Disclaimer: 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.
Post FIN, I guess, though I have kept specific references to a minimum.
Nothing could have prepared Xena for the effect of walking into the Coliseum. In other lives she had seen larger crowds, at the Circus Maximus on the other side of the Palatine , in fact. She had faced ten thousand soldiers with her own army behind her. But all of that was nothing compared to the compact denseness of howling humanity that was a filled Coliseum. With a crowd that roared with the voice of thunder when she strode onto a plank, high above the slowly receding waters at the pit of the great amphitheatre.
For a moment she felt as though she was shrinking, as though the sheer size of the place was diminishing her, while the volume of the noise pressed down on her even further. It took several seconds for her to gather her wits and senses so that she could push on with some confidence. Beneath her, she could see the cracked and broken ships with their oars tangled in lines, being dragged aside by hundreds of men sloshing through ankle deep water. Dozens of bodies were tossing about in the shallows. Ahead of her were more planks, a sparse web balanced across standing wooden piles, extending above the watery chaos of the wrecks and human remains.
But nothing could blot out the living animal that was the great mob behind the netting above and around her. As Fabius had hoped, at their entrance all eyes were focussed on them, and each of the contestants was momentarily stunned by the attention. She carefully turned on the planking to see a pasty-faced Annia, who was backing up despite the threats of the swords behind her, and pulled her out of the murky corridor into the blistering sunshine.
She called out to her, confident that her voice would not carry far, drowned as it was by the raucous jeers of the 60,000 patrons.
“Don't look down! Just follow my feet.”
Again, there was a hesitant, if game, nod, and Xena led her carefully from board to board over the scattered network of planking criss-crossing the bowels of the stadium. Even over the crowd's screams, she could hear the boards creaking under their weight, threatening to drop them to the cavernous space below.
Once she had found a plank sturdy enough to hold both their weights, Xena turned to face Annia, and saw fear return to the girl's eyes. She gave what she hoped was a friendly smile and said, “we'll start off with something simple. You swing left, then right, then left, then left again. I swear I won't hurt you, okay?”
Looking very unsure, but not seeing any alternative, the girl imitated Xena's motions and there was a satisfying ‘clang' as the swords met in the air. At that, the crowd cheered loudly enough that Annia jumped as the board they were balancing on shook. “Now again,” Xena instructed.
The crowd was too sophisticated, and after more of the repeated movements, the cheers became jeers, and she heard frantic demands for more action coming from the prompt corner. Apparently the male competitors were somewhat more exiting but the direct attention of the ten or more thousand spectators nearest them was enough to push the manager to demand some real combat.
Xena put a bit more force into her swing and Annia nearly lost her sword, almost dropping it over the side and into the water below. The crowd booed loudly and near tears, the terrified girl stumbled and fell, holding the sword under the plank as she clung to it desperately. Xena dropped to her knees, crawled over and reached for where she assumed the sword would be. Under the cover of the board, she forced the pommel into the girl's hands. “We'll make it look like you meant to do that, okay?” The girl nodded and Xena stood and swung her weapon as though for the killing blow. The crowd held its breath when the girl thrust upwards with her sword from her kneeling position and Xena seemed to barely escape being impaled. At this, the audience roared its approval and Xena added to their delight by somersaulting above the girl's head, landing behind her.
Annia's face was still covered in fear, but she was still uneasily balancing. Xena smiled encouragingly. “Like the idiot said, it's all show business. Keep the crowd happy, and maybe I can draw enough attention that you can make a break for it. Wait for your chance, okay?” Annia nodded uncertainly.
Xena scanned the base of the field for some sort of exit, but all were guarded, and the security personnel could call on hundreds of soldiers at any escape attempt. Still sparring with the girl, she slowly revolved, scanning the entire range and all levels of the stadia. In the corner of one eye, she was aware that there was a VIP section in the centre of the stands. Its opulence was proclaimed by both the costumes worn and by the gleaming white marble of its seats. She had been aware for some time that there was a particularly intense interest in her fight resonating from that location, so she grasped Annia's hand, swung her about, pretended to trip and then rose, facing the seats directly.
