After some inquiries, Hercules learned the location of Xena's headquarters, a heavily fortified castle outside Amphipolis. He also learned that she regularly sent out troops all over her territory, which was to say, most of Greece, to enforce order, to secure supplies, and to maintain military readiness. They would also capture slaves to serve the Conqueror and her officers and to perform menial labor. Now he just had to get himself captured and make it look convincing. He scouted for a couple of days and discovered a fairly large party of Xena's troops was approaching a village near Amphipolis. As several armed horsemen rode into the town square, Hercules had just been caught stealing a loaf of bread from a stall. Apparently oblivious to the presence of the approaching soldiers, he took a very carefully controlled swing at the stall owner, knocking him flat, but not doing much damage.
He then took off at a run, carrying his misbegotten loaf of bread. He was quickly surrounded by a group of soldiers. He resisted capture as realistically as he could, pulling his punches and kicking with only a small portion of his strength, while trying not to make it obvious that he was doing so. It wasn't easy for him to fight like an ordinary man of his size, but he managed, and was soon jumped and held down by enough soldiers that he could conceivably give up. He heard another horse approaching, and one of the soldiers said, "Look what we caught, my lady." Hercules looked up and could not conceal his astonishment. Callisto looked down at him from the back of a magnificent black horse.
"Well, well, well, what's this?" she demanded.
"A thief, my lady," answered the soldier.
"A thief," she repeated. "Not a very bright thief apparently." She rode up to Hercules, who was still being held by several men, and slapped him sharply across the face, then backhanded the other cheek. "Do you know what we do with thieves around here, stranger?" she demanded, while he glared at her sullenly, hoping he continued to convey the impression of someone not very bright. "We put them to work as slaves for the Conqueror, so they can be put to good use and kept out of trouble," she said casually, her voice deceptively soft. "My lady will be very pleased with you."
"Your lady?" he asked hesitantly.
"Yes," she said abruptly. "The Conqueror. You have the honor to have been captured by her second-in-command." She turned to the soldiers. "Chain him securely. I don't want him to be able to move a muscle." Hercules was almost oblivious to the lengths of chain being wrapped around his entire body, to his arms being firmly manacled behind his back, and to the various locks snapping shut that held the chains in place. Callisto was Xena's second-in-command? It was almost enough to make him laugh. Ares certainly did have a twisted sense of humor. He was deposited in a cart, not particularly comfortably, and left guarded while Callisto and her soldiers finished their business in the village. As a matter of course, he experimentally tested the strength of the chains binding him--if he had wanted to, he could have broken them, but, of course, he didn't. Then he was on his way to be delivered into slavery.
* * *
Xena's castle was suitably imposing. Once through the gates, he was dragged unceremoniously out of the cart and made to shuffle along through the castle, his ankles hobbled together, and the chains and locks clanking. *I'll make a wonderful first impression,* he thought, wondering if his sister's idea really had that much merit after all. Once he and some other newly captured slaves were brought into the Conqueror's presence, however, he could think of nothing else. The Conqueror exhibited a commanding and powerful demeanor, wielding it like a scepter, and Hercules found himself almost feeling that serving her would be a privilege.
She was sitting on a throne and wearing a long purple dress, trimmed with silver. A simple silver circlet adorned her head. Her legs were crossed, and he saw a hint of boots of the finest black leather. On a hassock next to the throne knelt Gabrielle, sitting back on her heels, her knees apart. She was dressed entirely in green, with a bodice and short skirt that, if anything, covered less than what she wore in the original timeline. The hassock was lower than the throne, and Xena had an arm resting on Gabrielle's shoulder, and a hand idly reaching into her bodice to toy with the closest breast. Otherwise she paid no attention to Gabrielle, who sometimes gasped silently or swayed slightly in response to her nipple being pinched or rolled between the Conqueror's fingers. Hercules was furious with himself because his first reaction was to find the scene undeniably erotic--he almost envied Gabrielle's position before sternly reminding himself how he felt about slavery.
Callisto stepped forward, knelt on one knee and bowed to Xena, casting a brief glance at Gabrielle. "My lady," she said, "these are the new slaves. The supplies we acquired are already being stored."
There were two other men and two women who had been brought in with Hercules. None were as securely bound as he was. Xena slowly got up from her throne, after giving Gabrielle's breast a rough squeeze. The slightest flash of alarm and recognition flickered in Xena's eyes when she noticed Hercules, but was instantly replaced by a studied brusqueness. She glanced at the women, turned to Callisto and said, "Kitchen or farms, wherever they're most needed." She then regarded the other two men and said, "Farms too or working on our fortifications if they have any talent for stoneworking. Take them away. This one," she indicated Hercules, "stays here." She appraised Hercules with cool deliberation, her eyes travelling his body.
