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: In this one, Gabrielle takes center stage, as she experiences for the first time some of the real disadvantages of traveling with someone whom everyone hates and wants dead—and who, unlike Xena in the series, is neither able nor willing to defend either her or himself. Watch for Jett, who makes his first appearance in these stories here (but not his last). I have concrete plans for two more stories after this, and inklings for a third and maybe even a fourth. This one is longer and somewhat more ambitious than my earlier stories in this AU; it represents a little bit of a pivot point. I'm in some ways both happy and not with this; certain parts of it I don't like, but other parts I like better than others. Anyway, enjoy.
"Are they close enough yet?"
The whispered question came from Licinus, a youth of about fifteen; he nervously held a sword and crouched in the leaf litter, in the brush at the side of the road. A quiver and bow were across his back. The man he addressed, Flavius, was much older, a battle-scarred veteran past thirty. The gladius he carried at his side was worn with a great deal more expertise, and had seen hard use.
Flavius glanced at Licinus. "Not yet. I'll tell you when it's time."
A woman carrying a bow and arrows, with long, twisted hair and a hard expression, tapped Flavius on the shoulder. "Do you think we should let them go? They're only two of them, and they seem no threat."
"No. You know the drill, Drusilla: we stop everyone. We can't take any chance on letting spies close to our hideout. Not with Rome gone, and the Crusader in the area." His face clouded at the thought. Flavius checked the positions of their covert sentries across the road, then turned his attention back to those approaching. "Besides," he murmured, frowning in thought, "I could swear I've seen that man before."
The horse coming down the old dirt road was overloaded; it bore two riders, instead of one. Golden, with a white mane and tail, the mare carried a young, blonde woman, sitting in front and holding the reins, and a man with black hair and eyes behind her, holding on to her waist. The man's lower legs were mangled and twisted, clearly incapable of supporting him, and around his neck and wrists he bore cicatrices: circular scars that spoke of a long period in chains. To the unseen Flavius, those scars suggested slavery; a fact that contrasted curiously with the air of superiority and command the man carried about him. As they approached, the two were arguing with each other, at a volume loud enough to carry throughout the woods; Flavius found that strangely surprising, because something about the man suggested a military bearing, and Flavius thought he should have known better than to make so much noise in an ungoverned area. He dismissed the thought, and listened.
"I told you we should have taken the second turnoff back by the milestone."
Gabrielle drew a deep breath. She reminded herself forcibly that her companion was going through a difficult time at the moment and deserved her sympathy. There was an edge to her voice when she responded.
"You don't even know where we're going, so how can you possibly know how to get there?"
"I know this area better than you, I assure you," Caesar said scornfully.
"Okay, then how come when I was listening to you yesterday you got us lost halfway up a blind canyon?"
"Because you can't follow directions," Caesar said as if she should have known the answer already. "I told you to go north. You took the eastern route. What did you think was going to happen?"
"You know, that's really strange, because I could have sworn I have this memory of someone telling me, let's see, what was it: 'What are you, stupid? Why are you taking the northern fork when I told you repeatedly to take the eastern one?'" She twisted in the saddle to look back at him. "Do you have any idea who that could have been?"
"That was the first turn-off. As you should have known, I meant the second turn-off."
"That doesn't make any sense!" Gabrielle cried in exasperation.
"Neither do you," Caesar replied waspishly.
I will not push him off Argo, I will not push him off, I will not push him off…. "Tell me. When you hear yourself talk, does it actually make sense to you? Because it doesn't to me."
Caesar threw up his hands—almost losing his balance in the process. "Fine; that's fine, don't listen to me. I'm sure you can figure it all out yourself and you don't need my help for anything." His entire demeanor said, I won't be responsible for the consequences.
"What help?" Gabrielle demanded. "You haven't done anything since we escaped from Callisto!"
"Never mind. You're not interested in anything I have to say," he said serenely.
"Oh, come on! How old are we now, six?" she demanded, turning to look at him again.
Caesar's dark eyes glinted. "Shut up."
"Seriously! Do you think—"
"No. I mean it. Shut up." He held up a hand, as if for silence; he was frowning in concentration.
Something about his manner got through to Gabrielle. She immediately lowered her voice. "What is it?" Her hands tightened on Argo's reins.
His frown deepened, and he didn't answer for a long moment, seeming to listen hard. His eyes moved, scanning the undergrowth.
"I think…." He looked at her. "There are men in the bushes up ahead. At the side of the road."
Uh-oh. "Armed?" she asked in a low voice, turning her eyes back to the road up ahead.
"Do you think—"
Gabrielle was cut off as the bushes on either side of the road exploded into a flurry of men and women, ragged, scruffy, dressed in browns and beiges and all carrying weapons. They spread out to block the road, keeping their weapons trained on the two. Gabrielle yanked on Argo's reins, digging her heels into the horse's side, but before she could get clear, a man stepped out from the side of the road and gripped the mare's bridle.
"Halt! Hands up! Don't move!" the man barked.
Gabrielle dropped the reins and raised her hands. "What do you want?" she asked.
"Off the horse. Now."
She turned to share a look with her companion, then dismounted. She had to help Caesar off the horse, and once off, he almost fell, to the amusement of the watching group. Gabrielle helped him up. He leaned heavily on her as he got to his feet.
"What do you want?" she asked again, once they were on the ground.
"This is forbidden territory," the first man said, stepping forward. He was tall and grizzled; he looked like someone who had seen a lot of battles and was tired of them. As Gabrielle looked around at the rest of them, it seemed to her that all the men and women facing them had the same look; it was an appearance of desperation, something about them that proclaimed huntedness, destitution. She wondered where they had come from, and how they were living. "Travelers are not permitted to pass through here."
Now Caesar spoke up; gripping her waist, he straightened to a respectable fraction of what had once been his full height, and demanded, "Forbidden by whose authority?"
Oh, gods, Gabrielle groaned inwardly, knowing that this was going to be bad.
"On my authority, traveler, and those with me."
"And who," Caesar demanded, his dark eyes cold, "are you to forbid us to pass this way?"
The man frowned, looking closely at Caesar. "Flavius Severus, centurion of the Tenth Legion. We have blocked this region to all passersby. Turn, and take another route."
"Rome is no longer, and neither are her legions," Caesar replied, with a twisted smile. "You have no right to forbid anything. Stand down, centurion," he commanded, "and let us through."
He speaks as if he were on a battlefield, at the head of an army, Gabrielle thought. Flavius's frown deepened at Caesar's words; he looked as if he were trying to remember something. She sensed disaster looming.
"Maybe you haven't noticed," she interjected, glaring at her companion, "but we're outnumbered two to twenty, and they have weapons."
"And no authority to use them," he replied. "Stand aside."
"Authority?" demanded a young man with brown, curly hair. "We have all the authority we need, stranger. Who has higher authority than us—now?" he added with a bitter laugh.
Caesar started to speak, but Gabrielle kicked him, hard. Flavius turned his attention to his subordinate.
"Settle down, Licinus!" he commanded. Back to Gabrielle, he said, "Sorry for the interruption, miss, but this land is off limits. You will have to turn around and find another way."
"Why?" she asked, hoping to keep his attention off her companion. "We're no threat. We're simply travelers trying to get back to my home village of Potedaia."
"No exceptions," he said. "I'm honestly sorry, miss, but those are the rules."
Caesar was frowning now, as if in confusion. Before Gabrielle could stop him, he spoke up. "If you're with the Tenth Legion, then how is it you're here? I thought that what was left of the Tenth merged with Xena's horde, along with the rest of Pompey's army. You're a long way from your unit, centurion," he said with the sort of contemptuous smile that always made Gabrielle want to scream.
Flavius stiffened. "Are you calling me a deserter?" he asked.
Caesar raised an eyebrow. "You said it, I didn't. I always thought Pompey's men had more honor than that."
Face dark with anger, Flavius took a step forward. "I left my legion because I loved Rome, and because I refused to enter my city as a soldier, no matter what Pompey ordered, even if it was to pay back—" Suddenly he stopped. His eyes widened in shock. "I know you," he whispered.
Gabrielle's heart leapt into her throat. "Now, wait," she began, "let's not—"
She didn't even get a chance to finish her sentence. Before she knew what had happened, Flavius stepped forward and swung right at her companion, dealing him a blow that knocked him flat to the dirt. "You bastard," Flavius spat. "You bastard!"
Caesar raised his head, rubbing the side of his face and looking up at the centurion with an icy stare, as if he were marking the man out for judgement. Flavius reached down, grabbed him by his tunic, and yanked him up, drawing back as if to strike him again.
"No, stop!" Gabrielle heard herself cry; heedless of the weapons, she grabbed her companion and tried to pull him away. Flavius's men and women were shouting too, a confused babble of conflicting voices. "What are you doing?" the one called Licinus cried, grabbing Flavius's arm. "What did this man ever do to you?"
The centurion shook the younger man off as if he were nothing more than a fly. "Don't you recognize him, Licinus?" he growled, swinging Caesar around and shoving him into the center of the group; Caesar lost his balance as soon as Flavius let him go and fell sprawling to the ground again. "You should," the centurion continued. "You even served under him, briefly. Look at him, men!" he commanded. "Look at him, lying there, the man who singlehandedly brought Rome to destruction!"
Gabrielle rushed to her companion's side. He was struggling to rise, taking great gasping breaths; she whispered, "Here, lean on me," and tried to pull him up. Around them, unheeded, the group of armed men and women were exchanging shocked glances; it was the one called Licinus who spoke.
