Disclaimer: I don't own these characters. This story is not intended as a challenge to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures’ ownership of said characters, only an illustration of the many stories left to tell about them.
Sex: This story includes non-consensual intercourse of the physical kind (that means 'rape' if you weren't following along). It's not glamorous. It's not fun. Nor is it what this story is about. Speaking of which, those of you looking for a little nookie between our favorite pair best keep looking. That's not what this story is about either. However, there are plenty of references to and discussions about same-sex relations, and even a bit of physicality. If this offends you or is illegal where you live, I leave it up to you to hit the 'Back' button on your browser.
Violence: Excessive amounts of violence. I mean people getting hurt left, right, and sideways. Not just hurt. Maimed. Killed. With blood and stuff. Often for no good reason. Again, if it ain't your bag, don't hyperventilate into it.
Special Thanks: To my partner, who tolerated this obsession of mine for eighteen months and fell asleep many-a-night to the glow of the laptop in our bed. And Cinnabari, who convinced me that it is possible for a fully-employed person to write a novel on the side, and beta-read this story and offered great comments which I did my best to address, and checked my Latin, and continues to inspire me with her own fiction. I also want to thank all the bards out there who write this stuff, especially Carola "Ryűchan" Eriksson and her story "Gladiator" for planting the seed for this story in my mind.
Summary: While in Rome to renegotiate a treaty, the Conqueror meets an unusual gladiator.
Feedback: Almost forgot. This is my first fic; if you like it, or even if you read it, please send your comments to email@example.com.
FYI: To read this story in book formatting, visit Spyrel's Fiction.
Flowers, coins, and the cries of an unruly crowd pelted the sands of the Forum, voices coalescing into one steady roll of thunder that shook the wooden stands. Fists clenched, the fighter they clamored for raised his massive arms and loosed a howl. It drowned under the roar of the masses.
In the consul’s viewing box, the guest of honor reclined and yawned, watching Caesar in the corner of her eye. Her host's head turned slightly, his crown of golden laurel leaves glittering like fiery stars. Faint pleasure tugged at the woman’s lips; she felt no desire to hide her derision for her host or his entertainment.
“Are the games not to your liking?”
Her smile broadened. “Watching them fight is tiresome. Is this the best your famous gladiators have to offer?”
Condescension dripped from his smile. “Not bloodthirsty enough for you?”
Her wrist flicked dismissively toward the sands where slaves hurried to clear away the mess for the next bout. “Your so-called Samnites and Thracians are just Romans with different weapons. Same stances, same moves, same strategies, over and over and over again. No fire. No imagination. Boring.”
She aimed for a rise from him; he let it pass with a false smile. “Perhaps it is the watching. Would you enjoy it more if it were you down there? Against him, perhaps?”
The victorious gladiator strode out of the arena, his massive muscles glistening with oil and exertion. She hardly spared him a glance. “Don’t insult me. The only sweat I’d break against that one would be from the heat.”
“I am just trying to make your stay more pleasant, Conqueror.”
“Then get to your point, Caesar.”
A slow drink from the golden goblet, a click of the tongue. “Merely that Rome offers many avenues to work off…excess energy.”
His refusal to speak plainly made her scowl, only served to reinforce her loathing for the asp who proclaimed himself dictator of Rome. Sitting this close to him, smelling his perfumed clothes…it made her skin crawl, and not in fear. Only a healthy amount of practicality stayed her hands from knotting around his throat. The Praetorian Guard lurked just out of sight down the passage behind them, and within the bounds of Rome stood several more legions that would make escaping the city a less-than-pleasant task. So she shook her head, willed herself into the stillness she found in a perfect breath, and waited. She would make her move soon enough. Or he would, and tip his hand.
The next match had already begun. A group combat this time, commemorating some ancient battle the Conqueror knew and cared little about. The larger unit wielded spears and shields, advancing in ragged formation upon six warriors garbed in the plumed helmets, shaped breastplates, and round shields of ancient Hoplite soldiers. Outnumbered three to one, the Greeks retreated before the wall of spearmen, standing shoulder to shoulder and trying to avoid being flanked, cornered, or surrounded.
The Conqueror sighed. If she had to tolerate this mockery of combat, she’d at least study what passed for Roman battle tactics.
The spearman took experimental jabs at the soldiers, bolstered by their larger numbers and the impatient jeers of the crowd. One in particular found the courage to lunge and jab at the smallest soldier in the bunch.
Quick as blown sand, his target hopped out of reach, grabbing the shaft of the spear and giving it a sharp jerk. The Conqueror almost laughed aloud; the lunging man found himself sprawled to the sand between two hungry-looking opponents. In moments they hacked him apart, reforming into a defensive wall before the spearmen hardly knew what happened.
All Tartarus broke loose.
The spearmen rushed in a great if not unified wave, penetrating and collapsing the wall. For a few chaotic seconds it looked as though the soldiers were all but finished. Moments later the line reformed, soldiers stepping back over the wounded bodies of the flanked vanguard.
