By M. Parnell
"It's as finished as it can be." Blue eyes moved from the last area of wall, still wet, to the green eyes which surveyed the wall from a distance. This was it, for better or worse. Gabrielle would be happy here, or not. She couldn't make it more grand. Later, there could be more of it, but it would be of the same rough quality, wattle construction, finished with the clay-like soil that was common to the area. Whitewash would take away the earthen color, but nothing could change the place outside the walls. Gabrielle's face was screwed up in concentration; Xena's eyes narrowed in concern, then the bard picked up a twig which lay at her feet, advanced to the drying wall, and began to inscribe something there. When she stood back at last, Xena read the inscription: "Xena of Amphipolis, the Warrior Princess, and Gabrielle of Potadeia, lived here in love. Hestia preserve our hearth."
Xena nodded solemn approval, then took the twig and added: "Artemis protect her Amazon Bard." She looked at Gabrielle, and shrugged: "The gods have their places."
Gabrielle wrapped an arm around her waist, and sighed contentedly. It would be nice to actually be able to stand up in their home, to sit at a table, once they had a table, to move inside willingly, instead of waiting for the chill evening air to force them to seek shelter. It would be nicer still to wake up without this task before them each day. There would be other tasks, but she doubted they'd be as grueling as this. The frame had been difficult, the endless weaving of the twigs had been loathsome. Her finger tips ached from the constant abrasion, yet she knew Xena had done easily two-thirds of the actual work. The strong fingers were brushing lightly against the walls now, testing the extent to which they were setting. Her eyes had been constantly on the skies, willing the autumn rains to hold off until the clay had set. Each bucket of clay had been hand-carried up the slope from the stream bed where it was found. Packing and smoothing had been no easy task, but the digging and hauling had been Xena's alone. Xena always had good reasons why Gabrielle would be better employed elsewhere. The heavy work was always Xena's. Her hands sought the soft flesh which veiled strong muscles, and turned Xena to face her, a bemused smile playing on her lips. "Tomorrow we take a day off?" She pressed her advantage with a kiss.
Xena returned the kiss, slid her long arms down the downy flesh of the smaller woman until their clay-caked fingers entwined. "No. We have no table, no bed, no chairs; the root cellar's nearly empty. Can't afford a day off." She felt Gabrielle sag in her arms, was touched by a momentary guilt, but looked forward to Gabrielle's next argument.
"You must be tired, Xena," she said quietly. The words stopped the warrior. She was tired, and it was nice that someone cared. The sun was just past its zenith, yet she would willingly have crawled inside to sleep. Her head nodded in frank agreement. Maybe it was better to abandon the element of surprise. "Okay. I'm tired. We could both use a break, but we still need some things," she insisted. "So tomorrow, we go shopping, and hope we get lucky."
"Shopping?" Gabrielle breathed uncomprehending into her shoulder.
"Bartering, actually," Xena conceded.
"The neighbors?" Gabrielle asked. Xena followed her thoughts. They had visited Natrakia or Sepra for cheese, Cramma for honey, and of course, Hermia was the source of bread. It would be a change, but not very exciting.
"We can go there, if you like," Xena offered coyly, "but I thought it would be a nice change to visit the peddlers at their rendezvous. They only show up twice a year. Hermia said it's like a small bazaar." Gabrielle squirmed in delight against her for a moment, then pulled away. "Hermia never said anything to me about the peddlers," she protested.
"Guess it slipped her mind," Xena lied solemnly.
"What did you threaten her with?" Gabrielle asked, abandoning her attempt to register even mild annoyance at the deception.
"I merely promised our company on the road," Xena said innocently. "It
takes half a day to get there. No point pushing. I figure we can spend the night at the
gathering place, and head back the next day, if thats all right with you. Hermia
says its on the order of a community social. People from all over The Sweetwater
will be there, bartering, visiting; dancing, even." She shook her head in disbelief.
"I never imagined anything like that here."
Gabrielle squeezed her arm gently. "People are people, Xena. Even convicts. Even here. People all want the same things: the chance to be social is part of that." She laid her head against the supple leather. A bazaar. Dancing. She was not a good dancer, seldom could persuade Xena to dance, yet dancing meant music. The whole experience meant people, and chatter, and laughter. Gods, she almost laughed aloud in her joy. Xena followed her thoughts even there, and knew the bard was longing for the chance to be social. She returned the embrace, and kissed the golden hair which rested beneath her own chin. People all want the same things. She turned the thought around in her mind, knowing it held much truth, yet feeling somehow apart from the general realm of "people." All she really needed she held at that moment. She cleared her throat. "When we get back, the walls will be dry, and we can move in," she promised, already returning to the center of her world.
Water alone seemed to keep the heart of Tartarus beating. Scant miles from the river that flowed through The Sweetwater the arid lands rose before them with solemn assurance of doom for those who lingered. The stench of sulfur rose from ominous crevices, carried by sinister spumes of steam. The peddlers would avoid this stretch of road, better that the wretches who inhabited this poor land should journey to them. And journey they did. It seemed as if the whole of The Sweetwater had taken to the road.
A steady stream of chatter rose around her, and Xena could hardly distinguish one conversation from another in the thick babble. Gabrielle's voice carried to her like a harbor bell in a storm: clear, almost lyrical, as she wove another tale. She had begun with a series of stories for Hermia and Lila. Now a knot of travelers on foot pressed in to hear her every word. Like a snowball growing as it rolls downhill, the group had grown as it moved; nearly three dozen men, women and children traveled together now. They could have been anywhere, traveling to any festival to honor a god, or goddess. Except that these folk were more gaunt, than most, their clothes more ragged. They bore more scars. Digits were missing, eye sockets, crudely patched. They wore a brand, and of course, there were more than a few convict earrings in the crowd. Xena watched a gnarled face break into a toothless grin; the old woman cackled with delight. Certainly she could never have been a hardened criminal, yet she was here beside so many that were; she was here beside Xena. It was a puzzle.
A nearby clamor caught her attention, where a half-dozen men jostled each other, clutching at a small object, which one man, taller than the rest, held overhead. None of my business, Xena told herself, satisfied that they were a distance from the bard and her followers. She was the only traveler on horseback. Draught animals pulled rough carts, or were piled high with bundles, but the immediate world was walking. Decent horses here were few, she knew; riding was a luxury reserved for warriors. Gabrielle's green eyes turned to her, as they did every few minutes, an affectionate check-in. She would have liked the bard in the saddle behind her, as she had been countless times before, but Gabrielle needed this chance to touch an audience, and these people needed her. There couldn't be many bards in Tartarus.
The noise grew louder from the cluster of men at the rear of the group. A sudden, anguished squeal was the only sign that violence had been done. Then all fell silent, and the group moved tentatively ahead, leaving a crumpled body in the road. A squat fellow bent to yank the earring from the long figure stretched out in the dust; he wiped his sword and smiled, well pleased to be the possessor of the unknown object they'd vied over, as well as an earring, which would certainly be worth something from the peddlers. Gabrielle stole another glance at Xena, and her eyes were troubled. Xena quirked a smile of reassurance and moved closer with Argo. The golden mare strained between her legs; she hadn't run full-out in weeks, but this was not the time. A faint unease touched her at the thought of spending the night amid this gaggle. She wondered what provision the Overlord had made for keeping the peace at the peddler's encampment.
