Standard disclaimer: 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: This story is sort of a sequel to a much longer unfinished story I had in the works that died. The inspiration for the previous story came in an indirect way from the plotline of the H:TLJ episode "Armageddon Now," dealing with an alternate universe where Hercules had never been born, so Xena ruled the world. I became curious as to what would have happened to Caesar in that world, and decided that Xena would have taken the opportunity to take a telling and permanent revenge.
This AU is not based off "Armageddon Now," since I never saw that episode (I heard about it on Whoosh!). Instead, in my previous fic, most of the known world (except Ch'in) was divided into three parts, being fought over by the armies of Xena (Warrior Princess, Dark Conqueror, Destroyer of Nations, Daughter of War, etc.), Callisto (the Fiery, the Bright Warrior) and the Crusader Najara. At the end of my previous fic, Xena was supposed to have died, having been killed by Callisto; with her last breath, Xena had bequeathed Gabrielle (whom she had found only a few days ago) and her army to Callisto, telling her to take them and smash Ch'in. Gabrielle, not particularly caring to be bequeathed to Callisto, escaped the encampment with Argo and Caesar, whom Xena had been keeping as a slave. This fic picks up right after that point.
I was always fascinated by the character of Caesar, and by his dynamic with Xena, and frequently wondered what it would take to make him into a human being. This fic is the first of a series of two which I plan to try to explore that. This is not a Gabrielle/Caesar romance; frankly, I think Gabrielle has far too much of a sense of herself to allow Caesar to manipulate her, and unlike the young Xena, she is not cursed with overconfidence. She has a thorough enough grounding to be essentially immune to Caesar's charms. Instead, think of this fic as a deconstruction of the character of Caesar, using Gabrielle as one of the agents.
Xena: the Warrior Princess was always one of my strongest fandoms (up until the fifth or sixth season), and one of the ones that I was most dedicated to; the characters were so well-drawn and so compelling that something about it just permanently etched itself into my mind. I miss that show a lot, even now. This is my first time posting a fanfic for X:WP, and I hope y'all enjoy it.
Gabrielle awoke first.
The clearing they had stopped in last night was green and dewy in the first rays of the sun; she glanced over to see Argo, nibbling at a bush. The horse flicked her ears at Gabrielle, and went right on nibbling.
The blonde bard stretched, listening to the birds singing to each other in the trees, the light breeze rustling the leaves. As a bard, she had trained herself to listen to and notice details, things she could later use in her songs and epic poems. At last, she sat up.
She glanced to where the nameless one—nameless no longer—lay on the other side of the fire; he was still asleep, wrapped in the blanket she had given him. Strange to think, she thought to herself, that that man had once been Caesar, Emperor of Rome… Or not so strange; she had heard—as all the bards at Amphipolis had—of Xena's conquest of Rome, of what she had done there, to the populace—and the emperor. Even at the time, she had wondered what the truth in those stories was; now that she had met both Xena and Caesar, she wondered even more, what exactly Caesar had done to make Xena take the kind of revenge she had.
She pushed her thoughts aside with a shake of the head and rolled to her knees; she went to the remains of the fire, and began to stir the ashes, looking for the coals she had banked the night before. By the time she had coaxed a blaze, and was beginning to heat up some porridge, her companion had awoken; with an effort he raised himself to a sitting position. His mangled, nearly useless legs looked even worse now that she had seen them close up; she wondered how he could stand to put any weight on them at all, though she had seen him. Had even seen him attempt to fight, before—Xena—
Xena's death. At the hands of Callisto the Fiery. Xena had died trying to save her. The hollowness that opened up inside her at that thought made her eyes prickle; quickly she bent to the pot again.
She handed a bowl to her companion, which he accepted as if it were tribute, and then dipped one for herself. For a time they ate in silence; then Gabrielle broke it.
"I've been thinking."
One dark eyebrow went up. "There's a first time for everything." He did not bother to look up from his bowl as he said it.
The blonde bard folded her arms and looked at him in irritation; she was strangely hurt, though she didn't know why. "Why are you always so mean to me?"
"Because it's not worth my time to be nice to you," he replied coolly.
"You know, I saved your life," Gabrielle pointed out. "Don't you have any gratitude for that?"
By the slight tensing of his shoulders she knew she had scored, though there was no tension in his voice when he spoke. "I hardly think so. I could have had those locks off by myself; your help was unnecessary."
"Then why hadn't you done it before?"
That stung; she could tell by the way his brows drew together. He set the bowl down and the chain joining his wrists clinked; like the collar, that had been soldered on and would need a blacksmith's help to remove. "Just say whatever you've got to say."
"I've been thinking about where we should go, now that we're away from Callisto's army," Gabrielle continued, choosing to overlook his rude tone. "We can't go back to Athens; it was burned to the ground. I'm originally from Potedaia—it's a small farming village—and I would like to go back there—"
She broke off as her companion—Caesar, it was so strange to think of this slave as Caesar—brushed her off with a wave of the hand. "Go where you like. I'm returning to Rome."
Now it was Gabrielle's turn to frown. "Rome? Why?"
"You really are slow, aren't you?" he asked, looking at her with a sort of contemptuous curiosity. "Rome needs me," he continued, speaking to her as if to a particularly dull child. "The city and I are joined; she is my destiny, and it is my fate to rule her." He said this as if it were so obvious it barely needed to be stated. "As a bard, you of all people should be able to appreciate that. Of course, you are only a woman," he added with a scornful smile. "What would a woman know about the workings of destiny?"
