A Crown of Laurel part 3 cont.

by Silk

"Umm...sorry about that. Just a bad dream," Gabrielle replied, trying not to look sheepish in front of him. The power of the man from just standing in front of her was immense and she was having a hard time trying to think clearly. Xena's right...like a moth to the flame, she observed.

"Xena will be up here in a moment to join us. I'm looking forward to seeing how she liked being a galley slave myself. But first we have to make sure your not going to be a problem if she decides to start something again." Slowly he looked her up and down, making the bard feel like a piece of merchandise. Then with a quick nod to Brutus, he leaned back against a railing to watch, his lips barely lifted in a smile.

Brutus stepped forward with a set of chains in his hands. Gabrielle's eyes opened wide as he came closer, a shiver of fear threatening to overwhelm her.

"Is this really necessary? I mean...I could promise not to run away if you want..ummm." She lifted her eyes to Caesar, than frowned at his look. Fine. I can do this. No problem. Her eyes narrowed slightly, then she stuck out her hands defiantly towards Brutus.

Brutus took the slim shackles and locked them around her wrists, then did the same for the ones for her ankles, connecting the two sets with a length of chain for that purpose. Then he gently placed one around her neck, making sure it fit loosely so as not to choke her. Finally he snapped a lengthy leash to the collar and handed the end to Caesar.

This is very degrading. I feel like...someone's pet. Gabrielle groaned inwardly. The extra weight was heavy, dragging on her tired body.

"Ahh..just in time. Good day, Xena." Caesar smiled, gently swaying the fine chain leash back and forth as the warrior come into view on the ladder.

Xena came up on the deck and stretched as far as her chains would let her, ignoring Caesar for the moment. She turned to Gabrielle and frowned at the heavy chains on her. "Are you ok?"

"Lousy service, but otherwise fine. You?" Gabrielle glanced at Caesar then back to Xena. The Roman was just leaning there watching the two.

"I've had harder days working out with Joxer." Xena gave her a lopsided grin. "Heard your still a bottomless pit."

Gabrielle grinned. "Yep, I'll admit it." Well, I'm shocked. Brutus kept his promise.

"How touching." Caesar interrupted. "Well, you know how much I hate to break up your little reunion but we need to get going. Xena, I'm sure I don't have to tell you to behave yourself. The consequences would be...unfortunate."

"I've already heard it," she answered simply.

Caesar turned and strode down the gangplank leading Gabrielle by her leash. Xena was escorted amidst a company of soldiers several feet back, her steps hampered by a shortened chain and heavy weights that had been attached since the attack.

Gabrielle was having a hard time matching her steps to Caesar, since she was unused to walking in shackles. Every time she would stumble the leash would grow taut and jerk her along. Hissing in irritation she started taking shorter steps, but more of them, until it felt as if she was running. Finally they reached the end of the pier and Caesar's chariot.

It was a massive piece, all white and gold embossed led by four matching white stallions, with room enough for six people standing, more than ample space for Caesar, Gabrielle and his driver alone on it. Caesar impatiently tugged the leash, making the bard climb up awkwardly.

Xena had managed the walk down the dock with deceptive ease, though her body ached tremendously and the weights constantly threatened to pull her down. But the warrior refused to let it bother her; instead her mind and sight were focused on Gabrielle's and Caesar's backs.

Ignoring the soldiers around her, she scowled several times as her friend stumbled and hurried after the Roman. Every scrape. Every bump. Every scratch. I'm going to remember every single thing, Caesar. Xena started to think, then froze in horror. Anger again. What am I to do? I can't let him just treat her that way! But at the same time I can't give in to my anger, it has cost us so much.

Xena let herself be led to a barred wagon and jumped inside. It was a well built vehicle, made of strong iron bars on the four sides and top. Even the doors was built well, she noticed, as the key was turned and Xena was locked in. In reflex, almost absentmindedly, she thought of ways to escape and get to Gabrielle.

Abruptly the wagon moved and they were on their way. A legion of soldiers broke their path and another walked alongside and behind them. The Emperor of Rome was heading back to his city with his prize, and its citizens were waiting for him.

