Tartarus

By M. Parnell
Copyright 1997


Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and any others from Xena Warrior Princess, along with the back story are the property of MCA/Universal. The rest of this story is mine, and does not constitute any attempt to infringe on their rights. This story is strictly a non-profit endeavor. Any reproduction or other use of the story without my consent is prohibited. M. Parnell

***Special note to readers: Some months ago I promised that I would never again begin to post a story before it was completed. I regret to say that I had been temporarily possessed by a demon which spake through my mouth (and keyboard). It has become apparent to me that if I wait until a story is finished before I start posting, I will put off the work, and indulge in my passions and/or vices instead. (Or I'll go off and run a multi-national corporation.) Then the story would never be finished. TARTARUS MAY NOT BE COMPLETED FOR SOME TIME. If you prefer to read only completed stories, please wait until the conclusion is posted before you begin reading.

This story contains violence. It also assumes that Xena and Gabrielle are in love with each other. If either of those things is offensive to you, please choose another story.

TARTARUS takes place after the events described in ORIGINS. It is not necessary to read ORIGINS first, but certain references will be puzzling to you.

I began this story before season three. Given all that has happened, I find it hard to continue without allowing season three to intrude in some places. If that doesn't fit with the first fifteen chapters, well, (picture me shrugging my shoulders here), it can't be helped. Maybe some day I'll go back and make it all consistent.


Chapter One

"Xena? Would you say Tarimides has slate-gray eyes, or are they more sword-metal gray?" The question had some urgency; the night was growing old, soon Xena would check on Argo one last time before stretching out on her bedroll. Gabrielle wanted to finish her thought before then.

"Gabrielle, they were gray," Xena replied, as if that was answer enough.

"Xena, you can do better than that," the bard complained. "You saw him a lot more than I did. Don't you want history to remember him as he really was?"

"History, huh?" The warrior closed her eyes, picturing her trusted general, while Gabrielle waited expectantly, quill poised over a scroll. An alarming number of scrolls seemed to have been devoted to the battle for Prestia, and Xena was happy to know that Tarimides was receiving recognition for his part in the affair. Her needle was still for a moment, the thread it carried, halfway through her linen shift. The garment had once been white, but long wear had rendered it dingy; soon it would be the color of Tarimides' eyes, she realized, but knew that answer wouldn't satisfy Gabrielle. Frayed clothing wouldn't do for a literary endeavor. Her eyes fell on the campfire. Near its edge, tiny mountains of ash had formed around the rock encirclement. "Ashes, Gabrielle." She looked up soberly.

"Ashes?"

"The pale gray ash of incense," she said, warming to her task. "Except when he was angry, then they deepened; like storm clouds they became, sometimes."

Gabrielle smiled, enthusiastic, appreciative. "Xena. That was lovely. See, when you stop and think about it, there's a lot more to gray than just gray." She set quill to scroll again, and Xena returned to her mending, happy to have pleased the bard. She could just manage to see her green eyes across the fire, and recalled all there was to green besides green. Why don't you ask me about your eyes Gabrielle, she mused; I could tell you about them: how they wrap spring-fresh tendrils around my heart, put emeralds to shame, deepen like the pools of a green-sea I once sailed. Gabrielle looked up and the blue eyes looked quickly away.

"Xena? What were you thinking?" she asked.

"I was wishing I'd ripped up this thing last week instead of the new one." She mentally castigated herself for the lie. Why can't I just say those things? she wondered.

Gabrielle looked at her with sympathy. They had come across a cart stopped in the road the week before. The woman on board was journeying to her mother's home to give birth, but she'd left it too late, and the baby was about to appear. The birth was uneventful, but boiling water and clean cloths had been required. The first thing that came to Xena's hand was the new shift she'd brought away from Prestia.

Gabrielle set her scrolls aside and sat beside Xena, wrapping her arms around the leather-clad waist. "If it would fit, I'd let you have mine," she said.

"If it would fit, I'd take it," Xena answered, estimating that Gabrielle's shift would cover very little of her large frame, guessing with a smile that that would be fine with Gabrielle. She adjusted her arms in order to continue sewing while the smaller woman relaxed against her.

"You could send to Prestia for another one."

"I could," Xena agreed mildly. "I could also buy one in the next town."

"But you won't," Gabrielle predicted. "You won't want to spend the dinars."

The big shoulders moved in a slow shrug. "This has a few more wearings in it. It doesn't get much use anyway. When do I wear it? When I'm hurt? I don't care what I'm wearing then. Why waste dinars on something ..."

"Something only I see?" Gabrielle asked. She didn't move her head from Xena's shoulder, but Xena felt her tense, and sighed. No more mending tonight.

"That's not what I meant." Her arms moved to encircle the slim waist, and she lifted Gabrielle onto her lap. In truth, the warrior didn't know what to say. To her, the shift seemed insignificant, something she used, when necessary, to cover her body; she'd rather it was clean and whole, but dinars were sometimes hard to come by; she could think of a half dozen other things she'd like dinars enough for, right now. She could have taken a cart full of Prestian gold, if she'd wanted to; the small bit she'd taken had seemed like too much, at the time. She hadn't wanted anything that was connected to Cletus; Ephiny had helped her see that the gifts she was offered were from the people, not her father, and the money was coin of the realm, belonging to all the people. In the end she'd agreed to take something, enough to give Gabrielle comfortable lodgings and decent food for a few nights. That had been gold well spent. Gabrielle had dubbed the inn they stayed in "Elysia.' If she didn't evade Tartarus, in the end, Xena hoped she would at least be able to bring with her memories of that Elysia.

The shift had seemed an eminently practical gift, one of the few Argo could carry. Now that was gone, the gold was gone, and she was explaining why what her shift looked like didn't matter, to the only person whose opinion in such things did matter. I should have taken more, she decided; Gabrielle deserves better than an impecunious scruff. She carefully extracted the needle and stuck it in a bracer for safe keeping, then ripped the worn shift from top to bottom.

"Xena, what are you doing? Now you have no shift!"

"Then let's hope I don't need one, eh? I'll just have to wrap myself in a blanket." A mischievous smile lit her face. "Or you'll have to accept me the way I came into the world."

"I don't know," Gabrielle said, considering. "You show a lot of wear." She found a small scar at the nape of her neck, "Here," she kissed it. "And here;" she moved her lips to a longer, more recent scar on her shoulder. "And..." she examined her chest closely, touching her left breast where it showed above the battledress. "Xena, where did that other scar go?" she asked puzzled.

"Self-mending body," Xena boasted. "I don't have nearly the number of scars I should, but I can show you a few you may have overlooked." She reached back to undo her laces.

"One shiftless warrior for your inspection."

Much later she moved slightly to pull a blanket over a bard who was finally on the verge of sleep. "I slept once on a carpet of moss that rivaled velvet. In the heat of passion, your eyes are that soft-green," she whispered. Gabrielle woke the next morning wondering if those words had been spoken in a dream.

"Gabrielle, these scrolls take up more room all the time," Xena grumbled. "I won't have room for a shift soon." She adjusted Argo's cinch while she spoke, eyes on the bulky bag of scrolls Gabrielle waited to add to the load.

"Hmmm," Gabrielle conceded, while avoiding the warrior's eyes. "I guess I could get a sort of sack and carry them myself," she suggested.

"Maybe a packhorse would be a better idea," Xena muttered to herself. "Don't you worry that something will happen to them?" she asked. "They represent a couple of years of your life."

"Our life," the bard corrected her. "And no, I don't worry about that; every word is here," she touched a finger to her forehead, "and the most important words are here, as well." She touched her heart.

"Then let's leave some of them in Amphipolis, next time we pass by, or Amazonia?" Xena raised an eyebrow hopefully. The honey-haired blonde stood hands on hips while she framed a reply, but her attention was taken by something, a noise which came from the road beyond the ridge.

"Xena. I hear music." Staff in hand, she followed the sound and found its source before Xena had finished loading Argo. She told the warrior as she arrived: "There's a festival just a few miles away. These musicians are performing there."

"Priblis, just a few hours along that way," the one carrying a small drum advised her. "All the towns have festivals this time of year in these parts. Celebrates some ancient deliverance from a plague. But Priblis is something special; always a good time there," he winked.

"Thanks, but I don't think so," Xena told him. "Come on Gabrielle," she called, and started walking down the road in the opposite direction.

"Xena, you didn't even think about it, "Gabrielle complained as she hurried to catch up. She didn't notice the knowing glances that passed among the musicians.

"Hold on, " she grabbed Xena's arm. "Don't we even talk about this?"

"Uh-uh," Xena's dark head moved in sharp negation. "I'll just say it's the price you pay for keeping company with an ex-warlord. There are places you don't go." She moved on, with hardly a glance at the girl who was falling rapidly behind.

"So you've been in Priblis?"

"Yeah."

"And you were pretty bad there? The people don't have fond memories?"

"No," she said, words matching her pace. "The people in Priblis have no reason to hate me. But Priblis is not far from the border with Mustrakis. There, I was very bad indeed." Gabrielle found that easy to believe; but she had never known Xena to run from a scene of her past before, and it disturbed her now.

"Xena," she said at last. She stopped in the middle of the road. "I can't keep up with you."

Xena took a few more steps then slowed to a halt and turned around, shamefaced. "I'm sorry." She looked away, unable to speak while she looked at the innocent girl. "Things got way out of hand in Mustrakis. I went there to supply my army, taking the late summer bounty before the king got his share in taxes. I did very well, got everything I needed. The king took exception to that." She paused remembering, face clouded. "Three of my men were captured, and hanged. Their bodies were sent back mutilated. You can't let your troops see that sort of thing unanswered. It's bad for morale," she explained, looking at Gabrielle for the first time. "To boost their spirits, and spit in the king's face, I turned them loose for a night of fun. A little village just over the border from Priblis. I don't even know its name." She stopped, and kicked at a stone in the road.

"Things got out of hand," Gabrielle echoed her words.

"Yeah." Her face was impassive, eyes narrowed; no glimpses into the soul today. Too dark.

"I'm surprised that would happen; the hanging, I mean," Gabrielle spoke to keep the dialogue alive. Mustrakis is known for its compassion. It's the only kingdom I know of that's abolished the death penalty."

"Very compassionate," Xena sneered. "But it's not the only kingdom. There are two others, Estapol and Ralpana. A few years back they formed a confederation, a league for defense, mainly. That's when they each abolished the death penalty."

"You don't sound as if you approve."

"There's more than one way to kill a person, Gabrielle," she said. "Let's ride." She mounted Argo then lifted Gabrielle up behind her.

"Xena, if being so near Mustrakis troubles you, why did we come this way? Why did we camp so close to Priblis last night?"

"Because it was the fastest route; because until we met those musicians, I hadn't remembered the festivals."

"That's when it happened," the bard guessed, "during the festival period?"

"Yeah. This route also seemed safe because this area is pretty desolate. We haven't seen ten people in two days of travelling, including that bunch of musicians."

"Why does that make it - Oh." Xena's meaning caught up with her."

Xena nodded at the understanding she heard in the soft voice. "You got it, Gabrielle. This isn't only about guilty memories, it's about evading punishment. Those musicians heard my name. They're on their way to a crowded festival-town. It won't be long before every bounty hunter in the area is out to collect the fat price on my head."

"I'm sorry, Xena," she said with true contrition, "I shouldn't have - "

"It's not your fault. They would have realized who I was, anyway, before long." She patted the hands at her waist. "Don't worry; I'm not wanted on this side of the border, and I have yet to meet the bounty hunter who can not only capture me, but haul me into another kingdom. I'll just feel better when we've put some distance between us, and the border." Some miles passed in silence; Gabrielle felt taut muscles in Xena's shoulders, saw the jaw clenched tight. She was badly shaken, and that disturbed Gabrielle.

"Xena," she asked at last, seeking to understand. "When your men were turned loose, were you with them?"

"Yes, I was," she answered.

At last Xena was satisfied that enough distance had been covered, and they made camp.

This was a different campfire: no domestic chores, no banter, no romance. Xena honed her sword to a fine edge, nearly wordless. Gabrielle pretended to work on a story. The fire was small, and Xena extinguished it altogether before they lay down to sleep.

"Gabrielle," Xena whispered into the bard's ear as she snuggled in behind her, arms enveloping her body. "I'm sorry about all this. I've always known that someday I might have to face punishment I've earned for the things I've done. There's a lot to be paid for." She spoke simply, without emotion. "The real punishment would be separation from you. That's why today was so frightening; I never seriously thought I'd be captured, but it hit me suddenly that now, I have too much to lose." Gabrielle lifted one of Xena's big hands to her lips, and kissed the long fingers. "All those years, it wouldn't have really mattered if I was executed. Everything would have been over, that's all. But now..." Gabrielle nodded her understanding, as her warm tears covered Xena's hand.

It was not yet dawn when the ground rumbled beneath them. Gabrielle thought it sounded like a herd of stallions galloping through come underground cavern. Xena had been dreaming, and confused it for the rumblings she knew echoed through Tartarus.

"Quake," she called as her eyes opened, and she pulled Gabrielle from the bedroll to an open space not far away, then she fetched a spooked Argo, and stood calming them both while the trembling continued. It was over in minutes, and no damage was evident in the immediate vicinity, but any village in its path would have suffered, Xena knew. That tremblor had been strong. She left Argo with Gabrielle while she collected their things from the tree-shrouded campsite. Priblis would still be crowded for the festival. This was a bad time for a quake. She tried to picture what she knew of the road ahead. Fairly flat, no hills or rocky ledges to avoid, except for one tiny stretch, which could be easily circumvented.

She returned to Gabrielle through the murky pre-dawn light, and spread a blanket on the dewy ground. "Too dark to travel. Might as well have breakfast."

Dried fruit and coarse bread made an adequate meal. With first light they were on the road. "Xena," Gabrielle said as they set out. "I wonder if Priblis was badly damaged."

"I don't know, Gabrielle."

"They could probably use - "

"I know: a healer," Xena said testily. "Neither of us are healers."

"You're the next thing to it, Xena. And your experience is with the kinds of injuries a quake would cause." She stopped suddenly; let her words hang in the air. They continued walking for a few paces, but Gabrielle watched Xena, knew that the warrior waged battle with herself. One instinct said to fly from Priblis; the other, to do good where she could. Where better to make amends than in a district that had so much to fear from her?

She didn't know the gnawing, mysterious fear that Xena had only begun to recognize, though she glimpsed it when Xena at last halted and nodded her head. "Let's go," she said through tight lips, as she mounted Argo. "We'll be lucky to make it by late afternoon."

Chapter Two

"The quake shook this town like a hound shakes a hare." Gabrielle had no reason to doubt the young man whose lay on the table before her. She tied off the bandage of the leg-splint and cast a glance around the area, hoping to spy Xena. She heard a cry, and knew from the sound of it, that Xena was setting someone's bones. Broken bones, torn flesh, internal bleeding: those had been the general run of injuries. A fire had broken out in the inn, but had been quickly extinguished, and burn victims were few. The building has sustained no structural damage, and served as an aid station now; every bed and table was taken up with injured. Those left whole pitched in willingly, with various degrees of skill. A burial pit at the edge of town held the score of dead. If Xena had not agreed to come to Priblis, many others would have joined them. To Gabrielle, it seemed a small thing to organize the able, divide tasks, and encourage cooperation instead of the narrow self-interest that had prevailed. The presence of so many strange faces had caused the people of Priblis to go against their community instinct to help one another. Each family had attempted to look after its own, and few possessed the requisite skills. While Xena organized the men in a concerted effort to locate and rescue survivors, Gabrielle had commandeered the inn and organized an impromptu infirmary.

In their shock and need no one had questioned the identity of the dark warrior who brought a strong back and skilled hands. It was near midnight when a work-begrimed man with a red beard offered his hand and name to the indefatigable woman. "Gaederus," he said.

She replied with a nod, and a quick hand clasp.

"Would you be Xena?" he asked. "The Warrior Princess?"

She looked up from the leg she was splinting. There was no threat in his eyes, no suspicion, and she relaxed. "Yes." He had guessed anyway.

"Thanks for all you've done; I'd heard stories that you'd changed. People around these parts are slow to believe them. This should change a few minds."

She allowed herself a wry smile. The bodies she'd help mend were a tiny fraction of the toll her army had taken in Mustrakis. "I did what I could. I'd just as soon you not mention my name; at least, not until I'm well out of here."

"Understood," he agreed, touching a gnarled index finger to his nose. He turned to a sudden noise at the door.

"We hear crying underneath some rubble at the edge of town." The messenger had been one of a sturdy crew ferreting through the wreckage, trying to account for the inhabitants. It was anybody's guess how many were really in the village; during the festival the number of inhabitants tripled.

"Gabrielle." Xena called the younger woman to her. "Finish this splint. She's in shock; there may be some bleeding; I don't know where. I think she'll pull through, but she shouldn't be moved." Gabrielle nodded as the taller woman stuffed a few items into a small sack and moved to the door. Her strength might be needed to help free the victims, before her skill could be employed. "Be careful," Gabrielle warned, and reached up to plant a small kiss on her cheek before Xena closed the door behind her.

There was no light but for the torches that had been set around the rubble. Men were already at work, passing debris from what had been a cellar. The small house that had stood here had collapsed into the cellar. It seemed impossible that any living thing could be at the bottom of the pile of wood and masonry, but an intermittent wail sounded eerily through the night. A child.

A voice behind her said: "There's a toddler lives in this house. Little girl."

>From the center of activity another voice reported: "I can touch her!" Then: bring me a blanket to wrap her."

"I'll get it." Gaederus took off to find the blanket while work continued.

The crying increased when the man in the hole first touched the child; a good steady noise, Xena thought with relief, nothing serious to patch up from the sound of it. Then there was a noise like splintering wood, and the cry became a howl of pain. Xena pushed forward to the hole. "What's happened?" she called down.

"She snagged on something," came the distant voice. "There's blood spurting in my eyes."

That type of bleeding could end life quickly. Xena felt a chill touch her, and snapped: "Get her out of there! Quick!"

A rope was around his shoulders, and the men above ground pulled steadily to inch him toward the surface, while he cradled the child. Xena worked under torchlight to prepare for the treatment she knew would be required. With unerring eye she threaded a sharp needle, and pulled a piece of her old shift from the bag. Gaederus had returned with blankets, and she directed him to spread one on a door that lay on a nearby pile of lumber.

As he followed her instructions he said softly: "Soldiers have arrived. They wear the uniform of Mustrakis. They're here to help, or so they say, but - " He didn't have to finish. Xena nodded her understanding "Thank you." For a long moment she stood still, while her mind leaped ahead to guess at the course of future events. "Would you tell my friend to gather my things and take the road out of town? I'll catch up with her." He began to move. "Gaederus. Tell her not to wait for me. Under no circumstances is she to return for me; or follow me. Have you got that?" She spoke quietly, but left no doubt that she meant it. He touched his nose and hurried away.

She waited by the entrance to the hole, mind focused on the task ahead. No point guessing where the bleeding was from; she'd see soon enough. She wanted to believe the soldiers had a healer with them, but doubted that; they had crossed the border on the pretext of providing assistance; they were really hoping to find her. And they will, she admitted, it will take them all of two minutes to locate me. She pushed the dark thought from her mind and listened to the noises which told her the child was about to emerge.

Then everything happened at once: a cheer went up as the last man was hauled from the precarious pit; she lifted the child from his arms before he had risen from the ground, and whisked her to the covered door. About two years old, she noted as she cut away the filthy clothes. Blood was everywhere, she couldn't believe much more could remain in a body so small. The pulse point she found on the girl's neck was faint, but steady. There was still time, she knew, if she worked fast. "Hold the torches closer," she commanded, as she swabbed blood away from a tiny arm. There was the problem. Just below the elbow, blood spurted out with every heartbeat. Quickly she tied a length of leather cord around the arm. "Keep it in the air," she barked at the nearest man. The child was squirming, and her ever fainter cry continued. Deft fingers touched the child, causing her to be still for a few minutes. "No pain now, little one," Xena's soft voice promised, looking for a moment at the doe-eyes that wondered at this new face, on this oddest of all nights. Strong fingers probed the wound gently and extracted a long wooden splinter. "Hmmm," she nodded to herself, satisfied. She pulled the threaded needle from its sticking spot in a bracer, and knelt beside the door to get a better angle. One part of her became aware of new movement in the crowded area. A strident voice demanded: "Are you the Warrior Princess, Xena?"

"Yes," she answered, intent on the blood vessel that poured life out of the little child before her. She inserted the needle and took a tiny stitch.

"You are under arrest, by com - "

"Shut up," she said through bared teeth, and took another stitch. After that she worked undisturbed, straining to see in the dim torchlight. She shook hair out of her eyes, and a rough hand reached in to brush it gently back. "Thanks," she muttered. "Hold on, just a few more minutes," she told herself, and the tiny form before her. The child began to stir as the touch wore off; dangerous to apply it again to one so small. She began to hum softly as she worked, and the child listened, certain this must be someone she knew. At last the child slept, and the dark head lifted to look at the ring of faces.

"That's all I can do. She's lost a lot of blood, but her pulse is strong. Get her to the inn; keep her warm and still."

A half-dozen men murmured their understanding. Another half dozen held swords leveled at her. She considered: resist now, or escape later? She had no intention of facing Mustrakian punishment. At the moment, there was no choice, really, not without endangering the child. Gabrielle should be safely out of town, so she needn't be concerned about her. Capture and escape, she decided, but maybe she could buy Gabrielle a little time...

She moved slightly and the armed men stepped toward her. "I just want to get the child to safety," she explained hands in the air.

"The child stays where it is," a voice commanded. "Stay on your knees, put your hands behind your neck." So that's how it was. The child was a bond for her good behavior.

"At least cover her with a blanket," she told them. "She's in a fight for her life."

"She'll get a blanket once you're out of here, now do as I said," he demanded harshly.

Xena obeyed. Her hands were tied behind her back, and she was pulled to her feet.

Not too bad, she thought, if this was all the precaution they would take. As she was marched away she turned to see the child whisked off to shelter. She vaguely wished the child well, knew she would never learn its fate.

In the square, the rest of the troop stood idly by, watching the waning activity in the broken town when Xena was hauled before them. Their captain sat on a crate, paring his nails with a long knife. He looked at Xena with feigned disinterest.

"Seven years, Xena, since your depravations in Mustrakis; six years since you were tried and convicted." Her puzzlement was evident. "Didn't hear about that, eh? Tried, and convicted, in absentia, for the crimes of murder, rape, robbery, arson, mayhem...etcetera, etcetera. As commander you are deemed responsible for all the crimes committed under your standard. Knowing your reputation, I have no doubt you also bear personal guilt for those crimes. Can you deny it?" She didn't reply. "No matter," he smiled grimly, "the debt has come due. You know the price?" Again no reply. He laughed. "Of course you do. I only wonder why you'd dare venture this close to Mustrakis. Did you think yourself invincible?" She regarded him steadily, hearing his words, but giving her attention to so much else. At the periphery of her vision, the inn lay in near-darkness. She hoped that meant no on-going crisis had delayed Gabrielle's departure. A sizeable number of troops were in sight now, as they filtered back to see their prize. Each would share some portion of the price on her head, she knew, and the captain who sat lecturing her on Mustrakian justice would soon have a command of his own. First they had to get her to Mustrakis.

"Your weapons, where are they?" he asked for the second time. The chakram and sheathed sword had snagged so many times on debris as she'd hauled victims from collapsed buildings that she'd finally set them aside, along with the breastplate. The breast dagger had been useful in the infirmary; she guessed that Gabrielle had it now.

"I don't know," she answered with some truth. "I put them aside while I helped with the injured."

"You put your horse aside as well? Don't bother to lie, Xena, we know you rode into Priblis, and we know you had a confederate. A woman. I've heard you travel with a woman. My men are looking for her now." Her face remained impassive. No point wondering who had been his source of information, much of the town had seen them. The only question to consider was how far Gabrielle might have gotten in the short time since she'd sent Gaederus with instructions. No matter, once she'd broken free of her bonds this troop would cease to be a threat. Just stay out of sight a bit longer, was her silent message to the bard.

"You don't seem to be taking this seriously, Xena. In fact you seem not to be paying attention."

He rose from his seat and crossed the few paces to her. She regarded him with indifference. "I've heard every word. I'm waiting to hear how you plan on getting me to Mustrakis." The sudden smile that played on her lips alarmed him, then he didn't see the smile at all, as his lips were mashed against his teeth by a booted foot. The night was shattered by an ululating cry; her arms were no longer behind her; each wrist wore a bracelet of leather cord and the right hand held the long knife the captain had used for his manicure. She turned a somersault over the heads of the gaping soldiers and used the crate to vault further from them. She had the advantage now, and pitched headlong down the street, flying over mountains of rubble. The soldiers in her wake scrambled over the debris, watching their prize escape.

She needed a horse, and found one, a large dark form looming out of the dark. The mounted soldier never saw her until the broken beam had caught him square in the chest.

She caught the reins of the riderless horse and mounted on the run, high spirits infusing her as she urged the horse to a gallop and wheeled around to take the most direct route out of town, to where she would find Gabrielle and Argo. The soldiers from Mustrakis wouldn't venture much past Priblis; they were already violating the sovereignty of another kingdom. She made out a large black shape ahead, couldn't recall anything it might be, then picked out the forms of two, no, three mounted men. Easily avoided. She crouched low in the saddle, prepared to jump a pile of rubble beside the road, to bring her past them. They called something to her; a fourth man rode to join them bearing a torch, and what she saw made her rise in the stirrups as she yanked hard on the reins. Between two horses Gabrielle stood motionless, eyes blindfolded, hands tied by a rope, the rope held by a mounted soldier. A sword was at her throat.

"Dismount, or she dies." The threat was delivered in a calm, reasonable, tone. The logic of obedience was evident: dismount to save a life. His manner suggested he knew this was not just any life. Xena heard one other word: her own name, whispered in the way Gabrielle spoke when she was trying hard to be brave.

