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You can't buy love (but you can kill it)

Chapter Text

The cold night was filled with desperate screams of warriors fighting in the camp. Corinthian hills lit up in the light of burning tents and supply wagons, illuminating former allays, women and men, now lost in combat. In chaos nobody cared for the fallen ones, stepping on the wounds and broken limbs, crushing bones and skulls under hastily set barricades. The cries of pain and battle screams mixed together, impossible to distinguish in the darkness of night and smoke surrounding the fighters.

In turmoil nobody noticed one more scream of pain coming from a bigger tent near the centre of the camp. The fire and battle didn’t reach it yet.

- You must lie down.

Dark skinned woman to no avail tried to convince the warrior huddled up on a low stool to move to the more comfortable bed placed in the middle of the pavilion. The warlord hissed and pushed her away to stand up with effort. Disturbed with this sudden movement, a warm cloak fallen down to the ground revealing a young woman. Her blue eyes were unfocused with pain, dark brown hair stuck to her forehead with sweat.

- He attacked… I need to lead the battle - protecting her pregnant stomach she took few steps towards the tent entrance, but another contraction send her straight to the ground.

The servant waved at two men standing at the entrance. They quickly lifted their commander and put her in bed. She wasn’t by any means a small woman, in height she almost matched her men, but nonetheless she sunk in between warm furs and expensive blankets stolen from distant lands. She growled, not known whether in pain or in fury, as both men pinned her down.

Another woman run into the pavilion. She was much older than the other two. Oil lamps illuminated her wrinkled face and grey hair fluttering behind her. Pulling up her dress’ sleeves she shouted to the man following her:

- Thio, bring me hot water!

He looked at her for a moment, probably not sure how he was supposed to get the water in the middle of a battle, but after a moment of hesitation he turned away and run off.

The midwife sighed and hurried to the bed to fix the blankets and pillows surrounding the warlord. Between the cries of pain and death threats old woman managed to get the guards to help the brunette out of her armor. Under the influence of her soft and calm voice the warrior finally stopped her attempts at getting up and reluctantly allowed the midwife to gently lie her on the blankets and shift them around as the old woman tried to make her as comfortable as it was possible.

- Are you ready, Satrina? - asked the midwife and moved to the side to let a dark skinned woman pass with a pain relief potion.

The woman in question moved to the bed, but before she was able to give the potion to the warrior her cold, piercing eyes stopped her in her tracks.

- No… - another contraction jerked the young warlord up - He’s coming… You’re not gonna dumb me down.

- But, Xena, it’ll remove the pain of labour - Satrina moved closer in an attempt to make the warrior drink the liquid.

- I said… NO! - the Warrior Princess burst out.

With a wild fury in her eyes she thrust her arm up and buried a dagger in her servants’ chest. The woman yelped in surprise as blood dripped out from her lips. The cup she was holding slipped from her fingers and rolled down the bed, spilling the potion over blankets to finally fall to the ground with a soft thud. Satrina tried to exhale, but she only managed to cough up more of bloody foam, which sprayed around covering Xena’s face and torso with deep red sprinkles. Warlord looked at her servant with disgust and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. With deadly fury in her eyes she pulled the dagger back and let the woman sank to the ground with a gurgling sound of her lungs filling with blood. Xena spat on her body and threw the dagger away.

- Now get this baby out of me!

 

***

 

Brunette warlord was half lying on the bed. It was now pulled right beside the tent’s wall to create more space inside. Beside her stood Dagnine and four guards at the bedside. She was still weak, pillows pushed under her back to help maintain sitting position. Her legs were covered with fur of a white reindeer to keep her from shivering in the cold of an early spring morning. Xena’s face still wore signs of recent pain – covered in sweat, with hair stuck to the forehead. But her eyes, although marked with dark circles underneath, were clear and as penetrating as silver spears. She took a deep breath and supported her weight on left elbow.

- So… it seems your plan failed, Borias - she hissed through her teeth to the man kneeling on the ground a few steps from her - I’ve beaten your silly army, and your new friends didn’t seem too eager to help you.

She looked expectantly at her former ally, now guarded by two men and forced to surrender to her. After a lost battle he was covered in dirt and blood. Deep cut above his eyebrow was still bleeding, almost certainly requiring to be stitched. Finally Borias lifted his head and his one good eye met Xena’s.

- I did it for our son…

- There’s no us! - Xena spat out rising herself to a sit - You betrayed me!

The sudden movement exhausted her and she fell back on the pillows. Old midwife hurried to her from the corner of the tent, but the warlord quickly regained her posture and waved her hand to dismiss the servant. She wouldn’t show weakness in front of her men.

- But do not think I’m not benevolent - Xena continued in a calmer voice - For the sake of old times… You’ll bow to me and accept your defeat. Then you’ll leave, Borias. You’ll gather the rest of your filthy scums and you’ll never attack me again… because if you do I will destroy you.

- Really? - Hungarian warrior once again looked in the eyes of the woman he used to love - And you? Won’t you attack me?

Dagnine stepped forward and hit the defeated warlord on the face sending him to the ground and slitting his lip.

- Don’t you dare talk like that to her! - he yelled.

Borias rose painfully from the ground, faltered, and finally spat the blood and one of his teeth on the fur lying under his knees. He ignored Dagnine, looking right past him and turned to Xena.

- I see you still can’t keep your dogs on a leash - he mocked.

The Warrior Princess gritted her teeth. He was right and they both knew it. She once wanted to make Dagnine the second in command, but his recent actions made her realise that the traits she used to value in him – his recklessness and disrespectful behaviour, made him useless to her after assuming the position of the commander. She wouldn’t make the same mistake as Borias did, when he let her question, and later blatantly ignore, most of his decisions.

- Leave us, Dagnine - she hissed - I’ll deal with you later.

The warrior looked at her with anger, ready to fight her command, but her steel glance made him turn around and leave the tent. He angrily jerked the curtain behind him. Xena sent two guards after him and finally turned back to Borias.

- Suspicious as always… - she smiled ominously - But don’t worry, I’ll make the same promise to you, to never violate your territory. We can go our separate ways. And if you ever want to see my son, you can come. But alone and unarmed.

- Very clever, Xena - Borias chuckled under his breath - But who who’ll guarantee you’re not going to kill me when I come?

- No one, of course - brunette bit on her nail which partially deformed her laughter - But then… If you won’t – you’ll never see the kid again…

Chapter Text

A rarely used forest road writhing between the hills of Chalkidiki looked beautiful in gentle light of a warm spring day. Sunrays shined through the green leaves of the oak trees illuminating flowers of all colours and shapes growing between bushes. Even some birds sang unaffected by the sounds of a group of approaching people – a warrior on a bay horse dragging several teenage girls and young women behind him. At the back of that column marched four other men clad in leather armor. All the women had their hands tied up in front of them and additionally connected to a single rope to prevent them from slacking off or running away. They were exhausted, eyes locked on the ground and breaths heavy, their clothes and bodies dirty from the road dust. It was visible that they marched like that for a long time. Every other moment the weakest girls would trip when their tired legs refused to carry on. But the rope joining them together, same as hard shoves and hits from the guarding men, forced them to keep going.

Two days passed since these women were captured by slave traders and took away from their homes. It was an exchange for depletion in contribution to the local warlord. Of course their families and neighbours didn’t sell them willingly, but the pleads to give the village some time to gather the whole demanded sum was met with the warriors raiding all the houses and taking girls and young women to sell into slavery.

 

- Gabrielle! Oh gods, you must hide! - a terrified woman grabbed a blonde teenager and pulled her behind a small barn - What were you doing standing there?

The girl stumbled, a small bucket she was holding fell from her hands and rolled down the road as the girl followed her companion. Both women crouched in the high grass. It wasn’t a great hiding place - their colorful clothes would quickly give them away if somebody walked towards them, but it was safer than standing in the open field.

- What if the traders saw you? - continued the older woman stroking girl’s cheek.

- I don’t think they did…

- What were you doing here anyway? You know it’s the tribute day, you should be back at your father’s farm.

- Lila forgot father’s remedy at Myron’s. She wanted to come and get it back before the traders come and take everything… I told her I’d go, because I run faster than her. I guess I wasn’t fast enough.

The older woman squeezed her companion’s hand in reassuring motion and looked around the barn to watch the scene happening on the main square.

The elders of the village - three scared, grey-bearded men, stood in front of a group of warriors who’s well-worn but solid armor witnessed many battles and the deep blue scarfs attached to their shoulders indicated their affiliations with local warlord’s forces. No other people were in sight, all of them hidden in their homes at the news of warriors coming. The man standing in the centre was shorter than the others, but the scars covering his face as well as his shaved head suggested he fought many battles and endured a lot. He was the one talking with the elders, as the leader of the group.

Women hidden in the grass heard his hoarse laugh.

- You can’t be serious… Draco doesn’t care your yields were small. You pay, or he comes and we wipe the village out!

- Please… We just need few more days until our men come back from the sea - begged a wrinkled old man.

- We promise, we’ll pay - added another of elders earnestly nodding his head.

Warriors burst out screeching in laughter. Some of them deliberately put their hands on their weapons to further scare and threaten the men standing in front of them. The bald leader folded his arms in his chest and looked around.

- Fine, we’ll give you ten more days… - he said. Village men sighed with relief - But we’ll take some girls for our trouble.

- No! We beg you, good men! Have mercy - the elders cried one over another.

But they quickly found themselves with knifes at their throats, so their pleads died down. The traders ignored them and run between the houses searching for their prey. Scarred villagers weren’t a match for them. A kick to the abdomen, or a punch to the face was enough to stop the few desperate fighters. And a knife put to the neck of a kid was enough to stop even the bravest men from resisting. Gabrielle looked terrified at captured girls dragged by hair to the main square. Their screams and cries of their families were turning her stomach. The only thing keeping her from complete panic was knowledge, that at least her younger sister was safe back at the farm. Suddenly somebody pulled her by the hair and forced her to her feet. She screamed, as pain and fear took over her body. Hot breath stinking of rotten beer hit her in the face.

- Well… Aren’t ya a pretty one?

 

Now, after two days spend on the road the blonde was no longer terrified. Only tired and hungry. She tried to focus only on staying alive and helping the other girls. All other thoughts had to be shut off – those brutal, disgusting men with stinky breaths who groped them at every layover, her wrists scraped by the tightly pulled rope and blistered feet, even her village and family she probably would never see again. It was all too painful and would only serve to break her, and she couldn’t let that happen. Especially, since they already got exceptionally lucky, as the men never tried anything more than rough groping, scared to damage the goods in case some of the girls were virgins.

- Finally! - cheered the bald trader riding in the front.

The other men also visibly rejoiced, even if the girls didn’t notice any change in the surroundings. Their scared eyes searched the woods trying to discover what would be such a great news for their captors. And soon they saw it - another tree warriors jumped on the road, the closest one of them was waving and yelling greetings to the approaching group.

- Cyrus! I see you’ve got some nice cargo.

- Just an installment - said the trader pulling the rope and making the women stumble.

- Then you will have another one - continued the newly arrived - We got that little rat while he was spying on us. You can get him to Draco.

Two warriors who accompanied him came forward. One of them was pulling a little boy by a fistful of his long hair. He pushed the kid towards the rest of captured slaves and tied him with them. The boy was young, couldn’t be older than twelve. Tear marks traded his face, but blue eyes followed his captors with pride. His bare arms were covered in cuts and bruises, similar to his face. Gabrielle gently touched his hand trying to send some positive feelings towards the brave boy. He looked at her hesitantly and nodded his head in some reminiscence of a greeting or gratefulness.

- Now move, scums! Soon we’ll be in the camp.

Cyrus led the group off the road to a hidden path leading up the hill. It was steep, but not as much to make it impossible for the horse to climb. Walking uphill with hands tied was difficult, but hope for some rest and maybe even food, made the prisoners double their efforts. Warriors following behind them didn’t have to encourage them too much to keep from slouching off.

