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.
Bliss. She was riding on a cloud of pure bliss. Soft. Warm. Light. Atop a fluffy cloud and surrounded by a warmth that penetrated every pore of her being. The light chased the darkness away and left her soaring high above the earth.
And then reality came crashing back in like a ton of boulders. Every fiber of her being hurt. But she managed to push the pain away and concentrate on that voice.
“Is it really her?”
“She doesn’t look so tough. The stories about her are…”
“She’s as human as you or me.”
Gentle fingers brushed along her brow and down the side of her cheek. It felt wonderful. She didn’t want to move. Ever. She didn’t want to sit up and face reality. Reality was painful. And then there was the other voice.
“I hear someone coming.”
“I know,” the human pillow she was lying against sighed. “Xena, they’re coming.”
“Mm,” she grunted.
“At least open your eyes and show me that you’re okay,” Gabrielle said. “You’ve been out for the better part of a candlemark. It’s got to be close to dawn, by now.”
Xena was silent as she did a quick calculation in her head and continued to enjoy the warm body she was cradled against. While she was at it, she also took stock of the pain. Her head hurt the worst. Probably a concussion from the blast down the hall.Great. The rest of it was mostly bumps and bruises from the fight. Those she could push to the back of her mind. The concussion, however, was another story.
Slowly allowing one eyelid to open and then the other, Xena blinked a few times to clear her vision. It didn’t help much. All she could see was a dark shadowy head leaning close to her.
“That’s better,” Gabrielle sounded relieved. “You had me really worried. I was starting to think you weren’t going to come around anytime soon. How do you feel?”
“’s dark,” Xena squinted to see better. That didn’t help much, either. “Why’s so dark?”
“We’re in a cell beneath the Colosseum,” Gabrielle replied. “Not much light way down here.”
“Torches don’t help much, either,” Solon added warily.
“Xena,” Gabrielle continued her gentle stroking. “What happened out there?”
“Mm,” Xena pushed the pounding in her head away enough to be able to think. “’splosion.”
“Yeah, we got that,” Solon snorted sarcastically.
“Solon,” Gabrielle admonished. “Really?”
“Hey, she started it,” she could almost hear the pout in his voice. “It’s not like the entire city didn’t hear it, Gabrielle.”
Solon. Xena was immediately alert and struggling to sit up.
“Solon?” She managed to half-turn towards him, but could see nothing but a thin shadow against the stone wall behind him. “Is it really you?”
“Yes, Xena,” Gabrielle answered for him. “Caesar’s sick little joke, apparently. He alluded to us being a distraction of some kind. Still not sure what that’s all about.”
“Don’t forget about me!” Came a muffled shout from the other side of the wall.
“And that’s Pompeii,” Gabrielle explained when Xena’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Welcome to the party,” she finished sarcastically.
“Jus’ glad I’m here,” Xena reached up and put a palm against Gabrielle’s cheek. “Missed you.”
“I missed you, too, Xena,” tears sprang to Gabrielle’s eyes, but she blinked them away. “More than you will ever know.”
“You okay?” Xena asked in concern.
“For the most part,” Gabrielle answered. “Tired of being a pawn in Caesar’s sick little game.Tired of being tossed around like a sack of flour.Really tired of being at the mercy of others.Just plain tired.”
“Me, too,” Xena took Gabrielle’s hand in hers and heard her suck in a breath. “What?”
“My hand,” Gabrielle pulled her hand away. “Hurts.”
“She got attacked,” Solon added.
Xena sat up and instantly regretted the move as a wave of dizziness washed over her and her stomach did a few flip-flops.
“Crap,” she waited a moment for the worst of the nausea to pass, then returned her attention to Gabrielle. “Attacked?”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle shrugged. “It’s not a big deal. Just a pack of wild dogs running loose in the city. Not like I should be all that surprised by yet another turn on this topsy-turvy adventure I’ve been on.”
“It had red eyes,” Solon said. “Dogs don’t have red eyes, Gabrielle.”
“No,” Xena’s tone turned grave. “There’s only one pack of wild hounds that have red eyes and they aren’t of the mortal realm.” She gingerly took Gabrielle’s hand again and looked closely at the palm. “Did one of them bite you?”
“I really don’t remember, Xena,” Gabrielle tried to pull her hand away, but Xena had it in a firm grasp. “It’s not like we can do anything about it right now. In a few candlemarks we’ll be in the arena and a little scratch on my hand will be the least of our worries.”
Gabrielle heard something in Xena’s tone that set her nape hairs on end. “Unless what? What is it, Xena?”
No one spoke for several heartbeats. Then…
“I don’t want to scare you, Gabrielle,” Xena said.
“Except that now you’re doing just that, Xena,” said Gabrielle. “Just tell me.”
“Yeah, she has a right to know,” Solon added.
“No, he’s right,” Xena cut off Gabrielle’s protest. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then proceeded. “It’s said Hades keeps a pack of wild black hounds in the very deepest, darkest depths of Tartarus. They have red eyes and their saliva is poisonous. The smallest bite or scratch from one releases the poison and turns a soul into a demon of the Underworld.”
“But I’m mortal,” Gabrielle argued. “I’m not dead and we’re not in the Underworld.”
Xena thought about that for a moment. “You have a point.”
“So, what does that mean?” Solon looked from one to the other.
“It means…” Xena paused. “I guess I really don’t know what it means.”
“I don’t feel any different, except that my hand burns like crazy,” Gabrielle said. “Maybe they don’t have any powers in the mortal realm?”
“Or maybe the poison is neutralized here,” Solon added. “Maybe they’re just wild dogs when they’re not in the Underworld.”
“Yeah,” Xena smiled at Solon for the first time. “You have a really good point, Solon.”
“Thanks,” he said warily as he scooted away.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. Then Xena turned fully toward him.
“Solon,” she watched as he retreated even farther until he had scampered up onto his little shelf. “I’m not gonna hurt you.” He curled up in a ball and didn’t respond. “Hey,” she continued pleadingly, “you need to believe that I would never hurt you. I…” Gabrielle’s hand on her arm made her stop and she saw the slight headshake from her partner.
“Solon,” Gabrielle said, “Xena isn’t our enemy right now.” She watched Xena’s brow lift questioningly and gave her another slight headshake. “We can have this discussion after we get out of Rome. Right now, though, we need to let Xena get us out of here. I trust her completely. Do you trust me? Can you trust her to get us out of here, Solon?”
He lifted his head slightly and gazed at Gabrielle through his greasy hair. “I don’t know,” he said in a small voice.
“I didn’t want to give you up, Solon,” Xena added. “I only did what I thought was best for you.”
“And my father?”
“He died the night you were born,” Xena’s tone was full of regret. “We were under attack and he gave his life to save us both. Borias was a selfless man who loved you even though he never got the chance to lay eyes on you.”
He was silent for several heartbeats, then, “Did you kill him?”