You're going to pay for that, Gabrielle thought with inward frustration. She dropped her eyes, apparently chastened, and finished her bowl of porridge, allowing the comment to hang there in the air between them, watching him out of the corner of her eye. After a moment, she said, "We can go to Rome if you want to—"
"Did I say anything about we? Go where you want, little girl; I'm sure I couldn't care less. I don't need you; I don't want you. You'll only get in the way." He finished his bowl and set it down calmly, turning away from her as if she were not worthy of further consideration.
"You don't need me?" Gabrielle asked. "Then walk across the clearing and hand me your bowl." That got his attention in a hurry; his head jerked up, his dark eyes furious. "How are you going to get there? You can't walk, and Argo won't carry you."
This was true; Argo wouldn't carry him alone, and they had been forced to ride double from the encampment—a solution that had pleased neither one of them. The slave—Caesar—had felt he should have the horse all to himself, and Gabrielle hadn't at all liked being so close to him, or having him touch her. "Those hands had better not move," she had warned him as she swung into the saddle before him and he gripped her waist. "Don't flatter yourself," he had replied disdainfully.
"How are you going to get there?" she asked again.
"I'll get there," he replied venomously.
"How, by flying?"
"What concern is it of yours"
"I'm simply trying to point out some of the problems with your idea—"
"There are no problems, woman—"
"Except for the fact that you can't walk! All right, all right," she continued, holding up her hands. "And even assuming you can make it back to Rome in the first place, what are you going to do then?"
"What do you mean?" he demanded.
"Look, all I know is the stories we heard around the Academy, but I'll tell you—a bardic academy is a great place to hear news. And from what we heard, Xena had Rome destroyed," she said, holding his eyes. "They say she had its citizens massacred and the city itself burned to the ground. The Forum was torn apart stone by stone, the Colosseum smashed with her catapults and ballistas—Her armies sowed the ashes with salt, and she had its leaders in the Senate—"
"I was there," he said bitterly. Gabrielle broke off, staring at him for a moment, then rallied.
"So you know Rome was destroyed! There's nothing to go back to—"
He leaned forward, bracing himself on the ground, his dark eyes fiery. "You are wrong," he insisted. "You are a weak, irrational female and you are WRONG. Rome wasn't destroyed. Rome can never be destroyed. I am Rome, and I will build it again. I will—"
"Build it with what, arrogance?" Gabrielle demanded. She found herself advancing on him. "You have no money. You have no soldiers. You don't even have any legs—"
"The army's still there!" he insisted. His gaze didn't seem to be fixed on her at all; he seemed to be looking right through her. "It has to be. Brutus and his legions were in Gaul. Xena didn't engage them. He was always loyal; he would never betray me—Those legions are waiting for me. I know they are. I know it, and when I claim them—"
"They won't follow you!" Gabrielle shouted at him. She wasn't sure why she was getting this upset, except that his dogged refusal to see reality was infuriating her. She moved closer and shoved her face right into his, glaring into his furious black eyes. "From what I hear, Xena offered to spare the city if the emperor surrendered voluntarily, and if you really are the emperor, which I doubt," she said, "then that means you. Because you refused to go, your people were brutallyslaughtered and your city destroyed and Xena captured and chained you anyway! Do you think these legionaries are going to be so quick to follow someone who allowed their families to be murderedAnd that's even leaving aside the fact that you're a helpless cripple who can barely sit a horse, let alone fight!"
He jerked away, turning his back on her, his shoulders knotted, staring at the ground and breathing hard. Gabrielle continued, relentless. "Think about it," she demanded. "Would you follow you?" She paused. His fists were clenched in the dirt, she saw. She should have stopped there, but a little devil in her had taken over; she leaned down and put her mouth right by his ear. "Would you follow you?" she repeated. "Maybe once you were a great warlord, but now you're nothing more than a helpless cripple who can't walk. Would you follow a man like that? A helpless cripple," she added viciously, "who spent the last five years as Xena's bed-slave."
The chains at his wrists rattled, and she caught a flash of his dark eyes as he suddenly turned and swung at her with his bound hands. Gabrielle had been expecting something of the sort and she evaded the clumsy blow easily. He overbalanced and fell flat on his face in the dirt. He made no attempt to get up, but lay there, panting, his shoulders heaving rapidly. Suddenly Gabrielle felt ashamed of herself. She was a bard; words were her weapons, and she had turned her blade on a beaten and defenseless man. The fact that he didn't seem to know he was beaten and defenseless didn't make it right. For a moment there was no sound in the clearing but the sound of his ragged breathing.
At last she squatted beside him; she drew a long sigh. "We can go to Rome if you want," she said quietly, offering those words by way of an apology. "I think it's a bad idea. But if you want, we can go."
He didn't raise his head; when he replied, his words were muffled against the earth, his tone sullen. "Don't do me any favors."
Gabrielle waited a moment more, to see if he would raise himself or say anything else, but he didn't. At last, she got to her feet. "I'll be back in a while," she said, and turned, and left the clearing.
She returned after half an hour or so, carrying a double handful of raspberries that she had found along the way. Caesar had moved over to a tree while she was gone, and leaned back against the rough bark, rubbing his legs with his eyes closed. Neither of them said anything about the argument. She offered him the berries, which he pushed aside; she shrugged, and began to consume them herself. She watched him. He saw her eyes wander down to what was left of his legs, and his shoulders tensed.
"Do they hurt?" she asked, hesitantly.
He glanced her way. After a long moment, he said shortly, "Yes," biting off the word.
