by Tan Grimes
To read the disclaimer, return to I PARDA ROMAE.
Columns of soldiers marched through the market street, a spectacle even for a bustling town like Pella. There could be no mistaking the dragon inlays on their breastplates, no mistaking who rode the magnificent bay mare at the center of the mounted troop.
There was a time when the Conqueror enjoyed these displays. Whether they loved or hated her, all trembled when the Destroyer of Nations passed by. Gradually she stopped seeing people, just resources. The best soldier-stock to fill her depleted ranks. The richest merchants to fund her campaigns. The most skillful metalworkers to reequip her armies. The most beautiful sons and daughters to grace her bed.
But even those days were long past; now she saw only assassins. A farmer gripped his hoe more tightly. A shopkeeper ducked into a doorway and out of sight. A scullery maid reached into her robes for gods knew what. The thwip of a bowstring made her spin in the saddle. Nothing. Just the snap of a tassel in the breeze.
Fresh acid filled her guts. She hid the grimace with a scowl.
As the formation came to a halt, an older man wove through the bystanders, fastening tarnished armor as he approached her, snapped a salute. “Conqueror. Your scouts told us of your arrival.”
She didn’t bother to dismount. “Are the supplies ready?”
“Almost, Conqueror. But it’s late in the day. Surely we could host you for a night, have the supplies ready by morning?”
“Absolutely not. We have too much ground to cover before nightfall. How much longer?”
“By your will, the supplies are ready to go, but the horses…” He licked his lips as if sampling something distasteful. “There are barely enough horses in all of Pella to form your wagon train. I’ve sent off to some of the neighboring precincts for more, but not all of them have reported back.”
Cold eyes bored into him. “Your protectorate sits at the heart of the most fertile lands in Macedonia, perhaps all of Greece. You’re telling me there aren’t even twenty plow horses, mules, and donkeys within a few hours ride?” She glared at the onlookers now, ungrateful leeches, withholding from their ruler and protector—
A squeeze on her ankle. Out of the corner of her eye a tousled blonde head, one hand resting surreptitiously on her boot. She worked her jaw back and forth for a moment. “How many horses do you lack?”
Three. She looked at the townspeople, thin and apprehensive, at her guard, tired and hungry, her officers…
Immediately Joxer rode to her side. “Yes, Conqueror?”
“Give me three of your officers’ horses.”
“By your will.” In a heartbeat he dismounted, handed over the reins to his own horse before selecting two others. Those he volunteered glowered at him but grudgingly dismounted.
“How long now?”
The retired soldier took the reins, his uncertainty fading with a genuine smile. “Half a candlemark, Conqueror. Less with help.” He saluted and hurried away. Joxer barked at the dismounted soldiers, led the way after him.
Then it was just her, her guard, and a town full of nothing but trouble. Her gaze landed on one of the young officers nearby, leader of the contingent Captain Marcus insisted on sending with her. “Lieutenant Pelagios, march these men down to the river for a short rest.”
She followed the Dragons to the riverbank, continued a little further upstream until the nearest soldier was out of earshot. Only then did she dismount, slowly and with effort, still recovering her strength. Firm hands eased her down.
Gabrielle nodded, rummaged around in the saddle bags until she located a loaf of bread, broke some off for both of them.
They sat in silence, nibbling on the bread and sipping water from a bladder as they watched the river run.
“How’s the shoulder?” she asking, cringing inwardly at making small talk.
The Leopard nodded, rolling her shoulder with relative ease as proof. Not as if the Conqueror hadn’t been tracking her gladiator’s progress. She’d watched her stretch and work the shoulder when she thought no one was looking, noted fewer grimaces with each passing day.
Still, it was not the reply she hoped for. She tried a different tack. “You think they’ll make it safely back to Amazon lands?”
The trireme had hardly pushed sand before the queen and her regent left the landing beach in haste. Some part of her did wonder if all the effort had been for nothing, if some overzealous bounty hunter might try to cash in on a reward he didn’t know no longer existed.
The Leopard stared into the river. After some consideration, she shrugged.
Precious moments ticked by. The Conqueror sighed. “Are you going to say anything?”
The slave’s gaze dropped, her expression opaque. Since the landing in Macedonia, she’d been particularly withdrawn, the hand to her heel being their first communication all day. Even now the slave seemed not to have heard her. At the brush of the back of her hand against the muscled forearm, the Leopard blinked, drawn out of her thoughts. “Like what?” she husked.
“Don’t know. Don’t care. I just…miss talking to you.”
The admission stung, as if saying it out loud gave it substance, gave the slave even more power than she already had. But the warlord couldn’t deny the truth of it. A day of hectic preparation and two days’ travel crammed on the open deck of a tiny trireme with a hundred crack soldiers afforded no privacy. Though they’d been together every moment of every day, she ached for the gladiator’s company.
“I think they’ll make it back.” The slave pulled her knees to her chest, resumed her survey of the water. A sinking sun bounced off the rippling surface of the water, stippled her face with light. “Is this the Axios River?”
The question surprised her, but she nodded. “Why?”
Gabrielle shrugged. But after a few moments, words began tumbling out. “Long ago the god of this river, Axios, had a grandson named Asteropaios, a gifted warrior who could fight just as well with his left hand as his right. He could even throw two spears at once with deadly accuracy. Unfortunately, Asteropaios had just arrived in Troy for a visit when Agememnon’s thousand ships lay siege to it.
“When Patroclus died by Hector’s hand, Achilles flew into a rage, slaughtering Trojans left and right and throwing the bodies of the slain into the river Scamander, so many that the river choked on the corpses. The river god begged his brother Axios’ grandson to put a stop to it. Amidst the panic of Achilles’ assault, Asteropaios alone made a stand, throwing two spears. While the great Achilles deflected one with his shield, the other grazed his arm. Axios’ grandson was the only warrior in all of the Trojan war to draw blood from Achilles. But in the end, Achilles killed him, too. Enraged, Scamander flooded over his banks and almost drowned Achilles, but just at the moment of his triumph, the god Hephaestus interfered and dried up the river with a single massive flame.”
The gladiator lapsed back into silence. The Conqueror stared at her, as she had almost from the moment the story began. Finally she found her voice. “Where did that come from?”
Her slave flushed crimson. “Just a story I heard once.”
Once? The woman had the memory of Kronos.
She glanced up, embarrassed. “Did you like it?”
The warlord thought about it. “Well, your storytelling skills are atrocious. The ending is abrupt, anticlimactic, and completely unsatisfying. But it’s got rage, vengeance, lots of fighting…yeah, I liked it. Was there a point?”
“No, not really.” She stared at the river, eyes unfocused. The Conqueror thought her gone again, but in time she spoke. “Asteropaios fought out of a sense of duty to his family, where Achilles fought out of his love for Patroclus. And Achilles was killed in the end by Paris, who fought out of love for Helen and Hector and all of Troy. Love was the deciding force. So yeah, I’d say the point was, ‘If you have to fight, fight for love.’”
The Conqueror laughed. When the slave glared at her, she wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “No, it’s good. You just surprise me, that’s all. I never figured you for a romantic.”
“I’m not,” the Leopard gruffed. She’d clearly struck a nerve, though, and the conversation ended just as suddenly as it began.
She couldn’t stand it anymore. “Alright, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” murmured the gladiator.
“Then why the sullen look?”
The Leopard pulled at the grass, eyes down, reluctant to answer. “Xena, you shouldn’t be seen talking with a slave.”
She leaned back, smarting from the slave’s distance. “Who’s looking that dares question what I do?”
“Your guard. The people of Pella. The First Army. The Romans. Especially the Romans.”
“There are no Romans here.”
“You don’t know that. There could be spies here, scouts. If we don’t meet them here we certainly will later. You said you can’t let people think a slave influences the Conqueror’s decisions.”
Her hackles raised at the words thrown back in her face. “I’m the Conqueror. I can do as I please.”
“You can’t look weak. Especially not now when you’re not at your strongest. Not in front of a Roman general and his men, who already think a woman leading an army is a joke, much less a woman leading a country.”
The Conqueror’s face went flat, a warning to anyone who knew her. “You calling my leadership a joke?”
The Leopard bit back exasperation. “You know I’m not. But they have no respect for softness or compassion. They consider them weaknesses to be exploited—”
“Don’t lecture me on Roman values. You’re not the only one with a harsh education, remember?” Angry as she was, her voice remained unusually even. To her surprise, the gladiator’s mouth snapped shut, the fight gone from her eyes.
“I’m…worried, that’s all.”
Worried nothing. Keen ears heard the quiver in her voice, sharp eyes detected the shake in her fidgeting hands. The Leopard had spoken of fear only once before. “That’s what this is about? The Romans? Gabrielle, I will never let them harm one hair on your head.”
The Leopard winced. “I’m more concerned about the hairs on your head. Why are you doing this? What difference will a hundred men make against eight thousand legionnaires?”
“A hundred men and the most famed warrior Macedonia’s seen since Alexander,” she corrected, smirking.
“Xena,” the Leopard growled. “Right now you look like a walking corpse. Not very intimidating.”
“I know what I look like. But I don’t have to intimidate eight thousand men. I only have to intimidate one Roman general.”
The gladiator thought it over. “Then make it convincing. Chain me. I’m sure as Hades not wearing this collar to keep my neck warm.”
Her brow furrowed. “Now? We’re at least a week’s march away.”
“And Caesar has eyes everywhere, and I haven’t killed you yet.” The sage eyes glittered, bright and fanatical. “Bind me, or so help me Ares I will try to kill you again.”
And under the threat she heard it, the tremor of desperation, and suddenly understood. “You’re afraid you’ll actually succeed.”
In the Leopard’s eyes she found real pain. “You asked me once if I would kill you. I didn’t answer because I didn’t know. And I don’t ever want to find out. Don’t make me find out. Please,” she whispered, offering her wrists.
The warlord studied her face, searching for that tiny glimmer of something—respect? love?—that had always kept the gladiator from doing her harm. She found it, even under that wild look. The Leopard had become her companion, her confidant. The loneliness of the last three days convinced her she didn’t want to go back to the way things were. “No. We’ll think of another way.”
“What other way? You want me to stay. I want you to live.”
“Promise me you won’t—”
“I can’t.” Emotion choked her. “I can’t.”
The warlord was at a loss. “Why? I don’t understand.”
The Leopard’s resolve faltered. With the right words she might abandon this madness, if only the Conqueror were any good at pleading her case. “Don’t do this, Gabrielle. Just talk to me. Make me understand. What hold does Caesar have on you that could convince you to hurt me?”
The slave opened her mouth, shut it again helplessly. Xena cursed herself for not asking before, had simply assumed she’d murdered for her master because she had no choice, facing punishment or death under his tight control. But here, thousands of leagues away? The Leopard hated Caesar almost as much as she did. What could compel her to do his bidding so far removed?
“You’re frightened, I get that. But whatever he’s done, we can undo.”
The warlord reached out reassuringly but the move drove the Leopard back, jaw set. “Choose, Xena.” She took another step back. “Restrain me or let me go.” She waited for a moment, two. The Conqueror stared at her in disbelief.
The slave bolted.
She gaped, watched her leap into the river, slog into the deeper water before the current swept her off her feet and carried her away.
Restrain me or let me go.
The blond head dipped, broke the surface again with a gasp, arms paddling frantically.
