By M. Parnell
"Xena, if we make it a little taller, a foot maybe, well at least be able to kneel upright. Well, I will anyway."
Xena looked up from her work. She was weaving springy twigs into a section of wall. "Gabrielle, if we add a foot in height, well need to collect a quarter again as much to weave into walls, and we wont be finished by nightfall."
"But well be more comfortable."
"Gabrielle, the additional work isnt justified for a temporary dwelling." Xena shook her head gently, but wondered why Gabrielle wouldnt let it go. "The sooner we finish this, the sooner we can start work on the real dwelling." She forced a smile, and nodded, hoping Gabrielle would find that reason enough to settle for the shorter dwelling. Gods, theyd been at this since dawn, and had barely made a start. Xena squinted at the sun overhead. To the east, the horizon wore a dark mantle of clouds. She would like to have shelter from whatever was coming. Gabrielle would have to practice the basics of wattle construction another day.
"Gabrielle. Lets take a break." Lunch, then maybe the bard could be persuaded to take a nap.
Gabrielle threw down the branch she was trimming, happy for the break. "Its looking pretty good, Xena." Xena shrugged. Shed built these things before, many times, with little effort. Now she might as well be building the Parthenon. It was already two feet longer than it needed to be, and one section of wall had a decided list.
"Yeah, Gabrielle, its coming along. In fact," she ventured, "I think we can spare you to fix a meal, while I finish this section. I'm famished. This afternoon, maybe we can top it off." She bent to work again with renewed vigor.
Gabrielle smiled. She was happy to have helped, but glad for a change of task. Xena, warrior builder, certainly was determined to have her way with this little hut. Hut! It barely qualified as a shelter for pigs.
Their food supply hung from a tree in a sack. It currently consisted of bread from Hermia, and some early apples theyd found on the way. They were mealy, and wormy. Fix a meal; the bard shook her head with dismay. "Xena. I think we should catch some fish."
Xena looked up in disbelief. "Gabrielle, I dont have time for that."
"But we only have bread and apples," she complained. "Whats the point of being near a stream if we dont take advantage of it?"
"The fish will still be there tonight."
But Im hungry now, Gabrielle thought. "Never mind. Ill do it." Xena neednt do everything.
"Fine." Xena gauged her hunger, and decided she could wait. It would keep Gabrielle busy for a while, anyway. "Dont wander away, Gabrielle."
Dont wander away? "Ill stay close by," she promised.
"Xena?" The warrior left off finishing the framework for the roof, crawled halfway out of the small construction, and craned her neck up at the bard. "That was fast. Trout?"
"Not yet," she admitted, "I cant get this thing to work." She held out a willow branch with a length of string attached.
"Work? What do you want it to do?"
"Catch fish. What else would you do with a fishing rod?" she asked.
"You might bait the line, and tie the hook so that its not fouled by the line, and "
"Xena," she said, holding up a hand to ward off the condescension, I know enough to use bait. But it falls off in the water, or else the fish nibble it away." Xena sighed and crawled into the open, bringing a laugh from Gabrielle.
"You look so funny crawling out of there," she snickered.
"Do I?" Xena asked, arching an eyebrow above a severe expression. It wasn't easy to extricate oneself from the squat structure with dignity. Wait until it's your turn.
"Let me have it," she told her, and examined the mess with a neutral expression.
"I never taught you how to make a fishing rod?" It was plain that Gabrielle had no clue.
"Nope. On those few occasions when we actually fished the conventional way, you always prepared the poles while I gathered a sampling of herbs, roots; the usual." She shrugged.
"You didn't fish as a kid?" Xena asked.
"I've told you I didn't. My dad did the fishing; I stayed home and learned to cook the fish. You should be glad I did. I've tasted your idea of fried fish."
Xena replied with a tight smile, and a quick kiss on the bard's cheek.
Gabrielle caressed the cheek, even as Xena busied herself with the fishing pole. "What was that for?"
" 'Cause I've tasted my fried fish." She had more to say, but she saw movement on the tree fringed hill which flanked them. Her eyes focused on the two figures which approached:
Hermia and Lilla, each bearing a sack. Hermia sagged under the weight of hers; Lilla's scraped the ground lightly. Gabrielle threw a smile of delight at Xena, and scooted off to meet them. Xena turned away, scowling a little at the peaks which bounded Tartarus. Hermia's little farm was within walking distance; she'd known that. She hadn't expected the woman to visit so soon.
"Xena! Look, Hermia's solved our problem."
"Which problem was that?" the warrior asked, turning to the threesome, working a smile into place.
"Lunch." The bard held up a sack before her. "Soft cheese, and
Xena shot a glance at Hermia. "Where did you get it?"
Hermia's tanned face creased in a small grin. "Just know where to drop in, Xena. Natrakia keeps a herd of goats; she makes cheese. Her husband Ikar roams far afield to scavenge for goods. He came up with olives. I brought them bread this morning, and a sack of my onions. They gave me cheese and olives."
"Xena's crazy about olives. Especially green olives," Gabrielle enthused.
But Xena was already far ahead, thinking that it would be nice to keep goats, wondering what she would need to barter for enough to start her own herd. Maybe she could capture some mountain goats, and breed them -
"Xena? Come back to us." Gabrielle took her hand and pulled her back to the moment.
"Right," Xena said a little abruptly. "Hermia, we can't just take this - "
"Nonsense. It's a gift, Xena. A welcome present."
"Still, when we've settled, we'll repay the debt."
Gabrielle stole a furtive glance at the warrior's solemn face from the corner of her eye.
"Let's eat," she suggested, and was not surprised when Xena said: "I need to finish this section." She gestured at the little shelter. "I'm not very hungry."
"Xena. It can wait. We've spent plenty of nights in the open," Gabrielle reminded her.
"No. She's right to want it finished," Hermia put in. "Weather turns quickly here. You don't want to be without shelter. Of course, you're more than welcome to stay with me, if it's too bad. Not in the shed, in the house, with the fire-warmth."
"Thanks." Xena's voice was dismissive, and she turned back to her work.
Gabrielle and Hermia ate together; their laughter carried to Xena's ears, but after a time she thrust it aside, and was conscious only of the flex of twig and branch as she wove a tight wall for survival. She became aware of Lilla standing close by, munching on a piece of coarse brown bread, spread thick with creamy cheese. When Xena looked at her, a small hand darted out, offering a cluster of green olives. Xena eyed them for a moment, then nodded and tossed them all at once into her mouth, juggling them with a nimble tongue, expelling pits as they were stripped of flesh. "Delicious," she declared at last. "Thank you." Lilla smiled and ran back to her mother. Hermia was propped on one elbow, watching. Gabrielle was still, apparently, asleep. Xena lay her work aside, and strode off to the stream. When she returned, feet muddy, boots dangling from the laces around her neck, she was carrying three good size perch in a bucket of water. She left them next to Hermia. "Take the fish with you. A little something for your trouble," she smiled. Hermia returned a grudging smile. "I meant this as a gift, Xena," she said.
"So you said."
"What was that all about Xena?" Gabrielle demanded. "Hermia's been very good to us, and you repaid her with rudeness." Fire touched Gabrielle's voice, and her feet were spread just a touch wider than usual: her slightly aggressive pose.
Xena continued working. She was almost finished, grateful for the distraction that had kept Gabrielle occupied for much of the afternoon. Hermia and Lilla had gone now, and it was time to face Gabrielle. She didn't look up as she spoke. "I wasn't rude. I was busy."
"Before she arrived you were ready to break for lunch. 'Famished'; isn't that what you said?"
"I changed my mind. You didn't need my company, and this seemed more important."
"You could have taken a few minutes to eat. It's as if you didn't want her company or her food. Then to make it worse, you paid her for it. She brought us a gift, and you paid her with fish."
"I thought you were asleep," Xena said, a touch of reproach in her quiet voice.
"I wasn't. I find that when you think I'm not listening, you behave just a little differently than when I am listening. Two Xenas."
"That's just to deal with the two Gabrielle's: the paragon of virtue, and the other one, who suggests with her actions, that which isn't strictly true." Gabrielle was ready to be angry at that charge, but Xena turned her head to challenge her, lips twisted in an accusatory smirk that dared the bard to deny it. "Besides," she continued, "I would have given Hermia the fish anyway. I don't want to be in her debt."
"Debt? Xena, it was a gift."
The warrior snickered. "It was no gift; there are no gifts here. She was offering me tribute."
"Gods, Xena. I'm glad I'm not as suspicious as you are. It must be awful to go through life expecting people to take advantage of you, questioning every motive."
I'm glad you're not like this, too, Xena thought. "Gabrielle, I'm not finding fault with Hermia; in her place I'd do much the same. Find a protector in a bitch of a world. If I could buy her with goat cheese and olives, I'd think it a bargain." She pointed to a length of leather cord on the ground. "Hand me that."
"Protector?" Gabrielle echoed as she slapped the cord into Xena's hand.
"Hermia has no power. She thinks I'll be the one to take care of her here."
"If she needed it, Xena, you would," Gabrielle said confidently. "That's just how you are."
"Yeah," Xena agreed. She wrapped the cord around two thick pieces of twig. The little structure was almost closed at the top. "That's how I've been." She straightened and held Gabrielle's gaze with intensely blue eyes. "I can't take care of everyone in Tartarus, Gabrielle. I can't take care of everyone within fifty miles. If I start being the protector, Nerad will see me as his rival. Then we fight; then I lose, or I become overlord. Which one do you choose for me?" she challenged. "Be careful. There are no good choices there, for a favorite of Ares."
Gabrielle took a moment to tuck some loose ends into the weave. "I didn't think of it that way, Xena. I'm sorry."
"I'm not looking for an apology. This is a mess of my own making, one way or another. You'll react to this place one way, I'll react, well, the way I react. Don't hate me 'cause I'm difficult." She ventured a crooked smile.
"Never," she promised, her voice a little husky. Xena moved behind her and held her in a warm embrace, her cheek resting on the blonde head. "The only person in all of Tartarus that matters a fig to me, is right here," she said fiercely. "I'll fight Nerad, Brachius, and any other overlord who messes with you, or our home. Otherwise they can live by their own rules." Gabrielle's brow furrowed as she tried to reconcile Xena's words with her defense of Hermia the day before. Xena went on: "We'll pay for what we get, from Hermia, and anyone else." Gabrielle nodded, dimly aware that Xena was proposing the impossible. She nodded her agreement, and wove her fingers into the warrior's sticky with the juice of the trees. "Okay, Xena."
"Now, help me finish this, and we might be pretty cozy tonight."
"You've done most of it without me," the bard protested. "How will I learn if you do it yourself?"
"You'll get plenty of practice on the real thing," Xena assured her, making a mental note to make that so. I also owe you a lesson in fishing pole construction, and we have to get that bow in your hands. "I think we'll be pretty busy," she ended.
"Oh," Gabrielle said, ducking her head coyly. "I suppose that means it
will be hard to help Hermia get her crop in."
"I told her we'd come and give her a hand."
Xena's eyes rolled to the top of her head, and her long arms rose to slice the air before slapping down against her leather.
"Xena, if you don't want to come, I'll tell her you couldn't make it."
"You'll tell her? You mean you're going anyway?"
"When is this happening?"
"Tomorrow. She wants to get the crop in before the weather turns."
"Excuse me?" she asked, not believing what she heard.
"I said 'No'; you're not going."
"You don't have the right to forbid me."
Xena glared at her, hands on hips, knowing the bard spoke the truth, knowing just as clearly that the bard had made an unwise decision. "I don't," she agreed, after a moment. "And you don't have the right to commit my time."
"I told you, you can stay here."
"And let you traipse around Tartarus by yourself?"
"Hermia seems to have no problem 'traipsing around' by herself."
"Hermia knows this place. People know her. You can't just take off here by yourself."
"Do you plan on being with me twenty-four hours a day?"
"Yes." It was true. Xena hadn't thought about it, just knew at once that she would never be far from the young woman.
"Okay, I'm crazy. You're not going to Hermia's by yourself. If you insist," she blew a huff of exasperation, "I'll have to go with you."
"Suit yourself," Gabrielle shot back, understanding that somehow, Xena had bent to her will, without a struggle, even while she acknowledged that she should have discussed it with Xena first.
"Get the skins." Xena disappeared inside the rough hovel, and set to work patching the places where light streamed in. Where light came in, so could cold and rain and wind. Damn Hermia, she thought as she worked. The woman had a genius for getting what she needed, and she seemed to need everything. What else would she want, she wondered darkly.
"In the moonlight, it looks like a dwelling for the nymphs," Gabrielle decided.
Xena chuckled. "We'll see, my bard. As long as it keeps the wind from our backs I'll be happy." They sat in front of a warm fire, happy to have each other's arms to nestle in, for the wind was from the east, and it spoke of the bare plains they'd left behind. What had passed between them of Hermia's crops had been set aside by unspoken agreement. Xena had gone fishing, and Gabrielle had collected herbs enough to season the sweet perch. So they had shared a quiet dinner, and rested from the hard work of the day.
In truth, the humble hut looked inviting. Xena wondered why they stayed outside. There was the light and warmth of the fire, but she knew Gabrielle was ready to sleep. She felt her head slump against her chest only to be jerked up again, as the young woman fought to stay awake. "Gabrielle, let's go inside," she whispered. The green eyes had golden flecks by moonlight, and Xena looked for them as they fluttered open. "Xena, I hate to leave the fire," she complained.
"We won't have it all night, Gabrielle. Once we're inside our body heat will warm that space fast enough." Thick skins had been hung from the walls, and the little shelter would be quite warm, Xena knew.
"Okay," Gabrielle agreed reluctantly. "In a minute."
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked, concerned. "Is there something wrong? I know it's not much, it's not what I want for you," she said, apology in her voice, "but - "
"No, Xena, that's not it. It's fine. I just I don't know." She hesitated, and Xena waited, until she found her thought. "It's our first home. I never really expected this, and I'm not sure how to feel about it." She took a breath as if to explain. "When I was a kid, on Solstice morning, or on my birthday, I'd wake as early as possible, and lie still just feeling the moment, knowing that it was special, and trying to possess it, all of it. Does that make sense?"
"Yes," Xena admitted, reaching far into her memories for those special moments. Solon came to mind. She'd held him like that for a few days, committing his tiny features to memory, capturing how it felt to be a mother, before giving him away. She hoped Kaliopes would hear of her sentence, and not assume she'd just lost interest in her son.
"This is like that, Xena. I want to hold this moment, and own it forever. I
dont know if I'm ready for that."
"Gabrielle, this not quite our home. That's a little ways off. This is just a shelter."
"No." The blonde head shook emphatically. "This is where we will wake up tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. We'll look at these same trees, and see the mountains in the same position. This is permanent, Xena. This makes us permanent."
"Because we've stopped in one place?" Xena was puzzled. "Gabrielle, wherever we've been, as long as you've been there, it's been my home."
The bard smiled. "Did I tell you that Tartarus is bringing out the romantic in you?" She took a long moment to find Xena's lips in the flickering firelight. "You're my home too, Xena," she assured her. "But now the world knows that this is our home. Somehow, that makes it different. Not better, just different." Xena's nod against her shoulder was uncertain. "Never mind. I just want to hang on to this evening. Once I fall asleep it will end."
"Who said anything about sleep?" Xena growled into her ear, then nipped at the lobe, letting her tongue trace the outer circles. "I think we built in enough room for our needs, my sweet bard." She moved a hand to Gabrielle's bodice, and snaked a hand inside the scant covering. "Unless you'd like to sit here enjoying the moment all night?" she suggested, smiling as a low moan escaped the woman. "Thought not," she declared, and rose with one motion, the bard cradled in strong arms.
Gabrielle sighed. In that sigh Xena heard a world of contentment. They had been happy, here, in this tiny space for one night, the rest of the world shut out, the droning wind turned away, the darkness no match for the world they'd built together. It was pleasantly warm under the blanket they shared, although the morning air held a chill. In the dim light, the warrior could make out their few possessions crammed at the edges of the furry skin that was their bed: her weapons, the bag which held the scrolls, and other bags, bulging, with what, Xena couldn't quite recall. She shifted her weight carefully, so that the smaller woman who lay sprawled across her would not be disturbed. She almost sighed with contentment herself, but one part of her mind was already arranging the day's tasks, chiefly, helping Hermia bring in her crop. She couldn't imagine it would be a one day job, unless others were coming to help, and Gabrielle hadn't mentioned that possibility. Could be they'd do nothing today except harvest. Then back to bed. That wouldn't be so bad, she decided, except there was so much else to - A noise outside brought her to her knees, and her sword appeared in her hand before she poked her head through the doorway. Gabrielle woke at the sudden movement and followed Xena outside, rubbing her eyes, asking what was wrong.
Xena stood looking at the nearest tree, a good thirty yards away. A large sack was suspended from a branch, out of the reach of wild animals. She had scanned the area, and detected no one. Sword in hand she approached the tree, pulled at the release knot which held the sack and let it fall into her arms.
"What is it, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, as she caught up to the warrior.
"Tribute," Xena said with disgust. Inside the sack was a haunch of venison, roasted. The sack bore crude markings, rather like initials.
Gabrielle watched the tan face darken, and remembered the warrior's words of the day before.
"Damn," the warrior mouthed.
"Xena, can't you just leave it here?"
"No," the dark head shook slowly. "Wasting food here would be a sin by any standard."
"Give it back? There is a name attached." No point leaving tribute if no one knew who left it.
"That would be an insult."
"Give it away? To Hermia?"
"That would be seen as me spreading my wealth to my favorites. Still means I accepted it."
"So " Xena watched the bard think, wondering if she'd come up with the answer. The blonde head nodded in understanding. "You pay for it."
"Exactly," Xena said, pleased at the bard's acumen. "I pay for it." She thrust the sack at the bard. "Here's breakfast," and fetched the bow and quiver of arrows.
An hour later they were at the approach to Hermia's farm, already in sight of the further reaches of the scraggly crops. The threatening clouds of the day before had been swept away; Hermia's luck seemed to be holding. Gabrielle was settled comfortably in the roomy saddle, but a worried frown played on her lips. "Xena are you sure it was safe to leave our things there? I mean, anyone could ransack the place."
"Gabrielle?" She answered the question with one of her own: "Do you think I love you less than you love your scrolls?"
"You're worried about leaving your scrolls unattended for a few hours. Yet you think I'm silly to worry about you roaming around here by yourself." The bard was silent. "I don't know if it's safe Gabrielle. I do know we can't take all our belongings with us every time we leave there. Leave home," she amended.
"I suppose not," the bard conceded.
"But I sure as Hades don't plan on leaving you alone," she swore. "So get use to it."
The sack which had contained the venison hung from Argo's saddle. It was still full, but now it contained a brace of game birds. Xena didn't know if it would be considered an even exchange, but it would make her point.
"I'm sorry we didnt get to sleep in, today," Gabrielle was saying. Surprised at how comfortable she'd felt in the little shelter. "I'd like to have enjoyed our place a while."
"Savor the moment?" Shouldn't have arranged to work in someone else's fields.
"Yes. It was cozy. You were there. I think I can be happy with just that."
I hope so, Gabrielle, the warrior thought, because that's about all you'll ever have.
They were not to be alone that day. Workers were already in the fields; they stopped to watch as they glimpsed the unfamiliar golden mare. The age-old work was the same all over, men and woman swinging sickles in the familiar left to right motion, catching the stalks of grain as they fell to the left. The bundle was tied with a deft movement, with long tough grasses watered by oxen. Bundles of wheat were left behind to be neatly stacked in the cart which would come by later. Xena watched in appreciation, remembering the diligent workers of Amphipolis.
"They work fast, Xena. Maybe they'll finish before we get started," the bard said hopefully.
"That'd be nice," Xena agreed, "but don't count on it, they have a long ways to go." The scruffy mongrel skirted their path, remembering Xena's first visit.
Hermia walked in from the field, sickle by her side, hair covered in a loosely tied scarf.
"Good to see you," she said, beaming. "It got so late, I thought - "
"Something came up," Xena cut in. "Do you recognize these initials?" She held out the sack.
"Archon." She pointed to the nearest field. A tall, bare-chested man had stopped working and watched them with interest.
"Thanks," Xena said over her shoulder as she strode out to him. Hermia looked a query at Gabrielle; the young woman shrugged.
"Archon," Xena said loudly, as if to alert anyone in earshot to hear her words. "I'd like to return your sack." She thrust it at him. He hefted it, and grinned uncomfortably as he peered inside. "I meant that as a gift, Xena," he told her. He was still young, well-muscled, his face ruggedly handsome; Xena wondered why he wasn't a warrior for some overlord here in Tartarus.
"I know. Gifts make me uncomfortable," she replied. "Hope you don't feel the same, 'cause there's one for you. Besides, there's only the two of us. I'm giving most of the meat to Hermia, rather than see it spoil. Thanks for the thought." She turned and walked back to the waiting Gabrielle and Hermia. "Let's get to work," she declared. Hermia gave her a sickle. To Gabrielle she said: "Lots of things need to be done in the kitchen. I'll get you started there." Xena rolled her eyes in mock indignation.
"Hermia, really, I'd rather work alongside everyone else," Gabrielle protested.
"Nonsense, Gabrielle," Xena smiled. "Someone's got to feed us field hands." She pulled the bard close for a wet kiss, then trooped out to the field.
The morning was long, the sun hot. Xena worked in her leather battle dress, breastplate and weapons nearby. She done this of necessity as a child, when the whole village was pressed into harvest service. The young girls mostly had other chores, like Gabrielle now, in the kitchens, or following behind gleaning what would have been lost. Xena had been big for her age, and quick to learn. She'd also begged to be let out of the kitchen in her mother's inn, and found her place alongside the men and boys, yielding a sickle with the best of them.
They laid their tools aside now, at the clang of Hermia's pot-lifter against a pot-lid, and headed to the trough to wash up before a hearty mid-day meal. This had always been when she'd been set aside, she recalled with distaste, when the men sat down to eat, and she was sent to the kitchen with the women. Xena plunged her arms in the trough past her elbows, and splashed cool water over her head and neck, remembering how her face had burned with humiliation then.
Gabrielle watched from where she ladled helpings of vegetable stew, into rough wooden bowls. The warrior was tanner, if anything. She put the pot down and sidled up to her, a rough towel in hand, and began to mop the rivulets of water that ran down her back. Xena straightened at her touch. "You swing a mean sickle, lady," the smaller woman growled, rubbing the towel over the broad shoulders. "You'll make a heck of a farmer."
Xena turned to let her see the distaste evident on her face. "Farmer? No. I'm no
Gabrielle was puzzled. "You aren't going to farm? What else is there to do?"
""I'll hunt; trap; fish. I'll provide for us. If you want to pull things out of the ground, you'll have to become a farmer," she said flatly.
The reapers were seated, wielding wooden spoons with one hand and chunks of bread with
the other, mouths stuffed, juices trickling from the corners. Xena sat at an empty place,
and pulled Gabrielle down beside her.
"None of that," said a beefy woman who had been in the field beside Xena. "Kitchen workers eat after us," she piped up. A chorus of grunts supported her. "Into the kitchen with the wives."
"It's all right, Xena," Gabrielle said quietly, and began to rise.
"No, it's not," Xena breathed for her ears only, then raised her voice: "She spent the morning working, same as we have." She snarled. Gabrielle probably made this stew we're eating, she had decided. She knew Gabrielle's touch. While she spoke, she filled a dish, tore off a chunk of bread, and placed it before Gabrielle. The bard smiled apologetically, and followed Xena's lead, lifting hearty spoonfuls of the fragrant stew to her mouth.
The table grew silent, but for the noise of eating. The men looked at Gabrielle with interest. Xena met their eyes, one by one, with a silent message to look elsewhere.
Xena took a long draught of Hermia's ale and called to the woman: "If this wheat produces this brew I'd bring it all in myself."
She looked at her fellow diners. They'd worked without introductions, and although she was sure they knew her name, she told them anyway. "My name is Xena." She gave Gabrielle a soft kick under the table "I'm Gabrielle. I'm Xena's partner." Five heads nodded uncertainly. Hermia stepped in smoothly, and began to point out the other workers. The beefy woman was Cramma. Xena eyed her carefully, letting her know she had captured the warrior's attention. "You're a strong woman, Cramma. Do you have your own farm?"
"Chickens. Pigs. Root vegetables. I have to be strong. My husband's on the other side."
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said.
"I'm not. His temper is why I'm here. I was his target often enough." She turned back to her meal. Xena guessed the woman had given as good as she'd got.
The others were named: Parmenter, who was the joiner, Photor, the-tinker-barrel maker-smith, and Archon, the farmer. At the end of the table, Cutrous spoke for himself. "I'm Cutrous. I'm passing through." Xena regarded him evenly, then her white teeth flashed in a bitter smile. "Aren't you lucky." The others laughed at her deliberate misinterpretation. His brand was as obvious as any, the earring visible despite his long hair. The men all wore the earring.
"Xena. I never thought they'd take you. I was at Corinth," he explained. "Not a soldier,
really. I was put to work building the engines of war. Parmenter's voice rasped as he spoke. A rag wrapped around his throat didn't hide completely the jagged scar which encircled his neck. "Had to be treachery," he guessed.
"Something like that," she confirmed. The question was not unexpected. She would be known to much of the population of Tartarus. It still seemed impossible to her that she'd been captured and held, transported to a penal colony. At her side, Gabrielle showed no sign of her lingering guilt over the capture, except to Xena. A tanned hand covered the bard's, while she continued: "I would have been home free, but for the treachery of a little weasel. You'll excuse me if I'm not quick to trust." That placed it all on Gaederus. She hoped Gabrielle would come to accept that.
"How'd you escape the brand, Xena?" Cutrous asked. "You and your lady."
"I asked nicely," she answered truthfully. The table stopped to consider, sure there was more to it, but the dog began to bark.
Far along the road two figures were moving into view. Brown tunics. One tall, a lumbering bear of a man. The other smaller, sashaying behind. Xena's scowled
"Xena. Isn't that Arthea and Lutus?" Gabrielle stood and shielded her eyes from the sun.
"Yeah, Gabrielle." Bad dinars always turn up.
The two ambled closer, in no hurry, or unable to move faster. Tartarus had not been kind to them: they were barefoot. Lutus had lost weight, but his body had not been toned; loose flesh hung around him in folds. He eyed the table furtively as he approached, fixing a smile on his unshaven face. Arthea's sunken eyes swept the assembly around the table, lingering on Gabrielle, before fixing on Xena.
