3/28/14 - A/N: Long time no see? Yeah, it's been like years since I looked at this fic, and I decided recently that I'm gonna finish it. So here is a revised first chapter, and I'm working on the second chapter now. For reals, I'm like several paragraphs in. :) Enjoy!
1. The Material Cause
"Hear me spit on you, wither I,
Remold into gold and bury
I from the sun."
Get Bored - Deftones
The winding hallways flickered with dim light and shadow from the torches, hardly enough illumination for the small group led by Gabrielle's uncle. A servant followed at her heels with the hem of her elaborate dress held high above the floor, and four praetorian guards took up the rear. In front of Gabrielle, her uncle's broad shoulders offered a comforting silhouette against the shadows that lurked along the musty inner walls. Four praetorian guards took up the rear, their red helmets and armor shining like jewels. Normally, her uncle wasn't keen on such heavy protection. Gabrielle vividly remembered his words on the matter.
"I don't travel with guards. I have no reason to protect myself from my own people," He'd said with a patient smile, "but Caesar is a different story. Even if one is invited to dine with a garden snake, one is still dining with a snake."
It all had to do with the new age, his self-proclaimed 'Reign of Love' that centered around a close relationship between a ruler and his people. It was based on theory, but one he really and truly believed in. Ever since he had made a name for himself by ending the terrible Conquerer's reign he had climbed a political ladder to the top with ease. He often told her that a nation ruled by fear or indifference would not fight to the death for their leader, or more importantly, for their way of life. His unique and somewhat naive ideals had so far successfully pulled the world out of a collective depression, and not a single revolt rose against him.
Once the Conqueror had been uprooted, the people waited with baited breath, wondering if Caesar and Cassius were to rule side by side or if another war was on the horizon. Gabrielle had known from the start that both outcomes were unlikely. Her uncle refused to kill the Conqueror on principal; there was no more need for bloodshed after the defeat, and with eager paws Caesar had snatched up the dark warrior and thrown her into the bonds slavery. That was the last anyone had heard of her, and rumors were rife with what had become of the evil Conqueror. Some speculated she had escaped long ago and gone to aimlessly wander the Badlands. Politics had ground to a halt. It unnerved Gabrielle that she would probably be dragged into a great deal of it if her uncle had his way.
This was cause for great alarm to Caesar.
Although Julius Caesar ruled Rome, her Uncle Cassius reigned over the remainder of the Known World from east to west, north to south, all the way to the unpredictable and uninhabited Badlands. They were two great leaders with two very different philosophies. Legally her uncle was a citizen of the Roman Empire, although their family was pureblooded Greek, but he had not made the slightest move against Caesar or given any indication at all that he wanted Rome. Still, Caesar always kept a close eye on her uncle in the way of messengers, spies, and just recently a personal invitation. Shortly after her uncle had defeated the Conqueror, Caesar had invited him to spend a month in Rome's capital to take part in celebration and the many luxuries the empire had to offer. Politely, her uncle had accepted, though he had delayed the trip for as long as he could. But he could avoid Caesar's advances for only so long and so there they were, two leaders standing eye to eye above the Known World, watching each other with paranoid speculation, awaiting the other's move. Both heeded the old adage - keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
Snapping out of her thoughts, Gabrielle realized with the increasing light that they had nearly reached the end of the damp hallway. Anticipation and anxiousness welled up inside of her as they approached the wide opening bathed in blinding sunlight. A sudden uproar greeted them as the group emerged from the darkness of the hallway. She squinted against the light and wind-swept dirt, a stubborn lock of blonde fringe splitting her field of vision.
The Amphitheatrum Flavium was truly a sight to behold. Gargantuan and filled to the brim with spectators, Gabrielle found the whole experience slightly dizzying despite having dealt with crowds before. While the arena was empty at the moment, she could tell by the cheering and chanting of the crowd that it wouldn't remain so.
Caesar himself was standing right by the edge of the grand stone balcony, a smug simper aimed squarely at Cassius. His own guards flanked the magnificent throne before which he stood, silent and still but alert. To the right of Caesar's throne was a wooden table littered with bottles of fine wine and a small buffet of the most delectable hor dourves Gabrielle had ever seen.
At a tilt of Caesar's strong chin, a servant filled a silver chalice with one of the fine wines and handed it to the emperor. Gabrielle marveled at the presence he had. He was a man of average build, his features bordering the line between mediocre and unattractive, and his past was altogether unremarkable. Yet, the facial expressions, the confidence, the sure smiles, and the knowing glances were what she found appealing. His aura carried strength and magnitude of a sort that Gabrielle reasoned could only have come from a natural born leader.
And a natural born fiend, she thought to herself, eying him with guarded distaste.
"Cassius," Caesar greeted neutrally as he swirled the wine in his chalice, "Welcome to my home. I pray your journey here was a pleasant one?"
Gabrielle's uncle offered a cool smile. "Always a pleasure, my lord." He stepped over to the balcony's edge to stand alongside Caesar as if they were long friends, but Gabrielle could feel the tension crackling between the two men. Cassius leaned over the balustrade on his elbows, then half-turned so that he could offer Gabrielle a wide, handsome grin, one that she didn't hesitate to return. Her uncle had the most infectious smile she had ever seen; dimples curved around the edges of his mouth, and those smiles always reached his stormy eyes. Gabrielle remembered him looking much the same in her childhood, save for the charming crow's feet and several dots of grey on his stubbly chin.
"I see you brought company," Caesar stated, finally taking notice of the young blonde.
"Ah yes, forgive my rudeness." Cassius stood upright gestured to his niece. "This is my dear sister Thera's daughter, Gabrielle of Britannia. I sent word that she would be accompanying me."
