Standard disclaimer: None of the characters, places, etc. in this story are mine, but are instead the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended by their use in this story.
Author’s note: The latest in my ongoing series of AU Gabrielle and Caesar fics. Picks up right where “Heroes” left off. This one is sort of an in-depth exploration of Najara’s character as seen through the eyes of Gabrielle. Tara makes an appearance in this one too. Longer than the last one and harder to write (yes, even harder than the awful battle scene in “Heroes,”) this is the one that made me worry whether this series had jumped the shark. However, my kind (too kind?) beta reader, Lady Kate, assures me that isn’t so, which at any rate is very nice of her to say. J There will be a very short prequel interlude after this, then two more stories to finish the series, and then perhaps (no promises!) after the final story, another more extended prequel. Enjoy.
“I practice the profession of penitence, to be able to end up as a judge….”
She was coming for him.
Caesar stood at the window of his palace, looking out across the city; from his vantage point on the Palatine hill, he could see almost all of Rome spread out beneath him, laid out like a map, the broad avenues, the apartment blocks of the insulae, the Forum, the docks down by the Tiber. The large, round structure of the Colosseum loomed in the background, standing black and sharp against the evening horizon. Night was falling, and firelight flickered across his dark city.
His city. His own.
Not all of the firelight was lamplight.
She was coming for him.
Pompey had gone over to her side. Caesar had shouted at the messenger who had brought him that news, had raged at him, demanding how he knew that, who had paid him to say that, a thousand other things he couldn’t remember now, he had been so shocked—so stunned—to hear that. It would have shamed him, to remember his loss of control, if he could still feel shame. He couldn’t. He didn’t think he would ever feel anything again.
The outer gates had been breached about an hour or so ago; he had heard them go, a thunderous crash that had echoed and reverberated back across the city, rolling back from the Seven Hills, the Senate house, the temples to Jupiter and Juno and Minerva on the Capitoline. He hadn’t been there to see them; he’d been waiting in his palace. Waiting for her. He knew she’d come here eventually.
She was coming. For him.
Her men were battling their way up the streets; he could watch the progress of the fighting from his vantage point on the Palatine hill. Everywhere, the defenders of the city were falling back, pushed backward against the relentless onslaught of her men. Flames marked their progress. It wasn’t as great a burning as the one that would follow, but it was enough. The troops he had were simply being mown down, as Xena’s men surged through the city streets; it seemed from where he watched, as if Xena’s force was invulnerable, as if there was no power on earth or of the gods that could have slowed them down. Her army was titanic in size and strength; he could see her troops, flowing through the streets like a wave of darkness, unstoppable in its sheer force and power. In many areas of the city, there was no resistance, not any more; his men were flinging down their weapons and simply running for it, unwilling to contest strength with the superhuman spirit that animated her army. Some of his men, he saw now, were even going over to her side, joining in with her army, turning and striking blows at the men who had been until moments ago their compatriots, looting and burning along with the rest of her forces. So much for Roman discipline, he thought. The thought was distant, remote, like something half-overheard in a crowded room.
At the head of her army, spearheading the advance into the city, she rode.
She looked different from the last time he had seen her, he thought idly, following her with his eyes as she drove her horse straight up the center avenue into the heart of his city. She had been just another pirate then, stunned at his betrayal, naïve enough—as so many women were—to take his implied promises seriously. Just another pirate, one foolish enough to think that she could get in the way of his destiny. He’d taught her better, or so he’d thought, watching with a calm satisfaction as she had been raised on her cross. She should have known better, he’d thought, than to contest Rome…than to contest him. After all, who was she? Nobody. He was going to rule the world.
Had been going to. It certainly didn’t look that way now. The thought carried no especial weight with him; it was another vague, distant sentiment, there and then gone before it could be fully acknowledged.
Now, she looked like a goddess. She fought like a goddess, riding her golden mare through the streets at incredible speed as if she were invulnerable, striking left and right with her sword as the spirit moved her, dealing death as if she were an incarnation of the gods. Every blow she struck hit, and every hit she gave killed. None of her opponents came close to hitting her—no one even tried to hit her; those men of his who were still fighting were throwing down their weapons and fleeing from her as she drew near. They were falling back from her in waves; he could feel their terror even up from his vantage point, and as they fled she cut them down, her eyes blazing. A trilling cry rose over the raging battle; somehow he knew it was hers, even though he had never heard it before. It seemed to him, from where he watched, that she rode in darkness, at the center of a deep shadow that spread outward from her, spreading its tendrils to everything that came near her; he acknowledged distantly that it was probably a trick of his eyes, but that was how it seemed to him. And at the heart of that shadow, she was as bright as a blazing star, as perfect and untouchable and devastatingly beautiful as a jewel, a diamond, bright and brilliant and sharp enough to cut. Of course she was a goddess. Of course his men were fleeing. Of course she was invulnerable. It all seemed to make sense, as he watched her gallop full-speed up the avenue without the slightest hint of concern for any danger. How could she be wounded? How could she be injured? It was impossible. Anyone opposing her was doomed—they wouldn’t even have a chance. That was simple enough to see, and she proved it again and again, striking and striking with her sword until the whole blade was red with blood. She was coming. She was coming with the inexorable weight of an avalanche, a landslide, a tidal wave. She was coming like an avatar of divine retribution incarnate. There was no power on earth or of the gods that could stop her, stay her or turn her aside. And she was coming straight for him.
Closer now. Closer.
Caesar turned away.
With slow, measured steps, he left the window and crossed to his dressing table. He moved as if he were underwater; everything seemed very distant to him somehow, not quite real. He felt as if he had a high fever, or were slightly drunk; reality seemed to have taken on a crazy skew. He looked at himself in the mirror there, running his hands over his clothing, setting it to rights; he adjusted the blue cloak he wore slightly, touching the clasp, refastening it. He took the golden circlet of laurel leaves from the table top and slowly raised it to his head, pausing a moment to admire the effect of the gold, bright against his coal-black hair. His eyes fell on his sword, and he wondered vaguely if he should take it, then dismissed it. It wouldn’t do any good. Nothing would do any good. Not now.
He turned, and left the room.
Statues and vases lay smashed in the hall outside, tables and stands clumsily tipped over by panicky servants fleeing in desperate fear before the onslaught of Xena’s army. His sandals gritted on shards of pottery and marble. He moved slowly, with no haste; there was no point. Servants rushed by him as he walked, without so much as a glance in his direction; many of them were carrying valuables that did not, strictly speaking, belong to them. He saw expensive jewelry in the arms of one young female who was almost running; another older, male servant was carrying two golden candlesticks and a set of silver plate that had clearly been taken from the dining hall. He let them pass without speaking, even stepping to the side to get out of their way as they ran down the halls. Why bother to try and stop them? It wouldn’t work, and it didn’t matter anymore.
The audience hall was empty when he got there, but the torches were lit and burning in their sockets; Caesar paused to note this distantly, before dismissing it. The fighting was very close now; he could hear the clash of arms, as well as shouting and screaming so close by that he could even make out individual words. The doors leading to the outside were barred. Caesar saw this, and dismissed it too. Slowly, each step precise, he turned and stepped up on the dais. He pushed back his cloak, and took his seat upon the throne.
