A few days later, Hercules found an opportunity to bring himself to the Conqueror's attention, although it would not have been his first choice of methods. He was bringing a load of wood inside, and Gabrielle was approaching the room where Xena held conferences with her generals. She was carrying a tray with a carafe of wine and some mugs. Suddenly and inexplicably, her grip shifted on the heavy tray and she dropped it. Reacting on instinct, Hercules sped down the corridor to her side, dropping his load of wood heavily. He said to Gabrielle, with all the authority his voice could muster, "Don't say anything!" As the door slammed open, and an angry Conqueror stalked out, he dropped to one knee, his head bowed, and said, "I'm sorry. It was my fault, my lady; I accidentally bumped into her."
Xena pulled his head up by the hair and looked him shrewdly in the eye. Her gaze seemed to say, "I know you're lying," but what she said out loud was, "That was a very expensive wine, slave boy, and you disrupted my meeting with my generals. I can't take that lightly."
"Yes, my lady," he murmured, shocked at his own feelings of awe. Much as he disapproved of her methods and everything this Xena represented, he couldn't help but be intoxicated by her aura of power and authority. And he quailed inside at the thought that he'd angered her, although he knew it wasn't his fault, and he was pretty sure she knew it too. "I can't tolerate that kind of carelessness," she continued, her voice like ice; "you'll have to be flogged. Be in my throne room at sunset."
"Yes, my lady," he answered, angry with himself for the slight quaver in his voice. Still holding on to a handful of his hair, she slapped him once across the face, and he felt utterly naked, as if the heat of her hand striking his cheek had instantly melted his clothes and several layers of skin, leaving him exposed in a way that was entirely unfamiliar to him.
He gazed up at her, lips slightly parted in astonishment, wondering just what he wouldn't do at her command. Her icy blue eyes seemed to lance into his, noting and gauging the depth of his surrender to her authority. One side of her mouth quirked slightly in a glimmer of a predatory smile; then she turned her attention to Gabrielle, who was standing nearby, her eyes wide with disbelief. "Get us some more wine and help him clean this up," ordered Xena before returning to the conference room.
Gabrielle scurried off to fulfill the first order, while Hercules mechanically went to fetch cleaning supplies. When Gabrielle had safely made her delivery, and was helping him clean up, she gasped, "Why did you do that? Do you know what's going to happen to you?"
"Yes," he answered quietly, with a slight smile. "I remembered what you said about being punished. I think I can better take a flogging than you. I have a pretty high pain tolerance."
"Oh, she'll make sure it hurts," insisted the blonde slave. "She'll probably have Callisto do it, and she's deadly with that whip. But I can't have you take a punishment for me."
"Yes. You. Can," he said firmly. "Will it make you feel better to know I also had my own reasons for wanting to come to her attention?"
"It helps a little," Gabrielle said softly. "Whatever your reasons, thank you. I owe you."
"No you don't," he returned. "I took this on myself."
* * *
At sunset Hercules was dutifully waiting in the throne room, on his knees, head bowed. Part of him was still tugged by an urge to submit and surrender to Xena, and part of him held a hard determination not to break, but rather to give her the best show he could. He realized suddenly that his urge to submit and his desire to perform for her were part and parcel of the same impulse. Resistance was out of the question--it would utterly thwart his reason for being here. Breaking down would be intolerable and make him a failure in the Conqueror's eyes. Dignified submission seemed the only option. He hoped he could muster it.
Xena swept in, followed by Callisto who was carrying a long, coiled whip with a single tail. Several household slaves and attendants followed, as well as some of Xena's generals--Hercules was to be made an example of, and all watching would know that Xena ran her household, and by extension her territory, with an iron hand. Xena sat on her throne, and her generals dispersed themselves around her, while the slaves, including Gabrielle, were off to the side.
Xena's voice echoed in the large chamber. "Slave boy! Go stand with your hands against that column. I expect you to keep both hands there until I tell you to move them."
"Yes, my lady," he answered in clear, firm voice.
