Standard disclaimer: With the exception of Ami, Taurus, and Androcles, none of the characters, places, etc. in this story are mine, but instead are the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended by their use in this story.
Author's notes: The next in my ongoing series of Gabrielle/Caesar AU fics. This one follows from my last one in that as a result of Caesar's actions in "Choices," Gabrielle finally begins to draw near the limits of her patience with him, and her irritation with Caesar leads her to actions that are unwise, but nevertheless accomplish good works. Minya makes an appearance here too. There will be three or maybe four more stories after this one. Thanks to Lady Kate who helped beta!
"Without hope, you might as well be blind…."
—"Tomorrow Comes a Day Too Soon," from Flogging Molly's Within a Mile of Home.
There were two of them who came into the inn in the late afternoon: a young woman with long blonde hair and green eyes, followed by a man with coal-black hair and dark eyes. The man's legs were twisted and misshapen, and he leaned heavily on a staff as he followed the young woman into the inn's common room; he bore ugly, wide scars around his neck and wrists that suggested he had spent a period of some years in chains. Despite that, his bearing was cold and haughty, and belted around his waist he wore a short sword of the kind that had been favored by the Romans, in the days when Rome still stood. The woman and he had entered together, yet a careful observer would note an almost palpable air of dislike between them. The man leaned back against the wall, bracing himself with his staff, and looked coolly around the room as the young woman went up to the bar.
"Room for two for the night," she said, pulling out a leather coin pouch.
"Done." The woman counted out the money. "I'm a bard," she continued. "I would like to perform in your common room this evening, if you would permit me."
The woman behind the bar, thin and with dark curls, looked at her. "You might as well," was all she said, "though I don't know of the kind of audience you'll be getting." There was an odd note of melancholy in her voice as she spoke; the blonde woman frowned, but didn't pursue it. "Down the passage, first door on the left."
"Thanks." The blonde woman paused, and glanced over at her companion, who was paying her no heed. Something flickered in her green eyes.
"Oh, one more thing," she said, speaking loudly enough so that the few others in the tavern could hear her clearly. "I need to warn you: My companion is a drunkard."
She pointed to him. His head snapped up and he stared at her with shock rapidly sliding to fury. "What!" he demanded.
She paid no heed to him. "He can't control himself around wine. If he asks for any, don't give it to him, no matter what he may tell you; he'll say the most outrageous things when the compulsion's on him."
The tavernkeeper looked at her, then at her companion, who had gone rigid with anger. "I see, Missy," she said coolly. "Don't worry."
The blonde woman nodded, smiled, and went to her companion's side; an observer might have noted that she was careful to stay out of his reach. "Well? Are you coming?" she asked him sweetly.
Her companion was taut with stifled rage. After a long, long moment, with his jaw clenched, he snatched his staff from the wall beside him, almost overbalancing on his crooked lower legs. The blonde woman turned her back on him—again, careful to maintain a space interval between them—and crossed the room to the passage the innkeeper had pointed out; he followed, clutching his staff as if he were ready to strike her with it.
As soon as they had reached the room the innkeeper had assigned them, Caesar turned on his companion—he had finally learned her name, Gladiel or something like that. He could barely control his anger; his hands were white-knuckled on the staff she had found for him. "How dare you call me a drunkard to the—"
She cut him off coldly, though she was careful to stay out of his reach; that infuriated him even more, oddly enough. "To the tavernkeeper you'll never see again in your life? Well, look at it this way: if you hadn't pulled that cheap trick to get wine at the last inn we stayed at two weeks ago, I wouldn't have had to call you a drunkard in public. But what I said was true: You can't be trusted around wine and you will say outrageous things to get your hands on it." She raised an eyebrow. "That's classic drunk behavior to me. I simply didn't feel like allowing you to drink up any more of the money I earn performing."
"Listen, you irritating—"
"Irritating blonde harpy, yes, I know, I've heard it before," Gladiel or whatever her name was said, nodding. "Whatever. Just remember what I've said," she told him, and crossed to the door. "I'm going to go get Argo settled. See you." And with that, she stepped out, leaving him behind.
He looked after her, silently fuming. That's not why she did it. That stupid trick with the wine he had pulled—and now, here, he was willing to admit to himself that it had been a juvenile thing to do—was not what had made her angry at him. She'd been angry at him for a while. She's been like one of those African spitting cobras all week, he thought, watching the door where she had stepped outside, just as pleasant to be with, only even more vicious.
No, this wasn't about the wine, and in his calmer moments, Caesar could admit to himself that he knew what it was about. It was about what had happened when they were captive a week ago. It was about a mistake he had made. He rarely made mistakes—even more rarely acknowledged them—but this one, like many others, in retrospect was glaringly obvious.
He had made a mistake with that irritating blonde, he thought to himself, in telling her to kill the downed guard; that realization caused him a deep sense of unease. As well it should. This mistake that he had made with her was a mistake that only the greenest and callowest of troop leaders should make: a mistake that touched on one of the fundamental principles of generalship, as he had learned on the battlefield and by observation of the very few other generals he respected.
That principle being: Never command your men to do that which you know they will not do.
As he thought about it here, in this cold room like any other inn room they'd been in, the unease welled up inside him more and more strongly. This was an element of leadership so fundamental that he couldn't believe, looking back at it now, that he had gone against it. Don't ask a family man to kill his own family; don't ask a soldier to invade his own homeland—Don't command an army to do anything about which its members are deeply divided. There were many good reasons for this, ranging from the fact that doing so ruptured the trust between a commander and his troops, to the simple fact that such an order would not be obeyed, and a commander should never allow his troops to become accustomed to disobeying him. This was basic. Absolutely the first thing any general must learn, so how had he forgotten it?
What's happening to me? he wondered, raising one hand to his head. Had Xena taken his command skills along with his legs? He would never have made such a fundamental error before. Even when he had brought his army back from Gaul and marched on Rome, it had been after a long campaign in which he had taken great pains to win the loyalty and trust of the men; that army had been his instrument, his personal creation, and the men would have marched off a cliff if he had ordered them to. Xena would never have made this mistake, was his next thought, although it was attended by a realization that one reason Xena would never have made such a mistake was that there was very little that was beyond her men—a rabble of cutthroats and murderers, kept in hand by a combination of stern discipline and Xena's unearthly personal charisma. Even Pompey's legions turned to rabble, after merging with her horde, he remembered, his mouth twisting.
His legs ached, and he wanted to sit down, but if he did it would be too difficult to get up again. Instead, he leaned back against the wall behind him, rubbing his temples. Something's wrong with me, he admitted to himself, and he didn't know what it was. His mistake with that Gladiel was just one example of it. By any dimension he could think of, he outranked her—he was older, male, and an experienced leader, paired with a younger, inexperienced girl—but she had been—his mouth twisted, but it was true—she had been dominant since they escaped from Xena's camp. She should not have been defying him as she had done earlier in the common room. His authority should have been too firmly established by now. And yet she was, and he didn't know why. It had been she who set the pace and direction of travel; she who spoke to and negotiated with people; she who essentially functioned as leader. And she was accepted as such; the people they met in their travels approached her and spoke to her and accepted her as the dominant one between the two of them. Even his charisma didn't seem to be working anymore: he hadn't been able to bully that soldier into laying down his sword during their captivity, and he had—yes, he hated to admit it, even to himself, but it had happened—he had backed down from that assassin earlier as well. Before, he never would have backed down from anyone. He would never have needed to.
What's wrong with me?
He didn't know. Nor did he know what he could do to fix it.
Suddenly he couldn't bear to remain in that tiny room any longer. His legs hurt, but they would bear him a while yet. He took his staff from the wall behind him and, leaning on it heavily, crossed the room and exited by the door. This might be a village like any other, but at least it would be something different to see than these four walls.
After seeing Argo stalled, Gabrielle left to wander through the village, looking for the market. The excuse she gave herself was that they were low on supplies—and they were—but also, she felt that she needed a break from her companion. She couldn't face returning to that tiny room, with nothing for the two of them to do but snap at each other.
How did I get saddled with him anyway? Since last week, for the first time in their travels together, Gabrielle was finding him almost impossible to be around. Before, she had been able to take his surliness, his sulkiness, his sullenness and general jerky nature more or less with equanimity. But recently—
since last week, she admitted to herself—
it seemed as if her ability to remain calm in the face of his self-centered, egotistical behavior had left her. She didn't like it. She was finding it more difficult to make herself help him when he needed it; harder to refrain from digging at his weak spots. A couple of times she had snapped at him and said things she wasn't proud of—not that she would apologize; that would be to show weakness, and she knew him well enough to know that one moment of weakness and she would never, ever live it down.