The Hoplites faced far fewer enemies but not without cost. One soldier near the edge found two spears in his side, falling even as his wild swing bit deep into the calf of one of his killers. Now the battle raged in earnest, with spearman rushing to surround the defenders and pin them into a tight group, the better to skewer them at leisure. One soldier grabbed a spear of his own, threw it into a lightly armored chest, grabbed that man’s spear and ran through two more before his crowd-pleasing rashness cost him his life.
Even so, his actions broke the tightening noose. The soldiers pressed outward, fighting two on one. The smallest fought with blinding speed and ferocity. The cumbersome Greek shield discarded, two gladii flashed forward and back, deftly deflecting the jab of one spear and swiping at another spear's wielder; his weapon dropped to the sand, the hand that held it laid open to the bone. As one glittering blade deflected the other spearman’s thrust, a toe hooked under the long shaft in the sand and kicked it into its owner’s face, cracking him across the nose. His head snapped back and the tip of the second gladius flicked out. Red spray hissed from his neck, drawing a swell of cheers from the crowd.
The Hoplite showed no sign of noticing, now fully engaged with the other spearman. A jump back to avoid one thrust, then another, then another. The Conqueror smirked; clearly the spearman hadn’t paid attention earlier. As if on cue, the emboldened man jabbed one time too many. A gladius carried the sharp tip aside, its wielder spinning full circle, closing the distance, the second blade chopping deep into the side of the man’s neck. Red showered across the hot sand; the audience roared in appreciation.
He earned only a moment to breathe before another soldier dropped lifeless to the dirt and his attacker charged. The gladius deflected what would have been a killing thrust, but the larger man’s momentum sent them tumbling in the thick sand, weapons flying one direction, helmets another. The Hoplite popped up, short sweat-soaked hair gleaming almost white under the hot sun. A woman.
The stands exploded, hisses and catcalls mingling with a growing chant upon recognizing her. From Caesar’s box, his guest couldn’t make out what they screamed, but their energy shot through her like electricity. Unconsciously she sat up straighter, leaning forward for a better view of the scuffle below.
Weaponless, both gladiators scrambled to their feet, looking for anything to bring to bear. The man found a great shield and came in swinging, catching the smaller gladiator before she could hop away. Though the hit send her flying she somehow landed on her feet, eyes still darting around for a weapon. He was almost half again her size, swinging the unwieldy shield like a club. Whip fast she dropped under one swing, spun low and kicked a leg out from under him. Already off balance, he twisted and dropped hard on his tailbone. One short powerful leg cracked across his temple, knocking him to the sand in a stunned heap.
A great roar from the crowd jarred the Conqueror back to her seat at the edge of the arena. The screams of the mob finally coalesced into one great rousing voice, grinding against the Conqueror’s heightened senses. “Parda, Parda, Parda!”
Leopard. Breathing heavily, the fair gladiator retrieved a sword and faced the spearman. He roused, dazed eyes wide with fear and pleading as he raised a finger of submission.
Just as her pulse slowed it jumped again, pounding in her ears as the Leopard’s eyes rose to gaze at her, waiting.
No, not at her. At Caesar, whose dark unreadable eyes burned into the Conqueror. She leaned back like some great languid cat, indifferent to the gory display, to his decision. Still, every fiber of her being felt him stand, take in the crowd, the mood, the overwhelming shouts for mercy.
At his sign, the gladius plunged into the thick neck, pulled free with a great gush. Boos and insults outweighed the cheers; food and coins bounced off the leather breastplate, the blood-spattered face. If she heard or felt any of it she showed no sign. Pale eyes lingered on the box for only a moment before she dropped the blade and turned away.
One eyebrow peaked at his decision, at the palpable fury of the crowd. “They don’t seem to like the Leopard much.”
Caesar reclaimed his seat. “She’s not a very good gladiator.”
The Conqueror snorted. “She’s better than that sorry excuse for a spearman.”
He smiled. “Oh, she’s an excellent fighter. She just lacks a certain…flair. She doesn’t play for show. She plays to win. Not much fun to watch.” He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “Unless you disagree?”
She didn't answer, watched the gladiator disappear under the shadowy arch of victory.
The Leopard ran.
Legs pumped with a strength born of desperation, fighting the poor purchase of the sand to outrun the pounding behind her. Every five steps she took the beast covered in a single bound. There was nothing to hide behind here, no overturned chariot or horse carcass to put between her and the hungry predator. She fast ran out of territory, closing with the arena wall and an end to escape.
A feral snarl behind her fed strength to burning legs. Planting one solid foot she leapt, pushed off the wall and spun in mid-air, slashing with the gladius.
The blade bit deep into an outstretched paw the size of her head even as it hooked into the bare flesh of her side. She twisted away as she fell, curled shoulders at the last second and tumbled in a spray of sand, instinctively rolling to her feet. A shape blocked the sun. She threw herself aside, slashing up and laying the cat’s ribs open as it landed where she’d stood.
