by Hunter Ash
Violence: the mention of rape concerning one of the major characters, several deaths, one graphic sword strike, ax blow and no bad language. This one puts X&G through some rough stuff.
Storyline: I hope this story could stand on it's own. It is also part of a series I've ended up writing. I started out with one story in mind and who knows where this thing will end up at this point. You might want to read the other stories to get the entire picture.
A Visit Home, An Awakening
Discovery, An Awakening
Amazon Bonding Healing
Trial of a Roman
Gladiator, Bard, Warrior, Mother
Others will follow because my muse is already pounding for the next part. Hope you enjoy.
Feedback: yes, definitely! Beg, Beg, Beg.
Iolaus slowly drew his sword and moved his horse forward slightly. "Look, I already told you, we are free citizens. We're not German, we're Greek. Leave us alone." he growled at the scruffy Roman soldiers blocking their way on the road. "When I move, ride like Hades and get out of here," he whispered to Gabrielle.
"I'm not leaving you!" she hissed.
"Get Xena and Hercules, the Roman camp can't be far from here, you can help rescue me. I don't think you and I can take all of them," he hissed back.
Gabrielle frowned but moved her horse a couple of steps away from his, ready to turn and bolt.
Iolaus cursed every mother of the bandit soldiers in front of them. He knew that they couldn't count on Xena or Hercules rescuing them either, they were still at camp further down the river. Iolaus and Gabrielle had been on their way to a nearby village for fresh supplies before the four of them crossed into Germania, determined to get a pregnant Xena out of reach of both Ares and Caesar. Now this. Life definitely wasn't boring with his friends, Iolaus thought. Definitely not boring and definitely dangerous.
The Roman leader grinned at the two smaller Greeks. "I don't care who you are. Me and my men need some gambling money and your wife there will bring a very nice price with the slavers. You might even be worth a couple of gold pieces, little man."
Iolaus let out a yell of anger and charged forward with his horse and Gabrielle, with a frustrated growl, turned her horse. "Go, Gabrielle!" he yelled. He heard her horse begin pounding away.
Iolaus ducked under a sword slash and buried his sword quickly into the ribs of the attacker and threw up his left arm to block another sword, wincing as the sword cut through his leather bracer, skin and muscle. He slashed out and caught another Roman at the throat and the soldier dropped his shield and sword to grab at his throat before falling off the horse. The Greek's horse pushed forward, looking for a way through the pack of Romans but Iolaus and his horse were both frustrated; the Romans kept in close, crowding the horse and the sword of the smaller man.
The bard shook her head, trying to clear the sudden fuzziness and realized that her horse had been arrow shot out from under her. She was trapped beneath the horse and couldn't even reach her fallen staff. The bard began pulling at her legs and pushing at the dead weight of the horse and looked over to her friend.
Iolaus cried out in pain and slashed heavily to the left and looked down to see his side bleeding heavily. His left hand came up to try and hold the wound closed and stay in the saddle but dodging another sword strike caused the Greek to lose his balance and fall from the horse, landing heavily. Iolaus yelped and quickly rolled to his hands and knees and dodged out of the way of several horse hooves aiming for his body.
"Iolaus!" Gabrielle whispered, not wanting to distract the man. She noticed three soldiers beginning to make their way towards her and cursed the dead weight holding her down.
The Romans dismounted and approached the Greek man slowly, most of them grinning. Five of them, terrific, he thought. He wondered if he should make a break for the river and risk freezing to death or drowning rather than the swords, then he glanced over and saw Gabrielle's horse fallen in the middle of the road and the little bard struggling to get her trapped legs out from under the dead animal.
With a shout he charged the soldiers beginning to crowd him. He quickly cut down two of the soldiers caught off guard by his charge but a third caught his left shoulder and Iolaus dropped his sword to grasp the wounded joint.
The three Romans reached the woman and grinned down on their captive.
Realizing his mistake too late, the Greek couldn't bend to retrieve his sword before the others were on him. He kept close to them to keep them from using their swords and he utilized his many fighting skills and took another one down with a broken neck, even if he was fighting almost one armed. A sword strike to his back took the man to his knees and kicks, fists and hammering from sword hilts sent him smashing to the ground, bleeding badly and unconscious.
Gabrielle looked over to see Iolaus lying face down on the ground, blood flowing from his mouth and various wounds on his body. The Roman leader kicked the small man in the ribs and received no response.
"Throw him over into the river." he ordered.
"No!" Gabrielle screamed and lost sight of her friend as the three Romans bent down to claim her.
Iolaus' eyes sprang open as he broke the surface of the water, sputtering and gasping for air. The cold shock of the water hit him like a hammer and the young man couldn't catch his breath nor fight the current.
He struggled to keep his head above the water and almost swallowed enough to drown when he was jerked suddenly to a stop. He realized slowly that his belt was caught on a half submerged tree stump. Remembering Gabrielle trapped under the horse at the mercy of the Romans, Iolaus summoned his strength and pulled himself along the tree, freeing his belt and let himself drift onto the small beach. Somehow the Greek pulled himself along until he was under the end of the beach at the tree line. He managed to pull himself up and over the embankment by some tree roots and then collapsed under the tree.
He closed his eyes, holding his side tightly.
Something pounded at his awareness and wouldn't go away. Iolaus opened his eyes and peered around the tree and blinked several times as his exhausted and blood starved mind tried to take in the scene in front of him.
The Romans had Gabrielle in the small clearing. One was examining Iolaus' sword while another two were dragging the bodies of their comrades off the road. The other three, including their leader, were holding Gabrielle and looking her over.
Iolaus felt a whimper escape his throat.
The bard was struggling but two of the Romans held her tightly by her arms. The leader grinned and ripped her tunic open from collar to hem, exposing her very lovely breasts and torso. Gabrielle screamed and struggled and the men laughed.
Iolaus, tears streaming down his face, fell back against the tree. After a moment, he leaned against the tree and used it to slide up to his feet. He grabbed the tree for stability as he turned and nearly screamed at the sight of his little friend's abuse. He bent down to grab a fallen tree limb for a weapon and fell forward onto the ground. Tears of rage and helplessness overcame the young man as he listened to his friend scream and he couldn't move.
"Iolaus!" a voice insisted he pay attention. He decided to ignore it, easier to slip back into the darkness.
"Iolaus! Gabrielle!" another voice, higher pitched brought a frown to his face as he lay pressed into the ground. Gabrielle? Something important.
Iolaus raised his head but couldn't see who was calling and nothing came out when he tried to yell. His head sank back down to the ground and he closed his eyes.
"Gabrielle! Iolaus!" Iolaus grabbed the fallen limb and somehow began banging it against the tree that had once been his friend a couple of times and then darkness claimed him again.
"Hercules! Quick!" a voice shouted above him and Iolaus felt himself being turned over gently. He opened his blue eyes and found similar blue eyes. He attempted a smile.
He heard his best friend come pounding up and slide down to the ground next to Iolaus.
"Iolaus! What happened?" his friend demanded. Iolaus could feel someone tugging at his clothes and the sound of cloth tearing and then pain at his side.
"Hercules, keep the pressure on that wound." a voice commanded.
"Gabrielle," Iolaus whispered.
"Where is she, Iolaus?"
"Xena?" he whispered.
"Yes, Hercules is here too. Where's Gabrielle?" she asked, pressing another bandage on his shoulder wound.
"Took her, hurt her." he whispered closing his eyes.
"Iolaus! Who took her? Where!?" Xena yelled.
"Romans, sell to slavers."
"He's unconscious." Hercules choked out and the warrior nodded.
"I'll make a litter to drag him behind one of the horses. You keep pressure on those bandages. I'm going back to camp and get our stuff and blankets, he's soaking wet." Xena said quickly.
"We've got to get him to the village." Hercules insisted.
"Where do you think those Roman soldiers came from? If they see him they'll kill all of us before we can talk. We'll take him to the small tribe across the river, they deal with sword wounds all the time. Then I'm going to find Gabrielle," the warrior said grimly.
"Hurry, Xena, he's in bad shape."
"I know, lay next to him, cover yourselves with your cloak and try and warm his body up. The cold probably saved his life by slowing his bleeding but it will probably kill him in the long run. I don't know how he's alive now." Xena said as she stood up. Hercules nodded, acknowledging the impossibility of his friend still being alive.
"Gabrielle," Iolaus whispered.
"Easy, my friend. We'll find her." Hercules promised and Xena turned at a run towards the horses. "We have to find her."
It was after dark when the warrior woman stepped out of the small cabin and started towards the horse line. She had her chakram up and at the throat of a shadow before even realizing she had moved. Hercules, the shadow, stepped into the light, carefully stepping around the chakram.
"You can't go, Xena." he said simply.
"Those Romans took Gabrielle, they either still have her or know where she is. Don't try and stop me, Hercules."