“No,” Xena was a little surprised by the question, but kept her tone even. “I didn’t kill Borias. I was too busy giving birth to you to do anything more than scream my head off. I never knew who killed him. My men whisked me away to the woods with you in my arms the instant you came into the world. I never saw Borias again.”
“But you know he died,” Solon said.
“Yes,” she said. “When I gave you up to Kaleipus, he told me the Centaurs managed to recover Borias’ body and give him a proper burial. Kaleipus also said he was keeping your father’s sword for when you come of age to learn to use it.” She paused and looked right at him. “I’m going to make sure you get back home so Kaleipus can keep his word. That’s a promise I intend to keep.”
The words hung there in the heavy silence that followed. No one spoke. No one moved. And for once the hallway outside the tiny cell was eerily quiet.
Gabrielle knew there was more in what Xena said than mere words. Not only was there conviction, but there was also a hint of pain behind the words that only she could sense. Solon’s attitude toward Xena wasn’t helping matters, but Gabrielle knew the whole truth, too. She just didn’t want to discuss what she knew with Xena while Solon was right there listening. Then again, when would they be able to discuss it? Or would they even get the chance?
In that moment, all she wanted was for it all to go away. For her and Xena to be together and for the world to just disappear. No more wars. No more family angst. Just the two of them in each other’s arms where they belonged. But the Fates or destiny or the gods or whatever it was that was keeping them on this crazy path just didn’t seem likely to give up and leave them in peace.
“You okay, Gabrielle?”
Xena’s quiet question and a soft touch brought Gabrielle back to the matter at hand.
“Yeah,” she answered on a sigh. “Just wishing.”
Xena scooted back over and pulled Gabrielle into her arms.
“Me, too,” Xena said quietly as she rested her cheek on top of Gabrielle’s head, then suddenly sat up again. “What happened to your hair?” She reached up and ran her fingers through the cropped locks. “It’s so short.”
Gabrielle just burrowed deeper into Xena’s arms and tried to take a measure of comfort in the strong arms holding her. “I’ll tell you about it later,” she mumbled against Xena’s chest. “After we get out of this mess we’re in and are safely on our way back home.”
“Far as I’m concerned, I am home,” Xena hugged her tight. “No matter what happens, I want you to know that I love you, Gabrielle. And I will always be with you.”
“Me, too,” Gabrielle replied.
Her eyes slowly drifted shut as she let herself relax for the first time in weeks. So much had happened and so much was yet to come, but she didn’t care. All that mattered right then and there was that Xena was there with her, and those strong arms were once again her assurance that all would be made right—even if “right” meant that they would die together in the arena. Gabrielle just didn’t care anymore as she drifted off to sleep in Xena’s arms and the world really did disappear around her.
“Are you sure this is gonna work?”
Hazel eyes scanned the crowd that filled every seat and stone bench in the arena, except one. That one stood conspicuously empty beneath an elaborate canopy of draped red fabric. The noise level was practically deafening as the crowd grew restless and several groups started chanting for the festivities to begin.
“Do you think she succeeded?”
“I don’t know.”
Ephiny continued to scan the crowd. Her eyes managed to find the strategically placed duos, despite the masses of people packed together in the audience.
“I can’t see a thing. Are they in place?”
Ephiny nodded as she continued to watch the crowd. “Mm-hm. They’re all where they’re supposed to be.”
“I don’t see her,” Ephiny’s brow furrowed.
“But she said she’d be here.” Eponin was looking for reassurance.
“So where could she be? I thought we weren’t supposed to start without her.”
“But what if…” Eponin let the words hang.
“She’ll be here.”
“Maybe something happened…”
Ephiny turned a stony glare on her partner. “If Xena said she’ll be here, she’ll be here, Pon. Xena keeps her promises.”
“We’re all in place, my queen,” Rayna suddenly appeared next to them in full Roman centurion regalia.
“And the rest?” Ephiny glanced at the Amazon, then returned her attention to the crowd. “Did you manage to find everything on Xena’s list?”
“Yes, my queen,” Rayna nodded. “Margalene and Talia have everything in place.”
“Any sign of Xena?” Eponin asked.
“No,” Rayna replied with a shake of her head. “None, whatsoever.”
Eponin scanned the crowd. “I don’t see her, either. Isn’t she supposed to be here before we get this shindig started?”
The crowd suddenly stood and cheered loudly as a figure in white emerged from the shadows into the bright sunlight. Caesar stepped to the stone railing and acknowledged the cheers with a reserved nod of his dark head. He then lifted a hand for silence and the crowd stilled.
“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears!” His voice carried throughout the entire Colosseum.
“Here we go,” Ephiny said in a low tone. She then raised her arm in a signal for the rest of her sisters scattered throughout the place. “Let’s go.”
“I hear something,” Gabrielle raised her head to listen.
“It’s begun,” Xena replied.
Then they heard footsteps approaching and someone stopped in front of the cell door. A key turned with a loud creak and the door swung open on rusty hinges.
“Let’s go,” a burly guard stepped forward with three sets of manacles in his hand. “You first, warrior.”
Two more guards moved into the doorway with swords drawn. They pointed their blades at Xena, while the burly guard tossed a set of manacles to her. Xena caught them and just glared at the man in open defiance.
“Put ‘em on or they’ll gut all three of ya,” he growled.
Xena slipped the manacles on her wrists and secured them while the three men watched her closely. She then stood up and reached down to pull Gabrielle up beside her. The burly guard tossed another set of manacles in Gabrielle’s direction and she barely caught them.
“She doesn’t need those,” Xena growled back at him and then took one of Gabrielle’s hands in hers.
“Caesar’s orders,” he grunted, as he motioned for Gabrielle to don the manacles. “No one leaves the catacombs without ‘em.”
“Where are you taking us?” Xena asked.
He chuckled. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll find that out soon enough.”
Xena stepped out of the cell with Gabrielle close. There were more armed guards standing in the narrow hallway. Xena blinked in the dim light from the torches and held on tightly to Gabrielle’s hand as the guard pushed them toward the others.
“Where’s the boy?” The burly guard gruffly asked.
“What boy?” Gabrielle stopped and turned.
The guard ducked inside the cell and emerged again dragging a struggling Solon with him. The guard tried to get the manacles on Solon, but the boy continued to fight. When Solon bit the man, the guard retaliated by knocking Solon into the wall.
“Hey!” Gabrielle made a move toward the guard and was roughly grabbed by two guards standing behind her. “Leave him alone!”
Xena reacted to the two men without thinking. “Hands off!” She shouted as she knocked one off balance with an elbow to the side of his head.
Xena was then roughly tackled by three guards from behind. She went down hard with her face pressed painfully against the stone floor.
“Let her go!” Gabrielle struggled to free herself from the one guard who still had a hold of her. “Xena!”
Gabrielle managed to wrench her arm free and swung around with all her might. She used the chain between the manacles on her wrists as a weapon and slammed it into the helmet of one of the guards who had Xena pinned. All hades broke loose at that point as Xena suddenly launched herself up from the ground with a herculean effort.
