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 notes: Well, this is it; this is the last in the "Destiny" series of AU Gabrielle/Caesar fics. After this, I might write a prequel, but this is as far as I'm planning on taking this series. This story here is the payoff story in terms of Gabrielle's and Caesar's character development; everything previous to this has been leading up to it. Some reviewer said of "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith," that "The sheer force of the director's vision triumphed over his inadequacies as a filmmaker." I hope that's true here, and most of all, I hope it isn't a disappointment.
The stanza quoted below is from Rudyard Kipling's charming, romantic poem "The Vampire." For added fun, those of you playing the home game can attempt to figure out who is the Fool and who is the Lady in this AU/story series. Not really a "right/wrong" answer per se (although I of course have my ideas); more a sort of lens through which to look at this series. Oh, and watch for Callisto: I've saved the best for last.
As always, thanks to LadyKate who helped beta!
"So the Fool was stripped to his foolish hide,
(Even as you and I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside
(But it isn't on record the Lady tried)
So some of him lived and the most of him died
(Even as you and I!)
And it isn't the shame and it isn't the blame
That stings like a white-hot brand.
It's coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing at last she could never know why)
And did not understand."
—Rudyard Kipling, "The Vampire"
It had been a week or so since they had left the ruins of that bard's home village, and his legs were still swollen and throbbing. The bard—Gabrielle—had relented enough to allow him to ride Argo, though she now walked, leading the horse, instead of riding double with him. She had barely spoken to him, barely acknowledged his existence in any way. She had also more or less stopped feeding him; she no longer shared out the food she carried in the saddlebags, providing him only with a few scraps tossed him from her own meals. It didn't matter; he wasn't hungry anyway. Sometimes he caught her staring at him, and in those moments he saw real hatred in her face.
She was angry. Not just at him, but at everything. A sort of dreamlike clarity had fallen over his thoughts since their encounter with the Crusader, and in this clarity it seemed he could see more deeply and more truly into things than he had ever seen in his life. She was hurting, and she was angry, and she was unsure, and she was afraid—as well she might be, if what her family had said was true and Callisto was hunting her—and he was a convenient target. He was accustomed to this; he had served the same function for Xena often enough, though Gabrielle was certainly no Xena. What he had said to her in the stables probably hadn't helped, but it was of no consequence. He had been glad to see someone else suffering for once, someone else's plans and dreams fall into dust.
She was going to abandon him. She might not know it yet, but he could see it coming, with that same distant clarity; he had severed whatever tie lay between them. He could see it in her white silence, in the angry looks she gave him, in the way she stood coldly watching as he struggled to mount Argo in the mornings. She was going to abandon him, and he wondered briefly and without much interest what he would do then. The idea of finding a quiet spot in the woods, simply lying down, and resting for a day, or three, or five, had a strange, seductive appeal. It didn't matter. It would happen when it happened, and there was nothing he could do about it.
He could see these things clearly, but they did not seem important, somehow. They seemed very distant, as if they did not affect him, or as if they were things that would happen to someone else. At any rate, he saw nothing he could do to change them. He followed where she led, stopped when she stopped, slept where she slept and woke when she did, waiting for the day when she would simply ride off without him; his mind was taken up with other things. With Xena.
He had had a dream about her the night after they had left Potedaia, when his legs had hurt so badly it had been difficult for him to sleep. When he had finally managed it, he had dreamed of a game Xena had played occasionally, mostly during the first year of his captivity. Like most of her games, it had been painful; she would run a chain from the manacles on his wrists to her saddle horn. Don't be afraid, slave, she'd said with a small, mocking smile, looking down at him from horseback. No harm will come to you….as long as you keep up, that is. So run, slave. Run very fast.