After finally walking to the top of the hill the group reached the hiding base of the warlord Draco – a camp built between loosely scattered trees. Their appearance caused a small stir on the campground. A few men in various levels of drunkenness and armed state run towards the newcomers laughing and greeting long not seen friends, accompanying them to the camp. They led them between the trees to the group of drunk warriors sitting on the laid out furs. Cyrus looked around clearly searching for someone.

- Where’s Draco? - he asked.

- He went for a ride yesterday night - slurred one of the men.

Half of his head was shaved, the remaining hair put in high ponytail. He stood up clumsily and chugged from the goatskin.

- Nobody seen him since, so we decided to have a little party… - he gestured around to the troops surrounding him.

They cheered loudly in response, rising their cups and other containers they were drinking from.

- I almost forgot! - he gasped in mockery and moved towards the slaves - I’m Hector… welcome in your new home, little ones!

He stroked one of the girls’ cheek making her shiver in fear and disgust. But before he managed to do anything else, he abruptly doubled over and vomited on the ground, some of the slimy muck falling on the girl’s feet. She shrieked and jumped away as all the traders burst into laughter. Hector of course, laughed the loudest. He moved to grab more drinks and nodding at the rest to join him. Warriors gladly gathered around several pots filled with ale and, judging by smell, a mix of posca and wine.

Nobody seemed to care for captured slaves, so the girls just stood there looking around, unsure what else to do. They were surrounded by a few dozens of tents and wagons. Some of them separated by fences or bushes of young trees. Between tents life went on. Several warriors were taking care of their weapons, but most of the residents were drinking or simply sleeping with their armor shattered on the ground. Three men were wrestling with each other in the center of the camp; a few dirty, skinny kids were cheering for them enthusiastically. Gabrielle didn’t know if it was some kind of a training, or maybe just a drunken fight. Next to them some women with unkempt hair were cooking dinner. Almost every person in the camp had blue piece of clothing on them, troops additionally attached blue scarfs to various pieces of their armor; some of the drunkest ones tied the scarfs around their heads. Between all that walked several goats feeding peacefully on the leafs, even a few chickens gathered around one of field kitchens. In the distance a good deal of horses was walking through the glade. In general, if not for the drunk state of everyone, almost everything looked like a small village, except here they had tents instead of houses. And weapons instead of farm tools.

Suddenly Gabrielle felt a strong thug as one of the warriors threw his goatskin to his companion and led the slaves into the lockout. He pushed them inside and left them under the guard of two teenagers.

- Great… - a hoarse voice came from a corner of the makeshift prison - Even more cargo…

Gabrielle quickly turned around to discover a young man sitting under the tree around which the prison was build. His hands were tied above his head. He was also unshaven and stinking of piss, probably stuck in the lockout for umpteenth day.

- Don’t listen to him! - on the opposite site three girls in somewhat expensive clothes were cuddling together in fear - He’s one of them… He wants to join them.

The man rolled his eyes and turned again to new slaves.

- Well, those three are too scared of me even when my arms are tied. Apparently I’m gonna strangle them with my mustache… So please, girls, make yourself useful and give me some of that water - he pointed with his chin to a bucket standing a few feet away from him.

But as soon as the newcomers heard about water, they ignored him completely and all threw themselves to the bucket desperate to soothe their thirst. The water was stale and dirty, but nobody cared about that after such a long walk. Finally they also gave some to the tied man, but not before he yelled at them urgently.

Then, since no one paid attention to the prisoners, they lied on the ground to rest. Like on every layout some of the girls talked with each other – some moved closer to the three rich ladies asking them about what they knew, while the others simply closed their eyes and tried to sleep. Gabrielle found herself beside that boy who joined the group right outside of the camp. He was hugging his knees with his arms while sobbing quietly.

- I’m Gabrielle - she stated while stretching her tired legs - You?

- Dareios…

- Don’t worry, we’re gonna be alright. They don’t treat us very badly.

She tried to be reassuring, but realized a bit too late how stupid her words sounded in the context of boy’s beaten face and scratched arms. He wiped his nose into his sleeve and shook his head.

- Those monsters wiped out my whole village… Said we were hiding some traitors, so she ordered everyone killed if we don’t give them out - tears flood from his eyes as another sob shook his shoulders - But we didn’t hid anyone, so... She killed everyone. And this bastard governor is too scared to go after her…

Gabrielle didn’t have to ask who was responsible for his tragedy. There was only one woman in Greece who was able to slay a whole village and not be pursued by all available military forces – Xena the Warrior Princess. She controlled Macedonia by blackmailing the governor, some people talked she even forced him to make one of her generals a questor.

- I’m so sorry… - blonde didn’t know what to say so she just gently stroked his hair.

- I’ll kill her - said Dareios with passion.

He was clenching his fists so hard that his knuckles turned white. He pulled away from Gabrielle’s arms and curled on the ground. She sighed, but seeing his misery decided to just sit with him in silence and let him grieve in peace.

Leaning back Gabrielle realized that even being as tired as she was, she couldn’t sleep. Her empty stomach and stressed mind wouldn’t let her fall asleep, so she just leaned against the fence and watched the camp. She was telling herself she was looking for a way to escape, even if deep down she knew it was impossible. They were tied up, locked in a solid cage and surrounded by too many people. But she refused to give up hope, so she kept looking.

After a moment, she noticed that the tents further away to her left looked different than those right next to the lockout. There was five of them, all positioned behind a wide passing which separated them from the other tents. A bit smaller than the rest, but build from a better looking, less damaged, and probably more expensive fabric - they looked all the grater. A single scarlet vexillum with a burned out hole in the middle was set between them. Few men were sauntering around, most likely keeping watch. Their armor was dark with sparring decorations shining in the sun.

A tug on the rope joining all the slaves turned her attention back towards her fellow prisoners. Two girls from her village tried to get the guards to talk, or bring them some food, but it wasn’t working out, they only managed to get a few insults out of them. On the other hand Dareios apparently felt better. He was crouching next to the tied man, washing his face and talking in hushed tone. Gabrielle heard something about an older brother and a trip to the market place. Glad he wasn’t crying anymore she tilted her head back to relieve aching shoulders and closed her eyes.

She didn’t notice when she nodded off, but the abrupt laugh of the guards jolted her awake. She looked around, it seemed like a few hours passed since noon, but the sun was still high on the sky. The guards kept ignoring the prisoners, busy playing dudo.

Seeing she’s awake, one of the rich girls moved closer to Gabrielle and fearfully whispered:

- Those savages are going to kill us… He told us - she pointed towards the tied man who was napping with his legs outstretched in front of him.

Blonde looked at him and then back to the girl.

- He was trying to scare you… They wouldn’t drag us such a way over here just to kill us - she patted girl’s arm - They’re gonna sell us.

- As slaves? - stuttered the girl close to panicking.

Gabrielle smiled reassuringly and hugged her.

- Yes, but don’t worry. Lots of people are slaves, I’m sure it’s not that bad - she was repeating the same thing she told every night to the girls from her village - Did you hear about Rhianus? He was a slave but also a great poet… How about I tell you one of his stories to keep you from thinking about all that, alright?

The girl nodded and Gabrielle started reciting the story she learned from a wandering bard who visited her village last summer. The poem was about the beginning of the Trojan war – how prince Paris fell in love with fair Helen. And even though Gabrielle forgot some of the verses and had to improvise she was a good storyteller. Quickly all the prisoners were gathered around her and even the guards stopped their game to listen to her. She was about to tell about a duel between Menelaus and Paris when suddenly a loud yell made her stop midsentence.

The guards looked around in concern. Others in the camp also were alarmed, frantically getting up and out of the tents. In drunken haze they had problems with gathering and fixing their armor, running around in panic. All the prisoners rushed up to their feet, as the sound of approaching riders became clear and rapid. A glimmer of hope filled their hearts as a few moments later a beautiful palomino horse jumped out from between the trees and raced around the camp followed by several other riders. But all hopes for a rescue died when the warriors in the camp started cheering , some of them still holding mugs of ale in their hands. The riders circled between the trees, as one of them turned away and rushed to the camp. His furious eyes struck out against his dark skin as he passed between the tents, hitting everyone he could reach with his short whip.

- Move! To the square, you useless scums! - he turned his horse around - Hector, what’s going on in here?!

The man in question said nothing. Just kept fixing his armor, his sleazy eyes on the ground.

- I’ll take care of you later… - hissed the rider - Now, move! Don’t make her wait!

He raced to the other riders who stopped at the side of the clearance.

Few frantic moments later Draco’s troops finally fixed all their armaments and gathered on the square. The dark skinned man made his horse turn in place and stop in front of the warriors, other riders just a few steps behind him. He yelled something. Gabrielle couldn’t make out all the words, but she gathered it was about array and orders. Then the palomino rider came forward. It was a woman. She held her head high as she rode in front of the warriors, her dark hair flowing behind her.

- I didn’t know Draco was a woman… - said small brunette girl. Like the other prisoners she also clung to the fence to have a better view.

- ‘cause that’s no Draco! - laughed one of the guards, his full of worship eyes were still following brunette leader - That’s Xena, Warrior Princess… Draco is that black devil who rode in here.

In that moment Xena raised her sword and the troops starter chanting her name. Then she turned around and rode back to the camp, Draco right behind her. Drunk warriors were still chanting, following in a chaotic group behind their leaders. Soon the Warrior Princess evaded the tents and reached the lock out. Only then could Gabrielle truly see the infamous warlord feared by all of Greece. Perhaps she could be beautiful – blue eyes and royal face with high cheekbones, surrounded by long, dark brown hair falling back over her shoulders definitely had their admirers. Even her strong, man-like jawline and deeply tanned skin could sometimes work in her favour. But scrunched in disgust, wry face and hatred in her eyes made her look like a harpy.

Xena made her horse come closer to the prison, scanning the faces of all slaves with her steel eyes.

- That’s all you’ve got? - she sounded disappointed and threatening at once.

Draco turned to those of his troops who already came back to the camp and waved at Cyrus to come forward. Bald man gulped, but obediently moved closer and bowed his head before Draco and Xena. But before anyone could say a word, Dareios, in one rapid move, grabbed one of the guards, disarmed him and put the stolen knife to his scrotum.

- Now get me out of here, or I’ll cut your pathetic excuse of a dick - the boy hissed through his teeth.

Everyone, except Xena, gasped in shock at the turn of events. Cyrus and some warriors made an attempt to attack the boy, but the warlord’s raised hand stopped them in place. Dareios increased the pressure on the guard’s flesh, making him scowl weakly.

Gabrielle finally recovered from the shock and ran to the boy to grab his arm.

- What are you doing, Dareios? How did you get rid of the rope? - she tried to pull him away from the guard - I’m so sorry for him, he’s just tired, he doesn’t know what he’s doing…

Xena looked at the pair for a moment and started laughing. She looked like mad, swinging slightly in her saddle and clapping her hands. The blonde didn’t know what else to do, so she also smiled hesitantly following the warlord’s lead and hoping it’s some kind of a joke she just doesn’t understand.

- That’s right - brunette warlord laughed hoarsely - Get him here…

Two men quickly run forward, unlocked the prison, pushed Gabrielle aside and led Dareios to Xena. One of them held the boy’s hands behind his back while the other kept his sword ready at all time.

- So… Solan, what good news you have for me? - Xena smiled and leaned forward in the saddle. She waved at warriors to let the boy go.

He shook their hands off him, straightened up and started talking.

- First, he has no intentions of joining us - he pointed carelessly to the man tied to the tree - He’s here because of revenge… Wants to kill Draco and you too, probably. And those rich girls aren’t just some merchant daughters. The one in the middle is a daughter of legatus Hesperus of Acanthos. We can get much more than a simple ransom out of her. The rest is harmless - he finished and put the knife behind his belt.

- Dareios..? - gasped Gabrielle, but nobody paid attention to her.

Xena smiled proudly and reached a hand to the boy to pull him on the saddle in front of her. She messed his hair and clucked at the horse to take off. Solan turned to her and whispered something into her ear. Warlord nodded and turned to the guards.