The warrior rose to greet them. "Lutus. Arthea," she said simply, hiding her surprise that they'd made it this far. Hermia watched warily. She would not feed those who hadn't worked for it. These two didn't look capable of work. She lifted the pot. "The women are waiting to eat."
Lutus stepped forward, "I'd, uh, we'd work hard for a meal,' he said, pleading in his voice.
"Got enough workers," Hermia threw at him. Gabrielle's mouth dropped. She
hadn't expected this.
"I'm finished," she announced, and handed the bowl to Arthea. Xena's head moved in silent disapproval. Hermia was not silent. "Gabrielle, you earned that."
"Then I'll do with it as I please." She smiled to avoid giving offense to Hermia. Xena's bowl was nearly empty, but she handed it to Gabrielle, who passed it in turn to Lutus.
"I'm sure they'll pitch in this afternoon, Hermia," Gabrielle told her.
"Got enough workers," she repeated, yet filled the bowls of the two newcomers before entering the house.
Lutus and Arthea were already downing the contents of the bowls, unashamed. Cramma
glared at them. The others spoke quietly, ignoring their presence.
"We heard you'd come this way, Xena," Lutus was saying.
"Heard? Who were you talking with?"
"Ileander. He's settling here with Drax, a few miles away. Good to know you've got friends in a place like this," he pronounced, for the benefit of the table. "I expect you'll see a lot of your old mates," he continued. "Xena saved us all out there." His booming voice filled the tiny farmyard as he began the tale of the cistern. Xena's jaw tightened; she left the table. As she retrieved her sickle the words "Queen of Prestia" drifted over to her. Damn Ileander.
The moon cast shadows that made Gabrielle start when her eyes were open, so she closed them, and let her head rest against Xena's back, as she had so many times, content to let the road pass by unseen. "Xena?"
It's funny. Today didn't seem much different than any other day, any place else. I
mean, those people didn't seem threatening, or scary. They were just like us."
"Like me, maybe," Xena chuckled. "Not like you. I think they could be plenty scary if it suited them." And the worst of the lot will be about Nerad's business. Wonder when we'll meet them?
"Archon's wife was sweet. Sepra. She's pregnant. Did you know Archon's been here since he was fourteen? He met Sepra here. She was born here. Her father was sent here through a miscarriage of justice." Xena cast a look of wonder to the sky. The bard would believe almost anything.
"Tartarus has been good to Archon, by the look of him. I suppose he's innocent too?"
Gabrielle noted the skepticism in Xena's voice, but was too tired to make an issue of it.
"Archon was an orphan. He took up with a gang of thieves when he was very young."
"Guess he was young if he was here by fourteen. He learned to farm here?"
"From Sepra's father. He worked for them. Her father's dead now. They still work the farm." She was silent a moment. "Sepra said she's seen a lot of overlords. They come and go violently. Makes a mess for everyone."
"And?" It was the same sort of tale Hermia had to tell.
"And she - they'd like you to be overlord."
"Sure. Archon, and Sepra, Hermia, Lutus and Arthea. Even Drax. Only it's not gonna happen Gabrielle. They'd better all get used to it."
Gabrielle sighed. The breath was warm where it touched Xena's back, bare above her
battledress. "Lutus gave you quite a buildup, Xena. You're the all-wise,
all-powerful, warrior, problem solver and healer."
"He said that?" She snorted incredulously. "I was tied to a wagon away from all of them for most of the journey."
"Well, what he didn't tell them Arthea told the women, after they all went back to the fields. I tried to take attention away from her with some stories of my own, but they only wanted to hear about you." Silence greeted her. "Are you all right?"
"Yep. Just wondering why in all of Tartarus Lutus and Arthea had to settle here. And, of course, I know the answer: I'm here."
"I'm glad to know Arthea's all right anyway."
"I told you not to worry so much about her," she snapped, took a breath, then said more gently : "She's a survivor. What did she ever do to earn her meal?"
The bard considered. "Not much," she decided. "She spent the afternoon with the rest of us, yet, she never did any work. Hmmm."
"Well, Lutus worked a little harder. Us folk out in the field could be scary," she told her, dropping her voice for effect. "They would have worked a lot harder if the meal came after. That was Hermia's point."
"I should have stayed out of it?"
Xena was a long time answering. "On Hermia's home ground, yes. She works hard to feed herself and Lilla. It doesnt help to encourage leeches."
"Xena, one meal doesn't make them leeches."
Xena grunted, and shrugged. "We'll see."
Gabrielle blinked against the sun and admitted warily that she liked Tartarus. They'd slept late, breakfasted on venison and berries Xena had found before the bard awoke. Xena was busy now, twenty yards away, a length of cord in one hand and a bunch of stakes in the other.
She whistled as she worked, threw occasional questions to the bard, and muttered to herself as she laid the outline for the house she prepared to build. This structure would be on the lower of two crests on the site, mostly sheltered from the wind and prying eyes by the taller hill, which sloped gently east to west. The bard loved watching her work, waited for the quick frowns of concentration as she puzzled through a problem, and the sudden smiles which appeared when the problem was resolved. Xena in Tartarus. Gabrielle wondered why this place, which held so many terrors, should produce a Xena who, despite her worries, was at once more relaxed, more playful and more open. It was a mystery, which Gabrielle looked forward to solving. If only Xena would slow down
"Come over here, Gabrielle," Xena called now, and the bard sat up to rest on her elbows.
"Come on," she urged, and waited impatiently while the blonde made her way to the grid work of cord. At last she spread her arms. "Welcome to our new home. Still have a little work to do, of course. Ah, watch your head." She guided the bard through a doorway which had not yet been built, to stand in the center of a room which would be the only room for some time. "How does it feel?" the warrior asked, looking around as if she could see the whole structure. "The window will go here. Glass will be a problem of course, but we'll work somethin' out." She took the smaller woman by the shoulders and guided her to face the stream which curved softly around the foot of the hill. The window would face the stream, and the setting sun and the peaks. "Didn't want the sun in your eyes too early," Xena told her. "The door, over there." She turned the bard to face the opposite wall. "We'll spread out this way," she pointed to the south. "I'll put the chimney on that wall, so, one day, the fire will warm two rooms."
This place was real to Xena, Gabrielle knew, and she joined in the game. "Here," she stood in the center of the room, "we'll have our table. We'll eat here; at night you'll sharpen your sword, and mend your stuff. Like always. Don't you ever take a break?"
Xena froze for a moment, saw the weary look on the bard's face and fixed a smile on her own. "And you'll write your stories," she managed. Scrolls would be a problem, Xena realized, not for the first time, but if they got that herd of goats
Something had changed in the warrior's mood, and Gabrielle sought to fix it. "It feels good, Xena. Like home." She was rewarded with pure sunshine.
"Good; and that's it for the day. I'm declaring a holiday."
"What?" Gabrielle asked, astonished at this Xena.
"A holiday. I've earned it. Today I play, and rest, and enjoy myself. What are your plans?" she asked deadpan, and it took Gabrielle a moment to realize she was joking.
Gods, I think I do love Tartarus, she admitted a second time. "I think I'll join you."
"Even better." Xena's eyes lit above a feral grin, and she pulled the bard to a far corner of the ground. "The bed goes right here." She knelt before the bard, buried her face in the short skirt that covered her thighs and wrapped her arms around her hips. Gabrielle clenched her fists in the silky dark hair, and let the warrior pull her down to the lush grass. "Xena, this is so public."
"At this moment, I don't care, Gabrielle," she breathed, between deep kisses that took left the bard not caring either.
"Humph. Some holiday." Xena ignored the complaint, and walked back to Gabrielle, clutching a handful of arrows.
"Try again. Remember, you can't do anything if you aren't breathing."
"Amazing how I breathed all my life without thinking about it."
"Yeah. Kind of like suddenly becoming aware of your tongue." The bard
stopped, concentrated on the object which had grown to mammoth proportions inside her
mouth. She looked crossly at Xena. "At least you won't think about breathing for a
while," Xena explained with a sly grin. "C'mon. Try again."
"Xena, I'll never be any good at this."
"Not with that attitude," the warrior agreed. "Once you decide to learn the weapon, you will."
"Xena - "
"I saw how you learned the staff.," she was reminded. "I know you can do it."
The bard tossed the bow to Xena. "I'll let you know when I decide to learn. Now, I think I'll resume my holiday." Xena looked after her in frustration. The bard settled down to sleep, face pillowed on her forearms.
Xena took the axe from its resting place in the trunk of a fallen log, and attacked a tree at the foot of the hill. The strokes were sure, biting into the hard wood, in rapid succession. Xena paused only once, taking the measure of the tree, knowing its life was over, knowing it would exist still, dead wood. She grunted mightily with the final blow, and stood back. Gabrielle woke to see the tableau, nearly frozen, as the tree teetered between earth and sky. It fell softly, she noted, making little sound for all its size. Xena fell on it like a wolf on its prey.
"I thought you were resting today?" Gabrielle stood at Xena's shoulder. The axe moved in small, precise strokes, squaring off the log.
Xena glanced over her shoulder. "I thought I'd get a little work done while you napped."
"What's that supposed to mean?" the bard asked defensively.
"It means, I thought I'd get a little work done while you napped."
"You're angry aren't you," she accused.
"Don't be ridiculous. Why would I be angry?"
"Because I didn't want to learn to shoot the arrows; and you're taking out your aggression on that poor tree."
"This 'poor tree' was destined for this from the minute we decided to settle here." Xena turned back to the log.
"Just a coincidence that you had to chop it down right now?"
"Why not now?" The warrior's brow wrinkled quizzically. "I wasn't doing anything else."
"Ah! But you planned on doing nothing. Suddenly, you're doing something."
"Yeah. Well, 'nothing' seemed like so little to do. I'm not used to that," she acknowledged. With a grunt she turned the log to work on another side.
"You're mad at me because I wouldn't practice with the bow," the bard said with certainty.
"I'm not mad, Gabrielle. Disappointed," she conceded. "Because it's important. Still, as long as you put in some serious time before the bad weather sets in, it might be all right. I'd just hate to see you spend months convincing yourself you can't do it."
"You don't think I'm going to stand out here all winter freezing my butt off showing you how to shoot?" she asked amiably. "I'd like to be relaxing by the hearth, which is why I'd like to get the house underway, so " She gestured toward the log. "I thought I'd get started." She raised an eyebrow. "Was there anything else?" There was, but Gabrielle couldn't argue with someone who had conceded every point. "No," she mumbled, and backed away.
The noises were unmistakable; Xena made no reaction.
"Xena, I know you can hear me," Gabrielle shouted across the field. "You probably could hear me in Potadeia." Her words were accompanied by the soft sound of an arrow being notched in a bow string. Xena was careful to keep her face turned from the bard. A smug smile would not be productive now.
"I'm planting my feet the way you showed me. My hand is gripping the bow, uh, sorry, 'knowing' the bow, and the arrow is directed at the target. If all goes well, you should hear the satisfying thunk of an arrow into a tree trunk any moment now. Are you listening? I know you are," she went on, without waiting for an answer. "Here it goes."
The air was pierced with a 'phhhhhht', ending in a soft, brief, rustles of leaves. The low bush next to the tree. Xena could picture it, and nodded approvingly, her back still to the scene. "That's the closest you've come all day. Try turning your left foot like I showed ya, and make sure you don't drop the bow when you release the string."
She hadn't even turned to look, and was diagnosing the problem. It was beyond frustrating, and the bard's lips twisted in a sneer, ready to scorch the warrior's all-too-clever ears, then Xena called out a final reminder: "Don't forget to breathe," and the bard's anger was lost. She notched another arrow, ran through her checklist one last time, and let the arrow fly. Thunk. Xena smiled at the sound, and turned around at last. The arrow had barely hit its mark, but it would do for a start. "Thought you couldn't do it?" she commented.
"Lucky shot," Gabrielle said indifferently.
"Funny how luck seems to find the people who work hardest. Try again." Xena urged.
"I think I'll quit while I'm ahead of the game. I might shoot fifty more arrows before I hit the target again."
"Or, you might - "
"Xena," she cut her off. "How long did it take you to master the bow?"
A pause. A shrug. "Years; I learned it as a game when I was a kid."
"So cut me some slack; I mean I wasn't born with a natural tendency to excel at the deadlier skills." She laughed, and moved to the tree to collect the two arrows. Behind her Xena's mouth tightened a little; the axe started moving again, an inexorable whacking that continued through the bard's idle chatter.
Xena paused at the crest of the hill, wiped the back of her hand across her brow, and bent to loosen the hitch knot which bound the log. Two trees felled and trimmed in a day. Not a record, but she wasn't going for records; just survival. The day was warmer than the day before. Winter seemed less imminent. There was time to rouse Gabrielle and explore the surrounding area, maybe lay some snares. She arched her back, then rubbed Argo's broad back, appreciative of her strength. There were still some apples, she knew, and Argo was not fussy about the occasional worm.
"Gabrielle," she called, nudging the bard's foot with her own as she went by. "You'll sleep your life away." Then: why not, she asked herself? Tartarus isn't anyone's first choice for a life. But the compact figure stirred, yawned and stretched, her back against the oak which had sheltered her from the sun. "Where's the fire, Xena? I don't think much of your idea of a holiday."
Xena pulled four apples from the sack of food which hung suspended from a branch, out of the reach of most predators. "Apple?" she called, and tossed one after the other in the air, juggling them as she walked. One flew out of the tumbling circle to land in the bard's lap.
"Now there's something really useful you could teach me, Xena," she said. Xena's lips curled in a mischievous grin. "The winter is long, my bard."
"I jest, Xena," she said desperately, but a faint jiggle of metal, as on a harness, had captured the attention of both. Xena's weapons were in easy reach, and she discarded the apples to toss herself in the air to fetch them. She waited, and watched, ready for whatever Tartarus had in store, and Gabrielle watched her, ready to follow any command.
Gabrielle was sure the sweat-begrimed face betrayed the shock of recognition when the man and his team of oxen came into view. He walked behind, directing them with tugs on the reins, and soft clicking noises with his tongue. A load of trimmed wood was dragged in the wake of the oxen, secured by a stout chain. Without a word, or a glance toward the warrior or the bard, the man released the lumber from the chain and left it lying next to Xena's product. He straightened and looked her in the eye. A bushy beard grew to meet his long, matted hair, together, they obscured his face, but for the eyes. Those twinkled as he took in the site. His gaze lingered for a long time on Gabrielle, as if committing her to memory. No one moved for a long moment, then he advanced on the little hovel and poked his head inside. After a second, he disappeared. Gabrielle half rose, but a motion from Xena urged her to stillness. He emerged with a sheepskin in hand, and held it before him, speculatively. Xena nodded.
Gabrielle watched the silent exchange, bewildered. Xena could have equaled the load of lumber with a full days work, and the sheepskin had a significance. As the oxen move away without their load she crossed quietly to Xena, who watched his departure. "What was that all about? Why did you let him just take the sheepskin? We didn't need his wood. Do you know him from before?"
"It wasn't just the wood, Gabrielle," although one, large, misshapen piece had caught her eye. She tore her look away from the man. "And, yes, I know him. Hekatore. He was with my army. A valuable member."
"He doesn't seem much like a warrior."
"He wasn't. He's a blood-stopper."
"Blood stopper? I don't know what that is? A healer?"
"No," Xena paused, eyes narrowed in concentration as she sought the right words. "He just stops bleeding. I don't know how he does it, he doesn't use stitching; he doesn't cauterize. Just looks at you. Or touches you, and the bleeding stops. He doesn't even have to be in your presence. Very strange. But it works. I'm living proof."
Gabrielle's eyes asked the question.
"My army looted a village." Gods, how many times have I started a tale from my past that way? "There was no real resistance, but one of the villagers got bold with a pitchfork. He threw the damn thing, and one prong pierced me here. Freaky thing. Lucky." She pointed to a place mid-chest. Her eyes lost their focus for a moment. Guess he wasn't really lucky. He had been gutted on the spot. "Anyway, it wasn't a large wound, but it was deep; nicked my liver. I was bleeding inside. It wasn't apparent to everyone, but it wouldn't stop. I knew I was dying." A chill touched Gabrielle, and she put a hand on Xena's arm, late comfort for a hard moment. Xena smiled, wondering at the gift she'd received, undeserving. "When will you ever get tired of these stories?"
"When you don't need to tell them anymore."
She took a breath, and continued. "I could feel the life-force leaving me, faster every hour. You'd think I'd lighten up at a moment like that, find a bit of mercy in my soul. Instead I determined to make the village pay. How dare they defend themselves?" she asked, self-mockingly. "I ordered every third man to be rounded up and held in a small shed; if I died, they'd die with me: my pyre." Gabrielle's gaze was unflinching, seeing the worst, and beyond. She found her voice. "Then Hekatore saved you?" she asked wanting the dreadful story to end.
"Hekatore was from that village. He wasn't slated to die. He stepped forward and offered his services to save me if I let the others live." She pictured him still, standing solemnly over her, passing his hand lightly over her bare torso, and stepping back. Her lieutenant had cuffed him, certain he'd been mocking the Warrior Princess with his offer. Xena knew he had already done his work. She had risen with an effort to defend him, and thank him.
"He did his work," she said simply.
"So just now, you were paying a favor?"
"No," Xena shook her head. "He was well paid for that. The others were released. When we left, the next day, he begged to come with us."
"He was an outcast in his own village, Gabrielle," she explained. "His power made him different. He wanted to get away, and my army was his vehicle." Not the first person to follow me out of town, she mused, or the last.
"I guess he'd be handy after a battle," the bard concluded.
"He could be."
"So, is he a mystic? A holy man? Does he get his power from some god?"
"I doubt if he knows. He's certainly no holy man. He doesn't use his powers for everyone. He picks and chooses. He stopped the blood of my soldiers because it was his job. He'd turn his back on everyone else if it suited him." She moistened her lips. "He stopped the blood of one of my lieutenants, who'd been sliced with a battle axe. The man scoffed; said Hekatore hadn't done anything.
Hekatore was on the other side of the camp when he heard of the comment. He said 'All right. I've done nothing'. The bleeding started again at that moment. The doubter was dead in minutes. After that the men turned against him. He soon left camp. I don't think he's got anything against me," she said searching her memory. Today's visit had been reassuring on that point. "His good will is worth far more than a sheepskin."
Gabrielle pulled a face. "Xena, your mother gave you that sheepskin the last time you were home."
"I know that."
The bard gestured, as if unwilling to state the obvious. "I forget you aren't a sentimentalist, Xena. I'm just thinking that it's not as if she'll ever give you - "
"Gabrielle." Xena stopped her firmly. "No one can carry away the important things my mother gave me; I can't give that treasure away. At times, I've turned my back on those things, but " Her voice trailed off, as she realized the impossibility of putting it all in words. "Let's just say, I don't accumulate a lot of stuff anymore. I've seen - I've caused, too much destruction to put a lot of store in things."
"I guess I know that, Xena. The truth is, I hate to see it go. One more thing of the outside, gone."
The outside. More precious, more distant everyday to the bard. She'll regret this choice soon, Xena decided. Too soon. Silently, she put an arm around her shoulders. Gabrielle wrapped an arm around her waist, and they stood in companionable silence for a while.
"I wonder why he's here?" Gabrielle asked at last.
"Who knows. I get the feeling if I stood in one spot long enough here, everyone one I've ever known would drop by for a visit."
"It's your magnetic personality, Xena. I doubt if I'll meet any of my friends
here," she mused, with a hint of regret.
"I didn't say they'd all be friends, Gabrielle. Still, I'm sure you're right. Your friends wouldn't be conversant in the deadlier skills that land people here." There was an edge in Xena's voice she didn't intend, and Gabrielle looked at her askance, wondering where it came from. Maybe it was Hekatore.
"I'm going to set snares. Get your staff," she commanded. "you may as well begin to learn this." Gabrielle knew that Xena set snares, knew she'd eaten countless rabbits from those snares. She also knew she didn't want to set snares. Or check them for game. But the warrior was waiting, cord in hand, and there was no easy way out of this. Turnabout, however, was fair play. "Coming, Xena."
"The gods must love rabbit, Gabrielle, they made them so plentiful." Xena had mellowed over the course of a few hours. Gabrielle took much of the credit. She'd been a willing and apt student, setting snares with skill, after a few disasters and lengths of cord ruinously tangled. And why not? She had been planning her own course of study while they trudged through the forest. The unsuspecting warrior smiled; the bard smiled in return. The plump hare was skinned and gutted.
"How do you want him, Gabrielle? Quartered? Or is he to be spitted whole?" The sharp knife Xena used for such chores was poised for action.
"Whatever you like, Xena. Do you want to roast, or stew?"
"Hmmm? Do I? What are you talking about?" she asked, suddenly uneasy.
"Didn't I tell you? You're cooking tonight."
Xena laughed heartily. "Good one, Gabrielle. Now get serious, I'm hungry."
"Oh, I'm serious, Warrior Princess. You are cooking tonight."
"Gabrielle, I don't cook."
"Well, Xena, it's time you learned. Don't worry. I'll be there to guide your first, pathetic efforts."
The knife was lowered, slowly, to the tree stump that served as her cutting board. "No. I don't cook, Gabrielle, so let's make sense here. We are hungry, we have the good fortune to have food available." She held up the rabbit by a leg. "We have two choices: We play games and go hungry, or you cook and we eat."
"There is another choice, Xena. You drop the attitude and learn to cook."
"Attitude?" she hissed. Without letting go of the rabbit her hands moved to her hips and rested there, while she eyed the bard dangerously.
"You heard me: attitude. 'I can't cook'. Whining is so unattractive in a warrior."
Whining? The bard was pushing all the right buttons, and they both knew it. "You've tasted my results, Gabrielle. I don't recall many compliments for my efforts."
"Efforts? That word suggests some reasonable attempt to achieve a satisfactory outcome.
In those terms, I dont recall any 'efforts'. I do recall some moments you spent before a fire incinerating what might have been succulent meat under other circumstances. Burnt or raw. Rubbed with pepper until your mouth blisters, or so bland I think I'm munching on a scroll."
"You proved my point beautifully," Xena retorted. "I can't cook."
"You dont want to cook, because its not a warrior skill. It belongs to the realm of the rest of us, the non-warriors. Isn't that right?"
Xena snorted softly, and shook her head, a sarcastic smile not quite bold enough to appear on her face. "That's ridiculous."
"No; I think it's dead-on. You divide the world into two groups, warriors, and everybody else. There are the skills of a warrior, and the skills of the rest of the human population. I think you don't have much respect for cooking," the bard continued, "it's beneath you."
Xena rebelled at the notion. "You think I have no respect for your skills?"
"Not quite. You respect my skills as things I can do, talents I have. You don't value them as highly as you do the warrior arts."
"The deadly arts," Xena suggested.
"Yeah," Gabrielle said, wondering why that sounded familiar.
"And you respect the warrior arts?" Xena challenged.
"As you practice them, now? Yes, I do. You are an extraordinary warrior, creative,
graceful; fluid energy." She risked a small smile. "Do you remember how I
aspired to be like you?" Xena nodded slowly, and smiled at the still-fresh image of
the young, very young girl who'd tagged along, playing at warrior. "I don't have
those skills, Xena. I could never develop them to be a real warrior, let alone rival you.
You're in a class of your own. And I don't want that any more. But yes, I do respect your
skills; you must know that. You, though, would never aspire to mine."
"Gabrielle, I could never be a bard, any more than you could be a warrior," Xena said flatly. "It doesnt mean I don't respect your skills."
"You have never respected cooking," she accused. "Much as you like good food. When you were a kid your mother couldn't keep you in the kitchen. She told me." Her tone was deadly earnest.
"That's right," Xena said defiantly. "I didn't like kitchen work then, I don't like cooking, and I'm not about to waste my time learning to cook."
"If I have to learn to hunt, you have to learn to cook." The bard was adamant. The warrior was logical: "Gabrielle, cooking isn't a matter of survival."
"Xena, if I wasn't here, what kind of food would you eat?"
Xena scowled. "Don't talk like that."
Oh?" Gabrielle asked, lips twisted in a sardonic smile. "I can contemplate how I'd survive without you, but it doesn't work the other way?"
Xena released the rabbit, letting it fall on the stump. One leg was almost twisted off. She sat heavily on a log. "I'd eat."
"So, I'm pretty dispensable, as far as survival goes. You'd still eat."
Survive without you? Xena scuffed the ground with the toe of her boot. "I didn't say I'd enjoy it."
"So, my skills matter?"
"Of course they do." Gabrielle looked for the muscles in her jaw to clench; they did, and the characteristic twitch of the right jaw muscles was visible even at this distance. The warrior was on the point of something, explosion, surrender, or retreat.
"You heard me. Why?" She shrugged. "What purpose do my talents serve?" This was a hard one, and Gabrielle waited, giving the warrior plenty of time to frame an answer, wondering what it might be.
After a long time, she had an answer; she relaxed her throat with an effort, so she could say the words. Surrender: "Sometimes it's only been you that's made life bearable. You have a gentling effect, Gabrielle. I don't frighten myself nearly as much as I used to." Her words were quiet, heartfelt, yet her eyes were gem-like in their hardness, defying Gabrielle to look deeper. A very difficult surrender, Gabrielle realized with appreciation.
Shetook six purposeful steps, held out a hand to the warrior, and coaxed her to her feet. "I want you to enjoy life, Xena. I don't want to think of you eating that stuff you cook." She encircled the warrior's waist with a fierce hug. "I know what foods you like, and how you like them cooked. You get enjoyment from food, Xena. If I wasn't here," she moved a hand to Xena's face, and cupped her cheek, " I'd like to know you could have that much, some gift I'd leave you."
"If you weren't here, it would make no difference what I ate, Gabrielle."
"Then humor me, warrior, because it might not make a difference to you, but it's important to me."
"My learning to cook is that important?"
A nice start, the bard thought, but only said: "Every bit as important as my learning to use a bow, or set snares - "
"All right. I'll try."
"Really try, not just pretend?"
"I said I'll try," she said peevishly.
"And be gracious about it?" Gabrielle stepped back to watch Xena's face.
"Don't push it, Gabrielle," she warned. "And don't expect great results."
"We'll see." She turned her head quickly to hide her satisfaction. "Let's get started."
"Pay attention!" Xena's head snapped up at the bard's command. She was kneeling at the tree stump; Gabrielle stood to one side, hands folded across her chest.
