by Hunter Ash
Xena was worried about Hercules scouring Italia for a "Germanic slave" with everyone's emotions running high towards war and she was worried for Gabrielle, mostly. It didn't help that she was feeling herself getting close to welcoming a baby into her life. Her body was screaming in frustration, she was uncomfortable all the time and irritable. Sasha and the other women just smiled, remembering their own due times and reassured her that it was normal.
Having been irritable most of the time before Solan was born the warrior hadn't noticed the changes in her mood swings. Now she did and wanted nothing more than to have Gabrielle there at her side.
"Yrsa! Quick, raiders are coming!" Ketli yelled as he dashed into the long house. Sasha quickly grabbed up a pack and began throwing containers of herbs, bandages and other things in it.
"Ivar, grab several blankets and get them to the stable. Ketli, hitch up the wagon and throw the blankets in the back and bring the wagon to the back! Hurry!" Sasha ordered.
Xena/Yrsa, struggled to sit up. "What are you doing, Sasha, hand me my sword." she ordered.
"No, warrior friend, I've been timing your pains and you are very close. I am not going to deliver your child in the middle of a battle! Get out and into that wagon. We'll go to the hunting cabin a couple of miles from here. Move!"
"I can fight!"
"In an hour or so you'll be doing nothing but screaming, now move!"
Within minutes the warrior found herself being bounced almost out of the speeding wagon as it dashed across the countryside and up an old trail to the hunting cabin that the men used along a trap line in the winter. Xena wasn't sure if she was going to deliver her baby right then and there with all the bouncing and hung on for dear life as Ketli yelped and Iolaus held tight to the seat next to Sasha.
The raiders had hit quick but Ketli had gotten word to the men working the field and the battle had been going well for Xena's adopted family when they left and she had tried to convince Sasha to stay and wait it out but the stubborn Northerner had refused.
Sasha had been right though about the timing, the pains were getting closer and more intense. Xena bit her lip and then cried out as a wave hit her. Ketli looked concerned and touched the warrior's tanned arm. She tried to smile but gritted her teeth as they hit another bump.
The small boy had taken to the Greeks and had kinda adopted them. The dark haired boy's mother had died in childbirth and his father had been killed on a raid when he was 5 summers old. He stayed close to Iolaus, helping the Greek with the little things, like getting dressed and things that the Greek had problems with now that his arm was barely useful and he liked the strong warrior woman as well and the Northerners has accepted his adoption of their new friends with a smile and shrug. Xena knew the seven year old would soon begin training for his life as a man but in this in-between stage he seemed to be their shadow.
Inside the cabin the warrior couldn't help but cry out now, with the pains coming closer and closer.
Iolaus sat next to her, wiping her forehead with a wet cloth, smiling his encouragement.
"Gabrielle."Xena whispered and closed her eyes and he gently brushed away the tears escaping her closed eyes.
Everyone in the cabin jumped when someone began pounding on the door. Iolaus quickly drew his sword and went to the door and listened.
"Go away," he shouted.
"Please, a small band of raiders are headed this way and I seek shelter!" a voice called.
"No," he said frowning.
"I invoke the right of hospitality, damnit!" the voice demanded and Sasha walked to the door.
"Do you swear no harm to anyone in this room?" she yelled.
"I will swear a blood oath to it before all the gods," the voice answered and Sasha opened the door.
Xena, sitting up on the bed with her sword in hand, took in the visitor. A tall Viking woman, dressed in male clothing and carrying a bow and arrow in her hand with a sword and ax on either hip. She quickly entered the cabin and closed the door behind her. She lowered the bow and drew out a dagger from behind her belt. She made a small slice across her palm and let the blood drip onto the floor.
"I swear by my blood and that of my kin that I mean no harm to anyone in this room and will fight to protect them to the death," she invoked. Sasha nodded welcome and returned to Xena's side as another contraction hit and Xena moaned, gritting her teeth.
"The Norns picked a strange place and time for your little one to be born, friend," the newcomer smiled and went to the boarded up window and opened the narrow slit.
Iolaus went to the other window and could see movement in the trees.
"Warriors approaching, I see maybe six, probably more in the shadows and behind us." he said.
"There were at least fifteen when I made it here," the stranger answered.
"Fifteen, that's not a small band. They're looking for us." Sasha frowned and Xena screamed with another contraction.
"Well, there's no leaving here now," the stranger grinned.
"I am Sasha, wife of Axel. This is Ivar the one handed, Yrsa the Vigilant and Ketli the Mouse."
"I am Grimhild Thornfinndottir. Traveling messenger to the King of the Russ to the East." "Welcome Grimhild to possibly your last day," Sasha said with a smile.
Grimhild grinned back. "It's a small thing. A good day for it, I think."
She turned back and let an arrow fly, hitting a raider in the eye. She notched another arrow and let it fly, dropping another raider.
"How many of those have you got?" Iolaus asked with admiration.
"Not enough and they'll be on the roof and at the door before I can drop all of them. "
Xena screamed again, gripping the bed sheets tightly as Ketli wiped her forehead.
Sasha, helping the warrior, looked over Xena's legs with a grin.
"Well, timing may not be great but you are about to have your child, my friend."
Xena cursed in Greek at the timing and at Ares for getting her in the mess in the first place. Sasha grinned, not understanding the language but the sentiment. She had assisted at births before. The mothers always got really pissed, usually at the men who didn't have to go through all of this.
"Ivar, some of them have torches," Grimhild said with a growl.
Sasha looked up with something Xena had never seen on the woman's face, fear.
"They want to burn us?" she asked no one in particular.
"Looks that way. Ivar, you and me outside the door, Ketli - keep an eye out back for any men with torches and yell if they try and fire the back," Grimhild ordered.
Iolaus nodded and readied his sword as the Viking woman grabbed the door and quickly opened it and dived outside with a Viking war cry. Iolaus followed, sword flashing in the sunlight.
Xena cursed every god she could think of for the timing of this mess, especially Ares and screamed with another contraction. Ketli quickly shut the door behind the warriors and went to the window.
The sounds of the battle faded for the warrior as her body demanded all of her attention and the only sounds she could hear were her own screams of pain and Sasha's reassuring voice. Ketli yelled several times and grabbed up an ax from beside the door.
In between one of the contractions Xena saw the small boy bury the hatchet in a raider's skull as he tried to climb in a window. Ketli yelled an imitation of Grimhild yell and tried to yank the ax out of the man's skull. Sasha jumped up and ran over to help him and handed him the ax.
"Leave the body, it'll block the others," she said simply as she looked in his bright eyes.
"Oh gods, he's so young," Xena whispered as Sasha rejoined her.
"Yes," Sasha agreed and then Xena screamed again.
The world disappeared for the warrior as her screams mingled with those outside and inside the cabin.
Then the pain passed like a wave as tears streamed down the warrior's face. Sasha was grinning at her and wrapping a small bundle in a clean cloth.
"You have a daughter, my friend."
Sasha and Xena both jumped as the door crashed inward and Iolaus fell into the room, a gash on his head, bleeding down the side of his face. He shook his head growling and flipped up to his feet and charged the doorway as two raiders attempted to enter.
Sasha quickly handed the crying infant to Xena and grabbed the warrior's sword and joined Iolaus at the door.
Xena watched with horror, unable to move, as she cradled her new daughter and her friends fought the raiders. Iolaus fell under another blow to the head and Sasha was forced back into the room. She grabbed Ketli by the collar and threw him behind her when he attempted to rush in front of her and protect her.
"Ketli, throw me the ax!" she yelled and the boy quickly ran over to her and handed over the ax.
"Sasha, duck!" she called and let the small hatchet fly when the woman ducked at her command. The raider about to cleave the Northerner's skull found his open with an ax in the face. Sasha grinned and ran her friend's sword through the chest of another raider but the sword stuck in the ribs.
Xena screamed as a battle ax met Sasha's neck and collarbone. Xena pulled out her dagger and placed her daughter next to the wall.
Ketli dived forward and grabbed a fallen sword and impaled it through the foot of another warrior and as that warrior dropped his battle ax the little boy grabbed the ax and, dodging the raider's angry attempts to grab him, scurried back to the warrior and handed her the ax.
