By M. Parnell
Gabrielle brushed a gnat from her scroll and beamed at her small audience; it had been a long time since she'd read a new work, and she'd worked on this one for a long time. Xena and Drax had assembled an army in the time it took her to polish her tale. Now Hermia and Lilla alone sat before her, positioned to catch the sole ray of light which streamed through the open door.
"Get started then," Hermia urged. "I've still got kneading to do.?
"We like your stories," Lilla added, clapping grubby hands. "Is it about Xena?"
"Yes, and no," Gabrielle replied thinking, It's just as much about Gabrielle, for once. "It's about Xena, and me, and gold, and Hecate, and-"
"Stop, there," Hermia demanded as she covered Lilla's ears with her large red hands. We want no stories of Hecate here."
"Hermia," Gabrielle exclaimed, puzzled. "Why not Hecate?"
"We don't need more talk of witches and suchlike."
"The Sweetwater is alive with tales of fey things. I haven't worked this hard to end up in the center of a bonfire because some galloping imagination decides I'm in league with fell spirits."
"Hermia, why would anyone think- "
"They won't; not if I mind my business and keep talk of such things away from my ears."
Gabrielle worked the scroll into a tight roll as she considered Hermia's words. Such things. "I know you don't like the idea of gold coins in Tartarus, but this is a fun story, about dark caverns, and He-"
Hermia half rose from her seat. "Guess we'll be back to work."
Gabrielle laid a hand on her arm. "All right, I won't talk of her; but why not? What is so scary about it?"
"You don't scare easily, do you Gabrielle? You rush off to seek adventures that most people flee. I get scared. I don't hide under the bed, I'm too busy to do that, but if I can avoid the scary things, all the better. Right now there are plenty of witches around my doorstep; I don't need stories of witches far off."
"Around your doorstep;" Gabrielle repeated, puzzled. "Where? Who?"
"Everywhere; everyone, to hear folk talk. Who doesn't stop here, at one time or another, to get bread or a bit of news."
"Witches in Tartarus?" she asked while she tried to recall what Xena had said after the meeting with Hecate.
"Seems like. It's not what I'm saying; it's what's in the air." She looked hard at the bemused smile on Gabrielle's face. "It don't take much for people to see witchcraft, Gabrielle; we've had plenty to make folk wonder. The crops withered; for the first time in the memory of anyone hereabout. That blood-stopper is no mere human; he is in league with some being of power."
"He does good with his gift," Gabrielle retorted.
"He may do; he did no good with it when Sepra bled to death."
"He wasn't there," Gabrielle argued mildly.
"Maybe not," Hermia conceded, "but they whisper that he put a curse on her, maybe from the same power that cursed her husband, so that the mushrooms killed him."
"The damn mushrooms again?" the bard muttered.
"Aye, mushrooms; they never faded from memory. Nor the walnuts, sacks of them on Xena's saddle while no one else can find a walnut tree in The Sweetwater; and the fine walnut wood of your table. You think that don't seem like dark magic? They haven't heard how you bridged the Elkina, yet. That'll get them wagging."
"Hermia; most of what you said is about Xena and me."
"It doesn't help that you know the silent Amazon," Hermia added.
"You think we're in league with a dark power? I thought things had gotten better in the Sweetwater since we arrived. It's more peaceful, and until the blight anyway, it was a lot more prosperous."
"That's all true, but it's part of the trouble. It's like a land of enchantment. What's subject to a good charm can be subject to a bad charm."
"That makes no sense."
"Maybe not, but it's what folk say."
"How do you respond?
"How can I respond? I have a small goal in life: I want to be there for Lilla when she brings her first child into the world. I'm careful with my words."
"With all the characters in Tartarus, Xena's the one who excites tales of dark magic. Doesn't that seem bizarre? What about Arthea? What about that bony, tall man who collects money for a shrine to Ares?"
"Ach," Hermia waved a dismissive hand. "He's just collecting for his own stomach and we all know it. Gabrielle, I haven't turned against Xena, or you. Lilla is still going to your classes, whenever they're held. A girl's got to learn."
"A girl's got to learn about courage, as well," Gabrielle shot back and hushed herself at once. "That was mean. You are brave, Hermia, I've always known that. But you can't give way to fear. Not now; we are so close to making Tartarus a better place." She fell silent. The scent of clover came through the open shutters, and with it drifted a memory from long past, of her own sister Lilla and her parents sitting around the small table that held a supper of fish and whole grains. In that homey room, with her family crowded elbow to elbow, Gabrielle had felt a pang of loneliness. She felt it again, now, and recognized it as the pain of being away from Xena. "I had better go," she told Hermia. "I want to be home before dark."
"You've got ages," Hermia replied puzzled, as she watched the bard gather her bundles and leave. Glider's dust soon filled the still air.
She rode as if the Furies were after her, and slowed only when she spied the slow running stream, bounded by it's uncommon greenery, and realized that Glider would be thirsty. She looked along the stream bed as the mare drank. Down that dark thread of water lay something she had never shared with Xena. She brushed away the thought that Hermia, or the others, were right, that a malevolent spirit lurked beyond her sight. Still, Xena had come back from solitary rides laden with gifts of the mysterious walnut tree. Never mind, she scolded herself crossly. The thought that Xena was held in such suspicion by those who owed her so much reddened her cheeks with anger. Even now Xena was putting herself in harm's way to find a solution for the mess that was Tartarus. We should have left when we bridged the Elkina, she thought, and left them all here to sort things out for themselves; see who'd they blame for their misfortunes then. Immediately she was sorry for the thought, but rode along the bank of the stream for a long way, half-tempted to follow it's labyrinth until she found what Xena found. At last she turned away, and headed towards the house that she and Xena had built together.
Glider reared and whinnied as she approached the small homestead. The sun was a long way from setting, but the late afternoon rays cast long shadows before them. "It's yourself you're starting at," she told the wary horse. "Let's get you rubbed down and fed and things will seem a lot better." By the time she'd tended to Glider the mare's unease had attached itself to Gabrielle; she was grateful that the stable was connected to the house. She had no desire to venture outside again that night. Her activities seemed loud, almost rude in the uneasy silence. She checked that every window and door was double barred. Her staff was close to hand. She soon had a fire, larger than usual, crackling in the fireplace. It was almost enough to drive fear from her heart, but she decided early on that she would not sleep that night. I can read, and I can write, she said, and began to catalogue the human manifestations of fear. Fear did not slow hunger she observed as she picked plump walnut meat from pieces of shell. The Joxer Principle, she scribbled, recalling that he was usually afraid, yet always hungry. Xena on the other hand was never, or rarely afraid, and often hungry. On the third hand-
A sudden thrumming froze her quill mid-word. It was the sound of a bow string being plucked, once, twice then several times more before it fell silent. She sat with her head cocked towards the window, wondering. It began again, this time closer and louder. She moved to the shutters and peered out through a crack. The waning moon illuminated little, yet the thrumming continued; she caught her breath as she recognized a rhythmic pattern. Amazon. Angrad, she thought. She grabbed a torch, lit it in the fire, then extinguished the flame. If Angrad was sending soft signals rather than approaching it might mean she was hiding and a torch would just draw attention to the scene. She grabbed her staff instead and slipped through the merest crack in the doorway.
She headed toward the sound, which continued sporadically, enough to guide Gabrielle to its source. She found Angrad in the sheltered by a thick bush which bore black berries in season. Now, like most else it was withered, but dense enough to hide Angrad in its shadow.
"Who did this to you," Gabrielle whispered hoarsely as she surveyed the visible bruises which marred the stoic countenance. She realized that no sound would come from the mute Amazon and asked instead "Can you walk?"
Angrad managed, by leaning heavily on Gabrielle's arm. Her breath came in short, shallow swallows, suggesting bruised or broken ribs. At last she was resting on a heap of skins and blankets before the fire. Gabrielle swabbed at her wounds and spoke soothingly, assuring the battered Amazon that she would be safe, even as they both listened for noises outside.
"Sleep now," she said at last, you can tell me what happened when you've had some rest."
Angrad clawed feebly at Gabrielle's arm in silent protest. She needed to tell her story now. Gabrielle fetched a scroll and quill then settled beside her. It didn't take long with gestures and a few written words to tell how a mob, men and women both, had encircled her campsite and pelted her with rocks.
"Hermia said things had gotten ugly," Gabrielle commented through dry lips. Angrad's lip curled in a wry sneer.
"Hermia wasn't there?" Gabrielle demanded, suddenly unsure of the baker.
Angrad shook her head no, but wrote quickly: "Her girl was there."
"Lilla?" Gabrielle asked, uncomprehending.
"Arthea," Angrad wrote in large letters.
"Not a surprise," Gabrielle said.
"Dark powers," Angrad scribbled.
"That could be, but she won't bother us here; no one will."
Angrad shook her head, and gestured. 'Xena's not here, and they know it,' was her message.
"That's true, but they also know that Xena will be back, and they won't want to face her." Angrad expelled pink sputum into the fire; for a long moment her gaze lingered on the Amazon mask which hung on the wall, then she turned her back to the light and was asleep. Gabrielle sat at the table for a long time, considering Angrad's words. Xena's not here and they know it. Suddenly the little home no longer seemed her haven from all the dangers of Tartarus, and she was angry at Xena for leaving her behind to face this hostile world alone. 'Take care of things," she'd said as she rode off. "How, exactly, do I do that Xena?" she muttered to herself before drifting of to sleep, weary head cradled on her arms.
She was awake before dawn. Glider stamped and whinnied in the stable. Better than a watch dog, Gabriele thought as she peered through a chink in the shutter. She could see nothing through the gray mist but trusted the mare. "Wake up, Angrad, I think we're about to have company."
Gabrielle greeted them at the door, and pulled it tightly shut behind her. A dozen men stood in a loose circle before the house, a few bearing torches, all wielding clubs. "You're up early," she greeted them. "After wolves I suppose. I heard one last night, I think, quite a ways in the distance. I sure wish you luck. I hate wolves."
"Not wolves," one beetle-browed lout countered. "Its witches we're after. One witch in particular. A friend of yours I'm told."
"A friend of mine?" she asked. "I don't believe I know any witches. Icthor, isn't it?"
He snorted what she suspected was a laugh. "Yes, I'm Icthor. You do know the mute Amazon."
"Angrad? She's no witch." A murmur rippled through the crowd. "Your son is very clever, Icthor. He knows all his letters, to read and to write."
The large, dark head nodded. "I have no beef with you Gabrielle, nor with Xena."
"She'll be happy to hear that."
"The Amazon is another matter. We'd like to see her."
You already have, bastard, she thought. "I'll let her know if I see her."
"We thought she might have come by here."
"Why would she?"
"Oh. Because I'm an Amazon?" Or because she needed refuge and healing.
Some men had strolled around to the back of the house. Gabrielle heard Glider snort with indignation and knew they were searching the stable. She'd had about enough of them.
"I've told you she isn't here," she snapped. "Was there something else?" The men looked uncertainly, one to another. Gabrielle didn't wait for a reply. "Before you go, Icthor, maybe you can give me a hand.?" She opened the door and gestured him inside. "The trap door to the root cellar is jammed shut. Xena opens it easily, but I'm having a hard time."
Icthor hesitated. "Can I bring a mate?" he asked warily.
"If you need to," she shrugged.
"I'll go," said a voice from the shadows, that was at once unpleasant and familiar. Gabrielle looked at his face sharply. "No, Lutus; you'll not set foot over this threshold again," she growled.
"Lutus is just one of the lads," Icthor objected; he's new to The Sweetwater."
"Sure; but if he sets foot in my home it will be his last night on this earth, I swear it by Artemis." His brutality was not forgotten, no matter what she thought of Arthea.
Icthor looked to Lutus for a reply. The man said nothing, but Gabrielle wasn't through. "I'm astonished you have the brass to return to The Sweetwater."
"All right then," Ichtor said when it was obvious Lutus had no reply. He summoned another man. The two men peered inside before entering while Gabrielle waited in the corner. "Come on in," she urged and pointed to the small door set in the floor. Icthor positioned his mate by the side of the door expecting some surprise. He grasped the rope handle and pulled. It was as she had said, stuck fast. He tugged a second time and it flew open, sending him to a seat on the floor.
"That happens all the time," Gabrielle confided. "Thanks; now one more thing. There's a heavy sack of walnuts down there. Would you mind fetching it?"
Icthor considered. It may be a trap, but there were two of them and a group outside. This might be his best chance to get the witch. He moved slowly down the ladder peering down ahead of his steps. There was nothing there; it looked like any root cellar in Tartarus. He found the sack of nuts and hauled it up on his shoulder. "Here you go. Sorry we've intruded," he felt bound to say.
"Not at all; how else would I have gotten my walnuts? Would you care to take some?"
"No, we've further to go," he demurred.
"Well, if you see Angrad, tell her to get herself on over here. It's been too long."
