I wrote this story in the fall of 1997, before Xena the Conqueror appeared on Hercules, so it isn’t technically a member of the Conqueror genre. It was written in answer to a challenge to fan fiction writers issued by my friend, Donna Trifilo, who asked, What if Xena had met Gabrielle when she was still a warlord? It contains some strong stuff, so if you find certain kinds of stories disturbing, you probably shouldn’t read this one.
For Donna on her birthday, November 12, 1997.
My men brought her to me as a gift. It was the red hair that made them choose her. Red is the color of war and of desire. War had filled their bellies. War had made them rich. Before I came to them, they were farmers. They grew food in plenty and starved, because the strong took it from them. I had made them strong. I gave them pride in themselves and all the good things the world can offer except peace. So they brought me gifts for the gifts I gave them. They brought me the swords of kings, horses hardened to battle, implements of war, and beautiful things. Their gifts were, of course, already mine, as they themselves were mine, but it pleased them if I was pleased, and I encouraged them to please me.
That day I had not ridden with my men. I had sent the captain of my guard with a raiding party against an undefended village. One look at my warriors convinced the villagers to give us food, a few horses, tools, some worthless trinkets. My captain asked them for a smith, to mend our weapons and keep our horses shod. They had none, but the red-haired girl stepped forward. He would have left her and taken someone more useful, but one of our young soldiers urged him to make me a gift of her, and the men took up the cry. So he brought her to me.
We didn’t call them slaves. She was a hostage. For as long as we remained encamped there, her presence would ensure that her people could not betray us to our enemies without betraying her. It was a point of honor that the village of a hostage would be safe from us, a point of honor and practical as well, for we could leave our hostages unguarded. When we moved on, we sent them home.
My captain found me in my tent. She stood behind him, and at first I didn’t see her. She was so small, but she stood straight and proud and met my eyes. She was pretty, and I liked her spirit. I could see that she would make herself too troublesome to keep unless I took the bravado out of her. I told my captain to thank the men for their gift. He made a sharp salute and left us alone.
“So you’re a volunteer,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. Anger glittered in her eyes. “Given the circumstances.” She tossed her red mane back and glared at me.
I met her eyes and spoke softly, without anger. “You must drop your eyes when you speak to me,” I said. “You must keep your words respectful. I would not be spoken to as you have spoken to me even by the captain of my guard. I would not harm you, but if I must, I will make an example of you before my men. Do you understand?”
She opened her mouth, then hesitated. Her eyes searched mine, as if to try the strength of my words. Before she dropped her eyes, I saw the fire in them die. Her show of temper had masked her fear. Now I saw the tremor in her hands.
She wore a long cloak that covered her. I lifted it from her shoulders and tossed it aside. I circled her, gazing at her all the while. She had the face of a child, but her full breasts and hips revealed her as a woman old enough for love.
“Are you a virgin?” I asked her.
“No,” she said, but the blush that rose to her face betrayed the lie.
“You are,” I said. “Why not tell the truth?”
She said nothing.
“Perhaps you have heard that I would offer your maidenhood as a reward to the greatest of my warriors,” I said.
The blush faded from her cheek.
“You needn’t worry,” I told her. “I always keep the best for myself.”
She spent that night huddled in a corner of my tent, curled in her cloak like a mouse in its nest. I could have taken her then, against her will or not, as she chose, but I saw a warmth in her that made me believe she would be worth the wait. I wanted her willing, and I knew that in time I could make her so.
For weeks I had little time to spare for her. We were in mid-campaign. My army faced the armies of two princes who had once been rivals. We had counted on their rivalry, but they’d had the sense to set their differences aside and unite against us. It was now uncertain whether we could win a decisive victory before the winter weather caught us. If we could not, we dared not make our winter encampment there and must retreat into our own territory. The time when I was not in the field I spent in training or with my captains, planning our next move. I saw her only in the evenings, and often she had been long asleep when at last I sought my bed.
I had kept her with me in my tent. In truth, I think she was glad to stay there. She feared me less than she feared my army. She did not yet understand that no man of mine would touch her, because she belonged to me.
It gave me pleasure to have her there. She was pretty, as I said, but more than that, I liked her softness. She filled the air with comfort. She had a woman smell. She was the ghost of hearth and home in that rough camp. I knew it was a weakness, but sometimes, when I remembered the life I could never have again, I could deceive my heart with the feelings she brought back to me. In her company I could satisfy for just a little while my hunger for life’s gentler gifts. They were the gifts I had lost all claim to, although when I first began to fight, I did believe that I was fighting to preserve them. What harm could come from satisfying only this small hunger? The hunger of the body, with its distractions, would have to wait.
She had work to fill her days. She carried water, gathered firewood, prepared food. She did whatever I asked of her without complaint. I was under no illusion that I had broken her spirit. That was never what I had intended. Although she did as I had told her, dropped her eyes, spoke with respect, within her a fire lay banked and smoldering, hot beneath the ashes. I saw it rarely, but I delighted to provoke it. My unexpected touch, like the breath of a bellows on hot coals, would loose a shower of sparks. As quickly as the fire flared, she damped it down. She could control herself, but her instinct was to resist control, admirable in a warrior, dangerous to one in her position.
The captain of my guard came into my tent one day to make his report. He saw the bed that she had made for herself in the corner and asked me, “Did she not please you?”
