Destiny’s Dominion

Chapters 22 - 25

Chapter Twenty Two: Into the Pit
Iolaus quickly ducked down below the window ledge as a patrol marched past the ruined building that he and his companions had been forced to hide in, "Gods they're as thick as flies out there. That's the third patrol in a candlemark," he said frustration obvious in his tone. Normally, the soldiers would have holed up in their garrison until the unseasonal rain, that was teeming down outside, had eased up so that they avoided the soaking.

"Well just let them poke their heads in here," offered Joxer belligerently, "Joxer the Mighty knows how to deal with Romans," he declared with a theatrical ferocity as he drew his sword and brandished it at an imaginary foe.

"Cut it out, Joxer" Iolaus told him impatiently, "you can barely deal cards let alone deal with Romans."

"Ah ha!" replied the sallow faced man, "that was the old Joxer! The new Joxer has a lust for the blood of those who threaten his friends," he said with a repeated flourish of his weapon.

"C'mon Joxer, I've see you fight," Iolaus told him, "If you had a fight with a chicken, I'd bet on the chicken to win."

"Have you been talking to Autolycus?" asked Joxer suspiciously, "No he wouldn't have said anything about that, would he?" he muttered as he put the sword back into the scabbard and sat down on the dirty floor brooding about chickens and how his brother Jet was doing in prison in Myramas. His stomach rumbled loudly, "You know we could do with a chicken here about now, or any kind of food for that matter."

"Any sign of the thief," asked Toris from where he was laying on a grubby blanket in the corner of the room.

Iolaus took another look out of the window and grimaced at the pouring rain that was keeping most sensible people off of the streets, "Not yet," he announced. "But he'll be back. Autolycus is the proverbial bad dinar, he always shows up."

It was frustrating being dependant upon the sardonic thief to turn up news, but since their dramatic exit from the inn two days previously, the four of them had spent their time dodging and hiding from patrols that were very evidently looking for them. Of the four, Autolycus was the best equipped for 'sneaking' around to gather information and some of the things that they were going to need. Iolaus could probably have helped him. He'd been a pretty fair thief in his younger days. But both he and Autolycus felt that neither Toris, nor Joxer, should be left alone. The first because he was too hot headed and ran headlong into things without thinking them through. The second because he didn't think at all! or at least not very often. So Iolaus was left to play nursemaid on the pair which left the King of Thieves free to do what he did best .. next to theft that was .. which was sneaking around where he didn't belong.

The trouble was, he'd been gone longer than expected. And, as much as the blonde hated to admit it, he was beginning to get worried about the thief. Autolycus tended to grate on his nerves, but he was a useful man to have around - If you can ignore all the egotism that goes with him! - he thought sourly.

He was just about to turn away from the window when a heavily cloaked figure attracted his attention as it slipped cautiously along the street towards the building where they were hidden. Autolycus, for Iolaus was certain that that is who it was, carried a large bundle that surprised the small blonde man and engaged his curiosity, "Now what in the world has he got there," he wondered aloud.

"Autolycus?" asked Joxer shifting quickly from gloom to expectation as Toris stood up and drew his sword, just in case the person who came through the door was not whom they were expecting.

Iolaus moved to the doorway that they had wedged shut with a small wooden shim. He listened for pre-arranged signal, "Knock .... knock, knock." before kicking the wedge out and dragging back the door that grated across the floor where the hinges had weakened.

Autolycus slipped in quickly, throwing off the black cloak that had protected him from the worst of the weather and hidden him from the notice of the patrols that were all over the city, while Iolaus heaved the door back into place and 'locked' it with the shim.

"That is no way to spend a morning," complained the thief as he shook his head to rid himself of some of the water that saturated him, despite the cloak.

"What did you find out?" asked Iolaus eager to hear any news.

"Did ya get anything to eat?" asked Joxer hopefully.

"What about Xena?" demanded Toris.

Autolycus bent and unpacked the bundle he'd been carrying, answering the questions as he did so, "Caesar and that special detail maniple of his, moved out with that covered wagon yesterday. They met up with the VIIth Legion outside the city and headed south on the road to Arelate." He threw Joxer a loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese. "Xena and Gabrielle have to be in that wagon. There was nowhere else for them to be, and I don't think Caesar intends letting them far out of his sight anyway."

"Why south?" wondered Iolaus, "I know that he could get a ship for Rome at Massilia, but if he does that, what's the point of everything he's done so far?"

"Arelate is a staging city. He could continue on south-east from there and go to Massilia," Toris told them thinking hard, "Or he could take the north road and head for Lugdunum. I'm betting that he'll head that way."

"But why go south then?" repeated Iolaus puzzled, "If he was heading for Lugdunum it would have been quicker to cut north-east from here."

There was silence within the room, except for Joxer's contented munching, as the men tried to work out what was going on. Iolaus looked down at the other items in Autolycus's bundle, "What's all that for?" he questioned.

"Ah," smiled the thief, "It seems we have some added problems. Namely our descriptions are being circulated everywhere, and they are being linked to a very healthy reward. It seems that Caesar objects to anyone poking their noses into his business."

"Too bad!" snarled Toris.

"Yes well, that's as may be, but it causes us some problems because we are a rather identifiable group, or at least some of us are," Autolycus said with a pointed look at Joxer, "and we're going to have to do something about our appearances if we are going to have any hope of doing what we came here for."

"What are you all looking at me for?" demanded Joxer around a mouthful of cheese, "I'm not the only one they've got a description of."

"True," agreed the King of Thieves, "but you are the most noticeable. However, I have got disguises for each of us. Which I suggest we use, so that we can get out of this city and back on the trail of Xena and Gabrielle."

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Xena and Gabrielle fared far better in the wagon than the soaked and cold Legionaries around it did. Conditions may have been cramped and uncomfortable, especially for Xena, but at least they were dry and, if not exactly warm, they weren't cold either.

The first day's travel had proven uneventful. Gabrielle had chatted about inconsequentialities, lulling Xena with the familiarity of her voice and the ordinary topics of conversation she chose, realizing that they had to avoid the subject of the letters and the men who had answered them.

At one point, Gabrielle surprised the Warrior Princess by reminding her of the name game they had been playing all those long days ago on the road to Menassos, "I think I've worked out your name," she said with a thoughtful grin, "He's someone you knew before you went to Chin. I know him and he's still alive."

"At the moment," Xena breathed sourly as her mouth twisted into a grimace of distaste.

"Ah, ha!" cried the bard jubilantly, drawing startled looks from the guards, "I must be right then. It's Caesar! Go on admit it!"

"Very well done," congratulated the Warrior with heavy sarcasm, "It's only taken you just over a moon to work it out."

"I know," smiled Gabrielle happily, "but I told you I'd get it."

"Indeed you did," agreed Xena mockingly as she tried to straighten her legs out a bit, the tight conditions of the cage cramped her muscles, and with her manacles locked to her belt, she couldn't reach to massage the aching joints.

The bard saw her friend's face give the barest twitch of discomfort as she shifted her position. Reaching through the bars, she gently massaged the calf muscles of Xena's legs, doing her best to relieve some of the Warrior Princess' suffering. It helped ... a little, but it was going to be very uncomfortable if she was forced to spend the whole time in the cage as she had for most of the trip up to Nemausus.

The evening camp was set up with the normal Roman precision and economy of effort, with the unusual addition of the wagon in the centre of the camp. The VIIth Legion had grown used to the presence of the wagon on their march up from Narbo, so it attracted far less attention than it had before, but Xena still caught the occasional murmur about treasure from voices at a distance.

With the fall of darkness, however, Flaccus appeared and hoisted himself aboard, unlocking Gabrielle's chain from the bar it had been attached to, as well as unfastening the door to the cage, "Both of you out," he told them curtly, much to their joint surprise.

Gabrielle's leg iron was collected by one of the six guards, while Xena was pulled out of her confinement and supported by two 'helpful' soldiers who took a firm grip on her arms to make sure she didn't pull any more of the stunts she'd employed that morning.

The pair were escorted from the wagon to a large tent, erected next to Caesar's command pavilion. Inside, a metal stake, topped by a ringbolt, had been driven into the ground. The free cuff of Gabrielle's leg iron, was passed through the ringbolt and fastened to Xena's left ankle in addition to the one she already wore.

The Warrior Princess scanned the inside of the tent and counted twelve guards in addition to the six who had escorted them in from the wagon. Her eyes flickered to the Centurion, "In case you're considering something foolish, you should know that there will be twenty-five men stationed around this tent as well as those in here. The Emperor, in his wisdom, is a merciful man, and he sees no reason for you to remain confined in the cage at night ... so long as you do not abuse his goodwill."

"If he's giving me room to stretch my legs," Xena told the bard in a low voice, "then it's because it suits his purpose to do so. It seems that he doesn't want me in a crippled condition, for now."

Gabrielle looked at Flaccus and asked, "When do we get something to eat? If you need someone to cook some food, I could always lend a hand."

Flaccus made a gesture and the guards tossed each of the women a blanket, "Very good of you I'm sure," replied the stiff necked Roman, although a smile almost cracked his military facade, "But I'm afraid the physician has related tales of your culinary expertise, and has advised you be kept away from any cooking in case the army comes down with an unfortunate case of flux."

"Big mouth," murmured the bard, although Xena wasn't sure if it was Patroclese she was talking about or herself.

"You'll get a hot meal just as soon as it's been prepared," assured Flaccus, before leaving the tent.

Xena and Gabrielle, spread out their blankets and sat down. Any chance of escape still seemed way off, but at least they were able to talk softly in some privacy with the guards scattered around the edge of the tent.

"You understood what I meant about Autolycus?" asked Xena softly.

"I guessed," the bard answered, "How did you get to see him?"

"He found a way into the airshaft. We only had a chance for a few words, and even that was enough to earn you a strapping." the warrior said with bitterness.

"Never mind, Xena. It was important to speak to Autolycus," she looked at the dark haired woman and said very quietly, "and getting me sent back to the tower early gave me the chance to glimpse Iolaus and Joxer out in the market."

