SURPRISES IN ROME
© 2000 by C.J. Wells
Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, Palaemon, Toris, Lyceus, Ephiny, Solari, Argo, and our favorite Psycho Barbie belong to those rather fortunate individuals affectionately known as The Powers That Be at Studios USA, Ren Pics and whatnots. The only thing I'm gaining from them here is the personal satisfaction of toying with the characters in my own image. In addition to the aforementioned real Roman guys of my preceding stories, Publius Vergilius Maro (70-19 B.C.), Quintus Horatius Faccus (65-8 B.C.) and Titus Livius (59 B.C. 17 A.D.) were real Roman guys. All of the other Roman guys named and all of the other characters named are mine.
Series Credit: This is part of the continuing Embrace/Freedom Conqueror Series. Please read all of the preceding stories, beginning with The Embrace & Freedom, or you'll be totally lost. I've taken some liberties in time authenticity with regard to the presence of some of the ancient Roman structures mentioned in this story, but that's why this is called fiction. Also, being that I am an advocatus e lexus, I just had to throw in some Latin now that our favorite Heroines are hanging in the Roman hood. However, every Latin statement will be duly translated and I promise that it won't go on ad nauseam. Also, there is mention of Mithraism in this story. Mithraism was an ancient Roman religious cult that some believe to be the precursor to the more contemporary Zoroastrianism, although that is debatable. In any event, I will utilize some of the central beliefs of both Mithraism and Zoroastrianism here, but in a dignified and tasteful manner.
Character Warning: The Xena the Conqueror and Gabrielle of Poteidaia of this story are not exactly like their television counterparts, but that should be obvious by now.
Women on the Verge of Gettin' Hitched Warning: E-hem..
Vulgarity in Verse Warning: Timmy!!
Violence Warning: You know if Psycho Barbie's involved, there's gonna be some.
To my beta readers Inga, Sue, Mary & Jean, thank you!
Comments and Feedback: Thank you kindly.
I've wanted to ask Gabrielle to be my consort for I don't know how long, but when she threatened to leave me and head back to Corinth to save that pervert that sold her to me, I knew at that moment that I was ready to finally ask her. Gabrielle stood up to me, she insulted me and she planned to defy my authority and I don't think I could possibly love her more.
So here I was, deep in the Albion forest, suffering stinging pain from two stab wounds inflicted by my greatest nemesis from that Isle, Niall of Calleva, and on my knees, asking the greatest gift the gods could give me to be my consort.
When she said yes to me, it was as if the earth melted away and we were in the Elysian Fields. The beauty that surrounded us, the trees with their stunning autumn colors, the wild flowers, the singing birds; they all were our captive audience. We embraced before our audience for a few moments before heading back to our little camp by a river that the local clans call the Sacred Stream. We sat down on a large, embanked driftwood log for a few moments and stared at the current of the water. We were silent, but we were happy. Gabrielle has brought me such happiness over the years. Even in the misery of my love for her when she was my concubine, there was this undercurrent of happiness; a euphoria whenever she was around me, when I watched her, when I listened to her voice and when I brought her sexual pleasure.
I put my arm around Gabrielle, rather bashfully I must admit, as we both watched the water flow and an occasional fish breach. "I think they're enticing me to catch them, Gabrielle," I said, finally breaking the peaceful silence.
"I don't recall seeing a fishing rod in your saddlebag, Xena," Gabrielle said.
"I don't need one," I professed as I began taking off my footwear. As I descended into the river, Gabrielle grabbed my lower arm.
"Xena, what are you doing?" she asked.
"Getting us dinner, dear," I responded.
Gabrielle stood in wonder as I snagged two huge rock bass and five bluegills. "We're a little too late in the season for salmon," I said as I handed off some of my catch to a stunned Gabrielle. "The last of them probably ran about a week or so ago. It's too bad, really. I love salmon."
"By the gods, you're amazing, Xena," Gabrielle said as she neatly laid out my catch on the driftwood log. "How did you do that?"
The cold water was biting, but I didn't care. I just love showing off to my Gabrielle. "I have many skills," I simply said.
Gabrielle scurried off to busy herself while I cleaned and gutted the two rock bass. I imagined that she didn't want to be sickened by the sight of their bloodied severed heads, bones and entrails. I carefully covered the much smaller bluegill in heavy parchment. The cold air would keep them fresh throughout the night and they would serve as our meal in the morning. While I prepared the bass for cooking, Gabrielle set up an eating area for us beside the small tent that I had erected earlier. She started our campfire and heated water for warm cider to drink with our dinner. We ate fish, bread and apples in a tranquil silence as Apollo's chariot rode by to capture the sun. As I ate, I thought about just how fortunate a woman I am to have Gabrielle as the mate of my soul, my being. She was committing herself to me willingly, in word and in heart, and in spite of everything from our history together, and I don't believe I'd ever been happier.
Once we were fully sated, we retired to our little shelter for the evening. Gabrielle insisted on changing my bandages before we bedded down. Ever so tenderly, she removed the bloodied dressings that my ship's healer had placed over my wounds and replaced them with clean, fresh bandages. I'm sure this sight was more stomach turning to her than gutting fish, but my Gabrielle was determined to make me comfortable and prevent any infection. As she tended to me, I considered the notion that Gabrielle might have a future as a healer, although I prefer her as my special little bard. The night air was very cold, so Gabrielle retrieved every covering from both saddlebags for our bedding and we huddled under them fully clothed.
Of course, the clothes came off as soon as the heat from our bodies and our passions warranted it.
Making love that evening was, for me, symbolic of our love and our union. As I began my sensual ministrations, I hoped that Gabrielle was feeling the significance of this intimacy as well. I believed that she was as I took her into my arms and peppered her face with kisses. "I love you," I whispered into her ear as I performed. We were lying on our sides, but I soon wanted to feel her body covering mine.
"But Xena," she whispered as I began to deposit her form on top of me, "won't my weight aggravate your wounds?"
"Not at all," I responded. I knew that I wouldn't even notice any discomfort with Gabrielle's wonderfully soft skin pressing against me. Securely positioned where I wanted her, I began administering gentle kisses to her cheek and neck while I ran my hands all over her lovely back, the backs of her thighs and her sexy, taut ass. My massages seemed to make her desires erupt, because she brought her lips to mine in a deeply passionate kiss as her small fingers combed through my hair. I sighed at her wonderful touches. However, in the back of my mind, I remembered sex with her prior to her freedom. Every time that I had sex with Gabrielle, I enjoyed it. I would come to realize that much of that joy was due to the fervent and unyielding love that I felt for her. But in all of those years, I denied myself the added pleasure of her touches. Much more importantly, I know that I sometimes denied her any pleasure at all. Yet, here she was, once again bringing me great pleasure as I wished that I could erase those bad times and replace them with overpowering releases of great joy. To make up for what I denied Gabrielle, I felt committed to give to her all of my raw, natural and ultimately devoted passion.
We shared our wonderful kiss for a while before Gabrielle opened her legs and scissored my uninjured thigh. I cupped the cheeks of her ass at that moment and pushed her further onto me. As I kneaded her rear and then lovingly held her in an embrace, we began our delicious tribade. It may have been cold that night outside of our little shelter, but inside, it was as hot as a desert. Covered under several layers of bedding, our nostrils were treated to the aroma of our hot, wanting bodies and our saturated sex. By the gods, she felt so good! Our eventual screams of release likely scared away any curious critters desiring to either explore our camp for dinner remnants or steal our packaged bluegill.
Despite the fact that we were sleeping on the cold ground in a tiny tent, I don't think I can recall the last time I had had such a peaceful, comfortable slumber.
I woke the next morning to the feel of soft fingers caressing my face and opened my eyes to the sight of Gabrielle's beautiful jade eyes gazing at me.
"Sleep well, my love?" I asked in a whisper.
"Like a baby," came her reply.
"Good," I said. "So did I."
Gabrielle began lightly stroking my bangs. "Xena, now that we're to be joined, there's something I've wanted to know for a very, very long time."
My heart began instantly racing. I always shuddered at those moments when Gabrielle desires answers to the reasons for the darkness of my actions, to her and to others. Although I had promised myself that I would never deny her answers to her difficult questions, at this particular moment, I frankly didn't want to deal with the intensity that those lines of questions usually brought. As I mentally prepared for another round of inquisition and introspection
"How old are you?"
I released the breath I had been holding. "What?"
"How old are you, Xena?" Gabrielle repeated.
I began laughing. "What's so funny?" she asked.
"Nothing," I snickered as I cupped and then lovingly stroked her cheek with the backs of my fingers. "I was expecting a more difficult question."
"Oh," she replied. "Well?"
"Well what?" I asked and then remembered. "Right, my age. I'm 32."
"Thirty-two," she said, processing. "I know you know my age, Xena."
"Yes, you're 25," I responded. "You'll be 26 next month. I'll be 33 the following month."
"I'm not surprised that you know the date of my birth, Xena," she said smiling.
I knew what Gabrielle was indicating to me in that smile. I had learned when her birthday was less than six months after she came into my service. Gabrielle wasn't one to make a big deal about it, but somehow one of my palace servants, Demitrius I suspected, learned of the date and organized with some of the other servants to have a special affair in celebration of her twenty-first birthday. I discovered them in the palace kitchen. Nearly half of my non-military palace servants, both paid and indentured, were standing around a stunned Gabrielle presenting her with small baskets of food and tokens of affection. I ordered the group to disperse immediately and commanded that Gabrielle go to her bedchamber. I did allow her to take her gifts with her, however. She had so many of them, my chambermaid Mia had to help her.
I remember going back to my own bedchamber and brooding about it for a long time. I was already falling deeply in love with her, but I dared not reveal it to her or anyone else. I so wanted to give her a gift as well, but I was terrified that she would discover my true feelings for her and, believing that she already hated my guts, I couldn't afford to give her that added level of power over me. So I decided to myself that my gift to her would be that she would be spared servicing me on her birthday. Thus, I didn't summon Gabrielle for service on that birthday or her next three birthdays.
On the day that she turned 25, however, I awakened with her on my mind after dreaming all night about holding her in my arms. She had slept in my bed with me the night before, so when I woke up, I looked over to find her sleeping form tormenting me further. She continued to consume my thoughts all of that day as I observed the palace servants shower her with adoration upon adoration, while I continued to anguish over the fact that I refused to allow myself to participate in this activity. I began drinking at noon, and by early evening I was thoroughly intoxicated and wanting her badly. I still didn't summon Gabrielle for service. Instead, I waited until I was sure she had turned in for the evening and went to her bedchamber. Unfortunately, I was so drunk that I don't remember much of what happened after that. I don't think that I hurt her, as I do recall her expression the next day while I nursed my embarrassing hangover. Her demeanor hardly indicated that she suffered any trauma at my hands. Yet, it has been nearly a year, and I had never inquired of Gabrielle exactly what transpired that evening. Perhaps now was the time for me to start asking questions.