"Gabrielle, I've seen plenty of rabbits, I've killed and butchered most of the rabbits we've eaten." Her lips curled in condescension.
"If you feel the need to remind me of your role in putting food in our pot, Xena, consider it noted. Now, be quiet and remember who's in charge of this lesson." She pointed at the rabbit on the stump in front of Xena. "This is a rabbit. Potential food. Notice that it is not enormous, and doesn't need to cook forever. Tonight, we'll have it stewed." Xena sighed; stewing was more work than spit-roasting.
"I thought I was deciding this? I'm the cook, right?"
"I've reconsidered;" Gabrielle told her sharply. "As you pointed out, you're not a cook. You're barely competent to boil water. Cooks-in-training don't make decisions. They do as they're told." Her eyes challenged Xena to argue. The warrior was sorely tempted, but it would only mean more talk; better to get it over with. She bit back her retort and returned Gabrielle's stare, lips pursed. "Arrogance doesn't become a cook-in-training." If I ever looked at my mother that way all of Potadeia would have heard the wooden spoon land on my backside, she mused. "I think you have some role confusion going on." She moved behind her and unclasped her breastplate before Xena could frame an objection. "Student cooks don't need breastplates." Her breath on Xena's neck sent a shiver down the warrior's spine. Gabrielle tossed the bracer aside. "Or these." She lifted the warrior's arms overhead, one at a time, and stripped off the bracers, tossing them onto the breastplate. "Now," she placed her hands on Xena's shoulders, and kneaded them firmly; "try to remember this: I'm in charge here, this is my territory, and you are the novice. Try cultivating humility and obedience for a change." Xena cast a sideways glance at the bard, wondering at this new air of command.
"Understood?" Her hands stilled; Xena's head nodded. "Understood," she echoed.
"Good. Let's start again. First, look at the rabbit."
The poor rodent had been examined through a cook's eyes, expertly hacked into serving portions by the novice, rubbed with herbs, and consigned to an iron pot. Now it was time for the vegetables. Gabrielle produced a bag of the bounty she'd harvested while setting snares. To be honest, she hadn't gathered the goods unaided; Xena had a singular knack for spotting, or smelling, edibles. The wild parsnips had been her find, as were the boletus mushrooms. And the celeriac. The carrots were from Hermia. "Flavor and color," she said tersely, "they make any dish more interesting, but you have to be careful. Leave the pieces too large, and they cook too slowly to flavor the broth; too small and they disintegrate before the meat is cooked."
Xena nodded her understanding. She'd learned it was much better to show interest and acceptance than to debate, or, gods forbid, suggest the teacher was telling her something anyone who'd ever eaten a meal already knew. As for questions, they were the trickiest part of all. She recalled the first one: "Gabrielle, why am I trimming so much fat? It gives - "
"Oh, really? You know better than I do, novice?" she'd snapped. "When I want your advice, I'll ask for it; don't hold your breath."
But later, when she wanted questions: 'No questions? You obviously aren't taking this seriously.'
Damn, this cooking stuff was hard. Xena had a headache, she was hungry, and supper was still a long ways away. Apart from that she hadn't yet figured out this new game of Gabrielle's. She wondered if she appeared to be this bossy to the bard; decided that couldn't be the case. The comely blonde certainly liked giving orders; more puzzling to the warrior was why she was so willing to obey them. Had anyone else spoken to her this way, she would have committed mayhem. The situation was certainly intriguing, and a little exciting, particularly when Gabrielle looked over her shoulder to supervise, head so close to the warrior Xena could hear her exhale, feel her breath in her ear. At those moments she would have gladly obeyed any command. She felt her lips twist in a self-mocking smile, and froze as she knew Gabrielle had caught the look.
"Something funny, Xena?" she asked pointedly. Xena was silent, suddenly curious as to how far the bard might carry this.
"I was just thinking "
"I'll tell you when you've earned the right to think." The familiar voice had a new timbre, Xena closed her eyes and heard the words again, echoing in a quiet place. "Humility is hard for you."
Humility. Xena's mind reeled, pulling up a memory humility was hard. Is hard.
"Cut the vegetables, wash them, and don't take all night." Strong fingers gripped Xena's chin, and craned her neck up to see the teacher's face as she said: "Do well; I'll be watching."
Xena cut carefully, no longer than her thumb, and half as wide, for the carrots and parsnips; she sliced the mushrooms, as instructed. The eyes of the bard were on her every move. She put the lot in a bowl of spring water, waiting for that purpose, and swished them gently in the water, before pouring off the debris. Idly, she popped a strip of carrot in her mouth; before the first crunch she felt the sting of the wooden spoon on the back of her hand. "No snitching - " Gabrielle began, but her words were cut short as Xena's hand twisted to seize the bard's wrist in a painful grip. As the spoon fell from her powerless finger's Gabrielle's eyes widened in terror. She had gone too far.
"Don't - ever - do - that," Xena rasped, even as she saw fear in the green eyes and knew she was the cause. Her hand opened, and Gabrielle pulled her own hand from the warrior's reach; she started to edge away, but she saw something in Xena's face, before her head dropped in remorse. "I'm sorry," came from the warrior's lips; she looked around, as if her gaze was unable to settle anywhere; then it found rest on the bowl of vegetables, and she returned to her task. "Almost finished," she said, dry mouthed, "but you should know better, Gabrielle."
"I do, Xena. I'm sorry."
"No," Xena decided, and shook her head. "We were playing by different rules; I knew that, I let you think it would be okay. And it was," she admitted. Gabrielle listened for a moment, unsure of what Xena was saying. It was okay? She wanted the game to continue? She seemed to indicate that, by her actions alone. She was focused on the vegetables, as if awaiting further instructions. Gabrielle swallowed the remnants of her fear. There could be nothing tentative about this. As if nothing had happened, she said: "The rabbit won't wait forever; get those into the pot." Xena rose without a word, did as instructed, then waited again, wondering if the game was over. It wasn't; not quite. "Come here, novice," Gabrielle ordered; Xena obeyed, watching the bard carefully for any hint of her intentions. "You're a poor student, Xena," she began harshly. "Proud, vain, arrogant." Her voice took on a different tone. "But I think you're worth the trouble." She took Xena's hand and examined the red spot just below the knuckles. I forgot how hard a wooden spoon can be, she acknowledged. She brought the hand to her mouth and kissed it tenderly. Xena responded, working her free hand into the bard's golden hair, drawing her mouth close for a lingering kiss. Then Gabrielle pulled away. "This is still my domain, Xena," she said firmly, and grasped Xena's wrists, pulling them down, pinning them behind her back. "And I'm still the teacher. You just do as you're told."
The stew had been tasty, not up to Gabrielle's standard, and that puzzled the bard: she'd supervised every step, yet it still carried the unmistakable trademark chewiness of the warrior-cook. Must have been an old, well-muscled rabbit, she concluded, and looked across the fire to the dark haired woman. Xena had eaten little; said barely two words, and her gaze now was so cold it threatened to extinguish the fire. Yet the passion they'd shared that afternoon had been so consuming Gabrielle had been certain everything was all right between them. A shudder of concern wracked her body.
Xena looked up, attuned to the well-being of her bard. "Are you cold?" she asked, and Gabrielle was startled that she'd noticed. "No; not yet. The wind hasn't quite picked-up." A pause. "I could use some company," she invited, patting the log beside her.
Xena lifted her long frame and joined Gabrielle, sitting close enough for the bard to take her arm, and rest a soft cheek on the warrior's shoulder. "About this afternoon, Xena " she began, and paused, uncertain how to proceed. Xena was no help. "I don't know why I did that," she admitted.
"I do," the warrior said. "This wasn't about cooking. You think I need to learn humility."
"But I wouldn't presume to give you that lesson," Gabrielle objected. Xena noted that she didn't deny it.
"Ah, but you did presume, Gabrielle," Xena said quietly. "You aren't the first," she confided. "You are the first to have any success." Gabrielle felt the hard swallow before Xena continued. "I have been a student all my life, Gabrielle, of one thing or another. I never turned down the chance to learn anything useful. A new way to kill, a new way to stay alive. Those skills of mine? I learned them all somewhere. Always on my own terms, of course," she emphasized. "The lesson I've managed to avoid is the one in humility. Maybe it's the one I need most of all." Silence. "And maybe you're the only one I trust enough to teach me."
"Trust? Still? Xena, I've hurt you so - " She was not thinking of the spoon.
"I didn't say you can't hurt me. We give each other that power." She went no further. "I trust you to love me."
Gabrielle's heart swelled; Gods. She would go to bed loving Tartarus.
The stars were in full array. They'll be looking at the same sky in Amazonia, Amphipolis, Potadeia, Xena marveled. The bard stirred in that familiar way she settled before sleep. "Hey. Time to go inside, Gabrielle," she said softly. "And uh, just so you know: I'm not cooking tomorrow."
Gabrielle woke, heart pounding, listening to wolves outside the wattle hut. It was still dark, and she wondered why Xena was not yet moved to action. She spoke into her ear: "Xena?" then sat up. The warrior didn’t stir, but growled a sleepy "Hmmm?" in reply.
"Xena, something’s outside. Wolves."
Xena sat up, eyes still closed, her head inches from the low ceiling. Gabrielle couldn't make out her features in the dark. She listened for a moment, yawned mightily, and lay back on the layer of skins. "Only the wind. Go back to sleep."
Wind? Gabrielle was certain she was wrong, but Xena was never wrong about such things. What had she said about listening? She remained still and heard the sharp howling, remembered the winter night a pack of wolves had ventured near Potadeia. Her father had joined the men of the village on a foray to light bonfires to keep the wolves at bay. Still, she had been frightened, huddled up with Lilla in the room they shared, listening for wolves until near dawn. They had never returned, but lived on in the edges of Gabrielle's imagination. If there were wolves outside, they would be hard to see in the dark. She wondered if they could - or would rip through the little dwelling, which suddenly seemed flimsy. But Xena would not leave Argo to contend with wolves, and she would have known - A furious crash slammed the wall at her back, and her fingers clenched in Xena's hair. "Ow!"
"Xena, that can't be wind," she insisted.
"Gabrielle, let go of my hair," she seethed, and the bard loosened her
fingers, bringing a few dark strands away with her. "Yeah. You know, I think you
may be right. Wolves," she said grimly. "We'd better go to sleep before they
hear us." She grinned in the dark, at the long silence, waiting for the bard's
next question. It didn't come. Instead there was a small shuddering sound, shaky
exhalations. She felt a warm thigh against her, and didn't imagine the shiver
she felt there. "Gabrielle," she said, her quiet voice a jarring sound in the
silence that filled the hut. "I'm joking." Outside the wind continued to wail.
Like banshees. She sat up again. There was no need to grope in the dark for the
other woman, there was no place she was not within reach. Her touch shocked the
tense flesh, and an involuntary tremor passed through Gabrielle. Gods, Xena
thought with remorse. Some joke.
"Gabrielle," she said firmly, anxious to be heard, "There are no wolves; the noise is just the wind." Gabrielle seemed so small sometimes, so young. Xena wrapped her in the wooly blanket, still warm from their body heat, and held her across her lap, stroking her hair with long fingers, until she was still.
"Sorry," came the soft murmur, I don't know why - "
"It's all right, Gabrielle," she soothed. "I shouldn't have joked about it. I had no idea you were so afraid of wolves. We've come against them more than once." And a lot worse she thought. She put a smile in her voice, hoping to hear it echoed by the bard.
"I'm not afraid of them; not like this," Gabrielle protested.
"You're afraid of something," Xena said with certainty. "I know this place shakes when a good blast hits it, but we're in no danger here." Not from the wind. "The other hill serves as a wind break, and this thing is so low to the ground it doesn't catch the worst of it. I won't let you blow away." She tightened her grip to demonstrate her holding ability. She felt Gabrielle relax a little, but the same misery was in her voice as she ordered her thoughts and spoke again.
"The wind never stops for long, Xena. Now always howling, but always blowing. Just gets on my nerves." She breathed something between a sigh and a yawn. "I guess I'll get used to it. Not much choice really, we can't make it stop, and we can't leave," she said with finality.
You don't get used to things like that, Xena knew. You dealt with it, maybe, or it took up residence in your soul until it drove you mad, or chafed at your nerves until it evoked some howl in response. "You know any stories about the winds?" Xena asked. That would take her mind off things, anyway.
"None I could bear to tell now," she replied, then hesitated. "I'd rather hear a song."
Xena smiled to herself, surprisingly pleased to have been asked. Gabrielle was clearly expecting a refusal; she wouldn't get it. Instead, Xena settled her bard comfortably, took a breath and drowned the terrors of the night.
"Xena. About last night, I wanted to say that - "
"You needn't say anything," the warrior said above her bowl of warmed over stew. They ate inside the little hovel, in deference to a nip in the air which refused to leave even in the presence of the sun. A smoky oil lamp cast deep shadows around them. "I've had my share of night terrors," she reminded her friend. "And you, more often then not, helped morning come a lot faster.
"True," the blonde head, nodded in slow agreement. "You haven't had a nightmare - "
"Since Prestia," Xena supplied. Since the night I followed Jalani's instructions to see it through to the end, she recalled. Jalani. The Amazon dream-reader seemed very close at that moment. Xena wished she was with them; she had much wisdom to share. "I miss Jalani," she said aloud, not quite aware of her intention until it was out. She looked at the Amazon Queen in the half-light of the hut. She was wrapped in a blanket, and looked very small, hair disheveled, face smudged with a bit of gravy that escaped a corner of her mouth. A wave of affection washed over the warrior, catching her off-guard, and her face softened, to one of those rare expressions which Gabrielle prized. She had a horde of such memories, always unexpected, always brief. The moment had already passed, but the warrior retained a wistful smile, and spoke again of Jalani. "She helped me find my way back to you," she told the bard, although Gabrielle already knew Jalani's role in that. Helped me stop throwing happiness away with both hands.
"Yeah, us Amazons are special women," Gabrielle confided, with a pleased grin, then grew serious. "They'll be starting their harvest; I wonder if the new planting scheme worked out as well as they hoped?"
"The crops were looking good last time we were there." 'Last time': the phrase had a new significance. "They should have a more bountiful granary than ever." Lots better than Hermia's poor yield. Xena knew Hermia would be a source of bread, but she couldn't barter away what she didn't have. "We'll check the snares after breakfast, Gabrielle." She said abruptly. "Don't want any needless suffering."
"Sure," Gabrielle rejoined, puzzled by the sudden change in direction. " I wouldn't mind letting the rabbits go today; I'm ready for a change of diet," she confessed. "Not that your stew isn't delicious," she added hastily.
The blue eyes had a way of looking off in the distance to see things
Gabrielle couldn't guess at. They went away now, seeing enough of the world to
let her lace her boots and fish out chunks of food from her bowl, but distant
enough to cause the bard to fall into silence.
"We won't have much change in diet, Gabrielle, not if we rely on what's here. Small game, fish, venison. There must be boar; that would be a nice change." She wouldn't take Gabrielle to hunt boar; wondered if she could ever leave her safely alone. "What's his name? Ikar? Forages throughout Tartarus for whatever's available? I wonder what he could provide, for reasonable return?" Gabrielle didn't respond; she felt that would be like horning in on a private conversation. "Of course, I guess rabbits and venison are pretty easy to get; surprised Hermia was so happy to have ours. Do you get the sense she did without prior to the harvest so she'd have enough to feed her workers?"
Gabrielle hadn't though about it; she did now, and recalled Xena's words: everything had a price; they wouldn't work for free.
"I guess I should dig the root cellar before I finish the house," the deep voice went on, "then we can cache away whatever we find. There are walnut trees," she nodded with approval. "And we'll begin to dry meat, and smoke it; fish, too." She looked at Gabrielle suddenly. "We won't starve, I promise, but there won't be much variety," she apologized.
She was back in the moment, and her eyes held that worry which no longer surprised Gabrielle. What can I offer here that's worth anything, she wondered. Protection? I choose not to trade on my warrior skills, so what do I have to offer? That was a confounding thought, and she scowled.
"Xena, forget about the variety; you know I'm a spoiled brat sometimes."
"Never that, Gabrielle. You've put up with more hard times…Without a murmur of complaint." The green eyes were lovely; with a pang Xena looked away. I can never make this up to her, all the time in the world and no means, no possible way…
"This isn't getting our house built." She placed her bowl aside, picked up her sheathed sword, hung the chakram from her belt and made the awkward exit the hut required. Gabrielle followed, wishing she'd never mentioned the rabbits.
Xena had let all the rabbits go, and not re-laid the snares. "We'll leave them for another day," she reasoned, and asked Gabrielle if she preferred fish or fowl. Fish settled on, they turned together to the task of home-building.
It was simple enough, with the tools she'd borrowed from Hermia, Xena said, to put up a frame, weave wattle around the frame in sections, and ultimately pack the wattle with the clay-like soil found in sections of Tartarus. Gabrielle wondered how easy constructing the frame would be; the pieces of timber Xena had trimmed seemed massive. Lifting them into position wouldn't be easy. She said as much to Xena. "We'll manage," she'd grinned.
Three days later Gabrielle conceded that Xena had so far she seemed to be right; even her use of ‘we’ was accurate. Although the broad shoulders, well-muscled, slick with perspiration, bore the weight of the beams, the nimble fingers of the bard fitted the pegs into the pre-drilled holes to join the beams together. Now Gabrielle understood Xena’s obsessive interest in whittling since they’d been in Tartarus. Xena’s back was to her, stooped under the weight of what was to be the first cross beam in place. This would be the last for the day, Xena had assured her, but she was anxious to see if her understanding of how a roof was supported made sense before the whole thing was in place. The evening wind would be a good test of the frame. She waited for Gabrielle to climb into place to insert the pegs, breathing through the pain which burned her muscles. Gabrielle climbed up the beam carefully, her feet finding the wooden slats Xena had affixed there to serve as steps.
"Xena, the peg-holes aren’t quite aligned; can you raise it another two inches?" She took the answering grunt to be a ‘yes,’ and waited, pegs poised while Xena straightened a bit, shifted the beam so that it was gripped in her large hands, and the beam was lifted into place. Gabrielle fastened one side, scrambled down the beam and up the one opposite. As the last pegs were pushed into place Xena felt the weight move off her shoulders. She sighed, and craned her neck to examine their handiwork. "Nice work, Gabrielle. Kind of hard to be a cynic when things start to come together, huh?"
"Xena, I never doubted you," she told her.
"Us, my friend, us. I couldn’t have done this without you." She waited for the bard’s answering smile, but it was accompanied by a comment: "Xena, you did most of this. The lumber, the pegs, the post-holes: all your work. I just – "
"Made it all hold together." She regarded the frame with satisfaction. This will work, she knew, astonished at the speed with which it was coming together. We did this; just the two of us. "And don't you forget it." She arched her shoulders, working the stiffness from them. "We have enough light to clean up in the stream." She lifted an eyebrow, but Gabrielle was absorbed with her finger, sucking and squeezing the tip.
"Sliver?" Xena guessed. Without another word she put the bard's finger in her own mouth, feeling with her tongue the end of a splinter. She ignored Gabrielle's whimper, sucked firmly, finally grasped it with her teeth and pulled it out. "All better."
"It is. Thanks," the bard said, examining the small hole that remained.
"Entirely selfish on my part Gabrielle. You couldn't massage the soreness from my shoulders with that in your finger. Let's move now; we'll freeze before we dry out if we wait for sundown."
Xena sat on the bank of the quiet stream, well pleased with the day, content to let the last rays of sun touch her body, while she watched Gabrielle paddle slowly in the natural pool which formed at the bend. "Let me massage you now," Gabrielle had suggested, waist deep in the water. "No." Xena had pulled the arms away. "I want warmth, and comfort and the taste of your body with it," she'd told her. "First, we'll steam the place up with hot stones placed in water. Then you'll hot-soak towels and lay them on my shoulders, and knead the muscles until the tension is gone."
"Then?" the bard inquired a curious smile on her lips.
"Then I'll do the same for you, hot moist towels wherever you like, my fingers wherever you need them," she'd breathed. That had been inducement for a quick scrub.
Her head cocked to one side, as a familiar sound touched her ear. Nightingale. It began its song at the same time each day. Odd to be in one place long enough to be familiar with the birds, yet she knew the trees he favored, knew the branch he was perched on now. She opened her mouth to alert Gabrielle to the sound, but Argo whinnied, and she grabbed her weapons instead, giving scant attention to the fact that she was still naked. "Gabrielle, we've got company," she said, certain of Argo's intention. She didn't hear the nightingale now, was attuned only to the sounds of Gabrielle exiting the water, and the soft scuffing noises she heard in the grass. Two people, approaching slowly, not caring if they made noise. She began to relax, even before she saw them, then her vigilance was replaced by annoyance. Lutus. Arthea. She grabbed her battledress and slipped into it before they spied her. She glanced at Gabrielle, happy to see that she, too had dressed. She somehow hated the idea of Arthea coming upon them while they were undressed. She had no time to think about that, they were ambling down the hill, casting angry looks at each other, eyeing the site carefully, paying special attention to the fire Xena had already built.
"Xena." Arthea's voice held genuine pleasure. She waved a hand to hurry Lutus along; he seemed to be limping. Xena made no reply, but Gabrielle was already walking past her, greeting Arthea warmly.
"It's good to see you." She thought Arthea looked more haggard than she had even a few days before. "You found our little place with no trouble?"
"Your directions were very good."
Directions? Xena's eyes flashed at the back of Gabrielle's head. Was this visit due to an invitation?
"We would have been here sooner, but Lutus has a bad sore on his foot." She jerked a thumb back at the sullen man. "Hope we haven't come at a bad time."
"Afraid so," Xena spoke for the first time. "We've had a long day." And there's no supper for you if that's what you're looking for.
She turned to Xena now, ready to face the warrior, armed with a small sack. "We found these on the way. Food is always welcome here," she said knowingly as she offered the sack. Xena remained still. After a moment Gabrielle stepped forward to accept the sack. She peered inside at a few apples, and showed them to Xena. Surely she couldn't think of them as tribute. They were few, and from the looks of them mostly rotten, inedible. For this we owe them supper, Xena thought, rolling her eyes and swearing fervently to herself. "Shouldn't have," she drawled.
"It's very sweet of you both," Gabrielle said, avoiding Xena's gaze. "Won't you join us for supper? It's only fish, as soon as Xena catches them, but you're welcome." Xena turned back to the stream to catch the fish. She couldn't bear to hear Arthea let Gabrielle coax her into staying.
Xena was silent throughout the meal, listening to a steady recital of woes and injustices heaped on Lutus and Arthea. Nothing worked for them, alone or as a pair. She wondered why they stayed together. With the disproportionate numbers of men to women in Tartarus, Xena was certain Arthea could find a better provider than Lutus. She had lost weight, the rosy blush in her cheeks was gone, but she was still attractive, with smoky eyes and a hint of fire in her voice that caught you off guard. She didn't have a hard time remembering her initial attraction to the woman. She swallowed and focused on the chatter.
"What did you do before you came here, Lutus," she finally blurted out,
hardly aware that she'd cut Arthea off in mid-sentence. All three looked at her.
"I mean, maybe you can find better way of supporting yourself," than looking for
handouts, she left unsaid.
"I was a butcher. Had a little shop of my own," he said with pride.
"And?" she prodded.
He ducked his head, and looked at her through pig-eyes.
"He got drunk and sliced a man who was cheating him at dies," Arthea supplied. "That could be excused, maybe. Worse part is, he carved him up and sold him over the counter." She laughed.
Gabrielle sputtered in disgust; her last mouthful of food was projected from her mouth to land on Xena's boots.
"Just wanted to know," the warrior said evenly, as she wiped her boots with a bit of grass.
"So you could go from farm to farm during slaughtering season doing the farmers a service? Or apply for a place in the household of the overlord? I here he's accumulated a fair number of livestock."
He clearly didn't like the suggestions. "I don't have my tools," he pointed out. "Besides, I'm not meant for itinerant trade." He held up a shoeless foot and began to unwrap a filthy piece of his tunic to reveal a large, dripping wound on his right heel. For a second time Gabrielle was unable to conceal her revulsion. "Excuse me," she said, and made a hasty exit.
"Not when we're eating, lout," Arthea scolded him, and smacked him with the back of her hand. She looked at Xena apologetically, laid a hand on her arm, caught the warrior's eye, and removed the hand quickly. "He was hoping maybe you'd have a look."
Xena nodded, resigned from the first moment to dealing with this wound. This one wouldn't be free. "All right. I'll need water." She lifted the large pot from its place at the edge of the fire. "Fill this, then collect more wood for the fire. We'll need to get it good and hot. Then I'll need strips of cloth, from your tunic, or the sack, doesn't matter to me." She wouldn’t waste their own precious goods on this pair. "Get busy," she snapped, and Arthea scurried away.
She dealt none-too-gently with the wound, scrubbing and squeezing until the pus was gone and the blood ran freely. "You'll live," she assured him. "It'll be painful for a few days."
"Guess I should stay off it," he said hopefully.
"Suit yourself," she shrugged. "If I was you, I'd be more concerned about
finding a place to pass the winter, or food to fill my belly day-to-day."
It was not the answer he'd hoped for. Gabrielle had returned to the fire and he sought her eyes, but she looked resolutely away, understanding that Xena's words were meant for her as well.
New approach necessary, Arthea decided. "Got any work you need done?"
"Once the foot is healed, Lutus will be worth a team of oxen," she continued.
"We're doing fine, Arthea."
"You are," the woman agreed, looking with envy at the ungainly hovel, then
again at the beginnings of a house. "Should be right cozy this winter."
"I expect so," Xena agreed, nodding pleasantly. "It all takes foresight and hard work."
And skill, and talent, and strength Gabrielle considered, wondering if Xena was aware of how little some people had to work with.
"We have a lot more to do tomorrow," Xena went on, "and it's pretty dark. "You'll never get settled for the night if you don't leave now."
Gabrielle looked quickly at her, then away again. She couldn’t be serious, to send them away from the fire at this late hour, with Lutus limping as he was. Lutus and Arthea shared her feelings.
"I don't know if I can travel tonight, Xena," he ventured, ready for the rebuff. "You were pretty rough cleaning the wound; it hurts like Hades."
"I'll cut you a walking stick," she offered, and began to rise.
Gabrielle took a deep breath before the plunge: "Or maybe you could just go off a little ways, and build your fire. Then leave in the morning." She looked sideways to gauge Xena's reaction. Not good.