"J ..." Xena almost blurted out before looking around hurriedly to make sure no one was taking any more notice than usual, and continuing, "Joxer? What in Hades is he doing here? You didn't send him one of your letters, did you?"

"Of course I didn't," came the bard's sharp reply, "But you know what he's like," she said in a far more hushed tone. "He's got more heart than brain and if he found out about this, I don't think anything could have stopped him from coming."

Xena nodded moodily, agreeing with the blonde's assessment, "Did you see anything of Toris," she asked barely moving her lips.

Gabrielle shook her head in a negative, "I don't know what any of them will be able to do while we're surrounded by a whole legion, anyway." she said disconsolately.

"They'll find a way to get you to safety," promised the Warrior Princess.

"What about you?" hissed the bard.

Xena's smile was chilly as she said, "Caesar won't find it so easy to keep hold of me, once he loses you."

"What if he decides that if he hasn't got me, that he'll kill you?" asked the bard as she stiffened the slight tremor in her voice.

"That's not going to happen," Xena told her confidently, "He wants to prove his dominance over me. I think I'm his challenge in life. He's tried to kill me before and failed, so I think he's going to try and find out what makes me tick."

"You can't be certain of that," muttered Gabrielle, worry evident in her face.

"Nothing's ever certain, Gabrielle," the Warrior Princess told her, "Ah, I think dinner is here," she said changing the subject as they were handed a chunk of brown bread each and a plate of stew.

The meal was normal army fare, not bad but far from something to tempt the jaded appetite. Luckily, both Xena and Gabrielle were too hungry to care. The bard had noted that her friend had lost an awful lot of weight during her captivity .. most of it due to the starvation and the fever she had contracted. The Warrior Princess was gradually putting back some of her lost body tone, but it was a slow process and would take time yet.

After they had eaten, Patroclese found his way into the tent along with his chess board. He and Xena played a game, while the Warrior Princess explained the pieces and their moves to the bard. It passed some time before they settled down to sleep.

The next day had brought the rain, but they had also made it to Arelate around about mid afternoon, although the dark, thunderous skies made it seem later. Here, Xena was again locked into an open cell, very similar to the one she had been in at Nemausus. Gabrielle had been taken somewhere else. The big difference here, was, that they had been taken to the Prefecture, which housed not only the Prefect.. Arelate's head of government .. but also the most secure dungeons.


It was early evening and Xena was dozing, when she was awakened by a stir in the guardroom. A squad of soldiers were forming up, and Flaccus was approaching the cell, key in hand. She swung herself off of the bench and waited to see what new development was occurring.

"You will come with me," he instructed motioning her to step out of the cell.

It was unusual, but perhaps Caesar was getting ready to play his game, although she hadn't expected anything to happen until they had travelled further to the north, as she was certain they would.

Surrounded by twenty guards, Xena was escorted out through the torch lit corridors she had come through that afternoon. She was aware from the changing decoration, within the building, that she was being taken into the main residency of the Prefect. Bare, damp walls of the cells beneath the ground were replaced by the drier walls of the servant's areas until she was passing elaborate hangings, costly furnishings and fine porcelains displayed to show the wealth and power of this petty bureaucrat.

A change of direction took them down some steps and through a door into a very unusual room. Xena quickly familiarised herself with her new surroundings, and began to get that feeling that charged the blood in her veins .. an expectation of trouble.

The 'room' was a twenty foot square with fifteen foot high walls that opened up to a surrounding gallery. She recognised it for what it was immediately. A fighting pit. She looked up with narrowed eyes searching for Caesar, she found him almost at once as he leaned on the rail to look down on her.

"Here's my slave, Lucullus," he told his companion, a fat, balding man who affected an ostentatious show of his wealth, sporting gold and jewels over his hands and around his neck.

Lucullus looked sharply at the shackles and the strong guard that had accompanied the slave into the pit, "It's a woman!" he almost laughed with incredulity, "You want to pit a woman against my champion gladiator, Benidor? Why I'd almost be ashamed to take your money." he chuckled, "Almost!"

"Would you care to double the wager," smiled Caesar politely, "say one hundred thousand dinars?"

Lucullus looked like a vulture about to feed, "You're sure that you can afford such stakes, Caesar. I had heard that you were running short of money."

"I can cover my bet, should my slave lose," Caesar told him grimly, "But there is just one condition to the match."

Lucullus looked at the great Caesar with a smugness a rich man feels when he looks at someone in need of funds. He knew that Caesar's personal treasury was almost empty. It took a lot of money to buy and maintain power in Rome and Caesar had been said to have been spending lavishly on some private project. If Lucullus played his cards right, the mighty Caesar, Emperor of Rome, might just wind up in his pocket. "Are you saying you wish to back out. Are the stakes to rich for you after all?"

Caesar used all his diplomatic skill at dissemblance to deny the sleight made upon him and explained, "The bet has been made the stakes pledged, my condition is that there should be no weapons involved in this contest."

"If you're hoping to preserve the woman's life," laughed Lucullus in amusement, "you should know that Benidor is the area's bare knuckle champion and he has killed six men in unarmed fights, here in this very pit."

"Never the less, I want no weapon to fall into my slave's hands," Caesar insisted.

Lucullus took a longer look at the woman below him. He had taken the strong guard as a token of gamesmanship, but he now noted the heavy chains and the way that the soldiers watched the woman's every movement. She stood relaxed, her eyes rivetted on her 'master'.

Beads of perspiration appeared on Lucullus's brow as he considered what the loss of 100,000 dinars would do to his finances. He was a rich man, it was true. But such a huge sum would take him years to recover. Caesar looked at him with calm assurance as if reading his mind, "I think you're bluffing," Lucullus told him at last. He couldn't afford to show weakness here, "A bare handed fight is agreed for the stake proposed."

It was at that point the woman spoke. Her voice carried the whisper of ice and her tone, death, "You are assuming that I'll play your game, Caesar!" she said.

This was not how a slave talked to her master. Lucullus shot a puzzled look at his powerful guest and was surprised to see him smile. It was a grim smile, but it showed none of the wrath that Lucullus would have been ready to inflict on his own slaves if they'd had the audacity to speak to him in that way.

"You'll play the game, Xena," he told her with a superior certainty. "You see, should you lose, I'll give Benidor your friend, Gabrielle, as a prize."

- If looks could kill, - thought Lucullus as he observed the by-play between the two.

"Oh, yes," continued Caesar, "just in case you decided that this was your chance to kill me," he made a gesture and the Warrior Princess saw the bard brought forward to the rail, with a soldier holding a knife to her throat," I brought Gabrielle here to watch the contest. The first false move from you and she'll have her throat cut."

"Is the woman that dangerous?" asked Lucullus almost in awe, trying to remember where he had heard mention of that name before.

"You have no idea," said Caesar almost too softly to be heard. "One last thing, Xena," he said, "Don't give the guards any trouble when the fight ends. It will only be Gabrielle who suffers, you know." He gave a nod to Flaccus, who unlocked the manacles at her wrists and removed the belt from her waist, before releasing her from the leg irons.

Lucullus watched her like he would watch a snake and for all his seeming ease, Caesar did much the same, his hand glued to the hilt of his sword as if in instant readiness to draw it. Xena stood calmly massaging her wrists, barely registering the exit of her guards while she awaited the entrance of her opponent from a door opposite.

Benidor was a hulking brute of a professional gladiator. He stood over six foot six in height, with a wide spread of shoulders that supported thick rippling muscle. His face and body bore the scars of past fights and his nose showed signs of having been broken at least twice.

Xena made eye contact with him and saw animal cunning and meanness there, but little in the way of intelligence. The trick was going to be to defeat him without getting close enough for him to pound her senseless. She started to move around him, slowly, exhibiting the smooth, fluid, grace that took control in dangerous situations.

The gladiator threw a meaty fist at her, but she danced lightly out of the way, never losing eye contact with the brute. She read the coming lunge in his eyes and was ready for it, meeting him with a sharp heeled kick to his gut, that made him draw a deep breath and the crashing, backhand, left fist that smashed into his jaw almost rocked him.

He shook his head, a look of respect crept into his eyes as he tried to plan his attack. The easy victory he had envisioned would not be forthcoming. The woman was strong and had skill. His mind registered the faint smile that played across her face. She was enjoying herself.

Gabrielle watched in fascination as Xena sparred with the giant, looking for openings to exploit. The Warrior Princess's fighting skills never ceased to exhilarate her. She was so good at what she did that you could lose yourself in the beauty and grace of the movements as she seemed to dance through the danger.

Benidor feinted with his right fist, but whipped a sizzling left hook across that would have probably decapitated Xena if it had connected fully. As it was, the punch threw her off balance as she rode it, which was enough for the gladiator to wade in and start pounding her body with heavy blows. His fists were like sledge hammers as they thudded into her rib cage. Ignoring the punishment as best she could, she clapped her hands together, with all the force she could muster, on either side of his head.

"Arrhhhh!" screamed Benidor, as his eardrums ruptured with excruciating pain. Blood trickled down his lobes as he shook his head to try and clear it. But Xena followed up with a high, leaping kick to the big man's face. It should have been enough to poleaxe a steer, but the man remained standing and his eyes showed the blood lust of a maddened beast.

Xena stood before him, and beckoned him on, "C'mon," she encouraged, "Come and get me."

As Benidor rushed at her, arms flung wide to grasp her into a crushing bear hug, Xena executed a high, forward, flip, that carried her over the hulking brute and safely behind him. As she landed, she turned quickly and planted a solid kick at the base of his spine, adding to his momentum, to send him crashing into the wall of the pit.

He stood as if pinned to the stone for a moment, before he carefully pushed himself away from the wall, and turned to face his tormentor, shaking his head groggily as he did so. Xena noted in a detached part of her mind, that the collision with the wall had broken his nose again.

