Standard disclaimer: None of the characters, places, etc. in this story are mine, but are instead the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended by their use in this story.
Author's note: I hadn't planned to write any more in my AU after Death of the Conqueror, but there was just a little bit more of Xena's and Caesar's story to be told. This is set before DotC, and details what happened the night the news of Cyrene's death reached Xena's army. Thanks to LadyKate who helped beta!
"Tell me the answer: Is fate unchangeable?"
"Even at his most powerless, man's existence is never without meaning."
"I can't control
I trust my soul
My only goal
Is just to be…"
It was early afternoon, but a halt had already been called; the army had been moving slowly the last few days. The air was humid with a languid heat that spoke of a storm to come, though the sky was clear for the moment. They had handed the Crusader's forces a decisive defeat two or three weeks ago, and the Bright Warrior's army was far to the north-west; there were no major threats in their immediate vicinity, and Xena had been setting a leisurely pace. A village had been the prey for that morning; the Dark Conqueror had led what she called a "hunting" party. "Let's see what pickings we can find, boys," she had told them, grinning, at the morning briefing.
"Why that one?" her second in command, Dagnon, had wondered, looking up at her from the map table.
Xena had raised an eyebrow. "Because we can," she said with relish. "We're all spoiling for action. This village has no defenses, no palisades, and almost certainly no trained warriors—it's an easy target. They're practically begging us to strike them. If anything, we're doing them a favor—the survivors oughtta learn something for next time. If there are any survivors," she added with a cold smile, then looked at him hard. "Got a problem with that, second?"
"No." Dagnon gave a grin that matched her own. "Did I ever tell you, my lady, I like the way you think?"
"Good," Xena had replied coolly. "You'd better. Go ready the men."
They had ridden out early in the morning and returned by noon, carrying whatever odd bits of loot they had found. "The village didn't have much, but it was good exercise," Caesar had overheard Xena say blithely, and indeed, the men she had taken out with her all appeared to be in fine spirits; they had taken everything that might remotely be valuable, massacred every villager they could find, and finished up by burning the village and its crops to the ground.
Now Xena reclined on her massive, hideous Dragon Throne, which had been set up at one end of the campsite. The throne was located at the crest of a hill with light beech woods behind it; from its vantage point the field sloped down and away in a long unbroken stretch of gently waving grass, washed with yellow by the slanting afternoon rays of the sun. Xena sprawled at the top of the throne like a full and sated lioness after the hunt, resting idly in the muggy warmth of the afternoon; chained to the steps as he always was, Caesar almost thought he could hear her purring in contentment. She was watching a performance of the troupe of dancers she had traveling with her; the ten men and women were dancing lightly in front of her high throne. The musicians who accompanied them on flute and drum were having a difficult time being heard over the singing of the cicadas in the trees. Once a dancer missed a cue and all action came to a stop as they glanced apprehensively in the direction of the Dark Conqueror; Xena simply waved magnanimously.
"Keep on going," she said lazily, and let her hand fall back to his head. She scratched him behind the ears teasingly as the dancers all resumed, looking visibly relieved; he pulled away in anger, knowing that she did that because she knew how much he hated it. When my destiny comes… She glanced down at him, and a brief smile flickered around the corners of her mouth.
The pounding of hoofbeats up the long and winding dirt road captured their attention; a messenger was galloping up the road at top speed. His horse was lathered and blowing. As he drew nearer, then skidded to a halt and dismounted, Caesar could see that both horse and rider were thickly coated with the gray dust of the road. A roll of fabric was at the back of his saddle. He was slender and slight, as most of Xena's couriers were, and his face was pale underneath the caked dust.
Caesar glanced up at Xena as the young man began to approach; her features had set into the snowy mask of impenetrability that he had come to know so well, but she straightened on the throne and stopped the dance troupe with a quick gesture. The dancers retreated a few paces, probably wise, he thought sourly. If this messenger had bad news, and it's likely he does, Xena would not be too particular about who she chose to vent her spleen on. As he knew from bitter, painful experience.
The messenger dropped into a kneel as he approached the throne where Xena sat like a thunderhead atop a mountain. Close up, Caesar could see he was actually trembling a bit. "My lady," he began.
"Rise." Just like that, the lazy air that had surrounded her was gone; Xena was all cool, regal command. Her face was stone. "What news do you bring me?"
"I come…" He swallowed. "I have just come from Amphipolis, my lady." Caesar pushed his way up on his hands, interest pricking him. Xena's home village? "I have—my lady, I have—I have…." He stammered his way into silence. Sweat glistened on his forehead. Quickly Caesar glanced at Xena, but her face was stone.
"Speak," she commanded him. "Whatever you wish to say, say it freely."
The man wiped at his forehead briefly, and then, still trembling, poured out his tale. "My lady, I come to you with terrible news," he gulped. "F-Five days ago, Amphipolis was—was set upon by Callisto the Fiery."
Callisto... He heard one or two quickly stifled gasps among the crowd; Callisto's cruelty even outmatched that of their mistress's. Xena's expression did not so much as flicker.
"Any losses?" She could have been asking about the weather.
"Yes…My—my lady," the poor man stammered, "Callisto, she….She took the village completely by surprise. There—There was no time to make a defense. Her men overran the village in a matter of minutes. I—My lady, I am sorry to report this." He paused, gathering his courage.
"Amphipolis was burned to the ground."
The words fell heavily in the sudden silence. The servants and members of the dance troupe had all frozen, and were shivering where they stood, their attention riveted on the throne. Caesar found himself holding his breath; he was aware of a suddenly, startlingly vicious surge of triumph—Let her see how it feels!—but almost in the same moment shoved it ruthlessly back down: now was neither the time nor the place and that emotion would not serve him here. All gazes were on the Dark Conqueror, waiting for her reaction.
"The reserve division?" He could not help but admire the cool dispassion in her voice.
"My…" The messenger fumbled. "My lady, I don't understa—"
"I stationed a reserve division in the area specifically to protect Amphipolis." There was no anger in Xena's voice, not even the chill lack of emotion that he had come to recognize often led to anger. She might have been asking about what was for dinner. "What happened to the reserve?"