"Gabrielle," I began, "do you recall your last birthday?"
"Yes, Xena," she responded. "Do you recall my last birthday?"
She was still smiling. This was a good sign. "Well not really," I confessed. "I was quite inebriated that day."
"Yes you were, Xena."
"I remember barging in on you after you had turned in for the night, Gabrielle," I said. "I don't recall what happened after that, I'm ashamed to admit." I ran my fingers through her lovely, shoulder-length hair. "Did I hurt you, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle lightly kissed my lips. "No, dear, you didn't," she said. "Would you like to know what you DID do?"
I was humbled to learn the answer as I nodded my response.
"You walked over to my bed and pulled my blanket off of me, Xena," Gabrielle began. "You sat on the edge of my bed. I had my sleep shift on, so you slipped your hands under it and began running them over my breasts. You didn't say anything, but you were breathing heavily and I could smell the wine."
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," I whispered.
"Don't be, Xena," she responded. "I had been thinking about you that night, so I was already aroused. Your caresses aroused me even more. It was incredibly pleasant," she declared, continuing; "You then pulled down my britches and performed your tongue magic on me, Xena. That was incredibly pleasant as well, a lovely birthday gift. After I climaxed, you climbed on top of me, but you still hadn't said anything. You didn't do anything to me either. By the gods, Xena, I wanted to throw my arms around you so badly, but of course I didn't. You just laid there on me for a few moments."
"Really?" I asked.
"Yup," she responded. "You know, I think you actually fell asleep. You didn't move until I tried to shift your weight on me. Then you looked at me, Xena. It was weird. We gazed into each other's eyes. Yours were quite drowsy and bloodshot, my dear." Gabrielle snickered.
"I'm sure they were," was all I could say in my humiliation.
"Then you kissed my lips, Xena," she continued. "It was a brief kiss, but it wasn't hard. It was actually a pleasant, but sadly very brief little kiss. After that, you got up off of me and left my bedchamber." Gabrielle shifted so that she was lying on her back next to me. We both stared at the ceiling of our little shelter. The morning sun was upon us and my eyes followed the moving shadows of branches and leaves that the sun created on our tent canvas. The morning breeze was blowing a parade of vegetation over our tent. After moments of reflective silence, Gabrielle turned her head to me. "You know, Xena," she said, "you never spoke a word to me that night."
"I'm sure I wanted to avoid saying something I would later regret," I admitted.
"Oh, like what?"
I turned my head and looked into her eyes. "Like, 'I love you more than life itself,' or something like that."
Gabrielle grabbed my hand in hers and held it as I resumed my captivated observation of shadowed foliage.
After our morning meal, we took down our camp and headed back to the ships. I didn't want to reveal to Gabrielle that my side stab wound was now more painful than the night before. I applied some pressure next to the site of the wound and clenched my teeth as we rode back. As soon as the ships were in sight, I waved my hand to signal to my troops that we had returned. I was hoping that at least one of my commanders was awake and alert to greet us.
It was just before noon when we finally arrived at the ships. Palaemon and Marius both approached us. They looked well rested, which was not surprising. Palaemon enjoys reveling and he will engage in drink, but he has always maintained control of himself. I don't think I'd even seen the man intoxicated. Likewise, Marius had never been one to indulge in the more sinister hedonisms of life. I was sure that Seumius, however, was somewhere on one of the ships, passed out, and surrounded by empty goblets of wine and naked island whores.
Before greeting the men, I asked Gabrielle to take both of the horses to the ship stables. After she was out of earshot, I addressed them.
"Palaemon," I said, "I need a ship healer now."
"I'll get our best one, my Liege," he responded before heading off to retrieve the healer.
I turned to Marius. "What are our losses?" I asked.
"Not too bad, Conqueror," he replied. "Of your Corinthian centuries, less than half. Less than half of my men. Of course, your Imperial Guard didn't have much of an opportunity to fight, since it was pretty much over before it began for them," he chuckled, continuing, "I don't know about Seumius' Gaelic troops. He's still sleeping. Shall I go awaken him?"
I smiled. "I think that would be best for him," I said. "Although I do deserve some amusement this morning."
We were both laughing as Palaemon and our most gifted ship healer, a Celt named Aneurin, approached.
"I have excellent news, Lady Conqueror," Aneurin said before I could address him. "My assistant Kyros and I were able to purchase a rare ginger root from some of the Parisii. This substance should work much better than the yellow root on your young bard's seasickness."
My initial reaction was to punish him for speaking out of turn, but I was happy to learn of the ginger root. The thought of my Gabrielle spending another day miserably vomiting greatly bothered me and I had learned years before that this particular herb worked wonders with all types of motion sickness.
"That's good news, Aneurin," I responded. "But from now on, speak only after spoken to, got it?
"Yes, Lady Conqueror," he humbly replied.
"Good," I said. "Have Kyros prepare a potion for Gabrielle to take. I need you to tend to my wounds."
I went aboard my command ship with Aneurin. Marius went with us. Before lying down on the bunk in the healing cabin, Aneurin gave me a potion to take that would sedate me. I turned to Marius. "We don't set sail until I myself can raise the sails on this ship, Marius," I told him.
"By your will, Conqueror," he replied.
"Now leave us," I demanded.
As I stood on the main deck of Xena's command ship and watched her troops ready it for the voyage back to Gaul, I was feeling guilt about her pain. We shouldn't have made love last night, I thought. We both wanted to so much, and it was so spectacular, but I was convinced that lying on her and embracing her in passion as I did aggravated her injury. I didn't quite know what to do, stay where I was or learn where she was being treated. So I wandered around looking for a familiar face; perhaps Palaemon, perhaps Aerol. As I dallied about, a young, attractive Greek, wearing a healer's tunic, approached me.
"Morning, Miss. I'm Kyros," he introduced himself. "I have a potion for you to drink."
"What is it?" I inquired.
"Ginger root, Miss," he responded. "Best cure for sea illness in the known world."
"Well, in that case " I gleefully said as I took the flask from him, "bottom's up!" Amazingly, this medicine didn't taste like sewerage from Tartarus.
Palaemon approached as I finished emptying the flask. "Morning, Gabrielle," he greeted me.
"Hi," I responded. "Where's Xena?"
"She's with the ship's healer below deck," he responded. "We're not sailing until he finishes treating her."
I decided that I wanted to be with her and had begun walking toward the lower cabins to join her when Palaemon gently grabbed my arm. "She wants to be left alone while he's treating her," he informed me.
"Did she tell you that?" I asked.
"Not exactly," Palaemon responded. "But I've been in battle with her several times and she usually prefers privacy when she's being treated."
"Well, she's never been in battle with me around," I said. "So I believe the rules are different now."
When I turned away from Palaemon to descend the staircase to the lower cabins, Palaemon spoke out from behind me. "She doesn't want you to see her in pain, Gabrielle. You should know that by now."
I stopped. Palaemon was right. During my years as Xena's slave, if she was injured in battle, I never reported to her for service immediately after she returned from that battle. She had always sought treatment first. I also recalled the first time that I saw her injured after gaining my freedom. It was after her months-long war in Rome when I was able to see her scars of battle, the pain of her injuries and her despair and humiliation over my exposure to her injuries. I love Xena, and my love for her caused me to desire to be with her, comfort her and nurture her. But at that moment, Palaemon was reminding me of something equally important. I needed to respect her wishes as well.
I turned to Palaemon. "Where is Niall of Calleva?" I asked.
At the bottom of the staircase leading to the lower cabins on Xena's command ship, there were two corridors; one that led to the sleeping, eating and healer's cabins, and the other that led to both the storage cabins and the second staircase that led to the bowels of the ship where the oarsmen were positioned. There was no official prisoner cabin on Xena's particular ship, but a makeshift one was established for Niall. I didn't know why, but I needed to see if Niall was being confined like the two traitors I had visited in the palace dungeon five months ago. Palaemon honored my request and took me to the cabin. As we approached the door, he warned me that the sight and smell inside the cabin would likely make me ill.
When he opened the door, I was instantly relieved to see the barbarian Niall sitting on a single stone slab. He was stripped of most of his clothing, but he did have on something to cover his privates. His stomach wound was properly bandaged as well. His wrists and ankles were shackled, but the shackles were attached to chains that were tethered to the wall. Surprisingly, he did have some limited mobility and a bucket was provided for him to relieve himself. Yes, the smell was rank, but it was mainly from his own body odor. Apparently, Niall was not an individual who believed in bathing regularly, if at all.
"He doesn't speak Greek or Latin, Gabrielle," Palaemon informed me. "His is a dialect of the Celtic language. Oh, and he's alive only because he begged for it."
I cautiously approached Niall. Palaemon was noticeably close behind. When I was only an arm's length from him, I looked into his eyes. He returned the gaze, but for only a few moments before looking away. In an instant, I was satisfied with what I wanted to see.
Back on the main deck, I watched and waited and breathed in the crisp, clean sea air. It took some moments before the foulness of Niall's stench was gone from my nostrils. It appeared that most of the troops were up and engaging in their duties. Like the voyage here a week ago, most of the surviving warriors would resume their duties as oarsmen, aiding the sails and the wind to guide us back to Gaul. With the logical exception of Niall, the Albion prisoners would be put to work in this capacity as well. I had also heard Palaemon and the other officers remark that the islanders had already begun repairing the ports that were catapulted. I had rested my arms on the gunwale and looked over at the activities taking place on Commander Seumius' ship, which was anchored next to Xena's ship, when a set of cold fingers touched the back of my neck. Startled, I turned to see the roguish smile of my Conqueror.
"Hi there, Gabrielle," she said.
"Your fingers are cold, Xena," I remarked as I folded my arms in protest.
"I know of some places on your body that could quickly warm them up, my dear."
As much as I wanted to engage in a playful flirtation with Xena, I was too concerned about the state of her health. "How are your wounds?" I questioned as I took her hand in mine. "I know you were in pain this morning. I did this to you, didn't I, Xena?"
She grabbed my other hand and held them both. "No, Gabrielle," she said. "My pain had absolutely nothing to do with the love we shared last night. If anything, holding you so close made me feel better. And now I feel fine."
"Are you sure?" I dubiously asked.
"Yes, Gabrielle, I'm sure."
Xena playfully kissed my forehead. "Did you find Aneurin's assistant?" she asked.
"The healer with the potion yes, Xena. He found me."
"Good," she said.
