inside her short top, squeezed and rubbed by the harsh fabric and the wavy pattern of the Conquerorís cuirass. Every time either she or the woman around her moved, jolts of fiery pleasure shot from her breasts to points south, now hot and humid. She almost screamed in pleasure when the Conquerorís hand found her aching chest.
The fabric ripped with ease, one powerful yank enough to tear the front away. The slaveís breasts were freed from their confines, creamy flesh spilling from inside the rust-coloured clothing and onto the hard metal. Xena grabbed the pliant flesh with one hand, squeezing the breast in her large palm. Her mouth found the sensitive tendons in Gabrielleís neck while her fingers found a nipple, pebble hard and waiting to be attended to. She squeezed the protruding point and rolled it between her fingers, and bit down on the pale skin of the slaveís neck. Her reward was a sharp intake of breath and a low, guttural groan that was born deep in the slaveís throat. To the Conqueror, the primal sound spoke of an urgent need. Already, her battle skirt had stuck to the slaveís groin.
Suddenly, the slave was yanked off the tapestry and carried across the room to the big canopied bed. It seemed rulers of various kinds had a thing for frilly canopies, Gabrielle thought hazily, her mind more on the hot breath at her ear and the rough, wet tongue that traced the edge of the lobe, than on the silliness of kings.
The bed bounced gently when she was thrown on the down mattress. The abrupt separation from the warm cocoon of leather, bronze and dark energy rattled her. Hesitantly, she cracked one eyelid and peeked out. The sight of the Conqueror gazing down at her with liquid fire in her blue eyes was enough to make both eyes shoot wide open.
Xena smiled one of her small, crooked smiles at the look in the two green orbs. She unbuckled her belt and the two swords and chakram fell to the floor. Shifting her eyes down, she started on the side buckles of her armour. Her hands were interrupted, though, by a hand so much smaller and paler than hers.
"Let me, Mistress," Gabrielle whispered, her voice unable to produce enough volume to be more than barely audible. Xena did hear the faint words, though.
It was in the emerald colour of the slaveís eyes, in the faint trembling of her hands on the armour, in the blush that had risen on the slaveís cheeks and neck. Never in her life had Xena had one of her conquests look at her like that, echo the fierce passion. Usually, the men and women who fell to her charisma were initially reluctant and, when they gave in, still held a shard of fear in their moves, fear of her. That fear excited her but this was different. The slave was taunting her. Teasing. Provoking.
The buckles let loose and her breastplate was thrown to the floor, along with the shoulder guards. The slaveís hands were on her leather-covered sides, massaging her through the pliant material. She felt the gentle touch of Gabrielleís breath on her throat and then the coral lips landed on her collarbone. The kiss was a soft one but it made a shiver go down the dark womanís spine. The gentle gestures, the pressure of the slaveís breasts against her leather bodice, they were in such contrast to the look of hunger in the green eyes that the Conqueror knew she was being yanked, the beast in her lured out with a sure purpose. The slave was playing a game with her.
The touch moved lower as Gabrielle kneeled, starting on the buckles at the Conquerorís shin guards. They came off and so did the boots, discarded in a haphazard pile. Finally able to touch the Conqueror freely (although her mind still had trouble wrapping around that idea), she laid her lips on the taut muscle above the left knee, feeling the strong cords tremble under her touch. Running her hands all over the sculpted legs, she worked her way up, tasting the salt on the womanís skin, clean sweat mingling with the ever-present coppery scent of blood. The Conquerorís skin held in its taste the faint shadow of spices, bergamot and darkness, spread evenly over the luxuriously smooth surface.
He nose touched one of the leather strips of Xenaís battle skirt and she pushed it up, feeling the brass studs against her face and smelling herself on the stained leather. But before she could progress any further, to finally see where the legs disappeared under the leather, she was yanked away by her hair and propelled back to the bed, thrown like a rag doll. The Conquerorís patience was at its end. As she lay on the bed the dark woman snarled at her and practically tore her leathers off.
The Conquerorís body, as often as she saw it, never ceased to take her breath away. Standing at the edge of the bed, looking down at her, the dark woman was one giant coil of energy, the blue of the eyes almost invisible at the edges of dilated black pupils. Her skirt ripped with ease, the fabric discarded with one impatient throw. She mewed in protest when the magnificent body disappeared from her sight but really, the Conqueror did feel so much better on her.