Moving far faster than she expected, Benidor lunged out and grabbed her right arm, pulling her closer to him where he delivered a knee to her stomach that folded her up. Drawing back his left fist, he drove it into her face sending her tumbling to the ground. The giant threw himself down on top of his opponent, only to find that Xena had twisted, lightning quick, out of his grasp.

As Benidor tried to scramble to his feet, Xena aimed a heavy punch just behind his right ear that saw him collapse bonelessly to the ground. Breathing deeply, Xena stood above the fallen man and shot a venom filled glare at Caesar.

"Very good, Xena," congratulated Caesar contentedly. "Very well fought."

The Warrior Princess glanced to where the soldier held a dagger to the bard's throat. If he had given her just half a chance, then she would have taken it, but with Gabrielle's life being so visibly threatened, she couldn't afford to venture the risk. She forced herself to relax as Flaccus re-entered the pit and fastened the belt back around her waist, wincing a little from the bruising her ribs had taken again. She held up her wrists for him to lock the manacles in place and stood patiently while the leg irons were replaced, never once taking her eyes from Caesar's.

"Take her back to her cell," he ordered, with a satisfied smile, "Patroclese will be along to check on her injuries."

Chapter Twenty Three: The Parting of the Ways
Caesar flicked a dismissive hand at the guards attending Gabrielle, and the bard was given a shove to get her moving from the gallery and back to her own little cell; a windowless storage room in the servants quarter that had a thick oak door and a proliferation of guards around it.

Lucullus looked down on his unmoving gladiator. No one had ever come close to doing that to Benidor before. Of course the man had taken punishment in his career, but he had never been even close to losing. The Prefect licked his lips. The woman, Xena, could be the mightiest gladiator the Roman world had ever seen. With the right management, she would make her owner a fortune.

"Caesar," he said, the light of avarice shining in his eyes. "How much would it cost me to buy her from you?" "Lucullus," the Roman noble replied with a hint of amusement in his voice, "you don't have enough money. In fact I don't think there's enough gold in the world to make me sell her."

"Five hundred thousand dinars," said the prelate quickly, "No, one million!" he amended as he saw the rejection in Caesar's eyes.

"Apart from the fact that I don't think you have that amount," Caesar told him, "I would not trust that woman in anyone's hands but my own. You asked earlier if she was dangerous? Well, let me just say that those guards were not there for show. Even chained and collared as she is, she is no one's slave ... yet. But she will be bent to my use, one way or another."

"Xena, that's her name, isn't it?" mused Lucullus, the name tickling a distant memory, he watched as three slaves entered the pit to carry Benidor away to the infirmary. News of something in Rome seemed to be connected to the woman's name, "Isn't she the woman who tried to assassinate you?" he asked suddenly, remembering hearing about the event some months previously.

Caesar looked at him, his brown eyes burning with intensity, his features set in a darkly fiendish smile that was never meant to touch his eyes, "The very one," he agreed with a casualness that belied the savageness of the look, "and there is no way I will ever release her ... alive! So, my friend, you'll just have to content yourself with paying me the money you lost in our wager, and with the knowledge that you saw her first fight as a gladiator." He took the fat little prefect's arm and steered him away from the gallery rail and back towards the main apartments where a feast awaited them.

"So this wasn't just an isolated contest? You intend to fight her in public?" asked Lucullus with growing interest.

"In time," Caesar told him, pleasantly, "all in good time."

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Patroclese arrived in the dungeons some minutes after Xena had been returned to her cell. It was not greatly different from the one in Nemausus .. a little smaller maybe, and the rest of the smaller cells fronted onto the main guardroom, but the cage cell that housed Xena, seemed remarkably similar.

He found her sitting on a wooden bench, that was securely fastened to the wall. The fingers of her left hand were lightly pressed to her jaw, which she worked back and forth with a show of mild discomfort. As she looked up at him, he noted with professional objectivity the added bruises on her right cheek and jaw, which made a muffled clicking sound as she continued to work it. She was sitting hunched over, suggesting her ribs had taken punishment again, and her knuckles were a little grazed.

She looked at him levelly when she noticed his critical survey of her and told him blandly, "You should see the other guy."

Patroclese shook his head. He'd come to appreciate Xena's dry sense of humour, even on those occasions when she directed it at him. He recognised that she used it like a shield to deflect the intense emotions that she was not comfortable with .. not the anger, hate and rage that were part of her make up, but the softer emotions of caring, comforting and, of course, love.

"All right, what's the damage this time?" he asked knowing it would be quicker for her to tell him, then for him to find out by examining her.

"Nothing serious," she told him dismissively. "Some bruises around the ribcage and face, a slight dislocation on the jaw, and some scraped knuckles."

"Pull your shirt up," he ordered without thinking.

Xena lifted her hands as far as they would go and then shrugged at him, "If you took these off it would be easier," she told the healer neutrally.

"Don't you ever give up?" he asked as he motioned her to stand, so he could tug the shirt free from the belt, and lift it high enough to take a critical look at the skin that was beginning to show the mottled purple of bruising.

"No," answered Xena intently, "Not ever."

Patroclese suppressed a shudder. There was an obdurate determination in the woman that was an unstoppable force, much like an avalanche, nothing could stand in its way ... and if someone should be foolish enough to do so, the end would likely be very similar. "Hold still while I fetch the liniment, it'll take the worst of the sting and stiffness out of those bruises around your ribs and face. Then I'll bathe those knuckles. We don't want any more infections, do we?" the healer said sympathetically.

Xena watched Patroclese as he ministered to her hurts with a professional thoroughness. He was a talented physician who showed care and consideration for those he treated. Even her! In some ways, especially her. Yet he had sent her into a trap and tricked Gabrielle into falling into another. She gave him a frankly considering look, before asking him, "Why do you follow Caesar?"

"I thought I'd told you," he answered as he dabbed the cold liquid onto the required area.

"No," she said slowly, "I don't believe you have."

Patroclese sighed as he stopped what he was doing to look her full in the eyes, "It must have been Gabrielle I told ... while we were on the ship" he admitted.

"Well," she prompted gently, as he continued his work with the liniment.

"My family have been in the service of the family of Caesar for generations. Lord Caesar saw that I had some talent for healing and ensured that I was trained by the best of the Roman physicians. He has always treated me and my family well. He has always been a good master to serve." He said it as if he was reeling of something he had rehearsed a dozen times.

There was a look of doubt flickering somewhere in the back of his eyes. Xena saw it and allowed the silence to draw out as she waited for Patroclese to continue. Instinct told her that if she said anything now, he would clam up and become defensive of both his master and himself.

The, almost, accusatory silence eventually forced the healer to continue his thoughts, "When I was asked to go to Greece to find you and bait my Lord's trap, I asked about you to find out what kind of woman you were," he saw the grim look in her eyes and guessed her thoughts, "No, I didn't ask Lord Caesar, it wouldn't have been right, he would have thought I was doubting him. But everyone I did ask told of a woman warrior warlord who had sacked and despoiled countless nations. You were the 'Destroyer of Nations' so I was told. I also knew of your attempt on Caesar's life ..."

Xena cut off a sharp angry laugh as she said, "Believe me, Patroclese, If I'd wanted him dead at that time, he'd be dead."

The healer bobbed his head in a nod to acknowledge the validity of the statement, he knew it wasn't an idle boast, "Anyway, from all I'd heard, I was proud that my Lord had entrusted me with such a dangerous, important task. You sounded like someone that the world would be far better off without."

Xena made a non-committal grunt. That she in some part agreed with him was not something that would be appropriate to admit at this time. Her regrets for the suffering and destruction that she had caused in her past were hers to bear alone. She could not share them with anyone, not even with Gabrielle, fully, "But?" she prompted gently.

"But you have proven to be nothing ..." he gave her a considering look, remembering the report he'd heard on her capture, and having seen the trouble she had wrought in Nemausus, chained as she was, "or shall we say, very little like those descriptions I had of you."

She looked at him with her steady blue gaze. It felt to Patroclese as if she were boring into his soul, "The evil is a part of me," she said simply, "It's a part of everyone, some more than others. Some, like Gabrielle, barely know it's there. There was a time when evil was the only thing that filled me. I was able to change that. I am not the woman I was, I am not the person that I will become. We all change a little everyday. The choices we make, the deeds we perform, they all make their marks upon our souls and change us for the better ... or the worse."

"Are you saying that by serving my Lord I have committed an act of evil?" demanded Patroclese defensively.

Xena's features were a study of seriousness as she replied, "No ... Only you can say and know that, Patroclese. You are the guardian of your own soul."

Silence descended between them once again, as the healer finished his ministrations. Once completed, he helped Xena pull the shirt back under the belt, before packing his things up and leaving the cell. She'd given him a lot to think about. He was torn between his duty to his master and what he saw as an unjust action on his part.

Xena watched him go with mixed emotions. She liked Patroclese. Even with all he had done. She could feel the goodness within him and begrudged Caesar his loyalty. The Roman noble was unworthy of it. She needed an ally in the enemy camp and turning Patroclese to her side would give it to her. But she regretted the turmoil and heartache it would bring to the healer. Yet she would do whatever she had to, in order to save Gabrielle ... and maybe herself.

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*- *-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-

It was raining steadily as it had done throughout the ride down to Arelate from Nemausus. Joxer fussed with his clothing, "Why did I have to wear this?" he complained yet again, as he walked along with Autolycus, who had hunched over to hide his true height and shape, as well as keeping his face pretty well hidden by the hood of his cloak.

The thief slapped at his companion's hand as Joxer fidgeted with the unaccustomed shapes on the front of his chest. A passing pair of soldiers looked at them as they sauntered off for an evening in a local tavern and Autolycus told Joxer quite loudly, but in a voice very different from his usual arrogant sarcasm, "Because that skirt and blouse suits you my dearest."

"Ya think so?" asked Joxer slightly mollified as he twitched the manufactured breasts back into place.

"No!" hissed the thief in his usual tones as he led his 'wife' down the street well away from the Roman legionaries, "And if you don't stop pulling that disguise about we're going to be in big trouble."

