A Sort-of-a-Conqueror Saga
D. J. Belt
Copyright: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to blah, blah, blah. You know the drill.
Rating: Some violence, some very coarse language. No explicit sex scenes. ALT, if labels be needed.
Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't be shy. Love to hear from you.
Rantings: I read a few stories of the 'Conqueror' genre, and became fascinated with that alternate X&G universe. So, I decided to try my hand at it.
I started with the premise of 'Gabrielle-as-slave', mixed in a darker, grittier version of ancient Greece, and from there, the story took off. I hope it's tough enough for you. Trust me, this Gabrielle ain't like the TV one, and the warrior? Well...read it and see.
The clang of metal startled Gabrielle from dark, brooding thoughts. She rubbed her eyes with the backs of her hands, then squinted through the dim light of the cell. Footsteps approached; a voice, rich with the accent of an Amazon, announced, "The one you want is in here."
Gabrielle shifted her body position, then drew her knees up in front of her defensively. She was squirreled into a corner of a large cell occupied by perhaps eight or ten other women and girls, all taken, like she had been, as slaves within the last few days. Most, like her, had been bought from their fathers or former owners for payment of some sum of money, a sacrifice to feed the remainder of their families. That was why her own father had sold her. They were close to starvation; the family farm was not as productive as it had been in past years, and he was in debt. She had heard stories of desperate fathers selling their own daughters into slavery, but she hadn't believed it, not until it had happened to her. Even when the Amazon slave-dealers had taken her from her family's house, she hadn't believed it. She was in shock. She remembered the way her father couldn't look at her as an Amazon dropped coins into his hand. She remembered the expression of anguish on her mother's face as she fell to her knees in the dirt, weeping, and was dragged to a waiting wagon by two Amazons. She also remembered her sister Lila's expression. It reeked of smug satisfaction. That had hurt worse than anything else. Perhaps it was relief that it wasn't her? Perhaps it was the satisfaction of revenge for Gabrielle having stolen her friend as a lover? Lila had warned her that she'd get even. And so she did. Before the Amazons stuffed her into the wagon, one of them had stripped the shoes from Gabrielle's feet and handed them to Lila. A final insult? An attempt by the young Amazon to ingratiate her way into Lila's favors? Or was it just an act of kindness on the part of the Amazon warrior, who had noticed that Lila wore no shoes, and knew that Gabrielle wouldn't need them where she was bound?
Several figures appeared at the bars of the cell door, and the lock was thrown back. Two Amazons entered. The occupants of the cell cowered back toward the walls, looking around in their attempts to determine which of them would be taken. The Amazons walked straight toward Gabrielle. Somehow, she'd known it would be her. One Amazon tapped her on the knee with her stick.
Gabrielle attempted to rise, but the last few nights spent sleeping and sitting on cold stones had taken their toll. She was sore, and moved slowly. Too slowly, evidently; the Amazons grabbed her arms in unison and hauled her to her feet, then hustled her to the center of the cell and held her by her elbows. An Amazon approaching middle age, with an aura of authority about her, and a taller, black-haired female wearing the dark garb and darker manner of a vagabond warrior, entered the cell. Their attention was fixed upon Gabrielle, a curious expression of evaluation, as if they were approaching a horse for sale. The Amazon spoke.
"Are you the Potidaean called Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle attempted to speak. It came out a hoarse croak. "Yes."
The Amazon turned to the dark warrior. "There you go."
The warrior said nothing, but studied Gabrielle in detail. The dirty, ripped tunic, the bare feet, the tangled hair, the hollow cheeks, the dark circles around the eyes; pitiful.
The warrior grasped Gabrielle's hand, a quick motion, and rubbed her fingers across her palm, detecting ridges of callous. "Definitely a farm girl. She looks damned skinny. Underfed. Weak." The warrior pulled the front of Gabrielle's tunic away from her body. "She's lost a lot of weight recently. Is she sick?"
"No. She hasn't been here long enough to get sick. And the whole family looked that way. No wonder her father sold her."
"Um." The warrior began a slow stroll around Gabrielle and her two guards. "Her father sold her. For how much?"
"A hundred in silver."
Gabrielle felt her jaw drop. How much? That bastard! She croaked, "A hundred? I'm worth-"
A stinging slap silenced her. Her cheek burned. The warrior glowered down at her. Gabrielle met the dark warrior's eyes with a defiant stare of her own. It wasn't brutish intent that she saw in the warrior's eyes, though. She got the immediate feeling that it was a warning. After a moment, the warrior simply said, "Quiet. Don't talk."
Tears stung Gabrielle's eyes; she stared toward the ceiling, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. She heard the Amazon's voice.
"I told you she was a hard-headed one. You're going to have a time breaking her."
Gabrielle felt hands pull the remains of her tunic away from her back. The warrior's voice sounded now, from behind her. "Someone beat her. I don't like buying damaged slaves."
"She was getting mouthy, just after we bought her. We had to make an example of her to the others."
Gabrielle recalled the incident. They'd warned her to shut up, but she'd kept on. One of her worst failings, her mouth. Her father had always said so. The three Amazons had finally stopped the wagon, hauled her from it, strapped her to the outside of the iron cage, ripped her tunic open, and whipped her as she sagged from the pain, weeping, begging, pleading with them to stop. By the gods, it had hurt. And those fucking Amazons had enjoyed it. She could see it in their faces. And she could remember the sympathy, the reflected pain, in the faces of the others as they cowered inside the wagon and watched.
The Amazons took turns whipping her, and they did not stop until she hung limply by the straps around her wrists, barely able to make a sound anymore, no longer responding to lash after lash of the strap. After an eternity, they untied her, and she fell into the dirt, face-down. She was dragged around the wagon by her ankles, roughly lifted, and thrown onto the wagon's floor. For the remainder of the trip, she could not move, she could not speak. She lay on the boards and wept as her back burned, and as the others in the wagon wept for her. For the first time in her young life, she wanted to die. She begged the gods to let her die. But she didn't die.
After that, she hadn't spoken a word until today.
The Amazon's voice sounded again. "It was just a leather strap. We didn't break the skin. It won't get infected."
"Um." It was a grunt, but it carried with it a world of meaning: It had better not get infected, or you'll see me again. The dark warrior spoke now. "She's skinny, beaten, puny, weak. I'll give you a hundred and ten."
"That won't even pay us for the transport," the Amazon said. "A hundred and fifty."
The warrior considered the Amazon cooly. "She's a farm girl. That's all. She's just good for tending animals and shoveling horse-shit. A hundred and twenty-five."
Gabrielle exploded. In her hoarse croak, she said, "Oh, yeah? I'll have you know that I can-"
Again, she was silenced with a sharp crack across the cheek. The warrior stood in front of her, looking down at her. In a low voice, she said, "I told you not to speak."
"Kiss it, warrior!"
The warrior grasped Gabrielle's face by the jaw and forced a balled-up rag into her mouth. "Be quiet."
Angry tears flooded Gabrielle's eyes. Her face burned where she'd been slapped, and the rag tasted foul. She uttered a muffled growl which vaguely resembled a very crude profanity, and the warrior actually smiled a little at that.
The warrior turned toward the Amazon. "She's a skinny, mouthy little farm wench. Dirty, underfed. Beaten, but not broken yet. She stinks, too." The warrior looked at Gabrielle. "How long have you been in here?" Gabrielle huffed, then attempted to talk through the wadded-up rag. The warrior plucked the rag from her mouth. "What?" she asked.
"I said, 'Five days!' And I-"
The warrior stuffed the rag back into Gabrielle's mouth, then looked at the Amazon as Gabrielle's words degenerated into muffled grunts of indignation.
"A hundred and twenty-five."
The Amazon shook her head. "A hundred and forty."
"A hundred and twenty-five. You didn't bathe her. She's filthy, probably has bugs. Did you even feed her?"
"This ain't an inn in Athens. A hundred and thirty-five. I can sell her today to the brothel in Potidaea for a hundred and thirty. You want her? A hundred and thirty-five, or it's no deal."
The warrior and the Amazon locked eyes for a long, silent moment. Then, the warrior nodded. "One hundred and thirty-five, then."
"Done, warrior. Let's hear the sound of your money."
"I'll pay you outside. It reeks in here." Then, she motioned toward Gabrielle. "Get her ready. I'll take her and be on my way."
At a motion from the lead Amazon, her two guards hustled Gabrielle from the cell. In the hall, they lifted her leg onto an anvil and beat a metal slave bracelet closed around her ankle. Then, they bound her hands together in front of her and hustled her through a door. She emerged into the sunlight, and she squinted in discomfort at the unaccustomed brightness and heat.
A moment later, the warrior emerged and led Gabrielle to a horse. She tied one end of a length of rope to her bound wrists, the other end to her saddle, then mounted the horse and clucked. The horse began walking, and Gabrielle was pulled along behind the beast. She squealed in disgust and anger when the horse shit right in front of her, and she felt her bare foot plunge into the warm goo. She squealed even louder when, a moment later, she was hit in the chest with another cluster of horse-apples. Roars of laughter from the Amazons made her furious; tears clouded her eyes, and she attempted to yell around the rag still stuffed into her mouth.
The warrior turned in her saddle and cast a glance rearward, toward Gabrielle. "I thought," she said, "that a farm girl would know better than to walk just behind a horse."
Gabrielle's retort was a scathing profanity, from the sound of the muffled screams. The warrior smiled, a wry little smile, and returned her attention to the road ahead, even as she gave a little tug on the rope to help speed Gabrielle's steps.
Gabrielle had no idea how long she'd been walking; half a day? They had passed numerous people on the wide road, and those people mostly kept their eyes averted from her. A nameless, dark, itinerant, vagabond warrior with her slave. She could hear their comments, and each word stung her. Look at that girl, they said. She looks to be a sad case. She's a slave; see her ankle? She must be a runaway, they whispered, to be led so, like a cow or a goat. Look at her back; she's been beaten. She must have done something awful. Thank the gods that it's not us. That woman warrior looks like bad business. Hey, warrior! Are you returning from the late campaign in Euboea? Returning, with your riches? She isn't much. You got gypped. To the laughter, the dark warrior simply cast a weary, tolerant glance, and an occasional look rearward. When she perceived that Gabrielle was still there and still trudging along, she returned her attention to the road ahead of them.
It was getting hot. Gabrielle was now covered in a fine layer of dust through which countless rivulets of sweat tracked their paths down face, body, arms, and legs. Her legs hurt, and her feet were sore from the hard-packed dirt and the stones of the road. Her throat burned with thirst, and the wadded-up rag still stuffed in her mouth tasted more vile with every passing minute. She felt light-headed. Her vision degenerated into spots, and...
The dark warrior halted her horse when she heard an audible thud. A passing farmer, his wagon piled with baskets, pointed to the road behind her.
"You lost something."
The warrior looked. Gabrielle lay in the road, motionless, face-down.
"So I did. Thanks, friend." She swung a leg over her horse's neck and dropped to the road. As she studied the situation, she tugged on the strap holding her sword and scabbard across her back, to seat it more comfortably. Then, she lifted a water skin from her horse's saddle. Slowly, casually, she sauntered back to the end of the rope, and she stared down at Gabrielle. Then, she bent low and pressed her fingers against the prostrate woman's neck.
"Is she alive?" the farmer asked. "What's wrong with her, anyway?"
"Too much fresh air," the warrior said.
"She looks a mess. A criminal?" the farmer said, then noticed the slave bracelet around Gabrielle's ankle. "Oh. A slave. A runaway? Yours?"
"She must have done something bad, to be treated like this."
The warrior thrust the toe of her boot under Gabrielle's shoulder, and flipped her over. She leaned down, pulled the rag from Gabrielle's mouth, and uncorked the water skin. Then, she poured a trickle of water over Gabrielle's face. After a moment, she regained consciousness, sputtered, and coughed. Her eyes opened, and they squinted up at the sky and the outlines of a warrior and a farmer, staring down at her. Her mouth opened, but the warrior spoke first.
Still, her mouth moved. No words sounded, though; just the merest whisper. The warrior knelt on one knee and put her ear close to Gabrielle's mouth. "What's that?" she asked.
Gabrielle's whisper was audible now, but only to the warrior. "I want to die."
The warrior straightened up in surprise, then stood. She studied Gabrielle, lying in the dust of the road. Their eyes locked, and the warrior watched a lone tear track its way through the dust covering the girl's cheek. Finally, the warrior said, "It gets better."
She saw the lips, dusty and parched, move. I want to die. The lips formed the words silently.
"Quiet, now." The warrior turned to the farmer. "What are you taking to market?"
"Huh? Oh, fruit and bread."
"Here's a dinar. Sell me some."
The farmer's eyes lit up at the sight of a silver coin. "For that, you can have a basket, friend."
"Just bread and some fruit."
He placed a round bread and several pieces of fruit in a basket and handed it to the warrior, who flipped the coin to him. "Thanks. That'll be all."
"Well..." The farmer cast a glance at Gabrielle, then at the warrior. "You wouldn't want to sell her, would you?"
"She's not worth much right now."
The farmer scratched his chin. I could clean her up, he thought, fatten her up a little, and sell her for maybe eighty. After I enjoy her a few times, that is. "Twenty dinars?"
"She's half dead."
The farmer grinned. "The important half ain't."
"She's not for sale."
The farmer opened his mouth to argue, but caught sight of the expression on the warrior's face. It was feral, cold. "Okay, then. Not for sale. Ahem. Well, I'll be going now, friend."
The warrior nodded. "You do that. Gods be with you, friend."
"And you." At that, the farmer beat a hasty retreat to his wagon, clucked at the donkey, and got it into motion.
The warrior stared down at Gabrielle. "Can you get up? No? All right. Have it your way." She untied the rope from her horse's saddle, then slowly dragged Gabrielle out of the road and into the shade of a nearby cluster of trees.
"Damn, girl. When's the last time you ate?"
Gabrielle shrugged as she devoured a piece of fruit, then drank from the water skin. "Dunno," she said between ravenous bites.
"Since your father sold you?"
Gabrielle thought, then shook her head. "Not since then." Her expression became dark, faraway. My own father sold me, did this to me for silver, she thought. Fucking bastard. I hate him. She returned her attention to the remnants of the piece of fruit in her hands.
"Holy gods, you can eat." The warrior tore the round bread in half and tossed a half to Gabrielle. It landed in her lap. She watched Gabrielle lift it in her hands, her wrists still bound, and rip a piece off with her teeth. "Eat. Drink. Rest. We start again in maybe two hours' time." Gabrielle froze, then cast a glance at the warrior. The warrior noticed this and raised an eyebrow in question. "What?"
"Where?" Gabrielle asked, around a mouthful of bread.
"Where am I going?"
The warrior said, "Does it matter?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I guess not." I wanted to see the world, but not as a starving, filthy, half-naked slave tied behind a horse. Thanks, Father dear. Then, she returned her attention to the bread in her hands as the warrior lay back in the grass and shut her eyes.
Gabrielle held Chera close to her. She could feel the smoothness of her skin, taste the soft wetness of her lips. By the gods, she feels good. She smells good, she tastes good. She's so pretty! A sweet lover, she is. Gentle. So different than lying down with her brother, who smells like goats and sweat and touches me roughly. No wonder Lila moons over her so...
Gabrielle's dream was unceremoniously interrupted by a hand shaking her, and a voice urging her to awaken. She grunted in protest, then opened her eyes. Shit! She was still dressed in her ragged, torn tunic. Her feet and legs were filthy and bare. And her wrists were still tied. The warrior's hand was gripping her upper arm, and the grip was strong, but not hurtful. Gabrielle noted, for the first time, the healed scars on the warrior's arm. She must have been in many fights and suffered many wounds. Her eyes traveled up from the warrior's arm to her face, so near. She hadn't noticed before, but the warrior was actually a good-looking woman. The eyes, though, contained old pain, a perpetual, lined squint from a face too much in the sun and in war, weary eyes that had seen too much of a hard, mean life. And eyes that could turn feral and deadly in a moment. Gabrielle felt a thread of fear crawl up her spine at the warrior's aura. But she also felt curiosity, fascination. Another of her failings, her father always said: her insatiable curiosity. Like a cat, always getting her into trouble. So how much more trouble could she be in than this? She was going to learn this warrior. And in the process, perhaps she would learn her own fate.
Or maybe even change it.
The warrior was speaking to her now. "I said, 'Do you feel like you can stand?'"
"I think so."
The hand on her upper arm pulled Gabrielle to a standing position, and they walked together to her horse, grazing nearby. "You're shaky," the warrior said.
"I'll manage," she said coldly. "What choice do I have?"
"You learn fast. Let's go."
She kept the rope which was tied to Gabrielle's wrists in one hand, and took her horse's reins in the other. They found the road, and they resumed their trek. The warrior remained on foot this time. Gabrielle noticed that the warrior walked easily, rather than marching a hard pace, and kept casting a glance her way. As Gabrielle trudged along next to the warrior, she limped. The soles of her feet ached from the hard-packed road, and the slave bracelet about her ankle clinked as she walked. Was she slowing her pace for my benefit, Gabrielle wondered? Well, I'll be damned. There's a speck of kindness somewhere in her, after all.
The warrior looked at Gabrielle, walking next to her. "Um."
"Who are you?"
After a moment, the warrior said, "The one who owns you. That's enough for now." The statement wasn't made in sarcasm or anger. It was matter-of-fact, a quiet statement of truth.
Gabrielle studied the warrior's profile. It was strong, commanding. She didn't carry herself like the common soldiers that Gabrielle had glimpsed during her work in her father's fields, as the occasional army tramped Potidaea's main road along their broken fence. They were rough, loud, profane. This warrior wasn't. There was something more to her. Her gaze dropped to the warrior's body. The arm, bare but with a thin silver arm-band above the sinewy muscle of her upper arm, bore scars and reflected power. The nondescript leather armor covering her torso, though, wasn't impressive. No gold, no silver, no ornate craftsmanship. Like the helmet and shield hanging from her saddle, it seemed to reflect her owner's state. Not rich. Middling poor. A poor, itinerant, vagabond, dark warrior who came into some money and wanted to buy a slave.
No. She remembered what the Amazon had said. Who wanted to buy her, specifically.
"Why did you buy me?"
The warrior studied Gabrielle's quizzical expression. For a long time, she said nothing. Then, she replied, "All in good time."
Gabrielle huffed in frustration. "But why me?"
The warrior stopped. She slowly turned to Gabrielle and contemplated her with that enigmatic expression of hers. Gabrielle swallowed hard, then forced herself to meet the warrior's gaze. For a long time, they stood that way in the middle of the road, staring into each other's faces. Gabrielle feared that she would be beaten, but that fear subsided after a moment. If the warrior was going to beat her, she would have done it by now. No, the warrior was studying her, searching her face for clues of - of something. Trying to read her, learn her. The silence was maddening. Gabrielle spoke again, a whispered question.
The warrior grasped Gabrielle's chin with a strong grip and held her face immobile as she spoke. "You're new at slavery, so listen and learn this well. When we're in the presence of others, do not look me in the eyes like that. Do not ask questions. You're a slave. Act humble. Docile. Got it?"
"And if I don't?"
"Then you'll embarrass me. By custom, I'll have to beat you in front of them. They'll find it amusing. I'll find it tiring. You'll find it painful and humiliating."
When we're in the presence of others, she'd said. Not when we're alone. She saw the wisdom of it. Again, Gabrielle swallowed hard. "I-I got it. I won't embarrass you. I'll do what you say."
The warrior seemed amused. "That was hard for you to say, wasn't it?"
With that, the warrior began walking again, with Gabrielle and the horse trailing just behind her. They were walking toward the afternoon sun. West, Gabrielle thought. What was west of Potidaea? The sea. And what, after that? The frontier of Thessaly.
"Please tell me. Who are you, and where are we bound?"
The warrior sighed. "Give it a rest."
"It isn't much to ask."
"You'll find out eventually."
"But I want to know now."
"Patience is a virtue, the philosophers say."
The warrior halted. Wearily, she turned to face Gabrielle. "I still have that rag."
She rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Okay. I'll shut up."
"Praise the gods," the warrior said. With that, she resumed walking, and Gabrielle and the horse obediently fell into their places, one to each side of her. After a few minutes of silence, Gabrielle couldn't resist one more observation.
"Please don't stuff that rag in my mouth again, warrior."
"That bad, huh?"
"It tastes like you wiped your ass with it."
For the first time, Gabrielle heard-and saw-the warrior roar in laughter. "Maybe I did," she said.
"Great," Gabrielle muttered, then quickly added, "Okay, okay. I'm shutting up now."
The warrior pointed toward a path leading away from the main road. They entered the woods and followed a meandering trail. After several minutes, they emerged into a little clearing at a lake's shore. A rickety wooden dock stuck out over the still water.
"We stop here," the warrior announced. As the horse bent its head to nibble at some long grass, she pulled a bag from behind her saddle and dropped it in the grass. Then, she considered Gabrielle for a long, silent moment.
"Okay. We're stopped." Gabrielle shrugged. "So, what happens now?"
In answer, the warrior lifted Gabrielle's rope and led her toward the dock. About halfway there, she halted, then turned. An unsheathed knife was in her hand. Gabrielle screamed, then turned to run. The rope stopped her short, and a booted foot swept her feet from beneath her. In a moment, she was lying on her back in the grass.
The warrior was fast. Before Gabrielle realized what had happened, the warrior was sitting on her, the knife flashing before her face. "Hold still!"
"You're crazy! You're going to kill me!"
"I thought you wanted to die."
"I changed my mind."
"Good! Now hold still." When Gabrielle continued to wriggle, the warrior said, "Do you want the rag again?"
Gabrielle ceased struggling. The warrior held up her bound wrists, cut the bonds, and threw the pieces of rope aside. Then, she inspected the chafed flesh of Gabrielle's wrists. "That looks like it hurts," she observed.
"It does," Gabrielle growled.
"You'll feel better soon." The warrior stood and sheathed her knife. "Stand up."
"Just get up, damn it." She reached down, grasped a handful of the front of Gabrielle's tunic, and hauled her to her feet as if she weighed nothing. For a moment, they stood so, facing each other in a silent glower. Then, the warrior said, "Take off that filthy rag."
"No. It's all I have left."
"And you're about to lose that."
"I'll be naked."
"Damn it, Gabrielle. Obey me." The warrior ripped the tunic from Gabrielle's body and threw the foul cloth aside.
Gabrielle gasped, then made a very rude gesture in the warrior's face. "Obey this!" she hissed.
"All right. That does it." The warrior grabbed a handful of Gabrielle's hair. In a second, Gabrielle found herself face-down in the grass with the warrior's knee in her back. As she struggled, she heard the warrior's voice, very near her ear. "Obey me, Gabrielle."
"No! You don't fucking own me."
"Oh, I most certainly do."
"Why? Because you paid that Amazon asshole a hundred dinars for me?"
"A hundred and thirty-five. And I have the document to prove I own you."
"Nobody owns me!"