“Dragons!” the Conqueror boomed. “Stop that slave!”
She didn’t wait to see what they did, flung herself on the mare’s back with a strength she hadn’t felt in days. By the time she wheeled around, guards were already wading in to intercept the gladiator. The first two missed her flailing form; the third caught her wrist as she went under. By the time her mount waded in two men hauled her toward the shallows. The gladiator stumbled, half-jerked one of them off his feet trying to catch herself. He swore, lay a punch across her temple; the Conqueror held back the urge to kick him in the teeth. Finally they stood before her, the Leopard’s arms wrenched behind her back, her face set against the pain, sputtering river water. The Conqueror glared at her, truly angry. Moments dragged into minutes. One of the guards finally coughed, waiting for acknowledgement to speak. “Shall we brand her, Conqueror?”
She thought about it, let the slave think about it, too. Finally she shook her head. “No, she wasn’t running away. She was…confused. Isn’t that right, slave?”
Slowly the slave nodded.
She reached into her saddlebags, tossed them the shackles. When they handed the leash back to her, it took effort to resist yanking the gladiator onto her knees. Instead she wheeled around and rode back toward town, forcing the slave to jog to keep up.
“That was particularly stupid,” she hissed to the air when they were out of earshot. “You could have drowned.”
“I knew you’d come for me,” choked the slave between coughs and shivers.
The Conqueror shook her head, frustrated, loathing the role her gladiator asked her to portray. “You want to play slave to fool Caesar’s spies? Fine. When I treat you like one, remember it was your choice, not mine.”
The column ground to a stop, an almost audible sigh of relief rippling through the ranks. The tired gladiator stumbled to a standstill, raised her head to take in the small buildings of a village surrounding them. The Conqueror slid off her horse heavily and followed Captain Joxer into the only inn on the dark empty street.
The Leopard desperately wanted to sit, or kneel, or lay down. Instead she locked her sore legs and closed her eyes, slipped willingly back into the half-doze she’d perfected over the last seven days.
The captain’s voice woke her. He barked orders at the guard, sent them scattering in a buzz of activity like flies from a carcass. She watched her old escort, waited for his orders, but he passed by without a glance. Soon the street was almost deserted but for the bay and the slave leashed to her saddle. Her owner was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey, you,” barked a boy of hardly a dozen summers. He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “The stables are this way.”
She cocked her head, some heat rising in her eyes. But the boy didn’t know any better, waited to show her the way. With a deep breath she pushed back on the ache squeezing her eyeballs, gathered the horse’s reins and ambled after him.
Not that she knew the first thing about taking care of horses, a fact which quickly became apparent. The boy pushed past her, showed her how to remove the tack before handing her a brush. That she could do. The boy left, came back with feed for the horse.
“What are you? Some sort of Roman spy? Is that why you’re in chains?” The boy eyed the manacles, the length of heavy links from collar to saddle horn, the red tunic and leather cuirass and war skirt and cropped hair. Denying it would only lead to more questions. She shrugged instead.
Of course, boys like him never lacked for questions. “You belong to the Conqueror, don’t you? Did she capture you?”
The gladiator smirked, but nodded.
“Did she cut out your tongue and feed it to the crows?”
She shuddered, remembering the little black monsters playing tug of war at her sister’s dangling feet, dodging the steady drip, drip, drip from her chin. Her eyebrows knitted at the morbid boy. She shook her head, showed him her tongue as proof.
“You’re lucky she didn’t kill you. Have you ever seen her kill people?”
Solemnly she shook her head.
“They die horrible deaths.” He couldn’t quite contain his excitement, climbed up on the rail as she brushed to watch her imperiously. “I’ve seen her before, you know. A few years back, during the war, her army came to kill the Romans. She came back from battle covered in blood, so much blood that my uncle said she must have been wounded. She wasn’t though. It was all blood of the soldiers she’d killed. She’s amazing. I once heard a bard call her the Warrior Princess.”
The gladiator stopped brushing.
“That’s a neat name, huh? Maybe someday when I’ve joined her army she’ll teach me how to be a great swordsman and then people will call me the Warrior Prince.”
She barely heard him, strained her eyes looking out the window into the darkness.
“I think that’s a fine idea.”
They both jumped at the silhouette in the doorway.
“Thanks for minding my prisoner, boy. I thought she might have wandered off.” The Conqueror collected the slave’s leash, led her out of the stables back toward the inn. He quickly caught up with them, fell in step beside his Warrior Princess.
“Did you catch her up by the canyon?” he asked her, gesturing with his chin back toward the Leopard. “That’s where I saw them yesterday.”
“Is that so?” Her tone remained bland, but the gladiator detected a note of interest.
“Pellas! I’m sorry, Conqueror…” At the sight of the innkeeper the slave faltered mid-step, stared hard at the ground, hiding her face under dirt and grit and rough-cut bangs as they stepped past him, not daring to glance back until they made their way up squeaky wooden stairs. The innkeeper wasn’t watching, too busy swatting at the boy and sending him running off to bed.
The warlord led her to a sparse room, hardly big enough for a narrow bed and a small table with a basin and pitcher. She had to press herself against the wall for the Conqueror to squeeze past her to shut the door; there was barely enough space on the floor for a body to lie down.
Immediately Xena produced the key to the chain attached to the slave’s collar. “Did you think I’d forgotten you?”
The slave’s eyes slid closed, savoring the lack of weight on her neck and back. “I’d wondered.”
The manacles came off and the warlord held her wrists up to the light, examining them for sores and bruising.
“You didn’t mention we were stopping in Scupi.” She tried to keep her tone light.
The Conqueror shrugged. “There’s nowhere else this far north. You know the innkeeper?”
So she’d noticed her fumble. The Leopard rubbed her wrists, as much from the past as now. Her owner watched her, waiting. Reluctantly, “His brother ran the inn back then. He let me tell stories in the tavern to pay for a room.”
“Let me guess,” the Conqueror supplied. “Stories about a so-called Warrior Princess.”
The slave flushed, pushed on. “I’d been in town less than a week when a traveler said Roman troops were massing in Illyria and Dacia. The locals got nervous. I said that was ridiculous, Caesar wouldn’t risk the wrath of the Conqueror by putting an army on her border. Of course, no one knew you’d already invaded Egypt.”
The Conqueror’s eyes remained hooded as she stripped off her armor. “And then?”
The slave took it from her, wariness lurking in her look. “You know this story already.”
“Yes, but your first telling was a little light on details.” Again that smile, the one that said the Conqueror would get her to talk eventually.
She sighed. “Men entered the tavern one night, that man downstairs leading them. They said a Roman legion was marching straight for the village. The people started to panic. I told them the Conqueror was coming, if they could just hold off the Romans—”
“Hold off the Romans? A hundred farmers against four thousand veteran legionnaires?”
“I didn’t know how many men they had,” she said quietly. “And it doesn’t matter. As soon as I suggested it, the men turned on me, called me a spy for the Conqueror. The innkeeper’s brother told everyone they might spare the village if they surrendered and gave the Romans something valuable. I was still trying to figure out what he meant when they grabbed me.”
The Conqueror chuckled. “I bet you cracked a few heads.”
The woman shrugged. “I was a farm girl from Poteidaia. Just because I’d gotten a lucky hit on Callisto didn’t mean I knew how to fight. I tried to reason with them, tell them I didn’t know you from Medusa and wouldn’t be of any interest to the Romans. They didn’t believe me, called me the Conqueror’s whore for spreading your lies.” It still affected her, the telling of it; her hands shook as she worked the ties of the Conqueror’s bracers. “I remember being pushed into the street, crushed in the press of bodies, so many hands clawing at my hair and clothes and skin, pulling in every direction so I felt I was being torn apart, getting screamed at by the same people I’d spent my nights entertaining—”
A knock at the door silenced her. “What is it?” snapped the Conqueror.
“Soup from the kitchen, Conqueror.”
The innkeeper. They exchanged looks, hers tense, the warlord’s questioning. Reluctantly the slave opened the door.
The innkeeper stood there, holding a sizeable bowl. “I brought you…oh.” He looked right through her. “Conqueror, your captain asked me to bring you some supper.”
She stepped up to the door. “Taste it.” Automatically the slave reached for the bowl. A hand stopped her, and a look at her owner found her gazing at the innkeeper, smiling dangerously. “If you would be so kind.”
“Of course,” he sputtered, immediately ate a spoonful.
She nodded, turned away as the slave took the bowl and shut the door. She stood there a long moment, trying to wrap her thoughts around what just happened. A whisper from her lips, so soft even her own ears couldn’t hear.
The Conqueror’s ears didn’t miss it. “Come again?” she asked, sitting down on the narrow bed, her fingers attacking the laces of her boots.
She cleared her throat, forced past the lump in it, “He didn’t even recognize me.”
“The bard he knew probably looked a lot different.”
The bard. She hadn’t earned the right to call herself that. She nodded distantly. “I had longer hair then. Wore more clothes. Talked too much. Still…”
The Conqueror‘s voice was gentle. “He probably doesn’t even remember it.”
The heart thumping in her chest skipped a beat. “How could he not remember destroying my life?”
The warrior stilled, forced herself to look the slave in the eye. “I’ve destroyed thousands of lives. Trust me. All he remembers is that nothing they tried stopped the Roman army from attacking his village.”
A heat rushed through the gladiator, an anger so pure it turned her stomach. “No. He’ll remember it. I’ll make him remember it. Every punch, every kick, every curse—don’t—”
She shook off the arms that snaked around her, scraped against skin gone strangely raw. The arms returned, remarkably persistent for their lack of strength. The whole affair might have degenerated into a wrestling match if not for the bowl of soup in her hands. She held it still, near to crushing it in her fierce grip. Ice seared though her chest, made her grit her teeth against the urge to scream, made her eyes sting with emotion.
Humming in her ears. “He played Fate’s part. He brought you to me. Let it go.”
She felt like an old skin on a drum, stretched to the point of tearing. The warlord held her tight, held her together, kept her from flying apart. She stopped fighting, drew long jagged breaths. She hadn’t accepted it. Wouldn’t accept it. But she’d never been able to hold on to that kind of rage. It exhausted her, left her feeling empty. She slumped against the chest, lay her head on the sharp collarbone, let the arms squeeze her like she hadn’t been squeezed in…ever.
The Conqueror cleared her throat. “My soup’s getting cold.”
She opened her eyes, staring into depths of the bowl, unwilling to look up. “Why did you do that?”
“Do what?” said the Conqueror nonchalantly, dropping back to the bed.
“That. Just now. That—” holding, consoling “—arm thing.”
One boot dropped to the floor. “I felt like it. You have a problem with that?”
Automatically she shook her head no, even though she wanted to say yes. That it got harder every day to remember her place. That it took chains to remind her that the woman on the other end thought of her as…she didn’t know what. Property? A pet? Another soul to fight and die for her? No, there was something else there, some softness and vulnerability she didn’t reveal to anyone else. But she didn’t dare delve deeper than that. She’d already crossed that line once, gotten hurt thinking the Conqueror considered her anything more.
You are not free!
The scar under her collar bone twitched. She rolled her shoulders to loosen it, started to hand over the soup, pulled it back. “I thought I’m supposed to taste your food.”
“I’ve changed my mind.”
Blue eyes pierced through her. “He’s replaceable.”
