The figure moved restlessly as the cock announced the new day. Dragging a hand over her face, Lord Xena eased away from her hunched position over the chair she had been straddling.
Another joint popped into place and she groaned in pleasure as the cramped muscles of her lower back unfurled. Grimacing as her tongue found its surroundings less than agreeable, the Conqueror moved to the sideboard and poured a goblet of water. Uttering another groan, she pushed her head over to the right until the vertebrae popped back into place and then repeated the process on the other side. She rubbed her upper arms as the cool air wafted in from the open window and then took a deep breath, clearing her head. She fingered the bruises on her neck where she'd applied the pinch and felt somewhat pleased the bard would be spared such discolorations herself. Although the nerves had been blocked on two separate occasions, their duration had been short, and only until the young bard had finally fallen into a medicated stupor.
Xena yawned. It had been a long night punctuated with short sorties into the realm of pain-induced nightmares. The bard hadn't reached full consciousness during it all, which was just as well, and she had gleaned little information as the young woman raved, leaving her feeling rather flat-footed. It was this sense of frustration that had her keep both Andros and Ubris away, and just tend the bard personally while thoughts of recriminations ran through her mind. What would the bard say upon waking? The thought of either one attending the woman was entirely unsatisfactory. No one could take care of the woman like she could. Or should have.
She cursed her day of drinking and wondered just when her consumption of spirits had increased to the point where she couldn't stop the swing of a mallet? She ground her teeth at the mere thought of even letting the healer live. Why hadn't she taken him to task for his insolence earlier? She didn't know when but her iron grasp on the realm had slowly begun to weaken. She knew all the signs, using many of the same weaknesses herself to bring down a foe in the not-so-distant past.
'Total power corrupts.' Probing a tooth, she had to admit she above all was the most corrupt, in all things. Wasn't it natural to have complacency be a major factor in any downfall? Well, she wasn't quite there yet.
Slight noises from the practice field begged her attention, and she moved to the window to watch. A stocky figure was busy yelling up one side of a troop of men and then back down the other. She knew by the man's stance and accent that it was Christo. A smirk played over her lips as he began extolling the virtues of the life of a Conqueror's soldier. She could almost hear the man promising riches and fame. As one eyebrow rose slowly, Xena wondered just how true it would be if the emissaries from Rome proved to be a simple ruse whose function it was to winnow out any weakness in her defences. If Caesar should immobilize his vanguard now
She really had been derelict in her duties with the men, leaving the bulk of training and compensation to others. As much as it pained her to admit it, she'd gotten soft without Ares' presence.
Her eyes narrowed as she thought of how the god used her need for both control and penchant for violence to get past her defences and into his bed. While it had been a productive alliance for both of them, Xena was beginning to wonder if power was what she had really wanted after all? He had dangled the world before her, and now that she was on the brink of totally dominating Greece, the reality was that it wasn't enough. World conquest was
shallow. If she died tomorrow, having gained her reputation in that area alone, would it be enough to secure her place in the realm of world history?
My reputation. Xena rubbed a hand over her face again and frowned. What had Ubris said? 'You have become the very person you wish them to believe you are.' And just how did she want the people to think of her? Yes, she was seen as being a cruel tyrant, but hadn't that kept them all in line? Didn't a ruler have to distance himself from the rabble to maintain order? The faces of small children and women rose before her as she remembered liberating the last large town conquered on the way to Rome. They hadn't been faces filled with appreciation but those of fear and loathing. Soft, yet piercing green eyes of disappointment floated before her and that above anything was enough to make her regret not being the person others believed she could be. Andros, Christo, Polis
loyal men all. It wasn't fear that made them stay but some sort of honour to her. A gnawing beast seemed to feast within her as she saw the truth: she wasn't worthy of either their honour or their loyalty.
Xena released a slow pain-filled breath, caught in her memories of an earlier time when she would eat, sleep and carouse with her men. The bond then was strong and her future glories assured. Although harsh in conditions and cruel lessons, they were some of the best memories she had. But that part of her life was over. Although always believing she was a wise and just ruler, the truth was that she had simply been sitting on her laurels, completely willing to ride the coattails of her past reputation. If she wanted to continue as ruler of Corinth and possible conqueror of all Greece, she would have to change her ways. But how? Leaning her forehead tiredly against the thick wooden shutters, she took solace from the brief darkness as she closed the window.
Raising her head up sharply in the half-light, the warrior moved quickly to the bed, taking the bard's smaller hand into her own.
It's alright, I'm here. Xena's heart seemed to be squeezed as she felt the rightness of those words. The legs of the chair scraped irritably as the warrior took up her vigil once more.