"I used to work in a hospice," she volunteered. "If I hadn't been accepted to the Academy of Performing Bards, I was going to be a healer."
He ignored her, hoping she would fall silent. She didn't. Slightly bolder, she asked, "Does the cold make it worse? Is that why you try to keep them covered?"
He stared at the little bard for a long time. She watched him, her green eyes wide and hopeful. A fragment of memory drifted up to him.
Xena's voice; her face, perfect and contemptuous. She was looking down at him as he lay on his back. Keep those covered. They disgust me.
You disgust me, he'd replied. Her response had been a blow to the face that nearly dislocated his jaw. As he'd held his jaw in his hands, almost stunned by the pain, she'd grabbed him.
That's not what this says, slave. Her full ruby lips had curved in a sneer of contempt as her fingers curled around him, thrilling, tormenting. She had swung her leg over him—
"I could…I could maybe see if there was something I could do to help—"
With a start, he pulled himself away from memories of Xena; he realized he was still looking at that useless, foolish girl. "Leave me alone."
"I was only trying to help," she said, sounding hurt.
"I don't care."
She dropped her eyes. Then froze. "Do you hear something?"
"No, I—" Then he stopped, listening. That irritating blonde is right.
"It's a party of men. Wearing armor, probably armed, some on horseback. They're headed right here."
"We can't run for it," the bard said. He looked at her grimly. She could run for it, and easily too. "We'd better just—"
"Halt and stay where you are!"
Both of them straightened at that phrase; the bard was on her feet in an instant, clutching a tree limb that had been lying on the ground near her. Caesar's instinctive response—still ingrained after so many years—was to rise and draw his weapon. But as he reached for his sword, he realized afresh that he had no weapon, and his legs wouldn't obey him; cursing in pain, he sank back down again to the pebbled dirt just as the branches and bushes on the far side of the clearing were pushed aside and men on horses and in armor came pouring through.
"Halt!" the leader ordered again, drawing his horse to a halt. Caesar quickly ran his eyes over the man. The leader was on horseback, wearing light armor and a helmet; his armor was scuffed and worn, and he wore it as casually as if it were an old tunic. It's Roman armor, Caesar realized with a start, and turned his attention to the men who were now surrounding them. The equipment of the men matched that of their leader; while showing the signs of use, their armor and weapons were uniformly well-cared-for, and the men bore their equipment with the ease of long familiarity; obviously well-trained, he noted peripherally, observing the way they had spread out in formation around the clearing. Better than well-trained. These are legionaries. His heart lifted within him. He looked back at the leader, and realization burst on him like a dawn. I know this man. Titus.
This can't be a coincidence. This is destiny.
For five long, long years he had waited. He had suffered through mutilation, the burning of Rome, slavery, imprisonment, and through all that time, had held firm to the belief that a brighter day would come—his destiny would be fulfilled, somehow, some day. It was fate, and fate could not be altered.
And now, that day has come. As he had known it would. All he had to do was seize it.
Quickly, he glanced at the foolish blonde bard. Not the most adequate of troops, but she was what he had right now. She was still clutching that stick, looking with wide and wary eyes at the men around the clearing, who were all holding their weapons at the ready. He caught her eye and motioned to her. "Come here," he ordered her sharply.
She let her stick fall and started toward him, only to be stopped as Titus ordered, "I said Don't move!"
"But I was just—" she began, raising her hands helplessly.
The bard fell silent, looking at him apologetically. Just like a woman, Caesar thought scornfully; and on the heels of that thought, he couldn't help but think that Xena would never have let herself be cowed so easily. She shared Xena's bed, did she learn nothing from her? Well, he would use what he had. He turned his attention to the man on horseback.
"Is that any way to treat an old friend, Titus?"
"I said, silence!" Titus shifted on his horse, turning his attention to Caesar. "That means you too!"
Caesar grasped the trunk of the tree behind him. He did not like to raise himself this way, showing the men that he was unable to walk, but they would have to know sooner or later, and besides, it was only a temporary inconvenience. When I have my empire again, he told himself grimly. This…inconvenience…will be fixed when I have my empire again. Slowly, setting his jaw against the pain, he began to pull himself up.
"Don't you recognize me, Titus?" he demanded, balancing unsteadily and leaning back against the tree behind him.
"You—" Titus stopped. He stared at Caesar closely, leaning forward on his horse. "Who are you?" he asked slowly.
"Your commander's commander," Caesar replied. "How is Brutus these days? Still alive?"
"You—" Titus paused again, then urged his horse closer. "It can't be," he said, staring at Caesar. "It can't—" Titus stopped, and looked over at that foolish girl, as if for conformation. What is her name again? Caesar couldn't remember; she was just Xena's bit of fluff. Not that it matters. "Caesar?"
"It certainly took you long enough to figure that out," Caesar replied. "Brutus always said you were loyal; he never said you were quick."
"It is you," Titus replied, looking sour; he had never liked to be reminded of his limitations, Caesar remembered.
"Well, now that we have that straightened out.... Where is Brutus? Is he alive?"
"At the fortress, a short way from here," Titus replied grudgingly.
"Excellent." Caesar pushed himself away from the tree. "I'll have your horse, Titus. Lead me to him."
Titus looked down at him. His sour expression had not lessened; if anything it grew. "My horse stays where he is. Men!" he ordered. "Take their horse and bring them with us. The commander will have to decide what to do with them."
Two soldiers stepped forward, toward him. Caesar suffered them to take him by the arms and support him, but looked up at Titus. "You'll pay for that, Titus," he said coolly.
