MCA/UNIVERSAL/RENAISSANCE owns Xena, Gabrielle, and Argo (poor baby needs a better agent, shes getting paid only in apples and oats) and others from X:WP. All others are a possible hazardous byproduct of the icky gray stuff that is stuck inside the boney thingy on my shoulders.
This story is written without wanting to infringe on the above companies rights. (If I do theyd sic the "Amazon Collection Agency" or ACA on me, and they always get their prey.) This story is also non-profit and any reproduction or use of this story without my permission will make me call the ACA on your bootie.
Violence is present in this story. This is Xena after all. If you dont approve please just read something you find more appropriate.
Special thanks go out to Perager, my editor, whom I couldn't do without.
This story takes place a couple of months after "Gabrielle's Hope". Hopefully I've left it open enough that any episodes dealing with the matter will fit in here smoothly.
Oh gods...that gray stuff is bubbling outta my ears again, perhaps I should just get on with the story before its all gone?
A CROWN OF LAUREL
The morning sun crept slowly over the hill as Gabrielle knelt near Khrafstar, both of them waiting for the Romans to complete their tasks. The noise of the hammers was sure and steady as the frame of the wood took shape. Gabrielle looked upon the two crosses and shivered slightly. So this is what Xena felt. Only difference is that I know I'll be rescued. I hope. Oh gods, this is hard. Please. Please, Xena make it here in time.
The bard's silent musings were halted, when the soldiers dragged the two prisoners over and tied them to the wooden crosses. The rope tightened against Gabrielle's wrists till her fingers started to tingle. Then on the Centurion leader's command, they were lifted up towards the sky.
Gabrielle's body slid down the cross till her arms were stretched out. The pain was minor at first, but as she dwelt on it the pain got worse. She tried gathering her feet up against the wood and pushing up to relieve the pain, but it didn't work. Instead she slipped down again and the pain increased in her shoulders and arms.
She turned her attention to the soldier beneath her. He was young, so painfully young. Why is it that warlords or generals have armies just full of young pimple faced boys.
"Because they want adventure. I know I did," came the answer from beside her. Gabrielle turned her head and gazed at Perdicus hanging from the cross next to her. Her heart skipped a beat in shock.
"Perdicus." Gabrielle whispered. "Where is...what are..."
Her young dead husband looked back at her, his arms stretched above him identically to hers. "Ahhh...to breathe fresh air again. To see your face." He smiled gently.
"I'm so sorry Perdicus..."Gabrielle started to say, suddenly filled with feelings that she hadn't totally come to grips with yet.
"Shh..I know." He smiled, then screamed as the length of a sword thrust up and through his chest from behind.
"How long will it take him to die this time, Gabrielle?" Perdicus said, smiling sadistically, with Callisto's voice as blood gushed from the wound.
"It's my Destiny to rule the world," came another voice below her. Gabrielle's head swung down, her eyes widening in fear. Caesar stood on the ground in front of her, looking at her as if she was an everyday occurance. "Really Gabrielle. You should have prepared yourself for this day. No matter how many good deeds Xena has done as a warrior, she is still a woman. She's out there right now probably distraught at knowing I have you and what I'm doing to you, and it's going to defeat her, she's running scared. And if I have to hunt down all of her friends and crucify them I will, if it'll help me conquer the world...and Xena."
"Gabrielle," came the low smooth voice next to her. Swinging her head around again she saw that Perdicus was gone and Xena was in his place. Her friend was clad only in a ripped dark shift, her hair bedraggled and scratches and scars on her face, legs and arms. Her legs were bloody and crushed. It was a Xena Gabrielle had never seen, but had imagined from the dark cold stories Xena had told her of that long ago day. It was a defeated Xena.
"Gabrielle," Xena repeated, tears running down her face in bloody streaks. "If only I hadn't insisted we come here... I... I can't save you."
Gabrielle's heart was breaking. "No Xena. It'll be ok...you'll see. You'll save..." She stopped as she realized Xena couldn't even save herself. M'Lila had saved her. And now M'Lila wasn't here, she was long dead.
"What is your friendship worth, Gabrielle? Your life? Her life?" came the multitude of voices. Romans littered the vast field before her, most bleeding and dying from the wounds Xena's and Boadicea's army had inflicted.
In the midst of the destruction she could see two figures hacking and mutilating the wounded on the field. One was tall, her dark hair flying around her, making her seem as a battlefield raven going from man to man. Her sword rose and fell steadily as she killed pleading men in cold blood. The other was smaller and had lighter hair, wielding a long sharp dagger that reflected the sun brightly and cackling in glee as she joined her companion in their bloodthirsty work. Gabrielle's heart froze as she recognized the duo. Then with a flash of light another figure appeared near them, his dark features accented by the black leathers he wore. His voice boomed across the battlefield to her. "Two for one! Ha! I've won, Xena!" Ares laughed as he watched his two Chosen reap souls on the bloody field.
"Yesss...Gabrielle. Innocent One. Mother of the Dark One."
At that voice the bard's head turned to the other cross yet again, this time she cried out in horror and fear, unable to control herself. Xena hung there, her face starting to contort and stretch. Horns slowly grew out of her skull and her jaw elongated and thrust out. Xena's skin flaked off and fell, and with a howl Khrastar, "The Deliverer" disciple of Dahak, emerged and flicked his tongue at Gabrielle.
"You have made us strong, Gabrielle. You have given the world its new ruler. Its True God. Its Dark One. You are the mother of Darkness!" He laughed as Gabrielle threw back her head in utter grief, her mind slowly slipping from its leash.
"What a precious child, Gabrielle." The bard heard her sister's voice on the other side of her, and her heart calmed a bit. Turning she saw Lila sitting there with Hope in her arms. Gabrielle smiled at the sight.
"She's got your eyes..." Gabrielle started to say, then froze as she watched her daughter start to play with the pendant Lila wore. Watched with impotence as the chain tightened more and more, and as Lila tried to struggle against the supernatural child. "No..." the bard whispered in horror as she watched her sister's death helplessly. This was her child, her Hope that lay so contentedly and so peacefully over the body of Gabrielle's sister.
"Don't worry, Gabrielle, I'll take care of this." Xena walked into her sight from the battlefield, covered with the blood and gore of thousands. "You failed, Gabrielle. You were supposed to make sure she grew up good. You failed."
