A Crown of Laurel part 4 cont.

by Silk

As Xena and Atrius walked in, the room grew silent, tension and uncertainty filled the air. This was their world, a world a woman had not been allowed to participate in before, and they didn't know how to react. Or at least most of them didn't know how to react, some made their feelings very clear as Xena walked past, turning their backs toward her, ignoring her completely, or spitting on the floor as she walked by. Tavius was one of the latter Xena noticed.

Xena grinned evily at him as she passed, ignoring the globule that he had spat in front of her. She looked him up and down slowly and sneered. "I'm rather surprised your able to stand so soon, Tavius. But then again...there really wasn't much there to damage, after all." Xena laughed aloud as she followed Atrius, as the chuckles of some of the men at Tavius' expense spread throughout the room. She could feel Tavius' eyes boring into her back and relished the feel of talking down the man with words this time.

Atrius leaned closely and whispered, "You are just so cruel sometimes, Xena. I just hope it doesn't backfire on you. Ahh...here we are. I set this room aside from you so you don't have to be harassed by the men before your fight."

Xena took in her surroundings, her eyes immediately going to her armor and sword laying on a table. She walked over and quickly fastened on her breastplate, armbands, and the rest of the pieces. Settling her bracers in their old comfortable places on her wrists, she felt the anxiousness of the fight leave her body. Gods it's good to wear this again. I feel so naked without it.

Almost gently she wrapped her long slim fingers around the familiar hilt of her sword and lifted it up off the table with ease. Its power called to her, the power of steel over flesh and blood. She had had to replace the blade after one of Agathon's men had broken it months ago, but the hilt was the same. Even then, the sword was still hers, like a lover always coming back to her hand. Almost reluctantly she sheathed her sword and turned back to Atrius, who had stood in the doorway quietly and watched her.

"How much longer till I have to go out?" she asked.

Atrius shrugged. "It depends. The current fight should be over soon. We should really be heading out to the gate right now, but you can take a few minutes alone if you want."

Xena shook her head. "No. I want to get this over with." She paused for a moment. "Atrius...I'm no gladiator. I'm not going to let the crowd dictate to me who lives or dies. That's just too...too much like what I used to be."

The small man nodded in understanding. "I just hope Caesar sees it the same way. But it shouldn't be a problem for this fight, you're going up against others that Caesar has sentenced to death here. They will be trying to kill you, Xena, so I wouldn't hold back."

The warrior grimaced, then nodded. "Well, let's get on with it."

The two walked out of the room and down a huge entranceway, the roar of the crowd easily heard the closer they got to the huge wooden doors on the end. Opening a small window, Atrius peered out a moment, then motioned Xena to look if she wished.

She declined, instead she started to limber up, but though her body was loose and ready for the fight, her mind was in turmoil. Can I kill for someone's pleasure? In order to save Gabrielle? The trepidation grew within her, making the moments pass slowly.

Then Atrius spoke, and her mind snapped back to the familiar mode it took when battle was near. Steel in her heart to go with the steel of her blade. Her thoughts were only for the fight now. No unease, only quivering anticipation as Ares' Gift started to seethe in her blood. "It's time. The arena is being cleared now. Your opponents will be coming out the fourth gate, opposite yours. This one is the second gate." Atrius placed a nervous hand on Xena's shoulder. "I know this is hard for you...it was hard my first time out."

Xena's eyes grew dark. "This is nothing, Atrius. I've done far worse in my life. Remember who I am."

"Your the one who suggested you've changed, Xena."

"Enough. Just open the damned gate. Now!" she snarled.

The small gladiator nodded and threw back the heavy bar opening the door just wide enough for Xena to go through. "The door will open again, when the fight is done," he informed her as she quickly strode through the door and into the arena. Shutting the door behind her he did something he hadn't done in years. He Prayed for another's soul.

