My Lord Conqueror: Taking Chances
By Kennedy Northcutt ©2011-2012
See Part 1 for disclaimers and a full description of this installment in the My Lord Conqueror series.
Palace at Corinth
"And do you, Cyrene, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband…"
They were all packed into a small room just off the main hall. Agatha made sure to find all the flowers she could to add color to the place. The aroma was almost cloying. But no one seemed to mind. Cyrene was especially happy and seemed to glow as she smiled widely at the man facing her.
"I do, absolutely," she said and watched a boyish grin split Braes' features.
"Then it is my honor and privilege to add the blessings of the goddess on this union of man and wife and wish you both a healthy and happy life together," said the priestess with a broad grin. "Kiss your bride, General."
Braes took Cyrene in his arms and tipped her back. He then kissed her soundly as she wrapped her arms around his neck. She kept a firm grip on the bouquet of lilies in her hand as she was tipped back onto her feet. Cyrene blushed and a wide grin graced her features.
Cheers went up from the small group who had gathered for the ceremony. There were more guests in the main hall, just waiting for the chance to add their well wishes to the happy couple. And a huge banquet also awaited them.
Flower petals dropped from baskets perched in the rafters above onto the happy couple as they moved toward the outer door. They crossed the hall, received nods from the guards posted at strategic points, and then they entered the main hall to loud and boisterous cheers from the gathering.
Agatha beamed at her sister, as she leaned in close. "Good on ya, Cy," she placed a kiss on the woman's cheek. "Congratulations to you both."
She then gave Braes a kiss on the cheek, too. He blushed furiously.
"Let the celebration begin!" Agatha shouted as she turned those who were seated on benches throughout the hall. "And you two can take your place at the head table."
"Agatha…" Cyrene started to protest.
"Not a word, Cy," Agatha stopped the protest. "This is your day and that daughter of yours ain't here to share it with ya. She'd want you to enjoy yourselves and do it up there where everyone can see how happy you two are."
"Okay," Cyrene conceded. "As long as you join us."
She didn't wait for an answer from her sister. Merely grabbed Agatha's hand and dragged her up to the head table with her. They were just about to sit down, when one of the guests stood up and raised a tankard of ale high in the air.
"To the happy couple!"
The toast was followed by nods and cheers as everyone else raised a tankard in honor of the newlyweds. Cyrene adjusted the ring of flowers atop her head as she sat down in Xena's chair. Braes pushed her in and then joined her on her left side, while Agatha sat in the vacant chair to her right.
"Well, isn't this cozy," Cyrene placed a hand on Braes'. "How did you like the ceremony, General?"
A gray brow rose on his features. "Really, Cy? We're married now. You can call me by my given name."
She blushed and cocked her head with a grin. "I know. I just enjoy seeing you squirm, Braes."
He shifted in his seat and cleared his throat uncomfortably, as she patted the stubble on his chin with her free hand. He tried not to fidget with the collar of his wedding tunic. But it was edged in gold tooling and itched like crazy.
"So, what's on the menu for this evening, Agatha?" Braes sat forward and caught the older woman watching them with a wry grin.
"Turkey," she deadpanned. Then she chuckled. "And wild pheasant."
A server came and poured wine for each of them. Cyrene set her flowers on the table in front of her and took the goblet of wine that was handed to her. She took a sip and grinned.
"Must be some of that sweet wine Gabrielle was going on about," Cyrene commented, as she licked her lips. "It's very good."
Braes took a sip and scowled at the goblet. "A little too sweet for my tastes."
"Get the general some ale, would you?" Agatha asked the young server.
"Right away, Aggie," the young man put the wine pitcher down on the table in front of Cyrene, bowed and left to do Agatha's bidding.
"Thanks, Aggie," Braes lifted his goblet in mock salute.
More servers entered with trays full of delicacies. The chatter around the hall died down a bit as people ate and drank their fill. Cyrene's gaze took in the numerous guests who had joined them for the celebration. Many of them were from the city. Most of those were merchants and shopkeepers. There were also a few nobles from the surrounding area. A shadow of melancholy passed over her features as she realized again that Xena, Gabrielle and the Amazons were not there for the celebration.
"What's the matter, Cy?" Braes took her hand and kissed her knuckles. "Why the sad face?"
"Just wishing my daughter and the others were here for this," Cyrene sat back in the high-backed chair that belonged to her daughter. "It feels so strange without them here."
He glanced around the room and his gaze took in the empty tables the Amazons had occupied while they were there. His men were lined around the room, keeping a watchful eye on the guests who were present. He wasn't taking any chances.
And then the doors in the back of the hall opened suddenly and one of the young girl servants came rushing in. She headed straight for the head table. By the time she reached them, she was out of breath.
"Slow down, child," Agatha stood up and poured the girl a cup of cider. "Here, drink this."
Trika gulped down the cider and continued panting heavily until she finally caught her breath.
"Soldiers," she managed to get out between deep breaths. "At the gates."
"What?" Braes was on his feet in an instant. "Where?"
Trika pointed back the way she had come. "At the palace gates.Hundreds of them. They're demanding entry."
Braes raced out of the room with Cyrene and Agatha on his heels. Several other curious onlookers also followed the trio out of the hall. Braes pulled one of the huge palace doors open and shot down the steps. He was greeted by one of his men.
"What's this about soldiers at the gates?" He barked.
"There are more than a thousand outside the city," the man said. "Athenian infantry, by their uniforms."
"Athenian…What in the blazes is going on?" Braes hurried toward the palace battlements and took the stairs two at a time. "Who goes there?" He shouted down to the street below.
"Why, hello, General," Toris was surrounded by more than a dozen armed soldiers on horseback. All of them had torches and swords in their hands. "Care to open the gates and let us in? I have a message for my sister that has to be delivered personally."
"She's…" Braes stopped and glanced at Cyrene.
"Xena is unavailable at the moment, Toris," Cyrene called down to her oldest. "What is it you want?"
"Hello, Mother," he greeted her with congenial smile. "Long time no see."
"That's because you disappeared when Cortez and his men raided Amphipolis, Toris," Cyrene shot back as she crossed her arms over her chest. "You never returned, either."
"I had no reason to return to Amphipolis, Mother," he smiled up at her. "I found my place in Athens."
"Yes, as the Council's lapdog," she added with a wry grin. "How is that working out for you, by the way?"
"Nicely," he called back. "I've been named Protectorate of Greece by the emissary from Rome. He has promised riches beyond my wildest dreams. You might consider leaving this backwoods shack and coming to live in the villa I'm having built. It will be twice the size of this place."
"I don't think so, Toris," Cyrene replied. "I'm perfectly happy right where I am." She then looped an arm through one of Braes'. "And I'm married now."
"Oh? Are congratulations in order, then? Who's the lucky man?" Then he saw her more clearly in the dusky light from the torches. "You married Xena's general? Seriously? Is everyone in this family off their rocker?"
"We're quite sane, Toris," Cyrene called back. "You're the one who is experiencing delusions of grandeur. Do you really think siding with the Romans against your own people is going to get you anywhere?"
"My own people? Mother, my sister is a traitor to our people and a dictator who just wants to break us all to her will by declaring herself queen. She doesn't know the first thing about ruling 'our people' anymore than you know what I've been doing in Athens all this time."
"And you don't know your sister, Toris," Cyrene shot back. "She isn't a dictator. She only has the best interests of our people at heart, unlike your Roman friends. They just want to take over, tax us to death and bring us to heel under Roman law."
"PaxRomana isn't such a bad thing, Mother," Toris countered. "We could use a little peace around here after all the war Xena has wreaked on our lands."
"She cleared out the riffraff," Cyrene added. "I don't think that constitutes a declaration of war on anyone. It's not like her army leveled every village and town in its path. They didn't."
"What about Surra?"
"Surra was a terrible mistake," Cyrene's temper flared. "Xena wasn't even with those men who attacked that village. And when she tracked them down, she killed every last one of them."
"Didn't bring back the poor innocents who were consumed by the fire that ripped through there. Did she raise a finger to compensate those who lost everything and had to relocate? No. She built a keep on the ruins and put the villagers to work as servants in her household. That's just the beginning of what she intends to do to all of us. I guarantee she'll eventually fall into the same pattern that befalls all despot rulers. In less than a decade she'll be taxing us until we can no longer feed our families or support ourselves. She'll drive Greece into the ground."
"That's where you're dead wrong, Toris," Cyrene kept her tone level, although inside she was seething to hear the lies her oldest son was spewing.
"Then if I'm wrong, open the gates and let us in so I can have a nice chat with my sister and straighten everything out."
"No," Cyrene shook her head. "We're in the middle of my wedding celebration. I'm not interrupting the revelry for your selfish ambitions. Especially not after your betrayal of your sister during that skirmish against Draco."
"Go back to Athens, Toris," Braes added. "Tell the Romans that Greece cannot be bought at any price."
"Is that your final word, Mother?" Toris turned his mount. "Is that my sister's final word, too? Not that you speak for her, of course."
"Go back to Athens, Toris," Cyrene said. "And take the Athenian army with you."
He paused and looked up at her one last time. "Very good, Mother," a sly grin split his features. "You know about the army camped outside the city gates. We are laying siege to Corinth, as we speak. Tell my lovely sister that she will be trapped within these walls for as long as it takes to bring her to heel. No supplies in or out." He kicked his mount into motion and disappeared down the street.
"Damn," Cyrene exclaimed quietly. "That didn't go so well."
Braes put an arm around her shoulders and kissed her forehead. "No worries, Cy. The city is equipped for a long siege. By the time the Athenians realize just how futile it is to sit out there and wait for us to give in, Xena will return to knock them all on their asses."
She wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned into him. "I hope you're right, husband."
"Oh, I am," he then led her back down to the courtyard below. "Prepare for a long siege, Pyrius. Order the gates closed and barred until further notice. No one gets in or out. And set guards on the walls all the way around the city with orders to put a crossbow bolt into anyone who looks suspicious."
"Aye, General," Pyrius bowed his head and then scampered away to do the general's bidding.
"Well, wife," he turned with a smile. "Shall we at least enjoy this last night of celebration before things get dicey?"
They stood there and were joined by Agatha.
"So?" She looked from one to the other questioningly.
"Toris," Cyrene said. "He brought the Athenian army with him and is laying siege to the city."
"Mm," Agatha looked grim. "Good thing we stored up for something like this."
"Yep," Braes nodded. "I'll get the word out to put the rain barrels out. Don't want the city's occupants getting sick on contaminated water, even if Torisain't smart enough to touch the water supply."
"And I'll spread the word that we're rationing until further notice," Agatha added. "We're well stocked, but that don't mean the supplies will last forever. How long you thinking this siege will last?"