- And yes, get that blonde girl to my tent…

Chapter Text

Xena stormed into her tent; strings of gold beads attached to her belt clanged with every step. She pushed the curtain separating the space intended for storing her saddle, which served also as a place where her servant slept, from the area further inside where her bed and personal equipment was located. Since the sunlight barely got in there the inside of the tent was illuminated with a single oil lamp attached to the pole supporting the roof. A dark skinned man with a tuft of black hair on his head followed a few steps behind her.

- Care to fucking explain, Draco? - she asked - You still owe me money, yet your people come with some useless girls instead of tribute. And I guess I should thank the gods that they didn’t fuck them to death while we were gone? Because it certainly wasn’t for their respect for your orders! And on top of that they’re all fucking wasted!

- Not wasted, just a bit drunk - pointed Draco.

- A-a-a! - Xena jabbed his chest with a finger - I talk, you listen.

The man gritted his teeth, but he knew better than to argue with his commander. Especially since she was already infuriated. He folded his arms in his chest and leaned forward, further hunching his shoulders. The low roofing kept them both from standing straight.

- They’re not warriors! It’s a bunch of drunk idiots - Xena started pacing around the tent as she continued her rant - Yeah, they cheer pretty well, but that’s about that. They’re useless… I won’t lead these fucking morons to Rome! Your camp guards can’t even spot a fucking ten year old sneaking up on them!

- They caught him - Draco rolled his eyes.

- Because he let them - brunette hissed through her teeth as she grabbed the man by his shirt - You have till nightfall to prove you can provide me with people I could use. Otherwise I’ll take care of that myself and your sorry ass won’t survive that!

She snarled and pushed the man out of the tent.

- And I’m taking the girls on the account of your debt! - she shouted after him.

Turning back she unclasped her sword belt and let her weapons fall to the ground. Young servant woman with short, wavy hair came in with a jug of posca.

- Something to freshen up after the ride, domina?

The warlord pulled the pot from her hands and chugged generously, while the slave rushed to put abandoned weapons on the rack and tidied up furs and blankets covering a low bed. Only Xena, as the commander, had a pallet in her tent. Other warriors had to lay their beddings directly on the ground.

- I let myself point Solan to the stream. The water is cold, but he desperately needed a wash - the servant spoke up again.

Xena wiped her mouth and gustily put the empty jug on a makeshift table. The rapid, loud thud made the servant flinch.

- Yeah, I saw him, Philippa - the Warrior Princess chuckled and waved the woman away - Get me some wine!

The slave nodded and quickly left the tent, grabbing the pot on her way out.

Xena sighed and threw herself on the pallet. She considered her options – Draco’s troops at this state were basically useless, barely fit for simple road plunder. Definitely not efficient warriors she’d need for her revenge on Caesar. She regretted that she let Draco fuck her on his last visit in Stobi. Now he got the wrong idea, slacked off, and was spending more time trying to get back into her bed than taking care of his people. But killing him, overthrowing his whole hierarchy, and training the troops herself would be too time consuming. Besides, after quelling the possible rebellion she would be left with less than half of his warriors and without any leaders suitable for them. So yes, she gave Draco an ultimatum and hoped he would succeed. But not as much for his sake as for hers.

Finally Philippa came back with the requested wine. Xena took the wineskin and dismissed the servant with a wave of hand. She drunk barely a few sips, when yet again the curtain behind her moved slightly. Clearly somebody sneaked into her tent and tried very hard to do it unnoticed. Xena set the wineskin aside, but otherwise she didn’t move. Pretending she was still lost in thoughts she waited for the turn of events. Few moments later a small hand with a knife was stopped not even an inch away from her neck. Warlord nonchalantly disarmed the boy and threw the knife on the ground.

- You’re still too slow, Solan - she grinned as the boy pouted and climbed on top of her - And you huff too much, like an old drunk.

After a thorough wash and in his usual clothes Solan looked way better. His left eye already started to blacken, but after cleaning his face of the tear marks he lost the pitiful appearance which allowed him to fool everyone into believing he was just another victim of the Warrior Princess. Xena playfully grabbed his waist and tickled his sides. Solan shrieked and immediately went for her hair. He pulled hard, but the warlord predicted his move and headbutted him in the chest, successfully toppling him on the bed. She quickly immobilized the boy, locking him under her legs.

- What now? You give up? - Xena grinned triumphantly.

- But I almost got you this time. I was this close! - the boy’s fingers almost touched as he showed how little distance was left between his weapon and the warlord’s neck.

- Because I let you - she laughed, unmoved by his attempts at getting away from her grip.

- Fine! Now let me go… - pleaded Solan while pulling on her foot. To no avail, of course.

The Warrior Princess stroked her chin and mockingly pretended to consider the request.

- Nope… You attacked your commander, that’s unforgivable crime. You shall be punished!

She had some problems with keeping her face serious as she threw her arms up with her fingers bent like claws and teeth bared, ready to throw herself at the squeaking boy. But the fabric at the tent entrance flapped as one of the warriors came in, stopping Xena in the middle of a move.

- Xena? - the guard smirked and awkwardly scratched his neck - We got that girl you asked for.

Brunette cleared her throat and lifted her legs off the boy. She leaned on a rolled blanket and retrieved the knife from the ground; she lazily started picking dirt from beneath her nails.

- Get her in.

The guard reached behind him and pulled in a short, blonde girl. She looked scared, but the fear didn’t stop her from throwing her guard a proud look. Xena smirked, grazed wrists and young face paired with a dirty, blue tunic hung from her shoulders gave the girl an appearance of a lewd innocence.

- I want to hear the rest of the story - announced Solan.

Blonde looked at him, her mouth moving soundlessly in shock, eyes taking the small figure of the boy sitting in front of her. She would probably be less surprised if not for the Warrior Princess stretched out on the pallet, letting the boy lean against her curled leg.

- Dareios? What are you doing here? - she stuttered finally - And with her? I don’t understand… Didn’t you want to kill her to avenge your village?

- Oh… stop being so gullible, one sob story is easy enough to make up - Solan straightened his back and folded arms in his chest - You didn’t think a lone boy would really sneak on the warlord’s camp, did you? Xena sent me to check that guy who said he wanted to join Draco. I’m her trainee.

Brunette warrior smirked proudly at her boy. His condescending voice was a childish imitation of the tone she used while dealing with all-too-smart politicians, who underestimated her by thinking she was just another not-so-bright warlord they could use to their cause.

- Trainee? - outraged blonde turned to Xena - He’s just a child! You train kids?!

The warlord looked at the girl, surprised by her outburst.

- Gotta start them early - she shrugged.

- And my name is Solan! - added the boy to focus the attention back on himself - Now tell me the rest of your story.

- Um… story? - the girl had some problems following.

- The duel between Paris and Menelaus. You didn’t finish in the lockout.

- Oh… - blonde looked around the tent and smiled awkwardly - Could I sit?

Xena moved her attention from her nails and nodded at the guard, he immediately pushed the girl to the ground. The warlord moved her eyes to the prisoner and lifted her brew in a silent challenge. Blonde blinked and looked down.

- Well… that’s fine, I guess - she mumbled while getting more comfortable.

- Go on! - said Solan urgently.

Xena heard enough duel stories in her life to be no longer interested in some poetry of questionable quality. She dismissed the guard and moved a map to her side. Keeping busy with planning seemed like a better idea. But to her surprise the girl was really good. Clever metaphors and vivid gestures kept Solan focused and even she found herself somewhat engrossed by the girl’s pleasant voice.

The warlord smiled when she heard clamor and screams from the camp – clearly Draco started fixing his mistakes. Blonde slave winced and looked around in fear.

- What’s happening? - she asked as Solan rushed to his feet.

- Draco’s trashing his idiots - the boy was basically bouncing on his feet, a huge grin on his face - Can I go watch? Please?

He looked pleadingly at Xena. She considered for a moment and nodded.

- But… - she grabbed his arm to stop him from running off too quickly - When they start training, you train too. I’ll come and check on you.

Solan grinned and, ignoring her stern look, threw his arms around her neck.

- Thank you!

- That’s enough! Get off me! - Xena scowled and shooed him away.

The boy’s only reaction was a giggle as he run away. At the entrance he neatly dodged away from another guard, a girl with long, ginger braids, who was walking in. She bowed slightly before stepping closer to her commander.

- Two of Marcus’ men are here - she reported quietly.

Xena looked at her surprised as the girl continued.

- They say they have a message…

- Well… In that case get them in.

The redhead disappeared behind a curtain, only to be replaced by two warriors. That fact was obvious despite their simple travel tunics and no visible weapons. But their profession could be seen in the way they moved and in their calloused hands. And, of course they were both well known to Xena.

- Nica? Thamis? What are you doing here? - she looked between the two men, greeting them with a handshake.

Thamis was short and incredibly skinny, with Persian descent. Nica also wasn’t very tall, but he would look average if not for an ugly burn scar covering most of the left side of his face. They were both covered in road dirt, tired and sweaty.

- We bring a message - Thamis held out a scroll.

- So I’ve heard. But usually that’s a job for new recruits, not Marcus’ best men - the warlord laughed as she snatched it from his hand.

- He said it’s a job for the quickest riders… - explained Nica - We rode all night and day.

In an instant Xena’s face became serious. It had to be something important if they came in such hurry. She broken the seal, revealing two pieces of parchment. First one was a note from Marcus, explaining that he already read the massage and that’s why she’d find it opened. The second letter still had remains of a Roman seal on it. Brunette unfolded it quickly.

Of course the damn thing was written in Latin. She hated the language almost as much as she hated the Romans; their pompous words and strange letters. That’s why, even though she was able to speak Latin just fine, writing and reading was still causing difficulties for her. Finally, letter after letter, she decoded the message. In short words her spy informed that Caesar defeated Pompey’s sons at Munda. Which meant his campaign in Spain wouldn’t last much longer and, considering the delay in the delivery of the letter, the war could be already won by the time Xena got the information. She didn’t care much for Pompey, he was just another Roman. Only for a time they had a common enemy, so she helped him when he fled to Epirus. But he was too stupid and proud to listen to her. That’s why he, being no match for Caesar, paid with his life for his mistake. And now his sons joined him.

She frowned in silent anger. According to the previous notices, Caesar was supposed to fight in Spain for at least another year. Now, with Pompey’s army defeated, he’d crush the remaining opponents in a matter of weeks. Which meant he’d be back in Rome at the beginning of autumn, yet again triumphant. It was unfortunate – she had much less time than she thought to turn his good fortune against him.

Xena crumpled the scroll in her fist, fire in her eyes. She took a deep breath and let the anger take over her body as she yelled in fury, blindly throwing the knife to the side of the tent. A fearful yelp escaped the slave’s lips, as the blade flew right next to her head, cutting a strand of her hair. Brunette warlord looked at the girl in surprise. She completely forgot that the young slave was still sitting by the wall. Marcus’ men also noticed the girl. They nudged each other and sneered, loathsome smiles on their faces.

- Nice wench you have there - said Nica.

Xena turned to them, studying their faces. They became unsettled under her intense stare – scared she’d punish them for speaking out of turn. But she just laughed and threw the wineskin at them, inviting them to share.

- I know, right? - she beamed as the wine circled between them - Draco got her for me.

She drank a few more gulps from, now almost empty, wineskin. Strong, unmixed drink pleasantly warmed her stomach. She grinned; she got an idea how to relieve her mind of thinking about Caesar.

- Take off your clothes - she ordered the slave.

Both men whistled and nudged each other, ready for the show. But the girl made no move to carry out Xena’s order. Instead she wrapped her arms protectively around her body, eyes wide in shock. She looked around, as if not sure she was the one spoken to. Her eyes drifted to the curtain at the entrance, probably looking for some help, sign from the gods, or a way to escape.

- Are you deaf? - Xena rose from the bed and angrily grabbed blonde’s face - I told you to lose your clothes.

She painfully squeezed the girl’s cheeks and watched as her eyes turned from confusion to fear and anger. The girl was fierce – she would have fun watching her break.

- Let’s set something straight - Xena hissed as she forced the girl to her feet - I own you, so you better listen to me. You don’t wanna loose some vital body parts, do you?

Blonde shook her head in fear, but Xena wanted to further prove her point. With a backhand slap she spun the girl around. Not giving her time to recover from the punch brunette yanked her up by the hair. With one tug she unfastened the girl’s skirt and let it fall to the ground.

