My Lord Conqueror: Taking Chances
By Kennedy Northcutt ©2011-2012
See Part 1 for disclaimers and a full description of this installment in the My Lord Conqueror series.
She walked leadenly down the white marble hallway with two guards on either side of her. The summons had come only a candlemark ago, but she felt as if it were longer. Taken to a chamber with a steaming tub of fresh water and soap, she was scrubbed from head to toe. Every inch of her bruised and battered body had been practically rubbed raw, as three scantily-clad young maids silently went about their work.
After emerging from the tepid water, she was dressed in a simple tunic of pale green material that felt luxurious against her skin. One of the maids tried to remove the snarls and tangles from her hair, but the effort was a complete waste of time. So, the young woman took a small dagger and deftly cropped her hair until it was quite short. She wasn’t terribly sentimental about the scattered locks that littered the floor beneath her. It was hair and would eventually grow back again—if she survived.
Gabrielle tried to calm her nerves as she continued down the deserted hallway with her shorn head held high. She called up every ounce of courage she could muster as she concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. But her steps faltered when she recalled Solon’s forlorn look when she was taken from their cell. He was huddled in a ball in his usual nook, despite the fact the rats had scattered far away when the soldiers appeared. But she could see his eyes watching her from beneath his own tangled and matted hair.
“Here,” one of the guards stopped her.
She looked at the white double doors before her and swallowed over a sudden lump in her throat. She wanted nothing more than to turn tail and run. But she knew the guards would be on her before she could take two steps. Then both guards reach out and pushed the doors open wide.
“Hail, Caesar!” Both guards took a step inside the room and saluted.
Gabrielle merely stood there and waited as the guards moved aside. The first thing she saw was Julius Caesar standing there in a white toga that was draped over one shoulder and hung to mid-thigh. His chest was bare and so were his feet. He studied her for a moment as she studied him.
“Don’t just stand there, my dear,” he finally said and beckoned her inside with a wave of his hand. “Come.”
Gabrielle didn’t know what she’d been expecting as she took a step inside the room and the guards closed the doors behind her. She certainly hadn’t anticipated the warm and welcoming smile that graced Caesar’s features. Then she noticed something else in his eyes that set her on edge. He turned his back to her and walked over to a sideboard where he poured wine into two goblets. He then returned to her and motioned toward a gilded chair set next to a large bed.
“Sit,” he ordered as he handed one of the goblets to her.
Gabrielle silently took the wine and sat stiffly on the edge of the chair. She was trying to figure out what game he was playing with her. Why was he being cordial? And why did he summon her to his chamber in the middle of the night?
“You’re probably wondering why I summoned you here,” he said, as if reading her mind. “I know it was probably quite unexpected.”
“You could say that,” she kept her expression neutral.
“I’m sure you’ve had quite an ordeal since landing on our shores,” he gave her an appraising grin, as he studied her from the shadows where he sat. “I hear tell Quintus wasn’t exactly treating you with kid gloves. Then again, he got what he deserved. Didn’t he?” He watched her shrewdly.
“He’s dead,” she said flatly.
“Yes, I know,” Caesar smirked. “And that ludus of his was in his family for generations. Too bad it burned to the ground. I might have added his gladiators to my own. Such a shame.”
“What do you want from me?” Gabrielle asked bluntly.
His eyes narrowed appraisingly. “Want?” He took a sip of his wine and studied her over the rim. “I don’t really want anything from you, my dear. You just happen to be someone of interest to a certain someone of mutual acquaintance.”
“I won’t be a pawn in your game, Caesar,” Gabrielle met his gaze boldly.
“Ah, but you already are, my dear,” he sipped his wine while continuing to study her over the rim. “And summoning you here ensures that I will be able to carry out my plans without interruption or failure.”
Gabrielle’s brow furrowed in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
He leaned forward into the light from one of the nearby torches so she could see the sly expression he wore. “You are my insurance,” he produced a small dagger and held it up so that it gleamed in the torchlight. “Just in case someone gets it into her head to make an attempt on my life tonight.”
“Xena,” the words came out in a hushed whisper.
Caesar sat back with a satisfied grin, as he continued to twirl the dagger in one hand and held the goblet in the other. “Now you understand.”
“She’s here? In Rome?”
Gabrielle’s heart raced with the implications. Xena was in Rome. The news was almost too good to be true. Then she caught a flicker of something in Caesar’s eyes that confirmed his words.
“How…” she couldn’t finish that one question as her mind swirled with others.
Where was Xena? Why hadn’t she made an attempt to rescue her? Did she even know where Gabrielle was? And did she know that Gabrielle and Solon were being kept in the same cell below the Colosseum?
Then Gabrielle looked up again and caught something in Caesar’s gaze that made her blood run cold.
“She’s not here for me,” she stated flatly.
“Oh, I’m sure you factor into her plans in some small way,” he gave her a salacious grin. “But the bigger picture seems to be winning out over her plans to stage a heroic rescue of her true love. Not to mention that boy of hers. Pompeii was convinced Xena would jump on the next ship to get here when he brought the brat with him. Guess he was dead wrong about that, eh?”
Gabrielle’s frown deepened. She didn’t quite know what his game was, but she got the distinct feeling there was more to his little summons than met the eye.
“What do you really want from me, Caesar?” She set her wine goblet on a side table without taking a drink.
A dark brow rose on his features. “The wine not to your liking, my dear? It’s the best Rome has to offer and doesn’t come without a price.”
“My name is Gabrielle,” she snapped. “I am not your anything and I never will be.” She raised her chin defiantly. “Kill me now and get it over with. I won’t play this game of yours and I won’t be used against Xena.”
He smirked. “There’s that fire I knew was hiding in there somewhere. I see now why Xena is so intrigued by you—Gabrielle.”
