SEE CHAPTER 1 FOR WARNINGS AND DISCLAIMERS.
DESTINY CONQUERED - Chapter 3
By Texbard, originally submitted for the first ex-Guards bards challenge, June 21, 2000
A moon passed while the Conqueror waited for her troops to travel to the hills surrounding Rome. Advance scouts reported back that Caesar was completely unaware of the pending attack. She hadnt heard from Ares since the night he raped her, and she assumed he was off sulking wherever it is the gods go to pout. She kept a constant finger on the pulse of her army and monitored incoming daily reports from the four fronts. Besides that, she had occasional affairs of state to attend to, but with three-fourths of her army out of the country, she found herself with unusual amounts of free time on her hands, and increasingly, she gravitated to her handmaiden to help fill that time.
She knew the girl was changing her in her own quietly persistent way, but she tried not to think about it. She enjoyed the girls company, her stories, and frankly, she just liked to watch her. The little handmaiden amused her and she hadnt laughed so much in years. Besides, Marcus was gone with the army and it wasnt like she had any real friends, so during her free time, if she wanted to go for a ride or a walk, or to a tavern outside the walls of the palace, she often took the girl with her. It was obvious the girl hadnt traveled much, and she certainly hadnt been to any taverns as nice as the ones the Conqueror patronized. She enjoyed indulging the girl, buying her nice meals and fine clothes almost every time they ventured into the main part of the city. Shes with me, right? She reasoned to herself. And so shes a reflection of me. Thats the only reason Im buying all this stuff for her. If shes not dressed well, it will make me look bad.
She also found that she couldnt keep her hands off the girl, constantly playing with the soft blonde hair, or patting her on the leg or arm when they talked, although she was careful not to touch her in an overtly sexual way. However, it was never far from either of their conscious thoughts that the Conqueror was the master and the girl was her slave, and it was hard to overcome years of demanding whatever she wanted. She hadnt hit the girl anymore, and rarely got angry at her, but she sometimes reached a sexual frustration level she found maddening, and she would ask the girl to pleasure her. She had a hard time seeing that as wrong, although part of her knew the girl probably wouldnt do it without being told to first. She guiltily justified it by the knowledge that the release the girl provided kept her from attacking her outright.
They had fallen into a routine whereby at least half the week, she had her handmaiden stay the night with her, and they would get up and eat breakfast together and the girl would attend her at her bath. On the nights the girl slept in the servants quarters, she allowed her to eat breakfast with her Amazon friends before she came to attend her bath. They ate dinner together almost every night, after which she would have the girl tell her a story. She didnt ask her handmaiden to perform sexual favors for her unless they were going to sleep together, because she craved the feel of the girl in her arms afterward. She told herself that she wasnt stupid enough to fall in love with anyone, and that they were strictly master and slave, and that being what she was, it was merely a physical attraction on her part, and that if she had some other handmaiden she wouldnt behave any differently.
One morning, Gabrielle was eating breakfast with her master when a loud knock resounded at the door. "Come." The Conqueror called out, and an older servant poked her head through the entry.
"Excuse me Mistress, for interrupting your meal, but the new cook has arrived, and you told me to bring her to you as soon as she got here. Her party has traveled all night and they got in about a quarter candle mark ago. The servant wondered if the Conqueror had gone mad. She never had new slaves brought to her chambers for personal introductions, and she almost never had just one slave delivered to the palace at a time. They were less expensive if purchased in groups.
"Very well. Send her in." The Conqueror got up and moved to the door, a tiny smile playing a the corners of her mouth. "Little one, I want you to meet my new cook. Shell be working with the head chef in the private palace kitchen. I believe you two may have already met ..."
"Lila!" Gabrielle bounded out of her chair and across the floor, bursting into tears as her sister appeared in the doorway. The two sisters engulfed each other in a crushing hug and cried, dancing around the room in each others arms, completely oblivious to their surroundings. Each had thought they would never see one another again. They parted when the Conqueror cleared her throat loudly.
"Empress. Im sorry." Gabrielle bowed her head and Lila followed suit.
"Look. I have some things to get done today. Why dont you go get my new cook settled into the servants quarters. She will be sharing a room with you and the Amazon, so youll have to make room for another cot in there." She paused, trying not to smile at the look of total joy on her handmaidens face. I needed another cook anyway, didnt I? She didnt want the new slave to think she was soft. "You are to report back here tonight to attend me at dinner. You will be staying with me afterward."
"Yes Empress." The girl led her sister out of the room and across the compound. They spent most of the afternoon catching up. She introduced Lila to Eponin and Solari, and the girl had a happy reunion with Ephiny, whom she had also befriended while they served Mezentius. Several other servants told Lila that the position of cook in the private kitchen was one of the most coveted jobs in the palace. She wouldnt have to deal with the troops, she would never go hungry, and in fact she could sample some of the same delicacies that their master herself dined on. Best of all, as long as she did a decent job, the Conqueror would leave her alone. It was one of the safest places for a female slave to work.
Gabrielle was very quiet during dinner that evening. It had been the best day she could remember since she came to Athens, and she was content to just sit there in happy silence. True happiness was a rare emotion for a slave. The Conqueror was reviewing field reports and partaking of some fruity port. After a while, she got up and went to the bathing room and put on her robe. "Come to bed little one. Im ready for my story."
"Yes Empress. Let me change and Ill be in right away." Gabrielle waited until her master was out of sight, and she gulped down the contents of the half-full goblet of port the former warlord had left behind.
The Conqueror was stretched out on her side on the bed, and her breath caught in her chest when her handmaiden appeared in the doorway. The girl was wearing a black silk thigh-length gown that accentuated her curves very nicely. It was the first time she had put on any of the lingerie without being told to first. When given a choice, she had always donned one of the long full sleep shirts that actually belonged to her master. Gabrielle slowly walked to the bed and sat up on her knees on the mattress.
"I have a special story for you tonight." She gently pushed her master back onto the smooth blue satin that currently covered the bed and leaned in, kissing her briefly on the lips. "This is the story of a slave girl who wanted to thank her master for showing her a great kindness." A small hand separated the front of the Conquerors robe, and began to softly caress her stomach and then moved upward to fondle her breasts as the girl settled in against the long frame for another long kiss.
The former warlord was a bit surprised at the kisses. Whenever she commanded the girl to touch her, they had steadfastly avoided kissing. It was almost too intimate and familiar when one was giving or receiving sex on demand, as if kissing conveyed emotions and feelings that werent really behind the acts being performed. "Little one." The Conqueror reluctantly broke away from the soft lips. "You dont have to ... I wasnt going to ask you to do that tonight."
"Empress." The girl continued to stroke the firm flesh of a breast. "You gave me back my sister. Im sure you paid a lot of dinars for her. I want to thank you, and I have nothing I can give you in return. Let me do this as my way of thanking you."
"If thats what you want." The blue eyes grew soft, reflecting the shiny sheets she was laying on.
"I want." In their prior encounters, the girl had basically used her fingers and tongue to bring on a quick but satisfying orgasm, much as she had done with Mezentius, but this time was different, as she gently and thoroughly explored all the planes and curves of her masters body. A low banked fire slowly blazed to life, until the Conqueror swore that every inch of her skin was on fire. Finally, the girls hand reached between her legs and steadily stroked her clit while she suckled a very hard nipple.
"Please." The former warlord had never been more ready. "Inside me."
Gabrielle entered her with two fingers, and applied steady circular pressure on the swollen clit with her thumb, while she continued to work both breasts with her mouth and pump in and out with the fingers. She felt a large hand come to rest on the back of her neck, while another one grasped her one free hand, and the Conqueror intertwined their fingers.
"So nice, little one. So very nice. Please. Closer." The Conqueror shifted, molding the smaller body into hers and began to move against the girl, releasing a blissful sigh as the first waves of her climax began to wash over her.
Gabrielle felt the inner muscles clench around her fingers, and she continued to use her thumb until she felt the after shocks subside and dwindle down to even heavy breathing and a pounding heartbeat. Her own breathing was ragged, and she felt a steady throbbing in her groin. Most of the times that she pleasured her master, she was laying or kneeling between the Conquerors legs, and there wasnt much contact between their bodies. When her master had started to rock against her, she had found her own hips involuntarily rubbing back, reacting to the primitive rhythm that called to her and connected with something deep inside.
"Gabrielle." The Conqueror stretched out on her side, still holding the girl against her. "That is your name, isnt it?"
"Ye ... yes Empress." It was the first time the deep voice had spoken her name, and the sound so close to her ear vibrated through her whole body with pleasant shivers.
"Such a pretty name." She felt the girls heartbeat thumping wildly in her chest against her own stomach. "I ... I want so much to touch you. I want to taste you. Please. I wont go inside of you, I promise."
Gabrielle slid up, and kissed her master tenderly, getting lost in the sensation as the Conqueror gently rolled her onto her back. The older woman lifted her up long enough to remove the black gown before she lowered her back into the soft mattress, continuing to kiss her as one hand tangled in the long blonde hair while the other one teased her breasts. Finally she slid her hand down and pushed the girls legs apart, shifting to lay between them. Well-practiced fingers slipped between the swollen folds, and she growled at the wetness that poured over her hand. "Are you aching, little one?"