The raider pulled the sword out of his foot with a scream and started to limp towards the warrior woman and children when Iolaus' wrist snapped out and he slashed the back of the raider's knees. When the man hit the floor Iolaus sat up and decapitated him with one stroke.
Then everything went strangely silent except for the cries of an newborn infant.
Xena looked up with tears in her eyes as Grimhild stood in the doorway, taking in the carnage. She nodded with satisfaction as Xena grabbed up her daughter, cradling and holding her new one.
"I think your friend would be honored if you named her Sasha." Grimhild smiled.
"I think so too." Xena agreed, looking up with tears in her eyes. She took in the sight of the blood covered warrior, the massive wounds in the shoulder, stomach and legs and frowned.
"Don't worry, warrior. You'll see me again," Grimhild promised and disappeared out the door.
"What in Tartarus was that about?" Iolaus asked as he dragged himself to his feet, meeting his new godchild. "I don't know but I have a feeling that wasn't totally a normal occurrence, even for here."
"Valkyrie." Ketli whispered, his eyes wide.
"Valkyrie?" Xena asked.
"She's your Valkyrie, wow!" then he looked at Sasha's body and ran into Iolaus' arms, weeping.
"So much blood, Iolaus." Xena whispered and he simply nodded, sitting on the bed, taking up one of the cloths and holding it against his head.
"I wish Herc and Gabby were here," he complained and Xena merely nodded as her daughter, Sasha, began feeding.
"Gabrielle, come back to us," Xena whispered.
Time seemed to blend to Nikki and Gabrielle. Hours into days and days into weeks as July came and went. Most nights were spent too tired to do anything but hold each other. Most every night found itself broken by the bard's screams or cries for her mate and would end with Nikki holding and comforting the small woman.
One night in June in particular found the bard waking, screaming her mate's name. Nikki grabbed her friend and quickly covered the bard's mouth and tried waking Gabrielle. The smaller woman was bathed in sweat and was trembling.
The bard finally nodded that she was awake and Nikki removed her hand.
"It's Xena, something's happened!" she whispered in fear. "I saw her screaming."
"It was a dream, little one." Nikki whispered.
"No, this wasn't like other dreams. Oh gods, the baby. It's time for the baby!"
Nikki let the bard fall into her arms and wept with her friend. She knew that Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to be with her mate at that moment and she could offer little comfort and very little hope.
Gabrielle was amazing in the Arena but the odds were just too great for the woman to escape with her life or without a crippling injury. Nikki didn't know that Gabrielle's Regent, Ephiny had once commented to Xena that Gabrielle could be a natural fighter and deadly in a knife or sword fight but the Viking Amazon would have agreed with the Regent, especially after training the small woman. She also knew that having to kill other fighters was tearing the Amazon Queen's soul apart.
"Shhhh, little one. They'll be fine and you'll see them again." Nikki whispered until Gabrielle fell asleep in her arms.
Axel had been pleased to learn of Xena's choice for naming her child and publicly welcomed Sasha into the Northern family. Everyone celebrated the victory over the raiders and mourned their dead.
After that night the bard seemed to lose her sense of hope of getting out. She continued her practicing with diligence that pleased Lycrassis but worried Nikki. Gabrielle wasn't talking much, that in itself was amazing and a warning sign, Nikki knew. The small blonde's training was without the fire that a warrior needed in the Arena.
Nikki had seen this type of reaction before in fighters. The ones that had given up all hope of survival and merely were going through the motions until someone killed them. The Viking Amazon was frantic with worry and didn't know how to reach Gabrielle and bring back the little bard's fire.
The match that month was with another Myrmillo type fighter and this time the match was scheduled in the afternoon, signifying that Gabrielle's talents had taken her into the serious matches. It also brought more experienced opponents.
The Amazon Queen didn't say much as the morning wore on and Nikki paced the cell with her crutch.
"Brie, I know what's going on inside that head of yours. You can't give up!"
"Brutus has only been gone three months. I can't take another nine months or more of this. X.... my mate now has her child, she has something to live for," Gabrielle said flatly.
"You can't give up, a blood bond is stronger than this! She wouldn't want this!"
"I'm sorry, Nikki, I truly am. I care very deeply for you but every day I'm alive puts you and X... my mate in danger. We've heard from the slaves of other traders and school owners that Caesar is scouring the entire realm for me so he can trap my mate. I'm a danger to you, to Brutus, to my mate and to her child. I can't live with all this blood and that responsibility any more."
Gabrielle stood when the guard came. Nikki grabbed her arm, tears falling down her cheeks.
"Please, little one, don't do this," she begged.
Gabrielle gently touched the taller woman's cheek and then walked out of the cell.
Nikki knew the look, usually on older fighters facing impossible odds, it was a look of resignation. An acceptance of death by the sword.
Dancer cursed under her breath. The one day she wanted to be beaten and she drew an opponent that couldn't swat a fly! Dancer realized that the only way this idiot was going to beat her was if she put her sword down and stood absolutely still for his sword strike and even then he might miss.
The frustrated fighter moved in quickly and slashed his sword out of his hand and then cut one of his hamstrings, ending the fight. Before the guards could come and carry the screaming fighter away, Dancer reversed her sword and braced it the dirt and positioned it at her heart.
"No!" she heard Lycrassis scream.
"Xena, I love you," she whispered as she held the sword and let her weight fall forward, closing her eyes.
Gabrielle frowned and opened her eyes and found everything had stopped. She wasn't moving forward onto the sword and she seemed to be hovering. The bard pulled back and stood up, looking around.
The bard was amazed, it was as if time had stopped, like a dream. Everyone and everything was frozen, just the same as the moment before. Lycrassis starting to his feet, the scream still on his lips; the guard in midstride, running towards her and the fallen fighter; the fighter holding the back of his knee, his face in agony; the crowd in various stages of standing or sitting, cheering or screaming.
Then Gabrielle saw him standing about ten feet from her, waiting.
"Apollo?" she asked.
"Why did you stop me?" she asked in a tired voice.
"Because that is not your fate. You are still fated to be with Xena." he said simply.
"I can't last that long!" Gabrielle protested. "Unless you want to zap me there?" she asked hopefully.
"Sorry, daughter. Comes under the Ôtoo much interference' thing."
"Then leave me alone. I'm forced to kill, something I never wanted to do. I've become a fighter, deadly with a blade, something I never wanted to do. I use a friend to keep my identity secret, I use her love and body as a shield. Brutus could be killed just for not telling Caesar where I am, Nikki could be killed just for knowing me and Xena would probably walk into a fire trap if she knew where I was. What do you want from me?" she suddenly screamed. "I can't take it! All of these people could be dead because of me!"
"Yes, and they are willing to be in that position of their own free wills. The other fighters will either kill or be killed, as is their fate. Yours is here," with a gesture Gabrielle could suddenly see her warrior.
"Xena?" Gabrielle moved closer to her father.
Gabrielle could see Xena sitting by a fire in a small cabin, holding a tiny infant in her arms. The bard began to cry as the baby opened it's eyes to reveal eyes as blue as it's warrior's mother.
"Let me tell you another one about Gabrielle," the bard heard Xena's voice as the woman held her child, rocking it. "We were walking through the Bacchae forest and noticed that we couldn't hear Orpheus' playing....."
Xena looked up with a grin and Iolaus walked into sight of the vision carrying a bundle of fresh picked vegetables.
"Iolaus, he lived!" Gabrielle whispered joyfully.
"Yes, the thought of rescuing you and finding Xena kept him alive," Apollo answered.
"Another story of Gabrielle?" Iolaus asked with a sad smile.
Xena nodded, looking back down at her child. "It gives me hope," she said simply, tears beginning to fall as she held the child close. "I miss her so much," the warrior whispered.
The vision faded and Gabrielle went to her knees weeping.
"If you die then she will follow you, child or not. She can no longer live without you or the hope of you. If you die she'll know it, just as you would know of her death. Without you or Xena, Ares will claim the child and her daughter will take over Xena's destiny, this time with the northern tribes. Their destiny just may be to wipe out Rome eventually, but with your daughter as their leader, they would wipe out the world and plunge it into darkness."
