An Awakening - Part 8
Ides of March
by Hunter Ash
Disclaimers: as usual, I don't own Xena, Gabrielle, etc etc etc. For the suits and skirts, don't bother suing me, it definitely wouldn't even be worth the court costs.
Subtext/Alt Sex: the story assumes a loving and sexual relationship between people of the same gender. If this is illegal where you are or bugs you; leave, change your laws and/or open your mind. No graphic sex in this one (everyone's a little busy) check the next part. <grin>
Violence: Gladiatorial games and a rough description of crucifixion. No bad language. Warning! This story gets a little rough for our favorite characters and can be painful to read. It was painful to write.
Storyline: This is part of the Awakening series. I hope each one can stand on it's own but you might want to start with the others and catch up.
A Visit Home, An Awakening: a visit home forces Xena and Gabrielle to confront their feelings for each other and Gabrielle's father.
Gabrielle's Awakening, a Visit Home (G's point of view)
Discovery: Gabrielle discovers some truths about her past and her father.
Gabrielle's Discovery (G's point of view)
Amazon Bonding: Xena and Gabrielle get married but it gets complicated.
Gabrielle - an Amazon Bonding (G's point of view)
Healing: while Gabrielle is recovering from an attempted assassination, Xena falls under Ares' influence again.
Trial of a Roman: the Amazons put one of Gabrielle's attempted assassins on trial as Xena and Gabrielle continue to heal and discover some new twists in their relationship.
Gladiator, Bard, Mother, Warrior: nah, read the next two before Ides of March but I'm not giving anything up here. <grin>
Ides of March: the Amazons have been attacked and some taken prisoner, Gabrielle and Xena must figure a way to get them out of Rome before the Ides of March. There's one problem, Caesar and his crosses are waiting for them.
Feedback: yes! yes! Da! Ja! <beg> <beg> All feedback will be responded to (except any homophobic ones - those will be laughed at and thrashed).
Personal thanks: to Sam, my beta reader. The magnificent person who listens to me bitch and calms me down when my disk crashes with 20 pages of my work! She also catches my weird sentence structure and dyslexic way of thinking.
To the wonderful web-masters/mistresses and Ex-Guards for demanding more and keeping me working.
To whoever invented WebFerret, it makes research a lot easier!
Iolaus frowned at the sound of a rider approaching. Xena and Hercules weren't due back from hunting for another day. He put down the bucket of water and pulled off a glove and drew his sword. He waited in the light snow of the territory the Romans called Agri Decumates, Gaul.
The Greek felt his pulse begin racing and his stomach turn over when the rider came into sight, a Roman soldier approaching at a trot. The Roman spotted him between the creek and the cabin and stopped in the clearing surrounding the cabin. The soldier approached the man slowly with his hands up and palms extended.
The Roman's eyebrows raised in surprise when the cabin door opened and a small blond woman stepped out cautiously with a bow and arrow, arrow notched. She was dressed like the blond man facing the Roman with a sword, in a woolen tunic and trousers tucked into fur lined boots.
"Are you the Roman citizen Brie?" The Roman called, stopping in the snow.
Gabrielle cocked her head in puzzlement and stepped further out the door.
"I'm Brie, citizen of Rome." she answered, slightly lowering the arrow while Iolaus moved closer to the cabin.
"I bring a message from Brutus, aide to Julius Caesar." he indicated a message tube in his belt.
Gabrielle lowered the bow and straightened out of her stance. "Then you are welcome once you drop your sword." Iolaus moved to the door with Gabrielle.
The Roman's eyes flashed with anger but he pulled his sword and approached the two cautiously, hilt extended. Iolaus sheathed his own sword and took the Roman's.
Gabrielle moved aside and motioned into the cabin to the Roman who went through the door cautiously.
"I am Corin, Centurion." he said simply.
"I am Brie and this is Ivar of the Northern tribes." Gabrielle responded, indicating Iolaus. She sat down at the table and the Roman joined her. Iolaus took up a position next to the fire, always keeping an eye on the Roman. Gabrielle poured a goblet of ale for the Roman.
The cabin was of simple Northern design. One main room with beds against the walls, the main area being around the fireplace. The Roman noticed the small child playing on one of the beds, staring at him with frank curiosity.
Gabrielle opened the wax sealing on the tube and pulled the parchment out and began reading, frowning. She got up and handed the parchment to Iolaus and went to a shelf above one of the beds. Grabbing a piece of parchment, pen and vial of ink she returned to the table and began writing carefully.
She noticed the Roman's surprised look and smiled at him.
"I was trained as a bard."
"I'm sorry, just surprised. I know of you. Brie the gladiator, the only female to win the wooden sword of freedom in the Arena. My brother was there and wrote me of the match. He said you were astounding." the Roman grinned and Gabrielle felt herself beginning to blush.
"I was fortunate and more skilled that day," she said. "How did you know I was the same Brie, the one that was in Rome."
"Caesar sent word to the borders that you might return to your people and if you were to return to Roman territory that he wanted to be informed of it. When Brutus sent the message to one Brie of the northern tribes who also is a citizen of Rome, I put two and two together and got you." he grinned.
"Clever, you'll go far."
Gabrielle rolled the parchment up and placed it in the message tube, lit a candle and sealed the end of the tube once again. She handed the tube to the Roman who stood easily. Iolaus handed him his sword without a word.
Gabrielle opened the door for the soldier.
"Thank you for delivering the message." she said simply.
"Thank you for the ale. By the way, I didn't see you if Caesar should ask." he grinned and mounted his horse easily and turned with a wave, moving down the road.
Iolaus grinned and shook his head. "What is it with you? Everyone you meet suddenly becomes your friend."
"Don't ask me." his blond friend complained with a smile. "What do you think of the message?"
Iolaus unrolled the parchment and began reading aloud.
"Gabrielle, I hope this finds all of you well and safe. A friend of ours has learned where you and your family are and would like to see you. A reunion at this time probably would not be good so I suggest waiting to see him after the spring snows melt. I know he'll be disappointed if you move north beyond his traveling ability but things will be different in the Spring and I hope all of you can return home in the Spring without worry. Be well, vale. Signed Brutus."
"Caesar knows where we are and is planning on moving against us." Gabrielle commented, moving back towards the cabin and suddenly grabbed a running toddler as Sasha attempted to rush by her and out the door. She lifted the dark haired child above her head, getting a responsive squeal of delight from the child. The bard swung the child around and jumped into the snow with her mate's daughter, both of them laughing and tickling each other.
"How did Caesar find out?" Iolaus frowned and then grinned, watching his friend and child playing in the snow. Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders and launched a snowball at him, catching him at the chest, sending snow down the front of his tunic.
"Hey! That's cold!" he yelped and began dancing away down the path to the creek to retrieve the water bucket.
When he returned a moment later Gabrielle had Sasha up and moving back inside the cabin to warm up.
"I don't know but he did. Maybe he threatened Brutus once he found out that Brutus actually owned me and knew who I was."
"Gabrielle, gladiator and citizen of Rome. That still feels weird." he smiled and sat down by the fire and removed his arm from it's sling and began working it back and forth, stretching the almost useless muscles.
"Try being on this side of it," Gabrielle grinned back, pulling Sasha's wet boots off.
"What do we do?"
"What else can we do? We go north and hope that the Spring does bring some changes in Rome." Gabrielle lost her smile. "I want to go home, Iolaus. I was missing for so long, my family must have gone crazy!" The Greeks had moved south at the first sign of Spring in the North, barely getting through the March snow, hoping they would be able to sneak into Greece without Caesar or Ares knowing about it. They all wanted to see their families and their homeland again.
"Over a year without knowing where you were. It drove all of us crazy. Your family, Xena's family, all the Amazons, everyone looking for you. We just didn't think to look in a gladiatorial arena." he teased.
"I certainly didn't choose it!" she managed to smile back but flinched, remembering the various faces of the fighters she had been forced to kill in the Arena. She didn't think she'd ever get used to those memories.
"I wish Herc and Xena would get back. If Caesar thinks Xena is here soldiers are probably already marching." Iolaus complained.
"I know. I don't know if we should stay here and wait for Hercules and Xena or chance moving North and let them catch up with us. I really do not want to fall into Roman hands again."
"Me either," he whispered, looking at his crippled arm and saw Gabrielle looking at her scarred arms.
"We have Sasha to think about, let's pack." he suggested.
"I agree." Gabrielle quickly began moving about the cabin. She stopped for a moment and looked out the window, hoping against the odds to see her mate and friend riding up. Open clearing and woods met her eyes. "Come on, Xena, time to come back." she whispered, focusing on her mate.
A day later found Iolaus pulling his sword again as Gabrielle grabbed her sais from her boots, standing up on the seat of the wagon and looking back down the road. Iolaus stopped the horses and waited for the bard to give directions, fight or flight.