Caesar's appraisal was stoic and unreadable, but he offered her a polite nod with a pleasant, if empty, smile. "I have heard that you've chosen her to be your heir. Is this true, Cassius?"
Her uncle seemed to be avoiding her with his eyes, and Gabrielle was beginning to feel more like an inanimate object with the way Caesar wouldn't acknowledge her directly. Offended, the blonde fought back the sudden rise of anger in her gut and reminded herself that name-calling was unbefitting of a young lady.
"True it is," Cassius confirmed. "You're looking at the future leader of the Known World."
Gabrielle's eyebrows shot skyward and she snapped her head towards her uncle so fast she feared her neck might break. Leader of the Known World? His words flashed through her mind at lightning speed but their meaning never changed, and Gabrielle was immediately filled with panic. All of the Known World? Including...
Her heart thundered against her ribcage. Including Rome.
"Oh?" The flippant response, accompanied by Caesar's stony-eyed gaze, caused Gabrielle's stomach to knot up with dread. She met his eyes evenly for a moment, her own wide as saucers, silently praying that she didn't look as weak as she suddenly felt. She hated the feel of his slimy, calculating gaze, but how could she possibly back down after her uncle's bold statement? She'd known she stood to inherit her uncle's title, prestige and belongings, and one day she knew some armored warrior would come along and marry her and rule the Known World in her stead as her husband. But now...
Now it's just me and my uncle, she thought grimly, and he wants to fight for Rome.
"I see." Caesar concluded darkly, his hard stare never leaving Gabrielle.
When the silence between them skirted the lines of awkward, Cassius gently cleared his throat. "You shouldn't keep your people waiting," he said, gesturing with his hand to the still roaring crowd.
A cruel, twisted smile tugged at the corners of Caesar's lips, one of devilish pleasure that gave Gabrielle the shivers. His eyes danced with private delight when he noticed her discomfort. "No," he said slowly, "I shouldn't. I have a... special presentation for you today. In honor of the lady's birthday." He added the last part almost offhandedly, as if Gabrielle was really just an excuse to show off an expensive new toy.
She cocked an eyebrow, wondering exactly what he was planning on 'giving' her. Her eighteenth year had passed just a week before with a two-day long, grand celebration in her name. The streets had filled with parades, and she was presented with hundreds of gifts from the people as well as family. She felt truly and rightfully spoiled, so what more would Caesar have to offer? More importantly, what was he planning? His 'gift' had to be something beyond mere trinkets. Whatever it was, she knew it had to do with him somehow wanting to gain the upper hand on Cassius. Or on her.
"Splendid!" Her uncle blurted, coming up beside Gabrielle to give her a good clap on the shoulder. She winced at the blow and cast him a sidelong glance. "Let the show begin!"
Caesar stared at him for a few, long seconds, then turned to face the balcony in silence, where all of the eyes of the crowd were on him, cheering, shouting, begging him to give the signal. When he held his arms outward in a show for silence, it took the masses mere seconds to quiet down in the face of their leader. Gabrielle felt herself begrudgingly drawn to him as much as the crowd, a fact proved true by the way she leaned toward the cruel man. A touch on her arm broke the mesmerizing attraction. She turned her head to see Cassius looking down at her seriously for the first time that day. They locked eyes, and he gestured with his head toward the less elaborate chairs next to Caesar's throne. Nodding obediently, Gabrielle moved over to a chair and sat down as quietly as possible, not wanting to penetrate the eerie silence. The servant who had been holding her dress (now she remembered, her name was Pax) draped the long silken material over one arm of the chair, out of Gabrielle's way. After making sure the cloth was draped in a way that was both elegant and wrinkle-free, Pax lowered herself to the floor next to her mistress. Cassius joined her in the remaining cheer, his eyes unfailingly on Caesar.
"Citizens of Rome! Today is a day for vengeance!" Caesar boomed, his voice a terrifying echo in the amphitheater. The crowd grew deathly still as they listened with anticipation, everyone literally on the edge of their seats. "We have all suffered losses. Our sons and daughters, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters. But no one event in the history of the Known World has taken as many lives as a single, terrible person. One we all know very well!" The silence continued, stretched, warped the charged atmosphere, and despite herself Gabrielle couldn't deny her own curiosity.
"I present to you all, for your enjoyment, and in honor of the long and prosperous reign of our Cassius the Liberator -" Gabrielle visibly twitched at the underhanded mockery of his words, but any ire she felt immediately turned to shock when Caesar finished with a final sweep of his arm, "Xena, the Conqueror!"
The resulting applause was deafening. In the arena, a metal grate on one side began a slow ascension, and though the crowd drowned out everything but their own dull roar, Gabrielle imagined the grate making eerie, scraping metallic sounds as it was pulled open. She was torn between covering her ears to the booming crowd and half throwing herself over the balustrade to see what would happen next. Cassius remained silent and unmoving next to her, but she could still feel a sense of protection in his presence that calmed her nerves, if only a fraction.
The gate halted its highest point. At first nothing happened, but then small figures began to emerge. Men, Gabrielle realized with apprehension, slaves. But the slaves' hands were not empty. Over their shoulders were thick ropes attached to a wooden trolley, which was slowly easing out of the darkness behind the grate. As more of the trolley came to view, Gabrielle realized there was a large, doorway-like frame built on top of it, and tied to the trolley's frame was a thrashing figure. The figure's wrists were bound to the frame's top beam and ankles to the bottom. Long, raven hair whipped about the writhing head like black fire, and the occasional white flash of teeth suggested that the figure was either screaming or shouting obscenities.