What's he doing to me? she wondered, raising one hand to her head. But she knew exactly what he was doing to her. It had been that moment last week when he had ordered her to kill—had told her in that cool, contemptuous voice, to kill the young guard Licinus as he lay unconscious—and then refused to back down until Jett had intervened.
I don't trust him anymore, she realized. Not that she should have trusted him in the first place, even on a basic level, but she had thought they had developed some sort of working relationship.
And he's been determined to spit all over it. That trick he pulled with the wine should have been her first clue. His telling her to kill was just another manifestation of that same tendency. Talk about a demonstration that he had no respect for her, for her boundaries, for her property…
Back in Potedaia, she told herself, it would be better. She wouldn't be alone with him. There would be others around to help her deal with him, to keep him under control, to take some of the burden off of her shoulders. Once she got to Potedaia—
if we get to Potedaia—
That thought worried her even more. They had almost gotten crucified last week, in large part because Caesar had refused to keep his mouth shut in a situation where it would have been wisest for him to do so. And she had—she had done—
She swallowed hard at the memory. She had been trying, very hard, to put it out of her head all week, but now and then it crept up on her. Even a week later, her eyes still prickled at the thought. Come on, she told herself. Remember—remember what Jett told you. Think that he was found a few minutes after you left him. It's at least as likely as the other. He's all right. I'm sure he's all right. I'm sure. She didn't believe it, not really, but it made her feel a little better to think it. She held onto that, concentrating on it until the pain faded, pushing it out of her mind as hard as she could. At last it went, but she knew it'd be back again soon. Gods, gods….I wanted to be a healer. I wanted to help people, and I ended up….. She raised her hands to cover her face briefly; her eyes were stinging.
It just went to show that her companion was a huge liability. He is. I think I was right—I think on some level he really does want to get killed. She didn't need an oracle to tell her that a man with a death wish was not a good traveling partner.
She bit her lip, as a thought rose to her mind that she had been doing her best to suppress. Maybe it's time to think about just dumping him somewhere.
She stopped, leaning against the side of a wall, not seeing anything.
Think about it. He's slowing you down, he's a liability, he doesn't respect you, your property or your wishes. You've been essentially carrying him since you escaped from Xena's encampment. I know that Xena—that she had a strong effect on you, but you've been carrying him for five weeks—over a month—on the basis of three days spent with the Warrior Princess. That's ridiculous. I know he's helpless—and he is—but why is it your responsibility to take care of him? He said it himself once: he would never help you in this fashion. So why then are you helping him?
And underneath that, another thought: one so deeply buried that she barely admitted it to herself, tinged with cold anger: And, it would serve him right. After what he forced you into last week…It would serve him right.
She wouldn't have to abandon him by the roadside, her thoughts continued on; she could find a village, maybe a temple of Gaia, and leave him there. Leave him in a place where he would be provided for, where he wouldn't starve, where he'd have other people to help him, and just continue on. For a moment, it seemed like the answer to all her problems. Just leave him, and continue on, go home to Potedaia: her mother was waiting for her, her father, her sister Lila—just go home to Potedaia—
If Potedaia's still there. That thought, almost unspoken, was what haunted her. She had dreams about it: that she returned to Potedaia, only to find it gone. Sometimes the buildings were still standing, only deserted, and aged and run-down as if she had been gone for fifty years, not five; sometimes even the village itself was destroyed, burned as flat to the ground as the plain of ashes that had once been Rome. Sometimes—and these dreams were worst of all—she returned and the village was exactly as it had been in all her memories, but her friends and family would not speak to her; they neither recognized her or knew her. She knew these fears were baseless—that there was no reason to worry for Potedaia's safety; she had no reason to suspect that it had been destroyed—but the nightmares kept coming. If Potedaia were gone—
All the more reason to think about dumping him off, an inner voice returned coldly.
Gabrielle realized she was shaking her head. If Potedaia were gone—and she had no reason, no reason, she repeated to herself sternly, to think that anything had happened to it—then he was all she had. All she had in the world. That surly, sullen former slave was her only companion and if he was gone, she had nothing No family, no home, no Bardic Academy, nothing. She would be all alone, with no family or friends, in a cold, cruel world where there seemed to be less and less room every day for charity or compassion or simple human kindness. Except for the fact that she would still have her legs, she would be just in his situation—cast out, alone, adrift. She would have nothing.
So the question then becomes: Is he better than nothing?
Gabrielle realized she was having a very hard time coming up with arguments to support that proposition.
Suddenly, violently, she pushed the whole dilemma out of her head. Not right now. I can't deal with it right now. Everything's too unsettled. I'll think about it after we get back to Potedaia, she told herself. First, let's get back to Potedaia to see. Just to see. Then I'll figure out what to do. She straightened from the wall. Now, where's the market?
As Gabrielle wandered through the village, looking for the central area, it occurred to her that the village was strangely deserted. It was midday, true, and as she knew from her own childhood growing up in a farming town, these were prime working hours. But even if all the adults were out in the fields, there still should be people around: elderly, young children, those who were otherwise unable to work. There was nothing. As she wandered down the packed earthen alleyways, under the sleepy hot sun, Gabrielle wondered if she were the only person in the entire village.
There was something else strange, too, that came to her as she looked around: Except for the tavern, which was stone, the houses of the village were rude huts, the same as huts in every other village they had passed through up till that point. However, many of the huts looked new to her eyes. They weren't weathered at all: at the hacked ends of poles, bright yellow wood shone through; the unpainted doors were fresh and shining, the straw comprising the roofs of the houses had not yet turned gray with age. It looks like these were put up recently, she thought, standing with her hand on one wall. She could smell the freshly cut straw of the roof. And those that weren't new, many of them had walls that were oddly blackened, charred-looking, as if they had been scorched or singed by fire. The scent of smoke hung over the whole village, and the ground had a strange, ashy texture; Gabrielle could feel it when she scuffed it with her foot. This village….I wonder if it suffered some sort of catastrophe?
As she was standing there pondering, she heard a noise behind her. Quickly, Gabrielle turned to see a woman, stepping out of the door of one of the huts, a broom in her hands. She was a plain woman, tallish, with tangled brown hair and brown eyes, dressed in dull, dark, no-color tunic and breeches. She was robustly built in the way of an ox or mule or other beast of burden; she might have been stout once, but her clothing hung loosely on her as if she had lost weight, and her face was thin, almost gaunt. "Hey!" Gabrielle called to her.
The woman looked up at once; now Gabrielle saw that she had a kitchen knife stuck through her belt, and wondered at it. She frowned at the bard when she saw her. Gabrielle ignored it.
"Hey, where is everybody?" she asked, trotting over to where the woman stood in the door of her hut.
The woman's frown deepened. As Gabrielle got a closer look at her, she saw the woman looked tired, almost exhausted. "You just arrived in town today?"
"Yeah, my companion and I—"
"You better leave," the woman said wearily. "Just about everyone else has. This is no place for strangers. Not now."
"What's going on?" Gabrielle asked in concern, stepping closer to the woman.
"A warlord. Name of Zagreas." She drew a long breath, setting the broom down. "Him and his band of scum and cutthroats had been hiding out in the hills when Xena and Callisto came through here a few months ago, but as soon as they moved out, he popped up again. He's demanded that the villages of this valley pay him tribute. If we don't pay him by noon tomorrow, he'll burn our village to the ground, like he did the neighboring village of Piedmon. We haven't paid him. We can't afford it." She shrugged. "We can't," she repeated, spreading her hands helplessly. "Not after the way Xena and Callisto and Najara have ravaged this valley over the past couple years. We've got nothing left. So most of us packed up and went to the hills. There are just me and a couple dozen people left, out of the entire village of more than a hundred."
Gabrielle frowned. "Why don't you go too? Why do you stay, if you know this Zagreas is coming?" she asked.
"What would be the point?" The woman shrugged again, defeatedly. "First Xena came through here and demanded tribute. When our elders told her we couldn't pay, she crucified them, carried off our young people for slaves, and burned the whole valley. Then when we were just starting to get back on our feet, Callisto came through. She said we were supporters of Xena, and she burned what we'd managed to rebuild, and carried off all our crops and livestock. Then Najara came through, and took over our village to use as a command center in her struggle against Xena and Callisto. That wasn't so bad," the woman said, remembering. "She didn't burn anything, and she paid us for what she took. But then she got chased back to Africa and Callisto came back through, and burned our leaders alive for helping Najara. And then Xena came after her, and then it was Callisto, then Xena, then Callisto…over and over and over again." The woman sighed, pushing her hair back from her face with one beefy forearm. "Every time, we'd run up and hide in the hills, and every time we'd come back down to see our village burned, our crops gone, and more of our loved ones dead. And then, just as soon as it seems that Xena and Callisto have moved on, Zagreas comes down from the hills where he'd been hiding all this time and demands we pay him. It never ends," she said leadenly. "My boyfriend Hower was killed the last time Xena came through here. He was the last one of my loved ones still alive. I'm not running anymore. I'm tired of it. Those of us who stayed are all tired of it. If Zagreas's men kill us, then we'll just have to die, I guess. I don't really have that much to live for anyway, and there's no one left to miss me if I'm gone."