"Damn you! All of you! Can't you find someone else to meddle with for awhile?!" she shouted. "First me and Xena, now her child?" she shouted.
Apollo shook his head. "I know, Gabrielle. None of us want this but the threads are all lined up, it's up to you once again to determine which one of those threads gets cut or used."
"I can't do it anymore!" she cried, tears streaming down her face. "I'm tired, Apollo. I'm so tired." Her head dropped forward, as if from the weight of her tears.
Apollo walked over and gently touched her head. "I know, daughter, I know. The Fates have not been kind to you and your warrior these past years. I wish I could help more but I can't. Honor the wishes of your friends and let them make their own choices."
"How can I face Xena after all of this?" she cried.
"You forgave her worst, do you think she won't forgive you?"
"We weren't bonded then. I sleep with Nikki when I'm married to Xena," Gabrielle whispered.
Apollo gently raised the bard to her feet and took her in his arms.
"You are doing what you need to survive, no one will fault you for that,"he said gently and began walking her back to the fallen fighter.
"Will I see her again?" Gabrielle whimpered.
"I don't know but the odds are good. You have a natural talent you inherited from your father. You also inherited your mother's stubbornness. Don't give up again and you might see your mate on this side."
Gabrielle sighed and lifted the sword up, looking at it while Apollo, her father waited.
"If I die now?" she asked.
"The Fields for you, and possible darkness for your warrior and the world."
"Gods, I hate this saving the world stuff," she muttered and reversed the sword in her hand. She nodded to Apollo and everything began to move forward again, this time with her holding the sword over the fallen fighter and then walking away towards the cells, leaving Lycrassis wondering why he had been leaping to his feet.
The season seemed to go by quickly for the Greeks and their Germanic family. Summer hunting and raiding turned into fall harvest and everyone was very pleased to discover that Iolaus had a knack for brewing ale and mead, even though he had never done anything like it before. Axel kept teasing the little man that he couldn't wait to try the mead his little brother had made and now sat fermenting.
Fall harvest began turning to winter chill as the steady got ready for the snow to fly. Animals were slaughtered, the last of the grain harvested, apples taken in and the last of the brew made. Xena and Iolaus found themselves restless but knowing they faced months of winter snow again and the improbability of finding Gabrielle before Spring.
Even with Sasha to care for the warrior seemed to be losing her spark and Iolaus began to worry. He watched as his friend began looking haggard and not sleeping, even with all the women in the steading helping raise Sasha.
January found both Greeks having increased nightmares and depression. The year of Gabrielle being gone was hitting both of them hard and the family around them couldn't seem to pull them out of it. It seemed like they took turns holding each other at night as they cried.
Iolaus knew it was only Sasha that was now keeping the warrior going. The infant and the fact that Xena knew Gabrielle still lived.
January found Gabrielle a fully trained gladiator and holding her own in major fights. It also marked a year's turning point of when she was taken from Xena's side and sent the bard into a fury of anger that she took out regularly on the practice pells and sparring partners.
Nikki, realizing the reason for the mood, stayed out of the little fighter's way as much as possible until Gabrielle had worked it out of her system. Unfortunately, the three fighters she met in the Arena that month weren't able to stay out of her way and made the mistake of pushing Dancer too far in the ring. One ended up a cripple and the other two ended up dead when they displeased the crowd and Dancer won the match.
Then the bard spent a week refusing to get out of bed, tossing and turning with nightmares and despair. Nikki was able to convince Lycrassis, with the help of the healer, that Gabrielle had an illness. It was days before the Viking was able to get the small warrior to eat again and then to start training again. Then Gabrielle's jaw took on the stubborn set Nikki had come to know and the bard began training seriously again.
Hercules returned twice each season during the Spring and Summer with the same news. Every Roman in the Empire was looking for Gabrielle and no one had found her or recognized her, Hercules included. He had gone to Gabrielle and Xenas families and told them of Gabrielle's disappearance and had checked in with the Amazons to find that every tribe in the known world was also looking for the Queen of the Greek Amazons and no one seemed to be able to find her.
After his first visit during the Spring he had carried news of Xena's child to the families and news from the families to Xena.
Nikki and Gabrielle were beginning to actually have some hope in surviving either the year or more Brutus had promised or the three years Lycrassis had wagered with them. They were all making money on Gabrielle's matches and Lycrassis had left the two women alone in Gabrielle's training and sex life, which pleased both women. Nikki and Gabrielle kept up the appearance of being lovers and occasionally did find themselves in each other's arms time and again, mostly for the sexual release and the comfort they could give each other.
Gabrielle kept waking up in the night calling for Xena.
The year Brutus had bargained for came and went and neither Nikki nor Gabrielle brought the subject up, both finding it too painful to even discuss. Losing what little hope the gladiator and trainer had was almost beyond their strength.
The training and matches continued and Lycrassis kept counting the money and the women kept counting the time.
Gabrielle bit into the blanket as her body trembled and shook out of control. Tears began to flow from her closed eyes as always and she bit the blanket harder to keep from screaming her mate's name as waves swept over her.
In a moment Nikki was holding her, gently crying herself for Gabrielle's pain. As expected the footsteps left their window and Gabrielle punched the wall in anger.
"Shhhh, it's okay, he's gone." Nikki whispered.
"I can't do this anymore," Gabrielle hissed back. "Either I die or he dies, I can't keep doing this! It's not fair!" Gabrielle jumped past her gladiator trainer/lover and began pacing with a blanket thrown over her shoulders. "It's not fair to you! You touch me and my body responds but it's X.... it's HER that I want, I only think of her. I can't do that to you anymore! When I touch you I want it to be her."
Gabrielle sank to her knees crying.
"How touching!" a male voice sent the bard flying across the room, coming up in a defensive stance to face the intruder. Nikki grabbed her crutch, facing the tall dark haired and bearded man.
"Ares?! What the.... what are you doing here?!" Gabrielle hissed.
"Looking for you, what do you think? Interesting way you've been spending your time since you left Greece, Gabrielle," he smirked.
"Go away, just leave me alone," she hissed.
"What in the name of Hades has been going on? I turn my back for a minute and you're killing people, sleeping with someone else and wearing a slave collar. Where's Xena?"
"None of your business."
"Brie?" Nikki asked cautiously.
"Ares, God of War, meet Nikki, gladiator trainer."
"And your more recent bedmate," he grinned. "Does Xena know what you're up to?"
"None of your business!" Gabrielle snapped.
"Look, it's rather obvious that you two really don't want to be here. Let me know where you want to go and I'll take you there. As soon as you get dressed, of course," he grinned.
"And the price? As if I didn't know," Gabrielle demanded.
"Where is Xena and why did she leave Greece and leave you here?" he demanded.
"Go figure it out for yourself."
"You're willing to die in the Arena?" he asked with raised eyebrows.
"No, but I'm not willing to deal with you either, Gabrielle said simply.
"How about you, tall and blond one, willing to let her die in the Arena?" he smirked.Nikki frowned.
"Nikki, do not say a word, on my command!" Gabrielle ordered. "He is the last god to ever be trusted."
"I'm hurt, Gabrielle!" Ares playfully touched his heart in mock pain. "You know I only want what's best for Xena, to return her to her rightful destiny."
"Our destiny is with each other, not the Warlord." Gabrielle argued.
"Doesn't look like you're having too much together time here. If I had known you could be so ruthless with a blade I might have offered to train you myself seasons ago."
"Don't count on it."
"Tell me, where is Xena and you're both out of here." Ares offered again.
"No, go away."
"What do you think Xena will do when she finds out about your friend there? And exactly how you've been spending your nights? That was quite a show there earlier," he grinned.
"Gods, can't you men just leave me the Hades alone!?"
"Not likely. By the way, I like the hair. Makes you look more dangerous, something I think I might have to take notice of in the future."
With a flash of light he was gone.
"Oh gods, Xena. I hope you're far enough away." Gabrielle whispered.
"Dancer!" Gabrielle turned as she ducked the sword strike of a sparring partner. Without a glance, she kicked out with her leg and sent the man flying backwards into the mud. The slave calling her grinned. "Lycrassis would like you and Nikki in the Villa."
