A Crown of Laurel part 4

by Silk



MCA/UNIVERSAL/RENAISSANCE owns Xena, Gabrielle, and Argo (poor baby needs a better agent, she's getting paid only in apples and oats) and others from X:WP. All others are a possible hazardous byproduct of the icky gray stuff that is stuck inside the boney thingy on my shoulders.

This story is written without wanting to infringe on the above companies rights. (If I do they'd sic the "Amazon Collection Agency" or ACA on me, and they always get their prey.) This story is also non-profit and any reproduction or use of this story without my permission will make me call the ACA on your bootie.


Violence is present in this story, and some of it is very graphic especially in this Part. This is Xena after all. If you don't approve please just read something you find more appropriate.


Again...this story couldn't have been finished to my taste without Perager, who's patience in showing my the more technical side of writing, is boundless, and who loves puddlejumping as much as I do:}~~~

Also "A Crown of Laurel" will conclude in Part Five...but is it the end?? Hehehe

Oh gods...that gray stuff is bubbling outta my ears again, perhaps I should just get on with the story before it's all gone?

Part Four


It was late the day after she had first arrived, that Xena had finally been allowed to leave her cell. It had been rather depressing to just sit in that space with nothing to do. Except for pacing the six steps it took to cross from one side to another and practice sword routines in her head, there was absolutely nothing to do but wait.

Xena had tried several times to speak with the occupants of the cells on either side of her, but they spoke no language she knew. Even the guards ignored her attempt to drag them into conversation. I've traveled for over two summers with someone who loves to talk, and yet when I finally get some peace and quiet, I find I miss it. The world must be going mad.

She had thankfully been given several buckets of hot water that evening to bathe, and even had been given her leathers back, which had been a vast surprise. When she had finally managed to drift off to sleep that night, she had felt better than at anytime within the last few days. Getting all the sweat, grime, and blood off of her had done a lot to raise her spirits.

Now she stood in the midst of a sand-floored practice room, locked in, waiting patiently for whatever was to come.

Finally, the door opened and Atrius stepped in, followed closely by a huge, dark-skinned man. Xena watched them warily.

The small man walked up to her and handed her a blunted practice blade. Xena took the sword and hefted it, surprised to find it an almost exact match in feel and weight as her own sword. She raised an eyebrow in question.

"In the arena you'll be using your own sword, so we did our best to make sure this one came as close as possible to what yours feels like. You'll also be given your armor back for the fight. I've taken great pains to get your sword and armor back for you." Atrius turned and motioned to the man who had walked in with him.

"Xena, this is Maris. He's mute, can't write anything besides his name, and is very loyal to me." At the sound of his name, Maris bowed deeply, though he kept his eyes on Xena carefully. Xena just nodded back in reply. He towered over her, his dark skin accentuating his muscular body and his scars. He was also completely bald, perhaps intentionally Xena thought, to show off the geometric tattoos and scars on his head and face. Not my kind of thing, but it's probably considered handsome where he comes from, she thought silently.

"They all grow as big as you do back home?" Xena said, grinning. Maris just flashed a bright smile and winked. He slowly brought up his practice blade, a huge scimitar, and motioned Xena to do the same.

Atrius stepped out of the way and continued talking. "Maris here will be your practice partner for..awhile. He knows many different types of weapons, and will use them in order for you to keep yourself in fighting trim. But that, of course, could have been done by any fighter here."

Xena just nodded slightly as she and Maris started circling each other. Suddenly Maris stepped into her space, aiming his blade at her ribs, but Xena wasn't there anymore. She had instead flung herself up and over him, and when his blade had reached the spot where her ribs had been only a split moment before, she landed and kicked backwards with her left foot, connecting with his rear and causing him to stumble.

Maris, still smiling, turned swiftly and the two engaged their blades, trading blows back and forth.

"This is probably the safest place for you and me to speak, Xena, and I know Maris won't betray what we say in here." Atrius circled the small room, taking care to stay out of the way of the two as they fought.

