"Ready?" Damen whispered. When he got no response from his men, he turned looked back to find them spread out on the ground, unconscious. A woman stood there, scantily clad in an Amazon uniform, her face covered by a veil of all things. He grinned as she raised her sword and pointed it at him.
"So, this was a trick to get me outside? Clever. I love clever women.
She swung at him and the fight was on. They clashed swords until every man within earshot began to wake up and gather around to watch Damen fight their Amazon intruder. Others formed a search party to look for any more of their formidable feminine enemies that might be surrounding the camp.
Try as he might, Damen was unable to disarm the woman merely with his sword. It would take a more hands-on approach to defeat this veiled enemy. The older soldier attempted a drop kick but her lithe, young body dodged it easily and as his leg was still in mid-air she landed a well-placed, solid punch to his groin. He crumbled to his knees in agony, and she put her sword to his throat. The fight was over before it really had a chance to begin, and Damen was horribly embarrassed.
His loyal men drew their swords and prepared to attack, though hesitantly. She could take his head off before they could touch her, and they all knew it. For now it was a draw.
"Well!" Damen barked, shamed that a woman had defeated him in front of his men despite the fact she was a member of the mighty Amazon nation. "Get on with it woman!"
The 'woman' pulled back her veil, and there was a collective gasp of shock at the familiar face beneath. It was Livia. Damen was enraged when she shoved him almost face first into the ground and walked around to stand before him.
"Livia! What the hell do you think you're doing?" Damens voice was shaking with his rage. This girl, whom he despised for even being put in his precious legion, had embarrassed him in front of his men.
"Proving myself worth more than a winch to empty the piss pots of these men. There's a reason Augustus gave me a commission in his elite legion sir. Regardless of what the men say, it's not because I'm sleeping with him. I haven't seen him since I was a child. It's because I am a warrior, and I am worthy to fight along side you."
"You think so huh?" Damen said, rubbing the small cut on his throat.
"I just kicked your ass didn't I?"
The men began to laugh but quickly shut up when their commander moved to get to his feet. Livia pressed the sword to his throat, however, keeping him on his knees. They shared a long glance in which Livia made it clear to him and the men that he wouldn't get up off his knees until she was good and ready to let him up. The two stared at one another long enough for Livia to realize she'd pushed him as far as it was wise, possibly further, and she stepped back. She'd proved her point. At least for now.
"So, you want to ride with the big boys now?"
"I deserve to ride with the big boys. I've already proved-"
"You've proved nothing!" Damen roared, his anger frightening everyone around except Livia. She shared a bed with a god and nothing short of the wrath of the mighty Zeus would be enough to make Livia faint of heart. Even then, she wasn't so sure. Since she'd lost the two most important people of her life all those years ago, she cared about nothing but the pure, raw power that Ares was going to give her as he shaped her into the Warrior that would one day rule the Roman Empire.
Damen dismissed the men, but not before he made it perfectly clear there was a good reason he'd lost to this...girl. "I underestimated you. It won't happen again. If we are to ever clash swords again you worthless little whore, I'd kill you in seconds! Dismissed, all of you!"
Livia watched him walk away, her rage boiling within her blood, threatening to explode with the force of a gallon of Greek Fire. This mere mortal man had called her a whore, shaming her in front of all these men! She was the favorite of not only a god but also the most powerful ruler in Rome, and he would dare call her a whore?
Livia couldn't have cared less about the chain of command at that moment. One ounce of her flesh and blood held more worth than the entire Alpha Legion combined and he would insult her honor so casually? No.
"Any ruler worth his salt would never underestimate an opponent. You, Damen, are salt that's good for nothing but to be trampled under my feet. I am Livia! The favored charge of Augustus Caesar himself and I will not be spoken to in such a degrading manner!"
The soldiers that had been moving back to their bedrolls looked back with wide-eyed shock. Never had anyone even considered speaking out of line with Damen, but now a seventeen-year-old girl had the nerve to dress him down in front of his men? They had no idea what would happen next, but they weren't about to leave now. Their curiosity overrode their sense of duty to obey orders and they held their place to watch Damen put this brash young woman either in her place or in her grave. Which would it be?
Damen answered the silent questions of his men by drawing his sword and advancing slowly on Livia. His lips pulled apart in a feral grin and his breath came in short, ragged gasps that misted the cool night air before his face. He almost acted as if he were sexually excited by the conflict happening between himself and Livia, and she knew the feeling he was experiencing right now very, very well. It was the feeling of anticipated revenge on someone perceived to have wronged you. It was almost as intoxicating as good foreplay to know that you were about to kill someone who had been a thorn in your side for too long. Only Damen didn't know what Livia knew in her heart; she was destined for greatness he could only dream of, and nothing short of a miracle was going to stop her.