At that moment, Aerol approached us. "My Liege," he said after bowing in formal greeting. "After you left last night, the two Parisii women who fought with us came to our ships seeking word with you. We have detained them."
"WHAT?" Xena asked obviously exasperated. "Those two women are allies of the Realm! What in Tartarus are you doing detaining them?"
"My apologies for misspeaking, My Liege," Aerol responded. "We escorted them to the lower sleeping cabins on Seumius' vessel last night. They remained there through the night as our guests. They were not disrespected in any way, but they still wish a word with you, Majesty. Shall I bring them aboard?"
"Yes, bring them aboard, Commander Aerol," Xena demanded.
A few moments later, two strangely attired women approached us. When my eyes fell upon one of them, I found myself conspicuously staring at her. Her skin was as black as midnight and she had very short hair on her head, but the features on her face were bold and beautiful. I broke from my trance momentarily when Xena introduced me to them, but as she began speaking with the women in their native Celtic dialect, I continued my gawking.
"Gabrielle," Xena finally said, "Hadiya is quite flattered, but you can return your eyes to your head now."
I lowered my gaze and felt my face burning with embarrassment, glad only that the two women didn't understand what Xena had just said to me. A few moments later, they departed. Xena grabbed my shoulder. "Stanislas and Hadiya will be joining us to Rome, Gabrielle." I looked up at my lover. "I hope by that time you will have gotten over Hadiya's appearance."
"Oh no, Xena," I said. "I think she's gorgeous. I I just didn't think, you know she doesn't look like any of the other people that I've seen on this island."
Xena playfully kissed my forehead again. "There's an exception to every rule, Gabrielle," she said, snickering. "Now, my dear, I have a ship to sail."
I watched in amazement as Xena practically single-handedly raised the sails and then sprinted over to the forecastle to navigate the ship into the current that would guide us back to Gaul. Whatever that healer did to her seemed to have worked wonders. There was no restriction in her movement as she pranced about, giving orders and manipulating the massive sails. As the ship began to move, I began anticipating seasickness. Much to my delight, it never came.
We landed at Gesoria well after dark. I had spent most of the voyage on the main deck watching Xena. She was such a sight to behold; a strong and beautiful woman fully in control of our journey and destiny. When the moon replaced the sun, I retired to our sleeping cabin. I wanted to make some final notes in a scroll that I had begun days before, recounting the movements and battles of Xena and her troops. My plan was to give my account to my dear friend Demi, so that he could include it with the other accounts of the Conqueror's battles and victories in the palace library. It was an added pleasure for me to write that Xena had spared the life of her enemy, Niall of Calleva.
After completing my scroll, I lay back on our cabin bunk and slept. Xena eventually joined me, but her slumber was brief. Once we were ashore, Xena was back up on the main deck, giving yet more orders for the smooth disembarkation of troops, horses and weapons. It was just after dawn when Xena finally awakened me and informed me that almost everything was off the ships and that we would be journeying to Rome soon.
"That ginger root really worked, eh Gabrielle?" she said chuckling. "You're the last person still on this boat."
Xena took me to the stately home of the local magistrate. We were able to have a bath and eat a wonderfully filling morning meal there. She and I didn't speak much, but I did manage to request that the troops be given a few days of rest. She responded that she would "entertain the idea." Most of the troops, the Corinthian centurions, Seumius' troops and Marius' troops were reassembled near the docks at the noon candlemark. Palaemon and the Imperial Guardsmen were noticeably absent. Xena positioned herself on a makeshift dais. Aerol and I stood next to her. Marius, Seumius and their seconds-in-command were present on the platform as well. Raising her hand to gain the attention of her troops, Xena addressed them.
"Soldiers of the Realm," she began. "You have once again displayed your supreme greatness as warriors in MY Empire. We were victorious because of OUR display of superior fighting ability."
The troops cheered.
"For your faithful service to me, I command that you remain here in Gesoria, as guests of this village, for a period of five days of rest."
A louder cheer erupted. I smiled.
"Be respectful of the citizens of this village," Xena continued. "You are warriors, not barbarians! When you desire goods and food, purchase them. If you engage in drink, maintain control. Above all, I don't want to hear about any mayhem, pillaging or the violation of women, girls or boys, AM I CLEAR, WARRIORS OF THE REALM!?!"
The troops shouted their acquiescence. "By your will, Xena the Conqueror," "Hail, Xena the Conqueror," was heard amongst the various responses.
"Very well," Xena said and then pointed to Seumius. "Commander Seumius is hereby ordered the commander of these entire forces, including my warriors from Corinth and Marius' men."
Seumius beamed a smile that could light the sky. I rolled my eyes. As Seumius waved his fists in the air and basked in the raves and chants from the troops, Xena turned to Commander Aerol and said quietly, "Seumius is in command of the troops, but you're in command of Seumius. See that he behaves."
As Aerol nodded his understanding, I pondered just how clever Xena was in this decision. It had been clear, even to me, that Imperial Guard Commanders outrank any other officers of the Realm. Aerol, as second-in-command to Palaemon, only answered to two people in the entire world, Palaemon and Xena. Demi had once told me that if a soldier disobeys a commander in one of Xena's armies, the punishment could range from imprisonment to public flogging. However, by her simple words, Xena was telling Aerol to kill Seumius if he engaged in any act of insolence against Aerol or the people of the village. Having Corinthian soldiers that tended to be most loyal to the Realm present amongst the troops was added security as well.
Furthermore, I was glad that Xena had decided to spare Aerol any punishment for disobeying her order to keep me on her ship during her battle with Niall. After our return to the ships, she never admonished him or even brought up the issue. Perhaps my acceptance to her proposal of marriage and our glorious lovemaking caused her to forget, I chuckled in my private musings.
As I reflected, Xena turned to Marius, who appeared visibly upset over Xena's decision to relinquish control of his men to Seumius.
"Marius, I want you to put your second-in-command in charge of your troops here," she said. "With the understanding that your second answers to Seumius."
"Have I wronged the Realm, my Liege?" he asked, his voice strained.
"Quite the contrary, Commander," Xena replied, smiling. "This change in command is merely temporary. I thought it might be a nice little holiday for you to accompany us to Rome. It's your homeland and I'm sure you haven't seen your mother and sister in quite some time."
Marius' eyes widened. "I but I "
"Take advantage of this offer, Marius," Xena said. "It may not ever be extended again."
"By your will, Conqueror," he said, lowering his head. I looked at Xena as she and I wondered why such a wonderful opportunity seemed to be lost on Marius.
The journey to the City of Rome was the most beautiful I had ever taken. Xena and I rode in a large and very regal looking carriage that was pulled by a team of horses. Our two horses, Argo and Chulytis were tethered behind our wagon as well. Usually covered, Xena had taken the carriage covering off so that I might take in the glorious countryside of eastern Gaul. I had learned that Palaemon and most of the Imperial Guard had left Gesoria for Rome early that first morning. They had the prisoners, including Niall, with them. At the same time, another smaller group of Guardsmen began their journey back to Corinth, probably to send word to Xena's other military leaders of her victory and her plans in Rome. Marius and a few remaining Imperial Guardsmen accompanied us on our journey, some riding in carriages and others on horseback. The two Parisii women rode in a covered carriage with Xena's healers.
The landscape in Gaul was a mixture of lush forests and rolling valleys, and when we passed them, the Alpine Mountains were a perfect milieu to the beauty. As we neared that area of land that borders Gaul and outer Rome, I saw more and more fruit-bearing trees and vines. There were literally hundreds of grape vines and olive, fig and cherry trees carpeting the land, and Xena and I often stopped the carriage to mischievously pilfer a few for us to munch. I simply love it when the Destroyer of Nations allows herself to be playful. She told me during one of our naughty trespasses that most of the grapes and cherries were used by the locals to make wine, while the oils from the olives were used to enhance the flavor of their foods. I knew that the people of Rome and Gaul loved to eat, but Xena went as far as to say that they treated eating like it was a form of artistic expression.
Our journey through Gaul took several days. While there, our entire entourage spent the nights at the estates of wealthy landowners. I noticed that in Gaul, Xena the Conqueror was fairly well received by nobles and peasants alike. It was obvious to me that however tyrannical she might have been, things were apparently far worse for the people of Gaul under Roman rule. However, things were far different for us during the nights that we stayed in outer Rome. Nights were spent in the small palaces of Xena's own appointed Proconsuls. The Romans in general were much more reticent toward us. Much of it was fear, although I imagined that the structure of power the Conqueror established for herself did not sit well with the wealthy Roman patricians, all of whom were male and most of whom had flourished under Caesar's rule.
During our journey, Xena spoke much about the land we crossed and the battles that she had fought and won on the land. She talked of the warriors she had defeated and those with whom she forged alliances. She also spoke of the riches of the land; the treasures that she acquired during her many conquests. I enjoyed listening to her. Her voice is low and rich and perfectly accentuates her overall stunning beauty. I could sit and stare at Xena all day.
However, there were other things about Xena that I preferred to learn. The morning after she asked me to join her in union, I finally learned her age. She's only seven years older than me. I had always assumed that she was even older than that, probably because she had been in power for so long. It was now obvious that she was just very young when she began her conquests. I wanted to ask more questions about her, but she responded so strangely to that simple one. Thus, I fell silent during most of our trip and gave her the opportunity to tell her true tales of great battles and brokered deals.
By our last night together before reaching Rome, however, my curiosity was eating me alive. As I indicated, we were staying at the estate of one of Xena's local governors. The Proconsul, one Arvis Longinus Postumus, was a rather strange looking man with thick, curly red hair and hundreds of large freckles that seem to speckle much of his body. He was tall and heavy and walked with a slight limp, but seemed pleasant enough. We were escorted to a stately bedchamber that had several rather gaudy tapestries draping the walls. After a late meal, we went to take a bath. The Romans believe in using slaves for everything. Postumus had slaves to bring us our food, different slaves to fill our bath, more slaves to wash us and still more to dry us off. I didn't want any part of that. Xena, probably sensing my disdain, ordered all of the slaves to give us privacy. Slavery is and will always be a deeply disturbing issue with me and I promised myself that very soon, I would discuss with Xena her own ownership of human beings.
After the bath, we settled in bed. Xena and I had not been intimate since that night by the sacred river, and in addition to my curiosity, I was burning with desire for her. Her wounds seemed to have healed well and she had removed the stitches some days before. After our usual stripping of clothing, we settled into a comfortable embrace when I began nibbling on Xena's neck. I wanted to give her one of those bruises that she often gave me during my years of servitude.
"Hungry, Gabrielle?" she queried jokingly.
"Not for food, Xena," I responded in kind.