Gabrielle had only ever seen paintings of or read descriptions of the Conqueror and had never seen the woman in person, and even though she was clad in nothing more than a ruddy peasant's shift, there was no mistaking who Caesar's unlucky prisoner was.
The slaves hauled the trolley with the thrashing Conqueror to the center of the arena, then promptly dropped the ropes and ran for the still open grate like hell was on their heels. Seconds later, a group of rugged warriors spilled out into the arena from the same gate, each and every one of them armed. Though they were all shirtless they bore shields of varying sizes, designs, and origins. Their bulging muscles from years of practice were clearly visible even from Gabrielle's vantage point, and for a brief second, she felt her breath catch. Gladiators, she realized, and an awe-inspired chilled snaked its way down her body. The many legends and stories she had heard and read about them hadn't been exaggerated, and the young heiress felt a brief spike of sympathy for the crazed woman.
Caesar allowed the fullness of that twisted smile to spread as he lowered himself onto the throne and folded his hands over his knees. Gabrielle watched him out of the corner of her eye with a grudging respect, knowing full well that any number of people deserved to see the Conqueror suffer, even Caesar. Especially Caesar, she reminded herself, she was after him from the very beginning, before he was even Caesar. She might even be responsible for making him this way. She shifted uneasily in her chair. The thought didn't make her any more comfortable with the situation.
The gladiators, numbering ten strong men, slowly made their way towards the trolley and their quarry, weapons drawn. The closer they edged, the more Xena thrashed against her bonds, and the more nervous Gabrielle became. She cast an unsure glance at Cassius, wondering if he looked about as nervous as she, but his expression had not changed.
Leaning forward to address him, she whispered, "Are they going to untie her? Surely they won't slaughter her like... like cattle." The edge in her voice betrayed that she didn't sound very sure at all.
Her uncle clenched his jaw but didn't look at her. A moment later, he mumbled, "She is the Conqueror. She hasn't exactly earned the right to a fair fight."
Gabrielle was taken aback by her uncle's reaction and it showed as she openly gaped at him, shocked by his answer. "Uncle, this isn't a fight. This is an execution," she breathed harshly toward his ear, knowing he was listening.
The corner of Cassius's mouth twitched into a small smile, and he reached over to place a reassuring hand on top of hers. "And that is why you are my heir," he murmured affectionately, "but here I have no say in the matter. It is Caesar's decision, and it is more than she deserves." He withdrew his hand with finality and turned his attention back to the arena, effectively ending the conversation.
No one deserves this, she thought bitterly, her eyes glued to the tiny figures who surrounded the trolley like angry ants surround an intruder. She had read every story from countless scrolls and had seen firsthand the lives ruined by the dark warrior. Cassius had shared his own personal stories of dealing with her ruthlessness and the carnage left in her wake. Over the past five years of living with him, Gabrielle had been taught hourly that this Xena was a harbinger of death and destruction; evil in its truest form. Yet, despite having the knowledge practically beat into her, she found it hard to believe anyone deserved slaughter for the entertainment of others.
Gabrielle was ripped from her thoughts by the crowd's collective gasp as a couple of the gladiators scrambled several feet back from the trolley, hesitant to get any closer to the bound woman. An excited murmur soon turned into nervous chatter as the moment stretched on. What could they possibly be waiting for? Xena had been served to them on a silver platter, but somehow they seemed... uncertain? Disconcerted, even? The gladiators readied their weapons and took several paces back, and Gabrielle could see more clearly the source of their apprehension. A small, pale stick seemed to have somehow attached itself to Xena and was waving around angrily. No, not a stick, Gabrielle thought with dawning realization, her arm!
The crowd seemed to notice Xena had pulled one of her arms free, and they exploded in a roar of shouts of encouragement. Many were egging her on, others were taunting her, and still more shouted simply for the sheer excitement and entertainment of it all. In a rare moment of dark amusement, Gabrielle could only wonder at the threats Xena was screaming at the hesitant gladiators. Unfortunately for them, their abject fear stopped any further approach towards the wild woman, and she took the opportunity to rip at the bonds holding her other arm.
Panicked, her heart thumping in trepidation, Gabrielle stole a glance at the two men next to her in hopes that one of them would bring a stop to the whole thing. Cassius rubbed at his chin thoughtfully but refused to look at her, and Caesar was simply looking on in quiet regard. Neither of them seemed alarmed or surprised. She shifted her gaze back to the scene before her just in time to see the Conqueror claw at the ropes around her ankles until they too were free. The ropes may as well have been made of parchment with the ease at which she tore them apart.
Now the gladiators appeared panicked at the change in situation, but the cheering spectators seemed to instill enough courage in them to hold their ground. One of them suddenly rushed forward and lifted his blade high in the air. Gabrielle held her breath as the weapon arched in a downward slash at the junction between Xena's shoulder and neck, certain the raven-haired woman was about to meet her death. With little where else to go, the Conqueror leaped back and lost her footing on the trolley's edge, then tumbled over the back of it and out of Gabrielle's sight.
The same gladiator that attacked Xena hopped on top of the trolley, his square shield at the ready as he moved to the trolley's edge for what he thought would be an easy kill. As if on cue, a dark head popped up on the other side of the trolley as Xena clambered to her feet, and without a moment's hesitation, he drew his arm back for a killing slash. Before he could land it, over, Xena moved in a flash and jabbed her fist directly at his knee, which broke instantly. The gladiator crumpled to the floor of the trolley and cradled his twisted leg, and Gabrielle was sure by the flash of his teeth that he was screaming. The gladiator sprawled onto his hip and nearly rolled off the trolley, but its frame held him in place, and Xena brought an elbow like thunder down onto his nose. As the front of his skull gave way and the bone crushed from the blow, blood erupted in a short spurt and he dropped the blade as his hands instinctively flew to his face. He writhed in obvious pain as the crimson liquid poured from between his clutched fingers.