"I beg to differ. Now listen, Gabrielle." The warrior leaned a little harder on the girl's back, and she gave a tug to the handful of dirty hair in her grip. Gabrielle quit struggling, and huffed in frustration. The warrior smiled. "Good. Now hear me. Slavery is the law in every land, and you ended up on the shit end of that law. You might not like it, but that's the way it is. Get used to it. Things could be worse for you."
"If I hadn't bought you, you'd be in a brothel by now, using that smart-ass mouth of yours to blow farm boys."
A dead silence fell over the glen. Birds sang in the background, and the bridle on the warrior's horse jingled as the horse shook its head. For a long, long time, neither Gabrielle nor the warrior moved a muscle. Finally, Gabrielle mumbled a thought around a mouthful of grass.
"Thanks for that mental picture, warrior."
"You're welcome. Now, are we in agreement that things could be worse for you?"
"Yeah. I suppose so."
"Good. Are we in agreement that you are legally my slave?"
Gabrielle huffed. "I guess."
"Good. Now, are we in agreement that you smell like horse-shit, body odor, and an outhouse, and that you're filthy?"
"I smell that way because your horse shit on me! And I spent a week in a slaver's gaol! And --"
The warrior pulled harder on Gabrielle's hair. "Are we in agreement?"
"Ow! Yes. Yes, damn it."
"Okay. Then you won't mind what happens next."
"Oh, by the gods. What happens next?"
"This," the warrior said. She lifted a squealing, squirming Gabrielle by an arm and a leg, draped her over her shoulders, and walked out onto the dock. Then, she heaved Gabrielle over her head. The naked girl did a half-somersault in the air, screaming, and executed a neat belly-flop in the water. A moment later, she broke the surface of the water, sputtering and coughing. She stood, thigh-deep in the water, dripping, shivering, and fuming with indignation.
"You -- you -- you fucking asshole!" Gabrielle screamed. "Do you know how cold this water is? Gods!" She glowered up at the warrior.
The warrior pointed at Gabrielle's chest. "Pretty cold, I guess."
Gabrielle clapped her hands over her breasts. "Oh, you're funny, warrior. Real funny."
"You'll get used to the water in a minute." The warrior walked to the bag she'd earlier dropped, and pulled a little pottery jar and a sea sponge from it. She tossed the items to Gabrielle. "Soap and a sponge. Enjoy."
Grudgingly, Gabrielle picked up the sponge and opened the jar. "You think of everything, huh?"
"It's how I've managed to stay alive for so long. Bathe. And don't forget to wash where the sun doesn't shine."
"I know how to take a bath."
"Then prove it."
Gabrielle began soaping herself and scrubbing the dirt from her body. As she did, she watched the warrior sit on the dock and remove her shin greaves and boots. "Warrior?"
"What are you doing?"
"I'm going to scrub your back and wash your hair for you."
Gabrielle's jaw dropped. "You are?"
"Yeah. You got a problem with that?"
"Um, no." The barest trace of a smile crossed Gabrielle's face. "Nope. Not at all. No argument there."
"Good. That's what I like to hear from you."
Gabrielle sat on a cloth draped over a rock, her eyes closed and her head tilted back. The warrior was running a wooden comb through her hair. "I think the tangles are out," she observed.
"You have a gentle touch for a warrior," Gabrielle said.
"I'm a woman, too."
Gabrielle opened her eyes. Yeah, she thought. I noticed. "A woman warrior. But not an Amazon."
"A mysterious, dark warrior with no name."
"If you say so." The warrior rounded the rock and stood in front of Gabrielle, hands on hips. "There. You look a lot better than you did an hour ago. Do you feel better?"
"I guess." Gabrielle shrugged. "Yeah."
"There's just one little thing," Gabrielle noted.
"I can't travel like this. I'm naked."
"Yeah. You are, aren't you?"
"I don't have anything in the world now. Nothing."
"Nothing but your slave bracelet."
"Oh." Gabrielle extended her leg and studied the metal circle around her ankle. She shook her foot, and listened to the ring on the side clink against the wide band. "Lucky me. I do own something, after all."
"Technically, I own that," the warrior said.
"Well, shit!" Gabrielle said. Her disgust was evident. As she pouted, she noticed the warrior tilt her head in thought as she studied her, and it made the usually unabashed Gabrielle suddenly very shy. She felt vulnerable, self-conscious. She covered her chest with her arms, and she crossed her legs. "Warrior?"
"What happens next?"
"Are you going to take me now?"
The warrior shook her head, as if to bring her back to reality. "I beg your pardon?"
"Is this where you force me to, um...?" Gabrielle shrugged. "You know."
"No. I don't know."
"Yes, you do." She covered her face with her hands. "Don't make me say it."
"Gabrielle, I honestly don't know what you mean."
She huffed in exasperation. "Okay." Gabrielle clapped her hands down on her thighs, and she looked right at the warrior. "Is this where I have to start - you know - pleasing you?"
"Hm." The warrior scratched her chin in thought. "Tempting, but no. This is where we find you some clothes." She bent down, opened her bag, and pulled a tunic from it. She tossed it to Gabrielle. "Put that on."
Gabrielle gratefully snatched up the tunic and slipped it over her head. She allowed it to fall around her body, and it covered her to below her knees.
"Here's the girdle." She tossed a wide sash to her, and Gabrielle wrapped it around her waist. It gathered the calf-length tunic in at the waist, and allowed the tunic to blouse around her upper torso.
The warrior approached her. "Sandals."
"Oh, Thank Hera!" Gabrielle said. She sat on the rock and slipped the sandals onto her feet.
"One more thing. A cloak. It'll be getting cool soon."
"Yeah. I'm still chilled." Gabrielle gratefully accepted the cloak, and wrapped it around her shoulders. Then, she stood. "Now what?"
The warrior actually smiled at the sight of Gabrielle. "Now, we reach the seaside village of Thaora and find lodging and some dinner." The warrior picked up the bag and tied it on the saddle. Then, she lifted the horse's reins from the ground. A hand on her arm stopped her. The warrior turned and found Gabrielle standing next to her, a quizzical, funny little expression on her face. "What's wrong?" the warrior asked.
Gabrielle hesitated a moment, then looked up at the warrior. "Thanks," she mumbled.
"For the clothes. For the bath."
"Oh. Sure." She looked down at Gabrielle's feet. "How's your feet?"
"They hurt. I stepped on a lot of rocks."
"Have you ever ridden a horse?"
Gabrielle shot her a 'you're-an-idiot' look. "I'm a farm girl."
"Without getting horse-shit all over you, that is?"
"You're funny, warrior. A regular bard."
The warrior actually snickered. "And you're still a smart-ass, for a slave." The warrior placed her hands around Gabrielle's waist and lifted her to the horse's saddle. "You ride."
"Yeah. And don't fall off. It's a long way to the ground." With that, the warrior grasped the horse's reins and led them up the path, back to the main road to the sea.
Gabrielle looked down at the warrior as she considered her own present circumstances. Then, she cleared her throat. "Warrior?"
"Would I really be in a brothel by now, if you hadn't bought me?"
The warrior nodded. "Yeah."
"Gad. I can't fathom making a life's work out of - out of sucking phalloi!"
"Gabrielle, I'm sure that you'd have been marvelous at it."
The horse whinnied. To the warrior, it sounded like a laugh. Behind her, she heard an indignant squeak come from Gabrielle's direction.
Gabrielle's voice was icy. "Oh har, har, warrior! And that goes double for your fucking horse!"
For the second time that day, the warrior roared in laughter. As they reached the main road and turned their faces toward the sea, the warrior snuck a look back at Gabrielle.
The slave-girl's arms were crossed in a pouting posture, but she was smiling. After a moment, the warrior realized that it was the first time she'd ever seen the girl smile. And it was a charming smile, at that.
Thaora was a typical seaside town. The streets were crooked and narrow, and the buildings white-plastered and flat-roofed. The smell of the sea hung heavy over the town, and the wharves and piers dominated the scene. A forest of tall masts belonging to many boats dotted the evening sky.
On the outskirts of town, the warrior stopped her horse. She reached into a bag on the saddle, pulled forth a large, colorful cloth, and handed it up to Gabrielle. "Put that on over your hair," she said.
"Haven't you ever noticed that female slaves always keep their heads covered in public?"
"I guess I haven't."
"Well, do it." The warrior heard Gabrielle's intake of breath, and knew that a question was forthcoming. "Because if you don't, people will assume that you're a prostitute."
"Oh." Gabrielle quickly draped the cloth over the back half of her head. "Does that work?"
The warrior tugged on the horse's reins, and they resumed walking. Shortly before dark fell, she installed her horse in a stable, paid money for its keep, and shouldered a bag. As they left the stable, she took Gabrielle aside.
"Keep your trap shut and follow my lead, right?"
"Good. Now make sure of it."
Gabrielle huffed indignantly. "Hey! I'm not stupid. If I say I'm going to do something, then I'm going to do something. I mean - " The warrior held up a balled-up rag. "Oh. Right. Got you. Mum's the word. Shutting up now."
"Praise the gods. And here. You carry the bag, slave." The warrior turned and began walking down the street, and Gabrielle followed at her elbow, shouldering the bag and cursing under her breath.
They entered the inn and walked to the proprietor's table. Sitting at it was a beefy man with a wooden bowl of wine at his elbow, and a box of money next to that. "We need lodging for the night," the warrior said.
He looked her over, first with impatience, then with caution, then with some measure of cautious respect. "You got money?" he asked.
The warrior nodded. "Silver."
"Let me see it. Two dinars for both of you, for lodging and a meal."
The warrior dropped two silver coins on the table. The proprietor considered the coins, the warrior, and then Gabrielle. "Just you and your slave, right?"
"Yeah. We'll eat now."
"You can eat here in the common room. Your slave eats in the kitchen."
"Sure. Have you got a room for us?"
"Yes." He handed her a wooden, palm-sized token with three lines painted on it. "Room three, up there." He pointed to the stairs. "You got the room to yourself. I'm not that busy tonight."
"Good." She turned to Gabrielle. "Go eat in the kitchen. Then go to the room afterwards. I'll watch our bag."
Gabrielle's eyes flashed, but she said nothing. She merely nodded, then dutifully rested the bag by the warrior's leg and sought out the kitchen. The warrior smiled; Gabrielle was learning. She was also probably going to get the first hot meal that she'd had in a week or more. I rather wish that I could see that, the warrior thought. She'll tear that meal up.
The warrior seated herself at a table and dropped the bag by her foot. In short order, she'd received a meal of salt fish, a barley porridge, bread, and a cup of watery wine. Too watery, she thought. She cast a glance at the proprietor. Cheapskate, she decided. As she ate, she thought about Gabrielle.
The girl's biggest failing was pride, the warrior acknowledged. Hubris. That accounts for the attitude, for the temper, for the mouth, for the trouble she gets into. Shit, she's a farm girl. Smelly, skinny, overworked, underfed. What's she got to be so damned proud about?
She's bright, that's what. Smart as a whip. I can see it. Smart beyond her place in life. She's ambitious, too. She wants to see the world. She's curious about everything. And I heard that she can actually read and write. That's unheard of, for a farm girl. But somehow, she learned how to do it. Someone taught her, I guess. That's amazing.
And she's endowed with a memory, too. It's said that she can listen to a bard's tale, go home, and write it down. And she can recite the tale, almost in its truth, the next day or week. No wonder her father wanted to sell her, and not her sister. He was probably spooked by her.
And now, I own her. What a coup for me.
The warrior sat for some time, thinking, eating slowly, drinking the watery wine. Her mind took her to several places, pored over several puzzles and problems, flashed back to too many memories. Some were pleasant. More were not. But always, her thoughts returned to her newly-acquired slave.
She was in the midst of some such mental revelry when she realized that a presence was hovering near her chair. The warrior looked up; a woman, the manner of a slave about her, wrung her hands.
"Oh! I'm sorry to disturb you, madame warrior, but it's about your slave. That skinny, light-haired one? The chatterbox? She's yours, right?"
The warrior raised an eyebrow. "She is. What about her?"
"Well, I'm so sorry, but I didn't think we'd given her that much wine. I mean, she ate like a horse, and we didn't give her more than a few bowls of wine, but she - "
"Is she drunk?"
"Well, yes. I mean, no. I mean, she's passed out cold. We can't wake her. Please, madame warrior, what do you want us to do with her?"
"It's okay. You did nothing wrong. Just, ah, carry her up to room three and put her down to sleep, will you?"
"Yes, madame warrior. Right away. I'm so sorry."
The slave scurried back into the kitchen. A moment later, two rather buxom women carried a limp, passed-out Gabrielle between them, and shuffled up the stairs with her. The warrior shook her head.
I should have foreseen that, she thought. The girl hadn't eaten properly in weeks. Months, maybe. She was damned close to starving. She's exhausted. She gets a full belly, and she gets into the wine, and it goes right to her head. Well, maybe it'll get her some good sleep tonight. She probably didn't sleep at all in that stinking hole I found her in. Five days she was in there, and those fucking Amazons didn't even feed her.
The warrior drained her wine to the dregs, then thought, I guess I'd better check on her after I find the privy.
A little while later, she stepped into the room. A single candle burned on a rickety table, near a wide, low bed. The bed was empty.
Gabrielle was on the floor, her cloak draped over her. She was snoring softly. The warrior found nothing unusual in this; slaves who attended their owners usually slept on the floor near their owner's bed. The warrior shook her head in amusement, then began undressing for sleep. Her boots, her shin greaves, her leather armor, all this she threw into a corner. Her sword and dagger, she placed in easy reach of the bed. Clothed only in her short tunic, she found a blanket and shook it out. Just before she stripped off her tunic and lay down, she looked at Gabrielle again.
She could feel the floor through the soles of her feet. The stones were cool. Cold, even. Not good. The warrior knelt down beside Gabrielle, picked her up, and carried her to the bed. Carefully, she placed her on the hard mattress, pulled off her sandals, and began to undress her. Then, she thought better of it. Let her sleep in her tunic, the warrior decided. She threw the blanket over her. The girl didn't break the rhythm of her snoring.
Okay, the warrior thought. How do I explain a slave sleeping in my bed, if anyone sees this? She snorted. Easily enough. Plenty of slaves 'warm their owner's beds'. It's common. Yeah. That will work.
With that potential problem solved, the warrior tossed her tunic aside, lay down next to Gabrielle, and pulled the blanket across them both. She couldn't sleep immediately, though. She lay still and listened to Gabrielle's gentle, rhythmic snore. Then, she looked to her right. Gabrielle was on her side, with her back to her. The snoring stopped; Gabrielle mumbled something and pulled a pillow more completely under her head. A moment later, the gentle snore resumed.
The warrior turned to her right, spooned against Gabrielle, and draped an arm across her waist. She could feel the rise and fall of Gabrielle's chest. She could feel Gabrielle's hair dusting her cheek. She could feel the warmth of the slave's body. It felt good. Protective. Comforting. A connection to another human being. And strangely, it gave the warrior a feeling of something that she'd experienced far too seldom in her life.
It gave her a feeling of peace.
She closed her eyes, reveled in the feelings, and, for once, allowed herself the luxury of a deep, unencumbered sleep.
Gabrielle sat up in bed and stretched. She blinked at the dawning sun outside the window and wondered, with a mixture of fear and hope, what the new day would bring. Then, she looked to her left. The warrior was asleep next to her. That she was naked was of no consequence; it was the Greek custom to sleep that way. That Gabrielle still wore her tunic, though, did puzzle her.
She squinted as she tried to remember what had happened the night before. But she couldn't. She remembered eating and talking with the kitchen slaves, then remembered nothing else. How much wine did she drink? She didn't feel bad, like the other times she'd indulged in too much wine. She felt rested, good.
It was time to seek out the privy, and then find some breakfast. She'd made friends with the kitchen slaves last night; they would be generous to her this morning. She made a mental note to always be friendly with kitchen slaves, then climbed over the warrior. She had one foot on the floor when a firm grip found her wrist. She glanced down at the warrior, just beneath her.
"Where are you going?" the warrior asked.
"I thought you were asleep."
"I'm not. So, where are you going?"
"The privy and the kitchen."
"Right. Hurry back."
"You don't trust me, huh? Do you think I'll try to run?"
"Where would I go?"
The warrior's released her grip on Gabrielle's wrist. "Good point."
"I'll be back in a little bit."
The warrior's eyes opened now. She perused Gabrielle's face for a moment, then nodded. "Okay."
She watched as Gabrielle straightened and smoothed her tunic, combed her fingers through her hair, slipped her sandals onto her feet, and left the room. She'd left the cloak behind. She'll be back, the warrior thought. With a sigh, the warrior rose, poured some water from a pitcher into a wash-bowl, and scrubbed the sleep from her face.
A little while later, Gabrielle hustled back through the door with a platter in her hand. She clapped it on the table and announced, "Breakfast."
The warrior looked. The platter contained some bread and cheese, some barley gruel, and two wooden bowls of watered wine. "Where'd you get that?" the warrior asked. "I didn't give you any money."
Gabrielle assumed a sly expression. "I'm a slave. The kitchen slaves like me. You, they would have charged money. Me, I get it for free."
The warrior smiled. "Gabrielle," she said, "you do learn quickly." I've always wondered, she thought, about plump slaves. Now, I understand.
Some time later, they descended the stairs, dressed. The warrior dropped the token on the proprietor's table. "We'll be going now," she said to a woman at the table.
"Right," the woman answered. "Good journey to you and your slave," she said.
The warrior nodded, then turned toward the door. Gabrielle cast a glance toward the kitchen door and got a friendly wave from one of the kitchen slaves. She waved back, turned toward the door, and stopped in her tracks. She was staring into a man's chest.
"You're a pretty one," the man said. "What's your name?"
She looked up. The man was staring down at her, considering her. Gabrielle said nothing, but attempted to dodge the man. He grabbed her arm. "Hey!" he said. "I'm talking to you." He looked down. "Oh. A slave, huh? A prostitute?"
"No. Let go of me, asshole."
"No slave talks to me that way."
A dagger's blade, long and wicked, pressed against the man's throat. The warrior's voice was cold and hard. "This one does."
The man froze. "Oh. Your slave, huh?"
"Yeah. Get your hands off my property."
"Hey, friend. No harm done." He released Gabrielle, then grinned. "I was just going to make you a business proposition."
"Give me some time with her. A dinar?" He grinned again. "It won't take me long, the state I'm in."
"How would you like to die this morning?"
"All right, then. Three dinars."
"Nobody touches her."
Another voice sounded, close by. It was the beefy proprietor. "Hey, you two! I don't want no bloodshed in my inn." He raised a fist, and it contained a club, studded with metal. He waved it at both of them. "Especially over some damned slave."
The warrior's voice was low and commanding. "Get behind me, Gabrielle. Now."
She didn't need to say it twice. Gabrielle was behind her in a flash, her attention alternating between the inn's door and the scene unfolding in front of her, her hands clutching her cloak and the bag to her chest defensively. She barely breathed as she watched the scene before her, the participants frozen in place, eyeing each other warily: the warrior, the man, dagger at his throat, and the proprietor, lethal club in his hand.
"Warrior," Gabrielle said, "let's go."
"That's good advice, warrior," the man said. "You should listen to your slave."
"And you should go home to your wife." She shoved the man away from her, and he bounced off the portly proprietor. He rubbed his neck, looked down at his hand, and shot the warrior a look of caution, an expression which slowly melted into a grin.
"My wife's not as pretty as your slave, friend."
The warrior returned the grin. "Count your blessings, friend. A homely wife is peace of mind. A pretty slave is constant trouble." She kept the dagger in plain view in front of her, and whispered, "Let's go, Gabrielle."
"Now you're talking," Gabrielle answered. They backed toward the door, and when they reached the street, the warrior sheathed her dagger. Gabrielle breathed an audible sigh of relief as she pulled her head cloth over her hair. "Gods, that was scary."
"Warrior, I was scared."
"Ever watched rams during mating? The way they posture and butt heads?"
"That's what this was."
They began walking down the street, toward the ships' masts in the distance. For a while, they were both silent. Then, Gabrielle looked up at the warrior as they walked, side by side. "Warrior?"
"Would you have rented me to that man?"
"Would you have killed that man to protect me?"
"In a heartbeat."
"Why? Because I'm your property?" She spit the last word out.
The warrior thought about it, then cast a glance at Gabrielle. "Not just that."
They halted in the street, and faced each other. To Gabrielle, the warrior seemed perplexed, as if she had something that she wanted to say, but couldn't quite find the words. Or perhaps she was considering the wisdom of the words.
"What happened last night?" Gabrielle asked.
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean. I woke up next to you this morning."
"So, did - " Gabrielle cast a glance around them, then lowered her voice. "Did we get sexual last night?"
The warrior considered the question. Then, she answered, "No."
"Not even a little bit?"
"Oh." A little smile crossed Gabrielle's face.
"Are you that relieved?"
"What? No! I was just thinking," Gabrielle explained, "that I'd really hate it if we had been sexual, and I couldn't remember any of it."
The warrior roared in laughter. They resumed walking toward the docks. After a long, silent moment, Gabrielle asked another question.
"Are you getting - you know - feelings for me?"
The warrior did not speak, but Gabrielle noted her body posture stiffen a little. Finally, she muttered, "What makes you think that?"
"Well, when I woke up this morning, you were sleeping very close to me, and you had your arm around me."
"Oh. Excuse me."
"That's okay. I liked it." Gabrielle giggled. "Why, warrior! I think you're blushing!"
"I am not. Be quiet now."
"Okay, have it your way."
They strolled toward the waterfront in silence, but Gabrielle kept casting little glances toward the warrior, and allowed an impish smile to brighten her face as she shifted the bag on her shoulder.
"That's it, there." The warrior pointed to a ship. The wooden hull was weathered, but clean. The large, painted eyes on the prow stared silently toward the sea, as if it was impatient to begin its next journey.
"Where are we going? Is it far?"
"Not too much."
"Is it in Greece?"
"Is it Athens?"
Gabrielle huffed. "Is it Crete?"
"My, my." The warrior looked down at her. "You're all questions, aren't you?"
"I want to know!"
Gabrielle squeaked in frustration, then stamped her foot. "Gods! You are so stubborn."
The warrior kept her voice low, but authoritative. "We're in public, Gabrielle. You're a slave. Remember your place."
Gabrielle squeaked again, this time in anger. Her expression grew clouded, and she shot a withering glance up at the warrior. Their eyes locked, and they stared at each other for a long, uncomfortable, silent moment. The warrior gestured toward the nearby merchants' stalls.
"There's people watching. I really don't want to have to beat you."
Gabrielle cast her gaze toward the ground. "Me, neither," she said through clenched teeth. She sighed, then lifted her head, but kept her gaze averted. "I'm sorry, warrior. I'll behave."
The warrior's hard expression softened. "That was hard for you to say, wasn't it?"
The warrior smiled. "Good." She pointed toward the merchants' stalls. "We're going to go shopping."
"Yes. Follow me." The warrior entered the agora, where the stalls were numerous. Gabrielle followed just behind her, her scarf over her hair, her cloak and their bag over her shoulder. They stopped at the first stall. The merchant was friendly and talkative.