Nothing left to do but wait.
The thudding began almost as soon as he had taken his seat, the doors to the chamber shivering under heavy blows. Battering ram, he thought to himself; again, the thought was distant, vague, there and then gone almost before it was acknowledged. Time seemed to have slowed down, somehow; it was as if he were surrounded by a glass ball of utter calm. He had time to count each individual strike against the doors, to see the grains of dust sifting down from the plaster above, each utterly distinct, utterly perfect, glistening with its own light; to observe in minute detail the way the doors shook against their frame, the timbers bending and flexing under the force being directed at them. Everything seemed unreal. His life—his destiny—had come down to this moment; the scope of his ambition, his plans, his hopes and dreams, had narrowed down to a space no wider than the thickness of the wooden doors he faced, the final barrier between him and Xena’s terrible, unstoppable wrath. He could feel each heartbeat, hear the roaring of blood in his ears. His heart was pounding in his chest. He didn’t know why. He felt no emotion, nothing; not fear, not terror, not fury; nothing. He was simply numb.
In those last few moments of his empire—the last few breaths, the last few heartbeats while the door still held—Caesar sat, motionless on his throne in the audience chamber of his palace, and waited for his destiny to fall on him.
The doors shattered inward in an explosion of splinters, and Xena’s golden mare leapt straight through the shattered gap. Xena rode her, blazing with battle-rage, giving her trilling warcry. The fear burst in on Caesar at the same time—an awful, debilitating terror of a sort he had never felt before in his entire life, that crushed his chest and weakened all his limbs. Xena looked not human, but more than human, a divine goddess of vengeance come for him; her aura spilled out from her to fill the room to the walls—and Caesar felt himself recoil from her, goaded by that horrible, awful fear.
The mare plunged, sliding on the slick surface. Xena met his eyes, and a terrifying grin spread across her face. He had never seen an expression of such pure evil on human features before. With a drilling, triumphant scream—“Eeeeeeee-yaaa!”—she snatched a whip from her saddle horn and swung it. A line of fire curled around his throat. The pain shocked him. He heard himself cry out and reached up to claw at the choking line of braided leather at his neck. Her horse’s hooves were thundering on the marble floor. More and more of her men were pouring into the room through the devastated doors on either side of her. The whip tightened on his neck and the world jarred around him. A sharp splitting pain exploded in his head as he was yanked off the throne and hurled roughly to the ground, and he cried out again as the marble floor struck him. The whip was choking him, choking; his sight was beginning to gray out before his eyes and he thrashed wildly, clawing for air. Then Xena’s foot slammed into his chest as she leapt off her horse, pinning him to the floor. She yanked the whip tighter still around his neck. It’s her. That’s Xena. There was no doubt about it as she grinned down at him, her eyes frighteningly veiled in that pale, alabaster face. That aura was pouring out around her, dimming his sight still further.
“Honey,” she cried in hellish exultation, “I’m home!”
Caesar could not make a response. His chest was burning for air. Xena leaned down and he felt her snatch the laurel leaf circlet off his head; she turned, and he was barely able to make out that Pompey was nearby. How his rival had gotten there, Caesar didn’t know. That bastard—that traitor—how did he—
“Here, I believe this is yours,” she said, grinning. Pompey strolled up easily to take it, moving with an incredible air of confidence, as if he was taking no more than he deserved; as his fingers closed around the circlet, he looked down on Caesar and gave a slight, supremely self-possessed smile. If Caesar had been able to move, he’d have tried to kill him for that smile alone.
“Thanks. You know, I always did think this would look better on me,” Pompey said, not losing that grin. He raised it to his own head, and looked at Xena, the gold lost against his blonde hair. “What do you think?” he asked her.
“Perfect,” Xena said with relish; she was not looking at Pompey, but still looking down at him with that absolutely frightening smile. “I’ve been waiting years to see that.” She jerked the whip still tighter around his neck, grinding her heel into his chest. Black flowers bloomed across his vision and he coughed, throwing his head back desperately. “And as for you….don’t worry. I’ve got plans for you too....Slave,” she hissed at him through her teeth. Her burning, terrifying eyes were the last thing he saw as the darkness swallowed him.
Caesar jerked awake, to the sight of cold, gray stone walls.
He didn’t remember where or when he was at first, and tried to rise without thinking, but the pain in his shattered legs pulled him back to the present, and as he raised one hand, he saw the livid scarring circling his wrist. It stood out against his skin in the dim and slanting light that made it through the shutters. He had dreamed for a brief instant that he was whole again, that his city still stood and Xena still lived; he had dreamed that the events of the last five years hadn’t yet happened—and perhaps could still be averted—but that wasn’t the case. He woke from the dream to the room he and that stupid blonde bard—Gabrielle, he knew her name now, it was Gabrielle—had shared, with the memory of his failure in battle that morning close upon him. No, he wasn’t whole again; he had nothing more than his broken body and the knowledge that Rome had fallen, Xena was gone, and now it seemed his skills as a commander were gone too.
I should have stayed asleep, he thought.
Tired. He was so tired. He’d been up all night the night before, trying to find some way to make something out of nothing, to defeat an army with a rabble of peasantry. The knowledge that Xena could have done so hadn’t helped; as if he needed another reminder that he was not Xena and could never be Xena. The memory of his outburst in the tavern made him sick with rage and shame. When the Crusader had arrived on scene—sweeping into the village as effortlessly as if she owned it, riding and striking, like Xena, as if she were invulnerable, her men moving with the same unstoppable force that had animated Xena’s troops—he had simply gotten up from his chair and retreated to his room. In all the commotion and excitement, he was fairly certain no one had even seen him go. Once there, he had lain down and simply gone to sleep. Let the Chosen of the Djinn deal with the battle. She could, no doubt, do so better than he.
He rolled over in the narrow bed—carefully, so as not to cause any more protest from his legs—so that he faced the wall. He closed his eyes, trying to find the dream again—maybe a better dream this time, one where Xena didn’t chain him and break his legs and burn his city to the ground—but the thudding against the doorframe snatched him back from sleep. It was unpleasantly like the pounding of his dream, and of the men of Zagreas at the tavern door earlier. He raised himself on his arms and prepared to shout at whoever it was to leave him alone, when the door opened and Jett came through it.
That damn assassin. Caesar grimaced at the memory of the last time they had met, and eyed him warily.
“What do you want?” he said harshly before Jett could speak.
Jett stepped back against the wall and looked at him. “How are you doing? Are you awake?”
Caesar raised one hand to his forehead. “I am now, thanks to you. What do you want?”
“The Crusader Najara sent me to look after you and Gabrielle. She says to tell you that if you are wounded, her healers will treat you—they’ve set up tents on the edge of the village and are treating the injured of the villagers and of Zagreas’s men, but if you—“
“I don’t need healing. Leave me alone.”
“Najara also says,” Jett continued on as if he hadn’t noticed Caesar’s interruption, “that she would like to meet with you later today, so that she can hear from you the exact details of what happened at Xena’s camp—her djinn have told her that the Daughter of War is dead, but she would like to hear from eyewitnesses.”
