See Part 1 for disclaimers and a full description of this installment in the My Lord Conqueror series.
3 weeks later
Weary travelers packed the dusty road. It was midday and the sun was beating down on them all with no relief in sight. It was hot and shade trees were few and far between. The Colosseum sat like a beacon in the center of Rome and beckoned the weary travelers toward the heart of the city.
“This is just crazy,” Eponin commented. “Is it always like this?”
“How would I know?” Ephiny shrugged. “This is my first trip to this place.”
“Did Xena tell you how we're supposed to get to the meeting place? That place looks a lot bigger than she described it.”
“She gave me good directions,” Ephiny replied. “We'll be entering the city from the south. She didn't mention that it would be this crowded, though.”
Eponin adjusted the tunic she was wearing over her leathers. “I really hate this.”
Ephiny glanced at her companion and smiled. “You look good in blue, hon.”
“I do?” Eponin's brow rose. “I feel ridiculous. Why do people wear these things, anyway? They're not that comfortable.”
“No,” Ephiny looked down at the pale yellow tunic she wore. “But it's the style. Don't want to stand out like a sore thumb.”
“At least I wouldn't hafta pretend you're my damned sister,” Eponin growled. “Another idiot grabs my ass and I'm gonna go nuts. Just ‘cause this thing only goes to mid-thigh don't mean nothin'. Certainly don't mean I'm open for business.”
Ephiny snickered and then shot Eponin a teasing look. “And wearing your leathers would do what, exactly?”
“Show the riffraff that I mean business,” Eponin shot back sternly. “I feel naked without at least a knife on me. This sucks.”
“Xena said not to worry,” Ephiny assured. “Once we're inside the city we'll have all the weapons we'll need. Just try to blend into the crowd until then. And if anyone stops us, pretend you're mute. Let me do all the talking.”
“Not a problem,” she pantomimed locking her lips and throwing away the imaginery key.
“You don't have to do it now,” Ephiny gave her a look of incredulity and rolled her eyes.
“Oh, for the love of the gods, Eponin,” Ephiny sighed. “I swear you take things too literally sometimes.”
“Comes with the territory,” Eponin shot back. “When I order someone to fight, they don't ask me what kind of fighting I want them to do. They just fight. Pick up any weapon at hand and bash heads in.”
“So that means you have to take everything else literally?”
“It means I don't do subtlety well,” Eponin replied.
“Sexual innuendo?” Ephiny gave her a sly grin.
“Er…” Eponin blushed. “Not here, Eph. Please. Especially when I feel like I got more grit on me than this damned road we're traveling.”
“Yeah,” Ephiny sighed. “Me, too. I could really use a bath right about now. Or a swim.”
“We did enough swimming when that stupid ship of ours cracked up just off the southern coast,” Eponin grouched. “We all nearly drowned. Can't believe we survived one storm, only to end up shipwrecked when that next storm came outta nowhere and slammed us into those rocks.”
“We survived because Xena knew exactly what to do,” said Ephiny. “She always does. I swear, sometimes I think that woman is a damned god.”
“Me, too, what?”
“You think she's part god.”
“Wait,” Ephiny shook her head in confusion. “What in hades are you talking about?”
Eponin shrugged. “I just think Xena's part god is all. Tell me you've heard the stories about Ares and all the bastards he's sired.”
“No,” Ephiny stopped in the middle of the road and turn to give Eponin a confused look. “Where in the world did you hear that?”
Eponin shrugged again. “Don't know.”
They moved off the road and out of the steady stream of travelers. They found a boulder to sit on as they drank from a wineskin.
“So, what's this story?”
“I ain't a bard,” Eponin downed half the skin of wine, then handed it to her companion. “The gist of the story is that Ares disguises himself as the husbands of his generals and visits their wives. Don't know if it's true. I ain't never met anyone who claimed to be one of his bastards.”
“But you think Xena…”
“You're the one who brought it up first,” Eponin countered. “It's just been rolling around in my head for while.” She caught the look Ephiny was giving her. “Hey, I didn't make up the stories, Eph. I just agreed with you that there might be something to ‘em. Xena sure isn't one of your normal, run-o-the-mill warlords-turned-conquering-rulers. And did you see the way she steered that ship when that second storm hit? That wasn't the strength of a mere mortal, let me tell ya.”
Ephiny thoughtfully considered Eponin's words. “Okay, fine. I concede the point. Maybe there's something to your cockamamie story. Just don't be spreading rumors about Xena. Because I really don't want to be picking up pieces of you all over Rome.” She finished with a wave toward the city. “We're here for one reason and one reason only. To find Gabrielle and take her home.”
“Yeah,” Eponin nodded, as she stood back up. “Then let's get to Rome and take care of business. We got people back home relying on us to bring our queen back.”
“Queens,” Ephiny quickly caught up to Eponin.
“Queens,” Eponin agreed, as they rejoined the crowd that was slowly moving in the general direction of the golden city.
It still amazed her that people tended to ignore what was right in front of them. She had been standing guard outside the senate chamber for the better part of a candlemark and no one had paid her any attention whatsoever. Wearing a uniform she had “borrowed” from an unsuspecting guard on his way to relieve one of his comrades, Xena stood at stiff attention just outside the closed white marble doors and kept an eye out for her target.
So far, two senators had already passed right in front of her without taking a second look. They were discussing Roman politics in hushed tones that suggested their political views were not exactly on the up and up. Xena ignored them and kept her eyes straight ahead, as her ears picked up bits and pieces of their conversation. She almost smiled when she heard one of them mention Julius Caesar. But she didn't.
Several more passersby casually sauntered by. They, too, ignored the lone guard standing at stiff attention in front of the senate chambers. Their conversations were more benign and touched on the trivial—a party at one of the local bathhouses, the price of grapes for wine, the latest games in the Colosseum, and an affair one of the senators was having with the wife of one of his fellow senators. Oh, the scandal.
It was all Xena could do not to roll her eyes at the banality of it all. Those hushed conversations weren't her concern, though. She was more interested in locating her target.
She could clearly see his face in her mind's eye. Those cold brown eyes of his that were ever alert, ever calculating his next move toward his self-proclaimed destiny. The hatred glaring back at her when she betrayed him and ransomed him back to Rome for a hefty sum that helped bankroll her campaign in Greece. She remembered his final words and the last glance over his shoulder as he walked down the gangway on that fateful night so long ago.
“I will return someday, Xena,” he had hissed with all the confidence he always exuded. “And when I do, I will repay the dept between us. Enjoy this brief victory, because it won't last forever. I will see this debt repaid. I assure you.”
Xena shuddered and closed her eyes briefly as his words echoed in her mind. When she opened her eyes again it was as if she had conjured him from thin air. Caesar was just across the way and looked exactly as she remembered. He still overexuded a confidence that only came with a firm belief in one's destiny. He was also surrounded by white-clad senators and advisors who were hanging on his every word. Xena also noticed the guards who kept just enough distance to give Caesar his space, but who were close enough to appear threatening.