The peddlers came together at a place where the river crooked, forming a natural pool. There had been no river traffic here. Shortly upstream a cataract made the passage of anything alive impossible, but the site had water enough to accommodate the sudden influx of people. It was as if a small village had grown overnight. Carts and stalls sprouted in a field adjacent to the road, and cookfires were visible from a distance. Like mushrooms, Xena thought, and she glanced at the small pouch which hung from Argo's saddle. Those rare specimens would be worth something here, she knew, assuming there was something here worth hauling back. Hermia's small cart would serve them well. It was laden now with the few skins she'd managed to preserve, the necessaries for an overnight encampment, and bread which Hermia had baked aplenty, knowing she'd find a ready market here. Her small donkey strained at the harness, trotting happily enough amid the throng. A donkey cart of their own would be nice to have, Xena mused. Gods! She shook her head: the Destroyer of Nations coveting a donkey cart.
Gabrielle drifted over, as the group of travelers melted into the mushroom-village. She was beaming, eyes glowing at the sight of so many prospects for company, and haggling.
"Xena, I've seen worse bazaars outside Tartarus. I think we can do all right here." She shook her head cannily.
"Just remember: they know we're at a disadvantage. If we don't like their prices we don't have much choice. We can't really shop around." Over Gabrielle's head she spied a stocky fellow ride by bearing a standard. The Overlord did have a presence here. She wondered if he'd make an appearance himself.
Gabrielle was recounting her objectives: "Anything useful for setting up house, cookware, linens - "
"Scrolls," Xena put in. "You need scrolls."
The bard smiled indulgently. Scrolls would be nice, but they were no list-topper. She had little time to think of stories now, anyway. There was always something else that needed to be done. "Okay, Xena. I'll keep my eyes open for scrolls." She eyed the vicinity. "Why don't you take the left, and I'll take the right. We'll check out the best goods, and meet at the end of the row of stalls."
"Uh-uh," Xena protested. "We stay together."
"Xena, we'll get twice as much done if we split up."
"I'll be distracted by every commotion, wondering if you're at the heart of it."
Hermia weighed in on Xena's side. "Stay together; haggling is more effective if there's a couple to argue over the deal." Gabrielle knew this to be true, and made a reluctant show of giving in. Xena nodded almost imperceptibly, thanking Hermia for her help.
"I'll set up here and do my own bartering with bread. When I'm armed with enough goods, I'll join you," Hermia promised.
In any other place, the goods would have been passed over. Much of it showed wear, second hand items which had been cheaply obtained. Here they were eagerly pawed over. Earrings, hides, and pelts were passed over to the hands of peddlers in return for whatever they would fetch. Gabrielle sneered with contempt at the stalls, yet quietly made an inventory of things for which she would return.
Xena stopped before a large wagon, behind which lay a jumble of household goods. She grabbed Gabrielle's arm, and squeezed as she whispered: "There." The green eyes followed to what the blue eyes had spied. A large square of cloth, stuffed with feathers lay doubled beneath a pile of clutter. "That's it. I can make the frame. It will be the best bed we've had in forever." The wistful note in her voice brought Gabrielle's head around. She was used to the ground. A bed was nice; somehow she hadn't imagined Xena cared. She whispered in reply: "Can we afford it?"
"Somehow we will." The dark figure took a diffident step toward the proprietor. "I'd like to do some business." No messing about.
"There's just a lot of junk here." The bard's objection brought a smile to the bearded face beside the wagon. That's how it was to be. "Yes. A lot of junk," he agreed. "Good enough for convicts." Even the Unmarked One, he thought. "Still, I hate to cart it back to Mus. What can you give me?"
"These." Xena placed a small sack on the wagon bed and waited. The man peered cautiously inside, then lifted the bag and sniffed. "Mushrooms. I'll bring a ton of dried mushrooms back with me," he scoffed.
Xena took the bag from his hand. "Fine. My mistake. I took you to be a man who would appreciate the uncommon." She turned, knowing his voice would sound before she left. He knew mushrooms, of that she had no doubt. She had seen the flicker of excitement in his eyes when he sniffed the contents of the sack. These were rare specimens; they would fetch a fortune in Mus.
"Don't be so hasty. I have a certain sympathy for you poor souls." He reached for the bag as he spoke. Xena held it close to her. "How can I be certain they aren't poison? A mistake could be fatal." Xena took a large chunk from the sack, popped it in her mouth, and chewed heartily. "Delicious. About a dinar's worth, I'd say. Shall I try another?"
"No. I trust your judgement," he said quickly. "I'll take them in exchange for, say " He indicated a battered chest. Xena nodded pleasantly. "I'll take it off your hands," she said agreeably. "Along with " She scanned the area, and seemed to spy the feather bedding with surprise. "That."
"You jest," he exclaimed. "For a sack of mushrooms?"
"I'll throw in a deer hide, if it makes it easier."
"Hides are plentiful here," he pointed out.
"Fine." A second time she began to walk away.
"Just as well, " Gabrielle said in a stage whisper. "It's bound to be flea ridden."
"Let me see the hide," the plaintive voice called. "You know when you have me at a disadvantage."
Right, Xena thought, as she unrolled the hide which hung at her back. It was large, unholed. Xena had known where to put the arrow to preserve the hide.
"Alright," he said reluctantly as he examined the hide. "Take the bedding."
"And the chest," Xena reminded him.
"The chest?" he asked aggrieved.
"It was part of the deal," Xena said flatly.
"I don't quite recall," he countered, then he saw her brow darken and was ready to concede, when a new voice was heard: "If the deal's not done, I'll put in a bid." Placar was a few yards away, mounted, and surrounded by troops of the Overlord. A leather pouch thunked down on the ground beside the peddler. "Six earrings." A smug smile spread across Placar's face.
The peddler reached for the bag, only to be stopped by Xena's booted foot on his fingers.
"We had a deal," she said quietly.
"Not quite," he argued. "No goods were exchanged." He held his breath as he spoke, afraid the promise of wrath held in those icy eyes would be released. Still, six earrings would begin to make his trip to this gods-forsaken place worthwhile.
With an effort, Xena swallowed the anger that rose in her, and considered. Six earrings. He'd be a fool to refuse it. Yet she'd be damned further than Tartarus before she'd let Placar beat her out of the bargain. Face impassive, she countered: "I'll match his offer. Give me until morning."
Gabrielle started, puzzled. Xena had only the earring she wore.
Placar laughed. "Match it? Plan on six murders this evening?" he boomed.
"Never mind how. Do I have the time?" she asked, leveling a gaze that left only one possible answer.
"Yes, of course. And regardless, bring back your mushrooms. I'm sure I have something else you'd want."
"Xena, slow down." Gabrielle took the warrior's elbow and slowed her to a pace that allowed for conversation. "Why are you so upset? We've gotten along this far without a feather bed, we'll survive. Besides, we have our feather collection, we'll make our own bed someday."
"I'd like a bed before I - or you- have gray hair. I wanted that bed. You deserve it."
"Me?" She shook her head. "Xena, I don't want the bed. It's no big deal." She paused, and gave a short nod. "Okay, that tight-lipped stare means I haven't gotten through. Let me put it this way: I don't need a bed. I just need you at night, for my warmth, to be my pillow - "
"Nice try, Gabrielle," she smirked. "Now tell me you wouldn't like a soft spot now and again."
"Even amid that muscle I find nice, soft - "
"I'm going to get that bed." She might not have heard the bard. Gabrielle's words died on her lips, and she stopped walking. "This isn't about the bedding. You can't stand it that Placar outbid you."
Xena didn't deny it. "He didn't want it, Gabrielle. He just wanted to beat me," she said with a hint of bitterness.
"Xena, it doesn't matter."
"Yes it does," she hissed. "Those earrings are the closest things these people have to currency. A handful of those is worth gold."