Caesar felt his mouth tighten at the request. “I’m not telling her anything.” His head was splitting. He rubbed his closed eyes and wondered briefly to himself at his own twisted loyalty toward the woman who had taken everything from him and made him a slave.
The assassin eyed him carefully. “Xena’s dead, you know,” he said after a moment. “Nothing you say can hurt her anymore.”
He considered that, frowning. The remnants of fatigue were still in him; it was hard to think clearly. “What’s that stupid bard say?” he asked after a moment.
Jett didn’t like that; Caesar could tell by the expression that crossed the other man’s face. “She’s not stupid. And she has a name, you know,” he said, looking at him in disapproval. “It’s Gabrielle.”
“I don’t care.”
“You should. She’s saved your life twice—once in the tunnels from that guard, and once, from what I’ve heard, today in this very tavern—“
Three times, Caesar thought but did not say, remembering the day he had gotten the chains off and reality had come crashing down on him.
Jett was continuing, his expression hard. “She’s killed for you, because you were unable and unwilling to defend yourself. If I were her, with her reverence for life, I wouldn’t have compromised my principles on account of you. Frankly, you’re not worth it, particularly when you’re not willing to help yourself. I would have left you to die.”
“She should have,” Caesar muttered, looking away. She had, hadn’t she? She had killed for him—again. Why did she do that? Especially after her refusal to do so earlier—she hadn’t even picked up a weapon until he’d ordered her to, and had flat-out told him she would not use it to kill again. He knew she didn’t like him, any more than he liked her, so why….
Jett wasn’t done. “The very least you owe her is a little respect, on account of all she’s done for you,” he was lecturing sternly. “Gabrielle has helped you far more than you have had any right to expect from her, and from what I’ve seen, you’ve given her nothing but grief in return. An apology would be a good start—“
“Whatever.” Caesar cut him off with a wave of the hand. Slowly, he edged his shattered legs over the side of the bed. “Where is that stupid blonde, anyway?”
Jett glared at him. “Gabrielle.”
“Fine, Gabrielle, then. Where is she?”
The assassin stared at him for a long time, clearly struggling with himself. Caesar watched; it was good, just once, to see someone else in that position. At last, he brought out, grudgingly, “She’s at the tent of the healers, getting treatment for her head wound.”
Najara had set up the healers’ tents for her army right outside the village, just beyond the defensive ring that Caesar had had them build the night before. After Jett left her at the main tent, it seemed to Gabrielle like she was waiting quite a while before the healers got around to seeing her; she could see why, even in her disoriented state. The carnage from the battle was awful. The healers had their hands full treating wounded villagers, villagers injured much more severely than she was. Gabrielle got a chance to see up-close while she was waiting, the graphic effects of what happened when peasants armed with pitchforks went up against combat-trained men with swords and armor. Somehow, it didn’t seem real to her. While the world was no longer graying out around her, she still felt strange, disoriented, as if everything had tipped sideways; it was difficult for her to focus, and concentration was hard.
Seeing that she was walking and could respond to simple directions, the healer to whom Jett brought her directed her to get out of the way and stand to the side while he treated the more desperate cases. Gabrielle watched horribly mangled villagers get passed over, with nothing done for them, while villagers that were less-seriously hurt but bleeding a great deal were instantly treated. At first it shocked her—even appalled her—but then she remembered her own stint as a hospice volunteer. It was the first rule of triage—those who could not be saved, or who could be saved at the cost of many hours, had to be passed over in favor of those who would die immediately without minimal care. “You can’t save everyone,” the gruff old healer in charge of her hospice had told them. “You have to try to save as many as you can. If you spend five hours working on a patient that you might not be able to save anyway, and in doing so pass up five patients that could be saved with an hour of work each, you’ve essentially saved one life at the cost of four. I’m not saying it’s not hard,” he’d said, not without sympathy. “Everything in this world is hard. But you’ve gotta do the greatest good for the greatest number. The good of the many must needs outweigh the good of the few.” Gabrielle had thought it sounded inhuman when she’d first heard it, but as she worked there, she had come to experience first-hand the cold, remorseless, vitally necessary logic behind such a rule. She’d never come to like it, but she’d come to see that it had to be that way.
Eventually, once the flood of the critically wounded had more or less tapered off, the drapes to a closed-off section of the tent opened and a young woman stepped out. Seeing Gabrielle, the woman beckoned to her, and Gabrielle rose and followed her in. Once inside, the woman let the drapes fall, and indicated a stool for her to sit on. Gabrielle’s legs were weak, and she did so, looking around. A chest stood against one wall of the tent; it was open, and medical supplies—bandages, sponges, scalpels—were spilling out. Against another wall was a light portable desk, with writing supplies on it, and a camp chair in front of it. The light filtered in through a flap of the tent that was open, with a mesh screen over it to keep out insects and flies.
The woman turned to Gabrielle, and Gabrielle looked her over, aware that she was being looked over in turn. The woman was young—about Gabrielle’s age—with black hair; it was long, and hung loose for about a forearm’s length, and was then twisted into braids below. Her bangs were spiky and stood up from her head, looking sort of like a hedgehog’s quills. They accentuated her eyes—as large and dark as those of Gabrielle’s companion, but where Caesar’s eyes were cold and distant, this girl’s were warm and open, sparkling with life and emotion. The other woman was looking her over as well, and the two of them smiled at each other with shy liking.
“My name is Tara,” the girl said at last, trying to be professional, “and I’m an apprentice healer. You’re walking and coherent, but you’ve got a head wound, and the master healer always says those can be worse than they look at first. So I’ll look you over and determine whether you need to be seen by one of the full healers.”
“I know,” Gabrielle managed. “I volunteered at a hospice a while ago. I know the drill.”
“Okay. Now, I can see there’s a nice swelling there—“ She laid her fingers lightly on Gabrielle’s scalp, and Gabrielle couldn’t repress a wince. Tara clucked in sympathy. “That clearly hurts, but you don’t appear to be bleeding, so you don’t need stitches….” The young healer bit her lip in thought, then looked up. “Okay. So I’m going to start by asking you a few questions,” Tara said kindly, “and I want you just to try and answer them as best you can. If you don’t understand the question, or if you need me to repeat, just say so, all right?” She picked up a quill pen. “Okay?”
“Ask away,” Gabrielle responded; she remembered that this had been part of her training as a volunteer at the hospice too.
“All right. Now, what’s your name?”
Tara nodded. “Do you know where you are?”
“I’m in the tent of the healers in Najara’s encampment, outside the village of Laurel.”
“And do you know your parents’ names?”
“Hecuba’s my mother, Heroditus is my father,” Gabrielle answered readily.
“And where you were born?”
“Potedaia, my home village.”
“Do you know how old you are?”
“So am I,” Tara said, with a shy smile. Gabrielle smiled back. “Okay, good,” Tara continued. She marked something down, muttering, “No evidence of serious disorientation….Okay,” she said. She turned Gabrielle’s head to the light from the window and peered closely into her face; Gabrielle knew she was checking to see if her pupils were equal size and reacting to light. Tara nodded slightly at what she saw, and marked something else down. “Now, is your vision blurred?”
