Tartarus

by M. Parnell
xedi1@hotmail.com
Copyrights 1997 -2007 inclusive

Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and any others from Xena, Warrior Princess, along with the back story, are the property of their creators and producers. Their use in my story does not constitute any attempt on my part to infringe on their rights. The rest of the story is mine. The story is a strictly non-profit endeavor. Any reproduction or other use of this story without my consent is strictly prohibited.

The story contains violence. It also assumes that Xena and Gabrielle are in love with each other. If any of that offends you, please choose another story.

Tartarus takes place after ORIGINS. It is not necessary to read ORIGINS first, but some references will be puzzling to you.

I began this story before season three. Given all that has happened, I find it hard to continue without allowing season three to intrude in some places. If that doesn't fit with the first fifteen chapters, well, (picture me shrugging my shoulders here), it can't be helped. The last chapters. This was written in fits and starts over the past ten years or so. I hope there are no glaring inconsistencies.

Above all, let me apologize for the exceedingly long delay to anyone who has been waiting for this story to be finished. With the best of intentions I just couldnít get it done until now.

 

Tartarus

By M. Parnell
Copyright 1997

 

Chapter Twenty Seven

It was as Hermia said: winter held one terrible storm in its quiver. After that, all would be gray, dark would fall early, and game would be scarce, but the remaining storms were a matter of nuisance, not disaster. Little had been heard from the Tribes, or Nerad. Drax had it on good authority that word of her trouncing of Petra's man had been delivered to Nerad's doorstep, by Petra's men, it was said, though Drax couldn't understand why it would be so. For Xena it was added proof that if any harm came to Xena, it would be by her hand alone.

Winter's diet was a monotonous round of root vegetables, dried fruits, bread, and cheese. The stream yielded little gifts of trout and panfish, and an occasional rabbit found it's way into the stewpot, liberally attended by the seemingly endless store of mushrooms Xena had gathered.

"I told you people would be happy to barter for knowledge, Xena," Gabrielle told her one morning. Cramma had just left, Nara in tow, having left behind a massive jar of honey, and candles crafted from tallow and beeswax. Cramma had some reading and writing skill, but she was concerned that Nara be taught. "All the honey you can use, and occasional pork, if you teach her," she'd offered. The list of students was long, and Gabrielle spent hours in the long evenings devising the best methods of instruction, beginning with the rudiments of written communication: the letters of the Greek tongue.

"People learn the lyrics to songs easier than they do the words to a poem; if they chant the letters, over and over, to some melody, they'll have them in no time." Xena had looked at the open face, illumined by firelight and nodded agreeably. It seemed like a good idea. She hoped the bard wouldn't be disappointed if the potential students found better things to do with their time when spring came around, having received earrings as payment for their bounty over the winter. Some few would come; Nara would be there, she had no doubt. On each visit Gabrielle's delight in the little girl grew.

"I'm earning enough honey to satisfy even your appetite," she continued, giving the warrior an affectionate hug around the middle. Xena lifted her off her feet, brought her closer for a kiss, and stood holding her, eyes closed for a long moment.

Gabrielle relaxed against her, grinning. Xena seemed to have a need to demonstrate just how well she had healed; it involved lifting the bard several times a day. "What are you doing today?" she asked through the grin.

"What do I do every day," Xena replied, and ticked off a list by rote: "Check the snares, check the fish traps, take care of the wood pile, tend the horses, haul water, try to find fresh game; the usual," she ended with a weary shrug. "Maybe I'll be really crazy today and do them in reverse order, just to make a change. Or maybe I'll break through the ice and fist a few fish, that could be fun. Or maybe we'll saddle Glider and you'll come hunting with me?" she asked hopefully.

"Xena, I'm sorry. Not today. I'll ride Glider, but I was hoping you'd ride with me as far as Hermia's. I told her I'd come by for a visit, and today seems as good a day as any."

Xena nodded, deposited the bard lightly on the floor and turned away. As good a day as any. Made better by the fact that Cramma and Nara would be there for a visit as well. No surprises there. "Fine. I'll saddle up."

Hermia's homestead had become a focal point of The Sweetwater, much as the baker in any community was a focal point. Everyone wanted the bread that was hers to barter, now that she was free of paying tribute to Nerad's men. Those who made their own bread baked it in her oven; it was a time honored custom wherever there was a decent oven to be found, and so the path to her door was well-beaten. Drax and Ileander had found a home there, living in a constantly improved section of her barn, dry and comfortable throughout the winter. They had begun to plan the home they would construct when the weather had cleared. Best of all, Ileander had a loom once again. It was set in a small alcove created for that purpose, where a decrepit wall of Hermia's home had been torn down. From his seat by the loom, he was company for Hermia and her stream of customers, and the cloth he produced found a ready market.

It had become Gabrielle's custom to visit as often as weather and time permitted, once Xena had healed from her injuries. "I think I'll conduct my classes there," she told Xena after one long afternoon visit. "Hermia would like that, and everyone stops by here anyway."

"Next you'll be keeping a spare bedroll there," Xena had replied, smiling to keep an irritated scowl from her face.

She didn't dismount when they reached Hermia's, merely calling greetings from Argo before heading for a likely hunting area. Drax had already set off for the day, and she was glad; she didn't want his company today, if she couldn't have Gabrielle with her, she'd sooner be alone. If she could come home with something, and maybe something extra for Hermia, she'd feel better, she knew, mentally shaking the vague malaise that touched her. If I opened my mouth right now, a whine would come out, she knew. So, Xena, it's time to make something good happen. She touched her heels to Argo's flanks, leaving the curling smoke from Hermia's chimney far behind.

The game seemed to find her this day. Three fat rabbits hung from her saddle before the hour had passed, and another seemed destined to spend the night roasting on a spit, zigzagging before her in a futile attempt to escape, when she found better prey: before her, outlined against the sky on a nearby ridge, was a magnificent buck, with full rack.

"Argo, that would make a lot of folks happy," she said quietly, as she drew an arrow from the quiver. She could let it fly at full gallop with no loss of accuracy. Gods, this would be fun; her mood brightened as she turned that way. The buck seemed to turn at the same moment, and the chase was on. He could not outrun Argo, but had a sizeable head start; slowly the gap was closed, but then he was in a thicket of woods, and had the advantage. Xena grinned despite herself. The entertainment would last that much longer.

The buck seemed always to be just ahead of them, within reach of an arrow, then he'd plunge through some thick underbrush, or disappear in a stand of trees, and be gone for a moment. Argo balked once, at the path he followed, but Xena urged her on, with a harsh note in her voice, and a slap on her rump. So they continued, until the cold winter sun was half hidden by the trees. Odd, in winter, for so much foliage to remain. Xena stopped for a moment, wondering where the buck had gone to, and puzzling at the green that surrounded her in the late winter. Only one place this could be, she realized, and a flood of warmth touched her. "Let's move, Argo," she instructed, the buck forgotten. The mare needed no direction, following a familiar path, drinking from a welcome stream, hooves cushioned by moss so thick it could have couched the gods, until at last Xena slid from her back, dropped the reins, and settled in a hummock of sweet grass. She lay for a long time, face pillowed on her forearms, happy to have the fragrance of summer in her nose again, glad to feel the soft tickles against her cheek, little concerned how it was always summer here. At last she was thirsty; she thought she'd slept, felt as if something had awakened her, but couldn't be certain. She leaned into the stream, and sipped a handful of the pristine water. In the shimmering waves she created she saw her own face, moving fragments, growing still as the water resumed its glass-like surface. It was then that she saw him, and turned, not startled, not alarmed. "Ares," she said evenly. "It's been a while."

"Not for me, Xena. I've never been far from your side."

"I'll just bet you haven't." She started to sneer, but it was hard to maintain, and relaxed into a small smile. Now she was startled, as she realized she was glad to see him. A little bit, anyway.

"Xena, what kind of patron god would I be if I lost interest in my favorite warrior just because she got into a mess. And didn't bother to get herself out?" he added reproachfully.

Patron god; that touched a nerve. "Don't know how I'd get by without your interest," she said in a strangely flat voice.

"I flatter myself that that's true," he nodded. "I'm always there for you Xena, if you let me be there." He took hold of the convict earring that dangled from her. The mild tug she felt caused her cheeks to flame with humiliation. She wrenched away, and got to her feet, wondering at the absence of anger in her, and wondering something else.

"Thanks, Ares; I've been getting by."

"Barely," he agreed. "A warrior of your caliber, a woman of your quality living in a wattle house, eating the roots that are better left to the pigs?" He shook his head. "I don't get it."

"You don't have to get it. This is my life we're talking about."

"I know, I know, I know: yours to waste, yours to squander? Except for one thing: I'm part of your life, by my choice, and your invitation."

The shiver she'd been expecting ran up her spine at that moment; she caught her breath, and showed her teeth in a forced smile. "Well, now I'm inviting you out."

A slow smile spread over the face of the God of War.

"Not so fast, Xena. There's but one problem here. We have a deal, an offer was made, consideration given?that constitutes a contract by any reasonable standard. Now it's time to fulfill your part of the bargain."

"We have no bargain, Ares," she said steadily.

"Xena, now you're disappointing me. This constitutes welshing of the very worst kind. In a moment of mortal danger I came to your aid, strengthened you in battle, helped you achieve your objective, as you asked, and you deny your obligation." His brow furrowed as he recalled the moment. "You said, 'Ares, if you still want me, I'm yours.' Do I have that right? Of course you were such a mess, I had to listen very carefully." His voice dropped to a husky whisper. "I was never more proud of you, Xena. Beaten, alone; you were still the warrior. THE warrior. MY warrior. At that moment, you knew who was the source of your strength, the one to whom you could always turn - "

"Shut up," she snapped.

Ares recoiled, as if hurt. "Don't like recalling that tender moment when you prayed for help.?"

"Tender? I was half dead," she countered. "I thought Gabrielle was dead. If I said anything that sounded remotely like a cry for help, it was only because I didn't think I'd live long enough to see you again. It certainly wasn't a prayer," she ended.

"Prayers and offerings to me is a practice you've gotten away from," he admitted, but when you really needed help, the words came back to you Xena. It was beautiful. And your prayer was answered. I came through for you."

"No ya didn't," she said with studied contempt. "It was Gabrielle, and the Amazons; they came through. You have no power in Prestia," she pointed out. "I knew that when I said the words. You did nothing for me, because there was nothing you could do." She watched carefully, from the corner of one eye, waiting for his response. The question had plagued her since that day: Had Ares heard her desperate words? Had her triumph in Prestia left her in his eternal debt?

"Xena, I know the words you spoke," he said patiently. "Shall I describe the scene? Every wound? How you cut off the toe of your boot because the nails had been ripped off your toes? How Salmoneus and Laepita cleaned your wounds and patched you together for that final battle?" It might have been Gabrielle reciting a well-known tale, so complete was his telling. Xena watched, rapt, to see the eyes of the god glisten as he detailed the battle. For a moment, Xena's head swam with remembered sensation: heat and dust, and the belief that Gabrielle had already died a cruel death. If Ares had not been present, he'd heard a good account. "Krykon dead, with Radec dead, both by your hand. Wasn't that what you wanted?"

"Yeah, it's what I wanted," she said quickly. "And I made it happen. It was nothing to do with you," she insisted, hiding her own uncertainty. "If you'd been involved, you wouldn't have waited so long to collect. It's been months, Ares. Where've you been?"

"Despite the prominent place you hold in my heart - " he paused as she emitted a harsh laugh, then went on: " - you are not the only iron I have in the fire. The world's been a busy place while you've been holed up here. Wars, rebellions; they all need my attention. I have you now Xena; you could wait a bit. But, lest you think I was ignoring you," he crinkled his nose, happy to reveal a secret, but Xena was quicker:

"The earthquake; that was your doing."

His face fell, just for a moment. "Of course you knew; we know each other so well."

"Sure," she lied. She had suspected; had never been certain. "It showed a wanton disregard for human life. Who else could it be? Am I worth so much trouble Ares?" she asked wearily.

He ignored the question. "I was rather proud of the whole incident; from the first jolt on, things fell into place."

"How did you arrange it?" She was really curious. "Threat? Collecting a favor? Cajolery?"

"Does it matter?" he lifted an eyebrow. "I get the help I need. Actually," he went on in a confiding tone, "I don't think I could have pulled it off without Gabrielle. Much as I hate to admit it, sometimes the brat comes in handy."

"Gabrielle?" she echoed.

"Would you have gone to Priblis if she wasn't there appealing to your better nature, pleading on behalf of the wretches buried alive? She's good," he said with grudging admiration.

"You went to a lot of trouble for nothing," she said, shoving his words about Gabrielle to the edge of consciousness. She'd think about that later.

His dark eyes regarded her with frank amusement. "You're here, aren't you?" he asked.

"Yeah, I'm in Tartarus. Little good does it do you."

He nodded. "I admit, I thought you'd be overlord by now, maybe even the overlord of overlords, with the whole of Tartarus under your command. But," he gave a slight shake of the head, "I wasn't speaking of Tartarus. I mean you're here, in this glade." He turned in a slow circle, his big hands moving to encompass the whole area. "This place Xena, this place of light, warmth and peace that I created for my chosen warrior."

She frowned, eyes narrowed as she followed him. "Xena." He sighed deeply. "Don't disappoint me again. A smart girl like you? You had to know this place was not warmed by - what was it? Hot springs?" Xena hadn't moved, except to turn her eyes from him. Had she known? Her mind scrambled to find the answer. For all that it had seemed so unworldly, it was so benign; why would she had guessed it was a creation of Ares? His very presence could make her flesh creep; this oasis in the midst of Tartarus soothed her like a potent drug. What had he called it? A place of light, warmth and peace. Yet she recalled that Gabrielle had never found it so.

He chuckled. "Didn't you wonder why your little partner didn't appreciate its charms?" She started, wondering if he could read her thoughts. "I didn't tailor this place to suit her," he explained. "This is for you, crafted to meet your needs the way you fashioned that doeskin for her. A disgusting little scene, by the way," he digressed, "but never mind. I know you every bit as well. Better." He placed his hands on unresisting shoulders. "We both know that what you need for peace, and what Gabrielle needs, are two very different things. What ever you like to dream, you'll never find peace together; not for long."

She wrenched free from his caressing fingers. "You'd like to think so."

"Xena," he countered, " I hate to state the obvious, but well, you are here. With me." He peered around the clearing. "I don't see Gabrielle anywhere. In fact, you come here a lot, while your little friend visits the neighbors. Not that I don't appreciate the problem: it gets kind of boring listening to the latest wisdom about achieving a really crusty loaf of bread. But, then, it gets kind of boring hunting every day, to put food on the table. Rabbits don't exactly fall in to the category of exciting prey."

"Your point being?" she snapped.

"Why does everything have to have a point? We're having a nice visit, I'm commiserating. But you really don't deserve my sympathy, Xena. It doesn't have to be this way. Tartarus holds challenges enough even for you. And the rewards?If one warlord, you, controlled this land, and the people in it, the Three Kingdoms would tremble in fear. The crowns would be yours for the taking."

"Ares, I just relinquished a crown, walked away from a kingdom. Of all your schemes, this is the lamest, no-starter yet."

"I'll ignore that remark," he said with some dignity, "and point out that you were free to hand over the power and walk away from Prestia. Here, you can't walk away. Unless maybe you hold the power." She made no reply. "I have the uncomfortable feeling that this place is making you slow. Don't tell me that hadn't occurred to you."

"Ares, you've put me in a box. I've had a good look around," she said with an emphatic nod. "I know all the angles, all the escape possibilities. Including that one. Considering all the alternatives, I think it's best for everyone if I stay in the box. Especially now that I see your hand in this."

"What is that? Spite? You don't really think you'll be content here? Doing the domestic thing? It'll never work."

"You sound more desperate every time you say that, Ares. Afraid you might be wrong? You should be."

"Then you won't mind my dropping by to observe your happiness."

"Since when have you cared what I mind?"

"Xena, I've been holding out an olive branch. You have to choose to take it."

"No thanks. I'd rather stick with the Ares I know."

"But I insist." In his hand there was suddenly a sprig of green. Then he was gone.

He might never have been there, but for the still sprouting olive branch Xena held. She eyed it thoughtfully, before hurling it across the field with an oath.

She didn't stay long in the glade, and didn't quite remember leaving. Never bothered you before, she scolded herself, as Argo picked her way along a seldom used path. It made you feel better, why ask questions? She wondered how many times Ares had strode the glade with her, wondered more how the God of War could create a place of such peace. It was a conundrum, not easily solved. But it could be avoided. "Never again, Argo," she said aloud. The horse pricked her ears, and whinnied in response. "You liked it too." That was a puzzle. Argo had healthy instincts. Still, she was a warhorse. "Maybe it is a warrior thing," she mused, again aloud. "I guess we should have gone with Gabrielle's instincts on this one." The thought of the bard sent a warm feeling through Xena; she was seized by a sudden urgency to be with her. The game she had would have to be enough for today. They turned toward Hermia's.

She might have walked into a scene from another day. If I entered the room blindfolded I could tell where everyone was, she realized. Hermia was by the hearth, baking peel in hand, ready to move her loaves as needed. Ileander was seated at his loom in the small alcove. Lilla and Nara were at Gabrielle's side, in the corner, absorbed in a story. Arthea sat at the table, paring knife in hand, ready to attack a turnip. All eyes turned to her, startled as she stepped into the room.

"Xena! Did you have to make such an entrance?" She wondered what Hermia meant, then caught up with the sound of the door clattering against the frame.

"Sorry," she said, even as her eyes came to rest on the bard. She was doeskin-clad; her eyes were alive with amusement. Her cheeks would be soft to the touch, Xena knew, as she stood by the door, longing to touch them.

"You weren't gone long," Gabrielle observed, watching Xena carefully.

Xena held up her prizes. "Thought these would do; I missed you." Hermia smiled. Arthea turned back to the turnip, lips twisted in a scowl.

"Has something happened?" the bard wanted to know.

"Nothing has happened," Xena replied, shrugging to mask a rising exasperation. "I missed you, so I came back." Ileander began to whistle, a nondescript little melody which seemed to remove the focus from Xena. "Are you ready to go?"

"Go? Xena, I just got here. And you really just got here. Hermia asked us to stay for supper."

"Gabrielle, there's a lot I can do at home."

"You were going to spend the day hunting, Xena. Nothing would have gotten done then. Relax and visit for a while. Are you sure you're all right."

"Yeah, I'm fine." She ran a hand through her hair, slapped the three hares on the table. "Do you want these for tonight?" she asked Hermia.

"Yes, please, Xena. They're lovely. It's made a world of difference to Lilla, having a steady diet. Just look at the roses in her cheeks."

"Good," she nodded, with a scant glance at the child. "I'll dress them." That meant time outside, where maybe she could breathe. "I'll only be a minute."

She saw the door open, wished hard that it would be Gabrielle, then knew it was Arthea. The woman found a few innocent things to do on her meandering way across the yard, to where Xena gutted the rabbits beside a bucket of water. "It's cold, Xena."

"Yeah," the warrior agreed. "Is that what you came to tell me?"

"Don't be like that, Xena. I'm just being friendly. If you asked me to go home, I wouldn't put it off to have supper with the neighbors." She smiled as she said this, and shivered inside her worn shawl.

I'll bet you wouldn't, Xena thought. It was hard not to smile back. "Gabrielle's kind of more social than I am."

"Social's fine, but first things first."

"Won't Hermia be looking for you?"

"Doesn't even know I'm gone. Lilla's reciting her letters." She tossed her head. "What some people go on about."

Xena eyed the woman coolly. "I thought you arranged to take lessons from Gabrielle?"

"I did," she said indifferently, "but I don't expect I'll be waiting for people to cheer when I get things right," she exclaimed. "It's more just for something to do; I go almost crazy in this place."

Xena ripped the belly of a rabbit. "Not enough work around here?"

"Work," she smirked. "Xena, Iím not afraid of work, I just need something else in my life. Even Lutus was better than nothing. Except that he belted me around."

"Spring's coming. Maybe you'll get around and find someone else." Xena glanced up from the rabbit as she spoke, wondering if the words sounded as hollow to Arthea as they felt coming out. Arthea's face hid little, not her skepticism, nor her longing for this moment with Xena to never end. An odd gleam in her eye made Xena wonder if she was tipsy.

"Arthea," she said, "you'd better go back."

"Don't want me to wait for you? Is Gabrielle the jealous type?" She didn't turn from Xena's glare. "She shouldn't make you wait for her Xena; it isn't right."

"She's entitled to visit with her friends. Our friends," she amended quickly. She thrust the two rabbits at Arthea. "Take these to Hermia. I'll clean this mess up and be right along." She scraped scraps of fur and flesh together, and rinsed the knife in the bucket. Arthea clutched the rabbits, and stood waiting, considering a reply. "Now," Xena barked.

"All right, Xena. I don't want to cause you any trouble." She turned, took a step, and whirled back, to place a kiss on Xena's cheek.

Xena had stayed outside until just before supper. There was always something that needed to be done, for all that Drax had already taken care of many repairs. Hermia would have a nice farm, at last; with any luck the extra manpower would provide a decent harvest. Still, Xena was busy much of the afternoon, clearing winter's debris from the stream bed. It was hard work, requiring no thought, and her mind turned to other things. Ares had left her shaken, made her question everything she'd done for months. How much, if any, had been influenced by the God of War? She was tied to him by virtue of her descent from Pres Prima. She had - maybe- sealed a deal with her words in Prestia. Or maybe not. It wouldn't be past Ares to lie. She wondered if the tree had fallen on her with his help. She found herself standing, axe in hand, staring blankly at a whirling landscape. She rubbed a hand across clammy cheeks, and remembered that it was cold, and damp. There was one question she could answer: whether Gabrielle should know. Even that was not easy. What purpose would it serve, upsetting her? On the other hand, she'd be pissed to know Xena had kept it from her. She hefted the axe, struck it hard against a length of wood. This place, and everything in it seemed to lurch endlessly from bad to worse. She stood by the fire for a long time when she went in to supper, picking a splinter from her palm, watching the hubbub which swirled around her, as bowls were passed to the table, and the ubiquitous rabbit stew was set out.

"Gods, what I'd give for a roast lamb right now." Her voice was startlingly loud in the small space. Drax, just returned from a fruitless day's hunting, swore.

"We'd all like lamb, Xena. Any idea where we're to find it? Or was that an idle wish?"

"Even goat would make a nice change. Maybe our local goatherds would part with one for a price." She wondered how many earrings Hermia had left.