"Until their majesties return?" Braes replied. "Then hopefully Xena will catch the lay o' the land and rally the reinforcements. I dispersed the army and sent most of the boys home after she left. Didn't really see a need to keep 'em all around here eating us outta house and home."
"Well," Cyrene gave Braes a squeeze. "Why don't we get back to the party and enjoy ourselves. There's more than enough time tomorrow to worry about what's going to happen."
"Right," Braes stole a quick kiss from her. "Sorry."
"For not giving you a proper wedding night and a honeymoon afterward."
"Who says we won't have a proper wedding night," she shot him a seductive glance over her shoulder. "I think there's more than enough rooms for us to choose from. Don't you?"
He took her hand and followed her back inside. Agatha stood there for a moment longer, shaking her head and muttering something under her breath about young love. Then she, too, headed back inside the palace at a much slower pace than the others.
Xena sat on a boulder that overlooked the city of Rome. The sun was not yet up and a few torches still dotted the skyline. Things were relatively quiet and there was a misty fog moving along the coast. It was peaceful and gave her time to think.
She needed to think. There were two days before all hades broke loose with Caesar's announcement. She knew what she had to do and she was determined to succeed. Killing Julius Caesar was the least of her worries. Foremost in her mind was a certain blond servant-turned-Amazon-turned-queen.
Gabrielle was out there somewhere. She scanned the distant horizon and saw the first rays of sunlight slowly creeping out from behind the distant mountains. Xena concentrated on Gabrielle. She concentrated with every fiber of her being and hoped that the love she sent Gabrielle's way brought some measure of peace. She wanted nothing more than to hold Gabrielle in her arms. That was it. Just hold her and know that they were together again.
She was so deep in thought that she almost missed the subtle shift in the air and crackle of energy that always preceded a visit from the God of War. A bright blue-white flash signaled his arrival in the world of mortals. Xena didn't move a muscle. She just sat there staring at the distant horizon as he came up behind her.
"Hello, Xena," Ares put his hands on his hips and frowned at the back of her head. "Long time no see."
"Ares," Xena acknowledged him, but still didn't turn around.
He sighed heavily. "Xena, Xena, Xena…"
She remained silent and still, as he walked up behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders. She wanted to flinch, wanted to shrug him off, but she still didn't move.
"What do you want?" Her tone was cold.
"You know what I want," he said.
"Not gonna happen," she replied in the same cold, dead tone. "I told you before I'm through with you. End of discussion."
"Yeah, yeah," he moved to stand next to her. "That's why I've found someone else to do what you refuse to do for me anymore."
Her only reaction was a raised brow. "Oh?"
"Yes," Ares glanced at her from the corner of his eye and a small smile touched his full lips. "He's got your drive, your ambition-at least the drive and ambition you once possessed. He's not afraid to wage war and conquer those who would oppose him."
"Caesar," she ground out between clenched teeth.
He gave her two slow claps. "Very good.Didn't think you'd get it on the first guess." He returned his attention to the distant horizon. "Rome is kinda growing on me, ya know? This place definitely has possibilities." He then turned to look at the Pantheon on the hill. "It ain't Olympus, but, hey, beggars can't be choosers."
She turned her head to regard him dourly. "Beggars?"
He put a foot up on the boulder she was seated on and leaned forward with his arms on his knee. "Greece will fall, Xena. I guarantee it. And when it does, we're gonna need a new pool of worshippers and followers." He waved a negligible hand. "Romans are pretty bloodthirsty when it comes to conquest. They just might be the right fit for the God of War."
"And you've pegged Julius Caesar as your next great leader." It wasn't a question.
"He's a pretty decent guy. Arrogant.Self-absorbed. A little too stuck on this destiny thing of his-not to mention his need for revenge against you," he added the last with a hint of amusement. "He really hates you, you know."
"Blames you for setting his plans back a few years," Ares went on. "Your little ransom bit cost him. And also made him a laughing stock in the Senate. His reputation was in ruins after he returned to Rome. He was not pleased."
"Poor baby," she said dryly.
"Yeah, well," he shrugged. "Now he's back on track and ready to step up to bigger and brighter things."
"He's going to declare himself emperor," Xena added with the same lack of inflexion in her tone.
"How'd…" He eyed her in surprise for a moment before he recovered his composure. "Figured that out, too, I see."
"Do you really think anyone in Rome is ready to give that megalomaniac of yours absolute power, Ares? 'Cause if you do, then you're dumber than a box of rocks. No one in Rome is going to just sit idly by and let Caesar just waltz in and take over, especially not the Senate."
"Ah, yes, the Senate," he feigned disinterest. "Those old windbags and their stuffy ideals. Do you really think the masses actually care what happens in the political arena? Most mortals are only concerned about one thing. And it isn't politics."
"You have no idea what we mortals actually care about, Ares," Xena snapped.
"Struck a nerve, did I?" He chuckled. "That little blonde annoyance of yours finally getting to you, Xena?" She merely glared daggers at him. "Okay, so, here's the scoop. I didn't really come here to banter uselessly with you."
"Then why don't you just get to the point?"
"Because I so love our little moments together," he moved closer to her and she shifted away. "Face it, Xena, we still have chemistry between us."
"There's no chemistry, Ares," she moved off the boulder and put it between them. "There's just revulsion, especially on my part."
"Revulsion.Chemistry.Tomato.Tomotto." He shrugged. "My point is…" He let the words hang as he grinned seductively and lowered his chin so he was looking at her through hooded lids.
"Arrrrreeeeeessss," she growled impatiently.
"Okay, okay," he held up his hands in surrender. "I'll make you a deal, Xena. Your little blonde's life is spared, as long as you leave my boy alone."
"That's the best you could come up with?" She scoffed.
"I know what you're planning," he countered. "You can't kill him. I've got plans and he's no good to me dead."
"You're better off finding someone else to do your dirty work for you, Ares," Xena turned away. "Caesar isn't your guy."
"He is now," Ares argued. "You don't get it, Xena. Julius Caesar is a man with a vision and that vision includes bringing peace through conquest."
"Peace? Since when are you interested in peace, God of War?" She countered. "The only thing you've ever been interested in is bloody, destructive savagery, Ares. You thrive on it. You encourage it. Your very existence relies on it. When the men chant your name on the battlefield, you lust after it and it quenches that ache you feel."
He was silent for several moments as he tried to come up with a counter argument to what she'd just said.
"Yeah, well, you got me there," he finally shrugged. "So what? I'm the God of War. It's what I do. And Caesar is more than willing to have his legions worship their new god. So? I get followers out of the deal. And you get your little plaything back, alive and well. Is that such a monumental sacrifice? Either way, it's a win-win for both of us."
"Not if Caesar sets his sights on Greece," Xena glared at him. "And don't tell me any differently. He's already sent an emissary to Athens to turn my brother against me."
"Your brother turned against you long ago, Xena," Ares snorted. "That spineless jellyfish whosuckled at the same teat as you isn't worth the breath it takes to utter his name. You should have run him through when you had the chance."
"And risk the wrath of the Fates? I don't think so, Ares. They don't take kindly to family killing family and you know it."
"Eh, so the Fates take away what little sanity you have left," he shrugged. "Is it any different than this love thing you've got going with the annoying blonde? And for the record, she really isn't your type, you know."
"Gabrielle has more strength and courage in her little finger than you will ever have in your entire immortal being, Ares," Xena countered as she crossed her arms defiantly over her chest and dared him to argue. "Haven't you ever heard the saying 'Good things come in small packages'?"
"Do we have a deal or not?"
"Exactly what are you asking of me?"
"Leave Caesar alone and I spare the blonde. Simple as that."
"Nothing is ever simple with you, Ares."
"Are you suggesting I don't keep my promises, Xena? I'm a god."
"I'm not suggesting anything," Xena gave him a knowing look. "I know. There's always something more behind the bargains you strike with us mere mortals. Some catch that comes back to bite us in the end."
"What catch could there possibly be?" He was annoyed. "Caesar's life for your little blonde's life."
"Tell me where she is, Ares," she set her hands on the boulder and looked him in the eye.
"There's no way you can spare Gabrielle's life, unless you know exactly where she is," Xena explained. "So, tell me. Maybe then I will seriously consider your offer."
He put his hands on the boulder and went nose to nose with her. "Now, why would I do that? Hm?"
"Because I'm not making any deals with you until you do," Xena stared deeply into those dark eyes of his. "Caesar's life is forfeit as soon as he makes his announcement. You and I both know it. And I won't necessarily be the one to kill him, now, will I?"
His eyes narrowed slightly at he gazed intently back at her. He tried to read her, but knew the attempt was futile. Out of all the mortals he had encountered, Xena was the only one who was able to bluff her way past his cool and calculating façade. Ares waited for her to flinch and turn away, but she didn't. She held firm and stood her ground with her nose practically pressed against his.
"Fine," he was the first to back away. "You win."
Her brow shot up into her hairline. "Really?"
"Yes," he turned his back on her and walked a few paces away. "She's on her way to Rome, as we speak."
Xena felt a prickle of warning race through her at his words. "And?"
He turned enough to look over his shoulder at her. "You have a choice, Xena. Save her or kill him. It's up to you."
She didn't have time to absorb his words before he vanished in that blinding blue-white flash of his that left a crackle of energy in its wake. She just stood there looking at the spot where he'd been standing, as she tried to make sense of what he'd said.
Then she realized he'd given her a clue to Gabrielle's whereabouts. She was on her way to Rome. But where was she coming from? When would she arrive in the city? And where would they take her? Xena scanned the rooftops of the city until her eyes landed on the round structure at the center of it all. Pennants on top of the Colosseum waved in the stiff breeze that kicked up during those early-morning hours, as the city awakened and teemed with activity.
Yes, the Colosseum. That's where they would take Gabrielle. Xena knew it as assuredly as she knew Caesar's life was forfeit the instant he declared himself emperor. Even if she wasn't the one to kill him, Xena was sure there was enough opposition out there to have someone to stand against him.
Now all she had to do was get into the Colosseum and wait for the right moment to rescue Gabrielle and carry out the rest of her plan. Leaning against the boulder, Xena watched as the rising sun bathed the rooftops in their golden rays. It was beautiful and she took it as a sign that things were finally turning around for the better. A small smile tugged at the corners of her lips as she just stood there and let it all sink in.
Just two more days.
She was exhausted and her entire body ached unmercifully by the time they reached Rome. Wrists manacled together in front of her, it was all she could do to hang on tightly to the gray mane, as the soldier behind her continued to guide their mount toward a huge round structure that loomed ever closer.
Their breakneck speed across the countryside and throughout the long night had afforded her very little time to rest. They had only stopped long enough to change horses and then they were back on the road again. No one spoke. No one offered her a drink of water or a morsel of food. Her escort was made up of a dozen Roman centurions who merely drove their horses to the brink of exhaustion and then traded them in for new mounts along their route.
