The soldiers milled about in small groups, talking and laughing in their rough voices. They took little notice of the terrified villagers. Said villagers were sitting in a huddle in what was left of their town square – three of the main buildings were still burning, but no one made a move to stop it. A roof collapsed suddenly, sending a shower of sparks up into the early morning air.
There were only about forty townspeople, and most of those were women and children. Slumped bodies scattered around bore silent witness to the short-lived struggle that had begun at dawn, and ended soon after. Now the soldiers held the power. They looked like a ragtag crew, wearing mismatched armor and carrying a wide assortment of weapons. The only things that unified them were their black surcoats, with hawk's head insignias emblazoned on their breasts in gold.
Silence fell suddenly, broken only by the sound of a horse's hooves on the ground. A huge black stallion was walking slowly toward the knot of prisoners. He rolled his eyes and tossed his head, mouthing the bit. A tall, dark-haired woman sat easily in his saddle. She was dressed in black leathers and brass armor that left her upper thighs and shoulders insolently bare – a naked, bloodstained sword hung idly from her right hand.
The woman stopped her mount and peered down at the frightened villagers almost nonchalantly. Her eyes were a striking and unsettling pale blue in her tanned face. She swung out of the saddle; her boots struck the dirt with a thump, sending up a small cloud of dust. Even without her horse, she towered over the huddled captives. She surveyed them for a moment or two longer.
"So." Her voice broke the silence. It was low and vibrant. "Now that we're all here together, maybe one of you would like to tell me why Potadeia's tribute this year was short by almost a third of what you owe me." She let her gaze drift over to one of the crumpled corpses. "Since your mayor no longer seems to have much to say."
For a long moment, no one spoke. "We told you in our letter, Conqueror." That had been an older, heavyset man with a surly expression. "It's been a bad year…drought, wolves, raiders. What we sent you, we all but took out of the mouths of our children."
Her expression chilled to inhuman ice. "So my tribute was fed to shepherds' brats?" Silence. The question hung in the air as countless apprehensive eyes watched her. With a sudden flick, she had the point of her dripping weapon beneath his chin, forcing his head back. "Well?" she snarled.
"Leave him alone!"
The woman's dangerous gaze darted to the source of the piping voice that had just interrupted. A little scrap of a village girl stood there, scowling at her. She was perhaps in her mid-teens, with red-gold hair, pale brows and snapping green eyes. The top of her head barely came up to the dark-haired warrior's chest.
There was shocked silence for long seconds as the Conqueror's disquieting eyes studied her. Abruptly, the warrior turned her head. "General Bennu!" A grizzled soldier with a weatherbeaten face appeared, inclining his head in salute. "Take everything that's worth a centime," she said shortly. "Have the boys shackle this lot and take them west – you should be able to get a few dinars for them. Burn everything else. I'll meet you back in Amphipolis."
"Aye, Mistress." The man barked a few orders, and the milling soldiers broke ranks to move in on the horrified villagers.
"Oh, and Bennu?" The Conqueror had resumed her place in the saddle. She smiled without warmth and pointed at the red-haired village girl. "Package that one up. She comes with me."
There was some commotion as the general carried out the order. A woman objected to the girl's shackling, and the prisoner seemed to be reaching out to a younger brunette girl, screaming something that sounded like "Lila!" The Conqueror watched with a somewhat bored expression, her fingers playing about a round, jewelled weapon that hung at her hip. As she waited, she cleaned and sheathed her sword with studied indifference.
At last, Bennu approached the Conqueror's stallion, dragging the squirming captive with him. He held up the end of a chain, the other end of which was attached to the manacles that bound the girl's wrists. The Conqueror took it and fastened it to her saddlehorn with a few practiced twists. "Make it quick, Bennu," she said. "I want you and the boys back at the fortress within a fortnight."
"Aye, Mistress." The general saluted her and moved off to oversee the plundering of Potadeia. The woman gave a shrill whistle – without further ceremony, she spurred her mount onto the road that led eastward from the village, dragging her weeping prisoner along behind her. Ten grim-faced, mounted soldiers followed along in her wake.
They rode without stopping until the sun climbed high in the sky. Even then, they only paused to break out rations in the saddle before riding on. The afternoon was well underway before the Conqueror abruptly reined in her mount and turned her impossibly blue eyes on her prisoner.
