SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
The Amphitheater – Pompeii
(Home of the Pompeian Gladiatorial Games)
Sappho hustled along Via Stabia strolling toward the market. Her thoughts were filled with the beautiful woman Phaon and what securing her freedom might mean for the two of them. Of course, it wasn't certain that Phaon would want to leave with her or was even interested in her as more than a friend, but Sappho was willing to take a chance. If it took a million dinars to bribe Julia Felix then that's what Sappho was willing to pay.
A million dinars or, perhaps, one golden statue of Ceres.
The poet knew, without a doubt, that Xena had stolen that statue. Sure as she knew how to play a lyre, she knew that the Warrior Princess was involved up to her beautiful blue eyeballs in this sordid little affair. The question was, where would a Warrior Princess hide a Golden Ceres?
After all, it wasn't as if Xena knew many people in Pompeii. The statue was not at Vettii's house, that much was certain. So the question was, who else had Xena met since coming here who would be willing to help her?
Scooting around the corner onto Via Dell'Abbondanza, she spotted two children playing an innocent game of sticks and stones under the shade of an awning in the cool morning breeze.
Xena and Gabrielle strolled along Via Stabia to the market. They planned to spend a relaxing day, meandering through the city. Perhaps they would bathe together at one of the public pools or have lunch in a nice outdoor cafe. By then, Vettii's house would be empty and quiet, and they could sneak back in to enjoy the rest of the afternoon rediscovering a part of their relationship that they both had thought lost forever.
Gabrielle's staff clicked a happy rhythm in syncopation with their light steps as they walked along the street. She looked up at Xena and smiled. The warrior's black hair was flowing in the cool morning breeze and her eyes were sparkling in the bright sunshine. Sometimes, Gabrielle thought, just the simple act of walking beside her partner made the whole world seem right.
Xena glanced down at Gabrielle, catching the bard staring at her. "Watch where you're going, you'll trip over something."
Gabrielle couldn't resist. She wrapped her hand around Xena's arm, just above the elbow, lightly caressing the soft skin she found there. "Can't I walk and ogle you at the same time?"
"Not if you're going to step on the Pompeians," Xena replied with a grin and pulled Gabrielle to a stop before she could step on the legs of a beggar who was sitting against a wall.
"Hello, Gabrielle!" the beggar said. Ceres, the dog, wailed her tail.
Xena raised her eyebrow.
"Hello to you!" the bard replied with a smile. "And to you, too!" she added, including the dog with a pat on the head. "It's a beautiful day, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is. You and your friend off to market?"
"Actually, we were thinking about getting something to eat."
"Try Diana's Bow. Turn right on Viccolo DiEumachia just ahead. I think you'll both like it."
Gabrielle grinned, "Thanks. Maybe we will."
"You're welcome," the beggar said, extending his hand, palm up, and smiling.
"Oh. Right." She gave Xena a nudge. The warrior was jerked out of a daydream and looked down at the extended palm.
With reluctance, Xena reached into her cleavage and produced a small pouch, out of which she drew a single silver dinar. She reached down to place the coin into the palm of a now very happy beggar.
It was halted abruptly by bony pale fingers which wrapped themselves around the warrior's strong wrist. Xena looked up in surprise into the face of a hag staring at her in anger.
"You'll give up too easily, warrior!" the old woman said in a raspy whisper, her eyes flashing with hostility.
Xena froze, staring at the craggy face which suddenly burst into a toothless smile. The old hag released her wrist, cackling at the look of alarm on the warrior's face.
"You'll give up too easily!" The old hag yelled and pointed an accusing finger at Xena. She stumbled away from a stupefied warrior in a fit of laughter.
"What in Hades was that all about?" Xena asked, watching the old woman as she staggered down the street.
"That's just Portia. She's crazy. Don't let her bother you," the beggar answered, not wanting the distraction to prevent him from getting his tip. He raised his hand up a bit higher until it finally got the warrior's attention.
"This whole damn city is crazy, if you ask me," Xena said as she slapped the coin down into the dirty palm. "Come on, Gabrielle. Let's go."
Xena stomped off without looking back.
The bard leaned on her staff with a sigh. "Great. Just when I thought it was going to be a nice day." She shook her head sadly and followed her partner.
"Xena, slow down!" Gabrielle called out. The warrior halted her steps and waited for the bard to catch up.
"You didn't let that crazy old woman upset you, did you?" the bard asked as she placed a comforting hand on the warrior's arm.
Xena's expression told her that she had. Gabrielle grinned. "Come on, you probably just need something good and warm in your stomach."
"Yeah, like a big goblet of that good, spicy hot wine they have here." Xena sniffed and let herself relax. "Only good thing about Pompeii is the wine."