To the shock of the men watching around her, Livia re-sheathed her blade and planted her feet to either side of her body, equal length to her shoulders and crouched down, putting her weight primarily on the balls of her bare feet. She was primed for action, ready to move her body in any direction, at any speed necessary to win this verbal confrontation that had turned deadly. Her own grin was just as feral as the one that seemed to be almost consuming Damen's rugged and weathered face, and her heart pounded beneath her breast, pushing hot blood and adrenaline to every muscle in her body. Livia could almost feel his neck snap in her hands...
"You've gone too far Livia."
"Just as you're about to? What do you think will happen if you harm me? Do you think the mighty Caesar is just going to let you walk away with a slap on the wrist?"
"If you die before I do, I'll leave this life a happy man. Now arm yourself."
"I am armed."
"Your sword is on your back, not in your hand."
"Fool. I am my weapon. A sword is just a decoration. I hope you're ready to die Damen. I'm about to put you in your grave."
Damen swung at Livia but she ducked it easily, turned and swung one powerful, beautifully shaped leg around, knocking Damen's feet from beneath him. He gave a cry of surprise and landed on his back. With lightning speed Livia stood, stepped over to him and attempted to drive the heel of her right foot into the bridge of his nose but he managed to roll out of the way just in time to avoid having his face crushed. He leapt to his feet but was too slow to turn to face her before Livia drove her fist into one of his kidneys. For a frightening moment Damen was afraid he would wet himself in front of his men from the force of the blow.
He thrust his sword clumsily behind him only to hear Livia's now distinctive battle cry as she all but flew over his head and landed before him. She hit him with a barrage of powerful punches to his chest and gut that nearly knocked him off his feet and literally stole his breath from his lungs. He used what air that remained in his lungs to power a thrust of his sword at Livia.
She was so caught up in the moment of her advantage she didn't move quite fast enough to dodge his sword, and it nicked her left side. She gave it little more than a passing glance then assaulted him with three well-placed kicks to his jaw that left him on the ground, dizzy and breathless. He'd killed many honorable men in his time serving Rome, and now he was going to be taken down by a child? A female child at that. How humiliating. He could just hear his wife Ghita laughing at the irony now, and as Acastus, his second in command came to watch the battle, he knew he was dead. If he were assassinated Acastus, the biggest fool in the history of Rome, would move up to take his place as commander of his beloved legion.
Livia came to stand over him, one deceptively delicate foot on either side of his body. He wanted desperately to move but he was so dizzy his limbs wouldn't respond as well as he wanted. Damen gave one last pathetic effort to run her through but Livia only kicked the sword from his hand. His men watched silently, not one of them even attempting to come to his aid. Bastards. He hadn't exactly been good to them over the years, and now he regretted it. None of them cared for him; they only loathed him.
As he looked up at the girl-warrior who had become his death angel, Damen got the distinct feeling she was playing with him as a cat would a mouse, and as he stared into her eyes he remembered a moment from his youth long ago, when his parents had taken him to visit relatives living in the small village of Torone.
A certain notorious blond psychopath named Callisto had raided the village. Now, as Damen stared into the eyes of this dark-haired beauty, he saw that same maniacal light shining in Livia's blue eyes, and he was overwhelmed by the fact that Livia's face seemed to almost transform into the face of his mother's killer, Callisto.
Livia took hold of his head and brought her face mere inches from his.
"Nighty night," she said with a singsong tone to her voice. Once again he remembered how Callisto had uttered the same words, right before she took the life of his beloved mother. The similarities between the two women were amazing...
Livia broke Damen's neck, having no idea of the truth the General had seen in her eyes before his death. That truth was Livia was becoming more and more like her mother each day. Not the honorable woman Xena had become with the gentle love of her soul-mate Gabrielle, but the evil, soulless murderer that had been Callisto so many years before.
No sooner did Livia stand straight from snapping Damen's neck did twelve archer's draw down on her. Livia knew her hands were quick enough to catch up to four arrows, and she may even be able to dodge three or four more, but twelve was just beyond her abilities. She had believed that by killing Damen in a fair fight she had proven herself worthy to lead them. Apparently she'd misjudged the situation. Horribly misjudged it as a matter of fact. She realized a moment too late that these soldiers were no more loyal to her than they would be to Xena had she walked right into the camp and demanded they follow her.
"What are you doing?"