He was relieved when he saw the bard sigh and put the sais back in their holders and leap from the wagon. "It's them!" she grinned and waited until the two horseback riders approached a couple of hundred yards and then ran to meet her mate, Xena, as the warrior slid from the back of Argo and grabbed the bard into her arms.
"We're fine, Sasha's fine." Gabrielle answered the main questions before Xena could ask them and was rewarded with the warrior's lips.
Hercules grinned, watching from his horse as they kissed and then, after a moment, coughed to break them up. They both grinned and blushed at him.
"Sorry, Herc. Iolaus has missed you terribly." Gabrielle grinned.
"Feeling's mutual," he muttered and moved his horse towards the wagon.
Gabrielle hugged her mate again. "Gods, I hate it when you're gone!" the bard muttered.
"Me too, little one. What's going on? We found the cabin wrecked and signs of a large group of riders on horses. Good thing I knew how to look for your Amazon trail signs."
"Brutus sent word that Caesar knew where we were." Gabrielle answered as they began walking Argo towards the wagon where Sasha was looking out the back of the wagon, a big grin for her mom.
Xena grinned back and opened her arms as the toddler struggled out of the wagon and ran the few feet to her mom. The warrior lifted her daughter in her arms and hugged the blue eyed child.
"So you got out of there." Xena stated.
"Yes, we thought we'd take a chance on the road rather than be captured by the Romans."
"I can understand that and I'm glad you did. We were frantic when we saw the cabin and then realized that you had escaped. I couldn't lose you again, Gabrielle." Xena's eyes became pained with the thought of being without her mate again and Gabrielle smiled and hugged both wife and daughter.
Xena watched as Gabrielle climbed back up onto the wagon with a sad smile. So much had changed with her mate. Gabrielle had been gone for over a year, captured by Roman soldiers and sold as a slave. Xena shook her head in amazement once again at what had happened to the bard.
Going from a beaten and raped Roman slave to gladiator in the Arena and winning her freedom with those deadly sais of hers. Just the thoughts of all those men abusing her bard was enough to send Xena into a berserker fury. Gabrielle knew that Xena still had to work a lot of it out of her system and didn't say anything when Xena disappeared into the woods and came back exhausted and her sword needing sharpened. Sai, a dagger like weapon that was absolutely dangerous in the bard's hands. It still amazed Xena at how skilled Gabrielle was with those sais and with most any weapon put in her hands now. The warrior remembered when Gabrielle hated to even pick up a sword, now she was deadly. Watching the bard work out was a revelation, it was like watching a dance, a dance of a deadly animal about to leap on it's prey. Dancer had been an appropriate name, Xena often thought when she watched Gabrielle move now.
And Iolaus, the warrior reflected, taking several sword hits and a good beating trying to save Gabrielle from being taken. Losing the use of his arm and almost all the strength in the hand for it. Over a year of nightmares for all of them but particularly hard on Gabrielle and Iolaus.
It had taken time for the healing to begin, even after Gabrielle had returned to them. Time for Gabrielle to figure out who and what she was and Xena wasn't sure the bard had found all of those answers yet.
The blond was no longer Gabrielle the bard, innocent traveling storyteller and companion of Xena, warrior Princess. She wasn't Brie, Roman slave, either, nor was she Dancer, Roman gladiator and now free Roman citizen. Gabrielle still woke up some nights thrashing and would spend the rest of the night crying in Xena's arms.
Xena grinned at the largest change in her life, Sasha. The small child of her one night with Ares when the God of War had messed with her mind and memories, causing the warrior to forget the last two or so years with Gabrielle. She still cursed that night spent in his arms but not the result. Sasha was a delight to her moms and her adopted dads/uncles - Hercules and Iolaus.
Xena secretly thanked the gods for Gabrielle's acceptance of Sasha. The warrior knew she had been fortunate. The bard had been upset, of course, Xena was upset about the circumstances, but the bard had put that aside and accepted Sasha as her own. Having raised Sasha for the first few months without Gabrielle had been hard and Xena had been worried that Gabrielle might not bound with the child but that had happened faster than Gabrielle had gotten comfortable with her own self.
Sasha grinned back and began chatting with her mom as the warrior rode alongside the wagon, Gabrielle guiding the horses.
Gabrielle yelped and Xena pulled her sword in reflex as a bright light filled the road in front of them. Gabrielle attempted to slow her heart rate down as she looked at Artemis standing in the middle of the road where nothing had been a moment before.
"Artemis?" she asked, eyebrows raised.
"Yes, Gabrielle. I'm sorry to just drop in but it's important." the goddess answered.
Xena noticed the tense look and blood on the goddess' hunting leathers.
"What is it? How did you find us?" the warrior asked.
Artemis smiled slightly. "Some of us have been keeping an eye on you and keeping Ares from finding you. Now I need your help."
"What it is? What's wrong, Artemis?" Hercules asked.
"Gabrielle," the goddess choked and Xena jumped off Argo and moved next to the wagon, closer to her mate. "The Amazons and Centaurs were attacked by the Romans. The survivors are with the northern Province Amazons in Belgica and need you." Artemis lowered her eyes.
Gabrielle felt her head beginning to spin as a roaring filled her ears. She wasn't aware of Xena jumping onto the wagon and grabbing her, holding her up.
"The Centaurs, did any of them and their families get out?" Xena questioned urgently.
"Some of them made it out with the Amazons." Artemis answered.
"Ephiny? Solari? Eponi?" Gabrielle whispered, tears beginning to flow down her cheeks. Xena tightened her hold on the bard, feeling her own heart breaking.
"I can't say who. The Romans are planning on attacking the northern Amazons next. Caesar knows that they can't move north in the winter snow and have no allies left in the Roman territories. He plans on wiping them out and dragging the two of you back to Greece." Artemis answered.
"Caesar will have traps waiting for us every ten miles between here and there." Iolaus complained.
"Yes, that's why you're not going that way." Artemis said through gritted teeth. "If you agree to help."
Gabrielle turned to look in her mate's eyes.
"You could stay here with Sasha and keep her safe," Gabrielle suggested.
"No way, little one. I was without you for over a year, we're not going to be separated again." Xena insisted.
"What about Sasha, we can't take her into the middle of a war?" Gabrielle demanded.
"Look, I'll be back in a candlemark, I don't want to attract Ares' attention." Artemis said and was gone with a flash.
The four adults looked from one to the other for answers with frowns.
"I have a suggestion," Hercules muttered, not looking at any of them.
"Yes?" Xena urged.
"Have Artemis take Iolaus and Sasha to Eddvar's steading up north and we go to help the Amazons." he said simply.
"I'm not leaving you, big guy!" Iolaus protested and Xena frowned.
"Gods, this is not easy!" Xena complained. "I lost Solan for so long because I sent him away and was trying to protect him. I can't take Sasha into the middle of a fight and I can't stay with her. I have to know what happened to Solan!"
"I can still fight and sit a horse!" Iolaus protested.
"No, my friend. Not in a battle. Someone has to keep Sasha safe and you're the best one for the job now. Eddval, Axel and the family will protect both of you to the death if need be." Hercules said softly, ruffling Iolaus' hair and the blond dropped his head, acknowledging the logic, Iolaus knew that Hercules was right about their adopted Germanic family. The Northerners considered the Greeks family and had welcomed them warmly and would go into a blood feud for any of them.
"Oh gods," Xena muttered.
Gabrielle sat watching the ground in front of the wagon while the others debated and discussed. Her Amazons? Survivors? That meant a large number must be dead or captured. Her friends, her family. The bard snapped up her head.
"Artemis!" she called, surprising the arguing Hercules, Xena and Iolaus into silence. The Goddess of the Hunt appeared instantly. "How many did the Romans capture?" she demanded. Artemis dropped her head and refused to answer. "How many?" Gabrielle demanded again and the bard felt Xena stiffen beside her.
"Twenty, including Ephiny." the goddess said quietly.
"Gabrielle," Xena began, a warning in her voice.
"Don't even think of stopping me on this one, my love." Gabrielle countered.
"I'm not going to let you do this." Xena growled.
"Do what?" Iolaus asked. Then he began frowning. "Exchange yourself? No way! No!" he shouted at Gabrielle.
Xena saw that familiar clenching of the bard's jaw and shook her head. "No, Caesar will just kill you and the prisoners." Xena continued to protest.
"No, he won't." Gabrielle said simply.
"Why wouldn't he? He can't be trusted!" Xena insisted.
"Because, my warrior, you're going to kill him."
"What?!" several voices questioned at once.
"Artemis will take us to Rome where I'll exchange myself as Amazon Queen for my tribe. She'll take Hercules to the Northern tribe where he will help fight the Romans off until we have a treaty with Caesar to leave Roman territory. Iolaus will take Sasha to the north and, with the money I won in the Games, will buy a good chunk of the most wild forest he can find from the tribes and Hercules will move the Amazons and Centaurs north, away from the Romans." Gabrielle stated evenly.
The other three Greeks and goddess frowned.