“Bright lights? Flashing? Double vision? Any problems focusing?” She nodded at Gabrielle’s denial, and held up her hand. “Follow my hand with your eyes, please.” She had Gabrielle track her fingers for a few moments. “Okay, good. Now can you touch your nose alternately with your first fingers?”
Gabrielle did so, feeling silly, and couldn’t repress a slight giggle. Tara giggled too. “I know it looks kind of funny,” she said apologetically.
“No, I saw people do this before when I volunteered at the hospice,” Gabrielle reassured her warmly.
“Was that in your home village?”
“Next village over. Potedaia’s too small to have a hospice.”
“Yeah. My home village was like that too—just a wide spot in the road.” Tara gave that shy grin again, then marked something else off. “Well, Gabrielle,” she said, “it looks like you’re okay—no vision abnormalities, no motor coordination problems, you’re not severely disoriented—but I’d like you to stay here for a bit if that’s all right so I can make sure you’re not bleeding inside your skull. Is that all right?” She smiled. “You can watch as I make out inventory lists.”
“Sounds like fun,” Gabrielle replied wryly, a bit amused at this young apprentice healer’s efforts to sound professional. “Sure, I’ll stay for a bit. Actually….” She looked over at the chest. “Is there anything I can do to help? That chest of supplies over there looks kind of disorganized….”
“You know what you could do to help?” Tara said, struck by a thought. “You could roll some of those bandages over there—I meant to get around to it earlier, but….” She sighed. “I just didn’t have time.”
Gabrielle nodded soberly. “Yeah. I know. We had a few of those days too.” She hopped down from the stool, crossed to the chest, and started rolling some of the long strips of cloth. It made her feel better to have something to do; it kept her memories of the battle—and she could feel them, waiting to rush in on her in an unguarded moment—at bay. At least this way she was doing something useful, something that could help someone.
They worked in companionable silence for a while. Occasionally the dark-haired healer would look up and ask Gabrielle, “How many bowls are in that chest?” or “Are there any probes over there?” and Gabrielle would answer. Other than that, there was no noise but the sound of Tara’s quill pen skritching on parchment. It was oddly peaceful and soothing to Gabrielle after the incredible stress of the last two days, and she felt herself slowly relaxing in the quiet interior of the tent. Strange to think, she mused to herself, that she should feel such quiet in the middle of an army….As she rolled, her thoughts turned again to that utterly arresting woman who had swept into town and saved their lives.
“Will Najara come by?” she asked.
Tara turned to look over her shoulder. “Probably. After a battle, if she can, she always tries to stop by the tents of the wounded. She’s a really skilled healer. I’ve seen her bring people back that even our master healer had given up for dead,” she said reverently.
“She really sounds like something,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully.
“Oh, she is,” Tara agreed. “She says it’s not her that knows how to heal—she says it’s the djinn that tell her what to do. Whatever it is, she’s good. She’s really good.”
“How soon do you think she’ll stop by?” Gabrielle asked.
The young healer shrugged. “Don’t know. She’s probably still talking to Zagreas’s men right now, telling them about the Light and everything. She might come by after that.”
Telling them about the Light…. Gabrielle looked down, unseeing, at the strip of cloth she held in her hands. She was remembering the story Jett had told about how he had come to follow Najara, the offer that the Crusader had made them.
“Doesn’t it bother you that she executes them if they don’t join in three days?” she found herself saying. “It would bother me. I mean, from what I hear, Najara talks like her Light is goodness and peace, but she kills people just for not following it? If I were you, I wouldn’t like that one bit.” Even as she spoke, she was thinking she probably shouldn’t be saying this to Tara. Maybe it was the head wound.
The young healer’s face clouded; I seem to have struck a nerve, Gabrielle thought to herself. Tara looked down, away from Gabrielle, and dropped her gaze to the writing desk before her without saying anything. Seeing her reaction, Gabrielle frowned.
“Does it bother you?” she asked quietly.
Tara kept her gaze on the desk. When she spoke, her voice was so low that Gabrielle could barely hear her. “I don’t think they deserve it,” she muttered to the writing desk.
“Yeah. That’s what I mean,” Gabrielle said, frowning. “I mean, just because they don’t believe in her Light, is that a reason to kill them? I mean—“
“No.” Tara cut her off. Gabrielle looked over at her, startled. Tara’s wide black eyes were overly bright, and her lips were trembling. “No. You don’t understand what I mean,” she said. Her voice was quivering. “Najara gives them a chance. I don’t think they deserve it.”
“Tara…” Gabrielle breathed.
“I don’t think they deserve it,” the healer repeated. Her dark eyes were large and liquid. Her words were rushing out, tumbling over one another, faster and faster. “Half of them just go right back to killing and burning and slaving afterward, just as soon as they think that Najara’s far enough away that she won’t find out about it, and then she has to go back and execute them again anyway. If she’d killed them in the first place they wouldn’t ever get the chance to hurt more people. Najara says everybody deserves to be given a chance, that nobody can walk so long in darkness that they cannot come again to the Light. I don’t agree,” Tara said, her voice shaking. “I don’t think that animals who hurt people like they do should get a chance. That’s what I think. I don’t think they deserve it.”
She suddenly stopped, overcome with emotion, and drew a deep, shuddering breath. “I’m sorry,” she said wanly, after an effort to regain control. “I didn’t mean to get so upset like that, it’s just….I mean….I can see what she’s trying to do, I understand it up here—“ she touched her head “—but not in my heart. I—“ She gave a weak smile. “Najara says I still have problems with forgiveness,” she offered lamely.
“What happened to you?” Gabrielle asked quietly, then wished she hadn’t said anything as Tara closed her eyes and raised one hand to her forehead.
“I don’t….I don’t think I want to talk about that right now, if that’s all right with you,” the young healer said in a high, unhappy voice.
“I’m sorry,” Gabrielle offered. Tara didn’t respond. Gabrielle rose and crossed the room, drawn by the healer’s pain. “Tara, I’m sorry,” she repeated, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I shouldn’t have asked. I’m sorry.”
Tara nodded wordlessly. After a moment she drew a long breath and opened her eyes, regaining control of herself. “It’s all right,” she said, managing a smile. “It’s all right. You didn’t mean anything.”
Gabrielle started to say something further when the cloth hanging was brushed aside and Caesar entered the room, leaning heavily on his staff.
He looked awful, was Gabrielle’s first thought. She had never seen him look worse, not even the day after he had appropriated her money for wine, when he had been so hung over he could barely stand. He was pale, his face almost grayish, his eyes deeply shadowed. His eyes brushed hers briefly and then dropped. The air of utter confidence that had almost visibly surrounded him when she had first known him was nowhere in evidence. He looked hunted, haunted, a beaten thing, like a dog who had been kicked so many times that he more expected it than not.
He’s done, she thought to herself. He’s finished. That battle I forced him into took the last of his strength. That was all he had. He’s got nothing left. And she was both surprised and disturbed to find that his distress called forth no answering response in her. What’s wrong with me? she wondered, feeling almost guilty at her own callousness.
“That ridiculous djinn-woman wants to meet with us.”