So, Xena thought as she watched her nemesis stop in a ray of sunshine streaming through the open ceiling in the courtyard beyond, he was on his guard. Did the guards surrounding him mean that he was being threatened? Or did it mean he was finally going to follow through on his plan to take control of Rome? She didn't exactly know what he planned, but she knew Caesar. Whatever he planned was huge. And his belief in his destiny was the key. So why was he still playing nice with the Roman Senate?
He moved slowly toward her again. She stiffened and held her breath as he passed within only a few paces of where she was standing and entered the senate chamber. But he never looked her way. He was too busy schmoozing with the gray-haired senators in his midst to spare a glance at a lowly guard. That didn't stop Xena from reacting to his presence, however. That aura of power, the animal magnetism he exuded, fairly crackled against her skin and left her tingling. He always did have that power over her and she had taken advantage of it while he was her prisoner.
Xena pushed her reaction down deep and let her hatred for Caesar bubble up and take its place. She knew he was somehow involved in Gabrielle's disappearance. She didn't know how she knew. All she had was a gut-deep instinct that told her he was involved. She knew it. She just couldn't prove it.
As the doors closed, Xena let herself relax a little bit. Several of the guards with Caesar took up positions at strategic places around her. She ignored them, until one burly guard took up a position next to her. He glanced at her with a scowl.
“Where's Attilus?” He growled. “Thought he was on duty this morning.”
Xena shot him a glare. “Down with the clap,” she replied shortly.
The man nodded as he surveyed her from head to toe. “They so short-handed that they're recruiting women for duty these days? I know most of the army's been spread pretty thin, lately.”
“Just biding my time til something better comes along,” she said.
“Hm,” he grunted. “Glad I'm not one of Rome's lapdogs.”
She glanced at him from the corner of her eye and noticed his armor was different from the leather armor she wore. His even had a slightly different variation on the eagle with its wings spread emblazoned on his chest.
“Caesar's elite, eh?” She ventured a guess. “Does he pay more than the Senate?”
The man shrugged. “Pay's pretty decent. Long hours, though. Caesar doesn't seem to need much sleep.”
“Too busy with the ladies, eh,” she let the hint of a smile touch her lips.
“You could say that,” he replied. His demeanor relaxed a bit in her presence as he crossed his bulging arms over his chest. He then leaned toward her conspiratorially. “No way he'd ever accept a woman into our ranks, though. Caesar only has one use for women. And it ain't got nothin' to do with protection.” He chuckled at his own little joke.
“Then I guess I'll just bide my time here,” Xena's expression turned stony. “Wait for the right opportunity to present itself.”
“Yeah,” he continued to chuckle. “Not likely to happen anytime soon.”
“Why is that?” Xena feigned interested curiosity.
“Let's just say, Caesar's got plans and we'll leave it at that,” he replied with a knowing half-grin. “The winds of change are coming. So don't be on the wrong side when they start to blow.”
A dark brow rose as she turned her head to look at him. “The empire?”
His brow furrowed as he looked right at her. He then leaned in close again. “Where did you hear about that?”
She shrugged nonchalantly. “Isn't it becoming common knowledge? You know how rumors fly around a barracks.”
“Beware the Ides of March,” he said in a hushed whisper.
He was so close to her face that she could smell the ale on his breath. She realized that explained why he was so forthcoming with information, especially with a complete stranger. Xena merely turned her head away and stared straight ahead without another word. His words confirmed what she had known all along. Julius Caesar was going to declare himself Emperor of Rome. Now she even had an exact date to go with her suspicions, thanks to her inebriated companion.
She glanced at his one last time out of the corner of her eye. He was standing tall and ramrod straight with a stern expression, as if his sudden revelation was already a foregone conclusion.
Xena's mind whirled with the implications. Caesar as Emperor of Rome. It explained a few things. One of those was his need to tie up loose ends. He had always been expanding the territories of Rome in his quest for power. He recruited legionaires from the conquered lands and used them to build his army into one of the largest forces in the civilized world. That was where his power lay—the army. It was the army that backed him. It was the army that provided him with his greatest source of income. They swept through foreign lands, raping and pillaging villages in their path. They took men and supplies to further their cause and feed Caesar's ambition.
Xena's guts twisted to think that she had been used as a pawn in his game of conquest. Her own conquest of the warlords in Greece had pinned a bullseye right on her back with Caesar. She was sure he hadn't forgotten her betrayal. Now he would take his revenge against her—if he hadn't already done so.
Another phrase he had once uttered rang through her mind. “Divide and conquer. Divide a woman's heart from her sensibilities and you have her.”
She felt the hatred boil up inside her and, with it, the darkness that was never far behind. That darkness was like a living being as it awakened inside her. Caesar was using Gabrielle to bring Xena to heel, in order to keep Xena from doing anything to prevent him from declaring himself Emperor of Rome. He couldn't stop her from crowning herself Queen of Greece, so he kidnapped the one person in Xena's life—her heart—in order to divide and conquer.
It was all she could do to stand there in the midst of her enemies without charging into the senate chambers and plunging the dagger hidden in her belt into Caesar's heart. Wave after dark wave of hatred continued to roll over her as she felt the full weight of his betrayal settle on her shoulders like a boulder.
And that's when she realized there was only one way to stop Julius Caesar from destroying everything she had worked so hard to accomplish. That's when she decided it was time to put an end to his self-proclaimed destiny.
Xena experienced a moment of clarity, as she pictured herself plunging a dagger into the heart of Julius Caesar at the exact moment he made his declaration. Yes. The Ides of March. A small smile tugged at her lips and the weight immediately lifted. Her decision was made. Now all she had to do was find the perfect opportunity to strike. She glanced at the guard next to her and his words came back to her.
She knew the perfect opportunity.
Bone-deep exhaustion seeped from every pore of her being as she collapsed on the meager pallet inside her tiny cell. She didn't even feel the lumps anymore as her eyes instantly drifted shut and the world faded into darkness. She barely heard the metal hinges squeal as the door was closed and locked. Nothing mattered anymore.
And then every ache in her body made itself known. Her hands were raw and blistered. Her feet and legs were bruised and battered. Her arms felt like lead and her back stung from the lashings she'd received earlier that day. Sweat from her exertions had burned in the fresh welts until finally the pain just receded into a dull ache that joined the rest of the pain her body was forced to endure.
She couldn't move. Could barely think. But she didn't want to sleep, either. Nightmares plagued those few moments she drifted off. Terrible nightmares that made no sense whatsoever. Fire. Blood. Screams of the dying. Faces of people she couldn't remember the names of.