Xena's eyes quickly adjusted to the sunlight as she scanned the sand floor of the Coliseum. The crowd was reacting to her presence now, hissing and booing at her, but she ignored it. I'd rather they hate me, than love me.

The arena was empty for only a moment, then with the roar of the crowed cheering in anticipation, the gate opposite hers opened and six towering men stalked in. Xena frowned. Norsemen. Great. More big men, with big muscles, that know how to use them. Well, time to earn my pay...so to speak.

They were all bearded warriors, dressed in furs and armor. Xena's sensitive nose could smell them from where she stood and wrinkled slightly at the sour odor. Too bad they aren't Greek or Roman, at least we tend to bathe with frequency. Well...at least they can't sneak up behind me..I'll smell them first.

Xena grimaced as she watched them look at her with disdain. Obviously they had not been told that they'd be going up against only one opponent...and a woman at that. Surprise boys...hope I don't disappoint you. And I hope I don't have to kill you.

"En varja?!!" shouted one of the men pointing at her and laughing.

One of the Norsemen who had long bright red hair coming out from under a huge horned helm, was looking at her more intently then the others, seemingly taking her more seriously. After a moment he turned to his companions and replied back in their own tongue. "Thaer dyja sva svipliga sve verrjar."

Xena could tell from the intonations that they weren't speaking kindly of her. Yeah..well, your mother was a pickled herring. Too bad I can't understand a word you're saying. Ok...time to try and stop this before something I really don't want to happen, happens. They aren't acting like gladiators, trying to come out and immediately kill me, so perhaps we can get through this together.

Xena walked slowly towards the six men, with her hands out, her sword still sheathed, trying to show that she didn't want to fight these men. The crowds reaction of course was violent in its emotional backlash toward her. They booed and hissed, crying for her blood, and as Xena cautiously approached the Norsemen, she could see they were affected by the cries of the people. They are getting angry...this is not good.

The woman stopped a good ways away from them and spoke. "Look...this doesn't have to be bloody. You hit me a little. I hit you back. We make it look good. I fall down. We all go back and have a drink. How's that sound?" Xena said, hoping they understood her. When they looked at her with both puzzlement and annoyance, she tried several other languages, all to no avail.

Then rotten fruits and vegetables started to hail down from the crowd and hit the tall men, the crowd obviously trying to get them to take action. Finally, one man drew a huge ax from a loop on his back and screamed his defiance at the crowd, then turned and charged towards Xena.


Xena shifted her weight slightly, waiting for the man to come to her. Then, as he rushed her, swinging his big blade down, she sidestepped to the opposite side of his swing and rammed an elbow hard into his kidneys.

The man grunted loudly, then started turning back to the woman who hadn't even drawn her weapon yet, his ax raised high. As he turned he caught a momentary flash, then his nose exploded as her fist collided solidly with the now pulpy flesh. In agony he collapsed onto his knees, mewing his pain in small cries.

Xena sighed. She knew the man had to go down, his people tended to be the berserker type and once he got up he wouldn't go down till one of them was dead. So resigned, she brought her knee up to connect with his forehead and watched as he fell unconscious to the ground. One down, but alive.

She smelled the man before he got to her, as she was lowering her leg. Feeling the blade coming towards her, she threw herself back into a backflip landing on her feet and turning to this newest foe. Seeing that the remainder of the men had finally made up their minds to kill this woman they had so recently scorned and were rushing her in a wave, Xena had to act fast. One man had moved faster than the others, a monstrous sword upraised. Outdistancing his fellows, he came at her, aiming for her head. Xena knew she had to take him out quickly, then go on to the other four.

The tall woman exploded in a flurry of blows, before the man could recover and charge her again. She tried to stay away from the muscular torso that she knew these men had under their skin, and that could withstand great blows. Instead she threw up her leg and kicked him time and time again, back and forth along his head, until like a great tree in the forest he fell and lay still. Two down, and not much time.