Tara immediately sprang to the Crusader’s defense, her voice trembling. “Don’t you dare call her that! Najara is not ridiculous!” she insisted furiously. She glared hotly at Caesar, her eyes—as black as his own—flashing with anger.
“I’ll call her what I please,” he said shortly, but his words lacked strength. He flicked a glance at the young healer and turned back to Gabrielle, waiting for her response.
Gabrielle frowned. “What does she want?” The thought of meeting the Crusader—of speaking face to face with that invincible woman who had come sweeping into the village earlier—caused something inside her to tremble. She couldn’t tell if the idea frightened or excited her.
“She wants to hear about Xena’s death from us.” He paused, watching her. Gabrielle nodded.
“Not until this evening.” Caesar eyed her further, with a strange expression, almost an air of…hesitancy? Surely not… Gabrielle couldn’t figure out what he wanted.
“Okay.” She turned away and went back over to the chest, picking up the roll of bandages she had dropped when she went to comfort Tara. There was another pause. Caesar remained where he was, watching Gabrielle almost as if he were waiting for some kind of a response from her. Tara, from her writing desk, was still glaring at him; she evidently had not forgiven the insult to Najara. Caesar ignored her, focusing his attention on Gabrielle. Why isn’t he leaving? she wondered.
Finally she put down the bandages and stood up. “What?” she asked.
He hesitated a bit longer, then glanced at her sidelong. He asked a strange question. “What are you going to tell her?”
What am I— Gabrielle stared at him, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, are you going to—“ He broke off with an exasperated sigh, rubbing briefly at his temples with one hand. “Oh, never mind.”
“I’m going to tell her whatever she wants to know,” Gabrielle said, frowning in confusion. “Xena’s dead. I don’t see any reason not to….” She paused, trying to read his expression. “Why? Is there some reason not to?”
He only grunted and looked away. It was Gabrielle’s turn to stare at him, trying to figure out what he was thinking. She couldn’t guess. If I could only get at half of what goes on in his head, I’d probably have a lot more peace, she thought.
With a shrug, she brushed it off and turned to Tara. “I’ve finished here,” she said, indicating the chest. “If it’s all right with you, I’m feeling fine….with my hospice training, I think I could probably be useful out in the main tent with the other healers. At the very least, I could fetch and carry, and I don’t faint at the sight of blood.”
Tara looked at her for a moment. “All right. Najara left most of the healers behind with the main army, so this detachment is a little shorthanded,” she agreed. “But if you feel dizzy or lightheaded, tell someone right away.” She looked at Caesar, and her own dark eyes glinted. “Take him with you.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle closed the chest, then crossed the room and brushed aside the curtain hanging and stepped out. She was somewhat surprised to find that Caesar followed right at her heels, without so much as a word.
The master healer was a tall man with black hair and a white streak in his beard; Gabrielle presented herself to him, stated that she had been trained as a volunteer at a hospice in the region of Potedaia, and asked to be put to work. When she told him the name of the man who had been the head healer at her hospice, the master healer was pleasantly surprised; they had apparently apprenticed together. “Well, if you were trained by Batanides, you were trained by the best,” he said genially, and put her to work assisting the surgeons who were still working—giving water, bandaging, passing tools, mopping wounds. Gabrielle saw villagers she had known, however briefly, passing beneath the surgeons’ knives, men, women, the young, the old, as the healers did what they could to save those they could save. She also saw something that touched her: Najara’s healers cared. They really cared. She saw the muted pain in the eyes of the female healer who was forced to take a young woman’s leg off at the knee; she saw tears in the eyes of an older man working desperately to save the life of a young man who died on the table.
Simply the fact that they were here, working to save the lives of these villagers and not just of Najara’s soldiers, spoke volumes about Najara, Gabrielle thought. She remembered that Xena had spared not a shred of sympathy to the citizens of Athens after it had been sacked and burned, and in fact, afterwards she had actually seen Xena’s troops—more than once—pull one of the Athenian healers away from a severely injured patient and drag him back with them to treat her troops. Xena’s own healers, a rough crew nearly as brutal as her men, had very emphatically saved their services for Xena’s troops, to keep them at their fighting prime; nobody else even merited consideration. Callisto’s were even worse, so the bardic tales said: it had been her healers, during Callisto’s siege of Sparta, that had suggested that the bodies of spotted plague victims be flung over the walls into the town, and sure enough that had caused the epidemic that had broken the backs of the resistance. And then Callisto had had all the resisters locked into their houses and the houses burned over their heads, she thought, and shuddered. Looking at the faces of the healers around her, she saw real compassion and caring for those they were treating—commodities in very short supply in the world as it was, she thought.
Caesar tended to the wounded as well. He followed her out of the curtained area with Tara, up to the master healer; he followed her when the master healer directed her back to the surgery area; he was there as she fetched and carried for the surgeons who were operating. When the healers sent her down the rows of wounded to give water, he took a seat on an upturned crate, probably because his legs wouldn’t take that much walking, but he watched her. When she had him hold things for her—bowls, bandages, strips of cloth—he silently took them out of her hands, then gave them back to her when told to. When she told him to give water or painkillers, he did so with a nod or a single word of acquiescence. At first she was very surprised at what she interpreted as evidence of compassion on his part—Him caring for the wounded? I never would have thought it—but then she looked closer, at his deeply shadowed eyes, his bowed head, the slumped set of his shoulders. He wasn’t helping out of compassion, she realized with a shock. He wasn’t even helping because he wanted to, or was bored, or had nothing better to do. He was helping solely because she had told him to.
He’s broken, Gabrielle thought as she took his hands and positioned them over a folded pad of cloth. “Here. Press here like this until the bleeding stops,” she instructed. He glanced at her sidelong, then dropped his eyes; he did as she had said, applying pressure until she told him to stop. When she stood up to move to the next patient he followed her as if she were drawing him after her on a string. He’s really broken, she thought as she handed him a bowl. “Here. Hold this until I say give it back,” she said. He took it from her with a short nod, his eyes avoiding hers; when she asked for it back, he handed it to her without a word. I thought he was broken that first day in the inn with my belt knife, but I was wrong. Whatever he had left, it’s gone. “Here. Wring these cloths into this basin until they’re dry.” She had to slap him lightly on the shoulder to get his attention that time; he was staring down at the cloths in his hands, completely lost to his surroundings. She wondered what he was thinking. I probably don’t want to know. Once again, she felt no sympathy, and that very lack of sympathy worried her.
It wasn’t just him either; there was something else, a memory that kept eluding her as she lost herself in healing. It was the memory of the man into whose back she had put her hatchet, back in the tavern. With Licinus, she had been unable to put the thought out of her head; it had kept recurring to her at odd intervals, no matter how much she tried to push it aside. With this man, she found she had to struggle to remember him; he kept slipping out of her mind unless she made a deliberate effort to concentrate on him. That worried her even more. Surely, it should be harder to forget about taking someone’s life than that, shouldn’t it? What’s wrong with me? she thought, not for the first time.
She turned at the cry of the familiar voice, to see a young man coming toward her. “Androcles!” she greeted, remembering. Seeing him suddenly brought the last moments in the tavern to mind, and she asked urgently, “Androcles, is Minya all right?”