You’re not. A smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. She wiped it off, made a point of sampling the soup anyway before handing it over. As she turned her attention to the buckles of her own armor, she counted surreptitiously the number of bites the Conqueror took without prompting. Nine, when Xena put the bowl aside. An improvement.
“C’mere.” The warlord waved her over, and she realized she’d been straining to reach the buckle under her still stiff shoulder. She presented it to her owner, exhaled when the thick stiff leather lifted from her shoulders.
“Finish that, would you? The smell’s making me sick.” She gestured at the bowl as she lay down, closed her eyes.
Another of the many kindnesses the Conqueror showed her slave these last few days, hidden under a thick layer of gruffness. The Leopard finished stripping her boots and warskirt, turned on the soup. It hit her constricted stomach like a fist, and she hardly ate more than the Conqueror before she felt full. Didn’t matter. She forced it down. Feeding her slave had hardly been the Conqueror’s first priority, just a few scraps here and there. Who knew when she might get another meal?
When the bowl was scraped clean, she blew out the oil lamp and settled on the floor, her boots braced against the door and intruders. The wooden floorboards weren’t particularly comfortable, but it beat sleeping in her armor on rocks under the cold stars.
“Gabrielle?” The warlord’s voice muffled against the wall.
“What are you doing?”
She thought that one over, opted for the most obvious answer. “Guarding the door.”
“Put the washstand against the door and come up here.”
She scrambled for an explanation. “The washstand isn’t very sturdy. I would feel better if—”
“Are you afraid to share the bed with me?”
The question threw her. “I—no, of course not.”
“Do you think I’d force myself on you like your previous owners?”
Her mouth went dry. “I wouldn’t presume to know what you would do.” She immediately regretted it, a spineless answer to a straightforward question. Xena’s silence confirmed as much. She sighed, absently kneaded the scar where the arrow pierced her back, tried to work some pliancy back into the stiff muscle. “I don’t think you would, no,” she finally answered. “But I’ve been wrong before.”
No answer. She bit her thrice-cursed tongue for that last bit.
The wood slats of the bed creaked as Conqueror shifted. “I find your presence…comforting,” she said. “Nothing more. But no one is forced into the Conqueror’s bed. For any reason.” She rolled away again, discussion closed, but slow deliberate breaths signaled she was nowhere near sleep.
Neither was the gladiator. She lay in the dark, eyes open, staring at nothing but the underside of her own dark ugly fears.
She, like the Conqueror, didn’t like admitting weakness. But once exposed, she knew only one way to deal with it.
With the stand pushed up against the door, armor piled around it, and the Conqueror’s sword wedged behind the latch bar, she climbed under the covers. She couldn’t quite bring herself to press her body against the larger woman’s, but she lay one arm on the woman’s hip and leg reassuringly. That seemed to please the Conqueror, who settled deeper into the lumpy pallet.
“Xena?” she ventured.
“I’ve been thinking about Bellerophon.”
The Conqueror said nothing, but the Leopard could tell by her measured breaths she wasn’t asleep.
“Terreis swore she didn’t send the first assassin. Maybe he sent her. To keep you off balance, isolated.”
“Or maybe he just didn’t like Amazons, knew me well enough to know an Amazon assassin would lead to their near extermination.”
“Why didn’t you? Exterminate them, I mean. You could have.”
No answer. The gladiator waited as long as she dared before she shrugged. “It’s not important. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“Yes you did.”
She held her breath, unable to tell if she was in trouble.
“There are lots of reasons, I guess. Most of them none of your business. The one that matters? I didn’t want to exterminate them. In my gut, I knew Terreis told the truth. I didn’t want it to be the truth. I had every reason to think it wasn’t the truth. But it was.”
The gladiator followed the thread. “You couldn’t figure a way out of it. That’s why you kept her locked up. The Conqueror can’t be wrong.”
“Something like that,” the warlord mumbled.
“So why’d you let her go then? Aren’t you worried the people might rebel if they think you’ve gone soft?”
“You tell me. You like to speak for Greece. Won’t they welcome with open arms this new benevolent Conqueror?” The bitterness in her tone said she thought otherwise.
The slave chewed on her lip. “I find most people treat others as they are treated,” she offered hopefully.
And if half the horror stories of the warlord’s conquests were true, that didn’t bode well for either of them.
“We executed delaying tactics here, here, and here.” A thick calloused finger stabbed at passes and valleys on the map. “We suffered nineteen killed, thirty-one wounded. Scouts estimate their losses at one hundred twenty killed, more than three hundred wounded.”
The Conqueror smiled. “Well done, General.”
Marmax nodded at the rare compliment. But he wasn’t proud of their accomplishment. “Two weeks’ retreat is hard on morale. I’m glad you’re here. I know the men are eager to go toe-to-toe with these Roman dogs.” By the veteran’s tone, he shared their sentiment.
“Soon, General. They still outnumber us almost three to two. Send a messenger to the Roman general. Tell him you want to meet to discuss what will convince him to leave Greek soil.”
“Let’s hope he’s so easily dissuaded. No, I want to see his face. I want to know who I’m dealing with, and I want him to know who he’s dealing with.”
A grin made him look ten years younger. “By your will, Conqueror.”
She stepped away from the rock-turned-war table, watched without interfering as he set his men into motion. The messenger mounted up and rode out of the low forest, across the high mountain valley toward the tiny specks that floated in and out of the early morning mist.
By midday they had their answer.
She toed the slave where she rested against a tree. “Get up. We’re going.” As the Leopard stood she threw a heavy cloak over her shoulders and mounted up, reached a manacled wrist down to grab her slave’s forearm and swing her onto the horse’s rump behind her. Strong arms wrapped around her middle. She slammed a common soldier’s helmet down on her head, signaled General Marmax and his men to lead the way.
Roman officers met them in the shallow valley between their two armies, eased to a stop well beyond bowshot. For a long minute no one moved. The Conqueror eyed them all in turn, saving the one with the gaudiest armor and plumage for last. Not ostentatious enough to be Caesar himself. She felt vaguely disappointed.
“What’s this about then?” barked one of the officers, a tribune by the stripes on his tunic.
“I am General Marmax, commander of the Conqueror’s First Army.”
“We know who you are,” the tribune sneered. “What is the point of this meeting?”
Marmax cut the young nobleman a weathered scowl. “Rome has violated the terms of the Dyrrachium Treaty by crossing into Macedonia. I’m here to discuss with your general the terms of his withdrawal.”
A chuckle rippled through the assembly, low and ugly.
“What terms do you suggest?” came the steady voice from the well-armored man at the back of the group. From under the plumed helmet, small dark eyes drilled into Marmax.
“Immediate withdrawal of all Roman units to territories north and west of the Drilo and Drinus Rivers. In return, I put in my report to the Conqueror that this was all just a matter of poor orienteering and recommend against declaring war and counter-invading.”
“All very sensible,” the Roman replied. “We are sensible men. Unfortunately for you and I, those we take orders from do not share our sensibilities. Especially your Conqueror. I am obliged to say no.”
“That would be a mistake.” The warlord removed her helmet, waited for them to recognize who sat among them.
The general took her in, the small blonde figure behind her. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Conqueror.” Like Caesar, his voice and eyes did not reinforce his words. But she detected in his tone no derision. Only politeness, and perhaps faint respect. Or at least determination not to underestimate her. He rose in his saddle slightly, offered a stiff bow. “I am Marcus Junius Brutus, commander of these legions.”
The body at her back tensed, craned around her for a better look.
She cocked her head at him. “Brutus? Not the same Brutus who sacked Scupi?”
“You’ll address him as General Brutus.”
She ignored the mouthy tribune. “Then you’ll recognize my prize, General.” She reached back, shoved the gladiator off the horse unceremoniously. “You two know each other, am I right?”
The slave hauled herself to her feet, her head bowed. The general stared at her, eyes wide.
The Conqueror jerked on the leash, grabbed the collar and wrenched until the gladiator looked up. “I asked you a question, slave. Do you know our esteemed general?”
She already knew the Leopard would nod her head. What interested her was the look in her eye. Anger. Resentment. At her or Brutus, she couldn’t be sure.
“I understand she was once your slave, Brutus. Quite the ornery thing. Was she this combative in your bed?”
The gladiator squirmed. Whether she played along or truly resisted the painful twisting of her collar, her actions made Brutus straighten in his saddle, the corners of his mouth hinting at a scowl.
“Caesar told me you’d purchased her.” He eyed her manhandling the Leopard. “I didn’t realize you’d become so attached.”
“She amuses me. I like to watch her fight.” The Conqueror gave the collar a tug, drawing the squirming gladiator up on the tips of her toes, making a show of enjoying the slave’s struggles. “I can imagine what you liked about her.” Impulsively she leaned down in the saddle, covered the gladiator’s mouth with her own.
The Leopard froze, startled, unable to respond as their lips pressed harder together.
“Fight me,” the warlord breathed into her mouth.
Long moments of bewilderment. Then a fist connected solidly with her temple. She forced out a throaty laugh even as spots swam in her eyes. Gods, the woman packed a punch. When she focused on Brutus again, his cheeks glowed red, and not from embarrassment. Time to get to the point. “So Caesar’s sent you on a fool’s errand in Greece’s no man’s land. What a waste of talent.”
Brutus squared his chin. “Such is the lot of a soldier, to play fool to his commander. Isn’t that right, General Marmax?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Marmax gruffed.
“Turn back now, Brutus,” she warned. “Many more good men will die if you don’t.”
“My men aren’t afraid of death,” he boasted.
“That’s good,” she agreed. “Because my men aren’t afraid to kill them.”
She spun away, rode back to the edge of the valley, the chained Leopard scrambling to keep up. It took a great deal of discipline to rein her horse in, keep him from dragging the gladiator off her feet.
She brought the bay to a walk once they were hidden in the trees. Marmax caught up with them, chuckling. “Did you see the look on their faces? How did you ever acquire Brutus’s old slave?”
“How indeed.” That Caesar sent this general to lead his invasion didn’t strike her as coincidence. As the heat of the moment faded, concern and uncertainty seeped in. She glanced over her shoulder. The gladiator seemed to be holding up well enough. A little glassy-eyed, perhaps.
“He didn’t seem overly concerned about your presence, Conqueror.”
She pursed her lips. “That’s because he knows something we don’t know.”
“Or he doesn’t realize who he’s dealing with.”
She pictured the look on the general’s face when he spoke of the Conqueror. “Oh, he realizes. I’m pretty sure of that. But he doesn’t strike me as the sneaky type. He’s honorable enough. He’ll stick to standard Roman battle tactics so long as he has superior numbers.”
“Shall we convince him otherwise?”
She smiled as they rode back into camp, dismounted at the makeshift war table. “We’ll start tonight. My guards will light extra fires all along these hills—”
The general cleared his throat. “You really are fond of that slave, aren’t you?”
She looked at him quizzically, remembered the gladiator at the end of the leash she held. “Is there a problem, General?”
He chuckled, held up his hands. “No, Conqueror. You just used to be more selective about who you kept around when you discussed strategy.” It was Marmax at his most disarming. His tone held no criticism, just observation. And if he observed enough to say something…
“Captain Joxer!” He jogged over, saluted smartly. “Take this slave back to my tent and keep an eye on her. Send Lieutenant Pelagios to fill in for you.”
He hesitated a moment, snapped his mouth shut and nodded tersely. “By your will.” Disappointment clouded his eyes, but he was soldier enough to follow orders, even unpopular ones.