He'd run. He had no choice; it was run or be dragged. He ran after her horse as best he could on his twisted, misshapen legs, staggering and stumbling over rough and uneven ground. His legs had been agony, pain lancing as far as his hips with every step, and he hadn't even tried to bite back the cries each time he fell to his knees. He'd run, each step hell, until he fell and could not recover; and then he'd been dragged behind her, his shoulders feeling as if they were being wrenched from their sockets, trying to protect his face with his arms as stones and pebbles and branches scraped and tore at his ragged clothes and skin. Eventually, she tired of the game and drew her horse to a halt; she dismounted and came to where he lay, bleeding and battered and broken behind her, without the strength even to lift his head. She prodded him with a foot, then turned him over and knelt beside him; her hand had touched his forehead in a gentle, almost caring gesture. Not bad, slave, she'd said, smiling, only as he looked up at her, with the sun behind her, it was not her face he saw in the dream; it was the face of that blonde bard. Not good enough, but not bad.
That had been a strange dream. He wondered distantly what it meant.
It hadn't always been like that. As he thought it over, it seemed to him that Xena had been angriest, cruelest, during that first year. She was always capricious, of course, quick to lash out on a whim or from spite or for no reason at all. But after the first year, the hate that she bore him seemed to die down a bit; he had begun to see other sides of her as well. He'd seen her fierce and triumphant in the aftermath of battle; she would send for him, and go on until he was simply physically incapable of more, almost too exhausted to move, and then mock him for being unable to match her. He'd seen her pain the day they received word that Callisto the Fiery had destroyed Amphipolis and had her mother burned to death—she'd listened to the messenger with not a flicker of emotion on her icy features, but when she had summoned him that night she had been extremely drunk; had forced him to drink with her, and wept, and raged, and threatened to kill him or herself or both. It had taken all the cunning he possessed to dissuade her. She could be surprisingly gentle and tender when the mood was on her: ardent and possessive certainly, yet at the same time warm, teasing and playful; she would sometimes kiss him lightly as he lay in her arms afterward, and stroke his hair. Once she had called him beautiful. He knew her. He knew her, in all her moods; there was no one who knew her better.
Najara's djinn had told him that surrendering would have changed nothing. In fact, he'd already known it for truth, and wondered vaguely that he could have ever doubted; he knew Xena well enough to know that the Dark Conqueror would not have spared Rome, even if he had given himself up to her. It was as he had told the bard three weeks ago, in the caverns where they had been captured: she would have gone even further than she had if it were possible, just so that she could have had the pleasure of crushing his hopes. He'd seen her do similar things many times over the course of his captivity. Surrendering would not have made the slightest bit of difference in the final outcome.
Does that mean the destruction of Rome was inevitable?
He didn't know. That was the question at which his mind worked dimly, as he sat on Argo's back and let the bard lead them to wherever she thought she was going; as he waited by the campfire at night for her to toss him whatever scraps of food she felt like giving him. Was there anything he possibly could have done to avert it? Though he could see clearly, his thoughts were distant, vague; it felt as if his mind had been blunted, somehow. Thinking of the question tired him; it was much easier to simply lose himself in memory. Nevertheless, he worked at it as best he could, trying to wrench at it, to force a conclusion through the dullness that permeated his mind. It was no use. His thoughts kept going in circles, and he did not see an answer. He followed where Gabrielle led, waiting dimly for the day when she would abandon him, and thought of Rome, and Xena.
Gabrielle didn't know where she was going. She led them down side paths, backwoods trails, paths that she'd known from her childhood, trying to keep off the main roads as much as she could; her parents had said Callisto was hunting her, and she couldn't be too careful. Her parents had thrown her out. Athens was burned. She didn't know where to go.
She remembered that Najara had offered to let her stay with her army, and to give her a place among the healers. Joining the Crusader seemed like a very good option—much better than wandering aimlessly throughout the hills around Potedaia until Callisto found her; with Najara's army she would be safe and protected, and since Callisto was already at war with Najara, She of the Djinn would not be like to kick her out simply because the Bright Warrior was after her. But Gabrielle didn't even know if she could find Najara's army again; she doubted that the Crusader would still be camped around the village of Laurel after this time, and anyway she didn't know how to get to Laurel except on the main highways, where Callisto's men would be most likely to find her. So she wandered, staying off the main roads, diving into the bushes at the slightest sound of anyone coming, always cold, always tired, always afraid.
Caesar might have had some ideas if she had asked him. She doubted it though. Since Laurel, he had been broken, lost, shattered; unable to make basic decisions on his own. And even if he hadn't, even if he had been whole…
Hurts, doesn't it.