Sometimes, though, the dreams were actually pleasant. Warm and pleasant. Smiling faces of people who were vaguely familiar to her. She still couldn't remember who they were, though. They were just faces. And one particular face always seemed to bring a deep ache of longing that brought tears swimming to her eyes. She didn't know why those chiseled features framed by dark hair always brought her such misery. And those clear blue eyes, smiling eyes filled with love…
The ache in her heart was almost stronger than the exhaustion and the agony her body was forced to endure. Her world had become its own nightmare the day they reached port. She had no idea where they were as she followed her fellow captives into the bright sunlight that nearly blinded them all after weeks spent in the gloom belowdecks. Their chains clanked loudly as men shouted at them to move along down the gangplank. She just tried to stay out of reach of the lash that came out of nowhere. It caught her shoulder and opened angry marks on her bruised skin anyway.
They were led to a raised platform and lined up in front of a crowd of onlookers. She tried not to meet anyone's gaze as she kept her eyes lowered. Someone shouted to be heard above the low murmurs of the crowd. She knew bidding was taking place. Two of her fellow captives were immediately taken away and there were only the five of them left. The bidding continued as the sun beat down on her greasy, filthy head. She didn't look up as the shouting died down and the crowd quickly dispersed.
“Great. Just great,” Autolycus grumbled next to her. “Out of the frying pan…”
His words died down as they were herded toward the stairs. She tried not to stumble on the steps as the manacles on her wrists and ankles dug into her skin and opened new sores beneath the bloody rags someone had wrapped around them. As she descended the steps on shaky legs not used to walking, she felt one leg give out. Autolycus didn't have time to grab for her before she was lying on her stomach in the dust. Someone shouted and then the lash was digging angrily into the tender flesh of her back through her thin tunic.
It was excruciating and she couldn't get back up. Then strong hands grabbed her arms and yanked her to her feet. Chains rattled and she felt the world tilt precariously, as the darkness swallowed her.
She woke up in agony, lying on her stomach on the lumpy pallet in her tiny cell. For two days after that she swam in and out of consciousness as someone gingerly applied poultices to the lash marks on her back. She heard someone mumble something about infection during one of her brief moments of lucidity. She didn't care. Her world had become an endless struggle between excruciating pain and utter darkness.
On the third day, a man in elegant red silk entered her tiny cell and declared her fit for light work. She was lifted to her feet, set on a wooden stool with her aching back against the rough wall of her cell, and given a bowl of porridge and a cup of weak tea.
A woman sat stood across from her and gently encouraged her to eat slowly. Her stomach clenched painfully as the mushy substance slid down her raw throat. She drank the cup of tea and was rewarded with another. Both the porridge and the tea seemed to give her a measure of strength. She studied the woman through hooded lids. She was slightly older and very plain. A mop of mousy brown hair mixed with gray was haphazardly piled on her head. Her cheeks were red and pudgy. And she wore a light-brown tunic belted at the thick waist with a dark chord. The woman wasn't dressed as stylishly as the man had been, but she didn't appear to be suffering, either.
“How does your back feel this morning?” The woman had asked with a tentative smile. “Better?”
Managing only the slightest of nods, she continued nibbling the porridge in her bowl with her eyes down.
“You'll be better in no time,” the woman replied with a firm nod. “Quintus Julius Maximus wants you to join the others by the end of the week. He was adamant that you not be coddled.”
Raising bloodshot green eyes slowly to meet the dark-brown gaze of the woman across from her, she studied the woman for a long moment.
“Where am I?” Her voice cracked from disuse.
“The ludus of Quintus Julius Maximus, of course,” the woman replied. “My name's Drusilla. I'm head of the house slaves here and the one who answers directly to the lady of the house. The Lady Hortensia is a kind and benevolent soul. She scolded the master for treating you so callously. Said he has little regard for the life of a slave, she did.” Drusilla walked over and took the empty bowl from her. “Is there a name you go by? Or was that sorry excuse for a thief who tried to escape yesterday right about that memory of yours?”
“Autolycus tried to escape?”
“Picked the lock on his cell and was almost to the outer wall before Bestavius sounded the alarm,” Drusilla replied with a nod. “The master gave him thirty lashes for it, too. Don't think he'll be attempting another escape anytime soon. Not with those deep gashes on his back. They're even worse than the ones you took in the market.” She shook her head and tsked . “The master has no patience where slaves are concerned. But her ladyship set him straight about the good coin he paid for the lot of you. Said she can't do anything with a house slave who can't even stand on her own two feet. Now, do you feel strong enough to take a little walk?” She received a tentative nod. “Good. You can come to the kitchens and work at peeling vegetables for the evening meal, then. It'll be your job from now on until you're strong enough to take on other responsibilities.”
That was weeks ago.
Sighing deeply, she tried to think about what her life was like before that fateful voyage. They called her Julia, now, but she knew that wasn't her real name. There were moments during those long, exhausting days when she wished she could remember what her real name was. But try as she might, she just couldn't bring it mind. It sometimes teased her during those few pleasant dreams she experienced. But when she woke up she could never remember what it was.
“Will you be joining us for the evening meal, Julia?”
She let her eyes drift open and focus. A young woman with a long red braid down her back was standing just beyond her cell door. The young woman, Aelia was her name, placed a hand on the metal bar and cocked her head at the cell's occupant.
“Too tired,” she replied on a heavy sigh.
“The master won't be pleased,” Aelia gave her a look of empathy. “He seems to have a special need to punish you when you don't follow the rules here. But I understand. Drusilla said the mistress has you scrubbing the floors in the kitchens and cleaning out the latrines near the arena. It's hard work.”
“It is,” she agreed.
“Shall I bring you something from the kitchens?” Aelia asked. “I think we're having mutton stew tonight.” She received a small nod in answer. “Okay. I'll be right back.”
Still lying unmoving on her pallet, the slave Julia let her eyes drift closed again. The exhaustion washed over her and all she wanted to do was sink down into the arms of oblivion. If only the nightmares would stay away for just one night. But she knew they wouldn't.
With little effort, she conjured up the beautiful face of the woman from her dreams. She imagined the woman speaking to her in a voice that brought a measure of calm to her weary mind. Blue eyes sparkled with mischief and she felt love well up inside her that was quickly replaced by a deep longing that left her aching with need. She imagined that love was for her and felt the world around her slowly drift away.
Then she heard the click of the lock on her cell door and knew someone was there. Her eyes drifted open and she was looking at the hem of an elegant red tunic edged in gold. A shiver of dread raced through her.
“Hello, Julia,” the master's voice purred, as a hand touched her shoulder.
The dread increased as he sat down on the edge of her pallet. She didn't move as his hand caressed her shoulder and moved down to her waist. Outwardly she didn't respond to his touch, but inwardly she cringed. Images of another time flew through her head and she felt panic rise within her.
“I want you, my dear,” his whispered words against her ear brought the panic to the surface, as his hand snaked beneath her tunic. “Despite the filth on your body.”
He then got up and moved away. She felt a rush of relief wash over her.
“I will have Aelia prepare a bath for you,” he said as he moved to her cell door and paused. “You will come to my chamber this evening and please me with that nubile body of yours, Julia.”
She watched him leave her cell and lock the door behind him. Renewed dread washed over her as she continued to lay there. His words left her shaking and no matter how hard she tried she couldn't conjure the image of the dark-haired goddess of her dreams.