The guard closest to Gabrielle was thrown into her and she was slammed into the wall behind her. Momentarily dazed, Gabrielle watched as Xena mimicked her earlier move with the manacle chain and then went one step further. Xena managed to get the chain over the head of a guard and used it as a garrot. As he struggled to breathe with the chain biting into his neck, Xena used him as a shield and also as a weapon. She heaved backwards and lifted his legs up off the floor. In his wild struggle to free himself he accidentally kicked out at the men in front of him. They went down hard.
Everything stopped in an instant and all eyes turned toward the source of the shout. The burly guard held a gleaming dagger blade to Solon’s throat with one hand and had a hand-hold in his filthy, greasy hair with the other.
“Anymore of your shenanigans and I’ll slit his scrawny throat,” he emphasized his point by jerking back on Solon’s hair and pressing the blade close enough for a trickle of blood to run down his neck. “Now, get going or he dies right here and now.”
Xena reached down, once again, and pulled Gabrielle to her feet. “You okay?” She asked, close to Gabrielle’s ear.
Gabrielle nodded as she waited for the world to stop spinning. “I’m good. Just got knocked around a little. I’ll live.” She then glared at the guard still holding his dagger to Solon’s throat. “He isn’t a threat to you, you know. He’s only a boy. Please, just let him go.”
“A wild animal, more like,” the man shook Solon when the boy growled and tried to squirm away. “’Sides, in a few candlemarks none of this will matter. You’ll all be dead.”
The guard chuckled as he shoved Solon toward them. Xena caught the boy before he hit the floor, but Solon wrenched himself out of her grasp and wrapped his arms around Gabrielle. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a silent look, as Gabrielle held the boy close.
“Let’s GO!” The burly guard drew his sword and waved it at them. “NOW!”
The passage was musty and damp. It smelled of dust and mold. Water dripped down the walls and a maze of sticky cobwebs were scattered everywhere. A single torch’s muted light cast eerie shadows on the wet stone and mud walls. The light didn’t penetrate the darkness ahead.
“Are you really sure you want to do this?”
The words seemed to echo for leagues along the narrow passageway.
Silence pressed down on the two figures as their footsteps were muted by the squishy mud and an occasional puddle of water in their path. One of the figures was covered from head to toe with a long, plain, hooded cloak that’s color matched the darkness around them. The other wore a simple soldier’s leather jerkin and carried a sword in a plain leather scabbard at his hip.
“He won’t be happy when he finds out…”
“No, he won’t,” the shorter of the two cut off her companion before more was said. “But this is my choice. Not his.”
“The choice affects more than just you, your grace,” came the shy yet insistent reply. “The fate of the entire realm is at stake…”
“I know,” she cut him off again. “I’m well aware of everything that’s at stake, Giles. But I will not sit idly by and watch my son tear this place apart, stone by stone. And I certainly don’t want anymore bloodshed on my account, when I can most certainly do something about it.”
“But, your grace…”
She rounded on him in an instant with a spark of familiar anger in her greenish-blue eyes. He nearly jumped back from her, even though she was a full head shorter than he was. As it was he fumbled with the torch in his hand and nearly dropped it into a pubble at his feet.
“Don’t argue with me, young man,” she shook a finger at him as he quickly recovered. “I’m old enough to be your grandmother, and I won’t hesistate to use my status as Xena’s mother to good use.”
“Y-yes, ma’am,” he demurred.
“Let’s go,” she turned on her heel and headed up the passageway without another word.
Giles stood there for a moment of hesitation, watching Cyrene disappear into the darkness beyond.
“Are you coming, young man?”
The tone of her voice spurred him into immediate action and he raced up the passageway after her. She was the queen’s mother and his loyalty to the crown was unquestioned. But that didn’t mean he was all that thrilled with this little adventure of theirs. No. Giles decided to put all thoughts of the consequences behind him as he continued up the dark passageway towards a pinprick of light that grew ever brighter in the distance. There was time enough later to ponder what General Braes would do to punish him in the aftermath of all that was happening.
“You ready for this?”
A deep sigh escaped full lips, as Briesse contemplated the question for a silent moment. Was she ready? Every muscles and bone in her body ached from the fever and infection that was quickly spreading. Sweat beaded her brow and a fine sheen covered her skin from head to toe.
No, she really wasn’t ready to do more than lay there in the clean straw and rest. But that wasn’t why they were there. Rest wasn’t an option for an Amazon trained for battle. And her loyalty to her tribe—to her queen and all her sisters—was at the fore of all she did.
Pushing the pain and discomfort to the back of her mind, she looked up with her one good eye at the woman standing expectantly in front of her. A single gray feather hung from a dark braid against the heart-shaped tan face. Dark eyes stared back with compassion and—was it really love? Could one see love radiated so openly like that?
“Well?” Zea cocked a brow and extended a hand. “We doing this or not? ‘Cause I’m all for just lounging around in this nice, comfy spot with you. I really don’t think you’re ready to be prancing around the streets of Rome in your condition, love. Besides, I got the horses all set for our getaway. We’re good to go.”
Briesse took a deep breath and let it out slowly in an effort to clear her head. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
Extending her hand, she let Zea do most of the work to pull her to her feet. The effort of moving sent shockwaves of dizziness and pain radiating throughout her body, but she ignored it all. Except for the excruciating pain radiating through her head. That she couldn’t quite ignore. It throbbed so much that she could barely see straight out of her one good eye.
“We’re Amazons,” Briesse grunted, as she wrapped an arm around Zea’s shoulders to steady herself. “This is what we do for a strong Amazon Nation.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Zea waved the words away. “Killing ourselves for the greater good isn’t exactly what I signed up for. Remember? I’m the fun-loving horse wrangler.”
“Oh, darlin’,” Briesse picked a piece of straw out of Zea’s dark hair. “You are definitely fun-loving. I’ll give you that.”
“Watch it, scout,” Zea playfully poked Briesse’s bandage-wrapped midsection.
They slowly made their way toward a rickety door to one side of the stables and emerged into the bright sunlight. The faint roar of a crowd in the distance gave them a sense of direction as they ducked into a deserted alley and slowly continued on their way.
“So, what’s the plan again?” Zea looked up expectantly into the pained expression of the woman leaning heavily against her.
Sweat rolled in tiny rivulets down Briesse’s face where it wasn’t covered by layers of bandages, and Zea could see that she was gritting her teeth tightly. The woman was in no condition to do more than rest. But that didn’t stop Briesse from insisting that they find a way to help their sisters. There was no way in Tartarus Briesse was going to sit idly by and wait candlemarks while her sisters risked everything to save their queen.
“No…plan,” Briesse gritted out. “Just get…us…there.”
Zea’s brow knit in deep concern. “You said we were going to create a diversion. Are you planning to bleed all over them? Or just pass out right in front of them? Either way, mission accomplished.”