The memory of the cold malice in his dark eyes—the mean pleasure he had taken in her pain—was always with her. It burned in her, even worse than the pain of her parents' rejection. She tried hard not to think about it, because whenever she did, that slow, deliberate rage would come curling, coiling back into her, spreading through her chest and heart, reaching its tendrils through all her limbs; she would find herself breathing hard, burning with fury aimed directly at him, her hands aching for the belt knife or the hatchet. The rage took all her strength to push back down, and when she at last succeeded she felt drained, physically wrung out from the struggle. More and more, she found herself wondering why she even bothered. He had been angling to get killed since the day the chains had come off; she'd really be doing him a favor. And it certainly wasn't like there was anyone who would miss him if he were gone….
When she found herself thinking things like that, she would take her hatchet and go into the woods, and chop wood for the campfire until she had worn herself out. It worked—for now. She didn't know how much longer it would continue to work. If she didn't get away from him soon, something bad might end up happening. But she didn't know where she could leave him. If she dumped him by the side of the road and Callisto's men picked him up, she had no doubt that he would inform on her before half an hour had passed. If he didn't seek Callisto's men out, just to turn me in for spite.
A temple of Gaia, perhaps, but she only knew of one in this area, and when they'd come on it in their wanderings, it had been deserted and in ruins. She'd thought the sisters had run off, until she had gone around back to look for a well and caught the scent, heard the buzzing of the flies. Those bodies had been there a while, lying with their dark robes and white hair stained a dull rust color from the gashes in their heads.
At first Gabrielle thought it had been Callisto's men who had done this; certainly they would have no respect for the sanctity of a temple. But then, Callisto's men tended to burn everything they could get their hands on, and the temple wasn't burned, merely ruined. Perhaps it had been the work of some cutthroat brigands; all the valuables—candlesticks, silver offering bowl, temple statues—had been carried off. If so, it was a reminder that even had Callisto's men moved on, they still weren't safe. There were other evils in the world besides Callisto. Gabrielle thought about leaving one of the trail loaves on the altar to Gaia anyway as an offering, but decided against it; she might need that food, and if anyone were to come by and see it, it would be a sure sign that someone had been there recently. It probably would not matter….but then again it might. Gabrielle wasn't about to take any chances.
Besides, the gods are dead.
Najara had said that, and Gabrielle found herself in full agreement. So she left the altar barren, and turned back to the forest; she even did the best she could to erase the marks of Argo's hoofprints from the dirt of the courtyard with a leafy bough. She wasn't able to do a very good job, but perhaps it was better than nothing.
This is the worst, she thought to herself, during the long sleepless nights, the days she spent wandering aimlessly through the backwoods trails, not knowing where she was going, not caring. Every hand was against her, every door shut in her face, her home in ruins, her family having turned their backs on her. This is it. This is the worst that can happen. There is nothing that could happen to me that is worse than this.
She was, of course, wrong.
Making the fire had been her mistake. Gabrielle would see that later, after the damage had been done. Even at the time she had known better, but it had rained briefly the night before; her bedroll had been soaked, and she had been shivering with chill, so cold that it had overwhelmed her common sense.
They had been huddling by the fire when Argo had raised her head and nickered, her ears swiveling. Gabrielle had instantly stilled and listened, and caught the tramp of marching feet, some way off, but heading closer. Moving with the speed of panic, she had spread earth over the fire, grabbed Argo's reins, and hauled her and Caesar into the undergrowth off the trail, backing them behind a thick screen of foliage and hoping it would be enough to hide them from whoever was coming. She parted the leaves slightly with her hands, just enough so that she could peer out and see the clearing. The tread of approaching soldiers was loud, but there was another sound accompanying it—a strange, rhythmic clanking sound, as of heavy metal. It didn't sound like armor. Gabrielle was still trying to figure out what it was when the marchers came into her line of sight.
It was slaves. A slave caravan.