Livia turned around to find Acastus, Damen's second in command, watching her as she looked at the other men with a naive, dumb-founded expression on her beautiful face. His arms were crossed arrogantly over his massive chest. Acastus was ugly in the most flattering light. His skin always had a sickly yellow tone though he was never ill, and a scar ran from his left eye in a diagonal line across his face and down his neck where it disappeared under his uniform.
"Acastus," Livia said, hoping her voice didn't reflect the sudden nervousness she was feeling. "Tell these men to stand down."
Acastus shook his head and laughed. A few of his lap-dogs followed suit, and waited to see what the new commander of the Alpha Legion would do next to the one who would dare kill her own commander.
"I killed Damen," Livia said, painfully aware of the childish whine in her voice. She looked deeply into the eyes of the soldiers surrounding hers, desperately hoping to find even one sign of support. There was, of course, none. The men only laughed or looked away, as if embarrassed by the naivety were witnessing.
"That makes me the new commander of this legion."
"No," Acastus said, his voice taking on an irritatingly patronizing tone. He unfolded his tree trunk arms and sauntered over to her. "That makes you a traitor. You killed your commander Livia. You don't expect to receive a promotion for that kind of behavior do you?" When she didn't respond with anything more than a slack-jawed expression of dismayed confusion, he continued.
"Damen's death makes me the rightful commander of this legion. Did you forget we follow a chain of command here?"
Livia could feel herself becoming physically ill from what was happening to her. She was being humiliated by Acastus and for some reason she had lost her nerve to speak. She hadn't been this weak since she was ten years old, when she'd hidden like a coward in the floor-space while the only woman to ever show her love was murdered as a sacrifice to the same god she had vowed her loyalty to now. Acastus continued taunting her.
"By Roman law my dear, you are to be taken into custody and crucified by sunset the following day. Without a trial."
The mention of a crucifixion broke Livia's silence. "Crucified? You can't crucify me."
"I'm the commander now that Damen is gone. I can do anything I want."
Livia tensed, her body preparing for battle as two soldiers moved forward to shackle her. She could take them out easily enough, but not before the skilled archers filled her full of arrows. Acastus watched her prepare to resist, and cautioned her.
"Fight and you are a dead little girl."
"I am favored by Caesar himself. I am-"
Acastus spoke over her, his voice dripping with cold arrogance. "Even Caesar has limits Livia. Believe me when I say that you are far from being Caesar." He paused and looked her over, considering her words. It wouldn't be very wise of him to kill the Emperor's pet. "However, because of your elevated position, I'm taking you back to Rome. You will be tried, and executed, there. Confine her to one of the slave transport wagons."
"Yes sir." The two soldiers who'd been moving in on her before took her arms. She made no attempt to resist, for now as she relaxed. Rome. Once she was home Augustus would dismiss the charges, execute this disgusting bastard and place her in command. Almost as if he'd read her mind, Acastus spoke, dashing her hopes.
"Another Roman law Livia. Insubordination is punished by death, no exceptions. Augustus himself put that law into effect, and even he can't save you now. You killed yourself when you killed Damen."
He laughed and sauntered away as she was shackled like a common criminal and hauled away. She went along in stunned disbelief, even as her chains were locked to the very same wagons she'd helped load slave women into since she'd joined the Alpha Legion. She had believed she had a destiny of greatness to fulfill, but somehow she had been reduced to a common criminal. Slave status. What was worse was Ares, her god and her lover, was nowhere to be seen.
Life has never been better, Acastus thought to himself as he entered his tent and undressed. His tyrannical commander Damen was dead, and he was in command of the Alpha Legion. Livia had come through for him in ways she couldn't begin to imagine by killing Damen and sparing him the task of the assassination himself. In Acastus' own mind he was the greatest warrior to have ever lived, and he should have been in charge of this elite legion long before now. His problem wasn't his arrogance or his lack of loyalty to anyone but himself. His problem wasn't even his complete lack of concern for the well being of the men under his command. His problem was everyone else he encountered in the world who held any position of authority over him.
Sure he'd made a few errors in the battlefield that had needlessly cost soldiers their lives, but those were just mistakes. He was human after all, so therefore it was only natural to make a few mistakes. So what? The leaders of the world were just jealous they didn't have the courage to sacrifice as many soldiers as was necessary to win the war. Damen had been weak in that way. Always whining and complaining about casualties. They were foot soldiers for Hades' sake! That's what they were there for.