The four remaining men slowed as their comrade fell, deciding to take a more conservative approach, and a more unified approach. They drew their weapons, sneering at this woman who so easily took down two of them in a few short breaths.

The crowd was now starting to become excited, forgetting that only moments ago, these warriors had refused to fight. Astonishment flew through the crowd. This woman, this Enemy of the State had just dropped two huge men, and the crowd loved it. Later, no one would be able to say where the first shout had come from. Perhaps a child excited by his first trip here with his parents. Perhaps an old veteran that loved to rout for the underdog, the outnumbered. But the shout did start, and slowly it crept through the fascinated crowd till it became a roar, load enough to reach the heavens.

The warrior tried to ignore the wave of excitement at her name being shouted in praise. Instead she tried setting her mind on defeating the four remaining men that were bent on spilling her blood.

The four Norsemen separated and started to encircle her. Xena knew they were going to go for a concert effect, all going for a killing shot at her at once, and she counted on it. Timing it precisely, she leaped up as the four men tried to impale her with their weapons. Coming back down with a loud yell, she kicked out with her legs and knocked two of them in the face. Landing nimbly, she finally drew her sword and quickly swung it in front of her body, weaving a dizzing display of steel patterns. Xena grinned as she noticed her show had the desired effect, momentarily causing the four men to pause and stare in awe and bewilderment. This kind of swordsmanship was not known amongst their people, as Xena had surmised.

Taking advantage of their pause, Xena vaulted straight up and over them, landing just behind one of them. Bringing her sword in a controlled slice, she cut through the man's belt, causing his leggings to fall to his knees.

The crowd immediately roared in laughter and cried her name again.

Blocking a hard blow with her sword, Xena slammed her fist backhanded into another's face. The man just grinned and roared at her in his language, licking at the blood running from his mouth.

Cursing silently, she ducked under another blow. These men were quick for their size and rained blow after blow towards Xena, who was able, just, to parry and block. Seeing a opening in one of the men's defenses, she quickly took advantage of it when she had a free moment. Waiting until he had swung at her, she expertly parried the blow and continued her own swing, driving the point of her blade into his chest and through his lungs and heart.

The volume of the crowd rose higher as blood was finally spilled.

Pulling out the blade from the sagging body was another matter, and in that extra moment that it took her to free her sword, her senses screamed as a sword blade came undeterred for her back. Xena knew she couldn't block or totally dodge the steel without leaving behind her weapon, and that she refused to do. So, as the man she had just killed started to fall, she roughly pushed him back. Tumbling over him she kept her hand on her sword hilt, using their momentum to wrench out the blade with a shower of blood and tissue.

The blade of the Norseman did not pass unbloodied. Xena felt the blade slice into her thigh, but ignored the pain. She knew from experience it wasn't too deep, and had missed any major arteries. Even so, any wound could bleed enough out to cause her to slow and make a mistake that would cost her life.

Xena's pulse was now racing and pounding in time to the crowd's roar of her name. It was intoxicating, and mixed with the joy Ares' Gift brought upon her, it was impossible to not succumb to its thrill.

Screaming her warcry for the first time, she charged the men purposefully, then at the last possible moment as she came upon them, she dove. Like a shot arrow she flew straight between two of the fighter's, then rolled onto her feet, blocking their blows with her sword. With all her strength she stood up under those blows, heaving up with her sword, causing their weapons to rebound violently. Seeing an advantage, she brought her sword back down in a vicious swing, delighting in the force of the blow that gutted one, then on the return swing she parried a blow again.

The noise of the crowd was immense, drowning out all other noise, immersing the combatants in a wave of sound and emotion as the citizens of Rome called out Xena's name.

Two were left, one of them the horned helmed warrior that seemed to take her more seriously then his companions. As if to prove that point, the other man opened himself up fully to Xena by raising his ax over his head and bellowing at her as he aimed.

Xena snarled back and with a hard strike, sliced through the haft of his ax causing the massive head to crack his head in two, brains and bloody gore spraying the sands as he crumbling in a large heap.