A double file of them were trudging by, men and women of all ages, linked together by the neck and with their wrists bound by manacles. Clad in ragged clothing, their eyes empty, their faces exhausted, they marched leadenly in an endless procession across the clearing, looking as if their strength had long since failed. Gabrielle had never seen a slave caravan up close before, and even with all that had happened to her, she was still touched by the abject misery passing in front of her eyes. The slaves trudged on mechanically, goaded by the touch of a lash or the blow of a fist; mounted guards rode up and down the columns on either side, riding sturdy, well-kept horses, in armor and carrying swords and bows in addition to whips. Their equipment appeared to be more or less uniform, and Gabrielle wondered if they were all members of the same company. She searched their faces, trying to gain some insight into the kind of people who could inflict such cruelty so dispassionately, but found nothing. If anything, most of them looked bored, as if they had seen it all before and were just doing their jobs.
Then, as she watched, her heart rose into her throat as two guards broke off from the procession. They came to the spot on the ground where she had hastily thrown earth on the fire. It still smoldered, Gabrielle saw, though dimly; a thin stream of pale smoke rose colorlessly into the morning air.
No, Gabrielle thought. No, no, no…
The guards dismounted. They looked at the ground; one of them bent down to touch the earth, and jerked his hand away, swearing at the heat. He straightened up again. The two men spoke together briefly. Gabrielle watched, trembling, cursing herself for ever making the fire in the first place—I should have known better, she thought desperately, I should have known better….
Yes, and here it came; the two men had called a third guard over, and the one who had touched the campfire was pointing directly at the undergrowth where she lay hidden. She could see them clearly through the leaves. Her heart went cold within her. Softly as she could, she wound her hands around Argo's reins and started trying to back the horse deeper into the wood. Argo seemed to sense the need for stealth; she moved as quietly as a horse could. She touched Caesar's shoulder, gesturing for him to fall back with her, but he simply looked at her as if he did not understand what she was doing.
Gabrielle gestured again more fiercely—come on!—but he still did not move. That broken distance was in his eyes, and she wondered if he even knew what was going on…if he even cared. She heard the jingling and footfalls of men coming toward their place of concealment, and grabbed Caesar by the shoulder, trying to drag him back into the undergrowth, when all of a sudden the branches in front of them were whipped aside and Gabrielle found herself staring into the face of a squat, broad-shouldered, gap-toothed man.
"Well, look at what we've got here," he said, grinning. "Two little rabbits, flushed out of their nest. Come here, little rabbit," he taunted.
Gabrielle dropped Argo's reins and tried to turn, tried to flee back into the undergrowth, but it was no good; the man reached out and caught her by her hair. He yanked it so hard it felt half her scalp was coming off; blinded by tears of pain, she was dragged out onto the path. "Torax, look what we caught!" she heard him calling. "Can't get much for the man, but the girl ought to be worth a dinar or two in Ch'in, and there's a horse besides—" Rough laughter beat against her ears. Gabrielle twisted with the strength of panic and sank her teeth into her captor's wrist. The man gave a shout of pain. The pressure on her hair let up, but the very next instant a bright light exploded in her head as he slammed his fist into her jaw. She collapsed to the ground and felt a hard boot strike her midsection.
"You little viper!" he snarled in outrage. Gabrielle tried to curl into a ball as blows rained down on her, too dizzy and disoriented to do anything else. "I'll teach you to bite me—"
"Now, now, now, Retares, stop it, stop it!" she heard a voice chide. "Is that any way to treat good merchandise?"
The blows stopped immediately, and Gabrielle heard the gravel crunch as the man who had been holding her dropped to one knee in a bow. No one was restraining her now; there was nothing to stop her from getting to her feet and running away—except for the fact that all her limbs felt as weak as water after the blow to the head; she wasn't even sure which way was up. She tried to raise her head, and through eyes swimming with tears, looked up at the scene around her.
The slave column had come to a halt at the back of the clearing. Caesar was to her right, she saw, being held by another man—probably Torax, she guessed; Argo was slightly beyond him with a third man holding the reins. Even through her haze of pain, Gabrielle was surprised to see that some of the lost look had drained out of Caesar's eyes; he seemed more alert than he had in a long while. He was not resisting the guards—which was just as well, because it would have been futile; in addition to his legs, they had taken his gladius so he was now completely unarmed—but neither did he give the impression of the strange absence which had hung around him for the past couple of weeks. He simply watched, taking in information; she saw his eyes move, scanning the clearing, and realized through her fog that he was recording everything he saw and storing it for possible future use.