My mouth was close to her throat, so when she began moaning, I became even more excited as I sucked and nibbled on the soft flesh of her neck. Unwrapping my arms from around her waist, I cupped both of her breasts and began feverishly kneading them. That seemed to excite Xena, because she then began running her hands all over my back and rear as she threw her head back and let out a loud and deep moan. Still sucking her neck, I began pinching and fingering her hardened nipples. I felt her long fingers slip between my legs and enter me. Now I was the one who was moaning.
"Go inside, Gabrielle," Xena implored. "Please go inside of me."
At the moment I entered her, my mouth abandoned her neck and moved to her mouth. Our ensuing kiss was furious. My tongue wrapped around hers as the rhythm of our penetrating fingers captured our passions and then released them in a tsunami of satisfaction.
It was several moments before Xena and I came down from the storm. I was sweating profusely and needed to sit up and raise my arms.
"You have a beautiful back, Gabrielle," Xena stated as I stretched.
I turned and saw her as she leaned up and rested her head on her hand. I immediately gasped at the mess that I had made of her neck. "You might want to wear a scarf around your neck tomorrow before you face our entourage, Xena."
"Why, is it that bad?"
"It's that bad."
She smiled that breathtaking Xena smile of hers. "You naughty little spitfire you," she said. "Come here and let me give you one."
"No, Xena," I protested lightheartedly as I returned the smile. "I don't want one."
"Come here, I said." Xena demanded.
"I said 'no,' Warrior Princess!" I stated defiantly, smiling all the while.
"Is that right?" Xena said and before I could blink, she had me straddled, digging her hands into my side, tickling me like crazy.
Needless to say, by the end of the candlemark, it was decided that both of us would be wearing scarves in the morning.
I woke up to the sound of slaves bringing in our morning meal. Xena was already out of bed and speaking with one of them. I rose up and grabbed the first available piece of clothing and walked over to her.
"Sit," she said to me. "Eat."
I began looking around the room.
"What are you looking for?" Xena inquired.
"A pet of some kind, because surely you weren't speaking to me that way." I was furious.
Xena immediately sensed my anger. "I'm so sorry, my love," she said as she took my hands and raised them to her lips. "I guess I still have a lot of work to do." Xena often addressed me in one and two-word commands when I was her body slave, and being around so many slaves since entering outer Rome must have rattled her foundations somewhat. She looked over at the seats surrounding the table that held our meals. "Please join me for morning meal, Gabrielle."
I sat and we ate in a tense silence for a while. As I was finishing, I decided to break it. "When will we be in the city, Xena?"
"We should reach Rome by midday," she responded. "I'm so excited for you to see it. There's nothing more spectacular in the entire world, Gabrielle."
"More spectacular than Corinth?" I asked. "Than Athens? Than Sparta?"
"Oh yes, Gabrielle," Xena replied. "Our great land of Greece is a land of many celebrated cities, but here in Italia, all roads lead to Rome. It's this land's ONLY great city, and the Romans have pumped all of their riches into it."
"Interesting," I said and then decided to change the subject to that which has been consuming me. "Xena, tell me about your family."
"Where are your parents?" I began my inquisition. "Do you have sisters? Brothers?"
At that moment, Xena the Conqueror did something I had never seen her do before. She blushed.
"My mother still lives in Amphipolis," she responded as she looked down at her food. "My father is dead."
"I'm sorry, Xena," I said. "What happened to him?"
"I'd rather not discuss it now, Gabrielle," she responded.
I grabbed her hand. It was slightly trembling. "I don't have any sisters," she continued. "My brother Toris lives in southern Thrace with his wife and two sons. I haven't seen him in ten years."
"Why, Xena?" I asked.
"When our village was raided almost 13 years ago, Toris refused to defend it. He left. My other brother Lyceus and I stayed behind and fought. A lot of our childhood friends fought as well, Seumius included. Lyceus died defending our homeland."
"Oh, Xena," I said, sighing.
"Toris was the oldest, Gabrielle," she said, her angry eyes watering. "At the time, he was a man of 24 years, and yet he ran like the sniveling coward that he was that he always will be."
I gripped Xena's hand tighter. "Lyceus and I were very close as children, Gabrielle," she continued. "Like you and your sister, he was my best friend in addition to being my brother. He was only 17 years old, but he fought with courage, with honor. The fucking piece of shit that killed him wasn't even man enough to face this proud young boy. He stabbed my brother from behind. I was running to Lyceus when I saw it, and when I saw my beloved brother lying in his own blood, I took my dagger and stuck it into that piece of shit. I cut him from his neck to his groin."
"Where did Toris go when he ran, Xena?" I asked.
"To Thrace," she replied. "He met his wife there. I ran into him again about six months after I defeated the northern Amazons. It was a short reunion."
"When was the last time you saw your mother, Xena?" I asked.
"It's been awhile," she responded. "I've not exactly been the prodigal daughter, Gabrielle."
Now I understood why Xena didn't like discussing personal matters. So much of her past, as well as her estrangement with her mother, is obviously painful to her. As a tear slowly made its way down her cheek, I gently wiped it away with my thumb. She grabbed my hand and touched it to her chest. "I want you to know, Gabrielle, that I will defend you to the death, and I will obliterate anyone or anything that harms you in any way."
"I hope you never have to live up to that pledge, Xena."
Xena was correct. Rome was absolutely spectacular! The main gateway leading into the city was made of tall marbled columns. Plastered across the propylaea in big, bold italics were the words; Veni! Vidi! Vici! I came! I saw! I conquered! People were everywhere. We had arrived just after the Romans had taken midday rest, which was something that they did every afternoon after lunch. Xena told me that during rest, the streets of Rome were as quiet as they were at midnight. As she spoke, I looked up at lavish homes that sat on the Roman hillsides overlooking the city. There were smaller homes and apartments nestled closer to the city's center. The first great sight that I saw was the Proconsul's palace. It appeared only slightly smaller than Xena's palace in Corinth, but it was just as majestic. Xena decided to ride our carriage around the city before making our way to the palace grounds. Our entourage followed us. "Take it all in, Gabrielle," she told me. "As the Romans say, 'Carpe diem!'"
"Seize the day!" I acknowledged the term. "Yes, Xena, I will."
Rome was crowded, dusty and noisy. Beautiful temples and many public buildings lined the streets. Public bathhouses were everywhere. Xena told me that each bathhouse contained both hot and cold baths, steam rooms and saunas. The Romans had invented this hard, rock-like substance called concrete. They used it to build many of their homes and other structures. In addition, many larger than life Roman statues lined the streets. The statues were mostly of historic Roman orators and I immediately noticed that they were very realistic in their appearance. Unlike our Greek sculptures, which portray men, women and gods as perfectly featured, human imperfections, such as large noses or fat bellies, were featured on the Roman statues. In my studies with my dear friend, Demi, I had learned that while we Greeks may be the great philosophers and idealists, the Romans are gifted craftsmen and stark realists.
Riding through the core of the city, we came upon the Roman Forum. The Forum was the city's central agora where courts held session and the great orators met and argued. It also appeared to me to be the main marketplace and business center of Rome. "After we're settled, Xena, I want to come back here!" I exclaimed in my glee. Xena laughed. I had confessed to her months ago that I had developed this addiction to haggling with merchants for goods, an addiction that I had acquired accompanying my former bodyguard and dear friend Bahri around the Corinthian marketplace, and I simply couldn't wait to try out my haggling skills and Latin on these Roman vendors.
After rounding a corner, my mouth dropped. Before me stood the famed Colosseum of Rome. The Colosseum was Rome's premier public entertainment center. On the other side of the columned pillars of that great amphitheater, the gladiator games took place. Xena called the games a "blood sport" because she claimed that as much blood was shed in that stadium as on the battlefield.
"I don't wish to attend a game while we're here, Gabrielle," she said as we passed by the massive structure. "I don't want you to bear witness to the carnage that takes place behind those columns."
"I don't wish to watch men die either, Xena," I responded. "Have the Romans more civilized forms of entertainment?"
"Absolutely," she said with a smile.
The next structure that we rode by was the Circus Maximus, which was a huge amphitheater where chariot races took place. Engraved above the main entranceway to the theater was the inscription, Fortitudo est domina et regina virtutem; Courage is the mistress and queen of all virtues. "I like that inscription, Xena," I said.
"Sometimes people get hurt racing chariots, Gabrielle," Xena advised me. "Sometimes they die, but death isn't part of the sport."
"I don't think I want to see chariot racing either, Xena," I informed her.
The final amphitheater we passed was the Campus. There, men engaged in games that were similar to the Olympic games of Greek men. There was foot racing, jumping, archery, wrestling and boxing. The Campus was located next to the Tiber River. Xena informed me that often after competing, men would jump into the river to cool down. "I don't wish to see a bunch of naked men bobbling up and down in a river either, Xena," I said.
"By the gods, Gabrielle," Xena said as we came upon the great Roman temple of the gods. "You're a hard sell."
We stopped our carriage at the temple. "This is the Pantheon, Gabrielle," Xena said. "Feel free to come here to worship. The Romans may have different names for our gods, but they are still OUR gods."
"By your will, my Conqueror," I said as I took her hand and pressed it against my lips.
As we made our way back to the Proconsul's palace, Xena pointed to a large circular agora. "Plays are performed in open air theaters here, Gabrielle," Xena said. "They're free of charge."
"I think that between the orators in the Forum, shopping and plays, I'll be thoroughly entertained, my Lady," I quipped.
"Excellent," Xena said. "Are you ready to meet Octavius?"
"Yes, I am."
Our entourage entered the palace as a group. Two Roman palace guards approached us and gave Xena some scrolls. They then escorted us down a long and elegantly decorated corridor to a large auditorium. Over the door to the auditorium was the inscription, Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt; Men readily believe what they want to believe. It was a quotation by Julius Caesar. I thought it a strange saying to have over a palace door. Inside the stately room, Proconsul Octavius, his Consul Hirtius Cassius Tubero, and three finely dressed civilians approached us.
"Ave, Xena the Conqueror," Octavius greeted.
"Ave, Governor Octavius," Xena responded. "Ave, Vice-Governor Tubero."
"Bona Fortuna!" Tubero exclaimed exuberantly. "Welcome to Rome, Empress."
I regarded the two men. Octavius was young, as I had expected. He was tall and handsome and had short, curly dark brown hair that was neatly combed forward. Tubero was slightly taller, slightly older, but distinguishingly handsome as well.
Octavius turned to the three civilians behind him. "I am honored to introduce to you, Conqueror, the three greatest orators and poets of Rome," he announced. "Publius Vergilius Maro, Quintus Horatius Faccus, and Titus Livius."
Xena gripped Maro's hand. "Ave, Maro," she said.
"Please, Conqueror, call me Virgil."