"Good idea," Lutus jumped at the idea. "If you could maybe help Arthea start
the fire; I'm pretty hopeless at these things."
"Why don't you do that Gabrielle," Xena put in. She stretched. "I'm kind of tired, think I'll turn in."
An eternity later Gabrielle pushed open the door to the hovel, trying to make out the interior in the pitch-black. She didn't call Xena's name; she doubted the warrior had been asleep, knew she'd awaken at her entrance in any event. If she was in the mood to talk she'd make the first sign. The second campfire burned fifty yards away, Lutus and Arthea were nestled together under a thin blanket. Gabrielle had considered supplying a second, but knew she'd already gone too far for the couple. Xena's face had been dark when she left them. She hated to know Xena's mood now, knew it had to be faced sometime, but the morning would be soon enough. She stumbled over Xena in the dark, longed to snuggle next to her, but chose instead to face the other wall, and so they lay, back-to-back for some time. At last Xena spoke: "Feeling unfriendly?" she asked.
"Me? No. I just didn't want to wake you," she explained.
"I'm not asleep."
"Oh. Good." She took that as an invitation, and turned to face the warrior, then lay her head on the bare shoulder, feeling better that way, even though they couldn't see each other. "Xena, I didn't know what else to do," she said softly.
"We don't have to talk about them," the warrior replied. Her voice was sleepy; she hadn't lied about being tired.
"I just don't understand why you reacted that way. It's inhospitable to send people away from your fire, especially people who can't care for themselves."
"Won't take care of themselves," she corrected.
"Wait a minute, Xena. We all aren't you. Not everyone is born knowing how
best to stay alive," she objected. "Would you want someone turning me
away because I was helpless?"
"You're no Arthea," Xena told her fiercely, "and I don't want you encouraging her."
"How am I different?" she inquired. "Do you hold it against Arthea that she is, or was a prostitute? She's far from being the worst criminal here, you know." She was immediately sorry, as Xena seemed to stop breathing for a long moment.
"No. That's probably my distinction," the husky voice managed at last. "Chose your own company, then." She felt her shrug. "Now let me get some sleep."
It was too quiet when Gabrielle awoke; Xena was long gone, her warmth missing, her scent only found in the soft folds of the blanket they'd shared. The smoky fumes of a damp-lit fire drifted through the wattle-weave. Gabrielle detected something else, a sweetness, in the smoke. She dressed hurriedly and examined the newly-kindled fire as she went past. A large pot of water already simmered. A mass of burned pulp adhered to one of the containing rocks. The apples.
She followed the sound of scrape and dump, scrape and dump, to a new hole in the middle of the framework for the house. Xena had been busy, for quite a while it seemed. Already she stood almost shoulder deep in the center of the hole. Gabrielle had no concern about startling her when she approached from behind.
"Thought we were finishing the frame today," she began.
"Good morning to you, " Xena replied. "I felt like a change of pace."
"Something you could work on alone?" She sat at the edge of the hole, let her feet dangle in. "I think you're carrying this a little far."
"Maybe," Xena said tersely. "Let me know when your company is gone."
"My company? You forget, Xena, I met them through you."
A massive load of earth flew out of the pit before the sweating woman spoke again. Through me? Oh yes, And a little thing like an earthquake, and a bard who doesn't know how to follow instructions. Her face was taut as she filled the shovel again.
"And who gave them 'good directions,' here?" she demanded. "Was that me? Who asked them to stay for supper? Or to spend the night?" She stopped her work and looked at the woman who seemed capable of creating every kind of emotion in her. The one she'd kindled now was new; it was a kind of anger. It scared Xena a little. She gripped the shovel and bent to work again, flinging more dirt from the hole.
"Paying a visit to Hades?" Gabrielle asked, as she surveyed the ever deepening hole.
"Might as well," Xena grunted. The bard stood to leave. The conversation seemed like a bad idea. "Gabrielle." Xena stopped her. "You'll probably be feeding Lutus and Arthea before they leave, assuming they do. I got a few grouse at dawn. Save something for me."
"You know I will, Xena," she answered, hurt at what the words implied. Then she saw the same hurt in Xena's face. This had nothing to do with breakfast leavings, everything to do with a lost evening, shoulders that missed a loving touch. She almost leaped in the pit to make up for that on the spot, then remembered how close the others were. Instead she said "Just because I'm trying to be a good neighbor it doesn't mean I'm forgetting you."
"I didn't say you were. I just know how generous you can be."
"Where I come from, that's a good thing," she said with pride, but she kept her voice light, wanting not to challenge, but to soothe.
"This isn't where you come from," Xena reminded her, then looked up, pleading in her eyes. "Let me know when they're gone. Better yet, lure them down here, I'll dump them in and cover up the hole again." She grinned wickedly; Gabrielle laughed uncertainly, wondering why it didn't seem like a joke, but hoping for anything to break Xena's foul mood. Beneath the grin, Xena wasn't laughing. She knew she'd kill to preserve what was important to her. "Now go on, get rid of them. Let me get this finished."
They were gone as soon as breakfast was over, and Gabrielle summoned Xena to the fire. One large grouse remained, still warm, smelling of herbs and wild onion.
"You haven’t washed Xena," she objected, as the warrior approached.
"Honest dirt," was the reply, but she splashed some hot water from the pot over each hand, and shook them off to dry before she seized the bird.
Gabrielle sat next to her. "Want me to dig for a while?" she asked.
"No," was the amused reply.
"Didn’t think so," she admitted, "but I’d like to do something. Any suggestions?"
The warrior chewed thoughtfully for a few moments, and washed the bird down with water before answering. "Just one: You haven’t picked up a scroll since we’ve been here."
"I mean something practical." She poked the warrior gently. "My scrolls won’t keep us warm this winter. Winter is rough here. Hermia said it’s very different than outside." She spoke casually, just sharing information, but her voice was uneasy. Clearly she wanted consolation. Xena weighed honesty against assurance, and softened her answer with a lopsided grin. "Depends what outside you’re talking about. I’ve seen some rough winters, and I’m still here."
"Xena, you survived Tartarus, I mean the real Tartarus," she pointed out, admitting that there was reassurance in that.
"Hermia survived those winters," was her retort. "We’ll be fine." She recalled the lines which etched the woman’s face. "We’ll be fine," she repeated. "There isn’t much snow, from what I hear, except in the mountains, a lot of wet, though, and it gets cold." She looked at the bard. "It’s not just the kitchen help that talks, you know. Cramma had her own thoughts on the winter. Likes it." Less chance the tribes will visit, she had said, but Xena didn’t repeat that. The pressing tribes from the eastern borders would be heard from, of that she had no doubt. No point spoiling a lovely day by speaking of it now.
"At least we’ll have less company when the weather’s bad," she said, Lutus and Arthea still on her mind.
"Yeah, less company," the bard sighed, and began to gather the debris from breakfast. Wouldn’t mind some company now, she thought, say, Hermia bringing bread.
"Xena." A deep male voice boomed; in the hovel, Gabrielle clenched her fingers around the staff. If there was trouble she wanted to be at Xena’s side, but the instructions had been clear: "Stay out of sight unless I call for you. Please." She heard Xena’s voice now, clear, low: "Nerad."
There was an extended silence; when she strained Gabrielle could hear the rustle of cloth, and the clatter of armor and wood, as if several people were moving at once. Nerad's voice came to here in a harsh, low, string of obscenities. She poked a finger through the wattle, creating an opening to peer through. A dozen soldiers were arrayed around the site, dismounted, standing alert; one struggled with a chair that Nerad had tried to sit in. It was an odd contraption, hinged at the middle, as if made for transporting. Nerad was lifting his squat body from the ground next to it, raining blows on a young boy; setting the chair had been his job. This was not the first impression he had expected to make on the Warrior Princess. He stole a glance at her as he rose. Her face was impassive, as if she had not just watched him fall on his ass.
Overlord, she thought with amused contempt. First Brascius, now this clown?
The local talent was not impressive. She recalled that he had come to power
through treachery. Seemed like the only way, yet even that would have required
some cunning. She didn't see it in his face, couldn't see enough, yet, of those
around him. Someone needed the wit to have conceived the treachery. This lot had
the surly air of outlaws, it remained to be seen how effective they were at
being more than bullies. It caused her some unease to wonder if Tartarus was
filled with inept thugs, the dregs, rather than the cream of the criminal class,
if there was such a thing. Great company I end up, in she thought sourly. It
showed in her face.
"Xena, join me." He gestured to a second folding chair which was opened beside her.
"Glad you could join me," she countered, as she sat, indicating the expanse of the site, her site.
He smiled coldly; she knew then that he was not all buffoon. "We need to speak of that Xena; you have chosen a nice piece of my property to settle on." He looked with approval at the start that had been made in making the site a home. "It needs to be paid for."
No muscles in her face moved, yet the mild expression had become something fierce, unyielding. His tone softened with his next words: "You may not be aware of the protocol in Tartarus." She wondered if he knew what the word meant. Her silence unnerved him. "This area, The Sweetwater, is under my authority. It is left to me to determine who may settle in its bounds, and under what terms." He waited in vain for a reply, then continued, too aware of the steady blue eyes boring into him. "I am honored to have you under - " he broke off, then tried again: " - in my domain. However, I would have charged a great deal for this location, say," he looked around, spied the golden warhorse grazing nearby, and shrugged, diffidently, "the horse." Still she was silent, but the eyes held a hostile glare now. "For anyone else, that is. For you," he smiled, an ingratiating, thin smile, "it is enough that you swear fealty to me." He ended, keenly aware that his men hung on her reply.
The little chair was not comfortable; the hinge had not been wisely placed. She rose lazily, and caught the movement of hands moving to hilts at the edges of her vision. Gabrielle tensed, but Xena smiled. "Your boys nervous," she asked. Then: "Walk with me. I'll show you around my place." One man moved to follow them, a sharp eyed man with a lean face. "You really need company?" she growled to Nerad.
"Stay here, Placar," he growled at his follower. Placar; he was the danger-man in this crew, she decided.
Nerad hurried along beside her, his shorter legs churning to keep pace with her longer strides.
"This land, as far as I can tell, belongs to no one, Nerad, including you. I'm here, I'm building my home here. That makes it mine, as much as anyone's." She stopped to gaze over the stream, and the mountains beyond. "I like the view; I like the water, and I love the way the sun sets right there," she pointed to the frame of the house. "I plan on being happy here." Her eyes flared dangerously. "I don't plan," she stressed, "on paying anyone for the right to be here. I certainly don't plan on - what was that? Swearing fealty to you?" She snorted her contempt. From afar it looked like a good natured laugh. "You got all that?" Her smile was broad. The men, watching at a distance did not know the threat that was in the blue eyes above those dazzling teeth. The flashing smile spoke of harmony; Nerad smiled in return, anxious to support the illusion. She treated his position with contempt, yet had concealed it from his men. He didn't understand why that was, but it suited his purpose. "Was there anything else?" she finished.
He found the courage to venture: "Xena, it's the custom to fight und - with, the Overlord in times of crisis - "
"Against the eastern tribes?"
"I'll defend my home; against the tribes, or anyone else. I'm not real good at taking orders." Her voice had dropped to a harsh whisper, and she turned to begin the walk back to the band of waiting soldiers. While she moved she continued speaking quietly to the silent Overlord at her side.
"You seem to know my reputation, Nerad." He nodded; he would be glad to follow her lead against the tribes. "That's good; saves me having to prove myself, I can just tell you how far I'll defend my home: anyone molests me, or the people I care about, is dead," she said flatly. "Not only is he dead, those who stand with him are dead. Those who stand behind him are dead." The word hammered home like nails in Nerad's coffin. "You see, Nerad," I don't want to be overlord; you can keep that title," she assured him, and his face muscles relaxed. "I don't want any trouble. You stay out of my life, I stay out of yours."
"Those, you c-c-care about?" he stammered.
"I heard you'd been followed here by - "
"A young woman," she finished for him. "Her name is Gabrielle. Anyone harms her will wish he'd died in diapers." She strode purposefully to the tent, and the eyes of every man on site followed her. Damn this hovel; she cursed the low entryway, then grabbed the cloak from a startled soldier, and held it before the doorway. She wouldn't have Gabrielle make her entrance on her hands and knees in front of this lot.
"Gabrielle," she called, and the bard, staff in hand, made an unseen entrance, on all fours. When Xena dropped the cloak she was beside her, facing the Overlord with aplomb.
"This is Gabrielle." Her eyes swept the gawking men, and the bard understood that somehow Xena had just secured her safety from them.
Xena's woman. The booted feet shuffled, eyes jumped from the tall, dark-haired beauty to the golden younger woman at her side. It was true, what they'd heard, that Xena had been followed by a spouse-of-another-sort. Regret played on their faces; Xena didn't care, as long as they understood her meaning. "A kindness to Gabrielle is a kindness to me," she intoned sweetly, keeping the outward tone of the visit pleasant. Leave it to Nerad to pass along the promise of retribution.
Nerad continued to play the role she allowed him, gestured for her to sit, then waited uneasily to determine Gabrielle's proper place in all this. There were, after all, only two chairs. Gabrielle decided the issue herself, lowering herself into the second chair with a gracious nod to Nerad. Xena's eyes casually surveyed the scene, resting only briefly on the woman seated across from her, but a twinkle of approval warmed those blue eyes. Gabrielle concealed her smile, but she was pleased to have guessed right about this.
Nerad summoned another seat from his attendants, and a small wooden chest, covered by a blanket was produced. Placar took a position next to him. He was a tall man; from his standing position he looked down on them all. Xena moved languidly; long legs stretched before her, and she grinned confidentially, winning a returning grin from the overlord. "I expect you carry a decent wine amidst all this baggage," she guessed, casting the merest hint of a glance at Placar.
"Ah," Nerad nodded, happy to show off the perquisites of his office. "Placar, wine," he snapped. The warrior moved away reluctantly, eyes already picking out the underlings who would actually fetch the wine. He was back in time to hear a conversation in progress.
"…incursions happen more frequently around the time of harvest. You know how that can be, Xena," he showed yellowed teeth in a tight grin.
Indeed she knew. Armies needed to be fed.
"I can't imagine the farmers here produce enough to feed Tartarus and the
"They don't; it's a struggle. Some grain comes in from the peddlers, but they want to take your leg as payment if they sell you a boot." He shook his head with dismay. "So we can't afford to lose the food they take, let alone the lives they cost. Between cold-blooded butchery and abduction they take a toll." Xena saw Gabrielle shudder. "One reason so many folk crowd into little pockets like The Sweetwater. Safety in numbers."
"Now more than ever." Placar spoke with disapproval. "The latest herd of convicts seems to have clustered to The Sweetwater. Something about their attachment to a certain warrior woman who led a revolt on the journey." Loathing and resentment were mixed in his eyes. Xena stole a quick glance then turned her attention back to Nerad, a smirk on her lips.
"More workers, more tribute, more soldiers," she suggested.
"Soldiers? That fat lout Lutus? Ileander the weaver? More pathetic fools fighting for a share of what's available. No way to pay for what they take, let alone to offer tribute," Placar spat. Nerad looked a warning at him, but he forged ahead: "I'd trade the lot of them to keep the tribes at bay for the season."
Gabrielle's ears pricked up. "Trade?"
"Slave trade. They may as well be of use to someone," he said heavily, looking directly at the bard.
Xena's expression didn't change, but a sour taste caused her to take a long
sip from the cup of wine. Placar was not a nice man; she wondered how it was
that Nerad was still overlord.
"Surely it's more reasonable to make use of them yourself, Nerad, instead of strengthening your enemy." The effect of her blue eyes could be disconcerting; Gabrielle wondered with sympathy how long it would take for Nerad to wither and agree to her position.
"Very true, Xena," he observed, avoiding Placar's gaze; for safety he found the green eyes under the fringe of golden hair, and allowed himself a smile. He was wondering why this visit had seemed such a good idea. So far he had conceded a prime piece of property for no compensation, the woman refused fealty, he wouldn't even go near tribute, and Placar had intruded as a player in the game. Again. Gabrielle was smiling at him, and he was grateful. She mattered to Xena; it would be good to be in her favor.
Placar was not smiling. "You've agreed to fight under command of the Overlord?" he challenged, knowing the answer as he spoke.
"I'll fight," she replied, addressing him for the first time. "I prefer to fight on the winning side. Which means making the most of the available population. No one is useless. It also means coordination with your allies, whatever areas of difference there might be otherwise. I assume you work with the other overlords?" Uneasy glances passed between the two men. No coordination. She sighed inwardly; only Gabrielle knew the frustration she was feeling. "How, exactly, do you respond to their attacks?"
"With ferocity," Placar told her. "We slam them hard whenever we find them."
"Would that be before or after they do their damage?" she drawled. "Do you ever thwart an attack?" She raised an eyebrow. "Are there preventive measures? I haven't seen one signal fire since I arrived in Tartarus. I would think when you're protecting an area this size, there would be beacons lit to raise the alarm."
Placar snorted his contempt. "We have more important things to do than - "
"Like collecting tribute?" she snapped. "What are people paying tribute for? Protection from the tribes? Or from the Overlord? Who are the other overlords?" she asked Nerad.
"I only know of Brachius."
"He's the nearest. His territory isn't as extensive as The Sweetwater, and the quality isn't as high. The water - "
"Yeah, we've been there," she said dismissively. "Who else?"
His mouth hung open for a moment as he considered. "Galate; further north, at the fringe of the mountains. Fiscus."
"Holds the wasteland," Placar laughed. "His rivals are rodents and serpents; his tribute, rat droppings."
Much like yourself, Gabrielle thought.
"Then to the east, Petra." Nerad merely looked at Xena as the name escaped him. Placar had a comment: "You two would get along."
Nerad cleared his throat. "Petra Tartras. She's one of the natives here, born of free people, before they made this a place of exile. She fights the tribes; she also fights us. Sometimes I think she's worse." He shook his head.
Xena was very still. "In what way?"
"She's here; she's clever, she knows this land, and fights like a she-wolf protecting its cub."
"This is her homeland," Xena reasoned. "There are worse reasons to fight."
"It's our land, too, Xena," he said, raising his voice for the first time. "What are we supposed to do? Live here, and never have it truly for our home?"
"Isn't there room enough for everyone here to find a home?" Gabrielle spoke quietly; the two men turned, startled by her input.
"No," Placar growled; he returned his attention to Xena. "We're caught is a vise: the Three Kingdoms to the west, the tribes to the east, and Petra picking at us in between."
He hawked and spat on the ground. "Ignorant Tartarus scum. Never been past the mountains on any side. She doesn't understand that the best chance she's got is to stand with us."
"Have you ever explained that to her?" Gabrielle asked, determined to be heard.
Nerad laughed. "No one sits with Petra long enough to explain anything." He made a slashing motion across his throat. "Quick with her blade."
Gabrielle wondered at the glint in Xena's eye. "Petra Tartras aside," the warrior said, "what arrangements do you have with the others?"
"Galate, Fiscus, Brachius are all fools. Let them handle the tribes in their own way. We'll pick up the pieces."
"Meaning you hope they are defeated, and you can have their territory."
"More land; good for you," she snapped. "More to safeguard, no buffer, less warriors available to fight. Sounds like you've got it all thought out. Fools." Placar stiffened. Xena didn't move, but Gabrielle knew she was a hair's breadth from action.
Nerad shook his head. "Xena, you don't know our ways yet. You'll see; it's best that we stay out of each other's territory. Working with them…" He shook his head a second time.
"Afraid they'll turn their dinner knives on you?" she asked.
That stung; Nerad stood hastily. "There was one other matter." He risked a chill in his voice. "One of my men was found dead not far from here. Stabbed."
"With his own knife? That the one you mean?" Xena asked. "He was stupid, he was rude, he was slow. I can't imagine it was much of a loss," she chided.
"His friends aren't happy." Nerad hoped he put enough menace in his voice: Placar was listening closely.
The dark head moved to one side; she pursed her lips, mocking regret. "I'd advise them to take this as a learning experience, or there will be more unhappy faces around your fire. I don't like threats," she ended darkly. She drained the cup of wine, and handed it to Placar. "This has been fun, but I have other things to do." She looked in the direction of the house under construction.
"It could be done in a day, with some assistance," Nerad decided, and motioned to the group of men squatting on the hillside.
"No," Xena told him quickly. "I want to do it." She looked at Gabrielle. "We want to do it."
"Suit yourself," he shrugged. He nodded to Placar, who strode to the men on the hill cursing at them, waving a meaty hand in their direction. They mounted quickly. The boy rushed over to retrieve the chairs as Xena and Gabrielle stood. Gabrielle smiled at him, but he never raised his head to see it. He collapsed the two chairs, and turned to carry them to the sturdy pack mule which accompanied them. "Move, you slow witted bastard," Placar barked, as he delivered a gratuitous blow to his back. The boy sprawled on the ground. Placar's booted foot moved to follow him. In one smooth movement Xena reached to grab Placar's ankle and provided a deft twist to land him on his back. His sword was in his hand in a moment, then it was in the air, flying to land beside the stunned man.
Xena took a breath, seeking the source of the anger she felt toward Placar. His abuse of the boy had been minor; in the long run her reaction would probably make things worse for him. With an effort she reached out a hand to haul Placar to his feet. His confusion showed on his face, as his murderous impulse was confronted by a dazzling smile.
"Placar, the kid's not worth your energy. A man like you can find better ways to burn it off," she said with a confidential wink. "Earn your bread," she growled at the boy, who scrambled out of reach of them both, tripping over the chairs which were almost too large for him to carry.
"You'd do well to mind your own business, Xena."
"My sole intention," she assured him.
They were gone in a cloud of dust. Xena walked up the steep slope to watch
them until they disappeared over the horizon. Gabrielle came up alongside her.
"That's our Overlord," she commented wryly.
"No. I have no Overlord Gabrielle, neither do you. They know it, now."
"It's as finished as it can be." Blue eyes moved from the last area of wall, still wet, to the green eyes which surveyed the wall from a distance. This was it, for better or worse. Gabrielle would be happy here, or not. She couldn't make it more grand. Later, there could be more of it, but it would be of the same rough quality, wattle construction, finished with the clay-like soil that was common to the area. Whitewash would take away the earthen color, but nothing could change the place outside the walls. Gabrielle's face was screwed up in concentration; Xena's eyes narrowed in concern, then the bard picked up a twig which lay at her feet, advanced to the drying wall, and began to inscribe something there. When she stood back at last, Xena read the inscription: "Xena of Amphipolis, the Warrior Princess, and Gabrielle of Potadeia, lived here in love. Hestia preserve our hearth."
Xena nodded solemn approval, then took the twig and added: "Artemis protect her Amazon Bard." She looked at Gabrielle, and shrugged: "The gods have their places."
Gabrielle wrapped an arm around her waist, and sighed contentedly. It would be nice to actually be able to stand up in their home, to sit at a table, once they had a table, to move inside willingly, instead of waiting for the chill evening air to force them to seek shelter. It would be nicer still to wake up without this task before them each day. There would be other tasks, but she doubted they'd be as grueling as this. The frame had been difficult, the endless weaving of the twigs had been loathsome. Her finger tips ached from the constant abrasion, yet she knew Xena had done easily two-thirds of the actual work. The strong fingers were brushing lightly against the walls now, testing the extent to which they were setting. Her eyes had been constantly on the skies, willing the autumn rains to hold off until the clay had set. Each bucket of clay had been hand-carried up the slope from the stream bed where it was found. Packing and smoothing had been no easy task, but the digging and hauling had been Xena's alone. Xena always had good reasons why Gabrielle would be better employed elsewhere. The heavy work was always Xena's. Her hands sought the soft flesh which veiled strong muscles, and turned Xena to face her, a bemused smile playing on her lips. "Tomorrow we take a day off?" She pressed her advantage with a kiss.
Xena returned the kiss, slid her long arms down the downy flesh of the smaller woman until their clay-caked fingers entwined. "No. We have no table, no bed, no chairs; the root cellar's nearly empty. Can't afford a day off." She felt Gabrielle sag in her arms, was touched by a momentary guilt, but looked forward to Gabrielle's next argument.
"You must be tired, Xena," she said quietly. The words stopped the warrior. She was tired, and it was nice that someone cared. The sun was just past its zenith, yet she would willingly have crawled inside to sleep. Her head nodded in frank agreement. Maybe it was better to abandon the element of surprise. "Okay. I'm tired. We could both use a break, but we still need some things," she insisted. "So tomorrow, we go shopping, and hope we get lucky."
"Shopping?" Gabrielle breathed uncomprehending into her shoulder.
"Bartering, actually," Xena conceded.
"The neighbors?" Gabrielle asked. Xena followed her thoughts. They had visited Natrakia or Sepra for cheese, Cramma for honey, and of course, Hermia was the source of bread. It would be a change, but not very exciting.
"We can go there, if you like," Xena offered coyly, "but I thought it would be a nice change to visit the peddlers at their rendezvous. They only show up twice a year. Hermia said it's like a small bazaar." Gabrielle squirmed in delight against her for a moment, then pulled away. "Hermia never said anything to me about the peddlers," she protested.
"Guess it slipped her mind," Xena lied solemnly.
"What did you threaten her with?" Gabrielle asked, abandoning her attempt to register even mild annoyance at the deception.
"I merely promised our company on the road," Xena said innocently. "It takes
half a day to get there. No point pushing. I figure we can spend the night at
the gathering place, and head back the next day, if that’s all right with you.
Hermia says it’s on the order of a community social. People from all over The
Sweetwater will be there, bartering, visiting; dancing, even." She shook her
head in disbelief. "I never imagined anything like that here."
Gabrielle squeezed her arm gently. "People are people, Xena. Even convicts. Even here. People all want the same things: the chance to be social is part of that." She laid her head against the supple leather. A bazaar. Dancing. She was not a good dancer, seldom could persuade Xena to dance, yet dancing meant music. The whole experience meant people, and chatter, and laughter. Gods, she almost laughed aloud in her joy. Xena followed her thoughts even there, and knew the bard was longing for the chance to be social. She returned the embrace, and kissed the golden hair which rested beneath her own chin. People all want the same things. She turned the thought around in her mind, knowing it held much truth, yet feeling somehow apart from the general realm of "people." All she really needed she held at that moment. She cleared her throat. "When we get back, the walls will be dry, and we can move in," she promised, already returning to the center of her world.
