Disclaimers: Please see Part I for disclaimers to this story.
Part 4: A.D. 956
Pushing through the crowds, the soldier cut a path towards the bathhouses. The Emperor, Constantine VII, was having another day of chariot races to celebrate his daughter's birth and hordes of people filled the streets outside the Hippodrome. There was a festival atmosphere with vendors hawking food and drink to the hungry masses as they made their way into the stadium.
The soldier was intent on another destination, however, finally having won a day off from guarding the royal family. A long hot bath and a woman were top of the list, followed by food, drink and maybe another woman to enjoy through the night.
A slight tug on the soldier's money pouch broke the anticipation. With the speed of a snake, the figure whirled about, grabbing a thin wrist and pulling it high.
The street urchin swallowed loudly as he hung a few inches above the ground. Staring into ice blue eyes he rattled off a dozen excuses in as many languages.
An eyebrow raised and the soldier studied him. Thin, olive complexion and dark of hair and eyes, the boy looked like most of the population of the great city of Constantinople. He was dressed in rags and stank of sweat and dust. Xena of Amphipolous, captain of the Royal Guard, let the boy ramble until he wound down. About them, the crowd ebbed and flowed, some watching curiously as others ignored the proceedings.
Finally, in Greek, the boy said, "Let me go and I'll forget all about it."
The Immortal burst out laughing. "As if a runt like you could do anything about your situation anyway." As the young thief's eyes narrowed in anger, she responded to each of his excuses in the languages he'd used to make them. Once the boy's face had gone slack in shock, she set him back on his feet, though her grip remained firm on his wrist. "Who are you? Where are you from?"
"I am Mahid," the urchin said proudly. "I am from Egypt."
Possible, considering the coloring. Still.... "Where are your parents, your family?" she asked in Egyptian. When he stared at her blankly, she repeated the question in Greek.
"They are dead and I am alone." His eyes grew solemn as he peered at her through dark lashes. "It was a horrible fire in our home village of...."
"I am not!" Mahid insisted, eyes flashing as his tale of woe was shoved aside in anger. He tugged on his arm. "Let me go!"
Xena shook the wrist with a smile. "And a thief. Why shouldn't I bring you in to be branded?"
Sensing a change in his luck, the boy stopped struggling and eyed her speculatively. "Because it would ruin my good looks," he finally allowed, raising his chin in defiance. "And I am too young to live with that kind of sword hanging over my head."
She could almost hear her bard's voice saying the words. I hear you, Gabrielle. With a laugh, the captain released him. Not giving her a chance to change her mind, he turned and pelted off. "If I catch you again, young Mahid, you will be branded!" she called after him. "Mark my words!"
Once he was out of sight, Xena continued her trek towards the bathhouse. She mused over the young thief, knowing he wasn't the only one in the city that claimed to be Egyptian, yet could not speak the language. There were many that had been arriving over the last few months, a new people with their own ways and customs that clashed with the locals. Ugly rumors had begun, calling them thieves and liars at best, murderers and cannibals at worst. Several had already made it into the prisons of the emperor, most for theft.
Her destination became visible before her and she dropped the thoughts. She was off duty and planned on spending some hard earned money for the evening.
The bathhouse was a large square building, two stories tall. On the upper floor, a nearly continuous balcony ran around it, currently occupied with a handful of women who worked there. They flirted with the men who walked by the establishment, inviting them inside to enjoy the cool waters of the baths. Among other things.
The soldier strode through the main doors, stopping at a table just inside.
"Captain Xena of Amphipolous," an older woman said with a pleased smile. "You've moved up in the world." She rose from her padded stool and came around the table, trailing sheer silks behind her. After a quick embrace and peck on the cheek, the woman pulled back to study the soldier before her. "It's been so long since you've been here."
A rueful grin crossed the Immortal's face as she nodded in agreement. "I know, Piroska. I was sent west to keep the Goths at bay."
"And succeeded admirably, I'm sure," the woman flirted, winking and brushing her hair back on one side. That it was turning silver didn't deter her as she turned to sway back around the table and settle in her seat. "It's good to see you home, Xena."