"I assume, then, you have something you want to say? I know you like taking your time getting to the point, Atrius, but I'm not really in a patient mood today." Xena grunted as she parried a strong blow aimed for her head. She returned with a feint that Maris fell for and he received a harsh kick in his stomach for a reward.

"Yes. Well, to start out with, what are your plans to escape so far?"

The question surprised Xena enough to allow Maris a return hit that took her breath away in momentary pain. "Escape? I don't know what your talking about," Xena finally stated, as she parried another blow.

"Give me some credit for knowing you, Xena," the small man said impatiently.

"You knew me, Atrius. Perhaps I've changed?"

"Changed so much, that you'd let yourself die here?" Atrius countered.

Xena considered his words for a moment. Was it safe to trust an old comrade, who now held power over her. He had been one of the very few she had even a minute amount of trust in, but could she trust him now? "I don't have any plans as of yet," she said simply. Maris and Xena continued to trade blows, Xena rather pleased with the quality of her opponent.

"I owe you, Xena. You took a young inexperienced brash man and taught him to fight well."

"Yes..well, like I said yesterday, I taught a lot of people. I needed certain skills in my army, so I took untrained young people looking for adventure and molded them. At least you were one of the few to hang onto your self, unlike most of my students who became as sick and twisted as me." Xena scowled, then rolled under a well aimed swing and lightly rapped her hilt just behind Maris' ear.

"Disable!" she yelled.

Maris nodded and stepped back, saluting her wryly. Xena returned his salute then spun towards Atrius.

"How did you wind up in Rome?" she asked, leaning against a wall casually.

"Tricked. I was in the gladiatorial games in Dodona. Unfortunately, I crossed the wrong man. I refused to throw a fight that he had bet quite a few dinars on, after he bet on my opponent who was the underdog. After a party that night I was attacked. When I woke up, I was on my way to Rome. It's a familiar story here." The small man shrugged. "It hasn't been too bad. I make very good money here and now I have power."

"You still wear the collar of your masters." Xena said, not very impressed.

"So do you now, Xena. Unlike me though, they plan on making your matches tougher and tougher, till one day you'll go down, and Caesar will be vindicated," Atrius pointed to the sandy floor, "while the citizens of Rome cry Caesar's name as your blood seeps into the sand."

"Not if I have anything to say about it." The woman's eyes were like ice, boring into his. "You have a key. I don't suppose you'd let me borrow it?"

"Not if I want to live. There's no way you'd survive on the open streets trying to escape out of the city. But lucky for you I know a better way." He grinned as he saw that old calculating expression come alive on Xena's face.

"Then why haven't you taken it? Escaped?"

"I like it here," he replied sincerely.

"You blame me for your being here, yet having a way out you refuse to leave because you like it? I don't believe you. Besides, I can't leave yet. I have unfinished business here." Xena stuck the sword into the sand and crossed her arms in front of her.

"You'll never get close enough to Caesar to kill him, no matter who you are," he stated.

Just the sound of that name brought a darkness creeping up from her soul. Xena's fingers tightened on her arms till her knuckles where white. Atrius stepped back as he saw unrestrained anger leap into her eyes. Ahh...there's the old Xena I knew, he thought silently. He didn't know that Xena's intensity at that moment was due to her trying to control her demons within.

"Although nothing would please me more than killing Caesar and feeding him to some poor homeless mutt, it's not him I'm after. He's got a friend of mine. We were captured together." Her voice was so low and cold it made him shiver. The wise men in her army knew when to make themselves scarce when they heard that tone. To bad I was never very wise.

He cleared his throat. "The girl with the pretty hair that stood next to Caesar in the chariot?"

Xena nodded. "Her name is Gabrielle. She is coming with me, Atrius. I won't leave her behind. She's a friend, and Caesar knows it."

Atrius stood quietly a moment pondering the situation. "More than likely she's at the palace. If you want I could try to get some information?"