- Please no… - pleaded the blonde.

She tried to and wrestle away, but the steel grip of the Warrior Princess was too strong for her. Xena ignored her efforts, busy undoing the girl’s short tunic.

- Why are you doing this? - the slave whimpered again.

- Because I fucking can! - the words came out of Xena’s mouth in a growl.

She forcibly yanked on the tunic, almost tearing it in the process, and threw it away, leaving the girl only in her sandals. The warlord taxed the girl’s naked form: small breasts and narrow hips – a body of a girl barely out of her childhood. She rolled her eyes at the slave’s attempt to cover the triangle of dark blonde hair between her legs. Both men basically howled at the sight of naked body, but knowing Xena’s temperament they waited for a clear invitation to join the fun. Blonde looked at them in fear and doubled her efforts to pull away and free her hair from the hand tangled in them, but the only thing she accomplished was hurting herself. Tears of anger and pain fled from her eyes.
Xena smirked ominously and pushed the girl towards the men.

- What are you waiting for? - she asked.

She didn’t have to say anything else – both men gladly grabbed the girl who shrieked in fear and disgust.

- No! Please… I beg you! - she cried, desperately trying to get away.

She kicked, screamed and even tried to bite the men holding her, but she was no match for two trained fighters. Xena grinned and stared in fascination as they forced the girl to the ground. The shorter warrior pulled her legs apart and the slave growled in pain when something snapped in her hip. In an instant Thamis was between her thighs; pants pulled down, his erect cock sticking out. She yelled when he rammed himself into her, impact pushing the air out her lungs. But she didn’t give up, she was still trying to fight – kicking and scratching anything she could come at. By some miracle her nails reached Thamis’ face leaving two bloody cuts behind. He hissed and slapped her across the face. Her head snapped to the side, cheek turning red.

- Zeus cock, Thamis! - Xena was getting impatient - Get at it and just fuck her!

Ugly grin came onto Thamis’ face as Nica grabbed the slave’s wrists and held her down. He thrusted his dick into girl’s cunt with such force she cried and shuddered. She looked so small between the two men – arms outstretched and held at an odd angles, petite breast bouncing slightly with the trusts and face turned as far away as she could from the smelly men. She stopped fighting, realizing they were too strong, their grip too firm for her to flee. By the time Thamis came in her, she was only staring at the tent wall in rage and anger.

He rolled off the girl making Xena laugh when she noticed the blood smears all over his cock.

- Fucking virgin… Lucky shit! - Nica punched his friend’s shoulder.

- I’ve got an idea - Xena’s eyes lit up. She nodded at the scarred man - You take her ass. It’s gonna be fun.

Encouraged by the commander Nica grinned and turned to the slave. She frantically tried to crawl away, but he leapt after her and dragged her back by her ankle. Throwing himself on top of the screaming girl, he pressed her down with his whole body.

- Lay still, you cunt! - he hissed as he slammed her head into the dirt.

Blonde stilled for a moment, pain and the weight of the man on top of her clouded her mind. Nica used the moment to wet her ass with a bit of saliva and force his cock right in. Girl’s shriek of pain mixed with the laughter of three warriors as tears flood from her eyes. Her nails dig into the ground, teeth clenched, in attempt to somehow bear the pain. The warrior moved his hips and blonde’s screams and cries turned into a howl, just to die out to pathetic whimpers as her voice grew hoarse.

Finally Nica came with a low grunt of pleasure. He sat up and reached for the wineskin, leaving the girl on the ground. Too hurt and tired to get up she just lied there, sobbing silently, face covered in dirt mixed with tears.

- Come here… - the Warrior Princess grabbed the blonde by a fistful of hair and dragged her across the tent.

She pulled down her pants and sat on the bed, spreading her legs. She laughed when Thamis squealed with delight. The girl was too weak to fight, she only lifted her head looking up to the warlord in a silent plead for mercy. She was still sobbing, tears tickling down her chin. Xena rolled her eyes and pulled girl’s hair pushing her face into the dark bush between her legs. Slave’s face turned in disgust – after several days in the field, without a proper bath, the warlord certainly didn’t smell and taste her best.

- You didn’t think you could get away with only pleasing the boys, did you? - she hissed as she forcefully rocked her hips against blonde’s mouth.

The girl was positively pathetic at the job required, mostly just drooling everywhere. But Xena wasn’t thinking about sexual gratification. If she did, she’d have called for Philippa, or anyone else – maybe the ever-willing Draco. Or she would’ve simply stayed in Stobi with Marcus.

- Come on, give me some tongue - she laughed and pressed harder on the girl’s head.

She probably pushed too hard, because in response the blonde desperately tried to wrestle away. But her attempts were weak, hands scratching at Xena’s thighs didn’t do much damage. Brunette waited till slave’s face started turning purple and only then she pushed her away, letting the girl take a few desperate gasps of air. She kicked the blonde away and got up fastening her pants.

- Now get out of here... You can take her, have all the fun you want - she growled before stepping over the girl and leaving the tent.

Outside most of her troops gathered in the middle of the circle formed by the tents. They were roasting some meat and bluffly wooing two women from Draco’s camp who joined them around the fire. Cups with posca were passed around as they waited for food. Falca – leader of Xena’s Guard, noticed the appearance of the commander, she raised her cup in a silent invitation, but the Warrior Princes shook her head and pointed her thumb in a vague direction of the clearing beside the camp, indicating she’s going to check on Draco and his men.

Behind her back Nica and Thamis caused a stir in the camp as they dragged the girl to one of the tents. Accompanied by laughs and whistles several of her men followed after them.

Annoyed by the fuss Xena rushed away from there. She smiled to herself when she saw the effects of Draco’s new orders. On the edge of his camp a fence was build; over twenty men tied up to it. Their backs bared, bloodied and torn by whips. Some of them were still groaning and weakly wailing in pain. But a real masterpiece was happening above them, where two other men were stripped naked and tied to tree branches. In first of them Xena recognized the guy who’s treason was discovered by Solan, the other one was Hector. They were suspended by their outstretched arms, one hand on the each side of the tree; a quicker version of crucifixion. Of course not quicker in killing the wrongdoers, just in the set-up. These two were also severely whipped. Whip cuts and some stab wounds marking not only their backs, but their whole bodies. Both men were constantly wailing and wheezing, their faces gnarled in pain, bloodshot eyes filled with hatred. No wonder – they had to lift their bodies on their dislocated arms whenever they had to take a breath.

- You fucking… piss dripping cunt… - rasped Hector when he saw her.

Xena almost laughed at the idiotic insult, but managed to look at him unamused. A dagger, so far safely hidden in her boot, flew through air and inhuman, anguish scream wafted around as the blade pierced his wrinkled dick. The Warrior Princess struck it vertically, in such a way he’d be forced to tear the wound bigger and bigger with every move and breath. She hoped he’d live long enough to plough his pathetic prick all the way through. Rolling her eyes at Hector’s excruciating cries the warlord spat on the ground with utter disdain and walked away. She’d later have to send someone to retrieve and clean the dagger.

Finally she walked into the clearing, joining Draco’s troops. She spotted a few of her own men between the blue-clothed troops; obeying her orders Solan was among them. Divided into several groups they were practicing with different weapons. Some alone, others paired together, depending on the kind of training they were doing. Draco was walking between them, his whip thwacking at any indication of slackness or indolence.

- How’s training? - Xena shouted to attract his attention.

Draco turned at the sound of her voice and run towards her. Few hits of a whip ensured his men kept to their training.

- Good, very good - he wiped his sweaty forehead - I whipped the drunkest ones and corralled the rest to work.

He rubbed his hands together, white teeth flashing in tentative smile. Even a kid would see he was trying to find out if he was going to keep his head. Xena decided to keep him hanging just a moment longer. A piece of skin around her nail was bothering her, so she bit on it.

- What about Hector?

- He? Fucking treacherous rat tried to kill me when I ordered him whipped. He attempted to start a rebellion and take my place, he was moaning something about me going soft under the orders of a woman… You know, the usual stuff. I had to make a statement.

He shrugged and again turned to watch his men. He tried very hard to appear relaxed, but his jaw was twitching slightly and he was nervously tapping his fingers against his shoulder. Xena smirked at his distress.

- You look a bit jumpy - she teased.

- Not knowing if I’m gonna see tomorrow’s sun does that to a man - Draco joked in response.

- Well, about that… - brunette decided to indulge him a bit and leaned her back against his side. She eyed him suspiciously when he decided to take advantage of the situation and wrapped his arm around her waist - I got a happy news for you, Caesar just saved your ass.

- What happened? - black man turned to his commander in shock - Somebody killed him and you’re celebrating by granting me amnesty?

He chuckled at the half-joking statement, but Xena raised up her eyebrows in disapproval, her face still serious.

- The opposite, actually. He won in Spain. For all I know he could be already on his way to Rome. So, consider yourself lucky.

Draco nodded, his face turned in some weird grimace supposedly meant to indicate understanding and full agreement with Xena’s words.

- I won’t have time to explain myself to everyone - she continued - I need loyal men who don’t ask too many questions. And despite your flaws, you’ll do just fine. So, secure the allay with Hesperus and take over his militia. Then go to Marcus for new orders. I’ll let him know he’s got a new division under him.

- Marcus? I thought I’d answer directly to you… You know, after all the good times - Draco smiled slyly.

The Warrior Princess rolled her eyes – his attempts to flirt in almost every situation would be astonishing, if they weren’t so annoying. Apparently he thought that her decision to spare his life put him immediately back in her favours.

- What? You whored yourself out just to be my general? - she mocked - And here I thought you slept with me for my good looks.

He looked at her feigning outrage.

- Come on, Draco. How could I make you a general? You have three camps, not even a hundred warriors in each. That’s not enough for an army - she patted his shoulder and moved to walk away - Be glad I’m letting you call it a division.

Chapter Text

She was lying at the entrance of Xena’s tent. She was tired, but no matter how much she wanted to go back to sleep, she couldn’t. She silently contemplated a half-broken blade of grass, the only thing possible to distinguish in the darkness surrounding her. Her mind was strangely empty and numb, similar to her tied up arms and legs which grew completely stiff over the night. The old blanket lent her by Xena’s servant couldn’t protect her properly from the chill air of the dawn. She wasn’t sure how the older girl managed to sleep so peacefully, but judging by her steady breathing Philippa was simply used to it. Yet it wasn’t the pain or the cold that kept the blonde from going back to sleep; the weather wasn’t bad considering the time of the year. Her biggest problem was the excruciating need to pee. Of course the ropes around her limbs efficiently kept her from simply running to the bushes; she had to wait for the morning and somebody to wake up and untie her.

Gabrielle stirred slowly, trying to find a comfortable, or at least bearable position. It wasn’t an easy task. She felt awful. Her whole body felt like it’s been crushed by a pile of rocks. Repeatedly. One side of her face swelled from Xena’s punch and her throat was burning – she vaguely recalled one of the guards trying to fuck her mouth, but he changed his mind when she puked all over them both. She could still taste the acid in her mouth, now mostly replaced by the bitterness of the herbal draught Philippa all but forced into her. The servant also feed her some watery porridge with bread and then took Gabrielle to the nearby stream and helped with rinsing off most of the blood and filth off of her. The blonde welcomed the cold wash with relief, but now, after several hours, her privates and thighs were again dump with blood, making her skirt stick to them.

Finally she couldn’t wait any longer – her bladder felt like it was about to burst. Gabrielle sat up warily, careful not to startle Philippa who was curled at her side. She crawled awkwardly to the tent entrance (the short rope joining her wrists and ankles forced her to support her weight on one elbow while dragging her body behind) and stuck her head outside. It took her a moment to spot the closest guard because of his dark cloak blending in with the opposite tent’s walls.

- Hey, you… - Gabrielle called in a loud whisper.

He turned and looked at her. In a dim light of early dawn she was unable to recognize if he was annoyed or simply surprised.

- I need to go… to the bushes - she said lamely.

