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Tartarus

By M. Parnell
Copyright 1997 Chapter 1 - 2

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

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

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

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

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

"Ashes?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You could send to Prestia for another one."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"One shiftless warrior for your inspection."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So you've been in Priblis?"

"Yeah."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, I was," she answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I don't know, Gabrielle."

"They could probably use - "

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

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

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

Chapter Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You are under arrest, by com - "

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Then I guess that's her sentence."

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

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

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

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

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

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

My name's Gabrielle," she said.

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

She took a breath before replying. "Xena."

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

"You know her?" Gabrielle asked hopefully.

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

"You've fought against her?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Such as?"

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

"You put me at risk? How?"

"Just knowing me puts you at risk."

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

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

"But I knew - "

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Don't count on it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No, I'm fine."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I've known worse."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Drax is not the type to butt in."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And when you hear about her crimes?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I don't think they take lodgers."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It was worth a try."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No complaints," she said in reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That seems very odd," she observed.

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

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

"It's unlikely she doesn't."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You're right," she conceded.

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

Continued - Chapters 4 - 5




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