The soldiers milled about,
talking and laughing. They took little notice of the terrified villagers
huddled in what was left of their town square. Three of the main buildings
still burned, but no one made a move to stop it. A roof collapsed suddenly,
sending a shower of sparks into the early morning air.
There were about forty townspeople, mostly women and children. Scattered bodies bore witness to a struggle that had begun at dawn, and ended soon afterward. Now the soldiers held sway. They were a ragtag crew, with mismatched armor and a wide assortment of weapons. Only black surcoats with golden emblems marked them as a group.
Silence fell suddenly, broken only by the sound of a horse's hooves. A huge gray stallion walked slowly toward the prisoners. He rolled his eyes and tossed his head, mouthing the bit. A tall, dark-haired woman sat easily in his saddle. Her helm’s black crest framed her head. She was dressed in black leathers and brass armor that left her upper thighs and arms insolently bare – a curved, bloodstained sword hung idly from her fingers.
The woman stopped and looked down at the frightened villagers. Her eyes were a striking black in her tanned face. She swung out of the saddle; her boots struck the dirt with a thump, sending up a small cloud of dust. Even without her horse, she towered over the huddled captives. She surveyed them coldly. "So." Her low, vibrant voice broke the silence. "Now that we're all here together, maybe someone can tell me why Cabassus's tribute was short by almost a third of what you owe me." She eyed one of the crumpled corpses. "Since your mayor no longer seems to have much to say."
For a moment, no one spoke. "We told you in our letter, Empress Tanis." That had been an older, heavyset man. "It's been a bad year…drought, wolves, raiders. What we sent you, we all but took out of the mouths of our children."
Her expression chilled to inhuman ice. "So my tribute was fed to shepherd brats?" Silence. The question hung in the air as apprehensive eyes watched her. “You know of my reputation, peasant. What made you think I wouldn’t take what you owed me?” With a sudden flick, she laid the point of her weapon beneath his chin, forcing his head back. "Well?" she snarled.
"Leave him alone!"
The woman's gaze darted to the source of the piping voice. A little scrap of a village girl stood there, scowling at her. She was in her late teens, with chestnut hair, dark brows and snapping brown eyes. The top of her head barely came to the warrior's chest.
There was shocked silence as the empress studied her. Abruptly, the warrior turned her head. "Simon!" A grizzled soldier appeared, inclining his head in salute. "Take everything that's worth a copper. Have the boys shackle this lot and take them to Amphipolis – you should be able to get a few coins for them. Burn everything else. I'll meet you back in Philippi."
"Aye, Majesty." The man barked a few orders, and the soldiers moved in on the horrified villagers.
"Oh, and Simon?" The woman had resumed her place in the saddle. She smiled without warmth and pointed at the village girl. "Pack that one up. She comes with me."
There was some commotion as he carried out the order. A woman objected to the girl's shackling, and the prisoner reached out to a younger girl, screaming. The empress cleaned and sheathed her sword with studied indifference. At last, Simon approached her stallion, dragging the captive with him. He held up the end of chain attached to the girl's manacled wrists. The woman fastened it to her saddlehorn. "Make it quick, General," she said. "I want you and the boys back within a fortnight."
"Aye, Mistress." The general saluted and moved off to oversee the plunder of Cabassus. The woman gave a shrill whistle. Then she spurred her mount onto the road that led eastward, dragging her weeping prisoner behind her. Ten grim-faced, mounted soldiers followed in her wake.
They rode without stopping until the sun climbed high in the sky. Even then, they only paused to break out rations in the saddle before riding on. The afternoon was well underway before the empress reined in her mount and turned her piercing eyes on her prisoner.
The girl panted heavily, her face flushed and sweaty. Her clothes were filthy and torn. The warrior regarded her with professional interest. "Come here," she bit out. The exhausted captive shuffled forward to stand at her stirrup. The empress regarded her. "Want to ride?"
The prisoner looked down at her long skirt, then back up again. "I don't know if I'm dressed for it."
A sudden gleam appeared in the warrior's eye, something a lot like mischief. Lazily, she grasped the hilt of her sword and drew it. The captive froze in terrified shock as the blade whipped down! There was a tearing sound, and the girl was left staring at a long, clean rip that divided her skirt neatly between her legs. Tanis sheathed her weapon and extended a hand. The captive stared at it for a stunned moment before grasping it. With one powerful pull, she was lifted into the saddle. Then they rode again.
The captive squirmed a bit, plainly embarrassed by her torn dress. "What's your name?" the warrior asked suddenly.
The prisoner stopped wriggling. "Helen."