She waved an acknowledgment and then turned to help her sparring partner to his feet. With a grin she playfully brushed at the mud on his clothes and then pretended to wipe mud off his face, getting his face totally plastered with mud. He grinned and retrieved his wooden practice sword.
She placed her iron sais into their holders on the outsides of her boots. Nikki had found them from a traveling merchant and had decided they were perfect for her little Dancer gladiator and Lycrassis had been pleased with the choice. Gabrielle had proved deadly with the strange weapons and watching her truly became a spectacle of a dance. She could use one end to bash at her opponents and the other end to kill or block sword, spear and other weapons. In her hands the sais danced a dance of death or defense, whichever the blond woman needed. She had become quite fond of them herself and Lycrassis permitted her to use them in practice and wear them as long as she didn't use them to kill another trainee. It was a
lso understood that if anyone else died by her hand she would face torture and then the cross. "How do you do it, Dancer?" he asked as they walked towards the courtyard.
"Do what, Thorsvetter?" she asked the tall Slavic warrior.
"Keep a sense of humor in this place?" he asked in broken Latin.
She shrugged. "Either that or cry,"she said simply and they separated, she to follow the slave and he to the bathing room.
Gabrielle almost lost her breath when she walked into the main room of the villa and saw Brutus standing with Lycrassis.
Her Roman owner grinned at her attempt to keep the surprise from her face.
"Well, it seems our friend here has come back to finish our wager. It's been more than a year but it seems fate has taken you out of my hands, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle felt her heart stop for a moment. Brutus' face remained without emotion. "What, my Lord?" she whispered.
"Seems that Caesar has been looking for you this entire time and I've had you all along. To think I had a talented bard under my roof all this time. You could have entertained us!ÓLycrassis walked over with the grace of a stalking tiger. Gabrielle froze where she was and he quickly pulled her sais from their sheaths and twirled them in his hands. "She's gotten to be quite the fighter, Brutus, just as I thought she would. Just as I wagered."
"Caesar wants her and the trainer and has instructed me to pay double the price we wagered for both of them if you keep quiet about this for awhile," Brutus said simply.
"Why would he want the trainer?" Lycrassis frowned.
"Your trainer is an Amazon and part of Gabrielle's tribe," Brutus answered.
"That's why she was so protective of you in the beginning!" Lycrassis grinned and Gabrielle felt her face blushing with anger. "Of course, I agree. I'm not one to argue with Caesar. I'll prepare horses and what few possessions they have."
"No horses, I want them shackled hand and foot and a chain between that." Brutus instructed and Gabrielle's head dropped.
"Caesar must want this one very badly." Lycrassis continued frowning.
"She's going to lead one of Caesar's greatest enemies into a trap, Xena." Brutus said easily.
"Ah, another one in love with you, Dancer?" Lycrassis laughed and Gabrielle blushed. "Xena, Warrior Princess. Which do you prefer in bed, Dancer? The Viking or the Greek?"
Gabrielle gritted her teeth and refused to meet his eyes. He laughed viciously and grabbed the bard into a rough kiss and resisted her struggles for a long moment. He laughed when he let her go.
"I should have tried to bed you again, Dancer. You must like to play rough."
The Roman began to move away and Brutus held out a hand.
"I'd like to have those. Caesar may put her in the Arena and would be most pleased to see her fight with these."
"Of course, Brutus. I'll get everything prepared." Lycrassis left the bard and Roman alone. Gabrielle looked up but saw no change in Brutus' expression and her head dropped again.
"Yrsa! Yrsa!" Ketli came running into the yard in front of the long houses, skidding to a stop in the dust as she picked up Sasha. Xena grinned at the young boy, he had grown four inches and was beginning to take on a lean look. He was going to tower over his adopted father, Iolaus/Ivar, Xena thought.
"What is it, Ketli Ax Hand?" she asked, using his nickname from the battle at the hunting cabin, always causing him to stand taller with pride. It was a warrior's nickname and one that he carried well, she thought.
"Rider approaching, I think it's Herkavar."
"Hercules! Iolaus, get out here!" she yelled, shading her eyes against the sun and grinned as she caught sight of the familiar figure coming up the road at a trot.
Iolaus walked out of the long house and grinned at the sight of his friend.
"Gods, I've missed him so much!" he complained.
"Me too," she agreed, but probably not as much as you, she thought with a smile.
Hercules jumped off the horse with a grin that Xena couldn't help but feel her heart soar with hope.
"I've got word!" he said breathlessly as Ketli went to his horse. "Brutus sent word to the Amazons and your families that he has word about Gabrielle and would meet with you on the border as soon as he sends word."
Xena felt her knees go weak and Hercules caught her by the arms and handed Sasha to one of the women gathering around them with a grin.
"Gabrielle?" she whispered. "He wouldn't say what it was except that she was alive and well and now safe. He said that he could only tell you what has happened to her," Hercules grinned.
"Could it be a trap, he is Caesar's aid?" Iolaus asked.
"Yes, very possible except that he sent this," he pulled a parchment out of his shirt and handed it to Xena. She quickly unwrapped it and scanned - many of the words were in Amazon symbols and the rest was Gabrielle's writing.
"Family, I am well and safe but cannot say where I am, it is still unsafe for me and my family. If the gods are kind I will be safe soon. Your daughter and friend, G."
"Oh gods, Gabrielle!" Xena began to cry as Iolaus grinned.
"When do we leave?" he asked.
"As soon as I saddle Argo," Xena answered and Bestla, one of the older women, began yelling for food bags to be packed and horses saddled. As the men began pouring in from the fields Hercules repeated his findings and everyone began celebrating the news that Yrsa the Vigilant's little mate was alive and might be returning to them.
Within a candlemark the two women were bundled into the bottom of an open wagon with barely a cloak and a few possessions of clothes. Each had a chain between their legs, wrists and another chain between those, effectively keeping them from moving very easily or far and unable to even reach their own faces. Nikki had been very pissed off when she had been searched and her former master had found the hidden dagger in her boot and the spike hidden in the wrappings of her crutch.
A small female slave drove the wagon while Brutus and two Roman escort soldiers rode beside it and another behind it. Gabrielle and Nikki could see no way to escape.
The first night camped on the road found the two women with another chain attached to theirs and it ended with a lock through the wagon wheel. Neither woman could possibly escape.
Brutus finally approached them, while they ate, the third morning a meal of bread and olives.
"Gabrielle, trust me. Caesar doesn't know where you are. He didn't send me. I had to use his name and your real story to get Lycrassis to honor his bargain and sell you to me," he whispered, keeping an eye on the soldiers and slave.
"What? You're not going to turn us over to Caesar?" she whispered back, careful not to look at him.
"No, you're not going to end up on that damned cross," he growled.
"What about them, they know who I am?" Gabrielle asked, indicating the soldiers and slave.
"Never mind," he said simply.
"You can't kill them!" she protested. "Your life or theirs, Gabrielle. They live and I turn you over to Caesar and Xena possibly dies as well. Decide now," he said brutally.
"Brutus," she pleaded.
"Don't ask me again,' he walked away.
The fourth morning found the soldiers and the slave dead and Brutus driving the wagon with his new slaves.
Neither Gabrielle nor Nikki said a word as he led the horses carrying the bodies into the woods and came back with only the horses. Without a word he had climbed onto the wagon seat and started back on their journey to Rome.
The next morning found the warriors leaving at sunlight. Two of them with aching heads from too much mead and ale and a warrior mother trying not to laugh at them. She leaned down and whispered in Sasha's ear, checking the straps that held the little one close to her. Hercules frowned and Iolaus groaned at her sense of humor that early in the morning. They didn't complain too much, it had been too long since they had heard the warrior laugh.
Everyone was praying it was good news. Neither Iolaus nor Hercules wanted to be around if it wasn't. They both knew Xena couldn't take any more bad news about her mate.
They had set up camp near the border in a secluded clearing off the main road to the North and Hercules had gone to the nearest barracks only to find that Brutus hadn't arrived yet.
Just before entering the City, Brutus placed blindfolds on the women and pulled up their cloaks.
"A lot of slaves aren't permitted to learn the city as a precaution against escape and plotting. Don't say a word when we get to the gate," he instructed.