It spun in place, all claws and teeth bared. The good paw ripped at the small shield strapped to her forearm. Claws as long and sharp as daggers bit deep into the wood, almost yanking her arm out of socket. She thrust her gladius between her and the creature to keep it at bay. The predator hung back, hurting and wary, gave her time to flex her shoulder and regroup, spare a quick glance down. That giant paw had left its mark; liquid life trickled down her bare breast and side to stain the loincloth, red mixing in long rivulets with gold paint and black Leopard spots. Even shallow scratches would cost her dearly in a long match.
She was tired of running.
The powerful paw smacked against the shield again. Braced for the blow, she countered with a sharp stab into the muscular foreleg between the thick bones. The monster recoiled with a deafening roar, yanking the blade from her. The other paw lashed out, knocking her back to the sand.
She scrabbled to her feet with less grace the second time. Her shield arm could barely brace against her ribs without sharp knives stabbing through her left shoulder. Blood poured from deep gashes in her sword arm, dripped from her smallest finger to dye the pale sand.
Weaponless she backed away, her eyes never leaving the beast as slick fingers fumbled with the knots fixing the shield to her forearm. The golden cat advanced, limping badly now on the impaled foreleg. Hunger and pain finally drove it forward, swiping again at the fair head just out of reach. Timing would decide the match now. The cat’s broken rhythm almost caught her twice, forcing her to jump back as claws raked across the gouged buckler. Then she dove in, smashing the paw aside with a great arc of the shield and swinging onto the monster’s back, one fist knotted in the thick mane while the other brought the wooden disc smashing down upon its massive head. The creature staggered. Three more blows, and it collapsed.
The shield raised to strike again, but the great cat lay still. Sucking in labored breaths the gladiator pushed herself up, worked the gladius from its tight sheath of flesh. A splash of opulent purple drew her eyes to the consul’s box. For the second time in as many days, she waited for the signal.
And as before, he had a guest. Though dressed as a Roman noblewoman, pale eyes gazed down at the victor with guarded appreciation, some intimacy with violence no noblewoman shared. She found herself staring up, wondering what the woman knew, what her arrow-like gaze saw in the arena.
An unsettling feeling came over her, and for the first time, she noticed the crowd. Not shouting; such noises were as silence in the arena. No, from the crowd she heard—felt—murmuring. Dimly the clinking of armor pushed into her consciousness. Two dozen Praetorians formed up around her, swords drawn.
The signal. The Emperor stood there, his expression sour, again giving the signal. How long had she stood there, staring at his guest, armed and unmoving? The punishment for disobeying Caesar was death. She blinked, dazed, turned to her opponent. It twitched, slowly stirring. Hardly aware, she thrust her blade through the creature’s corded neck, dispatching it.
A sharp blow knocked the gladius from blood-slicked fingers. Calloused hands grabbed her arms and escorted her out of the arena. She did not struggle, wondered at her own distraction.
Just inside the gate, guards slapped manacles on her wrists before leading her down. The dimness below reigned as absolute as the brightness above, swallowing her up as surely as that hungry beast meant to. Jostled by the rough grip of the soldiers, stabs of pain sent commands coursing through her body to protect itself. With great effort she willed her arms to relax. Any tension would be read by her escorts as resistance. Any resistance would bring swift reprisal.
They stopped, keys unlocking a cell door. She stepped in quickly, before the guards felt a need to throw her in. Only when the door locked behind her did she exhale, slide down the wall to sit next to the door.
For many minutes she rested, head back against the stone wall, spots leaping before her closed eyes. Finally they opened, gradually taking in the weak torchlight that washed the walls with swimming red.
Something warm and wet met her thigh, a stream of dark trickling from the triumvirate of gashes across her forearm. She reached through the bars, retrieved a cloth and dipped it in the bucket of water left for her there. Scrubbing angered the ragged edges of flesh, but it seemed to clear the sand from the wounds, and finally she wrapped a fresh cloth snug around the arm and did her best to tie it off with her teeth. Her shoulder throbbed, her side itched, other places ached and warned of future stiffness, but none of them seemed dangerous. The cell offered isolation, safety. Parda slunk away from the bars and pressed deep into a corner, knees guarding her bare chest, allowing herself the luxury of drifting off for a short time.
“Great Caesar, welcome to my home!”
The old senator gestured with a wide sweep for the Emperor and his entourage to enter. Their host’s eyes widened with pleasure. “Xena, the Conqueror of Greece! I am most humbled by your presence.”
Her pale blue eyes barely flickered his direction in response. Caesar sighed, smiled politely, if not genuinely. “Gracchus, thank you for seeing us. I am sorry for the late hour, but our esteemed guest needed a break from the day’s negotiations.”
“Oh, think nothing of it. Hard work, negotiations. Nothing like a day in the senate to leave me ready for a trip to the baths. Have you had the pleasure of visiting our baths, my lady?”