"It's all right," she looked at the soldiers, but her words were for Gabrielle. She lifted one leg over the saddle and jumped down. Behind her she heard the commotion of rushing horses and men. "Let her go," she said of Gabrielle. "She's done nothing."

"Throw down the knife." She obeyed, eyes fixed on Gabrielle, wondering how they had found her so fast. Gabrielle was good at evasion.

She heard a familiar voice, and she waited as the captain positioned himself before her. "Xena." He shook his head in admiration. "Nicely done; but I know your weakness." He indicated Gabrielle with a move of his dark head. "I know that this," he landed a fist hard on her mouth, "would hurt you far more if it struck your sweet young thing." He watched with satisfaction as she wiped blood from her lips; his own chin was still blood-smeared. "I don't expect that you'll give us any more trouble."

She looked at him with loathing. "She's done nothing. Let her go. I'll come peacefully. You have my word."

"The word of a murderous fugitive is worth nothing to me. Gabrielle remains with us as security for your good behavior."

"May I speak with her?" she asked quietly. "She needs to understand what's happening."

"I will explain all," he replied. "You won't get within fifty yards of her. Just know this, in the event you feel rebellious: the first strike of any weapon here will be directed at her, not you."

Chapter 3

Mus had a unique flavor. Its position on the trade routes attracted an assortment of merchants, money lenders, adventurers and rogues. The flavors and spices of many cultures mingled here, and Gabrielle thought she smelled them all at once as she made her way through a narrow alley, searching for the entrance to the forbidding prison, dubbed "Portal to Tartarus." She pushed that name away from her as she dodged people in the crowded street, and focused on the good news. Xena was alive and well, and Mustrakis did not execute criminals. They did not seem to be a brutal people. The journey on horseback from Priblis had been a nightmare of doubt and uncertainty, but she had been well-treated. She had caught only fleeting glimpses of Xena, but although the warrior had been bound, and wore a blindfold, she showed no signs of mistreatment. Gabrielle's heart caught in her throat as she remembered what had probably been the worst features of the trip, such as the slow march through Nala. The blindfold had been removed for that, so Xena could see the scene of the atrocity, see the concentrated hate directed toward her by the few remaining inhabitants. From a distance Gabrielle had watched as Xena met the faces with an unwavering stare. The soldiers near Gabrielle had commented on her arrogance. Gabrielle knew they were wrong, but didn't know how to explain it. She was certain, however, that it took more courage for Xena to see the hatred, and let them see her face, than it would to turn away, or hang her head.

The next morning had been worse. They had stopped early the night before, within easy distance of the city, and sent word of their approach. When they passed through the city gates, everyone knew who they escorted, and those who remembered Nala, or had nothing better to do, turned to jeer as she rode by. At one corner a rock was thrown at her, a little further along, a fruit vendor made his rotten fruit available, and a barrage began in earnest. Again, the dark head was unbowed; the warrior endured the taunts with no less grace than she had accepted accolades in Prestia. Prestia, Gabrielle thought, as if remembering a dream It had been mere weeks since Xena had been the adored monarch of a grateful people; it seemed like another lifetime.

Gabrielle had found the entrance to the building and shoved past an idle throng that loitered in the doorway. This was a busy place, meaning that Mustrakis either had a bad crime problem, or none at all. Visitors seemed to come and go at will. Gabrielle stopped, confused. Several corridors ran from the main hallway, and she followed the crowd which streamed to the busiest one. Through a dank, airless chamber they moved without pause, making a din like Gabrielle had never heard, toward a greater din ahead.

The corridor opened into a long, broad courtyard. The prison had been built around the courtyard. The ground floor seemed to be one large cell, with access to the courtyard on three sides. The visitors pressed themselves against the wide grating that set their boundaries. The prisoners likewise pressed themselves against the bars which limited their freedom. A three foot space lay between the two groups. So they found each other, prisoners and their loved ones. Gabrielle watched open-mouthed as raucous greetings were exchanged, hands were clasped in desperate affection, and loaves of bread, or skins of wine were passed over the gulf. It was dizzying, and she was immobile for a moment, wondering how, in all this confusion, she would find Xena. People were thrown together with no apparent regard for age or gender. A fresh cheeked girl took bread from a woman she called mother, alongside a grizzled, leather-clad warrior, who snatched it from her hand, bringing a wail of curses from the mother and daughter alike. What sort of place is this? she asked herself.

"Excuse me," she ventured to a passing woman. "I'm looking for a friend, and I don't know where to begin."

The toothless crone wiped a dirty hand across her lips and said: "Stand near the bars and bellow his name. If he don't come, move along a few feet and try again. If he never comes, it means he's dead." She laughed, and moved along the bars, calling the name of her own son.

"Thank you," Gabrielle murmured after her, wondering if that was the only way, wishing she'd brought some food for Xena. Maybe the two men who followed her, closely, could help. Before she moved, a hand touched her arm. "Excuse me," a gruff voice began. "Can I ask if your friend is bound for Tartarus? If so, there's no point looking here." A face so weathered could only produce a gruff voice, Gabrielle decided, but the gruffness was softened by a civil, almost gentle tone. The lines around his eyes may almost have been laugh lines, they crinkled so when he smiled. Or was that a squint? Gabrielle couldn't decide, but she found herself smiling at him, smiling for the first time since Xena's capture. "Tartarus?" she asked.

"Is your friend sentenced to Tartarus?" he persisted as if the question required no explanation.

"I thought they had no capital punishment here," she managed, wondering if her assumptions about this place were wrong.

He snickered. "The living death." So like Xena's comment on Mustrakian justice, she thought. "There is no execution here. They send them to exile. Tartarus, they call it. No respite, no return."

"Oh." A dim understanding began in her eyes.

"You must be new around here," he went on. "So, is your friend for Tartarus?"

"I guess," she said bleakly. She had been told on the journey that Xena had been convicted and sentenced in absentia. "Is that the maximum penalty?"

He nodded. "This side of Hades it is."

"Then I guess that's her sentence."

"Woman," he said with no surprise. He took her arm to pull her out of the general stream of traffic. "This level houses the petty criminals. They'll be back on the street in days. My friend's bound for Tartarus, as well. Let's go find them."

No one impeded their progress or asked their business as they climbed the broad stone steps to the upper level of cells. The crowd thinned, but the noise was just as great, as the clamor down below carried up the center space.

Gabrielle raised her voice to be heard as they walked. "Thank you for your help. I guess I looked lost."

"Easy to get lost here," he replied. He was a warrior by the look of him, weaponless at the moment, and laden with parcels. Food, she guessed, and maybe fresh clothing.

"I suppose I should have brought food for my friend. I didn't know."

"I've brought plenty." He smiled from chestnut-eyes; fair, wavy hair ended at his shoulders. Gabrielle decided she liked him, wondered what his friend had done to merit Tartarus.

My name's Gabrielle," she said.

"Drax," he nodded. "What's your friend's name? I'll help you shout her down."

She took a breath before replying. "Xena."

"The Warrior Princess?" he asked, surprised. She shook her head. "I heard that they'd taken her. She's keeping a better class of company these days," he observed.

"You know her?" Gabrielle asked hopefully.

"I do; but don't cheer up. I know her, but I'm no friend. I never much liked Xena."

"You've fought against her?"

"No," he said matter-of-factly. "I was never dumb enough to fight against her, or crazy enough to fight for her." Without explanation he stopped, and gestured to the landing they'd reached. Here, a walkway rimmed the area above the courtyard, allowing the same sort of access to the cells as the courtyard offered down below. There were really only four big cells, one on each side of the building. They were not as crowded as the cells below, but the intermingling was the same. Drax led the way, to where he knew his friend waited for him. "Xena," he boomed as he walked the length of one cell. "Xena," came Gabrielle's smaller voice behind him. Prisoners paid scant attention, but the guards, who were everywhere in evidence, turned to see who might be visiting the notorious convict.

"Looking for a new friend, Drax?" they called out to the familiar figure.

"Is Xena an old buddy, Drax? Sure you weren't with her at Nala?"

He ignored their jibes and moved along, Gabrielle, her eyes combing the cells, hurrying behind.

Gabrielle spied her sitting on the floor, back against the wall. She was just lifting her head in response to her name. She responded slowly to Drax's call, mistaking him for a guard. The soft echo brought her to the bars quickly, an uncertain smile on her face.

"Gabrielle. Are you all right?" Her eyes poured over the compact frame, then settled on her face. The green eyes would tell her all that was important.

"I'm fine, Xena," she assured her. "Have they hurt you?"

"Haven't touched me." Gabrielle was looking at purple egg on her forehead.

"Just a bump," Xena said dismissively. "Rock. This morning, when we entered the city."

A long arm reached through the bars. Gabrielle stretched forward until their fingers entwined.

"I've missed you," Xena breathed. "I hoped they'd let you see me, but I wasn't sure."

"I know; I was afraid the whole way that they'd stop me at the last moment." Her head indicated the two men assigned to shadow her. Xena cast a glance in their direction. "I figured they'd be right behind you. Don't give them any reason to hurt you," she warned.

"Such as?"

"I don't know. Just anything. You shouldn't be part of this. I'm sorry I put you at risk. Again."

"You put me at risk? How?"

"Just knowing me puts you at risk."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Xena. I'm the one who's sorry. I shouldn't have insisted we go to Priblis." The green eyes filled.

"It was the right thing to do, Gabrielle. This wasn't your fault," she told her gently, anxious to wipe those tears away, with words if nothing else.

"But I knew - "

"The risk? So did I." Her face was so relaxed, the eyes so untroubled, that the knot in Gabrielle's stomach began to loosen. "I've made a lot of worse choices."

"If I hadn't been captured, they never would have caught you."

"There just wasn't enough time for you to get away," she shrugged. "It happens."

"Get away?" Gabrielle was puzzled. "Xena, I wasn't trying to get away. Gaederus said you wanted me to wait in the stable."

Xena stared. All this, because Gaederus had deceived Gabrielle, had led her into a trap. All this because I trusted a man I didn't know. She closed her eyes and let the fury wash through her. Gaederus. Someday I'll see him again, she promised herself -

"Xena." Gabrielle's voice held a note of command. She knew where Xena's mind was going, felt it in the tightened grip of her fingers.

"Sorry," Xena said, relaxing her grip. "That's not what I told Gaederus." The guard was looking at her closely now, listening. She veered away from the topic. "Doesn't matter." She took a deep breath and gave Gabrielle a crooked grin. "So. Did you have trouble finding this place?"

"No, everyone knows the prison." She pointed to Drax a few yards away. "He - Drax - helped me find you." Xena looked at him briefly, remembered him. Not a bad fellow.

"I should have brought you something to eat, I didn't know they wouldn't feed you. What happens to people who don't have anyone to bring them food?"

"There's always some favor you can do for another inmate, or a guard," Xena told her.

"Favor?" Gabrielle repeated, then understood. "Xena, Drax said he had enough food to share - "

"Gabrielle, don't worry. Do you think I'd sell myself for a loaf of bread?" she asked with a quiet laugh. "Besides, I'm not hungry. Have you got enough to get by? Dinars, I mean?"

"Yeah, I'm fine." In fact, there were few dinars left. Prices were high in Mus. Argo's stabling fee was double what she was used to. "They left all your things with me. Argo, too. She's fine. Misses you. We both do." Xena looked at her; words didn't go far in this situation. She wanted to break through the bars and take hold of the bard in an embrace that would never end. "I miss you, too," she said again, instead.

"Xena," she controlled the tremble in her voice with difficulty. You were sentenced to exile? Tartarus?" The dark head nodded. "What is it like?"

Xena read fear of the unknown in the green eyes, and searched her mind for a reassuring thought. "I've never been there, just heard rumors. It's a sort of penal colony. Convicts all living in a vast wasteland, where no one else wants to live." She shrugged, eye on the guard, who monitored every word.

"You make it sound tolerable," the soft voice accused, "but there must be more to it, or why would they save it as punishment for the worst offenders, the most heinous crimes?" Gabrielle caught at her words. "I'm sorry, Xena, I didn't mean - "

"Relax, Gabrielle," she forced a self-deprecating smile. "I am one of the worst offenders, and I have committed heinous crimes. As for what else there is to Tartarus, I guess I'll find out soon enough."

Gabrielle took a deep breath. "When?" she asked, afraid of the answer.

"It seems they got me just in time for the next transport out. We leave in two days." She wanted not to look at Gabrielle then, afraid she couldn't hide her own pain, unwilling to see it mirrored in Gabrielle. But she couldn't look away. So little time, and she needed to spend it wisely.

Gabrielle met her gaze. "Xena, there must be something we can do. You've changed. Maybe the king will grant you a pardon."

"Don't count on it."

"If he's sending you away from his country, maybe he'll send you to Prestia; you are royalty there."

"Not much punishment in that is there?" she asked. "Besides. Prestia and Mustrakis are historic enemies, dating to the days Pres Prima was still loose in the world." She pulled a face at the memory of her notorious ancestor.

"So what can we do?" Gabrielle asked, desperation tingeing her voice.

"I go to Tartarus. You leave here. Please don't do anything crazy." Gabrielle looked at her innocently. "Gabrielle, if you so much as think of committing a crime to earn a sentence to Tartarus, I swear, you will regret it like nothing else in your life." Gabrielle knew that the blue eyes held just a hint of the anger she would see in that instance. "Promise me," Xena demanded. "On my life." Xena had never before asked her to make such a promise, and Gabrielle considered carefully before solemnly agreeing. "I promise."

Xena allowed herself a smile, one great fear disposed of. She took a breath then ventured: "Gabrielle, I'll see you in Elysia." The guard heard and snorted his contempt.

"Elysia? Just that? Xena," she protested loudly, "we have to do something about this lifetime." She waved her free arm wildly and the guard came still closer.

"Gabrielle there is nothing to be done." Xena was insistent, eyes boring into Gabrielle, jaw slightly clenched as always when she was deeply engaged in an argument. "The day after tomorrow, I go to Tartarus. I don't want to spend the time left with you fighting. Please."

"But you're just giving up." Gabrielle eyes were moist, voice strangled by a sob.

"I am not giving up. Trust me, one more time Gabrielle, trust me," Xena implored. She managed a smile, kissed the tips of her free fingers and pressed them to the bard's hand.

"Best I can do," she grinned apologetically. "I love you, Gabrielle, no matter what happens, believe that, and trust that I'm trying to do the right thing. Please. I will see you in Elysia," she said again. "Think about it, and promise me you'll be there." She winked, and Gabrielle was puzzled. The blonde head nodded; the bard couldn't trust herself to speak.

After a long moment of uncertainty, eye still on the hovering guard, Xena said: "Now, Gabrielle speak to me. About anything else."

There was nothing else, but Gabrielle tried: "Do you need anything? Do you need a blanket?"

"No, I'm fine."

"Xena, I know you feel the cold. Don't just put me off with 'I'm fine'. Isn't there anything I can ever do for you." Xena was surprised to hear anger in her words, then understood.

"I'm sorry, and, yes, there is something. The water here is pretty vile. A skin of wine would be nice, if you could manage it."

Her face brightened. ""I'll bring it by tonight."

"Tomorrow, I'm afraid, Gabrielle. No visitors at night. In fact, I think they're getting ready to empty the place now." On all sides, visitors were collecting their parcels, as if they knew time was up.

"So a few minutes tomorrow, and then I never see you again?" Panic welled up in Gabrielle's throat; she began to cry and didn't care.

"Bad time?" Drax came up behind her and nodded to Xena. "Hello."

"Drax," she said in greeting, reluctant to take her eyes off Gabrielle. "Thank you for helping my friend."

"Don't mention it. Ileander says you helped him out of a tight spot this morning."

She considered. "Your friend has a brash mouth," she said after a moment, remembering a slight man who'd asserted his right to first-use of the waste bucket, to a ruffian twice his size.

"He does," Drax agreed. "He forgets I'm not always there to pull him out of the holes he digs. Anyway, he has plenty of food to share." He turned to Gabrielle. "Time to go, little one, before they toss us out in the street. I'll see her to her lodgings, Xena." She nodded gratefully, then held Gabrielle's gaze for a long moment.

"Gabrielle. Please do as I said. It's important."

Gabrielle blew out a helpless sigh. "I guess I have no choice, Xena." Her tone was harsh, but softened immediately. "I'll try, I just can't think how I'll go on without you. I love you."

"I know, Gabrielle; it's no easier for me." Fingers pressed in a farewell embrace, then Drax took Gabrielle's arm, and led her away.

Xena returned to her spot against the wall, settled down, and stretched her long legs out before her, crossed at the ankles. The cell was crowded; Xena had settled in the part the rest avoided. It was draftier, and close to a cesspool behind the prison, but Xena preferred the cold and stench to the incessant chatter at the other end. So much had happened, so quickly, she needed time to collect her thoughts. Priblis seemed years ago. The night by the campfire, squabbling over the shift, and after, seemed to have been dreamt. Nala was the new reality, a dim memory made flesh by the slow ride through the near dead-village.

Yet what had she done? She couldn't quite recall. There had been wine, not enough to make her drunk, she rarely went that far, certainly not while engaged in serious business.

There had been sex. Consensual. Well, after a point it had turned to consent, she amended. He hadn't seemed regretful, in the end. And there had been blood. Some foolhardy man had attempted to resist. He had paid, and suddenly the least word of protest had been reason enough to unsheath a sword. Maybe it's just time to pay for everything, she thought, wondering briefly if peace would, at last, be found in that. But there had been no peace in this punishment experience so far. The entry into Mus had been a sort of punishment. Her cheeks burned now, picturing the eagerness with which they'd found rocks and garbage to throw at her. Where's the peace in that? she shook her head in contempt. I just wanted to run a sword through every last one of them. Like a good child of Ares, she thought, and the hackles stood up on the back of her neck. Then find Gaederus. The name was enough to send a shudder of hatred through her body. With a few words he had added his name to the list of those for whom she had a special hatred. The weasel had managed to shatter her world...She took hold of those thoughts and set them aside. No point in wasting energy on Gaederus now. Better to work on how to make things right again. Somehow. Better to think about Gabrielle. Peace. She's been the source of the only real peace I've known, Xena acknowledged, determined that she wouldn't repay the bard's gifts with more pain. Yet she was afraid that Gabrielle hadn't really listened to her message. Damn, couldn't I come up with anything better than that? An oracle couldn't figure it out. That could be a problem, but it was impossible to speak plainly when the guard was so near. How else to say it, to ensure that Gabrielle would just leave here? One more chance, she supposed, I'll have to make it clear tomorrow.

"Gods! How do you stand that stench?" She looked up. Ileander.

"I've known worse."

He held out a bundle of cloth. "I have plenty of food here. Wine, too. Drax said he met your friend. Quite a coincidence, you helping me out, then Drax helping your friend."

"Coincidence? Are there coincidences?" Was it a coincidence that the earth shook just as we were leaving the area? Or that the baby's arm was torn just as the soldiers arrived? It seemed increasingly like something else. In a desperate moment in Prestia she had asked for help, had offered a deal...She pushed the thought away.

"Coincidence or destiny, huh? Think it was just fated to happen? Maybe it means we'll all be great friends in Tartarus." He wore a hopeful smile, but Xena saw naked fear beneath the faÁade. This was no warrior, no cut-purse.

She gave him a half-smile, while she investigated the contents of his food bundle. "You don't strike me as the criminal type, Ileander. What did you do to earn Tartarus?"

"I killed a man." He had an open face, soft gray eyes, like Tarimides, she realized. His hair was short, as dark as her own. "He attacked me. You know," he said raising his eyes.

"His friends said I took money for it, but that's not true. I'm not like that. I make a good living as a weaver. Anyway, I killed him. Drax said I should have left it for him; no one would have known who did it. He's right, but you don't know how angry that sort of thing can make you." Xena didn't reply. "Drax is very capable; but you must know that, he says he knew you before. He'll take good care of your friend on the journey," he said by way of reassurance.

"She's not coming." She spoke with finality.

"Oh. Sorry. I just assumed. She seemed so upset when you parted, I thought she'd - "

"She's not coming," Xena repeated. "She doesn't even know it's possible. Unless Drax has told her."

"Drax is not the type to butt in."

"Didn't think so. When you see him tomorrow, ask him not to say anything. Just in case he starts feeling sorry for Gabrielle, wants to see her happy. That can happen," she recalled from personal experience. "Tartarus is no place for her."

"Elysia. She said she'll see me in Elysia. How can she say that? I want her with me, for the rest of my life, not some distant reunion in the Elysian Fields." One more day. The time seemed impossibly short.

Arrogant to think she'll ever see Elysia, Drax thought, but only said: "She's changed. Softer."

"If you think Xena's gone soft - " she began defensively.

"I'm sure she hasn't," Drax said quickly. "I still hear stories of the Warrior Princess. I only meant she's different. She used to walk around looking like she wished someone would try to stick a sword in her, so she could stick them first; as if she couldn't get her fill of blood, death. I don't see that any more."

"It's no longer there. I didn't know Xena when she was like that," Gabrielle said truthfully.

"If you had, I doubt you'd love her."

"It wouldn't have made a difference. I've loved Xena from the first moment I saw her. Nothing she's ever done, or might do, could change that."

"And when you hear about her crimes?"

"I think of the pain she feels to remember what she's done, how hard she's tried to atone. Then I love her more than ever."

Drax regarded her with wonder. In love with Xena. The woman must have changed.

They were exiting the prison, and Drax asked : "Where are you staying?"

Gabrielle's looked around indifferently. "I left my - our - things at the stable, with Argo. Maybe I'll just stay there."

"Let's go get your things. I know a good place, price is right," he grinned.

"Thanks, but not yet. Which way is the palace?"

"I don't think they take lodgers."

"I have to see the king. I need to get Xena a pardon, and I don't have much time."

"Just like that," he asked astonished. "Do you know the odds against you?"

"Whatever they may be, they'll be even worse if I don't even ask the question." She put a hand on his arm, as if to demonstrate her technique. "I can be very persuasive."

He shook his head, as he considered the quickest route to the palace.

The guard had not said why she was taken. It was good to leave the cell, if only for a few minutes, even though she didn't know what awaited her at the other end. It couldn't be anything threatening, she guessed: he had not taken the precaution of tying her hands. Then again, they had Gabrielle under close watch; they knew she'd give them no trouble.

The small room she entered had little to distinguish it; it carried the same foul odor as the rest of the building. The man seated before her evidently agreed: he held a small cloth in front of his nose. She detected the scent of jasmine.

"Shouldn't she be in shackles, or something," he asked the official standing at his elbow.

"No need. She knows the consequences for a close friend if she misbehaves. It's how they caught her. I'm told she would have reported here by herself to keep the girl safe, Majesty."

So this was King Tarkian. Xena regarded him with no more interest than she showed the guards.

"So. Xena. I couldn't let you go to Tartarus without seeing the woman who's costing my treasury so much gold in bounty money."

She shrugged. "I'll give you twice as much to let me go," she offered with a smile.

He laughed. "I'd take it," he exclaimed, slapping a hand against his knee, "except that justice must be served, Xena, my people demand it."

"It was worth a try."

He shook his head with regret. "Why did you come near these parts? Why did you destroy Nala, for that matter, and the rest of it. You robbed this kingdom blind on that occasion. Of course that was during my father's reign, so I don't feel quite as outraged as I would otherwise. I'd much rather have you join me for dinner, than send you to Tartarus." He spoke pleasantly, as if to a caller at court. Xena responded to his mood. She noticed now that his chubby face had lines in all the places caused by smiles. She also recalled a warlord she'd known who never laughed harder than at executions.

"I'd rather be at dinner, but you're calling the tune."

"The only tune permitted under law, I'm afraid," he sighed, with what sounded like genuine regret. "Please," he said suddenly, "sit by me. You are, after all a royal person.

Queen Xena of Prestia. Even if you are a convicted murderer."

She took the chair before him, happy for the opening she'd been expecting.

"Why did you give up the throne?" he asked. "It's almost reason enough for me to declare you insane. That would prevent you going to Tartarus. Of course it would mean you'd end your days in a madhouse."

"I'll take my chances with Tartarus, for the same reason I gave up the throne: madhouses and palaces are both too confining for my tastes," she drawled, showing her teeth in a pleasant grin. She had a favor to ask, and was preparing him to say yes. Any moment, she was certain he'd offer her a favor, within limits.

"Ah!" he said, apropos of nothing. "Madhouses, and palaces. Wonder how many other similarities we could find?" Xena didn't rise to that bait. After a moment he asked: "Have they treated you well? I demand humane treatment for the prisoners here," he said, face matching his serious tone.

"No complaints," she said in reply.

"Is there anything you need, something I can do for you? Before you leave, I mean."

"Yes." His eyebrows raised in curiosity. "I have a favor. In deference to my royal estate," she narrowed her eyes, and offered him a coy smile. "I ask that I not be branded." Her eyes were a puzzle. The request was sincere, he knew, but her eyes betrayed no motive for the request. Certainly there was no fear in them.

"Royal estate, eh?" he said as he considered. "Vanity thing? Or just avoiding the humiliation? I know it can't be the pain that bothers you."

"It demeans all royalty, everywhere, if one can be marked in the same manner as common folk." That should do it, she thought; let him see his own interests violated here, in the abstract, anyway.

The slow head moved in agreement. "Yes. I see your point. Just because you must endure a loathsome existence in Tartarus, there's no reason to demean the essence of royalty. Not to mention the disagreeable notion of disfiguring such a lovely body." His smile stopped just this side of being a leer." There is to be no branding," he told the waiting official.

"Very well," he said, bowing. "What of the earring?" he asked, anticipating questions which might arise.

"The earring, yes I think so," Tarkian said, looking apologetically at Xena. "Slightly erotic on some people," he told her.