She was still wearing the same blood-soaked tunic she was wearing when she killed Quintus Julius Maximus. The blood had dried candlemarks prior and was stiff and rough against her skin. Her hands were covered in his blood, too. Her hands were stained brown with it. She wanted nothing more than to rinse the reminder from her skin. But she was not given the opportunity to do anything more than hold on for dear life.
The stench of death clung to her, as well. She had never murdered someone in cold blood and was still feeling slightly nauseous after what she'd done. She hadn't stopped shivering and shaking since they had begun their journey the night before.
Glancing wearily up at the mountain that loomed beyond the city, Gabrielle could see the faint beginnings of dawn peeking over the horizon. It was just another day to her and meant absolutely nothing. She was still a captive-still bore the mark of a slave on her shoulder and the lash marks on her back. Any hope of escape had died instantly when she stepped into that hallway and found herself surrounded by Roman soldiers. Her only consolation was that the fire she'd set had consumed most of the ludus by the time they were racing across the countryside toward Rome. She could still make out a faint orange glow in the distance when she glanced over her shoulder and the shoulder of the soldier behind her. It brought a small smile to her swollen lip where Quintus had struck her. Her lip and cheek still throbbed painfully.
Pulling to a halt in front of the huge Colosseum, her escort quickly dismounted and the soldier behind her unceremoniously pushed her toward his comrades. Gabrielle barely had time to let go of the horse's mane before she was being manhandled and half-dragged toward a door in the side of the building. Once through the door, they quickly descended into inky darkness that smelled musty and moldy. Her eyes didn't even have time to adjust to the darkness before they stopped in front of another door. A guard appeared from nowhere with a key and unlocked the door for them.
Gabrielle was then unceremoniously shoved inside yet another tiny cell and the door was closed and locked behind her. She instantly fell to her hands and knees in the filthy straw. It smelled of urine and death and she tried getting to her feet, but her legs were too weak to hold her.
"Ugh!" She groaned as she managed to scoot back against the damp stone wall behind her.
Then she realized she wasn't alone. A small shadow was tucked into a corner on the narrow pallet across from where she sat. The shadow moved slightly and her heart jumped into her throat.
"'s okay," came a hoarse thin croak from her cellmate. "I won't hurt you."
She realized the voice was that of a young boy who had his knees pulled up to his chest as he stared at her. Her eyes soon adjusted enough that she could make out the long tendrils of greasy hair hanging in front of his face.
"What's your name?" Gabrielle asked.
She couldn't help the gasp that escaped her lips. "Solon?"
"Did I stutter?" He shot back.
"No," Gabrielle shook her head. "I just…"
"Didn't expect me to have a name?" He finished rather snidely. "I had a life before this, you know."
"Yes, I'm sure you did," Gabrielle decided to just play along. "My name is Gabrielle, by the way."
"Nice to meet you," he said sarcastically. "What'd you do to get stuck in this hole? Kill some bigshot Roman?"
"Well.." Gabrielle considered his question thoughtfully. Was that why she was there? Was Quintus Julius Maximus some important bigshot? Is that why there was a contingent of Roman centurions outside the room when she tried to leave? "I'm not really sure why I'm here, actually." She looked down at her palms, but it was too dark to see the dried blood on them. "I did kill someone. I'm just not sure he was anything more than the owner of a ludus."
"A place where they train gladiators," she explained. "They call it a ludus."
"Oh," he glanced up at the ceiling above their heads. "You know where we are, don't you?"
"I have no idea," Gabrielle answered honestly. "It looked like a huge arena from the outside. But I really didn't get a very good look at it."
"The Colosseum," Solon said. "It's an arena, all right. They put on all kinds of horrible games and such up there." He pointed at the ceiling. "There are lions and tigers that will rip you apart with their huge teeth and claws. And the gladiators reenact all kinds of battles from Roman history. Sometimes the games are so bloody that its seeps down here. The rats love when that happens. They go crazy for blood."
Gabrielle surveyed the straw around her with trepidation. "Rats?"
"Yeah," Solon nodded. "You don't want to be down there when night falls. That's when they come out to feed. They don't care if you're alive or dead, either. They'll eat your flesh either way. That's why I stay up here."
"Is there any room for one more up there?" Gabrielle tried to stand up but quickly gave up on that and just scooted over to the edge of the pallet.
"It's not very big, but neither are you," he shrugged.
Gabrielle hoisted herself up onto the edge of the wooden frame. She then scooted back until her back was against the wall. Leather creaked with her movements and the smell wasn't much better than the straw on the floor. But she eventually managed to stretch her legs out enough to stay balanced.
"Thank you, Solon," Gabrielle looked over at the huddled figure and noticed she was able to see his face a little in the light from the opening in their cell door. "You have your mother's eyes."
She didn't even realize she had spoken the words aloud until his expression went from confused to angry to furious in the blink of an eye.
"What do you know about my mother?" He practically spat the words at her. "Who are you?"
"I'm…" Gabrielle watched as he jumped off the pallet and managed to climb up onto a small shelf carved into the stone wall. "Solon…"
"I don't want anything to do with the woman who gave birth to me," he hissed at her. "Leave me alone!"
"Solon," her tone softened. "Please…"
"Shut UP!!!" He pressed his palms against his ears. "Just leave me ALONE! They put you up to this! They sent you down here to drive me crazy! It's all part of their plan! I won't talk about her! You can't make me!"
"Solon, no!" Gabrielle shouted. "I'm as much a captive as you are!" She moved to the edge of the pallet and tested her legs to see if she could stand. She couldn't. "And you have the wrong idea about your mother. She's…"
"Lalalalalalalalala…" He ducked his head into his upraised knees and continued to make nonsensical noises as he held his hands firmly against his ears.
Gabrielle decided against any further arguments and simply scooted back against the wall. She pulled her legs up toward her and rested her arms on her upraised knees. The boy continued with his tantrum, while Gabrielle let her head rest back against the stone wall behind her. She stared up at the dark ceiling and just let her mind wander over recent events, starting with her abduction.
How had things gone so terribly wrong? She couldn't help but ask herself that question. One moment she was being crowned queen right alongside Xena and the next she was engaged in a back-alley fight for her life. Then Feurouge had shown up and…
A shudder raced through her on the memories that followed. She had been bound and gagged when he took her to the docks and left her in the bed of a wagon. Swimming in and out of consciousness, she really couldn't recall all that had happened after that. Another blow to the head and then she woke up onboard a ship. It wasn't the slave ship. It was another. And there was a Roman onboard who seemed to take particular pleasure in taunting her and mistreating her. He was the one who branded her. He actually seemed to enjoy watching her stifle her screams and bite her lip as the brand burned her tender flesh.
After that everything was a blur of darkness, semi-darkness and pain. So much pain. Her head ached unmercifully every time she moved. And then the fever and the nightmares started. She couldn't tell if she was dreaming or hallucinating most of the time. At one point, she remembered being hauled up on deck and carried across a plank to another ship. It was daylight and the sunlight blinded her.
When she awoke again, she was in the hold of the slave ship and Autolycus was there. He picked the locks on her manacles and freed her on those rare occasions when the guards weren't looking. By then, she was just too weak to do anything more than lie still on the straw-covered floor. There were others there, too. A big black fellow with a bald head and huge muscles. Gabrielle couldn't remember his name. Like Autolycus, he seemed to act as her protector when the others threatened to harm her. By the grace of the gods, no one did.
And then they were all being herded toward the slave market and she was sold to Quintus Julius Maximus. She could still feel the deep ache from the lash marks on her back. So much had happened. So much had changed. And now here she was in a cell with Xena's son-a child whose hatred toward his mother had him throwing temper tantrums in front of her.
"Tell that welp to SHUT UP!!!"
The shout seemed to come from the other side of the wall from her.
"Hello?" Gabrielle felt the wall with her hand and found several small cracks in the stone. "Who…Who are you?"
"Who wants to know?" The voice was definitely male.
"Gabrielle. Yes, I heard you talking to the kid, earlier," he said. "Not much else to do down here than eavesdrop on other people's conversations."
"Who are you?"
There was a low chuckle from the crack. "Well, I suppose that depends on who you talk to. I was once a member of the Triumvirate, until Caesar executed Crassus-our third member. When I still had power and prestige, I was known as Pompeii Magnus. Now," she imagined he was shrugging, "I'm just another prisoner and pawn in Caesar's bid for ultimate power."
Solon was suddenly silent and Gabrielle looked over to find him sitting there in wide-eyed silence.
"Solon?" She cocked her head at him. "What is it?"
"He's the one," Solon cringed. "He locked me up in the catacombs with all those skulls."
Another chuckle on the other side of the wall caught Gabrielle's attention. "Is that true?"
"Yes," Pompeii said. "Caesar had me kidnap the brat right before I returned to Rome from Greece."
"Why?" Asked Gabrielle.
"Oh, I think you know exactly why," he answered. "Or didn't Xena tell you who he is?"
"She told me," Gabrielle said, as she glanced at Solon again. He had his head down on his knees again. "She also told me why she gave him up and wanted his identity kept secret."
"Let me guess," Pompeii snickered. "She was afraid someone would use him against her?"
"Pretty much," Gabrielle said. "She knew any child of hers would always live in danger from her enemies. I guess she was right."
She watched Solon out of the corner of her eye, just waiting for a reaction. But he didn't move. He just sat there with his thin arms wrapped around his thin legs and his head down on his bony knees. At least he was quiet, she thought. The mewling he'd been doing earlier was really wearing on her last nerve, especially since she hadn't had any sleep in a very long time.
"Any child of Xena's is a threat to her," Pompeii said. "She knew it and that's the real reason she abandoned the boy to be raised by a bunch of centaurs. Xena is like all great rulers. She only cares about one thing-power."
"That's not true," Gabrielle argued. "Xena doesn't care about power at all. She just wanted to bring peace and prosperity to Greece. And keep out the riffraff."
"That's what they all say," Pompeii's tone dripped sarcasm. "Caesar keeps touting PaxRomana-Roman peace. But all he really wants is to fulfill his destiny as supreme ruler of an empire. Rome just happens to be well on its way to fitting the bill."
"You're wrong about Xena," Gabrielle insisted. "She and Caesar have nothing in common."
"Except a past," he said. "Did she ever tell you the story of how they met?"
"She was playing pirate-had her own ship and everything," he went on. "Long story short, Xena saw an opportunity to make a king's ransom off this Roman captive who was just beginning to make a name for himself, and the rest, as they say, is history. She got her money and Caesar had a major financial setback on his rise to power. It was quite amusing, actually."
"And that's why he hates her so much?" Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "Because she ransomed him back to Rome?"
