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THE IDES OF MARCH
by Mark Alger
Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
NOTE: All works remain the © copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the author's consent.
No Roman legionaries were harmed in the writing of this story. Caesar, on the other hand, got his clock cleaned.
This story © 1998-99, Mark Alger, email@example.com
Lyrical subtext: Sade — "Love is Stronger Than Pride" from the Epic album Stronger than Pride
Dalmatia, somewhere in the Balkan Mountains, February in the year 709 Urbs Condita
They reached the top of the pass in the early afternoon. As Xena had hoped, a hope based on a vague memory of the lay of the land from a series of raids twelve years before, this was the last range before the land fell away to the rocky island-strewn coast of Dalmatia. Gabrielle was a short way behind Xena. Climbing more slowly than the warrior , the Amazon bard was enjoying the scenery, and stopping every once in a while to talk to the tiny burrowing rodents that inhabited the high meadows and popped up, all comical alertness, in seemingly every flat or nearly flat space on the mountainside.
Xena did not begrudge her friend the indulgence. The winter spent huddled in the mountains — they’d stayed too long in the highlands to return safely to Macedonia before the passes were closed by the snows — had done no good for the spirits of either woman. Except for a brief interlude spent with an old wise woman, the winter had been a study in unrelieved bleakness. The trek out of the high mountains had been exhausting. Xena had wanted to reach the Dalmatian coast and find a ship headed South to Corinth at the earliest possible date, so the two of them had pushed through impossibly deep snow drifts and braved bitter late-winter weather for weeks. This early spring day was the perfect tonic, and the scurrying activity of the little rodents added a charming touch.
But she was hungry. They’d had a light, predawn breakfast at the bottom of the pass, and had not been able to stop since. The warrior loosened the cinch of Argo’s saddle and dropped her reins to allow the mare to graze as best she could in the sparse, brown grass. While the snow was melting here , the greening of spring even this at this low altitude, was a month or more away. Xena looked off to the South, thinking how sweet it would be to be in Corinth right now. The region was warm and pleasant and she and Gabrielle could spend some time visiting with Hercules and Iolaus. She reckoned it would take them another three weeks to get there by ship. "I can hardly wait," she said softly to herself.
Opening her saddlebags, she drew out a hunk of cheese and the remains of a loaf of heavy wheat bread. She sat down on a nearby rock to cut the bread and cheese for their lunch.
As she sank to the rock she had chosen as a bench, a wave of weakness and nausea passed over her. She was hungrier than she had thought. Shouldn’t do to go without eating for so long. She couldn’t do all of the wild and foolish things she had when she was younger, drinking until dawn, going days without food or sleep, or otherwise racking her body. Not and expect to remain in fighting trim.
A cloud passed over the sun, and Xena shivered in the sudden chill. She looked up at the sky and saw the rays of the sun pierce the clouds and shine on a spot down the mountainside. It was a moment of surpassing beauty in an otherwise beautiful day.
Suddenly it was as though a veil was drawn across her vision. Then, out over the mountain slope below her, a ghostly figure appeared, floating in the air. At first it wavered and shifted as though blown on the wind, but then it steadied and resolved into a recognizable shape. A human figure, dressed in an unadorned and hooded white robe, its face veiled. Nearly a thousand feet tall, it stood on the mountainside facing Xena, its head about on a level with the top of the pass where Xena sat.
Then it spoke. "Xena Warrior Princess! Heed my words!"
"Who are you!" Xena shouted, wondering — if this apparition were real — if the figure could hear her.
"That is unimportant." Apparently it could. "Pay attention, now. You must go to Rome. Yes, Rome. And you must be in the city by the Ides of March." Something about the apparition’s voice rang a note in Xena like a temple bell. This was a true vision!
"Just like that?"
"Just like that," replied the apparition.
"Do you realize how far it is? I don’t know if we can get a ship across the Adriatic at this season. It might be too late by the time we get to Rome! And what am I to do when I get there?"
"You must hurry. You must be in Rome by the Ides of March, else the fate you have foreseen will befall you!"
The apparition began to fade as the sun came out from behind the cloud.
"But what about Gabrielle? I can’t take her to Rome," Xena cried! "I can’t!" Xena felt like she was about to weep. Why does life have to ruin every chance a person gets?
"There is no time. You must be in Rome by the Ides of March."
With that, the apparition faded and was gone. The cloud moved completely away from the sun and the mountain pass was bright once again.
Gabrielle came up the pass, puffing a little from the climb, to find Xena sitting on a rock. The winter spent in camp had done little for the wind of either woman. Gabrielle speculated that Xena was bushed, too, and taking a break. Argo was quietly standing to one side, worrying a clump of last year’s grass and not finding much virtue in it. There was a hunk of cheese and a half a loaf of bread lying on the rock beside Xena’s straight dagger. Xena herself was staring off into the hazy distance, a vacant expression in her ice blue eyes.
Gabrielle shrugged off the strap of her wallet and set it on the ground. She leaned her staff against the rock, sitting down next to her friend. Finding her presence unnoticed, and willing to wait until Xena came back from wherever she was at the moment, the diminutive bard picked up the dagger and began slicing the cheese and bread for lunch. When she had some morsels assembled, she thrust one into Xena’s hand. The warrior looked at it absently, carried it to her mouth and took a bite. She chewed and swallowed the tough bread and tasty cheese apparently without really tasting. The two women ate in a companionable silence and shared some watered wine from a skin Gabrielle carried in her wallet. After a long while, Xena spoke.
"Did you see it?" Her voice was distant and had some of the dreamy quality it carried when she was feeling fey. Gabrielle had heard that tone of voice often the previous winter, as the two of them had talked together and with the old shamaness about the nature of magic and the spirit world.
"It was a vision. I saw a figure — man, woman, human, god, I couldn’t tell — standing in the sky, as tall as this mountain."
"Nope. Never saw a thing. A vision? Did it move? Or just stand there? Did it say anything."
Xena turned slowly toward her friend. "You don’t believe I saw it, do you?"
Gabrielle had to admit that there was some justice to Xena’s unspoken accusation. The trust level between them had been higher in the past. "That doesn’t matter, does it? You say you saw it; I accept that. More important, I think, is what you saw and what you feel about it."
"There is that," Xena conceded. Then after a moment: "You’ll never guess what it said."
"You can catch a boat to Corinth tomorrow if you hurry?"
Xena laughed. "No. Anyway, the coast is two days away. But you’re not even close. It said I have to go to Rome."
"The usual dire threats. If I don’t, then bad things will happen. Yadda yadda yadda." After five years of recurring nightmares, Xena still could not bring herself to tell Gabrielle of her recurring vision of their shared crucifixion. "You didn’t see anything?"
"Not a thing. A thousand-foot mysterious figure. That’s not the usual Olympian style, is it? They go in more for the flashy stuff. Thunderbolts and things like that. Do you think it was one of the Gods?"
"I have no idea. The face was veiled. But it knew me. Addressed me by name."
"Yep, It said, ‘Xena, Warrior Princess! Heed my words!’" Both of them laughed.