She watched him stand up and pace a few steps away. As he turned back to her she saw a dangerous gleam in his dark eyes and felt an involuntary shudder of dread race down her spine. But she held firm and kept her chin up. The same mantra kept running through her head over and over again— I am queen of the Amazons. A warrior in my own right. I will not break. I will not bend.
Caesar seemed to sense the change in her or maybe he just saw her straighten ever so slightly. His eyes narrowed again, and he glanced at the dagger still in his hands. Then he glanced up at her and saw her looking at it as well.
“Don’t even think about it, my dear,” he hissed. “You wouldn’t make it two steps outside this chamber before my guards cut you down and fed your carcass to the beasts in the arena.”
Gabrielle met his gaze. “She will succeed, Caesar. If there is one thing I’m certain about, it’s that Xena finishes what she starts. Count on it.”
The words hung between them like the dire threat they were meant to be. He glanced from the dagger to her and back again. Then he tucked the blade back into the sheath at his belt and downed his wine in one swallow.
“We’re done here,” he turned away from her and gave a dismissive wave of one bejeweled hand. “Go.” Then he raised his voice. “Guards!” The two immediately entered. “Take her back to her cell and see that she’s ready for tomorrow. I want her in the arena with that welp who shares a cell with her.”
“Yes, Caesar,” they both replied in unison as they stood at stiff attention.
“Oh, and Gabrielle?” Caesar’s voice dripped deadly menace as he glared at her over his shoulder. “Give Xena my best when you see her—which I’m sure you will. There’s really no reason for her not to pay you a little visit before the games begin. Unless she’s afraid my men will capture her and throw her into the arena with you.”
Gabrielle looked squarely at him and saw the hint of a triumphant smile appear. A small thrill of anticipation raced through her at his words, but was quickly replaced by a dark shadow of forboding as he turned away from her.
The guards took their places on either side of her and escorted her out of Caesar’s chamber. Gabrielle’s mind reeled with the implications of this latest summons. Was there really a point he was trying to make? Or was there some other unspoken reason for Caesar to go to all the trouble of cleaning her up for such a brief visit to his chambers.
Gabrielle had been sure his intentions were not honorable and he would try something—anything—to make a point of owning her. But he hadn’t made a single sexual advance. It was strange—confusing, even. She had no idea what his game was, even now. And his parting words still echoed in her mind as she emerged from the palatial villa into a moonless night. The smell of jasmine filled the chilly air as her escort silently marched her through the empty streets toward the enormous structure of the Colosseum.
Gabrielle briefly wondered if Xena was nearby. Was she waiting somewhere in the shadows of a nearby alley, hoping to make a move and rescue Gabrielle right then and there? Or was she sound asleep somewhere, dreaming of ways to eliminate Rome’s new leader once and for all?
Anticipation and a touch of melancholy weighed heavily on Gabrielle as the towering walls of the Colosseum loomed closer.
“Halt,” one of her guards hissed.
They each grabbed one of her arms, pulled her into the shadows and drew their swords. They waited silently and alertly.
Gabrielle’s breathing quickened as she listened to the night sounds around her. All she could hear, however, were a few crickets chirping noisily nearby. Nothing moved. Gabrielle searched the darkness of the street beyond and tried to catch a glimpse of whatever had spooked her escort.
“Never mind,” the guard to her right said, as he resheathed his sword.
“Did you hear something, Micah?” Asked the other.
“Thought I did, Petrus” the first said. “Guess it was just the wind. Come on. Hurry up. I don’t want to miss out on a chance to beat Stavros at dice tonight. It’s time I win back that coin he took from me last night.”
They emerged from the shadows and stayed alert as they continued on their way. Gabrielle covertly searched the shadows and listen for any indication that someone was out there. Then she saw something move out of the corner of her eye and her heart skipped a beat. She really couldn’t tell what had But her two escorts hurried her on as if they hadn’t seen anything.
The Colosseum was only a block away when the attack came. The two guards barely had time to draw their weapons as they were set upon by a pack of howling and snarling beasts that sprang out of nowhere. The beasts had dark, matted fur that stood on end as they bared their teeth. The two guards moved slightly away from Gabrielle and tried to keep her between them as they swung their swords at the beasts.
“Ha!” Micah shouted, as he slammed his blade against the side of one beast’s head and heard a yelp.
The pack grew angrier and more daring as the men continued to fend them off. One rather large beast snarled and snapped its jaws at the blade that narrowly missed its muzzle. Another took advantage of the guard’s distraction and lunged toward Gabrielle. But Petrus managed to bring his blade around in time to slash the beast across the throat. Blood sprayed everywhere and most of it got on Gabrielle’s tunic.
“Give me a weapon so I can at least defend myself,” she called to Petrus.
“Not a chance,” Petrus barely glanced her way as a beast jumped up and he slammed the flat edge of his blade against its muzzle hard enough to hear bone crack. “Not risking the wrath of Caesar.”
Gabrielle looked frantically around for some type of weapon to use against the beasts. The street was fairly clean and there wasn’t even a cobblestone out of place. She glanced at the roofs around her and was discouraged to see that they were all higher than she could reach. There was no escape. And the only thing keeping her from being mawled by the beasts were the two guards.
“This is ridiculous,” Gabrielle muttered and then raised her voice with a note of pleading. “You can’t keep them at bay indefinitely. At least throw me a dagger.”
One large beast charged past Micah’s blind side. All Gabrielle saw were the beast’s sharp teeth dripping with saliva as they came toward her. She barely had time to raise an arm to protect her face before the snarling beast was upon her. It knocked her down and she reached up and grabbed for its muzzle. The beast snarled and growled as slimy saliva covered her hands and made them slippery.
Then the beast yelped loudly and flew off her so fast that Gabrielle felt one of its fangs slice her palm. She didn’t give the wound a thought as she scrambled to her feet. She looked at the animal lying a few paces away. It was a cross between a wolf and a wild dog. Its fur was dark as pitch, except for a patch of light gray on its chest. I lay there panting with an arrow stuck in its side and glared at her with its teeth still bared. It wasn’t yet dead.