The blonde girl was panting heavily, her face flushed and sweaty. Her ankle-length skirt was filthy and torn. The warrior regarded her with an almost professional interest. "Come here," she bit out suddenly. The exhausted captive slowly shuffled forward to stand at her stirrup. The Conqueror regarded her for a moment or two. "Want to ride?"
The prisoner looked down at her long skirt, then back up again. "I don't know if I'm dressed for it."
A sudden gleam appeared in the warrior's eye, something a lot like mischief. Almost lazily, she reached over her right shoulder, grasped the hilt of her sword, and drew it. The captive froze in terrified shock as the blade whipped down! There was a tearing sound, and the pale-haired girl was left staring at a long, clean rip in the front of her skirt that divided the fabric neatly between her legs. The Conqueror placidly sheathed her weapon and extended a hand down to her prisoner. The girl stared at it for a stunned moment before grasping it. With one powerful motion, the Conqueror lifted the girl into her saddle. Then she resumed her interrupted journey.
For a while, the two of them were silent. The captive gave a squirm or two, plainly embarrassed by the gaping slit in her skirt. "What's your name?" the warrior asked suddenly.
The prisoner stopped wriggling. There was a short pause. "Gabrielle."
The Conqueror grunted, her lips tightening in obvious displeasure. "You will address me as 'Mistress' or 'Mistress Xena,' slave. Now let's have that again, shall we? What's your name?"
"Gabrielle, Mistress." The captive rolled her eyes back to look furtively at her captor. "Is that what I am now? Your slave?"
"Did you think you were my new navy admiral?" came the acid response. "Shut up. I ask the questions here." The arm around Gabrielle's waist tightened briefly in warning. "How old are you?"
"Almost seventeen." There was an instant's pause before the captive gasped. "…Um, Mistress."
Xena's brows lowered. "Don't forget again." Her voice dropped into a menacing growl. Silence fell. For a long time, the only sounds were the creaks of harness and the dull clopping of horse hooves on the dirt road. The sun slowly made its way down the sky. The air took on a rosy tinge as scrubby wilderness gave way to well kept farms. Then the walls of Amphipolis came into view on the horizon.
The blonde girl's eyes widened. "Wow."
The Conqueror glanced at her captive as if she'd forgotten the girl existed. "Ever seen a city before, Gabrielle?" she asked mildly.
Wary green eyes peered at her. "No, Mistress," came the careful reply. "I've never been out of Potadeia before." Xena smirked – a plain, simple, smug smirk. She didn't say anything more, however, and the group of soldiers rode on in the evening light.
Amphipolis was nestled at the foot of a small mountain range, on the plain above the eastern bank of the river Strymon. To the southwest, the land flattened into the plains and highlands that had once been home to a tribe of Amazons. To the north, the mountains rose up on the horizon, wild and blue and remote. The Conqueror had made this city, once the tiny backwater town where she had been born, into a thriving metropolis – the capital city of Thrace. Her territory stretched all the way from Abdera in the east to Pellan in the west, and as far south as the four islands of Limnos, Imbros, Thassos and Samothrace.
So far. Although Thrace had not invaded anyone for a couple of years now, no one really thought that the Conqueror was through with conquering. Not for nothing was she known as the Destroyer of Nations.
The city walls loomed. As the riders approached the gates, one of Xena's men spurred his horse alongside hers, set a pike against his stirrup, and unfurled a hawk's head banner. The guards at the gates stiffened and saluted smartly as their queen rode past. Xena gave them little more than a cursory glance.
Gabrielle's eyes were wide with apprehension as she looked around. Even though the evening streets were relatively deserted, it was obvious that the city overwhelmed her. She sat quietly in the curve of the Conqueror's arm, her bewildered green eyes moving over everything. Her shackled hands rested loosely on the saddlehorn.
After a few minute's riding, they reached the formidable fortress at the center of the city. It was built out of imported black marble. Its dark, imposing bulk seemed to dominate the city. It was an appropriate dwelling place for the Destroyer. The young captive shrank down visibly as her captor rode through the gaping maw of the fortress, and it swallowed them whole.
At long last, Xena reined in her stallion in an open courtyard that lay before the largest stables that Gabrielle had ever seen. The Conqueror swung out of the saddle with remarkable grace. She reached up, caught Gabrielle around the waist, and lifted her down to the ground with little effort.