Water alone seemed to keep the heart of Tartarus beating. Scant miles from the river that flowed through The Sweetwater the arid lands rose before them with solemn assurance of doom for those who lingered. The stench of sulfur rose from ominous crevices, carried by sinister spumes of steam. The peddlers would avoid this stretch of road, better that the wretches who inhabited this poor land should journey to them. And journey they did. It seemed as if the whole of The Sweetwater had taken to the road.
A steady stream of chatter rose around her, and Xena could hardly distinguish one conversation from another in the thick babble. Gabrielle's voice carried to her like a harbor bell in a storm: clear, almost lyrical, as she wove another tale. She had begun with a series of stories for Hermia and Lila. Now a knot of travelers on foot pressed in to hear her every word. Like a snowball growing as it rolls downhill, the group had grown as it moved; nearly three dozen men, women and children traveled together now. They could have been anywhere, traveling to any festival to honor a god, or goddess. Except that these folk were more gaunt, than most, their clothes more ragged. They bore more scars. Digits were missing, eye sockets, crudely patched. They wore a brand, and of course, there were more than a few convict earrings in the crowd. Xena watched a gnarled face break into a toothless grin; the old woman cackled with delight. Certainly she could never have been a hardened criminal, yet she was here beside so many that were; she was here beside Xena. It was a puzzle.
A nearby clamor caught her attention, where a half-dozen men jostled each other, clutching at a small object, which one man, taller than the rest, held overhead. None of my business, Xena told herself, satisfied that they were a distance from the bard and her followers. She was the only traveler on horseback. Draught animals pulled rough carts, or were piled high with bundles, but the immediate world was walking. Decent horses here were few, she knew; riding was a luxury reserved for warriors. Gabrielle's green eyes turned to her, as they did every few minutes, an affectionate check-in. She would have liked the bard in the saddle behind her, as she had been countless times before, but Gabrielle needed this chance to touch an audience, and these people needed her. There couldn't be many bards in Tartarus.
The noise grew louder from the cluster of men at the rear of the group. A sudden, anguished squeal was the only sign that violence had been done. Then all fell silent, and the group moved tentatively ahead, leaving a crumpled body in the road. A squat fellow bent to yank the earring from the long figure stretched out in the dust; he wiped his sword and smiled, well pleased to be the possessor of the unknown object they'd vied over, as well as an earring, which would certainly be worth something from the peddlers. Gabrielle stole another glance at Xena, and her eyes were troubled. Xena quirked a smile of reassurance and moved closer with Argo. The golden mare strained between her legs; she hadn't run full-out in weeks, but this was not the time. A faint unease touched her at the thought of spending the night amid this gaggle. She wondered what provision the Overlord had made for keeping the peace at the peddler's encampment.
The peddlers came together at a place where the river crooked, forming a natural pool. There had been no river traffic here. Shortly upstream a cataract made the passage of anything alive impossible, but the site had water enough to accommodate the sudden influx of people. It was as if a small village had grown overnight. Carts and stalls sprouted in a field adjacent to the road, and cookfires were visible from a distance. Like mushrooms, Xena thought, and she glanced at the small pouch which hung from Argo's saddle. Those rare specimens would be worth something here, she knew, assuming there was something here worth hauling back. Hermia's small cart would serve them well. It was laden now with the few skins she'd managed to preserve, the necessaries for an overnight encampment, and bread which Hermia had baked aplenty, knowing she'd find a ready market here. Her small donkey strained at the harness, trotting happily enough amid the throng. A donkey cart of their own would be nice to have, Xena mused. Gods! She shook her head: the Destroyer of Nations coveting a donkey cart.
Gabrielle drifted over, as the group of travelers melted into the mushroom-village. She was beaming, eyes glowing at the sight of so many prospects for company, and haggling.
"Xena, I've seen worse bazaars outside Tartarus. I think we can do all right here." She shook her head cannily.
"Just remember: they know we're at a disadvantage. If we don't like their prices we don't have much choice. We can't really shop around." Over Gabrielle's head she spied a stocky fellow ride by bearing a standard. The Overlord did have a presence here. She wondered if he'd make an appearance himself.
Gabrielle was recounting her objectives: "Anything useful for setting up house, cookware, linens - "
"Scrolls," Xena put in. "You need scrolls."
The bard smiled indulgently. Scrolls would be nice, but they were no list-topper. She had little time to think of stories now, anyway. There was always something else that needed to be done. "Okay, Xena. I'll keep my eyes open for scrolls." She eyed the vicinity. "Why don't you take the left, and I'll take the right. We'll check out the best goods, and meet at the end of the row of stalls."
"Uh-uh," Xena protested. "We stay together."
"Xena, we'll get twice as much done if we split up."
"I'll be distracted by every commotion, wondering if you're at the heart of it."
Hermia weighed in on Xena's side. "Stay together; haggling is more effective if there's a couple to argue over the deal." Gabrielle knew this to be true, and made a reluctant show of giving in. Xena nodded almost imperceptibly, thanking Hermia for her help.
"I'll set up here and do my own bartering with bread. When I'm armed with enough goods, I'll join you," Hermia promised.
In any other place, the goods would have been passed over. Much of it showed wear, second hand items which had been cheaply obtained. Here they were eagerly pawed over. Earrings, hides, and pelts were passed over to the hands of peddlers in return for whatever they would fetch. Gabrielle sneered with contempt at the stalls, yet quietly made an inventory of things for which she would return.
Xena stopped before a large wagon, behind which lay a jumble of household goods. She grabbed Gabrielle's arm, and squeezed as she whispered: "There." The green eyes followed to what the blue eyes had spied. A large square of cloth, stuffed with feathers lay doubled beneath a pile of clutter. "That's it. I can make the frame. It will be the best bed we've had in…forever." The wistful note in her voice brought Gabrielle's head around. She was used to the ground. A bed was nice; somehow she hadn't imagined Xena cared. She whispered in reply: "Can we afford it?"
"Somehow we will." The dark figure took a diffident step toward the proprietor. "I'd like to do some business." No messing about.
"There's just a lot of junk here." The bard's objection brought a smile to the bearded face beside the wagon. That's how it was to be. "Yes. A lot of junk," he agreed. "Good enough for convicts." Even the Unmarked One, he thought. "Still, I hate to cart it back to Mus. What can you give me?"
"These." Xena placed a small sack on the wagon bed and waited. The man peered cautiously inside, then lifted the bag and sniffed. "Mushrooms. I'll bring a ton of dried mushrooms back with me," he scoffed.
Xena took the bag from his hand. "Fine. My mistake. I took you to be a man who would appreciate the uncommon." She turned, knowing his voice would sound before she left. He knew mushrooms, of that she had no doubt. She had seen the flicker of excitement in his eyes when he sniffed the contents of the sack. These were rare specimens; they would fetch a fortune in Mus.
"Don't be so hasty. I have a certain sympathy for you poor souls." He reached for the bag as he spoke. Xena held it close to her. "How can I be certain they aren't poison? A mistake could be fatal." Xena took a large chunk from the sack, popped it in her mouth, and chewed heartily. "Delicious. About a dinar's worth, I'd say. Shall I try another?"
"No. I trust your judgement," he said quickly. "I'll take them in exchange for, say…" He indicated a battered chest. Xena nodded pleasantly. "I'll take it off your hands," she said agreeably. "Along with…" She scanned the area, and seemed to spy the feather bedding with surprise. "That."
"You jest," he exclaimed. "For a sack of mushrooms?"
"I'll throw in a deer hide, if it makes it easier."
"Hides are plentiful here," he pointed out.
"Fine." A second time she began to walk away.
"Just as well, " Gabrielle said in a stage whisper. "It's bound to be flea ridden."
"Let me see the hide," the plaintive voice called. "You know when you have me at a disadvantage."
Right, Xena thought, as she unrolled the hide which hung at her back. It was large, unholed. Xena had known where to put the arrow to preserve the hide.
"Alright," he said reluctantly as he examined the hide. "Take the bedding."
"And the chest," Xena reminded him.
"The chest?" he asked aggrieved.
"It was part of the deal," Xena said flatly.
"I don't quite recall," he countered, then he saw her brow darken and was ready to concede, when a new voice was heard: "If the deal's not done, I'll put in a bid." Placar was a few yards away, mounted, and surrounded by troops of the Overlord. A leather pouch thunked down on the ground beside the peddler. "Six earrings." A smug smile spread across Placar's face.
The peddler reached for the bag, only to be stopped by Xena's booted foot on his fingers.
"We had a deal," she said quietly.
"Not quite," he argued. "No goods were exchanged." He held his breath as he spoke, afraid the promise of wrath held in those icy eyes would be released. Still, six earrings would begin to make his trip to this gods-forsaken place worthwhile.
With an effort, Xena swallowed the anger that rose in her, and considered. Six earrings. He'd be a fool to refuse it. Yet she'd be damned further than Tartarus before she'd let Placar beat her out of the bargain. Face impassive, she countered: "I'll match his offer. Give me until morning."
Gabrielle started, puzzled. Xena had only the earring she wore.
Placar laughed. "Match it? Plan on six murders this evening?" he boomed.
"Never mind how. Do I have the time?" she asked, leveling a gaze that left only one possible answer.
"Yes, of course. And regardless, bring back your mushrooms. I'm sure I have something else you'd want."
"Xena, slow down." Gabrielle took the warrior's elbow and slowed her to a pace that allowed for conversation. "Why are you so upset? We've gotten along this far without a feather bed, we'll survive. Besides, we have our feather collection, we'll make our own bed someday."
"I'd like a bed before I - or you- have gray hair. I wanted that bed. You deserve it."
"Me?" She shook her head. "Xena, I don't want the bed. It's no big deal." She paused, and gave a short nod. "Okay, that tight-lipped stare means I haven't gotten through. Let me put it this way: I don't need a bed. I just need you at night, for my warmth, to be my pillow - "
"Nice try, Gabrielle," she smirked. "Now tell me you wouldn't like a soft spot now and again."
"Even amid that muscle I find nice, soft - "
"I'm going to get that bed." She might not have heard the bard. Gabrielle's words died on her lips, and she stopped walking. "This isn't about the bedding. You can't stand it that Placar outbid you."
Xena didn't deny it. "He didn't want it, Gabrielle. He just wanted to beat me," she said with a hint of bitterness.
"Xena, it doesn't matter."
"Yes it does," she hissed. "Those earrings are the closest things these people have to currency. A handful of those is worth gold."
The golden head nodded slowly. "And?" she queried. "Xena, those earrings are a grisly memento of the dead. I wonder how many convicts are killed each year just so someone can have an earring?"
Xena stopped her hand in its involuntary motion toward her own earring. "About as many as are killed outside by thieves anxious to get a purse of gold."
"And you aim to get some earrings?"
Xena looked down, her eyes darted across the landscape, settling anywhere but on Gabrielle. "It would help."
"It would help you get one up on Placar, yes, but that isn't important."
"Gabrielle," she began, but was stopped by a reedy voice near at hand.
"A contribution, please, to the temple." In disbelief she focused on a thin, graying man in white robes, tied with a sash of crimson.
"Temple of Ares," she guessed.
"Who else, here, in Tartarus, amidst his followers." He looked her up and down. "It's said Xena worships at the altar of the God of War."
"You've been here too long," she sneered. "And you can tell me sometime why his devotees should worship a god who lets them end up here."
"It was not their devotion, but their neglect that led them here," he retorted smoothly. "An offering now and again never hurt a warrior," he said with certainty. Xena regarded him frankly for a moment, then turned and walked on.
"Well?" asked the gentle voice at her elbow.
"Well what?" she asked in reply, her voice a little harsh, even to her own ears.
"Do you really need the earrings, Xena?" No reply. "How do you plan on getting them?"
"I won't do murder, Gabrielle," she assured her. "There are plenty of earrings to be had from the living. Here." She unslung the hide from her shoulders and thrust it, along with the sack of mushrooms at the smaller woman. "Get whatever you like. I'll meet you at Hermia's cart."
Gabrielle stared openmouthed as Xena walked away. "What happened to the 'stay-together' rule?"
"Just stay out of trouble."
"Goes both ways, honey." She didn't look at Xena's flinty eyes as she covered the short space between them and hooked an arm around one of Xena's, making it clear she wasn't letting go. "We're trading together," she said with a grin. "Leave me alone for five minutes and I'll have every useless bauble here. Won't be much help through the winter," she snorted softly, thinking of her purchases in Mus. One purchase in particular. "Come on, Xena. Sulk later."
"That grumpy look was a definite asset in bartering." Gabrielle adjusted the sack of goods over her shoulder, and noted with approval the larger sack Xena carried. "We have everything we need. Well, maybe not everything, but the necessities." Xena, nodded, jaw set, lips slightly pursed. A lot of junk, she thought. Discards. Tossed here to Tartarus with the rest of the trash. For Gabrielle's sake she tried to smile, but it wouldn't come. Hermia's cart was still out of sight, beyond the row of stalls. Once she situated Gabrielle among friends, she'd set out to find the earrings she needed for the morning. She watched with disdain, and a little misplaced anger, as a troop of horsemen wearing the crest of the Overlord rode by, clattering through the narrow lane with impertinence. "Out of the way, Gabrielle," she muttered, then saw blond locks flowing, and knew to whom they belonged. He saw Xena at the same time. "Hello," he called, and wheeled his horse about to stop before them.
"Drax!" Gabrielle gushed, happy to see the familiar, weathered face. Xena looked deliberately at the crest on his worn leather tunic.
"Once a soldier…eh, Drax?" she asked.
"Fond greetings to you, too, Xena. I wondered when I'd see you both again." He rose in his saddle and looked at the passing throng. "Ileander is around here somewhere. He'll be happy to see you," he said to Gabrielle. "Life in Nerad's camp can be tiresome."
But never lean, Xena guessed. "There's something I need to do," she said abruptly. "Can I trust you with Gabrielle one more time?"
The bard's eyes flared, but Drax poured out soothing words: "We'll be glad to have the time with her. Tartarus through the eyes of a bard. Should keep Ileander happy." Xena nodded, and strode off. "What's eating her?" he asked when she was out of earshot.
"Just things," Gabrielle replied, suddenly sympathetic, remembering with a pang that earthquake relief had been her idea. "Things."
The twang of bow strings provided a soft accompaniment to the babble in the field beyond the parameters of the encampment. Crude targets had been erected at the far end, and men were strung out along the margin, calling wagers and cursing ill fortune. This competition was not for prizes, but for the bets placed arrow-by-arrow. Some three or four archers held the attention of all; they bet on themselves, enticing the bets of others.
Earrings were the only commodity exchanged.
Xena watched with apparent disdain, snickering once at an arrow which went far wide of the mark. "I suppose you can do better," was the improvident reply.
"Hard to do worse," she drawled. Nearby loungers snapped to attention. The Unmarked One. Xena. This could be interesting.
Gabrielle heard Xena's approach before she looked over her shoulder to see her emerge from the late afternoon shadows. The pretense of warmth that had enveloped the area had faded as the sun dipped closer to the horizon; the evening wind had begun to blow. There was something different about Xena that caught Gabrielle's attention. She watched for a moment, then knew why she had heard the woman first: a small leather pouch hung from her belt; it jingled as the earrings it contained touched one another. Xena's lips parted in a smile as she came closer.
"You look like the cat that ate the cream." Gabrielle returned her focus to the iron cook-pot that was suspended from a rod over the fire. "I take it you have enough for the bedding?"
"Yeah. And then some." Her cheeks glowed with a fire Gabrielle had rarely seen.
"Dare I ask how?" the bard ventured. She knew, without looking that Xena held a waterskin to her lips, heard the long swallow, then the reply: "I won them fair and square, proving once again the value of a bow in the right hands." Strong hands encircled Gabrielle’s waist, and Xena’s voice dropped a register. " I’m not used to being away from you. Care for an arrow-by-arrow account of the contest?" She pulled the bard against her body. Gabrielle relaxed against her, then stiffened at the mass of jumbled metal which filled the pouch. "This is almost ready. You’d better wash up," she said, taking a step forward, out of Xena’s embrace.
Xena frowned, puzzled, then guessed at the problem. "I’m sorry I left you for so long…"
"That’s not a problem," was the hasty reply.
"Oh." That left a world full of other problems to be guessed at. "That smells good; what'cha cooking?" Her arms hung loosely at her side, painfully empty.
"Nothing much; root vegetables mostly. Good thing we brought them along. Couldn't get any meat, but we'll have bread, if Hermia didn't barter it all away. I got lucky finding herbs-"
The soft voice continued, but Xena heard no more. That was the problem: the meat. She'd failed to bring anything for the cook-pot. One night in so many.
"Xena?" Gabrielle was watching her, puzzled. "I asked you to hand me the waterskin."
"Yeah. Sure." The skin was handed over; Gabrielle caught a glimpse of a furrowed brow before Xena turned away. "I'll be back." Things seemed safe enough; if there was no game close by, she'd bring back fish. Just time before it grew dark.
"Xena? Where are you off to?"
Only Hermia heard the bard's question. "What clouded her up?" she asked. "Her mood's not what it was a while back." She lay a sleeping Lilla on a soft-skin. "That was the happiest I'd seen her these past months."
Gabrielle tore her eyes from the trail Xena had taken. "Hermia, what are you talking about?"
"The archery competition. She can't half shoot. There are whispers in the camp that Artemis has graced us with her presence." She laughed. "Even with that nasty ferment they were all swilling down, Xena put every arrow where she wanted it."
"Yeah, Xena can shoot," came the slow response. Gabrielle waited uneasily to hear the rest of the story. "What happened?"
"Happened? Xena won every earring they put up. Suckered them in to wagers, then picked 'em clean." Hermia's pride in her traveling companion was complete. "C'mon Gabrielle," she cajoled, puzzled at her lack of enthusiasm. "Xena was magnificent, earned enough in an hour's work to fix you up nicely, and here you both are, faces down to your knees." She hrrumphed softly as she peeked into the cook-pot. "She was walking on Mt. Olympus when she left that field. What did you say to bring her down?" Wary reproach was in her voice.
"Her mood did seem to darken," Gabrielle began thoughtfully. "I didn't say anything," she began, and realized that was the problem, or part of it. Worse, she'd moved - pulled - away. "I think I'd better go look for her," she said simply, and reached for her staff.
"The sun is all but gone; leave her be," Hermia urged. "I don't want to face her wrath if she comes back to find that you've gone out stumbling round in the dark." Hermia's voice was earnest, and it raised a challenge in Gabrielle. "I don't stumble around. I'm not Xena," she said pointedly, "but sometimes I have more sense. I don't want her getting into trouble out there."
"How much more trouble can she be in? She's here," Hermia stated flatly. "This lot can't do anything to hurt her."
The staff was thrown down. Hermia was right. No point going after her.
In the end she didn't wait long. Hermia wiped the last of the fragrant sauce from the vegetable stew with a crust of brown bread, popped it in her mouth, and chewed through her greeting: "Hi then, Xena. Almost missed your supper." A quick nod of the head was her only reply, then she smacked a string of fish on the grass at Gabrielle's feet.
"The game seems to have taken cover. Still, these should do."
Gabrielle looked from the fat fish, still thrashing, to the strained face of the warrior. "Xena," she began, then stopped, clearly puzzled. "I told you dinner was taken care of."
"Yeah. Well here's something more than vegetables," she said with an edge. "Want me to clean 'em?" It was a challenge, of sorts.
"Um, well, we've just about finished…"
The fish were snapped up. "Fine," Xena pronounced, as she slapped them into a water bucket. "They can squirm until morning."
"…but you haven't eaten yet. I'll grill one for you. The fire's still - "
"Don't bother on my account. I though you'd want some fish, that's all. I
don't need anything."
"Why did you think I wanted fish?" was the incredulous demand.
"Because there was 'nothing much' for dinner. I thought…" she was suddenly aware of Hermia's eyes, riveted on her, and Gabrielle's genuine puzzlement You were upset about something, she thought. "I couldn't get meat…" The words seemed to make no sense, even to her.
"Xena, it was just a comment …"
Hermia rose from her place by the fire. "Still early. Think I'll stroll over to have a word with Sepra. She and Archon are close by. She's not looking well. This is a hard pregnancy, and there's still so far to go. Lilla’s still sleeping, she’ll be no trouble. Oh; don't forget, you've got people coming, and when the moon is high it's likely there'll be music," she reminded the bard before she disappeared.
Xena sat heavily. "Company? Great. Drax?"
"Not Drax. I told Lilla a story; someone heard. There are children here, Xena, more than a few. I agreed to tell some stories," she said, avoiding any hint of apology. "If you hadn’t disappeared, again, we’d have had more time, but we still have a few minutes. We need to talk." Her voice rose a touch. "Stop counting your fingers, they’re all there. Look at me."
Reluctant eyes met her own, and Xena forced out terse sentences. "Something upset you. I couldn’t figure it out. Guessed wrong three times already. Can I have a hint?"
Xena stood motionless as Gabrielle moved to her, and lifted the heavy pouch of earrings.
"These are sharp."
I know, Xena, agreed silently, remembering the nicks produced by her own. She turned her palms up, urging further explanation.
"They poked me."
"You could have said that." She paused. "So what else is goin' on?"
"Xena, I said I didn't want the bed. Not at this price."
Xena rolled her eyes, and expelled a sharp breath. "I told you I won them. Honestly."
"I know that; I just can't help thinking that they're tainted. Like…blood money."
"Blood money? Gabrielle there is no other kind of money here. I did what had to be done."
"No. There has to be another way," the bard insisted. "We'll find another way. Look at all we managed to get without earrings - "
"Yeah. Shit," was the terse judgement.
"Yes," the soft voice agreed. "But it's our shit. Every chipped crock, dented plate, worn cloth. It's our stuff. Earned with honor."
"And long, hard toil." She seized the bard's right hand, examined the torn cuticles, broken nails, and tips callused from wattle-weaving. She wrapped the hand in her own, tightly. "This should be ink-stained, not rough with hard labor. If I can make things a little easier, cushion the hard places a bit - it just makes me feel better," she ended flatly. Gabrielle nodded mute understanding. "All the scavenging and hide-trimming we've done…" she shook her head, dismayed. "I earned twenty times that in a couple of hours with a bow in my hands. Was that wrong?" she challenged.
"No, Xena," Gabrielle answered quickly. "It's not how you got the earrings, it's just the earrings…"
"Blood-tainted." Xena pursed her lips, considering. "What if Placar had been there? What if we'd wagered for the mattress? I'd have won," she assumed. "Would that be all right?"
"That would be different."
"Why? If he bought the mattress with his own supply of earrings?" Xena demanded. "I doubt he won them at draughts," she smirked. "Either way, the peddler goes back to Mus with a hefty sack to redeem for gold." The logic was inescapable; she waited for the bard to concede.
"Xena. I don't care what the peddler does. I don't care what Placar does. I care what you do. We may have to live in Tartarus. We don't have to be of it. I like to think we're better than that."
"You are better," Xena would have said, but there was sudden noise around them, a gaggle of people, women and children mostly, who had come together to hear stories from the bard. She pulled a face.
"Xena, I won't be all night," Gabrielle assured her, even as she turned, pulling her aching fingers at last from the large hand.
"Yeah," Xena nodded. "Go do your thing, Gabrielle."
"We'll talk later?" Her eyes waited for Xena's promise.
"We'll talk." She received a warm smile in reply, then Gabrielle dished the last of the stew into a dish, tucked the end of a thick brown loaf on the side of her plate, and steered her towards the far end of the camp. "Eat. You'll see things differently."
Xena sat; she was joined by a pair of hungry eyes, watching as she lifted a spoon to her mouth. The eyes only looked large because the face was shrunken. An uncertain smile played there nonetheless. Xena forced a smile in return and patted the rock at her side. "Sit here," she invited. "I'm not very hungry." The dish was balanced on the too-small lap, and skinny fingers flew from dish to mouth, dribbling the thin gravy down her chin. Xena was forgotten. She drifted away, leaned against a tree, and watched the petite woman cast a huge spell.
The story was about a giant. A buffoon, of a fellow really. Xena couldn't recall any quite like him. Even the cyclops she'd blinded, while a fool, posed a real threat, blind or no. Still, Gabrielle made him a figure of fun for the children. Probably helped them to laugh at danger, in a sense, Xena reasoned. A refrain ran through the story, made longer each time someone evaded the giant. Soon, over a dozen voices chanted along with Gabrielle, about the clever woman, the lucky man, the nimble child and others who slipped through his fingers. It was a happy time for them. For Xena the seventh round was too much. She liked her stories to have a beginning, and move to an ending. She felt in Tartarus as if she was riding endlessly around the Circus Maximus; enough of circles, she thought, and wheeled about to make a quiet exit.
Hermia slipped beside Xena. "She's got a gift," she said with admiration, turning the warrior's attention once more to the bard.
Xena nodded, focusing on the slender bard, whose face seemed to rival the splendor of the rising moon. "Many gifts."
"You didn't mean for her to follow you here," Hermia guessed, out of context.
"No," Xena replied after a moment. "But she's here. It's hard…I try to make things easier…" Her voice died, uncertain. "She doesn't deserve this."
"Does she complain?"
"Never," Xena said quickly, not forgetting the gripes about early rising, monotonous fare, cold feet and colder bath water. They were of no account. "She shares everything my life holds."
"Then let her say no to the bed," the other woman urged.
"Why does it always come back to that? Maybe I'd like a bed, have you thought of that? Has she thought of it?"
Xena left Hermia and her simple question in the thin edges of the campfire light.
It was all different after sunset. The rows of stalls were draped with heavy canvas, heavily guarded by stout men with truncheons and swords. The peddlers knew their clientele. Another kind of trade was carried on now; from every side came the sounds and smells of men and women feeding their appetites. The aroma of opium was stronger, drowning even the fermented potion that seemed to be on everyone's breath. She tasted it still, a harsh, bitter drink, made from grain. What she had that afternoon had been graced by the addition of apples, leaving a cloying, vomitous sweetness. Still, she wouldn't mind having it in her throat again, right now.
Flimsy lean-to's sheltered couples heaving and grunting in the throes of passion. From the hasty exits made, Xena knew they were not love matches. It was mildly surprising. In a place with such a disparate number of men to women she wouldn't have expected any women would be free to ply that trade. Unless…of course. The men to whom they were tied, willingly or unwillingly, pimped for them. She shuddered, and strode on, quickening her step. At last she came to the end of the row of stalls, where the smoky torch fire was absent, and only the moon lit the copse where Xena stopped. It was quiet here; that suited her. The day had been long, and seemed to have no end in sight. Stories from the bard, dancing later, and gods only knew if there was any quiet time when rest might be had, or she might be alone with Gabrielle, to talk, or to…what? She could be so damned stubborn. Stubborn enough to make her way to Tartarus.