Did they have latrines in war camps? None of the stories she heard mentioned this information.
The man just waved his hand ordering her to keep quiet and go back to sleep. But it was out of the question, Gabrielle was sure she couldn’t wait until morning.

- Please, I really need to go - she pleaded, a little louder this time.

Her arm muscles were already hurting, protesting against supporting her weight in such weird position.

- Shut up, you’re gonna wake Xena - hissed the guard - And she won’t like it.

- She’ll like it even less when she wakes up and finds a puddle of piss in her tent - stated Gabrielle - Please, let me go.

The guard looked around and sighed. Annoyed, he pushed away the entrance curtain and crouched down to untie blonde’s legs.

- Just this once. And no funny business - he warned and pulled her up.

Her hip screamed in agony and Gabrielle couldn’t stop the grunt of pain which escaped her lips. The guard turned to her, murder in his eyes, but the girl had already clasped her mouth with her own hands. They moved though the camp towards the bushes on the other side of the clearing, the blonde all but dragged forward by the annoyed guard. Her stiff muscles protested every step and she felt like if someone pushed a red hot dagger into her privates. Something warm trickled down her thigh and she realized she was bleeding again.
Finally they crossed the clearing and delved into the forest. After several yards of tripping over roots and rocks, behind some low bushes was a simple frame of three branches one could lean on to lower the risk of falling into a stinking pit below. The guard nodded at Gabrielle to go on with her business.

- Um… Aren’t you gonna turn away? - she asked while fumbling awkwardly with her skirt.

- And let you run away? I don’t think so.

Gabrielle cringed inwardly and done the last few steps. The muck splashed from beneath her sandals with a disgusting sound and even worse smell. She tried to ignore the guard, focusing instead on how to avoid soiling her skirt with her hands bound. It’d be hard enough in the light of day, in this darkness one wrong move or step could end with her falling into the latrine pit.
Thankfully, it didn’t happen. She somehow managed to hold onto her dress and the branches without any accidents. Her legs held her up and the guard didn’t leer too much, only shooting her sideway glances.

She turned to follow the guard back to the camp and then she heard it – a faint groan of pain. She looked up and finally noticed that what she once took for a shadow was actually a person. A person crucified on a tree. Distorted body and half dried blood were visible even if the dark. A strangled gasp escaped Gabrielle’s throat and she stumbled backwards. She didn’t mean to run away, too scared to make any conscious decision, but she lost her footing and before she knew what happened she was rolling downhill and away from the guard who vainly leapt after her. Shrubs were catching her skirt and pricking her legs, but something screamed in her head that stopping would mean death – same as for the man dying on the tree. So she ignored the pain and half-ran half-slid ahead. Her legs and privates were screaming in pain, the damaged hip was sending jolts of cold pain through her body. Breathing become harder and each step almost impossible to take. But the blonde bit her lip and kept limping; anything was better than staying at the mercy of Xena.

A wide stream cut her way stopping her for a second, but the yells of guards behind her back urged her to keep going. Gabrielle run along the riverbank. She didn’t risk crossing to the other side, she knew it’d slow her down too much. She didn’t have time for that - she had to get as far away from the camp as possible. Now was her only chance, no matter how small. The only thing she could do was to push forward. She kept threading though the shrubs when she heard the high pitched war cry; it sounded almost like a squeal. The blonde knew what it meant - the Warrior Princess was right behind her. She tried a last desperate sprint, but it was all in vain. Something heavy punched her in the back and pushed her into the river, under the water. She yelped in panic, tossing around and coughing water. But before she could truly understand what was happening, she was already being pulled up by her hair, face to face with the terrifying warlord.

- Where do you think you’re going, fishy? - strong hand clasped around Gabrielle’s neck.

The blonde kicked blindly and grasped at warlord’s fingers, frantically trying to wrestle away, but she only succeeded in splashing Xena with water. Gabrielle’s stomach turned with dread; the steel hold on her neck, same as warrior’s cold eyes, stayed adamant. The girl's teeth were chattering violently. Perhaps in fear, or perhaps just because the water was freezing, much colder than she remembered from yesterday. Suddenly a mad smile appeared on Xena’s lips, dim light of the dawn reflecting in her eyes, and Gabrielle realized something terrible was going to happen to her. In the next second her head was back under the water. Xena licked her lips and bared her teeth, visibly taking pleasure in tormenting the blonde. She watched with fascination as panicked Gabrielle jerked and twitched in her grasp. Water flooded blonde’s face, filling her nostrils and mouth; she couldn’t breathe, her lungs burning painfully. She grasped desperately at Xena’s arms, tunic, hair – anything she could reach. But it was as useless as fighting a statue. Gabrielle’s arms felt weaker and weaker, her moves grew more clumsy as blood pulsed in her ears and lungs burned with accidentally inhaled water. And then, right when red spots started flashing in her sight, she was pulled out of the water. The first, panicky gulp of cold air felt like a bliss. Gabrielle spat and coughed, too relieved to pay attention to the warlord still hovering over her, fingers tangled in her hair.

That’s until Xena reached to the girl’s face. The blonde flinched, but long fingers didn’t hurt her as she anticipated - brunette warlord merely brushed some hair from her eyes. The gesture was gentle, almost tender. Gabrielle blinked a few times, her eyes cautiously following warlord’s movements before looking into her eyes. Xena’s face looked soft, weak light danced in the droplets of water on her eyelashes and cheeks. She caressed Gabrielle’s cheek.

- You must understand… - she stated softly - You can’t get away from me.

The girl was on the verge of tears, breathing heavily and trying to understand what’s going on. Cold, blue eyes were piercing her with a strength of thousands daggers, causing the skin on her back to crawl in fear. But warlord’s touch on her face was soft and warm, promising comfort.

- You’re just a stupid fish - Xena smiled - And I’m very good at fishing.

The frightful smile was the last thing Gabrielle saw before warrior’s fist connected with her temple. White lightning of pain struck through her head and she limped in Xena’s arms.

Chapter Text

The Warrior Princess and her personal Guard were riding through the hilly scrubs of northern Chalkidiki, hurrying to the closest garrison. She didn’t bother with explaining any part of her plan to her troops, nor did she say if she even had one. She didn’t need to, they all were her most trusted soldiers, ready to follow her blindly even to Tartatus. Of course they knew about the message concerning Caesar – Xena didn’t keep it a secret, but that knowledge didn’t grant them any insight into this strategy of hers.

To get to Thessaloniki as fast as possible they left Draco’s camp when it was still before sunrise, risking the ride in the darkness. That’s why, despite the early hour, they already managed to cover some ground. Not as much as they would while travelling on the road, of course; rough terrain was tricky even during the day – loose rocks, bushes and steep slopes could be dangerous, both for riders and horses. Several times they had to dismount and walk through the most hazardous passages. But the Warrior Princess was leading them surely and expertly, quickly finding the fastest way through the wilderness.  

However, nobody cares about dangers of the road when they’re young and carefree. Hence the redhead with long braids couldn’t be happier: they were on the move again, the sun, just barely rising from above the hills behind them, was pleasantly warming her back and the sound of Xena’s vexillum fluttering in the wind was filling her ears. Even the damp clothes of the unconscious girl draped across her lap were a minor obstacle. The blonde slave’s escape attempt secured her fate as Xena’s newest plaything. Now, she was thrown over the horse and tied up firmly to the saddle so she wouldn’t run away again or slip off. Of course, the latter option was more plausible considering she still didn’t wake up after the warlord knocked her out.

The young guard leaned over and pulled on the blonde hair to check if the baggage was still alive. The girl jerked in response, coughed, and in the next moment the redhead felt disgusting warmth running down her leg. Her horse neighed in panic and jumped to the side, almost throwing the rider off and forcing the young warrior to use all her strength and skill to keep herself in the saddle.

- Centaur’s shit Jupiter’s cock in the ass! - she cursed loudly - We gotta stop.

Ahead of them Xena stopped her horse and turned around to check on her exasperated adiutor.

- What now?

The half-annoyed half-worried look on Xena’s face suggested that she expected at least a crippled horse, a snake bite or other serious trouble. What she saw instead was an angry redhead with her face wrought in utter disgust holding the blonde slave by her hair. The closest warriors were already gathering around the girl and laughing loudly while pointing at her side.

- Look what she did to my leg! - the redhead turned her horse to show the yellowish vomit trails covering his side, the slave’s arms, and her own leg.

A spasm went through Xena’s face, indicating she fought the urge to throw something heavy at the girl’s head but settled for an ironic sneer instead.

- Frida, dear… It’s just puke. I assure you it’ll wash off.

Visibly annoyed at the needless delay she nudged Argo, encouraging her to take off. Guards followed her one after the other, leaving Frida to curse angrily under her breath. In powerless rage she punched the still unconscious slave and slammed her heels into her horse’s sides forcing him to catch up with their companions.

 

 ***

 

It was the fifth hour of the day when they reached the Bolbe lake and Xena finally ordered the first layout. They already covered over 11 leagues through extremely rough terrain. A distance long enough to, under normal circumstances, equal a day’s travel. But these weren’t normal circumstances; the Warrior Princess wanted to get to Thessaloniki in one day and that meant that more than twice the distance they just covered was still waiting ahead of them. Luckily, the rest of their ride would be completed on the well maintained Via Egnatia, not though the pathless wilderness. Philippa could only hope the horses would withstand this deadly pace. But on the other hand, they were all specially breed and trained for long distance riding, so they’d most likely endure a single day of such treatment.

The warriors dismounted and spread out, seeing to their horses and looking for a good place to lie down and rest. Frida was already taking the reins from Xena to walk Argo out along with her own stallion. Philippa sneered inwardly at how servile the girl was most of the time - the redhead was always at the commander’s side like an overenthusiastic puppy.

The servant slipped off her horse. Her thighs and ass were already sore and she dreaded the rest of the trip. She didn’t have anything against horse riding, but she hated the way her domina preferred to ride - as long and fast as possible and with a minimal number of stops. Those days felt like Tartarus to her. She pulled the tack off her mare; being only a servant, no one bothered to give her a saddle, she had to do with several layers of fabric and her own bedroll, which she now pulled off to let the horse cool down. She checked over her shoulder to make sure Xena didn’t summon her. But the Warrior Princess wasn’t paying any attention to the brunette slave, already lying on the ground, busy with emptying the wineskin she snatched from her saddle. That meant, more or less, that Philippa’s services were not needed nor wanted. At least for now. With a silent sigh of relief, the servant turned to tend to her own needs, preferring to stay out of Xena’s sight as often as possible.

Leading the horse to the lake she spotted the new girl - Gabrielle, if she remembered right. She was standing alone, mostly ignored by the troops. Hunched over with arms wrapped around her middle she looked like she could stumble and fall any moment. She had to be in great pain; after spending half a day draped over the saddle her ribs surely had to be bruised. Her face also looked terrible, with her cheek swollen from the punches and discolored in deep purple hues. She seemed oblivious to her surroundings, her blank stare following the people around her without actually seeing them, vomit still staining her arms and hair. Philippa knew the girl wasn’t her responsibility. But seeing how she faltered and shivered from exhaustion she couldn’t just let her be. Having decided, she nudged the horse towards the water, so she could drink her fill. She herself grabbed a wineskin and moved to the girl.

- Come - she tried to be gentle when she wrapped an arm around her waist.

A strangled shriek escaped the blonde’s lips. Philippa groaned and clasped her hand over the girl’s mouth. Gabrielle jerked in panic, but she calmed down after a moment, when she saw who was the person holding her - a woman of similar height, with short dark hair. Philippa. A fellow slave.

- Be quiet and behave - she let the girl go - Drink.

Philippa lifted the wineskin to the girl’s lips and she took a reluctant sip, but as soon as the diluted wine touched her lips she grabbed the skin and started to drink so greedily that the brunette was worried it might do her more harm than good. Finally, Gabrielle soothed her thirst and Philippa coaxed the wineskin out of the blonde’s hands.

- I’m taking you to the lake so you can wash.