By the time the Conqueror left Marmax to finish preparations, Helios had long retired below the mountaintops. She started for her tent, stopped. The gladiator. The kiss. A warmth crept into her cheeks, her lips. Not ready to face the gladiator, she spun on her heel, headed toward the perimeter.
Through the canopy filtered the orange glow of scores of campfires, so many it was a wonder they didn’t set the forest aflame. From Brutus’ vantage point it must look as if the whole south end of the valley were full of Greek soldiers.
As if on cue, Pelagios emerged from the brush ahead.
He nodded, caught his breath from running. “Three hundred campfires. The men will be roused for assembly before dawn.”
“And the cavalry?”
“They’ll be joining me on the eastern ridge. We move on your signal.”
“And not a moment before. A lot rests on you, Lieutenant. Make Captain Marcus proud.”
“I will, Conqueror.” He smiled and saluted, jogged on to the next campsite.
She delayed as long as she could, speaking with soldiers she barely knew, checking on preparations better left to the men and women performing them.
Finally she turned, made her way through the maze of trees back to the simple tent near the center of camp. As she put her hand to the tent flap, quiet voices reached her ears.
“…She trusts you. She wouldn’t have promoted you if she didn’t.”
A grunt. “Captain of the Second Dragon Guard, and I still get escort duty.”
“Maybe I’m wrong, but from her I think that’s a compliment.”
“Escorting you versus planning a battle? Right.”
“Joxer, how many soldiers have discussed battle strategies with the Conqueror?”
“Fewer than a dozen, by my count.”
“And how many soldiers have been assigned to escort me?”
A sigh. “One.”
“Two, actually, but I broke Bellerophon’s nose, remember?”
A snort, quickly contained. He didn’t argue any further.
The Conqueror took two composing breaths, parted the flap.
The captain shot to his feet when she stepped in. The slave rose more slowly at the sight of her owner, her leash and manacles heaped in the floor nearby.
Her eyes darted between them. “Captain, come with me.”
She led him outside, walked far enough away where she could still see the tent but wouldn’t be overheard by its occupant. “I have a task for you. You’re not going to like it.”
He steeled himself. “Anything, Conqueror.”
“Tomorrow, your sole duty is to protect the Leopard.”
Predictably his enthusiasm waned. “As you wish, Conqueror. But you’ll be there; I hardly think—”
“No. She’s not coming with me.”
His brow furrowed. “That may be difficult. She fully expects to be fighting at your side.”
“All the more reason I need you to do this. I can’t be distracted tomorrow worrying if she’s alright. I don’t care if you have to knock her out, just keep her here until I return. And if things go badly, Athena forbid—”
He shook his head. “Conqueror, I won’t leave you behind.”
“Yes you will. My last order is to get her as far away from Rome as you can. If I don’t come back tomorrow, I know you, of all my guards, will do this for me.”
He stared hard at her, torn. Finally he dropped his gaze. “By your will, Conqueror. As always.”
She clapped him on the shoulder. “Be waiting outside my tent tomorrow before dawn.”
He nodded, snapped a salute.
When she returned she found the Leopard pacing, a motion that stopped when she entered. The Conqueror stripped her greaves and breastplate, tossed the pieces next to the slave’s restraints. “You gonna take that armor off?”
“Depends. How early are we heading out?”
Guilt washed through her. She wanted to say something, knew the gladiator would argue or, worse yet, do something rash. “Dawn.” She busied herself with the knots of her bracers, not turning around for fear the Leopard might see though the lie.
Moments passed, enough to make her nervous. “I’ll keep it on,” decided the Leopard. “I don’t want to slow us down. Did you eat?”
“Yes.” Again she didn’t turn.
“No you didn’t. The Captain brought us some porridge.”
She peered at the slave. “What makes you think I’m lying?”
The gladiator sighed. “I can see your belly button rubbing up against your backbone from here. Take it. It’s good boring army fare.”
She pressed the bowl into the Conqueror’s hands, took her own heaping bowl to the other side of the tent and attacked it with her usual fervor.
Xena pushed the mushy meal around, finally braved a bite. When her stomach didn’t clench, she downed another spoonful with more confidence.
“So this Brutus…what exactly did you do for him?”
The Leopard paused mid-bite, wary. “I told you. I entertained him with stories, offered counsel when he needed it.”
“He never took you to his bed?”
The gladiator fixed her with a cold stare. “I didn’t fuck him, if that’s what you want to know.”
The warlord frowned. “It’s not. He just seemed…protective of you.”
A grunt as she shoved another bite in. “So protective he sold me.”
So the wounds still stung. She nodded. “He made a mistake. Maybe he realizes that. You yourself said Caesar lied to him.”
“He could have trusted me. I never told him anything thing but truth.”
The warlord sighed. “Sometimes the truth is less convincing than a lie.” She tried to imagine a younger version of the woman, trusting and spirited and strong-willed. If the Leopard was this much of a handful after four years as a slave, the Conqueror could only imagine how much trouble she’d been to her first owner.
“What’s so funny?” the Leopard groused.
“Nothing,” she murmured, trying to straighten out the unintentional smile. “He just didn’t understand you. Look how long it’s taken me to understand you.”
“You understand me?” A little challenge echoed in her smirk.
“Well, not completely, but…Yeah, I think I’ve got a fairly good grasp of what goes on inside the untamable Leopard’s head.”
“And what am I thinking now?”
She grinned. “You’re thinking, ‘This arrogant woman knows nothing about me.’”
The gladiator scowled. “Too easy. What was I thinking when you kissed me?”
The grin froze on her face. What was the slave thinking? Gods, she didn’t even know what she herself was thinking. She conjured up the memory, the absolute stillness of that moment. “You were thinking…How far is she going to take this? If I weren’t scared stiff right now, would I actually enjoy it?”
The gladiator's smirk faded and color rose in her cheeks, filled up to her forehead so that a vein popped out across her temple. Her empty bowl and spoon clattered to the rug and she lurched to her feet, bolted blindly for the tent flap.
“Gabrielle, wait!” She caught the Leopard’s arm, spun her around, wasn’t prepared for the fist that followed. Twice in one day the gladiator made her see stars. She didn’t let go.
“Did you enjoy it? Taking what wasn’t freely given?” The slave’s voice barely cracked above a whisper.
Her chest ached. “Gabrielle…I didn’t mean to hurt you, then or now. I just wanted to see his reaction. I didn’t think you would…” What? React badly? The slave who nervously shared her bed? “I didn’t think.”
They stood like that, eyes locked, angry versus apologetic. Finally the Leopard pulled her arm free, eyes still bright. “And you call me the stupid one.”
“You’re right. I was stupid, I should have known better…” Words poured out of her, strange words the Conqueror would never utter. Xena didn’t care. “I have no idea what you were thinking. Probably something like, ‘When I get this insensitive bitch alone tonight I’m gonna pummel her.’”
“You got that right.” But her words seemed to knock some fire out of the gladiator, and after a moment she turned around, crossed the tent to the saddle bags dumped next to the cot. She returned with a salve, smeared it on the still throbbing cheek. “I’d do the other side, but you’ve already got a black eye.”
She’d forgotten. Figures no one would say anything about it. “It’s fine. Thanks.”
The ointment went back in its place and the slave collected the bowls, both empty. The Conqueror moved to the bed, her heart still hammering. Gods, what an ass she could be. And tomorrow… “Gabrielle—”
“I know. It’s too small.” She eyed the narrow cot, barely wide enough for the Conqueror’s broad shoulders. “I made a pallet over here for me.” Shyly, “For us, if you want.”
Their first night of privacy since Scupi. Just the thought of it made her skin ache for contact. She closed her eyes, forced the thought back. “It’s not that. I just need to tell you—you’re not going to like this—I think it’s best if you…if you…” Stay here while I ride into battle. I can’t bear the thought of something happening to you. A deep breath. “If you stay chained up tonight. In case someone walks in.”
Pale eyebrows knitted, concerned. “Are you expecting someone?”
She collected the manacles. “Brutus may try something during the night. Or I might need to make some last minute changes.”
The gladiator presented her wrists, an act of trust even if her eyes held questions. The Conqueror gestured her over to the center pole propping up the tent, fastened her arms in front of her around the wooden post. She dragged the pallet to the pole, turned away from the Leopard’s unsettling gaze to blow out the candles and climb into bed. Chains chimed softly as the slave arranged herself on the pallet, then quiet. The sounds of the army drifted around them, whispers, snores, the ring of sharpening stone against blade. The tent walls transmitted the light of dozens of campfires, far too bright to sleep.
“Did you notice you ate all your food? Your appetite’s coming back.”
“Um-hmm.” In truth she hadn’t, too wrapped up in other worries to notice.
“Are you nervous? About tomorrow?”
Nervous? Familiar sensations fluttered under her skin, made her palms ache to have both sword and enemy in her grasp. “No, not nervous. Excited. You?”
“A little,” the voice confessed. “I don’t do well in crowds.”
An ache dulled her enthusiasm. “Don’t worry about tomorrow. You’ll be fine.” One way or another.
She startled awake. The tent walls, long dark, bloomed with the faintest hint of dawn, a fact she only recognized by the silhouette it outlined. The Conqueror sat up straight on the edge of the cot, unmoving. Looking at her.
“What’s wrong?” She sat up, suddenly alert.
“Nothing,” the warlord husked. “Go back to sleep.” Beyond the tent, a bridle jangled with the shake of a horse’s head.
“What’s going on? Is there trouble?”
The Conqueror stirred to life, finished hooking on her breastplate and slipped the bracers over her forearms. “No. No trouble. Go back to sleep. Joxer will be outside.”
She watched the warlord sling the battered old scabbard over her shoulder, hook the chakram on her belt. Prickles washed over the gladiator’s skin, the same uneasiness she’d wrestled with all night. “Xena, look at me. What’s going on?”
The warlord avoided her gaze. “You’re staying here.”
“Like Tartarus I am.” Half a step forward and the manacles snapped tight against the center pole, jerked her back to reality. The Conqueror had lied; she’d planned this all along. Anger blossomed in her chest. “Unchain me.”
“You don’t give me orders, slave. Not today.”
She tugged at the chains, found the tent pole unyielding. “Xena, don’t do this.”
“I can’t have you distracting me today.”
“Distracting you? How about fighting for you? Protecting you? Let me go, Xena, wait—”
Through the tent flap she glimpsed scores of men and horses and banners before it fell in place behind her owner.
She grabbed the shaft, shook it violently. It hardly budged in the deep hole dug for it. Her small hands wrapped around the tent pole as thick as one fist, slipping on the smooth wood even before she braced to lift. She threw her whole body into rocking it back and forth, desperate to loosen the lines, the hole, anything.
“You can stop now. She’s gone.”
She ignored the captain, shook the pole with increasing frustration.
“Hey, cut it out.” He reached out to calm her.
She lunged for his dagger instead, turned it to pick at the lock, groaned. The blade was too stubby to fit in the keyhole. She flung it to the floor, fixed him with her most commanding look. “Unchain me.”
“No.” He hardly looked at her, sat down glumly on the trunk.
“She’s making a mistake—”
“She doesn’t make mistakes.”
“If something happens to her—”
“She’s the Conqueror, the fiercest warrior in all of Greece. She’ll be surrounded by a hundred Dragons—”
“Ninety-nine,” she jabbed. “Don’t tell me you prefer watching some worthless slave while the Conqueror of Greece, the woman you’ve sworn to protect, rides into danger.”