"I'd appreciate it. Now...let's talk about this way out you know." Xena's eyes suddenly grew warm as she laid a friendly hand on his shoulder. "Then I suppose we have some time to give Maris a rematch?"

Maris grinned toothily and waited.

* * * * *

Gabrielle sighed again as she tried to scrub out the dirty stained toga. It figures...I'm rescued by Xena from a horrible pack of slavers. I leave a life in Poteidaia that was drudgery at its best, and here I am two years later, a bard washing someone else's clothes, she thought to herself sarcastically.

The bard drew her hand across her brow, wiping away the sweat, then returned to working out the stain.

After they had left the Coliseum, they had traveled straight to Caesar's palace. Gabrielle had seen many amazing buildings in her travels with Xena. The Delphi Temple. The Parthenon in Athens. Even a few palaces. But nothing like the immense structure that she worked in now. It was an remarkable building, but then she'd noticed Rome was full of remarkable buildings.

When their chariot had pulled up the entrance, Gabrielle had been immediately handed off to a woman wearing slave collar and told who was told that she was to be put to work. The bard had tried talking to the woman, but had had her collar tugged sharply and was told not to speak unless spoken to. The woman, of course, had no idea that that order was going to be tested every moment of the bard's stay.

Gabrielle obediently followed the harsh woman and was taken deep within the palace. Within moments she was lost, and fear settled upon her. The further they walked within, the thought of never escaping grew within her, causing her to shiver uncomfortably. Finally they reached their destination and she had been put in a small room for the night, alone except for to be taken out to wash, remove her chains, and eat.

Finally late the next day she had been taken out and passed off again, this time to a stern woman who told her she was in charge of the slaves in the palace. She then proceeded to ask question after question, about what Gabrielle could or couldn't do. Gabrielle tried to tell her that she was a bard, but the woman had just ignored her and asked if she knew how to sew or cook. The young woman was starting to get really annoyed, and had been about to make the woman listen to a short story about a man that ignored his prize bull and had been gored in the buttocks, when an old woman entered the room. The two women had talked about Gabrielle heatedly for a few moments, the one wanting to send her to the kitchens, but the old woman finally won out and in the end had gently taken Gabrielle's leash and led her away.

Now the two were standing side by side alone washing the stains from clothes. My hands have never been...so pruned before. I'm sure if Xena were here now she'd been rolling on the floor laughing. The bard wiped her brow again and took a quick look over at the old woman who worked beside her and saw a pair of warm brown eyes gazing at her thoughtfully.

She quickly turned back to her washing, blushing deeply at being caught.

"Tsk child, there is no need to be embarrassed for curiosity," said the old woman. A gentle hand came up and touched Gabrielle lightly on the arm. As her finger touched, a shock ran up the bard's arm. Gabrielle froze as her eyes unfocused and saw what she could only describe as a vision.

She was in a long meeting hall, filled with people waiting for something...or someone. It seemed oddly familiar to Gabrielle, then she remembered. The Temple at Delphi. The crowd was gathered to hear the Oracle speak on behalf of some king or lord. Gabrielle, seemingly a silent watcher, was standing next to one of the priestesses holding a tall lit candle.

Suddenly the warm hand came away from her arm and the vision disappeared. Gabrielle shook her head in confusion. That was odd. I've only been at Delphi once, when Xena and I first met Callisto, and I know that what I just saw didn't happen. I think.

"I'm sorry child. Amazing. That hasn't happened to me in many, many years." The old woman was now looking at the bard with curiosity of her own.

Gabrielle turned her head back to the old woman, and smiled shyly. "When you touched m..."

"Yes, yes, I know," she interrupted. "My name is Distra, daughter of Orifestios."

"I'm Gabrielle."

"Well, Gabrielle, this may sound strange, but did you just see something odd?" Distra looked up at the young woman and smiled encouragingly.

"Yes..but how.."