"No, Xena! I...I...you were chasing me. You were going to kill my daughter. No matter how much I love you...I couldn't let you do it." Gabrielle said, her eyes brimming over.
"Well, I'm going to take care of it now. This thing must die." Xena raised her sword.
"No!! Please, Xena, I beg you. Don't kill my daughter!! Please!!" Gabrielle begged, struggling in vain against her bonds.
The sword came down and impaled the small body and traveled through to Lila's, then came out and back again and again, till the child, that once was Gabrielle's Hope, was a mass of blood and flesh.
"Damn you, Xena!! I'll never forgive you! Never!! Never!!" The bard screamed, her arms straining against the cross.
"Break her legs." Gabrielle's shrill cries erupted from her, and when the mallet crushed her legs, she saw Caesar smile in triumph.
* * * * *
Gabrielle's eyes opened to the bright blue sky, but she didn't see them. Her head was thrown back and she was screaming, her fears and terrors coming out of her nightmares with her into the new day.
The deck of the Roman ship was silent, as its crew and the soldiers were staring at her in shock and surprise. It was a cry of utter loss and despair. A cry that even the most jaded of veterans shuddered to hear.
As the scream went on and on, a soldier came up and slapped her hard on the face, slamming her head against the mast. The soldiers drew breath again as the soul shattering scream abruptly stopped.
Gabrielle shook her head, dragging herself out of the pit of horror she had been in. More nightmares. Tears were running down her face. It's in the past. Nothing to worry about. Get ahold of yourself, now is not the time to break down. Xena is counting on you. With fierce determination, the bard shoved away the haunting visions and feeling in her mind.
At the thought of her friend, Gabrielle suddenly heard grunts and moans from the rower's deck underneath her. Looking at the soldier who had just slapped her, her eyes widened in fear for Xena, as she knew what was causing the commotion.
"Don't hit me," she snarled at him, then raised her voice loud enough to be heard in Tartarus itself. "Xena!! Stop!! I'm ok! Really!"
As if a storm had suddenly vanished, the noise and chaos from below stopped, and Gabrielle sighed in relief. She turned to the soldier. "You have to let me see her."
The man sneered. "Orders are that she is not to see you."
Gabrielle grimaced and waited patiently, listening for any noises that came from below decks. Then finally she spied Brutus walking towards her. Perhaps he will let me see her, though I rather doubt Caesar's lap dog has any brains of his own. She straightened and stood more upright as he walked up to her, a guarded emotion on his face, and a darkening bruise on his left eye. The tall Roman warrior came and stood before her.
"What made you scream?" he demanded.
"I was having a nightmare. And no wonder. Do you have any idea how uncomfortable it is to be tied up standing all night??" Gabrielle snapped, then blanched as she saw anger in his face.
"Who marked your face?" Brutus asked, touching a rough finger to her red cheek.
"Actually, I was screaming at the time. I wasn't paying attention." Jeez, Gabrielle. A bit testy this morning? she admonished herself.
"Sir. I did sir," answered the soldier still standing beside her. "She had been sleeping, sir, then her eyes just opened up and she started screaming to wake the dead. I know we were told not to..."
"Yes." Brutus interrupted. "But you took it upon yourself to disobey that order. Thankfully you did right, but you still disobeyed. You'll have to be punished."
"I knew that when I did it, sir," the soldier replied firmly.
"Go to your commander. Tell him ten lashes." Brutus turned back to Gabrielle as the soldier saluted and strode off.
Gabrielle took a deep breath. I must see Xena, I have to know they haven't hurt her. "Please, let me see Xena. That was her, making all that noise below, wasn't it?" When Brutus nodded, she continued. "She probably thinks you're hurting me. Please. Just for a moment," she begged.
"No. But I will give a message to her from you if you wish. Even I do not go against Caesar, and I am closest to him," he replied.
Gabrielle nodded and turned her thoughts inward. Something Xena would know had come from me. Think. Think. Ahh...hope this works. She turned her attention back to Brutus. "Tell her I'm ok. That it was just a nightmare. This next bit is so that she knows it's from me, ok?" she insisted. "Tell her...I'm hungry and yes, I know I'm a bottomless pit. Say it exactly that way."
"You're hungry? You want me to tell her you're hungry and that yes, you know you're a bottomless pit?" Gabrielle almost laughed out loud at the puzzled expression on his face.
"It's an inside joke. Really, it's ok. She'll understand." Brutus nodded and walked off to go belowdecks.
Xena should get a kick out of that. Gabrielle thought to herself, as she was finally alone and fully awake. She took stock of her surroundings and her condition. Well, except for some aches and nicks from Callisto and from being tied standing up all night, I guess I'm ok. A lot better than Xena must be from rowing all night. Oh gods, I hope she's ok.
* * * * *
Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip. Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip. Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip.
Xena alone on a bench meant for two galley slaves. She had been stripped of her leathers, to make it easier for the Rowmaster to flick the whip onto her back, and wore now only a sweat drenched shift fit for rags or slaves. The other slaves ignored her, knowing she was a special one. Favored of Caesar himself, only down here to start the breaking process of her body, mind, and soul. She ignored them as well, seeing that they couldn't help her, and that they would be punished severely if she talked to them.
Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip. Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip. Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip.
The monotony had long since driven Xena into her thoughts, her body automatically doing its duty over and over again. Her body was drenched with sweat, her eyes long since closed to prevent the sharp sting of it from annoying them. Her shift hung next to her like a second skin, it's once white fabric darkened by its previous owners years of filth and sweat, and who knew what else.
Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip. Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip. Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip.
Xena's mind wandered as the time passed. Memories, visions, nightmares, all were relentlessly dredged up and processed whether she willed it or not.
Caesar. When she had first seen him, she had been drawn like a moth to the flame. But she wanted to be the flame and had had the power over him at that moment. How easily was I fooled. Gods, was I young. Glances. Touches. Kisses. Caresses. Words. With all of these Xena had stalked him, not knowing that she had been the real prey. Finally lovers. Xena hadn't had very many back then, and so had trusted someone that she had ransomed off. Trusted and had been betrayed.
Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip. Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip. Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip.