He walked over to the column she indicated. It was wide, and he placed his hands flat upon it and apart, the chain from his cuffs dangling between them, his legs wide for balance.
Xena spoke to Callisto: "Give him twenty, ten on each side, in a feather pattern. I want his whole back striped. And he looks pretty tough--make them deep enough that he'll be feeling them for a few days. Draw blood."
"Yes, my lady," answered Callisto, with a hint of delighted mania in her voice. So she wasn't entirely unlike her other self, thought Hercules, as he tossed his hair back impatiently and waited. Callisto came up behind him, saying thoughtfully, "Oh yes, that's very nice. The marks will suit you, slave boy. I think we'll start . . . here," she noted, as she traced a line along his shoulder blade with her finger, then traced the identical line on the other side, while he struggled not to recoil visibly at her touch. "And then here," she added, moving her finger down, "and then the other stripes will be longer until we get down . . . here," she ran her fingers along his lower back, "when they get shorter again. It's really quite an attractive pattern. My Lady Xena has good taste." She moved around to his side and in a suddenly hard voice, ordered, "Kiss it!" She brought the coiled whip to his lips, and he bent his head and kissed the black leather, trying not to show that he was actually a little afraid. Her voice returned to the almost childlike quality it had had earlier: "And you'll be glad to know I have perfect control."
He tossed his hair again, restlessly, and he caught a glimpse of Xena watching with intense focus. Yes, he had certainly brought himself to her attention. The thought steeled him, and he took a deep breath, focusing his attention, and consciously relaxing his muscles. The preparation helped a little, but the first crack of the whip took his breath away. It was like a line of icy cold fire on his skin, followed by almost unbearable rush of pain from the wound's contact with open air. The line followed the identical path Callisto had traced with her finger, and he could feel a tickle from drops of blood beginning to drip from the stripe, while it still burned and throbbed with a sharp ferocity.
Callisto paused, wanting Hercules and all the watchers to absorb the impact of the first stripe before she laid down the second. With a deafening crack, she sliced open his flesh on the other side, with apparently the same length stripe, and the same depth as the first. Another pause, and another blow on the first side. This time the line of fire was slightly longer. He gasped with each blow, but refused to cry out. By the sixth stripe, he had to concentrate to keep his now sweaty hands in place on the column. From what Gabrielle had told him, slaves were always bound during a flogging, and the fact that he wasn't, he realized, meant that this was a very serious test. He had no intention of failing.
But it was hard, oh, so hard. The stripes grew longer as they moved in perfect precision down his back, each one angling up from his spine to the outside. The sharpness of the pain brought tears to his eyes, and he had to battle down a surging impulse to whirl around, rip the whip out of Callisto's hand, and break her neck--or at least drive his fist into the column which supported him, bringing it down. There was something about this quality of pain that sent bolts of energy surging through him--he had to move, he had to release some of the pain--and he couldn't. He thought of his Xena, her back marked by Callisto's knife, and his own back repeatedly opened up under this Callisto's whip, and his mind whirled with confusion. And his blood welled out of each slice from the whip, and it suddenly occurred to him that it was an offering to the Conqueror. He carefully repositioned his slippery hands, fought back the low growl that was rising in his throat, and surrendered himself.
With each crack of the whip, he gritted and bared his teeth, trying not to let a sound escape, and he tossed his head, his flying hair being the only part of his body he was allowed to move. He was shattering and dissolving with each strike, his will seeming to seep out of him with his blood. Despite all of his problems with his father, so much of his sense of himself was bound up in being the son of Zeus. Now all that was slipping away, so that all he was was a slave whose body no longer belonged to him, but was subject to be used and even flayed open at the will of another. The pain never got more tolerable, and in fact, each successive blow built up the pain across his entire back even more. It was more unbearable each time the whip laid his flesh open with perfect accuracy, every time his back erupted in that sharp-edged flash of fiery pain. After what seemed like hours, it was over, the twentieth stripe laid down with the same exquisite precision as the first. His back both burned with pain, all the wounds flinching from the open air, and itched ferociously--both the deep, quivering itch of the wounds themselves and the tickling sensation of numerous tendrils of blood making their way down his back.