Within minutes they had entered through one of the gates, having the guards examine Brutus' ownership papers of the two slaves and his Imperial ring. Then the women's senses were assaulted with massive noises, smells, and movement over cobblestone roads. They could both sense massive movement alongside of them and both trained scouts were having difficulty separating noises and smells as they traveled along.
"Liberius, these are two new slaves for my apartments. I will see to their training personally. Take their things to my guest room and then take them up there. Have a blacksmith come and strike those chains off of them as well. Leave the collars in place." Brutus instructed. "Women, stay in the wagon or face the lash," he ordered.
"Yes, my Lord," they both answered meekly.
A candlemark later and the women were finally alone in the small apartment Brutus called home when in Rome. He motioned for them to sit on one of the sofas as he unbuckled his armor.
"I'm sorry about all of this. It took longer to get out Britannia than I had planned and then Lycrassis wouldn't sell you, either of you. I had to force his hand. You're going to have to stay here until I can get an assignment somewhere near the north and get you out of Rome," he said as he stripped out of his armor down to a simple tunic.
"All of the Roman Empire is looking for me and you bring us to Rome?" Gabrielle asked.
"Where else? They are looking for an innocent young Greek bard with long reddish blond hair and gentle soul. Do you think that they will see that in you?" he asked simply.
Gabrielle frowned. Her hair was short and had turned totally blond from being in the sun all the time and her skin was lightly tanned and scarred from numerous encounters in the Arena and practice field. Her body was no longer just fit, it was superb and the dangerous abilities she now had showed when she walked. The only thing practically the same was her green eyes and there were probably plenty of women with green eyes in the city.
She shook her head.
"Besides, you are the personal slave to one Marcus Brutus, honored citizen of Rome only behind Caesar, Octavian and Marc Anthony. Caesar hasn't seen you so he can't recognize you. They won't be looking for you in my apartment," Brutus grinned.
"Brie, when you make friends, you make it count, don't you?" Nikki grinned and Gabrielle blushed.
Impatiently, the three warriors and infant waited a week and moved further into the forest.
It was only a week later when Gabrielle found herself being pulled out of the bed she shared with Nikki by rough hands. Instinctively she kicked out and punched, sending whoever flat to the floor.
"Gabrielle, damnit! It's me!" Brutus hissed.
"Then say something, damnit!" she cursed back at him, grabbing a tunic from the end of the bed as Nikki grabbed the other one, and threw it over her sleeping shift. Brutus hadn't said a word when he realized that Nikki ended up in Gabrielle's bed every night. He had heard the bard screaming and crying in the night and knew the other woman was the only comfort he could give Gabrielle.
"Caesar!" was all he said as he regained his feet.
Gabrielle went pale and grabbed for her boots. "What about him?"
"He's heard that I have two fighters as slaves and wants to meet you. He's interested in a match in the Arena!"
"Oh by the gods! This is a nightmare!" Nikki complained.
"No kidding!" Brutus snapped.
"What are we doing?" Gabrielle asked, lacing up her boots as Nikki quickly followed suit.
"I'm going to try and get you both out of here before he sends his escort to take all of us to his house. If we don't get out of here then you'll be in the Arena by tomorrow afternoon!" Brutus whined.
"Does he know who I am?" the bard asked, grabbing her cloak and helping Nikki to her feet, handing her trainer the woman's crutch.
"No, or you'd be in his dungeon, not the Arena. Lycrassis was careful not to risk your life too much, Caesar won't be as considerate. Come on!"
They had almost reached the door when a pounding stopped them.
"Do we fight?" Gabrielle asked, pulling her sais out.
Brutus sighed and took the weapons from her, sticking them in his belt. "No, we'd never get out of the city before they cut us down or took us prisoner. I've seen their tortures, Caesar would know who you are by noon."
Brutus answered the door to find a small squad of Roman Praetorian guards.
"Julius Gaias Caesar requests that you and your two female fighting gladiator slaves accompany us to his villa immediately," the squad leader said simply.
"We were expecting you, as you can see. Lead the way," Brutus said simply, motioning the women to follow behind him.
After an hour with Caesar, Gabrielle's head was spinning and she was impressed. ÔGods, I thought Ares could be charming and dangerous at the same time!' she thought to herself.
They had all managed to keep up the story of Gabrielle's past as a Germanic barbarian, trained in Latin and Greek on the border. The telling of her capture had been easily enough as was tales of her training and fighting. Not as easy was keeping his piercing eyes from seeing through everything else, she thought.
Gabrielle was tired, stressed, terrified and getting fuzzy. He was handsome, brilliant, charming and powerful. The bard could begin to see why the Warlord Xena had once been had been drawn to him. She could also understand Xena's hatred of the powerful Roman. He had used her, tossed her aside and crucified her, even to the point of breaking the woman's legs. All because she was no longer useful to him.
Gabrielle knew that any who were no longer useful to Caesar probably wind up that way or wished they had. The bard wondered how Brutus had kept one step ahead of Caesar.
"Well, I am impressed. I see a well trained body, a sharp mind, quick reflexes and quick instincts, even though you are all still half asleep. I want to see you in action, Brie. What do you say to a match with one of my fighters?" Caesar asked.
Gabrielle hesitated, catching Brutus eyes as he nodded. The bard already knew that she didn't dare refuse.
"If my master agrees, great Caesar," she said humbly.
"Good, then it's settled. Two days from now I'm executing a Senator for murdering his wife. You'll be the fight before that." Caesar turned to Brutus. "What weapons and armor would you prefer for your fighter? Talk to my Lanista and arrange it."
"Light leather and she is astounding with these, Caesar." Brutus pulled out the sais and handed them over to Caesar who handled them easily, twirling them, spinning them and then throwing them perfectly into a wooden house beam.
"Very nice, indeed. This should be enjoyable," he said with a grin. "Until then, you are all my guests. The young women will be taken to the slave quarters and you can stay in my guest room, Brutus."
"As you wish, Caesar. May I escort my fighters down?"
"Yes, and you may spend the next two days with them practicing, if you wish. A soldier always needs practice as well as gladiators, don't you agree?" Caesar asked with a smile.
"Of course, Caesar. You should know, being the greatest general Rome has seen." Brutus said easily.
"Do they share a room and the same bed?" Caesar suddenly turned and asked.
"Fine, have the head of my slaves arrange it."
As they walked down the stairs towards the slave quarters, Gabrielle fell in beside Brutus while Nikki kept the slave leading them talking.
"He knows!" she hissed.
"I don't think so. He wouldn't schedule anything this soon, Xena would haven't time to get here," he shook his head.
"What was that crack about you needing practice? He's about to kill you!" Gabrielle protested.
"No, I can't believe that," he hissed back.
"Gods, there's no way out of this, is there?"
"I can't see one just yet. Listen, let me do some thinking and planning. You'll probably have to face the fight but in the confusion after the fight and execution, we might be able to get away."
"You'd turn from Rome?" Gabrielle asked.
"I'd turn from Caesar," he said grimly.
A day in the Arena turned into a month, and then another two months, each week another fight for the small woman.
Gabrielle was about to face another fight when Brutus entered the small cell of his fighter. He began helping her adjust her light leather armor.
"I've got a way out. After the fight Caesar is throwing a victory party, he has bet heavily on you and plans on honoring you at the party. You'll be put on display, fed and given drink and I'll probably have many offers to buy you or at least rent you out for the night. I'm going to take one of the Senators up on that offer."
"What!?" Gabrielle shrieked and Brutus grinned.
"Don't worry, he's a good friend. Nikki and I will meet the two of you a couple of streets over with horses. He'll tell Caesar that you overpowered him when he sought to grab you a little too soon and you got away. I've already received permission to leave Rome on a mission to the border of Germania with Nikki. Caesar was more than pleased to separate you from her, by the way."
"Gods, is everyone after my body?" the bard complained and Brutus laughed.
"Just concentrate on the fight for now. Caesar doesn't honor dead heroes very often, especially if he loses money on them."
The months dragged on for the three Greeks and infant. Fortunately the weather was still good and warm for fall. Many days found the warrior woman practicing her fighting skills and hacking away at trees, logs and whatever might be in her way. The tension was driving all of them crazy. They felt they were close to something but stuck.