The larger frame on top of her made her sink into the bed, sandwiched between the soft mattress and the Conquerorís rock-hard, hot flesh. It burned her, the heavy body pinning her down. She could feel the brush of the dark womanís nipples against her and her brain nearly shorted out. Xenaís raven hair was all over her upper body, teasing her neck and shoulder and sticking to her sweating skin, drawing lines into the moisture as the Conquerorís mouth moved to her breasts. She arched her back in an unconscious invitation, thrusting her aching flesh against the lips that spread a trail of fire and fury wherever they touched. Xenaís hands supported her back, making the arc an almost painful one, her head now touching the sheets only barely.
"You are a tease, slave," the Conqueror growled into one creamy, delicious mound of flesh and caught the nipple between her teeth. Biting the tender nub and rolling it, she heard the animal groan that escaped the slave, audible over her own ragged breathing. The slave tasted so sweet, innocent and flauntingly explosive at the same time. She could feel the small body in her hands tremble, the womanís hands push at her shoulders in a feeble, half-hearted attempt to push her away. She smiled against the breast and, slapping away the hands, proceeded to suck on the other swollen nub of coral excitement.
A hand grabbed dark hair and pulled at it, hard, yanking the head away and to a side. The Conqueror snarled, her eyes flashing. Yanking the hand away from her hair, she squeezed the slaveís other buttock so hard it made the small woman whimper in pain, feeling the dark womanís nails sink into her skin. But still, the slave forced herself to look into the blue-black depths, into the eye of the storm, to convey a message.
"Oh, so thatís how you want to play it:..."
The voice was a deep, dark thrum, the words pounding in her ears. The Conqueror was smiling now, a white flash of teeth with their prominent, sharp canines. The white tips of the two teeth rested atop the blood-red surface of her lips, pressing into the flesh like two daggers. The smile was not a nice one and Gabrielle felt a wave of fear wash over her, bringing with it the odd sensation of being cold and extremely hot at the same time. The predatory look on the Conquerorís sharply angled face was intense enough to make her lower abdomen cramp.
"Very well," the voice gone raw from passion said and sooner than she could move a muscle, Gabrielle was on her stomach, the Conquerorís breath at her ear. "But pray to the gods you know what youíre asking, slave." The smaller woman felt the furnace of the womanís body move off her.
She had no intention of moving, not that her legs would have had the strength anyway. She dared not move a muscle so she endured the cold air on her back and the intense throbbing in her groin that begged for attention. But she had started the game, unable to keep her hands off the Conqueror any longer, and she was going to finish it.
It took another small eternity before the woman returned. Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut tighter when she felt the touch of leather on her wists, a thick thong binding her wrists together. Biting her lower lip to stop a moan when the cord tightened, she felt her jaw tremble.
Linen sheets rustled as the Conqueror came onto the bed, the heat of her body so close. Two hands grabbed the slaveís hips and lifted up, forcing the fair-haired woman into an awkward position, her behind high in the air while her hands and face were still on the bed. Cool air hit her exposed centre and she drew in a sharp breath, both at the wetness she felt pooling between her legs and at the proximity of the Conqueror behind her, hands still on her hips.
Her hair was gathered in one hand and suddenly pulled. It wasnít painful, the strong tug more an even, demanding pressure on her scalp. Her head was lifted, higher, until she was like a drawn bow, her back arched into a tight curve. Getting up on her elbows, she felt her legs tremble whan the Conqueror slid a finger through her wet folds. A small keening sound escaped between her ragged breaths when the finger travelled over her swollen clit.
"Oh, you are so ready..."
The slaveís taste was musky, tangy, like a forest after a thunderstorm. Xena licked clean her finger, resisting the urge to dive to the source of that sweet honey. Instead, she yanked at the red-gold hair, marvelling at the play of muscles in the slaveís back when she exhaled with a slight hissing sound and adjusted to the new position.
The muscles of the womanís legs jumped, the pale skin shifting under her touch. She ran a hand gently over the red marks of her fingernails on one buttock and then slapped down on the creamy flesh.