"No," he whispered in a low voice, turning his eyes to his commander. "You don't mean-"
"Look at him," Flavius ordered. "Can't you see it?"
The young man stared down at the two of them, where Gabrielle crouched by Caesar's side, absolutely still. Then his face twisted. Anger spread itself across his features, and the man with the curls of a boy stepped forward and kicked Caesar hard in the ribs. Her companion collapsed to the ground again, coughing, as Licinus hissed, "You son of a bitch."
"That's right," Flavius said grimly. "Caesar."
They blindfolded the two of them and bound Caesar's hands behind his back, then marched the two of them through the woods for what felt like an hour. When Gabrielle asked where they were going, she received no response. She asked that her companion at least be allowed to ride Argo, on account of his legs, and received a harsh denial as well as a snarled, "Shut up!" from Caesar. With two men gripping her arms, Gabrielle was led over uneven terrain, stumbling through ditches and into bushes, tripping over logs and into holes, until she reached a place where the ground underneath her smoothed out. She was rapidly shoved down an incline and stumbled to a halt. The blindfold was yanked off, and she got a confused impression of a dark, cavernous space, and firelight. Then Caesar was pushed to a halt beside her, and his blindfold removed also; he stumbled and almost fell. Gabrielle instinctively moved to catch him but was restrained.
Gabrielle looked around, her eyes adjusting to the darkness. She was standing in a cleft or canyon; looking up, she could see that the sides of the space almost met overhead, leaving only a little ribbon of blue above where she could see the sky; at the very back was a darker shadow which suggested the canyon might continue into a cave. In the center of the cavern was a firepit, in which a bonfire burned brightly, though not bright enough to dispel the shadows at the sides of the canyon. Crowded right up against the sides of the gorge, she could see huts, almost lost in the gloom the firelight could not touch; they were crudely constructed out of twigs and brush, and looked too weak to stand up to a good summer shower—probably why they chose to build them here, she thought. People were pouring out of the huts as she watched, mostly women with children, though there were some men among them. As she looked, she saw that they all had the same, ragged, desperate air as the armed soldiers who had taken her and her companion captive—a sort of habitual flinch that might have come from missing one too many meals, having one too many close encounters with death….maybe from seeing too many loved ones wounded or killed. They all looked, Gabrielle realized, as if they had nothing left to lose, and on the heels of that realization, thought, Uh-oh. She had seen enough in her travels, heard enough stories, to know that few people were as dangerous as those who had nothing to live for.
"Flavius! What have you got there?" demanded a woman with hacked-off dirty brown hair, coming forward.
"Hey, Antonina, take a look and see," Flavius replied, giving Gabrielle's companion another shove; this time he did fall heavily to the ground. He could not catch himself with his hands tied behind his back; instead he managed to turn and land on his side. Antonina stepped away from the crowd clustered around the edges of the firepit and prodded him with her foot.
"Well, I'll be," she said, and an unpleasant grin spread itself across her thin features. "Look what Flavius has caught, everyone!"
"Hail Caesar!" Flavius announced with a mocking smile. "Welcome to our home."
Caesar remained silent, glaring up at the centurion. He was bleeding from a graze on the side of his face; as Gabrielle watched, he quickly ducked his head against his shoulder, managing to smear the trickle of blood a little. He was between the firepit and her; he stood out in sharp outline.
"What is this place?" Gabrielle heard herself ask.
"This place?" Flavius responded. "Call it Rome in exile." He stepped back and held out a hand, encompassing the huts, the fire, the crowd of watching people. "All of us here are Romans," he continued, "of one kind or another. We are all that escaped the destruction of Rome by Xena's forces. Some of us were absent when Xena wrought her vengeance on the city. Some of us sensed what was coming in time to flee. Some of us realized we were wrong to trust that this man could or would protect our city," he said, his voice hardening, "and we left in time. In one way or another, all of us managed to escape. All of us ended up here. We are what remains of Rome."
"Rome?" Caesar had gotten to his knees, breathing hard; slowly he shifted to get his feet under him, sweeping a chill gaze around the enclosure. "You are all that remains of Rome?" he asked, and gave a contemptuous laugh. "You're not Rome. You're nothing more than a rabble of Head Count, plebeians and slaves." He heaved himself to his feet, swaying unsteadily. "You're parasites. You're no more to the glory and grandeur of Rome than fleas are to a dog." His dark eyes glinted strangely in the firelight.
Immediately the assembled crowd broke into angry shouts and cries. Gabrielle's gasp was lost in the general outcry at his comments. The woman Flavius had addressed as Antonina spoke up now, shouting to be heard. "We may be parasites," she spat at Caesar, "but you're the man who singlehandedly destroyed our city!"
"I singlehandedly destroyed Rome?" Caesar demanded. His face was tight with anger. He turned, reeling slightly in the firelight, looking at those around him. Even now, Gabrielle found herself grudgingly admiring his composure; though his hands were bound behind him and he was in the midst of a throng that meant him no good, his cold disdain did not falter. "Pompey was the one who joined forces with Xena and sent his army to burn Rome to the ground, not me." He turned to look at Flavius, regarding him as if the centurion were of no more importance than some strange species of insect. "You were there; you said it yourself," he said. "I fought Xena for Rome's sake. If you want to blame anyone, blame Pompey; it's his fault, not mine."
Flavius visibly bristled at Caesar's hauteur. "Oh, we do," the centurion replied angrily. "Rest assured, we blame him; we blame you all, all three of you, Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, all alike. There's plenty of blame to go around. But the lion's share of it belongs at your door, Caesar."
One dark brow went up. "And why, exactly, is that?"
"Because you had a chance to save Rome and you turned it down!" The woman who spoke now had been among their captors; she had long, twisted hair, and was glaring furiously at the former emperor. "We all heard about it. The whole city knew! We heard of Xena's offer to you—sacrifice yourself, and the city would be spared. You had a chance to save us. You had a chance to avert this destruction. And you didn't take it!"
"Enough, Drusilla!" Flavius commanded.
"Why should I have taken it?" Caesar's voice rang in the enclosed space, above the low muttering of the watching crowd. He turned and looked directly at Drusilla now, matching her stare for stare. "How does turning down Xena's offer make me more responsible for Rome's destruction than the man who actually burned the city?"
He paused, looking over the watchers again, waiting for one of them to respond. Several of them shifted, and murmured to one another, but no one answered. He has a good point, Gabrielle had to admit. Caesar continued, speaking as if he were handing down the will of the gods from Mount Olympus. "I never raised a hand against Rome. I never took up the sword against its citizens. I never conspired with those who meant to bring it down. I never—"
"You're responsible because you were the emperor!"
It was Licinus who spoke now, and at his anguished cry, all the talk in the cavern cut off. Gabrielle was struck by the depth of his pain; his face was flushed, his features twisted with emotion, his eyes bright with unshed tears. Licinus advanced, glaring at Caesar, shouting, "I lost five sisters when Xena burned the city, because of you! You were our leader! You were supposed to protect us! You were supposed to take care of us! How could you let this happen!"
Caesar went still. His expression did not change but his dark eyes widened slightly, fixed on the tortured countenance of the young man. His haughty superiority faltered in the face of such violence; Gabrielle saw that he actually backed up a step, though it might have been an accident. Shouts of approval and agreement came from the watching crowd. "That's right!" "Tell him, Licinus!"
Caesar started to reply, and Gabrielle was shocked to see him actually stammering before the unexpected assault. "I—I—" he began, then strengthened. "You don't know what you're talking about. It's not—Do you think I wanted to see Rome burned? You don't understand—"
"I don't understand!" Licinus cried. He was shaking. "I understand that you were the emperor and you failed us! YOU FAILED! We believed in you! I believed in you! How could you do that?"
He was trembling with emotion. Caesar was clearly at a loss for answer—a sight Gabrielle would have loved to see another time—and he took another step back, groping for words. His inability to speak clearly infuriated the young man; Licinus shaking, suddenly moved forward and struck Caesar in the gut. He collapsed to the ground with a groan. Licinus grabbed him by the front of the tunic, pulling him up partway, and shook him, shouting, "How could you let this happen? How COULD you?"
"Leave him alone!" Gabrielle cried. Two men on either side of her grabbed her arms and held her fast. No one else in the cavern made a move to help Caesar. Licinus stopped, panting and out of breath, his gaze locked on his captive; there was no anger in the young man's face, no hatred, just agonizing pain. He was waiting for an answer. The air in the cavern seemed to vibrate with tension; the onlooking crowd had gone silent. All attention was trained on Caesar.
Licinus spoke again. "How could you?" he asked in a bereft whisper.
There was a long silence. From Gabrielle's point of view the two of them were shadows against the bright background of the bonfire. Caesar's dark eyes seemed even darker in the firelight; he looked somehow defenseless, vulnerable. Blood trickled from a cut on his lip. Gabrielle realized she was holding her breath, waiting to hear what he would have to say. He started to speak once or twice, but stopped each time. Licinus waited, looking down on him. When he finally did answer, his voice was so low Gabrielle had difficulty hearing him.
"I don't know."
Licinus let him fall to the ground like a sack of grain, turned, and walked away, his shoulders tight with disgust. Gabrielle managed to yank free of the men holding her and hurried to Caesar's side, touching him gently, whispering, "Are you all right? Are you hurt? Where—" He shrugged away from her, turning his face to the ground. Conversation was going on around them; she could hear murmurings and responses, but she paid it no heed. "Here," she whispered, taking his arm. "Get up. Lean on me."
Just then, hands closed around her arms, and she was yanked to her feet; another soldier came and grabbed Caesar, hauling him up also. She found herself turned to face Flavius.