Xena knew where the mountains rose, and her eyes turned to the unseen peaks, the barriers to freedom. So breachable, if she were alone, if Gabrielle wasn't here, if Argo could climb mountains, or fly. She chuckled at that image, Argo, Pegasus-like, soaring over the snow caps, carrying them - A faint cry reached her ears, not much different from others, but familiar somehow. She was moving toward it before it died away, before it was joined by a second, more urgent sound, and words…"I'll curse you 'til it falls off!" A woman's voice, shrill, feisty. Arthea; in some danger, Xena knew. Arthea wasn't one to be easily alarmed. She'd take on a bar full if her mood was right. It wasn't hard to follow the sounds in the still darkness; Arthea was holding her own from the sound of it, and Xena paused, admiring, when she found her. The woman held a scarf looped around a thick neck. The face above the neck was almost purple, eyes bulging, lips contorted. Whatever threat he'd offered Arthea was long forgotten, as he scrabbled desperately at the scarf.
"Enough, Arthea," said the calm, amused voice. Arthea turned, and gave a start.
"Xena!" she exclaimed. "Where were you when I needed you?"
"Needed me for what?" she drawled earnestly, then repeated her command. "Enough! He'll be dead soon."
Arthea shrugged, but she relaxed her grip and the twist in the scarf loosened. "Get off, bastard," she told him as he lurched to his feet, dragging air into his lungs.
"Make up your mind, bitch," he rasped at her, brave again. "And give back the earring!"
Xena arched an eyebrow, and shot a look of inquiry at Arthea. "You welshing on a deal?" she asked.
"Xena, I don't work at that anymore," she protested.
"Liar!" He looked at Xena. "She agreed to spend the night for an earring. Said she had a tent pitched here in the woods. Once she has the earring she starts squalling as if she was a bloody virgin - "
"Enough from you," Xena snarled. Damned whingeing annoyed her. "Did he give you an earring?" she asked Arthea.
"I told you - "
"Yeah, I know, you don't do that anymore. I don't care if he gave it to you as a prayer offering. Where's the earring?"
She smiled in good-natured defeat as she reached into the nest between her breasts. "Here." She threw the earring at the man, still on his knees. He plucked it from the dirt, looked from Arthea to Xena, and scurried away.
"Nothing ventured…" Arthea shrugged.
Xena was puzzled. Arthea had never been a thief, but an honest prostitute. "Where's Lutus?" she asked, suddenly curious about how Arthea was surviving.
"Couldn't get away. That's how hard he's working. Butcher, skinner…The Overlord has a lot of men to keep fed. That's why I'm here. Assistant to the cook for the Overlord."
"Good," Xena said, sincerely. Two less mouths to feed. Arthea moved a bit,
and the moonlight lit her whole form. She looked better. Her cheeks, while not
quite full, were no longer pinched, and her breasts, well, Arthea always had
nice breasts…She looked away. "I've gotta get back. There'll be dancing soon."
"Long time since I've danced," Arthea mused. "Longer still since I danced with you." Xena turned away to retrace her tracks, Arthea at her elbow. "Will you save me a dance, Xena?" she cooed.
"Can't oblige," Xena replied. "I'm taken." Totally, she noted, and her stride lengthened. Stupid to argue over a bed, or earrings, or whatever it was, she admitted to herself.
"Gabrielle's nice," Arthea commented. "I'd like to see her again."
"I'm sure you will," Xena said through tight lips. Sure we both will. "Where are you staying? I'll walk you there."
"Don't be silly, Xena, we're both going to the dancing." She reached for Xena's arm, which swung forward elusively. At the far end of the stalls, a piper began a lively tune. Damn, Xena thought, late again.
"The music's starting," Hermia said to no one. Gabrielle had already turned to the sound, and looked away now to scan the shadows for Xena. "I thought Xena would be back," she said with mild reproach meant for the absent warrior. "I guess she got tied up. No reason we should miss the fun." She picked up her staff. "Let's go."
There was little art in the dancing, but a good deal of energy. The musicians were a motley crew, blowing, plucking and beating at instruments. They somehow produced music. Gabrielle stood at the edge of the crowd, one foot keeping time, teeth showing in a happy grin, following the antics of the dancers, but always scanning the area for the tall warrior. Hermia danced, with Lilla, with Archon, by herself, never straying far from Gabrielle. "She'll be here," she said, when the musicians took a break.
"I know," Gabrielle said, to assure herself. Then she spied Ileander. Drax was beside him, a study in ill-humor.
"Gabrielle," he nodded dourly. Ileander stuck an elbow in his ribs. "It's a party, of sorts Drax. Can you try, just a little?"
Gabrielle smiled uncertainly. "Is Xena around?" Drax asked her.
"Someplace. Why?" A tightness began in her stomach.
"I just want to ask her a few questions."
"What do you think she's done?" she persisted.
"Nothing," Ileander supplied. "Drax works hard at being an official of the Overlord," he laughed.
Drax made a sour face, then looked more kindly at Gabrielle. "I'm not accusing her of anything," he agreed. "It's just that a body was found at the water's edge. Stuck in the gut. Seems he came in second best to Xena in the archery contest."
"That means nothing." Gabrielle's eyes dared him to argue.
"I just want to know if she can shed some light on the mess."
"With all that goes on in this bloody place, you have to sort out who killed a conniving thug," Hermia put in. "Do you really care?"
"Someone should," Drax replied mildly.
"How many other bodies will litter this place by the time we leave?" Hermia asked with some heat. "You plan on sorting them all out while your comrades swagger and bully- "
"Hermia, I do what I can," he cut in with barely contained annoyance.
Gabrielle spoke quickly: "Look, Drax, Xena will be back soon, you can ask her then, all right?" Then, to Hermia, "Xena would appreciate Drax being so vigilant."
Xena would spit the pissant out, she thought, but held her tongue. Gabrielle had enough to fret over. The music had begun again, and she took Lilla's hand, ready to give her a turn, when she saw the first of the flames.
"Xena, slow down. I can't keep up."
Blue eyes rolled to the sky. "Arthea, it's not much further, and I can't walk much slower." Impulsively, she swept the woman up in her arms. "Is this better?" she asked. "I'll drop you at your camp. You can't dance on that ankle anyway."
"But I can still enjoy the music." She relaxed against the warrior, eyes closed, inhaling the day's scents which clung to her body. "Rotten luck, me twisting my ankle."
"Yeah." Just more rotten luck. Still, the music would go on for some time; ahead she could see more torches being lit. No; not torches. She stood still for a moment.
"Am I too heavy, Xena?" Arthea laughed.
"Quiet," she snapped. "Listen." The sounds of music broke off sharply, to be replaced by panicked screams. The new flames were from the lighted tips of arrows, everywhere now, thick against the night sky. Xena veered sharply to her right and deposited Arthea beside a sturdy oak. "Hug this tree. You'll be safe here," she instructed, believing it to be true. As safe as anywhere else in this camp. Arthea's protest died on her lips. Xena wouldn't stop now, not for her, not for anyone but the little bard. Arthea followed her running silhouette, outlined by the growing flames, until she disappeared.
Arrows came from nowhere, landed everywhere. Drax pulled one from the earth; he didn't recognize the fletching. Gabrielle had flattened Lilla with the first rain, called for Hermia to join them, and rolled with the child under the nearest cart. They wouldn't be trampled here, would be shielded from direct hits, would be safe, unless, of course, the cart rolled, or they were forced out by the crush of humanity that also sought shelter. For a moment she had time for a thought: Xena. "Where in Hades' name are you?" she whispered. "Please be safe." It occurred to her that Xena would never find her here, under this cart.
The attack was relentless, and unopposed. Drax had circled the perimeter, peering from behind any object to try and spot the attackers. Damn, he swore, there was no sign of his comrades. They were never there when they were needed. Still he called for them, by name, by cursed names, as he grew more desperate.
"Look for them under the carts, Drax, with the women and children," said a chilling voice in his ear, a moment before Xena swept his legs from under him. He lay in the dust inches from her, aware only of the intensity of the blue eyes.
"Where's Gabrielle?" she demanded.
"Under a cart, nearby," he assured her. "She's all right."
She gave a curt nod, then lifted her eyes to the chaos that ruled around them. "Can't stay here," she commented. The small fires had grown, fed by the strong eastern wind, sending thick black smoke into the night air.
"We can hardly leave," Drax retorted. "They want to drive us into the open to pick us off."
"Well, their plan is a success," Xena observed dryly. "No one can live in this, unless the fires are put out." That was impossible, she knew, under the hail of arrows which continued to fall. Which meant that the arrows had to stop. "I'm going outside Drax," she told him simply. He considered, then nodded. Little chance the rest of the troop would do anything about the attack. Little chance they were still sober. "I'm with you, but I don't know what we - " He broke off, she was gone, and a shrill whistle was heard for a moment above all else.
Underneath the cart, eyes fixed on the patch of sky that was her only view, Gabrielle heard the whistle, and knew Xena had just summoned Argo. Her head swiveled, as if she might catch a glimpse of the warrior, but she knew it would be in vain.
"That was Xena," she told Lilla, and Hermia, and Ileander, and whoever else was in earshot. Things would be all right now.
It seemed crazy to Drax, but he had no better idea, and 'No' seemed not to be
not to be something you said to Xena. You just got on with the job. So here he
was, ready to leap off Argo to the rear of the bowmen, alone, armed with just
his sword. "Just head for the nearest man," she'd charged him. "They won't be
looking for you."
"Not at first," he agreed, over the rushing wind and soft thud of Argo's hooves.
"Not in the end," she'd said with confidence. "I'll see to that." He wasn't sure what she meant, but trusted to the gods, and Xena, as he slipped off the back of the large horse, and ran forward, crouched a little, stealing a final glimpse of Xena as she rode off to be about her own business.
Xena was right about the first man. Drax stuck his sword in him when he stood to let an arrow fly. There was no time for the honor of combat face-to-face. Kill quickly, kill silently, kill before they did. No one noticed the loss of the three who fell, and it was as he approached the fourth, still undetected, that an alarm was raised. By Xena. It was heard by those huddled together under the carts, choking on the thick smoke; it was heard by the wounded lying in their own blood, struggling to crawl away from the flames; the ones who'd made it to the woods heard it, and stopped in their tracks, uncertain; even the dead might have heard it, so primal was the voice, so chilling the note. Certainly the archers huddled in the grass heard it, and stopped in their grim work, to look behind them.
Drax froze for a moment, unnerved, then lunged at the nearest man, who was turning with the others. He fell, dead. The others looked right past Drax, to a figure rearing on a golden horse, sword brandished overhead. Then they were looking past her, to a large, moving shadow which she turned to now. The sword came down, severing a long rope which dangled from her saddle. "Eeeeeyaaah!" She trilled a long, shrill note, and rode madly with her whip, scattering the string of horses. They needed little urging; the smoke and noise had them high-strung. How she'd managed to keep them all together on the string was a wonder to Drax, but here they were, then they were gone, in all directions, and the bowmen ran after their life's blood, abandoning the attack. Drax, astonished, stood and watched, content to let them flee.
Xena felt otherwise. She fell upon them as they ran, giving no quarter. They wore long dark hair, and beards. Colorful rough clothes were layered on their bodies. She knew these people, too well. The more dead now, the less to worry about later. Some defended against her, most paid her little heed until the end. To be left horseless, here, was the next thing to being dead. So they died, one way or another. The field was almost empty when Xena paused. There would be plenty of horses for those lucky enough to round them up. In the camp, fires were being quenched. Names were called out in desperate attempts to locate loved ones. Gabrielle would be there, tending the wounded, Xena mused, and turned Argo back to camp, the enemy reprieved, for the moment. Then, from the edge of her vision a new movement was detected, a mass coming over the crest of a hill. Damn! A horde of mounted men. She stole a glance at the undefended camp, torn between defending it there, next to her bard, or trying something, she didn't know what, to turn them away. There would be no defeating them as the camp stood now. They gave her little choice, riding steadily on, pausing only to kill the men she'd let escape. Payback for running she assumed. No choice. She wheeled around. "C'mon, Argo. Not through yet," she urged.
Gabrielle had emerged from the under the cart at the sound of Xena's battle cry. Dead and wounded thickly littered the ground. Fires still burned. But the arrows had stopped. "Come out," she yelled, "it's over!" No one budged from cover.
"Gabrielle, get back in here," Ileander said urgently.
"Ileander, these people need help," she retorted. "Help put these fires out!" She beat furiously at a grass fire with a blanket, alone in all the camp.
"They'll start again Gabrielle," Hermia promised. "You don't know them; they don't give up that easily."
"No, Hermia, I don't; and you don't know Xena," she called back, pausing just a moment in her work. "I don't know what she did, but it worked." She allowed herself a brief smile, then turned her attention to the row of carts, wishing she used obscenities effectively. "Danger's over; get your worthless hides out here to do some work."
Hermia crawled out cautiously; Ileander followed. It seemed to be as Gabrielle said. Hermia found a bucket and splashed water on the nearest flames. Ileander pulled a wounded man out of danger, cheeks burning with the embarrassment of his delay. As if to confirm Gabrielle, Drax tore into their midst on an unsaddled horse. "Gabrielle, will no one else help?" he shouted, setting to work beating out the fires beside her.
"Did you see her Drax?" she asked, ignoring his query.
"See her, damn yes, I saw her. She stopped them Gabrielle, single-handed, almost," he conceded, remembering his own small part in the battle.
"She's all right?"
He nodded his reply, then turned to the row of carts, and let loose a withering string of obscenities that Gabrielle envied.
The blonde relaxed and took a breath now, realized it was the first deep breath she'd taken in some time; it was a mistake. She coughed on the smoke she inhaled, doubled over, then seized a strip of cloth and dunked it in a bucket of water Hermia carried by. Around them the camp was alive again, swarmed over by soot-blackened ragged creatures. The fires were getting under control, and it was time to begin serious attention to the wounded. Gabriele finished tying the cloth around her mouth and nose. The nearest man had an arrow through his chest. He might have been dead, she stooped to him, and as her fingers touched her neck, a searing pain shot through her head. She fell, and a second vicious kick landed on her, this time directed at her ribs. "That one's mine!" said a gruff voice. "Find your own, bitch!" Through eyes burning with smoke and pain, she saw, as if in a nightmare, the earring yanked from the man's ear. He yelped in uncontrolled reaction. "Still alive?" the gruff voice queried, annoyed. His boot came down then on the man's neck. Unbelieving, Gabrielle heard a soft crunch. She rose to her knees and looked around. On all sides the macabre looting had begun: earrings were ripped from dead or dying forms. The looters were happy to provide assistance to the other side. Bodies were stripped of weapons, clothing, boots. With bloodied hands they turned then to each other, stealing anew what had just been taken.
A strong hand seized Gabrielle, and pulled her to her feet. "Let's go." Hermia, Lilla held firmly by her other hand, was speaking just loud enough to be heard above the din. "We'll move the cart just out of this mess, before we lose everything."
"No!" Gabrielle tried to pull free. "We have to try - "
"Try what?" Hermia asked firmly. "To stop this frenzy? Can't be done." She hurried along, anxious to be out of the melee. Her words seemed to be true. She watched Drax fight a lonely battle for a few moments, defending the wounded with his sword, pleading for order. Some other crests of the Overlord were seen; the men who wore them were heavily laden with loot. Drax caught sight of Gabrielle. "No stopping them," he conceded wearily. "Just get clear of here. I'll be along as soon as I locate Ileander."
She grabbed his arm. "Drax, are you sure Xena's all right? Why isn't she back yet?"
Xena had moved to the crest of a hill, and waited for the column of riders to reach her. No more preparation was possible. Damned Placar. His troops were useless; worse than useless. They lulled the camp into a sense of security, then lay down drunk, oblivious to danger. When this is over, she swore…She never finished the thought, because the riders had stopped, at the outstretched arm of their leader. They stood for a few moments, two or three engaged in quiet consultation. In the distance the hunting continued: occasional cries told when the fugitives had been found. Sounds were easy to distinguish, now that the camp was quiet. She could see the riders more clearly now, and began to doubt their connection to the attack. The dress was different, as was their coloring. These were not the same. It didn't mean they posed no threat, and she chose her first three targets as they started forward again. They all wore long hair, which seemed to glint fair in the light of the moon, and the still burning fires. It was pulled tight behind them, trailing in long braids, or pony tails. They stopped within yards of her, and it was not until then that Xena knew the leader was a woman. The woman spoke first.
"It's not often convicts," she spit the word with scorn, "show so well against the tribes."
"Really? Well life is full of surprises," Xena replied, face impassive.
"Where are your troops?" She spoke a rustic Greek dialect, in a lilting voice. Her question was a demand.
"He went to take a piss," Xena replied. "We weren't expecting more company."
"Mind your manners, whore," said the man beside the leader.
The chakram whirled from Xena's side before the others registered that she had moved. It struck him a glancing blow on the side of the head and returned to her, ready for more action. He toppled to the ground. The woman waited for him to give signs of life, then returned her gaze to Xena. "You live dangerously."
Xena agreed. It had been a calculated move; if they had chosen to respond with weapons, she'd be very busy right now.
"He only meant," the woman went on, "that I am not company. I am your hostess. Tartarus is my homeland, the trespass is yours," she said coldly.
So this was Petra Tartras. Her youth surprised Xena. Clear gray eyes bore steadily on her. The color of pearls, Xena noted, set above high cheekbones. Her lips were taut; her words were civil, but the woman was angry. It's not my choice to trespass here, Xena thought, but withheld the words. She did not want to discuss her convict status with this woman, not here, not now. They had come together, unknowingly, unwittingly, at the site of this attack by a common foe. That was enough. "Well thanks for the hospitality, Petra," she said with enough civility to make it sincere, and the hint of a smirk to let Petra know she wasn't to take it too seriously.
The message wasn't lost on Petra. They had been following the trail of the tribesmen for two days, expecting to find a massacre accomplished when they caught up with them at last. She was intrigued by this dark woman who seemed to have defeated the tribe alone. She wore a convict earring, but still, she owed her respect as a warrior.
"You have a beautiful horse," she said, paying a safe compliment. "Too good for a convict." She couldn't resist the barb. "Still," she hurried on, "my people have rounded up a lot of horses, sturdy war ponies. Even though you are a convict, I will offer first pick to you as the victor here." It was a generous concession, Xena knew, homage to a warrior, and she swallowed the harsh retort that was on her lips. She didn't really want a warhorse, a draught horse would be of more use, but this was not a gift to refuse. She nodded curtly. "And one for my comrade," she pressed.
"The pisser," Petra recalled, with no trace of humor. "Of course." A cheap price for so many dead tribesmen. She spoke softly in a foreign tongue to the men around her. They smiled as if enjoying a private joke. Xena didn't hear every word, but the gist was plain: The dark bitch would be a fine night's entertainment. Xena wouldn't let this pass; but before her words were out, something more urgent took her attention.
The camp was no longer quiet. The sounds were like those of battle, but consisted more of screaming and loud words than clash of metal on metal. She looked in that direction, rising a little in her stirrups, and could only make out figures rushing too and fro. It could be the business of cleaning up after the attack, but it didn't sound like that, and these weren't the sort of people who would be so energetic about that activity. Without a word she turned Argo in a mad gallop back to the camp. "Ready to bust convict heads?" Petra snarled in her native tongue, and plunged after Xena, her men in hot pursuit.
The cart stood behind a thicket of thorn bushes, hidden in this dark unless someone knew how to look. Gabrielle had no doubt that Xena would find them. The hasty exit from camp had been maneuvered efficiently. They'd run into no one else. The camp was left behind, but was not forgotten. Screams were carried back to them on the eastern wind. Gabrielle imagined in every shrill cry the voice of someone she knew, some child, or mother. Lilla was safe, in Hermia's arms. They were all safe, under the protection of Drax. Even their things were safe. She had no doubt Hermia would survive Tartarus nicely; the woman's instinct for survival was strong. But not far away, down a little slope, fires burned anew, and people lay dying untended. Children, maybe. I never should have left, she castigated herself. I could have been of use. I could still be of use.
It was quiet here; they remained still to avoid detection, and spoke only when necessary. She could leave and not be missed. So the bard picked up her staff, drifted to the edge of the thicket, and waited until the moon passed behind a cloud. Then she slipped out and followed the narrow track back to the scene of mayhem.
Xena saw the looting for what it was, and raced through it with no thought of action. Gabrielle alone was her on mind, and the woman was nowhere in sight. Placar had the misfortune of coming in her line of sight; she grabbed him by the throat in an iron grip.
"Do your job, bastard," she hissed. Around them savagery was the rule. The peddlers' carts were the targets now, turned over one-by-one, picked clean, and set ablaze. The waste, in this place of so much want, was stomach churning. With a solid fist on Placar's nose. Xena was through with the man, and continued her search. It was a relief to find Hermia's cart gone, not ravaged and destroyed like so many others. The woman had good sense; she would have moved to safety. Xena hoped Gabrielle's need to help the whole world had not prevented her own escape. Gabrielle's need to help? What of her own? Why had she left the woman? It wasn't at all clear now. Away from the camp she rode, down the track the cart would have followed. The donkey's tracks were easy to read, even by moonlight. The lumbering cart made deep ruts; freshly turned earth lay in its wake. Beside them, booted footprints, three sets; one set was larger than the others. A horseman had led the way, Drax and Ileander were with them she guessed eagerly. Drax was not a fool; it would take more than one man to restore order in that melee. Xena knew Petra had followed her; maybe her troops could handle it. Xena didn't really care.
The cart hadn't gone far, really, just around a bend, behind a thicket. It was well hidden, unless it was looked for. "Gabrielle," she called softly, then louder, as she got no reply.
"Xena?" asked a voice from the cart.
"Hermia? Where's Gabrielle?"
"Right here," the woman assured her, and called her name. No reply. Drax stepped forward from his vantage point in the nearby trees: "She's gone back," he guessed. "She felt guilty the whole way here. Spoke of nothing else."
Xena's hands slapped against her thighs in frustration. "Damn," she exclaimed. "How could you let her go back?"
"She didn't announce it," he retorted, but Xena was gone, wondering how she'd missed her along the track.
For Petra, it was all the same, killing convicts or the marauders from the East. One group was the diseased discards of a decadent civilization, the other a barbarous, primitive people, hungry to grab, ready to destroy what they could not carry away. She would have been happy to let the tribes exterminate this little group, had timed her movements to arrive when the convicts were slaughtered, before the tribesmen had fled. The woman had intervened and saved the convicts, but all was not lost. Nothing stood between Petra and the convicts now, save the sorry underlings of Nerad. Any excuse would do.
Her sudden appearance struck terror into the convicts. They tried to flee. Some sorry fools wouldn't drop their loot; they died wealthy. Others made it to the woods, and ran blindly through the dark forest, no terror worse than that at their backs. Placar ran faster than most, not prepared this day to die for his Overlord. Petra's men were efficient, and careful: their strokes cut through any convict who resisted, others might be left alone, but the temptation was to resist, to raise arms, or clubs, or swords. Gabrielle came upon this scene, different chaos, but violent chaos nonetheless. She had expected to see Xena here, instead she found a whirling mass of men on horseback, wheeling and slashing, trampling goods and bodies underfoot. She had been at many battle scenes, and swallowed her fear to wade into the thick of it now, but not to fight.
Her eyes darted around the area, searching the low places, places where children might hide. Her eyes fell first on two little boys, huddled near the base of a tree stump. They wailed, and clutched at each other. Gabrielle seized one by the hand, and the other followed, as she led them away from the center, to the fringe by the woods, gathering two others on the way. There in a half circle of saplings, she stood over them with her staff, and fought for a small zone of safety. She swung the staff overhead, in a wide circle; anyone who ventured too near would meet hard wood.
The riot raged on, a fire out of control; Petra was the wind which blew it hotter. Fight or fly were the choices the convicts knew; surrender was not an option. It seemed only the blood of convicts would quench this blaze
It was hard to see in the smoke; an occasional gust of wind blew the air clear, and vignettes were glimpsed, but Gabrielle was not in the horrid scenes. Maybe she hadn't returned to this dreadful place, Xena hoped, or had the sense to find a safe spot - no. That made no sense. She had come back to help; Xena would need to find her in the thick of things. Argo picked her way over the fallen, both dead and wounded, as she rode through the outer precincts of the camp. The carnage was awful. The convicts had been more intent on looting than killing; this was not their work entirely. Petra. Dry mouthed, she quickened her pace, and arrived at the center of the firestorm, to see the riders busy at work. How did I let this happen, she asked herself, before charging into battle.
Nearby, a convict tried to out-race one of Petra's troops. It was no match, a cat-and-mouse game with a sure winner. Xena's teeth bared; she unfurled her whip and unseated the rider, landing him in a smoldering heap of ashes. He got to his feet, startled, but Xena was gone, engaging a second rider with her blade while another convict scampered toward the woods. Some others saw what she was doing now, and rode against her, forgetting the men on the ground. They smiled at the chance to put the insolent bitch in her place. She smiled at their presumption, a moment before sending the chakram out to clear her path. Convicts saw their chance for escape now, and took it. The field began to empty. Still no Gabrielle, Xena realized with a sinking heart.
"Gabrielle," she yelled, followed by a sharp battle cry. The bard heard the sound and responded, pausing in her little battle by the tree stump, glad to let her weary shoulders rest for a moment. "Xena," she yelled back, then repeated the name, tears running down her face, whether from eyes reddened by smoke, exhaustion or relief she couldn't tell.
Xena moved toward her voice through the smoke. Petra heard the cries of both; the first she recognized as the dark warrior's. She'd caught glimpses of the young woman gallantly defending the two children. Now it appeared she was somehow connected to the warrior. And the warrior was Xena. She had never expected to meet Xena here. She closed her eyes in prayerful thanks to the gods of her mothers, before moving purposefully toward Gabrielle.
Yet someone was closer to the bard, riding past, suddenly aware of her when she called out. His head turned at her cry; he knew it was for the convict-warrior. He spurred his horse toward the tree stump. Gabrielle felt the thunder of hoofbeats close by and stiffened to meet him, staff ready, eyes wide in surprise at this unexpected late attack. Instinct took over and she aimed for his gut, her best chance to unseat him before his blade scythed down.