"We've been dodging Romans for weeks, ever since Caesar somehow found out you were in Roman territory. I'll go and find out whatever they know and then we can plan on getting her back," he argued.
"You know what they've probably done to her?!" she hissed, not wanting to bring everyone else from the camp out.
Hercules jaw clenched and he lowered his eyes. "Yes, I know what they do to women, especially beautiful women. Getting yourself captured by Caesar isn't going to help her."
"I can't just wait here!"
"Yes, you can. Both of you can," he argued, placing his hand on the belly that was beginning to show signs of the growing life inside.
With a growl of anger Xena released the chakram, sending it flying through the trees and bouncing off cabins and past Hercules' ear into her hand again.
"You asked me to be your Kumbada, your best man and godfather, at your wedding. Let me do this."
"All right," she muttered, replacing the chakram as her side.
As she heard Hercules ride off Xena sank to her knees in the snow and looked to the sky with tears falling down her cheeks, her breath ragged in the cold chill.
"Please, I don't pray, you know that. I'm asking you, any of you, to bring her back to me. Please, I can't live without her," she whispered.
Receiving no answer the warrior began to weep.
Xena moved quietly into the cabin of the head family of the local tribe and shook the snow off her cloak, hanging it by the door and stamping her feet free of snow. With a pang she remembered that Gabrielle always wanted to see the north in the winter. The warrior bit back the memories and moved quickly to the cot near the fire.
As she looked down at the warrior on the cot Xena thought how horrible he looked. Iolaus was extremely pale from the blood loss and cold. He hadn't regained consciousness since they found him and Xena's experienced mind told her that he probably wouldn't. It seemed that only the stubbornness of the Greek was keeping him alive.
She knelt down next to the healer as he heated another blanket in front of the fire and exchanged it with one on the wounded man. He noted the question in Xena's eyes and shook his head.
"I don't know, Greek. His spirit hasn't crossed over yet so there is always a chance."
Xena gently took Iolaus' hand in hers and brushed a curly lock of blond hair from his forehead.
"Hang in there, Iolaus, we need you," she whispered in Greek.
When Hercules returned hours later he found her still sitting with his best friend, not having moved from the spot. She was on her feet and in front of him in an instant.
He looked around and noticed that the headman of the clan had raised up out of his bed at the noise, sword in hand but, seeing it was his guests, laid back down.
It was a typical cabin for a northern tribe, Hercules knew. One room where everyone slept, cooked and lived, especially in the winter months. He wasn't sure he could get used to that.
Xena helped him remove his cloak and led him to the fire. Demi-god or not, he still could get cold.
"Well!?" she demanded as he sat down, checking on Iolaus.
"Any change in him?" he countered.
Xena's eyes softened. "I'm sorry, Hercules. No, no change."
"The Romans won't be kidnapping anyone else," he said softly and pulled out a bloody sword and reached for a cloth next to the bed. "They sold her yesterday while we were looking for her and Iolaus."
Xena closed her eyes and fought back tears and rage.
"Slavers heading south, they were already on the move. I'm going to follow them tomorrow morning at first light. You'll have to take Iolaus and move further up north while I'm gone."
"I'm not leaving the area until we find her!" she protested.
"Listen, damnit! I just killed an entire barracks of Roman soldiers!" he growled, turning his eyes away. Xena carefully touched her friend's arm and wasn't surprised to see tears falling. "I lost it, Xena. I just lost it and went mad again."
"I pounded them enough to tell me what happened with Gabrielle and where they had sold her. Then I saw this on the table." he pulled out a gold and silver bracelet from his belt and handed it to the warrior, her tears began to match his.
"Gabrielle's bonding bracelet." she whispered.
"Yes, then one of them told me what his fellow soldiers did to her and I lost it. I.... I killed all of them, Xena."
"You can't blame yourself for that!"
"I know they deserved it but now this family is in danger and so are we. The Romans will tear this countryside apart looking for us and it's still winter deep! How can I tell Axel that I've just brought the Romans down on his house?"
A voice caught their attention, neither of them having heard the headman getting up out of his bed, wrapping a cloak around himself and joining them at the fire.
"This isn't the first time the Romans will try and take their anger out on us. We have family north we can travel to. Winter travel hard, ja, but I do not blame you for vengeance, my Greek friend." Axel said simply in broken Latin. "We will protect your friends."
"I can't ask you to do that," Xena protested.
"Hercules stayed with me once and saved my life. It's a small thing." he smiled. "He is family and he says you are his family - that makes you family."
"Thank you, Axel." Hercules smiled wearily.
"Clean up, mein freund, you have blood on your hands and face."
Hercules flinched and looked at his hands and back at Xena, who merely nodded.
"Do not trouble yourself so," Axel urged. "They earned this from you when they hurt your friend and took the little one."
"Yes," Xena agreed, her eyes narrowing. "I'm still coming with you, Hercules."
"No, all of the territory is looking for a warrior woman, they're not looking for me," he protested. "You have to keep Iolaus and Axel's family safe. I'll find her."
"Gods, Gabrielle," she whispered, closing her eyes.
Gabrielle groaned and tried to raise her arm to block the slaps but whimpered with a flash of pain from her arm. The slapping stopped and she cautiously opened her eyes.
"Good, you're awake," a female bent over the bard. "Listen very quickly if you want to live another day. Do not, no matter how much they hit you, tell them your real name. You are known to Rome and your capture could mean the death of you. Do you understand? Do not say your name!" the female hissed, grabbing the bard's face for emphasis.
The female moved back and seemed to be waiting. In a moment several men appeared in the dusty courtyard where Gabrielle realized she had been thrown. She recognized a couple of the men from the night before and couldn't stop the whimper from escaping her throat as she tried to draw back into herself against the wall, feeling very small and helpless. The chains at her wrists rattled and the collar at her throat clinked against the wall.
Gabrielle looked around and found several other slaves/prisoners lining the wall beside her. All of them were beaten, both physically and mentally.
"Greetings, slaves." A man stood before the others and faced the chained men and women. "I am Lycrassis, owner of this school and villa. When you address me or answer me you will address me as Ômy Lord,' understand?"
Each prisoner/slave nodded. Lycrassis quickly yanked one slave to his feet and slammed him into the wall. Gabrielle and the others heard the man's head crack as it connected with the stone wall. Lycrassis released the body and let it slide down to the ground.
"I asked if you all understood," Lycrassis growled.
"Yes, my Lord," all of them responded quickly.
"Good, now let's see what the slavers and the law makers have brought me." Lycrassis began the long task of judging each prisoner/slave's potential and, in turn, their future. Gabrielle waited at the end of the line. The female who had warned her earlier kept a close eye on the bard, Gabrielle noticed.
One went to the stables because of bad teeth. A small Egyptian was sent as a sparring dummy, Gabrielle had the feeling that this was a short lived job. Others were chosen for training and another for the kitchen. Lycrassis stopped in front of Gabrielle, who kept her head down.
The Roman lifted her chin to look in her eyes, noticing the beginning black eye and the dried blood around her nose. He grinned and she closed her eyes.
"A little small for training. Send her to the kitchen." he ordered.
"My Lord, may I speak?" the female who had whispered to Gabrielle before spoke up.
"Yes, Nikki, you may." Gabrielle opened her eyes as the Roman turned to look at the tall and muscular woman leaning on a crutch.
"I wish to train this one," she said simply.
"Why?" the Roman frowned and so did the three men standing with him.
"Her arm is broken, one of your men got a little rough last night and she'll be useless in the kitchen." Nikki answered. Gabrielle grabbed the chance to take in the female. She was tall, as tall as the bard's warrior, Xena, but with blond hair and gray eyes. She was built like a blacksmith, Gabrielle thought to herself, with muscles revealing a very strong body. The woman's face was stern but the bard thought she could sense laughter in the gray eyes that years in the Arena didn't seem to have touched. Gabrielle also noticed the crutch the woman leaned on, favoring her left leg.
Lycrassis looked at his men and one of them shuffled on his feet. "She bit me," he mumbled. Lycrassis turned and looked at the small bard again.
"Did she? Maybe she has some spirit after all. She's still too small."
"I don't think so, my Lord. She'll be fast in the arena and her body is very fit and I see signs of physical training already." Nikki said simply.
"Why are you interested?" Lycrassis turned to his trainer. Gabrielle kept the curiosity out of her face as well.
"I say she can be a good fighter." Nikki shrugged.
"Want to bet on it?" Lycrassis grinned.
"You have all my money, my Lord." Nikki grinned back.
Gabrielle felt her head reeling at the unreal feeling of the situation. Here were two vicious people wanting to bet on her future, which seemed rather bleak and probably short to the bard right then.
"How much would you bet on the little one? And why else do you want to train her?" Lycrassis demanded.
"I fancy her," Nikki admitted with a shrug.