Gabrielle put on a deep comic voice as she imagined the vision, "‘Xena Warrior Princess,’" she intoned, "‘Heed my words!’", then she laughed again. The merry sound of her laughter always had a healing effect on Xena’s heart. "Must have been loud."
"Seemed like it to me. And I could tell by the feel of it that it was a true vision. I’ve had those before. But you didn’t hear anything?"
"Nope. Not a thing." Gabrielle thought for a while. "Well, maybe some distant thunder, but the sky was clear, so I assumed I was hearing things. You know how oddly sound carries in these mountains. It could have been anything. So. Are we going to Rome?"
"I don’t know," Xena stopped and shook her head. "No. We are not going to Rome. If I go to Rome, it will be alone."
"Don’t start with that again, Xena!" There was a long silence. "Do you think you’re being told to go to Rome to kill someone? Is that the idea?"
Xena sighed. "Yes, I am afraid that’s the idea. And I find I don’t want you to see me No, that’s not true. I don’t have anything to hide from you — ever." Except , she thought. Except that damnable vision of your crucifixion. "I’m just afraid that if I take you to Rome with me that I won’t be able to protect you.
"Not I’ll get in the way or I’ll distract you? You’re making progress, here." Gabrielle herself winced inwardly at the hurtful nature of her words and wondered, as she did from time-to-time, just who needed to progress, here. "What have you been teaching me all this fighting stuff for all these years if it’s not to protect myself?"
"I don’t want to argue about it. Anyway, I can make up my mind when we reach the coast, or even any time up to the time I land at Ostia." Xena stood and dusted her hands off on her thighs. "Right now, unless we want to camp up here tonight, we’d better get moving. You done eating?"
"For now. I think I’m going to save some for later." Gabrielle allowed herself to be diverted and busied herself with packing a few morsels in her wallet while Xena repacked the bulk of the food in Argo’s saddlebags and cleaned and sheathed her dagger. With Argo’s cinch re-tensioned, they set off down the east side of the pass, each of the women distracted with her own thoughts.
Lyrical subtext: Sade —"Hang on to Your Love", first stanza, from the Epic/Portrait album Diamond Life
The outskirts of Salonae, Province of Dalmatia, February, the year 709 Urbs Condita.
Xena's ice blue eyes flew open as she awoke to the touch of rain on her face. Had there been a noise? The warrior princess’s nerves were on a hair trigger; all the time while camping in the Balkans, she had slept with one figurative eye open. Now she listened in the gloaming for the telltale sounds of a stealthy advance, the crack of a twig, the rustle of leaves, the creak of leather, the whisper of steel drawn from a sheath. There was only the gentle susurration of a rising wind. She could smell rain on the air. A storm was coming
Turning slowly under her furs, she peered across to where Gabrielle slept. The embers of the dying fire cast a soft glow on the Amazon bard's beloved features. The first drops of rain made a hissing among the coals of the fire, the smell of the smoke and steam sharp in her nostrils. Turning to lie on her back once more, and taking several deep breaths, Xena drew herself into a watching trance. Casting her guide spirit aloft among the pines, she quickly scanned the area. The mountainside was clear of all dangerous life. All the way down the western slopes of the mountain range, to Salonae on the Adriatic coast the entire region was — curiously — free of predators, of the two-legged kind, at least. Here and there a lynx or a wolf, propelled by hunger, sought the deaths of small creatures. But no men. There had been no approach to the campsite. It was only the rain.
Breaking the trance, she rose from her furs and strode to Argo's tie line. The palomino mare nickered in her feedbag, a soft greeting at the approach of her mistress. She immediately fell quiet as Xena stroked her head and neck. Working quickly, but entirely by feel, Xena unrolled a tightly-bound bundle of oilcloth from the back of Argo's saddle. Untying the rawhide laces, she shook out a woolen horse blanket from its center. Throwing the blanket over Argo she bundled up the oilcloth, and snared two pair of bronze pegs from her saddlebags.
Just around the campfire there was a tree branch that protruded into the center of the camp barely above head height. She made a lean-to of the oilcloth, tossed over the low limb, anchoring the corners and ties of the cloth with the pegs. Then she stepped to where Gabrielle lay sleeping and knelt with her customary feral grace. She reached for her friend's shoulder to shake her awake, but stopped.
By the light of the dying camp fire, Xena looked lovingly at Gabrielle's face. In sleep the bard was as peaceful as a child. A wisp of copper hair trailed across one ear. Her lashes, long and soft, brushed a smooth cheek not aged, nor troubled, by the weight of grief the small figure bore on her sturdy shoulders. The pixieish nose wrinkled and a strong, graceful hand stole from out of the blanket to rub it. Xena smiled.
She stood and stepped over her friend’s sleeping form, kneeling again behind the other woman. Gently sliding her hands and arms under Gabrielle, she quickly stood, holding the sturdy form against her, and shuffled over to the lean-to she had just constructed, feeling for obstructions with her toe. As Xena set her down, Gabrielle stirred, stretched languidly, rolling against Xena's breast.
"Hey, Gabrielle," Xena said softly as she covered her friend again with her Amazon blanket.
"Hey, Xena," Gabrielle replied. She stretched a bit and gathered the blanket in around herself again. "What's up?"
"Nothing. I'm getting us under shelter. It's going to rain soon. Already drizzling, and there's a good-sized storm coming across the mountain. Go back to sleep."
"OK," replied the diminutive Amazon, sleepily. She promptly rolled over, pulling the blanket over her shoulder.
Xena snorted in amused annoyance at being thus dismissed. She stood and walked off a little ways to speak her heart to the empty night.
"I stood in the darkness for so long, took shelter from myself in lies, that her light frightened me. It was so easy to avoid hurt in love. But when she came into my life and wormed her way into my heart, all that changed. Now she is so much a part of me that she can wound me with a careless word.
"So why is it so hard to tell her I love her? It almost seems that the only times I can tell her my feelings is to hide something from her." Xena sighed. "But I find it so hard to tell her to her face that I love her. Why can’t I say those simple little words? ‘I love you, Gabrielle. She has to know I do. She has to know she’s the best thing in my life. Lao Ma was right. It is like a good business investment to serve someone you love. Are we all that cynical? Only why can I only manage to serve her so badly?
"And now — again — I am taking my best and truest friend into the darkness. Again, I go in harm's way and am not strong enough to send her away unwilling. Or to just walk away myself." Xena had never been the praying sort, but now ... "Oh Gods, if you are listening help me protect this young woman from danger. Don’t let me dim her light. Don’t let it go out!"
The battle-hardened warrior's mouth twitched into an ironic grin. "Listen to me! You'd think I was a simpering temple virgin, and not a warrior who's made her own way in the world, for good or ill. Gabrielle has done that to me. She has softened me. Weakened me. Or am I somehow stronger? Huh!" Dissatisfied, her feelings unresolved, she carried her own sleeping roll under cover and wrapped up in the furs, trying to get back to sleep.
Gabrielle, watching from slitted eyes hidden behind her thick lashes, smiled to herself and went back to sleep.
