I woke to the sounds of a cross being constructed and one Tartarus of a headache. I crawled off the bed where I must've collapsed, judging by my rumpled uniform. I was just about to yell out for the guards, when Gabrielle walked into the tent.
"Gabrielle, tell them to stop that racket, or they'll end up on that cross themselves!" I bellowed, immediately regretting the action, as my head reeled from the after-effects of too much wine.
"Yes, General Xena," Gabrielle responded, seemingly unruffled by my surly greeting.
I called after her as she turned in the direction of the noise, "And bring some cold water back with you."
Mercifully, the hammering stopped and Gabrielle returned with a pitcher of cold water. I grabbed the pitcher from her and poured the contents into a bowl. I splashed my face with the water, hoping it would help revive me. It didn't. I still felt like I had been dragged behind a chariot.
It seemed I wasn't the only one who had a rough night. I noticed Gabrielle's face was pallid and drawn. As my assistant went about her morning duties, she was uncharacteristically subdued, not her usual chatty self. With my headache, this should've been a blessing, but the silence was louder than a cavalry charge. Finally I couldn't take it any more.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong?"
No response. She avoided looking at me. Now, I knew something was wrong.
"I asked you a question."
"I'd rather not say, General."
That was the wrong answer in my present condition. I don't have a lot of patience when I'm sober. I have none when I'm hung over.
"Tell me now, or by the gods, you'll regret it!" I grabbed my pounding head, immediately regretting my pique.
"I...it's about last night, General."
"What about last night?"
"You don't remember?" Her eyes flickered between confusion and relief.
"It's all a bit of a blur."
My assistant’s face turned from pale to flush as she struggled with whatever it was she didn't want to talk about.
"Just spit it out girl!"
"You…you were forward with me, General." I could tell Gabrielle was fearful and trying to phrase her words carefully.
By now, my head felt like it had been split open by an axe. I rubbed my temples in the vain hope of relieving the excruciating pain.
"I vaguely recall kissing you. Was there more?"
"Did I do more than just kiss you?" I knew exactly what I had done last night, what I didn't do, and what I wanted to do.
"No, General." Gabrielle still wouldn't make eye contact, either that or there was something of immense interest on the floor.
"Well, it must've been the wine." I shrugged. It wasn't just the wine, but I wasn't about to admit that.
There was an awkward silence between us that was louder than the pounding in my brain, so I finally acquiesced.
"Can I ask you something?" I asked with a pained and apologetic expression.
She nodded warily.
"Would you please find the healer and get me something for this hangover. If my enemies don't kill me, this headache will!"
"Yes, General Xena," Gabrielle replied with an amused and forgiving smile. I think she knew that was as close to an apology as she was going to get from me.
Before each battle, there is a moment when every soldier wonders if this one will be his last. Of course, going into battle with any thought other than victory, was asking for defeat. The one who stays focused and believes in their supremacy will be the victor. That focus and belief was the edge I had over my enemies — that and the favour of Ares, God of War.
My spies estimated the Thessalian army at two thousand men. My army numbered three times that, but I knew it would not be an easy victory. The Thessalians were defending their capital city and their king, and they would fight to the death. There would likely be heavy casualties on both sides by the end of the battle.
A blanket of gold from the early morning sun covered the valley. It almost seemed a pity that such beauty was about to be destroyed — tattered and littered with the dead and dying. Now, though, was not the time for romantic sentiments. Now was the time for battle.
I took a calming breath and looked ahead at the enemy's position. The Thessalian army lined up in a classic Phalanx formation just outside the city walls of Larissa. I searched the enemy ranks for their Tagos — the Thessalian commander-in-chief.
Finally, I spotted my counterpart on the battlefield. He was mounted on a pure white horse, his polished armour gleaming. Unlike me, however, he rode at the rear of his army. Coward, I thought bitterly, a leader worthy of his soldiers' blood does not lead from the rear. I swore that before the day was out, his own blood would tarnish his gleaming armour.
I nudged my horse forward and turned around. Unsheathing my sword, I raised it high over my head. I looked left, and then right. My army watched me intently. This was the most important part of the battle: rallying the men.