The remaining gladiators stared on like statues, as unmoving and frozen as Xena was then, but she wasn't for long. In a snap she made a quick grab for the dropped weapon and, from every angle of the amphitheater, the wild-eyed, blood thirsty look on Xena's face was evident. Gabrielle felt a tiny chill of fear spread throughout her very being, horrified by what she was witnessing. Never in her life had she seen a woman - or man - move so fast and with such precision. In mere seconds the Conqueror had downed a man twice her size with just two blows, and she hadn't even been armed.
And now she is. And now all those men are going to die. Gabrielle bit her lower lip, unable to tear her eyes away from the unforgiving scene.
Xena fixed her icy gaze on the injured man still writhing on the ground, and Gabrielle feared the woman would decapitate him. Decapitation would have been far better than what was about to transpire.
Bringing her arm up high, Xena promptly pounded her elbow against his bloodied fingers, further crushing his already broken skull. Again and again she hammered his squirming form until slithers of bone and torn cartilage flew up from what was left of his face, and his writhing gradually stilled. His killer threw back her head in a wild, sadistic guffaw and continued to pound on his lifeless corpse.
Gabrielle's stomach lurched and she swallowed back the bile that rose in her throat. A hand flew to her lips and she gulped hard, still unable to tear her gaze from the crazed warrior. She could feel her uncle's eyes on her, but she couldn't look away, so mesmerized was she by the scene before her.
It was absolutely and utterly horrifying. Maybe it was morbid fascination, maybe it was sympathy for the gladiators, or maybe it was captivating way the Conqueror demanded all attention from her audience. But Gabrielle couldn't, wouldn't look away. A niggling voice at the back of her mind said this was important, this was vital, she had to watch, had to see, had to know. Know? Know what? She wondered absently, but her mind gave her no answers.
One of the gladiators finally snapped out of his own terrified reverie and charged at Xena with a raised blade and what was surely a ruthless battle cry. She ceased her mutilation of the corpse and turned her attention to her new attacker. Right as he was about to swing, she pivoted around him and brought her elbow down against his back, sending him sprawling to the ground. She went to slice him with her new found blade, but he rolled out of the way just in the nick of time, round housing his gladius toward her gut. She quickly stepped back to dodge the attack, then kicked his sword hand hard, wrenching the gladius from his fingers. Unrelenting, her sword streaked through the air and sliced into his unprotected belly. The gladiator instinctively clutched the wide, gaping wound as blood spilled from it, painting his thighs and arms with his body's own wine. Unlike the first gladiator, this one didn't cry out once, but instead squeezed his eyes tightly shut as she brought the blade down a final time. A thin, red trail bloomed along his neck where she'd sliced, and the unfortunate gladiator rolled to and fro on the ground, sobbing silently while he bled to death.
She doesn't seem to be overexerting herself in the slightest, Gabrielle thought distantly, her eyes on the dark woman's heaving shoulders. She seems almost... excited. A fearful shiver ricocheted down her spine and she wiped sweaty palms against her thighs.
As the second gladiator finally died, Xena whipped around to face her remaining opponents, stained with the blood of her recent kills. Each of them visibly flinched but did not retreat, though they didn't move toward the Conqueror either.
Gabrielle could see the woman smirk darkly with a flash of teeth. Her piercing gaze was wide and alive with adrenaline and anticipation. She began to pace back and forth before the gladiators in a slow, lazy stroll, as though murder was just an everyday activity for her. She let the bloodstained blade dangle at her side as she watched the men, a silent challenge in every fiber of her being. Come and get me, that's what she's saying. Gabrielle shivered.
This dragged on for several excruciating minutes. The amphitheater boomed with the bellow of the crowd while the murderess circled her prey at liesure. Each gladiator whipped towards her as she changed direction, their movements jumpy and apprehensive. They seemed to be talking to one another, perhaps forming some sort of plan as Xena looked on in indifference. Finally, moving in precise unison, the gladiators all charged the tall woman with raised weapons and shields, their mouths open in inaudible cries for glory.
The first gladiator that reached her had another gladius, and she swiftly sidestepped his stabbing attack with laughable ease, then ducked her head as a second gladiator lunged with a trident. She took the opportunity in her crouched position to swing at his vulnerable belly; fortunately for him, he hopped back just in time, receiving only a minor cut from the attack. She shot back up to her feet and grabbed the trident's shaft, and while he wildly tried to yank it from her steely grasp, she merely laughed in his face. With her back turned to the first gladiator, she didn't realize he'd whirled around and was charging at her again.
Gabrielle's breath caught. He's going to stab her in the back! The blade was mere inches from her torso, and Gabrielle wanted so badly to look away, yet she could not. She could only steel herself for death that was certain to ensue.
In one, swift motion Xena sidestepped and released the trident from her grip. The gladiator who had been frantically yanking back and forth at the weapon stumbled forward, and was promptly run through by the first gladiator's blade. Xena barked with laughter as the two men stared at each other in shock. Realizing the trident-wielder was a lost cause, the first gladiator ripped his gladius free and the injured man crumpled to the ground, his limbs convulsing.