“I do what I’m told. Maybe that’s a concept you’re not familiar with—”
“Don’t,” she growled, shook her manacles at him. “Wear these for a while. Then lecture me on how hard it is to do what you’re told.”
“Hey, if you’re looking for sympathy, you’re peeing in the wrong bush. The entire guard knows you’ve got the Conqueror’s favor. She doesn’t ask you to do anything you aren’t already willing to do. How you did it, I’ll never know.”
The Leopard’s stomach lurched. “Did what?”
Joxer rolled his eyes. “Don’t play dumb. How you made her fall for you. I’ve never seen her so sedate. Captain Bellerophon swore you struck a bargain with Cupid.”
“They think she…that I…?” The air in the tent seemed suddenly very thin.
“Hey, I don’t care what you did. Point is, you did it, and the Conqueror knows it, and that’s why you’re here and not with her. It’ll be hard enough for her to win the battle and keep herself safe without having to worry about you.”
Distant horns trumpeted in the distance. Drums answered, shaking the ground. Or was it the stamping of thousands of feet? Her eyes went wide, looked at the soldier.
He cocked his head, listened. “Army’s advancing. Won’t be long now.”
She sank down, a cold knot pulling at her insides. “Bellerophon thought I was a threat?”
“He didn’t trust your influence, no. But once he knew you weren’t an Amazon, he calmed down.”
“Why? Why does he hate Amazons so much?”
Joxer shrugged. “The story I heard says Amazons murdered his father for impregnating one of them.”
“He raped her?”
“No. He married her.”
Thoughts churned slowly in her head. “Bellerophon’s mother was an Amazon?”
“That’s what the men say. The captain never talked about it.”
Whether that was the whole story or there was more to it, she felt the kernel of truth in it. His personal vendetta, the fake Amazon assassins, Terreis’ sworn innocence, the torture inflicted upon her all fit the puzzle. Others pieces, like the Roman attack on the ship, remained maddeningly out of place.
The timber of rumble changed, degenerated into dull shouts and the faint ringing of metal on metal. These noises she knew, the dialogue of deadly struggle. She could shut her eyes and imagine sitting in a cell, listening to the games played out above. Games. What was this but one giant game fought for the pleasure of Caesar alone, with Greece’s star gladiator, the Conqueror, hanging in the balance? Her stomach churned.
It was well past dawn when she heard hoofbeats, jumped to her feet. The captain drew his sword, tentatively peeked out the tent flap. He let out a held breath, looked back at her. “It’s alright.”
Lieutenant Pelagios stepped in, grinning. “The battle is ours. The Conqueror sent me to collect her slave.”
“Really? I still hear fighting.”
“Mop up. You should have been there, Captain. She was amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.” He glanced down. “You gonna put that thing away, sir?”
Joxer looked at the sword, sheathed it. “Where is she now?”
“On the field still. You know how stubborn these Romans can be.”
He nodded as he approached the gladiator, then paused, fingering the key on the cord around his neck, his brow creased in thought.
“Is there a problem, Captain?”
The expression on his face raised hairs on the back of Leopard’s neck. He cleared his throat. “Not really. The Conqueror just ordered me to wait here until she returned.”
“Oh. She told me there’s a lot of work to be done, dealing with the prisoners and the wounded, but it was safe to bring her woman.”
Her woman?The Leopard stepped back, suddenly on edge, shook her head ever so slightly. The captain nodded but took the key from his neck anyway, fit it into the lock.
She jerked when the arrow punched through his chestplate. He chuffed softly, just as surprised as she, an apology dawning in those soft eyes as his thick fingers fumbled with the key in the lock. Wood creaked behind him, catgut string squeaking as it rubbed against yew. She shoved him out of the way, dimly heard a shout as the arrow flew by her cheek.
Pelagios pressed the other Dragon’s bow down. “He wants her alive!” He drew his sword, crossed to where the captain lay panting against the Conqueror’s cot, one hand clutched around the arrow, pinched dark eyes hissing pain and betrayal. The lieutenant stepped around him, blade leveled at his exposed throat. She edged closer, trying to bring him within range for a kick before he could strike. But the blade dipped, hooked out of slack fingers the leather cord holding the key, swung around to deposit it in her hand. “If you please.”
She straightened, looked him square in the eye as she let the key fall to the floor.
A cold smile. “Pick it up.”
She lifted her chin, didn’t move a muscle.
“He said you would be uncooperative.” The lieutenant tapped a finger to his pursed lips in thought. “Perhaps I’ll lop off one of your hands. That would solve our problem.”
Fast as a snake he struck. She jerked her hands back against the manacles, flinched as the blade bit deep into the center pole, stopping just short of her knuckles. Pelagios grinned. “He might not like that, though. What to do?” His brow furrowed in mock concentration, his eyes sliding to her escort bleeding on the rug, flicking back to her mischievously. “He doesn’t care, however, what happens to a nameless soldier.”
He circled Joxer, his sword dragging lazy lines across the soldier’s breastplate. Subtly the blade lingered under the captain’s shoulder, across his vulnerable wrist and fingers, his inner thigh.
“Fool,” the soldier wheezed, his scar drawn tight and ugly. “She knows I’m already dead.”
The lieutenant squatted down, his lips next to the soldier’s ear. “Oh, no, Joxer. You are many, many long minutes away from death.” Gently he lay one hand over the red stained fingers at the captain’s chest, his eyes never leaving the Leopard’s as he snapped one.
He screamed, high and thin and breathless. She didn’t move, didn’t blink, wouldn’t give the traitor the satisfaction. Another finger. Joxer grunted through clenched teeth, his face red with strain. Liquid heat poured through her, yearned to snap the pole in two and wrap chains around his bobbing larynx. She pushed it down, so deep she almost couldn’t feel it, offered her best bored look.
Pelagios laughed, impressed. “By the gods, Joxer, she’s colder than Hera’s tit. Here you are, taking the pain meant for her, and she couldn’t care less. That’s what you get for trying to be a hero.”
He snapped another finger. And another. Her escort lay gasping, cheeks lead white but for the whorish spray of bright red on his lips. The lieutenant took hold of his thumb, his expression making it clear he had all the time in the world.
She rattled the pole, drew his attention. Time was the only weapon she had, the faint chance someone would interfere. She sank down, floating to the floor so slowly her knees shook, evaluating her options. Pelagios crouched well out of her reach behind Joxer. The archer waited at the tent flap, an arrow nocked on the string but not drawn. Both had her at a disadvantage but for one fact: they needed her alive. Her eyes held the lieutenant’s, boring into him with all the rage and defiance she could muster, holding his complete attention as she sat back on her heels. Her hand fished around on the carpet as long as she dared before it finally closed around the key. Deliberately she fumbled with it, slid it into the lock ever so slowly.
One moment Joxer’s good hand fumbled under his thigh, the next it pinned into Pelagios’ arm, his discarded dagger embedded in the traitor’s forearm. In the time it took him to shout she wrenched the lock open, lunged for the archer. Torn between shooting her and obeying orders, he was still raising the bow when she tackled him. They tumbled out of the tent, the Leopard on top as they slid across rocks and roots. She rolled to her feet and ran, short legs pumping furiously between tents and trees toward sounds of fighting.
More shouts behind her, followed by the pounding of hooves closing in. She waited until the last possible moment, bolted away, forced a tent between her and a pursuer. She zigzagged between trees, juking and dodging every which way but always edging closer to the tree line, to the battle, to Xena.
A rider cut her off. Pelagios, his mouth twisted in a snarl. She hardly slowed, angled right as if to outrace him, spun left and cut behind them before his palomino could turn.
A shrill whistle pierced her awareness. Hooves crashed into her side, sent her tumbling through the air to a sickening crunch and darkness.
“Blow it again.”
The Conqueror hardly glanced at the trumpeter between slashes and parries. The blast of the horn in her ear made her skull vibrate. She couldn’t fault the man for not giving it everything he had.
A spear arced in, hungry to bury itself deep in his chest. She batted it away with her sword, almost missed a block of her own against a zealous legionnaire. She twisted hard, avoided his thrust by hairs, spun around and hacked deep into his shoulder.
A Dragon stepped into the gap and she sucked in a deep breath, squinted into the sun cresting the eastern treeline. No movement. No noise. Nothing.
“Where are they?” Marmax’s voice boomed over the din as his stallion charged through the crowd of men.
“They’ll be here,” she growled. Her mind played out other scenarios.
“Our right column has fallen too far behind. The middle can’t hold much longer.”
She stood in the stirrups, surveyed the jagged battle line. Classic Roman strategy, to split the opposing army’s front line, then turn on the advancing wing’s exposed flank. She’d counted on it, in fact. When the enemy turned west to cut off and surround the bulge in the west, the reserve cavalry would flood out of the rising sun, cut them down from behind.
No cavalry appeared.
“We’ll have to reinforce it. Get word to your front officers to hold back before Brutus cuts our army in two. Signal again—” The words guttered out in her throat. The trumpeter lay on his back in the dust, the shaft of an arrow rising like a standard from his face. She dropped to her feet, scooped up the horn and gave it another blow. No signal answered.
It was a good plan. It would have worked.
Roman trumpets shrieked. As one the legion turned, cut a swath through the overstretched middle.
Time for a new plan.
“Dragons to me!” She swung into the saddle, spurred her mount headlong into the gap with a shrill battle cry that turned men’s faces white. Her sword danced among theirs, flitting from partner to partner, occasionally kissing their wielders and sealing it with a splash of blood. Something slashed at her leg, bit into the greave. Her swing knocked the weapon out of the soldier’s hand and a vicious kick to the chest shoved him back, taking down two more legionnaires. Her palm found the chakram and she let fly, her ears tracking the weapon’s deadly path through the enemy as her sword cleared out survivors. By the time it returned she’d opened a hole four men wide, a hole the Romans seemed reluctant to fill.
They did, of course. By then her Dragons caught up with her and the fighting began in earnest. She rushed up and down the line on horseback, cut down any man who threatened to break through the paper-thin defenses.
Shouts rose from the rear. Smoke drifted out of the trees behind them, grew thicker with each passing heartbeat. At the first glimpse of flames, the bottom dropped out of her stomach.
“The camp’s under attack!” one of her soldiers yelled. “They have us surrounded!” All around her, the courage of the men began to crumble.
She rose up in the saddle, pitched her voice over the din of battle. “Listen to me! They’ve cut off our retreat, will give no quarter. If today is your day to die, take five of the bastards to Tartarus with you!”
True or not, a grim resolve rippled through her ranks. They surged again, more determined than ever to press forward. Her attention flicked back to the burning camp. Romans were usually too smart to provoke their enemies into a fight to the death. Something was wrong, and where trouble was, at the heart of it she’d find her gladiator.
Joxer was smart. He’d get her clear of it. He’d take her to the ends of the known world to get her clear of it. So why did her stomach twist like she’d swallowed an asp?
“Cadmus!” she bellowed between slashes of her blade.
The Dragon seemed to take forever to extract himself from the fighting. “Conqueror?” he panted.
“Find out what’s happened to our camp.”
He nodded, ran toward the rear.