She jerked her head at Callisto, "Get those chains off him. What was he up to when you caught him?"
"Stealing food," answered Callisto, unlocking the locks and removing the chains. "I don't think he's very bright--we caught him in the act."
"I see," said Xena, never taking her eyes off of Hercules. "How very foolish of him. I want a pair of manacles for his wrists forged of the strongest metal we have. Leave the chain between them long enough to give him some freedom of movement. He's no good to us if he can't work." As the last of the chains was removed from him, Hercules straightened slightly, grateful to have the pressure off his arms. Xena suddenly pulled a knife from her boot--he later learned that she was never without this particular accessory--and held the point to his throat. "On your knees," she ordered, "very carefully, and get your hands behind you."
Hercules knelt slowly, the point of the knife following him down, and he put his hands behind his back. "You're a slave now," said Xena calmly. "You'll be well-fed and have a place to sleep in return for your labor and absolute obedience. My question to you is, are you going to cooperate or not?"
"I'll cooperate," he said softly, the knife point moving with his throat as he spoke, but pressing against him with such complete control that it never pierced his skin. He then allowed an edge of bitterness to creep into his voice. "It's not as though I have anywhere else to go. I'm not afraid of hard work, and I'll more than earn my food and shelter."
"Good," she said shortly, letting the knife drop back into her boot in a swift and fluid motion. "You'll be chained, but that's mostly to remind you of your status. There won't be anything to stop you from running, but the manacles will identify you as my property. Returning escaped slaves to me is a popular activity in my territory--I have a generous reward system. What do you say to that?"
"I won't run, my lady," he said, bowing his head in what he hoped was a sufficiently respectful gesture.
"Well, Callisto," drawled Xena with satisfaction. "It looks like you've found me some valuable property. If he pans out, you and your troops will be rewarded."
Callisto simply bowed her head in acknowledgment.
Xena summoned her household steward. "Phideas, get him fitted for those manacles and get him a meal. If he's stealing food," she said, glancing at Hercules narrowly, "he's probably hungry. And show him where he sleeps. I'll put him to work tomorrow." She turned back to her new acquisition. "You may stand. Go with Phideas." Suddenly the knife was out of her boot and back in her hand. She tapped Hercules' chest lightly with the flat of the blade. "I don't want to hear of you causing any trouble, slave-boy."
"You won't, my lady. You have my word," he promised softly.
Xena began to turn away, then turned back, saying lightly, "Oh and take off that shirt and those gauntlets. You won't be needing them here." She grinned ferally as Hercules flushed, and Aphrodite's words echoed in his mind. He removed his shirt, and she plucked it out of his hand, watching him as he unbuckled his gauntlets, seeming to devour his chest and arms with her eyes, and remarking briefly, "Oh, that's very nice," before dismissing him and his keeper. As he left, she had returned to her throne and to her caresses of Gabrielle, and was conferring with Callisto. And Hercules had to confess himself feeling somewhat deflated at no longer being the object of that intense gaze.
* * *
If they did her bidding, Xena's slaves were actually treated quite well. The food was plentiful and nourishing, and he had a small private cell-like room to sleep in with a straw mattress. The male and female slaves slept in separate quarters, each with its own latrine and bathing facilities. The area where they slept was locked at night, but the individual rooms were not. He was put to work where his strength would be most useful, stacking wood, bearing heavy loads, helping with the continual repairs to the castle's fortifications and to the defenses around the villages nearby. For several days, he saw little of his new owner, but he wasn't surprised. Sometimes he caught a glimpse of her riding out in front of a body of troops. On these occasions she wore a leather garment and armor similar to the one he was familiar with, but all black, with gleaming metallic armor.
One day, when delivering loads of firewood around the castle, he came upon Callisto with Gabrielle in a well-travelled corridor. Gabrielle was facing the wall, her hands flat against it above her head, and Callisto's hand was moving between her legs. Callisto was making no effort to hide what she was doing, and Xena was not far away, so Hercules had to conclude that the Conqueror shared her personal slaves with her second-in-command. The thought brought him a momentary dismay, but he reassured himself that Callisto had taken next to no interest in him since she'd brought him in. He fervently hoped she was only interested in women. After storing the appointed portion of firewood in a couple of rooms, he emerged back into the corridor to see Gabrielle moaning and pumping her hips in rhythm with Callisto's thrusts. At the same time, Xena emerged from another room. She leaned gracefully against the wall, crossed her arms, and smiled, watching until Gabrielle yelped in climax. "Very entertaining, Callisto," she remarked lightly, before moving away in Hercules' direction. "I hear good reports of your work, slaveboy," she said. "Keep it up."