Xena hated waiting.
Gabrielle took several deep breaths and let Dancer take over and drew out her sais into her hand. The other three opponents approached from the other side of the Arena.
Three? Gabrielle felt a wave of fear try to overcome her and faced it down. She and Xena had taken on worse before. A small voice reminded her that those were usually bandits, not trained killers in the Arena. She shook the voice aside and the fighters approached the royal box where Caesar and his guests watched under the shade of an awning.
Raising their weapons high the fighters gave the traditional salute.
"We who are about to die, salute you!" they shouted and then turned to face each other, watching Caesar out of the corner of their eyes for the signal.
Dancer was dressed in light armor, almost like the kind her mate, Xena wore, but with an additional piece of leather running down the length of her right arm for extra protection and a wide leather belt around her waist to help protect her back muscles from giving out. A remnant of the poisoning she had been through.
Two of the other fighters were dressed in heavy armor and carried swords and medium sized shields. The other fighter was dressed in a tunic, light leather armor, small shield and a spear. Dancer was most worried about him.
"Citizens of Rome!" Caesar rose to his feet. "I am pleased to present for your entertainment the gladiator from the barbarian North, the female warrior Brie. More popularly known by her fighting name of Dancer. Facing her are three of Rome's best, fighting for the honor of Rome against the barbarian hordes."
Gabrielle wondered who he was betting on.
"Tibor, Helliavius, and Bigarious," the crowd cheered and waved handkerchiefs. "Let the fight begin!" Caesar announced and dropped his own handkerchief.
Dancer leaped into the air and came down with one foot in the face of Tibor, a heavily armed gladiator. She spun in mid-air and caught Bigarious, the other heavily armed fighter, across the ear. She landed on her feet and hands and dived forward as Helliavius stabbed with his spear where she had landed. She came up in a defensive stance with the sais at ready. With a war cry she quickly leaped forward, somersaulting in the air and landed behind Helliavius and before either of them could turn, the small woman stabbed backwards with her sais, impaling the small fighting man through both lungs.
Dancer pulled out the sais and quickly moved away from the two heavily armed gladiators as they gained their feet. The crowd roared, whether from approval or disappointment, Dancer didn't know and didn't care. Nothing existed except her weapons, the conditions in the Arena and the fighters in front of her.
Both separated and began a flanking action. Dancer knew that Xena would merely flip into the air with that infamous war cry of hers, let the two run into each other, come down and smash their heads together and be done with it. Unfortunately Dancer wasn't that talented and wasn't the daughter of the God of War, she thought ruefully.
She also backed up slowly, keeping both warriors in her sights but knew she was going to run out of room soon and the crowd was getting restless. Dancer definitely didn't want one of the guards prodding her into action with a red hot poker, thank you.
Dancer threw up her arms and hands with her sais, catching both swords as the two fighters attempted overhead strikes. Rather than fight against their combined strength, Dancer allowed the swords to continue downward at a slower rate and dived over them, pulling one sword out of the gladiator's hand. She hissed with sudden pain and quickly moved outsiide of sword ranging, picking up the fallen sword as she scurried a few feet away. She placed one of her sais in its sheath and raised the sword in her right hand.
She glanced down at the back of her thigh and found it bleeding at a fairly good rate.
The gladiator whose sword she now had pulled the spear out of the sand and they began circling again.
Dancer moved back and ripped a piece of her tunic off and kept circling and managed to bandage her thigh. She needed to end the fight and quickly. They could keep feinting and tire her out until she made a mistake and became trapped between them.
With a war cry the small woman raised her sword and charged at the gladiator with the spear, twisting at the last moment as he attempted to impale her. She gritted her teeth against the pain as the spearhead pierced the leather and slid along her ribs. With her elbow she smashed the fighter in the face and then spun around as the other fighter closed the distance between him and her. Dancer grabbed the stunned spearman and spun him around by his collar as his comrade swung a downward stroke with his large sword. Dancer saw the horror in his eyes as he realized he couldn't stop the momentum and his sword cleaved his friend's head open, splashing the small woman with blood and other stuff.
She quickly let go of the body and flipped over backwards, drawing her other sai, having dropped her sword when she had grabbed the stunned fighter.
The last fighter yelled in rage and charged. Dancer quickly found that they were fairly evenly matched skill wise and he was in a rage, giving in an additional edge in strength and speed. Dancer attempted to hang on until that edge waned and his anger caused him to make a mistake.
Gabrielle winced in pain and cried out as a sword stroke found it's mark and sliced her left arm, causing her to drop her sai. She quickly dived forward out of reach of another sword strike and came up holding her arm with her good hand and sai.
She could see victory in the other fighter's eyes and felt it herself. Nikki, watching from the barred gate, could see the stubborn set of the Amazon Queen's jaw line and knew that look from experience, Gabrielle was not amused and not about to quit.
Nikki knew this was probably their last chance at freedom, Caesar kept sending better and better opponents against the small woman and now he was sending in more than one at a time. She caught the Queen's glance and signaled to her trainee with an Amazon hand signal.
She saw Dancer's head roll back slightly, considering her opponent as they circled each other, neither giving an inch of ground yet.
Seeing the other fighter tensing for a charge the Queen rocked forward on her toes and waited until he was moving. With a scream she flipped the sai into the air, momentarily stopping his charge as he glanced up in surprise. Dancer flipped over backwards and came up in a leap, catching the sai in mid-air with her foot, changing the direction of the weapon, straight into the gladiator's throat. He fell grasping at the weapon, the last of his breath gurgling around the blood.
Dancer walked over and retrieved her sais and faced the crowd and Caesar.
Gabrielle, coming back into focus behind Dancer's eyes, realized the crowd was cheering and chanting "the sword," to Caesar. Gabrielle, covered in blood, raised her hand and sai in salute to Caesar and bowed.
Caesar, an amused look on his face stood and held out his hands to calm the crowd who continued to roar for another few moments before quieting down.
"Citizens, I agree that this was a magnificent display of fighting talent and should be rewarded!" He held out his hand and a slave quickly placed something in his hand that caused Gabrielle's hear to skip a beat. A wooden sword.
The crowd went hysterical with delight. Most of them had never seen a gladiator win the sword before and they were even more pleased that it was the small woman in front of them.
Caesar held up the sword, displaying it for the crowd. Gabrielle went to one knee as she faced Caesar.
"You have earned your freedom, slave, by your skills with the sword. May your freedom serve you well!" he shouted and tossed the sword down, impaling it in front of the warrior woman.
Gabrielle bowed her head and then took the sword in her hand and stood up. With a triumphant grin she held the sword high to the crowd. The crowd began showering the arena floor with flowers and handkerchiefs with coins tied inside. Gabrielle began a painful trot around the rim of the arena with the wooden sword high, letting the crowd see it. Then she bowed to Caesar and the crowd again before disappearing through the iron gate and into Nikki's congratulating arms.
Brutus caught up with Gabrielle and Nikki in the bath house of the Arena. He ignored the beautiful and naked body in front of him as she crawled out of the tub of water and moved onto a table where Nikki began stitching up her thigh.
"Congratulations!" he grinned. "You are the hero of Rome!"
"I can't believe it!" she grinned back. "Me, lowly bard from Greece, the darling of Rome. Caesar wanting nothing more than to stake me out as bait like a goat to a tiger and he grants me my freedom. Strange fates."
"I agree, if you're willing to chance it, the plan is still in place." Brutus said.
"What do you mean chance it?" she asked.
"We still have to get you out of the city before someone realizes who you are. Just because you've been granted your freedom doesn't lessen the danger. Caesar expects you at the party. Accept his offer to become one of his paid gladiator fighters and then accept the invitation of the Senator for the evening. Caesar won't think anything about it when you leave," Brutus said quickly.
"He knows I won't leave with a man." Gabrielle protested.
"It's not the Senator that the date is for, it's for his wife," Brutus grinned.
"Oh crying out loud!" Gabrielle muttered. "Now even Senator's wives?"
"As one of the top gladiators in Rome, little Dancer, you could have any man or woman you wanted for your pleasure."
"We're still leaving, right?" she demanded.