The last lone Norseman grimaced at the sight of his comrade laying on the ground, the dead eyes staring up at the blue sky. Then parrying a blow from the woman warrior in front of him, he started fighting for his life.

The warrior woman's skin tingled with pleasure this time as they cried her name again, as another of the men died at her hands. Now it was time to finish the fight. She aimed a heavy testing blow at the man's head, and grinned as he parried it easily. This warrior was more quiet then the others, more thoughtful, and definitely better trained. Back and forth they went, trading strikes. Xena started taking kicks and cuts as the bout continued, and gave just as many to the red-haired giant.

They were both starting to tire, their swings shorter, the strength behind the blows lighter. Breaths billowed out of lungs that ached. Unlike her opponent though, Xena had long ago learned to ignore such things. So when the Norseman stumbled back after his sword was blocked again, Xena saw her chance and rushed him.

Ramming her armored shoulder into his gut, she pushed him off balance. His breath rushed from his lungs and he fell back, momentarily helpless as he tried to breathe. His eyes met hers as Xena stood above him, her sword pointed at his throat. A dark smile caressed her lips, mirrored in ice blue eyes that returned his look.

At that moment they both knew what the other would do, and as the last Norseman started to bring up his sword towards her, Xena drove her sword through his heart.

The crowd exploded, and Xena's heart soared darkly with it, enjoying the blood she had spilled. Then like a slap in the face, she mentally staggered as she realized her dark emotions had come to the surface again. And that she was revelling in them.

How much longer can I do this? Xena's mind screamed within itself. The Power. The Thrill. The adoration of the crowd. It was a drug. A drug Xena had known well once, and was beginning to know it again against her will.

Once, her anger, deep, black, twisted, had been the reason she had become addicted. She had conquered enemies, armies, and nations to vent her rage. Hercules had not been her cure from that, he had just been the first step. Gabrielle had been the one to show her true friendship and show her step by bleeding step how to bring herself back to humanity.

Now here she was, thrust into a life or death struggle with no choice in the matter. There was only anger this time. Not the anger of before, but the anger of helplessness. And that fed on itself till there was only one way the warrior knew how to release it. On the sands of the Coliseum.

Xena was a warrior, plain and simple. She loved to fight and immense joy would erupt within her when steel was drawn. The Coliseum was no different than the outside world when it came to killing. Blood drained into the sands just as well as the dark loam of the forests. The joy of battle was almost the same, just more so here. More intense due to the power of the crowd watching her. Deep inside she detested them of course, hated them and herself for this bloodsport and how it made her feel cheapened inside. But Gabrielle was being held and that made Xena not hold back her fury. If it meant killing those who were glad to try and draw her blood, so be it to save her dearest friend.

There was a consequence, of course. The joy that many of the best of warriors felt in battle was amplified here. Always before she controlled it with an iron will. Gabrielle's touch, her reassurances, helped after a fight. But here... here in Rome that joy was so intensified, that the bloodlust aftermath threatened to boil over inside her and explode. Gabrielle's comforts wouldn't have been the help they once were; instead they would probably send her over the edge. Gods, I hope Atrius takes his time after the fight. I'm going to need time to cool down before I see her. That is..if Caesar lets me see her at all.

Xena controlled her breathing and kicked the leg of the man lying at her feet. The crowd was roaring its approval, calling her name. It swept over her as if it was a lover's caress, and shivered from the roots of her dark hair to her toes in pleasure. She couldn't help it, and that feeling made her more angry inside with self-loathing. She struggled to visualize Gabrielle's face, to focus on her words, her faith in Xena's goodness.

It's this place, this madness of a city and its people, she thought silently, as she listened to the crowd still praising her names to the heavens. She shuddered slightly but she could not control the vast wave of emotions that were sweeping through her. Ares' Gift had a firm hold.