Gabrielle looked down at herself, finally noticing dried vomit on her arms and in her hair. She nodded and moved to follow the woman when another person came behind them and, without a single word, ripped the blonde’s skirt off, leaving her only in a tunic. Gabrielle shrieked in fear, while the servant turned around to face the thief - a redhead girl already walking away with the skirt in hand.

- Hey! Frida, give that back!

- Get lost! - the girl didn’t even turn her head - I need something to wash Messala.

Philippa didn’t give up. She yanked the redhead’s arm and forced her to turn around.

- Give that back - she repeated.

They stood so close Philippa could count all the freckles on Frida’s face. But the guard was unfazed - she looked pointedly at the hand still gripping her wrist and the servant let it go, remembering her place.

- You can’t leave her only in a tunic - Philippa continued in a calmer voice.

- Of course I can. Be glad I’m not making her clean that shit with her tongue. You know I have all the right to do so.

The threat hung in the air and the brunette accepted her defeat. By no means could she win a quarrel with Xena’s favourite.

- Would you, please, consider giving us something for a girdle then? - she made sure to keep all traces of sarcasm out of her voice.

For a moment Frida looked like she considered declining simply out of spite, but finally she made a noncommittal grunt and ripped a long stripe from the rectangular cloth which not so long ago used to be a skirt. She threw it at Philippa and stormed off without a word.

The servant moved back to Gabrielle. Her tunic was clearly not made to be worn on its own - it reached only to her midthigh and now everybody could see the bruises on her legs: scraped knees and darkening handprints on her thighs.

- Bitch! - mumbled Philippa while fastening the strap around the girl’s hips.

Gabrielle said nothing when, for the second time in two days, she let the servant lead her into the cold water and scrub her roughly while she stared defiantly somewhere ahead. Philippa helped the girl rinse the vomit from her hair and the last traces of dried blood from her upper thighs. Then she rubbed the girl’s arms with sand to make the dried filth come off faster. She tried to be gentler around the fresh scabs that started forming around her grazed wrists, but the blonde kept flinching nonetheless and she hissed in pain a few times.

- What were you thinking? - Philippa couldn’t help herself and started mumbling under her breath, her words progressively getting louder and louder - Xena would send you away with the other girls without sparing you a second thought. But no! You had to be brave and run! Well, congratulations. Now you’ll be her new toy until she gets bored. Foolish girl. Why did you run?

Her angry rant finally broke something in Gabrielle. She hunched her shoulders even more as tears ran down her cheeks and the words just flew from her mouth, divided by sobs.

- I… I s-saw that man on the tree… I d-didn’t... I’m sorry. I don’t wanna die…

Philippa realized she pushed too hard. She also realized it would be pointless to let the girl know there were in fact two men crucified back at the camp.

- Shhh it’s okay. Come on - she softened her tone and helped the girl out of the water - Come on, it’s okay. You’re not going to die. You survived this much, now it’s only going to get better…

The troops on the shore gawked at them shamelessly - at Gabrielle’s naked legs, to be precise. Philippa ignored them and slowly led the girl back to where her tack was. Sobbing, in addition to pain, made Gabrielle’s movements slow and clumsy and it took a moment before the servant was able to make her sit on the rough grass.

- Slowly. Lie down, you need to let your muscles rest.

The girl obeyed, curling on the ground on her side. She tried really hard to keep quiet and not call any attention to herself, rightly wary of what Xena or her troops might do to her if she annoys them.  But she couldn’t stop her tears, no more than she could supress the silent sobs that repeatedly shook her whole body. Philippa sat next to her and awkwardly stroked her hair. She knew that the girl was going through just a first of the many breakdowns that awaited her.

The appearance of the riders scared away the birds living around the lake, but now they were slowly coming back, convinced that the warriors meant them no harm. Wild ducks were quacking again in the rushes oblivious to the guards sitting or lying on the ground in small groups, chatting lazily, drinking posca, or simply napping with their heads covered to hide from the midday sun. In the far east, Philippa could see a small town on the horizon. It was probably called Apollonia, she thought, the Greeks were very fond of their god of music; every other village around here was called Apollonia.

Finally the sobs grew weaker as Gabrielle calmed down. She wiped the tears from her face.

- Where does it hurt? - asked Philippa.

For a moment Gabrielle was quiet, mentally checking on her injuries.

- My ribs. And it hurts… well…

She looked down and blushed, making a bashful gesture towards her privates. The servant didn’t need anything more to understand. She nodded in a sympathetic manner.

- I can’t really help that right now. But you stopped bleeding, so it’ll pass - reassured the brunette - Are you nauseous? Does your head hurt?

- No, not really. Why?

- Xena hit you on the head and you puked on the way here. That’s usually a bad sign, something could be wrong. But if your head doesn’t hurt then maybe the worst passed already while you were out.

- I puked?

- Yes. On Frida - Philippa grinned like it was a good prank.

- Oh… Who’s Frida?

- That bitch who took your skirt. She’s Xena’s adiutor.

- She’ll kill me… - Gabrielle was terrified.

- She can’t - Philippa shook her head - You belong to Xena and she wants you alive. At least for now…

She rummaged through her stuff, looking for a goatskin with posca; giving more wine to the girl, no matter how diluted, would be highly unwise. Upon finding the skin she handed it to the girl and let her empty it almost completely.

- Where are we? - the blonde asked when she had enough.

- Bolbe lake.

The most eager guards around them were getting up, slowly getting ready to move on. Some were checking horse hoofs for forgotten rocks or other minor damages caused by the ride through the wilderness. Others already started to saddle. Gabrielle glanced to them, realizing she’d have to get back on a horse way sooner than she’d wish for.

- Are we far from where we’re going? - she asked, traces of fear in her voice.

- Yes - Philippa nodded affirmative - At least several hours of hard riding.

Gabrielle made a strangled noise, something between a snort and a sob. The servant patted her shoulder in response.

- You’ll make it.

She didn’t have time to add anything else because Frida walked to them. Sporting a frown and with her arms folded across her chest she looked positively disdainful.

- Can she ride? - she spoke to the servant as if Gabrielle wasn’t there at all.

The question came from Xena and Philippa knew it, she didn’t need to turn around to know the commander was watching them; she could feel her cold stare on her back. She nodded.

- Yes, I’ll take her on my horse.

The redhead nodded back in acknowledgement. Behind them the Warrior Princess gave a signal to move on. In a matter of seconds even the laziest of the guards moved to ready their horses and Frida turned to walk away.  

- I’m sorry I puked on you - Gabrielle’s voice was quiet and quivered a little - Please, accept my apology.

The redhead stopped in her tracks and faced the girl. She looked her up and down and proudly lifted her head, turned on her heel and took off without saying a single word.

- Oh Gods… She hates me - wailed Gabrielle.

Philippa snorted and helped the blonde up.

- Don’t worry, she accepted. She’s just too proud to say that. Now come on, lets get you on the horse.

The servant retrieved her mare and put the tack back on her. The fabric she used in place of a saddle was actually a part of a tent. Xena refused to travel with a wagon, it’d slow them too much when mobility and secrecy were such a great deal to her. And for the sake of secrecy she also disregarded the idea of providing a pack horse for everyone. Even if it’d improve their speed, it would result in turning the squad into a small army impossible to ride through Greece unnoticed. And that would ruin the effect of surprise Xena so often relied upon. That’s why every person who rode with the Warrior Princess carried all their belongings on their horse, including the tents shared equally between it’s occupants.

Philippa threw her bedroll on her horse and motioned for Gabrielle to come closer. She helped her get up and seated her sideways to not put any unnecessary strain on the girl’s hurt hip and groin. She checked for the last time, making sure they didn’t leave anything behind and jumped on behind Gabrielle.

By the side of the Via Egnatia road, Argo was already pacing in place, excited for the run. Xena mounted her swiftly and yelled a command to take off, followed by her war cry. The horses jumped rapidly into a fast canter and the hoofs rattled against the road cobbles. Startled, Gabrielle screamed in fear and grabbed onto Philippa as tightly as she could. She almost crushed Philippa’s ribs between her surprisingly strong arms. But of course, the girl was a peasant, she probably worked her whole life in the fields and her strength shouldn’t be so surprising to the brunette. Thankfully, they slowed down to a more relaxed gait and the girl eased off a bit. Philippa wrapped an arm around Gabrielle’s waist and convinced her to loosen her deadly grip. After breathing deeply in relief, she decided it was a moment as good as any to explain a bit more of Gabrielle’s current situation to her.

- Gabrielle, listen to me - she started in a serious voice - I need to make sure you understand your status. Xena is a very dangerous person. A person who now owns you. Do you know what that means?

The girl nodded reluctantly, but the servant could see in her eyes she wasn’t entirely sure.

- That means your life depends on Xena’s whim. You have to do anything and everything she wants of you, or she’ll make sure you regret it.

- You mean, she’ll kill me? - Gabrielle’s voice trembled a little.

- It could come to that. She’s not a forgiving person. You cross her, she’ll cross you…

- Yeah! - a voice came from behind them and a dun horse caught up with them - Like in “put you on a cross”.

The boy on the horse laughed and Philippa felt the girl moving in her lap to get a better view at him. She herself stared right ahead trying to ignore Solan’s awful taste of humor. She hoped if they didn’t answer he’d get bored and go bother someone else. Besides, they were riding too fast to converse without rising their voices. Still, she didn’t have any luck this time. Solan considered himself the one who led the blonde to Xena, so in his eyes she was as much his plaything as the commander’s. And the kids never care much for shouting anyway.

- But don’t worry, Xena is not that bad when you get to know her - he continued though the noise - Just be careful and don’t try to run away again.

In Philippa’s opinion once you got to know Xena she turned out to be even worse, but she knew better than to share that opinion in her current company. She hoped Gabrielle would keep quiet, but apparently the girl was suddenly in a conversational mood. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe just curiosity.

- Where are we going? - she questioned the boy.

- Salonika. One of Xena’s garrisons is there, and plotting against Caesar is always easier with several cohorts ready for orders. You know he won in Spain, right?

The girl nodded and Solan continued.

- And Prisca’s husband commands the second cohort there.

He nodded towards a group of warriors riding up front, but Philippa doubted that Gabrielle would be able to recognize Prisca among them.

- Is she going to visit him?

- I don’t know, maybe - he shrugged - So, do you have husband?

- What? No - Gabrielle paused for a moment - But I’m betrothed… My father wanted us to marry in the fall, after my seventeenth birthday. His name is Perdicus.

- Did he get killed by Draco’s men when they took you?

- No. I don’t think anyone got killed that day.

- Oh… - the kid seemed disappointed - Not very heroic of him, right? Philippa’s husband got killed when-

- Solan, Gabrielle is very tired - the woman in question stopped him abruptly - Why don’t you tell her something more suitable for convalescence?

Luckily, the boy dropped the topic and started looking for something in his saddlebags. After a moment, he took out a piece of jerky.

- Gabrielle, catch! - he threw it at the girl and by some miracle she actually managed to grab a hold of it.

- It’s meat! - she exclaimed in disbelief biting into it greedily.

- Yeah, it’s mutton. Thanks to the hospitality of Xena - the boy looked in amusement at the speed in which the food was disappearing in the blonde’s mouth.

- We only ever ate meat at harvest festivals - she blurted out between bites.

- Well, being a part of Xena’s household has its advantages - he laughed - Hey, do you want to hear how we brought Plato back to health this winter?

Gabrielle nodded politely, her mouth still full of dry jerky, and soon she came to know that Plato was a name of a bird with a broken wing that Solan and a few other army kids saved this winter using tips Xena gave them about healing. But the boy was speaking very quickly; half of his words were lost in the wind and the sound of horse hoofs on the cobbled road, so Philippa wasn’t surprised when the tired blonde curled into her and seemed to nod off, unable to follow the rest of the story.