"Not this time of year," Hermia told her. "Maybe in the spring."

Gabrielle took Xena's hand and pulled her to a seat by the table. "Are you all right, Xena?" she asked softly.

"Yes," Xena hissed. "We just all need a change around here."

"I'm for that, Xena," Arthea said eagerly. She was pouring a strong ale from a jug. She passed a cup to Xena. "Make a toast to something new," she grinned.

Xena returned the grin as she took the cup, and turned to Gabrielle, who watched bemused. "A toast;" she stood, wiped a finger across her upper lip, and smiled broadly around the table. "Raise your cups to the woman who has agreed to stand before the world, or The Sweetwater anyway, and declare with me our intention to spend our lives together. We hope you'll all be our witnesses."

"Lovely!" It was Hermia, who followed her words with a healthy swallow of ale. Arthea drained her cup and poured another. Drax placed a hand on Ileander's thigh. Cramma sputtered out her congratulations around a chewy crust of bread. The only surprise evident was on Gabrielle's face.

"Haven't changed your mind?" Xena joked.

"Not on your life," was the hearty reply, to a new round of toasts and best wishes. Xena sat again, and pulled Gabrielle close for a kiss. "Did I tell you how much I missed you today?" she said, for Gabrielle's ears only. The green eyes narrowed in concentration. Something had happened today.

"Hasn't Argo done enough for one day?" Gabrielle asked. Xena had insisted that she share Argo's saddle for the ride home. Glider trotted along behind, at the end of a tether.

"Argo misses you in the saddle," Xena replied. "Not as much as I do."

Gabrielle grinned, and happily snuggled against the warrior, slipping her arms under the cloak Xena wore. The three quarter moon hung low in the sky; occasionally a tree stood out in sharp silhouette as they passed. "Are you going to tell me what happened?" Gabrielle's voice was soft, inviting a confidence.

"Why do you insist something has happened?" Xena countered.

"Because you haven't been yourself since you came back from hunting. I'm almost ready to believe that one of your doubles has found her way to Tartarus."

Xena chuckled. "If that's the case, I'd have to be Meg. Want to check my bodice for 'souvenirs'?"

"Funny. That means you don't want to talk about it?"

"Or maybe it means there isn't anything to talk about."

"If you say so," Gabrielle surrendered, unconvinced. "So explain instead why you made that little announcement at supper. I thought we had agreed to wait." She felt the shrug of Xena's broad shoulders.

"We had; I'm sorry. It just seemed like a good time."

"Just to make a change?"

"Something like that. Funny thing is, I felt better just saying it."

"I'm glad. You could have knocked me over with a sneeze."

"Are you angry?"

A pause. "No. Actually, it was kind of fun. Like a surprise party."

"Then no harm done. Good."

"But Xena, no more surprises for a while? Please."

Yeah. No surprises." Gabrielle heard a desolate quality in her voice; it scared her a little. Xena seemed so unhappy at times, unreachable. It was like that now, despite the physical proximity, the warrior's thoughts were miles away. She shifted in the saddle, buried her face in the thick hair which hung down over the cloak. "Are you tired?"

Xena hesitated. "A little," she said honestly. "Why?"

"I was hoping you'd want to make love with me tonight."

A slow smile spread across Xena's face, though Gabrielle couldn't see it.

"I think I can find the energy," she said solemnly.

"Good. It's been too long." And it feels funny as Hades to be planning it like this, she thought. There had been spontaneity to their lovemaking from the beginning; a spark of passion would ignite of its own accord, frequently. Maybe passion like that can't last, the bard mused. That's why all the great lovers are legendary, often dead, she thought. Passion so great burns out. She clutched the warrior a little tighter, hating it to be so. Maybe it's this place. There wasn't much romantic about the endless chores and monotony of life in Tartarus. And there was always something to fight about. Many evenings were wrecked by petty bickering. Love should overcome all that. Life's not a story in your scrolls, Gabrielle, she reminded herself.

"Xena?"

"Yeah?"

"Why is everything harder here?"

The image of the cold, yet sensuous god had never been far from her thoughts. He was fixed there now, as she answered: "I don't know. I guess we just have to try harder."

 

Chapter 28

There was more art than strength employed in shooting an arrow, Gabrielle had come to realize. Somehow, that made the lessons easier to take. She could put an arrow within three feet of her target, most times, and hardly ever lost one; but it had taken a long time. They'd begun practice at sunrise; the sun was nearly at its zenith, and they had yet to break for a meal. "That's a very long time to wait for breakfast,? she grumbled.

"Not really," Xena disagreed as they trudged back to the house. "Iím puzzled, Gabrielle. Most of the winter you spent insisting that one, you'd never learn, and two, you didn't want to learn. What made you change your mind??

"Your gentle encouragement, Xena," she smirked.

"Yeah, right. It couldn't be because the stranger from the far side of the seas was a master with a bow?"

Gabrielle ducked her head, trying to hide her sheepish grin. "It does seem a bit more exotic now," she admitted.

"Once you put your mind to it, it was like rolling off a log."

"Hmmpf. Easy for you to say. Look at this hand!" She showed Xena her new blisters, that would soon be calluses.

"On top of the ones from your staff, they won't look so bad, Gabrielle. If you use your body, its bound to show some wear. But now you can feed yourself."

"Yeah, provided my prey is larger than three feet in diameter, and stationary for long periods of time. Anyway, this winter I didn't do badly, bartering my services for food," she observed smugly.

"No, you didn't," Xena agreed, glad for the earrings which had been available to really pay for food.

"With spring just around the corner, I'll be paying off the debt. That will be exciting. When I was a kid I found school so confining, I never dreamed I'd be a teacher, but I guess that's what I'll be."

"Gabrielle," Xena began slowly, I hope you aren't disappointed if people are too busy to spend time learning to read and write."

"Xena, as you've pointed out, goods are scarce here; people won't just walk away from something they've bartered for."

"I guess not," Xena conceded, "but they have a lot of other things to do this time of year."

"I know Arthea will be here, anyway," Gabrielle said. "Yesterday she was pretty eager about making plans to come over. Said she'd try to come by today. You know, I never know how to feel about her. Sometimes, when she looks at you, I want to scratch her eyes out; then I see how she plays with Lilla, or Nara, and she's so much like a kid, I can't stay angry about anything."

"Like a kid," Xena said doubtfully. "I haven't seen that side of her."

"Trust me, it's there. Yesterday, with Nara, she was playing the part of a dragon, a comical dragon, very successfully. Nara was giggling out of control." She grew quiet. "Our place seems so quiet after Hermia's."

Xena expelled a breath of air. "Yeah, itís real quiet, Gabrielle. I'm sorry, but in the long run, it's better this way. We don't need any passengers." Gabrielle's head shot around.

"Passengers? Where are we going? An escape?" she asked hesitantly.

"Maybe. I've been thinking about how. Maybe it's not so impossible. Having a kid along wouldn't make it easier."

"Is that what was on your mind yesterday? Why you were so strange?"

"Gabrielle, there was nothing going on yesterday. Nothing! Will you drop it?" she flared.

The look on the bard's face reminded her how frightening she could be. "I have some ideas," she said in a softer tone. "Nothing concrete, but if the peddlers come back, maybe I can get Argo out that way. Someone would be willing to cooperate, for a price. If the peddlers come back." She'd spent the night considering plans. None were perfect, all had a high element of risk, but sitting still, staying in the box, might be the most dangerous thing of all, despite what she'd told Ares. If he wanted her here, it was probably best that she leave.

"You'd trust Argo to a peddler?"

"She's too valuable to hurt," she reasoned. "When we get out, I go get her."

"Why the urgency, Xena?"

"Urgency?" She pushed Ares from her mind. "Gabrielle, I've never stopped thinking about it. That's why Nara was never a good idea."

"Why didn't you just say so?"

"Because I can't promise when we'll get out. Sometimes it seems like an impossible dream, I can't ask you to build your life around that."

"It would be better than an unreasoned 'no'. I think I deserved a real answer."

"Well now you have it." A shadow touched the bard's eyes. "Now what's wrong?" Xena asked, biting back her impatience.

"It seems funny to think of leaving here. We've made so many friends."

"Gabrielle, you make friends wherever you go. There are a lot waiting for you outside: your family, the Amazons?"

"I know. I'll still miss Hermia, Nara, Lilla. I wonder if they'll ever learn to read."

"Gabrielle, we're far from gone. Don't start missing them yet," she warned. "It might never happen."

"Oh, it will happen. When you set your mind to something Xena, it's like rolling off a log," she echoed. "I just wonder what took you so long?" That stopped Xena in her tracks. Gabrielle looked back, saw her question mirrored in the blue eyes, and walked on.

Arthea's arrival early the next morning was the signal for Xena to depart. She was a little surprised that Arthea would come so soon after the announcement. Then again, nothing about Arthea was really surprising. Her needs were, few, her motives easy to figure. Whatever her motives, she couldn't prevent Xena leaving as soon as she arrived.

"You haven't eaten, Xena." Gabrielle had prepared soup, a thick mushroom soup, a favorite of the warrior's.

Xena grabbed a chunk of bread. "This'll do. If I don't see you when I return, Arthea, take care." And I'll be very happy, she added as she closed the door behind her. She had no direction in mind, just out. Anyplace would do, except the glade. With great deliberation she headed toward the known, visited Cramma, as a checkpoint, and dropped in on Ikar and Natrakia. "We'll be seeing you soon, when we come to collect our lessons with Gabrielle," they called after her. She smiled, pleased that the bard would have some students. She thought of visiting Archon and Sepra, but saw what looked liked Hekatore, with his team of horses across a field in that direction. She was in no mood to speak to the man, and gave him a wide berth.

When she returned, Arthea, was as expected, long gone. "I waited to eat with you," Gabrielle told her. That was nice. Xena was hungry, but as she washed up, Gabrielle spied new company from the window. "Archon never stays long when he's alone, and I donít see Sepra with him," she said.

"A gift." Archon stepped forward, and lifted the second of a pair of goats from the ox cart to the ground. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged puzzled glances.

"Why?" Xena asked.

"Friendship," he boomed. "Neighborliness." He shrugged. "Maybe because you'll be bringing my babe into the world in a few weeks, and I can't think of better payment."

"I don't need payment for that," she replied.

"But you always want us to take something, no favors allowed. Turnabout is fair play. This little pair of goats should be the seed for a nice herd of your own. Next best thing to sheep," he winked, acknowledging her preference.

Gabrielle already had her arms around one, stroking its ears with affection. "Archon, this is very generous. Thank you both. Where's Sepra? I made mushroom soup."

"Her feet were a little puffy, back aching. Being with child isn't a lot of fun, I guess. I'll be happy to carry some soup back to her. She does like her mushrooms."

"I'll be right back." When she had gone inside, Archon spoke to Xena: "It's lucky for all of us, you having Petra as a protector. We haven't seen a sign of the tribes since her visit here. She seems to pay special attention to The Sweetwater. That alone makes it worthwhile thanking you."

For Petra's protection. Xena swallowed the bitter bile that rose in her throat.

"What did you ever do to earn her protection?"

"I'd love to know," she said earnestly, "but I think you're overstating things. She isn't my protector."

"Whatever. In the absence of a real overlord, she'll do."

Xena was grateful to see Gabrielle return with the soup, the entire pot. "You'd better get this back to Sepra. She's eating for two," Xena said curtly. Gabrielle wondered at the tension between them.

"I'm sorry if I offended you, Xena," Archon said, but the warrior was already leading the goats to the shed, wondering where was best to pasture them.

"Maybe I'll drop by to see Sepra tomorrow," Xena replied over her shoulder.

Gabrielle saw Archon off and caught up with her in the yellowed field behind the house. She couldn't guess what had passed between them, and didn't want to know, just then. "Xena, I hope you don't mind a cold supper. I gave all the soup to Archon. Sepra -"

"Craves mushrooms; I know." She shrugged. "It doesn't matter."

"Is this a bad mood that will last the rest of the day, or should I stick around, hoping for a break in the clouds?"

With an effort, Xena arranged a smile on her face. "How was Arthea?" she asked, for something to say.

"Restless; couldn't sit still. We were going to eat some soup, but I no sooner dished it out than she changed her mind and left. I dumped it back in the pot to wait for you. Guess I wasn't meant to eat mushroom soup today."

"If there was an inn nearby we could go out for supper. I'd like that," Xena said with a nod.

"That's what this place needs," Gabrielle said with sudden animation. "An inn. You know all about that Xena, maybe we could -"

"What? Open our home to travelers?" Xena asked aghast. "You're right. I do know about inns. I grew up in one. I won't spend my life handing bowls of stew to a bunch of convicts and drunks."

"Okay. You needn't take my head off."

"Sorry." She scratched her dark head. "I'm in a rotten mood," she acknowledged contritely.

"Belligerent. Not rotten, belligerent. You sound as if you need to stick a sword in someone."

"I don't need to stick a sword in anyone. Can't I just have a bad mood once in a while?"

"Sure. Just indulge your rotten mood someplace else. Go chop wood, or kill some furry creatures. Tartarus is a big place, Xena; there must be somewhere you can go until you're ready to be civil. What ever is eating you, don't take it out on me!" She turned away, vaguely hoping she could turn around and start the exchange from the beginning. Xena spoke first.

"Gabrielle, I just wanted to - " she stopped, looked around for a moment, and slapped a hand against her thigh, not knowing what she wanted. "I'll do as you say," she said at last.

Gabrielle turned quickly, but the warrior was already striding away through the field.

This time, no place was off limits. She didn't really know how to find the glade, but knew when she found its approach. The languorous movement was like foreplay, in the intensity of sensual feeling. Every fragrance was heightened, the warm air caressed her body, and her blood seemed to quicken. It had never been so inviting. She almost spurred Argo to hurry, but the pleasure of the moment was too great. She didn't have to wait for Ares to appear, he stood on a knoll, arms crossed against his broad chest, waiting. He knew I'd be here, Xena acknowledged, noting that the thought didn't trouble her.

"Xena. Rough day?" His voice was soft; she heard only the mocking undertone, and scowled.

"I came for a little peace, Ares. I don't need your company."

"No? Suppose I promise not to nag, pick, find fault? Can I stay?"

"Never mind. I don't know why I came," she said, yet she made no move to go.

"Don't let me keep you from the love of your life. You won't want to miss your evening spat."

"Eaaaah!" she screamed, as she spurred Argo forward, drawing her sword on the fly. Ares made no move as she bore down on him, but his lips turned up in a satisfied smile. She was driven by salt-fury as she drove toward him, and plunged the sword into his chest, to the hilt. He stepped out of the sword, and laughed. She looked at her naked blade, flung it aside, and leaped off Argo to land on the startled god. Her fingers found his throat as he landed on his back; one hand working free to land a hard punch on his jaw. He smarted at that, and swung at her. Her head snapped back at impact, and jerked forward again to land on the bridge of his nose. He grabbed her by the hair, arching her neck back in a brutal twist, and rose to his knees. She attempted to break free; the back of his free hand landed across her mouth, but she caught at it with her teeth, causing him to yelp in pain. Without loosing his hold on her hair, he rose to his feet dragging her after, and drove a knee into her midsection. The air huffed out of her; as she struggled to regain her breath he spoke into her ear: "I'll give you whatever you need, Xena. Peace, you got it; a good fight; you got it." A second time he smacked her hard across the face, sending her across the clearing, to land in a heap at the base of a tree. "Had enough?" he demanded. As he stood over her.

"Not yet," she rasped, and launched herself with impossible velocity at his throat once again. He stumbled backwards, a stream of obscenities gushing from his mouth. She gained a hold of his thick black locks this time; he grinned, and twined his fingers in her hers. He let her take him down, let her fingers stay on his throat, and wrapped one arm around her waist. Their faces were inches apart. For a moment all he could see was the blood which poured from her nose, and the puffy split lips, her mouth a little open to gulp in air. Then he closed on her, and his full mouth was over hers. She froze for a moment, in pain or in shock he didn't know. When she relaxed it was complete, her mouth was his, her hands no longer seeking to throttle, but to hold him close in a lover's embrace. Whatever she thought she wanted when she came to the glade was forgotten in his dark embrace. "Is this what you need, Xena? I'm more than happy to give it to you." For a long while nothing intruded on her consciousness. She was all sensation, all feeling, alive with his touch, moving in abandon against his body. He whispered something to her, she couldn't make it out, but fell asleep at last, with the soft echoes reverberating through her.

She awoke sometime later, in this timeless place, her naked body tickled by soft grass. Argo stood across the clearing; she imagined she saw reproach in her eyes, but turned her attention to herself. It was an effort to stir, so complete was her relaxation. She stretched like a cat, feeling each muscle and sinew as if for the first time. Reborn. That's what this is like. Not resurrection, I know that feeling. This is all new, like coming into possession of myself for the first time. She looked around, avoiding the big mare. Ares. Gone. If he'd ever been here. She moved the back of a hand across her mouth. No damage there. Something had happened. What? The fight? Or the love making? Both or neither? Nothing was clear, except that she felt wonderful. She cupped her breasts with both hands, delighting in her own touch. Argo whinnied, and something in that sound was full of home. Gabrielle. Through the afterglow, a nagging thought pushed at the edge of consciousness. She got to her knees, began to collect her things that were scattered around the area. Those small, practical movements made her feel her nakedness for the first time. She shook her head, and rose to her feet, refusing to let it happen. "Alalalalalalaaaaa?" roared from her throat, a ferocious cry of defiance, against what? She didn't know.

It was only later, on the cold road to home that fear struck. Ares had said she was his, that he had come to claim her. How could she refute his claim, and give herself to him; give herself to anyone when she belonged, body and soul to Gabrielle. A wave of self-loathing swept her. Gabrielle will know, she'll see it in me, smell him on me. Gods, I smell him on me. "I'll tell her Argo, everything. Maybe she can forgive me." She let Argo find the way, while she puzzled the mystery she had become to herself.

Time had played a new game on her, this time. Far from standing still, it seemed to have sped through the day, so that she emerged into a deep twilight. No candlelight came through the oiled parchment windows, and her heart skipped, wondering at Gabrielle's whereabouts. "Gabrielle!" she called, as Argo galloped to the door. There was no reply, but a scrap of parchment was on the table, with a hastily scrawled message: I've gone to Sepra. Meet me there.

That was all; it was enough to send Xena flying over the landscape, guessing that the baby must have come early, for Gabrielle to have gone there on such short notice. There were several horses in the yard when she arrived: Glider, Drax and Ileander's mounts, Hermia's cart, and Cramma's donkey. So many people for one birth? Her stomach churned in unaccustomed anxiety as she opened the door. It was not a birth, but a wake. Archon's washed body lay on a board at the far end of the room. Xena crossed to him, looking for the wound, or injury that had killed him. None was apparent. Sepra sat beside her husband, face buried in a towel, weeping softly.

Xena turned, mouth open, to find a sea of faces staring at her. She focused on Gabrielle. "What happened?"

"He dropped dead, Xena. He ate the soup, and dropped dead."

"The soup?" She was dumbfounded.

"There must have been a poisonous mushroom in the soup." Gabrielle looked quickly at the floor. "I sent him home with a bowl full of poison," she said.

"No, Gabrielle, you didn't," she said quickly. "If it was a poison mushroom, Sepra would have - "

"She didn't eat any. She wasn't feeling well. That saved her life."

"But you - "

"I never ate any."

"You always taste when you cook," Xena argued.

"I didn't today. I was too busy, in and out all day. I put everything in the pot and let it simmer. Then I sent it home with Archon. If Sepra hadn't felt ill, they'd all be dead," she said bleakly.

"No." Xena's head shook resolutely. "It wasn't the mushrooms. I know which ones are safe."

"Xena." Sepra spoke for the first time. "He was fine. Then he took a few mouthfuls of soup. Suddenly he stood up, clutched at his throat?" she mimicked his actions. "It was like he couldn't breathe. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he pitched forward. He was dead before I reached him." It was clearly a tale she'd told many times today. She regarded the room with red-rimmed eyes.

"It didn't have to be the soup," Xena insisted.

"Xena, I'm not angry. I don't blame anyone," Sepra told her mildly. "It was very kind of Gabrielle to send the soup. You've both been good friends."

"Archon was a good man," Gabrielle said. She placed a hand on Xena's arm to stop her speaking again. "His child will be proud of his father, we'll see to that."

Xena was back at Archon's side, peering deeply at his face, looking for any clue that might explain his sudden death.

"It's time," Drax said. We'll want the pyre lit before it gets too late."

Sepra took a shuddering breath, and nodded. Xena stepped aside to let the grieving widow have a final moment with her husband.

"Drax," she said quietly, "I'd like a few moments alone with the body. Maybe - "

"Xena, there's no point. It's best to get him out of the house so Sepra can get some rest."

"But - "

"No." This was Arthea's voice, at her elbow, firm in denial. "Drax is right." Xena stared, but Gabrielle added her voice. "Let it go, Xena." The warrior nodded, accepting defeat. Together the two men and four women carried the corpse a distance from the house, to a waiting pyre. Sepra followed, supported by Cramma's strong arm. No words were said, no songs sung. The sad little group waited for the fire to burn out, then scattered; only Cramma stayed to spend the night with Sepra.

Few words were exchanged on the way back to the wattle house. There was so much to be said, and so little sense of where to begin. It was not until the horses were stabled, the candles lit and the door barred for the night that Gabrielle asked the question that had nagged at her for so long. "Where were you Xena?"

The warrior merely shrugged at the question. "I was out riding. No place in particular."

"It took a long time to ride to no place," Gabrielle observed acidly. "I waited for you, as long as I could?"

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I wish I had been there for you."

"Me too." She sat at the table, shoulders slumped. It had been a long day and a longer night. Her eyes fell on the cold hearth, an appropriate reminder of the last meal she'd cooked. Xena followed her gaze, and rose to stir the cinders to life.

"I keep thinking that if I'd tasted a little bit, I would have gotten sick, thrown it all away, and Archon would still be alive." She looked at Xena, waiting for consolation.

"Don't blame yourself, Gabrielle. If it was a poison mushroom, you'd be dead from a taste. But it wasn't the mushrooms."

"Xena, thanks for trying, but I don't see any other explanation."

"Gabrielle, I've known mushrooms since I was a kid. I've never been wrong. Those were edible. I'd stake my life on it."

"Too late," Gabrielle said with a bitter smile.

"Oh yeah?" Xena lifted the door to the root cellar. "I'll eat every one to prove it," she muttered.

"That wouldn't prove anything, Xena. If it was one mushroom, and Archon got it?" she shrugged. "Besides, when I heard about Archon, I threw the remainder in the fire. I don't think they're worth the risk anymore."