Other images filled her mind. Images of pain and humiliation at the hands of a monster from her nightmares. She was helpless to stop that monster from taking her in ways that left her body broken and her spirit in tatters.
Despite the exhaustion and the pain, she sat up on her pallet and gripped the edges of it with white-knuckled determination. She wasn't going to go through that again, she decided. With renewed energy and strength of will, she concentrated on the face that usually brought her a measure of peace. But this time, instead of peace, she felt a strength of will that hadn't been there since she was taken.
That face gave her the courage to fight. It was the face of love. And she imagined a smile splitting those chiseled features. That smile gave her a rush of hope that flooded penetrated to the very depths of her weary soul and gave sparked her fighting spirit.
And then she remembered.
“Gabrielle,” she muttered softly.
The lock on her door clicked and she watched as Aelia entered her small cell with a tray. The young woman smiled as she set the tray on the floor next to Gabrielle's pallet.
“There's mutton stew, grapes and some leftover crusts of bread,” Aelia said, as she straightened. “I also brought you some of the sweet ale that was left in the keg the master tapped yesterday. It's still slightly cold. We all had our fill of it, since he's tapped a new keg today. He also wants me to prepare a bath for you.” She looked at Gabrielle curiously and with a measure of sympathy. “Drusilla said she'll come to you tomorrow with a salve and a tincture to keep you from conceiving, Julia.”
Aelia moved toward the door and paused with a hand on it. She looked back and studied the woman on the low pallet for a moment.
“My name is Gabrielle,” she lifted her head and turned her gaze on the young woman. “Not Julia.”
“What did you say?” Aelia frowned.
“I said,” Gabrielle straightened and set her posture. “My name is Gabrielle,” she paused, “of Potidaea,” she added with grim determination.
A red brow rose on Aelia's features. “You remember?”
“My name, yes,” Gabrielle replied.
“Well,” Aelia closed and locked the cell door. “Don't let the master hear you say it. In this place you are Julia, slave of the House of Quintus Julius Maximus. This is your life now.”
“I'm not a slave,” Gabrielle's expression hardened. “I'm a freewoman of Greece.”
“Not here, you're not,” Aelia added warily. “Here you're like the rest of us. And you answer to the master and the mistress. Otherwise you'll feel the sting of the lash again…or worse.”
“What could be worse than this?”
“The master could decide you're worthless and send you off to Rome,” Aelia replied in fear. “You don't want to be sent away to Rome. They'll put you in the Colosseum and feed you to the lions.” She shuddered. “It's a fate worse than death—or slavery, for that matter. Please, Julia. Whatever you are thinking about right now, just forget about it. Don't let yourself remember your former life and don't ever utter that name here. I don't want to see you sent away.”
Gabrielle smiled wanly. “I won't let him rape me, Aelia. I was raped once, long ago. It won't happen again. I assure you. I will fight tooth and nail to make sure your precious master keeps his filthy, sweaty hands off me.”
“No, Julia,” Aelia put her face between the bars and lowered her voice. “You can't possibly imagine what will happen to you if they send you to the Colosseum. The wild beasts will tear you apart and eat your entrails while you cry futily for mercy and a quick death. They rip you apart with their teeth. It happened to my cousin just last summer, before I came to live here. I watched as the lions tore him to pieces and devoured him while he screamed in agony. I'll never forget those screams for as long as I live.”
“My name is not Julia,” Gabrielle insisted. “And an agonizing death in the Colosseum is preferable to a slow and excrutiating life here in this place. I don't care if they throw me in with wild beasts or bloodthirsty gladiators. I'd rather die in the arena than suffer one more abject humiliation at the hands of some pig who just wants to use my body for his own amusement.”
“NO!” Gabrielle bolted to her feet and charged the bars, causing Aelia to jump back. “I'm done talking, Aelia. Stay here and let that pig use you whenever he likes. I absolutely refuse to go through that again!”
“Okay,” Aelia conceded warily. “I…I can't say I understand, but…” She just shook her head and started moving away down the hall. “May the gods have mercy on your soul…Gabrielle.”
As the young woman's footsteps receded down the hallway and eventually faded away, Gabrielle stood with her face to the bars and a wan smile. Her thoughts returned to the man in the cell next to her.
“Autolycus?” Gabrielle waited for a response and heard a low groan. “Autolycus!” Another low groan greeted her quiet shout. “Hey, Autolycus, are you okay?”
“Mm,” another low groan.
“How does your back feel?” Gabrielle pressed her face closer to the bars.
“Like it's on fire,” he said quietly. “But I'll survive.” There was a long pause, then, “So, you remember your name?”
“Yeah,” she heard movement in the cell next to hers. “It's Gabrielle—of Potidaea.”
He was suddenly at the bars of his own cell and reached a hand out to her. “Nice to meet you at last, Gabrielle of Potidaea.”
She took his hand in hers and held it. “What brings you to this place, Autolycus?”
He chuckled. “Circumstances beyond my control, actually,” he let go of her hand so he could steady himself against the bars. “I'm a thief and got caught with my hand in the cookie jar, so to speak.”
“Is that why you can pick locks so easily?”
“Some locks,” he shook the bars of his cell. “Others are a bit more challenging.”
“But you almost managed to escape,” Gabrielle said.
“Yeah,” he let his forehead rest against the bars. “A lot of good that did me. My back is killing me.”
“Mm,” she nodded. “I know how that feels.”
“Yes, you do, kiddo,” he perked up a bit. “How's yours doing? I tried stopping that jackass when he went after you with the lash. Didn't get too far, though. Not with those manacles in my way.”
“It's okay,” Gabrielle stretched and winced. “Stiff. And I'll be wearing the scars for the rest of my life. Not like I don't have enough of those.” She glanced at her shoulder.
“Yeah, I hear that,” Autolycus grunted. “I really do, Gabrielle.”
She heard movement again and realized he'd gone back to his pallet. “What are you going to do, Autolycus?”
“Well,” he said, “I guess that depends.”
“How I feel in the morning.”
“The morning,” Gabrielle repeated thoughtfully. “We may not have ‘til morning.”
“I heard you talking to Aelia, Gabrielle,” he said softly. “She's right, you know.”
“About?” Gabrielle turned and leaned back against the bars.
“You can't win against these people,” he said. “They aren't like us. They just don't value human life like we do. They buy and sell people for sport and for their own petty amusement, not to mention to clean up after them. It's become a way of life for them. And they won't hesitate to make an example of you if given half the chance.”
“I'm not spending the rest of my life as a slave in the household of some Roman pig,” Gabrielle stared up at the dark ceiling of her cell. “And I won't hesitate to fight if he lays a hand on me. I was raped and beaten once. I remember that much. It was one of the darkest times in my life and left me feeling helpless and utterly powerless. I'd rather die fighting than let that happen again.”
“Well,” he chuckled mirthlessly, “some of us would just rather live to fight another day.” Silence reigned for several moments and then he added, “Good luck and may the gods be with you, Gabrielle.”