A slight tapping on the door had the Conqueror ready to hurl insults at the invader, but Xena felt the anger dissipate as her servant bowed deeply.
Sire. Ubris held a tray of figs and bread, and a bottle of wine. Xena's mouth watered at the sight and her earlier resolve began to falter as she eyed the wine.
Leave the food, Ubris, but I won't be needing the wine until much later, if at all. Her eyebrow rose quickly as the Egyptian's smile all but lit the room.
Yes, milord. All but doing a curtsey, Ubris turned and left quickly. Turning as her hand was squeezed once, Xena focused her attention back on the bard. The woman was still quite flushed and the warrior could see the struggle she was enduring as pain forced her back into semi-consciousness. 'No, that will never do.'
Carefully prying her fingers out of the girl's grip, Xena moved back to the sideboard and prepared another dose. After the concoction had been given and the resulting mess dealt with, Xena sighed and leaned forward until her chin was resting on her forearms.
What was it about the woman that seemed to pull at her, making her act very un-Conqueror-like? Why was she so different than the other bed partners that she'd had, albeit briefly, over the years?
Huh. 'Bed partner.' Haven't even bedded this one fully yet. A deep yawn forced its way up and out and Xena found that keeping her eyes open was going to be a battle she would soon lose. Her final thoughts before joining Morpheus were those of mounting questions. Why were her dealings with people always a struggle, always a battle, and always filled with pain? If the bard was offering something without her having to take it, why couldn't she just accept it? Would she be less the Conqueror if she let the little bard into her life?
she muttered sleepily, and then was almost startled by the calming effect the truth had on her.
Xena walked down a row of men and then sat in the large chair at the front. She noted the few men that wouldn't meet her eyes and silently added them to a growing list of those beyond the pale of loyalty.
Her lips twisted into a half smile as Andros walked towards her table carrying two tankards of ale.
Sire, it's good to see you. He inclined his head slightly and then having received the response expected, took his seat across from her.
Xena smiled briefly. It was a tight and somewhat cold smile, a smile that certainly never reached her icy blue eyes. Andros felt his chest tighten.
Both eyebrows rose and then he all but flinched as one of the Conqueror's large hands moved to cover his own and the tankard it held.
S'alright. Not the problem we have to worry about, is it? She took a short draught from his tankard and then eyed the room. Any more information on that front?
She watched as the man's eyes darted about the room as well, his jaw set with concentration. Pursing her lips, she tilted her head a little to the left in silent questioning.
I believe a ride on the grounds in the north quarter might be a pleasant way to pass the morning, sire. Xena acknowledged the warning with a slight nod to her head and then began to tuck into her meal, as it was set before her.
Andros nibbled a few pieces of his bread as Ubris departed, and then sat back to observe his ruler. Although tired looking, Lord Xena was remarkably energetic. Yes, she was a beautiful woman in every respect, regardless of the stress of her position. He tapped his lip pensively, thinking about the young woman back in the servant's quarters. Surely the Lord would wait before
What? You have this 'look' upon your face, Andros. You've always spoken your mind with me, why the hesitation now?
The Lieutenant cleared his throat. Well, your lordship
He wondered just how deep the feelings were between master and slave? His ego was still smarting from being dismissed earlier as he attempted to tend the slave. Didn't he trust her any more? Unable to keep the petulant thoughts at bay, Andros clenched his jaw and wondered just what a lowly slave could possibly offer her than he didn't have in abundance?
Rolling her eyes, Xena popped the last of her egg-soaked bread into her mouth and then quaffed half of her ale.
Whenever you call me 'lordship', I know there's something wrong. She waited, biting back the urge to simply threaten the man. The list of enemies had grown the last week and she really needed to know exactly where this man stood in that regard.
Come along, Andros. Haven't we known each other forever? Surely you can tell me what's on your mind. I won't bite
hard. She grinned lecherously. Then her brows knit together as a flush crept up the man's neck.
Andros cleared his throat again. One of his favorite fantasies was to walk into the mess hall brandishing proof of his liaison with the fiery Conqueror, the skin of his neck and shoulders stippled with hues of red and purple. He shuddered just imagining her hot breath on his quivering flesh. Well, sire
A look of understanding hit the Lord hard as she realized it wasn't really duty and honour that kept the man at her side but infatuation. Her lips briefly curled and she banged her tankard down, indicating more libations were required. A young serving girl approached and Xena barked a laugh as she pulled the squealing woman into her lap.
Best seat in the house!