Chapter Text

Even from afar, the Eastern City Gates looked imposing and grand; three arches of white marble illuminated by the reddish rays of the sunset. The sun shined right into the incomers’ faces, forcing them to squint their eyes. The road leading to the Gates was filled with a crowd of pedestrians, carts and several lecticas scattered in the ruck, all wanting to get into the city before the nightfall. Hence, the squad of oncoming troops was forced to slow down considerably - something their worn-out horses welcomed with relief. A dark warrior rode at the front, her soldiers following in twos, barely a few paces behind their commander. Their horses were tired and covered in froth and the road dust, but even in that state they looked spectacular. The crowd in front of them was thick, but the Warrior Princess didn’t intend to wait in queue for her turn - she pushed her palomino right in the middle of the mob, threatening to trample anyone who didn’t get out of her way. She could see curious glances shoot her way by the guards at the gate. They already recognized her. If not by her face then by the chakram at her side and the hollow vexillum held by one of her guards; the same one she looted from Caesar three years ago in the battle of Pharsalus, burned out his personal emblem and made it her own banner since then. Several heartbeats and a few fearful whispers later, the Gates guards pushed away the crowd and made a comfortable way for Xena’s party to pass through the middle, tallest arch.  

Citizens of Thessaloniki could be best described as curious and confused. Curious of the great Warrior Princess, and confused because nobody seemed to know how to greet her. Cheer for her as they would for a returning general, turn their back on her as for a conquering enemy, or ignore her completely and go along with their evening as they had planned? Not knowing what to do, the Thessalonians choose all three and some other combinations. Xena could see people pretending not to see her, just to turn around in the last moment to gawk at her shamelessly, and others, cheering for her, just to run inside their homes when her eyes fell on them. She smirked when several young boys, thirteen, maybe fourteen years old, ran along the horses chanting her name; their eyes bright and smiles wide. The warlord knew in a year or two they’d be banging their fists on the garrison doors, desperate to join her troops as soon as they lost the childhood tunics in favour for the men’s one. But there were also people avoiding her, mothers shielding their children and elders looking at her from behind the corners, spitting curses against the Destroyer of Nations, full of fear and disdain. Xena didn’t mind it at all - fear, right after worship, was the easiest to control.

After crossing several streets, the squad finally got to the governor’s domus. They bypassed the main entrance at the high street and turned into the small alley, from where they entered the courtyard. It wasn’t big, the space usually used only for unpacking supplies, but there was more than enough place to accommodate the horses. At the sight of the warriors a tall, balding man, so far waiting under a roofed portico, walked to them from inside the building. His purple-rimmed toga looked immaculate as he spread his arms in greeting, but his smile was twitchy and tight lipped.

- Xena! - he exclaimed, he’s enthusiasm obviously fake - Welcome again to the humble house of Balbinus.

The warlord rolled her eyes and slid down from her horse, taking a moment to stretch her legs. Even she was tired and stiff after the ride. Her troops were doing much worse - groaning loudly and cursing as they dismounted. Soon enough the house servants appeared, bustling around and taking the reins, ready to take care of the animals.

- Gaius - Xena finally acknowledged the man, unceremoniously using his first name.

- We didn’t expect you to honour us with your presence so soon - he bowed to her, badly hiding the grimace of disgust caused by the stench of horse and human sweat - Please accept this humble invitation to enjoy our hospitality and share a meal with us.

- More like you prayed to all the gods you’d never have to seen me again - she retorted and the closest guards laughed at the remark - But lead on.

Xena petted Argo one last time and threw her reins at the nearest stable boy. But before making a move to follow the governor, she turned to give dispositions to her troops.

- Falca! I want… - she started, but didn’t have to finish her thought.

- The garrison state report. It’ll be ready right after the cena - assured the Guard’s leader.

Her short, blonde hair shook as she bowed smartly. She was even more muscular than Xena, but shorter and not as proportionally build.

- Splendid - Xena nodded and then snapped her fingers at her auditor - Frida, keep an eye on Philippa, I don’t want her wandering around. And I want the blonde to entertain us tonight.

She motioned to the girl standing a few steps to the side, next to Philippa’s horse. Falca glanced at the battered kid; the girl was staggering on her feet. The Guard leader’s scepticism as to the use of the peasant girl for entertainment was showing on her face.

- She’s a peasant. What good could she be as entertainment?

- Oh no, she’ll be perfect - laughed the brunette - She’s a bard, she’ll tell us a story.

- What kind of a story?

But Xena ignored the question, carelessly tossing her chakram at Falca instead. When the blonde guard looked up again the Warrior Princess was already walking into the domus arm in arm with clearly unnerved governor Balbinus.

 

***

 

The water was hot and relaxing. Three slave girls attended to her, washing her carefully and thoroughly, even cleaning her fingernails. They combed her hair, washed it and combed it again, skilfully turning a wide mane into silky tresses falling almost to her hips. It felt great to be clean again.

She could hear the laughter and voices of her guards from the other part of the baths. For a moment, before getting into her own tub, she considered joining them and bathing together in the common pool as she usually did. But this time she decided against it; she needed to give them some space to whine in peace. After such a deadly ride, it’d be understandable if they grumbled and complained about her. Annoyed and tired after the ride they deserved to slack off a bit. Still, she was positive Falca would keep the guards in check if the harmless complaining turned disrespectful.

One of the girls reached out to help the brunette out of the water.

- How about a massage, my- conqueror? - she asked, awkwardly faltering over the title.

Xena loved when people stumbled over the way they should address her. If she were a man they’d simply call her “lord”, but she wasn’t one. She also didn’t fit their definition of a lady, so most of the people she encountered had problems with how to call her, constantly unsure of the proper title they should use. Xena enjoyed it immensely.

The girl led her to the table, gracefully avoiding Xena’s dirty clothes, armor and weapons still scattered haphazardly on the floor. Xena knew the offered massage was mostly a ploy meant to allow more time for Gaius to organize the cena and invite the guests. But still, the girl’s hands felt nice on her body and the muscles stiffened after the ride begged for some attention.

The massage was long and relaxing, leaving Xena in a pleasant state of laziness. Reluctant to ruin the evening by dealing with Gaius, a part of her wished to simply grab one of the girls, or all of them, and retire to her chambers. But she knew she had a deal to strike with the governor, and that she would enjoy tormenting him as soon as she got past the initial unwillingness to get up. With that thought she rose from the table and allowed the slave girls to dress her in a simple red peplos, with golden rim as the only ornament. They also pinned up her hair and woven an olive wreath into the tresses before crisscrossing a braided golden belt around Xena’s waist and hips. A simple set of sandals finished the attire.

Outside the baths, four guards were already waiting for her. Three men and a woman who had the misfortune to draw the loosing lots which condemned them to the guard duty at the cena, while their friends relaxed. All of them wore black tunics with a decorative golden strip down the middle and short daggers at their sides. One of the men - Thero, a blond bearded giant, handed the cleaned chakram to Xena. She fastened it deftly at her side using the loose end of the belt. It was rude to appear armed at a meal, but she was considered a barbarian anyway and she loved to remind the Roman nobles she was above their customs. Besides, after all this time she felt naked without a weapon.

 

***

 

Gaius Caelius Balbinus was standing in the atrium, his white clothes standing out against the colorful mosaics on the walls. Engrossed in conversation with two other people, he didn’t notice Xena’s appearance immediately. The sound of her guards’ hobnailed boots against the marble floor caused him to almost jump out of his skin, but soon enough he regained his composure and turned towards the newcomers with a cold smile.

- Xena, allow me to introduce Marcus Fabius Rufus, this year’s chief magistrate of Thessaloniki.

The man in question bowed dutifully. He was in his early thirties and could hardly be called handsome, his chin too weak and his body too frail, but he was clearly a careerist, judging by the respectable position he acquired at such a young age.

- It’s a great honour to finally meet the famous Warrior Princess - in contrast to the unsettled governor, Rufus looked completely relaxed and seemed to enjoy himself - This my younger sister…

But Xena didn’t pay any attention to the girl’s name, or any other pleasantries they might wanted to exchange.

- Shall we? - she cut the man short and turned in the direction of the triclinium.

Balbinus offered her his hand and they passed by the magistrate and his sister. For a moment, the girl happened to be just in Xena’s line of sight. She looked young, maybe fourteen, pimped up and the brunette wondered if the girl was supposed to gain the favors of the governor by presenting her to his son, or maybe gain the favor of the warlord herself. Maybe both.

The triclinium was a pompous room, full of idyllic mosaics and sculptures. One wall was opened to the garden, now illuminated by carefully arranged lampions. A small platform with musicians was hidden behind the exotic flowers, the soft music never rising high enough to disrupt the guests.

All the others honoured by the invitation to the cena were already present. Gaius’ wife Alba and their daughter took the couch on the right, while Tamaios – commander of the city garrison, made himself comfortable on the left one. Xena, as the guest of honour, would take a place on the couch at the head of the table, accompanied by Gaius and his younger son Lucius – his older one being unavailable, fighting somewhere in the Roman army in the rank of a centurion.

Gaius’ wife hospitably motioned to Rufus and his sister to take places next to Tamaios as Xena allowed Gaius to lead her through the room and reclined gracefully on the head couch. Two of her guards: Damon, a long haired Greek and Sarad, a short Nubian, positioned themselves behind her back, ready if not to kill or maim, then to at least threaten anyone who would dare to defy the Warrior Princess. The other two stayed behind to guard the door.

- Xena, we’re deeply humbled by your presence - said Alba, keeping to her duties as a good matron.

The warlord barely acknowledged her with a nod, because in that moment the house servants started bringing in the food. Several dishes of diversely prepared fish – a clear nod to the guest of honor, and a roasted pheasant decorated with feathers appeared on the table, along with a number of salads and sea-food appetizers. The servants washed everyone’s hands and, after the initial wine offering to the gods, the guests started eating. Xena impatiently snatched the full plate out of Lucius’ hand. It was a good way to prevent poisoning. She knew Gaius would have to be a complete idiot to poison her in his own house and she didn’t have to worry about any real danger. But still, it was an easy way to keep people on their toes and to remind everyone she didn’t trust them.

The guests seemed comfortable enough, eating and talking lazily. The magistrate tried to engage Xena in a conversation about chariot races, but she mostly ignored him, answering only in monosyllables. After a whole day on the road she was much more interested in devouring the food from her plate. Still, he managed to catch the warlord’s attention for a short moment when he placed his palm on his sister’s thigh while staring meaningfully into Xena’s eyes. The girl, busy chatting with Gaius’s daughter and wife, barely noticed the gesture. But it confirmed Xena’s suspicions about Rufus’ intents, making her scowl and turn away. Even if the girl wasn’t straight away offered to the warlord, she was definitely made available and Xena wanted nothing to do with people who pimped out their kid sisters.

Her eyes fell on Thero, the blond giant at the door. Noticing he got his commander’s attention, he nodded slightly to let her know that the entertainment arrived. Xena smirked and clapped her hands to get everyone’s attention.

- I’ve enjoyed your hospitality so far, let me repay you in some way - she grinned ominously.

The blonde bard walked in, hesitant steps accompanied by gasps from the party guests. Her hair was pinned up to highlight the metal collar on her neck and her wrists were shackled together, the chain rattling slightly as she moved. She was dressed in a plain linen chiton, the fairness of it contrasting with the dark bruises her face and body were covered with. Somebody even made sure that the open side of the chiton would show off the nail scratches on the girl’s hip. Xena almost chuckled when the women at the table paled at the sight of the warlord’s treat. The girl glanced nervously around the triclinium, but knowing what was expected of her, she started to recite without any further prompting.

- Fierce as the dragon scaled in gold 
Through the army lines she darts her glowing eye; 
And pleased their order to behold, 
Her gorgeous standard blazing to the sky, 
Rolls onward her Assyrian car, 
Directs the thunder of the war, 
Bids the wing'd arrows' iron storm advance 
Against the slow and cumbrous lance. 
What shall withstand the torrent of her sway 
When dreadful o'er the yielding shores 
The impetuous tide of battle roars, 
And sweeps the weak opposing mounds away? 
So Corinth, with resistless might, 
Rolls their unnumber'd hosts of heroes to the fight…

Xena drifted off; she knew the story. It was one of the older versions of the Battle of Corinth and the Betrayal of Borias. One of the few favourable for her. It was very poetic, but did a pretty poor job when it came to describing the facts. When, after the battle, she disappeared for a few years everyone came to believe she had died in the siege. Back then, the story ended with her and Borias fighting a last fight to the death and killing each other in the process. In that version, the Destroyer of Nations was overpowered by wounds and blood loss and then died poetically on a top of a hill as the sun set over her dead body. But when a few years later she came back to conquering, the bards realized the tale ending with her death was no longer standing in accord with the facts, so they changed it for a one where she killed Borias in the duel and then rode away on her horse into the sunset. Both versions were ridiculously poetic and equally far from the truth.