As she gripped Faccus' arm, he quipped, "And please, Conqueror, I prefer Horatio."
The third poet was a young boy of no more than 13 years. "Everyone calls me Livie, Great Conqueror," the cute lad said with a voice that was no deeper than my own.
Xena smiled at the youngster. "Livie is quite the prodigy, Conqueror," Octavius declared. "He's been performing in the Forum since the age of six and he has a sizeable following."
Xena turned to me. "This is Gabrielle of Poteidaia," she announced. "I dare say that she's Greece's most talented and beloved storyteller."
Octavius gripped my arm in greeting. "I have heard of the famed Bard of Poteidaia."
I was surprised. "You have?" I asked.
Octavius responded by shooting Xena a very devious smile. Xena, in return, began hastily introducing the others of our entourage, with the exception of Marius of course, to the five Romans. After all introductions were made, Octavius announced that the three poets would be our first evening's entertainment. I was looking forward to hearing the threesome recite.
"If I may be excused, I do believe I have a quick errand to run," Octavius said.
"By all means," came Xena's response.
The Proconsul practically dashed out of the auditorium. I immediately suspected that something was amiss. Marius and the accompanying Imperial Guardsmen began making themselves at home, turning their attention to a long table that had a feast of food on it. Tubero and the three poets were already there picking at the seemingly endless delectables. Likewise, the five healers began whispering amongst each other as they made their way to the table. Xena just stood next to me with this quirky look on her face. Only Stanislas and Hadiya seemed as unaware as me.
As I was pondering the myriad forms of mischief in which Xena could be involved, one of the auditorium doors flew open and a familiar voice yelled at me.
It was such a joy to see Gabrielle's face light up. Standing under the columned entranceway of the palace stateroom were Gabrielle's closest friends; Demitrius, Illiana, my chambermaid Mia, the Amazons Ephiny, Solari, Daphnis, Anthia and Charicleia, and my boisterous Imperial Guard Field Sergeant Bahri.
Gabrielle ran to the group and extended her arms, throwing one around Bahri and the other around Illiana. The others joined in, forming a rather silly looking group embrace. As they began a litany of mindless chatter amongst themselves, I watched them and thought about how I could just let myself get lost in Gabrielle's spirited exuberance. When I sent word back to Corinth regarding the detainment of Chayym Eben, I also sent a second set of orders directing the Guardsmen to summon Gabrielle's friends to Rome. It was my plan to have our ceremony of consortium in Rome, witnessed by two of my greatest military leaders, Palaemon and Marius, and Gabrielle's closest friends.
After moments of reflective musing, I decided that I needed to remind the little group of my presence in the stateroom. "People," I said, clearing my throat. Although I was only addressing Gabrielle's friends, the entire room went silent. "Are any of you hungry or not?"
Gabrielle and her friends dispersed and joined the others from my entourage already indulging themselves at the food table. On cue, Octavius returned, accompanied by Commander Palaemon. Awaiting our collective appetites was a magnitude of edible delights; rolls of bread with olives or raisins sprinkled on them, different cheeses, fruit and vegetables, fresh meat and fish, and several mugs of honey and wine for dipping. Octavius sent in a platoon of slaves to assist with whatever we desired. I was immediately mindful of Gabrielle's obvious distaste for the whole concept of slavery, so I discreetly ordered the slaves to stand away from the table and allow the group to do things on their own.
For a few moments, I observed the people in the room. Gabrielle was chatting excitedly at Demi, Illiana and Mia. There was no surprise there. These three individuals are Gabrielle's oldest and dearest friends in the palace. The Amazons seemed to have attracted the attention of the various men in the room. They were surrounded by my Guardsmen, my healers, Virgil and Horatio. The youth, Livie, was fascinated with Bahri, who had immediately gravitated to Hadiya. They spoke with each other in a language with which I was not familiar, as the boy poet looked on with wide eyes. The language was neither Egyptian nor the language of the Moors. As Hadiya and Bahri bonded, I noticed that Stanislas made her way over to Charicleia. They didn't speak, since neither knew the other's language, but they smiled as they watched their two lovers converse as if they were old friends. I was looking forward to getting better acquainted with Stanislas and Hadiya. For some reason, these two women were very intriguing to me.
Moments later, Gabrielle broke away from her two favorite pastimes, eating and conversation, and wandered over to me. She was inspecting a small piece of bread that she held in her hand. "What is this called, Xena?" she asked.
"That's focaccia, Gabrielle," I responded. "The cheese and crushed walnuts are baked right on the bread. It's a Roman delicacy."
Gabrielle bit into it. "I like," she said.
"It's nice to see that Rome has done wonders for your ever-expanding vocabulary, Gabrielle."
After our feast, I stole Gabrielle away from everyone and took her to the palace atrium. I didn't think that we were going to have many opportunities to spend much alone time together with all that was about to transpire, so I wanted the chance to simply be with her in the tranquil peace of that central courtyard.
"This is beautiful, Xena," she said as we sat next to the huge fountain that was the centerpiece of the atrium. "And thank you for sending for my friends. That was such a wonderful surprise."
I took her hand in mine. "Gabrielle," I began, "I sent for them because I would like for us to have our union ceremony here."
"I thought we came here so that you can preside over the public judgments of Niall and his warriors," she said.
"Well, that was part of it."
"I don't wish to get married here, Xena."
"Several reasons," she said. "We're Greek. I'm an Amazon and I wish for all of our friends from the palace to be present, all of my Amazon Sisters and my Queen, and your loyal commanders and my parents and your mother."
Just then, I felt something. My skin began to crawl and the hairs on my neck rose. It was a strange disturbance. I had felt it in Gesoria the first night that we had arrived from Albion and again at least twice during our journey to Rome. I began looking around the courtyard. Someone was watching us.
"What's wrong, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
I didn't want to alarm her. "It's nothing," I said.
There was a brief silence as I allowed my senses to become even more alert. "I respect your wishes, Gabrielle," I said, tentatively returning my attention to my love. "Perhaps we can plan a traditional Amazon ceremony in the village of your tribe."
"That would be nice," she said.
"Gabrielle, your parents are not going to bless our union," I asserted as I tried desperately to contain my tears.
"This is going to be a challenge for us, Xena," Gabrielle declared. "But I have hope."
One of the many things I love about Gabrielle is her eternal optimism, I thought as I watched and listened and waited.
After our feast, everyone retired to the various guest chambers in the palace, but only briefly. It wasn't long before we were all in the massive palace baths cleansing and readying ourselves for an evening of entertainment. In Rome, as in Greece, men and women bathed separately and I have to admit, I was a little uneasy about Gabrielle bathing with her female friends. I've not always been very secure about how much, if at all, my physique appealed to Gabrielle, so I actually found myself comparing my body to that of the tall and svelte Hadiya and Stanislas, the lean and athletic Ephiny, Solari and Bahri, the robust and stout Charicleia and even the delicate form of my attractive, 40-year-old chambermaid Mia. Of course, once my insecurities passed, all of my attention shifted away from my own body to that of the finest body in the bath and on the planet, my strong and sexy Gabrielle.
Octavius had a regal chamber prepared for Gabrielle and me. Several highly polished metal mirrors were placed in the room so that we might ogle ourselves the way Roman men seem to think we women do. I did finally check out my tattooed shoulder brand and was delighted with the result. Before dressing in traditional Roman togas, Gabrielle and I took turns applying a lightly scented cream to our bodies. The cream was made out of wheat germ oil, lemon balm, honey and propolis. Of course, doing this caused my loins to throb with desire for her, but I was able to ease my lust so as not to "spoil" the evening ahead. After dressing, we accentuated our attire with ornate pearl necklaces, earrings and bracelets. I decided to wear my hair up, holding it with pins made out of ivory.
"By the gods, Xena," Gabrielle exclaimed as I turned to face her fully clothed. "You're going to totally distract me from the entertainment tonight."
"Is that your adorable way of saying that you like the way I look this evening?" I inquired, smiling.
Gabrielle put on her best mask of cynicism. "Yes it is, O' mighty Xena the Conqueror, Ruler of the Known World."
After the three poets entertained that evening, I excused myself from the group and took a guarded stroll around the palace grounds alone. I wanted to follow my instincts to whatever was irking me. I eventually made my way to Octavius' dungeons. Like mine, they were underground, but his dungeons were actually underneath the palace. Niall and his men were being held there. I didn't have any desire to confront Niall. I was just being thorough in my canvassing of the palace. On my way out, I confirmed with the dungeon guard the plans for the Albion enemies in the morning.
"I have been ordered to take the Britons to the Forum at dawn, my Lady," the guard said.
When I returned to the stateroom, all of the men were gone. Gabrielle and the women were sprawled out on cushions on the floor, drinking wine and talking. "We're having a Bona Dea, Xena," Gabrielle announced joyfully.
"What's a Bona Dea?" Bahri asked her.
"It's a Roman party for women only, Field Sergeant," I responded. "If a man enters this stateroom now, I or any one of us can kill him under the full sanction of traditional Roman law."
"Works for me, my Liege," Bahri responded jokingly. The others laughed as I sat down next to Gabrielle. It wasn't easy, but eventually I allowed myself to relax somewhat and enjoy this long abandoned concept of being in the company of friends.
The Bona Dea lasted so late into the night that I didn't have much time to sleep before I had to be at the Forum early the following morning to announce the capture of Niall and his surviving cohorts.
I stood center court with Octavius and Tubero, and Commander Palaemon. Marius had already been relieved of duty and was, presumably, visiting with his family. I advised Gabrielle that this was not going to be a public judgment, but only an announcement of victory to the Roman citizens. She didn't really care to see that so she and her friends decided to take the opportunity to check out the Forum marketplace instead. The Parisii women joined her.
As the citizenry began to assemble around the central court, I began my oration.
"I, Xena the Conqueror, am proud to announce the capture of these Britons these enemies of Rome and of the Realm!"
The audience cheered. I began announcing the names as each man was brought before me.
"Erall of Calleva Denzill of Calleva Byrle of Durnovaria Rhys of Isca Tristram of Londinium Thaine of Londinium Glen of Regnum " The list went on until I came to the end and to the man who led them.
"Behold, citizens of Rome citizens of the Realm our greatest capture NIALL THE MAGNUS!"
The crowd erupted. "ADOREA! ADOREA!" Victory, they repeated.
In the midst of the applause, I began feeling that strange sensation again. Just then, a woman's voice yelled out; "Sit qui perulae inter faeces petit benedicta!"
"Blessed is she who seeks the pearls among the shit?" Palaemon questioned as he translated. "That's odd." Just then, a sword raised and sliced off the heads of one of my captives and the guard who held him. The crowd began a frantic retreat. As the sword rose again, I grabbed for my chakram and threw it at the slayer. A hand reached up and grabbed it.