"That's one spirited slave you have there, friend. For a moment, I thought you were going to beat her right here in public."
"For a moment," the warrior replied, "I did, too." She shot a sideways glance at Gabrielle, who assumed a sheepish expression, but said nothing.
"She's a pretty little thing, isn't she?" the merchant noted. "Where'd you get her?"
"Ah, yes. Then you just acquired her?" The warrior nodded. "I can tell. She hasn't been a slave long, has she?"
"Hers is a sad story, friend. Her father's farm failed. They were starving. She got sold."
"But it's an all-too-common story, these days. She looks the part; underfed, skinny." He motioned to the wares around him. "May I show you something?"
"Yes." The warrior crossed her arms and looked at Gabrielle, who endured the examination passively, her eyes fixed on the warrior's arm. "It occurs to me that my slave is in need of a few things."
At that, Gabrielle's eyes shot up in question. She said nothing, though. The merchant smiled. "A comb for that long, pretty hair?" He held up a wooden comb.
"Yes. And..." The warrior glanced at Gabrielle. She saw that her eyes were fixed on a particular place on the table. Oh, yes. Of course. "How much for this, friend?" She reached across the table, and lifted a polished bronze hand-mirror and a matching horse-hair hairbrush.
"Oh, now that! That is a good choice, friend. Made locally, by a fine craftsman."
The warrior examined the items. On the back of the mirror, she found a painted scene of two lovers in a very affectionate pose. She showed it to Gabrielle, and smiled when the girl's eyebrows shot up in exclamation at the scene on the mirror's back. "What do you think of this, Gabrielle?" the warrior asked.
"It's - it's lovely," she said. "I've never owned anything that nice."
The merchant smiled. "For you and your lovely little slave, only two dinars for the lot."
"Done," the warrior said, and handed the items to Gabrielle. "Yours," she said. She opened her little cloth purse and produced two dinars. The money changed hands, and the warrior glanced at Gabrielle.
She was motionless, studying the mirror and the brush and comb. Slowly, she looked up at the warrior. "Are these really for me?" she asked.
"I mean, they're not yours? They're mine?"
"I thought, I mean -" Gabrielle sighed. "I'm a slave. I can't own anything. You even own the slave bracelet on my leg. How can I - ?"
"They're yours, Gabrielle. Not mine. Yours." She watched Gabrielle's chin tremble, a barely-noticeable tremble. "What's the matter? Don't you like them?"
To her complete amazement, Gabrielle burst into tears. She leaned against the warrior, covered her face with a hand, and wept. The warrior held her, even as she shrugged in question to the merchant. He replied with an understanding smile and a wink.
"I had a daughter just that age," he said. "Trust me, this is good."
"If you say so," was all the warrior could say in reply.
Gabrielle sniffed loudly, wiped her face with the edge of her head cloth, and looked up. "I'm sorry, warrior," she said. "I didn't mean to embarrass you in public."
"You didn't," she said. "But you're going to have to explain this to me."
Gabrielle looked at her. "Yesterday, when you bought me," she said, "I was nothing. I had nothing. No family, no shoes, no value, nothing but a single, filthy tunic. Now, I own something. Something nice. Something pretty." She looked down at the items. "I'll always treasure them. Thank you, warrior."
For once, the warrior seemed defeated. Speechless. She smiled, a painful little smile, and hugged Gabrielle to her. "Merchant?" she said.
"Would you do me the kindness of watching my slave until I return? I have business to which I must attend."
He beamed. "She can stay here, with my wife and me."
"Thank you. Here is money."
The merchant held up a hand. "No, no. It will be our pleasure." He studied Gabrielle for a moment, then said, "We had a daughter much her age. The gods took her from us two years ago."
"Thank you, friend." The warrior turned to Gabrielle. "I'll be back as soon as I can; perhaps an hour or two. Until then, stay with these people."
"I will." Gabrielle looked up at the warrior. "Be careful."
"It won't be dangerous."
"Yes, it will. You won't let me go with you."
"She's a clever one," the merchant noted.
The warrior nodded agreement, then looked at Gabrielle. "Don't you have questions? Who? What? Where?"
Gabrielle managed a smile. "Yes, but you'll tell me when you want to."
The warrior gave her a gentle push toward the merchant's stall. "Go. And here's some money. Buy yourself two more tunics - and a bag, in which to carry your things." Then, she turned and strode through the agora. Once, though, she halted and looked back. Gabrielle was sitting in the merchant's stall, chattering about something, and the merchant and his wife were beaming over her. For a moment, the warrior contemplated selling - no, giving - Gabrielle to the merchant and his wife. Then, she shook her head. No. Gabrielle has a more important destiny to fulfill.
Besides, the warrior thought, I don't think that I can bear to part with her. And that scares me.
The warrior trod the stone wharf to the side of a ship. She called to a sailor aboard. "Hello!"
The sailor eyed her suspiciously. After a moment, he walked toward her. "Yes? What do you want?"
"Words with the master of this ship."
"Wait a minute." He left, went aft, and spoke with some men.
One of them came forward. He smiled in recognition, but the smile was cold. "It's about time, warrior."
She ignored the master's manner. "Are we ready to leave?"
He gestured toward the sea. "We missed the tide. There's no sea breeze. We'll have to wait until tomorrow."
"If we do, we do. My horse is in the stables nearby. Have a couple of your crew retrieve it and my saddle and load it aboard ship, will you?"
"Go get it yourself. We ain't your damned servants."
The warrior vaulted the ship's railing. When she landed on the deck, her sword was in her hand. A second later, the sword's tip was at the master's throat. "What's that?"
He was backed against the rail. "My men will kill you."
"I doubt that." She glanced around the deck. The mariner crew was gathering, watching the scene. "Who's number two here?" she asked.
A sailor stepped forward. "I am," he said.
"How would you like to be master of this ship?"
He scratched his chin. "I might like that just fine."
She looked back at the master, and pressed her sword's tip into his neck. "Do you see? Now, master. We had a deal. You've been paid half."
"I want the other half."
"Not until we reach home. That's the deal."
"I'm changing the deal."
She saw his eyes flicker to one side, and watched his expression. Then, she whirled and sliced with her sword. A mariner staggered backward, a deep gash across his chest, and a knife dropped from his hand. She felt, rather than saw, danger to her right, and ducked. The master's knife barely creased her cheek. She thrust upwards with her sword, and its blade buried itself in the man's neck, just beneath his chin. When she yanked it free, he collapsed to the deck.
"Now," the warrior said. "Who's next to die?"
The remaining mariners remained quiet. None gave her a threatening posture. After a long, silent moment, she nodded in satisfaction. "I guess," she said to a mariner, "that you're now the master of this ship."
He grinned. "Do you still need a ride home?" he asked.
The warrior smiled, a wry little smile, even as her eyes remained cold and feral. "Thanks, but I'll find another ship." She wiped her sword's blade on the master's tunic, and returned it to the scabbard across her back. "I don't quite trust you guys."
Several of the mariners laughed at that comment. The new master said, "You're smart."
"It's how I've managed to stay alive so long." She vaulted the rail and landed on the stones of the wharf. Before she left, she motioned toward the two bodies on the ship's deck. "Sorry about the mess," she said. Then, she turned and strolled away, walking slowly down the center of the wharf. As she did, people made way for her, and whispered behind her back after she had passed.
"A cup of wine and a word." The warrior dropped a coin on the table. The inn-keeper raised an eyebrow as he poured a bowl of wine and set it before her.
"I seek passage to Thessaly."
"Oh." The inn-keeper pointed. "See that mariner, there? He's master of a ship. Try him."
Thanks, friend." The warrior palmed her bowl of wine and walked across the room. She halted near a man's back. He was in conversation with another mariner, who glanced up at her, then tapped his friend and motioned. The master turned to face the warrior, and his expression was one of surprise and amusement. When he finally spoke, his accent revealed Hebrew origins.
"Well. It's been a long time, General."
"It's just 'warrior' now, Jesup. Do you still have a ship?"
"Yes. Do you still have a grudge?"
The warrior smiled at that. "I don't hold grudges. You know that."
"Lucky for me. So what's up?"
"I need passage to Thessaly."
"Me, a slave, and my horse and tack."
"What's this? You own a slave?"
She shrugged. "I've owned slaves before."
"Never for very long."
"I have great hopes for this one."
"Okay. You and your slave." He shook his head. "Can't do the horse, though."
"All right, then. When are we leaving?"
"When do you want to leave?"
"Tomorrow, on the tide."
"A last-minute thing, huh? Are you running from something?"
"I had a little disagreement with the last ship's master. So, can you give me passage?"
Jesup grinned, a charming, rakish grin. "Done, warrior." He raised an eyebrow in question. "You haven't asked how much money I'm charging."
"Wrong. I haven't told you how much I'm paying."
Jesup laughed at that. "You haven't changed a bit. So, you'd better be paying at least thirty, up front."
"Then you're walking to Thessaly."
"Nope. I'm paying forty when we arrive."
Jesup's dark eyes lit up. "Oh? Intriguing." He nodded. "All right, warrior. You've got a passage. Be on my ship in the morning before the tide peaks, and we'll make our merry way to the shore of Thessaly. You can't miss my ship. It's the one with the red-painted hull, second wharf."
"See you in the morning, Jesup." She extended her hand, and he grasped it. Then, she drained the bowl of wine and put it aside. As she turned to leave, Jesup stopped her with a spoken thought.
"That must be quite some slave."
"And that must have been quite some disagreement that you had with the last ship's master."
The warrior felt her cheek, then looked at her fingers. They were dabbed with blood. "It was." She smiled. "I won."
Jesup roared in laughter. "Of course you did!"
The warrior smiled at that, then left the inn. It was time to retrieve Gabrielle.
The warrior leaned against a wall and listened. Several feet away, Gabrielle was in the midst of an animated story-telling, her hands gesturing in cadence with her words. Several of the merchants had gathered to listen.
"And so," Gabrielle said, "Lavinia, princess of Latium, married Aeneas, and the Trojans celebrated with feast and song. They had found a home at last, in Italia! Aeneas founded Lavinium, named after his wife, whom he loved with the greatest of passion, and the Trojans and the Latins lived together in friendship from then on."
The little crowd cheered the story's ending and applauded. As they dispersed, the warrior overheard the merchant and his friend speak.
"She's a treasure, Eurobus. Where did you get her?"
"She belongs to a warrior. We're just watching her."
"Oh." The man sighed. "Such a girl, to belong to a brutal warrior. Her spirit will be crushed."
Eurobus raised an eyebrow. "Not with this warrior, I think."
"I hope you're right." With that, he returned to his own stall. The warrior wandered toward Eurobus's stall, and nodded when Gabrielle noticed her.
"Oh! Warrior! You're back. I've been having so much fun." She stopped, then stood. "You're bleeding. Your cheek. Sit. I'll tend you."
"Warrior, come here." Gabrielle dragged the warrior behind the stall and sat her on a stool. She wet a cloth from a water jug and dabbed at the warrior's cheek. "You said it wouldn't be dangerous."
Gabrielle huffed. "Someone cut you!"
"You should see them," the warrior said.
Gabrielle fussed over the cut. "I'm just glad you're all right. There. You've stopped bleeding, and you're cleaned up. You'll live, I think."
The warrior considered Gabrielle, standing in front of her, with her enigmatic face. Gabrielle paused, then adopted a chastised expression and deflected her vision to the ground. She pretended to study the blood-tinged cloth in her hand. Eurobus and his wife stood near, watching the scene. Gabrielle said, "I guess I'm not acting like a proper slave, am I?"
"I don't hear anyone complaining around here."
Gabrielle looked up. The warrior's eyes were warm; she touched her cheek, at the cut. "Thank you," she said. She looked at Eurobus. "I trust she hasn't been trouble?"
"She's been a delight," Eurobus said.
"A word in private?" the warrior asked.
Eurobus nodded, and they walked toward the nearby fountain. When the warrior judged that they were out of earshot, she asked, "How can I find you again, friend?"
"I'm Eurobus, and my wife is Thera. We're well-known around the agora, here. We live nearby."
"If anything should happen to me - well, what I mean is, I'll arrange to have Gabrielle sent to you."
"I'm honored at your trust." Eurobus paused, then said, "A word, warrior." She raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. "She's uncommon, that one is. You've got a jewel, there."
The warrior's eyes drifted across the agora, to where Thera was braiding Gabrielle's hair. She said nothing; she did not need to say anything. Eurobus read agreement in her face. They walked back to the stall.
"It's that time, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle sighed. "Okay." She rose, then turned around. "Look at what Thera gave me."
Her hair was freshly brushed and braided in the back. A metal ornament held it in place, at the nape of her neck. "It's lovely," the warrior said. "Thank you. I'll pay."
"No, no. We wouldn't think of it." Thera gave a massive hug to Gabrielle, and said, "Come see us again, when next you're here."
"I'd love that," Gabrielle said. She picked up her new bag and slipped the strap over her shoulder. "Thank you."
As the warrior and Gabrielle walked away from the agora, Gabrielle began talking. "They were so nice to me, and everybody wanted to hear a story, so - " She stopped speaking, and she studied the warrior as they walked. "Where are we going?"
"To the stables."
"To get your horse?"
"To sell my horse."
"Because we're taking passage on a ship tomorrow morning, and the ship can't take the horse."
"I see." Gabrielle fell silent after that.
"What, no more questions?" the warrior asked.
"I have lots of questions."
Gabrielle's jaw dropped in surprise. "You don't mind?"
She thought about that, then said, "Will you answer them?"
"I won't be in trouble, will I? I mean, you won't beat me or something, will you?"
The warrior stopped abruptly, and turned Gabrielle to face her. "Have I ever beat you?"
Gabrielle was surprised by the warrior's intensity. She felt suddenly ashamed of the question. Her gaze drifted to the ground between their feet. "No."
"Why would you think that of me, then?"
"I'm sorry. I don't know you, and I'm new at being a slave. At being dirt under people's feet. At being considered less than a dog or a horse. At being beaten and starved and sold and locked in a cage, and inspected like a piece of meat, and seen as a ready fuck for any man with a dinar, and having no say over what happens to me, and - " She looked up. "It hurts, warrior."
"Oh? How do you know?"
The warrior placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Trust me. I do know."
Gabrielle was silent for a while; they stood in the street, facing each other. The warrior's countenance reflected patience; the slave's reflected caution, question. Finally, Gabrielle released a deep sigh.
"I think I do trust you, warrior. In fact, you're about the only person in the world I trust anymore."
The warrior smiled at that. She hugged Gabrielle tightly to her chest, then released her and pointed toward the edge of town. "Come on, then. Let's see to the horse, shall we?"
They resumed their walk, and Gabrielle was pleased to notice that the warrior's arm lingered about her as they walked, her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. It felt right. It felt protective. It felt friendly. In this ugly new world into which she had found herself thrust, her warrior would protect her. And she would take care of her warrior. It suddenly made sense. For the first time in more than a week, she felt a glimmer of hope for the future. And it felt good.
They had spent some time at the stable. After the warrior and the stable's owner agreed on a price for her horse, she arranged to have her saddle and tack delivered to the red ship the following morning. Then, they left.
"Warrior?" Gabrielle asked.
"Where to now?"
"Now," the warrior said, "we go to the prettiest part of town and seek out the baths."
"Oh!" She cast a sideways glance at the warrior. "That's probably a good idea. You do smell a little." Actually, she thought, you smell a lot.
The warrior actually smiled at that. "We're going to be traveling for several more days. Now is the time for a little indulgence."
"Nice." She looked up as they trudged along, and she huffed beneath her burden. She carried the warrior's bag and her cloak over her shoulder, and her new bag bounced against her hip. "Do I get to bathe, too?"
"Will we bathe together?"
"What, you've never been to a public bath?"
"No. I'm a farm girl, remember? And we were poor."
"Well, here's the procedure. The public baths are separated by sex. Women apart from men. And slaves bathe separately from their owners."
"How do I attend you, if we bathe separately?"
"There's slaves there to tend the bathers."
"To tend me, too?"
"Yes, if I pay enough."
"Gosh." Gabrielle thought about it, then asked, "A hot bath?"
"With perfumes and oil and such?"
"Yes. And a massage, if we pay extra."
She smiled. This could be fun. "So, are we paying extra?"
The warrior studied Gabrielle as they walked, side-by-side. Then, she nodded. "Your last few days have been hard. The next few days will be, too. It's the least I can do for you."
"Warrior, you're really a kind soul, aren't you?"
"Don't noise it around, Gabrielle."
She laughed. "Don't worry, warrior. Your secret is safe with me."
At the entrance to the baths, the warrior took Gabrielle aside. "Listen to me," she said. "I rely upon your discretion. If anyone asks, you're my personal servant. Don't tell anyone where we're bound, but just that we're traveling. And don't disclose my name."
"I don't know where we're going, and I don't know your name."
"Good. And you're about to meet a different sort of people here. Be pleasant, but guarded. And don't let them intimidate you. You're every bit as good as they are. Life is theatre. Play the part."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"You'll understand. Just keep it in mind, right?"
"Let's go. The entrance to the women's baths is just there."
They mounted the steps, walked past tall columns, and entered the baths. A young woman met them. Gabrielle noted a slave bracelet about her ankle. She bowed, then asked, "How can we serve you?"
"I'll see the proprietor," the warrior said.
She scurried away, and a moment later, a middle-aged woman, elegant and poised, approached them. She beamed, it seemed to Gabrielle, a little falsely. "Well, General!" she said. "It's been too long." She cast a smile the warrior's way, then studied Gabrielle disapprovingly. "What have you here?"
"This is my personal slave, Gabrielle. We each require baths."
"This way, General." She led them to an alcove with a table. Activity swirled around them; slave-girls hustling to and fro, arms full of cloths and potions, voices in the background, and the smell of water and fragrances touched their senses. Gabrielle kept close to the warrior as she talked money with the proprietor, then paid, it seemed to Gabrielle, a lot of money. Finally, the proprietor clapped her hands. Two slave-girls, both somewhere in their very early teens, hustled to her side.
"Take the general to the baths," she instructed, "and she is to receive all attention. This is her personal slave, ah-"
"Gabrielle," the warrior said.
"Yes, Gabrielle. She is to bathe in the slaves' area. And she is to receive your attention," she said to the other girl. They both nodded. "Your things can be left just here." She pointed to a series of hooks on the wall. "Enjoy your baths," she said.
"Oh, my." Gabrielle, still warm from her bath, lay naked on a cloth on a hard stone table. "That feels wonderful."
She opened her eyes and cast a glance around her. From the large baths, wisps of steam rose. Women of all ages dotted the waist-high water. Some stood, some sat along the edges of the bath. All, during their ablutions, gossiped, laughed, and visited with one another. Gabrielle noted that all the bathers were naked, except for the inevitable slave bracelets around their ankles. Gosh, she thought. If only Lila could see me now. She wouldn't have been so smug.
The slave-girl assigned to tend her rubbed oil into her shoulders. "I'm glad it feels good." She hesitated, then asked, "The general, does she beat you a lot?"
"These marks on your back. You took quite a beating."
"Oh. Amazons did that, before they sold me to the warr - ah, the general."
"I've never seen an Amazon."
"You don't want to."
"At least they didn't cripple you."
Gabrielle turned her head, and noted the slave-girl's limp and withered leg as she walked away a few steps to get more oil. As she returned, Gabrielle studied the girl's body. She couldn't be more than about - "How old are you, Ioa?" she asked.
"Thirteen," she said.
"May I ask about your limp?"
"I got a beating last year that injured my spine. My leg isn't much good since then."
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said. "Does it still hurt?"
"In the winter, it does. It's the way of it all, I suppose," Ioa said. "Anyway, I'm just a slave."
Just a slave. Gabrielle felt like weeping. She's a good kid. And her spirit is broken. Just a slave. I'll never be like that, Gabrielle vowed. Never. She sat up on the table, and her eyes met Ioa's.
"You're Ioa, and there's nobody quite like you. You remember that, no matter how bad things get."
Ioa cast a nervous glance around her. When she saw no one else in earshot, she said, "I will. Thank you."
"No. Thank you. Now, show me how you give such a wonderful massage, will you?"
"You want me to, um -"
"Yeah. Teach me. You're great." She leaned closer and whispered, "It's a skill I might need to put to good use sometime, if you get my drift."
Ioa understood. "Well," she said, "it's best after a hot bath. Then, you have to..."
"Get on the table. Let me try it on you."
"What's this?" the proprietor asked.
Gabrielle looked up. She remembered the warrior's words: It's all theatre, Play the part. "Oh, ma'am. Ioa is the best at massage that I've ever had. She's teaching me how to do it."
The matron's eyebrows shot up to her hairline. "Really? She's that good?"
"Oh, yes!" Gabrielle kept her eyes averted from the matron's eyes, but it did not dim her enthusiasm. "She's a real artist!"
"Well. I never knew it." She cast a glance at Ioa, who jumped up from the table and stood, shifting her weight nervously from foot to foot. "Is this true?"
"Yes, ma'am," Ioa squeaked.
"You've got a real treasure here, ma'am."
"Hm." She studied Ioa thoughtfully, then returned her attention to Gabrielle. "The general is dressing. You'd better hurry. You don't want to keep her waiting, I'm sure."
"Thank you, ma'am. I'll be right there."
"Ioa, see to it." The matron turned and walked away, muttering, "Well, I'll be!"
Shortly, Gabrielle finished dressing. When she looked up, the warrior was standing nearby, speaking with the proprietor. "Are you ready, Gabrielle?" she asked.
"Yes." She slung the strap of her own bag over her shoulder and picked up the warrior's bag and her cloak. "I'm ready." She looked back, and Ioa gave her a quick wave. Gabrielle returned it, then followed the warrior down the wide steps to the street. When they reached the busy street, the warrior turned to Gabrielle.
"Learning massage, huh?"
"Well, I thought - "
"The proprietor offered me one hundred and seventy-five dinars for you."
Gabrielle froze in shock. "Oh! And?"
"This is your unlucky day, it seems. You're still mine."
"Thank the gods."
"Don't thank 'em yet." With that, the warrior turned and began walking. Gabrielle fell into place next to her. "Do I smell better, at any rate?" the warrior asked.
"Like roses," Gabrielle said.
The warrior roared with laughter. "You're a rotten liar, Gabrielle."
The warrior had gotten them lodgings in an upscale inn, near the better part of town. Again, she ate in the common room, and again, Gabrielle ate in the kitchen, surrounded by other slaves. When she returned to their room, the warrior was waiting for her. She had shed her shoes, greaves, and armor, and was clad only in her short tunic. Gabrielle noted that she had a wide sash snugged about her waist, and thrust into the sash was her dagger. On the table was a tray with a pitcher of weak wine and two pottery cups.
The warrior pointed to the tray. "Bring that," she said, "and come with me to the roof."
Gabrielle kicked off her sandals and lifted the tray. She followed the warrior out to the flat roof just outside their room. The warrior sat on a stone bench, then motioned for Gabrielle to sit. She did, rested the tray between them, and filled the two cups. The warrior lifted one, sipped her wine, and studied the sea in the distance. For a long time, she was silent. Then, she looked at Gabrielle, who was sipping her own wine and awaiting the warrior's thoughts.
