Standard disclaimer: None of the characters, places, etc. in this story are mine, but are instead the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended by their use in this story.
Author's note: Well, here it is: the second to last story in this ongoing series of AU Gabrielle and Caesar fics. Gabrielle's character development kicks into high gear here as she and Caesar finally make it back to Potedaia. Poor Gabrielle kind of gets put through the wringer, actually; I feel bad for her. There will be one more story after this, and then maybe a prequel. Enjoy.
"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
—Robert Frost, "Death of the Hired Man"
"Don't turn your back on me, don't ever let me down
We are within a mile
We are within a mile, within a mile of home…."
—"Within a Mile of Home," from Flogging Molly's Within A Mile of Home
They had come to a fork in the leaf-lined, dirt trail they had been following through the forest. Had there been any observers to see them, it would have been noted that they both looked tired and worn; Gabrielle had had them on the road at the crack of dawn that day. As they had ridden through the countryside, Gabrielle had begun to realize that she recognized this area. They were starting to come up on lands that were familiar to her—the countryside around Potedaia.
Argo stood at the juncture of the fork in the road, alternately easing first one hind leg, then the other; her ears were splayed to either side, and she wore a look of boredom. Caesar was in the saddle, but Gabrielle had gotten down to give the horse a rest; now she went to one trail and peered down it, to where it bent in the undergrowth, then the other. She saw nothing down either of them. This did not allay her worry.
The signpost that had stood at the bend of the two trails the last time Gabrielle had come this way—on her journey to the Academy of Performing Bards in Athens, a lifetime ago or so it seemed—was missing. After a brief search, Gabrielle found it; it had been knocked over in the leaf litter, and lay among the ferns and brush off the road. It had lain there long enough that tendrils of creepers already entwined it. She hadn't bothered to right it.
"Well, which way should we go?" Gabrielle demanded, turning to glare up at her companion.
Caesar looked down at her from Argo's back. He hesitated for a long time, then simply shook his head. That shattered look that had been in his eyes for the past week—since she had bullied him into defending the village from Zagreas's army—was still there. "I don't know," he said at last.
"You don't know?" she asked sharply. "What do you mean, you don't know?"
He shrugged, looking defenseless, lost. His hands worked at Argo's reins restlessly; the cicatrices around his wrists and neck were livid against his skin in the light that filtered through the canopy. "I don't know," he repeated only. He looked away.
Gabrielle bit her lip, feeling cold and uncertain and scared. She looked down the paths again, each in turn. Gabrielle would be the first to admit how little she knew about reading trails, but it didn't take an oracle to see that, despite the downed signpost, there had been heavy traffic down both paths fairly recently. The dirt was cut up with hoofprints, and ruts for wagon wheels, prints of nailed sandals, dropped coins, rings and bits of bridle and harness. It had rained a day or so ago, but the rain had not been enough to efface the marks. Gabrielle would have had to be blind to miss the signs that said, army.
She turned on her companion again. Even as she spoke harshly to him, she was careful to keep her voice down; there was no telling who or what could be lurking along the trail to hear. "You said," she began, her voice roughened by fear, "that you thought there could be an ambush down one or the other of these paths. You said. I didn't even ask you. You said that on your own. So which one is it? Where's the ambush?"
"I can't tell." His voice was querulous. "Leave me alone."
"Why do you think there could be an ambush?" she tried. "What are the signs you see that make you think that?"
"I—" He paused, hesitated, then shook his head again.
Gabrielle rubbed at her eyes. "Okay, let me make it simpler. Do we go left?" she asked, indicating the left-hand path. "Yes? No?" He only glanced at her with that empty, desolate look in his eyes. "Do we go right?" she asked, indicating the other path. Again, she got no answer other than defeated silence. "You have to tell me," Gabrielle insisted. "You have to tell me, because I don't know. I don't—I don't see what you see. Please tell me," she tried. "Tell me what you see. Can you at least do that?"
He glanced at her sidelong. "It's—I—It's too hard," he said. Something about the way he said it sounded almost plaintive. "I don't know. Leave me alone."
"Well, if you don't know, then why'd you say anything in the first place?" Gabrielle demanded. "Come on. Which way do we go?"
He shrugged helplessly. His gaze wandered away, as if he had lost interest.
"Can't you at least make a decision?" Gabrielle asked hotly. Caesar didn't bother to respond to this, examining his hands where they worked at Argo's reins; in fact, she wasn't sure he was still paying attention. She turned and stared down the two trails, trying with her inexperienced eyes to judge the level of traffic down each of them, to see if the marks of passage looked fresher down one than the other. It was no good. They looked the same to her.
We can't just stand here forever. Gabrielle knew it for truth. She was afraid, filled with a hollow coldness at the thought of the unknown that lay ahead of them, but they had to do something. She knew they could go back—for an instant she wanted to go back, to turn Argo's head and ride the way they'd come—but that would be giving up. Can't come this far and quit, not when we're so close to home, she thought. And besides…her parents might need her.
They had to go forward.