"You've always been against killing." Xena frowned.
"I've had to re-evaluate that the last couple of years. He threatens you, Sasha, Iolaus and Hercules and now he attacks my Amazons and the Centaurs, including Solan. No, this war has expanded far enough."
"Damnit!" Xena cursed, unable to find any other plan that had a chance of working. "Caesar won't sign a treaty if he already has you."
"We'll send word that he may have some of the Amazons but that the survivors have joined up with another group, are dug in securely and the Queen is willing to negotiate the release of the prisoners. He'll deal because he can figure to make a public spectacle of my death and then go in and wipe out the Amazons anyway." Gabrielle reasoned.
"I can't let you do it!" Xena protested again. "If something went wrong, you'd still end up dead."
"I know that but we can't just walk away either. If we make a stand with the Amazons now everyone will die, including Solan. The Amazons can't fight Rome anymore. You know that, Artemis."
"Yes, I was hoping you'd plan this."
"Gods, keeping their plans to themselves except when they need help," Xena muttered.
"Can you get us to Rome, Hercules to the Northern Amazons and Iolaus with Sasha to Axel?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes." Artemis asked.
"Don't you gods lose power outside of your territories?" Xena muttered, unhappy with the situation.
"Sometimes, some of us Greeks get along with the Northern gods very well. You should see Othinn on a Wild Hunt. He's not bad for a male and he likes you." Artemis grinned.
"Terrific," Xena muttered and then turned to the demi-god son of Zeus, "Hercules," Xena pleaded.
"I can't think of a better plan right now either." he muttered.
"Oh gods. Sasha, come here, my little one." Xena turned and grabbed her daughter from the back of the wagon, tears threatening to spill over her eyes.
Gabrielle bit her lip and jumped down from the wagon, grabbing two sets of travel bags, and walked over to Artemis while Hercules said his good-byes to Iolaus and Xena tried to explain to her toddler that she was going to be gone for a little bit but would be back as fast as possible. Gabrielle looked over to Artemis with a silent prayer that they all made it back, but especially Xena.
"After this is over, you'll take her to Sasha and not make her travel over land?" Gabrielle whispered.
"Yes, my word on it. Gabrielle, I don't want you going into this planning on dying. I want you alive!" the goddess hissed at her favorite.
"So do I, goddess. Caesar won't kill me easily." the bard promised.
"Good! Stall for time with Caesar, politics are boiling over in Rome and the ice is melting under that pot." Artemis advised.
Xena jumped down from the wagon and carried Sasha over to her mate and goddess and the two Greek men joined them. Gabrielle ran back to the wagon and led Argo over to the small group and hugged Sasha before handing the small child to her uncle Iolaus, trying not to let the child see her tears.
"Let's get this over with." Xena growled.
In a flash Artemis was gone with Iolaus and Sasha. Xena blinked, trying to fight back tears as Gabrielle reached out and held her hand.
"I'm sorry, Xena. You should have stayed with her."
"No, not if you're going to do this. According to your plan I'm the only one who can get you out." Xena smiled grimly.
"You always do."
Xena ground her teeth, trying not to remind the bard that Xena hadn't been able to find or rescue Gabrielle for over a year and a half while the bard suffered whippings, beatings, rapes and fighting as a gladiator. Xena wasn't feeling as confident in her abilities to protect her mate as she once did.
Artemis appeared again and disappeared with Hercules.
"Gods, that is so weird!" Gabrielle complained as they waited. "What about the horses and our stuff?"
Gabrielle turned and found the wagon and belongings gone.
"They disappeared with Iolaus and Sasha." Xena grinned.
"Gods, I hate how they can do stuff like that!"
Xena managed to laugh. "If you ever claim your immortality as the daughter of Apollo, who knows what you could do." Xena teased.
"Oh, I am not thinking about that! I don't want that kind of power, thanks!"
"Why not?" Xena asked casually. "You could just zap the Amazons to safety and kill Caesar."
Gabrielle frowned. "No one should have that much power, not even the Gods. Look what it does to them. Ares is a pain in the neck, causing all kinds of strife just for his amusement, Aphrodite has been known to cause absolute havoc in people's lives and my own father goes around having numerous affairs with women because he can get away with it."
Xena grinned, "That's my love. Just checking."
Gabrielle punched her lover on the arm with an amused smile.
"Seriously, little one. This isn't going to be easy." Xena lost her smile.
"When is it easy?" Gabrielle countered as Artemis appeared before them.
"Where to, my Chosen?"
"Just outside of Brutus' apartment. Xena, pull up your hood."
Xena was impressed, moving through the streets of Rome after dark could be trickery but Gabrielle was silent as a cat and blended with the shadows almost as well as the Warrior Princess. They had waited in an inn until after dark and then slipped out their window into the streets towards Brutus' apartment. Xena had made some discrete inquiries and had found that Brutus and Caesar were in Rome and that the Amazons were scheduled for execution on the Ides of March. Two days away.
Xena quickly scaled a wall and leaned an arm down to her mate and was further impressed with Gabrielle joined her at the top without a sound. The warrior moved along the wall quickly and jumped up onto the balcony of what Gabrielle had pointed out to be Brutus' bedroom. At Xena's hand signal the bard followed and drew out her sais quietly, watching the street and alley below while the warrior slowly opened the doors and crept in.
After a moment, Gabrielle heard a low whistle and slipped in through the doors and shut them behind her.
"Strike a light," she heard Xena whisper and quickly lit the candle she had in her pouch and found a lamp on a small table by the balcony doors. When her eyes focused in the light she could see Xena straddling Brutus with her dagger at his throat.
"Xena! Gabrielle! Are you out of your minds!?" he demanded in a low voice.
"Maybe." Xena agreed with a grin and pulled the dagger back slightly. Reaching under his pillow she pulled out a long and sharp dagger and tossed it to the bard, who caught it easily. Xena sat back on her haunches, pinning the Roman to the bed.
"Why didn't you go North? Caesar will have you both on a cross!" Brutus demanded, attempting to sit up but not having much success. He settled for leaning on his elbows.
"You have my family members." Gabrielle answered.
"Oh gods, I hoped you'd have gotten far enough north before you heard." he muttered.
"Where are they, Brutus?" Xena asked.
"In Caesar's dungeons and no one gets in to see them, not even me."
"Any chance of getting them out?" Gabrielle asked her mate.
"No, we might be able to trick one or two people out of there but not that many. Damnit, Brutus! You knew the Amazons are our family!" Xena hissed.
"Yes, I know that! Do you think I had a choice? It was either that or my son on a cross for letting Gabrielle go!" he growled back.
"No." the bard whispered and Xena was up and by her mate's side in a flash.
"This isn't your fault, Gabrielle. It's Caesar's!"
"Xena is right, Gabrielle." Brutus agreed, sitting up in his bed. "It's Caesar."
"Well, we've got two days to stop him." Xena smiled a smile that sent chills down the spine of the Roman and then she frowned as he shook his head.
"No, he moved the execution of the Amazons to day next."
"What? What about the Ides of March?" Xena demanded.
"He's making a special announcement in the Senate. One he says will rock the world." Brutus said bitterly.
"He wouldn't dare." Xena whispered.
"Yes, he would." Brutus nodded his head and Gabrielle went pale.
"He's going to declare himself King or Emperor?" she asked.
"Rome won't let him." Xena frowned.
"The Senate won't let him." Brutus matched her frown. He wrapped a sheet around his body and walked over to the two women and gently took the dagger away from Gabrielle's hands. "I need that for the Ides of March."
"Brutus, you?" Xena asked, sitting down at a small table as the Roman gestured to a chair, Gabrielle sat between them. "He's your friend."
"You once asked if Caesar had any friends. I didn't want to face that question right then but I have to now. I think he's planning on killing me and Octavian and naming the child he has with Cleopatra as his heir after proclaiming himself Emperor. I'm supposed to go back to Britannia but he's chosen my escort for me and there's only enough supplies packed for a one week trip."
"Not a good sign," Gabrielle agreed.
"They'll kill you, Brutus." Xena said.
"No, I'm not the only one. There will be many of us. The trick will be getting Marc Anthony to listen to reason before he starts using that sword of his. If we can keep him calm, we'll live." Brutus said simply.
"What do we do about the Amazons?" Gabrielle demanded and Brutus shook his head.
"I don't know. With the announcement coming up, Caesar isn't about to postpone or stop the execution. He needs the spirits of the Roman citizens soaring and nothing does that like a good day at the Games. He knows the Amazons are amazing fighters and plans on having several bouts with them before crucifying them." Brutus explained.
"Crucify?" Xena whispered and Gabrielle fought back tears.
"Yes, either that or burn them as torches in the Arena."
Gabrielle fought back from losing dinner at the thought of Ephiny and her other Amazons on fire.
Xena reached out and held the bard's hand reassuringly.
"Xena," Gabrielle looked into her mate's blue eyes and saw pain.
"No, Gabrielle. We'll find a way."