At that moment, I saw a smile I hadn't seen in over six years.
"Ave, sweet Xena!" My my my, you are still ever so pretty!"
I wasn't about to ask how she had managed to escape the asylum in Sparta. As everything began falling into place, all I knew was that Marius' life was over.
I began walking slowly toward her. "I've missed you, Xena," she said.
I reached out my hand. "Hand it over, Callisto."
She kissed my chakram. "Oh no, Xena," she said. "This is much too precious for me to give back to you just yet. I have to play with this for a while." There was a brief pause. "This and your other precious toy."
She turned and ran as my heart sank. GABRIELLE, I thought. "Palaemon, go get Gabrielle and the others NOW!" I shouted as I began chasing Callisto. As I chased her, a million things went through my mind. If she had managed to abduct Gabrielle somehow, whatever plan she has won't work as long as I'm able to catch her, I thought, determined.
She ran fast and swiped the chakram from side to side in front of her. Frightened people were running in every direction. In all of the chaos, that crazed bitch ducked in between two buildings. Had it not been for her flying blond hair, I might have missed the maneuver. Running down the alley, she was several paces a head of me, but I was closing in on her. At the end of the alley, she veered left. I had her nearly in my grasp when I reached the end. Looking to the left I saw nothing.
I frantically searched the area for some moments. Several Roman guardsmen joined me. Unsuccessful, I spewed a few expletives before commanding them to continue their search and heading back to the Forum.
When I returned, Palaemon was present with Demi, Mia, Illiana, Bahri, the two Parisii women and the Amazons. Gabrielle wasn't with them. My heart stopped.
Palaemon grabbed my shoulders. "Gabrielle was abducted, my Liege."
I saw red and grabbed the one person who I felt was most responsible for her in my absence. "What the fuck did you let happen to her, Bahri!" I shouted as I grabbed her throat. Palaemon threw his arm around my neck in an effort to help his buddy while Charicleia threw her strong arms around my waist. She was willing to challenge me in order to protect her lover.
Bahri dug her nails from both hands into my wrists in an effort to pry my hands away from her neck. I couldn't tell at the time, but she was just as angry as I was. "This isn't my fucking fault!"
As I struggled against three people, another commanding voice rang out. "Let go of her, Conqueror!" It was Hadiya.
I released my grip as my emotions invaded me and the tears began flowing. "What happened to her!?!" I yelled at anyone and everyone.
Demitrius stepped forward. "She simply went into one of the Forum bathhouses to relieve herself, my Liege," he said. "When she didn't return, the Amazons Ephiny and Solari went in to get her. They were told that two men had grabbed her and taken her away."
"Why didn't any of you escort her!?!"
"Why would she need escorting just to take a piss?" Bahri queried in a flagrantly disrespectful tone as she rubbed her sore neck. Apparently, she didn't seem to care at that point that her attitude could cost her life.
Ephiny stepped forward. "She had simply gone to relieve herself, Conqueror," she said, trying to maintain calm. "Gabrielle traveled the Greek countryside alone and void of fighting skills for months. There was no reason for any of us to believe that any harm would befall her now that she's a skilled Amazon in a crowded agora and only paces away from the Destroyer of Nations."
I turned to Palaemon. "Go get Marius," I ordered. "Bring him to me back at the palace. Take some of our Imperial Guardsmen with you in case he resists."
"Why would he resist?" Palaemon asked.
"Just do it!"
"By your will, Conqueror."
As Palaemon departed, I took a deep breath and began walking briskly toward the palace. The group followed me. I spoke not a word until we were within the safety of the palace walls. Once inside, I turned and faced the group. "Did anyone get a good look at these men?" I asked them.
"Others in the bathhouse said that they were ordinarily dressed men, Conqueror," Ephiny replied. "The woman I spoke with there merely assumed that it was an angry husband or something."
"Did any of you notice anything out of the ordinary?" I was grasping hoping. "ANYTHING?"
"I noticed something, my Lady," Mia spoke up.
"Tell me," I implored, grabbing her shoulders.
"There were two men who stood around Gabrielle and me when we were at one of the fruit stands. They were eyeing her pretty intensely. I thought that they were admiring her looks or something."
"Could you describe them? Was there anything unusual about them?"
"Well " Mia pondered. "Actually, I noticed that both men had identical necklaces on."
"Necklaces?" Demi chimed in.
"Yes, I remember," Mia responded. "I thought it was rather strange."
I threw my arms up in defeat. "Those were just bullas that you saw the men wearing. Roman men wear them "
"No, my Lady!" Mia interrupted. "Please excuse the interruption, Majesty, but I know about the special bulla charms that the Romans wear. These men were not that young and those necklaces were not those charms. Both necklaces had the head of a cow on them."
"A cow," I thought out loud and then a voice shouted. "Mithraists!" It was Demitrius.
"Pardon?" I asked.
"The men who abducted Gabrielle belong to the cult of Mithras," Demi responded. "Only they would wear jewelry bearing the head of a bull. But why would Mithraists abduct Gabrielle, Majesty?"
"They must be working with Callisto," I responded.
"Who's Callisto?" Bahri asked.
Just then, Palaemon returned with Marius in tow. "I didn't have to go very far, my Liege," Palaemon said. "He was on his way here."
I grabbed Marius by his tunic and rammed him against one of the palace pillars. "Where the fuck is she, Marius?"
"I I don't know, my Liege," he responded, whimpering.
"You fucking son-of-a-bitch!" I was livid. "When did you pull that cunt out of the asylum?"
"I I "
"A year after she was committed there, Majesty," he responded.
I punched him twice and kneed him in his groin. "You defied me!"
"I couldn't keep her there, Conqueror," he cackled as he doubled over and grabbed himself. "She was suffering there and and I love her. Surely, you can understand that now. You can understand being in love."
His plea for understanding was falling upon deaf ears. All could think about was what butchery that bitch was doing to the greatest joy of my life. "She's been with us since Gesoria, hasn't she, Marius?" The disturbance I've been sensing.
"Yes, Majesty," he answered. "When we returned from Albion, she met me there. I told her that I was going to Rome at your request. She insisted on coming. She rode in a fruit wagon that was always at least 200 paces behind us." He began crying. "I thought she just wanted to be with ME, Conqueror. But when we got here, she disappeared. I never suspected that she would seek to harm Gabrielle, I swear."
"As it is, you're already a dead man, Marius," I said. "If Gabrielle is dead, I promise you that I will fucking skin you alive and then I will crucify you!"
I pointed to two Imperial Guardsmen. "Take him to the dungeons," I ordered them. "Detain him there."
"Is this necessary, my Liege," Palaemon asked as he gently grabbed my arm. "Marius has been faithful to the Realm for "
"SHUT UP!" I interrupted him. "His loyalty ended the day he let that animalistic bitch out of the asylum. Now, we need to find Gabrielle." I turned to Demi. "Tell me what you know about these Mithraists."
Demi began. "Followers believe in the one god, Mithras, and in one prime agent of evil, Ahriman, my Liege," he said. "I don't know the nuances of the cult, except to say that they believe in the fundamental goodness of all created things, in resurrection, in judgment after death and in a final conflict between good and evil. Theirs is a very secretive cult, but it's not an aggressive or particularly harsh religion."
"What Romans would abandon the Gods of Olympus?" I inquired.
"Most followers aren't true Roman citizens, my Liege," Demi responded. "The cult is popular among legions stationed in frontier areas; non-Romans, freedmen, Gaelic, Persian and Germanic peasants. It was these people that brought the cult here."
"What's the deal with the bullhead necklace?"
"The great legend of Mithras is that he sacrificed a bull, Conqueror," Demi said. "I'm not sure of the symbolism behind it."
"Have they a temple of some kind?"
"Oh yes, my Liege," Demi replied. "The temple of Mithras is called the Mithraeum. It's not far from the Pantheon."
"The Mithraists who abducted Gabrielle probably took her to their temple," I suggested.
"That's impossible, my Liege," Demi said.
"Women aren't allowed to become members of the cult and thus, they are barred from entry in the temple."
I turned away and looked up at the ceiling. I thought for several moments before everything began to make perfect sense. I turned back to Gabrielle's perturbed group of friends. "No, Demi," I said. "She's there. Callisto's there with her."
"Um, is anyone going to tell us who this Callisto is?" Bahri asked.
I looked at the still very angry Egyptian. "Callisto is Marius' wife," I said. "She has this problem with me and I fear that she wants to hurt Gabrielle as a way of hurting me."
"Conqueror, if this cult doesn't allow women, how can you be so sure that Gabrielle and this Callisto are there?" she asked.
"Because Callisto likes to play her little games, Bahri," I said. "Finding her is part of it, so it's totally within her to hide Gabrielle in the one place in all of Rome that, technically, I'm not allowed to enter."
I immediately began formulating a plan for Gabrielle's rescue. I was operating on the assumption and pure hope that Callisto hadn't killed her yet. I honestly believed that keeping Gabrielle alive was part of Callisto's plan. Killing Gabrielle and dumping her dead body for me to find would have probably brought Callisto a great deal of sick pleasure, but not nearly as much pleasure as killing Gabrielle in my presence.
I needed two men to enter the temple on the pretext of joining the cult. These two men would provide me with a layout of the temple and learn its secret accesses. It was my firm suspicion that Callisto likely charmed only two or three members of the cult. Perhaps these seduced men were Mithraists from Gesoria or Castra Regina and had traveled with her in that fruit carriage. I was sure that a male-only Mithraist temple was always a part of her grand scheme. She wouldn't have had much time to work on cultists living in Rome since she had only been in the city as long as we had. Thus, these "visiting" cultists could easily learn of any secret passageway from their local Roman brethren and pass that information on to Callisto. The local cultists were probably not involved in Callisto's sick game or even aware that she was hiding in their temple. I deduced that once my two men discovered the passageway, I would enter through it and seek out Gabrielle, who was probably being held in an underground cell or catacomb.
Of course, my one big problem was that all of this was just an enormous theory of mine.
My other problem was that I didn't want to involve any more than those who already knew about Gabrielle's abduction. Because I'll never fully trust him, I didn't even want to tell Octavius. Thus, my plan was limited to a group of ten people. Besides Marius, of course, Palaemon and Demitrius were the only men aware of the situation. Palaemon would definitely be one of the two men to go, but Demitrius was too old and not a skilled fighter. He would be nothing more than a burden to Palaemon if the situation intensified. I thought about disguising myself as a man and going, but I knew that although Callisto was crazy, she wasn't stupid. Through her cronies, she would somehow make it so that every man in the temple was on the lookout for a hostile "man" with my blue eyes. I didn't want to risk it.