A thin, dark man with a well-trimmed beard approached, bowing with great formality. "Welcome home, Your Majesty," he said. "I see that your expedition was a success."
"To the great disappointment of all, I'm sure." Xena smiled with acrid pleasantry. "Gaelan, this is Gabrielle. I got her this morning. Gabrielle, this is Gaelan, my seneschal."
Gaelan regarded the blonde girl. He somehow managed to give the impression of turning up his nose in distaste without so much as twitching a muscle. "Ah," he said, pausing delicately. "And this is…your new girl?"
"That's right." The Conqueror gave Gabrielle a light shove in his direction. "I'll be busy for a while, but I want her tonight. Have her ready and in my private quarters two hours after sunset." With that, Xena handed her stallion's reins to a waiting groom and stalked off, her black cloak flowing out behind her like a liquid shadow.
The prisoner peered up at him through her pale lashes. The seneschal regarded her with a mixture of contempt and exasperation. Then he grasped her firmly by the upper arm and began to walk quickly toward the main bulk of the castle. Gabrielle scrambled to keep up with him, barely managing to gather in the trailing end of her chain before she tripped on it.
Without a word, Gaelan marched the frightened girl through the halls and up a flight of stairs. She had the confused impression of richly decorated walls and ornate doors, but she was too bewildered to pay proper attention to her surroundings. The marble floors felt cool and smooth under her bare feet. She felt very small and shabby in her torn, grubby clothes.
Abruptly, the seneschal pulled Gabrielle into a room. It was fairly small and plain. Two girls and one older woman were sitting on chairs inside, sewing. Gaelan pushed Gabrielle forward as they looked up. "Her Majesty has found a replacement for Daphne," he said succinctly. "She wants her in her quarters two hours after sundown, Hedia. She's all yours."
The older woman lifted her hands in dismay. She had shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair. "Already? The poor thing hasn't even cooled, hanging there on the gate." She regarded Gabrielle with concerned brown eyes. "And this one's only a child. Are you sure?"
"Quite," Gaelan sniffed. He turned away. "I would recommend giving her a bath first." The door closed behind him with a crisp click.
Gabrielle stood there with her shackled arms hanging down, staring up at the woman. The day's events were beginning to catch up with her; she could feel a lump rising in her throat. Hedia seemed to see it. Her faintly annoyed expression softened a little. "Well, if the queen wants you fixed up, I suppose we'd better get started." She laid a gentle hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Come along, and we'll get you taken care of."
"Okay," the blonde girl whispered, blinking to keep back the threatening tears. She allowed herself to be led from the room.
A few minutes later, Gabrielle found herself unchained and naked in a bathtub full of gently steaming water. The soap she'd been given had a freshly herbal scent. She washed herself quietly, every now and then casting a self-conscious glance at Hedia. The woman was paying her no mind, being absorbed in laying out clothes and towels and other things, but her presence still made Gabrielle blush.
"Finished?" Hedia asked at length, turning to her with a quick smile. "Out you get, there's a duck." Before Gabrielle could think about being embarrassed, she was out of the tub and being dried with a soft towel. She blinked as her hands were filled with cloth. "Put this on, child, and these slippers, while I go and get a brush."
The girl quickly slipped into the garments – a simple, silken tunic in a dark forest green, and a pair of silk slippers. They felt odd. Gabrielle wriggled her toes in them, marvelling at how soft they felt. She peered up shyly as Hedia returned and began to brush out her damp, red-gold hair. "Please," she said softly, speaking for only the second time since the Conqueror had left her, "who's Daphne?"
Hedia looked at her gravely for a moment, as if wondering how much she ought to tell her. "Daphne was Her Majesty's last girl."
"Oh." Gabrielle thought about that while the woman began to anoint her hands and arms with olive oil and rub it into her skin. "What happened to her?"
Hedia eyed her. "She tried to run off," she said cryptically.
"Oh," Gabrielle said again. There was another silence as Hedia combed something that smelled herbal into her freshly washed hair. "Am I going to be cleaning the queen's rooms?"
The older woman gave her an odd look. "Did Her Majesty not tell you what she wants with you?"