A third gladiator came up from behind her with an iron club, but she seemed to sense his approach and aptly spun around as the club came crashing towards her. Her free hand shot up to grab the weapon in mid-swing, and Gabrielle marveled at the incredible strength the woman possessed. The club quivered between their battle of wills, raw power meeting raw power, and for a moment things seemed to have reached a stalemate between the two. But then Xena brought her blade up between them and quickly sliced along the exposed wrist of his club arm. He immediately released his hold on the weapon with a silent cry of pain and she swiped it with lightning speed. Shifting the club so that she now held the hilt of it in her left hand, Xena spun her taut form around just as the first gladius-wielding fighter was readying a swipe. She blocked his bloodied blade with her sword and pulled her club arm back, muscles springing forth like a catapult, and the club crushed the gladiator's temple with a resounding crack. He flew off to the right and collided with the ground, but Xena had little time to relish in victory as the gladiator with the cut wrist jabbed his fist into her kidney from behind. The raven-haired warrior buckled from the unexpected blow and fell to one knee, face screwed up in pain. She dropped the blade and reached over her shoulder where his fist was ready for a second blow, and she clasped his wrist and jerked him forward with all her strength. His body followed obediently, sending him hurling over her hunched form in a flip before he landed roughly on his back. A cloud of dust puffed up from under his thick body as he lay there, stunned.
Without a moment's hesitation Xena crashed the iron club into his skull, smashing thin bone in one, easy blow. Blood exploded from the wound, flowing freely, but the gladiator was completely unresponsive; he'd died instantly.
Yet another gladiator came at her, wielding a broadsword, shouting and swinging wildly with reckless abandon. She made a dexterous roll out of the way, sprung to her feet in the following instant, and snarled viciously as he spun around. They both rushed each other.
Gabrielle gaped at the arena in a stupefied state, utterly astounded by the prowess and strength of the warrior before her. No stories or legends of Xena did the woman justice. She attacked quickly and precisely, her long, raven hair following her swift movements like a flowing scarf, glistening in the white hot sun. The warrior princess moved like a goddess and was certainly built like one; tall, graceful, feminine and yet so powerful. Whether it was an acquired weapon or an accurate fist, she dealt blow after blow to each remaining gladiator, slicing, crushing, smashing, killing. They didn't stand a chance. Soft green eyes widened to the size of saucers; she remained mesmerized by Xena, unable to move, unable to breathe. The remainder of the fight whizzed by her in a flash and she was numbly unaware, unfocused, entranced only by the warrior. The dance of death, finalized with twirls and leaps and ducks and precise gestures, was hypnotizing her in a way she never thought possible. Gabrielle had never seen death before- not like this- not committed so savagely and without hesitation. It was beautiful, and it was horrible.
The arena before her blended together in a swirl of colors, producing vivid imagery of watercolor and movement only she seemed able to see. Brush strokes grazed the landscape in ribbons of black and gritty brown, wind blowing up dust and dirt to engulf the fighters in a hazy blanket. A rich, sharp red swept across her mental canvas with explosive strokes. The distinct smell of blood flooded her nostrils, the smell having drifted up from the arena to their balcony, and Gabrielle felt the world around her go hazy.
"Gabrielle!" Someone's hand was on her shoulder, giving her a good squeeze, successfully jerking her out of her strange trance.
Blearily, she blinked, dizzy from her sudden drop back down to earth and turned to stare blankly at Cassius's concerned face. His eyebrows were knitted together in a frown that was unbecoming of his usually charming countenance. "Gabrielle," he said again, quieter this time. "Is something the matter? You've been staring awfully hard..." His eyes glanced at the arena, a sudden show of guilt. "Perhaps this was too much for you."
Gabrielle blinked again, slowly, her eyes flitting in confusion between Cassius and Caesar, who had regarded the young woman with a look of feigned concern. Had Gabrielle been in her usual state of mind she might have had a sarcastic thought or two directed at him, but as it was her thoughts were solely on the battle in the arena. She didn't understand why her uncle was so concerned, she'd just been watching like everyone else. Well, perhaps she had gotten a bit involved, but from the way he had described it, it sounded like he'd had some difficulty breaking her gaze. She tried to tell him everything was fine, but somehow couldn't find her voice. Instead she turned back to the arena, surprised to see that the battle had long been over. It was then that she realized the crowd was roaring with both approval and outrage, all of it directed to the warrior standing in the middle.
Gabrielle studied the remains of the gladiators dispassionately. The arena floor was painted in a fresh, sloppy coat of blood and gore, the color blending into the dirt and then fading away as it went to the outer areas where the fight had not reached. Bloody, mutilated corpses of the slain lay sprawled about the ground, near and far from the trolley, their weapons littered uselessly around them. A few dismembered body parts dotted the arena, their owners no better off. And there, in the center, was a woman wearing a battered, brown peasant shift, drenched with the life force of her dead. It was smeared across her face like war paint, spattered along her arms and legs in a gruesome sort of second skin. Dark fringe was slick and plastered to her forehead. She circled the carnage of her victory, still wielding the bloody club in her hand. She surveyed the crowd, wide-eyed and feral, the adrenaline obviously still pumping through her veins after the thrilling battle. She ran to one side of the arena, screeching like a wild animal in some sort of unprecedented fury, directing her aggression at the crowd. The onlookers responded with more cheering, heckling the warrior with jeers and obscene gestures.
"My lord Caesar, I believe it is time my niece retires," she heard Cassius's voice, etched with concern, "She seems to have taken ill."
As if on cue, Gabrielle promptly doubled over and retched, losing the modest lunch she'd consumed just an hour or so prior. Her uncle practically leaped out of his seat and pressed a gentle palm to her back while she emptied her stomach. "Pax, water!" He commanded.