The servant giggled as one breast was cupped and then kneaded. She'd heard all the rumours and hoped they were true. Leaning back into the strong shoulder of the Conqueror, the brunette took a nice measured breath, exposing more of her heaving cleavage to better advantage. Xena smirked as a few bawdy remarks were bandied about at the young girl's expense. Yes, they all knew of her reputation; it was well known throughout the realm and Xena did very little to curb such rumours, regarding them as aids to promote the bond between she and her men. So why would Andros even think there might be any interest on her part in his fanciful ideas? Perhaps she'd read the man wrong. Her suspicions were confirmed as a brief look of jealousy flashed across the Lieutenant's face. 'Now what do I do?'
Look, Andros, she began. You and I have known each other for many years. She paused as the man nodded. And in that time have I ever
She cleared her throat and sighed. You know I like
Beating about the bush was almost as difficult as coming right out with it. She rubbed a palm across she sharp plane of her jaw, gave the rather disappointed wench a pat on the butt sending her on her way, and then decided a full frontal attack would be best. But how to put it? 'Does one just come out and say, 'I'd sooner stick pins in my eyes before ever voluntarily seeing you naked?' or would a simple, 'you do nothing for me in that area' suffice?' Hmm.
As she was pondering the best avenue of attack, the good Lieutenant was wondering just what the Lord was going to say. He was certain she was going to go off on some tangent about the young bard. He'd talked to Ubris briefly while she was hiding out in the laundry rooms earlier that morning. Andros placed his hand on his throat and swallowed deeply. Not only had the servant brought up the scene they'd all interrupted as Lord Xena was in the midst of bedding the wench, but had hinted that there was true love in the air between them. Try as he might, the idea of the Conqueror loving the slave was
Images of Lord Xena, robe falling open, the dusky tips of her breasts looking hard and ripe as she teased the bard's eager lips popped into his head and he found himself incapable of swallowing.
It's nothing, sire. He squeaked. By your leave? He stood and then nodded thankfully as the Lord dismissed him with a wave of her hand. Feeling more than a little relieved herself, Xena knew that particular lion would have to be bearded sooner or later. A sense of discomfort settled over her as she wondered just how she could spare the man's feelings. Skills at maintaining a friendship weren't things she'd ever contemplated before. Forcing another forkful of food into her mouth, Xena found herself wondering just what the bard would do.
A young soldier nearby pushed his plate away and with slow deliberation made his way towards the officer's quarters. Maltor made a point of waiting until Andros was well on his way to the stables before setting off to find Dagnine.
Xena clenched her fingers in the mare's wild mane, trying valiantly not to leap off the horse and throttle her Lieutenant. While they'd spent most of the trip over to the far northern fields in stony silence, as soon as they'd rested and a wine skin was produced, Andros had babbled almost incessantly. An eyebrow rose as she dismounted. Easy on that wine, Andros.
He ignored her and blustered on. It's not good, you know, to be obsessed with someone
and especially not a common slave. Such a thing is bound to foment dissention in the ranks. He looked keenly in her direction. And especially when there are other willing participants who would love to
Xena pulled her gloves off, let loose the leather tie at her hair and strode over to where her Lieutenant was pacing.
Now look, Andros. If this is about Gabrielle
But my lord, can't you see? It's dangerous to have a liaison with such a person. She's beneath you, milord!
This is not your concern, Lieutenant. My business is exactly that: my business.
Andros nodded quickly and took a breath.
Sire, I realize you have some feelings for this girl, but
Xena ignored the man and walked back to her horse. She checked the cinch on her saddle and thought about those feelings.
What I feel or don't feel is not your concern, Andros.
Moving to the front withers, she stroked the palomino, taking pleasure from both the quivering flesh in response to her touch and the feel of power as the horse rubbed against her. She wondered what a horse might actually do if it knew just how strong it was in comparison to the weaklings that would dominate it. In comparison to the horse, her might was infinitesimal. Was anything she ever did of any great import? Surely there was more to her existence than moving people around a game board in an effort to win
. win what? The game still ended, someone was still the winner or loser, but in the long run what did it all really matter?
But it is my concern, milord. Andros continued bravely. I
I have feelings as well, sire.
Xena sighed heavily. Well, it had to be faced sooner or later. She had hoped to have a few days' grace, but that was not to be. Just how would the bard handle this situation? Cold brutality was out of the question, of course. She supposed the man might be offended if she merely laughed in his direction. She scratched her chin. 'What to do, what to do?'
My feelings for you are like those found between siblings, nothing more. Do you understand? She tried haltingly.