“I haven’t time for that now,” I answered him, but I saw the question in his eyes. He didn’t understand why I had not made use of her. Nor did I understand it. I had told myself that the unexpected difficulty of this campaign was taking all my time and thought, but there had been many campaigns more difficult than this one. None had ever kept me from taking pleasure from a woman when I wanted it.
I resolved then to bring her to my bed as soon as time allowed. It would not do to have my men suspect that she had bested me. She had not. I had not tried her. But their tongues would wag until I could boast of her when next we drank together. Still, I could not seem to find the opportunity. The hour was too late, or too early. I was tired or distracted by my work. One thing or another gave me an excuse to send her to her own bed and to go alone to mine.
One evening we caught a spy close by our camp. I questioned him myself. He had information that we needed, and he withheld it for as long as he could control his body, but at last I took all control away from him. She must have heard his cries. I saw her face appear in the crowd around him. At the time I was intent upon my work, and I thought nothing of it. War makes these things necessary. But when I returned to my tent, she was there. Her face was pale. She looked as if she was going to be sick, and I realized it was the first time she had seen the intentional brutality of war. I did not owe her an explanation and I gave her none.
For several days she kept silence. When she could, she avoided me, and when she could not, she wouldn’t meet my eyes. I noticed how carefully she moved, as if she feared to upset some precarious balance.
Was I ever as young as that? When I was her age, I had seen my brother die. At her age I had blood on my own hands.
In a way, her innocence amused me. She had seen so little of the world, so little of life. It occurred to me that perhaps I could throw open for her the door to a greater vision of the world, so that she might glimpse the world as I saw it, as a challenge to be met, as a test of strength and skill against a powerful adversary.
I began to think that I could make her understand. After all, she had volunteered to come to me, and I thought I had felt in her a secret longing for something her village life could not supply. I imagined she had told herself she wanted an adventure, so that some day she could tell her children and her grandchildren how she had once sojourned in a warlord’s camp. It might not be so difficult to convince her that an uneventful life in some squalid village could never be compared to the life that she could have with me.
I thought I might speak to her, perhaps some evening after dinner. I don’t know what I would have said to her, but I had it in my mind that I would make her see how unimportant were the smaller incidents of war in the larger scheme of things.
Before I had the chance, my captain brought another captive to my tent, a woman I had seen a few times on the battlefield, although she was not a warrior. She had told my captain she was a camp follower, but the way she held herself, the proud tilt of her chin, the insolence in her gaze, persuaded me that she was more than that. I thought perhaps I had before me the consort of my enemy, and if I did, she was worth more than information.
She was about my own age, with dark hair that fell over her shoulders and sparkling dark eyes. The life she’d led had left its mark on her, but in her youth, she must have been beautiful. She looked at me as she would have looked at a man in my position. Her look was just bold enough. Her smile had just the right amount of teasing in it. She had a graceful body, and she knew how to display it.
It was late. I dismissed my captain. Then I examined my new prize.
“A camp follower,” I said, as if I believed my captain’s report of her. “There are two armies arrayed against me. To which camp do you belong?”
She didn’t answer. I hadn’t expected her to.
“Well,” I said, “it makes no difference. You will follow this camp now. I imagine you can cook. You look strong enough to carry wood and water.”
As I spoke, I watched her eyes widen and her hands clutch at the folds of her skirt.
“You’re no beauty,” I said, “but you’re pleasing enough to look at. I think I might find a place for you with one of my officers.”
I saw her jaw move as she clenched her teeth. I turned and lifted the flap of my tent, as if I were about to call for one of my men.
“Wait,” she said.
I turned to her and waited. She looked at me for a moment, then dropped her eyes. “I think someone will offer a ransom for me,” she said.
“A ransom for a camp follower?” I said. “That would be unusual.”
She looked up at me. “I’m not—”
“No,” I said. “You’re not. Did you think I was such a fool that I would believe your story?”
“I see that you’re not a fool.”
It was well said. She had acknowledged my victory without dwelling on her own defeat. I approached her until I stood before her.
“When shall I expect this offer of ransom?” I asked her.
“Soon,” she said. “Perhaps tomorrow.”
Of course there was more to be gained from her than that. I thought how I might best approach her, and I thought too of my little hostage, who lay at that moment in her bed in the darkest corner of the tent. She feigned sleep, but I could just see her eyes, wide and staring, peering over the top of her cloak.
I turned back to my prisoner. I cupped her chin in my hand and forced her to look at me. “Perhaps you will entertain me this evening,” I said to her. “Call it atonement for having thought so little of me.”
For the first time, the woman looked unsure of herself.
“What is it?” I asked her. “Why do you hesitate? Am I not handsome enough for you?”
“You’re beautiful,” she said, “but I know nothing of how to please a woman. I’m afraid I will disappoint you.”
I laughed. “What a pretty answer,” I said. “You have a clever tongue in your head.”
She caught my meaning, and I saw the corner of her mouth lift before she could stop herself. My open hand caught the side of her face. The blow sounded harder than it was, and I didn’t believe I had hurt her, but the smirk disappeared.
“You must really think me a fool,” I told her. “I don’t like being thought a fool. I don’t like pretty answers. You could please a stone, if your life depended on it, and tonight your life depends on your pleasing me.”