Then memories of pain washed over her, as she saw again her men being crucified beside her. The mind shattering pain of her legs being broken at her betraying lover's command. The sad slow pain as her men died around her and as she started to let go of life. The hope and joy of M'Lila's touch as she killed the remaining soldiers on that beach, and brought her gently down from her wooden prison. The same shattering pain as Niklio reset her legs. And then the worst pain of all, as tracking soldiers found Niklio's cabin and killed M'Lila before Xena could slaughter them. That pain had been forced back into a deep dark corner by her rage. Rage that she let carry over her for many years. Rage at Caesar that she still harbored inside. Rage at herself even more for letting that dark emotion bring harm to others. Especially Gabrielle.
Other memories, more ghastly then those. Memories of what she had done over the years. Cirra. That memory, like most of her memories in that time, hadn't been painful till after Hercules. But the rage, hatred, and arrogance of those years swept through her like the tide. And almost endless stream of nameless villages, and even longer line of dead soldiers, many of them by her own hands, passed through her mind's eye without relief. Rage and self-hate threatened to drown her soul.
Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip. Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip. Pull. Raise the oar. Push. Dip.
Then Hercules' visage flashed in her mind, bringing her the promise of peace and redemption. Gods, was that one of the hardest and easiest decisions to make in my life. That...and Gabrielle. At the thought of her best friend, the image of their first meeting entered her mind, and how she had left Poteidaia with more cargo than she had going in. Ahh, Gabrielle, you once asked me if you are who I made you. Sometimes I wonder if the answer I gave you was right. Without me you wouldn't have been hurt so much..and lost so much.. Trust, loyalty, friendship. All of these Xena treasured from her friend. But still there was rage in her depths. A kernel that festered and ate at her soul whenever she thought about her past.
Caesar. Xena winced inside as she saw Gabrielle so clearly crucified before her, and the mallet swinging to smash those legs that had walked beside her across many lands. Britannia gave me more nightmares than a full year of warlord destruction and mayhem. Nightmares where I don't make it on time, and Gabrielle's screams of pain wake me shivering with dread. Nightmares where I'm running to the temple, but I never get any closer. Nightmares about that damned child. Nightmares and more nightmares. It would be nice to have a good dream once in a while. But my dreams aren't as bad as Gabrielle's. We've talked about it, but I don't think I can ever forgive myself for it. First Perdicus and now Britannia. Don't worry Gabrielle, I promise...I promise I won't let my hatred and shortsightedness cost you anything in Rome. I...
Xena's thoughts were dashed away as a scream echoed through the ship. She knew that sound anywhere, and immediately went into action. Taking the long oar, she slid its length up till she had a good sized piece, then braced it against her knee. Ignoring the aches and pains of her body, she quickly snapped the oar in two, and stood up with her new staff in hand.
The chains, linking her arm and leg shackles to the deck, kept her from full movement but that didn't stop the warrior. Seeing the Rowmaster still frozen in shock at the scream that echoed through the deck, Xena set the end of the staff just under the iron hook that kept her chains in place, and heaved. Under the pressure of the warrior's muscle and the leverage of the staff, the hook gave easily, and Xena was free except for her shackles, but the warrior had fought with more hindrances before.
Gathering herself, she jumped up unto the platform that ran down the length of the ship, in between the two rows of slaves, and charged to the hatch that led above. She had to take short quick steps, but Xena didn't let it stop her.
The Rowmaster turned and gasped in surprise as she rushed him, than collapsed in pain as Xena knocked him to the ground with a blow to the head.
One of the soldiers guarding the slaves shouted the alarm, and several soldiers boiled out of a nearby doorway and blocked her way to the deck above, wielding clubs.
Xena grinned, and took a step back, to ready herself. Taking the staff, she twirled it around her body, then brought it before her in a defensive move. "I really don't have time for this boys, but if you really want to play..." She stepped forward to the soldier nearest her before he could react. Sweeping the staff down low, she connected with his unprotected knees sending him back into a couple of his fellows.
Sensing it before she saw it, the warrior reached back and grabbed the arm. Twisting harshly, she made the soldier drop the club he had aimed for her head, then pulling him off balance she shoved him towards the small pile of soldiers.
The scream ended with a suddenness that ran like a bitter cold wind through Xena, and she redoubled her efforts to reach the hatch.
"Now you are making me mad, boys...and you really don't want to make me mad," Xena purred, as she thrust the staff forward into a soldier's throat, then parried another incoming blow on the return. Taking the staff, she rapped the soldier on the hand smartly then stepped quickly in and headbutted him as his club fell.
Xena purposefully caught a weak kick in the stomach, slamming up with her staff into the soldier's groin, then spun the staff around in a wide arc catching several in the face and knocking them back.
"Damn! Are all of you incompetent?" Came the growl from just behind her. Xena grinned wickedly, recognizing the voice and took two quick steps back and slammed her elbow into Brutus' face.
The warrior grinned as she heard a deep groan, but she otherwise ignored him, instead she disabled another soldier with a swift blow to the head.
"Xena!! Stop!! I'm ok! Really!" came the shout from above. Xena froze in indecision, then quickly put her staff at the Rowmaster's throat, and turned to Brutus who was standing again.
"If this is a trick and if you've hurt her...?" Xena growled.
Brutus looked at the woman before him, stunned by her ferocity. "I'll go see for myself if you wish. But you must go back to your seat, Xena. Caesar will be displeased as it is."
"I could care less how pleased or displeased he is. Let me go see.." she demanded.
"No," he interrupted. "Go back to your seat, Xena. You don't demand here, you row at Caesar's pleasure. If you don't..." He glanced up at the hatch. "She'll be dead before you can even kill me."
"Don't ever bet against me, Brutus. You'll lose every time." Then Xena nodded and threw down the broken oar she had used as a staff, and with a sneer, daring them to touch her, she walked calmly past the silent rows of slaves to her seat. Brutus nodded as if satisfied and immediately went above deck to keep his promise.
The soldiers, none of them crucially hurt, sorted themselves out, as the Rowmaster shakily stood and made his way down the aisle to Xena to make sure she was once again secured and arrange for another oar.
The warrior just looked at him with a stony glare and waited for him to do his worst.