The man was dead, Xena had no worries about that, with three of his companions. The other two were wounded and unconscious, no longer a threat. The crowd was enjoying itself and calling for her to end the men's lives, but Xena refused to kill wounded men. They would have to do their own dirty work.

Her foot pushed back the helmet of her vanquished opponent. She had to see and ingrain their faces on her mind. Though her guilt was great, she saved most of the blame for Caesar and his bloody Romans.

No guilt went through her mind at this moment, just need. It coursed through her as she brought her sword up to it's guard position and slowly gazed around the arena, the crowd's roar pulsing through her veins in time with her thundering heart. It was simply...intoxicating.

She found no enemies left standing on the sands. Just four empty shells of men and their lifeblood pouring out onto the thirsty floor and two groaning heaps wishing they were as dead as their comrades. Then, seeing that her fight for this day was done, she raised her eyes past the high walls that encircled her to the purple stain that took prominence in the crowd, wondering if he was in attendance in the royal box. He did not disappoint her this day. Of course not, not on the first day of entertainment, Xena thought to herself wryly.

Julius Caesar sat upon his throne, quite pleased with the day's amusement. His eyes narrowed and bored into Xena's own far below him. With a well groomed hand, he reached out and caressed the red tresses of the woman kneeling on the stone beside him.

Gabrielle visibly flinched at Caesar's touch, and knew without looking at him, that he had seen it and was smiling with pleasure at her fear. She ignored him, instead she locked her eyes on Xena unfalteringly. Her mind ignored his playful fingers fondling wisps of her hair, instead she thought of Xena and hoped under that blood caked form her friend was ok. Her worried eyes traveled the warrior's form looking for signs of strain or injury. The bard mentally winced at the damage she saw, bruises and cuts lined Xena's body. I hope she has someone competent to take care of those, she worried silently.

The fight had seemed to last forever to Gabrielle, the six men having been hug and unusually quick. Caesar himself had given her background on them as they had witnessed the fight together, even saying what a waste it was, that these men had refused to serve him. Instead willing to die in the arena for his pleasure. Gabrielle didn't bother to explain it to him.

Though she had been forced to watch the fight, she prayed to the gods that Xena would make their end swift. It was cruel what these people called entertainment, and she knew Xena felt the same way. Unfortunately, I also know how she loves a good fight. The bard watched as Xena lowered her sword and strode across the sands towards them. Her heart shivered at what she saw inside her warrior companion.

Xena stopped a distance away, enough so she would not have to seem to crane her neck up to Caesar. Her ice blue eyes were half lidded and a crafty smile was casually worn on her lips. Gabrielle had seen it before, that facade Xena would put up. But the young woman could see through it, with the ease of having known Xena so long, and shivered. Rarely had she seen Xena this far...gone before. It scared her.

It did not fool Caesar either. He smiled pleasantly and held up a hand briefly for silence. The crowd stilled at his command, but Xena's pulse still raced with their pent-up emotions and her own.

"Well, Xena. You've won your first fight at the Coliseum. A bit too soon for my tastes perhaps, but it was enjoyable anyway." His golden laureled head cocked to the side as he pondered a moment in silence, then he continued. "Since you seem to be having so much ease, I guess we will just have to make it more difficult for you tomorrow, and every day after that."

Xena sneered. "If you wanted to kill me, you would have crucified me again. What do you want, Julius?"

Caesar's eyes narrowed. "I want entertainment, surely you know that by now, and so do my people. You provided it years ago on that lovely beach, so you should be more than happy to provide it for us now. My tastes have changed since then though, maturity you could say." He smiled and ran his fingers through Gabrielle's hair.

Xena blinked slowly, but showed no signs of seeing his taunt.

He chuckled, amused at her iron will, and knew that, given time, any will could be broken, even the infamous will of Xena. "So, as I was saying, your next fight should be more of a challenge, Xena. Don't hesitate to enjoy it. The people are pleased to see you here, calling your name. They want you to last a long time...and so do I." He signaled the guards to enter the arena and escort her out.