"My lord," she heard the guard who had been holding her say, and heard the fear in his voice. Her eyes went to the man in front of her.
The man in front of her was seated on a pure white horse, a dainty mare that must have cost a pretty penny; the golden and jeweled trappings on her harness were probably worth as much again as she was. He was a rotund little man, dressed in rich silks and satins, and any one of the jewels on his fingers or around his neck would have bought all of Potedaia several times over. His hair was silver and thinning, and his neatly trimmed beard and mustache slightly darker; his face was genial and charming, and his brown eyes twinkled with good humor and warmth.
"My lord Salmoneus!" one of the other guards said. "Please—please, forgive us, we didn't mean any offense—"
Salmoneus? Gabrielle stared at him through her blurry vision. This kind-looking figure was the sinister Slaver Lord? There must be some mistake, she thought, unable to credit it.
Salmoneus folded his ringed hands and looked down at the guards where they knelt before him; he was shaking his head ruefully. "Retares, Torax, Polones—I'm surprised at you! Didn't we already go over this back at the beginning of the journey?" he scolded them.
"Of c-course, Lord Salmoneus—"
"We remember everything you told us, my lord—"
"We would never forget any of your words, my lord—"
The guards were practically stumbling over each other to apologize to him. Gabrielle couldn't see what on earth there was in this cheerful little figure to be afraid of; she had never seen anyone less intimidating in her life.
"Now, now, now, I know you wouldn't," he said reassuringly. "But just to be clear, let's go through this again. Is that all right?" He paused, and smiled, his eyes twinkling. "Slaves are profit; guards are expense," he said, spreading his hands. "Which do you think are more valuable?"
The guards were all silent. Gabrielle saw that Retares was sweating.
"Right!" Salmoneus said cheerfully, though nobody had said anything. "Now, let's put this another way: Which do you think I would prefer to lose"
Again, silence. Salmoneus waited, smiling pleasantly, running his eyes over the clearing. Her vision had mostly cleared; watching him, Gabrielle saw that there was something disconcerting about the way he looked at her and Caesar, but she couldn't quite tell what it was. After a moment of silence, the Slaver Lord continued.
"I only ask," he said, folding his hands in front of him, "because of the discussion we had when I hired you all. Remember that? What did I tell you are standard losses for most slavers on the journey to Ch'in?" he said with a genial smile. "Wasn't it about a fifth?"
"That sounds…about correct, my lord," Retares mumbled without raising his head.
"Imagine that. Most slavers lose a fifth of their caravans en route to Ch'in." He looked pained. "I'm sure I don't need to tell you what losses like those would do to my profit margins. Whew! Well, I'm telling you—I'm only a simple businessman trying to make a living. I can't afford that," he said ruefully. "The whole point of being a businessman is to learn to balance profit with expense. And what better way to cut expenditures than to turn an expense into a profit?"
He paused, watching them. They were silent, pale and sweating. "That is the deal you agreed to, isn't it?" he asked them genially. "I told you going in: three times standard pay, but if a slave is killed, seriously injured or incapacitated by the actions of a guard, the guard takes their place in the line. I told you that up front," he said, scolding slightly. "Slaves are valuable property, after all, and I've got to make a return on my investment…." He spread his hands as if it were the most obvious thing in the world
He paused again, as if waiting for answer. Silence. She saw Retares swallow; Torax looked ill. Salmoneus watched them a moment longer, then clapped his hands briskly. "Anyway, you just keep on doing what you're doing," he said with a smile. "Just as long as I have a full caravan of slaves to put on the blocks when we get to Ch'in. That's all that really matters, and I'm sure I will, one way or another. Keep up the good work."
He had touched his heels to his horse and was about to move on when Retares asked, "My—My lord Salmoneus, what will you have us do with these two?"