The golden head nodded slowly. "And?" she queried. "Xena, those earrings are a grisly memento of the dead. I wonder how many convicts are killed each year just so someone can have an earring?"
Xena stopped her hand in its involuntary motion toward her own earring. "About as many as are killed outside by thieves anxious to get a purse of gold."
"And you aim to get some earrings?"
Xena looked down, her eyes darted across the landscape, settling anywhere but on Gabrielle. "It would help."
"It would help you get one up on Placar, yes, but that isn't important."
"Gabrielle," she began, but was stopped by a reedy voice near at hand.
"A contribution, please, to the temple." In disbelief she focused on a thin, graying man in white robes, tied with a sash of crimson.
"Temple of Ares," she guessed.
"Who else, here, in Tartarus, amidst his followers." He looked her up and down. "It's said Xena worships at the altar of the God of War."
"You've been here too long," she sneered. "And you can tell me sometime why his devotees should worship a god who lets them end up here."
"It was not their devotion, but their neglect that led them here," he retorted smoothly. "An offering now and again never hurt a warrior," he said with certainty. Xena regarded him frankly for a moment, then turned and walked on.
"Well?" asked the gentle voice at her elbow.
"Well what?" she asked in reply, her voice a little harsh, even to her own ears.
"Do you really need the earrings, Xena?" No reply. "How do you plan on getting them?"
"I won't do murder, Gabrielle," she assured her. "There are plenty of earrings to be had from the living. Here." She unslung the hide from her shoulders and thrust it, along with the sack of mushrooms at the smaller woman. "Get whatever you like. I'll meet you at Hermia's cart."
Gabrielle stared openmouthed as Xena walked away. "What happened to the 'stay-together' rule?"
"Just stay out of trouble."
"Goes both ways, honey." She didn't look at Xena's flinty eyes as she covered the short space between them and hooked an arm around one of Xena's, making it clear she wasn't letting go. "We're trading together," she said with a grin. "Leave me alone for five minutes and I'll have every useless bauble here. Won't be much help through the winter," she snorted softly, thinking of her purchases in Mus. One purchase in particular. "Come on, Xena. Sulk later."
"That grumpy look was a definite asset in bartering." Gabrielle adjusted the sack of goods over her shoulder, and noted with approval the larger sack Xena carried. "We have everything we need. Well, maybe not everything, but the necessities." Xena, nodded, jaw set, lips slightly pursed. A lot of junk, she thought. Discards. Tossed here to Tartarus with the rest of the trash. For Gabrielle's sake she tried to smile, but it wouldn't come. Hermia's cart was still out of sight, beyond the row of stalls. Once she situated Gabrielle among friends, she'd set out to find the earrings she needed for the morning. She watched with disdain, and a little misplaced anger, as a troop of horsemen wearing the crest of the Overlord rode by, clattering through the narrow lane with impertinence. "Out of the way, Gabrielle," she muttered, then saw blond locks flowing, and knew to whom they belonged. He saw Xena at the same time. "Hello," he called, and wheeled his horse about to stop before them.
"Drax!" Gabrielle gushed, happy to see the familiar, weathered face. Xena looked deliberately at the crest on his worn leather tunic.
"Once a soldier eh, Drax?" she asked.
"Fond greetings to you, too, Xena. I wondered when I'd see you both again." He rose in his saddle and looked at the passing throng. "Ileander is around here somewhere. He'll be happy to see you," he said to Gabrielle. "Life in Nerad's camp can be tiresome."
But never lean, Xena guessed. "There's something I need to do," she said abruptly. "Can I trust you with Gabrielle one more time?"
The bard's eyes flared, but Drax poured out soothing words: "We'll be glad to have the time with her. Tartarus through the eyes of a bard. Should keep Ileander happy." Xena nodded, and strode off. "What's eating her?" he asked when she was out of earshot.
"Just things," Gabrielle replied, suddenly sympathetic, remembering with a pang that earthquake relief had been her idea. "Things."
The twang of bow strings provided a soft accompaniment to the babble in the field beyond the parameters of the encampment. Crude targets had been erected at the far end, and men were strung out along the margin, calling wagers and cursing ill fortune. This competition was not for prizes, but for the bets placed arrow-by-arrow. Some three or four archers held the attention of all; they bet on themselves, enticing the bets of others.
Earrings were the only commodity exchanged.
Xena watched with apparent disdain, snickering once at an arrow which went far wide of the mark. "I suppose you can do better," was the improvident reply.
"Hard to do worse," she drawled. Nearby loungers snapped to attention. The Unmarked One. Xena. This could be interesting.
Gabrielle heard Xena's approach before she looked over her shoulder to see her emerge from the late afternoon shadows. The pretense of warmth that had enveloped the area had faded as the sun dipped closer to the horizon; the evening wind had begun to blow. There was something different about Xena that caught Gabrielle's attention. She watched for a moment, then knew why she had heard the woman first: a small leather pouch hung from her belt; it jingled as the earrings it contained touched one another. Xena's lips parted in a smile as she came closer.
"You look like the cat that ate the cream." Gabrielle returned her focus to the iron cook-pot that was suspended from a rod over the fire. "I take it you have enough for the bedding?"
"Yeah. And then some." Her cheeks glowed with a fire Gabrielle had rarely seen.
"Dare I ask how?" the bard ventured. She knew, without looking that Xena held a waterskin to her lips, heard the long swallow, then the reply: "I won them fair and square, proving once again the value of a bow in the right hands." Strong hands encircled Gabrielles waist, and Xenas voice dropped a register. " Im not used to being away from you. Care for an arrow-by-arrow account of the contest?" She pulled the bard against her body. Gabrielle relaxed against her, then stiffened at the mass of jumbled metal which filled the pouch. "This is almost ready. Youd better wash up," she said, taking a step forward, out of Xenas embrace.
Xena frowned, puzzled, then guessed at the problem. "Im sorry I left you for so long "
"Thats not a problem," was the hasty reply.
"Oh." That left a world full of other problems to be guessed at. "That smells good; what'cha cooking?" Her arms hung loosely at her side, painfully empty.
"Nothing much; root vegetables mostly. Good thing we brought them along. Couldn't get any meat, but we'll have bread, if Hermia didn't barter it all away. I got lucky finding herbs-"
The soft voice continued, but Xena heard no more. That was the problem: the meat. She'd failed to bring anything for the cook-pot. One night in so many.
"Xena?" Gabrielle was watching her, puzzled. "I asked you to hand me the waterskin."
"Yeah. Sure." The skin was handed over; Gabrielle caught a glimpse of a furrowed brow before Xena turned away. "I'll be back." Things seemed safe enough; if there was no game close by, she'd bring back fish. Just time before it grew dark.
"Xena? Where are you off to?"
Only Hermia heard the bard's question. "What clouded her up?" she asked. "Her mood's not what it was a while back." She lay a sleeping Lilla on a soft-skin. "That was the happiest I'd seen her these past months."
Gabrielle tore her eyes from the trail Xena had taken. "Hermia, what are you talking about?"
"The archery competition. She can't half shoot. There are whispers in the camp that Artemis has graced us with her presence." She laughed. "Even with that nasty ferment they were all swilling down, Xena put every arrow where she wanted it."
"Yeah, Xena can shoot," came the slow response. Gabrielle waited uneasily to hear the rest of the story. "What happened?"
"Happened? Xena won every earring they put up. Suckered them in to wagers, then picked 'em clean." Hermia's pride in her traveling companion was complete. "C'mon Gabrielle," she cajoled, puzzled at her lack of enthusiasm. "Xena was magnificent, earned enough in an hour's work to fix you up nicely, and here you both are, faces down to your knees." She hrrumphed softly as she peeked into the cook-pot. "She was walking on Mt. Olympus when she left that field. What did you say to bring her down?" Wary reproach was in her voice.