"Yeah, and the stuffed clams aren't so bad either. I'm starving! Let's get something to eat. When was the last time you ate, anyway? Or slept for that matter? I swear Xena, if I didn't watch you every second you'd keep going until you dropped from exhaustion or hunger or both!"
The warrior allowed herself to be led in the direction of the nearest cafe by a very persistent bard.
"Like Sappho says," Xena replied with a grin, "plenty of time to sleep when you die."
Gabrielle regarded her with a frown. "That's not funny and I never did find it funny, and I'd appreciate if you would never repeat it again because I never will find it funny."
Xena pursed her lips. "Whatever you say."
"Now that, I like!"
"Speaking of a satyr," the warrior mumbled under her breath as Sappho came running up to them.
The poet took a few moments to catch her breath and then grabbed at Xena's arm. "Come on! There's something going on I know you are just going to love!"
Xena pulled her limb out of the exuberant poet's grasp. "We've already got plans."
"Xena, believe me. You are NOT going to want to miss this opportunity!" Sappho pleaded.
"Sappho," Gabrielle said, trying to get the poet to read in between the lines. "We already have something fun to do today."
"Oh really? More fun than ... say ... kicking half a stadium full of pompous Pompeian butt?" Sappho replied, hands on her hips, staring directly at the Warrior Princess.
Gabrielle sure knew the answer to that one, but Xena gently pulled her arm away from the bard. A very wicked grin spread across beautiful features as Xena took a step closer to the poet.
"Just where do I have to go?" she asked as her eyes flashed with an evil glint.
Grande Palestra - Pompeii
Sappho led them to the same areaof the city as the House of Julia Felix, almost to the Porta Sarino before making a right turn. They found themselves staring at the amphitheater of Pompeii - the huge arena used for sports and gladiator contests, hunts and battles with wild animals, spectacles of the type which had been introduced to Pompeii by the Romans.
These exhibitions were so popular that the amphitheater was built big enough to hold the entire population of the city in one sitting. Gabrielle sucked in her breath, thinking that Sappho was leading them to Pompeii's version of the Coliseum so that Xena could participate in one of these brutal events. This would be the last place in Pompeii that she would want to go.
Much to the bard's relief, they avoided the huge arena completely and turned, instead, to an equally large building that filled their vision just to the right of the amphitheater. It consisted of an enormous square surrounded by a high wall complete with battlements. On the inside, along three sides, was a portico of Ionic columns. In the middle was a large swimming pool around which grew a double row of tall trees.
The pool, however, was not the center of activity. For surrounding it on four sides was a meticulously groomed lawn bordering the pool with luscious green grass. And on this field, which stretched out in all directions the full length from the pool to the portico, were men participating in all manner of athletic games, from archery to wrestling.
"This is the Grande Palestra," Sappho informed them. "The exercise field of the noblemen. Today is games day. They're getting their minds and bodies ready for the big festival tomorrow night." Sappho took a step closer to the warrior, watching her as she observed the physical activities occurring on the field with keen interest. "I'm willing to bet there isn't an ugly butt out there that can beat the Warrior Princess." Sappho wiggled her eyebrows up at Xena when the warrior looked down.
"Wanna go in?" Sappho suggested, grinning widely.
Xena pushed her aside and strolled into the Grande Palestra. Sappho took a step to follow, rubbing her hands in anticipation, but Gabrielle grabbed her friend and pulled her to the side.
"Thanks a lot, Sappho!" the bard whispered angrily.
"What? I thought she would enjoy the opportunity."
"We had other plans for the afternoon."
"Well," Sappho said with a smirk and a poke in the bard's ribs. "Imagine what fun you'll have after she gets through with 'em. I imagine her juices will really be going after this!"
Gabrielle leaned on her staff and watched the poet run after Xena into the Palestra.
"Hmmpf," Gabrielle said to herself, a knowing grin lifting the corners of her mouth into a full smile. "She's right about that."
By the time Gabrielle trotted up to stand beside the warrior, an argument had already begun. Apparently, Xena was not welcome on the playing field. There was a small group of men, naked save for the cotton wraps that protected their valuables. One short, wiry man held a scroll and was writing down the names of participants as they entered the playing fields. He was shaking his head at the warrior and staring up at her sternly.
"Explain it to me one more time," Xena repeated slowly, her voice dropping to a dangerous growl.
"There's nothing to explain," the man squeaked, then cleared his voice to sound more commanding. "The rules say no womenfolk on the playing field."
"No womanfolk, you say? And why is that?"
"Because that's the law!" A large, overweight man bellowed in support of his comrade.