"It's time we had a talk."
"Did I do something wrong?"
Another thought struck her, and it struck her to the quick. "Are you going to sell me?"
"Why would you think that?"
"I'm scared, warrior. Every minute of every day. It seems that's what it's like, for a slave."
"And so it is." The warrior sipped her wine. "No. I'm not going to sell you."
The warrior sighed, a deep sigh. Gabrielle studied the warrior's profile; it appeared tired, weary, resigned to - to what? The warrior began speaking, even as she kept her eyes on the distant sea. "Tomorrow, we journey by sea to Thessaly. From there, we travel overland to Larissa. That will be your new home."
"My new home? Not ours?"
"Our new home. You're stuck with me, it seems."
"What I'm saying is, say good-bye to Macedonia forever."
"Oh." Gabrielle thought about her family. A dull ache filled her chest and her thoughts. What family? They sold her. She has no family now. Nothing but her servitude to this unnamed warrior. "Okay."
"Have you so quickly cut your ties to your home?"
"I have no home anymore. All I have is you."
"And that's not much, it seems."
"It's a lot, warrior. The more I see of slavery, the more I know that."
"I'm glad you feel that way. Now, on this trip, be careful. Stay close to me. We're traveling with mariners, and I know the master of this ship. He's a rogue, a charming one. Watch out for him." She sipped her wine, then asked, "Are you a virgin, Gabrielle?"
"What? No." The warrior cast a glance at her, and she shrugged. "I mean, I'm nineteen years old, and a farm girl. What do you think?"
"Um. Ever been married? Had kids?"
"Why? You're plenty old enough."
"I guess it wasn't my destiny."
"It's because nobody wanted you, isn't it?"
Gabrielle was silent for a long moment. Then, she said, "Yeah."
"Because of your pride. Because of your temper. Because of your mouth. Because you detest convention, rules. Because your curiosity always got you into trouble. A bad reputation, that was you."
"Where is this going?" Gabrielle asked, a little peevishly.
"Just here. Those are the reasons I wanted you. Also, because you're smart. Too smart for your own damned good." She looked at Gabrielle. "You can read and write, can't you?"
"How did you know that?"
"I have my ways." She pulled a folded papyrus from her sash. "Read this aloud for me."
Gabrielle unfolded the papyrus, and turned it around. Then, she began to read. After a few minutes, the warrior said, "That's enough. Do you recognize it?"
The warrior lifted the paper from her hand. "Yes. Keep that ability to yourself, Gabrielle, until we get to Larissa."
"Because you're a slave. And because it makes you a very valuable slave. People will steal a slave that valuable, kill for a slave that valuable. If you'd been a virgin, you'd have been even more valuable."
"Oh. I see."
"You almost told those Amazons you could read and write, couldn't you? When I first saw you?"
"Yeah. That's why you slapped my face, told me to shut up, and stuffed that nasty rag in my mouth?"
"Yes. If they'd known that, you would have cost many times more than what I paid for you."
"Oh." Gabrielle thought for a moment as she sipped her wine. Then, she said, "So why did you drag me like an animal through the countryside?"
"Your pride needed taking down a peg. Do you remember when you told me that you wanted to die?"
"That's when I knew that you'd reached bottom. From then on, it was up for you, wasn't it?"
"Yeah. It was."
"You've come a long way in two days. You're a woman of untold capacity. I can see it in you." She hesitated; then, more softly, confessed, "I need you, Gabrielle. You'll learn why, eventually."
"You need me? I'm a slave."
"I need you. Believe that."
It was Gabrielle's turn to study the sunset, glowing red over the distant sea. After a moment, she looked at the warrior.
"It would seem, warrior, that I need you, too."
Their eyes met. For a long moment, they sat so. In the warrior's expression, Gabrielle thought she saw an uncommon vulnerability, even a tenderness. A warrior and a slave. Us against the world, huh? she thought. I can do that. With her, I can definitely do that.
"Thank you, warrior."
"For confiding in me. And for that wonderful bath and massage this afternoon."
"It was my pleasure."
"No. It was mine. You were really starting to reek."
The warrior laughed. Then, she looked at Gabrielle. "Let's get some sleep."
A sly little smile crossed Gabrielle's face. "Yeah. Let's do that."
Inside the room, the warrior snuffed out all but a single candle. That, she would let burn. When she turned toward the bed, Gabrielle was in front of her. Slowly, she approached. She stood in front of the warrior, very close, and looked up. "I'm supposed to be your servant. Let me help," she said. With one hand, she pulled loose the end of the sash about the warrior's waist. The other, she rested on the sheathed dagger pressed against the warrior's stomach.
More quickly than she could see, the warrior's hand clapped over hers. The grip was strong, pinning Gabrielle's hand against the weapon. For a silent moment, they remained so. Then, Gabrielle looked up. Their eyes locked.
"You don't trust me, warrior?"
The warrior did not reply in words. Her eyes, though, studied Gabrielle's face intently. Then, she allowed her hand to fall away. Gabrielle breathed a deep sigh of relief, and lifted the sheathed dagger from the sash. She rested it on the nearby table, and proceeded, slowly, to unwrap the sash from around the warrior's waist. When she was done, she helped the warrior shed her tunic.
The warrior sat on the edge of the bed, then lay back. Her nude body, in the light of the single dim candle, reflected ridges of muscle, shadows, and contours of the female form. To Gabrielle, it reflected power, agility, grace. And darkness. A panther, she thought. A wilderness predator. Dark hair, dark moods, dark shadows. A study in - what? Darkness was displayed without; was darkness displayed within, too?
Gabrielle shed her own tunic. As she did, she thought about the word she was seeking. She draped her tunic over the table and felt the night air cool against her skin. She stood, immobile, as the word came to her. Danger. The warrior was danger. A pulsing, unknown, dark danger. And she felt drawn to it, drawn as the moth is to the candle. Drawn to the darkness, and drawn to the light which she knew to be within that darkness, a darkness that could destroy her. And a light that might save her. She had to know it, to experience every moment of both the darkness and the light, even if it eventually killed her. Like it or not, this dark warrior was her world now.
And she admitted to herself that she liked it that way. Oh, yes. She liked it.
The warrior was waiting for her to do something. She could sense it. But she had to play the role. She was a slave.
"Warrior, where shall I sleep? On the floor, or at your side?"
The reply was a whisper. "Where do you want to sleep, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle could feel her heart begin to pound. Slowly, she sat on the edge of the bed. Then, she lay down. She turned on her side, her back to the warrior. Why had she done that? She knew why. She wanted to be held, protected. She wanted to be pressed against the warrior's warmth and strength. But she did not want to assume a familiarity which was not theirs. Not yet.
The warrior's arm hovered above her, holding the blanket up. An invitation. She wriggled backward until she felt her body press against the warrior. Then, the warrior draped the blanket over her, and wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's middle. It pulled her tightly against the warrior's hard muscle, smooth skin, soft breasts. And the arm remained so, silently, quietly, it seemed, waiting.
"Warrior?" Gabrielle whispered.
Gabrielle's heart pounded. She was no novice at matters of lust, but this was no farm lad or girl she was with now. This was no roll in the hayloft. She knew in her soul that she was about to cross a line, to travel a path that frightened her almost beyond words. But she wanted that path. She swallowed hard, then whispered a question.
"Do you find me attractive?"
Her heart pounded louder, harder. "Do you want me?"
"Then why haven't you taken me yet?" she asked. "I'm your slave. I can't say no."
"Because I don't go where I'm not invited."
Gabrielle wriggled around until she was lying on her back next to the warrior. Her face was an inch away from the warrior's. She rested her hand on the warrior's face, combed the black hair back with her fingers. Their eyes, in the dim candle-light, connected, and their gaze locked. "In that case," she said, "consider yourself invited."
The warrior's eyes grew warm. She shifted her body until she rested on her elbows above Gabrielle. Then, she lowered her head, and they kissed. It was soft, gentle, a kiss of affection, not a kiss of harsh, violent lust. It seemed, to Gabrielle, that the warrior sought a tenderness in that kiss, a reassurance that Gabrielle's invitation was genuine. She remembered how protected, how reassured she had felt with the warrior's presence close and her arm about her. She tried to reply in kind, with a tender touch of lips and tongue, of hands, of body. I am here for you, warrior, she thought, in loyalty, in friendship, in body. Believe in me, as I believe in you. You won't regret it, I promise you that. And I won't ever let you down.
The single candle had burned low, but was still flickering. The warrior rose and sat on the edge of the bed. Behind her, Gabrielle slept, her soft breathing rhythmic in the night. She stood, and walked to the open door. The distant sea was black, the stars above it dusting the heaven in brilliant silver dots of light. Too many to count. She sighed and leaned against the door-jamb, allowing the wisps of night breeze to cool her skin. It still seemed to burn where Gabrielle had touched her that night. And she had touched her everywhere. What was happening to her? She had not felt like this in - how long, now? Years. Lifetimes. She had not expected this.
The gods are crazy, she thought. I wanted a slave. I got more than I bargained for. Much more.
She felt a presence near her, and she glanced aside. Gabrielle pressed herself against her side, wrapped her arms about her waist and clung to her. The head of loose, light hair rested against her chin. She felt, as much as heard, Gabrielle's question.
"Are you well? What's wrong?"
"Nothing." She hugged the slave to her side. "Nothing at all, for a change."
Gabrielle's voice was soft. "Warrior?"
"Did I please you?"
"What, you couldn't tell?"
Gabrielle looked up at her. "A girl likes to hear it."
"You did," she said. She returned her gaze to the distant sea. A little awkwardly, she asked, "Did I - ?"
"Warrior," Gabrielle said, "if you fight like you fuck, you'll conquer the world."
The warrior laughed. Yeah, she thought. That's the farm girl in her. Crude, lusty, honest to a fault. "Let's get some more sleep," she said. "It's going to be a long trip to Larissa."
"That's the ship. The one with the red hull."
The slave from the stables nodded. He pulled at his hand-cart and followed Gabrielle and the warrior down the stone wharf. In a few minutes, they reached the side of the red ship. A mariner, deeply tanned and with the wild look of a barbarian, greeted them. "General?" he asked. The warrior nodded. "Jesup told us you were coming."
"I have some things to bring aboard."
He glanced at the cart, then nodded and called to a couple of his companions. They hefted the warrior's saddle, tack bag, shield, and helmet from the cart and carried them aboard. The warrior turned to the slave and dropped some copper coins into his hand.
"Thank you. And thank the stable-master for us." She grinned. "He doesn't need to know about the coins, though. I've already paid him."
The slave smiled in reply. "Gods protect you," he said, then turned the cart about and trudged away.
The warrior looked at Gabrielle. "Shall we?"
"Lead on, General," she said.
"Smart-ass," the warrior muttered. "Let's get this circus on the road." With a sigh, she straightened her shoulders, then stepped aboard. Gabrielle followed, hefting her bag, the warrior's bag, and her cloak over her shoulder.
"General!" The shout, heavy with accent, resounded across the deck. They looked in the shout's direction, and saw a swarthy mariner stride across the deck, his hand outstretched.
The warrior clasped the hand. "Jesup, this is my slave, Gabrielle. She will stay with me." The warrior pulled Jesup closer, and lowered her voice. "And she is not to be bothered."
"'Warrior' will do."
He flashed a devilish grin. "What did you do? Get demoted?"
"Something like that."
"As you say, Gen - ah, warrior. I have a cabin for you. It isn't much, but it's a small ship, yes?"
The warrior looked around. "Yes. Did you get demoted?"
He laughed. "In a way. I won her from a pirate in a game of knuckle-dice, after I lost my last ship."
"Yes," he said. "She splintered on the shoals of a massive debt."
"And so it does. Come this way. Your things are already there."
He led Gabrielle and the warrior into the small aft superstructure. They bent low to avoid the overhead beams, and were shown a cabin barely big enough for the two of them. "It'll do just fine," the warrior said.
Gabrielle dropped the bags and her cloak next to the saddle and tack bag. Gods, she thought. It smells in here. Damned saddle. "Warrior?" she asked.
"Will we be mostly on deck during the voyage?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Good. It's already smelling like your horse's ass in here."
Jesup, who had witnessed the conversation, laughed. "She has to be your slave. Yes?"
"Yes," the warrior said, a little dryly. She cast a glance at Gabrielle, who merely smiled sweetly at the warrior. "So, Jesup," the warrior said, "when do we leave?"
"Now is good. The tide is with us, and the weather is at Poseidon's good-pleasure."
"How long to Thessaly?"
He shrugged. "Tomorrow, perhaps. Fifteen, twenty leagues only, if we sail straight south-by-west."
Again, he shrugged. "Who knows? They hug the coast, though. To avoid them and speed the trip, we sail straight across the sea. With luck, we will see Thessaly tomorrow." He motioned toward the deck. "I will get us on our way, yes?"
He navigated the cramped passage, and left them alone.
The warrior turned to Gabrielle. "Now listen well, and heed my words. Watch yourself on this trip, Gabrielle. Stay close to me. Don't get too friendly with the crew; I know mariners, and they're not to be trusted. They think any female is fair game, and we're in their territory now."
"Yeah," Gabrielle said. "I saw the way they looked at us. It scared me a little." She gave a nervous laugh. "Actually, a lot."
"You're learning. Stay close to me. And..." The warrior knelt, and opened her bag. From it, she drew a sheathed dagger twice the length of her hand. She rose, and handed it to Gabrielle. "Wear this on you at all times. In the front, so they can see that you're armed."
"Warrior, is that necessary?" She saw the expression on the warrior's face, and she instantly knew that it was necessary. "All right," she said. She thrust the dagger into the wide sash around her middle, leaving the handle prominently exposed. "Will that do?"
"Yes. And you listen good. If any one of them touches you, you draw that thing and slash, do you hear me? Don't ask questions. Don't hesitate. Just do it."
Gabrielle swallowed hard. Her heart began to pound. "I understand," she said.
"Do you? Don't be afraid of punishment. Just do it. I own you; I'll protect you."
"And another thing: mariners have been known to take passengers hostage and hold them for ransom. They know I'm worth something; they don't know that you're worth something. Keep it that way."
"You're scaring me."
"Good." She pointed toward the deck. "Now, let's go out on deck, shall we?"
The first leg of the trip was uneventful. A gentle breeze toward the sea carried them from harbor. When they passed the breakwater, the sea became rolling. The ship assumed a rhythmic rise and fall with the sea, and the huge, square sail above them billowed tightly with the wind. The day became hot; the warrior shed her shoes, shin greaves, and leather armor. She kept her lethal dagger prominent at her stomach, though, thrust into a wide sash wrapped around her abdomen. Gabrielle left her sandals in the cabin, as the leather soles were slippery on the worn wood of the rolling deck. Her bare feet weren't.
She followed the warrior's example and kept hold of something as she moved about the deck, as the small ship pitched and bounced in the open sea. When she had to use the privy, though, she discovered something very unpleasant. The motion of the ship, when she was in an enclosed space, made her terribly nauseated. The warrior advised her to keep to the open deck and keep her eyes upon the horizon. It helped ease her stomach. They also avoided any food, and merely sipped water.
The crew seemed to have gotten the warrior's message; although they frequently cast glances their way, they avoided conversation with the two women. Gabrielle wondered if the warrior's reputation was responsible for that, or if the ship-master's reputation was responsible. Either way, she was relieved that she didn't have to fend off amorous mariners.
The warrior and her slave found refuge at the rail, next to the squat aft superstructure housing the cabins. They occupied a place on the deck, their backs against the vertical wood, and watched the sea pass them by. They talked from time to time, but spent much time in silence with their own thoughts, their near company seeming enough to comfort them. As the sun reached its zenith, Gabrielle rose.
"I'm getting my head cloth. Do you want anything from the cabin?"
"No." She smiled at Gabrielle, then returned her gaze to the sea.
Gabrielle walked the few steps to the cabins' entrance, and bent low as she entered. As she did, she realized that she needed the privy. It was at the end of the hall, an outcropping overhanging the stern of the ship. She made her way to it and entered.
A minute later, she exited. Her stomach was turning. She breathed deeply, then found their cabin door and entered. The smell of the horse lingering on the warrior's saddle didn't help her stomach. Gabrielle knelt and pulled her bag toward her knee. So intent was she on keeping her stomach down and shifting to the rolling of the ship, that she did not hear the hatch in the cabin's floor crack and open. She only heard it when it was flung back, and it slammed against the wall. A man, one she recognized only as part of Jesup's crew, rose head and chest through the hatch and grasped for her ankle. He missed. Gabrielle screamed as she scrambled back against the wall.
His arm snaked toward her again, and he caught her ankle. She was pulled toward the hatch, and she desperately tried to crawl backward. It did not help. The wood gave her no purchase, nothing on which to hold. Closer, she was pulled toward the grinning face, and she could not stop it. She didn't know whether she was screaming or not; perhaps she was. She was too frightened to know.
When the mariner pulled her foot into the hatch, she was desperate. She wanted to cry, but she couldn't. She became furious instead. She reacted with instinct; she lifted her other foot, and she kicked as hard as she could. She connected with his face, and she felt, rather than heard, his nose crack beneath her heel.
He cried out, and he released her. She crawled backward, and pressed herself against the cabin's wall. She watched in horror as the mariner, his face and hands bloody, began climbing through the hatch. This time, he was not grinning. This time, he was angry. In his thick barbarian accent, he said, "Oh, missy. You're going to pay for that one."
"No. You are." Gabrielle yanked the dagger from the sheath against her belly, and she slashed. The blade connected, and the mariner howled. He fell back through the hatch, but it did not close. A moment later, he appeared again, a red stripe across his forehead. Gabrielle held the dagger in front of her, a threatening position, but he seemed not to be frightened of it. His eyes were fury now, and he was going to hurt her. She could feel it.
As he emerged from the hatch, a fist connected with his jaw. It was the warrior's arm. The blow was crushing; it turned his head, and he fell back through the hatch. Gabrielle looked up, and she almost wept with relief.
"Warrior! Thank the gods you're here."
"I heard you screaming."
"You're damned right I was screaming. That man - "
"I saw." She knelt, drew her sword from its scabbard, and pointed toward the hatch. "Lock that."
Gabrielle noted the latch, and she pulled it until the hatch was locked. Then, she followed the warrior to the deck.
The warrior strode across the deck, her sword in hand, Gabrielle just behind her. "Jesup!"
He looked up, and his expression went guarded. "General?"
"One of your mariners just tried to rape my slave. Where is he?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"He's here somewhere."
Gabrielle said, "I broke his nose and cut him across his forehead. He should be easy to find."
Both Jesup and the warrior looked at Gabrielle. Jesup's expression was one of surprise; the warrior's expression reflected satisfaction. She returned her attention to Jesup. "Assemble your mariners. Let's find him."
Jesup straightened up and considered the warrior. "And when we find him?"
"I'll make an example of him."
Jesup cast a glance about the deck. His crew had assembled, except for the mariner at the tiller, and was watching with interest.
"Forget about it, warrior. He was just having a little fun." Jesup shrugged. "You know how mariners are. Anyway, she's just a slave. What's the big deal?"
"Nobody touches her."
"Except for you, huh?"
The warrior and the ship's master faced each other. "Yes. Except for me. If you or any of your mariners have a problem with that, they can speak to me about it, right here and now."
Jesup considered the situation, then flashed a smile. "I'm sure we don't. Let it go, General. Your slave has given him injury enough for his troubles, no? He will be thinking twice before he tries it again, I am sure." He looked about the deck. "And my men will not bother your slave again."
"They'd better not. I'll kill the next man who tries."
"Then," Jesup said, "we shall be forced to kill you."
"You can try," the warrior said.
Again, he smiled, a devilish, charming grin. "I see seven to one. Not good odds, General."
This time, the warrior returned the grin. "Not for you. And it's seven to two."
He cast a glance at Gabrielle. She was still holding her long dagger. "Of course." He smiled again, and nodded toward Gabrielle. "Your slave will fight to the death for you, yes?"
"Yes." It was Gabrielle who spoke that word.
Jesup returned his attention to the warrior. "You're right, General. That is quite a slave."
"Are we understood, then?"
"We don't bother you, and you don't slaughter us. It seems a fair deal." As if on cue, his mariners laughed, as if they were hearing the ending of a joke. "Now, worry no more. It is done, yes?"
"Done." To emphasize the point, the warrior cast a glance about the deck, making eye contact with every mariner aboard. Then, she turned and strode toward the after part of the ship. Gabrielle followed, but she kept casting glances behind her.
They settled in their corner by the rail. Gabrielle saw that the warrior kept her sword at her side. She plopped down on the deck next to the warrior's side, and heaved a sigh of relief. "By the gods, warrior, that was scary."
"It's not over yet."
"Do you think they'll try something else?"
"What do we do?"
"Just what we did." She studied Gabrielle. "You can put that away for the time being."
"Oh." Gabrielle sheathed her dagger. "You were right about them."
"I don't expect anything more until after dark," the warrior said.
"Be ready for anything."
The sea settled as the afternoon waned, and a steady breeze drove them ever onward toward the coast of Thessaly. Gabrielle noted that the day's sun had seemed to darken the warrior's skin. Hers, it merely tanned a little. She'd worked all her life in her father's fields; she was used to the sun. They sipped water from the warrior's water skin, and they talked quietly. Mostly, the warrior threw the occasional question toward Gabrielle concerning her life in Potidaea. Gabrielle welcomed the chance to chatter, but suspected privately that the warrior did it mostly to keep her mind off the impending night and its unknown dangers.
Jesup approached them at dusk. "Warrior," he said. "A word or two?" At her silent nod, he sat on the deck by them, and spoke in a low voice. "I cannot guarantee your safety tonight."
Gabrielle's blood ran cold. She glanced at the warrior, who seemed unfazed by the warning.
The warrior replied, "Tell your men, Jesup, that anybody who gets within two paces of us tonight will die." She leveled cold eyes at him to emphasize her warning. "I won't ask questions."
"You really haven't changed, have you?"
"You know I'm good for it."
He nodded. "I know. I've seen you in action before." He rubbed a hand through his black curls, a gesture of resignation. "Try not to kill them all. I need a couple, at least, to sail this ship."
"Then you think it'll happen?"
"I do. I overheard them talking earlier. Be warned."
The warrior's expression eased. "Thank you, Jesup."
"I will be armed tonight, and I will watch with you." He shot a mischievous grin her way. "From at least three paces away."
The warrior returned the grin. "Again, thank you."
"For an old friend, I do this. Remember, I am in your debt."
"If we make it safely to the shore of Thessaly, then we're even."
"That would be nice. I don't like being in debt. You Greeks charge too damned much interest."
The warrior laughed. Jesup rose and walked toward the bow of the ship. The warrior stood and stretched, a slow, luxurious stretch, then looked down at Gabrielle. "Let's use the privy, get your cloak, and settle down for the night."
Gabrielle rose. "I'm right beside you." And I don't think I've ever been so scared in my entire life, she added in her silent thoughts. May the goddess Athena watch over us both tonight.