No one ever saw what a great man he was. They were all too blind to see his brilliance. Now that Livia had killed Damen and cleared the way for him to take over the Alpha Legion, he would show everyone who'd ever had a cruel word against him just what fools they had been to deny him this command for so long. He was destined for greatness, and his next stop was as Rome's champion, second in command only to Caesar himself.
Acastus' thoughts turned to the harem of women Damen had hoarded to himself and called out to one of the soldiers standing guard outside his tent.
"Soldier!" He called out to one of his constant guards. A guard poked his head through the tent flap.
Acastus grinned. How he loved his new title. It was almost like a toy on Winter Solstice morning. "Bring me one of Damen's-my women. And have one for yourself when you get off duty."
What the hell? He was feeling generous tonight.
"Yes Commander. Right away."
Cadmus felt his stomach all but churn at the site of his ugly commander and pitied the poor woman who was going to have to endure a night of passion with a disgusting creature like him. Why some men wanted to force themselves on a woman that didn't want him was beyond Cadmus. He'd always viewed intimacy as a give and take situation. Sex, in his opinion, was something that should only occur between two willing people. To feel a woman stiffen at his touch, or resist him in any way, took the joy out of the moment for him.
Cadmus made his way to the furthest reaches of the camp until he arrived at the tent in which five of the choicest slave women from each raid were kept until Damen tired of them. Once this happened the women were beheaded and their bodies thrown unceremoniously into the nearest river or taken out into the forest to be abandoned for nature to dispose of, as if they had been criminals in life instead of victims of Roman cruelty.
Cadmus entered the tent and immediately the women cringed away from him. They had been decorated in Roman finery and their faces painted until they looked like dolls. While they were in Damen's favor they lived in the lap of luxury, but he knew they would gladly trade it all in for a chance to escape.
The guilt of his part in the capture of slaves such as these women, and the deaths of their families began to weigh in on him. He'd been told by too many of the other soldiers he allowed himself to feel too much. His emotions, they would always say, would be the death of him if he didn't learn to harden up. He knew they were right, but the truth of the matter was, Cadmus didn't want to harden up. He enjoyed feeling, and he enjoyed caring for others. He was a skilled warrior, and when threatened in battle he could be a vicious killer, but he preferred love to hate and kindness over cruelty whenever possible. Above all else, Cadmus preferred life to death.
The sight of these women putting as much distance between themselves and him as possible touched him. Each woman begged him with her eyes not to choose them, but they knew one of them would have to go to lie with Damen. They had all tasted his cruelty and they waited for the moment he would tire of them and put them out of their misery.
"Damen just visited with us last night," one of the women said. Cadmus recognized her as Jara, Damen's favorite. "He doesn't usually call for us two nights in a row."
"Damen is dead," he said. The women actually sighed in relief, but the news he had for them next quickly put an end to that relief. "Acastus is now the commander and he has sent for one of you."
This was far worse. They knew Acastus and they knew he would be ten times more likely to beat them during the assault. He was a misogynist bastard who displayed his lust for hurting women every chance he got, whether it be pinching them hard enough to leave bruises or slapping them for no apparent reason. He'd always done these things when Damen wasn't around to protect them, and now that he was commander... there was nowhere to run and no one to save them.
Jara, who had been in Damen's harem for six months (longer than any of the other's), had paid close attention to Cadmus from the day she'd arrived. Unlike the other men, he'd been kind to her. He'd showed her compassion. Maybe he would do so one last time.
"Please sir. Don't make us go to him. He'll kill us."
Cadmus looked away from their pleading eyes. Maybe the men were right. Maybe he did feel too much because his heart broke in his chest at the sight of the stark fear in their eyes. He knew that with Acastus in charge every one of these women would die a horrible death. The Alpha Legion's new commander wouldn't be kind enough to behead them and quickly end their lives. He'd probably put them on the rack or maybe even have them crucified to satisfy his sick blood lust. He just couldn't sentence them to such a fate, but what could he do?
"What do you expect me to do? I'm just a foot soldier."
"You could let them try to escape," Jara suggested, slowly walking toward him.
Cadmus didn't immediately object, as he would have done only yesterday. "What do you mean 'them'? What about you?"
Jara shrugged and looked at one of the girls in particular. She was young, barely fifteen years old in Cadmus' estimation. She looked more like a child playing dress up in her mother's clothes than a seasoned whore, and fat tears of fear streamed down cheeks still chubby with baby fat. Seeing one so young made Cadmus realize what a sick man Damen had been, and he mourned the former commander's life even less than he did before he entered the tent.
"She's only thirteen sir. She's just a child."
"If I let you go, the perimeter guards will catch you all. You'll be crucified...or worse."