Thousands flocked to the procession road, to get a rare glimpse of their ruler. Men, women, children of all ages. Old soldiers and younger men dreaming of glory as a soldier in his army. Noble women and their slaves screamed the name of Caesar alongside each other, for once equals. Young children gazed in awe at the man who was almost equal to the gods themselves in their world.

Gabrielle gaped in awe at the attention given the man next to her. They worship him almost as if he is a god to them. No wonder he is so arrogant, and probably addicted to it. It's a far more heady emotion than anything I've ever gotten from telling stories.

Xena was having a harder time in her cage dealing with the crowd than Gabrielle, but then she was seeing a different side of them. The warrior was doing her best to ignore it though.

The word had spread of Xena and of how she had beaten and thrown back Caesar's forces in Britannia. She was called many names, the least of which was the "Whore of Greece," as she was carried past. Xena kept her eyes forward, looking at Gabrielle, who could only spare a glance or two of concern as she tried to hang on. She didn't flinch as rotten fruit and stones were thrown at her, one giving her a bad cut on the cheek, but she stoically kept her sight forward.

The procession made its way slowly towards the center of Rome, finally stopping at the foot of the Senate stairs. When the wagon stopped, Xena was roughly brought down and escorted forward. Handing off Gabrielle's leash to Brutus, Caesar made his way along the soldier-guarded lane to the marble speaking platform, ignoring Xena, who was being marched a safe distance behind him.

Gabrielle watched her friend with concern. It was bad enough that they were captured, but to humiliate her friend? The bard frowned in irritation. I just hope she doesn't try to kill him in front of all these people, and knowing Xena she just might try to. Somehow I don't think the Romans would appreciate their Emperor being assassinated in front of them. I'd rather we both get out of this alive.

The bard stood silently under the watchful eye of Brutus and their guards, as Caesar stepped up onto the platform and greeted the Senators who waited there for him. She gasped as Xena suddenly fell to her knees and was unceremoniously dragged the rest of the way. By the gods, she must be exhausted.

The crowd was in ecstasy as it roared Caesar's name over and over again. Caesar turned from greeting the Senators and stood there, letting the sound wash over him. He shuddered in pleasure. How he loved the sound of his people yelling his name.

Xena was dragged up the stairs to the platform and made to kneel a safe distance beside Caesar. He's going to humiliate you in front of his people. So? Big deal. Just ignore the pain of your body and keep your mind on getting yourself and Gabrielle out of here. That's what is most important. Though if I can safely "Divide and Conquer" his head from his body without endangering Gabrielle I'll probably take the chance.

Xena smiled for the first time since leaving the ship and look down into the crowd. Spotting Gabrielle she winked, then chuckled as she saw the apprehension and fear for the warrior in her eyes. She probably thinks I'm going to try and kill him up here. Gabrielle, you should know better. I don't need this much of an audience.

Xena chuckled aloud and was cuffed alongside the head by a guard. Turning her head she looked up at him, then spit right into his eye.

Caesar frowned as his attention was disrupted, and turned to the scene beside him. Seeing Xena spit in the eye of one of his Centurions, he nodded when the guard looked at him questioningly, then turned back to his people when the guards started to beat her for a moment.

The crowd roared anew at the sight, then quieted when Caesar raised his hand. His voice carried clearly out amongst the people and brought them their good news.

"My people, I have returned from a very short voyage out to sea, where Neptune in his graciousness has delivered unto me the 'Empire's Greatest Enemy'." He stopped and waited patiently for a moment as the people shouted his name in joy, then continued when they once again were silent.

"Several months ago I personally took certain of my legions to Britannia to win that land for the glory of Rome. I had prayed to the gods for victory, had given fitting sacrifices to Mars, and had the best of generals at my side. But I was defeated." A low moan rushed through the crowd in remembrance of that day.

"Yes. I was defeated in battle by an enemy so vile and so savage that she couldn't stand to stay in her own land and try and conquer it. No...she had to come to Britannia and kill Romans that were there to fight for Rome! By treachery she won!" he shouted.