Briesse ignored the snide remarks. It was all she could do to put one foot in front of the other, even while leaning heavily on Zea for support. They tried to keep to the more deserted streets and alleys as they edged closer to their destination. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always possible. The festival was in full swing and there were people everywhere.
There were also makeshift markets on every street corner. It was an odd mix of foreigners and Romans who had awnings, carts and tents pitched everywhere to take advantage of the crowds. They sold everything from spicy and aromatic foods and drink to Persian rugs to weapons in every possible shape and size. It was chaotic, loud and overly crowded.
Then the two women turned a final corner and the Colosseum towered over them in all its stone and wooden glory. An even bigger crowd stood between them and the enormous structure, as another loud roar echoed from inside the structure. They couldn’t help but stop in awe of the sight, as people from all walks of life passed in front of them without even a second glance.
“We’re here,” Zea felt sweat beading her own brow from the effort it was taking to keep Briesse on her feet.
“Yeah,” Briesse took a moment to catch her breath.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to just go on ahead and take care of whatever it is you’re planning? I’m just not sure how much farther the both of us can go like this.”
“Just give me a bit to catch my breath,” Briesse panted as she leaned against a low stone wall next to her.
While they stood there just off the beaten path and away from the lion’s share of the crowd spread out before them, Briesse surveyed the area in front of the Colosseum. She took mental note of the armed Roman centurions spaced out evenly around the perimeter of the building. Counting those she could see and doing some calculations in her head, she supposed there were about a hundred, maybe a hundred-fifty, in all. And the centurions didn’t seem particularly bothered by the crowd around them. But the crowd sure gave them a wide enough berth.
Briesse continued to survey the open space around the Colosseum until she spotted something that caught her eye.
“There,” she pointed to a wagon piled high with straw that was meandering toward the Colosseum. “That’s our target.”
Zea barely got the single word out before Briesse was suddenly on the move again. Zea had to hurry to catch up to her partner, who seemed to suddenly gain her second wind.
“You wanna explain where we’re headed in such an all-fired hurry?” Zea asked as she ducked under Briesse’s arm and felt the woman’s weight shift against her.
“Just keep up, darlin’,” Briesse said, as she made a beeline for the place where she figured the wagon would stop. “Can’t miss our chance.”
The crowd seemed to miraculously part for them as Briesse kept right on course. Her long legs ate up the distance quickly, as Zea did her best to keep pace. Briesse’s sudden burst of energy was a little disconcerting for the horse wrangler. It was like a sudden fire had ignited inside her partner and there was no stopping Briesse from completing her mission.
They quickly reached the place where the wagon halted. The driver just sat and waited. Briesse pulled Zea up next to a merchant’s stall and waved the man away when he made a beeline for them.
“What do we do now?” Zea said, slightly out of breath from their mad dash across the square.
Briesse looked around and took in their surroundings. The Romans had managed to keep the area in front of the Colosseum relatively clear of merchant stalls, but the crowd was still fairly thick. The wagon was parked on the fringes near a row of vendors selling spicy meats, candles and woven rugs. Their stalls formed a kind of border between the marketplace and the Colosseum. And the merchant stalls were in perfect sight of the centurions posted at regular intervals around the enormous structure.
It was the perfect scenario for what Briesse was planning, as long as she could get the wagon situated in the right place. All she needed was to have the driver abandon his seat, so she could do what she had to do.
“I need you to do something for me, darlin’,” Briesse glanced from Zea to the wagon. “Do you think you can distract the driver of that wagon long enough for me to take him?”
Zea glanced anxiously from the wagon to Briesse. “Why? What are you going to do?”
“Create that diversion we talked about,” Briesse replied. “Get those centurions away from their posts before the fireworks inside have a chance to distract them.”
“I know,” Briesse placed her palm against Zea’s cheek and gently stroked with her thumb. “We’re Amazons, Zea. This is what we do. Please don’t argue with me. I’m tuckered out enough as it is.”
Zea sighed. “Okay. Fine. I just hope the rest of our sisters appreciate what we’re about to do. Do they even know?”
“Nope,” Briesse shook her head and instantly regretted doing so. “But they will, soon enough. As long as most of these centurions are preoccupied enough to stay clear of the arena inside, we’re good.”
“You didn’t even mention this to Queen Ephiny or Eponin, did you.” It wasn’t a question.
“Didn’t think of it before they left,” Briesse shrugged. “I was a little preoccupied.”
“We both were.”
“So, you think you can do this?”
“What do you need me to do?”
“That’s my girl,” Briesse managed a small half-smile. “Here’s what I want you to do…”
“Okay, not to put a damper on this whole plan of ours, but what about all those guys standing guard outside? What if someone raises the alarm and they all come rushing in here…”
“I don’t know,” Ephiny hissed. “We’ll deal with that when we come to it. For now, let’s just wait for Xena’s signal.”
“What in Tartarus is taking her so long? The games are well underway and there’s still no sign of her anywhere.”
Ephiny glared at the woman dressed in a Roman centurion’s outfit beside her. “Can you keep your voice down? Someone is liable to hear you and realize we’re not really supposed to be here.”
“Ya think?” Eponin shifted her position. “This getup is ridiculous. How are we supposed to do anything, much less fight? Glad I had the forethought to keep my leathers on underneath. This stuff is chafing like crazy.”
Ephiny rolled her eyes and returned her attention to the arena. “I don’t know why I even bother,” she said under her breath.
“’Cause you love me more’n peaches,” Eponin shot back with a composed chuckle.
“Yeah, I’m sure that’s it,” Ephiny replied sarcastically.
A deafening roar from the crowd cut off any reply Eponin would have made. Both women remained at stiff attention while they watched the activity down in the arena. Several chariots were racing around the outside, while two tigers chained at either end tried to reach out and grab the charioteers. There were also several gladiators in battered armor and on foot in the center of the arena. They made periodic attempts to attack the occupants of the chariots, while said occupants did the same.
Another roar from the crowd erupted as one of the chariots flipped several times and the driver was quickly snagged by a tiger. A hush fell over the crowd as the man was mawled by the orange and black striped beast. His screams rang through the hushed silence until he was dead. Then the crowd cheered when the chariot’s other occupant managed to gain his feet and defend himself against one of the gladiators.
Another gladiator joined the first and it wasn’t long before the chariot man was taken down in a splash of blood and gore. The two gladiators then turned on each other and the crowd cheered louder, as two more chariots continued around the arena.
“Glad I’m not one of them,” Eponin commented.
“Me, too,” Ephiny agreed. “Bloodiest thing I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen my share of blood.”
“Yeah, me, too.”
Neither Amazon noticed the Roman standing a few paces away. He couldn’t quite hear their conversation but was scowling just the same.
Ephiny and Eponin stiffened in unison, as the Roman approached and stepped up next to them. He wore a white tunic with a red and gold sash draped over one shoulder. The two Amazons tried not to appear alarmed by his sudden presence.