“Minya? Yes,” he said, nodding emphatically. “She got a nasty cut to the arm, but the healers have seen to her already. Ami…” He paused, and his face clouded.
“She didn’t make it?” Gabrielle asked in a low voice.
Androcles shook his head. “Right before Najara got there. There was a man with an axe….Taurus dropped his pitchfork….” He swallowed. “She saved Taurus’s life,” he said after a moment.
“I’m sorry.” Gabrielle shoved the handful of bandages she was holding at Caesar—who accepted them without a word—and reached out to touch Androcles on the arm. “I wish….” She bit her lip. She hadn’t known Ami very long, but Ami’s and Minya’s courage in the face of overwhelming odds had been inspiring. She didn’t quite know what to say, so she settled for squeezing the young man’s shoulder.
“She died a hero,” Androcles said, with a shrug that looked somewhat forced. “Like Minya says: at least she did something besides just stand there and wait to be slaughtered, right?” he asked. “Minya’s outside, if you want to talk to her.”
“I do,” Gabrielle said, nodding. “Just let me finish here, and I’ll be out.”
Was that only yesterday? Gabrielle had to stop and think. So much had happened since then it seemed as if the events of the previous day had happened years ago.
She could see more; there were carts and wagons everywhere, horses and mules and donkeys laden with possessions following men and women and children walking at their heads. The village seemed much busier than it had before, and Gabrielle guessed intuitively that the villagers who had taken to the hills under Zagreas’s threat had returned when they got word that the Crusader had chased him off. Something else in Najara’s favor, she thought, and frowned.
Zagreas’s men were chained in a long line in front of the encampment, with guards standing over them. Some of them looked scared. Some of them looked resentful. Some of them looked angry. Gabrielle looked away. She wondered if Najara had spoken to them yet. Probably. Tara had told her that Najara had been speaking to them earlier. She wondered how many of them would end up converting to Najara’s light. Caesar glanced at them, then also looked away; he followed her silently. Gabrielle wondered if he had seen this before.
Gabrielle felt her first, before she saw her. It was as if a sixth sense spoke to her, somehow; she stopped in the middle of the field, and turned to look back over her shoulder, and there she was.
She. It was difficult, in that first moment when Gabrielle’s eyes found her, to think of any other designation; it seemed that surely, none was necessary. Her presence, her charisma, was so overwhelming—indeed, almost a visible radiance spilling out from her to illuminate all she touched—that Gabrielle could think of her no other way. Najara, the Crusader, She of the Djinn—these were all shallow, surface reference terms. They captured none of the primal, powerful essence of what she was. She was she. Further description was not needed.
Xena and Callisto had been much the same, Gabrielle remembered as she watched the Crusader. But where both of them had inspired pity and fear in her—a cold, atavistic, animal terror that had coiled up her spine and squeezed her stomach with icy fingers—Najara did not; she inspired—trust?
Najara’s presence was so strong that it seemed almost as if she were right there, at Gabrielle’s shoulder; it took Gabrielle a moment to realize that was not the case. In actuality, the woman known as the Crusader was some distance away from her and Caesar; she was down at the other end of the sloping green field, walking along the dark shadows of the treeline. The slanting, golden light of late afternoon sparkled in the hazy air, turning her short, butter-yellow hair to a strawberry blonde more similar to Gabrielle’s own and tinting her scale armor rosy. The humid air caught the rays of the light and spread it around her, so that to Gabrielle’s eyes it seemed almost as if she were surrounded by a nimbus or halo. Her hands were clasped behind her back, and her head was down slightly, face turned to the side; she seemed to be conversing with someone as she walked with measured, unhindered steps over the uneven field, but she commanded the attention to such a degree that it took Gabrielle a moment or two to spot Minya in the lee of Najara’s aura.
The peasant woman’s arm was bound to her side in a white sling; it stood out against the brown of her dress, hair and eyes. Despite the injury, she walked at the Crusader’s side with confidence, with an air of steadfastness and determination that she had not possessed when Gabrielle had first met her. This was no longer the beaten woman who had told her, “If Zagreas kills us, we’ll just have to die…I don’t have very much to live for anymore anyway.” The battle earlier—the experience of being able to strike back—had done wonders for her. The peasant woman walked at the Crusader’s side, watching her with an air of respect, maybe even a little awe—which surely is only to be expected, Gabrielle thought to herself—but at the same time without a trace of fear or fawning servility. Najara might be the Crusader, her demeanor seemed to say, but she was Minya the peasant woman, and anyone who thought she was a pushover was in for a big surprise. Their conversation drifted toward Gabrielle on the lazy, humid air.
“—so you say your village will need another two hundred bushels of grain and four dozen amphorae of olive oil?” Najara was asking Minya courteously as they walked. Minya nodded.
“At least, ma’am,” she replied, “an’ a coupla wells on the north side o’ the village ‘re goin dry—“
“I should be able to supply your needs from my stores,” Najara said with a warm smile, “and I’ll assign a detail of my men to get right on top of digging you some new wells. Is there anything else?”
“Some of our houses got burned down in the fightin with Zagreas—“
“I’ll see if I have any carpenters among the men I have here with me. We may be able to do something about that also. If there’s nothing else—“
She started to turn from Minya, but the peasant woman reached out and caught her by the arm. Gabrielle gasped to see the peasant woman accost the Crusader so. Xena would have struck the woman to the ground right there for such insolence, and so would Callisto—if they didn’t simply draw their swords and run her through on the spot. Najara, however, only turned back politely. Gabrielle stared.
“Is there something else?”
“Yeah.” Minya’s face settled into hard, accusatory lines. “I got one thing else to say. Are ya gonna stick around this time?”
“Ya heard me. Are ya gonna stick around this time?” Minya asked. Najara regarded her, looking surprised, with pale blue eyes; Gabrielle knew that she would have buckled under the weight of that stare. Minya, however, held her ground and continued. “Last time ya came through here, and ya turned this village into your command post, an’ it was all good—for a while. But then the Dark Conqueror and the Fiery Warrior chased ya back to Africa, an’ they came in an’ killed us and burned our crops and houses to the ground, over an’ over an’ over again because they said we were supportin you. So the question I’m askin now is: Are ya gonna stick around this time, or are ya gonna leave us hangin like ya did before? Cause if that’s th’ case, then I’m askin ya to leave now if ya don’t mind,” she said harshly. “There isn’t very much of our village left, but what there is, we’re kinda attached to, an we don’t feel like gettin burned down again because you couldn’t hold your ground.”
Her voice was sharp, and she was staring pointedly at Najara as she spoke. Gabrielle was struck by Minya’s bravery and fortitude, to speak so to the Crusader, to She of the Djinn, to face that overwhelming presence. Then she was completely astonished, to see Najara’s reaction. For Najara did not become angry. She did not draw the slender curving sword that was at her back. She did not strike Minya or threaten her, or even demand who she thought she was to address the Chosen of the Djinn so.