"No," Pompeii chuckled. "He hates her for being a woman who bested him. Caesar has an ego that just can't accept that anyone, especially a woman, could possibly best him. But Xena did teach him a valuable lesson."
"What lesson is that?"
"Never trust anyone, especially a woman," his tone went ice cold. "He also learned to keep his friends close and his enemies closer. Caesar is not one to trust even the most innocent among us."
Gabrielle glanced at Solon with worry.
"Do you know what he intends to do with us?" She asked softly enough that Solon couldn't hear her.
This time Pompeii chuckled humorlessly. "Oh, I have a pretty good idea."
"Please tell me," Gabrielle's tone turned slightly pleading.
A long silence followed and Gabrielle was sure he wouldn't tell her. Her eyes drifted shut and she was just on the edge of sleep when she heard him speak again. But his words offered no comfort at all.
"If I know Caesar," he said at last. "We're all headed for the arena, where we'll take part in a final spectacle that promises to entertain as well as educate."
"And what does that mean, exactly?"
"We will die, my dear," Pompeii stated bluntly. "And it won't be painless, either."
Gabrielle looked at Solon again. This time she studied his thin and frail body covered in filthy rags. He didn't even look like a boy any longer. He looked more like some minion of the Underworld, all skin and bones and not much else. His shoulder length hair was a tangled and greasy mess that no longer had a distinguishable color to it.
Her heart ached for the son of the woman she loved with all her heart. She wanted to go to him and hold him in her arms. Tell him everything would be all right, and they would eventually escape from the nightmare that awaited them.
Instead, she just sat there propped against the stone wall and let her own thoughts wander as her eyelids drifted shut again. She didn't really think about anything, in particular. But she did manage to conjure Xena's features in her mind's eye. Warmth washed over her, despite the damp chill in the cell, as she willed Xena to feel the love she so desperately wanted to share with her.
"I love you, Xena," she muttered as she drifted off into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Zea was the first one to wake up. She was wrapped in a cocoon of warmth and bare skin that felt so good she didn't want to move. So she didn't. She just lay there with a blanket on top of her and Briessebeneath her. The woman was still breathing evenly and her heart was beating a slow rhythm that told Zea she was still fast asleep.
Zea smiled to herself. It was no wonder Briesse was still asleep after the workout Zea had given her. Their lovemaking had started out slow and gentle, but had soon turned into quite the workout. Not so much a novice at it anymore, Zea was a fast learner. She had even managed to come up with some acrobatic moves that surprised her bed partner. But Briesse was a good sport and went along with anything Zea wanted to try.
A blush suffused Zea's cheeks as she thought about one particularly erotic position they'd tried and actually succeeded at. She could still feel a deep, yet not so unpleasant, ache between her legs from Briesse's enthusiastic attentions. She really had no idea just how many times one could reach that explosive climax in a matter of heartbeats. Of course, her heart had been racing like a wild stallion at the time. So, who knew?
Shifting slightly, she stared at the plains of Briesse's features in the soft glow filtering through the window of their room. Lips swollen from their kisses were slightly parted as Briessebreathed deeply in sleep. Her eyelashes were slightly darker than the blond hair on her head. Zea remembered being mildly surprised that first time they made love. The damp curls of Briesse's sex were far darker than the hair on her head and there was a tinge of red in them, too. She had commented and Briesse just shrugged it off, saying she spent a great deal of time out in the sun with that part of her anatomy completely covered.
Zea watched a soft golden glow peek through the worn cloth that covered the window as the soft rays kissed Briesse's features. She was so intrigued and her heart ached so much for this woman of her dreams that she couldn't resist running a finger gently over the plains and valleys of Briesse's soft skin. And then she wanted more.
Eyelids slowly fluttered open, as Briesse felt the feather-light touch upon her skin. She was then staring into smiling brown eyes full of love and wonder.
"'Mornin', darlin'," her voice was rough with sleep as she squinted at the window. "Wha' time 'sit?"
"About a candlemark past dawn," Zea smiled in wonder, as she scooted up to plant a kiss on the dimple in Briesse's chin. "Sorry to wake you, hon. Didn't mean to. You're just so darned irresistible."
"Oh, I am, am I?" Briesse took Zea's face in both hands and gave her a sound kiss. Their tongues met and an instant shock of desire raced through both of them. "Well, waking up like this isn't so bad, I guess." She teased and then kissed Zea more slowly and gently, the tip of her tongue gently tracing Zea's full lips. "I could really get used to this, ya know."
"Me, too," Zea grinned happily. "You don't know how very happy you've made me, my love."
"Oh, I think I have an inkling, darlin'," Briesse ran her fingers through the dark hair and gently scratched Zea's scalp. "I think this thing between us is very special."
Zea gazed into Briesse's eyes for a long moment. "I think I'm in love with you," she said quietly.
A huge grin split Briesse's features. "You think?"
Zea snickered. "I know, strange, huh?" Her expression sobered, as she resumed tracing Briesse's features with a finger. "You're absolutely gorgeous and I'm…" Her brow furrowed.
Briesse placed a palm against Zea's cheek. "A remarkable woman, Zea. You are beautiful, inside and out. And I love you so much that my heart aches all the time that we can't spend together like this."
"Yours does, too?" Zea replied innocently. "I thought it was just me."
"No, darlin'," Briesse shifted so Zea was next to her and she was lying on her side. "I want you all the time, darlin'. It's getting harder and harder to keep my hands to myself when we're together. I just want to be with you and…" She let her fingers lightly brush the skin against Zea's ribs and hip, as their lips met again. "I love you, too, Zea."
They moved closer to each other. Arms and legs tangled together as their bodies spoke the words that were in their hearts, until they were both panting with need and on the verge of release. Fingers moved expertly through wet folds as tongues vied for dominance and their bodies came together in time with the beating of their hearts. Passions rose to a deafening crescendo. Skin slick with sweat. The blanket that covered them slid to the wooden floor as their bodies became one and their souls sored into the heavens on the waves of ecstasy that washed over them.
Briesse trailed wet kisses down the length of Zea's soft curves until her lips found a taught nipple. She latched on and was rewarded with a squeal of pleasure that sent a jolt of molten desire to the very core of her being. Zea continued to pant breathlessly at the attention, as Briesse gently kneaded one breast while suckling the other. All the while, the fingers of her other hand kept up a steady rhythmic thrusting through wet folds as her thumb worked gently against Zea's swollen clit. She could feel the tension building as the wetness increased and knew it wouldn't be long before her lover reached that moment of ultimate release.
Zea was lost completely in a world of absolute Elysian bliss. Her body was on fire with a growing need that was steadily building to a fevered pitch. She knew she was about to dive head-long into a bottomless chasm of pure pleasure. But the sensations pouring through her at the moment were far more scintillating than anything she could ever imagine.
In the back of her mind she wanted Briesse to feel what she was feeling-experience what she was experiencing. She wanted to be inside her lover and share everything with her. She wanted them to be one in body, heart and soul.
"Can we try…" Zea panted breathlessly, as Briesse raised her head and stilled at the words. "I want you, too."
"Yes," Briesse nodded with passion smoldering in her gray eyes.
They changed positions. Head-to-toe, so they were both able to give the other pleasure. Briesse resumed her explorations, while Zea dove in enthusiastically. They tasted, touched, stroked each other until they were both panting with need. It was wet. The aroma of their passion filled the air, as the sun slipped through to bathe them in its gentle glow.
And then they were both crying out in mutual climax, as their bodies shuddered and pleasure rocked them to the very core. They clung to each other as they rode the waves of ecstasy together, until they finally returned to earth in blissful satisfaction.
"That was…" Zea sighed in contentment.
They gently stroked each other and basked in the little shivers and aftershocks that moved over them. Briesse then shifted to her back with a deep sigh of contentedness, as she pulled Zea up next to her.
"You are a remarkable woman, Zea," she kissed her lover's damp brow. "You know that?"
Briesse chuckled. "Absolutely. I really don't ever want to leave this bed. This is so…perfect."
"Me, either," Zea let her cheek rest against Briesse's breast as she traced light circles on her belly. "I wish we didn't have to keep up appearances for the sake of the others."
Briesse traced slow circles on Zea's bare back. "You and me, both."
Zea suddenly lifted her head and looked Briesse in the eye. "Why don't we just have a joining and be done with it, then?"
Briesse stared in bewilderment at her for a moment. "What?"
"I mean," Zea's confidence faltered. "Only if you want to. You don't have to. We don't have to prove anything to anyone. I just thought…"
"Hey," Briesse lifted a hand and tucked a lock of dark hair behind Zea's ear. "I would be honored to be your wife, your lover and your soul's mate for the rest of my life-what's left of it, anyway. I just think…"
"I know," Zea hurried on to hide her disappointment. "It's not the right time. We're not even home where we can do this the proper way. It's…"
"You didn't let me finish," Briesse said sternly and then let her expression soften. "I want it as much as you do, Zea. I want the world to know how much I love you, even if they only get to see it for a very short time and we both die on this little adventure of ours. All I want is to be with you. Always. I love you more than life itself. You are my world, Zea. You are also the very best part of me and that makes all the difference in the world."
Zea smiled crookedly. "You really want to do this?"
"Yes," Briesse nodded firmly.
"But…" Zea frowned.
"Let's ask Queen Eph if she'll perform the ceremony," Briesse helpfully suggested. "We have one more day until all Tartarus breaks loose, so why don't we make the most of it?"
"You really think the others will be okay with it?"
"Do I care?" Briesse chuckled. "If everything else on this crazy adventure goes completely awry, at least I know we have this."
Zea took Briesse's hand in hers and kissed her knuckles. "And if we die tomorrow, at least we'll spend eternity together."
Briesse smiled sadly. "I'd much rather live out our lives in this bed with you than find out what eternity will be like."
"Me, too," Zea leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on her lover's lips. "Besides, I don't want to find out if they have this much fun on the other side." A thought suddenly occurred to her. "When are we supposed to be downstairs to meet the others?"
"I think that ship has already sailed, darlin'," Briesse wrapped her arms around Zea and drew her down for a much longer and much more thorough kiss that sparked both their desires again. "I'm sure they won't go anywhere without us if we…"
Her words trailed off as their passions reignited and the world fell away, once again. They were so engrossed in each other, in fact, that they didn't hear the pounding on the door or the muffled calls from the hallway. They didn't even notice when the door was thrown open and a red-faced Eponin stopped dead in the doorway. They just continued on as the weapons master quickly closed the door and pounded down the hallway toward the tavern below, muttering all the while about Amazons and their lustful urges.
Candlemarks later, the Amazons stood in the deserted tavern in full Amazon regalia for the joining ceremony of two of their own. Xena had paid the innkeeper a generous amount to close up shop for the rest of the day, despite the man's protests to the contrary.