Dusk descended into darkness; the stars came into brilliance across the sea's night sky, and a moon rose. It illuminated the deck with a weak light, but a light which the warrior welcomed. She stood at the rail, silent, immobile, arms crossed, sword in hand, as Gabrielle dozed on the deck behind her legs. Nearby, she could see the silhouette of Jesup pace the deck, a sword at his side. Occasionally, she could detect the motion of a mariner crossing the deck in the distance. But she did not merely keep watch with her eyes; she kept watch with all her senses, alert, waiting for the attack which she felt was inevitable. She noted that the mariners, whose habit was to sleep on deck in good weather, were not there tonight. They were - where?
Below deck, she decided, except for the one who manned the tiller above and behind them. She did not like having the enemy at their backs, and she knew that the mariners knew every hatch and passage on the small ship. She did not. Another situation which she did not like.
Jesup approached, and halted several paces away. "Warrior?" he whispered.
"I hear motion beneath the deck. Be ready."
The warrior reached behind her with a foot, and thumped Gabrielle's leg. A moment later, she did it again. "Warrior?" She heard Gabrielle whisper the question, rather than speak it.
"Oh, by the gods." Gabrielle cast her cloak aside and stood. The dagger rasped out, and the warrior knew that she held it ready. "What now?"
"Watch our backs."
Gabrielle turned and faced the tiller platform, then backed up until she felt her body touch the warrior. It was a comforting presence. She could hear her heart pound in the night, hear her breathing, loud, raspy. She swallowed hard. "Warrior?"
"Shh." A moment later, she grabbed Gabrielle's arm. "Move. Now." Gabrielle felt herself yanked away from the spot they'd occupied for so long. A second later, a club splintered a step on the ladder to the tiller platform above them. The warrior swung her sword; a sickening thud sounded, and a gurgle broke the silence. A body fell at their feet. The warrior thrust her sword into the dark silhouette, and it writhed on the deck for a second, then fell still.
Jesup drew his sword and stood, true to his word, three paces from his passengers, his back to them, as a deck hatch flew open and banged on the deck. Several dark forms emerged, and Jesup swiped at the first one. It staggered, then recovered itself. The others hesitated; then, they clustered together on the deck facing them. A voice sounded, thick with accent.
"We'll have the slave, ship-master." A laugh sounded, and the voice continued, "You can have the warrior."
"You'll meet your gods tonight," Jesup replied.
"Wrong," the warrior said. "You'll see Tartarus tonight."
Gabrielle glanced back. On the tiller ladder, she detected motion. She thrust with her dagger, and the long blade buried itself into the meat of a leg. A scream sounded, and she pulled it free. Something warm splattered across her face. A knife clattered to the wood at her feet. The dark form fell, and it grasped at the rail. Gabrielle thrust with her dagger again, and the form groaned and disappeared over the rail. A moment later, a splash sounded.
"Your slave fights with spirit, warrior," the voice said. "How do you fight against four?"
"I'll hardly break a sweat," the warrior said. She stepped forward, and a quick swipe of her sword scattered the mariners. They spread out around the two women and the ship-master.
"Keep out of this, ship-master," the voice said. "Our quarrel is not with you."
"It is now," he said, and lunged at the nearest form, his sword out. It dodged the blow.
Three mariners closed toward the warrior, slowly, carefully, predators in the night. The warrior watched them, her head turning from side to side. Gabrielle stood just behind her. A few paces away, Jesup dodged a swing from his opponent. The mariner's hand axe thudded into the wood of the rail, and stuck. Jesup's sword severed the man's arm. He screamed. Another quick swing ripped out the man's throat. The body fell hard upon the deck.
The warrior chose that moment to attack. Her body was deadly grace, motion as smooth as dance, as she engaged the three remaining mariners. They spread out around her, one to her front, one to each side. Gabrielle watched in horror; there was no way that the warrior could parry the attack of all three at once. She had to do something. The pounding of her heart screamed in her ears; she looked about the deck. There were six plus Jesup, at the start; three were down. Their backs were safe. Just these three were left.
Jesup engaged the one to the warrior's left side. The warrior dodged a strike from the center one, and Gabrielle saw the one nearest her, the one to the warrior's right, circle around behind her back. She ran toward him, and gripped her dagger in both hands. Overhand, she landed a resounding blow to his back. He crumpled, and the dagger's blade slid out of his body. The warrior was now facing a lone opponent. She feinted a strike, and the mariner danced aside. His arm flashed up, and the mariner and the warrior grappled for a moment. Then, they both became immobile.
For a long, horrible moment, Gabrielle watched as the mariner and the warrior stood, their bodies close, their faces near. Then, the warrior stepped back. His wrist was in her grasp. She turned, and forced him to his knees. Then, she pounded down with the hilt of her sword, and the man's arm cracked. He screamed, and his knife fell to the deck. The warrior stepped back, and her sword flashed, a double-handed, resounding swing. The strength of her entire body, it seemed, was behind it. The man's head separated from his body, and it bounced across the deck. She watched as the body crumpled to the deck, and a wide, dark stain began oozing from the neck.
Silence enveloped the deck. For the longest time, no one moved; not Jesup, not the warrior, and not Gabrielle, who stood frozen at the sight of the carnage. Then, Jesup glanced up at the mainsail.
"Shit! There's no one at the tiller. We're losing our position to the wind. We'll founder." He sheathed his sword, sprung up the ladder to the tiller, and loosed the rope holding it in place. The ship's bow swung, and the mainsail billowed again, a reassuring thump and rustle. The ship's speed began to increase, its bow resuming its rhythmic thump as it met wave after wave of sea.
The warrior motioned toward the tiller, and Gabrielle sheathed her dagger and climbed the ladder. They both joined Jesup at the tiller, as he heaved the large lever a little more to his left.
"We're with the wind again." He glanced up at the sky. "From the stars, we're still westward. That's good."
"It would seem, Jesup, that you have no crew now."
He grinned. "Wrong, warrior. I have two."
"Can we do it?"
He shrugged. "I think so, if Poseidon does not grace us with too much wind or sea."
The warrior detected motion on the deck. She glanced down, and saw a form slowly crawling across the deck. "Excuse me," she said, and dropped to the deck. A moment later, a gurgling cry rang out, and the warrior climbed the ladder again. She saw Gabrielle's questioning expression, and simply said, "First rule of war: never leave the enemy alive behind you."
The warrior looked at Jesup. "Do you have the tiller for a while?"
"Come here, Gabrielle." She led the slave across the tiller platform, to its distant side. Then, she turned and faced her. "You did well tonight," she said.
"I was scared to death, warrior. I still am." She held up her hand. "Look at me. I'm shaking." Then, she realized that it was dark and sticky with blood.
The warrior hugged Gabrielle to her. Gabrielle's arms tightened about the warrior's waist, and she gripped with a death-grip. The warrior's voice was soft, but clear in the night.
"I was scared, too. It's not whether or not you're afraid; it's whether you command your fear, or whether it commands you. You commanded yours. Remember this lesson."
"I will. I promise."
"I know." The warrior rested her cheek on Gabrielle's forehead. Then, she held her as Gabrielle wept out the remainder of her fear and relief.
Gabrielle marveled at the feel of the brown sand of the beach at Thessaly beneath her feet. Behind her, Jesup's ship, its mainsail down, was nosed up on the beach. It bobbed gently as the low swells broke on the shore. Nearby, the warrior was standing; she had dressed once again in her leather armor, and her sword, so bloodied the night before, resided in its scabbard across her back. At their feet, their possessions lay: a saddle and a tack bag, the warrior's bag, Gabrielle's new bag containing her worldly possessions, and the warrior's shield and helmet. She looked at the warrior. "Now what?" she asked.
"Now," the warrior said, "we travel to Larissa."
"You'll see soon enough."
"Oh." She sighed.
Jesup's laugh broke her from her thoughts. He clapped a hand on her shoulder. "Your warrior is a fountain of information, isn't she?"
"A river," Gabrielle replied. She assumed a puzzled look and said, "I don't even know her name." And I'm her slave, she thought. With a sly little smile, she added the thought, and her lover. A sudden chill enveloped her, and she wondered, will it still be so when we reach Larissa?
"Warrior, you never told her who you are?" The warrior cast her a stern glance, and Jesup roared in laughter.
Gabrielle shot a quizzical look at Jesup. "So, who is she?"
He held his hands up in front of him defensively. "Not from my lips," he said. Then, he reached out a hand to the warrior. "Until next time?"
The warrior smiled. She grasped his hand. "If you're lucky, there won't be a next time."
Again, he roared in laughter. "There always is, General." He released her hand and pointed toward Gabrielle. "And you were right. That's quite some slave you have there." He bowed graciously to Gabrielle. "Good life to you, slave Gabrielle."
"And to you, Jesup. May you see your homeland again, one day."
"Thank you, no. I'm a wanted man there." He laughed, then turned and began walking toward the distant fishing village. The warrior called out to him.
"Where are you going?"
He pointed. "To spend your forty dinars on a new crew. I've got to get my ship off the beach before some fucking pirates steal it, or Poseidon beats it to pieces. Good journey."
"Come see us in Larissa."
"I just might take you up on that offer," he shouted. "If I'm not a wanted man there, too!" With that, he turned and strode down the wet sand toward the distant village.
"Well," Gabrielle said. "I might as well be comfortable." She perched on the warrior's saddle and occupied her time with wiggling her toes in the sand. As she did, her gaze traveled to the warrior's shield. Painted on the dark metal was a stylized "X".
"Hm," she said aloud. "That doesn't tell me much."
Gabrielle looked up. "Oh, nothing."
The warrior smiled. "If you have questions, ask them."
"Okay. Who in the name of all the blazing, inbred gods are you?"
"In good time."
Gabrielle squeaked in frustration. "See? That's why I don't ask."
"You're learning." She turned and picked up her helmet and shield. "It's time."
"Time? For what?"
"To start walking."
"Oh." She watched the warrior sling her shield over her back, and hang her helmet by her side. "To Larissa?" she asked, as she sipped her sandals onto her feet.
"I hope not."
"How far is Larissa?"
"About thirteen leagues."
"Oh, by the gods!" She huffed, but rose and dutifully picked up her bag and the warrior's bag and slung them over her shoulder. "I hope that you're not expecting me to carry that damned saddle, too."
"I've got that." She lifted the saddle and the tack bag, and slung it over her other shoulder. "Let's go, Gabrielle."
"I'm with you, warrior-whoever-you-are." They began a trudge through the sand toward the distant, brown road cutting between jagged hills. "I mean, we're going to walk thirteen leagues? With all this - this - fucking shit?"
The warrior roared in laughter. "No. Just to the nearest village inland. It's not that far."
"At least I'm not tied behind your damned horse this time."
"That's what I treasure in you, Gabrielle. You always look on the bright side of things."
True to the warrior's word, the first inland village was not more than a half-hour's walk. The warrior negotiated for a horse there, and they resumed their journey inland, Gabrielle seated on the massive horse, side-saddle, in front of the warrior. They traveled easily, and stopped at inns along the way. It took three days, warm days spent in traveling, and nights spent in lust and in exhausted sleep.
On the afternoon of the third day, the warrior reined her horse to a halt. "There it is, Gabrielle. Larissa, capital-city of Greater Thessaly."
"Gosh," was all Gabrielle could say. It seemed to glisten in the afternoon sun, buildings crowded together behind a massive defensive wall, the distant roofs green and brown. She could just discern the roofs of expansive buildings in the center of the city. West of the city, aquaducts led from the distant hills into the city's walls.
Outside the walls, the plains were dotted with farms and villages. They looked the same as in Macedonia, with the flocks of sheep, the activity, the endless fields of crops and the orchards of olive trees stretching to the base of the distant hills.
"It's beautiful," she said.
"It's a city," the warrior replied. "Alive with humanity, in all its glory and ugliness. When we get there, don't forget to cover your hair, and don't forget to play the part."
"Life is theatre, I think you said."
"And so it is."
"I won't let you down."
"I know." With that, she tapped her heels into the horse's flanks, and the animal began its easy walk toward the main road leading toward the massive gate.
Gabrielle leaned back against the warrior's chest. It was a comfort, having her there. A rock in the unknown, raging tempest of her young life. Her warrior. She would take care of her warrior, and her warrior would take care of her. Larissa! It might not be bad, after all. She began to thrill in anticipation of - what? She didn't know. And that thrilled her even more.
Gabrielle noticed the way that the soldiers at the city's gate snapped to alertness when she guided her horse through the gate, among the humanity and farm carts. The warrior nodded a casual reply to them, and people seemed to part for their passage. The warrior was known here. She guided the horse down wide streets, toward the city's center.
Gabrielle was silent, attempting to take in the myriad sights and sounds of the largest city she'd ever seen: the people, the carts, the merchant's stalls and establishments, the houses, the laundry on the flat roof-tops' lines waving in the breeze. She also noted a fair number of slave bracelets on ankles, and she noted some female slaves with no head coverings. "Warrior?"
She pulled the wide cloth a little more over her hair. "Oh." And she thought that she heard the warrior snicker behind her. "Warrior?" she asked.
"When we get to where we're going, will I live with you?"
"We'll share a place?" She glanced back. "And your bed?"
The warrior nodded. "Yes."
Was she the warrior's lover now, or merely the warrior's whore? She wondered about it, and she decided that, if it kept her under the warrior's protection and in the warrior's bed, it really didn't matter much to her. "Good."
"I'm glad that you feel that way." She pointed the horse toward a vast cluster of buildings at the city's center surrounded by a low wall. At its imposing gate, she halted. Several soldiers were at the gate, dressed in dark leather armor resembling the warrior's. At their arrival, the soldiers, already alert, presented themselves. One spoke.
"General! Welcome back."
"Alexana," she said. "I trust that all's well?"
Gabrielle noted that the soldier was female, although her hair was cut short, to the shoulder. She also noted, with some trepidation, the tattoo on the soldier's arm. When the warrior tapped the horse into motion, Gabrielle looked over her shoulder.
"Shit!" she whispered. "Amazons. I hate Amazons."
"There's good and bad everywhere. These Amazons are loyal to me."
"Oh." Gabrielle thought about that. "But you're not Amazon, are you?"
"Would it make a difference?"
"No. I guess not."
"Oh. Okay." She huffed. "Who in blazing Hades are you?" She sighed. "I know, I know. In good time."
The warrior's only reply was an amused chuckle.
They found the stables, and an older man greeted them. "General!" he said, then puzzled. "Or is it-?"
"It's 'General'," she said. Gabrielle slid down from the horse, and the warrior swung a leg over the horse's neck and dismounted.
The man eyed the horse disapprovingly. "Not your usual quality of horse," he noted.
"A temporary thing."
"One should hope." He took the horse's reins. "I'll take care of her from here."
"Thank you. I trust my favorite horse is well?"
He smiled. "She pines for your return, General," he said. "She will not eat, and she sheds tears."
At that, he laughed. Then, he led the horse away. Gabrielle shouldered her bag and the warrior's bag, and followed the warrior as she slung her shield over her back, took her helmet under her arm, and walked through a spacious courtyard.
The warrior turned a latch and pushed open a door. It swung freely, and they entered. As they did, the warrior stood aside and watched Gabrielle's reaction with amusement. The slave took several steps into the room, and her jaw dropped. "Warrior, this is where you live? It's - it's beautiful! And look at the size of this room. It's got to be bigger than the house I grew up in."
"Yes, Gabrielle. These are my own personal rooms."
"How many rooms?"
"What you see here. This large room, and my bed-room, and a couple of small rooms for servants."
"You have servants?"
"Just a girl, a member of the capitol household, who tends my rooms for me. She does not belong to me."
Gabrielle turned and studied the warrior. "So I'm your only slave?"
"You," she said, "are my only slave."
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed in warning. "Let's keep it that way."
The warrior's laugh resounded in the room. A moment later, two girls wearing slave bracelets on their ankles and appearing to be in their early teens scurried into the room from the bed-room door. They stood together in the center of the room, the bed-room door curtain swinging behind them, looking appropriately nervous and looking like adolescents anywhere who almost get caught doing something naughty. One said, "Madame General! We didn't hear you return." They both curtsied. "We hope you had a good journey, and we wait upon you."
The warrior's eyes sparkled with mischief, and Gabrielle knew that look by now. Oh, oh.
"It's a pleasure to see you again, Sinea," the warrior said. Sinea smiled nervously in reply. "I trust you've kept my home well-tended while I was gone?"
" And who's this?"
"That's Thena, ma'am. She's my friend."
"It's good to have friends." The warrior, her hands clasped behind her back, strolled around them as if she was inspecting her soldiers. She noted the disheveled hair and the hurriedly-donned tunics. "Especially close friends."
Both girls blushed scarlet. Sinea squeaked, "Yes, ma'am."
Gabrielle covered her mouth with a hand to stifle a laugh. She remembered well when she was that age. It is never an easy time.
"Well, Sinea. Thena. As you can see, I'm home. And," she said, gesturing toward Gabrielle, "I've acquired a slave. This is Gabrielle."
Gabrielle waved. "Hello, Sinea. Thena." They nodded in reply.
"Sinea, I'll still need you to tend my rooms."
Thena raised an eyebrow, but she did not meet the warrior's gaze directly. "Yes, ma'am?"
The warrior studied her sternly. Thena fidgeted uncomfortably in silence during the examination. Then, the warrior relaxed and smiled. "You may visit Sinea at any time, while she's here. I'm glad to see that she's got such a dear friend in you."
The sigh of relief was audible. The slave almost wilted. She curtsied, and gushed, "Thank you, ma'am. That's very kind of you. Ah, I should return to my duties."
Thena scurried toward the door, pausing halfway there to turn and cast a worried look at Sinea. Then, she disappeared more quickly than a cat after a mouse.
"Sinea," the warrior said, "I have a special job for you. Take Gabrielle under wing. Teach her what she needs to know to get along around here, will you?"
The warrior looked at Gabrielle. "I imagine you'll want to visit the baths first? I have some things to check on."
"You're not visiting the baths?" Gabrielle asked.
Gabrielle replied, "Not too much later, I hope. You smell like fucking dead animals, warrior."
Sinea's jaw dropped, and her eyes grew wide. She stared in shock. She was even more shocked when the warrior roared in laughter. "I've worked hard for five days to get that ripe," she said. Then, she walked toward the door. "I'll return in a few hours."
Gabrielle smiled. "Hurry back. After your bath, that is."
The warrior shot her a mock-frowning glance. She smiled, then disappeared through the door.
Gabrielle watched her go, then turned toward the young servant. "Well, Sinea. How's about you show me the baths?"
Gabrielle placed a hand on Sinea's forearm. "And I'd really appreciate it if you'd tend me there. I mean, I don't know anybody but you here, and I don't want to do anything dumb on my first day."
Sinea smiled. "Sure! Come on." She waved a hand to indicate that Gabrielle should follow, and they closed the door to the warrior's apartment behind them.
The slaves' baths were more spacious and cleaner than in Macedonia, but the atmosphere was similar. Sinea introduced Gabrielle to several of the other slaves, and they shed their clothing and immersed themselves in one corner of one of the huge, steaming pools. Gabrielle sighed with delight when they sank up to their chests in the water. She dunked her head below water, then rose and wiped her face with a hand. Sinea began washing Gabrielle's hair, and she was bursting with questions about Gabrielle. She chattered pleasantly.
"I could tell right away that you were from Macedonia. Your accent. There's people here from almost everywhere. I'm good with accents."
"Yeah? Where's the warrior - I mean, the general, from?"
"She's harder. She's almost adopted a Thessalian accent, but she's from Macedonia, too, I think. She's never told you?"
"I couldn't believe you spoke to her that way. I'd have been beaten raw if I'd spoken like that to a person of her position."
"She loves it. But don't you try it."
"I won't, believe me. She scares me."
"She's rather gentle, underneath all that military bluster."
"You could have fooled me. Okay, rinse."
Gabrielle dunked her head beneath the water, and rose again. Sinea moved her hair aside and began scrubbing her back with a sponge. "There's stripes on your back. You got beaten?"
"Yeah. Fucking Amazons did that."
"Not the general?"
Sinea sounded surprised. "She's never beaten me, either."
"Hm." Sinea hesitated, then asked, "Are you - you know- sexual with her?"
"My mother says that's dangerous, to get sexual with your owner."
"Your mother's a slave, too?"
"Yes. She's in the kitchens."
"You've been a slave here all your life?"
Gabrielle paused at that. All her life. She's never known what it was like to work a farm, to tend animals, to run free in the fields, to swim in the river, to feel the sun bake her skin, to attend the festivals, to raise Hades with other kids her age.
"You?" Sinea asked.
"I was raised on a farm in Potidaea. I haven't been a slave very long."
"Oh." She stopped scrubbing Gabrielle's back. "What's it like, to be free?"
Gabrielle thought about it. Then, she said, "It's not so bad, I guess." If you don't mind working your ass off and starving, she thought. Instead of your owner beating you with a strap, your father does.
"Do you miss your family?"
Gabrielle sighed. "It was my family that sold me into slavery. My father did, anyway. I miss my mother. She was good to me. My sister was just glad to see me go."
"Do you hate your father for that?"
"I did. Not anymore. I understand now, I think." She turned to Sinea. "You?"
She shrugged. "I don't have a father. I mean, I know I had one, but I don't know who he was. My mother never said. I think it must have been a person of high rank here."
"Does that happen a lot?"
"Yeah. We're slaves. That's how it is."
I've got to change the subject, Gabrielle thought, or I'll cry. She adopted a sly expression. "So, which is softer: Thena, or the general's bed?"
Sinea blushed scarlet. Gabrielle laughed. "Don't worry about it. Being sexual is the gods' gift to us."
"It's quite a gift."
"You can say that again. Now, can I wash your hair for you?"
That night, Gabrielle lay awake in bed, staring at the ceiling. Next to her, the warrior slept. Her soft snore was reassuring, comforting. Gabrielle turned on her side, propped her head on a hand, and studied the warrior.
She was lying face-down, her head turned away. The single oil-lamp that burned by the bedside cast shadows on her, but illuminated healed scars on her arm. A warrior, Gabrielle thought. What she must have seen in her life.
She pulled the sheet down more, and uncovered the warrior's back. Then, she noticed something that she had not noticed before. She lifted the oil-lamp and held it close to the warrior's back. There, she noted well-healed criss-cross scars on her lower back, and a few on her buttocks. She does understand slavery, Gabrielle thought. She's been there. What an untold story this woman holds. Someday, I'm going to learn it and chronicle it.
The warrior's voice was soft in the night. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. I was just looking at you."
"Do you see anything you like?"
"Oh, yeah." She placed the oil-lamp back on the bedside table. "Warrior?"
"You were a slave at one time, weren't you?"
At first, the warrior didn't answer. Then, she said, "Yes."
"Do you want to tell me about it?"
"All right." Gabrielle kissed her shoulder, then settled back on her pillows. "Sleep well."
Gabrielle allowed her thoughts to ramble for a while more, then closed her eyes. She remembered nothing else until morning.