"You can't decide? Fine," she said in irritation. Caesar started to say something, but Gabrielle ignored him. She pulled a coin out of her belt pouch. "Heads we go left, tails we go right." She flipped it in the air and caught it. "Tails. Right it is."
Caesar subsided into silence, and Gabrielle swung up before him. She took Argo's reins and urged the horse down the right-hand path, her stomach a knot of worry. She forced it down. Home. Potedaia. If we can just get home, to Potedaia...home, to Potedaia….She tried to focus on that, on the image of her family as she had left it, her mother smiling warmly, her father with arms outstretched to embrace her, her sister Lila laughing and happy to see her. If she could only get home, then the long, desperate, grueling journey she had been on since Xena's death—since before, since the burning of Athens—would finally be over. She could relax, rest, lay down her burdens. She wouldn't even have to worry about Caesar anymore; her family could take care of him.
"The ambush—" Caesar began behind her.
She turned her head. "Do you know for a fact that there is one?" At his hesitation, she said, "Then never mind. We're going home. We just need to get home." She touched her heels to Argo's sides, and the golden mare moved down the right-hand path. She seemed to move easily enough and without reluctance. Gabrielle drew some small comfort from that; the mare had keen senses, and might have balked if she had sensed anything amiss. "Good girl, Argo," Gabrielle murmured, and patted her shoulder.
I'm going home.
Death was in the air.
Silence lay over the countryside around Potedaia like a thick, stifling blanket, like the hazy heat of the day, still and heavy. As Gabrielle guided Argo down the dirt trail, through the green and shadowed light of forest, the golden light of the fields beyond, she seemed to sense it, to feel it. There was no sound except for Argo's hooves on the trail. No winds blew to rustle the treetops, no birds sang in the hedges and brush. She and Caesar had not seen a single living person during the past few days of travel—not a goatherd or swineherd out with their charges, no farmers out plowing their fields or village women getting water from the wells. The land might as well have been completely empty.
Empty of the living, at least. Not empty of the dead.
They had come on the first bodies in the middle of the last afternoon, bodies of two young men, sprawled out on the ground, bearing the wounds that had killed them—one was missing half his face; another had a gaping hole in his gut. Both of them had been there some time by the look of them; Gabrielle had taken one look and gasped, averting her eyes. She had seen the dead before—after the burning of Athens, had held Perdicus's corpse in her arms after Callisto's men had killed him during the first day of her marriage; had caught and held the Dark Conqueror as she drew her last breaths—but something about these two shocked her. Perhaps it was the way they had just been left to rot where they fell, as if there were no one who cared enough about them to bury them….maybe no one left to bury them.
Those had been the first two. They weren't the last. As Gabrielle urged Argo onward, they passed other bodies lying by the side of the road, first in ones and twos, then dozens, scores of them. Men. Women. Children. Not all bodies were human, either; there were bloated donkeys, fallen horses bristling with arrows, oxen whose throats had been cut and tendons slashed. Some of the dead wore the leather armor of soldiers, but these were few; the vast majority of them were dressed in peasant clothing. It was clear that a great slaughter had taken place.
By midmorning on the second day, they were starting to come up on settlements that Gabrielle remembered. Or they would have been, if the settlements were still there. As Gabrielle looked across fields where she remembered houses, hamlets, villages, again and again she saw nothing but half-burned ruins. The scent of smoke hung oppressively in the air, and Gabrielle's eyes were stinging with it. The fields were barren of crops; either they had been burned or carried off. In some places the ashes were still warm. When they dismounted at noon to get some water and try to search for food, Gabrielle's foot turned up a charred human thighbone in the ashes of one settlement. She looked down at it, then bit her lip, swallowing hard.
Behind what remained of the burned-out barn was the well. The water was bitter and undrinkable; Gabrielle tried a mouthful and spat it out immediately. "Poisoned," Caesar said, tasting it. It was the only word either of them had said all day. Gabrielle let the bucket fall to the end of the chain. It clanked, then splashed dismally down below. The next well they tried was the same way, and the one after that, and the one after that. Finally, after a couple hours Gabrielle found a small stream in the woods off the road, and they filled their canteens from that. She remembered playing in that stream as a child, catching frogs and tadpoles and minnows, fishing there in her spare moments. The memory seemed so distant to her it was almost as if it were something that had happened to somebody else.
Gabrielle knew the destruction around her should have affected her: frightened her, terrified her, driven her frantic with desperation. She had seen this before in nightmares, that she would reach her home and find it gone. The dreams had always ended with her jerking awake in panic, desperate to reassure herself that it was only a dream. Yet now, confronted with the reality of barren fields, burned houses, bloated corpses, she felt… simply numb.
This can't be real, she thought to herself as Argo ambled on through the eerie enchanted stillness, through the countryside filled with the silent dead. This has to be another dream. It's just another dream, and I'll wake from it soon. I just have to keep moving. I have to go home, to Potedaia….