"Yes, Empress." She shivered at her masters touch, and the pounding pulsing sensation between her legs that seemed to increase with the attention.
"Say my name." The low voice demanded.
"I ... Yes ... Xena." Her tongue liked the name and she said it again with a sensual whisper. "Xena."
"Do you want relief?" The fingers circled around the clit, not quite touching it.
"Yes. Xena. Please." Small hips pushed up against her masters stomach.
The Conqueror chuckled, and slid a bit lower, tenderly kissing the girls inner thighs and the apex of her hips. She nuzzled the blonde curls, inhaling deeply. "Gods you smell good." Her tongue probed between the outer lips, savoring the sweet salty essence. "And you taste even better." She began to swirl and flick her tongue over the girls throbbing clit, while she used her hands to kneed the girls ass, pushing her up into her mouth in the process to increase the pressure. Gabrielle had never imagined that someones mouth on her could feel that good, or for that matter, that anything could feel that good. The Conqueror felt the girl begin to tremble, and she slid back up, replacing her tongue with her fingers while she captured the girls lips in a kiss.
"Do you taste yourself in my mouth? So sweet." Gabrielle groaned, wrapping her legs around her masters waist, and the fingers instinctively increased their pace on her clit. Xena used her free arm to pull the girl more tightly against her and she ground her own mound against the girls as the small body began to shake harder. "Come into me Gabrielle." As the climax started to claim her, Gabrielles whimpers were swallowed up in a deep passionate kiss. She cried out at the height of her pleasure and then moaned softly as Xena used her fingers to draw several smaller orgasms from her.
The Conqueror rolled onto her back, pulling Gabrielles head down against her shoulder, and the girl lay quietly in her arms, an occasional after shock causing her to shiver. The Conqueror felt warm tears running down her cleavage, and she stroked the blonde head, enjoying the soft silky texture. "Gabrielle. Why are you crying? Did I hurt you? I kept my promise." Though gods know I didnt want to. The soft noises the girl had made when she touched her had caused her own desire to re-kindle itself, and she had come very close to just taking her when she began to climax. She had settled instead for the sensual grinding of her own throbbing sex against the girls, and had actually achieved another small orgasm herself in the process.
"No." Gabrielle raised up partway so she could look into the mesmerizing face of her master. "I ... just ..." She sniffled and then shuddered as two long fingers reached across and brushed the tears away, lingering on her skin. "Empress ..."
"Gabrielle." The two fingers trailed across to her lips, pressing against them. "From now on, when just the two of us are together, you are to call me by my name, okay?" A pained smile accompanied the request, as the Conqueror recognized that she was letting go of one more thing that she had held onto so firmly for many summers, the unwavering impersonal line she maintained between herself and her servants.
"Yes Emp ... er ... Xena. Im just a little overwhelmed is all. What you just did ... thats how its supposed to be. I always hoped it could be like that." Gabrielle lay back down and curled tightly into her master, burying her face into musk-scented skin, as she began to weep convulsively, remembering all the times she was forced to perform for Mezentius, and how dirty and ashamed she had felt, always wondering if there were any true beauty in any of the physical acts that were supposed to convey love.
The Conqueror held onto the shaking body, uncertain of what to do, and not quite sure what the girl had meant. After a while, Gabrielle began to calm, as her master ran her hands lightly up and down her back and across her arms and stomach, while she tenderly kissed her on top of the head. The girl sniffled and discreetly wiped her nose on the black gown that had somehow become crumpled underneath her. "You .. gave of yourself to me. That wasnt just about your pleasure or power, was it?"
"I suppose not. Well not entirely." She grinned privately, remembering the very pleasurable sensation of their heated centers pressing against each other. "Why?"
Gabrielle shifted, until she was sprawled halfway on top of her master, raised up above her chest so she could make eye contact. "Xena. I am a slave. No free persons ever do anything for a slave or give anything to us. Our whole lives are centered around what we have to do or are forced to do for the ones who own us. No matter how dirty, or demeaning, or degrading it may be, we have two choices, perform or be punished. Punishment is physically painful, sometimes even fatal, but the performance can be emotionally painful, and detrimental to our souls. I sometimes wonder which is worse. As a slave, my ultimate destiny will be death of my body, just like anyone else, but before the time of my physical death, I have another destiny, the slow agonizing death of my spirit.
The long body underneath her stiffened, as the Conqueror felt yet more of her handmaidens words slap her sharply across the face. This time she pushed down the anger, and instead allowed the information to sink in. "I never thought about it like that."
The girl shook her head sadly. "Id be surprised if you had. Youre so used to just saying the word or snapping your fingers, and getting results. And Mezentius ... he was the same way. He wanted me for what I could do for him, so every day of my life with him, I got down on my knees and I did what he wanted me to, and then I would go to my quarters. The first few times, I threw up until there was nothing left in my stomach to come up. Then for many weeks after that, I just cried. Finally, as two and then three, and then five summers went by, I didnt feel anything any more. I was just empty. He had won. He had managed to kill my soul."
"Gabrielle ... you ..." The Conqueror faltered. What are you trying to say to her? Are you ready to cross that line too? Tell her that she actually means something to you, that you see her as more than just your servant? She clamped her jaw shut.
The girl saw it anyway, in the expressive blue eyes and the trembling lips. Her hand reached down of its own accord, and cupped a bronzed cheek, feeling her master lean into the touch. "Xena. You are so beautiful. There is so much more inside of you that ..."
"Dont." The Conqueror closed her eyes. "I cant ... just dont." She sighed, and drew the girl back down to lay against her. "Im sorry. Im not ready for you or anyone else to see me as something I cant see myself. Im not sure Im ready to be anything more. Dont know if I can be. Or if I want to be." She kissed the top of her handmaidens head. "For what its worth, what we just did ... its never been like that for me before." She was suddenly weary. "Lets sleep now, okay?"
"Okay, Xena." The girl reached down and pulled the blanket up around them, and for the first time, they fell asleep face to face.
Gabrielle finished eating dinner and quietly pushed her plate aside. Another week had passed, and her master had asked her to stay the night every evening. She had not been able to spend much time with Lila, and the Conqueror had noticed a profound sadness in her handmaidens demeanor the previous evening. Gabrielle had been afraid to share her true feelings, but her master had coaxed it out of her. She had reluctantly told the girl she could spend the next three nights in the servants quarters, and the girl had smiled, and then thanked her, once again, in the only way she felt she could. The Conqueror had no argument with her method.
"Xena. May I be excused now?" The girl lowered her head, waiting.
"Yes. Go on. Spend some time with your sister. I need you here in the morning after breakfast for my bath." She watched as her handmaiden got up. The girl came around and shyly kissed her on the cheek before she fled the room. The Conqueror held her hand up to her cheek and touched it.
Gabrielle fairly skipped across the compound, and found Lila, Ephiny, and the other Amazons sitting in the middle of the floor in their room, playing some game that involved shuffling and choosing from a pile of pieces of stiff parchment that had numbers and letters and fancy faces painted on them. A stack of coins, either stolen or found laying on the ground, was in the middle of the group, and they were laughing and passing around a flask of wine that had been pilfered from the armys common dining hall.
She stopped short of the door and just watched, enjoying the rare sight of her sister smiling. She slowly panned the room. There wasnt much to it. The doorway was merely a rectangular opening cut into the wall, because when the quarters were being erected, the Conqueror had requested that the slaves not have doors they could close. She felt there would be less opportunity for insurrection that way. Three narrow cots lined the remaining three walls, and a single wooden stand held a washbasin and pitcher. The space in the middle of the cots was barely large enough to hold the four women who were packed together around the game pieces.
Lila looked up and cried out. "Gabrielle! Come on in. Play with us."
The girl hesitated and then squeezed into the small space they cleared for her.
"Good thing youre small." Eponin ribbed their queen. "Course I guess youve gotten used to being pressed up against a warm body by now."
Gabrielles face fell, and she lowered her head as she felt her cheeks burning with shame.
"Pony!" Ephiny slugged the former weapons master in the thigh, extending her middle knuckle slightly to frog the muscle beneath the skin, knowing it would leave a bruise. "Cant you keep your damned mouth closed for once? Now youve upset her. Its not like she has a choice."
"Ouch!" Eponin rubbed her leg. "I cant help it. It kills me to think that the Amazons have been reduced to this. That our queen has to endure being raped every night by some monster."
"Shes not like that." Gabrielles eyes grew wide, and she clapped a hand over her own mouth, even as she heard herself speak the words. All four faces were pinned on her, and a deathly silence engulfed the room.
"What in Hades do you mean shes not like that?" Eponin bellowed. "Shes a murderer and a rapist, and a greedy selfish bacchae bitch."
"She ..." The girl sighed heavily and played with the hem of the short green skirt she was wearing. "She doesnt hit me anymore. And shes still never ... she hasnt forced me to ... I ..." Gabrielle stopped and felt frustrated tears spring into her eyes. "She has me do things to her, touch her and stuff, and sometimes she touches me, kisses me, and ... well ... but she hasnt raped me. I ..."
"Gabrielle, its okay." Ephiny pushed the weapons master aside, and scooted into the space between Eponin and the queen. "You dont have to explain it to us. We know that you do those things with her because you have to. We know you dont want to. Im glad, if she doesnt hurt you in the process."