She smiled in resignation. "Thank you Tarkian," she said with the familiarity one monarch might show toward another. You have done me a very large favor.

"I wish I had brought Queen Esme to met you Xena, she'll be disappointed when I tell her how civilized the 'Beast of Nala' really is." He nodded to the official, who nodded to the guards, who stood on either side of Xena's chair. The audience was over. She rose slowly, made a slight nod to the king, and left, having achieved her sole objective.

"All right, so I didn't see him today. I'll see him tomorrow,' she said with confidence. "It just gives me more time to compose my arguments.'

"You're determined to do this?" Drax asked.

"Of course. I have no intention of being separated from her. I'll find a way to keep us together," she said fiercely.

Drax walked a few steps in silence. He hated to see the girl in such anguish, but it was not his place to interfere.

"What happens there, Drax," she asked after a moment. Xena had been maddeningly vague, and she had to know.

"People live there, if they can. It's a 'fearsome wasteland'. I heard a bard say that once. Don't know where he got his information. It's a dumping ground for the flotsam of the three kingdoms, Mustrakis, Estapol, and Ralpana, so I would guess there's a high level of violence. There's no one to call you to account, so anything goes."

"How do people live? I mean what do they do?"

"Hunt. Some few scratch a living from the soil. Gather wild things. If all else fails, sell what you've got, sell yourself to someone who can help you stay alive." She looked puzzled. "Gabrielle, no money is allowed in Tartarus. Doesn't have any value there even if it was allowed. What has value is power, the ability to make other people do what you want them to, because you wield a sword better, or fight better. People who have that ability attract followers. You're weak," he said by way of example, so you come to me, I help you stay alive with my sword, you repay me by giving me the things I need to live, food, clothing, shelter, etc." he said knowingly. "I think Xena will have a lot of followers. She will radiate power."

Just what she needs, Gabrielle thought bleakly: a place where she'd have every reason to be a warlord again. "You mentioned swords,' she said after a while. "They let the convicts have weapons?"

"Let them? They encourage them. Some peddlers come through, with necessaries. No one much bothers them. Even the dumbest brute knows he needs them. Arms merchants are part of the deal."

"That seems very odd," she observed.

"Gabrielle, look." He moved to a quiet spot near a wall, and with a dagger began to draw in the soft earth. "Here we are," he showed her with a boxy-shape. To the north, Ralpana, to the south, Estapol. Here," he drew a large, jagged edged area to the east of the three kingdoms. This is Tartarus." He fringed it with mountains on the north, and south. At the far eastern edge, overlapping with the mountains both north and south, he drew a prohibitive series of X's. "Here is the real reason for Tartarus: hostile tribes, constantly pushing on the borders. The kingdoms couldn't persuade their subjects to settle there, so they flood the area with settlers, who happen also to be bloody-minded criminals, often warriors. Armed defenders of the borders, no payment required, no desertion possible. Weapons are essential, Gabrielle. The king must salivate at the thought of Xena taking on his foes," he snorted with amused contempt.

"Is this common knowledge? I, mean, is it likely Xena knows?"

"It's unlikely she doesn't."

"Drax, why don't people just leave? I mean who would know? What's to keep them?"

He indicated the east on his crude map. "No point going here, the tribes would flay you alive. A lot of bad blood has developed over the years. Here," he traced the border with the three kingdoms, "there are patrols waiting to catch anyone who tries. The journey there and back is not easy. Only a few passes are manageable on foot, fewer are passable on horseback, and both are well guarded. The mountains to the north and south are hellish. Here," he traced a northern route, "you've got to swim a treacherous current, The Ekina River, to reach the mountains. Escape just isn't on. I've heard of a few who've tried; never heard of one who succeeded." He wondered at Xena's chances. Considered again sharing his hunch with Gabrielle.

"Maybe because they stay well hidden?" she suggested.

"Can't hide. They make a bloody great mark on your hand," he slapped the back of his right hand. "A 'T'. Can't hide it. The death penalty hasn't been entirely abolished. If you were found outside the borders of Tartarus with that brand, anyone has the right, no, the duty, to take your life. Collect a handsome reward in the bargain."

Gabrielle stood and erased the ugly picture with her boot, as if that would make the whole situation go away. Xena. Branded. Exiled. Forever.

"Drax, I'm going back to the stable. I'd like to spend the night with Xena's horse. It might sound silly, but it will make me feel better."

Drax smiled. "Doesn't sound silly at all. However, I understand Tarkian has a delicate nose. You'd do better asking for a favor if you don't smell like a horse."

"You're right," she conceded.

"So. Come to my lodgings," he held up a hand to forestall any protest. "I have one bed, but a pallet on the floor will do nicely for me." He shook his head with regret that she should be so upset, about someone like Xena, but understood that love was, at best unreasoning. "Let's go. You need time to decide how best to help your Warrior Princess."

 

Chapter Four

Gabrielle emerged from the small room, a vision of finely worked leather, holding a large, feather-festooned mask in one hand, and a ceremonial staff in the other. Drax stood open-mouthed. "Gabrielle?" he asked, at last. "That is you?"

"Quite a transformation, huh?" she replied sheepishly. "Did I mention I'm an Amazon Queen? Not at the moment, actually, I'm seldom there, so Queen Ephiny rules in my place. Today I'm pulling out all the stops. I think I won the audience with Tarkian only because I said Queen Gabrielle of the Amazons wished to call on him. Think he'll be disappointed?"

Drax recalled what he had heard of Tarkian's taste in women. "I can guarantee he won't be disappointed." He let out a soft whistle of surprise. "So the Warrior Princess travels with an Amazon Queen. Will wonders never cease?"

"We won't be doing much of anything together if I don't manage to persuade Tarkian she deserves another chance."

Drax opened his mouth to speak, and decided to hold his peace. He thought he knew what Xena had in mind, was certain of it, yet his natural inclination was to let things be. Xena could handle this in her own way. "Your Majesty, I would like the honor of escorting you to the palace," he said solemnly with a deep bow, holding out one long arm for her to take. He wondered if Mus had ever seen an Amazon Queen.

"I have a lot to do today, so I'll see you at the prison," Drax had said, hours before, when he left her at the entrance to the palace. Wise choice, she concluded, as she tried to be patient, afraid that it would take so long seeing the king, that she'd be too late to see Xena today. But no matter, she told herself, Tarkian will grant the pardon, Xena will be free this time tomorrow. She caressed the wine skin she was bringing her, as if that token of caring established some link between them. The Amazon mask had begun to grow heavy, and it was warm in this room she waited in. Across the way, the two very obvious men that had dogged her trail since she'd arrived in Mus, sat nodding, pretending she wasn't the sole focus of their attentions. She breathed deeply, to allay her anxieties, as well as to keep from passing out.

At that moment she was summoned at last. She screwed up her courage, offered a prayer to Artemis, and entered the throne room of King Tarkian of Mustrakis, and all the attendant titles his page announced. At his side was his wife, Queen Esme. As a couple, they complemented each other quite well, she decided, he was round faced and wore a jolly smile, even before a word was said. Esme was almost dangerously thin, and she. too, wore a smile, but it was the bored smile of one who has seen it all. I wonder if they're smiling because they're amused at my costume, Gabrielle decided. The thought infused her body with a new dignity. She appeared not only for Xena, but for the whole Amazon nation. The page carried her name and title inscribed on a scroll, along with her petition. He introduced her, then handed the scroll to the king, who shared it with the queen. Tarkian greeted Gabrielle graciously.

"Queen Gabrielle. We've never had an Amazon Queen appear at the court of Mustrakis before. I welcome you," he said. "I trust you find our capital city hospitable?"

"Quite," she replied, not mentioning that she'd ridden in behind a triumphal procession that brought her beloved past the jeering populace.

"Where are you residing?"

"With a friend," she said evasively, not mentioning the noisy tavern over which she'd slept.

"And you have a favor to ask me?" He waved the scroll, which told him all he needed to know.

"I do. I ask you, I beg you, grant Xena a pardon." She hadn't planned on betraying so much emotion in her first request.

Tarkian reached to take the hand of his wife. "I'm touched," he said. "This request comes from the heart."

"Yes," she told them. "From the heart, from the soul. I love Xena, and my heart must be involved in this."

He looked at his wife. "I was told Xena was captured because of her love for a young woman. Tame as a lamb, now." He turned his attention to Gabrielle. "You'd be the woman. I understand you don't want to be separated from your lover. Apart from your personal interests, for what reason should I pardon Xena? She's a murderess."

"She was," Gabrielle said. "She's done many terrible things in her past, but she's changed."

"I know that. I have heard of the changes in the woman. I like to believe them. She must have changed if a young woman such as you chooses her company. But shall I tell you of the changes she effected in the lives of the people of Nala?" he asked rhetorically. "I'm told her army didn't even know the name of the village. I understand she's learned that at least. It wasn't much of a village. A tavern, smithy, baker; the usual assortment of craftspeople necessary to make the lives of the neighboring farmers possible, even tolerable. None of them are there anymore. Some of the widows found new husbands, some orphans found places with farm families who needed extra hands. Some fell back on the charity of kinsfolk. I know all this because this morning I received a delegation of survivors, who asked me for one evening with the woman." He paused and moistened his lips. "You ask for mercy. I have done it in denying them." He narrowed his tiny round eyes; Gabrielle wondered how he could still see. "Consider this, as well: in most kingdoms you would be considering how large a purse to give the headsman to assure a quick separation of the head from the body. Mustrakis is giving your beloved Xena the opportunity to do what she so loves: live a wild, unfettered life. She'll be a warlord again. How great a punishment is that?"

Gabrielle swallowed hard, but didn't try to explain how great a punishment it would be for one who had tried so hard to leave it behind. She looked at Tarkian and wondered if he was Ares in disguise, then bowed her head and murmured a thank you, but she had one more argument.

"Xena does a great deal of good. If not for her sake, think of the lives she affects now, in a positive way. She was only taken by your men because she chose to help the earthquake victims in Priblis. She was engaged in saving the life of an infant when they surrounded her. In Prestia, she restored the security of a kingdom - "

"I have heard of the affair. Prestian royalty, a hero to the people. Young woman, she should have stayed in Prestia, where she has done good. Here she has done villainy, and will receive the punishment it merits."

Esme looked up from her needlework. "Royalty? I didn't know Xena was royalty. I thought 'princess' was an affectation."

"Xena doesn't like that title," Gabrielle told them. "It's what others called her. She's a warrior," she said with pride. "She's also a member of the royal House of Pres, although she doesn't mention it."

"Doesn't she? I met with Xena late yesterday. She made it quite clear that she has royal blood. Suggested that the traditional branding of exiles was unsuitable treatment for royalty." He nodded his appreciation of the point. "Even though Pres is a haven for a despised race of warlords, royal blood must be respected. I have ordered that she not be branded."

Esme seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. "Surely that exemption will attach to this one as well, " she said, indicating Gabrielle. "She's so adorable."

'Adorable', a protest sprang to Gabrielle's lips, but her mind caught up with the larger import of the statement. "Why would I need an exemption from branding?" she asked. "I haven't been accused of any crimes."

"No, of course not. I assumed you'd be following Xena into exile," Esme replied.

"Following her?"

"I understood that you and she - Have I gotten it wrong?"

"I'd be allowed to go with her?" Gabrielle asked, incredulous.

"If you choose. Well, not with her, convicts have their own transport, but you could certainly follow with the others who choose to share the exile. No one told you this?"

"No one," she said, a sudden anger toward Xena touching her. "How do I do this?" she asked, a new urgency in her mind.

"I'm sure I don't know the details," Esme said, appalled that someone might even suspect it of her. "Ask at the prison."

Tarkian spoke now: "Remember, exile, even chosen exile, is forever."

Gabrielle nodded. "Forever doesn't sound nearly so long now."

When she was gone Esme observed the smug expression on her husband's round face.

"Why so pleased, my sweet?"

"I have just ensured that Xena will never escape Tartarus," he told her, as he let the smugness bloom to a full smile.

Xena's attention shifted anxiously from the top of the stairway, to the spot not far away where Drax and Ileander carried on an urgent conversation through the bars. When Drax arrived he'd told her that Gabrielle was seeking a pardon at the palace, and would be along later. It was now much later, and Gabrielle had not appeared. The light told her it was well past mid-afternoon. Damn. She had so much to say and it was so hard trying to put it in veiled messages. Besides: she wanted to see Gabrielle again, it was important that she at least see her one more time. Drax moved to the empty spot in the bars before her. She rose to meet him.

"Xena. You don't want Gabrielle with you?"

"No. You know why?" The guard had followed her movement to the bars, and stood close by.

"I think I do," he nodded. "So far she hasn't a clue about going along."

"Good. If she knew, she'd insist on coming, and I don't have the time or opportunity to persuade her otherwise." She glanced at the guard.

"I could do that for you. I think she'd listen to reason. Better than her finding out after I'm gone. She deserves someone to speak plainly to her."

"I know," Xena said desolation etched on her face. She considered for a long time, guessing what Gabrielle's reaction might be. "Maybe that would be best, Drax. It will be easier if she understands, just make certain she doesn't follow me," she implored him.

"I don't want to see her hurt, Xena. I've grown rather fond of her."

"That can happen easily," Xena smiled, and Drax had the sensation that this woman and the warlord he'd known inhabited the same body only by chance.

"And you'll look after Ileander?" he asked.

"Of course," she pledged. "You'll find him in one piece on the other side. Now, get back to him; time is short," she ended with a sigh, wondering if Gabrielle would arrive in time.

It was late when Gabrielle left the palace, but there was still plenty of sunlight, and she made a mental list of things to do as she ran through the streets, followed by her puzzled minders. Tears were in her eyes again, born of apprehension and anger. Her face burned as she thought that Xena had not told her it was possible for loved ones to share the exile, to journey to Tartarus. Gods, she still treats me like a child, she railed silently. Doesn't she know that without her, the whole world would be my Tartarus? Drax had shared in the deception. She smirked at her own foolishness in questioning Drax's feelings about Ileander, so lightly had he approached the coming separation. Drax had no separation in mind; he would join Ileander in Tartarus. Just as I'll join Xena in Tartarus, she mumbled to herself, earning questioning glances as she rushed through the street.

She visited the prison first, but went as only as far as the main gate. There, she asked, and had answered, a dozen questions about exile to Tartarus, and how one shared the exile. Satisfied, she picked up the few things she'd left in Drax's room. Then she stopped at Argo's stable, collected the things she'd left there, and found a new home for the big mare, one closer to the prison. This would do for the night for both of them, she decided. She counted her remaining dinars and pushed in to the bustle of the capital city once again, seeking stalls that might have a bargain, using her considerable haggling skills to find bargains everywhere. She could only guess at what they'd really need in Tartarus. She dithered over one impulsive purchase for a long time, in the end deciding it was worth the few dinars. She hoped Xena would agree. When, at last, every dinar was gone, she stowed the items with the rest of their gear at the stable, then turned her footsteps towards the Portal of Tartarus once again, her anger somewhat lessened, largely overshadowed by her anxiety about getting Xena's wine to her. I should have sent it with Drax, she told herself, but she had so wanted to give Xena something.

She was surprised to find Drax waiting for her in front of the prison, wondered why he wasn't with Ileander. He stepped forward with an odd look, relief at seeing her she guessed, and something else that alarmed her. "Gabrielle where have you been?"

She hid her anger. "I was held up at the palace." It was partially true. Without asking, Drax knew the answer the king had given her.

"Why aren't you with Ileander," she asked, brushing past him in her haste. He grabbed an arm.

"Gabrielle. You're too late. The prisoners had to be readied. They tossed us all out early."

Her eyes moved from his face to the building behind him as if he was making a monstrous joke. "No." She moved past him, to the prison gate, running until she arrived at the stairway to the upper level. It was barred. "NO!" came from her throat now and eyes turned briefly to see who had cried out. She gripped the bars and pulled at them as if she could tear them loose. "Aargh!" Her frustration boiled over as a guard came near.

"I need to see my friend," she demanded.

"Not on this side," he sneered, and shoved her away from the gate. Drax grabbed her now and pulled her away. "Gabrielle, it's too late," he said softly.

"It can't be too late," she yelled at him. "I had to tell her, something..." she managed. "Look," she held up the wineskin. "I have to give her this." I won't see her for weeks now, she realized, anything could happen, and I didn't get to say goodbye.

Drax held her firmly and said, "We have to talk, away from here. Let's go to my room."

Gabrielle looked at him with distrust. One of Xena's co-conspirators. He wouldn't keep her from Tartarus. "I have nothing to say to you," she snarled, and wrenched her arm away, to disappear into the throng that filled the courtyard. Drax followed, but the bard eluded him, ducking beneath a stall. He gave up at last, too many things to attend to still, and certain she'd return to his room to sleep. If not, he'd find her at Argo's stable. He carried a large bundle containing Ileander's things, Xena's boots, and her battledress, rolled around her arm bands, bracers and greaves. He would get the rest of her things from Gabrielle, and carry them to Tartarus for her. She'd certainly need them.

Chapter Five

She had thought she would have the rest of her life to tell people what had happened; now she had no time. She would have sent word to her mother, to Xena's mother, to Ephiny. And told them what? That Xena had been sentenced to a life term in a harsh exile, and she had chosen to share that fate? She shuddered at her mother's likely reaction. Ephiny, she thought, would understand, maybe mobilize Amazon diplomacy to try and find a way out of the mess. No; that was wishful thinking; she'd better not fall into that trap. Cyrene would be devastated. She was just beginning to know her daughter after a long estrangement. The living death. Gabrielle was beginning to understand the term. Still, some word, however unpleasant, would be better than no word, wondering what had become of them. Eventually, she knew, word of Xena's capture and punishment would filter out from Mustrakis. People would assume Gabrielle was with her; they might never know for sure. She wondered idly whether Callisto would follow them to Tartarus.

It was near dawn. The open plain outside the city was very busy. From her vantage point

Gabrielle watched a bevy of uniformed men move with no obvious purpose, their activity centered around a large ungainly wagon, which seemed to be a cistern on wheels, and two other vehicles, laden with crates. They had long shafts protruding from the front, and sturdy posts sticking out from the sides, but there were few draft animals in sight. Six oxen would not be enough for the three vehicles. Two fires burned hot at either end of the site, and ragged lines had begun to form at each fire.

Men and women, laden like beasts of burden, some lucky ones leading a horse, donkey or ox approached the fire with trepidation and resolve. Gabrielle saw Drax on line. He looked around as if seeking someone. Me, she realized. Wants to find me and prevent my coming. She didn't know how he might manage that, but she didn't plan on any more surprises. Its not going to happen, she smiled, and settled behind a clump of trees with Argo. If she timed things right, Drax wouldn't discover her presence until it was too late. The king had exempted her from the branding; she had hurried back to the palace the night before and had that put in writing. She could stay hidden until the march had begun. Then there was no turning back.

Drax was one of the lucky ones, with a horse, generous provisions, and a warrior's tolerance for pain. The brand meant less to him than to many others in the line, and yet it still hurt like Tartarus. He wondered if they used the expression there, even as he watched the others, old and young, men, women, some with children in their arms, step up to be branded, then dunk the seared hand into the bucket of cool water waiting for them. It was a barbarous custom, and he regarded his own 'T' curiously, knowing that it changed his life forever. He cast anxious glances for Gabrielle, knowing she would need to pass this way in order to join the march into exile. He hadn't seen her yet, which meant she wouldn't be coming. It also meant they'd set off without her knowing what Xena had in mind. Couldn't be helped. Xena would sort it out later. He had his own worries now. The sight of Ileander in prison was bad enough. To see him set off on this march would be torture. He was glad Gabrielle would be spared that sight of Xena.

It was an odd creature which slithered it's way out of Mus: multi-legged, brown clad, slow and awkward, as dozens of strangers learned to walk in unison with the people to whom they were shackled. They were mostly silent, because they had been forbidden to speak; the occasional personal invective thrown at a stumbling neighbor was answered by a clout from a truncheon.

Even in the gray light of early dawn Gabrielle found Xena. Her heart caught at the sight of the proud warrior, joined to this convict chain. Men and women alike wore brown tunics, which ended halfway between knee and crotch. Xena moved with her customary grace. Gabrielle couldn't see her expression, but knew from the tilt of the head that she was practicing patience; her lips would be slightly parted, jaw tight, as she blew quiet sighs of exasperation from her mouth. The sun glinted off a piece of metal at the side of her head. An earring? Gabrielle noticed that all the prisoners sported the same earring. Some identifying tag, she supposed, with a sick feeling.

The animal stopped moving and lowered itself to the ground. While she sat, Xena's dark head moved slowly, scanning the horizon. For a moment the blue eyes turned to where Gabrielle lay. The bard was certain she would be seen, and cringed at the thought of being found out. Not that Xena could take any action. Xena, who had directed mighty armies, dictated the fortune of nations, was under the control of guards who would direct her every step. It would be like this for weeks. Priblis. Why had she insisted they go there? Forgive me, Xena. At this moment she would have given every soul in Priblis to Hades, in return for Xena's freedom. Then the animal rose again, and the bard understood why six oxen would do for the three vehicles.

Xena moved to her place on the shaft with a certain detachment. She followed instructions, lifted the chain when necessary, and stood waiting with the others, but it was all happening to another person. She wouldn't acknowledge that she was to spend the next two weeks serving as a draft animal; she couldn't predict the consequences if she did. She moved her head and felt the heavy earring move with her. She had hated that moment; it was nothing, she knew, to the branding she'd escaped, yet she'd hated that moment, when the copper wire had been thrust through an existing hole, making it larger, fastening a tag to her earlobe. Earring, she thought with contempt. It was your only identity in the sight of Mustrakian justice. Beneath the surface a rage was building, contained only by her promise to herself of what lay ahead, beyond this hateful journey. She set that before her like the North Star.

She noted her place on the chain, her position on the shaft. The weaker members of the group had been strategically placed to minimize their deficiencies. So Ileander was opposite Xena, behind her was a young woman, Arthea by name, a prostitute by profession, absorbed in her private world for the moment, as were most of the others. Across from Arthea was a stout fellow. Lutus. He was large, but looked out of shape. Xena wondered if he'd survive the journey. She stretched her shoulders, carefully, so as not to disturb the chain. That was the first rule of courtesy: Don't yank the chain.

The stout fellow caught a glimpse of her right hand. "You're the one," he whispered, loudly enough for the others to hear. "Too good to wear a brand," he sneered. "Not too good to take your place with the oxen." A nervous laugh rose around her.

"I don't mind the oxen, it's the dumb jackass that bothers me," she drawled, as a fist at the end of her long arm snapped back to find his nose. He snarled in protest, but she had dropped down to find the length of chain between his shackled feet, gave it a sharp tug, and he landed on his bottom. Xena faced forward as if nothing had happened, brushing a stray wisp of hair from her forehead. Might as well establish my place in the line early, she thought, or it could be a long two weeks. The confusion in the line behind her ended quickly as a guard arrived. No one had seen anything. Lutus confessed only to stumbling; somehow injuring his nose in the process. He glared at Xena.

Drax saw the flurry of movement and smiled. Ileander would be safe with her, he knew. Yet in Tartarus he'd have to tell Xena that he hadn't seen Gabrielle before they left, hadn't managed to get the rest of her gear from the girl.

Gabrielle hadn't followed what happened, knew only that a guard approached Xena's part of the chain, and someone had been reprimanded. She was still grappling with the fact that the convicts were to haul these wagons to Tartarus. She had thought this kingdom humane. Forgive me, Xena, she thought once again.

They set out with a lurch, the wagons moving sporadically as sandaled feet sought purchase on the grass beneath them. The road provided better traction, and the large wagon wheels didn't sink in to the ground, but progress was still slow. It would take half the day, Xena estimated, before a rhythm would be established, and everyone would understand that there could be no passengers. The smallest individual effort made a difference to the whole, and one person resting against the shaft made life more miserable for everyone. So they left Mus, five dozen prisoners hauling their own food and water to their new home. Xena didn't look behind as they left, had seen no sign of Gabrielle, had expected none. Elysia, she muttered, and a smile touched her face.

Trailing behind the wagons came the second procession, carrying what they hoped would be enough to last for two weeks on the road, and provide a start in Tartarus. Drax rode somewhere in the middle, unable to see Ileander and Xena. He was unaware of the sudden presence of Gabrielle, astride Argo, the last in the procession, just ahead of the trailing guard.

When the sun had climbed halfway to it's apex, they stopped for ten minutes, seated beside the shafts, long enough for a guard to pass along each chain with a bucket and dipper, to give each prisoner enough to wet a parched throat. The water smelled, and Xena drank sparingly, alarmed at the prospect of drinking water from that cistern for two weeks. She thought of the wine skin Gabrielle had promised her, recalled her bitter disappointment at not seeing the bard once more before they left. A furrow appeared in her brow as she wondered once more if she was all right. The two guards that had been set to watch her would have protected her from any incidental trouble, she decided, and she doubted that official Mustrakis had any interest in seeing her harmed. Drax would have seen her, she supposed, but she would be in Tartarus before she met with Drax, and then she would leave Tartarus; somehow she would make her way back to Gabrielle. She closed her eyes and enjoyed a quiet vision of Gabrielle for a moment, smiling, eyes crinkled - She was brought to reality by the soft hisses of a woman breathing through her mouth in pain.

"Arthea?" The woman held her hands away from her body, shaking them as if she could shake the pain away.

"Ahhhhh!" she shrieked softly, by way of reply. Xena took her hands and examined the blisters that had formed there. She doubted Arthea had done rough work with her hands since she was a child, if then. There was little to be done for her; she would be in for a bad time until calluses formed. "Sorry," she said in sympathy, then ripped a long length of cloth from the bottom of her tunic. "This might help, a bit." She ripped the cloth in two and wrapped each hand. "It won't make them feel better, but it might keep them from getting worse."

Arthea gave her an oddly familiar smile. "Thank you, Xena."