The sight of a woman in leather and the ensuing argument was quickly getting the attention of everyone on the field. Several of the games had ceased and small groups of men were meandering toward the excitement.
"Are you telling me that you are afraid to let women participate in these games?" Xena said, taking a step so close to the small man that he had to look up at her - way up.
"We're not afraid," the man choked out in reply.
"Oh no?" Xena asked as she took another step even closer, causing the man to practically stumble over.
The larger nobleman stepped up, catching his friend by the armpits.
"Why in Jupiter's name would we be afraid to let women play?" he said loudly, loud enough for everyone who had gathered to hear. He smiled in satisfaction at Xena as the crowd answered with laughter.
"Then you're not afraid of women?"
Xena's question was answered by more guffaws and laughter.
Xena looked the fat nobleman dead in the eyes. "Then it's just ME you're afraid of?"
The fat man gulped, his expression revealing that maybe he should be, but his mouth responded before he could think.
"We are not afraid of you or anyone!"
"You're not?" Xena replied loudly, letting her voice echo above the men. The replies confirmed the brazen statement.
By this time, both Vettii and Menander had made their way over to the crowd, which was growing by the second.
Xena looked at Vettii and smirked. Before the nobleman could warn any of his compatriots whom they were up against, she turned to face the man with the scroll.
"Then I challenge the noblemen of Pompeii to a contest!"
There was laughter mixed with howls of outrage.
The fat man quieted the crowd with his arms and stepped up to the leather-clad woman with a grin.
"You. You are challenging a Palestra full of Pompeii's finest athletes to a contest?"
Xena looked around at Pompeii's finest.
"Oh, yeah. You bet."
"You and what army?" The fat man's sarcastic question caused another round of scathing laughter.
"Just little ol' me."
Xena's expression revealed no reaction to the cynical chortles that rolled through the crowd.
Vettii took a step forward and tapped the fat man on the shoulder, "Excuse me, Flabius, but do you have any idea who this is?"
Flabius pushed Vettii away. "Who cares? How dare a woman make such a brazen challenge in front of all the noblemen of Pompeii! I say we put her in her place!" He took a step closer to Xena. "What's the challenge?"
Xena stepped away from the man and began to pace the circle that had gathered around her. She talked loudly, so that everyone could hear, even the women who were gathering in the seats over the portico in the balconies above.
"I challenge the law of Pompeii that says women cannot exercise on the fields of the Grande Palestra. I'll go up against your best man in each of your main events, whatever they may be."
"Ask her what the stakes are, Umpiricus," Flabius demanded, poking the little man holding the scroll with an elbow.
"What are the stakes?" Umpiricus asked.
"The stakes are, I win in every event. If I do, then from now on women shall be allowed access to the field."
"And if you lose?" asked Umpiricus. He had been writing down the challenge even as the woman spoke the words.
"If I lose?" Xena repeated, stepping towards him with a sneer. "If I lose, then you will have the honor of being the first to ever beat me in competition."
Umpiricus snorted. "What kind of stakes are those? Who are you anyway?"
"The name's Xena," the warrior replied, stepping up to look over the little man's shoulder. "That's Xena with a capital X!"
The quill suddenly began to tremble as he scratched out the terms of the agreement,
Flabius' jaw dropped open. The crowd became silent. Sappho was jumping up and down on her toes, rubbing her hands together with glee.
"THIS is going to be GREAT!" the poet exclaimed.
The crowd parted as the group of officials, followed closely by the Warrior Princess walked to the first event on the playing field.
"There are five main athletic disciplines," Umpiricus explained. "There's the discus, the spear, the broad jump, archery and wrestling."
Xena nodded her head as the man talked, her eyes scanning the field scanning the areas set aside for each particular event. She could see they were approaching the area designated for the discus throw on the right side of the field.
Already the field was emptying, a crowd forming around the edges to watch the challenge. Up above them, in the balconies overlooking the field, women were gathering. The once small crowd was growing slowly as news of the challenge was already making its way through the rumor mill of the city.
Gabrielle took Xena's sword as the warrior removed it from her back. There was a slight wind and Xena's hair was flowing gently in the breeze. Gabrielle could see her blue eyes sparkling with happy anticipation. There was no doubt that her warrior was enjoying this immensely.
The bard had to laugh to herself. Xena was about to kick their collective butts. Sappho was right. This was going to be GREAT!
Umpiricus stepped up to the discus-throwing square and stood in its center.
"Xena the Warrior Princess has challenged the noblemen of Pompeii to a contest on the fields of the Grande Palestra! In the name of Ceres, in whose honor we train for the upcoming festival and Jupiter, King of All Gods, and in the name of Mars, who gives us strength to endure all challenges, we hereby accept the terms of the contest as stated!"