"I can do this alone, my Liege," Palaemon announced.
"No," I said. "One never embarks on a mission without backup."
"I'll go with him, Conqueror." It was Bahri. "Gabrielle's my friend and I want to help."
"You're not a man," I said.
"No, but I'm pretty damn good at playing one, Majesty," she reminded me. "Did it for eleven years. Even had you fooled, Conqueror."
"Very well," I said. "Go prepare." Palaemon patted Bahri on her shoulder. Charicleia gave Bahri a hug and a tender kiss before she and Palaemon turned to depart. "Both of you," I yelled out. "Be careful and and thank you."
"What do we do now, Conqueror?" Charicleia asked as her eyes watered.
"We wait," I responded.
The Roman hourglass was turned several times before Palaemon and Bahri returned.
"Were you successful?" I asked as I rushed to them.
"Too successful, Majesty," Palaemon answered.
"I'll say," Bahri added.
"Either these cultist are hankering for members or they know our plan and they want you to storm the temple," Palaemon continued.
"Well, we're not doing that," I said. "Is there a secret access?"
"Yes, my Liege," Palaemon said. "I wasn't having any such luck, but Bahri flirted with the temple head Pater and was able to extract all kinds of information from him. We both had an immediate sense that he fancied Bahri, so she ran with it."
"Excellent!" I exclaimed. "We'll make our move after nightfall."
At that moment, Ephiny grabbed my arm. "We Amazons are coming with you, Conqueror," she announced.
"I don't need you."
"Yes you do," she said. "And even if you didn't, we're coming anyway. Gabrielle's our Princess and we need to be a part of this."
Stanislas and Hadiya approached. "We come too," Stanislas said in Greek. I smiled at them. Gabrielle had even managed to touch the hearts of these two women with whom she was unable to communicate. At that moment, I wanted to drop to my knees and pray to the gods to keep her alive and unharmed, and not just because I wanted her back with me. Gabrielle didn't deserve to suffer any more harm. She is a wonderful force, a light, and the world needs her.
Palaemon and Bahri took us to a location about fifty paces from the rear of the temple. Lifting a hatch, we saw a staircase leading down into an underground chasm. "The Pater told me that this is the cult members' escape route in case of trouble, my Liege," Bahri whispered.
"Are there chambers below the temple?" I asked her.
"I believe so, but neither Commander Palaemon nor I were shown them," she responded.
I instructed Palaemon and Bahri to go back to the temple and provide a much needed distraction. The Amazons were told to stay outside, provide a lookout and protect what I believed to be my only way of escape. I asked the two Parisii to follow me down below. I was putting a great deal of trust in these two women that I still barely knew. But of all of the people on this mission, I felt that they were the best choice to join me, if for no other reason than the fact that it was highly unlikely that Callisto spoke their language. If I had to, I could give them commands in her presence that she wouldn't understand me.
After unsheathing our swords, we quietly descended the staircase. We took one small oil lamp down with us. Once we reached the bottom, I raised it only briefly to see the length of the corridor and note any chamber doors. There were only two at the end of the corridor. After extinguishing the lamp, I turned to the two women.
"If Callisto is on the other side of one of those doors," I whispered in their language, "I don't want her to see us coming."
Surreptitiously, we walked the length of the corridor. I actually closed my eyes as I proceeded. In the darkness, they were of no use to me anyway and closing them allowed me to focus on my other senses. I listened for the sounds of pain and inhaled for the smells of agony. I was impressed at just how quiet my two comrades were as they walked behind me. When I arrived at the first door, I pressed my palm against it and felt it for coldness. And then I listened. On the other side, I heard a faint, raspy breathing. The pitch was high, like that of a woman. My Gabrielle, I immediately thought.
Before going any further, I felt for the other door. I pressed my ear against it and heard the faint sound of men talking. "This door leads to the temple," I whispered ever so quietly to Stanislas and Hadiya. "We want to open the other door."
I grabbed the door handle. "Stay out here until I call for you," I told them.
The door opened inward, which was not to my advantage. I could easily anticipate that Callisto was behind it, but it was just as likely that she wasn't. As I stepped in, the room was as pitch black as the corridor. I was still very much relying on my other senses. For the moment, my ears were directing me to the raspy breathing, although I didn't rule out that the breathing could be Callisto herself attempting to deceive me.
In an instant, I began feeling that disturbing presence. "I see you've improved on your Latin, Callisto," I said to the darkness.
"Numquam periculum sine periculo vincitur, Xena," a voice said.
"You're right, Callisto," I responded. "Danger is never conquered without danger. And if my memory serves me correctly, you love danger."
"As do you, my sweet," she said. "Quisque creat suus veritatem proprium." We each create our own reality, I interpreted in thought as I heard her stir slightly.
"Are you interested in the reality I've created for myself, Xena?"
"Sure, Callisto," I lied. "Why don't you tell me all about it." Because her voice was coming from a different location than that of the raspy breathing I was hearing, I began slowly moving closer to the source of the breathing sound.
"Well, I have been the devoted wife, Xena," she said. "But enough about me. I find it so interesting that you have carved out this wonderful little life for yourself, my dear."
"Is that so?"
"Oh, yes, Xena," she continued. "What I find so captivating is the fact that you went from having all of these little sex toys around you to play with, even when we were PLAYING but lately, you've only been playing with one. She is a cutie, by the way, Xena. Not necessarily my type, but cute nonetheless."
"Glad you think so." I wasn't yet close enough to grab Gabrielle, but I felt my distance from her narrowing.
"So, I'm sure you're interested to know how your precious little Gabrielle is doing."
Just then, a small lamp burst into flame in front of Gabrielle. She was next to a wall. Semiconscious, her arms were stretched over her head and her hands were bound. She had a bruise near her mouth and her lips were parched, but besides looking very tired and thirsty, she didn't appear badly harmed. I still couldn't see Callisto, who was hiding somewhere in the darkness of the chamber.
"As you can see, Xena my darling, your sweet Gabrielle is pretty much intact," Callisto said, snickering. "Oh, and don't worry. I didn't rape her. From what I understand, you did enough of that to scar the girl for life, poor thing."
A white-hot rage invaded me. "You fucking bitch," I hissed.
"Aw, did I hit a sore spot, Xena?" she sneered. "Sorry wait, no I'm not." She began giggling.
As I slowly made my way toward her, Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked at me. "Don't like being reminded about how much of a monster you are, eh Xena?" Callisto continued. "Well, I think it's time to put one of you two out of her misery."
I heard the instant clang of metal. "Nighty night!" At that moment, I dived for Gabrielle as the shrill sound of my chakram came closer. I was able to grab it before it impaled her. In my effort, I knocked over the lamp, but I was able to make out the sound of Callisto going for the door. I charged her in the darkness.
"Oh no you don't, you bitch!" I yelled as I tackled Callisto from behind. I wanted to hack her to pieces with my chakram, but that would have been too quick and easy, and not nearly as much fun. Instead, I returned it to its safe resting place on the side of my battledress and straddled her.
"HADIYA! STANISLAS!" I yelled at the top of my lungs as I held Callisto down. "Come get Gabrielle out of here!"
The two women stormed into the chamber and cut Gabrielle down. One of them had relit our oil lamp and brought it into the room with them. As Stanislas carried Gabrielle out, I heard her raspy voice speak, "Please, Xena, don't "
Once Gabrielle was gone, I began pummeling that bitch with blow after blow. Callisto's fighting skills had improved tremendously in the years since our illicit affair. She managed to block many of my blows and even got in quite a few punches as well. She probably would have faired better against me had I not been seething. As I was furiously fighting her, a single word was pounding in my ear and crushing my heart rape.
In the corridor, all Tartarus was breaking loose. Some of the cultists, hearing my yelling and Callisto's incessant screaming, began storming down from the temple. I heard the sounds of swords hitting and then I heard Bahri. "Hadiya," she said in Greek. "Let's show these cult guys what the black girls can do!" I had to believe that Stanislas got Gabrielle to safety.
I beat Callisto until she was too worn out and injured to resist any further. I was tired and aching as well. "Are you done, Xena?" she asked, now sounding just as raspy as Gabrielle.
"No," I said as I applied my lethal pinch to her neck. "Now I am," I said. "Nighty night."
I went through the second door that led to the main temple hall above. The inside of the Mithraeum was shaped to resemble a cave. The ceiling was high and vaulted. I approached the only two people standing in the main hall of the temple. The strange shape caused their voices to echo as they engaged in seemingly casual conversation before noticing me.
"I don't think they ever figured out that you're a woman, Bahri," Palaemon said amused. "Perhaps you should stay here in Rome and take up the theater."
"Naw my Latin stinks, Commander."
At that moment, both of my warriors looked at me.
"Is she dead, my Liege?" Palaemon was referring to the body that I had slumped over my shoulder.
"She should be, but no, she's not," I responded. "Was Gabrielle taken to safety?"
"Yes, my Liege," Palaemon said. "The Amazons took her. She should be in Aneurin's capable hands as we speak."
"Good," I said, relieved. "Where are the Mithraists?"
"I broke the news to them about Callisto, my Liege," he answered. "They are off somewhere dealing with the cult members who betrayed them."
"Demi was right, Conqueror," Bahri chimed in. "These guys are major secretive. The gods only know where they are right now."
"The two Parisii women are right outside, my Liege," Palaemon added. "After order was established in here, they both promptly left the temple. The Parisii Hadiya told Bahri that they needed to honor the rule of the cult with regards to women on the premises."
"I guess that I'm not all that 'honorable,'" Bahri chortled.
"Neither am I," I said to Bahri before returning my attention to Palaemon. "Any casualties?" I asked him.
"We kicked a few asses, but everyone's alive, Conqueror," he answered proudly.
"Fine," I said. "Let's join our Parisii friends outside and head back to the Palace."
When I entered our guest bedchamber, Gabrielle was sitting up on our bed drinking something. She had bathed and changed into a simple white tunic. I walked very slowly over to the bed. I was battling a slew of emotions. I so wanted to take her in my arms and apologize for everything she had endured over the last few hours, but I was also distressing over what Callisto said. Gabrielle had been so wonderful about being open about her feelings for me; what she thought of me now and what she thought of me before gaining her freedom. But I found myself once again being unsure of her feelings.
"Come sit, Xena," Gabrielle said. "Hug me."
I rushed to her and threw my arms around her. I began crying. "It's okay, Xena," she said as she stroked my hair. "I'm fine."
"I'm so sorry, Gabrielle," I whispered into her ear. "I should have been there to protect you."
"It wasn't your fault, Xena," Gabrielle said. "It wasn't anyone's fault. How could you know that this would happen?"