"Yes, in five days you'll be on the border of Germania,"he said with a grin.
"Xena," she whispered.
"I'm sending a messenger up north to try and find your family and that I'm coming with word of your fate," Brutus grinned.
Gabrielle closed her eyes as a tear of hope escaped.
Gabrielle paced the inside of the small rooms assigned to Brutus at the outpost like a caged animal. Nikki, having gotten extremely quiet the further north they got, finally snapped and told the small gladiator to sit down.
"What's wrong, Nikki?" Gabrielle asked, walking up behind the tall warrior and beginning to massage her shoulders. Nikki shook her off angrily and stood up, moving to the window with her crutch. "What is it?" Gabrielle repeated.
"The closer we get to the border to closer I get to losing you. I'm trying to adjust, all right?"
"I'm sorry, Nikki. I've used you badly." A tear escaped Gabrielle's eyes and she brushed them away angrily.
Nikki turned and her face softened.
"We used each other, Brie. Don't blame yourself for that. It's just that you have someone waiting for you and I feel you slipping away more and more every day. Within the week you won't be Dancer the Gladiator anymore, you'll go back to being Gabrielle, bard and Amazon."
"I don't know if I can go back. Dancer saved my life and I don't know if I can just turn that off and go back to being the innocent bard I was."
"No," Nikki agreed. "You can't go back to being innocent. You've killed in the arena. It was self defense but it was also for someone else's sport. You've used your friends and your body to survive but you don't have to be Dancer any more. You'll find the middle ground. You'll have your mate to help you."
"Will I? Will she even want Dancer? She always treasured that innocence about me and now it's gone."
"It's not gone, just bruised a little or else you wouldn't throw up every time you kill in the Arena," Nikki teased.
"She won't even know me anymore. I don't know me anymore," Gabrielle complained and brushed a tear away again.
"If she loves you just a fraction of the way you love her then you have no worries."
"Nikki, I'm sorry about us," Gabrielle started again but Nikki held up a hand to stop her.
"Enough, my friend. You gave back my life and I helped keep you alive. I'm not asking for anything, Brie."
"You've got my friendship," Gabrielle smiled weakly.
"I'll take it," Nikki grinned.
Finally, Brutus came in that night and said that Hercules had been to the outpost to see if Brutus had arrived yet. The Greek demi-god would return the next day to meet with Brutus.
Again Gabrielle cried herself to sleep that night and Nikki wasn't sure if it was out of happiness or fear.
Early the next morning Hercules left to meet with the Roman and Xena paced the forest on the edge of a clearing by the road, waiting impatiently. Iolaus waited further back in the trees, Sasha strapped to his back and the Greek sitting in the saddle, ready to ride if it was a trap.
Hercules dismounted and approached the gate carefully, very aware of the Roman sentries and their caution in dealing with anyone coming from the north of the small outpost. He approached the sentry table and looked down on at the common soldier and the Watch Sergeant.
"What do you want here, barbarian?" the sergeant demanded, speaking in rough Germanic.
Hercules considered how he was dressed for a moment, in rough leather trousers tucked inside fur lined boots, crisscrossed with leather thongs, homespun cotton tunic covered with a fur lined vest tunic, a thick leather and cloth cloak with wolf fur on the shoulders. A Viking sword hung at his belt. His typical leather bracers on his wrists accented his muscular forearms and a full beard finished his appearance. Hercules agreed he probably looked very Germanic but this didn't excuse rudeness, thank you.
"I am here to see Brutus, aid to Caesar. I've brought someone to see him at his request." Hercules replied in perfect Latin.
"Brutus doesn't see every barbarian walking through the gate, even if they can speak in a civilized tongue!"
The sneering sergeant found himself hovering over the table, held aloft by the tall figure in front of him by his collar. The foot soldier froze.
"My people were civilized while your Romulus and Remus were sucking on the tits of a wolf," Hercules growled. "Tell him Hercules wishes to see him."
The foot soldier quickly scurried away while Hercules kept the sergeant held above the table easily. The Roman sentries were unsure of what to do while their sergeant sputtered.
Hercules dropped the sergeant when he caught site of the Roman officer, Brutus approaching quickly.
"Hercules, join me." Brutus stopped and looked down at the fallen sergeant. "Twenty hours of extra duty this week for being rude to my invited guest."
Once inside Brutus' temporary quarters he offered the demi-god a seat and wine. Hercules accepted both.
"I apologize for that idiot out there," Brutus began, sitting across from the son of Zeus.
"Attitudes like that towards the Germans and you'll have fights on your hands. They don't take well to being insulted," Hercules warned and Brutus frowned.
"I know, trying to get good men on the border is difficult."
"Nevermind him. Xena is a couple of miles from here waiting for me. You sent word that you had news of Gabrielle?"
"Yes, I understand that she disappeared almost two years ago and I've heard that your friend Iolaus, all of Xena's friends, the Amazons and half of Greece have been searching for her."
"Yes, March will be two years and we've searched with no success. Xena knows that Gabrielle is still alive, that she would know if the bard were dead. What do you know? Is this a trick of Caesar's to get to Xena?" Hercules demanded.
"Caesar? No. He'd be very unhappy with me if he knew the real reason I asked for this treaty mission with the Northern tribes. Gabrielle is alive and well."
Hercules' head dropped forward with a prayer of thanks.
"Before you I tell you more, I have a question." Hercules frowned but nodded.
"It's been over a year, does Xena still love her?"
"Brutus, you don't have any idea how much Xena has suffered with Gabrielle missing. She's nearly gone mad. Tell me what you know," Hercules demanded.
"I can only tell Xena of Gabrielle's fate. I will ride with you, escorted by two of my slaves only. When we get near to Xena you may take my weapons as a sign of truce. Is that agreeable?"
"Good. My slaves and I will meet you outside the gate in a few minutes." Brutus rose and grasped Hercules' forearm in a warrior handshake.
"You better pray the news is good, Brutus. I'm not sure how Xena would treat the bearer of bad news at this point."
"I understand, I promised Gabrielle to make this trip myself."
"Like your Xena, I'm in love with Gabrielle. Is that so hard to understand?"
"No, but I'm not sure I'd tell Xena that right now," Hercules grinned a grim smile.
A few minutes later Hercules was surprised to be joined outside the gate by Brutus and his two slaves on horseback. What surprised him was that they were heavily cloaked with their faces hidden and their wrists were chained.
Brutus noticed the demi-god's look and shrugged. "Slaves have a tendency to try and escape when they're this close to the border. Policy," he explained.
"Why bring them with us?" Hercules asked as they began riding towards the north.
"They are witnesses to Gabrielle's fate this last year."
After a few minutes Brutus broke the silence.
"Why did Xena leave Greece?"
"She wanted to get away from Ares and Caesar," Hercules said simply.
Brutus nodded and let Hercules lead them. When they approached a clearing off the path Hercules stopped and reached out a hand. Brutus easily drew his sword and handed it over to the demi-god and then his dagger. Hercules then moved his horse forward again into the clearing.
Stopping in the center of the clearing the large son of Zeus stopped and raised his hands in an Amazon hand signal and then turned and motioned Brutus forward.
Xena stepped out of the tree line slowly, sword drawn. She was dressed the same as Hercules and looked like a dark haired Valkyrie, Brutus thought.
Brutus dismounted and motioned for the slaves to do the same. He turned and slowly approached the warrior with his hands up and palms showing. Xena's jaw was clenched and her knuckles were white on the handle of her sword.
Brutus resisted grinning.
"Xena, it's good to see you well," he said simply with a smile.
"Even though Caesar has a price on my head?" she answered with a smile as well.
Her eyes narrowed at the sight of the slaves, their cloaks and especially their chains. The slaves kept their heads bowed. One was a woman, possibly both, Xena's trained eyes told her.
"You know I don't always do what Caesar wants or Gabrielle would be dead by now."
"You know where she is?" Xena demanded, the smile leaving her face.
"Yes. Word went out from Caesar to find her, so, along with all of your friends, Amazons and half of Greece looking for her, every Roman wanting to get on Caesar's good side was looking for her. He had learned of her traveling with you from the bard stories we heard and he figured he might be able to use her against you once she disappeared. He was extremely determined to find her before you did."