"Can you think of one?" she whispered.
"What?" Brutus frowned.
"Gabrielle, no, please." Xena whispered but the bard closed her eyes and pulled her hand away from her mate and reached into her pouch. She handed the Roman a message tube, her jaw clinched.
"Take that to Caesar at first light and send a messenger back here with his response." she told Brutus.
"What is it?"
"My offer of a treaty with Rome as Queen of the Amazons. If Caesar agrees the remaining Amazons and Centaurs will leave Roman territory for the northern woods where, hopefully, they'll never be seen by a Roman again. It also offers a political exchange of prisoners." she explained.
"Who would you exchange for the Amazons?"
Brutus stood up in shock and quickly grabbed at his sheet, blushing as he tried to retain his dignity of being nude under the sheet. "No! I won't let you! Xena, you can't let her!"
"I don't have a choice, Brutus. We can't let our friends die."
"What's the rest of the plan?" he suddenly demanded and Xena's eyes narrowed.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Don't try and toss me around, Xena. Neither of you would come here without a solution, a way out. How can I help? What is it?"
"I'm going to kill Caesar myself and Gabrielle won't have to exchange herself."
Brutus shook his head. "I don't think it'll work. If only we could delay the executions until after the Senate meeting, then all of it would be ended. The Senate would gladly accept the treaty terms if they can claim the land and the Amazons leave."
"When would the executions take place?" Gabrielle asked, frowning in thought.
Xena's eyes narrowed again.
"Depending on the fights, right near sunset." Brutus answered, getting up and pouring wine for all of them, still trying to keep his sheet around him.
"How long can someone last on a cross?" she asked, not meeting Xena's eyes.
"Depends on if he has them nailed to the wood and how badly they're flogged before."
Xena's fists clenched tightly together. "Gabrielle," she warned with a growl.
"How long?" Gabrielle asked again, ignoring her mate.
"A day or longer, depending on how strong the person is." Brutus answered with a puzzled look.
"Long enough to survive past the Senate meeting and Caesar's end?" she asked.
"Gabrielle," Xena growled again and Brutus went pale.
"No! I mean, yes, it's possible, but not for you!" again he jumped to his feet and began pacing. "That would mean being on a cross from dusk to probably noonday." he protested.
"You're not going in there! We can save the Amazons after Caesar's gone, they're strong enough to last that long." Xena argued with the bard, knowing what was going through her mate's mind.
"We don't know that. Most of them are probably wounded and many more will die in the Arena before the cross. They're tired, hungry, wounded and beaten and saw their families, friends and lovers killed. They won't last and you know it." Gabrielle argued back, the jaw taking on that familiar stubborn set.
"Gabrielle, you don't know what it's like." Xena whispered, tears in her eyes.
"No, I don't but I've been in the Arena and I can hold my own in a fight in there. I'm also strong and, as you've said, my love - I'm stubborn." Gabrielle attempted to smile.
"I was crucified in the field, it's different in an execution. Brutus, tell her."
"No," the Roman whispered, turning pale.
"Tell her, damnit! Describe it for her!" Xena hissed.
The Roman sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. "The prisoner is taken to a post, his hands chained above him and his clothing ripped down the back. He is then flogged with a whip that has small iron balls on the ends of the strands. It causes massive welts with the first few strikes. The next strikes rip the skin open and continue until the skin is hanging in ribbons. Then the prisoner is dragged to the patibulum, the cross beam of the cross and tied to it. Then 7 inch spikes are driven through the wrists of the prisoner, causing intense pain through the arm. If the prisoner is lucky and the executioner good, the bones can be missed in the wrists."
Brutus took a drink of his wine, beginning to sweat in the cold night air.
"Then the cross beam is attached to the stipes, the upright beam, and the legs are twisted around the cross so that the ankles are against the sides. Uncomfortable and painful. The executioner then takes a small piece of board and places it over the ankle and drives another spike through each ankle."
Gabrielle fought to control her stomach.
"Because of the position, the prisoner must raise themselves up to be able to breath. Eventually they can't do it any longer and the lungs begin to fill with liquid. The body is starved of oxygen and the heart begins to fight. A strong fighter can last for two to four days, depending on how much blood they lose during the flogging. Eventually the body stops breathing. It's painful and drawn out."
"You can't face that, little one." Xena whispered. "No one can willingly."
"Tell me how to save Ephiny and the others." Gabrielle said simply.
Xena growled, jumping to her feet and beginning pacing. Brutus looked helpless, unable to think of anything different as well.
"All right, but only if I don't come back tonight." Xena bargained with her lifebond.
"Where are you going, never mind, I know where you're going." Gabrielle also stood up and grabbed her mate in a tight hug.
"Xena, I don't like this. Caesar knows you'll come for the Amazons." Brutus protested.
"I know but I have to try. If I can kill him tonight then Gabrielle won't have to even think about exchanging herself and you can get the Senate to agree to the treaty and release the Amazon prisoners." She slipped her dagger back into her belt. "Besides, that would remove the blood from your hands and those of the Senate."
Brutus blushed profusely.
"If you don't come back?" Gabrielle whispered, holding Xena closely.
"I'll either be dead or waiting in a cell for you to show up to join me." Xena slipped off her bonding bracelet and left it on the table while Gabrielle wasn't watching. The warrior knew if she were captured she'd lose it.
"You won't be alone," the bard whispered and kissed her tall warrior.
"I love you." before the bard could respond the warrior was out the door and over the balcony.
"Gods, she's amazing." Brutus muttered.
"Yes, she is." Gabrielle agreed. "She's only got a couple of hours to get in and get out."
"What do we do?"
"Wait until after dawn, either she'll have succeeded or you'll have word of her."
"Oh gods, I hate waiting." Brutus complained.
"Well, you might pass the time by getting dressed." Gabrielle suggested with a smile.
Brutus looked down at the sheet he was still tightly holding and blushed again. "I'll be right back." he muttered, grabbing a clothes off a chair and heading for a dressing screen.
Gabrielle spotted the bracelet and fought back tears.
Gabrielle couldn't believe that she had actually fallen asleep as she blinked rapidly, standing in Brutus' bedroom with her sais in hand in a defensive stance. The pounding on the outer door continued and she heard movement in the other room and went to the door of the sleeping room. She saw Brutus crossing the marbled floors, dagger drawn to the main door. Gabrielle couldn't hear or see who it was.
After a moment the Roman nodded and turned towards the bedroom. Seeing Gabrielle at the door he motioned her into the room. She walked out of the bedroom cautiously.
"I've given the servants the day off." he explained as he sat down on a sofa.
"What is it?" she whispered as she saw his expression and he ducked his eyes. "He has her?"
"Yes, they were waiting for her or you. Fortunately, he doesn't seem to know about the other plan. Maybe that'll work to our advantage, he won't be looking for assassins in the Senate now that he has Xena." Brutus said thoughtfully.
"And me." Gabrielle whispered.
"No, I won't let you do it!" he argued again.
"Do it, Brutus! It's the only way I can save her and my Amazons!"
"Damnit! If this doesn't work I'm pulling you off that cross myself!" he promised as he stormed out the door, grabbing the message tube with him.
Gabrielle let the tears begin to fall silently as she took off her bonding bracelet and placed it next to Xena's. Then she placed her sais with them. Either Brutus would get them back to her or she wouldn't need them.
Xena growled and threw her head backwards, hitting a Roman guard in the nose and was most satisfied when she heard the crunch under her skull. He yelped and the three other guards dragging her along grabbed on even tighter and the one with the broken nose punched her in the small of the back three times. Xena gritted her teeth and continued the struggle with a yell.
The warrior saw red filling her world when she heard Caesar laughing behind her as his guards tried to drag her down the stairs of the dungeon. She almost shook off her guards when one had enough and crashed his fist along Xena's jaw, stunning her.
When her head cleared she was chained to a wall at her wrists and feet. She stood up to relieve the pressure on her wrists and looked at Caesar standing in front of her. She growled at his smug look.
"Xena, you never learn."
"How did you know?" she asked.
"You have one obsession in your life and that's me. Once I captured the Amazons I knew that would draw you out if I couldn't find that little bard of yours. I was right. Rest up, Xena. Tomorrow you go into the Arena and you won't be coming out."
"Don't bet on it, Caesar." she hissed and the Roman laughed and continued laughing as he left the cell area.
Xena looked around and wasn't surprised to see a large number of Amazons in cells, chained to walls and chained to the pillars. It hurt her to see so many of them wounded and there at all.
"Ephiny?" she called out and saw movement at one of the cells. The Amazon Queen moved to the front of the bars and Xena growled at the sight of her broken arm.
"Xena? What in Tartarus are you doing here?" she demanded. Xena, looking around realized a large number of familiar faces were missing. She prayed they had made it out and weren't dead.
"Do they know who you are?" the warrior asked, ignoring the question.
"Because your Queen has an idea that might get all of us out of here, at least the Amazons." Xena grinned around the bruised jaw.