Time stretched. For the longest time Helios lingered over the treetops, seeming to set their branches on fire with his apparent reluctance to move. Just as suddenly it was high in the smoke-filled sky, tiny and white-hot on her arms and neck. Bodies underfoot made fighting more treacherous, turned the packed earth to mud the color of rust. Time and again reinforcements and surges pushed them back, spread the Dragons thin, threatened to burst like a boil upon the unprotected flank of her army, only to be beaten back at great cost. Each time she rose in the saddle, counted fewer and fewer of her elite guard still standing.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d fought a prolonged battle. It grew more difficult to hide her exhaustion, and her enemies took notice. With every tired swing some young soldier leapt at the chance to be the one, the man who killed the Conqueror. And each time she dredged up the strength to overcome him, and the next one, and the next…
“Conqueror!” Cadmus must have shouted half a dozen times before it penetrated the clamor. She couldn’t turn her horse, couldn’t disengage from a handful of very persistent legionnaires. “Report!” she called out over her shoulder, her chakram blocking a gladius while one booted foot shoved a soldier off her sword.
He jumped in, shield and sword covering her flank. “Camp’s been torched,” he yelled. “It’s spreading into the forest.”
He shoved his opponent onto another legionnaire’s sword. “Burned to the ground. Hoofprints everywhere.”
The eastern ridgeline drew her eye, a terrible truth settling in the pit of her stomach. Unless Brutus had another cavalry unit, she’d been betrayed. Another question burned in her chest, one she didn’t know how to ask. “Captain Joxer—?”
The word punched her in the gut. If Joxer was dead…half a dozen grim scenarios played through her head. She’d escaped. She’d been captured. She was—
Pain and nausea pushed her to consciousness, to the bumping and straining of horseflesh under her nose. Each bone-jarring hoofbeat brought increasing awareness of lying on her stomach, of aches and pains up and down her side, her shoulder, her head. A rope bound her wrists behind her back, tight enough she could barely feel her fingers. Her eyes drifted open, squinted wrongways at blurry golden flanks, her cheek pressed upside-down against its sweaty hide.
It was her they were after, not Joxer. Who wanted her? Where were they taking her?
She forced throbbing eyes to focus on the riders following her, made out a distinctly Roman helmet.
They were taking her back to Caesar.
She arched her back hard, almost threw herself off the horse before a hand slammed her head down. Stars swam in her vision, and the vague nausea fluttering under her skin coalesced in a wave of half-digested porridge that spewed all over the hooves below. She hadn’t the energy for a second try, kicked and squirmed anyway. Her captor had to wrestle to keep her draped across his lap. When the horse slid to a stop he gladly dumped her to the ground.
Hands tied, she braced for a hard landing but was unprepared for the white fire that speared through her shoulder and chest, arcing across her back and side. She lay there, unable to breathe or move, eyes squeezed shut against the shrinking world. Hands grabbed her arm, jerked her up onto watery knees, generating another white screech from her shoulder.
“You had strict orders not to hurt her.”
Despite the oddly tinny sound to his voice, she knew who spoke, guessed where she was. Blinking and squinting, she peered around the Roman camp, nearly deserted but for Brutus and his personal guard.
“She tried to escape. At least she’s intact.” Pelagios pressed a palm against the blood-soaked bandage at his elbow.
Brutus tilted her chin up to look at him, turned her face aside to frown at her head. Her skin itched where gore caked on the side of her face, temple pulsing with each wild beat of her heart. His gaze raked over Pelagios. “Be glad you’re still useful to Rome. Bring her.”
The grip on her arms tightened and she followed, stiff against the jostling that sent mind-numbing flares through her arm. She spared it a glance, couldn’t see any obvious wound. Broken? The thought sent a cold shudder through her. Between this and her other arrow-shot shoulder, she’d be hard pressed to put up a fight.
The distant sounds of shouts and horns and fighting filtered through the trees. So she was still near the battle. At least she wasn’t on the road to Rome.
He led the way to a tent. His tent. Though larger than she remembered, it still lacked frivolous furnishings or decoration. Brutus never cared for the ostentatious. “Wait outside,” he ordered Pelagios and his men.
“She’ll run the moment you take your eyes off her,” the lieutenant warned.
Brutus leveled his gaze, waiting patiently. After a few moments, the Dragon scowled and ducked back through the flap. He approached her, stopped when their eyes met. “Are you okay?”
Broken, bloodied, and chained, she ignored the question. She’d spent many months in this tent, took in the familiar cot, trunk, and desk. Scrolls and maps covered it, unreadable from where she stood.
He shifted, moved into her line of sight. “Did she hurt you?”
Angry eyes cut his way. He asked now, after all these years, if her owner hurt her? Somehow he could always turn a blind eye when her wounds came from Caesar.
Perhaps he could read her thoughts. Or perhaps even his stunted conscience couldn’t miss the hypocrisy. He turned away, a hand idly brushing a scroll on his desk. “Familiar, isn’t it? A strange woman standing chained in my tent, bleeding on my favorite Egyptian rug, accused of being a spy for the Conqueror. As I recall, I was at a loss for what to do with that woman, too.”
She chafed at his conversational tone, found herself glad for the rope around her wrists. It made her think twice about flying at him in a rage.
“Some spy, that woman. Even half-dead, she talked endlessly about honor and dignity and mercy and loyalty and truth. She spoke of them so highly, I found myself convinced to spare her life.” Finally he looked her in the eye. “You’re not much like that woman, are you? All hard and closed and hollow, brittle as shell. Looks like Caesar won. If he couldn’t have your light, no one could.”
She swallowed hard, stung. She’d survived Caesar’s soulless existence for so long, was there anything left of her?
He took a step closer, genuine concern in his eyes. “I believe that woman is in there somewhere. She captured my heart once. Broke it, too. But I’d rather have her back than this animal you’ve become. Just say something, Gabrielle. Talk to me.”
Broke your heart? Words pressed against the back of her teeth, hot and sour. She bit her tongue and looked away, too tempted to trust herself.
His eyes raked her throat, the fine gold collar. “They say you talk to her.” He said it quietly, coolly. “What I can’t understand is why. Four years of silence, and you end it for that sick murderous whore.”
Chained or not she flung herself at him in a fury, her half-healed shoulder ramming into his breastplate, knocking them both off balance. He threw her back against the table, scattering quills and scrolls and parchment across the floor. She gritted her teeth, rigid with pain.
“So there’s truth in the captain’s reports,” Brutus breathed, staring as if laying eyes on Medusa herself. “You have feelings for her.”
She stared at him, caught off balance.
“I wouldn’t have believed it. The untamable Leopard of Rome servicing the Conqueror’s every whim like some cheap harlot. Why else would you defend her now but for love?”
Stirred to the edge of fury, she caught herself, suddenly wary. This was not the straightforward man she remembered. He sounded like Caesar, his words sending her lurching from rage to despair to fear to resentment until she was too wound up to think straight. She shook her head, struggled to bring her emotions under control.
“She’s out there, you know. Fighting. Losing. Dying, thanks to Pelagios. Her surprise attack from the east? I sent him after you instead, allowing us to cut through her center without reprisal. Her reserve army in the forest? Revealed by Pelagios as a ruse of empty campfires, leaving me to commit my full force to destroying her. The amazing ‘Warrior Princess’ you used to speak so highly of in your tales becomes rather ordinary without the element of surprise.”
Her mind reeled, her attention drawn toward the tent flap, toward the clash of metal on metal and the blare of trumpets in the valley below. Somewhere in that mass of soldiers Xena fought. Did she know she was betrayed? Did she see the trap laid for her? Was she even alive?
“She’s lost, Gabrielle. The war is lost. Cleopatra’s so-called aid was just a feint. That “retreating” legion landed in Corinth; it surrendered days ago. The Conqueror’s southern army is besieged between Egypt’s army and her fleet. Without reinforcements and supplies, her eastern army will be destroyed by the Persians in a matter of weeks, even days. This battle we’re fighting here today is a formality, Gabrielle, nothing more. Only two questions remain; what will become of you, and what will become of her. You can save her. Convince her to surrender and end this battle and I will spare her life. The price of your silence is her death, and the deaths of her men.”
His hand tenderly brushed her elbow. She jerked away from it, burned. He could be lying, a trick to get her to talk, reveal something about her owner. But if everything he said was true… She forced words out carefully. “You only spare her so Caesar can kill her himself.”
He blinked, surprised at her words, contained his smile. “True. She’s dead, one way or another. But you can still save hundreds, even thousands of lives today. That brave woman I met all those years ago knows it’s the right thing to do.”
She closed her eyes, couldn't block out the distant sounds of battle, of death. Thousands of lives weighed against the Conqueror’s. Finally they opened again, flat and dead.
His brow furrowed. “Help you?”
“My shoulder,” she murmured, twisting in her binds, wincing.
She couldn’t summon the will to look up from the floor. After a few moments of sawing with his dagger, the rope gave way and she gingerly rubbed some feeling back into her hands, felt out the shoulder for damage. The whole area was tender to the touch, misshapen and discolored, but not obviously broken. With some trepidation she tried to move it, hissed. Dislocated then, far worse than the match with the lion.
The lieutenant ducked his head into the tent, his sword half-drawn. His eyes narrowed at the sight of the unrestrained Leopard.
“Bring the healer,” barked Brutus.
“Sir? I don’t think that’s—”
“Do it!” he bellowed, his voice cracking with the force of it.
The Dragon stared at him as if he were mad. Brutus’s gaze never wavered. With a sharp exhale the traitor left the tent.
They stood apart awkwardly, the one massaging her shoulder while the other opened and closed his mouth, suddenly unsure what to say.
She preempted him. “Your spy Bellerophon is dead.”
Brutus chuckled. “Bellerophon, a spy? Hardly. That fanatic would never betray the Conqueror. Besides, he’s too wrapped up in his own war against the Amazons to see the bigger picture.”
She shook her head. “But you’ve been getting reports from the captain—” Her eyes widened with understanding. “Marcus.”
“A sensible man.”
What blood was left in her cheeks drained completely. “He was the soldier on the ship, the one giving orders to the assassin.”
“Unfortunately, she arrested the intended assassin and his second failed to kill her. Imagine how different today would be if they’d succeeded.”
The nausea returned full force, bent her over just trying to hold it down. He took her arm, steadied her. “It’s alright, Gabrielle. When we get back to Rome, you’ll belong to me, not Caesar. You’ll never have to serve him, or the Conqueror, again.”
She stared at him, barely comprehended his meaning. Abruptly she grabbed the back of his head, slammed his face into her knee. He staggered, hands cupping his nose in shock. “I don’t belong to anyone,” she growled, “and I’ll never go back to Rome.” An elbow to the temple dropped him to the carpet.
Her heart pounded. Reflexively she snatched the gladius from his scabbard, backed away. What now? Not much time— She lifted the blade to plunge it into his unprotected neck, hesitated. The sword wavered, lowered altogether. She couldn’t. Not like this.
She crouched over him, tied his wrists with the remains of the rope. Her injured shoulder hardly cooperated, her left hand tingling, slowing her down when she needed speed most. Hiding him was out of the question. Tucking her arm against her bruised side, she hurried to the back of the tent and peeked under the edge. Fortune granted her some scrub as cover, and with a silent prayer to Hermes, she wriggled under the canvas.
Her mount squealed and pitched, a pair of spears bristling from his chest. She tumbled from the saddle, scrambled to her feet swinging. One legionnaire fell instantly. Three more took his place, surging through a break in the line, their shields a wall bristling with gladii like porcupine needles.