And was met by the gleaming cat-like smile of Gabrielle.
She was hard to miss, a lone woman, sitting in the midst of the most powerful of Roman senators. She should have been with the women and slaves in the upper rows, rather than with the arm of a senator draped comfortably around her crimson toga. It took little of Xena's superb eyesight to see the unusual amount of jewellery on Gabrielle's companion. Instead of the usual single signet, the man's hands glinted with rings on each finger. Chains and pins decorated his brilliant white toga, and there was no doubt in Xena's mind that this was the killer of the woman whose body she occupied. ‘ So very, very clever ,' echoing her thoughts of what, only a day before?
Despite the crowd's appreciation, Xena was well aware that her earlier flip had not been up to her usual standards. Perhaps it was the body, or she had failed to compensate for the unsteadiness of the board, but the fact remained she had barely managed to land properly. As she measured the distance to the exclusive boxes, her eye fell upon the remains of a hull that was still waiting to be removed. She dove towards a startled Annia, spinning her up and about and flinging her in such a way that she landed unhurt and upright. “Now run at me, and scream!” she hissed, and Annia obliged her mentor. Xena appeared to feint clumsily and trip, landing hard on her back on the plank, which teetered as she clung to it.
Annia, seeing her seemingly helpless, stalked her slowly, while Xena inched herself backwards along the plank by her hands. As Annia looked to the crowd for a decision, Xena dropped over the side, landing on the raised end of the smashed hull. Several of the stage crew hastily retreated while security drew weapons and made a dash towards her position. As she had hoped, the flexibility of the boards was greater than the insecure planking, and she used it to springboard herself high into the air, apparently to escape the pursuers. To the crowd, it seemed only coincidental that she landed in the aisle beside Gabrielle. Her extravagantly bejewelled escort moved to strike but barely was his weapon drawn before he was knocked backwards by a quick fist. Despite all her instincts, Xena managed to resist striking again, and turned to face his companion. Before Xena could utter a word, the blonde woman confronted her and ordered, “Bow down.”
Xena held back a laugh. “What?”
Gabrielle smiled cheerfully and spread her arms grandly to the audience. “Unless you want about a thousand soldiers charging down that aisle, you better make it look like this is part of the show. Get on your knees!”
Reluctantly, Xena complied. There was a smattering of applause from the crowd, and a few stamped their feet in approval. At one of the exits, the prompter was feverishly looking through his scripts.
Gabrielle continued to stand with her arms outstretched, eyes gleaming as she scanned the amphitheatre. “You've impressed the crowd,” she said to the kneeling figure in front of her, “but what was the plan after that?” She indicated her fallen escort , still unconscious on the steps . “ Revenge on Gratidius here?” Xena swallowed, remembering the scars left by the whip and the savage rape her body had endured. Gabrielle noted that the warrior's eyes had darkened and she smiled. “I had hoped he'd recognise you, but I'm afraid he had eyes only for me.” There was an all too casual shrug of the delicate shoulders. “But if you don't feel any obligation, you could always go back and kill that poor girl down there.” Then she tilted her head to one side, exposing her neck. “Or kill me?” She shrugged again and coolly brushed down her toga. “But that must be getting old for you by now.”
“Red really isn't her colour,” Xena said, raising her eyes. “Ares.”
Gabrielle laughed. “Oh, come on. You don't really believe that?” She pointed to the crowd, beginning to buzz with confusion and then to the network of planks where Xena's fellow gladiators waited for a resolution as well. “Let's get back to a plan, shall we? ‘Cause it looks pretty bad, if you ask me. At least half the audience are campaign veterans, with hundreds and hundreds of armed guards at the exits. I'd say you were toast, wouldn't you?” She reached down to brush a stray hair from Xena's eyes, but the warrior recoiled slightly. Gabrielle shrugged and said, “Accept the facts. You're alone and the only person who can help you, is me. And I put you here. This. Is. It . There's no rescue, there never was going to be any tear-filled reunion.”