I felt her fear, and it confused me. This woman knew the game. She must have known that I would not forego her ransom any more than I would forego my enjoyment of her. Then I understood. It was not her fear I felt. It was the fear of the little mouse who lay still and silent in her nest. I don’t know how I knew, but the rapid beating of her heart sounded in my ears as though she had been in my arms. Perhaps it was the beating of my own heart. Whichever it was, I knew she was afraid, and her fear excited me.
I told the woman to undress. She did, and she did it well. She knew how to tease, how to reveal a little at a time, how to appear to cling to the last shred of her dignity, until she stood, naked and beautiful, before me. She turned her body a little away from me, and that too was a calculated tease, but to my little hostage it must have looked like shame.
I held out my hand to her, and she took it. Her hand trembled in mine. She knew the game well enough to know that, no matter how well one plays, this game is always dangerous. I led her to the bed. I pulled her to me. I ran my hands lightly over her body. She stood unmoving, her face turned away from me.
“Undress me,” I told her.
She hesitated. It may have been true that she’d had little experience with women. Men are usually more impatient. Of course, I could be impatient too. If it had not been for the one who watched, I might not have been so patient this time.
The woman fumbled with the buttons of my shirt. I didn’t help her. When she had managed to undo a few of them, I pulled the shirt off over my head.
“Do better with the trousers,” I told her.
She did. After she had pulled off my boots, she had only to remove my belt and slip my trousers down. All the while I watched her eyes, and I saw that it was not fear she struggled with. She seemed confused about what was happening. She could not have known that while I played with her, the pleasure I felt came from my awareness of another pair of eyes whose gaze on my body I could feel, even when I couldn’t see them.
For a moment the woman stood before me, unsure of what to do.
“Touch me,” I told her.
She lifted both her hands, but she didn’t reach for me. She glanced at me nervously out of the corner of her eye, as if she were afraid to be caught looking at my body. I could see that her nakedness made her feel more vulnerable. My own nakedness only made me feel more powerful. Beneath the soft skin of my woman’s body, I was hard and strong, and I flexed the muscles of my arms and legs, as a wrestler does before a match to intimidate his opponent.
My opponent was already too intimidated to give me a good match, so I used a wrestler’s trick. I caused her pain. I tangled my fingers in her hair and pulled her head back so that she had to look at me. I seized her body with all my strength. The pain made her angry, and she tried to pull away. She knew better, but she couldn’t help herself. The more she struggled, the tighter I held her. It didn’t take long to make her cry out. When she did, I heard my little mouse echo her cry, so softly that if I had not been listening for it, I would not have noticed it.
I turned the woman in my arms and tumbled her onto the bed. I stood over her, and she looked up at me. Her cheeks were flushed. Pain had released her anger, and anger was the dark face of her desire. As I might have guessed, she had been on intimate terms with pain. For her, it was a gateway.
The rest was easy. I lay down with her. I held her down, not because she would have tried to get away from me, but because she needed something to strive against. She delighted in her own helplessness. I treated her more roughly than I needed to, and she rewarded me. Sometimes she cried out, an incoherent cry of pain and pleasure.
My little mouse was crying. As the woman in my arms surrendered to her passion, the woman in the corner surrendered to her fear. It was her small voice I listened for. It was her cries, not the cries of the woman in my arms, that drove my desire. While one woman touched my body, the other touched my soul. One gave me the pleasure I’d demanded of her. The other crept between the joints of my armor and broke my heart.
I must have slept. I remember waking to find that the lamps had gone out. A woman lay in my arms asleep, and when I moved a little, she pressed herself against me. I slipped back into the dark.
In the morning I awoke to find the woman watching me. The night before, her face had worn a mask. She’d had more than one face to show me then, but none of them was her true face, except for the face of her desire. That morning the masks were gone.
My mind began to work. I knew I had accomplished what I’d set out to do. Her body was mine, and if I wanted it, her heart would follow. Of course I didn’t want it. I knew its value. She would be as constant to me as she had been to her other lovers, but I took it anyway, until I had everything I wanted from her.
“Will you stay with me?” I asked her.
She nodded. I asked her which of my enemies had been her lover, and she named him. I asked her what kind of man he was, if he was slow and deliberate or quick and hotheaded, if he was a cautious man or a bold one. She told me. I asked her how he made love. From her answer I learned how he would make war. I asked her to tell me something about him that only she knew. She did.
I sent the woman out to bring me breakfast, and I was getting dressed when I heard my little hostage yawn and stretch. She must have suddenly remembered what she had seen the night before, because as soon as she was awake, she fell silent.
A memory drifted at the back of my mind. Every time I reached for it, it slipped away from me, as a dream dissolves in daylight. I would have let it go, but it felt important. It had something to do with listening to her cry.
I looked over at her. She was watching me, and the look in her eyes made me want to take her in my arms. I almost laughed at myself for even thinking of it. I realized that I wanted to hold her, not to enjoy her body, but to comfort her. What did I know of giving comfort? And of course my arms around her would only have terrified her.
The woman came in with my breakfast. While I ate, I questioned her. She knew nothing of my enemies’ plans, but she gave me information about their strength in men and arms and supplies. She also told me that their old rivalry had begun to divide them again, that each man’s trust in the other had begun to fail. That piece of information alone was worth losing the ransom for her.