Tanis grunted, her lips tightening in displeasure. "You will address me as 'Mistress' or 'Your Majesty,' slave. Now let's have that again. What's your name?"
"Helen, Mistress." The captive looked furtively at her captor. "Is that what I am now? Your slave?"
"Did you think you were my new navy admiral?" came the acid response. "Shut up. I ask the questions here." The arm around Helen's waist tightened briefly. "How old are you?"
"Almost nineteen." There was an instant's pause before the captive gasped. “Um, Mistress."
The empress's brows lowered. "Don't forget again.” Silence fell. For a long time, the only sounds were the creaks of harness and the dull clop of hooves on the dirt road. The sun made its way down the sky. The air took on a rosy tinge as scrubby wilderness gave way to well-kept farms. Then the walls of Philippi came into view.
The captive's eyes widened. "Wow."
The empress glanced at her captive as if she'd forgotten she existed. "Ever seen a city before, Helen?"
Wary brown eyes peered at her. "No, Mistress," came the careful reply. "I've never been out of Cabassus." The empress smirked.
Philippi was nestled between Mount Orbelos and the vast marshes, near the Aegean Sea. To the north, mountains rose on the horizon, wild and blue and remote. Tanis had made this city into a thriving metropolis – the capital of Thrace. Her territory stretched all the way from Amphipolis in the east to Neapolis in the west, and as far south as the isle of Thassos.
So far. Though Thrace hadn’t invaded anyone for years now, no one thought it was through with conquering. Not for nothing was its empress known as the Butcher.
The city walls loomed. As the riders approached the gates, one of Tanis's men spurred his horse alongside hers and unfurled a lion's head banner. The guards at the gates stiffened and saluted smartly as their empress rode past. Tanis gave them little more than a cursory glance.
Helen's eyes were wide with fear. Even though the evening streets were relatively deserted, it was obvious the city overwhelmed her. She sat quietly in the curve of the Butcher's arm, her bewildered gaze moving over everything. Her shackled hands rested loosely on the saddlehorn.
After a few minutes, they reached the formidable fortress at the center of the city. It was built of imported black marble. Its dark, imposing bulk dominated the city. It was an appropriate dwelling place for the death-dealing Butcher. The captive shrank down visibly as her captor rode through the gaping maw of the fortress. It swallowed them whole.
At long last, Tanis reined in her stallion in a courtyard, in front of the largest stables Helen had ever seen. The Butcher swung out of the saddle with remarkable grace. She reached up, caught Helen around the waist, and lifted her down with little effort.
A thin, dark man with a well-trimmed beard approached, bowing. "Welcome home, Your Majesty," he said. "I see that your expedition was a success."
"To the great disappointment of all, I'm sure." Tanis smiled with acrid pleasantry. "Galen, this is Helen. I got her this morning. Helen, this is Galen, my seneschal."
Galen looked. He somehow gave the impression of turning up his nose in distaste without so much as twitching a muscle. "Ah," he said delicately. "And this is…your new girl?"
"That's right." The Butcher gave Helen a push. "I'll be busy for a while, but I'll want her tonight. Have her ready in my private quarters two hours after sunset." With that, Tanis handed her stallion's reins to a groom and stalked off, her cloak flowing behind her like liquid shadow.
The prisoner peered at Galen through her lashes. The seneschal regarded her with a mixture of contempt and exasperation. Then he grasped her arm and headed for the castle. Helen scrambled to keep up with him. Without a word, Galen marched the frightened girl through the halls and up a flight of stairs. She had the impression of richly decorated walls and ornate doors, but she was too bewildered to pay proper attention. The marble felt cold under her bare feet. She felt very small in her torn, grubby clothes.
Abruptly, the seneschal pulled Helen into a room. It was simply furnished. Two girls and an older woman were inside, sewing. Galen pushed Helen forward. "Her Majesty has found a replacement for Thea," he said succinctly. "She wants her in her quarters two hours after sundown, Hedia. She's all yours."
The woman lifted wrinkled hands in dismay. "Already? The poor thing hasn't even cooled yet." She regarded Helen with concern. "And this one's only a child. Are you sure?"
"Quite," Galen sniffed. He turned away. "I would recommend giving her a bath first." The door closed behind him with a crisp click.
Helen stood with her shackled arms hanging down, staring at the woman. The day's events were beginning to catch up with her; a lump rose in her throat. Hedia seemed to notice. Her expression softened. "Well, if the empress wants you fixed up, I suppose we'd better get started." She laid a gentle hand on Helen's shoulder. "Come along, and we'll get you taken care of."