Jara, in her desperation to convince Cadmus to at least let them try to escape, became bold. "We're going to die anyway. If they loose their lives because they tried to escape, at least their deaths will have some dignity. Please, let them try. I'll go to Acastus. While he's occupied with me, they can make a run for it. Please?"
The pleading in her eyes broke through the wall of concern for his life. He knew this woman was right. They were damned if they didn't, but there was a chance they would survive if they did make a run for it. Especially if he went a step further and distracted the perimeter guard. They were young, agile and motivated by fear. They just might make it. It couldn't hurt for them to try could it, but it could get him killed.
"Alright. I'll distract the perimeter guard patrolling this area. Cut an exit in the rear of the tent." He motioned for the little one to take his dagger and she ran to the rear of the tent with a nod of thanks, and began to cut through the hide. "When you're all gone, I'll come back for you Jara."
"You know my name?"
He almost blushed with embarrassment from her words. From the first day she'd arrived she'd taken up more than her fair share of his thoughts, and his dreams, but he couldn't let her know that. "Yeah, well, I've heard Damen call for you, so...Let's go before I change my mind."
Cadmus exited the tent; unaware the watchful eyes of Livia, chained inside a slave wagon, were taking in everything they were doing. She watched as Cadmus walked to the rear of the tent and struck up a conversation with the perimeter guard.
"Lycus! How's it going?" Try as he might, Cadmus couldn't keep the anxiety out of his voice. If he kept Acastus waiting too long there were a chance his efforts to free the women would be discovered by any guards sent by the commander.
"Cadmus." Lycus thought nothing of Cadmus slapping a hand on one of his beefy shoulders and leading him in the opposite direction of the slave tent. "What's up my friend?"
"Oh, not much. I'm getting together with some friends later on tonight..."
As Cadmus talked with Lycus, Jara led the women from the tent. They took off full speed for the cover of the trees an impossibly long fifty yards away, hoping desperately none of the other guards would happen to look up and catch them. Cadmus cast a nervous look in the direction of the forest. Luckily Lycus didn't notice.
"I'll see you there then?"
"Oh, I don't think so. Asopus is sick. I've got to pull his duty shift."
Cadmus pretended to care and sighed (mostly in relief none of the other soldiers were giving chase into the woods after the women). "Whew! A double shift. I hate doing those. Hell on the feet you know? Well, I'd better get back to my own station. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Sure thing Cadmus."
Cadmus went back to the tent, expecting to see Jara gone, but she had held faithful to her word. He pitied her the fate he was sentencing her too as he led her outside and towards Acastus' tent. Were it up to him, he'd take her under his wing and protect her. Maybe he could even...No. He shook his head as he exited the tent. He had to distance himself from this woman who was as doomed as Livia...
The sight of Livia's eyes boring into him made his blood run cold in his veins. Those same eyes told him she had seen everything. If she told, he was a dead man, and the expression on her face was one of triumph. She had something on him, and only Livia knew how she would use it against him. Caesar's chained charge disappeared into the slave transport wagon, and Cadmus pushed on, leading Jara to Acastus. His heart began to pound in fear at this new, unexpected element to this nights hectic event.
Livia watched the fear in Cadmus' eyes as he'd realized his ridiculous act of mercy on the slave girls was no longer his secret, and a feeling of comfort came over her. She didn't know what this new information would do for her, but she would find a way to use it to her advantage. As she ran through scenarios of how she could use this information against Cadmus for her own good, she could feel she was no longer alone in the wagon. She looked around just as Ares made himself visible.
"Ares." One word was all she offered him as he studied her with a mixture of anger and disappointment.
"I never took you for a fool Livia."
His words angered her and she lashed out at him. Had her legs not been chained, he would have taken a solid kick to his jaw. A kick that would have killed any mortal man.
"Look at you!" He continued, chastising her and making her feel just as stupid as he accused her of being. "Acting like a chained animal."
"That's because I am. You made me this way."
"No, I made you a warrior. A killing machine. I never made you an idiot. All you had to do when you beat Damen the first time was let him walk away. From there you could have built up a loyal following behind the scenes. Better still, you could have seduced the old fool and risen to the top even faster!"
Livia rolled her eyes in disgust. Why is it that men always assumed the only way a woman could make anything of herself was if she used her body for men's pleasure? Ares continued on with his tirade.
"Now look at you! You've been chained and condemned to death!"
Livia's body flinched involuntarily at the sheer volume of the rage he filled his last words with. Though she knew she was his new favorite, she also knew Ares was selfish. If she was no longer useful to him, or if he found any weakness in her whatsoever, he would drop her. She could neither allow nor afford for that to happen.