“You don’t look like centurions,” he surveyed each woman in turn. “What business…”
Ephiny rounded on him. “Can we help you, sir?” She and Eponin then herded him toward a small alcove behind them.
“What’s the meaning of this?” He blustered, as they ducked inside the alcove and away from the crowd. “I demand…”
“Shut your trap,” Eponin growled and produced a dagger. She placed the tip under his chin. “Or I’ll gut ya where you stand, Roman.”
His bluster turned immediately to wide-eyed fear. “Y-you’re not centurions. Y-you’re w-w-w…”
“He don’t give up, does he?” Eponin glanced at Ephiny.
Ephiny took a step back. “Lower your dagger, Pon.”
“Why?” Eponin barely had the question out before Ephiny hauled back and delivered a blow to the man’s jaw that sent him reeling. “Oh, got ya.”
A roar from the crowd echoed within the confines of the small space as the two Amazons quickly dragged the unconscious Roman farther back into the recess and left him.
“That was close,” Eponin said as they returned to their positions.
“We’ve got more company,” Ephiny nodded toward several guards headed their way.
“Uh oh,” Eponin nodded toward the other direction. “Looks like I friend managed to attract attention before we took him out. What do we do now?”
Ephiny weighed their options. They were both armed with Roman swords and daggers, but the armor they wore would easily wear them down in a fight—especially in such tight quarters. It didn’t help that there wasn’t much room to maneuver with the crowd packed so tightly around them.
“Not sure yet,” Ephiny looked around for a means of escape and didn’t see one. “We’re boxed in here.”
“Yeah, just like fish in a barrel,” Eponin replied. “Too bad Xena hasn’t made her appearance yet. We could sure use a diversion right about now.”
“Our only option is…”
The crowd roared at something happening in the arena and everyone around them suddenly shot to their feet with arms waving high in the air.
“Now’s our chance!” Ephiny quickly ducked down and removed as much of the armor as she could, while Eponin did the same.
“We gonna try blending in or what?” Eponin glanced down at the blue tunic she was wearing.
“No, we’re gonna make a break for it,” Ephiny took advantage of the chaos of the cheering crowd and shouldered her way down toward the arena. “Just keep your head down and follow me.”
Without the helmets and armor they were able to squeeze between people with relative ease. After several zigs and zags, they actually managed to make some steady progress.
“I see them!”
“They’re getting away!”
“Stop!In the name of Rome!”
The shouts had them both ducking and glancing back over their shoulders. More than a dozen guards were bearing down on them rather quickly. The men didn’t seem to care that they were shoving Roman citizens out of their way in their haste to catch the two Amazons.
“Cut them off!”
“Ah, crap!” Eponin saw another dozen guards coming up toward them. “There’s nowhere to go!”
“This way!” Ephiny shoved her way through the crowd toward an archway just to one side. “I see a tunnel!”
They no sooner broke loose from the crowd and were about to duck down the passageway, when they were suddenly surrounded. Blade tips pointed at them from every angle, Ephiny and Eponin lifted their hands in surrender.
“There’s no escape, Amazons,” a voice behind them made them spin around. The man standing before them wore a fresh, clean blue tunic and gold armor. His blond hair was short and plastered to his head in the Roman style and his blue eyes gleamed with mischief. “Throw them in with the others. Let their fate be decided in the arena.”
Ephiny and Eponin put up only half-hearted resistance as their arms were seized by four burly guards. As they went past the Roman, he raised a hand for them to stop a moment.
“Tell your friends that Pompeii Magnus wishes them a quick journey to the afterlife,” he chuckled and then waved them away.
Ephiny just glared at him as she passed within a shoulder’s length of his smirking visage.
“How much farther?”
“Less than half a league.”
“It’s getting warmer.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Do you think it will rain soon?”
“Don’t know, your grace,” Giles glanced up at the clear blue sky above them. “Don’t look like it will anytime soon.”
“It would sure be nice if it would. Put out the rest of the smoldering embers from those catapults,” Cyrene lifted her serviceable skirt as she stepped over yet another charred tree branch. “Why in the world would they aim for these trees? They aren’t anywhere close to the city walls.”
“Her majesty’s orders, your grace,” Giles pushed a fallen log off the path. “It’s a standard practice to burn the foliage to keep anyone from sneaking up close to the city walls and breaching them without raising the alarm. Clear all the foliage away and the enemy can’t hide anywhere.”
“No, they just set up catapults farther away and send fireballs over the walls, instead,” Cyrene commented sarcastically.
“Yes, your grace,” he demurred.
They moved quickly across the charred clearing. There truly was nowhere to hide as they kept to the open path that had been cleared only weeks prior. A few charred trees and branches remained, but for the most part everything had been hauled away and burned to ashes.
“I see smoke there in the distance,” Cyrene said, her eyes on the distant horizon. “Is that where he’s camped?”
“Yes, your grace,” Giles kep one hand on the sword hilt at his hip. “Are you sure I can’t convince you to turn back now? There’s still time.”
She gave him a stern look. “No.”
“Aye,” he nodded and stayed alert with his eyes scanning the distant tree line. “I thought as much, your grace.”
“Stop calling me that,” Cyrene snapped. “I’m no one’s grace, Giles.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.
Cyrene rolled her eyes. “By the goddess…” she sighed in exasperation.
Several mounted men in leather jerkins charged from the trees. They were all armed and ready for battle. Their horses kicked up clumps of grass and clods of dirt as they galloped toward the pair.
“Just follow my lead,” Cyrene stepped forward with her arms held out to her sides. “We’re unarmed!” She shouted.
The lead rider pulled up in front of them and dismounted. He then drew his sword and held it at the ready as he surveyed the area around them.
“Who are you? What business have you here? And how did you make it through our lines?” The man asked. He had blond stubble on his chin and wore a jerkin of worn leather that went to mid-thigh.
“Take me to Proctor Toris,” Cyrene ordered sternly. “I have business with him and him alone.”
The man eyed her warily. “Proctor Toris is unavailable. He doesn’t associate with peasants.”
“I’m not a peasant, young man,” Cyrene moved a step closer with her hands on her hips and anger flaring in her eyes. Giles’ hand on her shoulder brought her up short, however. “Now, are you going to take me to see Proctor Toris?”
“Tell me your business and I’ll be sure to relay it to him, personally,” he gave her a tolerant half-smile. Then he glanced over his shoulder at the mounted men behind him. “Right, boys?” They shared a mirthless chuckle.
“Now, you listen here…”
“Your grace,” Giles hissed loud enough for the leader to hear him.
“Whoa-ho!Your grace?” The man sheathed his sword and took a few steps closer, folding his arms over his chest. “Tell me we’re not in the company of some important mucky muck from within those walls.” He pointed in the general direction of the city. “No one gets in or out of there, unless…” He left the sentence hang. “Word is someone organized an assault on our catapults last night with the help of someone inside the city walls.” He then looked up the path past Cyrene and Giles, then met Cyrene’s steady gaze. “Who are you? Tell me now or I’ll gut you both where you stand and leave your bodies out here for the vultures.”