Ileander looked over. "Good idea. My hands are pretty callused, but I can't imagine two weeks of walking in these things." He indicated the sandals.

"Don't worry, they won't last that long," Xena said. "Rip a strip from your tunic and tie them around your neck when the ground isn't too rough. I think you'll need them later for the bad terrain." They looked at her uncertainly. "Don't worry about the tunic. It won't last either," she sighed. She wondered what happened to the prisoners who were unaccompanied by anyone in their exile. They would arrive in Tartarus with ragged garments, worthless footwear, and nothing to defend themselves.

The break was over.

The day lurched along in sporadic moments, like the wagon itself. The sun was almost gone before a halt was called for the evening. They were near the place where they would turn off the road, to take a seldom used track though the wilderness. There was little to do to make camp. The prisoners slept in their chains, a little apart from the wagons, in the open field. They were still linked to one of three central chains, corresponding to the wagon they pulled. One guard passed along the line, as at the afternoon break, to distribute bread and hard cheese. A second passed along the line with the dipper of water. Xena drank because she had to, but felt sick almost immediately afterwards. She was not alone. The sound and smell of sickness ruined sleep for everyone throughout the night.

When it was still for a moment, Xena woke to find a slender arm around her waist. She breathed for a moment. "Arthea? Is everything all right?" she asked softly. This would be a hard night for many of them, she knew.

"Everything's fine, Xena. I just wanted to be close to someone." Xena bit her upper lip. She sympathized with Arthea, yet couldn't let her get the wrong idea.

"Arthea," she began, but Arthea was speaking. "Do you remember our first time Xena?" she asked, clearly remembering that herself.

"Our first time," the warrior asked, startled. Arthea was a prostitute, it was possible. "I don't recall," she muttered.

"That's all right. I do, only too well. It was a long time ago, in Macedonia. I know what you like," she assured her, and began to move her hands over Xena's body, slipping one inside the rough tunic.

"Arthea, don't do this," Xena told her, pulling the shackled hands away from her.

"We'll be quiet, Xena," she promised. "Please, I've waited all day," she said in a throaty growl.

"No, Arthea. I don't want this to happen."

Arthea pulled back, considering the unexpected rebuff. "Give it up when you stopped being a warlord?" she asked, clearly peeved.

"I haven't given it up," she replied, trying to let Arthea hear friendship, if not passion. "I found someone to love, Arthea. I - "

"You save yourself for him? Or is it a woman?"

"A woman."

"She's following you to Tartarus?"

"No."

"Then what's the problem? You'll never see each other again." Arthea resumed her assault.

"The problem is, I don't want to be with anyone else."

"You mean it," Arthea said, surprised, hearing something in Xena's tone that left no doubt.

"Yes."

"Too bad; she doesn't deserve you." Arthea was disappointed, but she turned away from the warrior.

Gods, two weeks shackled to her, Xena sighed, hoping she'd made her point.

Gabrielle bedded down a little away from the others, just out of sight. Drax had no reason to look for her, and she was in no hurry to reveal herself. The distant figures of the convicts were lost to sight now, as they lay down to well earned sleep. The evening was chilly, yet Gabrielle had seen no blankets. She made Argo comfortable, then munched some bread and cheese. She left her own blanket rolled up. Forgive me Xena, she whispered as she curled in a ball, and waited for sleep to come.

 

Chapter Six

The morning was a nightmare of odor and moaning. Gods, half the chain had been sick the night before, Xena realized, one way or another. Vestiges of illness were still present as they were moved in groups of six to the wooded area beyond to relieve themselves. They were all returned to their positions by the wagon shaft for the morning meal, such as it was. The coarse bread was accompanied by a chunk of dry sausage. Xena sniffed hers warily, and decided to risk it. The water she refused.

"Not thirsty," laughed the guard. "You will be." He held the dipper out to Ileander.

"Don't drink it," she warned.

Ileander hesitated, dipper in hand; he was thirsty, but there was something in her manner... He handed it back to the guard, untasted. Lutus held out his hands eagerly. "Leave it, Lutus," she said. He drank the dipper full. "Too good to drink the water, Majesty," he mocked.

Arthea shook her head at the guard. When he was gone, she asked: "What was that about, Xena?"

"You were sick last night. Half the group was."

"It didn't have to be the water."

"My nose and my gut tell me it was; that water's not healthy."

"Then we're in trouble," Lutus laughed. "That's the only water we've got."

Xena regarded him soberly. What he said was true. The water in the cistern was to suffice for the journey. She didn't know if there would be any other source of water along the way. It wouldn't seem urgent to the guards, because they had their own supply, as well as amphorae of wine. She did know she wouldn't drink that water.

Little progress was made that morning. People were sick at their posts, littering the trail they followed until the trailing group began to walk on the side of the road. At the morning break, half the group collapsed on the ground. Still, the guards offered the water. To thirsty mouths, to bodies that had poured liquid on the ground, water seemed like the most desirable thing on earth. Lutus had been sicker than most. The big body, mostly flab, quivered as it moved, and he had been a drag on the shaft more than a propeller. He reached for the dipper, and Xena knocked it from his hand. Lutus and the guard looked at her as if she'd gone mad. "The water's poison." She spoke through dry lips. For over twenty-four hours she'd had little to drink, and had perspired heavily. "That's what's making them all sick," she told the guard. "Just mind yourself," he told her, and handed a new dipper to Lutus.

"I want to see your captain." Her gaze told him, told all around her, that she wasn't kidding.

"I want to see you naked on my bedroll," he told her. "I think my chances are better." He laughed, and moved on.

Damn, she thought.

Ileander and Arthea refused the water. The rest of the convicts drank as deeply as they were permitted.

They had barely resumed the journey when they turned off the road. This was the track to Tartarus, narrow, wild. It ran for many miles through pasturage, before it entered the wasteland. Gabrielle greeted the track with relief. It seemed less likely to her that she would be turned back once they had left the road that connected them to civilization. She was well and truly on her way to Tartarus now, and she rejoiced. It didn't matter anymore if Drax discovered her. The thousand questions she had to ask could be satisfied around the campfires. She had not seen Xena from any distance since they'd set out. She rode to take a place near the head of the procession now, eagerly weaving though the rag-tag assemblage.

Drax had a growing sense of disease in his belly. All evidence pointed to some malady afflicting the convicts just ahead. He couldn't get near enough to learn what it was, but he had heard tales from guards that the mortality rate on this journey was high, and he was afraid. He was considering how best to learn more, when he caught sight of a golden horse he hadn't noticed before, and swung around in the saddle to see the rider. His hands tightened on the reins in frustration as he cantered to catch up with her. "Gabrielle," he called, and she turned to him with the final traces of anger in her face, triumph in her voice. "Drax. Surprised to see me?"

"Astonished more like. How did you manage to - "

"To get past you?" She held up her hand. "Xena was exempted from branding. So was I."

She continued riding; Drax rode beside her. "Don't be angry," he said quietly, "not at Xena; she was doing what she thought was best."

"And that's all I'm doing."

He swore under his breath.

"What's wrong, Drax? It's all right for you to follow Ileander, but I'm not allowed to make a choice to follow Xena? I wasn't even to know the choice was possible?" This was the first time she'd put her thoughts into words, and the pain and rage she'd felt contorted her face as one sentence tumbled out after another. "That's demeaning, Drax. It makes what Xena and I have less an equal relationship than a dictatorship, with Xena holding all the power. Who is she - "

"Gabrielle, save those words for Xena, if you think she deserves to hear them." He was embarrassed to hear one side of a lover's quarrel. Gabrielle caught up with her most recent words and swallowed the rest. "You're right, Drax, those words are for Xena, and she'll hear them, I promise you." Drax shifted uncomfortably. He was glad to know Gabrielle was all right, but his heart went out to Xena, who would face a reality in Tartarus that she had not yet considered.

Phyrris rode upwind of the band of convicts in his charge, finding them to be more foul than most. A sickly lot, slow and clumsy. Half of them were bent over as if dying. They'd be a week late to Tartarus at this rate. Filthy duty, he thought with a scowl, one he was stuck with twice a year. It earned him extra pay, and he had the occasional interesting moment in bed, but otherwise he'd prefer they reinstate execution; he'd take his chances against the eastern tribes. Fat lot of good this pathetic scum would be in a real fight, anyway. The afternoon meal approached. He wondered what treat his cook would try to choke him with this time.

"Phyrris." He started at the husky voice. "Phyrris," it repeated, as he looked for the speaker. It came from the convict chain, he realized with amusement. Maybe he'd have some fun today. The closest wagon moved steadily forward, but from the middle of the chain came the voice again, more insistent this time. The woman, Xena. He moved closer. "You said something to me?" he asked with contempt.

"Yes," she said, eyes forward, not breaking stride with the steady rhythm of the others.

"The water is poisoning everyone who drinks it." She spoke to him, not as an equal, but as his superior.

"Is that a fact?"

"It is." She knew he wasn't really listening, yet, and her words were for the convicts as well as the captain. "They'll all be dead long before you reach Tartarus."

"Assuming you're right, Xena,' he said with slow familiarity, "do you imagine anyone cares?"

"If you return to Mustrakis with a sack full of earrings, and word that not one new prisoner was delivered to defend the border, someone might care just enough to put you on the next convict chain." Phyrris motioned to a guard. A whip cracked; Xena felt the tip of the lash rip the flimsy tunic. She ignored the sting. "That doesn't change the truth," she said evenly.

"Truth? I'm to be lectured about the truth by a murdering harlot? How did you become expert on toxic waters, Xena?"

"Drink some of it and give me your opinion, in about three hours," she replied, bracing herself for another taste of the whip; more of it found her shoulders this time. "When's the last time that cistern was cleaned out?" she persisted. "A watery graveyard for dead rats; that would do it." This time Phyrris himself sought to shut her up, grabbing a truncheon from a guard, coming close enough to rap her on the shoulders, twice. She stopped, and those behind her ran up each other's backs as the whole procession ground to an awkward halt.

That got his attention. "You have to find new water, or everyone here is going to die."

Her voice carried to the extent of her own chain, and the near ends of the other chains.

And I have too much to live for, she whispered to herself.

In this open country, it was an easy thing for the followers to move parallel with the convicts. From the slightly higher ground they occupied, they watched puzzled now, as the prisoners made an unscheduled stop. Gabrielle knew, from the first moment that Xena was at the center of the problem. Drax was not surprised to see guards converge on the area of the chain where he knew Xena was, and his Ileander. Maybe she was just as crazy as before, he thought, afraid she would put Ileander in harm's way, thinking of consequences dire enough if she did so. Then the march resumed, as abruptly as it had halted. He breathed a sigh of relief, and Gabrielle was afraid, certain she could detect, even at this distance, a subtle change in Xena.

Ileander stole a glance at her, wondering if it was safe to speak. He wasn't worried about himself, but didn't want anymore blows directed at her. She looked ahead, stony faced, through blackened eyes. "Xena. Are you all right?"

"I'll live."

"Thanks for what you tried to do, but I think it will take a few dead before he listens."

"Maybe." The old and the young would die first, she knew. Or the out of shape. Lutus came to mind. Could be it's what they expected, maybe planned. Sounded like a policy Tarkian would approve: if they couldn't be of use in Tartarus, they may as well die now. Not if I could help it, she decided grimly.

At the afternoon break the guard gave Xena no option to refuse water. She wasn't offered any, nor was she given any food. "Nobody shares with her,' he barked at those nearest here. They regarded her as if she already wore a shroud. Ileander and Arthea ate in awkward silence, Lutus gobbled his ration with gusto, as if the food was palatable. He was one of only a few to accept water. In two hours he was leaning on the shaft, clutching his gut with one hand, cursing Phyrris between groans.

"A little louder, Lutus," Xena said sincerely. "Maybe Phyrris needs to hear more than one voice down here."

"So everything that happens now is for a purpose?" Gabrielle and Drax had called an uneasy truce.

"Yes," he replied, "a twisted purpose, but nonetheless, it serves the purpose of Mustrakis. These prisoners are supposed to learn in two weeks that they've been punished for their crimes, and they aren't as clever as they think. I guess that would do it."

"How does that help them defend the three kingdoms from the eastern tribes?"

"It doesn't. Leaves them demoralized, never a good condition for a warrior, but it lets the three kingdoms get one last clout in before it loses track of them."

She considered. "Drax, they aren't all warriors; why do they bother to send the others. the prostitutes, and craftsmen?"

"Because there's a market for their services." Most of my information comes from guards, ex-guards, peddlers who are licensed to visit Tartarus. Any woman sent there is a prized commodity, either to be wooed, or stolen. It's one way of filling up the territory. Even criminals have children."

"So Tartarus is like any other community, really," she said hopefully.

He looked at her in disbelief. "If you think you're settling down in just another sleepy province, get over it. You are going to live in the midst of warlords, thieves and murderers."

"And people who so motivated by love that they follow them there. It can't be all bad."

"Some people follow out of love, some because they have no other means of support. Shouldn't take you long to figure out everyone's motives." He wiped a hand across his face. "I'm more concerned about what's going on in that camp. They're moving slowly - too slowly. And they halted awfully early tonight."

"What do you think it means?" she asked.

"Maybe nothing," he shrugged. "And maybe that malady is more than a trifle."

They had stopped for the day. Small wonder, Xena thought, looking at the field around her, littered with prostrate convicts, some too tired to move away from their shafts, except that they were dragged by the others on the chain. She walked between Ileander and Arthea, one of six on the chain, as they returned from the woods. She was very thirsty now, and had chosen a handful of lush greens to chew. They would provide no real fluid, but moistened her mouth, and worked to counteract the lingering effects of whatever was in the water. At her instruction, the others on the short chain had gathered and chewed the same greens. Even Lutus had surreptitiously loaded his mouth and chewed warily, unwilling to be seen taking her advice. From the corner of her eye she saw Phyrris, engaged in a heated discussion with two guards. Maybe he was starting to think, she hoped. Ileander gazed across a gulch which separated them from the followers. "I think I see Drax," he said, as he waved his arm in a wide arc. "He's easy to spot, on that big horse, and he wears that red arm band so I'll find it easier to spot him."

Sweet, Xena thought with envy. If Gabrielle was there, she'd need no help spotting her, that mane of burnished gold would light up the hillside. She'd dreamt the night before that Gabrielle was nearby, could almost feel her now. A pang touched her heart and she welcomed it, remembering another time when she had so turned off her emotions that she couldn't even feel pain when separated from the bard. My bard. I'll get back to you soon enough, Gabrielle, somehow, if Phyrris doesn't kill us all first. An awful choice of deaths, she mused, dehydration or dysentery on a wild plain in the back of beyond. From the beginning she'd looked for possible avenues of escape from this chain, if it became necessary. Escape from Tartarus was still her first choice, but if only death awaited her here, she wouldn't wait for Tartarus. The problem was carrying passengers. Ileander had been entrusted to her by Drax; as a matter of honor she couldn't abandon him. Arthea was no responsibility of hers, but - Ileander was talking, in that animated way of his. "...golden horse." That was all she heard, but it brought her head around, and she peered through swollen eyelids to the place which had Ileander's attention. Argo's not the only golden horse in the world, she thought. Her eyes focused, and a cold hand gripped her. That was Argo, riderless. Did it mean that Drax had brought Argo? Why would he? Why would Gabrielle not use Argo for her own journey? She was standing stock still, and a guard gave her a shove in the back, which sent them all moving forward. Then they were out of sight of the other group, and Xena was left with the terrifying puzzle.

Throughout the evening meal she sat considering possibilities, while the others ate. Less water was consumed by the group as a whole, and less illness was in evidence.

"Xena, I'll save you some of my ration until the guard isn't looking," Arthea told her.

She shook her dark head. "No. I'm not hungry - yet," she forced a smile, mind still on the Gabrielle-mystery.

"I'd like some potable water, please." Ileander's voice behind her caused her to swear softly. This wasn't the time, she didn't want him as a distraction now. But a guard had heard, and was looking at Ileander as a cat looks at a mouse. "One of Xena's 'troops' eh? Here's what you'll get, same as she got." His club came down, and was grabbed by Xena mid-arc. "He asked you nicely. A simple 'no' would do," she growled, wishing Ileander had let it be.

It was Arthea's turn to be feisty. "If 'potable' means I can drink it without being sick, I'd like some, too," she said, giving the words a seductive turn.

"About time, and all," Lutus grunted, thirst at last getting the better of him.

"See if you all don't get a taste of what Xena's had," the guard promised, but as he looked around for his comrades, he heard new voices join the chorus. "Water, not that poison," was heard all around the area. A few clouts for example, would do, he decided, but he'd need help for this. "Plestor," he called to the nearest guard, "got some fresh mouths here." Plestor started over with an expectant grin, summoning two others as he came toward them. Xena had little time to consider as they advanced. She was severely limited by the five prisoners who were shackled to her, but she couldn't watch while their heads were broken. No retreat she noticed, as the others stood to form an impromptu half-circle of defense. Behind them were the wagons, the one bearing the cistern in the center. The thread of an idea began to form, even as the first guard delivered a blow to Arthea, the smallest one on the chain. "Bastard," Xena yelled as she lifted one foot as high as the chains would permit, to land a kick in his groin, grabbing his truncheon as he fell. She twirled it before her until the next guard began forward then launched it into his face, finishing his day. The others were more wary now, but from all over the camp guards came running to join them. Now or never, Xena knew, and she uttered her cry, meaning it to be heard by everyone in both camps. Then she called: "The cistern," and with no further words, those she was chained to executed a tidy maneuver to bring them face to face with the source of all misery. They rushed at it, and that movement communicated a world of meaning to the others in the camp, who summoned their last energy to join them in a furious race to the wagon. The somehow understood that their lives depended on reaching the wagon before the guards did. Xena's group reached it first, and moved awkwardly to dislodge the blocks which prevented the wagon from rolling, but the ground was level, some ten yards from a slope, and it went nowhere. They strained against it in vain, as the guards bore down on them, clubs raised, some swords drawn now. This could be ugly Xena knew, nearly all the camp was converging on this spot, and still the thing wouldn't budge. Then a second group of convicts arrived, and slammed their bodies against the wagon, followed by a third and yet another, until every chain was present, all warding off blows from the guards with one hand, while bending backs to the task of making the damned thing move. And then it began to happen: it lurched, and stopped, then someone yelled 'heave', and it moved again. Xena's muscles ached, her face contorted with the effort, and once more they all heaved, and the wagon rolled a few yards, to where it was no longer level. One final push and it started down the slope. There was no stopping it then. It careened down the slope with a loud rumbling noise. When the slope grew steep enough, the tall cistern toppled forward, falling in the path of the wagon itself.

All activity had stopped as convicts and guards alike followed the wagon's path. From the other side of the gulch, the followers watched dumbfounded as the convicts conducted this small riot. The overwhelming emotion was fear, This wouldn't go unpunished. They didn't all know that Xena had been the center of it, but some had seen it clearly, and her name was on everyone's lips. It was quickly made known that the young girl without the brand was Xena's friend. Trouble makers. Ugly looks were directed towards her by all but Drax, and now he cursed the day Xena had been captured by Mustrakis, to be sent into exile with Ileander. Crazy bitch! Some things just don't change.

When the wagon stopped Xena had sat where she stood, pulling her five chain mates to seats beside her, then she clasped hands on top of her head; they followed suit. There would be consequences, she knew, but passive submission might contain the reaction of the guards. Phyrris arrived to find every convict seated quietly, guards circling uncertainly. He looked down the slope to the smashed cistern, holding his breath against the foul odor that rose from the spot. A near mutiny. To punish everyone would mean further delays. His eyes settled on Xena.

Chapter Seven

Gabrielle watched the scene unfold as if from a distant planet. The shackles binding Xena's wrists were tied to the back of a wagon, and her tunic ripped to expose her back.

The captain swished a birch experimentally.

Xena listened to the sound with relief. She had been expecting the whip. She remembered that Phyrris had grabbed a club to use on her earlier in the day, and it occurred to her that the captain had never learned to crack a whip. It's all in the wrist, she smiled; her lips cracked painfully. Then she felt the sting of the branch across her back. At least she'd escape the scarring, she consoled herself.

"He can't do that," Gabrielle said to no one in particular. Drax stood a little to the side, his anger at Xena barely contained. He was confident she was getting what she deserved, although he had no real understanding of what had just happened. Gabrielle moved to mount Argo. "Where do you think you're going," he asked, although he knew the answer.

One rough hand held Argo's reins.

"Don't interfere Drax," she scowled. "I'm not letting him do that to Xena."

"How do you plan on stopping him? You might make it worse for her." She stopped, fearing he was right. "I have to do something." Mentally she was counting every rhythmic stroke of the branch.

"Then go in with something he needs, distract him." He picked up a large waterskin. "He'll give his eyeteeth for water, right now," he suggested. Her eyes widened; she grabbed the skin from him and started toward the gulch.

He mounted his own horse. "What are you all waiting for," he yelled to the others. "Those prisoners are thirsty!"

This was supposed to be a lesson for them all, so the prisoners sat arrayed around the scene, each happy the blame had fallen someplace else. It was her fault, anyway, they had decided, except for a few, who admitted the truth of the thing: she had likely saved their lives. Ileander had turned away, certain his mouth had precipitated the event, which she had directed to best advantage for them all. Now she was paying.

Xena wasn't counting lashes; he would stop when his anger, or his arm had been exhausted. She busied her mind with a more important matter: Argo, here, just across the gulch. Gabrielle, where? Her mind rebelled at the possibility that Gabrielle had followed. Drax would have prevented that. Should have prevented that, but Gabrielle was very persistent...There had to be another explanation, it was bad enough that Argo was here, how would she get her out? Damn, if Drax agreed to bring Argo for her to use in the escape, she'd wring his neck, he should know better.

Phyrris seemed to have tired. His anger wasn't spent, she heard him swearing still, but the assault had stopped. There was a clinking of chains behind her, as if the prisoners were moving all at once, and a rustling through the tall grass. She turned her head a fraction to see what she was hearing. The far end of the field was flooded with a moving mass of colors amid the brown convict garb. She had expected Phyrris to ask the followers for water eventually; she hadn't expected them to take the initiative.

Phyrris had not yet caught up with the immediate need for water. He watched the followers find familiar faces, and hold skins of water or wine to parched lips. Damn! His impulse was to clear the field, but it was only too clear that these people could supply what he could not. A lone rider approached. "Captain," he began with a tone of respect. "We witnessed the unfortunate accident. We have come to offer our help, if you will permit it." Drax knew Phyrris had no choice. He caught a glimpse of Xena over the captain's shoulder, and knew she listened to every word. The brief journey across the gulch had brought them close to the remnants of the cistern, and the pool of water it had left behind. He had gagged at the smell, glimpsed the rotting corpses of some rodents caught in the matted grass, and understood, now.

"Yes, of course." Phyrris had lost control of his command, however briefly. These people would be buried in Tartarus, and mattered not at all. The guards, however would carry the tale of the convict riot back to Mus; the disorder could go no further. The proper touch of brutality, the proper stroke of kindness, would be needed to prevent that happening. The one had been addressed. The other could begin now. He threw down the branch and sought his lieutenant, having already lost the attention of the convicts.

Gabrielle left Argo near the stand of trees, and moved quietly to the wagon where Xena, forgotten for the moment, leaned her body weight against the wagon. Her shoulders were slightly slumped, and she half turned, straining to see as much of the crowd as possible. Gabrielle came up behind her, and there was no mistaking the soft touch of those fingers on her arm. Her breath stopped.

"Gabrielle. What are you doing here?" she managed, without turning.

"Xena." Gabrielle moved to face her. "I let you out of my sight for a few days, and look what you get up to," she smiled, blinking back tears. Xena stared in reply, as the bard touched her cheek gently, turning it to examine the bruised face. "I'm sorry, Xena," she muttered as she began to untie the rope which fastened Xena's shackles to the wagon. For a moment Xena had a wild thought. If Argo was closer, they could be away before the guards knew - she caught herself. "Gabrielle, leave it." The whisper was a command. Gabrielle stopped, uncertainly. "Xena. They can't leave you tied up here all night."

"They can do what ever they want to do," she rasped. The voice was a reminder, and Gabrielle unstoppered the full skin she held. "You need to drink, Xena." She held the skin to Xena's lips; she almost gagged as the sweet wine hit the back of her parched throat. She had been expecting water. She swallowed, and sucked greedily for more.

"Be careful," Gabrielle warned. "You'll be drunk."

"Then give me water," Xena said simply, but Gabrielle had given the waterskin to a begging convict on the way over. She had just the skin of wine she'd wanted to give Xena in prison. She held the skin to her mouth again.

"Have they been feeding you?" Gabrielle asked, as reached to wipe the wine which dribbled down her chin.

"Not lately."

"I have bread."

"Gabrielle. Get out of here," she said abruptly.

"What?"

"Get on Argo, and ride as if your life depended on it." Because it does.

"Oh, no, Xena. I'm not being left behind." She ducked under the chains and rose to stand encircled in them, leaning lightly on the warrior, who shook her head helplessly. "It's too late now, anyway. Two guards ride with us. They have a record of who's with the group.

I'm official," she said, almost proudly.

"Gabrielle..." The bard stopped her words with a kiss. "I should have brought some ointment," she said as she brushed the cracked lips with a finger.

"You should have done what I told you to do," Xena said harshly. Gabrielle didn't know what she had expected; certainly not hostility.

"Xena, why are you so angry," she asked. "I thought you'd be a little glad to see me."

The swollen eyelids squeezed shut for a moment. "I'm not angry, Gabrielle." Gods, how could I be angry with you for loving me too much? "I had reasons..." she began. What difference did it make now? The future seemed to close around her like an oppressive wave of heat, sucking the air from her lungs. No escape possible now. Tartarus, forever. Gabrielle in that horror, forever.