I reached out my hand and stroked her face. “You’ve been useful,” I said to her. “I will, I think, give you to one of my officers.”
Her face went pale. “I thought I was to stay with you,” she said.
“You will stay with my camp,” I told her, “but no one stays with me.”
“Why?” she said, in a voice so quiet I could hardly hear her.
“Should I make the mistake your lover made?” I said. “You’ve told me more about him than any man in his own camp knows. You’ve told me how to fight him, how to defeat him. Why would I let anyone know me that well?”
“If you won’t keep me with you,” she said, “then send me back to him.”
I thought about it. I would have kept my word to her. Once I’d asked her to stay with me, I wouldn’t have sent her back against her will, but if she wished to go, I could still profit from her ransom. I decided against it. Something appealed to me more than gold. When my enemies had been defeated, I would have their gold anyway, and their lands as well. I wanted to keep my prize. Not that I wanted her myself, but it pleased me to deprive my enemy of her.
I shook my head. “I wonder what you would tell him about me,” I said.
“Nothing,” she replied. “I would tell him nothing.”
Of course it was a lie.
“Please,” she said. Her voice trembled. “If you keep me, he’ll think that I’ve betrayed him.”
“You have betrayed him,” I told her, “and he would have known it the first time he touched you.”
I didn’t know if it was true, but she believed me. She must also have remembered that she had given me an even stronger way to bind her. She had told me something about him that only she could have told me, and she knew that if she managed to return to him, I would let him know it. I could condemn her, even if she was no longer in my hands.
I called one of my guard to take the woman away. There was nothing more to be gained from her, and I gave her no more thought.
I spent the day with my captains in the field, which saved my little hostage the trouble of avoiding me. For most of the morning the sky was dark and threatened rain, but by midafternoon the sun had turned the whole world golden. The leaves had begun to turn, and the air smelled of smoke and the dust of the fields after the harvest. That time of year had always reminded me of troubled times. When I was a child, soldiers would come to our village after harvest time, and the smoke and dust of autumn had smelled to me like fear.
That day it was not the fear that I remembered in the autumn air. It was the feasts and festivals, the bounty of the harvest, a full belly and the certainty that there would be enough to last all winter. Yes, there had been years like that, when no one troubled us. There had been years when we sheltered in our cottages through the winter weather, warmed by our fires, well fed and unafraid. More good years, I think there were, than bad ones, but it was the bad years I remembered, until that day.
Nothing could spoil my enjoyment of the day. So much was going well. I was easier in my mind about the task before me. What I had learned from my prisoner had suggested a course of action that might well break the present impasse. For the first time, I felt sure of our ultimate success. Only one thing troubled me, and it was such a small thing that I couldn’t understand why it returned, time after time, to worry me. When I thought about my hostage, I felt uneasy. I thought I might have frightened her too much. I hadn’t meant to. I had been caught up in the moment and in my enjoyment of the game, and I had forgotten how young she was.
It was time, I thought, to woo her a little, to reassure her. I had shown her my strength and my power, but there could never have been any doubt, in my own mind or in hers, that I could force anything I wanted from her. What enjoyment is there in a game that can have only one outcome? I wanted her to come to me. As much as I had enjoyed her fear, so much more would I enjoy the offer of her innocence.
That evening, when she brought my supper to me in my tent, my little hostage set the food before me and lingered just behind my shoulder. Some instinct made me turn around. She held a knife, a common kitchen knife, and I understood what she had intended.
We looked into each other’s eyes. She looked surprised. I felt no danger from her. I knew when I saw her eyes that she could never bring herself to kill me, not for lack of courage, but because she could not take a life, not even mine.
“Are you my judge?” I said. “Are you my executioner?”
Her hand still held the knife, but her eyes were fixed on mine. She was so close to me that I could feel the breath from her mouth, warm on my face. I turned the side of my neck to her and ran my fingers over the vein there.
“Here,” I said, “the vein lies just beneath the skin. Even a shallow cut will pierce it.”
I took the hand that held the knife. I placed the blade against my throat. I closed my eyes. I felt the cold blade against my skin and the faint trembling of the hand that held it. I waited for her, until the knife fell from her hand.
I opened my eyes, and still she stood there. I should have taken pleasure from it. I should have felt my victory. But when I saw her eyes, I knew I had gone too far with her. I had expected to see fear in her eyes. I had wanted to show her how powerless she was, so that she would feel all the more grateful for any kindness I might show her. Instead she seemed not to understand what had just happened. She didn’t think to run from me. She gave me a puzzled look, then looked down at her own hand, as if she couldn’t understand why it had betrayed her. Was the betrayal in having failed to kill me or in having made the attempt? I don’t believe she knew.
If anyone else had done what she had done, that person would have died there in my tent that night. It surprised me that I wasn’t angry, but what I felt toward her was very much like tenderness. I reached out to her, and as gently as I could, I took her hands in both of mine and held them.
“Do you hate me that much?” I asked her.
She didn’t answer me. Her mouth trembled, and a tear slid down her cheek. She bit her lip, to stop herself from crying.
“Sit down,” I said. I let go of her hands and gestured at a stool that stood beside the table. She sat down on it, her hands clasped together in her lap, her eyes downcast, looking more like a scolded child than an assassin.