Oh gods, Gabrielle thought.
"I thought so. Not many have ever interested you before. She is beautiful under all that grime and a tiger in bed when she's not willing. I wonder what she's like when she's willing. Nevermind, I wager this then, she's either an adequate fighter in three months, adequate enough to hold her own in an afternoon fight, or you lose."
Nikki frowned. Gabrielle knew that it took months, even years for a gladiator to be trained enough to live. Most of them didn't make it five years. Three months was impossible. The little bard also knew that gladiator fights lasted all day, the novice fighters in the morning and the experienced fighters in the afternoon for the crowd's desire for blood. Three month was impossible.
"The wager?" Nikki asked.
"I've set the odds rather high," Lycrassis conceded. "Let's set the goal high, shall we. I'm bored this week. If she's good enough to go into the ring in three months and survives three years, she can win both your freedom."
Freedom? Gabrielle suddenly had a ray of hope and then felt it dashed. Three years in the Arena? Very few of the best gladiators ever last three years.
"She's mine to train and develop totally, no one else lays a hand on her, day or night," Nikki bargained.
Lycrassis laughed at his trainer. "What is this, love at first sight?" The Roman looked back at the little bard and noticed the shining eyes. He approached the bard slowly. "What would you do, slave, if you had a clear shot at me and my men with a dagger?" he asked.
"I'd slide it in between your fifth and fourth rib, my Lord," she growled.
The Roman laughed heartily. He was also tall but not as tall as Xena and Nikki with black hair and dark eyes. Unlike Nikki, the laughter never seemed to reach these dark eyes. He reminded her of Ares, complete with short hair and beard.
"All right, I agree. She's yours totally, you can even bed her if you wish. I still think there's a tiger under there and I'm not sure I want her in my bed when she's up to strength. None of my men will touch her. She even knows where to place a blade. Are you as Sapphic as my trainer, slave?"
Gabrielle felt herself blushing and was confused. How to answer? Wouldn't kitchen duty be better than the Arena? But the female had warned the bard of potential danger. Xena's rule of life came to the little bard: trust no one, but Gabrielle felt honesty, up to a point, usually fared her well.
"Yes, my Lord." she admitted. "Good, maybe you can tame each other. What are you called?" Lycrassis asked.
"She was taken prisoner from the North," one of the men stated.
"Germanic? You speak Latin well."
"I was a free servant to a noble in the north," Gabrielle answered easily.
"Good, then you know how to take orders." Lycrassis again laughed at the flash he saw in her eyes before she dropped her head. "Even when you don't like it. Take her, Nikki. You have three months."
Gabrielle's face blushed beet red as the tall woman grabbed her and threw the bard over her shoulder, walking out of the courtyard and the laughter of the men and Lycrassis followed them.
Nikki threw open the door of a small room in a corridor of what appeared to be small rooms and gently placed the bard on her feet and shut the door. Gabrielle was livid at such treatment but held her temper, with an effort.
Nothing shocked the bard more than when the tall warrior went to one knee and bowed her head.
"My Queen," she whispered.
"What?" Gabrielle whispered. Nikki rose slowly and covered Gabrielle's mouth with her hand, seeming to listen closely. With a snarl she sprang to the door and ripped it open and a small man fell into the room. Nikki grabbed him up by his collar and slammed him into the door frame.
"Listen, you little weasel, you keep away from my door or I'll take what's left of your equipment and decorate my shield with it! Understand!" the trainer threatened and the small Arab nodded and she promptly threw him out the door and closed it again. Nikki waited a moment, listening at the door and then turned to the bard.
"I'm Nikkita. My parents were traders from the North and when they were killed, I was an infant and taken in by the Northern Amazons. I was taken slave two years ago just after we received word of your ascension to the rank of Queen," Nikki grinned. "I'm sorry about the treatment out there, it was necessary to save your life and mine."
Gabrielle went and sat down in one of two chairs at a plain table. She held her arm closely. "Let me get a splint and bandages, I'll be right back. Do not say a word if anyone comes in. You're still in danger."
"When aren't I?"
When the trainer returned Gabrielle began to ask one of a hundred questions she had.
"Where am I?"
"You are in Aqualeia, on the coast in the villa and training school of Lycrassis." Nikki answered easily, slowly and carefully bandaging Gabrielle's arm.
"I was taken on the border of Germania, beaten, drugged and...." Gabrielle turned her face and fought back the tears. Nikki continued to work on the arm, giving the bard time. The trainer had seen the fading bruises, scratches and even bite marks on the small woman and knew what they meant from slavers. "I think my friend was killed and now Xena doesn't know where I am!"
Gabrielle was surprised when Nikki's hand covered her mouth again.
"Listen closely, my Queen. Never say that name here, no matter what! Caesar has a price on your friend and if he learns that you know her, he'll have you in Rome by the end of the week. Would she risk her life for you?"
"Yes, many times." Gabrielle nodded.
"What would she do if Caesar sent word that he would trade you for her?" Nikki asked simply.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and felt a tear escape. "She'd sacrifice herself for me." she whispered.
"Now you know you can't say your name or hers, ever again."
"Yes." Gabrielle nodded, fighting back the tears. "They don't know you're an Amazon, do they?"
"No, they think I'm a well trained fighter. I had a chance at winning my freedom after five years but a sword stroke took most of the life out of my leg. Lycrassis was either kind enough or smart enough to make me a trainer. He gets to keep me as slave, gets a good trainer and still tries to get me in his bed." Nikki grinned.
"Any success?" Gabrielle grinned back, knowing the probable answer to that one.
Nikki laughed. "Not much, he's afraid he'll wake up less a man than when he went to sleep."
"Why did you fight so hard to get me out of the kitchen, wouldn't I live longer in there?" Gabrielle asked as the trainer fitted a sling around the bard's neck.
"Probably, a long life as a slave. In the Arena you always have the slimmest chance of winning your freedom. As a slave in the kitchen any of the trainers can take you to bed every night and when the trainees have done well, they are rewarded with taking the kitchen and stable slaves to bed. How many men do think that would mean in a lifetime, Brie?"
Gabrielle went pale and Nikki nodded. "I would kill you myself and then slit my own throat before I let that happen again, my Queen."
Gabrielle reached out and tenderly touched the Amazon's cheek. "Don't you think you'd better stop calling me Queen before someone hears you?"
Nikki blushed and nodded.
"Tell me about yourself and how you got to Germania." Nikki suggested, taking the seat on the other side of the table.
Gabrielle began her tale of marrying Xena, her attempted murder by the Romans by poison, the awful results of that poison, of Xena's desire to get away from Ares and Caesar's influence in their lives. Especially with the fact that Xena was carrying Ares' child.
She told of the long, endless weeks on the road with Xena, Hercules and Iolaus and ended with her being taken and Iolaus probably killed. She left out what happened next but Nikki was a slave and she knew what happened to female slaves.
Nikki and Brie faced their first task that night. Blushing and dropping her head Nikki began to stammer.
"What is it, trainer?" Gabrielle asked. "They'll expect me to bed you tonight, by force if necessary. You'll have to share my bed and sleep without clothes." the warrior trainer whispered.
Gabrielle smiled a reassuring smile. "I have a soulmate to get back to and soon a child, I will do anything to survive as long as there's a shred of hope," and the bard began to disrobe.
Nikkita's breath caught in her throat at the sight of the bruises and cuts on her Queen's body but especially because of the Queen's beauty.
"Your mate is most fortunate," she whispered.
Gabrielle blushed and quickly climbed into the cot, pulling the blankets over her.
Nikki grinned at the bard's embarrassment and snuffed the candle out before disrobing herself. Somehow they managed to barely touch each other during the night even though the cot wasn't that wide. ================================================================
The trip north was difficult and slow. The January snows were thick and the tracks non-existent in winter, especially for wagons. Xena rode in one of the wagons, holding Iolaus, keeping him warm and his body as steady as possible.
The warrior had been impressed with the speed with which the large clan-like family had moved that morning when Axel announced they must travel north and quickly. Everything was packed and moving before noon, leaving an empty cabin and Hercules riding in the opposite direction.
Xena was still uncomfortable with Hercules leaving and her staying to take care of Iolaus but knew the demi-god was being sensible. Not that she was sensible when it came to Gabrielle, she thought. She was also uncomfortable depending on strangers for her existence and she admitted to herself that she needed these Germans. She couldn't care for herself, the life growing in her and Iolaus in the winter snow of the north alone.
She held close to the small Greek. "Come on, Iolaus, hang in there. I need someone else to speak Greek to." ================================================================
Gabrielle was surprised to see the other prisoners who had been chosen to train as gladiators outside in the courtyard, their chains having been removed like hers. Nikki, her face hard, pushed Gabrielle into line with the others, her eyes flashing warning.