"Well, you are a surprise. I'm sorry dear, let me explain. Continue washing, we don't want to make Sotia mad, now, do we? She is a bit high strung."

"Sotia?" Gabrielle asked, confused. She stuck her hands in the wash tub and continued on the stubborn spot.

"The woman you were being terrorized by when I came and got you. She's in charge basically, of the entire staff in the palace. But I'm in charge of the Emperor's rooms myself, so I can get whomever or whatever I want no matter what she tries to pull on me. And the fact is dear, I'm a bit stubborn in my old age and it drives her crazy. It makes things much more fun around here." Distra grinned at the bard in conspiracy then followed her own advice and started scrubbing her load of dirty sheets.

"Anyway...as I was saying. When I was a child...umm...this might be a long story. I hope you don't mind, young lady?" she asked.

Gabrielle grinned. "No. I'm a bard. I like stories. Go ahead."

"A bard. Hmm...interesting. As I was saying. I haven't always been a slave. Once a long time ago I lived in Phokis, in a town called Pleuron. It was right on the Ionian Sea. I loved it there. My sisters and I would play for hours by the shore, collecting shells, gathering seaweed and bird eggs for our mother. Mother was a weaver and father was the local blacksmith, so we were pretty well off. I think it was a wonderful childhood." Gabrielle smiled at the far away look in Distra's eyes.

"Being the youngest I grew up watching my sisters learn their trades, find love, and marry, till only my sister Pliantes and myself were left at home. Pliantes was fifteen summers old, very beautiful and I was a very plain fourteen. We were very close. One evening Pliantes became very, very ill. She ran a high fever and was delirious for days. The local healer tried everything to help her, but nothing she was doing was helping at all. Thankfully, five days later, Pliantes awoke and soon she was up and about completely well." Gabrielle sighed a little bit in relief. Distra tells a good story, she thought.

"It was not too long after that Pliantes started to have episodes," the woman said.

Gabrielle frowned. "Episodes? What do you mean?"

"Well, at first it was small things. One time father was at work at his forge, when Pliantes ran to his shop and told him that the man who's horse he'd been shoeing right then, was planning on cheating him with bad dinars. Father, of course, was very angry with her for telling him lies, and told her to go home and wait for him. When father finally did come home I remember that he seemed very puzzled. And when we asked him what had happened he had just looked at Pliantes oddly and ate his dinner in silence."

"How did she know?" Gabrielle asked.

Distra just smiled and continued her story. "After that incident, it happened more often. Pliantes would see things, things that she couldn't possibly have seen because she hadn't been there, or hadn't happened yet. Finally in desperation, my parent's closed their shops and we all went to Delphi, which was only about five days travel away."

"When we got to the temple in Delphi I was so awed and amazed by my surroundings, that I almost missed what happened next. When we entered, the current Oracle was speaking to a small crowd...I think there was a man from one of the northern warlords there asking for advice, but I don't fully remember. Then suddenly she stopped and stared in our direction. At first we were all confused about who she was looking at, then my mother whispered something in Pliantes ear, and pulled us forward so the Oracle could get a closer look at my sister."

"When we stood before her the Oracle's eyes suddenly glazed over and she started prophesying. I don't remember what it was exactly, but the priestesses seemed happy and later told my mother that Pliantes had a great gift. They said that, with her parent's permission and her own, my sister could enter the temple and that the Oracle had seen my sister take her place in the future."

"Of course my parents were shocked, and so were Pliantes and myself. We spent a night there talking about it, and finally Pliantes decided to stay. My sister and I talked a long time, and we cried when we knew we would be separated. But we all knew Pliantes would be happy there, and so did she."

"Just before my parents and I left that next morning, Pliantes was saying good-bye, when one of her episodes came upon her again. This time is was about me and my future." Distra paused a moment and looked at Gabrielle.