Then Gabrielle took an extra moment to study the arrow. The fletching was familiar and she quickly looked around at all the rooftops nearby. Nothing moved and there was no sign that someone was out there. There was another loud yelp and Gabrielle was a bit surprised when the beasts suddenly broke off their attack and ran away.
Her two guards stood there panting and still in their battle stances. They waited for the beasts to regroup and return, but everything remained still and quiet. The only noise came from panting beast that was slowly dying a few paces from Gabrielle. She glanced from her escort to the beast and back again.
“Let’s get out of here before they decide to come back,” Micah grabbed Gabrielle’s arm.
She searched the streets for her would-be rescuer, even as Micah and Petrus ushered her quickly toward the Colosseum that was only a block away. The two guards kept their swords at the ready, but made sure to keep a firm hold on Gabrielle with their free hands.
“What were those things?” Petrus asked as they moved swifly across the plaza toward the towering Colosseum. “I’ve never seen anything like them before.”
“Me, either,” Micah replied. “And I’ve no clue what they are—some kind of wolf or wild dog or something. Can’t believe those things are running loose in the city like that. And during the festival. I’ll tell the commander about them when we get inside. He’ll know what to do about them.”
“Probably send out the centurions to hunt them down and kill them. Do you think they came from the Underworld?”
“I sure hope not. Anything comes from down there can’t be good.”
“No, it can’t. Probably possess some strange power that turns mortals into one of them. Did you see their eyes?” Petrus shuddered. “They glowed red. Creepy.”
“Don’t remind me.”
The two guards continued their conversation over the top of Gabrielle’s head, completely ignoring her as they neared the entrance to the lower levels of the Colosseum. An insistent burning sensation on the palm of her hand made Gabrielle look more closely at it as they stepped into the light of the torches near the door.
There was an angry gash across her palm that was slowly oozing dark-red blood. Then she remembered getting her hand caught on a fang of one of the beasts. A shudder raced through her as her guards’ words rang through her head.
Neither guard seemed to notice, as they descended the stairs and wove through the dank corridors to her cell. As Micah stopped in front of the door and unlocked it, Petrus glanced at Gabrielle.
“Won’t be long now,” he chuckled, as he gave her a shove inside the dark cell and the door was closed and locked behind her.
The sound of their footsteps and laughter faded away, as Gabrielle stood there in the pitch blackness and let her eyes adjust. She couldn’t see anything but vague shadows in the small space and wondered if Solon had been taken to another cell during her absence.
“Solon?” She felt her way toward the low pallet and sat down on the edge of it. “Are you still here?”
“Still here,” he said dully.
Gabrielle could tell that he was still in his little nook on the ledge across from her. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “You?”
She glanced down at her hand, which she couldn’t see in the darkness. “A little shaken, but mostly fine.” She made a fist with her injured hand and winced.
“Where did they take you?” His curiosity obviously won out over his solemn mood.
Gabrielle scooted back against the stone wall and sighed. Her mind whirled with all that had happened when she was taken from their cell earlier. She still had no idea what Caesar’s game was or why he had summoned her to his chambers for such a brief encounter. Was he sizing her up to see if she would at least put up a fight in the arena on the morrow? Or was there some other ulterior motive behind his summons?
“I met Caesar,” Gabrielle answered simply when the silence stretched between them.
“And how is that scheming bastard?” Pompeii’s muffled voice came through the crack in the stone wall. “Still alive, I take it.”
Gabrielle debated whether to answer him or not. She still blamed him for Solon’s predicament, even if he was no longer a threat to either of them.
“Obviously,” Gabrielle said. “The dead don’t generally summon one to their bedchamber here in the mortal realm.”
“Oh-ho!” She could hear the smile in his voice. “His bedchamber, eh? I see he hasn’t lost his touch in that department.”
“Nothing happened,” Gabrielle hurriedly said. “We just talked.”
“Let me guess,” he paused briefly and she could just imagine he had his hand on his chin as he pondered his next words. “He wanted to fill you in on his grand plans to take over Rome and establish his empire.”
“Not exactly,” Gabrielle stared up at the darkness above her.
“Hm,” Pompeii went on. “He wanted you to cower at his feet?”
Gabrielle sighed. “I really don’t know what he wanted, except to tell me I’m his insurance against an assassination attempt.”
“Ah,” she could imagine that he was nodding his head. “He knows she’s here, then. I was wondering if he would figure that out or not.”
Gabrielle’s brow furrowed. “You know that Xena’s here, too?”
She heard him chuckle. “It was inevitable, right? You didn’t think Caesar had you and the brat brought here for any other reason than to lure Xena here. Did you?” He paused. “Caesar always was one to put too much stock in that destiny of his. It’s his Achilles heel, you know. And Xena was always the one person who was outside his realm of predictability. She waylaid his plans for conquest once and he knows she will stop at nothing to do it again.”
“Then why lure her here at all?”
“To tip the scales in his favor,” Pompeii said. “Putting the two of you in the arena tomorrow keeps Xena occupied. She can’t make any attempts on his life if she’s busy worrying about the two of you, now, can she? And Caesar gets to make his grand announcement before all of Rome without interruption. It’s a win-win for him.”
“Isn’t there anyone else who poses a threat to him?”
Pompeii sighed dramatically. “Alas, I’m locked in here with you two. And since Carassus is dead and Brutus is in Gaul, fighting the barbarians, there is no one else to oppose him. So, that would be a resounding no.”
“So, Caesar wins,” Gabrielle slumped lower on the pallet.
“Caesar wins, his destiny is fulfilled and Rome becomes an empire,” Pompeii affirmed. “All hail Emperor Caesar.”
Lounging on his bed and unable to sleep, Caesar turned in time to catch the bright flash of light that ushered in the God of War. He barely spared the ominous immortal a glance, as he poured himself another goblet full of the rich red wine he so enjoyed and downed half of it.
