LEGAL DISCLAIMER: The character Xena is a copyrighted character belonging to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I don't own her, I promise I'm not making any money off her, and I promise to return her in much the same condition I got her - though very reluctantly :o).
VIOLENCE DISCLAIMER: This story depicts scenes of violence and its aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
RATING: PG13 ... I guess. Tell me if you think I'm wrong, ‘cause I'm not really sure when it's ‘just' a little bit of violence :o).
SPOILERS: Hmm ... not sure as how you'd call them spoilers, but be aware that this short story deals with some events depicted in the second season episode Destiny.
FEEDBACK: Sure :o). If you liked it, I'd love to hear about it, if you didn't, tell me that too. I'd really like to know why ... for both :o). You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTES: Written February 13th, 2001 - April 10th, 2001. Be aware that I've tweaked a few happenings to better fit the story, but I doubt very much that it will impact greatly on the timeline. This is mostly a tour of the characters' minds and motivations ... a vignette of sorts. If you haven't seen Destiny, I'm very much afraid this will make no sense at all :o).
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thanks to Niki and Cindy, who convinced me it wasn't quite as bad as I thought it was :o).
"Divide and conquer, my friend. You divide a woman's emotions from her sensibilities ... and you have her." Caesar to Brutus, ‘Destiny'.
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The deck shifted gently beneath his feet, lifting and falling, rolling on the smooth swells of the ocean surface. He compensated without thought, his body swaying calmly, at ease with the motion of the sea though he had been birthed and raised on dry land many leagues from here. His gaze remained steady, fixed on the vessel coming abreast of them. He stood tall, his expression almost bored as he ignored the crew moving around him. They avoided him with a wary respect as they busied themselves, spurred on by the bellowed orders and gruff curses of their captain. The stentorian tones echoed across the water, rebounding off the approaching vessel and directing in triplicate the trimming of the sails so as to match motion with the pirate ship. Distantly, in this moment, he could allow himself to admire the silent efficiency with which the other ship's crew and captain enacted a similar drama. He waited, holding himself in well crafted patience, listening with an absent ear to the gentle creak and groan of the ship's timbers settling against each other, to the whispers of bare, callused feet on the deck, to the creaking protests of ropes pulled taut by the weight of sails and clambering sailors. They were the sounds of a ship under way, familiar sounds ... particularly lately ...
He had been seventeen when he had first set foot on a ship ... seventeen, and fleeing the vengeful wrath of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. It had been a strategic retreat of sorts. Having refused to divorce his wife, Cornelia, the daughter of a prominent revolutionary, he had found his position in Rome perilous in the aftermath of Sulla's successful counter-revolution. Since childhood he had known that his place was to reign above all men, but he also understood that fate was a harsh master. It was a dangerous path he walked, one which demanded the focus of his energies, for a single misstep could see capricious fortune wrench from him his rightful destiny. At that time in his life, retreat had been the single path open to him ... No more.
He could sense it, smell it on the wind ... it shivered inside him with that familiar, almost prescient knowledge of paths laid out before him. No more would retreat be the path that destiny forced him upon. No more would he be forced to bow to the rule of popular opinion, burdened by noble family without the riches and influence such position should bring.
The blood of a god ran in his veins. It galled him that of all the pantheon, that god should be Venus. It should have been Mars. He strode his path with confidence, destined to conquer the world, and yet he spent each day fighting the passions of his lineage. For passion he had retreated to Asia, and later Cilicia. He had toiled in these provinces, cut off from the lifeblood of Rome, his destiny on hold until the death of that republican, Sulla. No more. That had been some five years ago. He accepted it as a folly of his youth. He was that youth no longer, and no longer would he allow passion to delay his path.