Lycrassis came out of the villa area and faced his new recruits.
"I am the Lanista, director of this school. Congratulations for being chosen for the dubious honor of being gladiators. If you survive long enough you might become famous, even being taken to Rome to the Arena for the games. You'll be treated as the slaves you are and worshipped as idols. If you're smart as well as strong you can wager on the outcome of matches and might even make some money."
All the recruits noticed the wooden sword he carried in his hand.
"Why do you want to survive? For the future of living in a small room with a single cot? No, plan it right, fight well and you'll have money, women and fame. You might even earn your freedom. Any gladiator that survives five years under this school earns their freedom and the privilege of teaching at this school."
Lycrassis raised the wooden sword for all to see it. "There is another way to gain your freedom. Win this in the Arena from the Proconsul, the governor of the territory or from Caesar and you'll have your freedom."
He handed the sword to Nikki and turned to the recruits again. "Don't misunderstand. I doubt any of you will get past year one. It is very rare for a gladiator to reach the end of a five year term and even more rare to win the wooden sword. Your chances are slim to none. Why try? It's that or face crucifixion. Have I been clear?"
"Yes, my Lord." they all answered.
"Good, now a formality. All of you will repeat the following oath and the first one to disobey any order given to them, the first one to break the discipline of this school, the first one that tries to escape faces a death worse than crucifixion. Repeat: I swear to endure the whip, the branding iron, and death by the sword for the game."
Gabrielle found herself repeating the oath along with the others, Lycrassis sharp eye looking for any hesitation on the part of the line of recruits. Gabrielle noticed with a shudder a brazier of coals at the far end of the courtyard with a slave tending it.
Nikki suddenly wouldn't meet her eyes.
"I run a very well disciplined and tight school here. Any minor infraction of the rules brings swift punishment, usually by flogging. Severe troublemakers face castration, mutilation, hamstringing, and death. This is Nikki, one of my doctors, trainers. You will meet the others later when you begin your training. If necessary, you'll find yourself chained every night with your wrists chained to your ankles, unable to stand or lay down straight. This is not a pleasant way to spend the night. First, unpleasant things and then breakfast. March in a single file to that slave with the branding iron. Your first test of your oath begins."
Gabrielle was relieved that she wasn't the only one who screamed when the red hot branding iron touched her flesh at the shoulder.
After a breakfast of bread, wine, olives, cheese and fish (a rich meal for slaves, Gabrielle thought), she and Nikki faced their second test.
Gabrielle lifted the wooden dagger Nikki handed her and sighed, looking at it like it was a real blade.
"What is it?" Nikki whispered.
"I can't kill." Gabrielle whispered back.
"What!? You have got to be kidding me!" Nikki hissed, pretending to show Gabrielle the proper way to hold the dagger in a defensive move.
"No, I can't kill."
"How far along was your mate when you last saw her?" Nikki whispered, changing the bard's stance.
"About 20 weeks." Gabrielle answered, easily flowing into the moves of the trainer.
"Was she beginning to show?" Nikki asked.
"Yes," Gabrielle answered again. Wincing at pulling the raw and burned skin of her shoulder.
"What would you do to be there for her and the child?" Nikki asked and wasn't surprised that the bard stopped dead in her movement. Gabrielle turned and faced Nikki with what Nikki would come to know as the bard's stubborn jaw set.
"Anything." Gabrielle whispered.
"Then you must kill, little one."
Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat. Xena called her Ôlittle one.' The bard fought back a tear, missing her mate. She looked down at the wooden knife and took up the defensive stance again, with that same stubborn jaw.
On the second day of the trip Iolaus finally woke up and tried to grin at Xena. The healer and Xena were both pleased he hadn't taken fever with the wounds or the cold soaking he had in the river. They both began to hope that he might actually live.
The trip north took over two weeks and the land became more harsh as they went. Xena was beginning to seriously hope the Germans knew where they were going and that the large group of people would be welcome in a land that obviously couldn't support life in the snow.
But every day the hunters surprised her by bringing in fresh game and the women managed to find winter herbs, plants and fish to supplement the food.
A long month of a routine began that the bard found extremely hard at first but then settled into. Stretching exercises, breakfast, strength training, lunch, siesta time, weapons training, endurance training, dinner, clean up, bed.
Nikki's trained eyes had been correct in judging the small woman. Gabrielle was quick on her feet, had considerable staff training already, was quick to learn, and quickly rebuilt her muscles from the recent illness.
The warrior found herself staying up late with the family most every night. It was easier than facing sleeping without Gabrielle. The Germans were friendly, outgoing and hearty people and Xena was beginning to like them a lot. Xena was quickly picking up more Germanic and they were clearly pleased with her quick knowledge of their language. Axel clearly loved his wife, Sasha and the feelings were returned. The Greek warrior noted that, for a large family that lived in confined quarters, the German family of Axel got along well and worked as a well coordinated team. They also didn't seem to mind that she was a warrior and mother to be.
Sasha had smiled at the warrior's confusion over the casual way everyone treated Xena's warrior ways.
"It is uncommon for women to take up the sword or spear but it is not unheard of. Our friend Hercules said you became a fighter after your father and your brother died, one of our greatest heroes went into her father's burrow mound to face his ghost and the ghosts of those of the grave to claim his sword. She's always been one of my favorite stories." Sasha grinned.
Xena tried to fight back sudden tears. "You'd like Gabrielle's stories. I'm sorry you haven't gotten to know her yet."
"You were only with us one night with the little one, but she is special. She has the light of the gods surrounding her." Sasha said easily, resting a hand on top of Xena's, comforting.
"Some say I have the darkness of them about me." Xena muttered.
"Nein. Darkness cannot give light and you will soon do that."
Xena smiled, touching her womb. "I never looked at it that way."
"Life is a gift from the gods and from our fetches, the family spirits that watch over our lives."
Xena grinned to herself. This life certainly was a "gift" from the gods. One god in particular, she thought, Ares. She felt torn between being happy about the pregnancy to frustration that it was Ares' child and it was driving her out of Greece and away from the only family she had.
Xena brushed a tear away and Sasha smiled. "You are welcome with my family. The runes say you are one of us."
"Sacred symbols given to us by the sacrifice of the AllFather, Othinn. He hung on the World Tree for nine nights without food or water, stabbed by his own spear until he gained the knowledge of the runes. They are sometimes used as writing too."
"World Tree, the Amazons believe in the World Tree. That there is a tree in the center of the world that has more branches than the gods themselves can count and it holds together all the worlds." Xena smiled and Sasha grinned, nodding.
"Yes, we believe the same! Our tree is named Yggdrasil."
"Some language you've got." Xena smiled."His sacrifice is very much like some of the Amazon rituals I've seen of shamanic death and rebirth." Xena commented. She smiled as Axel joined them by the fire.
"Yes, every act of gain must have an act of sacrifice. Life is hard in the North, Xena, and life can be short. You learn to live with what the Norns have carved for you."
"Norns?" she asked and Axel frowned, looking for the word the Greek would know.
"One is that what was known, she who is that which is known and she that which will be." he tried.
"We call them the Fates." she nodded. "How do the runes work?" Xena asked, accepting the drinking horn and was pleased that Sasha was drinking cider. Ever since discovering her pregnancy Xena hadn't wanted to drink too much, it seemed to really play havoc with her stomach now and the Germans were very fond of their ale and mead.
"The vitki, the rune worker, must know how to find the right wood, sacrifice for it, carve the wood, inscribe the runes on it and then stain them for effect. Also knowing the right galdr aids in the magic." Axel explained.
"Rune magic of sound." Sasha smiled and took her husband's hand.
"And staining them?" Xena was finding this fascinating, after studying with Alti with the northern Amazons, Xena had found she had a knack for shamanistic working and was curious how much the northern peoples had in common with the Amazons. She wished Gabrielle was there once again.
Noticing her expression, Sasha reached out and touched the warrior's hand again. Xena attempted a smile.
"The runes say she's alive," Sasha whispered.
"What do they say?" Xena tried not to snap the question out.
"Only that she lives, my friend and nothing more. They say the future of your child is unwritten as well." Sasha lost her smile.
Xena frowned, withdrawing into herself. Aching for her little bard so bad that it was a physical ache.
Axel nodded to his wife and they left the warrior by the fire to work with her frustration.
The next evening she found several of the men and women relaxing by the fire and listened to them talk, trying to pick up more of the language.
Sasha smiled and joined her. "How is the little man?"
"He's finally moving around better. I think he won't be able to use that arm for much."
"A one armed man is still useful," Sasha shrugged.
"What do you mean?" Xena asked.
"We look at things simply. A one armed man may still hoe a field or hold a sword. A legless man can sit a horse and fight, a dead man is useful to none."
Xena nodded, understanding.
"Do both you and Axel work the runes? There isn't a priest or priestess?"