"Xena? Are you all right?" She received no reply. Concerned, she moved to Xena's back, and examined the welts raised by the branch. The skin was broken in a few places, but it didn't look too bad. "This will sting," she warned and poured wine over them, to stop them festering. Xena made no reaction, didn't feel it. Gabrielle touched the dangling earring; Xena shook her head, almost violently. "Leave it."

"Xena, I've spoken to Drax, I know what my choice means."

"No, you don't." The blue eyes had a steely-chill.

She wavered at the icy tone, but continued. "This isn't an execution, Xena; they're not throwing me on your funeral pyre. We'll still have a life together. It will be different, but we'll be together, Xena, and that's enough." She was tying the back of the tunic together with the ragged ends. The powerful muscles of Xena's back tensed as she pulled at the chain linking her manacles. The bard ran a hand over the muscles, afraid to speak, guessing that Xena needed time to absorb her presence.

"None of this," said a gruff voice nearby. Gabrielle's ministrations to Xena had finally been noticed. A rough hand grabbed Gabrielle's arm. "Hey," she protested, trying to pull away.

"Do all Xena's friends have an attitude?"

Something in his tone caught the warrior's attention. Without turning, she gauged his position and planted a boot in his groin. He was sent out of her reach. Lucky bastard, she seethed. If my hands were free I'd kill him. She pulled at the chains again. "Xena, calm down," Gabrielle soothed. Xena was only vaguely aware of her voice; she was acutely aware of her fetters. The concentrated rage of days past focused in her arms, and with a chilling cry she yanked them over her head, tearing one link apart. She was free, hobbled at the ankles, but that made little difference. She swung the chain above her head, daring any guard to come near. The one on the ground scrambled away. Gabrielle stayed near her, just out of reach of the swinging chain. She was afraid; this was pointless. "Xena, stop, please, you can't escape."

The little drama brought a murmur of attention from the prisoners. They were involved with their own concerns: the unexpected comfort from the following camp. Ileander noticed, and got to his feet. "Leave it," Drax said. "It will take a two-by-four to bring her down now."

"Xena, there's no place to go," Gabrielle persisted. "Stop before they hurt you. Please."

Xena regarded the circling guards with contempt. They were afraid of her. You should be afraid, she thought, I don't care if you all die, and I can make it happen. And they can kill you, a voice whispered, enticingly, in her own mind.

Phyrris stood at the edge of the trouble, watching intently. This was not the reasonable woman who'd challenged him over water, or even the driving force behind the small insurrection. This woman was out of control. He would be within his rights to have her killed on the spot. "Archers," he called, and the word was passed along.

Terror-stricken, Gabrielle spoke with new urgency. "Xena. Stop, now," she commanded her, "I don't want to be alone in Tartarus." That got some reaction, at least she was listening, but still not ready to give it up. Three archers took position; Xena gave them an evil grin. This will be interesting, she thought, erasing Gabrielle's words from her thoughts.

"Xena." Gods, why can't she stay out of this, Xena fumed, I don't need distractions now. But the bard's voice came nearer as she advanced, arms in front of her face, ducking beneath the chain. "Get out of here," Xena hissed, and shoved her away with an arm, but Gabrielle caught the arm, and pulled Xena off-balance. As she moved to right herself, the smaller woman wrapped her arms around her waist. "Xena, stop it, now. Or they'll have to shoot me to get to you." The archers paused, looking to Phyrris for direction. He observed the little scene with amusement, and waved the archers to lower their weapons.

Xena stood still, lips parted, eyes blank. Except for the bard supporting her weight she might have fallen to the ground. "Why, Gabrielle?" she mumbled.

There was little to be said. Drax reveled quietly in his joy at seeing Ileander. Gabrielle wondered quietly at Xena's reaction to her appearance. She would have allowed herself to feel hurt if she wasn't so worried. Everything had gotten so much worse for Xena...

"Xena will bounce back," Drax was saying. He had pitched a small lean-too as shelter against a steady drizzle. Across the way, he knew the prisoners would be enjoying the moisture on their skin, so long as it didn't continue through the night.

"She shouldn't be alone, Drax," she thought out loud. Although maybe seeing me isn't such a good idea right now, she decided.

"Does she get like this often?" he ventured. "I mean, so - berserk?"

"I've seen it before," she recalled, and her face clouded over. "It doesn't last," she said quickly, anxious to protect Xena's reputation.

"Maybe it just hit here that this is forever," he said with more truth than she knew. For both of you, he added silently.

Nearby, a kaval sounded a slow melody.

Xena huddled next to the wagon, cooled by the rain, though she was barely aware of it. A flute could be heard from the camp just across the gulch. It did nothing to improve her mood. Things had gone badly wrong today, gotten way out of hand. That frightened her, and she still couldn't figure it out. It had been right to destroy the cistern; on the spur of the moment the others had agreed. She had expected the punishment, been able even to smile at...something. Then it all changed; she just wanted to kill. Her mind stopped, not wanting to remember.

They hadn't been too brutal, in the end; it was getting dark and they had been anxious to settle the camp for the night. Anxious to tie me down, she thought bitterly. Why didn't I kill them all and escape, let everyone here escape? she asked herself darkly. I could have. I wanted to, she admitted. Then...I just gave up. Submitted to them. She gnawed at a broken fingernail. New blood started from a split lip. Familiar. My blood. She spat it from her mouth. Why did I do that? She knew the answer, yet pushed it away once more.

I wouldn't have done that, once. Damn, I wouldn't ever have been taken like this, trussed up like a game-hen. No, you wouldn't, echoed from some recess of her mind. What's happened, Xena? As powerful as ever; you broke those chains with barely a thought. Yet here you are. Utterly defeated, alone...She suddenly felt lonely, acknowledged the empty spot, that only one person could fill. And she was so close, so damnably close...That wasn't right, if she had just stayed away...I would have made my way back to her. Instead, she'll bear the burden for my depravity. Gladly. With an effort, she stilled her thoughts, let feelings wash over her instead. Pain, self-loathing, remorse crashed against her. In their wake one last tide remained: love. Gods, that innocent girl loves me enough to share even Tartarus. What did I say to her? No word of love in reply, only unjustified anger. Did I expect her to know my thoughts? Sometimes I don't know them myself.

A small flicker of light showed from a campfire in the follower's camp. She hadn't noticed when the music stopped. Xena rose to a sitting position, back against a sturdy wheel. She took a breath, wet her lips with the soft rain, and raised her hoarse voice in a song of love.

Chapter Eight

Phyrris had heard the plaintive serenade the night before, and watched fascinated now as the young woman with the hair of burnished gold made clear her acceptance of it. She wasn't allowed within twenty yards of the dark warrior; no one was, except for a guard who brought her food and water. It was too great a distance for words, yet from her vantage point seated on a bluff, she kept her lover company. Xena ate in small bites; Gabrielle followed each piece into her mouth, as if she were placing it there; Xena imagined it was so. With her first sight of Gabrielle she knew that the woman, once again, had forgiven her. A smile, a slow hand caressing her own hair, and the bard eased the last pain that Xena felt. Gabrielle watched the tension drop from the big shoulders, the cloud of remorse drift from the bruised face, and breathed with relief. Xena was all right now, whatever storm had touched her last night was gone. Since she felt it was somehow connected with her, it eased her own guilt.

In some vague way, Phyrris was privy to all this, not understanding everything, but certain that this young woman held Xena's heart. The stories he'd discounted in Mus were true. Amazing. He had meant his isolation of the warrior less as punishment, than to prevent anymore subversion on her part. He realized now that the key to Xena's good behavior was a small blonde. He had heard that, in Mus, as well. He hadn't realized until yesterday that the blonde woman had accompanied them. This might make the whole trip easier. He had admitted to himself that Xena had been right about the cistern. Under other circumstances, he'd have thanked her. The followers were only in camp now because he had no other water supply available. His maps told him of a stream some miles away, which ran a good distance in the general direction of Tartarus. It would be a reliable source of water. By mid-day, he hoped to be on that track, although the detour would bring him to Tartarus far behind schedule. That required some punishment, apparent to the others. Xena had taken her beating well; he'd expected no less. He believed she'd appreciate the isolation; maybe that would serve as a thank you.

There was one less wagon, so the convicts alternated now in hauling them along. The idle ones walked on one chain. Xena walked alone, tethered to the rear of a wagon. She was well content, and suspected that Phyrris knew that. She needed time to think. Until the night before, she had viewed Tartarus as the starting point for an escape; all her thoughts had been directed to that effort. Now it was to be the final destination, and she had to think about how to live there. How to live there with Gabrielle.

Food and shelter would be difficult, it was said there was little game, and the climate was harsh. Still, they'd manage, she had no doubt. The rest was a problem. She had to keep Gabrielle safe, in a land where little safety was possible, for anyone. She wondered how many of her old adversaries were in Tartarus, warlords, or soldiers she wouldn't know, but who would remember her with bitter feelings.

There was another question: Who would Gabrielle talk to besides me? The garrulous bard liked people, showed an interest in everyone. Xena often recognized a chance acquaintance from the road woven into a story, with unfailing accuracy.

Gabrielle's stories. Who would hear them now? Me? Not much of an audience. As much as I like them, she admitted, I seldom know what to say, to show that. Instead I make some cynical, hard-hearted comment.

"I'll have to improve," she mumbled. In a lot of ways. Gabrielle would now be everything for her, to her, and that would be enough. But she would have to be everything to Gabrielle, there would be no one else; she feared she wouldn't be enough. Now we'll find out just how much of me she can stomach. My moods, my temper. Gods, I can't have a repeat of yesterday. That was disturbing to her, still. Can't happen. Won't happen, she pledged. I have to keep the darkness hidden. Gabrielle didn't deserve any of this, I can't make it worse for her. Yet she didn't know what survival might demand, and that made her uneasy.

She stumbled on a stone in the road, and her mind came back for a moment. It was late afternoon, and she was tired. She would have liked to bathe in the stream at mid-day, with the other prisoners, she couldn't remember when she had been so filthy, but she had long ago learned not to wish for what she couldn't have. She followed the stream to where it met the horizon, certain it was a branch of the Ekina River, knowing that she wouldn't be facing that tumultuous current after all.

She hoped that someone had told Gabrielle that dinars were worthless in Tartarus. She wondered what the bard might have bought to bring along. She had composed a mental list of what she'd like to have, wouldn't know what they did have for some time. She didn't imagine she'd speak with Gabrielle again until they arrived in Tartarus, even if the others were permitted visits.

She was right. On two occasions the track diverged from the stream and the followers were needed to provide water to the camp. The guards looked the other way when food, including fresh game, was supplied; they were amply rewarded with a share. Phyrris also looked the other way; he pulled this duty twice a year, and had never known a camp so free of tension. The catalyst for the change received the smallest benefit, but made the most of the silent visits.

If Ileander or Arthea caught her eye from a distance they'd wave, or nod. Xena stopped worrying about Ileander, he seemed cautious enough, and she couldn't help him if he did get in trouble. Drax had stopped worrying as well. His visits to the camp had assured him that Ileander would survive. He worried more about Gabrielle. She ate little, and stayed awake half the night.

"Eat," he urged. "Xena won't be happy to see you enter Tartarus looking half starved. She'll have enough to worry about." It was good advice, but Gabrielle only half listened.

So they proceeded, day-to-day, inexorably to Tartarus.

Almost imperceptibly they began to climb uphill. The vegetation became sparse, the soil rocky. At night, the convicts huddled in close circles for sleeping. Xena found herself nearly burrowed in grass beneath the wagon, and felt happy for the shelter. The ragged tunics were little protection from the cold, and hers was held together in back by the merest of tied threads. This was the approach to Tartarus, they all knew. Some drank in every detail, anxious to know the worst, others refused to take any notice, as if that would delay the inevitable. Phyrris righted their course now, taking them away from the stream, toward the narrow pass that gave access to Tartarus.

For three days they were away from the stream, and followers were welcome again. For those days they had been acutely aware of troops, some on horseback, others with leashed dogs at their sides, patrolling the pass, and the reaches to it. They wondered at the absence of the cistern, were told briefly of its destruction in an accident, and watched uncertainly as the followers mixed with the convicts. They saw the convicts as the enemy, to be hunted, if they ventured near the pass, to be killed. These troops knew the route through the pass, and would provide escort for the last day of the journey.

No wagons were needed now, the food was nearly gone. Each convict was given a small supply of jerky, and a small sack of grain. If any of them had a follower with a pot, it could be boiled for porridge. If not, it could be bartered for something else.

With no small sense of relief, Phyrris saw the last of the convicts, still enchained, receive the provisions. His task was half over. He would deliver the oxen-drawn wagons to Mus, and take a leave before resuming his usual service. He would report to Mus that not one convict had died on this journey; that was probably a first. He didn't know if that would be greeted as a good, or a bad thing. He might be seen as soft. In truth, he suspected the occasional longer breaks to allow visits from the other camp, and the greater nourishment they provided had been the cause.

He had one last duty. Xena had waited, with that curious detachment she displayed, while the others were supplied, and turned over to the mounted troops. Phyrris approached her now, to unfasten the chain from the wagon. "Xena," he said as he worked, "I'm sorry things turned out as they did." He waited for a reply, received none, and went on. "I would like to have met you under other circumstances."

"Are you sure of that?" she asked, wryly amused. He smiled nervously in return. "Maybe not," he admitted. "But I would not have chosen to be your jailer." It was not an apology, but it was as close as he could come; they both knew that. "Good luck," he said and let her go herself to the wagon for her meager supplies.

It was a hazardous trail which threaded the narrow pass. Frequent rock slides had left it almost impassable in spots, and people and horses had to negotiate steep detours on the hillside to get by. Throughout the long day they didn't break for more than ten minutes at a time. The escort was anxious to see them through the pass and on their way by nightfall. They'd camp on the other side and return in the morning. It was as much of Tartarus as they wanted to see.

Xena noted every detail of the pass, still hoping to see an escape route, seeing instead randomly spaced archers peering over the cliffs above, waving their arms in broad arcs at their comrades. At one point they crossed a deep ravine, by means of a plank bridge. She admired the engineering, and the well-placed guards who monitored access at each end. At night, on foot, a lone person might get by, even if mounted soldiers were on patrol. She could have done that, she thought without vanity.

It was near dusk when the hills on either side fell back to reveal what lay beyond. They could see little in the gathering dark, and were distracted by the commands of the soldiers. Shoved to one side, they waited as the soldiers passed along the chains, unlocking cuffs, and shooing convicts, long used to standing in groups, away from each other. "You are in Tartarus, now," they were told, as if a reminder was necessary. "There is no escape, and if you find one, only death waits for you outside. By noon tomorrow, be out of our sight, or the dogs will chase you away. Or have you for lunch." As simply as that, they were free, to live or die, prosper or starve. Uncertainly, they drifted away in twos or threes, staying close to their chain mates, looking around for anyone who might have followed them into exile.

Xena stood off to the side, and waited for Gabrielle to appear, shivering a little in reaction to the chill, damp wind which whistled across the plain. Her nostrils flared slightly. This place had a wild scent to it, more the home of animals than humans.

She didn't turn at the sound behind her, worked desperately to arrange her features into something less than a mask of pain. Arms encircled her waist, and she turned to face Gabrielle, her smile shadowed by sadness. Gabrielle might have read her thoughts. She looked only briefly at her before burying her head in the warrior's chest. All else was erased. Xena enveloped the bard in arms that threatened to crush her, so great was her need. Gabrielle felt the need and responded; tonight would be about giving, and comfort.

She began to speak, her voice muffled by Xena's body. "Xena, we need to make camp, someplace, just find a little space where we can be alone." She felt Xena's head nod in agreement, then it lifted. The temptation was great to let Gabrielle take charge tonight, but that wasn't fair. It had been a shared ordeal, she wouldn't leave the burden to Gabrielle now. Argo was just behind them; she stroked her broad muzzle and took the reins with one hand, the other still around Gabrielle's waist. She looked about, suddenly anxious to be away from here. She lifted Gabrielle into the saddle, happy to be doing something so familiar, and climbed up behind her. The big mare seemed happy enough, anyway.

"Where?" she asked. It was a serious question. There were no roads, no places to go. You made your own place. Gabrielle looked to where the first star of the evening rose on the distant horizon. There she pointed. "I think that's a good omen." Xena nodded, and made a soft noise with her tongue to Argo. "Let's go find our place, Gabrielle."

 

Chapter Nine

Gabrielle knew that Xena woke before dawn. She was uncharacteristically awake herself, and felt the sleeperís breath change, but neither stirred. Xena had snuggled close to the bard all night, holding her in an embrace that bordered sometimes on the uncomfortable. Gabrielle was strangely reminded of her clinging when Xena had returned from the dead.

Then Xena had slept again. When she next awoke, it was well past the usual time for her rising.

"Gabrielle, are you awake?" she asked quietly.

"Just about," she lied. And desperate to pee, she thought. Still, Xena held her, not stirring, but she said: "Itís time we started moving."

"Uh huh," Gabrielle agreed. "If you can build a small fire Iíll make an infusion, to have with breakfast." Supper the night before had been cheese and dried figs Gabrielle had brought along.

Breakfast would be the last of the cheese.

Xena was quiet a moment. "I donít think we can spare the wood just to heat water for an infusion. Itís pretty scarce right about here." The fire the night before had been very small. "I thought Iíd bring that little bit of wood along, in case we donít find much later."

"Oh. Okay," Gabrielle said. She turned her head to give Xena a smile and a soft kiss. At that, Xena released her hold at last.

"I donít know how you can touch me, Gabrielle. Iím filthy; I stink," she said with disgust. "I havenít bathed in weeks."

"I didnít notice, Xena." It was the truth. "They were some of the longest weeks of my life; I ached to touch you. Do you think a little dirt means anything? It didnít last night."

She saw clearly, now, for the first time, the bruises on Xenaís dirt-streaked face. She looked as if sheíd been sick. "Youíve lost weight."

"So have you." A grimy hand reached to Gabrielleís face, and traced the line of her jaw.

"I guess weíll both look better cleaned up," Xena admitted. "I feel better just to be out of that smelly rag." She was covered only by the blanket they shared. Gabrielle was dressed, but Xena couldnít remember when that had happened. She had last seen the younger blonde by dim moonlight, naked, firm flesh quivering slightly at her touch, open and willing; in the end, passion spent, she had held Xena until she slept. And Iím so determined to care for her, Xena thought with chagrin. Damn, it had been stupid to let my guard down so far in this place. Have to be more careful; she scolded herself. But last night had been essential, for both of them.

She looked at the brown tunic lying discarded a few feet away. "Hate to put it back on." She wouldnít put her own things on while she was so filthy.

"Then I guess weíd better find water fast. Any idea how we do that?" Gabrielle knew what the answer would be, but loved to hear Xena explain some things.

"Shouldnít be too hard to find whatís available." She sat up and looked around. When the blanket fell away, she felt more keenly the wind that had stirred around them all night. There was little on the flat plain to impede itís progress. Xena couldnít see the mountains to the south, but knew they were there. The summits of the northern range were just apparent, peaking through their misty shrouds. The whole effect was to create a funnel, directing the eastern winds onto this little world. Xena guessed those winds could bring some nasty surprises. She lay back down, seeking the bardís warmth.

"Everything that can move will have made its way to some source of water. We look for tracks, or for areas where the vegetation seems more lush, or where there are real trees, not these scrubby excuses." She shook her head at the nearby dwarf-trees which rose out of the brown, stubby grasses. She hoped there were better trees somewhere in this land, hated to think it was all one flat, arid wasteland. So unlike Thrace. The grasses were lush there, sweet water springs abounded; there was plenty of game and fruits. With a little skill and knowledge one could thrive in the wild. Here, it was all so different. Still, you always liked a challenge, Xena, she admonished herself. Stop whining.

 

They rode for sometime without seeing any of the signs Xena had mentioned, or other people, or animals, or signs of animals, Xena thought with disgust. There has to be something or someone else alive here, even off the beaten path. Gabrielleís mind moved along the same lines.

"I wonder what became of the others," she asked quietly. "It seems odd that we havenít seen a sign of them."

It wasnít odd, Xena knew, it was by design. "We will," she said with assurance. "There will be only so many places to settle in this Ė " she hesitated " Ė place."

"How do you think theyíll manage? There was that woman who was with youÖ"

"Arthea," Xena supplied.

"How will she get along? Was there anyone there for her?"

"No." Arthea had made it clear she was alone. "She wonít be alone for long." She would find someone to be with, or someone would take her.

"I hope not, she has only what she wore on her back, and Ė well, itís not like trying to get by in Potadeia. Or even in Thrace."

Even in Thrace. Xenaís eyebrows raised a little at that. "Taking on added responsibilities here isnít the same as taking them on in Thrace, either. Or even in Potadeia," she finished pointedly.
"I wasnít suggesting that, Xena." The bardís voice was gentle.

"Good, because I have no doubt weíll see her again." Last person I need in my life, Xena thought.

 

Little distinguished one mile from another, except they turned one bend and a corpse lay across the path before them. They were upon him before Xena could warn Gabrielle to look away. The bard had seen plenty of death, but this was gruesome: the man still wore the brown tunic of the convicts. Worn sandals hung in tatters from his feet. His own blood was a dry pool beneath him. Xena saw that his earring had been ripped from his ear.

"Was he in your group, Xena?"

"No. Heís been in Tartarus a while." His body bore welt marks from whippings, some long ago, others more recent. The poor bastard had been used hard. Little flesh remained on his bones. She had a small entrenching tool in Argoís bag. "Iíll bury him, Gabrielle," she said, feeling an unexpected kinship with this wretch.

"Xena, should we report this to someone?"

"Whoíd you have in mind, Gabrielle? Itís a killing. We can guess at the motive, all of Tartarus would be likely suspects, and no one much cares."

"Someone should know heís dead," she persisted. "His loved ones outside might wonder how he is for years, not knowing." Xena made no reply.

 

At last the vegetation changed. From a distance, Xena heard the change. "Listen," she told Gabrielle, and reined Argo to a halt. Gabrielle was puzzled. "I only hear the wind, Xena," she said.

"But itís different. Itís been blowing across this scrubby stuff; now itís rustling through reeds. Listen," she insisted, certain Gabrielle could hear it if she but tried. "When it blows off the short grasses and smacks into the reeds it all changes."

"The tricks you warlords learn," Gabrielle said, impressed, but more amused.

"Thatís not a warriorís trick," Xena told her, aggrieved. "Amphipolis is Ė "

"I know: sheep country," Gabrielle put in.

"Told you that, eh?" Xena grinned.

"A few times," Gabrielle said. And you werenít even the first, she realized, recalling the wagon driver whoíd reluctantly carried her to Amphipolis when sheíd first set out to follow the warrior. Gods bless him, she murmured, now, wondering what might have been had she arrived too late to help smooth the course of the homecoming. The thought made her tighten her grip on the warriorís waist.

"What was that for?" Xena asked, pleasure in her voice. Gods, Iíve missed those moments.

"I love it when you tell me a story," she said with another squeeze.

"This isnít really a story, Gabrielle," Xena admitted, wishing she could find a way to make it a story. "Just telling you that I spent a lot of time in the fields with the sheep my uncles kept. The only sounds were from the sheep bleating, bees buzzing in the clover, small animals in the grass, and the grass itself when the wind moved in it. You begin to notice things when there are no distractions."

"I think you could be a poet, Xena," Gabrielle observed.

"A poet?" Gabrielle couldnít see her expression, but knew that both eyebrows were approaching the bangs that fringed her face.

"Yes, a poet, because you notice things. Thatís the first step."

"And the last step," she laughed. "Iíll leave poetry to you." She started Argo forward, and guessed from her eagerness that water, indeed, was ahead.

 

The grasses became thicker, greener, longer as they moved, giving way at last to tall brown reeds which crunched beneath Argoís hooves. Then the ground became soft, and when she stood in the stirrups, Xena could spy a body of water. It didnít have the sweet scent she had hoped for. She rode to the edge of the tiny lake and jumped down, holding Argo away until she had held a cupped hand to her own mouth. She made a face at the unpleasant taste. "Strong mineral flavor, but itís okay." Then Argo drank. Xena moved to a spot a little further away, where a large, flat boulder sloped into the water. "Itíll be cold, but hereís our chance to get clean," she said over her shoulder to Gabrielle. Already she had her brown tunic over her head. Even from a distance, Gabrielle could see the fading bruises and red stripes on her back before she entered the water, holding a handful of reeds. She ducked under the surface, and disappeared for a few moments, to surface several yards away, blowing water from her mouth, shaking sopping hair from her face. The dangling earring hit harmlessly against the side of her neck. Abruptly, she made her head still. "Come on, Iíll do your back," she called, and Gabrielle complied, shedding her own clothing, grabbing her own handful of reeds.

Her teeth began to chatter before she had reached Xena, and was happy to notice that even Xena was shivering slightly. "Letís not make this long," she asked. Xena grinned and began to massage the grimy back with the reeds, broken and matted now to make a rough sponge. "Let me know if I hurt you," she said. It didnít hurt, Gabrielle realized, a little surprised. Maybe Iím numb with cold, she thought. Then Xenaís bare hand took her shoulder; so much for the numb theory, she reacted with a gasp.

"Was that pain or cold?" Xena asked, concerned.

"Itís me, in the middle of a frigid lake, being touched by the most exquisite fingers on earth," she replied. Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle from behind. "Lucky for me you feel that way. I donít want to touch anyone else," she whispered. "But that shivering isnít all from passion," she decided. "Scrub my back, and weíll get out of here."

 

While Gabrielle dried off, Xena beat the brown tunic against a rock, dipping it frequently in the water. "Xena, why are you bothering with that thing?" Gabrielle asked. "Iíd never want to see you in it again, even if it was wearable."

Xena regarded her soberly. "Some day, Gabrielle, we will be very glad to have a rag of any sort, for something." And most days, we wonít have one. Even this miserable cloth had value here.