Xena brought up her sword and smiled evily at the legionnaires advancing on her. The blood was still rushing through her veins, she was frustrated and angry, and not willing to crawl back to her dark cell like a lamb.

Caesar laughed loudly and watched them surround her. He glanced at the bard kneeling beside him, concern and fear etched on her face. He chuckled gleefully. "Xena," Caesar yelled, "Xena! I think you might want to see this."

Xena spared a moment and glanced up at the Emperor of the Roman Empire, watching the soldiers out of the corners of her eyes. Time slowed as she watched him wrench Gabrielle's head cruelly back towards him and with a smile, brutally crush his lips to hers.

Xena barely heard the crowd erupt in approval, but her body, still locked in bloodlust heard it, savored it, and fed on it. Unthinkingly she exploded in a frenzy of hacking and bloodletting on the Imperial guards that had surrounded her, but this time her efforts were in vain.

Nets flew towards her. Bolas were flung to entangle her limbs. She actually managed to stay free for a few moments, dodging and using her sword with precision against her enemies. But the odds were too stacked this time. Too many soldiers and no where to escape.

As they beat her down and dragged her still writhing form across the sands, Caesar looked mildly upon the dead and wounded soldiers that where being tended to. Almost as an afterthought he patted his captive on her head.

He turned to Brutus sitting next to him and commented. "One hundred gold Eagles was it? Hmm...I am disappointed with her. Just one more and I would have won our little bet."

A lean hand reached over and snagged the heavy pouch he offered, but was silent.

A moment later Atrius could be seen making his way past the Imperial Guards to kneel in front of Caesar.

Julius eyed him with curiosity. It wasn't often Atrius was seen coming out of the dark pits of the gladiator world and into the sun.

"Oh, Great Caesar..."

"Hurry up, man, I'm sure the next fight is about to begin, and I don't want you spoiling it for me." Caesar reached out a hand and scooped up a handful of sweet grapes from the plate beside him.

"Yes, Caesar. I'm here to ask a boon. The woman, Xena, is insane." He heard a small gasp come from the small woman kneeling near him, but he continued on. "If something isn't done soon, we may be forced to kill her to..."

Caesar grasped the small man by the throat and squeezed. "If she dies before I will it, so do you."

"Yeeesss..." Caesar loosened his grip and Atrius breathed in a great gulp of air. "Yes, Caesar. Your will be done. I have a plan that might calm her down and teach her the value of learning her place."

The Emperor nodded for him to continue.

"We bring her little friend for a visit. Let her see Xena down there in her cell."

Caesar was quiet, thinking on the motives of the slave. Then smiling evily at a sudden thought he gave Atrius the end of Gabrielle's leash. "If Xena is as insane right now as you say, and refuses to see her, give this lovely woman to the guards with my compliments."

Caesar smiled at Gabrielle, pleased to see fear and disbelief on her face. Perhaps to break one will, I must break another.

* * * * *

Xena was kicking at the stone walls angrily when Gabrielle was brought down the hallway to her cell. Atrius looked down through the iron bars that were the ceiling to Xena's cell and debated whether to let the young woman go down there or not. The warrior might just be too crazed for Gabrielle's own safety.

Atrius felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned and saw the young woman's green eyes. So intense, and so worried. But not for herself. This is who Xena won't leave without? Perhaps Xena has changed even more than even she thinks.

"It's ok..she won't hurt me," Gabrielle said. She was so sure of that fact, that it radiated from her with certainty. She pushed passed him and knelt down gazing at her almost berserk friend. "Xena?" she stammered.

Xena froze in midkick and then lowered her leg. Her chest heaved with the effort of her exertions and trying to stay in control. Slowly she lifted her head up and looked into Gabrielle's eyes.

The bard flinched from the glacial anger radiating from those chips of bright blue ice. Though no expression was visible on her friend's face, those eyes and her body language gave her away. Not mad at me though, that I can tell at least. Well, that's a start, she thought silently.