"Take them away," the centurion ordered, "and Drusilla, take a few men and start cutting down trees. We'll crucify them both at dawn."
"What!" Gabrielle cried, her concern for Caesar having gone right out of her head. "Me! But I didn't do anything!"
Flavius turned a cold stare on her. "You're a friend of Caesar. And a friend of Caesar is no friend of ours. Take them away."
The soldiers dragged the two of them off, toward the crack in the back of the cavern.
The two of them had been thrown into a cell, deep at the back of the cavern; iron bars ran from the stone ceiling to the floor. They were set deep into the rock; Gabrielle had pulled at each and every one of them to see if one was loose, but none of them gave. The only light came from a single torch by the entrance, and it did not cast its shadows deep enough into the cell to illuminate the back wall. She paced back and forth by the bars, tugging at each one of them again and again in turn, hoping that maybe, this time, one of them would loosen a little. She couldn't even see the entrance from their cell; she had no idea what was going on in the canyon outside, couldn't hear the sounds of the camp…the preparations for what would happen the next morning. Crucified! kept running through her head. I'm going to be crucified! At dawn! Oh, by the gods, this cannot be happening….This can't happen to me. There has to be some way out of here. There has to be some way out of here. There has to be—
Startled out of her panic, Gabrielle whirled to look at Caesar. He had appropriated a stone shelf against the right wall of the cavern, and lay there, with his head sunk on his chest; he hadn't said a word since they had been pushed inside and the doors slammed behind them. Now he turned his head to look at her.
"They're wrong. Xena wouldn't have spared Rome if I had surrendered."
"Is that all you can think about right now?" Gabrielle demanded.
"Why not?" He shrugged. "There's no way out of here. Those bars are set in stone. We die at dawn tomorrow." He spoke with a cool unconcern, as if he were commenting on the fate of a stranger. "Anyway, they're wrong. Xena would never have spared my city. She only made the offer to turn the people against me." He gave a mirthless laugh. "It looks like it worked."
With a sigh of defeat, Gabrielle slid down to a sitting position, with her back against the bars. She hugged herself against the cold fear in her gut. "And of course," she said with heavy sarcasm, "you would have surrendered yourself at once if Xena had been for real."
He gave her a disgusted look, and turned away.
"You know, this is all your fault?" she accused him. "If you hadn't started the argument with Flavius back on the path, we wouldn't be here in the first place. Why didn't you keep your mouth shut, for the gods' sake?"
"I could say the same thing about you right now." He glared at her briefly, shifting position on the stone ledge.
"And you didn't exactly help things with what you were saying in front of the bonfire either." She ran her hands through her hair. "Calling them parasites…..What's wrong with you, anyway?" No response. She cried to him, "Well, won't you at least try to help me think of a way out of here?"
"No point," he said, shrugging again. "Unless you think you're strong enough to bend those bars, and stealthy enough to make it past the entire encampment outside." His tone made it clear how unlikely he found that possibility.
"You don't even care, do you?" she demanded, rising to her feet. "You—" A thought struck her; as it did, she suddenly realized it was right. "You want to get killed," she said in a low voice, stepping closer to him. "That's it, isn't it? You want to die."
"Leave me alone." He heaved himself onto his side, facing the wall. She saw his shoulders work as he tugged at the ropes binding his wrists; she had tried to untie them shortly after they had been left alone, but had been unable to get the knot.
"Fine. So you're just going to give up and not even try to get out of here. I hope you rot, Caesar!" she threw at him, and turned back to the bars. She was in the middle of examining them again when she heard a laugh.
She whirled angrily on her companion. "Don't laugh at me!" she cried.
He raised himself and looked over his shoulder at her, blankly. "I didn't."
"I clearly heard you—"
"I don't know what you thought you heard, little girl, but it wasn't me."
She stared at him. He didn't look like he was lying. Actually, she couldn't imagine him lying over something as petty as this. He had lied once, but it was for direct and immediate gain; it wasn't like him at all to lie to spare her feelings.
"Well, if you didn't laugh….then who did?" she asked in confusion.
"Don't ask me," he said with another shrug, and laid back down. Gabrielle turned and peered out the barred entrance to the cell in confusion, when words came to her ears.
"Over here. At the back of the cell."
With a gasp, she turned toward the lightless, shadowed place at the rear of the cell. I just assumed we were alone together, she realized in startlement. I never thought to investigate back there…. "Is someone—"
"Back here." She heard a clinking and rattling come from that direction. She glanced at her companion briefly for support, but found no help there. Looks like it's up to me. Carefully, she approached the back of the cell, straining her eyes to see through the darkness and drawing no nearer than she had to. As her eyes adjusted, straining through the murk, she could begin to see outlines, shapes; it wasn't as dark as she had first thought. Then, she received two further shocks. The first shock was that there was, indeed, a man back there. His hands were in manacles, chained to the wall. The second shock was that it was someone she knew.
Joxer? The word almost burst out of her mouth as she remembered the friendly tavernkeeper she had met a couple of weeks ago; it was him, it had to be, for he had the same squarish, plain sort of face, the same untidy brown hair and gentle demeanor. But a moment later, she realized it couldn't be Joxer. She had left Joxer back at that roadside tavern, and she seriously doubted he could have gotten ahead of her. Furthermore, the more she looked, the more she realized the man chained to the back wall didn't feel like Joxer; he carried about him, even in chains, an air of watchfulness, of coiled tension, that she had never sensed about the mild, inoffensive tavernkeeper she had met. This man could be dangerous, she realized, and on the heels of that, recalled what Joxer had said about his two brothers. Jace wasn't cut out for the family business either…Last I heard, he was a nightclub singer. So probably not Jace then. My brother Jett….
Gabrielle realized she had retreated a step without even knowing it. A chill ran down her spine; the bardic tales about Jett, the King of Assassins, were some of the darkest and coldest in her repertoire. Swallowing hard, she said, "You're….Jett."
The man frowned. "Have we met?"
"N—no," she faltered, trying to gain control over herself; it wasn't every day that you met one of the deadliest people living. "I—I met your brother, Joxer—"
Jett's head came up sharply and his eyes focused intently on her. "You met Joxer. When? Is he still alive?"
"Yes—" Gabrielle managed. Jett closed his eyes and sighed in profound relief.
"Thank the gods. I was afraid he'd died with Mom and Dad when Callisto attacked our stronghold. He was never any good as a warrior, and Callisto would've torn him apart in two seconds flat. I'm glad he had the sense to stay away from her."
"No, he survived—I met him a couple weeks ago; he runs a tavern to the north of here. He told me about you. Of course, I already knew about you—I heard the stories, I'm a bard—and there probably aren't that many who don't know the name of Jett—"
"—King of Assassins," Jett finished at the same time as she did. Out of the corner of her eye, Gabrielle saw that Caesar had raised himself on the stone ledge and was watching them both. Jett shook his head ruefully. "I actually prefer not to go by that name anymore," he said, sighing. "Course, you know how it is; once the bards give you a name, you're kind of stuck with it….No, if you're going to call me anything, call me what I prefer to be called now: Najara's Blade."
Najara's….Gabrielle took another step back in shock. "You're with the Crusader," she breathed.
"I am now." He looked over at her companion. "So you're actually Caesar," he addressed him. "I thought it was you when they brought you in; course I'd only ever seen you from a distance before, so I couldn't be sure. And you've changed a lot," he added; Caesar's eyes narrowed at Jett's words. "You know, I think you actually hired me once," the assassin continued. "Can't be sure; I only ever spoke with your agents, and they wouldn't give me any names, but I was pretty sure it was you."
Caesar frowned. "To do what?"
"It was a contract on Crassus. One of the few times I failed to complete a job; I was this close to doing it, but Najara got to him before I did, and executed him for what he did to the village of Gardenias. It was too bad; that was one of the last contracts I accepted, and one of the ones I wouldn't have minded doing for free."
Gabrielle's companion shook his head. "That wasn't me. Crassus was an irritant, nothing more—I was glad to see him go, but it wasn't worth my while to have him killed. It was probably Pompey," he said, and slowly worked his way to a sitting position. "Pompey was never very good at threat assessment."
"Evidently not." Jett turned his attention toward her. "What's your name?"
"Gabrielle." Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that Caesar looked like he was trying to remember something, and she wondered at it briefly. "I'm a bard….I was at the Athenian Academy for Performing Bards before Xena burned it…We're on our way to Potedaia—"
"I see," Jett nodded. "Can you come here a minute, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle took another step back nervously. "Why?" she asked.
Jett smiled now, a surprisingly charming grin. Not an expression she had thought to see on the face of a man whom all the stories said was a cold-blooded killer with a heart of stone.
"I've got a key to these chains," he told her. "Up my sleeve. Can't get it out, or use it. But you could."
The manacles dangled, empty, at the back of the wall, while Jett bent over the lock on the cell door, working away with a sliver of metal he had produced from an inner pocket. "Lousy thing's rusty and needs to be oiled something fierce. It's a cheap piece of junk, too," Jett murmured. "This would probably be hard to open even with a key—" He muttered a curse as Gabrielle heard the audible snap of something breaking. "Broke off in the lock. Here, can you hand me the other one? The long one with the tiny hook at the end?"
"Here," Gabrielle said, and handed it over.
"Thanks." Jett took it and began to apply it industriously.
"How much longer is this going to take?" Caesar demanded from the stone shelf, where he sat watching them with his arms folded. As soon as Jett had been out of the chains, he had produced a tiny dagger apparently out of thin air and had used it to cut Caesar free. Gabrielle, watching, had been very impressed.