"Speak only when spoken to, slave," the Conqueror growled, holding tight to the squirming woman.
The last syllable transformed into a deep, raw scream when the Conqueror entered her. The slave wasnít sure what that thing inside her was but it was round, smooth and fit just so, filling her with both its bulk and with the sensation of being so open, so full of the dark woman. Her inner muscles clenched the shaft that had been thrusted into her so quickly, almost savagely. If it went in any further it wouldíve come out of her throat, Gabrielle was sure.
It retreated and pushed back in, the friction almost overcoming her frustration at not being able to move. Her hair was still held by the steady hand, in a way she decided she liked. She also liked the feel of the Conquerorís hips as they pushed against her, the sweat of her passion that ran down her back and was sometimes licked away by the dark womanís inquisitive tongue, and the groans coming from behind her.
Xena watched a trickle of sweat run down the canyon of the slaveís spinal muscles, tensed as they were. She followed the long line of hills to the delicious behind and to the sight of the black phallus, glistening with the slaveís juices, moving. The smaller woman was meeting her thrusts now, shoulder muscles bunching to the pace of her pushing, responding to her rough handling.
She stilled, watching the slave squirm, attempting to suck more of the shaft inside her. The blonde woman was nearing the edge, so much could be heard form the quickened breathing and continuous moans, but she couldnít have her come. Not yet.
Gabrielle clenched the wadded piece of the sheet she had in her hands to stop the groan of frustration. It didnít help. Testing the binding of her hands, she found that the leather strip held. Gods, if only she could get herself free, she would pounce on the dark woman and fuck her silly. But no, she was held in place and somehow that excited her even more.
The shaft was still half inside her when she felt a finger on her liquid flesh. Brushing the edge of her stretched core and slipping around the cylindral object in her, it gathered the moisture there but avoided her throbbing clit. She could almost feel the small nub of nerves extend out, pleading to be touched.
The finger moved back up and to her behind, brushing the circular, tight muscle of her spinchter. The odd sensation made her want to squirm again, her body unable to decide if it wanted the finger to stop the teasing or enter her. It did the latter and she sucked in a sharp breath and moaned it out, the finger poking inside her as far as it could and moving back out. Her muscle resisted the attack at first but gave out quickly when it realised how good it felt. Two fingers and pain mingled with pleasure, the fingers generating delicious friction. She felt so full.
All of a sudden, the shaft in her retreated and replaced the fingers, plunging past her spinchter so hard it hurt. Gabrielle screamed but the Conqueror just shoved it further in and whacked her reddening buttocks.
"Shut up and take it, slave!"
The words came as a low growl, warning her of the consequences of disobedience. The fair-haired woman panted and gritted her teeth, her toes clenching at the sensation that was a mix of pain and pleasure. Pleasure was winning when she consciously relaxed her muscles, letting the phallus slide in and out with less effort. It was liberally coated with her juices so the friction was just right, the Conquerorís other hand on her hip guiding her behind while the other one was still holding her hair.
To be taken in this new and strange way made her excitement grow. The woman behind her was having her in a very cruel way but with great expertise; the roughness was more a matter of skill than anything else. Her lower abdomen was now quivering with impending release and she moaned out her pleasure with enough volume to rattle the timbers in the roof. A throaty chuckle echoed her scream of pleasure.
"Iím getting close, Mistress," she managed to grind out, sweat beading on her forehead. She tried to stall the coming moment by taking deep breaths, knowing instinctively she would be punished if she came too early. That new avenue of thought was halted when she felt the Conquerorís mouth on her shoulder, biting, nipples brushing against her back. The hand on her hip vanished, to appear again on her clit, drawing tight circles around the bundle of nerves that was throbbing to the beat of her heart.
"Come now, slave. Come and know how good I make you feel..."
The hot breath on her ear made her shiver. Gabrielle felt the delicious pressure on her badly neglected clit and the slide of the smooth shaft in her, and rose higher, to the tallest of mountains. The edge beckoned her and when the words were whispered into her ear by the rough, low voice, she jumped over the edge and was falling, spiralling towards the blinding light of her pleasure. It came over her in tight, white-hot waves and she screamed at the pure joy of it, the heat reaching to every corner of her wracked body. She came with such earth-moving force she almost blacked out, the fear and pain fanning the flames of pleasure that washed over her.