"She said I was her slave." Green eyes blinked in troubled innocence. "I don't know if I can do it. I only ever cleaned for Mama and Da." The blonde girl suddenly stopped talking. Tears brimmed in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks.
Quickly, Hedia wiped them away. "Hush, child," she scolded gently. "You mustn't cry in front of the queen, you hear? It makes her angry, and you mustn't ever make her angry." Gabrielle swallowed a sob with an effort, and Hedia smiled. "There's a good little duck," she said. "Now you come with me. We've time to give you a good supper before we take you to Her Majesty's room."
Gabrielle was taken to the kitchens and given a plain but filling meal. When it was over, Hedia took her up a hall, and then two long flights of stairs. There was a short corridor at the top, with a large door at the end. Inside was a large, open room with many windows; an ornate, almost throne-like chair stood against one wall. Another, smaller doorway lay to the right. Hedia took her through it.
The room inside was very plain, almost spartan in its simplicity. There was a fireplace to the right, and a large bed to the left. A single wardrobe was the only other item of furniture in the room.
Hedia inhaled deeply and looked at Gabrielle, touching her shoulder gently. "The queen will return soon," she said. "Just remember, little one – do as she says, and don't cry. Everything will be all right."
"Thank you," Gabrielle whispered. The door softly closed, and she was alone in the queen's room.
Gabrielle looked around nervously. This certainly wasn't how she had pictured the queen's quarters. She would have expected rich carpets and artwork and sumptuous blankets and cushions, not this almost barrack-like plainness. Gabrielle touched the wine red comforter timidly, and found it very soft. She pulled her hand back quickly and looked around. After a moment's thought, she sat down by the fireplace to await the Conqueror's arrival.
She didn't have long to wait. A few minutes later, the door opened, and the queen's tall form filled the threshold. Gabrielle stared up at her mutely. From her bristling weapons to the merciless ice chips that were her eyes, Xena was the very picture of intimidation. The blonde girl felt her mouth go dry.
Xena stood over her and folded her arms across her chest. "So, Gabrielle," she said at last, "are you ready?"
The girl peered up through her golden lashes. "Ready for what?" she asked innocently. "Do you want me to clean your room now, Mistress?"
One of the queen's black brows arched. "Gaelan didn't tell you why you're here?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "He took me to Hedia, and she gave me a bath and some supper," she said. "All they said was that I'm supposed to replace somebody named Daphne." She hesitated. "Thank you for the food. It was really good."
A very odd expression crossed the Conqueror's face. It was a mixture of annoyance and something approaching amusement. "So you really don't know why you're here. In my bedroom. At night."
Gabrielle's forehead wrinkled. Xena's tone seemed to imply that there was something obvious that she was missing, but she had no idea what that something might be. "No, Mistress," she said hesitantly. "They really didn't tell me."
"Great Ares." Xena's amusement grew. She took off her cloak, crossed over to the wardrobe, and hung it up inside. Gabrielle watched as the woman removed her armor and weapons and placed them on various hooks and pegs on the wall. Now dressed only in her leathers, the queen sat down on the edge of the bed and studied her new slave with her piercing eyes. "So, you a shepherd's kid?"
The girl shook her head. "Da is a goatherd, Mistress."
"Mm. Vast difference in quality of life," Xena said dryly. "Miss it? Want to go home?"
Gabrielle stared at her. The faintly mocking tone in the woman's voice seemed like a slap in the face. Tears filled Gabrielle's eyes, but she remembered what Hedia had said, and held them back with an effort. "Yes, Mistress," she whispered.
"Too bad," Xena said flatly. "You're mine now. Besides, your home's gone. My army wiped it off the map and burned it to cinders. Your family's being sold in Pella as we speak." The lump in Gabrielle's throat was making it hard to breathe. "Take my advice, kid. Forget about home. It's gone. All that matters now is whether you please me, because you belong to me." Gabrielle stared at her in horrified silence. Xena cocked her head. "Do you hate me?"
The word was out of Gabrielle's mouth before she could stop it. She quickly shut her lips and gazed nervously at the queen.
Xena nodded and patted her head. "Good girl. You're very honest. Honest to the point of complete and utter stupidity." The slave blinked at her. Then the queen seemed to lose patience with the direction of the conversation. She sat back. "Are you a virgin?"