Gabrielle's servant yiped at the severity of his voice and scrambled to the wooden table to follow his order. Had Gabrielle been feeling her normal self she would have died of embarrassment, having just gotten sick in front of a whole crowd of people as well as Caesar himself. But all that her mind could picture was the carnage, the blood and the bodies. She chanced a glance at Caesar, who was also fully focused on the arena, but instead of disgusted he seemed faintly pleased. He even sipped his wine. Gabrielle felt a cold shiver of revolt deep in her belly and her limbs trembled from the exertion of getting sick. How can things be like this? How can there be such death and people who enjoy it? Revel in it, even? She shivered again, mortified by the entire evening, and yet something about it still seemed important. Vital, she remembered.
"Pax," her uncle's voice hurt her dizzy head, which had begun to dully ache, "Escort Gabrielle to her carriage and send her on to the palace without me. See to it that she rests."
The servant girl nodded quickly, gently hooked her arm beneath Gabrielle's elbow guided the blonde to her feet. With a grace developed over years of servitude, she used her free hand to snatch at the extra folds of the back of Gabrielle's dress, holding them off the ground. The heiress complied, unbidden tears from getting sick filling her lids. As they drew closer to the doorway leading back down the stone corridor Gabrielle paused, strangely compelled to look over her shoulder. Swallowing hard to fight back the rising bile in her throat, she half-turned herself and focused once more on the gory scene down below. To her surprise, the warrior had stopped pacing and was standing stark still amidst the bloody aftermath, and -
She's staring at me, Gabrielle realized, somewhat horrified at the sight of the warrior peering up at her from the distance, slick with the blood of the fallen.
"Come, my lady," Pax pleaded next to her and Gabrielle felt a gentle tugging on her arm, "You need to rest."
Gabrielle, her eyebrows knitted in a strange expression caught somewhere between mortification and bafflement, tore her gaze from the arena and allowed herself to be led through the doorway.
Cassius waved a couple of guards to follow the women, then swung himself around to face Caesar with a hard look of disapproval. "Do you believe this was really appropriate for a young woman?"
Caesar shrugged one shoulder and tilted the chalice against his lips again. When he lowered it, he said, "Not exactly what I'd planned. But surely it wasn't too much for our fearless future leader, was it?" He grinned darkly, his eyes glinting with madness as Cassius visibly bristled. "No matter," he went on and placed the chalice on the table as he rose to his feet, "I'm sure she'll be more than ready to deal with the challenges of rulership. Whatever they may be."
Cassius watched on in silence as Caesar stepped toward the edge of the balcony and looked down his nose through half-lidded eyes at the bloodied warrior below. The crowd began to simmer down to a heated murmur, awaiting Caesar's sentence. He brought his fist out with his thumb hooked in the neutral, horizontal position. Slowly, he swept his gaze over the amphitheater, drawing out the suspension as long as he dared before finally flipping his thumb upward.
The spectators exploded in a reverberating roar; Xena would live to see another day.
Both men watched as four slave masters emerged from the open gate in the arena, wielding whips and iron clubs similar to the one Xena still clutched. They drew closer to her, weapons at the ready for resistance, and they were not disappointed. She faked them out a few times, darting forward a foot or two before stopping short and redirecting herself. Her face was wild-eyed and shark-like, her white teeth gleaming against the backdrop of her bloodied face. One slave master struck his whip right at her, which spurred a sudden flurry of lashing whips from all four of them. Xena grunted in surprise as her foot was jerked out from under her by a well-placed pull of a whip, her arms unable to catch herself in time, and her face collided with the ground. The slave masters pounced. As she struggled against them, waving her club aimlessly and screaming like a banshee, they began to beat her senseless with their own clubs.
Cassius looked away and cast Caesar one of his rare, steely gazes before turning to leave.
"I expect you and your niece will be present for supper tonight?" Caesar asked without turning around, a hint of pleasantness in his voice.
Cassius paused at the doorway and looked over his shoulder, his demeanor once more soft and charming. "Of course," he responded amiably, masking any prior disapproval. "Don't forget to have your servants make those fire cakes with the jelly inside. I'm rather fond of those." They were, in fact, one of Gabrielle's favorites.
"Consider it done. I look forward to this evening." Caesar stated, deeply revolted by Cassius's renewed optimism.
"As do I," and with that, Cassius exited through the same hallway he'd come through, leaving Caesar alone on the balcony to address his people.
Lazarus moved through the area reserved for middle class spectators, forever keeping his gaze focused on the balcony above him where Caesar was seated. His hazel eyes weren't focused on Caesar, however, but on the broad-shouldered man next to Caesar. The Liberator.
Lazarus pulled the hood of his straw-colored cloak further over the top of his head, hiding short, light brown hair. Though stuck in the frustration of an impoverished lower class, he was good at what he did and found clients knocking on his door daily. A steady flow of currency had provided him with nicer clothes, better equipment, a tidy haircut and a clean shave. Still, his collection of small riches had not been enough to save her.
A familiar, raw ache bloomed in his chest at the thought of her, and he swallowed back the lump that threatened to form in his throat. Things will be different soon, he promised himself, I'll finish what I came to do, and then the pain will be gone.
No, another voice, her voice, echoed in his head, no, not yet. You only have one chance at this. Don't give in to impatience. Don't fuck it up. Lazarus allowed himself a sad, private smile. Her voice had been like honey to his ears.
Suddenly, the scene before him abruptly changed in the way only a true observer would see as significant, and it had nothing to do with the Conqueror's antecedent blood bath. The annoying blonde next to the Liberator had suddenly gotten sick all over Caesar's balcony and now Cassius was pouring over her like a mother hen, clucking away over his niece.