The via Appia, outside the walls of Rome, date unknown.
Pain. The sound of hammers. Her image reflected in a Roman shield. She lay on a cross. The standard dug harshly into her back. The ground around her was covered with sleet. Ropes bound her arms to the crosspiece, her wrist bones crushed agonizingly against rough-hewn wood. It felt as if her legs were broken. A soldier was preparing to drive great iron spikes through her palms — a needless cruelty, considering she would die within hours anyway. But then, Romans were noted for their cruelty. An ox-drawn cart with wooden wheels rumbled by with a load of stone. A column of troops marched the other direction, their boots crunching loudly in the sleet that still covered the ground and the road.
The wind was raw, cutting through her dress of thin rags like a dagger. Like thousands of icy daggers. Considering that a freak spring storm had just blown through, the sky was surprisingly blue. As blue as her own eyes, with only a few faint wisps of clouds. All of a sudden, despite the bitter chill, it was a beautiful day. A beautiful day to die.
A moan and the sound of a shifting body came from her right. Painfully aware of bruises and strains, she turned her head to see ...
Gabrielle. Tied down to a cross not yet standing in the pit dug for it. She was wearing a ragged gray skirt and bandeau. Her hair was shorn close about her head and had somehow turned silver. No, that was just the sleet. It was still the Amazon bard’s own golden red. The sleet frosted it and her eyelashes and reddened her cheeks. She looked tired and careworn as she never had before, and yet achingly beautiful. She had been scourged, the cruel strips of torn flesh shown on her exposed ribs and belly. Despite it all, she glowed.
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered. The bard turned to face the warrior. "You’re the best thing in my life."
Gabrielle gave a faint smile and said gently, "I love you Xena."
Somewhere behind a centurion growled, "Break her legs!" and the mallet descended ...
Xena jerked upright in her tangled sleeping furs as she awoke with a ragged, raspy intake of breath. Her heart was racing and her leather kirtle was drenched with sweat. Damnation! It was coming now every night! Did that mean that the scene she had just witnessed in her mind was the inevitable end of this journey?
She rolled over and levered herself stiffly to her feet. There was a faint lightening in the east. The mountains were silhouetted against a lapis lazuli sky. The waning moon was visible as a mere sliver on a field of stars. Song birds were tuning up for their morning chorale. Time to get moving.
Blowing the fire to life and adding fuel to it, she set about her morning camp chores. After a while a pot of water was merrily boiling. Xena pulled it from over the coals and threw in a handful of bark. She turned the leather pouch over and looked at it. It was soft, deerskin, and had been lovingly decorated. They had cut wood in exchange for it back in the mountains. Despite the backbreaking labor for little profit, it had been a sweet time. The two friends had immersed themselves in the natural rhythms of life. For a while they had been able to forget about the wider world and its troubles. The old wise woman for whom they had done the work had helped them to begin the healing of many wounds, both of the body and of the spirit.
The scent of the bark wafted over the campsite and woke Gabrielle. The Amazon bard stretched and grumped around the campsite like a little ginger-haired bear. She had never been easy to get up in the morning. As she set about her morning toilet, she poured forth her usual morning litany of complaint.
"Oh-dark thirty and you’re up and about it. Gods above, Xena! How do you do it? Couldn’t you let me sleep a little longer? I know, I know, we have to get on the road at first light, but let me tell you, I did not sleep at all well last night. There was a rock — just one rock, I swear — that kept migrating with me and no matter how I tossed and turned, it just wouldn’t stop digging into my back."
Xena chuckled, heart-warmed at the familiar chaffering. Gabrielle, at least, was alright.
The vision had come again. She had seen it in her dreams every night for the past fortnight. What would happen if and when they got to Rome? (Already Xena conceded to herself that Gabrielle would win the coming argument.) It made it impossible for her to get a good night’s sleep, and left her feeling sluggish mornings.
Well, she thought with a wry, twisting grin. I know how to deal with that! She went to the lean-to and took up her sword, spending the next twenty minutes or so in a vigorous workout. Back and forth across the camp in the pre-dawn darkness, she practiced steps and cuts, thrusts and parries. Slowly she worked out the kinks of the sleepless night. Soon her taut muscles were rippling under her velvet, sun-browned skin. Her tall, lithe form leapt, twirled and danced, her long Thracian blade flashing in the firelight.
When she was done, she was wide awake. Her blood raced through her veins and her skin tingled in the morning chill as the healthy sweat she had worked up evaporated, raising goose flesh on her exposed arms, shoulders, and legs.
"Gabrielle!" she called. "Are you almost done?"
"Yup! The pool is all yours," came Gabrielle's voice from nearby. "Beware, though; it's very cold!" Which, of course, Xena knew, having scouted the camp site thoroughly the previous evening. In a moment, the Amazon herself appeared around a bush, carrying a brace of fat fish in her upheld fist. She favored Xena with an impish grin, asking, "Breakfast?"
"You're on! I'm for a bath. You can clean those and start them cooking." Xena shed her kirtle on the spot and dashed nude to the creek, where she took a flat, running dive into the pool that was there. The water was bracing and encouraged hasty ablutions. She lathered herself with the soaproot Gabrielle had thoughtfully left on a cupped rock and rinsed off. Then she ran back to the campsite where she toweled off quickly before wrapping up in her sleeping furs.
As the fish cooked in an iron skillet — ("Do you realize that that is the very skillet you used to deck that bad guy in ... "
Laughing ... "Yes it is! The very one!") — they brushed and combed each other's hair, enjoying the brief moment of intimacy before their day of hard traveling would begin. Their camp was sited on the southern flank of a low mountain and they had the perfect vantage point to watch the sunrise. The red light spilled over the heights above them as the rays of the sun descended to their level, leaving the seacoast below them in shadow. Once again Eos had favored the two friends with a glorious morning. The few clouds in the East showed where the last night's storm had gone, doubtless dumping more snow in the high mountains. To the West, the sky over the Adriatic was clear as could be. The light wind was brisk. Ideal traveling weather.
And a good thing, too. They had to descend from the shepherds' heights to the coast road and make their way to Salonae, where they hoped to find ships which would carry them onward, Xena hoping for one to take her on to Rome as Gabrielle traveled down the Adriatic to Corinth, while Gabrielle knew she would travel on with the warrior. If they did not want to spend another night in the open, they'd have to step lively. They ate breakfast and broke camp. By full daylight, they were on their way down to the road.
Salonae, the Adriatic, Tarentum, February of the year 709 Urbs Condita
When they made it down out of the mountains to Salonae on the Adriatic, Xena thought to put Gabrielle on a ship bound down the Dalmatian coast for Corinth, while she herself would travel across the Adriatic to the Fane of Fortuna and thence around the Italian boot to Rome. Gabrielle would have none of it.
"I don't think so," she said. "Where you go, I go."
"But Gabrielle," Xena pleaded, "Rome is deadly dangerous for us. You’ve been there once, but I don’t think you appreciated the vast wealth and power of the place. Rome is the center of the world. It has people like you and me for breakfast." And, finally: "I’m not taking you to Rome. End of discussion."