"But," he stopped their cries. "That is now over and we are still on Britannia and shall still win that land for the good of Rome and its people, and we have "Rome's Greatest Enemy" in our grasp to do with what we will. I have brought you, the people of Rome, who have lost fathers, brothers, sons, uncles and nephews on the battlefield of Britannia to this woman's vile treacheries...I have brought you...XENA!!!"

Gabrielle was glad that she was standing by Brutus at that moment, though not thrilled. The multitude surged around her, its emotions pounding like the surf on a beach, almost palpable in its intensity. Howls of anger at her friend mixed with the fierce devoted cries of Caesar's name. The bard felt a small tug on her leash and looked up at Brutus and was surprised to find compassion there.

"Don't worry. Caesar has other plans than throwing your friend to the crowd at this moment. Though in the end it might be better to end it for her now," he said to her softly.

The bard was in shock. Sympathy from a Roman, for Xena? For a friend of Xena's? For me? She couldn't quite believe it, yet here he was looking down at her with sad almost regretful eyes.

"What plans?" she asked daringly.

"That you'll find out soon enough." He turned and spoke to a guard, the crowd's noise drowning out his words so that Gabrielle couldn't hear them, then he brought his attention back to her. "Xena is lucky this day actually."

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. "Lucky. You call this lucky?"

"Caesar didn't have to order his men to make sure of her safety. If the crowd breaks through and kills her, he has ordered the whole Legion whipped. And that goes for your safety too." He said, pointing out the armed soldiers guarding them, then he turned his focus to Caesar.

The people were finally starting to calm down, having tried to break through the heavy rows of Legionnaires that blocked their way to Xena. After a few more moments Caesar, continued his speech.

"You wish to have her, and I do not blame you. But I have plans for this woman, this woman that thinks she is a warrior. This woman that thinks she can defeat the might of Rome and get away with it. NO! I will not give her to you, for her blood to be spilt quickly on the stones before me. Instead I will let her be what she thinks she is...I will let her be a warrior. I will send her to...the Coliseum!!!" he shouted.

Caesar turned and smiled at Xena, who had knelt there silently gazing dispassionately at a point out in the crowd. He frowned slightly when he saw she showed no reaction to what he had said about her and her fate. He turned back to the crowd that was once more still, waiting eagerly for his next words.

"This is my wish. But it is not for my own pleasure I do this, but for yours. To show you that no man or woman can come against Rome and not suffer the consequences!! This is to show others out there who would dare defy our Empire, that we will not be swayed in our task! This is to show that Rome and its people are one, and that to harm one soldier will bring the might of Rome upon them with the harshest of fists!!" Caesar shouted, raising his arms out to his people.

The crowd responded predictably, shouting his name to the heavens. Caesar had just helped erase a lot of the damage that the campaign in Britannia had caused. And by keeping Xena alive and throwing her to the gladiatorial wolves in the Coliseum, he had just provided them with days, weeks, perhaps even months of entertainment from seeing an enemy of the state humilated and fighting for her life.

Caesar turned and walked past Xena, slowing down only to nod at the approving Senators on the platform with him, then making his way back down to his chariot. Climbing aboard he motioned for Brutus to enter also, taking the bard's leash when it was handed to him.

"To the Colesium," he ordered his drivers and held on tightly as the spirited team started to move.

Gabrielle held on tightly, making sure she didn't fall off and choke to death being dragged by the chariot, but her attention was mostly focused on Xena, who was being unceremoniously dragged back to her cage. She looked barely conscious, blood running down her bruised face into her filthy shift. If not for the fact that Gabrielle could see her trying to put her own legs underneath her as she was being dragged, Gabrielle would have thought her unconscious. For a moment she feared for her friend as the crowd surged forward and threatened to break through., but the Roman soldiers held their positions and forced the citizens back. I can't believe I'm thankful for a Roman Legion to guard us, she thought in disbelief.

As they traveled through the streets of Rome, Gabrielle finally took a look at the city she had been brought to. She was amazed at the architecture and the immensity of size of the city itself. It sprawled out upon the land, with buildings, people, animals all calling it home. Temples for every Roman god were everywhere, different names but Gabrielle knew the Roman gods, for the most part, were the same as the ones she had grown up with.