"Well I never wanted to play the woman in the first place," grumbled the sallow faced man, "Why couldn't you have been the woman. Yeah," he said allowing his imagination to run away with him, "you could have been a warrior's woman. In a town like this that would have worked well," he declared.

Autolycus pulled his 'woman' into a doorway as three more Romans wandered down the street. They all looked at the pair in the shadows, but they cheered lewdly and offered coarse suggestions when the thief threw a hand around Joxer's waist and began to fondle his behind. The other hand went behind his partners neck as he acted out a long and passionate kiss.

As the legionaries continued on their way, laughing, Autolycus released his holds and wiped his hand roughly over his face as Joxer spluttered before demanding, "What did ya do that for?" spitting theatrically and pulling a sour face. Then, not waiting for an answer, "No don't tell me it was necessary for the disguise."

"You got that right at least, and" he continued not letting Joxer get another word in, "in answer to your other question, you're the woman because I've got a beard and a moustache."

"I know women who've got moustaches," responded Joxer quickly, "and beards too for that matter."

"I just bet you do!" answered the thief with heavy sarcasm, taking a peep around outside the alley to make sure the coast was clear. "Now come on. Iolaus and Toris will be expecting us."

They hurried quickly through the rain drenched streets as they made their way towards the west end of the city. They found the other two back at the tavern they had arranged to meet in. Toris looked unhappy in the farmer's smock and peasant cap that Autolycus had procured for him, while Iolaus looked daggers at the thief, while he sat uncomfortably in his own female attire.

- Well there's no pleasing everybody, - thought the King of Thieves with a wicked smile, - At least the disguises got us out of Nemausus and down here to Arelate without any trouble. -

"I don't see as there's anything to smile at," grumbled Iolaus shortly as Autolycus sat down opposite him.

"Oh c'mon, Curly," Autolycus chided him happily, just for the fun of seeing Iolaus further aggravated. Winding up Hercules' blonde buddy was a source of constant delight for the lighthearted thief, "Isn't it good to see what it's like on the other side of the fence?"

"Very funny, Autolycus," growled the short man in genuine annoyance, "I've been propositioned three times and one of them just wouldn't take no for an answer."

"What happened?" questioned Joxer as he pulled his scarf straight on his head. It felt wrong without his helmet, and the scarf was dripping wet besides.

"Let's just say that he got more than he bargained for, and the last I saw of him, he was heading for a tavern as quickly as he could get there." replied Iolaus grumpily. "You owe me for this Autolycus," he told the thief threateningly.

The thief grinned even wider, "Don't get your skirts in a twist, shorty, things have worked out pretty well so far."

"Have you found any news of them?" demanded Toris.

"They're in the Prefecture," answered Joxer, though in a quiet tone for a change.

"More interesting, however," Autolycus told them, "Is the fact that the VIIth are moving north in the morning and that Caesar is going with them."

"We'd more or less worked that out for ourselves, so it's hardly that surprising," retorted Iolaus, still festering about being the indignities of being accosted on the street by lewd men.

"What is news, though," continued the King of Thieves, not put off by the blonde man's annoyance, "is that Brutus is taking a maniple of the VIIth and is heading on to Massilia."

"Gods in Olympus!" swore the small man, "That must mean he's splitting Gabrielle and Xena up!"

"That would be my guess," agreed Autolycus, "He's probably sending Gabrielle back to Rome for safe keeping, while he keeps Xena with him."

"What are we going to do?" asked Joxer, "We can't follow both of them at once."

"We can if we split up," Iolaus answered thoughtfully, "Two of us will follow after Caesar, the other two will go after Brutus and watch for the chance to free Gabrielle."

Before anyone else could say anything, Toris told them firmly, "I'm going north after Xena. She's my sister," he said simply.

Iolaus and Autolycus looked at each other, "I'd toss you for it, shorty, but I kind of promised Xena that I'd get Gabrielle free. So I guess I have to follow Brutus."

The blonde man looked at Joxer, with something like relief on his face. He was well aware that Autolycus felt the same as he did, that Toris and Joxer needed to have leveller heads around them. Therefore if the thief was going to Rome, he'd be going north with Toris, which left Joxer to accompany Autolycus.

"What?" asked Joxer as he felt them looking at him and unaware of the by-play between them.

"Looks like you're coming with me, oh mighty mistress of mayhem," Autolycus told him with barely concealed reluctance.

"That's Master of Mayhem," corrected Joxer in irritation.

The thief looked him up and down insultingly before saying dismissively, "Whatever." He looked at Toris and Iolaus, "Seriously, though, you should be very careful. There are descriptions plastered everywhere around this city, and I have no doubt that it will be the same wherever you follow them to."

"They'll be looking for four men," Iolaus pointed out.

"That doesn't mean to say they won't recognise the two of you, just because there is only two of you. Most Roman's are smarter than that," pointed out the thief.

"We know the risks," put in Toris, angry and impatient, "What would you have me do? Abandon her?"

Autolycus gave the dark haired man a long steady look before asking, "Are all your family so hard headed?"

Toris had the grace to look a little embarrassed over the ungraciousness of his words and tone, before offering a bear quirk of his lips as he returned in a milder way, "Mostly, yes."

The thief shook his head as he looked at the man who resembled his sister in so many ways, "Just try to remember that if you get caught you're not going to help her situation."

Iolaus answered for them both, "We know and we'll both be careful," he glared at Autolycus, though and added, "But you can send me to Hades in a handcart if you think I'm going to trail north in these clothes," he said taking a long draft of his ale.

"Ah, and you look so cute too," teased the thief, "and the blue of your dress really compliments your complexion and your eyes."

"Hey, how come you never say things like that to me?" complained Joxer as Iolaus spluttered and spat his drink in exasperated fury. "I think I've got nice eyes too," he said fluttering his eyelashes.

Iolaus was torn between a desire to strangle Autolycus or pummel Joxer into a senseless heap. In the end he settled for an acid barb at the thief, "I hope you AND Joxer have a pleasant journey to Rome."

"Thanks, Iolaus," grinned the feckless warrior, taking the sentence at face value.

"Oh yeah," agreed Autolycus, a little less happy with being on the receiving end of things, "real pleasant."

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It was late into the evening, after the feast had finished and after he had dealt with the inevitable details needing his attention, that Caesar made his visit to the dungeon to check on Xena. Patroclese, of course, had already reported that the fight had caused the woman no major damage, just bruising .. although that was hard to believe when he remembered some of the pounding she had taken from the hulking brute pitted against her.

His lips quirked into an unpleasant smile as he thought about the situation. Xena's battle skills were going to recoup all the money he had had to lay out in order to capture her, and line his treasury with enough funds to further pursue his aims in Rome. Not only that, but if his plans worked out, she would also give him a much needed diplomatic victory in Gaul.

It was such a sweet revenge on the woman who had caused him so much trouble, but that revenge would not be complete until he had subjugated her to his will .. the anticipation of which deepened the smile that failed to touch the cold malevolence of his eyes. Everything would come to him in time, - After all, - he thought to himself with total confidence, - it is my destiny! -

He was pleased to note that the guards were alert, - If they hadn't been they would have been sorry! - he thought grimly. He moved without ceremony through his men, and stood outside of the bars, observing Xena as she dozed on the uncomfortably narrow wooden bench that served as the cell's only furniture.

Without moving, or opening her eyes, the Warrior Princess growled, "What do you want, Caesar?"

Her sensory abilities intrigued him. He couldn't understand how she could possibly know it was him, or that another pair of eyes was watching her, when her every move was observed by at least six men, day and night. He watched her as she swung her feet to the ground and sat up to face him. The look she gave him was filled with cold animosity .. the kind that is built up over years, nurtured, matured and allowed to cool into burning ice. He knew she would not speak again until he did, and he was tempted to allow the silence to stretch. However, he had come for a purpose and he did not intend to allow Xena to manipulate him this time, "We travel north tomorrow," he informed her.

The woman raised an eyebrow at him. Her eyes were cool and mocking, almost as if she knew what he was going to say, almost as if she knew what he was planning. She did not speak, and so he was forced to continue with what he had to say. "Your friend, however, will be going to Rome," he told her. He noticed the slight tensing of her muscles, and perhaps a faint gleam in her eyes, maybe of hope at the possibility of breaking loose and getting to Gabrielle before he could do anything about it.

"I'm telling you this because I want you to understand that the rules haven't changed significantly," he told her with assurance. He watched her watching him. There seemed to be an element of a cat watching a mouse here, but it was difficult to know just who was playing what part. "Admittedly, I won't have the bard to hand to punish for any transgression of the rules," he told her. "But believe me, Xena. Should you manage to escape from me, she'll be dead before you ever get to her. Messenger pigeons will get to Rome long before you can make it there, and your irritating friend will die a messy, painful, death. Believe it's so, because her well being lies in your hands."

She hadn't moved a muscle. Hadn't batted an eyelid. Whatever she felt at his announcement, she had no intention of showing it to him. And ... there seemed to remain a glimmer of hope in her eyes, - Is Flaccus right? - he questioned himself, - Did she manage to speak with one of those four men. If so, it was almost certainly the thief. His reputation is ... impressive. -

Well he had the means to crush that spark of belief, "Oh," he said with casual indifference, "I wouldn't count on much help from the thief .. Autolycus isn't it?." He saw her eyes narrow at his words, "Whatever he told you, he and his companions have troubles of their own. You know, Joxer and Iolaus ... and of course your brother ... Toris." He saw her fists start to clench before she forced them to relax, "I know all about them, Xena," Caesar told her with calm assurance, "It won't be too long before they join you in the cells."

Xena rose slowly from the bench and moved with a deadly menace over to where he stood. She said nothing, she made no overtly dangerous movement, but her whole body seemed to radiate an intense, deadly, intent that Caesar found difficult to ignore. Yet he met her look for look; a smile his response to the bleak frostiness of her attitude.