"The first of five events is the discus toss. The city's champion is Frisbius! Step forward Frisbius and stand in the name of Pompeii!"
A tall, muscular man stepped forward, waving to the cheering crowd and shooting Xena a leering smile. He had, in his hands, a round disc the same size as Xena's chakram, but solid and made of heavy clay. He shifted it confidently in his hands, letting Xena see that it was a lot heavier than it looked.
The warrior smiled indulgently at the display and put her hands on her hips. She was not impressed.
Frisbius stepped into the center of the bordered square. He flexed his muscles, put the discus in the palm of his right hand and heaved his arm back once, then twice. On the third swing, he allowed his body to follow his arm and heaved with all of his might, letting the clay saucer fly.
All eyes watched the spinning disc hover in the air, covering an amazingly long distance before it crashed into the lawn, taking a good bite out of the grass. The men erupted into applause. Umpiricus paced out the distance, checking familiar marker points as he stepped.
"101 paces!" he announced and scratched out the number with his quill.
The men cheered. The women in the balcony argued worriedly.
Frisbius stepped out of the throwing area and waved to his fans. He watched with a smirk as Xena was handed a new discus, chuckling at her surprise as she checked the weight of it out in her hands.
The warrior removed the far lighter chakram from her belt and handed to Gabrielle. The bard looked at the weapon and then at the discus which appeared to be so much heavier in the warrior's hands. However was she going to throw that thing?
Xena stepped up to the square, took her place in the middle, and centered the discus in the palm of her hand.
Instead of dropping her right arm back, as Frisbius had done, she dropped it across her body, swinging it down, letting her entire body dip at the knees and lift back up. She bent once, twice and the third time a huge grunting heave brought her arm snapping around with so much force, her entire body twirled around once, using the momentum to send the disk airborne.
It screamed through the air, making a noise never heard before in the history of the Palestra. The discus bounced off a column on the right side of the playing field, shot straight across the lawn and over the pool, trimming several branches from the bordering trees as it whizzed by.
It hit a marble bust of Caesar right in the nose, cracking it off with a resounding thud and a shower of flying sparks, which sent the discus careening directly for a group of watching bystanders. They all ducked as the projectile screamed just over their heads.
It hit the back of the playing field, just above the main entrance, which propelled it right at the head of Umpiricus, whose papers were tossed in every direction as he had to duck and cover.
With a heavy thud, the discus embedded itself into the dirt of the lawn exactly one pace further than where Frisbius' saucer had landed.
The audience of women watching in the balconies above burst into cheers.
Umpiricus looked up from his prone position, his nose covered with grass.
"How am I to measure that?!"
Frisbius was furious. "That throw is invalid! Her style was unorthodox!"
Xena adjusted her skirt and retrieved her chakram from a very proud bard.
"I threw it, didn't I?"
Umpiricus lifted himself up from the grass, brushed himself off, picked up his scroll and quill, and trotted over to the embedded disc.
The Palestra waited in absolute silence for the verdict to be given.
Umpiricus looked up and announced.
"The discus toss goes to Xena, Warrior Princess by one pace!"
The gallery of women screamed its approval. Gabrielle looked up at the noise, seeing that the number of onlookers was quickly growing to epic proportions.
The men on the field burst into packs of grumbling arguments. But the referee was adamant and ignored all the yells of dispute as he stomped by.
"The next event is the javelin throw!" he announced and marched off in the direction of that part of the playing field.
Xena left the distraught Frisbius pounding his fists into the dirt. All grumbling ceased as the group moved en masse.
Umpiricus stopped at a chalk border line and stood to face the crowd.
"The second event is the javelin throw, in the ancient tradition of the great hunters of Pompeii! Our city's champion is Spearus. Step forward Spearus and do honor to Pompeii on this day!"
A very lithe Spearus strutted forward holding a beautifully crafted javelin in his hands. He nodded respectfully in his opponent's direction before turning to stand just behind the line chalk in the grass. Xena watched his technique, noting how he stood toe to the line and then took three carefully measured paces backward.
Spearus stood at this new position and hefted the long javelin into his hand, balancing it just at his shoulder. He leaned back, stretching the javelin behind him, and then took three quick hops forward before letting the weapon soar through the air. It cut a graceful curve upward and out, traveling a remarkable distance before arching downward and then finally embedding itself into the earth. The twang of its impact could be heard all the way across the field.
The crowd of men on the lawn of the Palestra roared their approval. The women in the balcony groaned at the distance covered.
Meanwhile, Umpiricus measured.