"If you're so disappointed Ares then leave. I don't need your help to solve this problem."
"Oh yes, you do. You want to become Rome's champion? You can't do that dead."
Livia leaned forward as far as her chains would allow and looked him in the eye until she was satisfied she had his full attention. "I don't need, or want your help. I'll die before I take it."
Ares held her glance a long time. He knew Livia believed she could get out of this predicament on her own. He also knew the only reason she believed this wasn't because of any experience she had to fall back on, but because of sheer naivety. He could still see the potential to be mined in her, and this was just the lesson to teach her the humility she so desperately needed to learn.
"Fine. Don't call when you see you've failed."
"I won't, because I don't intend to fail."
Ares faded away, leaving Livia alone with her thoughts, which were once again centered on Cadmus. He may just be the key, Livia mused, to my survival.
As the sun rose in the eastern sky the next morning Jara was placed in the slave wagon with Livia. The woman had bruises covering her face and her body, the evidence of her night with Acastus. Now, as the morning shift took over, the disappearance of Damen's former slave women became known. Acastus headed straight to the wagon where a frightened Lycus stood waiting. Livia could literally smell the terror on the night shift perimeter guard, and it excited her. There was nothing like the look in a man's eyes when he knew his life was over and he was just waiting for the death blow to be delivered and put him out of his misery.
Livia took in the sight of the nearly imperceptible tremors of fear that shook his body.
"You should have paid more attention Lycus," Livia taunted. After a night of being chained in a wagon with a limited ability to move, Livia could barely feel her feet. This only added to her already sour mood, and she felt she needed a distraction. This mans death would give it to her.
"Shut up whore," Lycus said bitterly. His fist came through the opening in the skins covering the wagon, landing a solid punch to her jaw. Luckily for Livia her head hit the skins instead of the wood railing, or there was a good chance she would have sustained a concussion from the force of the blow. Even as blood filled her mouth from her busted lip, she couldn't find it within herself to be angry with him. He was a dead man, and if she were lucky she would get to see it all...
"You," Livia continued, "are a dead man. Unless you can kill him before he kills you."
Lycus stared her over with a mixture of desperate hope and contempt. "Kill my superior? Unlike you, I'm not Caesar's favorite. I'll be crucified before the sun sets tonight. At least this way I'll get to die quickly."
"Set me free. I'll kill Acastus for you."
"Are you out of your mind?" His words were full of disdain but his body language told her he was listening to her. He wanted to live and maybe Livia could... "No. It was my duty to keep watch over those women. I failed and now I have to pay the price."
Acastus rode toward Lycus and the slave wagon, his ugly face full of rage. He dismounted and Jara moaned in fear at the sight of him, pulling as far away from him as her chains would allow. Livia smirked in disdain for the weaker woman. Its women like her, Livia thought to herself, which give our sex a bad name.
The new commander of the Alpha Legion came to a stop beside the slave wagon and studied Lycus as if her were some sort of disgusting creature that just crawled from beneath a rock. "Lycus is your name?"
Ever the perfect soldier, Lycus stood respectfully at attention. "Yes sir."
"I've heard nothing but glowing reports from the other men about you."
"Thank you Sir."
"I have to ask you: if you're such an excellent soldier, how did four women", he said the word women with open contempt, "escape on your watch?"
Lycus cheeks turned red with shame and his head dipped almost imperceptibly. "I don't know sir."
Livia was waiting for Lycus to connect Cadmus with his current predicament, and prayed he didn't. Cadmus' kind heart was just what she needed to survive, though she wasn't sure how that was, just yet. Right now all she had to go on was her instincts.
"No matter. If Mars himself told you to let them go I'd still kill you for it."
An involuntary, feral grin forced Livia's sore lips apart and her body tensed as Acastus drew his sword. Bloodshed, in Livia's opinion, was better than sex. How she wished Acastus would let her execute Lycus...
Just as Acastus was about to sweep his sword across Lycus' gut, and thereby make him die a slow and painful death, the distinct sound of the rams horn cut through the still morning air. Acastus whirled on his heel just in time to see a messenger riding in from the outer rim of the camp.
"Sir! The Gaul's are coming! The Gaul's are coming!"
Disappointed that his execution would have to wait, Acastus sighed. "It looks like you've been granted a reprieve. Hope you die in battle because if you don't, I'll still kill you. Myself."
Obvious relief flooded Lycus face. "Yes sir."