"Okay," the girl whispered, blinking back tears. She let herself be led from the room.
A few minutes later, Helen found herself unchained and in a bathtub. The soap she'd been given had a fresh, herbal scent. She washed herself quietly, every now and then casting self-conscious glances at Hedia. The woman paid her no mind, being absorbed in laying out clothes and towels, but her presence still made Helen blush.
"Finished?" Hedia asked at length, turning to her with a quick smile. "Out you get, there's a duck." Before Helen could think about being embarrassed, she was out of the tub and being dried with a soft towel. She blinked as her hands were filled with cloth. "Put this on, child, and these slippers, while I go and get a brush."
The girl slipped into the garments – a simple, silken tunic in a dark forest green, and a pair of silk slippers. They felt odd. Helen wriggled her toes in them, marveling at how soft they felt. She peered up shyly as Hedia returned to brush out her damp, dark hair. "Please," she said, speaking for only the second time since the Butcher had left her, "who's Thea?"
Hedia looked at her for a moment, as if wondering how much to tell her. "Thea was the empress's last girl."
"Oh." Helen thought about that while the woman rubbed her with scented oil. "What happened to her?"
Hedia eyed her. "She tried to run off," she said cryptically.
"Oh," Helen said again. There was another silence as Hedia combed fragrance into her hair. "Am I going to be cleaning the empress's rooms?"
The woman gave her an odd look. "Did Her Majesty not tell you what she wants with you?"
"She said I was her slave." Brown eyes blinked in troubled innocence. "I don't know if I can do it. I only ever cleaned for Mama and Da." The girl suddenly stopped talking. Tears brimmed in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks.
Hedia wiped them away. "Hush, child," she scolded gently. "You mustn't cry in front of the empress, you hear? It makes her angry, and you mustn't ever make her angry." Helen swallowed a sob with an effort, and Hedia smiled. "There's a good duck," she said. "Now you come with me. We'll give you a good supper before we take you to Her Majesty."
Helen was taken to the kitchens and given a simple, filling meal. When it was over, Hedia took her up two flights of stairs. There was a short corridor at the top, with a door at the end. Inside was a large, open room with many windows; an ornate chair stood against one wall. Another, smaller doorway lay to the right. Hedia took her through it.
The room inside was very plain. There was a fireplace to the right, and a large bed to the left.
A single wardrobe and a stool were the only other items of furniture. There
wasn’t so much as a carpet on the floor.
Hedia looked at Helen, touching her shoulder. "The empress will
return soon," she said. "Just remember, little one - do as she says,
and don't cry. Everything will be all right."
"Thank you," Helen whispered. The door closed, and she was alone in the empress's room.
Helen looked around nervously. This certainly wasn't how she’d pictured the royal quarters. She’d expected rich carpets and artwork and sumptuous blankets and cushions, not this barrack-like place. Helen touched the wine red comforter, and found it very soft. She pulled her hand back. After a moment's thought, she sat down by the fire to await the Butcher's arrival.
She didn't have long to wait. A few minutes later, the door opened, and the empress's tall form filled the threshold. Helen stared up at her. From her bristling weapons to her merciless, icy eyes, Tanis was the very picture of intimidation. The girl felt her mouth go dry.
Tanis folded her arms across her chest. "So, Helen," she said at last, "are you ready?"
The girl peered up through her lashes. "Ready for what?" she asked innocently. "Do you want me to clean your room now, Mistress?"
One of the empress's brows arched. "Galen didn't tell you why you're here?"
Helen shook her head. "He took me to Hedia, and she gave me a bath and some supper," she said. "All they told me was I'm supposed to replace somebody named Thea." She hesitated. "Thank you for the food. It was really good."
An odd expression crossed the Butcher's face. "So you really don't know why you're here. In my bedroom. At night."
Helen's forehead wrinkled. Tanis's tone implied there was something obvious she was missing, but she had no idea what that might be. "No, Mistress," she said hesitantly. "They really didn't tell me."
"Great gods." Tanis's amusement grew. She took off her cloak, crossed over to the wardrobe, and hung it up inside. Helen watched as the woman removed her armor and weapons and placed them on various hooks. Now dressed only in her black tunic, the empress sat down on the edge of the bed and studied her new slave. "So, you’re a shepherd's kid?"
The girl shook her head. "Papa is a goatherd, Mistress."
"Mm. Vast difference in quality of life," Tanis said dryly. "Miss it? Want to go home?"
Helen stared at her. The mocking tone was like a slap in the face. Tears filled Helen's eyes, but she remembered what Hedia had said, and held them back with an effort. "Yes, Mistress," she whispered.