Petra saw it all as she approached. She knew her men, knew his intention when his head turned. In that instant she reached for the knife in her belt and loosed it at him. He crashed to earth at Gabrielle's feet. As she avoided the downward arc of his sword, she stumbled backwards, into the path of his horse as it plunged riderless ahead. She saw only dark earth for a moment as she tumbled, then a strong hand grabbed her brief halter, and wrenched her to the side. Breathless, she watched the horse disappear.
She rubbed soot from her eyes and focused on the figure who now stood over her, who had saved her life. "Thank you." She was looking into gray eyes, flinty, reflecting the small fires that still burned. She sketched a slight bow, and spoke: "Antas has learned a painful lesson. We don't kill except from necessity. I'm sorry he frightened you." She touched him roughly with her boot. Gabrielle didn't know the language, but read the contempt in her eyes as she lashed him verbally. Softer eyes turned to Gabrielle. She knelt beside her in the dirt, her chain mail sheath parting to reveal well-muscled thighs, while a hand, softer than it looked, brushed her hair from her eyes. "You did well," she told her in a strange accent which seemed to hate long vowels. "The children are safe, and now it’s over."
Over? That didn't seem possible. She had come to accept that the horrors of this night would never end; despite what this woman said, it wouldn't be over until Xena was there. Where was she? She looked around.
"You were calling to someone. Who?" Petra asked. "Perhaps I can help."
Gabrielle didn't reply, she was watching Xena's silent approach. Petra turned to her, ready to speak; something in Xena's manner urged her to be quiet. Unbidden, she rose, and Xena took her place at Gabrielle's side, taking in all of her at one glance. "You're all right?" was her question. "It seemed I could never catch up with you all night…"
"So much for your rule," the bard joked in reply.
"Staying together," she reminded her.
"I'm sorry; I was busy. We both were."
"Yeah. We'll just have to work at it, staying together. Can we begin right now?" What started as a smile ended in grateful tears, and she leaned into her warrior, welcoming the strong arms that folded around her. "It's really over?" she asked.
"Yes, Gabrielle," Xena promised, "it's over." For now.
That's how it is, Petra smiled to herself as she led her horse away: the convict-warrior and the bard made a couple, or so it seemed. Certainly there was love between them.
The fighting was over, but a long night lay ahead. There were wounded to be cared for, though not many, and the wounds were not serious. Serious wounds had all proven fatal, or had attracted ghouls eager to give death a hand. As a consequence, there were more dead than wounded. The primary need was for gravediggers. Gabrielle was left the task of dispensing medical care, while Xena rounded up 'volunteers' for burial detail. Placar had disappeared; Petra and her troops had withdrawn to the nearby hills, pitched camp, and watched the clean-up from their own cookfires. The wind howled throughout the night, its keening a grim witness to the proceedings.
It was near dawn when the last grave was closed, and the foul-tempered warrior released the last of the gravediggers from service. Whatever threat she had used must have been good, Hermia considered as Xena strode into the camp, half-supporting a sleepy bard. Hermia had returned sometime before, kindled a fire, and heated a pot of water. She'd salvaged the fish Xena had caught the night before, and they sizzled on a flat rock, browned, crisp-skinned, rubbed with simple herbs. "You'll be hungry," she told them both. "Put something in your bellies before you sleep."
Xena lowered herself to the ground by the fire, cradling Gabrielle against her. "What first, Gabrielle? Food, sleep, or a bath?"
"There isn't enough hot water for bathing," Hermia warned.
"Cold will do nicely," Xena assured her, then waited for Gabrielle to decide.
"A bath, I think. I'd like to feel clean again." Her eyes looked startlingly bright against her soot-blackened face. She reached up and traced a line through Xena's own grime. "Do I look as bad as you?" she asked.
"Hideous," Xena nodded stone-faced. Then she quirked a smile. "Good thing I'm not fussy." She planted a small kiss on the brad's cheek and stood, bearing her entire weight.
"Xena, this isn't necessary," came the unconvincing protest. "You're as tired as I am."
"Humor me," Xena replied. "You're the lightest burden I've carried all night."
The stream was not thirty yards away, secluded by overhanging branches. There was little fear anyone would come by, anyway. It seemed that the immediate world was asleep. Clothes needed to be scrubbed as well as bodies. She had cleaned herself, and sponged off her leathers; now Xena stood knee deep in water, scrubbing Gabrielle's clothes with powerful forearms, soaping and rinsing, then repeating the process until the garments were clean. Gabrielle watched, blanket-wrapped, from a rock which caught the early rays of the sun. At last Xena had the clothes hanging from tree limbs, and invited the bard to join her.
"C'mon, Gabrielle," she cajoled. "It's only cold for the first few minutes."
"You say that every morning."
"Have I ever been wrong?" she challenged, as she waded over to provide more encouragement. "Let's go. Those fish are waiting." She half lifted her and deposited her in the stream, thigh high, holding her close until the early shivers had ceased. Without a word she turned her around, and began to lather her back. "Uh-uh," she warned when Gabrielle moved. "Just relax."
Even in that frigid water Xena's fingers coaxed her to relaxation, kneading sore muscles, easing the strain from her neck. She worked silently, front and back, smiling when she caught sight of the green eyes staring at her. "What?" she asked, "Is my face still dirty?" Then "Oh, you've got a deep scratch here."
"It won't kill me," Gabrielle intoned, in her best imitation of Xena's own minimizing comment. "I'm lucky that's all I got. If Petra hadn't been there…" She shuddered as she recalled the incident. "I think she saved my life."
"Saved you from one of her own men," Xena pointed out, voice was a bit strained.
"They got a little carried away," Gabrielle shrugged. "It was no easy task, restoring order in that chaos. So many were killed."
So many by Petra and her troops. She realized that Gabrielle had been on the perimeter of the action, and hadn't witnessed the carnage. "They got more than a 'little carried away', Gabrielle. They did most of the killing." She sponged soap from Gabrielle's hair, and rinsed her back.
"I didn't know you were there to see it, Xena. Hermia said you rode straight through the trouble without stopping, to look for me."
There was something in Gabrielle’s voice…reproach? Xena's hands stilled. "Was there something wrong with that?" she asked carefully.
"No," Gabrielle replied slowly. "Just surprising. There were so many innocent people in danger. It's not like you to ignore them." There was a long pause, when the only sound came from the water Xena worked through the sponge. Gabrielle replayed her words in the silence, and heard them as Xena had.
"Ignore them? Is that what I did?" Xena demanded quietly.
"No," the bard replied urgently. "No, Xena, I'm sorry, that's not fair. You didn't ignore them - "
"No; I think you're right. That's exactly what I did," she flared briefly. "I didn't give two damns about them, because I wanted to see you, know that you were all right." She squeezed the sponge dry. "I won't apologize for that." She headed to the bank. Gabrielle followed. "You have every right to be angry."
"I'm not angry," she countered, "Just tired."
"I think you're a little angry. I would be." she insisted.
"You know me better than I know myself?"
"I know you very well, Xena. Don't let that make you nervous, you still have more mysteries than Dionysis, more riddles than the Sphinx, more paradoxes than Zeno-"
"Okay, Gabrielle, I get the point," she showed her teeth in a grudging smile.
"I know you Xena," she began again, soberly. "Enough to know you wouldn't ignore people in need. You do so much good, time and time again for people you don't even know." Like those in Priblis, she thought bleakly. "The greater good. You saved us all tonight. Drax told us how you thwarted the attack." She stopped two paces from Xena, a silent acknowledgement that it was for Xena to be forgiving or not, as she chose. "I can't believe I said something so stupid," she ended.
"It wasn't stupid," Xena said quickly. "You expected me to look out for the 'greater good'. I was tired of doing that. I just wanted to look out for you."
"Xena, you don't have to look out for me every minute; I'm a big girl, remember?"
"I don't forget that Gabrielle," she said earnestly. "I also remember how close I've come to losing you."
Gabrielle nodded, recalling the time she'd wandered in the shadow of Hades. "I came back to you Xena," she reminded her.
"I was just coming back for you, Gabrielle. That's all." Xena picked up the blanket and wrapped it around the water-beaded shoulders of the smaller woman. "You'll get sick; let's get back to the fire."
"Not yet, there's still unfinished business from last night." Xena raised an eyebrow, prepared for anything. "We never had our dance. You disappeared while I was telling stories."
"I got tied up." For the first time she wondered what had become of Arthea. She hadn't seen her since the attack began.
"I though maybe you were angry then."
"No." She shook her head. There had been something…a mattress? Does Gabrielle often assume I'm angry? She wanted to ask, but Gabrielle waited expectantly, head turned a little so that her hair fell to one side, just brushing the top of a firm breast where the blanket ended. Xena fell into her embrace, never taking her eyes from the green ones which met hers so eagerly. Xena hummed softly, felt the bard's warmth through the damp blanket, and moved slowly against her, loving the feel of her cheek against her chest, marveling at the thrill of holding this soft creature. The dance was simple, slow steps in harmony; no one led. Xena's hands moved lower, cradled soft round cheeks, and stopped. It made her breath come a little faster. "Gabrielle…"
"Hermia will be looking for us, Xena…" she warned.
"She's got better sense than to find us; not now. Don't talk." She loosed the blanket and spread it quickly on the ground, never taking her eyes from the woman.
The fish were cold when they returned to camp, Gabrielle, clad in her shift, in Xena's arms. Hermia thought a smile was on the bard's face even in sleep. "I was afraid a water nymph got you," she deadpanned. One nymph in particular.
Xena raised an eyebrow, then relaxed, allowing the woman a small smile. She'd shown her worth during the long night, kept her head, made neither too little nor too much of it, and looked after Gabrielle. She chided herself briefly, as she settled her on the ground, careful not to awaken her. Gabrielle was a grown woman, she reminded herself, more than that, a formidable woman in her own right, who just chose to keep company with one whose life moved in strange, often vicious circles; Gabrielle didn't need looking after. And yet, she realized with a pang, she did, all too often. Especially here. "So do I Gabrielle," she admitted in a whisper, tucking the end of the blanket around her.
The fish were good, for all that they were cold, and Xena made short work of them.
"Delicious," Xena told Hermia as she licked the last bits of them from her fingers. Not quite how Gabrielle would have done them, but delicious nonetheless. "You did a good job to save them, what with everything that went on last night."
"I saved everything, Xena," she said bitterly. "We'll have less chance than ever to get things, now," she said, resigned to even further deprivation.
Xena understood her meaning. It seemed unlikely the peddlers would return to The Sweetwater anytime soon. In one evening they had been the targets of both the Eastern Tribes and the convicts. Xena wondered if they had suffered at the hands of Petra's troops as well. She had seen one buried.
"I like to think of myself as being safe, because I'm useful. I farm, I bake, I provide for them." Hermia snorted with self-derision. "If they'd attack the peddlers, no one's safe. What were, they thinking, the crazy fools?" she complained.
"Thinking? Not much of anything," Xena observed. "Most had been drinking. Even sober, they might have acted the same. If they made good choices they wouldn't be in a convict settlement," she observed. "No reason to change now. They'll continue to make bad choices." And make this place a misery beyond the gods' designing. They were both silent for a long few minutes.
"I managed some winks last night, Xena, whilst you two were busy. If you want to sleep for a bit, I'll wake you when the camp starts to stir," Hermia volunteered.
"There's too much to be done, Hermia," she replied. "I missed my chance to sleep," she admitted happily, but I put the hour to good use, was her private admission.
"What's to be done? I thought we'd be on the road to home before the sun was high."
"I'm still aiming for that," Xena nodded, squinting at the sun, which still hugged the far horizon. "Just some loose ends to tie up. Shouldn't take long. See that Gabrielle eats when she wakes up. And for Gaia's sake, find a way to make her stay put," she pleaded.
The camp might have been under a spell, so soundly did it sleep. Birds of prey poked through the heaps of rubble, shrieking protests at having missed a good meal. Xena was doubly glad she'd forced the timely burial. The mass graves bore silent testimony to the loss of life; a harsh oath escaped her as she passed them. Stupid damn fools, so many dead; two dozen men, she reckoned. She'd seen the bodies of three women, and least one child. One wagon crammed with people seeking shelter had gone up in flames; no one had escaped. Word was that children were inside.
The peddlers had made an early exit, with their personal escorts. Little good they'd been, she mused. They'd left a scattering of ruined goods behind, where their stalls had been.
She passed a heap of ash that had been a mattress without knowing it.
Placar, with at least some of his men, had fled in the night, whether from the riot or Petra Xena couldn't be sure, and didn't much care. It was more important that there'd been no time to pack up the supplies his troops carried with them. A half-dozen troops had stayed behind, or had drifted back. Now they lay camped around the circled wagons, asleep. Not even one sloppy sentry, Xena realized with contempt. There was no sign of Drax. The site was at the top of a steep, short hill. That had made it easy to defend against the drunken rioters. The wagons were heavy with food and wine; the camp below was hungry. The solution was simple.
She picked up two pots which lay near the fire, and clanged them sharply together, while she strode around the perimeter, landing solid kicks on the men on the ground. "Wake up!" They rolled slowly to attention, blinking against the unexpectedly early morning. "Not morning people, huh?" she sneered. "Then you're in for a rough few hours. Time you did some work."
"We take orders from Placar," one protested, to general grunts of affirmation.
"Yeah? Well he's not here; must be halfway back to his hidey-hole. Which means," she paused for effect, and bit her lip, considering, "that right now, you're taking orders from me. Here's the first one: empty these carts of food, and stand ready to distribute it to whoever comes asking. I expect that might be the entire camp."
They shifted weight from one foot to another, cast sideways glances at each other, avoided Xena's look altogether.
So predictable, Xena mused. "My second order will be directed at the last man to begin carrying out the first order. He's not gonna like it," she promised, "but he won't live long enough to regret his choice."
On a hilltop not far away, Petra Tartras wondered what she had said to make the men fall over themselves in haste.
Xena!" Gabrielle heard the voice, imagined danger, and rolled to her knees, snatching her staff as she did so. "Xena!" the voice was closer now, and it clearly was no threat. Arthea. Gabrielle relaxed, heard Hermia's scolding: "Quiet! They can hear you in Mus."
Arthea apologized with a smirk. "Sorry. Just looking for Xena."
"Arthea," Gabrielle called, and crossed over to see her. "Hello." Arthea looked at her with interest; Gabrielle felt naked under her stare.
"Gabrielle. I was just looking for Xena."
"She's not here," Hermia supplied.
Arthea saw the question that showed briefly on Gabrielle's face. "Xena doesn't stay still long does she?"
"Can I do anything, Arthea?" Gabrielle asked.
"No, Gabrielle, thanks. Just wanted to let Xena know I survived. No thanks to her." She rolled her eyes, pursed her lips in a show of annoyance. "Can you imagine? She left me lying behind that big oak tree at the far end. Anything could have happened to me."
"Well, like you said, you survived," Hermia pointed out quickly. "We'll tell her you came by."
"Xena left you.?" Gabrielle asked, suddenly curious. "When was this?"
"Just as the attack began," Arthea said, warming to her tale. "We were anxious to get to the dancing." She twirled a quick demonstration. "Xena noticed the flaming arrows. Eyes like an eagle. Hard to see anything through that smoke from the opium pipes. Anyway, she saw the arrows, and told me to stay put. Then she went to put things right. She's quite a woman," she ended, never moving her eyes from Gabrielle's face."
"No one here will argue with that, Arthea," Hermia said quickly. "Now, why not give me a hand loading the cart?"
"Hermia, believe me, I've got plenty of work to do."
"Then you'd best get to it. I imagine everyone will want to be in their homes by nightfall."
"Yeah. I expect you're right," she conceded. "Just give Xena my message, then. Or maybe I'll run into her myself," she said brightly.
"I saved you breakfast," Hermia, said as they watched Arthea disappear through the woods. "Gabrielle," she began again, after a long pause, "I said - "
"I'm sorry Hermia, I heard you. I guess I'm not hungry. Thanks." A pause. Where did you say Xena went?"
"I didn't say; she didn't say." She brought a plate of fish to Gabrielle.
"Get that look out of your eye," she advised. "Xena was clear: she wants you to
stay here, and she wants you to eat. Go ahead." She thrust the fish at the bard.
"And don't think about Arthea."
"Arthea?" Gabrielle echoed. "Why should I think about her?" Her shaky laugh betrayed her.
"No reason at all. So why are you doing it?" She sat next to Gabrielle by the dying morning fire.
She shrugged. "I wondered where Xena went last night, before the attack. Now I know."
"And? What of it?" Hermia asked quietly. "You don't think she - "
"With Arthea? No," Gabrielle guffawed. Then: "We had a difference of opinion about something. I don't like to think she'd go off and find Arthea's company, instead of talking it out with me."
Hermia nodded. "I don't know her like you do, but I know love when I see it. Just remember this: Arthea's goes home to Lutus; you have Xena. I wouldn't put it past that one to try and stir up trouble."
"I trust Xena," the bard said simply. "Don't worry about Arthea."
Xena rubbed her eyes, and blew out a long breath. This new day seemed to have begun without the day before ending. That's what happen when you don't sleep, she told herself. No pity. Time for sleep tomorrow. The carts had been unloaded, grudgingly, but the job was done. Some order in the distribution of food would be necessary; providing it was a job she didn't want. She was loping down the long hill which led to the encampment, and knew without looking that she was being watched; Petra seemed very interested in her movements. She'd be happy to leave her behind with the rest of this place. For the moment Petra had little meaning; she'd be happier to see Drax or Archon; even Cramma could be useful. She knew they were all here, or had been. She hadn't seen them in the burial pits. Camp was beginning to stir, exhaustion would be overcome by the need to be home, wherever that was, before dark. An occasional sob came from those who woke from a nightmare, only to learn that the real nightmare was reality. More purposeful sounds came from the lucky ones who'd made it through with families and possessions intact. They were preparing to leave. "Morning," Xena ventured, approaching one couple. They had a hand cart, piled high with goods, some scorched-by fire. They eyed her suspiciously. "Getting on the road early?"
"I can't see how that's your business," the man growled. His gnarled fingers curled around a thick club. She recognized him as the man Arthea had wrestled with the evening before.
"Come to think of it, neither can I," she growled in return. I would have told you where to get some breakfast, she thought, as she walked away, shaking her head. Try to be nice…
"Xena, your morning salutation has a touch too much…" Ileander, emerging from a small lean-to, not ten feet away, reached for the right word. "…warrior."
She smiled ruefully. "That's about the best I can manage right now,
"I understand," he sympathized. "At least you've found time to bathe." His own fair hair was still smeared with soot. "I could use a hot tub, a full stomach, and a soft bed right now, and I think all three will have to wait until we get home."
She showed her teeth, and nodded toward the hill. "I can help you out with one of them," she told him. "Placar's left a generous 'donation' behind: enough food for the entire camp to have a good meal, and take a little on the road. I tried to tell him," she jerked her head toward the man with the club, who cursed his own possessions now, as he tried to balance the cart.
"Sweetheart, you left off that dazzling smile. No one of reason would be - could be- snarly if you'd only show those dazzling teeth. Want to try again?"
"No," she snapped, and the smile vanished. "What I want to do is get out of here. You can tell him. Tell everyone," she thought, suddenly seeing Ileander as the right man for the job. "Tell, them quietly, and slowly; maybe they'll collect their shares without a new riot," she ended soberly.
"I don't think they're anxious to repeat that, Xena," he observed. I think they even scared themselves." He brightened. "I'll be happy to spread the good word. When Drax comes back from wherever he's gone, I'll put him to work, too. And Archon. We'll manage," he assured her.
"Archon's all right? And Sepra?"
"Right as rain. Sepra’s huge." He drew a large circle around his belly. "Due in about a month. Archon's worried, but Sepra's fine." He broke into a grin. "Their herd of sheep produces a fine grade of wool. I can make some nice cloth if Drax ever finishes the loom."
"Good," she nodded, resisting the urge to ask about Cramma. And Arthea. For the second time she wondered if Arthea had survived. "Ileander, thank you. I just remembered something I've got to do."
Arthea wasn't been behind the tree where Xena had left her; the area showed no sign of disturbance. Xena took that as a good sign, but would have been happy to know what had become of the woman. She eyed the sun, calculating that they'd need to be on the road soon to be home by dark. With that in mind, she doubled her gait and headed toward their own small camp.
Her head whipped around. "Yes," she inquired. She didn't know these people who stood before her. There were five of them. The older of two men was holding something, wrapped in a well-worn cloth.
"We wanted to thank you." He stepped forward, extending the package to her.
"I don't want any thanks," she told him. He didn't move. They stood, two men, two women, and a small child, a formidable wall, waiting for a different response.
"Look, whatever this is, I can't take it," she explained with as much patience as she could muster. Tribute, she thought with disgust.
One of the women grabbed the package, tore the wrappings from it, and showed
it to Xena. "I know it isn't much," she began, and stopped, as the utter truth
of her words struck home. Xena looked at it, working to keep her face neutral. A
grubby half loaf of bread, not fresh from the looks of it, lay in the square of
cloth. In other circumstances it would be an insult to offer it; here, it would
be an insult for her to refuse. "Thank you," she mumbled, then hesitated. They
didn't know about the food available from Placar's store. Would it further
lessen the value of their gift for her to mention it? She still debated as a
request was made: "Xena. We had expected to marry at the dance last night." The
younger man, holding the hand of a young woman, looked at her with respect. Her
puzzled look brought an explanation. "That's how it's done here, when people
bother. You make a declaration before witnesses. We thought the dance would make
it more special." He shrugged at the futility of plans. "We'd be honored if
you'd hear us pledge to each other right now."
"Me? I don't even know you," she pointed out.
"I'm Granius, a convict, this is Selvia, who followed me here. Came on the same transport as you. I reckon I owe you my life twice over," he said quietly. "Selvia and I will spend our lives together, and we want all Tartarus to know it's by choice." That said, he waited for Xena to agree.
"I really don't have time," she protested further.
"Right here, right now," he told her, and folded his meaty arms over those of Selvia. The others arranged themselves behind, and waited for Xena.
"I just listen?" she asked.
"And give us good wishes," Granius added, "I think the gods must smile on you."
Xena blanched at that, would have objected, but Granius had turned to Selvia: "I bless the day you came into my unworthy life, thank you for choosing life here with me, over a better life elsewhere, and pledge myself to you, a wiser man than when I earned my place here. I love you." The words were startling in their simplicity. Xena looked for the man behind the convict earring, wondering what such a man could have done to earn Tartarus.
Selvia's words were a fine match for his own: "I chose you by choice, out of love, and could have no better life, anywhere than the one I'll share with you. For better or worse. I pledge myself to you, with love."
That was all. Vows exchanged, they looked to Xena. "I'm honored to be present," she began solemnly. "I wish you both joy in each other, and long, happy lives together."
Hands were grasped all around, kisses were exchanged. Xena's cheeks were wet when she finally broke away, clutching her little bundle. "I almost forgot," she called over her shoulder as she walked away. "Placar's men have food for the asking. Go get your share."
"Why me?" she muttered as she walked away, already knowing the answer to her own question. She had stepped over a line the night before, not that she'd had any choice. No one else would have stopped the attack. Now, some would see her as their champion. The bread-offering was proof of that. Placar would feel threatened, Nerad would be nervous… gods knew how far it would go.
Gabrielle's eyes followed her approach through the trees. Maybe she alone knew the warrior well enough to recognize the slight slump in her shoulders that spoke of weariness, and something else…"Xena," she called out, and moved to meet her, encircling her waist, pulling the warrior's dark head down for a kiss. They ambled, toward the dead fire, arms around each other in a loose embrace.
"Did you get any sleep?" Xena asked.
"Yes, I did. I suppose you plan on dozing in the saddle," she said in mild reproach. "What was so urgent this morning?"
"I thought it was only fair that the Overlord's supplies be put to good use. I had to persuade his men to share."
Gabrielle smiled. It pleased her sense of justice. "Where's our share?"
"I figured we didn't need any. You and Hermia managed to save everything."
"What's this?" She took the loaf from under Xena's arm, unwrapped it and began a wary inspection.
"From an old enemy?" she snickered. "You aren't going to eat this?"
"I thought I would," Xena replied, remembering the little group. "I've had worst gifts."
"Oh." Gabrielle was puzzled, but let it go. As far as Xena went, that was a very minor mystery. "Arthea came by before," she said casually, looking for you."
"She's all right then? Good."
"She seemed a little miffed. Said you left her when the attack began."
"Yeah," Xena nodded. "I couldn't carry her, and her ankle was too badly injured for her to keep up."
"Oh. She hurt her ankle?" Gabrielle murmured.
"Just a bad sprain, I think. Couldn't see much in the dark, but Arthea's tough that way. She wouldn't have complained unless it was bad." Another mystery, Gabrielle mused, how Arthea’s ankle had healed so quickly.
"Now, if we get this stuff packed up, we can leave this place." Not a moment too soon, Xena told herself.
The little cart was barely up to the task of holding all they had for the return trip.
"Good thing you didn’t get the mattress," Gabrielle observed, to Xena’s stony glare. The sack of earrings was in Argo’s saddlebag, unseen, but waiting.
Hermia adjusted the donkey’s harness. "Climb onboard," she told Lilla.
"I want to ride with Xena," she objected.
"Not today, Lilla," Xena told her. The possibility of trouble on the road home was remote, but it was there.
""I’ll walk beside the cart and tell you a story, if you like, Lilla," Gabrielle offered. Hermia smiled at that. Gabrielle told a good story. She looked up from the harness, and saw riders through the trees. "Xena," she said under her breath.
Xena merely nodded. She’d heard them coming a long way off, guessed at who it was, and glanced now to confirm her guess. Petra, a few comrades, and some riderless horses. A social call.
"I finally get to see Petra," Hermia breathed as they approached.
She knows how to make an entrance, Xena thought, with grudging admiration. This woman would – apparently, did- command the respect of many. Certainly the men and women who rode with her deferred to her as they would a queen. They stayed at a respectful distance from her when she reined to a stop. She moved her head to take in the camp, the cart, the meager pile of possessions they had acquired. Her hair was like spun gold by daylight.
"Xena," she said. The warrior turned her head slightly, dimly aware that she did not turn enough to make her earring visible to Petra. "The evening seems to have worn you convicts out," she went on. "And the others." She inclined her head to take in Gabrielle and Hermia.
"And?" Xena asked.
"And in the quiet, I thought I’d bring your horses before you scurry off to wherever it is you live." She snapped her fingers and a man advanced with a string of four horses. "As you didn’t come to collect them I made a choice. You can choose one of these, and take another for your comrade, the pisser. There’s a fine stallion," she pointed out.
