Full Disclaimers in Chapter I: Characters from the television show Xena: Warrior Princess are not owned by me, to my regret. This is written purely for enjoyment with no thought to monetary gain. There are women in love (eventually, as Gabrielle is a bit miffed) and if that is illegal for you or where you live, move on or simply move.
Mail is always answered and appreciated at Kamouraskan(at)yahoo(dot)com
Xena was in the lower bowels of the Flavian Amphitheatre, or as it was more popularly known, the Coliseum. The stone cellars were dank and water seeped from the walls and ceiling. From above, she heard the sounds of crashing and the splintering of wood, always followed by the muffled thunder of thousands of cheers. She'd been hurriedly handed equipage; greaves, manicae and a visored helmet that were all too small, and had stripped and squeezed into them under the leering gaze of her guards. She was all too familiar with the variety of weapons used in gladiatorial contests from her previous lives, and she doubted it was coincidental that she had been picked for the role of Myrmillo, as it came with her accustomed straight Greek sword. She hefted it and the oblong shield and tested their balance. There was something rattling inside the helmet, and it was with a grim smile that she picked up the Roman Victory pin that she knew she'd left behind on the hillside. With some slight regret, she dropped it again to the ground, and stonefaced, ground its glittering gold and jewels into the sand under her hobnailed boot.
With that reminder dealt with unsatisfactorily, she focused on what else Ares might be up to. She was certain that he'd played the part of Gabrielle, but to what purpose? And why send her to fight in another, if much bigger, Roman Amphitheatre? Despite the bloody reputation of the Roman Arenas, she knew that few competitors were actually killed in the contests. Most gladiators retired due to wounds, and those that survived had a soft life between bouts, filled with sponsorship endorsements and groupies. She could have accepted stardom once, ‘ but then Spartacus and his rebellion…'
The preparation for combat before an audience was something she had become used to. Something that Xena had never wanted to become accustomed to, was the smell of the average soldier, and she wasn't about to start changing her opinions now. So she was not impressed when the swarthy bulk of one of her minders sauntered up to her, sneering, “I heard you were supposed to be something special. You don't look so tough to me.”
Xena merely raised her eyes and let just some of her repressed anger show, but that was enough to push the soldier back several feet. That problem removed, she crossed her arms and leaned against a wall and attempted to look languidly unconcerned while waiting to find out her latest role in Ares' schemes. But certain words filled her mind.
‘You didn't think about the pain you'd be putting me through, you didn't even ask me! In the end you were just like, like the Gods and everyone we fought against! ‘Swallow this pain, Gabrielle, It's for the Greater Good.'
That hadn't been Gabrielle, she reminded herself. Couldn't have been. Despite all the years that had passed, no matter how much she may have earned her partner's ire, Gabrielle would never betray her in that way. What was really hurting was she could not deny any of the words that the false Gabrielle had said. Each one echoed and pounded in her head, and she found it hard to find that boot in the ass she needed to work out the truth and find a way to stop Ares.
“I would have turned you in for free.”
Her thoughts were mercifully broken when one of the gates clattered open and eight sullen dark youths and a small blonde woman dressed in even more ill-fitting gear than hers were pushed through. They had a moment to eye each other before a group of officials entered, one of whom, a harried middle-aged man, seemed to be in charge. He had a hurried conversation with a colleague before turning to address them.
“Okay, gather round!”
Xena tried to dismiss him with a glance, but he continued to speak anyway.
“I'm Fabius Aguptus, the assistant director of staging for this venue, and you are all now the property of the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Greatest Entertainment Complex the World has ever Known!”
There was muffled, if ironic applause from his assistants.
“I know most of you are new to Rome , and for some of you this is a chance to get out of a dead end position. For the rest of you this IS the dead end.” His sneer died as he crossed his arms. “Some of you want to be famous. Well, fame costs, and right here, “ he stamped his foot on the sandy floor, “is where you start paying.”
Xena rolled her eyes. A pep talk from this animal was not what she needed right now. Oblivious, Fabius continued.
“The important thing to remember is that you're now in the entertainment business, so that means you better be entertaining. If I see anything I like and you're still alive in an hour, we could be talking about contracts, especially if some of the bigger sponsors like you. As for escaping, please don't waste your time or ours. Thousands have tried, and every one of them played or paid. Just remind yourself, right now you're only so much meat to me. You're only here because we have a gap in the programme, and if you help ME, maybe later I can help you." There was a muttered acceptance before he continued.
“Normally in the big leagues, we'd never let you out there without at least the afternoon with a choreographer, to block out a few moves, a few stunts. But we have a hole to fill and we grabbed you guys to fill it fast.” He paused to look about.
“You slaves from the provinces have probably never been inside the Flavian Amphitheatre before, have you?” There was an embarrassed shuffle from a couple of Xena's fellow performers. “No. Well, what you're hearing is the end of a full naval battle. Inside the building. We flood the below floor area with several feet of water from our own aqueduct and right now, on our stage, there are fully manned ships, firing at each other while sixty thousand spectators watch. This is NOT the local playhouse, got that? But, sometimes not everything works perfectly. We normally have to close for a day or so after flooding, and this show was SUPPOSED” and there was an angry glance at one of his assistants who bowed his head, “to last until mid day. BUT…”and there was another glance at the assistant, “The prisoners of war that were on the boats weren't up to our usual standards, and they're about be finished, er, about to finish, earlier than planned. Now we promised action, spectacle to these punters and we also need to get ready for the big day tomorrow. So we're going to start draining the water now, and we need something out there now to finish off the card. Most of the local criminals were already brought in and executed during the half-time show, so we had to dig around and find something else. And that's you.”