"There are priestess and priests in the north in larger towns, villages and cities. For small holdings, like ours, the head person of the family acts as the priest for the sacred holidays and rituals. Anyone can work the runes and work the magic if they have the skill. As headwoman and headman we both can serve our people with the holiday rituals."
"Do you follow one particular god or goddess or all of them?"
"All of them are honored in the celebrations, some more than others depending on the holiday. There are some who are dedicated to one particular god or goddess, many of the Princes, Kings and Chieftains are called to AllFather, while many common man find Thor is their destiny in Asgard." Axel answered as he came up.
"Asgard? That's kind of like Olympus, right?"
"Somewhat. It is the realm of the Aesir and Vanir, the gods and goddess but it is also where we go when we die. Depending on how we have lived our lives and who our chosen god or goddess is. We could end up in Freya's Hall if she calls you or, if you haven't done so well, you could end up in Hella's Halls."
"Hella, a place like Tartarus?" Xena was glad that they had spent time among the Romans and Greeks and at least knew what she was talking about on her end.
"No, it is a place of rest until part of the spirit is reborn. The outstanding among us go to Asgard to one of the halls. Some of Hella's Halls is spoken of as cold and lonely and the river that surrounds it is of swords and knives and cannot be crossed, filled with venom." Axel said, lifting his horn as several others did the same.
"It probably means that it's cold and filled with ice," Sasha grinned.
"It's a way of talking in the North, especially among the skalds, the poets, the bards, you call them. Sunna's light can mean gold," Sasha explained.
"Tyr's bane!" another called out.
"That means a wolf!" a man laughed.
"Freya's tears," a woman grinned, twirling a string of amber around her fingers. "Amber."
"Wound bees!" Xena frowned.
"Arrows," Axel grinned.
"Game of iron - a battle."
Xena grinned, "blood." Everyone laughed, pleased that she was getting it.
"Mead of Othinn - poetry."
"Spear," Xena grinned.
"Wolf feeder, a warrior."
"The Norse are infamous for their riddles." Axel warned with a grin.
"Terrific, just what I'm not good at." Xena complained and everyone laughed.
"We especially love good stories and forgive almost any bragging if you can back it up," another warrior grinned.
"You said part of the soul is born again, not all of the soul? What do you mean?"
"Hmmm, the body is of several parts that come together to make a person, so is the soul. The mind and the soul are several parts. The major parts stay in whatever fate you have earned for yourself after death but a part of you comes back, usually in your family line or someone close to your family line. That is why we look for our ancestors in the little ones." Axel tried to explain.
"When you say that a child is acting just like his grandfather you think part of his grandfather has come back in him?"
"Yes. How do you believe in the south?" Sasha asked.
"That the soul is complete but that sometimes the gods decide that a soul should come back and be born into a new life. I've heard tales of some souls reconnecting over and over again in many lives and other tales say that after you die you end up in the Eleusian fields or Tartarus and stay there for eternity."
"What are your Fields like?" one warrior asked.
"It's a perfect day in your life, most don't realize that they've died. They go through their day perfectly happy, waiting for their loved ones to come home who haven't died yet. Some know they've died and wait for their loved ones to cross over, kinda watching and seeing what happens in their lives."
"Hmmmm, I think I prefer Valhalla - fighting all day and drinking all night!"
"What about Freya's Hall, the Goddess of Love?" another warrior called out.
"A different kind of fighting at night!" another laughed, kissing his mate.
"Do you have specific gods for things, like a god of war?" Xena asked.
Axel frowned, contemplating. "I know of your Greek and Roman gods. A god of war, one of love, one of justice. It is more complicated with ours, I think."
"The AllFather is the God of War but he is a poet and magic worker. He sacrificed his eye for a taste of the mead of inspiration," another man said with a grin.
"Thor is followed by most soldiers but he never pays attention to our battles," another said gruffly.
"AllFather is followed by most Chieftains but isn't trusted by any," another said and some grumbled in their seats.
"Why not?" Xena asked, wanting as much information as quickly about where she might be raising her child, especially if the gods were going to get involved at any time.
"He turns on his chosen, bringing them an early death," one mumbled.
"He causes their deaths so they may join his army in Valhalla at their peak!" another argued.
"Valhalla, AllFather's Hall?" Xena ventured and several nodded.
"Freya is the goddess of love but claims half of the slain warriors for her Hall and commands half the Valkyries," a woman offered.
"Valkyries, warrior female spirits?" Xena asked.
"Yes, they choose heroes for Othinn and Freya and follow their wishes, helping or hindering in battle."
"I prefer when the gods stay out of my way in battle," Xena grinned and several of the men cheered, raising their horns in salute
. "I agree, let the gods battle among themselves and leave us be," one called out.
"At least ours don't seem as bothersome as the Greeks and Romans seem to think theirs are," Sasha grinned.
Xena wondered what the woman would think if she knew Xena was carrying the child of a god? She was beginning to have the feeling that not many people in the North had ever seen their gods in person. Xena wasn't sure how she felt about that one, most of the time she preferred not seeing any of hers, thanks.
Xena suddenly felt tired and made her goodnights and crawled in next to Iolaus, quickly shedding most of her clothing under the warm furs and he mumbled something in his sleep and extended his arm. Blushing, Xena laid down inside his arm and let him hold her and was grateful he pretended to be asleep as she began crying tears she couldn't hold back any longer. Gabrielle felt so far away but she could feel her mate's loneliness washing over her.
Nikki concentrated Gabrielle's training on the net, small sword and daggers. Knowing the small woman would be useless in heavy armor, the doctor focused on Gabrielle's speed, smallness and natural ability. Gabrielle fell easily into a friendship with the tall warrior, in many ways Nikki reminded her of Xena and she found herself learning as quickly as she had under Xena's watchful eye.
Lycrassis also watched with interest as the small blond woman showed promise. Even though she was small, Lycrassis also knew that small and quick gladiators could sometimes overcome heavily armed men in the Arena.
The sling came off the bard's arm and she began working on rebuilding those muscles as well. Sword work consisted of taking on a wooden post in the training yard, practicing sword strokes over and over again until it became part of the muscle's training.
Nikki began to add spear and shield work to the bard's workout. Lycrassis began to wonder if he was going to lose the three month part of the bet. He grinned, hoping so. He preferred having a money winning gladiator to a corpse any day. He also admired the way the small woman moved, the muscles rippling under that smooth skin.
At night it wasn't uncommon for Nikki to wake up with Gabrielle crying or screaming in her sleep. She would gather the smaller woman in her arms and comfort her Queen until the little one went to sleep again, calling for Xena.
Nikki felt her heart beginning to thaw and cursed the gods for it.
By the second month Xena and Iolaus had found a niche in the homestead of their adopted Northern family. Xena would help the hunters and fishermen and Iolaus helped care for the children and stock while his body still healed. He was surprised and pleased to find that he had a knack for carding wool and sewing and was very pleased when none of the men teased him about it. Xena was grateful for the kindness they were showing both of the Greeks.
Sasha and Axel had been right about being accepted into the family without question. Hercules was thought of as a brother and he said that Iolaus and Xena were family and were in trouble, the Northerners opened their home readily. Willing to take them on for the entire winter and the rest of their lives if the Greeks wished to stay.
The two long houses were a little cramped with the addition of Axel's small band but everyone just grinned and made room. Xena shook her head at the ready acceptance and additional hardship that the chief family was taking on with grins and hugs. It reminded her of something her mother might do.
The chieftain of the main family, Eddval the Skull-Splitter, didn't live up to his name when they first arrived, Xena was thankful. He had come out of his long house shouting and laughing and grabbed Axel in a bear hug that Xena would have found bone breaking. The two men had laughed, punched each other and drank from the drinking horn that Eddval's wife, Alfhild, had brought out, toasting each other, toasting each other's family, toasting the Gods, and toasting the sky at the end of the horn. Eddval had motioned everyone inside and had greeted each like a family member, even Xena and Iolaus, though he was careful not to bear hug the small and injured Greek man.
Xena had been amused when they started calling Iolaus, Ivar One Hand, finding his Greek name a pain to the tongue. Xena they called Yrsa the Vakr or Vigilant. She was grateful for the nickname, she had heard some of the others around the hearth fire.
"Absent Minded, Belly Shaker, Flat Nose, Gossip, Whelp, and the worst for one of the neighboring Princes - Snake in the Eye."
Iolaus/Ivar they treated as the wounded warrior he was and respected him, even if they teased him about being so small. Xena was pleased when he began to smile at the teasing even though he continued to wake her up every night with the same nightmare, losing Gabrielle.
Into month two and the recruits began practicing with other recruits, those more advanced in training. Having actual bodies to whack against added a new dimension to the training. Mostly the new recruits were the ones getting whacked. It made them learn very quickly.