"I'm—I'm very sorry, my lady," the messenger managed. "Callisto brought her….she brought her full force to bear. The reserve was annihilated."
"I see." Xena nodded. "Any survivors at all?"
"From the village? My lady, no—Callisto had them all locked in their houses and the huts were then set on fire…The screams were—"
One delicate brow went up. "I mean from the reserve," she corrected. Now there was the faintest hint of impatience in her voice. Caesar found his admiration for her going still higher. The young man in front of her swallowed.
"N-no, my lady. I'm afraid not. She killed them first, before the villagers." He drew a breath, looking so frightened that for a moment it seemed as if he were about to be sick. Xena showed no reaction, simply regarding him with her eyes veiled.
"Callisto…she s-sent me with a—with a present for you." The messenger indicated the roll of fabric at the back of his saddle. "She said…. My lady, I—"
"Let's see it."
The courier was trembling so much he couldn't unfasten the knots that bound the bundle to his saddle; the tension that hung over the clearing as he fumbled his dagger free of its sheath and cut the cords was almost unbearable. The onlookers were so quiet that the drop of a pin could have been heard. The bundle gave an unnaturally loud rattle as the messenger wrestled it down and laid it on the ground before Xena. He spread it open.
Inside the wrapped blanket were what at first looked like a pile of blackened, broken sticks. Then Caesar saw a white gleam and identified the teeth of a skull, grinning among the ashes. The two bronze bracelets that rolled from the pile only confirmed what he had guessed intuitively; the last time he had seen those bracelets, they had been on the wrists of the only woman he had ever seen strike the Warrior Princess and live to tell about it.
Quickly he looked up at Xena. A muscle might have quivered along her jawline, but other than that there was nothing; she gazed down on the blanket that contained her mother's charred bones with a complete lack of expression.
"The Bright Warrior has a message for you." The poor courier had gone white as a sheet. "She says to tell you….." He swallowed. "Now we're even."
Now we're even. There was not a person present who did not know what that meant. All eyes rested on the Dark Conqueror; the dancers, the soldiers and attendants, the servants all clustered together like mice in the shadow of a hawk, terrified lest they be the one on whom her wrath fell.
But there was no wrath. Xena's icy visage was unmoved. Caesar thought he saw perhaps the tiniest catch in her breathing, but he could only tell because he knew her so well—if it had even been there in the first place and not just his imagination. She regarded the bones briefly, her eyes still veiled, then gave a short nod. "I see." She gestured toward the blanket with its horrific evidence. "Take that away and give it a decent burial," she said as coolly as if she had been discussing stabling arrangements for Argo.
The messenger looked up at her helplessly. Caesar didn't blame him; the Destroyer of Nations's stony demeanor was beginning to give him chills as well. He could see that the young courier's eyes were too bright.
"My…my lady…" he fumbled.
Xena raised one brow. "I gave you an order. Did you not hear me?"
"Yes, my lady," the man whispered.
As he knelt, carefully gathering the bones into their sad blanket and wrapping it up again, Xena rose to her feet. She turned toward the hushed gathering, watching her with round, sheeplike eyes. They looked solemn and afraid. They were all waiting for her to speak; she must know it too, Caesar thought.
And she did. "Well," Xena said calmly. "Callisto the Fiery has sent me a message. I shall show her that her message has been received." She did not speak loudly, but her voice carried nonetheless. No one broke the stillness.
Xena's veiled blue eyes moved over the crowd, picking out her second in command. "Dagnon."
Her voice was lazy, but Caesar saw Dagnon actually flinch; however much he might flatter Xena, and however savage he might be in battle, Caesar knew he was still a sycophant with no real courage. Why Xena has taken a man like that for her second… Chopping up unarmed women and children was one thing; facing down a Warrior Princess who had been dealt such a loss as this was something else entirely. Sweat stood out on Dagnon's forehead and he licked his lips.
"Dagnon, give the messenger something for his pains and tell the men we head north in the morning." She paused, looking at the silent crowd. "You're dismissed."
No one dared move. The slightest hint of a scowl marred her perfect features. "Well, what are you waiting for?" she demanded. "I dismissed you. Go."
It was an impressive display; Caesar had never seen anything like that level of control and found himself frankly staggered by it. Perhaps…perhaps she really doesn't care, he mused to himself. Could that be it? He knew her better than anyone in the world, and even he could detect no crack in her façade…
As slowly the crowd began to break up, Xena's hand dropped to his head. It might have looked like an idle gesture, but before he managed to pull away in annoyance her fingers tightened on him, squeezing painfully. Startled, he jerked away and glanced up at her, but he saw nothing; her eyes were veiled, her jaw was set, and she looked out over the golden, slanting field with a calm deliberation that he had seen from her many a time before. As he looked up at her, he felt her fingers trail down the side of neck; then he almost choked as she gripped his collar and dragged him back within reach. He raised his hands to tug at it, fighting the pressure on his throat.
"Slave." Her eyes were distant and she did not spare him a glance. He held his peace, thinking it was safest. "I'm sending for you tonight, slave," she informed him only.
Now it was his turn to frown; she usually sent for him and did not bother to give warning.
"Xena?" he ventured after a moment.
"That's right." Her words were addressed to him, but her mind seemed to be a million miles away. She patted him on the head—clumsily; started to speak, and then shook her head briefly. As she descended the steps, leaving him chained to the throne, he watched her go, troubled.
A hush hung over the encampment for the rest of the day, as people went about their daily business, or made their preparations to move out. The wind had picked up, blowing from the east, chill and wet; gray clouds had rolled in across the sky with darkness in the eastern quarter. Showers of rain, sharp and abrupt, spatted down occasionally: a foretaste of what was to come. Voices were subdued as people carried out their duties, no one laughed or jested; everyone knew what had happened to the Dark Conqueror. Chained to the base of Xena's throne as he was, Caesar had no duties—unless you count filling Xena's bed as one of them, he thought bitterly—and nothing but time on his hands; he used that time to ponder what he had seen.