His nostrils flared as he sucked in a deep lungful of the salt laden air, linking his hands behind him in studied calm. He listened with half an ear as his soldiers settled themselves in hiding, their weapons ready, their attentions riveted to his command. In the twilight, the sound of the gangplank being lowered was loud and rude in the dusky silence. His eyes fixed on the tall figure standing proud at the head of her ship. Despite his vehement self-censure, he could not help the shiver that trailed his spine at the sight of her ... a shiver mixing equal measures of desire and distrust.
He recalled vividly his first sight of her. He had been on his knees in the damp and filth of the docks, his hands tied, his neck promised a heathen's sword, and yet all he had felt was a cool, almost disinterested rage. He understood that fate had strange ways, and though he seethed at this interruption in his journey he was struck by the certainty that this was meant to be. It was nothing he could really see or even feel, it was a sense beyond those normal five that were granted ordinary men ... a sense of destiny unfolding and his place in it.
He had come to Neapolis in search of a ship bound for Rhodos, and had instead found pirates ... and her. Then, as now, he had looked into her face and seen ... nothing.
Oh, there was beauty to be sure. Such beauty as he had never seen before, and doubted he ever would again. With dark hair that fell nigh to her waist, pale skin and eyes of a blue that shamed the Aegean, she was a tall, wild creature who wore bright silks and satin and gilded scale mail with infinite grace. Yes, there was beauty, and there was also youth. This pirate captain was young ... very young. It showed in the keen blaze of her eyes, drinking in knowledge from all they touched upon. It showed in the quicksilver of her personality, shifting wildly through poise and savagery, humour and anger. She looked at him, her eyes bright with curiosity, amusement and fascination, and he could not deny that she affected him. His very blood urged him toward her ... but it was what he didn't see that stilled him.
He, who could sense what could be, what was meant to be, looked at her and saw nothing. Here she stood, right before him, her every word and thought shaping his immediate future, and he had no inkling of what place she had in his plan. It disturbed him more than he wished to admit, this sudden silence of probabilities. What did it mean?
He stepped softly, the gangplank bowing slightly beneath him. Distantly he was aware of her men standing tense and curious. Most were armed but few were armoured. They impacted only slightly on his consciousness, his entire being focussed on the tall young woman, barely more than a girl, waiting on his approach. He paused for a long, calculated moment before stepping down to the deck of her ship. With studied disinterest he swept his gaze over the men before him, returning only slowly to their captain.
Oh yes, she was very young. She did not even try to hide the burning intensity with which she watched him. He felt a smile curve his lips at the thought. The blood of Venus surged in his veins, stirred by this woman's presence in a manner reserved for no other, but he inhaled deeply and set himself to ignoring its heated entreaty. This time he would refuse the call of passion.
He almost regretted playing his part in her seduction. Almost. As seductions went it had lacked a certain grace, a certain subtlety, that he was used to in the machinations of Roman nobility. He had to admit though, that no Roman noble he had ever met owned as much raw appeal as did this barbarian pirate. Such wiles were patently unnecessary, and he suspected that she could have hauled him into the darkened shelter of a staircase and it would have been seduction enough. This young pirate captain would have to exert great effort to make herself unappealing.
He had been a prisoner waiting on his ransom, and he had seen no reason to resist her advances. It had been the most painfully beautiful encounter of his life, hot and powerful and almost brutally honest. His blood keened with the memory of it as he stepped toward her, and he had to grit his teeth and concentrate on the feel of the knife hidden in the folds of his cape to ignore it.
Fate had given him this one chance, this fleeting opportunity, to catch the viper in her cradle. He would not squander it. She was young yet, barely formed, but he recognised danger when he saw it. This one creature, out of all others, this child, this woman, was his greatest enemy. He had pondered the question long, and he felt he understood now. Around this girl probabilities were silenced, because around this girl, all was possible in equal measure. All ... even, in defiance of destiny itself, his defeat. This could not be. He would not allow it. Passion be damned.