“You're not Gabrielle.” she whispered before turning away, but there was a tremor in her denial. Gabrielle grabbed her shoulder and with surprising strength nearly lifted the warrior up. “Don't you get it?” she hissed. “After all this time? Stop looking for that stupid young innocent who forgave you for everything. She doesn't exist anymore! And remember why? Because you killed her yourself! Again and again. Centuries and centuries ago. And when I finally died, I died cursing your name. It's time to face the truth.”
Marcus Tullius had been tempted. To think that he, an insignificant guard, would have been asked by one of THE sacred six Vestals for a personal tour of the Amphitheatre! He had been so taken by her beauty and charming accent, that it had only been with great difficulty that he been able to refuse. He had tried to explain that due to the present technical difficulties, he could not leave his post. That the majority of the security forces were on the opposite gate; but the Blessed One had been hard to dissuade. He worried that he had cursed himself by angering the beautiful Vestal; there was a long sigh of regret as she stalked angrily away and upstairs towards the women's seats he had directed her to. He fervently hoped that he could purchase an appropriate sacrifice or prayer to protect himself.
The Vestal moved determinedly through the unfamiliar corridors of the world's largest Roman amphitheatre. Amid the darkness created by the towering black marble columns, she was pulled by the flow of a crowd that took no notice of her holy vestment, hauled past archways that allowed only a momentary view onto a sunlit field. In those moments, she drew brief glimpses of the broken ships tangled in grapplings before the shoving crowd drew her along again. She had jostled her way to the top of the first flight of stairs when trumpets sounded. Again, she broke through the crowd blocking an opening onto the field, and peering through the mob, followed the focus of attention to the gate now below her.
And there she was. Any doubts that the Vestal might have had about the true identity of the woman she'd seen arrested earlier were washed away by the fighting stance that was as familiar to her as her own name. But the glimpse was fleeting, as again the throng's momentum pulled her upwards and away from her view. Once she reached the top of another stair, she broke free and ran along the dark, enclosed outer ring of what seemed to be the highest level of the Coliseum, her frustration growing with each stride. A stench from what appeared to be urinals along the curving wall assaulted her, while the crowd inside, hidden by the corridor walls, thundered again and again. Each sound might indicate the crowds' approval that Xena had killed or been killed and still she could not find an entry where she could see what was happening.
Finally she reached an entrance and, blinking in the sudden overwhelming blaze of the sun, she walked into the upper ring of the stadium, high above the field. Far below, the woman she knew to be Xena was struggling on her back, balancing on a thin long board, trying to evade the small woman who was bearing down on her. Xena's eyes were not on the girl though, but towards the audience and Gabrielle followed her gaze to see a sight that shook her profoundly. Even at this distance she could identify the straw-coloured hair and the all too familiar features clearly enjoying the event. Then Xena leapt down before bounding skyward right up to the side of the woman, striking the Roman who attempted to attack her. The false Gabrielle said something, and to Gabrielle's horror, Xena fell to her knees. The woman continued to smile, and though Gabrielle could not hear the words that she spoke, she could see the increasing anger in her face, see the effect of her words on the muscled back kneeling before her. She could guess what was being said and was almost surprised that there was no pleasure in it for her. Instead she felt an overpowering need to stop the abuse and she began to search for the means.
“So that's the plan, is it, Ares?' she muttered as she scanned the balcony. “For better or worse, that's my partner. And Damn it, if anyone deserves to guilt my partner to death, it's me.”
Her eyes fell upon a coil of rope leading upwards to the curve of the roof. Apparently it was used to unfurl one of the sections of the canopy roof to protect the spectators from the elements. She ran over to test its strength and then uneasily peered over the edge of the railing to the depths far below. Taking a deep breath, she made her assessment of the distance and angle, climbed to the top of the barrier, and closed her eyes. She hesitated, trying to sift through the mixed emotions that had drawn her to this near-suicidal action. Love or Hate? she thought. Did I ever have a choice? Even as this went through her mind, a stream of words was slipping past her lips.
“Crapcrap…CRAP!!!” and then she leapt.To be continued...
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