Lyrical subtext: Sade Adu — "Paradise", first three lines, from Stronger than Pride
Aboard ship, March of the year 709 Urbs Condita
As they progressed across the Adriatic and down the Italian coast in a succession of small cogs and freighters, Xena’s arguments got weaker and Gabrielle’s resolve got stronger. Finally, on the dock in Tarentum, Xena tried again to force the issue. There was a freighter bound across the Ionian sea toward Corinth, and Xena made to put the bard on it. Gabrielle flat-out refused to be put on the ship.
Her green eyes shone with her determination, "Xena, in the names of the Gods! Why do you keep walking away? I will not leave you again. Look what happens every time we get separated! I’d think you’d want to bind us together with chains! I’m not afraid to die. It is my dearest wish that we will die together and travel to the Land of the Dead together and live in Eternity together." Gabrielle paused for breath, then: "What I did to you in Chin was abominable. I knew that then. I know it now. We worked through all of that in Illusia. Are you going to keep me at arm’s length for that for the rest of our lives?"
"It’s not about that, Gabrielle," said Xena. It’s about a risk to you that I can’t justify."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something but shut it again before blurting out the first thing that came to mind. She turned away for a moment. Xena's thoughts flashed back to another day on another dockside, another moment of infinite poignancy. Could they learn? Could they stop repeating the cycle of hurt and revenge? A deep shuddering sigh wracked Gabrielle's lithe, muscular frame, as she rounded on her friend. Doubtless she, too, was remembering that fateful journey to Chin.
"And it would be less dangerous for you alone, with no one to guard your back?"
That last had been almost an anguished cry. But Xena also heard the unspoken words. The words she herself could not bring herself to say other than lightly or in reply, or, as she had in Chin, in reply and to cover a lie.
Why are we so unwilling to say those simple little words? Is it fear of hurt? And is it fear for the other’s sake, or each of us for her own? It is about trust, isn’t it? And the bridge of trust between us is weak and undermined. Can we ever rebuild it to what it once was?
If my vision comes true, you may get your wish sooner than you think. Xena thought. In all the five years since she had first witnessed the crucifixion vision, Xena had not told Gabrielle of her repeated, disturbing visitations. In a way, the vision she had seen in Dalmatia was a blessing. It served to distract her from the nightmare.
The nightmare that ruined her sleep every night.
But she could not bring herself to the tough-love cruelty she knew would be all that could chase Gabrielle away. (Not that it would; Gabrielle was molded of a pretty tough clay and, once decided on a course, would hold to it no matter the cost to herself.)
The Amazon's green eyes narrowed. She pursed her lips. She searched Xena's face for a long moment before going on. Xena's face flushed and burned in the light of that white-hot inspection. Gabrielle's purity of spirit, wounded though it might be, was blinding. While the younger woman was a rock to which Xena clung in desperation, the flinty hardness of her judgment was sometimes hard to withstand.
"What is it you’re hiding?" Good old Gabrielle. Straight to the heart of the matter, as usual.
"Nothing, really," Xena lied. It was frightening how easily she could lie to Gabrielle. "It’s just that that vision had such a dire sound to it. A thousand-foot-high veiled apparition tells me to get to Rome, to be there by the Ides of March. What am I to make of that? And how can I justify taking you into mortal danger?"
"Look," said Gabrielle, "We both know that Rome does not mean anything good to any Greek, let alone you or me. We both know that Caesar is almost in total power there, and we are finding out that he is gathering more power to himself all the time. And that he has no love for either of us. He’s tried to kill you almost every time you’ve met. The last time we were in Rome, we barely escaped with our lives."
"Oh, it wasn’t that bad. You did pretty well at setting that whole thing up, as I recall," And Xena knew that she could never again parlay a threat to Gabrielle into an excuse for sending her out of harm’s way. Both Gabrielle herself and the friendship between them had grown too far for her to be able to do that. Her young companion had grown up long ago.
"Caesar has no love for either of us," the diminutive Amazon would not be diverted, "And if we fell into his hands it would be the cross for both of us."
Xena shuddered unwilling at that. If only you knew. If only I could tell you.
"And you want to send me away — again — to protect me ... from what? Losing you one more time? No, Xena! No! I am going with you. If you try to send me to Corinth, I will jump ship and follow you. You can't stop me. We've been through this so many times before. Why do you play these games? I haven't been a little girl for a very long time, Xena! Please stop trying to treat me like one!"
Xena surrendered with the best grace she could muster. "You're right. I'm sorry. You certainly have the right to make this choice for yourself. And I don't really want you to leave. It's just that ..."
"You want to protect me, I know. And I love you for that, but I don't need the protection any more. And I worry about you, too, you know. You've been different since Chin. Brittle. Fragile. Sometimes I'm afraid you'll break." The bard forced a disarming grin. "Maybe I should go to Rome and send you to Corinth."
"That’s foolish "
"Just as foolish for me to go as for you. And just as foolish for us to part after all these years."
" And I’ve never thought you a fool."
Indeed, the petite Amazon was no longer that child of sixteen summers who had wanted so much to be like Xena, strong and confident, high, wide and proud bestride the world. These days it seemed almost as if Gabrielle were the stronger of the two of them. To be sure, Xena still had her superhuman strength, speed, and skill, but seemed to lack the will to use them, or a reachable target to use them on. Of the few things about which she was sure, she was absolutely positively certain she could never use her powers to harm Gabrielle. She stood on the windswept dock and stared long and hard into her friend's liquid green eyes until tears came into her own. She drew the bard into a hard, almost desperate embrace. Then the moment passed and the pair of them turned away from the water and went up into the town to claim Argo from her stable. They took ship for Rome that afternoon.
Aboard ship in the Tyrrhenian Sea, between Rome and Naples. Early March of the year 709 Urbs Condita
"Pride, Xena," Gabrielle expounded as they stood at the rail of the small freighter beating its way up the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy. Gabrielle had her right arm wrapped around a rope, the first two fingers of her right hand held against the pressure point of her left wrist, a sovereign cure for seasickness. Gabrielle always got seasick on these ocean voyages, and was glad Xena had taught her the trick.
Xena stood next to her at the ship’s rail, braced on her strong arms, stance wide and flexible, swaying to the motion of the deck with hardly a stagger, for all the sea was rough. She saw the placement of Gabrielle’s fingers and wondered what would happen if the Amazon learned that the cure was all in her mind — that there was nothing to the trick but suggestibility. Mind over matter.
"It's what the Ancients called hubris," Gabrielle went on. "The pride that goes before a fall. But love. Love is stronger than pride." The ship plowed into a wave and dropped suddenly. Gabrielle leaned forward and looked like she might puke.