She doesn't care. Caesar found it hard to escape that conclusion, turning it over in his mind as he restlessly toyed with the links of his chain or wound it into a coil to keep passersby from stepping on it. The cold, wet stormwind chilled him through his light, ragged tunic; he shifted into the lee of her throne to spare himself, but it did little good. That was either the best performance I've ever seen her give in my life, or else…she really doesn't care. A Stoic philosopher could not have taken the loss better, he mused, and Xena had no philosophy at all that he had seen, beyond perhaps "Kill people and break stuff." Sometimes she spoke vaguely of some "Way" that she claimed to have picked up when she had spent some time in India, perhaps during what he thought of as her "Lost Years," but he saw no evidence that she attempted to apply this "Way" philosophy to her life in any sort of consistent manner. No, she doesn't care—is that possible?
He didn't know, but the thought filled him with a bitter anger as powerful as it was unexpected. No. That's not fair. It's not fair.She had burned his city—his city, tormented him, enslaved him, shattered his legs, and now, when similar misfortune visited her, how could she feel nothing? If she felt nothing when dealt such a blow, then how on earth, when his destiny came, could he hope to take similar revenge on her? What could he do that would hurt her as she had hurt him?
He drew a breath, again, carefully setting the anger aside as he had his earlier triumph; like that emotion, it had no place here. When his destiny came, he would find something then; until that time, it was his task to survive, nothing more. Instead he turned his mind back to the problem at hand. She cares, she must, he thought. She's told you herself how many times—that everything she's done, she did for Amphipolis. You saw her back down from Cyrene—that memory, the sight of the peasant woman striking the Dark Conqueror, was one that he would never forget—why would she do that if she didn't care? And there had been signs—or were there? He had thought he had seen traces during the audience, little flickers that no one but he would have noticed—but perhaps it was only his imagination.
At last he gave the question up, settling back down against the side of the throne and resting his head on his crossed wrists. Whichever it is, he thought, I assume I'll find out tonight…
It wasn't until sunset that the guards came to unlock his chain. The dark clouds had blanketed the horizon with the coming of night, and no stars or moon peered through the blackness. As they led him across the shadowy camp, to Xena's tent, thunder rumbled low in the distance, and brief flashes of lightning illuminated the low-hanging cloud cover; the storm was moving in toward them. A light, steady rain had begun to sprinkle the dusty ground as the guards led him toward Xena's tent. Caesar had no idea what was waiting for him. He found himself breathing too quickly as they approached her tent—of course it was not fear, couldn't be, for he feared nothing. The guards looked as apprehensive as he felt. He closed his eyes briefly, thinking of his destiny to calm himself, feeling the ache in his mangled legs, as one of the guard called, "My lady Xena?"
After a moment, he heard a muted reply, thick and slurred: "Yeah?"
"We have the slave, my lady, as you have requested."
Another, longer pause, then: "The slave? Take 'im away. No, wait." Sounds of movement from within. "I'll take 'im."
The tent flap was roughly yanked aside, and Xena looked out from within.
She's been drinking. That was the first thought that came to Caesar's mind; he could tell even through the stormy dimness of the twilight. Wine hung around her in a heavy haze, almost as strongly as the aura of slow menace that surrounded her. Her bulky cloak had been laid off, and her clothes were in disarray; her beautiful hair hung in straggles around her face. The icy demeanor she had shown that morning was nowhere in evidence. Her eyes moved blearily and found him. An ugly sneer crawled across her face.
"How ya doin', slave?" she slurred. "Lookin at my hair? Been thinkin' a cuttin' it off. How'dja like that? I did it f'r tha lil twit, think I sh' do it f'r my own mother?" She snorted a laugh Thunder crackled in the distance. "Gimme the chain, boys. An' then get lost. I'll han'l 'im from here."
The two guards had taken a step back in startlement when Xena opened the tent flap; they glanced at each other, and then at him. He saw no sympathy in their eyes, only relief. He was going to torment, and they were spared. He hated them.
When they had left, Xena turned back to him. She regarded him for a long moment. That cruel sneer widened. "Shall we?"
He was silent, watching her warily.
"Well, slave, whaterya waitin' for?" The yank she gave the chain was hard enough to throw him to the ground. He tried to catch himself on his hands but the breath was knocked out of him and he could only gasp helplessly. Xena…
A kick caught him in the side, and the collar was pulled so tight against his neck that he choked. Xena's voice came to him from above, thick with wine and danger: "I said, whaterya waitin' for? Get in there!"
Panting, he started to get his knees under him, only to be shoved to the ground again; he tasted dirt and blood. He spat, trying to get the grit out of his mouth.
"No. Crawl. You crawl. Slave." The words were a drunken, throbbing growl. As he started to raise himself on his trembling hands, her booted foot slammed into his ribs and drove him into the dirt. Each time he tried to rise, she kicked him again, and again, snarling. Pain exploded in his side; he might have felt something crack. His heart was racing. It had been years since she had been this rough with him. "You crawl for me. Can' make the Bright Warrior crawl….but I c'n make you."
Caesar could hear her breathing behind him, heavy and ragged; he turned and struck her with a glare.
She gave a snort of disgust, but to his surprise she did so; she stepped back, still holding his chain, and folded her arms, waiting. He ground his teeth as he shakily got his legs under him, knowing she was watching as he unsteadily climbed to his feet, almost falling more than once. My destiny, Xena, he panted to himself. When my destiny comes… He was almost on his feet when a perfectly timed yank on the chain sent him reeling. He threw himself against one of the tent posts, clinging to it for support.
"Well slave?" her sneer came to him. "After you." And she shoved him ahead of her into the depths of the tent.
Xena's sleeping chamber reeked of sour wine. She had lit every lamp and every candle she owned—to chase away the dark? he wondered—and wild shadows danced luridly over the painted hide walls, giving the room with its sparse furnishings a nightmarish cast. Her heavy frame bed, covered with furs, crouched in the shadows against the back wall of the tent like a savage beast. Wine bottles and half-filled cups were stacked haphazardly over the old and battered table, the top of her carven trunk, and littered the earthen floor as well; some had smashed, leaving piles of glittering fragments, and dark pooled stains.
Caesar had barely a moment to take this in before she planted a hand on his back and shoved him again; his mangled legs could not support him and he fell flat on his face in the dirt. His damaged side flared at him and for a moment he could not breathe. As he struggled to get his wind back, he felt the sharp heel of Xena's boot come down between his shoulder blades, driving his face against the ground; she stepped over him and fixed his chain to the heavy stone block in the corner. Then she cuffed him across the back of the head, knocking him down again.