There was no defiance in her voice as she spoke, just a sort of bone-deep weariness, that struck Gabrielle's heart like a blade. The pain she saw in the woman's face reminded her too strongly of the agony in the eyes of Licinus, the guard she had struck down over a week ago in the caves, though the guard had been full of anger where this woman was not. In a way, the woman's dull acceptance was worse than Licinus's anger had been. It was almost unbearable, seeing the utter hopelessness in the woman's face; it brought tears to Gabrielle's eyes, and she swallowed hard. I can't stand it. I can't stand it, she thought. Not after Licinus….She couldn't stand seeing such sadness. She needs hope, Gabrielle thought. But I can't give it to her.
I can't give it to her.
"What if…" Gabrielle found herself speaking without intending. "What's your name?"
"Minya. I'm Gabrielle. What if there were someone who could help you?" she proposed.
"Someone who could help us?" Minya looked doubtful.
"Like—a warleader. Someone who knew battle, who knew how to help you stand up to Zagreas."
"A warleader? Willing to help us?" Minya frowned. "No warleader I ever heard of would be willing to do something like that, and even if there was one, he ain't here."
"My companion," Gabrielle said fervently, aware in a distant part of her mind that what she was proposing could very easily be seen as lunacy. "The man I came in with. He used to be a warleader once. He may be able to help you."
Minya didn't say anything at first. Something flickered in her dull brown eyes. "You think so?" she asked at last. "You think someone could?" Even as she said it, she didn't sound as if she believed it.
"He will." Gabrielle spoke with a confidence she did not feel. "If you're interested, gather all those who have stayed behind, and bring them to the tavern at noon. We'll talk things over there."
As Minya looked after her, Gabrielle gave her a smile, then turned, and trotted off back to the tavern. Inside, she was already bracing for the struggle she knew would come. He'll help. I'll make him, she told herself grimly. He owed her, after what he had gotten her into last week, after what he had made her do. I'll make him help. Whether he likes it or not.
Her companion was nowhere to be found when Gabrielle got back to the inn; checking with the tavernkeeper only revealed that he had gone out sometime before. Out? Gone out? Gone out where? Gabrielle wondered in frustration. Where exactly is he going to go with those legs of his? The tavernkeeper had no answers; she said only that he had gone out.
Realizing that he would have to come back to this room sometime—unless he were going to try to walk to another town, since Argo wouldn't carry him—Gabrielle finally returned to their room to sit down on the bed and wait for him. About an hour or so after she had gotten there, she heard the door open and raised her head to see him come in, leaning on the staff she had found for him.
Gabrielle rose to confront him. "Where in Tartarus have you been?" she demanded.
"Looking for you," Caesar said crossly. "We have to leave. Right away. There's a warlord who's threatening the village—"
"Then you know about Zagreas?" she asked.
"I overheard it. It does explain why this village is so deserted. I thought that was strange when we came in." He looked at her accusatorily.
Now Gabrielle frowned. "If you thought it was strange, you should have said something at the time."
His scowl deepened. "It seemed so obvious to me that I thought it scarcely worth mentioning. It never occurred to me that you hadn't noticed," he said contemptuously.
Insults. Of course. Gabrielle sighed, raising her hand to her head. Why does everything have to be such a struggle? she wondered. Sometimes it seemed as if talking to Caesar was almost physically exhausting; it felt as if every little decision was ferociously contested, every slight sign of weakness on her part taken up and used to beat her over the head. Letting his tone slide for the moment, she braced herself and dug in her heels. "We're not going anywhere."
Caesar stared at her as if wondering whether she had taken leave of her senses. "Perhaps you didn't hear what I said." Speaking slowly and enunciating clearly, as if he were addressing a mental defective, he repeated, "There—is—a—warlord—"
"I heard you the first time." Gabrielle heard her own irritation in her voice. "We're not going anywhere."
"Why?" he exploded in baffled fury.
"Because you're going to save the village," she snapped, looking up at him.
He didn't expect that, she thought, watching him. She had never seen quite that look on his face before, in all the time they had been together. "I am," he said after a long moment.
His brows contracted in a frown. Gabrielle continued, "You. You were a great warlord once—"
"Warlord—" Caesar started to protest but Gabrielle cut him off.
"The stories all say that you were a great warlord. They say you were one of the best, maybe one of the best ever. Look around." She waved a hand at the walls of the inn, meaning the village outside. "These people need help. They need someone who knows what he is doing to guide them. To show them how to fight effectively and how to use what they have to win. That person is you. You're going to help these people to defeat Zagreas tomorrow."
She watched him closely, trying to guess his thoughts. He was silent for a long, long time, and his expression could have meant anything. At last he said flatly, "It can't be done."
"Why not?" she demanded, going on the attack.
He gestured impatiently. "Look around you, little girl. These people aren't trained warriors—"
"Neither are Zagreas's men from what I heard," Gabrielle countered.
Caesar ignored her, talking right over top of her. "This village is not defensible. It has no natural barriers—they don't even have any real weapons, nothing more lethal than scythes and pitchforks." He looked at her. "These people are farmers, not fighters," he said contemptuously. "You can't make something out of nothing. It's impossible, and if you had the most basic grasp of military strategy, you'd see it too."
He leaned back against the wall and looked at her, clearly of the opinion that he had said all that needed to be said. Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. "Didn't you use to claim that a great man is one who does things that others think are impossible?"
Caesar's face darkened. He looked away. "Some things are impossible."
"That's not the attitude I would expect the Emperor of Rome to take," Gabrielle taunted.
He twitched as if stung, and started to say something. Then stopped, clearly struggling with himself. Gabrielle watched, waiting. "I'm not discussing this with you," he managed to spit out finally. Gabrielle started to speak, but he brushed her off with a wave of the hand. "Enough talk. We need to leave, now. Are you coming or not?"
"You can't leave without me. Argo won't carry you," Gabrielle reminded him.
He glared at her. "We'll see." Supporting himself with the staff she had found for him, Caesar straightened from the wall and turned his back on her. He was at the threshold to the door when Gabrielle spoke again.
"Xena could have done it."
Instant reaction, she thought to herself. Caesar went completely still, and his shoulders tensed; she saw his hands tighten on the walking stick. After a moment, he turned around.
"You heard me," she said, smiling slightly. "Xena could have done it. She could lead these villagers to defeat Zagreas."
"You don't know what you're talking about—" he began hotly.
"She did it before. At a village called Tripolis. She and her second in command, Dagnon, held off the entire Persian army all by themselves, and forced them into retreat. The stories about her victory there are some of the most thrilling and exciting in the bardic canon."
Got him hooked, she thought, watching the change of emotions across his face. She was unable to repress a certain vicious satisfaction at his obvious anger; she admitted it to herself, even though she wasn't proud of it. Serves him right, she thought again After what he'd done to her last week, she was meanly glad to see him upset. She watched him. After a moment Caesar said tightly, "That was a completely different situation—"
"I agree. It was much more desperate than this one," Gabrielle responded promptly. "Xena was all alone, facing a tightly-disciplined and well-trained army of over three thousand—"
"Four," he muttered under his breath, and looked away again. Gabrielle didn't acknowledge his comment overtly, but filed it away for future reference. Was he in her entourage by that time? she mused.
"And yet she still managed to emerge victorious. I'd say that situation was pretty close to impossible, wouldn't you? If she could defeat the entire Persian army all by herself, then surely you can lead two dozen villagers to triumph over a band of maybe a hundred rabble."
Caesar was shaking his head before she had even finished speaking; she could tell by the way his jaw was clenched that he was fuming. Good, she thought to herself. "No. You don't understand—" He actually broke off in the middle of the sentence as he struggled to control himself. "You're nothing more than an ignorant female, what would you know about military matters?" he demanded, glaring at her.
"I know enough to know that Xena wouldn't give up in this situation—"
"This has nothing to do with giving up," he insisted furiously. "This is about—This is about facing reality—"
"Like the reality that you're walking away from a situation that Xena could easily have won?"