"You were so sure," Xena fumed. "So sure I had to be the one at fault."

"Xena, we all make mistakes. Maybe you should learn to accept that."

"I didn't make a mistake," she growled.

"You won't even admit the possibility?" Gabrielle demanded.

"Not about this. I didn't cause Archon's death."

"You're being ridiculous."

"I'm sorry you think so," she countered through lips so tight they were ringed white. "I think it's ridiculous that you all leaped to the same conclusion with no evidence."

"Xena, a healthy man ate a bowl of soup and dropped dead. It doesn't Plato to figure it out."

"And now all the evidence is gone," Xena said, as if to herself. "Wait a minute," she said suddenly. "What happened to the pot? And his bowl?"

"The pot's been scrubbed out, burned clean with hot coals. The bowl was smashed into the fire. Good thing, too. You'd kill yourself trying to prove a point."

"The right point," Xena nodded emphatically.

"Xena, why is this so important? Is it just about pride?"

"Yeah; I guess so," Xena said defiantly. And the little matter that I don't want to know that one more innocent is dead because of me.

Chapter Twenty Nine

It had been a dream. Impossible that it was anything else; unthinkable. Nothing in the glade was real, she reasoned, the place seemed to have a life of its own, appearing like the puffballs which follow a thunderstorm. But then, that was just like Ares, materializing for a moment, wreaking havoc, and retreating into the ether. That thought made it easy to believe it was his glade, easier to believe she had met him there; his breath had been hot, his flesh hard, demanding; and she had yielded. She sat up, breathing hard, sweat beading her body as sensations washed through her. If any of it was real, it could all be real. And looming out of the darkness, dwarfing all the shadows in the room, was the table: big, solid, hewn from walnut sheíd found in the glade. Dreams didnít leave solid mementos. She threw back the covers. No more sleep tonight.

"What are you doing?" Gabrielle had awakened to the sound of pouring water. Xena spoke without looking. "I need a bath," was all she said, as she emptied the iron cook pot into the wide wooden tub they used for bathing, among other things. This was the third pot she had heated and emptied, still the bath would be shallow, but almost hot.

"Odd time for a bath," Gabrielle observed with a yawn. "Do you feel all right?"

"Fine." Xena didnít bother to smile reassurance. The light was too dim, and she knew from the muffled voice that she was already snuggled under the blanket again.

"Don't take too long, Xena. You'll get a chill."

Xena paused, one foot in the little tub, the other still on the cold floor, and looked at the sleeping form, knowing how nice it was to be cared for; it only made the guilt worse. "Right," she said with as much appreciation as she could put into one word. Won't be long, she told herself, just need to feel clean. You wouldn't understand why, Gabrielle, not this time. I hardly understand.

Gabrielle listened at the edge of sleep, wondering at the almost frantic pace of movement. She guessed it had to do with Archon's sudden death. She had thought of little else, had dreamt of it, dreamt of the impending birth of Archon's child, shuddered now to think of Sepra and her child in Tartarus, alone. "Xena?" The sounds had stopped. The faint scent of soapy water surprised her; it was the harsh soap they used for cleaning household goods. "Are you coming back to bed?" The silent pause suggested that was not in Xena's plans. "Please? I could use you over here." There was still no reply, but soft footsteps crossed the room. Still-damp hair brushed her face as Xena settled down. Just out of touch. "You may as well have been on the other side of the room last night."

It was a gentle complaint; Xena happily accepted the invitation implicit in those words.

It had been a long, lonely night; Gabrielle had been badly shaken by the death of Archon, deserved some comfort. I was unavailable, Xena acknowledged. She worked an arm under her shoulders now, wrapped her securely with the other, and fitted herself against the woman so that only soft doeskin came between them

"It was hard not to think of Archon last night," Gabrielle was saying. Xena grunted noncommittally; her own thoughts had been of Ares. "Do you think Sepra will be all right?"

"I don't know Gabrielle; people who work hard and have a modicum of sense should survive. It doesn't always work that way." So much was obvious. "She'll have a lot of help."

They were silent for a moment following their own thoughts, then: "Xena? What I said about the mushrooms last night; I wasn't blaming you ? "

"Don't worry about it."

"It sounded so harsh, now that I look back on it. You didn't deserve that."

"I probably did, for something," she responded with a wan smile. Infidelity? Maybe?

"You're not angry? You were so distant, I thought maybe..."

"No," Xena said softly. "I'm not angry. And if I was, so what? I get over it. With you. You should know that by now." She ventured a squeeze of her hand. She hadn't explained the distance.

"I do know that," Gabrielle said, "but I missed you last night.? Silence. "Xena, we have to talk about what's wrong with us."

A beat, then : "Okay." No point pretending nothing was wrong, though it sent a shiver through her to hear it said aloud. For a moment only the wind was heard, rattling the shutters.

Gabrielle chuckled softly. "I feel sometimes like the wind, whining steadily in your direction."

Xena's arms clutched her tightly in startled reaction. "Whining? No, you never - "

"Xena, I whine, and bitch," she went on resolutely. "I hear it in my voice and I hate it. Especially because it's always directed at you. Always. I was never like that," she said with shocked realization, "I'm not like that with Hermia, or even with Arthea. Why am I so quick to snap at you?" She moved her shoulders in a small shrug. "Lest you think this is an exercise in self-reproach, let me point out that you haven't been the easiest person to live with. Grumpy. Distant. Moody. These are all adjectives I could put to good use if I were to detail this portion of our lives together. Luckily, I'm not writing much about us lately. After all, how many ways can I describe the thrill of the hunt?"

"I hunt too much?" Xena asked, confusion evident in her voice.

"Oh yeah," Gabrielle replied archly. "Rabbits will go the way of the golden hinds if you don't let up."

"I thought you like to eat?" came from between tight lips.

"That's not a criticism, Xena, just an observation. I think that's the problem You're not a hunter, Xena. You're a warrior."

"You sound like Ares," came the slow reply, with a ghostly chuckle.

"Ares? Why not?" the bard conceded after a moment. "He knows you almost as well as I do. But he sees you as a warrior for his dark designs. I know you as a warrior of the light. The skills may be the same, but the motives are very different." She turned to face the warrior, wrapped her in a loose embrace. "I donít know how you can be a warrior here, Xena. Weíve covered the same ground a dozen times: You wonít be overlord. But your life has to be about more than protecting me, providing for me. For both our sakes."

"About what, then Gabrielle? I'm damned if I know."

"I can't answer that; I just have an uneasy feeling that if you- we -don't find the answer to that, we'll find ways of tormenting each other for the rest of our lives."

"Tormenting? Is it that bad?" The deeper voice was uneasy.

"It's torment to be in the same room, yet miles apart. That's one Zeno hasn't touched yet." Gabrielle snaked an arm around to feel the warm flesh behind her, managing to tickle a rib gently. "You're still the one I want warming my bed. But there was a time we laughed," she ended dismally.

"Gabrielle?" Xena waited for Gabrielle to dry herself with the linen towel. Wet locks of hair framed her face as she looked up, waiting for Xena to continue.

"I think I'll stay close to home today. There's plenty to do, and maybe we can spend some time together."

"Today?" Gabrielle asked, her voice soft. "I promised Hermia I'd come by. Sepra will need- "

"Sepra. Yeah." Xena nodded. " Not all day?" she hoped aloud.

"Well, a good part of the day. Why not join us?? Gabrielle suggested warily.

"Sure. Sepra would love that." Xena rubbed her long feet together before the fire.

"I'd love that. Please, Xena?"

"Gabrielle, her pain is still too raw - "

"Xena, you can't avoid Sepra forever."

"I'm not avoiding anyone," came the indignant response. "I don?t often sit around the cook fires with you ladies," she hissed, "this doesn't seem like the best time to start."

Gabrielle almost felt the heat as the words spilled out, then Xena was quiet. You ladies. That hurt, but not enough to become an issue. "Okay, okay," she said, conciliating, without knowing why. Xena had spent many days in the warmth of the baker's home. "You're not avoiding her. Just another essential hunting trip, more time alone." That's what this is about, she decided quietly. "Still, if you're going to deliver the baby, Sepra should - " She broke off as Xena stood abruptly.

"Fine. I'll come to Hermia's." Don't need more time alone, Xena realized, and quickly moved her eyes from the fire, away from Gabrielle's questioning gaze.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to ask a question, then said instead: "I'm glad, Xena."

Xena found herself apart from the tiny group even as she sat in their midst. She would have welcomed the company of Drax and Ileander, but the men were tending the goats. Even the ubiquitous Arthea was nowhere in sight. Hermia shot her a sympathetic grimace as she refilled her mug with ale. How many times was that? Xena shrugged and returned to her survey of the fields. Hard to gauge the seasons here, but spring seemed suddenly in a hurry to arrive. Hints of green showed amid the brown grasses. Soon the cycle of planting and harvesting would begin again; and the lambing. In Amphipolis, it would hold the attention of the region for - She shoved the thought aside. Amphipolis was past. The more immediate concern would be birthing Sepra's goats. The woman herself seemed ready to deliver. She was certainly big enough. Through red-rimmed eyes she took tiny stitches in a piece of linen, looking up on occasion to Hermia, busy with her loaves, and Gabrielle, monitoring Lilla's progress as she formed crude letters with a piece of charcoal on a small wooden tile. Then her eyes fell on Xena. She smiled, but she looked quickly away as new tears filled her eyes.

Fat lot of good I'm doing here, Xena acknowledged. "The goats have settled in nicely," she said suddenly. Sepra sniffled to clear her nose, then replied: "Tartarus bred. They'll be content with very little."

Xena snorted her disgust at the truth in those words, at the resignation in the tone. Nothing could ever change here, she decided, in a land where even the free born expected nothing, that was exactly what they'd get. What had Archon left behind, after a lifetime of toil? A herd of scrawny goats, exhausted fields and a wife at the mercy of anyone stronger. Which would be practically everyone. And one earring, exchangeable for battered cast-off goods. She fingered her own in disgust.

"Gabrielle, I think it's gonna rain. Hard. Let's start back."

Gabrielle looked up. startled. "Rain?" she asked in a mocking tone, then caught something in Xena's face. "You know, that's a good idea. There's no shelter between here and home," she explained to the women. "Lilla, we'll do this again tomorr- or soon," she amended.

It would rain, soon, she decided, casting a wary glance at the high clouds, but not today.

"Thank you, for coming, Xena," Gabrielle said. "That's not your idea of a fun time. You could have been - "

"What? Killing off the rabbit population? It was all right," she told her with a small shrug. "I just took all I could at one draught."

The bard regarded her with concern, as she trotted alongside. Something had unsettled her, but there had been nothing out of the ordinary? She worked at framing the right question, that was half the trick of communicating with Xena, sheíd learned, finding the right question, but her eyes fixed on a figure on the road ahead. Damn. "Isn't that Arthea," she asked sourly.

"Yeah."

"I wondered where she was today. She usually buzzes around you like a bee around nectar."

"Gabrielle, you make too much of that."

"Really?" She watched smugly as the woman approached, smiling a greeting to Xena long before they were in earshot. "She'd eat you alive if you let your guard down," she said with a nod. "Not that I doubt your fidelity, Xena." She wondered at the sudden tension in the warrior's body, then turned her attention to what Arthea was saying.

"Just dropped a couple of loaves at your door," she said magnanimously.

"You know Hermia always gives me the loaves when I drop by," Gabrielle said with a lingering emphasis on the name of maker of the loaves.

"True," Arthea said, nonplussed, "but I thought Xena might be spending a long, hungry day waiting for your return. After last night I didn't know if she'd be welcome." Her warm smile left no doubt that she held Xena blameless.

"No one blames Xena - " the bard began testily.

"It's all right, Gabrielle," Xena soothed. "Thanks for your concern Arthea. Sorry you wasted a trip." Xena's voice held a note of finality, but the woman persisted.

"No matter. Maybe I could walk alongside for a little way?" Her voice trailed off, hopefully.

"Rain's coming." Someday. "You'd better get on home," Xena told her firmly.

"Hmmm," Arthea nodded in agreement after a moment. "Another time. Goodbye then." Her eyes settled on Gabrielle for a moment. "Another time," she repeated meaninglessly, and continued her saunter down the road.

"She gives me the creeps." Gabrielle looked after her for a long time.

"C'mon, Gabrielle. She's gone."

"For now. She's only ever a few miles away."

We could remember who encouraged her to settle so near, but we won't, Xena mused.

"We could move," she said instead. "Away from Arthea."

"And Hermia, and Lilla and Sepra and her baby and Nara."

"Why not?" Xena asked solemnly.

"Okay," Gabrielle laughed. "I'd like a nice house built around a courtyard in Athens, not too large. Near the amphitheater," she added. "Since we can't have that, we may as well stay put."

"What happened to the cave at the end of the world?" Xena responded with her own strained laugh.

"What?? Gabrielle asked, puzzled.

"You once said - " Xena began, then stopped. "Never mind." It was too long ago; only months really, but in another lifetime. ĎI'd live with you in a cave at the end of the world.í Thatís what you said Gabrielle, she remembered. "Do you sometimes wish we'd never left Prestia?" she asked instead.

"All the time," Gabrielle answered with the certainty of one who'd considered the question many times. "You asked," she reproached Xena, when she caught sight of the tiny frown. "You were happy there, in the end," she reminded her. "There was so much to do, the people loved you. And you loved them."

"Why not? They stood up and fought back," Xena said fiercely, "not like these people." Her head moved to encompass the whole of Tartarus. "Content with little," she said contemptuously.

Gabrielle reigned Glider to a halt, incredulous. "You fault them for that? Sepra, Hermia and the others? You dare criticize them? Let me point out that the people of Prestia did damn all about their problems until you took the lead."

"Yeah, well, they came through in the end," she muttered in reply.

"You came through, Xena. And the Amazons. Most of Prestia stood by and watched while you fought that battle. How does hindsight transform them into heroes? Are they caught up in the afterglow of battle memories? Would you prefer Sepra if she carried a sword?"

"Of course not," Xena countered sullenly. "But I can't stand that resignation."

"Xena, she's been here her whole life, scratching a living out of very grudging soil. It's no easy job. What more do you want her - or any of them - to do?" she demanded. She looked closely at the woman who was peerless in the art of survival. "Change happens slowly, Xena, and it needs a catalyst, some agent to make it happen. She was eager enough to learn to read. She wants her baby to read and write. That will make a change in this place, someday," she said with satisfaction. "That's my contribution." Argo watched Glider as she was spurred ahead, wondering at Xena's inactivity.

Chapter 30


"You surprise me, Xena." He dismounted gratefully. The tour of Tartarus required long hours in the saddle. This opportunity to rest his backside while satisfying his curiosity was more than welcome. In point of fact, Phyrris would satisfy the far greater curiosity of King Tarkian with this visit.

Xena had been easy to find. Tales had been told in Mustrakis by the peddlers who survived the riot at the marketplace. Amid the tatters of their belongings, and their adamant promises to avoid this region henceforth, tales of the evening, and the woman who averted total disaster leaked through. Phyrris found it hard to reconcile that woman with the homestead they stood before: sturdy, humble, so much a thing of this desolate place. Yet here she was, looking much as she had when the convict journey began, except she was clad in leather, rather than the coarse convict tunic.

"Everyone knew where you put down roots," he told her amiably.

She regarded him with eyes of flint. "Good." She snapped her head to display a dangling earring. "Itís still there. I'm still here. Was there anything else?"

"I had hoped there'd be no hard feelings," he offered, overlooking the hostile tone. "I was doing my job."

"Yeah, fine. Like I said: Was there anything else?"

He looked at the small house, where Gabrielle was framed in the doorway. "I see you're still together." He moved a hand in a small wave at Gabrielle; it was acknowledged with a small nod of her head.

"That was Tarkian's plan," she acknowledged dryly. It's always been my plan, was her silent acknowledgement. "And" she pressed.

"I had expected you'd have more ambition than this." He smiled, as if to show he meant no disrespect. "Damn it, Xena," he exclaimed when she made no reply, "you could run this place. We, er, I expected that by now."

"I'd have imposed order on Tartarus? Tarkian sent the murderer to keep the peace. She's not interested in fulfilling his notion of irony."

"The Sweetwater is thriving, Xena, this part of it anyway. The pouch of earrings from this sector is pitifully small."

"I like things quiet in my backyard," she told him. Safe for Gabrielle, she told herself. "That's as far as it goes."

"Your backyard is likely to get very crowded. Folk from all over are resettling here, because of you," he smiled, and received an impatient shrug in reply.

"Some of us have work to do; if there's nothing else...?" she lifted an eyebrow in query.

"Just one thing: It's said you?ve met with Petra Tartras. Her contacts with convicts are not usually cordial."

"Who said it was cordial?"

"Regardless. Any contact with her could be useful."

"Useful? To whom? I'm not here as an agent of Mus," she reminded him.

"Do you wonder why we don't send an expedition to break that bitc- woman's power?" he asked. Because you know you'd fail, Xena thought, but let him answer his own question. "She's the first line of defense against the Tribes. I know she'd as soon see the Three Kingdoms in ruins, but she busies herself with the Tribes. If we could forge an alliance..."  He stopped, wondering at the broad grin which spread across Xena's face.

"An alliance to defeat the Tribes? With Petra? Why would she be interested? Her people are semi-nomadic. The Tribes trouble them less than the convicts. Do you think she'd do anything to encourage settlement from your kind, farmers, builders-of-fences, soldiers? Not likely."

He considered her words carefully, knowing that she had seen more of the world than he, trusting a knowledge so wide. "Is that an honest appraisal," he asked, because he had to.

"Mostly," she conceded.  "leave you to figure the rest."

 

As the trail of dust from the departing horses settled, Gabrielle absorbed the repeated conversation. "What is the 'rest', Xena?" she inquired softly.

"Petra's keeping a lot of balls in the air. It's a neat trick, but it can't be done forever."

"Someday she?ll have to choose the lesser poison," Gabrielle concluded. "She could do a lot of good," she mused.

"Good?"

"This land is crying out for order, Xena. If Petra chose to take the lead ..."

"She won't," Xena said, gesturing as if to shoo a pesky fly. "She thrives on disorder and chaos - except in her own camp. I did," she added, showing her teeth in a feral grin. "Petra will only forge an alliance with equals. That narrows the possibilities quite a lot. The Tribes, the kingdoms, the convicts - all beneath her."

"Then what happens when the balls start to fall, Xena?"

Slowly, Xena stooped to collect a handful of stones from the ground. She held them in her open palm for a moment, then flipped up her hand. As the stones pelted the ground she spoke softly:  "You tell me, Gabrielle. And keep your head covered."

 

There was another visit, to the woman, Hermia, to be made. Her bread would be welcome after the steady diet of small game and meal cooked around the campfires. Phyrris sensed even his mount grow anxious as they approached the farm, with its mingled scents of grains and hay and humanity. Curious it was, the motley crew that emerged from the house, the new barn, and the bushes which edged the fields. Hermia he expected. Drax was a surprise; Ileander's appearance at his side less surprising. He had observed much on the way to Tartarus, after the ugly riot. Arthea was the biggest surprise. She had no place here, it seemed, not with the two men, who stood together, certainly not with the sturdy woman who squinted at Phyrris, hands smoothing the sides of her long-worn apron.

Because he respected her skill as a baker, and because she looked a little like his mother, Phyrris greeted her with a pleasant nod, using her name to show he remembered. "Much has been improved here," he observed. "Lucky I'm not here to collect a household tax," he said, by way of a small joke. No joke, really, he thought. Tarkian would do well to collect taxes on the likes of Hermia. The woman did not see the joke.

"We've patched the place a bit," she conceded. "You'll be wanting bread."

"Yes, and news. Any earrings to be recorded?"

"None."

"What of that pouch in the root cellar?" Arthea asked, enjoying Hermia's surprise at her knowledge.

"You're dreaming, girl," Hermia growled. "That's just bent nails. Never know what might come in handy," she told Phyrris.

He was happy to let it drop. The mysteries and intrigues of Tartarus proved tiresome. He directed his attention to Drax. "I thought you'd be wearing the crest of an overlord.?

"Didn't suit me," he murmured, eyes creased against the glare of the sun.

"You lot in The Sweetwater are independent," Phyrris observed. "You'd best pray to the gods you never need any help."

"We're not likely to be helped, except by ourselves," Drax rejoined. "The Overlord is worth damn all when there's a problem."

"You rely on Xena." It was a statement.

"We rely on each other. It's good to have Xena on our side."

Pointless discussion, Phyrris admitted to himself. "I'll take as much of your excellent bread as you can spare, ma'am" he told Hermia. "Then I'll visit that keeper of goats, Archon, for some excellent cheese."

A look passed among them. "Archon's gone for a ride on Charon's boat," Arthea supplied. "He swallowed an evil mushroom."

"So?" This was news. A minor point in the world at large, but in this small community the disposition of a herd of goats and a tidy homestead would be of major significance. "His woman, is she managing alone?" His question was direct, but they all saw beneath the few words.

"She won?t be forced into marriage, no one will seize what's hers. We'll take care of Sepra," Drax replied with conviction.

"And the baby on it's way," Arthea added, eager for something to say. "Sepra's of longtime Tartarus stock. She'll survive."

"I hope so," he replied, sincerely. We'd best do some business now," he told Hermia. "We've a lot of riding yet to do. Overlords to call on, tales of raiding to be endured, earrings to be tallied..." Damn this place and the shabby folk who lived here, he thought, suddenly annoyed, so that his next words were an unexpected growl: "The bread had better be fresh."

 

It was as Hermia said. The first of the Spring raids began within days of Phyrris 's visit. The Tribes ventured only to the edge of The Sweetwater, but was enough to send those living on the fringes closer to the center, closer to Xena. And it brought a flurry of activity from the Overlord's guard.

"Making sure they're no threat to him," Hermia observed, punching a mass of dough as she spoke.

"Hmmmm." Gabrielle looked up from a scroll. "Did you say something?" she asked, suddenly aware of Hermia's voice.

"Nothing to compete with whatever you're writing," the other woman replied mildly. A small cluster of scrolls, newly fashioned by Ileander, lay on the table. Next to them were bits of charcoal, honed to an edge, ready for writing on the thin bits of board Xena had contrived from spare bits of wood. The tools of learning. Gabrielle regarded them with satisfaction, rough though they were. It was a start. The first students would arrive soon. Gabrielle felt the thrill of anticipation, had known it for days. Xena had remarked on it the night before, imploring Gabrielle to come lie with her. "Gabrielle, you can't be more than ready," she'd argued.