In the yard Icthor gestured and muttered to the others. She heard Arthea's name amid much pointing and guessed that the miserable woman was waiting for their return, somewhere. "Empty handed, Arthea," she whispered to herself.
She forced herself to wait until she was sure they were at some distance before she descended through the still open trapdoor. She tossed some partially filled sacks away from the far wall, revealing another door. She pulled it open and called softly to Angrad. The Amazon tapped two stones together by way of reply. Gabrielle lit a torch and began the slow crawl through the tunnel. 'This might come in handy someday,' Xena had said by way of justifying the hours she'd spent over several months excavating the small tunnel. "If Xena wore a crest it would have to read 'be prepared,' or something like it," Gabrielle murmured.
Angrad was nestled on a thick stack of hides, a waterskin close to hand. An oil lamp was lit; its smoke curled through a hole in the ceiling, to blend eventually with the innocent smoke from the hearth fire. Angrad had had several hours to admire the ingenuity with which Xena had construction this refuge, but now she was anxious to take some action of her own. She thrust a list into Gabrielle's hand. The bard read it quickly. "I can find most of this," she said. "We have a good selection of herbs upstairs? Are they for healing?"
"Healing something," was Angrad's scrawled reply. "They will be back. Arthea will drive them here. Who is Lutus," she wanted to know. Gabrielle told her of Lutus and Arthea. "We were good to both of them, and now he returns to bring new trouble," she said with heat. Jo listened, nodding. "Sometimes kindness is a mistake," Gabrielle concluded.
"Never!" Angrad signed. "Kindness is never wrong; neither is true justice," she wrote. "There is a proper time for each. Neither Lutus nor Arthea will bother you again," she ended, and underlined the words.
"Okay," Gabrielle said uncertainly. It seemed that the role of protector had shifted, but she spoke in a reassuring tone anyway. "They won't find you; not here."
"She'll turn The Sweetwater upside down to find me. I must stop her; now." Angrad jabbed a finger at the last word.
"Stop her? From what? How?" Angrad closed a fist over the hand which held the list.
"I don't understand, Angrad. How will this help? Feathers from my mask? Xena's pillow?" she asked uncomprehending.
"Arthea has one."
"One of Xena's pillows?" Gabrielle was puzzled then remembered a time a long while back when a pillow had gone missing. It was in the days when Arthea was still welcome in the house.
"I have watched her, Angrad replied in slow, deliberate gestures. "I know how to stop her."
Gabrielle nodded and rose. She didn't understand, but the brown eyes broached no argument. "It will take me some time to get everything," she said.
"We have all day to prepare," Angrad signed. "Tonight we battle. Tonight you see Amazon magic."
Amazon magic. Gabrielle considered that promise as she trudged behind Angrad, a small iron pot thudding against her calf at regular intervals. Angrad had a small leather sack over her shoulder, as she moved gingerly across the dark terrain. Gabrielle had retraced the path of Angrad's flight two nights earlier, and retrieved the bag from the spot where Jo had tossed it. They had left through the tunnel exit, on the embankment which ran beside the stream. Anyone watching the house would not know it was empty. They followed the stream for a ways then cut across a ridge which gave a view of the valley. They stayed low to the ground. The moon was a mere crescent, but they couldn't risk their silhouettes being seen by anyone abroad. They startled a grazing hedgehog in their nearly silent passage; Angrad clucked to him softly and he resumed eating, satisfied. At last they sat on a high bluff which provided a panoramic view of The Sweetwater. Gabrielle had been there with Xena. A signal fire waited, ready to be lit if need be, but that was not their purpose. Gabrielle had some idea of Angrad's intentions; she tingled with anticipation of how it would play out.
Each hearth fire was a significant presence from this height. Gabrielle identified half a dozen homesteads. Hermia's glowed brightest of all; she had the oven. Her own hearth was shielded by a stand of trees, but she knew where it was and yearned to be back there, with Xena.
"There are a lot of fireflies," she whispered, "but it's the wrong season." With a shake of her head Jo let her know that the distant specks of light werenít fireflies. Gabrielle looked again. Torches. The countryside was awake at this late hour; a steady stream of torch-bearers was on the move, converging toward a point to the west. "The oak grove," Gabrielle said softly, confirming what Angrad had predicted.
Angrad nodded and turned away, satisfied. She directed Gabrielle to move a little way down the hill and light the fire she'd prepared. Jo poured a quantity of wine into the pot and withdrew an array of vials and bundles of herbs from her bag. She held each in turn, mouthing words before adding them to the wine. At last she took the pot to Gabrielle who set it on the ring of stones around the fire. Then Angrad lost herself in silent chants and ritual gestures. Gabrielle couldn't follow her, but watched intently, even as she watched the gathering far below. The torches numbered above about three dozen now, a large number for The Sweetwater. Most of the men would be there she knew; the men she saw every day, whose children she taught, who asked help or advice from Xena as if they were entitled. Now they gathered as followers of a malignant force, Arthea. But who does Arthea follow? she wondered. Angrad approached her, pupils dilated, a serene smile on her face.
Below them the men encircled a fire which heated a large cauldron. By its light Gabrielle could make out the figure of Arthea, looking much the same as ever, but crowned with a wreath of some sort of leaves. All eyes were on her as she waved a long staff and chanted. Soon a noxious cloud drifted from the cauldron, obscuring much of the activity below. Arthea's shrill voice still rose to them on the hill.
Angrad made a sign and Gabrielle carried out her next duty, lighting a second fire, this time atop the bluff; she soon had it roaring. That should get their attention, she thought, and wondered what rituals Arthea was performing. She shuddered at the thought of Xena's pillow in Arthea's hands. Even in Angrad's hands it seemed odd, an object both mundane and powerful in its intimacy. "It collects our strands of hair, our dreams and our fears." So Angrad believed and here under the stars, chilled by winds which had their origins on the far off steppes and warmed by Amazon fire, Gabrielle believed Angrad. She felt that Angrad could show her the way to the stars.
Angrad donned a headdress that Gabrielle had never seen before. It had bits of reinforced leather and bronze strips girded the crown. "Bard, shaman and warrior," Gabrielle commented.
"So are you," Angrad signed in reply. "My Amazon sister one more time," she mouthed. Gabrielle hefted the Amazon mask which signified royalty. "One more time," she agreed before settling it in place.
Angrad held the pillow and stroked it carefully. She lifted it to the sky and gurgled deep in her throat as her mouth formed words she could no longer speak. For the first time Gabrielle wondered whether Angrad had been silenced in an attempt to prevent her shamanistic practices. An acrid, pungent aroma came from the cauldron. Gabrielle's instinct was to shield her nose, yet she inhaled deeply. Angrad leaned her face into the steam for a long moment, then ignited the pillow in the fire, and waved it overhead.
Below, from the rival fire a shriek arose. Arthea, Gabrielle knew. All movement stopped, then the torches flashed as their bearers turned to see the defiant scene above. Gabrielle couldn't see Arthea, but pictured the heavy-lidded eyes furious, commands pouring from taut lips.
As one, the torch bearers began to move, streaming away from their roaring fire to the prominence where two Amazons awaited the onslaught. Like ants swarming a hill they clambered up the slope, roaring obscenities. The women watched for a bit. Gabrielle wondered at how slowly they climbed. It seemed to take hours, yet the moon moved not at all. She turned to ask Angrad about the puzzle, but the woman was bending over the fire. With two hands Angrad lifted the remains of Xena's pillow aloft, an offering to the moon. She was luminescent. Must be the firelight Gabrielle though vaguely, but there was something else. The Amazon was rising through the air, still gripping the smoldering pillow. The mob below was forgotten. Angrad was soon in silhouette against the crescent moon. She shook the pillow and a thousand embers fell to earth. Gasps and cries from behind reminded Gabrielle of the throng that had started up the hill. She could smell their maleness nearby, but kept her eyes on Angrad, who glowed brighter until she rivaled the moon itself, then seemed to disappear, one with the moon. All was quiet then, even Arthea's babbling ceased as they waited in a vacuum of time.
"Damn all lying Amazon bitches." Arthea broke the silence. "Seize her," she directed, pointing a gnarled staff at Gabrielle. No one moved. "Our triumph is at hand," she told them, "we must grind her into the dust!" She may as well not have spoken. "Ssssss!" escaped her. Gabrielle turned at the odd sound to see Arthea approach, staff raised, ready to strike. Unhurriedly Gabrielle stepped aside and the staff struck the ground. Arthea swung again; again the bard wasn't there. Frenzied, Arthea struck at her again and yet again. Gabrielle couldn't suppress a chuckle. Xena routinely avoided blows with no apparent effort; Gabrielle couldn't tell how that was done, but now she was doing it. "I don't know how I'm doing this Arthea, but give me your best shot," she taunted. Arthea aimed for her legs this time and Gabrielle skipped over the staff, and then landed with both feet halfway up its length. "I'm tired of this game," Gabrielle told her as she wrenched the staff away. "I'm tired of you. Take your mob and go." Arthea opened her mouth but she was looking past Gabrielle. A figure straddled the glowing crescent, like Angrad, but not Angrad. She emitted a short laugh and glided gracefully to earth, to stand beside Gabrielle.
"Artemis," Gabrielle whispered reverently. The patron goddess of the Amazons inclined her head in acknowledgement. Then she turned her attention to Arthea and the cowering mob behind her.
"You have vexed me these many months, Arthea, meddling in affairs beyond your wisdom and powers. Powers?" she snorted. "Borrowed powers, lent to make you a puppet in the hands of a cruel master. Woman, did you not understand what you were meant to be? You debased your charms and wallowed in the muddy swamps of hatred and envy. Friendship you repaid with deceit and treachery. Kind hearts were a source of amusement. You were given fine bread and sweetmeats; they turned to offal in your vicious mouth. I know that you were not alone in this, rather you were led astray by an immortal. He will answer to others. You answer to me. Have you any answer?" she demanded.
"I-I-I don't know of what you speak," Arthea stammered.
"Liar!" Artemis scolded. "As you insist on revisiting your sins I will remind you." She plucked an arrow from her quiver and shot it into the air. After a brief flight it exploded into a white hot flame and hovered in midair with Arthea's rapt attention. What she saw in the flame only she and Artemis knew, but her facial contortions bespoke a catalogue of horrors. Her lips framed her teeth in a rictus of agony, yet no sound came out. Her hands clenched into tight fists until the nails ripped her flesh, yet she could not raise them to shield her wide-eyes. At last Artemis raised a hand and the flame was extinguished. Arthea fell to the ground, free at last to sob. "Pity!" she cried. "Pity!"
Artemis regarded her coldly. "I have shown you more pity than you know." Now she raised her eyes to the mob beyond. They dared not look at her but felt her eyes bore into their souls.
"Foolish sheep of Tartarus," she berated them, "to follow a ravenous wolf." She drew an arrow and loosed it into the crowd. An anguished cry broke from its mark, but it was not the cry of a man, but the baahing of a sheep. She rained arrows on the mob and each time a sheep stood where a man had cowered in fear. The wooly creatures milled uncertainly, sheep without a shepherd, until her work was done. Arthea watched in fearful anticipation of her turn. "Your followers, Arthea; bid them farewell, for you will see them no more." She plucked one more arrow from the endless quiver and released her bowstring. The arrow lifted Arthea from her feet, carried her high above the tree tops where she hovered for a moment then exploded with a dull thudding noise, like a sack of flour dropped on a floor. A foul odor drifted back to them; it soon dissipated, and Arthea was but a memory.
Gabrielle hadn't moved, wasn't sure she had breathed since the appearance of Artemis, and the goddess had made no acknowledgement. Now Artemis turned her gaze on Gabrielle and the Bard saw in those deep eyes the answer to every question she ever had. Her mind raced frantically to grasp each particular from the sea of knowledge but Artemis interrupted.
"You, Gabrielle, are the Faithful One: The Bard of Potadeia, faithful to your voice and the truth; the Queen of Amazons, faithful to your adopted tribe; the companion of Xena, faithful to your chosen, choosing exile in Tartarus over separation. You ennoble the race of humans. Remember your Amazon sister, despite the intervals of time and space between us.
Gabrielle looked down, mouth agape. "Artemis?" she managed at last; she had a question about Angrad, but could say no more.
Artemis smiled. "This tale needs telling, Bard." She looked over sleeping Tartarus. "There is still much work to do." She leaped effortlessly; Gabrielle watched as she ascended to the hanging crescent moon, and then sat beside the dying fire to consider all that had transpired.
Her next thought was that it was a lovely day. A streaky sunrise filled the low horizon. She sat-up abruptly, looking to where Artemis has risen to the moon, but the long night of Amazon magic was over. She scrambled to her feet and ran to the side of the hill. "There are sheep," she mused. The new flock of sheep grazed quietly, jostling each other in their search for tufts of coarse Tartarus grass. Bits of ripped clothing were spread among them, the remnants of garments they had been wearing when they had ceased being men. She slung Angrad's leather sack over her shoulder, and spoke softly to the sheep. With words and her staff she began to drive the flock to Hermia's. The woman might not want to know of witchcraft, but Artemis said the story needed to be told; in Tartarus there was no finer place from which to spread a story.