He cares for her, Lazarus noted, I can use that. Not that he was fond of dragging innocents into his scheme but he would do what he had to. If the little heiress had to be sacrificed, so be it. Hopefully it wouldn't come to that.
Don't fuck it up, Laz, her voice rang in his ears again and brought a smile to his lips.
Don't worry, Silvia, he thought as he swept through a bustle of people toward the exit, his hood drawn over his face, I won't rest until the Liberator is dead.
Caesar's palace was about as easy to navigate as a labyrinth at midnight. Gabrielle had tried to make an internal map of the place so that she could get a feel for it, but the process was proving problematic at best. Thankfully, her servant was leading her through the maze of marble hallways and corridors with a practiced ease only someone who lived there could possess. Her own personal servant back in Britannia, a kind, elderly woman, was so horrendously prone to seasickness that everyone had thought it better she didn't come along. Thus, Pax was assigned to her upon her immediate arrival. Truth be told, though she enjoyed her old servant's company, it was a welcome change to be around someone closer to her own age.
"You know this place so well," Gabrielle said conversationally as Pax gave meek directions from behind, where she still clutched the hem of the lavish dress.
She could hear the smile in Pax's voice as she replied, "I have been a servant here for almost three years, my lady. I've had plenty of time to learn."
"Well, you're doing a great job," Gabrielle complimented, her own smile growing. "Maybe I should try to start learning my way around. The worst that could happen is that I'll end up wandering aimlessly forever. I'm sure they'll find my body eventually," she joked, turning left down a corridor under her sevant's instruction.
"Oh no, my lady!" Pax exclaimed, scrambling to her mistress's own defense, "I would never let that happen!" Upon hearing Gabrielle's quiet laughter, she realized that the heiress had been joking and blushed bashfully.
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder, a smile still playing on her lips at both the joke and the instant friendship she felt towards the girl. "Oh, ye of little faith. I happen to have a very good sense of direction, thank you very much."
"Mistress, you're going the wrong way," Pax replied and covered her mouth to hide a shy smile.
Gabrielle paused, looking slightly confused as she looked left and right.
"This way," Pax supplied, pulling gently on the folds of cloth clutched in her fingers. Gabrielle stepped back a pace, realizing she'd passed a sudden fork in the paths of hallways. "Oh, you're taking me to my quarters," she claimed with over-dramatic ardor, heading down the correct hallway. "I was... taking you to the servant quarters, of course."
Pax giggled quietly. "The servant quarters are on the other side of the palace, my lady. They're nowhere near here."
"Of... of course!" Gabrielle responded quickly, "I was just testing you, you know, keeping you on your toes."
"Of course, my lady," Pax agreed, and both of them beamed at each other as their playful banter continued, their voices echoing together along the archways of cold, polished stone.
The walk to Gabrielle's quarters didn't take as long as she thought it might, no doubt because of the distraction of great conversation, and before long she was tucked away safely in her room. Though it was a mere guest room, its design was elaborate down to every inch of marble and wall. A large, four-poster bed sat in the center, sheer veils of soft, pale blue draped over the post frame to accent the matching pillows and blankets. A rug the size of a peasant's house lay in the center of the huge room, swirls and patterns in lower-toned colors accenting its main designs. Wall tapestries, sculpted statues, a lush, dark wood armoire, a full length mirror, and other such decorations were arranged about the room. Everything was highlighted by streams of brilliant gold sunlight bursting through the glassless windows, and Gabrielle succumbed to a hushed appreciation of her quarters.
Pax, who had never entered a royal chamber before, was so awestruck by the sight that she dropped the end of her mistress's dress, much to Gabrielle's amusement. The servant girl remained rooted to the spot, her already wide eyes widening further as they took in the scope of Gabrielle's room.
The blonde contained a snicker at Pax's expense and approached the armoire while she loosened the knotted ties of her dress. "Make yourself at home," she said, shrugging out of the sleeves, "It's more your home than mine, anyway."
"M-My lady," Pax exclaimed, seeming to remember that she was a servant and not a statue, and reached for her mistress's dress. "Please, let me help you."
Gabrielle batted at the girl's hands. "I can dress myself," she explained patiently and slipped out of the dress, leaving her in subligar undergarments and a matching torso wrap. "I'm just putting on a chiton. You can help me tonight when I dress for supper."
Pax reluctantly gave the heiress her space and settled for standing awkwardly by the doorway. She must be feel odd, being told not to do her job, Gabrielle mused, but she had no desire to be fussed over like a porcelain doll. The stunt in the arena left a bad taste in her mouth and, while she had enjoyed the servant's company so far, she couldn't shake the feeling that the girl didn't want to leave her alone after witnessing her reaction on the balcony.
After changing into an ivory chiton, Gabrielle turned to Pax and, to her own embarrassment, found the servant girl staring at her quite shamelessly.
"What is it?" She asked, fidgeting a bit under the sudden inspection.
"Oh, n-nothing!" Pax covered quickly with a shake of her chestnut curls, "It's just... you look very pretty. The chiton is very becoming of you."
Gabrielle smiled at the shy compliment and fought off the urge to curtsey to her own servant. "Thank you," she settled on instead.
A long, awkward moment of silence followed and both women avoided looking at each other, and Gabrielle couldn't explain the sudden self-consciousness she felt. She had never been brimming with confidence but she had never felt so unsure of herself. Ever since she'd set foot in Rome everything had been new and different and exhilarating.
And frightening. She suppressed a shiver.
"You know, I think I'm just going to lay down. I'm exhausted," she lied, hoping her servant wouldn't see through it.