"We'll see." Titus raised a hand. "Men! Move out!"
The soldiers started forward, carrying Caesar with them; his legs throbbed in pain as he was forced to stagger after them. Two others came and flanked the foolish bard, while another took Argo's reins; he did not actually try to swing up onto the horse's back. Wise move, Caesar thought with grim amusement; he had known Argo for a long time, and knew without a doubt that the man would have gone flying over the mare's head. His legs hurt, but they had been worse; he could stand it. Instead, he thought to himself, over and over again, with each step he took, that it was finally happening; what he had waited for these past five years. It was happening. He let himself savor the triumph, as he thought: My destiny. My destiny awaits.
The soldiers shoved them through the door and into the fortress. Gabrielle glanced over at her companion; he was being carried between two of the larger soldiers, his useless legs dragging. The inside of the fortress was dark and cool, and redolent with smoke from the large fire pits to either side of the dais at the end of the large room. With a final shove, Gabrielle stumbled to a halt; at the same time, the men beside her released her companion and he fell flat to the ground, gasping; he placed his hands flat against the stone floor to rise. Quickly, Gabrielle bent down to get her shoulder under his arm; they struggled together to lift him up, when a voice spoke from the dais.
"Caesar. So it really is you. I would never have thought it."
Her companion raised his head. "Brutus," he said in recognition. "What are you doing here? I thought I left you in Gaul!" Almost unconsciously, he straightened, then flinched as he put weight on his legs. Gabrielle locked an arm around his waist to support him; he paid her absolutely no heed, fixing his attention on the man before them, in silver armor and with dark hair.
Brutus rose from his chair. "The Bright Warrior's army was getting a little too close for comfort up there; I engaged with her, and lost almost half my men in one battle. After that, I thought I'd come back down this way." He paused, looking down at the two of them. "You've looked better," he told him frankly.
"I've felt better." He looked in the direction of the chair. "Thanks for keeping it warm for me. You're a true friend."
"Think nothing of it," this Brutus said coolly. "So it's true that the Dark Conqueror captured you?"
"A minor setback," Caesar responded, and had the situation not been so serious, Gabrielle might have laughed at the way he so casually dismissed five years of slavery and the destruction of his city. "That's all in the past though. It's time to start thinking about the future." He pushed free of Gabrielle, so that he was standing, albeit unsteadily, on his own legs; he lurched forward a step. "First, I need you to take the army west. The territories to the west of here were always loyal to Rome, and they're the ideal place to gain new recruits. They're also fertile enough that it should be easy to gather provisions and supplies for our march to Italy—" He almost tripped over the edge of the dais. "Here, help me up there," he ordered Brutus.
Something's wrong here, Gabrielle thought, watching them. Brutus was looking down at Caesar expressionlessly; he made no move toward his former ruler. Caesar didn't seem to see it, however; he extended his arm toward Brutus confidently, clearly expecting the man to give him aid. Brutus did not move.
"I heard that Rome had been destroyed by Xena," Brutus said, looking down at Caesar.
"A matter of no consequence. When I rebuild it, it will be even greater than it was before," he said, shrugging. "And I can do it, now that you're at my side. Here, give me a hand," he repeated, reaching out with his chained hands. Brutus made no move to help him.
"We're not going west," Brutus told him. "If the rumors are true, after Xena died, Callisto the Bright Warrior took control of her army. Now the army that lies to the west is under her command and she's even crueler than Xena was. And the Crusader's ships have been sighted on the southern coast, suggesting she's ready to try to establish a beachhead and make another attempt on the continent. We can't go east, because to the east lies the empire of Ch'in. If we go anywhere, we go north to the steppes, and I see no reason to go north. Here, we're in a protected position. We're out of the way, and nobody knows we're here. No, we're going to sit here; hold tight; wait it out. The remnants of my legions are no match for the vast hosts of the Crusader Najara and Callisto the Fiery."
"Callisto?" Caesar scoffed. "Callisto's nothing to fear; she's even more stupid than Xena was. Same with the Crusader; that foolish woman is too busy listening to her ridiculous djinn to be a real threat to anyone with any intelligence. I'm surprised at you, Brutus; you never used to be this cowardly. Give me a hand," he repeated for the third time.
Brutus didn't move. This time, the refusal seemed to penetrate Caesar's understanding, he drew his hands back. His brows knit above his dark eyes.
"Is there some kind of problem?"
"Problem? Yes, Caesar. Yes, there is." Brutus turned and paced away from him, to the throne and back. "The problem is that you seem to think that after spending five years as Xena's captive, that you can just pick right back up as if nothing had happened. That's not true. The world is a very different place today than it was five years ago. Times have changed, Caesar," he said calmly. "Times have changed, and we have to change with them."
Caesar was looking thunderous. "What do you mean?" he demanded.
"What I mean is that, you aren't the commander of this army anymore. I am. The men follow me, and I give the orders here. If I tolerate you, be very clear that I do so on sufferance only, and frankly? I think you'd only be a hindrance." Brutus looked down at his former commander coolly.
Gabrielle watched Caesar. He stared at Brutus as if he were trying to make sense of what he had heard; she watched the storm gather in his face, and then it broke. "Who do you think you are?" he demanded furiously. "Who do you think you are, to speak to me in that way? You're nobody! I am the emperor of Rome—"
"Rome doesn't exist anymore, and neither does her emperor," Brutus said cruelly. "You're no emperor, nor are you a leader of men; you're no more than Xena's crippled whore—not even that, now that the Warrior Princess is dead. It's a new world, Caesar, and in this brave new world, you have no value. The sooner you get used to that, the better." He turned his head. "Take him to the dungeon, men."