Home to Potedaia. The words repeated over and over again in her mind to the rhythm of Argo's hooves. If she could just make it home, to Potedaia…Her village was bright in her mind; she could see it as clearly as if she were there and looking at it: the whitewashed walls of the neat and friendly houses, the smiling faces of the villagers, the bridge over the creek at the north end of the village. She could see the house where she had grown up, looking just the same as she had left it, her parents standing in the doorway, arms outstretched to greet her. Maybe they would ring the bells for her when she came. She held the image in her mind throughout that long, hot, dreamlike day, as Argo trod past and even over the unburied dead—thick enough in some places that they carpeted the ground—as they rode past burned-out houses and barns and fields. Potedaia. Home. Once she got there, she would be safe, at last. The long strain of the past six weeks would be ended. She could lay her burdens down at the feet of her parents, her family, her village, be enfolded by their love and protection, rest safe in their embrace.
The countryside lay in ruins. But not her village—not her village. That couldn't be. Potedaia wasn't Rome or Athens or Laurel; it was home. All of her memories were there, the tree from which her father Herodotus had hung the rope swing, the cave in the woods where she and Lila had played house and princess and sometimes fort and soldier, the bend in the creek where she and Perdicus had kissed for the first time when she was fifteen, the temple where they had been wed. Of course it still stood. Even to think otherwise seemed an obvious absurdity. If she could just get home, to Potedaia…. She held that thought in her head, concentrating on it, telling it to herself until the words had lost all meaning from repetition. Home. Potedaia. Home. Potedaia. Home. Potedaia…. Thinking that, she guided Argo onward, with Caesar silent and unspeaking at her back, the mute evidence of war on either side passing by unnoticed.
It was nearly dusk when they at last reached Potedaia.
Gabrielle pulled Argo up, hard. "No," she breathed, scarcely aware she spoke. "No—"
In the dim light of dusk, Potedaia lay ravaged. Ashes crunched under Argo's hooves. Half-burned structures loomed out of the murk on all sides, structures of houses Gabrielle remembered, houses of families that she had known since her childhood. She could see at the far end of the ashy town square, the little bridge over the creek; it had collapsed, splintered and broken, the end of it lying sunken into the stream below. No…no…no…
The spire where the town's bells had hung—the bells she had thought to hear ring for her as she returned—was a charred, burned skeleton, the bare wooden bones tracing like the bars of a cage across the purpling sky. Most of the bells were gone, carried off, perhaps; the single remaining bell was visibly cracked and hung at a crazy slant in the ruins of the spire. As she ran her horrified gaze over the ruins of the town she had grown up in, the town she had loved, her home, it seemed like something out of her worst nightmare. Little details jumped out at her—the tree she and Lila had swung on, blackened and charred, devoid of leaves; the benches they had played on as kids, tipped over and broken; the fountain in the center of the town square, the lovely statue in the middle of it thrown down and shattered, stones falling from its sides, one having rolled across the square to rest against what had been the wall of Perdicus's house while they were growing up. Perdicus's house was a burned-out husk. The roof had fallen in, and the empty beams and girders, charred with fire, looked cold and cruel to her in the light of the moon.
"No," Gabrielle heard herself saying distantly. "No…no...no…."
Her feet jarred against the ashy ground, and only then had she realized she had dismounted. A terrible air of unreality had spread over her; she was breathing too fast, and felt so dizzy that for a moment, the world seemed to fade around. No. This can't be. Potedaia's my home…my home! The town meeting hall, door torn off, shutters hanging askew. The blacksmith's forge, a ruin, the anvil cracked and broken, hammers, tongs and tools lying scattered in the street. The tavern, its brightly painted sign splintered and shattered, windows smashed, burned. It can't be. It can't be. Not Potedaia—not Potedaia! She had forgotten Argo, forgotten Caesar behind her, forgotten everything except the destruction she was seeing around her. It was almost worse because there was enough left that she could recognize what was gone. This has to be a dream. A nightmare. A nightmare….
Her feet moved; almost before she knew it, she had broken into a panicked run. She had no conscious thought of where she was going; she simply ran, leaving her companions behind. She ran, as she had run as a child, through sunlit streets lined with warm and open houses chasing balls or hoops, laughing, with her sister Lila and her friends. She ran, through streets turned dark and cold, with burned and blackened ruins on either side of her, through the gloom of desolate twilight. She had no thought of where she was going, but her feet knew; they followed a route she had known so well that she could have run it in her dreams. She ran, barely aware of where she was, what she was seeing, until without warning she smashed up hard against a solid, oaken door. Gabrielle began to hammer on it with her fists. "Mother! Father!" she heard herself crying, and did not even stop to consider the possibility of attracting danger. "Mother! Father! Let me in! Please let me in! Please let me in!" she cried, half-sobbing, pounding on the door so hard her hands would be bruised the next morning. At that moment, she didn't even feel it. "Please let me in! It's your daughter, Gabrielle! Let me in! Let me in! Let me—"
The door was jerked open so suddenly that Gabrielle almost fell; shocked, she reeled back in the moonlight, trembling, tears running down her cheeks. She saw her father, standing there in the doorway, tall and gray and grim-looking, his eyes hollow and devoid of warmth or life. He stared at her with no trace of recognition.