"Her mood did seem to darken," Gabrielle began thoughtfully. "I didn't say anything," she began, and realized that was the problem, or part of it. Worse, she'd moved - pulled - away. "I think I'd better go look for her," she said simply, and reached for her staff.
"The sun is all but gone; leave her be," Hermia urged. "I don't want to face her wrath if she comes back to find that you've gone out stumbling round in the dark." Hermia's voice was earnest, and it raised a challenge in Gabrielle. "I don't stumble around. I'm not Xena," she said pointedly, "but sometimes I have more sense. I don't want her getting into trouble out there."
"How much more trouble can she be in? She's here," Hermia stated flatly. "This lot can't do anything to hurt her."
The staff was thrown down. Hermia was right. No point going after her.
In the end she didn't wait long. Hermia wiped the last of the fragrant sauce from the vegetable stew with a crust of brown bread, popped it in her mouth, and chewed through her greeting: "Hi then, Xena. Almost missed your supper." A quick nod of the head was her only reply, then she smacked a string of fish on the grass at Gabrielle's feet.
"The game seems to have taken cover. Still, these should do."
Gabrielle looked from the fat fish, still thrashing, to the strained face of the warrior. "Xena," she began, then stopped, clearly puzzled. "I told you dinner was taken care of."
"Yeah. Well here's something more than vegetables," she said with an edge. "Want me to clean 'em?" It was a challenge, of sorts.
"Um, well, we've just about finished "
The fish were snapped up. "Fine," Xena pronounced, as she slapped them into a water bucket. "They can squirm until morning."
" but you haven't eaten yet. I'll grill one for you. The fire's still - "
"Don't bother on my account. I though you'd want some fish, that's all. I don't
"Why did you think I wanted fish?" was the incredulous demand.
"Because there was 'nothing much' for dinner. I thought " she was suddenly aware of Hermia's eyes, riveted on her, and Gabrielle's genuine puzzlement You were upset about something, she thought. "I couldn't get meat " The words seemed to make no sense, even to her.
"Xena, it was just a comment "
Hermia rose from her place by the fire. "Still early. Think I'll stroll over to have a word with Sepra. She and Archon are close by. She's not looking well. This is a hard pregnancy, and there's still so far to go. Lillas still sleeping, shell be no trouble. Oh; don't forget, you've got people coming, and when the moon is high it's likely there'll be music," she reminded the bard before she disappeared.
Xena sat heavily. "Company? Great. Drax?"
"Not Drax. I told Lilla a story; someone heard. There are children here, Xena, more than a few. I agreed to tell some stories," she said, avoiding any hint of apology. "If you hadnt disappeared, again, wed have had more time, but we still have a few minutes. We need to talk." Her voice rose a touch. "Stop counting your fingers, theyre all there. Look at me."
Reluctant eyes met her own, and Xena forced out terse sentences. "Something upset you. I couldnt figure it out. Guessed wrong three times already. Can I have a hint?"
Xena stood motionless as Gabrielle moved to her, and lifted the heavy pouch of earrings.
"These are sharp."
I know, Xena, agreed silently, remembering the nicks produced by her own. She turned her palms up, urging further explanation.
"They poked me."
"You could have said that." She paused. "So what else is goin' on?"
"Xena, I said I didn't want the bed. Not at this price."
Xena rolled her eyes, and expelled a sharp breath. "I told you I won them. Honestly."
"I know that; I just can't help thinking that they're tainted. Like blood money."
"Blood money? Gabrielle there is no other kind of money here. I did what had to be done."
"No. There has to be another way," the bard insisted. "We'll find another way. Look at all we managed to get without earrings - "
"Yeah. Shit," was the terse judgement.
"Yes," the soft voice agreed. "But it's our shit. Every chipped crock, dented plate, worn cloth. It's our stuff. Earned with honor."
"And long, hard toil." She seized the bard's right hand, examined the torn cuticles, broken nails, and tips callused from wattle-weaving. She wrapped the hand in her own, tightly. "This should be ink-stained, not rough with hard labor. If I can make things a little easier, cushion the hard places a bit - it just makes me feel better," she ended flatly. Gabrielle nodded mute understanding. "All the scavenging and hide-trimming we've done " she shook her head, dismayed. "I earned twenty times that in a couple of hours with a bow in my hands. Was that wrong?" she challenged.
"No, Xena," Gabrielle answered quickly. "It's not how you got the earrings, it's just the earrings "
"Blood-tainted." Xena pursed her lips, considering. "What if Placar had been there? What if we'd wagered for the mattress? I'd have won," she assumed. "Would that be all right?"
"That would be different."
"Why? If he bought the mattress with his own supply of earrings?" Xena demanded. "I doubt he won them at draughts," she smirked. "Either way, the peddler goes back to Mus with a hefty sack to redeem for gold." The logic was inescapable; she waited for the bard to concede.
"Xena. I don't care what the peddler does. I don't care what Placar does. I care what you do. We may have to live in Tartarus. We don't have to be of it. I like to think we're better than that."
"You are better," Xena would have said, but there was sudden noise around them, a gaggle of people, women and children mostly, who had come together to hear stories from the bard. She pulled a face.
"Xena, I won't be all night," Gabrielle assured her, even as she turned, pulling her aching fingers at last from the large hand.
"Yeah," Xena nodded. "Go do your thing, Gabrielle."
"We'll talk later?" Her eyes waited for Xena's promise.
"We'll talk." She received a warm smile in reply, then Gabrielle dished the last of the stew into a dish, tucked the end of a thick brown loaf on the side of her plate, and steered her towards the far end of the camp. "Eat. You'll see things differently."
Xena sat; she was joined by a pair of hungry eyes, watching as she lifted a spoon to her mouth. The eyes only looked large because the face was shrunken. An uncertain smile played there nonetheless. Xena forced a smile in return and patted the rock at her side. "Sit here," she invited. "I'm not very hungry." The dish was balanced on the too-small lap, and skinny fingers flew from dish to mouth, dribbling the thin gravy down her chin. Xena was forgotten. She drifted away, leaned against a tree, and watched the petite woman cast a huge spell.
The story was about a giant. A buffoon, of a fellow really. Xena couldn't recall any quite like him. Even the cyclops she'd blinded, while a fool, posed a real threat, blind or no. Still, Gabrielle made him a figure of fun for the children. Probably helped them to laugh at danger, in a sense, Xena reasoned. A refrain ran through the story, made longer each time someone evaded the giant. Soon, over a dozen voices chanted along with Gabrielle, about the clever woman, the lucky man, the nimble child and others who slipped through his fingers. It was a happy time for them. For Xena the seventh round was too much. She liked her stories to have a beginning, and move to an ending. She felt in Tartarus as if she was riding endlessly around the Circus Maximus; enough of circles, she thought, and wheeled about to make a quiet exit.
Hermia slipped beside Xena. "She's got a gift," she said with admiration, turning the warrior's attention once more to the bard.
Xena nodded, focusing on the slender bard, whose face seemed to rival the splendor of the rising moon. "Many gifts."
"You didn't mean for her to follow you here," Hermia guessed, out of context.
"No," Xena replied after a moment. "But she's here. It's hard I try to make things easier " Her voice died, uncertain. "She doesn't deserve this."
"Does she complain?"
"Never," Xena said quickly, not forgetting the gripes about early rising, monotonous fare, cold feet and colder bath water. They were of no account. "She shares everything my life holds."
"Then let her say no to the bed," the other woman urged.