Two soldiers stepped forward and grabbed him. His eyes, wide with shock, went to Gabrielle, who stared back at him helplessly. When he saw that no help would be forthcoming there, he shouted, "You can't do this! You can't do this! I'm Julius Caesar! I'm the Emperor of Rome—"
Brutus tossed off a salute. "Vale, Caesar," he said as the guards dragged him off. "You're as dead as your city."
That evening, Gabrielle was escorted to Brutus's quarters by two soldiers. She had been given a room in the fortress, cold and small, but still a room, and had been provided with clothing and toiletries and everything appropriate to her needs. The invitation to dinner had been issued by one of the younger soldiers, conveying it on behalf of his master; he had looked almost painfully young and innocent as he had stammered out that the commander invited her to dinner this evening. Gabrielle was not afraid; everything she had heard indicated that Brutus was an honorable man, so she felt no qualms about arraying herself in the finery he had provided for her. Nor did she feel any trepidation as she knocked on his door.
"Enter," she heard the call from within, and did so.
The room inside was adequate, but spartan; far from luxurious. It spoke to Gabrielle of the consummate soldier, a man with no time or no appetite for ornamentation or adornment. A table had been laid out within, heavy with an abundant yet simple meal of venison and fruit and wine; Brutus was seated at one end of it, and rose when he saw her. "Please," he said, and directed her to the other side. She sat.
"Have no fear," he assured her as she settled into place. "I intend you no harm—"
"I didn't think you did," she replied. "I had always heard that you were a man of honor."
He smiled, and she realized she had touched him. "Thank you," he said. "I have heard that that is what is said about me, and it pleases me…but at the same time I think it's somewhat inaccurate. I don't feel that I am a particularly honorable man; I simply try to do what I feel is right, and yet all too often I find myself falling short of my ideal. Still, all any of us can do in this world is to keep on trying," he said with a sigh, and helped himself to some grapes.
"Perhaps that's what honor is," Gabrielle volunteered, "setting high standards for one's personal behavior."
"I'd like to think there's a little more to it than that," he said with a wry smile. "Although by any standard, I think men of honor are rare in these degraded times. I was raised on the tales of the glories of the Roman past," he said. "The men that walked in those days—the brothers Gracchi, the first two consuls Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus and my ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus, the great and humble general Cincinnatus—"
"I've heard the stories."
Gabrielle smiled. "I'm a bard."
"I see. Then you know as well as I," he continued. "The men that walked in those days were giants, willing to do what was right even at the cost of enormous sacrifices to themselves, and always ready to put the good of the people ahead of their own personal welfare. Yes," he said quietly, his eyes seeming to look past her, "the Romans were like brothers, in the brave days of old….If such men had still lived, in the last days of Rome," he said, and now a new bitterness came into his voice, "then Rome might still stand today. But that was not the case. 'Divide and conquer,' that was always Caesar's watchword, did you know?" he asked, looking at her now.
"I had heard," Gabrielle replied.
"He said it over and over again, 'Divide and conquer, Brutus; divide and conquer.' Yet he was the one who allowed himself and Pompey to become divided. Had they resisted the Destroyer of Nations as a united force, they might have been able to save Rome. Instead they continued to war with each other. Had Caesar," and the bitterness in his tone deepened, "accepted Xena's offer—to turn himself over to her at the cost of having the city spared—then the city might still stand. He could have done that and had his name honored in songs and stories as the man who saved Rome, as the savior of the republic who sacrificed himself for the good of the people and the nation. But he was unwilling to make that sacrifice, and so the Dark Conqueror burned Rome to the ground."
"You sound very disappointed with Caesar," Gabrielle volunteered, sensing an opening. She sipped from her goblet of wine.
Brutus sighed again, lowering his eyes briefly. "I am," he said at last. "It was his arrogance—his arrogance and only that—that brought the city to destruction. It need not have happened, and would not have happened, except for him." Now there was anger in his tone as well as bitterness.
"That's a harsh critique from someone who I've always heard was Caesar's closest friend. It seems strange that a man of honor such as yourself would be so loyal for so long to a man he now judges so unkindly." She reached out and helped herself to some venison.
"I was blind," Brutus said, shaking his head.
Her dinner companion leaned back in his chair. He paused for a long time, as if mulling over what was best to say. "I've always had this ability," he began, eyeing her carefully, "to 'see' people who are destined for greatness. I don't know what it is. Sometimes I can just look at someone and think to myself, That man or That woman is going to be great. Maybe it's luck. Maybe it's intuition. Maybe it's a gift from the gods. I've been wrong sometimes, though not often; there have been people I've thought that about who have never gone on to do anything—a young man named Octavian, for example, that I used to know back in the days when Rome still stood, who was killed when Xena overran the city. I don't know if you believe me—"
"Oh, I believe you," Gabrielle assured him. "Some bards call such people 'touched by the gods,' and claim the same ability for themselves."