He bowed his head and said, "Yes, my lady," while inwardly cursing the puppy-like leap his heart had taken when she turned her attention on him. Before he moved off, he noticed Gabrielle on her knees in front of Callisto, reverently kissing her hand and then being made to lick the warrior's fingers clean. He wondered if this particular relationship was a planned part of Ares' scheme, or if it had just evolved out of the situation. Under Xena's rule, human beings were simply used in any number of ways, and they were controlled with an impersonal efficiency. What affection he saw given to slaves had a distant, abstracted quality, and punishments were meted out ruthlessly, but again impersonally, for the slightest of infractions.
Everywhere the firm hand of Xena's control was evident, although it was mostly administered through Callisto or Phideas. Hercules was horrified by what he saw and shocked at the thoroughness and pervasiveness of Xena's rule. Almost everyone he saw wanted to please her, to obey her. Her presence was as commanding as a god's, her will was law, and she wielded her personal influence like a finely honed and accurate tool, pulling a string here, nudging a lever there, keeping the entire system in orderly balance. Ares must have been ecstatic--it was what he'd wanted from Xena all along. And he found himself falling under her spell. His goal was to get close enough to her so he could talk to her about the original timeline, but he found himself responding whenever he sensed her eyes on him, standing straighter, making his movements more sure and fluid, trying to make the hardest labor look easy so his strength was apparent to the most casual viewer. He couldn't help trying to draw her attention--not simply because it served his original purpose, but because he yearned to be the focus of those intense blue eyes. He learned to move and work with minimal clanking of the chain hanging between his wrists, wanting to appear as graceful as possible; he hated the chain though, as it continuously reminded him of his lowly position.
He had noticed that Xena and Callisto were apparently good friends, but not lovers. They worked well together as Commander and Lieutenant, but he often saw them laughing and joking together. Callisto seemed to be one of the very few people with whom the Conqueror dropped her commanding demeanor. He learned from Phideas, who liked to talk, that Xena had indeed raided Cirra when Callisto was a young girl and had taken Callisto prisoner. Callisto had apparently admired Xena from the start and wanted to emulate her, and Xena had taken the chance of having Callisto trained as a warrior. Her abilities were superb, and she eventually earned the position of Xena's second-in-command.
One day Xena and Callisto had a picnic with Gabrielle in attendance, Xena apparently having chosen a spot where Hercules could see them as he worked rebuilding a crumbling wall. Gabrielle gracefully served out all the food and poured wine, then knelt between them, holding a wine goblet in each hand. The other women chatted and laughed, taking the goblet from Gabrielle's hand when they wanted a sip, then returning it, and sometimes popping a morsel of food into Gabrielle's mouth.
When he had to turn away for his work, he would feel Xena's eyes on him, creating a slight chill in the back of his neck, but when he turned back, she was always looking at her companions. The meal over, they apparently ordered Gabrielle to strip, and they stretched her out on the grass, Callisto holding her arms pinned above her head and toying with her breasts, while Xena's hand stroked the slave's parted thighs and then buried itself between her legs.
Just then Ares appeared before him, apparently invisible to the others. "How do you like this world, brother?" the god taunted. "Perfect order, and everyone knows his or her appointed place. Including you. I knew you wouldn't be able to resist coming here. I can't tell you how much I enjoy seeing you like this. It gives me so much satisfaction to fuck my golden-haired boy and know that you're in chains. They suit you." Ares chortled triumphantly.
Hercules felt a fury rising in him, and even with the manacles and chain between his wrists he could have probably made Ares at least uncomfortable for a while, but he was not going to make himself look absurd by fighting an invisible god in front of Xena. He steadfastly ignored his half-brother, pouring all of his concentration into his work.
"Very well," said Ares. "I have to talk to your owner any way." The god disappeared from Hercules' view, then reappeared in front of the three women. Xena glanced at him, but he said, "Carry on," with a grand wave of his hand. When Gabrielle thrashed and cried out, Xena turned her attention to Ares, who talked to her softly and urgently.
Hercules was apparently the subject of their conversation. Xena laughed dismissively, her voice carrying. "So you know him, and he's a habitual liar? Well, you don't need to worry about what he might say to me, Ares. It's not as though I kept him for his conversational skills."