"Why does it always come back to that? Maybe I'd like a bed, have you thought of that? Has she thought of it?"
Xena left Hermia and her simple question in the thin edges of the campfire light.
It was all different after sunset. The rows of stalls were draped with heavy canvas, heavily guarded by stout men with truncheons and swords. The peddlers knew their clientele. Another kind of trade was carried on now; from every side came the sounds and smells of men and women feeding their appetites. The aroma of opium was stronger, drowning even the fermented potion that seemed to be on everyone's breath. She tasted it still, a harsh, bitter drink, made from grain. What she had that afternoon had been graced by the addition of apples, leaving a cloying, vomitous sweetness. Still, she wouldn't mind having it in her throat again, right now.
Flimsy lean-to's sheltered couples heaving and grunting in the throes of passion. From the hasty exits made, Xena knew they were not love matches. It was mildly surprising. In a place with such a disparate number of men to women she wouldn't have expected any women would be free to ply that trade. Unless of course. The men to whom they were tied, willingly or unwillingly, pimped for them. She shuddered, and strode on, quickening her step. At last she came to the end of the row of stalls, where the smoky torch fire was absent, and only the moon lit the copse where Xena stopped. It was quiet here; that suited her. The day had been long, and seemed to have no end in sight. Stories from the bard, dancing later, and gods only knew if there was any quiet time when rest might be had, or she might be alone with Gabrielle, to talk, or to what? She could be so damned stubborn. Stubborn enough to make her way to Tartarus.
Xena knew where the mountains rose, and her eyes turned to the unseen peaks, the barriers to freedom. So breachable, if she were alone, if Gabrielle wasn't here, if Argo could climb mountains, or fly. She chuckled at that image, Argo, Pegasus-like, soaring over the snow caps, carrying them - A faint cry reached her ears, not much different from others, but familiar somehow. She was moving toward it before it died away, before it was joined by a second, more urgent sound, and words "I'll curse you 'til it falls off!" A woman's voice, shrill, feisty. Arthea; in some danger, Xena knew. Arthea wasn't one to be easily alarmed. She'd take on a bar full if her mood was right. It wasn't hard to follow the sounds in the still darkness; Arthea was holding her own from the sound of it, and Xena paused, admiring, when she found her. The woman held a scarf looped around a thick neck. The face above the neck was almost purple, eyes bulging, lips contorted. Whatever threat he'd offered Arthea was long forgotten, as he scrabbled desperately at the scarf.
"Enough, Arthea," said the calm, amused voice. Arthea turned, and gave a start.
"Xena!" she exclaimed. "Where were you when I needed you?"
"Needed me for what?" she drawled earnestly, then repeated her command. "Enough! He'll be dead soon."
Arthea shrugged, but she relaxed her grip and the twist in the scarf loosened. "Get off, bastard," she told him as he lurched to his feet, dragging air into his lungs.
"Make up your mind, bitch," he rasped at her, brave again. "And give back the earring!"
Xena arched an eyebrow, and shot a look of inquiry at Arthea. "You welshing on a deal?" she asked.
"Xena, I don't work at that anymore," she protested.
"Liar!" He looked at Xena. "She agreed to spend the night for an earring. Said she had a tent pitched here in the woods. Once she has the earring she starts squalling as if she was a bloody virgin - "
"Enough from you," Xena snarled. Damned whingeing annoyed her. "Did he give you an earring?" she asked Arthea.
"I told you - "
"Yeah, I know, you don't do that anymore. I don't care if he gave it to you as a prayer offering. Where's the earring?"
She smiled in good-natured defeat as she reached into the nest between her breasts. "Here." She threw the earring at the man, still on his knees. He plucked it from the dirt, looked from Arthea to Xena, and scurried away.
"Nothing ventured " Arthea shrugged.
Xena was puzzled. Arthea had never been a thief, but an honest prostitute. "Where's Lutus?" she asked, suddenly curious about how Arthea was surviving.
"Couldn't get away. That's how hard he's working. Butcher, skinner The Overlord has a lot of men to keep fed. That's why I'm here. Assistant to the cook for the Overlord."
"Good," Xena said, sincerely. Two less mouths to feed. Arthea moved a bit,
and the moonlight lit her whole form. She looked better. Her cheeks, while not quite full,
were no longer pinched, and her breasts, well, Arthea always had nice breasts
looked away. "I've gotta get back. There'll be dancing soon."
"Long time since I've danced," Arthea mused. "Longer still since I danced with you." Xena turned away to retrace her tracks, Arthea at her elbow. "Will you save me a dance, Xena?" she cooed.
"Can't oblige," Xena replied. "I'm taken." Totally, she noted, and her stride lengthened. Stupid to argue over a bed, or earrings, or whatever it was, she admitted to herself.
"Gabrielle's nice," Arthea commented. "I'd like to see her again."
"I'm sure you will," Xena said through tight lips. Sure we both will. "Where are you staying? I'll walk you there."
"Don't be silly, Xena, we're both going to the dancing." She reached for Xena's arm, which swung forward elusively. At the far end of the stalls, a piper began a lively tune. Damn, Xena thought, late again.
"The music's starting," Hermia said to no one. Gabrielle had already turned to the sound, and looked away now to scan the shadows for Xena. "I thought Xena would be back," she said with mild reproach meant for the absent warrior. "I guess she got tied up. No reason we should miss the fun." She picked up her staff. "Let's go."
There was little art in the dancing, but a good deal of energy. The musicians were a motley crew, blowing, plucking and beating at instruments. They somehow produced music. Gabrielle stood at the edge of the crowd, one foot keeping time, teeth showing in a happy grin, following the antics of the dancers, but always scanning the area for the tall warrior. Hermia danced, with Lilla, with Archon, by herself, never straying far from Gabrielle. "She'll be here," she said, when the musicians took a break.
"I know," Gabrielle said, to assure herself. Then she spied Ileander. Drax was beside him, a study in ill-humor.
"Gabrielle," he nodded dourly. Ileander stuck an elbow in his ribs. "It's a party, of sorts Drax. Can you try, just a little?"
Gabrielle smiled uncertainly. "Is Xena around?" Drax asked her.
"Someplace. Why?" A tightness began in her stomach.
"I just want to ask her a few questions."
"What do you think she's done?" she persisted.
"Nothing," Ileander supplied. "Drax works hard at being an official of the Overlord," he laughed.
Drax made a sour face, then looked more kindly at Gabrielle. "I'm not accusing her of anything," he agreed. "It's just that a body was found at the water's edge. Stuck in the gut. Seems he came in second best to Xena in the archery contest."
"That means nothing." Gabrielle's eyes dared him to argue.
"I just want to know if she can shed some light on the mess."
"With all that goes on in this bloody place, you have to sort out who killed a conniving thug," Hermia put in. "Do you really care?"
"Someone should," Drax replied mildly.
"How many other bodies will litter this place by the time we leave?" Hermia asked with some heat. "You plan on sorting them all out while your comrades swagger and bully- "
"Hermia, I do what I can," he cut in with barely contained annoyance.
Gabrielle spoke quickly: "Look, Drax, Xena will be back soon, you can ask her then, all right?" Then, to Hermia, "Xena would appreciate Drax being so vigilant."
Xena would spit the pissant out, she thought, but held her tongue. Gabrielle had enough to fret over. The music had begun again, and she took Lilla's hand, ready to give her a turn, when she saw the first of the flames.
"Xena, slow down. I can't keep up."
Blue eyes rolled to the sky. "Arthea, it's not much further, and I can't walk much slower." Impulsively, she swept the woman up in her arms. "Is this better?" she asked. "I'll drop you at your camp. You can't dance on that ankle anyway."