"Keep your eyes on the horizon," Xena suggested. "You’ll feel the effects of the motion less that way." Gabrielle, complied and things seemed to steady for her, "There. Better?" the bard nodded, swallowing. Xena went on, "Lao Ma taught something of the same. Pride blinds you to the way. It hides so much of the truth of life. True love — that state we all yearn for but so rarely achieve — opens your eyes a little, when you care more for the well-being of another than for yourself." And is that what I feel for you? Or is it just that I want to keep you around? "But she taught that total selflessness is the only true way." Xena sighed. "If only I could let it all go. Sometimes I think I might do it, but something calls me back — the fear of losing you, fear of my own death, of what I might face in Tartarus, a coming battle. So I only achieve a small part of what I could."
"Fear feeds on pride, I think," said Gabrielle. "And pride on fear. It’s like the choosing game: pride cuts love wraps fear blunts pride."
She stopped suddenly. Something aft had caught her attention. Xena turned to see.
The ship’s mate was standing there, watching the two women and making no secret of his regard.
"Was there something you wanted?" Xena asked in her best cold-voiced Xena tones, the ones that made brave men tremble.
"Only you, darlin’," said the mate. "Only you."
"Dream on, matey," Xena began, pushing away from the rail and turning toward the importunate sailor. A gasp came from behind and she whirled.
Gabrielle squirmed in the grasp of one of the crew. One of the big ones. Her booted heel came down hard on the man’s instep, but he just laughed. "Don’t wiggle girlie! Can’t damage the merchandise."
Xena started toward the pair, thinking to rip the man’s arms out of their sockets, but another of the treacherous crew sidled up behind her and coshed her with a marlin spike. She went out like a doused candle.
Lyrical subtext: Sade, "Nothing Can Come Between Us", first stanza, from Stronger than Pride
Aboard ship, the Roman port of Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber River, early March, the year 709 Urbs Condita.
Xena came to with a splitting headache. No doubt there would be a big and painful knot from whatever instrument had struck her down. Her wrists were held in manacles attached to a loop of heavy chain passed through a staple above her head. The chain was of a length that forced her hands over her head, her upper arms straight out from her shoulders. The resemblance of the pose to crucifixion was unsettling. Her ankles were also held in iron cuffs and chained to an eye in the deck.
She looked around and noted her surroundings. She was in the forward hold of the ship. The compartment was small, dark, and noisome. Her staple — already she was thinking of it as her staple — was embedded in a rib of the ship. As a matter of reflex, she tested the chains. They were new and strong and the staples in rib and deck were well-set. Gabrielle was manacled hand and foot and chained to the next rib forward. The diminutive bard appeared to be unconscious. Her head lolled on her shoulders, rolling and jerking with the motion of the ship. Xena winced as her friend’s head banged into the rib and the chains.
"Gabrielle! Wake up!" There was no response. Xena cast around for some way to jostle her friend awake, but nothing presented itself. The other woman was just out of reach — no doubt by design. Her sword, dagger, and chakram were gone, as was her armor. "I wonder if they found my breast dagger." She squirmed a bit and determined that it still rested in the hidden pocket inside her kirtle. Lot of good it would do her there, but at least she wasn’t totally unarmed.
"Gabrielle!" She tried again. The bard moaned. "Wake up, Gabrielle!" Xena worried about the effects of a possible concussion. At least the other stopped flopping about like a broken-necked doll. "C’mon! Wake up!"
"I’ll rise, but I refuse to shine!" came the customary growled response.
Xena sighed in relief. Her friend was awake, if somewhat the worse for wear. "I just thought of something funny," she said.
"We’re chained up on a ship, who knows where, and now you want to tell a joke?" At least the outrage roused Gabrielle a bit.
"Oh, you’ll like this one. I lost track of the days."
"Lost track ?"
"Yeah. Lost track. As in when is — or when was — the Ides? We left Salonae on the twelfth of February. By my count, it’s been twenty-nine days. Which means that we have two days to get to Rome by the Ides. But I’m not sure."
"Am I allowed to say that, at this precise moment, I don’t really give a rat’s rump?"
Some time later, there was a commotion aft of where they lay. A hatch was thrown open, spilling blinding sunlight into the dark hold. A man in skin-tight black leather entered the hold and sat on the top step of the ladder. He rested his sword, a long, flat, wide, curving blade, across his knee as he sat. His shoulders were broad, his arms muscular, his face handsome and cruel. He said nothing as he contemplated the two women in chains.
Gabrielle, still not in good shape, but coherent at least, was hanging apathetically in her chains, head down, chin on her chest, ostensibly uninterested in her surroundings. Xena’s head was up, her eyes open, and her expression defiant. Both women listened with considerable interest for some indication from their captor — for surely this was he, although they’d never seen him before — as to what their situation was.
The silence wore on for some time, but both of the Greeks were practiced at waiting. Or, at any rate, Xena was. Gabrielle was in no shape to express her usual impetuosity. But finally the man spoke.
"Two women, obviously Greek, traveling with a single horse — a fine specimen and well-trained — good armor and well-kept weapons. And two fat purses, one full of Greek dinars and one of Roman denarii." He spoke Greek with a cultured Roman accent. His voice reminded Xena of Caesar’s. Probably a patrician. Maybe an officer in the legions. She’d heard somewhere that all Roman patricians served in the military. "One might almost suspect that you were spies."
"Hah!" Xena’s voice carried all the sarcasm she could pour into that single, short outburst. "And if we were spies, would we have been taken so easily?"
"No. I suppose not. Nor do I suppose you would just tell me why you are traveling to Rome."
Xena simply stared at him. "Who said we were traveling to Rome?"
"The captain with whom you booked passage. But it doesn’t really matter. We already know enough." He sketched a bow without rising from his seat on the steps. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, Caesar’s Master of Horse. And you are Xena, the one-time pirate, also known as the Warrior Princess. (A charming conceit that.) You may not recall, but I was with Caesar in Cilicia when your ship was taken and you were crucified. I wish I could hear the tale of how you escaped death that time. But there is no time for us to exchange chit-chat.
"You were taken on Caesar’s express orders. Your crime is to be the plotting of the assassination of Senators and military leaders and the overthrow of the Roman government. You will not be tried; you are already judged guilty. Your punishment will be death by crucifixion."
Xena’s heart sank into her boots. They had indeed fallen into Caesar’s hands — and her vision of her death and Gabrielle’s was soon to be realized. She kept her face expressionless as she drawled, "Caesar has found me hard to kill before. I have no reason to believe this time will be any different. On the other hand, given that our fate is certain, what incentive to we have to cooperate?"
"None whatsoever. You have by all accounts been quite troublesome in the past. But this time, we know your weakness and will use it against you. We have been reliably informed that you have developed an affection for this pretty young thing. You are to be separated and you, Xena, are to be informed that your young companion is hostage to your good behavior. You may rest assured that rebellion on your part will buy her a long and painful death, compared to which crucifixion will seem a mercy."
Gabrielle made a small wordless cry then said, "Xena, do what you have to. Don’t be concerned about me."
How could I not? thought Xena in answer.
"Don’t worry, Gabrielle," she said quietly. "I’ll come for you. Just hang on. We’ll make it through this." Xena only wished she felt the confidence she forced into her words.