She's drunker than I've ever seen her, he realized Slowly, he raised his head, blinking painfully up at her as she stood above him, glowering. He tasted blood on his lips. Her blue eyes were veiled and he could make out nothing. He felt himself tense, trying to summon his resources for whatever long and painful ordeal surely lay ahead.
Xena turned away from him, flinging herself down on the frame bed and sprawling out among the furs. One hand went over the side and curled around the neck of one of the bottles scattered on the floor; she picked it up and raised it to her mouth, swallowing. Some of the wine spilled and red rivulets like blood ran down her chin. Her face was still set in that ugly, sloppy sneer.
For a long while there was silence as Xena simply drank, brooding. Outside, the wind keened against the hide tent walls, and the distant mutterings of thunder and lightning grew louder, closer, but Xena paid it no heed. Her eyes were turned inward and lightless, and she did not seem to be seeing him at all; lying on the floor where she had thrown him, Caesar half-wondered if she had forgotten he was there at all, though he knew he was probably not so lucky. He watched her, trying to anticipate what she would do, when she would turn on him. Her face appeared flat and alien in the garish candlelight, and her heavy breathing filled the tent. The sense of her presence hung oppressively in the air, coiled with the potential for menace. Caesar was silent, waiting.
The hush had dragged on for so long that he was almost beginning to conclude that she had forgotten him, when Xena began to stir. She looked at the now-empty bottle, tossed it aside, and reached over the edge of her bed for another one, discarded too, and began to rummage among the empties for a full one. Her eyes fell on him and he braced himself. When she spoke, it was in a low, slurred, rolling growl.
"So. Y'—y'—you saw what happ'ned t'day, slave. How d'ya feel about it?"
It took him a moment to decipher what she had said. "How do you think I feel?" he retorted. Let her make of that what she will.
Her mouth twisted, and she gave a snort, then tossed a bottle to him. He caught it with his chained hands, startled. "Drink it," she told him. "You're gonna drink with me t'night, slave."
He looked at the bottle and then back up at her. "No."
"Don'shu ever tell me no." She bared her teeth at him. "Least of all tonight. Drink that bottle or I'll ram it straight down yer throat." In one swift move, she leaned forward, grabbed his chain, and dragged on it brutally; a terrible pain cut into his neck, and he couldn't bite back a cry. "Down yer throat if yer lucky that is." She yanked again, harder. "Drink it, damn you," she snarled at him. "I want you t' drink with me so that's what yer gonna do, understand?"
Caesar looked up at her. That alien lightless look was still in her eyes. Best not to cross her now. Once he would have resisted simply for the sake of resisting—no one conquers Caesar—but in the four years of his captivity, he had learned that there were times to pick his battles; defiance for its own sake was pointless, and not worth what always followed. Slowly he raised the bottle to his mouth and took a swallow. Xena's mouth twisted again.
"Good." She picked up her own bottle and took a pull at it, lapsing back into silence for a time, her eyes again turned inward.
When she spoke again, it startled him. "She's dead." Xena sat back, looking solemn. The slurring had gone from her speech; her voice was lucid, clear as a little girl's at temple. "My mother's dead."
She looked at him in the candlelight. Her eyes were still veiled, but the ugly sneer was gone. He could not read her expression. Xena…
She seemed to expect an answer, so, "Cyrene," he supplied after a moment. Xena nodded.
"You saw her once, slave, didn't you?"
"I did," he confirmed. He could see the memory of that meeting, of Cyrene's striking her, in her eyes. For a moment, he thought of mentioning it, then decided against it. It might only anger her again, and besides….
Again, silence except for the wind. Xena took another pull at her bottle. After a moment, she continued, "It was all for her. All this." One wave took in the tent, the camp, and everything beyond it. "Everything I did was for her and for Amphipolis. To keep them safe," she said quietly. "I told ya that, didn't I, slave? Tha' that 's how I got started? Cortese…."
"Yes," he confirmed again. "You told me about him." He didn't bother to add that even as far back as their first meeting, it had been apparent to him that her ambition was far higher than that. She was so beautiful then. He would never forget her brilliant smile the day his ransom had come through.
"She never understood." Xena shook her head. "I did it all for her, and she never—I couldn't make her see." She whispered the last, in the heartbroken voice of a child. "I couldn't….unless it was that…that she saw too well."
"Too well?" he ventured. Xena shook her head.
"Saw…." She broke off, waving one hand vaguely. "This. She wouldn' have…." Xena trailed off again. There was silence.
"I disappointed her." Xena's head was down. "She told me I did. You were there. You heard her." He had, but he said nothing. Xena shuddered, and took another drink from her bottle. She closed her eyes.
"My brother Lyceus." She paused. "Di' I ever tell you about him, slave?" At his nod, she covered her face briefly with her hands. "He was the one…taught me t' pick up a sword in the first place. He believed in me—when Cortese attacked, he was right beside me when I told th' villagers we should fight back. He backed me all the way and he died for it."
She gave a short, mirthless laugh and pulled at her bottle again. "He died for Amphipolis. That's what I told myself. But that's not true, is it, slave?" Her mouth twisted and her blue eyes fell on him knowingly. "He died for me. Doesn't matter how often I try to tell myself different, that's really what happened. He died for me."
Xena laughed again, that mirthless laugh, utterly devoid of any humor. The shadows flickered, danced eerily over the tent walls. "You know what that's like, don'tcha, slave?" She bared her teeth. "All those men you got killed fightin' me for yer city…only you weren't really havin' em fight for Rome at all, were you? They were fightin' fer you. For yer damn ego. Lotta good it did."
She took his chain between two fingers and gave it a tug. Caesar clenched his fists. That was nothing like this, he thought.
"They were fighting for you just like my men….just like Lyceus was fightin' fer me." She paused. "Maybe that's a good thing….because if he'd died for Amphipolis…" He saw her swallow hard; when she continued her voice was thick. "Then that means he'd've died for nothing at all."