The Destroyer of Nations lounged upon a long couch. She’d traded the revealing dress of the day for a well-worn set of fighting leathers, though she looked just as stunning, if a bit more dangerous. “You will address me as Conqueror.”
The old man faltered only a moment. “Of course, how inappropriate of me. Let me offer you refreshments this evening. Or would you like a larger spread?”
“We didn’t come to socialize.”
Caesar almost grinned at the woman’s asperity. He offered the senator a disarming smile. “Congratulations on your success in the arena today.”
“Our success? Oh, quite right, quite right. A nasty bit of work, that lion. We’re very pleased—”
“I want to spar her.” The Conqueror leaned back on her palms, candidly calm.
The man’s countenance faltered again. “Spar her?” He glanced at the consul for confirmation.
Caesar nodded. “As you may have heard, Senator, the Conqueror is an aficionado of armed combat. She would like to stretch her muscles against your star gladiator’s sword.”
His jaw went slack with comprehension. “Oh. Conqueror. I think that unwise. These gladiators, they can be…unpredictable, as you saw today in the arena. Should you suffer even the slightest scratch, I would feel responsible—”
“She would be holding the sword, not you. And I wouldn’t worry about her landing a blow on me. Or are you not familiar with some of my many skills?”
The old senator snapped his jaw shut, reconsidered. “I have several fine gladiators, any one of which could provide you great sport—”
“But she is your purse winner.” The Conqueror flashed teeth, guessing the source of his hesitation. “Would it ease your mind if I promised not to hurt her…too much?”
Gracchus looked pinched, turned to Caesar for reinforcement. Little was forthcoming. “Senator, perhaps the Conqueror could compensate you for any forfeited matches if she’s injured?”
He swallowed, dark eyes darting between the two smirking faces before him. With the crook of a finger a slave stepped forward; whispered instructions sent him hurrying away. The pale man licked sweat-dewed lips, turned once more to the consul. “Caesar, I most humbly apologize for her transgression in the arena today. I hope this is not about that. You know of her…limitations. I promise you, it won’t happen again.” The consul pursed his lips distastefully, examining a nail, ignoring his feeble excuses. The Conqueror stared through him, his presence insignificant. He shrank, defeated. “The practice yard is this way.”
A shiver of anticipation fluttered through the Conqueror. She followed him into the torch-lit dirt courtyard, took in the training posts, weapons racks, and dummy targets with practiced ease. As long minutes passed, a drawing on the wall caught her eye. Though crudely rendered, the figure of a spotted woman-beast pinned a helmed gladiator to the ground, sharp teeth bared to the thraex’s gushing throat. Above it the artist had scrawled an inscription: Parda involat.
“‘The Leopard pounces.’ Why do they call her that?”
Caesar chuckled. When he didn’t answer, Gracchus cleared his throat, offered a weak smile. “There are many stories, Conqueror. Some say this depicts a true story, that she won her first fight by tearing her opponent’s throat out with her teeth. Others say her first opponent was a leopard she killed with her bare hands.”
The Conqueror grinned at the idea. “What do you think, senator?”
Gracchus’ lips pursed as he studied the drawing, his thoughts far away. “I think she’s some pale-haired barbarian from one of those northern tribes great Caesar conquered, more animal than woman. She eats. She sleeps. She mates. She kills.”
The Conqueror raised an eyebrow at that, a sharp retort on her tongue, but Caesar cut her off. “It’s just a name. Every gladiator gets one. It doesn’t mean anything.”
She glared at him, still fuming at the senator’s unflattering assessment, but sounds from a darkened arch across the yard drew her attention. House guards emerged dragging the stumbling gladiator to the edge of the corral.
She looked much less formidable in person than in the ring, barely coming up to the warlord’s shoulders. Without armor she seemed almost slight, in spite of the hard muscle that flexed beneath the rough brown tunic. At least she was wearing something. Darkly the Conqueror wondered who decided painting her like her namesake and pitting her naked against a lion would make good entertainment.
The Leopard looked as if she’d come straight from the Forum, face and arms grimy with sweat and smeared paint and gritty sand, hair plastered back with dried yellow mud, a soiled cloth binding wounds on her forearm, black blood crusted on her sword hand. In her grogginess, the woman looked barely past her twentieth summer, hardly the seasoned combatant the Conqueror had expected. A breath of disappointment fluttered through her. Scowling, she resigned herself to toying with the woman to draw out her enjoyment.
Manacled hands blocked the glare of the torches, dull eyes drifting from one face to another without comprehension. Perhaps it was the lingering grip of Morpheus addling her wits that she remained standing in Caesar’s presence, even after her escort saluted and bowed. The flat of a blade across the back of her legs corrected the error, dropped her hard to her knees. She blinked at him, eyes glazed, slowly dipped her chin in a bow.
“Rise.” He turned to his guest. “What is your pleasure?”
The Conqueror sighed. “I’m curious to try one of these stubby little blades you call swords.” Smoothly she crossed to a weapons rack, withdrew one of the wooden practice swords and gave it a few experimental swipes.