"But I can still enjoy the music." She relaxed against the warrior, eyes closed, inhaling the day's scents which clung to her body. "Rotten luck, me twisting my ankle."
"Yeah." Just more rotten luck. Still, the music would go on for some time; ahead she could see more torches being lit. No; not torches. She stood still for a moment.
"Am I too heavy, Xena?" Arthea laughed.
"Quiet," she snapped. "Listen." The sounds of music broke off sharply, to be replaced by panicked screams. The new flames were from the lighted tips of arrows, everywhere now, thick against the night sky. Xena veered sharply to her right and deposited Arthea beside a sturdy oak. "Hug this tree. You'll be safe here," she instructed, believing it to be true. As safe as anywhere else in this camp. Arthea's protest died on her lips. Xena wouldn't stop now, not for her, not for anyone but the little bard. Arthea followed her running silhouette, outlined by the growing flames, until she disappeared.
Arrows came from nowhere, landed everywhere. Drax pulled one from the earth; he didn't recognize the fletching. Gabrielle had flattened Lilla with the first rain, called for Hermia to join them, and rolled with the child under the nearest cart. They wouldn't be trampled here, would be shielded from direct hits, would be safe, unless, of course, the cart rolled, or they were forced out by the crush of humanity that also sought shelter. For a moment she had time for a thought: Xena. "Where in Hades' name are you?" she whispered. "Please be safe." It occurred to her that Xena would never find her here, under this cart.
The attack was relentless, and unopposed. Drax had circled the perimeter, peering from behind any object to try and spot the attackers. Damn, he swore, there was no sign of his comrades. They were never there when they were needed. Still he called for them, by name, by cursed names, as he grew more desperate.
"Look for them under the carts, Drax, with the women and children," said a chilling voice in his ear, a moment before Xena swept his legs from under him. He lay in the dust inches from her, aware only of the intensity of the blue eyes.
"Where's Gabrielle?" she demanded.
"Under a cart, nearby," he assured her. "She's all right."
She gave a curt nod, then lifted her eyes to the chaos that ruled around them. "Can't stay here," she commented. The small fires had grown, fed by the strong eastern wind, sending thick black smoke into the night air.
"We can hardly leave," Drax retorted. "They want to drive us into the open to pick us off."
"Well, their plan is a success," Xena observed dryly. "No one can live in this, unless the fires are put out." That was impossible, she knew, under the hail of arrows which continued to fall. Which meant that the arrows had to stop. "I'm going outside Drax," she told him simply. He considered, then nodded. Little chance the rest of the troop would do anything about the attack. Little chance they were still sober. "I'm with you, but I don't know what we - " He broke off, she was gone, and a shrill whistle was heard for a moment above all else.
Underneath the cart, eyes fixed on the patch of sky that was her only view, Gabrielle heard the whistle, and knew Xena had just summoned Argo. Her head swiveled, as if she might catch a glimpse of the warrior, but she knew it would be in vain.
"That was Xena," she told Lilla, and Hermia, and Ileander, and whoever else was in earshot. Things would be all right now.
It seemed crazy to Drax, but he had no better idea, and 'No' seemed not to be not to be
something you said to Xena. You just got on with the job. So here he was, ready to leap
off Argo to the rear of the bowmen, alone, armed with just his sword. "Just head for
the nearest man," she'd charged him. "They won't be looking for you."
"Not at first," he agreed, over the rushing wind and soft thud of Argo's hooves.
"Not in the end," she'd said with confidence. "I'll see to that." He wasn't sure what she meant, but trusted to the gods, and Xena, as he slipped off the back of the large horse, and ran forward, crouched a little, stealing a final glimpse of Xena as she rode off to be about her own business.
Xena was right about the first man. Drax stuck his sword in him when he stood to let an arrow fly. There was no time for the honor of combat face-to-face. Kill quickly, kill silently, kill before they did. No one noticed the loss of the three who fell, and it was as he approached the fourth, still undetected, that an alarm was raised. By Xena. It was heard by those huddled together under the carts, choking on the thick smoke; it was heard by the wounded lying in their own blood, struggling to crawl away from the flames; the ones who'd made it to the woods heard it, and stopped in their tracks, uncertain; even the dead might have heard it, so primal was the voice, so chilling the note. Certainly the archers huddled in the grass heard it, and stopped in their grim work, to look behind them.
Drax froze for a moment, unnerved, then lunged at the nearest man, who was turning with the others. He fell, dead. The others looked right past Drax, to a figure rearing on a golden horse, sword brandished overhead. Then they were looking past her, to a large, moving shadow which she turned to now. The sword came down, severing a long rope which dangled from her saddle. "Eeeeeyaaah!" She trilled a long, shrill note, and rode madly with her whip, scattering the string of horses. They needed little urging; the smoke and noise had them high-strung. How she'd managed to keep them all together on the string was a wonder to Drax, but here they were, then they were gone, in all directions, and the bowmen ran after their life's blood, abandoning the attack. Drax, astonished, stood and watched, content to let them flee.
Xena felt otherwise. She fell upon them as they ran, giving no quarter. They wore long dark hair, and beards. Colorful rough clothes were layered on their bodies. She knew these people, too well. The more dead now, the less to worry about later. Some defended against her, most paid her little heed until the end. To be left horseless, here, was the next thing to being dead. So they died, one way or another. The field was almost empty when Xena paused. There would be plenty of horses for those lucky enough to round them up. In the camp, fires were being quenched. Names were called out in desperate attempts to locate loved ones. Gabrielle would be there, tending the wounded, Xena mused, and turned Argo back to camp, the enemy reprieved, for the moment. Then, from the edge of her vision a new movement was detected, a mass coming over the crest of a hill. Damn! A horde of mounted men. She stole a glance at the undefended camp, torn between defending it there, next to her bard, or trying something, she didn't know what, to turn them away. There would be no defeating them as the camp stood now. They gave her little choice, riding steadily on, pausing only to kill the men she'd let escape. Payback for running she assumed. No choice. She wheeled around. "C'mon, Argo. Not through yet," she urged.
Gabrielle had emerged from the under the cart at the sound of Xena's battle cry. Dead and wounded thickly littered the ground. Fires still burned. But the arrows had stopped. "Come out," she yelled, "it's over!" No one budged from cover.
"Gabrielle, get back in here," Ileander said urgently.
"Ileander, these people need help," she retorted. "Help put these fires out!" She beat furiously at a grass fire with a blanket, alone in all the camp.
"They'll start again Gabrielle," Hermia promised. "You don't know them; they don't give up that easily."
"No, Hermia, I don't; and you don't know Xena," she called back, pausing just a moment in her work. "I don't know what she did, but it worked." She allowed herself a brief smile, then turned her attention to the row of carts, wishing she used obscenities effectively. "Danger's over; get your worthless hides out here to do some work."
Hermia crawled out cautiously; Ileander followed. It seemed to be as Gabrielle said. Hermia found a bucket and splashed water on the nearest flames. Ileander pulled a wounded man out of danger, cheeks burning with the embarrassment of his delay. As if to confirm Gabrielle, Drax tore into their midst on an unsaddled horse. "Gabrielle, will no one else help?" he shouted, setting to work beating out the fires beside her.
"Did you see her Drax?" she asked, ignoring his query.
"See her, damn yes, I saw her. She stopped them Gabrielle, single-handed, almost," he conceded, remembering his own small part in the battle.
"She's all right?"
He nodded his reply, then turned to the row of carts, and let loose a withering string of obscenities that Gabrielle envied.