At last she dressed, and donned her weapons once again, feeling the familiar comfort settle on her. She saw the feeling mirrored in Gabrielleís frank stare, and let her see a broad smile. So much, at least, could be normal. "Get your staff, Gabrielle. We have hunting to do."

"Hunting?" Xena had never taken her hunting. "Iíll build a fire, that will save time Ė "

"You have someplace important to be?" Xena asked.

"Well, Iím sort of hungry," she ventured. Xenaís look said sheíd tolerate no excuses. "We could fish?" she suggested. Somehow, killing fish was different.

"Gabrielle, you donít mind eating what I kill. You might as well watch me do it." The warrior turned on her heel and began moving quietly through the reeds. Gabrielle grabbed her staff, and hurried after Xena, hoping silence wasnít key to this hunt, because she felt that she was crashing through the reeds like a wild boar. "What are you Ė we- hunting?"

"There are ducks on the lake." Gabrielle stared hard at the surface as she moved, seeing a series of dark dots floating on the surface. Ducks. She liked duck As they got closer, she noticed colors emerging from the dots, brown on the backs, and red crested heads at the end of long necks. Finally they stood at the shore again, close to a small flock of birds.

"Pochards," Xena said flatly, as she examined the scene. It would be nice to have a bow. "Gabrielle, stay here. When I signal, chase them into the air." She nodded, and the warrior took off at a light run, barely rustling the reeds. A few minutes later, from the far side of the lake, Xena waved her arms in a wide arc; Gabrielle began to holler and beat the water with her staff, and the birds took to the air. A blur followed after them, and in seconds a duck fell heavily back to earth. Xena snatched her chakram from the air, then retrieved the bird, and held it high as she returned to Gabrielle. "Good one," she said with satisfaction. "I hope youíre hungry. Letís get that fire going."

 

The duck sizzled as it roasted, and the fire flared as the dripping grease touched it. All the while, Xena talked. The feathers had been wrapped in a cloth. Gabrielle wanted to know why; Xena had never done that before.

"We might want a pillow some day. Or a soft place to sleep."

"How many ducks will that take?" The blonde head shook as she laughed.

"How many ducks do you think weíll eat over the years?" was Xenaís serious reply.

The years. For Xena it was an endless stretch of trial, and a wish theyíd survive that long. Survive together. Gabrielle said nothing, but turned the duck on the spit once more, wondering at something new she saw in Xenaís face.

"Gabrielle, when you decided to come here Ė "

"Not much of a decision, once I knew it was possible."

Xena heard the undertone, saw the flash of anger in her eyes. "We have to talk about that; this isnít the time." Xena stuffed the feather-parcel in a saddle bag. "I just wondered what you brought with you," she said as casually as she could manage.

Gabrielle had been slightly anxious about this moment. She hadnít been sure what to buy, and there had been no one reliable from whom to seek advice. Still, although she felt sheíd done her best, she would feel bad if Xenaís face betrayed even the slightest disappointment at her choices. "I bought what I thought weíd need, Xena, what was essential. Of course, your Ďessentialí and mine are two different things sometimes." A lot of the time, she acknowledged to herself. "And there werenít many dinarsÖ"

"I understand that, Gabrielle. Iíd just like to know what we have to start out with," Xena said mildly, feeling as anxious as the bard.

"I bought salt." Xena nodded. Good start, they both agreed. "I bought food, salt pork, cheese, beans, meal, some dried fruit. Of course most of that, I ate on the way here," she said apologetically.

"I hoped you had enough to eat," Xena said with warm approval. "Sounds like short rations, as it is."

"I was okay. Drax got meat sometimes, and he brought quite a lot of food with him. He had plenty of money to spend, I guess." She regretted those last words when she saw Xenaís quiet reaction.

"So. Consumables aside, what else? Any tools?" Xena asked hopefully.

"Tools?"

"Axe, maybe? Saw? Awl? Hammer?" Seeing Gabrielleís countenance fall with every word, Xena broke it off.

"I did get a sharpening stone, and oil for your leathers," Gabrielle offered. Xena nodded and smiled, but thought of the ease with which she could make do with what sheíd find in Tartarus for those items. "I bought two drinking cups. Some medicines Iíve seen you buy. Needles." And a few other items Iíd better not mention now.

"Good," Xena said, happy some things on her wish list had made it.

"Xena, there was hardly any money Ė "

"Gabrielle, donít explain yourself. Iím not finding fault. You did well." Xena spoke sincerely. Gabrielle had been in an impossible situation. "You did buy scrolls and ink?" Xena asked.

"Of course not," Gabrielle said happy to give that answer.

"You should have, Gabrielle. Those might be pretty hard to come by here." Xena prodded the duck with her dagger, decided it was finished and lay it on a large flat rock sheíd scrubbed clean. Efficiently, she split it into portions, which she put on two wooden plates, and settled next to Gabrielle on the ground.

Xena hid her disappointment well, but it was there. Gabrielle rose and fetched the two cups. She poured water from the skins into each, tossed in a big pinch of dried leaves, and with a cloth protecting her hand, picked up two smooth stones that had been heating near the fire, and dropped one into each cup. A strong lemon scent filled the air.

"I hope we find verbena someplace here," Gabrielle wished aloud.

Xena was savoring the crispy skin of the duck. Gabrielle realized that Xena had had no meat in weeks, and was surprised at the restraint she showed in eating. She had ripped into her own, tearing the flesh off in great chunks as Xena took tiny bites, keeping up a conversation as she ate.

"Did you send word to anyone? Your mother? Ephiny?"

"No. I didnít want to spend the money to pay a messenger. And I didnít know what to say," she admitted.

The dark head nodded in understanding.

"Maybe I should have sent word to Cyrene?" Gabrielle suggested.

"My mother will hear," Xena observed, with a sad smile. Sheíll be unhappy, but she wonít be surprised. "Your family Ė "

"Maybe itís best if they donít know for sure," Gabrielle put in, having played out the family thought patterns for two weeks in her own head. "When, or if, word reaches them of your capture they can assume anything, pretend I didnít follow you, picture me anywhere that makes them comfortable."

"Wish again that Iíd never met you," Xena said.

"No, Xena. To wish that would be to wish me a slave." Me, and Lila and my mother. My father would be dead, Perdicus dead long before our wedding.

Xena knew where Gabrielleís mind went; they hate me just the same, she mused, but it didnít matter anymore. They were from another lifetime. Only Gabrielle remained from that existence. And Gabrielle would be as happy as possible in this place.

"I figure weíll keep moving along this line, in the general direction of your star," Xena thought aloud. "It will take us to the foot of the mountains. I expect weíll find more water there, more game, and some shelter from the wind." More people too, she thought ruefully, afraid of who those people might be. "Iíve never built a dwelling of any kind," she went on, as if picturing a mental list of things-to-do, "but I should be able to manage. Small at first. We have to be secure before it turns cold." She already felt an ominous nip in the wind, and it was still late summer. "Iíll make it larger as time goes on," she promised. "The foothills will likely be forested; Iíll be able to put aside firewood, and maybe Iíll be able to gather nuts, depending on the trees."

"You will?" Gabrielle said after a moment. Xena registered surprise at her tone, but the warriorís eyes were looking beyond Gabrielle; her mouth moved imperceptibly, but the words were clear: "Company. Iíve been expecting them. Four men, I think. One horse." Gabrielle turned to look, but saw nothing. Expecting them? "Any moment now," Xena added quietly. She hadnít moved, her sword was still sheathed, chakram on her hip, and the wooden dish which held her meat still rested on her lap. Then four strangers came into view, one on horseback. The leader. Xena glanced in their direction and looked down at her food again, dismissively. Her peripheral vision caught the nuances of movement which told her that they were exchanging eager glances.

"Itís my duty to tell you, began the one on horseback, "that you are guilty of trespass and poaching." Xena had not yet looked at him. "Lord Brachius prizes his water fowl highly." He rode closer as he spoke, as if trying to get Xenaís attention. "Thatíll have to be paid for." As if tired of speaking to himself, he turned to his comrades. "I think the horse might do, for a start."

A stout man on foot was looking at Gabrielle; he grinned suddenly "And maybe a little companionship," he leered.

Xena spoke now for the first time. " Lord Brashhhusss?" she said with contempt. "Is that what the little shit calls himself now?" She gave a harsh laugh. "You tell him Iíll help myself to his game whenever I want. As it happens, Iím partial to duck." She held her plate, as if prepared to finish the meal. The man on horseback frowned with surprise, and went for his sword. With a quick motion of her wrist Xena launched the plate to catch him full in the throat, and he fell sideways off the horse, gasping for air. The other three charged, swords in hand. Xena didnít touch her weapons. One man had a knee broken by the force of her kick as she leaped to evade the charge. Another received an elbow in the side of the head. The third, the one with the leer, she caught under the chin with both hands, and turned his head, until his neck was nearly broken. She stopped because she heard a word at her back. Gabrielle had said something. She dropped him with a scowl. The unseated rider had struggled to his feet, and groped for his sword. She stuck a boot in his face, and he was down again.

"Stay put, and maybe I wonít kill anybody. Shut up," she threw without looking, at the man who moaned over his broken knee; he bit the edge of his cuff to keep silent.

"Let me see if I have this straight: the price of a duck is my war-horse? So, the price of my exertion," she smiled coyly, as she spoke into his ear, "in putting you in your place, should be a bit higher, donít you agree?" She waited for objections, and heard none. "Good. I like your knife." She took the short dagger sheathed at his waist. "Guess Iíll need a sheath," she decided, and ripped it from his belt. "Oh. Never know when Iíll feel the need for another horse." His head followed her every movement as she examined the horse. "Doesnít quite cover the cost of my trouble, but Iím in a good mood today," she growled.

She turned to the man with the broken knee. A bow was slung across his shoulders, along with a quiver of arrows. She tossed them both at Gabrielleís feet. "Hereís that bow we were wishing we had. I guess this is how Artemis answers prayers." Gabrielle tried to

remember when they had wished for a bow.

One man was unconscious. Xena turned him over and found an axe hanging at his belt. Not just what she wanted, but she had to take something, and it would be useful. She twirled it over her head and buried it in the ground bedside the campfire. No one else was moving as she approached the fourth man, the one who was lucky to be alive.

"Now, what can you do for us? Companionship? Isnít that what you wanted? I donít think so." She saw fear in his eyes and was glad. His sword was on the ground next to his body. "This should about cover things. Of course, itís not very long," she said with a smirk.

"Youíll regret this," he said, even as his cheeks burned with humiliation.

"Ya think so?" Xena asked. "Whoís gonna make me regret it? You?" she asked, one eyebrow arched in disbelief. "I know Brachius wonít mind a bit. Just tell him to stay out of my way."

"Who are you?"

"Heíll know." She turned her back, proving to them both that he lacked the nerve to strike.

She turned again to the leader. "I donít have any place to stable a horse, yet. You keep him until I want him. Take good care of him," she warned. "Oh. If Brachius doesnít remember me, remind him of Heraklion." She resumed her seat by the fire as if she were alone. "Now get out of here." For a few moments they didnít move. Then the leader directed that the one with the broken knee be hoisted over his saddle. He took a last look at Xena, his eyes passed over Gabrielle, and he walked away leading the others. Xenaís new horse he held by the reins.

 

"What was that all about?" Gabrielle asked when theyíd gone.

"Meeting the neighbors." Xena tore at the last of her meat now, retrieved from the grass where it had fallen.

"I mean that business where you took their stuff. Youíve never done that before."

"Just observing the social niceties of Tartarus, Gabrielle. Everything here has a price."

"So why did you let him keep his horse?"

"I didnít. Itís mine now. I donít have any place to stable one horse, let alone two. He can worry about feeding the horse. If and when I want it, Iíll take it. In the meantime, heís in my debt. He wonít bother us again, even if Brachius gives him the order, which I canít imagine."
"I take it you and Brachius have crossed paths?"

"Crossed swords," she said simply. "He wonít be anxious to repeat the experience." Xena collected the knife and axe, chewing as she moved.

"Not after he sees what you did to his men."

Xena glanced at her. "I had to send a message. They got off easy."

Gabrielle knew she spoke the truth. She wondered if the last man knew how lucky he was to have lost only his sword.

"I hope your tossing the bow and quiver at my feet was entirely symbolic of something." Gabrielle picked up the quiver, and regarded it as if it were full of deadly vipers.

"Itís time you learned to use another weapon, Gabrielle."

"Xena," she began, in protest.

"Itís a useful weapon, Gabrielle. It can help you stay alive."

"Itís deadly," Gabrielle objected, and she threw the quiver on the ground beside the bow.

"Deadly to animals as well as men," Xena pointed out.

"Is that why you brought me hunting? Because you want me to be a hunter."

"Someday your ability to kill an animal in the wild might make the difference between your living and dying." She spoke as if stating an axiom.

"Iím no good with a bow; Eponin has tried more than once to teach me."

Xena kicked over the last sparks of the fire, then picked up two halves of the wooden plate sheíd used to bring a man down. "Sorry. Iíll replace it when I get a chance."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Did you hear me, Xena?"

"I heard you," she assured her, and stooped to pick up the bow and arrows. Just donít think thatís the end of it. "Ready to go?" The bard considered carrying the discussion further, chose instead to enter the arm Xena held out to encircle her.

 

They had ridden for sometime when the question that had been playing at the back of Gabrielleís mind caught up with her. "Xena, why were you expecting that attack?"

"Thatís how things are done here." They were still moving northwest, still following overgrown tracks, still had seen no other life.
"Doesnít seem much different from the rest of the world; at least the world we live in." Lived in, she amended silently.

"Oh, itís different." Gabrielleís arms were wrapped around Xena, her head lay against the warriorís back. Gabrielle felt the timbre of her voice change as Xena considered the warlords.

"You heard what they called Brachius: Lord Brachius. Heís made himself the law. Here, the warlords run things and no one cares. Then too, the supply of goods is rather limited. I imagine the same axe I took from that thug was stolen from someone else not long before, and who knows how far back weíd have to go to find itís legitimate owner."

"So? How does that answer the question?"

"A few times a year, new exiles arrive, bearing new goods. It has to be a busy time for the locals. Itís like a of caravan of goods coming through, except you donít pay for anything, just stop people on the road and take what you want, who you want, if you can. Take everything you can carry. What you canít carry is grabbed by the next group. By the time the convicts are ready to settle someplace, some have nothing."

"Thatís awful," she said, appalled.

"Yeah, it is," Xena agreed, eyes already tired of the flat wasteland. This place is bad enough without the dregs of humanity added to it.

"So Arthea would be easy prey?" She pictured the motley band which had traveled to Tartarus behind the prisoners. Most of them would be easy prey. "Thatís why we havenít seen the others? Youíve looked for a way around the bandits."

"Iím avoiding trouble," she conceded. "Weíre still moving in the general direction we wanted to go, towards the mountains. I just havenít followed the most-traveled paths. I figured weíd run into at least one band of thieves, and Iím sure weíre past the worst of it. Brachius and the other warlords will have other groups closer to the border. This pathetic bunch was back-up, to grab what slipped through their fingers."

Gabrielle was awfully quiet. Xena guessed why. "Gabrielle. What you saw on this journey were the families of the convicts. Try picturing the convicts. Warriors. Thugs. Most of their people brought weapons for them. I guarantee, they didnít stand still to be picked clean. Iím sure some sent Brachius the same message I did. Do you suppose Drax handed over his possessions? Of course, knowing Drax, he might have signed on."

"No," Gabrielle said defensively. "Drax wouldnít do that. His main concern is Ileanderís safety."

"Oh?" Xenaís blue eyes flashed. "Good for Drax. What if the best way to guarantee Ileanderís safety was to swear fealty to a warlord?"

Gabrielle thought about that. "Because Brachius wonít attack his own people? But then Drax would have to prey on othersÖ"

"Right," Xena confirmed.

She sighed, a little disheartened. "Is that the only way to avoid problems, Xena, to be one of the predators?"

She shrugged. "In a land where everyone is either the predator or the prey? I donít know if itís the only way for the others. I know this: we wonít be prey." It was an assurance Gabrielle didnít need.

"Do you think your message will be enough?"

"With Brachius, and some others, along with my reputation to back it up, yes. Unless they think Iíve slipped."

Because you were captured, Gabrielle realized, with a pang of guilt.

"Never mind; if I need to send the message a few more times, I will." Send it everyday for the rest of my life, if need be, Gabrielle. I have my priorities, too.

"Does Brachius run this part of Tartarus?" the bard wanted to know.

"I donít know. He operates here; whether he has any rivals, I canít say." She shook her head slowly, eyes on the horizon. "This place is a mystery to me, Gabrielle. Warlords, however, I know." She hesitated, knowing Gabrielle wouldnít like to hear this bit, but it was the best way to explain things. "Theyíll be interested to know Iím here. Any warlord with a stake in this place will want to know my angle. Am I a rival? A threat? Should they try to ally with me, buy me off, or kill me? I hope some of them are smart enough to wait and see. When they realize I just want to settle peacefully in some corner and be left alone, maybe theyíll be happy to let us be." And maybe Argo will sprout wings and fly us out of here.

"And if they donít? Drax said you could wield a lot of power here."

"Did he?" Xenaís brow furrowed; Gabrielle saw only the twitch of muscle at the side of her jaw. "Drax is right. Does that frighten you?"

"Should it?" she asked after a moment.

"Yes." She paused to gather her thoughts. "Gabrielle, I donít want to wield power. If Iím pushed, Iíll push back."

Gabrielle remembered the scene in the convictís camp when she had first revealed herself to Xena. The warrior Ďpushing backí could be terrifying. Xena pushed the same thought from her own mind.

Chapter Ten

"I should have taken a second duck at the lake." They had resorted to porridge. The thin gruel made from the grain ration and the strong mineral water of the lake was disgusting.

Xena set her bowl down while it was still half-full.

Gabrielle didnít argue with her. Duck would be nice right now. "Yeah, and weíd have a few more feathers for our mattress," she joked, even as she lifted the bowl to her mouth to drink some more of the porridge.

Who would guess thereíd be no other game to be found all day? Or water. This place was cursed by the gods, Xena was certain. "I canít leave things to chance," she said for her own benefit, and shook her head.

"Thatís true," Gabrielle said solemnly. "Next time you should kill several; the whole flock, maybe. We can cook them all at once, and eat cold duck for a week." She nodded in self-affirmation, and picked up Xenaís bowl. "Here" She held it out to her. "Iíve seen you eat worse. If youíve suddenly become a picky eater, you have really bad timing."

Xena accepted the bowl and returned the bardís smile, despite herself. The little campfire sent shadows flickering across the still plain. Gabrielle cast a huge shadow, as if her spirit rose out of the compact body, a trick of light. Her element, light, Xena mused, and a wistful longing to know that light was revealed in her face. Even here, having followed me to the wilderness, she carries that light within her. Damn, Xena, you have to do better.

Gabrielle was a little disturbed by her sudden quiet, and searched the warriorís face, trying to determine what new expression was there. "Xena," she said at last, "you couldnít know that weíd find no other game."

Xena came back to the moment. "I also couldnít know that we would. We hadnít seen any until those ducks. I shouldnít have assumed weíd find more. Stupid."

"No, Xena, youíre a lot of things. Stupid is not one of them."

Xena looked away, pretending to study the contents of her bowl. She drained it in one noisy gulp, and wiped her mouth with the back of a hand. "If you lie awake tonight wishing your belly was full, feel free to change your mind." She spoke in a bantering tone, but meant every word.

"Stay awake and keep me company," the bard said with the merest hint of seduction in her voice. "Then I wonít have time to think about my belly. Besides, weíve both recently bathed," she threw in as an extra inducement. As if it were needed. If we could live on love weíd be alright, Xena thought. She opened her mouth. "If we could Ė " Argo whinnied nearby. Someone was approaching. Gabrielleís staff was suddenly in her hand, and she watched Xena for instructions. Xena wasted no movement preparing for the threat, merely listened, head cocked a little to one side. Gabrielle watched, puzzled, yet relieved, as the warriorís face relaxed. So maddening that Xena could hear everything first. "More company," Xena said; clearly this was not like their visitors at the noon day meal. "Must be something about lighting a fire." In this blackness the rare fire was a beacon.

"And you know theyíre friends, becauseÖ?" Gabrielle asked.

"I know Ileanderís voice."

"Hello. Xena?" The voice came from beyond the small range of visibility.

"Come ahead," she called back, and Ileander stepped into the firelight, followed by Drax, who led a well-laden horse. Obvious theyíd avoided the plunderers. Ileander looked well, clad in a blue tunic and black trousers Drax had brought along. Xena was happy again to have had a bath. She nodded to them both, and Ileander reached out a warm hand to her.

"By the gods, Xena, its good to see you again."

"Itís only been one day, Ileander."

"Days are long here, donít you think?" He looked past her to Gabrielle. "Thank you for taking such good care of Drax for me, Gabrielle. Heíd poison himself with his own cooking."

"Must be a warrior thing," Gabrielle observed, rising to meet them, watching Drax extend an arm to Xena. She took it, and held his eyes with a query. He shrugged almost imperceptibly, apologetically. Gabrielle guessed what the exchange meant, but said nothing. For now.

"Will you share our campfire?" Gabrielle asked, the classic gesture of hospitality. Drax hesitated; Ileander accepted before he could phrase a polite refusal. Xena turned to stir the fire. The last of the fuel sheíd managed to gather would be used now. Gabrielle saw the tiny scowl, and wondered at the warriorís reaction.

 

"Itís a lucky coincidence you found us out here," Gabrielle said, as the two men unburdened the horse.

"No coincidence, Gabrielle. They tracked us here." Xena looked at Drax for confirmation.

He nodded. "Itís as Xena says."

"Why?" Gabrielle asked.

"Drax wanted to avoid the looters. He figured Xena would be doing the same thing," Ileander supplied.

"And if there were any looters, weíd run into them first, right?" The blue eyes held certain knowledge of his motives.

"I didnít plan that, Xena," Drax said defensively. "You just moved faster than we did. I saw you had a little scuffle by the lake. I would have been happy to be at your side to help."
"I didnít need your help, Drax. Thanks anyway," she ended dryly.

"Since weíre sharing your fire, I hope youíll share our supper." He held up a bulging parcel. Gabrielle knew it contained dried sausage, hard cheese, dates, and figs.

"Weíve eaten, thanks," Xena said. She caught a fleeting glimpse of Gabrielle. "But weíd be happy for something besides gruel." The words were as distasteful as the gruel. The light in Gabrielleís face took the bitterness away.

 

Xena ate sparingly, but if anyone noticed, they said nothing. Gabrielle ate enough for them both, and Drax was happy to press the food on her.

"Where do you aim to settle, Xena?" Drax asked at last, as the small fire reduced itself to smoldering ash.

"Where thereís water, game, and fuel, Drax, like everyone else," she replied.

"Youíre headed toward the northern mountains." That was pretty obvious; she nodded shortly by way of reply. "The foot of the mountains should be a safe bet for that," Drax went on. "Pretty crowded there, I guess. If Tartarus can be called crowded."

"Good," Gabrielle commented, seizing on a pleasant thought. "I like to be around people."

"Gabrielle, Ďcrowdedí, here, doesnít mean a town or village. It means neighbors an hourís ride away," Xena told her.

"Oh. Thatís all right too, Xena. It will be nice to have time alone with you." She spoke sincerely, and reached out to touch Xenaís face briefly.
"Alone? Think theyíll leave you alone, Xena?" Drax asked, incredulous.

She suppressed an oath. "I donít know, Drax," she said through tight lips.

"With the right people behind you, you could run this place," he suggested.
"I donít want to run this place," she said coolly.

Weíll see, he thought, as he lifted a wineskin. He offered it to Xena, who refused, and Gabrielle who accepted.

"Just know this, Xena," Ileander said. "Any of us who came with you would be behind you. You saved us all from a terrible death." Xena knew he wasnít exaggerating, yet his fervent tone made it sound like an exaggeration. "Even Lutus admitted in the end that you were right. Last time I saw him he was going off with Arthea," he confided happily. "They became rather close, after you were, well, removed from the chain. Doubt if they had any trouble with looters; between them they had only the rags they were wearing."

""Iím glad they have each other, anyway," Gabrielle said. "It would be awful to be alone here."

 

They bedded down for the night, two-by-two, around a cold campfire. Xenaís faint hope that their guests would find their own site for sleeping was dashed when Ileander asked Gabrielle to tell a story. "Drax says youíre marvelous," he enthused. "I havenít heard a good bard in ages." The tales had gone on far into the night; none of them concerned Xena. The warriorís dark brow had made it clear to Gabrielle that she was not to go there. Then it had been too late to expect them to leave. She lay next to Gabrielle, wishing they were alone. Gabrielle understood. "Iím sorry," she whispered.

"Just donít ask them to join us on the road tomorrow. Please," she breathed back.

 

"Xena. I want to thank you for what you did about the cistern." Drax spoke quietly, as Xena tightened the cinch on Argoís saddle. It was just after dawn; Drax guessed by the early departure Xena planned that she was anxious to part from them.

"No thanks are necessary. I did it for myself as much as anyone." She smoothed the saddle blanket, and began to load assorted bags on the big horse.

He let that pass unchallenged. "Regardless, I feel in your debt. And Iím sorry I wasnít able to keep Gabrielle away." He looked her squarely in the eye, ready to accept any rebuke.

That was more to the point, Xena thought, but waved him off. "It wasnít your responsibility. Weíre here now. We have to make the best of it."

"Yet youíre angry," he pointed out.

Xena knew he was right; couldnít explain why it was so. Just generally angry, she thought, but said nothing, and Drax drifted back to the campfire, where Gabrielle finished tying the bedrolls. "Xenaís just about ready to leave, Gabrielle," he reported. He was glad Ileander was in no hurry to move. The dark head barely looked up from his infusion when Drax spoke. Better to let Xena and Gabrielle put some distance between the two parties, he acknowledged.