Acastus went off to organize the men, leaving Livia and Jara alone in the wagon.
"What about us?" Jara asked, as the soldiers lined up in attack formation.
"We'll be fine."
Livia was quickly becoming irritated with Jara, but decided to explain things now, in layman's terms just to shut her up since she couldn't kill the woman to silence her.
"That's none of your concern Jara," Cadmus said, not unkindly.
Livia looked out to find Cadmus lowering the tailgate. He crawled inside and motioned to the driver up front to continue on.
"What's going on?" Jara asked yet again, her voice trembling in panic.
Cadmus studied the damage Jara had taken at Acastus hands and a seed of resentment and anger for Acastus took root in his soul. That bastard had taken this innocent, beautiful creature and tortured her to satisfy his own sick lusts. He and Jara shared a long, quiet look, which conveyed their rapidly growing feelings for one another, and Livia could see it all. Pushing aside her feelings of disgust at the tender moment, Livia filed away this new revelation as something she could use against Cadmus later.
Cadmus touched Jara's face gently, and then pulled his hand away, suddenly aware of Livia's presence. "I've been ordered to take the supplies to the caves."
Livia, who had seen Damen's battle plans, before she'd killed him, couldn't believe what she was hearing. "You're kidding!"
Cadmus jerked away from Livia's sudden exclamation. "No. What's the matter?"
"I saw Damen's battle plans."
Livia sighed. She hated having to explain things to people from the beginning to end, especially in times of battle, but seeing as how she was chained to a wagon, there was really no reason not to take her time.
"I was on kitchen duty, setting the table and bringing in food. I saw his plans. I have to admit, they were brilliant. The thing is, if Acastus is making changes to those plans, he could get us all killed."
"Fill me in," Cadmus said, his curiosity getting the better of him and replacing his dislike of Livia and the power her knowledge of his secret deeds the night before held over him.
"Why would I do that?"
Cadmus held a dagger to her throat and spoke in his lowest, most dangerous tone of voice. "Because if you don't, I'll kill you."
Unable to hold it back, Livia burst into laughter. "Yeah right. You risked your life to free slave girls. You're not a cold-blooded killer. I am, but not you. Put the dagger down before you make me mad."
"So what if you're mad? What are you gonna do about it?"
She leaned in close to him, speaking seductively. "Seal my lips. Not share anything with you, that's what."
Cadmus stared her down, wondering just how far he could go with this child/woman/warrior, and put his dagger away. "What about Damen's plans?"
"It would be better if I drew you a map."
"I'm not letting you lose. Forget it."
"I my hands are chained in front of me. I don't need to be let lose. Just give me some parchment and a quill."
Cadmus, who was notorious for being organized, took out a small scroll. "Use this. I keep my schedule on it."
Livia fought the urge to roll her eyes and took the parchment and a piece of coal from him. She drew a sketch of the land they were going into. She had an excellent memory and the map was right on target. Every valley, every river and mountain was laid out accurately. She pointed to the center of the map.
"This is where the Gaul's have set up camp."
Cadmus nodded. "Good location. Treacherous mountains surround it. Hard to get to."
"Except for this pass. We know it will be heavily guarded. If we charge the pass we'll have to fight uphill and we run the risk of attack from falling debris."
Cadmus shook his head. "This is exactly where Acastus is taking us." He pointed to a valley below the caves. "This is where our camp is going to be set up. If we don't lose too many men in this battle."
"I know." Livia grunted in disgust. "Damen had a better plan of attack. Circle around these hills and attack from the south. There's a dry riverbed that will be difficult to traverse but-"
Cadmus finished her thoughts for her. "-They won't think to look for us in that direction. You were right, that was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant."
"Here are the caves," Livia pointed to a series of black dots that represented the caves. "Here is our location. Let's say we do attack with a full frontal assault. Not only will they see us coming up the pass, they'll be able to travel along the ridge these caves are in and surround us. We'll also have to make camp here."
She pointed to a valley below the caves and below the enemy camp's hide out. Cadmus shook his head in disgust. "We'll be sitting ducks."
Cadmus shook his head in disbelief. "That's only if he plans on making all those changes. Maybe he has a different plan in mind." Cadmus rubbed his chin and thought about what he should do, and a plan came to mind. "I'll go volunteer for this first battle."
"He's probably got all the soldier's he needs-"
Cadmus cut her off. "I know Acastus well enough to know that the mere act of volunteering will warm him up to me. Who knows what I may be able to find out.
"And if you get yourself killed?" Jara asked, concern clear on her battered, once beautiful face. "What then?"