"But I can enjoy it, revel in the knowledge it's really going to happen," the bard had countered. Now she was in Hermia?s home, chosen for its centrality; everyone came to Hermia's. The first lessons would be here. Gabrielle returned to her scroll, resisting the temptation to stare out the window, waiting to spy her first pupil. "I think they're late," she said aloud. Arthea suppressed a sniggle.

 

In  the nearby field Xena's thoughts mirrored Arthea's, and received more attention than  the blade of the scythe she honed. The sun had long been up; soon it would reach its zenith, and no one had arrived for the lessons. Her heart sank a little, knowing how keenly Gabrielle would feel the disappointment. She had an urge to find the nearest human and force attendance at the lesson. Instead she reviewed all the very good reasons that made absence understandable. There was always something to do here, something which required attention, which demanded attention if you hoped to survive. Then there were the distances, and the Tribes. She was satisfied that she could make a good case for Gabrielle, to ease the hurt. They've already been paid for their help, with earrings, she could add, but she wouldn't. That would really hurt, for Gabrielle to know how little confidence Xena had in her scheme. Gabrielle had been so pleased to think she could pay in kind, with lessons, for the help they'd received when Xena was hurt. Now the truth would emerge with a vengeance.

With a grim shake of her head she hefted the scythe and climbed the knoll which shielded the eastern meadow from view. It was almost time for planting, again. This would be yet another battle against the encroaching hordes of weeds. Her eye caught a flicker of movement, and her head snapped around, scanning the distant road. She saw the dust first, then bits of color, a shirt, a scarf, the dull coat of a donkey. Not the Tribes, she realized, relieved, nor the Overlord's minions. This was more than a family, seeking bread, or refuge. An idea formed; she considered, dismissed it, then started toward them, puzzling at the number of children in the group. She recognized a face, and was about to call out when the woman spoke to her: "We've come for our lessons, Xena. Making a right holiday of the occasion!"

Xena nodded, an exaggerated nod, her smile making her pleasure evident to the group. "Gabrielle's waiting, she'll be happy to see you," she called back, then muttered: "Not as happy as I am."

 

"They really came," she said to Hermia, in a far corner. Gabrielle was demonstrating the formation of letters on a large board propped against the wall. Every face was turned to her, rapt with wonder at the source of this magic. Reverence was in their eyes. Xena knew the look; for other reasons it had been directed at her, on occasion. It's so right, Gabrielle, that they love you this way. How could they not love you? Gabrielle looked over at that moment, as if drawn by the thought.

"There's a pouch full of earrings in the cellar, Xena," Hermia whispered. "No one would take them, all winter.  I think now, no one ever will. Xena nodded her acceptance of Hermia?s judgement.

"Keep them," she told the woman, "against a rainy day."

 

"It's a start, Xena. I have students. Eager, bright; I feel as if I have a purpose again." The day had been long. Hermia had insisted they stay for supper, to celebrate.

Again? Xena wondered. "That's fine, Gabrielle," she affirmed, uncertainly.

"What's wrong, Xena? Afraid I won't have time for you? Not a chance," she shook her blonde mane heartily, exhilarated to the ends of the strands.  "But I would accept a confession if you'd like to unburden yourself."

Xena started, moved hastily to rub imaginary dust from her eye, blinked several times, fast, to cover her surprise, to rid her self of the sudden vision of Ares.  "What am I supposed to be confessing?" she asked at last, genuinely confused. Ares? This was not the tone Gabrielle - anyone - would take over infidelity.

"Think I don't know?" the bard went on smugly. "I have eyes, and I know you well," she reminded.

The earrings. Damn, she knows about the earrings, that I meant to pay off  -

"Athenodorus and the ghost." The bard interrupted her desperate thoughts. "You hung on every word. Just like the others. It's a good story, and I tell it well," she said. "I'm not boasting, mind you, but I've heard that story told by the rankest amateurs,"

Xena nodded as she went on, vaguely confessed to loving the story, while swallowing a huge gulp of guilt behind her smiles. The earrings made her uncomfortable, would be seen as a monstrous breach of faith, but Ares. There were some things that couldn't be forgiven. Even if they weren't true?She started to sort through the wreckage of that memory, but that's all it was, fast-receding flotsam, jetsam?

"Of course it's not as good as the story  of - Xena? Are you listening?" The sudden change in tone brought Xena back to the present moment. She was in the tiny home she shared with Gabrielle, the fire spread  warmth to every corner, lit the recesses, even in the low rafters. Like she warms me. The words spread through her, finding the rhythm of her heart, and beating there, becoming one with her. "Gabrielle." How can I lie? Yet I do. It was a puzzle. All of it. "I'm sorry. I was thinking."

"You're excused," the other woman laughed amiably, as she brushed crumbs from the long table. Nothing could spoil this evening, she felt: not wild Tribes, or wolves?"Xena, I think I could laugh at Tarkian tonight. Or Ares," she ended with a toss of her head.

A chill ran though the room, striking the warrior's heart. "Why are you thinking about Ares tonight, of all nights?"

"I don't know. Sometimes he comes to mind. I guess he has to. He's been a big part of our lives," she acknowledged.

"He was. That's over, Gabrielle. It's all left behind, with the rest."

"Good. If that's the truth. Maybe it is," she shrugged, taken by a sudden thought. "It's so peaceful here, except for the Tribes. For the first time, I think your presence has brought peace. At least to The Sweetwater. You don't even have to do anything, really. "

"No. I don't have to do anything," Xena agreed, mildly. Nothing at all.

 

 

Three days each week the gathering was large enough to constitute a class. Other days one or two people dropped in, to spend a few minutes, to learn something. Gabrielle was always ready to teach, in Hermia?s large kitchen, or at the walnut table before her own hearth. Any last vestige of surprise Xena felt at the community response was dispelled by the earnestness of the students, and the regular attendance, even among the most wretched. Convicts she reminded herself, time and again, murderers and thieves, seeking to be transformed. They had certainly come to the right  woman for that.

Gabrielle herself had been transformed, in some ways, by Tartarus. She was tougher, like all the creatures in this spare land. The prairie grasses here displayed few flowers, but those blossoms were hardy, their vibrant hues delighting the eye, even from a distance. Gabrielle, too had found a way to blossom here; moreover, she seemed to be taking root. That was hard to watch, hard to acknowledge. Xena's mind still worked on the puzzle of how to escape Tartarus, more frequently since the encounter with Ares. She had an uneasy sense that something needed to be done soon. Yet she was damned if she knew what that something might be. All the while, Gabrielle's ties here strengthened. "We can't take them all with us," she muttered to herself. She passed much of her time in earshot of the house, wherever they met for the day, finding some small chore to do, waiting for the guests to leave. She was by the stream, watching the darting trout, when she first saw the Amazon, and followed at a distance, as the buckskin clad woman entered the house.

 

Petra had said there was an Amazon in Tartarus, was Gabrielle's first thought. The second was acknowledgement that she was not from her tribe. The third was to make her welcome. "Come in," she said, gesturing expansively. There was no response, but the Amazon sat on the floor, in the corner furthest from the others. Gabrielle smiled, nodded agreement with that arrangement, and returned to the letters she had carefully inscribed on the board. From the furtive glances and outright stares that were directed toward the Amazon, she guessed that the entire room shared her curiosity. The woman remained in the corner, mute, unstirring, even when the class was over, and the others had gathered their belongings and tumbled outside. Gabrielle pulled herself away from the usual departing chit-chat, and crossed to the woman. Her dress was well-worn, unadorned except for the elaborate quill-work on the bodice, which was repeated on a soft leather collar that ensheathed her neck.

"I'm Gabrielle." There was no response. "I'm an Amazon, too, from further west." She pointed to where her ceremonial mask hung. That brought a nod, but still no words. "I guess you want to learn to write?" Gabrielle ventured. At that, the Amazon rose, strode to Gabrielle's board, and replied, in clear, almost elegant letters: "I am Angrad. I have come to meet you." She drew a thick line under 'you'.

"Oh." Gabrielle waited for more, but the woman was looking at her as if with some purpose. "Because I, too, am an Amazon?" Gabrielle asked, to break the silence.

The mass of wild, dark hair was shaken, an emphatic "No." She wrote again: "Because I, too, am a bard." She smiled, but there was a sadness in her eyes. "I want to hear your stories," she wrote, "I want to share the tales of my people."

"I'd like that," Gabrielle said, longing to hear the woman speak, wondering at her muteness. As if in reply to the unaksed question, Angrad pulled the sheath from her neck, revealing an angy scar, a malevolent serpent half-coiled round her throat. The woman held Gabrielle?s eyes until she saw understanding dawn there, as Gabrielle guessed that her vocal chords had been severed.

"Who?" she whispered.

"In Mus," came the written reply.

"Why?"

"They didn't like my stories,"she wrote hastily, and shook with silent laughter.

"That's horrible," Gabrielle responded, struck by the banality of the word. "Savage."

Angrad shrugged, as if long used to her personal tragedy, and settled the soft length of doeskin around her neck again.

"Where do you live?" Gabrielle asked. "I haven't seen you here before.

Angrad made a wide sweeping movement with an arm, and waggled her hand, trusting Gabrielle to know her meaning.

"You're a wanderer?" Angrad nodded. "Will you stay with us a while?" No. The head shake was firm. "Can I ask why you were sent to Tartarus?" Gabrielle inquired after a moment.

Angrad pointed to her last words.

"Because they didn?t like your stories?" Gabrielle read, puzzled, then followed Angrad's gaze to the door, where Xena stood. Angrad rose abruptly. "Xena, we have a visitor," Gabrielle said hurriedly, sensing Angrad's imminent flight.

"I see," Xena smiled. "Welcome," she said to Angrad, but the Amazon was already moving past her, casting a pregnant glance.

"What did I say?" Xena deadpanned.

"She has reason to be wary of people," Gabrielle said, in defense of Angrad.

"Wary of me," Xena rejoined. "I don't blame her. If she's been here any amount of time, what she knows of me and Amazons wouldn't inspire trust. Xena can only mean one thing to her. It sure isn't 'hospitable stranger'. What did she want? Schooling?"

"No, Xena, she can read. And write." She held up the board with her few, potent words. "She just wanted to meet another bard. I guess it's been a long time."

"What?'s wrong, Gabrielle?" Xena wanted to know, concerned by the pained expression on the young woman?s face.

"Just another mystery of Tartarus, I guess." Briefly Gabrielle told as much as she knew. "A bard with no voice," she ended sadly. "How cruel. I'd love to know the rest of the story."

"I'm sure you will," Xena guessed. "I don?t think we?ve seen the last of her."

 

 

Angrad was much in evidence over the next few days; those who hadn?t seen her seemed much aggrieved, as if they'd missed a procession, or a fair.

"Not such a big deal," Hermia opined, not looking up from the mass of dough she kneaded. "She wears hides like so many others here. Now Petra Tartras, that one's a sight."

"Petra's not so much," Arthea put in. "A raggle-taggle 'army' to lead; she doesn't even have a proper home. A barbarian," she concluded. "I like cities, myself. You can find some fun there. Why, any woman in Mustrakis makes a finer sight than Petra - "

"All the barbarians aren't in Tartarus," Gabrielle threw at her, remembering her own experience of Mustrakis, wondering about Angrad's.  "This place is Elysian after some places" Her voice trailed off.

"You've got the best of it." Arthea's sharp retort brought all action to a halt. In the corner, Lilla looked up from the crust she was munching.  "For the rest of us it's not so la-di-dah. Give me Xena and I'm sure I'll be happy 'til the sun sets. And very happy 'til it comes up again." She grinned wickedly.

"Well, you don't have her, Arthea," Hermia said evenly. "Fetch some of that hard cheese from below," she ordered, happy to make an end to the suddenly querulous atmosphere. "Honestly, I don't know why I let her stay on," she muttered when Arthea had flounced sullenly down the short flight to the cellar.

"Because you're a good person," Gabrielle offered. "Better than I am. I can't even imagine?" She recalled how close she had come to finding a place for Arthea, and Lutus. Xena was right on that call. 

"And I feel better having her in front of me than behind me," Hermia concluded quickly, as Arthea made a good deal of noise coming up the few steps. The jingling puzzled  Hermia, until she remembered the small pouch behind the yeast tub?

Arthea flew into the room, dropped a small sack of noisome cheese in reach of Hermia, and continued on to Gabrielle. There she dropped the leather pouch. "About time Xena got these back, don't you think," she asked pointedly.

"Yeah, sure," Gabrielle began warming quickly to her reply. Whatever reaction Arthea was looking for, she was not going to get it. Arthea eyed her keenly, cast a quick glance at Hermia, who continued her quiet bread-thumping, and was satisfied that she was right: Gabrielle knew nothing of the role Xena had intended for the earrings.

"Xena's not often wrong," Arthea forged ahead, "but she missed this one by a league. Folk here are really keen to learn," she opined. "No need to pay them off with earrings." There: it was out. Hermia nodded aimlessly, wondering how Arthea had discovered or guessed at the secret deal she'd made with Xena. She was a witch, in league with some dark power, she decided.

"Right," Gabrielle nodded, a fixed smile serving to hold her emotions at bay. 'Pay them off' echoed like a cavernous roar through her suddenly numbed mind. On one level her mind was working out the puzzle, but she was only dimly aware of the process. For the moment she could only deal with Arthea's piercing gaze and her words. "If Xena's got no plans for the earrings, I'll take them."

"Sure, we'll see," Gabrielle said in a neutral tone.

"I confess," Arthea said, "I'm surprised Xena told you about it. I'd be mad as the bejabbers if someone showed so little faith in me."

Gabrielle smiled, allowing Arthea to hold her gaze, survey her eyes, gauge the smile. She can guess, but she'll never know from me, she vowed stubbornly.

Arthea nodded, silently admiring the bard's stoic control. She knew the knowledge was a surprise, expected some  strong reaction, confusion, questions; Instead there was a wall of nothing. All the better, she decided at last. Xena would reap the whirlwind.

 

"It wasn't much of a battle really," Xena said, flatly. "They had a fight over a deer carcass. Two arrows in it, and they couldn't tell which had brought him down. The poor deer couldn't care less,"she shrugged. The last of the day's light streamed in through the open shutters. Xena was not long returned, and was till trying to gauge the odd atmosphere.

"Hold still," Gabrielle scolded, swabbing vigorously at the abrasion Xena had sustained in the scuffle.

"I wouldn't have gotten involved except Mitras has a family; they don't need him dead." She waited for Gabrielle?s inevitable questions. When none came, she went on: "When the dust cleared I persuaded them to each take a portion of the carcass." She looked over her shoulder. "Don?t you want to know who got the hide?"she asked.

"Just so long as it wasn't us," Gabrielle said, coldly, moving to the door to toss the contents of the bowl on the ground. "We don't need another smelly hide around here."

That was decidedly unfriendly, Xena thought. "Gabrielle? Have I done something wrong?" she asked quietly, following the woman's progress around the room.

"You?" Gabrielle snorted, "don't be silly." A pause; then: "By the way, I saw Arthea today. She wanted to return something you left at Hermia's. Now where did I put it,? she asked of herself, coyly. "Oh, here it is." The leather pouch full of earrings flew into Xena's lap.

"Oh."

"Apparently nobody wants earrings in payment for helping us out when you were hurt. Can you believe it?" she continued with heavy sarcasm, "They actually want what I have to offer: literacy. So you can spend those on whatever suits your fancy, Xena, but I want no part of it."

"I know how this must look," Xena began.

"How could you, Xena?" Gabrielle interrupted, her anger growing as she spoke. "I know you didn't think my plan would work, but this? You went behind my back."

"I didn't want you to be hurt. I thought you'd never have to know, and that..." What? Xena's  voice trailed off. What had she thought? Why had she done it? It had been so long ago? "I don't know what I was thinking, Gabrielle, but I didn't want you to be hurt," she repeated. That much she did know.

"No? Well, I am hurt. If people didn't want my lessons I'd feel bad, for a while, maybe. Then, I'd get over. But this is something else, Xena. This says you have no faith in me." She held up a hand to stop Xena's words. "It says it to me, it says it to all of Tartarus. Arthea," she said in a hushed tone. "Arthea knows. I pretended otherwise, but she knows. We'll have her for a neighbor for another forty years, maybe, and she knows. It's bad enough about the rest, but Arthea? It's humiliating."

"Arthea doesn't matter."

"You didn't see her face. She matters all right. And I know why she told me. Only she won't  have the satisfaction she wants. Otherwise, I'd "- she paused. "I don't know what I'd do. More than this. I think I'm learning how much control I really have. Xena: I am really angry. Maybe too angry to show it all at once."

"You're right to be angry. I'm sorry, Gabrielle."

"I know you are. Sorry I found out, sorry that you did it. I know you don't ever mean to hurt me. But that's what makes it so hard. You do hurt me. And you're always sorry. You think I'd be used to it by now. I guess another few decades in this place and I will be. She picked up the basin and moved to the door to spill the water onto the ground. It might help if you find something to fill up your time."

That's how it was. Xena closed her fist around the pouch, feeling each earring through the leather, knowing them as the truth of Tartarus, the sum of each convict?s existence. And she knew in that moment that no real survival was possible here, not for her, not for Gabrielle, not for their life together. Another few decades? There won't be another few decades here, she swore to herself, suddenly wondering at the inertia that had pinned her here so long. Ares came to mind. Never mind. She'd dealt with him before. There was still so much else. But every puzzle had a solution, she reminded herself; it had always been so. She thought that Zeno would agree.

 

Chapter 31

Gabrielle did control her anger, like a dam controls a river Xena observed, watching the bard, pretending nothing had happened, thinking only of what had happened. She taught her classes, did her chores, and continued to visit Hermia, despite the baker's role in the deception. With Xena she was much the same, yet not quite. Like a shade tree in early autumn, Xena mused, the loss of one leaf seems of no significance, but in the aggregate losses left a tree bare. The leaves couldn't be restored to the tree, yet there might be some way to stave off the winter; there must be. Those were Xena's thoughts in the days that followed Arthea's spite. Ares, architect of the dilemma held the key, of that she was certain, but she wasn't anxious to return to the haunted glade. Itís a place you could lose your soul, she mused. Yet it seemed the only way.

She roused herself from what must have been a long time in thought. Gabrielle's gaze was fixed on her, puzzled.

"You looked a million miles away." It was a mild comment, yet there was a warmth, a normalcy in her voice that made Xena glad.

"Just thinking. I need to go for a while."

"Okay." I have a lot to do before my students arrive. But don't be long. In the afternoon the sun filters through the trees at such a pretty angle... l thought we could, you know, just sit and enjoy what we have."

"I'd like that Gabrielle," she said sincerely, suddenly hating to leave for even a moment. "I have to take care of something, but I won't be long."

'Long' was a relative term in Tartarus, she had found, and seemed to have no meaning at all when the glade was involved. She found the lazy stream easily enough, spied a few now familiar features of the trail, and felt accompanying soporific exhilaration. Argo plodded on, one heavy hoof after another, passed the honey-dripping hives, barely noticed by the birds which sang like no other birds in Tartarus. They traveled for what might have been days. The glade remained hidden from view. "Ares," she called at last, "Ares, damn you, show yourself!" No Ares; no frisson of electricity in the air. If anything, the place grew more still So thatís how that's how it is: Letting me twist in the wind.

She made an ugly face. "Let's go home Argo." She shuddered at the silent laughter she felt shaking the air.

"Give me a minute, Xena. I'm right here. You aren't the only business I have to attend to. So many wars, so little time."

This was a mistake, Xena felt immediately

"You wanted something?" the God of War was asking.

"I want a way out of here. As soon as possible. What are your terms?"

"Are we negotiating a treaty?"

"Close enough. You want something, I want something. Let's talk."

"This is so sudden. What won you over, my dear? What happened on the occasion of our last encounter?"

"What happened, Ares? I can't recall."

A slow smile spread across his face before he broke into hearty laughter.

"I'll keep the memory for both of us," he assured her.

"A hollow memory," she countered. "Nothing happened Ares, it was one of your little tricks. Like this glade. It only exists in my imagination. You planted it there."

"Our passion was a powerful image, Xena. It's taken you a long time to get it - me - out of your mind."

"Nightmares are like that," she agreed. "If it was real, we'd be meeting in the world of mortals, not enchanted glens. You wouldn't wait for me to come to you." Her confidence grew with every word. Maybe it had only been an Ares-induced nightmare.

"You're wrong about that, Xena. I don't mind waiting. I've always known that when you'd had enough of this mind-numbing captivity, you'd come around. Now it appears that the day is here." He cocked his head, waiting for her reply.

"I want out," she repeated. "But not at any cost."

"You aren't in much of a position to bargain," he pointed out.

"It might not look that way," she said slowly, "but you're forgetting: I could just decide to rot here; and then there's this: you seem to turn everything into a bargain. 1 used to think you just like wheeling and dealing. Now 1'm wondering if there isn't some universal law about, I don't know ...free will? You need agreement, permission, for a lot of what you do as God of War. If I - or any mortal, fails to go along, it doesn't happen. You might kill a few thousand anyway," she conceded, "but you don't get what you want." That seemed a satisfactory argument, and she paused, savoring the effect it had on him. "So, it seems we have a coincidence of wants. You go first."

Ares crossed his arms over his chest, feeling more than a bit exposed, but he nodded. "I want the hegemony of the Three Kingdoms broken. Never mind why," he told her, in anticipation of her next question.

"I want to know-" she insisted. "Have they become too peaceful?"

"They waste this land and it's warriors," he said with disgust. "Some of my finest followers rot here, while Petra Tartras oversees Tartarus with nomads. Free this place from the Three Kingdoms," he told her, "and they won't be able to hold you."

"Or any of us," she supplied.

"The others aren't your concern."

"And how do you propose I do this thing?" she asked.

"Since when do I have to tell you, Xena? One thing I've always liked about you, I don't need to fill-in all the blanks. Do what you did in Prestia: make a speech," he suggested. "Assemble an army. Your little friend has become quite capable, put her to use."

"Let's leave Gabrielle out of this."

He nodded, with a smirk. "Sure." He took a step toward her. "I've missed you, Xena. You should come by more often."

"Goodbye, Ares. I suddenly have work to do.

It was much later than she would have guessed. The sun was just an afterglow in the western sky. 'I won't be long.' How many times had Gabrielle heard that? Xena wasn't surprised that Gabrielle was not in the small house, or within calling distance. She wiped her face, suddenly feeling the long hours she had spent in the saddle, unaware. Hermia's? Sepra's? "Which, girl?" she asked the patient mare. Because the ride to Sepra's lay in the soft radiance of the western sky, and because she was less likely to meet Arthea there, Xena headed west.