"When I first met Caesar," Brutus continued, "I felt it. I felt it more strongly than I'd felt anything up to that point. I thought to myself, That man is going to be a hero such as Rome has not seen since the days of old. And I wanted to be a part of that. The seeds of greatness were never in me," he said quietly. "I'm not upset about that, not anymore; I know myself, I know that I'm not destined to be any sort of a hero. I accept that. But I wanted to participate in great things, to have a chance to shape Rome, and even the world, so that maybe—just maybe—I could leave the world a better place than I had found it. And I thought that at Caesar's side, I could have a chance to do just that. What I didn't understand was that Caesar's idea of making the world a better place meant making it a better place—for Caesar. I should have known—there were signs—things I could have, should have picked up on, I can see that now. But at the time, I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe so much that I silenced my doubts. After what he did with Xena—"
"What did he do with Xena?" Gabrielle asked, leaning forward with sudden interest.
"She captured him and held him for ransom," said Brutus, sighing. "It was part of an overall plot by Caesar to gain funding for his conquest of Gaul—It's a long story, and not a pretty one; I prefer not to go into it in too much detail, but essentially he gained her trust, then betrayed her. He used her, and then when he no longer needed her, he broke her legs and had her crucified." He looked down again. "I was a part of that, though it was strongly against my better judgement, and even to this day, I wish I hadn't participated."
"I see," Gabrielle said thoughtfully. Many things were starting to make sense to her now. "Please, go on. About Xena?"
"Yes, about Xena. When I saw her for the first time," Brutus said, running his hands over his face briefly, "when I delivered the ransom to her ship in exchange for Caesar—" Here he stopped. He clenched his hands on the arms of his chair. He even paled a bit.
"What? Go on."
But Brutus paused for a long moment, staring off into the distance. "You know what I said about sensing those who are destined to do great things?" he said at last.
He started to speak, and then stopped again. Whatever he was trying to say, Gabrielle observed, it was clearly something that had had a strong effect on him, one that he was having difficulty expressing. "Sometimes," he continued at last, "it's a feeling. Sometimes it's a look. Sometimes it's a combination of things, not any one thing in particular that I can put my finger on. It's just something that I can feel—briefly and for a few seconds—their presence in the world, the way the world bends around them. When I saw Caesar for the first time, he—he shone." He grasped at the empty air. "That's not really what it was like, but I can't find better words for it than that. Maybe if I were a bard, I could, but I'm only a simple soldier, nothing more. He shone, more brightly than anyone I'd ever seen before. That was when I decided to follow him.
"Xena didn't shine.
He fell silent, lost in his memories.
"Sounds like she made a very strong impression on you," Gabrielle said quietly.
"She did. She did. If Caesar was a candle, Xena stood out like a beacon fire. And she didn't even seem to know it." He drew a deep breath. "When Caesar told me what he planned for her, I was actually afraid—I knew it wasn't going to work, nobody who burned that brightly could be stopped that simply. I pleaded with him to give it up—told him that I strongly felt that he should leave Xena alone—but he wouldn't even listen to me. It was as if he were deaf…." Brutus trailed off. "Deaf to everything but his own delusions," he added bitterly.
"That's why I say the blame for the destruction of Rome rests entirely at Caesar's door." Brutus continued. He was clenching his silver goblet so tightly in his fist that he was almost denting it, Gabrielle observed; he did not even notice, however, so intent was he on making his point. "Had it not been for Caesar's betrayal of Xena, she would probably have been content to make Rome into a vassal city, as she did with the cities of Greece and Mesopotamia. Instead he went out of his way to antagonize her, and earned her undying enmity. Even when she came to visit her wrath on Rome, she offered Rome a chance—she would stay her hand, as long as the Romans yielded up their emperor. Don't you see," he continued intensely, "it was only Caesar she wanted. It was his arrogance and refusal to put the public good above his own wishes that led to the fall of Rome. The fall of the Republic." He realized what he was doing, and set his silver goblet back on the table, noticing that it was dented and grimacing slightly.
"The story you've told me explains a lot," Gabrielle murmured, turning the facts over in her mind. "It sounds as if you're still very angry with Caesar."
"I am," Brutus said shortly. "I'll never forgive him."
"For what he did to Rome? Or for what he did to you?"
"Both. I'll never forgive myself either." He seemed to come to himself then. "I'm sorry," he said with a half-hearted smile. "I didn't mean to wind up discussing ancient history. And—" He paused, looking at her somewhat awkwardly. "I didn't mean to insult—I don't know if you're Caesar's woman, or—"
Gabrielle choked on the sip of wine she had just taken, horrified. "No!" she said when she could speak again. "No. Not at all. Never. No way in Tartarus." She shuddered at the very suggestion; the possibility was too awful to contemplate.
Brutus chuckled at the evident horror on her face. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you. I just wasn't sure—the soldiers brought you in together, and you seemed to be helping him, and I know that in the past, Caesar was something of a ladies' man—"
"Not this lady," Gabrielle said firmly. "No, I'm—It's a long story," she said. "I'm with him because—Well, the short answer is that he really needs my help—I think he knows it too on some level, even if he won't admit it—"
"I'd be surprised," Brutus murmured. "The man is truly delusional."
"Tell me about it," Gabrielle said with feeling. "But—well, call me a sucker for hard-luck cases. I could never see an injured animal without wanting to heal it, when I was younger. I got bitten for it a lot of times, but…" She shrugged. "We—" She stopped and looked at Brutus for a long time, sizing him up.
"Go on. Speak as you will," he encouraged her.
"I was…with Xena…when Callisto killed her," Gabrielle said carefully, and was relieved to see the instant flash of comprehension in Brutus's eyes. More relieved to see that he was not angry; though she knew he was an honorable man, she had not been sure how he would react to the mention of the woman who had burned Rome to the ground, regardless of whether he laid the blame at Caesar's feet.