"Today, we fight for the glory of Ares!"
This produced a cheer.
"Tonight, the widows of the enemy will mourn their losses!"
This got a bigger cheer.
"Remember, war is not about dying for what you believe in. It's about making the other bastard die for what you believe in!"
The men raised their swords and yelled.
"Together, we will be victorious!"
Darphus started to chant my name and the men picked it up.
"Xena! Xena! Xena! Xena!"
With the whole army chanting my name, I turned to face the enemy.
"Kill them all!" I cried and spurred my ebony-coloured horse forward.
The Thessalian army met our charge as we crossed the plain. My sword hit flesh immediately. The first scent of blood made me smile, and I became Death Incarnate as I sent soldier after soldier to Hades.
I kept moving, knowing that if I didn't, I'd never move again. I accompanied each thrust, each parry with an expulsion of vocal energy. I put as much force behind each stroke as I could manage, and each time an enemy crumpled at my feet, it made me stronger. My senses were heightened, allowing me to anticipate when I was being attacked. My mind became tuned to the way the battle was progressing. Like being given a script to a play I had written, my army acted out the battle. I felt invincible.
It's a glorious sensation — until it goes wrong.
My army was pushing the Thessalians back to the gates of their city when I faltered. I came upon a Thessalian soldier. He was only a young lad. Blond hair fell from beneath his helmet and his wide terror-filled eyes caught mine. As my sword sliced into the young Thessalian's neck, all I saw was Gabrielle's face.
With my mind focused on thoughts of Gabrielle, I failed to sense an approaching attacker until it was too late. I tumbled from my horse as he hit my shoulder armour with a glancing blow. Quickly, I got to my feet and easily blocked the follow up attack.
I cursed myself for being distracted.
I let out a war cry and impaled my attacker on my sword so hard that the hilt connected with his ribs. I raised my foot and pushed the body off my weapon, and paused to catch my breath. My attention was refocused on the battle by a head rolling past my feet. I looked in the direction it came from, and found Darnell peering down at me from his horse. Fresh blood ran down his blade.
"General, are you injured?"
"No, I'm fine. Take Galates' unit and swing around the Thessalians' left flank." I gathered up the reins of my horse and remounted. "Onwards!" I screamed and re-entered the fray.
This time I remained focused on fighting. Eventually I reached the commanding general of the Thessalian army. He looked as though he was out for an afternoon ride: his armour was spotless and so was his sword. He trotted his horse around in nervous circles looking for an escape. His weakness enraged me.
"Ai-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-she-yah!" I launched myself out of the saddle at him.
My body connected with his and he fell from his horse. I landed on my feet next to him and brought my sword down. He blocked my strike, pushed me back, and gained his feet quickly.
He snarled some obscenity and launched an attack of his own. I parried and blocked everything he threw at me, and when I saw my chance, I struck. My sword slipped between gaps in his armour. He stopped and looked down in disbelief at the sword jammed in his side. With a final yell, I twisted my sword and thrust further. Blood gushed from his mouth and he fell slowly to the ground.
"Victory!" I yelled and held his helmet aloft on the tip of my bloody sword.
My men heard my cry, and it spurred them on. The Thessalians, realising their general was dead, soon lost heart and threw down their weapons and surrendered.
It was a glorious victory. My army had crushed the Thessalian Army and took their capital city. Now Larissa and the kingdom of Thessalia were mine.
I returned to camp with Darnell and Darphus, leaving Braextus to round up prisoners and establish a garrison in the city. As I approached my tent, I could see Gabrielle outside. She smiled when she saw me. I wanted to smile back. Instead, I cursed myself for being distracted by thoughts of her during the battle.
"General Xena," she said enthusiastically, "congratulations on a great victory."
I grunted an acknowledgment as I walked past. She followed me into my tent.
Fighting made me thirsty, and the first thing I did was reach for a pitcher of water.
"Allow me, General." Gabrielle grabbed the pitcher and poured a goblet of water for me.