Glider was tethered Sepra's yard, grazing at the bits of sweet grass the goats had left behind. Smoke rose from the chimney, vet there was no scent of food. That was odd at this time of day. It might mean - Xena's steps quickened as the thought came that the baby might have come.

"Xena. Where were you?" Gabrielle screamed the question, face contorted in grief and rage. The warrior stood at the threshold, Gabrielle's words a distant background to the scene. She surveyed the room for a long moment, trying to comprehend what it meant, the blood which seemed to be everywhere, the tiny white wrapped bundle on the table. She ignored Gabrielle's repeated question, pushed past her to the bed. Gabrielle followed at her heels, demanding an answer.

"You were supposed to be here, you said you would come back, I thought you'd handle everything. Where were you?"

Xena threw back the blanket covering Sepra's still form. The woman was not yet cold; there was no pulse, no color. She lay in a pool of scarlet, legs still apart. The bleeding had stopped with her death.

From the end of the bed Gabrielle explained: "The baby wouldn't come. It wasn't big, but it wouldn't turn. I did everything you've taught me, but it was lodged there for so long... I tried Xena," she ended quietly.

"I know Gabrielle," Xena said quietly, as she covered the woman again. "It couldn't be helped. Things can't always be fixed."

"You would have cut her Xena: I couldn't do that." She shook her head, disconsolate, then fixed an accusing glare on the warrior. "Where were you?"

Xena threw back the blanket covering Sepraís still form. The woman was not yet cold; there was no pulse, no color. She lay in a pool of scarlet, legs still apart. The bleeding had stopped with her death.

From the end of the bed Gabrielle explained: "The baby wouldn't come. It wasn't big, but it wouldn't turn. I did everything you've taught me, but it was lodged there for so long...I tried, Xena," she wailed.

"I know Gabrielle, she said quietly, as she covered the woman again. "It couldnít be helped; things can't always be fixed."

"You would have cut her, Xena; I couldn't do that." She shook her head, disconsolate, then fixed an accusing glance on the warrior. "Where were you?"

Xena made no reply, but crossed to the baby, which lay shrouded in swaddling clothes. She unwrapped the tiny form, hoping in vain to find some sign of life.

"Don't bother," Gabrielle said. "By the time I worked her free she was blue. And Sepra's blood was all over?" She gasped, caught her breath and went on. "The baby is so small, and I couldn't help it. Where were you?"

It was small, too small for such and advanced pregnancy, and Sepra had been huge at the end. "Gabrielle," Xena asked urgently, "there was just the one baby?"

Gabrielle nodded, puzzled. Xena whirled around and flew to Sepra?s side, threw back the cover and felt her abdomen. She ripped off her bracers and grabbed a sharp knife from the shelf; the knife Archon used for filleting fish.

"Xena what are you doing?"

"There's another baby, Gabrielle. It might not be too late. Get me hot water."

"Another?" Gabrielle watched, numb, as Xena slit open Sepra's belly, layer by layer, until she found the second life within her.

"Get me hot water," Xena barked this time. The bard sprang to life, fetched the pot from the hearth, and carried it to the bedside.

Xena lifted the baby gently and lay her on the bed beside Sepra. She grabbed nearest cloth, and gently wiped the baby's face. It was pink, and warm. Two fingers were inserted into the mouth, a huge clog of mucous was removed, and Xena thought she felt a slight sucking action. A smile flickered across her face. She held the infant by its heels, and smacked its bottom. No response.

"C'mon," she breathed. A second smack; nothing in response. She lay the baby on the bed, cleared its nose and mouth a second time, and covered the mouth with her own. She began a steady cadence of breathing, while one hand massaged the chest, still slick with birth fluids.

"Xena?" Gabrielle began, and never finished the question.

"C'mon, little guy," Xena whispered between breaths, "you gotta be tough; let's hear ya," she ordered. As if in reply a mewing came from the infant. Xena threw a glance at Gabrielle, then turned back to the baby, cradled it in her arms and rocked it gently. The mewing became a howl, then a steady wail as the lungs began their work.

"Are there any clean cloths?" she asked. Without waiting for a reply she went on: "wet them." Gabrielle moved as if in a dream, watching the action, following Xenaís command, but unconscious of any thoughts of her own. It was not until Xena had laid the baby on the table and swabbed it clean that she came to herself.

"It's a boy," Xena said over her shoulder. "Heís gonna make it, I think."

"I didn't even know." Gabrielleís voice was lifeless.

"How could you know? You don't see this everyday."

"You knew."

Something in her voice made Xena uneasy. She looked up from her work, and was startled at Gabrielle's appearance. In the tear ravaged face was a distance that seemed unbridgeable. She finished the washing, stripped a shawl from a peg on the wall and wrapped the baby. "Gabrielle, take him," she said.

"I can't." She shook her head and held out blood caked hands.

"Take him," Xena insisted, "and sit by the fire. I need to find him food." She had to pull the bard to the fire, sit her on the large, rough hewn chair there, and place the baby in her arms. "He needs you, Gabrielle. Just hold him. I'll be right back."

Xena returned with a bladder full of goat's milk. Archon and Sepra had arranged for one goat to kiddle late, so a supply of milk would be available. They had planned well, for all the good it did them, she thought bitterly.

Gabrielle was as she had left her, but she looked up as Xena entered, and spoke.

Sepra didn't know the other one died. That was good," she nodded. "She asked me to care for her baby."

"You're doing that, Gabrielle," Xena said gently. The little boy lay at peace in Gabrielle's arms. Xena placed the bladder near the heath, in a pot of warm water. She looked around the room; there was so much to do. Sepra and the dead baby needed to be washed, a pyre built, and the room cleaned of blood. The bedding would be burned. Only it couldn't be done with Gabrielle here.

"I'll teach him to read and write," Gabrielle said softly. "Sepra would have wanted that."

"Yeah," Xena agreed.

"She would have named a son Arimedes. So this is Arimedes," she decided. I'll take good care of you. Arimedes," she promised him. "I won't let your mother down a second time."

Xena swore silently. "Gabrielle, you didn't let Sepra down. You did all anyone could do." "I did all I could do, but it wasn't enough." Green eyes bore in on Xena. "You could have done more, but you weren't here. Where - "

"I got held up," Xena muttered.

"By what? Or who?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena returned the stare, afraid to guess what Gabrielle might be thinking. "I think he needs to eat, now," she said and retrieved the bladder. The small mouth puckered around the pinhole opening. Gabrielle cooed softly, urging him to suck, while she stroked a cheek with a gentle finger. Xena watched as the sucking grew stronger, then moved closer. A furrow creased her brow. She took a hand and examined the impossibly small fingers. There was a slight bluish cast around his lips; it was repeated in his fingernails. She rubbed a hand across dry lips and moved away, busying herself with tidying the room. She called to mind the few times she'd seen that before, tried to recall a hopeful sign. There was none. The baby's thread would be cut very early. His life would be measured in months, at best. Archon, Sepra, their two babies, all gone, soon. And Gabrielle would be devastated. The woman was humming softly, face animated for the child. It occurred to Xena that it would have been better for everyone if she hadn't saved it.

Chapter 32

"He's awfully small, Xena." Hermia spoke softly, just out of Gabrielle's hearing.

"He is that," Xena agreed.

"And not a good color." Xena looked closely at the face across the table. Hermia had seen a lot; brought more than a few babies into the world, and buried two of her own. She could see a lot. "He won't survive to say his first words," was the baker's candid prediction

"No."

"Does Gabrielle know?"

"I've tried to tell her - - She won't accept it." Xena recounted the scene after the funeral, the first morning Arimedes was snuggled in skins before the hearth.

"Look how bright his eyes are, Xena. I think thatís a sign of intelligence,? Gabrielle had said eagerly.

"I think it's a reflection of the, fire," Xena had suggested.

"Don't believe it, Arimedes," Gabrielle cooed. "You'll be my prize student." She looked at Xena. "Someday you'll show him how to make a flying parchment; my students would like you to come and fly one of those things every day."

Flying parchment? Xena's head swam with frustration. "He's tiny, Gabrielle. He still has a rough road ahead."

"We all do," the Bard shrugged.

Xena shook her head and spoke softly. "He's not well, Gabrielle; I'm not sure what it is. I think his heart is faulty."

"Xena, he's fine. He eats, he cries, his little eyes are interested in everything."

Xena smiled, but shook her head again. "No, Gabrielle, that's not enough. Look at his nails, and around his lips. I've seen that blue tinge before. He won't live long," she warned.

After a moment Gabrielle spoke. "Then make him better, Xena."

"Gabrielle, I don't think it can be done; certainly not by me," she explained helplessly.

"You won't even try; just like with Nara, so quick to let her go.?

"Nara? No, Gabrielle, you aren't listening."

"I've heard every word, Xena, and I don't believe it," Gabrielle said fiercely. "I'll make him well. He just needs care, and I can give him that" She held him close to her chest and whispered softly: Iíll take care of you my lamb," she promised.

"Maybe you can make her understand, Hermia," Xena finished. "She sure isn't hearing me."

"Iíll have a word,? Hermia agreed. "Mind you, I donít blame her hanging on. Thereís so little here to hang on to. And somehow words get lost after a time itís like you can only hear the wind.

"I bet you'd like to leave that wind behind," Xena offered.

"Yes," Hermia began, then: "I don't know. If I could walk out tomorrow, I don't know. I know this place, it knows me. It's become home."

Xena looked across to Gabrielle, Arimedes in her arms, a half dozen of the nearest neighbors in a semicircle around her, come to see the baby, come to see their teacher. Lilla leaned against Gabrielle chewing idly on some venison jerky. It made a nice picture, Gabrielle at home, with friends.

"No, I don't think I'd be in a hurry to leave," was Hermia's final thought "Why are you asking?"

"Just thinking." Xena replied, eyes on the bard. She'll soon find this place harder to leave than Potadeia, was her startled realization. And now there's a baby... Briefly she considered whether this was Ares' doing; it would certainly keep her in Tartarus, but at the same time it didn't make it easy for her to get about the business of controlling Tartarus, even if that was her wish.

"You get bigger every day, Ari," Gabrielle cooed to the swaddled figure on her lap. "Don't you think so, Xena,?" she called across the room.

Xena didn't look up. "He looks about the same," she replied. The same as yesterday, and the day before and last week and last month, she thought morosely. The pinched, pale face could barely be seen against the white cloth which enrobed him. "I think he may have lost a bit of weight," she ventured.

"Lost?" Gabrielle scoffed. "Not at all, have you Ari,?" she asked the infant. "My fat lamb," she crooned. There was a long silence before Xena spoke again.

"He's not fat by any stretch, and he has lost a bit," she said at last.

"Are we looking at the same baby?" Gabrielle asked. "Of course, I know him better than you. I can see the progress he's making."

"Maybe you know him too well, Gabrielle, you see things that aren't there."

"This is a pretty special time, Xena" she countered. "I'm trying to enjoy Ari's infancy, I'm trying to enjoy it for everyone who isn't here with him: his mother, his father, his dead sister. Why can't you understand that and stop being so negative? Is that so hard?"

"One of us has to see what's real, Gabrielle, not ghosts and a fat, healthy baby where there is only a sickly, wan baby."

"I hate it when you're like this," Gabrielle managed. "Are you jealous?"

"We have this conversation once a week, Gabrielle. You ask that question once a week and the answer is the same. I'm not jealous, and I think you know that."

"Then why can't you let me enjoy my baby?" she demanded with a touch of anger.

"Enjoy him, Gabrielle; but don't get so wrapped up in him that you can't let him go. He's not long for this world Gabrielle; I don't want to see you broken hearted."

"Too late for that, Xena; he stole my heart the first time I held him, that night in Sepra's home."

"I know that," Xena replied quietly.

"Besides, you've been saying that since the day he was born; nearly two months later he's still here. I'll keep him here." She nodded firmly and laid the baby against her shoulder. "Of course, that night, if you hadn't been off doing whatever it is you were doing, we wouldn't be having this chat, Ari and his sister would be home, with Sepra, alive and well."

Xena bit her lip hard and tasted blood. That night; it always came back to that night. It could be that Gabrielle was right, that she may have saved the other child, and Sepra and that all would be different if she hadn't tarried with Ares.

"Don?t scowl at me, Xena," Gabrielle said misunderstanding. "At some level you must know it's true."

Maybe true, maybe not, Xena thought. It made little difference, as long as Gabrielle believed it. Ares; she cursed the name, and then cursed herself.

"Xena?" Gabrielle asked, raising her voice a little.

"What?" she answered harshly. "What should I say? That you're right? I can go halfway, Gabrielle. Maybe I could have saved Sepra and the other child. It would have made no difference to Arimedes. He was doomed from his first spark of life in Sepra's womb. He was not made for this life, he will not survive to his first anniversary. He may not survive another week." She stopped abruptly and waited for Gabrielle?s response, prepared for anger or tears. She was unprepared for Gabrielle'?s quiet response.

"Say it often enough and it may come true."

"You can't believe I want him to die," Xena murmured.

"Then save him," Gabrielle challenged.

"You know I would, if I had the skill, if it was possible." She ran a hand through her hair as she searched for a way to reason with the bard. "Hermia," she said suddenly, changing tack. "She's brought more children into the world than I have, and she's seen more out. She doesn't think Ari will survive either."

Gabrielle swallowed hard before looking at Xena with a steely defiance. "Hermia?" she scoffed. "She's a baker."

It occurred to Xena then that Gabrielle had spent little time with Hermia in recent weeks. Now she understood why. "There is nothing I can say to make you accept Ari's fate," she said at last. "I'll stop trying." She started toward the door, anxious to escape the uneasy silence, and then sat at the table instead. "Is there anything that needs doing? Are any provisions low?" she asked in as normal a tone as she could manage.

"Looking for an excuse to go out?" Gabrielle asked sourly.

"I was hoping for a chance to stay in today, with you and Ari," Xena replied. "I mean that Gabrielle. Where else would I want to be?" The taut lines in Gabrielle's face softened. She didn't speak. "Let me hold him for a bit," Xena said and took him from the bard. Ari settled contently into Xena's strong embrace. "I'll try with him, Gabrielle." Her voice trailed off, and she began to hum a quiet tune, a lullaby Gabrielle knew and she joined in, watching the play of the fire in Xena's blue eyes. Ari was fixed on those eyes. It was suddenly, strangely serene in the little house. The lullaby ended and Xena laid the sleeping child in the cradle Archon had devised for him.

"I didn't mean what I said, Xena." The words tumbled out before she was aware of thinking them. "You love him, too, and would do anything, but he's one more thing to keep us here. Another nail in the door."

Exactly what Ares intended, Xena thought bitterly. One more victim at the altar of the God of War. "I haven't been exactly busting down the walls to get out," Xena replied. "We'll stay longer, that's all. A long time, with Ari, I hope," she said, and realized that she meant her words. "I hope he proves me wrong, Gabrielle."

They settled into a quiet routine of mundane tasks. They spoke of food and kindling wood, of weather and of Ari; far more was left unsaid. One afternoon when the sun lit nothing but the fringes of grass on the far horizon Xena entered and found Gabrielle seated before a cold hearth with Ari on her lap. "The fire's gone out," Gabrielle said.

"I'll get it going again," Xena replied; she didn't ask why the Bard would have allowed it to die, but there was something in Gabrielle's voice...She pulled a fold of blanket away from Ari's face and looked closely at the child. He slept soundly; around his neck was a thin leather braid, from which hung a soft pouch of doeskin. "What's this?"

"Angrad was here," Gabrielle said.

"I thought so," Xena replied. "She carries a unique scent, thyme and woodruff, I think. I'd love to see what's in that sack of hers."

"She said Ari wasn't made for this world," Gabrielle said urgently. "I know you've said that and Hermia has said it, even Arthea... She said he lacks the strength to move on, to be with his family." She looked at Xena, desperate pleading behind her calm facade. "I have to help him move on, Xena. It's so wrong for me to keep him here."

"Help him move on?" Xena echoed. "What do you mean?"

Gabrielle fingered the pouch. "Angrad said this will strengthen his spirit."

"Better Angrad than Arthea," Xena commented.

"Arthea?"

"The two women of my current acquaintance most likely to concoct a potion," Xena explained. "You know what this means?"

"I think so."

"You're ready for this?"

"I had better be," Gabrielle smiled wanly in return, "because Ari is getting ready."

Xena busied herself with rebuilding the fire, wondering about Angrad. It seemed as if you couldn't go out the door in Tartarus without some new mystery finding its way over your threshold.

Ari was laid beside his parents and his sister, the amulet with him still, giving him strength for the crossing. Hermia was there, as she always was. Drax and Ileander had prepared the grave and opened the house which had once been home for the little family to mourn them one last time. The gathering had soon passed from a recognition of passing to a celebration of those souls still here. In a quiet corner Gabrielle found Xena.

"I remember what Angrad wrote, Xena, about the amulet. It's an aid in moving on. I had the sense she meant it for more than Ari. When I saw the earth close on him I couldn't help but think..." She paused for a few long moments. "I think it's time we moved on, Xena. We've waited, and have always found something to keep us; it's as if we haven't been trying."

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle-"

"Shhh; no apologies, Xena. I haven't made it easy, and I find it hard to say the words now, but it's time we moved on. I know you can make that happen."

Xena examined the young face closely, then nodded solemn agreement. "I think you're right." Certainly we should move on...whether I can make that happen is less certain.

Chapter 33

Perhaps because The Sweetwater was more bountiful than most regions in Tartarus, the blight was more noticeable there. The dull-brown of withered crops crept across the landscape as if a giant shadow was spreading over the land.

"I've seen it bad, but not like this," Hermia said running her mind over a score of growing seasons. "They wither as soon as they take root. Peas, barley, wheat, even the spelt. Itís not frost, nor bugs behind this. Weíve had more rain than usual, but not too much," she puzzled. "I canít make bread from air. Iíll have to take care to hold back some of last yearís harvest, just in case. Perhaps I can make the loaves smaller?" she asked no one in particular.

"If youíre worried, I guess itís time for me to start," Gabrielle said.

"Famineís ugly, Gabrielle, maybe uglier here than most places. Thereís no place to go to escape it, no merchants rush in to make profit from need like in other places. There have been some years of want, and one terrible, terrible time when" she paused, remembering. "I donít like to say what people did. Hunger can drive people mad, I suppose. Theyíll be fighting over hunting grounds, stealing stores and stock."

"Isnít there time to put in a new crop?" Gabrielle asked.

"Maybe scant time, if the weather cooperates, but there is little seed left. Even for next year, there wonít be any new seed set by; folk will eat everything. It might take years to put things right. The gods have never favored Tartarus. Now it seems theyíd like to put us out of our misery." Xena hadnít moved throughout this exchange, but now she sniffed indignantly at mention of the gods. "Folk are saying itís because we show no respect for the gods," Hermia added.

"The gods donít make it easy," Xena said, breaking her silence. Hermia was right to fear widespread crop failure. Xena had pondered the problem for days, as each morning provided further evidence that there would be no harvest this year. She had no doubt that she could provide for Gabrielle, for Hermia and a few others, and ensure that total famine would not touch much of The Sweetwater. There would be hunger, but there was plenty of game, in the field and in the streams. Properly organized and distributed, it would go a long way. Before long the rest of Tartarus would realize that The Sweetwater was not starving. That would mean war. "We won't rely on the Olympians to save us, Hermia. There are ways to stave off famine." Hermia paused in her kneading, waiting to hear what they were. "I'll let you know when I've got it worked out," Xena said with a half-shrug.

"You haven't a clue," Gabrielle said on the way home.

"Not yet. The first thing is to understand the problem. I'm still working on that."

"The problem is crop failure and starvation."

"Other places have that; always have, always will; the problem here is that we have nothing of value to barter to get food from outside."

"The earrings have some value."

"Earrings," she snorted in reply. "The earrings have only symbolic value. Melt them down and they become nearly worthless, just a lump of base metal."

"But worth more in Tartarus than base metal is worth elsewhere? That's true isn't it?" Gabrielle pressed, but didn't wait for a reply. "What if we melted them down and struck coins? We'd have real money in Tartarus for the first time, something to save and lend. Barter isn't very practical."

"Gabrielle they're worth far more to the peddlers who come in here. They trade them for the redemption value they have in the Three Kingdoms."

"Doesn't it bother you that they come here and make a fat profit? They must laugh the whole way here and back thinking of how they turn trash to treasure, their treasure."

"Even their trash is longed after here, and they prefer earrings to anything else. Most people have nothing else to offer them," Xena pointed out.

"We can still trade with the peddlers," Gabrielle insisted, "but on more even terms."

"Paying with what, if not earrings? They wouldn't take Tartarus currency."

"They'll take Tartarus products."

"Products of Tartarus?" Xena's voice was tinged with amusement, but she searched Gabrielle's face, looking of some hint of where Gabrielle was going. "All right," she challenged, "what can Tartarus produce supply that Mus can't get elsewhere?"

"They can get pretty much everything," Gabrielle conceded, "but it's cheaper here, even with the cost of hauling it back to Mus. Maybe the peddlers wouldn't come for the earrings anymore, but they'd come anyway. Who else would buy their stuff,? she chuckled.

"And they'd have to take what we offer them," Xena said, as the benefits of Gabrielle's plan became obvious.

"If Salmoneus was here he'd point out the flaws," Gabrielle said, half-wishing.

"Flaws have a way of making themselves obvious with no help," Xena replied,

the first one being that Tartarus doesn't produce enough to provide well for itself, you know that. Hermia's one of the few people who makes enough of anything to have make it worthwhile, and her bread and ale are not things to send to Mus, neither is goat cheese. Not that we'll have food to sell."

"No, but goat skins and hair would find a market in Mus. So would Ileander's textiles; he's a craftsman. Do you suppose the peddlers have any problem selling skins and fur pelts in Mus, despite what they tell us. Hermia says that up north, near the mountains, the lands are thick with beavers, and foxes and mink. They'd be worth a fortune in Mus, which, by the way, has long since depleted it's hardwood forests. If we could harvest the timber-?

"What timber is that?" Xena asked reasonably.

"Up north, near the mountains. I'd like to go there sometime," she added wistfully. "Hermia says it's thickly wooded, and fresh water streams chock full of fish run through it. And there are honey bees, which of course produce both honey and wax."