* * * * *
The raiders rode down upon the village. Their leader was a tall dark man wearing red leathers. Like a pack of ravishing wolves they descended upon the doomed villagers. The raiders were not surprised to find some of the more braver of the peasants wielding staffs and scythes in defense of their people, but only laughed as they rode them down.
One figure stood like stone in the midst of the village and watched, an invisible observer, as the raiders pillaged and plundered to their hearts' content.
Ares gazed with fondness upon the playfulness of his worshippers. Though this minor skirmish was nothing in comparison to the roar of the battlefield, even here a warrior used Ares gifts and yelled his name in joy. Sometimes, like now, the war god watched the minor plunder of a village just to give himself a taste.
"Ahh..I just love the smell of burning huts in the morning." The god of war breathed deeply the smells of fire and blood, his mind shivering in pleasure at the sounds of terror and the taste of smoke.
"You would," came a reply from just behind him.
Ares smiled, but didn't turn around. "Getting quite good with your powers Callisto. You snuck up on me. I'm impressed."
The blond goddess made her way around Ares, the fires of the village gleaming in her eyes. "It figures that where I find villages burning, I'd find you, Ares. You're so...predictable," she purred.
"What is it with you young goddesses? That is just the second time in just a few full moons that I've been told that." Ares' lip curled up in contempt.
Callisto threw back her head and laughed, the shrill cry causing Ares to wince.
Well, there goes that eardrum. The god of war turned and watched the raider leader gallop past and behead one of the unlucky defenders. "Nice technique. Backhanded even. I'll have to make it a point to watch him in the future," he said aloud to himself, then turned back to his visitor.
His eyes narrowed slightly and a small smile caressed his lips as he saw the goddess entranced by the flames soaring high into the sky. With a warrior's grace he stepped to her side and leaned near her, his voice sensually low in her ear.
"Hypnotic isn't it? What do you see when you gaze into the flames, Callisto? I see glory. Blood on swords and shields. I see thousands of warriors crashing together in a dance of steal, muscle, and blood, both sides calling my name for victory. I see..." he purred, but was interrupted.
"I see Xena." Callisto spun her head, looking Ares in the eye. Rage poured from her and madness covered her like armor. Her lips peeled back in an animalistic snarl, her hands clenched into claws that threatened to tear Ares limb from limb. Invisible energy crackled and spun around her, like tendrils, snapping with a life of their own.
Then, as suddenly as it had come upon her, the rage was gone, or at least the physical signs of it. Only an eyeblink of time had passed, but to Ares it seemed like years.
Wow! What ferocity! What a shame it didn't work out before between us. Ahh..but now she's a goddess. Hmm..this bears thinking about. Too bad, though, it isn't Xena here in front of me, the god of war mused silently.
"I see Xena." Callisto repeated, the snarl gone, replaced by a deceptively sweet smile.
Ares was not fooled, still seeing the fires glowing in her eyes, both real and emotional.
"Yes, you said that. Still stuck on Xena, are we? You'd think that now that you're a goddess, you'd have better things to do," Ares stated, trying to sound bored with the subject.
"As much as you after she's told you time and time again that she's not yours anymore." The goddess grinned.
Ares raised an eyebrow a little and shrugged. "I'm not trying to destroy her, unlike you. I'm trying to give her the world on a golden platter at her feet. No offense, Callisto dear, but she's the best. Even better then you were as a mortal. You copied everything about her. Her style, her choice of weapons, and still you couldn't beat her. I'm not going to waste that talent for glory and bloodshed she has. And now that you're a goddess, I can directly take action against you if you try to harm her."
The god of war reached out a lean hand, laying his fingers just under Callisto's jaw and wrapped his long fingers along the back of her neck. With the strength born of only a god, he brought Callisto unwillingly closer to him.
"Do I make myself clear, Callisto?" he snarled, his eyes as cold as flint.
With a answering strength, that made Ares' eyes widen momentarily in surprise, Callisto pried his fingers away, though not easily, smiling all the while.
"Shall I finish what I was going to say?" Callisto grinned evily, ignoring his threat.
Ares threw up his hands. "Fine! Go ahead! Then please leave...you're ruining my fun."
"Temper. Temper." She admonished, waggling a slim finger at him. "Like I was saying. I see Xena...in Rome." The last words came from her lips like a purr. So low toned that they raced up Ares' spine as he turned back to her.
"Rome? What is Xena doing in Rome?" he demanded.
The goddess' eyes danced with glee. "It seems as if she's a...well, you could say guest, I suppose, but the word doesn't convey the right message. Hmmm..perhaps prisoner would do? Yes...she's a prisoner of another favored follower of yours. You'll never guess who it is, either." She almost quivered with excitement.
Ares was still, his body frozen in shock. Then he spoke, his voice the clash of swords in battle, the cry of a warrior as he vanquished his enemies, the howl of an army in victory, the voice of the god of war. "If I find you the least bit responsible Callisto, I'll destroy you just as easily as if you were still a mortal." Then in a bright flash of light he was gone.
For a moment Callisto stood in the flickering light of the burning village staring at the spot where Ares has just been. Then an eyebrow rose and she grinned mischievously.
"And what prize does Ares win for the correct guess? Ahh...but threats will get you nowhere Ares, especially by the time I'm done." Callisto threw back her head and released a howl of laughter from deep within her. Then she spun around, watching the village burn and the raiders finish their fun.
Hmmm...perhaps Aphrodite was right. I really need to relax some time and step on a village or two. It just looks so fun, Callisto mused. Then just like Ares she disappeared, leaving the ashes of the village to blow away upon the winds.
* * * * *
The Roman ship coasted under the expert eye of its captain, coming to a smooth stop along the dock. A flurry of activity commenced as ropes were flung and securely tied to stout pilings, and a wide gangplank was lowered from the ship. Roman legionnaires, from the Emperor's own Elite guard, marched in tempo from the ship, then lined up to protect Caesar's way to his chariot.
Finally after several silent moments, Caesar appeared on deck. During the day and a half voyage back to dry land he had stayed in his quarters, with orders not to be disturbed at all costs. Calmly he waited as the bard was released from the mast and brought before him.
"I heard you caused quite a commotion yesterday," he stated to her simply, his dark eyes boring into her.