"F-father?" she faltered, shivering and unsure; for a crazy moment the thought crossed her mind that he was dead, and what she was seeing was a ghost, or a walking corpse.
Something seemed to reach him; he blinked once, and then his brow creased slightly. "Gabrielle," he said, his voice as hollow as his expression. "You've come back."
"It was Callisto's men. They fell on us without warning."
Gabrielle said nothing, sitting at one end of the plank table where the family ate their meals. A single candle lit the interior of the room. The house was half-burned; the back rooms, her parents' room and the room she had shared with Lila were open to the air. The back wall was gone, the floor covered with dirt and ashes. Gabrielle had taken one look through the door that had once been hers, and turned away, her hand to her mouth.
Her father had gone out to see Argo settled. Gabrielle had turned to Hecuba, reaching out for a hug, longing for the comfort of her mother's arms; her mother had stared at her, distant and disbelieving, then after a moment had embraced her almost mechanically, as if in a dream. Lila was there too, sitting in the far corner, shrouded in the shadows at the edge of the room; she was holding a baby to her breast, Gabrielle saw in vague wonderment. She hadn't even heard that Lila had wed, and her husband was nowhere in evidence. "Who—where—" she had asked in those first, trembling moments of reunion.
Lila's face had darkened. "Dead," was all she said. Gabrielle had fallen silent.
Argo was around back, in the half of the stable her parents had been able to save; Caesar had taken a seat at the far end of the table, against the wall. He seemed lost, in thought or in memory; either way, he didn't appear to be paying attention. Gabrielle's mom had placed wooden plates in front of each of them, with bread and cheese and a few small potatoes; "I'm sorry," she'd told Gabrielle unsteadily. "We don't—we don't dare have a fire, in case—and Callisto's men carried off most of the food; this is all….all we have left." Her hair was visibly grayer than Gabrielle remembered, and her face lined and hollow.
"When did this happen?" Gabrielle asked. The words felt cold; her lips were numb. She couldn't even think of touching the food in front of her. Her stomach was too queasy. "When—?"
"A…a week ago, maybe?" her mother said vaguely. "I don't—it's not…." She lifted her shoulders. "Before the last rain, at any rate…sometimes it seems like…" She trailed off.
"Where is everybody?" Gabrielle asked. "Is there—are they all—" She couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence.
"There are a few survivors," Lila said from the corner. Gabrielle was so overstressed that her sister's voice startled her; she flinched and turned to face her. "A few. They're….like we are. Living in…what's left." She gestured vaguely at the charred walls, the soot-stained ceiling and furnishings, the bed-pallets rolled up against the back. "For now anyway. I don't…I don't know what we'll do eventually, but…." She dropped her gaze, looking down at her baby, who was suckling peacefully at her breast.
"What happened here?" Gabrielle demanded, hearing her voice break. "What—Mom, what happened? Lila—"
"Callisto's men," her mother repeated emptily. "They came up and surrounded the village. We had no warning. There were too many of them to fight. They rounded up the village council and told the rest of us that if we didn't give them what they wanted they would burn the prisoners to death. Then after…after they'd killed the council they started pulling people out of the crowd, and said they'd keep burning people until they were satisfied."
"They killed Lecter that way," Lila said suddenly, from the corner. "He was the fifth one. He was screaming. He was screaming for me to help—" She gave a choked sob, looking back down at her baby. Lecter…. Gabrielle remembered him, how he had teased her when they were children together. This can't be real. Please, gods, if you can hear me—Light, if you can hear me, she thought, remembering how Najara had said the gods were dead, anyone, if you can hear me, make it not be real. Please make it not be real….
"By the—by the third day, they—I guess they ran out of patience," her mother said, with that same helpless shrug. "They locked everyone inside the houses and started burning them over our heads. We hid in the root cellar," she said, gesturing toward the trap door in the far corner of the room. Gabrielle followed her gesture. An aimless memory drifted through her mind, of playing hide and seek with Lila; the cool, dim cellar had always been one of her favorite hiding places. "The air got so hot….We could hear the neighbors screaming. I don't know how long we stayed down there. When we finally came up…." She gestured at the wreckage around her, and trailed off again. "It was like this," she finished.
Gabrielle felt sick. She was trembling. Her eyes were hot and burning, but no tears came. This was too much for tears. A strange weakness was spreading along her limbs; she braced her elbows on the table before her, resting her head on her hands. I played here as a child…my friends were here, Perdicus….how can this be? How can this be? Her mind repeated the words senselessly, over and over, groping for some meaning to make out of this incomprehensible tragedy. Why? Why? Why?
"They were looking for you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's heart stopped within her. Slowly she lifted her eyes from the table to her mother.
"Wh-what?" This time she said it aloud.
Tears were rolling down her mother's cheeks. Gabrielle had never seen her mother cry before, ever. "They were looking for you," she said with a sob.