“What is it that you accuse me of?” I waited for her to swallow her tears and compose herself. It was a question I wanted the answer to.
“Cruelty,” she said at last.
I wondered if she would realize how absurd that sounded, but it seemed to have escaped her. I couldn’t help but smile a little.
“Cruelty serves me better than kindness on the battlefield,” I told her.
She looked up at me. “Last night,” she said, “you weren’t on the battlefield.”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “I was. That woman was the mistress of my enemy, and she brought me the key to victory.”
My hostage frowned. I don’t think she agreed with me about the boundaries of the battlefield.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “I think you misunderstand. There was nothing cruel about my dealings with her.”
“You hurt her,” she said.
“Yes,” I replied. “And she enjoyed it.”
She started to shake her head, but her eyes searched my face to see if I had told the truth.
“Did she behave this morning like someone who has been ill-treated?” I asked her. “She agreed to stay with me. I wouldn’t have forced her to.”
I watched her struggle with an idea that was new to her. “She was afraid,” she said.
“Of course she was,” I told her. “She should have been. But what draws such a woman to a warrior prince?”
“I don’t know,” she replied.
“What drew you to me?” It was not what she’d expected me to say. I stood up and approached her. I put my hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. She returned my gaze. She couldn’t help herself.
“Something about me draws you,” I said. “What is it?” She tried to look away from me, but I took her face in my hand and prevented her. “Could it be that danger excites you, too, a little?”
Her cheeks flushed, and she glared at me. “No,” she said.
I let go of her and stepped back. “Such a puzzle you are, my little one,” I said. “How well do you know yourself?”
She refused to answer. She set her mouth in a stubborn pout. I leaned back against the table and looked at her.
“Do you know how many village girls have come willingly into my camp?” I asked her.
She shook her head.
“Many more than I can remember,” I told her. “Some came to escape the boredom of village life, and I can well imagine that few of them who managed to go home ever complained of village life again. But there were a very few who were different. They came to me because in their hearts they wanted to, just as you did.”
“You’re wrong,” she said. “I didn’t want to.”
“Oh,” I said. “My mistake. I thought you were a volunteer.”
“I didn’t have a choice,” she said. “Someone had to come.”
“But why you?” I asked her.
She looked away. She couldn’t answer me. Perhaps she had yielded to an impulse that she herself didn’t understand, but if she had convinced herself she’d had no choice in the matter, she was wrong.
“My men wouldn’t have taken you,” I said. “We wanted someone useful.”
She took offense at that. “I am useful,” she said.
I smiled at her. “My men thought you would be, or they wouldn’t have brought you to me, but I don’t believe they thought they were bringing me a cook.”
It took her a moment before she understood me. When she did, I saw I’d frightened her a little. I hadn’t meant to threaten her. I simply wanted her to realize that she was no longer living in a world whose rules she understood.
“Come now,” I said. “You can’t possibly be as innocent as you pretend to be. Or did you think you were safe with me because I am a woman?”
Her eyes met mine, and she tossed her head back in a gesture I hadn’t seen since the first night she came into my tent.
“I’m not innocent of the knowledge that women lie with women,” she said. “And if you can tell me where in this world a woman is safe, I’ll be glad to go there.”
Suddenly I saw how I could reach her. “Were you so unsafe at home?” I asked her. She said nothing, but her eyes told me how close I had come to the truth behind her careless words. “So unsafe that you had to run to me for safety?”
I found the irony amusing. She did not. “The greatest irony of all,” I said, “is that you are safe with me.”
Still she didn’t speak.
“You don’t believe me.”
She shrugged. “Why should I?” she replied. “I’ve already seen you force a woman to lie with you against her will.”
“My dear,” I said. “What’s the use of having power if not to be able to force others to do things against their will?”
She said nothing, but she didn’t look away from me. I found her angry eyes quite beautiful.
“But force is not the issue here,” I said. “That woman lives by her body. She is the consort of a warrior prince. If I had taken a smith, I would have turned his skills to my use, and you would never have taken me to task about it.”
After I had spoken, I realized I was wrong. If she had dared, I think she would have taken me to task about a great many things. I reached out and touched her cheek. She stiffened and drew back, and I took my hand away.
“Did you really think I would use you as I used her?” I said.
Her eyes told me she had never doubted it.
“You’re wrong,” I said. “If I did that, I would spoil what I value most in you.”
I took time then to watch her face. Curiosity and caution struggled with each other in her eyes.
“I wish I could make you understand,” I said. “I can satisfy desire with anyone, but you have satisfied a hunger I hardly knew I had, until you came to me.”
Curiosity won out. She was listening.
“You’ve given me something that the men who brought you to me would never understand,” I said. “You remind me every day of everything I lost when I became a warrior. There was a time when I would have hurt you because of that, because the memories you brought back to me would have hurt too much.”
That time was not as long ago as I would have wished. I had to look away from her for a moment, before she could catch a glimpse of something I would rather have kept hidden, even from myself. When I looked at her again, her eyes were still on my face.
“Once I would have found your presence painful,” I said. “Now I find it comforting. You’ve brought me a little of the life I could have had if things had happened differently, and I’m grateful to you for it.”