"She said, A collar of iron shall be the jewelry for your wedding day. You shall wear it until you find that peace which we all must go to. You carry a gift within you, seeing things that others cannot, but you will never control it. Your iron bands shall one day bring you a woman of words, who with your wisdom and gift to guide her, will utter the dooming words that will ultimately bring down the 'Crown of Laurel'. Tell the her to look for an ally in 'The One who stands in the place of honor'."

"Wow...really?" Gabrielle was entranced by Distra's words. "I wonder what it means."

The old woman chuckled. "Be patient. Some of it will come to you as I continue."

"Sorry. I should know better." The bard blushed.

"It's ok. I don't mind. So where was I..ahh... the prophesy. Well, needless to say when we asked her what it meant she had no idea. We even asked the priestesses at the Temple but they could not or would not help us."

"Finally, we said our good-byes and left, soon forgetting the words my sister had mysteriously spoken. We went back to Pleuron and life continued. The next few years sped by, though I was very lonely without my sisters for company. I spent much of my time with Mother, learning how to weave, and it was because of this that I met Krif." Distra smiled in remembrance.

"Ahh...I can guess this next part." Gabrielle giggled.

"Yes, I'm sure you can," she chuckled back in response. "Krif was handsome, of course, but I was biased. His family lived in the next village making a living as tanners and makers of leather goods. At first I hated him. He and his father had come into my mother's shop and had complained about a bolt of fabric that they said they had been told had originally come from her. When my mother proved to them that the flawed material could not possibly have come from her shop, they were sincerely sorry, and my eyes looked upon Krif in a new light."

"And he liked you to," the bard stated.

"Yes. Krif liked me too. We spent a year's time making trips with our parents going back and forth to the two villages so that we could see each other. Then one day, Krif asked for my hand, and in one month our wedding was planned." Gabrielle could feel a sudden tension in the woman, but kept silent.

"The day of our wedding was...was perfect. The sky was so blue, with only a few high clouds drifting by. It was late spring, and my family had filled the temple of Aphrodite with fresh flowers from the fields."

Gabrielle tensed as the words brought her the memories of her own wedding, then she pushed them away. Now is not the time.

"The wedding was perfect. Everything was perfect. In my eyes, it was the best wedding I'd been to, and with three married sisters I'd been to a few," she went on quietly. "It was after the vows, when the wedding feast had begun, that...they came." Distra spoke this last so harshly that it brought Gabrielle's head whipping around to look at the woman in concern.

"They?" she asked quietly.

"The raiders. The slavers." The old woman sighed deeply. "They were well prepared, and ran through our village quickly taking only the young women. Of which I was one. Krif and my father tried to stop them, but they were just run down. I was hit in the head, and that is the last picture I hold of my village and of my husband and my father."

Gabrielle struggled not to cry at the sad words. Is this woman before me what I would have turned out to be in old age if Xena hadn't come? she silently asked herself. She reached out a hand to reassure Distra, then remembered the last time they had touched, and slowly put her hand back into the soapy water.

"I'm sorry," she replied.

"It was a long time ago, but still I remember it so clearly," came the subdued reply, then Distra cleared her throat and went on. "When I awoke, I found myself a slave headed towards the Roman Empire to be bought and sold many times since, a prisoner against my own will. I've been bought and sold by many men who have called themselves my masters, and some women. Eventually I was bought for the palace and over the years raised myself up to be thought of as a very valuable slave. Once I was the girl who carried coal to fill the braziers in all the rooms. Now I am in charge of the Emperor's rooms. And yet, I am still a slave and I still do laundry." She chuckled wryly.

Distra looked over at the young red headed woman beside her, gauging her reaction to her story. Saddened. Intrigued by the story itself. Many emotions running through her. I'd say this young woman has seen more than I did at her age. A bard hmm? she mused

"'A collar of iron shall be the jewelry for your wedding day.'. Isn't that what your sister said?" Gabrielle asked softly.

She's very quick too. "Yes. A collar of iron. A slave's collar." Distra replied. "As for the rest, only part of it I understand."