Hermia ran into the yard, clapping dough-sticky hands against her apron and watched in wonder as the flock came into view. Gabrielle told her story in a few terse sentences, from Angrad's escape from the mob to the undoing of Arthea. "The details can wait for my scrolls," she ended. She broached no argument about the flock settling down in the baker's yard. "Everyone comes here, everyone will know the wellspring of evil was Arthea, not you or me or Xena." Technically it wasn't Arthea, she knew, but the dark force of whom Artemis had spoken. She hadn't said his name, but Gabrielle knew it was Ares. It was always Ares.
"We'll have a good supply of wool now, and mutton," Hermia said after digesting the news.
"Don't count on it," Gabrielle warned. She guessed that in time chastened men would emerge again from the wooly suits, like drunks from a debauched weekend. Artemis had recognized a teachable moment and used it for the whole of The Sweetwater, and for all of Tartarus beyond. What harm Arthea had done remained to be seen, as her malevolent effects came to an end. She pondered this on the long walk home, particularly what effect it might have on Xena. Certainly Arthea had held some power over the warrior, but of what sort she couldn't say. It would be clear now, that the mushrooms which killed Archon were Arthea's doing, Hermia had jumped at that conclusion. She opened the cottage door to one last surprise. A pottery jug lay in pieces on the floor where the table had been. Beside it lay the canvas sack which Icthor had carried upstairs two nights ago. The walnuts were not there, nor did any remain in the cellar. Gabrielle scoured the house for any remnant of the rich walnut wood which Xena had brought back from the glade. Nothing remained, not a stool, or tray or coat hook. "As if the wood had never existed," Gabrielle breathed, bemused. "Can't wait to see the look on Xena's face." I just can't wait to see Xena's face, she realized with sudden, fierce longing.
There was only one direction from which to seize control of the pass: above. A rapid descent from the smooth rock wall above would be totally unexpected and impossible to repel by guards positioned to look forward and down. The fortifications built into the cliffs gave them effective shelter from the elements, but also obscured everything above from view. They could see across threat descending on the stations of those across the pass from them, and could defend their fellows, but needed to rely on their comrades for defense in return. So much one could determine by a quick study. It was confirmed by a grizzled veteran of the army of Mus. He had once been a guard in this pass, exiled for some offense. "I'd rather, not say what," he demurred when he came forward with his knowledge and Xena had not pressed him. It was enough to hear from him the details of the pass defenses. She learned, for instance, that twelve men typically manned each of the pavilions from which they watched, and could shoot if need be. She had a diagram of the system of hallways carved in stone which connected the posts to others on the same side of the pass, to allow quick reinforcement and re-supply. She also knew that inactivity and a sense of security had made them complacent and lazy. "They gamble, drink and sleep. There's always a guard posted, but they sleep as well, until they hear that blasted horn from the guards bringing in the convicts." With such knowledge a plan was born which required timing, training, long ropes and sharp knives.
They descended on the fortifications with lightning speed, rappelling in near silence, soft-moccasined-feet scuffing against the rocks until they burst through the open windows. Each man snatched at the knife he held between his teeth, using it to dispatch the nearest target, even as a second man followed, and saw to the next available target. Further inside the cave-like posts other men were roused from drunken stupors so that they would not die in their sleep. The men of Tartarus poured through the honeycomb of halls and chambers until they met only each other. The first part was over, and they swung torches in a pre-arranged signal of triumph. Xena had led the first descent. When each team of men had displayed a torch her lips parted in a grim smile.
The convict train could be seen from a distance, moving slowly, dozens of convicts hauling two large wagons. Xena was pleased to note the absence of the water cistern which had once been a fixture of the procession. New arrivals had revealed that each convict now carried a water skin. The troops were the number she expected, and spaced along the train as she remembered. The followers were at a safe distance behind. She looked around, noting with approval that the men at the gates remembered their military bearing, and would not give the game away with sloppy posture. The fortified positions captured the night before showed no sign that contained new occupants. If she hadn't positioned them herself she would not have known where other archers lay hidden among the rocks. If they kept their wits and shot straight victory would be swift and sure. It was a good plan, and she relaxed as she waited for it to unfold.
The first blast from the horn of the approaching troops sent echoes through the pass. Here and there showers of stone fell as startled men shifted position. A blast was sounded in reply, from Belas, who had a gift for horns. Then it grew quiet; the only sound was that of winched being turned to open the lower the plank bridge which gave access to the place. The rumbling sound of the wagons stopped, replaced by the clanging of chains being released from traces, and the gruff voices of guards urging the inmates into the narrow pass. "Wait," she whispered to herself, knowing her men would wait, confident that those she had chosen would do their jobs well. Wait they did, until every one of the convicts and the accompanying troops was across the bridge, between the cliffs which hemmed in the narrow pass. She raised an arm, and when it fell Belas loosed a blast from his horn that could have awakened Tarkian and Esme in far off Mustrakis. The first arrows found their mark before the echoes of the horn had stilled. The targets were so few, the archers so efficient that some men tumbled from the saddle impaled by two arrows. Guards swore and drew sword, eager to strike at anyone, but unable to find a target. The battle was almost over before the soldiers in the rear registered that it had begun. Some turned their steeds to run, yet the bridge had been raised again, and inexplicably, the bridge keepers, wearing the crest of Mus, sent a steady stream of arrows into their midst. They trampled their own dead comrades as they tried in vain to reach safety. No quarter was given. The last sounds heard on the field of battle were the soft moans and gurgles of death.
Xena had been a spectator throughout the brief battle, and was well pleased. One soldier alone escaped the carnage, by design. "I want the leader," she had told them, and they left the leader to her, afraid to guess what fate she had in store for him. Phyrris wondered as well, as his entire command was mowed down. He clutched his reins tightly, rising in his stirrups, sword drawn as Xena trotted to him. Her presence did not surprise him; he imagined that she smiled and his eyes flickered to hers, anxious to find some sign. In that moment her whip cracked and wrapped around him, pulling him awkwardly from his mount. Phyrris blanched, stunned by the impact of his armor-laden body on the hard ground, and the sight of the mounted warrior-woman looming over him. She twitched on the length of whipcord which encircled him and he struggled to his feet. "This is madness," he said without heat. "There's nowhere to hide in Tartarus."
"Who's gonna come looking?" she asked in reply, and inclined her head to the new reality of the gateway to Tartarus. "We control this pass, not you, not Tarkian, so we control Tartarus."
The import of her words dawned slowly, as he struggled to deny this new reality. "How long could you hold off the weight of the armies of the Three Kingdoms massed against you?" he askedw ith a cautious sneer.
"Remember the pass at Thermopylae," she advised. "Greeks gave a good account of themselves there, in defense of their homeland. Besides, we have the advantage of the mountains. We would kill ten, maybe twelve to one," she promised. "Do the Three Kingdoms have an appetite for that?"
He followed her gaze to the craggy redoubts above. His force had seen no threat until it was too late, until the ragged horde was on them. There had been no sign that the fortifications had been captured, and were now manned by the enemies of Mus. He wondered how many other soldiers remained hidden now. "We weren't expecting trouble," he offered lamely.
"You're a good soldier, Phyrris, even if you serve unworthy masters." She moved a hand and he was free of the whip. "Now," she said as she coiled the whip, "I need your weapons or your word that you won't take arms against the authorities in Tartarus."
"I-" he started to say then stopped. Can't give my word? Won't? He wasn't sure why either word need apply under the circumstances. Weapons seemed a very good thing to have in this place. "You have my word; for as long as I'm here."
"Fine." She nodded. "Mount up and wait. We have a distance to travel before nightfall." She moved a little distance away and spoke to small bands of men, sometimes gesturing, sometimes grasping a hand in approval. These gnarled and weathered men responded with pleasure, and touched their foreheads in gestures of acknowledgement. She had constructed an army after all, he acknowledged, just as Tarkian had hoped. Only this army, he guessed, would be Tarkian's bane.
Xena had one more piece of business here. Huddled against the rock face of the mountain the convicts pulled at the chains which made them one; some wept with fear, wondering what new torment awaited them.
From beyond the bridge a clamor arose from the followers, alarmed at the separation from those they had followed so far. "Let them in," Xena commanded, and the new bridge keepers hurried to comply. Xena turned her attention to the convicts, positioning herself on a little bluff above them.
"Welcome to Tartarus," she began. "You see how we treat those who wear the crest of Mus. As for you, stay or leave as you wish. If you stay you'll be expected to work and cause no trouble. Our justice is different, but effective. You'll be escorted to some more habitable regions of Tartarus, given food and water and instructed on how to arrange for shelter for yourselves. You've got some hard going still, for a little while at least, but you'll be unshackled and treated like human beings." They stared at her dumbly. "I know it's a lot to absorb; take some time to decide. In the morning you'll continue on into Tartarus or you can go back to Mus."
"That's not much choice,? someone grumbled.
"More choice than you've had in some time," Xena growled back in reply. She hoped some would choose not to stay. Some eyes darted too eagerly for comfort, as they scouted out possible victims, to what end she could only guess. Others were too old, or sick, or young to contribute. Tartarus could not sustain many free riders. The store of rations from the guards would help some, yet much of that would stay as provisions for the men guarding the pass. There were no easy answers in Tartarus she acknowledged again. Men moved among the prisoners now, striking off shackles and clipping through the rings they wore in their ears; it was a liberation, of sorts. There was no erasing the scar which the convicts bore on their hands.
She returned to Phyrris, waiting on his mount. He rode behind her, happy to leave the constricting space. Around him, weapons and armor were being stripped from men that had rode in with him just minutes before. They had been poor soldiers mostly, little better than the scum they had escorted here. Yet there were some good soldiers amongst them, brave, disciplined, well schooled in arms, and they had been massacred under his command, powerless against the sudden ferocious rain of death from the heights. It would be weeks before they would be expected back in Mustrakis, more weeks before serious worry about their fate would begin. Months, then before anything like a follow up visit from the armies of the Three Kingdoms. He felt his body relax then, from weariness and the knowledge that there was little he could do, but watch and learn.
He learned early on that the Tartarus he had known was no more. He saw men play at dice around the campfire, betting with coins minted in Tartarus. "Let me see that," he asked of a soldier and a hefty silver coin was tossed to him. It was a handsome design. A bounding rabbit graced the obverse, encircled by a wreath of grain sheaves. The reverse bore a broken shackle, surmounted by a thunderbolt. Phyrris fished a coin from his tunic and offered it in trade.
"I wouldn't take a coin from the Three Kingdoms," the soldiers sneered. "Good solid Tartarus money fills my purse, but I wouldn't mind that dagger," he continued, eyeing a handsome piece hanging from Phyrris' belt.
"Done," said Phyrris, happy for this memento of Tartarus. How else would his tales of the transformation be believed?
"A poor bargain," Drax said coming up from his rear. "I'm sure Xena will send you home with a pocketful of rabbits; that's what we call the silver coin. The rabbit was Hermia's idea. 'We eat 'em and breed like 'em, may as well let them represent us to the world.' The bronze coin has a goat on the obverse, and a bee on the reverse." The goat was a reminder of the goat herder and his family, but Drax didn't share that. "Of course, we haven't many of those; the bronze of the earrings was to supply the material for the coin, but as we've got so much silver we use the bronze for weapons instead. Convicts were plenty eager to shed their earrings in exchange for a rabbit. The gold coins haven't been minted yet, but I'm sure we'll see those soon. They should buy plenty of grain to see us through the famine, and I expect Xena will have you do the transaction back in Mustrakis."
"Gold?" Phyrris echoed. He had not yet grasped the reality of silver coinage, well-armed troops who bore the scar of exile yet had turned their earrings into spears and arrowheads.
"Plenty of gold. In wealth, Tartarus is now the equal of the Three Kingdoms, at least."
"How?" Phyrris managed.
"We've unlocked the treasury of the mountains," Drax replied smoothly, enjoying this new audience. "I use the term 'we' very loosely."
"Xena managed to access the mountains? But the Elkina...?"
"Conquered in one blow. I'll leave that tale to Gabrielle, who is the hero of the piece after all."
"They'll never believe this in Mustakis."
"Let that soft git Tarkian get off his throne and see for himself; he'll believe soon enough," Drax replied with a little heat.
Phyrris considered. Possibly it would take a tour of the place to convince anyone of the power and wealth of Tartarus. The land itself remained barren, but he'd seen convoys of men escorting carts laden with what appeared to be sacks of food.
"Root vegetables from the mountains, and game taken where it abounds," Drax told him. Until the next good harvest we've got to keep the place fed."