Andros swallowed the lump in his throat. He had hoped
Xena could see the pain in his eyes as the man's complexion turned a sallow colour. Feeling his disappointment, she turned away, affording him a moment in which to salve his ego. 'If Gabrielle were here
No, I take it back. My feelings for you go deeper than that. She patted the mare's pink muzzle and turned to face the man. I would like to call you friend.
A tear tried to force its way out of the corner of the Lieutenant's eye but he was just as determined to keep it from even existing. He quickly brought his head up to gaze at the mid-afternoon sky.
I see such loneliness in you. If I may speak plainly, milord?
His eyes were filled with such pleading that Xena felt almost obliged to grant his request. He pressed his lips together tightly as she nodded.
We've know each other, sire, for many years and in that time I've come to love you; more than siblings, and much more than mere friends. I cannot help that you won't return that love to me. All I can do is tell you how I feel, milord.
The Lieutenant's eyes widened. Sire?
You may refer to me by my given name, Andros. Isn't that what friends do?
He gave the woman a weak smile and clasped her upper arm as she did his.
Yes, Xena, they do. While part of him was dying from a broken heart, another was rejoicing in the truth he'd been given: Xena didn't have friends; she had acquaintances, minions, and enemies. That she no longer counted him in their number was something to hold close when the cold emptiness of his bed became too much to endure.
Now, are we done here? Can we move on to more pressing issues?
Andros cleared his throat and turned back to his horse. Rubbing his face quickly, the man packed away his pain and then faced the Lord.
Xena. That we are.
Ah. Nodding with relief, Xena blinked once and thanked the absent bard.
So, what of Dagnine?
Andros proceeded to go into detail, telling her of his discovery that both Dagnine and Thracis had left the compound, taking a rather large amount of men with them.
This isn't good news, Andros. If those damned emissaries come today, or even tomorrow, we shall be undermanned. Caesar's two hounds will smell the dissention before they even enter the castle. Don't you think they have their spies?
Andros watched her pace.
How many men and did he leave with weapons or without?
The Lieutenant prepared his reply but was cut off as the Conqueror continued.
What of those that tried to depose him? I would hope there were some in that number.
They took a few weapons, but it seems they left in a hurry. Perhaps the failed attempt on your life put the wind up their skirts. Placing the wine back in his saddlebag, the Lieutenant gave himself a shake and then went on.
We found the bodies of six of your Royal Guard, sire. They were to have guarded your chambers the night you were attacked. I would assume that since there were eight men on watch that two joined forces with Dagnine in exchange for their miserable lives.
Breathing deeply, the Conqueror clenched her teeth and strode back to her horse. Placing a foot in the stirrup, she drew herself up proudly and fixed the Lieutenant with a cold stare. I want them found, and I want them killed. The whole lot of them will pay for this betrayal. They'll sing a nice song of death before I actually send them on to Hades, and they'll curse the day they were ever born.
A shudder ran through the Lieutenant, as the woman's cold steel blue eyes seemed to cut right through him.
I will give my life to find them, sire.
Xena gave the man a warm smile, the look in her eyes softening. Yes, I have no doubts, my friend. However, I need you beside me when we face those blasted emissaries. You are my best man, after all. Send Christo and one or two of the other second Lieutenants. And a squad, of course. Have them leave at daybreak tomorrow.
Andros felt as if his heart would burst with pride. Your will be done, Xena.
Xena waited until the man had seated himself properly and then both turned back towards the castle.
You're a fine man, Andros. I don't tell you men how important your loyalty is to me, but
well, if I were to die tomorrow, I'll be proud to say I rubbed shoulders on the battlefield with some of the best.
She smiled as he cleared his throat. I don't believe I've heard you talk so much in the whole time I've known you, sire. He bit his tongue before he could continue. He didn't think it was the best time to point out that the rumours Christo had heard were correct.
Xena snorted. No, I suppose you haven't. It's that wench I have back in the castle. Silly girl thinks she can change me. You know, she had the gall to tell me that if given half the chance, she could make me fall in love with her. She snorted again.
Kicking her horse into action, Xena took off at a gallop.
The wind caught most of her words but he could have sworn he heard her say, 'She's right!'
Haa! He urged his own mount forward and tore after the Conqueror. As the wind raced through is shoulder length hair, Andros felt as if a lead weight had been lifted from his soul. Although it wasn't the outcome he'd been hoping for, it did his heart good to see the Lord happy and carefree. He shook his head in wonder. 'A slave girl with two broken legs has the heart of the most feared woman in Greece.' Who would believe it?
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