Nothing is as disarming as the truth. I had spoken from my heart, and her heart believed me. I reached out for her again, and this time she didn’t pull away from me. I touched her cheek lightly with my fingertips.
“Have I treated you badly?” I asked her.
She shook her head. How quickly she had forgotten the way I’d treated her the night before. But of course as far as she knew, I had done nothing to her at all. I stroked her cheek.
“Have I hurt you?” I asked her.
“No,” she whispered.
“Or frightened you?”
She had acquitted me of everything. She looked at me with eyes that were soft with understanding. Perhaps she had forgotten her fear, but I had not forgotten it. As I looked into her eyes, I heard her cries echo in my ears, and I understood what I had done. I had not been guilty of the rape that she accused me of, but what I had done to her was worse. I had raped her without touching her, and then I had convinced her I had done her no harm at all.
It was no surprise to me to learn that I was capable of such a thing. I prided myself on the things I was capable of doing, but I had not intended to do her harm. A person in my position could ill afford to act without making a careful calculation of the consequences, and one small girl had shown me that I had let a chain of events get away from me. I had thought I was having a game with her, but then I knew that this was more than just a game. It was a warning.
I watched her eyes brim with tears. I continued to touch her, more gently than I had touched a woman in a long time. I pushed her hair back from her face. I smoothed away the lines of worry from her brow. I brushed her tears away.
“You have nothing to fear from me,” I said. “Do you believe me?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
I knelt down and picked up the knife that not long before she had held to my throat. “Have I anything to fear from you?” I asked her.
She looked at the knife in my hands. Then she looked into my eyes and shook her head. I handed her the knife and sat down to finish my cold supper.
From that day there was never a time that I was not aware of her. I often felt her eyes on me when I moved about the camp, and I would look up just in time to see her turn away. I think sometimes she followed me. I saw her everywhere.
We were preparing a new strategy, and we were busier than ever, but every day I tried to find a little time to talk to her. It amused me in the evenings to question her about herself. Nothing about her was unusual. She talked of life in her little village, of her family, of the ordinary things. While I listened to her, I watched her face. I learned a lot about her from her face. I learned that she had secrets. They may have been no different from any young girl’s secrets, but I looked forward to the day when she would entrust me with them.
Sometimes I even let her question me. At first I told her terrible stories of the battlefield. I thought she’d be appalled by them, but she would listen solemnly to every bloodthirsty thing I could think of. Then she would turn sorrowful eyes on me as if I were the wounded one. After a while, it started to unnerve me, and I talked of other things.
She had lost her fear of me, but that didn’t explain the change I felt in her. It took awhile for me to realize what it was. She was happy. She was quiet about it, but she smiled to herself as if she had a secret that she shared only with her own heart.
Then we had our victory. As I had learned, my enemies’ alliance had grown tenuous, and in the end it took only a well-told lie to break it. The man whose consort I still had in my camp offered a ransom for her, and I told him he would have to look elsewhere, that she was not with me. He described the livery of the soldiers who had taken her. I admitted it was my banner they had carried, but I suggested to him that since she was of little value to us, my men might have sold her to his rival.
It took only a few weeks for the lie to do its work. I could imagine what had happened. His rival would have denied having her. He would have been indignant at being suspected of it. The aggrieved man would not have believed him.
At first there was only a skirmish or two, when their forces chanced to meet. Then one man moved some of his troops so that they were nearer to the other’s lines than they were to mine. The other man countered. I kept up a show of preparing to do battle with them in the field, but most of my men I moved secretly behind the lines of the man of whom I had learned so much. I had learned that he was slow to act, that he would take time and deliberate before he changed his strategy, so I used a small force to attack his rear, while I sent my army against his city. It was a walled city that controlled a wide area around it, with food stores, enough to feed us over the winter, and room for all our men and animals within the walls. Once it was ours, we would be invincible.
As I had expected, my opponent was too slow to move. He thought my attack was a diversion, and so it was, but he expected the real attack to come from my army in the field. He had made the mistake of keeping a closer watch on his rival than on me. I had cut his forces off from his own city, and no word of its peril reached him. At the end of one day’s hard fighting, the city was mine.
After the last defender fell, I walked the city walls to survey my new domain. There is a moment after battle when I feel a joy unlike any other I have known. No precious gift, no pleasure of the body can surpass it. My men know me. They know the joy that takes me then, when I stand among the conquered and my battle cry rings out. They wait for it. They raise their voices too, until even the voice of the god of war himself could not be heard above the din. That day our cry of victory shook the city walls.
At dawn the next day I rode with my army back to our encampment, leaving only enough men behind to hold the city. I wanted our camp moved within the walls quickly, before the news of our victory reached our enemies. My own horse was tired from the battle, so I took one that had belonged to the prince of the city, a great war-horse, a stallion, large and fast.
At our encampment, men unfit for battle, servants, slaves, camp followers gathered when they heard the thunder of our horses’ hooves. From the banners we carried, they could see that we had been victorious. A cry of welcome greeted us and hailed our victory. I gave the order to strike the camp and load our wagons. I rode on that magnificent horse from one end of the camp to the other, directing the preparations for the move and urging my people to make haste.
I would have denied it then, but now I will admit that I was looking for her. My eyes searched the crowd, watching for a glimpse of her red hair or of the eyes that never failed to draw mine to her. I knew she was there. I could feel her nearby, but she eluded me. By early afternoon we were ready. I gave the order and one by one the wagons fell into line and moved off toward the captured city.