“Well?” Caesar gave Ares an expectant look.
“Well, what?” Ares grabbed the abandoned wine from Gabrielle’s visit earlier and sank down onto the divan.
“Did our little plan work?” Caesar shot the War God a raised-browed look over the rim of his goblet.
Ares shrugged nonchalantly. “For the most part.”
Caesar sat up and wrapped his arms around an upraised knee. “What does that mean, exactly?”
Ares narrowed his dark eyes at the man. “Are you questioning the God of War?”
“It’s a simple question, War God,” Caesar wasn’t intimidated. “Did the plan work or not?”
Ares sighed and rolled his eyes at the ceiling. “Why do I even bother with you mortals, anyway? All I get is grief for my efforts. It’s not even worth it, ya know?”
“It is if you gain more followers,” Caesar replied casually. “That is your goal with all this. Right? Assure my destiny and I supply you with legions of loyal followers? That was the deal we established.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ares downed the rest of the wine and tossed the goblet away. “I give you what you want in exchange for what I want.”
“So, what’s the problem, War God?” Caesar stood up. “Was using your influence in the Underworld a little too taxing for you?”
“Hey,” Ares stood up to stand toe-to-toe with Caesar. “I did my part. I got Hades to agree to release his hounds here in the mortal realm for a short time. Do you know what that will cost me in the long run? I now owe him a favor.”
“Which you don’t intend to ever pay back,” Caesar gave him a wry smile. “Believe me. I know about owing favors, War God.”
“Beside the point,” Ares continued. “The hounds were here. Now they’ve returned to the Underworld where they belong.”
“And did they accomplish what you promised?”
Ares turned away to hide his discomfort. Then he spun back around in a fury. “If your men hadn’t interfered, they would have done what they came to do! One bite. That’s all it takes. Just one lousy stinkin’ bite. But, oh no, your men had to fight them off.”
“Wait,” Caesar shook his head. “Let me get this straight. Six beasts from the Underworld were no match for two men with swords in the mortal realm?”
“And now I owe Hades for the one that was killed,” Ares added. “Can this night get any worse?”
He didn’t wait for a response and merely snapped his fingers and disappeared in a blue-white flash, leaving Caesar staring in slightly open-mouthed silence at the vacant space. Caesar recovered quickly with a shake of his head. He then glanced around to make sure no one else had seen him in such compromising position.
He sighed heavily as he realized it was going to be a very long night. Grabbing the full pitcher of wine he’d had delivered shortly after Xena’s little plaything left, Caesar poured a generous amount into his goblet and slowly sipped it as he walked to the balcony and stood there staring out at the darkness beyond.
“How’d your little adventure go?”
“Don’t play coy with me, Artie,” Ares lounged on his throne with one leg hanging over the edge and an arm draped over the back. “I know you were there tonight.”
“Where?” She gave him a sly grin. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Ares.”
“Was it Athena’s idea? Aphrodite’s? Or did you come up with that one all on your own?”
She stepped over to the long stone ledge that contained the tribute from his priests. Lifting a grape to her mouth, she popped it in her mouth and immediately spit it right back out.
“You really need to do something about those priests of yours, Ares,” she shot him a smirk. “They’re leaving you sour grapes.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “What do you want?”
She turned to fully face him and leaned casually against the altar, surveying his temple with a critical eye. Then she met his expectant gaze.
“I’ve been ordered to keep an eye on you,” she said with a satisfied grin. “And tell you that you’re no longer allowed in Hades’ realm. He was less than pleased that one of his precious hounds didn’t return to the Underworld, Ares. You promised no harm would come to any of them. You lied.”
Ares rolled his eyes and stared up at the ceiling. “And I care—why?”
“Father wants to know what you’re up to this time,” she ignored his comment. “He knows you’re courting that upstart mortal across the Aegean. Trying to expand your interests, brother? Are you hoping to add more followers to your meager ranks by going outside the realm of Olympus? Not very sporting of you.”
He shot to his feet and stormed over to her. But she didn’t flinch as he towered over her.
“It’s really none of Daddy’s business what I do, now, is it?” He sneered. “But I’m warning you to stay clear of my business, little sister. Or I may just let Hades know that you were the one who shot his precious mutt with that arrow.”
She cocked her head and looked innocent. “And what makes you think I would do a thing like that?”
He smirked and folded his arms over his chest. “Mortal arrows can’t kill the hounds, Artie. Only an arrow tipped in steel made by Hephestus and dipped in hind’s blood is deadly to those mutts.”
“So true,” she gave him a wry smirk of her own.
“Why?” He glared at her. “That’s all I want to know.”
She studied him with intense green eyes beneath dark eyelashes. “She’s mine, Ares. Stay away from her or that hind’s blood will kill more than a dumb mutt from the Underworld.”
His expression lost some of its intimidation as he watched her for a moment longer and realized she wasn’t bluffing. Then she turned and pushed past him. She walked to the exit of the temple, but stopped and turned back to him.
“If I were you, Ares,” she said, “I would seriously reconsider my options at this point. I happened to pass Celesta in the halls of Olympus earlier. She was in a hurry. Was muttering something about Olympian gods and interfering in the lives of mortals. I think she was on a mission to meet up with someone, if you ask me. She even muttered something about traveling to another land in order to escort a charge. Hm, I wonder who that might be?”
She didn’t give him time to respond and merely left the temple. Ares stood there staring at the vacant spot where she had been. Then he ran a hand over the beard on his chin thoughtfully, as he grabbed a grape and popped it into his mouth. He immediately spit the grape back out and wiped his mouth with his bracered arm.
“Pilinius!!!” He shouted at the top of his lungs.
A bald man in a simple tunic hurriedly entered and bowed to the God of War. Ares held a bunch of grapes in one hand as he beckoned the man forward with the other. When Pilinius was only a few paces away, Ares grabbed the man and without warning shoved the bunch of grapes into his face. The man sputtered, spewed and stumbled backwards the instant Ares released his hold.