Xena pulled at her bottle again. Looking more closely, he saw that her eyes seemed far too bright. "Mom never forgave me. She…she blamed me for Lyceus's dying. Toris's too. That's why…."
Suddenly she seemed to collapse. Her shoulders shook and she buried her face in her hands. "Why didn't I leave another reserve division there? How could I not have guessed that Callisto'd go for Amphipolis? How could I have been so blind? How could I not have seen?"
She lifted her head, staring directly at him. Her eyes opened onto a dark space. "How could I not have seen!?" The words were half snarl, half cry.
Caesar clasped his hands together and drew a steadying breath, fighting down his own emotions. The touch of those empty eyes was chilling. "The enemy gets a vote, Xena." His voice was flat, harsh. "Sometimes….things happen that you would never expect and could not foresee." The iron collar was heavy on his neck, and the chains at his wrists clinked. He drew another breath. "Call it destiny."
She stared at him with that hollow gaze for an instant, then shook her head. "No." The world was almost a growl. "No. This had nothing to do with yer precious destiny, slave," she sneered. The firelight danced madly on the walls. He could hear the wind outside rattling the tent flaps. Her face was all strange, harsh angles and shadows. Caesar clasped his hands so tightly he could feel the pulse in his fingertips. "This was about me, slave! If I had just seen—"
"Xena, if you think you can shape destiny to your will, you are worse than foolish." The words were as raw as if they had been scraped over stone. He breathed in deeply. The dirt of the tent floor gritted under his knees. "Destiny works its will with us, not the other way round. No one can stand against destiny—not even you." He paused again, fighting for control. The air around him was heavy, portentious. After a moment, he was able to continue. "All you can do is accept what it hands you and put your trust in fate."
"No." Those blue eyes were empty, almost vacant, their touch unnerving. He could not break their grip. "You're wrong, slave!" She slammed her fist down on the bed frame beside her, knocking several bottles over. They fell to the ground and shattered, their broken fragments glistening oddly in the lamplight. "You are WRONG!" She shouted that with such force that he could see the cords standing out on her neck. Her voice rang hollowly above the wind, discordant and jarring. Distantly he realized he had never seen her like this before. "If I had only set a few more divisions around Amphipolis—if I'd been there to meet Callisto on the field I could have—I could have—"
"No." Caesar shook his head curtly, negating what she had said, and she fell silent, watching him. The flat, eerie tenor of the light made her look almost completely unfamiliar and he could not read her expression. His shoulders were trembling with emotion; the chains at his wrists and attached to his collar rattled. Menace hung in the air, as ominous and pulsing as the sound of her heavy breathing. It took a few breaths before he could marshal enough self-control to continue. "No. It doesn't matter. If you had set more divisions around Amphipolis, then Callisto would have come in even greater force." He drew a breath. "If you had been there to meet Callisto in the field, then perhaps Najara would have struck at your flank. That's how it works. If it was Amphipolis's time to fall, then it was time, that's all. Nothing you could have done would have stopped it."
"Then what good is it!?" Xena shouted at him. "What good is anything!? What's the point of anything!?"
She surged off the bed, rising above him like a leviathan, huge and dark in the candlelight. The sense of her presence surged, filling the tent, pushing at him, buffeting him as if he were a bark in turbulent waters; he flattened his hands against the ground, recoiling from her almost by instinct. The divine fury in her face chilled him to the bone; he could not look away. Magnificent…She's magnificent… The storm had caught them in its grip; the wind had risen to a high shriek, howling like the souls of the damned. The Dark Conqueror surged to her full height, threw her head back, raised her fists, and screamed above the wind, "What good is it all?! I DID THE BEST I COULD, ALWAYS THE BEST I COULD, AND FOR WHAT!?FOR WHAT!?FOR WHAT!?"
She lashed out, teeth bared in a snarl, and the table went crashing over on its side, shattering bottles everywhere; a shard of glass struck Caesar on the temple and blood trickled down his face. He was shaking, scarcely able to breathe; he had forgotten himself, forgotten everything in the face of such glorious power. He coiled back from her, but she paid no heed; the Daughter of War whirled away from him and hurled her rage at the heavens, "WHERE WERE YOU!? WHERE WERE YA, YOU BASTARD!?" Tears were running down her face; her eyes were like holes into emptiness. He realized he had never seen her in such pain before—had never realized that such a thing was possible. Was this what she was like after… She was no longer talking to him; he didn't even know if she realized he was there. He couldn't guess who she was talking to. Her voice was a shriek, raw and flayed as the gale outside.
"HOW COULD YOU LET THIS HAPPEN!? YOU LEFT ME WITH NOTHING!"
A savage kick, and the table split, a chunk of board spinning away. The entire tent was shaking in the force of the storm outside. There was a terrific crack as lightning crashed to earth so close to them he could see the flash through the tent walls.
"That's not true."
He hadn't intended to speak—would have thought speech was beyond him. Her presence surrounded him, crushing the breath from his lungs.
Xena swung toward him, startled and ferocious. He had to force the words out. "You have your empire."
"My empire!?" Xena spat. "And what good is that? WHAT GOOD IS THAT?!"
In one swift move she crossed the floor and grabbed him by the collar. She jerked him up to her, and he choked at the pressure on his neck. From a distance of less than six inches, she raged at him: "It's all for NOTHING, you hear me?! MY LIFE IS NOTHING!"
She hurled him from her violently; he hit the floor on his back, hard enough to stun him for an instant. He had no time to recover; Xena lunged after him, snarling, and gripped the chain, yanking him up to her face. Her empty eyes filled the world. Dizzily, Caesar raised his chained hands. His muscles felt weak as water. He groped for her, trying to push her off him….
….then froze as he felt the cool line of her blade being pressed against his throat.
She saw his sudden shock of realization and bared her teeth savagely. She was close enough that he could feel her breath on his face, smell the reek of sour wine. She pressed the edge of the dagger close into his throat. Her voice was a rasping whisper.
"You can feel that, can'tcha, slave? Know what that is?"
A trickle of blood snaked its way down his throat; he could feel it running under the iron collar. He did not speak.
"You said we can't shape destiny. Well, I can shape yours, slave." She laughed harshly. Tears glistened on her cheeks. "Yours and mine both."