"Get some rest," he advised her, as he turned his back on her with apparent contempt for any threat she posed. "You'll need all your energy for what lies ahead of you."

Xena stood watching him until he had left the dungeon, before returning, with carefully studied indifference, to the bench upon which she lay down once more. Her thoughts boiling within her. It was obvious that all four of her would-be rescuers were safe for the time being, or Caesar would have delighted in showing them off to her. If they were loose then, with luck, they would go after Gabrielle and free her. Caesar probably wouldn't expect that. He failed to appreciate the love that the bard inspired in the people who knew her and counted her as a friend. Being unable to love anyone but himself, it was hardly surprising, but it could prove vital in this situation. He'd judge by his own standards and would almost certainly expect the four to come after her. - His prize! - she snarled silently to herself.

It was something to cling to. So long as the four men acted sensibly, and freed Gabrielle, then Caesar would be hamstrung. His efforts to hold and control the Warrior Princess would be severely hampered, and she just might get the chance to turn the tables on him .... But would Toris see it that way and understand that Gabrielle was the key to her freedom? She fell into a light sleep with the question running through her mind.

Chapter Twenty Four: Dreams and Reality
Gabrielle had watched the pit fight with some concern. She hadn't been sure just how much Xena's illness had taken out of her. She knew her friend had lost a lot of weight during her captivity, and was worried over how it would effect her strength. Much of her disquiet had been silenced by the familiar way that the Warrior Princess had handled the contest. She had taken a bit more pounding than the bard thought was normal, but Benidor was, after all, a professional gladiator.

When Xena had shot a look in her direction, after she had laid out her hulking opponent, Gabrielle had twitched her a brief smile, but she could tell that her friend had not really registered it: she was looking to see if there was the faintest chance of breaking free of the snare they were caught in.

She had swallowed hard as she felt the cold metal of the knife pressed tighter to her exposed throat. Xena's eyes had been on that dagger and, with it pressed against the bard's life, she had forced herself to relax and allowed herself to be re-chained. Gabrielle's heart had gone out to her best friend. The Warrior Princess was enduring humiliation and suffering at the hands of her oldest and deepest enemy, all because of the love she bore for the bard, - Oh, Xena, - she thought helplessly, - this is all such a mess. -

When Xena had been escorted from the pit, Caesar had dismissed her and her guards without a second thought. She had no importance to him, other than as an instrument of control over the Warrior Princess. As she was roughly shoved towards the side door from the gallery, she had heard Lucullus's bid to buy the dark haired warrior.

- So now she's to be bartered over like some ... some ... slave! - brooded the bard angrily as her hand reached towards the collar at her own throat. - But that's the problem, isn't it? To him, and the Roman world, we are slaves. Property to be bought and sold like cattle. - The thought disgusted her. They might not be treated like conventional slaves, but the collars proclaimed their status to anyone who cared to look.

As she was marched back through the prefecture's corridors, she allowed her thoughts to dwell on Caesar's intentions for them. She doubted that there was any price high enough to make him release Xena. He would never trust her out of his control. Besides, if this evening's wager was anything to go by, he could make a fortune in betting on combats. The bard felt a growing certainty that that was Caesar's intention. Xena would be condemned to a life as a 'prize' fighter, giving Caesar his vengeance and winning him a fortune.

Gabrielle shook her head in frustration. She couldn't allow that to happen. Yet while she was held hostage for the Warrior Princess's compliance, that was exactly what would happen. She had a choice here. If she could remove herself from Caesar's control, then Xena would have her own freedom to choose.

Depression descended upon her. Even if she were able to escape, or failing that, end her own life, what would Xena do? - She'd go after Caesar and kill him, even though it would almost certainly result in her own death, - shaking her head again, she knew she was as chained as the Warrior Princess, - I can't allow Xena to waste her life in that way, - she told herself with forceful determination. - There has to be a way out of this .... There just has to be! -

When they reached the storeroom door, she was shoved roughly inside. It was dark and airless, for they had given her no light and there was no window. She felt her way cautiously to the pile of grain sacks that she had used as a bed before she'd been taken to witness the fight in the pit. Slumping onto them despondently, the bard curled up into a tight ball and allowed the tears of anger, frustration and helplessness to flow down her cheeks in quiet testament to her misery. Gradually, a restless sleep claimed her and she descended into the painful world of guilt ridden nightmares that assailed her whenever she was parted from Xena.

In a landscape of twisting grey and purple light, Gabrielle awoke to find herself alone.
Truly alone!
No sound, no object, no person, no sky no ground. She felt abandoned, insignificant and afraid
She hugged her knees close to her body and felt her nakedness. She knew that she wore
nothing ... nothing except the silver collar around her neck.
She screwed her eyes shut, rocking back and forth as the silent tears streamed down her face.
She felt lost. Something ... someone? ... was missing! Her mind raced as she tried to
remember who she was, what she was, what she had lost!
She had no idea how long she was captivated in her misery. Time had no meaning here.
Life had no meaning.
And yet ....
The thought was demanding and somewhere from her concealed memory a face floated into
her minds eye. A dark face, hard and unforgiving. Grim in outlook and with eyes that
promised the chill harshness of death.
She drew a quick, fearful breath as she realised that the face was looking at her. Cold and
merciless eyes bored into her and she flinched from the accusation she read there.
She forced the image from her mind, but as she relaxed her will, the woman returned to
stand before her. Her flesh in tatters, blood dripping from her wounds, her head bowed in
subjugation. She looked up, her eyes holding a plea that was foreign to a wild and unfettered
nature, a plea for release.

Gabrielle screamed!

She was alone. The shifting grey and purple of the impossible landscape swirled around her
adding to her unease. She stood naked, but for the bright silver neck. With nothing else to do, and weighed down with a sense of hopelessness, she started to
Nothing changed, no one came, she was alone.
Feeling the tears burn hot tracks down her cheeks, she dashed them away with frustrated
anger. Where they fell tiny flames sprang up. As she watched in mesmerized fascination, the
flames grew and writhed together becoming a solid fountain of She backed cautiously away from what she perceived as a threat to her ... to everything she
held dear. To the very existence of the world.
A thick, snaking, tendril of flame lashed out at her, plucking her from her feet with startling
ease, throwing her high into the air above the core of it's existence. She hung there
helplessly, wrapped in the fiery intensity of malevolent evil.
And then ....
A naked, scar clad form launched herself into the heart of the fire, laughing at the evil that
she found there, and delivered the trapped form of the dreamer from the flame's grasp,
throwing her to safety.
As she watched, her rescuer was gripped by the furnace heat which slowly melted away all
that had been of the woman, all except the vivid memory of a pair of piercingly cold blue
eyes and the glitter of a silver slave collar.

Gabrielle Screamed!

She was alone. The disturbed roiling of the purple and grey landscape made her feel sick as
violent orange streaks shot through the striation adding a further level of unreality to the
She stood naked, except for a silver metal collar fastened around her neck, and a bracelet
that seemed to fade in and out of her sight as she looked at it. As it solidified she could hear
a groan of desperate pain, that faded as the bracelet became insubstantial.
She stood puzzled as to what it could mean. That the bracelet was precious to her she had no
doubt, but it seemed to be an abstraction of a lost reality, something she had and had lost all
too soon.
As the thought loomed in her mind, her memory folded and she stood witness as a coldly
determined woman drove a sword through the chest of a familiar man.
"Perdicus!" she shouted in crazed grief, "No!"
The blonde haired woman shot her a look filled with psychotic hunger, "That'll do!" she
said maliciously before dissolving into nothingness.
She ran to the man who died in her arms. Another face hovered close to her own. Dark and
strong, compassion filling her blue eyes as she gazed down.
And then she strode away and was seemed to be chasing after the insubstantial form of the
murderer. She watched the progress of the chase with eyesight enhanced by time and
memory. She saw them both tumble down a sand dune and into ... a cage!
Borne down with chains the dark haired woman knelt before a tarnished god ... no a man!
He reached out with a strong hand and grabbed the woman's hair. A silver collar glinted at
her throat.
The dreamer raised a hand to her own ....
A hand slashed down and the golden skin above the collar was sliced to release a fountain of
gushing crimson that smothered the dreamer as she watched.

Gabrielle screamed!

She was alone! The landscape around her swirled in a nauseating mix of grey, purple,
orange and crimson. She was naked except for the collar she wore at her throat. She stood
staring into nothingness, unchecked tears running unnoticed down her face.
Wild images of destruction, pain, fire, death, pain, deceit, jealousy, hatred, pain ... above all
pain, hers and another's, gripped her mind as she struggled to make sense of what she saw
before her. To make sense of what she needed to do to make it right.
She felt the cold metal appear in her hand and looked down at the sharp blade of the knife.
With infinite slowness she raised the dagger until it hovered in front of her chest. It's sharp
caress could end all the suffering, all the torment. All she had to do was plunge it into her
heart and everything would end.
She looked up and saw the dark woman standing in front of her.
A sad look in the ice-blue eyes.
"It's for the best, you know," she told her through her veil of tears.
"Without me you'll be free."
"Without you I'm nothing," came the soft reply. "Don't do this, Gabrielle. I won't survive without you."
Her voice was hard with the certainty she spoke.
"Xena, without me he cannot hold you," she told her friend fervently.
"But who will hold my soul, Gabrielle? Who will be my light?" came the pleading answer.
"Xena," she sobbed.
"I love you Gabrielle .... Don't leave me!"

Gabrielle .... awoke!

The room was pitch black when she opened her eyes. She had no idea what time it was: the fuzzy yellow light that slid grudgingly under the thick door did not help her to judge. She could hear the occasional comment from one of the guards beyond the heavy wooden door, but they gave her no clues either.

She scrubbed miserably at her face, smearing away the dampness she found on her cheeks. She hated nightmares. Her occasional gift for prophecy often allowed glimpses of the future creep into her dreams, but her nightmares were nearly always formed from the awfulness of past doubts, guilt and fears.