"No." Gabrielle didn't even realize she had spoken. "No—"
"They said." Lila spoke up now from the corner, her voice shaking. "They said, 'Where is the bard Gabrielle? Bring her out and you shall be spared.' That's what they said. Over and over again, they said."
Me. They were looking for me.
Gabrielle sat there, at the large plank table in the burned-out ruins of her home, contemplating that. Callisto's men had been looking for her. Callisto was looking for her.
She stared at the pale, shadowed faces of her mother, Hecuba, of her sister Lila, oddly lit in the flickering light from the single, dim candle. They suddenly looked not quite real to her; she was struck by the eerie sensation that she was facing ghosts, or walking corpses that simply hadn't lain down yet. It would be apt, for this dead village. Her eyes wandered to Caesar, at the far end of the plank table, in the angle between the table and the wall; he hadn't touched his food and did not appear to be listening, examining the bands of scar around his wrists instead. Gabrielle reached out to take the wooden cup of water, and realized that her hands were shaking so badly she couldn't hold it; she accidentally knocked it over, and water splashed out over her untouched meal.
Callisto is looking for me. For me. Callisto.
The door banged open and Gabrielle gave a startled shriek, almost falling off her stool. It was only her father Herodotus, come back from seeing Argo stalled. The kind and caring face Gabrielle had known, had loved so much as a child, was now gaunt, emotionless, dead. He looked at her where she sat on the stool, and then his eyes went to his wife.
"Did you tell her?" he asked.
"About Callisto, yes," Hecuba said dully.
Herodotus nodded. He turned to face his daughter. Gabrielle felt a chill of uncertainty go through her; his face was pale and strained. "Your mother and I discussed this already," he said quietly. "You can stay here tonight, but in the morning you'd best be on your way. You and your friend both."
Gabrielle stared at her father blankly. The words clanged meaninglessly in her overstressed mind, as if he had spoken in a foreign language. She couldn't have heard what she thought she had; she knew there was no way her father could have said anything like that to her.
"Wh—what did you say, Daddy?" Her lips were numb.
Hecuba spoke now from her chair. Her voice still trembled a little, but at the same time, there was no mistaking the firmness behind the words. "You heard your father," she said. Her voice was flat, toneless. "We want you to leave at daylight tomorrow."
Even hearing her mother say it, Gabrielle still couldn't believe what she was hearing. Her mind refused to translate the sense of the words, but she knew those looks. She knew those expressions. She remembered seeing them look like that as a girl; it meant there would be no appealing their decision. "You—you mean you're…." She stopped, panting a little. "You're t-turning me out?" she faltered, her voice almost a whisper.
Herodotus and Hecuba made no response. They simply stood there, watching her, their faces flat and emotionless in the candlelight. Again, Gabrielle was struck by the feeling that they were ghosts or corpses.
"You—you can't," she said. She felt moisture on her cheeks, but had no sense that it was connected to her. "You can't. You can't turn me out, this is my home!" Her voice was shrill and rising. Her parents' set expressions did not change. "You—I'm your daughter!" she wailed. "How can you do this to me? How can you do this?"
"How could you do this to us?" her mother demanded in a shaking voice. "Callisto's men came here looking for you, Gabrielle! It's because of you this happened!" She flung one hand out at the sooty walls, the burned village around them, the ashes of Potedaia. "Because of you!"
"Because of me? How can you do this—"
"What if they come back?" Hecuba continued, and now Gabrielle could name the look in her mother's eyes. It was fear. Sheer terror. "Callisto's men came for you once—what if they come again? What if they find out you're here and come back for you?"
"What if they—" Gabrielle was shaking all over. Cold. She was so cold. The darkness had descended on her. It was swallowing her whole.It was just like her nightmares, just like them, the ones where she would come back to Potedaia and everyone would turn away, nobody would see her. "Mom—Dad—" She was shivering so hard she could barely sit upright. "Mom, Dad, please—please—" she faltered. "You can't throw me out, please—this is my home!" she insisted again, desperately. Tears were rolling down her cheeks now, but she didn't feel them. "I'm your daughter! Mom, Dad, don't you remember me?" she beseeched. "I'm your daughter! You can't throw me out," she cried, her voice breaking, "I've got nowhere else to go—"
"Go back to the Academy, Gabrielle," her father said in that low and trembling voice. "Go back there. Stay there. Don't come home again."
"I can't! Athens—Xena burned Athens to the ground!" She was almost sobbing. "This is the only place I've got left—Callisto's hunting me!—Mommy, Daddy, please don't send me away—don't send me away—" She almost could not see them, so blinded was she by her tears. Always, when she had been younger, even the slightest hint of tears had been enough to bring them both running; they would hold her in their arms, murmuring soothing words, promising to fix it, to make it all better. Not now. Now they only stood there, looking at her, her father looking as if his heart had died within him, her mother openly weeping. She saw their pain, and even now, it hurt her—hurt her worse, to know that she was the cause of it.
Herodotus looked at her ashenly. "I wish you'd never been born," he said, his voice dull, dead. Gabrielle was struck speechless by this new blow. Her father saw her pain, paled slightly, other than that, he showed no reaction. "Better that you'd died as an infant, that I'd killed you with my own hands, than that you'd lived to bring this on us. I wish you'd never been born."