They met mid-way between mast and bow. He smiled at her, and she lowered the hood of her cape. He steeled himself against the delicate, almost tentative welcome in her face. Foreheads almost touching, eyes locked, they circled each other. Slowly, gracefully, stalking each other in a circle no wider than they were tall. He swallowed hard, drowning in more shades of blue than had right to mingle in such close company. Flecks of silver amidst cerulean swirls, facets of ice and flares of the hottest part of a flame, passion and intensity and an acute, blazing intelligence - a painful beauty ... his blood screamed, raging, keening, railing against his will. He clenched his jaw, held fast to his resolve.
It was barely a moment, a sudden, slight widening of her eyes, but he saw the very instant she recognised betrayal in his countenance. Shock stilled her for a precious heartbeat, and he seized it. No more.
"Now!" he shouted. He struck at her shoulder with one hand, hard, spinning her into the cage of his arms as he whipped the dagger to her throat. A confusion of grief and exultation robbed him of his voice and he laughed soundlessly as his troops erupted from hiding, arrows flying with deadly accuracy.
"What do you think you're doing?" Xena cried, her voice panicked, pitched to be heard over the sudden, discordant clamour of battle.
He smiled bitterly, pulling her firmly against him and pressing his blade against her throat. Surprise had given him the advantage. He refused to allow it to slip away now. He watched the short, vicious battle over her shoulder, his lips beside her ear. "This is my destiny," he murmured. "And you're a part of that. Just as I'm a part of yours." The last part, he promised himself.
He felt the flinches in the body against his, and he wondered what she saw as her men fell around her, as betrayed by her weakness as she was by his drive for greatness.
"We were going to conquer the world together. What happened to those plans for us?" she whispered.
"Us," he repeated derisively, painfully. "There was never any us, Xena. Only Rome. And I am Rome." He smiled now, united with his will, certain of his destiny. "Still, don't think that what we had was meaningless," he whispered. "I'll always remember it ... and you'll have a special place of honour - among my conquered."
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Pain. So much pain. The earth pulled at her, dragging her down, her shoulders burning, her legs screaming as the shattered bones grated against each other. She sucked in breaths, shallow and fast, trying not to move, for movement of any sort brought the pain in crashing waves that drove conscious thought from her mind. She refused herself that escape.
Fool! How had this happened? When had she become so weak that she allowed herself to be beguiled by another man's purpose? And she had been beguiled, she admitted ... beguiled by his poise ... by his calm ... by his complete, steadfast confidence in his destiny. His dignity in chains had been compelling ... and seductive.
Sound pulled at her, drawing her curiosity so that she lifted her head slightly, opening her eyes to look upon her captors. Night was falling, and the guards were laying firewood against the coming chill. As the sun set the wind off the ocean would become crisp and cutting, and the row of crosses lining the beach was certainly no warmth to the soul ... even a Roman soul. The soldiers worked together with a camaraderie and efficiency that characterised the armies of Rome, carrying conversation in low tones. Though they made some effort to avoid looking at her, it seemed they could not help a few, sidelong glances at their charge.
A wry, darkly humorous smile twisted her mouth, and despite the clamouring backdrop of pain she found herself wincing as that grim curve cracked her lower lip. She licked gingerly at the drop of blood that welled in that fissure, and grimaced as she found herself unable to swallow, her mouth far too dry.
He had seemed almost frightened. She had heard that breaking the legs of the crucified was mercy, that otherwise a victim could linger for days, until finally exhaustion or heart failure sent them to Hades. Shattering the legs hastened a person's death, the shock and the pain too much for a mortal body to endure, the blood gathering at the site of the fracture depriving the rest of the body of its needs. Having looked into his eyes as he gave the order, she could not help but wonder if he had feared she would somehow step down from the cross and escape his clutches if she had legs to walk on. And now, without even legs to support her, he placed guards at her feet. Who did he think would care enough to release them? True, Romans were not much liked in Greece, but they were pirates. What could anyone care for their fate?