One day in the practice yard Lycrassis approached Nikki and Gabrielle. They both stopped and stood still.
"How is our dancer today?" he grinned.
"She's doing well, my Lord." Nikki smiled.
"Good, believe it or not I hope you win your bout in a month. I think you could make us all a lot of money eventually. Brie, hmmm, not a gladiator name. I like Ôdancer', it suits your style. Nikki, you are doing well with her."
"Thank you, my Lord." Nikki resisted smiling at Gabrielle, Dancer.
"I would like an early demonstration." Lycrassis said, bringing his hand to his mouth in contemplation. Nikki lost her smile.
"Yes, my Lord?" she asked.
"That little Arab slave of mine, you know he tells me you two aren't really lovers, that you never touch each other. I would find that strange and wonder about motivations and plots and plans. Slaves should never be allowed to plot and plan, don't you agree?"
Gabrielle kept all emotion out of her face with a struggle and knew that Nikki was doing the same.
"I don't know what to say, my Lord. We aren't plotting against you." Nikki protested.
"Hmmm, let's put that to a test, shall we?" Lycrassis grinned.
"How, my Lord?" Nikki whispered.
"The Arab against your Dancer. Trial by combat, so to speak. He's not gladiator trained but he's fast as a cat and deadly with a knife. They should be almost evenly matched."
"You would risk our bet over your slave?" Nikki argued.
"Yes, I am the master of the house and I can call the bet finished when I see fit. I am the master, am I not?" Lycrassis voice was still sweet, but deadly as a poisonous snake. Gabrielle tried not to show her fear.
"Yes, my Lord." Nikki bowed her head.
"Good, after lunch. Arrange it." Lycrassis walked away whistling.
Gabrielle almost went to her knees and Nikki grabbed her by the arms. "Steady, my Queen, steady."
Over lunch the trainer instructed her student.
"He is as fast as a cat. I've seen him castrate a recruit in one move before the man knew what was happening. He's also vicious as Hades and has had the protection of Lycrassis until now. He'll probably count on that and be arrogant. I don't think he's been watching you train so he might not be aware of how fast you've developed."
"I have to kill him?" Gabrielle asked between bites, determined to keep her strength at peak.
"Maybe. He is Lycrassis' pet, he might not let you kill him but beat the tar out of him or scar him. I don't know what he's thinking." Nikki complained in a whisper.
"He wants me in his bed and he's unsure of our relationship," Gabrielle answered.
"I've seen him watching me. He's not only looking at me as a prize winner, he's watching my body with a hunger that I've seen before."
The tall Amazon cursed under her breath. Gabrielle grinned. "We'll handle that after I defeat that little weasel. Anything about his fighting style?"
"Yes, he leads with his right foot and right hand. He can't fight left handed."
"That might help."
"Visiting Romans, ladies of my villa and honored wife," Lycrassis began, walking around the small arena, taking in all of his guests. Gabrielle and Nikki both wondered how long he had this planned, there were over fifty household members and guests watching the arena.
"This is serious, little one. You'll have to kill him." Nikki said simply.
"I thought we didn't kill in the school unless it was the major games," Gabrielle protested. It was warm for May and she wiped the back of her hand across her forehead. Nikki quickly grabbed a cloth and tied it around the bard's forehead.
"Something is going on and I don't know what."
"Whatever it is, I'm going to live!" the recruit hissed.
"Good, that's the only thing important and that's the only rule out there. There is no playing fair. Don't let him up if he falls, don't be honorable, and don't give him a second chance." Nikki instructed as she tied the leather sleeve over the bard's sword arm and positioned the leather with the metal plates over the bard's wrist and hand. Next she strapped on a sword belt and a dagger in the bard's belt. Nikki then quickly knelt and hid a dagger in the bard's boot.
"Never let them know all of your weapons," she instructed as she leaned on her crutch.
Gabrielle nodded grimly and took up a small round shield in her left hand.
Across the way she saw a trainee handing the small Arab a similar shield.
"He's not accustomed to fighting with a sword or shield, use this and tire him out. If it comes down to a knife fight, he might win," Nikki instructed.
"I present to you two novice gladiators who have a personal grudge and I've decided to let them settle it in the Arena as good training. May their fight give you enjoyment. I present Achmed the Arab and Dancer of the Northern Barbarians."
Gabrielle felt Nikki lightly push her into the arena and walked to the center of the space to stand next to Lycrassis, she refused to look at Achmed. She faced the household box where Lycrassis, his wife and honored guests would watch the match and was stunned to recognize one of the honored guests, Brutus.
The bard felt her heart stop beating for a moment as he nearly came out of his chair in recognition as well. He recovered himself and sat back down, looking very pale. Lycrassis stepped back and the Arab went into a defensive position and Gabrielle quickly did the same as Lycrassis trotted out of the Arena area and the wooden door slammed shut.
Gabrielle shifted her focus only onto her opponent, fighting down her fear and all the sounds around her. The bard shifted into the gladiator called Dancer, pulling her sword and readjusting her shield.
Dancer's travels with Xena and training with the Amazons, in addition to Nikki's training, paid off in the first few moments when the Arab screamed and rushed the small woman, bashing at her with his shield and raising his sword to smash downwards.
Dancer rolled over with the blow and came to her feet in an instant and let his charge carry him off balance into her, bringing her own shield up to smash him in the face, sending him backwards. The Arab barely got his shield up in time to deflect her sword blow. He kicked out with his legs and took Dancer's legs out from under her. They both regained their feet at the same time, neither with an advantage. Dancer was grateful at Nikki's insight with the headband, she watched the Arab wipe sweat out of his eyes and curse under his breath and she was glad that the cloth caught the potential distraction of her own sweat. Dancer attempted to keep her breathing in a normal rhythm and not let the dust cloud her eyes or throat.
The fighters began circling each other, a little more cautious. Achmed screamed again and rushed the bard once more, this time she took the blow and spun with it, letting the energy of Achmed's movement pull him past her and she sliced as he passed and left a long and deep wound in his left shoulder. He quickly moved out of sword reach, his shield arm hanging. He dropped the shield with a snarl.
Through Nikki's training, Dancer knew that the little Arab could be even more dangerous now, he was desperate. Then again, she thought, so was she.
With a war cry of her own she anticipated his next rush and rolled forward into it, dropping her own shield and grabbing the dagger from her belt. Her forward roll brought her up under his sword as she blocked it with her own. Dancer sank her dagger into his ribs.
Everything seemed to stop in time for both of the fighters. The swords hung suspended in the air, one blocking the other, as the Arab looked down at the knife in his ribs and the small Greek looked up, stunned she had actually done it.
Achmed, with an angry yell, backhanded the bard, sending her falling backwards, slightly stunned. She quickly turned to regain her feet but the Arab threw himself across her back, grabbing her hair painfully, forcing her head back to meet his sword blade before he would fall to her dagger.
Dancer, having dropped her own sword, reached into her boot and grabbed the second dagger, with a quick movement she snapped her wrist back and cut away a good chunk of her hair, leaving the Arab with only a handful of hair and not his opponent. She threw him off her back, rolled over on top of him and straddled his chest, one foot on his sword hand. She held the dagger in both hands over his throat.
The woman looked to the household box and to Lycrassis. "What do you say, my honored guests and house members? A quick death for him or the slow death of a stabbed lung?" Lycrassis asked, looking to Brutus.
Gabrielle also looked at Brutus as he struggled to keep emotions from his face. Without a word the Roman raised his hand and then gave the pollice verso, the thumbs down and everyone followed.
Lycrassis grinned and gave the pollice verso.
"Forgive me, little man." Dancer whispered as the blade plunged downward.
Gabrielle wasn't aware of much after that, not even the gentle hands helping her to her feet and out of the arena and to the bathing area. Gabrielle finally became aware of those same hands cleaning the blood and dust from her body and then Nikki gently holding her as she cried.
An hour later Nikki had found a pair of scissors and finished what Gabrielle had started in the Arena with her hair. The bard found short hair a very strange feeling but one she might grow to like, she thought.
They were both startled when the door opened and Lycrassis walked in. He lifted the bard's chin and took in her bruised nose and short hair with an appraising glance. He nodded approvingly. They both noticed the pair of shackles in his hand.
"Not bad. You did well out there today for a first time and a first kill. Most can't do the pollice verso judgment on their first kill. You did well." he commented.
"I'll never get used to it," Gabrielle whispered and was surprised when Lycrassis grinned. "No need to, as long as you continue to do it." He reached out and grabbed the trainee's wrist and quickly chained the bard and pulled her to her feet. "My honored guest, Brutus, would like to meet you," he grinned and Gabrielle's heart skipped a beat, the smile never reached his cruel eyes.
Nikki was on her feet in an instant. "You said no one would touch her!" she hissed.