"Yeah." The girl shifted uncomfortably. I dont want to, do I? "So." She was anxious to draw their attention away from her nocturnal activities. "Teach me how to play this game youre playing."
A few candle marks later, a caped figure stood silently in the hallway, watching as her handmaiden laughed gleefully. "Hah! My hand again." She raked the pile of coins toward her and buffed her nails against her shoulder. The game, which involved drawing the parchment cards out of a pile and trying to get certain combinations of numbers and letters, had been easy for the girl to pick up on, and being observant, she had quickly learned to read the faces of her friends, determining when they had good hands or not.
"Gimme that flask." Gabrielle took a long swig, and as she looked past the weathered leather skin, her eyes locked with the pale ones peering at her from the darkness just outside the room. She quickly looked around and was relieved none of the others had seen. When she looked back through the doorway, her master was gone. She could swear Xena had smiled at her. She shivered, and promptly lost the next two hands.
The next morning she didnt mention the visit, and her master never brought it up either. For the next two days, they continued with their regular routine of Gabrielle attending the Conqueror at her bath and eating dinner with her. The girl ran the usual errands, and the Conqueror continued to watch with baited breath, as her field reports indicated that most of her army was now in position for the attack on Rome. There was only one regiment left that was still traveling, the group that had to go through the mountains to avoid trespassing on Centaur territory. On the third night, she reminded her handmaiden that she wanted her to spend the following night with her, and then dismissed her to go spend time with her sister and friends.
That night, as she had the previous two nights, the Conqueror made her way to the servants quarters, convincing herself that she was just making rounds, checking for any signs of disloyalty or revolt, even going so far as to stroll through all the other buildings before she went through her handmaidens building last. Who am I kidding? I havent made rounds through these buildings in three summers. She noticed the fearful and suspicious looks she got as she passed the rooms, choosing to ignore them. This night, her handmaiden and friends were playing the card game again, just as they had the other nights. She stood back further than she had the first night, completely hidden in the shadows. Wonder what its like to have friends like that? Convinced all was well with her handmaiden, she left.
In the darkest part of the night, Gabrielle felt rough hands pull her from her bed, as a dirty piece of linen was quickly shoved in her mouth and tied around the back of her head to gag her. She was dragged down the hallway and out of the building toward the garden inside the palace wall. A large fist cracked her on the jaw, and her head snapped back. "Thats for bringing her down on our backs, you little whore." Another fist hit her in the eye as a third one nailed her in her stomach. A muffled cry escaped her lips, as a foot drew back and kicked her in the ribs.
"Before you came here, she never came around our area. Now, every night youre there, she comes through. Its bad enough we cant be free during the day, but now we cant even relax at night." The beating and kicking continued, and then she felt the clothes ripped from her body and the cool rough gravel of the manicured garden grounds pressing into her back.
"You spend most of your time on your back with her anyway. I think Ill get me some of that." She watched wide-eyed, her arms straining against her captors, as the man dropped his pants and two others held her down, prying her legs apart. The man knelt down on his knees and then on top of her. She screamed silently against the material in her mouth, but he never reached his goal, as a large two-edged sword severed his head from his body, sending a fine spray of blood across the girl and the dark ground.
"What are you doing to my property?" A low voice growled. "Shes mine. No one is allowed to touch her, least of all the filthy hands of the likes of you." Just as quickly as the first one, the other three men were either gutted or decapitated, and then only a lone figure towered over the girl, a tall dark woman with long black hair whipping in the gentle breeze, and a murderous expression on her face. The gag was pulled away from her mouth and Gabrielle shrieked in fear and pain as she was lifted into strong arms.
"Shhh!" Warm lips brushed across her forehead. "Its me Gabrielle. They cant hurt you now." She carried the girl up to her chambers and laid her gently down on the bed. The Conqueror had heard everything from her bedroom window, and had flown out of the palace as quickly as she could. Unaccountably, her heart was racing with residual fear at how close she had come to losing the girl. She does mean something to me. She allowed the fleeting thought to surface before she quickly shoved it back deep down inside.
She drew a bath and climbed into the tub with her handmaiden, carefully washing the blood and dirt from both of their bodies and then wrapping the girl in a large fluffy towel before she placed her back on the bed. She called for the palace healer, and took the kit from the surprised man and dismissed him, tending to Gabrielles wounds herself. The girl never made a sound, the green eyes wincing in pain were the only indication that she was hurt. "I didnt know you were a healer." She choked out, whimpering slightly as the Conqueror stitched up a gash across the back of her shoulder.
"Yeah. Comes in handy when youre leading an army." She finished up and tied off the last stitch. "Gabrielle. I heard those men. Im sorry. They did this to you because of me. I know you like to be with your sister, but I think for your own good, I need to move you into the palace permanently. I want you to come live here in my quarters." She watched the girls eyes water up. "Look. You can eat breakfast with them and dinner too, if you want to. Just sleep here. Its safer, okay?"
"Okay." The girl rolled over, turning her back to the tall woman, and cried silently. She had enjoyed the last three nights with Lila and the Amazons. It had been a chance to relax, and it had been almost like it was when she and Lila were younger, before they were captured, and they had played games with the other girls in their village. After a few minutes, she shifted onto her back. "Theyre going to wonder what happened to me when Im not there in the morning."
"No they wont." The Conqueror sat down on the edge of the bed. "I told the healer to send a runner to tell your Amazon friend what happened." She shrugged out of her clothes and crawled into bed next to her handmaiden. "Come on. You need to sleep." She doused the candle on the nightstand and pulled the girl up against her stomach, careful not to touch any of her injuries.
A half candle mark later, a loud knock at the outer chamber door startled the Conqueror awake. "Come!" The small body next to her turned, and the girl snuggled into her, sliding one leg between her longer ones. It surprised the Conqueror, who merely wrapped her arms more tightly around her handmaiden.
A nervous servant padded into the room. "Mistress. Im sorry but theres an Amazon out in the hallway who insists on seeing your handmaiden immediately. She said she doesnt care if you draw and quarter her for busting in here. I think she means it."
Shoulda seen that coming. The former warlord chuckled. "Send her in."
In another moment, Ephiny stumbled into the room and dropped to her knees beside the bed. "Mistress. I beg your forgiveness. I just had to make sure that the qu .... shes okay."
"Yes." The Conquerors eyes twinkled. "Your queen is going to be just fine." She enjoyed the mute shock on the Amazons face. "Ive known she was your queen for several weeks now. She told me because I had suspected you of being the queen. She thought I might hurt you. She was right. I would have." An evil grin gleamed in the darkness.
"Mistress." Caramel eyes grew thoughtful. "You would kill me if I were the queen, but not her?"
"Yes." The Conqueror ducked her head and brushed her lips across the pale blonde head, her blue eyes never losing contact with Ephinys. "A good handmaiden is hard to find. Besides. She may be your queen, but shes no Amazon. I dont like Amazons."
"Leave us. She needs to sleep, and so do I." The Conqueror waved a hand toward the outer chamber.
"Yes Mistress." The Amazon stood and bowed slightly. "Thank you Mistress." She quickly left the room before the Conqueror decided to kill her anyway, even though she wasnt the queen.
When Gabrielle woke up, she started to roll from her side to her back, and cried out in pain. Large hands instantly steadied her, one wrapping lightly around her torso while the other stroked the top of her head. "Easy. Try not to move around too much. Youve got bruises on your bruises, little one, along with three different sets of stitches, and I think you may have some internal injuries as well."
"Wh ...?" The girl blinked, trying to focus and remember what happened to her. "Oh gods." She immediately shied away from her masters arms, as a sudden flashback of the previous nights attack raced through her mind.
"Gabrielle." The Conqueror reached out and touched her handmaiden on the arm, rubbing it gently. "Youre safe here, okay? Your attackers bodies are hanging on spits in the center of the servant quarters courtyard. I made sure of that at first light this morning. A little reminder of what happens to anyone who would hurt any of my slaves, especially the ones who serve me in my own private chambers."
"You ... saved my life." The girl faltered. "Thank you."
"I dont know that they intended to kill you, little one, but they did plan to hurt you in ways that couldnt be repaired." She growled unconsciously, as she remembered the slimy man who had been poised to rape her handmaiden. She looked back down. "Tonight, after some of the swelling in your body has gone down, I need to examine your stomach area and see if they did injure anything inside."
"Am I puffy?" Gabrielle lifted the blankets, peering down at her bare body. "Oh." Most of her stomach and over one side going around toward her back was one giant bruise where the men had kicked and punched her. One of her legs also had a contusion that ran from just below her hip to the top of her knee. She gingerly probed her face and neck, which she couldnt see, finding a set of stitches over one brow and another just below her hairline above her left ear. She remembered the stitches that her master had sewn into her shoulder. Her jaw ached and if she moved it just right, it shifted with an audible pop. "Ouch." She ruefully rubbed her cheek and chin.
"Careful." The Conqueror grasped the exploring hand, holding it firmly so it couldnt wander any further. "I think you might have a hairline fracture in your jaw. All things considered, I cant believe you came away without any other broken or cracked bones."