"B-Bring this on you?" she heard herself repeat. "Daddy, I didn't bring this on you, I didn't bring anything—"
"Gabrielle, she called you by your name!"
Gabrielle froze, her tears trembling on her lips, silenced and terrified by her mother's shrieked accusation. As she stared at her mother, she was even more frightened to see what looked like the light of lowering madness in her mother's eyes—the madness of someone who had been pushed too far, who had seen things that no one should ever have to see. "You brought her down on us!" her mother shrieked at her. "How could you let this happen? How could you let this happen?"
"How could—I—It's not my fault! Do you think I wanted to—see—" And then she stopped, feeling the black waters of total horror close completely over her head as she realized that she had heard this exact exchange before. "No…no…gods, no…" she whispered.
Herodotus reached out and took his wife in his arms, pulling her against him. Hecuba buried her face in his shoulder, sobbing; Herodotus stroked her hair gently. He looked as if his soul had died. "The decision stands, Gabrielle," he said leadenly. "We want you to leave in the morning."
Gabrielle stared at the two of them, her mother and her father, the two she loved most in all the world, the two who had watched over her lovingly throughout all the days of her youth, in whose arms she had always thought to find safety and security and protection. A thousand memories jostled in her mind—her father, pushing her and Lila in their rope swing; her mother, sewing the ripped seam of her favorite doll and giving it a kiss to make it feel better; the joy in their eyes on the day she had stood with Perdicus to be wed; the way they had wept with her when he had been slain. The two of them had held her in their arms, the day she had left for the Academy, glowing with pride; they had wept then too, that their little girl was to leave them. Her mother had given her a wrapped package of food that had looked big enough to feed a small army, and her father had pressed a pouch of dinars into her hands. "For the road," he had told her gruffly, trying to disguise his pride in his little girl. "And remember, Gabrielle, if it doesn't work out, no shame in that; just come back here again. This will always be your home."
This will always be your home. She now saw that those words, that promise, were meaningless. Worse than meaningless. They were lies.
She stared at the two of them now, as they clung together in the sooty, half-burned room, in the dim light of the candle. Once again, she saw that look on her father's face: the look that said his decision was beyond appeal. Her fear, her defiance, her pain, all died within her. She felt nothing. She was numb.
"I'm your daughter," she heard herself say brokenly. "You always taught me how important it was to care for other people. You taught me that, Mommy, Daddy. Don't you even have any caring for your own daughter?"
"Leave, Gabrielle," her mother said dully. Tears were still drying on her face. "Leave, and don't come back. Don't ever come back."
The numbness had descended now. She looked at them as if she stood across a gulf. These were two strangers she was facing, and not her parents; further conversation would be pointless. She had come here in search of safety, security, love. None of these things were to be found here now. There was no point in staying here any longer. She felt no anger, no pain; just that all-encompassing numbness. Woodenly, she pushed back her stool and got up. Leaving her barely-touched plate, she turned her back on them. Without looking behind her once, she crossed the rough, stained floorboards to the door. Pulling it open, she stepped over the threshold and left her childhood home. She would not return again.
Lila caught up with her by the stables. She was carrying her baby in one arm, and a cloth-wrapped package in the other. "Here," she said timidly, and thrust the package at Gabrielle. "It's…it's not much, Callisto's men….they took most of our food, but it's…."
Gabrielle took it mechanically, by rote. "Do you blame me too?" she asked leadenly. She felt a tiny flicker of shame as tears filled her sister's eyes; it was almost immediately extinguished by that smothering numbness.
"Oh, Gabrielle…." Lila adjusted the baby in its sling. "Don't say it like that," she begged. "Please don't say it like that."
"What else am I supposed to say?" Gabrielle asked dully. "Mom and Dad almost made it sound like I wanted the village to be burned. You don't believe that, do you, Lila?" she appealed.
Lila shifted and looked away.
"Gabrielle…" She broke off and looked down at her child.
Gabrielle glanced at the child too. Lila saw her looking. "Do—do you want to see her?" she asked.
Gabrielle nodded. Lila parted the folds of cloth, showing her the small face of the sleeping baby. "Her name is Sarah," Lila told her with a trembling smile. "Lecter…Lecter named her. Before…" She squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed, hard. "Would you….would you like to hold her?" she offered, regaining control of herself.
"Sure." Gabrielle reached out, and for the first and last time, took her little niece into her arms. She looked down into the small bundle of cloth. Sarah's eyes opened briefly; they were the muddy no-color of infancy. Gabrielle held her for a moment, then gave her back to Lila.
Lila settled her back into her arms. "Gabrielle, please understand," she said unhappily, adjusting the baby. "Try to understand how it looked to us. We didn't know where you were. You'd been gone a year. You never wrote—"
"I wrote every two weeks," Gabrielle said flatly.