Lepidus laughed. "How touching. Cherish your illusions, Warrior Princess. You will not escape. You will not survive. You will not ‘make it through this.’" He stood up and climbed up the ladder. "Bring her," he said, apparently to men waiting outside, for a squad of legionaries came down the ladder into the compartment, exchanged the fixed chains for a traveling set, and took Xena away. As she was pushed up the ladder, she fought to contain the tears that burned her eyes. For all her bravado, she wondered Could this be the end of everything, the years of life with Gabrielle, the hopes and dreams we share? The love? No, not that. That will last for eternity.
The guardhouse at the Porta Raudusculana, the entry of the Via Ostiensis through the city walls of Rome, mid March, the year 709 Urbs Condita.
The soldiers gave Xena a good shove to propel her through the doorway and into a cell. The idea was to keep her off balance and allow them time to swing the door shut and secure it. They didn’t know that Xena could have been back at the door attacking them before they knew what was happening, but she didn’t feel justified in taking the risk. At least they’d taken the manacles off her wrists, although they’d left her legs hobbled by a short length of chain.
The cell was dim and stank of continuous and not-too-fastidious occupancy. It was cold and dank. There was no light provided; what light there was came through a high, grated opening near the ceiling. Judging by the sounds that came through the window, it was at street level, and a busy street at that. If she’d remembered the turns they’d taken in bringing her to the cell correctly, the street outside might be the very one up which they’d brought her. They’d conveyed her in a covered cart with an impressive escort of light cavalry from Ostia to the city. The cavalry detachment had practically paraded in perfect order, their red plumes and capes flying in the wind of their passage. The party had passed through the walls with hardly a pause at the gate and racketed into cobbled courtyard of this guardhouse, attached to the gate fortifications. No civil prison for Xena. She would remain in the control of the army come what may.
The warrior princess knew that there would be no way to escape from here. No tunnels. No weak spot in the wall. No loose bars in the grating above her head. This was a Roman prison, in the walls of the capital city, and they always built such things right. It would be strong and secure. She’d do best to conserve her strength and wait for a better opportunity. She found as clean a place as she could and lay down. Within moments, she was fast asleep.
The via Appia, outside the walls of Rome, date unknown.
Pain. The sound of hammers. Her image reflected in a Roman shield. She lay on a cross. The ground around her was covered with sleet. Ropes bound her arms, her wrist bones crushed agonizingly against rough-hewn wood. It felt as if her legs were broken. A soldier was preparing to drive great iron spikes through her palms — a needless cruelty, considering she would die within hours anyway. But then, Romans were noted for their cruelty. An ox-drawn cart with wooden wheels rumbled by with a load of stone. A column of troops marched the other direction, their boots crunching loudly in the sleet that still covered the ground and the road.
The wind was raw, cutting through her dress of thin rags like a dagger. Like thousands of icy daggers.
A moan and the sound of a shifting body came from her right. Painfully aware of bruises and strains, she turned her head to see Gabrielle, tied down to a cross not yet standing in the pit dug for it. She was wearing a ragged gray skirt and bandeau. Her hair was shorn close about her head. The sleet frosted it and her eyelashes and reddened her cheeks. She looked tired and careworn as she never had before, and yet achingly beautiful. She had been scourged, the cruel strips of torn flesh showed on her exposed ribs and belly. Despite it all, she glowed. Gods, but she was beautiful!
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered. The bard turned to face the warrior. "You’re the best thing in my life."
Gabrielle gave a faint smile and said gently, "I love you Xena."
Xena jerked awake, a foul taste in her mouth and the stench of her prison in her nostrils. She rolled to her feet and paced the cell to stretch her muscles and drive away the remains of the horrible vision. It looked more and more like it might come true. Caesar had certainly played it well and it didn’t seem as though there would be any opportunity of escape presented. All she could hope was that it would be quick for Gabrielle.
Outside, there was a commotion. The sound of running feet and the voices of many people. Then trumpets blared and a loud male voice shouted, "Make way for Caesar!" There was the sound of marching feet and the rumbling of a chariot. As the wheels rolled by, there was a loud cheer from the crowd.
Xena could picture the scene. Caesar must have been coming up the road from Ostia, having landed there a short time ago. "Good old Caesar. Milk it for all it’s worth!" Having been the object of such adulation herself, she knew the power of it for the ruling of a people — and for corrupting the person thus adored.
Then a woman’s voice cried out from somewhere near the window of Xena’s prison. "Caesar! Beware the Ides of March!"
"Well, at least that worry is eliminated," Xena muttered in grim humor. The Ides had not come and gone and she was in the City. What she could do about it, though, was another question altogether.
But then, almost before the sound of the woman’s voice had faded away, Xena felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. That voice is familiar. Raspy yet smooth. Abhorrent yet seductive. But it couldn’t be
Lyrical subtext: Sade, "Give it Up", first stanza, from Stronger than Pride
The Via Ostiensis, somewhere between Ostia and Rome, mid March, the year 709 Urbs Condita.
Accompanied by a squadron of equites, the wagon rumbled up the metalled road at a brisk pace. The leader of the escort had his orders. The occupant of the wagon was to be delivered into the city, along with the fine palomino mare that trailed behind one of his men on a long lead. He had been warned that, despite all appearances to the contrary, the prisoner, a seemingly harmless Greek woman, was a fierce warrior who could defeat men far larger than she in single combat, and she was wily and clever. He had received several stern cautions (one from Caesar’s Master of Horse himself!) as to the nature of his personal fate, should he allow her to escape. He knew that her possessions, and those of her erstwhile traveling companion, (which were bundled on the back of the mare), were to be delivered along with the woman in the wagon. Even so, he knew to be particularly alert for an attempt on her part to gain possession of her weapons. At all costs she was to be prevented from arming herself.
Beneath the heavy canvas cover of the wagon, the occupant sat dejected on the bench provided. She was chained hand and foot to the sturdy frame of the wagon. Her elbows rested on her knees, her face in her hands. She was weeping in frustration. Over the years, she had learned to channel her anger, her rage, her frustration away from her heart and to let it dissipate, as though it flowed from her fingertips to sink into the ground. But this time, she was not having much success.
She had failed her dearest friend in the world. Despite her best efforts, she had not been able to persuade the other not to come to Rome. Now it seemed likely that they would both be killed. It seemed more than likely that they would never see one another again. A shuddering sigh racked her body. Tears flowed freely from her eyes, muddying her grimy hands, as her sense of utter despair overwhelmed her heart. The rumbling of the wagon’s wooden wheels over the road’s surface, the jarring of the vehicle’s rapid movement shook her, rocked her back and forth. It all added to her misery. If it would not have added to the victory of her enemies over her, she would have howled her grief to the night. It was all she could do to sit quietly and wait.
Gabrielle shook herself, rattling her chains. "Come on, girl! Get a grip! You’re supposed to be the optimist in this team. You’ve been in tough spots before and come through." She wiped the tears from her eyes, smearing her cheeks. She made a weak attempt to clean her face, but gave it up as a bad job.