"202 paces!" He announced to a thrilled crowd of noblemen. "A new Palestra record!"
The women lamented. So did Sappho. Gabrielle looked up to find the entire balcony on all sides was now filled.
Xena stepped up to the line and took Spearus' arm in a warrior's congratulations.
"You hold the field record," she said, nodding at his smile. "But not for long!" He lost his smile. "I need a javelin!" She announced, looking around at several men who were standing just behind with javelins in their hands.
"You! Give me your javelin!" she ordered a lanky man just to her left.
He jumped. "What? Me? You want my spear? You can't use my spear! It was a gift to me from Caesar himself!”
The words were no sooner out of his mouth than he was flying through the air right along with his spear. He was still holding on even after Xena had grabbed it and immediately given it a mighty heave, sending him and the weapon arching through the air to the amazement of everyone watching.
All eyes followed his path as he soared overhead.
The javelin and the man landed with a pang exactly one pace beyond the spear of Spearus. The man's grip slipped along the length of the shaft as he dropped down onto the ground.
Umpiricus was already there, measuring the distance.
"The Javelin Throw goes to Xena, Warrior Princess, by one pace!"
The men on the field groaned. The balcony of women erupted into cheers. Gabrielle looked up to find a mezzanine of scarves flurrying in approval as the Pompeian women screamed.
Xena gave the cheering crowd above a brief wave before following Umpiricus to the next event.
"Next event is the broad jump!" Umpiricus announced, grinning at the warrior. Xena inspected the field with a furrowed brow. She had never seen anything quite like it.
It was a pit of sand, about fifty paces long, and that was all.
"You want me to hop over this little bit of sand? That’s it?" she asked, turning to face the tiny referee.
The man laughed. “You’re allowed to take three strides up to the pit and then you must leap. Where your heels meet the earth, that's where I measure."
"And if I go past the sand?"
The man shook his head, "No one has ever jumped beyond the sand pit. It's not possible."
Xena chortled and looked down at her partner.
"That's what they think," Gabrielle mumbled as she followed Xena to the pit.
They walked up to the jumping area and Xena tapped the referee's shoulder once again.
"Let me get this straight. You measure from where my heels hit the ground, right?"
"Right!" Umpiricus began to announce the event, but Xena interrupted him one more time.
"From where I jump to where my heels hit?"
Umpiricus looked up at her with annoyance. "That's what I said. What's the matter? Don't you think you can do it?"
"Oh, I can do it all right," Xena replied with a grin, watching as the audience on the field lined up around all sides of the sand pit, leaving one side open for the participants to run.
Umpiricus walked up to the edge of the launching point and announced:
"Next event is the broad jump! The city's champion is Hiphopites! Hiphopites, step forward and jump in Pompeii's honor."
A very trim and tall Hiphopites stepped out of the crowd and approached the line of the sand pit. He stood before the pit, facing it, and then did an about-face, taking three jack-rabbit hops away from the edge.
He turned back around to face the pit and spit in his hands.
Like a graceful gazelle, he took off in three long, loping strides before launching himself into the air. He flung his arms and legs up and out, stretching his limbs as far as humanly possible before the arc of his fall forced him to plant his heels firmly into the sand, just shy of the opposite end of the pit.
It was the longest jump any of them had ever seen. Umpiricus whistled. The men roared. The women groaned. Xena grinned.
She pushed past the crowd and took her place at the edge of the pit. Xena didn't even bother to take three running steps. She crouched down and sprang up, surprising everyone with the shriek of her battle cry. Hiphopites had to scramble out of the pit; she hadn't even given him time to get up.
All eyes followed the warrior as she launched herself into the air, flipping once, then twice overhead, traveling the full distance of the pit before the arc of her flight brought her down feet first onto the head of an onlooker standing at the other end.
Before he could even react, she had sprung off of that head then landed on another before flipping over one more time and ending her flight by planting her heels gracefully into the grass more than 50 paces beyond the sand pit and the crowd.
She turned to look over her shoulder with a smile at the herd of men who were regarding her in awed silence. Xena apologized with a pout at the two unwilling assistants who were lying in the grass, rubbing their heads.
"Xena wins the Broad Jump!"
The men erupted into angry shouts.
"She did flips!"
"She used heads!"
"Her method .... "
" ... is unorthodox," Gabrielle finished for them with a grin.
"Her heels landed in the ground 50 paces beyond the sand pit," Umpiricus stated bluntly. "Besides, even if I measured from where she hit the first head," Umpiricus explained as he stood over Xena's first victim, still lying in the grass, and tapped on his noggin with the tip of his quill, "she would still win."
The men became silent.