It would also keep all of Tartarus from rushing to the source of food and gold, Phyrris knew.
"The mountains are open now," Drax said as if following his thoughts, "but access is limited to those who need to be there, for the time being."
"How is that enforced?"
"By the troops of Tartarus. I think you know Barclades."
Phyrris nodded. "A good soldier."
"He leads the the mountain guard, against those in Tartarus, and those on the other side of the Elkina." That wouldn't rely on armed force alone, he recalled with satisfaction. A wiry man from Chin had been among those in the mountains, skilled with a pick and as sure on his feet among the crags as any mountain goat. Yu Son was his name, and he listened with amusement to solemn talk about massing troops to guard against Rapala crossing the River Elkina from the west.
"There is an easier way," he insisted in a very effective polyglot. "We can have millions of sentinels guard the gold, as they did since time was recorded. The water waits to serve us." He gestured to the lake of water dammed above them.
"Why didn't I think of that?" Xena reproached herself.
"You are a warrior, you deal with men and weapons of iron. I know the power of the elements. In my land water must be tamed or it will kill. I have helped to tame her many times."
"Your land? Chin?"
"Yes. They still speak of you in Chin, Xena."
"What are we talking about?" Drax asked. "Millions of sentinels?"
"Droplets of water," Yu Son explained. "What can be diverted can be rediverted. A simple matter. The Elkina can roar again, but on the western side of the river. The rocks are accessible. Give me 100 men and it will be done in one moon."
Even now the job was being done. Scouts from Ralpana would doubtless wonder at the changed flow of the Elkina and the bustle of activity in the region, but all would be accomplished before they were roused to action. The Elkina would would roar again, an effective barrier against the men of Ralpana. Drax decided to save that little surprise for Phyrris.
"I know you're impressed, Phyrris," he said instead. You needn't admit it. Now, imagine Mustrakis with a real leader, instead of Tarkian."
"It's interesting," Phyrris said carefully. "I was thinking, however, that Petra Tartras can't like this change."
You have no idea, Drax thought, but smiled confidently. "Xena's working out a few things with Petra right now."
Xena approached the camp of Petra Tartras in a series of concentric circles; she knew when the sentinels first spotted her, and gave them plenty of time to alert Petra of her arrival. For three nights she made camp within distance of Petra's camp. Her thoughts were of the meeting, and what Petra might say, but when the sky was dark she longed to be before her own fire, next to Gabrielle. Each night she ran through a mental checklist of things that might occasion worry, but Drax had charge of some things, Gabrielle of others; of those things she had no reason to worry. What was beyond her control she put out of her mind and focused on the sky, the same sky which covered The Sweetwater. "Sleep well, Gabrielle," she murmured. On the third night the sky over The Sweetwater was filled with strange lights, as if a group of stars had fallen. Xena considered what it might mean, but whether the omen was good or ill, it was beyond her control and she let it go.
When Xena was finally escorted into the tribal leader's presence she found Petra garbed in her best armor, scrubbed and ready for action. Behind her the sun was already starting its slow descent. Another day in Tartarus was drawing to an end, and Xena hoped to achieve one more objective before the light was gone.
Petra gestured for refreshment and a cup of fermented mare's milk was given to each woman. Xena drank heartily; the once familiar drink recalled distant memories, memories of action and conquest. The two women regarded each other frankly.
Petra spoke first. "You came alone."
The warrior princess shrugged. "There was no need for others; I only came to talk."
"Not gold alone."
"Gold is at the heart of all," Petra spat. "Your love of gold has come to dominate all action in Tartarus. My scouts report massive camps on the banks of the Elkina. The Elkina has run unthrottled since the world was set in motion. Now she is slowed to the weak stream of an old man, to satisfy your gold-lust. A dozen arrows could find your heart at my command, Xena," she threatened.
"I don't doubt it," Xena said, unfazed. "That gets us nowhere. It doesn't even allow me to deny my 'gold-lust'. This isn't about gold, and it isn't about me. You're clever enough to figure that out." They spoke, at Xena's choice in Greek. The surrounding warriors watched Petra's face for clues to the direction of the conversation. More than the usual number were sporting fresh bruises and scars, and were painted with signs of mourning. Xena's own scouts told of unusual activity by the tribes; there had been more than a few clashes on the eastern fringe of Tartarus. Xena hoped to use that to her advantage.
"Gold buys many thing: food, weapons, the service of men who can help against the tribes."
Petra spat. "We need no help against the tribes. We've been keeping them out of our land for five generations."
"And sixth generations back your people were one of the tribes moving in," Xena observed. "The land hasn't always been yours; before your people came here it was someone else's to lose."
"It's ours now, and we won't lose it to Tartarus scum."
"Maybe not in this generation, or the next," Xena conceded, "but soon the land will be teeming with men not of your people."
"Driven by gold?"
"Seeking land, seeking opportunity, and freedom from the Three Kingdoms."
"Free Tartarus? Tartarus is the wax which binds the kingdoms. Before they schemed to use Tartarus in this obscene way there was perpetual war among them. There will be again, if Tartarus is free. I've heard of the Battle for the Gates," she said with a nod. "I though the convicts would be streaming home."
Some had thought of leaving, Xena recalled, but the scar on their hands marked all the convicts; for their descendants Tartarus was home. In the end, none had left.
"I thought you'd have left, you and the Bard," Petra continued. "Why else make the effort to seize the way out?"
"I have my reasons," Xena told her and moved the conversation along. "We don't have any real quarrel Petra. Your people don't want the lands the convicts- " She broke off, unwilling to use that word anymore. "Your people don't want the lands the others in Tartarus occupy; the others don't want your lands. This soil won't be broken by a plow."
"We live side by side? Where do we find enough game?" she asked with a shake of her head. "The convicts will have animals to graze, and they'll find their way to our pastures in time."
Xena knew that what the warrior said was true. "Petra, what do you see for the next generation?"
Petra answered without pause, as if the question was one she'd been asked many times. While she spoke her eyes were fixed on the far horizon. "The tribes will come, because they always come," she began, "and their numbers are great. They too, will bring herds of animals to graze on our lands, or they will steal our herds. We will kill many of them; they will kill many of us. The children of the convicts will kill both of us. In the end, the people with boots and metal and gold will win. My people will be the stuff of tales, like those told by your bard."
"You can choose another path," Xena urged.
"Some of the children of my people might choose another path. I see how they are drawn to houses and the cheap trash of the convicts. They may chose trash; that will never be my choice. In my sixth autumn men of Tartarus came to our camp while the young men were hunting. There had been a long period of peace, and we were expecting no trouble from Tartarus. The men of Tartarus were offered refreshment and rest. They responded with butchery. The children, including me, scattered into the fields beyond the camp. We knew how to hide. The women and old men had no chance; the surprise was too great. A generation of women, my mother among them, were killed; the wisdom of our elders gone. From my place in the tall grasses I lifted a dagger into the belly of a convict. His earring was melted and is now in the tip of my spear. I can have no peace with Tartarus. I have no more love for the Three Kingdoms," she said with a sour face. "The folk of Tartarus will war against them, and whatever the outcome my people will suffer. I will do nothing to hurt your cause; I will do nothing to advance it."
It was enough, Xena knew as she rode from the encampment, and a rather large surprise. An alliance with Petra had always been a long shot; non-interference was almost as good. By agreeing not to harry Tartarus while they confronted the Three Kingdoms Petra supplied more aid than Xena had anticipated. She had also supplied information, perhaps unwittingly, but Xena doubted that Petra did much that was not calculated. She wished that Gabrielle had been with her; someday the Bard would chronicle this way of life that was passing from the Earth; no detail should be omitted. Xena committed Petra's words to memory, knowing the level of detail Gabrielle would demand. Then her mind turned towards familiar ground: war.
It was early for a royal audience, but the report Phyrris had delivered to the chamberlain had gotten the attention of Tarkian. Phyrris had ridden with little pause since leaving Tartarus, and was still covered with the dust of the road. His first words to Tarkian had been received with skepticism; a pouch full of coins had changed the tone of the meeting. Tarkian held the small mound of coins in his palm for but an instant before flinging them on the table as if they were burning coals. "You dare to bring these to me?" he demanded.
Phyrris looked steadily at the monarch. "Should I have kept my knowledge hidden?" he inquired with deference.
Queen Esme snatched a up gold coin in plump fingers. The coin carried a leaping fish on the obverse and the gold bearing mountains of the Elkina on the reverse. "Exquisite!" she enthused. "I had no idea there was gold in Tartarus; or such craftsmen. The fish appears to be leaping off the coin."
"Tartarus would surprise you in many ways," Phyrris responded with a nod of the head.
Tarkian grabbed her hand roughly and the coin clattered to the table with the other coins of Tartarus. "Exquisite," he mimicked. "Will it be exquisite when the convicts overwhelm our kingdom?" he scowled. "Already they have discarded their earrings and taken arms against soldiers wearing my crest. How?" he asked Phyrris. "You visit the wretched place. How did you not know what they were plotting? Such things can't be accomplished overnight."
"It seems that they can, Majesty," the soldier replied, "at least when Xena is involved."
"Xena? Isn't she the beautiful warrior you sent to guarantee the security of Tartarus?" Esme asked pointedly. "I don't know why we ever gave up execution," she muttered.
"Later," Tarkian told her under his breath. "Xena?" he echoed, knowing Esme was right. Phyrris guessed that Esme would have more to say about that strategy when they were alone.
"Gabrielle, her companion, had some hand in the accessing the gold of the mountains, if the local gossips are right; they usually are."
"The little girl in the big Amazon mask?" Esme snickered. "It sounds like cloud-cuckoo land."
"I assure you, Majesty, that the people of Tartarus would provide little grist for Aristophanes. They are in deadly earnest."
"They control the gates?" Tarkian asked, grappling with one part of the tale. "And you rode into the trap?"
"It was impossible to detect who controlled the gates," Phyrris answered steadily. He spoke the truth and had no cause to reproach himself. "The men of Tartarus had seized control the night before our arrival. They scouted the routine of the gate's operation so that they played their parts to perfection. Don't forget, most of them had passed through those gates, at least once. Several men had been in the service of one or more of the Three Kingdoms, and one had served as a gatekeeper before his banishment."
"What news of the commander?"
"Dead; along with most of his command; and all of my command."
"Yet you were spared?" Tarkian observed with suspicion.
"Xena wanted someone to report on conditions in Tartarus," he shrugged.
"Go ahead then; report."
For a full ten minutes Phyrris recounted events in Tartarus as far as he knew them. He began with the famine, estimated the amount of precious metals available, troop strengths and the change in the Elkina. "They have contrived, with the aid of a clever fellow from Chin, to divert the Elkina so that access is easily obtained from Tartarus, and remains impossible from Ralpana." He omitted any hint of magic which had begun the mighty work; he found that unbelievable, though he could not otherwise explain how the mountain had been reconfigured. Of Petra Tartras he said little, just that she continued to provide defense against the Eastern Tribes. "Their greatest need now is food stuffs. They have coins to pay handsomely and they guarantee safe passage for any willing to transport goods."
"Their need?" Tarkian thundered. "I forbid any trade with Tartarus. See how long they last with coins alone."
"The peddlers will not be stopped," Phyrris warned. "Tartarus is their livelihood. Keeping them out would be like keeping flies from the honey."
"Or from the dung," Tarkian amended. "Any peddler found violating the embargo will be exiled to Tartarus himself."
Except Tartarus controls access there now, Phyrris mused. He wondered how long it would be before Tarkian understood that he no longer had a human dumping ground. "It will take a diversion of troops from other tasks to enforce that embargo," he pointed out.
"Divert as necessary," Tarkian commanded. "Recruit more men. We'll need a large force to restore control of Tartarus, but it will be done."
Phyrris bowed his way out of the chamber, thinking of all he would tell Tarkian if the man would listen. He would describe the fighters of Tartarus, fierce, skilled and capably led. He would tell of vast treasure financing their enterprise, and a population he wouldn't recognize, subjects of no monarch, ruled by laws of practicality. This had allowed the strongest and most ruthless to exploit the weak, but the balance was shifting as cadres directed by Drax imposed a new order, holding predators in check throughout Tartarus as Xena had done in The Sweetwater since her arrival. Strangest of all, he would tell of literate men and women throughout the place who invited the locals to their homes to share literacy. There were distant corners of Mustrakis, whole neighborhoods in Mus, where few knew their letters and many made a mark instead of signing a name. This was no minor disturbance; restoring control of Tartarus would be like unburning a log. These were his last thoughts before a cloak was thrown over his head and a heavy club met his skull.