Gabrielle stood gingerly, trying not to move too quickly. After a day and a half of being tied to the mast, except for a quick break to relieve her bladder, the bard was tired and very, very sore. Even her energy level was low, for the soldiers had only fed her a small end of bread and a few gulps of water during that whole time. She had lost a lot of fluids, being under the hot sun on deck, but despite all that she refused to show her discomforts.
"Umm...sorry about that. Just a bad dream," Gabrielle replied, trying not to look sheepish in front of him. The power of the man from just standing in front of her was immense and she was having a hard time trying to think clearly. Xena's right...like a moth to the flame, she observed.
"Xena will be up here in a moment to join us. I'm looking forward to seeing how she liked being a galley slave myself. But first we have to make sure your not going to be a problem if she decides to start something again." Slowly he looked her up and down, making the bard feel like a piece of merchandise. Then with a quick nod to Brutus, he leaned back against a railing to watch, his lips barely lifted in a smile.
Brutus stepped forward with a set of chains in his hands. Gabrielle's eyes opened wide as he came closer, a shiver of fear threatening to overwhelm her.
"Is this really necessary? I mean...I could promise not to run away if you want..ummm." She lifted her eyes to Caesar, than frowned at his look. Fine. I can do this. No problem. Her eyes narrowed slightly, then she stuck out her hands defiantly towards Brutus.
Brutus took the slim shackles and locked them around her wrists, then did the same for the ones for her ankles, connecting the two sets with a length of chain for that purpose. Then he gently placed one around her neck, making sure it fit loosely so as not to choke her. Finally he snapped a lengthy leash to the collar and handed the end to Caesar.
This is very degrading. I feel like...someone's pet. Gabrielle groaned inwardly. The extra weight was heavy, dragging on her tired body.
"Ahh..just in time. Good day, Xena." Caesar smiled, gently swaying the fine chain leash back and forth as the warrior come into view on the ladder.
Xena came up on the deck and stretched as far as her chains would let her, ignoring Caesar for the moment. She turned to Gabrielle and frowned at the heavy chains on her. "Are you ok?"
"Lousy service, but otherwise fine. You?" Gabrielle glanced at Caesar then back to Xena. The Roman was just leaning there watching the two.
"I've had harder days working out with Joxer." Xena gave her a lopsided grin. "Heard your still a bottomless pit."
Gabrielle grinned. "Yep, I'll admit it." Well, I'm shocked. Brutus kept his promise.
"How touching." Caesar interrupted. "Well, you know how much I hate to break up your little reunion but we need to get going. Xena, I'm sure I don't have to tell you to behave yourself. The consequences would be...unfortunate."
"I've already heard it," she answered simply.
Caesar turned and strode down the gangplank leading Gabrielle by her leash. Xena was escorted amidst a company of soldiers several feet back, her steps hampered by a shortened chain and heavy weights that had been attached since the attack.
Gabrielle was having a hard time matching her steps to Caesar, since she was unused to walking in shackles. Every time she would stumble the leash would grow taut and jerk her along. Hissing in irritation she started taking shorter steps, but more of them, until it felt as if she was running. Finally they reached the end of the pier and Caesar's chariot.
It was a massive piece, all white and gold embossed led by four matching white stallions, with room enough for six people standing, more than ample space for Caesar, Gabrielle and his driver alone on it. Caesar impatiently tugged the leash, making the bard climb up awkwardly.
Xena had managed the walk down the dock with deceptive ease, though her body ached tremendously and the weights constantly threatened to pull her down. But the warrior refused to let it bother her; instead her mind and sight were focused on Gabrielle's and Caesar's backs.
Ignoring the soldiers around her, she scowled several times as her friend stumbled and hurried after the Roman. Every scrape. Every bump. Every scratch. I'm going to remember every single thing, Caesar. Xena started to think, then froze in horror. Anger again. What am I to do? I can't let him just treat her that way! But at the same time I can't give in to my anger, it has cost us so much.
Xena let herself be led to a barred wagon and jumped inside. It was a well built vehicle, made of strong iron bars on the four sides and top. Even the doors was built well, she noticed, as the key was turned and Xena was locked in. In reflex, almost absentmindedly, she thought of ways to escape and get to Gabrielle.
Abruptly the wagon moved and they were on their way. A legion of soldiers broke their path and another walked alongside and behind them. The Emperor of Rome was heading back to his city with his prize, and its citizens were waiting for him.
Thousands flocked to the procession road, to get a rare glimpse of their ruler. Men, women, children of all ages. Old soldiers and younger men dreaming of glory as a soldier in his army. Noble women and their slaves screamed the name of Caesar alongside each other, for once equals. Young children gazed in awe at the man who was almost equal to the gods themselves in their world.
Gabrielle gaped in awe at the attention given the man next to her. They worship him almost as if he is a god to them. No wonder he is so arrogant, and probably addicted to it. It's a far more heady emotion than anything I've ever gotten from telling stories.
Xena was having a harder time in her cage dealing with the crowd than Gabrielle, but then she was seeing a different side of them. The warrior was doing her best to ignore it though.
The word had spread of Xena and of how she had beaten and thrown back Caesar's forces in Britannia. She was called many names, the least of which was the "Whore of Greece," as she was carried past. Xena kept her eyes forward, looking at Gabrielle, who could only spare a glance or two of concern as she tried to hang on. She didn't flinch as rotten fruit and stones were thrown at her, one giving her a bad cut on the cheek, but she stoically kept her sight forward.
The procession made its way slowly towards the center of Rome, finally stopping at the foot of the Senate stairs. When the wagon stopped, Xena was roughly brought down and escorted forward. Handing off Gabrielle's leash to Brutus, Caesar made his way along the soldier-guarded lane to the marble speaking platform, ignoring Xena, who was being marched a safe distance behind him.
Gabrielle watched her friend with concern. It was bad enough that they were captured, but to humiliate her friend? The bard frowned in irritation. I just hope she doesn't try to kill him in front of all these people, and knowing Xena she just might try to. Somehow I don't think the Romans would appreciate their Emperor being assassinated in front of them. I'd rather we both get out of this alive.
The bard stood silently under the watchful eye of Brutus and their guards, as Caesar stepped up onto the platform and greeted the Senators who waited there for him. She gasped as Xena suddenly fell to her knees and was unceremoniously dragged the rest of the way. By the gods, she must be exhausted.