“And the Leopard?”
The Conqueror eyed the gladiator, remembered her preference the first day she saw her fight. “Give the dimachaera her twins. She’ll need the extra help.”
Guards jerked the slave to her feet and unchained her, placed a pair of wooden gladii in her hands, then stepped away. The Conqueror swung the sword a few more times, adjusting to the unfamiliar weight and speed of the short blade, a wicked gleam in her eye. The sleep-drunk woman didn’t move, stared at her vacantly.
“Are you stupid? Get your guard up. I won’t warn you twice.”
The gladiator watched her, mesmerized. The senator cleared his throat. “Apologies, Conqueror. Perhaps great Caesar did not explain. The Leopard doesn’t speak, understands commands little better than the beast she is named after. She’s no match for your prowess. I’ll send for another—”
“I don’t want another.” The animal could fight and would, or face the beating of her life. She spun and backhanded her with the flat of her wooden blade.
It never connected. Instinctively the Leopard’s gladius blocked the blade inches from her temple. The Conqueror grinned, shoved the gladiator back and flew at her.
Her attacks came fast and hard, making sure the gladiator knew this was no practice round. The Leopard barely kept pace, her wooden weapons blocking or deflecting blows with little room to spare, but she didn’t fall for any of the Conqueror’s usual tricks. She was cautious, this gladiator, with a fighting style that was definitely not Roman. Sometimes hard, sometimes soft, sometimes straight lines and angles, sometimes sinuous circles, she proved to be unpredictable and deliciously difficult to hit.
But a frown began to tug at the corners of the Conqueror’s mouth. When a strike threatened the Leopard’s left she would turn ever so slightly, withdraw rather than block. With a snarl the Conqueror cut low, locking up one blade, then kicked high, her unblocked boot easily smashing across the Leopard’s face. Only a quick jerk back kept the gladiator from being dropped; she spun and reset her fighting stance, eyes watering as blood poured from her nose.
Truly angry now, the Conqueror swung high, grabbed the predictable counter and swung again, the flat of her blade smacking the shoulder that didn’t—couldn’t—raise a weapon to block. The gladiator grunted, body tense, face bloody, eyes hooded.
Disgusted, the Conqueror flung the swords to the dirt, grabbed the shoulder to feel out the damage. “This is pointless. She’s injured. Why wasn’t this looked after?” The Leopard's pale eyes—were they green?—dilated with pain but she held still, allowed the prodding.
“Begging your pardon, but our house doctor assures me she’s fine—”
“Clearly not.” Bending the elbow, she expertly rolled the shoulder over and into socket with an audible pop. No sound came from the Leopard, just a flare from those balefire eyes. She peeled down the wrap on the woman’s sword arm, poked at the inflamed scratches. “These need to be cleaned and stitched.”
“Our most humble apologies—”
“Don’t apologize. Fix it. I want her healthy when I beat her.” She shook her head, half at herself. What difference would a few days’ healing make? The girl hardly seemed worth the wait. But she’d been feeling tense and restless, and the fight—short as it was—offered sweet distraction from her less palatable duties. And she admitted feeling…curious? Yes, curious. Even after losing the match, the slave refused to back down. Something lurked behind those flat eyes, some force of will beaten down but not snuffed out. The feral thing consented to the Conqueror’s ministrations. She did not submit.
In Greece, none but the Conqueror’s highest-ranking officers dared defy her, and those often did so with a stink of fear. No such foul scent here. This gladiator—this Leopard in the guise of a woman—did not fear death, and did not fear her. A tingle crawled up the warlord’s neck. Was that the almost forgotten thrill of a challenge, of new territory to be conquered? She clucked her tongue, savoring some lost flavor between her teeth.
Gracchus interrupted her thoughts. “We shall prepare her for your return.”
House guards came and stripped away the gladiator’s armor, manacled her wrists together. Eyes shrouded once more, they never left the Conqueror, even as guards dragged her back through the darkened archway.
Early morning made the practice yard a crowded place. Aspiring gladiators ran through their routines, the sweat of their efforts cooled by the lingering chill of morning. Servants and slaves ported great pottery jugs of food and drink into the stores, prepared the afternoon meal, washed clothing for the senator’s household. Everyone worked quickly, eager to finish the heavy chores before the heat of the afternoon sun sucked the life out of the air.
The slave quarters below were therefore unusually quiet, and one gladiator made the most of it. In a rare moment of indulgence, diligent hands methodically cleansed every inch of skin with a scrap of cloth dipped in lemon water. The astringent cut through layers of filth and greasepaint from the practice yard and the arena, exposed tanned skin flushed pink with brutal scrubbing, but it was no bath. Stained by lampblack, no amount of scouring entirely removed the spots of her alter ego, as if she were the Leopard and it was the woman they painted on.