"How did you do that?" she had asked. "They took my belt knife away from me—"
"Part of being an assassin is weapons concealment," Jett had told her with a smile. "I can show you how to hide your knife better when you get it back, if you want." Gabrielle had agreed enthusiastically.
Now Jett looked over at Caesar. "Patience is a virtue. It'll take as long as it takes." Caesar grunted and subsided into silence, watching the two of them.
"Where did you learn how to pick locks like that?" Gabrielle asked, watching Jett work. "I can do it a little—" she had managed to unlock Caesar during their escape from Callisto's camp "—but not like you're doing."
"Partnered up with Autolycus a few years back, when he was still doing small-time stuff-you ever heard of him? I picked up a few tricks there."
"The King of Thieves," Gabrielle murmured. "Is he really as cruel as they say?"
Jett frowned down at his work. "Not cruel, exactly….it's more like, there's a cashbox where his heart should be. He'd sell his own mother into slavery for a big enough profit, and he wouldn't lift a finger to save a child from drowning, unless there was something in it for him. I heard tell that he wasn't always like that, but that he tangled with Xena several years ago and something about what happened there turned him bad. But he never mentioned anything about it to me, if it's even true, and I never heard any of the details." He looked over his shoulder at Caesar. "I don't suppose you know?"
Caesar raised an eyebrow. "If I did, why would I tell you?"
"Forget I said anything." Jett shrugged, and looked back down at the lock. "Anyway, hanging out with a thief, you pick up a few tricks. Just the way it goes."
There was silence for a while in the cell, as Gabrielle watched Jett work; all the assassin's attention was focused on the lock, which he was working on as if he had shut out the rest of the world. Gabrielle glanced over at Caesar, but her companion appeared sunk in his own thoughts, by the expression on his face. She wondered if he were thinking of Licinus, and what he had said to him….It's your responsibility because you were the emperor! How could you let this happen? You were our emperor and you failed us! Remembering those words, the look on the young man's face, Gabrielle shuddered; she felt an unexpected wave of sympathy for her companion. She realized she was staring at him at about the same time he glanced up; their gazes met briefly. Caesar's eyes narrowed and he looked away. Somewhat embarrassed, Gabrielle turned her attention back to Jett's struggle with the lock.
"You mentioned you were with the Crusader," she said after a moment.
"Huh? Yeah….Been with her for a couple years now." Jett slipped the hooked pick up his sleeve. "Hand me the tweezers—I've almost got that piece of probe out of there."
She sorted through the instruments she was holding till she found the tweezers—a pair of long, delicate pincers that didn't look sturdy enough to hold anything heavier than a flyspeck—and handed them to him. Jett took them with a grunt of thanks, not looking up from his work. Gabrielle watched him hesitantly.
"How did that happen?" she asked shyly, after a moment.
"How did you get to be with the Crusader?"
Jett glanced up at her with one eye, then brushed some strands of lank brown hair out of his face. "It's a long story," he said with a sigh. "Long and complicated."
"What's she like?" Gabrielle dared to ask. At Jett's sudden look, she clarified, "I've met both Xena and Callisto, briefly, but I never met Najara, so I was just wondering—"
Jett straightened up so fast that Gabrielle involuntarily took a step back in surprise. "Let me tell you something right now. Najara is not like either Xena or Callisto. I've never met anyone like Najara. Never." He held her eyes with an unflinching gaze.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle found herself apologizing, "I didn't mean to offend you, but it's just—I was just wondering…."
"No, it's all right. It's just that—" Jett dropped his eyes; Gabrielle thought she saw a slight flush in his face. "Najara...She's no joking matter to me, not something to be taken lightly. She and her djinn saved my life—my soul. I owe her more than I'll ever be able to repay."
"It sounds like she means a lot to you," Gabrielle murmured, fascinated.
"She means more to me than anything in the world. I'd gladly die for her." Jett was bent over the lock, so she couldn't see his face, but his tone was deadly earnest.
Gabrielle chewed on that for a moment. She glanced over her shoulder at Caesar, but he was still brooding; he didn't appear to be paying attention to the conversation. After a moment, she turned her attention back to Jett.
"What did she do? Why is she so important to you?"
At first she thought he wouldn't answer, maybe that he hadn't even heard her; then he sighed. "You know Callisto destroyed my family's stronghold, right?"
"Joxer told me."
"Yeah. Well….after that, I, uh, went a little crazy." He gave a short laugh and brushed his hair out of his eyes again. "I'd been an assassin for quite a while at that point—I was already known as King of Assassins by then—and I swore that I would track down and assassinate Callisto, no matter what I did, or how long it took. Because of what she had done to my family. You know," he said, looking up at her and frowning, "oddly enough it was Joxer who was the one that wouldn't leave me. Mom and Dad, you know, they were warleaders, warriors. It was all in a days' work for them, and you know, at least they had a fighting chance. But Joxer—my little baby brother—the idea of him taking on Callisto….I had nightmares about it. Me, the King of Assassins," he said, and laughed shortly. "I had thought that I was beyond nightmares by that time, but I guess I was wrong. It was a real relief to me to hear you say he was still alive," Jett added, looking over at her awkwardly.
"Anyway, I swore I would track down Callisto, and I meant to do it, but..." He trailed off.
"But?" Gabrielle prompted.
"But it's a lot easier to say you'll track someone down and kill her than it is to actually do it….especially when that someone is one of the three greatest warlords in existence, and is always on the move with her horde. I couldn't keep up with her—gods, I couldn't even find her," he said with a grimace. "I'd hear that she and Xena were somewhere fighting, but by the time I got there, it'd be weeks later and she'd have moved in the meantime."
Jett paused. His face was pale and strained, his expression oddly hollow as he recalled the memory. "Trying to keep up with Callisto was killing me. I was falling apart. I was lost, I was crazy…couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, every time I closed my eyes I kept seeing Joxer dying. It was always Joxer. I couldn't get it out of my head. Somehow the not knowing was worse than if I'd known for sure. I started taking jobs, just anything, even the kinds of jobs I used to swear I'd never take….especially the kinds of jobs I once swore I'd never take." His face hardened. "Kids, old men and women, helpless people—I'll let you in on a secret about assassination," he said, looking at Gabrielle. "A lot of the time, in order to get someone so pissed off at you that they want to assassinate you, you have to be a bit of a bastard yourself. Your friend's friend Crassus there—case in point," he said, indicating Caesar with a jerk of the shoulder. "So really, most of the time an assassin's target is someone who deserved to die anyway." Jett paused and gave a sharp smile. "At least," he added lamely, "that's what I used to tell myself. It was probably even true, to one extent or another. But after Callisto destroyed my family's stronghold, I started taking the kinds of jobs where I couldn't even pretend that was the case anymore."
"Like what?" Gabrielle ventured as he trailed off, not sure she really wanted to hear, but having to know.
Jett's mouth twisted, and he gave a rough laugh. "Jobs like, assassinating a fourteen-year-old bride one month after the wedding so her forty-year-old husband could keep the dowry and marry his mistress. Like, murdering an eight-year-old boy as he slept, and then killing his father down the hall so that the uncle could go on and claim the throne without interference. Real fun stuff like that." He glanced over at her as if to check her reaction.
Gabrielle didn't know what expression was on her face, but her blood seemed to have turned to icewater in her veins. "I'd heard the stories," she managed, but it was through numb lips. It was one thing to have heard and recited the bardic tales, and entirely another to have the man himself standing beside her, telling her in a calm voice what he had done. She suppressed the urge to back away.
Jett studied her face closely. "I've scared you a little, haven't I?" he said in resignation. "That's all right. I scare myself sometimes, when I think about the kinds of stuff I used to do. I think if you weren't scared, or at least disturbed, you'd be the kind of person who scares me. And the thing was, though, at the time, I felt almost as if they did deserve it. They deserved it for being so…so innocent, so, I guess, unaware of the danger." He shrugged. "It's like, this is what being innocent gets you. It turns you into a victim. And it did," he added with a twisted smile. "It did for Joxer, or so I thought at the time, and it did for them too."
"That's a very harsh attitude to take," Gabrielle murmured.
"It's a true one." The words could have sounded angry, but they were not; if anything, Jett looked pensive. He had turned his attention back to the lock; his head was bent and his hair hung in his face again. "Understand that I am not at all saying that they deserved to die because they were innocents; I'm not saying that by any means. What I am saying," he continued, "is that in this world, with things the way they are, innocence is a liability. It makes you vulnerable. It makes you bait for predators. I know. I used to be one. Still am, after a fashion….In this world, Gabrielle," he said, looking over at her seriously, "there are a lot of predators, and not that many people around who can or will defend the vulnerable innocents."
"So how does Najara come in?" Gabrielle asked. She wasn't sure she agreed with what Jett was saying, but decided to drop it for the time being.
"Najara." Jett held one of his picks up to the light, examining it. "She caught me along the Egyptian border; I'd just taken a contract from Ptolemy on his sister Queen Cleopatra—she's the ruler of Egypt, or was; I think Xena came through there a year or so ago and made short work of her-"
"I heard she escaped, but I could be wrong," Gabrielle murmured.
"Anyway I was trying to get up the Nile when Najara's men found me. It was during a raid they were carrying out on a slaving village. Well, they recognized me right away from my bounty posters and brought me to her. I expected her to kill me right away—that's what I would have done in her place; I was just too dangerous to be let running around. Actually, by that point, I think I even would have welcomed death, on some level; I'd lost my family, my home, and there's just so much death and destruction a person can see before they just get sick of it. But she didn't. She…."