"Soon after I was bought for the first time, I, too, got very sick. I was fevered and delirious for days, my new master feared I had caught some plague and had brought it to his house. Thankfully he didn't order me killed and disposed of. Instead I got well and lived to serve him. And like my sister I started having visions of things to come or things that had happened."

"It was frightening at first, like the first time it happened. I had been cleaning the master's bedchambers when I saw my master's body, lying on the sheets, bloody and mutilated. I shook in fear for what seemed like candlemarks. I knew as soon as it had happened what it was, and I was more afraid then. I kept silent..maybe from fear at being whipped or maybe I wanted him to die, I don't know. But the next day when one of the others went to go prepare him to wake and found him, I screamed in grief like the other slaves. I learned to be a good actress ," she said wryly.

"Perhaps you were just confused. Not sure if the vision was real or not?" Gabrielle suggested.

"No. I knew. I'd seen my sister go through the same thing, and she had prophesied this happening. I knew, Gabrielle. I knew," Distra said firmly.

"Since then the sight has come up upon me erratically. Without the kind of training my sister got in Delphi, I never learned to control it. But my gift included not only vision, but sometimes when I touch someone I share memories with them."

Gabrielle gasped. "Then what I saw...Delphi?"

Distra nodded. "You've been there then? It must have been my memory of that day long ago, that you saw. Myself, I saw an adorable blond child in your arms, you were..."

"Enough!!!" Gabrielle's eyes were wide with alarm, her heart felt as if it was trying to beat itself out of her chest. "I'm sorry, but I don't want to talk about that. Please?"

"All slaves have secrets. I understand, my dear." She patted the young woman's arm in sympathy. Gabrielle was glad to see that nothing unusual happened this time when she was touched. "Anyway, when I touched you, we each saw a memory from each other's mind. Perhaps something that we'd been thinking about recently. I know I'd been daydreaming about my sister earlier. But this memory touch thing hasn't happened to me in years, thank the gods."

Distra leaned close a moment to whisper. "I once had a bad experience with it and one of my Mistresses. I thought she'd found me out, but thankfully she was drunk and passed it off as one of her own memories. No way in Hades was I going to tell her that the young man she'd been bedding for over a year had been courting me also, and that it was my intimate memory she saw, not her own. It could have cost me my life. Though it was kind of funny in a way." She smiled as she saw Gabrielle blush.

"So you see I was rather surprised just a few minutes ago, when I touched you," she paused for a moment. "Tell me...the current Oracle, do you think..." Her words trailed off hopefully.

Gabrielle shook her head. "The current Oracle is young."

"Well, that's ok. I'll see my dear Pliantes again in the Fields. Here, let's take these out to hang, shall we?" Distra quietly changed the subject, leading the way out, and abruptly ending the conversation.

* * * * *

Caesar leaned back into the shadows, alone for the moment before he must head to the Coliseum, and just stared at the men and women far below. Sometimes he wondered what went through these ordinary people's minds as they walked around his city doing their daily chores.

"Small, aren't they? Some of the gods think of them as ants as they gaze down upon them, but not myself. They are too chaotic for that. Only a well trained army deserves to be thought of as ants, in my opinion. The order of an army. The precision as it marches in tandem. One mind ruling absolute over all the others."

Caesar spun around at the deep voice, his eyes widening for a moment in surprise, then narrowing in calculation.

"Mars. It's been a long time since you've come to me."

Ares, known as Mars to the Romans, stood with his arms across his chest looking expressionlessly at Caesar, one of his Favored. Until recently.

"Perhaps I should have paid more attention to you, especially since I've heard something rather disturbing." Ares glared at the man before him.

Caesar leaned back against the wall, seemingly at ease. "Disturbing? What could that be? My armies are winning territory all over the Empire, and gifting you with sacrifices," he stated.