Xena saw the slave come, melting into a mass of liquid, quivering pleasure. She could no longer keep back from her crest, the movement of the other end of the phallus was too insistent inside her and on her. She let go of the slaveís hair and grabbed her hips, making one last rough push before she, too, went over the edge, screaming her orgasm to the deep red canopy of the bed. The fiery colour was easily matched by the crimson flames that danced in her eyes, the heat of the fire expanding outward from her core.
It was a moment of joining, two souls melting in the arms of lust
The king adjusted his cape for the ninth time. The slim chain that held the purple fabric around his neck felt constricting and he cursed his decision to wear this sign of his power.
It was really, really strange. From the stories he had heard, he had expected the Conq--, the Destroyer, he corrected himself -- he had expected her to kill him, at best. But no, she had ordered him captured and put in the dungeons and then, he was left alone. For two days, no word of the woman, the only breaks in the smelly, dank prison being the regular visits of a guard bringing his food.
Now, he had been snagged from the cellís confines, bathed, and his old clothes handed to him. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine he was still the king and all was well. None of it ever happened, the Destroyer never came... He was brought out of his daydreaming by a soldierís club at his back, pushing him onward, reminding of his current status. Prisoner, not king.
To tell the truth, he was a bit miffed that the Conq--, the Destroyer had not visited him. In fact, he hadnít even seen the woman after the scene of the battlefield. The quick turmoil and conquest had both mystified him and kept him busy. He was miffed, but also relieved for he was certain the sight of the dark woman would be a sure omen of his death. So now, as he was led through the corridors towards the smaller banquet hall, he trembled in his boots.
When the two oak doors came into view, he took a shuddering breath and straightened his back. This was a flesh and blood person, a woman at that, who he was going to see, not Ares. He would die with honour and wasnít going to let some bitch make him soil himself.
The doors opened and the king stepped in. He squinted his eyes against the bright sunlight that streamed through the high windows. The white light landed on the long, dark table that now held a large dish, the one he recognised to be used when serving a whole boar or some beast of similar size. The dish was covered with a matching pewter dome, two foot-wide strips of thick cloth trailing from underneath its edge and over the table. So, he was to have lunch with... her.
He felt his jaw muscles go slack and was sure he looked silly, his jaw hanging limply. His eyes were fixed on the improbably tall figure by the window, a back silhouetted in the iridescent light. The sunís rays fell on the golden embrodiered flowers and curves on the black robe she had on, reflecting off the feathery gold headpiece he could glimpse. And when she turned to face him, he saw the blue that drowned all other colours.
The woman was stunning. Sipping wine from a small, delicate goblet, she was dressed in one of her favourite official outfits, a thick robe with a wide black belt. The dress was from the eastern edge of the Known World, brought to her from the Orient across deserts and seas. The wide belt cinched down her waist, the ample cleavage showing enough to draw his attention. She smirked into her goblet at the look on the kingís face. He was so young...
He complied, scrambling into one of the chairs that surrounded the table while keeping his eyes on the dark woman. He had expected her to be some ugly, battle-hardened wench but this... this was a woman of divine proportions. He caught himself staring and shook his head, angry at himself for falling for her wiles.
Xena had a purpose for this coming show, of course. She could have just lopped off the kingís head but if nothing else, she was a wise Conqueror. A city of this size couldnít tolerate too drastic an upheaval, she needed the king to assist her in setting up the government. Then, she could lop off his head with its irritating eyes that were devouring her curves.
She brushed her fingers against the goblet, feeling the nubbed surface. The king was young, too young to see clearly. Of course, she could have just threatened him with a dagger until he complied but that would have been both risky and too simple. She needed to show him what it meant to betray or mislead her to make sure he would never do it, to make him see who she was and what she was capable of. And this way was much more enjoyable.
She chose a chair close to him, turning it so that she could face him. He followed the gesture, his eyes darting from her to the food. His stomach was growling already, the prison gruel not suitable for his delicate palate. A servant placed a goblet at his side and he gulped down the wine, not caring if it was poisoned or not.
"Excuse me?" he said, coughing out the wine he had inhaled at the sudden word.
"Trust. Trust brought you down."