“If you ever set sour fruit on that altar again, you’re a dead man,” Ares barked and then snapped his fingers and disappeared in a bright flash of silver and blue.
Pilinius shook uncontrollably as he used his tunic to wipe the grape juice from his face. He then started grabbing the fruit from the altar and muttering under his breath about “angry gods” and “being underappreciated”.
Torn. That’s what she was. Torn between the need to remove a great threat from the world and an even greater need to do what she had originally set out to do. She sat in the darkest shadows of the deserted Senate chamber and brooded, trying to reconcile her need to finish what she started all those years ago with the overwhelming desire to find Gabrielle and head back to Greece without a backward glance at Rome.
She had managed to slip into the Senate chamber earlier in the evening when it was still full. The powerful men of Rome were discussing the fate of the empire in hushed tones and in the absence of the leader they all seemed to despise.
And then the chamber doors flew open and in walked a man in a blood-red tunic under silver armor. He was greeted with surprise and muted excitement. Brutus.
Xena knew he was Caesar’s closest friend and advisor. One of the only men that Caesar called friend. Brutus was also one of the only men Caesar trusted—if Caesar actually trusted anyone at all. The senators confirmed Brutus’ standing with Caesar when they all rushed over to welcome him and ask why he was in Rome and not in Gaul, where Caesar had sent him only weeks before.
It was then that Brutus turned to greet an even older and dearer friend. Claudius stood slightly apart from the rest of the anxious senators and waited for Brutus to acknowledge his presence. It didn’t take long.
Once the greetings were finished, the senators and Brutus got right down to business. Xena listened intently to the discussion and arguments that followed. The senators were all of one mind in regards to Julius Caesar and his schemes to place himself above the powers of the Senate. When Brutus confirmed it by sharing his own speculation on the grand announcement that Caesar planned to make the next day, the senators were all ears.
And then Claudius stepped forward to confirm everyone’s fears—Caesar would declare himself emperor before all of Rome on the morrow. The games were the perfect venue for such an announcement. Spirits would be high and the people were always in an accepting mood when the blood-letting was in full swing.
Xena stared sightlessly at the empty chamber. The candlemarks were ticking by and she had a decision to make. Her heart told her to just grab Gabrielle and Solon and make a run for it. But her head told her Caesar would stop at nothing to see that Greece and all the surrounding lands fell under Roman rule. She also knew his ego was too big to allow her and Gabrielle to survive. He would target them with every resource at Rome’s disposal. And eventually there would be nowhere to run.
“You don’t have to stay in the shadows anymore. I know you’re there.”
She had been so lost in her deep thoughts that she didn’t hear him enter the chamber. When she looked up, he was standing just on the other side from where she sat. He watched her intently with no fear in his gray eyes as she slowly stepped out of the shadows.
“What’s your game?” She asked warily.
He held his hands out at his sides so she could see that he carried no weapon. “No game. I’m just here to talk.”
Xena crossed her arms over her chest and waited. “So, talk.”
He was intimidated in the least. “You’re Xena.”
He smiled slightly. “He said you would come for them.”
“He was right.”
“They’re not here.”
That stopped him and he studied her for a moment. “Then why are you here, instead of…”
Xena’s stoic mask faltered ever so slightly. “Because he has to be stopped.”
His eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “And you think it’s your job to stop him?”
“I should have done it years ago.”
“Ah,” he nodded sagely. “When you captured and ransomed him back to us.” He paced a few steps, stopped and turned to face her. “You know I’m his closest friend?”
“That’s what I’ve heard.”
“Then you realize talking to me could get you killed,” he went on. “He hates you and will stop at nothing to see that you never become a rival ruler.”
“Too late,” Xena smirked. “Brutus.”
His brow lifted. “So, you do know who I am.”
“You were here when we were discussing Caesar earlier.” It wasn’t a question. She eyed him warily and remained silent, waiting for him to continue. “It’s okay,” he shrugged. “It seems we’ve become allies of sorts.”
Her expression darkened. “I don’t ally myself with scum.”
He smiled faintly. “How about honest men who only want the best for their people?”
It was Xena’s turn to raise a brow. “You show me an honest men in this bee hive and I’ll consider it.”
“Okay,” he conceded. “But you should know that there is a contingent of armed mercenaries right outside that door.” He motioned with his head to the door he entered from. “And I have yet to raise the alarm.”
“What’s your game, Brutus? Because I really don’t like games—don’t have much use for ‘em.”
He sat down on a stone bench and rested an arm on an outstretched leg. It gave Xena time to study him from his Roman haircut to the simple tunic and armor down to his worn sandals. He wasn’t a man of frills. Not like Caesar or Pompeii. Brutus was a soldier. She could see it when he turned his hands and she caught a glimpse of his calloused palms. She didn’t trust him. Then again, she didn’t yet have a reason not to. He was right about not raising the alarm.
“There’s only one way to take care of Caesar,” he finally went on.
“Such as?” She watched his eyes snap to hers.
“Someone could kill him,” Brutus said solemnly as he continued to meet her steady gaze.
Xena narrowed her eyes at him. “What are you suggesting?”
“I think you know, Xena,” he gave her a small half-smile. “I think you know.”
She broke eye contact with him with a heavy sigh and looked up at the marble ceiling above. Yeah, she knew.
“It’s almost daybreak,” Zea glanced at the window just over her left shoulder. “Won’t be long now.”
“Mm,” came the quiet reply from the woman lying against her in the vacant stall.
“How’re you doing, love?”
“Peachy,” Briesse slurred wearily. “Hur’s.”
“It’s probably time for another poultice,” Zea reached over to the pack next to her and pulled out a leather pouch. “The healer said to change it when the pain returns.”