Home. The dark woman shook off a vague uneasiness at the word. "It's good to be back in the city," she allowed. Looking around the antechamber, she noted two other tables, both with women sitting behind them speaking with men. "Business is good then?" she asked.
Piroska laughed delightedly. "Of course! And with the Emperor's new child and all the excitement she has caused, we're turning men away!" Seeing the vague look of concern on the soldier's face, the older woman leaned forward and winked conspiratorially, lightly patting a tanned forearm. "Don't worry, Xena. You're always welcome here."
Relaxing a little, Xena placed a small pouch of coins on the table. As it was whisked away into the folds of Piroska's silks, she asked, "Is Nadide still here?"
"Oh, yes. She's very popular," the older woman replied with a nod. Cocking a graying head, she said, "She'll be happy to see you, Xena. Go enjoy the baths. I'll send her to you when she's finished."
Nodding, the Immortal thanked Piroska with a smile and strode into the main bathing chamber. She deeply inhaled the humid atmosphere, a welcome relief from the drier heat outside. A scan of the room revealed a high level of activity - nearly every bench held someone's personal effects as they soaked in the waters, men and women alike were in various stages of undress as they took time to wash the dust of the city from their bodies, a few children cavorted in the waters like slippery eels, the smell of sweet oils drifted from one side where three men were getting massages. Xena spotted a bench and ambled towards it.
While the Roman Empire had lost its holdings in Italia, it flourished here in the Middle East. Prostitution was regulated by the empire, which resulted in many clashes with the Pope back in Roma. Converted to Christianity, it was still common practice for a man to have a wife, mistress and concubine. There had been some noises from the palace recently that suggested Constantine planned to change this, but nothing had happened yet.
As the warrior removed her clothing and weapons, she mused over her current existence. She preferred this Roman Empire to the other. It had a decidedly more eastern feeling, something she'd enjoyed since her original visit to Ch'in. The predominant language was Greek, not Latin. It was almost as if it were a completely different sovereignty - Caesar's Rome with the higher tolerance of her homeland. Xena smiled at that. Caesar's probably having fits in his tomb.
Never shy about her body, the Immortal stripped completely, folding her clothes and placing them over her weapons on the bench. A few short steps and she was at the edge of the continuously circulating pool. With a relaxing sigh, she sank into the warm waters. Turning to the edge of the pool, she leaned her head onto her forearms and closed her eyes. Xena's attention didn't waver despite her apparent laxness. When someone approached her in the water, she could feel the ripples brushing against her upper back.
"A beautiful woman, here alone?" a man asked, his voice seductive.
The Immortal didn't bother to open her eyes. "Not alone. Waiting for someone," she said, dismissal in her tone.
"How long will you wait?" came the question. When there was no response, he continued, "How long before you decide he's not worth it and you deserve better?"
Xena snorted. Cracking one eye, she tilted her head to her unwanted company. The man had dark curly hair and expressive brown eyes that were currently reminiscent of a dog looking for a bone. His bearded face was handsome. "Since I'm not waiting for a man, it'll be awhile before I decide he's not worth it."
Her unwelcome companion blinked for a moment, an eyebrow quirked in puzzlement.
Thankful for the interruption, the dark woman looked up from her perch as a woman knelt down beside her. "Nadide! How are you?"
"Much better now that you're back, Xena," the prostitute laughed, reaching out to caress the other woman's cheek. Adorned in sheer green and yellow silks, little was left to the imagination. Her hair was a long golden red, trailing over diminutive shoulders.
Xena captured the hand and tugged gently, a grin on her face. "Join me...?"
"Of course," Nadide nodded. With feline grace she rose to her feet, smiling down at the Immortal. Her dark eyes became hooded as she slowly disrobed, giving Xena an excellent view of what she had paid for.
The dark woman licked her lips in anticipation, the man beside her forgotten as her afternoon's entertainment slipped into the water beside her.
Several days later, Xena led a squad of men through one of the many markets of Constantinople. A complaint had been made by several of the merchants in the area regarding the new band of Egyptians in their midst. The ringleader, known as Alastor or Alcathous, was accused of directing children to steal goods which he promptly attempted to resell elsewhere in the city. Fortunately his efforts had met with only partial success, but the thieves were still irritating in the extreme and the merchants had demanded that something be done.