Gingerly she felt out the bloated nose she’d reset in the oppressive dark, rubbed the swelling down with watering eyes until satisfied she’d gotten it straight enough. A greasy salve scorched her nostrils with the reek of urine, burned the jagged edges of skin under the stitches on her forearm, but at least the lips grew back together with no hint of yellow discharge.
Body clean and wounds tended, she ran through some exercises, tentatively testing the questionable shoulder. It grumped when lifted, more sore than injured. She could raise her elbow at least level with her shoulder, even higher if absolutely forced. It would be weak for some time, but it functioned. Satisfied, she moved to the well in the center of the slaves’ quarters, drew up a fresh bucket of water for a drink and a cool splash on the face, set to rinsing caked mud from her hair.
A sound behind her. Before she could turn rough hands shoved her forward. She caught herself on the stone rim of the well, unable to let go without plunging head first down the shaft.
“Keep still, whore.”
She recognized the gladiator’s voice, knew what he wanted. She did not keep still, tried to elbow back but the manacles at ther wrists snapped taut, almost jerked her supporting arm out from under her. She caught herself, barely, shoulder stabbing warning, found herself teetering over the edge of the well. Without leverage, it was all she could do to hold on as she felt him jerk up her tunic, force his dry erection into her.
Any noise that tried to claw out of her throat dammed up behind clenched teeth. She struggled to relax, open herself, move with him, anything to ease the burn as he reamed her.
“That’s a good canicula. I knew you wanted this. Much better than that old man’s tiny prick, ain’t it?”
He should have kept his mouth shut. The ‘little bitch’ took a steadying breath between bruising thrusts, then let go, grabbing the hand at the back of her neck as they both pitched forward. The man swore, had to catch himself while she dangled over the dark hole, tried to roll away from the long drop.
Chains wrapped around her throat, yanking her head back and arching her spine with each lunge of his hips. Desperate fingers clawed at the links, tried to wedge underneath to allow any scrap of blood and air to pass. Then, sound and sight dimming, she willed herself to stop fighting and let him take her.
She lost some time. When the blackness lifted she lay on the floor beside the well, choking great gulps of air down her swollen throat, head pounding so hard her vision pulsed dark with each heartbeat. Between slick legs her opening smoldered like a raw bloody scrape.
It took a few moments to push herself up on one elbow, the other, drag her knees beneath her. She pushed herself up and, once sure shaky legs would support her, walked slowly up the stairs out of the slaves’ quarters, her expression as opaque as a brackish pool.
White morning sun brought another moment’s blindness. Through the chattering and bustle she found him, talking with other gladiators and grinning. As calmly and steadily as her legs could manage, she strolled across the practice yard, picked up a wooden sword, and in two swift steps leapt upon the gladiator’s back, plunging the dull tip through his neck.
Even as the house guards pulled her away she pounded the pommel of the broken sword into the dead man’s dented skull.
As the Senator’s house came into view, the Conqueror felt a familiar spring in the balls of her feet, a lightness of anticipation that she hadn’t felt since her last visit. No, before. Like she hadn’t felt since the morning her army took Egypt.
Egypt. Her last great campaign. That was more than a year ago, her last expansion after unifying Greece under her banner. And then…there was only Rome.
Oh, there had been skirmishes, tactical maneuvers to feel out and establish boundaries. But as much as it pained her to admit, the Republic had grown strong under Caesar’s military campaigns, its coffers fat, its legions numerous and battle-tested, its might brimming. Greece simply didn’t have the resources to confront the beast head on. Not that the Republic did not have its weaknesses. The greatest one walked not a few paces before her, and she secretly amused herself with the thought of his swollen head bouncing down the winding paved thoroughfare. But Rome was a Hydra; where one head was cut off, two more grew to replace it. She strategized day and night for the tactics, the weapons that might kill the Hydra.
So she would tolerate this one smug little head—for now.
The doors opened to the senator’s domus. The Conqueror swept past the slaves, servants and even Caesar himself, already unclipping her cloak and readying herself for combat.
Senator Gracchus flew into the room, winded and flushed. “Caesar! Conqueror! I had not expected you back so soon.”
“Call it happy circumstance. I look forward to the evening’s entertainment.”
“Ah, yes.” He licked his lips nervously. She felt a dark shadow settle on her face, knew she would not like what this weasel was about to say. “I regret to inform you that your sparring partner has not completely healed—”
She closed the distance, towered over the senator. “I don’t care if she is completely healed. Can she fight? Or has something else happened that I should know about?”
He blanched. “N-no, Conqueror. It’s just…I thought you wanted a challenge. She’s hardly a match for your martial prowess in her current state.”
Disappointment ate away her earlier buoyancy. Eyeing the frail senator, she fingered the worn pommel of her sword and found herself musing over entertainment of a wholly difference sort. The senator swallowed and backed away. “I will prepare her. Perhaps you will find her…satisfactory.”
Torchlight filtered through the tiny window, followed by the sound of keys in the door. She tried to rouse, force eyes open, pay attention, prepare. For what, she didn’t know, but she could guess it wouldn’t be pleasant. Guards yanked her up off the floor, dragged her out of the tiny cell to suddenly stand face to face with the Master.