Zea gently extricated herself from behind Briesse, who was using her as a human pillow in their makeshift lodgings, and let her rest against the wall of the stall. Their sister Amazons had suggested they use the only unoccupied stall in the stables. Zea had protested, but Ephiny had insisted. So, Zea made them a bed that was as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.
The horse wrangler quickly readied a poultice and then carefully unwrapped the bandages around Briesse’s head. When she pulled the poultice away from the gash on Briesse’s face, she winced and couldn’t help sucking in a breath. She then bit her lip to hide her reaction, but Briesse wasn’t fooled.
“Tha’ bad, eh?” Briesse commented with a pained half-smile.
Zea examined the gash carefully with a very gentle touch. “Not as bad as it was earlier. I think it’s a little better, actually.”
“Yeah,” Briesse’s tone didn’t hold any optimism. “Right.”
Zea placed one palm against Briesse’s good cheek. “You’re beautiful, love. And this will heal. It’s just going to take some time.”
“Healer said I’ll never see outta the eye again,” Briesse continued dejectedly. “Wha’s a scout without two good eyes?”
“A one-eyed scout?” Zea deadpanned, as she quickly applied the new poultice to the gash and reapplied the bandages.
Briesse raised her good brow and couldn’t help but chuckle slightly. “You did not just say that to a one-eyed scout.”
Zea stopped in mid-wrap and gazed intently into Briesse’s good eye. “I did. You’re not dead, sweetheart. You are very much alive. And I am eternally grateful to whichever god saw fit to make it happen. We will get through this together.” She stroked Briesse’s good cheek with her fingertips. “Besides,” she continued in all seriousness, “if worse comes to worse, I know how to put an injured animal out of its misery.”
Briesse scowled and winced. “Hey!”
Zea smiled. “That’s my girl. Now, stop moping and feeling sorry for yourself.” She turned away and turned back holding up a dagger. “Or I will make good on that threat.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Briesse said contritely.
Zea finished wrapping the bandage and tucked the end behind Briesse’s head. “There. All done.” She sat back on her heels. “How’s it feel now?”
“Better,” Briesse replied.
“How’s our patient?” Ephiny’s head popped over the top of the stall.
“She wants to go where the action is,” Briesse said before Zea could respond.
“Difficult,” Zea frowned at Briesse.
“Not much action out there at the moment,” Ephiny said. “Margalene and Rayna returned a quarter candlemark ago. The centurions seem to have vanished. There’s no sign of them anywhere.”
“Weird,” Zea commented.
“You’re telling me,” Ephiny said. “This whole city gives me the creeps. I’m ready to just call the whole thing off and head back to Thrace. Leave Xena to bring Gabrielle back on her own.”
“You won’t, though,” Briesse chimed in.
“No,” Ephiny gave them a resigned half-smile. “I really don’t want to return to the village empty-handed. But that doesn’t mean this whole situation isn’t one big mess.”
“A pile of centaur crap isn’t as messy as this whole trip has been,” said Briesse with a wry half-grin.
“And Talia reported that she, Chalidriss and Brynn saw something they can’t explain,” Ephiny added.
“What?” asked Zea.
“A pack of huge black dogs,” Ephiny shook her head. “They were racing through the streets, as if they were hunting for something or someone.”
“Why is that unexplainable?” Zea asked in confusion.
“Because the pack came within a few paces of our Amazons and didn’t even give them the time of day,” Ephiny explained. “Talia said the largest one stopped briefly, but then it continued on with a shake of its head, like it knew they weren’t the prey the pack was searching for.”
“That is a little strange,” Briesse said. “A pack of dogs running loose within the city? Maybe that’s what scared the centurions off.”
“That’s not the strangest part,” Ephiny added. “Talia said the big one had the creepiest eyes she’d ever seen.”
“How so?” asked Zea.
“They were red,” said Ephiny. “Dark red, like something out of the bowels of the Underworld.”
“Is she sure they were dogs?” Briesse put in. “Dogs don’t have red eyes and a pack doesn’t discriminate when it comes to prey.”
Zea shuddered. “Sounds creepy to me.”
“Sounds like the Hounds were loosed in the mortal realm,” added Briesse. She met Ephiny’s curious gaze and shrugged. “I’ve heard tales. They roam the Underworld at Hades’ whim, but they mostly torment evil souls in Tartarus and keep them in line. I don’t think anyone in the mortal realm has ever seen them.”
“You’re saying those things came from Tartarus?” Zea couldn’t believe her ears. “Why? What do they want with any of us?”
“I don’t know,” Briesse shrugged again. “I’ve only heard stories.”
Ephiny was thoughtful for a moment. “The crows,” she said absently. “I knew there was something odd about their behavior.”
“Crows?” Briesse and Zea said in unison.
“Athena has dominion over the birds of the air,” Ephiny explained. “She probably sent them to keep an eye on us. Although, that really doesn’t make sense. Unless…”
“The gods are involved in all this,” Briesse nodded sagely. “This whole thing goes way beyond a simple rescue mission, if the gods are involved.”
Zea shook her head in confusion. “What would the gods want with any of us?”
“Not us,” Ephiny said. “Xena.”
“I still don’t get it,” said Zea. “Xena is mortal, just like the rest of us. The gods don’t generally get mixed up in mortal affairs. They barely acknowledge our existence and only when it suits their own purposes.”
“But they might get involved when one of their own is in the thick of things,” Briesse added. “Didn’t Xena once say Ares was her patron god at one time?”
“Ares?God of War?” Zea’s eyes widened.
“Yeah,” Ephiny confirmed. “And it’s been said he doesn’t exactly play by the rules when it comes to inciting conflict in order to start a war.”
“Wait,” Zea held up a hand. “Are you saying the God of War is trying to start a war? But what does that have to do with the other gods? I still don’t get it.”
“We’re in Rome,” Ephiny explained. “That means that Ares is on the prowl for new followers.”
“You’re saying his target is the people of Rome?” asked Briesse. “Sounds a bit far-fetched, if you ask me. The gods on Olympus don’t generally stray from their own territory, do they?”