The valet's uncle had made his fortune selling trash in Tartarus; Esme's hairdresser had a brother who supplied horses for the peddlers' treks; the Royal Minter had many contacts among the peddlers, for whom he'd over counted redeemed earrings in return for a cut of their profits. From all these sources came a trickle of information, and soon Mustrakis was awash in rumors. Coins of the purest gold, as large as a quail's egg were reported to be widely circulated among the most wretched of humans. Ordinary folk weighed the dangers of venturing to that foreign place, from which few returned. The peddlers had no qualms. The granaries emptied, and processions of carts bound for Tartarus formed some distance outside the walls. They would meet patrols on the long road, but never doubted the power of gold to render a man blind.
Meanwhile, Tarkian sent emissaries to gain the assistance of Estapol and Ralpana, and prepared for a campaign against Tartarus. It would be costly, but in the end he was sure the gold and silver of the mountains would more than compensate. That same treasure, more easily accessed from Mustrakis than Ralpana or Estapol would ultimately allow Mustrakis to dominate the confederation of the Three Kingdoms. Esme was still raging, but in the end she would applaud his masterly command of the situation; and the coins of Tartarus gold would bear his image; one might possibly bear hers, if she remembered who wore the crown. These were the thoughts of Tarkian as Tartarus struggled to remake itself.
Xena saw The Sweetwater as if for the first time. The withered crops of the last growing season had been burned away and the fields were ready for sowing. At the fork where one decided to head towards Hermia's for bread or the goat farm for cheese there was a small collection of shuttered stalls, modest but sturdy. In front of one hung a board carved to look like a pig. A scrawled message invited passersby to return on fair day.
"Fair," Xena said aloud, shaking her head. Money made all the difference. Honey, leather goods, and metal wares would all be available on fair day. "Argo, mark my words, this will be the first town in Tartarus." She shook her dark head again. She sometimes spoke to the big mare, but over the past two days the infrequent remarks had grown into a torrent of chat. "We'll both be glad to see Gabrielle," she told the horse and cantered away from the spot, wondering what other surprises The Sweetwater had in store. She didn't have to wait long. Gabrielle waved to her from the bluff which rose before the turn to their home. She carried a scroll and quill as if she'd been writing, but nearly tossed them aside in her haste to reach Xena. The warrior slid from the back of the mare and embraced the bard for long minutes. "So good to see you," she sighed. Gabrielle breathed in road-dust and tasted the salty sweat which she had come to know so well. "It's been so long. Are you all right," Xena asked suddenly, wondering at the bard's silence.
"I just can't get my mouth open, Xena. Let me catch a breath."
"C'mon, let's get home," Xena told her, mounted Argo and held out an arm to help Gabrielle swing up behind her. ""You can tell me all the news while we ride."
"There isn't time in that distance," Gabrielle replied. "but I'll make a start." She plunged in and spoke without pause until they reached the cabin. She spoke of Hermia and witches and Angrad; Xena reined Argo to a momentary halt when Gabrielle described the scene beneath the moon. "Artemis?" she asked, stunned.
"Don't worry; all the sheep are men again; except for Lutus, maybe. No one knows what's become of him."
"I wasn't worried about the men," Xena snorted. "Tell me about Artemis."
"I think Artemis was the antithesis of everything Arthea was," Gabrielle replied slowly. "I can't explain it all, or any of it, really, but it was something to see." They reached the house; Gabrielle opened her mouth to explain about the table, but Xena had opened the door, taken a quick glance and spun around to face her. She didn't need to pose a question.
"That's maybe oddest thing of all," Gabrielle began; "the table just wasn't there when I got home."
Xena hugged her tight again, laughing joyously.
"I thought," Gabrielle continued, following a line of reasoning she'd considered for days, "That since it came from the glade, or where ever you went so often, that maybe it was not-" she paused, "not wholesome. You were never the same when you returned."
Xena's face grew sober.
"You were right; it wasn't wholesome. I could tell you-"
"Don't; whatever it was is over. I'd rather not know. Just one thing; was Ares at the heart of it?" Xena tried to speak, failed and nodded.
"I thought so," Gabrielle said, and gave her a strong hug; "even here, although he did have a surrogate doing his dirty work." She smiled. "But now things can be different, better; they already are in some ways. Is it that way with you?"
"You mean," she asked. "since Artemis, or Angrad, or whoever she was, burned my pillow, and disposed of Arthea? They were getting better even before then. You had gotten access to the mountains, Xanthus was minting coins and Drax putting his army together. As for the rest, I'm not sure, yet. That would have been the night I saw the strange lights above The Sweetwater; I met with Petra the next day. She was different, less bellicose."
"Maybe you were less bellicose, as well," Gabrielle suggested. "I mean, with Ares out of the way, it stands to reason."
"He's never really 'out of the way'; I sometimes think he's always just a heartbeat away." If the Ares in the glade had been an illusion, the illusion was very much like Ares in scheming. A familiar sensation told her he wasn't done yet, but that was for another day. For now there was a bath to be had, supper to be eaten in front of the fire and an evening spent with Gabrielle. For this night, anyway, night Tartarus was on its own.
"Here, Missus, two rabbits," the little boy said in a scratchy voice, holding out a grimy hand. "Ma'm said that one is for today and one for next time, just in case Dad drinks them all up." Hermia took the small coins and handed the boy two round loaves of dark bread. "Tell your Ma'm thanks," she called after him as he took off at a gallop.
"I guess coins are a mixed blessing," Gabrielle mused.
"Thatís as may be; I do know his Dad was just as likely to trade his dayís foraging for drink when he could get it. I suppose his Ma'm finds it easier to hide a coin or two than a brace of game birds. Of course, grain is still hard to come by, and I don't know what all some folk are fermenting. I'll be happy when more grain wagons arrive." Some few peddlers had been admitted to Tartarus, and escorted by soldiers to centers for distribution. More was needed, and the generous payment for grain ensured that more would come. "Can't be too soon," Hermia sighed. "The big problem with coins," she said, as a distraction, "is how easy they are to steal. I've heard of two more robberies."
"And two more robbers were caught and hanged," Gabrielle informed her. "The villains aren't getting away with things. Xena and Drax are seeing to that." Indeed, the forces patrolling Tartarus administered a rough but effective justice.
"Still, I've heard it said that money is the root of all evil."
"I think that should read that 'the love of money is the root of all evil.' Even so, I don't believe it; there was plenty of evil before the first coins ever were made anywhere. People stole earrings, here Hermia, for Zeus' sake. Don't be so gloomy; things are better all the time here, and there's no reason to think it will change."
Hermia had no response. She knew that things were better, in ways she could never had imagined. Her own carefully hidden store of coins was growing, despite her carefully considered purchases at the monthly, soon to be weekly, fair; but everything had come to pass through the efforts of Xena and Gabrielle; much of it still hinged on Xena, and she didn't believe that Xena and Gabrielle would stay in Tartarus for ever, maybe not even for long. What would happen then she didn't like to guess. She hadn't found the nerve to ask Gabrielle their plans in that regard, so asked instead: "How long until the Three Kingdoms move?"
"That's the big question," Gabrielle shrugged. This waiting wore on the nerves, but Xena was grateful for everyday, 'more time to prepare', she said. "The time has been well spent. We have an army, of sorts, and the signal beacons were tested a few nights back," Gabrielle said. "From one end of Tartarus to the other we'll know when the armies of the Three Kingdoms move."
Hermia cocked her head a little to one side, listening. "Thereís something rumbling along the road," she decided and they watched the far bend for long minutes until they spied three wagons creaking under their burden. "Well, Iíll be," Hermia enthused, "from my lips to the godsí ears."
There would be little haggling, Hermia knew, this was a sellerís market and she hurried off to extract a fair sum of coins from their hiding place. "Theyíll be wanting gold or silver coins, not the rabbits," she said as she left Gabrielle alone.
The bard followed the progress of the carts with eager eyes, anxious for news from Mustrakis. Tarkian would be doing something, and these peddlers usually knew more than they realized. When business was concluded they took the opportunity to water their horses and stretch their legs and Gabrielle wandered among them. "Whatís the news?" she asked directly. "Will there be more wagons of grain or machines of war?"
One of the men shrugged. "Both."
"Tarkian wonít let Tartarus go easily," another said and climbed back into his wagon seat. "Where has that driver gone?" he scowled. Six men had come in with the wagons and five remained. "Hector," he called, to no response. "Iím not sitting here while he saunters around," he told them. "Weíll be heading north; he can catch us up." They rumbled away, their load much lighter and Hermia beaming at her replenished stores.
"I didnít learn anything from them," Gabrielle lamented. "I must be losing my touch."
"Maybe they donít know anything," Hermia suggested.
"You learned all you need to," a manís voice said behind them. "Tarkian wonít let Tartarus go easily."
"Hector?" Gabrielle ventured. "The wagons left _"
"Fie on the wagons. Fie on Hector. Iím Phyrris. Am I so much changed?"
Gabrielle looked closely at the thick growth of beard, and recognized the soldier sheíd first met on the road here, what seemed a very long time ago. She knew he had been captured when the gates were seized and sent back with messages for Tarkian. She wasnít sure what his presence here, now, meant. He seemed to know that and smiled broadly as he spoke again. "I am changed," he told her. "Tarkian didn't like the message; he tried to do away with the messenger. I bought my way out of that trap with a couple of gold coins I hadn't turned over to Tarkian, but my life in Mustrakis isn't worth- what do you call them? Rabbits?"
"What do you think you'll find in Tartarus?"
"A chance to stay alive for one thing, and a chance to do what I know best. I'm a soldier, Gabrielle; I'm good for nothing else. Tartarus needs soldiers, always. As an officer, of course; I couldn't serve in the ranks."
"Hmmph. Do you think the men of Tartarus would want you as an officer, or any sort of comrade? You conveyed most of the convicts here in recent times, and you weren't gentle with them."
"True," he agreed; "but my experience is that men will accept the officer who seems most likely to keep them alive, and give them a chance at victory."
"Your command was wiped out in the battle at the gates," Gabrielle reminded him.
"We can't all be Xena," he replied. "That was a master stroke in planning and in execution. My failure wouldn't be repeated. Besides, no man can provide more information about the state of readiness of the army of Mustrakis, their capabilities and likely tactics."
Gabrielle knew that had already been considered. Many men here had fought for or against one or another of the Three Kingdoms. 'They won't deviate from their usual course,' Xena had said; she was more concerned about the readiness and tactics of the troops of Tartarus.
"Well, you're here now. What role you take isn't for me to say." She shrugged indifferently, but felt a secret joy at his appearance. Phyrris wasn't the type to join a cause he thought would lose.
Gabrielle looked intently at the faces bent over Hermia's work table, finding some small thing about each figure to enrich the story she would someday tell of Tartarus and its people. They were following Xena's long fingers as she traced routes on a map. Gabrielle knew the fingers well, but noticed for the first time that the tip of the left pinky bent slightly inward; she wondered if that was from some new injury or if she'd never noticed it before. She could see by the late afternoon sunlight the tiny new scar that interrupted her right eyebrow. She raised that eyebrow now; her glance asked Gabrielle why she was staring and the bard's eyes moved on to study Commodorus. The stocky soldier commanded the garrison at the gates of Tartarus; Gabrielle had met him on two brief occasions and had yet to see him smile. His jaws seemed to be perpetually clenched, and when he spoke his lips barely parted. Drax was as ever, grizzled, sober, yet quick to find humor if any was there. She supposed that quality was necessary if one lived with Ileander. The weaver was in the corner, silently working a tiny loom, devising a new color pattern. There were a few others whose names she didn't yet know, and there was Hermia, as ever, hovering, busy, casting quick looks at the map that would play a large part in deciding her fate and that of all of Tartarus. Gabrielle wondered how many more times, if ever, she would witness such a gathering here. She had lost track of the discussion, but knew it had to do with the expected assault on the gates by the Three Kingdoms. There was a high level of anxiety in many quarters of Tartarus over the coming battle, which Hermia couldn't understand.
"But we control the gates," she'd argued when the danger posed by the Three Kingdoms was raised.
"Yeah, and we should hold on to them, but theyíll give it all theyíve got," Gabrielle had said, repeating what she'd heard from Xena. She pictured the siege engines which would be arrayed on the plain before the gates. The armies of the Three Kingdoms would crash against the gates like waves against a rugged shoreline. How well they withstood the attack would determine all. A somber tone emanated from the little group of soldiers.
"We should have built a second tier of gates," a soldier Gabrielle didn't know was saying.
"A waste of resources," Commodorus maintained. "There isn't space to maneuver a second system of gates in that narrow area. Maybe, someday, at the other end of the pass we can build gates and pen in an invader. We could make easy work of them then, but that requires a lot more wood than we can manage now. Once we start harvesting the forests near the Elkina a lot more will be possible, but for now it's enough to hold them at the gates we have."
The first soldier opened his mouth to argue but Xena had the last word. "Commodorus is right. We hold the gates we have. And we can."
"I served with Ralpana," the first soldier said. "I know there siege weapons; their battering rams can be effective. Burning pitch from flaming arrows will be hard to extinguish," he warned.
"Sarbane, those archers will do well to stay out of range of our archers," Drax put in. "A battering ram wouldn't get near the gates."