Lila shook her head. "We only got a couple letters. The couriers must not have gotten through. We hadn't heard anything about you, what you'd been doing, where you were, and then…then one day the Bright Warrior's men show up at the village telling us to produce you or they'll burn us all to the ground. What were we supposed to think?"
"I don't know. What were you supposed to think?"
Lila shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. That….that you'd somehow angered Callisto the Fiery, perhaps, or attracted her attention in some way—why else would she come here looking for you? Gabrielle, you must have done something…" she said painfully.
Gabrielle shook her head. "That's not what happened."
"Then what did happen?" Lila asked plaintively. She gestured around her at the ruins lying around them in the moonlight. "Why did this happen, Gabrielle? Why?"
"It—" Gabrielle stared at her sister. An overwhelming feeling of futility welled up inside her. How could she possibly explain….? "Never mind. It's not important." She paused then; a question trembled on her lips, one that she was afraid to ask.
Lila saw it in her eyes, as she always had. Gabrielle remembered that too, from their childhood together. "What?" she asked softly.
"Do you all hate me?"
Lila looked strained and shaken in the moonlight. "I don't—I don't hate you, Gabrielle. Neither….neither do Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad…they're afraid. They're afraid Callisto's men will find out you're here, and come back and kill everyone who's left because of you. That's why they want you to leave, Gabrielle. Not because they hate you."
Gabrielle nodded. The next question was harder. "Do you want me to leave?"
Lila was silent, but Gabrielle could see the answer in her sister's eyes. It was strange. After what had happened with her parents, this pain was one she hardly felt. Nevertheless, she tried.
"Lila, you're my sister." Gabrielle knew the words were meaningless even as she spoke them. What was "sister," after all? It was really nothing more than a word. Just an empty word that had no power before the sword and the flame. She as a bard ought to know just how much words were worth. Still, she persisted. "Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
Lila swallowed visibly. Her eyes shone with tears. "Gabrielle," she said, and there was so much love in her voice that it would have melted a heart of stone. Gabrielle knew her heart was not made of stone. "Gabrielle, I love you," Lila said shakily. "We grew up together. I….I remember how you always used to tell me stories at night, when I was little and afraid of the dark. Remember?" Gabrielle nodded. She could not speak. "Remember that? I…I remember how you would always get me to go off with you for walks in the woods around the village…. that one time we went out in the winter without telling Mom and Dad and we got lost in the snow together when we were children….I thought we were going to be lost forever, but you told me that if I kept walking you would give me your solstice gift, and you did, too—I still have that doll," she said with a trembling smile. "I'm saving it for…for Sarah." She looked at Gabrielle tearfully. "Gabrielle, you're my sister. My only sister. I love you."
Gabrielle waited silently, knowing there was more.
Lila drew a breath. She looked down at the bundle in her arms and seemed to draw strength from it. "Gabrielle, I'm a mother now," she said, her eyes too bright. "I have a child I have to care for. My husband….my husband is….dead. B—because of you," she brought out, her lips trembling, and for a moment Gabrielle wondered if she were going to break down. She drew a breath, and seemed to regain control. "Even if you didn't mean for it to….I'm alone in the world. I'm all this child has." She looked down at Sarah again. "This child is all I have," she said. "I have to think of my child first. I— I love you, Gabrielle," she repeated. "I love you. I always will. I want you to write lots of letters, to keep in touch…." She hesitated, and then her back straightened. She swallowed again, hard. Gabrielle could see the shining traces of tears on her cheeks in the moonlight, the distance that came over her eyes like a veil. "Keep in touch," Lila said with quiet finality, and turned her back, and walked away.
"I thought we were a family," Gabrielle called after her, and though her words were angry, she was not; she felt nothing except that dull, dead futility. "I thought a family always stood by one another. I would never do this to you—"
Lila stopped. She looked back over her shoulder. "Yes. You would." She spoke her final words with absolute conviction. There was neither guilt nor doubt in her tone. "If you were in my place, Gabrielle—if you'd been through what we'd been through—you would do the exact same thing."
Gabrielle watched as Lila walked back to what remained of the house, without ever looking once behind her. She knew somehow that she would not see Lila or her family again.
Gabrielle entered the dim, straw and horse and cow-smelling interior of what was left of the stable. The far wall and part of the roof had burned, and beams had fallen in, but the near end—where Argo was stalled—was still more or less whole. She didn't bother to light a lantern; the moonlight and starlight came in through the gaping hole in the roof.
Argo snorted softly at her approach, probably surprised to see her. Gabrielle went to where Argo was stalled. Her tack hung on the wall. Gabrielle reached out to take it without seeing; she was trying to think of where she could go next, what to do, what was the next step to take, when her hands began to shake. The trembling spread, until it overwhelmed her so violently that she could not stand; she reached out and hugged Argo's neck, burying her face against the horse's warm shoulder, and sobbed.