He didnít understand, that much was clear. His brow furrowed but he nodded for the dark woman to continue. It had been plaguing him since the day of the battle, what had been the clever trick that had facilitated his downfall.
"You trusted the word of another man so deeply you took it to be the truth."
It had been delicious to see the Kórinthian army massed just as she would have planned it herself, had she known the attack pattern of the plan. The old plan. She had devised a new one as soon as she was sure there was a spy in her closest circle, keeping it secure until the last moment.
She remembered the look of confusion on Sabaís face that soon turned to enlightenement and admiration, when she had told the smaller woman of the plan. She was to ride as the Conqueror while Xena would sneak away and lead the small cluster of elite troops on a mission that was very different. It had gone like a dream, Saba had been waiting for her at the woods and she had relinquished her horse and cape to the dark woman, a disguise complete enough to fool a casual onlooker. And when Saba had dashed off, the Conqueror had met with the troops and snuck with them around the fortifications and into the harbour, the heavy rain making the men and women on the rafts almost invisible.
The king had done just as she had predicted, relied on Talasí information and positioned his troops accordingly, not even thinking of the possibility that she might have another plan. Had she not had one, she would have had no choice but to follow the original one and her army wouldíve suffered greatly.
The servant returned and lifted the dome, revealing the carcass of an animal, its head and lower stomach covered by the two strips of cloth. The king couldnít figure out what kind of beast it was; all he could see was charred, rough skin and a hollow in the middle, and steam rising from the cooked meat. His mouth watered at the scent of it, a roasted liver on top of the pile drawing his attention.
Xena fished out a dagger and handed it to the king and, utilising another, she sliced off a piece from the liver and speared it with the blade. She chewed on it and smiled.
"Delicious. Do taste," she said around the bite and gestured with her dagger. The king complied, finding the meat to be something heíd never tasted before but delicious anyway. He took another bite and washed it down with his wine.
"Iíve invited you here for a reason."
His mouth paused and he looked up, the odd tone in the womanís voice making small bells of warning ring at the back of his mind.
"But first, I want you to understand something," she continued, her tone almost conversational now. She grabbed the edge of one of the strips of cloth. "I donít take treason lightly."
With that she yanked at the cloth, revealing the head of the animal.
The king gagged on the morsel of meat still in his mouth and spat it out quickly, all colour draining away from his face. He looked as if he was going to faint and vomit at the same time, the goblet in his hand dropping to the floor with a loud clang.
It wasnít the head of a buck deer or some other animal, it was the head of a man. The flesh on his shoulders and on the stumps where his arms used to attach was charred and black. His face, however, had been spared of the worst of it, the handsome planes and angles of Talasís face still recognisable, even with the grimace of pain frozen on it. The face spoke of agony, of the fires of Tartarus come to earth, a pain so bad death was a relief. When the Conqueror yanked away the other piece of cloth, the king could see that he had no legs or genitals either. His mind flashed to a chat with Talas, not more than three days ago. The dark man had nonchalantly mentioned that Xenaís favourite method of disposing of betrayers was something he jokingly called íSlice and Diceí. He hadnít understood and Talas hadnít explained but now, he did understand.
She stated the terms of the deal that, in essence, were that she
would get every morsel of information and he got to keep his limbs to
himself. For now. He couldnít nod quickly enough to agree.
She brushed an errant strand of the honey-gold hair behind a small ear and smiled. The ear was just too damn cute to resist so she traced the edge of it, making the woman in her arms mumble in her sleep and nuzzle closer. She let the ear be, content just gazing at the fair-haired woman.
So far she had come, from the windy plains of Central Macedonia, from Amfípolis. Down mainland Greece she had plowed, one victory following another. Some of her first army, gathered from Thessaloníki and Sérrai and from the small, weary fising villages on the coast of the Gulf of Strimonikós, had followed through her trek. The men had been the sullen, hard people of the area, eager to show their prowess and eager to pay back the dozen and one warlords that raided the area regularely. Talas had been one of those men, her longest surviving commander. He had risen in the ranks quickly and for the past years he had been her right hand.