"I understand," he said at once. "Go on."
"She'd kept Caesar in her camp as a slave—broken his legs and chained him to her throne—"
"Yes, I know. We'd heard about the fate of the Emperor of Rome, even here."
"Xena died…" Gabrielle paused, closing her eyes briefly at the pain of the memory. She died for me. "I hadn't known her for very long—only a few days—but….She died in my arms—and Callisto's. She—With her dying words, she bequeathed her army to Callisto, saying that Callisto should take Xena's army and join it with her own, and use the combined forces to conquer the rest of the world—to defeat the Crusader, smash Ch'in, consolidate her hold on India. She also asked Callisto to pledge on the blood of her slain family that she would never harm me and would grant me what I requested. Callisto was very moved, and she agreed. I think—I can't be sure, because Callisto is so unstable—"
"I've never met her in person—and I hope I never do," Brutus added, "but I've heard stories."
"They're true," Gabrielle affirmed. "Anyway, as I said, I can't be sure, but I think that Callisto meant it, and I would have given maybe a little better than even odds that she would have kept her word; Callisto had always said that she wanted to kill everything that meant anything to Xena as revenge for Xena's burning of her village—"
"I hadn't heard that," Brutus murmured. "Was that her motive?"
Gabrielle nodded. "But there would be little point in killing what mattered most to Xena after Xena was no longer around to see it. Nor would killing me, after Xena was already dead, have anywhere near the thrill that killing Xena herself did. Callisto was obsessed with Xena," she continued, musing. "Far past the point of reason, or even sanity. Xena was the grand audience before which Callisto played out her life, and in fact, I think what Callisto would have wanted most was to have her and Xena, side by side, burning together in Tartarus for eternity. It'll be interesting to see what she does now that Xena's gone. In addition," she said, returning to her previous topic, "swearing on the blood of her slain family—it was clear that Callisto saw that as a sacred oath, not something to be taken lightly. So as I said, I think Callisto might have kept her promise not to harm me. But Xena had Callisto make no such promise in regards to Caesar, whom she called 'the nameless one.' In fact, when Callisto asked about him, Xena told her, 'Do as you will with him, he doesn't matter to me anymore.' It might have been," she said thoughtfully, "that Xena knew that she could only get one such promise out of Callisto, and so she chose to use it on me.
"Anyway, regardless of what promise Xena had gotten out of Callisto, I had no intention of staying with the army now that Xena was dead, and I knew that Caesar would be in serious trouble as soon as Callisto got around to making sport of him, so I decided to escape and take Caesar with me. That was a couple days ago. I don't know where we're eventually going to end up. He wants to go back to Rome, though I don't think it's a good idea—"
"Caesar would want to back to Rome" Brutus said with a grimace. "Even though there's nothing left but ashes. He saw it burned, so I don't know what he would think to accomplish there, but at the same time, I'm not surprised."
"But anyway," she continued, "he needs help. Don't get me wrong, I don't like it, and there are times when I can barely stand to be around him, but I freed him and that makes me responsible for him. If I walked away from him right now, it would be almost the same as murder, I think. He's completely helpless. He has no coin, he has no friends, he's only vaguely in touch with reality, and he can't even walk. And besides—" She sighed. "He's a part of Xena," she said at last. "I don't like it, I don't like him, but he meant something to Xena, and Xena—even though I'd only known her for a few days, somehow—she was very important to me, in a way that I—that I can't even explain." It was Gabrielle's turn to grope for words now, to try to find a way to describe the profound effect the Daughter of War had had on her, far out of proportion to the limited amount of time she'd known her; but Gabrielle came up blank. It was too much, at that moment; the experience, the loss was too close. She settled for shrugging and saying lamely, "I don't know if that makes a lot of sense."
"No, I understand," Brutus said quietly. He looked at Gabrielle for a long moment. "So you're essentially helping Caesar out of pity?"
"I guess you could say that. That, and a kind of horrified fascination," she said with a smile.
Brutus suddenly grinned, making himself look young and almost boyish. "You should tell him that. I would love to see his reaction."
"Maybe I will," Gabrielle said. The two of them shared a laugh. Brutus's laughter trailed off into a sigh; he looked reflective for a moment.
"You're going to ask me to free him, aren't you?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I am," she said quietly.
Brutus nodded. "All right. I'll let him go. As it is, he's of no value to me, and I think he's done all the harm he can do—to me and to Rome, at any rate. Just—" He paused and looked back at the blonde bard. "Be careful, all right? Others have helped Caesar before. And paid for it with their lives. He's one of those who deeply resents needing help, and who never forgets—or forgives—a kindness done him. Don't underestimate him. And don't turn your back on him either; while there's nothing more he can do to Rome, the same is not true of you. Always remember: Like any other caged animal, he's still dangerous."
"I appreciate the warning," she said, though she felt somehow chilled by it.
"You're a very special person, Gabrielle," he said, pushing back his chair and standing. Gabrielle rose too. "You claim to have touched the heart of the Warrior Princess, and I believe that. Not everyone would put themselves out to help someone like Caesar. I think the world needs more people like you."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said, touched. She turned to go, then turned back, struck by a thought. "You know what you said before—about how the seeds of greatness are not in you?" At his nod, she continued. "Bards put a lot of thought into what makes people great. It makes for good story telling. And there's a bardic saying—maybe you've heard it: 'Some people are born great; some achieve greatness; and some have greatness thrust upon them.' Maybe some of those great men you admire so much were simply ordinary people, thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who did the best they knew how to do." She paused. "I think you have it within you to be great."