Cadmus was touched by her concern for him, and as Livia watched the glance they exchanged, she realized just how much of a threat Jara was to her control over Cadmus. Men would do anything for a woman they were sleeping with, without even realizing half the time they were being used. Imagine what they would do for a woman they actually loved? They were weak that way. She would definitely have to eliminate her before Jara captured Cadmus heart and made it too difficult for Livia to control him.
"Go Cadmus. I'm sure you can hold your own in battle. You wouldn't be in Alpha Legion if you weren't a...warrior."
Cadmus grinned at her praise and nodded. "I'll be back as soon as I can." He tapped on the tailgate. "Driver! Stop the wagon!"
When Cadmus was gone, Livia and Jara shared a long look. Jara had always been an honorable woman, but her time in Damen's harem had taught her to recognize a snake when she saw one. This Livia girl was a cobra.
Cadmus made his way up the Eastern hill to find Acastus alone, watching the battle below. Had Damen still been alive, the commander would have been right there in battle, fighting alongside his men. Acastus had taken over less than twelve hours before and already he had proven to the entire legion he wasn't even half the man Damen had been. The men despised him, yet at the same time their years of training to respect authority, as well as their fear of Acastus' sometimes bizarre and brutal behavior made them too weak with fear to speak out against him. Besides, every soldier knew that if any unified force was to succeed, there had to be rules. Not just rules, but a strict adherence to those rules and a respect for one's superiors. They may not like the man who was leading them, but they would not easily be swayed to turn on him either. Especially when danger was so close at hand.
On his way here, Cadmus had heard several bits of whispered conversation amongst the men of Acastus' battle plan, and the more he heard, the colder his blood ran in his veins. If the rumors he was hearing were true, Acastus had completely abandoned Damen's wiser plans for attack for an utterly foolish full frontal assault on the Gaul stronghold, just as Livia had feared. If they followed that plan, they were all doomed.
He finally reached the commander who jerked with surprise at the sound of Cadmus' voice. Again, Cadmus thoughts turned to how it had been all but impossible to sneak up on Damen...
"What is it?"
"I've come to volunteer for the battle below."
Acastus smiled. "Really? Why are you asking me? Why not just dive right in?"
"I wanted to know..." Cadmus' mind raced for a good answer that would sound plausible but would also flatter his commander. Acastus had, on more than one occasion, openly displayed his abundant pride. Flattery, Cadmus knew, would get him everywhere with this man.
"Well, sir, I'm just a foot soldier. I didn't know if you had any...plan of attack you could use me in?"
"Plan of attack?"
"Yes sir. A brilliant tactician like you would know best how to use a lowly soldier like me to...to benefit the good of the legion."
"I fail to see what you think you can accomplish alone Cadmus. Though I'm glad to see you realize that I am indeed a brilliant tactician."
I think I'm going to lose my breakfast, Cadmus thought to himself, though he twisted his face into a stupidly exaggerated expression of phony reverence. Acastus bought it hook, line and sinker, puffing out his massive chest with pride.
"You wanna prove yourself to me huh?"
"We're going to make camp in the next valley. We're going to charge the pass in a few days."
"Aren't you worried about us fighting up hill? Don't you think it would be better if we were to circle their camp and come at them from behind-"
"You dare question me?"
The rage in Acastus' voice made Cadmus' stomach feel as if he'd swallowed a beehive. He bowed to Acastus. "I'm sorry sir. I meant no disrespect."
"We are the first in all of Caesar's legion's Cadmus. We're the best of the very best. We don't sneak around to do battle, we attack! We take what we want and we destroy anyone who would dare defy us. We'll make camp in the next valley and we'll charge that pass. No more discussion is necessary."
"Yes sir. You're absolutely right."
"Of course I am." A look of revelation suddenly dawned on Acastus' scarred and ugly face. "Didn't I order you to watch that conniving little bitch Livia?"
"Yes sir. I just thought I would be of better use to you-"
"Don't think Cadmus. You do such a poor job of it. I'm putting you on kitchen duty. We'll talk when you've learned to be respectful."
"You're lucky I like you Cadmus. Otherwise, I'd have executed you for your arrogant tone. Get out of my site before I lose my generous mood."
Cadmus left; satisfied he'd been successful in his mission. He'd done it! He'd managed to glean the information he'd wanted from the fool that was their commander without losing his life at his hands or having to go into the battle below, which the Alpha Legion was quickly winning. Now, he would go back to Livia, the only one who seemed to have the know-how to save them all. He was surprised by how quickly he was beginning to place his loyalties with her.
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