The warrior tore a loaf of bread in portions, and placed one portion on Gabrielle's plate. "Thanks," the slave said, around a mouthful of cheese. "So, what happens today?"
"Today, Gabrielle, you begin to earn your keep."
"Doing what? Not farming, I hope."
"Nope. You're going to school."
Sinea, who had just arrived and was busy bustling around, giggled. The warrior allowed herself a quick smile at that, then said, "I've apprenticed you to the court's master scribe. He'll polish your ability to read and write, and you'll be a court's scribe."
"Oh, yes. Most of the scribes are slaves. And it'll give you access to the library here."
"I can read all I want?"
Gabrielle was silent for a minute. Then, she said, "I won't let you down."
They finished breakfast, and they dressed. Gabrielle followed the warrior through the buildings, and they finally stopped outside a door. She took Gabrielle aside. "Now listen," she said. "Remember your place, and work hard to perfect your craft. Obey your tutor, and don't give him any lip. And for the gods' sakes, don't fucking curse."
Gabrielle laughed. Then, she nodded. "Life is theatre, right?"
"You got it."
"I'll play the part."
"Good." She cupped Gabrielle's cheek in her hand, an affectionate touch, then opened the door. "Master scribe?" she called out.
An older man came around the corner. "Ah, General. I take it this is my new student?"
"Yes. Gabrielle." She raised an eyebrow in exclamation to the older man. "I hear that you enjoy a challenge."
"And I do," he said proudly.
"Congratulations. I think you've just acquired one." At that, she nodded, then left. Gabrielle stood still for a minute, looking around, as the scribe studied her. Then, he pointed to a stool at a table.
"Sit, and take up stylus and ink. Let's see what you can do."
"Yes, sir." Gabrielle sat, and looked at the sheets of blank papyrus before her. She suddenly began to sweat. She got the feeling that her trek from Macedonia was going to be a picnic compared to this.
The days fell into routine. Gabrielle spent each day, except for festival days (of which the Thessalians seemed to have no end) in constant study to perfect her ability to read and write proper Greek. And the master scribe was a demanding tutor. He seemed, though, to warm to her, and acted pleased at her progress in penmanship.
Her ability to read pleased him even more. He challenged her with more and more difficult writings, and when she stumbled, he would rap her across the shoulders with his stick and correct her. She remembered the warrior's admonition to play the role, and she swallowed her pride and concentrated on learning what he had to offer. In the process, her shoulders took quite a few bruises.
She studied with several other students. All wore slave bracelets, and many were male. Several of the other apprentices smirked at her Macedonian accent, occasionally laughing when she read aloud. The tutor would shush them, but it did not dim their enthusiasm for teasing. Gabrielle found it frustrating, and she wondered whether her frustration came from speaking differently than the Thessalians did, or from not being allowed to beat the stuffings out of a couple of them. She finally decided that it was the latter; as to being Macedonian, she was what she was, and she found that she was strangely proud of that.
And each evening, after her relaxation at the baths, the warrior would ask her about her lessons, and listen when she spoke. Sinea, too, seemed interested, but not in lessons. She took to Gabrielle as a source of advice and wisdom, often asking about matters of life, to which Gabrielle would reply with her usual blunt, no-nonsense manner of seeing the world.
One morning, when Gabrielle went to the library, the master scribe took her aside. "You," he said, "have progressed to the place where you can now begin copying. Come with me." He led her to another place in the library, away from her usual place, and put her to work copying letters and documents. They were matters of state, and Gabrielle quickly learned the language of diplomacy.
Her speed of penmanship improved, and she was able to neatly scribe the characters of the alphabet with a quick hand and only a rare error. Of this, she was proud. So, it seemed, was the master scribe. And so, it seemed most of all, was the warrior.
That night, Gabrielle lay in bed next to the warrior. They were still, quiet, enjoying the afterglow of love-making, when Gabrielle rose to a sitting position in bed. "Warrior?" she said.
"What is to be my destiny?"
The warrior thought, then said, "Your destiny is what you make of it."
"No. I mean, what do you see as my destiny? What plans do you have for me? Why did you seek me out to buy me? Why me?"
The warrior collected her thoughts, then began speaking. "I first heard of you from someone who grew up in Potidaea. They knew you."
"You heard of me? Here?"
"I decided that I had to acquire you."
"I wanted an assistant, someone who wasn't part of the Capitol culture and the intrigues that blossom here. One who could read and write, who detested convention and rules, who wouldn't fit in with the Capitol culture, and who would owe their loyalty to me and only to me."
"That was me?"
"I thought it might be."
"So you went to Potidaea just to buy me? There's no way that you could have known that I was sold into slavery."
"I heard that your family was on some hard times. I sought out the Amazon slave-traders. I asked them to buy you."
"You arranged it all?"
"So it wasn't my father's idea? They came to him?"
"Yes. They offered him money, and he sold you."
Gabrielle was silent for a while. Then, she said, "Right now, I don't know whether I love you more or hate you more." She jerked back the sheet, rose, and stormed from the bedroom.
The warrior sat up in bed. She sighed, and her mood grew dark. Damn it, she thought. Me and my big mouth. Me and my penchant for telling the truth. How stupid. How damned stupid of me.
No, she thought. Gabrielle's a bright girl. She would have figured it out eventually. I guess it's better that it blew up in my face sooner than later.
The warrior rose and walked silently toward the door. She could hear Gabrielle crying in the main room, and her heart ached to hear it. Her slave's words rang in her ears, burned with each syllable, stung her to the soul. I don't know whether I love you more or hate you more. Then, the warrior smiled. Wait a moment. She said that she loved me. Well, I'll be damned. Yeah. It's going to be all right. I can fix this. She shook her head. An army, I can face. An angry, crying woman, though? That's another story.
She entered the main room. Gabrielle was standing at the open balcony doors, weeping, wiping her face with a cloth. The warrior approached her from behind and carefully touched her shoulder. The shoulder flinched under the touch. "What?" Gabrielle said. "What do you want?"
"I want you."
"You just had me."
"No. I want you."
"You got me. You fucking own me. So what more do you want?"
"I want your love."
Gabrielle froze. Slowly, she turned and faced the warrior. "Did I hear you right?"
"You said that you loved me."
"Oh." Gabrielle sniffed, and wiped her face with the cloth. "Yeah. I guess I did, didn't I?"
"Aah, don't listen to me. I'm crazy. I'm all fucked up in the head. My father always said so."
"Then he's not a very smart guy."
"You're telling me. A lousy hundred dinars? Shit, I could have struck a better deal than that." She laughed, a short, bitter laugh. "He was probably drunk at the time."
"He was desperate at the time."
"So it worked out good for you, huh?"
"I had hoped that it would work out good for you."
Gabrielle's jaw dropped in surprise. She sniffed again, and wiped at her face. Then, she said, "Oh? They dragged me off, beat the shit out of me, and threw me in that stinking gaol. Five days, and not even a crust of bread. Boy, that worked out good."
"And I'm sorry for that. I had no idea - " the warrior stopped speaking. For a moment, she was silent. Then, she pointed at the cloth. "Can I borrow that?"
"Thanks." The warrior lifted the cloth from Gabrielle's hand and wiped her eyes with it. "I'm sorry for that."
"I know. That part wasn't your fault."
Gabrielle smiled, in spite of herself. "I already have. I can't stay mad at you for long."
"That's good to hear."
She handed the cloth back to Gabrielle, but Gabrielle shook her head. "I think you need it more right now."
"So tell me, warrior. How did it turn out good? I'm still a slave."
"A harsh price to pay for a chance at your destiny."
"What is my destiny? What's it to be? And don't tell me that it's in my hands, because it's not."
"But it is. When I first saw you in that gaol, in the shape you were in, I was horrified. But I saw that your spirit wasn't broken. It was strong, defiant. And I knew then that everything I'd heard about you was true." She wiped her eyes again. "I knew that you were something special. You took everything that they - and I - handed you, and you kept on. And when you got half a chance, you began to blossom." The warrior gestured toward the open balcony door. Outside, the night city sparkled. "And look at where you are now."
For a time, Gabrielle studied the dark city, twinkling with, it seemed, a million lamps. Then, she plucked the scarf from the warrior's hand and wiped her eyes. "Yeah. I guess I am better off now than I was in Potidaea, huh?"
"Listen to me, Gabrielle. I'll make you an offer."
"An offer. You think about this. If you'd rather be back there than here, I'll free you, pay you compensation, and send you back there."
"I will. And I never go back on a promise."
"I know. Your word is always good with me."
"So you think about it, huh? Here, a court's scribe, but my slave. That's so I can protect you, give you the benefit of my station in life. There, a farm girl like you were, but free."
"You're willing to let me go? Give me my freedom?"
"If you want that."
"Won't that hurt you?"
"Yes." She snatched the scarf from Gabrielle's hand and wiped at an eye.
Gabrielle watched her, then turned and gazed out over the city. The night sky was bright with stars, and a new moon had risen. Gabrielle smiled at that. A new moon. A whispered word of advice from Athena, perhaps?
"I'll give you my answer now. On one condition."
"That you answer a question for me."
"All right. What's the question?"
Gabrielle turned and faced her. "Why am I in your bed? Do you love me, or am I just your whore?"
"You can't tell by now?"
"A girl likes to hear it." She made a 'come on' gesture with her hand. "Come on, warrior. Let's hear it."
"I'm not very good at this kind of thing."
"You'll get better. It's the first time that's the hardest. Now, do...you...love...me?"
Her reply was a whisper. "Yes."
"Yes. I love you."
Gabrielle laughed, and threw herself against the warrior. "That's the answer I was looking for," she said. They stood so for a long time, still in the night, their arms tight about each other. Gabrielle buried her head in the warrior's neck and squeezed her waist until her arms hurt. Then, she looked up. "Now see?" she said. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"
The warrior laughed. "Yes."
"Let me understand this. You can face down a bunch of mariners, but you can't tell your slave that you love her?"
"It seems so."
"You're a little bit crazy, warrior."
"You're just now finding that out?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath. Her expression became deadly serious. "So, I have an answer for you."
"Your proposition. My answer."
"Oh." The warrior closed her eyes. "All right. Tell me. What's your answer?"
Gabrielle was silent for a very, very long moment. Then, she said, "You're stuck with me."
"Yeah, really. There's nothing for me there. I like it here. And I really like it here with you."
"I'm so glad."
"You'd better be. Now, the next time we have a fight, you remember how much you love me, right?"
"I won't ever forget it." She grasped Gabrielle's shoulders and held her close as she looked down into her eyes. "Then you don't want your freedom?"
"Sure, but not if it means that I don't have you." She smiled. "It's okay, I guess, as long as I'm your slave." Gabrielle pointed a finger in the warrior's face. "But don't you dare ever sell me, warrior."
"There's not enough money in the world."
"Damned right." She turned, and pointed toward the night sky. "Look. It's a new moon. I wonder if it's a message for us."
The warrior walked a few paces toward the open balcony. She considered the moon, then nodded agreement. "Aphrodite."
"You have a fantastic body."
"You own it. Sold to the nameless warrior, for a hundred and thirty-five dinars."
The warrior gathered Gabrielle to her side, and began walking toward the bedroom. "I may not own many things, but what I do own is of only the finest quality."
"And you don't buy any more slaves, right?"
"Trust me, Gabrielle. One is more than enough for me."
Gabrielle snaked her arm around the warrior's waist. "Damned right it is. I love you, warrior."
"I love you too, Gabrielle."
"That was hard for you to say, wasn't it?"
"Good. Ah, warrior?"
"Are we going to get sexual again?"
"Oh, gods. That fight exhausted me, Gabrielle."
"Are you kidding? It got me all worked up."
"Deal with it yourself."
"Oh har, har."
The warrior laughed. "Look at us. You and me. It's just too strange not to be true, isn't it?"
"Yeah. The gods must be crazy."
"But they're the only ones we've got."
Several days later, Gabrielle sat in the library, scribing a copy of a diplomatic letter. The master scribe hurried into the room, and his shout startled her. "Gabrielle!"
"Huh? What? I mean, yes, sir?"
"Get your tools and come with me. You're needed."
"Oh. Yes, sir." She corked her inkwell, picked up her writing board, laden with papyrus, and grabbed a couple of wooden styluses. These, she clutched to her chest as she rose. "Where are we going?"
"The queen's workrooms. Hurry, girl. Don't keep her waiting."
"The queen? I'm going to meet the queen?"
"Yes. And mind your manners in there. And for the gods' sakes, watch that farm girl's mouth of yours. She's not a particular fan of crude language."
"Um." Gabrielle gulped, then followed the master scribe down a hall to a wide, open door flanked by two Amazons dressed in the dark leather armor so familiar around the Capitol. They bustled in, past the guards' impassive expressions, and the master scribe led Gabrielle into a large anteroom. In it was a long table occupied by several scribes copying documents.
"Ma'am," the master scribe said breathlessly, "the scribe Gabrielle is here."
"Good, good. Take a seat, girl. Write what I dictate to you."
"Yes, ma'am." She puzzled at the strange familiarity of the voice, as if she'd heard it before. She sat, readied her writing board and uncorked her inkwell, and lifted a stylus. Only then did she look up. Her jaw dropped, and she froze. She could not move a finger.
Damn, warrior! She thought. You sure do clean up good!
Standing before her was a tall woman, dressed in simple, but elegant, clothing. Her hair was up, and her piercing, intent gaze was fixed on Gabrielle. It was, underneath the commanding presence and the elegant grooming, a sight familiar to her. Gabrielle's expression must have betrayed her unabashed shock; the queen shot a puzzled look at her, then spoke.
"Are you quite all right, girl?"
"Huh?" Gabrielle clapped her mouth shut, shook her head as if to clear her thoughts, and said, "Oh. Yeah. Sure. I'm just, ah..."
"Yes, yes. Well, you've now met your queen. Let's get to work, ah - Gabrielle, isn't it?"
A young scribe nearby leaned close and whispered, "Yes, ma'am."
"Oh. Yes, ma'am." Life is theatre, Gabrielle thought. Play the part well. The warrior sure is playing this part well. I'd better, too. We're in front of others now. "Sorry, ma'am."
The queen studied her with an expression of caution. "Take this dictation. 'To the esteemed High Council of Athens. Greetings and salutations...'"
Gabrielle's stylus ticked over the papyrus, forming fast, neat characters. Her mind whirled, even as she attempted to concentrate on her work. She could feel herself begin to sweat. She completed the sentence, then paused and looked up. The queen was leaning over her shoulder.
"Your penmanship is quite good, Gabrielle."
"Thank you, ma'am," she muttered.
"You learned to read and write in Macedonia, didn't you? On a farm?"
Gabrielle thought she heard a muffled snicker from one of the other young scribes. The queen, if she heard it, ignored it. "Even more impressive," she said.
"Continue. 'As to the matter your council voiced to me regarding the mutual defense of our shores...'" Gabrielle's stylus ticked along, recording the words. When she completed the sentence, she dipped her stylus into the inkwell. When she pressed it against a square of cloth to dab the excess ink from it, the stylus broke. A resounding snap sounded, and Gabrielle huffed.
A collective gasp resounded from the other scribes. They all stopped and stared. Gabrielle looked around, then said, "What?"
The queen's voice became icy. "I'm making allowances for your Macedonian upbringing, young lady, but I will not tolerate crudeness from my slave scribes. Is that understood?"
Gabrielle's head jerked toward the queen. Her eyes flashed anger, but she contained herself. "Yes, ma'am," she said. "Sorry." She inked a new stylus.
"Hm." The queen studied her with practiced disapproval. "Continue." She puzzled for a moment, then said, "Read that last sentence to me."
"...Mutual defense of our shores..."
"Yes. Our navy, as small as it is, stands ready to accommodate our mutual defense."
Gabrielle sighed and attempted to concentrate on her work, even as she burned inwardly at the warrior's public chastisement. The other scribes were snickering, and she felt a slow anger growing.
The young male scribe seated near her snickered again, then whispered, "Macedonian rube."
Gabrielle leaned toward him. "How'd you like me to kick your ass for you?" she growled.
His expression froze, and he paled. His eyes slowly rolled toward the queen, and he pointed. Gabrielle looked. The queen was immobile, her expression stern, her eyes fixed on Gabrielle. No one in the room moved. There was a thick silence, and after a moment, the queen asked, "Are you ready to continue, Gabrielle?"
"Yes, ma'am. Sorry." Gabrielle inked her stylus and poised her hand over the papyrus. The queen continued dictating, and finally said, "That's sufficient. Give it to me when it dries."
"Yes, ma'am." Gabrielle rested the papyrus aside to watch the ink dry. Then, she allowed herself a tiny little smirk. The warrior was acting far too stuffy. Gabrielle would fix that. She inked her quill and, on a fresh piece of papyrus, wrote, "You're so damned sexy, warrior."
She blew on the ink to dry it, then studied the ink on the letter. Both were dry. She rose and gave both pieces of papyrus to the queen, who studied the letter and nodded approvingly. "Very nice, Gabrielle."
"Thank you, ma'am."
The queen looked at the second piece of papyrus, and her eyebrows shot up to her hairline in surprise. She blinked a couple of times, then looked at Gabrielle.
In a second, the twinkle in Gabrielle's eyes turned to fear. The warrior was not finding this funny. The queen whirled and addressed a guard at the door. "Is the Officer of the Guard in residence?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am," the guard replied. "She's just down the hall."
"Fetch her now, please."
"Warrior?" Gabrielle said.
The queen returned her attention to Gabrielle and spoke in a very severe tone of voice. "I think, Gabrielle, that you have me confused with someone else."
Play the part? Warrior, you're playing the part too damned well. Gabrielle shot a defiant gaze back at her. "Yes, ma'am," she said bitterly. "I sure guess I do."
Again, a collective gasp rose from the other scribes. The young male scribe near her whispered, "She is going to rip the skin from your back, Macedonian."
Gabrielle began to sweat. She did not understand what had happened; only that she had erred in her assessment of the warrior. Something very bad was about to take place. She could feel sweat begin to bead on her forehead, and beneath her arms.
An Amazon in dark leather armor stepped into the room. "Yes, ma'am?" she said.
The queen regarded Gabrielle with an enigmatic expression, then took the Amazon aside and whispered some instruction to her. The Amazon nodded understanding, then motioned to her two guards outside the door. They entered, took a place one on either side of Gabrielle, and each grasped an arm. Then they hustled her from the room.
Dead silence enveloped the room. The scribes all looked at each other with shocked expressions. Whispers began sounding in the room.
"Let's return to work, shall we?" the queen said, and the scribes instantly quieted and returned to their work. The queen approached the table, leaned over it, and corked Gabrielle's inkwell. She wiped her stylus clean and arranged her things neatly. Then, she leaned on the table and spoke to the young male scribe next to Gabrielle's empty seat.
"It would do, young man," she said, "not to taunt Gabrielle too much. From what I'm told, she can almost certainly, ah - now, how did she put it?" She smiled. "Kick your ass."
The scribe looked up. His eyes were wide, and he swallowed hard. "Yes, ma'am," was all he could say in reply.
Gabrielle hated herself. Her big, smart-ass mouth had gotten her into difficulty again. And there was no way that this could turn out well for her. The two Amazon guards hustled her down hallway after hallway, then down stairs, descending, it seemed, below ground. Of course, she thought. Gaols are always below ground, aren't they? Shit! Another gaol, run by more Amazons. I hate Amazons, she thought bitterly.
Sure enough, they halted at a door comprised of iron bars. The two guards conferred with a gaol-keeper, and he unlocked the door. They hustled Gabrielle through it, and the gaol-keeper led them to the first of a series of narrow, iron-bar doors. He unlocked it, and the guards pushed Gabrielle through the door. She stood, silent, in the middle of the little cell. She did not look back. She didn't have to. She knew that the clank behind her was the door being locked. She wondered if it would be locked forever.
She looked around. There was no furniture in the little cell; not even a pad on the floor. There was only a depression in the stone wall, smooth and worn, in which she could sit or lie. Well, she thought. At least it's clean in here. She saw a bucket, tightly-lidded, in the other corner, and she raised an eyebrow. And at least, she thought, I don't have to share the pot with a dozen other women. In front of them.
She sat on the low, flat surface of the sleeping nook and slid back into a corner. Then, she pulled her knees up in front of her, a defensive posture, and kicked off her sandals. Here, she would stay until they came for her. And they will come for her. To do what? To beat her? To sell her? To make an example of her to the others?
She fell into a dark place in her thoughts. And she thought of the warrior, and she descended into a place that tortured her as much as her last beating at the hands of Amazons. I've so disappointed the warrior, she thought. Life is theatre, she'd said. Play the part. And I didn't. She wiped at a bitter tear. She deserves better than me. She put her trust in me, and I let her down. And I promised that I wouldn't.
She studied the cell. No window. Just three stone walls, and a door of iron bars. She laughed, a dark, bitter laugh. Father, you said many times that I'd never amount to anything good. And you were right. Again, Gabrielle looked around the cell. I guess, she thought, that I'm where I really should be. She rested her head against the cold stones and settled down to wait. Eventually, she dozed. She had no idea how long she'd slept before a noise woke her.
"Well, Gabrielle!" a voice said. "I'd heard that you were in town."
Gabrielle looked up. She puzzled for a second, squinting at the figure standing on the other side of the bars. Then, she sat straight up. "Patroclus?" she said.
"None other. So, how's my favorite cousin?" he asked.
"In deep shit, obviously," Gabrielle said.
"As usual. Wait a moment," he said. He left, and returned with the gaol-keeper, who opened the door to her cell and allowed Patroclus in. He sat on the sleeping nook next to her. "Now we can talk properly."
Patroclus looked older, but otherwise just as she remembered. He was clothed in the dark armor which many of the Amazons wore, a Capitol Guard. He was lean, tanned, and fit. A martial life evidently agreed with him. "You look good," Gabrielle said.
"You do, too. You're all grown up now."
"That's up for debate," Gabrielle snorted.
"Oh. Yeah. Here you sit," he noted. "Just what did you do to get a holiday in here?"
"I mouthed off to the queen." At his questioning glance, she said, "I'm a scribe. I was taking her letters."
"Ah. You and your reading and writing. Your father hated that you wasted so much time on it, when you could be doing something proper like milking goats or shoveling the horses' shit."
Gabrielle shrugged. "It's kept me out of the brothels."
"So far." Gabrielle's expression registered shock, and Patroclus grinned. "I'm just kidding. Scribes are valuable. I'm sure that won't happen."
"Patroclus, you're not helping my disposition."
"Sorry." He grinned. "Gabrielle. Still with the big mouth, the attitude, huh?"
"Are you still being as sexual as an Olympian god, too?"
Gabrielle' jaw dropped. "Patroclus!"
"What? A year ago, when I was in Potidaea, your reputation was great among the farm kids and horrid among their parents. You loved everybody for a day, it seemed."
"It was never love."
"Just rutting, huh? Curiosity? Lust?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle paused, then said, "Patroclus, did you tell the warrior about me?"
"The general. The queen. Whoever that person is." She squinted in question. "The general and the queen are the same person, right?"