Then I saw her. She was standing still, looking at me, not far away, as if she had been there all along. She was jostled by the movement of people and animals, but she stood quite still, holding her cloak around her, her hair loose and flowing over her shoulders. She looked like the messenger of a god.
Still mounted, I approached her. With rein and spur I showed the spirit of my horse. I made him prance and toss his head. I brought him close to her, but she would not give ground. She seemed not to notice his great hooves paw the air beside her. She never took her eyes from me. I reached down for her, and when she took my arm, I pulled her up behind me. She was light as down. I felt her settle herself and slip her arms around me. Then I put spur to that great horse and we were gone.
He was tireless. Our weight was nothing to him. On and on he ran until I felt that he would run with us to the ends of the earth. I felt the woman at my back, moving with me. More a part of me than my own shadow, she held me lightly, and I felt her lift her face into the wind and shake her hair back out of her eyes. I felt her joy in that wild ride. I loved the horse, the wind, the way we all three moved together. I loved her arms around me.
I have felt the intoxication of victory. I know its dangers. I know when it is safe to indulge it. I felt safe then. I thought of the city that was now mine, of the men who had fought and bled and died for me, of the spoils of war, mine for the taking, the horse, the woman. I had everything. I had won it myself, by my own hand. My courage, my skill, my knowledge, my strength, had brought the world to my feet. Triumphant, I rode into the city.
Quarters had already been prepared for me in the prince’s palace. A fire was lit, for the weather had turned cold. We were both covered in dust and sweat and the smell of horses. I turned her over to my servants, to bathe her and dress her in clean clothes. I bathed myself and put on a silk shirt and trousers that had belonged to the prince. Like his horse, they fit me well. I had food brought in. Then I sent for her.
If I had paid her too little attention before, she was the center of my attention now. I seated her beside me at the table and served her myself, better food than either of us had seen for a long time. We had the best the city had to offer, meat and fruit and fresh-baked bread dipped in honey. We ate from silver dishes. We drank good wine from goblets set with precious stones.
While we ate, I watched her. Night had begun to fall and candles had been lit. Their light gave her hair a golden glow. Beneath the fabric of her bodice, I could see the gentle movement of her breasts. I saw again how beautiful she was. How could I have thought of her as merely pretty? She was glorious, and all the more so because she was unaware of it.
I have felt the intoxication of desire. I know its dangers and when it is safe to indulge it. I was safe then. I was within my city, with my army at that moment making its encampment within the walls. For the first time, my best instincts betrayed me. I was never in more danger.
The table was cleared, the servants dismissed. As soon as they had gone she rose and came to me. She stood beside my chair. She reached out to touch my face, but I caught her hand in mine before she touched me.
“Is this not what you wanted?” she said. She knew it was. She waited.
The sudden memory of her arms around me made me want them again. This time I would feel them not through leather, but through silk, and then on my naked skin. Today I had loved the smell of sweat and horses on her. Tonight I would love her woman smell. I told myself it was the wine that made my head spin.
I brought her hand to my face and brushed the back of it with my lips, then held it against my cheek. I heard her catch her breath. I leaned against her and laid my face between her breasts, felt her take another quick breath, felt the tremor that went through her body. I kept her hand in mine. My other arm I slipped around her waist. I pressed my hand against the small of her back and held her close to me. I kissed her breast through the fabric of her blouse. Her body trembled. I could feel the power of her heartbeat.
At last I let go of her and stood up. I led her to the bed. I sat down on the edge of it and drew her to me. She stood unmoving before me while I untied the ribbon of her blouse and slipped it down over her shoulders until it fell around her waist and let her breasts fall free. Where her clothing had covered her, her skin was pale. In the candlelight, it gleamed like ivory. She was beautifully made, round and soft. For a few moments I just looked at her. I traced the line of her collarbone with my fingers, then took one perfect breast into my hand.
“You’re beautiful,” I said.
Her breath caught and she made a sound low in her throat. My entire body responded to that sound.
I looked into her eyes. In them I saw desire, and something else. She reached for me, and this time I couldn’t stop her. She rested her hands on my shoulders, as if to keep herself from falling, but no sooner had I let her touch me than her arms went around my neck and her lips found mine. Then came a rush of pleasure as if I had inhaled the smoke of some strong drug. My blood was singing in my ears. I began to lose myself, to lose the sense of where I was, of who I was, of what I had intended to do with her.
I fell back on the bed, carrying her with me in my arms. She lay over me and kissed me. She cradled my face in her hand and lightly stroked my cheek. She kissed my brow, my eyes, the corners of my mouth. I had never been the victim of such tenderness. She made me helpless with it. The sweetness of her mouth was all I knew and all I wanted.
What I felt then was not desire. If that feeling has a name, I never learned it. It was so strange to me that I began to be afraid. My heart pounded in my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I pushed her away from me and held her hands, so that she couldn’t touch me. She didn’t resist me or ask why. For a moment I thought she had found some clever way to keep me away from her, but I knew it wasn’t true.
If she had resisted me, I would have won her, not by force, but by desire. I could have made her want me, even if she had hated me. I understood desire. Hatred I knew well. It was love that was alien to me. It was love she offered me.