When she handed me the goblet, she looked at me and smiled. Her eyes were a beautiful sea-green colour and reflected such innocence and trust. As she turned to replace the pitcher on the table, I eyed her petite and slender body. I had never really noticed until that moment how beautiful she was.
Battle lust had replaced the wine from last night. It would've been so easy to give into my carnal needs and take what I wanted from her. But I didn't want her that way. I needed her to leave now — for both our sakes.
"You may go." I grabbed the pitcher and poured another cup of water.
"You mean after I help you with your armour and— "
"No!" I said forcefully. Seeing the hurt look on her face, I softened my tone and explained, "I-I need to be alone tonight."
"As you wish, General."
As I wish? I wished for so many things, and almost anything I wished for was mine for the taking. I almost changed my mind about dismissing her. Almost.
"If there is nothing else, General, then I guess I'll say good night." Gabrielle couldn't hide her disappointment.
"Yes, good night." I didn't look up as she left. I couldn't face her disappointment.
After a much-needed bath, I invited my field commanders to join me in the command tent for a little victory celebration. We supped on provisions confiscated from the palace in Larissa and drank the best Thessalian wine. I listened as the men boasted about their prowess on the battlefield. Between the wine and the adrenaline, battle lust was coursing through my veins like a poison, and I knew just where to find the antidote.
"Well, gentlemen, I am turning in for the night. We will march into Larissa tomorrow."
Commander Darnell took the hint and immediately rose to leave. Considering the amount of wine imbibed, he stood as straight as he could and saluted me. The rest of the group took their cue from Commander Darnell, and staggered out of the tent.
"Lieutenant Darphus, you stay. I want a quick word with you," I said, as he stood up to leave with the others.
I waited until Darphus and I were alone. "I have a special mission for you, Darphus."
"I am yours to command, General."
"I am in need of some entertainment." I didn't need to remind him to be discreet. Darphus knew what was required.
"Yes, General. For tonight?"
"Yes, tonight — right now. I will be in my tent."
"As you desire, General." He saluted and left.
Darphus returned shortly, escorting a petite figure dressed in a cloak. The hood concealed her features. He made a discreet exit and left us alone.
The woman slowly, somewhat seductively, loosened the ties of her cloak and pushed back the hood to reveal her face.
She was a young woman, no more than nineteen summers old, slender and petite, possessing full, firm breasts and long reddish-blonde hair. She bore a striking resemblance to my personal assistant, which was unexpected yet strangely arousing.
She stood before me with the self-assured air that most camp followers have. She was pretty, and she knew it. I wanted her, and she knew it. In her normal arrangements with my men, this would put her in charge. However, she also knew that I was not a common soldier, and she had to show some deference to me. She was not showing it very well, but she would when I had finished with her.
"Do you know why you're here?" I asked in a neutral voice.
"Yes, My Lord," the girl replied.
"Don't call me 'Lord'! I'm not some petty warlord, girl."
"Yes, My Conqueror." The seductive way she said 'My Conqueror' amused me. She had no idea how true that was.
"What is your name?"
"Anteia," she replied with a flirtatious smile.
"Anteia," I whispered seductively and reached out to take her by the throat. I didn’t need to apply any pressure — my words did that. "You are here for my pleasure, and my pleasure alone. You will not forget your place. Understand?"
"Whatever My Conqueror desires," she answered, still smiling.
"This is not a game, girl," I growled. Something in my voice and in my eyes caused a glimmer of fear to cross her face. Good. She was learning. "Take off your clothes."
I stepped back to watch, feeling the heat of battle lust flow through my veins in waves of desire. She finished removing her cloak, and then began to sway in a seductive dance. She moved to the rhythm of the drums that were pounding outside in celebration of our victory. My pulse began to beat to the same rhythm. As the drums increased their tempo, my heart beat faster too, until I felt as if it would burst through my chest.
I rose quickly and pounced, grabbing the edge of Anteia's dress. She gasped as the material ripped.
"I told you, this isn't a game." I reached through the torn material and grabbed a breast, pinching the nipple roughly. She gasped louder, and I stifled the sound with my mouth. My kiss smothered her lips and her breath came out in small bursts through her nose. I could feel the soft puffs of breath on my face.