 

"What do you have against Drax?" They were barely out of the hearing of Drax and Ileander when Gabrielle asked the question. Xena adjusted the reins in her hands, and brushed a lock of hair from her eyes. "Why would I have anything against him? I hardly know him."

"Thatís my point, Xena. You hardly know him, yet you were barely civil to him." The warrior was not about to explain anything, Gabrielle knew, so she supplied her own reason. "Donít blame him for my being here, Xena. He did everything according to plan. Tarkian is the one I have to thank."

Thank. Xena shook her head bitterly. "What did Tarkian have to do with it?" she asked, eyes narrowed.

"I went to Tarkian to beg a pardon for you. He let me know what you and Drax wouldnít. You should have told me, Xena," she finished, her voice hot with anger.

"I know." But not for the reason you think.

"Thatís all you have to say?" The bard felt cheated by this response.

"Is that why you werenít branded? Because youíd spoken to Tarkian? He exempted you, because he had exempted me?" What a cool head Tarkian has, Xena acknowledged. He certainly knew how to pin me down.

"Yes, he exempted me; I donít know why, I didnít pay much attention to that bit. I was still trying to comprehend the news that I could go with you. And you didnít want me."

Damn. Thatís how she saw it. "Thatís not how it was, Gabrielle."

"No? How was it, Xena?" she persisted. "You were telling me weíd met again in Elysia, while Drax was planning on spending the rest of his life with Ileander, here, in Tartarus."

Xena didnít want to talk about this now; never wanted to talk about it. How could she tell Gabrielle the truth, that she had never planned on staying in Tartarus? This trek to a new home would have been the first leg of an escape route, except that Gabrielle had come along. Damn. "I wanted to be with you Gabrielle. I just didnít want it to be here." Her voice was so quiet Gabrielle had trouble hearing. "What?" she prompted.

"I didnít want you here, in Tartarus. You donít belong here." Now her voice was louder than she intended.

"How did that become your decision?" the bard asked.

"Because you werenít prepared to make a rational decision."

Gabrielle could only guess at Xenaís expression. "Iím irrational? Treating me like a kid again, Xena, is that it?" She made a sudden decision. "I donít want to discuss this without seeing your face."
"Then why did you bring it up?" Xena asked harshly. "I sure donít want to talk about it. Youíre here. All the discussion in the world wonít change that." She knew right away sheíd said something very wrong. She felt it in the hands which suddenly felt wooden where they touched her middle, in the body which rode a little slumped behind her now, and in the heavy sigh, which meant Gabrielle was trying not to cry. Damn. This was not something to discuss on horseback. She slid out of the saddle, and reached up for Gabrielle. After agonizing moments, while she peered at Xena through hooded eyes, the bard relented, and allowed the warrior to catch her weight as she followed her to the ground. Then she pulled out of the Xenaís grasp.

"Gabrielle, before you get upset Ė "

"Iím way past upset, Xena." She moved away, eyes on the far horizon.

The dark warrior stared after her. "I thought you wanted to see my face while we discussed this?"

"But you donít want to talk about it, isnít that right? Youíre stuck with me, and all the discussion in the world wonít change that. Right?" The words flew at Xena like sharp stones.

"Thatís not what I meant."

"Itís what you said."

"No. Itís what you heard. Look at me." The blonde head remained resolutely turned away. "You canít look away from me forever, Gabrielle. Thereís nowhere to go here. Youíre stuck with me."

"Thatís not how I see it Xena. Iím not Ďstuckí with you. I chose you. I chose to be here."

"Then donít put that word in my mouth," Xena retorted. "If you donít know that I love you, you havenít been paying attention. Without you my life is a pile of this worthless dirt." She kicked at the dry, lifeless soil. "The best days of my life have been spent with you. The nights Iíve spent in your embrace helped me believe in love again. I have tried to let you know all this." Her voice was strained, frustrated, pushing words through clenched teeth. "And yet, you pretend to feel unwanted? Because I donít want you in this place, that even vermin abandon? I said I donít want you here. I donít." She shook her head sharply. "I told you that from the start. I donít want either of us here, thatís the point! So why do you say Iím Ďstuckí with you? Why do you do that to me?" she ended, clearly puzzled, shaking a little from a sudden surge of anger she felt. Gods. She shoved that roughly aside.

Gabrielle stood still a moment, wondering how things had turned around so. "Xena," she began, "I know you love me. Thatís why I donít understand how you could leave me behind."
Xena swallowed hard. The one answer she could give, the truth, that would let it all make sense for Gabrielle, would pierce the girlís heart. "I have enough guilt to carry around, Gabrielle," she said instead. "To see you bear the punishment for my crimes, is a little twist of the knife."

"Xena. When Tartarus became your fate, it became mine. Inescapably. Donít you understand? If I couldnít be with you, the whole world would be my Tartarus." She reached her hands up around the back of Xenaís neck and clasped them there, her head resting just above the swell of her breasts, breathing in Xenaís heady aroma. "So much easier to share it with you."

Xena reached down to pull her lover closer, wondering what she had ever done to earn this sweet consolation.

"Besides," Gabrielle added. "We wouldnít be here at all if it wasnít for me insisting we go to Priblis." She felt the dark head above her move slowly in negation.

"No." Xena held her breath for a long moment, while she found the right words. "Gabrielle. I made that decision. If we hadnít gone there, I would had something else to feel guilty about." Gabrielle heard the crooked grin in her voice. "This has nothing to do with Priblis. It has everything to do with things I did, who I was, before we ever met." And Gaederus, that bastard. "Letís put Priblis behind us."

"You get to keep all the guilt?"

"Afraid so. Iím used to it," Xena said, sorry to hear a touch of weariness creep into her voice. "I can keep it under control. Most of the time. We canít let guilt govern our lives. If we do, it will poison the very air we breathe." Gabrielle nodded her understanding, even as she felt the guilt, less urgent now, still weighing on a corner of her heart.

"Xena. What I said last night, about how nice it will be to have time alone with you?"
"Yes?"

"I meant that. It might sound silly, but all the way here, that thought kept me going. When Iíd wake at night I felt so alone, and I worried so about you. Some nights, I lay awake listening, imagining that every sound was connected to you, that you were hurt, or sickÖOr I hoped youíd sing again." She shook her head, clearing those nights away. "Then Iíd picture us here, together. It didnít seem so awful."

"Doesnít seem silly," the warrior murmured. "I had the same picture." And I did sing to you, Gabrielle, every night, so softly no one heard, but I felt better knowing there was someone I could sing for. "Weíll be okay, Gabrielle." I promise Iíll make it all right.

 

As the hours passed, and miles disappeared beneath Argoís hooves, Xena she noticed a change in the terrain. Gabrielle had told stories for much of the morning, for an enthusiastic audience of one. She felt she was losing her audience, now, as Xenaís head moved slightly from side to side, and the warrior merely nodded at the tale of Joxer freeing Prometheus.

"Xena," she asked at last, "are you sniffing the air?"

"Yeah," she replied, offhand. She caught up with the import of Gabrielleís question, and turned to give the girl a grin. "I do that a lot, Gabrielle. Have you just noticed?"

"You do this a lot?" She lifted her head and inhaled deeply through her nose, several times, in rapid succession.

"I didnít do that," Xena protested, then wondered if she had sniffed more vigorously than usual. She made a mental note to watch that, conceding that this damn place even smelled different than elsewhere. "Iíve spotted burrows. I think we might have rabbit for our midday meal."

"Are you sniffing them out?" the bard asked.

"No. Iíll stop to hunt soon. Now Iím just enjoying the scent of soil. Not the best, and the grass looks tough and dry, but itís better than that relentless brown. I even heard a thrush not long ago."

"These are hopeful signs?" the bard guessed, happy to hear warm relief in the warriorís voice.

"Yeah; things live here." Maybe even herds of deer, if I read those tracks right. "It means game and water," she replied, then turned to show-off a cockeyed grin. "Unless some one shows up asking for payment. Wonder what a rabbit costs?"

 

"See how much closer the mountains are?" Gabrielle looked up from the new fire, and the two rabbits spitted there, to follow Xenaís outstretched arm to the peaks. The last rays of sunlight reflected off the mountains, and bathed the area in a rosy haze. For two days theyíd made steady progress, following faint tracks through the wilderness, to those distant peaks. The journey which had begun in Mus, had seemed to be an end in itself, so long, so relentless in its demands. Now, as the trails which cut through the forested peaks became visible, the journeyís end was in sight as well. Xena was finishing her work on the rabbit pelts. It was not lost on Gabrielle that she did it in sight of the campfire, in sight of the bard, just as she had the skinning and gutting. She had always done that work outside camp. Gabrielle could guess at the change in procedure, but chose not to.

"Weíll be in their shadow soon," Xena said, eyes still on the mountains. "I expect weíll find more water there, more game, and some shelter from the wind. Iíve never built a real dwelling of any kind, but I should be able to manage. Not too big at first. We have to be secure before it turns cold. Iíll make it larger as time goes on. Iím glad to see the forests." Gabrielle listened to this little speech, with the odd feeling sheíd heard it before, and waited for the finish she knew would come.

"Iíll be able to put aside firewood, and maybe Iíll be able to gather nuts, depending on the trees."

I have heard it before, she realized, and a sudden wave of affection washed over her as she regarded the earnest face of the tall warrior, squinting against the sun. Gods. Thatís on her mind so much sheís committed it to memory. Her to-do-list. Gabrielle searched her mind for any anxiety related to basic survival, and found none. For the first time she realized how much trust she had in Xenaís ability to care for them both. I donít have to worry about so many things; I leave them to Xena. The admission struck her like a blow to the stomach. She knew, now, what she had glimpsed in Xenaís face since their arrival: Worry. It had never occurred to her that Xena might ever worry about such things, she always just managed; but Tartarus was different.

"Wait a minute, Xena," she said, knitting her brow into a study of anger. "I donít think I like what Iím hearing." The blue eyes showed the warriorís surprise. "You will build the dwelling. You will make it larger. You will put aside firewood and gather nuts." A flush of anger touched her cheeks. "While youíre doing that, what do I do? This is to be our home. We will build it together." She stood with her hands resting on her skirt, just below the waistband. She looked so damned cute Xena almost went to take her in her arms; but her face was so grimly serious she thought better of it.

She considered for a few moments, mouth slightly open, then it moved into a quirky grin. "Youíre right Gabrielle, we will do those things together. I just have thought so much about what needs to be doneÖ" She broke off and looked at the bard, with self-amusement in her eyes. That made them sparkle. "Do you know, I have an inventory, up here," she brought a long finger to her forehead.

"I know exactly what lengths of timber I need, at first, what sort of mortar I need to mix to fill in the cracks, what distances I have to pace off to set the walls in placeÖIíve built it a thousand times in my mind."

"And you didnít see me working beside you?"

"No," she admitted sheepishly. "I didnít."

"Then imagine it all again, with me at your side," Gabrielle ordered. She strode over to Xena and wrapped herself around her long frame. "About this far away."

"We wonít get much work done, that way." Xena grinned.

"As long as you get the point, Xena. This isnít about you taking care of me."

Xenaís grin faded. "Gabrielle, in a lot of ways, it is about me taking care of you."

Xena placed a finger on the full lips before she could object. "I also have to see to it that youíre prepared to take care of yourself, if need be." She met Gabrielleís eyes with an unflinching stare. "Did you consider when you came here, that if I died, youíd be alone?"

Gabrielle swallowed, hard, and met Xenaís gaze with a steely truth of her own: "If I didnít come here, Iíd already be alone, Xena for the rest of my life."

That wasnít true, Xena told herself, I would have come back to you. I came back from the real Tartarus once for you. This would be a dawdle next to that. But she said nothing about that. "So here we are," she said instead, "and you still have to ask what happens if I die? You have to learn everything about taking care of yourself. Just in case," she insisted.

"You think I canít take care of myself?" Gabrielleís body stiffened, indignant at the condescension she heard in Xenaís message.

Xena shook her head gently, side to side. "I think in the world outside you could. Where there are people and towns, inns where you could tell your stories to earn a room and a meal; places to buy things you need; your family, or your tribe, if things were really rough. You could take care of both of us, out there, if need be." She made a small encompassing movement of her head. "Those things arenít here. Here you couldnít even find a reasonable partner to take Ė to spend your life with ifÖ"

"If you werenít here? You mean someone to take your place? To take care of me?" She pulled away to look in Xenaís face. "Xena, no one can take your place." She lay her head on Xenaís chest, and waited for the warrior to enfold her in strong arms. "You scare me when you talk like this," she said, her voice shaky.

"It scares me more, Gabrielle," she whispered into her hair. "I donít know how youíd survive. I canít stand the thought of you being dependent on the people youíll find here, or ever being hurt by them." A sudden shiver moved down her spine.

"Then I guess youíd better not die again." Gabrielle meant it to lighten the mood; its effect was the opposite. The awareness of that impossible requirement had lain on Xena like a shroud, since the evening Gabrielle had come to her in camp. They were living in the midst of the worldís greatest concentration of free-ranging violent criminals. How do I stay alive, keep Gabrielle alive and happy, and still be someone she can live with? Can I do all that? Like walking a tightrope, with Gabrielle balanced on my shoulders.

"Xena?" The soft voice in her ear brought her back to the moment.

"Celesta will need all the legions Hades can spare to drag me away," she said defiantly. "But if it happens, Gabrielle, you have to be prepared." Her voice was adamant. "Would you do that for me? Please?" She seemed to hold her breath while she waited for the answer, for she would hold her to it.

"Iíll try," she said, and she heard Xena start to breathe normally again. "I wonít be a burden," she promised.

"Burden?" Xena echoed incredulously. "For everything I do for you, what I get back isÖ" Where do I start? She began again: "I just mean to say, that I need you to take care of me, in so many ways." The words were unplanned; she had never said anything more true, and it hurt a little bit to say them, to hear the admission. If there was no Gabrielle, she would never have said them.

"So weíll be taking care of each other," Gabrielle said.

"Isnít that what weíve been doing?" Xena asked simply. It was all simple; but more needed to be said. "I love you, I care about you. I want to care for you." And gods, I need you.


 

Chapter Eleven

Water, trees, discretion. Essential, here, Xena said, and that’s what they looked for, day after weary day, even as they moved into the broad foothills which grounded the mountains. Now they passed occasional lakes, and swift running currents. Patches of green were more plentiful, and they rode alongside cultivated fields.

Gabrielle suggested a prominent bluff as a site for a home. "Too exposed," the warrior replied.

A hollow sheltered by a copse of trees, with a stream behind. "Too near the road."

"Xena, look. Roses." Gabrielle knew the warrior had fond childhood memories of roses. Although they grew in profusion here, the site was: "All wrong."
"Xena: water, trees, and it’s hidden in a hollow," the bard pointed out, hating to leave the spot. "What can be wrong with this one?"

"What happens when it rains, Gabrielle?" Xena asked. "All the water will run down into the hollow and flood the place. We’ll wake up underwater." Xena knew she was right, and bit her tongue as Gabrielle stormed back to Argo and let herself be hoisted aboard.

"I give up, "the bard said, "For days, I’ve tried to follow your criteria, Xena: water, trees, discretion. Obviously, there’s some secret warlord trick to choosing a site that I haven’t mastered."

"It’s no trick," Xena said patiently. Why is everything I do a warlord trick? Think I was a bloody sorcerer. "You’ve done well, in spotting what we’re looking for, we just haven’t found the right place yet. We will," she added, working to sound cheerful enough for both of them.

"I’ve ‘done well’?" she mimicked. "Thanks so much. Now I’ll let you get on with choosing the spot." Which is what you’ve wanted to do all along. "Sometime soon, preferably in this lifetime, I’d like to stay in one place for more than a night," she ended flatly.

Xena closed her eyes, trying to picture staying in one place forever. "Gabrielle, it isn’t my fault that we haven’t found the right place to settle."

"I’m not finding fault, Xena. But maybe we’re looking in the wrong places. Maybe when we see smoke from a chimney, we should actually head toward it, instead of turning in the other direction." That had happened several times in the past few days. "Maybe there’s some reason that chimneys, and homes are in a certain area, while we comb the back of beyond looking for your dream location."

Dream location? In Tartarus? "Gabrielle, do you want to live on top of everybody?" the warrior asked.

"No, but I don’t want to feel like an exile among exiles, either," she responded. "At the first sign of dust a mile up the road, you turn off to avoid other travelers. What is that all about?"

"Gabrielle, we’ve talked about this. We don’t know who our neighbors are yet," Xena pointed out. "Why go advertising our presence to people we might not want to know?"

"We’ll never find out if we don’t go near them," Gabrielle shot back, then more gently: "This isn’t like you, Xena. What are you afraid of?"

"Afraid? Why do you ask that?" the husky voice demanded.

"I didn’t mean afraid, Xena," she backed off, quickly. "I didn’t mean fear. I mean…reluctance. Why do you want to avoid everyone?"

"Isn’t it obvious, Gabrielle? Who are the only people we’ve met here? A gang of would-be-cutthroats?" she asked, not hiding her exasperation.

"Do we just avoid them forever?"

"No, Gabrielle." As much as I’d like to do that, I know that isn’t an option. "I’m just not in a hurry, okay? We have other things to do."

"Like find that mythical perfect site for our home? Are you sure you want to settle down, Xena? Maybe you just want to ride around forever, catching rabbits and spreading out on a bedroll at night. Is that it?"

"Yeah, Gabrielle, I want to ride around Tartarus in circles, the rest of my life, listening to you try to figure me out. Think you’re up to it?" There was no humor in her voice.

"Figure you out?" the younger woman snorted. "Do I get a few more clues than your usual grunts and nods?"

Damn. I haven’t stopped talking since we got here, Xena thought in disbelief. She touched her heels to Argo and the horse quickened her gait; Gabrielle tightened her grip around Xena’s waist. "What’s the hurry?" she asked plaintively.

"Figure it out," Xena threw over her shoulder. Want me to find a place to settle? Okay, little girl, here we go.

 

For the next few hours, Xena pushed to cover twice the miles they had on previous days, taking frequent stops to rest Argo, even making the stops count, choosing prominences from which she could survey the surrounding territory, and determine the next move. Gabrielle displayed a marked disinterest in events, responding, when she bothered, in monosyllables. The sun grew hot as the day wore on. "Gabrielle," Xena called softly over her shoulder, as she passed her the water skin. "Are you okay?"

"Yes, Xena. I’m tired, that’s all." She drank deeply from the water skin, resumed her tight hold around Xena’s waist, leaned her head against the warrior’s back. Xena knew she would doze now, and moved more slowly, alert to the balance of the bard’s weight. She sought shelter from the sun, skirting the edges of the forests, catching the cooling air which came off the mountains in gusts. Through the trees she caught a glimpse of sun glinting off water, and rode to find it. She followed the broad stream for a considerable distance, in a criss-crossing pattern, enjoying the smell of moist earth, refreshed by the shade. She stopped, and the only sounds were Argo lapping at the crystal water, and bees droning about their business. "Gabrielle, wake up," she urged, but the bard merely muttered a protest in her sleep. A little further on, the profusion of thickets overhanging the banks was so great that there was no place to exit the stream, so she rode down it’s center, so clear she could see to the bottom. Gods, to find this in Tartarus, she marveled, content to enjoy the little oasis, not at all troubled that the stream seemed to lead her on its meandering way. It seemed so right. The air was clear, and sweet. Foliage overhung the bank, and late summer flowers perfumed the air. The stream made a tight bend, then revealed a treasure: near where the current split to flow around a small island, a grassy knoll, sheltered by a stand of walnut tress, was bathed in sunlight. The warrior’s eyes narrowed, sweeping the vista, certain there was some flaw, some problem she couldn’t see. It was too perfect.

"Gabrielle," she said quietly. "This is it." She felt the warm figure behind her stir, and she turned in the saddle to watch her. For a moment, the bard’s green eyes widened, or Xena thought they did, as the blonde hair swung around with her survey of the land.

With little enthusiasm she came to rest against Xena once more. "If you say so." It was the most she’d said in hours.

Xena jumped from the saddle and began a slow walk around the area. The grass was lush, almost like home. She drank from the stream with a cupped hand. Sweet. She was amazed that no homestead already was planted here. "Gabrielle, did you really look at this place?" she asked, hoping to get a stronger reaction. "There are berries, flowers; I smell verbena. We could fish – "

"Xena. It’s obvious that the decision’s been made. You needn’t convince me." The bard gave her a wan smile, and shrugged.

"You don’t like it?" Xena asked, crestfallen. "What’s wrong with it? It’s got a stream – "

"Trees, and discretion," Gabrielle finished. "I know. I just have a bad feeling about this place. I’m sorry."

"A bad feeling? Can you be more specific?" Xena asked, hands on hips. She recognized a certain anger rising in her, and made an effort to contain it.

"It’s a feeling, Xena. I just know I could never be happy here." The bard shivered slightly; at this time of day the winds kicked up.

"Is it too isolated?" Xena prodded. If they were moving on she wanted to know why.

"Yes. I don’t know, I didn’t see which way you came. Every place we’ve been seems isolated. I keep wondering if anyone else is really here."

"We’ll keep looking," Xena said, after a long moment, tearing her eyes away from where she already pictured the small dwelling. The late afternoon sun would shine on the front door. If the shutters were open, the interior would be lit through early evening. If.

She picked up the reins and began to walk away, leading Argo, looking for an alternate route from the site, to any place else.

 

They made camp early that night, Gabrielle thought, then realized that what would once have been early, was now the norm. Xena knelt a stone’s throw away, plucking the pheasant she’d brought down with the bow. It would make a change from rabbit anyway. Gabrielle poked absently at the dirt at her feet, her stick sending little bugs scurrying. How easy to disrupt their lives, she mused; and they have no idea why things are suddenly different. Xena looked up to wipe a feather from her nose, and caught the bard’s eye. She smiled, and returned to her work. "Need some help?" Gabrielle asked.

"No thanks; almost done. Fire ready?"

You know it is, she thought, a little irritated. "Nice and hot. You know, I bet some of those homes we passed would have had bread to barter. You remember bread: that other food, the one that’s not game or wild roots."

Xena gutted the bird with a violent, twisting motion, and tossed the viscera to the ground.

Should have done this by the stream, she realized, and stood to walk the few yards to the water which ran at their backs. "Be right back," she muttered.

The bird was plunged into the water, once, twice, a third time, until Xena was satisfied the cavity was clean. Then she cleaned her own hands, splashed water onto her face, and sat watching the late afternoon flies flit near the water. So much for taking care of Gabrielle. No place to settle, no decent food, she’s aching for company other than me; and it’s all just begun. What’s so different? She groped toward an answer, looking for some shape in the confusion of feelings. We’re the same people, living the same type of life, on the road. Only outside it had been an adventure, there was life to it, even the grim parts had some purpose. Here the travel was just going someplace to do nothing in particular. No place would be acceptable for that fate. This was a problem Xena hadn’t foreseen, and she frowned at the discovery. What do we do besides work for survival? What do I do? I’m a warrior. I expect they’ll be plenty of fighting to do for me to do, still; yet for the first time in my life I’m making detours around trouble. She shook her head remembering the decision she had made to take a direct route through the Thessalian-Mitoan war zone, to save a few days. They had nearly paid with Gabrielle’s life. I’m not the same person, she admitted, at least I’m not acting like the same person. And what of Gabrielle? A bard without an audience? Where would her new stories come from? What would she do here? Gods, we’re both blundering around pretending nothing much has changed, and really everything has changed.

"Xena?" She turned at the soft voice so near her ear. "Did I manage to sneak up on you?"

"No. I heard you stumble on that root," Xena replied, as if offering proof. She had registered Gabrielle’s presence and made no reaction. "You’ll have to do better in the morning."

"The morning? Are you planning an ambush?" a touch of unease was in Gabrielle’s voice.

"Yeah. On whatever game we can find." The bard began to shake her head. "If we want a change of diet, we need to pay for it," Xena pointed out quietly. Green eyes bore in on her for a moment, and she knew the bard’s thoughts. I could do this easily, get more than enough to trade. She thinks I’m making a point. "Gabrielle, we’ve talked about this. Its something you need to know."

"Even if I choose never to hunt, once I know how?" she challenged.

"Yes." Xena found this logic confounding, but left her answer at that. The bard settled down next to Xena, staring at the water with something of a pout. "You don’t know how to use the bow, yet, so you won’t kill anything tomorrow," Xena observed, hoping to make it softer for Gabrielle, "just learn stalking skills. See how it’s done. Then we’ll find someone to barter with." She was pleased to see the green eyes crinkle at the corners. Finally, something to look forward to. Gabrielle understood Xena’s purpose.

"Xena, if you’d rather not – "

"Gabrielle. You were right. It’s time we met the others, whoever they are. I’ll be happy to eat bread again. Maybe we’ll get lucky and find a local brewer." She raised her eyebrows in happy anticipation.

 

It had already been a long day, and the sun was nowhere near its zenith. A fat sack hung from Argo’ saddle, and Xena was moving toward signs of habitation, following more worn paths, scanning the horizon for curls of chimney smoke. It was a windy day, and smoke would dissipate quickly, she realized. They might not spy the smoke until they were on top of its source. Gabrielle was more animated than she’d been in sometime. The prospect of meeting someone, anyone, excited her. Xena tried not to imagine who they would meet first, wished for the bard’s sake it would be someone tolerable.

They passed a small clearing, and Gabrielle pointed, "Xena, look. What is that thing?"

"It’s a hovel, Gabrielle. Someone, or more, people lived there, once." It wasn’t likely it was occupied now, it was riddled with large holes. Gabrielle stared. It was not as tall as she was, and not much longer than Xena. "People lived there?" she echoed in disbelief. "How?" It was made of interwoven boughs of pine and other trees, and was packed with thick mud in places.