"Too bad," Tanis said flatly. "You're mine now. Besides, your home's gone. My army wiped it off the map and burned it to cinders. Your family's being sold in Amphipolis as we speak." The lump in Helen's throat made it hard to breathe. "Take my advice, kid. Forget about home. It's gone. All that matters now is whether you please me, because you belong to me." Helen stared at her in horrified silence. Tanis cocked her head. "Do you hate me?"
The word was out of Helen's mouth before she could stop it. She quickly shut her lips.
Tanis nodded and patted her head. "Good girl. You're honest to the point of stupidity. I like that." The slave blinked at her. Then the empress seemed to lose patience with the conversation. She sat back. "Are you a virgin?"
Helen’s mouth fell open. She felt her cheeks burn. "I…I…yes, but…"
"Good." The empress regarded her. "I took you to be my body slave," she said bluntly. "Do you know what that is, Helen?"
Round brown eyes stared back at her. Helen couldn't seem to wrap her mind around the words. "But, Mistress, I'm…I'm a girl."
Tanis seemed amused again. "I noticed."
She gestured. "Come here."
Helen felt numb. She slowly got up to stand before her mistress. Tanis stood; her large hands ran lightly over Helen's body, feeling her through the fabric of her toga. The slave's shock deepened. She stood frozen – she couldn’t process what was happening to her. Then Tanis squeezed her breasts. A gasp burst from Helen's lips.
The Butcher chuckled darkly and let go. Her slave's eyes followed her as she stooped down to pick something off the floor. It was a leather strap, about a foot long and half an inch thick. "This arrangement's pretty simple," Tanis said. "You do as I say, or you get whipped with this." She held up the strap. "Get it?"
"Yes," Helen said softly.
The strap thrust itself beneath her chin. "Yes, what?" Tanis barked.
Helen's heart hammered. "Yes, Mistress.”
The empress patted her cheek with the leather. "Good girl." She turned. "I want you to know exactly what you'll be trying to avoid, Helen. Take off your clothes."
This can't be happening. The girl pulled off her tunic and slippers, her heart still pounding wildly. Tanis gestured. "On your knees, and bend over the bed," she ordered. Helen obeyed. "Good." The empress stood over her. "Because you're not actually being punished, this whipping won't be as hard," she said. "You’ll get five strokes. Hold that position, and keep your hands where they are. If you move, you have to take another stroke. Understood?"
"Yes, Mistress." Helen felt the strap lightly brush her buttocks. Then it left, and she tensed herself for the first blow.
Helen's eyes flew wide open, and she yelled in pain and surprise.
"Owww!" Tears of pain flooded her eyes
A third burst of agony shot across her bottom. Helen began to cry.
"Oh, gods," the slave sobbed.
There was silence for a while, broken only by Helen's whimpers. Tanis moved to her side. "That was five strokes at half strength," she said coolly. "I bet you get my point." Helen turned wet eyes to look at her. Tanis discarded the strap. "I'm sure we won't need to worry about this again. You're a good girl – you'll do as you're told."
The slave stared up at the empress, taking in her fiercely chiseled features, and the rippling muscles beneath the tanned skin. "Are you going to rape me?" she whispered, her eyes wide with fear.
Tanis looked at her in silence for what felt like a long time. At last, she grunted and turned back to the wardrobe. Helen watched as the empress stripped off her tunic. For a moment, the Butcher stood there naked; then the expanse of toned muscles and olive skin disappeared beneath the folds of a blue silk dressing gown. "Not tonight," Tanis said, turning toward the bed. "I'm not really in the mood to train you yet." A black brow quirked. "And this is your last warning, Helen. You will address me as 'Mistress.' Forget again, and you'll bend over for a real whipping."
The slave blanched. "I'm sorry," she said in a small voice. "I'm not used to this, Mistress."
"Get used to it," Tanis said. “It’s your life now.” She crossed to the bed and tugged a strand of Helen’s hair. "Up." The slave obediently rose to her knees. Tanis slipped in between the silken sheets, lounging on her side like a predatory cat. "Come," she said, patting the bed beside her. Helen nervously slipped in. Silk slid on skin like butter as the sheets enfolded her.
Helen had spent the majority of the day in the circle of the empress’s arms, but this felt different. She was tugged back against the empress's body. Helen flinched as her still-tender buttocks pressed against the woman. She felt Tanis's silk-covered breasts push into her shoulder blades. The Butcher sighed in satisfaction. "Get some sleep."
The slave swallowed and closed her eyes. "Yes, Mistress," she murmured.