“And you, as well, Autolycus,” Gabrielle sighed.
It felt really good to have someone call her by her real name. It felt really good. And it gave her the courage she needed to face what was ahead. The aches in her body just added fuel to a fire that was already growing into an unquenchable inferno.
She just hoped she didn't falter and lose courage as she faced what lay ahead. Returning to her pallet and the cold stew still sitting on the tray at her feet, she sat down and devoured the meager meal. She knew she would need her strength, as well as her courage, for what lay ahead.
As she sopped up the last of the stew in her bowl with a piece of bread, she noticed the blisters on her hands. Setting the bowl aside, she studied her palms for a long moment. Then she closed her eyes and concentrated on the memories that seemed so elusive. She had no idea how she remembered her name in that instant only moments ago. But she felt like a door had opened, even if only slightly. Her memories were there behind that door. All of them. She just had to find a way beyond the door or wall or whatever it was, so she could tap into the courage that seemed to await her on the other side.
She opened her eyes and stared at her hands again. Yes. Her hands were the key. There were callouses on her palms beneath the blisters and cracked skin. Callouses from long hours…Doing what? She pictured herself doing various activities. Scrubbing floors? No. Bailing hay in the fields? No. Holding…
A flash of memory hit her unexpectedly.
She was holding—a wooden stick. No. A—staff? Yes! It was called a staff and resembled a walking stick. Except that the staff was used for…She concentrated again and stared down at her hands, turning them over and visualizing a staff in her grasp. A weapon!
She could actually feel the smooth wood against her calloused palms. Then she was standing in a field across from a woman dressed in leather. The woman had feathers in her dark hair and wore a lopsided grin of challenge that made her brown eyes sparkle with mischief.
“Come on, my queen,” the words echoed in her mind. “Show me watcha got.”
Gabrielle raised the staff and connected solidly with the other woman's staff. The sound of wood connecting with wood echoed loudly in her mind and she could almost feel the vibrations through her arms.
Memories suddenly burst forth inside her head like a sudden flash flood. The door that had been firmly shut for so long was suddenly gone and she couldn't stop the memories from pouring out. It was so overwhelming and so completely unexpected that it overloaded her to the point that she collapsed onto the bed in an unconscious heap.
Gabrielle's last conscious thought before the darkness took her was of one person—Xena.
It was twilight by the time they made it to the base of a hill that overlooked the center of Rome. The Colosseum loomed like a spector amidst the flickering torchlights that dotted the city. The Pantheon was perched on top of a hill beyond and overlooked the city. It, too, was a dark reminder that Rome worshiped the same gods as the Greeks. But that was where the differences between the two peoples ended.
There was a small inn to one side of where they congregated that had a relatively clean tavern in the front and passable rooms upstairs in the back. All except one of them wore basically the same thigh-length tunics belted at the waist with their leathers hidden underneath. No one spoke for several long moments as the rest of the group finally joined them.
“Hey,” Chalidriss hugged Antonine, Talia and Brynn first, then nodded to Zea and Briesse. “My queen, Eponin, your majesty,” she greeted Ephiny, Eponin and Xena last of all. “I scouted the Colosseum out all day. It's pretty quiet there right now. No gladiators will arrive until the festivities actually kick off on the morrow. Tonight is reserved for drinking and revelry as the patrons of Rome gear up for the week-long celebration.”
“No sign of the queen, then?” Briesse asked.
“No,” Chalidriss shook her head. “None whatsoever.”
“And exactly why do we think Gabrielle will end up as a gladiator in the Colosseum?” Ephiny asked.
All eyes turned toward Xena expectantly.
“What better way would there be for Caesar to get his revenge?” Xena replied stoically. “Especially since his spies are already aware that I've arrived in Rome with an escort.”
“What?” Eponin jumped down from the barrel she's been sitting on. “Ouch!” She reached up her tunic and yanked something out of her backside. “Damned splinter.”
Ephiny leaned in close to her partner. “Do you need me to check for more?”
Eponin turned beat red.
“Briesse and I have been doing some scouting of our own,” Zea chimed in with a grin. “We've also been making sure the rumor mill is alive and well.”
Briesse put an arm around Zea's shoulders. “Zea is pretty good at this rumor stuff. Truth be told, I didn't think she had it in her.”
“I learned from the best,” Zea patted Briesse on the stomach. “And it really isn't all that hard. You just stand in the middle of a crowd of people and start talking about this tall, dark and deadly woman you saw roaming the streets in black leather. They tend to take care of the rest of it.”
Xena looked down at the rather feminine attire she had on and then met the gazes staring back at her. The thigh-length dark-blue fabric was gathered on her shoulders and sleeveless. It was belted at the waist with a gold belt that matched the gold hairpiece that kept her dark locks piled on top of her head.
Eponin chuckled. “Yeah, I can see that.” Ephiny backhanded her in the stomach. “Hey! Whatja do that for?” Ephiny just rolled her eyes.
“So, how'd your trip to the senate chambers go, your majesty?” Rayna asked. “Did you get the information you were hoping for?”
Xena nodded. “And then some. The Ides of March are one week away and the Festival of Dionysis culminates in a big celebration that will include games in the Colosseum and an announcement from Gaius Julius Caesar.”
“An announcement?” Margalene added. “Does it have anything to do with the queen?”
“No,” Xena shook her head. “Although, I'm sure she'll be part of the entertainment for the day. No, Caesar's announcement has more to do with his place in Rome. He's going to declare himself emperor before all of Rome on that day.”
“Emperor?” Breisse didn't bother to hide her surprise. “Why in the world would Rome accept anyone as their emperor? What happens to the Senate if he declares himself emperor?”
“I'm sure he has plans to assassinate them all before they can get in his way,” Xena smirked wryly. “Caesar isn't one to let a few jealous old men stand in the way of his destiny. Just like he's not averse to using my son and Gabrielle to keep me busy and out of his way.”
“Your son?” It was Ephiny's turn to be shocked. “Since when do you have a son?”
“Since I gave birth to him and gave him up,” Xena replied dryly. “He's twelve summers this year. And Caesar has him locked away somewhere. Just like he had Gabrielle kidnapped and will eventually have her brought to Rome to participate in the games. He's a sadistic bastard who thinks his destiny means everything.”
“So, what's the plan from here on out?” Eponin chimed in. “We gonna disguise ourselves as gladiators and join the fun? Kick some gladiator butt?”
“Really, Pon?” Ephiny rolled her eyes again. “Is that all you ever think about?”
“Hey, I like kickin' butt,” Eponin replied with a grin. “It's fun. Besides, someone's gotta rescue her maj so we can all go home and get back to some serious partying.”
Ephiny rolled her eyes yet again and the other Amazons hid their snickers and laughter behind their hands.
Xena took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I'm going to kill him,” she said softly yet with conviction.
She said it so softly, in fact, that almost no one heard her. No one, except Briesse, whose ears were attuned to the slightest sounds around her.
“Who?” asked Briesse.
“Caesar,” Xena replied. “It's time I rid the world of the scum.”