As soon as the squad arrived in the market, they were converged upon by several of the merchants, angrily explaining the problem. Each not wanting to be outdone by the other, their voices raised as they attempted to shout every one else down. Xena's finer clothing left no doubt who the leader of the squad was and within seconds she was surrounded.
A vision of hungry wolves tearing at their kill flashed through the captain's mind as the traders barked and howled about her. She waved at her men to spread out, unable to be heard through the din. Her squad leader, Herrly, nodded and directed the other five soldiers through the marketplace.
With a sigh, Xena returned her reluctant attention to the merchants. Unable to make heads or tails of their speech, she held up her hands for quiet. When that failed, she called out, "One at a time!" Her plea was drowned as the merchants continued to harangue. "Be silent!"
The bellow served to quiet everyone within a three yard radius, traders and shoppers alike. Basking in the hush, Xena's mouth curled into a satisfied smile. A flicker of movement caught her eye. Pointing in the opposite direction of it, she ordered, "You. Start talking."
The trader, a tall, thin man, sputtered a few moments as he recollected his woeful tale. "Uh.... The Egyptians...." Shaking his head in frustration, he reddened in anger. Waving a long hand over the market, he finally found his voice and yelled, "They're killing us! Taking food from the mouths of our families!"
Around him, the others began to speak up in agreement, nodding their heads. Before they could get a full head of steam, Xena held up a finger, glaring around the circle. Several sets of eyes blinked at her. Pointing back at the original trader, she growled, "Continue."
He did as instructed, citing a long list of issues regarding the thieves that they'd been plagued with. Around them, the six other soldiers filtered through the crowds and the market returned to its noisy state. The trader faltered only once in his tirade when the captain worked her way out of the press. He received a warning glance and a gesture that said, 'keep talking,' with which he complied.
The noise of the marketplace covered any sound Xena made as she drifted away from the group of merchants staring at her, their faces a mixture of dismay and anger. Succulently displayed fruits and vegetables lay on a table at one stall. Nearing it, she held a finger to her lips, indicating the young woman behind the display remain quiet. There was a slight nod and the woman continued to barter with her current customer, watching the Immortal from the corner of her eye.
From under the table, a grubby hand reached for a bundle of olives, out of sight of the woman tending the stall.
There was a squawk and a thump as the Immortal snagged the hand and pulled, the table shuddering as the person beneath hit his head. Behind her, the trader's voice trailed off as she pulled the culprit from beneath the table, spilling the crates he'd been hiding behind into the alley, the air about her filling with several languages of swear words.
Holding up her squabbling prize, Xena's eyes narrowed in recognition. "Mahid."
"I am not Mahid!" the boy exclaimed in Greek, trying to pull away from her strong grip. Olives were mashed in his fingers, evidence of his thievery. "My name is Peneleus! Now let me go before my uncle comes! He will kill you for your insolence!"
"Will he now?" Xena drawled.
The merchants bustled forward as one, identifying the lieutenant's discovery as one of the Egyptians in question. Again, several tried to talk at once, making comprehension impossible. Xena looked about the marketplace, glad to see Herrly had kept the squad spread out despite the commotion. When one trader reached out and thumped her prisoner, her eyes flashed and she pulled Mahid/Peneleus close, pinning his arms behind him.
"Be silent!" she bellowed anew, bringing a blissful quiet to her immediate surroundings. "This boy is my prisoner and will be brought to the courts for justice. He is under my protection now."
"Protection!" a merchant yelled. "And who will protect me against the rest of his family who are stealing me blind!?"
Xena's attention was drawn to her squad leader. Her eyes followed his gesture and she saw a crowd nearing.
There were nearly twenty of them, ranging in age from white hairs to children. Ragged clothes, appearing to be mostly cast offs, were worn by all though the women's garments were the gaudiest mismatch of items possible. The women were also making the most noise, yelling at the guard that surrounded them, shaking their fists at Xena and the merchants. Not responding much better, the traders targeted the new arrivals with their own swearing and gesturing.