He eyed her bare flesh, not liking what he saw. “Wake up.”
A bucket of water doused her head to toe. She jerked and sputtered, shook water from her eyes, forced her vision to focus on him.
“That’s better. You have a match to fight.”
Shivering, she stared disbelieving at the darkness of night at the end of the stairs. A slap stung her, brought her barely banked glare back to her owner.
“You will fight.” Hard grey eyes softened, the way they had the night he first saw her waiting in his chambers. He walked around her, out of sight, but she didn’t need her eyes to feel his hands hovering over her back. The heat radiating from his palms was enough to burn her raw flesh. “Damned unfortunate thing, this,” he said softly. “All of this. I can honestly assure you I wish none of it had ever happened.”
His apology rang hollow. In her mind’s eye she could still see him staring at her, his face twisted in disgust at his once prized, now ruined possession as the house guard delivered lash after lash.
His tone turned cold as Tartarus. “But you will fight. You will put on a good show for her, and if she’s pleased, she may let you live. And if you hurt her…” He stepped in front of her, debating his next words. “I know many more men who would like to know you as I have, none of them as gentle as your last lover. I’m certain I can line up enough of them to fuck you in every orifice every hour of every day until your insides fall out your cunt. Do you understand?”
He used that voice, the one that promised to follow through on every word. And he was a man who never broke his promises.
He watched her, waiting for an answer. Mechanically she nodded.
“Good. Fix her up.” He lifted her chin to examine the marks. “And make sure those are covered.”
She already wore full armor and helmeted with a scarf around her neck when they led her up the ramp to the yard. She squirmed inside the cuirass, trying to unstick the coarse tunic from oozing welts, find a position where the stiff leather didn’t press too hard on her tender back.
Caesar's guest paced there, wooden gladius in hand, slashing impatiently. Her quick, fluid movements seemed almost wild, but the grip she held on the hilt spoke of complete control and absolute will. The slave’s eyes flicked to Caesar, casually leaning upon a rail to enjoy the evening's entertainment. Across the yard stood the Master, seemingly cowed into silence by the ill-temper of his guests.
All movement stopped, and the warrior woman fixed her eyes on the gladiator appraisingly. Her skin twitched under the scrutiny, tingled as if scraped by invisible fingernails up and down her flesh. She retreated inside herself, fronted a look of detached indifference to meet the gaze, about this match, her opponent, her owner, Caesar, anything but simply surviving. There was truth in that, enough to make the expression convincing.
The warrior cut loose with a shrill battle cry as she flipped through the air. The first few strikes almost overwhelmed the gladiator. With effort she found the woman’s timing, blocking and deflecting each blow while learning her tactics.
Her opponent knew it and pressed the attack, driving her back toward the wooden fence rails, launching a powerful chop downward just as the slave ran out of room to retreat. Instead she sidestepped, the blade striking so close that splinters peppered her cheek. Hairs stood up on the back of her neck as she registered the snapped rail. Her opponent’s strength was undeniable; a single blow would debilitate, even kill. As if reading her mind, the warrior woman cut a feral grin; she was only getting started.
She came in again, varying her angles of attack, executing wild combinations unlike any the gladiator had ever seen. She wasn’t sure which surprised her more, that she managed to keep up, or that she almost didn’t. More than once an unexpected thrust or slash caught her off guard, forcing her to dodge hard to avoid getting hit. One particular thrust forced the Leopard to writhe out of the way, and suddenly she found herself inside the woman’s long reach, at the perfect range for an elbow to the jaw—
She jumped back, shaking her head, glancing at the Master. If he saw her near-mistake, he made no expression. Her distraction cost her; a spinning backfist cracked across her face, pain detonating in her broken nose. Only a rapid pivot and retreat saved her from the side thrust meant to knock her out of the practice corral. As it was, the kick to her solar plexus through the hard leather breastplate knocked the wind from her lungs. She staggered back, panting around frothy blood filling her nose, cursing her own stupidity, cursing the Master for hobbling her.
The warrior arched one taunting eyebrow, waiting, daring her to do something. She willed the fire in her face to pass, settled back into that careful mask she wore in the arena. Swords struck again, glancing off each other so hard and fast the smell of burning wood filled the courtyard. The gladiator backed away, staying just out of the warrior’s long reach, forcing her to advance. But the dark warrior was no amateur. Unlike the spearmen in the arena, the tall woman moved in carefully, wary of over-extending and being lured off balance. Still, the attack never let up, a flurry of sword strikes interwoven with fists and feet in a tapestry of incredible skill. Disquiet raced through her, and excitement.
The onslaught was not seamless. Gradually she began to feel small openings in her opponent's guard. Feel, like an itch that demanded to be scratched. An over-extended chin, a vulnerable joint, an exposed midsection drew her like a moth to its own fiery destruction. Only stepping away eased the itch, dampened the urge that surged through her to counterattack.