I let go of her and she lay back on the bed and watched me. She was waiting to see what I wanted from her. She would have given me anything I wanted, but what I wanted from her she could not give me. I wanted her not to love me. At least that was what I thought then. But of course what I really wanted was not to love her.
A thousand thoughts went through my mind. I thought of making good my threat to give her to one of my warriors, but I knew I would kill the man who touched her. I could send her home, but if she was within my reach I would return for her, and there is no place on earth that is beyond my reach. Only her death would take her where I couldn’t find her. Yes, I thought of it. In my mind’s eye I put the blade against her throat, as she had once held her blade against mine.
Then she spoke. “Don’t be afraid,” she said. “I won’t hurt you.”
She meant it, but when she heard herself she had to smile. Her smile disarmed me, but I could not smile back at her.
“Oh my dear,” I said. “I will certainly hurt you.”
I got up from the bed then, and she would have followed me, but I held out my hand to stop her. “Go to sleep,” I told her. Then I left her.
I went atop the city walls and walked along the ramparts. Below me I heard my army, the sounds so familiar to me I seldom was aware of them. I heard the scrape of stone on a weapon’s edge, the nervous stamp of horses’ hooves, the laughter of men enjoying their food and drink, relaxing after a hard campaign and taking their reward. As I moved farther from the palace courtyard where most of my men were quartered, I began to hear another sound. When I first became aware of it, it sounded like the cry of some dead soul carried on the wind, but soon I knew it was a woman’s voice, the voice of grief, the cry of lost love.
The irony of it struck me first, that what I had taken from that woman the day before had come to me that night and I didn’t want it. I stood then close by the place where I had raised my voice in victory and the voices of my men had joined with mine. They were a part of me, and somehow I knew that if I joined myself to the woman who lay in my bed, I would lose them. I would lose it all. I knew that if I loved her, I would become the woman whose grief accused me. I would know her heart.
Perhaps I knew then that it was too late, that I would never give her up, that I would try to keep her, to possess her, but not to love her, and that I would fail. Alone there on the ramparts, I still had her with me. I thought of her against my will. As if by witchcraft, she surrounded me. When I closed my eyes I could feel her hands. The places where she had kissed me bore the memory of her mouth. Unlike the living woman, this ghost of her I could not push away.
When I returned to my room at last, she was asleep. I sat down in a chair by the bed, and for a long time I watched her sleeping face. I wondered when had she become so beautiful. I tried to think. I told myself it was a fever that in time would burn itself out. I told myself I should have taken her that first night. That would have put the idea of love out of her head.
I did not then understand my own heart. I thought I had everything I wanted. Every hunger I knew how to satisfy. I had more power than most men ever know. Everything I needed I could give myself. I had the finest food, palaces, garments of silk, a city at my feet, nations in fear of me. I could have any woman I wanted, but she was the only one.
I make no excuse. As I watched her, I knew that she was more to me than palaces, more to me than nations, more to me than anything. I have heard of drugs that seduce the soul, that bring such bliss that, once felt, can never be forgotten. Whoever tastes that bliss becomes a slave. As I watched her, I remembered how she had made me feel. I remembered that strange bliss that swept all else before it.
I make no excuse. I went to the bed and sat down next to her. She woke and looked at me. As I removed my shirt, I watched her face. She thought I had come to make love to her. In a way, she was right. It was not the kind of love she wanted.
I took her hand. She gave it to me gladly. I tied the sleeve of my shirt around her wrist, the other sleeve around her other wrist. She didn’t resist me. She didn’t understand. I pulled her arms over her head and fastened the shirt to the head of the bed. Then I saw the question in her eyes. Why? I had no answer for her.
I pulled the covers off her body and saw that she was naked. The sight of her excited me. I took my trousers off and lay down next to her. I brushed her cheek with the backs of my fingers. With my thumb I traced the outline of her mouth. She turned her face away from me.
“What’s the matter?” I asked her. “Don’t you love me anymore?”
She didn’t answer or look at me. I think that what she felt was shame, not for herself, but for me.
At least I understood what I was feeling. I desired her. I touched her and didn’t know or care if she responded. I lay over her and pressed myself against her. I used her body. I touched her for my pleasure. I took from her what I needed. This hunger I knew how to satisfy. She was just a woman to me then. She could have been anyone. I wish she had been anyone else.
When I had finished with her, I stood up and took a knife from a display of blades hanging on the wall. I sat down next to her and laid the blade against her throat.
“Do you still love me now?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said.
I had thought the danger was in her hands. I was wrong.
I took the knife from her throat and cut her bonds. She sat up and rubbed her wrists. I saw then that her hands were shaking, and I understood that she had been afraid. I could only look at her and wonder, how was this woman made that she could love the person I was then.
“Come to bed,” she said. “You’re cold.”
I obeyed her. She opened the bed for me and I lay down beside her. She pressed her warmth against me. She put her arms around me. It was at that moment that I yielded. My body was satisfied, but my heart still longed for her.
I laid my face against her neck and closed my eyes. She began to touch me. Her hands caressed my face, stroked my shoulders and my back. I gave myself to her hands. I let them take me where they would. They carried me into that blissful place that terrified me. Then they took me into sleep.
© Copyright 1997 Catherine M. Wilson