Salmoneus turned back and ran his eyes over them again. Again Gabrielle saw that strange look in them; she couldn't say what it was, but something about it chilled her to the bone. "The girl ought to be worth quite a bit," he said pleasantly. "Not bad-looking and she's got that sturdy peasant build. Strong and healthy, and she looks like a hard worker; she'll make an excellent field hand or domestic laborer. Add her to the caravan."
"And the man?" The third man, Polones, had risen from his bow; now he gave Caesar a shove. Caesar staggered and almost fell; he turned his head and looked briefly over his shoulder at Polones. There was a hostility in those dark eyes that Gabrielle had thought not to see there again. Polones paid him no attention. "He'll never be able to work with those legs," the guard continued, "and the scars he's got say he's a runaway. He's worthless to us. Should we kill him straight out, my lord?" He was already drawing his sword to comply.
The Slaver Lord touched his heels to the side of his horse, and the dainty white mare trotted over to where Polones held Caesar. Salmoneus looked down at him from horseback.
"Let me look at him." Salmoneus reached down and gripped Caesar's wrist, squeezing it and forcing his hand to uncurl. Caesar watched him with narrow eyes. Looking down at his opened hand, Salmoneus ignored the former emperor completely. "These are the hands of an educated man," the Slaver Lord said thoughtfully. "Certainly not a nobleman, not with these scars, but perhaps a clerk or tutor. Can you read and write?" he asked, looking at Caesar for the first time.
Caesar's eyes narrowed further, and his mouth tightened. He didn't answer.
"Answer the Slaver Lord, filth!" Polones snarled, and struck him across the back of the head with his blade. Caesar lurched and almost fell again. Salmoneus did not let go of his wrist; his twinkling brown eyes were cool and distant.
"This one's got a bit of an attitude, doesn't he?" Salmoneus observed to Polones with a rueful shrug. Gabrielle, who could have told them volumes, kept silent. "Can you read and write?" Salmoneus asked again, speaking louder and more slowly. "What languages do you speak? Who was your previous owner?"
Again, Caesar was silent, glaring at Salmoneus with a hostility that Gabrielle had not seen from him in days.
Salmoneus looked at him for a moment longer, then shrugged and released him. "Stick him in the line. We might be able to sell him for a steward or pedagogue somewhere."
"If he keeps up, he keeps up," Salmoneus said. "If he doesn't, we paid nothing for him, so we're out nothing. It's a can't-lose proposition, and those are always the best kind." He gave that jovial grin again. "Carry on," he said, and clucked to his horse. He was about to ride off when Gabrielle found her legs.
Breaking free of the man holding her, she called out, "Lord Salmoneus!"
Salmoneus stopped and looked back at her in amazement. He couldn't have looked more surprised than if one of the trees had suddenly started speaking to him. Retares tried to strike her, but Gabrielle ducked away. "Lord Salmoneus!" she cried again. "Please! I—I'm just a farmgirl—I've done nothing to you—please, just let us go on our way, and—"
A blow to the back of the head cut her off and Gabrielle crumpled to the ground, biting her tongue in the process. As she blinked, trying to clear the tears out of her eyes, she heard Salmoneus say, "Whew, she certainly talks a lot, doesn't she?"
The other guards murmured assent.
Salmoneus looked down at her from horseback. "Tell you what. I have a standing offer from one of the Ch'in noble families for deaf-mute domestics. If she speaks again, cut out her tongue," he said matter-of-factly.
Gabrielle had been about to protest further, but those words from Salmoneus froze her in place. As he looked down at her now, Gabrielle could suddenly identify what it was about those merry brown eyes that chilled her so.
She wasn't there.
She realized that in a flash that froze her heart. For him, she wasn't there. He didn't even see her at all. It was as if she didn't even exist, and he saw only a pile of dinars in her place; she was nothing more than something to be sold, like a jewel or a jar of oil or a vial of perfume. She had never experienced anything like it before, and she felt herself wilt inside.
"We will, Lord Salmoneus!" Retares asserted.
"Oh, good, so that's settled then," Salmoneus said. "Take the horse as well; that animal looks worth quite a bit. Carry on," he said again, and touched his heels to his horse, continuing off down the trail, whistling amiably to himself. As he rode on down the line, the guards closed in on them.