“Wait, that wasn't part of the plan, Xena,” Ephiny added. “We came all this way to rescue Gabrielle. Not to kill Rome's self-proclaimed emperor.”
“Kill two birds with one stone,” Xena glared at her. “Caesar is a dictator and he has the army behind him. Do you really think he'll leave Greece alone once he sets himself up as emperor? Do you really think he'll just let us waltz on in, rescue Gabrielle and Solon, then return to Greece with no repercussions? His ego is the size of the Aegean, Eph. He wants to make an example of Gabrielle and Solon and bring me out into the open, so he can then make the ultimate example of me, too. Killing the senators is child's play to him. He can hire anyone to do that bit of dirty work. But putting the Queen of Greece into the arena with my son and my wife will be a spectacle that people will talk about for years to come. And Caesar will reap all the glory and prestige for killing Greece's royal family. It will be his crowning glory.”
“Damn,” Eponin shook her head. “Now that you put it that way…”
“It sends a message to every foreign ruler that Rome is the supreme power in the civilized world,” Margalene added soberly. “Rome's legions would be unstoppable as they marched off to war.”
“Unless we can cut off the head of the snake,” Xena said. “Cut the head off and the rest will die.”
“Unless it's a hydra,” Eponin added soberly. “Then another one grows in its place.”
“Two,” Ephiny said in dismay.
“Caesar is the only one we need to worry about right now,” said Xena. “His power is absolute as long as the army is behind him. Cut him down and the army has no one to look to for leadership. The people will elect new senators and the government will continue on as if nothing happened. Everything returns to normal and Rome is no longer a threat to Greece.”
“It can't be that simple,” said Rayna. “Can it?”
“What about Gabrielle and your son, Xena?” Asked Ephiny. “What happens to them if you assassinate Caesar? Don't you think he has a backup plan, just in case?”
Tears sprang to Xena's eyes in an uncharacteristic show of emotion. “They're already dead, Ephiny.”
“What?” They all said in unison.
“Then why in hades did you bring us here?” Ephiny moved to confront Xena. “We traveled all this way on that stupid boat and in those storms, just so you can drop this on us at the last moment? Why didn't you tell us sooner, Xena? Why wait until now?”
“Yeah,” Eponin stepped up beside Ephiny and placed an arm around her shoulders.
Xena bowed her head for a moment and then looked up and met Ephiny's angry gaze. “They aren't dead, yet. But they will be, just as soon as I assassinate Caesar. And I'll be dead, too.”
“No,” Ephiny adamantly shook her head. “Not gonna happen on my watch, Xena. Greece needs you too much. It needs both of you.”
“I'm with Queen Ephiny,” Briesse stepped forward. “Zea, too.” She glanced at the shorter woman, who nodded.
“We're all with you, right Amazons?” Margalene added.
“Right!” They all said in unison.
Xena just smiled wanly.
She needed it as she let Aelia finished combing her hair. They had both been silent during Gabrielle's bath and while she dressed in the fresh tunic the master had provided. It was soft and green and smelled of lilacs. Aelia said it brought out the color of her eyes.
Gabrielle didn't care. After regaining consciousness, she had let the memories wash over her. She remembered everything, including Xena. She remembered their joining ceremony and the coronation. She also remembered the argument they'd had in the tower, as well as her fight in the alley. It all came back to her and she just let it. She wanted to remember everything, even the hard times when she was recovering from the rape at Surra.
And she did remember. The memories were almost overwhelming, but she didn't shy away from any of them. The most vivid memory for her was of Xena. Tall, dark and deadly. That was how her Amazons described her wife. Gabrielle smiled wanly at that thought. So much had happened to her in such a short time. Losing her sister. Becoming a servant at Surra. Becoming queen of the Thracian Amazons. The war with Draco. Gaining a mate for life. Being crowned Queen of Greece at Xena's side.
Then her thoughts turned to Autolycus. As she and Aelia passed his cell earlier, Gabrielle actually looked for him. He wasn't there. His cell door was securely locked and there was a lump on his pallet that was covered by a blanket. But Gabrielle knew the thief wasn't there. She smiled to herself. Autolycus had escaped.
“Please say you won't try anything stupid this evening, Jul—er, Gabrielle?” Aelia's plea broke into Gabrielle's musings.
“Don't,” Gabrielle met Aelia's gaze in the looking glass in front of her. “Just—don't, Aelia.”
“I don't want to see you suffer,” Aelia continued. “He's a hard man and he won't hesitate to call in his men to subdue you.”
Gabrielle chuckled mirthlessly. “Let him try.”
“You're not at all the same woman you were before,” Aelia noted. “There's a hardness to you that wasn't there when you first got here.”
“I remember my life before all of this happened,” Gabrielle said. “I remember who I am.”
“That's good,” Aelia was somewhat excited. “But you can't let on that you remember. It's just better that way, Gabrielle.”
“I'm not staying here,” Gabrielle said adamantly. “I won't stay here when there are people back home who are probably worried sick about me. Besides, I'm married.”
“Yes,” Gabrielle met Aelia's expectant gaze in the looking glass. “Her name is Xena. She's Queen of Greece.”
Aelia's brow furrowed. “You're married to a woman? How can that be?”
“I'm also Queen of the Thracian Amazons,” Gabrielle confided. “Not to mention I became Queen of Greece alongside Xena on the day I was taken.”
“I am,” Gabrielle nodded solemnly.
“B-but,” Aelia stuttered. “Wh-why…W-what…H-how?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “I met Xena. She's my life and my love. The day I met her everything changed.”
“I don't know this Xena you speak of,” Aelia shook her head. “Why would she let you be taken so easily?”
“We…” Gabrielle swallowed over a lump in her throat, as she looked away. “We argued the night I was taken. I called her a monster. It was stupid, really. I don't know why I did it. She's not a monster. She has her dark side and she can sometimes make hard choices that I wouldn't make, myself. But she's not a monster. I realize that now.” A tear slid down Gabrielle's cheek. “And if I ever see her again…” She sniffed and felt a hand lightly squeeze her shoulder. She put her own hand over Aelia's. “Thank you, Aelia.”
“What will you do, Gabrielle?” There was a hint of fear in the young woman's tone.
“I'm not sure, yet,” Gabrielle answered honestly. “All I know is I have to escape and get to Rome.”
“Rome is leagues away,” Aelia said. “You'll never make it there without being taken again, especially with that brand on your shoulder.”
Gabrielle turned so she could see the ugly red welt in the shape of an “S” just behind and at the top of her left shoulder. She also caught a glimpse of the angry red lash marks that weren't hidden by the tunic she wore. A frown creased her brow.
“I'm marked for life,” Gabrielle muttered softly.
“We all are,” Aelia showed off the healed mark of slavery on her own shoulder. “It's the Roman way. Those two tick marks next to the brand identify you as belonging to Quintus Julius Maximus. If someone finds you with that on your arm, they'll just bring you right back here and you'll face the lash again.”