“I don’t have time for this, young man…”
“Balthus,” he supplied with a smirk. “My name’s Balthus.”
“And my name is…”
She shot Giles a stern glare. “I told you to stop calling me that.”
“Yes…er…ma’am,” he bowed his head slightly.
None of their exchange went unnoticed by the men in front of them.
“Well?” Balthus cocked his head at Cyrene.
“My name is Cyrene,” she supplied straightforwardly. “I am Proctor Toris’ mother and wish to speak to my son.”
Balthus was slightly taken aback by her frank introduction. His brows shot up in surprise before he narrowed his gaze at her.
“How do I know you’re not lying to me?”
“You don’t,” she answered. “You’ll just have to take my word for it, Balthus. Toris is my oldest son. I gave birth to him nearly thirty winters ago.”
He continued watching her skeptically. “And you just expect me to take your word for it?”
“Yes,” she nodded firmly. “I want to talk some sense into him and get him to stop this useless nonsense. There has been enough blood shed over all of this. It’s time to end it, once and for all.”
“And you think he’ll listen to you?” He kept his expression composed for a moment as she nodded. Then he burst out laughing and his men joined in. “That’s rich,” he slapped his thigh and continued laughing. “Proctor Toris only has one thing on his mind at the moment. I don’t think even his mother can steer him away from taking over Greece.”
“This isn’t about taking over Greece, Balthus,” Cyrene said. “Toris has always been jealous of his sister. That’s what this is all about. It has nothing to do with a bid to take control of Greece. He just wants to defeat Xena.”
They all stopped laughing instantly.
“Wait,” Balthus pointed a finger at her. “If you’re the proctor’s mother, then…”
“That also makes me…”
“Your grace,” Giles put in.
“Oh, this is priceless,” Balthus drew his sword again.
This time Giles drew his, as well. The sound of numerous swords being drawn filled the air as the men behind Balthus also drew their swords and moved their mounts to surround the trio on the ground.
“You’re outnumbered, boy,” Balthus addressed Giles for the first time. “Drop it or die.”
“Do as he says, Giles,” Cyrene said. “I don’t want your blood on my conscience.”
He hesitantly dropped his sword at his feet.
“Now, kick it over here,” Balthus ordered. “Nice and easy, boy.”
Giles did as he was told, but remained at Cyrene’s side.
“Will you take me to my son now?” Cyrene asked Balthus.
“I really don’t think you have a chance in Tartarus of changing his mind,” Balthus said. “He sees you as a traitor.”
“I’m his mother,” Cyrene said adamantly.
“You sided with his mortal enemy.”
“She’s his sister.”
He shrugged. “I don’t think it matters to him anymore. Besides, why is Xena sending her mother out here to do her dirty work? Why not face her brother herself?”
The question took Cyrene aback. “She doesn’t know I’m here.”
“Oh-ho!” He chuckled. “Mother’s going behind The Conqueror’s back and trying to make nicey nice with her enemy?” He eyed her warily. “What did she do to get you to turn traitor on her?”
“Nothing,” Cyrene glared at him. “This has absolutely nothing to do with Xena. I’m here to see my son. Now, are you going to take me to him? Or do I have to continue on by myself? Either way, I’m going to see him whether you like it or not.”
The men behind him chuckled. Balthus shot them an angry glare that immediately shut them up.
“I really don’t think you want to make him angry, your grace,” Giles suggested.
“I frankly don’t care, Giles,” Cyrene said. “This little exchange has gone on long enough.” She started forward. “It’s time I spoke directly to Toris and that’s final.”
Balthus stood there in dumbfounded silence and watched her walk right past him and his men, with Giles hurrying to catch up to her. She didn’t look back at them to see if they were following her or not. She merely kept right on going with her shoulders squared and her steps sure.
“We gonna go after her, Balthus?” One of the men asked.
“She sure ain’t scared of nothin’,” another man commented. “At least we know where The Conqueror gets it from.”
“Yeah, that apple didn’t fall far from the maternal tree,” said another. “Kinda makes ya wonder if we picked the right side in this whole shindig. Proctor Toris ain’t nothin’ like his mother.”
“You kiddin’? He’s a complete wimp compared to that woman,” added yet another. “She makes my old lady look like the sweetest woman in the world.”
“Your old lady is a cranky toothless old broad who drinks just so’s she can look at you, Merkis,” the first man burst out laughing.
“She’s a sight better lookin’ than Dreyfus’ old hag of a woman,” said Merkis.
“The Conqueror’s mother has ‘em all beat, that’s for sure,” said Balthus. “I ain’t met The Conqueror or even seen her, but if she shares even half her mother’s looks then she’s a beaut.”
They all nodded their agreement, as they turned to watch Cyrene and Giles walking farther and farther away.
“So, we goin’ after ‘em?” asked Merkis.
“Naw,” Balthus shook his head and climbed back into the saddle. “Let Proctor Toris deal with his mother all by himself. She’s his problem. Not ours.” He turned his mount back towards the trees and kicked it into a canter. “Besides, boys, we need to finish our patrol of the perimeter so we can get back to camp. Those women we snagged from Athens should be good for something besides cryin’ and carryin’ on like a bunch of harpies.”
“Aye!” They added in unison.
“Don’t look back.”
“Just keep walking and we’ll be fine.”
“Yes, your grace.”
She slapped his arm hard enough to elicite a grunt.
“I told you not to call me that, Giles. Don’t you ever listen to anything I say?”
“I listen to every word, your grace. I was just brought up to be respectful of my betters. You’re the queen’s mother, your grace. You deserve to be addressed with respect.”
Cyrene rolled her eyes in mournful exasperation. “I didn’t ask for this.”
He didn’t comment further as they continued on down the path that soon branched out into two roads. One road veered back toward the city, while the other headed south. They took the south road and found it quite deserted. There wasn’t a single cart, wagon or person in sight.
“We have company again, your grace,” Giles said quietly.
“I see them.”
“Are they who I think they are?”
Cyrene and Giles stopped and stood their ground as four Roman soldiers approached.
“Keep your mouth shut this time, Giles. Understand?”
“Yes…” She stopped him with a pointed glare. “Ma’am.”
“What’s your business, citizens?” One of the soldiers demanded.
“Take me to see Proctor Toris,” Cyrene’s chin raised a bit in defiance.
The Roman’s brow hiked beneath his helmet as he considered her request.
“What business do you have with Proctor Toris?” He eyed her warily.
“He’s my son,” she said pointedly. “I wish to speak with him about a matter of life and death.”
The Roman let that sink in for a moment, then he nodded once. “As you wish.”
The four Romans closed in around Cyrene and Giles and escorted them the rest of the way. They eventually rounded a bend in the road and came upon a huge campsite spread out before them. The four Romans continued on toward a large tent in the middle of the sprawling camp.