"What do you know about it?" he snarled, lurching forward a step; his fingers were white-knuckled on the staff. "You know nothing about war—you know nothing about Xena—"
"I've heard the stories," Gabrielle shot back. "I know that the Dark Conqueror never backed down from a fight in her life—and neither did you. Before."
Caesar went deadly still, his eyes almost glassy with rage. He took one hand off the staff and gripped the hilt of the sword they had taken off Licinus. Gabrielle stared at him steadily, but inside she was wondering if she had gone too far. If he comes at me with that thing I'll kick him in the legs, she thought to herself.
After staring at her for a long moment, barely breathing, he said between his teeth, "You're no warrior, woman."
"I'm not," Gabrielle shot back, holding her ground. "I'm only a bard. A bard who knows that this village can be defended. It's not impossible—"
"You know nothing—"
"I know that Xena could have done it—"
"I'm not Xena!" he shouted at her.
The words rang abruptly in the sudden silence. Caesar stared at her, his shoulders heaving; he looked shocked at his own admission. The scars on his neck and wrists looked pale in the dim light. Gabrielle had no idea what expression she had, but felt as surprised as he looked; that was not the result she had been aiming for. Maybe I did push it too far, she thought to herself, and was surprised to realize that she felt no remorse. What's happening to me?
Caesar slowly took his hand off the hilt of the sword, leaning all his weight on the walking stick again. He scarcely seemed aware of what he was doing; his eyes rested on her, but he seemed to be looking right through her, at something she could not see. After a moment to collect herself, Gabrielle rose from the bed.
"Evidently not," she replied coolly. She left it there; there was nothing more to say after that. She brushed past him—he didn't follow her with his gaze; in fact he barely seemed to notice she'd moved—and headed for the door. Only to stop when he spoke.
"Get me a list of all the villagers who have remained behind. I'll need either a map of the area or someone who knows the area very well and can draw one. I'll also need to speak to the leader, to learn all that is known about Zagreas's army."
She turned and looked back over her shoulder. Caesar turned at the same moment, facing her. Something about his expression reminded her of the time he had thrown her belt knife at her; again, she could feel the menace in him from across the room.
"Thank you," she said anyway.
Gabrielle knew better than to push her luck. She left.
An hour or so later, Gabrielle surveyed the common room of the tavern. Minya had brought all the remaining villagers, just as she had said, and they filled the room, watching, waiting with the silence of defeat. There were three dozen or so of them—more than Minya had mentioned at first—men and women both; they were all tired and worn-looking, dressed in dull, earth-stained clothing, and with faces burned brown by the sun's rays. They clutched rusty scythes, pitchforks with dented tines, dull cleavers, notched axes, and even long kitchen knives in hands roughened by the plow and dusty with menial labor; there was no talking or chatter among them, as for the most part they simply faced forward, waiting with the dumb patience of oxen or other beasts of burden.
Maybe Caesar was right to doubt them, Gabrielle thought, looking over the crowd of peasants, and felt a qualm of misgiving. As she ran her eyes over them, she did not detect any air of resolve or determination about them; there was no will to fight, no spark, not even the hot hatred that had characterized the former Romans they had run into last week. These people had been defeated so many times that they had simply given up; she could see their utter hopelessness in their eyes. They hadn't stayed behind because they thought they could defeat Zagreas, and they hadn't gathered here in this tavern because they believed they could win—not even because they were determined to go down swinging. They had gathered here solely in response to her will, and perhaps that of Minya. As she stepped forward, into the open space left in the center of the floor, Gabrielle was suddenly overcome with a disturbing sensation—there and then gone—that she was surrounded by corpses, bodies of the dead who simply hadn't lain down yet.
They've already lost, she thought with a chill, looking out over those doughy, dusty faces, those flat and lifeless eyes. Suddenly, terribly uncertain, she glanced over at her companion. He was right, she thought with a tremor. Gods, he was right. These aren't soldiers. What have I gotten us into?
Minya stepped to the fore as she was thinking that, and held her hand out to Gabrielle. "This is the stranger," Minya said, addressing the crowd. "The one who called this meeting."
Total silence. Not even a murmur of interest followed. The villagers all simply turned those exhausted stares her way. Gabrielle swallowed, and held up a hand. "Hi."
Minya faced Gabrielle now. "You say you think you can help us?"
You're on, the bard told herself. No different than any other performance. She swallowed down her sudden nervousness, drew a breath, and straightened, drawing all eyes to herself. "That's right," she said. She raised her voice a bit, to carry to the rest of the crowd, finding herself settling into the rhythms and cadence of performing as she spoke. "I'm a bard from Potedaia," she proclaimed, "a small village to the east, not too different from your village here. I've heard about this warlord Zagreas, who threatens you with destruction. Your village is my village, or it could be, with the world being what it is today. Therefore, as I would hope someone would do for my village, should it face such a threat, so am I determined to do for yours: I intend to help you defeat the warlord Zagreas, and drive him away forever."
She paused, looking over the audience. They were silent, watching, listening quietly; there were no cries of enthusiasm, no expressions of joy, or even of hostility. There was only that same leaden dispiritedness, hanging over the crowd like an almost visible dark cloud. Total apathy, she thought to herself; her gut clenched. The hum of flies was loud in the silence.
At last, Minya spoke up. "And how d'ya plan to do that?" she asked dubiously. No one else said anything.
"With the help of my companion here." Gabrielle turned to Caesar, who had been leaning back against the wall with his arms folded, clearly unimpressed by the whole thing. Now, as she gestured to him, he heaved himself straight, took his staff from the wall, and lurched forward to join her; he flicked his eyes in her direction, but she couldn't tell what his expression meant.
Gabrielle continued on. "My companion is a great warlord," she proclaimed, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye as she said this; Caesar's face could have been carved from stone. "His name is—" She broke off, suddenly uncertain, and turned toward him.
"Gaius," Caesar supplied curtly. His mouth twisted.
"Gaius." Gaius? she wondered. "He has agreed to coordinate the defense of your village against Zagreas. With him guiding you, Zagreas will have no chance."
She spoke those last words with more enthusiasm than she felt, and stepped back, waiting. Looking over the solid faces of the villagers, Gabrielle had no idea whether or not her speech had had any effect; there was no reaction that she could discern. Caesar caught her eye and shook his head slightly, tight-lipped with some emotion she could not name. Total silence hung over the tavern.
At last, Minya spoke, doubt plain in her voice. "And just how you gonna do that?" she asked, looking at Caesar.
Gabrielle looked over at him too, suddenly worried. He said he'd help, she reminded herself, and tried not to wonder about her companion's trustworthiness. Caesar seemed to know her thoughts; he flicked her another glance, and his mouth twitched briefly. For a horrible moment she thought he was going to say simply, It can't be done, and leave her hanging, but he didn't; he drew a breath, straightened, and still leaning heavily on his staff, he faced Minya.
"I'll tell you how," he said shortly. "By using intelligence and discipline, rather than brute strength. From what I hear—" he glanced at Gabrielle again "—this Zagreas's army numbers over a hundred men. But they are untrained and incompetent, and Zagreas himself is nothing more than a thug with delusions of grandeur. You have something better. You have me."
Gabrielle's own mouth twisted at that last line. If anyone should know about delusions of grandeur, it should be you, she thought to herself, watching him. She said nothing. This was Caesar's show now, and as he stepped up to take his place, Gabrielle had to admit that it was a good one. She couldn't say exactly how he managed it, but as he spoke, he projected an air of total confidence and complete control, as if there were no task that he could not accomplish. Even his arrogance was playing right into it; the sensation he was projecting—that he couldn't possibly fail—helped to back up his assertions and make them seem more credible. And it was working. Caesar's personal magnetism was having an effect on the crowd. As he spoke, it was as if the air around the crowd lightened; she could start to see tiny flickers of hope creep back into dull and deadened eyes, and animation begin to return to lifeless, disheartened faces.
He paused, and looked over the assembled villagers, as if taking their measure. "On the battlefield, there can be only one leader," he continued, straightening to a respectable fraction of what had once been his full height. "As of right now, I am that leader. If I am to command you, I expect complete obedience to my orders, instantly and without arguments. I can lead you to victory, but only if you do exactly as I say. Are there any objections?" His tone said clearly that there had better not be. He surveyed the villagers again, running his dark eyes over each and every one of them in turn, marking them out. No one said anything, but Gabrielle noticed that the atmosphere had changed, somehow; the villagers were watching him expectantly, as if waiting for him to save them. He nodded.