I thrust my tongue between her lips as my hands began to tear the rest of her dress from her body. I pushed forward, and the force of my assault propelled her backwards several steps until the centre tent post stopped her.
Her fingers reached for my tunic. I grabbed her hands, pulled them over her head and pinned them against the post. Without taking my tongue from her mouth, I tore off a strip of her dress and tied her hands to the post, stretching them high above her head.
I looked into her hazel eyes and now saw more than a glimmer of fear. My hunger fed on that fear. Perhaps this was a game after all. But I was the one making all the rules.
I leaned over and whispered forcefully in her left ear. "You will do exactly what I tell you to do, when I tell you to do it. Is that clear?"
"Yes, My Conqueror." Anteia's voice was husky with desire.
I began to kiss her again, my tongue hungrily exploring her mouth. Suddenly, my mind was flooded with images of Gabrielle and that drunken kiss. The memory angered me.
I bit down on Anteia's lower lip, tasting the coppery tang of blood. She whimpered in pain, but the whimper turned to a moan of pleasure when I moved my mouth to her breast.
The taste of blood had caused my pulse to race again and banished all thoughts of my personal assistant. My focus turned to Anteia's breasts. I began to suckle and nip at them, using my mouth and fingers on each in alternating patterns until her breath came in uneven pants.
"Please," she finally murmured, as she thrust her hips forward.
"Did I tell you to speak, girl," I snarled.
"No, My Conqueror. I'm sorry, My Conqueror," she said, her voice trembling with equal parts fear and desire.
I grabbed her red-blonde hair and pulled her head back. Her eyes watered with the pain.
"What is it you want, girl?" I asked.
I felt her hips jerk against me.
"Please," she whispered, unable to give voice to her needs.
"Do you want my lips on your dripping cunt? Do you want my fingers thrusting deep inside of you?"
"Mmmm," she moaned softly.
"Answer me!" I demanded and thrust my thigh between her legs, shoving it forward, and pressing hard against her sex.
"Oh, yes...My Conqueror," she purred.
I felt her warm liquid coat my thigh. This fuelled my lust. I released her hair, and with both hands, grabbed her firm buttocks and pulled her body toward me, crushing her harder against my leg. She moaned again, louder this time.
I forced her against my leg again and again, until she was writhing and her moans matched the rhythm of my thrusts. Then, I stopped abruptly and pulled back. She whimpered, and again her hips tried to make contact.
She was beyond begging now. Her body screamed for release even though her voice couldn't. She trembled and her muscles twitched. Her skin glistened with sweat. Her desire dripped down her thighs. I reached down and ran my fingers through her sex, coating them with her moisture. She watched with half-closed eyes as I slowly licked my fingers.
The taste of her juices caused the heat to surge inside of me once again. I leaned down and clamped my mouth against her neck, sucking and biting, and at the same time, I thrust two fingers hard and deep inside her.
Her breath was expelled in a rush of air and a low guttural groan. I continued to thrust into her, and soon added a third finger, filling her, stretching her.
I could feel the silky walls close around my fingers as her groans changed pitch, turning into whimpers that were equal parts pleasure and pain.
"Come for me now," I ordered, and then bit down harder into the soft skin over her collarbone.
"Gods, oh, gods," she cried. Her body stilled as the orgasm held her tight in its grip and then just as suddenly released her, to crash in pulsating waves. My fingers were clutched from deep inside and her entire body jerked with the motion. I rocked with her and rode it out, waiting until she stilled before I removed my fingers and my lips from her body.
I stepped back and looked at her. Her tied hands were the only things keeping her on her feet. She was covered in sweat, and her breath came in ragged gasps. Her eyes were closed, as if even the effort of opening them was too much.
I had beaten her, just as surely as I had beaten those men on the battlefield. This knowledge quelled my blood lust, and I felt it fading, ebbing from me like the outgoing tide. I took a deep breath and then expelled it slowly.