She brushed the slaveís cheek, the skin still hot and sweaty from their lovemaking. Talas had been at her side when her army had run through Potadeia, a no-name village that meant nothing to her except that it was the home town of the woman in her arms. The slave had said that it had meant nothing, back then she was still one of the warlords that were the areaís plague, one killer in the midst of many.
All that was going to change now; she was no longer just a warlord. No, in her eyes she was finally close to being worthy of her name. The Conqueror. She tasted the word in her mouth and smiled. Greece would be hers, the whole of it. She already owned the mainland, with Kórinthos she had gained a capital and beyond the city lay the final untouched land, the Peloponnesus peninsula.
The naked woman on top of her squirmed and shifted, her face
burrowing into the Conquerorís neck. The dark woman smiled a small,
indulgent smile at the body next to her and sighed. It felt good to
have the woman close to her, so good it almost frightened her. She
couldnít get enough of the woman, was intoxicated by the merest hint
of lust in the misty green eyes, wishing nothing more in life than to
hear the lovely, light sound of the slaveís laughter or hear her moan
out her pleasure, the carnal joy she brought to her. She hugged the
woman tighter against her. Her love.
Epilogue -- Outside Váthia,
She switched her grip on the sword and cut the manís desperate pleas literally in half, her sword entering his mouth and exiting his head to bury itself in the rich, dark soil underneath. He twitched and let out a gurgling groan, blood flowing freely into his windpipe and suffocating him. The noise and his frantic gestures died down when she twisted the sword and kicked his head. The blade sliced through his cheek but he was already dead, his neck broken.
Yanking the sword free, she wiped her forehead to dry off the moisture there but managed just to make it a bigger mess. She cleaned the blade on the dead manís blue tunic and re-sheathed it.
He had been the last and now he had fallen. Beyond his body was nothing but a straight cliff that plunged down into the Mediterranean. And beyond that, there was just the open sea, blue stretching into the horizon. She spread her arms, letting the salty wind catch her cloak and brush through her bloodied hair. The sun was on her face, the scent of blood catching her nostrils, the heady aroma tickling her taste buds. She let out a burst of joyful laughter, the ringing sound of happiness born somewhere deep within her chest. She was finally there.
There, to be precise, was the southernmost tip of Peloponnesus. The middle spike of the thrice-forked southern coast that was divided equally between Laconía and Messinía, there she had driven the last of the Spartan troops. Leagues away from their home town that had fallen only a fortnight ago, the troops had fought valiantly for their soil but ultimately, they had had to give in to her irresistible force. The man in the blue tunic had been the last of them and she had pursued him to the edge of the cliff and killed him. Just like that. A thrust and Sparta was gone. A twist and Peloponnesus was hers.
She turned and put her hands on her hips, taking in the battlefield. It hadnít been a big encounter but it had been bloody, the Spartans desperate and her troops tasting the final victory. There was nothing to go back to so the Spartans had fought to the last man, taking many of hers with them. Already, there were men at the tasks of burying their fallen comrades and tending to those still living but wounded.
"Count the casualities, gather weapons, put down the lame horses and make a list of honourifics to be given," she counted off to Etor who had joined her -- the usual stuff. He nodded, saluted, and hurried back towards their main camp. She followed him but at a more leisurely pace.
Her tent was shadowy inside compared to the brilliant sunlight, and her eyes took their time to adjust. She saw the silhouette of Gabrielle against the redness of the tentís wall, the fiery copper highlights of her hair the only colour besides the blackness. She smiled and the shadow moved into better light and into her arms.
"All done?" the slave murmured against her breastplate, brushing the beaten metal with her lips. The Conqueror buried her hand in the thick, honey-coloured tresses and pressed the womanís soft cheek against her chest. The skin was cool compared to hers, a spot of freshness on her heated, sweating, dirty body.
"All done," she murmured, answering the many-layered question in the simplest of ways: with the truth.
It was the end of one era in her life. She now controlled the whole of Greece, had earned the name Conqueror. She had endured the vagaries of her war, gathering a few scars along the way, and fourteen yearsí worth of blood had rained on her. And she had survived, her body intact but her heart not hers anymore.
Yes, she could admit as much now. She, Destroyer of Nations, had
fallen, hard. In the end, it hadnít been a sword that had brought her
down but instead, a pair of green eyes and a spirit as strong as her
-- T h e E n d --
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