* * *
The next day Hercules had seen Xena and Callisto ride out with a body of troops. Gabrielle brought him his lunch, as she was sometimes sent to do. He had noticed she had a serenity about her similar to what he had seen in Iolaus at Ares' temple. This time, he gently asked, "Are you allowed to stay for a while and talk? I don't get a lot of company."
She gracefully settled herself on the ground beside him and laughed. "You will soon enough. She has her eye on you."
In between eating his bread and cheese, he asked, "Does that bother you?"
"No," said Gabrielle, shrugging. "If I were the only one she ever took to her bed, she'd wear me out."
"How . . . um . . . do you feel about being here?" he asked, embarrassed, but curious. "I mean, yesterday, was that hard for you?"
Her eyes gleamed with mischief. "No. I liked it. It's pretty flattering to have both of them focused on me. I like being here." Her voice took on a dreamy tone. "She's just so . . . amazing. From the first time I saw her, I knew I wanted to be lost in her, give myself to her. She's the most powerful person in Greece-- how could I not want to please and serve her?"
Hercules nodded despite himself; he had noticed that feeling growing in himself, but he didn't like it. "What about Callisto?" he asked.
Gabrielle laughed ruefully. "She pays more attention to me than the Conqueror does. Xena always keeps her distance. She doesn't let anyone get too close to her. Callisto lets me in sometimes. Xena never does." She shrugged. "It makes me feel good to please them. And I hate it when I make mistakes. I never want to disappoint them. Of course, I don't like being punished either."
"I can imagine," he murmured.
"It's pretty brutal," she agreed. "But it works to keep people in line, and it's only happened a couple of times, and not for a long time. I'm very careful. But not just to avoid pain. They have important work to do; I want to do whatever I can to smooth whatever part of their way I can."
Hercules was torn by conflicting feelings. Part of him wanted to shake Gabrielle out of her complacency. Something about their lives in this timeline had exaggerated both her and Iolaus' desire to please, to subsume themselves into something larger. But it had erased the spark and energy and stubbornness that made them who they were. The Gabrielle he knew would sacrifice almost anything for Xena, would follow her till the ends of the earth, and would do almost anything Xena told her; but she would also speak up when she disagreed with Xena, she could fight with courage and determination, and she would have talked the ears off anyone who would listen about the evils of slavery and war.
Gabrielle stood up, saying, "I really should get back."
"Thanks for the lunch--and the conversation." Yes, part of him raged inside at her serene acceptance of her status . . . but part of him envied it too. There was something about this Xena that drew him, something the Xena he knew kept carefully contained and controlled. This Xena would have never let her army get out of her control the way his Xena had. She could have unleashed her personal magnetism and gotten control of Darphus and her men, but even then something had prevented her from exerting the irresistable influence over others that she was capable of. Perhaps she didn't trust herself to control it, and even at her most savage, she was afraid of giving her power full rein. That was one of the reasons he had been able to see her potential for good. As cruel and murderous and vicious as she had been, she had known there were lines she shouldn't cross. This Xena had no such scruples, but he felt himself drawn to her, despite despising her methods. It troubled him that he couldn't figure out if that feeling was simply an artificial result of her charisma being brought to bear on him, or whether it originated within himself. It didn't occur to him until later that perhaps those possibilities did not mutually exclude each other, that the feelings Xena inspired in him and others were real and that was what made her so dangerous. He did know that he craved to be singled out by her, and that Gabrielle's casual "She has her eye on you" had unleashed a wave of hope in his heart.
At the same time,
he recalled Gabrielle's information that Xena never let anyone close to
her. Hercules had to get close to her to accomplish his goals,
but he also desperately hoped the bond he had with his Xena would
have some meaning in this world. As he worked, mechanically
setting the stones in place and mostly succeeding at keeping the chain
out of his way, he realized what disturbed him so much about Gabrielle
and Iolaus' manner. It was their glassy serenity. They both
seemed to enjoy and find fulfillment in their roles, and they obviously
derived sexual satisfaction, but both seemed to lack passion.
They were graceful, obedient, and responsive, but it was as if their responses
were more conditioned and automatic than spontaneous or alive.
His own passion for Xena had never died and never would, even as they had
allowed an enduring friendship to grow between them. He felt an unaccountable
desire to break through the invisible wall the Conqueror kept around herself,
and he somehow knew that if he had any chance to do so, it would be by
distinguishing himself from Gabrielle and the other slaves. He wanted
this Xena to recognize him as a part of her soul, and he wanted to melt
her detachment into something resembling the passion and intensity of the
Xena he knew.
to Chapter 4
to Table of Contents
to XWP and HTLJ