The blonde relaxed and took a breath now, realized it was the first deep breath she'd taken in some time; it was a mistake. She coughed on the smoke she inhaled, doubled over, then seized a strip of cloth and dunked it in a bucket of water Hermia carried by. Around them the camp was alive again, swarmed over by soot-blackened ragged creatures. The fires were getting under control, and it was time to begin serious attention to the wounded. Gabriele finished tying the cloth around her mouth and nose. The nearest man had an arrow through his chest. He might have been dead, she stooped to him, and as her fingers touched her neck, a searing pain shot through her head. She fell, and a second vicious kick landed on her, this time directed at her ribs. "That one's mine!" said a gruff voice. "Find your own, bitch!" Through eyes burning with smoke and pain, she saw, as if in a nightmare, the earring yanked from the man's ear. He yelped in uncontrolled reaction. "Still alive?" the gruff voice queried, annoyed. His boot came down then on the man's neck. Unbelieving, Gabrielle heard a soft crunch. She rose to her knees and looked around. On all sides the macabre looting had begun: earrings were ripped from dead or dying forms. The looters were happy to provide assistance to the other side. Bodies were stripped of weapons, clothing, boots. With bloodied hands they turned then to each other, stealing anew what had just been taken.
A strong hand seized Gabrielle, and pulled her to her feet. "Let's go." Hermia, Lilla held firmly by her other hand, was speaking just loud enough to be heard above the din. "We'll move the cart just out of this mess, before we lose everything."
"No!" Gabrielle tried to pull free. "We have to try - "
"Try what?" Hermia asked firmly. "To stop this frenzy? Can't be done." She hurried along, anxious to be out of the melee. Her words seemed to be true. She watched Drax fight a lonely battle for a few moments, defending the wounded with his sword, pleading for order. Some other crests of the Overlord were seen; the men who wore them were heavily laden with loot. Drax caught sight of Gabrielle. "No stopping them," he conceded wearily. "Just get clear of here. I'll be along as soon as I locate Ileander."
She grabbed his arm. "Drax, are you sure Xena's all right? Why isn't she back yet?"
Xena had moved to the crest of a hill, and waited for the column of riders to reach her. No more preparation was possible. Damned Placar. His troops were useless; worse than useless. They lulled the camp into a sense of security, then lay down drunk, oblivious to danger. When this is over, she swore She never finished the thought, because the riders had stopped, at the outstretched arm of their leader. They stood for a few moments, two or three engaged in quiet consultation. In the distance the hunting continued: occasional cries told when the fugitives had been found. Sounds were easy to distinguish, now that the camp was quiet. She could see the riders more clearly now, and began to doubt their connection to the attack. The dress was different, as was their coloring. These were not the same. It didn't mean they posed no threat, and she chose her first three targets as they started forward again. They all wore long hair, which seemed to glint fair in the light of the moon, and the still burning fires. It was pulled tight behind them, trailing in long braids, or pony tails. They stopped within yards of her, and it was not until then that Xena knew the leader was a woman. The woman spoke first.
"It's not often convicts," she spit the word with scorn, "show so well against the tribes."
"Really? Well life is full of surprises," Xena replied, face impassive.
"Where are your troops?" She spoke a rustic Greek dialect, in a lilting voice. Her question was a demand.
"He went to take a piss," Xena replied. "We weren't expecting more company."
"Mind your manners, whore," said the man beside the leader.
The chakram whirled from Xena's side before the others registered that she had moved. It struck him a glancing blow on the side of the head and returned to her, ready for more action. He toppled to the ground. The woman waited for him to give signs of life, then returned her gaze to Xena. "You live dangerously."
Xena agreed. It had been a calculated move; if they had chosen to respond with weapons, she'd be very busy right now.
"He only meant," the woman went on, "that I am not company. I am your hostess. Tartarus is my homeland, the trespass is yours," she said coldly.
So this was Petra Tartras. Her youth surprised Xena. Clear gray eyes bore steadily on her. The color of pearls, Xena noted, set above high cheekbones. Her lips were taut; her words were civil, but the woman was angry. It's not my choice to trespass here, Xena thought, but withheld the words. She did not want to discuss her convict status with this woman, not here, not now. They had come together, unknowingly, unwittingly, at the site of this attack by a common foe. That was enough. "Well thanks for the hospitality, Petra," she said with enough civility to make it sincere, and the hint of a smirk to let Petra know she wasn't to take it too seriously.
The message wasn't lost on Petra. They had been following the trail of the tribesmen for two days, expecting to find a massacre accomplished when they caught up with them at last. She was intrigued by this dark woman who seemed to have defeated the tribe alone. She wore a convict earring, but still, she owed her respect as a warrior.
"You have a beautiful horse," she said, paying a safe compliment. "Too good for a convict." She couldn't resist the barb. "Still," she hurried on, "my people have rounded up a lot of horses, sturdy war ponies. Even though you are a convict, I will offer first pick to you as the victor here." It was a generous concession, Xena knew, homage to a warrior, and she swallowed the harsh retort that was on her lips. She didn't really want a warhorse, a draught horse would be of more use, but this was not a gift to refuse. She nodded curtly. "And one for my comrade," she pressed.
"The pisser," Petra recalled, with no trace of humor. "Of course." A cheap price for so many dead tribesmen. She spoke softly in a foreign tongue to the men around her. They smiled as if enjoying a private joke. Xena didn't hear every word, but the gist was plain: The dark bitch would be a fine night's entertainment. Xena wouldn't let this pass; but before her words were out, something more urgent took her attention.
The camp was no longer quiet. The sounds were like those of battle, but consisted more of screaming and loud words than clash of metal on metal. She looked in that direction, rising a little in her stirrups, and could only make out figures rushing too and fro. It could be the business of cleaning up after the attack, but it didn't sound like that, and these weren't the sort of people who would be so energetic about that activity. Without a word she turned Argo in a mad gallop back to the camp. "Ready to bust convict heads?" Petra snarled in her native tongue, and plunged after Xena, her men in hot pursuit.
The cart stood behind a thicket of thorn bushes, hidden in this dark unless someone knew how to look. Gabrielle had no doubt that Xena would find them. The hasty exit from camp had been maneuvered efficiently. They'd run into no one else. The camp was left behind, but was not forgotten. Screams were carried back to them on the eastern wind. Gabrielle imagined in every shrill cry the voice of someone she knew, some child, or mother. Lilla was safe, in Hermia's arms. They were all safe, under the protection of Drax. Even their things were safe. She had no doubt Hermia would survive Tartarus nicely; the woman's instinct for survival was strong. But not far away, down a little slope, fires burned anew, and people lay dying untended. Children, maybe. I never should have left, she castigated herself. I could have been of use. I could still be of use.
It was quiet here; they remained still to avoid detection, and spoke only when necessary. She could leave and not be missed. So the bard picked up her staff, drifted to the edge of the thicket, and waited until the moon passed behind a cloud. Then she slipped out and followed the narrow track back to the scene of mayhem.
Xena saw the looting for what it was, and raced through it with no thought of action. Gabrielle alone was her on mind, and the woman was nowhere in sight. Placar had the misfortune of coming in her line of sight; she grabbed him by the throat in an iron grip.
