The next morning, everyone was up early, preparing to travel to set up camp and meet Caesar's advance force. Hercules had to admire the efficiency of Xena's operation. She and Callisto and her other lieutenants all had their designated roles, and Xena had her personal magnetism at full power, as she gave orders in a quiet voice that somehow carried whereever she needed. And those orders were obeyed instantly and impeccably the first time around; everyone knew that Xena meant business, and no one wanted to anger or disappoint her. Hercules was again dismayed at how susceptible he himself was to that commanding tone, but knew he had better things to do than worry about it, and helped load weapons and supplies until he was summoned to join Xena's party and ride out with her.
When they arrived at the coast, a camp was set up, again, with practiced efficiency. Xena particularly oversaw the healer's tent, doublechecking the availability of bandages and herbal preparations. Callisto occasionally cast curious looks toward Hercules, but she had plenty to keep her occupied, and Xena didn't bother explaining herself unless she had a reason. By all indications, Caesar's soldiers would be landing early the next morning. Hercules insisted on staying close to Xena, suspicious of assassins, and Xena rolled her eyes in exasperation. "All right then, slave boy," she had hissed, "you can wait on us during dinner."
Hercules merely bowed his head in assent and silently served during Xena's dinner meeting with her lieutenants. Again, she radiated power and authority, and Hercules, who thwarted the gods every chance he got and was a demigod himself, found himself in awe. That she had selected *him* as a bed partner seemed to him an unparalleled honor, and as she spoke to her officers, he thrilled at the memory of her hands and her knife on his body. While she listened carefully to the others' suggestions, she made absolutely clear that her word was absolute. Unlike the warlord Xena he had first encountered in his time, who was a creature of rage and impulse, this Xena was in complete control. The respect her lieutenants had for her was evident; every one of them gave the impression that dying in battle for her would be a privilege. They would do everything in their power not to let her down.
After the others left, Callisto lingered, jerking her head toward Hercules. "He's fighting for us, Callisto," said Xena curtly. "You'd be surprised at his abilities."
"Uh-huh," said Callisto, looking Hercules up and down and bowing to Xena before taking her leave.
"I want you to get some sleep," Xena said to him. "I have guards watching my tent."
"Yes, my lady," her murmured, settling a sleeping mat near the tent's flap. Anyone entering would have to go through him. Anyone but Ares, that is. A flash of light announced the arrival of the god, who was accompanied by Iolaus this time.
Hercules had to stop himself from gasping Iolaus' name, but Iolaus just looked slightly surprised, recognizing Hercules from the temple, and said "Hi! How ya doing? You're with the Conqueror now, huh? Lucky break."
Remembering some basic rules of hospitality, Hercules offered Iolaus something to eat and drink and forced himself to make light conversation with him, noting that he had the same bland and placid demeanor he had displayed at Ares' temple. But there was a massive lump in his chest, and he ached to see this Iolaus, so different from his own golden lover.
Ares acted as if he didn't even exist, reminding Xena of the size of Caesar's forces and giving her advice, which she listened to with a slightly bored expression on her face. So that's where she gets her information, thought Hercules to himself, while the warlord and the god discussed strategy.
When the discussion was over, Ares ran a casually possessive hand down Iolaus' back and over his ass, saying, "C'mon, boy," before they vanished.
Hercules couldn't prevent a flash of pain from flaring on his face, while Xena studied him impassively. "Something tells me you and the war god have a history," she remarked.
"We do," said Hercules softly.
"You turn out more interesting by the day, slave boy. And I want to hear all about it--after we get back home. Right now I have a battle to think about."
"Of course, my lady."