Finally the procession stopped in front of a tall circular structure. Gabrielle had heard of this place, of course, in passing gossip from travelers from Rome, but didn't know much about it. Only that it was a place for bloodsports. Gabrielle shivered. And he is putting Xena in there. Well, how bad could it be really...I knew Darnell and he seemed a nice guy. Once you get over that overabundance of hormones he has.

As the chariot pulled up in front of the main entrance, a very short man came out, bowing and scraping before Caesar. His small body was clad in brown leathers and he wore a slave's collar around his neck. Gabrielle was confused to see that he was armed though.

"Oh, Mighty Caesar. Welcome to the Coliseum. We are plea..." the man said.

Caesar interrupted him. "Yes. Yes. I have someone new for you, Atrius. Someone special."

Atrius stood and looked at Gabrielle. "Well Caesar, with some work we can have her ready in about three mon..."

"No. Not her. At least not yet." He spared a sardonic look for Gabrielle, who just lowered her eyes refusing to look at him. "No. The one I wish for you to use is my other prisoner." He motioned for the guards to bring Xena forward.

Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably as they brought Xena alongside the chariot. Her friend was more injured than before, having to ride the rest of the procession being the target of more thrown objects. Blood ran down her face, giving the bard a brief shiver as she was reminded of her nightmares lately. Bruises covered most of her body, and the weighted shackles were starting to leave bloody chafes on her wrists, ankles and neck.

The bard started to get down from the chariot to make her way to Xena, but was roughly brought up short as she reached the end of her leash. Forgot where I was for a moment. Oh Xena...Gabrielle's eyes were moist as she looked down upon her friend.

"Hmm...she doesn't look very much alive at the moment." Atrius spoke, looking over the collapsed form.

"It's your job to make sure she lives to entertain me. In fact I want her up and out there in a blood fight within three days. Is that clear Atrius?"

"Yes, Caesar." Atrius bowed and motioned the soldiers that were dragging Xena to follow him.

Caesar made no move to release Gabrielle to go with her friend. Finally in frustration she spoke.

"Let me go with her," she demanded, looking him in the eye.

Caesar was silent a moment as he stood there studing her. There's that fire again, he mused. What to do with her. "No. I think I'll keep you under guard where Xena can't get to you. Besides, if she's wondering where you are, she won't be thinking straight, will you, Xena?" He said this last looking down at the warrior woman.

The once seemingly unconscious body suddenly stood, taking her arms away from the soldiers' grasps and looking icily at Caesar. Gabrielle was pleased to see her friend standing on her own and seemingly not affected by the blood and bruises on her body. It's that damned...I'm a bad ass warrior and I don't feel anything. Well, this time I'm glad she's not giving him the satisfaction of showing that she's really hurting. Gabrielle narrowed her eyes and pointedly looked Xena up and down, then looked back into her eyes. And I know you are hurting Xena...I'm just really annoyed right now that I can't help you.

Xena saw her friend's look and smiled. "I'm ok, Gabrielle. Take care of yourself. I'm sure we'll see each other soon." Then she turned back to Caesar. "In fact I'm sure we will. You wouldn't have it any other way would you? I'm sure you'd love to have her beside you as you watch me fight in the arena."

Caesar raised an eyebrow. "Good idea, Xena. But just in case your planning anything, know this. I'll have twenty of my best archers on you at all times, in case you try anything. All it will take is a signal from me and you'll be dinner for the lions."

"Overly dramatic." Xena muttered, then snickered as Caesar scowled at her.

"Atrius." The Roman ruler turned to the small man. "Take her in and treat her well...I want weeks of her entertaining the people." Then Caesar turned and motioned his driver to the palace.

"Xena," Gabrielle said simply as the chariot started to pull away, her gut twisting in fear for her companion.

Xena's eyes looked deep into her own green, connecting them. She smiled gently to reassure the bard. "Don't worry, Gabrielle," Xena assured her friend, as the warrior was shoved towards the entrance to the arena. "I don't make good lion food."

The bard looked back silently as they moved down the road keeping her friend in her sight, till finally they were separated. Faith. I must have faith in her. I've got to work on my end too, she'll expect that, to get us out of here. And she's right, any lions would probably choke on her. Tough and stringy. The bard tried not to chuckle, but couldn't help a wayward grin.