Instead—and Gabrielle couldn’t believe it even as she saw it—that powerful, arresting woman bowed her head meekly before Minya’s sharp words of reproof, looking every bit as contrite as a child receiving a scolding. She’s acting as if Minya were the warlord and she the peasant! Gabrielle thought, amazed. There was actually a thin trail of tears down Najara’s face as she replied, “You are right to reproach me for that. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry that happened to your village, that you had to go through that because of my failings. I have nothing to say to excuse my unworthiness. Nothing to make up for what happened to you because of me. I can only make deepest apologies for my failures and beg your forgiveness, and request that you permit me to try and make atonement for all you suffered on my behalf.”
The tall warrior raised her head and looked back up at the peasant woman, humbly waiting for her response. Minya clearly had not been expecting that; she stood, staring at the patiently waiting Crusader, groping for words. Gabrielle, who had not been expecting that either, found her mind going back to the week before, to the dark cave and bonfire of the former Romans. You’re responsible because you were the emperor! You were supposed to protect us! You were supposed to take care of us! You were the emperor and YOU FAILED! She found herself turning to look at her companion, remembering how Caesar had squirmed and twisted to get out of it. He had turned his face away from her, however, and she had no idea what the little she could see of his expression meant.
“Well, all right,” Minya said after a moment. “Just—don’t leave us this time is all I’m askin.” She smiled, perhaps in an attempt to comfort the bereaved Crusader. “Just don’t leave us again. We’re countin’ on ya, you know.”
Najara gave a smile of gratitude. “You have my thanks,” she said sincerely. “I appreciate the faith you’re placing in me, and I’ll do my utmost to prove worthy of your trust.”
So saying, she clasped Minya’s hand tightly, squeezing it. Minya released her, and she turned and started off.
She was heading vaguely in Gabrielle’s and Caesar’s direction, and Gabrielle watched her in fascination. She was thoroughly impressed by what she had just seen, by Najara’s charisma, by her humble demeanor, by the way she had assumed responsibility for letting the village be burned. Gabrielle wanted to go and speak to her, but was afraid at the same time; the Crusader’s presence was overwhelming, even at this distance. Powerfully drawn to her and yet strangely hesitant, she turned to Caesar for support.
“Come on. Let’s go talk to her,” she said eagerly.
She had taken his arm and started to draw Caesar in her direction, when he said, “No.”
Gabrielle stopped and turned back to look at him, frowning quizzically. “No? What do you mean, no? Come on, let’s go.”
“I said, no. I don’t want to.” He had taken a step back; now he backed up further. Gabrielle stopped and looked at him closely. She had honestly never seen anything like it from him before. He was not looking at her. He was staring at Najara, as she drew closer, with the most extraordinary expression of mingled dislike and—fear? Is that actually fear? she thought. She had never seen fear from him before, not ever, but she could not think of another name for what that might be.
Nah, she decided. Can’t be. He just wants to avoid her because of what she just said about failure. Just another example of his overall selfishness. Her irritation rose. “Come on,” she said, her voice harshening. She grabbed him by the arm.
He shook her off roughly. “I said I don’t want to. Leave me alone,” he snapped, frowning at her. It was phrased as an order, but the words lacked force; they sounded more querulous than anything.
“Don’t be such a baby,” Gabrielle said impatiently. “Come on!” She grabbed him again, trying to haul him after her by main strength. He wrenched free of her, glaring at her darkly, and pushed her away; she actually stumbled backward a few steps. She knew his strength from a previous physical tryout; he also outweighed her by quite a bit, as she knew from having suffered him to lean on her at various times, but now she was mad. She matched him, glare for glare.
“Come on!” she said, and grabbed him again.
“Leave me alone, you screeching bacchae—“
He tried to pull free but this time she held on doggedly. “Quit being a jerk,” she snarled, digging in her heels and trying to push. “Come on—“
“Let go of me!”
They were saved from a descent into a full-scale shoving match by nothing less than the arrival of the Crusader herself; Najara had apparently seen the two of them struggling and had swerved to come over to them. Gabrielle felt her at her back and went still an instant before Najara spoke.
“Is there a problem?” The voice was calm and polite, concerned, perhaps, and kind. Gabrielle’s breath caught in her throat. Those were the first words she ever heard the Crusader speak to her.
Gabrielle immediately dropped Caesar’s arm and stepped away from him, turning to face She of the Djinn. She was tongue-tied in the face of that incredible presence; she fumbled for words, and was only able to get out a sort of foolish stammering. “I—we—ah—No,” she managed at last, flushing under the Crusader’s pale gaze. Not unlike Xena’s, she thought to herself. “No, no—no problem! Everything’s—fine! It’s—“
She fell silent, aware that she was making a fool of herself. From the corner of her eye, she saw that Caesar had gone rigidly still and pale, and was watching Najara as she imagined a rabbit might watch a hawk. What’s wrong with him? she wondered. Beside the obvious, I mean….
Najara smiled kindly. “You’re Gabrielle, right?”
She knows my name…? “Wow,” Gabrielle managed, feeling herself grin. “Wow. That’s—Right. Yes, that’s right. I’m Gabrielle. How’d you know? Was it—“ She hesitated. “Was it your djinn?” she dared to ask.
“The djinn?” Najara looked puzzled for a moment; then her face cleared. “Oh, I see. No, it was Jett; he told me you were in this town, and described you. Quite well, actually.”
Gabrielle frowned, feeling somewhat disappointed to hear such a mundane explanation from such an overwhelming woman. Najara studied her expression, then laughed gently. “The djinn—they’re not my djinn—they don’t tell me everything,” she offered in consolation. “I don’t really know why they choose to tell me what they do, either; I think they only tell me what they think I need to know.” She turned to Gabrielle’s companion. “You’re Caesar, isn’t that right?” she asked.
Caesar said nothing, but watched her distrustfully.
“I think I’ve seen you before, but only from a distance,” Najara continued. “You were Xena’s—“ She paused, and looked at him as if waiting for a cue. Caesar made no sign, only continuing to watch her. He looks ready to bolt, Gabrielle thought, if only he could walk. “Xena’s captive,” the Crusader finished at last.
Caesar’s shoulders tensed underneath Najara’s pale regard, and his mouth twisted. “Try Xena’s whore,” he said roughly. “Her bed-slave.”
Najara looked at him for a moment longer. “Slavery of any kind is one of the greatest evils there is,” she said quietly. “I can’t even begin to imagine how you must have suffered. You have my sympathy.”
“I don’t want it. Don’t waste your time.” Caesar’s hands were clenched white-knuckled on his staff.
“Nonetheless, you have it.”
Gabrielle spoke up, amazed at her own daring. “You—you said you—you wanted to talk to us about—about Xena’s death?”
“Her death?” Najara frowned; then her face cleared. “Oh yes. I do,” she said kindly, “but it will have to wait until tomorrow, if that’s all right. I just received word about half an hour ago that there’s a contingent of stragglers from Zagreas’s army lurking in the woods to the west of here, and I must go and bring them in. You are more than welcome to stay in our encampment if you would like to; just speak to Jett and he’ll arrange quarters for you. Now, if you’ll excuse me—“
She pushed past Gabrielle and started off. Gabrielle watched her go, bright in the light from the afternoon sun. When she was halfway up the hill, she raised two fingers to her mouth and whistled. Almost at once, it seemed to her, the brown horse she had been riding earlier appeared over the top of the hill, cantering straight toward her. Gabrielle’s roommate at the bardic academy had been the daughter of a horse-breeding family, and Gabrielle had picked up enough about horses from her to make out features of this one: it was a mare of a type she had never seen before. Her neck was strongly arched; her body was short and compact, and her tail carried high, like a banner streaming out behind her. The legs were delicate and fine, and clean in their motion. The head was short, with large eyes fringed with long lashes; the nose was concave and the profile dished. This horse was as fine as Argo in her motion, and as beautiful.