A kick to the middle shield knocked the soldier off balance. That was all the room she needed to deflect his companion’s predictable thrust low and spin, her boot hooking across his helmet. The chakram bashed the third attack aside, her blade biting flesh in its wake. They danced that way for hours, the queen of death and an endless sea of suitors, none of them proving worthy of her grace, her brilliance. Yet.
If any of her Dragons remained, she’d lost track of them in the chaos. Cadmus had fallen long ago, spitting curses at the Romans pinning him to the ground with their spears. She didn’t even try to avenge his death, and for that she asked his forgiveness.
She kept moving. Running, if she were truthful with herself, but moving, never letting them comfortably surround her, always breaking out of the circle the circle and forcing them to keep up. She couldn’t feel her arms anymore, couldn’t feel much of anything but exhaustion in her bones, the burn of smoke and dry air in her lungs. She’d find some of her soldiers, take a stand against her pursuers, killing and wounding as many as she could before the last Greek soldier fell and she’d be on the run again.
Her defensive lines were in tatters. Already some of her men had thrown down their weapons, preferring the conflagration of the forest to the surging tide of legionnaires. No drummers, no trumpeters remained to signal retreat, and there was nowhere to go if they did. A thought flitted across her mindmdash;I will die here.mdash;but her body objected, fought harder than ever, kept moving.
Another attempt to surround her. She launched the chakram, sent it ricocheting off one shiny brass helmet after another, her sword cutting deadly beauty in its wake. She spit out a laugh, high and wicked, from some black part of her soul that rejoiced in destruction, even her own. Not long now, it whispered. You’re almost free of it. The plotting, the betrayals, the pain…
No more running.
She turned on them, limbs and thoughts just a bit lighter with anticipation. “Come on, you sons of dogs!” She flashed a bone-white grin, lay into them with unspeakable joy. The vicious assault drove them back, her nicked blade and shining circlet of Hephaestan steel carving up anyone too slow to get away. She would single-handedly take down every last one of them.
She hardly felt the slice across her shoulder blade, threw a kick into the soldier’s throat that lifted him off the ground. A spear jabbed at her side. One leg slammed the tip into the ground, severed the hand that held it. A hard twist couldn’t quite avoid the thrust at her gut, but the slice across leathers and skin seemed small payment for the pleasure of threading her sword through the wielder’s windpipe.
Thick steel pierced her thigh. A sharp jab with her pommel broke the wrist wielding the gladius and she stumbled back, kept her footing even with the weapon imbedded in her leg. Before they could surge forward her weapons snapped up, one mad look promising death to the first comer. Slowly they encircled her, hard hungry eyes searching for the right moment for to swarm her.
A quiet hum caught her ear, the beating wings of a charm of hummingbirds thronging out of the forest. Not wings. Fletching. She grabbed a Roman shield, hunkered down beneath it before the first Roman cocked his head.
Arrows fell like hailstones from the sky, pounding her wooden shield, drawing screams from those too slow to raise theirs. Brutus was either cold-hearted or desperate if he was willing to fire on his own men to kill her.
When the thumping stopped she peeked out, ducked back again as another flight peppered the battlefield. She gritted her teeth, flinched as a direct hit pierced the shield, the arrowhead clipping her cheek.
An arrowhead made of stone. From the trees rose a trilling cry like scores of angry birds. She scrambled to her feet, attacking soldiers suddenly half their number. Distracted by the Amazon war cries and the death still showering down from above, they made easy targets. She limped through them, unmindful of the arrows falling around her, hardly aware of her own lethal strikes. One shieldless Roman blocked her swing and she lashed at him, her chakram barely missing the shaped breastplate under the red cloak. A solid kick to her midsection drove her back. The wounded leg gave out, dropped her on her ass. She raised her chakram to let fly—
“Xena, it’s me!” Under the Roman helmet pale green eyes flashed. The gladiator lunged past her, deflected another blade, spun around and elbowed the attacking soldier in the back of his head.
Gabrielle was alive. Relief flooded through her, made her ridiculously light-headed. The Leopard lay into the soldiers, her gladius cutting them down with speed and brutality the Conqueror had never seen from her before. Two were mortally wounded before they realized she wasn’t one of them. Three more put up a better fight, even managed to lay open her bicep, but she moved like water rushing around so many stones, impossible to contain. One by one they fell, life’s blood pouring over thirsty earth, the last spraying scarlet across his comrade’s corpses as she yanked the sword from his neck. She whirled, searching for the next target, a murderous fire in those eyes the Conqueror had never seen before.
The moment she lay eyes on Xena it softened. In a heartbeat the Leopard was by her side. “You’ve been betrayed. Marcus—” She faltered at the sight of the ivory hilt sticking out of her leg. Hesitant fingers hovering over the impaled leg, uncertain what to do.
Xena waved her off. “You’re hurt, too.” She gestured at the arm cradled against her ribs, the blood crusted on her face under the helmet. The Leopard ignored her, tore a strip of linen from a fallen soldier’s tunic and pressed it against her midsection. The Conqueror shook her head. “Leave it. Get out of here before you wind up dead.”
Quietly, “You don’t give me orders, Conqueror. Not today.”
She glanced down, seeing for the first time blood coursing from the wound in her side. “Gabrielle, stop. I’m not going anywhere, and I’m willing to bet those Amazons aren’t here as friends. Go now, before they kill you too.”
She meant to argue. This was one clash of wills she refused to lose. “Gabrielle—”
Pounding hooves were her only warning. The rider came out of nowhere, sword swinging. She had only a moment to heave the gladiator clear; the arcing blade caught her arm instead, sent the chakram sailing. She gasped and clutched it to her, eyes squeezed shut, afraid to open them for fear of holding a stump.
Metal rang against metal overhead. Reluctantly she opened her eyes, found the Leopard clashing with Pelagios, his distinctive palomino stomping the ground perilously close to her head. She rolled clear, crawled on elbows and knees from danger.
She crawled a long way before bumping into a fallen shield, curling up beneath it. Only then did she summon the courage to look down. A gash lay her forearm open to the bone, but it was still attached. She let out a held breath, tentatively tried to make a fist.
Dead or not, the Conqueror, Destroyer of Nations, was no more.
The Leopard ducked and leapt, evading the attacks of both horse and rider without letting them near the wounded Conqueror. He wheeled the palomino and whistled, but she jumped back, avoided getting kicked a second time by mere inches.
A jab of his spurs sent the horse charging at her, white-eyed and screeching. Her legs coiled to jump out of the way, hesitated. Xena would be trampled. Desperately she lunged forward, toward flashing hooves and gnashing teeth. A fist found the mount’s sensitive nose as they collided shoulder to shoulder, she and the horse, the force of it hurling her to the ground. Red and white coursed from her shoulder and ribs, stained her vision. She coughed in the dust and rolled, clambered to her feet. By some impossibility, she found the Conqueror no worse for wear, crawling by inches away from the squealing dancing mount. The Fates had been generous in sparing her, granted the kind of fortune they never granted twice. That horse had to die.
She switched the gladius to her useless left and picked up a bent spear, charged the pair as they spun to reset. The tip scored a direct hit but the crooked tip glanced off the horse’s shoulder, opened a red gash as long as her sword across tawny ribs. Again that enraged peal. The animal twisted and reared, hooves knocking her back even as its rider lost his seat.
She tried to roll to one side, sagged back, her arm cradling under her breast where the horse’s hoof struck. Breathing came hard, like spears between ribs. Her good arm fumbled blindly across the rocky ground, searching for gladius or spear, finding neither.
A boot pinned her hand against the rocks. She swallowed the cry of pain, forced herself to focus on Pelagios’ triumphant face.
“Not so tough now, are you, bitch?” A twist of his heel ground her palm into the rocks. It took every ounce of will not to scream. “No, I didn’t think so. You’re just a little girl without her little swords.” He flashed white teeth at her, knelt straddling her, the weight on her ribs enough to send her vision spiraling to a pinprick in the empty sky. Dreamily he drew his dagger, placed its tip at the hollow of her throat. She gulped for air, desperate to stay conscious.
“Any last words, silent one?”
She nodded, took every moment she dared to catch her breath. “Tell Joxer I’m sorry.”
He laughed. “Joxer’s dead, little girl.”
She nodded. “So are you.”
She smashed the rock under her raw bleeding hand into his temple. He reeled, grabbed his head. She swung again, hit him square in the bleeding bandages at his elbow. He pitched off her, bellowing like a bull and clutching at the wound. In a heartbeat she latched her thighs around his neck, locked her ankles, and squeezed. He thrashed, fingernails tearing her skin, the dagger carving wildly into one bare leg. The rock crashed into his skull, split it open. With a growl she bashed it again, kept bashing until she hadn’t the strength to lift her arm anymore.
When she finally kicked free, the mess between her legs barely resembled a man’s head. She lay there panting, the world coming back to her in pieces. The reluctant separation of bloody fingers glued to stone. The ache in her chest and shoulder and leg that became one unified throb. The clash and roar of battle, near but not immediate. The cries of Amazons on the war path.
Those cries forced her to her feet. Immediately a stream of dark red oozed from deep lines in her punctured thigh, sent her stumbling to her knees. The hem of a dead soldier’s tunic became a bandage over the freely-flowing wound, another tied even more tightly over that. When she pressed up again, the leg wobbled but held. Her bad arm shored up hurt ribs as she looked around. Brutus’ gladius lay near; she scooped it up in her scraped palm as she limped by. She had to get her bearings, get back to Xena.
The palomino stood nearby, waiting for its fallen rider, glaring at her. The golden hide twitched where dark blood caked in its fur, but there wasn’t another man or creature within bowshot still standing. She set her jaw, made her way over to it grudgingly.
A toss of its head jerked the reins out of reach, but she lunged a second time and snatched them up before it could run. The ornery animal fought for more than a minute before her patience finally snapped. “Alright! I get it,” she growled. “You hate me, and I don’t like you either. But right now she needs you, and I’ll do anything it takes to get her out of here alive. You understand? Anything.” The conviction of the last word surprised her. If ever there was a time to run, it was now. The Conqueror lay wounded somewhere amongst the fallen, hunted by the Amazons she’d nearly exterminated. Free of manacles, watchful eyes, and palace walls, of every vestige of her enslavement but the gold collar hidden under her cloak, nothing stood between the Leopard and freedom but dread. Of the unknown. Of waking up tomorrow a hunted woman, runaway slave, enemy of the Amazons, traitor to Rome. Finding herself with nowhere to go, wounded, hungry, and alone. Tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that…
A shake of the sword in the beast’s face earned a whinny of protest, but she tugged on the reins and it followed without a fight.
Together they wended through bodies and debris, much of it painted with blood, sprinkled generously with dust and ash. They didn’t wander far; long black hair under a red shield caught her eye. She threw it off, rolled the limp Conqueror onto her back. Blood stained the bronze breastplate, soaked the leathers beneath. Suddenly strengthless, the gladiator sank down in the dark muck beside her. She reached out uncertainly, brushed the muddy strands of hair from the Conqueror’s slack alabaster face.
“Can’t feel my fingers,” came a mumble from grey lips.
She gasped with relief. “Xena! We’ve got to get out of here.” One arm hooked under the Conqueror’s shoulder, helped her sit up.