Jett paused, staring at the far wall, lost in the memory.
"She what?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
He turned and looked at her. There was a strange look on his face, almost as if he were experiencing the emotions of that long-ago event for the first time. It's almost surprise, Gabrielle thought as she watched him. "She offered me a choice. She offered all of us a choice."
"What do you mean?"
"Her men threw me in with the rest of the slavers….why not, I deserved to be there, I'd done things as bad as they had. I had it coming and I knew it. They marched us back to her camp. And once we were there….
"She had the whole group of us drawn up in a line in front of the camp, while her soldiers stood guard over us, to see that none escaped. That was a crowd….there were some real wastes of air in that group, let me tell you," he said, looking at her. "Some people I'd actually done work for in the past, believe it or not. Anyway, once we were all drawn up, she came, and she began to speak. She told us about the power she follows, the Light; she explained that it was the way of good and truth…of love, for all one's fellow men and women. Najara laid it out, very clearly; she told us all that she could kill us on the spot, as we stood, but she would prefer that we reformed and came to the Light. She would give us three days to do so, and at the end of that time, if we still refused to forswear our evil ways and accept the Light, she would have us executed."
"She'd kill you?"
"She gave us a chance," Jett said emphatically. "Don't you understand, Gabrielle?" He turned to her, eyes shining at the memory. "She was giving us a chance to reform! She didn't have to do that. I wouldn't have done it, not to me as I was then; I would have killed me right out of hand. I deserved it for what I had done, and I knew I did. Everyone in that line knew they did," he said, looking at her. "Anyone else would have killed us. But even after all we had done—after all I had done—she still gave us a chance." He paused, lost in the moment, almost glowing at the memory.
"So I assume you accepted," Gabrielle murmured, looking at him.
He gave a wry grin. "I almost didn't," he confessed, darting a look at her. "Being imprisoned in Najara's camp like that...after the first day, suddenly the walls came down, and everything just came crashing down on me. The deaths of my mom and dad, not knowing about Joxer, thinking about some of the jobs I had taken….it was like, all my defenses were gone. I wanted to die. I wanted to. Najara's Light didn't even seem to make any sense to me at that point. She talked about the Light like it was love and peace. How could her Light love me? How could her Light forgive me, when I couldn't even forgive myself for letting Dad and Mom and Joxer die?" She could hear the shadow of old pain in his voice. "No, I deserved to die, and I knew it."
"What happened?" she asked, awed by the depth of emotion she sensed in Jett.
"Well finally, by the evening of the second day, I couldn't stand it anymore," he continued, taking up the tale. "When one of her men came by on the evening rounds, I stopped him and asked him to take me to Najara. Actually it was more like begging, if I remember right," he said, shaking his head. "I don't think I was that coherent by then…I spilled out a lot of stuff about how I couldn't believe her Light, it didn't make any sense to me, but I had to understand it, I had to…the poor guy probably thought I was nuts. I could also see that he was very unsure about letting the King of Assassins out of his chains to spend some alone-time with the Crusader," he said with a laugh. "But just then Najara herself came by—she came by at least three times a day, more when she could manage it, to answer questions and to see to the welfare of the prisoners herself—and she touched the guard on the shoulder, and she said, 'Let him free. The djinn say it's all right.'"
"What are the djinn?" Gabrielle asked. "I'd heard of them before—the bards call Najara Chosen of the Djinn—but I never knew what they were."
Jett frowned. "You know, I'm not really sure either. According to Najara, they tell her what to do and give her guidance. Sometimes they're there, sometimes they're not; she can't summon them, or ask them things, but it's more like they come whenever they feel like. She says she thinks they tell her things that she absolutely needs to know." He shook his head. "Whatever they are, I'm glad they were there that day. The guard unlocked me from my chains, and I followed Najara back to her tent just as tame as a little puppy. I got inside, and she sat me down on her floor and asked in the kindest voice imaginable what was troubling me. It was like someone had turned on a faucet; everything just came spilling out, about Joxer, about Mom and Dad, and Callisto, and the jobs I'd been taking, and how lost I felt and how alone…."
Jett's hands stilled on the lock. "I told her I wanted to believe in the Light, but even if her Light was true, it would be better for everyone if I died. I told her I was tired of living and wanted to die. I said that I couldn't think that there would be anything good in life for me anymore."
"What did she say?" Gabrielle asked.
He didn't seem to hear her. Instead he went on, oblivious, "She took my hands in hers and drew me close….I was on the floor, and she was seated on the edge of her cot. She took my hands in hers and drew me close, so close that she was looking right down into my face, and she told me—I remember her exact words to this day-'No one may walk so long in darkness that they cannot come again to the Light.'"
Jett stopped, overcome by emotion as he remembered.
"Wow." Gabrielle paused, thinking through the implications of Jett's statement, and what it might have meant to someone as lost as he had described himself.
"Yeah. Wow." Jett gave a rueful grin, and brushed his hair out of his face. "You can say that again," he said, and said it again. "Wow. Well, that did it," he said with a shrug. "That was all it took. From that moment on, I swore I would follow Najara to the ends of the earth—stand by her side, fight her battles, serve and protect her in any way I knew how….We live in a very dark time, Gabrielle," he said, looking over at her soberly. "We live in a time in which hate runs rampant, cruelty is the order of the day, in which destruction reigns over creation. It's almost as if the gods are out of alignment, somehow; do you ever get that sense, sometimes? That something's wrong with the universe? There are no heroes anymore; Najara would be the first to tell you that, and that she herself is nothing more than a flawed, imperfect mortal woman. But as she can, Najara is doing her best to push back that darkness. She's the only one."
Gabrielle was dubiously silent, but nodded to herself after a moment, thinking of Perdicus and Callisto…and Rome and Xena. Thinking of the hunted air of desperation that had hung over the men and women who had taken them prisoner; of the anger and bitterness she had seen in the faces gathered around the fire, of the weary defeat that had hung over the men and women at the forge where she had had Argo's shoe seen to a week or so ago. She thought of the ashes of Athens, and the ruins of the Athenian Academy of Performing Bards after Xena had gotten through with them, and what Joxer had told her about Callisto's attack on his family's stronghold. Jett's right about one thing at least: this is a very dark time. About that he's right. And for the first time, she felt a tremor of fear about what she might find when she reached Potedaia.
"That was what I was doing when I got caught by these people, actually." Jett's words brought her back to the present.
"What?" she asked.
"Working for Najara. I was scouting the way ahead for her army, looking for potential obstacles. She's a few days down the road from here, and she was looking to see if this way was a good one to go. Now that I've been released, I'll tell her about this settlement, and she'll find another way."
Gabrielle frowned. "She will?" Out of the warlords she'd known, that didn't seem very likely.
"Oh, she will," Jett said calmly. "I've done similar things for her many times before." He tore at the lock. Suddenly, there was a click. Behind them, Caesar straightened from his reverie at the sound. Jett gave a push, and the lock sprang free.
"There we go," the assassin said with satisfaction. "Isn't that easy?"
Jett left the cell first, checking either side to make sure the coast was clear; then Gabrielle followed, supporting Caesar on his twisted lower legs. "Go down the passageway, then take the sharp bend to the right," Jett informed them. "It's hard to see from the other side, but there's a crack in the wall wide enough to permit two or three to pass; it goes into the hillside and comes out some distance outside the settlement. It's how I got in in the first place. I'll go ahead and get the horses—what's your horse called again?" he asked Gabrielle.
"Argo. She's gold, with a white mane and tail. Um…this may sound weird, but…" Gabrielle hesitated. "You should probably tell her you're getting her for us. Otherwise she might think you're trying to steal her."
"She's smart, hey?" asked Jett with a grin. "Najara's horse Bonacar is like that. Actually," he said, frowning, "your description of her sounds a lot like Xena's horse—wasn't she also named Argo?"
"Yeah. It's a long story."
"Another time maybe. I'll get the horses and supplies and leave them at the mouth of the cavern. If I think it's safe, I'll see if I can come back and help you…." He looked at Caesar, who glared back at him. "You look like you'll need all the help you can get," he said to Gabrielle.
"Thanks. We'll be looking for you." She turned to her companion, shoving him in an attempt to shift his weight into a better position. After some juggling and rebalancing, they managed it; but by the time they had gotten everything sorted out, when Gabrielle looked back for Jett, he was gone.
"Come on," she said to Caesar. "It shouldn't be that far ahead." Bracing herself, she started down the corridor.
They made it halfway to the bend at the end of the stone passage, and then stopped so that Caesar could rest; he didn't request it, but he didn't have to. Gabrielle could almost feel the pain in his lower legs for herself, like red-hot knives. He gave no outward sign of it except for a slight furrowing of his brow, a tightness to his jawline, but she could sense it in him just the same: in the way he leaned heavily on her, the way his muscles would tense at irregular intervals, throwing him—and by extension her—off balance, the slight hissing through his teeth whenever one of them put a foot ever so slightly wrong, in the unnatural rigidity to all his movements. Of course his legs hurt, Gabrielle thought, after the long cross-country hike on which Flavius's men had led them; she was sore herself, from tripping over roots, stumbling into holes, banging up against trees, and trying to stretch her legs to keep up with the pace Flavius had set. If she was feeling sore, she could only imagine how much worse it must be for him.
As they reached the midpoint, in their slow, limping progress down the tunnel, she suggested diplomatically, "Why don't we stop here, and catch our breath?"