Realizing that a free-for-all was in the making, Xena rolled her eyes, stepping between the two groups. One arm full of child-thief, she drew her sword with the other, pleased to hear a ringing response from the rest of her guard. While the merchants drew back, their eyes widening in trepidation, the Egyptian women continued their haranguing as if nothing had happened.
Eyebrow raised in recognition, the Immortal pointed towards one of the Egyptian men with her blade. "You! Come here!" she called over the din.
"He is my uncle, Alastor. He will kill you now," Mahid/Peneleus said smugly.
"Whatever," Xena muttered in exasperation.
The man who had tried to seduce her in the baths worked his way from the crowd of complaining women, their voices silencing as he passed. His handsome face lit in a wry grin and he stopped just out of reach. Bowing deeply, he intoned, "Alcathous, at your service, milady."
Unable to help it, a smirk crossed Xena's face. He reminds me of Autolycus. Forcing herself to the task at hand, she growled, "You're Alcathous? Or Alastor, leader of these people?"
"I am," he agreed enigmatically with another bow.
Though Autolycus wasn't quite this... oily. "And this boy is your nephew?" She shook her prisoner who was still trying to escape her grip.
"He is." Alastor looked about the assembled people, merchants and buyers alike. "My apologies if he's done something wrong. He will be severely punished when we return to our camp."
A burly trader made his way to the forefront. "Liar!" he roared, pointing at the Egyptian. "If he's punished, it'll be because he got caught and nothing more! I've watched this brat steal everything not nailed down for two weeks now!"
Behind him, the other merchants gave voice to their agreement. This, of course, incited the Egyptian woman to begin yelling anew and waving fists in return. The two groups of antagonists edged closer to each other, screaming epithets and giving the Immortal a strong sense of claustrophobia.
Surprisingly, even the women were shocked to speechlessness. Behind Xena could be heard the approaching footsteps of more guardsmen and a wave of relief washed over her. When they were within sight, she waved their lieutenant closer.
"Surround them," she ordered, gesturing towards the Egyptians.
Another outburst followed as several soldiers did her bidding, keeping the unruly mob in place. The traders, standing tall and smug, stared down their noses. A rush of anger at their superior air filled the captain and she brought her blade around to point at them.
"All of you. Get back to your businesses."
The merchants blustered and milled a few moments at the indignity.
Startled, seeing the original squad of men bearing down on them, the traders did as they were ordered. Many of the spectators did the same, giving the group of people a wide berth and many a sidelong glance.
The immediate riot averted, Xena relaxed a bit though her grip on young Mahid/Peneleus was vise-like. There were now two circles of guardsmen, the largest one about the raucous Egyptians, the smaller about Xena, her prisoner and Alastor.
"I have many people saying you are teaching these children to steal," she said conversationally to the man before her. "That you've tried to sell what they steal in other markets."
"That is the way with strangers," Alastor responded with a glib smile, hands wide in a shrug. "Strangers are the excuses, the demons, the reasons for all things to go wrong. I assure you, my people would never steal from others."
Xena's eyes narrowed. "Really?" At his encouraging nod, she continued, "Then why have I caught this boy, your nephew, stealing...? Twice?"
The Egyptian's eyes hardened as he glared down at the youngster. "It is wrong to steal, Felician," he told the boy.
Mahid/Peneleus growled and made another attempt to free himself.
"Take him," Xena ordered. As her guard took custody of Alastor, she stepped closer. "Do all of you have so many names?"
The crowd of Egyptians became more boisterous as their leader was arrested. They surged against the guard, trying to reach the man whose hands were being bound behind his back.
"Tell your people to stand down!" Xena said loudly, placing the edge of her sword against his neck. "Or there will be bloodshed. I promise it."
Alastor studied her eyes, seeking the truth. When he saw it, he grimaced and spat on the ground. Craning his neck, mindless of the steel against it, he yelled over his shoulder at the crowd in a strange language. The women's responses were to begin wailing loudly, though they stopped attempting to get close to him.
"Tell them you are both under arrest for theft. You'll be taken to the palace and dealt with by the emperor."