"Sounds like paradise," Xena commented dryly. "So why is the population of Tartarus clumped in the wastelands instead of living off the fat of the land?"

"All right, there are some obstacles," Gabrielle admitted, "mostly the River Elkina, but some part of the plan has to work on some level," she concluded earnestly. "We can't let people go on wallowing in misery and deprivation, with nothing ever to hope for. We have to do something, Xena. If people saw that it was worthwhile they'd produce more, work harder, maybe."

"That's a big maybe. Most people here would say they work hard enough."

"Well then they'd have to work smarter, work at something different. You see how it is here. Men who were never farmers scratching away at the soil trying to coax a living from the ground, or men who can't shoot an arrow to save their lives wasting time hunting. No wonder there's a crop failure."

"Most people here made their living stealing or killing or both," Xena pointed out. "That's what they know, what would you have them do?"

"Not quite 'most' Xena," Gabrielle said, ignoring the question. "It's been a long time now that Tartarus has been a home to convicts alone.. There is a whole generation that was born and raised in Tartarus. They aren't criminals; they've been too busy surviving to be criminals. They've been trying to farm, figuring it out for themselves with little guidance, mostly learning from other self-taught farmers. A few have it figured out, some never will. Why not let the few farm the land, let the others spend there time learning something maybe they can do?"

"Gabrielle that's a beautiful vision, but I don't know how you'd make it happen."

"It just takes organization, Xena, someone taking charge and setting it in motion. Before Tartarus starves to death."

"Someone? You have anyone in mind?"

Gabrielle was silent; she brushed a fly from her forehead, and squinted at the sun for a long moment. "There is another flaw, a big one. Any convict without an earring is subject to death."

"The soldiers of Mus would have a lot of killing to do if we all took them out at once," Xena retorted.

"I had a feeling you'd say that,? Gabrielle grinned. "That earring doesn't really suit you."

Xena's cheeks burned. "Are you ashamed that I put up with this?" she demanded.

"Ashamed? Never," Gabrielle said in a quiet, firm voice. "I confess I wondered when the day would come that you'd rip it out. It's taking a lot longer than I would have bet, but we've been pretty busy here; there's always something going on. She would have said more but Xena had reached across the space between the horses and enveloped her in a smothering hug. "It won't go on forever, Gabrielle," she said in a muffled voice, "I promise you. Besides, earrings aren't the answer. We need real money, which means precious metal. Lots of it."

"Xena, there's something else up north. Hermia says - "

"I know. The tales of gold in the mountains."

"You think it's all myth, no truth?"

"Who knows? I know that if gold is anywhere, humans find a way to get to it."

"The Elkina makes it inaccessible. That's what Hermia says."

"The Elkina. A natural barrier so effective Ralpana doesn't even bother to patrol that region. If we could figure out how to cross it, we could just keep going."

"Xena, we can't leave now, Tartarus needs - "

"I know, Gabrielle. Besides, it can't be just the Elkina. For gold, humans do just about anything. I did. There has to be a reason Ralpana doesn't take the gold, if it's real." They were closer to home than to Hermia. "I guess we have a lot of questions for Hermia tomorrow."

 

Hermia was surprised to have company before the sun was fully up, and wondered at the sense of urgency in Xenaís questions.

"I know about the mountains only by hearsay. Who knows what's true?"

"You must know why people don't settle there?" Xena pressed her.

"People seem not to return from the region; ever."

"Maybe they have no need to?"

"Peddlers have gone up and not returned. Phyrris and the soldiers of Mus avoid the area," she added; her voice hushed, and she said in ominous tones: "Some say it's the Wild Ones."

Xena nodded, considering, but asked: "It borders on Ralpana, doesn't it? Wouldn't Ralpana have responsibility for patrolling the region?"

"It borders on the Elkina River," Hermia told her. "Ralpana never sends troops across, they can't. It's said that the waste and the mountains on the other side of the Elkina make it near impossible for the folk of Ralpana even to get close to the river, and the mountains sit like a heap of rocks rising from a bowl of water. Galate is overlord up north, but like most of the overlords he just sits on his arse and sends his thugs out to steal for him."

"So people go there and never return? Where does the hearsay come from, then?" Gabrielle asked.

"I told you I donít know. I'm just repeating what folk say."

"But the hearsay does include gold?" Gabrielle wanted to know.

"Lots of gold; a golden mountain, shrouded in clouds on the far side of the Elkina."

A quick glance was exchanged between Xena and Gabrielle, then Xena went on:

"Hermia, when the peddlers gathered you were disappointed that a metal worker wasn't there to mend your pots. What was his name?"

"Xanthus from Illyria. He has a forge up north, between here and the mountains."

"A blacksmith?"

"Yes, he's a smith, but he's so much more."

"Metal joiner?"

"He'll shoe your horse, mend your tools, I think he can make anything of metal; he's more an artist than a smith. Engraving is his real gift."

"Yeah, I though you'd said something about that."

"Did you need something mended?" Hermia guessed.

"No." Hermia shrugged her curiosity away, but Xena wasn't finished. "Why is he here?" she wanted to know.

"He worked in a mint," Hermia replied, "or so they say. He took too much of his work home with him." She chuckled at her joke and was pleased to see Xena smiling as well. Perfect, the warrior thought; another piece of the puzzle in place.

"Hermia, Gabrielle and I need to go up North and see the golden mountain for ourselves. Drax will keep an eye on things in The Sweetwater."

Hermia looked them over soberly. "I suppose if anyone will come back it's you two," she said and shook a sturdy finger at them. "You'd just better come back, that's all I know."

They found the forge in early morning of their third day on the road. It was centered in a clearing made by the nature of metal work, whose fires required the sacrifice of many trees.

Xanthus of Illyria had a face which suggested a relationship to the boar family. His lips were pushed forward by protruding teeth beneath a thick, flat nose, between two fat red cheeks, speckled black by showers of sparks and soot. The whole was set on a round head which seemed to rise from between massive shoulders, as he had no perceivable neck. Gabrielle gasped at the sight of him, as if Hephaestus himself stood before her. He squinted over the smoke rising from the forge, appraising the two women with the air of a man who knew neither fear nor desire.

"The Unmarked One," he grunted, as if long expecting her. "You need my services?"

"Maybe," she shrugged. He turned back to his work. Xena put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and they wandered around the tidy shop, marveling at the pieces on display. Hermia was right about the man's gift. Even the mundane work that could be seen in any smithy's shop was crafted with uncommon skill and grace. Gabrielle stood long over the buckles and breastplates, engraved with fine scrollwork, showing scenes of heroes and gods.

"Here she is," he growled, suddenly reaching past her to pluck a silver breastplate from high on the wall. It was for show, too light for battle, too beautiful to be marred by blows. "By the gods, this is magnificent," Gabrielle breathed, as she ran her fingers over the fine lines, depicting Xena standing against the Cyclops, fighting a Persian, challenging Poseidon.

"I donít know if I've got it right," he confessed, taking it back from the Bard before she could make out the rest. "But I'm pleased with it.?

"How much do you want for it?" Gabrielle managed as he replaced it on the wall.

"Gabrielle," Xena growled, "we aren't here to shop."

"Xena, did you see it?"

"I've seen enough of everything," she replied, then turned to Xanthus. "You do great work," she said simply. "What could you do with these?"

He puzzled for a moment, looking at the earrings Xena held in her open hand. "Do? Like what?"

"Like make something else; like melt them down and strike coins."

His laugh sputtered out like hot coals splashed with water. "Coins? Out of this trashy stuff? It's not even proper bronze."

"They'd suit Tartarus," she said quietly.

"Coins of Tartarus?" His incredulity grew. "Who'd want coins of Tartarus?"

"The people of Tartarus, maybe," Gabrielle said, annoyed at his manner, "as they have no other currency."

"Money's forbidden here," he warned.

"Could you do it?" Xena asked plainly.

"You'll never get enough earrings together to amount to anything, even if we all stopped wearing them and tossed them in the melting pot." He stopped abruptly, startled at the idea. "Is that what you want?"

"Could you do it?" she repeated.

"I could," he affirmed, "but what's the point? You don't want this poor metal for coins, you want gold, or silver, or even nice grade copper."

"Which we don't have," Xena pointed out. "What we have is this."

He considered a long time, rubbing his own earring between fleshy fingers. At last he spoke. "These are better suited to buttons, or hinges. Coins need something better. I wouldn't want to waste my time." He turned back to his forge.

"Where would you get something better, Xanthus," she asked. "Where do you get your metals?"

"I have my sources," he said warily.

"I know the smith near the Sweetwater uses scrap metal. He recycles broken items, melts things down and starts fresh."

"He does passable work, for all that he's a scavenger," Xanthus said. "He seldom has silver, and his bronze is poor."

"You have silver, and iron," Xena pointed out. "You make bronze. Where do you get your material? Come on," she demanded when he hesitated. "It can't be that great a secret."

"There are people who brave the foothills for profit," he said at last. "They bring me ore."

"How do you pay them?"

"I make their tools, I keep them in repair, I outfit them with supplies. I smelt ore for them to trade elsewhere, I don't know what they do with it. And I make them nice things."

"Who are they? Where are they from?"

"I donít ask and they don't say. They keep me supplied, and I do for them." Xanthus was growing tired of the topic.

"Why are the foothills a risk?" Gabrielle asked.

"Because they're near the mountains, because the mountain guards its wealth." He gestured at the craggy heights rising in the distance. "When I settled here I dreamed of the gold that I'd find. You can see it glinting there sometimes, luring men on," he snorted, "like a woman teasing with a smile. The foothills yield enough to tantalize, but the real prize is never gained. There's the river to cross, first, and then there's the Wild Ones, and something else. The gods maybe," he shrugged. "I dream, but that's all."

A look passed between Xena and Gabrielle. "If you could work with silver, would you mint the coins?" Gabrielle asked.

"My fire would burn night and day," he said.

"And if you had gold?" Xena queried.

"They would call this place the Twin Forge," he asserted, slapping his huge thigh. "And where is this gold to come from?" he asked more soberly, and followed Xena's eyes to the mountain.

"Let me worry about that," she said. "You'll need help."

"I'd gladly take it. I'd be happy for an apprentice or two who'd work enough to earn their keep and take their due and no more," he said bitterly. "They're hard to find in Tartarus."

"I'll find them," Xena promised. "What else will you need?"

He paused, startled that she spoke with evident confidence that this would come to pass. "I'd need wood, lots of wood. Fires have a great hunger. And protection."

"You'll have it."

"My necessities, food," he added. "And of course, a percentage."

"Of course," Xena agreed. "And you'll engrave the design I give you?"

"With your portrait?" he guessed.

"No; something else." He seized her outstretched hand and shook it in agreement.

"I worked in the mint in Amphipolis a long time back," he told her. "I heard your name often then. It was not spoken with love."

She shrugged. "No reason it should have been, a long time back."

"Is this really happening?" Gabrielle asked as they rode away. "Everything is moving so fast."

"Weíre just getting started, Gabrielle. The first question is, now or later?"

"For which part of it?"

"The gold. Weíre closer to the mountains than the Sweetwater. No point lining up the apprentices until we have something for them to work with."

"Xena, we're not miners," Gabrielle protested.

"Weíll find them as we need them."

"Just find them?"

"You heard Xanthus. Unspecified men bring him ore. It won't take them long to notice our presence in their territory. I'll bet they're as anxious to get the gold as we are."

"They might not like that about us."

"We'll see. I'm pretty sure they'll come around to my way of thinking."

"So we're heading for the mountains? And the river, and the Wild Ones, and whatever else it is that makes the mountains so daunting?"

"All of that."

And probably more that we can't even guess at, Gabrielle thought, without anxiety. She sometimes missed the days when she rode behind Xena on Argo's broad back, reassured by the strong steady beat of the warrior's heart against her body. But it was good now, riding alongside, matching her pace, and controlling her own steed. "Xena," she called suddenly. The warrior turned her head. "Do you remember how hard you tried to get me to go back to Potadeia? I'm glad it didn't work."

For three days they rode, hardly pausing, starting early and stopping after sundown. They followed a faint track, sometimes leaving it for miles, noting the places where the wheels of heavily laden carts had rutted the road.

Each hour there were further from the Sweetwater and its people; Hermia, Lilla, Drax and Ileander, Cramma and Nala, and memories of the recent past faded, and with them the dull ache of pain she carried was eased. She began to wish the road could go on forever, that they could ride free, unencumbered once more. Xena, we can ride right out of Tartarus, she imagined saying, just keep going. You can get us through anything. She never spoke the words.

"Where are you?" Gabrielle, Xena asked one night by the fire, when the Bard's eyes seemed to be looking to the very heart of the flame. She turned slowly, as if coming back from a distance. "Were you thinking of The Sweetwater?"

"No," Gabrielle smiled, not bothering to explain how far from her thoughts the place was. "I was committing things to memory. I want to recall everything about this place, this mission, our task. I want to remember how big the sky is, the color of the wildflowers along the path, the call of the birds just before dawn. There seems to be just the right combination of words to capture the essence of things. I don't want to forget before I have the chance to write them down. Even Xanthus needs remembering. He so loves his metals." She shook her head. "What a waste of feeling."

Progress was measured by the increasing detail of the looming mountains. Early on the second day Gabrielle thought she caught the glint of gold Xanthus spoke of. By the third morning they reached the foothills, and began climbing steadily upward. "Xena, I think we aren't alone," Gabrielle said, drawing on the vivid image she'd formed of the Wild Ones.

"I was wondering if you'd notice," Xena responded, teeth showing white in an approving smile.

"Are we going to do anything?"

"Not unless we have to."

The land fell away on each side until they rode on a narrow track. "Like riding on the edge of a bowl," Gabrielle said, and Xena agreed. There wasn't much room for a fight here, and she was glad the land was open for a great distance; no one could get close without being seen. Of course, on both sides watchers could not miss two riders silhouetted against the sky, but that didnít trouble her. Their sense of not being alone had grown stronger, and she sometimes caught a sound, or scent of flash of movement as confirmation. They were clever, and knew the country well, whoever they were.

She was less pleased when the track led inescapably to a tight canyon between high cliffs, like those leading into Tartarus from the east. A thunderous roar grew as they picked their way carefully over the rock debris that covered the ground. They were happy when the canyon at last opened on one side, where the wall fell away to a sheer drop. They dismounted and peered gingerly over the edge, to spy a roiling torrent of water, foaming like a cauldron on the boil, spilling headlong at an absurd angle, downriver turning away at a steep angle to be hidden behind the distant cliffs opposite their perch. Upriver, barely seen in the distance was an immense cloud of spray which suggested a cataract of great height.

"Ye gods," Gabrielle murmured. This was the River Elkina. This was why armed patrols were not needed at the northern border of Tartarus. This was why the gold of the mountains was out of reach.

"I guess we head upstream," Xena said, turning back to Argo. "There might be a quiet stretch of river above the falls."

"If it was that simple we'd be looking at settlements on the mountain above the river right now." The mountains loomed above and beyond the cliffs, thickly forested, craggy above the tree line, with no sign of human activity.

"You're probably right Gabrielle; I just don't have another plan in mind at the moment."

They backtracked for some distance, until the land opened into a grassy plain, which they followed north until Xena judged they had reached the line of the cataract, and they turned west to the river again. This time soon had to dismount and follow a rocky path on foot. "We'll be back, girl. Don't get too far, and beware the wolves," Xena whispered, as she turned Argo loose. The two horses stood for a time, watching them leave, happy to graze and rest, for the journey had been hard.

They clambered over rocks, always following the roar of the falls, finally feeling drops of water from the spray they'd spied from downstream. More carefully they navigated the rocks until they could go no further. Before them was the unending stretch of cliff which seemed to line the length of the river, dropping in a sheer wall to the water. Just to their right a torrent of water rushed from a height, cascading furiously to drive the current downstream. Xena shielded her face against the spray and squinted, trying to discern the far shore, but the river was even wider here, at the falls.

"How do we get up there?" Gabrielle asked, raising her voice to be heard over the din.

Damned if I know, she thought helplessly. "Gotta think about this," she said at last. "Let's sleep on it."

They spent the night camped between the cliff face and the fire, basking in the reflected heat. Over coarse chewy bread and hard cheese, voices raised against the roaring water, they considered the problem. "We can't cross the river here, and we can't get further upstream to where we might cross it, without climbing major mountains, which, I for one cannot do," Gabrielle ended. "Why is it we need this gold anyway?" Gabrielle asked.

"A few days back we didn't," Xena observed. "Xanthus raised the stakes."

"Someone else can make coins for Tartarus," Gabrielle argued, "they needn't be works of art."

"True, but gold coins would make such a difference. Beeswax and hides pale in comparison."

"Beeswax and hides wouldn't attract hordes of fortune hunters, Xena. Maybe it's just as well the gold stay out of reach."

"Gold has a way of getting itself found sooner or later, Gabrielle. I'd rather it be us that finds it than some I could think of. The problem is how? I'm sure downstream they've been finding gold washed from the mountains in the River Elkina for eons. If there was a way to get at it from there it would have been done." Her eyes drifted up to the looming summits. "I don't think that's the way," she decided. They fell silent for a time. Gabrielle stared into the fire, Xena pared lengths of wood into kindling. Only the crackling fire disturbed the night, until a distant howling reverberated through the hills, causing Gabrielle to start. "Just creatures of the night, Gabrielle. They'll settle down by dawn."

"I know, Xena. I'm glad all the earth's creatures aren't out and about at the same time." She grinned, but Xena's face grew hard with concentration.

"Gabrielle," she asked suddenly, "have you ever visited the Nymphaeum cave at Siracusa?"

"Xena, if I haven't done something with you, chances are I haven't done it."

"It's not as extensive as the caves in Kilkris, but it's got a waterfall."

"And?"

"I'm just thinking about waterfalls; and caves."

"As waterfalls go this one is in a class by itself. Before this I thought the falls on the River Fonias were something to fear."

"They are, but not in the same way. They turn on and off suddenly, sweeping you away when you don't expect it. This one is always on. What I've found about waterfalls, however, one thing many of them share, is a connection to underwater caverns." She paused and waited for Gabrielle to follow her thoughts.

"We find a way under the falls, instead of over?" the bard said at last. Xena nodded. "Don't you think it's been tried?"

"It may have been tried. Someone may have succeeded. It doesn't matter either way."

"So tomorrow we descend the cliffs?"

"Maybe it will come to that, but I'm hoping there's another way. You've heard of Zeno, of Elea? He would do some mighty creative thinking before resigning himself to the hardest path."

"Of course I've heard of Zeno. Do you know him?" Gabrielle aseked, enthused.

Zeno

"We've met."

"Wow. You never mentioned that."

Xena eyed her, amused. I should have known you'd be interested, she thought.

"What's he like?"

She snickered. "I know he can't drink worth a damn."

"Xena," came the reproach, "he's one of the finest minds of our time. His ability to hold liquor is beside the point."

"Liquor comes in handy when you try to understand his logic." She shook her head. " 'Half the time is equal to twice the time.' Try to explain that one."

Gabrielle pondered for a moment. "I'd have to know the context." she confessed. "The point is that he's immersed in the questions that go to the very heart of reality."

"Immersed? I think he's drowning. His answers don't mesh with my reality." She picked up the small dagger by her side. "Imagine this is an arrow, okay? Now, when I release the bow, this pretty soon turns up in whatever object I've chosen. Right?"

Gabrielle nodded. "That's the pattern.

"So it has moved, right? That, to me indicates motion. But no," she wagged a finger in negation. "Zeno says 'Uh-uh.' The arrow hasn't moved, because there is no motion. At every split second," she moved the dagger along a slow arc, pausing along the way," the arrow is still; like now." She held it still. "Then it's here." She moved it further along and held it still again. "He said," she screwed up her eyes recalling his words, "that it's always occupying : a particular space, even if the time is so brief it can't be registered, before it's occupying a different space, a little further on. Each space, it's still. "How it gets from one space to another he doesn't say," she ended with a grimace.

Gabrielle regarded her doubtfully. "Xena, are you certain you have that right?"

"Gabrielle, I swear, that's what he said. The funny thing is, sometimes I can almost believe him, when I catch a dagger, it's as if it's just hanging there, waiting for me to grab it." She shook her head again. He still has to explain how it gets from one place to another if there is no motion."

"Well, I can't explain it, but I wish I had met him."

"So you can explain your theory of how the first people came from fish? I don't think the world is ready for your minds to meet, Gabrielle." The sun was down, and their fire gave a steady heat. The day had been long enough, and the sun would rise early. Xena spread the blankets and lay on her side. "Come to me my Bard. I want to give you something for your memories."

The sun was not yet up when Gabrielle was awakened by the soft whisper of her name. Xena was beside her, dressed and armed. She sat upright and took in the scene. The fire had been doused, and the two horses stood grazing at the edge of the camp. Clearly, Xena had been up for some time.

"Why didn't you wake me?" Gabrielle asked in the midst of a deep yawn.

"I'm waking you now."

"Is something wrong? Why are we moving so early?"

"Youíll see," Xena murmured.

"I hate it when you're cryptic." Gabrielle was already pulling on her boots.

"Sorry; I just don't know if this hunch will work out.?

"Xena. Do you remember how jealous I was of Arthea? I'm sorry, I was so foolish. You made the mountains sing for me last night; I know you could never-"

"We don't have all day, Gabrielle," Xena said crossly. "Get moving."

They rode for a short time, to the crest of a tall bluff, where a wall of cliffs stood between them and the river. They faced in the direction of the soon-to-rise sun and waited. "Just keep your eyes open," Xena said, pointing toward the horizon. Gabrielle watched, beside her, scanning the skies for she knew-not-what. The sky was clear, as it had been through most of the accursed season, and the few clouds which drifted by were high and far away. On mornings like this Gabrielle loved Tartarus for it's space and never-ending sky. She tried to frame her thoughts as verse, but like so many times before the place defied poetry. "Xena. What word best describes-" she began, and broke off, her attention caught by a new cloud, a dark cloud against the still-dark sky. She stared as the cloud seemed to swoop and soar to match the landscape. "By Hestia, Xena. What is that?" she asked pointing, but Xena had already seen the cloud and with a whoop spurred Argo to a start.