"Actually, for once that's not what I'm talking about. Xena. I'm sure your familiar with the name?" he asked in almost a hiss.

"Ahh..Xena. I've heard of her, of course."

"Don't think about playing that game with me. I know you have her, and I want her." Ares' eyes glowed with anger.

Caesar smiled. "You want her, but I have her. Too bad I'm not willing to give her to you."

"Your power has gone to your head, Julius. It's not like you have much choice in the matter. I could destroy this city and take her out of here with a snap of my fingers, and there is nothing you can do to stop me. You're just a mortal after all, no matter what pretenses your people hold that the Emperor is divine." Ares snapped his fingers inches from Caesar's face to make his point.

"But you won't. You're like a general, not a common soldier. You gods don't get your hands dirty if you can help it, and you don't directly interfere. If you did you wouldn't have come here trying to bully me, instead you would have just taken her away," Caesar smirked.

"Are you so sure of that? I enjoy the glory of battle. From the mass slaughter and destruction of the whole battlefield, to the single combat between warriors. I give my Gift to whole armies and to individuals, " Ares admonished. If I wasn't so annoyed I'd be proud of you standing up to me. My chosen have this characteristic...but you don't quite fit the bill for that job.

Ares changed the direction of the conversation. "You put her in the Coliseum, I'm surprised. Why?"

"Yes, she's enjoying Roman gladiator hospitality as we speak. She looks very good in a slave's collar. As to why...well, let's just say I'm using her to get back some of my good name she cost me in Britannia." Caesar grinned. "And if I'm lucky she might last the five weeks of fun that I have planned for her."

"You like being Emperor don't you?" Ares turned to Caesar and grinned back at him, but more evily. "You like having the army behind you? You like having my Gift granted to your men?"

"Blackmail?" Caesar frowned. "I can live without you, War God. My men are loyal to me. Besides, I've never really liked temples anyway."

Ares smiled tightly. "We shall see how long you can live without my protection." He stepped forward closer to Caesar. "Enjoy Xena while you can."

* * * * *
Xena stretched then crossed her legs and sat down smoothly on the floor. Setting her wrists on her knees, she let hands dangle limply.

Taking a deep breath in through her nose, she held it for a moment closing her eyes to her surroundings. After a moment she let her breath trail from her lips ever so slowly. Then, starting with her toes, she relaxed the muscles in her body one by one, while at the same time she locked out her senses. Sound, smells and the feel of the hard stone beneath her slowly left her conscious mind, though her unconscious mind still kept track as only a warrior can.

Soon she was totally at ease, and all that was left to go was the turbulence of her thoughts. This was always the hardest part for Xena, no matter how long ago she had learned these relaxation techniques in the Land of Chin, she still had difficulty letting her mind relax completely.

Today was no different. Caesar and all the anger that she carried toward him. The uncertainty of their escape plans that she had gone over since she had seen Atrius yesterday. The anticipation of the fight in the arena that would begin soon. Fear for Gabrielle if she failed and died before she could get them out of Rome. All of these thoughts were difficult to let go, and it was the last one that she found hardest.

She was still trying to release that fear from her mind when she felt a totally new feeling deep within her.

It was the feel of a sword within her hand. The shock that travels up her arm as she blocks a powerful blow with her sword. The joy of battle as she defeats foe after foe with her skill, body, and mind. It was the coppery smell and taste of blood. It was a feeling that Xena knew all too well. It was the feeling that heralded...

"Ares." Xena opened her eyes and stood in one smooth graceful motion." Or should I call you Mars?"

"When in Rome..." A bright spot of light appeared next to her and spread, then disappeared leaving Ares in its place.

Xena rolled her eyes at him, then turned her back and filled a goblet from the wine jug on the table. Turning back, she sipped and looked Ares over closely. OK...what's your plan this time, Ares?

"Well, Xena. It seems you've once again gotten yourself into trouble." Ares leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms. "I am rather surprised you let yourself into his hands though, considering what you did to him a few months ago. Very bad planning on your part."