* * *
Xena had no cause to regret bringing Hercules. While she rode among Caesar's troops like a whirlwind, sword flashing and hair flying, he mowed down soldiers like a juggernaut, steadily incapacitating one soldier after another, cracking heads together, sending soldiers flying backward across the battlefield with powerful blows or kicks, and using their own weapons against them, grabbing a spear from one man and using it to knock out four soldiers at a time. Xena's warriors fought well, although they were pressed by Caesar's, and Xena and Callisto seemed to be everywhere at once, bolstering confidence, shouting commands, and backing up cornered warriors. Hercules' fighting deflected some of the attention from Xena, which was his intention. Of course, she was still the principal target. At one point he grabbed a spear that was speeding right toward Xena and hurled it back to the unfortunate soldier who threw it, cutting off his short career and his life at the same time. Xena, meanwhile, threw her chakram toward a huddle of Roman soldiers, knocking them flat and forcing them to drop their shields.
As the fighting got close, Xena vaulted off her horse with an "Alalalalalala!" disabling soldiers with spinning kicks and driving elbows. Hercules waded toward her, plowing soldiers out of his way. He watched Xena react intuitively to a soldier coming up behind her, as she drew her sword and jabbed it sharply backward into the man's stomach. She jerked it out and drove it into another attacker, deftly getting around his shield, then using her foot to shove his body off her sword. Hercules picked up one soldier and flung him, using him to knock down several others in his path, allowing Xena's warriors easy pickings from the downed men. He was charged by several soldiers with swords and drew his own--Xena had insisted he carry a weapon--and blocked and jabbed and parried, his sword clashing against their shields. They were professionals, and one of them gave him a fairly deep gash in the side before he had them all disarmed and knocked unconscious, except for the one that died from a chakram slicing across his throat.
Suddenly Xena yelled, "Hercules! Over there! Go help Callisto, NOW!" She herself was working her way toward the commander of Caesar's forces, and Hercules hesitated a fraction of a second. But he had promised to obey orders. Callisto was surrounded by a large group of men and was in trouble, although she was doing considerable damage. Hercules snatched a bow and arrows from a dead Greek warrior. Swiftly fitting the arrow and pulling back the bowstring, he shot one of Callisto's attackers and then another and then another when he ran out of arrows. He ran toward the now-diminished group, swinging the bow like a club, felling another pair of soldiers. More approached, but he flung them out of the way. Callisto knocked down another with a flying kick and a shriek, and filled with fury, beheaded another with her sword.
"Thanks, slave boy," she said to Hercules drily. "I owe you one."
"My pleasure," he answered grimly. They fought their way back toward Xena, who was now duelling the Roman commander.
"Don't interfere," warned Callisto. "Just help me watch her back and make sure none of them tries anything." Hercules nodded. Sure enough, a Roman soldier threw a knife at Xena's back, but Hercules leapt forward and deflected it with his gauntlet. As it bounced off the metal he caught it by the hilt, and a moment later, the soldier had a knife sticking out of his throat. "Nice move!" yelled Callisto, grinning widely, while she drove her sword into another approaching soldier.
Xena fought with single-minded determination, blocking each stroke with her own sword, and eventually disarmed the Roman commander, declaring, "Don't tell me you're the best Caesar's got. Now are you going to give yourself up, or am I going to have to kill you?" The soldier went for a knife, but before his hand reached the hilt, Xena buried the sword in his body, shrugging and saying, "Your loss."
At that point Xena's victory was assured, and the Roman forces were mostly dead, injured, or taken prisoner, with only a few surviving to flee back to their boats. Hercules winced. He'd seen plenty of battlefields, but the sight never failed to sicken him. While Callisto dealt with the prisoners, and Xena had a confidential conversation with the wounded Roman second-in-command, a conversation that would terrify him enough that he would never join another invasion of Greece, Hercules joined the warriors who were moving about the darkened battlefield, picking up the wounded and carrying them to the healer's tent.
After what seemed like hours of carrying one broken and bloody body after another, he was assured that all the wounded had been collected, and he assisted the healers to the best of his ability, until Callisto approached, the torch she carried, casting flickering shadows across her face. Hercules shuddered; however much he told himself this was not the same woman he knew from his own timeline, he couldn't dismiss the sinister associations that her presence evoked. She had noticed. "What is it, slave boy? Am I that terrifying?" she asked, her eyes glinting in the torchlight.