"Xena? Are you ok?" Gabrielle asked in concern, seeing the warrior had been cleaned up, no longer coated with blood and gore, her cuts and bruises sewn and wrapped with herbs.

The warrior did not answer her, instead she turned her gaze to Atrius. "Get her out of here," she commanded in a dead tone.

Atrius understood why Xena had said that, but he had his orders and had to give her the choice. Besides, this was necessary to the plan. Looking her in the eyes he said, "If I do, Xena, there's only one other place I am...allowed to put her. I doubt she will like it there."

He glanced up at one of the guards who was leering at the small woman covertly. Looking back down he growled impotently, "The barracks are not a good place for your friend, Xena."

Gabrielle had kept silent, seeing Xena's anger and knowing the warrior did not like the bard to see her in these dark moods. The bard's head shot up at what Atrius had said, then went down to Xena again.

Xena grimaced and nodded her compliance to Atrius. She backed away while the archers kept her under sight as the locked hatch was lifted.

Gabrielle let Atrius help her down as far as he could reach, then she dropped the rest of the way, landing nimbly on her feet. She watched as the hatch was secured and the guards went back to their posts. Atrius just nodded sadly to her and walked on.

The bard slowly turned toward Xena and took a half step forward, then froze, not sure what to do this time. She knew Xena liked to work things out by herself, then come to her. Something is different this time though... or was it just intensified? she pondered quietly.

The bard stood there gazing at the warrior, watching her as she had done so many times before, measuring her as she would gauge an audience's emotions. Fury radiated from her, almost palpable in its intensity. Need was another, almost as strong as the fury, but Gabrielle could not tell what Xena needed precisely.

Slowly as if walking up to a wild animal, she stepped forward. When she had finally come up to only a foot or so away, still gazing into Xena's eyes, she said. "You want to be out there still don't you? Fighting...killing?"

Xena's mouth opened into a snarl. "Yes..and no. I want to kill Caesar and every bloodthirsty Roman who was sitting up in those stands. I want to..." she paused a moment. "Kill myself for playing their damned game, and enjoying it. No offense, Gabrielle, but you have no idea...how hard this is. At the same time I want to hear the crowd crying my name and throw me gold like they did today. " Angrily she pointed to the wide pallet, the wine, and the rich fare set up on the side table. "That's not what they give to any prisoner, Gabrielle. Atrius collect each fighter's gold from the arena, takes his cut and gives the rest to us in these...comforts."

Gabrielle stood there listening, refusing to be scared into a corner by Xena's words.

The warrior continued on, "But that's not all, Gabrielle. It's been so long...I almost forgot how intoxicating it all can be. Do you want me to be candid?" Xena asked, an eyebrow raised. The bard nodded slightly.

"Do you know what makes some warriors so bloodthirsty? I do. In a way I witnessed a part of it as a warlord. It's the afteraffects of Ares' Gift, Gabrielle. The constant fighting, the killing for some of us who enjoy it gets too exciting. It flows through our veins and after the killing we want more, but there is no more. That's why rape is part of a bad conquering army no matter what a general may want. Don't misunderstand me, I didn't condone it with my men. I killed many of my own soldiers who dared try to force any of the local women, or any of the women soldiers in my army. Those that succeeded against my orders and I caught I did more than just kill them. I made them into a lesson for the rest of my men. I didn't take chances, I understood the joy of killing and its aftermath. I made sure my men had campfollowers." Xena grimaced.

"And that's why the gladiators are very showy, Gabrielle. Well, a lot of it is in how they are trained, and they know that the longer the fight lasts and the better they put on a show, the more money they get. But they don't get relief afterwards. Or rather it's a rare treat you might say. They let it build up in the poor bastards. And what relief they can give themselves is not enough. So they are always full of killing energy, always on edge. Always filled with Ares' Gift...or curse, rather."