Xena kept her eyes on her friend till she was out of sight, then turned back to pay attention to where she was being led. Then they passed under the huge stone archway, and entered the small world that was the Coliseum of Rome.

The high stone hallways echoed with their footsteps as they walked deeper into the Coliseum till they came to a great door made of iron bars. Six guards looked them up and down, then seeing Atrius one of them nodded and unlocked the door.

Atrius stopped and turned to their escort. "This is as far as you are allowed to go."

The Centurion leader nodded, and left with his men. Atrius turned to Xena. "Follow me."

Xena debated whether to make a break for it. But, though were only the six guards, they looked competent and Xena knew she was too weak to be able to do more than take out one or two before falling. And there was Gabrielle to consider. With a shrug she complied, and trailed after the small man, hearing but ignoring the loud clang as the door was shut behind them, and the sound of the key being turned.

They walked alone down the ill-lit hall, silent for moments except for Atrius' footsteps, Xena's being silent. Soon, muffled sounds could be faintly hear coming from ahead of them. Laughter, shouts, the sound of metal against metal, and the grunts of people straining in combat.

As they drew closer, they passed another gate with another set of guards. Xena raised an eyebrow and spoke.

"Paranoid, aren't they?"

"What do you expect? They have some of the best fighters in all of the world here, slaves to their whims and bloodthirst. You can't expect them to willingly stay here," Atrius replied.

Xena just nodded and they went on. Soon they were at a final gate, and passed it with the same routine as before. Then everything changed. The hallways were brighter, lit by more torches than before. Doors lined the way, each with Roman lettering, names that Xena could easily read. Batrin. Kaladril. Na-ba-rina. Not native names, she observed. But then Romans, for the most part, think they are above getting blood on their hands as a gladiator.

Word had spread quickly that Atrius was bringing "fresh meat" back, and the halls started to show curious watchers. They came in all different sizes and races. Some so fair of skin and hair, that they rivaled Gabrielle. From far, far North of Gaul. Worshippers of Odin and Thor. Tall, proud, almost black warriors that wore very little and carried themselves like kings. From a tribe to the far south. Haven't seen one of them for a long time. Warriors from lands all over could be seen, and all of them were eyeing her in a way that she definitely didn't like.

"Nice. Bringing us a little snack, Atrius? You might have at least cleaned her up first." One of the men said, stepping forward so that Xena would have to brush passed him or run him down.

"Oh...and who would you be?" Xena asked, her voice low and smooth, as she stopped just in front of him. She noticed Atrius stop also, but he just stood and waited for her.

"My name is Tavius Oristan, son of Flavius." The man said proudly, standing a little taller. He reached out a hand towards Xena and caressed her cheek. "And you would be?"

"You're Roman?" she asked, pointedly ignoring his question. "I'm surprised. But than what do you expect from someone who smells like a pig-handler's slop bucket." Xena smiled sweetly.

Tavius snarled and drew back his hand to backslap her, but then suddenly paled. A small noise leaked out of his mouth as he slowly crumpled to the floor.

Xena released her hand from its previous position on his lower extremity, and then grinned evily at the men watching her silently handle Tavius. Some nodded in approval, but most just frowned and gave her a look that promised trouble for another day.

"Lead the way, Atrius." The warrior smiled sweetly down at the man, suddenly feeling much better. Since the fight on the rower's deck, Xena had been powerless to do anything. That had led to being very frustrated at their circumstances. And a frustrated Xena is not nice to be around, she chuckled to herself.

Atrius led her past more rooms, and more curious onlookers. The place seemed like a maze, with twists and turns and a multitude of passages. Xena wasn't sure how far they were below ground level now, having gone down several stairs and winding ramps. They passed quite a few practice yards and the sounds of men practicing their craft could be clearly heard.

Atrius noticed her attention on the yard as they passed and smiled at her. "There are only a few rules down here. One of them is that everyday you practice. All weapons are kept under close guard unless your scheduled for a fight above. You practice with blunted weapons suited to you.