Doing as he was bade, the Egyptian chattered his strange tongue. It didn't serve to calm things and he growled something else, this time to the men that were standing quietly in the small crowd.
Watching as the Egyptian men shouted down their women, the Immortal waited until there was relative silence once again. "Go home," she told them. "You can't help things here. If you don't, you'll be arrested for causing a public disturbance."
Angry eyes speared her but the people began to drift away. Several times some would stop and peer at the soldiers, gauging. Many disparaging words were spoken to the guard that strayed after them, keeping an eye on their movements.
Xena turned her attention back to her prisoners.
"I am their king, you know," Alastor said as he glared at her intently. "They will see that I get free."
"There are no kings here," the dark woman answered with a shrug. "Only the Emporer Constantine. And he'll be most happy to have you visit."
Nearing dark, the horse trotted along the road, anxiously tossing her head at the iron smell of blood.
"Shhh, girl. We're almost through." Xena patted the ebony neck, urging her mount with a gentle squeeze of her knees. Around her were the most recent 'lessons' that the emperor insisted on displaying, a row of wooden crosses that strung along the roads leading to Constantinople for about a mile. Dungeons must have been full, she mused, eyeing the recently dead.
The captain was looking forward to returning to civilization. She had been away for a month conducting a routine inspection circuit. While she hadn't expected to run into a mass crucifixion, it was hardly an abnormal sight. Apparently, most of these had been fortunate in that the Emporer had ordered the death stroke, the reason there were no guards to keep rescuers away.
A flash of snow and numbness crossed her mind, a lover lying down without a fight, the screams as nails bit through the wood and into flesh. Shaking her head, Xena's nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply. I love you, Xena, Gabrielle's voice whispered across time.
"I love you, too, Gabrielle," the Immortal murmured aloud.
Darkness impeding her senses as the sunlight faded, her thoughts dreary, Xena's shoulders dropped a bit despite the torchlight of the nearing city. She was alone on the road, unusual on most days considering the size of Constantinople. A grisly reminder of the emperor's power served to lighten the traffic.
Until the Quickening asserted itself into her being.
Xena's head reared up as the exciting sickness invaded her. Jumping at the sudden movement, her horse nickered, large eyes rolling in an already well-advanced anxiety. The Immortal's own eyes were searching the darkness for her foe, sword half drawn.
No one was there. Constantine was very conscientious of his capital, insisting that trees and brush be removed from the perimeter of the walls for nearly a mile. The ground was level for as far as she could see. There was nothing but the huge wooden X's, each with its corpse blindly staring at her. But one was not so blind.
Struggling weakly against the nails that pinned him, a man watched her from further up the road. "Help me."
Xena resheathed her sword, urging her mount forward. Squinting against the twilight, her blue eyes widened in recognition. She dismounted and approached, wary of a trap. "Do you feel that, Egyptian King?"
Blood stained the front of Alastor's tunic, a splatter of darkness from his unmarked neck. Tugging one hand with a wince he panted, "I feel sick. My heart is going to explode. The nails bite my flesh and I am going to die."
"That sickness you feel is the Quickening. And you've already been dead." The captain looked up and down the road, finding they were alone save for grisly corpses. With a sign, she pulled her sword once again and stepped forward. "Don't worry."
Eyeing the blade, the Egyptian swallowed nervously.
"I won't take your head." At the flash of puzzlement, Xena grimaced. "Never mind. Let's get you free. You and I have much to discuss."
Using the sword as a lever, she began prying at the wooden blocks holding Alastor's extremities in place.
"So, I can't be killed?" Alastor asked skeptically. Leaning back on his stool, he eyed the soldier before him with suspicion.
"I didn't say that," came the exasperated response. "I said you can only be killed by losing your head." Drawing a line across her neck, Xena continued, "Lose your head and you'll die, believe me."
The Egyptian's face was a mixture of doubt and wonder. "That's impossible. No one lives forever. We're all born in pain and die in pain."
Pouring another mug of wine, the captain pushed back her stool and rose. "I am Xena of Amphipolous, Destroyer of Nations, Defender of the Amazon Queen. I'm over 900 years old." Taking her mug, she wandered to the window of the tiny rented room. The moon stared back at her as she drank.