"All right," was all he said. Gabrielle helped him over to the nearest wall; he leaned back against it and slid down to a sitting position, closing his eyes. She noticed he was rubbing his legs, something he usually did not do unless they were particularly bad. Gabrielle bit her lip and looked away. The spectre of crucifixion rose in her mind, chilling her guts and making her own limbs go weak. They said at dawn… She tried very hard to suppress the thought that on her own she could surely have followed Jett's directions and made it to safety by now, as well as the thought that a guard could come wandering by at any moment and they would be in real trouble. He needs your help, she told herself firmly. If we get in trouble… She squashed that thought, hard.
Evidently, however, she wasn't the only one thinking it. Caesar broke the silence, saying, "That prybar over there. Get it."
"What?" She looked over at him, startled. He turned his head in her direction.
"In among those boxes. Do you see?"
Gabrielle followed his gesture. They were sitting across from a stack of packing crates piled one on top of another, and as she looked, Gabrielle saw the thin, dark line of a crowbar, about as long as her forearm, leaning up against the side of one of them.
"Oh. Okay." She got to her feet and went to retrieve it. "Why?" she asked, returning to her companion's side. She estimated its length against her companion's height; it looked far too short for him to use as a staff, which had been her first thought.
"For a weapon."
"A—a weapon?" she faltered.
"Yes." He looked at her in irritation. "There could be soldiers in these corridors. I doubt they would take kindly to our escape attempt, and you don't even have that pitiful little belt knife. A prybar isn't a sword, but it's a lot better than nothing." His tone clearly said that he should not have had to explain that much; Gabrielle flushed, feeling stupid.
He straightened himself against the wall slowly, leaning back against it for support. "Give it to me," he commanded, once he was on his feet. Gabrielle handed it over without a qualm. He took it, lifted it, feeling its weight, and then stepped away from the wall. "Stand further back." She stepped back, out of range. Caesar tried an experimental swing with the new weapon; she could see that he was unsteady on his feet, and he reached back for the wall to brace himself with. Gabrielle watched, uncertain as to whether to say anything or offer her assistance.
He tried another light swing, reeling again, then one with real force behind it; at that one, she heard him hiss in pain. He overbalanced and almost fell, throwing himself backward against the wall at the last minute; braced against it, he slid back down to a sitting position. He stayed there for a long moment, his head down, muttering curses through his teeth.
"Are—are you all right?" she ventured, moving closer hesitantly.
He cursed again, and once more. "Here," he said with a grimace, and held the bar out to her. "You'd better carry this for now."
"Me?" She swallowed nervously, looking at the line of iron, dull and nonreflective in the light from the distant torch. Her heart sank within her. "I—no. I can't—If someone comes—"
"Shut up and do as I tell you." She could hear the echo of bitterness behind the words. "I'll—" His mouth twisted. "I'll take it again in a while. Just—for now."
"No." Gabrielle backed away from the bar as if it were a poisonous snake. She was scarcely aware of what she was doing. "I can't….I cannot use that to hurt someone with," she said, hearing her voice quiver.
"Not even if the alternative were crucifixion?"
"I…." Gabrielle stared at the bar, and thought of the cross, imagining the feel of nails going into her hands and feet. She realized she was shaking. "What if I miss? What if I drop it, or…?"
"If a soldier comes, swing hard and swing fast. Aim for the head. You'll have to put him down before he calls for help. If you miss, or drop it," he said coldly, "we both die."
"I can't do it."
"You have to." He closed his eyes and cursed through his teeth again. "Just for now," he repeated. "I'll take it again in a bit."
She searched his face desperately, hoping for reassurance. "You promise?"
Caesar's mouth tightened. "I promise." Gabrielle couldn't figure out what that expression meant. Probably nothing good. Slowly she reached out her hand, and took the bar. It felt heavy in her hand, somehow almost deadly; just holding it made her uneasy. She swallowed, closing her fingers around it.
"Come on," Caesar said, trying to straighten. "We have to keep moving. Help me."
Gabrielle and Caesar continued to make their way down the stone passageway; they were drawing nearer to the bend that Jett had pointed out. Gabrielle was listening with every step for an approaching guard; all her senses were keening, she was so nervous. Her companion didn't seem to be feeling it.
"So that's what Najara's men are like," Gabrielle heard Caesar say after a moment, as they made their way down the uneven stone floor of the passage.
He looked over at her. Gabrielle was using the prybar to help balance herself; his move almost threw her off, and she caught herself on the bar. You'd think we'd have figured out better how to do this by now, she thought to herself, and wondered if the staff she had found for Caesar was still with the rest of Argo's gear. The torch burning by their cell was far behind them now; she could barely make her companion out in the darkness.
"That assassin. Jett. So that's why they follow her. They actually believe all her drivel about the Light." He was frowning. "I'll have to remember that one."
"Did you…." Gabrielle trailed off, uncertain whether she should ask what was on her mind.
"Did I what?"
"Did you ever meet Najara?"
He looked away. "No," he said curtly. "Not….No."
"I….thought she made treaty with Xena a few times and I wondered if you—" She saw his jawline tighten in the dim and fading light, and felt him tense against her where he leaned on her. "Never mind. Forget I asked anything."
He was silent as they slowly moved down the passage toward the bend up ahead; after a moment, however, he surprised her by replying stiffly, "I wasn't there."
"Okay." She didn't take it any further; she could still feel the tension in him. No sense picking at what seems to be a sore place.
The bend up ahead was visible by light shining around the corner; it was the flickering yellow of torchlight, for they were deep under the hillside. The entrance was some way away, if Gabrielle remembered correctly. She was trying to listen, to see if she could hear soldiers up ahead, when Caesar spoke again.
"I never met Najara. I barely met Callisto. Pompey was the one who joined forces with Xena, not me. I fought to protect Rome. I could never betray my city. I would never do anything to hurt her-"
"Except that you did," Gabrielle sighed.
He looked down at her sharply, stung. "If you think that, then you don't understand Xena at all. Xena would never have spared Rome. Not even if I had given myself up to her. She still would have destroyed it—she would have gone even further if possible, just so she could have had the pleasure of crushing my hopes."
"I'll just say that when I spoke with Brutus, that was not what he thought," Gabrielle replied.
"Brutus." Caesar made a sound of disgust. "What did Brutus know? He didn't know her. I knew her." He looked away, once more seeming to be seeing something other than the walls of the corridor. "I know her. Better than anyone." There was a peculiar, bitter pride in his voice.
Gabrielle looked over at him cautiously. His face was set in grim lines. She had to admit that in a strange way his statement made sense; at the very least, having spent the last five years as Xena's bed-slave, he would have seen sides of her that nobody else living had seen….not even herself. She had only known Xena five or six days, though even that brief period of acquaintance still burned in her mind. What he was saying about Xena—that she would have destroyed Rome if he surrendered to her—did make sense; Athens had surrendered to Xena, though it had been after a brief fight, and Gabrielle remembered all too well what Xena had done there.
"Come on," she said after a moment, trying to encourage him. "The bend in the passage is up ahead. Jett said that the crack in the passage to the outside is just around the bend. We're almost there."
He said nothing, but she felt him straighten a little, taking some of his weight off her. The prybar he had given her was slippery in her hands. Almost home-free, she thought to herself; once they got into the crevice, she was sure they would be okay. They were almost to the single torch, burning lonely at the bend in the passage; a couple more steps, Caesar leaning heavily on her, and they stepped around the bend—
—to come face-to-face with Licinus.
Licinus had gone still in shock, staring at them with wide eyes. In a distant world, Gabrielle felt Caesar dig his fingers into her shoulder, heard him hiss, "Now!" into her ear, but it seemed like something totally apart from her. She froze too, and so promptly lost the element of surprise.
"What are you doing out?" Licinus exclaimed.
Once he had spoken, it broke her trance; Gabrielle could move again. She had lost the one advantage she had over him and she was fully aware of it, but there was nothing she could do about it. Quickly, she pushed away from Caesar and stepped forward, the prybar dangling loose at her side.
"Didn't you hear?" she said quickly. "We've been released. Were you sent to help take us out of here?"
She hadn't really expected it to work, and it didn't. Licinus's wide-eyed stare was rapidly becoming a ferocious scowl. Completely ignoring her, he drew his sword with a rasp of metal on metal.
"Back to your cell." His voice was unsteady, and he spoke in a kind of rolling growl that came from the back of his throat. "Back, now."
"Aren't you listening to me—" she began. But after a brief flicker during which he noted and recorded her presence, Licinus's eyes had moved past her and fixated on Caesar.
Caesar threw her an absolutely disgusted look, then drew himself up as straight as he could. With all the hauteur that was his to command, as imperiously as if he were in armor and horsed, he ordered, "Put that sword down, soldier."
His personal magnetism was so strong that Gabrielle knew if he had been addressing her, she would have obeyed instantly. On Licinus, however, it didn't work; it only seemed to make him more angry. His young face twisted. He stepped forward. "The only reason I'm not going to kill you right now is because I want the pleasure of seeing you crucified tomorrow," he snarled. "Back to your cells before I decide to do it anyway." The torchlight gleamed off the edge of his blade. He advanced on the two of them, with his weapon raised threateningly. Caesar had backed up a step, then another; his hands opened, then closed at his sides as if he were feeling for a sword hilt, but they were empty.
Crucifixion. Gabrielle realized she was shaking. The iron bar felt heavy in her hand, cold and smooth and somehow dangerous. I can't use this to hurt someone… Caesar's voice came back to her. Swing fast and swing hard. Aim for the head. She thought of the pain of nails going into her hands and feet…. "I lost five sisters when Rome burned! How could you let that happen?" She saw the pain in Licinus's eyes—and the hatred that burned there like fire. Aim for the head. I can't do this! You have to. Her palms were sweating; she could feel the iron bar was slippery in her hand. Could feel the place in the center where they would drive the spikes to hold her to the cross. I can't use this to hurt someone with! I can't!