Normally, she had a strong pair of arms to cling to when she awoke from such torment. A friend that would hold her until she stopped shaking and could make the nightmares vanish in her calm certainty. This time she was alone! She shuddered at the vivid images that the thought conjured up in her mind, clinging to that last desperate plea that rang in her memory as she awoke. Whatever happened, she would not abandon her friend if she could help it. However ill used they were at this time, however much she felt the guilt of chaining Xena to her captivity, she could not relinquish her friend to her darker self. For she knew in her heart that, whatever the Warrior Princess had promised, grief would drive her into the arms of the darkness that she had struggled so hard to leave behind.

She hugged her knees to her chest and rested her head on them as she waited to see what morning would bring. She could not face returning to sleep in case the nightmares returned to claim her. She stifled a yawn as she held herself in her uncomfortable position as slowly, her heavy eyes drifted shut once more.


That was how Patroclese found her some candlemarks later. He entered the bard's makeshift cell, with a lantern to pierce the darkness, and found her huddled against the far wall, jammed in amongst some grain sacks. Her face was smudged and stained with the trail of the tears she had shed and, in her sleep, it made her seem so very young, innocent and vulnerable. - Maybe, just maybe, Xena's past deeds have earned her the fate she's now living, - his mind told him, - but Gabrielle is a different case altogether. Her only crime is that of being the friend of the Warrior Princess! - the thought made him feel sick. He put the lantern down onto a clear space on one of the shelves that lined the walls of the storeroom, and moved over to the bard, whom he gently shook into wakefulness.

Gabrielle returned to consciousness with startled disorientation. She had not intended to let sleep reclaim her, and the fact that it had been dreamless did little to compensate for the fact that she felt stiff and sore from the position she had drifted off in.

"Hey," he asked kindly, reaching out to touch her cheek, "are you okay?"

Crabby from nightmares, poor rest and an aching back, she slapped his hand away and demanded, "What do you care?" She desperately wanted to be with Xena, to talk to her and be comforted by her. It would be difficult in the wagon, surrounded by prying eyes. But it would be better than nothing.

"When are we leaving?" she asked grumpily as he handed her a soft roll of nutty bread for her breakfast.

"Caesar and the VIIth will be heading north within the candlemark. I just dropped in to wish you a good voyage." he told her.

"Voyage," she asked a little bemused, "Where's he sending us?" she asked, hopes rising that once away from Caesar, Xena might be able to figure a way to get them out of their trouble.

"You're going to Rome," Patroclese explained quietly, "Brutus will be commanding your escort. Xena will be going north with Caesar."

Gabrielle looked at him blankly, unable to take it in for a moment. After all Caesar had been at great pains to use her against Xena's indomitable will. If he sent her to Rome, then surely his grip on Xena would be loosened, "Why?" she asked in confusion.

"Lord Caesar feels that now Xena knows that he has you, there is no need to keep you quite so close. He can, after all, get a messenger pigeon to Rome long before Xena could get to you there." He did not spell out his meaning, he didn't have to. He knew the bard was smart enough to see the threat.

"Can I see her?" she asked quietly.

The healer shook his head, "My Lord sees no sense in risking another eruption like the one in Nemausus."

The bard looked blankly at the wall, misery plain to read in her eyes. She sniffed, bringing herself back to the reality of her present and asked quietly, "Who are you going with, Patroclese?"

"My Lord has commanded that I accompany him," the healer told her.

"Does he intend to make her fight again?" she asked dejectedly and grimaced at his nod of ascent. She sniffed again, "Will you give her a message for me?" the bard asked.

Patroclese smiled kindly and said, "Of course."

"Tell her not to take any chances, and that I want her to keep her promises," she told him, "It's important." A tear escaped and traced a crazy pattern down a cheek streaked with dirt and other tears.

The healer half held out a hand to comfort the young woman, before letting it fall back to his side. Gabrielle hadn't seemed to notice, but he feared another rejection, - After all, - he thought wryly, - I can't blame her for that can I. I hardly deserve her trust now, do I! - "Gabrielle," he said in a voice almost to quiet to hear, "I'm sorry."

The look she gave him was filled with anxiety and pain. She stared at him for the longest time before she grudgingly replied, "You thought you were doing the right thing .... You were only following His orders. I forgive you, and I'm sure Xena does too."

The words twisted like a knife in his gut. How could she say that after all he had put her through ... put both of them through. His certainty about the justness of his actions had been so strong. Yet from his first meeting with the Warrior Princess, that certainty had been slowly eroded. And now ... - And now it was to late to do anything about this mistake. - He felt lower than a worm! He stumbled, unseeing, from the storeroom, leaving the bard to munch with disinterest on her breakfast as she awaited the arrival of the guards who would escort her to Rome. The soldiers outside on duty, swung the door closed on her.

Chapter Twenty Five: Path of a Dagger
Xena was ready for the guards when they rousted her out in preparation for the march to the north. She'd been given a breakfast of the meat porridge that was part of the staple diet of the legionaries, as well as a soft roll of a nut flavoured bread that was, - Quite tasty, - she admitted to herself. She hoped that Gabrielle got to have some, as she knew that the bard was partial to nut breads.

Thinking of Gabrielle caused the slight furrow of a frown to appear on her brow. She had been troubled by turbulent images in her sleep during the night. They had been disturbing, especially as the Warrior Princess rarely dreamed. She avoided allowing herself to fall into a deep enough sleep to have them, for her dreams were almost always nightmarish relivings of her past career. Last night had been different. It was almost as if she had been looking in on someone else's nightmares, and from the images she saw, those dreams could have belonged to only one person ... Gabrielle.

Xena knew that she and the bard had developed a strong link during their years together. Their dreams had overlapped in the past. It was possible that she had found a glimpse of Gabrielle's nightmares. But if they were strong enough to create a link to Xena's light sleep, then she knew that the bard would have awoken shaking and miserable.

On the few occasions that it had happened since the dreamscape passage, where the Warrior Princess had saved her friend from being sacrificed to Morpheus (one of the Dream God Brothers) the bard had needed the reassurance of a friend's closeness to recover from the fit of shaking that had assailed her. The last time it had happened, Xena had spent the residue of that night with a protective arm around the bard's shoulders, while Gabrielle had sobbed herself back to a more peaceful slumber. She half-smiled at the memory. She'd got no more rest that night and had suffered a crick in her neck that had made her grouchy for most of the day.

Her look turned bleak as her thoughts returned to last night. If her glimpse into Gabrielle's dream was accurate, then the bard would have been in sore need of comfort. She was well aware that her friend was a capable woman. She snorted to herself, - If I forget, Gabrielle is pretty quick to remind me, - she acknowledged. But the bard also had an innocent vulnerability, that stood at the core of who she was, which made Xena so protective of her. It was an essence that was worth protecting, - It's what makes her special, - the warrior recognised, - Warriors are a dinar a dozen, - she thought wryly, - but the world has too few Gabrielles! - She hoped that the bard had managed to overcome her terrors of the night, but fervently wished she had been there for her. For all that Gabrielle had given her .. companionship, trust, friendship and love .. it was the least she could do for her friend.

Blasius had drawn escort duty for the morning ... again! and Xena watched him through narrowed eyes as he and the six fresh watchdogs, moved through the guardroom and approached the cell. She glared at the man moodily. Of all the officers in the guard detail that watched over her, he was the only one that she had developed an active dislike for. He made the hairs on the nape of her neck bristle, and the stubborn streak, that ran in her blood, scrambled to the surface looking for a fight. She forced it down, with regret. She wouldn't be responsible for Gabrielle taking another beating ... if it was at all humanly possible to avoid it.

The door was unlocked and the optio entered with his men. He roughly, checked that each cuff of her fetters was still locked tight by giving the chains a hard yank, watching the Warrior Princess for any reaction, and getting none, other than the raised, mocking eyebrow. He then turned his attention to the belt around her waist, noticing that Flaccus had secured it less tightly than it had originally been.

With a malevolent look on his face, knowing that her body was bruised and sore from the previous evening's fight, he viciously pulled the fastening as tight as it would go and allowed a malicious smirk to appear as Xena was unable to stifle the slight wince that creased her features, "You'll do," he told her, giving her a shove towards the cell door.

The Warrior Princess was ready for the push and so had no trouble keeping her balance. She wished that she could see Gabrielle for a few moments before they took their separate paths, but knew that Caesar would have refused such a request even if she could have forced herself to ask it.

Her shuffling, chain restricted, footsteps managed to keep up with the pace set by Blasius, who marched behind her, ready to add impetus to her movement with a firm hand in the back. The rest of the guard formed up around them and they wound their way out to where the wagon and cage awaited her.


Once again, it was a long day's journey to Evignan, another extensive and prosperous city. The travelling had been monotonous, she'd had nothing to look at but her guards and the uninspiring canvass that covered the wagon. Her cramped muscles were soon aching, and this time she had no Gabrielle there to massage the pain out of them. Even the food was unimaginative and dull. She'd had the normal trail rations of flatbread, hard cheese, some nuts and raisons, washed down with some of the sour wine that the Roman army favoured.

Her close guard had been changed at three candlemark intervals to keep them fresh and alert, although they hadn't had a great deal to watch as Xena had resolutely kept her eyes closed and dozed through the day, shifting only when stiff muscles and sore bruises demanded a change of position to give them some ease.

It was edging into late evening and the sun was beginning to dip towards the horizon. Once again, the VIIth Legion made camp outside the city, while the maniple, commanded by Flaccus, escorted Caesar, along with his personal guards and the wagon, into the city where they took up residence in the prefecture once more.

The cells available here, for once, gave Xena a modicum of privacy. She was lodged in a stone walled room, that had a heavy, iron bound door, with only a tiny grill in it. The floor was stone, and covered with reasonably fresh straw, but there was nothing else within the small room.