"C'mon," she called over her shoulder. They were off at a gallop, following the cloud which was headed steadily for the cliffs. This is what it's like to fly Gabrielle thought as they galloped over the hard ground, her eyes on the sky and the dark hovering mass which grew closer as their paths converged. She saw then that it was not a cloud at all, but a massive flock of birds, wing to wing, moving as with one mind. The sun was just peering over the horizon, and suddenly the whole mass was in silhouette against the light and Gabrielle knew that it was not birds, but bats they followed. They were too far to be heard, but a tiny shudder shook the bard. Bats and snakes were just marginally less frightening than wolves. She knew however why Xena had set out to find the bats in their morning flight and sat more happily in the saddle to enjoy the morning ride. At last they neared the cliffs, far north of where they had looked down on the river the day before. There was no river sound here, no sign of a river at all. Here it was that the bats narrowed their swarm, preparing to pass through a narrow portal. Xena stopped and marked the reference points of rock and shrub which framed the point in the cliffside where the bats disappeared. Only then did she give Gabrielle a grin. "Did you guess?" she asked.

"Guess?" Gabrielle echoed. "Guess what? That we were going bat hunting? How was I to guess?"

"I don't know, I though maybe you'd guess," Xena shrugged. "Sometimes we think alike," she ended.

"Not this time," Gabrielle retorted. "Except that I do see the beauty of letting the bats show us the way into the caves. That will save us a day of searching. But you couldn't know there'd be bats, or caves."

"I didn't know; but sometimes you've gotta take a chance. I still don't know if these caves will lead us anywhere, but a sizable colony of bats just flew in there, so there must be some room to explore. We'll give them a few minutes to settle in and then we'll poke our heads in to nose around. Let's put the time to good use." For an hour they assembled simple torches from strips of cloth and resinous bits of wood Xena had been collecting for some time. From an oiled pouch she'd had for as long as Gabrielle had known her, she produced rags imbued with pitch. She unwound these with difficulty and fastened them around the end of the thick wooden clubs, holding all the long-burning mass together. She tied them together in twos; one pair was slung over Gabrielle's shoulder, the other over her own. Two lengths of rope were produced, one for each waist. They moved to the hole in the cliff that had welcomed the bats home. Brown guano streaked the entrance, a hole large enough for a horse, Gabrielle reckoned. A draft as from a current of cold air blew against their faces, then Xena disappeared to the waist for a few moments; when she reemerged she seemed pleased, but she had a warning for Gabrielle: "There was an old woman in Amphipolis. She shuffled her feet as she walked, and some folk thought she was crazy. She explained it to me one day and I've never forgotten. 'Xena, all we have is this ground we walk on. The gods haunt the seas, the clouds and the netherworld. We have what's left. It's best to give their spaces a wide berth. Keep your feet on the ground, not above it, not below it, and you'll be all right'. "

"That's why she shuffled her feet?"

"Yeah, just making it clear that she was in the realm of humans. She thought she'd avoid trouble with the gods that way. She died in her bed at ninety years plus, surrounded by family. I guess there are worse ways to go."

"And you're sharing this story now because...?"

"Because you never know who or what will turn up in the realm of the gods. Just be prepared and remember that they canít always be trusted.? Without pause she thrust bag of wood chips into Gabrielle's hand. "If we get separated, drop one every ten feet or so, or whenever you change direction. Don't forget. You can easily get lost in these places."

"Why would we get separated?" Gabrielle asked with a touch of unease.

"I'm not planning on it," Xena said, "but plans change. Just use the chips if you have to. If you lose the light, grab a handful of pebbles, if you can; toss one in front of you before every step. If you don't hear it hit the ground, your foot won't find any ground either."

Why would I lose the light? Was Gabrielle's next question, but Xena was speaking softly to Argo, and the moment to ask was lost.

"Let's go," she said when she came back, and Gabrielle suddenly was confident that nothing would ever go permanently wrong when Xena was involved. Plans might change, but there seemed to be an endless supply of new plans. Gabrielle was feeling mighty bold when they lit the torches and entered the cave at last.

Bats hung by the millions all around them, but the thought of guano was more repellent to the bard. In imitation of Xena she held her torch high, and enjoyed the beauty of the place beyond the dung. It was a massive cavern, hung with stalactites, studded with stalagmites, so that that it seemed the entire cliff side must be hollowed out to accommodate this one room, as if to make living space for giants. Xena was making her own inspection of the cavern, and Gabrielle doubted that it extended to thoughts of giants. They passed through the cavern in silence, not wanting to disturb the bats. When they had exited into a narrow passage Xena whispered: "No sign of people so far, but keep your eyes open."

Open for what? Gabrielle wondered, but followed in silence, noting where Xena dropped the wood chips.

It was easy to lose track of time in the dark, broken only by torchlight. They had followed the largest passageways that presented themselves, sometimes moving through large caverns, sometimes squeezing through narrow apertures, always dropping wood chips here they had passed. Gabrielle was glad when Xena stopped beside a still pool, wedged the torches in chinks between rock and invited Gabrielle to sit down. "It's getting cold," Gabrielle said, and Xena sat beside her, her enveloping arms providing a measure of warmth.

"It should be cold," she said quietly. No sun comes in here and we've been making a gradual descent for some time. I don't know whether we're beneath the river yet, but we must be close to it." She leaned over to sniff the water, then cupped a hand and sipped warily. "Ugh!" She made a face. "Strong mineral taste," she explained, "but it's not toxic. Sometimes I get a whiff of something, like sulfur?"

"That's why you sniff before we start down a passage," Gabrielle said, with sudden understanding.

"That's right," Xena said.

"You could explain those things as we go," Gabrielle said. "How will I learn otherwise?"

"I'm explaining now," Xena said, "and let me explain something else. Someone else sat by this pool and rested." She pointed to a smudge of carbon on the wall, just next to the place where smoke rose from their own torches. "That's only the third sign of human activity I've seen here. I wonder why? The entrance wasn't that hard to find, and I'd guess this place is chock full of precious gems. You'd think there'd be plenty of people eager to explore, yet it gets almost no traffic."

"Xanthus said the mountain guarded its treasure, or something to that effect. Maybe there's something we haven't discovered yet. This place is kind of creepy."

Xena was silent, but Gabrielle's words echoed her own thoughts. "Let's not sit around waiting for it," she said at last. She reached inside her pouch of wood chips and pulled out a small needle, suspended from a string. She held it before her and watched as it spun, then stopped. One end was wrapped with a red thread. "Weíre still going northwest," she said at last.

"I donít know how you can rely on that little thing," Gabrielle scoffed.

"Have you ever known it to be wrong?" Xena challenged. "Next to the sun or stars this little guy is the only way to go. Except for the wood chips," she cautioned, "and the air currents. If you get really lost, follow the currents. I think they all head to the exits." She nodded in the direction the needle indicated. "Letís get moving. Iíd like us to be above ground by nightfall.?

"Nightfall? How will we know when it's nightfall?"

"These torches are made to burn for just so-many hours; theyíll burn until its dark outside."

"Clever," Gabrielle said, but Xena was already strides ahead. Gabrielle grabbed her torch and scampered after her.

One passage seemed like another, but Gabrielle found herself struggling to hold her footing now, as steep inclines proved what Xena had said about the steady descent. Twice they started down a passage and backtracked, when Xena caught the scent of something she didn't like. Each time she carefully picked up the wood chips she'd dropped. The passages narrowed, until at last Xena was unable to squeeze through. "Let me get my gear off, then I'll try," she said, but Gabrielle edged her aside.

"I'll go; if it's a blind alley you needn't bother with all that." She managed to wiggle through to the center of the crevice with little trouble, then her progress slowed. "It pinches in spots," she admitted, "but us smaller-framed folks can get through; maybe."

"Gabrielle, don't force it. Don't go anywhere I can't follow," Xena warned.

There was a short silence. "Funny; it just seems much easier to go forward than back." I don't know whether I could get back if I wanted to, she thought.

Xena detected the unease in her voice. "Then go on, I'll follow."

"Xena, I don't think you can, with or without your gear, not without mashing your bones to a pulp." She groaned with exertion. "There, I'm through," she said with relief. "Good thing I'm not claustrophobic.

"Gabrielle, just come back."

"In a minute, let me take a look around." Xena waited what seemed a long time. "Okay, I've looked."

"What do you see?"

"More of the same, another passageway, only, after that tight squeeze it seems rather spacious. I can't see where it goes."

"Don't try; come back."

"The passage continues on down," she said, "I can see that much."

"Come back," Xena insisted.

"All right," the bard agreed, and in that moment one foot slipped on the wet stone, then the other failed to hold its grip, and Gabrielle was on her back, sliding feet first down the dark passageway, gaining speed, clutching in vain for handholds that weren't there to break her speed or stop her descent.

Xena heard only a muffled "Oof!" as Gabrielle hit the ground, and a wail of surprise as she slid away. "Gabrielle!" she exclaimed, as she ripped off her breastplate and bracers and moved in to the dark crevice. "I'm coming," she called, as she worked her way through, bit by tiny bit until she knew it was not possible to pass through without mashing her bones. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead even in that cold place. "Gabrielle?" she called again.

"Xena! I'm okay, I think."

"What happened?"

"The passage dropped away, I slid down a chute for, I donít know, a long, long way."

"Climb back up," Xena told her.

"Sorry. The last bit was free fall, like going off the end of a cliff. I can make out the opening, but I could never get back up there, the wall is sheer rock."

"Are you hurt?"

"No, I'm sore, but intact. I think the coil of rope broke my fall.' Gabrielle sat up and lifted the torch. "I still have the torch," she called out with as much cheer as she could muster, as she groped around the area for the other torches, which, yoked together had been slung over her shoulder.

"Is there any way out?" Xena called.

"I can't tell yet," she said, distracted by her search for the torches. "This is a huge cavern, not as large as the biggest, maybe it just seems bigger because of that tight squeeze."

"Do you see any passageways leading out of there?"

"I'll tell you when I know," Gabrielle called back, a touch irritated. "All I see so far is a lake."

"A lake?" Xena echoed.

"Yeah. It makes that pool we sat by look like a puddle. I don't know how I missed falling in when I came down the chute." The thought chilled Xena.

"Don't fall in now," Xena warned. "It's gotta be cold enough to kill. What else do you see?"

Gabrielle peered around the space. "I'm just as lucky I wasn't impaled on a stalagmite. This place is like a forest."

"Can you climb on one-"

"To get out? No. Xena," she said firmly, "there is no way back up from here."

"Then you've got to find a passageway out. Is there space to move around the lake?"

"I think so. There's a ledge that runs both ways around the lake from here. I'll follow it as far as it takes me."

"Which direction are you heading?"

"I'll go right," she said after a moment. "What direction is that?"

"Northeast," Xena said, "I think. Gabrielle, drop the woodchips. I'll find you."

"I know you will."

"Don't let the torch burn out before you light another."

"Xena, I know," Gabrielle said quickly, remembering a vague sound from her fall into the space. Lost in the excitement there had been a splash. The torches would be floating somewhere on the dark surface of the lake by now. She blew her cheeks in exasperation, deciding quickly that she would not tell Xena. "We've been over all this. I'll drop the wood chips, I'll keep the torch lit, I'll keep my feet dry, I'll smell the passages to avoid bad fumes. You've taught me well Xena, I'll be all right. I've got to go now, I'll see you soon."

"Gabrielle?" There was no reply. Xena jammed herself back through the crevice, re-donned her gear and ran back along the passage. She covered the ground quickly, knowing there were no precipitous drops to fear, thinking only of how she might get past this latest obstacle, and reunite with Gabrielle. The mountain guards its wealth. The words of Xanthus came back like a taunting refrain.

Gabrielle had taken only steps when her foot struck something and she sprawled onto her face. "Damn! As if this isn't hard enough," she swore softly, then froze, astonished by the sight of a pick-ax, lying between the rock wall and the lake. She looked around, but knew she was alone. There was no way of knowing how long this had lain here, dropped for some unknown reason. She glanced uneasily at the lake, and wondered if the bearer had taken the plunge she had, and been carried into the lake, losing his tool as he fell. It made no difference in the long run, she guessed, as she hefted the pick-ax. The handle was sturdy, the pointed ends still sharp, and she rested it on her shoulder. Might come in handy, she told herself as she set off along the ridge edging the lake.

Xenaís journey took her back along the paths they'd traveled for some time until she found a passage that ran at an angle to the northeast. The faint smell of noxious fumes had made it unattractive earlier; now it seemed to be the only option. It made her uneasy as she progressed that the cave grew warmer, and the odor stronger. Once or twice her torch flared more brightly as if finding added fuel in the air. She watched for openings to other chambers, but the passage led inexorably in one direction, and continued the steep descent that seemed to mark the caverns. Her mind was busy with the details of the task; her worries about Gabrielle were locked away behind a wall as solid as any in these caves.

Gabrielle followed the lakeshore carefully, hugging the wall where the ledge narrowed. Above the vault of rock was studded with sparkling material, giving the effect of the night sky by the light of her torch. It seemed a pity that when she passed out of the cavern the dark would be all encompassing, and the sparkle would die. She followed that thought to wonder what made the stars shine and twinkle. They'd met a man on the road once who explained that the stars were lumps of burning stone. Anaxagoras was his name, but he couldn't explain how they stayed in the sky and why they moved, so it was hard to believe him. She wished the glittering objects in the cave were lumps of burning stone, or burning anything, since the torch was burning low and sputtered as it neared it's end. That spurred her to move faster and drive thoughts of foolish philosophers away for another day. The journey required her attention. She pulled up just short of plunging into the lake at a point where it suddenly ran up to meet the wall. She made a short leap across the dark water slowed her pace to avoid what might be a fatal misstep.

The stillness was eerie; she missed Xena's presence, missed the scent of her, missed the jangle of her bits of metal as she moved. Mostly she missed the familiar voice, warning, teaching, cheering. She tried to evoke that cheerful optimism now, and whistled briefly; the resulting echoes were more than a little spooky; the stillness of the place had charm after all, she decided. How much charm would remain when the torch had burnt out she couldn't tell. She wondered whether she could somehow contrive to add the wood chips to the torch, but that seemed impractical. The wood chips would be better used laying a trail for Xena to follow. A shiver moved through her like a wave. Any time, Xena, she thought, as she moved steadily toward the expected rendezvous, anytime would be fine.

Xena brushed a wall as she passed and noted with dismay that it was warm to the touch. For some time rivulets of sweat had poured down her face. The odiferous fumes which carried to her were visible now, yellow wisps rising from the depths; from cracks in the rock walls eruptions of steam suddenly hissed through, scalding hot. It worried her what the effect of the fumes might be, but she was more worried about Gabrielle. This was an unwholesome place she had decided, and gold seemed a poor reason to venture here, but there was no turning back, and she moved along the passage as fast as she dared.

Gabrielle's path around the lakeshore ended at last, and the lake lapped over its edge to flow as a river down endless passages. She looked in vain to see the end of the river, hoping it would lead to the sun and the River Elkina. She could make out a ledge beside the river which would let her pass, but as the river twisted its way along the path it grew wide and narrow in turns. A false step and she'd be swept along gods alone knew where. The torch had burned longer than she had any right to expect she reckoned, and was near its end. Xena had said the torch would provide light for the length of daylight, which meant Gabrielle had been walking, almost without pause for a full day. It was tempting to yield to exhaustion and uncertainty, to just sit in the cold dark to wait for Xena. The alternative was to continue moving, hoping for something to turn up, hoping at least to be closer to where Xena might turn up. If only she knew where that was. "At least moving keeps you warm," she said aloud, and heard it for the first time, a voice, far away, muffled, yet she could almost make out words. She hesitated only a moment before lifting the waning torch beside the path and striking out once more. She had not gone fifty steps when the light sputtered and die. On moonless nights, when clouds obscured even the stars Gabrielle had known dark, but this was like the dark of the grave she thought, the dark where which obliterated the utility of sight. "That's it then, Xena. I've gone as far as I can go," she whispered, then cast into the far reaches of her mind to be sure that was true. She might find her way by hugging the wall, but she might not know when a yawning chasm opened without warning. Back to the wall, she sank down to sit and wait. The pick-axe she'd lugged along for hours clattered softly beside her. "You're not going out quietly, Gabrielle" she told herself, and brought the steel down against the wall beside her. Three times she tapped, and three times more after a pause. Nothing came back but distant reverberations. She didn't know whether Xena would hear the noise, or who else might, but it was something to do, and action, any action, was better than waiting to die.

The hard striking of metal on rock reached many creatures in the cave, among the bats that flew from their roosts, eyeless fish in frigid waters that paused in their feeding, and a leather-clad warrior who stopped in her tracks puzzled by what it meant. She knew that Gabrielle carried no metal, no sword, not even a dagger, yet someone, in some distant passage, was deliberately tapping out a signal. It could, somehow, be Gabrielle, it must be Gabrielle, she decided, yet that made little difference to anything. She was already looking for her, and her path was determined by where the passageway went, rather than where she would like to go. She was beginning to fear that the crevice through which the bard had slipped was the only way into that branch of the caverns. The path she was on now seemed to move ever further from where instinct told her she should go. "Gabrielle, I'm still coming," she muttered, wanting to shout it down the passages but wary of the creatures that dwelt in the dark. You never know who's listening, she reminded herself, and wondered with a shudder who else would hear the tapping. Before setting off again she lit a fresh torch with the dying embers of the first. It was some consolation that Gabrielle was also equipped with two spare torches, and wouldn't be stranded in the dark.

Gabrielle watched in wonder as the jewel encrusted roof of the cavern caught fire with the reflected glow of approaching torches. She listened closely for some sound of boots on the ground, some sign that it was Xena bearing the torch, but all was still. Then the light began to shimmer of the still water, and gentle waves began, spreading from the center to lap softly against the bank. A boat, she thought. How would Xena have a boat? She shrank against the wall, trying to be invisible, until she decided whether it was friend or foe approaching. At last the small craft came into view, and it headed straight to Gabrielle. It was moving against the current, but there were no oarsmen, and no sail. From fore and aft light emanated from the boat, or rather from those who stood on deck. "The Lampades," Gabrielle gasped as the boat reached the shore. Tall and fair, the torch-bearers for Hecate rode undisturbed as the boat glided to the bank. Wordlessly, they beckoned Gabrielle to come aboard. Each held a torch above her head, and a little before. Gabrielle had the impression that the light came from the women themselves, and then through the torch. It seemed absurd to refuse their invitation, yet as she stepped into the gently rocking boat she cast her mind over the stories she'd heard, and told of Hecate and the Lampades. They were not comforting. Still, it seemed an alternative to waiting endlessly in the dark, and the peace and warmth she felt in their presence lessened her fear. The boat moved with the current now, and they seemed to move at a tremendous speed, yet the boat was as gentle as a cradle. She watched the Lampades in turn, trying to see beyond their light to the beings themselves, yet it was like catching up to a dream the next morning. The harder she tried to focus, the more diffuse the image became. At last her eyes closed and she fell asleep, although she didn't remember that. As far as she knew, the voyage was over in a trice, and suddenly there was warm sun overhead, the world was awake with animal sounds, and her head was cushioned on a soft hillock of grass.

Xena's path continued through the torturous underground passageways. Her torch began to burn erratically, flaring up in vibrant green, and blue and yellow. She knew it was somehow related to the fact that potters added minerals to produce colorful glazes for their ware, but that wasn't much help in deciding whether the air was safe. A sudden blast of steam from a crevice startled her, and filled the corridor with a dark cloud of choking smoke. She ducked low and groped her way through, hoping it would dissipate before she had to take another breath. She was still moving forward when she lost consciousness.

The room she woke in was carved from the same rock she'd crawled through for hours, but this carving bore the touch of human craft. Scroll work tracery bordered the arched doorways, and tapestries hung from the walls. The air was clean here; a current seemed to sweep through the chamber, and she lifted herself on one elbow, hoping to see an exit to the outside world.

"Xena," said a voice nearby as she moved. "I confess I was surprised when the Lampades told me you creeping through my realm. I thought you preferred to get your gold by plunder."

With an effort Xena focused on the figure before her. "I don't care much for gold, Hecate," she said slowly, "yours or anyone else's."

"It's not my gold," Hecate responded indignantly. "I've always thought it was a highly overvalued commodity, an object worthy of obsession by foolish mortals alone."

"That's an obsession I got over some time ago."

"Why then are you here?" Xena paused, realizing that she was here after gold, though not on her own behalf. How to answer that without angering the Titan might be tricky; but she had forgotten Hecateís hatred of silence. "I would hope the reason is worth the risk. Many have braved the caverns to find a path to gold, but few have survived the journey. Hades very nearly claimed you, but he relented in the end. Ares keeps him rather busy. Besides, I think your presence makes him nervous; he was only too happy to send you off with me in the end." That would have been a discussion worth hearing, Xena, thought, but Hecate intruded again: "You make a lot of the Immortals nervous, Xena. You cause a great deal of bother and confound them in their schemes. I'm not sure I haven't made a mistake in reviving you."

"We have no quarrel, Hecate," Xena said, holding the gaze of the godís green eyes with her own. "We've always gotten along. I'm just passing through. I lost my friend a while back, and I've been sort of aimlessly wandering trying to find her."

"She's the source of the tapping? We were wondering about that. I sent the Lampades to find her. You two have been very disruptive of my work," she scolded, without mentioning what that work might be. "This all illustrates my point, Xena. You are a bothersome individual, like a nettle under a saddle.'

"Have I ever let you be defamed?" Xena challenged, before returning to the only words which mattered: "The Lampades have gone to get Gabrielle?"

"Of course; I don't want her making that racket for much longer."

Xena couldn't hear the tapping any more, and supposed the Lampades had found her. "I'm glad they're bringing her here. Once she arrives, we'll be on our way, and cause you no more bother."

"They aren't bringing her here. I've commanded them to bring her to the nearest exit. I see it rather like shooing a wasp from the house." She had poured a cup of wine and extended it to Xena. "Take it," she commanded when Xena hesitated. "No spells, no potions, just some rather good wine I keep on hand. You look as if you need some fortification."

"I was hoping Gabrielle and I would be reunited here," Xena said after a long draught.

''Well you wonít be. You can catch up with her outside. Gabrielle? She's the bard?"

"That's right."

"Aphrodite sometimes repeats stories she hears from the mortals, which quite upsets the Muses. They like to think they inspire everything, yet Aphrodite says you inspire that little bard. That doesn't surprise me,? she said with a wicked grin.

"Her name is Gabrielle." Xena reminded her.

"Of course, Gabrielle; she upsets Ares, too. You both upset Ares. When Hades heard you'd been sent to Tartarus he, among others, hoped Ares would lose his fascination with you."

"Yeah, me too," Xena murmured, wishing it had been so.