Sliding on the bench toward the back of the wagon, she parted the curtain there and looked out. One of the escort riders reined his mount up close. "None of that!" he shouted. "Get back in there!" He aimed a blow at her which missed as she dropped the canvas and dodged back into the interior of the wagon. The little she had seen told her that they must be nearing the city. There were buildings close by the road on either side and pedestrians and vehicles crowded her party on either side.
Soon there was a change in the sound of the wagon’s wheels on the road. The teamster was clucking to the horses that drew the wagon. The sounds of the hooves of the escort’s mounts on the cobbles took on a different, clattering note. Echoes told the bard that they were passing close walls on either side. They must be entering the city, now. The entire party slowed and then came to a halt. There was an unintelligible exchange in loud voices speaking Latin. The wagon rocked to a shifting weight on the seat at the front. Apparently they were changing drivers. There was the crack of the teamster’s whip and once again the wheels began rumbling over the cobbled streets of the city. Gabrielle could tell by the sounds echoing back from her surroundings that they had passed through a fortified gate. She was now within the city of Rome.
After a long passage through the streets of the city filled with the sounds of human commerce, the bustle of marketplaces and forums, merchants’ calls to buy, the wagon slowed and stopped. The horses of the escort were blowing lightly. Their hooves clopped on the cobbles as they came to a halt to stand surrounding the wagon. There was the sound of quiet conversation as the escort riders exchanged comments. Gabrielle couldn’t make out any of the words, but there didn’t seem to be anything unexpected happening. They seemed to be in a quieter quarter of the city. There was the sound of traffic nearby, but the immediate surroundings were filled only by the sounds of her escort, the soft jingling of tack, the muttered exhalations of the horses, the creak of leather.
Then there were the sounds of an approaching party of many people on foot. There was an exchange between a woman with a commanding, patrician voice and the commander of her escort. Several of the escort horses shifted, making way for someone walking down the side of the wagon. Whoever it was was armed. There was the sound of metal against metal, the ringing of bits of harness and gear of a warrior, the creak of leather tack. Then the gate of the wagon was dropped and the canvas curtain thrust aside. The helmeted head and armored torso of a soldier appeared there. He was standing in the street, hand on the hilt of his sword and an expression of distaste on his face.
"You!" He said. "Come down from there!"
Gabrielle held up her manacled hands and rattled the chains. "How am I supposed to do that trussed up like this?"
"Well, if you won’t walk," said the soldier, "you can be dragged."
"Marcellus!" came a sharp rebuke in the voice of the woman who had spoken with the escort commander earlier. "Surely that is not necessary!"
One of the escort riders piped up, "Does the big bad temple guard need a hand with the nasty Greek warrior woman?" His sarcasm could not have been more palpable. The soldier standing at the rear of the wagon flushed and began to turn with a retort. A feminine hand laid on his arm restrained him.
The commander of the escort shouted, "Enough of that!" in his best parade ground voice, but even so there were chuckles among the escort.
A patrician woman stepped into view around the back of the wagon. She was dressed in a white tunic and robe, with a tessellated pattern in purple at the hem and neck. Her hair was hennaed red and coifed in tight ringlets that framed a mature, if beautiful face. Her eyes were intelligent, her mouth held at a decisive set, her bearing regal, as if she were born to rule.
"Young woman," she said in a manner somewhat gentler than the tone she had used with the guard. "You may, of course, stay up there all day if you wish. This wagon is returning to the Praetorian Prison. If you desire to go there with it, that is your concern, but you need only step down to remain here."
"And where is ‘here’?"
"What, were you not told? The Fane of Venus Aphrodite, of course! I am Julia Agripina, the high priestess of the Fane." Agripina peered into the wagon. "Why!" she exclaimed. "She is in chains!" She turned and gestured to someone out of Gabrielle’s range of vision. "You there! Call a smith! We’ll have these off."
Gabrielle wondered what she had fallen into. Was she being sold into slavery? Perhaps as a sacrifice? She had not heard that the Romans practiced human sacrifice — and surely not to Aphrodite! But what was she to make of all of this? And what of the threat by Lepidus that she and Xena were to be executed on the cross?
The commander of the escort rounded the end of the wagon on foot and made to object. "Great Mater, we have orders from the principate. This woman is to be kept " The priestess cut him short, drawing herself upward — she was a full head shorter than the centurion — and becoming, if possible, even more regal in her bearing.
"Caesar is my kin! Affront to me is affront to him! Do you dare?"
The escort commander deflated like a ship’s sail that had lost its wind. "No, Great Mater. But I must answer to my superiors. Could I have some surety "
"Surety you shall have. This woman shall be in my custody. I take responsibility for her."
Something wild and fey bubbled up in Gabrielle, and she bridled at that: "I am a free Amazon! I am responsible for myself!"
The temple guardsman, no doubt smarting under the scorn of the army cavalrymen, turned to glare at her. "You show some respect!" Agripina lay a hand on his forearm, the gentle touch incongruous against the bronze bracer.
"No, Marcellus," she said softly, but still with that air of command, "We shall proceed gently." She turned to Gabrielle. "Good woman, I think I understand some of your fears. Will you trust me for the moment? I believe that I can see a resolution of your difficulties that will satisfy you, Caesar, and the gods. Can you hold your protests for a while?"
The escort commander again made to object, "Great Mater, this woman and her companion stand accused of serious crimes against the Republic."
"Captain, I am well aware of my cousin’s concerns in the matter. If I believe I can satisfy him, can you say me nay?" There was threat in her eyes, and the centurion decided that discretion would be the better part of his duty to the state. These matters were far above his pay grade.
Thinking that, perhaps, here was someone who could be a friend to her and to Xena, Gabrielle acquiesced and kept her silence. The little tableaux froze for long, uncomfortable minutes as they waited for a smith to be fetched with his tools. When he finally arrived, he set his tools in the bed of the wagon and made to climb aboard, but Agripina restrained him.
"Wait one," she said, then turned to address Gabrielle. "Young woman, I would relieve you of that heavy burden of iron you wear. But I would not wish to anger my cousin by such an act of kindness. He might take it amiss." Her mouth flashed a smile that managed to be kindly and ironic at once. "If I set you free of your chains, will you give your parole that you will not attempt to escape?"
A brief war of emotions was fought in Gabrielle’s breast and played out across her face. Xena had taught her that it was her duty to escape when captured. At the same time, she could not give her word and break it; it would render her life meaningless to promise so lightly. But Xena might be delayed in coming to her, if she could at all, and it would greatly enhance their positions if the bard were not in chains when that time came, if it did. And, perhaps, there was something more subtle in play, here. It might prove out that her word, once given, might be given back. She thought she sensed something of that nature in the priestess’s manner.
Finally she gave a curt nod. "I will not attempt to escape," she said.
The priestess had been watching this little by-play with a searching regard. "Your consideration does you credit," she said. And to the smith: "You may strike off her chains." When the escort commander would have protested, she stopped him with: "Captain, I have not heard that the Greeks are a dishonorable people. Would you not take the word of a free Greek woman, as well as my own, that she is safe in the charge of the Fane of Venus Aphrodite?"