"And myself? Well, you might say that when you and I are together I have no problems...the fights I have are nothing really. I enjoy testing my skill, but here...here it's different. Perhaps it's the crowd. I haven't figured it all out yet, but it's getting to me Gabrielle. I'm becoming addicted already, after only one fight. It's almost like when we fought the Hoard." Xena finished her tirade and looked at her friend, her eyes half-lidded as she waited, surprised that the bard hadn't fled yet. Not like there is anywhere to flee too. Perhaps I don't give her enough credit. She is much stronger than she used to be, and twice that mentally. But can she understand this darkness of mine that is creeping to the surface again, and how a part of me relishes it?

Gabrielle was not stupid, she understood every word spoken, and though she was afraid of the violence boiling just underneath the current that was Xena, she knew her friend wouldn't hurt her. Just knew it, as she always did and trusted in it implicitly.

Hesitantly she reached out a hand and touched Xena on the cheek. The warrior flinched as if shocked by a bolt from Zeus.

"Gabrielle, don't." Xena warned, but the bard refused to listen. Instead she again touched the warrior's cheek, gently sliding her hand to rest her palm along Xena's jawbone.

Xena shuddered this time but didn't move away. Satisfied, Gabrielle removed her hand and took Xena's clenched fist. Slowly she stepped back and tried to bring the warrior with her. Xena didn't budge. She stood as still as stone, her eyes just as cold as the northern winds in winter.

Gabrielle took the other clenched fist also and tugged again, more persistent. When she still got no response, she looked deeply into Xena's eyes. The bard sent out all her honesty and feelings, trying to make Xena feel the emotions behind the words. "Trust me," she implored, her voice barely above a whisper.

The warrior glared but took a step forward and followed Gabrielle to the pallet.

Gabrielle lay down on the far side against the wall, partially on her side and tugged at Xena's hands. "Come on, Xena. Trust me. Lie here." She could feel the vast tension in her friend's fist, but wasn't afraid. Gently she tugged again.

Xena gave in finally, stretching out beside Gabrielle, her body tense as a wound catapult.

Gabrielle spoke, "How about I tell you a story? I tell a tale of Hercules and Xena. How they freed Prometheus and saved the world..."

And when she finished that tale she started another, never taking her eyes off her friend. As her low voice spoke, she was pleased to see most of the tension finally ease out of Xena.

"Gabrielle, we have to talk," Xena whispered. "No. Don't stop talking. Keep telling me...your story. Act like I'm just here listening. I need you to keep the guards busy listening to you while I tell you some things."

Gabrielle had paused for a moment, then went on when Xena asked her, but she was confused. Was all of this a pretense to get her down here so they could talk?

"I'm ok. What I was doing and saying earlier was just an act. We have a possible way out..but it's going to take a couple of days. Are you ok? Can you handle staying in the palace for a couple more days?" she asked.

Gabrielle squeezed her hand, still telling her story, and nodded.

Xena frowned and leaned closer to whisper. "Has he hurt you at all?"

The bard shook her head, wishing she could safely talk. Instead she just held Xena's hand reassuringly.

Xena looked deep into the green eyes before her. Is she lying?

"Keep telling me stories, I'm going to tell you what I need you to do to help us out of here."

The bard nodded, then reached out a hand and gently brushed aside an errant tendril of hair from Xena's face. Xena flinched a little at the touch, but only a little.

Oh, Xena. You are such a liar. Those words you said earlier, those emotions, they were true, weren't they? You can't lie to me. I've learned my lessons well. Don't worry, you can count on me. I can be as strong as you.

* * * * *
For those of you who are interested:
"En Varja?!!" - "A woman?!!" specifically a female warrior in this case.
"Thaer dyja sva svipliga sve verrjar." - "They die just as quickly as any man." (Specifically women in this tense I think)
Thanks to Kaiser for the Norse translation:} I don't know why I wanted to put in, but I ...oh well:} hehe


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