"Am I going to be alright?" Gabrielle managed to sit partway up on her elbows, one of the few body parts that didnt seem to hurt.
"Youll live." The Conqueror smiled. "It will take a couple of weeks for those bruises to fade, and the stitches will need to stay in a few weeks as well. I suspect that if you have any internal injuries, theyre minimal, because you dont have a fever and you havent been coughing up any blood. So yes, youll eventually be fine."
"Xena. Thank you for taking care of me." The girl regarded her master with a thoughtful expression, and watched the mask go up on the Conquerors face.
"Well. Youve served me well, Gabrielle. I couldnt afford to let anything happen to you. Youd be too difficult to replace, and I dont have time to train anyone new right now anyway." The Conqueror stood up. "Im going to go see about breakfast."
"Xena. Shall I draw you a bath?"
"Are you kidding me?" Her master chuckled softly. "Youre not getting out of that bed for at least two days, much less perform any kind of labor. Gabrielle. I used to sleep in tents in the field and bathe in ice cold streams and lakes every morning. Used to sit around campfires at night and cook my own dinner alongside my men. I live the way I do now because I can. I think I can manage to bathe by myself without assistance for a few days. Besides, I need you whole in time to accompany me when I make my victory march into Rome. Remember? Part of your duties include serving me while I travel."
"Oh. Yes. I remember." The girl decided to leap over a cliff. "Xena. If you and I had met a long time ago. I mean, before I was a slave and before you had an army, would you have liked me?"
She didnt raise the mask high enough, and the Conqueror blinked at the smothering sensation that flooded her insides. "I ... well ... I ... um." She sat down on the edge of the bed and unconsciously rested one hand on the girls leg. "Thats a hard question, Gabrielle. Before I had an army, I was a simple peasant girl, just like you were. Im guessing Im about ten summers older than you, so you were probably very young when Cortese attacked my village. I suppose, speaking in hypothetical terms, if you and I had grown up in the same village, I would have been one of the big kids and you would have been one of the little kids. So no, I probably wouldnt have liked you because the little kids always got on my nerves. Except for my brother Lyceus, that is. Whats the point of such a question, anyway? We met as master and slave. Thats our reality, now isnt it?"
"Yes, it is." The girl lowered her eyes. "Xena. Do you like me now?" Her voice was almost inaudible. She looked back up at the pained face of her master, and the uncomfortable silence that fell between them was her answer. The Conqueror reached up and softly traced the girls cheek with the backs of her fingertips and then, without a word, she got up and left the room.
The two weeks flew by, as the Conquerors army filed into final positions all around the outskirts of Rome, and last-minute adjustments were made in battle plans. Carrier pigeons were thick between Athens and Rome, as messages were sent back and forth, and runners arrived daily with larger field reports that they had transported night and day over land and by boat. All was going as scheduled, and very soon the Conqueror expected to board her swiftest clipper ship to traverse the Mediterranean from Athens to Rome, and take formal possession of the next and most long-coveted piece of the pie in her plans for world domination. Not to mention her plans to personally execute Julius Caesar in public on the steps of his own palace.
Gabrielle had recovered from most of her injuries, and only a few faint scars from the stitches remained. In addition, she had been religiously applying the healing herbal salve to Mezentius whip scars on her back, and the bite marks on her breasts, and the few remaining marks had faded to almost nothing, while most had completely disappeared. She had adjusted to living in the palace much more easily than she had thought she would, and she did manage to eat breakfast and dinner with her sister and the Amazons at least half of the time, dividing her attentions between them and her master, who seemed to want her by her side more often than not, but tried not to make too much demand upon her, since she had promised the girl she could eat with her friends whenever she wanted to.
The Amazons had been secretly teaching her Amazon history and law in the early evenings after dinner, despite her protests that it was pointless. Still, she found it to be interesting and so she did her best to absorb it all, mostly to appease them and to satisfy her own thirst for knowledge. Ephiny had even stolen away with her behind the stables a few afternoons, and had insisted that the queen of the Amazons should know how to defend herself. She had engaged her young queen in clandestine quarter-staff fighting lessons, and the girl had found, much to her amazement, that she enjoyed the feel of the wood in her hands and the satisfying smack of the weapons as they knocked against each other. However, the resulting callouses that started to develop on her palms cut the lessons short. She knew if her master found out about it, that Ephiny would pay with her life. And there was no way the Conqueror was not going to notice if her soft hands were suddenly rough with no explanation. Weapons training and handling was strictly forbidden for slaves.
Exactly three weeks after the night the four slaves had attacked her, Gabrielle arrived in her masters quarters for dinner to find the older woman in a rare almost jovial mood. The Conqueror laughed and joked with her throughout the meal, and told her a few battle stories from her warlord days. After the meal her master retrieved two large goblets and a jug of expensive port she had requested the girl bring up earlier that day. She poured the dark red liquid into the mugs and handed one over to her handmaiden.
"Gabrielle. Celebrate with me. My army began its attack on Rome three days ago, and they expect the entire city to fall to them by tomorrow morning. By dawn I may very well be the new ruler of the Roman Empire." She held out her hand and the girl took it uncertainly, and found herself drawn over to the thick padded leather couch that rested against one wall in the main chamber. Her master sat down and indicated that the girl should follow suit.
They shared three goblets of wine together, and the Conqueror finally set the mugs aside, and began to undress her handmaiden. They had not been intimate since before Gabrielles attack, and the following physical encounter was one of the most intense they had experienced together, as they took turns pleasuring one another for well over two candle marks, until both of their bodies were sweaty and thrumming with pent-up desire. Gabrielle finally found herself on her back on the couch with a very consumed Conqueror on top of her. She felt her masters long fingers as they massaged her clit while the Conquerors mouth devoured her breasts. Gabrielle stiffened as the fingers moved lower toward her opening.
"No." She reached down and grasped the much-stronger arm in her hand. "Xena. Please. No."
"I ..." The Conqueror reluctantly released the hard salty nipple she had been sucking. "I want you. So badly." She struggled against her hand-maidens grip, which was surprisingly firm.
"No. You dont want me. You want to use me. You want to act out. You want to use me to work out your own battle lust." Sharp fingernails dug into the tanned skin. "Please Xena. I know youre going to take me some day. I cant hold you back forever. But please dont do it like this. Not when youre half drunk on port and crazy with your hunger for power. When it happens, Id at least like to be able to pretend that it means something, even if it really doesnt. But this, it doesnt mean anything to you. I cant even pretend that it does."
The Conqueror growled in frustration, but looked at her handmaiden and saw the sadness and despair in the green eyes. "Okay. Let go of my hand." The girl slowly released her forearm, and the Conqueror reached down and spread the girls legs until she fit snugly between them. She then used her fingers to manipulate her nether lips and those of the girl, until their clits were pressed against each other. She ground her hips in a circular motion once. Twice. And growled again as the girls eyelids closed halfway at the pleasurable sensation, and a shuddering whimper escaped her lips.
"Wrap your legs around me and put your arms around my shoulders." The girl complied, and the Conqueror wrapped her own long arms around the girls back, pulling her as tightly against her as she possibly could. Slowly at first, she began to rock her hips into the girl, and picked up speed as the girl began to moan at the intense jolts of pleasure her movements were causing. She felt her own orgasm start to build, and Gabrielles body trembling constantly under her. "Come with me Gabrielle." She circled her hips hard a few more times, and both women cried out as their climaxes took them.
A quarter candle mark later, the Conqueror was resting on her side on the couch with the girls back tucked firmly against her stomach. Their breathing and heart rates had returned to normal, and she had both arms wrapped around Gabrielle. She occasionally nibbled at the girls neck and shoulders, as she mentally ran through what had just happened. Did I scream? She knew Gabrielle had, but she was pretty sure she had too. I dont scream. Not unless Ares is with me. She regarded the pale blonde head and kissed it thoughtfully. Mine. The dark brows furrowed momentarily. But who really owns who here? And do I care anymore?
"Lets just sleep here tonight, okay?" She tugged a blanket from the top of the back of the couch and tucked it around them. "I dont think I can move right now."
"Okay." The girl unconsciously snuggled up against her and they were both soon fast asleep. Sometime in the early morning candle marks, the Conqueror woke up. She blinked, and realized one of her hands had found its way between the girls legs, and it was resting there firmly against the soft blonde curls, cupping her warm center. One of the girls hands was on top of it, holding her in place. She listened to the soft snoring sound, and knew her handmaiden was deeply asleep.
She touched her lips to the girls bare shoulder in a feather-light kiss, and at the same time, she gently pressed upward into the still-damp curls. The girl shifted slightly, clamping her legs a little tighter together, and a soft whimper escaped her parted lips. "Xena." It was barely a whisper, and the girl was most definitely still asleep.
The Conqueror was filled with a longing, and she wasnt even sure what, if anything, would satisfy it. It was much deeper than purely physical desire, and she had the feeling that if she took the girl right now and then fucked her for the rest of the night, the empty place would still be there when she was through. She sighed and kissed the shoulder again. Still think it doesnt mean anything, little one? More importantly, she realized, Do I still believe it doesnt mean anything? It was a long while before she was able to go back to sleep.