"Good. Now this is what I will need from you," he continued. "I will need trackers: men who know the area and can move silently and unseen, who can draw close to Zagreas's army undetected, and return and report on what they see there. Are there any woodsmen among you? Hunters? Shepherds?" He paused again and surveyed the crowd. A couple of people stepped forward. "Good. Stand to the side. I will need two or three people to organize supplies." He looked over the crowd. "You, you, and you," he said, picking out three people apparently at random. "Stand to the side with the hunters. The rest of you, to the perimeter of the village. We will have to put up some earthworks and they have to be done fast. This village—you're leader here?" he asked, looking at Minya.
"Well, I don't know if—" she began uncertainly.
"You're in charge," he said in a tone that brooked no contradiction. "Stand to the side." Minya nodded, seeming somehow to take heart from his orders. Already, Gabrielle could see the cloud of doom over the gathering was lifting, the energy of the room changing. Caesar's air of utter confidence was starting to spread to the villagers; even as she watched, Gabrielle could see their life starting to return to them. Already the assembled crowd looked immensely better; there was hopeful murmuring, and she even thought she saw a few faint, hesitant smiles flicker out there.
"They say Zagreas can't be defeated," a young man spoke up nervously.
Something flickered across Caesar's face. "Anyone can be defeated," he said. "This Zagreas is only a man. Trust me. I can and will lead you to victory." He looked at them all. "What are you waiting for?" he asked sharply. "Get your shovels and report to the perimeter. Now." As they filed out, he summoned those he had directed to the side with a gesture. They crowded forward almost eagerly, and he looked them over. "Now," he told them. "I need to know…."
As Caesar spoke quietly to the trackers, suppliers, and Minya, Gabrielle thought to herself, He's good. He can help them. I know it.
The rest of the day, Gabrielle was kept busy running errands and information. Caesar set up his command post in the tavern, after dispatching the hunters to go spy on Zagreas's army and sending the suppliers out to gather provisions, and given how difficult it was for him to move, he mostly stayed there aside from a couple of trips to the edge of the village to personally observe the earthworks taking shape. He had the villagers construct a ditch around the village backed up by a low mound, and filled with sharpened stakes; there were four openings in the ditch wall, leading to the center of camp. When it was finished, he had Minya select some of the strongest villagers and send them out to cut trees and gather logs, in order to make some things he called "hedgehogs." "What are they?" Gabrielle asked him. "You'll see," he replied irritably.
He had the suppliers search the houses and lay in stocks of arrows and spears, and had them collect stone shot for every villager who knew how to use a sling; this turned out to be most of them, which favorably surprised him. "Though it won't do any good if Zagreas's men have armor," he said grudgingly. He also had them search for lamp oil and other flammable material in order to make firebombs, and as the earthworks were finished, sent out teams throughout the village to prepare a few surprises for Zagreas's men, should they get past the perimeter. Since her companion could not walk well, Gabrielle ended up acting as liason to the various groups, relaying orders and information from them to where he sat in the tavern, going over crudely-sketched maps of the town and surrounding countryside and looking at lists of supplies and men.
As Gabrielle went among the villagers, conveying orders, gathering information, and reporting back to Caesar where he sat in the tavern, she saw firsthand the effect that carrying out his orders and preparations was having on them. It was as if she were watching them come back to life before her eyes. Though in many cases, the work he was having them do was hard physical labor, they carried it out with vigor, even enthusiastically, with laughter and joking. Just the prospect of having some hope of resistance was enough to revive the villagers wonderfully, and it was clear Caesar had made a very strong impression on them. As she walked through the mud lanes of the village, she caught snippets of conversation.
"Gaius….Gaius…." said a man, running a file along the blade of his shovel. "Wonder where he's from. He really seems to know what he's doing." He shouldered his shovel and bent to the work again.
"I heard that there was a Gaius up far north," a woman with a handful of arrows said to another woman stringing a bow. "He was a warleader or something in Britannia before Callisto came through—he fought alongside Queen Boadicea. Couldn't stand up to Callisto of course…."
"Well, who could," the other woman agreed, nodding.
"….But he managed to hold her off for a good long while before she drove him out."
"You think it's him?"
"Dunno. But he sure seems to be a good fighter. I know we'll win with him leading us," she said fervently, and muttered a brief prayer.
"Ami the tavernkeeper said his companion called him a drunkard," she heard a stout man with an apron opine a while later; he was working on one of the "hedgehogs" Caesar had ordered, and spoke as he lashed a joint together. "Wasn't there a Gai-something that got tossed from Najara's army for drunkenness a while back? You know Najara doesn't tolerate vice of any kind among her men….One of her best lieutenants, so I heard."
"Gaheris," the elderly woman listening to him corrected. She was sharpening a stake with a long kitchen knife. "Name was Gaheris. He masterminded Najara's famous victory over Xena's forces at Memphis, so I heard."
"Gaheris. That's pretty close to Gaius, isn't it?" The elderly woman nodded sagely. "Kinda makes sense that a fella gettin tossed like that might want to keep it secret," the stout man went on to speculate. "And accourse, there's bound to be a lot of people with a grudge against the Crusader…." He trailed off. "One of Najara's men. Maybe with something to prove, to himself or the world, out to do a little bit of good for once…." he said, musing; then suddenly gave a fierce grin.
As Gabrielle passed by the village well, she overheard three very young women giggling as they filled bottles with lamp oil. They were all blonde, and looked as if they might be related. "How do you think he got those scars?" one of them whispered. "You think he was a prisoner of war for a while?"
"I heard someone say he was one of Najara's men. Didn't Callisto get one of Najara's men a while back and torture him to find out her battle plans? It was back when they were fighting in Egypt…."
"And he wouldn't tell," the third one whispered, "because he was so devoted to Najara, he wouldn't tell no matter what Callisto did to him." She looked at her friends with big, meaningful eyes.
"But Father said he was the one who Najara threw out for drunkenness," the first one said, confused.
"Maybe Najara didn't feel the same way toward him as he did toward her," the second one suggested, and the three of them shared a deep, heartfelt sigh. "So tragic," the first one sighed.
"Well, I'll tell you what I think," the third one breathed. "I think those scars are kind of interesting, and those legs aren't that bad, not for a real hero—"
Gabrielle quickly picked up her pace until she was out of earshot. She was grinding her teeth together. I can't take much more of this, she thought to herself.
She found Minya under an olive tree, sharpening her scythe and kitchen knife. "Oh, hey, Gabrielle," Minya said, looking up with a smile. "All the traps your friend there wanted to set up are in place, and I heard that the last of the hunters he sent out has returned. Should be talking to him now."
"That's good," Gabrielle said. "…Gaius…wants you to take those stockpiles of lamp oil and lay them at convenient places throughout the village, so that they'll be ready to hand tomorrow in case we get pushed back. He also says lay the sling stones and arrows near the earthworks for tomorrow. And to collect buckets full of water and have them standing by, in case of fire."
"Got it. I'll have them do it." Minya paused, and grinned hesitantly. The change in her from when Gabrielle had first seen her was enormous. "That Gaius," she said after a moment, "he sure is something, isn't he?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle replied with feeling.
"I'll tell ya, when you first said your friend could help us I didn't believe ya," Minya continued, almost gushing. "I thought you were just makin it up, but boy, he really knows what he's doing. All this stuff he's havin us do, I'd never've thought of it by myself—none of us would've. Zagreas won't expect it either, I'll tell ya. Your friend, he's got this…this…what's that word….this aura—the way he acts, you can just tell that he's in charge and he'll lead us to victory. Finally—like for the first time in years—I have hope again." She grinned. "I'd almost forgotten what it felt like. It feels good."
"Well, that's good," Gabrielle replied.
"Yeah." Minya paused and eyed her. "Must be a lot of fun….travelin around the countryside, with a man like Gaius, doin good deeds an stuff…."
"Oh, it's a barrel of laughs," Gabrielle answered after a moment. She was unable to completely keep the dryness out of her tone.
Minya watched her. After a moment she said hesitantly, "Ya know, I haven't…haven't really had another boyfriend since Hower died….just didn't really see the point, you know—why bother, if Xena's just gonna come through and kill em again….If you think—think you could—" she paused and looked at Gabrielle closely "—if you think you could set me up with your friend there—I don't know if you think he'd be interested in a peasant woman like me—"
Suddenly Gabrielle had had enough. "Minya, forget it," she said. "Take it from me: he wouldn't be interested in you." Her voice was sharper than she meant it to be, and Minya stepped back.
"Look, I'm no homewrecker," she said defensively. "I'm not looking to split anyone up—If you've got first claim, that's fine, I just thought I'd ask, but if you're together—"
"No, we're not together," Gabrielle said tiredly.