The women overhead roared. Sappho jumped up and down with glee and hugged the bard.
"The next discipline is archery," the referee announced as he trudged away toward the area of the field which held a row of targets, recording the results of the last event in his parchment as he walked.
The crowd moved across the lawn toward the archery field, filling in the spaces behind another painted line, the border that marked the shooting line for the archers. Someone handed Xena a bow, which the warrior flexed easily, getting a feel for the tension.
"Not taut enough," she said and returned the weapon to its owner. The crowd around her mumbled and another volunteer handed over a weapon. This was a much larger bow made of thick, red wood. The weapon creaked as Xena drew it back experimentally.
The warrior grinned in approval and its owner bowed.
Umpiricus stepped up to the line.
"The next event is bow and arrow. Pompeians are blessed by the Goddess Diana with a strong arm and a sure eye. The best of us in this discipline is Popidius! Step forward Popidius! May your aim be true in the name of Pompeii!"
Gabrielle and Sappho looked anxiously at one another. They had not seen Popidius since that unfortunate dinner the first night. The bard looked over at her partner. Xena was grinning with a certain glint in her eye that Gabrielle did not like one bit.
The bard watched her partner with suspicion as the warrior quickly asked for an arrow, even as Popidius was stepping up to the line. When, Xena asked for two more, somehow loading all three on the bow in highly unorthodox manner, Gabrielle stepped forward ready to intercede, had not Sappho held her back.
Popidius stood at the line, strong and tall. He lifted his bow into position, drawing the arrow back with a steady pull and pointed its tip at a colorful round target more than 200 paces away.
He paused and aimed, the field of noblemen held their breath, the balcony full of women covered their mouths, and he let the arrow fly.
It cut through the air faster than the eye could follow, streaking a path across the field and embedding itself deep into the very center of the target, so very far away.
"Boarseye!" someone yelled and then the men let out a resounding howl.
Popidius gave his bow to a friend and trotted down the field to the target to inspect the hit. He was followed closely by Umpiricus who intended to see the mark for himself.
Popidius stood before the target, running his finger from the center along the shaft of the arrow, pulling down and releasing it at the very end, so the arrow would snap up and down with a musical twang. He turned to face his audience with a self-satisfied smile.
Gabrielle's concern turned into full-on anxiety when she saw her partner raise her bow.
It took less than a second for Popidius to realize that there were three arrows careening in his direction. He backed up in panic, spread eagle against the target, afraid to move a muscle.
The first arrow split the shaft of his own, embedding itself exactly in the center just to the left of his face. He stared at it as his arrow crumbled into pieces and Xena's vibrated in its place. The second hit under his right armpit. The third landed between his legs, pinning his loin cloth to the target just at a point where there was thankfully enough fabric. Despite the fact that he still had his manhood, Popidius screamed two octaves higher than his normal range.
Umpiricus, who was standing just to the left of the target, watched the shaft of the arrow between Popidius' legs quiver in its place.
"Xena wins!" he squeaked. No one dared argue with a shot like that.
The crowd of women above erupted to a chorus of whoops and hollers.
Xena and Umpiricus headed off to the last event, leaving Popidius where he stood, pinned spread eagle to the target by an arrow through the loin cloth.
The men grumbled, ignoring his whimpering pleas for help, as each one shuffled by.
The group moved across the field to the wrestling ring. The last event. Gabrielle scanned the faces hoping for a glimpse at the Pompeian champion for this event.
He was hard to miss. A huge man, a tremendously huge man - in fact, he was a mountain of a man. The bard gulped as he sauntered by, certain that the ground was shaking underneath her feet. He stepped up to the ring, which was a round platform, raised almost two meters above the lawn.
She watched in awe as the man somehow managed to lift his huge bulk of a body onto the wooden stage and prance around, flexing his muscles and adjusting his loin cloth. He winked at the bard as he gave the cloth a tug.
Xena frowned, not appreciating the action.
She gracefully flipped herself up, landing on the stage with a solid thump and proceeded to remove her armor. An evil smile answered the many catcalls which accompanied her actions. She threw her armor down to Gabrielle, followed immediately by one gauntlet and then the other.
The warrior proceeded to pace around the ring, wiping her nose, flexing her own muscles and giving her bustier cups a lift, one at a time. The performance was answered by a balcony full of cheers and yodels.
Umpiricus stood before the ring and raised his hand for silence.
"This is the last event. If Xena wins, then Pompeian law is changed forever and women will have access to our playing field. Lose, and we gain the reputation of defeating the Warrior Princess herself in fair contest! The final discipline is wrestling. Hand-to-hand combat is the true test of a warrior! Our own champion is Gluteus Maximus! Stand for Pompeii and make us proud, Gluteus!"