The dagger was pressing into his flesh. He did not dare so much as swallow. A curious leaden weakness gripped all his limbs. Xena's eyes were huge, absolutely without light.
"What's ta stop me?" She shook him slightly as a terrier might shake a rat. "What's ta stop me from doin' you right now?"
His mouth was dry as a desert. My destiny, he tried to think. She can't—my destiny… At that moment, with Xena's face so close to him that he could feel her breath, her dagger a burning line against his neck and a sticky trail of his own blood trickling down his throat, the collar and chains heavy on him and his mangled legs throbbing where they pressed against the dirt, his destiny seemed like a paper-thin shield indeed against Xena's wrath. The leaden sensation clung to him, paralyzing, making it hard to think, to react.
Xena snarled, and shook him harder. "What's ta stop me?" she demanded. "My army?" She turned her head and spat. "That for my army. My empire?" She spat again. The dagger bit into his throat; he could feel his pulse against the blade's edge. "And that's what empire's worth—you should know. So you tell me right now, slave. Tell me—fer your life, tell me now." She began to laugh, a low, creepy giggling that sent tremors through both of them.
"They say you can't take it with you—but I can take you with me. Isn't that right—slave?"
Her hand moved up and tangled in his hair, pulling it, forcing his head back. The sudden, prickling pain struck him like a slap, cutting through the fog of her presence and bringing him to his senses. His eyes narrowed.
"Take your hands off me."
She released him so suddenly that he fell backward, away from the knife. He caught himself on his chained hands, breathing hard, refusing to think about how close to death he had just come. He realized he was trembling.
Xena gave him a threatening glower. "I'll do it, don't think I won't."
"Then do so." His voice was hoarse, ragged; he coughed, trying to clear his throat. Slowly he pushed himself upright. "If you're going to kill me, then get it over with I certainly can't stop you. Do it," he threw at her, and had the satisfaction of seeing her look sullenly away.
He thought he had won, that he was past the danger point; but he was wrong. Xena watched him for a moment longer with those shadowed eyes, thoughtful and solemn. She regarded her dagger. He could still feel the blood dripping down his neck. After a moment, she placed it on the ground between them, crossways, and sat back on her heels. When she spoke, the wild passion that had gripped her before was gone. She was as calm and quiet as a judge hearing cases.
"How about it, slave?"
She gestured toward the dagger. It lay, its bright edge winking in the candle and lamplight. The red of his blood on the blade was dark and glistening as wine. He stared at it, then back up at her uncomprehendingly.
"First I do you, then I do me." She gave a small laugh. "Or the other way around if you like it better. Honorable suicide. Isn't that one of the Roman virtues?"
Suicide… Caesar swallowed carefully around his damaged throat. He could feel that the ground here was even more treacherous than that which he had just crossed, and he had no map other than Xena's empty eyes. She watched him silently. "Only when one has no other choice at all."
"No other choice?" Xena raised one eyebrow. Still, she was calm, quiet. The wind outside had dropped to a low keening. "And what other choice does the likes of you have, slave?" He started to speak, but Xena cut him off with a snort. "Your destiny? Come on. You must know you can't ever really be free again." Still she was calm; there was no trace of gloating or triumph in her voice. "Are you waitin' fer my death, thinkin' that'll free ya? It won't. I've told you 'bout the orders I've left. And even without those, what good would it do ya? Rome's dead. You saw what I did there. There's nothin' left fer you ta go back to."
That's not true, Caesar might have said. I will build it again. I am Rome. He might have said that, he started to—but as he began to speak, suddenly there in that dark tent, the words sounded hollow in his mind, and vaguely foolish. He stopped uncertainly. The unexpected emptiness in his heart matched that he saw in Xena's eyes.
"There, ya see?" she asked him. "You know it too, don'tcha, slave. I can see it in yer face." Her voice was calm, quiet, yet the words came to him clearly. The bleak wind outside sang softly, a tune of grief and loss. "I know all this time you've been tellin yourself that your destiny would pull ya through—" she arched one brow. "Did you think I didn't know that? But it's not gonna happen. You know that—you must. You're not at all stupid, slave, even though I call ya that sometimes. So what are ya waitin for? What have ya got left?"
She paused, looking at him. The candlelight flickered on her face, flickered off the red-sheened blade of the dagger laying between them. All he would have had to do was reach out, and he could have had it. Blood trickled down his neck. Caesar groped for words, for reasons, but at that moment could find none; that emptiness in his chest was spreading, making it hard to breathe, giving the lie to any counterargument he might make. Each breath was an act of will.
"Revenge? Is that what you're waitin for?" His eyes were on the dagger; Xena's words came to his ears distantly. They were soft, almost gentle. "You've already got that, slave. You've lost Rome, I've lost Amphipolis. We're even. Wanna kill me yourself?" The corners of her mouth lifted in something that was almost a smile, though her eyes never changed. "Go ahead. There ya go." She gestured at the dagger. "Do me, and then yourself. Or if ya want, wait and let my guards finish you off. That works too. It would be fitting….the two of us, endin' our lives together. Bet the bards would even call it romantic. So whaddaya say?"
The wind was howling outside, empty and lost. It was a match for the bleakness that was spreading through him, dulling his limbs, dulling his thoughts and senses. Caesar stared at the bloody blade. The candles flickered, flickered; but the shadows pressed closely around him, thronging in the corners of the tent. My destiny, he tried to think again, but the words were hollow, meaningless. Instead, Xena's words rang in his mind: You must know you can't ever really be free again…What good would it do you? Rome is dead. You saw what I did there….
A plain of ashes spread out in his mind, gray and lifeless for as far as the eye could see, all that remained of white stone buildings and marble columns. Firelight danced along the red edge of the dagger. His mind, his heart, his soul, everything was ashes. He stared at the blade. It grew in his vision, expanding until it filled his world; everything else around it receded until his blood on the blade was all that was left.