"What's she doing here!?" Ephiny demanded, face turning red with anger.
"She's safe for now. Tell me something first."
"Were there any prisoners in here when you were brought in?" Xena asked, looking around at the other women.
"Yes, one man in for stealing, why?"
"Where is he?" the warrior asked.
"In this cell with us." another Amazon answered.
"How does he smell?"
"What?" Ephiny asked and then her eyes narrowed as well. "He doesn't." she growled and grabbed one of the Amazons. Xena watched as the Amazon unlaced her boot and wrapped the lace around her hands and moved among the women crowding the cell. After a few minutes Ephiny nodded to the warrior.
"It's something I used to do in my Conqueror days," Xena explained with a shrug.
"How did you get here?" Ephiny demanded.
"I tried to kill Caesar but he was expecting me."
"Gods, will nothing stop that man?" Ephiny growled.
"If we don't then there is someone who might." Xena said grimly.
Four candlemarks later soldiers began filing into the cell area and the jailer began unlocking manacles. The soldiers lined up the Amazons against a wall with their swords drawn. Caesar walked into the room with a frown.
"All right, listen up, barbarians. You will be escorted to the gates of Rome where you will find horses waiting for you. You will have three hours to get out of my sight." he yelled.
Ephiny stepped out of the open cell door and approached him cautiously, holding her arm.
"What's going on?" she demanded.
"Seems someone more valuable than all of you wishes to exchange themselves for you. The Senate agreed, even if I didn't. Marc Anthony will see to your safe passage." Caesar growled.
"It's a trick," Ephiny protested.
"No it's not, Ephiny. Go and get the Amazons to your northern sisters in Belgica." Xena urged.
"Who would trade themselves for us?" Ephiny demanded.
"I would." a voice caught her attention and Ephiny looked at the door at the top of the stairs and almost went to her knees.
"No!" she yelled and was grabbed by two Roman soldiers.
Gabrielle walked down the stairs slowly and over to Caesar.
"I have his word and the word of the Senate that you'll be given safe passage out of the city and out of Roman territory. Head straight for Aeolia's tribe, you'll find help there." Gabrielle ordered.
"I can't let you do this!" Ephiny protested and looked to Xena for support.
"It's done, Ephiny." Xena said simply.
"No, you both can't sacrifice yourselves! No!" Ephiny screamed.
"Get them out of here!" Caesar ordered and the soldiers began herding a protesting number of Amazons up the stairs.
"Go, please. I order it as Amazon royalty. Don't come back for a rescue either." Gabrielle ordered. Ephiny was still cursing and fighting as they closed the jail door.
Caesar turned to Gabrielle and began circling her, looking her up and down.
"Nice trick the Fates pulled on me, wasn't it?" he asked with a grin.
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked, keeping her eyes on Xena.
"I recognize you, Dancer." Caesar hissed in her ear. "I had all of the Empire looking for you and you were in my own slave quarters. Amazing."
"Now what?" she asked.
"You spend the night in one of these comfortable cells and tomorrow I'm going to send you back into the Arena, both of you. If you live until the afternoon, I'm going to have you crucified. How's that sound?" he grinned.
"Not particularly amusing but I'll take it as long as you keep your word to the Senate about the Amazons." Gabrielle stated easily.
"You know, the Amazon bitch was right, you shouldn't have sacrificed yourself for them, either of you. Xena, you amaze me, actually." he commented as he approached the warrior, his hand to his mouth in pretend thought. "The Xena I knew wouldn't have hesitated to sacrifice all of them."
"You don't know me, Caesar." Xena growled.
"You're right, I couldn't believe the stories of you being reformed were true. Tell me, did you conqueror her in bed or did she conqueror you there as well?"
Neither woman answered him nor looked at him. Caesar laughed. "Look where you are, Xena, and tell me I don't know you now. She must be amazing for you to sacrifice yourself like this."
"She is." Xena agreed simply.
"Tell me, Dancer, which would you prefer," he leaned into her neck again and Gabrielle resisted drawing away. "A night with me and a return to the Games or ending up on a cross with your lover?"
"Gabrielle, take it." Xena urged.
"No, I won't leave you and a cross would be much better than a night with him." Gabrielle hissed and Caesar merely kept grinning.
"You might change your mind during the flogging. Ever see a Roman flogging? I would hate to see that beautiful, lightly scarred back of yours hanging in bloody tatters."
Gabrielle attempted to keep from showing her fear and anger.
"I've seen you fight, I wonder if you'll die as well. Ever hear the most hardened criminal beg as the spikes are being driven into their ankle bones? It's amusing."
"You'll not hear me beg." Gabrielle promised with a hiss.
"No? I'll guarentee you that I'll hear you scream." he countered with a promise.
A guard approached at Caesar's hand signal. "Put her in the cell opposite of the warrior bitch. They can look but not touch, eh?"
The guard shoved Gabrielle into the cell Ephiny had been in and then hesitated to close the cell door. Caesar noticed. "What is it?"
"The prisoner, Caesar."
Caesar approached and Gabrielle moved to the far end of the cell, letting Caesar and the guard enter. The guard drew his sword and kept it trained on Gabrielle while Caesar bent over and examined the male prisoner laying on the straw. He loudly began cursing and turned to Xena, face an angry red.
"What?!" he demanded.
Xena shrugged with a smile. "Don't look at me, I was over here the whole time."
Caesar cursed again and walked out of the cell. "Drag him out of there and leave the body here to keep our ladies company." he ordered.
Gabrielle leaned against the bars as the jail door slammed shut.
Xena frowned at her and then smiled. "Hey, couldn't stay away, huh?"
"No, never. We'll face everything together."
"Oh how so sickeningly touching!" a male voice sneered and Ares appeared between the two women.
Xena sighed, looking at the War God with a frustrated look.
"Can't I go through the last hours of my life without dealing with you?" she demanded.
Ares smirked back. "What in the name of the Gods are you doing here?" he demanded.
"Getting ready to fight?" she asked with an innocent smile.
"Why did you leave Greece for two years?"
"I wanted to travel."
"Without Miss Blond and Irritating over there? Don't give me that. Do you know where I found her and what she was doing?" he asked with a grin, pleased when Gabrielle began blushing.
"Yes, I do. She was a slave in a gladiator school and sleeping with her female trainer." Xena answered in an even voice and was pleased when Ares frowned, obviously disappointed.
"Ares, what do you want?" Gabrielle demanded.
"Oh, he wants the usual. He'll get me out of here if I come back to him, right?" Xena answered.
"Right. I'll even throw in Gabrielle in the package. I've seen her fight, she's good. She could be as good as you with a little help." he grinned.
"No deal, Ares. Leave us alone." Xena answered.
"You know," he whispered, moving in close to her body, grinning when she couldn't move away from him. She growled a warning growl as he began to nibble on her neck. "you look absolutely," his hand slid up between her legs as she struggled in the chains. "ravishing."
A string of curses from a cell across the room made him smile. He grinned and grabbed Xena's jaw and kissed her, forcing his tongue past her lips and then pulled back laughing as she spit at him, eyes flashing bright blue with anger.
"Hey, always been a fantasy of mine." he grinned and was gone.
"Arrrggghhhh!" Xena yelled, spitting after him.
"I could kill him!" Gabrielle muttered.
"Stand in line!" Xena snapped. "I'd better have a chance to kiss you tomorrow, I refuse to die with him on my lips!"
"We're not going to die!" Gabrielle snapped back.
"The odds of surviving that long on a cross are not good, little one."
"As long as you're with me." Gabrielle whispered, shaking the cell door.
"I told you that you wouldn't go to that cross alone."
"Oh gods, okay, I admit it, I'm scared." Gabrielle sat down, leaning against the bars.
"Me too." Xena said quietly back to her mate.
"What happens in the Arena?" Xena asked in the darkness.
"They'll come for us in a little bit. Chain us, blindfold us and take us by wagon to the Arena and put us in cells down below. We might be given the chance at some light leather armor and a small breakfast. Then you'll feel the heat of the place, it's like someone pressing on your chest. Then the roar, that feels like someone pounds on your chest. You can feel the energy and hear the animals, they sense it also in another part of the underground."
"I wish I could touch you." Xena complained.
"So do I, my love. More than life itself right now."
"Any tips for the Arena," Xena grinned in the dark, knowing Gabrielle could sense it.
"Yup, don't play fair."
"I think I can handle that one. Can you?" Xena asked with a frown, knowing that killing without emotion in the Arena was one of the things that caused Gabrielle nightmares. Now she was back in the same position again.
"I don't think I have a choice." the bard answered with a touch of anger in her voice. "I just pray Caesar kept his word and Ephiny and the others are safe."
"Me too, and Hercules, the northern Amazons, Iolaus and Sasha and everyone else."
"That saving the world thing again." Gabrielle smiled in the dark and felt her heart skip a beat as a key unlocked the upper door. "Oh gods," she whispered. "See us through this."