The crowd was in ecstasy as it roared Caesar's name over and over again. Caesar turned from greeting the Senators and stood there, letting the sound wash over him. He shuddered in pleasure. How he loved the sound of his people yelling his name.
Xena was dragged up the stairs to the platform and made to kneel a safe distance beside Caesar. He's going to humiliate you in front of his people. So? Big deal. Just ignore the pain of your body and keep your mind on getting yourself and Gabrielle out of here. That's what is most important. Though if I can safely "Divide and Conquer" his head from his body without endangering Gabrielle I'll probably take the chance.
Xena smiled for the first time since leaving the ship and look down into the crowd. Spotting Gabrielle she winked, then chuckled as she saw the apprehension and fear for the warrior in her eyes. She probably thinks I'm going to try and kill him up here. Gabrielle, you should know better. I don't need this much of an audience.
Xena chuckled aloud and was cuffed alongside the head by a guard. Turning her head she looked up at him, then spit right into his eye.
Caesar frowned as his attention was disrupted, and turned to the scene beside him. Seeing Xena spit in the eye of one of his Centurions, he nodded when the guard looked at him questioningly, then turned back to his people when the guards started to beat her for a moment.
The crowd roared anew at the sight, then quieted when Caesar raised his hand. His voice carried clearly out amongst the people and brought them their good news.
"My people, I have returned from a very short voyage out to sea, where Neptune in his graciousness has delivered unto me the 'Empire's Greatest Enemy'." He stopped and waited patiently for a moment as the people shouted his name in joy, then continued when they once again were silent.
"Several months ago I personally took certain of my legions to Britannia to win that land for the glory of Rome. I had prayed to the gods for victory, had given fitting sacrifices to Mars, and had the best of generals at my side. But I was defeated." A low moan rushed through the crowd in remembrance of that day.
"Yes. I was defeated in battle by an enemy so vile and so savage that she couldn't stand to stay in her own land and try and conquer it. No...she had to come to Britannia and kill Romans that were there to fight for Rome! By treachery she won!" he shouted.
"But," he stopped their cries. "That is now over and we are still on Britannia and shall still win that land for the good of Rome and its people, and we have "Rome's Greatest Enemy" in our grasp to do with what we will. I have brought you, the people of Rome, who have lost fathers, brothers, sons, uncles and nephews on the battlefield of Britannia to this woman's vile treacheries...I have brought you...XENA!!!"
Gabrielle was glad that she was standing by Brutus at that moment, though not thrilled. The multitude surged around her, its emotions pounding like the surf on a beach, almost palpable in its intensity. Howls of anger at her friend mixed with the fierce devoted cries of Caesar's name. The bard felt a small tug on her leash and looked up at Brutus and was surprised to find compassion there.
"Don't worry. Caesar has other plans than throwing your friend to the crowd at this moment. Though in the end it might be better to end it for her now," he said to her softly.
The bard was in shock. Sympathy from a Roman, for Xena? For a friend of Xena's? For me? She couldn't quite believe it, yet here he was looking down at her with sad almost regretful eyes.
"What plans?" she asked daringly.
"That you'll find out soon enough." He turned and spoke to a guard, the crowd's noise drowning out his words so that Gabrielle couldn't hear them, then he brought his attention back to her. "Xena is lucky this day actually."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. "Lucky. You call this lucky?"
"Caesar didn't have to order his men to make sure of her safety. If the crowd breaks through and kills her, he has ordered the whole Legion whipped. And that goes for your safety too." He said, pointing out the armed soldiers guarding them, then he turned his focus to Caesar.
The people were finally starting to calm down, having tried to break through the heavy rows of Legionnaires that blocked their way to Xena. After a few more moments Caesar, continued his speech.
"You wish to have her, and I do not blame you. But I have plans for this woman, this woman that thinks she is a warrior. This woman that thinks she can defeat the might of Rome and get away with it. NO! I will not give her to you, for her blood to be spilt quickly on the stones before me. Instead I will let her be what she thinks she is...I will let her be a warrior. I will send her to...the Coliseum!!!" he shouted.
Caesar turned and smiled at Xena, who had knelt there silently gazing dispassionately at a point out in the crowd. He frowned slightly when he saw she showed no reaction to what he had said about her and her fate. He turned back to the crowd that was once more still, waiting eagerly for his next words.
"This is my wish. But it is not for my own pleasure I do this, but for yours. To show you that no man or woman can come against Rome and not suffer the consequences!! This is to show others out there who would dare defy our Empire, that we will not be swayed in our task! This is to show that Rome and its people are one, and that to harm one soldier will bring the might of Rome upon them with the harshest of fists!!" Caesar shouted, raising his arms out to his people.
The crowd responded predictably, shouting his name to the heavens. Caesar had just helped erase a lot of the damage that the campaign in Britannia had caused. And by keeping Xena alive and throwing her to the gladiatorial wolves in the Coliseum, he had just provided them with days, weeks, perhaps even months of entertainment from seeing an enemy of the state humilated and fighting for her life.
Caesar turned and walked past Xena, slowing down only to nod at the approving Senators on the platform with him, then making his way back down to his chariot. Climbing aboard he motioned for Brutus to enter also, taking the bard's leash when it was handed to him.
"To the Colesium," he ordered his drivers and held on tightly as the spirited team started to move.
Gabrielle held on tightly, making sure she didn't fall off and choke to death being dragged by the chariot, but her attention was mostly focused on Xena, who was being unceremoniously dragged back to her cage. She looked barely conscious, blood running down her bruised face into her filthy shift. If not for the fact that Gabrielle could see her trying to put her own legs underneath her as she was being dragged, Gabrielle would have thought her unconscious. For a moment she feared for her friend as the crowd surged forward and threatened to break through., but the Roman soldiers held their positions and forced the citizens back. I can't believe I'm thankful for a Roman Legion to guard us, she thought in disbelief.
As they traveled through the streets of Rome, Gabrielle finally took a look at the city she had been brought to. She was amazed at the architecture and the immensity of size of the city itself. It sprawled out upon the land, with buildings, people, animals all calling it home. Temples for every Roman god were everywhere, different names but Gabrielle knew the Roman gods, for the most part, were the same as the ones she had grown up with.