Tables had been moved against the outer wall and the ceremony was taking place beneath an arch decorated in beautiful flowers. Briesse stood confidently next to Ephiny, who had agreed to officiate. The blond scout wore a new set of leathers made of soft doe skin and had several feathers woven into the braids of her hair. She beamed with pride as Zea came through the doors to the kitchen. The horse wrangler also wore new leathers that were darker and complimented her complexion. There were colored beads on the fringe at her chest that matched the beads woven into her dark hair.
"You're stunning," Briesse said quietly against Zea's ear, as she joined them at the arch.
Zea practically glowed as she smiled into the gray eyes staring back at her with love and adoration. "So do you."
A throat clearing from Ephiny caught all their attention.
"Let's get started, shall we?" She gave them each a knowing grin. "As queen of this merry band of adventurous Amazon misfits…"
Ephiny's words continued on, but neither woman standing in front of her paid them much heed. They were both so lost in each other that they barely noticed the snickers and stifled giggles from their fellow Amazon sisters, as their queen regaled them with witty anecdotes from their travels. She even put her own humorous twist on the storms that tossed their hapless ship around and finally ended their sea voyage.
Xena listened with half an ear from a back corner of the room, as she slowly sipped her port. She didn't feel much like celebrating a union between two Amazons, not when her own wife was still out there somewhere. Her heart still ached to have Gabrielle back in her arms. It ached so much sometimes that she could barely stand it. She felt as if half her soul had been ripped away when Gabrielle was taken. And now that she was close enough to feel her mate's presence, her heart ached to be with her even more.
Several Amazons laughed at something Ephiny said. Xena actually tuned back into what was going on in time to hear the vows.
"Do you, Zea, take this woman to be your partner for life? Do you promise to love, honor, cherish and keep her in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer," several snorts followed,"until Death takes you to the other side?"
"And do you, Briesse, take this woman to be your partner for life? Do you promise to love, honor, cherish and keep her in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, until Death parts you?"
"Then before these witnesses and with the blessing of the Goddess, I now pronounce you joined for life," Ephiny finished to cheers from the group. "Kiss her, scout, before she rides away on one of those horses of hers."
More cheers followed and then the ale was flowing freely as Zea and Briesse were surrounded by their sisters.
Xena watched Eponin break away from the group and head towards her.
"This seat taken?"Eponin didn't wait for a response and merely sat down. She then downed her ale and slammed the tankard on the table. "Never thought I'd see the day."
"Oh?" Xena feigned interest.
"Amazons don't generally go around getting hitched in the middle of a dangerous excursion," Eponin nodded to the innkeeper, who deposited a full tankard of ale in front of her. "Especially when it's our queen we're out to rescue. We like to keep this sort of thing a little more private. Don't know exactly what got into those two, but Briesse was very insistent. Even went so far as to argue that a celebration was just the thing we needed, right now, to get our fighting juices flowing." She sipped her ale and earned a frothy mustache for her efforts.
"Maybe so," Xena's expression remained stoic, despite the comedy of seeing an Amazon with a froth mustache. "I suppose there's nothing else to do at the moment, anyway. Right now, we just have to sit tight and wait for tomorrow."
Ephiny joined them and sat down next to Eponin with a tolerant smile. "Well, glad that's over. I still can't believe I agreed to join those two in the middle of all that's going on, right now. It's just insane."
"They're in love," Xena said, then caught the twin looks of disbelief. "Hey, I have eyes, too." She buried her nose in her tankard of port.
Eponin snorted and then blushed to her roots. "Good thing neither of you saw what I saw this mornin'. That is not something I'll forget anytime soon."
"What did you see?" Ephiny gave her a raised-browed look.
Eponin cleared her throat, drank deeply from her own tankard and considered her next words thoughtfully. "Let's just say, the sun was up and the moons were shining brightly inside one of the rooms."
Ephiny's brow furrowed. "What?"
"She saw those two naked," Xena explained blandly.
"I tried pounding on the door," Eponin ducked her head and stared into her tankard. "No one answered, so…"
Ephiny stifled a giggle that quickly turned into full-blown laughter. "Oh, priceless!"
"Yeah," Eponin finished her ale and poured herself another from the pitcher Ephiny had brought over with her. "Let's see you say that the next time you walk in on two lovers…er…" She blushed a deeper shade of red. "Damn!"
Ephiny nearly snorted ale out her nose. She choked and sputtered, instead. It took her several moments to recover enough to speak again. By then, the other Amazons had finished congratulating the happy couple and were settling down to some serious drinking and partying.
"Well, that's my cue," Xena got up from the table and started for the door.
"Where are you going?" Ephiny called to her. "Thought you didn't have anything better to do at the moment."
"Actually, I do," Xena called over her shoulder on her way out. "See you ladies at the Colosseum tomorrow."
"Wait!" Eponin managed to get up and follow Xena out the door. "Xena!" She called to the retreating figure.
Xena paused and turned around to face the weapons master.
"What is it, Eponin?" Xena gave her an impatient look.
"You never said anything about not coming with us," Eponin said as she stood with her hands on her hips. "Are you changing the plan at the last minute?"
Eponin glanced over to where the Colosseum loomed on the horizon. "Yeah, I suppose. It's just…"
"I have business to take care of, Eponin," Xena turned on her heel and started away, but a hand on her arm made her stop and she rounded on the Amazon with anger flaring in her eyes. "Do you have a death wish?"
Eponin immediately let go of Xena's arm and held her hands up in surrender. "Hey, chill, Xena. I didn't mean any harm."
Xena glared at her for a moment more before her expression relaxed and she sighed. "It's okay, Pon. I'm just a little too wound up to sit still. I need to do something besides drink myself into a vicious hangover."
"Yeah, I can see that."
"So I'm just going to take care of a few things. Tie up a few loose ends. Don't worry, I'll see you guys at the games tomorrow," she finished with a reassuring half-smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.
"Please don't do anything stupid, Xena," Eponin pleaded mildly before the woman could turn away completely. "I don't wanna be the one to have to tell Gabrielle that you didn't make it."
Xena gave her a cocky grin. "Who says I won't make it?"
Then she turned and strode away with all the confidence of one who owned the whole world. Eponin just stared after her while shaking her head. Then she too turned around and headed back to the joining celebration and her precious ale. It was time for some serious drinking, she mused, as she entered the tavern. A mug of ale was thrust into her hand and she barely spared a moment of thought for the Conqueror, before she tipped the mug back and downed its entire contents in several gulps. There was time enough later to ponder the important stuff.
"Let's eat, drink and be merry! For tomorrow we very well may die!" She shouted to hoots and hollers from her Amazon sisters.
Xena moved stealthily through the streets of Rome, ever mindful of the centurions prowling the streets in their distinctive gold armor, red tunics and helmets. There seemed to be a lot more Roman Centurions on the march through the streets than she remembered there being during her last visit.
She had no idea if they were on the lookout for her or not. She didn't even know if the rumors had spread enough that Caesar's spies had already shared the news with him. Then again, she didn't really care.
With no real destination in mind, Xena lost herself in the crowds that moved through the streets. The Festival of Dionysis had attracted venders from every land. They were selling everything from spicy meats on skewers that filled the air with their pungent aroma to small trinkets and jewelry to carpets and clothing and a myriad of exotic merchandise. The central marketplace was a madhouse of chaos and cacophony. Noisy merchants hocked their wares, while young boys with moved in and out of the mass of people and picked pockets of their unsuspecting victims.
One urchin in a grimy tunic tried to slip his hand into one of Xena's pockets. She quickly grabbed his wrist and held him while she eyed at him with her most intimidating glare. His eyes popped open wide as he tried to scurry away from her. Loosening her grip just enough, Xena leaned close to the frightened boy.
"Tell your friends to leave me be or I'll snap the next unlucky one's wrist," she hissed and let go of him.
He scampered away with one glance over his shoulder before he disappeared into the crowd. Xena just shook her head and continued on as if nothing had happened. She still had no destination in mind, but eventually found herself staring up at the largest structure in Rome.
The Colosseum was a massive architectural marvel and one that was unmatched by any structure she had ever seen. It was built from massive stones to a point and finished off with a wooden frame. There were more merchants set up all the way around the perimeter and the crowd was just as thick.
Xena gazed up at the arches that graced the structure. Then she looked around for a way inside. There were centurions posted at all the entrances, their armor gleaming in the late-afternoon sunlight. No one was being allowed inside the Colosseum.
Xena surveyed every possible entrance as she casually walked around the entire perimeter. There was a tunnel-like ramp that dead-ended into two massive doors. Six centurions stood guard in front of the doors and barred anyone from going near them. Xena's acute hearing picked up the faint sounds of roaring behind the doors and she figured that was where the beasts were kept.
She spotted another door not far from that one. The second door was very nondescript and almost hidden beneath stone steps. Two centurion guards kept a watchful eye on the crowd and let no one near that door, either. Xena suspected it was either the entrance for the gladiators or some kind of underground dungeon. The centurions who guarded that particular door had their swords drawn and resting against their chest armor. They were both quite intimidating and people tended to shy away from them.
Xena managed to find a small nook between two merchant stalls where she could covertly watch that door for a while. When one of the merchants actually tried to engage her in conversation, she glared at him and he backed off right away. He didn't approach her again.
The sun was just edging toward the highest rooftops of the city when Xena was finally rewarded for her efforts. A contingent of centurions plowed through the crowd and stopped in front of the door. Their ranks parted to reveal three men chained together with manacles on their wrists and ankles. The men were draped in tattered rags and their hair was long and unkempt. Two of the men wore rags on their feet. The third man's feet were bare and full of sores. All three men kept their heads down and their shoulders hunched.
One centurion issued orders to the two men guarding the door. They moved aside and someone else opened the door from the inside. That someone was another centurion who held the door while the prisoners where shoved inside. The door was shut again and the contingent of centurions marched forward through the crowd.
Xena glanced over her shoulder at the setting sun and gauged the candlemarks until the midnight hour. She then moved through the stalls and made a few purchases, using Roman denarii instead of Greek coins. She wanted to attract as little attention as possible as she continued on her way.
Caesar stood on the balcony of his apartment in the palace and stared out at the crowded city stretched out below him. His brow was furrowed in concern as his mind worked overtime on a number of issues. He was torn between making his announcement on the morrow at the games or waiting until after his meeting with the Senate that evening.
On the one hand he wanted all of Rome to embrace him as their new emperor. He knew an announcement at the height of the games would be ideal and would afford him an element of surprise. On the other hand, he knew most of the senators would be furious and would use what little power they had left to thwart his plans. Their constant scheming and infighting was tiresome and Caesar just wanted to stop them from destroying everything he had worked so hard to achieve. He had always walked on eggshells where the Senate was concerned. But that was getting harder and harder to do, especially now that Brutus was in Gaul and Pompeii was locked away in the deepest, darkest depths of the Colosseum.