Xena frowned as Gabrielle slipped on the light leather tunic and began lacing it up. They had been held below the Arena for hours while other fights had raged on. The bard had been right, the roar of the crowd was like a physical blow to the chest, especially when things got bloody. Xena had seen a number of fighters carried in on litters towards the hospice, most to die in agony or have limbs amputated. Many fighters didn't come back.
Unlike soldiers facing a battle, these fighters kept quiet and to themselves as they waited chained to the wall or benches. Xena noticed that the guards didn't look at the prisoner's faces a lot either. Gabrielle explained that these were the prisoner fighters, they were meant to die in the Arena. On the other side were the fighters from schools and professionals. On that side of the Arena there would be laughter and last minute betting among themselves and the guards.
On this side hope was in short supply.
Xena had been pleased that she and the bard had been chained next to each other, they could at least hold each other and comfort each other a little as the time dragged on.
As it got closer to the afternoon and a simple meal of stew and bread with water was brought in Gabrielle got quiet. When the last of the fighters left the holding area the guards unlocked their chains and motioned to the stack of armor and the bard quickly moved to find a leather tunic that fit. Xena followed her bard's example.
"When do we get weapons?" Xena asked.
"We don't." Gabrielle answered simply.
"We're enemies of Rome. We go into the Arena without weapons."
"Then we'd better finish the first fight quick and grab their weapons and shields."
Xena drew the bard into her arms and felt Gabrielle relax and hug her back. "I love you, little one."
"I love you too, Xena."
The bard broke the contact at the sound of the crowd roaring. Xena frowned as she noticed the change in Gabrielle's eyes and shift in the way the bard held her body. The ex-warlord realized that she was looking at Dancer, dangerous gladiator.
The sound of the doors opening caused a shift in the warrior as well as her blood began humming and her pulse started racing.
After five rounds of fighting Xena and Gabrielle leaned on their swords, breathing heavily. Gabrielle went down on one knee, catching her breath. They had fought at least ten men and they were all dead. The bard wiped her bloody hand on her skirt and dried the hilt of her sword with the hem.
Xena placed her hand on the bard's shoulder as the slaves removed the bodies of their most recent kills. Both warriors ignored the roaring and impatient crowd and both glanced at Caesar at the same time. The leader was lounging on his sofa, grinning at the two women. He tossed a grape up into the air and caught it in his mouth easily. The Roman raised his goblet in a mock toast.
"He's too cheerful," Gabrielle complained.
"Yup, he's got something planned. He doesn't want us to die in a fight, he'll want to humiliate us and make us suffer with the execution. This can't go on much longer."
"If we drag out the fight we get tired and might make a mistake, if we finish them off quickly he'll just send more in." Gabrielle stood up and gauged the movement of time by the sun. Still too long till sunset.
"Don't rush it, Gabrielle. Brutus might be able to get most of the senators to agree to the treaty around Caesar before tomorrow's session."
"Most of them are here, Xena. It's a long shot. Gods, it's cold for Rome!" she complained.
"Here come some more." Xena muttered as the doors opened.
The warrior bard and Warrior Princess made a good team in the Arena, everyone had to admit who saw the matches that day. When facing heavily armored opponents they worked as a team, dodging under heavy sword swings to dance in and strike enough blows to tire the fighter out until a fatal blow could be struck. Like wolves stalking a reindeer.
When fighting lightly armored opponents they fought back to back, protecting each other and not giving the other fighters any opportunity at a blind side or weak opening.
Time seemed to drag on for the fighters and the body count rose by the end of another four matches. The total of fights unheard of in the Arena, especially by two women warriors.
Xena held a hand against a light sword wound along her ribs and Gabrielle sank to her knees as the slaves cleared away the latest bodies.
"Xena," the bards gasped. "I can't....."
"I know." the warrior agreed.
Both couldn't help but look at the posts at the north end of the Arena, set up just for them.
Xena dropped the bloody sword with a snarl as seven soldiers ran in from one direction and another seven from the other. She leaned back into Gabrielle and felt the bard's answering touch along her thigh and the bard dropped her shield and sword as well. Xena spun on her heel and found her mate standing up to reach her as well as their bodies melted together, lips meeting once more.
Rough hands grabbed them and pulled them apart, pinning their arms behind them. Both women found daggers at their throats. Neither resisted.
"Citizens of Rome! You have witnessed the brutal fighting skills of these enemies of the State. Now it is time for them to pay for their war against Rome, their sentence is death!" Caesar yelled to the crowd who roared their approval.
Gabrielle couldn't help but feel her heart skip a beat when slaves began dragging a patibulum out of the holding area with a ladder. She counted only one cross beam.
The bard saw Xena frowning and look up at Caesar. Gabrielle followed her eyes and sought Caesar's eyes and growled when he merely laughed at their puzzlement.
"Citizens of Rome! Death by crucifixion for the Queen of the Amazons!" the crowd roared it's approval. Gabrielle saw Brutus standing next to Caesar, trying not to let emotions show. She prayed that she hadn't been played for a total fool and that the Roman might actually turn on his would-be Emperor. "For the Warrior Princess, death by beheading," he paused with a smile, "tomorrow at midday. Until then, she can watch her lover die for Rome."
Gabrielle was stunned. She wouldn't face death with Xena? After all this time? After all they had been through? The bard had faced death in the Arena before but always with the thought that Xena was safe with Sasha. Now she'd died before Xena and her mate would have to watch? Xena would face death alone?
Xena went berserk. The guard behind her dropped his dagger when she smashed her skull into his nose and the guard on her left, having loosened his grip, found himself being thrown into the guard on her right, smashing heads together with a bone jarring crack.
The warrior let out with her famous war cry and grabbed up a spear just as another soldier got too close and ran the spear through him. She grabbed his sword away and slashed another soldier's throat. The remaining soldiers surrounded her and more were pouring into the Arena.
"Xena, no!" Gabrielle called out, struggling with her guards until she felt blood at her neck and stopped struggling.
The warrior took out another two soldiers before she was taken to the ground screaming by a net, followed by blows from fists and sword hilts. Xena was dragged backwards to one of the posts and chained with her hands behind her. Caesar laughed heartily as the warrior struggled against the chains, cursing and screaming at him. The crowd roared it's approval.
"Xena! Save your strength!" Gabrielle yelled but the warrior couldn't hear her.
The knife at her throat disappeared and the bard was shoved forward and tripped at the same time. Before she could react she found herself turned over and being dragged by her arms over the sand towards the other post. She was thrown roughly down on the ground and positioned on the patibulum. The cross beam was resting on blocks of wood so the slaves could tie her to it easier. The bard ignored the rough edges at the back of her neck and let the slaves tie her without resisting. Gabrielle tried to control her breathing and rapid pulse without success. She knew that if she were merely tied to the cross then she stood a good chance at surviving at least for a day, if nailed, it could be harder.
She had only a moment to be grateful that Caesar seemed to be skipping the traditional flogging when she felt her heart skip a beat at the sight of a soldier approaching with spikes and hammer.
"No," she whimpered involuntarily and closed her eyes.
Xena thought she would rip her hands off at the wrists from the chains when she heard Gabrielle's screams and the sound of the hammer hitting the spikes.
"Xena!" the voice finally broke through the warrior's red berserker haze. She raised her head, breathing heavily. With a growl she rattled her chains again and again they held firm. Xena whimpered at the sight of her bard on the cross fifteen feet from her.
Gabrielle was bathed in sweat even though it had grown quite cold in the Arena after the crowds had left. Xena blinked in the torchlight, realizing that it had grown dark.
"How long," she croaked through her raw throat.
"Three candlemarks." Gabrielle gasped.
Caesar had also foregone spiking the bard's ankles to the cross, merely having them tied to the wood beam. This was a mixed blessing, both bard and warrior knew. On one side it saved the bard shattered bones and pain, on the other side it made pulling herself up on the cross more difficult, thus ensuring a shorter time on the cross before her own body would drown itself and collapse her lungs.
"Talk to me." the bard requested, pulling herself up with a whimper.
Xena felt herself whimper in sympathy. Her own wrists were a bloody mess from her struggles against the chains but the sight of the spikes sticking out from her lover's wrists brought fresh tears to her eyes.
"You're the bard, little one." she protested.
"Please, help focus." Gabrielle's body slumped and she cried out in pain as her body weight pulled on the spikes. She brought her weight back up with a struggle.
Xena began talking. What she talked about she could never remember. All she knew is that she talked and kept talking, watching her lover struggle endlessly against time and pain.
The sky was turning purple in the pre-dawn when Xena couldn't talk any longer, her voice long gone from screaming and talking. Gabrielle's eyes were unfocused in the pain and concentration. During the night Xena had talked with her bard in a tone she had learned from Lao Ma, sending the bard into an intense form of concentration, focusing beyond the pain, focusing on nothing other than tensing and relaxing her muscles again and again through the night.