"I sensed something, Gabrielle," I confessed. "I didn't know what but I could have told you, warned you."
"Warned me about what, Xena?" she asked. "How could you have anticipated this?"
I released her from my embrace and then, taking her hands in mine, I kissed them. "Xena," Gabrielle spoke. "Did you kill her?"
"Briefly," I responded.
"What do you mean?"
"I I put my pinch on her, Gabrielle," I confessed. "But I revived her after her heart stopped."
"I released the pinch and hit her chest, Gabrielle," I said. "It hurt her. I wanted to hurt her."
"You didn't have to make her suffer, Xena," Gabrielle told me. "She never laid a hand on me. This bruise on my face was from one of the two men who abducted me. I punched him in the initial struggle and he punched me back. It's the only real injury I have, Xena."
"I she she paid for what she said." I looked into the disappointed eyes of Gabrielle. I knew what she was thinking. Once again, I acted on what she called my "pure dark impulse." Once again, I betrayed myself.
"Xena," Gabrielle began, "I want you to do something for me."
"I want you to release Marius." I opened my mouth to protest, but Gabrielle covered it with two fingers. "Let me explain," she said. "Marius never knew about you and Callisto. I bet he still doesn't know. What he did when he released her from the Spartan asylum, he did out of love for his wife. He was freeing a woman that he truly believed was devoted only to him. He rescued Callisto from that place just like you rescued me from her."
"It's not the same!" I exclaimed.
"It's exactly the same," she retorted. "She was suffering there, and out of love for her, he ended her suffering. And he wanted to be with her, just like you want to be with me."
"Did she tell you all of this shit?" I asked in my growing fury.
Gabrielle remained calm. "No, Xena. All she talked about was you. She didn't admit it, but it's obvious to me that she has been consumed with you all of these years. I'm surprised that she didn't try something sooner. Perhaps learning about me triggered something in her to make her move when she did."
I considered Gabrielle's request as she continued. "Marius cares a great deal about you, Xena. He is loyal to you, probably as much as Palaemon. Don't end his life for being human, for being a man who loves his wife."
I looked away from Gabrielle. "Niall's public judgment is tomorrow, Gabrielle," I said. "I want you there."
"I'll attend, Xena," she conceded. "What about Marius?"
"I'll entertain the idea."
The public judgments were scheduled at the noon hour the day after my rescue from the Temple of Mithras. Xena had slipped out of our bedchamber early that morning before I awoke. I suspected that she had a great deal on her mind above and beyond what was about to transpire in the massive Roman Forum. The one staple in the psyche of the Conqueror is her periodic need to be alone. I don't know what Xena does when she wanders off, but I imagine it involves a lot of brooding and cursing.
I had some brooding and cursing of my own to do that morning.
Bahri escorted me to the Forum. She had told me about the rescue mission Xena had concocted after figuring out where I was. Xena is truly amazing. However, Bahri also reluctantly admitted that Xena had initially blamed her for my disappearance. I suspected as much after noticing the prominent bruising on Bahri's neck. I hated it that Bahri was often made the scapegoat for other people's insecurities. I decided that Xena the Conqueror would be getting an earful from me when things had settled down. My future consort and I would have much to discuss during our journey back to Corinth.
Xena and Palaemon were already present at the Forum when I arrived there. People were congregating by the masses. At precisely the noon hour, Xena stepped up on the huge stage at the northern end of the Forum.
She raised her right hand bearing her sword. "Cum hic vincemus!" she shouted.
Bahri leaned over and whispered, "My Latin's a little weak, Gabrielle," she said.
"The Conqueror just said, 'With this we conquer,'" I informed her.
"Thanks," Bahri replied.
The Conqueror ordered the first prisoner to be brought out. It was one of Niall's men. After announcing his crimes, she pronounced his sentence, which was a life of confinement in a Roman prison. The same fate befell the other prisoners from Albion. Finally, Niall was brought before the Conqueror. I was expecting crucifixion, knowing how much both the Romans and the Conqueror loved that form of punishment.
Much to my surprise, Xena the Conqueror turned to me. "Come here, Gabrielle," she requested.
I stepped up on the stage and walked over to her. "What does he deserve, Gabrielle?" she asked.
I thought about the man whose eyes I had looked deeply into on that Egyptian-built ship those many days ago. I thought of the warrior who begged a greater woman warrior to spare his life. I thought about what punishment Niall would want for himself.
"Make him a gladiator, Xena," I finally decided.
"Gabrielle," Xena's eyes widened, probably in amazement. "That's a death sentence. If not right away, eventually."
"I know, Xena," I responded. "Niall wants to die. He wanted to die on that battlefield, but he was too afraid to face death there. He regrets that, Xena. Now, let him die the way he wants. Let him die fighting."
"Very well," Xena said, before returning her attention back to the crowd and pronouncing Niall's sentence.
I wasn't surprised at the faint smile that flashed across the dirty face of that man.
As he was being led away, Xena commanded the Roman guards to bring out the last prisoner. It was Callisto.
Xena announced Callisto's crimes against the Realm; corruption, desecration of a holy temple, and the abduction and attempted murder of the Conqueror's consort-to-be. She again turned to me. "Name her punishment, Gabrielle."
I stepped down from the stage and walked over to Callisto. Her face was badly bruised and scratched. I looked down at her hands. Her knuckles were reddened. I turned and looked at the bruised and scratched face of the Conqueror that I had noticed the day before. I looked at the reddened knuckles on her hands. I returned my attention to Callisto.
"Hi, Callisto," I said.
"You can dispense with the pleasantries, Gabrielle," she said. "That's your problem, you know. You're too damned pleasant."
I leaned into her. "You know, Callisto," I whispered, smiling. "I totally understand your feelings about Xena." Callisto cocked her head to the side. "Let's face it. She's beautiful, strong, authoritative, and by the gods, is she ever great in bed."
Callisto smiled. It's what I wanted her to do. "Well, Gabrielle darling, the Warrior Princess and I did have our many, many special moments."
I was not amused. "I can see the evidence of your most recent 'special moment,' Callisto," I said as I lightly touched her bruised cheek.
"Oh, Gabrielle my dear, you are so observant," she retorted, still smiling.
"I'm to recommend your punishment, Callisto," I said. "What will it be?"
"You're asking me?"
"Yes, I'm asking you."
"Hmm this is a tough one," she said sardonically. "I have it why don't you free me?"
"That's not a punishment, Callisto," I said.
"Being alive and knowing that SHE is still ruling the world after all that she's done I'd say that's a punishment."
"You don't like being alive, Callisto?"
"Why, do you want to stake me to a cross, sweet little Gabrielle hmm?"
"No, I'm just inquiring," I was mindful that Xena was probably losing patience with my trifling conversation with Callisto.
"Make me a gladiator too, Gabrielle," Callisto decided.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure."
Xena reluctantly announced Callisto's punishment. For some reason, Xena wasn't happy with the idea of Callisto becoming a gladiator. After Callisto was led away, Palaemon lead a cheer.
"Xena, Femina Indomabilis!" he shouted. Indominable woman, the citizens repeated.
"Xena, Femina Indomita!" he shouted. Untamable woman, the citizens repeated.
"XENA, VIRAGO PRINCIPESSA!" he shouted. Warrior Princess, the citizens repeated over and over. "VIRAGO PRINCIPESSA!" "VIRAGO PRINCIPESSA!" "VIRAGO PRINCIPESSA!"
Xena and I returned to the Proconsul's palace as the city of Rome was quieting for midday rest. After she and I entered our guest bedchamber, she immediately walked over to a window and began staring out of it. I undressed and, walking over to her, I wrapped my arms around her waist and rested my head on her back.
"It's rest time, Xena," I said. "Come and lay down with me."
When Xena turned to face me, I saw the same sad face I had seen the morning of her hard death, the day I had returned to her from Poteidaia, and the day she freed me. Taking her hand, I guided her over to our bed and crawled up on it. She took off her Imperial chiton and regal accessories and joined me. Lying down side by side, I took her in an embrace.
"Callisto was right," she whispered into my ear in a sad and strained voice. "I I hurt you."
I needed to look into her eyes. "No, Xena," I said. "Callisto said what she needed to say in order to hurt you."
"All of those times, Gabrielle," Xena said ruefully. "As my slave "
"You listen to me, Xena," I countered as I grabbed her shoulders. "You did hurt me. Every time I reported to you for service as your slave every time, Xena, I was in fear "
Xena's eyes dropped. "Look at me and let me finish," I demanded as she returned her gaze to mine. "It was a strange, unexplainable fear. Yes, there was a part of me that feared your wrath. Thankfully, much of that took place only in the first couple of years of my service to you. But I had another fear that came along, Xena. It was an even greater fear than the fear of your wrath. It was the fear of not meaning anything to you. Most of those times when we had sex I had to convince myself that I was only performing a service. I so often enjoyed your gentleness and, yes, I even enjoyed some of the hard sex, the unusual sex, the Warrior Princess seductions, when it wasn't painful when it was all of your passion, when it was you, Xena. I wanted to believe that you felt something for me, that I was more than just your property, but I didn't want to lie to myself."
Tears began streaming down her beautiful face. "I loved you so much, Gabrielle, for so long. By the gods " I wiped the tears away from her face as she began wiping them away from mine. "But still, Gabrielle," she said, "you did feel my wrath. I did hurt you. I denied you pleasure. I wouldn't let you touch me. I I shamed you. How can you forget that?"
"I haven't forgotten, Xena," I proclaimed. "I'll never forget. But I can forgive. You've apologized, Xena, in more than just saying the words. So much of what you've done to me, for me, since gaining my freedom has been an ongoing apology. I forgive you."
Xena turned her head away from me. "Your parents will never forgive me."
"Perhaps they won't, Xena," I said. "But perhaps you could give them the option?"
"You wish for me to apologize to them?" Xena returned her gaze to me.
"What do you wish, Xena?" I asked.
She and I looked deeply into each other's eyes. "I want to atone," she said.
We both lay on our backs and stared at the ceiling for long moments. "Gabrielle," Xena finally spoke up.
"Marius was pardoned this morning," she said. "He's with his mother and sister."
I took her hand in mine. As Morpheus sought to claim us for the afternoon rest, I anticipated the days ahead. There would be much for us to discuss on our journey home. I planned on telling Xena everything Callisto said to me during my capture. I wanted to discuss Bahri, Marius, our new Parisii friends, slavery and our impending union ceremony. I wanted to learn more about Xena's family and I was curious to learn about the other loves in her life. Most importantly, I was looking forward to learning more about Xena herself. I was looking forward to revealing to her more about me.
I smiled at all of the revelations that await us both.