Patroclus's eyes twinkled in laughter. "The general is the queen, but the queen is not the general."
"You're clever. You'll figure it out. You've got all night. And yes, I told the general about you. We were sitting around one night, the general and a couple of her officers - I'm one, thank you - and got to talking about extraordinary personalities that we'd known. I spoke of you."
"Oh, yes. I sang your praises. Your fire, your clever nature, your total contempt for rules, your farm girl's mouth, your constant trouble-making, your insatiable curiosity, your extraordinary accomplishment in learning to read and write from that old crazy man down the road - "
"He studied in Athens! He knew great philosophers."
"That explains it. Anyway, she was quite interested in your story."
"I guess so. She owns me now."
"I wondered who was crazy enough to pay money for you. Now I know."
"Surely." He considered his very forlorn-looking young cousin, and said, "Life is theatre. One day, you'll learn to play the part. Until you do, you'll keep ending up here."
"I think I've heard that, somewhere else."
He laughed. "So, how's your family?"
Gabrielle grew dark. "Starving. My father sold me for a hundred dinars."
"That's a year's income for a simple farmer like him. I'm sure they're not starving now."
"Unless he drank it all."
"He's not that bad, is he?"
"No. I suppose not. It's just the anger in me talking."
"And your sister, Lila? You two were close, as I remember."
"Not any more. She was glad to see me go."
"Oh, oh. What happened?"
"That sweet-natured friend of hers?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle snorted. "Lila was being sexual with Chera. I wanted to see if I could seduce her, too. I did."
"Oh, my. Wait a minute. Weren't you and Chera's brother - ?"
"Yeah. I was sneaking off to roll with them both, at different times. Chera was seeing Lila and me at the same time. I decided that I wanted her more than him. That's when trouble started."
Patroclus shook his head, even as he laughed. "Kids today."
"Lila found out. We had a terrible fight at the market."
"Hard words, huh?"
"No. A fight. Rolling in the dirt, screaming, punching, tearing clothes, pulling hair, drawing blood. Mother was mortified. Father was furious. He pulled us apart, cursed us both, and beat us in front of the whole market." She laughed bitterly. "But our neighbors," she said, "found it very entertaining."
"It wasn't long after that, that he sold me."
"And you're still angry about that?"
"No." She sighed. "I guess I deserved it. I really am a horrid person. I hate now what I did to Lila. I think she really loved that girl."
"Nah. She was just a good fuck." Gabrielle sighed as she studied her feet. "Okay, I'm lying. I think I did, too."
"My, my." He thought for a minute, then brightened. She slapped Gabrielle playfully on the leg. "Well, cousin. I guess you're right where you need to be."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "I guess." She tilted her head in question. "So, how long will I stay in here?"
Patroclus shrugged. "Until the queen lets you out."
"What will happen to me?"
He shrugged again. "I don't know."
"Will you visit again?"
"Yeah." He smiled. "If you're still in here tomorrow evening, I'll bring you some dinner. I've got to return to my duties. See you later, cousin." He leaned forward, and she hugged him desperately. Then, he went to the door, rattled the bars, and the gaol-keeper let him out. Right before he left, he looked back at her. "It will get better."
She watched him go. "Yeah," she said. "Right." Then, she curled up in the corner, rested her head against the stone wall, and closed her eyes. Very quietly, she began to weep.
That evening, the cell door clanked, and an Amazon, dressed in the dark armor denoting the Capitol Guard, entered. Gabrielle considered her. The guard was like most Amazons around the Capitol; she kept her hair short, to the shoulders, and sported an ornate tattoo on her arm. It made her rather fearsome-looking. That's the point, she decided. They're warriors.
"It's going to get cool tonight," the Amazon said. "I've brought you a blanket." She dropped it on the sleeping nook at Gabrielle's feet. Then, she smiled. "And a present from the general."
The Amazon placed a pottery bottle on the blanket. "Enjoy," she said. She turned to leave.
"Amazon?" Gabrielle said.
She stopped, and turned. "Yes?"
"Thank you." Gabrielle lifted the bottle and uncorked it. It smelled of wine. She looked up. The Amazon was studying her with interest and curiosity. She nodded reply to the thanks. Then, Gabrielle held the bottle out to her. "Would you care to drink with me?"
The Amazon looked around, then nodded. Her eyes twinkled in mischief as she sat on the sleeping nook next to Gabrielle and accepted the bottle. She took a swig, then passed it to Gabrielle, who drank deeply. Then, Gabrielle placed it down between them and attempted a smile. I could really use the company right now, she thought. Why, though, of all people, did it have to be an Amazon?
"Please don't be offended by this," she said, "but I have to confess that I don't much like Amazons."
"That's all right," the Amazon replied. "I don't much like slaves."
Their eyes met, and a mutual twinkle shone between them. They both laughed. Gabrielle said, "I was taken into slavery by Amazons. They beat the shit out of me and starved me."
The Amazon winced. "Those fucking Macedonian Amazons," she said. "They slave-trade. A nasty business, I think. Well, there's good and bad in every group."
"Exactly who are you?"
The Amazon tapped her chest. "I'm Rila. Officer in the Capitol Guard."
"Yeah. I know. We all know about you. The general's new slave."
"Word travels, huh?"
The Amazon lifted the wine bottle and took a drink. "We noticed the difference in the general, after she got back from Macedonia. We wondered at that. After meeting you, I can start to understand why she's mellowed."
"Oh, yes. She's a warrior's warrior. No one can beat her in the practice arena. And I've fought beside her in battle. She's possessed of a real fury. But now, she's somehow..." The Amazon shrugged, and passed the bottle to Gabrielle. "More gentle. She seems content now, as if she's finally found a measure of happiness." Rila looked at Gabrielle. "You must be quite something in bed."
Gabrielle laughed, a curt little laugh. "I'm glad I could be of help."
"Us, too." The Amazon rose. "Take care, slave."
"You too, Amazon."
Rila shot her a grin, then headed to the door and rattled the bars. The gaol-keeper appeared and unlocked the door, and she left. Gabrielle thought about what she'd heard, then wrapped the blanket around her shoulders and lifted the wine bottle. "I hate to drink alone," she said. "But I guess it's better than not drinking at all." With that, she took a long drink, then placed the bottle aside and rested her head against the stone wall. It was going to be a long night.
Voices woke Gabrielle. She heard the foot-steps in the hall, and wondered if this was her destiny coming to visit her. When they stopped in front of her door, she knew that it was. And it did not look good.
Four Amazons, in dark Capitol Guard armor, stood behind the gaol-keeper. The hall seemed diffused with light now; it must be morning. Now, she thought, I will find out what waits for me.
The gaol-keeper unlocked the door and threw it open. The four Amazons entered, and the one in charge said, "Are you the slave Gabrielle?"
"Come with us."
She dropped the blanket from her shoulders, slipped her feet into her sandals, and stood. An Amazon grasped each arm, and they hustled her from the cell. Down the hall, they marched her, to another door. This one was wooden. It creaked open, and they brought her into the room. She took one look, gasped, and began to struggle. Against the strength of two Amazons, though, she could not do much.
The room was large, and she saw iron chains and manacles. Nothing good could happen here. They led her forward, into the center of the room, and clapped the iron around her wrists. Then, the chains rattled, and her arms were pulled above her head. Her feet barely touched the floor. The one in charge stood in front of her, unrolled a papyrus, and began reading.
"By order of the Queen of Greater Thessaly, the slave Gabrielle has been sentenced to punishment for insubordination, to be carried out this morning. Let the punishment commence."
Two Amazons pulled the wide sash from her waist and lifted the back of her tunic to her shoulders. Gabrielle could feel the cool air touch her skin. She knew instantly what was about to happen, and her blood ran cold within her. She was about to be beaten again. She felt a sob rise in her throat, and she stifled it. She wasn't going to give them the satisfaction of begging for mercy this time.
An Amazon appeared in front of her. It was Rila. She said, "Open your mouth. Bite down on this." She shoved a leather roll into Gabrielle's mouth. "It will help, really." She saw sympathy in Rila's expression, she thought, and it only scared her more. Gabrielle watched the Amazon in charge uncoil a leather whip, and she bit down hard on the leather and closed her eyes.
She heard the Amazon walk around her. Then, she heard the whisper of the whip. A crack resounded in the room, and a split second later, her buttocks erupted in fire. She couldn't help herself. She shrieked around the leather roll in her mouth. Her muscles tightened; she waited for the second strike, but it did not come. Instead, the Amazon took her place in front of her again.
"Punishment has been delivered." She rolled the papyrus closed, then said, "One lash."
Rila pulled the leather from Gabrielle's mouth as the Amazons behind her lowered her tunic. They wrapped the wide sash around Gabrielle's waist, then lowered her arms. The chains fell away from her wrists, and again, a guard took her place on either side of Gabrielle. In a group, they led her out of the room and began marching down the hall, a brisk pace. Together, their feet resounded through the hall. They did not return to the cell; instead, they passed by it, and left the prison. Up stairs, they led her, and down hallway after hallway. Her feet fell into a stride with the rhythm of the soldiers' tread, even as her buttocks burned. She saw that Rila was at her left side, her hands firmly gripped around Gabrielle's arm. "What now?" she asked.
"Shh." Rila's eyes expressed warning. "Don't talk."
Gabrielle knew where she was. They were about to enter the queen's workrooms. The Queen? The warrior? Her eyes blurred with tears. The warrior, the queen, they were the same. The warrior did this to her. A flash of dark anger burned in her, then subsided. I can't much blame the warrior, she thought. I did this to me. I let her down. I promised I wouldn't, and I did. And now, I pay.
Love. What a laugh. I will never, ever love again. Sinea was right. It's dangerous for a slave to get sexual with her owner.
They hustled her past two impassive guards tending the wide door to the queen's workrooms, and they halted in front of a table. Next to it sat the tall, authoritative, immaculately-dressed queen. She looked up, then stood.
"Well, Gabrielle. Good morning."
Gabrielle said nothing, but kept her eyes on the ground. The queen stepped close to her, and lifted Gabrielle's chin until their eyes met. "I think," she said, "that the proper reply is, 'Good morning, ma'am.'"
"Good morning, ma'am," Gabrielle growled.
The queen smiled. "I'm delighted to see that marvelous spirit of yours still intact. Did you sleep at all last night?"
"Hm. I imagine not. Are you ready to hear the rest of your sentence?" She saw, beneath the anger in Gabrielle's eyes, a look of question surface. "Then let's get to it." She looked around. "Is Gabrielle's owner present?"
"You're my owner!" she said. "Enough with this sick charade. I can't believe you say you love me, then beat me like a - "
"That's enough!" The queen regarded her with a stern countenance. "I told you once before that you have me confused with someone else."
From one side, Gabrielle heard another voice. "I think, sister, that she has you confused with me."
Gabrielle's head jerked around. Her jaw dropped. The warrior walked into view, dressed in her ever-present dark armor, and took her place next to the queen. They could not resist a mutual smile at Gabrielle's astonishment. "I think you're right," the queen said.
Gabrielle sputtered a few incoherent syllables, then found her tongue. "Twin sisters?"
"Great buggering gods!"
At that, a resounding round of barely-suppressed snickers rose from the guards, silenced by a stern look from the warrior. The queen resumed charge of the scene.
"And now that you have the cast of players right -- including the gods -- it's time to pronounce the rest of your sentence." She drew herself to her full height. "You, slave Gabrielle, I find horribly unsuited to your present position as a court's scribe. But whatever shall I do with you?"
Great, Gabrielle thought. It's the brothels or the kitchens for me. She glanced at the warrior's face for some sign of her impending doom, but saw there only a practiced, enigmatic expression. Beneath it, though, she saw something else. Empathy? Hurt? What was it?
"Just this," the queen said. "After your owner gets you suitably cleaned up and repaired, you will report back here to me, where you will take your new - and permanent - position as the Queen's Scribe."
Again, Gabrielle' jaw dropped. "The - the what?"
"My personal scribe." She raised an eyebrow in question. "Is that not acceptable to you?"
"Ah, ah - Sure! You bet! I mean, yes, ma'am!"
"I'm glad that you agree with me for once." She turned to the warrior. "Take your slave underwing, sister, and see to her."
"Yes, ma'am," the warrior said. She turned and began walking toward the door. Halfway there, she halted and turned. "Are you coming, Gabrielle?"
"Yeah! Right! I mean, yeah!" She felt the Amazons' hands release her arms, and she burst from the knot of Amazons. Halfway across the chamber, she did a little dance. "Yes!" she sang. "Yes, yes, yes!" Then, she grabbed her butt with both hands. "Ow! That really hurts!" She caught up with the warrior and hurried toward the door, keeping frantic pace with the warrior's steady, long stride, both hands still clasped on her butt.
"Ow! Ow! Slow down. I can't walk that fast."
"Come on, Gabrielle. Quit lollygagging."
Gabrielle squeaked with frustration and pain. "In case you hadn't heard, warrior, I got a whip across my ass this morning."
The warrior stopped and turned. "You did?"
"Yes! I did!"
She turned Gabrielle around. "Let me see." The warrior lifted Gabrielle's tunic to above her waist. Across both buttocks, a single, bright red welt contrasted itself against the white of her skin. "Gosh," the warrior said. "You did, didn't you?"
"Warrior! Do you mind? I'm in public."
"And, General?" the queen called.
The warrior dropped the hem of Gabrielle's tunic. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Get her a better slave bracelet, will you? That one's horrid. Totally unbecoming the Queen's Scribe." The queen smirked. "It looks like she's stepped in horse-shit with it."
Gabrielle shot a look at the warrior. "I did," she growled. Then, she gave an apologetic glance at the queen. "Ma'am."
"Right," the warrior said, a little sheepishly. She tugged on Gabrielle's tunic. "Come on, Miss Attitude."
"That must have been some trip with her from Macedonia," the queen noted.
The warrior roared in laughter. "It was!"
When they disappeared into the hall, the master scribe approached the queen. "Ma'am," he asked, "are you sure that this is a wise decision? I have other scribes..."
The queen smiled. "I think that she'll do just fine." She rubbed her palms together in glee. "Just fine. It's going to be fun with her around here, Master Scribe."
"Yes, ma'am." The master scribe rolled his eyes in a gesture of defeat, and left the room.
Some time later, Gabrielle entered the queen's workrooms. She approached her table, and stopped. The queen was reading, and she placed down her papyrus scroll and glanced up. Her expression brightened. "Ah, Gabrielle. My wayward scribe returns. Are you ready to go to work?"
"Yes, ma'am," Gabrielle said.
"Then sit, and take up your stylus. We have some letters to answer."
"Yes, ma'am." She cast a glance at the hard wooden chair, then walked to the queen's wide couch and plucked a cushion from it, to the horrified expression of the queen's slave-attendant. She dropped it on the seat of her chair, fluffed it, and very gingerly sat. She grimaced, then relaxed, wriggled her butt a little on the cushion, and smiled. "Yeah," she said. "That'll work."
"I'm so glad," the queen replied. "Now, worky-worky."
"Yes, ma'am." Gabrielle popped the cork from her inkwell, inked a stylus, and sat, poised to write. The queen began pacing, and she dictated. And Gabrielle's stylus ticked over the clean, cream-colored sheet of papyrus, forming neat little characters at a rapid pace.
After a few minutes, Gabrielle noted that the queen had stopped dictating. She also noted that the queen was standing near her. She looked up. "Ma'am?"
The queen pointed at Gabrielle's ankle. "Very nice."
Gabrielle lifted her foot. Above it, on her ankle, gleamed a new bronze slave-bracelet. "A gilded cage," she said.
"And so it must seem for you," the queen agreed. "But cages can be broken, Gabrielle, by a constant, gentle strength of spirit. Keep that in mind as you pass your time here, with us."
Gabrielle glanced up, and their gazes locked. The queen's expression was one she had not seen before; it was gentle, kindly. "I will," she said. "Thank you, ma'am."
The queen patted Gabrielle's shoulder. Then, she resumed dictating. As Gabrielle began taking the queen's dictation, she smiled. Hope. That's what the queen had just offered her: Hope.
And it was a sweet feeling.
The warrior lay on her back in the night. Against her, Gabrielle snuggled. She trailed her fingers across the hard muscle of the warrior's shoulder. Near her face, the warrior's profile was outlined in the night. The eyes were closed. "Warrior?" Gabrielle whispered.
"I missed you last night."
"I missed you, too."
"Did you, really? You didn't visit me."
"I thought that you needed some time alone, to think."
"And get mildly drunk. Thanks for the wine."
"Did it help?"
"Yeah. I think it did."
"And you had one of your Amazons deliver it. That was cute."
"I know that you don't like Amazons much."
"She was all right, warrior. A good person."
"Um. So what did you learn from that?"
"Oh, that all Amazons aren't bad. I rather liked that one."
Gabrielle watched the warrior's face. Her eyes were shut, and her voice sounded dreamy, as it often was just before the warrior found sleep. Now, she decided, was the time to have a little fun.
"In fact, you sent me a rather attractive one."
"All tanned and fit, with that I-don't-give-a-shit swagger of hers."
"I thought about seducing her."
"Um. That's nice."
"Warrior! You're not even listening, are you?"
"All right. What did I just say?"
"You said that you thought about seducing Rila."
Gabrielle squeaked in surprise. "And that doesn't bother you?"
"Did you do it?"
"All right, then."
Gabrielle smiled. "Warrior, you're an even bigger tease than I am, aren't you?"
"Um hum." The warrior hugged her close. "Good night, Gabrielle. I love you."
"I know you do." Gabrielle snickered. "That was hard for you to say, wasn't it?"
"How nice." With that, Gabrielle closed her eyes. The warrior was already breathing that regular, soft snore that said that she was asleep. Gabrielle smiled at that.
"G'night, warrior. I love you, too."
The day was long, but uneventful. The warrior had noticed, though, that when Gabrielle returned from her work, she was strangely silent, and she ate listlessly. That was not like her. She decided to be blunt.
"Is something wrong, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle looked up from her place at the table in their great room. In front of her, a half-eaten dinner languished. The warrior was studying her with a cautious expression as Sinea cleared the warrior's dinner bowl and cup away.
"I was just thinking."
"You. Me. Things."
The warrior pointed toward her cup. Sinea refilled it, then added some to Gabrielle's cup. Then, the warrior said, "Thank you, Sinea. That will be all for now. You may get Gabrielle's things later."
"Yes, ma'am." She understood the unspoken message: Get out of here. She lifted a tray and bustled from the room. When the door shut, the warrior sat, sipped her wine, and awaited Gabrielle's thoughts.
Finally, the warrior said, "What about me?"
"Did you have me whipped?"
"No. That was the queen's idea."
"Why didn't you stop it?"
"I didn't know. And even if I did, I couldn't stop it."
"You're my owner. She's your sister!"
"She's the queen," the warrior replied.
"And I'm just a slave. Is that it?"
"You're a scribe among the queen's scribes. You caused some disruption in the queen's workrooms. She won't tolerate that. She made an example of you to the others."
Gabrielle studied the warrior. "And you agree with her?"
"So blood is thicker than love?" Gabrielle asked. Bitterness edged her voice.
The warrior sighed. She closed her eyes for a moment, as if thinking, then opened them again and fixed her gaze on Gabrielle. "I have never before seen her issue punishment for less than ten lashes. You got one."
"Was that for your benefit, or mine?"
A moment of silence passed. Then, Gabrielle said, "So she likes me, huh?"
"Obviously, she does. But she's no one to be trifled with. You serve her, just as I do. Life is theatre; play the part."
"Yeah. You keep saying that. My ass is telling me that, too."
"You got off lucky, Gabrielle. Next time, she won't be so kind."
"Oh? Next time? So I need to live in constant fear that she's going to whip me again?"
"Yes, if you let your smart-ass mouth and your temper rule you. No, if you don't."
"I thought you liked my smart-ass mouth."
"I do. But there's a time and place for everything. Learn that."
Gabrielle shot a withering glance at the warrior, then stood. "I'm really angry with you right now," she said, and left the table.
The warrior watched her exit to the balcony, and sighed. Then, she rose and walked to the open door to the balcony. Gabrielle was standing at the railing, looking down on the Capitol, bathed in the setting sun. She was leaning on the balcony, her elbow on the rail, her chin in her hand. The warrior watched her for a moment, then said, "Come inside, Gabrielle. Let's have this out."
Gabrielle looked at her. "Why not?" She pushed her way past the warrior and entered the room. When the warrior turned around, Gabrielle was standing in the center of the great room, her arms crossed across her chest.
"What," the warrior asked, "has crawled up your ass tonight?"
"You have. You are so damned stubborn, warrior!"
"You seem bent on your own self-destruction, Gabrielle. A pack of blessings has lighted on your back, and you're oblivious to it."
"Blessings? I'm a fucking slave, warrior. Oh, I guess I should be grateful because I'm not in a brothel somewhere blowing farm boys, as you once so eloquently put it."
The warrior's voice rose. "You're the Queen's Scribe. That's a post of the utmost importance. You live well, you're protected by me, and you have the ear of the queen herself. You could do so much good, if you could just see it."
"Oh? What good? My family's farm is failing, warrior! I can't do anything about that. I'm a fucking slave. I'm property, not a person. You could sell me anytime you want to, to whomever you want to, and I can't do anything about that. The queen can whip me whenever she's having a bad day. I can't do anything about that. My sister hates my guts. I can't do anything about that."
"So that's what this is all about?"
"You're angry at me because you feel powerless?"
"Oh, don't you put this on me."
"Don't put it on me, either!" The warrior blew up. "You didn't get a whip across your ass because of me, Gabrielle. Your family's farm isn't failing because of me. And if your sister hates you, it's not because of me. It's all your own doing."
"I'm a slave because of you!"
"No. You're a slave because your father accepted money for you."
"That sure clears your conscience, huh?"
"I have a lot of things on my conscience, but your present condition is not one of them."
"Oh? I'm your great success story?"
"You could be, if you weren't such a self-centered, ungrateful, hot-headed, smart-mouthed pain-in-the-ass sometimes."
"Yeah? If I'm such a problem, why don't you just sell me? Get rid of me?"
"Right now, it's tempting."
"Then do it!"
"Is that what you want? Do you want to leave?" the warrior shouted. "There's the door. I free you. Go."
"Fine! I'm sure that you can buy another whore anywhere."
Gabrielle stormed from the room, pushed past the curtained entrance to the empty servant's room, and yanked it shut. Inside, the warrior could hear her crying. She breathed deeply to calm herself, and she closed her eyes. How, she wondered, had she allowed this to get so horribly out of control? She shook her head, cursed herself for her anger, and walked toward her bedroom. In the entrance, she pulled the curtain aside and leaned against the door-jamb. Her gaze traveled around the room, and the ache in her chest grew to physically painful proportions.
On a table lay Gabrielle's brush and mirror. She recalled how grateful she'd been to receive those. Her sandals were on the floor near the bed. She remembered the girl's gratitude for those, too. Gabrielle's things. And the bed? It seemed forlorn, empty. In her anger, she had just verbally freed Gabrielle. If the slave pressed her, she'd have to live up to it. But could she keep her word and free Gabrielle?