With the collapse of the Triumvirate and the balance of power finally shifted in his favor, Caesar knew his destiny was finally at hand. He had managed to buy the loyalties of enough senators to secure the vote he needed to overturn senatorial control. The time for his announcement was at hand.
With his hands braced on the marble railing of the balcony, Caesar breathed deeply of the cool evening air and exhaled slowly. There was one last obstacle standing in the way of all that he was about to achieve.
"Xena," he hissed quietly.
Dark eyes scanned the merchant stalls and awnings that dotted the streets below. Torches were already coming to life and flickering energetically in the slight breeze. He could not tell one citizen from another as he scanned the masses that moved through the streets below. Even if she were to appear directly below the balcony on which he stood, he would not be able to see her or tell her apart from anyone else.
Besides, he knew Xena was not one to boldly stand out in a crowd. Especially not when his centurions were combing the city on the lookout for her. No. She would bide her time and wait for the right moment to strike. He knew it as assuredly as he knew she was out there somewhere. His spies had told him she was within the city. They just couldn't pinpoint her exact location.
He gripped the railing until his knuckles turned white. Xena was his Achilles heel. She was the one person who could actually throw all of his plans into a tailspin and send everything spiraling into chaos. He conjured up her face in his mind's eye. Those deep-blue eyes and that seductive smile framed by hair as black as midnight. She was beautiful and deadly at the same time. An asp who could strike at any moment and render a man completely powerless.
And she was somewhere in Rome.
He turned to find the head of his centurions standing across the room.
"Philipon," Caesar crossed the room and stopped in front of the man. "To what do I owe this honor?"
"Caesar," the man pounded a fist against his chest and bowed at the same time. "I bring news that you may find interesting."
"One of our spies has located a group of women staying at an inn just beyond the northern edge of the city," Philipon said. "The spy said these women were seen dressed in leather and wearing feathers in their hair earlier today."
"Amazons," Caesar turned away from the man. "And I'll just bet they traveled to Rome with a certain tall, dark-haired warrior woman who hails from Greece."
"I don't know, Caesar," Philipon added. "She was nowhere in sight of the Amazons. They seemed to be celebrating. At least that was what our spy thought at the time."
"And we know exactly where to find them?"
"Good," Caesar walked away a few paces, then stopped and turned. "I want them eliminated. They serve no purpose except to create problems. Take care of it. Tonight."
"Yes, Caesar," Philipon bowed and saluted againg, then turned on his heel and left.
"Interesting," Caesar tapped a finger against his chin thoughtfully. "Very interesting."
"And what would be so interesting, Caesar?"
The familiar voice had Caesar spinning around in an instant.
"Brutus?" He quickly composed his expression into a blant smile. "What are you doing back here in Rome?"
"I received word that there were some new developments that required my attention," Brutus evaded. "I thought it best to come back and see for myself what's been going on."
Brutus studied the man who was supposed to be one of his best friends. But Caesar had changed over the years. His ambitions and hunger for power had turned him into someone Brutus barely recognized. It didn't help that someone in the Senate suspected Caesar of vying for ultimate power as Emperor of Rome and all her protectorates.
"Are you really going to stand there and pretend that you have no idea what I'm talking about, Caesar?"
It was Caesar's turn to study Brutus. What he saw was a man who had nothing to hide. Brutus was honest and faithful to a fault, but he also had his weaknesses.
"Return to Gaul, Brutus," Caesar turned away from the man. "Go back and fight the good fight for Rome."
"Oh, you mean die the good death?" Brutus challenged. "I know you hired assassins to kill me, Caesar." Caesar remained perfectly still with his back to Brutus. "I also know you're about to have yourself crowned Emperor of Rome."
A dark brow shot up into Caesar's hairline as he slowly turned around. "Where do you get your information, Brutus?"
"I have my sources," Brutus replied. "It seems we all have secrets that we've been keeping from each other."
Caesar walked over to a table and poured to goblets of wine. He returned to Brutus and handed a goblet to him. Then he downed half the contents in his own.
Brutus just held his goblet between his hands and watched Caesar warily.
"So," Caesar winced slightly as the wine slid bitterly down his throat. "You think you know everything, do you, Brutus?"
"No," Brutus shook his head. "I know you have ambitions, Caesar. Becoming emperor would give you ultimate power to do just about anything, including abolish the Senate. So, deny it, Caesar. Tell me you're not vying for emperor." His temper flared. "Tell me to my face that all this is just a simple way for you to gain favor with the citizens of Rome."
A smirk tilted one corner of Caesar's mouth up. "Oh, Brutus…" he sighed and turned away. "We've been good friends for so long that I'm starting to think you don't trust me anymore."
"We were friends once, Caesar," Brutus confirmed. "But things change. People change."
Caesar glanced over his shoulder at the man who was once his friend and saw the wariness on Brutus' rugged features. "Do you really think so, my friend? Do you really believe people can change that much?"
"I do," Brutus nodded. "Power.Money.Greed. War. They change us and sometimes see can't see the change until it's too late. They harden us and turn us away from what's really important."
"And what's really important, Brutus? Love? Peace?"
"Life," Brutus shrugged.
"And what is life without ambition and the fulfillment of one's destiny?"
Brutus studied Caesar for a long moment. "The Senate won't stand behind you if you do this," he finally said. "You will no longer be welcome in the senate chambers. And the people stand behind them, Caesar. They are the elected officials of the citizenry. They are the ones the people chose to represent them."
"You and I both know that's not true," Caesar hissed. "The people don't choose anything. The elections are merely a formality that gives the citizens a false sense of involvement. Senators are chosen by their peers to represent a certain district, Brutus. Or did you forget that little detail?"
Brutus' expression hardened. "You're playing with fire, Caesar, and you're likely to get burned."
Caesar turned fully to face Brutus and studied him for a moment. "Why, Brutus, is that a threat?"
"No," Brutus shook his head once while meeting the steady dark gaze of his once friend. "It's a promise, Caesar."
With that said, Brutus turned on his heel and strode purposefully away, leaving Caesar to stare after him in mild bemusement. It was one thing to have Brutus question his motives and quite another to have the man toss out a bold threat. Caesar's brow furrowed deeply as he contemplated the implications of this latest development. There was something going on and Brutus was at the crux of it. He just had to find out exactly what it was.
It was silent, still and dark in the cell that she shared with Solon. A meager meal of watery stew had been shoved through an opening in the bottom of the cell door, candlemarks ago. She had eaten just enough of the rancid concoction to leave her with a sour stomach. Solon, on the other hand, didn't touch his. Matter of fact, he hadn't moved since he'd climbed up into that nook earlier. He was still there with his knees pulled tightly against his chest and his forehead resting on them.
Gabrielle didn't know what do to about him. So, she decided not to do anything. She just sat there on the low pallet and listened to the skitters and squeals of the rats that finally made an appearance. Solon's uneaten stew was quickly devoured in a frenzy of rodent eagerness. Gabrielle caught a brief glimpse of one and was amazed at how large it was.
Pulling her own knees up to her chest, she wrapped her arms around them and tried to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. It seemed to work. At least the rats didn't try to climb up onto the pallet with her. She wasn't sure what she would do if one actually tried, but the thought made her skin crawl. Rats. She hated rats.
"They'll leave you alone as long as you don't move around too much," Solon said quietly.
Gabrielle raised her head and looked at him. He still hadn't moved.
Silence reigned for several long moments.
"Why?" He finally said. "You didn't do anything."
"No, I didn't," Gabrielle said. "But we should have come for you sooner."
"She really does care about you," Gabrielle ventured, hoping beyond hope that her words didn't somehow instigate another bout of mewling or a full-blown temper tantrum. "When she learned you'd been taken, she wanted to come and get you. Things just…happened."
Silence filled the small cell again. Even the feverish rat frenzy had died down as they left in search of food elsewhere.
"Kaliapus said she killed my father," Solon said calmly. "Is that true?"
"No," Gabrielle answered honestly. "Your father died in a raid on the centaur village the night you were born. Xena said she was giving birth to you when the raid occurred."
"And you believe her?"
She hesitated for a moment. "Yes, I do. Xena would never lie to me about something like that."
"But she's lied to you about other stuff?"
"No," Gabrielle tried to come up with a way to explain how Xena was, at times. "She's not one to lie, unless she has a really good reason. And then it's only when she thinks she's protecting someone or sparing their feelings."
Solon was thoughtful for a moment. "My uncle does that sometimes. He thinks I'm still a kid and he needs to protect me from stuff."
"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed. "They mean well."
"It sucks," he said.
Gabrielle chuckled. "Yes, it does."
She watched him lift his head enough that his eyes peeked out from beneath the matted and unwashed hair in front of his face.
"I'm sorry-about earlier," he said even quieter. "I've just been through a lot."
"I understand, Solon," Gabrielle put as much empathy in her tone as she could. "I really do. I've been through a lot, myself."
"Yeah," Gabrielle let her head rest against the stone wall behind her. "Everyone in my family is gone."
"Did my mother kill them?" He asked expectantly.
"No," Gabrielle almost chuckled at the absurdity, until she remembered her sister. But she really didn't want to get into that particular detail. "They died long before Xena came to our village. My sister was the only one left and she was ill."
"Oh," he sounded crestfallen. "It musta been pretty hard to lose your whole family."
"It was," Gabrielle let the grief wash over her and pass. "But they're all in Elysia now. And I'm sure they're happier than they were here. Life was never easy in Potidaea. It was always a struggle to put food on the table. Even when times weren't so tough. My father wasn't always nice to my sister and me. He was a hard man."
They were both quiet for a moment.
"Did he beat you?"
"Sometimes," Gabrielle answered honestly. "Sometimes I actually deserved it."
"No one deserves to be beaten," Solon said. "My uncle never beat me, even when I was really bad and deserved it. He said he loved me too much to do that. But that didn't mean he didn't find other ways to punish me. I did a lot of dishes and cleaned the house a lot."
"He sounds like a wonderful father."
"So," Gabrielle studied him for a moment. "Do you think your mother made the right choice by sending you off to live with your uncle?"
Dead silence stretched between them for several heartbeats, as Solon just sat there. The silence went on for so long that Gabrielle was sure he wasn't going to answer her question.
"Maybe," he finally said.
"Xena isn't the monster you think she is, Solon," Gabrielle added. "I won't say that she doesn't have her moments, but those are usually reserved for her enemies and those who double-cross her. She has quite a few enemies, including Julius Caesar here in Rome. Maybe you should give her a break and consider that she gave you up because she didn't want you to suffer for all the things she's done. She did it to protect you," she paused to consider her next words carefully. "No matter what you think or what you've been told, Xena really does love you, Solon."