"Trebuchets will be devastating."
"They can be," Xena said to a silent room. "If they get used.
"They don't have to be close to the gates to be flung over," Commodorus said, unnecessarily. "I've spent some sleepless nights over them," he confessed.
"Start sleeping again," Xena told him. "They'll be taken care of." She turned again to the map. "They'll have to take this road, and deploy the trebuchets along this line." She drew a series of checks with a piece of charcoal. "It's near this bluff, with the stand of trees, and the thick shrubs. They won't be expecting an ambush. The right soldiers, in the right position can do a lot of damage before they know what's hit them." The men looked from one to the other, absorbing this new tactic.
"Xena," Gabrielle asked, "how can you hide enough soldiers to be effective?"
"The distance they have to travel each day will bring them to the gates late afternoon. They'll be tired; eager to make camp for the night and prepare for battle in the morning. They won't know we're there until it's too late."
"We destroy the trebuchets?" Sarbane asked, following her thinking. "That certainly would help."
"We destroy the trebuchets, scatter the horses, and target the commanders. An army without a head is not very effective."
"Have you discussed this with Phyrris?" Drax asked.
"No, but I've sounded him out about how to identify their top commanders in camp; we'll find them. As for Phyrris, I think we can rely on him, but no point taking unnecessary risks." Gabrielle rolled her eyes at that but Xena went on. "Besides, when this is all over I don't want Phyrris trading in on his 'contributions' to horn in on running the place."
"You really do plan ahead," Commodorus commented.
Xena nodded. "Why not? And there's something else," she said quietly, and laid out the rest of the plan.
"How do you come up with battle plans, Xena? Do you work it out step-by-step, or just see the big picture and fill in the details?"
"I don't know," Xena said after a moment. "I never noticed; it just happens. How do you work out your stories? I mean the ones you make up?"
"It varies," Gabrielle replied." Sometimes it's just there, sometimes I know how it should end and just have to figure how to get there, other times it starts with no direction and every step is a struggle."
"Well, I know how I want this story to end," Xena told her. "An easy victory at the gates and the warrior and the bard ride out at dawn to see the rest of the world. Those little steps in between will just have to be worked out."
"Right," Gabrielle nodded, "and I'll be there every step of the way. Don't think I'm staying in The Sweetwater while you battle for the gates."
"Gabrielle, during the battle I'll be outside the gates; we wouldn't be together anyway."
"I'll come outside with you."
Xena was silent for a long moment. "You wouldn't want to," she said flatly. "It will be a dirty business, and we don't have room for spectators." Now it was Gabrielle's turn for silence.
"I was hoping we'd find another way," she said at last.
"If you got any ideas, now's the time to bring 'em up, otherwise we go with the plan we've got."
"I was hoping there'd be less killing."
"I'm not saying we'll kill everyone we run into," Xena responded. "It's hard to draw a bowstring with a busted arm; that'd make a nice start, then we'll see. In fact, we've been rounding up men handy with a slingshot."
"Either way, I'm not staying in The Sweetwater, I won't come outside the gates but I won't stay in The Sweetwater. Agreed?"
"Agreed," Xena grinned. "It might be better this way; Hermia's always disappointed at how I tell a story."
Not many days later Gabrielle was beside Xena in a room carved long ago out of solid rock overlooking the gates of Tartarus. The pass was lined with such posts, each manned by four men, each man holding orders to guard the pass from the advancing armies as well as from the possibility of traitors among them. To avoid conspiracies Commodorus had assigned men to be with others they didn't know. In his long experience such measures worked well, if only briefly. They would work long enough to prevent treachery on this night, he reckoned. He watched with longing as the raiding party assembled their gear in the pass below. He had the major responsibility for what happened inside the gates, and in the event that Xena or Drax failed to return he would assume full command, but the prospect of spiking the approaching war machine in the night was something he hated to miss. "They'll do well," he said to Gabrielle for the third time. The bard turned to Xena who seemed a little detached, as if not fully present. Gabrielle guessed that she was envisioning the slow progress of Tarkian's army along the dusty road, and foreseeing the action that lay ahead, and remained silent, but she lay a hand on the warrior's shoulder, and they waited together until Xena roused herself. "Nothing else," she said with a head shake, and smiled.
"You're looking forward to this fight," Gabrielle observed with wonder.
"Fight?" Xena echoed. "Not the fight; I've had plenty of fights in Tartarus, but I feel as if I've been tethered to one spot for eons I'm ready to bust loose. Before sunrise tomorrow it will begin, and may be decided. I've got every reason to grin. Gotta go," she said suddenly, "wouldn't want to miss our coming out party. Don't look so glum; you know I always fly back to you." Then she was gone and Gabrielle turned to the small party of men manning this post. One lifted his head for the first time. She thought she knew his eyes, but his face was masked by a thick beard.
"Gabrielle," said a voice at her shoulder. "I have some supper, for us." It was Commodorus. "This will be a long night."
"Yeah, all right," Gabrielle nodded and followed Commodorus down a dim corridor, still trying to recall his name.
Esme had never been so far east in her own kingdom, and with each mile regretted her choice to go to war with Tarkian. It had seemed like a lark, a grand adventure and an opportunity for a new wardrobe. She admired herself now in the silver chain mail bodice and tooled helmet, but would have preferred to wear it at home, in a victory parade. The road to Tartarus was long, hot and dirty, even with the well-appointed caravan, a home on wheels, in which she rode. Camp food was disgusting and the army smelled. What drove men to war she didn't know, but wished she'd stayed behind. For that matter, she wished Tarkian had never exiled the Warrior Princess, Xena, and most fundamentally, she wished she'd held out for a more suitable mate than Tarkian. King Rem of Estapol would have done nicely, she mused idly. So many choices, so few of them wise... She settled a soft leather belt on her ample hips and fingered the handle of her short sword nestled in its scabbard. Perhaps I should be pictured in this garb on the new coins made from Tartarus gold, she considered, and remembered what drove men, some men, to war.
The wagon crunched to a stop and Tarkian climbed in to join her. His own garments were newly crafted for the Tartarus campaign, and had looked splendid when they set out; now they were soiled and torn along the seams. "I wonder if we could entice the tailor of King Rem to Mustrakis." He had traveled with them for some time now. "His garments seem to wear well."
"Rem's garb doesn't interest me as much as his siege engines. I'd like to lure his engineers to Mustrakis."
"Let them spend the money on siege engines," Esme advised. "We're on the same side, after all."
"Did you learn no history at all?" he asked. "Mustrakis, Ralpana and Estapol are natural rivals, not allies. When this affair with Tartarus is over we'll just see how the dice fall." Esme's face screwed up in such puzzlement that Tarkian swore before he continued. "We have been bedfellows over the use of Tartarus. It was a convenient dumping ground for undesirables and a buffer against the barbarians to the east. It was good for nothing and therefore we had nothing to fight over there. Now, when Tartarus is pacified and that woman (he shuddered at the thought of her) is dealt with, we will have the added complication of gold to concern us."
"But that's good," Esme ventured. "Particularly since access to the wealth of Tartarus goes through Mustrakis. We'll be a wealthy, powerful kingdom. Ralpana and Estapol will be at our feet."
"Or at our throats," Tarkian replied harshly. "They won't stand for us having all the wealth. They'll demand a share; if denied, they'll fight endlessly to attain it. If we acquiesce, their appetites will grow until they swallow us."
"There is no third way?" Esme asked, not sure of Tarkian's analysis, yet feeling a growing sense of unease. "Perhaps an alliance with Tartarus?" she suggested. "Instead of fighting, we recognize them as friends of Msutrakis, and benefit from the gold and silver by selling them our superior wares?"
"Do you know why I married you, Esme?" he inquired. She stammered, but made no reply.
"Nor do I," he said. "Our scouts report that we will be insight of the gates by sunset. We'll camp tonight and wage war at first light.
"Will Rem be joining us for dinner?" she asked.
"I imagine so; there are so few choices here; most of them bad," he said, and left the small caravan.
There was no moon that night. The commanders of the Three Kingdoms congratulated themselves for such prescient timing. Xena smiled as she hunkered down in the dark surrounded by men of Tartarus, faces blackened by soot, speaking not at all. The raiding party had ridden hard, then sent the horses away, and found well concealed shelter in the brush behind the bluff. They had not yet been detected. Soon the camp chatter would subside and men would find what sleep they could the night before battle. then she and her crew would go to work. As she expected, the trebuchets lay unpacked, the barrels of pitch to fuel arrows of fire were lightly secured, and the guards around the camp were sloppy. Their focus was the gates; they never considered that hidden in the thick shrubs all around them lay a legion of silent warriors, daggers at the ready. It would be easy to raise her troops to action at a moment, and she waited, until all was still, and the last of the restless troops had settled down. She could see the same lights from the pass guarding the gates that the armies of the Three Kingdoms could see. From that pass, miles away, Gabrielle was peering through the darkness wondering when the action would start. She felt a closeness to her then, despite the distance. "Soon, Gabrielle," she breathed, "soon."
Gabrielle heard something in the wind, a whisper of the rustling brush she imagined, but she knew that Xena was in that brush and stood still, trying to feel her presence. Before the sun went down she marked the spot, barely visible far away where the best hope of Tartarus lay. The pennants of Tartarus snapped crisply in the breeze which blew steadily through the pass from east to west. Across the pass the lights of the guard post showed the images of men moving slowly as they waited for the assault to begin. She started at a familiar face in the glow of the lamp, then it disappeared into the gloom. She set the face aside. She had been working on a verse. Something Xena said had stayed with her. "Something about flying back to you," she said muttered. She wrote a few tentative lines, but the wine had been strong and she was weary; against her own wishes she cradled her head on her arms and slept.
Gabrielle didn't know how long she slept, but it was still dark when a commotion roused her. "Commodorus?" she asked at his expression of alarm.
"Seltor is gone," he said. "I think heís turnedcoat."
Her eyes darted to the now dark guard post opposite and put a name to the familiar face: Gaederus, the man who had betrayed Xena on the night of the earthquake.
"His mates in that post are asleep, as if drugged. He's nowhere to be found."
"Not Seltor, his name is Gaederus, and I can't think how he came to have that position of trust. I thought Xena screened the guards?"
"Not this last lot. Some men came down sick, earlier, and-"
"I'll bet they did." Gabrielle's mind raced. Xena's ambush depended on surprise. If Gaederus reached the enemy...
"How can he have gotten out?" she asked.
"There are steps leading to a cavern door. It's circuitous and well guarded, but a man wearing our crest might get close enough to a guard-" He broke off abruptly. "We'll have to send a party after him."
"How?" Gabrielle asked, "without raising the alarm yourself?"
"If we catch him before he gets too far we have a chance." He dashed out, aides at his heels. Gabrielle rushed to the ledge and looked into the black beyond. Gaederus, she thought grimly, the perpetual traitor. How did he obtain this position of trust? With an effort she pulled her mind from that fruitless exercise and considered how likely it would be that Gaederus would be found in time to avert disaster. Tarkian's army was still five or six miles off, and Gaederus was not fleet afoot. But Gaederus could hide, and evade them until he was close enough to the enemy camp to make his presence known. She tore out of the chamber after Commodorus. When she found him again in the yard beneath he had confirmed that Lutus had left by way of the cavern door.
"Send a man on a fast horse," she urged.
He shook his head. "A horseman will make a racket; besides, we'd have to open the gates, and you know how much noise that makes."
"So what do we do?" she asked.
"We have fast runners, even if they don't find Gaederus, they can warn Xena. Once they start the attack noise won't matter."
"Gaederus has a big head start."
"Can't be helped. We can't ride, we can't fly, so we run." He turned away.
"Hold on," Gabrielle said urgently. "Maybe we can fly. Maybe I can fly, anyway."
Commodorus looked at her blankly.
"Never mind, send your runners," she told him, "but first tell me where you keep your stores."
"I'm in command here, Gabrielle, and I can't let you do this. Apart from the fact that it's crazy, Xena will kill me if you get hurt, which seems almost a certainty."
"I can see how you'd think it's crazy, Commodorus, but I'll try not to get hurt, and somehow, I think Xena would approve."
She was holding a light wooden frame covered with silk cloth, of the sort from which the flags were made. She had assembled it herself, working quickly, remembering what she'd seen Xena do a hundred times in constructing flying parchments. "Xena makes these all the time, only smaller," she ended quietly.
"Has Xena ever flown on one of these?" he demanded.
"I don't know," she said truthfully.
"But you've never seen it done?"
"No, but it should work. There's no reason it shouldn't work. I don't weigh that much, the silk is strong and the wind is blowing in the right direction. It won't take me anytime to sort of glide over to Xena. I know exactly where she'll be," she pointed out.
"And can you control this thing to get there, assuming you stay aloft at all?"