“Stop.” Flat eyes stared at her. “Don’t waste your energy, Gabrielle. I can’t walk. I’ll only slow you down. Go.”
“We’re not walking. Can you stand?”
The Conqueror took stock of her legs, nodded. Even with the warlord’s help, it took a good deal of strength and not a little pain to haul her to her feet, a great deal more to hoist her into the saddle. An errant bump of the sword in the Conqueror’s leg doubled her over the saddle horn with a sickly moan. The Leopard handed her the reins and the weapons, shoved a Roman helmet over Xena’s glossy black mane before dragging herself up awkwardly behind her. She made the mistake of glancing down, teetered in the saddle before her arms latched on to the thin waist in front of her. Drawing the stolen red cloak around them both, she collected the reins and, with a prayer to Hermes, dug her heels in the horse’s sides.
The beast lurched into motion, almost throwing them both from the saddle. Only the Conqueror’s white-knuckled grip on the saddle horn kept them both on its back. They careened through the battlefield, the horse fighting her inexperienced grip on the reins, choosing its own breakneck path through the carnage. It was all she could do to hold on to Xena and stay on the horse’s rump; commanding the mad animal was beyond rational thought.
The Conqueror took the reins in her good fist. Within moments they slowed, the motion becoming less erratic, more of a controlled flight toward the nearest treeline and escape, but the slave didn’t feel her heart rate slow until they plunged into the shadows of the forest.
Creamy smoke blew thick through the trees, stinging her eyes and throat. The horse tossed its head, whinnied nervously at the strange orange shafts of light piercing the canopy. In the breeze they danced, godlike columns of flame scouring the forest floor. The strange beauty of it made her shiver.
Out of that shimmering curtain of light stepped a giant bird, feathers flared around flat eyes. A woman’s body followed, hard muscle clearly visible beneath scant doe-skin. Her heart stopped. Terreis.
Reason kicked in. Scar-free, she was just an Amazon; three of her sisters stepped out of the shadows, arrows already nocked, strings drawn tight to their cheeks.
The palomino spooked, danced sideways. The slave certainly had no control over the animal, and her owner lay heavily on the saddle horn, unconscious or close to it. She could do nothing but look defeated and non-threatening, hide under the red cloak and brass helmet and caked dirt and blood, and pray.
The leader raised her hand, signaling for them to hold. She stepped a little closer, looked them over, then raised her mask.
Ephiny. The Leopard almost sagged with relief at the sight of a familiar face, but that flush of joy died quickly. This was not the healer’s apprentice. This was not the woman she shared an uneasy truce with those last few days in the Conqueror’s chamber. This was the Amazon regent, bound by duty to tribe and queen, and clearly the queen had no intention of honoring a treaty with Greece. By the look in her eye, she wasn’t fooled by their stolen Roman garb.
Inconspicuously the Leopard reached a hand under the form slumped over the saddle horn, wrapped fingers around the hilt of a sword, prepared for an extremely short fight. With a single word or signal from Ephiny, her sisters would fill them both with arrows.
They stared at each other, the Regent looking over her wounds, sizing up the lump pitched over the saddle horn in front of her. “Just Romans,” she called back to her warriors. “Run, swine. You get a head start while we kill the Conqueror.”
Ephiny’s words sent a shiver down her spine. She didn’t have to feign the nervous grateful nod as she gently nudged the horse to pick up the pace, glanced back over her shoulder.
Mask up, Ephiny watched her go. Those hard eyes promised a head start, nothing more. If she didn’t change her mind before they left her sight. The gladiator kept her eyes forward, her ears straining for the sound of gut-string bending wood, her back prickling where imagined arrows would find their marks.
When she allowed herself to glance back again, the ghost-birds were gone.
She flew through the shadows, dimly aware of branches tearing at her skin, horseflesh straining between her thighs, ice worming into her bones. She waited for it to claim her.
It took its damned time.
Bitterness welled up in the back of her throat that this, some mad rush through thick forest and overgrown deer trails, would be the last ride of the once-feared Conqueror. She wished for something more fearsome, some amazing feat that men would tell tales of to their children’s children. But the men who witnessed her last great battle were likely dead, and here she was bleeding out on the back of a stolen horse, fleeing her best chance for immortal glory. Then again, at least her body wouldn’t be hacked to pieces as trophies for Roman and Amazon display.
She wished she were cleverer with words, could come up with some epitaph sufficiently witty or wise or ferocious to befit the legacy of the Conqueror. But her mind remained maddeningly blank, distracted by the saddle horn digging into her breastbone, the gladius twisting in her thigh, her numb hand dangling limply down the horse’s side. It irked her to no end that the only pithy comment rattling through her head was, “Here lies Xena, another one of Caesar’s conquered.”
The light dimmed, faded to shades of grey and darker grey, but it seemed take forever. Cold burned her hands and face. And when would she stop feeling the pain of her wounds? Hanging on a cross, one learned a thing or two about death. As deaths went, this one had to be one of the more uncomfortable and tedious ways to go.
A thought took root, one that ruined her morbid musings. What if she actually lived?
“Stop,” she murmured past thick lips. Hooves trampled over the word, stamped it into the hard packed dirt of the path they raced along. “Stop,” she said again, more forcefully this time, pushing herself upright in the saddle. Instantly the shadowy sky spun overhead, although she couldn’t be sure if it was her own lightheadedness or the spooking of the horse beneath her.
“What’s wrong?” came the groggy voice behind her.
“We have to keep going. The Amazons—”
“Off!” She slid out of the saddle, forced the slave to haul back on the reins to keep her from hitting the ground full speed. Her boot caught on the dismount, jarring her leg and nearly sending her over backwards but for the gladiator’s strong grip yanking her around, half-knocking the wind out of her as she sat down hard. She bit down on a few choice words for the slave, bent her will to overcoming the throbbing in her leg.
Several long moments of colorful swearing later, the gladiator knelt beside her. “Of all the places to take a break!” But she removed the red cloak from her own shoulders, wrapped it around the warlord. It was warm, almost as warm as the body at her back had been.
“Where are we?”
The Leopard shook her head, winced as she bent closer to examine the embedded sword. “Not sure. On the side of a mountain, somewhere east.”
She moved away and a bitter gust blasted through the gap in the cloak. Xena shuddered and looked around, noticed for the first time the steep treeless slope the goat path traversed. Clouds hung low, muting the failing light. “I smell snow.”
The slave returned to her side, offered her the last of a mostly empty water skin, but the warlord shook her head. “I couldn’t find cloth for bandages. We have to keep moving. Come on.”
The tone in her voice drew the Leopard up short. “Xena, the Amazons can’t be far behind. We don’t have time to rest—”
“I mean no, I’m not coming with you.”
“Yes, you are. I already told you—”
“And I already told you. I’m not gonna make it. That horse can’t outrun the Amazons with both of us on it—”
“Then I’ll walk.”
“Not on that leg.” She eyed the soaked rag tied around it doubtfully.
“It’s just stiff, that’s all. Let’s go.”
She reached again, but the warlord shoved her away impatiently. “Why are you so determined to help me?”
“Why are you so determined to die?” the slave snapped back.
“I told you. I can’t feel my fingers. Can’t move them, can’t hold a sword—”
“So that’s it? Take your sword away and you’re finished? You are not some common thug—”
“—who’s only skill is breaking heads! You’re the Conqueror, Greece’s last hope to stay free of Rome—”
“—and if you don’t stop him, I don’t know who else can!”
“I said enough!” Her head split with the force of the shout, left her teetering on the edge of retching. “The Conqueror is gone. Her power always stemmed from the sword. Without a sword, I wouldn’t be able to keep my allies at bay, much less my enemies.”
“You just need time to heal. Then you can raise another army—”
“You can’t heal this!” She shook her useless hand in the slave’s face, then sighed, spent. “And I don’t want another army. I’m done. Almost twenty years leading one army after another, and what has it gotten me? A citizenry that despises me, a military that betrays me, a stomach that rebels against me, and a slave who doesn’t do anything I tell her.”
The Leopard rocked back on her heels, eyeing the Conqueror, her jaw set. “You finished? If you want to leave your hard-won lands to lesser men, be my guest. But don’t tell me Xena, the great Warrior Princess, is ready to let herself freeze to death on this mountain because she can’t hold a sword.”
Yet again, the slave’s arguments stirred in her the urge to scream or strangle her. “You have a better plan?”
A firm nod. “First we get you back on that horse. Then we ride east to Mount Nestos, find your healer friend—”
“He’s not my friend. I cost him someone he loved. Two someones, if Niklos is dead. He won’t help us.”
“You saved his son’s life, remember? I’m sure he can be convinced to help us.” Her eyes promised terrible things if he didn’t. “He can fix your arm. Then we’ll go north, east, south, wherever you want to, leave Greece and Caesar behind, go to lands where they’ve never heard of the Conqueror.”
Xena watched her, dubious. The Leopard waited, eyes dark in the cloudy twilight, lips trembling with cold.
She shook her head. “That’s the worst plan I’ve ever heard. Do you realize how many things could go wrong with that plan? We could both freeze to death before morning.” But a smirk twitched at the corners of her lips, and she accepted Gabrielle’s arm pulling her to her feet.
She watched the gladiator fumble with the reins one-handed, frowned. “Your arm, is it broken?”
The gladiator tried to move it without success, winced. “Dislocated, I think.”
“C’mere.” She felt out the damage. “Pretty bad. What in Tartarus happened to it?”
“This horse. And a tree, I think. My ribs hurt like Tartarus.”
She arched an eyebrow, took the wrist in a firm grip. Grimly the gladiator clung to the saddle, grunted as she levered the elbow up and wrenched the shoulder back into socket. For a moment she stood back in that practice yard, doing the same to the silent leopard woman, whetting her appetite with a challenge to be conquered. The memory roused a smile. “Better?”
A few shades paler than she already was, Gabrielle tested it gingerly, nodded. “Thank you. Again.” She clambered into the saddle, helped the warlord up behind her. Getting back into the saddle was ten times harder than she remembered it. She adjusted herself on the palomino’s rump, wrapped cloak and arms around the smaller woman.
Head on the Leopard’s shoulder, she murmured into the wind, “Do you realize you’re the most expensive slave I’ve ever owned? You cost me a king’s ransom in dinars, a servant boy, a prisoner, a healer's apprentice, two captains, three armies, a palace, my lands, my subjects, my title, and my livelihood.”
The slave glanced over her shoulder uneasily. “Wish you’d never lain eyes on me?”
Without hesitation, Xena shook her head. “No. You’re worth every dinar.” Awkward as the admission sounded, it felt…good. She hadn’t done many things right in her life, but rescuing one half-broken slave from Rome—and allowing herself to be rescued in return—was one of the few choices she didn’t regret. She did, however wrestle with a vague sense of being adrift. Without the Conqueror to drive her, without the intention of defeating Rome and taking over the known world, without even her sword to rely upon…for the first time since she was a girl, she didn’t know what her future held. Anxiety stirred in her gut, and a tingle of excitement. She shivered.
“Are you alright?” The Leopard was still looking at her.
She nodded slowly. “Just remembering a feeling I used to get long ago.”
Her slave’s brow furrowed. “Is that a good thing?”
She thought about it, smiled slowly. “I’m freezing, Gabrielle. Take me somewhere warm.”
Her arms tightened around the gladiator as she nudged the horse up the dark narrow path.
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