With a nod of Umpiricus’s head, the wrestling match began.
Gluteus Maximus took a wide stance in the center of the ring, flexing his muscles and grunting as Xena circled him with light, dancing steps. He lunged at her experimentally, but the faster warrior woman easily danced away, letting his momentum tip him off balance.
The women in the balcony began to yodel in true Xena fashion, sending a wave of warrior cries out over the Palestra like a call to the wild.
Gabrielle began to prance back and forth, mimicking the motions of her partner as she circled.
"Come on, Xena! That's right. Don't let him catch ya. The bigger they are the harder they fall, right? That's it! Circle, step, float like a butterfly ..." the bard skipped away as the warrior avoided another lunge, " ... sting like a bee!"
Just to the bard's left, Sappho was prancing in much the same manner.
The men began to yell out instructions, some of which were neither pleasant nor called for. The crowd was getting ugly, but not as ugly as Gluteus Maximus.
He took a quick lunge at the Warrior Princess, catching her in his arms and squeezing hard as he lifted her body off the mat and into the air.
Xena gasped for breath. Her arms were pinned to her sides. She struggled against the big man's arms, but it was to no avail. He was strong, very strong. And stupid.
The last thing he saw was the smile on Xena's face just before she butted him in the head. The blow sent the man reeling backward, the hold on the warrior completely forgotten.
Now he was angry. He shook his head to clear it and touched the growing lump on his forehead. It hurt.
From the other end of the ring, Xena grinned wickedly and blew him a kiss. The man howled in rage and stomped forward with the lumbering steps of a giant.
Xena waited a split second. Then, with a resounding cry, she bounced once on the balls of her feet and took off at full speed directly for him.
Gluteus Maximus laughed in triumph, certain his superior weight was going to crush his opponent to the mat. He lunged forward, arms outstretched, full steam ahead.
Gabrielle froze in horror. The women above gasped their collective breaths. Sappho covered her eyes.
At the last moment, Xena dropped to the floor, sliding feet first in between the legs of the giant wrestler.
Her slide took her under and through and he ended up running right over her. That is, until Xena reached up and grabbed his loin cloth, giving it a solid tug that brought the thong down around his ankles in one yank.
He barely had a chance to cover the family jewels as his forward momentum sent him flying from the ring, the white cloth still wrapped securely around his feet. He landed with a resounding thud face first in the grass right between the bard and the poet.
"Looks like a full moon," Sappho commented and gave the wiggling globes a poke with her foot.
"Xena wins!" she yelled to the balcony.
The Palestra filled with a cacophony of screams, yodels and warrior cries. Hundreds of silken scarves flitted through the air, thrown down to the triumphant Warrior Princess.
It didn't take long for the balcony to empty and a multitude of women to fill the fields, dancing across the lawn in jubilation. They jumped into the pool and splashed water in celebration. The ring was swarmed with women of every shape and size, crowding the men away and overtaking the field.
The warrior was lifted from the ring by a score of feminine hands and placed on a pair of sturdy shoulders. She allowed herself to be carried in a circle around the pool, waving at the scores of women who were flinging off their sandals and dancing barefoot in the grass.
Eventually, the disappointment of the men disappeared and women wrapped their arms around them, kissing them and making them join in the dance.
Before long, what was once an athletic practice field was one big party.
Sappho and Gabrielle were twirling one another around in circles, yelling and laughing until the earth began to spin and Gabrielle had to sit down in the grass to wait for it to stop. They laid back on the cool lawn and giggled until a pair of dark, heavy leather boots came into view.
"Just what are you two doing?"
Gabrielle looked up to find a sweaty Warrior Princess staring down at her. She jumped up from the grass and threw her arms around her friend, giving her a great, big hug.
"Xena! That's was terrific!" The bard held on tight as the warrior hugged her back.
"Hey, I'm all sweaty!" Xena said, voicing a weak complaint.
"And that's a bad thing?" Gabrielle pulled back to stare at her friend. "Are you hungry?"
Sappho jumped up from the ground. "Come on! Let's eat! Dinner's on me!"
Together the friends made their way through the exuberant crowds, which now just seemed to be celebrating for the sake of celebration alone and were no longer interested in the Warrior Princess.
They strolled at a leisurely pace, triumphant, across the playing field of the Grande Palestra, passing out of its massive gate virtually unnoticed, yet leaving a piece of Pompeii forever changed in their wake.
Sappho gulped a half-swallowed mouthful of wine and stared at the Warrior Princess in shock.
"Xena! Warrior princesses don't burp!"