"Oh, of course, my lady!" Pax replied with a jerk, suddenly very nervous, "I-I'll be down the hall if you need me, just call my name." She smiled bashfully at Gabrielle one final time before slipping out the doorway, and the blonde was alone at last.
With a weary sigh, she collapsed on the bed and smothered her face in a pillow. She knew she couldn't sleep. How could she? Even when her eyes were open she saw the carnage as clearly as if it was right in front of her face. She could still smell the blood, could still see the disembodied limbs, and was it just her imagination or had the blood been steaming off the ground? Was that what people did for entertainment in Rome? Slaughter, pain, torture, murder? She was sure she could never go to that arena again, she refused. It was even worse with her eyes shut, because then all she saw was the gleaming, shark-like smile of the Conqueror and hot, ice blue eyes that pierced into her very soul.
Madness, she thought with a repressed shudder. It was the face of madness.
The hypogeum was a dark, dank place that could easily drive a person to permanent despair. Between the almost complete lack of lighting and the constant howls of men and animals alike, it was the last place that even the most seasoned warrior would want to be. Slave masters could be heard heckling prisoners, more often than not followed by the ominous crack of a whip. Metal cages were slammed open and shut with loud, echoing clangs that drowned out the howls every now and then.
Some of the conscious, more restless gladiators watched with passing interest as four slave masters entered. The first two dragged a lifeless body into the confines of the hypogeum, and the grated gate was cranked shut behind them with the help of a lever. The other two slave masters were laughing and joking with one another, their gravelly voices and barking laughs comparable only to grinding rocks and bone.
"... believe ev'n our best men could no' handle 'is lit'le one, eh? An' here we come in an' sweep 'er off 'er feet wi' no trouble a'dall!" Came the first voice, belonging to a short, stocky man known for his outlandish accent and disregard for rules.
"If this tramp is anything, she ain't little," growled one of the slave masters as he lugged the groaning woman along.
"Yeh, but still. You saw wha' she did t' those fella's," the stocky man went on, tossing his bundled whip from one calloused hand to the other, "Crushed 'em like insec's, jus' fer fun."
"She was just protecting herself, wasn't she?" Asked a third slave master, a greenhorn fresh on the job.
"Yeh, bu' she loved it," the stocky slave master replied with a toothy grin and gestured toward a particular cage as they neared it, "She woulda' crushed 'em insec's whether they was after 'er 'r not."
One of them stepped forward with a set of iron keys and unlocked the heavy door, ignoring the look of hatred directed at him from the one imprisoned gladiator already inside, and he craned his head toward the opening. Without an ounce of hesitance, the slave masters slung the lifeless body into the cage and slammed the metal door shut behind her. The grind of key-in-lock sealed it behind her.
"You think she'll be a gladiator now?" asked the newest slave master as the four men moved back from the cage, wary gazes still trained on the dark warrior within.
The stocky one snorted with harsh laughter. "Nah," he replied, "Too dang'rous. Caesar'll prob'ly jus' execute 'er. Drop o' the axe, y'see." He made a chopping motion toward his own neck with the side of his hand, his smirk cruel, and the men's voices faded beneath the screams as they moved on to another part of the hypogeum.
The Conqueror's prison mate stared at the unmoving body with trepidation and perhaps even a hint of curiosity. He was perched on the far side of the cage in an alcove of stone, his beady eyes ever watchful. He craned his neck to get a better look at her, and a small flutter of lashes confirmed she was conscious but supposedly content to lay in the dirt. He snorted. What a joke. The almighty Conqueror was little more than a wretched girl.
Against his better judgment, he hopped down from his perch and approached the Destroyer of Nations. Curiosity had gotten the better of him.
Moments later, there was a reverberation of booted footsteps as Caesar made his way into the hypogeum, guards in tow. A relaxed, satisfied expression held his countenance when he approached Xena's cage and crossed his arms. His gaze traveled from the huddled figure in the back to the accompanying lifeless corpse of a gladiator. His brows rose in bemusement, eyes flickering back and forth from the bloody spot on the wall to the caved-in skull, then back to the huddled figure.
"Really?" He said wearily, a touch of exasperation in his tone.
Xena hugged her knees closer to fend off the biting cold, her bones racked with an endless shiver. She gave a half-hearted shrug, appearing not to care and said evenly, "He looked at me."
Caesar allowed himself a close-mouthed, airy simper, his relaxed posture edging a bit closer to the bars. He fed off the rage emanating from her very aura, the hatred in her cold eyes, all of it directed at him; every inch of her loathed him for his very existence and everything he'd done. He was certain it wasn't just temperature making her tremble so violently.
It was then that he decided to get to the point. "I have a proposition for you, Xena," he drawled in a bored tone as his fingers gently grazed the moist, rusted metal bars. "One that you can't refuse."
"I don't want your deals," she spat, baring her teeth like a wild animal. "I want you dead."
"But Xena," he said with a slow, crawling smirk, "I can give you the next best thing: Cassius."
At the mention of her victor, her eyes smoldered with a new, hard fire, emblazoned with the need for vengeance. It was as if Caesar had taken a very sharp stick and stoked the coals that lay burning beneath the intense hatred in her twisted soul. Her body tensed, ready for action, and she quivered more vehemently now. Her hands wrenched open and shut, and Caesar was sure he could name at least two people those hands longed to throttle. Her glower was so sharp he swore he could feel it slicing through his armor.
"Give him to me," she growled, mad with fury, "Tell me how!"
He smiled. "As I said, Xena." His dark eyes peered through the bars with a demonic sheen of their own, no less terrifying than the shocking icy blue ones they met with ease. "This is an offer you can't refuse."