Fate. Destiny. How she hated those words. They echoed in her ears, spoken in Caesar's cool, confident, hateful voice. It was her longing for purpose that had betrayed them all. She had protected her homeland, put fear into all those who would look upon Amphipolis with avarice, and now she drifted aimlessly, filling her days with the fleeting pleasures of looting and pillaging. When had she lost her ability to determine her own direction? When had she stopped acting, stopped moving, simply let herself be carried on the tide of events that spiralled out from that single, desperate stand against Cortese? ... Lyceus?
She blinked angrily, dismayed to find familiar tears blurring her vision, her brother's name evoking the empty loneliness she tried so hard to drown in temporal pleasures. She closed her eyes, squeezing the grief out to trickle in the path of anguish long since dried. Gods, she missed him.
They had been so close in age that she did not recall it, but her mother had always maintained that they had each been enchanted the moment they first laid eyes on each other. Lyceus at his mother's breast, a tiny Xena on hands and knees straddling her mother's legs, two pairs of bright blue eyes locked on each other in rapt fascination.
She recalled numerous hidings handed out with no other justification than that Lyceus had been caught at mischief. It had always been assumed that where one trespassed, it could not have been without the other. Of course, the assumption had nearly always been correct.
They had completed each other, and though she more often led than followed, at his death she had become lost. She had finished what they had set out to do, and now ... what? Now what was she to do? And there had stood Caesar, proud and poised, arrogant to be sure, but so confident of his path, of his reason for being.
It was that utter certainty that had drawn her to him. To be so sure that all things happened for a reason, no accidents, only fate ... she had wanted that. She had wanted a destination, some point to give direction to her journey. She had wanted someone to stand beside her, someone to crowd out the loneliness. She had wanted it too much ... so much that she had wilfully ignored that whisper inside her, that soft voice of her instincts, that spoke of something other in Caesar, something strange, that told of something withheld, of reserve.
Sand whipped against her legs and she stiffened. A strangled, tortured gasp was punched from her lungs as the reflex hammered her with a fist of white-hot agony. Her eyes flew wide and she glared into the face of a young Roman soldier. He stepped back, quailed by the ferocity in her gaze, then squared his shoulders belligerently and turned away from her.
"Not yet," she heard one of the men murmur as the soldier rejoined his fellows around the fire. Something was exchanged between a few of them. She closed her eyes, sickened.
"Last one," another man rumbled in a low, gravelly voice. She bit down on her lip savagely, willing the pain to drive out the sudden surge of grief and guilt and anger that followed in the wake of those words.
She sent a few silent words out into the darkness, not sure what she wanted to say, uncertain that the dead would even want to hear from her. They had been a rough lot, violent and angry and all too willing to spend their frustrations on those weaker than they. She thought that few would mourn their passing, and she did not doubt that if Caesar had given them the hope, there was little they would not have done to earn their lives. Still, in the time she had known them even the worst had faltered at times, showing shining sparks of goodness almost drowning in the darkness of their lives. In memory of those sparks, she apologised for her weakness.
She wondered who of her men had been the last to succumb. Ashka perhaps, a mountain of a man who could sever limbs with a single pass of his scimitar. He had hauled a puppy from a well for a bereft little boy, and almost gotten himself stuck in that narrow shaft as a result. A northern mercenary had sniggered a little too loudly at the sight, and had his neck broken for his humour.
Or perhaps Nagillius. He was not the tallest man by any measure, nor even the broadest. He was of a little less than average height, lean and angular and almost fragile in appearance, but she had met few men tougher than he. He preferred the company of men, and because of it he was perceived as an easy mark. With an arm broken in three places he had fought off a drunken trio wanting to take in violence what he might have offered freely. Stumbling back to the ship he had left his knife buried in the chest of a man who had sought to do much the same to a young maiden in an alley. No one commented, but it did not go unnoticed that over the next few days three men were discovered dead, bound at wrist and heel, castrated.