“I think we can pin this one on the whole Trojan War,” Ephiny added. “I’m sure the God of War was involved in that fiasco and saw some potential for future followers. I wouldn’t put it past him to keep an eye on Rome to see what develops.”
“And along comes Julius Caesar,” Zea nodded.
“Who just happens to share a past with Xena,” Briesse added.
“Not to mention we worship the goddess, Artemis, sister goddess to Athena,” said Ephiny.
“Oh boy,” sighed Zea.
“Yeah, oh boy is right,” Ephiny added with a resigned sigh of her own. “I think this just got bigger than any of us anticipated.”
“And we are right smack dab in the middle of it all,” Briesse slumped against the wall. “This was so not what I signed up for.”
“Me either,” Zea sat right down next to her and rested her head on Briesse’s shoulder.
“Well, on the bright side,” Ephiny gave them a small smile. “You two are off the hook in light of Briesse’s heroics.” She glanced out the window. “Let’s just hope the rest of us can take up the slack and get this done. The queen is counting on us to get her out of there.”
“Wait,” Zea sat up alertly. “You’re not going on ahead to the Colosseum without us, are you?”
“That’s the plan,” Ephiny nodded. “And we’re sticking to it.”
“No buts,” Ephiny cut Zea off. “Stay here with Briesse. We’ll take care of the rest and grab the two of you on our way out of town.”
“Besides,” Eponin walked up and leaned on the stall wall next to Ephiny. “The two of you would just slow us down. And this whole rescue thing is gonna take quick wits and clear heads.”
Ephiny gave the weapons master a raised brow look. “Quick wits and clear heads?Really, Pon?”
Eponin shrugged. “Didn’t say it had to be all of us.”
“Oh, good grief,” Ephiny rolled her eyes at Eponin, then returned her attention to Briesse and Zea. “Just keep your heads down and don’t get into trouble while we’re gone.”
“Could say the same about you, my queen,” Briesse snorted. “Our bunch doesn’t exactly blend in with the Roman populace.”
“Got that covered,” Eponin said. “Managed to find replacements for the disguises we lost in that fire last night.”
“More Roman tunics?” Zea looked doubtful. “Where will you hide your weapons?”
Eponin grinned and produced a Roman centurion helmet. “Not exactly, there, wrangler. We’ll be dressed in style this time around.”
Ephiny noticed the crestfallen expressions on both women. “Don’t worry. You’ll get your chance to dress up as centurions when we hit the road.”
“Unless things get really dicey and we have to ditch the duds,” Eponin added soberly. “Then we’ll be high-tailing it for the hills double time.”
“And how will we know if things don’t go as planned?” asked Briesse.
“Or if something goes wrong,” added Zea.
“If you don’t hear from any of us by nightfall, get the hades out of Rome,” Eponin said.
“We can’t do that,” Briesse said. “Amazons don’t turn tail and run when their sisters are in trouble.”
“We won’t be in trouble,” Ephiny added. “We’ll be dead. That’s the only way this can go wrong.” She looked at Eponin for reassurance and received a nod. “So, if you don’t hear from us, head back to Thrace and tell the others. That’s an order. Understand?” She got twin nods from the two. “Good.”
“What about the monarchy?” Zea asked curiously. “If you and Gabrielle…” She let the words hang.
“Find Queen Grenella. She’ll know what to do,” Ephiny responded soberly. “Worse comes to worse you can pack up the village and move closer to her tribe. Any other questions?” Zea and Briesse exchanged glances and shook their heads. “Okay, well, the gods be with all of us on this one, then. Come on, Pon. Let’s go make the best of what’s left of this night.”
Ephiny and Eponin disappeared from view, leaving Briesse and Zea alone in the sudden silence.
“This sucks,” Briesse huffed. “Can’t believe we’re getting left behind.”
“Yeah,” Zea put her head down on Briesse’s shoulder. “Sucks big hairy centaur balls.”
“Oh, love,” Briesse chuckled and kissed the top of Zea’s head. “That is one image I never want to see, even with only one good eye.”
Zea hugged her close. “Me, either. Not after all the horse breeding I’ve witnessed. You wouldn’t believe…”
Briesse quickly pressed her fingers against Zea’s lips. “Please don’t. I really don’t want to share the mental images, either.”
Zea chuckled then sobered. “Really wish we could go with the others.”
“Me, too,” Briesse wrapped an arm around Zea’s shoulders. “But this is my second choice. Just being with you is enough for me.” She rested her good cheek against the top of Zea’s head. “’Sides, don’t think I’d be worth much with only the one good eye and this killer headache. My depth perception is all out of whack.”
“And I suck at sword fighting, so we’re about even,” Zea added. “Maybe it’s for the best that we’re stuck here. I just wish there was something useful we could be doing.”
“Like gathering horses for a quick getaway?” Briesse offered.
Zea sat up and stared at Briesse. “You really think…”
“You’re the wrangler, love,” Briesse said. “Kinda makes sense, if we don’t want to have to return to Greece by the same way we got here. You think you can round up some decent mounts?”
Zea brightened. “The stable master actually offered to sell us some horses when we arrived. Maybe he’s still open to the idea.”
“Can we afford horses for everyone?”
“Won’t know until I talk to him.”
“Then you’d best get to negotiating, sweetheart,” Briesse gave her a quick peck on the lips. “Go on. I’ll be fine until you get back.”
“You sure?” Zea looked doubtful.
“Absolutely,” Briesse assured her. “And see if you can find that healer. Pick up some more herbs for the journey home. Don’t think we have enough to last that long.”
“Okay,” Zea let her forehead rest lightly against the thick bandage covering Briesse’s head.
“Take my dagger with you, just in case,” Briesse handed the dagger to Zea hilt-first. “And make sure he doesn’t swindle you out of more coin than those nags of his are worth.”