"You want him all to yourself, is that it?" Minya asked with a trace of anger. "Won't give anyone else a chance? That's kinda selfish, if I do say so myself—"
How did I get into this conversation? Gabrielle found herself wondering. She raised her hand to her head, then met Minya's eyes. "Minya, read my lips," she said sternly. "He wouldn't be interested in you."
"I don't—" Suddenly Minya stopped, seeming to realize something. "Oh," she said with dawning comprehension. "Oh, you mean—I wouldn't have guessed! He doesn't look the type at all…."
"The type?" Gabrielle asked, confused. What's she talking about?
"I didn't realize," Minya was blathering on. "Don't know if you want anyone else to know….I won't tell anyone else, I promise—"
"Tell anyone else what?" Gabrielle couldn't help asking.
"Exactly," said Minya with a smile. "Tell anyone else what? Don't worry. Your secret is safe with me!"
What secret? Gabrielle wondered, watching Minya trot off happily. She groaned and shook her head. This whole thing was getting out of hand. I can't wait for this to be over, she thought to herself.
When she got back to the tavern in the evening, Caesar was speaking to one of the trackers, the last one to come in; they were just finishing up as she arrived there. Caesar glanced at her, and told the young man, "You're dismissed."
The tracker, a peasant boy who looked as if he should have been leading an ox or mule, replied, "Yes sir!" His name was Taurus, Gabrielle vaguely remembered. Taurus even made an attempt at what was vaguely recognizable as a salute before turning and almost bouncing out the door. Caesar watched him go with an unreadable expression before turning to her.
"Everything's in position. I've spoken with everyone in the village, and everything's set up. We put the hedgehogs right where you wanted them in front of the openings to camp—" they had turned out to be spiky things that would be rolled down slight inclines at Zagreas's army "—and all the ammunition and supplies are laid in. We're good to go." She paused, then added grudgingly, "I've got to say, the villagers….they are all very determined. You really helped them…."
Caesar gave a grunt in response. "Not hard," he said only, without lifting his eyes from the map in front of him. "The morale situation was catastrophic when we got in. Nowhere to go but up." He did not sound particularly enthused himself.
Silence fell. Gabrielle watched him, waiting to see if he had any other commands for her. He paid her no attention, continuing to look over the crudely-sketched maps in front of him. She wondered if he had forgotten she was there.
"Why Gaius?" she asked after a while, remembering her earlier curiosity.
"You told the villagers your name was Gaius. Why Gaius?"
"It's my praenomen," he muttered without looking up from his work.
"Your what?" she asked.
"My first name." He shot her an impatient glare. Gabrielle frowned.
"I thought Julius was your first name," she said, puzzled.
"Julius is my family name." His tone said that she should have known that already.
"Then what's Caesar?" she asked in confusion.
"Caesar is my—" He stopped and looked at her, then shook his head in annoyance. "Never mind. You wouldn't understand."
"Fine. Forget I asked anything," Gabrielle said, not bothering to hide her own irritation. She lapsed back into silence. He glanced at her, his brow furrowed as if he were trying to figure something out.
"Your name is Gladiel, right?" he asked.
Gabrielle stared at him, floored. His frown deepened. "Galiel? Galla?" he tried, seeing her expression.
I don't believe this. Actually, she did believe it, she realized distantly, and that was even more depressing. "Gab-ri-elle," she managed to say without screaming at him.
"I knew I was close." He turned his attention back to the reports in front of him. Gabrielle fought down a strong urge to march over there, snatch the reports out of his hands, pick up the oil lamp on the table and smash it down over his dark head. She managed to restrain herself with a huge effort of will.
"We've been traveling together for five weeks and you still didn't know my name?" she burst out.
He shrugged. "It wasn't important to me to learn it," he said as if that explained everything. Maybe in his mind, she thought, it did.
Silence. Gabrielle bit her lip, sunk in thoughts of the villagers, of Zagreas, of what was to come tomorrow. Caesar could have been alone for all the attention he paid to her presence. They have hope now, Gabrielle thought of the villagers. Minya said so… Buried deep in the back of her mind, so deeply she scarcely acknowledged it, was the thought that maybe this would make up for Licinus. Saving a village….that's got to be worth something. It's got to.
"Can we win tomorrow?"
Caesar looked over at her, startled; she wondered if he had forgotten she was there. "What?" he asked.
"Can we win?" she repeated.
He was shaking his head before she even finished the sentence. "No," he said with a trace of scorn. "I told you before that it was impossible." He looked away from her, letting his gaze roam around the shadowed corners of the tavern, taking in every detail from the battered tables to the scuffed and worn floor. "These people are peasants. They're not soldiers. They don't have the will to fight, to win. You can't make something out of nothing."
Gabrielle swallowed. "But—but you seemed so confident earlier—"
One dark brow went up. "What was I supposed to do?" he asked. "Tell them 'Everything's hopeless, but you should follow me anyway?' Would—" He paused, and she saw his jawline tighten. "Would you follow someone like that?" he asked with an edged smile. Gabrielle recognized the words, and could see that he did too.
"The villagers—they all believe in you," she got out, uneasily.
"Villagers." Caesar sighed in irritation and leaned forward, resting his head against his clasped hands. She could see the scarring on his wrists. Suddenly he looked very tired. "They believe they have a chance because they don't know any better. They don't know any more of military strategy than you," he added, cutting a glare in her direction. "They can't see what I can see."
Gabrielle stared at him, suddenly beset with a creeping feeling of doom. It's just his ego talking, she tried to tell herself. He didn't want to do this in the first place and now he's just saying we're going to lose because he can't admit he's wrong. She couldn't bring herself to believe it. He wasn't speaking with his normal cold hauteur—it was there in flashes, but in nowhere near full measure. If anything, he sounded as he had back at the tavern where he had gotten his chains off, when he had laid out the reasons she should give him her knife—speaking almost as one person to another. It was only the second time she had heard it. "What can you see?" she asked in a low voice.
He looked over at her, as if considering what to tell her. "These troop reports," he said, tapping the pages in front of him. "To start, Zagreas's army is larger than that peasant woman told you. Almost twice as large. Based on what the trackers reported, it might be almost two hundred. That's not a favorable situation. Even worse, and this is something she didn't tell you probably because she didn't know," he said coolly, "Zagreas's forces are almost certainly fortified with a core of deserters from the armies of Xena and Callisto and Najara."
"How do you know?" she asked.
"The trackers reported seeing men in armor and with swords among Zagreas's camp. If Zagreas's men were really no more than the cutthroat rabble that your peasant friend called them," he said in disdain, "then they would not have much better weaponry than your friends here, and they would almost certainly not have armor. Those so armed are likely deserters. It's simple logic."
"And that's bad?"
"Yes." He looked at her as if she had just asked the stupidest question he had ever heard. "Deserters may have no honor, but they are men who are battle-tested and trained. If they deserted from Xena's, Callisto's or Najara's army, they are among the best of the best. They won't break, run or panic in the face of poorly-armed commoners, and that was, to be honest, the only chance we had."
"But…but…" Gabrielle faltered. "What about Xena's victory at Tripolis? Can't—can't we do what she did there? The stories say—"
"As you would have known if you had listened to me," Caesar said with an edge to his voice, "the situation Xena faced at Tripolis was completely different. The Persians were not interested in destroying Tripolis, or even occupying it; they were simply passing through the area on their way to Athens. They had no reason to care about that particular village; when faced with unexpected resistance, they merely backed up and took another route. Here, from what your peasant friend says, Zagreas has apparently committed himself to destroy this village, and he must do it or else he will lose the confidence of his men and open himself up to challenges within his ranks. He won't be able to back down." He paused, and Gabrielle saw his dark eyes shadowed. "Not even…. have held off four thousand Persians all by herself, not if they were determined to destroy her no matter what the cost." He sighed again, and closed his eyes, rubbing at his temples briefly. "And we don't have Xena here."
Gabrielle swallowed. The feeling of creeping doom was spreading, sinking more deeply into her bones. "Isn't….isn't there anything we can do? I mean, what about all the preparations you were having us make?"