"It's been Xena this, Xena that, for so long. It's refreshing to see him engrossed in other schemes for a change," Hecate rambled on. "Of course, Ares always has many irons in the fire; he plays his games on many levels. And someday he'll turn his attention back to you, but for now, Tartarus is too far removed from the action. Not that he's happy about the loss of you; he's actually quite cross when it comes up." She continued to speak, but Xena only half listened, as she sorted through the words of the goddess. Ares wasn't interfering in Tartarus? Could that be? Or was his deceit masking his plans?

"What has Ares been up to?" Xena asked abruptly, not aware until it was too late that she was interrupting the voluble Hecate.

Beneath her dark locks Hecate's green eyes narrowed. "The fascination is mutual. I see. Ares has been stirring up old enmities in the Peloponnesus, and there was an incident in the Dolomites in which I suspect he played a part. I suppose Poseidon has been an ally in his plots. Ares hates to work alone. I think he enjoys showing off," she mused.

More likely he needs help to get anything done, like the rest of the Olympians; some poor excuses for gods, Xena thought sourly. "He hasn't been to Tartarus?"

"He leaves a trail of death and destruction wherever he travels," Hecate pointed out, as if stating the obvious. "Yet Hades says Tartarus has been exceptionally peaceful lately, except for a few incidents. Are you missing him so much? I wonder, then why would he need Cupid's help?"

"Cupid's help?" Xena echoed, incredulous. "What?"

"Well, that's the rumor, that Ares was begging for the help of Cupid to woo you before he-" She stopped speaking abruptly, as if suddenly aware that she'd said too much.

"Weeks ago?" Xena's mind reeled. Why would be seeking the aid of Cupid if he'd already seduced her in the glade?

"Some time back, anyway," Hecate said vaguely, "but I have another matter to discuss with you," she plunged ahead hastily. "There are spells being cast in Tartarus, and potions brewed; nasty spells and hurtful potions. All the harm will be laid at my feet, as usual. 'The milk has soured, the crops have failed, the rain has stopped; must be the crones of Hecate,' folk say. Why have you let it continue?"

Xena huffed in exasperation. "Why is it my business to stop it? I don't even know about it." The only magic she knew of was tied up in the mysteries of the glade, but how the machinations of Ares concerned Hecate she couldn't guess. As for the rest, she knew too well how quick people were to blame natural misfortunes on the gods. Hecate was a favorite culprit.

"I'm tired of being identified with evil, Xena. I'm no hag, and I'd like that chatter stopped. Make it a favor to me," Hecate suggested. "I think I've earned that much today."

"Have you any idea who is responsible?" Xena asked.

"No. I'm sure you'll solve the puzzle. You always do. Weren't in a hurry to meet someone? I don't want to keep you," she said dismissively.

Xena had questions to ask the goddess, but she knew Hecate was on her guard now. Besides, it would be nice to leave before the topic of gold was raised once more.

"Yeah, I do. Could you point me in the right direction?"

"The passage leading from this chamber rises steadily to the surface," she said gesturing to the far side of the room. You'll emerge on the far side of the Elkina, not far from the spot where the Lampades will have brought your friend." She ignited Xena's torch with a sudden burst from her fingertips. "I expect I'll see you again, sometime. I always do. Just see that you take care of that little problem."

"I'll do just that," Xena assured her, as soon as I solve a few dozen other problems there. She was happy to leave her presence, anxious to catch up with Gabrielle; the maze of caverns would be only the first line of defense of the treasures of the mountains. Whatever god guarded the treasure would have another arrow in the quiver.

Gabrielle had finished the last of her meager rations while waiting on the bank of the subterranean river what seemed an eternity ago. She was hungry now, and thirsty. The river bank was slick and steep; she didn't want to risk getting swept away by the furious current. "Mountains often have springs," she told herself, and rose to explore. Above her, the mountain showed off its gold, glinting in the bright sun. She wondered whether she was the first person to set foot on the slopes of this mountain on the far side of the Elkina. The labyrinthine caverns truly guarded the gold of these mountains. Without the Lampades she would never have managed, she knew that, and wondered why she had been conveyed here. Surely some deity held sway over this mountain. It never occurred to her to be worried about Xena; the warrior had made her way through worse places, and Gabrielle expected that she would show up at any time. The wood chips were long exhausted, but she knew Xena would find her. "You leave a trail like a herd of elephants," Xena always told her. The rope was still draped around her, and she hefted the pickaxe over her shoulder. The mountain was thickly planted with scrubby trees and shrubs for quite a distance, and somewhere in all that she knew there would be berries. She fancied she could smell the sweetness of them in the rustling breeze which played with the leaves. "Beautiful!" she enthused aloud, and set off.

The climb was easy for so steep a peak, and Gabrielle made swift progress, even though she paused often to enjoy the panorama spread before her. Gentle gurgling led her to a spring, so cold she could only manage small sips. Thickly fruited bushes bearing delicate, pale pink berries framed the stream which ran from the spring, and she ate greedily, enthralled by the new taste. The sun was strong, and she would have happily napped again, but her true business lay above, in the gathering haze that shielded the uppermost peak from view. As she rummaged through a bush for the last berries, a low rumble shuddered through the mountain.

She resumed her climb, and soon began to see flecks of gold in the rocks she clambered over. So thickly flecked were some rocks she was moved to stroke them, following the veins with her fingers, grinning at the thought of such wealth enriching life in Tartarus. The grin died on her lips; it would be an awesome task to access the ore and transport it to Xanthus. She moved along, but more slowly as her path grew steeper; well-entrenched root systems were close to the surface, tripping her in the thickening haze. She fell hard once, emitting a loud cry, more startled than hurt. Immediately a cry answered her. She peered hard, and made out a wispy figure moving away from her, ascending the mountain effortlessly. "Wait," she called after, and caught a voice replying, but it was soon carried away in the thinning air.

The path grew narrow, than disappeared altogether, and she fought for handholds amidst the crags. Progress was slow. She regretted not waiting for Xena, but only for a moment. "I can do this," she encouraged herself; "I don't need Xena for everything." With that she unslung the pickaxe from her shoulder, and swung it above her head, securing a hold on a ledge just out of arm's reach. The clang reverberated for a long time, as she pulled herself up on to the ledge. She looked over the edge at the distance she had traveled, but the moment ended abruptly. She lurched suddenly, falling to the ground as the mountain shook, and continued to shake, harder each time, like a dog ridding itself of bathwater. On all fours, Gabrielle grabbed the axe as it slipped close to the end of the ledge. Then she crawled close to the face of the mountain, circled her arms around a boulder, and waited until the mountain was still again. Great time for an earthquake, she thought, and considered whether to resume her ascent or find a way back down. A pity to come this far just to retreat, she decided, and swung the axe again, seeking a split in the rock above her head; this time she missed and the axe clattered out of her hand, even as a new tremor jolted the ground beneath her feet, pitching her once more to the hard rock. This time she couldnít save the axe, and listened forlornly as it clattered down the face of the mountain. "Great Zeus!" she exclaimed, and heard again the faint voice she'd heard earlier. "Hello!" she called over the rumbling of the mountain, and was encouraged to hear a "hello" in reply. "Can you help me?" she asked as loudly as she could. "Help me" came back in reply.

"Echo," she whispered to herself. There was indeed a guardian of this mountain's gold, and Gabrielle had found her. She almost giggled with delight, despite the still fearsome temblors which wracked the mountain. Every schoolchild knew of Echo, how her incessant chatter and insistence on having the last word had so angered Hera that Echo was condemned to speaking only when spoken to, even then only repeating what was said to her. "You'll end up like Echo," her mother had often said when she talked back as a child. Curious, she called out: "How are you?"

"Are you" floated back.

"Can you come here?"

"Come here"

Warming to the game, she tested the limits of the nymph's power: "Mountain, be still!"

"Be still!" Echo repeated, and the mountain was still. Gabrielle's smile broadened in triumph. Echo had responded to the pickaxe assault on her golden mountain by setting the mountain in motion, and Gabrielle had maneuvered her into ending that defense. She wouldn't give up the gold that easily, Gabrielle thought, but she had no real use for it, floating as she did among the crags and wooded trails, whereas Tartarus had a real need. She found her own logic impeccable, and she engaged the nymph once more.

"I am Echo," she said, and the nymph said her name in response: "Am Echo."

"Unto Gabrielle," the bard continued, and paused.

"to Gabrielle," said the voice of Echo.

"Very gladly, I give," Gabrielle continued.

"I give."

"The treasures of this mountain."

"Treasures of this mountain."

Gabrielle thought the voice had hesitated, but the words were firm, and clear. She didn't know what would happen next, but she held her breath in anticipation. After a long moment she thought that she had failed; and then it began, as a distant thunder from the bowels of the mountain.

In the labyrinth far below, Xena's head swung around in alarm. Far ahead she had just glimpsed rays of sunlight peeking into the entrance of the cave. Now the walls around her shuddered as if they had lost all conviction that they were walls at all. Flashes of light appeared through sudden, widening cracks in the rock, and Xena broke into headlong flight from whatever spasm shook the caverns. Rocks falling from the crumbling walls cascaded around her; she fended them off with her bracers and emerged unscathed to a scene of wonderment. She was on the far side of the Elkina. At her feet the mighty river surged toward the falls. The current was not as strong here as it was below the falls, but she could see no easy place to ford the river, and the cliffs were just as formidable seen from this side of the falls, but even as she assessed the problem the landscape changed. The earth shook and shook again, and the massive granite cliffs were undone. They fell as if pushed from behind by some petulant child, arranging themselves neatly in steps which crossed the river at an oblique angle, half dam, half sluice, channeling the Elkina through enough apertures to permit its flow, yet regulating the flow, so that the mighty river was calmed, more an inviting stream than a raging torrent. The effect would be the same at the falls below. This was the work of some god, Xena acknowledged, whether for good or ill she could not say.

She lifted her gaze to the mountain above, where the wreath of clouds at the summit had lifted, and the gold showed itself in splendor unrivaled even in the court of Chin. With the river dammed, the mountain would soon be scarred by human activity, dotted with the open mouths of mine shafts, etched with trails, and denuded of lumber as needed by miners. So much was a pity, but as the mines of Laurium had financed the rise of Athens, so would the gold of this mountain finance the salvation of Tartarus.

Gabrielle saw all that Xena saw, though from a greater height, watching the waves from the rock fall dash against the shore, and wondering where in all the tumult Xena could be found. Ass the scene grew peaceful once more, she picked out the lone dark figure on the bank of the river, looking up the mountain, and cupped her hands. "Xena," she called, and her voice sounded strange, empty and alone. She waved her arms above her head and called again, and again, and realized that no voice joined her own. Echo was gone.

They made camp on the side of the golden mountain, and swapped tales over a crackling fire. "This might be the first fire ever on this mountain," Gabrielle observed.

"It won't be the last," Xena told her. Gabrielle spoke in hushed, reverent tones of the Lampades. Her voice held little pride when she spoke of her encounter with Echo.

"Do you think I stole the gold?" she asked uneasily.

"You didn't get it for yourself," Xena reasoned, "so I guess not. Don't worry about Echo," she assured the bard. "Nymphs have a way of landing on their feet."

"Xena? Do we still have to worry about the Wild Ones? I mean, we haven't seen any sign of them yet. Are they still following us?"

"We need to have a little chat with Hermia about the Wild Ones, Gabrielle. There are no Wild Ones. It was a convenient tale to keep people from venturing too near the mountains. I guess the same few men who supply Xanthus cause enough mischief and rumor to keep the story alive. Otherwise, there's no sign at all of the Wild Ones."

Gabrielle was curious about Hecate, but Xena had little to say, beyond a mention of sorcery. The important part of that meeting was nothing Xena wanted to discuss. She settled near the fire, Gabrielle wrapped in her arms and for the first time all day could ponder Hecate's words about Ares. If she was right, If Ares had not been to Tartarus, if Ares was trying to enlist Cupid to gain an advantage, what had happened in the glade? Had anything happened at all? Had she imagined everything? She wanted to believe that, but imagination was for the bard. There was something more she needed to know; what it was she couldn't even guess.

Xanthus scoffed at the idea that the Elkina was bridged, the gold accessible, and ready for mining. "The two of you," he laughed, but the laughter died on his lips when he noticed that Xena no longer wore the earring and Gabrielle produced the large nuggets she had brought down the mountain.

"You'll be able to produce miners," Xena assumed. "Some of the same men who followed us as far as the cave."

"The Wild Ones," Gabrielle said with heavy sarcasm.

"Those would be the men," Xanthus agreed, with a shrug. "I wondered if you'd confront them."

"I let them be. I don't want to know their role in keeping this territory for themselves, just so long as they know it's over. People will flood here from all over Tartarus now.?

"They won't like it," Xanthus warned.

"I didn't much like them following us," Xena responded. "If we'd come back the way we went in I expect they'd be lying in ambush, so we'd never tell the tale."

"I expect so," Xanthus agreed. "I never doubted you'd have no trouble with them."

"Not like the others who were followed as far as they could go then dumped in a hole or drowned in the Elkina," she continued.

"Not all;" he said in defense of his shadowy suppliers, "lots of odd things happen in those caves; the gods protecting their gold."

"Yeah, well we've been through that.. Are these men any good as miners?"

"They've found enough to keep me busy until now, I expect they'll make a go of things."

"On behalf of Tartarus," Xena growled. "They can make a good living, but the gold is not theirs; make that clear. The mines will be guarded, but I'd hate to have to make a special trip all this way to emphasize my point."

"I can't promise that won't be necessary, Xena, you know how the lads can be around here, but I doubt it would take more than one trip."

"Good." She relaxed a little. Xanthus was no fool, and his own stake in this was large. Xena already had a man in mind to lead the contingent keeping order around the Elkina, and if need be, keeping outsiders out, once word of the changed circumstances of the Elkina spread. "Now," she said, "let's talk about coins." She held out her own earring. "You can work the earrings into some limited issue of coins, just for symbolic effect, but the bulk of the coins will make the Three Kingdoms tremble with envy."

As they rode from the forge Gabrielle had a question. "Xena? I think I did something important back their, whether it was right or wrong, I managed to pull off a coup of sorts, dealing with Echo."

"You sure did," Xena said, with a hearty nod.

"You never said much about it."

"Gabrielle. When's the last time you tossed me a bouquet for a job well done?"

"What?" the bard was startled. "Do you think I don't notice? I guess I'm just used to you doing a good job, some things just donít seem to need saying."

"Exactly," Xena said simply. "Some things just don't need saying."

In so many words, Gabrielle heard the greatest compliment of her life.

 

 

Chapter 34

"I don't see how this helps things, Xena," Drax said plainly. "Maybe it's just beyond the grasp of a simple soldier, but I don't see how it helps anything. Now, if you'll excuse me?" He dropped the reins of his horse into Xena's hand and walked behind a large tree. When he emerged a few seconds later he continued listing his reservations as they ambled slowly across a field of withered crops, leading their horses. "The land will be flooded with fortune seekers. The Three Kingdoms will pour troops into Tartarus. More than likely they'll war among themselves for the gold; Tartarus will get no benefit, and we'll all end up transported elsewhere, pressed into hard military service for one side or another, or turned into a permanent servile class. Helots," he snorted, recalling the slaves of Sparta, who toiled in the fields while Spartans attended to military service.

"That needn't happen," Xena said, "and I don't intend to let it happen." The sun still hung low in the eastern sky, yet they had already covered a good deal of ground, literally and conversationally. "It's time Tartarus controlled its own destiny."

"It's time wild boar trotted up to the door roasted and carved, but they don't. How does Tartarus take control of its destiny? Just having gold won't do it."

"I know that," she responded patiently, "but it helps. It lets us stave off famine, for one thing."

"Fine; we buy grain from Mus. They say, 'By the way, you Tartarus scum, where'd you get all that gold?' Then they swoop in and take it."

"They don't get in unless we say so. This place is a penal colony because access is so easily controlled. It goes both ways. If they won't let us out, why can't we not let them in? Except on our terms."

"Seize the pass?"

"Right. The gatekeeper wins that fight every time."

The logic was inescapable, yet Drax chortled in disbelief. "Seize the pass? Why not storm Olympus while we're at it?"

"We'll save that for another time," she smiled in return. "The pass will do for now."

"You're serious." He had known she was serious from the start; the empty earring hole told him that much.

"Why not? How hard can it be, the garrison there isn't large, and I doubt that they're expecting trouble. They mostly just sit and wait for the new convicts. I can't imagine Tarkian has his best troops sitting there."

"Well, still, they're well-ensconced in solid shelter, dug right out of the rock face. How do we get to them before they cut us down?"

"I've got to take a close look, but I'll do some scouting and then figure it out."

"They patrol inside the border, sometimes."

"I can be pretty sneaky."

"I don't doubt it, but you can't bring this off alone. Who do you mean by 'we'?"

"I'm not sure, yet. I figure I can count on you."

"Please do. That's two."

"Drax, I've put together armies with worse prospects than Tartarus holds. I could conquer the Three Kingdoms with the manpower here, not to mention the women."

"Then why haven't you?" he asked soberly. "Why haven't you at least found a way out?" The question had vexed him, and Tartarus, since the day she arrived. Why did she stay?

She took a long time answering. "I don't know," she said at last. "There was always some reason."

"And now?"

"Things change, Drax. That's the one constant in life. Don't ask why. Maybe it's the famine, maybe it's just my mood. Everything has a time and the time for this is now."

"This, being seizure of the pass, and then what?"

"Then we bargain, we buy food; we serve notice that Tartarus is no longer at the disposal of the Three Kingdoms and we make it stick."

"That part seems dicey."

"Yeah, well it won't be easy, but it can be done. It starts with an army, well-disciplined, well-paid, well-trained."

"In that order?"

"For the time being, yes. The most skilled soldier is worthless if he can't be trusted to do the job. Some men will fight to defend their families; the rest will need another motive. Fear and money are wonderful motivators. And we need leaders. You got any suggestions?"

It was plain that this was no flight of fancy, and Drax ran a hand over his lips as he considered. "They aren't the cream of the crop, Xena, but I've served with just as bad, or worse. Some are men I'd be proud to serve with anywhere."

"Would you follow them anywhere?" Her blue eyes had a way of demanding hard thought.

"Maybe not anywhere," he hedged, "but given a clear objective, they could be effective. Especially Barclades. He was a soldier, an officer; I think he was sent here to put him out of reach of the daughter of a wealthy merchant in Mus. He likes his wine, but he's itching to do more than patrol these back roads."

"He's honest?"

Drax nodded enthusiastically. "I think the merchant missed out on a good thing. If I had a daughter, or a son," he chortled, "I could do worse for a son-in-law. Then Andorus comes to mind. The men gravitate to him, and he's a good instructor. Commodorus," he began, but Xena held up a hand.

"This is all encouraging. Draw up a list; I'd like to meet them all, soon. Events won't wait for us. We have to bring all of Tartarus under central control."

Drax was still, hiding the wave of relief that swept through him. Xena was finally making her move. Tartarus had long cried out for order, and this seemed like Xena's announcement that she would be the overlord that made it happen.

"I'm on it, Xena," he said.

Hermia saw Gabrielle's approach from a distance, and left her dough under a large cloth while she hurried out to greet her, rubbing her hands together to loosen a bit of clinging dough. "Welcome," she called out as Gabrielle slid off Glider, and crossed the yard. "We missed you. Arthea said you had gone north, and after our talk about the mountains, I was afraid maybe things hadn't turned out well. All sorts of bad tales come from those regions."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Things went very well, Hermia. It's lovely near the mountains. The air is sweet, the colors vibrant and pure. Sure, we had some little obstacles, but we got past them. And we brought home some items to fill the larder."

"That's grand," Hermia, nodded, spying the stag tied across the horse. "I doubted there was any venison left hereabouts."

"Xena didn't get him hereabouts; the land near the Elkina is thick with critters; and nuts, and there are still root vegetables to be found, and we've brought back a sampling to whet the appetite. Xena dropped another off with Drax and Ileander. This should stave off the hunger for a while, anyway. And that's not all I've brought. Is Arthea around? she added softly."

"No; she's gone off to do whatever it is all day. Probably looking for news of Xena."

"Good; I'd like to talk to you alone. It's best if Lilla doesn't hear." Hermia's eyes narrowed at that idea.

"Come in; I'll send Lilla to gather kindling."

"Don't look so grim," Gabrielle said lightly when they sat by the window, and Hermia poured welcoming brew into clay mugs. "Xena and I have been busy." She reached into her pouch and withdrew a closed fist. With a grin she opened her hand to show a nugget of gold. Hermia looked hard, then looked at Gabrielle's face then back again to the nugget. "How did you get this?" she asked at last.

"Wait until I finish the scroll," Gabrielle said with a sparkle. "It will make a good story. The thing is, there's a lot more where this came from, gold and plenty of silver, and we can get it, we can use it for Tartarus."

Hermia stared, dumbfounded, and more than a little afraid. "No good can come of it, Gabrielle."

"What? Why not? It's gold. Tartarus needs gold to do so many things. We can buy grain, and tools, and maybe provide a proper defense," Gabrielle explained,

"And hordes of villains will come looking for the gold. The only safety here is that we have nothing."

"And now we'll have something," Gabrielle pointed out. "We'll have enough to keep the villains at bay. This is a good thing, Hermia." For everyone, she mused. Tartarus would start to climb out of its long enforced misery, and she and Xena would be able to shake the dust of Tartarus from their boots. The journey would start soon enough. Even now Xena was consulting Drax about the construction of an army of Tartarus, to seize control, maintain order and defend against all comers. The entire business would take her away from The Sweetwater for some time.

"It can't be helped, Gabrielle. The warlords will knuckle under a lot faster if I'm there to persuade them. Drax will find his job a lot easier if I show my face once in a while."

"I know," the Bard had replied, "it's my job I'm worried about. You keep saying that I can handle things in The Sweetwater. I don't know whether I can, not with you and Drax both gone." Xena had been genuinely surprised.

"I wouldn't ask you to if I didn't know you could," she pointed out. "You wouldn't be alone; you've got Hermia and Cramma and all the good will in the world. But apart from that, Gabrielle, you can handle most anything The Sweetwater can throw at you. Don't you know that?"

"I think sometimes I do, but then I forget.""I suppose I have to remind you more often."

"Somewhere inside I'm still a little girl from Potadeia."

"Somewhere inside me I'm still an innkeeprs daughter from Amphipolis. We've both come a long way; we've got more to go."

"Yeah. You'll have to see Petra, I suppose?"

"Eventually; not just yet. We've got an army to build, then we secure the Elkina, seize the gates and let Tartarus know that things are no longer hopeless. It will be easier to deal with Petra from strength."

Continued - 35-40


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