She was awakened by a very nervous hand shaking her shoulder. The blue eyes slowly fluttered open as her arms pulled the girl against her. She had been sleeping very soundly, and her head still felt thick with a bit of residual port, somewhere between twilight sleep and full consciousness. "What?" She hissed softly as she found her head messenger, Iolaus, standing over the couch. "How did you get in here?"
Iolaus smiled awkwardly, trying to look at anything but the two figures spooned together on the couch. "Begging your pardon, Mistress. I knocked several times but there was no answer." He paused as the stony face remained impassive. "You have four urgent messages, one from Rome, one anonymous, one from Salmoneus, and one from the Centaur Kaleipus. They all seemed pretty important."
"Important enough to barge into my private chambers and wake me ... and my handmaiden?" She felt Gabrielle stir and knew the girl was now awake. She peered down and was charmed as a deep rosy blush flooded the girls neck and cheek. The girl pulled the covers up over her head and made a tiny mewling noise, the Conqueror assumed from embarrassment.
"Yes, Mistress. The message from Rome, especially, seemed urgent. It was sent by express carrier pigeon. Iolaus licked his lips nervously. He was a slave, but was in charge of the Conquerors fleet of pigeons, and the system of overland runners, as well as receiving and delivering incoming messages.
"Wait a minute." Fear sent a rush of adrenalin racing through the Conquerors system, and she found herself almost hyper-ventilating, as she was suddenly fully awake and focused. "Who did you say the last message is from?"
"A Centaur named Kaleipus. The same one that sends you messages about once a year." The decidedly uneasy blonde-haired man was anxious to be anywhere but his mistress chambers. "Do you want me to leave them on the desk, or do you want them now?"
The Conqueror calculated in her head. Its not time for a message from Kaleipus yet. "You said the message from Rome is highly urgent?"
"Yes Mistress." The man looked down at the floor, polishing the top of one of his boots on the back of his pants leg before he absently kicked the toe against the edge of the thick burgundy rug that was in front of the couch.
"Hand them all over and wait outside the door. I may have some return messages to send out." She reached out and took the four rolled pieces of parchment and sat up, pulling the blanket around her.
"Empress?" The girl finally spoke up, remembering that she was not to use the more familiar first name in the presence of others. Her masters actions had left her naked from the waist up, and she quickly sat up too, snuggling under the blanket against the Conquerors side and disappearing from view. The heated blush warmed her skin again, as she knew the man was still in the room and had probably gotten an eyeful before she took cover.
"Sorry about that." The Conqueror absently patted the lump under the cover that she could feel against her shoulder as the girls head. She unrolled the Roman parchment, noting the official seal of the empire, as Iolaus left the room. Hmmm. "Draco says something is going down with the Roman government, and Caesar hasnt been seen in twenty-four candle marks. He wants to know if they should press forward or if they should wait until we determine where Caesar is." Her comments were not specifically directed at Gabrielle, but the girl listened attentively from her warm nest.
She set it aside and unrolled the next message from Salmoneus. "What a dimwit. Why couldnt he just come to me in person? Its not like he doesnt live in plain sight from my window. Unless ..." She studied the scrawled writing. "Dammit! One of the palace servant girls has been missing for over forty-eight candle marks. Callisto. I cant place her now ..."
"Xena." Gabrielle clawed her way up until her head popped out of the blanket folds. "Callisto is the other servant who attended at your dinner with your army captains. The night before Marcus left."
"Oh yeah. Tall blonde. I remember her now. Salmoneus is such a chicken shit. He probably thinks if he comes to me in person with such news that Ill punish him. Of course ..." She mused. "Hes right. But I really dont have time to worry about one escaped servant girl right now, not in the grand scheme of things. Ill have him mount a search party and go after her. Hopefully he wont botch that up as well. How difficult is it to keep a bunch of slaves in their quarters at night?"
The Conqueror decided she couldnt put off the message from the Centaurs any longer. Her curiosity was too high. She carefully unrolled the creamy yellow paper and read in silence, her brows furrowing as a concerned expression tainted her features. The girl watched the chiseled face and saw her masters countenance shift. "Xena. Is anything wrong?"
"Dont know." She rolled this third message up tightly and re-tied the ribbon that had bound it, so that it wouldnt roll open unbidden. She took the last message, the anonymous one, and untied the leather twine, and slowly unrolled it. This one she also read in silence, and the tanned face grew ashen grey. "Oh gods!" She re-read the message as her hands visibly trembled, the paper rustling in her suddenly boneless fingers. "Oh great gods. Ares! Noooo!!!" She tossed the parchment down on the floor and pushed Gabrielle aside, as she placed her face in her hands and began to rock back and forth.
"Xena." The girl reached out one hand, coming just short of touching her master on the arm. She wasnt sure what the reaction to physical contact might be. Finally, after several long moments, she carefully rested just her bare fingertips on the soft skin. Her master was cold as ice. "Xena. Whats wrong?"
Slowly, the Conqueror removed her hands from her face to reveal tear-filled eyes. She took a long shuddering breath and sniffed, wiping her face on the edge of the blanket. "My ... my son has been kidnaped." The face became blank, as Gabrielle watched all her masters defenses go up.
"Excuse me. Xena. Did you say your son as been kidnaped?" She has a son?
"Yes." Her voice was a blank monotone, and the girl realized her master was in shock. "He ... was Borias son but Borias never knew him. He was born at about the same time that Satrina had Borias murdered. I ... oh gods." More tears escaped, and the girl hesitantly reached up and brushed them away. Shed thought this woman incapable of truly caring about anyone, much less of crying. Perhaps there was more than icy river water in her veins after all. "I gave my son away to the Centaurs when he was just one day old."
"Why?" Gabrielle studied the stricken face, noting true grief in her masters eyes.
"I didnt think I would be a good mother. I thought he would be better off and safer without me. Knew if he stayed with me he would learn of things no child should ever know. And I didnt want him to be a target because of me." She sniffed and squared her shoulders in an attempt to re-gain her composure. "Satrina was the only person alive, besides the Centaurs, who knew about Solan. Im sure Ares is involved in all of this. He told someone. And now, after all this time ... hes twelve summers old ... after all that time, despite all my efforts to protect him, someone has taken him because of me."
"When was the last time you saw him?" The girl gently patted the Conqueror on the leg and allowed her hand to linger there.
"The day I gave him away. He doesnt even know Im his mother. He thinks his mother is dead. Kaleipus ... hes the one who sent that message ... he had great respect for Borias, in spite of me, and he promised to raise Solan ... thats my son ... as his own. That message was from him. He usually sends me an update on Solans progress every year on his birthday, but thats several moons away. His message said Solan was missing. I ... was concerned, but not worried, because I figured hes a boy, he might have gone out hunting or something on his own. But that last message ..." She reached over and picked up the parchment again. "... its not signed, but some coward has kidnaped my son and demanded that I give them a million dinars to spare his life."
"What are you going to do?" The girl sat back and folded one leg under herself, pulling part of the blanket across her lap and upper body.
The Conqueror stood up and started pacing back and forth, her feet making deep soundless prints in the plush rug as she walked restlessly back and forth in aimless circles. "I dont know. I need to be around to send and receive messages from Rome. I have to direct the attack on Caesar. But I need to save my son. I feel like Im going to have to choose one or the other. I cant be in two places at once. The ransom note says to be prepared to travel when I get the next note. Hades ..." She stopped in her tracks and threw her head back, clasping it between her hands with her elbows pointed out to her sides. "I dont even have anyone in my army I trust with the knowledge that I have a son. I have no regiment I can take to travel with me. My best men are in Rome. All my captains are gone. I ..." She sat back down on the edge of the couch in despair, resting her forearms on her thighs and hanging her head low. "What am I going to do?"
"You ... you have to save your son. Do you really have a choice?" The girls eyes grew wide at the thought that there was even a question as to the right decision."Is ... is it a matter of money?"
"No." She snorted. "The ransom wont even make a dent in my coffers. Its just ... my whole life Gabrielle, has been building up to this one moment in time. I am so close to taking Rome and getting my revenge on Caesar. Its everything Ares promised to me. Everything weve worked toward together. I ... all my dreams are wrapped up in this. I will never be able to surprise Caesar like this again. There wont be a second chance. If I dont take Rome, he will come and take Greece." She leaned back heavily against the couch, her long hair streaming across the shoulder-high leather back. "Gods! Why now? A few weeks later and I could have had both."
"Xena. You said yourself that every time Ares told you that you only had one more battle to fight, that he always came up with another one. Why is this time any different? What makes you think he is going to let you stop with Rome?" The girl turned so that her body was facing toward her master. "Your son. You seem to care about him very much. Cant you put Draco or one of your captains in charge of running the attack? You said you trained all of them. Maybe they can make good decisions on their own. Then you could go rescue your son."
"Who am I gonna take with me? I dont want to go alone. I might need some people to help me fight, or gods know what else might come up." She closed her eyes wearily and dropped her arms out loosely to her sides. "There are no men in the ranks remaining in Athens that I care to make privy to this aspect of my life."
"You ..." The girl bit her lip nervously. "You could take my Amazons."
"What?!" The dark head snapped to the side as blue eyes flew wide open. "Theyre my slaves. And what do you mean by your Amazons?"