Her reserve only provoked the woman. Deliberately the Conqueror’s sword raked across angry stitches, setting the gladiator’s arm alight. A moment’s haze clouded her vision, and in that moment she felt her calf bump against the fence rail, found herself outmaneuvered again with nowhere to run.
An elbow swung at her face. Instinctively she ducked under the powerful blow and shot away, her wooden sword drawing a grunt of pain as it rammed into the warrior’s armored belly.
She froze, surprised and horrified. The warrior woman bent over double, the wind knocked from her chest, purple rage building under her exquisite features. A black grin broke out on Caesar’s face. Her owner blanched white, then flushed red, veins bulging on his forehead.
Time to die.
She didn’t move when the woman came at her, didn’t block, didn’t even flinch. She stared into those scorching eyes, felt the faintest relief knowing her death would be quick. Instead she found herself stumbling back, a fist knotted in the scarf around her neck, shoving her faster than she could keep up to slam against the railing.
White pain seared through her lacerated back; she stiffened, clamped down on the hiss that squeezed past her locked jaw. With a twist the scarf tightened on an already swollen throat, but she willed herself to be still, welcomed the spots of color that splashed ever darker in her vision.
“What’s this?” the woman’s velvet voice growled.
The grip loosened, then pulled the scarf away. She tucked her chin, but a fist tangled in her hair and jerked her head back, displaying the flowering bruises for everyone to see. Particularly the Master.
Beyond her own panting, she heard not a breath from the assembly. No one moved, fearful of the warrior’s anger.
“What is this?” Slightly louder this time. Her pale blue eyes raked those assembled in the courtyard, settling on the senator. “Who did this?”
The senator glowered at his property. “A remnant of her last match.”
“You lie. These are choke marks. Who did this?” She let go and the Leopard sagged, rubbing her throat as the warrior turned on the senator, her spine rigid with rage.
“A gladiator. In practice today. A lucky grab.”
Her speed astonished the Leopard. In four long strides she crossed the courtyard, grabbed him by the neck and heaved him up against a wall. Gods, the woman was mad, threatening a senator over one battered slave.
House guards closed on her, swords drawn. Outnumbered three to one, the Conqueror’s escort drew in kind, encircling their ruler. Caesar’s men tensed, hands on their pommels. A flick of his wrist held them.
“I don’t know!” he squeaked.
She snarled, squeezing his windpipe. One of his guard stepped forward; her men raised their swords.
“That’s enough.” Caesar stepped closer, his expression—his entire being—promising consequences for any rash action.
The woman shot Caesar a warning look, the point of her sword making clear her opinion of his consequences. The Leopard, on the other hand, did not doubt his next actions would bring the warrior woman great suffering, with or without laying a hand to flesh. Because of her.
“He’s dead,” she croaked.
All eyes turned to her. A nervous glance at her owner, and at Caesar; the consul cocked his head curiously at her, as if noticing a mosquito for the first time. The senator, more than anyone else, looked at her as if she’d sprouted the three heads of Cerberus itself. “You…speak?”
She opened her mouth, thought she should say more but found her head empty. After such a long separation, words abandoned her. The succor of silence still clung to her; rejection of that steady companion seemed more frightening than triumphant. This was madness, speaking now, in front of Caesar, the Master. Especially the Master. Only his look of shock and his threat ringing in her ears made her glad to speak.
The woman looked from her to Master, back to her, something dark and unreadable in her eyes. Then she let him go, tossed the sword in the dirt. “You don’t deserve a fighter like her. I’ll give you five times what you paid for her.”
The Leopard stared, not believing her ears.
From somewhere the Master drew a swell of confidence. “She’s worth far more than that in winnings alone—”
Her hands lashed out, jabbed him three times in the neck. He dropped to his knees, gasping, manicured fingernails clawed long gashes into his neck as if tearing at invisible hands. Twin rivulets of dark blood oozed from his nostrils. The slave stared at them, transfixed, conflicted between the urge to defend the only security she knew and the thrill of watching him die.
The dark warrior bent down in his face. “She’s worth nothing to you if you’re dead. Three times what you paid for her, and don’t make me reconsider again.”
He nodded vigorously, beyond speech. Two more jabs and a twist and he collapsed to the ground, gulping air.
Caesar eased back, smiling. “A wise decision, Conqueror.”
The gladiator’s gaze snapped to the woman. Not just any woman. Xena. Conqueror of Greece. Destroyer of Nations. Slayer of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. And Caesar’s greatest enemy.
She was suddenly glad for the rail that supported her.
The Conqueror turned on Caesar. “Negotiations will conclude tonight, with or without a treaty. Captain Marcus, arrange payment, then escort my new slave to the ship and tell Captain Bellerophon to prepare to sail.”
And then she was gone. The gladiator stared after her, too dazed to feel cold metal clamp down on her wrists.
II AB SCYLLA AD CHARYBDIS...From a Rock to a Hard Place
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