"No one's perfect," Xena said wryly, then took another sip. "So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit this time?"

"I had a little visit with Caesar, he's very adamant about keeping you, even when I tried to...persuade him."

Xena chuckled, her eyes dancing with merriment. "In other words you tried to order him to give me to you, and he stood up to you, didn't he? Oh..poor Ares, you must be just devastated. I know from experience how much you love being refused anything."

"Ah, but Xena this is the perfect time for you to join me again. You're trapped and so is your obnoxious friend with the mouth. The only way out is to join me again." Ares grinned. "Come on, Xena. I know you feel it. I watch you fight sometimes, and I feel you using my Gift, whether you want to or not. You're magnificent. I can't wait to see you in the arena. But even I know you can't last forever up there."

Xena was silent. Unfortunately he's right. I can't last forever up there, especially since I know Caesar plans on making my fights special.

"I'll even let you have your little friend, no strings attached. What's your friendship worth, Xena? Your life? Her life?" he went on earnestly. "Xena, it's such an easy decision when you think about it, and you know it. You'd give anything to make sure she was safe, admit it. Your life I don't want. I'd rather save you and have your devotion instead. Come back to me, Xena."

Xena hesitated. How easily has it become to read me? He's right again. I would give my life to make sure Gabrielle is safe, so why not give my soul?

Taking another sip first, she put down her goblet and looked intently at Ares. Her eyes coolly drifted over his form for a moment then settled on his dark eyes.

"I need time to consider your offer," she said in a low caress.

Ares was still a moment, considering. "You'll have that time...at least until your time runs out with Caesar. And Xena...it is running out."

"I know. In payment for truly considering your offer, can I have something in return?" Xena asked.

"Name it...within reason of course," Ares replied.

"When I next call your name come and assist me."

Ares lifted an eyebrow. "Done. Though I will always come when you call, Xena. You should know that by now," he admonished.

"I try not to incur debts."

"Well, then...so be it. I look forward to our next meeting," Ares said as he quickly disappeared in a sphere of white light.

"So do I," came the barest of whispers from Xena's lips. "So do I."

The warrior sat back down to await the guards to take her to the arena, her relaxation now totally gone, her body tense and anxious for the fight to come. Really bad timing Ares, the least you could have done is visit me after the fight. But then I suppose you did this on purpose...I wouldn't be surprised. Keep me off balance. Surprise me. Those are usually my tactics. Usually you're more predictable than this.

She pondered her situation calmly, considering every possible flaw in her plan. She was starting to get antsy when she heard the now familiar sound of the door opening down the hallway and boots clanging on the ceiling as someone walked towards her cell. Atrius. Well..that means it's time.

"It's time, Xena," Atrius said as he approached her cell and gazed down. He motioned to the guards, then stepped back as they unlocked and opened the grate. One man lowered a ladder while the other guards drew their swords and watched her carefully.

Xena smiled to herself and gracefully stood up from the pallet. Fun before work? Yes? No? Why, yes of course. Then before the guards could blink, Xena exploded up from her cell, disdaining the use of the ladder. Instead she shot straight up and landed next to Atrius. The guards all blinked at her for a moment in shock, while Xena just smiled at them evily.

"Boo," she whispered to the nearest guard, a young man that, in her opinion, wasn't old enough to be let out of his mother's house, let alone guard gladiators from going berserk. Hope I don't make him pee his breeches, I'm sure Atrius would be rather annoyed at me.

Xena winked at the man and turned to Atrius. "Time to entertain the locals?"

"Try and make it look good, Xena. Your life depends on it."

"I'll do my best," she replied sarcastically.

They walked silently down the halls, escorted by a guard of two. There was an odd silence that Xena hadn't seen here before, and no one was in sight. Soon though her curiosity was answered as they entered the armory and prepatory rooms where the gladiators wait for their bouts and for friends to wait for comrades to come back.


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