Reluctant to leave men within her reach, Flaccus opted to fix the collar with a chain and secure it to the wall opposite the door. She had enough slack to be able to lay down, but the chain ensured that she would be in sight of the peep hole at all times. One set of eyes remained on her, yet she hadn't realised how much of a strain it had been having six men observing her every move, until the intrusion had been lessened to just one. The subconscious relief was almost enough to make her feel good. The relative privacy also gave her the chance to try out the toothpick.

By laying down, and turning her back to the door, she carefully tugged at her shirt until she manoeuvred her collar to a position from which she was able to retrieve the metal pick. With her senses alert for any sounds that would warn her of someone seeking entry to the cell, she carefully manipulated the pick in the lock that secured her wrists to the belt around her waist.

It was a slow process. She was aware of the technique, for being within Autolycus's body (when she had sought a way back to her own after her death) had improved her own knowledge of how to open a lock, so she felt confident enough to tackle more than fairly simple ones. But she had never had occasion to practice and it was far from as easy as the thief's memories had made it appear. However, she persevered, learning that touch and feel were key to the operation along with patience.

- It is, - she decided, - like trying to do one of those metal puzzles that innkeepers keep for patron's entertainment. - The only problem being, she couldn't see the shape of the parts or how they fitted together.

Finally, she was rewarded with a soft click as she manipulated the mechanism into it's correct alignment. Allowing herself a pleased grin, she reversed the process, so that she put the padlock firmly back in place. Not wanting to push her luck, she slid the pick back into her collar, until she got another chance to practice. She was certain that the locks on the metal cuffs were going to be far more of a challenge to her basic skills.

Some time later, Patroclese showed up bringing his chess set with him, along with a bowl of stew and a loaf of fresh brown bread for her evening meal. He passed her the bread and stew, allowing her to eat while he set the pieces up on the board, "I saw Gabrielle before we left," he told her conversationally.

Xena, spoon halfway to her mouth, stopped and looked at him, "Was she ... alright?" she asked, a slight hesitation betraying her concern.

Patroclese continued laying out the pieces of the game, "She'd been crying," he told her quietly, "but she seemed okay."

The warrior began to slowly eat once more, concern evident in her eyes as her thoughts seemed to drift away. The bard had a tendency to have bad dreams. After Xena had 'died', Gabrielle had been assaulted by nightmares that drained her emotionly and physically. She hoped that this was not a reoccurrence of that problem, because this time she couldn't see how she was going to find her way back to her friend and cure them, "Sorry?" she said as she realised that the healer had been speaking to her.

Patroclese gave her a long look, wondering what had caused the woman's distraction and the definite flicker of worry that showed in her blue eyes, " I said," he repeated, "that Gabrielle wanted me to tell you to avoid taking chances, and to remind you that she wanted you to keep your promises."

Xena's lips twitched as she fought the urge to smile, "Trust Gabrielle to say that," she muttered.

She wiped out the bowl with the last of the bread and handed it back to the healer. She looked at him with a raised eyebrow as he held his other hand out, waiting until she flipped the spoon to him. He shook his head in grudging respect for her persistence as he stood and took them to the door and handed them to the guard outside.

By the time he had come back, Xena had made her first move on the board. He sat back down in the straw and moved his response, "So, what happens tomorrow? Another march north?" she asked conversationally.

Patroclese watched as she swept her high priest across the board, before answering, "We rest here tomorrow. I think my Lord is arranging another contest for you before we move on," he told her, not meeting the blue eyes that he could feel boring into him.

She could feel the rage rising within her. It was now obvious that at least one of Caesar's plans for her was to turn her into a gladiator, of sorts. The thought of being used so made her blood boil with outrage, but deep within her, she was aware of the stirring of that dark core that relished the prospect of battle. Her fury at both Caesar for using her thus, and herself for her combative desire, roared through her body, leaving her shaking with wrath as she fought back the emotions that gripped her so violently.

By the time she had herself under control, Patroclese had backed away from her so that he was almost at the cell's door. What he had seen in her eyes had terrified him. Her muscles had been quivering as she had strained against her fetters, and the Xena he had come to know seemed to have vanished leaving behind the murderous slayer from the dark stories of her past.

He swallowed hard as he saw the woman slowly force the violent anger back into it's box. Whatever else she was, whatever she would become, the healer had just had a glimpse of the dark nature that lurked forever just below the surface, showing him that the deadly danger of Xena was far from a myth. His heart and his head hammered at each other once more, - Lord Caesar was right, the woman's an animal and she must be kept under restraint, - he told himself. While arguing, - How can I condemn her for her rage at being treated as she is? - They were arguments he had wrestled with for a long time now and still he could find no answer that would satisfy his conscience.

Xena looked at the obviously badly shaken healer. She shook her head ruefully, knowing that she could intimidate most people without really trying and, when she allowed her mask to slip, it could petrify even the most hardened warrior. She could understand that. It scared her. Losing control to her animal self, which had emerged after her first encounter with Caesar, was something she fought against every moment of her life. "It's okay, Patroclese," she told him softly, "I won't hurt you." She watched as he edged back to where he had been sitting, flinching at her slightest movement. - Whatever progress I may have been making with the healer has probably been shattered, - she thought disconsolately. "It's your move ... I think," she said, trying to break the tension.

When they had finished the game, Patroclese packed up the set and returned to his own quarters. He seemed to have regained some of his ease with her, but he left the Warrior Princess in a darkly brooding mood, as she contemplated the monster within herself. It was at times like these that she believed she had earned whatever Caesar threw at her. For all of the death, destruction and horror she had caused in her life, surely she deserved punishment? And what could be more fitting than her current torment at the hands of her hated enemy. She spent a long miserable night wishing for the presence of Gabrielle. The bard would have soothed her fears and the loathing she felt for herself.

On to Chapter Twenty Five, Part II

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Destiny’s Dominion

Chapter Twenty Five: Path of a Dagger
The following morning was spent alone in the cell, other than when breakfast and lunch were delivered to her. She amused herself by practising with the toothpick and working on the padlock that held her manacles to the leather belt. As she exercised on them, the manipulations became easier to accomplish, and the success it brought, gradually lifted some of the gloom from her.

Mid afternoon, Flaccus came for her. Releasing the chain from the ring it was shackled to, he used it as a leash as he motioned her out of the cell and ordered the soldiers to form up around her as usual. Keeping a firm lid on her anger and the self loathing that lurked at the back of her mind, she moved along with them as she was escorted to another pit room that bore marked similarities to the first she had fought in. However, this one was rimmed with sharp metal spikes, that jutted out from the top of the wall, over the pit just below the level of the gallery, to prevent fighters from turning on their masters.

She looked up and found Caesar immediately. Her eyes drawn to him like a loadstone. For the moment he ignored her. He was speaking with three men, their wealth obvious from their dress and from their attitudes. She glanced around the gallery and noticed the archers placed strategically. She counted twenty of them, and her eyes narrowed as she noted they all carried small hand sized dart crossbows cocked and ready for use.

- Bet those darts carry some kind of quick acting sleep drug on them, - she grimly assessed.

Finally, Caesar turned towards the pit and gestured towards Xena, "Gentlemen," he smirked at the men with him, "this is my slave. If you are agreeable, then the wager is that she will take on your three fighters, with the one stipulation that no weapons are to be used."

"Are you serious, Caesar?" questioned a tall greying man of aristocratic bearing and aquiline features, "Three against one? and our men professional gladiators while, your slave is nothing but a barbarian wench? Surely you jest!" he laughed.

"Not if you are willing to give me the odds agreed upon," Caesar told him his voice full of dark humour, "and the woman is a Greek, not a barbarian. Although I will grant you she's a savage."

The short, dark middle aged man standing off to one side gave a snort of contempt, "Barbarian ... Greek, what does it matter. She's a wench and will not provide much of an afternoon's sport against all three of our men. I'll grant you she has the look of a fighter," he said speculatively as he ran a considering finger down his jaw, "but I'd rather see a good match than a poor one, even if I do get to take your money."

The third man had been looking carefully at the guards, the chains and the bearing of the woman standing, head erect, below him. His chain of office declared him to be the Prefect of the city, and his shrewd look suggested little escaped his attention. A wry smirk appeared on his face as he turned to the others, "Quintus," he said clapping the small man on the shoulder, "Sertorius," he said including the nobleman, "I think my friend Julius may have gulled us. I think three against one may be very poor odds, and that we'll be paying out on the stakes we made. However if I'm wrong, I have some criminals that can entertain us if necessary."

"Damn it Gaius," protested the tall, elderly Sertorius, "I didn't come here just to watch a bunch of amateurs scrap it out. I was promised a real contest."

"And it will be Sertorius," promised Caesar, "other wise I'll pay you double the wager ... as long as it's your men that win."

"Oh, lets get on with it," Quintus drawled in a bored tone. I'm sure we'll be able to find something to amuse ourselves with for the rest of the afternoon,"

Caesar turned his attention to Flaccus who stood waiting with Xena in the pit, "Alright Centurion, take them off," he ordered and watched as the officer unlocked the Warrior Princess from her shackles, "Very well, Xena," he began, and a smirk sparked in his eyes as he heard the men beside him register the name and understand exactly who he had pitted against their men, "Gabrielle's not here, which is why we've got the archers."

That brought another round of whispered comment from the three local men, who had obviously thought they were some form of guard for Caesar, - Well they are, - thought Xena, - just not against your machinations. -

"Not even you can catch the amount of darts they can fire at you, and just bear in mind what will happen to your friend should you managed to get out of there." The whispering had continued until Caesar halted and Gaius interrupted.

"Julius, are we right in presuming that this is the infamous Warrior Princess of Greece? The so called 'Destroyer of Nations?" he questioned.

Caesar watched his captive as she carefully massaged her wrists and ankles, "She has worn those titles at times," he conceded. Then added for her benefit, "Now her only title is slave." His eyes gleamed as he saw her stiffen at his barb.

"My friend," laughed the prefect ruefully, "I think once this is over, you had better give us a detailed account of just how you managed to acquire this woman as a slave." Gaius gave a signal and three men, stripped to the waist entered the pit.