No, they had none of them been saints. What goodness each had possessed had been more than matched by the darkness they had wallowed in ... but for a short while they had been hers, and so she mourned - and hurt - that she had failed them so dramatically ... delivered them up so blindly to Caesar's revenge.
Again sand blew across her legs. She stomped firmly on the instinct to flinch away from it. She opened her eyes slowly and glared at the youth who seemed to have been delegated to this duty. He seemed almost sulky as he stomped back to his seat. She smiled humourlessly, returning herself to darkness. Perhaps he had lost his bet.
It was petty, but she felt a small, vicious amount of satisfaction in proving herself stronger than his estimation. So ... she was the last. And so ... a Roman general, a lover, a betrayer ... wished her dead, wished her ... conquered.
She shifted slowly, deliberately, welcoming the wave of heat, of pain, that swept back the lassitude stealing over her. So ... Caesar fancied himself a conqueror. She smiled slowly, darkly, oblivious to the chill that passed through all who looked upon her.
Once she had had a brother, a brother who had completed her. Where others had despaired, he had exulted in her wildness. Where others had disapproved, he had immersed himself in her strength. Where others had tried to tame her, he had died to keep her free ... and she would be. Her body was broken ... her limbs were bound ... and death beckoned to her from the shadows ... but she would not be conquered. She would not be tamed.
Warmth skittered down her spine, strange and shivery, and she frowned in response. She opened her eyes. A man stood at her feet. His face was long and saturnine, pale and wan, framed by dark hair shining with tarnished gold. He wore finely tooled armour glinting darkly in the firelight, and a dark cloak fell from his shoulders to his ankles. He looked up at her and raised a single brow, cool and questioning. Her nostrils flared as she sucked in a breath, scenting otherness on him.
His garb did not proclaim him one of Caesar's men, and even through the clamouring of agony and fatigue she found a small corner of her mind in which to feel curiosity. He stood at her feet, an elaborate helmet tucked beneath one arm, and her guards paid him no mind. Not a single man huddled around that fire cast so much as a single glance in his direction, though one or two were stealing sidelong glances at her.
He was a tall man ... as tall as she perhaps, though it was hard to tell from her tortured position. His face was stern, a little sad, attractive though not particularly handsome. There was a strange gentleness in his eyes and in the down turned curve of his mouth, despite his armour. She trailed a gaze over the dark plates, the inquisitive calculation instinctive to her even in these last hours. She had never seen anything like it ... harboured doubts that any smith in Greece had the skill to create armour such as this. It was a weapon in and of itself, smooth, solid plates flowing over expanses of limb and torso, edges sharp and overlapping at the joints, the flexing of a limb creating a wicked blade fit to tear flesh from bone. The stranger did not wear a sword or carry any other weapon, and clad as he was he didn't need to.
Movement. Sound. A querulous voice tugged at these remnants of her consciousness. She spared a glance for her captors, a snarl ravaging her features as she glared, raking her gaze over men who gambled on -
Her eyes widened. The breath left her lungs in a shocked exhalation as her attention snapped back to her silent observer.
Commotion. Furor. She was distantly aware of yells, of shouts, of the distinctive, dull sound of flesh impacting on flesh. Metal flashed yellowed-orange in the flickering firelight. Her gaze remained locked on those gentle, dark eyes. Ropes parted beneath the solid thud of blades piercing wood and she plummeted to the sand. Her legs took the impact and she arched, mouth wide in a silent scream as agony blazed through her body. Her eyes held the stranger's gaze. Gentle, familiar hands held her body, a whistle sounded in her ear and the sound of hoof-beats came to her. Tears streaked her face in silence, and still she stared at him. His brows rose in a calm, dispassionate enquiry. A question. A choice. In the darkness of his eyes was quiet, peace, gentleness ... and surrender. She closed her eyes. She turned her face away.
~ finis ~