"And why should I believe you?" His tone wasn't as defiant or angry as before.
"Because we're going to die soon," Gabrielle answered bluntly. "I don't have any reason to lie to you, now, do I? I love Xena. She's my soul-mate, my partner for life. And now you're just as much a part of my family as she is. I don't want to see you go into that arena still hating her for something she did because she loved you enough to see that you were raised in a loving home, surrounded by people who care about you."
"If she loved me as much as you say," Solon added, "why isn't she here to rescue me and take me home to my uncle?"
Gabrielle thought about that for a moment and a spark of hope filled her. "Maybe she is. Maybe she's just waiting for the right moment to rescue us both."
He sat up and pushed the hair back from his face enough that she could see his eyes. "You really think she's here?"
"I do," Gabrielle felt a warmth wash over her as she affirmed it. "She's here."
Xenawas there. Gabrielle knew it as assuredly as she knew the sun would rise again to usher in a new day. She felt it with all her being and the love that flowed through her in that moment was like a physical hug from her mate. She closed her eyes and imagined how Xena was right there with her. And then she heard the words in her head as clear as day. I will never leave you.
No truer words were spoken. Gabrielle just had to hang on for a little while longer.
Ephiny would never know exactly what it was that jerked her out of a dreamless sleep in Eponin's arms. All she knew was something was very very wrong. Then she heard a sound above her head that jerked her upright and had her reaching for her sword.
"Eponin!" She hissed. "We're under attack!"
Ephiny was out the door like a shot and could only hope Eponin was right on her tail. She was greeted by a sight that made her blood run cold. The innkeeper was on the floor in a pool of his own blood. His eyes were open wide in death and his pale blue tunic was soaked in blood.
"The stairs!"Eponin's warning shout was followed by the slamming of a door against wood in the kitchen.
Then the entire downstairs erupted in chaos as Roman centurions poured through the kitchen door.
"Gods be damned!" Ephiny exclaimed as she was rushed by three centurions.
"Ain't a-kiddin'!"Eponin charged into the fray.
More centurions clambered in from the kitchen and a few got past the two Amazons and headed for the stairs to the rooms above. They ignored the sounds of swords clashing above them and concentrated on the Romans trying to kill them.
Eponin went into full-blown battle mode and took down the two centurions closest to her with several swipes of her sword. She then rounded on the one fighting Ephiny. They were both able to take him down at once. But more centurions poured in.
"Gotta…" Eponin glanced at the kitchen.
"Yeah," Ephiny caught Eponin's glance. "Can you…?"
"Tryin'," said the weapons master, as she took down yet another centurion and moved closer to the door to the kitchen.
They were sorely outnumbered, but that didn't stop them. A few more centurions trickled in and were met with resistance. One even fell from the balcony above and landed on one of the tables, splintering it into a thousand pieces that flew everywhere. Ephiny took a splinter to the arm. Without missing a beat, she yanked it out and just kept on fighting.
In the meantime, the centurions had taken the women sleeping in the rooms upstairs completely by surprise. Amazons scrambled for their weapons, or any weapon at hand for that matter, as they found themselves bombarded with Roman centurions. Rayna and Margalene were the first to respond to the threat and were fighting for their lives in the narrow hallway. Three centurions were vying for a chance to plow through the two Amazons, as their comrades cheered them on from behind. The hallway was only wide enough for two of the men to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. But that didn't stop the third from thrusting his sword through any opening that presented itself.
Briesse managed to don her leathers, grab her sword and dagger, and stumble out into the hallway just in time to see Rayna go now from a blow to the head. The scout didn't hesitate. She merely flew at two centurions as they vaulted over Rayna's still form. They were a bit surprised to be met with resistance so quickly.
Zea, who wasn't as quick to get dressed as her new wife, was almost bowled over in the doorway by Briesse and one of the centurions. The man launched himself at Briesse when she was engaged with his comrade and they nearly tumbled into the room Briesse and Zea shared.
"Get back!" Briesse managed to shout, as she blocked an overhead strike with her dagger and thrust her sword into the centurion's midsection. The blade slipped past his armor with a sickening sound, as he sank to his knees at her feet. "You okay, darlin'?"
"Yeah," Zea stared at the slumping centurion wide-eyed.
"Here," Briesse shoved her dagger into Zea's hands. "Finish him off while I take care of the other one."
Briesse was back out the door before Zea could protest. She looked from the dagger in her hands to the man still slumped before her. Then he lifted his head and looked her in the eye.
"Amazon bitch," he muttered, as blood trickled down his chin and spilled onto his shiny gold armor.
Zea grabbed his hair and lifted his chin up higher so she could set the sharp blade against his throat.
"Any last words, Roman?"
"Die, bitch," he said with a smirk.
She didn't hesitate. The blade sliced across his throat with one quick jerk and he fell forward onto the floor at her feet.
"I hate being called a bitch," Zea said, as she wiped the blade off on his red tunic. "Just thought you might wanna know that, asshole."
As she stepped to the doorway again, the chaos out in the hallway was quickly multiplying. More Amazons were clashing with even more centurions. She looked for a taller blonde head in the crowd, but couldn't see much. So, instead of waiting for Briesse to come to her, Zea decided to find Briesse and be of some use.
Standing half a head shorter than most of her sisters and nearly all the centurions gave Zea a distinct advantage. Staying close to one wall, she managed to duck low enough to scoot by most of those fighting in the narrow hallway. She only had to use the dagger in her hand a few times when a blade came too close or someone was shoved into her.
When she finally reached the balcony and the stairway leading down to the tavern, Zea nearly stopped in her tracks at the sight that greeted her. Briesse and two centurions were locked in mortal combat. One centurion would thrust his blade at Briesse while the other swung at her exposed midsection.
Then the unthinkable happened. Briesse took her eyes off the two Romans for one heartbeat and looked right at Zea. It was the opening the second centurion had been waiting for. He brought his blade up and lashed out at the same time. Briesse jumped back from the attack, but not fast enough. The tip of the blade slashed an ugly gash from her jawline all the way up to her hairline and across one eye.
Zea gasped in shock and was suddenly propelled into action. Without thinking, she jumped onto the back of the first centurion and drove the dagger in her hand down where his shoulder met his neck. Blood spurted from the wound and covered her as he went to his knees with her still on his back.
Zea's surprise attack distracted the second centurion enough for Briesse to slash his arm and send his sword flying. Zea jumped off the first centurion and went for the second one's sword, but he was right on top of her and pulled a dagger from his belt. He was just about to drive the dagger between Zea's shoulder blades, when Briesse charged up behind him, swung with all her might and took his head off at the shoulders.
"Die, Roman scum!" Briesse lifted the body up and over the railing of the balcony and let go. She then slid down onto her butt with her back against the railing as a loud crash sounded below.
"Baby," Zea was right there next to Briesse in the next instant. She ripped a strip of leather from her leather skirt and tried to staunch the flow of blood. "Dammit, Briesse, what in hades made you do that?"
"What?" Briesse looked up at her with one good eye.
"Why did you have to take your eyes off them when you did?"
"Saw you comin'," Briesse answered a bit groggily as the blood flowing down her face took the wind out of her sails. "Di'nt want you gettin' hurt, darlin'. 'sides, it's jus' a scratch."
"It is not just a scratch, woman," Zea chided firmly. "You could lose your damned eye." Tears sprang to her own eyes as she continued trying to slow the flow of blood from the long gash. "Gods, your face."
"Don't even hurt…much," Briesse was grateful to have Zea there with her. "It bleedin' much?"
"You're bleeding like a damned sieve," Zea grabbed Briesse's hand and pushed it against the leather strip. "Here, hold this. I'm gonna go find something to put on this and stop the bleeding."
Zea didn't wait for an answer. She merely grabbed Briesse sword in one hand and raced downstairs with the dagger still held tightly in her other hand. The look of determination on her face should have been enough to scare anyone caught in her path. Unfortunately, centurions weren't so easily detered. When she was halfway down the stairs, she was met by more centurions who were scrambling up towards her.
With a battle cry that could rival Xena's, Zea launched herself into the lead centurion and knocked him completely off-balance. He lost his footing and fell back into the centurion behind him. That set off a domino effect on the others trying to scramble out of the way. The scrape of metal on wood was loud as the centurions went down in a heap and ended up piled on top of each other at the bottom of the stairs.
That's where Ephiny and Eponin jumped in. The bewildered centurions were easy pickings and quickly fell victim to Amazon steel.
Zea thrust her blade into the necks of those closest to her and soon the entire group of centurions were dead. But Zea also had a mission to complete. Quickly clamboring over the dead bodies, Zea went to the kitchen without a word or glance for the two Amazons who were standing there in stunned silence.
"Did you just see…"
"The horse wrangler?"Ephiny finished for her partner. "Yeah, I think so."
"Did she just…"
"Yeah," Ephiny watched as Zea came back out of the kitchen with several dry cloths in one hand. "Zea."
"No time, my queen," Zea didn't even bother looking back at the two dumbfounded woman as she took the stairs at a dead run. "We have another problem!"
Zea reached Briesse and knelt by her side. Briesse was unconscious and her hand had fallen away from the wound, exposing the ugly, gaping gash. It was still oozing blood in places. Zea didn't take time to examine the wound or even clean it properly. She merely pressed one of the cloths firmly against it with one hand and used the other to wrap a much longer cloth around Briesse's head several times. She wrapped it in such a way that the cloth went under her chin as well as around her head. As she finally tied off the ends, Zea hoped it was enough until they could get somewhere safe and someone could stitch the wound shut.
Briesse stirred slightly and her good eye fluttered open. "Hey."
"Hey," Zea replied with a sad smile.
"Why's my head hurt?"
"You took a blade to your face," Zea gingerly touched her handywork. "I had to bandage you up real good, sweetie."
"Eye?"Briesse reached up and touched the cloths covering her face. "'s bad?"
"I don't know," Zea shook her head and took Briesse's hand in hers.
Zea glanced around at the dead and injured who littered the hallway. She could see a lot of dead Romans, but she didn't see any of her sisters among them.
"I don't know," she answered honestly. "I was a little preoccupied to do a head count. Queen Eph and Eponin seem to have escaped the worst of it. They're downstairs." Then she hesitated as a thought occurred to her. She then shot to her feet and leaned over the railing of the balcony. "My queen!"
"Remember that other problem I forgot to tell you about?"
"We already smell it, Zea," Ephiny shouted back. "We need to get everyone outta here. Unfortunately, you'll all have to climb over that pile of bodies you left on the landing."
Zea was a little surprised to find herself surrounded by her Amazon sisters just then. She actually did a head count and realized they were all still alive.
"I already checked the kitchen," Zea called back down. "We can't get out through the back. There are centurions swarming all around out there."