Gabrielle stared long and hard at the healing brand and marks. There was no escape unless she could somehow wipe them from her body. But how was that possible? The angry red welt was a permanent fixture on her skin. The only way to remove it was…
She shuddered at the thought of further marring her skin. But there was no help for it. She had to rid herself of the brand that identified her as belonging to a Roman pig. First, however, she had another obstacle to her freedom to face. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as she stared at her reflection in the looking glass.
“You can do this,” Gabrielle muttered softly. She then stood up and straightened her tunic. “I'm ready.”
Aelia nodded, as she guided Gabrielle to a door and into another room. The second room had a large bed covered in luxurious pillows and a large silk blanket in shades of blue that dominated the center of it. Candles burned around the room and cast eerie shadows on the taupe walls. It was almost inviting in its elegance.
Gabrielle shivered with dread and steeled herself for what was to come.
“Leave us,” a deep male voice penetrated the shadows, as Quintus stepped from behind an elaborate tapestry that covered one wall.
Gabrielle didn't turn around as Aelia quietly slipped from the room. She merely stood there like a statue and waited. She felt him walk up behind her and place his hands on her bare shoulders. She tried not to cringe or pull away from his touch. Instead, she turned around to face him.
Quintus Julius Maximus was a full head taller than she was and wore an expensive blue toga that barely covered his broad chest. He wasn't handsome, nor was he exactly ugly. His head was shaped like a melon and he had a shock of dark hair that was shaved high and tight on the sides. He looked like a gladiator, instead of the owner of a ludus.
“Master,” Gabrielle lowered her eyes from his intensely gray-blue gaze.
“Julia,” he said in a low tone that held all the desire she had seen reflected in those eyes of his. “You clean up very well, little one.”
“Thank you, master,” she said demurely, while her heart beat faster in her chest.
He reached up and put a finger under her chin, raising her head in order to look at her. He then ran his finger along her jawline and traced a line down her neck and across one collarbone. She tried not to react to his light touch, but felt a shudder run through her.
“I've wanted you since the day you arrived here in Portia,” he said against her ear. He then took one of her hands in his and pressed her palm against his bulging manhood. “Can you feel how much I want you right now, Julia?”
Gabrielle gritted her teeth and stood her ground. She wanted nothing more than to yank her hand out of his grasp and take several steps away from him. He was disgusting and she felt bile rise up in her throat as revulsion raced through her.
He pulled her closer and moved her hand harder against his swollen manhood, as he leaned into her and buried his face in her hair.
“You smell so sweet,” he breathed against her ear. “Like lilacs.”
“It was in the bath water, master,” she managed to reply through gritted teeth.
She glanced around for a weapon to use against him, but saw only the candles flickering along the walls. Every instinct in her screamed for her to back away from him, but she remained where she was. His hand continued pressing hers harder against him, as he moved in a steady rhythm. Then he was backing her toward the bed.
That's when the panic and her instinct to fight suddenly kicked in. Gabrielle reacted before she could stop herself. She clenched her hand into a tight fist and grabbed him in a painful grip. He doubled over and she brought an elbow down on the back of his head as hard as she could.
It wasn't hard enough. He came up with rage burning hotly in his gray-blue eyes and a growl on his lips. “Bitch!” He shouted as he backhanded her hard enough to send her flying back onto the center of the bed.
Gabrielle landed hard and then he was right on top of her in the very next instant. Eponin's advice from long ago suddenly rang through her head, as she felt his weight pressing her into the soft mattress beneath her. Don't ever let them take you down and don't let yourself be pinned.
But she was pinned to the mattress by his bulk. He was much heavier than she anticipated and her head was ringing from his backhanded blow. Trying valiantly to squirm her way free of him, Gabrielle put every ounce of effort into fighting him off, as he continued to push her into the mattress. Then his face was inches from hers.
“You thought to best me, slave?” He hissed, as he pinned both her hands above her head in one of his and used his other hand to shove her tunic over her hips. “I think you underestimate your master.” He smirked. “I will have you, my little Julia. And you will enjoy every moment of my attentions.”
“My…name…is…Gabrielle,” she gritted out between clenched teeth, as she felt his manhood press insistently against her.
He lifted himself slightly as he looked at her in surprise. “Oh, ho! She remembers!”
Gabrielle took advantage of both his surprise and the shift in his position. She brought her knee up and landed a hard blow between his legs. She felt her knee connect and knew there was enough force behind the blow to fell an ox. Unfortunately, he only grinned down at her and licked his lips seductively.
“Nice try, Julia,” he grabbed her by the hair and yanked her head up enough that his lips were against her ear. “Don't do that again. Do you hear me? I won't hesitate to break your scrawny little neck, my dear.”
“Then do it,” she challenged with an angry hiss. “Kill me and get it over with. I won't stop fighting until my body is broken and the sheets are soaked in my blood.”
With renewed energy, Gabrielle thrashed and fought. Her teeth managed to find purchase on his exposed flesh and she clamped her jaws shut tightly until she tasted his blood on her tongue. He squealed like a stuck pig and jumped back. It wasn't much but it was enough for Gabrielle to roll out from under him. She made it to the edge of the bed and dropped painfully to all fours on the wood floor. He made a grab for her and only managed to catch the hem of her tunic. It ripped off in his hand.
Gabrielle then reached for the burning candle closest to her and launched it at him. The candle missed him, but landed on one of the pillows. The pillow burst into flames and the fire quickly spread. Gabrielle grabbed another candle and launched it. The second candle hit him squarely between the eyes and splattered hot wax down his face.
He screamed and swiped the wax away as best he could. Gabrielle launched another candle and another after that. Her aim was fairly accurate and soon the sheets were ablaze, as was the tapestry.
Then she watched him launch himself off the bed toward her again. A chair in the corner caught her attention and she stumbled over to it. She brought the chair around just as he was about to strike. The chair smashed into his side and broke into several pieces.
It was enough for Gabrielle. She looked down at a leg with a sharp tip she was holding. Her attack with the chair only dazed him for a moment and then he was back on the offensive. Gabrielle knew she had only one chance to bring him down. But she also knew she had to time her strike perfectly.
She waited for him to get within two paces of her and then she brought the sharp chair leg up in front of her and lunged toward him with all her might. The shard of wood penetrated his midsection just below his ribs. Gabrielle pushed harder until she felt the wood grind against bone. He grunted and wrapped his hands around her neck as gobs of dark-red blood spilled from his lips. As he realized what she'd done, he let go of her neck and grabbed the weapon protruding from his stomach.
“What…” He choked on his own blood.
More blood bubbled up into his mouth and spilled from his lips. His eyes bulged as he continued glaring at her in stunned shock. Then his knees gave out and he collapsed to the floor in a lifeless heap.
Gabrielle stood there shaking and panting as she tried not to think about what she'd just done. All was quiet in the place, as his blood pooled at her feet. The bed was completely engulfed in flames, as was the tapestry on the wall. The only way out was the door through which she had come earlier. She was coughing hoarsely as thick black smoke filled the room and the flames ignited the rafters in the ceiling above.