Xena watched the sky, cursing the slow movement of the rising sun. She knew the Senate wouldn't meet until mid-morning and she had no idea when the assassins intended on striking against Caesar. She hoped it was soon, someone would have to distract Marc Anthony and they would have to move fast.
Then everything depended on Brutus getting Marc Anthony to agree in freeing her and Gabrielle. Time, it would all take time and the warrior wasn't sure how much more Gabrielle had as the bard slumped again, coughs racking her small frame.
"Gabrielle, fight it!" she growled, fighting to find a voice. "Come on!"
The bard threw her head back and struggled to raise her body again, gasping for air. Xena heard a growl out of her mate as Gabrielle bit her chapped lips in pain and concentration. The bard's muscles were twitching in cramps repeatedly, reminding the warrior of when her mate had been poisoned.
It was about two candlemarks past sunrise when the bard's body slumped again and she stopped responding to Xena's cries and screams and the bard's coughs got weaker. The warrior pulled uselessly at her chains as the cold wind whipped through the bard's short blond hair, her skin a deadly pale.
The warrior raised her eyes to see Brutus running across the sand towards her with several slaves and guards following. He skidded to a stop behind her and the warrior felt her chains being unlocked. She watched two of the slaves grab the ladder and raise it to the cross that held her lover.
Xena looked to the sky and judged the passage of time to be at midday.
Brutus stepped around and pulled Xena to her feet and held her as she steadied her legs under her, watching the slaves over his shoulder as they took pry bars and removed the spikes from Gabrielle's wrists. The bard didn't move or respond to the pain and Xena shoved past Brutus, stumbling across the sand to her mate.
The slaves reached out and cut the ropes holding Gabrielle's arms and Brutus pulled out his dagger and cut the ropes holding the bard's legs. A part of Xena's mind noted that his dagger was blood stained and realized that it must be Caesar's blood if he was there with her.
The slaves gently lowered the bard into the arms of Brutus and Xena. The Roman knelt beside Xena as she sank to the sand with Gabrielle in her arms. He waited as she quickly checked the blond woman.
"Oh gods, she's so cold." Brutus whispered.
The Roman felt tears streaming down his cheeks at the sight of Gabrielle. Her blond hair had been matted from her day in the Arena and then a night on the cross but the wind had dried it and was gently blowing it across her forehead. Her face had taken on the racked look he knew well from those executed, the face of extreme pain finally at an end. Her lips were chapped and bloody and he winced at the pool of blood forming in the recesses of the bard's wrists and noticed how blue her skin seemed.
He closed his eyes as Xena began to cry. Then opened them with a snarl.
"You!" he pointed to two of the guards. "Get litters in here, I want them moved to a wagon waiting just outside the North gate. On Marc Anthony's orders, move!"
Marc Anthony leaned over his horse to look in the wagon at the two women lying on the straw, the small blond in the arms of the dark warrior. Xena opened her eyes wearily and brushed away her tears and held Gabrielle's body close.
"Brutus will see you safely to your Amazons." she nodded. "Now that Caesar is dead, is your war with Rome over?" he asked.
Xena closed her eyes and then looked at the handsome general. "If your war with the Amazons is over." she whispered, throat still raw.
"Get them out of Roman territory and it is." he stated.
Xena nodded. "My battle was personal. It's over." she whispered and he nodded, moving his horse away.
A coughing fit from the bard brought her attention back to Gabrielle.
The bard opened her eyes and smiled at the blue ones looking at her.
"Hey," she whispered.
"Hey," Xena answered back. Brutus looked back into the wagon with a frown.
"There's water and food to your left, Xena. Also bandages and salve for the wounds." he looked down at Gabrielle who had closed her eyes again. "Is she okay?"
"No. Fluid on the lungs, muscles strain, blood loss, possible infection, exhaustion, dehydration, but she will be. It will be close, Brutus."
"I know. I know." he muttered, urging the horses through the streets of a maddened Rome. Xena shut her eyes and mind to the sounds around them as Brutus swore, cracked his whip and threatened anyone in their way. Xena didn't need to look over the boards of the wagon to realize that Rome was insane right then with the news of Caesar's assassination and Marc Anthony's rise to power immediately.
"Thank you, Brutus." she said hoarsely. "I owe you."
"Call it even, Xena. Maybe this can make us even."
"What do you mean? You save Gabrielle from the Arena as a gladiator, you kept her from Caesar, you saved both of us from execution and you helped save the Amazons."
"I was the one that lead the attack on the Amazon villages." he muttered.
"What?" Xena's tired mind tried to absorb this new information.
"Caesar sent me. He said it was either the Amazons and Gabrielle or my son on a cross. I think he was hoping that I would kill Gabrielle with the Amazons and then you would kill me and he would kill you. A convenient way to rid himself of several enemies and gain even more power."
"I'll try, Brutus." the Roman merely nodded.
"I love you," a whisper brought the warrior's attention back down to her mate.
"I love you too," she answered. The warrior smiled as she rummaged through the packs Brutus had brought and pulled out the bonding bracelets. She laughed a grim quiet laugh, realizing that it would be awhile before either of them wore the bracelets again. She reached for the bandages.
The wagon caught up with the released Amazons later that afternoon and at the Northern Amazon village two days after that.
Brutus pulled the wagon up slowly inside the Roman encampment, next to the Commander's tent. The Roman general in charge exited his tent with an obvious scowl on his face.
"Brutus, welcome to my camp. What in the name of Mars is going on? We were just about to attack and finish off the barbarians when the rider from Rome arrived and said to hold, there was a cease fire and now you come in with more Amazons."
Brutus held up a hand and passed the reins of the wagon horses to Xena, sitting next to him on the wagon seat. He jumped down from the wagon and clasped the other general's forearm in greeting.
"You heard Caesar is dead," Brutus began.
"Yes, a messenger arrived yesterday. Marc Anthony is now in power."
"Yes, for now." Brutus pulled out a message tube and handed it to the general. General Tiborius opened the tube and read the encased parchment with a frown. He looked at Brutus with a look of puzzlement and anger.
"I'm to let them go?" he demanded.
"Yes, the Amazon Queen has made a treaty with Rome and the Amazons have agreed to leave Roman territory. Let the Amazons pass." Brutus said simply. Tiborius turned with a snarl and began issuing orders to his surrounding officers and aides. Brutus turned and looked up at Xena.
"It's done, get your people out of here."
"Thank you, Brutus, for everything." the warrior smiled, motioning the Amazons to move through the Roman ranks towards their sisters in the village.
Brutus looked down at Gabrielle in the wagon. She managed a smile.
"Goodbye, Gabrielle. Be well."
"Thank you, Brutus."
The warrior urged the horses on and ignored the frowns and scowls from the Romans moving aside the barricades to let the wagon pass along the road towards the Amazon village.
The Amazons had moved barricades on their side of the conflict when they saw their sisters riding towards them from the Roman camp. Shouts of joy broke out on the Amazon side as relatives, friends, and lovers reunited.
Ephiny leaped from her horse and into the arms of Solari who dropped her crutches as her mate embraced her.
"I saw you fall, I thought you were dead!" Ephiny cried, burying her face in mate's hair.
"I'm all right, love." Solari whispered, tears also falling from her eyes in happiness.
Xena moved the wagon into the Amazon ranks and broke into a grin as Hercules appeared from behind one of the barricades with Solan, her son.
"Mom!" the blond teenager yelled and ran for the wagon as Xena jumped from the seat and grabbed her son in a tight hug. She pulled back slightly with a worried face as she examined the bandage on his head, taking the place of his usual headband.
He shrugged. "It's nothing, just a scalp wound."
She grinned. "You're getting big." she commented as he grinned in response.
Hercules looked tired as he walked up to the warrior, a frown on his face. "Gabrielle?"
"In the wagon, can you bring her into one of the huts until we get everyone ready to leave?" he nodded and started towards the wagon, Xena placed a hand on his arm. "Hercules, she's been hurt," she said, preparing him.
The demi-god stopped in shock as he looked down at the small bard in the back of the wagon. "Oh gods," he whispered.
Unknown to Hercules, the bard actually looked a lot better than she had two days before but he was still shocked at how pale she was, the bruises and especially at the sight of the bandaged wrists sticking out from under the blanket. The bard opened her eyes and attempted a small smile.
"Hey, big guy." she said softly.
"Not bad as looks." she whispered and closed her eyes again coughing. He frowned and climbed into the wagon and gently lifted her into his arms and climbed out the back, cradling Gabrielle in his arms as he walked to a hut with Xena and Solan following, both frowning.
Solan looked to his mother and she shook her head. "I'll tell you both when we get her settled."
Half a candlemark later, Xena finished telling her friend and son what had happened in Rome. Of her capture by Caesar, the exchange of the Amazon prisoners for Gabrielle, the fight in the Arena, the crucifixion of the bard, Caesar's assassination and their rescue by Brutus and Marc Anthony.