Two Roman guards outside the tent snapped to attention as the group approached. Then a tall, dark-haired man in a simple tunic and sandals emerged from the tent.
“Mother?” Toris stood there as the four Romans parted to reveal the pair within their midst. “What brings you outside the city walls?” He looked over her head, as if searching for someone.
“Toris,” Cyrene walked right up to him. “You’re looking well. Being lapdog to the Romans seems to agree with you.”
His expression darkened. “And being the queen’s mother is certainly not hurting you any. I hear you’re married now?”
“To a wonderful man,” Cyrene nodded.
“To my sister’s personal lapdog?”
“Braes is no one’s lapdog, Toris. He’s his own person and a wonderful person, at that. But you wouldn’t know anything about being anything but a conniving and cowardly traitor to your people, now, would you?”
His pale gray-blue eyes narrowed at her before a small smile lifted one corner of his thin lips.
“Did my sister send you here to insult me? Is that her strategy? She certainly picked the right person for the job.”
“Your sister isn’t even in Greece,” Cyrene said bluntly. “She hasn’t been here for weeks, Toris.”
He didn’t hide his surprise. “Where is she?”
“Rome, I would think. She went there to find Gabrielle.”
“The runt? What’s she doing in Rome?”
“Why don’t you ask your friends?” Cyrene glanced back at the Romans still standing behind her. “Someone came and kidnapped her the very night your sister was crowned queen. You should have been there. It was a grand affair.”
He silently stood there a moment, then, “Come inside. Let’s talk.”
She followed him into the tent. Candles and a few torches provided enough light to see by. The furnishings were sparse and serviceable. Nothing like she expected from someone in league with the Romans.
“Do you like it?” He turned a circle with his arms spread wide. “It’s not much, but it’s my home away from home.” He then motioned her toward a pair of cushioned chairs. “Have a seat, Mother.”
Cyrene sat down, as Toris poured them both goblets of wine and handed one to her. She merely set the goblet on the small table next to her and waited for him to sit down.
“I want you to stop this attack on Corinth, Toris,” she said.
He eyed her for a moment over the rim of his goblet. “Why?”
“Because there’s no reason for it,” she met his steady gaze. “Your sister isn’t there. Destroying the city is pointless. Those people aren’t the enemy.”
“They crowned her queen of Greece,” he downed his wine and poured himself another. “That makes them the enemy.”
“Why?” Her expression softened. “Xena is trying to unite Greece, Toris. Why are you so against that?”
He studied the wine in his goblet for a moment then met her gaze. “You never understood, did you?”
“What, Toris? What don’t I understand?”
He stood up and paced the confines of the tent for several agitated heartbeats. He then downed the contents of his goblet and slammed it onto the table next to her untouched goblet. Wine sloshed out of her goblet and splashed onto the worn carpet at her feet.
“It was always about Xena!” He shouted. “Xena this and Xena that! I’m so sick of you always defending her actions, Mother! You always sided with her! You always loved her more than me!”
Cyrene’s eyes widened in shock. “What?”
“You heard me, Mother!” He sat heavily in his chair and slouched. “She was always your favorite.”
“Toris,” Cyrene leaned forward with a look of compassion. “I loved you all equally. You’re all my children.”
“Then why did I always feel like Xena had more of your attention and affection than I did?” He looked at her with accusation shining in his eyes. “It was never about me, even though I was the oldest. You always doted on her.”
“She was a handful, Toris,” Cyrene admitted. “Your father left me with an inn to run and three children to raise. You were the oldest and behaved yourself, for the most part. I didn’t have to worry about you. But your sister…”
“You never said it, but I could see that you admired her for being such a troublemaker,” his tone turned deceptively calm. “I saw you smile when you thought no one was looking, Mother.”
“I…” Cyrene stopped and thoughtfully considered his words then shook her head. “This isn’t getting us anywhere, Toris. Your sister has nothing to do with what you’re doing here.”
“She has everything to do with it,” his expression hardened again. “She’s the reason I left home and ended up in Athens.”
“What are you talking about, Toris? You left when Cortese attacked the village.”
“I left because my sister and her friends decided to fight back against a bunch of heavily armed grown men,” he countered. “We were just kids, but that didn’t stop Xena from bullying us into joining her egotistical crusade to save the village. Lyceus died because of Xena. You know that, Mother.”
“You weren’t there, Toris,” Cyrene said sadly. “Xena didn’t bully anyone into doing anything they didn’t already want to do. Those boys were training to fight long before Cortese came along. And they followed your sister because she was good at it and taught them how to defend themselves.”
“And there you go, again. You’re always defending her! When will you wake up and realize that Xena is nothing more than a bullying coward who uses people for her own ends!”
Cyrene sighed. “And you think attacking Corinth is the answer?”
He sat back and glared at her. “If it means ridding the world of a tyrant and bully, then so be it.”
“I told you she’s not even there, Toris.”
“I didn’t know that until just now, Mother.”
“Really?” She eyed him skeptically. “You have spies within the city’s walls. That’s how you’ve been able to target the palace.”
He smiled wryly. “Apparently they weren’t as thorough with their information as I thought they were.”
“Then will you stop your attacks?” She asked hopefully. “Now that you know your sister isn’t here? Will you put a stop to this and return to Athens?”
He was silent for a moment as he contemplated her words. “No,” he answered finally. “We came to raze the city where our enemy resides. We won’t stop until we’ve succeeded. But you’re more than welcome to change sides and join us, Mother. I’ll grant you a pardon this one time if you do.”
She shook her head. “The citizens of Corinth don’t deserve to have their homes destroyed, Toris. This is pointless.”
“Enough!” He slammed a fist onto the table and shot to his feet. “You need to go, Mother. Now! I can’t guarantee your safety if you stay here any longer. I won’t. And I most certainly don’t want the Fates taking their revenge on me for letting something happen to you.”
Cyrene saw something in his eyes that frightened her. “Okay.” She stood up to face him. “But remember that I love you, Toris. I will always love you.”
She turned her back on him and walked out of the tent without a backward glance. Toris just stood there with tears swimming in his eyes for a moment. Then in a fit of temper he grabbed a goblet and flung it across the tent. It was Cyrene’s untouched goblet and left a dark-red stain on the wall. Toris didn’t care.
“This is pointless.”
Another muffled roar from above was followed by a shower of fine dusty sand that drifted down onto their bare heads. It wasn’t as dark as it had been in the tiny cell. Tiny rays of sunlight filtered in through cracks and slats of two heavy wooden doors up a ramp at the other end of the room.
They were sitting on a worn wooden bench in one corner of the crowded space. Surrounded by armed gladiators in full armor, they stood out like a bunch of sore thumbs.
“You’d think they would at least give us weapons. Give us a fighting chance,” Eponin grumbled.
“And ruin their fun?” Xena snorted. “Not likely.”