Realizing she was in dire straights, Gabrielle managed to pull herself together enough to move. She raced to the door and yanked on the handle. The door didn't budge. It was locked. Panic welled up inside her for a second time, but she managed to push it back down. She looked around the room and noticed a door hidden behind the burning tapestry. The smoke was blinding and burned her eyes, nose and throat.
She raced over to the door that Quintus had used to enter the room and put a hand on the latch. She yanked her hand back instantly. The latch smoked where her skin had touched it. Using what was left of the hem of her tunic, Gabrielle frantically tried the latch again. This time she was able to get the door open.
As soon as she stepped out into the hallway, however, she was surrounded by men in uniform.
“Come with us.”
Her arms were seized by two uniformed guards and she was dragged away before she could even make sense of what was happening. She glanced at one of the men holding her and saw the eagle emblazoned on his chest armor. They were all wearing the same blue tunics beneath the eagle armor, as well as signature Roman helmets.
Gabrielle's heart sank as she realized she had literally jumped from the frying pan into the fire.
Caesar sat behind the elaborate gold-inlaid desk in the new war room he had seized from Pompeii. The man who was once his ally and a member of the Triumverate was imprisoned in the deepest, dankest cell far below the gladiator quarters of the Colosseum. One might even say he was in the catacombs, except that Pompeii was still alive. Barely. Caesar still had a use for his former friend.
Finishing up some last-minute orders to his generals, Caesar sat back with a satisfied grin. Then he noticed the marble box that sat on the desk within easy reach. Pulling a key from his belt, he inserted it in the lock and pulled out the solid gold laurel leaf crown he had had specially made. Admiring it for a long moment, he set it on his head with a wry smirk.
“Emperor Julius Caesar,” he muttered to himself. “Has a nice ring to it.”
He then removed the crown and set it back on the velvet inside the box. He locked the box and returned the key to the secret pouch on his belt.
He looked up to find one of his personal guards standing in the open doorway. The man saluted with a fist to his chest, as Caesar waved him inside.
“What news, Dryfus?” Caesar returned his attention to the scrolls on his desk.
“The boy, Caesar,” Dryfus turned and motioned behind him.
A young boy was dragged into the room between two burly guards. The boy's hair was a tangled and greasy mess and his body was barely covered by filthy rags that hung loosely on his thin frame. He raised his head slightly to reveal dull gray-blue eyes rimmed in dark circles. He was so weak that the two guards holding him were all that was keeping him from collapsing in a heap on the marble floor at their feet.
Caesar got up and walked around to the front of his desk. He leaned back against it and surveyed the scraggly creature before him thoughtfully. He then looked at Dryfus with a scowl.
“This is how you found him?” Caesar rubbed his chin with one finger. “Are you sure this is him?”
“He was the only one in the villa, Caesar,” Dryfus replied, as he crossed his muscular arms over his chest armor. “The place was deserted, otherwise. Not a servant or slave in the entire place. We found the boy locked in a cell beneath the kitchens. Looked like some kind of cellar.”
Caesar nodded. “What's your name, boy?”
“Solon,” came a weak and barely-audible croak.
“What was that? I didn't hear you,” Caesar knelt in front of the scrawny wraith. But then he stood back up again when he caught a whiff of the odor emanating off the boy.
The boy cleared his voice, as he lifted his head defiantly and glared at the man before him. “My name is Solon, son of the great warrior Borias and his whore, Xena.”
A dark brow rose on Caesar's features and then he chuckled. “So, you're Xena's welp, eh?”
“And you know this, how?”
“Someone told me.”
Caesar's brow rose again. “Xena didn't tell you herself?”
“No,” answered Solon in a tone devoid of emotion. “She gave me away to be raised by others.”
“Oh, ho!” Caesar laughed. “Although, that doesn't really surprise me much. Xena was always one to just pawn her responsibilities off on others, especially when those responsibilities didn't interest her.”
“She didn't want me,” Solon said. “I was a burden to her, so she gave me up to be raised by my centaur brothers. My father was an ally of the centaurs, but he didn't have a choice in the matter. He was dead by her hand by then.”
Caesar nodded solemnly. “I remember hearing about the great Borias. He was a valiant warrior, if the stories of his exploits are to be believed. You should be proud to be his son.”
“Good,” Caesar crossed his arms over his chest as he studied his adversary's offspring. “Then what I have to say will be that much easier for you to take.”
Solon raised his head again and stared at Caesar curiously.
“What is it you want from me?” He asked dejectedly.
“Your life,” Caesar answered flatly. “Your hatred for your mother is admirable, boy. But the truth of the matter is I need to use you as a distraction while I make an important announcement. So, I'm going to let you prove your worth as the son of the great Borias by pitting you against my very best gladiators in the arena. Xena won't be able to resist the overwhelming temptation to protect her offspring like a mother lion protecting her cub.”
Solon struggled in vain against the hands holding him. “She doesn't want me. She never did. What makes you think she'll lift a finger to help me in the arena?”
“Oh, she'll come to your rescue, all right,” Caesar smirked confidently. “She's grown soft since those days with Borias. She even went so far as to marry another woman that she claims to love and share the crown with her. Pfft ! Women.”
“She's married now?” Solon's expression hardened. “She didn't love me enough to keep me, yet some woman comes along and she decides to get married?” He struggled to free himself again.
“Save your anger and hatred for the arena, boy,” Caesar grinned wryly. “You'll need your strength to fight long enough for Xena to come to your rescue.”
“I don't want her anywhere near me!” Solon shouted in a sudden show of temper. “I'll kill her if she even tries!”
Caesar chuckled. “Take him to a cell below the arena and lock him up until the games begin. I think he'll do just fine.”
The guards saluted and dragged the boy from Caesar's presence. Only Dryfus remained.
“And our other little surprise?” Caesar addressed the man.
“On its way, Caesar,” Dryfus replied. “A messenger arrived just this morning to report that the men were successful in carrying out your orders. They arrived just in time, too. The place was just about to go up in flames. It seems Quintus got a little overzealous and tried to force himself on the woman.”
“He was dead when the men arrived,” Dryfus continued. “She drove a stake into his guts and set the place on fire. The men caught her just as she was trying to flee.”
“Intriguing,” Caesar smirked. “So she's a fighter, eh?”
“Apparently so, Caesar,” the guard replied. “What shall we do with her when she arrives?”
“Toss her into the same cell as the boy,” a evil twinkle entered his dark eyes. “Let them get acquainted before we toss them both into the arena.”
Dryfus chuckled. “And if the boy kills her first?”
“Then feed her corpse to the tigers as an appetizer,” Caesar added with a nonchalant wave of his hand. “Dismissed.”
“Yes, Caesar,” Dryfus slammed a fist against his armor and left.
Caesar rubbed his palms together in anticipation. His revenge against Xena would be complete, one way or another. Everything was falling nicely into place and soon the Fates shine upon him. His destiny was almost at hand.