"I'm sorry, my lady," he said, trying to sound respectful, as he knew the Conqueror would not be happy with him forgetting his status. "You bear a striking resemblance to someone else I know, someone who caused a lot of harm to people I care about."
She looked at him through narrowed eyes. "My lady Xena trusts you, although we both know you let yourself be captured by me for some reason known only to yourself. All I can say is that if you do anything to harm her, you'll have me to answer to, no matter how often you help me out on the battlefield."
He bowed his head. "You needn't worry, my lady Callisto. Harming her is the last thing I would do. It's true I have my reasons for being here, but I would never violate Lady Xena's trust."
Callisto nodded. "Anyway she wants to see you. In her tent."
"Thank you, my lady," he answered and made his way toward the Conqueror's tent.
The guards at the entrance stepped aside immediately to let him in, and he ducked under the flap. Xena turned around to greet him, and he immediately knelt down on one knee, bowing his head. "Hercules. You were invaluable today. Many more of my warriors would have been killed if not for you," she said. He looked up at her to find her intense blue eyes scanning him. "You and I are going to have a lot to talk about when we get back," she added. "You may rise." Hercules stood up, and Xena suddenly exclaimed, "You're wounded! Why didn't you get that treated?"
He shrugged, "I heal quickly, my lady, and I was helping the healers."
She shook her head in exasperation, then reached up and delivered one stinging slap across his cheek. "You're my property, slave boy, and you have a responsibility to me to take care of yourself! Just because I've granted you some favor doesn't mean you can forget your position. Ya got that?"
"Yes, my lady. I'm very sorry," he said meekly. Xena had to turn aside, to hide the half-smile that arose on her lips at the stricken and abashed look on his face.
In a gentler voice, Xena said "Come here. Let's take care of that. Take off your shirt and lie down here. I can see what I'm doing better."
She carefully cleaned, dressed, and bandaged the gash in his side, while he marvelled at the light and skilled touch of her fingers. While she worked, he asked hesitantly, "What happens to the prisoners, my lady?"
"Some join my army, some become slaves, some, of course, are traded for prisoners of war from our side. If they can't adjust or be controlled, they're killed," she explained dispassionately, her gentleness in treating his wound contrasting sharply with the bluntness of her tone.
"Killed how?" he asked, feeling slightly ill.
"Sword in the heart usually. If you're wondering if I crucify 'em, I don't. No crosses, no death wheels. I've been crucified myself--thanks to Caesar. While up there, with my legs broken by the way, I made two vows. One was that I would devote my life and all of my power to stopping him. The other was that I would never subject anyone to a painful, lingering death. I don't need to do that to keep people in line. Satisfied, slave boy?" she asked drily.
"Yes, my lady," he murmured. The Conqueror was no model of humanity--the marks on his back that she was lightly tracing testified to that--but there were clearly defined limits to her inhumanity.
"Come with me,"
she said abruptly. "I have to make some rounds." She tossed
him his shirt, which he pulled back on. "You can make yourself useful
and carry this," she added, handing him a leather bag filled with bandages,
herbal preparations, and other necessities of the healer's art. He
followed the Conqueror to the healer's tent, where she immediately set
about treating wounded warriors, directing Hercules as her assistant.
She was as skilled a healer as the Xena he knew, and she stayed up most
of the night, dressing wounds, setting fractures, consulting with the healers,
and visiting briefly with each of her wounded soldiers. Hercules
followed, carrying her bag and treating minor injuries, while he marvelled
at the brusque, yet gentle, demeanor she adopted with the injured.
It was many hours before Hercules trailed her back to her tent and dropped
wearily onto his mat by the tent flap for a couple of hours of sleep.
to Chapter 8
to Table of Contents
to XWP and HTLJ