"No maiming or killing off the sands of the arena itself," he continued. "The citizens of Rome don't like to see a scheduled fight canceled due to a brawl they didn't get to watch."

"You wear a weapon." Xena pointed out with her bound hands.

Atrius looked at her a moment, then slowed his pace and scanned around for anyone who would be watching or listening to their conversation. For the moment they were alone and he seemed satisfied.

"Dammit Xena! How could you get so careless!" Atrius growled lowly.

Xena smiled at her old friend. "Bad luck. Bad timing. And bad god, basically."

"Is there any other kind of god?" Atrius joked.

Xena chuckled. "Been a long time, Atrius."

"Athens. Six years."

"You. Me. And two jugs of very good wine under Athena's Sacred Olive Tree." Xena's eyes gleamed at the memory. Not many of those good memories from back then.

"The High Priestess was really angry." Atrius laughed softly.

"It's not my fault I like olives."

"Xena...they were fresh right off the tree," he pointed out.

"Yeah. They were rather disgusting."

Atrius snickered. "The look on that Priestess's face when you threw up on her gown...precious." Suddenly he grew very serious. "Xena. Rome is not a healthy place for you to be."

"Tell me something I don't already know." She rolled her eyes and snorted in amusement.

"Ok. I'm in charge of the Coliseum."

"I figured it was something like that. It's rather unusual to have armed slaves running free," she replied.

Atrius nodded. "Yes it is. I'm highly trusted however, and I have power here."

"You're still a slave. You wear the collar," she replied.

He touched the iron ring around his throat absently. "Yes, but then so are you now. And you're the reason why I'm here."

Xena narrowed her eyes. There's always another reminder of my past anywhere I go. "You're probably right. You're not the only one I trained, Atrius."

"Yes, I know. Come, we are almost to your cell," the small man said, then sped his pace back up.

Xena was silent as she followed him, though her mind was actively dredging up memories.

"We're here. A word of advice, Xena. Let's keep our prior friendship quiet. It's going to be hard enough for you here as it is. Tavius is very popular here, and though I know you had to do it, bringing him to his knees in front of the others was not a smart thing to do."

"I don't let people take advantage of me, Atrius."

"I know." Atrius opened the door and led Xena inside.

They were in a very wide and long hallway. The floor was covered with iron bars with a small walkway running down the length of the hallway for pedestrians. Every few lengths an locked iron grate led down into a deep cell. Three guards stood at various position in the hallway, all of them armed with heavy bows and swords.

"I see I'm getting the best room in the inn." Xena said with bitter sarcasm, for the benefit of the guards.

"Everyone comes here when they first enter the confines of the Coliseum. If you live long enough, and if you prove yourself trustworthy, you'll get regular quarters like the men," he instructed.

Xena followed him along the pathway, gazing down at other "new" residents, till Atrius stopped at an empty cell.

"You should feel lucky, this one was mine." He turned and signaled a guard to unlock the grate, then motioned Xena to drop in.

"I don't suppose I could get a room with a view instead?" she quipped.

Atrius' mouth quivered. "In," he ordered.

Xena chuckled evily and dropped in. The heavy weights and chains drew her off balance for a moment, but she recovered and landed on her feet. The guard locked the grate above her.

Atrius threw down a key. "The collar isn't removable. Once its closed its made to stay closed. Take off the rest and hand them up."

Xena nodded and quickly divested herself of the chains, shackles, and weights. Suddenly free of many extra pounds, her shoulders felt odd. She stretched for a moment, getting kinks out of her back that had been there for two days. Then she handed up her burden and the key, gladly getting them out of her sight.

"I don't suppose I could get a bath drawn and a change of attire?" Xena's eyes were twinkling as she sneered up at Atrius and the guards.

"You'll stay in this cell except for practice times. Bathing, eating, sleeping and anything else you can find to pass the time will done in here. If you are ever moved to other quarters you'll share bathing facilities with the others. You'll be given water for baths in your cell here twice a day, after practice and evenings." Atrius was silent a moment as if considering some point, then he shrugged.

"Welcome to Rome and the Coliseum. Welcome to your new life...Xena, property of Caesar." He left her hurling curses at him in more tongues than he knew himself.


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