"Im their queen, remember?" Gabrielle swallowed hard, trying to muster her courage. "Even in exile, they are trained to obey me without question. Say the word, and they are yours. Of course Ill have to go with you, so as to tell them to do whatever you need them to do."
"Please. Xena. Hear me out. They are excellent fighters and trackers." The girl leaned in, making eye contact. "I can order them to follow you and I can order them to remain silent regarding your son forever. And they will obey me."
"How do you know all of this?" Blue eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Youve never lived with them in their village."
"That doesnt matter." The girl refused to compromise the Amazons safety by divulging information about the lessons they had been teaching her. "Just know that I know enough about them that I am certain they will follow me unwaveringly."
"What if one of them offers the challenge? You couldnt possibly win in a fight against any of them." She watched the surprised look on the girls face. Guess what, little girl. I know something about Amazon law and customs too.
"Then Ill just have to name a champion." Green eyes swept her masters sinewy frame and their eyes met in silent understanding.
"I see. And I suppose in return for their service I would have to give them their freedom afterward?"
"That would be the decent thing to do, yes." Come on Xena. The girl silently pleaded for the life of a boy she had never met. Its three Amazons in exchange for your own flesh and blood.
"Let me think about it for a little while." Always immodest, the Conqueror stood and let the blanket slide off her naked body to the cushioned seat of the couch. "Bring me my robe and draw me a bath. Im going to send out some responses to these messages."
"Yes Xena." The girl padded into the bathing room and donned her own emerald green robe, and then set about her task.
"You want us to do what?!" Eponin screamed loud enough for heads to appear in several doorways along the hallway in the servants quarters. "Not just no, but no way in Hades am I risking my life to do a gods-be-damned thing for that ... that ... miserable excuse for a human being."
"Shhhh." Gabrielle held a finger to her lips. "Hold it down. This is a top secret mission."
"I dont care what kind of mission it is, Im having no part of helping that baby-killing bitch do anything." The former weapons master folded her arms across her chest and sat down on the cot next to Ephiny and Solari in a huff.
"You dont have a choice." The girls voice grew hard. "Im ordering you to do this."
"And just who do you think you are, missy?" Pony spat out.
"Im your queen." Green eyes flashed with new-found confidence.
"I am not going to follow some little Amazon wannabe on some half-assed trip to some unknown location to save anyone. Why is this boy so important to her? Surely she can have any boy she wants in the city. Why does she care what happens to him, anyway?" The other Amazons expressions indicated that they had the same unspoken question.
"Thats not important right now. The important thing is that when she gives the word, you need to be ready to go with her." Gabrielle allowed her voice to soften a little, along with her facial features. "Pony. Do this and she just might set you free."
"Gabby." Lila spoke up from across the small room. "If you make me an Amazon, Ill go."
"Lila. You cant ... dont take this wrong. I appreciate the offer, but you dont know anything about fighting or stealth, or anything youd need to know to do this. Still ..." The girl walked to the doorway and looked out thoughtfully, her back temporarily turned on her audience. "If you go and help, youd probably get your freedom too. Okay ..." She spun back around. "Ill tell her that youre part of the deal, or we wont go."
"Pony." Ephiny regarded her fuming friend. "What have we got to lose? At worst, you get out of here and into the open for the first time in five summers. No walls. No dining hall food. We get to camp out and use our hunting and tracking skills, and when its all over, we come back here. But at least we get away for a little while. At best, we do this, distasteful as it may be to perform favors for the Conqueror, and we get our freedom. Think about it. We could go find whats left of our village and start over."
"True ..." Eponin teetered on the edge of her decision.
"Im in." Solari smiled warmly at her queen.
"Me too." Ephiny turned toward the former weapons master. "Pony?"
"Sweet Artemis forgive me." She threw her hands up in exasperated defeat. "Okay. Im with you."
"Good." Gabrielle knelt down in front of them. "Now. Heres what we need to do to get ready ..."
Another day passed as they waited for word from the unknown kidnapper. The situation in Rome was at a stand-still, and the Conqueror continued to monitor every report that came in from her six captains. She had reluctantly sent word to Draco that she might have to go on an urgent trip and if so, he would be in charge of implementing the strategy they had agreed upon, and if necessary, altering it to fit different sets of circumstances.
The confused man had checked the seal on the top secret message three and then four times, making sure it was indeed the authentic waxed crest his leader always used on her messages. He finally shrugged, and assumed that after all their years together, his former lover had, indeed, finally gone completely insane. It was the only explanation he could conjure up that would adequately explain why the Xena he knew would run off on a lark right before imminent victory in battle over her oldest and most-hated enemy.
The Amazons and Lila had been moved into some guest quarters during the middle of the night, so as not to raise suspicion as to what they were up to and so they would be nearby when it was time to travel. The room was a large suite a little ways down the hall from the Conquerors private chambers. The Amazons spent most of the evening drinking fine wine, dining on special orders from the private dining hall, and basically running crazy around the large plush quarters that were so different from anything they had experienced in five years of slavery, or in their entire lives, for that matter.
Gabrielle had shared the evening meal with her friends, and now they were watching the sun set from one of the large windows that faced westward in the guest suite. Eponin, still somewhat incredulous that she had been talked into the bizarre mission, was setting up cards and piles of coins to play their wagering game, and Lila was pouring yet more goblets of wine. As they sat down to play, the main door to the suite opened slowly, and the Conqueror peered into the room, looking uncharacteristically unsure of herself.
"Um ... Gabrielle." The Conqueror physically flinched as all eyes were pinned on her. "Can you come here for a moment?"
"Yes Empress." The girl pushed her chair back, the wooden legs making a loud scraping sound in the deathly silent room.
"Look." The former warlord stepped all the way into the chamber. "You ... all of you ..." She looked around. "Were going to be traveling together and working together for an unknown period of time. Lets just drop the formalities from here on out. From now on, just call me Xena," and Ill call all of you by your names. Deal?"
Five completely shocked heads nodded their agreement. Gabrielle followed her master back into her private chambers and watched as the older woman curled up in the large leather chair and looked thoughtfully at a piece of parchment on the top of her desk. "I got the next message from the kidnapper."
"What did they say?" The girl sat down at the Conquerors feet.
"Come up here." Her master drew her up into the chair and into her lap, and wrapped her arms around the small waist. "Whoever this is, they dont pull any punches. Im to go to the inn at Amphipolis and wait for further instructions. Im to bring the ransom with me."
"So, well go to the inn at Amphipolis. Whats the big deal?" A blonde eyebrow rose in question.
"Thats were Im from, remember? And my mother owns the inn. At least as far as I know she still does. She disowned me shortly after I took up with Ares and started building my army. Im not exactly welcome there." The long arms drew the girl closer against her. "Mom doesnt know about Solan."
"Would it change anything between you if she did know?"
"Probably not." The blue eyes peered down through hooded lids. "She ... the last time I saw her, she told me I wasnt her daughter anymore. She knew Borias. Hated him too. Im sure that a child of ours wouldnt be any more welcome in her home than I am."
"Im really sorry Xena." The girl pursed her lips. "What are you going to do with Solan after you rescue him? Have you thought about that?"
"Yes. Hes going right back to the Centaurs and Kaleipus. And hes not to know Im his mother." She sighed. "Hes a lot better off without me."
"What are you going to tell him? Hes sure to wonder why you would personally come to rescue him. What if his kidnapper has already told him youre his mother?" Gabrielle shifted in the chair, getting more comfortable and causing the leather to creak.
"Ill tell him theyre lying. And Ill tell him ... I dont know what Ill tell him. Maybe I can get your Amazons to do the actual rescue." The older woman reached up and softly cupped the girls face in one hand. "Little one, why are you offering to do this for me? Is it in hope that your Amazons and your sister will be set free?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Are we leaving at dawn?"
"You didnt answer my question." The Conqueror brushed one thumb across a closed eyelid.
"Answer mine first." The girl captured the hand, holding onto it.
"Id like to ride out a few candle marks before dawn, before most of the city is awake." She fidgeted uneasily, causing the girl to sink further down into her lap. "So ...?"
Gabrielle leaned in and kissed the questioning face softly on the forehead through the wispy black bangs. Her master had been so vulnerable since the messages were received. Almost child-like. "Yes. Partly."
"And ... the other part?" It took her more courage to ask than it had taken for her to lead her army into battle the first time.
The girl studied the wide-open expression, and realized she no longer saw a monster. She said nothing, but instead leaned in again, and softly brushed her masters lips with her own. She sat back, feeling suddenly shy. "I ... should go tell the others whats going on."
"Ill tell them." The Conqueror was grateful for a chance to break the mood. "Stay here with me tonight?"
"Sure." The girl stood up, removing herself from the warm lap, allowing her master to get up. She watched the tall woman leave the room and bit her lower lip, lost in deep thought.
The Conqueror squared her shoulders and tried to shake the emotions that were flooding her senses. I dont think I can pretend shes just my handmaiden anymore. She made her way to the guest chambers and quietly tapped on the solid wooden door. The door opened and Ephiny appeared. "Um ... can I come in?"
The light brown curls shook softly in startlement. "Of course. Its your palace, remember?"