“If there’s one thing I can do, it’s negotiate a deal for decent horse flesh,” Zea winked and pecked Briesse on the lips. “I’ll be back shortly, love. Don’t go anywhere or get into any trouble while I’m gone.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Briesse gave her a lopsided grin.
Monsters without eyes. Rats with huge teeth and sharp claws. Voices. Angry voices moving closer and closer. Horrible black dogs with red eyes and razor sharp fangs dogging her every step. She was trapped with no way out. Trapped in misery, heat and pain. Trapped in the bowels of the Underworld—the very deepest darkest depths of Tartarus. Goulish, skeletal beasts snarled and growled in the shadows…
Something brushed her arm and she sat bolt upright with a gasp. Someone screamed loudly, the screams echoing off the walls around her. Then she realized she was the one screaming. She clamped her lips tightly shut and panted through her nose. The air was dank and damp. But she wasn’t cold at all. Actually, she felt quite warm.
And her palm felt like it was on fire. She couldn’t see her hand in darkness, but she could certainly feel it.
She jumped and then remembered Solon was in the cell with her.
“F-fine,” she cleared her throat. “Just…” She shook her head in an attempt to clear it of the hideous images of her dreams. “Nightmares.”
“Musta been some nightmares,” he shifted slightly in his cubby. “You were pretty loud.”
“Nightmares suck,” she ran a hand through her short-cropped hair as she slumped back against the stone wall behind her.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Sometimes it’s just better not to sleep at all. Wish I could do that.”
Gabrielle stared at his shadowy figure for a moment. He seemed so small and slight all huddled up in a tight ball up there. Her heart ached for him and for Xena, as well. Just a few short candlemarks until daylight and then…
Gabrielle paused for a long moment. “Xena’s here,” she said quietly.
The silence that followed hung between them like a dark shroud. Gabrielle couldn’t see his features in the shadows and couldn’t tell what he was thinking. And Solon wasn’t talking. So they both just sat there in their tiny cell.
“Did you hear something?” Gabrielle suddenly perked up.
“No,” Gabrielle moved to the edge of the pallet and stood up on shaky legs. “Sounds like…”
Men shouted and raced by their cell door. They could hear swords being drawn and then Gabrielle felt her heart soar as a familiar battle cry pierced the stillness.
“Xena!” Gabrielle shouted. “Xena! We’re here!”
Bounding for the door, Gabrielle pressed her face against the barred opening and tried to see what was going on. More guards raced by the door and the clash of steel echoed off the stone walls all around them. The shouting continued and the noise got closer and closer.
“Xena!” Gabrielle yelled as loud as she could. “Xena!” Her voice was hoarse from disuse and her shouts were lost in the noise beyond.
And then the chaos was just up the hallway and out of her line of sight. Gabrielle pressed her face tightly to the rusty bars, but she still couldn’t see what was happening. There were more shouts and Xena’s battle cry rose above the clashing blades, grunts and cracking bones.
Then Pompeii was shouting as well. Gabrielle was a bit surprised when he actually encouraged Xena to defeat the guards and free them all. Then she realized he was just doing it out of self preservation. He wanted to escape just as much as she did.
More guards rushed down the hallway and Gabrielle knew a moment of sheer terror that Xena was sorely outnumbered. But then Gabrielle heard a collective shout from the men and several flew past the cell door. More men joined them and it seemed that Xena was winning the close-quarters battle.
“Come on, Xena!” Gabrielle shouted above the din.
“Quiet, ya scum!”
She jumped back in time to avoid having her nose cut off by a swipe of a Roman blade and collapsed on the straw. Something brushed her arm and she screamed. Then she realized Solon was there beside her.
“You okay, Gabrielle?” His tone was full of concern.
A loud crash against the cell door cut off any possible reply. The fight was right outside and louder than ever. Gabrielle and Solon sat huddled on the filthy straw and watched the door shake and rattle with each subsequent impact.
Gabrielle could hear Xena and her spirits rose when she realized she was just on the other side of that door. Getting up and returning to the bars, Gabrielle tried to see what was going on. She couldn’t see anything with helmets that were blocking her view.
Another crash against the door sent her stumbling back to the straw. Xena cried out loudly and the men shouted. The very walls seemed to rumble and shake violently. Dust and debris fell from the ceiling and the floor shook beneath them.
A loud explosion was followed by a cloud of thick, dark smoke.
Everything went still and quiet. The silence was almost deafening and the stillness eerie. Nothing moved. Not a sound was heard. Dust and debris continued to rain down on their heads.
Gabrielle sprang to her feet and pressed her face against the bars. She coughed as the smoke billowed in through the opening. There was still one torch flickering at the end of the hallway. It barely illuminated anything outside the cell. She could hear a few groans on the floor below.
“Xena?” Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat. “Xena? Are you still there?”
A charred face was suddenly there and Gabrielle jumped back with a startled scream. Then she heard bootsteps heading toward them and more shouts. Guards filled the hallway with swords drawn. Gabrielle’s heart sank further.
The sound of metal grinding in the rusty lock of their cell door had both Gabrielle and Solon scrambling into the farthest corner of their cell. The door opened wide and several men unceremoniously tossed a still form inside. The door banged shut and the lock turned with a resounding click.
“There! You’ll all be dead soon enough! Greek scum!”
The charred face of one of their guards moved away from the door and silence descended once again.
Gabrielle tentatively scooted over to the still figure lying face-down in the filthy straw. She knew instantly who it was and her heart sank into the very depths of her soul.
“Xena?” She placed a hand on the dark head and moved Xena’s hair away from her face. “Xena?” Gabrielle lifted Xena’s head into her lap and placed her fingers on the pulse point below her ear. “Thank the gods,” she let out the breath she’d been holding as she felt a flutter beneath her fingers.
“Yes,” Gabrielle couldn’t help the tears that fell suddenly. “She’s alive.” Then she cradled Xena’s head in her lap and just let the tears fall.
Continued in Part 15
Return to the Academy