She galloped straight toward Najara, and Najara vaulted into the saddle without the horse ever taking time to slow down. Bonacar, she remembered Jett said Najara’s horse was called; she had seen Xena do the same thing with Argo, and Callisto with her horse Charybdis. Once Najara had settled into the saddle, she touched her heels to Bonacar’s sides, and the horse stretched out, galloping toward the village as swift as the wind. Gabrielle guessed Argo could run that fast, but she had always been afraid to ask her to. Bonacar skimmed over the ground so lightly and effortlessly and at such speed that she and her rider almost seemed to fly.
“And the gods took a handful of southerly wind,
Blew their breaths over it
And created the horse,” Gabrielle murmured to herself, remembering a fragment of an old legend she had heard a long time ago.
She turned to her companion to find Caesar staring after Najara as if he were watching a venomous serpent. His reaction puzzled her.
“What did you think?” she asked him curiously.
“I don’t like her,” he replied almost immediately. He never took his eyes away from the Crusader, even as she vanished into the distance. His hands were still clenched on the staff, and his shoulders were tight with emotion.
“Why not?” Gabrielle asked. “I thought she was—“ She broke off, trying to think of a word to come up with to describe Najara. “Overwhelming,” she said at last, though that word didn’t encompass half of what she meant.
Caesar’s jawline tightened. “So was Xena.” Gabrielle looked at him in confusion, but he said no more, and his expression could have meant anything. Shaking his head, he turned and, leaning on his staff, began making his way back to the healing tent from which they had emerged. It was the first independent action he’d taken all afternoon, and somehow Gabrielle wasn’t surprised that it was effectively a retreat. She watched Najara for a moment longer, and then went after her companion.
Gabrielle hadn’t been paying attention to where she was going as she wandered back toward the healing tent—her mind was too full of the effects of the Crusader. Wow. Jett was right when he said there was nobody like her. She’s incredible. I wonder where she came from? Thoughts of the Crusader occupied her mind, and the raw shout of “Gabrielle!” caught her completely by surprise.
She jerked to a halt and looked around, startled. She saw that she had inadvertently wandered close to the lines of chained men, the prisoners Najara had taken who were still waiting for conversion to the Light. Did the shout come from one of them? she wondered. Quickly, she ran her eyes down the lines, searching for someone, anyone, she—
“Gabrielle! Oh, thank the gods! Gabrielle!”
She stopped, catching sight of a prisoner chained on the end, at a bit of a separation from the rest. Probably because he was young, only about her age, and to place him in closer to the hard-bitten, vicious characters that made up the rest of the prisoners would be dangerous for him. With a shock, she realized he was someone she knew.
“S—Stallonus?” she faltered, unbelieving. Quickly she hurried across the distance between them.
“Gabrielle! Thank the gods it’s you,” he said, with a sigh of relief. “You wouldn’t believe how glad I am to see you here—“
“Stallonus!” she said again as she drew close to him. “What are you doing here?”
She remembered him; he had been one of the other students at the Athenian Academy for Performing Bards, and had come in a few months before she had. She hadn’t been very close to him; he had been more interested in learning to announce for the Olympics than in learning the old sagas—the Olympics hadn’t been held in the last eight years, due to all the chaos in the world, but it was hoped that someday they would be held again. He had had to leave a month or so before Xena attacked the city; she had heard that it was because his father had died, and his mother had called him home. She had never expected to find him here. “What are you doing here?” she asked him again as she reached him. “I thought your mother needed you—why are you here?”
“Gabrielle, am I glad to see you,” he said again, clutching at her. “Listen, Gabrielle, you have to help me. You have to get me out of here, all right?”
“Well, I will, Stallonus, but what are you doing here?” she asked, crouching down by him, still trying to come to grips with seeing him. “You’re not with Zagreas’s army, are you?”
“It’s all a mistake, Gabrielle,” he said urgently, holding on to her. His eyes held her own. “My mother died shortly after I got back to the farm. I had nowhere to go. Zagreas’s men caught me, they said if I didn’t fight for them they’d kill me! I didn’t want to do it. You have to get me out of here, Gabrielle, all right? You’ve got to help me—I know you can do it. I know you can.”
He was clutching her so tightly her hands ached where he held her. His expression looked young, almost frightened in the fading light, as young and frightened as the face of Licinus a week ago. She stared at him, remembering the classes they had taken together, the fun times they had had fooling around with their friends at the academy—it seemed wrong, somehow to see him here. What was he doing here? For that matter, what was she?
“Help me, Gabrielle, please,” he said again, clutching her hands urgently. “You’ve got to get me out of here. I’ve heard about what Najara does. She’s going to kill me, she will, because I can’t follow her Light! My family has always been devoted to Isis, since as far back as we go, and we can’t abandon her.” He was holding her eyes hard. “She’s going to kill me, Gabrielle—“
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder toward the healing tent. Tara was waiting for her there, she knew, and there were wounded to care for. She turned her gaze back down to Stallonus, seeing the fear in his face.
“Okay. Well, sit tight,” she said, pulling herself away from him. “I was invited to have dinner with Najara. I’ll talk to her. I’ll tell her I know you and that there’s no way you’re mixed up in anything bad, okay? I’ll get her to let you go, all right?” she said. “I can’t imagine it’ll be that difficult.”
“You promise?” he asked uncertainly.
“I promise,” she replied.
“What if she won’t?” he asked her.
“I’m sure she will,” Gabrielle assured him. “Don’t worry.” She couldn’t imagine the kind woman she had seen would not listen to her, if she assured her that Stallonus was her friend.
“Okay.” He calmed. “I trust you, Gabrielle. Thank the gods for you. I know you can help me.”
“Don’t worry,” she told him again. She glanced over her shoulder at the tent of the healers. “Look, I’ve got to go, all right? There are wounded to care for. Will you be all right here? Do you need anything?”
Stallonus gave a bitter laugh. “It’s not like I have much choice, is it? Just get me out of here, Gabrielle; that’s all I’m asking.”
“I’ll have you out in no time.” She glanced at the healers’ tent again. “Just leave it to me,” she said, and flashed a reassuring smile. Stallonus slowly, reluctantly smiled back.
“Well, go on, Gabrielle,” he told her. “I trust you,” he said again.
“Thanks.” She rose to her feet, somewhat reluctantly, and looked at him. He smiled at her again.
“Go on. I understand,” he told her. “You wouldn’t be you if you weren’t always helping someone.”
“Thanks,” Gabrielle said, touched. She smiled at him, then turned and made her way back to the tent of the healers. Don’t worry, Stallonus, she thought. I can’t imagine it’ll be that hard to get Najara to let you go.