"Yeah." The Conqueror shuffled uncomfortably into the oppressive room and made her way to the table, pulling out a chair and turning it around to straddle it and rest her bare tanned forearms on the back, her black-leather-clad legs encasing the back legs of the chair tightly between her inner calves. "We need to ride out at two candle marks before dawn. The horses ready?"
"Yes Mist ... Xena." Ephiny nodded.
"Okay. Heres the plan. You three Amazons and I will have horses. I trust you know how to ride?" Three headed indicated affirmatively. "Good. Lila, youll ride with Ephiny. Your queen will ride with me. We need to travel light and fast. Well live off the trail on the way."
"What about on the way back?" Eponin knew it was a risky question, but she had to ask.
"If everything goes as I hope it will ... you all ..." She slowly panned the group. "... can decide for yourselves what you want to do after that, whether you want to come back here or ... go somewhere else. If you choose to come back, Ill determine some sort of stipend for you for your continued services, along with upgraded living quarters, and schedules for time off. If you choose to go ..." She knew they all would. "... you ... all have served me well. You will be missed."
The statement sunk in as four pairs of eyes grew wide with giddy hope. "Xena." Lila found her voice. "Where are we going?"
"Amphipolis." She studied the four, and realized that none of them knew she was from there.
"Oh." Lilas eyes sparkled. So close to Potadeia. "Xena. Is Gabrielle going to be coming back here or is she going to get to choose what she wants to do next too?"
"Um ..." The Conqueror suddenly realized that if she was going to free these four women, it would only be fair to free her handmaiden too. The girl was, after all, responsible for the group going with her in the first place. She felt an overwhelming sense of loss at the prospect of the girls departure. "... that will be up to her, I suppose." She rose and made her way to the door before she turned back around. "Ill come wake you when its time to go. Be ready."
Gabrielle slowly drifted awake, as a large hand patted her on the shoulder. She rolled over and looked up into semi-darkness as two silver-hued eyes hovered mere inches from her face. "Xena?" She blinked in confusion. "Is it time to get up?"
"Yes." The older woman leaned in and kissed her on the cheek, and then on the lips. The girl closed her eyes. She had expected her master to want sex the night before, but the woman had simply crawled into bed and folded most of her body around the girl, and held her close as they fell asleep. Xena had slept fitfully, mumbling incoherently as vague dark images floated through her dreams.
"Xena." The girl started to speak, just as the raspy voice of her master also spoke. "Gabrielle."
"You go first." The Conqueror insisted.
"Last night. It was nice." Gabrielle traced her masters collar bone with one finger. "I mean, you just holding onto me. It was very unselfish."
"No." The Conqueror enjoyed the little shivers that her handmaidens touch evoked. "It was very selfish. I ... needed to be close to you. Gabrielle. I dont know whats going to happen, but if all goes well, Ill be giving your Amazons and your sister their freedom when this is all over. I cant very well do that for them and not do it for you too. I ... might not get a chance to say this while were on the road, but for what its worth, I dont think of you as just my servant anymore."
"Oh." The girls finger drifted lower, examining the soft skin on her masters upper breasts. "What do you think of me as?"
"Something more." The woman sat up, ignoring her awakened libido, and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. "I need to send a final message to Draco and then we need to get going."
The weary group started to make camp at a few candle marks before sundown, settling into a well-protected grove of trees several hundred paces off the main road. Lila was gathering firewood, Ephiny was tending to the horses, the Conqueror and Solari had gone hunting, Gabrielle was filling water skins in a nearby stream, and Eponin was cacheting their belongings between two logs, covering the whole pile of tack, saddle bags, and assorted weapons with an oil-treated blanket to shelter from the early spring dew that would cover every exposed thing by morning.
Ephiny was bringing the last of the bags over from the horses, including the fourth in a set of mysterious rather heavy bags that the Conqueror had divided up between the four horses with no explanation as to their content or purpose. "Great Hera!" The woman heaved the burden down next to the other three similar bags. "I thought she wanted to travel light. Whats in these bags anyway?"
"One way to find out." A still-disgruntled Eponin bent down and untied the thick leather binding around the mouth of one of the bags and pulled it open, peering down inside. "Holy mother of Zeus! Eph, comere."
The regent moved around the log next to her friend and gasped. "Gods. How much is in there, anyway?"
"A quarter of a million dinars." A low angry voice answered from behind them. "And if Id wanted you to know what was in there, I would have told you."
The weapons master and the regent both quickly moved away from the bags into more open space. "Look, Xena." Ephiny held up both hands palms out in front of her. "We meant no harm. Just curious. Thats the ransom money, I assume?"
"Yes." The tall woman felt a bit of her anger dissipate, and she tossed a stringer of two rabbits onto a low rock near the fire, while a silent Solari added a third one to the pile. "Lila, if I dress those, can you cook them? I ... its not just because you were my cook. Truth is, I cant cook very well, and I know you can."
"Yes Mis ... Xena." The dark-haired girl retrieved a long knife and handed it to the former warlord, and then moved to prepare several spits for roasting the rabbits on.
Gabrielle returned with the water skins and noticed the tension that had settled over the group in her absence. Not that she hadnt expected it, but it was a bit more pronounced than she had anticipated. "Everything okay here?"
"Yeah. Fine." The Conqueror sat down on a log and removed her leg and chest armor, along with her arm bracers. She made quick work of skinning the rabbits, and then handed them over to Lila. She stretched out her legs, noting the dirt and bits of rabbit blood on the black leather trousers, and moved to the pile of bags to get a tin of saddle soap and a buffing rag before she sat back down. She began to clean her pants legs and looked across the fire where Ephiny and Eponin had cautiously sat down and began to sharpen their swords, even though the weapons had not been used that day.
The three Amazons were attired similarly to the conqueror, all wearing leather pants in various shades and sleeveless leather tops over which they had worn armor and capes against the early spring chill. Lila and Gabrielle were in heavy leggings, knee-high boots, and thick long-sleeved tunics, and had also worn cloaks while they rode. The Conqueror finished up with her cleaning job and tossed the saddle soap and rag at Ephinys feet. "Here. You can use this if you need to."
Large caramel eyes blinked in surprise. "Thanks." The regent retrieved the offerings from the ground and twisted the top off the tin.
"Sorry about earlier." The Conqueror studied her feet. "Carrying that stuff around makes me nervous. I figured the fewer who knew about it, the better."
"Right." Eponin snorted sarcastically. "More like you were afraid one of us would run off with it during the night."
"That too." Xenas voice was low and even as she raised her eyes to meet her challenger. "I want to make one thing very clear. Out here ... the rules are relaxed. Were pretty much equals. But until this mission is over, I still own you. If any of you have any ideas about escaping, with or without part or all of the ransom money, know that I will track you down, and I will find you, and you will receive your freedom at the end of my sword. Understood?"
"Yes Xena." Five voices replied, and the Conqueror reddened in shame when she realized that Gabrielle had taken the words just as much to heart as the others had.
"Um ..." The blue eyes grew repentant. "I wasnt going to tell you this until we rescue the boy, but maybe this is a good time. Those bags. Theres a little more than just the ransom money there. I had planned to give each of you twenty thousand dinars in payment for your services and to help you get on your feet after this is all over."
Eponin turned a half-gagging choking sensation into a cough, and Ephiny quickly slapped her on the back. "Excuse me?" The former weapons master found her voice, albeit a raspy one. "Did you say twenty thousand dinars?"
"Yes. Is there a problem with that?" The face was impassive, hiding the mirth behind it.
"Oh. No. No. Its just thats ... thats ..." Eponin trailed off, at a loss for words.
"Very generous of you." Solari finished for her mute friend.
The Conqueror got up, deciding she might as well get her bedroll ready while they waited for their food. "Its only fair." She fluffed out the thick fur, settling it near the fire on one side. "Youll be needing to find places to live, and maybe buy horses or clothes, or whatever. Its not like youve had a chance to save anything with me. It would be a harsh thing to send you out into the world with nothing."
"Guess so." Eponin muttered, unable to look up.
Dinner was silent, mostly, save for the sounds of forks scraping against tin plates, and the occasional gulp of someone drinking water. When they were all through, Gabrielle collected the dishes and carried them down to the stream to wash. The sun was starting to set, and she was halfway through with her task when the Conqueror approached her. "Gabrielle, I dont suppose you could tell us a story when youre through. Thought it might help break up some of the awkwardness."
The girl looked up and pushed her hair out of her face with a wet hand. "Sure. I can do that. What kind of story would you like?"
"Something funny." The older woman knelt down next to her handmaiden, doodling in the dirt with a twig. "Amazons ... gods. Id swear they had all been sucking on persimmons if I didnt know better."
Gabrielle laughed. "Didnt know you had a sense of humor."
"Yeah." The Conqueror smiled for the first time in several days. "It rears its ugly head every ten summers or so." She was rewarded with another giggle. "Your laugh, Gabrielle. Its like little silver bells. I never noticed that before."
Green eyes grew shy and looked back down at the dishes. "I dont feel like laughing very often anymore."
"Hey. I ... um ... put your bedroll right next to mine. It gets pretty cold out here after the sun goes down. I thought ... if you get cold or anything during the night, you could ... I mean, I dont mind if you ..." Damn. My hearts beating like a teenager with her first crush. She took a deep breath. "Or ... I might get cold. Or something." Or something. She let her thoughts wander along those lines for a few moments.