"Oh, Argo….Argo…" She breathed in Argo's horsey, comforting scent, feeling the mare's silken coat grow wet with her tears; her entire body was shaking with huge, racking sobs that seemed to tear their way out of her throat. "Argo…." she sobbed, hearing Argo's soft whicker; the mare bent her neck around and nibbled gently, comfortingly at Gabrielle's hair. "Argo…"
Gabrielle cried on the mare's shoulder for what seemed like forever; she sobbed, her body heaving, until she had no more tears left. When at last she straightened, her cheeks were wet, but her eyes were dry and burning. She scrubbed at them with the back of her hand, and swore in the depths of her heart that she was done with crying. She would never cry again.
She had thrown the saddle over Argo's back and was tightening the girth when a scraping sound behind her came to her ears. She turned sharply, her hand going to the hatchet that was still in her belt, to see Caesar standing in the door, leaning on his staff.
They stood there, staring at each other, for a timeless length. Neither of them spoke. Gabrielle stared at him, trembling, barely breathing; Caesar simply watched her. The shattered distance that had been in his eyes all through the day was gone. Instead, that other thing was there, that thing she had seen before. When he had gotten drunk. When he had told her not to kill for him again. It was stronger now; she could almost name it, but not quite.
After a moment, something glinted in those dark eyes. He tilted his head slightly, and then spoke.
"Hurts, doesn't it." He folded his arms.
He…what… Gabrielle's entire body went completely numb. She was staring stupidly at him, her mouth hanging open in shock. What did he….?
Someone else might have mistaken what he had said for sympathy. Someone who hadn't spent these last weeks traveling with him, someone who didn't know him well. Gabrielle knew better. She could see better. There was not a shred of sympathy in those dark eyes. He said no more, but he didn't have to. The underlying message came through as loudly as if he had shouted.
Now you know how it feels.
He's….he's glad, Gabrielle realized in a sort of vacant shock. He's glad…. She searched his face desperately, seeking for some sign, some hint that she was wrong. She couldn't believe, even now, even after all that had happened, that he could be glad that her parents had thrown her out, that her family had slammed the door in her face, couldn't possibly be glad at an event that caused her so much pain. It can't be true. Nobody could be that cruel. Not even him. I must be seeing it wrong, I must have heard him wrong, I must have…
She wasn't wrong. She could see it in his face. As she stood there and stared at him, her mind was completely blank. She felt as if she'd been kicked in the gut; there was no room in her for anything but shock and pain.
This man is a monster.
It occurred to her as a fundamental, essential truth. The pain seemed to have ripped the scales, the blinders from her eyes; she felt as if she were seeing the world anew, seeing him as he really was. The thought was very clear to her, very cold; it stood out in three dimensions. He is a monster. She felt as if she was seeing into him for the first time, seeing all the way into where his soul would be if he had had one. The arrogance, the cruelty, the pride, the pitilessness, the ego, the complete and utter lack of any shred of feeling for anything other than himself, all of it appalled her. He appalled her on a fundamental level, a level so deep that it was below the level of conscious thought. And over it all was the agonizing pain of what had happened earlier: the destruction of Potedaia, the news that Callisto was hunting her, her parents' rejection. The combination of the two sent her reeling.
Into the void left by her shock at her discovery, something was coming—a slow, brutal rage unlike anything she had ever felt before in her life. This deliberate, terrible sensation filled her up from her toes to her head, a slow, white fury that made her breath come heavy and her skin tingle and her feet seem to attach to the floor. Gabrielle had never felt anything like this before, and she stood there, staring at Caesar and savoring this new sensation, wondering at it. That smirking, dark-eyed bastard standing there in the doorway seemed suddenly, quite clearly to be the cause of all her troubles, and she stood there and stared at him and felt that rage with a distant sort of amazement that she hadn't realized it before.
A red mist was rising before her eyes. The sound of heavy breathing filled her ears; Gabrielle only peripherally realized that it was her. The little belt knife she carried at her waist was burning in its sheath against her; there was a pain in her hand, her right arm was tightening slowly, and it was only as the edge of the hatchet rose into her vision that she realized she had not let it go and was raising her weapon, clutching it so tightly that her hand ached. Caesar did not move, watching her with that same coldness. Gabrielle felt the weight of the hatchet in her hand, and was filled with an overwhelming, literally irresistible impulse to take that hatchet, cross the stable floor, and smash the blade right into those dark eyes. She tried, very distantly, to come up with a single reason not to do it, and there was nothing to hold her back. Not one thing.
She took a step toward him. Another. Another. Caesar did not move, made no effort to back away from her or even to defend himself; he simply stood there, watching her, his mouth tight with some emotion that she could not name. Another step. Another.
She was halfway across the floor to him when Argo whinnied behind her. It was enough; it broke Gabrielle's rage, just barely.
She turned away from him and with trembling hands, thrust the hatchet back into her belt, behind her. She said not one word to him, did not even acknowledge his presence as she went to Argo. She did not stop to help him onto Argo's back; she mounted the horse alone and without so much as a glance in his direction, urged Argo out of what was left of the stable and into the lane outside. She turned Argo's head away from her home, away from Potedaia, and set off without even looking to see if he was behind her; if he was staggering after Argo as best he could on his crippled, twisted legs.
She did not relent until his legs gave out under him and he collapsed at the second milestone.