"I said none of my men would touch her. When making bargains with Romans you should listen carefully to the wording," Lycrassis grinned. "I didn't say anything about myself or my guests."
Nikki's face turned very red and she grabbed her crutch up. Gabrielle held up her hands towards the trainer.
"I'll be fine, it's okay," she reassured her pretend lover.
Lycrassis yanked her out of the room and slammed and locked the door, leaving Nikki cursing under her breath.
"Not only are you quick, you're also smart. You just saved your lover a lashing."
Gabrielle refused to talk and Lycrassis shrugged and led her through the villa to the guest room and opened the door without knocking.
Brutus rose from the sofa, his face without emotion.
"Well, Brutus, hope you enjoy your evening." Lycrassis grinned and closed the door.
Brutus started to speak and Gabrielle moved quickly to him and placed a finger on his lips.
"I'm from the northern tribes, my Latin name is Brie here." she said quickly and he nodded.
"How did you get here?" he demanded.
"I was taken on the border of Germania by slavers. My family doesn't know where I am or if I'm alive." Gabrielle stressed the word family and again Brutus nodded. "Are you going to take me to Caesar?" she asked softly and Brutus looked confused.
"Caesar, no. I'm on my way to Britannia. Please, sit."
Gabrielle sat on the sofa and the Roman joined her.
"Brutus, my family told me how you helped them and me when I was ill, can you help me now?"
"I've tried, Lycrassis won't sell you just yet."
Gabrielle frowned. "Why not? I'm not trained enough yet to bring him in money and my chances of surviving the Arena are small."
"I don't know but he won't. He says you're a mystery and he sees talent in you, he wants to find out what that mystery is and to use your talent,"Brutus complained.
"He doesn't believe that you're sleeping with your trainer and you haven't approached any of the men, it puzzles him. You've got to find a way to dismiss that mystery. Caesar has heard of your disappearance and he wants you very badly. Every Roman looking for favor is looking for you. He thinks X..... your family will come to him if he has you."
"I know, I figured that might happen,"Gabrielle muttered.
"I managed to get Lycrassis to wager with me,"Brutus said hopefully, "if you survive the time I'm gone to Britannia, then he'll sell you to me when I return and he won't sell you to anyone else before I return."
"A year is better than the three year bet he made with Nikki, my trainer. A year, though. Brutus, that's forever in the Arena!" Gabrielle felt tears threatening to spill over and angrily brushed them away.
"I know but my hands are tied. Caesar is in Egypt and I don't trust anyone to get you to your family if I force the issue."
"Brutus, I have to ask, why would you help me and go against Caesar, again?"she whispered.
The Roman smiled. "Your mate once asked why I liked you and I couldn't find the words. She seemed to understand though and said that you were the light in the darkness that we walk as warriors. She was and is right. I care for you very much, G.... Brie."
"Brutus, you know I'm bonded to another, by choice and by the gods."Gabrielle gently touched his cheek.
"Yes, that doesn't mean I can't be your friend."
"Thank you,"she said simply.
"Why do you trust me?"Brutus asked with a frown.
"I have no choice. You offer a glimmer of hope of getting back to my mate."Gabrielle answered simply.
"What else can I do?"the Roman asked, taking the bard's hands in his.
"Force me into your bed,"Gabrielle whispered.
"What?!"Brutus leaped to his feet and Gabrielle pulled him back down.
"What do you think Lycrassis is expecting? Why else would you send for me? Why do you think my wrists are chained and not my legs?"
"I can't do that!"Brutus protested.
"You said yourself I have to convince Lycrassis there's no mystery to solve, that I'm just another scared barbarian fighting for her life that happens to be Sapphic and not interested in sleeping with him."
"Oh gods, G... Brie. I am not a rapist, I don't even touch my own slaves."
"Who says there's no light in your life, Brutus?"Gabrielle smiled, touching his cheek again. "We have to make it look like you forced me."
"All right, I can do that, I think."Brutus nodded.
"Then hit me."
Brutus rose to his feet again and began pacing in front of the sofa. "I can't!"he hissed.
Gabrielle stood up and in his way. "Do you think Lycrassis would believe I just fell into your bed?"
Brutus closed his eyes and nodded. When he opened his eyes Gabrielle closed hers and waited.
The next morning Nikki opened the guest room to find Gabrielle arms above her head, her chain tied to one of the bed posts and the woman was nude. Nikki whined in her throat when she took in the bruises on the bard's face and arms and then she went to her knees beside the bed when she saw blood between Gabrielle's legs.
Nikki quickly wiped tears away when Lycrassis walked into the room.
"Well, get her cleaned up and at practice."Lycrassis took in the sight as well and grinned. "Well, seems our Roman General was a little rough with your pet, eh?"
Gabrielle opened her eyes and then turned her head, realizing her appearance.
"Tears, Nikki? Maybe you are lovers after all. You better pray I don't suspect you two of plotting to kill me or run away,"Lycrassis warned as he walked out.
Gabrielle turned to look at Nikki. "It's all right, untie me."
Nikki quickly moved to cut the rope with her dagger and then helped the bard sit up on the bed. She quickly grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around the small woman.
"He didn't hurt me."Gabrielle tried reassuring her friend.
"But the bruises and blood?"Nikki whispered, helping Gabrielle to her feet.
"I asked him to hit me to convince Lycrassis. Brutus cut his own hand to provide the blood to make it look like rape."Gabrielle smiled a tired smile.
"I don't understand,"Nikki complained as they walked to the door.
"Brutus is a friend and he just might get us out of here before three
"Now I'm definitely confused,"Nikki complained.
"We have a lot to talk about and maybe some hope is in sight. If I can stay alive in the Arena."
"I have some ideas about that,"Nikki smiled.
"Good, I want to get dressed and eat."
The next hurdle to staying alive came that night when the two women undressed for bed. Gabrielle hesitated and sat down on the bed, pulling a blanket around her. Nikki sat down next to her, pulling on a robe.
"What is it, Brie?"Nikki asked.
"We have to convince Lycrassis that we are lovers and take away his curiosity about me,"Gabrielle whispered.
"Brie, a gentle bard who's now willing to kill; a woman who's willing to live with rape; a bonded lover who's willing to sleep with me just to stay alive. You love her enough to live with all of that?"Nikki asked gently and then pulled her Queen into her arms as Gabrielle broke down crying.
"I love her that much. I love her enough to use people who love me to get back to her. Brutus loves me and I'm willing to use him, to put him in danger with Caesar. I'm willing to use your friendship and body to keep me alive to get back to her,"Gabrielle whispered.
"Brie, you don't love me, I know that. You would sleep with me on the chance it might keep Lycrassis distracted?"
Gabrielle broke into fresh tears. "Yes,"she whispered.
"A love like yours is rare, my Queen,"Nikki whispered back.
Gabrielle held out her left hand and showed the fellow Amazon the angry red scar across the palm. "We are blood bound by the gods themselves."
"Yes, they showed up at our bonding ritual and said that our destiny was to be together and our love was beyond this lifetime and death and they called for a blood bonding,"Gabrielle explained.
"Then, my Queen, I will do everything in my power to get you back to your mate. Even loving you."Nikki said with a grin, bringing Gabrielle out of her arms as the young woman lightly punched her friend in the arm.
"As if that was a task? You don't want my body?"Gabrielle teased.
"My Queen, I have been dying to touch your body since the day I first saw you."Nikki admitted. "Then I saw your mate and thought better of that idea,"she grinned.
"Most people do when they meet her,"Gabrielle giggled.
Nikki leaned down and lightly kissed the bard and whimpered as the bard began kissing her back. "I'm sorry,"Gabrielle whispered as she slowly began kissing Nikki's neck and the Amazon warrior wasn't sure if Gabrielle was apologizing for using Nikki or apologizing to Xena. Neither woman was surprised when they heard footsteps outside their window. It had been expected.
They were in their third month after the attack by the Romans when Ketli, one of the young boys of the house came running into the second long house and spotted Iolaus/Ivar attempting to sew some deer hide. The boy ran up with a grin.
"Ivar, our Southern brother comes!"He said excitedly, pulling on Iolaus' sleeve.
"Great!"Iolaus set the deer hide aside and grabbed up his cloak and went outside with the boy, bending down so Ketli could pin his cloak closed.
Iolaus grinned as Hercules jumped off his horse and grabbed his friend in a bear hug. The smaller Greek man punched his friend on the arm as Hercules put him down. He looked into his friend's face and contemplated the full beard the demi-god had grown during the winter and approved and he knew Hercules was probably doing the same with his blond beard.
"Good to see you up and moving, my friend,"Hercules said.
"Good to be among the living. Gabrielle?"
Hercules' lost his smile and shook his head. Before he could answer most of the women from the two long houses had come out to greet him and Eddval's wife, Thora, offered him a drinking horn in a traditional gesture of welcome. He toasted the well being of everyone in the steadying and drank deeply, appreciating the good ale of the north.