I reached up and untied her hands. They fell limply to her sides and she leaned her weight against the tent pole. She opened her eyes, finally, and looked at me.
For an instant, I saw Gabrielle's golden-green gaze staring back at me and felt a twinge of guilt.
"Leave me," I commanded.
"I said leave me!" I screamed and raised my fist as I moved toward her.
She scrambled out of my way and grabbed her cloak from the ground where it had fallen. She managed to wrap it around her naked frame as she dived through the tent flaps.
I went in search of wine, desperately seeking the oblivion it would bring.
The next night, I dismissed Gabrielle early and had Darphus escort Anteia to my tent. And again the next night.
Taking Anteia helped satisfy my carnal urges, but did nothing to keep my mind from thinking about Gabrielle. Anteia may have resembled Gabrielle somewhat in looks, but she was nothing like Gabrielle for conversation or intellect. Then again, it wasn't Anteia's mind I was interested in.
I could tell at first Gabrielle was bewildered by the sudden change in our routine. After a few days, however, she seemed resigned to our new arrangement and no longer asked to stay for an evening chat. This did nothing to assuage the guilt I felt each time I dismissed Gabrielle early and sent for Anteia.
I had been careful not to allow Anteia and Gabrielle to meet. A trusted lieutenant since my warlord days, Darphus was efficient and discreet. He made sure Anteia was off limits to anyone else and arranged to have her brought to my tent every evening and escorted back well before dawn. This went on for a week.
Regrettably, it happened. I don't know if I had too much wine or forgot who was in my bed, but I didn't dismiss Anteia when I was finished with her. Instead, she spent the night. The next morning, we didn't wake up at first light, and the guards knew better than to disturb me while I was entertaining a guest.
I heard a gasp, and despite the affects of wine and sex, my warrior instincts were razor sharp. I jumped out of bed and grabbed my sword, crouching in a defensive posture. The intruder was framed by sunlight beaming through the open tent flap, so I couldn't immediately identify who it was. Once my pupils adjusted to the light, I could make out the features of a petite figure. It was Gabrielle.
During the commotion, Anteia woke up and laughed at the scene: me standing completely naked, and my personal assistant standing dumbstruck at the other end of my sword.
Gabrielle looked over at Anteia then back at me. "Uh, sorry…I…excuse me…I-I didn’t mean to wake you, General. I’ll just go and…and…er, I’ll just go." She made a hasty retreat out of my tent.
Still snickering, Anteia stepped up behind me and put her arms around my waist. "What an idiot! She acts like she’s never seen a couple of lovers before!"
I turned on Anteia and glowered at her. She stepped backwards, realising she had made a huge mistake, and sat heavily on the edge of the bed. I yanked her off the bed and threw her dress at her.
"Get out! Get out!"
She quickly pulled her dress over her head and grabbed her sandals and underclothes as I roughly escorted her to the exit.
Anteia ran off crying, as I stood naked in the entryway of my tent, yelling after her. "Don't bother coming back. I never want to see you in my camp again. You hear me!"
My personal guards went about their business without so much as a titter or a glance in my direction.
I retreated into my tent and threw my sword into the corner.
"Ares' Balls!" I cursed. I felt a sudden smack of guilt, like I had somehow cheated on Gabrielle.
While I grabbed my clothes and hurriedly put them on, questions crowded my mind. Should I go after her and apologise? What would I be apologising for? She wasn't my lover; she was my assistant, so why did it matter so much?
I had to still these chaotic thoughts, and there was no better way to do that than by pushing my body to its limits. I yelled out to the guards, "send someone to find Lieutenant Galates and have him meet me on the practice field. I need to do some sparring."
Once outside in the warm morning air, I took a deep breath. My mind was still a jumble of conflicting thoughts and feelings about Gabrielle. Common sense was telling me not to let my heart rule my head; yet, I couldn't deny my attraction to this spirited young woman. My destiny was to rule an empire and I didn't need any distractions, but I'd grown accustomed to her enthusiasm, her honesty, and yes, even her persistent chatter. I didn't need love, but I did need someone I could trust. I needed her.
GO TO CHAPTER 5