"We thought that might happen." Xena muttered. "Does he have her?" the warrior whispered.
"No, he didn't know when he found her. I did." Brutus held up a hand to cut off her questions. "Let me tell you a short story. Short because I'm not the storyteller that Gabrielle is."
Xena frowned but nodded, motioning to the tree line and the three warriors moved into the shade of the trees while the slaves knelt on both knees, heads still bowed, beside the horses. Xena was considering whether to let Brutus leave with the slaves and knew Hercules was probably thinking the same thing.
"Make it quick, Brutus." Xena growled.
"Somehow Gabrielle was captured during a border skirmish and because of her light hair and eyes they thought her Northern and took her prisoner. She was sold to slavers." Xena growled deep in her throat. "She was sold to a gladiatorial school, thankfully."
"Thankfully? To die in the Arena?" Xena questioned.
"Better a chance at life than on a cross, don't you think? That's where most of your Northern friends end up when captured. The Arena or on a cross."
"Go on." Xena said between clenched teeth.
"She became a fighter and a good one. I found out where she was by accident."
"Gabrielle a fighter, in the Arena?" Xena whispered. The thought of her little bard in the Arena with blood on her hands from a recent kill caused Xena's head to spin.
"Yes." Brutus said simply. "She ended up in the Circus Arena, Xena."
"Arena?" Xena thought her heart would stop right then. Her little bard fighting in the Arena? Impossible.
"Yes, fortunately Caesar had never met Gabrielle or he would have known her."
"Where is she?" Xena demanded.
"Do you want her back, Xena?"
Brutus wasn't surprised to find a chakram at his throat, just pressing into his neck.
"Xena, listen to me first!" Brutus asked and the warrior eased the chakram back a couple of inches. "Gabrielle has become a fighter and has killed. She kills instinctively and without thought, a true gladiator. She still grieves for each death afterwards but while fighting she is deadly and dangerous, she's not your little naive bard any longer. Gabrielle has been raped repeatedly, especially in the beginning and she has used her body to stay alive and her identity hidden, all so that she could get back to you. She even offered me her body if I could get her back to you. She's carrying a lot of guilt, Xena."
"She has nothing to be guilty of!" Xena protested. "I know what happens to Roman slave women and women gladiators, I can't believe she's alive after this!" the warrior brushed away a tear angrily. "I can't live without her, this isn't living Brutus, I'm just existing. No matter what has happened to her, I want her back!" Xena hissed.
"Xena!" a familiar voice stunned the warrior and she slowly turned to look at the slaves, lowering the chakram.
Gabrielle slowly raised her chained hands and pulled her hood back, green eyes looking deep into blue ones.
In one fluid motion Xena dropped the chakram and had crossed the space between her and Gabrielle and pulled the bard to her feet and into the warrior's arms. The warrior began to cry as she held her mate closely and felt Gabrielle's tears flowing as well.
"Little one," Xena whispered. "Oh gods, I've missed you!"
Hercules, with a grin, walked over and gently pulled the two women apart for a moment and snapped the chain holding Gabrielle's arms from holding her warrior. With a grin, the bard wrapped her arms around Xena as the warrior's lips claimed her own after so long and Xena laughed, lifting her little mate into her arms, holding onto a very tight ass.
Nikki stood up and held out her hands as Brutus unlocked her chains with a grin.
The two reunited lovers finally broke apart and faced everyone else.
"Brutus, what happened?" Xena asked, holding Gabrielle close.
"I bought her and her trainer Nikki. Caesar learned I had purchased a fighter and her trainer and demanded to see her. Then he decided he wanted to see her in action and sent her into the Arena. It took months to figure a way out of Rome and away from Caesar."
Xena leaned her head on top of Gabrielle's, continuing to cry tears of happiness and disbelief.
She opened her eyes and looked at Brutus. "Thank you, I owe you."
"No, warrior. I would do anything for Gabrielle and she wanted you." Brutus shrugged and Xena nodded, beginning to understand the depth of the Roman's feelings for her little bard. She felt the same.
Finally Gabrielle pulled back slightly, taking in the sight of her warrior.
"Gods, I missed you! You were the only thing that kept me alive in that Arena, my love," the bard whispered.
Brutus grinned and walked back to his horse and pulled off two sets of saddlebags and tossed them at Gabrielle's feet and then threw the warrior the key to Gabrielle's chains. The warrior smiled and unlocked the chains slowly, silently cursing that her love ever had to wear them. Then her eyes narrowed and she frowned at the slave collar around Gabrielle's neck. The bard, realizing what her warrior was looking at, blushed and lowered her head slightly.
Xena raised her chin to force the bard to look her in the eyes. "Nothing you've done or had to do could cause me to love you any less," she promised and Gabrielle fell into her arms again.
"Actually, the collar was a ruse for our traveling. It's easier to explain a slave than a free woman traveling with you." Brutus reached behind his saddle and began unwrapping something. "She had already won her freedom. From Caesar himself." Brutus grinned at the warrior woman's stunned face.
Brutus handed Xena the wooden sword with the Latin words burned along the wooden blade "Freedom earned through skill, blood, courage and might. - Julius Caesar."
Xena was stunned. "By the gods, little one," she whispered.
"In the bags are official papers freeing both of them and granting them citizenship of Rome, just in case you ever come back to Roman territory and someone recognizes either of them. Also clothes and their usual weapons," Brutus explained
"Weapons? You brought my weapons?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes, I thought you might like them. You're so damned good with them," Brutus grinned.
Xena shook her head. The thought of her bard being good with any weapon other than a staff still confused her.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice brought her attention back to her bard.
Xena grinned and whistled a long note. A moment later and Iolaus stepped out of the trees, carrying a bundle in his arms. Gabrielle began crying with joy when the child turned it's face towards them and grinned at the sight of her Xena mom, the bluest eyes the bard had ever seen.
"Our daughter, Sasha." Xena whispered softly as Iolaus, grinning from ear to ear, handed the little infant to Gabrielle.
"Hi, Sasha. I'm Gabrielle," the bard whispered.
Xena smiled at Brutus's stunned face.
"She was the only reason I lived without Gabrielle. My daughter and the fact I knew that Gabrielle was still alive, that's what gave me hope. Thank you, Brutus."
"My pleasure. Take good care of all of them, warrior." Brutus turned to leave but Gabrielle's voice stopped him.
"Brutus!" she handed Sasha over to her mom and trotted over to Brutus. She gently touched his cheek and then hugged him. "Thank you, my friend. I couldn't be happier," she whispered.
"I know. I just hope we don't meet again, Gabrielle. I have a feeling that it wouldn't be as pleasant. I can't keep getting around Caesar all the time."
"I know. I just hope it doesn't come down to you and Xena," Gabrielle said sadly.
"I agree, I wouldn't stand a chance because I couldn't kill her now," Brutus said quietly. Then he moved past the small woman and mounted his horse.
"Brutus, you know Caesar will learn from Lycrassis eventually that you had me and let me go. Stay with us," Gabrielle pleaded as Xena nodded in agreement.
"I'm a Roman, Gabrielle. I know you can't understand that but it's in the blood. My first duty is to Her. Caesar has gone too far lately with his ambition and something is stirring in the Senate. I'm hoping he has his hands too full to worry about the two of you. I want to get my business settled here and get back, a shaman in Britannia insisted that I be back in Rome before the Ides of March. My fate is with Rome. Besides, he may not want it to get out that he had you in his grasp and in the Arena itself and granted your freedom by his own hand. Quite a joke on our wanna-be Emperor. Stay well. Vale."
The Roman rode away, leaving the horses Gabrielle and Nikkita had rode on.
"Come on, Gabrielle. Get acquainted with your daughter and you can introduce us to your trainer," Xena called and the warrior was delighted at the sleek way the bard moved now, no sign of the pain Gabrielle had been in the last time she had held her little mate. Now there was a dangerous ability behind those movements.
Xena shook her head, there was a lot of catching up to do. She wanted to ask about that short hair too.
She leaned down and nuzzled her mate's neck as they walked to
the horses. "I've got a new body to rediscover," she whispered and grinned at
the bard's shiver and moan of anticipation.
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