Ketli moved to take his horse to the stable and the women parted to let the men walk towards the long house. Hercules answered his friend.
"I lost track of her. The slavers the Romans sold her to sold her again to another set of traders heading into Italia. The Romans told the slavers that she was Germanic and, somehow, Gabrielle has kept quiet and the slavers sold her as Germanic. All I could find from the second slavers was that a lot of females were sold to villas in Italia. I couldn't even find out what province she's in."
"Damn! Xena says she's alive, that she can feel Gabrielle is alive."
"I believe it. They have that kind of connection."
"You'd better tell Xena this one. The baby is fine but Xena isn't. She spends a lot of time alone and she hasn't slept an entire night through since."Iolaus frowned.
Hercules stopped his friend and raised Iolaus chin to look in his friend's eyes. "Neither have you."the demi-god commented and lifted the cloak aside to get a look at his friend and frowned at the sling holding Iolaus' arm.
Iolaus shrugged and continued into the long house. "I have some strength in the hand but not much. The arm is useless."
"You're alive, I didn't think you'd make it from those wounds."Hercules said softly.
"Neither did anyone else."Iolaus grinned a sad smile. "What happens now?"
"I tell Xena the miserable news and I leave at the end of the week back for Italia. I'm not giving up."
Hercules met Xena at the barn as she rode in on Argo. Her eyes were hopeful until she met his and he shook his head. The warrior clenched her jaw and climbed down slowly off her beloved horse.
The tall Greek repeated what he had told Iolaus as she unsaddled the horse and began brushing the mare.
"I'm going with you this time!"she snapped.
"No, you're not. You're due in two moons with a child and shouldn't be traveling, let along traveling into Italia. It's just what Caesar is expecting. He's got all of the Roman Empire looking for you and Gabrielle. He's learned that Gabrielle is missing in Italia and has everyone looking for her. He won't say why but we both know he wants to use her as bait to get to you. The only thing saving her life right now is that they probably think she's a German slave and not your bard,"he argued.
Xena growled, clenching her fists tightly.
"Xena, I'm not going to stop until we have her back,"he promised.
"I can feel her, I can almost see her and I can't reach her!"she hissed, throwing the brush across the stall. Argo danced a couple of steps away from her friend, picking up on the dangerous energy growing in the warrior.
"She's still alive,"he tried to comfort her but Xena shook his hand off.
"She's had to kill, Hercules. I saw it, a dagger in her hands and then blood. I wasn't there to protect her or comfort her! Damnit!"
Xena spun around, eyes flashing angrily and darting around. The demi-god held up a hand, palm forward.
"Come on, Xena. You can't hurt me, you know,"he urged.
"I wouldn't chance that right now!"she warned. "Do you know what they
did to her? What Iolaus saw?!"
Hercules gritted his own teeth and shoved the warrior, hard. The demi-god got the reaction he expected and found himself sitting on his tailbone from a well placed punch along the jawline. He quickly jumped up and held out his hands as sparring targets as Xena screamed in rage and let loose.
"Ivar, what's happening?" Ketli asked, running up to the barn door. Iolaus held up his good hand, holding the boy back.
"Hercules is helping her work out some frustration."
When the red finally cleared from Xena's eyes she was breathing heavy and Hercules was picking himself up from a hay pile, nursing a bloody nose. He grinned at his friend, feeling his jaw.
"Feel better?"he asked.
"Some,"she admitted as she examined her skinned and bruised knuckles.
"I'm just glad you didn't go for your weapons, my friend. I take it back, you can hurt me,"he grinned and then held his arms open as the rest of her pent up emotions broke and she began to cry.
The third and fourth month of Gabrielle's training saw a new focus. Nikki made a rough wooden figure and used it to demonstrate moves that she wanted the little fighter to try.
"Lycrassis was right, you are a natural dancer and we should use that to our advantage. A typical match is between two fighters who are matched but in different areas. Naked Retiarii fight with nets and a trident against heavily armored fighters. Neither side has an overwhelming advantage. The naked fighter is quick and hard to hit, the heavily amour one is hard to get decent hits on. Both having different skills but an even fight. Your opponents will probably be heavily armed, because of your smallness, I don't see Lycrassis weighing you down with armor. I want to train you to be able to get past that armor and hit deadly points quickly. A dance under the sword and amour of your opponent, a deadly dance."
Gabrielle caught Lycrassis watching them discussing movements and his grin as he saw Nikki's bruised neck. The tall blond Viking Amazon blushed and went back to her descriptions with the little Greek.
"How do you get under the sword and shield without getting killed?"Gabrielle questioned, taking up a typical amour fighter stance. Nikki began plotting out steps, one by one for the little bard.
In the fourth month Gabrielle found herself at one of the local games of the month. Scheduled for a fight in the morning with another new recruit, this one a big, strong and heavily armed fighter.
Nikki rubbed the smaller woman's shoulders as they waited in the dark and stuffy cells before the match. Gabrielle's hands couldn't keep still.
"Relax, it'll be over before you know it's begun. The hardest part is the waiting for your match,"Nikki urged.
"How did you handle it?"Gabrielle asked as Nikki began helping her strap on the leather arm protector.
"Who says I ever did? I typically lost my breakfast just before going out there."Nikki grinned and Gabrielle turned pale.
"Thanks for the encouragement," the bard whispered and Nikki laughed.
"You're welcome, little one."
A guard opened the cell door and motioned the bard out. Nikki leaned heavily on the bars as he closed the door.
Gabrielle attempted a grin but wasn't very successful.
The bard was grateful that the sun wasn't on her side of the Arena when she walked out. Fighters were trained to ignore the sun but they always found themselves blinking in the bright sunlight after spending all morning in the dark cells. Gabrielle shifted her sword belt slightly and followed the guard to the center of the Arena. She quickly bounced on her toes a few times and shifted the shield on her left arm.
She barely glanced at the heavily armed Myrmillo type fighter. Heavy plate and chainmaille armor covered his chest and arms and half metal cylinders, called ocreae, covered his upper thighs and he was armed with a heavy sword, dagger and a large shield.
Gabrielle wasn't amused with her chances. She closed her eyes and began a breathing exercise she had learned from Xena and let the tension drain from her body and let the bard slip away from her and let the Dancer take her place.
When Dancer opened her eyes, they were without emotion and alert. She spotted Lycrassis in one of the royal boxes and he grinned at her. She bowed slightly and then turned towards her opponent.
One thing in the back of Dancer's mind, the bard part still thinking, the school normally didn't fight to the death. Lycrassis preferred to develop his fighters rather than just provide blood sport and lose fighters before they had developed enough skills to survive professional encounters.
Dancer dismissed any thoughts and concentrated as the flag signaling the beginning of the match dropped from Lycrassis' hand.
Anticipating the Myrmillo's rush, Dancer simply spun on one heel and let her shield scrape against his, carrying his momentum around. She ducked his defensive round slash of his sword and slashed his calf, below the ocreae. Dancer quickly dived out of reach of his sword as he attempted to slam his shield down on the crouched fighter and bring his sword back around and down. She came up behind him and slashed across his lower back with her sword, just where the armor didn't protect.
He roared and went to his knees, dropping his shield. Dancer parried a sword swing with her shield and danced out the way of a second thrust as he regained his feet. Her opponent didn't dare reach for his shield so he pulled out his dagger to compliment his sword.
Dancer kept out of his reach, barely turning his sword strikes aside with her shield while dancing out of reach of the dagger. The Myrmillo was breathing heavily and sweating while Dancer kept her breathing as normal as possible. The Myrmillo type fighter let his anger give him a flash of energy and charged the smaller woman and she stood her ground until the last moment and dived forward into him, rolling his legs out from under him. As he fell on his face and lost his breath the small woman scrambled out from under his legs and jumped on his back, sword poised over his neck.
The fighter dropped the sword and held out his arms to his sides.
"Surrender!"he cried out and Dancer looked to her owner's box.
Lycrassis seemed to consider for a moment and then gave a thumbs up, signifying life. Dancer breathed a sigh of relief and slowly rose off the man. She bowed to Lycrassis and began to walk back towards her end of the Arena when she felt the pounding of running feet and let instinct take over, dropping into a crouch and swinging her leg out as the Myrmillo type fighter charged her from behind. She swept his leg out from under him and he hit the ground hard again. The small woman was on top of him before he could even blink and her dagger was sticking out of his throat.
Shaking, Dancer rose to her feet and looked to her master, wondering what his reaction would be. The Roman rose to his feet and began applauding, everyone else in the spectator seats rising to applaud.
Dancer bowed slightly and retrieved her dagger and walked back towards
the cells, shaking all over and wondering if she could make it out of sight
before she threw up.
Continue to Part Two
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