Caesar shook his head. "Not enough," he said curtly. "The fortifications will slow him down but they won't stop him." He leaned back and looked at her. "Here's what will happen tomorrow. Zagreas and his army will arrive, probably around midday. They will most likely start by trying an assault. That's not what they should do, but I doubt this Zagreas is that competent a warleader, and from what the hunters have said, he has no artillery for a long-range bombardment. We'll be able to repulse the first assault easily enough; Zagreas will probably simply be trying to test our defenses. After we've thrown back the first assault, he will have his archers volley, probably with fire-arrows, to provide covering fire while he reorganizes his forces. At least some of these will hit, and start fires throughout the village. It will probably take about three or so volleys for him to set his men in order, and then he'll come for us again. This time, he'll have put his deserters, with their armor and shields, in the front ranks as the tip of the spear and have them smash their way in with brute force. Once he gets inside the fortifications, it'll go house-to-house. If you've never seen that kind of fighting before, I'll tell you now: It's a bad business." He spoke with no particular sympathy. "We'll have to fall back and try to hold out as long as we can, until we can't fight anymore."
"What happens then?" Gabrielle asked. Chills were running up and down her spine. She tried to hold onto the idea that it was just Caesar's ego that allowed him to be so sure, but she had to admit he was making a scary amount of sense. What have I gotten us into?
He raised an eyebrow. "Then we die." He said it as coolly as if he were commenting on the weather.
Then we "Why didn't you tell me this earlier?" Gabrielle burst out wildly. She was trembling, she realized, and clenched her hands into fists to avoid showing him. Her knees were weak at the thought, and she locked them, swallowing hard. "Why didn't you—"
"You didn't want to listen," Caesar said, shrugging. "I tried to tell you, but you preferred to insult me." He paused. "I told you you didn't understand," he said, harshly. "I told you you knew nothing of military matters. I told you it couldn't be done, that these people weren't soldiers, and that it was impossible. You wouldn't hear it. You insisted that we stay here, and that we try to help these people. Well, here we are. Are you happy now?" he asked sharply.
"If you thought it was so hopeless, then why did you agree to do it in the first place!" Gabrielle flung at him out of her own anger. "If you knew there was no chance going in, then why did you let yourself be talked into this to begin with!"
"Because—" He broke off and glared at her. At that moment, Gabrielle knew exactly what he was thinking. I'm not Xena! she heard him shout in her memory. She was distantly surprised to find that she still felt no remorse; only anger at him, at herself, and a gnawing sense of dread. "Never mind," he said. "Leave me alone. I'm tired of talking to you."
He turned away from her, back to what he had been working on before. Gabrielle was biting her lip, her guts roiling with cold fear. After a long pause, she asked in a low voice, "Can't you figure a way out of it?"
Caesar cut her a glance. "Not likely," he said sourly. "Our best hope would be to be relieved by another army, but I don't see any of those around here. Do you?"
"There—there must be something we can do…."
"I'll let you know if I come up with anything."
She swallowed. "Maybe—maybe…." She hated herself for having the idea, even more so for suggesting it, but couldn't stop herself. "Maybe we could just leave. Get on Argo and just sneak out—all the villagers are asleep, and—and—"
Caesar raised an eyebrow. "Too late for that. If you think you could ride out of here, in the dark, finding your way among all those backwoods trails we came in by, without encountering Zagreas's patrols, or roaming groups of bandits—" He shrugged. "Be my guest. Besides…." He turned away from her. "It's too late to run. We're here now," he said with a note of finality in his voice.
He said nothing else; he didn't have to. Gabrielle could almost hear the echo of the words she had thrown at him earlier: The Dark Conqueror never backed down from a fight in her life, and neither did you. Before. She realized dully that since she had forced him to start this, he wouldn't run; what remained of his ego wouldn't let him. Not after what she had said to him earlier. And then there's that latent death wish, she remembered. Gods, why didn't I stop and think about this before bullying him into it? Why didn't I listen to him? Why…. She covered her face with her hands briefly, filled with a sensation of looming disaster. Gods, gods, if you exist, if any of you are still listening to us poor mortals down here, help us….
There was another pause. Gabrielle watched him work, feeling cold and hollow inside. She asked hesitantly, "Is there anything I can do?" As he looked at her quizzically, she asked, "Can I…I don't know, can I get you anything? Another lamp, maybe? Do you want some water, or—"
She broke off. He was looking at her with that strange, far-away look in his eyes; it always made her uncomfortable. At last, he shook his head.
"You can help by leaving me alone. I can't work with you around chattering at me."
"All right, fine."
Gabrielle turned on her heel and retreated down the hallway to their small room. The deep-seated sense of dread she felt would not leave her; she gripped her hands together, afraid of what would come the next day. Why did I get us into this?
Alone in the common room, Caesar stared down at the maps without seeing them in the light of the flickering oil lamp. He had been looking at the same one for what felt like the past hour, and had made no headway with it. It's hopeless, he thought to himself. Self-evidently hopeless. He couldn't dream of how he had allowed that stupid bard to manipulate him into this. There, looking down at the cold facts of the situation, it seemed utterly incomprehensible to him that he should ever have agreed to accept this task. How did I end up here? He could not find a single satisfactory explanation except….except….
He pushed the map away from him. He folded his arms on the table before him and rested his head on them, suddenly exhausted. He was tired of banging his head into stone walls, he thought sullenly. It seemed there had been so many stone walls lately.
He closed his eyes. That stupid bard's stupid question…. He should have been concentrating on the task at hand, but his mind wandered; he let it go, and it went to the place it always went eventually. He rested, and he thought of Xena.
Want some water, slave?
Water. The word was barely a whisper. His lips were cracked and bleeding. He had had not a drop of water for three days, and he was trembling with the need for it. Even the hell in his lower legs was nothing compared to the thirst.
Xena was cool and beautiful above him, her blue eyes half-lidded, her ruby lips curved in a smile. She started to lean down from her chair, holding out the tall blue pitcher. Then stopped, considering.
I don't think you really want it, slave.
He had simply stared up at her, shaking, not sure what she was doing, only that he had to have that water. That pitcher of water was, at that moment, the most important thing in the world to him. He could barely even think, so greatly did he need that water.
She rested one perfect finger against her lips. Ask me nicely for it. Say please.
Please, he had said at once. Water, please.
She started to bend down again, offering the pitcher. He managed to raise himself on his chained hands, leaning against the pole of her tent, reaching out to take it. He could almost taste it—the pitcher was almost in his hands—when she stopped and pulled it back, tilting her head. The curve of her lips deepened.
His arms had given way under him and he'd collapsed to the ground, hiding his face against the dirt of her tent floor. So that was the game, he thought dizzily. He should have known. Every fiber of his being was crying out for water.
He heard her voice from above him, falling like silvery rain. Well, slave? Do you want this, or should I drink it myself?
The iron collar was heavy on his neck, but he had managed to raise his head, looking up at her to see what would be required of him. In the background he could see Pompey, sitting at her table working on something; he had turned to watch the two of them, but he could make out nothing from Pompey's expression. Somewhere, some part of him writhed in helpless fury that his rival should see him so, but that was far off; the water was right there.
Xena extended one white and well-shaped foot, delicately threaded with the lacings for her golden sandal. Kiss my foot, she told him gently, and say, Water, I beg you, mistress.
He collapsed to the ground again, closing his eyes, repeating to himself what she had said. Kiss her foot and sayNo. No. He wouldn't do it. He couldn't do it. He would rather die.
But the water was right there.
His eyes went from the pitcher to her face, her beautiful, perfect face; in his delirium he thought he had never seen a more beautiful woman in his life. She looked almost a goddess. Her smile deepened slightly as he stared up at her. Then his gaze returned to the pitcher.
Hurry and decide, slave. I'm starting to feel thirsty.
She was starting to feel thirsty, he muttered to himself. Focus. This was about focus. It was about doing what was necessary to survive. If he didn't have water soon, he would die. If he died, he wouldn't be able to come into his destiny. He wouldn't be able to pay her back for what she was doing right now. He had to have that water.
I can't do it, he thought, then followed it with, You have to. You have to.
Well, I guess you didn't really want it anyway, slave. Too bad.
No! Frantic, he reached out and took her foot in his chained hands. His fingers were dirty and rough against her smooth white perfection. He pulled it toward him, then stopped, struggling with himself. He knew she was watching him, and also suspected she knew what the outcome would be, and those thoughts filled him with despairing, stifled rage. In the background, a slight frown creased Pompey's brow. He ignored it. Slowly, he lowered his head and kissed her foot. Then looked up at her, hoping it would be enough.
Say it, slave.
Of course it wouldn't be enough. He closed his eyes, grinding his teeth. The collar was too heavy; he lowered his head, resting his forehead against the cool skin of her foot. You have to, he told himself again. When he spoke, it didn't seem real.
Water. I beg you. Mistress.
He heard her rustle above him and looked up to see her bending down, smiling faintly. She stretched out the pitcher to him. He was reaching out his hands to take it….when she pulled it back again. This time, her smile widened into a grin.
Bark, slave. Sit up and bark like a dog.