Not even if the alternative were crucifixion?
One shot. She would get one shot. She moved forward, placing herself squarely between Licinus and Caesar. Caesar showed no compunction about letting her take the danger spot. Licinus was forced to look at her. She tried not to think about how sharp his short sword looked. Only one chance. Make it count. Sell this. He has to believe it. She captured the young guard's eyes.
"Look," she began, "can't we talk—"
Gabrielle broke off midsentence. Her body went completely still, her eyes wide and horrified as they tracked past Licinus to a point behind him and to his left; her gaze fixed there, solid, as if she could not look away. She sucked in her breath in an audible gasp, taking a half-step backwards, and cried, terrified, "Jett!"
It might not have if Licinus hadn't been so young, so green himself, but it worked. Licinus startled at her cry, a reflexive physical motion; he half-pivoted to the left, his eyes instinctively going behind him to the spot on which her gaze was fixed. His sword arm swung to deal with the perceived threat. It wasn't much of a startle, but Gabrielle had been ready and it was enough; as he turned, she stepped forward, raised the bar with both hands, and swung it with a strength born of sheer panic. It caught the young guard just underneath his ear; there was an audible crack, and he dropped like a stone, blood oozing through his soft curls. His sword fell from his hand to the ground, ringing slightly as it hit the stone floor. The sound echoed in the sudden silence.
Caesar looked at her appraisingly. Something flickered behind his dark eyes. "Not bad," was his only comment.
Gabrielle backed away from the fallen Licinus, the bar dangling from limp fingers. She was shaking with fear and shock and disgust. Her guts were crawling, and sweat had broken out all over her body. "I think I'm going to be sick," she heard herself saying; for a moment the world seemed to gray out before her eyes.
"No, you're not." Caesar spoke with calm confidence. It actually made Gabrielle feel a little better, to hear the authority in his voice. He lurched forward a step, looking down at the fallen youth. "Get his gladius."
"His—his what?" she faltered.
"His sword. Get his sword." Her companion did not raise his voice or shout at her; he was speaking in the same cool, soothing tones one would use with a shying horse, though Gabriell didn't make the connection.
She looked at him blankly. Her eyes went to the sword, then back to him, looking for direction. He nodded. "Pick it up," he told her evenly.
"O—Okay," she stammered, still trembling from reaction. Her hands were wet with sweat and shaking; it took her a couple of tries to get it, and when she did, the prybar almost slipped out of her other hand. The end of it was bloody. Seeing it made Gabrielle want to throw up.
Caesar was still looking down at Licinus. He prodded him with a foot. "He's still breathing," he said after a moment. He raised his head and looked at Gabrielle. "Finish him off."
"What?" That was all she could manage, so stunned was she by her companion's demand.
One dark brow went up. "Finish him."
"W—you—you mean, like, kill him?"
"That's exactly what I mean. Do it."
"No!" she cried, utterly appalled. She backed away from the fallen corpse of Licinus. "Are you crazy? Kill him? He—He didn't do anything—"
"He's unconscious," Caesar continued, speaking as if he had requested nothing out of the ordinary. "If he wakes up, he'll alert the rest of the guards to our escape and significantly cut our lead time. If we kill him and drag his body into the crevice, it will be hours before he is found. Those hours could mean the difference between a clean escape and being retaken. You have to do it."
Kill him- Gabrielle was shaking her head and she didn't even realize it. She held the sword out to him with trembling hands. "I—I can't. I can't. You—you do it. You," she pleaded.
Caesar grimaced. As if the words tasted bitter, he said, "….Sword's too short. I—can't get down there. It has to be you. I'll tell you where to stab."
It has to be you. Gabrielle stared at the young man's face. The hatred and pain of a moment before was gone; he looked as innocent as a sleeping child. Kill him. The thought of taking that short sword, of- Her hands still jarred with the sickening sensation of the prybar hitting flesh. The thought of running him through, as he slept there—
Without even realizing it, Gabrielle backed up a step, then another. The sword fell from her nerveless fingers. "No," she said shakily.
Caesar turned to look at her. His dark brows drew down over his eyes. "No?"
"If—if you want him dead—" She was breathing hard. "If you want him dead you'll have to do it yourself. I can't do it. I can't."
"Listen, we don't have time for these female scruples. Another guard could be along any moment. This is a matter of life and death, little girl. Do you want to be crucified?"
"I can't kill him!" she cried. Crucified—crucified—the word repeated senselessly in her mind. Licinus looked so helpless, lying there on the floor; in her mind's eye she could see the tears standing in his eyes when he had accused Caesar earlier, the soul-wrenching agony…."I've never killed anyone before—he's just lying there—he's not even threatening us-"
"He'd threaten us quickly enough if he were awake—"
"Well, he isn't!"
She broke off, staring at Caesar and breathing hard. Caesar was looking at her with black fury. Gabrielle was feeling sick inside, trembling and shaky. Tears of emotion were prickling at the back of her eyelids. Not in front of him, please, not in front of him, she thought desperately. She opened her mouth to protest again, taking a step back, and that was when she smacked into Jett, right behind her.
"What's going on?" he asked, looking concerned; evidently he had just stepped out of the crevice and come on them unawares. He looked from Caesar to Gabrielle to the body lying on the ground. His gaze came back to Gabrielle. She didn't know how she looked, but however it was, it must have been bad; she could see by the expression on his face. "Gabrielle, are you all right?" he asked, frowning.
"Jett….Jett…." she could only falter; she backed up to the wall behind her. Jett's expression of concern was rapidly deepening into alarm. He turned to Caesar.
"Is she all right?" he asked.
Caesar hissed through his teeth in exasperation. "She managed, somehow, to knock this guard unconscious, and now she's behaving like a typical, hysterical woman. Don't ask me."
"He wanted me to kill him!" Gabrielle interjected from the wall.
"You wanted her to—" Jett narrowed his eyes at Caesar. Caesar shook his head.
"If he wakes up, he'll give the alarm and cut off our escape. It has to be done."
Jett gave Caesar a look every bit as full of disgust as the ones he had been giving Gabrielle earlier. It did her a little bit of good to see that. "We'll see," Jett said only. He knelt easily beside the fallen Licinus and began to examine the body. Gabrielle leaned back against the wall behind her, trying to calm down. Caesar glanced at her. His mouth tightened, and he looked away in contempt. Somehow, despite everything, that stung her. Behaving like a typical, hysterical woman. What, you mean like Xena? she wanted to say to him. Because I don't want to kill an unconscious guard who doesn't pose any kind of a threat? She wanted to say that too, but she knew he'd probably just laugh at her. She raised her hands to cover her face, feeling somehow ashamed, and at the same time, helplessly angry that she should feel so.
Jett looked up at last. His eyes went to Gabrielle, then he looked at Caesar. "This man isn't going to be waking up any time soon. His skull is cracked."
His skull is cracked- Gabrielle knew what that meant, from her time volunteering at a hospice. Oh gods, I cracked his skull- Her eyes went to Licinus's face. How could I do that to him? How could I do that to anyone? "We have to get him to a healer," she said without thinking.
"What?" Jett asked, looking at her. If anything, the disgust on Caesar's face deepened.
"A healer. We have to get him to a healer—I know from volunteering at the hospice! If he doesn't see a healer right away, he could die—" And I'd be a murderer, she couldn't bring herself to say. This just keeps getting worse and worse, she agonized.
"A healer," Caesar said as if he had never heard the word before. "I don't believe this." His tone made it clear that Gabrielle had just lost further standing with him. Gabrielle turned and looked at him, desperately angry.
"He needs a healer!" she repeated, hearing the tremor in her own voice. "We have to find him a healer—"
"Gabrielle—" Jett began slowly.
"We have to!" she cried, looking at the both of them. She could feel the tears trembling at her lower lids. She kept looking at Licinus. I wanted to be a healer, and now I'll have killed him—
Caesar lurched forward a step. His dark eyes were fiery. "Look, woman," he began, his voice dripping with contempt. "We need to go, now, and your ridiculous feminine whining is—"
Jett surfaced from the ground, moving so quickly Gabrielle couldn't follow it with her eye. One moment he was crouched next to the sleeping Licinus, the next, he was in Caesar's face.
"I'm going to say this once," the assassin told the former emperor, staring right into his eyes. "Shut up."
Caesar and Jett glared at each other for a timeless moment. The air crackled with tension. Gabrielle became aware of an aura of cold deadliness slowly beginning to manifest itself around Jett as he held Caesar's eyes; she backed up a step, then another, beginning to sense why Jett was called the King of Assassins. The moment spun itself out….
And it was Caesar who looked away first.
"Tell that stupid blonde female to stop this whining," he said, turning his back on Jett; unsteadily, he crossed the uneven cave floor to lean back against the wall. "And hurry. The longer we stay here, the greater the chance someone else will find us." He shot a dagger of a glare at Gabrielle, then closed his eyes, muttering under his breath.
Jett turned to Gabrielle, dismissing Caesar as effectively as Caesar had dismissed him. He went to her, and took her hands in his own, looking down at her with great compassion.
"Are you all right?" he asked her again, quietly. In the face of his genuine concern, Gabrielle felt herself calming; Jett's obvious care had the effect of soothing her overwrought nerves. She drew a deep breath, then another. Jett waited patiently for her to answer.
"I—I'm all right," she managed, feeling her trembling subside.