"It shouldn't be too hard, but there won't be any point in trying if I don't start now. We haven't got all night," she said with heat. "I just need some help getting these straps tightened so I don't slip out-"
"Sorry Gabrielle, it's just not on. We aren't meant to fly."
"I don't think that's settled yet," she countered. "Zeno would have something to say about it, I'm sure."
"Never mind." She drifted away, and up the steps carved out of rock, bearing the flying frame carefully. When she reached the top of the gate she summoned the nearest soldier. "Give me a hand," she directed, leaving no room for argument. "I don't want to miss my flight." The puzzled soldier followed her as she scrambled higher, making her way onto a ledge which extended like a wing on either side of the rock face. Instructions poured from her in a torrent as she and the soldier arranged the big silk sail behind her. The frame was strong enough, she figured, to hold her weight if she dangled from the crosspiece. "Should work," she muttered. From far below she heard the voice of Commodorus calling her name. She was now in the highest point in Tartarus, save for the mountains, and she struggled to keep the sail from being swept away prematurely. By her reckoning the hidden soldiers of Tartarus were just to the left of the gate, miles away. She adjusted the sail to face that direction and gave a small smile to the soldier. "I hope you don't get in trouble. If this works, I'll get you a medal." Then she took three fast steps and a small cry escaped her as she plummeted into the blackness. This isn't right, was her first thought, Xena will kill me, was her second thought, as she waited to meet the ground. Then a second cry escaped her as a strong current filled the sail and she was yanked suddenly twenty yards higher. She had no conscious thoughts for long moments as she struggled to keep her grip on the frame, and keep her feet in the low hanging straps. She was flying, she realized with relief, but she was captive to the wind, and moving much faster than she'd imagined. The flying parchments Xena flew seemed to soar at a leisurely pace; Gabrielle felt she was moving like the chakram. The air rushing past chilled her so, that in minutes she couldn't feel her hands or feet, or move her lips. She hadn't expected the cold, or that the ground would pass so quickly she couldn't know how far she'd traveled, or where she was. Above all, she had been in such haste she hadn't figured out how to come down again, in a manner and place of her own choosing. I'll come down someplace, she acknowledged; I hope it's sort of close to Xena.
Then she caught a glimpse of light far to her right. That would be the camp of the Three Kingdoms, she guessed, and noted as she sped by that the campfires went on to the horizon. A mighty host. It was a phrase straight from her scrolls, but it fit this awesome scene.
She couldn't see Gaederus huffing along the road, close enough to smell the fires of the camp. He looked up as she passed, wondering if this was some ill omen. I'm no Pheidippides, he acknowledged, wondering how the messenger of the Battle of Marathon had managed to run four times this distance. Yet the rewards he envisioned would be worth the effort. Tarkian would pay well to avoid the surprise attack Xena planned.
With an effort Gabrielle moved the frame enough that wind seemed to spill out of one side and she was moving more to her left. Facing this direction the only light was from the stars. At least I know up from down, she mused. Icarus sprang to mind, he who had flown with wax-wings too close to the sun and plunged into the sea. That won't happen, she consoled herself, the sun's not out, there's no wax and no water around. But she was concerned about the barely set- glue and hasty stitches which held the flying thing together. Just a little bit longer, she implored, almost there, almost there... Just ahead a dark patch suddenly loomed against the sky; the bluff. Just beyond it was Xena and the raiding party, but to reach it she had to rise above the trees that grew in small clumps, as if seeking each other for company. How to go higher? She didn't know that, anymore than she knew how to go lower, so she hung on, eyes closed, hardly breathing. Twice she brushed branches, receiving scratches that would have shredded the silk, but on she flew, past the bluff to the depression beyond, where she experienced what happened to the flying parchments which caused them to plummet to the ground. She stifled a yelp as her stomach led the way down and she scrambled to stay upright, legs churning so that she could find the ground before it found her.
Not many yards away Drax nudged Xena with an elbow. "I just saw the strangest bird," he whispered.
"I thought it was a low cloud," she replied, "but it looked sort of like...nah, couldn't be." She shook her head. "C'mon, time we started work." Subtle pre-arranged signals were passed from man to man and they began to move through the brush. From hidden places burning coals came forth, ready to light pitch smeared on trebuchets and tents, and to destroy the pitch stores of the enemy.
Her knee had hit first, and Gabrielle flexed it tenderly while she observed the remains of the flying contraption. She looked in the direction of the gates and saw a dim glow, miles away. It just took minutes, she thought with wonder, and recalled the urgency of her mission. Surely she had beaten Gaederus here, but it made no difference if she didn't find Xena's party to warn them. As she considered which way to go, the first of the trebuchets was set alight, then a second and a third. By then, the camp guards had raised the alarm but soldiers spilled out of tents into a hail of stones shot at tremendous velocity, and thunderous clubs waiting outside the tents. They grabbed at weapons and the battle began in earnest but the trebuchets were lost. "Tartarus scum," said a guard already bloodied from the scrum as he buried his sword in the soft belly of Gaederus.
Gabrielle saw the smoke and flame and knew that the element of surprise had not been lost. "All this for nothing," she said and kicked the frame. "And a nice long walk back...except Xena will have horses." Heartened by the prospect of a ride back she set off toward the embattled camp.
Esme had been asleep when the first cry went up, but such things had been common on the road from Mustrakis and it was many minutes later that she decided to rise and dress. But her lady's maid was not there...odd. She gathered her things as quickly as she could in the dark, being careful to don her helmet and sword before peering cautiously outside. The action seemed to be on the other side of camp, far from her caravan and she slipped furtively down the steps and hurried away, as far from the battle as possible.
Tarkian was also awake, in a caravan mere yards away. At the foot of his bed stood the Warrior Princess. "Time to get dressed, Tarkian," she told him, "we've got places to go."
"I don't take orders from criminals," he spat at her.
"Suit yourself." Her whip snapped out, locking him in a painful embrace.
"Guard!" he bellowed.
"They're kind of busy right now."
"You'll regret this."
"What are you going to do? Send me to Tartarus? Been there, done that. Let's go."
"Remember," she said to Drax outside the wagon, "he doesn't speak to King Rem alone, and no one abuses them. I'm gonna see if I can find Esme."
Tarkian was led to a waiting horse and escorted at a trot to the gates. He waited for the imposing gates to open with the same dread of so many before him.
"Don't worry," said the commander of the escort; "we have no plans to kill you." At the edge of his vision he saw King Rem of Estapol seeming no more comfortable at the prospect of what lay ahead. "Damn," Tarkian swore softly. "What sort of morons do I employ, to let things come to this?" He didn't know what had become of Esme, but that seemed of little consequence under the circumstances.
The Queen retreated from the violence even as it began to subside. A main target of Xena's troops had been the commanders of the massed armies. The soldiers fought to save their lives but as no orders came they decided that self-preservation relied on a hasty exit. In the light from the burning pitch a steady stream of men and horses flowed westward. Esme stumbled on, so far from any reference points that she saw no point in even trying to get her bearings. Someone would come to her rescue; someone always had. Exhausted, breathless, blisters rubbing up on her heels, she stopped at last, surprised and dismayed to be within smell of the fires still, yet unable to go on, she sat on a large rock, and waited to be found. She didn't wait long. She heard a scrabbling on rock then the bristle of the thick shrubs as they parted. She clutched at the hilt of her small sword. Try as she might it wouldn't be drawn and she began to panic as a shape advanced on her. "Stop!" she commanded, in a voice steadier than she had hoped. The figure paused but a moment before drawing closer.
"Queen Esme? Is that you?" Gabrielle asked. "I didn't know who I'd run into out here." Gaederus came to mind. He wouldn't dare return to Tartarus, yet marked as a convict he couldn't flee with the armies. She lowered the sword she'd picked up on the battlefield. "They took off without you, huh?" She sighed. "My side too. I guess it's just you and me."
"You?" Esme echoed. "Who are you?"
"Gabrielle," the bard replied. "Queen of the Amazons and consort of the Warrior Princess, who seems to have been the victor in this little skirmish."
Esme remembered well the girl with the Amazon mask who'd pleaded to come here. Her shoulders sank with despair. "What has happened?" she asked herself.
"Well, we've won, and your army is nowhere in sight," Gabrielle replied. A sorry lot, she thought, I've never seen an army run so far so fast. She knew Xena's plan, so ventured: "It's safe to say that Tarkian, Rem and most of your officers are in custody behind the gates by now. I don't know how they missed you, but I suppose we'd better wait until first light to head out so we don't get killed stumbling around in the dark."
"To Tartarus?" Esme asked, desolate. "I can't walk that far; it's impossible. Couldn't you run on ahead and fetch a horse for me? I could manage a saddle that far."
Gabrielle considered. The woman was probably right, yet she recalled all the prisoners who'd trekked the long way to Tartarus in irons. "No, I can't 'run on ahead'. Besides, the exercise will do you good. You may as well put your head down, we've got a good hour before dawn. I'll keep watch." She knew that when Xena reached the gates and learned that she was gone she'd come back to find her, but she didn't share that with Esme.
The remnants of the flying sail lay partly hidden under the shrubs, but enough was visible to catch Xena's eye. It was clearly not vegetation; Xena reasoned it could be some garment of Esme's, and worth a look. What she found puzzled her briefly; she spread it on the ground, laying the broken pieces of wood so that the frame became obvious. She remembered, then, the flying object from the night before and smiled. Gabrielle; impossible that it was anyone else. She was nowhere in sight now, and she'd seen no sign of her. That could mean trouble, but it seemed clear that she'd survived the flight, and that was good news. She was grinning as she stripped the silk from the broken frame, stuffed the seat in her saddlebag and set out to find two women. She was still grinning when she spotted them at a distance, making their way slowly to the gates. Esme. She shook her head in wonder. She spurred Argo to a gallop which caught Gabrielle's attention.
Xena waved the silk to her, and Gabrielle waved back.
"We're saved, sort of," she told Esme, "except Xena only has one horse."
"What was so urgent that you had to fly out here?" Xena asked as she drew close. There was a touch of frost in her voice.
"Oh, that," Gabrielle laughed. The events of the night before already seemed far away.
"You could have killed yourself," Xena reproached her.
"I didn't," Gabrielle managed before Xena enveloped her in a smothering hug of relief.
"You'd better have a good reason." Briefly, Gabrielle told her of Gaderus and the new betrayal. Xena's mouth grew taut at his name. "Only a handful of men from Tartarus died in the fight; Gaederus was one of them," Xena said. "I came across his corpse on the battlefield, and thought he had changed."
"I guess some things never do."
"It must have been some ride," Xena said, giving the silk a shake. "I wish I'd gotten a good look."
"I guess this makes me the first woman to fly any way, and I landed when I want to kind of, which beats Icarus. I'm surprised you never tried it."
"Who says I haven't?" Xena smiled cryptically.
"I'm sure this is of no great importance to you, but I am at the end of my resources." Esme looked at them both, aggrieved.
Xena looked at her directly for the first time. "Esme; it's been a while. Aren't you gonna ask about Tarkian?"
"Unless I'm very much mistaken he's your captive," she sniffed.
Xena lifted an eyebrow to Gabrielle. Esme's tone was none too sympathetic toward Tarkian.
"I would be obliged if you respected my rank and permitted me to ride to Tartarus," Esme continued.
"Rank?" Xena echoed. "Oh, Queen Esme. Well, we've got three queens here, and two of us were on the winning side. Sorry; I think you backed the wrong horse in this field." She reached an arm down and Gabrielle joined her on Argo. "We'll mozy along so you can keep up."
When the gates of Tartarus opened to admit them it was early afternoon. Esme was carried off in a litter for a bath and well-needed rest.
"You were a little hard on her Xena," Gabrielle observed. We're used to walking."
"She's used to being on top; let her learn how it feels to lose," Xena replied with a touch of acid. "It might help us in the end. They should all remember how it feels to lose."
Tarkian was not enjoying the experience. It was as dinner concluded when Xena agreed to meet with him and there he learned for the first time the fate of the forces he'd ridden in with the day before.
"They've been drifting back to their camp in small groups, exchanging weapons for food, water and safe passage to Mustrakis," Drax told him. It was no surprise, the Three Kingdoms had not been tested in war for many years. From his own service Drax knew of the system by which military ranks were bought, not earned. The army was bound to melt away at the first sign of opposition, as it had.
"So now you march on Mustrakis?" Tarkian asked, his anxiety evident in his voice. beside him, Esme waited breathless for the answer.
Drax suppressed a snort of laughter. "What do we want with Mustrakis," he asked, "when we have Tartarus?"
Xena nodded in agreement, pleased that Tarkian's smug tone was, at last, gone. "Not so fast, Drax," she said now. "We don't want Mustrakis, but a good thumping might keep it from turning on us. You've got no army defending your eastern border, and they sure aren't expecting trouble. What a moment that would be, Tartarus raising its standard over the palace at Mus."