"Thanks. I don’t need my mare in foal," Xena said and moved to examine the horses.
Petra turned from her to Gabrielle. "You were very brave last night."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said, sincerely. "I wanted to thank you for saving my life."
Petra nodded her acceptance. "A life worth saving. You’re very beautiful."
Xena looked up to see Gabrielle blush. "I’ve decided." She pointed to a spotted mare, and the stallion, which was a fine horse, for Drax.
"Good choices. Would you like an escort on the road," she volunteered.
"I can handle things."
"If ever you're in The Sweetwater, our home is open to you," Gabrielle said. Her words
astonished Xena, but she made no sign.
"Thank you…?" She waited for a name to be supplied.
"Thank you, Gabrielle, I'll remember that, though I seldom visit convict settlements," she replied with some truth. Then in an aside to her men she spoke in her own tongue: "I wonder if she'll be open to me?"
The men guffawed, while Petra continued her gracious smile to the bard. Xena's lips tightened, almost imperceptibly. Not the time, she told herself.
"Well, she hasn't fangs," Hermia observed, or a tail. I guess I can put those rumors to rest." She laughed. "Cramma will want to know what weapons she carried; Sepra will be more interested in her dress. Or lack of. I wouldn't think that flimsy cloth would be much protection," she puzzled aloud.
For some time Petra had been the topic of conversation. She was something of an invisible legend in The Sweetwater, and Hermia seemed delighted by her
first glimpse of the woman.
"That's not what she had on last night, Hermia. She wore…"
Gabrielle was describing her stiff leather breastplate in some detail, as if she'd store up the memory for a future story. Xena had begun to recognize her working style.
Xena had recognized the motif of the body armor, a sketchy telling of the wearer's deeds embossed and gilded in gold. Maybe not as protective as metal, but very impressive. Julius Caesar had worn one like that…
"I'm gonna ride on ahead," she said suddenly. "Argo needs to stretch her legs. I won't be far."
"Still there," Gabrielle said with some relief as they crested the hill and saw their house - home, lit by the low rays of the rays. Xena slid off Argo, helped Gabrielle down, and approached the house with an appraising eye. The walls were dry, she noted with approval. The stacked cord of wood she'd laid beside the house was ready for the fire. Water needed to be fetched from the stream, a fire built, the horses seen to; Gabrielle would lay out supper, bread and cheese. It would be enough. And wine. Hermia had surprised them with that.
Then sleep. She felt as if she hadn't slept in a week.
"Still here," Gabrielle said again.
"What? "Xena, asked.
"Everything. Nothing's been touched."
Xena shrugged mentally. There was nothing much to be touched. She was more surprised they hadn't found smoke curling out of the chimney, and squatters living inside.
"My scrolls are just as I left them."
"I don't think our neighbors are the literary type, Gabrielle."
"People find other uses for scrolls, Xena. Some people," she added with an accusing air.
"Gabrielle, I used one corner, of one scroll, once. In a moment of dire
necessity<" she said, as if for the fortieth time. "Will you ever forgive me for
"I forgave you a long time ago," she laughed. "I just haven't forgotten yet."
"Come on then, let's get stuff inside."
Inside. It was real at last. Xena looked at the four walls as if knowing a wall for the first time. Gabrielle had surrendered to the nesting instinct. There was precious little to arrange, but she had found a reason to rearrange it all twice.
"How does this work?"
"Looks great," Xena said with little enthusiasm.
"You said that last time."
"Well, it looked great last time, too," she explained. The warrior sat cross-legged before the hearth, wineskin cradled in her lap, and yawned. She considered pointing out that Gabrielle had the bedding laid out in such a way that the sun would wake them long before the bard would be ready for it. No, she decided; why prolong things?
"Gabrielle, I'm going to sleep now. Snuff out the candles when you're through."
"Xena, you could show a little interest in our home," Gabrielle complained.
"Tomorrow," Xena told her mildly. She closed her eyes and listened to quiet shuffling as Gabrielle draped a cloth over the shuttered window. The shelf on the far wall was her target now; a clatter of dishes spoke of that. Amazing how much work a house required, even before there was furniture, she thought sleepily.
"Xena? Are you asleep?"
"No." Not anymore. "What is it?"
"We really need furniture."
"I know that Gabrielle." We could use a bed.
"Could you make a table?"
"I never have, but I never built a house before, either. Why not?"
"What?" She raised herself on one elbow, and looked down at the open face waiting for an answer. "Why the urgency?"
"Xena, I need a table to prepare the food. Not to mention for dining," she rolled her eyes at having to state the obvious.
"Gabrielle, we’ve done fine without a table all this time."
"Eating – living – on the ground is fine when you’re on the ground. It’s different living on the floor. In Potadeia we had tables."
"We had tables in Amphipolis," Xena countered, picturing the long table in the kitchen, her mother’s strong arms working a piece of dough against its fine grained surface.
"And chairs. We’ll need those next," Gabrielle continued.
"Gabrielle, I’m not a joiner." She lay down again. "If you want a house full of furniture we’ll have to strike a deal with Parmenter. There must be something I can do for him. But it won’t happen overnight. If I make the table, we won’t be able to sit at it right away."
Gabrielle lay down at last, content. She pillowed her head against Xena’s shoulder, draped one arm across her body, and sighed. "I know you’ll find a way, Xena," she said softly into her ear, and she was asleep.
The house had been built in a different Tartarus. It had been rough and wild, but the convict population had been smaller, and the threat of the Tribes not as great. It had been built by a freeman. Sepra and Archon had added to the house, but the land had been cleared before either had been born. The goats, which gamboled in the yard, finding the last of the sweet grass before a harsh winter, had given milk for cheese and hair for rough weaves through all the changes. Gabrielle looked at them now, as she always did, with affection.
"Xena, did you ever see anything so cute?"
The warrior, as she always did, grunted a non-comment. She preferred sheep. As for cute…Still, she admitted, this breed had a sweet face, although the coat was long and looked rough, suited to a Tartarus winter. Ileander said they produced useful hair. She’d trust a weaver to make that judgement; she was more interested in the cheese, and wouldn’t mind an occasional kid to roast. They'd make nice parchment for scrolls, too, but she wouldn't mention that to Gabrielle. She would very much like a flock of their own. Natrakia had \bartered the foundation of a flock to Archon and Sepra. Today she would settle for the cheese. And the loan of a good saw.
Archon was in the yard before their house, scraping mud from his boots when they arrived "Glad to see you," he called out, then raised his voice a bit to bring Sepra out of the house, pulling shawl close around her shoulders. There had been light frost on the ground at dawn. Ileander had been right, she was huge with child, with months still to go. They had bartered for cheese once or twice before. Fish was a welcome item. The stream which ran past this place had become silted over in some places, and too shallow in others, over time. Few fish were to be had there now. Xena had two fat trout, enough for a good crock of soft cheese.
"You brought me fish, Xena?" Sepra asked with a smile. The strife of two days before seemed to have done her no harm.
"My sons will be born with scales," Archon laughed.
"Our daughter will be a great angler," Sepra corrected him. "Women make the best anglers. Look at Xena."
Gabrielle poked the warrior in the ribs. "Bet they’d love to see your favorite techniques," she whispered.
"Men hunt; women fish," Archon observed. "The way of the world."
"Well, Xena’s adept at both," Gabrielle said with evident pride. It occurred to her that Archon’s words would come in handy the next time Xena pressed the bow into her hands.
"Xena has many skills," he agreed. "We owe you thanks for what you did back there," he said solemnly. "You saved us all."
Xena nodded, an acceptance of his thanks, acknowledgement that he spoke the truth.
His face creased in a sudden smile, and Xena followed his eyes to the road, where Drax and Ileander had just ridden into view. "Ileander's keen to get the hair," he explained.
Xena nodded. Ileander had spoken of that, though she had no idea what use a weaver would make of it. She gave a mental shrug, admitting to her own preference for sheep. She was more anxious to hear what Drax would have to report about Nerad's camp in the aftermath of the debacle. She could guess half of it. He was just as eager to share, waiting until greetings had been exchanged, and Ileander was chasing goats around the pasture.
"Very nasty return," he observed with a shake of the head. They were none too pleased about the food giveaway."
"Fools," she hissed her contempt.
"They want your head on a plate, Xena."
She raised an eyebrow and curled her lips in a tight smile. "That's to be expected."
"Why?" Gabrielle's eyes held more curiosity than alarm. Threats against Xena were as numerous as the stars, it seemed.
"She's more dangerous than the Tribes, to Nerad's power. He collects tribute till his barns burst, yet does damn all about protection."
"There didn't seem to be much defense against the attack," Gabrielle agreed.
"Because they aren't soldiers, Gabrielle; just thugs with the license to be thugs." Xena looked at Drax and spoke frankly. "You don't belong with them."
"Agreed." He moved his cloak to show the empty spot on his tunic where Nerad's crest had been. "Now we're both in his bad books; but I'm no threat to be Overlord."
Gabrielle watched Xena's eyes for a moment, saw her answer there. She didn't want to be Overlord. She said as much, again, with an emphatic shake of her head. "I don't want that, Drax."
"How long can you say no, Xena?"
"I'd cast my lot for you, if it was done that way," Archon put in, from the edge of the circle. "I'd even fight for you," he ended.
"No," she turned on him with fierce insistence. "You don't fight for the overlord, any overlord; you fight for yourself, and your family. You fight for your neighbors, the people you care about."
"And you fight a lot better with the right leader," Drax added. "Xena, you are the alternative to incompetence and corruption. Great Zeus, the whole of The Sweetwater knows what you did out there. It will be all over Tartarus in days, and in Mus, once the peddlers make their way back." He held her eyes with his own. "It makes no matter if you want it. Nerad, and Placar can't let the possibility continue."
"Then they'd better improve their act. How hard would it be to whip those troops into line? Set signal fires around the countryside for early warning? Hang one soldier who gets drunk on duty and it soon stops." She spoke from experience, and averted her eyes from Gabrielle's look at those words. "They can do better."
"Can and will are two different things, Xena," he spat. "You can't believe - "
"Believe this, Drax: I won't be Overlord. If they want me dead, they'll have to find a way to make that happen." She shrugged. "I'll take my chances. At any rate, I'm sure they don't think fast enough to have a strike ready for today, so let's relax. I think Archon's got some fresh cider." She found Gabrielle's hand in her own, the smaller fingers squeezing hers hard, pulling her away from the group.
"I know this isn't something new, Xena," Gabrielle began, both hands on Xena's arms now. "You've spoken of this problem since the beginning. I just want to know if I have anything to worry about? I mean, anything more than usual."
"You think I can't handle Nerad? Or Placar?. Give me a break," she exclaimed.
"I know that's your way of assuring me Xena, and I appreciate it. Of course I know you
can handle them. Can you handle them without becoming Overlord? That's the real question." She waited for a moment as Xena formed an answer. No time to be glib.
"I think so, Gabrielle. I'm gonna try. I have more important things to do, like providing a table for us," she said sincerely. "This might be a good time to get the wood. Drax can look after things while I'm gone."
"Can't I come, Xena?"
The dark head shook. "Sorry; if I have any luck, Argo will have quite a burden on the way back. Could be a long walk."
"I don't mind."
"I know," Xena nodded. "I also think Sepra could use the company. You might ask her if there are twins in the family. From the looks of things I'd say she's carrying two."
"Really?" The bard's face brightened.
"I'll be back soon," Xena promised.
There seemed to be no good wood left in Tartarus. I had all been harvested or burnt out.
Hekatore could be useful here, she decided, and was about to turn back, when the terrain seemed to change. She was no longer wandering in scrubby growth, but amid greener, taller trees. She decided to press on.
She hadn’t gone far enough, couldn’t recall the route at all, but somehow she had arrived: this was the stream, the lazy, bright stream that meandered aimlessly through the best part of The Sweetwater, the best part of Tartarus. She sighed with unexpected pleasure. This might be the most wonderful spot on earth. Argo seemed to move of her own accord now, treading smartly on the stream bank, making occasional forays into the bed of the stream, scattering the fish that swam there. The perfumed air carried a sultry warmth that made Xena forget the frost that marked the morning air. She began to recall the banks of the broad stream as if she'd known it all her life, looking for berry-laden bushes, not surprised that they were laden with berries still, despite the late-date. Time might have stood still in this spot. She slipped off Argo, landed softly in lush grass, and lay on her back in the sun, idly chewing a sweet blade. She might have stayed for a few minutes; it may have been hours. It made little difference. In that time Tartarus slipped away from her. Nerad, Placar, Petra, the Tribes: all were forgotten. Her gaze fell on the hillside where she had wanted to build the house. She frowned. "Why, did you hate it so, Gabrielle?" she said aloud. "So perfect here."
Gabrielle. She was someplace, waiting. For me, she remembered, and the wood for the table. Shouldn't be hard to find the right tree here, she thought, but it would be a shame to take an axe to the area.
"Let's go Argo," she called, and the mare joined her, walking just behind. "You like this grass, don't you girl. We'll come back more often, with Gabrielle. I wish she was here now." They hadn't gone far, when Xena found what she needed, lying in her path. The walnut was still laden with its fruit, so recently had it fallen. Seemed healthy, Xena noted, yet it lay here, across her path. "A gift from the gods, eh, Argo?"
A while later she stepped back from the trunk, trimmed, reduced in size to what Argo could manage at the end of a tow rope. "We'll come back for the rest, sometime, unless someone else finds it first," she confided to the horse. "So let's keep this to ourselves, okay?" She took a final look around the area, storing images till next time. She threw a huge sack of walnuts over her shoulder, and made a soft sound in her cheek to send the horse forward, while she walked alongside, whistling.
Hekatore could be heard a long way off, today. He seemed to be in a hurry. Xena paused in her work to watch his progress through the fields. His team had nothing in tow, and the chains hung free, clanging like an alarm. Hekatore seemed to be alarmed about something. She looked down at the wood she had hewn; the table really, for that's what it was fast becoming. Not bad, she congratulated herself, as Hekatore covered the last yards between them. His eyes traveled from Xena, to the table, and back again.
"You have walnut," he began, and ended. Word traveled quickly.
"Yes," she acknowledged.
"Where did you get it?"
"I followed the path of the slow stream, the one to the west. Just came across it."
"Yeah, you must know it. It winds back on itself as if it can't make up its mind which way to go." She smiled, remembering. "It's still warm there. I've been thinking: there must be hot water running under the whole region. Know of any hot springs?" she queried.
"Hot springs," he echoed. "No, I don't know any. But I do know my trees. I've combed these woods for six years. I know every tree within a day's ride. I don't know this one," he said, as if personally offended. "And I never harvest walnut. None of us do. They're too important for food."
"I know that," she said, annoyed at being thought careless. "I didn't cut it. It was fallen. Go see for yourself. Take the rest of it, if you like. It was huge."
"Tell me again where it is," he told her. "I don't know that place."
Xena told him, as bet she could recall, how she had traveled there from the goat farm. Hekatore listened, then shook his head. "I'll take you there," she offered. "No. I'll find it," he said with a note of doubt. He ambled away.
"Let me know," she called after him. "It's not far." Indeed, Gabrielle had stared in disbelief at the section of wood she'd brought back to the goat farm. "Xena? That was quick. How did you get the wood trimmed so fast? You've been gone no time." They'd all been surprised. Xena couldn't explain it, except to comment that the wood had been uncommonly easy to work. It had been easy to fashion into a table; it seemed to mold itself.
It was three days since the walnut had been found. Hermia rubbed the smooth surface with her hand, and stepped back smiling. "Good for bread," was her comment. The table, long, and rubbed to a high gloss, was in the center of the room, flanked by benches. There was no other furniture, but it was a good beginning. "It really looks like a home now," Gabrielle commented.
Hermia looked around, not bothering to hide her envy. It was only one room, connected to a shed by a short, enclosed passageway, but it was a good room, with high windows, which had heavy shutters, inside and out. They were open now, despite the hint of frost in the air. Lilla sat in a corner of sunshine which lit a corner of the room. The fire had a good draught, and the hearth was could hold several pots at one time. The corner near the hearth was piled thick with skins and blankets, an area for sleeping until there was a bed. There were shelves set in the walls, holding household goods and odd treasures: a wooden lamb, a small pillow, embroidered in an intricate design, cups and dishes, a large shell, sharpening stones and scattered quills. The wooden pegs spaced around the room were also full, hung with cloaks, a leather pouch stuffed with scrolls, and a large mask, plumed and intricately fashioned. In the corner near the door was the staff she'd seen Gabrielle carry. She'd never seen it in action but trusted that the compact woman could use it to good effect. There were few things of Xena's to be seen. She seemed to wear everything she owned.
"Xena's a good provider," she said at last. "Not many in Tartarus like her. Even if they're willing, they haven't any skill."
"Hermia, it's no different than any other place here," Xena put in from her place in the corner. She was pleased with the table, but tried to be realistic. "Same construction, same materials. I think Gabrielle's added a few touches that…dress it up?"
"Flowers on the table are all very well, Xena, but food on the table's more important. I saw the root cellar. We should all have one like it; and, its beginning to fill up." She turned her attention back to the table. "I haven't seen one quite like this. That piece is to stop drafts, you said?"
"Yeah," she nodded. The underside of the table featured a solid wall of wood running its length down the middle. "Put that between yourself and the door and you block the cold air. I saw them in the north," she added. "The land of the fjords."
"You never took me there," Gabrielle reproached her. Xena shrugged in reply. There was much more she would have liked her to see.
"Sounds like you've been all over, Xena. How can you stand to stay here? Why did you let them take you?"
It was not the first time that had been asked of Xena. She smiled, muttered something that ended "…horses," and slipped out the door.
"Something I said?" Hermia asked.
"It's still hard for Xena to accept that she's here," Gabrielle said quietly.
"That's the puzzle: why is she here?" Hermia began, her mind filled with the images she'd formed of Xena, what she knew she could do, what she guessed she could do. "I would have thought…" she began, and then it came to her. Xena was rooted to this spot by the presence of the young woman, who was not supposed to have followed. She veered away from the topic. "Never mind," she said with a wave of the hand. "Just you watch her. Half the people in Tartarus, men and women, would give an eye for Xena. Don't think they won't try for her," she warned. "Of course, I could give the same advice to Xena, about you," she went on, "but feeding bellies is a damn sight more important than hearing stories, when the winter is bad." She gasped, and slapped a hand to her mouth. "Damn, that sounded mean," she reproached herself. "I just meant - "
"I know what you meant, Hermia, and its okay. I like my belly fed just as much as the next person." And Xena gives me so much more, she thought. "Anyone comes near her, I'll break her - or his - arm," she promised, laughing.
"I wish Drax would come for his horse," Xena grumbled as she came through the door. "I can't feed him all winter." She had the feeling she'd missed something. "Take some walnuts when you leave, Hermia," she said. "And mushrooms. I never did get to trade them." She started for the root cellar.
"They'd be welcome at the table," Hermia accepted with a nod. "You haven't come to supper in a while."
"And you've never come here," Gabrielle observed, "so I think it's our turn."
"Agreed," Xena said as she started down the cellar steps.
"So let me extend an invitation to our party."
Xena's head snapped around.
"A party?" she and Hermia said at the same time.
"Mmmhmmm," Gabrielle confirmed. "We have a home, there's no reason we shouldn't offer hospitality to our friends."
"Xena, we do have friends here."
"I don’t mean that, I mean which friends?"
"Hermia, Lilla, Ileander and Drax, Sepra and Archon, Cramma. I know she can be a little," she considered, "gruff, but I think we should include her."
"And when are we doing this?" Xena’s sour face was all the opinion Gabrielle needed. She turned to look at Hermia as she spoke. "The day of the full moon, so if things run a little late, - ‘
"And when were you going to share your plans with me?"
"They aren’t really plans, Xena. Just something that came to mind."
"Did it happen to come to mind what we’re gonna feed them?"
"I was hoping you could get a boar. Hermia says we can have a keg of her
"That’d be a gift," Hermia put in happily.
"As for the rest, well, people usually bring things along," Gabrielle supplied. "Hermia said that’s how it’s done here."
"That’s how it’s done here," Xena repeated. "Sounds to me as if this ‘something that came to mind’ has been in the works long enough to qualify as a ‘plan’."
"No," the bard replied indignantly. "I threw a few ideas past Hermia, that’s all."
"That’s as far as it’s gone?"
"Yes." She bit her; lower lip. Except for Ileander."
"Ileander." Tight lipped, Xena nodded. "I suppose this is why the table was so urgently needed?"
"We needed the table anyway," Gabrielle reasoned.
"Did you ever consider that maybe there are more important things that need to be done?"
"If there are, you haven’t mentioned them."
"Do I have to spell out everything?"
"You? Of course not! You do just as you like, Xena, as usual. Make all the decisions, tell me what I need to know, when I need to know it, do all the important stuff; I’ll just be here, ‘dressing things up,’ was that it?"
"We’ll be going now," Hermia said, even as she edged toward the door, waving Lilla to join her.
"Hermia, sorry about this; I should have gotten permission to ask you over
before I spoke."
Xena took a breath. "Gabrielle you don’t need permission," she said more quietly. "I just need to know things. I’d just like to know."
"So you can find reasons why we can’t do it?"
They aren’t hard to find," she retorted. "One anyway."
"I’d just as soon not draw attention to my presence here, here Gabrielle."
"Oh, like nobody knows you’re here?"
"I don’t have to wave a red flag under Nerad’s nose," she spat, "with a gathering of the locals. It's a little too soon after the last incident."
"Will it ever be different?" Gabrielle asked. "Will I ever in my life be able to invite people into my home? I mean isn’t this place bad enough?"
"Yeah," Xena agreed after a long pause. "It’s awful. You want a party, go ahead." She turned again to the root cellar.
There was a lot of work to be done that afternoon, far more than usual. Gabrielle watched as Xena chopped enough wood to feed the furnace of Hephaestus She lifted a waterskin, and stood, one hand on the door handle, weighing her first words. She wouldn’t make an abject apology, there was no reason for her to apologize. If Xena wanted to sulk…But this wasn’t quite sulking. It wasn’t anger, either. It was something else, and Gabrielle was not quite sure how to approach it. 'You can't avoid me forever', wouldn't work here.
"Thirsty?" the waterskin was extended, but Xena paused in her work to shake her head.
"No thanks." She indicated with a nod the waterskin which hung on a nearby branch.
"You’ve got enough wood there to last the winter," Gabrielle said with a smile.
Xena returned a faint smile. "Won't last a moon." The axe was raised again.
"Maybe it was different in Amphipolis, but in Potadeia, we had parties," Gabrielle persisted, broadening the smile.
Xena lowered the axe, fought against the returning smile which would mark surrender. "We had parties in Amphipolis," she began, in a neutral tone. "Don’t forget: I was raised in my mother's inn. Every night was a party, for someone."
"So you have nothing against parties in principle? It can't be the guests," she mused aloud. "Remember the harvesting at Hermia's? You got on fine with them then. Of course, I had to drag you there against your will." She pulled a face. The axe head was on the ground, and Xena's eyes were on the bard. Almost there, she knew. "I guess that leaves you. Would you like to talk about it? This anti-social thing you've got going on?"
"Gabrielle…" The low, menacing growl, sent shivers through the bard.
"Maybe you just want to be drawn out of yourself?" she guessed. "I'm willing to try, if you are," she offered, and grasped the warrior in a fierce hug before she could respond.
"How's that?" she asked, as the axe handle thudded to the ground and Xena returned the hug.
"Much better," she confessed.
"So what's really wrong?"
"I told you. There's so much to do, I don't need more chores. Not now."
"Xena, I'll do the cooking," she pointed out.
"And I'll do the hunting. Boar, wasn't it?" At best, that would take a good part of a day, assuming she found boar. "That means digging a pit to roast it properly - "
"I can help you with that."
"Gabrielle, that's not your kind of work." Her head moved against the bard in gentle negation.
"Till now it hasn’t been, but there’s no reason I can’t wield a spade." She pulled away until she could read Xena's face. "Is that all of it? The chores? Nerad's paranoia?"
"It's got nothing to do with my mentioning the party before I'd spoken with you? Xena, I should have done that, as a matter of consideration; and practicality. I don't want this to be a big apology, because I didn't do anything wrong in getting excited about inviting people to our home."
"I don't want an apology." She shrugged. "Things were easier on the road. Wake up, bash a few heads, find something to eat, and sleep." She curled her lips in a sardonic smile. "And there, I made most of the decisions, because I was the chief head-buster. It's a long time since I haven't been the one calling all the shots."
"Find it hard to share the power?"
"Yeah," she admitted sarcastically, "the wonderful, heady power I - we, have over this patch of earth. Shouldn't be so hard to give that up."
"Xena, I don't have the same experience wielding power that you have, a few sporadic episodes with the Amazons, that's about it. Maybe it's harder for you. I do know this: when you make decisions, I don't mind, usually. I figure you know best about some things. A lot of things," she admitted with a small laugh. "If that's giving up power, then I give it up happily. To you." She waited for some response, watched as Xena found a broken finger nail, and trimmed it with her teeth.
"We're partners," she said at last, "so I should have no problem giving up power to you." She swallowed, and looked frankly at the bard. "Well, I do have a problem. Maybe I shouldn't," she went on quickly, before Gabrielle could respond, "but I do."
"That won't make this any easier," Gabrielle said slowly.
"Any chance you'll work it out? Do you want to work it out?"
"I'd better. I hate it when we fight."
"A fight? By our standards this was no fight," she said rolling her eyes, "but I hate it too, whatever we call it. Can I help? Not by pretending there is no problem," she shook her head emphatically. "I won't leave all the choices to you, but like I said, I could have discussed my idea with you first. Would that have helped?"
"Yeah," Xena nodded, "except that I would have tried to talk you out of it."
"I'll take my chances with talking anytime, honey. So, is this over? Your sulking?"
"I wasn't - "
"Okay, you weren't sulking," she conceded putting her hands up. "But you are ready to come inside? It's pretty chilly."
She hefted the axe, ready to follow the bard, but had a sudden thought. "Would you like to go for a ride?" she asked, a gleam in her eye. She guessed the glade would be much warmer. She'd been back three times to collect more of the walnut, and found it always the same.
"Xena, this is a choice I have no trouble making. "I'm cold."
"But - " Xena started to say, then decided against it. It wasn't the time. Instead she said: "This is just the start, Gabrielle. This isn't the Mediterranean."
Continued - Chapters 20-26
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