Finally the procession stopped in front of a tall circular structure. Gabrielle had heard of this place, of course, in passing gossip from travelers from Rome, but didn't know much about it. Only that it was a place for bloodsports. Gabrielle shivered. And he is putting Xena in there. Well, how bad could it be really...I knew Darnell and he seemed a nice guy. Once you get over that overabundance of hormones he has.
As the chariot pulled up in front of the main entrance, a very short man came out, bowing and scraping before Caesar. His small body was clad in brown leathers and he wore a slave's collar around his neck. Gabrielle was confused to see that he was armed though.
"Oh, Mighty Caesar. Welcome to the Coliseum. We are plea..." the man said.
Caesar interrupted him. "Yes. Yes. I have someone new for you, Atrius. Someone special."
Atrius stood and looked at Gabrielle. "Well Caesar, with some work we can have her ready in about three mon..."
"No. Not her. At least not yet." He spared a sardonic look for Gabrielle, who just lowered her eyes refusing to look at him. "No. The one I wish for you to use is my other prisoner." He motioned for the guards to bring Xena forward.
Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably as they brought Xena alongside the chariot. Her friend was more injured than before, having to ride the rest of the procession being the target of more thrown objects. Blood ran down her face, giving the bard a brief shiver as she was reminded of her nightmares lately. Bruises covered most of her body, and the weighted shackles were starting to leave bloody chafes on her wrists, ankles and neck.
The bard started to get down from the chariot to make her way to Xena, but was roughly brought up short as she reached the end of her leash. Forgot where I was for a moment. Oh Xena...Gabrielle's eyes were moist as she looked down upon her friend.
"Hmm...she doesn't look very much alive at the moment." Atrius spoke, looking over the collapsed form.
"It's your job to make sure she lives to entertain me. In fact I want her up and out there in a blood fight within three days. Is that clear Atrius?"
"Yes, Caesar." Atrius bowed and motioned the soldiers that were dragging Xena to follow him.
Caesar made no move to release Gabrielle to go with her friend. Finally in frustration she spoke.
"Let me go with her," she demanded, looking him in the eye.
Caesar was silent a moment as he stood there studing her. There's that fire again, he mused. What to do with her. "No. I think I'll keep you under guard where Xena can't get to you. Besides, if she's wondering where you are, she won't be thinking straight, will you, Xena?" He said this last looking down at the warrior woman.
The once seemingly unconscious body suddenly stood, taking her arms away from the soldiers' grasps and looking icily at Caesar. Gabrielle was pleased to see her friend standing on her own and seemingly not affected by the blood and bruises on her body. It's that damned...I'm a bad ass warrior and I don't feel anything. Well, this time I'm glad she's not giving him the satisfaction of showing that she's really hurting. Gabrielle narrowed her eyes and pointedly looked Xena up and down, then looked back into her eyes. And I know you are hurting Xena...I'm just really annoyed right now that I can't help you.
Xena saw her friend's look and smiled. "I'm ok, Gabrielle. Take care of yourself. I'm sure we'll see each other soon." Then she turned back to Caesar. "In fact I'm sure we will. You wouldn't have it any other way would you? I'm sure you'd love to have her beside you as you watch me fight in the arena."
Caesar raised an eyebrow. "Good idea, Xena. But just in case your planning anything, know this. I'll have twenty of my best archers on you at all times, in case you try anything. All it will take is a signal from me and you'll be dinner for the lions."
"Overly dramatic." Xena muttered, then snickered as Caesar scowled at her.
"Atrius." The Roman ruler turned to the small man. "Take her in and treat her well...I want weeks of her entertaining the people." Then Caesar turned and motioned his driver to the palace.
"Xena," Gabrielle said simply as the chariot started to pull away, her gut twisting in fear for her companion.
Xena's eyes looked deep into her own green, connecting them. She smiled gently to reassure the bard. "Don't worry, Gabrielle," Xena assured her friend, as the warrior was shoved towards the entrance to the arena. "I don't make good lion food."
The bard looked back silently as they moved down the road keeping her friend in her sight, till finally they were separated. Faith. I must have faith in her. I've got to work on my end too, she'll expect that, to get us out of here. And she's right, any lions would probably choke on her. Tough and stringy. The bard tried not to chuckle, but couldn't help a wayward grin.
Xena kept her eyes on her friend till she was out of sight, then turned back to pay attention to where she was being led. Then they passed under the huge stone archway, and entered the small world that was the Coliseum of Rome.
The high stone hallways echoed with their footsteps as they walked deeper into the Coliseum till they came to a great door made of iron bars. Six guards looked them up and down, then seeing Atrius one of them nodded and unlocked the door.
Atrius stopped and turned to their escort. "This is as far as you are allowed to go."
The Centurion leader nodded, and left with his men. Atrius turned to Xena. "Follow me."
Xena debated whether to make a break for it. But, though were only the six guards, they looked competent and Xena knew she was too weak to be able to do more than take out one or two before falling. And there was Gabrielle to consider. With a shrug she complied, and trailed after the small man, hearing but ignoring the loud clang as the door was shut behind them, and the sound of the key being turned.
They walked alone down the ill-lit hall, silent for moments except for Atrius' footsteps, Xena's being silent. Soon, muffled sounds could be faintly hear coming from ahead of them. Laughter, shouts, the sound of metal against metal, and the grunts of people straining in combat.
As they drew closer, they passed another gate with another set of guards. Xena raised an eyebrow and spoke.
"Paranoid, aren't they?"
"What do you expect? They have some of the best fighters in all of the world here, slaves to their whims and bloodthirst. You can't expect them to willingly stay here," Atrius replied.
Xena just nodded and they went on. Soon they were at a final gate, and passed it with the same routine as before. Then everything changed. The hallways were brighter, lit by more torches than before. Doors lined the way, each with Roman lettering, names that Xena could easily read. Batrin. Kaladril. Na-ba-rina. Not native names, she observed. But then Romans, for the most part, think they are above getting blood on their hands as a gladiator.