The warrior leaned back in her chair, patted her stomach and smiled contentedly.
Gabrielle put down her spoon and stared at her partner. "Xena, must you?"
The poet's next sip of wine spurted out of her nose. "By the muses, Xena. That takes talent!"
Xena beamed proudly. "In my day, I could send a full corp of calvary charging with one belch!"
"One of your more ruder skills, I suppose," Gabrielle muttered while sucking on a crab leg.
"Oh, I have others!" Xena stated, eyes widening mischievously.
"I'm sure you do."
Xena lifted her leg and leaned to the side. "I could demonstrate."
The bard dropped her crab. "Please don't!" Gabrielle answered hurriedly. She pushed the leg down and straightened Xena back into the chair. "Barbarian," she mumbled.
"Yeah, but I'm your barbarian," Xena replied with a charming smile.
Gabrielle picked up her crab leg and continued to search for succulent pieces of meat. "Well, if I'm going to keep you, I'm going to have to teach you some manners."
"Oh, really?" Xena asked and leaned forward. Her smile widened. She was obviously enjoying the way Gabrielle was playing with the crab leg, watching her sparkling green eyes study the shell as she searched for the best way to crack through to the sweet meat inside. "And just what would you teach me?"
"Well, for one," Gabrielle replied, still giving her full attention to the shell of the leg, which she was just successfully splitting open, "I would teach you not to pick your nose in public."
"I'm not supposed to pick my nose?"
"No," the bard said, pulling a nice, juicy piece of crab out and dangling it triumphantly in the air. She licked her lips in anticipation.
"What about if I pick your nose?" Xena asked in all innocence, leaning over to poke a finger up a bardic nostril.
"Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed and swatted her hand away. The distraction was enough to allow Xena to swipe the crab meat from the bard's fingers with one bite before her bard could even realize what had happened.
"Hey! That's my meat!"
"Hmmm!" Xena hummed happily. "Sweet!"
Sappho drank her wine as she watched the interaction with a big grin. She hadn't seen them this at ease with each other since they'd arrived. Even then, they seemed to maintain a respectful distance. All that had gone wrong in Pompeii was apparently bringing them closer together. The poet silently wondered whether one day she and Phaon would be sitting at a cafe table, playfully flirting with the pieces of delicious crab as bait.
A golden ray of sunlight reflected off a shiny object, hitting the poet in the eye. She had to squint to see what had caused it and noticed that the sun had shifted position and was soon about to set.
"By the muses, it's almost sunset!" Sappho said anxiously. She sat up in her seat and filled her goblet with wine, explaining as she emptied the cup between gulps. "We have to get going or we're going to miss the opening act."
Xena and Gabrielle stopped tugging the last crab leg between them and stared at the poet.
"Miss the opening act of what?" Gabrielle asked.
"You wanted to see a play, didn't you?" Sappho responded.
Xena used the surprised response of her partner to the mention of the play and snatched the last piece of crab. She popped it into her mouth, chewing victoriously.
"I let you have it!" Gabrielle grumbled and then turned back to Sappho. "Play? What play?"
Sappho stood. "You told Paris you wanted to see a play, right? Well, it's Friday night. He got us the best seats in the house. It's gonna start. You coming?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena expectantly. She knew all Xena really wanted to do was go back to Vettii's house, but she really did want to see a play. After all, they'd spent the afternoon doing a "warrior thing". The least they could do was spend the evening doing a bard thing.
Xena lifted a tender, plump crab leg that she had hidden under a napkin, out of view. Cracking the shell open expertly, she removed the succulent meat offering it to her partner by bringing the white meat up to her lips.
"We spent the afternoon doing warrior-type things," Xena said, smiling widely at the brightness in her bard's eyes. "We can spend the evening doing a bard-thing. If you want to see a play, then a play it is!"
With sparkling green eyes, Gabrielle snatched the meat from Xena's fingers with one bite. The feel of the bard's soft lips as they brushed against her fingertips had been the most erotic thing Xena had experienced in years.
Xena closed her eyes and smiled, remembering that moment with exquisite clarity.
She also recalled that the rest of the evening had been almost as perfect. Gabrielle's expression as they entered the theater and were ushered all the way down a sea of steps to the best seats in the very front of the stage; the high warbling, imitation warrior cries and the waving scarves that greeted them as each and every woman in the house recognized who had just walked in; her bard's shining, proud eyes when she looked up at her; these details were etched forever into her memory.
"I can't remember the last time you looked at me like that, Gabrielle," Xena whispered to the sea, smiling as the waves crashed against the shore, bringing the sound of the women's cheering and applause back to her mind.
"I was your hero once again, wasn't I?"
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