She's right, he thought. She's right. Rome is dead, all her people are dead, and I...what have I left? That someday I'll be free? That I can build Rome again? It can't be done. There, in that tent, with the cold night wind crying outside, he felt he could see more clearly than he ever had before, see how ridiculous and foolish all his thoughts of destiny were, how deluded his dreams and plans and ambitions were, how preposterous his pride. Xena's empty eyes watched him approvingly; they held all the truth of this world that he would ever need to know. I dreamed I was a great man, almost a god, he thought, and then awoke to find that I was mortal after all. His insides felt hollow; that terrible numbness surrounded his heart.
He reached out, running one finger along the glistening golden edge of the hilt. Xena's lips curved in a strange half-smile. The hilt felt warm to the touch, almost alive. It would be so easy. He curled his fingers around the hilt, feeling its weight in his hands….
…..then tossed it from him. As it clattered harmlessly to the dirt, he looked up at Xena defiantly.
"Kill yourself if you want," he told her, hearing the waver in his voice and cursing it. "But I had thought better of you. I had thought you were stronger than this." He did not bother to disguise the real anger in his tone.
Her face had frozen and he could not read her expression, but he thought he saw a flinch at his insult. She stared at him for a long, long time while the wind sang and howled outside.
"Why?" she asked him at last. "Why should I be strong? Why bother with it all? What is there to be strong for…now?"
Her eyes clung to him, hanging on him, seeking for an answer. Again, he clasped his hands to hide the trembling.
"Tomorrow." Caesar drew a steadying breath. "The next day. The day after that. The…the hope that the next day will be better than the previous one. That the wheel will turn, and Fortuna will smile on you again." His legs ached where they pressed into the dirt. He was conscious of the heaviness of iron on his neck, on his wrists. His words seemed strangely loud in the small tent. "To live, and hope. That's all there is for any of us."
For another heartbeat, as she watched him, Xena's expression did not change; then her face cracked. Her chest heaved as if to split; she drew in a gasping breath, then another one, and let it out in a cry so harsh and painful that it startled him. He jerked back away from her in reflex, but she threw herself forward and he felt her arms going around him with frightening strength; almost before he could make sense of it, her face was buried against him and she was weeping harshly. Her entire body was shaking. Outside, the storm had broken; rain spattered against the hide tent roof.
She had pressed so tightly against him that her sobs shook them both; the terrible force of her grief swept through him and over him and he could not resist it—could make no defense against the tide of her emotions. Her hot tears soaked through the thin fabric of his ragged tunic. He struggled to break her grip—too much, it's too much, she was threatening to overwhelm him—but she paid him no heed. Her arms were vise-like around him. At last, his chained hands crept awkwardly to her shaking shoulders, the closest he could come to an embrace. Xena…
He held her that way while she wept, surrounded by candlelight and the sound of the rain. He could not have said how long it was before her tears dwindled and then finally stopped; her arms relaxed around him and the tension left her body. The torrential downpour outside had slackened to a low, steady drizzle when he heard her give a slight snore. She's asleep, he realized, then on the heels of that, No wonder.
All his muscles felt weak as water; it seemed to take him hours to extricate himself from her lax grip and to squirm out from under her. The candles had burned low in their sockets and were slowly going out; the flame of the lamps was low and guttering as the gloom encroached upon them. His tunic was wet right through. As he slowly struggled out from underneath her, one of his hands came down on something hard and cold and metallic. The dagger.
He raised it, looking at it, then back at her where she lay sprawled on the floor in the dimming candlelight. The thought crossed his mind that it would have been the easiest thing in the world to plant the dagger between her shoulder blades. Instead he took her wrist in his hand and slid it back into the sheath she had drawn it from. He remained, looking down at her for a long moment. With one hand, he reached out and touched her tangled black hair briefly.
He was too exhausted to attempt to stand, nor did he think he could bear the pain; instead, he dragged himself over to the stone block in the corner, where his chain was fixed. It was cold against his back. He drew himself into a ball for warmth, closed his eyes, and fell asleep, listening to the sound of the rain outside.
Caesar woke the next morning to the cold, gray light of an indifferent dawn.
His sleep had done him little good; he still felt exhausted, wrung out. He lay curled up against his stone block, feeling incapable of movement. The rain had stopped during the night, but the air was misty, and filled with a clammy chill. A thin layer of moisture coated the stone, the length of chain that lay curled in the dust beside him; it soaked through his clothing, as her tears had done the night before. Xena still slept, he saw, his eyes going to her prone form; her rasping snores filled the air.
Presently she began stirring. He watched as she shifted, raised her head unsteadily. Her long, dark hair hung down, obscuring her face. She pushed herself up on shaking arms, then froze and convulsed, vomiting noisily onto the dirt floor. The sharp reek filled the tent. Her shoulders heaved. She straightened again and he heard her swallow. After a long moment, one hand reached out, groping blindly, and closed over his battered wooden water bowl. She dragged it to her and drank from it, tilting it up, draining the entire thing; then she let it fall from her fingers, rolled over, sprawled out on the floor, and began to snore again. She slept, he had often thought, as gracelessly as she did everything else except fight. He drew his knees up to his chest and leaned back against the block behind him, watching her. The sounds of the camp stirring to life around them came to his ears.
After a time, a scratch at the tent flap heralded the entrance of a maid—not one of Xena's blondes, he saw; this one was brunette and no more than mildly attractive. "My lady?" she called in a high, light voice. "My lady, sorry for bothering you, but Dagnon has sent me to ask—" She paused just inside the tent, as she caught sight of Xena's prostrate form. Hesitantly she went to her side, reaching out to shake the downed commander. "My lady? My lady, are you well? My lady—"
Caesar managed to raise himself to his knees with a laborious effort, leaning against the stone block for support. Tendrils of pain radiated from his damaged legs, but he ignored them. "The Warrior Princess is indisposed."
The maid started and looked over at him; the expression on her face could not have been more incredulous if the table had started speaking to her. The granite was cold against his hands. "Tell Dagnon she will be unable to attend the morning meeting, and bring some well-watered wine, willow-bark tea and raw cabbage leaves."
The maid stared at him, and he saw her face close. Damn you, he thought with tired frustration. After a long pause, she said only, "I'm not supposed to talk to you."
The maid looked at him with no sign of acknowledgement, then turned to go. Clinging to the block, he managed to haul himself partway upward.