Xena dropped into a fighting crouch, her mind assessing the capabilities of those she faced, watching how they moved and how they carried themselves. All were tall, only one being slightly shorter than she was. They were muscular with scars decorating their bodies. They spread out to flank her, intending to back her up to the wall of the pit and then close in for an easy kill, so to speak.

Allowing herself to drift backwards, Xena, startlingly let out her ululating cry, "Yi,yi,yi,yi,yi,yi!" and leapt into a back flip so that her feet landed halfway up the pit wall. Pushing off she propelled herself in a forward flip, over the heads of her opponents, landing behind the shortest one whom she flattened with an elbow jab to the base of the skull.

She spun smoothly to face the two others who scattered apart to either side, trying to make her split her attention between them. The one to her left was a younger man, with close cropped hair and an arrogant belief in his own ability. The second man was older, his head was shaved and his eyes showed the experience of past fights. A glance told her that the man she had elbowed would be no problem for a while.

As one, the men sprang for her. She tried to sidestep them, fooling the younger of the pair .. who rushed past in an uncontrolled lunge .. but failed to divert the older man who threw an arm around her neck, and smashed a hard fist into her back just above her unprotected kidneys. Pain flared, which she tried to ignore, as she forced herself to concentrate on the gladiator's arm as it tightened around her neck.

Using her elbows again, she rammed them back into his muscular rib section, making him grunt from the force, and slacken his hold a little. Dropping to her knees, the sudden dead weight sent the man catapulting over her head to slam into the wall in front of them. He slumped to the ground shaking his head to clear it.

Before Xena could get back to her feet, the younger fighter slammed a booted foot into her ribs, causing her to grunt as the breath rushed from her body. A second kick followed the first, before a hand dropped down and grabbed a handful of her long hair, pulling her up enough to receive a cracking right fist to her jaw.

Fighting off pain and dizziness, the Warrior Princess launched herself from her knees to tackle the gladiator around the waist and take him down to the ground where she straddled him and delivered a stunning left fisted backhand punch that was so hard the spectators heard the jaw crack. Before she could finish him off, though, the older fighter had recovered his wits and dove into her, carrying her back onto the floor of the pit. Straddling her as she had his team mate, the gladiator threw a right hand punch at her face, only to have it stopped in mid-flight by a grip like a vice. He threw a left to try and distract her, just to have it captured in the same way.

He looked at her with a growing awareness of fear, as she raised an eyebrow at him, and then with incredible power and impressive ease, she tightened her fingers, crushing his hands, before shoving her hands forward so that the fighters wrists bent back at an alarming angle, snapping the bones with an audible, "CRACK!" He screamed as she shoved him aside and sprang lithely to her feet.

The first man she had downed had recovered from her blow, and was advancing on her, a look of wild anger in his eyes. A quick glance at the other two men told her the older one was out of the reckoning, while the younger one (with the broken jaw) was slowly climbing back to his feet. She smiled at the gladiator advancing on her and beckoned him on.

When he rushed her to secure her in bear hug, she chopped down hard with both hands into the base of his neck, before crashing her forehead into his nose, driving him to the ground with the force of the blow and laying him out with a stunning roundhouse right.

It was then that she heard the clang of metal as a dagger hit the ground by the feet of the last man standing. He grabbed it triumphantly, anger and pain flaring from his eyes as he swung to tackle Xena.

"Damn it!" swore Caesar vehemently, motioning for a messenger to get to Flaccus as quickly as possible, "Whoever let that knife drop in there, better have a damn good excuse!"

"Come Julius," grinned Sertorius, "at least it will make the rest of this fight interesting. If it's the bet you're concerned about, we can always call it void. And I'm sure that Olan won't cut her up to badly."

Caesar glared at the man, "He won't even scratch her," he snarled furiously, "But she'll get that weapon and as soon as she does she becomes ten times more dangerous, just with that dagger."

The other three men paled somewhat as they contemplated that concept, and just how angry Caesar was at the situation. They flicked worried glances at each other, the furious man beside them and then returned their gaze to the pit to watch the outcome of the fight.

The Warrior Princess eyed the fighter, sweeping the dagger before him as he approached, while she made her retreat towards the wall. Her eyes locked to his, reading his actions as they registered there. It was his eyes that would tell her his intentions, not the weapon. Suddenly she saw them widen as he launched himself at her, driving the blade downwards towards her neck. Xena grabbed the descending arm and twisted beneath it, using the build up of torque and momentum to flip the gladiator into a heavy fall, before finishing him off with a kick to the head.

Grabbing the dagger, she took a step, turned and threw the weapon straight at Caesar, eyes blazing as she watched the blade travel true. Before she saw it strike, bodies hit her from behind, as Flaccus and his guards steamed into the pit. She struggled for her liberty, making the soldiers fight hard to take her. But the pummelling she had already taken, from the tussle with the gladiators, along with sheer weight of numbers began to tell on her. Bodies piled on top of hers, pinning her down, while first the leg irons were locked in place, before the manacles were snapped around her wrists and the belt secured around her waist.

As she was dragged upright, her eyes darted to where Caesar had been standing. He stood looking back at her, hooded brown orbs blazing as blood dripped down his right cheek from the deep score made by the passage of the knife. - Spot on! - she thought, - he'll wear my mark now! - her eyes burned with her rage as she glared at him.

"Get her back to her cell," snarled Caesar, as he turned his glare on the three men who stood with him.

Xena's arm was jerked roughly as she was dragged from the fighting pit and back to her prison. On the way back, she railed at herself for being a fool, if she had killed Caesar, she may well have condemned Gabrielle to death. The fact that she had hit what she aimed for was immaterial .. he could have moved into a fatal position. She had no doubt that word would be gotten to Rome, or that Caesar would have made plans for such an occurrence.

Once back in the dungeons, the chain was reattached to her collar, but this time it was hauled tight to the ringbolt on the wall, giving her no room for movement, and keeping her standing. The soldiers were rough with her, but not excessively so, trained to await Caesar's orders for whatever punishment he might deem as necessary for the attempt on his life.

- Oh that was so dumb, Xena, - she told herself, left in the silence of her dungeon. - Gabrielle would be having fits after what I promised. - Yet she couldn't stop the small smile of satisfaction from playing on her lips, - I bet the bastard nearly wet himself, - She grunted as she tried to settle herself into any kind of comfortable position.

Her neck was sore from the attempt at strangling her, and wasn't being helped by the way they'd got her chained. The punch in her back over her kidney felt raw, as did her ribs ... again! where she'd taken a couple of heavy kicks. The rest of her body felt bruised from the soldiers piling in. She hadn't been able to count heads, but there had been more than the twenty men who escorted her there.

Another grin flitted across her face, she'd seen Blasius in the scrum, and had got in a good punch before they'd managed to subdue her, - Oh are they ever going to make me suffer, - she thought to herself, - but ... I think I can honestly tell Gabrielle it was worth it. She won't believe me, but it was definitely worth whatever I have to pay for it. -

The cell door opened to admit Patroclese, who came in oozing anger from every pore. He dropped his kit in front of her and silently examined the new wounds and injuries she bore. He roughly swabbed of the drying blood from a split in her lip, pulled her shirt up and gently ran his fingers across her ribs to check for damage, before applying liniment to the fresh collection of bruises he found there, he used a cool painkilling salve on the nasty bruise he found on her back, before finally rubbing a salve into her neck.

"Not speaking, huh?" asked Xena as he packed his things away.

"Are you mad?" he demanded as he stood glaring at her. "Do you think Caesar's going to shrug that dagger throw off?" the deliberately blank look she gave him seemed to infuriate him, "Didn't you think about Gabrielle at all?" he demanded, "There could be a message on it's way ordering her immediate execution."

Xena stiffened, "He wouldn't. He know's she's the only hold he's got over me."

"Some kind of hold," roared Patroclese, "You just tried to kill him!"

"If I had intended to kill him, he'd be dead," she told him icily, "and he knows it. That's why he won't kill Gabrielle, because he knows if there is ever a next time, he would die. She's his shield."

"Quite so, Xena," said a voice from the doorway, "Quite so." He stepped into the cell and she could see the livid cut that had required stitching to close the wound. His brown eyes flared with anger as he looked at her, "Possibly I made a mistake sending Gabrielle away. I think you believe that she's safe from punishment for your breaking of the rules." He glared at her with a savage intensity that almost matched her own.

Her own anger building within her, Xena couldn't stop herself from retorting with icy certainty, "No! Your mistake was bringing Gabrielle into this .. and as soon as I'm free I'll make absolutely certain that you regret every mark you've put on her."

He moved closer to her, his eyes burning with fanatic intensity, "You are in no position to threaten me, slave. Nor can you do anything to protect the bard. I think we'll keep a tally of the punishments you earn, and when we get to Rome, she'll get them in one dose. I think we'll call tonight's episode ten strokes for her. I wonder just how many she can take in one go?"

Xena lunged forward, only to be jerked back by the unrelenting chain attached to her collar. Unable to reach him, she fumed helplessly as he stood before her., knowing that anything she further said or did would make it worse. She hoped that Autolycus would make good on his promise to get the bard out of her captivity, but if he hadn't succeeded by the time Caesar got her back to Rome, she couldn't afford to have irritated Caesar into increasing the beating he had ordained.

Seeing the constraints that the warrior was putting on herself, the Roman added salt to the wounds, "Another time, my sweet, and I would have ordered you the lashing you deserve for your actions. However, I have some more contests to arrange for you and I want you fit enough to handle them. You must continue to win, you know Xena," he told her warningly, "because if you lose, I will make her suffer."

He swirled out of the cell, sweeping Patroclese along with him. As the door slammed shut she cursed her temper and Caesar both, - Ares' hairy buttocks! But that was dumb, real dumb. - Having nothing to vent her fury on other than herself, she continued her mental berating before forcing herself to settle into an uncomfortable night's sleep standing up.


Continued - Chapters 26 - 29


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