She prayed to whatever gods were listening that she'd never have to find out.
Gabrielle awoke in the servant's room. She sat up; it was getting dark. She must have fallen asleep. She rose and walked into the great room. The warrior was not there. She looked into the bedroom. The warrior was not there, either.
Sinea entered, and went to the table to clear the last of Gabrielle's dinner things. Gabrielle asked, "Do you know where the warrior went?"
"She's at the military barracks. She went in armor; I think she's at practice."
"Ah." Gabrielle glanced toward a wall. The warrior's armor, helmet, shield, and sword were missing. "Does she do that often in the evening?"
"Not since you showed up."
That gave Gabrielle pause for thought. Sinea stopped on the way to the door, and she studied Gabrielle with questioning eyes. Then, she asked, "Did you two have a fight or something?"
"Yeah. A big one."
"Oh, dear. I'm sorry."
"You look it." She put on a perky manner. "Well, she'll be back later tonight, I'm sure. You two can make up then." She started toward the door, then stopped and looked at Gabrielle again. She opened her mouth to say something, but thought better of it. Instead, she merely said, "It's a strange thing, this 'being lovers', isn't it?"
Gabrielle gave her a weak smile. "That's putting it mildly."
"I'm just learning it."
"But you're so much older than me. I'm fourteen. How old are you?"
"Oh. I'd think you'd be an expert by now."
"I guess not."
"Well, I'm sure that everything will be fine." She stood awkwardly for a moment, then said, "Good night, Gabrielle."
"Good night, Sinea."
The servant left and closed the door behind her. Gabrielle entered the bedroom, slipped her sandals onto her feet, and left the apartments. A hot bath would help right now. Maybe it would relax her, allow her to think. She headed that way.
Near the baths, she encountered Rila. The Amazon looked as if she'd just come from the bath, but she walked with a stiff, sore posture. "What happened to you?" Gabrielle asked.
"Oh. Gabrielle, isn't it?" She grinned. "The general happened to me. I don't know what's gotten into her tonight."
"She's down there in the practice arena now, beating the shit out of us. I've got bruises all over. She's sent two of my soldiers to the infirmary." The Amazon studied Gabrielle. "And you look like you've just lost your best friend."
"I may have."
"Oh, oh. That explains the general's mood." She considered Gabrielle's forlorn expression and said, "Do you want to talk about it? I can listen and keep a confidence."
"I could use someone to talk to right about now," Gabrielle said.
"Sure. We can talk. I'll come back later for a massage."
"I learned massage from a bath-house slave in Macedonia. I'll do what I can for you." She raised an eyebrow in question. "We can talk at the same time."
"Come on." Rila pointed down the hall. "My quarters are that way."
Gabrielle followed her down several halls, to a door. Rila opened it, and Gabrielle entered. It was a small room, without the grandeur of the warrior's rooms. A low bed, a table, and a wooden trunk sat against the walls, and a single oil-lamp burned in a nook in the wall. As Rila lit another lamp and the room brightened, Gabrielle perceived a wooden frame in the corner, with Rila's leather armor, helmet, weapons, and shield. A warrior's room. "It's simple, for a Capitol Guard officer," Gabrielle noted.
"Simple is the Amazon way. Wine?"
Gabrielle watched Rila pour two pottery cups of wine, and she accepted one. Rila pointed to a carpet piled with cushions in one corner, and said, "Sit."
"Nope. You lie down. Where do you hurt worst?"
"Shoulders. Lower back."
"Got some oil?"
Rila lifted a bottle from a shelf and handed it to Gabrielle. She stretched out, face-down, on the carpet. Gabrielle slipped off her sandals and stepped onto the carpet. She knelt next to Rila, pulled the Amazon's tunic up to her neck, and rubbed oil onto her hands. Then, she began kneading her shoulders.
"You're as tight as a drum. Try to relax."
"Ouch. I'm trying."
"You've got no fat. All muscle," Gabrielle noted. "Just like her. I forget what a soft, plump girl feels like anymore."
"That's what you get for being with warriors. Now," Rila said, "what's all this about?"
Gabrielle drank some wine, then resumed massaging Rila's back. "We had a terrible argument tonight. I don't know how it started." She leaned hard on Rila's back. "Yes, I do. I was being a total asshole."
"That's how it usually starts. Ow!"
"I was in an evil humor, and I blamed her for it."
"Was it her fault?"
"No. Maybe. I don't know." Gabrielle pressed down on Rila's lower back, and ran the heels of her hands up either side of Rila's spine.
"Damn, that feels good. So, what's so wrong in your life that you've got to pick a fight with your owner, of all people? Are you insane?"
"I'm a slave."
Rila sipped her wine, and rested her head down on her forearms. Then, she said, "Me, too."
"Oh? Do you have one of these?" Gabrielle stuck her leg out. Her foot tapped the floor near Rila's head. The slave bracelet clinked.
"Yeah. It's just where you can't see it. Ow! That hurts right there, where your hand is. I'm a slave to my heritage, my culture. I was born Amazon; no choice. I had to excel, as did my mother and her mother before her, at being an Amazon, or they would suffer disgrace. No choice. I'm a warrior. That is my place. I've trained with weapons since the age of five. No choice. Our tribe owes loyalty to the queen. No choice. So you see, Gabrielle, we're all slaves to something. We all serve an idea, a person. You're no different."
Gabrielle paused, and gulped some wine. "And the warrior - I mean, the general?"
"She serves the queen, just like you and me." Gabrielle pressed her fingers into Rila's shoulders. "Oh, yeah," Rila said. "You are good."
"And the queen?"
"She serves her people. That's how she keeps power, and that's how she keeps her head on her shoulders. As the queen goes, so goes Greater Thessaly. There are good despots and bad ones. The queen is one of the best. I believe in her. And we, in the Capitol Guard, are sometimes all that stands between her and those who want her power."
"I never knew it was so complicated."
"It is. As the Queen's Scribe, you'll see it up close." She leaned up and looked into Gabrielle's wine cup. "Damn, you've finished that already?"
"I'm thirsty. More?"
Rila poured her some more wine. Gabrielle gulped some more, and resumed massaging Rila's back. She asked, "So, Rila. Have you ever been in love?"
"Surely. I fall in love once a week. And I fall out of it just as often."
"Yeah? Who is it this week?"
"A girl here, a Capitol servant. Orena."
"I thought you didn't care much for slaves."
"I make exceptions. Orena's one. You're another." Rila grinned. "You're all right, slave Gabrielle. You're one damned crazy woman, but you're all right."
Gabrielle rose, stepped over Rila, and knelt by her head. She leaned forward and pressed down on Rila's mid-back. "I'm crazy?"
"You're completely crazy. Oh, that feels good. You're the Queen's Scribe, and you're unhappy. You can read and write, a rare skill, but you're unhappy. Oh, yeah. Right there. You're in the general's bed - and her affections - but you're unhappy. You give a wonderful massage, and you're unhappy. Yes, you're quite, quite crazy. You should be locked up."
"I have been, a couple of times. But not for being crazy." Gabrielle thought about that as she gulped her wine. "Well, perhaps it was, at that."
She returned her attention to kneading Rila's aching back, and they both fell silent. After a while, she said, "Did you know that if she hadn't bought me, I would have ended up in a brothel?" Gabrielle snickered. "Being a scribe is far, far better than blowing farm boys."
Rila laughed. "I'll take it on your good authority. I've never done either. A little lower, please."
Gabrielle leaned forward and pressed on Rila's low back. "I've done both. I like scribing better."
"How interesting. I just do mundane things, like fight and crack heads."
Gabrielle belched. "More wine, please."
"Are you sure that's wise? I think you're getting a little drunk."
"Not half as drunk as I want to be." She held out her cup.
Rila poured a little into the cup, and set the bottle aside. "All right, but don't blame me tomorrow. This is strong stuff."
Gabrielle straightened up and lifted her cup. "So, how's your back now?"
"Much better, thank you. I am forever in your debt." Rila sat up and pulled her tunic down. She settled on the carpet and leaned against some cushions.
"No, you're not," Gabrielle said. "You gave me something to bite on when they whipped me." She looked down at her cup. "Damn, that is strong wine. My head is spinning."
"We Amazons don't water our wine like you Greeks do. I warned you. So, how's your butt?"
"It still hurts." She turned around and pulled up her tunic. "See?"
"My. That's quite some butt - I mean, stripe."
Rila looked down at her cup. I'm not sure I like where this is headed, she thought. That's the general's woman. Watch it, or you're going to be chasing barbarians on the northen border for the next ten years. And it's really cold up there in the winter. When she glanced back up, Gabrielle was seated near her, looking at her. Rila shot her a questioning glance.
Gabrielle gulped her wine, then set her cup aside. "Is it true, what they say about Amazons?" she asked.
Oh, oh. Here it comes. Be very, very careful. "That depends. What do they say?"
Gabrielle leaned against Rila and whispered something in her ear. Then, she sat back and waited for an answer. For a long, silent moment, Rila's expression revealed an intense inner conflict. Finally, the resolution surfaced.
"Yes. It's true. And you're drunk. And I'm not taking you there. I'm taking you home."
"Why don't you just take me, instead?"
"Because I'm not suicidal." Rila stood, slipped on her sandals and grabbed Gabrielle's wrist. She hauled her to her feet, wrapped an arm about her waist, and herded her toward the door. "You're going home. Now."
"Wait!" Gabrielle said. "My sandals."
Rila allowed her to bend down and grab her sandals, then lifted her erect. She wrapped an arm about Gabrielle's waist, slung Gabrielle's arm over her neck, and marched her out the door and down the hall at a brisk pace. Gabrielle held up her sandals.
"The warrior gave me these."
"Gave me this tunic, too."
"When she bought me."
"Because I was naked. Can you imagine that?"
"I'm trying very hard not to."
"Shit, I'm drunk."
They passed two Capitol Guards in the hallway. Rila stopped. "Have you seen the general?" she asked.
The guards looked at Gabrielle, then looked at each other. Silently, they both pointed down the hall.
"Right," Rila said. "Fall in behind me, and follow me." She resumed her march down the hall with Gabrielle held tightly, and the two guards just behind them. The tramp of feet resounded in the hall.
As they turned a corner, Gabrielle was singing a bawdy song at the top of her voice. Rila stopped, and pulled Gabrielle to a halt. The guards tramped to a stop behind them. They were all staring into leather chest armor. The singing abruptly stopped.
"Warrior!" Gabrielle said. "I'm so glad to see you!"
"Um. I'll bet."
Rila cleared her throat and spoke. "General, we were just looking for you."
The Amazon handed Gabrielle to the warrior. "She belongs to you, I believe, ma'am."
"That's quite correct."
Rila said, "I'm afraid that she can't sing very well, ma'am."
"Again, that's quite correct."
"Well. Ahem. My duty is discharged, ma'am."
"Thank you, Rila. I'll take her from here. You're dismissed."
The warrior scooped Gabrielle into her arms and headed down the hall. Rila watched them go, then turned to leave. The two Capitol Guards were standing behind her, looking at her. "What are you two looking at?" she bellowed.
"Nothing, ma'am," one answered. They disappeared around the corner.
Rila shook her head and began a slow trek back to her room. On the way, she stopped and leaned against the wall. "Rila," she said, "you are so stupid." She thumped her forehead against the wall. "Stupid," she said. "Stupid, stupid, stupid." She placed a hand on her forehead. "Ow! That hurt."
A hand touched her shoulder. "Rila? Whatever is wrong?" It was a pretty young lady, a servant-slave in the Capitol household. "I was just coming to tell you that I could stay with you tonight."
A beaming grin replaced the look of pain on Rila's face. "Orena! Thank the gods! You," she said, "are just the person I need right now." She grabbed the slave's hand and headed down the hallway at a fast walk.
Orena followed behind at a trot, the bottom of her long tunic gathered into a knot in her free hand. "My!" she said, as they disappeared around a corner. "What an enthusiastic greeting! You really do love me, don't you?"
The next morning, the warrior was sitting at the table in her great room. She heard quiet footsteps and the clinking of a slave bracelet, and looked up. Gabrielle plopped down on a chair next to her. Her eyes were still closed. With effort, she opened them and squinted at the warrior. Then, she held up a hand. "Before you say anything, let me speak."
The warrior leaned forward and rested an elbow on the table, her chin in her hand. "Yes?"
"I'm really...really...sorry about last night."
Me, too," the warrior said.
"Can we talk later?"
"I'd like that."
"Good." She rose, a little unsteadily. "I think I need the baths."
"Try the steam room," the warrior said. "It's good for a hangover." She motioned. "Sinea? Thena? Will you see to Gabrielle? Tend her at the baths, and stay with her in the steam room. And make sure she drinks water."
"Yes, ma'am." Sinea regarded Gabrielle with caution. Thena was just delighted to be included in the adventure. They each took an arm, and they walked Gabrielle toward the door.
The warrior watched them go, then sighed heavily. It was going to be an interesting conversation. She wondered how it would conclude.
The queen paced and dictated, and Gabrielle ticked her stylus across the papyrus. So in concentration was she, that it was a moment before she realized that the queen had ceased dictation. She looked up. The queen was standing at her elbow, considering her.
"I love my sister dearly," the queen said. "She seldom gives of her affections, and she is uncomfortable talking about matters of the heart. But she has given her affections to you. That is a rare gift. Please do not take it lightly."
"Does it seem so to you, ma'am?" Gabrielle asked. "That I take it lightly?"
"It does. It is possible for you to lose that affection. Do you love my sister?"
Gabrielle placed her stylus down on a cloth. She looked up, and she caught the queen's gaze. "I do."
"Tell me, Gabrielle. What is the most important thing in the world to you? The one thing, without which, you cannot thrive? Is it your freedom?"
Gabrielle was speechless. How would she reply? In a second, she knew the answer. "No," she said.
"Is it her?"
"Then prove it."
"How?" The question was a whispered plea.
"In constant devotion and loyalty. In kindness. In soft words and gentle acts. She needs that desperately from you. If you truly love her, let your heart council you to give her that. If you stay your present course, though, you will try her to the point where you will lose her."
Gabrielle felt numb. The words burned. She sat, unmoving, staring at the queen. She could not speak.
The queen said, "Have I struck you to the soul with my words?"
In reply, Gabrielle could only nod slowly.
"Good." The queen lifted Gabrielle's chin and looked at her. "Make her, not you, the most important thing in your life. Now go and see to it. We can finish this letter tomorrow."
Gabrielle rose from her chair. She opened her mouth to say something, but could not speak. The queen shooed her from the room with a motion of her hand. "Deeds, Gabrielle. Go."
Gabrielle turned and ran toward the entrance to the queen's workroom. Halfway there, she stopped and looked back. She was about to say something, but the queen shooed her away. "Go."
She watched Gabrielle hike up the hem of her long tunic and disappear around the corner at a fast trot. Then, she shook her head and smiled. She corked Gabrielle's inkwell, wiped her stylus clean, and arranged her things in an orderly manner. When that was done, she sat in Gabrielle's chair and closed her eyes. "Thank the gods," she said, "that I had sons. Girls are ever so much more complicated."
Gabrielle returned from the queen's workrooms. She saw Sinea sweeping the floor. The servant looked up. "Oh, Gabrielle. Do you feel better?"
"I'll live. Have you seen the warrior?"
"She's on the balcony."
Gabrielle pulled off her sandals and dropped them by the door. Then, she walked across the great room and out onto the balcony. She leaned against the railing and looked out over the Capitol. Beyond the low Capitol wall, the city bustled. Thousands of people lived there, all with their lives and concerns, and the city's good order was dependent on people like the queen and the warrior. And nineteen-year-old Gabrielle of Potidaea was at the center of it. It really was a good thing to be here, to be the Queen's Scribe. It was, she decided, thrilling.
Almost as thrilling as being in love.
She breathed the afternoon air, and felt strangely clear-headed. Now was the time, she decided, to start mending fences. Deeds, the queen had said.
She turned around. The warrior was seated on a cushion on a stone bench. Several papyri scrolls, half-opened, lay at her side. One was open in her hand, but she was not reading it. She was watching Gabrielle. "Hello, warrior," Gabrielle said.
"Hello. Do you feel recovered?"
"I do. May we talk?"
"I was hoping we could." The warrior patted the seat next to her.
Gabrielle sat. She closed her eyes for a moment, then said, "I've been behaving like such an ass, haven't I?"
"It's only the truth. I can be a jerk sometimes. I let you down, and I hate myself for that."
"I regret yesterday, too. Now, would you like to tell me what's bothering you?"
She grasped the warrior's hand. Their fingers interlaced. "I have questions."
"You said that I was to be your assistant, your scribe, but I work for the queen. Why is that?"
The warrior laughed. "She pulled rank when she saw your potential. I couldn't very well refuse."
"Do I belong to her, or to you?"
"To me. But you work for her."
"So what's in it for you?"
"She pays me compensation for your services."
Gabrielle's jaw dropped. "Money? How much?"
"Three hundred dinars a year."
"Holy shit! I'm worth that much?"
"Are you surprised?"
"Warrior, that's over three times what my whole family made in a year, on the farm."
"It's good to be the Queen's Scribe, huh?"
"Good for you. I'm your slave. I'm not seeing any of it."
The warrior looked at her. "Would you like to?"
Gabrielle stared at the warrior. "Is that possible?"
"A third of that could renew the farm. Seed, more animals, a new roof, hired help at planting and harvesting..."
"What?" Gabrielle blinked in surprise and question.
"We often send emissaries to Macedonia. If you wish, one could visit them and deliver some money. Letters from you, too. I'm sure that they would like to know that you're all right."
"They surely could use the money. But a letter? I don't know. None of them can read."
"The emissary can read it to them and bring their reply to you."
"I wonder if they even care what happened to me."
The warrior squeezed Gabrielle's hand. "They care."
"My sister won't."
"Make amends. Write her. He can read it to her privately. Tell her how sorry you are about stealing her lover, and about the fight."
Gabrielle turned toward the warrior. "How do you know about that?"
"There are many loose tongues in local taverns there."
"You asked about me in Potidaea? You heard the stories?"
"I couldn't get them to shut up about you."
Gabrielle snorted. "Nice," she said.
They fell into a momentary quiet. The warrior finally asked, "So, is this what you want?"
"What about the other two hundred dinars every year?"
"I get to have a say?"
"Your work earns it."
"Well," Gabrielle said, "a hundred fifty to you, for my support and to repay you for buying me. I don't want to be a burden to you. And fifty to me."
"That's not much for you."
"It's more than I've ever had. And I don't need much."
"That's wise of you," the warrior agreed.
"Do you really think so?"
"Gosh," Gabrielle said. "Finally, a good decision from Gabrielle, huh?"
The warrior laughed. "Now, is there anything else bothering you?"
"One other thing."
The warrior looked at her. "Oh?"
"It's about my freedom."
The warrior closed her eyes. She was silent for a while. When she spoke, it was softly. "Yes?"
Gabrielle leaned against her. "I belong to you. You own me forever. Deal with it."
She could feel the warrior's body relax. "I'm so glad you feel that way."
Southern Thessaly, twenty years later.
Gabrielle dropped the opened papyrus scroll into her lap, and she gazed at the distant mountains. She pondered a question, turning it over and over in her mind. Then, she looked at her scribe. The young man sat silently, stylus poised, waiting to write. "Is the military commander in residence?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am. He's just down the hall."
A servant left to summon the general. As Gabrielle waited, she motioned toward her scribe, then began dictating. "To the Queen of Greater Thessaly: Greetings and good fortune from your loyal servant..." She looked up. The General of the Army of Southern Thessaly had just entered.
"Patroclus," Gabrielle said. "Good morning."
Her cousin, his face lined with sun and middle age, shot her the same jaunty grin that Gabrielle had come to know so well. "Good morning, Governor."
"How stands the border situation?"
"I've increased the military presence there. We've killed or captured a number of bandits. The rest are in retreat over the border. They're Attica's problem now."
"Well done," Gabrielle said. Patroclus nodded his thanks. "But we must stay vigilant, or they will be back. The population there has suffered enough."
"I've begun construction on a number of border posts. But I would like to increase the size of the standing army to accommodate that."
"By how much?"
"One thousand. It will take perhaps six months to recruit and train them. Then, I can deploy them."
Gabrielle considered the number, mentally ticking off the costs involved. One thousand. The seasons had been kind and tax collection was efficient; it could be done. She nodded. "I agree. I'll scribe the order this day."
"Thank you, ma'am."
Gabrielle watched him go. She rose and walked toward the open balcony; the sun was high, and the weather was agreeable. It reminded her of her favorite season in her native Macedonia, when summer was warm, crops blossomed, and children ran and played. Childhood seemed so long ago, now. Another time, another place. And another Gabrielle.
She opened a low, ornate cabinet. From it, she lifted a polished bronze slave bracelet. She held it in her hand, feeling the cool, heavy metal, considering the color, and her thoughts became young again. The warrior gave her that, she remembered. The warrior had it placed on her leg. And, for many, many years, it remained there, but not merely by force of law. It remained there voluntarily, by Gabrielle's own stubborn choice, a visible symbol of her devotion to her warrior. An odd device to be a symbol of such an enduring love, she thought.
It did not come off until the warrior struck it off, after her death and in her will.
She remembered when the warrior dictated her will to her, just before she left for war. It was to be a short war, she had said, nothing to worry about. The will was just a formality. But the warrior knew. Somehow, she knew. And she was right.
Gabrielle had watched her ride off at the head of her army, in her nondescript dark armor, helmet seated on her head, shield and sword across her back. She looked fearsome, unassailable, in her prime. The warrior was thirty-nine years of age when she was cut down in battle, the victim of an incredibly lucky archer's shot. And Gabrielle had just turned thirty when her world was shattered by that arrow.
She thought that she would die. But she didn't. And when she emerged from her suicidal, drunken rage and grief, she returned to the queen's side as her scribe, then her confidant; eventually, she became a public official, the queen's trusted advisor.
And when Southern Thessaly was incorporated into the queen's domain, Gabrielle became its governor.
She replaced the slave bracelet in the cabinet and closed its door. Then, she turned to her scribe. He sat, silent, ready to write. But there were other things on her mind now. "We'll finish that later," she said.
"Yes, ma'am." He wiped his stylus dry and placed it aside. Then, he rose and left her alone.
Gabrielle walked to the balcony. At the railing, she breathed deeply of the air, and she closed her eyes. For a moment, she could feel the warrior's quiet presence at her shoulder. Perhaps she was really there. Perhaps she was not. But it comforted Gabrielle to think that she was there.
She had never learned the warrior's given name. She had quit asking, and she had given the warrior the gift of that silent secret. There were rumors, though, that the warrior had been, in her late teens, a Macedonian warlord, leader of the defense of Amphipolis in the wild, lawless days of Gabrielle's late childhood. The disciple of Ares, people had called her. Ruthless, fearsome, savage, laying waste to her enemies with fire and sword and fear.
Sometimes, she almost believed it. Sometimes, she did not. But she had decided long ago that it really didn't matter, after all.
-djb, June, 2011
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