"The Destroyer of Nations?" Alastor shook his head. "Impossible."
"As are the wounds you no longer bear on your hands and feet. And the blood on your shirt... who does it belong to, if not you?" Xena turned, leaning against the window sill to study the young man who was rapidly paling.
Automatically, the Egyptian's hands rubbed together, caressing unmarked flesh. He swallowed, watching his jailor cum savior. "The sickness... when you arrived...."
"The Quickening. It's what our kind feel when we near each other."
Xena chuckled at the strangled squeak. "Well, if there's you... and there's me... wouldn't there be others?"
Dark brown eyes blinked at her. Jaw working in silence, it was a few moments before Alastor finally asked, "H... how many... more....?"
Shrugging nonchalantly, the woman smirked. "Dunno. I've met dozens in my time."
"Dozens!" The Egyptian took a hasty swallow of his wine. "And did you....?" He eyed her sword.
"Kill them all? No. Not all of them." Sighing, Xena set her mug on the window sill behind her. "Just because we're a part of the Game doesn't mean we can't be friends. It's like anyone else you meet - either you like them or not. Some I've liked well enough that we've chosen not to fight."
"And the others you hate, you kill."
Grimacing, the woman shook her head. "No. Hate has nothing to do with it, Egyptian. Some take the Game more seriously than others. Some are bent on the task of winning the Prize and others focus on living well. It depends on the person."
Silence filled the room as Alastor fiddled with his empty mug, staring at it in concentration. Turning back to the window, Xena stared at the moon, allowing him some time to contemplate his future. Her ears were fine tuned to his every movement, however - she'd heard of kinder Immortals who'd turned their back on recent transformations, dying at the hands of scared younglings afraid to die themselves. The Egyptian, however, remained where he was, too engrossed in his thoughts and, perhaps, still in shock over the whole thing.
"This Prize you speak of... what is it?"
"No one knows. There's quite a lot of speculation - what more could an Immortal want than to live forever?"
If Alastor heard her sarcasm, he didn't respond to it.
"I've heard it said that the Prize gives the winner power greater than anything known. That the winner will become a god." I wonder if that's where Gods come from...? Xena mused, eyebrow lifting in thought. No. Aphrodite would never have survived the battles....
"You said there were rules about the fighting," the man prodded.
"Yes." Turning, the captain scooped up her mug and returned to her seat. "When you challenge another Immortal, no one may interfere. No mortal witnesses. No fighting on holy ground." She drained the last of the pitcher on the table, watching the red liquid dribble into her mug.
Alastor's lower lip was pursed, his dark eyes narrow and focused far away. Thoughts streamed through his head so fast that the woman before him could almost see the mechanisms in his brain rushing to and fro. "Why is it...? I mean, I've never heard of an Immortal before. Who gets picked? Why did I get this gift?"
Snorting, Xena's lip curled into a sneer. "It's hardly a gift, Egyptian. No one knows who gets picked for this... fortune."
"My brother has hair like mine, my nose. Will he be Immortal, too? Is it passed from generation to generation?"
"No." The dark woman searched for the words. "Your brother is not your brother. Your parents are not yours. You were a foundling."
Reeling at the news, Alastor grabbed the table for support. Nostrils flared and eyes flashing, he demanded, "What do you mean by that?"
This was the part Xena hated most, telling younglings that their families were not their own, that they had no roots in the world. "Exactly what I said. No Immortal I've ever known was from the family that raised them. All were adopted, foundlings, abandoned babes taken in by good hearted people."
"I have a mother!" the Egyptian insisted. "I have a father! Brothers and a sister, cousins, aunts, uncles! I am not a foundling!" He rose to his feet so fast, the stool he sat on clattered to the floor.
With a faint sigh, Xena shook her head gently. "No. You don't."
"This is a load of dung! You are a liar!" Shaking with anger, Alastor stormed out of the room, leaving the door wide.
Heart heavy, the Immortal rose and returned to the window. She watched Alastor burst out of the building and dash away. He looked back only once, the moonlight reflecting off his bloodless face as he glared up at the window. Then he was gone.
Shaking her head, Xena drained her mug before closing the room door.