"Thats okay." Gabrielle spoke without looking back over her shoulder, as she rinsed the last plate off. "I hadnt even thought about that. When we were sent down here from Thessaly, it was still winter. I remember shivering at night. The slave masters, they got the spots near the fire and the rest of us had to sleep on the perimeter. Ephiny, she stayed right next to me and we tried to keep each other warm, but they didnt give us furs to sleep on. We just had some wool blankets. It wasnt enough. Eph and I finally rolled up together inside both our blankets, and between the body heat and the extra layer of wool, we at least managed to not be miserable."
"Oh." The Conqueror felt a stab of what she identified as jealousy. "You and Ephiny, you two seem very close. You werent ever ... I know youre technically still a virgin and all, but was there anything between ...?"
"No. Oh gods no." The girl laughed for the third time that evening. "Ephiny is my best friend. Maybe my only real friend. Once I became an Amazon princess, she decided it was her personal job in life to make sure that nothing happens to me. And then when Melosa was killed ... lets just say Eph has a bit of an overprotective streak in her at times."
"Thats an understatement." The older woman stood and offered the girl an arm up, allowing her fingers to linger on the soft skin of a lower arm a bit longer than necessary. "Here let me carry those." She took the stack of plates and forks and waited while the girl pulled her sleeves down from around her elbows, where shed rolled them to keep them from getting wet.
They made their way back to the fire and the Conqueror pulled out a flask of port. "Gabrielle has agreed to tell us a story ... or two." She winked slightly at the girl. "Youre welcome to share this with me." She sat down on a log near her bedroll and the others found seats around the now-welcome fire, their fronts toasty warm while their backs were decidedly chilled. The girl cleared her throat nervously and launched into a story about Cupids son, baby Bliss, stealing some of his fathers arrows and wrecking havoc upon a village during its spring festival, causing people he shot to fall in love with the first person or beast they laid eyes on. " ... and to this day, theres no accounting for why some people fall in love with each other, and its believed that in those unexplainable cases, baby Bliss has been naughty again."
Blue eyes met green for the briefest moment before finding other things to look at. Gabrielle told three more stories and recited several poems, until the fire had burned down low and the flask was almost empty. One by one, they each moved from the circle to their bedrolls. Ephiny and Eponin had put their bedrolls close together and Solari and Lila had decided that might be prudent, even if they didnt know each other very well. All four women had ended up laying out their furs across the fire from that of the Conqueror and Gabrielle, none of them feeling comfortable enough to sleep too close to the unpredictable woman.
The Conqueror stretched out on her bedroll and lounged on her back, studying the star patterns above the dark leafy tree tops. She removed her boots and laid them near her head, along with her chakram. Her sword was at her back, and it was lost on none of them that at some point, the bags containing the ransom had discreetly made their way under a separate blanket near the former warlords furs.
Gabrielle sat down on a log and took her boots off, staring into the fire and drinking the last few sips of port, since she hadnt gotten to partake of it while she was telling stories. She was reluctant to go to bed, sensing that something had changed between her and her master. She needed time to process her mixed emotions, and she felt very confused. She sighed heavily and rested her chin in her upraised hands, watching tiny sparks as they snapped and floated up from the fire, occasionally banking the coals and stirring them around with a long stick.
A long while passed and soft snoring could be heard coming from the four bedrolls on the other side of the fire. "Hey." A deep voice called low from behind her. "You gonna sit there all night or come over here and keep me warm?"
The girl looked over her shoulder and then back at the fire. She slowly got up, and banked the coals one last time before reluctantly making her way to her bedroll. She bit her lower lip and looked down at her master, who was watching every move she made. Finally, she dropped to her knees on her furs and found herself snared by a long arm that pulled her in close. "Come on. Its already cold. Might as well do whatever we can to keep from losing body heat." The Conqueror grasped Gabrielles bed roll and pulled it over on top of them to provide an extra layer against the chilled damp air.
The girl sank down into the warm nest with her back snugly against her masters stomach, feeling the longer body cocooned around her. She had just started to drift off when she felt a warm hand slip under her tunic and wander up across her stomach, tracing circles across her suddenly-sensitized skin until it began to softly carress her breasts. "Please Xena." Gabrielle rolled partway over and stopped the hand by putting her own firmly over it on the outside of her shirt. "Not out here with all of them right over there."
"Guess I shoulda gotten this out of my system last night." The low voice whispered. "They wont hear. Theyre all asleep. You gotta admit, its a great way to stay warm."
"Xena." The girls voice was a hissing whisper. "No." She gently removed the offending hand from under her shirt. She rolled over on her side until they were facing each other, and in the faint light of the fire and the stars, she realized that her master actually looked like she were ashamed of herself.
Gabrielle move in close and quietly kissed the Conqueror. "Remember me telling you about Perdicus?" She kissed the older woman again.
"Um ... boy you were going to marry?" Both women kept their voices down to a whisper.
"Yes." A few more kisses were exchanged. "We ... were saving ourselves for marriage, but sometimes things got too intense between us, you know what I mean?"
The Conqueror deepened the kisses. "I think I have a pretty good idea." She mumbled against the soft lips.
"Sometimes we would go out to my fathers barn ..." The girl pulled back, until the kisses were once again a light brushing of their lips. "... and wed climb up in the hayloft, and spend a candle mark or so just kissing ..." She allowed her master to increase the contact again and then pulled back some. "... just like we are now. Wed start out soft and slow and let it heat up, but whenever it became too much, wed back off and go back to soft and slow again. It was really sweet, and relieved some of our frustration at the same time."
"Ill just bet." The Conqueror deepened the kisses again, while in the back of her mind she felt very sorry for a boy named Perdicus whom she had never met. Bet he went to bed on many a night and had to relieve a hard-on before he could sleep. She chuckled inwardly.
They continued to exchange the kisses for the better part of a candle mark, sometimes barely allowing their lips to touch and sometimes with deep thrusting of their tongues into each others mouths, swirling, tasting, and softly touching each other. Gabrielle wasnt sure exactly when the hand made its way back under her shirt, or when she began to push her center into a firm thigh muscle that somehow found its way between her still tights-encased legs. She broke off the kiss and stilled her hips, feeling the hand also pause against her overheated breasts. She sighed heavily and pressed her forehead against her masters upper chest, drawing in several deep shaky breaths.
"What the matter, little one?" The voice burred into her ear. "Things not going according to plan?"
"No." The girl kissed the cleavage that was directly in front of her lips, and she felt the body holding her tremble. "I guess with Perdicus, kissing was enough, because I didnt know what I was missing."
"Want me to stop?" A thumb brushed circles across her nipple.
"No. Yes. I dont know." She shuddered as the hand continued to move.
"Trust me." The Conqueror knew it was a bizarre request coming from her lips. "Ill make sure they dont hear anything, okay?"
"O ... kay." The girl felt a knowledgeable hand slide down her body, and somehow her tights and underwear came off even while the hand on her breast continued to work its magic.
The Conqueror splayed her free hand across her handmaidens ass cheeks, pressing the girls now bare center into her thigh, guiding Gabrielle in a slow sensual grind against her leather-clad leg. She ducked her head and continued to kiss the girl, probing deeply with her tongue while she stroked the girls breasts.
Gabrielle felt the leather against her throbbing clit and whimpered softly, pressing even harder against her masters leg. The lips left her mouth and traveled to the skin on the side of her neck, where in between nips and licks, she heard the former warlord whispering erotic guttural obscenities into her ear, which served to increase her desire.
The Conqueror felt the small body begin to shudder, and she increased the pace of her hand on a firm breast, while she began to squeeze the girls ass and pushed her leg more firmly in between the rocking hips. "Its okay, little one. Let go. Its just you and me here." As the girls climax began to shake her, the former warlord found her handmaidens mouth again, kissing her deeply and swallowing up her passionate cries. She continued with soft kisses until she felt the girl relax against her. "See." They kissed again. "Theyre all still asleep."
After a little while, the former warlord helped her handmaiden get her tights and underwear back on, and then pulled the girls back up against her front again. A long arm circled Gabrielles waist and the hand came to rest under one of her breasts.
"Xena. What about you?" The girl suddenly realized that quite possibly, someone had just made love to her for the first time. Pure and unselfish love.
"Ill be fine." Yeah. The pounding in my crotch is down to just a little pulse now. Itll go away. No big deal. She unconsciously pressed her thighs together a little tighter.
"But you didnt ..."
"Shhh." The hand traveled up and rubbed up and down Gabrielles arm before returning to its new home under the warm breast. "I said Ill be okay. If we get a chance before this is all over, you can return the favor. If not, well ..." She trailed off, unable to bring herself to think too long about what would happen after they rescued Solan.
The girl turned in her arms and kissed her one last time before rolling back up against the taller woman.
"Hmmm?" A warm lethargy was settling into the girls sated body.
"That story about baby Bliss. That was just a silly old story, right?" The older woman held her breath.
"Mmmm. I guess it can mean whatever the listener wants it to mean." The girl felt full lips kiss her on the shoulder and then on the back of her neck, as the hand moved up over her breast. It stayed there as they fell into a contented sleep.
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