The blonde slave was still speaking, but Xena decided she’s had enough. She leaned over to the governor to speak with him in hushed tones.

- I want you to buy seven girls from me - it was a request, not a question - 600 denarii each.

- That’s a high prize - Gaius scratched his beardless chin while keeping his eyes focused on the young bard - But I’ll look at them and see what I can do…

- I need the money right now - Xena interrupted him - The girls will get here in a few days. And why would you need to look at them? I know their worth. They’re all healthy and young, four of them are still virgins. They’re from the same village as this one - she motioned to the bard.

- Are they equally battered, then? - Lucius inserted himself into the discussion, his voice ironic.

- Didn’t your mother teach you to keep quiet when adults are taking? - Xena hissed without looking at the young man.

Lucius silently gritted his teeth, knowing full well it would be unwise to confront the unpredictable and dangerous conqueror about an off-hand insult. His father simply ignored both comments and continued with the conversation as if nothing happened.

- Xena, you surely do understand I can’t pay that much for the merchandise I didn’t see… How about 3000 denarii for all of them and we’ll call it a deal?

-Need I remind you that your eldest daughter is in Stobi right now? Warming Marcus’ bed in my absence - Xena smiled sweetly - They even have a son, nice kid, just turned three. I heard they called him Gaius, after his grandpa… It’d be a shame if something happened to him - she stroked the edge of her chakram.

Gaius paled and his wife gasped. This time Lucius refused to ignore the offense. He jumped up and tried to attack Xena from behind, but Sarad was quicker – she slammed the man’s head against the table and held him there. She was small and unobtrusive, but over the years she flourished into a deadly warrior; Lucius could only growl in pain and fruitless anger. Suddenly the room grew quiet and the warlord let a triumphant smile surface on her lips. She looked around the party guests and the terrified bard in the middle of the room, to finally arch her eyebrow as she looked expectantly at Gaius.

- Of course, Xena. 4200 denarii for all the girls - he agreed in a slightly shaky voice.

- Make it 4500.

The only thing the governor could do was to nod grudgingly. Xena was pleased with herself. She stood up gracefully and turned to walk away.

- Everyone enjoy the rest of the story, I must leave you now.

 

***

 

Damon and Sarad followed after Xena, while the other two guards stayed at the triclinium doors to keep an eye on the bard. The warlord walked to the eastern part of the domus and finally stopped before her chambers.

- Do you want us to bring you the girl when she’s finished? - asked Damon.

Xena considered for a moment, but decided she was not in the mood anymore.

- No, take her to the servant’s quarters and let her sleep.

The room was simple, equipped only with the necessities. The east wall opened to a balcony with a view on the courtyard. When she first requested this room Gaius was astounded – he had much better chambers already prepared for her. But the Warrior Princess refused the offer, preferring a secluded place that would allow her to keep her Guard near and enable a quick departure if needed. A chamber lost somewhere in the labyrinth of rooms in the governor’s palace would never suit her purposes.

Xena closed the door with a sigh and turned to Frida who was waiting for her. She was sitting on the bed with her legs tucked under herself and doing the last touch ups on the sword; other weapons and armor already cleaned, polished and neatly hung on the rack. Her still damp hair looked more auburn than red in the dim light of oil lamps.

- How was the cena? - asked adiutor with a smirk - Was the bard’s attire to your liking?

She got up from the bed and put the freshly sharpened sword on the rack. Xena turned towards a bronze mirror on one of the walls to wrench the leaves from her hair.

- Mostly - she agreed while tousling her hair - But nobody fainted so there’s still room for improvement.

A moment later there was a knock on the door and Frida jumped right up, opening the door with a smile and letting Falca in. The Guard leader walked to the table and plopped down on the closest chair. The V-shaped brand burned on her right cheek, a keepsake from her gladiatrix days, was especially prominent as the lamp illuminated her face. The burn was adorned with two cut scars which stretched to her jaw. All together it formed a slightly crooked X.

Xena joined her at the table as Frida poured wine for both of them. They sipped slowly while Falca delivered a vary detailed and very boring report about the state of the garrison. She finished by asking Xena if she’s going to check everything for herself tomorrow.

- No, I trust your judgement. Besides, we leave tomorrow, I won’t have time for that.

- Well, all the better - Falca downed her cup - I hate those pissy maggots.

Xena chuckled and snapped her fingers at Frida. The adiutor understood the gesture and immediately brought several maps to put on the table. She rearranged the lamps as The Warrior Princess leaned over to pin the parchment with the half-empty cups.

- Go fetch Kaisar and Iason - she ordered - Then you’re free to stay downstairs, eat something and relax.

Frida nodded happily and ran to the balcony, jumping over the rail to the courtyard below where the guard’s quarters were.

- She grew up so fast… - Falca sighed as she looked after the girl.

- Don’t worry - Xena sipped some wine straight from the jug - Deep down she’s still a kid.

Falca laughed at that.

- You say that only because you’re scared Solan will catch up with her too soon.

Xena made a noncommittal grunt, but the summoned men were already walking through the door, saving her from having to admit she’s a sentimental fool.

- We’re going to Rome to kill Caesar - she announced instead.

Her advisors looked between themselves, more than sceptical to the idea. But they spent enough time in Xena’s service to know that she was more than capable of getting exactly what she wanted, no matter the circumstances.

- Rome? Hmm… - Iason leaned over the map and started thinking aloud - Gathering an army big enough will certainly take some time. And we have only 80 ships in Piraeus, but well… The Warrior Princess has many skills. If we plan carefully and everything goes smoothly… I say, we can be ready for next spring.

Xena smirked at the misunderstanding and shook her head.

- I didn’t mean an open invasion. I meant assassination. Only we - she gestured around them - and those jerks downstairs.

- Well… That certainly has bigger potential - deadpanned Kaisar.

Xena sent a glare his way.

- So, what’s the plan? - he retreated.

- Nothing too clear yet. But it’s almost twenty days travel to Rome, so I’m certain I’ll be able to think about something - she said smugly.

They talked some more, but soon Xena sent everyone away. The second night watch was just coming to an end and they all needed rest. She instructed them to let everyone know what they managed to establish so far, but at the same time they were to keep their goal a secret from anyone not belonging to Xena’s party.

After sending them on their way she sat down behind the table to write dispositions for Marcus. He already took over most of the bureaucratic affairs, so her prolonged absence wouldn’t disrupt anything. Still, she had to let him know where she was going, if only to stop him from sending a search party after her. If she wanted to keep her little trip a secret, Marcus had to take actions to make everyone think she’s safely back in Stobi. Tomorrow a messenger would take the letter to Marcus, along with their horses and her vexillum.

She contemplated taking off her peplos and going to sleep, but in the same moment she heard a knock on the door.

- Enter - she allowed and turned around to see who decided to disrupt her so late at night.

It was Solan. He wore a black guard’s tunic, probably Frida’s, and a dagger at his side. With his sandals so clean they were almost shining and hair braided down he looked as soldier-like as possible. She looked at him expectantly even if she knew what he came for.

- I ask to be allowed to travel with you to Rome - he confirmed her suspicions.

- And why should I agree to that?

- I’m the best cadet in my squad and my fighting skills exceed the abilities of anyone my age. Even compared to your Guard I’m proficient with a sling and more than proficient with a dagger. And as I proved in the last days, I can act as an excellent spy - his mouth corner twitched slightly as he tried to supress a smile.

Xena sighed and glared at him, wiping any traces of humour from his face. She circled the table and leaned her hip against it.

- You do realize that, sans the spy thing, you listed exactly the same set of skills you used to convince me to take you to Draco’s camp?

- It was nine days ago! I didn’t have time to learn any new things - the kid protested, his voice a little too loud. But he caught himself quickly - Please, I’ll do anything. I could even be your servant…

- I already have a servant. Several, in fact - stated Xena, knowing very well it wouldn’t be enough to discourage the boy.

Solan hesitated barely for a moment.

- I could be Frida’s servant - he offered with a determined expression.

- Hmm… There’s an idea - Xena pretended to think it over.

Maybe she was getting soft, but she really did like the boy and didn’t want to part with him just yet.

- You’ll start immediately - she announced - I’m sure Frida is waiting to have her tunic returned and she’ll most likely have some chores for you. If she’s content with you by tomorrow morning, then you can come with us.

- Thank you, Xena! - he grinned widely and made a move like he wanted to hug her, but stopped himself just in time.

Xena nodded and shooed him away. She poured herself more wine, a last cup before going to bed. But it wasn’t meant to be.

- Nice lad, he is.

The Warrior Princess felt the annoying presence of the God of War even before he showed up. She supressed the reflex to spin around and face him. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of showing how uneasy he made her feel.

- Him? - she snarled and gulped her wine - He’s just a precaution in case Frida doesn’t live up to the expectations.

Ares walked closer to her. She felt his hands stroking her hips and his hot breath on the back of her neck.

- You look stunning…

She willed herself to stay still, seemingly indifferent to his advances. In reality, every part of her being was screaming for her to run.

- What? - he continued - No kiss for daddy?

- You’re not my father - she gritted her teeth.

- Sure, dear, keep telling yourself that.

She rolled her eyes and moved away from his touch.

- Just because you fucked my mother doesn’t mean you’re my father. She’s a tavern owner. If every man who slept with her insisted on calling himself my father I’d have thousands of those.

Ares laughed.

- That’s not a nice thing to say about one’s mother.

He was right, it wasn’t nice. Nor was it true. Of course, her mother wasn’t considered virtuous. There were obvious reasons - tavern keeping wasn’t a respectable job for a woman. And of course, she had the first child without being married, then, when she did marry, it was to a foreign soldier who spent more time away at war than at home, just to finally abandon them altogether. But even considering all that, her mother definitely hadn’t slept with more than several guys.

- What do you want? - Xena asked finally.

- I heard you’re going to Rome… A very stupid idea, I may say.

She only scoffed in response.

- Now, Xena, hear me out - he inched towards her - With me on your side you could mold the world anew. I could provide you with the best warriors the world ever heard of. Resurrect the old heroes... Achilles, Hector, even Alexander. You wouldn’t have to sneak into Rome like a pitiful assassin. You could ride right into the Eternal City on the head of the greatest army the world ever heard of…

- I already have such an army - Xena remarked from above her cup.

- Really, Xena? For how long? - Ares circled around her, his hand roaming over her body - With you away on some spiteful vengeance trip how long will it take for your trusted generals to turn towards their own profits?

- Are you trying to threaten me? - she shook his hand off and smiled - Just because you gave me a shiny orb doesn’t mean you get to tell me how to live my life.

A spasm went through his face and he slammed her forward against the table, pinning her down.

- Oh Xena, it means exactly that.

She winced at the sound of her peplos being ripped, and when he rammed himself into her she had to bite her lip to the point of drawing blood to keep herself from screaming out. Of course she tried to fight him, struggling against his hold, but even she couldn’t fight off a God of War. Maybe in a fair fight and with their swords drawn she would stand a chance. But with her face pressed into the table and her wrists twisted painfully, she was powerless. She hated herself for being so focused at supressing her body’s reactions just to appear relaxed in front of him. Then again, conceit was always her greatest flaw. She gritted her teeth and cursed at herself for how quickly she grew wet for him, but at the same time she knew it was a simple bodily reaction and at least it helped to make the whole ordeal less painful.

- Don’t think we’re over - he grunted as he finally pulled out.

After that he disappeared, leaving Xena still sprawled on the table, her clothes torn. She lied there for a few moments before she managed to collect herself. Cutting off all the thoughts she threw the ruined peplos into the hearth, washed herself in the small basin at the stool in the corner of the room and dragged herself to bed.

And if in the morning somebody noticed her bruised cheek they didn’t dare to say a word.