“We don’t stand a chance against those guys,” Eponin nodded towards the other occupants of the room. “Those guys mean business.”
A huge black man stepped away from the others and crossed the short distance to the four women and one young waif sitting on the bench. He stopped in front of Gabrielle and removed the battered helmet that covered his head, revealing a bald scalp and light-brown eyes in a scared face.
“We meet again,” he said with a slight accent and a small smile.
Gabrielle cocked her head and studied him for a moment. “I don’t…”
“We were on the ship together,” he supplied. “My name is Malieu. I helped protect you from the others.”
Gabrielle considered that for a moment and then nodded. “I do remember you. You and Autolycus helped keep the others from…” She swallowed over a sudden lump in her throat. “Thank you, Malieu.” She stretched out an arm to him. “My name’s Gabrielle.”
“You are very welcome, Gabrielle,” he took her arm and shook it.
“And this is Xena,” Gabrielle introduced the silent woman next to her. “She’s…”
“Conqueror of Greece?That Xena?” He didn’t hide his surprise or the awe that crept into his expression. “I have heard many stories of your heroic deeds. You are a legend to my people. A true warrior worthy of the highest regard.”
Xena grasped his arm. “I’m flattered and glad to meet a fan, for what it’s worth.”
“I am most honored to be able to fight alongside the woman who single-handedly wiped out every warlord in Greece,” he continued to gush. “This is the single greatest moment of my life.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not exactly a banner day for us,” Xena replied dourly.
Malieu turned around and addressed the others in the room. “My fellow gladiators! Listen to me!” A hush suddenly fell over the room. “We are in the presence of greatness on this day, my fellow gladiators! This woman,” he indicated Xena with a hand, “is the famous Conqueror of Greece!”
Several of the gladiators removed their helmets in a clatter of metal.
“What say you, Malieu? You can’t be serious, man,” a burly gladiator with short-cropped brown hair and bulging muscles stepped forward. “The Conqueror of Greece, you say?”
“It’s true,” Gabrielle stood up. “Except that she’s now the crowned Queen of Greece, as well.”
“Then why is she here with us?” Another gladiator stepped up beside Malieu. “Shouldn’t the Queen of Greece be sitting on a throne in Greece?”
There were murmurs of agreement.
“What is the Queen of Greece doing in a gladiator pit in Rome?” Another put in.
“She must be slumming!”
Several of the men chuckled. Not Malieu, though. He shot them an angry scowl.
“The little one was taken,” he indicated Gabrielle. “I was onboard a slave ship with her not half a moon ago. That ship rendezvoused with another ship from Greece. She was the only woman brought onboard and was in pretty bad shape.”
“A measly slave,” the first gladiator scoffed. “No wonder the head gamekeeper denied them any weapons. He’s probably planning to toss them into the arena as an appetizer for the tigers. Give the crowd a little excitement before the main event.”
Xena just sat there with her arms crossed. But Ephiny and Eponin were on their feet standing next to Gabrielle.
“You don’t know nothin’,” Eponin piped in. “This woman happens to be Queen of the Thracian Amazons and newly-crowned Queen of Greece, alongside Xena. Don’t be dissin’ on the royals, ya dog.”
“Oh-ho!” The first gladiator stepped closer with a wide grin. “We are in the presence of royalty, boys.” He bowed mockingly before them. “This is truly a great day for all of us who are about to die in the arena.”
“You don’t have to die,” Xena said quietly. “No one has to die today.”
“I won’t be dying today, that’s for sure,” the gladiator chuckled mirthlessly. He then flexed his muscles. “Atticus is the greatest of all gladiators!” He raised his fists and growled intimidatingly. “I challenge anyone to say otherwise.”
“Talking about yourself in the third person doesn’t make you great, idiot,” Eponin glared. “And no one here is in the least intimidated by your little show, there.”
He rounded on her, but Malieu moved into his path before he could strike.
“Save it for the arena, Atticus,” Malieu said.
Xena slowly stood up and stepped forward. “Who do you fight for, gladiator? Rome?”
“I fight for glory and honor,” Atticus shoved away from Malieu.
“And freedom!” Someone added.
“But most of you will die in that arena today,” Xena continued in an even tone. “There’s really no escaping your fate.”
“If we die, then we die as true gladiators,” Atticus snarled. “We have no other choice. We have trained long and hard for the honor of fighting in the arena of the great Colosseum of Rome. And it is a truly great honor to fight for the glory of Rome!”
“What if no one fights?” Gabrielle added.
“Then we die like cowards. There’s absolutely no glory or honor in a coward’s death,” Atticus spat out.
“No freedom, either,” added another. “Except in the afterlife.”
“No one is free in Tartarus,” someone else grumbled. “The Lord of the Underworld and his minions give no quarter in their realm.”
“What if you had another choice?” asked Xena.
“What choice?” Malieu was interested in what she had to say. “What else is there? If we don’t fight each other in the arena, then the Romans will cut us down like dogs. They will pour into the arena like water and overtake us with their sheer numbers. There is no quarter given once one enters the arena.”
“And if Xena has a plan?” Gabrielle challenged.
All eyes turned to Xena, who stood there with all the confidence of a warrior on a mission.
“Why should we trust her?” Atticus glared skeptically. “We only have your word that she is who you say she is.”
Gabrielle placed a familiar hand on Xena’s shoulder. “Because she is The Conqueror of Greece and the Known World. The stories are all true. She’s a hero.”
Xena shot forward in a flash and grasped Atticus by the throat before anyone could react. With her nose mere inches from his, she hissed, “And because I don’t take crap from anyone, gladiator.”
She squeezed until his eyes were bulging and veins popped out all over the place. He tried to free himself from her grasp, but she just kept right on squeezing harder.
“Xena,” Gabrielle’s voice pierced the silence that followed.
Xena released her iron grip an instant later and watched in satisfaction as Atticus stumbled back gasping for breath with a hand to his throat. He doubled over and continued to catch his breath as he glared at Xena.
“Anyone else up to a useless challenge?” Xena met several wary glares. “This is your last chance to put me in my place, boys. I got nothing to lose.”
Gabrielle moved to stand in front of Xena. “You’ll have to go through me to get to her, though.”
Several low chuckles followed.
“And you’ll have to go through me to get to Gabrielle,” Solon stepped in front of her.
“And you’ll have to go through us to get to them,” Eponin dragged Ephiny in front of Solon.
“Eponin!” Gabrielle protested.
“She’s right,” Ephiny added, crossing her arms over her ample bosom. “No one gets to the queen without going through us first.”
Malieu silently moved in next to the two Amazons. His height and bulk adding a degree of intimidation.
“Well?” Xena placed her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders and pulled her close. “What’s it going to be, gentlemen? Are you with us or against us?”
The other gladiators seemed to wait for Atticus to make the decision for them.
“Fine, you win,” he finally conceded. “What’s the plan?”
“Hey, that’s my line, buddy,” Gabrielle protested.
Continued in Part 16
Return to the Academy