"Xena, we've had enough war," Gabrielle admonished. "I hate to think how far out of control things might get with former convicts rampaging..." her voice broke off, appalled at the idea.
"Yeah, well, it's about the best way to end the threat from the Three Kingdoms," Xena countered.
"War isn't the only way," Gabrielle argued. "King Rem is proof of that."
"What of Rem?" Tarkian inquired; he hadn't seen the monarch of Estapol since the brief battle.
"Rem has chosen peace over destruction," Xena said grimly. "Tartarus and Estapol have signed a non-aggression pact."
"And the trade pact," Gabrielle reminded her.
"Yeah, trade." Xena waved her hand dismissively. "The big thing is non-aggression. Don't expect any help from Estapol," she warned.
"Oh," Gabrielle spoke again, with a broad smile. "In order to sign the pacts they had to recognize the independence of Tartarus. No more dumping ground."
Esme's eyes darted from one face to another in the dimly lit tent. She squeezed Tarkian's hand beneath the low table; he made no response. She swallowed hard and arranged her features in an expression sure to convey confidence and warmth.
"The people of Mustrakis have long looked upon the peoples of Tartarus as our unfortunate brothers in the struggle against the aggression of the eastern tribes. In light of your new-found wealth and independence, which we are happy to acknowledge," she paused and nodded to the folk of Tartarus assembled around the room, "we look forward to working with Tartarus to achieve a peaceful and prosperous future for the entire region."
Xena muttered an oath. "Gabrielle," she protested, "the army will never have a better moment to squash Mustrakis." She spoke the truth, but it was for effect, and she waited now to see whether Tarkian had been as badly spooked as Esme. They all waited for long moments, then Esme tipped the scales. She leaned close to his ear and whispered urgently. Most of her words were heard by Tarkian alone, but Rem's name was used, 'gold' was heard several times and once she gestured dramatically to her feet, still aching from her morning's exercise. When she ended with her eyes brimmed with tears.
"Her Royal Majesty speaks wisely," Tarkian said at last. "The time for war and enmity is long past." Xena scowled.
"The granaries of Mustrakis will be poured out to feed the folk of Tartarus," Tarkian went on.
"For a price," Xena observed. "A reasonable price," she told him. "Estapol has agreed to terms; I doubt you'll match them."
"I demand the same terms you've given Estapol," Tarkian said with grim resolve. "I won't accept less."
"Give me a minute," she said and summoned the people of Tartarus to a corner of the room. They gathered with solemn faces and spoke in hushed tones.
"You've got them, Xena," Drax said, fighting to keep the triumph from his voice.
"I think so," she agreed gravely.
"Are you sure you're not a thespian?" Gabrielle said with a straight face. "That was a great performance."
"Not so great; sacking Mustrakis is a big temptation. It would be so easy..."
"Xena," Gabrielle said sharply, let's just end this, before he changes his mind."
Slowly the crowd parted and Xena said with feigned reluctance: "All right; the same terms as Estapol. I'll have the documents drawn up." She knew they lay in the next room, ready for signing. "So that's that."
"Not quite," Esme objected. "King Tarkian and I have a mind to mint a new issue of coins, celebrating our new friendship with Tartarus. Your minter makes the most cunning designs. May we employ his services?"
"I'm not going to cry, Gabrielle, I've got all the tears out of me long ago, but if I had any left they'd be shed today." Hermia squinted into the sun as she spoke, revealing the deep lines etched around her eyes.
Furrows plowed by tears. Gabrielle made a mental note of that before speaking. "I'm feeling sort of sentimental myself," she confessed. "How could I not be? Leaving here is harder than leaving Potadeia, in some ways." It was not the first time she'd had that thought. "I suppose it's because this place is so out of the way we won't get back here often."
"Often? You'll never come back," Hermia told her. "Best intentions aside, you'll never do that." Gabrielle wanted to argue, but couldn't find the words, or conviction.
"So this is really goodbye, like the goodbye when you get on Charon's boat."
"Well, we're not dying, not for a long time yet, I hope," Gabrielle protested.
"But distance so great is like death," Hermia declared, then chortled. "Maybe someday we'll all glide around on flying sails. Could be Archimedes is putting the finishing touches on one right now. Then we'll pop all around the world in a twinkling."
"You're starting to sound like me," Gabrielle laughed.
"Why not? We've spent enough time together, me pounding the dough while you tell us stories. I'll sure miss that."
"Yeah, me too, but I'll send scrolls and you can read them to Lilla. Tartarus will be on the trade routes now, so I can send scrolls even if I don't get by here as often as I'd like."
"I'll look forward to the scrolls," Hermia nodded, "but it won't be the same."
"We never step in the same river twice, Hermia. Things are always changing."
They were seated on a bench by a table laden with food and jugs of ale, the store growing or shrinking as new arrivals came and ate, or contributed to the feast. Word had spread quickly through Tartarus that Xena and Gabrielle were leaving, and those nearby had descended on The Sweetwater to say goodbye. What had been intended as a quiet farewell among friends had grown into a community party.
"True enough. Still, I'll miss you. I'll miss Xena, too, although I didn't spend near as much time with her." She watched as the warrior tossed the chakram on an amazing aerial flight, to the delight of a gaggle of children. "When I first saw her in the yard that day when you first got here I thought I'd met my doom. She can be very frightening."
"I know," Gabrielle concurred heartily.
"But when she's on your side..." she shook her head. "Look at how Tartarus is changed. Where have all the villains gone?" she asked, truly puzzled.
Gabrielle considered. Tartarus had been a dumping ground for convicts, violent and lawless. Yet the people filling Hermia's yard now were like those she might see anywhere, laughing, singing, eating and admiring babies. Where have the villains gone? Fighting among the warlords had taken a toll, certainly, and acts of violence against each other had added to that number. The new army patrolling Tartarus had been active enough to discourage misdeeds through much of the place, and she'd heard that a remote area was filling up with the least desirable elements. 'A boil that will need to be lanced, soon,' Xena had warned Drax. Otherwise the villains were unaccounted for. "Could be there never were so many villains, here Hermia. Was your husband a villain?"
"Not to my mind," she snapped. "he was as good as gold to any who were decent to him."
"I'm sure that's true; maybe so many others weren't villians either. Just people who did bad things, for some reason..." Like someone I know well. "They neeeded a second chance and now they have it."
"I wish Archon had lived to see this day, and Sepra, and my own dear love, gone so many years."
And Ari, Gabrielle thought. "You've lived to see it, Hermia, and Lilla and Nara and Cramma; look, the future is all around you." As she spoke, a small troop of horsemen clattered into the yard, raising a thick cloud of dust. The ruddy figure of Xanthus slid off his horse, strode to the table and downed a jug. "It's a long ride for a warm day." Xena tucked the chakram on her belt and joined them.
"Glad you made it Xanthus; I didn't want to wait around another day."
"All things in good time; I didn't want to rush these." He pulled a heavy leather pouch from his shirt and spilled its contents on the bench. "Fresh from the mint."
Hermia gasped at the flood of gold. Gabrielle gasped in surprise and Xena grinned at the reaction.
"They won't bite," Xanthus told them. Xena plucked one from the pile, hefted it for weight and held it up for inspection. She lifted an eyebrow at Xanthus. "Not what I expected," she said uncertainly.
"It's what everyone else expects, Xena, and what I wanted to do. So there it is."
Puzzled at this exchange Gabrielle took a coin. An eagle with a fat fish in his talons flew high above a mountain peak.
"This is the most beautiful coin..."
"Check the other side," Xena told her.
"The other side?" Gabrielle turned the coin over and gave a start. "What's this?"
"A new issue of coins; it's us. Xanthus, what's that term you used when I told you not to do it?"
"Jugate," Gabrielle supplied. "Lilla had a coin collection. All the jugates were emperors and empresses; or gods. You know there was a mint in Potadeia."
"Not as big as the one in Amphipolis," Xena pointed out. "Xanthus did a great job, again, but it's not what I was expecting. I asked for an eagle on one side and a fish, just breaking water, on the other side." She looked at him a little crossly.
"This is much nicer," he said with a broad grin. "And you can't do anything about it. I've got to eat," he declared and headed off to the laden table.
Gabrielle traced the two heads on the coin, side by side, Gabrielle's head in the foreground partly superimposed on Xena's. The pattern of the chakram ringed the coin.
"Look, there's a tiny quill crossed with a sword beneath us; but why are you in the background?"
"I guess 'cause my head is bigger."
"But you did so much..."
"You didn't? Who got access to the wealth of the mountains? That's what made all this work."
"You would have found a way."
"I wasn't doing so great until then," Xena said with a shake of the head. "Anyway, I guess I like it."
"It makes it look as if this was all about us," Gabrielle said doubtfully.
"In a way, it was, Gabrielle. I was just trying to find a way to get us out of here. Everything just flowed from that." And maybe it will help people remember that I did some good. "And now it's time we did get out of here, or we'll be spending another night in the house."
"The house," Gabrielle mused; "it's been home until now."
"It stopped being home when we packed up our gear and moved out," Xena told her. "It can be someone else's home now."
"I know, but I'll miss it, somehow. It was something we built together."
"I never got you that bed," Xena mused aloud.
"That's not a problem, just one more thing to lug around. Beds are for settled folk, not adventurers."
"Is that what we are? I was starting to wonder."
"We never had a ceremony..."
"I never wanted one, Xena," Gabrielle said with a frown. "I doubt I ever will. If what we've done together since that day you first realized I wasn't going back to Potadeia doesn't scream 'commitment', I don't know what will." She set her face, ready to say final goodbyes without tears, and moved quickly from one group to another. Xena found Drax and Ileander admiring the new coins.
"I'd like one just like it someday," Ileander told her, "with my portrait, but without the fish."
Xena smiled but spoke soberly to Drax. "Easy gold can make a person lazy, Drax; it can happen to a whole country. Don't let it happen."
"I wish you'd stay to help me do that."
"You've always known I wouldn't," she said dismissively.
"You could stay and put a new monarch on the throne of Mustrakis," he pressed.
"Let them do it themselves, if they've the stomach for it."
"That would be another tale entirely;" Gabrielle threw in as she came up to them, "and this one has taken way too long already."
Hermia stepped forward with a large sack. "Just a little something for the road, bread, cheese, meat, the finest products of Tartarus. Now, go off the two of you and be happy," she commanded.
They mounted and rode off down the same road they'd ridden along all that time ago, when the future was a dismal prospect. When they got past the cheering and waving crowds Gabrielle broke the silence.
"Xena, what if Estapol and Mustrakis break the treaties once we're gone?"
"Gabrielle, we've done what we can, Tartarus has a chance; It's up to her people. I think they'll make it."
"Sometimes I wonder if destiny led us here, to be agents of change...to make a difference."
"Destiny?" Xena laughed. "Try Gaederus; better yet, try Ares."
"I always wonder whether Ares is behind things, if so, he blundered here. You even settled things in the end without a battle, without a major battle, anyway."
"I doubt if the men who died when we seized the gates would see it that way."
"Right," Gabrielle said, eyes narrowing. "Sometimes I wonder if that little girl from Potadeia would even know me; she wouldn't dismiss all those deaths so lightly. Am I just getting callous?"
"You'll never be callous," Xena assured her, "but you've had to grow a thick skin to survive. That's all."
All? Gabrielle wondered uncomfortably. "Anyway, I don't see what Ares gets out of it."
"Maybe nothing," Xena shrugged. "Maybe a lot, maybe we'll never know, and that would suit me." He didn't get me in the end, she thought with relief.
They fell silent for a while.
"Let's stop in Mus on the way out and give Esme a coin; she'll die of envy when she sees it."
"We'll see," Xena chuckled. "Don't be so hard on her; when she goes to her bed chamber at night she finds Tarkian there, and he finds her. I think we've got it much better, though we'll be sleeping under the stars tonight."
"Do you think we can ride halfway to the gates today, and half tomorrow, if we push it?"
"Halfway? You know what Zeno says about traveling halfway at a time? You never reach your destination."
"Zeno again?" Gabrielle asked, exasperated. "How's that?"
"If you only go halfway, no matter how close you get, you still have half the distance to go, always."
"Well, no, because eventually you get there,"
"Not if you only go halfway each time."
"I think we have to go to Elea, to find out what Zeno really said, because I'm sure you have him all wrong."
"Sure, we can see Zeno. That might be fun."
"And I've always wanted to see China, and maybe Nippon," the bard decided.
Xena shuddered as a chill raced down her back. "Nippon? Sure, but not just yet," she told her. "The North country is nice, and you've never been to Egypt. I want to hear what you think of the Sphinx. Maybe we could sail past the Pillars of Hercules and just keep going west. I could show you a real waterfall, if I can find it again."
Gabrielle showed her teeth in a broad smile. "I haven't seen that smile in a long time," Xena told her. "I've gotta make sure I keep it there."
"You'd better, because that's the end I want for all my scrolls."
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