He put out his hand and an assistant immediately filled it with a map of the Coliseum. He laid it on the ground and gestured for the performers to stand around. When Xena didn't move, he glared at her. “What's your problem?”
“I'm not having a good day,” she said laconically.
“Nice to know. I don't care.” Behind him, three soldiers placed their hands on their swords.
With a heavy sigh, Xena shrugged and moved forward to join the rest.
Taking a pointer from another of his assistants, the manager began to indicate positions in the stadium. “As I said, they've already started draining the water and the ships will lower slowly below the main floor sections. Some of the floor supports will already be laid in place, here and here. So you guys are going to come in through the west gate, here, banging your swords together, making lots of noise. The Emperor is out of town, and there will be no salutes to the Senators. Just get to it as soon as they see you. The stagecrews and techies will start mounting the columns and laying the floor while the gangs drag away the ships underneath you, so keep out of everybody's way and you'll have space to fight on these walkways here and here.
“ Split up and head for them in pairs. Now… frankly, having a bunch of amateurs like you won't be enough. So I hope you know the drill. It's a fight to the death, yadda yadda, no referees, until one of you ends up on the ground with a sword at the throat. Nobody… that means nobody, gets out of the room until the crowd judges your match and decides who lives. And they don't like boring matches, so if you want to go out the gate again, you better fight like your worthless lives mattered. And again, no cute stuff, like trying to go out with the water and out the drains. There are screens set into the stone, and the guys working down below have orders to kill anyone who falls through.”
He faced them grimly. “Now we got a reputation here. Maybe the entire house is paper, but we keep them entertained. Got that?” He waited until a few ‘yes sirs' slurred out. “Pacing is everything. You're here to kill time and I don't want you to bunch up your judgements. I want them spread out, a few minutes apart, got it? You go down, sword at the throat, the crowd decides, you slit the throat. Then the next pair of you, then the next pair, and so on.” He pounded his palm with the pointer. “Bang bang bang, okay? You're going to follow the stage crew as they lay the floor right out the East side, and by that time you should have already finished your matches. The survivors exit the gate in an orderly fashion while the garbage crews remove the losers and to finish the day, we bring in the elephants.”
Xena thought she'd misheard. “The elephants?”
Fabius turned to answer her. “Yeah, from Africa . Huge ugly things with noses as big as…”
“I know what an elephant is. What elephants?”
“The elephants the Centurions are going to fight to close the show.”
Xena hung her head and shook it slowly.
Fabius was affronted. “Okay, don't get all high and mighty on me. We're in the business of entertaining. And until you've seen these monsters being attacked by guys a tenth their size, you haven't seen everything, okay? That's what the public wants. That's what we give them. Why, are you some kind of animal lover? 'cause there'll be thousands slaughtered for the Mars thing.”
Xena straightened up. “Mars thing?
Fabius sneered. “Tomorrow! The big day! Not so clued up as you thought, eh? Mars, God of War?”
“I may have heard of him.”
“Well, get ready to be up close and personal. Mars is going to be declared King of the Gods by order of the Emperor tomorrow. We've been preparing for the ten days of sacrifices for weeks. Where have you been?”
“I had a whole other life before today.”
Fabius nodded. “Tell me about it. I used to make boots.” He turned back to address the group. “Anyway, people? Now, I don't want any headaches, I just want good clean action and happy sponsors. The swords are over there, grab one and wait until the guard with the list gives you your cue. Any questions?”
The young blonde raised her hand hesitantly. “I've never used a sword before. I was a kitchen slave.”
The manager shrugged. “Then I‘d say you're in a lot of trouble.” That dealt with he turned to the other contestants. “Any more questions?”
Xena moved over to the young blonde. “What's your name?”
The frightened girl swallowed, afraid to raise her eyes to the figure towering above her. “Annia,” she finally managed. Xena was struck by her resemblance to another young blonde she'd once saved from slavers, and grimaced as she realised it probably wasn't a coincidence. Nor was the costume the girl had been furnished with. She was dressed as the Thracian, and moving to the table, Xena picked out the curved Thracian sword. How long ago had Thrace been her home, she wondered? And she speculated about another Thracian, Spartacus, again. ‘ Circles within circles' she thought.
Xena took Annia's hand and placed the sword in it. “My name's Xena. You hold the sword like this. Like an extension of your arm. Don't wave it separately, it moves with you… “ and she demonstrated.
Fabius was watching and came over. “You've done this before?”
Xena lowered her sword. “I've been trying to cut back.”
The manager appraised her. “Cut back on the attitude, impress a few people and this could be your lucky day.”
While looking at the scrolls in his hands, he missed a soul-burning glower. “And you lucked out today, because I'm matching you with the kid here. If it looks like she's going down too fast, try to stretch it out but make it look good. And maybe I'll see you later.”
The manager took a few steps back when he heard the sound of a trumpet from up the stairs. “Places everyone!”
“Places….” was echoed along the corridor. All waited for the sign and finally an assistant passed the signal to Fabius, who said, “You're on.” The minders stood, swords in their hands and the contestants glumly marched forward towards their possible deaths. Behind them they heard a choreographer shouting out final instructions. “Lots of noise as you go in, and try to have some fun with this!”To be continued...
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