Solan was looking very pale and Hercules was muttering under his breath at the description of their small friend being crucified. The demi-god looked over at the sleeping bard with a pained expression.
"Will she be okay?"
"If we can clear up her lungs, yes. The bones in her wrist weren't broken, thank the gods."
"How about your wrists?" he asked, nodding towards her own bandages.
"Scrapped up some, I kinda lost it when I was chained there."
"I can imagine." he grimaced at the thought of Xena being chained to a post while Gabrielle was being nailed to a cross beam. He made a mental note to ask the Healer to check her muscles and nerves for any damage.
Ephiny entered the hut and quickly hugged Solan and frowned at the sight of the sleeping Amazon Queen.
"She's sleeping a lot." she commented.
"The body's trying to heal. It was close." Xena said softly, fighting back tears.
"Everyone's ready to move." she stated, readjusting the sling around her neck.
"Good, let's get out of here. I'll feel better with several miles between us and the Romans." Xena ordered.
Xena pulled the blankets up over her and her bard and settled in the back of the wagon after they had gotten several miles away from the Amazon Village and the Roman soldiers. Ephiny had reported that a small group of soldiers were following behind at a respectful distance and Xena had expected that. They all expected to be followed until they reached the border area of Germania. The warrior only hoped that Iolaus had been successful in purchasing land or permission for the Amazons and Centaurs to settle somewhere away from other settlements.
The warrior knew it was a temporary measure but one she hoped would hold off another move or war for a few years. She knew they'd face either the Romans or unfriendly Goths in the future as land became more and more scarce.
Gabrielle whimpered and moved closer to her warrior, settling into Xena's shoulder with a sigh. Xena felt a shiver run over her body as the bard's gentle lips nuzzled her neck, her warm breath stroking the warrior's ear lobe.
"You could have had Artemis take you to Sasha, you didn't have to stay." the bard whispered, gently laying an arm over her warrior's ribs under the blankets.
"I couldn't leave you, little one. I came so close to losing you again. I couldn't go through that." Xena whispered, kissing Gabrielle's forehead and then moving slightly down to kiss her lover's lips tenderly.
"I'm sorry it was so close, I couldn't hold on any longer."
Xena wiped a tear from her eyes as she squeezed her mate closer. "Don't apologize, little one. Caesar meant for you to die that night, that's why he didn't spike your ankles, it makes it harder to pull the body up to breath. You lasted longer than he anticipated."
"Is it over?"
"With Rome, for now." Xena reassured her mate. "I'm sorry about Nikki."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and fought back sudden tears, remembering her Gladiator trainer, friend and sort of lover.
"Ephiny told me she took several soldiers with her before she fell. Shouting to Valhalla and Othinn with a grin on her face. Reminds me of someone else I know." the bard attempted a small smile. She could picture Nikkita of the Northern Amazons swinging her crutch and sword with a laugh before falling to Roman spears and swords. Gabrielle would miss the tall, blonde warrior.
Xena held her close.
"Brutus returned our weapons and bonding bracelets." Xena said gently to her mate.
"Hoped he would." another coughing fit racked the bard and caused her to whimper in pain. "I love you."
"I love you, little one."
Later that afternoon the warrior sat with her back to a tree by the roadside while everyone rested and ate lunch. Gabrielle sat between her legs, leaning back into her love.
"You know, during that long night, I thought of some words I wanted to say to you but I couldn't get them out." Xena said softly, wrapping her strong forearms around her bard.
Gabrielle leaned into Xena's arm, welcoming the warmth. "What, my love?"
"Promise not to laugh, you're the bard, not me." Xena growled and Gabrielle smiled and nuzzled Xena's arm.
"When your head dropped forward that morning, I thought I was going to die right then. The thought of you dying, facing that torture without me, I was insane."
"I remember." Gabrielle did remember, even through her pain of keeping her body alive she could see Xena only a few feet away tearing at the post and chains that held the warrior away from her. The madness in Xena's eyes had been frightening but not as frightening at the callous way Caesar had merely laughed at Xena's struggles and Gabrielle's torture. She mentally made a promise not to remind Xena of that part of the afternoon.
"Then I knew I would follow you, no matter what it took. No," Xena placed a finger on the bard's lips to cut off any protests. "my choice, love. I knew then I couldn't live without you and I also realized I no longer feared that we'd be separated on the other side. I've always been afraid that I'd lose you in death but something told me that I wouldn't that day and these words came to me."
Gabrielle waited patiently, she knew it wasn't easy for the warrior to talk about feelings and even harder for something like this.
"Feel the cold wind blowing, freezing the ground on a winter's day,
I wish I could have saved you, but now the time has come
to say our last goodbye and to look into your eyes
I watch the burning tears arise
your way ends here on that cross
tonight on the Ides of March"
Gabrielle felt tears beginning to fill her eyes and felt Xena catch her breath as well, working around her own tears.
"You're precious life's been taken, pierced by the nails
driven through your flesh
you were the best thing in my life
still I never took the time to make true love to you
the snow gently covers my skin, releases me from my burden of my sins
tonight on the Ides of March"
"Hold on, trust a little longer until we pass the gate to eternity
then we will be together, share our life forever
you and me, tonight on the Ides of March."
Gabrielle turned in her lover's arms to kiss and hold her lover as they both cried at how close they came to dying. After a moment Gabrielle pulled back, cuddled in Xena's strong arms.
"But you have made true love to me," she protested.
"No, I've held back." Xena's eyes dropped slightly and Gabrielle frowned, raising Xena's chin until the warrior looked at her in the eyes. Green meeting blue. "I always thought I would die before you and we would be separated. I always accepted that but it held something back in me, hope. I never really believed in plans for a long future with you, even when Sasha was born and you came back to me. I thought it was easy to face death until you faced it without me."
Xena frowned, gathering her thoughts.
"I thought it would be all right, facing it together and then that bastard put you on that cross and let me live to watch. At first I went crazy but then I realized that we had beaten him and everyone else, Ares included."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked softly.
"I knew we'd be together soon, even if I had to force them to kill me and that I'd find you waiting for me. Caesar wanted to separate us, Ares wants to separate us, the world wants us apart most of the time. They lost because I believe we'll be together."
"Forever." Gabrielle agreed, kissing her warrior's lips again. Then she grinned. "Wow."
"Wow?" Xena questioned.
"If you've held back in life and in love, what will it be like to make love to you now, I wonder?" Gabrielle grinned and was pleased when Xena began blushing.
"Just remember, I know where you're ticklish!" Xena warned and Gabrielle began giggling and squirming.
"Hey, no fair! I don't have hands yet!" the playful moment was cut short by another coughing fit. Xena held her mate close until the bard's body stopped shaking.
"I guess it'll have to wait a bit." Xena groaned.
"Guess so," Gabrielle gasped and then snuggled into Xena's arms again, trying to catch her breath. "I'm getting tired of having to do the recovery bit." she complained.
"Xena!" Hercules' voice brought the warrior up with sword in hand. She looked from behind the tree and frowned.
"Not again." she muttered. Gabrielle rose up slowly beside her with raised eyebrows. The emcampment stopped as they took in the sight of Artemis in the center of the road. Ephiny bowed her head and Xena frowned.
"Easy, warrior. I came to thank you for saving the Amazons and to especially thank you, Gabrielle. I knew I had chosen well when I picked you."
Xena was pleased to see her mate blushing, much like the old Gabrielle.
"It had to be done," the bard shrugged.
"Well, I owe you both and I know a way to repay that debt. Ephiny, take the Amazons north for two days travel and you'll meet up with a German named Axel and his family. They'll take you to your new lands deep in the forest they call the Black. It's wild and hard living but you'll be out of Roman hands probably for years."
"What about us?" Hercules asked.
"You all could use some time off from saving the world." Artemis raised her hands and Xena looked around to see that she, Hercules, Solan and Gabrielle now somewhere else. She looked around and grinned as she recognized the village. Xena noted the fact that their wagon, with their few belongings had accompanied them. They all looked towards the inn of the village when someone yelled at them.
Hercules let out a yell of surprise and pleasure when he saw Iolaus standing in the doorway of the inn with Sasha in his arms.
Xena grinned at a familiar figure walking out of the inn as well.
"Mom!" the warrior reached back and helped her mate stand up. Gabrielle had improved a lot since being taken down from the cross but she was still weak and very short of breath. Xena placed an arm around her mate's waist to steady her.
"What about Ares?" Gabrielle muttered.
Artemis appeared once again in front of them. "Don't worry about dark and brooding. Aphrodite is going to keep him busy for quite awhile."
Xena smirked. "I don't think I want the details to that!"
Artemis shrugged her shoulders with an equal smirk. "I certainly don't!" she agreed and was gone.
"Come on, little one. We've got some rest to catch up on and my mother's cooking to help fill you out again." Xena grinned, lifting the bard into her arms, heading for her waiting mom and little daughter.
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