"I didn’t say they were comfortable, Gabrielle. Probably only crawled inside at night, or when the weather was bad. It would keep out the wet, if not the damp. Better than nothing," she shrugged. "We might have to live in one of those ourselves until we can build something better."

"Xena," she began in protest.

"It might come to that, Gabrielle. Think of it as a small, woodsy tent. You’re an Amazon. You should feel right at home." She turned to share her smile with the Amazon. Gabrielle’s face showed a real distaste for the idea of living in such a place, even briefly. "Xena, I’d rather sleep in the open." Xena turned her face forward, and moved on a little faster.

 

Xena smelled the smoke before she saw it. She said nothing, but was pleased a few minutes later when Gabrielle said: "Xena. I smell a fire."

"Hmmm, "the warrior nodded, "and baked bread." And something else.

They headed toward the column of smoke when it appeared, passing through weed-choked fields. Xena surveyed the strangled crops with dismay; wondering if this was the handiwork of a warrior turned farmer, wondering how he survived. If he had survived.

"Xena, this place is a mess," Gabrielle commented, "It looks as if no one tends the fields at all."

"Maybe that’s the case, Gabrielle," she replied. Someone had once enclosed the dwelling in a rail fence; it barely hung together now. It well-matched the house itself, a poorly constructed affair, not much better than a larger version of the hovel they’d just passed. A scruffy mongrel wriggled out of a hole in the front wall, and charged as near to them as he dared, raising a gruff alarm. "Easy, boy, we’re not gonna hurt you," Gabrielle said.

A face appeared briefly in the doorway. Xena dismounted, sent the dog packing with a withering glare, and called out to the inhabitants: "Hello. Any bread to spare?" Regardless of the state of the fields, the aroma of baked bread attested to some skilled person on the premises.

"Be right with you." It was not a friendly voice. A woman stepped from the doorway, a

loaf of crusty bread in hand. She was not much older than Gabrielle, Xena guessed, but had the look of someone who’d known hard times. Her eyes were a soft brown, and told of a spirit that was not yet defeated. One side of her face was mottled with fading bruises. Light brown hair was ties back in a scrap of faded ribbon. Xena stole a quick glance at Gabrielle. A child shuffled into the yard behind the woman, and clung to her patched skirt. The woman looked at Xena frankly for a moment. Her eye found the earring, and looked in vain for the brand on her hand, then studied Gabrielle, as if she was the last part of a puzzle. It still made no sense to her.

"You’re never sure how many to expect. When the new load of convicts comes in, it’s tricky for a while." Her words were not an apology, more an explanation, but they left Xena and Gabrielle puzzled.

She thrust the loaf at Xena. "That’s all I’ve got left today. Your kind have been here earlier."

My kind, Xena thought grimly.

"And there’s another to come. If that don’t suit you, do your worst." She had no doubt that would be quite a bit. "Xena, isn’t it? The unmarked one. I’ve heard you came in with this lot. You must have a blood letting every day to sate your thirst," she nodded, anxious to let Xena know she knew all about her. "But killing us won’t put bread on your table. Even warlords need bakers."

"We don’t want your bread," Xena said wearily.

"I’ve got nothing else for you to take," she said a little shrilly. Tears would be next. "Have a look yourself." She gestured at the hovel.

"Look, lady," Xena began, and froze as the child caught her eye. She was staring at Xena, eyes wide, afraid. Then Xena felt an arm around her waist, one strong hand on her sword arm. Gabrielle, making it clear that Xena was no threat.

"Lady, it’s clear you’ve heard of Xena, but don’t believe everything you hear. I’ve been with Xena for over two years, and I have yet to see her take so much as a sip of blood." She laughed, and gave Xena’s arm an affectionate squeeze. "The Xena you’ve heard about doesn’t exist anymore. You have nothing to fear from my Xena," she ended with quiet assurance. The woman made no reply, but regarded the curious couple with new interest. "And we didn’t come to demand bread; we were hoping to barter, for any you had to share. I guess you’re sick of rabbit," she said, assuming everyone would barter with the plentiful small game.

The look on the woman’s face told another story. "Barter? You were going to give me rabbit for the bread?"

"Taken fresh this morning," Gabrielle assured her, wondering at her surprise.

"That’d be a first. Why would you do that?" she asked, newly suspicious.

"Well, it seems customary to pay, in some way…"

"Ain’t the custom with the lot that comes here," she snorted. "They pay me by not killing me, or putting the torch to my home."

Xena’s cheeks burned with memories of that other custom. "You’ve got none to spare; we’ll be going," she said brusquely, and pulled free of Gabrielle.

The bard watched her with a pang, then addressed the woman: "We’ll be in the area, maybe, not quite sure where we’re settling yet. If you ever have spare bread, maybe we can still barter. Would that be all right?"

"Fine," was the eager reply. "I’ll make extra, if I can count on something in return. Don’t often have meat in the pot."

Gabrielle moved back to Argo. Without a word, Xena held a rabbit out to her. She gave the warrior a smile and ran back to the woman. "Here. We have more than we need today," she said warmly. "Oh, my name’s Gabrielle," she added.

"Hermia," she supplied, eyes moving back to the dark warrior who was looking anyplace but at her. "I’m sorry I gave offense to the warrior."

Gabrielle merely shrugged. ‘She’s used to it’, would be a lie. Such reactions didn’t surprise Xena, but they still affected her, sometimes more than others. This was a bad time.

 

"Xena. Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked quietly, as the tiny homestead receded in the distance.

"I’m fine, Gabrielle. I think those moments trouble you more than me. Of course, we still don’t have any bread."

"I was glad you gave her the rabbit anyway." After the things she said.

"Gabrielle, we gave her the rabbit. It was our rabbit, remember?"

"How could I forget," she snickered in reply. Xena had insisted that she would only shoot a rabbit Gabrielle had spied first. That had taken some time.

"Xena? Is that why you were so reluctant to go near people? Were you expecting that reaction?"

"It didn’t surprise me," she said after a moment. "It never does; but no, that’s not the reason. I expected to find armed hostility, not it’s victims. I suppose next time, you should do the bartering, eh?" she grinned, briefly.

"I’m sorry, Xena. I wish people could know you as I do?"

Xena arched an eyebrow and gave the bard’s thigh a gentle pinch. "Really? You ready to share me with the world," she asked, in a husky voice.

"You know what I mean, Xena."

"I do; but I can’t complain. That reputation has served me well over the years. Still comes in handy, on occasion. Can’t have it both ways. I admit I was surprised to hear the story about my blood-thirst. Haven’t heard that one in a while."
"It’s new to me," the bard said, not certain if she wanted to hear more, but Xena was in a rare mood to reminisce.

"We were sacking a town, no big deal, they didn’t offer much resistance, and casualties were few. On the way in, there was a skirmish; I bit my tongue and it bled quite a bit." What must I have looked like, she wondered, riding into that place in the early dawn, sword overhead, blood on my lips, eager for someone to challenge me. "Blood was dripping from my mouth, trickling down the corners. One of my lieutenants told the villagers I always had a cup of blood to start the day. Any thought of opposition died there." She fell silent, remembering that the lieutenant had come to her tent that evening. "We shared a good laugh, later." How long had he been dead now? His horse lost its footing; he had fallen and broken his neck.

"Xena? Are we going to try someplace else?"

The dark head bobbed indifferently. "Why not?" She scanned the area, looking for signs of habitation. She saw only a lone rider, cutting obliquely across the fields to where they had just been. "Her last customer," she guessed, pointing him out to the bard.

"Do you think she’ll be all right, Xena?"
"Seems to be part of the system, Gabrielle," she shrugged. "I just hope she’s tucked the rabbit out of sight. I don’t want to think our rabbit will end up in some thief’s belly."

"You don’t suppose he’s the one who gave her those bruises, do you?" Gabrielle asked.

The bard had noticed, too. "I don’t know." Xena drew Argo to a halt, and shifted in the saddle. "Want to go make sure the rabbit’s safe," she asked, and got the expected nod from the blonde head. "Let’s go," and Argo was turned back toward the little homestead.

 

They arrived just after he did, a hulking man clad in dark cowhide. They heard his bellow before they came into view, and he looked startled at who had seemed to arrive in response to his summons. Hermia came through the doorway just then, two loaves in hand. She looked first at the man, then to Xena and Gabrielle at his back. Relief and fear vied for expression on her face, then she steeled herself and held out the loaves.

"Hermia, we just wanted to say ‘hello’, "Gabrielle said evenly, then nodded to the man as he turned to examine them.

"Xena," he grunted. "We all end up in the same stew pot, huh?" he said with contempt. "Even the great Warrior Princess."

Xena didn’t know the man. "Yeah, but even here there are things a dog wouldn’t touch," she said, returning his contempt. "Hermia," she said loudly. "I’ll give you a rabbit for that bread."
"The bread’s mine, Xena. Find your own supply." He turned to take it from Hermia, but she backed away, uncertainly, waiting to see how the game turned out. With that simple move, she had bet her life on Xena. The warrior swung a leg over the saddle and jumped down, freezing him with a stare while she retrieved a rabbit from a sack. She passed within inches of the man, daring him to make a move. He stood stock still; the reputation, she acknowledged to herself. She held out the rabbit to Hermia, then asked a question of the man: "Did you have a better offer to make her?" He looked daggers at Xena, then communicated an unspoken promise to Hermia with a sneer. Xena had expected this.

"Take it Hermia," she said and the rabbit and bread were exchanged. She tucked the bread in a sack which hung on Argo, and threw advice over her shoulder: "Next time you come to get bread, make it worth her while. Even a cretinous blowhard should know better." He didn’t know exactly what that meant, but judged rightly that it had been an insult.

"You can’t stay next to Hermia every minute, Xena. I’ll get my chance," he fumed.

"Then maybe I should kill you now?" she reasoned, as she turned to mount Argo. She had given him an opening, and he took it. As his dirk descended to her back, she seized his arm and twisted the limb so that the it pointed squarely at his chest. His momentum carried him into the blade. He fell with a huff. Gabrielle watched a little stunned. Hermia looked at Xena blankly. The implications of her refusal of this man had just begun to sink in, and now he was dead. "He rides with some others. They’ll blame me," she managed.
Xena shook her head. Already the man was lifted into his saddle. "He won’t be found near here. You might ask anyone who drops by if they’ve seen him. Mention that he didn’t pick-up his bread this week." Hermia nodded mutely. "Gabrielle, I’m going to dump him someplace. Wait here."

"Xena," Hermia ventured. "The earring is worth something."

Xena shook her head again, "Not to you, or me, Hermia. Some lucky passerby can collect on it."

 

When she was gone, Gabrielle said, "Hermia, we really don’t want the last of your bread. Please take it back."

"One loaf, is all," she agreed, smiling for the first time. "Your friend doesn’t muck about."

"No, she doesn’t. Hermia, what did you mean about the earring? That it was ‘worth something’ ?"

"Convicts have to wear the earring for life. When they die, it gets yanked off and traded to a peddler." Gabrielle shuddered. "When my husband died I traded for an iron cook pot. I expect the peddler got ten times the price when he turned it in outside." She saw Gabrielle’s puzzlement. "It’s how they try to track the convicts. They know you’re dead when your earring shows up. Of course you might be dead otherwise, in battle with the Eastern tribes, or trying to escape. Some earrings never do get returned, I guess."
"Why don’t the convicts just remove the earrings and have someone turn them in; then they can escape, and no one will be looking for them?"

"First off, about the only rule here for convicts is to wear that bloody earring. Once or twice a year soldiers come just to check. If you have a hole in your ear and no ring there, they’ll kill you on the spot." Gabrielle realized the hole for the earring was larger than for jewelry. She remembered the corpse they’d found on the road. The earring had been missing, something neither had mentioned at the time. She remembered too, how Xena shrank away if she touched the earring. She felt sick to think that someone, someday, would snatch the earring from that soft lobe –

"And you forget the brand," Hermia broke into her thoughts, then Hermia recalled that these two were unmarked. "For most people the brand is a problem. I guess you could cut off the hand," she surmised. "Not that escape’s possible anyway. That’s the problem, you know. If you had the strength of Hercules, the speed of Hermes and could fight like Ares, maybe you’d have a chance." She had come close to describing Xena, Gabrielle realized. Xena didn’t even have a brand to contend with. "Of course, if you’ve got all that, you don’t wind up here to begin with," she finished with a flourish.

No, you don’t, Gabrielle realized, yet Xena was here. She shuddered, again, and retrieved a loaf of bread for Hermia.

Come inside," the woman volunteered. "It’s not much, but it’s home."

The rabbit was already in the stew pot, simmering with herbs. The little girl played near the window, and started when Gabrielle entered. "Don’t take on so, Lilla," Hermia instructed.

"Lilla? That’s my sister’s name," Gabrielle said, and suddenly she missed Lilla.

"Always had a Lilla in my family," Hermia went on. "My Farnis didn’t much like the name, but we had a deal: I’d name the girls, he’d do the boys. Of course, she was the only one. Now he’s gone. Funny what people quarrel over, ain’t it?"

"Yes, it’s funny," Gabrielle agreed. "I’m sorry your husband is dead." That would account for the state of the fields.

"Early last year, just after the crop went in. He was felling a tree, it crushed his foot. In days his whole leg turned black, and he died. In agony." A spasm touched her face as she remembered. "Most people would have thought him worth little, a thief, a convict; but somehow, beneath it all, he was a good man. He loved me, anyway, and I loved him." She set a cup of some strongly scented infusion in front of the bard. "Don’t have to ask what Xena did to get here, do I?" she said with a wink.

"No, I guess not," Gabrielle smiled in reply.

"She had no trouble putting him down just now."

"No," she said quietly. Gabrielle hadn’t expected a killing to result from the confrontation.

"You’re a good friend to follow her to this place."

"My life is with Xena," she said simply.

Hermia nodded. "I hope you’ll stay to supper?"
"I’ll have to ask Xena; we still have to find a place to settle, and I think she’s in a hurry to get that done."

"You have to eat, and we’d be glad of the company."

 

Xena arrived in the middle of a story. She stood outside the window listening; it was Pandora. Figure Gabrielle to find a story to tell the hopeless that spoke of hope, and presented Xena as a hero. When it was finished, she waited a few moments before calling at the door. Hermia met her at the door with a grin; from the hearth, Gabrielle threw her own smile. Xena hesitated. It seemed that Gabrielle had been made welcome, but she waited until Hermia waved her inside. "Welcome, Xena. I hope you and Gabrielle will share our supper."

 

Gods, it was good to eat under a roof again, at a table. Gabrielle wondered if Xena was felling the same, but the warrior gave no clues. The rabbit had undergone a transformation in the pot, and Gabrielle happily sopped up the fragrant gravy with generous chunks of bread. "This is very tasty, Hermia," Gabrielle said. She gave Xena a soft nudge under the table.

"Very tasty," she echoed with sincerity. The little girl across the table ate silently, eyes never leaving the dark warrior.

"I’m happy to do it for you both," Hermia said, brushing a wisp of doe color hair from her eyes. "You are the founders of the feast, so to speak." She filled the cups with a dark, foamy brew she poured from an earthenware jug. Xena had first caught a whiff of that perfume from a long way off, when they first smelled the smoke from Hermia’s chimney. She took a cautious sip, then a generous draught. "You brew a good ale, Hermia," she said with the tone of one who knows. "Where do you get the water?"

"My well," she replied proudly. "Best water in Tartarus. Except maybe for the mountains."

"This area is much better than the parts we came through to get here," Gabrielle observed, looking to Xena for affirmation. "Maybe we can find a place to settle around here, Xena?"

"I’d like for you to settle here," Hermia enthused. "I’d be happy to pay tribute to Xena."

"Tribute?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena glared at the woman.

"Xena would be overlord, I’m sure," Hermia explained to Gabrielle.

"Overlord?" Gabrielle asked.

"I wouldn’t be overlord." Xena spoke through clenched teeth.

"Then you won’t be settling here, she snorted, "if you aren’t overlord, you’re under him. I don’t expect you’d be happy paying tribute to Nerad," Hermia said, ending with slightly pursed lips. She spoke as one who knows she’s got the better argument. "Of course that’s true all over Tartarus, we’re all under someone. Except for those who live in the wastelands, or hide up in the mountains. There are tales of the Wild Ones, who disappear into the mountains, and live in freedom. Free to starve, to freeze, apart from even the likes of us for companions," she ended. She thought the blue eyes held a hint of envy at that; then it was gone.

"It’s true all over the world," Xena rejoined at last.

"All over the world, the ruling scum isn’t a pack of vicious criminals," Hermia pointed out.

"It’s true often enough," Xena observed.

"Will someone please tell me what in the name of Tartarus you’re talking about?" Gabrielle looked from one to the other, waiting for an answer. Finally, Xena spoke.

"I’ve told you how things work here, Gabrielle, so has Drax. Power is exercised by anyone able to do it. The most powerful person in a region is called overlord here, I guess. " She inclined her head toward Hermia in thanks for the new knowledge. "The overlord is paid tribute by the underlings." She looked to Hermia again. "What tribute do you pay Nerad?"

"Like you saw; when his men come by for victuals, I give what I have. That seems to satisfy. My Farnis was under obligation to fight under Nerad in a crisis. Never came to that."
"Crisis?" Xena’s eyes narrowed, curious. "Fight against the Eastern tribes?" Hermia nodded. "Do you have much trouble with them?"

"On and off. They come in and steal crops sometimes, burn homes. Slaughter livestock. Two harvests ago they raided to the south of here, killed dozens. I think they just like to make life harder. Not that it isn’t hard enough. I suppose they want to chase us off, so they can have the place for themselves. They don’t seem to understand we have no choice," she laughed bitterly. "I’ve heard they take people for slaves." She shuddered. "I’d rather be a slave here, among my own kind."

Xena opened her mouth to speak, caught Gabrielle’s troubled face and paused before changing direction.

"Was Nerad ever challenged?" Xena asked. Gabrielle followed the conversation with rapt attention, curious about Xena’s interest.

"Nerad hasn’t been challenged; he’s only just taken over from Letritius. There was a nasty business went on for two winters, Nerad pushing against Letritius. For a time they both tried to run the place. I had to give tribute to whoever came to collect first. The next lot to come by wasn’t understanding." She shook her head, remembering.

"I’m sure." Xena had her own memories. "Did Nerad win, or did Letritius lose?" she asked.

"Nerad called for a truce. They met to carve up the territory. I was there; they needed cooks and servers. They laid their weapons aside, ate and drank, and when the agreement was all arranged, Nerad’s men fell on them with hidden blades. Letritius was killed; his men swore allegiance to Nerad, or were put to the sword. Nerad gained a lot of followers that day."

It was all too familiar to Xena. "Nice bunch you have in charge."

"Better having it settled, than living in the midst of their struggle. Doesn’t matter much who’s robbing me. Letritius was no better."

"Do you know of Brachius?"

"Heard of him," Hermia remembered. "He has territory to the south, I believe."

Xena nodded, then asked, "Your husband was a warrior?"

"He was. Tried to give it up, he was tired of killing. It was hard for him to make a living at anything else. He took up with a band of thieves; they got caught, we ended up here," she shrugged. "That was four winters ago."

"It must be hard for you to be alone," Gabrielle guessed.

"I’ve got the little one; we get by. I’m of some use to Nerad, so in normal times they leave me alone." She looked at Xena. "That one you killed. He wanted to take me as his woman, I think." Her eyes held a thank you that came from her very core.

Xena nodded, and Gabrielle swallowed glumly, looking from one woman to the other.

"If Farnis was a warrior, how did he avoid service to Nerad, or Letritius?" Xena asked. "Neither side claimed him for their war. They would have come for him if they needed him, but there’s no shortage of warriors in Tartarus. If you’re content to let them push you around they’ll let you be." Of course, Farnis wasn’t a legendary warrior, she thought to herself. She watched the play of muscles under the tanned skin. She had no doubt the warrior had earned her reputation. The stories the bard told spoke of a hero’s deeds. That was a comfort, but it meant little if they moved on. The bard had grown quiet, and watched the warrior with a tiny furrow in her brow. Hermia didn’t like to see that. She hadn’t seen a face so open and cheerful in years.

Xena drained her cup. "Good ale," she repeated absently. "I thought I’d try my hand at brewing, if we can get the grain, and good water." She looked at Gabrielle for her opinion.

The green eyes crinkled in a smile; she often wondered how Xena would fill the hours.

"Sounds good. Your mother serves delicious ale."
"Yeah, she does." Xena acknowledged wistfully. Such a little thing to remember, yet for the first time it struck her that she wouldn’t taste that ale again. Wouldn’t see Cyrene again.

"Your mother was an innkeeper?" Hermia asked with interest.

"Yeah," Xena said simply.

"She runs the best inn in Thrace," Gabrielle added, using Xena’s own proud words.

""If she made her own brew you’d know what you’re doing with it," she observed. "Round these parts you’d get good water, and I could supply grain." The offer was not made without motive, and Xena knew it.

Already, Gabrielle wore a tentative smile. There could be worse neighbors, she thought, hoping Xena’s mind was moving in the same direction. It was not; it had long since moved past the benefit of having Hermia for a neighbor, to the danger of having Nerad for overlord, the danger of living under any overlord. It was all very simple: Xena couldn’t live that way. She wouldn’t serve under anyone on the outside; she sure as Hades wouldn’t do it here. Gabrielle stole a furtive glance at the warrior, wondering at the issues that occupied her, and began to follow the likely course of Xena’s thoughts. Nerad was a problem, one of many. No overlord would ever tell Xena what to do, yet none would trust her to live in peace, for long. The alternative, both women knew, was living in the wastelands, where even a warlord had no interest in control. There was also no way to live there, in the desolate stretches through which they’d passed. There were the mountains. The Wild Ones could live there, unfettered, beholden to no one. Gabrielle would die there, Xena knew. Her spirit would die. She looked at the bard; the green eyes met her own. The Wild Ones. Gabrielle wondered if that held an attraction for Xena. It would be a mistake, she knew, for Xena to live like that. For all her independence, Xena needed people in her life; they gave it meaning, let her grow, made her grow.

Xena’s eyes began to roam the walls of Hermia’s little home, noting the details of construction that made it hold together. Sturdy posts stood at the corners, and poles and twigs were intertwined to form the walls. Typical wattle construction. The eastern wall had been well fortified with a packing of mud made from the clay-like soil. The other three were without. "The weather blows from the east?" she asked.

"Does it ever," Hermia said with a shudder. "like nothing you’ve ever heard."

"Hermia." Xena’s mellow voice sounded very loud in the little space. "When we’re ready to build, if we’re close enough, I might need to borrow some things, tools, I mean, if you have any. Would that be all right?"

"Whatever I have, Xena, you’re welcome to use," she responded, trying not to sound too eager.

Xena looked away from Hermia, looked away from Gabrielle, settled briefly on the little girl with wild hair who still was taking her measure. The room seemed to have grown smaller.

 

It was very cold that night. Gabrielle was glad to be inside some shelter, even if it was only the three-sided shed which stood behind Hermia’s little home. Argo stood in the corner, munching on fodder Xena had supplied from the overgrown fields.

"Nothing here seems quite finished, Xena, have you noticed?"

"Farnis was a warrior, not a farmer, or a builder. I think he did well for them in the few years he had here." Hope I can do as well. The smaller woman had nestled into her arms and sighed contentedly. This is what passed for a good day in Tartarus: eating a halfway decent meal, meeting someone who had no violent intent, and sleeping indoors, sort of, anyway. Xena had spread a thick skin out beneath them, and pulled a blanket over them.

"Don’t sleep just yet Gabrielle." The bard sighed again, in anticipation. She began to turn to face the warrior, but Xena said: "We have to talk."

"Oh."

"You’d like to settle near Hermia, wouldn’t you?"

"Xena, I don’t care where we settle, as long as we’re together."

That wasn’t strictly true, Xena thought, but she let it pass. "We’ll be together, Gabrielle. Apart from that, you’d like to be near Hermia?"

"I guess," she admitted. "I mean, she’s nice. Friendly. She’s here, but she’s not a convict. That’s a plus."

Xena grimaced. Not a convict. She didn’t think of herself as a convict, knew Gabrielle didn’t see her that way, but the truth was, she had that stigma. Well deserved. A formal denunciation for what she had done in her lifetime.

"Xena?" Gabrielle called her back.

"Sorry; just thinking. We have to get this settled, Gabrielle. It narrows things down quite a bit if we just explore what’s suitable within easy range of this place. We’ll ask Hermia to show us the waterways. We’ll follow them and hope the best places aren’t already occupied. Is that all right?"

The sweet solicitation in her tone caused the bard to smile. "Xena. It’s more than all right, only, don’t do it just for me, if it’s not the right place, if you won’t be happy there."

"I guess one place is like another, pretty much," Xena said, not entirely believing her own words.

"Except, wasn’t there one place you really liked. I can’t quite remember. We’ve looked at so many, but there was one – " She shook her head, perplexed.

"Doesn’t matter, Gabrielle." Gods, she doesn’t even remember that place? Was she half asleep, or did I dream it?

 

So it came to pass that they stood before a stream by mid-morning. Xena bent to taste the water. Not bad. Didn’t match the other stream, the one which tasted like crystal looked, but it would do. She’d noticed freshets which emptied into the stream at several locations along the banks; they spoke of nearby springs. She’d find some way of hauling the water from a spring. Once she had a container large enough to make it worthwhile. Xena straightened and looked to where Gabrielle was walking a slow circle around the small hill which rose from the stream. She caught Xena’s eye and waved; the sun seemed to shine out of her face. That was enough. It would do.

Xena moved to the big warhorse, which had become a packhorse, it seemed. She patted the animal’s neck, and began to strip her of her burdens. "End of the road, Argo," she said quietly, as she tossed the gear to the ground. "No more hauling the world around on your back. It all ends here."


Continued - Chapters 12-19

 


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