He remained in position obediently, waiting for permission to move. "You may move now," said Xena calmly, "and thank her who gave you your deserved punishment." Gabrielle had prepared him for this, and the thought sent a wave of nausea through him. He carefully turned around, got down on his knees, and bent his head down to kiss Callisto's boot. She emitted a slightly manic giggle, and he wondered if she had any idea how close she came to being flung bodily across the chamber. Then he stood up, squared his shoulders despite the pain, and walked boldly and with his head high toward Xena's throne. There, he again dropped to his knees, again bent over to kiss her boot, noting the pain as the skin on his back stretched open the slashes from the whip. He murmured, "Thank you for correcting me, my lady."
She simply nodded coldly and said, "I trust you won't earn yourself another flogging, slave boy," then directed Gabrielle to tend to his wounds, dismissing them both.
Gabrielle was crying as she led him to the castle infirmary, where wounded soldiers were normally treated. "I . . . I've never seen a whipping like that. Oh gods, and it should have been me!"
"No," he hastened to reassure her. "I knew what I was doing when I stepped into that. Please don't blame yourself." He cupped her jaw gently in his hand and tipped her face up to look in his eyes. "Listen to me, Gabrielle. It was my choice." He knew Xena had chosen Gabrielle on purpose. She couldn't flog her for dropping the wine, but she could certainly make her suffer his flogging vicariously.
Gabrielle let herself be consoled; she was used to others telling her what to do and think. She prepared a salve, explaining, "All I'm allowed to put on your back is something to prevent infection." Hercules nodded; of course, Xena wouldn't want it to heal any faster than necessary. If, as he expected, floggings were usually administered to set an example to other slaves, she'd want the reminders to last, and the stripes were deep enough that even his faster-than-normal healing ability wouldn't get rid of them soon.
He ceased to pay attention to Gabrielle's gentle touch on his back, as he pondered his own reactions to the flogging. Nothing had shaken his unwavering belief that slavery was an absolute wrong, but something in him had thrilled at the knowledge that Xena had ordered and was witnessing his punishment. His abasement was all the more complete in that she'd ordered another to administer the flogging--that it was Callisto was an irony that he couldn't even begin to get his mind around at the moment--and in that he'd essentially consented to it by not being bound. He gestured slightly and realized he was getting used to the clinking of the chain that dangled from his manacled wrists; much of the time he forgot it was there. And feeling Xena's eyes devouring him as the whip landed, he had felt an overwhelming desire to please her. He flushed, bowing his head so Gabrielle wouldn't see as she continued her ministrations to his back. Who was he becoming, he wondered.
* * *
more trouble than usual falling asleep, worried that he might roll on
back and still troubled by his responses to the whipping. Sleep
used to come so easy to him, but not here. He had become so used
to having a warm body, a particular warm body, to enfold into his
each night, that he was uneasy sleeping alone. He forced himself
not to think of Iolaus when Xena was around; he had to be alert and
But at night, or during the days when he had seen the Conqueror riding
off on business, his thoughts invariably made their way to the blond
He imagined himself twining his fingers in the tangle of curls; gazing
rapt into those bright blue eyes which signalled surrender and
and a knowing sense of mischief and complicity at the same time;
his heart skip a beat when one of those dazzling smiles flashed onto
face; plunging his tongue into the warm cavern of Iolaus' mouth;
that mouth sucking on one of his fingers, Iolaus' eyes closed in dreamy
bliss; stroking his hands possessively along the muscled arms and legs
and over the blond's chest and abdomen and back; sinking his fingers or
teeth into the round, taut buttocks; and bringing the hunter's nipples
to life with his rough ministrations. He usually had to stop his
remembering at this point. Whenever he thought of Iolaus offering
his mouth or his ass to be penetrated by Hercules' cock, the demigod
had a vision of Ares using Iolaus the same way, and his stomach would
in hopeless fury. Enthralled as he was by the Conqueror's
he wanted his lover and friend and property back.
to Chapter 5
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to XWP and