Bark like aShe had to be joking, he thought dizzily. She couldn't really mean that. Except when he looked up at her face again, that grin was still there, and so was the pitcher, held tantalizingly over his head. He could see droplets of condensation beading its sides.
Well, slave? What are you waiting for?
His eyes went over her shoulder to Pompey, in the background, fastening on him. His rival was watching him closely. Enjoy it while you can, Caesar thought with dull, exhausted anger. This will be you someday, and you know it too, don't you? Pompey's expression didn't change, except that his frown deepened. Then his world rocked as Xena kicked him in the face.
Look at me, slave, she ordered coldly, the amusement in her voice gone. Do you want the water? Then do as I tell you. Bark for me, slave. Bark.
Bark for her. He closed his eyes, suddenly overwhelmed with weariness. He wanted to scream at her to give him the water and quit jerking him around, but he knew that wouldn't work—he'd done that yesterday and gotten nothing but a savage kick in his shattered lower legs. Pointless defiance wasn't worth that much agony. If he barked for her, would she finally give him the water? Was that what it would take?
Oh for godsakes, quit fooling around over there! Pompey's voice, sharp with irritation. His eyes snapped open and went to his rival. Pompey was scowling blackly. Just give him the damn water and come over here and help me with these troop reports. I've asked you three times already!
Xena glanced over at Pompey, her blue eyes veiled. All right, she said sweetly. He was reaching out for the jug when Xena raised it above his head and upended it. Water poured out in a cascade, soaking his hair, running down the sides of his face and pooling in the dirt underneath him. He caught as much of it as he could in his hands and gulped it down greedily, then pressed his face to the pools in the dirt below him and sucked it up. Wine had never tasted so wonderful. All too soon, it was gone.
There you go, slave. Water.
She had risen in a rustle of silks and gone to where Pompey sat at her table. He heard their voices intertwining, but that was in the distance, far off from him. He could only lie there weakly, shivering, hating, thinking, Someday, Xena. When I come into my destiny, I will pay you back for everything you have done to me and you will get double. I promise you. I promise. I will show you that no one conquers Caesar. Someday.
And now she was dead.
He raised his head from his reverie, supporting his forehead on his hands. The ugly scars on his wrists glistened in the candlelight. Now something Brutus had said came back to him. That day will never come. She had won after all.
She had won. As she had always won. Except for the very first time they had met, he had never seen her defeated. She had lost, a battle here, a skirmish there, but she had never been defeated.
What would you do, Xena? he wondered, looking down at the rough maps, sketched with charcoal on parchment from that stupid bard's—Gabrielle's—belt pouch. What would you do here? What should he do?
He remembered Tripolis: the grinding fear that had hung over the entire army when it was reported that their commandress had been lost, his own gnawing sense of uncertainty—Xena had told him, more than once, that she intended to have him thrown on her funeral pyre when she died, so that she could take him with her in death along with the rest of her trophies, and being burned alive was not a fate he particularly relished. Xena can't be killed, he had told himself, during the two days that the deathly waiting had gripped the army. Not her. Not her. And on the third day, he had been proven right; the cheer that had gone up when Xena had come riding fast into the camp, blue eyes blazing, had been like nothing he had ever heard before—it was a cheer that would have, should have, woken the gods. Wherever they lie sleeping above this wretched world, he thought, and rubbed his temples again.
Xena had told him about it that night, after she had finished with him and they lay beside each other for a while, wrapped in her sleeping furs. She would often talk to him at that time, or rather at him, for he seldom responded at length. She had been extremely fierce that night—she usually was after battle—and the violence of her passion had left him too exhausted to pay much attention to what she had said. Maybe he should have listened better, he thought, and grimaced slightly, unaware of it.
Why aren't you listening, slave?
Because I'm not interested in anything you have to say.
She had raised an eyebrow. You're not interested? she had asked.
Nothing you do interests me.
She might have struck him for that—she had for less—but she had only smiled, a lazy, dangerous smile. Surely something I do must interest you, she'd purred.
Not one thing.
Xena hadn't responded for a long time, watching him expressionlessly. He had thought for a moment that he'd managed to score, that he'd actually drawn blood for all the blood she'd drawn from him; but then she'd said, Well, if that's the case, then perhaps I should stop sending for you.
Silence. He'd clenched his fists, cursing inwardly. Xena had said nothing, but continued to watch. At last she'd spoken.
Very well, slave. But remember—all you have to do is say the word. Believe me when I say it would be no great loss.
That hurt. Even now, even remembering, that hurt.
Caesar stared down at the maps. He was tired of looking at them, tired of trying to solve an unsolvable situation. It's impossible, he thought sullenly. The stupid blonde bard's words came back to him: Didn't you use to claim that a great man is one who does things others think are impossible? That had been a long time ago. A long, long time ago. He knew better now—a lot better. Some things were impossible. There were some tasks at which failure was assured.
Failure. He clutched his head with his hands. You failed us! He could see the young soldier's face in his mind, twisted not with anger but with pain—the soldier that stupid bard had struck down. That centurion had even said the boy had served under him once, briefly; Caesar didn't remember him, but that wasn't unexpected. YOU FAILED! He remembered how the boy had screamed those words at him, so loudly the cords stood out on his neck…. I didn't, he told himself. I didn't fail. Even to himself, it sounded weak, defensive, even panicky. He didn't know what he was talking about, it wasn't….
But suddenly he was sick of self-deception. Oh, who the hell do you think you're fooling. He had. Sitting there, in the dark lit only by the flickering oil lamp, realizing that short of a miracle he would probably die tomorrow, Caesar admitted it to himself: He had failed. It was hard to think of a better definition of failure than allowing one's city to be as completely and totally razed as Rome had been. He couldn't have failed worse if he had tried. He had failed, and his city—his destiny—had been destroyed because of what seemed, in retrospect, like nothing more than stupid, stupid pride. Would Xena have spared Rome if I had surrendered? She couldn't possibly have done anything worse to it, or to him. Maybe if he had surrendered, the remaining Romans at least wouldn't have hated him so much. Maybe if he had, then Brutus would have….Brutus. His mouth twisted at the thought of that traitor.
He had failed. I failed, he repeated to himself, thinking of the sound of the words. He had failed there, and he would fail here too, and failing here would probably mean the end of what was left of his life. Not that that had that much value for him anymore. Xena could have done it…. I'm not Xena. Not even close, he realized bitterly. It couldn't be done. It was impossible.
Suddenly and completely out of nowhere, he was struck by a powerful longing for her, so great it left him shaken, almost trembling; he cradled his head in his arms again, oblivious to the lamp and the troop reports and the stupid badly-drawn maps, his mind filled with the thought of her, the feel of her, even the scent of her. Xena. Xena. Xena. Xena…. Her name pulsed in his blood like the beating of his heart, a steady, throbbing ache, drilling deeper and deeper into him with every repetition. She could have found a way out of this situation, he was sure, she could have….she could have…. But she had left him. She was gone, gone forever beyond his reach, and he hadn't even had the pleasure of killing her.
Maybe he should have surrendered to her, he thought dismally. Even if she still had burned the city he wouldn't be any worse off than he was now, and who knew, maybe she might have spared it. What had he earned by his pointless defiance….except the hate of every Roman who had survived her vengeance on him? At least if she had spared his city he would have something to come back to….
His lower legs were aching; carefully he shifted them into a new position and the ache died to a low twinge. In a way, he thought dully, he had almost been better off as Xena's prisoner than he was now. At least then, chained by the neck to the base of that hideous throne of hers, he had still had hope—hope that someday things would improve, someday he'd be freed, someday he would have his empire again. Strange how he'd never realized how important hope was until the chains came off and all his hope had vanished under the cold, ashen light of reality. Now—now he had nothing at all. Nothing except this pitiful travesty of a "command," forced on him by that ridiculous blonde harpyGabrielle. I wish I were dead, he thought sullenly, and realized with black humor that about this time tomorrow, he might get that wish.
At last, he straightened up, bracing his head on his palms. Come on. Snap out of it. Focus, he told himself sharply. He drew a deep breath and straightened his spine, sitting back. The shadowed corners of the room seemed ominous, lurking; the darkness pressed in on the flickering pool of light thrown by the small oil lamp; the writing on the pages seemed to swim and crawl before his eyes. You have a job to do. Do it.
It was hopeless, he knew it was hopeless of course, but….it still had to be done, and focusing on the work in front of him was better than thinking about the past behind him. Ignoring the throbbing in his lower legs, the stiffness of his back, the incipient headache he could feel forming behind his eyes, as well as his own weariness, Caesar bent again to his task.