Shocked, Gabrielle felt her cheeks start to burn. "I…I…yes, but…"
"Good." The queen regarded her calmly. "I took you to be my body slave," she said bluntly. "Do you know what that is, Gabrielle?"
Round green eyes stared back at her. The blonde girl was too stunned to speak for a few long moments. She couldn't seem to wrap her mind around what her new owner had just said. "But, Mistress, I'm…I'm a girl."
Amusement filled Xena's pale eyes. "So I've noticed." She gestured. "Come here."
Gabrielle felt numb. She slowly got up and crossed the floor to stand before her mistress. Xena stood; her large hands began to run lightly over Gabrielle's body, feeling her through the soft fabric of her shift. The slave's shock deepened. She stood frozen – her brain couldn't seem to process what was happening to her. Then Xena's hands cupped and squeezed her breasts. A soft gasp burst from Gabrielle's lips at the unwelcome jolt of sensation.
The Conqueror chuckled darkly and let go. Her slave's eyes followed her as she stooped down to pick something off the floor. It was a leather strap, about a foot long and half an inch thick. "This arrangement's pretty simple," Xena said. "You do as I say, or you get whipped with this." She held up the strap. "Get it?"
"Yes," Gabrielle said softly.
The strap thrust itself beneath her chin. "Yes, what?" Xena barked.
Gabrielle's heart hammered in her chest. "Yes, Mistress," she whimpered.
The queen patted her cheek with the leather. "Good girl." She turned. "I want you to know exactly what you'll be trying to avoid, Gabrielle," she said. "Take off your clothes."
This can't be happening. The blonde girl slowly pulled off her toga and slippers, her heart still pounding wildly. Xena gestured. "On your knees, and bend over the bed," she ordered. Gabrielle silently obeyed. "Good." The queen stood over her. "Because you're not actually being punished, this whipping won't be as hard," she said. "I'm going to give you five strokes. You will hold that position, and keep your hands where they are. If you move, you have to take another stroke. Understood?"
"Yes, Mistress." Gabrielle felt the strap rub lightly against her buttocks. Then it left, and she tensed herself for the first blow.
Gabrielle's eyes flew wide open, and she yelled in pain and surprise.
"Owww!" Tears of pain flooded her eyes
A third burst of agony shot across her exposed buttocks. Gabrielle began to cry.
"Oh, gods," the slave sobbed.
There was silence for a while, broken only by Gabrielle's whimpers. Xena moved over to one side. "That was five strokes at half strength," she said coolly. "I'm sure you get my point." Gabrielle turned her wet eyes to look at her. Xena calmly discarded the strap. "I'm sure we won't need to worry about this again. You're a good girl – you'll do as you're told."
The blonde girl stared up at the queen, taking in her icy eyes, her fiercely chiselled features, and the rippling muscles beneath the tanned skin of her arms. "Are you going to rape me?" she whispered, her green eyes wide with fear.
Xena looked at her in cold silence for what felt like a long last she grunted and turned back to the wardrobe. Gabrielle watched as the queen stripped off her leathers. For a moment, the Conqueror stood there naked; then the expanse of toned muscles and olive skin disappeared beneath the folds of a blue silk dressing gown. "Not tonight," Xena said, turning toward the bed once more. "I'm not really in the mood to train you yet." A black brow quirked. "And this is your last warning, Gabrielle. You will address me as 'Mistress.' Forget again, and you'll be bending over for a real whipping."
The slave blanched. "I'm sorry," she said in a small voice. "I'm not used to this, Mistress."
"Get used to it," Xena said bluntly. She crossed over to the bed and gave a lock of Gabrielle's red-gold hair a light tug. "Up." The slave obediently rose to her knees. Xena slipped in between the silken sheets, lounging on her side like some predatory cat. "Come," she said, patting the surface of the bed beside her. Gabrielle nervously slipped into the bed. Silk slid against her naked skin like butter as the sheets enfolded her.
Gabrielle had spent the majority of the day in the circle of the arm that now held her, but this felt completely different. She was tugged back against the queen's body. Gabrielle flinched as her still-tender buttocks were pressed against the woman's form, and she felt Xena's silk-covered breasts push against her shoulder blades. The Conqueror gave a satisfied sigh. "Get some sleep."
The blonde girl swallowed and closed her eyes. "Yes, Mistress," she murmured.