Word had spread quickly that Atrius was bringing "fresh meat" back, and the halls started to show curious watchers. They came in all different sizes and races. Some so fair of skin and hair, that they rivaled Gabrielle. From far, far North of Gaul. Worshippers of Odin and Thor. Tall, proud, almost black warriors that wore very little and carried themselves like kings. From a tribe to the far south. Haven't seen one of them for a long time. Warriors from lands all over could be seen, and all of them were eyeing her in a way that she definitely didn't like.
"Nice. Bringing us a little snack, Atrius? You might have at least cleaned her up first." One of the men said, stepping forward so that Xena would have to brush passed him or run him down.
"Oh...and who would you be?" Xena asked, her voice low and smooth, as she stopped just in front of him. She noticed Atrius stop also, but he just stood and waited for her.
"My name is Tavius Oristan, son of Flavius." The man said proudly, standing a little taller. He reached out a hand towards Xena and caressed her cheek. "And you would be?"
"You're Roman?" she asked, pointedly ignoring his question. "I'm surprised. But than what do you expect from someone who smells like a pig-handler's slop bucket." Xena smiled sweetly.
Tavius snarled and drew back his hand to backslap her, but then suddenly paled. A small noise leaked out of his mouth as he slowly crumpled to the floor.
Xena released her hand from its previous position on his lower extremity, and then grinned evily at the men watching her silently handle Tavius. Some nodded in approval, but most just frowned and gave her a look that promised trouble for another day.
"Lead the way, Atrius." The warrior smiled sweetly down at the man, suddenly feeling much better. Since the fight on the rower's deck, Xena had been powerless to do anything. That had led to being very frustrated at their circumstances. And a frustrated Xena is not nice to be around, she chuckled to herself.
Atrius led her past more rooms, and more curious onlookers. The place seemed like a maze, with twists and turns and a multitude of passages. Xena wasn't sure how far they were below ground level now, having gone down several stairs and winding ramps. They passed quite a few practice yards and the sounds of men practicing their craft could be clearly heard.
Atrius noticed her attention on the yard as they passed and smiled at her. "There are only a few rules down here. One of them is that everyday you practice. All weapons are kept under close guard unless your scheduled for a fight above. You practice with blunted weapons suited to you.
"No maiming or killing off the sands of the arena itself," he continued. "The citizens of Rome don't like to see a scheduled fight canceled due to a brawl they didn't get to watch."
"You wear a weapon." Xena pointed out with her bound hands.
Atrius looked at her a moment, then slowed his pace and scanned around for anyone who would be watching or listening to their conversation. For the moment they were alone and he seemed satisfied.
"Dammit Xena! How could you get so careless!" Atrius growled lowly.
Xena smiled at her old friend. "Bad luck. Bad timing. And bad god, basically."
"Is there any other kind of god?" Atrius joked.
Xena chuckled. "Been a long time, Atrius."
"Athens. Six years."
"You. Me. And two jugs of very good wine under Athena's Sacred Olive Tree." Xena's eyes gleamed at the memory. Not many of those good memories from back then.
"The High Priestess was really angry." Atrius laughed softly.
"It's not my fault I like olives."
"Xena...they were fresh right off the tree," he pointed out.
"Yeah. They were rather disgusting."
Atrius snickered. "The look on that Priestess's face when you threw up on her gown...precious." Suddenly he grew very serious. "Xena. Rome is not a healthy place for you to be."
"Tell me something I don't already know." She rolled her eyes and snorted in amusement.
"Ok. I'm in charge of the Coliseum."
"I figured it was something like that. It's rather unusual to have armed slaves running free," she replied.
Atrius nodded. "Yes it is. I'm highly trusted however, and I have power here."
"You're still a slave. You wear the collar," she replied.
He touched the iron ring around his throat absently. "Yes, but then so are you now. And you're the reason why I'm here."
Xena narrowed her eyes. There's always another reminder of my past anywhere I go. "You're probably right. You're not the only one I trained, Atrius."
"Yes, I know. Come, we are almost to your cell," the small man said, then sped his pace back up.
Xena was silent as she followed him, though her mind was actively dredging up memories.
"We're here. A word of advice, Xena. Let's keep our prior friendship quiet. It's going to be hard enough for you here as it is. Tavius is very popular here, and though I know you had to do it, bringing him to his knees in front of the others was not a smart thing to do."
"I don't let people take advantage of me, Atrius."
"I know." Atrius opened the door and led Xena inside.
They were in a very wide and long hallway. The floor was covered with iron bars with a small walkway running down the length of the hallway for pedestrians. Every few lengths an locked iron grate led down into a deep cell. Three guards stood at various position in the hallway, all of them armed with heavy bows and swords.
"I see I'm getting the best room in the inn." Xena said with bitter sarcasm, for the benefit of the guards.
"Everyone comes here when they first enter the confines of the Coliseum. If you live long enough, and if you prove yourself trustworthy, you'll get regular quarters like the men," he instructed.
Xena followed him along the pathway, gazing down at other "new" residents, till Atrius stopped at an empty cell.
"You should feel lucky, this one was mine." He turned and signaled a guard to unlock the grate, then motioned Xena to drop in.
"I don't suppose I could get a room with a view instead?" she quipped.
Atrius' mouth quivered. "In," he ordered.
Xena chuckled evily and dropped in. The heavy weights and chains drew her off balance for a moment, but she recovered and landed on her feet. The guard locked the grate above her.
Atrius threw down a key. "The collar isn't removable. Once its closed its made to stay closed. Take off the rest and hand them up."
Xena nodded and quickly divested herself of the chains, shackles, and weights. Suddenly free of many extra pounds, her shoulders felt odd. She stretched for a moment, getting kinks out of her back that had been there for two days. Then she handed up her burden and the key, gladly getting them out of her sight.
"I don't suppose I could get a bath drawn and a change of attire?" Xena's eyes were twinkling as she sneered up at Atrius and the guards.
"You'll stay in this cell except for practice times. Bathing, eating, sleeping and anything else you can find to pass the time will done in here. If you are ever moved to other quarters you'll share bathing facilities with the others. You'll be given water for baths in your cell here twice a day, after practice and evenings." Atrius was silent a moment as if considering some point, then he shrugged.
"Welcome to Rome and the Coliseum. Welcome to your new life...Xena, property of Caesar." He left her hurling curses at him in more tongues than he knew himself.
Continued in Part Four
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