"Just do it this once," he qualified. The little maid looked at him some more; he could almost see the stupid girl trying to estimate the possibility that she would get in trouble. "Please," he forced himself to add.
At last, she gave a short nod, and hurried away. Caesar sank back down to his knees, and was still trying to massage the pain away when the girl returned with the items he had requested. She left them on the table with a dubious glance at him, and was gone. He sat back against the block, and watched Xena as the dawn grew lighter around him.
After a time—he could not have said how long—Xena's snoring began to taper off, stopping at last. He saw her begin to move again; she sat up unsteadily, supporting herself on her arms, and turned toward him. She looked awful, he saw—her yellowish complexion a doughy mask, her eyes red and bloodshot, her lustrous black hair ratted and tangled. She wavered in her stance, her straight shoulders sagging; he thought she looked like a crushed wreck, utterly and completely devastated. The tremendous power that had possessed her last night was gone; the fire had burned out, leaving nothing but ashes behind. He had seen this in her before, sometimes, but not to this degree; it made him wince to see it now.
Those bloodshot eyes found him. "Slave….?" she asked uncertainly. Even her voice sounded weak—thin and hoarse. No wonder, after all the shouting she did last night… Caesar wondered how much she remembered.
He said nothing, but indicated the table with his eyes. Xena followed his gaze, seeing the things the girl had left there. Slowly, weakly, she started to get to her feet, leaning on the stool with her hands—then stopped, her attention caught by her bracer.
She's seen the dagger, he realized, and after a moment, she proved him right; she pulled the dagger from her bracer, the same one he had replaced in her wrist sheath last night. Caesar tensed, waiting, but she only looked at it. She raised her head to stare at him, searching his face; he couldn't read her expression, but thought he saw her lower lip tremble. He met her gaze. Neither one of them spoke. After a moment, she averted her eyes, sliding the dagger back into its place, and pulled herself to her feet.
She gulped down the watered wine quickly, draining the entire cup at one draught without troubling to sit; then took a little more care with the steaming willowbark tea. A single bite of the cabbage was enough to make her grimace; she looked as if she were going to be sick again, but swallowed it down. Another bite, and then she hesitated. She glanced over at him, then picked up the bowl in her hands—a heavy, golden thing that had been looted from one or another of her nameless conquests—and came to sit down next to him, sliding close enough so that their shoulders touched. Caesar glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, yet remained still, permitting it. For a time, there was silence.
Xena hesitantly offered him the bowl. "Want….?"
He pushed it away with his chained hands. "I wasn't the one drinking last night."
"Yeah. I…." Her voice splintered; she broke off, turning the bowl compulsively in her hands. Her face was turned away from him. He kept quiet, straightening the links of his chain in the dirt.
After a moment, Xena started to say something. She stopped, giving him another one of those hesitant, sidelong glances; she seemed to be gathering her courage.
"Did—did I…." She paused. "Did I hurt ya last night, slave?"
"Yes," he said curtly, glaring at her. Xena's face crumbled; her shoulders drooped even more. She looked almost as if she might weep, he realized. Not again. Please, not again, don't let her start weeping again…. He didn't think he could take it, not this morning. "But no worse than you usually do," he amended sourly.
Her hands turned the golden bowl, turned it, around and around. Xena did not look at him. Staring down at the mess of cabbage leaves, she faltered, "I…I know I treat you…very badly—"
Caesar stared at her, utterly dumbfounded. That's one thing I never thought I'd hear her say… He was silent; any response he might make would be so completely inadequate that he didn't even know where to start.
"I….Here," she said suddenly, and turned toward him so sharply that he recoiled a bit. She reached out, and put her hands on his mangled lower legs. He tensed immediately, hissing air through his teeth.
"Here, I know how they must hurt—" Still tense, he couldn't stop himself from trying to push her away—he did not like her down there at all—but she didn't hurt him. She simply dug her fingers into his stiff and knotted muscles, loosening them, soothing aches he didn't know he had. After a long moment, he felt himself relaxing; he leaned back on his arms, allowing her to do as she would though still ready to push her away at the first hint of pain.
Xena stared down at her hands as she worked. Finally, without meeting his eyes, she asked in a perfectly controlled voice, "Why didn't you kill me last night? I would have killed you. If I'd been in your place."
So she does remember. After a pause, he replied, in the same flat tones as she had used, "Because I didn't want to die." Her eyes flickered at him; she looked down again. That was true, but it was not the whole truth by any means. "And because of my destiny." That also was not the whole truth, but it was as much as he was willing to give her—as much as he felt comfortable with.
And it was enough, her hands stilled on him. She raised her head, looking at him for a long time.
"Your….destiny? What's your destiny, slave?" She knew what his destiny was; he knew she remembered, could read it in her eyes. Nevertheless, he repeated it for her.
"I'm going to rule the world."
She was still looking at him with that strange expression. He could not guess what it meant. "And you…you really believe that," Xena said. "You do, don't you. After….after all that's happened—after all that—" She trailed off, but he could almost hear the words: after all that I've done to you. "You…you still believe—"
"Not just believe," he explained to her quietly, seeing the question naked in her face. "I know." He did, and did not know, in that moment, how he could ever have doubted.
Xena stared at him for a long time. He watched her, wondering if she would strike him for what he had said; when she reached out again, he jerked away instinctively. But she did not strike him; instead, she unexpectedly caressed the side of his face. As he tried to figure out what she was doing, she gripped his chain and pulled him to her. Her arms closed tight around him. She kissed him, and shivers ran down his spine; it was so achingly, fiercely passionate that when she released him, all he could do was gasp.
"Keep believing," she told him. Her voice was strangely thick. "You can believe for both of us." She touched his face again lightly; he could see that her eyes were wet. Her hands ran down his body as she bore him backward to the ground; he felt her touch on him, soft, almost gentle. She had taught him not to resist her, but at that moment he could not have even if he had tried; he was melting. Xena… He brought his chained hands up, not sure whether he wished to embrace her or ward her off; it didn't matter, because she brushed them easily aside. She's so beautiful…As she drew him into her arms, he felt her breath caress his skin. It wasn't until much later that he was able to make sense of her gentle whisper, and even so, he couldn't believe he had heard her right.
"All I have left is you."