She watched him consider her words carefully; then he gave his disarming boyish smile again. "I appreciate hearing that. Thank you, Gabrielle," he said, and bowed to her. She dropped into a quick, light curtsey, and stepped out the door.
One of his men led her down to the dungeon, courteously holding a torch and lighting her way. Gabrielle took the keys in her hands herself, and the torch from the guard, and opened the door to the cells.
The doorway faced a block of cells fronted with steel bars. Caesar had been placed in the cell all the way at the end, farthest from the light; within that cell, she could see him, huddled in the deepest shadows of the back corner. Sulking, probably. Gabrielle lifted the torch high and went down the row, hearing the steps of her boots echoing off the stone walls. He neither stirred nor looked up at her approach.
"It's me," she said softly, leaning against the bars.
That got his attention. He raised his head and looked at her. "You."
"You've come to get me out of here," he said, with such assurance that Gabrielle was half-tempted to turn on her heel and leave him there. "Brutus came to his senses. I knew he would. He realized it was all a mistake."
Gabrielle sighed as she separated the key she needed and fitted it into the lock. "No, Brutus did not realize it was all a mistake. I talked to him and convinced him to send us on our way, as soon as we figure out where that is. He didn't want to, but he eventually agreed."
Caesar looked her over. "You convinced him to let us go?" Something cold and bitter flickered in the back of his eyes. "You've got quite a way with warlords."
Instantly, Gabrielle yanked the key out of the lock. "Bye," she said and turned on her heel.
"Where are you going?" he called after her. She didn't reply, just kept walking down the hallway. "Must you take everything so seriously? It was only a joke!"
That's probably the closest he can get to an apology. She had actually gotten an apology out of him back at the camp during their escape, but she had done that by kicking him in his damaged legs, snatching his improvised lock-pick out of his hand while he reeled in pain, and stepping out of his reach. Even then, it was her threat to start screaming for Callisto that had actually done it, and he had barely been able to force the word out. This was probably the best she could do. With a heavy sigh, she returned to the bars and started on the lock again. The door swung free with a screech.
Caesar tried to rise, but his legs wouldn't hold him up and he fell again, scrabbling helplessly on the floor. "Help me!" he commanded to Gabrielle, who went to his side; he locked an arm around her waist and pulled himself up, leaning heavily on her. "Sending us on our way. Brutus is 'sending us on our way,' just like that. He'll be sorry, I'll promise you that." Caesar almost fell, and clutched at Gabrielle for support, knocking her off balance; she put her hand out against the wall and barely recovered. "When I have my empire again, I'll be sure to remember this. I'll be sure." His fingers dug into Gabrielle's shoulder painfully, though he didn't seem to be aware of it. "He'll know what it means to feel my wrath. No one does this to Caesar. I'll show him my appreciation for this treatment, you can be sure."
"Keep dreaming," Gabrielle grunted, bracing her own legs to support her companion. He really is in love with the sound of his own voice, isn't he? she mused. Something in his tone of voice, or in the insistent way he kept repeating himself, bothered her, and she didn't like the bright glitter in his dark eyes. "Come on. Brutus has Argo ready for us, waiting by the gates of the fortress."
"This is only a…a temporary inconvenience," Caesar repeated as Gabrielle half dragged him down the corridor; she glanced over at him, and saw that he wasn't looking at her. His eyes held that intense, distant look she had seen from him before, as if he were seeing something other than the dingy walls of the corridor, the packed dirt of the floor. "Only a temporary inconvenience. That's all it is. He can't fight fate. Nobody can do that. Not even Brutus. Not even…not even Xena. A minor setback. This doesn't change…my destiny."
"She's ready to go," Brutus told Gabrielle, handing her the reins to Argo. Gabrielle nodded, and rubbed the horse's nose; Argo whickered, in greeting. "The saddlebags have been filled with a week's supply of food, and I've had your canteens refilled." He handed her a small pouch. "Here's some gold. It's not much, but it's enough to last you to the next village or two."
"Thank you, I appreciate it," Gabrielle said, taking the purse. She put her foot in the stirrup and swung up onto Argo's back.
Caesar could not mount by himself. Two soldiers stepped forward at a command from Brutus to lift him onto Argo, behind Gabrielle. The chains at his wrists rattled as he gripped her around the waist, and he swayed for a moment before finding his balance. She felt him turn in the saddle behind her.
"I will not forget this, Brutus," she heard him say coldly behind her right ear. "We're no longer friends, you and I."
"You were never my friend, Caesar," Brutus responded. "You were never anyone's friend. Except your own."
"I will not forget," Caesar replied only. "Someday, Brutus. There will be a reckoning. Someday."
Brutus sighed, looking weary. "That day will never come, Caesar," he said with quiet finality. "It's over for you now. The sooner you realize that, the better off you will be." He stepped back and turned his attention to Gabrielle. "Vale, Gabrielle," he told her. "Go with the gods."
"And you," she replied. Brutus gave her the Roman salute, and Gabrielle responded; she touched her heels to Argo's sides, and the horse started off.
"He'll pay," Caesar was muttering at Gabrielle's back. "When I have my empire again. He'll pay. I am the emperor of Rome. He can't do this to me. He'll pay."
As she listened to her companion rant about being the emperor of a city that no longer existed, Gabrielle bit her lip. While there's nothing more he can do to Rome, the same is not true of you, she remembered Brutus saying. She wondered in her heart, if she was right to stay with him, after all.
The road ahead provided no answer.