"Do your job, bastard," she hissed. Around them savagery was the rule. The peddlers' carts were the targets now, turned over one-by-one, picked clean, and set ablaze. The waste, in this place of so much want, was stomach churning. With a solid fist on Placar's nose. Xena was through with the man, and continued her search. It was a relief to find Hermia's cart gone, not ravaged and destroyed like so many others. The woman had good sense; she would have moved to safety. Xena hoped Gabrielle's need to help the whole world had not prevented her own escape. Gabrielle's need to help? What of her own? Why had she left the woman? It wasn't at all clear now. Away from the camp she rode, down the track the cart would have followed. The donkey's tracks were easy to read, even by moonlight. The lumbering cart made deep ruts; freshly turned earth lay in its wake. Beside them, booted footprints, three sets; one set was larger than the others. A horseman had led the way, Drax and Ileander were with them she guessed eagerly. Drax was not a fool; it would take more than one man to restore order in that melee. Xena knew Petra had followed her; maybe her troops could handle it. Xena didn't really care.
The cart hadn't gone far, really, just around a bend, behind a thicket. It was well hidden, unless it was looked for. "Gabrielle," she called softly, then louder, as she got no reply.
"Xena?" asked a voice from the cart.
"Hermia? Where's Gabrielle?"
"Right here," the woman assured her, and called her name. No reply. Drax stepped forward from his vantage point in the nearby trees: "She's gone back," he guessed. "She felt guilty the whole way here. Spoke of nothing else."
Xena's hands slapped against her thighs in frustration. "Damn," she exclaimed. "How could you let her go back?"
"She didn't announce it," he retorted, but Xena was gone, wondering how she'd missed her along the track.
For Petra, it was all the same, killing convicts or the marauders from the East. One group was the diseased discards of a decadent civilization, the other a barbarous, primitive people, hungry to grab, ready to destroy what they could not carry away. She would have been happy to let the tribes exterminate this little group, had timed her movements to arrive when the convicts were slaughtered, before the tribesmen had fled. The woman had intervened and saved the convicts, but all was not lost. Nothing stood between Petra and the convicts now, save the sorry underlings of Nerad. Any excuse would do.
Her sudden appearance struck terror into the convicts. They tried to flee. Some sorry fools wouldn't drop their loot; they died wealthy. Others made it to the woods, and ran blindly through the dark forest, no terror worse than that at their backs. Placar ran faster than most, not prepared this day to die for his Overlord. Petra's men were efficient, and careful: their strokes cut through any convict who resisted, others might be left alone, but the temptation was to resist, to raise arms, or clubs, or swords. Gabrielle came upon this scene, different chaos, but violent chaos nonetheless. She had expected to see Xena here, instead she found a whirling mass of men on horseback, wheeling and slashing, trampling goods and bodies underfoot. She had been at many battle scenes, and swallowed her fear to wade into the thick of it now, but not to fight.
Her eyes darted around the area, searching the low places, places where children might hide. Her eyes fell first on two little boys, huddled near the base of a tree stump. They wailed, and clutched at each other. Gabrielle seized one by the hand, and the other followed, as she led them away from the center, to the fringe by the woods, gathering two others on the way. There in a half circle of saplings, she stood over them with her staff, and fought for a small zone of safety. She swung the staff overhead, in a wide circle; anyone who ventured too near would meet hard wood.
The riot raged on, a fire out of control; Petra was the wind which blew it hotter. Fight or fly were the choices the convicts knew; surrender was not an option. It seemed only the blood of convicts would quench this blaze
It was hard to see in the smoke; an occasional gust of wind blew the air clear, and vignettes were glimpsed, but Gabrielle was not in the horrid scenes. Maybe she hadn't returned to this dreadful place, Xena hoped, or had the sense to find a safe spot - no. That made no sense. She had come back to help; Xena would need to find her in the thick of things. Argo picked her way over the fallen, both dead and wounded, as she rode through the outer precincts of the camp. The carnage was awful. The convicts had been more intent on looting than killing; this was not their work entirely. Petra. Dry mouthed, she quickened her pace, and arrived at the center of the firestorm, to see the riders busy at work. How did I let this happen, she asked herself, before charging into battle.
Nearby, a convict tried to out-race one of Petra's troops. It was no match, a cat-and-mouse game with a sure winner. Xena's teeth bared; she unfurled her whip and unseated the rider, landing him in a smoldering heap of ashes. He got to his feet, startled, but Xena was gone, engaging a second rider with her blade while another convict scampered toward the woods. Some others saw what she was doing now, and rode against her, forgetting the men on the ground. They smiled at the chance to put the insolent bitch in her place. She smiled at their presumption, a moment before sending the chakram out to clear her path. Convicts saw their chance for escape now, and took it. The field began to empty. Still no Gabrielle, Xena realized with a sinking heart.
"Gabrielle," she yelled, followed by a sharp battle cry. The bard heard the sound and responded, pausing in her little battle by the tree stump, glad to let her weary shoulders rest for a moment. "Xena," she yelled back, then repeated the name, tears running down her face, whether from eyes reddened by smoke, exhaustion or relief she couldn't tell.
Xena moved toward her voice through the smoke. Petra heard the cries of both; the first she recognized as the dark warrior's. She'd caught glimpses of the young woman gallantly defending the two children. Now it appeared she was somehow connected to the warrior. And the warrior was Xena. She had never expected to meet Xena here. She closed her eyes in prayerful thanks to the gods of her mothers, before moving purposefully toward Gabrielle.
Yet someone was closer to the bard, riding past, suddenly aware of her when she called out. His head turned at her cry; he knew it was for the convict-warrior. He spurred his horse toward the tree stump. Gabrielle felt the thunder of hoofbeats close by and stiffened to meet him, staff ready, eyes wide in surprise at this unexpected late attack. Instinct took over and she aimed for his gut, her best chance to unseat him before his blade scythed down.
Petra saw it all as she approached. She knew her men, knew his intention when his head turned. In that instant she reached for the knife in her belt and loosed it at him. He crashed to earth at Gabrielle's feet. As she avoided the downward arc of his sword, she stumbled backwards, into the path of his horse as it plunged riderless ahead. She saw only dark earth for a moment as she tumbled, then a strong hand grabbed her brief halter, and wrenched her to the side. Breathless, she watched the horse disappear.
She rubbed soot from her eyes and focused on the figure who now stood over her, who had saved her life. "Thank you." She was looking into gray eyes, flinty, reflecting the small fires that still burned. She sketched a slight bow, and spoke: "Antas has learned a painful lesson. We don't kill except from necessity. I'm sorry he frightened you." She touched him roughly with her boot. Gabrielle didn't know the language, but read the contempt in her eyes as she lashed him verbally. Softer eyes turned to Gabrielle. She knelt beside her in the dirt, her chain mail sheath parting to reveal well-muscled thighs, while a hand, softer than it looked, brushed her hair from her eyes. "You did well," she told her in a strange accent which seemed to hate long vowels. "The children are safe, and now its over."
Over? That didn't seem possible. She had come to accept that the horrors of this night would never end; despite what this woman said, it wouldn't be over until Xena was there. Where was she? She looked around.
"You were calling to someone. Who?" Petra asked. "Perhaps I can help."
Gabrielle didn't reply, she was watching Xena's silent approach. Petra turned to her, ready to speak; something in Xena's manner urged her to be quiet. Unbidden, she rose, and Xena took her place at Gabrielle's side, taking in all of her at one glance. "You're all right?" was her question. "It seemed I could never catch up with you all night "
"So much for your rule," the bard joked in reply.
"Staying together," she reminded her.
"I'm sorry; I was busy. We both were."
"Yeah. We'll just have to work at it, staying together. Can we begin right now?" What started as a smile ended in grateful tears, and she leaned into her warrior, welcoming the strong arms that folded around her. "It's really over?" she asked.
"Yes, Gabrielle," Xena promised, "it's over." For now.
That's how it is, Petra smiled to herself as she led her horse away: the convict-warrior and the bard made a couple, or so it seemed. Certainly there was love between them.
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