"And a bunch just waitin' for us out front!"Eponin called from the tavern. "Lousy, stinkin' Romans are trying to smoke us out!"
"Wha'sgoin' on?" Briesse tugged on Zea's skirt.
"I smell it now," Margalene looked worried. "No wonder no more of 'em came charging in here. They're gonna burn us alive or force us to go to them."
"I didn't come all this way to rescue our queen, just to die in this lousy place," Antonine said. "Isn't there another way out?"
"You got any suggestions, Antonine, let's hear 'em," Ephiny stood below with her hands on her hips. "By the way, we don't have much time." She pointed to the ceiling where smoke was already filling the rafters. "Better think of something quick."
"What about that window over there?" Brynn pointed to a small window where the roof peaked.
"Are you nuts?" Chalidriss chimed in. "How'dya expect to get over there? Fly?"
Zea looked at the beam over their heads. "No, she's right. We can use that beam up there to get over to that other cross beam. Then one of us can break the window and we can climb out onto the roof. It's not much different than navigating the trees back home and we're all pretty good at that."
"What about her?" Talia pointed to Briesse. "I don't think poor Briesse is gonna make it across the beam. Not in the shape she's in."
"We'll get her there," Eponin was suddenly in their midst, as was Ephiny. "Why don't you four get your feathered butts up there and see if this cockamamie plan of yours will work."
Antonine, Talia, Chalidriss and Brynn all nodded at once. Then they gave each other boosts up into the rafters above. Brynn reached a hand down to Zea.
"You comin', Zea?"Brynn asked. "You'll probably fit through that window with no problem."
Zea glanced down at Briesse and then up at the hand dangling just above her head.
"Go," Briesse noticed her partner's hesitation. "We'll be right behind ya."
Zea bent down and placed a kiss on the blood-soaked makeshift bandages wrapped around Briesse's head. Then she reached up and grabbed Brynn's hand. She was unceremoniously hauled up onto the beam, where she realized very quickly that she was probably in over her head.
"You guys know I wrangle horses for a living, right?" She glanced at the others with her. "I've never really been trained to do the tree thing like the rest of you."
"It's okay, Zea," Talia smiled encouragingly. "Just think of it as balancing on a horse's back. Except that this particular horse won't be moving underneath you."
Zea thought about that for a moment, then nodded. "Okay. I just hope you guys don't regret having me up here with you."
"Never," Chalidriss patted Zea's shoulder. "You're just as much a sister as any of us, wrangler. Even if we're not all touchy-feely about showin' it sometimes."
"Yeah," came the collective agreement from the other three.
"You guys done bein' all touchy-feely up there? Or do I gotta come up and kick some butts?" Eponin's words made them all chuckle. "Amazons." The weapons master rolled her eyes and shook her head. "You'd think we weren't in mortal danger, here."
Briesse chuckled. "Please don't make me laugh, Pon. My head hurts too much for that."
Ephiny knelt next to Briesse. "She did a really good job with this bandage," she fingered the cloth. "Maybe Zea has a knack for the healing arts, as well as being good with horses."
"She did good," Briesse tried not to move her head too much. "How's she doin' up there?"
"They're almost to the window," Eponin said on a cough. "Good thing, too. It's gettin' smokyier in here. Won't be long before…"
They heard several loud crashes downstairs and suddenly there were flames below them.
"Guess they got tired of waiting for the smoke to get us," Ephiny commented. "They just tossed torches through the windows downstairs."
"We gotta get outta here, now!" Eponin watched as flames quickly consumed the tables below and moved across the floor to the banister.
She reached down and wrapped one of Briesse's arms around her shoulders. Ephiny did the same.
"How do you propose…"Ephiny glanced up at the rafters above and found two eager Amazons with their arms extended.
"Raise your arms, Briesse," Eponin ordered. "Chalidris and Antonine will pull you up."
It took a bit of effort, but they eventually managed to haul Briesse up onto the lower beam above their heads. Ephiny and Eponin were then hauled up in quick succession. They all moved slowly along the beam until they reached the cross beam. The smoke was ever thicker way up there and it wasn't long before they were all inhaling it and coughing.
"You…guys shoulda just…left me down…there," Briesse cringed in agony with each cough.
"Not a chance, scout," Eponin countered. "We don't leave our sisters behind and you know it."
They reached the window a few moments later. It was already broken and a fresh breeze was sucking the smoke out the hole.
"We tried our best to clear the glass away," Brynn said. "But you'll still need to be careful. The others are already on the roof, waiting to pull you to safety. Zea sliced her leg when she climbed out onto the overhang. She didn't know there was still a pretty sharp piece of glass there. We knocked it out, though."
Ephiny managed to squeeze through the rather small opening and was grateful to have some fresh air hit her in the face. Then hands grabbed her arms and pulled her free of the window. She almost fought against them, but realized soon enough that it was only the others helping out.
As soon as she was standing on the overhand with the others, she looked around. Flames were already licking the dark sky where the rooms were in the back of the inn. She could also hear shouts from below that told her the centurions were anxious to have the Amazons bolt outside into the trap they'd set. They had no idea the Amazons were thwarting their plans at that very moment.
Briesse was the next one to be hauled out the small opening. She was in pretty bad shape and it took four of them to actually hold onto her as she squeezed through the window. Once she was free, Zea held her close as they waited for Eponin to make an appearance.
They waited for several tense heartbeats. Eponin was nowhere in sight. Several more tense moments passed with still no sign of her.
"I'm going back in," Ephiny scrambled toward the window, pushing the others out of her way.
"No, my queen, let me go," Talia volunteered.
And then a head poked out of the opening and Eponin coughed out a lungful of smoke.
"Gods be damned!" She grumbled, as she hauled herself up into the narrow opening and squeezed through. "Idiots decided not to wait," she said as she slid down the wall and landed on her feet. "There's no accounting for stupidity when it comes to Romans."
"What are you talking about?" Ephiny wrapped a protective arm around Eponin's waist and pulled her close.
"The idiots burst through the doors right when you guys pulled Briesse free," Eponin coughed again. "A bunch of 'em just stood there lookin' around in bewilderment, like they were tryin' to figure out where we went. I had to duck down so they didn't see me and so I didn't give us all away."
"And?"Antonine voiced what the rest were thinking. "What happened next?"
"Didn't you hear that loud boom?" Eponin looked around at all the smudged faces. "Seriously?"
"We didn't hear anything out here, Pon," Ephiny said. "What happened?"
"The roof collapsed on 'em," Eponin chuckled. "It was a damned miracle, if I ever seen one. Whole thing just…whoosh!" She brought her hands up and mimed the collapse for them. "Whole place is gonna be just a pile of ashes before long."
"Let's go, then," Ephiny kept a firm grip on her wife's waist. "You scared the crap out of me, Eponin."
"I scared the crap outta me," Eponin gave Ephiny a quick kiss on the lips. "I'm just glad they were a little distracted back there. Gave me time to squeeze myself outta that little hole." She glanced up at the window that had flames flickering out of it. "I still don't know how I managed it. Did you see the size of that thing?"
Ephiny patted Eponin's stomach. "We'll have time to figure that out when we're far away from here, love."
"Yeah," Eponin couldn't help making one last glance over her shoulder before they hopped down from the overhang and joined the others.
Briesse was being supported by Zea on one side and Talia on the other, while the rest of the Amazons led the way cautiously up the deserted alley they had landed in. Ephiny and Eponin brought up the rear and were just find with letting the younger Amazons take the lead.
They crossed over several deserted streets and snaked their way through several more deserted alleys, until they finally reached a place where they could rest for a moment. They found a small marble fountain and drank eagerly from it to clear some of the smoke from their throats.
"Now, where to, my queen?"Rayna asked expectantly. "They're bound to have patrols out searching for us."
"Yeah," Eponin agreed. "We gotta find someplace to hole up in for the rest of the night. Can't keep prowlin' around these streets without runnin' into someone."
Ephiny surveyed their surroundings. She was not familiar enough with the streets of Rome to have an inkling of where they were. All she knew was the Colosseum was ahead of them and the Pantheon was on the hill to their right. She carefully considered their limited options.
"Why don't we find a stables," Zea suggested. "There's got to be a few of them around here that aren't being watched by the centurions and at least one that we can hide in until morning."
"Rayna?Margalene? You two head that way and see what you can find," Ephiny pointed away from the way they'd come. "Talia?Chalidriss?Brynn? You three go scout around near the Pantheon and see what you can find. Meet back here in a quarter candlemark. If we're not here, head to the north side of the Colosseum and wait for us there. May the goddess be with you."
"Yes, my queen," they all said in unison, as they dispersed.
"And the rest of us?"Breisse piped in groggily from her resting place between Zea's legs.
"We wait here," Ephiny sat down on the edge of the fountain. "I just hope no one gets caught and dragged away…or worse."
"They'll be fine," Eponin said. "I taught 'em all well."
"Yes, you did," Antonine stepped away from the group and stood guard in the shadows where someone was likely to pass by.
"I'm a little scared," Zea admitted in a quiet whisper in Briesse's ear.
Briesse chuckled. "Of what, darlin'? You just went berserker on a bunch of Roman centurions trained to fight. I'd put my dinars on you with a dagger or sword, any day."
Zea looked down at the blood on her shaking hands. "I killed them."
Briesse noticed how much the body behind her was suddenly shaking. She took Zea's arms and wrapped them tightly around her.
"Calm down, darlin'," Briesse soothed. "You're okay."
"I can't believe I killed people," Zea said quietly. "I've never killed another living soul. But tonight…" She swallowed the lump in her throat. "I killed…"
"You did what you had to do, darlin' Zea," Briesse rubbed the bare arms riddled with goose bumps. "And I'm damned proud of my beautiful wife for watching my back. You saved my life, sweetheart. I couldn't love you more than I do right now."
Zea buried her face in what little hair peeked out from beneath Briesse's head. "I'm so glad I have you here with me, sweetness. I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Even if I only have one eye and can no longer be a scout?" Briesse said with a hint of sorrow in her tone. "That dagger got me pretty good."
"You're alive and you'll heal. That's all that matters to me right now, my love."
"Wait," Briesse turned slightly so she could see Zea out of the corner of her good idea. "Did you just call me sweetness?"
"Yeah, I guess I did," Zea couldn't help but grin. "Why? Don't you like it?"
Briesse turned back around and shrugged. "No one's ever called me anything like that before."
"Well, it fits you," Zea rested her chin on Briesse's shoulder. "You are very sweet, after all."
Briesse's one visible brow shot up. "I am?"
It was Zea's turn to chuckle. "Oh, absolutely. I could drink from your nectar for hours and never be completely satisfied."
Briesse blushed to her roots and settled back against her human pillow with an aggrieved sigh.
"You will definitely be the death of me, woman," she growled and felt the body shake with laughter behind her.