"It's okay if you got a little freaked out," he told her kindly. "It was your first fight, right?"
"Y—yeah," she replied, and even managed a shaky laugh. It sounded as awful as she felt, but at least it was a laugh. "I—I've never hurt anyone—before."
"That's really tough," Jett said. He glanced back at Licinus. "It was hard, but you managed to do it. The first fight I was in, I threw up afterward," he said, smiling.
"I wanted to," she said, and laughed again, high and nervous. The tension was ebbing out of her, and she could feel a terrible lethargy starting to steal along her limbs.
"You did a good job for your first time. You did a very hard thing, Gabrielle," he told her seriously. "There are lots of people—men and women both—" he added with a sour glance over his shoulder at Caesar "—who wouldn't have been able to do that. You're very brave, Gabrielle, I can tell that already, and you're a very strong person." He paused then, and looked down at her. "You're going to have to be even stronger."
"Wh—what do you mean?" she asked, suddenly chilled as she looked up at him.
"Isn't it obvious?" Caesar put in scornfully from the wall. "How you can be so stupid is beyond me—"
Jett turned on him. "What did I say?" he demanded. Gabrielle saw the glint of silver suddenly appear in his hand—a dagger, it took her a moment to realize. Caesar did not appear afraid in the least; he simply shook his head disdainfully and looked away.
The assassin looked back down at her. "Now, Gabrielle, listen," he told her, speaking very gently. "You said this man needs a healer. If you try to find a healer for him, this is what will happen: You will be caught. You and your friend both. You know that, don't you?"
Gabrielle swallowed. She hadn't thought it through that far, but as Jett presented it to her, she realized it was the truth. "I—I know," she murmured, lowering her head.
"If you are caught," Jett continued, squeezing her hands gently, "you will be imprisoned again, most likely under heavy guard. Managing to escape a second time will be impossible, do you understand what I'm telling you?" he asked her seriously.
"I understand," she whispered, seeing that it was true.
"You and your companion will almost certainly be crucified at dawn, unless these people can think of something even more nasty to do to you. These aren't bad people, Gabrielle, but they are people who are desperate, and people who are desperate react harshly. I can guarantee you that you won't be able to talk your way out of it, or to convince them to let you go. They're too angry at your friend. If they catch you again, they will go ahead with their plans to crucify you. And, Gabrielle," he said, holding her eyes, "I have to warn you: I won't be here to help you a second time."
"What?" she breathed, looking up at him.
"I want to help you, Gabrielle, I would like to stay with you, help this man find a healer, and then rescue you and your friend from the dungeons, but I can't," he told her, softly and with great regret. "I have to finish my mission and report to the Crusader Najara. I have a duty to her, and I must fulfill it, for the greater good. The good of the many must outweigh the good of the few. And if that means that I have to leave you and your friend to your fate—I don't want to, I would like to find a way to save you and finish my mission at the same time, but if push comes to shove—Gabrielle, my mission must come first. You see that, don't you?"
"I see," she whispered miserably. The lethargy in her was spreading; she couldn't remember the last time she had felt so tired.
"So, Gabrielle," Jett continued, looking down at her with great sympathy. "I'll leave it up to you. Let me ask you again," he said, his eyes serious. "In light of what I've just told you: Do you still want to find this man a healer?"
Silence. Gabrielle tried to answer, but she couldn't. Her voice wouldn't work somehow; she swallowed hard, trying to clear some sort of blockage in her throat, but it didn't work. She couldn't hold back anymore; a tear trickled from her lashes, then another one, then what felt like a small river. The image of Licinus, lying beyond Jett's left side in the torchlight, blurred into sparkling, indistinct blocks of color. She sniffed once, then again. Somehow, Jett heard the answer she couldn't bring herself to speak.
"Come on," he said, and took her arm. His hand was warm and comforting, somehow; it conveyed a gentle understanding. "I've got the horses and your gear stowed a safe distance from the end of the tunnel. Go on ahead. I'll catch up with you in a minute, as soon as I get done with—" He broke off there, but Gabrielle knew he meant Licinus.
Scrubbing at her eyes with the back of her hand, she let Jett guide her to the entrance to the crevice. She was still clutching the iron bar uselessly in one hand. Behind her, she heard Jett say, "No. Stay back here with me and give her some time alone; it should be safe up ahead." She heard Caesar's voice raised in argument, and then Jett said something else, too low to hear, and he broke off; but she didn't bother to decipher the words. She stepped into the crevice and was enfolded gently in the darkness; as she made her way down it, she didn't bother to look back. Behind her, lying still in the circle of torchlight, lay Licinus.
The sun was setting by the time Jett reined his horse—a black horse with white stripe down his nose; Jett called him Midnight—up at a fork in the road and dismounted. "Let the horses rest a little," he told her.
Gabrielle dismounted too, purposefully leaving Caesar stranded on Argo, and went to the edge of the clearing. She felt numb inside; she kept thinking of the innocent, childish face of Licinus as she had last seen him, lying on the floor, bleeding from the head wound she had inflicted. She kept hearing Caesar tell her, in that hellishly calm voice of his, to finish him off, seeing his look of contempt when she couldn't bring herself to do it. She'd barely been able to stand his presence behind her on Argo during their escape; she kept thinking she felt his disapproving stare boring into her back. Somehow it made her feel small and ashamed, though she knew it shouldn't. The crack of the iron bar striking Licinus's skull wouldn't leave her mind. I'm a murderer. A murderer…
"Are you all right?" Jett asked, coming up behind her.
"I don't know," she said, staring into the woods. It was easier than looking at Jett.
"I didn't kill him, you know," Jett told her gently. "I just moved him out of the way, into the crevice. He might even have been found by now."
"Or not," Gabrielle whispered. "Even if they had found him by now, it might still be too late to do any good." Nevertheless her heart lifted a little at Jett's reassurance. There was still a chance that Licinus was alive. That made her feel better.
Jett put a hand on her shoulder. "Why don't you try this," he offered. "Try telling yourself that the guards came along and found him a few minutes after we left, and that they picked him up and took him to a healer. It's at least as possible as the alternative."
Gabrielle swallowed. She nodded, but her heart still felt like lead within her. Jett saw the expression on her face.
"He didn't hurt us," she said, looking up at Jett. "He was innocent." I was innocent, she thought but did not say.
Jett seemed to hear what she was thinking. "Maybe so. But in this world, Gabrielle," he said with great sympathy, "innocence is a vulnerability—a luxury that not too many people can afford."
"No," she said, shaking her head in denial.
"Maybe that's not the way it should be," Jett told her. "But it's the way it is. Innocence is a vulnerability," he repeated. "It won't protect you from harm….and there are very few others who will be willing to protect it." At her stricken look, he added, "There are no heroes in this world today, Gabrielle, just mortal, flawed men and women trying to survive as best they can."
"Not even…." She bit her lip, remembering Jett's earlier tale. "Not even Najara?"
"Najara would be the first to tell you how flawed she is." He whistled, and Midnight came trotting over to him. Jett took the reins, and put one hand on the saddle horn. "I have accompanied you as far as I can, but here our paths diverge."
"Aren't you coming with us any further?" she asked, suddenly afraid of the dark woods, the creeping shadows in which lurkers and prowlers could be hiding. She had never been afraid before, but now, looking over at Argo where Caesar sat in proud judgement, seeing the gleam of the gladius where it shone at his waist…now, remembering Licinus, she was.
"I can't," Jett said, and lifted a foot to the stirrup. "Najara needs me, and I must go. I must fulfill my mission to the Crusader." With a smooth motion, he swung into the saddle. "The path should be safe from here to the next village and you should be out of reach of any patrols from the settlement. I still would go a little further before I stopped for the night, if I were you, just to be on the safe side, but the coast should be clear." He looked down at her from where he sat on Midnight. "Remember what I told you about innocence, Gabrielle," he said seriously. "Innocence is a liability. With the world as it is today….it makes you a victim. Get rid of it, Gabrielle. For your own good."
Gabrielle could not respond. Jett nodded to her, then put his heels to Midnight's sides. The black horse turned underneath him, and Jett galloped off, down the right-hand path of the road. She watched him go, staring after him for a long moment, feeling alone and small. Then, drawing a deep breath, she summoned up her will and returned to Argo.
It took some courage to mount Argo; she didn't want to have to deal with whatever Caesar would say to her with the protection of Jett gone. Somewhat to her surprise, however, he didn't say anything; he simply took hold of her waist as usual. She risked a glance over her shoulder at him, and saw that his head was down, his eyes shadowed. She wondered what he was thinking, as she touched her heels to Argo's sides. Argo started off, down the track, as the sky deepened to purple above them and the first diamond stars came out to wink between the branches of the trees. She didn't have the heart to look at them.
When he spoke again, it startled her. His voice was so low she thought he was talking to himself, and didn't mean for her to hear; nevertheless, she did. "They were wrong. She wouldn't have spared Rome. She wouldn't have. It wouldn't have made any difference."
Gabrielle turned in the saddle to look at him; he still wasn't paying attention to her. Her own heart was sore within her and his earlier behavior toward her stung; out of that pain, she said, hearing her own voice as waspish as her companion's at his best, "Well, you'll never know now, will you?"
She was digging for blood and she knew it; at least she had the courage to admit it to herself. Whether she hit her target or not, however, she could not tell; he met her eyes, startled, then his features set into lines of disgust. He looked away without answering. Sore at heart and sick of soul, Gabrielle turned away from her comrade without speaking again. Except for the sound of Argo's hooves and the chirpings of crickets, silence surrounded them, as the two of them made their way down the open road.