And, of course, presented with Agripina’s great office and her family connections, he could only acquiesce, no matter his opinion of Greek veracity.
Meantime, the smith had made the discussion moot by clambering onto the wagon and quickly breaking the bolts on the irons that cuffed Gabrielle’s wrists and ankles. As he jumped back down to the pavement, he handed the chains to the centurion, who passed them on to a member of his command as though they were poisonous snakes. Gabrielle followed the smith out of the wagon and was handed down by Marcellus, the temple guardsman. She made to go to Argo, but was restrained by Agripina.
"Your horse and baggage will be seen to, my dear. For now, you must come with me."
The escort commander mounted up. At a shouted command, the escort wheeled and clattered off back in the direction they had come, followed by the now empty wagon. A man in the gray tunic of a slave took Argo’s reins and led her off somewhere. Gabrielle hoped it would be to a safe, warm stable. Then she thought to look around and see where she had landed.
They were standing in a plaza surrounded by buildings of a decidedly religious nature. The bard recognized the Greek influence in the architecture — the Ionian and Corinthian columns, wide porches fronted by broad stairs, tall doors, sculpted friezes depicting sacred figures and events. She was in a temple district, that much was clear. A little ways away was the rest of Agripina’s party. It was a mixed group of priestesses and guardsmen. Each of the priestesses was accompanied by a man or a woman who was, apparently, a slave. Gabrielle’s own virulent hatred of slavery made her squirm inwardly at that realization, but she was forced to accept that there was little she could do about it. Slavery was a fact of life in Rome and the best will in the world could not change that.
At a gesture from Agripina, they turned and began to move toward the largest of the nearby temples, the guardsmen in good order and the priestesses and slaves drifting along as though this were a holiday outing. Agripina hooked Gabrielle’s elbow in her own and drew her along toward the stairs that led up to the Fane of Venus Aphrodite. They were of a height, which was oddly comforting to the diminutive Amazon.
As they crossed the threshold into the temple, Gabrielle shivered and realized just exactly how cold it was and how inadequate her Amazon dress was, for all Rome was south of her home in Chaldicide. Out over the city, a cold sleet began to fall, whipped by the winds of a freakish March storm.
The Praetorian Prison on the Campus Martius, the city of Rome, early March, the year 709 Urbs Condita.
They had moved her twice since she had been brought into the city. The whispers and mutterings she heard made Xena guess that there was some struggle going on for possession of her. It could not be for her own value. It had to be the fact that Caesar had expressed an interest in her, which made her a talisman of power for his enemies. Xena could only wish them success. It might mean opportunity for her.
The guards at the Praetorian prison were cautious. The prisoner had a fierce reputation as a no-holds-barred fighter with an uncanny ability to take on and best great numbers of men. She moved with supernatural skill and was reputed to be able to make herself invisible. So, even though she was completely unarmed and clothed only in a thin cotton shift, they treated her as though she were a deadly animal.
Which she was.
The guards were cautious. They were even fairly intelligent. What they were not was as clever and wily and experienced as was the warrior princess. Xena managed to inveigle several of them into her cell by the hoary-old sick prisoner subterfuge. She moaned and tossed on the floor in a dark place in the cell. First one then another of the guards — even a centurion — came in. (Xena guessed that they had had it stressed to them that Caesar himself was interested in this case, and they didn’t want her dying on their watch.)
And, while she did not make herself invisible, she did manage to give the impression that she was levitating as she rose from the floor almost horizontal and delivered a flurry of lightning-quick kicks right where they’d do the most good. By the time the two who had hung back at the door, (there appeared to be eight in the squad), had an idea that something was amiss, Xena was at their throats with a captured gladius in each hand. The shattered remains of her chains hung from her cuffs and dragged on the floor, but did not appear to slow her down any.
"Evening, boys," she drawled in her best I’m-trouble voice, "Got a deal for you. You drop your weapons on the floor out here, step into the cell, and I won’t give you permanent smiles. Whattaya say?"
One of the "boys" was a bit slower than the other and had to ask: "Permanent smiles?"
His mate explained with an expressive gesture — a forefinger drawn across the throat, accompanied by the age-old sound of cracking cartilage created in the corner of the mouth. The first soldier nodded comprehension and hurried to drop his sword belt on the spot. The other followed suit.
As she kicked the last one on the rump to speed him into the cell, Xena couldn’t resist one last dig, "With your shield or on it, eh? What ever happened to the old Roman legions?" She slammed the door on the cell and shot the bolt. She stopped long enough to use one of the short infantry swords to prise the cuffs off her ankles.
The cell was at the end of a corridor. Only one way to go. She headed up the torchlit passage to find a way out.
She found one. It issued onto a parade ground. The ground was empty, although there were sentries positioned on the walls and, doubtless, though she could not see them, at strategic choke points. She remembered the general layout of the place from her trip in. The prison was attached to a fort. From her cursory studies of maps of Rome, Xena calculated that the fort was near the Tiber River, on the Campus Martius. Caesar would be nearby, in the Saepta Julia. She wanted his blood. But first she had to find Gabrielle, and before her absence from her cell was noticed by anyone other than the soldiers she’d imprisoned there.
The parade ground was being pelted by sleet. Nasty weather for this time of year. Well, as the Romans said it, March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb. Even though she could use her knowledge of the Way of Lao Ma to keep herself warm, it was a waste of energy, and anyway she would need a disguise. A guardroom. There had to be a guardroom. She turned back into the interior of the prison in search of one.
The sound of loud voices and dice clattering on stones drew her to it. A quick reconnoiter informed her that there were a half-dozen men, mostly out of uniform, in tunics or robes, lounging on cots or crouching on the floor around a game of dice.
The first inkling the soldiers had that anything was up was the sight of Xena’s supple, muscular form hurtling through the door, a sword in either hand, her tanned limbs flashing death, her raven hair flying. Three of the men fell senseless, almost unknowing, in that initial rush, two more within seconds.
The last, a burly, grizzled old campaigner, managed to get a long dagger in play and offer Xena a semi-serious challenge. Her biggest worry at that precise moment was that he would think to shout out and bring more soldiers down on her. She tried, she really did, but this last one gave her little chance to take him out without killing him. She needed speed and stealth to get away. If she did not escape clean and quick, she put Gabrielle at increased risk. But within less than a minute, she had cut down the last of the guards. She hoped the old soldier would survive his wounds. Scooping up scattered coins from the dice game, she donned a cape, tunic, and sandals, and tucked her raven tresses up under a stolen helmet. Thus disguised, she slipped back out of the guardroom to find a way out of the prison.
Years of guerrilla fighting, and the training she had received at the hands of Lao Ma, had taught her how to move stealthily. She passed like a ghost unnoticed through the prison. Deciding she could not get through the gates without raising an alarm, she climbed atop the prison wall from the parade ground and, waiting for a gap in the sentries’ rounds, slipped over the outer battlements and dropped to the plain below. It was the work of a few minutes to run across the open Campus Martius to the nearest road. Reaching the cobbled thoroughfare, Xena slowed to a walk and set out for the heart of the city.
Go to Part II
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